Of Mooks & Monsters Episode 23 – Hacking Systems

In this week’s episode, Of Mooks & Monstes delves into the ways Rob and Tim have customized and kit-bashed different systems for roleplaying games.

We babble, we chatter, and we talk about BRP and Risus Hack

Stay tuned at the end for a bit about the direction we’re thinking of taking the podcast in the near future.

You can email us here: podcast (at) ofmooksandmonsters.com

Find Rob on Twitter. @Stagehat

Or find Tim on Twitter. @TNiederriter

Let us know what you think of the show.

Share and enjoy!

Tenlyres Chapter 29 – Howling Pass

Hello, this is Tim.
I appreciate all you readers. Thank you so much for following the story.
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Previous Chapter

Ilsa and her comrades are in the northern mountains, allied with the Vogmem tribes there.
Negotiations between the forces have been interrupted by the Uzan, and Ilsa was badly wounded in the retreat.
Seeing visions of her mother, she rests through the night trying to recover for the next battle.

tenlyres-ii-chapters-29-mq 

She woke to the distant thunder of artillery launching a payload, an aching bruise over her heart, and a whiff of noxious Ayochian propellant in the mountain air. The smell of propellant had become familiar by now, but the metallic tinge and the thick, bile-rising twist of some vague fruitiness combined with the distant sound to tell Ilsa the Ayochians were opening fire. She could not tell from where the shots were launching, but the ground beneath her remained mercifully still, and the explosions muted by distance.

Lemuel shifted and his arm slid off her waist. “What is that sound?” he asked.

She grunted and sat up. “The Red Lector’s artillery is finding the range. It probably isn’t easy here in the mountains.”

He squeezed his eyes shut, then forced them open with obvious effort. Then he reached for his outer coat, folded near the bedroll, and retrieved a pocket watch. He squinted at its hands in the gloom. “It’s been fourteen hours. I can’t believe it.”

“That means it’s morning,” she said.

“Four-thirty.” He groaned. “Don’t the Ayochians ever sleep?”

“They’ll attack at dawn. But who knows when their shells will find the camp.” Ilsa’s gaze found her large saddlebags, evidence that her strider had returned with them. Even her red staff of office looked dull in the shadows.

She walked around Lemuel as he stretched his arms. She stopped by the saddlebags, crouched down beside them. With careful hands, she collected ammunition for each of her weapons and set them beside the bags.

Lemuel got to his feet behind her.

She glanced back at him. “Do you have something to defend yourself?” she asked.

“Other than you?” He smiled gently at her. “Not really.”

Thrilling warmth bloomed in Ilsa’s chest but mingled with the pain of the purple bruise where Ferdinand had stabbed her. That pain pulsed outward as she straightened up. She barely shuddered, but he noticed and his smile faded a little.

Lemuel had put on his black overcoat but left the front unbuttoned. He folded her into a soft embrace against his chest.

“Hey,” she said. “What’s this about?”

“You looked like you could use some warmth.”

“True.” She sighed, head against his shoulder. “But we ought to find you a pistol or something.” The artillery launched another volley. This time the shells landed closer.

She heard Vogmem voices from outside the tent calling to each other indistinctly, evidence the bombardment had been noticed by the mountain tribals.

Ilsa looked up at Lemuel and frowned. “I’m going to go find out what’s going on. We need a plan to stop those shells or this camp will be a deathtrap in a few minutes.”

He tensed noticeably, then relaxed his arms from around her. “I’ll go with you. I need to find Tirica at least.”

She stepped back and started to pick up the ammunition she could take with her. “And a pistol. I don’t want to leave you without some way to protect yourself.”

“I don’t like it, but sure,” he said, “If you think I may need it.”

“I’ll pray to Hathani you don’t.”

“Thanks. You know, I’m a terrible shot.”

Ilsa knew that would not bother Lemuel normally, but with fighting so close his life could depend on that. She hated the thought but knew it was true. Truth holds no regard for prayer.

She pushed a magazine of pistol ammunition into the carrier at her hip, beside two others, with an identical set on the other side. Her shotgun shells and machine gun magazines hung from her belt, one set of each per side, enough to load both weapons twice.

They left the tent, and Ilsa led the way through the chill morning air toward the lodge, from the chimney of which, a single strand of pale smoke rose, shifting in the breeze.

They were halfway there when Ganara and Blue caught up with them on their steeds. Blue rode her strider out in front of Ilsa and Lemuel. She met Ilsa’s gaze. “You’re up. Good.”

Ganara snorted and tossed her hair. “The Ayochians in the southern pass have artillery set up.”

“I noticed,” said Ilsa. “They’re testing the range.”

The Vogmem chieftain glowered at them. “My warriors and I will ride to stop them. They cannot be allowed to desecrate the holy lake.”

Ilsa rubbed her temples. The pain in her head from earlier had mercifully subsided while she slept. “I’ll go with you.”

