Reaver

They heard it long before it was close enough to see through the haze.  The screeching of the mechanical limbs carried across the cornfields, occasionally punctuated by the hiss of escaping steam. 
The smaller children, inquisitive even in the face of danger, poured out of the cottages, climbing on hay bales or up into the loft of the barn to get a better view as the monstrosity lurched through the tall plants.  The eight legs stabbed down into the earth heavily with each step, causing slight tremors as it drew closer to the small gathering of thatched shacks.
The older children, Danny among them, also paused in their chores to watch as the colossus entered, although most of them wore frowns rather than open-mouthed stares.  Danny laid down the blacksmith’s hammer and stepped away from the forge, making sure to first quench the sickle he had been pounding out. 
From the building across from the smithy, Elder Jonah emerged, somehow remaining on his feet as his cane clattered down the stone steps in front of him.  The white-haired man glared at the approaching machine, and Danny heard him mutter “Reaver” under his breath.
“What is it, Elder Jonah?” Danny asked, having to raise his voice slightly to be heard over the mechanical noises. 
The elder didn’t take his eyes off of the machine.  “Reaver,” he replied, huffing into his scraggly mustache.  “Leftover from the war, long ago.  They used to be sent into battle, but after the war ended, most of them were left to roam.”  He spat into the dust at his feet.  “Don’t trust it.”
Danny squinted as he tried to make out the details of the great machine.  “Is it made of metal?  Or is it some sort of armored beast?”
“Nah, ‘tis metal through and through,” the elder replied.  Danny was glad that Elder Jonah wasn’t treating him like a child.  His ceremony of adulthood had only just passed a month ago, but he was already beginning to feel the respect of the village’s adults.  “Great beast, all wires and pipes, driven by steam and the Devil himself.  Near unstoppable, especially against mere foot soldiers.”  Elder Jonah’s eyes gazed past the Reaver as memories rose to the surface.
The Reaver was closer, now, and Danny could see that it was no longer fully operational.  Several large pipes attached to the legs were bent, and steam was rhythmically escaping through cracks in the shell.  The long legs, like those of a spider, moved heavily and slightly out of sync, the rusted joints protesting as they scraped open and shut.  Some sort of complex machinery with several long, straight pipes protruding from it hung askew from the underbelly of the Reaver.  Despite the damage, however, the machine still looked hulking and unstoppable.
Elder Buie had wandered over to join Elder Jonah in gazing out at the Reaver, and several adults had also gathered around.  Danny saw fright, confusion, and worry painted across their faces.  “What do we do?  Should we evacuate the village?” asked Cenn, the baker.  His wife, always appearing small and slight next to Cenn’s girth, was huddled in his shadow as if she feared to leave his protection.
No answer was immediately forthcoming from the elders.  Jonah raised his stick to point at the Reaver, slid it off to one side, and then spat again thoughtfully.  He turned to Buie at his side.  “Think it’ll change paths?” he asked.
Elder Buie shook his head.  “The thing’s pretty far gone,” he commented.  “No crew, or they would have sealed those joints.  It’s a fossil, nothing more.”
The other elder nodded in agreement.  “Reavers don’t change course much,” he said to the assembled adults.  “This one’ll miss our village, sure enough, and once it’s gone then someone else will have to worry about it.”  He waved his hands in a shooing motion, and the throng of adults slowly wandered away.  Danny saw that most of them still shot fearful looks over their shoulders at the mechanical mockery of a spider.
After they had dispersed, Danny looked sidelong at Elder Jonah.  “You’ve seen those Reavers before,” he said, carefully adding only the slightest of a questioning lilt to the end of his sentence.
Jonah nodded.  “Brought one down, once,” he replied.  “Killed most of our men, but we had revenge, smashed the whole thing to bits of clockwork with our sledges.”  He adjusted his grip on his walking stick. 
“We could bring down this one?” Danny asked.  He had no idea where such an audacious idea had come from.  The adults had always praised him for keeping a cool head.  However, as he watched the rusting colossus wander across their cornfields, he envisioned smashing the legs out from underneath, watching it topple helplessly into the dirt, unable to regain its feet as he brought the hammer down on the body…
Elder Jonah whacked him with his cane across Danny’s knees, startling him out of the daydream.  “You keep away from those, you hear?” he said sharply.  “This one may be banged up a bit, but they got all sorts of fancy tricks programmed in, combat subroutines that’ll strip your hide clean off.”  He squinted out at the Reaver.  “Looks like the minigun is broke, that’s good, but they still aren’t to be tangled with.  Thing’ll kill you without remorse.”
His knees still stung from Jonah’s swing, but Danny didn’t fire back.  He wondered what a minigun or a subroutine was.  He had heard bits and pieces of tales of the Great War from the elders, but they never shared much, and asking usually earned a smack or two about the ear. 
Elder Jonah, grumbling, turned back to his cottage.  “Probably ruined half the crop,” he muttered, as he slowly climbed the steps.  “Damn things will be around a hundred years after the war, mark my words.” 
The Reaver was already starting to move away from the village, still continuing in a straight line.  Danny picked up his blacksmith hammer, but he waited to resume work until the Reaver had faded into the distance, lurching unsteadily across the fields.
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My Understanding of the Web

