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Issue #33: September 30, 2006

A Word from Your Editor (by Radar)

Seven years of IMC have come to pass and it's been a great tenure thus far. Rooms are a hoppin' and Gline has been kind enough to work on upgrading the code for the site with each passing week. If ever there were a Mythbusters episode on, "Can a chat site be built in a week and last for a long time", IMC would certainly fit the category quite nicely even though there's a lack of explosions (and poor Buster getting pulled to pieces).

There will soon be changes to the Zine. Right now, we're on a four month schedule (five for this issue, as the Editor had great fun helping a friend move, move her office at work, and then move herself!) but soon we'll be going to every three months, with more dedicated columns and contributions from various IMC chatters as well as gaming material from other sources. With the powerful advent of many other on-line RPG's that have become chat-based (World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, and the like), there will be columns written for said adventures. With this new schedule, the New Shiny shall be unveiled in January after the holidays as the staff of IMC takes their traditional December break for the holiday season.

New features (as well as our current regular columns) will include:

-Calendar of Conventions
-On-Line MMORPG's
-Ask Gentleman Gamer
-Movie and Media Reviews
-Interviews
-Fan Events for Canceled Shows (Firefly, Stargate, Star Trek, etc)
-Fanfiction, Fiction, Poetry, etc.
-Technical Column re: How IMC Works
-Reviews of Games and Gaming Systems
-Photos and Art

There will also be a new column called Bloglife, where chatters can submit links to their own blogs (not blogs from others) about things they wish to share with the world.

Stay tuned for the implementation of these changes and I hope you enjoy this issue of the 'Zine!

A Victim of Our Own Success (by Gline)

I heard somewhere—and I’m inclined to believe it—that YouTube, everyone’s favorite video-sharing site, home of endless webcam-humiliation pranks and I-can’t-believe-they-did-that stunts, is burning through something like US$1 million in cash a month. The annual bandwidth bills for that site alone are probably enough to feed a few third-world nations. And since YouTube doesn’t seem to be making money except in the sense that it is a juicy target for someone to buy out and turn into a moneymaking venture, its future looks questionable at best.

This was something I had to face early on when I built IMC: Did I want to create something that would become massively popular, so much so that there might come a time when I couldn’t even afford to host it without shelling out the gross domestic product of a small country? It turned out that I wasn’t alone in thinking about this. There have been more than a few such sites which became victims of their own success. Hit on something simple, watch it become popular, and then cringe in horror as what was a $100-a-month hobby turns into a $10,000-a-month monster.

It’s a pretty bleak picture.

It seemed all the more uncomfortably close when I printed up ad flyers to distribute at various conventions to get word out about the site. Yes, I wanted IMC to be a “success”, but with its chosen audience: role-playing gamers. That meant the focus of the site would remain small, relatively undiluted, and it would be possible to offer them great things without having to suddenly cater to a user base that was two orders of magnitude larger than it used to be.

That also meant not doing certain things that might look like a good thing in the short run. Every now and then I get hassled by someone (and usually only in an offhand, not-very-serious way) about the source handle policy, one of the many things that was instituted as a way of keeping focus. If I did away with that, it wouldn’t just be a thorn in the side of the people who benefited directly from it—the hosts who use canon handles constantly, for one—but it would make it all the easier for the site as a whole to be diluted.

Another thing I had to steel myself out of was the idea of conscious competition. I’ve made a personal rule about other sites that offer roughly similar services: Don’t worry about them. They do their own things, and we do ours. Just doing the best I can with what I have is hard enough without suddenly bringing in the element of conscious competition. It would make sense if they were stealing business, but … well, again, I made a decision a long time ago that if I was going to make money, IMC would be one of the least-efficient ways to do it. I had all the more reason to keep it free.

The last and in a way the most important thing about IMC is the fact that it caters to a very small group of people that, by all odds, will remain small. Role-playing games are a relatively niche hobby, and sometimes it’s hard for people inside the gaming mindset to realize that. Granted, there’s more awareness of what “we” do now than there has been in the decade before, but it’s still not very big. It’s also not the sort of thing you can make money on very easily. As I sat down to write this, Canadian game publishing company Guardians of Order informed everyone on their mailing lists that they were bankrupt and liquidating not only their existing stock of books but seeking out partners to transfer their intellectual properties to. Very few people can make any money at all doing this, and the few that do usually scrape by year to year—or become an arm of an existing behemoth that doesn’t use RPGs as its main source of income.

The only way to really make money in RPGs is to sell goods or services. The former is usually your local game store, which is probably not a dedicated game store anymore (has it ever been?) but a comic / manga / hobby shop. The latter is probably better exemplified by something like World of Warcraft, where RP does indeed take place but (from what I’ve been told) not really of the same flavor that you’d get in an environment which is either not for-pay or doesn’t already have other attractions built into it.

All this made me realize: IMC is small by definition. The nature of what we do, and the way we try to do it, will guarantee that. The only way to change that, I suspect, would be to scrap it and build something entirely new—and why would I want to do that?

The First Three (By Toy)

Prelude

“Gabriel.”

It wasn’t his real name, but a name he had decided to use some years ago, after the birth of Christianity when he settled into a small area outside of Rome. He and his brother had been confused for a pair of Angels. Some of the hesitant locals had said they could only be the hand of God and referred to them as the Fallen Michael and Gabriel. The thought had always amused them and the pair decided to keep the names as long as they brought fear to man.

“I’m over here.” Dropping the stick he had been inspecting he looked over his shoulder to a hooded figure. “Tell me what did you find out?”

Coming to a full stop and placing his hand on his side he fought to regain his breath. “My lord,” he gasped. “The scouts have reported a hunting party is coming and appears to be preparing to attack us. It looks as though this Nikolai runs as if the hounds of hell are on his heals.” He paused long enough to fill his lungs again. “There’s a second larger party coming at us from the North. It seems they are trying to box us in.”

“This, Nikolai, is a clever man. He knows we cannot retreat to the East because of the mountains, and the West is blocked by his ships. Very clever indeed,” Gabriel mused, rubbing his chin before looking to the mountains. “He is forcing me to head south, knowing the smaller group would be easier for me to attack. But I think we should head east. There is a series of caves at the peak of Mount Arcane we can use to our advantage.”

“Are you sure my lord? They are only men . . .”

Gabriel held up a lone finger to silence his servant. “Aye they are men, but daylight will be upon us in a few short hours. It would be best to seek shelter from this storm and use the cover of night to protect us.”

“I understand my lord. I’ll send word to the others to meet you on top of Mount Arcane.”

Gabriel nodded, releasing his servant.

“What will you do now Nikolai?”

Continuing to look at the mountain, “You can come out now Marianna,” he said not changing his expression.

“Father,” she greeted, stepping from behind the tree she was using as a shield. “This man is different from the others. He is . . .”

“. . . A thorn in my side,” he interrupted. Seeing the look on her face, he gave a light shoulder squeeze to reassure her he had everything under control.

“Why do you not just kill him and be done with him?”

“Ah,” he smiled. “That is a complicated question, and one not so easily answered. This Nikolai knows what we are. The way he pursues us tells me as much. It only confirms what I have suspected that someone has sent him. The question is who.” Turning to face the mountain, “Before I kill him, I need to know who it is.”

“Father, please you can’t keep thinking that every human knows about us. It is true they are evolving, just as we are. But,” she paused. “Even you must have known sooner or later we’d be found.”

“Of course I’ve always known we would be found. And hunted. But this one is different. I can feel it.” He turned to watch her. “He knows too much about us. Someone has gotten to him and sent him here. And I suspect it is Darius.”

She opened her mouth to rebut his accusation, but saw the look in his eyes. “Darius has no need of these lands. He is content to rule over his. Besides why would he come all this way to have this place?”

“This is the land of his birth.” Gabriel stated, coldly. “He wants to come home.”

“It doesn’t make any sense. Why would he send a human to do his bidding?”

“That’s what is puzzling me. Darius normally indulges his whims personally.”

“As I said it doesn’t make any sense.” She leaned over and picked up the same stick Gabriel had been holding earlier. “You know I’ve seen this human, the one they call Nikolai, he doesn’t seem to be anything special.”

“When did you see him?”

“Back in London while I was attending Michael.”

“Curious,” Gabriel began rubbing his chin again. “That would mean Darius was there as well.”

“Michael didn’t say anything about it.”

“No. He wouldn’t have if he was in on this as well.”

“Are you claiming your own brother is plotting to kill you?”

“No. I’m thinking there’s more going on then you or I can see.” Slowly he turned away. “I need to think. Meet me in the cave above the falls at sunrise.”

“As you wish Father,” she bowed.

Gabriel wandered through the forest for another hour before making his way to the peeks of Mount Arcane. From the highest point he could see the sea and the small camp fires. They looked like flickers of red against the dark horizon. His mind moved through time, searching for clues to whom this Nikolai truly was. Shortly before sunrise he made his way to an inner cavern and settled into a deep sleep.

Strange dreams invaded his mind. Pain, great pain etched his forehead as he jumped from a nightmare.

“Marianna!” The look of fear spread from his eyes as he woke. After searching the chamber for her he stopped a passing servant.

“Where’s Marianna?”

“I haven’t seen her, my lord.” The scared woman said.

“FIND HER!” Gabriel shouted.

Nearly thirty minutes past before Alek walked slowly into his chamber.

“She is not here. Paul said she never arrived this morning.”

“Summon the Black Hoard! I want her found. NOW!”

“Right away my lord,” Alek disappeared into the darkness as though Gabriel himself was chasing him.

For the first time in over three hundred years Gabriel knew fear. True fear. Marianna was his only daughter, born from a mortal woman he took as a companion and his only weakness. He fully understood the nightmares and knew long before Alek’s return what the news would be.

Silently, Alek walked into the inner cavern. “Sir, we have found her, but you are not going to like what we found.”

Gabriel looked over his shoulder as he sheathed his katana. “How bad is it?”

“He has her in his camp.” Frustrated Alek paced. “She is still alive but badly hurt.”

“I see.” Gabriel sounded distant. “Gather your men and let’s go see this Nikolai.”

“My men are already waiting for you at the base of the mountain.”

Gabriel pushed past his servant and descended the mountain pass. His mind filled with images of red. He approached the small hunting party, nicknamed The Black Hoard.

He had given them the name over a hundred years before. They were his best men and women, loyal to him, and skilled in the art of death. He had trained each one personally and hand picked them in life for traits he admired in a killer.

“Nikolai, are you sure this is wise? The locals say he is a God.” Len’s voice slowly broke the silence.

“He’s not a God. He is a demon!” He corrected. “He spreads rot and death.”

“Who is she?” Len nodded to the woman.

“She is the bait. You see Len, all men even this beast has a breaking point, she just happens to be his. If I am right, he’ll be here a little after sundown.”

“And if you are wrong?”

“Trust me I’m not.”

“Then this will be easy.” Len commented.

“Not as easy as you think,” Marianna said.

