Between the Shadow and the Light (Updated February 1, 2023)

The Shadow

Adventurer
Hello out there! Some of you may remember me as the writer of The Shadow Knows! and Life and Light, as well as a couple shorter things.

I've long wanted to continue Life and Light in a solo format, but I've been worried about bollixing it up. So this current game is a bit of an experiment using the Mythic GM Emulator, found here. (I'm also making use of Mythic Variations by the same company.)

The original concept was going to be an urban fantasy Champions game for our group way back in the day, which never got off the ground. My usual GM (SuentisPo) and I later intended to revive it in one-on-one fashion, but it ended up getting passed over in favor of another concept. But I've always liked the character and the setting, and the notes have been sitting there on my hard drive for a long time. I thought I'd take them for a spin to see how Mythic runs.

The results have been interesting - interesting enough to be worth sharing, I think. Mythic works by having you roll on a table to get answers to yes/no questions, and pairs of words to spark answers to more "Complex Questions". (There's more to it than that, particularly with regard to scene setup, but that'll do for now.) For yes/no questions, you set the probability of a YES answer, and see what comes up.

I've found that it generates genuinely interesting plot twists, provided one doesn't always do the most obvious thing but thinks things through carefully. Sometimes one needs to overrule the dice when they make no sense - or just not roll.

A more subtle difficulty is that it can be tempting to rush toward big reveals; knowing something important is coming up isn't a good enough reason to have it occur when the dice happen to bring it to mind. The present game suffers a bit from that, but not (I think) excessively so. (I'm developing some ideas of how to prevent this, by preloading the campaign "plot thread" list in advance.)

I've decided to keep the Mythic mechanical information in the game log to show how things evolved.

As mentioned, this an urban fantasy setting in the modern world. Magic and monsters are unknown to exist save to a few. I won't give many details now, as they come out pretty naturally in the text.

A quick word for those who may be allergic: The protagonist and a number of other major characters are fervently Catholic. Several other characters are fervently Protestant in the Reformed tradition. (Both traditions have operatives against supernatural evil.)

This first bit is actually a short-short I wrote as an adventure starter years ago. Note that the main character is a substitute teacher at a fairly traditionalist Catholic high school called St. Pius V.

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Marked Prey

Peter contained his sigh - wouldn't do to let the natives know he was restless. The class was getting more and more distracted by Mark, who couldn't seem to contain himself today. "Mr. Demarche." No response, not entirely surprisingly, as that's the teacher's name too. Mark whispered something to the guy next to him, and they both laughed. "Mr. Demarche!" Still no sign of recognition, though half the class was now pointedly ignoring Mark, or else trying to surreptitiously get his attention.

"MARK!" Mark jumped like he'd been shot and looked guiltily to the front of the class. "Uh, yeah, sorry Pete - I mean, sir." "Detention for you, young man." "But - I've got football practice?!" "Is that my problem or yours?" With a deep sigh, "Mine."

Pete stopped by after day was done, only to find that Mark had earned even more detention from another teacher. When time was up, he couldn't help feeling sorry for his little brother - the boy was plainly ready to climb the walls. Upon his release, he asked him, "Bad day?" (Meaning hyperactivity-wise.) "Yeah, really bad." "No hard feelings, I hope." "Nah, I had it coming."

"Need to work off some energy?" "Oh yeah - bigtime!" "Race you around the track for a mile, then." "You're on!" After quickly shedding jackets, ties, and dress shirts, the two were quickly running at breakneck speed, slowed only by occasional friendly insults and laughter.

Mark won, which naturally led him to razz his big brother for 'getting too old'. That in turn naturally led Pete to wrestle him to the ground and find the one spot on the back of the neck where Mark was still ticklish... Soon he had extracted a breathless, laughing, abject surrender, an admission of being 'too young' rather than Pete being 'too old', and a confession that he, Mark, could be an obnoxious brat at times. After that, Pete let him go and Mark lay there on the ground panting; they grinned at each other.

"Still feeling antsy?" "Yeah, but not as bad - thanks." "De nada. Try quieting down and focussing, like I told you." Mark closed his eyes, made a manful attempt to slow his breathing down, and gave it a try, but finally admitted, "I just can't do it right now, sorry." Pete ruffled his hair and told him, "No worries, bro."

A quiet voice interrupted, "Um, Mr. Demarche? Could I talk to you for a minute?" Pete looked up (and up) at Ryan Langley's hulking form, fresh out of football weight training. To his astonishment, the young man's face was screwed up and close to tears. "Ah, certainly Mr. Langley..." Mark looked between the two of them and offered, "I, uh, could stand to run a little more," and suited actions to words, doing a series of wind sprints separated by pushups.

Pete then stood up, brushed himself off, and asked, "What's on your mind, Ryan?" The boy couldn't look him in the eye, and seemed paralyzed with indecision; Pete waited patiently. Finally, after gulping down incipient tears, Ryan said, "Uh, well, you know how I used to be, um, different?" "Yes," Pete said quietly, "you've come a long way and I'm proud of you."

Ryan sobbed once upon hearing that, but recovered his composure; Pete gripped his shoulder. "Some guys... that I used to run with. They want me to deal drugs here at St. Pius. I keep telling them no, but they won't take no for an answer. I'm... scared, Mr. Demarche. Really scared." (He seemed ashamed to admit it.) "Do you think they intend to hurt you?" "If I'm really lucky," the boy said quietly. "I'm scared they're gonna kill me. Or... worse!" "Worse?"

The large boy shivered all over. "Yeah. There were all sorts of weird stories. I never really believed 'em, but... Last time, after they got done beating me up, they gave me this." He handed over a matte black circle of metal with a strange glyph carved roughly into it. Pete's gut tightened as he recognized the Shadow rune for 'Marked Prey'. It meant... any number of things, but all of them at least as bad as death, all right, and some much worse.

"Do you know what it means?", the boy asked anxiously. "Yes, Ryan," Peter said in a quiet, dangerous voice, "I know what it means." Strangely enough, that seemed to relieve the young man.

Without any real hope, Pete asked, "Have you thought of going to the police?" "I can't, Mr. Demarche! I've got a record, and... and I've had to do some little things for them, to keep them off of me." Once again he couldn't meet Pete's eyes... "I didn't want to, and I guess it hasn't worked out. I didn't know what to do... I'm so stupid!" "I understand, Ryan - and you're NOT stupid. But if the police can't help, what makes you think I can?"

"I dunno. But - I've heard them mention you before, like you scare them a little. And... I dunno, there's just something about you. Can you help me? Will you?"

Peter met the unhappy young man's eyes directly. "Yes, Ryan. I can and I will help you." Ryan sobbed for a few moments; when he stopped, Pete told him, "But I'll need to know everything you can tell me." Mark, for his part, continued to run and studiously ignore the two of them.
 
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The Shadow

Adventurer
[And now the game proper begins.]

Q(Unlikely): Does Ryan know anything useful? YES.

ComplexQ: What does he know? Struggle/Tension.

"They used to be just a gang, Mr. Demarche. But a while back - shortly before I stopped running with them - a couple of them got into some really weird sh- I mean, stuff. They took over; people d-died. Ugly. Most of the gang is scared of them now, but they also like the fact that everyone else is scared too."

"What sort of stuff, Ryan? Can you give me any specifics at all?"

Q(Somewhat Likely): Can he? NO.

"There's all sorts of crazy stories, Mr. Demarche. All I know for sure is that I'm scared!" He swallowed hard. "They don't just kill people. They hurt them, bad. Mess them up. I don't want to go like that."

Peter nods. "I don't want to see you 'go' at all, Ryan. Do you think you're safe going home for tonight?"

Q(Unlikely): Does he think so? YES.

"I, I think I'm okay for tonight, sir. They told me I'd have three days of fear before..." The boy shuddered, closing his eyes.

Pete gripped his shoulder, asking quietly, "Before what?"

ComplexQ: What? Failure/Friendship

Ryan choked back a sob. "Before I lose everyone I've ever cared about, then die. Slowly. If I'm lucky. They said I'd beg for death before it was over, and that it would be better for me if I got it."

Pete nodded, taken aback by that. "I see. Ryan, I want you to take this with you." He fished in his pocket for his keys, then detached from the ring a silver disk with a Crux Michaeli engraved in it. [A cross with a sword laid in homage at its base. Pete wears one - cast of silver, not engraved in a disk - around his neck as well.] "Keep this on you at all times. If you think you're in danger, hold it and pray, 'St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle.' Got that?"

Ryan accepted the disk gratefully. "Yessir, Mr. Demarche. Thank you! Will it... Protect me?" Peter said honestly, "I can't guarantee what God or St. Michael will do, Ryan. But I can promise that they both love you - and so do I. I will do everything I can to protect you."

The young man nodded slowly, biting his lip. "...Okay." Peter held up the black disk the gang had given Ryan. "Meanwhile I'll hold onto this." Ryan shuddered. "Keep it! But... will it hurt you too?" Pete smiled. "I don't think so. But even if it tries, I think it'll find out I'm not so easy to hurt!" The boy smiled weakly at that.

Pete added, "Would you like to pray before you go?" "Yes! And... Mr. Demarche?" "Yes, Ryan?" The boy looked anywhere but at Pete's face. "I've been thinking of... of getting baptized this year. And I was gonna ask you if, um..." Pete waited patiently once more.

Ryan trailed off, then apparently started on a new tack. "I, uh, might not have very long. Can I, well..." Pete nodded. "In principle, yes. But let's wait to see how great the danger really is, all right?" "Okay, Mr. Demarche."

Ryan stood there docilely, biting his lip, as Pete took him by the shoulders and said a heartfelt prayer for the lad's safety and well-being. In the silence that followed, he added a few words of power under his breath to bind the Crux he'd given Ryan to the boy. If anything untoward befell Ryan, he'd know.

Ryan loped off, relieved, and Peter turned to Mark. "Want a ride home, bro?" [Mark doesn't have his driver's license yet, despite being 17. He has managed to fail the test an impressive number of times... and his parents are worried - not without justification - that he's not responsible enough yet.] Mark finished his latest sprint and bent over, panting. "...Yeah." "You shower, and I'll finish some paperwork. Meet me in the lot."

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, gang, gang leaders.

Thread List:

Find out what's happening to Ryan.
Protect Ryan from his old gang.

Chaos Factor: 5 -> 4

Scene: Peter and Mark in Pete's car, driving home.

Mark was unusually subdued on the ride home, so Pete asked him lightly, "Something on your mind?"

Q(Unsure): Does he give an honest answer? YES.

Mark replied moodily, "...Yeah. Ryan looked really upset."

Pete nodded. "He was. I can't share why." "I know." Silence for a time.

Q(Likely): Did Mark overhear anything serious? EXCEPTIONAL NO. [Okay, that was unexpected. New direction, then.]