Websites I ought to be visiting (but usually aren’t)
www.forbes.com – an exhaustive source of everything business related, where I could gain savvy and really come to understand how to operate in the business world – if I ever had the patience to read the articles.  Not that they aren’t interesting, but for some reason it’s tough to sit down and learn.
www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/– The ultimate encyclopedia of articles on anything and everything science.  If a budding scientist read every research article on his topic on PubMed, he would be a leader in the field.  And yet, the soul-crushing density of the papers repels me like lipid bubbles repel macromolecular proteins from entry. 
www.wsj.com – The Wall Street Journal is a reliable and informative news source.  Yet somehow, its dry tone makes me certain that half of one article about controlling my home via my iPad is all the news I need.
www.gq.com – The upscale guide to men’s style, GQ makes me wish I could look better, wearing nicer clothing than my jeans and free tee shirt from Welcome Week.  Then I remember that I’m poor and can’t afford to fill my closet with $500 sport jackets.
Websites I sometimes visit (and feel good about)
www.cnn.com – News is always good, and while CNN may have a bit of bias, it’s often great to check up on for trending topics.  If only I didn’t get bogged down by human interest pieces.  Look, a teenager shot up his family in Alabama!  What a totally unexpected surprise!
www.mademan.com – An awesome guide to everything manly, ranging from style to health to tech to good general advice to live by.  Whenever I read up on these articles I feel secure and strong in my gender.  If only I remembered to visit this site more often.
www.newsmap.jp – An interactive map that shows what’s trending in news, presented in beautiful colors that make me forget how horrible the world is.
www.uncrate.com – The ultimate guide to cool man’s stuff, which makes me realize how much money I will need to truly be happy.  Just kidding!  But a couple hundred grand to drop on a luxury car and some fine whiskey wouldn’t go amiss.  Just sayin’.
Websites I often visit (and am ambivalent about)
www.imgur.com – A massive conglomeration of beautiful pictures, insightful observations, hilarious captions, and cute cat and dog pictures, I can waste hours browsing picture after picture.  Thank goodness I have plenty of bandwidth, or I would burn through it all in minutes on this site.  I’m glad I don’t live in Canada!
www.fmylife.com – Sometimes, it’s nice to remember how good I have it.  While reading FMLs can become tiresome, they always remind me that, even though my stubbed toe is aching, at least my parents haven’t stolen my college fund and I’m not being fired from McDonald’s.
www.notalwaysright.com– While Imgur gives me my chuckles in picture form, Not Always Right lets me get my literary jollies on, with (thankfully punctuation-corrected) stories about the dark side of retail.  This also teaches me what I should NOT yell at the waiter on my next restaurant visit.
www.hulu.com – Being able to watch all the TV I miss is amazing, until I realize that I’ve spent the entire afternoon doing nothing but watching television on my computer.
Websites I occasionally visit (and feel really bad about)
www.facebook.com – Seriously, it feels like everyone on here is doing better than me – moving to fantastic places?  Getting married?  Having children?  I’m going back to FML.
www.icanhascheezburger.com– a time-wasting cesspool of memes and bad Facebook statuses, as well as awkwardly captioned cat pictures.  I can be sucked in for hours, but always emerge with the feeling that I need a shower.
www.youtube.com – Unless I’m listening to music, I try to stay away from YouTube.  Most videos aren’t worth the time it takes to sit through them, and the comments appear to be typed by monkeys addicted to methamphetamines.  