Nikolai walked closer to the woman, back-handing her cheek and sent her across the tent. Small beams of sunlight streaked across her face, bringing blisters to her flesh.

She screamed in pain.

“Dear God,” Len gasped.

“God is not listening,” she said.

“No. But I am,” Nikolai laughed, slapping her face again.

“My father will have your head for this.”

“Your father is predictable. I knew forcing him to retreat to the mountains would leave you open and alone. He now has to come to me.”

“What makes you think you know him? He will know it’s a trap long before you see him.”

Nikolai grabbed her hand and held it in the sunbeam. He delighted in her struggle and pain. “As you see, I have my own weapons against your kind.”

“You have nothing,” she growled.

“We shall see,” he laughed. “It’s only a matter of time before he gets here.”

Marianna broke his grip and moved from the sunlight.

“Shackle her,” he said over his shoulder.

“Are you sure you know what you are doing?” Len asked.

“Have your men form a gauntlet at the entrance of this camp. It will force this Gabriel to come in this way. He will have no where to go, or retreat. Tell your archers to use silver on their bows.”

“Silver?” Len questioned, confused.

“I have it on good authority he doesn’t like silver.” Nikolai stopped walking and looked at the skyline. “Just have your men ready in time. And remember to the victors go the spoils of war.”

“My men will be ready.” Len bowed.

Twenty minutes after Gabriel left the comfort of the mountain he slowed his approach. Eyeing the camp he recognized the trap. Leaning over to Alek, Gabriel whispered something.

Alek made a fist and the hoard stopped.

Looking over his shoulder to Alek, “You know what to do.”

Alek nodded and waited. He watched Gabriel dismount his horse and walk slowly into the camp.

Gabriel walked as though he had no care in the world toward the center tent. Two guards opened the canvas for him. He studied the men, lining his path. His eyes locked with Nikolai’s, in an intense moment.

“Nikolai,” he nodded before letting his eyes drift to his daughter.

She was blistered and beaten. He opened and closed his hand to release the sudden rush of anger. “State your demands!” He half growled.

“Demands?” Nikolai coyly asked. “There are no demands. I’m here for one reason and one reason alone.” He opened his hands and motioned around the room, “The extinction of your kind.”

Whispers seemed to burst from everywhere at once. Nikolai quickly stood from his chair to silence them.

“I’ve seen what your kind can do. I’ve felt the sting and rot you spread.”

“Is there anything else?” Gabriel asked, uninterested by anything Nikolai was saying.

“There is something, now that I think about it.” Nikolai walked to Marianna, gripping her by the back of her head.

“Father,” she whispered.

“I want to see the look in your eyes when everything you love is taken from you.” Nikolai stared at Gabriel as his knife moved across Marianna’s neck, spilling her life.

Two things happened at once. The first, Gabriel’s vision clouded. The second was the sound of his katana slicing through the air and Nikolai’s head hitting the floor.

Gabriel lost control in a frenzied fury. He lashed out at anything that moved. He never flinched even when hit by blades of the others. When he was able to think again he was standing in the center of a pile of bodies. Covered in blood and gore, he stepped forward, surveying the ground for any survivors.

Alek approached slowly.

“A small group escaped us and made it to the sea. Shall we follow them?”

“No.” Gabriel wiped his katana clean on a body.

“We found these on some of the men.” Alek offered the silver tipped arrows.

“Smart man, but not smart enough,” Gabriel said.

“What are your orders?” Alek finally asked as he surveyed the dead.

“Gather those that are left . . . I think it’s time we visit Darius.”

Prologue

Inside of each of us is the darkness wanting out. What if the darkness inside of us is the ending and the beginning of all?

The full moon hung like a ghost in the night sky as Yada overlooked the lights of the city below from her tenth floor apartment. She stared at the diamond twilight for over an hour before turning to survey her room. It had been nearly a month since she had been home, having decided to in the coven’s inner chambers when the city fell under siege to a rival house a little over three weeks ago.

Over the years the city had seen many battles for control of the streets. The two bloodiest battles had been fought within the last fifteen years. The Baden’s, lead by Darius seemed hell bent on ruling the island with little regard to the Michelson’s.

The Michelson’s had governed the island for two thousands years and were a formidable force. Lead by Gabriel, the Michelson’s protected the city, and it survived unscathed. The streets were protected, and free from the blood deals, which went unnoticed by the public eye, normally. But this last battle proved more difficult to keep quiet. It had been an all out war for control. Innocent people were now drawn into the blood feud as the Baden’s raided the streets for warriors to fortify their numbers.

With the war all but over Yada returned home to embrace the warmth of the one place that had served as her sanctuary, her stronghold, her private museum that she filled with mementos from nightly rituals she could never speak of. Walking along the thick bookshelves, stocked with trinkets, she kept as memories, of long forgotten friends and places she was reminded of an earlier time in her life when everything was uncomplicated. She lingered several minutes in front of the center section, and stared blankly at the empty shelf. She was forced to add something new to her collection. Slipping her pack from her shoulder, she removed a small cloth wrapped package. Opening it tenderly, as though the contents would break if she hurried, she removed a jeweled crusted dagger, and carefully placed it on the shelf before her knees gave out.

Gently wiping away a stream of tears that had gone unnoticed until now, she stared at the dagger. It was ancient. It had been created in Egypt before the birth of Christ. The blade was stained crimson and etched with an intricate design. The handle held two emeralds stones finely polished and encased in silver. Until tonight she had only heard of it in Aluka legend, and never thought those myths were true, let alone she would hold it.

Taking a deep breath, she recalled how simply the night started. A meeting had been arranged between her employer and an old friend, but something had gone terribly wrong. They were attacked as they made their way to the council session. Their limo was hit by a death squad of seven. The resulting battle was bloody, taking from her from her all that she believed to be honest and true.

She moved the dagger across her hand, quickly, feeding it her essence before laying it gently upon the shelf. Yada had been taught the old ways of battle, sharing blood was among the traditions she lived by. Turning to look out the window, she stood watching the moon slowly slip behind a high-rise.

She craved warmth and solitude but would find neither.

Glancing across the room, to the desk, she knew what had to be done. In the bottom drawer was a ledger, she had been entrusted with several years before.

The ledger was old and covered in faded black leather; this one was used to record the names of the dead. Necrology, some would call it. But to her it was the source of all damnation. She was now obligated to add to list of the dead, instructed to place two names to the list.

Holding the book to her breast and caressing it with the gentleness a man might give to a beautiful woman she opened the yellowing pages and slowly entered the first name. Pausing long enough to digest what she had just done she closed the cover without recording the second.

Looking over her shoulder to the clock she knew the first red-tinged rays would climb over the calm ocean in a few short hours. She had hoped to use the time to jog delicious memories, but instead felt the bitterness of disappointment clasp her heart.

“Why?”

She mumbled, hoping in the emptiness of her room an understanding could be found. But dealing in death as she often did, she knew understanding would not come. Years earlier she had been taught death was a needed tool in protecting the humans from the night creatures that stalked the city. She had searched for absolution from her duties, but it never came.

Several minutes passed before she carefully set the ledger on the third shelf. She knew before sunrise she would add the second name. It was the second she was having trouble accepting. It was the second name she couldn’t admit to.

Sitting at the desk, staring at the wall blankly, unsure of what to do, it finally came to her. Retrieving a blank journal from the second drawer she opened the cover. After reflecting on a single word she began her story.

“Darkness,” she again mumbled, closing her eyes and rubbed her temples. After what seemed an eternity, she began.

Chapter One

The afternoon sun was hidden behind thick cloud cover that rolled in while Jessica was attending to the finishing touches before the gallery opening. She became distracted from her duties when the mailman appeared from no-where, and handed her a large bound stack. Flipping through the pile, she took a select handful with her to her car and dumped them in the passenger seat.

Realizing it was almost 3:00 p.m. she decided to head home. The drive lulled her mind from the hectic schedule she had been living by. The rhythmic sound of the tires erased all the stress of the last few days. And for the first time she knew in her heart the opening would go off as planed with no back lashes.

She was listening to a Final Mile song, lost in the lyrics when she realized she was at her driveway, and took the turn up a little wide, causing the mail to fall to the floor board. Mumbling under her breath as the car came to a full stop she leaned across the front seat and grabbed the stack. A large manila envelope, protruding from under the front seat caught her attention. Taped on the cover was a second, smaller, letter.

“What do we have here?” She asked, opening it.

September 30, 2020

My Dearest Jessica,

Reading this must come as a shock to you. Actually it is a shock for me as well. I don’t know where to begin, or if there is a beginning. Over our many years as friends you’ve asked me for the truth about my life. In the past I was unable to give you what you needed. I’m not sure if I can now.

You wanted to know about my life. Until now I couldn’t explain what I didn’t understand. Or perhaps, I didn’t know where to start or how much you would believe.

You’ve always known I was different, and have always accepted my eccentricities. For that I thank you.

My world is far different from yours and has always been. There have been times over the years when our two societies have clashed. During those dark days I’ve protected you from the darkness that hunted us.

But things have changed, and you are now in danger.

I cannot protect you from the truth, nor can I change what has happened. I can only explain to you why I have done as I have, and will continue to do what I must.

I know this doesn’t make any sense, but in time it will.

Enclosed is a notebook. You’ll need what you find inside for your protection. Read the pages with an open mind, and remember I am now and will always be your friend. Remember I love you. And when you doubt what, you read, recall the times we spent together as kids on the streets.

When the shadows play in your mind remember our last meeting and how you found me.

Above all else . . . remember who you are.

Your humble friend,

Yada

“This has to be a joke-- A sick cruel joke.” Jessica said, sharply. She glanced down the street to see if anyone was watching. She studied the note again, shaking her head in disbelief. “Funny, very funny,” she mouthed to no one.

Walking to the front door of her home she tucked the letter under her arm. She still didn’t believe what she read. As far as she knew, Yada had been killed over a year ago in a freak accident on the beach. Jessica had known of others to fake their deaths, but not Yada, she was too proud to hide in the shadows.

“Honey,” sounding distracted. “I’ll be in the study. Can you listen for the kids?” Jessica asked, walking through the foyer.

“What’s wrong?” Her husband asked, puzzled by her expression. “Did you get bad news?”

“No. I got something from an old friend, and I just need some quiet time to look through it.”

“Take all the time you need, but don’t forget we need to be at Mothers later tonight.”

“I’ll be ready in time. I just need a few hours to sort it out.”

“Are you sure you’re ok?”

“I’m fine . . . really.” She reassured him with a gentle kiss. “It’s . . . it’s just some papers . . . I need to look over. I swear.” She smiled quickly to cover her lie. “I’ll be ready by eight.”

“Ok,” his answered assured her he didn’t believe her.

Once behind closed doors, she placed the letter in the center of the oak desk. Looking to the window, she released a breath she had been holding. She just stared at it as though it would open itself. “What are doing?”

She touched the gray patch just above her right eye before opening it. “Let’s see what game we have here.”