Mark suddenly asked, "Is there anything I can do to help him?" "'Fraid not, bro. Except prayer - that always helps." Mark repeated sullenly, "...Yeah."

Q(Very Likely): Is Mark going to go do something well-meaning but stupid? EXCEPTIONAL YES. (Oh. My.)

ComplexQ: What will he do? Negligence/Goals. [Hmmm. Put his future at risk? Maybe he's going to go confront some gang members on his own - Ryan's his best friend, he probably knows at least a little about them.]

Pete pondered how to respond to that, then decided to change the subject. "Been keeping up with your Confirmation stuff?" "Yeah." "Want to go over it tonight?" Mark sighed and said wanly, "Not tonight, Pete... If that's okay." "Sure."

Soon he'd dropped Mark off. Mark abruptly pulled him into a one-armed hug before getting out. "Love you, bro." Pete blinked in mild surprise at the unexpected gesture. "Love you too, Mark. See you tomorrow." "Yeah." Mark got his bike out of the trunk and went inside. Pete drove home, slightly unsettled.

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, gang, gang leaders.

Thread List:

Find out what's happening to Ryan.
Protect Ryan from his old gang.
Protect Mark from his own stupidity.

Chaos Factor: 4 -> 5

New Scene: Pete's house, in his magic lab, testing the disk. Altered Scene!

Q(Likely): Does Pete no longer have the disk? EXCEPTIONAL YES.

Pete carefully opened the hidden door to his mage sanctum and scribed a protective circle on the floor just to be safe. When satisfied with his work, he reached into his pocket for the disk Ryan had given him... only to find it gone, with a fading magical aura in its place.

Pete gaped, astonished. He'd FELT it in his pocket, just minutes ago! Now it was clear that feeling had been but an illusion - and a cunningly crafted one at that.

Q(Unsure): Is the disk itself intelligent? YES.

Pete paused, getting his racing heart under control. Ryan's got a Crux, let's check on him. He knelt and folded his hands, dipping with practiced ease into a trance.

Q(Sure Thing): Is the disk back with Ryan? YES.

Q(Somewhat Likely): Has he realized it yet? EXCEPTIONAL YES.

Terror. Utter, paralyzing terror. That was Pete's first impression as his scrying stabilized; then he saw Ryan curled up in fetal position, sobbing helplessly like a child. The black disk marking him as prey lay just in front of him, clearly dropped in panic.

On a level deeper than words, Peter shared his own hard-won hope with the young man. Ryan's tears slowed, then finally stopped. He got to his feet shakily and fished in his pocket for his cell phone... only to scream again as his hand closed on the black disk. (Pete cursed softly; the thing had managed to teleport without him even noticing again!)

Shaking like a leaf, he finally got his phone out and dialed Mark's number with an unsteady hand. "M-mark?! I-it's Ryan. C-c-can you t-tell me Mr. D-demarche's number?" Pete sighed; I should have given it to him. Oh well. [Yep, Mark's definitely going to do something extremely dumb. Maybe several things.]

After a long pause, Ryan said, "Th-thanks, buddy! Talk to you later." Pete sighed again and dropped out of his trance, getting out his own phone expectantly. When it rang, he picked up the call instantly. Calmly, "I know, Ryan. Don't worry." Heedless, the boy babbled, "It's here, Mr. Demarche! They said I'd have three days of fear, and I AM! It's starting! I don't know what to do!"

Pete calmly repeated, "I know, Ryan. I noticed it was gone and realized it had to be with you. It's a clever trick, but it isn't anything more than that." "...What're we gonna DO, Mr. Demarche?"

Pete said slowly, "I need to take a close look at that disk. How late will your parents expect you back tonight?" "They're used to me being out late, Mr. Demarche... they won't worry until midnight or later. I can tell them I'll be at a friend's place for the night if you want?" "...Yes, I think that's for the best. Can you meet me at the school?" "Y-yeah. I'll be there."

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, gang, gang leaders, Shadow disk.

Thread List:

Find out what's happening to Ryan.
Protect Ryan from his old gang.
Protect Mark from his own stupidity.

Chaos Factor: 5 -> 6

New Scene: Pete meeting up with Ryan at the school. Altered Scene!

Q(Somewhat Likely): Does Ryan not show up? EXCEPTIONAL NO.

Q(Unsure): Does he show up by supernatural means? YES.

Q(Unlikely): Did anything else show up with him? YES.

Pete drove toward the school, his mage senses warning him that something was going wrong. Then he felt a strange sensation from Ryan's Crux that could not be ignored. Something was VERY wrong.

Pete swerved his car to the curb, parked, and erupted out of the driver-side door. He gripped the Crux around his own neck, closed his eyes and muttered a short phrase in Latin - then he stepped forward...

...to arrive at the school, the momentary exaltation of resurrection Mobility fading in an instant as he took in the situation.

Ryan was backed up against a wall by a panther-thing made of living Shadow. His clothes were in tatters, and his arms and torso had been scratched superficially in multiple places. Clearly, the thing was toying with him.

Peter Demarche reached down with his right hand toward his left hip; Invictus' hilt materialized beneath his hand and he drew it forth in one fluid hissing motion. His family's ancestral blade began to glow faintly with an ardent white light. "Begone," he said coldly. "Back to your own place, shadeling. Or taste my steel." Meanwhile, the actinic light of a Lumen Dei spell began to gather in his left hand.

Q(Very Unlikely): Does it attack? YES. [Wow, either it's not very bright or it knows something Pete doesn't...]

Q(Unlikely): Any real trouble dispatching the thing? EXCEPTIONAL YES. [Oh.]

ComplexQ: Just how bad does this fight turn out, anyway? Break/Plans. [HUH! My plan had been to investigate the disk further, mainly. So...]

The shadow-thing gathered itself and leapt, claws extended. Pete sidestepped, slashing at it with Invictus. It snarled - a sound as dark as its flesh - and darted forward, quick as lightning.

Q(Unsure): Is it ignoring me and focussing on Ryan? NO. [Oy.]

Q(Unlikely): Do I get hurt in this fight? NO.

Pete dove out of the thing's way and loosed the Lumen Dei. That got a reaction for a moment: It howled like nothing earthly ever could. But it was back on the attack almost immediately. Ryan whimpered helplessly behind Pete.

The fight went on and on. Pete slashed, parried, and dodged until he felt he could barely hold Invictus in guard any longer. He tried the Lumen Dei again, he tried a Banishment spell, but nothing seemed to make any lasting impression.

Q(Unsure): Is this thing an illusion? YES.

When he was panting hard and scarcely able to fight any longer, Peter nearly fell under the shock of a blinding insight. The thing had fooled him once already... He lowered Invictus. "Come ahead, then. You're not really here, are you? Not fully, perhaps not at all. Strike, if you are able." The thing's features stretched into a horrible mockery of a grin, then it vanished, leaving a sour stench and the echo of malevolent laughter.

Peter sighed, shaking his head. Tricked AGAIN. Am I getting too old for this? He sheathed Invictus, letting it lapse back into invisible, intangible half-reality. Then he bent toward Ryan, who lunged forward to cling to him. "Mr. Demarche! Are you okay?!"

Pete hugged the boy tightly. "Yes, Ryan. I'm just very tired. It didn't hurt me. Can you tell me what happened to you?"

Ryan swallowed hard. "I... I was running to the school, as fast as I could. Trying to work off some of the energy, I guess. And... everything changed around me. It got very dark and misty... There were trees all around, black trees. And there were... THINGS chasing me! I ran until I thought I would die, it seemed like hours, and then suddenly I was here."

Pete looked the boy over; Ryan's tattered clothes and scratches were real enough. He speculated that the boy had indeed dipped into Shadow and been chased by real-enough predators. "Do you still have the disk?" Ryan searched his pockets. "N-no." "Well... Let's get you to my place and decide what to do next." Ryan gulped. "Yessir."

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, gang, gang leaders, Shadow disk, illusionist (might be same as disk)

Thread List:

Find out what's happening to Ryan.
Protect Ryan from his old gang.
Protect Mark from his own stupidity.
Treat that damned illusionist to some payback.

Chaos Factor: 6 -> 7
 

The Shadow

Adventurer
New Scene: Back at Pete's place with Ryan to lay plots.

Pete fetched Ryan an old t-shirt and pair of jeans of his. "Feel free to take a shower if you want. And did you want something to eat?" "Yes, please. And, Mr. Demarche? THANK YOU! So much." Pete smiled. "My pleasure, Ryan. And you can call me Pete if you want." "Um, okay."

Pete fixed sandwiches for himself and Ryan while the young man showered - keeping all his senses alert for trouble. He didn't think anything worth troubling about could pierce his wards, but he also wasn't trusting his instincts much this night.

The boy emerged, dressed in Pete's old clothes, and ate wolfishly. As the adrenaline faded, his questions started to arise... "Mr. Demarche... Pete? What was all that back there? How do you do that stuff?"

Pete sat back. "It's magic, Ryan. For reals. But not the kind condemned by the Church; I was trained by a priest, in fact, though I can't tell you the details. I don't traffic in spirits or anything like that. It's like... a kind of science, but different from the kind we teach you in school." Ryan nodded, absorbing all that. "What was that thing you fought?"

"An illusion. It tricked me, I'm sorry to say. It wasn't really there at all." "But... if it wasn't real, what clawed me?" "I don't know yet, but I intend to find out. You feel up to a bit of investigation?" "I'm ready for anything you think will help, Pete." "Good man. ... I hope it goes without saying that all of this stuff is between just the two of us, right?" "Yeah! I swear!" "Okay then. Come this way."

Pete led Ryan into his mage sanctum, which the boy took in with wide eyes. Situating Ryan in the circle he'd drawn before, he starting divining.

Q(Unsure): Is the disk-entity now inside Ryan? YES.

Q(Unlikely): Is it able to listen in as we talk? YES.

Pete's heart sank when he realized that what had been the disk was now making itself quite at home within Ryan's psyche. And that it could see through his eyes, hear through his ears. This was going to get sticky... "Ryan, I'm going to try something. Don't be alarmed, but if you feel anything weird, let me know." "Got it, Pete." Pete prepared another Banishment spell, without much in the way of real hope.

Q(No Way): Does it work at all? NO.

Chanting softly in Latin, Pete loosed the magic. "Anything at all, Ryan?" "I felt maybe a little nervous for a second... Might just be nerves, though." Pete nodded. "I thought as much."

Q(Unsure): Is the disk-entity not yet able to control Ryan's actions? YES.

Thinking a little more, he asked, "Tell me everything you know about this gang?"