“Oh, we will need everyone. The Red Lector may not have as many soldiers as the Summer Devil, but they will be ready for us.” Ganara shook her head. Her goatlike runner stamped a foot on the stones by the lake shore. “I suppose it’s time for me to wield Vada’s staff.”

Ilsa’s eyes widened. “Vada’s staff?”

“Yes, priestess. My order has been entrusted with the True Blackwood since the beginning. The Keeper says she thinks it may have helped to seal Uzan before.”

“Hopefully we won’t have to deal with them today.” Ilsa turned to Blue. “Throw me a line.”

Lemuel put a hand on her shoulder. “Please, be careful.”

“I’ll do what I can. Get to the lodge. It should be the safest place in the camp if we stop the artillery.”

He nodded. “I trust you.”

“Trust us all.” Ilsa leaned in and kissed him quickly. He pulled her close for a long moment. The clouds of their breath mingled in the air around them.

Blue tossed a length of knotted rope from her saddle. Ilsa scaled it to the strider’s back and then glanced at Lemuel, trying to think of the right words to reassure him, but they were not there. Then, Blue urged her steed away from the lodge and toward the pass.

A bright burst of an explosion sent a plume of snow flying from the side of the nearest mountain. The fact that Ilsa could see it made her certain the artillery would find the camp in another volley or if they were unlucky, two at most.

Ganara rallied a force of her warriors on their steeds, and several hundred riders headed for the pass, bristling with lances and guns. She looked for Siuku in the press.

“The Keeper and a few others are back in the lodge with Akirette. Someone needs to keep an eye on the prisoners.”

“Ashnia Haram,” said Ilsa.

“Ferdinand too.” Blue glanced at Ilsa, grim-faced. “We can’t tell if she or the hermit could take control of him again. A mind enslaved that long stays vulnerable.”

Ilsa nodded to her friend. A flight of Megalli’s hawk riders passed overhead, at least twenty or thirty in number. Their wings rustling seemed very loud to Ilsa’s ears.

Some of Ganara’s riders broke off and began to climb one of the mountains. All those riders carried long-barreled rifles, and Ilsa glimpsed Tirica riding with them on a borrowed runner of her own.

She asked Blue, “Where’s Cass? Have you seen her?”

“She’s back at the lodge. Seems she’s joined our mission, Ilsa.”

Ilsa’s heart ached with pain more than physical at the thought of what Cass risked to join them on the plateau. She swore she would do everything she could to see them all return home alive.

“Good,” she said. “Good she’s seeing the light.”

Blue turned to face forward as they approached the gap where they would turn to enter the pass. Wind whipped through the gaps in rocks. Snow swirled in rivulets from the mountains above.

“Get me close to the guns,” Ilsa said. “I think I can stop them if I just get near enough.”

“How?”

“I know my way around propellant,” she said. “Don’t worry about that.”

“I’ll watch your back once we get there.”

They rounded the curve of the mountain. Below them, several hundred meters away, Ayochian troops with their lanterns surrounded two heavy gun carriages.

Each carriage was a large, wide-treaded, ground crawler powered by electricity, and with an enormous cannon longer than the machine itself set on the back. Only one other piece appeared to have survived the battle with the Uzan at the Central Lyre, but it was further back, still out of range of the camp. Ilsa offered silent thanks to Hathani for that.

She drew her machine gun from the bond in one hand. At least three hundred soldiers surrounded those two cannons, and who knew how many more were stationed in the rocks, or further back in the pass.

Ganara’s riders fanned out, no two runners within three or four meters of each other. Ilsa and Blue rode near the front, beside Ganara herself. The blond chieftain raised her black staff to stop their advance and held it there. Her riders obeyed with only a small murmur of sound.

Then, the Vogmem sharpshooters on the mountainside  began to open fire. Several lanterns swayed and then fell with the soldiers and steeds that carried them.

Ilsa squinted at the gun carriages as the weapon crews scurried to load them with massive shells. A pit formed in her stomach as she thought of what one of the foul-smelling projectiles would do if it struck the lodge. Cass. Siuku. Lemuel. She felt like screaming at Ganara to order the attack, even as Ayochian snipers began to answer the Vogmem on the cliffs from the rocks across the pass.

Before Ilsa could cry out, with unbearable slowness, Ganara’s staff descended. The Vogmem riders charged.

Blue urged her shaggy strider forward. Ilsa loaded her machine gun and her pistol. The magazines clicked into place with satisfying clarity. They rode down into the pass with Ganara and her warriors.

Sharpshooters continued to trade fire in the gray chill just before dawn. Then, as rays of light began to creep over the mountains to the east, Ilsa spotted a glint of red lacquer, looking almost like rust on the armor of the Lectoral Protectors near the Ayochian guns.

The Red Lector himself led this force, or his guards would not be here. Ilsa gritted her teeth. If she captured the man, she could put an end to this battle, and maybe even save most of the bloodshed. She made her decision.