Examining the notebook, carefully, she recognized Yada’s hand writing. “Ok Yada, you have my full attention. What do you want to tell me?”

September 15, 2000

We killed my father tonight.

There wasn’t any choice. He was a killer and would have harmed others. John, his human name, had been attacking the city and the Wolfin. He was responsible for the death of five wolfin from various packs across the island. I couldn’t allow him to go on.

I couldn’t have more blood on my hands.

I already had too much blood on my hands with Anos death. John killed him because he was my friend. I still don’t understand Lyceums or their thinking, but I’m learning. Daily I’m learning about the war on the streets between the Wolfin’s and the Lyceums.

My education started the day John kidnapped me. He killed Jake that day. I kind of miss Jake, even if he was a real pain in the ass. A second event happened that day. It was the day Gabriel entered my life. Gabriel rescued me from John, setting into motion a chain of events that lead me back to the warehouse tonight.

My friend Mark was there tonight. He and Quinn had figured out who John was. If they figured it out then it would have only been a matter of time before the war would have spilled over into the streets, putting all the packs at risk.

Mark killed me as well. I know it doesn’t make any sense. Ok it still doesn’t make sense to me either, but one minute I was helping Oshey protect Cammie and the next, I felt the bullet puncture my chest. I saw the look in Mark’s eyes as my body fell to the floor.

I recall the hollow thud my cheek made as I hit the tile. I knew it was over, and then I heard a voice. The voice was telling me how to slow my heart. I guess I listened to it. Because I woke up hours later in an apartment, unsure of what had happened, except that I was alive, even if I wished I wasn’t. I realized he saved me, and I don’t know why.

I’m a nothing, a no one, and yet here I am.

I feel a strong attachment to him. It’s hard to explain, but I feel it, as though we are one. I’ve never felt a connection to anyone like this before. It’s hard to describe. The closest thing to it is the feeling of his presence: Always.

Gabriel has somehow claimed me as his, and I can’t deny his claim.

Slowly she woke to the sounds of Beethoven. Her eyes fluttered several times, focusing on the light coming through the doorway. The light somehow beckoned to her, urging her to follow it back to its source.

“Hello?” Startled by the sound of her own voice, she rubbed her throat. The sound of music seemed to intensify. Her head started to ache, and she was sure if she opened her mouth, what was left of her brain would fall out. Rubbing her temples, she followed the sound of music to a dimly lighted room.

Recognizing Gabriel, she breathed easier until she remembered what had happened. She approached him with a curious look of regret: Much like a child would approach a parent after defying their wishes.

“That was very foolish.” He said never looking away from the ebony keys. “You could have been killed, or worse. What were you thinking?”

“I didn’t think. After I called you, I went inside to -”

“- To do what,” his voice darkened. “Help them?” He paused, looking over his shoulder. “You are correct, you didn’t think.”

“He was my father, and I had to stop him from killing again.” She rebutted.

“You were told to wait for me.” His hands kissed the keys harder, stressing his words.

“I can see you and I have some communication problems to over come.”

She felt her knee’s buckle with the weight of his words, and felt the unseen slap to her cheek. Pivoting on shaky legs, she sat across from him. Closing her eyes, she relived each moment from the previous night. After careful deliberation she answered him. “I was foolish to go in alone. It was a mistake that will not happen again.”

“It was a mistake that cost you your life.”

“If -”

“- If I had not come when I did,” he interrupted, “You would be dead and I would have to start again. I am not pleased by your defiance.” He looked over his shoulder. “But your skill in battle has shown me why I should keep you.”

She didn’t respond.

“I see you have learned already. You fought well. You kept your head, even when you knew you were going to die. But more importantly you didn’t give away the fact I was there.” The last was added as an after thought.

She looked to the door. She couldn’t bear to look at him when he was angry with her.

“I think in time you will grow and learn.”

Yada nodded, leaning back in the chair. “I will not fail you again.”

“No, I do not think you will.” He stopped playing and tapped the bench, changing the subject and tone.

“Do you know what this is?” His hand moved across the ivory keys in reference to the piece of music.

Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in D Minor, if I’m not mistaken.” She answered, sitting at his side with her back to the keys.

“You know your composers.” He began playing again.

“I know some music, besides the hip-hop and pop-rock of today. I’ve always found myself in the storm of classical music.”

“This piece is how I think of you.”

“Why?”

He didn’t answer at first. He played for another minute. “It’s interesting you chose the word storm. Inside all great works is a battle to overcome the storm of life.”

She thought about what he was saying. “You and I aren’t so different are we?”

“We are closer then you know, and farther then you can imagine.” He traced her jaw-line as he spoke. “My blood pumps through your heart, just as your courses through mine. It gives us an awareness of each other that cannot be explained away or denied.”

“I’m not sure if I understand.”

“Time is the key to all understanding, Yada. You and I have all the time in the world, you just don’t see it yet.”

Gabriel kissed her forehead as a father would kiss a daughter before bed.

“You need to rest. Give it a couple of days and I shall tell you everything you need to know.”

She opened her mouth to object, but quickly fell silent seeing the look in his eyes. “As you wish,” she added, standing slowly.

“You will find your room is at the end of the hall. Join me in five days, and we can start again.”

“Why in five days?” She curiously asked.

“You need to heal. A bullet passed through your chest and shoulder, and it will take a few days for you to recover. You will do me no good if you are dead.”

Yada walked from the room with questions forming in her mind. Questions she knew she would ask later. She understood a little of what he was, but wasn’t ready to challenge him.

Jessica didn’t drink or smoke, but she craved a cigarette and a stiff drink. She always craved a cigarette and a shot of whiskey when dealing with Yada. Yada seemed to do that to her, drag her into her world and vices.

She looked at the notebook, debating to keep reading or to just shut it and forget she ever received it. Running her hands along her face, she just stared at the pages.

“Pull yourself together old-girl.”

She looked to a picture on the corner of the desk. It had been taken over twenty years ago when she and Yada had been teenagers. She was reminded just how long they had been friends and some of the crazy things she had seen in those years. It started to make sense.

“Ok, you have my attention now,” talking to the picture as though Yada would somehow answer.

Chapter Two

January 19, 2006

I made my first kill tonight. It was a rutane that had attacked me. I was unprepared for the fight, and nearly lost my life, and if it wasn’t for fast thinking and skill; I would now be dead. I guess in the heat of the moment you don’t have time to think, you can only react to your training. They say the fight or flight instinct takes over. I have to agree. Survival, my survival was the only thing I had in mind.

Although, my thigh will forever carry his mark, I learned something tonight. I learned if I am to live in this world I will have to become a better killer.

This world of death is appealing in many aspects, but it’s frightening as well. Ok it’s terrifying, but I’ve decided I will remain at service to Gabriel, until then end of my time on this earth.

I’ve also learned something else tonight. I learned I’m skilled in death. I’m not a killer yet, not like he is or the others, but I think I’ve decided to serve this darkness. What better way then to devote my life to it. I know I have a long way to go, but tonight was a start.

Yada Olsen-Myers had cabin fever. There simply wasn’t any other way to describe it. The first symptoms had appeared a little over a week ago, when she found herself sitting in front of the TV watching a morning talk-show with a fresh cup of coffee: Enjoying it. A week had past and she was still on the couch, watching the same show with little regard to her appearance.

She had fallen into a depression.

Gabriel had walked in a little after sundown noticing she was still in the same clothes from a few days earlier. “What troubles you?”

“There is nothing wrong with me. I’m just bored.” She said mechanically.

“Why are you bored?”

“What’s there for me to do? Other then answer the phone while you sleep? Or maybe get supplies you will need.” Scratching her head she continued. “Is this what you expect of me?” She probed harshly, tossing the remote control on the table that separated them.

“I see.” He rubbed his chin, giving the appearance of deep thought. “You want something to do?”

“Yes! I do.” She started to demand then remembered her tone.

“Why don’t you go out to the club tonight?”

“The club? What club?” She asked.

“There’s a club over on Chestnut, Dark Seasons . . .” he waved his hand giving her the impression he really didn’t know the club, “. . . Or something like that. It opened up a few nights ago, or so I’m told. You could go there, and check it out. Or have fun. It’s all up to you.”

“Perhaps, I will go. What type of club is it?” She asked as though not interested in it.

He again waved his hand. “It’s a Gothic Club I suppose. The type of club where young adults act and live out the vampire life-style, you know the type I’m talking about, the music is loud and the drinks watered down, and everyone acts like something they’re not.”

“I guess . . . I could check it out.” She added, heading towards the hall. “That is if you don’t have anything for me to do.” There was a slight hint in her voice asking him to have nothing for her to do.

“No. Not unless you want to clean the refrigerator out.”

“Not really,” she said over her shoulder as she disappeared from sight.

“I didn’t think so.” Gabe said under his breath, smiling and taking the controller to the PS 2 to begin a new round of Grand Terismo 3.

High in the night sky the full moon looked down on Yada as she walked the short distance to the front doors of the club, reassuring her she had made the right choice. The club opening had been a little over a week ago and still drew a large crowd of people. The line appeared to run the length of the building and disappear around the corner. Yada looked to the bouncer with a smile. It was Eric.

Eric was a long time friend, and Yada was sure she could avoid the crowd and wait. She approached, slowly. Behind him the thick double doors opened slowly releasing a cloud of smoke. The smoke was a mix of tobacco and other toxins. Images of mid twenty year olds dancing and smoking filled her mind as the techno music started to fill her brain.

“It looks like the place is hopping,” she casually said, standing directly in front of him. Slowly she reached in the inner pocket of a long flowing leather jacket and removed a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. She tapped the pack, releasing a single cigarette and brought it to her darkened lips.

“It seems to be, Yada.” He finally said, reaching into his front pocket for a lighter. He flicked it and held it out so she could ignite her smoke. “The place has been like this every night since we opened.”

“Thanks,” blowing the smoke high above their heads she glanced to a passerby. “It must be the place to be.” She cracked her neck to the side surveying the crowd before meeting his eyes. “Do I need to wait?”

“No.” He motioned her in without another word.

“Have fun, and if you need anything find me.” He called out as an after thought.

She kissed his cheek and slipped inside where she was greeted by a dark blond man with an over zealous smile. There were two distinct scents on his breath. The first was whiskey, most likely Crown Royal. The second scent was rot. It was the second odor that had her full attention.

“Evening,” she nodded to him, burning his face to memory.

She had learned one important thing from Gabe: How to spot an Aluka. It was the most important lesson he had ever taught her. The un-dead were crafty and territorial and if given a chance would claim property of another without thought.

Yada watched as he circled. “Can I help you with something?”

“I don’t know yet.” He stepped to the side so she could move past.

“You don’t know yet? Care to explain that to me?”

“That depends on you, actually.” He smiled and walked away.

Yada was perplexed there was no other word for it. She watched him maneuver his way through the club. Feeling another set of eyes on her she knew there were others here as well. Others -- Who hunted the night.