ComplexQ: What's to find out? Desert/Friendship

It developed that the gang was called the Demons. Ryan had fallen in with them because a good friend of his, Billy, had been a member. But then a new leader who called himself Goat came to power - in more ways than one. He claimed to be in touch with real spirits, and certainly many lurid stories surrounded him, along with unquestioned ugly corpses. The Demons had been divided over this new leader, but Goat had either destroyed or cowed all opposition; the remaining members were fervently loyal. (Whether to protect their own hides or out of sincere gratification to be on the winning side.) Billy had turned viciously on Ryan when Ryan had tried to back out of the Demons; he had personally beaten Ryan savagely and threatened to bring him to Goat's attention.

"Was Billy the one who gave you the disk?" "No. Goat did. He had Billy beat me up again, then told me it was my last chance. I thought he was gonna kill me, but... at the time I just didn't care. I told him to go to Hell." Pete looked Ryan over with new appreciation. "That was brave. I'm proud of you." Ryan flushed and ducked his head.

"Anyway... What did Goat do?" "He, uh. He said he was in Hell already, and that I'd be joining him. That - well, like I told you. He said I'd have three days of fear, then everyone I care about would die. Then I would die too, if I was really lucky."

Pete thought some more. Then, for the disk-thing's benefit, he said, "I don't think you have a whole lot to worry about, Ryan. So far the thing's only used illusions - things that aren't real, scary as they seem. Still... Did you still want to be baptized?"

Ryan gaped at him, then said quietly, "Yeah." "Tell me what it means to you." "Like you taught us, Mr. Demarche. It'll make me a child of God. A new creation. It'll... wash away all of my sins. I want that." "Do you know God, Ryan?" "I've been praying a while now, Mr. Demarche. I don't understand very much, but I know He's there. He's why I could tell Goat to go to Hell." "Good enough for me."

Pete went and fetched a bottle of holy water. He laid his hands on Ryan's shoulders as the boy knelt, praying with him and for him for a time. "Any saint's name you'd like to add?" "St. Michael sounds about right, sir. I've been praying that prayer you taught me a lot." Pete grinned despite himself. "Good choice."

Then he poured the water three times over Ryan's head. "Ryan Michael, I baptize you in the name of the Father... and of the Son... and of the Holy Spirit." Ryan started crying, and Pete added softly, "You have put on Christ, in Him you have been baptized. Alleluia, alleluia!" He raised Ryan up and embraced him.

Q(Likely): Does the sacrament weaken the disk-thing's hold? EXCEPTIONAL YES.

Q(Very Unlikely): Is it gone completely? NO - and a Random Event!

PC Positive: Imitate/Military [An obvious reference to Pete's past with the Knights of St. Michael.]

Pete felt the evil thing's hold on Ryan loosen. Stirred, he recalled to mind all that Fr. Leo had taught him, all that the Knights had instilled in him... They had their flaws, yes; none of the reasons he'd left them had changed. Yet they were a force for good despite all their flaws, and they'd taught him well. Heart full, he repeated their prayer softly... Soon, Ryan joined him.

"St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, thrust into Hell Satan and all the evil spirits that prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen."

Full of sudden decision (and realizing the disk-thing could no longer hear) he announced, "Ryan, it's time we stopped reacting and started taking the fight to the enemy. Where can I find the Demons?"

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, the Demons, Goat, Billy, the disk-thing, the illusionist (possibly the same as the disk-thing).

Thread List:

Find out what's happening to Ryan.
Protect Ryan from his old gang.
Protect Mark from his own stupidity.
Treat that damned illusionist to some payback.
Free Ryan from the disk's spiritual hold.

Chaos Factor: 7 -> 6

New Scene: Pete goes to the Demons' hideout, leaving Ryan home under powerful wards. Altered Scene!

Q(Somewhat Likely): Does Ryan sneak out after Pete? YES.

Pete surveyed the rundown condemned building the Demons called home. He whispered Latin phrases, invoking Veiled Glory to make himself invisible to supernatural beings and utterly nondescript to mortals. Then Subtlety to step through the wall.

ComplexQ: What's to see? Antagonize/Wishes. [That'll be Mark, I take it.]

Q(Likely): Is Mark at the Demons' mercy, such as it is? YES.

Pete arrived to a grim scene - a young man was being interrogated by another who matched Ryan's description of Goat - a lean youth with hair and eyes as black as sin. The victim was held limply upright by two gang members while Goat and others took turns punching him in the gut, face, and groin. Coldly furious, Pete worked himself into position, waiting for the right moment to reveal himself.

Goat then casually sliced the victim's shirt open. "Fun time's over. Tell me, meat. You wanna be cut up bad? Or you wanna take your chances with this?" He held up one of those disks. "Scream a lot now? Or scream a lot more later? Your choice." The victim's face lolled into the light, and Pete suddenly saw it was Mark. A hot fury awoke in him. Never that, oh never that.

He drew Invictus, then switched Veiled Glory to Manifest Glory: Light flooded the room, along with an overpowering sense of awe. Peter Demarche stated thickly, "Let him go. All who drop their weapons I will permit to live."

Q(Likely): Do the guys holding Mark drop him? YES.

Most of the gang members cowered back from the Glory, dropping any weapons they held at once and babbling in fear. The two holding Mark up likewise dropped him and backed away.

Goat whirled at once, paling slightly yet forcing a sneer to his lips. "Well, if it ain't Peter Demarche himself, Do-Gooder-At-Large! You talk a big game, Teach. Didn't do your brother much good, did it? Or that Langley sellout?"

Peter cast a hasty ward over Mark with his free hand; it wouldn't stand up to much, but it was something. He took a step toward Goat. "If you want to die, keep talking. Last chance, Goat." He'd activated Impassibility, so he couldn't actually attack yet, but he'd be virtually immune to any normal attacks they sent his way as well.

Q(Unsure): Enough gang members still fight-worthy to cause me serious trouble? YES. [Sigh.]

Goat threw the disk at him while rallying his troops. "We'll see, won't we? Get over here, boys, there's only one of him!"

Pete sliced Invictus effortlessly through the disk; it wasn't actually alive, so that didn't count as an attack. "Come, then."

Q(Likely): Does something unexpected happen when the disk is destroyed? YES.

ComplexQ: Like what? Carry/A plot. [Wait, what?!]

Q(Very Unlikely): Did Goat intend for me to destroy the disk? YES. [Oh, JOY.]

ComplexQ: What variety of Hell breaks loose? Debase/Information. [Hmm. Well, there ARE illusions involved...]

Q(Unsure): Is everyone in the room affected? NO. [Worse and worse.]

Black mists enveloped Pete. He was naked and alone in Shadow, without Invictus. Shapes prowled about him in the mists, lurking closer... No! I was in the Demons' hideout, this has to be an illusion! He began to frame the words for Lumen Veritatis to let him see the truth... but his tongue froze in his throat as the darkness spoke to him in a voice of raw malevolence.

"No fear, mageling. I'll not slay a mage of the Order of St. Michael. You are far too valuable a prize for that."

One of the darkling shapes rushed closer, and Pete lashed out at it with controlled fury; it retreated, growling discordantly. I doubt it can completely cloud lethal threats from my mind, those must be real enemies. Aloud he said, "You don't have your prize yet!"

Mockingly, it said, "Don't I? Are you certain?" Pete snarled out the words to Lumen Veritatis again, only to have them catch in his throat once more. He began to know fear; is this thing that far under my skin?!

"Oh yes," the darkness said, answering his unspoken thought. But Pete had no time to answer; predatory forms were closing in from all sides, and he spun to attack, trying to break through the ring. Pain woke as their claws got past his guard...

Q(Unsure): Time for the cavalry to arrive? YES.

Suddenly a voice rang through his head, more real than the darkness - a distressed voice that woke his senses to life. "Mr. Demarche!" Ryan's voice.

Abruptly he was back in the Demons' hideout, surrounded by human foes, his side throbbing with pain... but with Invictus in his hand, which made exactly all the difference in the world.

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, the Demons, Goat, Billy, the disk-thing, the illusionist (possibly the same as the disk-thing).

Thread List:

Find out what's happening to Ryan.
Protect Ryan from his old gang.
Protect Mark from his own stupidity.
Treat that damned illusionist to some payback.
Free Ryan from the disk's spiritual hold.
Free myself, for that matter.

Chaos Factor: 6 -> 7

New Scene: Back in the game, the fight continues! Interrupt!

NPC Action: Ryan. Communicate/The innocent. [Okay, the innocent has to be Mark, but what about him?]

Q(Unsure): Is Mark hurt worse than he seemed? YES.

Willing the blade to be merciful, Pete slashed at the nearest gang member, whose eyes rolled up as he fainted, believing he'd received a mortal wound and acting accordingly.

Just then, Ryan shouted again, "Mr. Demarche! Mark's bleeding, he looks bad!"

Damn, Pete thought - it just keeps getting better and better. But Ryan's voice at least distracted some of his foes; the one called Billy and another guy went for him.

Q(Somewhat Likely): Does Ryan clean their clocks? YES. [He has the strength of ten because his heart is pure. And the kid is due a break, I'd say.]

Pete made for Goat, accepting some minor injuries in the process - take him out and the rest will break. He noticed in his peripheral vision Ryan giving what-for to his two combatants. Hope he makes it.

Goat grinned as he backed away. "I'm supposed to tell you that this fight doesn't matter, you've already lost!" With that, he ran; the others soon ran too. Pete let them go and immediately ran to Mark.

Ryan was standing over two unconscious bodies, swaying on his feet. One eye was blacked, a lip was split, and a shallow knife wound raked his side, but he had eyes only for Mark. "Is he gonna be okay?!"

Q(Unlikely): Well, is he?! YES. [Barely, but yes.]

Pete tore Mark's ruined shirt open. Blood was oozing nastily from the cut Goat's knife had left, but no vitals had been hit. Pete sighed as he applied direct pressure. No first-aid kit handy, it'll have to be healing magic. Not the most reliable, and no fun at all, but he'd open a vein for his kid brother.

Chanting softly, he let some of his own vital force pass into Mark. His breath hissed through his teeth as his own wounds redoubled in pain... then the exhaustion hit. Mark's bleeding slowed fitfully, then stopped. Numbly, Pete tore Mark's shirt into makeshift bandages. "He'll pull through. How about you, are you okay?" Ryan grinned wearily. "I've had worse... Pete."

"You did well," Pete told him, "but for now let's get out of here." He hoisted Mark into a fireman's carry, staggering under his weight; Ryan reached out to steady him, beaming at the praise. "Want me to carry him?" "I can manage."

But it turned out that he did need Ryan to take over about halfway home. (He couldn't use Mobility on anyone but himself, unfortunately.) Staggering in, he announced, "I've got to collapse. Put Mark to bed, then do the same for yourself. Do whatever you need to do to make sure you don't have to leave here in the morning; you're not out of the woods yet." "Got it, Pete."