Insomniac

It’s almost three in the morning and I’m not asleep.  Business as usual.
Insomnia, according to the mighty Google, is defined as “habitual sleeplessness, or inability to sleep.”  That doesn’t sound quite right, to me.  I’m certainly able to sleep.  I just don’t.  If I really force myself, I’ll pass out, forget a few hours, wake back up.  It doesn’t change anything though.  That whole refreshing feeling?  I don’t know what that’s like.
My face is lit by my computer screen.  Thank goodness for the Internet, or I don’t know what I’d do during these long nights.  I think I’ve read about half of Wikipedia so far.
I’ll tell you one thing.  Being an insomniac is depressing, that’s for sure.  Did you know that every inch of land in every city in the United States, as well as every plot near any road, is contaminated to hell and back with lead?  We did that – humans.  It only took us about four years. 
Thomas Midgely, Jr., noticed that when lead was mixed with gasoline, the engine didn’t knock as much.  By the time he had realized his mistake, the world had been poisoned.  Undeterred, he went on to create Freon to stabilize refrigerators. 
How long?  Oh, it’s been a few months now.  I didn’t notice at first; I was simply going to bed later, and still getting up at the same time each morning.  I probably must have lost the feeling of being refreshed years earlier, since I never noticed that disappearing.  Every once in a while, I’d get distracted, and next thing I knew it would be morning.  It wasn’t until weeks later that I finally couldn’t remember the last time I’d slept.
I haven’t gone to a doctor about it yet.  I really don’t see the point.  It’s not like my limbs are falling off, there don’t seem to be any side effects.  And if I’ve learned anything from my reading, it’s that taking actions often cause more trouble than not doing anything at all. 
Instead, it’s better to sit.  And wait.  And watch.  I’ve got time.

Galactic Pawn

When I stumbled into the back room of the shop, my head still aching from the night before, Gabe was already buried up to the waist inside an old engine pod.  He shot me his usual cheeky grin when he emerged.

“Looks like a few crossed wires,” he said.  “And some blighter’s stolen the fuel cell, of course.  Shouldn’t be too hard to replace, though.”  He paused to scrutinize me.  “You look like crap, man.”

I sat down heavily on the chair in front of my workbench and grabbed for the first item in my stack of checked in items – a laser pistol, rusted almost beyond recognition.  “It was a rough night,” I replied.  “I wish I had known that some Wharfmistresses carry implants that neutralize alcohol before we started the drinking contest.”

I worked my sonic drill into the hairline crevices of the pistol’s slide, and managed to slough most of the rust off of the blowback dissipator.  Gabe picked up a comm unit with a shattered screen, but tossed it aside in disgust after a minute’s examination.  “Someone tried to use this thing in an ammonium atmosphere,” he commented.  “Whole thing’s corroded.  Can’t even be recycled for mats.”

Before moving on to the next item in his pile, he shifted his attention back to me.  “Charlie, you gotta get over this breakup, man.  You’ve been throwing yourself at the wall for the last couple of weeks.  Sooner or later, you’re going to step out an airlock by accident.”

I shook my head fiercely, looking down at the firing chip of the pistol so he wouldn’t see me blinking furiously.  “It’s not that easy, Gabe.  She just up and left, after two years, barely even leaving a note.  ‘I need to see the rest of the galaxy’ is the oldest line in the book.”  I wrenched the chip out with a yank, snapping the bioplastic in my pliers.  Still avoiding my coworker’s gaze, I rummaged through my drawers for a replacement.

Gabe blew steam through the tubes of a klang-distiller that appeared to still be in working condition.  “Look, man, you weren’t going to spend the rest of your life with this girl, were you?”

After a moment, I was forced to shake my head in agreement.  “No, Carla wasn’t the one for me.  But still, you know how rare it is to run into another attractive human these days?  Especially one who isn’t either implanted to the gills, or fishing for someone who owns his own ship?”  I clicked the new firing chip into place and began polishing the trigger nodal connections.