Slowly she made her way to the bar in the center of the club, scanning each person, looking for tell-tale signs. She ordered a Crown and Sprite from a dark brown-haired woman behind the bar. Yada noticed the woman had thick eye make-up on and it made her look pale around the cheeks.

It amused Yada how majority of the club’s patrons were scantily dressed. Gabriel had been right; the club was Goth by all sense of the modern word. But it went farther then appearances. There were at least five Aluka in the club. She spotted two at a table to her left and two more on the dance floor with various partners, and there was the one that greeted her at the door.

And they were hunting.

It occurred to Yada the club was a feeding ground. Now it made sense why Gabe had wanted her to check the place out. She sipped the drink and turned so she was standing near the bar railing with her back to the bartender. The man she had spoken to moments before was standing near a set of swinging double doors, and when he became aware she was watching he walked through them.

She finished the drink before moving around the club. It didn’t take long to get to the double doors and slip unseen through them.

The hallway was dimly light, and she could barely make out the details as she walked for what seemed forever. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up as she again became aware of someone watching her.

“Miss Olsen-Myers I can’t say I am surprised to see you here.” An unknown male voice whispered to her from inches away.

Yada closed her eyes, hearing her heart race through her ears. Once the sudden rush subsided she knew he was standing to her left. Slowly she turned around.

“Do I know you?” She flatly asked.

Yada didn’t provoke other Aluka.

“No. Not yet, but you will.” He said coldly. “I’m curious why you are here. It is no secret this is my club, even to your master. He knows the rules.” The figure paused, tapping his lips. His hand moved to the unseen door and slowly opened it, flooding light over Yada for the first time. “This way Miss Olsen-Myers,” it was not a request.

Stay calm. Never let them know you are scared.

Gabriel’s reminder flooded her thoughts. Gabe had spent a lot of time training her to fight and defend herself. One of the many lessons he taught her was deceit was the best offense when dealing with another Aluka.

“Of course, Mister?” she asked politely.

“Please have a seat, Miss Olsen-Myers.” He gestured to her. His cold dark eyes flowed across the room to a chair. His pale hand clutched the door handle and a resounding thud echoed through the near empty room as the door shut.

“I’ve been expecting you.”

Yada turned to look through the long black strands that fell across her face. She sat on the edge of the chair. “You were expecting me? Why were you expecting me?”

He sat behind the desk for several minutes in silence before filling a goblet with a thick red wine.

“I had been expecting your master, but I see he sent you in his place. I can’t say I blame him for not coming in person.”

“Are you going to tell me who you are?” She offered a slight smile.

“Are you here on business?”

“I assure you, I am not here on business. I came to check out the club and have some fun.” Reaching into an inner pocket she retrieved a cigarette.

Never let them know what you are thinking, watch where your eye’s dart to.

“Do you mind if I smoke?”

“Actually I do.” He sipped the wine, letting the pleasurable taste comfort him. He had the look of a man who had just tasted from a lover.

“My name is Vincent, Miss Olsen-Myers. If you are here to merely enjoy the club, than you are welcomed to stay. If you are here for any other reason, I suggest you leave now. My club is a free-zone open to all of us. So I will ask again, why are you here?”

“Vincent, I’m here to enjoy the club.” She said coldly. “If I was here for any other reason, I would not be alone.”

“Ah yes, the elusive Gabriel has not been detected. Perhaps I was wrong.” Again he sipped the wine, lingering over the goblet a little too long.

“Or perhaps the game has not played out fully.” Vincent arched his brows.

“If there is nothing else, Vincent, may I go now?”

“Provided, you, obey the house rules while you are here.” He added dismissing her with the wave of a hand.

“One last question before I go.”

“Yes.”

“Who was the man that led me back here?”

“There was no such man.” Vincent said rather curiously.

She nodded to him before leaving the office.

Yada found the restroom and splashed water against her face. She looked in the mirror, seeing a pale faced woman standing behind her. The woman’s face powder was thick giving her the appearance of the un-dead.

Yada splashed more water on her face.

The light above her head suddenly crackled and flickered before going out. The window behind the woman allowed enough pale light to seep through the blinds so she could see faint outlines. Beside the woman was a flash. It was fast and fleeting, and Yada knew the moment it happened what it was.

“Get down,” Yada called out, pushing the woman out of the way. She whirled around and caught the glimmer of silver, and the man from the club.

He was poised inches from Yada and she could hear the slicing sound as the dagger missed her ear, and felt the splitting of air as a second and third came closer.

“Get out of here, now.” She barked at the woman on the floor.

Yada’s attentions went back to the man. This time in the darkness she didn’t see his attack, but felt the dagger biting her upper right thigh.

Light from the opening door spilled over the room allowing Yada to see for a split second where her attacker was posed. She gripped the dagger holding it in place as she hopped on her left leg to the wall for support. Her hand quickly went to her pocket finding the small Colt .45 mm.

“That was very foolish of you, coming here.” He took a single step forward, raising a knife to her throat in a fluid motion.

Everything slowed down as though she was watching it unfold in a dream. The edge of the knife bit her right shoulder speeding the sequence faster. The Colt fired as though someone else had pulled the trigger. The shot tore through his throat spraying cold venous blood over her. So much blood poured out he was forced to stop his attack and hold his wound. Yada didn’t waste time, she squeezed the trigger again and this time the second shot entered his left eye ricocheting through his skull and finally exiting through his spine, throwing him back into a stall.

Yada leaned her head against the wall as the door opened a second time. She held the Colt out towards the door until she saw Vincent standing there. Her eyes locked with his in an intense moment before lowering the gun and slowly slipped down the wall.

“He attacked me,” she whispered, looking at the pooling blood. In the moonlight it almost looked like black pitch.

“Shush,” Vincent said automatically as he stepped closer. “Let’s get you out of here before you are seen.” He leaned down, picking her limp form in his arms as the door opened again. This time it was Eric.

“Eric, bring my car around.”

“What happened to . . . ?” He started to ask then decided it wasn’t his place to keep asking. “Yes sir, Mister Vincent.” He added as he closed the door.

“You were foolish to send her alone, Gabriel.” Vincent’s voice carried through the front room of the flat.

“Who said I sent her? I simply suggested she go out and have fun.” Gabriel’s sharp voice was a reminder to Vincent of his place.

“She is free to go where she chooses when she chooses.”

Vincent paced the length of the room before turning to Yada, making sure she was still asleep.

“She was lucky I was the one who found her.”

“Lucky!” Gabe interrupted. “I’m wondering why you say she was lucky when it was your club, and ultimately your responsibility to know who is in your club. So tell me who was it that attacked her?”

“Some passing rutane,” Vincent offered quickly. “He asked permission to stay in the club for one night. I gave it to him.”

“You gave it to him, and he attacked my thing. I want to know why. I suspect he was there for another reason and simply found a better target. I want to know who he was, and where he came from.”

Gabriel sat across from Yada, noticing her breathing had changed.

“When you have something else to report, contact me. Until then I’ll keep her from your club.” Gabe nodded.

Vincent knew the conversation was over, he knew he couldn’t challenge Gabe. “She is welcomed at the club.” He bowed. “I’ll have everything you requested soon.”

“Ensure that you do.” There was a slight threat in Gabe’s tone.

Vincent left.

“What happened tonight?” He asked sternly.

Yada pulled her body up, so her head was resting on the corner of the couch. “I was attacked.”

She tried to gather her thoughts. “He came out of no-where, and I did what I had to.” She tried swinging her legs over the couch, but the sharp electrifying pain in her thigh stopped her.

“I wasn’t quick enough, if I had been any slower –“

“– You would be dead.”

She opened her mouth to speak but the words stayed at bay. She looked to the wound, which was already healing.

“My apologies, Gabriel, I momentarily forgot my place.”

“In time you will learn, until then you will train, harder.”

She closed her eyes. “I wasn’t prepared.”

“You will be next time.”

She didn’t say anything, she just looked at him.

“I can offer you one tidbit. You impressed Vincent tonight. Not many impress him. He can be a powerful friend, or enemy. It is best to have his trust as long as you frequent this club.”

“I think I understand.” She finally managed.

Her face paled, and the room started to sway to and from. She ran a blood coated hand through her hair as she tried to stand up. Her fingers brushed over a fresh bite mark.

“Did he?”

“Yes. He fed from you while you slept, and in return fed you. If he hadn’t you would have lost too much blood from the wound on your shoulder.” Gabe sounded angry.

Yada felt the sting across the cheek from an unseen hand. “I’m sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?”

“I failed you. I should have known it was a trap.”

“How could you have known?”

“I just should have.” She limped to the door and rested against the frame.

Gabriel moved closer, brushing the hair from her eyes. “You could not have known what he intended. You did what you had to do. There is nothing more to say about this.”

She closed her eyes and enjoyed his brief touch. Gabriel didn’t often show affection, and it was the only thing she needed from time to time.

“One question before I go?”

“Yes.”

“Why would he attack me? I was no threat to him. And he toyed with me from the moment I stepped into the club.”

“You are my sahead, Yada. That’s enough reason. My blood pumps through your heart, and it would have been the prize. As long as you’re in service to me, you will be subject of attacks. In time you will know how to read the situation long before it happens. You are still young.

She didn’t know why, but she was offended by his words. “Perhaps, one day you will not look at me as young.”

She walked away.

Chapter Three

March 21, 2006

The Aluka society has its own terminology. Tonight I had my first history lesson in the hierarchy of the House’s and full society.

Aluka: Vampire.

The term was first used to describe the two brothers who were banned from Egypt over 3500 years ago. Al-u and A-ka were pharos private guards. They were sent to a meeting with Seth but were tricked into assuming responsibility for Osiris’ death. As punishment they were cast out of Egypt and sent east. There in the new land they washed ashore and gave rise to the legend of all Aluka. It simply means bringer of death and drinker of blood. The names were shortened into one word. Aluka.

Sahead: Ghoul to an Elder.

Gabriel has told me numerous times I was his sahead. I didn’t understand until tonight just what that meant or even how I was chosen. My linage to John was the deciding factor. I have ties to the wolfin packs and the lyceums, so it only made sense Gabriel’s first chosen mortal would have to have these associations.

Rutane: Rogue Vampire.

Any Aluka not bound to a house is dubbed rouge. These rouges plague our streets. They have no rules that govern them and often end up hunted and destroyed by the Black Hoard or Death Squads. They are the lowest form of Aluka and just a step above mortals. Even sahead’s get more respect then these lawless creatures.

Leato: Transformation into an Aluka.

This ritual takes only a few seconds, but it is the lasting mark on all Aluka. They’re drained of all blood while human and given just a few drops from a donor to ensure the transformation.

Some legends say they are the walking dead. They’re in fact the walking un-dead. They do not die in the sense of mortal death. The aging process is slowed and they can even reproduce, although, it is forbidden to produce off-spring in this manner. Children Aluka are considered a blasphemy, and destroyed as well as the parents for allowing such a creature to survive.