[Pete was originally built in Champions, then later translated into Mutants & Masterminds... so I have a really clear idea of what he's capable of. In M&M, he'd be able to overcome the limitations on his Mobility by doing a Power Stunt - either by spending a hero point or by taking Fatigue - of which he doesn't have any more of the latter to spare currently. Of course, I'm playing this game entirely freeform, guided only by Mythic, but my clear idea of what he can do really helps.]

Thread List:

Find out what's happening to Ryan. [Still need some details here.]
Protect Ryan from his old gang. [Not out of the woods yet.]
Treat that damned illusionist to some payback.
Free Ryan from the disk's spiritual hold.
Free myself, for that matter.
Take Goat down a peg or three.

Chaos Factor: 7 -> 8
 

The Shadow

Adventurer
Anyone who's read my previous games knows that when I reach a certain critical mass of creativity, I come up with vast amounts of information about NPCs and their plot hooks. This game is no exception, but I'm going to avoid posting almost all of what I have and let it come out naturally... With one exception.

Due to the twists and turns the game has taken, the following character is unlikely to appear, but he is mentioned obliquely in several places, which this summary will help make sense of. Also, as will be seen, he provides the title of the whole campaign!

As mentioned in the previous post, Pete is a former Knight of St. Michael. (Well, technically, he was in formation as a Squire, he hadn't been knighted yet.) They're a centuries-old Catholic group opposing the Shadow. After leaving the Knights, he travelled the world to find himself and to explore the magical traditions of other cultures. In Japan, he met:

Ichiro Asaki: An elderly Buddhist roshi who cheerfully claims to be 450 years old. Pete met him during his travels in Japan under mysterious circumstances... Pete was visiting various shrines (looking for magical auras) when Ichiro suddenly came up to him and announced that he was supposed to teach him - he never did explain why. Pete learned a lot about meditation and martial arts from him, as well as Asian magical and Shadow lore. (Though Ichiro would say lore about the 'oni'.) Sensei Asaki comes from a Buddhist school of thought that magic is simply manipulation of the illusion of the world, for purposes of waking people out of it and enlightening them.

While Pete couldn't accept the philosophy (and to do him justice, Ichiro never tried to push it) he learned much that expanded his understanding of magic, and has enabled him to create unusual spells that would fascinate Fr. Leo and others back home. Pete has dutifully tried to record these insights in Latin, for the benefit of future generations of the Order. Ichiro never seemed to need Gestures or Incantations, by the way - he just did things. He claimed such crutches could be outgrown, after a couple centuries of practice!

After a year of teaching to the day, Ichiro vanished. No, literally, vanished into thin air right in front of Pete's eyes! (With no trace of magic involved that Pete could sense, I might add.) Pete has no idea what that was all about, but is quite sure the man is alive. If that means anything to a potential bodhisattva...

Ichiro is... odd. If you ask a question he doesn't want to answer, he just doesn't answer it, period. Pete got used to long silent evenings with the guy! (As well as lots of hewing wood and drawing water during the day. A student must work for his keep.) He didn't teach in any sort of linear way... it all just came out in odds and ends, a bit here, a bit there. For example, he would just talk at length about the weather, and then sort of mention something about angry oni of the winds and storms. It sounds crazy, but it was oddly effective.

Then there were the riddles and koans, often given in response to seemingly totally-unrelated questions. One of the last things Ichiro said to him was a koan:

"Master Sung said that each man walks balanced on a thread between the Shadow and the Light. His student Akio asked him as they walked together, 'How then if he should fall? For the Light will scorch him, and the Shadow is fell.' Master Sung replied, 'You stupid boy!' and shoved him so that he stumbled and fell to the ground. Akio was then Enlightened."

Pete is convinced that Ichiro meant this as his parting word... but suffice to say, he's not Enlightened yet.

Ichiro is your typical Wise Old Master - elderly with a wispy white beard. He dresses in a very natty saffron-colored robe.
 
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The Shadow

Adventurer
New Scene: Next morning, bright and early. Interrupt! [Joy.]

Remote Event: Mistrust/Exterior factors.

Q(Likely): A nightmare? YES.

Pete's sleep was troubled by fleeting dreams of being chased through shadowy woods by indistinct predatory forms. Once he thought he caught sight of Morven egging the hounds on, once even of Jamie - that memory burned worse than any wound.

Later he found himself on a chessboard, armed and armored. He didn't have a horse, but he knew he was a Knight all the same: A valuable piece, but one that could be sacrificed at need. He was deep in Black's territory; glancing around quickly, he saw Goat nearby, a Pawn menacing his position. Ryan and Mark were faintly visible at the edge of the board: Captured Pawns.

He leapt out of Goat's way, only to feel the scrutiny of one of Black's Rooks. It whispered to him slyly, "Are you sure you know which side you're on?" With horror, Pete looked down to see his gleaming white armor tarnish to grey and start shading to black... He woke with a start.

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, the Demons, Goat, Billy, the disk-thing, the illusionist (possibly the same as the disk-thing).

Thread List:

Find out what's happening to Ryan.
Protect Ryan from his old gang.
Treat that damned illusionist to some payback.
Free Ryan from the disk's spiritual hold.
Free myself, for that matter.
Take Goat down a peg or three.

Chaos Factor: 8 -> 9

New Scene: Next morning, bright and early, take 2. Altered scene!

Q(Likely): Are both boys still here? YES.

ComplexQ: What's the alteration? Judge/Lies

Pete looked in on Mark, who was still sleeping like a log. His aura looked tentatively healthy, though.

He went to the kitchen and began making up a big mess of eggs, knowing the voracious teenage appetite all too well. Ryan wandered in, yawning. He looked tired and perhaps a little haunted.

"Dreams?" Pete asked. Ryan shuddered. "Yeah." "About chess, by any chance?" The young man stared at him. "Some, yeah - and I don't even know the rules. How'd you know?" "I had one too." "...Oh."

"Ryan, why did you come after me when I told you to stay here?" The boy flushed. "I, uh. I guess I wanted to help, Pete? I've been a total wuss so far, and I wanted to DO something." Pete studied him, remembering his dream. "Is that the whole truth?"

Ryan paled and stuttered, "N-not all of it, no. But... mostly?" "Tell me."

ComplexQ: What's the truth? Decrease/Animals

The boy took a deep breath. "I felt like... like those THINGS would come back. It seemed like the walls were closing in. I felt like I needed to be near you to be safe."

"Well... It turned out to be for the best, this time. But in the future, I expect you to do what I say. Don't make me chain you to the wall next time, okay?"

Ryan hung his head. "Yeah, Mr. Demarche. I'm sorry." "...There's something else bothering you."

Ryan bit his lip. "Yeah." "Go on." "I... think I know what Goat meant when he said everyone I cared about would die." "Oh?" "Yeah. It's one reason why I was so scared... I think I was g-gonna be pushed into k-killing them." Pete's eyes widened. "Oh." "Yeah... It's been a lot less since I was baptized, but I enjoyed beating Billy up more than I should've. You know?"

Pete pondered that. Ryan and Mark, captured pawns...

Q(Unsure): Did something happen at the Demons' hideout to infect Mark? YES. [I think it's gotta be the knife. But then, why threaten him with the disk as well?]

ComplexQ: What's the deal with Mark's infection? Proceedings/Energy [Hm, I think the knife wound was to weaken his spiritual defenses so he could be well and truly infected by the disk. Which means he might have caught some spill-over from Pete slicing the disk.]

"Ryan, I want to check you out magically again. If you're willing?" "Of COURSE, Pete! Anything you say." "Breakfast first."

Several healthy helpings of eggs and a few divinations later, Pete realized that Ryan's infection was slowly gathering strength again - but it seemed different, less... intense... somehow. Perhaps the effect of Ryan's baptism? Still, Ryan lacked a mage's mental defenses; there was no telling how long he could hold out.

Pete called the school to let them know he couldn't make it in. (Being a substitute teacher let him get away with things like that - one of the reasons he hadn't gone permanent despite the school's begging.) He left Ryan with the phone to make his own arrangements, then went to check on Mark.

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, the Demons, Goat, Billy, the disk-thing, the illusionist (possibly the same as the disk-thing).

Thread List:

Find out what's happening to Ryan.
Protect Ryan from his old gang.
Treat that damned illusionist to some payback.
Free Mark and Ryan from the disk's spiritual hold.
Free myself, for that matter.
Take Goat down a peg or three.

Chaos Factor: 9 -> 8

New Scene: In Mark's room, checking him out magically as he sleeps. [You know what? The dice say this should be an Altered Scene, but I just thought of a perfect Interrupt, so I'm going with it.]

As he moved toward the guest room Mark was sleeping in, Pete's cell phone rang. He fished it out of his pocket... only for his heart to nearly stop when he realized it was his father. My God, Pete thought, he's going to flay me alive! Why didn't it occur to me to call?!

Hand shaking, he raised the phone to his ear. "Hi, Dad..." As always, his father wasted no words: "Peter, Mark's not in his bed. Do you know where he is?" "Yes, he's at my place."

In a taut voice that carried overtones of suspicion, Thomas inquired, "Should I be concerned?" Pete wrestled down irritation. "Yes, but not because of anything I've done." "Including not calling when your mother and I were worried sick?" Pete sighed. "I'm sorry, Dad. I've... had a lot on my mind. Things have been moving fast."

"What have you involved your brother in." The tone was flat and just this side of Arctic; Pete finally snapped. "Dammit, Dad! You might consider asking what flavor of Shadow-dreck HE has involved ME in!"

Thomas Demarche was a Knight of St. Michael - first, last, and foremost. Though it was his own flesh and blood on the line, he became all business. "Very well. Tell me."

Pete sighed. "Mark went and did something stupidly heroic, or heroically stupid, take your pick. He confronted a bunch of gang members on behalf of a friend, and they worked him over good - no lasting damage. Unfortunately for everybody, the gang in question has Shadow connections. I suspect they've slipped something into him, I was just about to check when you called."

"You still haven't told me what 'flavor'." Pete sighed, and said truthfully, "Not sure yet. I do know it's magically powerful, favors illusions, and has designs on the Knights. It seems to be targeting me personally, I think Mark's intervention was pure serendipity from its point of view."

"Are you certain?" Sarcastically, "I'm certain only of God, death, and taxes, Dad. Like I said, I was about to check." "Do that. I'm going to call this in." "Yeah, seems like things have gotten to that point." (Not that there was any way of stopping him in any case.)

Pete added, "There's something I need to ask you before you go." "Yes?" Lowering his voice, "I don't know how much Mark saw when I got him out of there. But it's likely he saw me using Invictus, and possible he saw me casting. I can make him forget... but is it worth it? Maybe it's time to tell him." Thomas sighed. "For centuries, the Demarches have..." "Yeah, I know, family tradition: Tell the kids when they turn twenty-one. But it's a tradition, Dad, not Holy Writ. I don't like the idea of messing in Mark's head if I don't have to."