The Ayochian sharpshooters remained occupied with the troops on the cliffs, but the soldiers among the boulders near the gun carriages began to take shots at the approaching riders.

Ilsa looked this way and that, trying to spot the Red Lector, as the Vogmem swept downward in serried ranks. They closed into the range of small-arms, just twenty meters from the bulk of the Ayochian troops, and began to shoot.

She spotted a smoke-gray banner in among the troops near the Lectoral Protectors. She recognized it as belonging to her father’s mercenary company. Could he be close as well? If so, attacking the guns would not be easy.

Ilsa could not help but recall the hints, the whispers of the Gray Lector she had heard, the ineffable opponent of the Queen of Ayoch and her five loyal lectors. A renegade priest, not so different from Ilsa, herself. But she did not know what the Gray Lector believed if he believed in anything.

At ten meters and still closing, Ganara spun her staff in her hand. Ilsa traced flashes of light as Ayochian bullets changed trajectory to pull toward the black staff’s head. Ganara’s runner leaped into a cluster of  Ayochian soldiers ahead of her troops. She raised the staff over her head and the bullets attracted to it shot outward. Soldiers screamed and fell. Then, the Vogmem, Ilsa, and Blue, pelted into even closer quarters.

Ilsa twisted in the saddle and began to pick off soldiers left and right. She shot down one of the riflemen aiming at the cliffs. She killed a woman struggling with a jammed light machine gun. She killed. Not for honor. Not for glory. No killing could be worthy of those words.

Screams and roars and gunshots, the chaos of battle, surrounded Ilsa and Blue. Ganara and her riders cut toward the heavy guns, leaving broken bodies and bloody rock in their wake. The Ayochians must have dismounted to make their way up the pass, and their lack of steeds cost them in speed of reaction.

Blue brought her strider around, close behind Ganara. Enemy soldiers turned on their comrades, while others wavered in their aim or hesitated just long enough for Ilsa to kill them. Blue’s powers were devastating in the press of battle, her eyes glazed and unseeing as she devoured the thoughts of her foes.

The Lectoral Protectors interposed themselves before Ganara’s charge. Ilsa spotted a familiar fanged helm in the midst of red armor. The giant frame of Ozleji Sammhar, who she had hoped lay dead on the steppe by the Central Lyre, led a ragged group of survivors from one side to counter charge in Ganara’s flank.

The Vogmem charge faltered. Sprays of blood and fumes of burnt propellant mingled with clouds of smoke to fill the air. Ilsa clenched her teeth and prayed as Sammhar’s bonded weapons felled rider after rider. In one hand he held his gilded hand cannon, and in the other, a shotgun larger than most men could use in two, with an ax-blade on the underside of its barrel.

Ilsa’s unease when she first met the man burned the flame of battle in her stomach at the sight of the Sammhar’s bloody return to the field. He closed with her and Blue. Ilsa scrambled to reload her machine gun, feeling slow as an unlit fuse. She slammed the magazine into place and heard the click of the lock.

She retrieved her pistol from her waistband. She held two weapons again.

“Blue, stop those guns,” she said. “I’ll hold this attack.”

For once Blue only answered with a nod. Her eyes remained dull. Ilsa slid off the strider’s back. Her weapons spoke, and soldiers around Sammhar fell. The red-armored man’s gaze turned toward her. His eyes gleamed in his helm.

Blue and a few riders skirted Sammhar’s troops and reached Ganara’s vanguard before the flankers cut off the path of advance. Ilsa’s hands moved automatically. Ayochian troops retreated from Sammhar, but Ilsa’s bullets seemed unable to breach his armor.

He stood alone before her. His shotgun boomed and a Vogmem at her side pitched backward. She darted in the opposite direction. Her guns were both half-empty.

Five pistol rounds and fifteen machine gun rounds remained. Neither left much of a dent in Sammhar’s breastplate, though the red lacquer showed scoring from multiple impacts. With the grill of his mask down, she could not count on a shot to the head, and a heavy iron collar covered his throat, where she had hit him back on the plateau. Damn his luck. Not many survived a shot like that.

They faced each other in the clearing, the fray around them deafening, but the troops of both sides left them to each other. Ilsa found no time to look and see how Ganara and Blue were faring. Every chamber clack, every thump of cannon fire, every minute roar of ignition formed a wall around her. And within those walls, she focused on Ozleji Sammhar.

Their gazes locked across the gap in the lines. A chill ran through her, from temples to tail bone, and a terrible emptiness welled like the wound that had been where the painful bruise over her heart pulsed. She hated to face him, a student of her father’s training.

Black Powder trained warriors from every nation. A mercenary, he rode with anyone who could provide him coin. Sammhar was different, a devoted servant to the Red Lector. Somehow that only made him more terrifying.