The few who survive the leato inherent their donor’s memories. The blood bond between donor and child is stronger then any other bond. They share all memories of the leato. Sometimes the memories are good, most of the time they are dark and sinister.

Aquitane: Council Leader.

All major cities and regions have a council of Aluka who run the daily and nightly tasks of keeping the streets clean from their existence. The Aquitane is normally the oldest and strongest Aluka in the city. The Aquitane answer’s to the elders, first and foremost.

Sharer: Council Member.

The council is made up of six members. There is one member from each of the ruling houses and the Aquitane. There is speculation that the Michelson’s get an unfavorable vote in matters of state since most Aquitane’s are members of the Michelson House.

House Michelson.

House Michelson is the second oldest ruling House. The brother Al-u was the first known member. The house is over 3500 years old, and ruled by Gabriel. I didn’t realize at first my employer was in fact Al-u, until tonight.

House Arcane.

House Arcane is considered the oldest House of the Aluka. A-ka is considered the first ruling member and older then Al-u by minutes. Al-u like Gabriel has taken a Christian name. He is now known by Michael.

House Baden.

House Baden is the third oldest ruling house. Created nearly 3000 years ago, Darius is considered the elder of this House. He is a power hungry creature. They say the sins of the father pass to the children, and if this is true all Baden share his illness and power-lust. Baden’s are not to be trusted.

House Bauhdand.

There is not much known about this house other then all the members are insane and were founded in 1200 A.D. Somehow through the years an illness has spread among them. Some say the first leader was a Lyceum kinfolk. Lyceums are insane wolfin’s. A virus which affects the brain of wolfin’s can be spread to offspring so I would have to agree the first elder would have to have been one. Even their appearance seems wolfish for a lack of better word.

The current Elder is named Terze. From what I was told he was born in Russia nearly 150 years ago. His right-hand man is named Shanda Baden. There are rumors among the Aluka that even Terze’s fears Shanda.

I meet her once, last year. She scared the hell out of me. I can honestly say most Aluka don’t.

House Descartes.

After publishing his principles of philosophy, in 1644, Descartes became sick. He awoke from a fevered state several days later, turned. He is the only Aluka ever to have been known to be created in this manner. It has been rumored the Ancient Gods cursed him for denying their existence.

Descartes has never fully accepted his punishment and to this day looks for a cure to his illness. He does abide by the laws of all elders and I suppose he is the rational voice of reason when war spreads among the houses.

House Descartes is also the smallest of houses. He does not believe in creation and only does so as directed by instinct.

Gabriel was in the basement of the old house.

Yada descended the steps until she stood a few feet from him. There was a metal table to the far corner and a lone desk to her right side. In the middle of the room was a chair and suspended over the chair was a bright light. He had motioned for her to sit. Behind him was the only wall covering, a painting of Ancient Egypt. Yada studied the picture in silence.

“Interesting, isn’t it?” Gabriel finally broke the silence.

“Yes. It’s very interesting. Is it a death scene?” She asked never looking away from it. In the back of her mind she could hear voices calling to her as though she had once been in the very room from the painting.

“In some ways it is. If you look closely you will see Wepwawet standing next to Anubis, Osiris, Amen, Maat, and Nephthys.” Gabriel sat at the desk and admired the painting with her.

“Who are they?” Yada asked, quietly.

“Wepwawet (Upuant) is known as the ‘opener of ways.’ He had a dual role as the God of War and of the funerary cult. It was said he could open the way for both the armies of the pharaoh and for the spirits of the dead.” Gabe spoke as though he truly believed what he was saying.

“Anubis (Anpu) once was the god of the dead and was superseded by Osiris. In the book of the dead he was depicted as presiding over the weight of the heart of the deceased in the Hall of the Two Truths. Because of this, he has been called the ‘conductor of souls.’ It is said he leads the dead to the west into the sunset.”

Gabriel walked to the painting and touched one of the figures. “This is Osiris (Usire) the god of the dead. He was killed by the rival god at a banquet. It was this legend that accounted for Osiris' role as a god of the dead and ruler of the Egyptian underworld.”

“Amen means The Hidden One. Amen was the patron deity of the city of Thebes from earliest times and was termed the King of the Gods.”

“Maat was the goddess of truth and justice. She was the goddess of the underworld judging souls in the Judgment Hall of Osiris.” He paused as he studied the painting with a distant look. “Nephthys was the goddess of the dead and known as the mother of Anubis.”

“You sound like you knew these people.” Yada said, quietly.

“How could that be?” Gabe motioned with his left hand as he spoke. “It would mean I was there. Look at me . . . do you think I am that old?”

“I don’t know what to think.” She answered, honestly.

“That is a wise answer.” He commented, looking in her eyes. “I’ll tell you a story about that picture, but you must never speak of it after tonight.”

“I’m listening.”

“There is a legend of how the Aluka came into being. It is a story of two brothers and the gods, and an injustice set forth by Pharaoh.”

“Pharaoh?” Yada started to question as she lights a cigarette.

Gabriel cleared his throat as he began to pace.

“Hurry up Al-u. We are going to be late. He won’t be happy if we are late again.” The tall man said over his shoulder, climbing hand carved steps two at a time.

“Time is the only constant, we are never late, nor are we early. We arrive when we are expected to.” Al-u said catching up with his brother on the top step where they were offered torches from a young guard.

“You sound like you have been studying the stars again, brother.”

“Perhaps,” he said with a light smile. “There is a sense of being in the stars. It is said Ra fancies the stars.”

A-ka stood silently looking at his brother before a guard walked them into the chamber.

“Pharaoh,” they both said kneeling before their ruler.

“Rise Al-u and A-ka,” Pharaoh said dismissing the rest of his court.

“You summoned us, Pharaoh?” A-ka began still looking at the hand carved titles before Pharaoh.

“Rise A-ka, you are a friend here.” Pharaoh’s words were soft and warm, words of an old friend, or a soon to be one.

“Pharaoh, what is your wish, we are here but to serve.” Al-u began as he folded his arms behind his back.

“I have a mission of utmost importance. I have received word form Seth. He wishes two of my finest warriors, and I have granted him the two of you.”

“Not to sound defiant, Lord. Why would Seth want us?” A-ka started to ask, but was quickly silenced as Pharaoh walked closer.

“Forgive my words,” A-ka whispered as he lowered his head.

“It is not for me to ask or wonder. He demands with urgency, so I am sending him you. Do not fail him, for failing him will fail me. I have been granted a place in the afterlife. If you do this simple task for me your place will be granted beside me.”

“You honor us, Pharaoh.” Al-u and A-ka spoke in unison. “We will not fail you,” Al-u continued.

“Where do you send us?” A-ka probed as his eyes searched Al-u’s for answers.

“Go to the Nile in three days, there you will be contacted. I have no further information for you.”

“By your will we serve,” the two brothers again said in unison before departing the chamber.

Three days later:

“Al-u I have a bad feeling about this. It has come to me in a dream, a dark dream of death. There is a War among the Gods, and I feel we are pawns in a game.”

“A-ka whatever this game, we shall see it through until the end. What could the Gods want with us? I say nothing. Most likely Pharaoh has set a test for us. We shall not fail.”

“Agreed, this task we shall not fail. It’s almost sunset,” A-ka said. “Are you sure this is the place?” He added watching the sun slowly sink beyond the sand.

The two brothers stood side by side as the sand started to swirl. A doorway opened below their feet and a mental voice ushered them in. Several paces down the staircase a pair of torches ignited. They took them and descended into darkness. After nearly ten-minutes the two emerged into a large room. Seated on a high throne was Anubis.

“Lord Anubis,” both men said, falling to their knees.”

Al-u and A-ka looked between themselves before looking to the ground.

“I am perplexed,” Anubis said, standing from his throne. “Two mortals when I expected a God.” His tone was deep and full of rage.

“Lord Anubis, we were sent by Pharaoh to meet with...”

“I know who sent you,” Anubis interrupted. “But what to do with you is now the question.”

The brothers again looked between each other, confused.

“Lord Anubis, I am confused as to why we are here.” Al-u said, placing both hands on the ground.

Wepwawet, Osiris, Amen, Maat, and Nephthys walked into the chamber moments later.

“What is this? Mortals declaring they committed such crimes against the gods.” Amen stated.

Maat walked around the two brothers judging them from behind silent eyes. “Guilty? No. But they are brave.”

“It does not matter!” Osiris called out, slamming a staff on the harden-sand floor. “If they have come forward, then let judgment pass on them.”

“My lords, please, I beg you, tell us this crime we stand before you of?” Al-u asked still kneeling with his hands on the ground.

“Seth’s trickery of course,” Amen stated.

“My lords, we were sent here, on Seth’s behalf and are now confused as to why.” A-ka said quietly.

“No I don’t think you do,” Nephthys softly said, touching Anubis’ shoulder.

“They have come, so shall they be judged. For the crime against Osiris, I find you guilty.” Maat spoke sternly. “For the theft of life I shall take yours.”

“No.” Both men spoke out, but were quickly silenced by Amen.

“You are brave but it will not help you this night. It is clear Seth has decided your fate.” Nephthys said quietly. “You will not pass into the after world: You will be condemned to this world.”

“You will be cursed to never find the setting sun, you will be sent east and never know the Hall of the Dead.” Amen added.

“No, please.” Again the two cried out, but their pleas fell on dead ears.

“You will hunger and never feel full, thirst and never be quenched, hunt and never find the passage. May Ra curse you as well to never hunt under his glow. You will be dead and un-dead and your spirit shall forever be lost in this place.” Anubis said, tapping his staff on the ground with a thundering echo.

The two men were thrown backward against the cavern wall and fell into darkness.

“What happened to them?” Yada asked from the edge of her seat.

“They finally awoke to the strange sounds of water lapping against the side of a boat. The stars above seemed strange and out of alignment.” Gabriel began as his voice trailed off.

Al-u held his head. “What happened?”

“We were pawns in a War of the Gods.” A-ka stated, with no emotion. “We have been cast out and framed for Seth’s crimes.”

“Let’s go back and challenge this punishment.”

“We cannot. We must go where the winds take us, only then can we set right this mistake.”

“We should go back! We did nothing wrong.” Al-u looked at the skyline and the silhouette of land. “We should find out where we are, and then get word to Pharaoh about Seth’s trickery.”

“I have a feeling he already knows.” A-ka said. He turned to face the west. “Come on brother, we need to find shelter.”

“What did they do?” Yada asked, tenderly as she lights another cigarette.

“Some say they died in that boat. Others say they gave birth to all Aluka on that foreign land they found that night. They were cursed to walk the night and fear Ra. Ra had been instructed to burn their flesh if they should show their faces during the day hours. They hungered for weeks as they had never hungered, and thirsted. Food and water did not satisfy them. There was only one thing that did: Blood.”

“But what happened to them?” Again she asked.

“Al-u and A-ka traveled the foreign land, they became known as one entity: Aluka, drinker of blood and bringer of death. Al-u left what is now called India and went west in hopes of clearing his name with the Gods. But years had past along his journey and he found himself in Rome.”