Thomas was silent for a moment. Then he said formally, "I'm sorry I jumped to conclusions earlier, Peter. Please forgive me." Pete blinked. "Uh. Of course I forgive you, Dad." "Find out what your brother knows, and we'll make a decision then." "All right. ... And while you're on the horn, could you mention I'll be contacting Fr. Leo?" "Yes. Va avec Dieu, Peter." "Et toi aussi, Dad. Adieu!" [I don't know French, so it's Google Translate plus a quick search on pronoun usage, sue me. :)]

Pete hung up the phone, feeling strangely comforted. Maybe the rift between him and his father was finally starting to heal.

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, the Demons, Goat, Billy, the disk-thing(s), the illusionist (possibly the same as the disk-thing), Thomas, Fr. Leo.

Thread List:

Find out what's happening to Ryan.
Protect Ryan from his old gang.
Treat that damned illusionist to some payback.
Free Mark and Ryan from the disk's spiritual hold.
Free myself, for that matter.
Take Goat down a peg or three.

Chaos Factor: 8 -> 7 [Didn't expect it to go down that time. Ending on a lighter note just emerged from the writing.]

New Scene: In Mark's room, checking him out magically as he sleeps, take 2. Altered scene!

Pete found Mark inspecting his knife-wound in the closet's full-length mirror. He turned when Pete entered and said sheepishly, "Morning, bro. Thanks?" Bruises were purpling all over his torso and face, but by some miracle his distinctive Demarche beak of a nose was unbroken. His wounds didn't stop him from opening his arms for a hug, though Pete made sure to make it ultra-gentle. "What's a big brother for, anyway? Just wish I'd arrived sooner."

Fervently, "No complaints here! How'd you know I was in trouble, anyway?" "Older brother spider-sense." "Aw, c'mon..." "I think the rescuer gets to ask the questions first?"

His baby brother flushed. "Yeah." "So. Just how did you end up being tortured by a gang called the Demons?" Mark looked anywhere but at Pete's face. "I, uh. Well, I knew this guy Billy was shaking Ryan down, right? And Ryan seemed so upset... I found Billy and told him I'd mess him up if he didn't lay off."

"You do realize just how very stupid you were, right?" Mark flushed crimson and hung his head. "Yeah." Pete took him by the shoulders and shook him gently. "No, you don't. You were mega-stupid. Legendarily stupid. Grandmaster-level stupid. You've been awarded an honorary doctorate in stupid for merit. You..." "I get it, okay?"

Pete shook him again. "YOU COULD HAVE GOTTEN KILLED, MARK! Or worse! Nearly did, in fact!" Mark bit off a retort and kept his head down. "...Yeah. I'm sorry." "Remember what Mom always said when we were little? 'Sorry means...'" "'...you won't do it again.' Yeah."

"And? I'm gonna make you say it." With a sigh, "I won't do it again. I promise." "You won't do what again?" "...I won't threaten a gang member in front of his buddies again with no backup." "That's a little too specific. I was hoping for something more like, 'I won't go running off half-cocked and taking stupid risks like an immature, idiotic little prat.'" Mark, defeated, repeated the words obediently, if a bit sullenly.

Pete finally let go of Mark's shoulders. "You think I'm rough on you? I just got off the phone with Dad." Mark's eyes went round. Forgetting all his manners, he burst out, "Oh sh*t!" "Yeah, oh sh*t. Don't worry too much, Jake did worse and he's still alive. ...Though it was a near thing, a few times." "That's supposed to comfort me?" With forced cheerfulness, "Not really. I never knew a tongue-lashing could get that close to lethal levels. I wish I'd taken notes. I think Jake's due to get ungrounded somewhere around the age of 83, too."

Mark smiled wanly. "Yeah." "So how are you feeling?" "I hurt all over. Might have some cracked ribs. My balls feel ready to explode, and I almost wish they would and get it over with. This slash is throbbing hard too." "Is it? You shouldn't have taken the bandage off. Let me take a look."

Pete had Mark lie down on the bed again, and probed the wound along his belly and lower chest with his fingers - while whispering Latin phrases under his breath. The wound was clean... and yes, there were magical traces upon it. The knife had been enchanted. With a little more concentration, he found that its purpose had been to lower Mark's spiritual defenses - the physical wound being the symbol of a deeper wound to the psyche.

Mark asked as he worked, "Should it have closed so much already? It seemed deep at the time..." "You're a healthy young buck. And never discount God's fondness for madmen, drunkards, and fools." Mark rolled his eyes, quite clear on which of the three he qualifed for.

Pete slapped him on one of the few undamaged patches of skin showing. "Looks like you're going to live." "Ow. Well, good to hear, I guess." "Tell me something?" "Yeah?"

"How much do you remember?" "They didn't hit me on the head much, if that's what you're asking. I remember a whole hell of a lot of pain, then that Goat creep asking me whether I wanted to get cut up. He cut me before I could even answer. Then I saw a light and my big bro giving a badass Big Damn Hero speech."

He squeezed Pete's hand. "Thanks again, by the way. You have no idea what it meant to see you." "Sure I do. 'Gosh, he's a handsome devil.'" Mark laughed weakly, then immediately regretted it, clutching his ribs. "I knew you and Jake and Dad were big into swords, but I never thought I'd see you using one for reals."

"It's like I always say: Stick with what you know. Is that all you remember?" "I passed out somewhere in there, yeah."

Q(Unlikely): Is he telling the whole truth? YES.

Pete rebandaged the cut, then said, "I'm going to check out your ribs now. This is probably gonna hurt." Mark nodded. His breath hissed through his teeth a few times as Pete carefully explored his sides and chest. "Yeah, you've got at least three cracks. Nothing worse than that, though. You know the drill."

Mark nodded submissively. "Fine china packed in lace, yeah. ... I didn't know you were this good with medical stuff." "I'm not an MD, but I've had some training. From when I was in the military, you know." "Yeah." "I realize it's a sensitive subject, but do you want me to check out the junk too? I promise you're really not my type."

Mark had to grin at that. "Shouldn't you buy me dinner first?" "There's breakfast in the next room." "You cad! ... I'd rather leave that to an MD. No offense, bro, but there ain't enough brain bleach in the world for that image." "None taken. It'd probably be too small for me to find, anyway." Mark laughed again, then groaned. "You mentioned something about breakfast? I'm STARVING."

He started to struggle to his feet again, but Pete pushed him back down. "I'll bring it to you. Condemned men are supposed to get a last meal in style." Mark sighed. "Don't remind me. Do I get to ask a question now?" "That's a question already. Breakfast first." "Heh. Yeah." He squeezed Pete's hand again. "Thanks again, Pete. I owe you, bigtime." "Yeah, I know. Remember that next time you're feeling obnoxious." "I will. I promise."

Going back out to the kitchen, he pulled Ryan aside and said, "He doesn't remember much of anything. Don't mention anything weird to him, okay? It's better he doesn't know." "Okay, Pete."

Pete fixed up some more eggs and toast, then took in a big platter to Mark's room. He found the two young men showing off their scars and comparing war stories enthusiastically. Rolling his eyes, he placed the tray in front of Mark, who was already salivating.

After the first sally, he said with his mouth full, "DAMN, that tastes good. ... Do I get to ask some questions now?" "You get three questions. Four, if I like the cut of your jib." "How DID you know I was in trouble?"

The boy's eyes bugged out comically when Pete told him bluntly, "I didn't. I was there to help Ryan too." Ryan's smirk faded and he looked away. Mark stuttered, "Y-you mean it was just LUCK?!" "That, and Providence. Yeah. Madmen, drunkards, and fools, remember?"

Mark pondered that with silent shock; Pete hoped it would help the tongue-lashing he'd given him earlier to sink in.

ComplexQ: What else does he want to know? Intolerance/Wishes. [Hmmm.]

"You... you didn't kill anybody, did you?" Pete smiled; Mark was a good kid. "No, but several of them probably wish I had." Mark said a little vindictively, "I almost wish you had." Pete studied him. That sounds... off.

While he was thinking, Mark continued, "What..." Pete held up a finger. "That's three already." "Aw crap, I guess it is. Is my jib that bad?" "My turn first. Did you have any fever dreams while you were sleeping? I need to know if that cut's getting infected."

Mark thought it over. "I remember something about chess, but it's all fuzzy." Pete sighed while Ryan stared. Bewildered, Mark asked, "What? What'd I say?" Pete held up a finger again and caught Mark's eyes, fingering the Crux at his neck. "Later, bro. You need your rest. You're feeling sleepy, aren't you?" Mark yawned suddenly. "Yeah, I guess so. I felt rested before, but now..." "Very sleepy." "Yeah..." He laid back and closed his eyes. Soon he was snoring.

Ryan stared at him. "Did you..." "'These are not the droids you are looking for.'" Ryan blinked and half-joked, "What droids?"

Pete looked down at Mark's sleeping form. He hated using mental suggestion on people - and the Church frowned on it too. But protecting the public from the knowledge of Shadow was one of the few times it was allowed. To say nothing of protecting them from Shadow's influence... "I need to check him out. There won't be anything to see." "Yeah, Pete. ... Is he gonna be okay?" "That's what I'm going to find out."

Ryan left the room, and Pete laid a hand on Mark's forehead. "I'm sorry, bro. But I've got to get to the bottom of this."

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, the Demons, Goat, Billy, the disk-thing(s), the illusionist (possibly the same as the disk-thing), Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake.

Thread List:

Find out what's happening to Ryan.
Protect Ryan from his old gang.
Treat that damned illusionist to some payback.
Free Mark and Ryan from the disk's spiritual hold.
Free myself, for that matter.
Take Goat down a peg or three.

Chaos Factor: 7 -> 6
 
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The Shadow

Adventurer
New Scene: In Mark's room, checking him out magically as he sleeps, take 3. Interrupt!

Q(Likely): Do I make contact with the illusionist through Mark? NO. [Whuh?]

ComplexQ: Okay, so what's the interrupt then? Intolerance/Illusions. [Well, THAT'S certainly suggestive!]

As Pete extended his magical senses into his brother, darkness clouded his vision abruptly. "Oh, this can't be good." His eyes swam, then he was in that darkling clearing again - clothed this time, at least. "Nope, not good at all."

The darkhound shapes swirled around him as before, closing in. "Oh, come off it. I know you're just illusions." Baying laughter mocked him, as one reached out with a claw-tipped paw and pricked him. "Uh." What difference does it make, if it still hurts?

They came for him then. Pete fought as he'd never fought before, using every trick of the martial arts he'd learned from the Knights and in Japan. There were too many - but they weren't trying to kill him. They were toying with him, goading him... making him angry.