For a moment, my companion in the back of the pawn shop was silent.  The only noise was the soft whine of my auto-buffer as it removed grime from the smooth nodes.  “It’s always hard,” he said at length.  “But that’s what life is.  And we’re a fairly busy port – lots of beings pass through, including humans.  You’ll meet another one.  In the meantime, maybe if you stop blowing all your credits at the cantina as soon as they’re in your account, you might someday be able to afford that ship of yours.”

I suppressed a sigh as I ratcheted in a new fuel cell.  Gabe was annoying with his frank critiques, but he was also correct.  His grin certainly didn’t help matters.  I spun in my chair, leveling the laser pistol at him.  The split second of wide-eyed shock was gratifying.  I squeezed the trigger twice.

The two shots flew true, leaving two smoking marks in the door over his shoulder.  I grinned back at him.  “You might be right,” I said, as he let out the breath he had been holding.  “And I’m glad you’re watching out for me.  But I’m gonna have to get better on my own, in my own way.”

I tossed the repaired pistol on the slowly growing pile of refurnished devices to be taken out to the pawn shop floor.  Fortunately, my headache was fading already.

Artifacts

The Stopwatch
An antique pocket watch on a gold chain.  It always displays the correct time.  When the button on top of the stopwatch is pressed, time is paused for everyone except the holder of the watch.  Time remains paused until the button is pressed a second time, at which point it immediately resumes at normal speed.
The Compass
An old mariner’s compass, built into a dark wooden box with a lid that flips open to reveal the needle.  The compass needle always points towards whatever its holder desires most.  For example, if the holder of the compass wants to find his true love, the needle will point towards that person.  If the item does not exist, the compass needle will spin erratically.  The compass does not indicate distance, although this can be approximated using triangulation. 
The Book
A slim hardcover volume, bound in aged, weathered leather.  The book shows the future course of its owner, indicating possible decision trees and their outcomes.  Because the owner may change his course of action, the book is constantly shifting to reflect the most current outcomes.  Due to the complexity of reading four-dimensional charts, it takes many years of study to be able to fully comprehend the permutations shown in the book.
The Candle
A tall, cream-colored candle, approximately nine inches tall and one and a half inches in diameter.  The bottom of the candle is wrapped in blackened iron to provide a sturdy base.  Although the candle must be lit to provide any effect, burning does not consume the candle.  When lit, the holder of the candle may call forth the spirits of the dead and commune with them.  The stronger a bond the holder of the candle has with the deceased, the more visible and coherent the summoned shade.  Although the spirits may not interact with the environment, they can converse with the holder of the candle and any others present.
The Ring
A small ring of burnished gold.  Glowing runes are visible around the band when it is heated, although the ring does not melt.  When placed on a finger, the ring makes its wearer invisible to all forms of visual detection.  However, the wearer can still be tracked by their heat signature or by sound.  The invisibility lasts until the wearer removes the ring.
The Key
A fairly large key made of antique brass, approximately six inches long, with a heart shaped loop at the end.  The key is able to open any lock; it adjusts the size of the teeth to any shape, even if the lock appears too small or too large.  The key is only able to open locks that have a keyhole; combination or biometric locks are not affected. 
The Knife
A large dagger with an eleven-inch single edged blade.  The handle is made of black stone wrapped in inlaid gold wire.  The knife is able to cut through any object without any more than slight resistance.  The cutting edge of the knife is dimensional, allowing it to even split subatomic particles if wielded with enough precision.  Very skilled users of the knife can slice along dimensional strings, opening up portals to other locations or worlds.
The Telescope
An antique brass extending telescope, roughly seven inches in length when compressed, extending out to nearly two feet.  The telescope is able to extend the user’s viewpoint by thousands of miles and is able to see through most buildings and walls.  The telescope’s view also automatically stabilizes, providing a smooth, clear, focused picture. 
The Vial
A small, semi-transparent bottle of silvered glass, sealed with a cork, small enough to fit comfortably in one hand.  Whenever the bottle is exposed to light, it slowly fills with a shining, shimmering liquid.  When consumed, this liquid heals wounds and diseases; one drop is enough to heal a cut, while a large swig can bring the imbiber back from the brink of death.  The liquid may either be drank or applied directly to the injury.  All sources of light slowly create more liquid inside the vial, although direct moonlight has been shown to be most productive.  The bottle only holds about five ounces of liquid.  Unless the liquid is consumed immediately after leaving the bottle, it loses its healing ability and evaporates.
The Pin
A straight pin, approximately three inches long, with a round head.  Although it appears to be made of bone, the pin does not bend or break, even under immense force.  Any animate being stabbed by the pin is instantly killed.  The pin may enter any part of the being’s body, as long as it penetrates.  As well as humans, plants, and animals, the pin also effectively kills trolls, golems, all forms of undead, angels and demons, and minor deities.  