“Rome? Do you mean as in Nero and Mark Anthony and the Caesars?”

“Yes, as in the birth place of Christianity as well. Al-u and his brother now reunited in the great city, and learned of the Roman Gods. Christianity was born, and the two brothers were mistaken for falling angels. Michael was the given name for the first Angel cast from Heaven and his son was known as Gabriel.”

Yada sat silently tossing the questions and answers in her mind and then with a sudden insight she looked to Gabriel. “Gabriel is the name of an Angel.”

“Yes, after a hundred years I became known as Gabriel Michael’s son and after another 500 years I have been call Gabriel Michelson.”

“Then you are one of the brothers?”

“The first name given to me and stricken from me was Al-u.” He paused to look at the picture again. “We were the first -- the first to be cursed in this manner by the gods.” He stood up quickly and changed the subject. “That is enough for tonight. You may go, but return here by sun rise.”

“Go where?” She asked, curiously. “There is no place left for me, and after what you have just told me there could never be a place, for me.”

“You should take some time to think over what I offer.” His voice was distant.

“What do you offer?” But it was more a statement then a question. She looked into his eyes and for a brief moment knew compassion.

“As you wish,” she commented, reluctantly walking to the door.

X-Men, Then and Now (by Bara)

September, 1963. The cover was flashy. The colors pulled the eye. The figures on the cover (mostly guys) were hunky. I bought it and took it home, read it, and instantly fell in love. I was three months shy of my 15th birthday.

This was my first impression of The X-Men. Not my first Marvel comic by any means. I started out with Issue #3 of The Fantastic Four in early 1962. Spiderman reared his webby head in my favorite place to buy comic books earlier the year before (August 1962) in Amazing Fantasy #15. There was the “original' Two-Gun Kid, Clay Harder, and Kid Colt, Outlaw, with Blaine Colt. And who can forget Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos (#1, May 1963)?

Mostly, though, I was a DC gal, a Gold Key comics gal, so the Marvel comics were an intriguing surprise to my teenage self. And then, as it always does, real life set it. Moving around a lot, growing older, getting married, having children, becoming a single parent--life changed. And so did I. And so did Marvel comics. By 1983, I was becoming swiftly disenchanted with the direction the stories were taking. With every passing year, there's growth. It's unavoidable. However, that didn't mean I had to like it. Yet, gradually, I had to stop purchasing and reading comics. Real Life bit me with both sets of fanged jaws.

Which brings us to...

...the year 2000 and the X-Men movie. After several very unsatisfying starts, I was finally able to make it through the entire movie. These are my impressions.

Right away I noticed something. I couldn't HEAR anything. Even with my speakers turned up all the way, even with the audio settings up to 100% on PowerDVD, even wearing my hearing aid, it was impossible for me to make anything out. I finally had to turn on the subtitles. Another not very satisfying start.

“Mutation--it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow and normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.”

The opening FX are great. I can't fault it there. I wonder what program they used to create them. LightWave? Maya? *chuckles* I mean, they're just freaking awesome! So speaks the Old Bat turned CGI enthusiast.

Poland, 1944. Something that even I only read in the history books. The Nazi machine is rounding up the Jews and putting them into concentration camps. There are shots of those already there, in their striped pajama-type garments and their tattoos. Funny that I'm reminded of Robert Clary--Cpl. Louis LeBeau on Hogan's Heroes. I remember an old TV Guide (I think it was) interview with him telling of his experiences. He had such a tattoo. According to the latest info (2001)...

--Summing up his Holocaust experiences: "The whole experience was a complete nightmare, the way they treated us, what we had to do to survive. We were less than animals. Sometimes I dream about those days. I wake up in a sweat terrified for fear I'm about to be sent away to a concentration camp. But I don't hold a grudge because that's a great waste of time. Yes, there's something dark in the human soul. For the most part human beings are not very nice. That's why when you find those who are, you cherish them."--

As a mother, I don't like the opening scene. To see families torn apart, children separated from parents, husbands from wives, no. I don't like it at all. As an amateur researcher, I hated it. Man's inhumanity to man is ancient and ongoing. *shakes head*

...And puberty. You gotta love puberty. Knowing what little I do about World of Darkness, it makes me wonder if the writers of that game system were X-Men fans when they were younger. I mean, that whole Werewolf/Changeling thing that happens, on average, with the onset of puberty (or a great emotional upheaval). Poor Rogue...

Next up is Washington, DC. Ah DC. Current seat of heightened stupidity. At least it seems that way to me. I lived through the unrest of the 60s, admittedly without any personal involvement. Still, however right or wrong my non-involvement was, I was there. Old enough to form my own opinions, harbor my own thoughts and feelings on the matter, without slavishly bowing to either parents or other authority figures. 'Well, that was then and this is now.' you may say. True. So very true. One saying comes to the fore of my mind, however. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Senator Kelly misses one salient fact: What's to prevent anyone from doing those things? We have bank robbers, we have people we'd rather not having teach our children as teachers, people we'd rather not know we like black satin sheets and royal blue boxer briefs snooping into our lives (current administration's wannabe 'protective' policies). It's not just mutants. *shakes head* Pogo's saying, 'We have met the enemy and he is us.' was never more true than today.

**I want that motorcycle! *cacklebounces!* I don't care that I can't operate one worth beans! I want that freakin' motorcycle!!! *coughs* There...**

I recall reading a story about the Submariner one time. In this story, the writer had written about “The fair, the fragile, Lady Dorma!” I remember reading those words words and then seeing what the artist had drawn and thought to myself, “If that's fragile, I wonder what healthy looks like.” Which brings me to my next point. Nobody matches the comic books.

I can find no fault with the actors used nor with their interpretations. Hugh Jackman makes a darned good Wolverine, Patrick Stewart makes a very good Charles Xavier, and Ian Mckellan makes a very shuddery Magneto. However, even in the 60s and 80s, Cue Ball resembled Mr. Clean in a suit. Buckethead was, well, rawr! Logan was built like his namesake: short, squat, and powerful. I'm sorry, Hugh. *hugs* Good looking as you are, you're too darned tall and you just don't have enough muscles and body hair. *snickers*

I don't like death, or rather, murder. To me, collateral damage is just that: murder. The more frightening villain is the one who can kill with a twitch of a little finger--yet doesn't. That, to me, is true power. Knowing that you can, yet don't. Having others knowing that you can, yet don't. I can't think of anything more frightening than this. Forget the hack-n-slash movies. The true gage of a movie's 'power' is how much the movie can make you make yourself freak out. Freak out, not gross out.

“Don't give up on them, Eric.”
“What would you have me do, Charles? I've heard these arguments before.”
“It was a long time ago. Mankind has evolved since then.”
“Yes, into us...
“...We are the future, Charles, not them. They no longer matter.”

Actually, mankind has evolved into me. And you. And yes, we do matter. We are the foundation and mortar of tomorrow. Scary, isn't it? There is an old... mantra... if you will that I learned back in the late 80s. “If change is going to be, it has to start with me.”

We, all of us, have a lot of “starting” to do.


To me, X-Men is a depressing movie in that it was the 60s race thing all over again. So much opportunity to teach without preaching yet no one's doing that. Just hashing and bashing the old "us vs. them" mentality so far up one's nose I wanna scream.

This is not my kind of movie. Pure and simple. Semi-enjoyable if I overlook such things as not being able to hear stuff. I sincerely hope, however, that I have, at least, put forth food for thought.

We Look So Small (by Gline)

[The following is an extended excerpt from The New Golden Age, a novel-in-progress that's set in the world of anime / SF / gamer fandom.  In this excerpt, narrator Henry and his friend Winthrop arrive at one of the country's biggest conventions, and gain an unexpected hanger-on.]

(Warning: mild profanity and mature situations; recommended for readers 13 and up)

The elevators in the Hyatt are mostly bare glass, so if you stand only a couple of feet away from the doors you find yourself looking all the way up, and all the way down. Nothing but what feels like miles of empty space in front of you and on both sides. The far walls of the hotel itslf are either the big windows that show the western view or have wraparound balconies with hotel rooms behind them, and the only thing below you is the little multi-level plaza that has the restaurant, the cocktail bar, and whatever potted shrubbery you’d become part of if you were stupid enough to step over the balcony railing.

Our room was on the 19th floor. I could tell Winthrop was probably already trying to figure out how to go back upstairs as little as possible. He kept his eyes resolutely forward during the whole ride up. I’d found out about his paralyzing fear of heights when we were much younger: just taking the upper level of the George Washington Bridge made him physically sick.

Me, I looked down, and felt a different kind of illness. One day before things were officially under way, and the place was already jammed. Most of the people around weren’t in costume yet—heck, we weren’t—but I could tell the look of the fans without needing to see them in costume. Even without T-shirts or pins on their bags, they stood out to me: they were young, or even if they weren’t young, they had a young energy about them. Even the fortyish guy with the receding hairline and the comb-over hanging out in front of the elevators on the fifth floor, the one having a fevered argument with his rotund, silver-haired lady friend about whether or not Spike Spiegel was really dead—even they had a spark of that coming off them as they talked: “I mean, we see him fall over, and then there’s that angelic kind of hazy misty picture of him after the credits, but we never actually get told he’s dead, right? We just get an image, and—”

The elevator doors cut him off, and I regretted not hearing the rest of the conversation. I had a few theories of my own. And then I thought: What’s the point? It’s not as if his theory plus my theory equals anything but idle speculation. It was the same sort of thing I’d had with Winthrop over and over again for years in a row, and it had never amounted to anything else except a bunch of hot air. But here we were, ostensibly to repeat that experience.

Winthrop wasn’t looking at me; he was facing forward and trying to pretend nothing behind him existed, especially not that horrible dizzying drop to the ground floor. I turned around and let me gaze drop to the second floor plaza where all of those young-looking people were milling about.

From up here we’re not much of anything, are we? I thought. Step back far enough and everyone’s elation, everyone’s energy, everyone’s plans and aspirations and selves turn into nothing but little crawling black specks and a distant echo-y shouting. Step back far enough and it’s all noise and vague movement.

“Dude, nineteen,” Winthrop called out. “I’m not turning around.”

I turned around and grabbed the wheelaround handle on my luggage. Winthrop has no sense of direction, so I stepped out ahead of him and navigated our way through the rabbit warren of rooms to 1931.

“Fucking elevators.” Winthrop was sort of bounding up and down in place as he walked. When he had been younger and had worn those hoodies with the jumper pockets in front, he’d do that with his hands balled up tightly in them, and stretch the thing out until the pockets ripped. “Couldn’t you have asked for something closer to the ground, man? I thought I was going to toss some groceries.”

“The entire first four floors of the hotel are booked up solid by the con administration,” I reminded him. “Second floor’s conference rooms, the LARP people have the third floor, and the fourth floor’s all events.”

“Five beats nineteen any day. I can walk up five flights.”

“The last time you walked five flights of anything was when someone pulled a fire alarm. And you were going the other way.”