"Damn your eyes! Enough!" But their baying and snarling shaped itself into words heard with the heart rather than the ear - a bestial, malevolent voice: "Then join us, brother! Hunt with us!" "I'll die first!" "Then you will die."

Q(Very Likely): Is Mark in this mess too? YES.

Q(No Way): How about Ryan? NO - and a Random Event!

Remote Event: Block/War

They came for him in earnest then, snarling. Pete resigned himself to death and started in on the Act of Contrition... when suddenly they stopped short. Some of the hounds whimpered like whipped curs, others howled with frustration. Pete heard the pack-voice say, "Another day, then. There is other prey." They bounded off.

Pete was just getting his breath back, when he heard Mark yell, far away. Adrenaline back in a rush, he ran - more familiar with the hidden ways of Shadow than he'd like. "Coming, bro! Hang on!"

It was like a nightmare, or the Red Queen's race - he made amazing time, but hardly seemed to get anywhere. Mark continued to yell and curse; Pete began to hear the sounds of fighting.

Pete prayed desperately, "Mercy, Lord! Help him! I don't care if they take me, I've got it coming, but Mark's just a kid! HELP HIM!" He began gasping out the words of the Memorare as he ran.

The blackness swallowed up his words, seemingly without effect. But Pete's hope began to revive... With a final push, as spiritual as it was physical, he emerged into Mark's clearing.

Q(Unsure): Is Mark still on his feet? YES.

Mark was dressed as Pete had seen him after school, half a day and an eternity ago: White tank top, shorts, running shoes. His face was still bruised up, though, and he sported quite a collection of new scratches. His face was a heart-breaking confusion of fear, rage, and despair. Desperate hope flared on his face when he caught sight of Pete, though. "Oh God! Pete!"

That moment of distraction was Mark's undoing. The pack swept him off his feet and lunged to feed, cackling. He screamed in despair, but Pete charged, kicking the dogs off of him. "You want him? You'll have to come through me. What will your master say to that, huh? Take me if you dare, hounds!"

The predatory forms backed off, circling. Their voice said with grudging disdain, "We didn't want him anyway. Not much meat." "Go eat sour grapes somewhere else," Pete suggested, and they left in a huff.

Pete knelt by Mark. "Are you okay, bro?" He got bowled over when Mark lunged at him and clung to him like a drowning man to a log. He didn't just cry; he bawled like a little child with all his heart. Pete held him and stroked his hair. What spiritual defenses he had have been wounded by Goat's knife, he realized; this has hit him much harder than it has me. Plus, I at least have some idea of what's going on! "Shhhh. It's okay." It was a little hard to be comforting while keeping eyes and ears peeled for further Shadow-danger, but he did his best.

Well, let's see if I can get a spell off to keep us marginally safer. He whispered the Latin words to a spell of his own devising, Pete's Privacy Protection.

Q(Unlikely): Does it work? YES.

Pete's gut relaxed a bit when the lightless dome of glamours surrounded him and Mark. Anyone outside looking in would see only what they expected to see, not what was really there. Still, many Shadow-beings had unusual senses, so it wouldn't pay to get complacent... Assuming this is some degree of Shadow, and not completely in our heads.

Mark's torrent of tears began to abate somewhat. His embrace, though no less tight, became more intentional. "Oh God, Pete." "Yeah, I think God was definitely involved." "You keep rescuing me." "You keep needing rescuing." Sniffling, "Yeah. Sorry." "Not your fault, this time." "What's going on?" "Not sure yet." "Are we gonna die?" "Not if I have anything to say about it."

"...Do you?" "Some." "Oh."

Pete felt something change in the spiritual environment, then, though he wasn't clear on what. Cautiously, he parted the glamour-dome to take a peek...

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, the Demons, Goat, Billy, the disk-thing(s), the illusionist (possibly the same as the disk-thing), Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, darkhound pack.

Thread List:

Find out what's happening to Ryan.
Protect Ryan from his old gang.
Treat that damned illusionist to some payback.
Free Mark and Ryan from the disk's spiritual hold.
Free myself, for that matter.
Take Goat down a peg or three.

Chaos Factor: 6 -> 7

New Scene: On the chessboard, I'm thinking? [Yep.]

...Only to look out over the stark tiled land of the huge chessboard from his dreams. "Great."

He and Mark were on a black square. Pete was in tarnished grey armor, Mark in the tarnished jerkin of a pawn. Abruptly Mark was ripped out of his arms by an irresistible force; the boy was planted on another black square diagonal to him and behind, toward White's territory. At least he's protecting me, Pete reflected, then blinked. This guy IS influencing my thoughts!

Mark shouted, "What's going on, Pete?!" He was standing unnaturally upright and holding a spear now. "Somebody's playing games with us. Literally, it looks like." "Well, I'm not having any fun." "Me neither."

From the darkness above the board, that malevolent voice stated, "But I am, and that's all that matters. Who cares what becomes of the pieces? Does the player weep when he sacrifices his bishop to avoid checkmate?"

Pete smirked as he stood up. "Funny. In my dream, you were a piece too - a Rook. You think the REAL player cares about you?" Stung, the thing replied with an edge, "We all have our parts to play. But it will not matter to you much longer."

"Just tell me what you want." "You, Peter des Marches. All of you." Pete made special note of the pronunciation - this bastard has clearly done his homework. "And I should give myself to you... why, exactly?" "I will swear a binding oath to let the two Pawns go free. They are worth less to me than a Knight." Pete pondered that. He can't be influencing me too much, or my decision won't be free. He touched his Crux and concentrated. Meanwhile, Mark yelled, "Don't do it, Pete!"

The voice said, "You should not listen to your brother, des Marches. Refuse me, and he and Ryan will be my playthings. I assure you that nothing so pleasant or easy as a slow death will be their fate."

Pete flipped the darkness the bird. "Go to Hell. You're tough, but you're not omnipotent. Hurt them any more, and there's no hole deep enough for you to hide in. Even if you take me out, the Knights will never rest while you're out there. For that matter, the Shepherds won't either. You'll be marked." Despite his bold words, he continued concentrating with laser-like focus. Meanwhile, Mark yelled his defiance too.

"How very unwise." A black Bishop slid up noiselessly behind Mark, a vampiric figure with fangs dripping with malice. Mark's yell turned to a shout of surprise as it grabbed his arm and jerked him off balance, his spear going clattering. The darkness asked silkily, "Ready to reconsider?"

Q(Likely): Tables about to turn? YES. [Barely. Way too close.]

The sky cracked open and a shaft of light fell on the board. (The vampire hissed in pain and fright, recoiling from Mark.) Pete relaxed and grinned up at the darkness. "You know what? Nah."

Golden words in Latin fell toward the chessboard like boulders, chanted in a familiar reedy voice. "Deus, audi oratiónem meam; áuribus pércipe verba oris mei." The chessboard shook under the impact of the psalm.

The dark voice hissed, "This isn't over, des Marches." "Right back at'cha, scumbag."

Mark yelled, "Pete, what's going on?!" "Hang on, bro! This may get rough, but we're gonna be okay."

The reedy voice came through more clearly: "Dómine sancte, Pater omnípotens, ætérne Deus, Pater Dómini nostri Iesu Christi..." The chessboard broke apart, falling into darkness, and Pete gave himself trustingly to the light...

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, the Demons, Goat, Billy, the disk-thing(s), the illusionist (possibly the same as the disk-thing), Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, darkhound pack, vampire.

Thread List:

Find out what's happening to Ryan.
Protect Ryan from his old gang.
Treat that damned illusionist to some payback.
Free Mark and Ryan from the disk's spiritual hold.
Free myself, for that matter.
Take Goat down a peg or three.

Chaos Factor: 7 -> 8

New Scene: Back in Mark's room with Fr. Leo. Interrupt! [Huh.]

ComplexQ: What's the deal? Create/The intellectual. [No clue what that means. I'm going to make up my own.] [Just realized I've been forgetting to generate Random Events for Interrupts the last few times. Oh well, what's done is done.]

As Pete ascended toward the light, the clouds of rubble from the ruined chessboard briefly took on a familiar shape: Jamie's face.

Q(Unsure): Is he smiling? YES.

Pete choked, old memories crowding around him. "Jamie... I'm so sorry." There was no reply; but Jamie's peaceful smile, briefly glimpsed, stuck with him.

Peter came into the light weeping - whether from joy, or release, or old trauma, he could not say.

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, the Demons, Goat, Billy, the disk-thing(s), the illusionist (possibly the same as the disk-thing), Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, darkhound pack, vampire, Jamie's memory.

Thread List:

Find out what's happening to Ryan.
Protect Ryan from his old gang.
Treat that damned illusionist to some payback.
Free Mark and Ryan from the disk's spiritual hold.
Free myself, for that matter.
Take Goat down a peg or three.

Chaos Factor: 8 -> 7
 
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The Shadow

Adventurer
New Scene: Back in Mark's room with Fr. Leo, take 2. Altered Scene!

Q(Unsure): Different venue? NO.

Q(Somewhat Likely): Mark made it out okay? EXCEPTIONAL YES. [Okay. I guess there must be more people here than I thought.]

Pete abruptly opened his eyes to the entirely-expected but still welcome sight of Fr. Leo's kindly bearded visage. He was dressed for the occasion in the full habit of the Contemplative Brothers of St. Michael: black, with a white surcoat blazoned with a red Latin Cross. He held a crucifix against Pete's brow, but when Pete grinned and punned, "The Calvary arrives!" his gravely serious face broke into a smile. "The Devil has no sense of humor, so I suppose you'll pull through."

Pete was lying on Mark's bed - and felt like a team of horses had trampled over him. Mark lay next to him, snoring gently. Propping himself up on one elbow, "Yeah, guess so. Pulled out all the stops, didn't you? That sounded like the Rite of Exorcism..." Just then he caught sight of his mother and father, and Ryan behind them. "Oh, uh."

Teresa moaned and rushed forward to embrace her son. Pete hugged her back, but said, "Good Lord. How long were we out?" Thomas replied gruffly, "Most of the day. I came here when you didn't call back, and got the story from Ryan. I contacted Fr. Leo, but it turned out you already had - in a manner of speaking."

Pete looked to the elderly monk. "And I'm sure glad it got through! We'd have been goners if it hadn't." Leo shook his head. "Don't second-guess the Lord's work. But I was glad to be of service." "...How's Mark?" "He is fine, Peter. The same lowered defenses that made him vulnerable also made him more open to my working. The taint is gone from him; it's you and Ryan I am worried about."

Pete closed his eyes and sighed in relief. "I guess his infection was always more oblique than ours. I'm glad his part in this is done." "Yes. But there is much that remains to do."

"I'm open to ideas. I hate to say it, but I think this guy is better than I am." Leo and Thomas exchanged a glance. Then the priest turned a compassionate gaze on him, as if to an animal he was forced to hurt in order to help: "Peter, you will have to go into the Shadow and defeat him."