The Draft Bin, vol. 1

Not every idea that I have makes it into any sort of written form.  Many ideas are jotted down as brief thoughts or spurts, sometimes only a few words strung together or a title.  Maybe I’ll return for these later, build them into full compositions.  Maybe not.  Here’s a few currently sitting in my notes:

“The Line for Heaven” – Everybody tells you about the angels, halos, and clouds.  No one warns you about the bureaucracy.

“Under the Rainbow” – We always dream of going over the rainbow.  What about under?  What twisted, sullen worlds await?

“Tomb World” – The world is dying.  Slowly but surely.  Potentially within our lifetimes.  We cannot stop it.  What are the last actions of a stranded civilization on a dying world?

How long can a train be?  Can they stretch for miles?  What about hundreds of miles?  Could a train never have an end, separating different cities for so long that they become completely distinct entities, with only the faintest recollection of each other?

Time is a dimension we move through.  What if that dimension had life of its own?  Only time travelers would ever lay eyes on them…

“Worldshatter” – I don’t know anything about this.  It sure sounds cool though.

Inside old watches is an entire world of cogs, meshed together in intricate patterns.  What if the whole world was like that, a constantly turning maze of metal?

“The first swordsman came forward, his blade flashing and spinning, showing off his fancy footwork.  My face was blank, but I laughed inside my head.  This man had clearly never tasted battle.  I cut him down in two strokes.  His partner’s face blanched, and he retreated a step before he regained control.”

Sometimes, you’re the hammer.  Sometimes, you’re the nail.  Sometimes, if your luck is especially bad, the nail hits back.

It all began when Johnny came into lab, hair mussed and glasses askew, claiming that he could quantify love. We should have left it at that, laughed it off.  We definitely shouldn’t have built the tracking device.

“Not all the dinosaurs were lost in the asteroid’s cleansing flame.  They had a hundred million years of evolution on their side.  And some of them had learned to shift along the strings that made up quarks, leptons, gluons, and more, expanding across the stars.” We stared at the professor as he walked across the ship’s bridge, his arms raised in supplication.
The captain shrugged in his chair.  “That’s as good an explanation as any, I suppose.  Now, fetch me my laser rifle – I’m going planetside to bag me a T-rex.”

Science – Just say no!

Hey man, can you spare a dollar or two?  Look, I promise I won’t use it on test tubes.  I’m done with science – I’m clean now, I swear.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking.  Beard, stained lab coat, my sign’s written on graph paper, I still look like one of those science addicts.  But not anymore.  I’ve quit the habit.

It all started off so innocently – a little dabbling in the Scientific Method after church.  Everyone was doing it, you know?  Formulate a couple of hypotheses, maybe draw an inference or two, get a nice little buzz flowing.  Just recreational, though.  No one was using any equipment, not yet, although Tommy kept on claiming that he had a pipette hidden in his sock drawer.

Of course, just theorizing isn’t enough after a while.  Gotta move on to experimenting.  Sociology, at first – they call it one of the gateway sciences.  Doesn’t need the accelerometers of physics or the petri dishes of biology.  We still thought we weren’t addicted, back then.  We kept telling ourselves that we could leave the field whenever we wanted.

Things just spiraled down from there.  Sociology led to psychology, and pretty soon I had a whole biology lab going in my basement.  One night I was building a compound microscope for 12 hours straight, babbling on about foci and apertures.  Anyone can find plans, these days, if they know where to look on the sleazy parts of the internet.