The room key didn’t work. I still had the image of all those people down there, filling my vision, I didn’t realize I was putting the damn thing in backwards and upside down.

“You wanna go downstairs and get badge pickup over with?” I said. “It’ll probably take about half an hour for pre-reg, is my guess, and you know it’s just gonna get worse throughout the weekend.”

Winthrop drew the curtains, doing his best not to look out the window. “I thought you said this was supposed to cheer us both up. Ever since we got out of the car you’ve been acting like you’re going in for surgery. What gives?”

“I don’t feel like I belong here anymore,” I said at random.

Buh?—Oh, now you say this after you convince me to spend all this money and come all the way out here?”

“You can still have a good time.”

“Not when you’re bumming.” He dumped the loose change out of his pockets into the little drawer in the front of the desk. “You wanna tell me what brought this on?”

I knew what had brought it on, all right—the sight of all those people so far down. The certainty that whatever I was doing with my life, it was all just being siphoned into the same black hole that everyone else’s lives seemed to be vanishing into. But no one wants to hear about your existential bullshit, so I switched to an easy lie.

“I keep thinking about Karen,” I said.

“Oh for the Jesus H. Christ.” Winthrop turned around and smacked the wall. For a minute I thought he was going to start pounding his head against it. “You’re telling me that you’re getting another jones for the woman who cut you loose and who never really connected with you much in the first place?”

“You know what I wanted?” I said, taking the room key back out of its little paper sleeve and sticking it in my wallet. “For four straight years I wanted to be able to bring her to a place like this and have us go off and do our own thing and then come back together again in the evening and share it. I wanted to wander around with her in the dealer room and sit with her in the video rooms. I wanted to be romantic about it. And I never even got past the ‘bug-eyed Japanese cartoon’ phase with her.”

“You need a drink.” Winthrop took his own room key and stuck it in one of the side pockets on his shorts. “At this rate, you’re going to need a bunch of them.”

“Let’s just get our badges. I’m sorry I brought it up.”

“No, hey, hey—” He ran to catch up with me as I stepped outside. “I’m not saying, you know, don’t feel what you feel.” Distantly, down the hall, I could hear all those people milling around downstairs in the atrium. “I’m saying, don’t let it stop you from having the good time we came out here to have. We’re going to go and spend entirely too much money for our own good. We’re going to eat very bad food, a lot of it. We’re going to get three hours of sleep a night if we’re lucky. And you are not going to utter the name of that yuppie dumbass buzzkill airhead one more time.”

“Karen,” I said. “Karen. Karen, Karen, Karen—”

“You keep this up and I’ll teabag you when you’re asleep.”

The elevator doors opened. Winthrop stepped inside and pressed himself up against the button panel like he was trying to disguise the fact that his fly was open.


A convention is a case study in crowd management and traffic control, about how to devise plans to deal with such issues and then flagrantly ignore them. If you have five thousand people who all need the same thing at the same time, and can only get it in one place, what’s the best way to stave off a stampede? Answer: Give them more than one place to get it.

It sounds great in theory, but it rarely works in practice. The good news was that the theory and practice seemed to finally have converged.

The entire first floor of the hotel’s convention-center area had been ribboned up with TensaBarriers to create a labyrinth in which people queued up to receive their badges. At the end of the maze was an entire wall of booths—half for pre-registered badge pickup and subdivided into by last name A-G, H-K, M-R, S-Z, and half for on-site registration. Most of the people standing in line weren’t even standing: they were sitting, lying on the carpet, leaning against columns. The trash barrels were already packed with wrapping paper discarded shrinkwrap as people decided to get caught up on their reading or game-deck-sorting. But the line was moving, and even in the time it took us to descend the mammoth escalator to the convention floor we could see people stepping up from the head of the line to their respective booths. Not many costumes were visible in this crowd, but one girl was drawing a lot of attention for her Temari outfit—complete with massive folding fan, at least as big as she was. I wondered who she got to hold that thing for her when she took her bio-breaks.

“It’s not that bad,” I said.

“Yeah, I remember 2002.” Winthrop squinted out at the crowd to see if he recognized anyone. “That was when they only had one pre-reg booth, like idiots, because they thought it would go faster than the regular reg line. End result was you waited something like three hours to get your badge, and a lot of people bitched about it—they were like, ‘Why pre-reg if we’re just going to get punished for it?’ That was the year Greg Cameron stepped down from the convention administration. No, no coincidence there, oh no sir.”

I imagined there would be more than a few stories about one of the more openly corrupt people to chair a convention’s staff. People told stories about Greg Cameron the way people told stories about Charles Manson. Just having brushed shoulders with him in a hallway was enough to warrant a story.

Our total time in line wasn’t more than ten minutes. With people behind me and people in front of me, I felt almost at ease again—I felt more a part of what was going on here, with all the noise directly around me, than I did peering down at them from the elevator. How long does it last, though? I asked myself.

“You wanna grab a meal after this?” Winthrop asked. “They re-opened the skyway to the mall, so there’s like every fast food ever invented about ten minutes from here. And we don’t even have to brave traffic to get it.”

“Is this the mall with the ice-skating rink next to the food court?”

“That’s the one.”

I looked at him and put on a smile—again, it felt like the first smile in days.

“…Final Fantasy on ice,” I said.

“Oh for the fuck love of Jesus you had to remind me of that,” he spluttered.

Last year, there had been no incident more widely talked-about and photographed than seeing three people dressed as the key characters from Final Fantasy VII—one of whom was mortal enemies to the other two—holding hands and skating slow circles on the ice in tandem. I’d been there myself and tried to get shots of the whole thing, but my camera wasn’t up to the task of getting a decent picture of them from that far away.

If there’s even one thing as naïvely sweet as that this year, I told myself, this whole trip will have been worth it.

The badge claim itself was painless, and the lariats supplied with the badge holders were printed with the name of a major online video retailer.

“They probably traded the cost of their booth in the dealer’s room for sponsoring this bit of product placement.” Winthrop almost bent his badge in half getting it into the holder.

“Static electricity and friction are not your friends today, I see,” I said.

“Yeah, but you should see the mean shit I can do with gravity and blunt force trauma.”

We joshed back and forth like that all the way back up the escalator. Now we really were like everyone else here, I thought: in-joking, one-upping each other with our wit, and maybe starting to feel at home. Having the badge officially installed around my neck only added to that sense of belonging all the more—even if for some stupid reason it kept flipping over and showing the blank backside. I gave up and simply clipped it to my sleeve.

“Are you actually planning on checking out the screening rooms at all?” Winthrop’s comment was probably inspired by the fact that one of the screening rooms was right off the second-floor conference center escalator bank. As soon as we stepped off, there it was right in front of us—and, in fact, there were already people in there, drinking in the industrial-strength air conditioning and watching something I didn’t recognize.

“I might,” I said. “I haven’t seen the schedule yet; I don’t want to devote time here to something that I could just as easily rent.”

“See, that’s the irony. Now that I’m here to spend the time, I might as well get caught up on what’s out by doing that. Back at home, I don’t have the time to rent anything.”

“We’ll talk about that one when we get back home, too. About getting you some decent co-workers who might give you the chance to take a day off.”

“Don’t make me dread going home, man. At least not any more than I already do. Come on, let’s get something to eat before I fall over.”

That confirmed it for me. One of the other things I intended to get done during this whole excursion was find a way to help Winthrop get that particular millstone off his neck once and for all. That would be my gift to him, much as this getaway was our gift to each other: to come back from the good times and be able to look forward to even better ones.

The second floor of the convention center connected back to the hotel through a short skywalk, windowed on both sides. People loitered in the skyway, sitting on the little ledge in front of the windows even though they would get hassled about it by both convention security and hotel staff. That was when you knew you were at a convention—when you didn’t just see people milling around in appropriate outfits and lugging merchandise, but just camped out anywhere and everywhere. One guy in the straw hat, red shirt, trousers and sandals of a Monkey D. Luffy outfit (and with the requisite make-up scar below one eye) had a shakuhachi flute; he was sitting crosslegged right at the entrance to the skywalk and blowing tentatively into it. Seeing him for some reason put a stab of guilt and regret back into me, but I buried it as quickly as I could. I should catch up with him later if I can find him again, I thought.

I’ve had, for as long as I can remember, a kind of sixth sense about certain things. If I go into a room or wind up next to someone in public where something bad is happening—an argument is about to break out but hasn’t started yet, for instance, or the aftermath of one—I can feel it, like someone spraying me with a water bottle. It hits me right in the gut.

The second we stepped out of the skywalk I got hit right in the gut, harder than I had been in a long time. Harder, maybe, than when Karen walked out.

At the far side of the skywalk, in the hotel proper, was a little lounge area—a circle of couches, a couple of tables. Several people had gathered there—a bunch of folks with suitcases and pieces of luggage of different sizes—and they were all sort of ringed around this one woman who was standing with her arms dangling at her sides and this look on her face. It was her face that did it—the sight of her made me stop.

“Winthrop,” I said quietly. “Hold up a sec.”

We stopped walking. One by one, the ring of people around the woman picked up their luggage and began to walk off towards the escalators that led down to the checkout desk. One of them was a woman—a skinny, bony-looking blonde with a black broomstick skirt—who said something loud enough as she passed the other woman that even we, standing ten feet away, could hear it:

“Don’t bother coming by next week. We don’t need you.”

There are some things you don’t need a context for. They all filed off, leaving that one woman standing there, staring at a spot on the wall where there wasn’t really anything to stare at. She was pretty—she had straight black hair in a bob and blue eyes, almost like Theda Bara although not as broadly vampy. That and any coquettishness she might have had was gone right now: her eyes were all too wide, and tears were starting to run freely down her face like someone had left a faucet slightly open.

Fuck, I thought.

No one else was watching her.

She reached down, seized the handle of her rollaround suitcase and broke into a half-run—she wasn’t going anywhere in particular, I could tell, she was just going. Head down, covering her face with her free hand, she charged blindly into the open doorway of Screening Room #3, which happened to be one of the doors off the lounge area. The part of my brain that entertained irrelevant thoughts hoped they hadn’t booked any high-traffic events for that particular space.

I went after her. I didn’t check to see if Winthrop was still following me; I just followed right behind her. The lights were off inside and there was already something playing, but she didn’t care; she just threw herself into a corner to the right of the door—not even picking a chair, just sitting with her knees up against her face and her back to a wall.

I stood over her for I don’t know how many minutes before I finally found the nerve to ask the dumbest possible question.

“Are you all right?”

No,” she choked, and pulled her head up from her knees; her jeans were going dark and wet where her face had been pressed into them. Then a funny look crossed her face, and I thought: She’s only just now realizing I’m not one of the people she was with.

“What happened back there?”

“I’m screwed, is what happened back there.”

Shush!

Heads in the audience—all six of them—turned to face us. I made take-it-easy gestures to the people she’d (inadvertently) annoyed and crouched down next to her.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Do I know you?”