Ilsa planted her feet and waited for the sound of the bombardment to echo through the pass. One gun spoke, but no other shot followed. Good, Ganara stopped one of them. Flurries of snow erupted from the ridge where the Vogmem sharpshooters had taken their place.

Ice and stone and limbs would be broken as well, but the shot had not hit the camp. They still had time. She offered a prayer to Hathani that Tirica had not been close to the blast, then devoted her full attention to the giant man marching toward her. Within five meters, he stopped. His voice rasped, far different than the confident sound it had been when she last heard it. “Ilsa Barrett, the time to prove who is greater is upon us.”

Another shiver ran through her as the sound of his maimed voice. “I don’t need to prove anything to you.”

He said nothing else but surged like a bear to one side. She circled opposite him. His finger rested on the trigger of his shotgun. She twitched her pistol, unable to pierce his bracers or palmless gauntlet, and aimed for the shotgun’s muzzle.

The weapon trained on her and his finger moved. Her bullet knocked the heavy weapon’s point away from her. A spray of shot  flashed past her side.

She darted to within a meter and sent a burst of machine gun rounds to stitch a path from his sternum to his throat. The heavy collar he wore caught otherwise fatal shots, and his helm deflected a ricochet.

He swung the ax-blade of his shotgun overhand at her. The blow fell but she skidded under it, then sprang out from under his stomping foot. Sweat ran down his pale face behind the grill of his helmet. She circled sideways, and he flailed out with his hand cannon, but could not turn his head toward her thanks to the collar around his neck. She took aim for a joint between his elbow and forearm. Her pistol cracked twice and his arm went limp, flopping against his side. Blood trickled from holes in his padded sleeve.

Sammhar turned toward her, eyes wide, but Ilsa was already gone. She sprinted after Blue and the others in the vanguard, leading the charge as the second wave of Vogmem riders surged forward, led by Hiragen. The Ayochian flanking force melted away before them. She did not see what happened to Sammhar, but his shotgun blast did not sound again in the fray.

Ilsa broke through, down to just five bullets loaded in her machine gun, and none in her pistol.

Carnage surrounded the gun carriages. The crews, Lectoral Protectors, and her father’s mercenary’s had made a stand before the weapons. Riders lay scattered all around. Smoke rose from the artillery carriage in the center, and the other’s crew had fallen to Ganara’s assault. Ilsa caught up with the Vogmem Chieftain and Blue as its side. Only the third gun, one still out of range of the camp, remained.

Ganara nodded to her.

“You made it,” Blue said with a weary grimace. “Only one left.”

Ganara grunted. “One left.”

Ilsa could have liked Ganara’s terseness were her eyes not always overflowing with lethal fury. But here in the fray, she was in her element. Ilsa turned toward the third gun, still rolling toward the position toward the others had fired. The Ayochians retreated toward it.

“If they set it up, they only need one of those to destroy the camp,” she said.

“Right,” said Ganara.

Ilsa climbed up a cold metal ladder onto the back of the captured gun carriage. Blood ran along the metal rivets of the vehicles loading platform. She checked the chamber and found a shell in it, ready to fire.

She turned and called to the others. “It’s loaded. Get everyone away from the front.”

Blue raised her eyebrows.

Ilsa shook her head. “Don’t ask questions. I’ve got a plan.”

She withdrew her pistol and made her way around the gun carriage to the armored driver’s compartment. She offered a fast prayer that the driver had fled, then yanked the hatch on the top of the vehicle open.

Inside the cramped confines, she found her prayer answered. There was no one there. She took the controls, sparked the bio-electric battery, and then turned the machine with agonizing slowness, and a grinding of treads, to face toward the Ayochian’s other remaining artillery piece. She pushed the engine pedal and then climbed out of the compartment. The gun carriage rolled down the slope toward the troops that had brought it to the pass where the winds roared in the lull of the battle.

Twenty meters and grinding closer to the last gun, she raced around the back of the machine. The gun would take time to lower, but she could make sure this shell did some damage regardless. She rode the gun carriage toward the enemy line, crouched and sheltering behind the cannon that towered over her head.

At ten meters, she pulled the lever to fire the cannon. The round blasted with a deafening roar from the massive gun, which Ilsa realized too late, was not designed to fire while moving. The machine rocked backward and to the side, and the shell impacted the wall of the pass just a few dozen meters up and ahead of Ilsa. The sound blasted her senses. Rocks and ice chunks rained down from above. Screams and yells of warning reached Ilsa in muted tones.

She vaulted the gun carriage’s back railing and tumbled onto the cold rock of the pass below. The carriage flipped onto its side a second later, a boulder crashing down on the barrel of the main gun.

Ilsa ran back toward Ganara and Blue, still mostly unable to hear following the explosion. The Ayochian troops had formed up around the last gun carriage, the tracks of which ground into the fallen rocks left by Ilsa’s shot. But even there, they wavered.