I wasn’t alone in this, of course.  Some of my fellow junkies would hit me up for collaborative projects every now and then.  Eventually, I even had some grad students in my lab, slaving away on my projects for days on end, basically indentured servants slaving away for the promise of second or third author.

In contrast, I was living the high life back then.  Data was rolling in, the lab was churning out plenty of results for me to throw around, and the authorities left me alone in exchange for a couple of forensic analyses a month.

Too soon, though, it all dried up.  I couldn’t keep up the rate of breakthroughs and another biology lab started putting out better, newer theories, muscling in on my turf.  My students left, the data streams stopped, and I had to resort to pimping out my equipment just to get mentioned in the journals.  That was rock bottom.

But that’s all behind me now.  I’ve sworn off science, man.  I’m not even reading the news stories.  Total cold turkey.  But it’s hard, and at night sometimes I still get the rush, the urge to mix up some strains, to feel that rush of science again.  But I know how dangerous knowledge is, now.  I’m resisting.  So come on, man, spare a buck.

Hey!  Where are you going?  Come back!

Character profile: Terry Gilliman

Terrence Gilliman, more commonly known as Terry, is one of Carter’s oldest friends.

Physical description: Terry is a very large man!  Often described as a “bearded giant,” he is slightly over six feet in height, with a slight paunch, and proudly sports a full and bushy beard, dark brown and slightly wavy.  His hair is thick on his head, cut but shaggy.  He often sports a fedora, and occasionally secretly imagines himself as the digital version of Indiana Jones, although he’d never share that with anyone else.

Terry is best known for his incredible skill with computers.  He is able to hack into just about any system on Earth, and shows a strong affinity for electronics in general, able to craft his own circuits and machines when necessary.  He began life as an analyst for the government, but ended up growing disillusioned with the work he was doing and leaving for the private sector.  He maintains ties with Carter, however, whom he met on a mission back when Carter was a field agent.  They grew close over the years; Terry often refers to Carter by his first name, “Benny,” which Carter reluctantly tolerates.  He greets him enthusiastically, often nearly crushing Carter in a bear hug.

One unfortunate result of Terry’s leaving the government was the manifestation of his paranoia.  Although it is usually kept in check, he constantly fears that the government is keeping tabs on him, due to his previous work, and often insists on using code phrases or other methods to ensure that he isn’t being tracked.  Carter, although accepting of many of Terry’s faults, is constantly frustrated by this concern and tends to brush off his worries.

Although cautious and withdrawn, Terry sees no problem in showing off slightly with his skills when it comes to his best friend.  Much to his exasperation, Carter often finds himself being “spontaneously” upgraded at hotels and rental car agencies, due to hacks by Terry.  Despite Carter’s protests that he is merely doing his job and has no need for the luxury, Terry insists that it’s the right thing to do as a friend, and Carter has learned to merely accept it and move on.  This is merely another reflection of Terry’s slightly crackpot sense of humor, which also leads him to try to dispel tense situations with things like “I hope I don’t get shot for this!”.

Terry enjoys his sleep, and treats his home quarters like a hibernating bear.  Carter has never visited Terry’s own house, but has heard stories of a massive computer the size of a room, and imagines that Terry lives in a dark abode like a cave, surrounded by blinking electronic lights and fridges of beef jerky and energy drinks.

Given his propensity for electronics, computers, and hacking, it isn’t surprising that Terry has spent far too much time on the internet.  While he stays away from memes, he has read many of the articles on Wikipedia, and has a near-encyclopedic memory for physics ideas, machinery, electronics, municipal systems, and most facets of engineering.  He shares this knowledge readily, but occasionally forgets that others don’t have the same background, and is forced to explain acronyms and dense technical concepts.

When it comes down to friendships, Terry is loyal to Carter over just about anyone else.  While he has saved the lives of many agents, Carter is the one who, in the past, stepped in personally to help keep Terry safe.  This has earned him a spot as one of the few trustworthy people in Terry’s life.  Terry is almost always willing to take Carter’s word for something, even if it debunks one of his paranoid theories.  He is fiercely protective of his friend, willing to flout government rules if necessary, and tends to distrust anyone else who gets too close to “Benny”.