Pete stared at him in shock. "Wait, WHAT?! Father, he's tougher than I am, his illusions are bomb-proof, I know nothing about him, and he's got his hooks into me! Just how am I supposed to even FIND him, much less beat him?!"

Leo said gently, "It is those 'hooks' that prevent you from seeing through his illusions, Peter. They blind you to his workings, but they also lead back to him. You cannot trace him through your own, but you could do so through another's."

Pete only thought he'd been shocked before. "NO. No way. A suicide mission is one thing, but I'll not be a murderer. Because that's what taking Ryan in there will be, you know: Murder." Ryan finally piped up, "I want to go, Pete." Thomas added sternly, "You think we'd do it if there were any choice?"

Pete was still shaking his head when Leo reminded him, "Ryan will succumb to the curse in time in any event, Peter. I can slow its progress, but not stop it." Ryan added, "If I'm gonna go axe-crazy, I'd rather be pointed at the bad guys, you know?"

Pete thought it over, then said sourly, "Do I have to have one hand tied behind my back, too?" Fr. Leo laughed. "There's my Peter. We have a week or two to lay plots, yes. And you need not go in alone."

Thomas took up the thread. "We're bringing in a contingent of Knights; it shouldn't take long to mop up these 'Demons' and find out everything they know. And you won't go alone. We won't order anyone to go..." Pete nodded. "Suicide mission, and all." "...but we'll ask for volunteers."

Pete nodded, wheels turning. "Paddy will come. So will Jon." Thomas harrumphed. "A fine young man, even if he is a Protestant. But I had some other names in mind." "Huh?" "I'm coming out of retirement, son. And your brother will come too; the Demarche name is at stake." Teresa compressed her lips, grimly resigned to the prospect of losing two sons and a husband.

No, really - Pete only thought he'd been shocked before. "NO, Dad." "You don't get a say, Peter." "Yes, actually, I do. How many times have you told me to stay away from missions I was emotionally involved in? That's how people get killed, right?"

Thomas looked away. Pete added, "As for Jake, he'd come just to see me fail. Or to pick up Invictus when I fall. No thanks." Thomas flared up angrily while Teresa cried, "Peter!", but they both subsided when Fr. Leo raised a hand. "You do Squire Jacob an injustice, Peter. But I agree that he is too hotheaded for the task at hand. I worry a little about young Patrick in that regard as well, but he is nothing if not ... practical." Pete nodded. "That brand of 'practicality' will come in handy." Paddy got a special glow in his cheeks and a spring in his step from killing Shadow-creatures. Ought to, he's Jamie's brother... Best not to think about that.

He thought for a while as Mark continued to snore. "...Why can't another mage go with us, and track this guy through me?"

ComplexQ: Good question. Why not? Struggle/News.

Fr. Leo replied, "If it could be done, I would go with you myself, Peter." Yet more shock: Fr. Leo was no fighter. "But your position as one with the taint, yet not succumbed to it, puts you in a unique position. You are attuned to its source, as no-one else could be." Pete sighed. "Yeah, that makes sense. I'll pick up on resonances nobody else would."

He added, "...Do you mind giving us a minute, Father? And afterward, I'd like you to hear my confession?" Leo smiled. "Of course, Peter. My pleasure." He stepped out of the room, drawing Ryan after him.

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, the Demons, Goat, Billy, the disk-thing(s), the illusionist (possibly the same as the disk-thing), Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, darkhound pack, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon.

Thread List:

Find out what's happening to Ryan.
Protect Ryan from his old gang.
Treat that damned illusionist to some payback.
Free Ryan from the disk's spiritual hold.
Free myself, for that matter.
Take Goat down a peg or three.

Chaos Factor: 7 -> 6

New Scene: Family conference. Altered Scene.

ComplexQ: What's the alteration? Praise/Love. [Huh. Definitely unexpected.] [Looking back at this, I can see that this one roll changed the entire course of the campaign.]

Thomas cleared his throat gruffly, then said, "You did well, Peter."

Pete didn't think he could take any more shocks today. "I did?! Seriously?!" "Yes. Why shouldn't I say so? Ryan told me what you did for him and Mark. And Fr. Leo could tell you were protecting Mark with every ounce of your strength." Teresa stroked Mark's hair. "You brought him back to us."

Pete struggled between pleasure and outrage. "Did you think I wouldn't? Good Lord, I'd open a vein for Mark and be glad to do it! He's my little brother!"

"So is Jacob," his father reminded him, "and yet it's always been different between the two of you." Pete said sourly, "Let's leave Jake out of this, okay? But I'd fight just as hard for him, if he needed it. We may not get along, but he's blood."

Thomas nodded. "I've misjudged you, Peter. When... things happened... some time ago..." Pete sighed. "Dad... I... just can't talk about that yet. Okay? I know it hurt you when I left the Knights, but it wasn't about you. Or Jake, or anybody but me."

His mom burst out, "It's not just the Order, Peter." Thomas nodded. "When we heard you'd left for Japan and were learning magic from pagans... We thought we'd lost you, son. That you'd turned your back on us."

Pete sighed. "I should have come back to say goodbye in person. I know that. But... I couldn't face you, Dad. I was afraid."

That visibly hurt Thomas, but he absorbed it. "What were you afraid of?" "Your disapproval. Your scorn. Your appeals to the family name. I didn't think you'd understand why I left."

Thomas reached out tentatively and clasped Pete's shoulder. He asked quietly, "I'm listening, Peter. Why did you leave?"

Pete paused in turmoil, breathing ragged. "It's too raw, Dad. I can't talk about it. I'm sorry. But if... If anything happens to me, and Jon makes it out, ask him. He knows."

Thomas sighed. "Very well. Let me ask you something else. And I don't mean this as an accusation, though it may sound like one." "...Okay?"

"Why are you able to share these things with anyone but your own blood?" "Not anyone. Nobody ever had a better friend than Jon; he's like another brother." "Even so."

Pete thought about it, then finally said, "Because I love you too damn much. And it's all bound up with pride and family history and all the rest. I never wanted to disappoint you, Dad."

Thomas said firmly, "I've never been disappointed, son. Confused, yes. Sometimes angry. But not disappointed. Judgment is in the Lord's hands, not mine."

Pete pondered that for a long time. "I guess you're not the only one who's been doing the misjudging. I'm sorry, Father." "As am I, Peter. We should have talked like this long ago." "Yeah."

Mark murmured in his sleep, and Pete asked, "So what are we going to tell him?" Thomas rubbed his face and said candidly, "I don't know. Tradition is tradition, but he's in so deep by now that no simple memory-alteration spell will serve." "If I get a vote, I say we sit him down and tell him everything - he's earned it. Heck, might as well bring Kate in as well, she already knows more than she should." Thomas and Teresa both grimaced; Catherine's magical gift had come to light in a big way the previous year, and they'd had to bring Pete (as the only other mage in the family) in to talk to her.

[See the next post for a flashback about that incident - a scene that SP and I actually played out to get a feel for the campaign, quite a while ago. It's a bit too long to fit nicely here.]

Thomas said quietly, "I've already called your sister. She's making arrangements to come home from college. She doesn't know the details about why, yet. But we wanted everyone here before you go." "...Yeah. You're not still planning on coming, are you?"

Q(Unlikely): Is he? YES.

Q(Very Unlikely): Same plan as before? NO.

His father sighed. "Yes. But you're right - damn your eyes. I'd be too bound up in it to be rational. Jacob and I will stay in the Shadow Keep as backup." Teresa struggled not to look relieved; Pete didn't bother. "Good."

Struck by a sudden thought, he then asked, "What about Ryan? Assuming he lives through this, he isn't going to be able to go back to a 'normal' life either."

ComplexQ: What do they have to say to that? Befriend/Energy. [Okay, 'energy' is a little weird, but it seems clear enough.]

Thomas said firmly, "After what he's done for Mark, and what he's going to do for you, he may as well be family, Peter. And if he wants, I'll gladly sponsor him into the Order."

Pete sighed. "How can I justify taking him into that much danger? I need his parents' signature just to take him on a FIELD TRIP, and I'm supposed to take him into another DIMENSION full of slavering monsters without their knowledge? How is that supposed to work?"

Thomas sighed with him. "He may have to be 'arrested' for gang activity for a while. And if anything happens... well, prisons are dangerous. The Order can fill in the details far better than you or I could." Sarcastically: "Yay?"

"I don't like it either, Peter. But you can't do without him, and he wants to go. He's old enough to choose; a hundred years ago, he could have been drafted into the army to fight and die. As for the secrecy - you know better than I do why the public can never know about the Shadow."

Pete sighed, shaking his head. Disbelief in monsters was the Order's greatest triumph and greatest weapon. The world's Shadow responded to belief, drawing closer to the mundane plane. Let people know, let hysteria begin, and Shadow-incursions would multiply exponentially. "Yeah. I don't like it, but yeah. Send Fr. Leo in, will you? I think I'm ready."

Teresa kissed him, and Thomas said, "Perhaps you should go into another room? Your brother needs his rest." "Oh! Right." He ruffled Mark's hair fondly. "Yeah. Let him sleep." He struggled to his feet, accepting his dad's assisting hand.

Pausing, he added in the Provençal-flavored French that was their family heritage: "Je t'aime, mon père." Thomas smiled and replied, "Et je t'aime aussi, mon fils." [Once again: Google Translate! Don't hold it against me.]

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, the Demons, Goat, Billy, the disk-thing(s), the illusionist (possibly the same as the disk-thing), Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, darkhound pack, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate.

Thread List:

Find out what's happening to Ryan.
Protect Ryan from his old gang.
Treat that damned illusionist to some payback.
Free Ryan from the disk's spiritual hold.
Free myself, for that matter.
Take Goat down a peg or three.
Make ready for the trip into Shadow.

Chaos Factor: 6 -> 5
 

The Shadow

Adventurer
[This is the flashback promised in the previous post. If you haven't read that one yet, do that first!]

[This was a scene that SP and I played out to get a feel for the campaign, many moons ago. It's an introduction to Pete's sister Kate and her relationship to Pete and others.]

Pete was mildly alarmed when Tom drew him aside during a family gathering "to speak privately with me and your mother." Ties had been strained of late, but he couldn't think of anything that would have worsened the situation.

Once comfortably ensconced in his father's den, his parents looked at him with worried eyes. Tom cleared his throat and said, "Peter, we have something to ask you in the strictest confidence. This conversation doesn't go beyond this room, understood?" Puzzled, Pete crossed his legs and said, "Of course, Dad. What's up?" "I need your word on this, son." "I just gave it to you."

Thomas paused, then nodded. "Very well. We need your considered opinion on something. Your professional opinion, as a mage." Pete's brows shot up, and he put both feet on the floor again. "Do tell. What is it?" (He couldn't help being a little relieved it apparently wasn't about anything he'd done!)