Then, Black Powder stepped forward from their ranks. He carried one of his bonded pistols in each hand, and the two pistols with their integral silencers slung at his hips.

Ilsa’s father was not alone.

On his left, the Red Lector stepped forward, flanked by his remaining protectors. At his right, walked the frizzy-haired shape of Melinda. They stood before the lines. The Red Lector’s eyes found Ganara across the gap between the forces.

“This is your last chance to surrender, Vogmem. You can only delay the inevitable.”

Hiragen rode to Ganara’s side. He nodded to the other Chieftain. “We must have rocked them if they want to negotiate now. Well done.”

Ganara regarded the Red Lector with an icy gaze. Then, she spat into the pass between them.

She turned to the riders at her side.”Return to the camp. Tell the sharpshooters to keep watching the pass.”

Ilsa climbed back onto Blue’s strider and swung her legs across the saddle. She rode back to the camp with the rest of the survivors from the vanguard. Blood and wounds spotted and pockmarked many of the runners and humans. The pass was littered with bodies, and the wind whipped through abandoned weapons and whistled through holes in shattered armor.

Ilsa stopped beside the fallen form of the red giant, Ozleji Sammhar and found his breath still going in and out. But for once, he did not frighten her. It would be difficult for him to do that, given that he lay unconscious and beaten on the ground. The Vogmem collected him with a group of other Ayochian prisoners on the way back to the camp.

The battle of howling pass may have been brief, but the cost in flesh and blood was immediately obvious. Only as the sun set over the lake, and Ilsa watched with Lemuel and his sister, would Ilsa realize how much things had changed.

They had beaten back the Red Lector. The war had truly begun.

Tirica left them to get out of the cold wind.

Ilsa turned to Lemuel. “What do you think they’ll call this in the history books?”

“I wouldn’t know.” He shivered. She put her arm around his waist. Lemuel looked at her with raised eyebrows. “I didn’t need a weapon after all.”

“You haven’t fired it yet, but you may still have to. This is the beginning of the war, not the end of it.”

“Yeah. I suppose it depends. Back in Chogrum, we don’t really call the battles fought by Vogmem by names, especially when our troops aren’t involved.”

She frowned. So many things were forgotten by history. “I’ve fought in a few battles. I won’t forget any of them.”

“And you shouldn’t,” said Lemuel.

“I wish I could.” She shook her head. “That’s just now how things work.”

Siuku approached, walking along the lake shore from the lodge. “Priestess,” she said in her monotone. “I’m glad you are alright.”

“Thank you, Keeper.” She bowed to Siuku.

Then the dark manta-shape of a locust cut across the setting sun. Lemuel pointed at the locust as it circled down lower over the lake. A frown crossed his face. “What is that doing here?”

Ilsa scowled. “I have a feeling we’ll know soon.” The locust was large and carried a sky carriage. As it drew closer she read a name in the language of Morhoen, but simple enough to understand. “Koor.” A high priest of the Unification had come to the mountains.

#

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Tenlyres II is out!

It’s official. Amazon.com has Tenlyres II: The Gray Lector on sale.

eboook-tenlyres-ii-cover-corrected-v2-mqebook-mount-higatha-cover-3-mq

I love this story, I think it is some of my most vivid writing to date. It continues the adventure from Tenlyres I: Ilsa and Blue, as our heroes try to escape the machinations of the eponymous Gray Lector as well as their old enemies.

Perhaps overshadowed by the second part of the Tenlyres story, but also out today is a Tenlyres short story, “Mount Higatha”, about the rogue and adventurer from the main story, Ferdinand Thoss.

So… links.

Tenlyres I: Ilsa and Blue is available for free on all major online stores HERE. If you haven’t been following the serial it is probably the best place to start.

Tenlyres II: The Gray Lector is out on Amazon HERE and will soon be available through the other vendors.

Mount Higatha is out now as well on Amazon HERE. But if you sign up for my mailing list (On the top of the sidebar of timniederriter.com) you can get it for free!

Whew! It’s been an exciting day for me. I love releasing new work, and I’m very proud of Tenlyres. The third part of the story should be out in mid-January, and that will wrap up the tale. And, if you like reading on websites, the story will continue to be serialized in its entirety on both the blog at dwellerofthedeep.wordpress.com and at timniederriter.com.

I appreciate any eyes people want to point at my stuff.

As always, thanks for reading.

Tenlyres Chapter 28 – Etched Edge

Author’s Notes
This chapter took a long time for me to get my head around, but now the story is back from hiatus. Thank you for your patience, and look for more Author’s Notes about the story in later chapter releases.

Previously…
Ilsa and her comrades are in the northern mountains, allied with the Vogmem tribes there.
Negotiations between the forces have been interrupted by the Uzan.
Ilsa and Blue have the Ayochian mind eater captive, but can they escape?