Ballroom Blitz

Gabriel entered the room warily, his hand on the sword at his side and his eyes flitting about behind the glittering mask.  The room of elaborately costumed men and women, each hiding behind their own mask, appeared to be nothing more than yet another societal ball.  Yet Gabriel knew that some of the most dangerous and powerful creatures of the world lurked behind those smiling visages.

The band, in the corner, was happily strumming along on a wandering, soothing melody.  The music was peaceful, but Gabriel’s nerves remained taut.  As a sanctioned Palace diplomat, he had been granted an invitation, but he was still unsure of whether his decision to attend was wise.  He made his way through the crowd, the clinking of his armor muffled by the formal tabard.

Passing near one of the burdened refreshment tables, Gabriel spotted a woman leaning against the back corner of the ballroom who looked to be wrapped in a cloak of iridescent purple-tinged rainbows.  He recognized her immediately, despite the mask of purple feathers around her eyes.  He immediately made his way towards her.

“My queen,” Gabriel spoke to her quietly, sinking to one knee in front of the lady.  The slightly tilted eyes behind the mask showed no sign of surprise, but the lady quickly gave him the signal to rise.  He did so smoothly, with only the slightest clinking of his armor.  “My sword is yours,” he said formally.

Lady Tiamat nodded to him in return.  “Lord Gabriel,” she said stately.  “It is always pleasant to see one of my followers.”

“It is rare to see you in your human form,” Gabriel returned, his lips quirking up into a smile.  “Usually, you are much more . . . dominating.”

The dragon queen accepted the compliment wordlessly, but her eyes slid past him to a man on the far side of the room.  “Do you see that man?  The one with the red eyes?” she asked in an undertone.

Gabriel turned slightly so he could watch the man from his peripheral vision.  The gentleman in question was exceedingly tall, with a slightly gaunt face the color of ash.  His mask, stretching around his eyes, was painted in red hues that grew brighter towards the center, giving his eyes the appearance of a red glow.  His mouth, visible below the mask, looked sour.

“I do not, my lady,” Gabriel replied.  “He looks quite intimidating.”

Lady Tiamat smiled slightly.  “More than you know, child.  I have come here to try to stop him, but I must warn you that things are about to get quite interesting.”

For a moment, Gabriel felt a rush of nervousness run through him.  When a thousand-year-old dragon queen, one of the world’s most powerful enchantresses, mentions danger, it shouldn’t be taken lightly.  Shaking off the fear, he flexed his legs slightly and loosened his sword in its sheath at his side.  Ready, he kept one eye on his queen and waited.

“His name is Valtha,” said Lady Tiamat softly.  “He is a vampire, and an ancient one.  His mask is simply bragging.  There are several very high profile targets here, which I’m certain he intends to turn tonight-“

There was no warning.  “Everyone attack!” screamed Valtha, in a curiously melodic tenor, and chaos ensued.  Vampires, their skin a dusky grey, burst from behind doors, around corners, and inside costumes with hisses.  Their fangs were fully extended, and dirty talons sprouted from their fingers.

With the ease of years of training, Gabriel’s sword slid from its sheath, slicing one of the vampires in half.  He spun around, blocking strikes and returning them in kind.  Next to him, Tiamat threw fireballs from her palms, blasting attackers to ash before they had a chance to scream.  The heat was intense.

Gabriel danced through the forms with his sword.  The room was filled with the screams of the nobles, and the blitz of vampires continued as if there was no end, but he was fighting alongside his queen, fulfilling his duty as a Palace diplomat.  He felt completely alive.

Last words

“Double or nothing.”

“If you won’t, I will!”

“There’s no way you can hit me from that distance.”

“Watch this!”

“Hold my beer.”

“Don’t worry, it’s not too far past the expiration date.”

“Missed me!”

“YOLO!”

“Hey, what’s this button do?”

“It’s cool, I saw this on TV.”

“It’s probably just cramps.”

“Psch.  Helmets are for losers.”

“I’m so drunk right now!”

“I’m so high right now!”

“Funny, it looks like it’s coming right at me.”

“Make me.”

“Don’t worry, it’s not loaded.”

“You and what army?”

“I can reach that…”

“Nice dog, nice dog.”

“I can pass this guy.”

“I got this – they always cut the red wire.”