“Am I with ‘them’, you mean? No—we were just walking by. I mean…”

She rubbed at her face and threw a glance at the screen. What was unfolding up there—it involved someone piloting a giant robot, from the look of it—was probably only making her feel all the more disoriented. She was probably someone who had been at the hotel before the bunch of us weirdos had descended on it.

“Henry,” I said, “and this is—crap, I think he’s back there.” I shot a look back through the open doorway, where a few yards back Winthrop was peering in with a very confused look on his face. “The guy who was with me back there, that’s Winthrop. We were just walking by and we saw you, and … ”

“And you got worried,” she finished. She actually managed a smile while saying that, and she was doing a good job of keeping her voice down. Both of us were now talking barely above a whisper. “That’s … well, that’s really sweet of you. But I’ve got to figure out how to get back home now.”

“What happened?”

“My ride decided to leave without me.” She waved a hand and winced. “I don’t want you to have to hear this whole story … please, I fucked up. This is my mistake.”

“No, it’s OK. Listen, are you hungry? We were just going to get lunch, and I was thinking we could treat you or something.”

Her expression didn’t change. I winced and showed her the badge.

“It’s OK, we’re not trying to do anything stupid. We’re just here for the convention.”

“I guess … What is this, some kind of movie festival?”

“Sort of.”

I gestured for her to stand up, and she walked back outside with me, her suitcase trailing behind her like a broken toy.

She wasn’t “one of us,” or so Winthrop’s puzzled expression seemed to tell me. She was a mundane. She was one of the Great Unwashed who stared at us in the hallways, like we were all re-enacting high school. And she was also crying and troubled, so right then and there, I honestly didn’t give a shit.


Her name was Diane Schiebel—“shee-bull,” she pronounced it—and she hailed from Corpus Christi. She’d ridden into Dallas with her boyfriend to be one of the bridesmaids in a friend’s wedding, and was now stranded after her boyfriend had shrugged her off.

Winthrop and I introduced ourselves in turn, and just as we were about to enter the skybridge to the mall, he jumped ahead of us and got the door. Chivalry is not dead, I thought; it’s just very opportunistic.

I also figured there was more to her story, but it would either come out on its own or not at all.

“So where are you two from?”

“New York,” I confessed.

“New York?” She made it sound like we’d come here against our will. “People come in that far away for something like this?”

“Well, I—we kind of have an excuse. Friends of ours live in the area, a whole lot of them.”

“Friends of his,” Winthrop corrected, “but his friends become my friends by default because he can’t get rid of me.”

Diane laughed—first time I’d seen her do that since we’d bumped into her—and her suitcase hit a bump in the carpeted walkway. She’d run over one of those brass-plate fixture coverings that’s used to hide an electrical outlet, and her suitcase flipped over on her and landed wheels-up. I snagged it and righted it, and she flashed me a grateful smile.

My turn to be a hero, I thought.

“So you guys do this a lot? Come to this convention thing?”

“Once or twice a year,” I said, “although mostly it’s been just me. Winthrop’s kind of been hard up for the cost of a plane ticket lately. But we split a room, which helps offset costs.”

“And after the year I’ve had—” Winthrop ducked ahead once more to get the other set of doors at the end of the skyway. “—I was determined to get the hell out of town one way or another. After you, gentlemen and lady…”

I hadn’t been in the mall in three years, and as you can imagine it didn’t even look like the same place anymore. The food court had been relocated from an upper level to right off the skyway entrance, clustered around the ice rink (which was indeed open for business—people were already gliding around on its surface). I spotted plenty of people with badges.

Winthrop stepped back in line next to me. “Were you thinking about anything in particular? —Please don’t say Subway.” He pressed his palms together at me, like a penitent facing his god.

“Panda’s?” I said, pointing. Winthrop relaxed.

Panda’s was one of a chain of Chinese places that also did Japanese dishes like teriyaki. Line up, take a number, choose one from columns A and B, step aside, wait till they call you, then pay up and eat. Someone had just vacated one of the tables near the front; Winthrop staked it out and offered to watch Diane’s bags for her. I snagged one of the noodle bowls for him and a grilled-eel combo for myself. Diane looked bewildered by the menu, and in the end opted for a chow mein platter—probably the safest choice for someone who didn’t know (or wanted to know) what teppenmaki was.

Watching her eat was a little scary. She shoveled down her noodles and veggies with more abandon than either of us did. “Sorry,” she said with her mouth full at one point, “this is the first meal I’ve had since last afternoon.”

“Jesus.” I shook my head.

“No, it was all my fault. Then again, I couldn’t eat for most of yesterday, I was so wound up.”

“What happened?”

Leave it to Winthrop to ask the one question I was hoping she’d get to on her own, I thought.

“My boyfriend and I got here two days before the wedding so we’d have time to unwind and prep. Corpus Christi’s a goddamn ten-hour drive from here, and he was saying, ‘Why fly when we can drive? It’ll be cheaper, and you can sleep on the way,’ and he knows I can’t sleep in a moving car. Anyway. We get here, get unpacked, do the quick rehearsal, and then he says, ‘Me and a couple of the guys in the groom’s party are gonna go help him party.’ I’m fine with that. I go out with a friend of mine to get some drinks, and we wind up staying out pretty late and talking.

“I come back, go up to the room. Put my key in the door, and—you know how it is with these hotel doors, they have that latch you can throw that lets you open the door just a little bit but no further than that?” We nodded. “The latch was on. I’m all, ‘What?’ and pushing at the door, thinking it’s a mistake. Then I hear all this groaning and bumping around inside, and then I hear my boyfriend saying, ‘Oh, shit,’ and then another guy’s voice saying, ‘Is that her?’ And I backed right the hell up and closed the door. Like you would back away from a lion’s cage with the cage open. The whole time I’m going, ‘No, no, I’m misinterpreting everything, I got it all wrong, it’s all innocent, this is stupid,’ and I’m backing up the corridor to the little turnoff where the drink machine is. Then I hear the door open again, and then I just go charging at it and stick my foot in it. I was wearing pumps. Not a good idea.”

She laughed.

“My boyfriend was not the one at the door, I’ll tell you that. It was one of the other guys in the groom’s party, and he wasn’t wearing much. I backed up again and shouted, ‘Get out of that fucking room!’ And the door flies open one more time and the guy goes running out while pulling his shirt on. Two in the morning, no shoes, no socks, no pants, just his undershorts and a pullover shirt, flapping down the hallway. I go inside, I don’t even look at him. I sleep on the couch. Next day’s the wedding and I’m not even talking to him. He’s like, ‘Now you’re gonna tell everyone I’m gay, is that it? That’s your idea of revenge?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I’m telling everyone you’re sneaking around behind my back, because that’s what hurt me, you dumb bastard.’ He pulls on his clothes and storms out of the room, and next thing I know I’ve got the bride, the rest of the bridesmaid’s party, and a bunch of other people from her side of the family all crowding into my room. ‘Are you using my wedding to tell mendacious lies about my friends?’” She jammed her fork back into her food. “I didn’t say anything, I just sat there and looked out the window and let them yell at me and tell me not to bother showing up at the wedding. And I didn’t; I just sat in there and lay on the bed and cried and watched TV and ate peanuts out of the machine. I packed up my stuff before he showed up and spent the night sitting in that lounge chair in the downstairs area, where you bumped into me. And then when they showed up on the way out, I just looked at them, and they just looked at me, and my boyfriend’s probably already on I-30 South doing ninety by now.”

We didn’t say anything.

“You know how when you hear about something wrecking someone else’s life, about how it’s always something complicated and dramatic. Then something happens in your own life, and it’s the dumbest, most mundane thing; and you’re ashamed of it. I was ashamed that it really all came down to something that stupid. That he was messing around, that for all I know he’d been messing around like this behind my back for a long time, and—” She took a trembling breath. “—and I didn’t have my shit together enough to get in the first punch. That he goes and gets all of them and lies to them, and they look at me like I’m—”

She didn’t finish the sentence, but for some reason the scene she was describing felt familiar. The looks on their faces had probably been a lot like the more venomous looks that Winthrop and I had gotten back in 2002. The last year either of us chose to dress up.

Diane pressed napkins against her face, but it was too late. Tears were already sliding down and splashing in her chow mein. She mumbled sorry, and we mumbled don’t worry, and for minutes on end it was just her with her face in her hands like a penitent.

There’s a part of me that’s a lot more worldly and cynical than I’d like it to be, and as I watched her wiping at her face and trying to pull together some semblance of dignity, that part of me spoke: It would be nice to think that she really is telling the whole story, but let’s assume for the sake of argument she’s not.

Shut up, I told myself.

“So you can’t get back home,” I said out loud.

“I have fourteen dollars in my checking account,” she declared, her voice still shaking but not as badly as before, “a busted credit card, and the last person who could have lent me any money is already on his way back to town. So, yes, I’m kind of fucked.” And then she put on what I guessed what the best smile she could manage in a moment like that, which wasn’t very good.

Don’t do it, I told myself.

“The room we’re in has two queen beds,” I continued in the same careful tone as before, and I shot a look at Winthrop as I spoke. He wasn’t looking like he had a problem with any of this. “I could sleep on the long chair or something, and you could crash with us until we figure out a way to help get you home.”

Diane looked down into her food like it was about to speak to her.

“Hey. We’re not going to do anything,” Winthrop said. “We’re harmless.”

Diane put a hand up, slowly. “That’s … I’m not worried about that. Honest. I just … ” She took the balled-up napkins she’d used to blot her face and threw them on top of the chow mein, along with the fork she’d been eating with. “ … I can’t do that. I’d feel like a parasite.”

“You’re not going to be a parasite,” I said, throwing a laugh in there just to make it sound all the more spontaneous. No, I thought, for that you’d have to be Karen—and I instantly felt lousy for making such a cheap shot, even in my own mind. Then I perked up for real: “Actually—Winthrop, is Gordon working Hospitality this year?”

“Guh—I think so. Last time I heard, he was pulling shifts in the suite. He’s been doing it every year since the con kicked off. He still owes you a favor?”

His grin matched mine. “He still owes me a favor.” I gave Diane’s shoulder a friendly, entirely non-sexualized clap. “Come on back with us—there’s someone I want you to meet who might be able to help.”

“Actually—” Diane stood up and picked up her plate, and lifted her chin in a way that struck right home. She’s girding herself, I thought.

“I was wondering if I could borrow your shower first,” she said. “I … I haven’t done that since yesterday afternoon.”

“Sure,” Winthrop and I said at the exact same moment, and with the exact same intonations. Great, I thought; now she has all the proof she needs that the two of us have spent entirely too much time together. But then she put on the first—no, the second unforced smile I’d seen since we’d met her, and I no longer felt so awkward. One more thing we had in common, and one more thing I could use to not ask how she had ended up with $14, no credit, and no friends in a strange city. Anything to stave off my stupid suspicions.

Piet Vs. Dragonraid (By Piet)

[Note: if the video doesn't play, use the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNeVuTzHwC8]


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