Previous Chapter
Download Tenlyres I for free at your favorite online retailer

tenlyres-ii-chapter-28-etched-edge-mq

Hooves and strider feet pounded on the rocky mountainside.

“How did they sneak up on us?” Blue asked as they crested the ridge.

“We don’t know much about Uzan,” Ilsa said. “But I wouldn’t have guessed they could be so stealthy either.”

A clip of feet on the rocks and tufts of grass behind them made Ilsa look back. She spotted Ferdinand on his white strider, fast in pursuit. His hands were empty, and his feet swung into the sides of the creature to force it faster up the slope. His eyes were focused in a cloudy, fearsome, way that made obvious the fact of Ashnia’s continued control. Ilsa grunted in frustration.

The Ayochian woman seemed to be hovering somewhere between consciousness and a daze, slung across the saddle between Ilsa and Blue, but still, her control of Ferdinand remained.

“How is she doing this?” Ilsa asked Blue. “Shouldn’t her powers have broken?”

“The Temple has a way of extending the powers of their members.” Blue’s brow furrowed, eyes with the distant look she always wore when using her powers. “Usually they need some way to connect to anyone who uses their abilities.”

“How would they connect right now?”

“A plant pile with an interface device.”

Ilsa looked down at Ashnia, struggling against the saddle before her, pinned down by her knees and Blue’s back. As the strider carried them down the path from the ridge, Ilsa frowned. “Where would she keep a plant pile?”

“It only has to be a small piece of one. Sometimes they manage to grow them small enough to fit on a piece of jewelry, like a brooch or a pendant.”

Ilsa’s eyes caught a flicker of pendulous motion just below Ashnia’s face. A locket, the kind made to be hollow, previously tucked into her coat swung at the end of a silver chain and bounced back and forth with the strider’s gallop.

“Or a necklace?” Ilsa said.

She felt Blue’s touch in her mind. Her friend went stiff in the saddle for a second.

“Ilsa, grab that locket. It could weaken her powers.”

Ilsa leaned sideways on the back of the saddle, easing the pressure of her knees on Ashnia’s back as she did. The stunned mind eater’s eyes flicked in her direction, but Ilsa experienced no mental attack as her hand darted toward the locket at the end of the chain. Her outstretched fingertips brushed the edge of the metallic necklace, nearly able to grip the egg-shaped jewelry. She felt a rough fuzz like moss on the outside of the shell. No doubt, this was the object the Temple was using to assist Ashnia.

Ilsa stretched her arm, still leaning over the side to get the locket, hanging away from her as they went downhill. Ashnia’s eyes met hers, but the woman said nothing. The locket swung back toward Ilsa as Blue slowed her steed for an instant.

Ashnia’s eyes narrowed. She swung her forehead into Ilsa’s nose. The impact sent a blunt pain from her nose to the back of her skull. An explosion of pale spots flashed across Ilsa’s vision. She reeled backward and her legs lost their grip on the saddle. Ashnia shoved her whole body into Ilsa and they tumbled off the strider’s back.

Ilsa hit the hard-packed earth of the mountain. Her head thumped against soil. In a haze of pain, she pushed Ashnia off of her chest and scrambled backward to dodge the step of Ferdinand’s great strider.

The Chogrumian adventurer thundered down the slope about twenty meters behind Blue and her strider but then wheeled his mount toward where Ashnia and Ilsa lay battered and struggling to stand up.

She scowled and did not bother feeling her nose, from which dripped a trickle of blood. I am not giving up. I am getting out of here alive.

Further away on the slope of Nurse Mountain’s shoulder ahead of Blue, Siuku, Ganara and the rest of the survivors from the parley had reached the larger Vogmem force, a line of riders on heavy goats stretched across the slope silhouetted against the pale waters of the Lake of Saints below.

Ilsa faced Ferdinand. Her nose and skull throbbed. The man drew a javelin from one of his feet. He readied it in one hand, while his short-bladed lance with its basket guard emerged from the bond on the other. Ilsa stretched out her arms and her pistols appeared between clenched fingers.

This time, she might not be able to spare him. This time she might not be able to survive his attack. This time she had to give it her all. She loaded her pistols as best she could, keeping her eyes on Ferdinand. Ashnia rolled onto her front, gasping for breath. A stone had opened a cut by one ear, and blood trickled into her hair on that side. She put her hands to the ground to push herself to her feet.

Ilsa reached her and kicked her in the stomach.

Ashnia twisted to one side with a cry of pain. She scowled up at Ilsa, eyes focusing. Ilsa aimed one pistol at Ashnia, and the other at Ferdinand to keep him wary. “Call him off. Or you die.”

Ashnia gritted her teeth. “Damn it. You’re a Dalite. Why are you fighting us?”

Thunderous hoof-beats and crunching steps announced the approach of Uzan even as warriors rode up the slope, led by Ganara. Siuku hung back. Good, Ilsa thought, glad the Keeper was keeping herself out of direct danger for the moment.

Ilsa brought her focus back to Ashnia and Ferdinand. The controlled Chogrumian adventurer rode straight for them, a second javelin in his hand.

The Uzan sounded close, and again Ilsa wondered how they had moved so silently through the grove to spring their ambush. They certainly made plenty of noise now.

Blue sent a thought into her  mind. I’ve got the hermit on defense. I’ll have Ferdinand free in–Give me a minute.

Blue’s presence vanished before Ilsa could send back. Don’t have a minute. Ferdinand’s white strider carried him within ten meters. He hurled his javelin.

A jolt of raw fury mixed with Ilsa’s adrenaline. She ducked forward, in a fractured moment, stepping onto Ashnia’s chest in the process. A gasp of air left the mind eater’s lungs. Ilsa’s hands steadied to aim her pistols at Ferdinand as his javelin flew over her shoulder.

She fired twice from each weapon. One of the bullets took Ferdinand in the shoulder and made him drop the long lance he carried. His basket-hilted lance appeared in his other hand.

Five meters. Four. Three.

Ilsa took aim.

Ferdinand stabbed down at her. She tried to reel herself backward, but fingers wrapped around her feet. Ashnia locked her in place. The blade of the lance stabbed toward Ilsa’s chest. She dropped her guns and brought her hands toward the blade.

A pin-prick of pain erupted into a screaming burst of unequaled agony as the weapon carved a wound just below her collar centimeters from her heart. Ilsa’s pistols fell into the dirt. She held her hands tight on the rounded sides of the lance blade.

She took the weapon with her as she fell backward. Ashnia released her feet and let her tumble to the cold ground. Her head hit a rock with a crack that made her see lights, her mother’s face from her childhood, the moment she had realized Blue was a mind eater, and the image of Cass on the day they had both been initiated by the high priestess.

The lance rose over her like a flagpole planted in her chest, radiating pain from where blood welled up through her tunic and coat.

One arm felt cold and far away. She clenched the other, nearly blind with pain, and nauseous from her fall. She felt the grip of her machine gun form as she relaxed her grip just enough. The brand burned. She turned her aching head to one side. Two Uzan approached. Both already had bullet-holes visible in their heads, and she recognized them from her encounter with the huge shell back on the plains.

Damn them. Some things cannot die. She coughed, and found her spit mercifully free of blood. How deep did this lance go? She knew she was going into shock. Her legs jittered, uncooperative. The life of a mercenary often ended this way. Her mother’s face swam into view again.

“I can’t,” she said.

Luca Barrett appeared like Ilsa had last seen her, pale and alone in her room in the hospital, for her own safety. The same room where Ilsa had told her she would return.

“Mother, I can’t.”

“Ilsa, where are you?”

“I’m in the mountains. Mother, I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again. But I’m glad I can see you now.”

With a soft groan, she let her machine gun settle to the rocky ground at her side, still pointed toward the Uzan.

“Ilsa…” her mother said, “…Is this really you?”

“Yes. No. Damn it, I think so.”

“I can hear you. I can’t see you.”

“I’m north of Yr, in the mountains. By The Three, I think I’m dying.”

You aren’t going to die, another voice said in her mind. Ilsa.

“Who are you?” Ilsa said in a dry, husky voice that sounded far away.

Ilsa, it’s Blue. I’ve got them. Ferdinand and Ashnia. I stopped them.

“Good.”

The Uzan, Ilsa. Please, I’ve got them stopped. You just need to pull the trigger.

So Ilsa did. She squeezed the trigger of that distant arm. Recoil made the gun jump up when fired one-handed, but she compensated with the weight of her body rolling to one side. Even touching her body brought pain, but the bulky, hazy shapes of the two Uzan fell from her shots. Somehow she had found a way to aim at them without knowing it. They continued to pull themselves forward on their arms and hands, dragging their mutilated legs.

Then Ilsa lost the thread of reality.

She sank into her vision of her mother, back in the hospital.

“I stopped them.”

“That’s good, Ilsa,” said her mother.

“I’m protecting my friends.”

“I thought you didn’t have friends?”

“I’ve been wrong about that before. I’ve always had them. Always.”

Blue’s real voice stabbed back into her like another lance.

“Ilsa, you have to come back.”

“Blue. I see my mother.”

“You’re hurt, but not that bad.”

“Well, I’m hallucinating, so I’d say it’s that bad.”

“The lance is out. Siuku is almost here.”

“Well, tell her I’m not gonna be all there. Sorry.”

“We’re safe for now. Ilsa, don’t do this to me.”

“Don’t do what?”

“Don’t die.”

Mother said, “Go with your friends, Ilsa.”

“You can hear her?”

“She told you not to die.”

“Yeah, not much I can do about that.” Ilsa’s eyelids fluttered. A soft swish of sound. Siuku’s pale face and pinkish eyes looked down at her. Ilsa’s eyes opened wide. The lance lay on the ground to one side, a good half-meter of its blade speckled with her blood.

Before Ilsa’s eyes, the deadly length of steel with it’s edge etched in patterns like serpents twining together faded into the smoky haze of a bonded weapon returning to its master.

Siuku uttered a cry and pressed her white hands over Ilsa’s heart.

Fiery feeling ran fresh through Ilsa’s previously numb arm. Warmth and pain crept back through her body. She lurched toward Siuku.

“Mother.” She felt tears in her eyes. “I felt her.”

“Priestess, be still,” Siuku said in a breathless voice. “You were close to the edge. I don’t know if I could repair it all. It…” She sat back on her knees, eyes looking at the sun overhead. “It brought me there too.”

Blue caught Siuku about the shoulders before she could fall. With a dull sense of satisfaction, Ilsa noticed Blue held Ashnia’s locket in her other hand.

Ganara and her Vogmem warriors had formed a circle around the three of them, as well as Ashnia, and Ferdinand. They helped Ilsa and Siuku onto the backs of different steeds and then retreated down the rough rocks of the mountain’s shoulder.

She could not sit up but clutched her bloody coat together at her chest, hands pressed to her heart, which somehow kept on beating, despite the pain of a bruise forming so near it. Every beat reminded her she was alive, at least for now.

 

Ilsa limped away from the Vogmem rider who had helped her back to the main body of troops and then to the camp. She did not get far before a wave of dizziness ran through her and she sagged to the ground near the lodge where the Four of the Vogmem met.

A team of skyriders circled above the camp on their hawks. Ilsa sat, head bowed, eyes closed, breathing deeply. She heard rather than saw the Oshomi helping Siuku back to her tent, and Blue ordering a close guard to be kept on Ashnia.

Ilsa’s whole body smelled of her own blood, a smell that was growing far too familiar to her lately.

Lemuel and Tirica approached on soft feet, but their voices gave them away despite being hushed in tone. They drew near and Lemuel knelt down beside her, one hand on her arm. “Are you alright?” he asked.

“No, I don’t think I am.”

The memory of her mother from childhood mingled with the conversation she had just hallucinated. That woman was still in one piece, not yet ruined by father.

Ilsa sighed and looked at Lemuel’s face. “I don’t know what happened. I had a feeling like I was somewhere else.”

He put his small hand around her side. “I’ve heard that happens sometimes when someone is hurt.”

“I’ve heard of it. It never happened to me before, not even last night.” Ilsa grimaced down at her lap. “I’m still not sure if that’s even what it was. I saw–I saw my mother, Lemuel.”

“She’s still alive, isn’t she?”

“She is. I just. I don’t know why, but I could talk to her.” Ilsa shook her aching head. “I need to rest. Help me up.”

Together, Lemuel and his sister got her to her feet. She did not know how she managed it, but she made it to the tent and then lay down on her bedroll. Tirica left. Lemuel touched her arm. “I can stay if you want.”

She nodded faintly to him, then lay her head back on the thin pillow. “Stay.” Where her wound had been, a dark bruise showed through the hole in her layers of clothes. Just looking at it made her nauseous and the tent around her swam with odd shadows and colors. But she did not hear her mother. She shivered at the cold of the mountain beneath the bedroll. She rolled onto her side, facing away from Lemuel.

“Would you lay down,” she asked. “Please?”

He tentatively lowered himself down beside her. “Anything you need.” He eased himself against her back and wrapped his longer arm around her side. She reached for his hand and held it tighter than she meant, smooth in her scarred palm. His small hand brushed the back of her neck.

“Thanks,” she murmured.

And without another thought, she drifted to sleep.

 

Of Mooks & Monsters Episode 20 – Mutants and Masterminds

Today, Of Mooks & Monsters returns with another in our series on different systems.

Today is one of Tim’s personal favorites, Mutants and Masterminds, a superhero system by Green Ronin.

So, join Rob and Tim for a discussion on the pros and cons of a superhero system that can be used for so much more.

Thanks for listening, and don’t forget to share and review if you like the show.

Of Mooks and Monsters Episode 19 – Interview with Dave Robison

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Today, on Of Mooks and Monsters, Tim talks to a living legend of the podosphere about Game Mastering.

Dave Robison is the host of the Roundtable Podcast, Vice President of The Ed Greenwood Group, and a fantastic individual with a lot of experiences to share.

Tim forgot to record an actual interview, so stay tuned through the promo for Dave’s podcast and enjoy the interview.

Thanks for listening.

Share and enjoy!

Of Mooks and Monsters Episode 18 – BRP

This week on, Of Mooks & Monsters, Rob and Tim discuss one of our favorite game systems, Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying.

Enjoy!

On a technical note, the website and feed gave us some trouble recently, which is why the show was delayed. Everything should be better now.