Tom sighed heavily. "It's your sister."

---

It developed that Kate had been showing the tell-tale signs of a magical gift of late - little oddities and 'coincidences' cropping up with alarming frequency, if you knew what to look for. Tom sighed. "I wouldn't know, of course, but I suspect she's strong." Teresa added quietly, "It reminds me of you at the same age." Pete nodded, hiding a wince; his own 'breakthrough' to magical talent had been... notable.

"Well, I can certainly scan her for talent, but that almost sounds superfluous at this point. What is it you want me to do?" His father sighed. "Talk to her? Give her what pointers you can?" "I don't suppose you'll consider..." "No, of course not!" Pete rolled his eyes. "You and Tevye. 'Tradition!'" "It's tradition because it works, Peter. Can you imagine growing up with the knowledge of Shadow?"

Pete sighed. "I suppose not. ... I'll need to get her alone, of course." "We'll work something out."

---

His parents managed to fadge up an excuse to go shopping for the holiday feast, and to take Mark and Jake with them. Pete sat with Kate; they'd always enjoyed each other's company. Kate had gone a bit 'unconventional' since leaving home, dabbling in New Age beliefs and other things. Half the time Pete suspected it was as much to shock their parents as anything.

Pete gestured to the large quartz crystal she wore around her neck, along with a crucifix. "So do you really think those things contain energy?" She smiled innocently. "Well, I daresay they must... All those chemical bonds contain quite a bit of energy, don't you think?" "Come off it, sis. You know what I mean. Mystical energy."

She lowered her eyes and said demurely, "Well, I think they do, yes. But no doubt you disagree." "Oh, I don't know. I saw some pretty weird sh*t in Japan... stuff I couldn't explain just with logic, science, and the Catechism, you know? So I'm open to the idea there might be something more out there."

Kate narrowed her eyes at him for a long moment. Pete smiled when he noticed her making a surreptitious gesture with her right hand, and broadened it out into a grin when he felt the force of her spell-enhanced regard. "So now you know."

When she was finished studying him, she said slowly, "I suppose I do. How long has this been going on?" "I might ask you the same thing." "I asked you first." "All right. Ready for another shock, sis?" She rolled her eyes. "I think I can probably take a little surprise, Pete." Pete grinned openly now. "Since I was a little younger than you. And Mom and Dad know all about it." Blink, blink. That did take her aback.

After another long pause, she stated, "You, Dad, and Jake are in something together." It wasn't a question. "Ah, you noticed!" "Ha ha, funny boy. What- Wait. If you're about to tell me this is some sort of sword-and-sorcery setup, where Dad and Jake are warriors and you're a wizard, I swear I will throw something at you." "Well, I'm not allowed to tell you all the details, but... basically, yeah." She picked up a napkin threateningly, and he crossed his arms in front of his head: "Not in the face! Not in the face!"

After he had received his due chastisement and picked the napkin up off the floor, Kate asked him with honest curiosity, "How do you reconcile it?" "With the Church, you mean?" She nodded. "Yeah." "Can't tell ya. But it's all above board."

Kate shook her head in wonderment, then came to a decision. "Come with me."

She led him out to the old oak in the backyard; she'd always loved it. Whispering words under her breath, the ground opened up, revealing a set of rough earthen steps. Once down them, the earth closed once more and a warm light bathed a small chamber nestled in the roots of the tree.

Pete was flabbergasted and trying not to show it. "This is... really impressive, sis. How long have you had this place?" She grinned and mimicked his earlier question: "Ready for another shock, big bro?" "Um, sure?" "Since I was twelve."

Pete digested that. "Kate, I flatly don't believe you could have managed this on your own." She shook her head. "I had some help. I've been talking with fairies for as long as I can remember." Pete nodded, mind racing. "Faerie isn't all fun and games, sis. Some of them..." She snorted. "You think I don't know that? I appreciate the concern, Pete, but I'm a big girl."

"No, really, Kate! There are some really dangerous things out there! You-" "I've met some of them. I handled myself fine, thanks." "...Like what?"

She paused, remembering. "Once I was visited by a wolf as black as sin, always angry, thirsting for blood." Pete nodded: A murkwolf, he'd fought them himself. "And?" She grinned sweetly at him. "I patted it on the head and told it to play nice." "And?!" "It did."

Pete shook his head. "I won't say I'm not impressed, sis, because I am. Very. But there's a couple things you really do need to know." "Oh, all right. Tell me." "First off, a talent as strong as yours really needs training. There's all sorts of pitfalls that aren't obvious in the beginning, but..." "I'm doing fine, thanks. Not that I haven't encountered any pitfalls, but I've weathered them. I can do this, Pete - it's what I am." She grinned, not entirely pleasantly, and added, "A witch."

Pete didn't take the bait. "And second, there's things out there much worse than that wolf. Things you can't just pat on the head, no matter how witchy you are." "Like what?" Pete paused, then punched his knee. "I... can't give you details right now."

She smiled tolerantly and kissed his cheek. "I really do appreciate the concern, bro. But I can handle myself."

He tried to convince her, but she wouldn't hear of it. She's never been burned, Pete realized; it's all been fun and games. The danger has only been enough to give things a bit of spice.

---

Thomas went ballistic when Pete reported the incident about the murkwolf, of course. But what could they do?

"If you're not willing to tell her about the Shadow, Dad, I don't see what we can do at this point. And honestly, even if you did, I don't know that she'd react the way you want. She's playing with fire, yeah, but I don't think she'll listen until she's burned herself."

Tom ground out, "And if she burns down the neighborhood playing with matches? Can you live with that, Peter?" "I don't see that we've got a choice, Dad. What are you suggesting? She's stronger than I am - even without training, she might just be able to counter anything I tried."

"And so your professional opinion is?" "Either ditch tradition and tell her about Shadow, hoping for the best; or else wait, and hope for the best. I suppose you could bring in a team of mages to suppress her, but that'd burn every conceivable bridge - and I won't be part of it. Don't worry too much; she's good. Really good." Scarily good, he didn't add.
 
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The Shadow

Adventurer
New Scene: Ensconced with Fr. Leo for Reconciliation in the living room.

Fr. Leo listened seriously as Pete ran through his more minor failings. "There's... uh. Something else, Father." "Go on."

Pete swallowed. "I, uh. Saw something, when you were pulling me and Mark out. I saw Jamie." Leo's face was transfigured with compassion. "Oh, Peter. How... did he look?" Pete was crying freely now. "He looked peaceful, Father. I don't know if it was something real, or my imagination, or what. But he looked at peace." "As you are not." "No..."

"What is it you need to confess, my son?" Pete sighed. "I've been beating myself up with guilt for years now. And it's destructive and wrong, but I don't know how to stop. I just don't." "I do not know what to tell you that you have not heard many times before, Peter; you know that you did no wrong, though none of us would envy the lot that fell to you that night. But hear this: Our Lord wants you to have peace, the peace He came to give us. It is not for you to manufacture; you must accept it from His wounded hands."

Pete pondered that for a time. "Yeah. Maybe I'm just trying too hard." "You always have. For as long as I've known you, you have felt the need to save the world all by yourself. You forget that it has already been saved by Another!" After swallowing, "Okay. So I guess I need to confess pride, too." "Yes. Is that all?"

"No. I hate Jacob, Father. He's my own brother, and I just plain hate him. I've never encountered anyone else, not even an enemy, who takes such pleasure in making me miserable." "I do not know Jacob well. But anyone could see that he feels the same way toward you." Peter flared, "That's not fair! He's tweaked me for leaving the Order every chance he gets! What does he know about it?! He's never had to..."

Leo raised a hand to cut him off, inquiring mildly, "Are you here to confess Jacob's sins or your own?" Pete flushed. "Mine." "Very well. How have you acted on this hatred?" With a sigh, "I'm cold to him. I try to get under his skin. I take pleasure in his failures. Just now I bad-mouthed him to my family. ... And while I think the sense of what I said was true, I did exaggerate things out of spite."

The priest considered that for a time, then said, "Our Lord calls you to love your brother, Peter. If you are unable to like him just now, so be it; you are not asked to generate feelings. Only to speak softly to him, to let provocations pass, and to help him when he is in need. And to pray for him without ceasing, precisely because you see him as an enemy. Those are things within our limited capacity."

After wrestling with that for a time, Pete finally said, "I guess that's it." "Yes. For your penance, you are to tell Jacob about Jamie."

Peter stared at him. "You can't be serious." "I am completely serious." "I ... think that's beyond my strength, Father." "I do not. You are poisoning yourself with guilt and giving yourself a martyr complex over it with respect to your brother. You must simply stop."

Pete said despairingly, "He'll just use it to hurt me. To twist the knife." "If he does, Our Lord who forgave His enemies from the Cross will give you the strength that you need to bear it. Do you doubt this?"

After a long, shuddering silence, Pete said, "...No. I guess not." "Then say the Act of Contrition."

Peter fell on his knees and recited the ancient words. He had to choke them out through sobs about halfway through... Then Fr. Leo laid his hands upon his head and said words more mysterious and more powerful: "God, the Father of mercy, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church may God grant you pardon and peace; and I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

Pete was silent under the priest's firm touch for a time. Then he whispered, "Amen." Fr. Leo lifted his hands and smiled at him, then finished the rite: "Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good." "His mercy endures forever. ... Thank you, Father." "It is always a pleasure, Peter. Go in peace."

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, the Demons, Goat, Billy, the disk-thing(s), the illusionist (possibly the same as the disk-thing), Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, darkhound pack, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate.

Thread List:

Find out what's happening to Ryan.
Protect Ryan from his old gang.
Treat that damned illusionist to some payback.
Free Ryan from the disk's spiritual hold.
Free myself, for that matter.
Take Goat down a peg or three.
Make ready for the trip into Shadow.
Find the guts to make a clean breast to Jake.

Chaos Factor: 5 -> 6

New Scene: Mark wakes up, I think. Altered scene!

Pete and Fr. Leo emerged from the living room to find Teresa bustling about the kitchen. "Mark's up. And he's hungry." "No surprise there."

Going in the bedroom again, he found Mark talking animatedly to Thomas and Ryan. "Pete! I had the most incredible nightmare! Never had one so vivid. You rescued me again..." He sounded as if he wanted very much to believe it and looked desperately to Pete for confirmation. Dammit, Pete thought, Dad's going to try to bury it all again now.

Q(Unsure): Does Leo spill the beans? NO.

Fr. Leo looked to Pete for his reaction also, raising a brow. Peter said deliberately, "It wasn't a nightmare, Mark." To Thomas' indignant, stricken expression, he said, "I'm through lying to him, Dad."

Leo beamed, Ryan looked ready to run for his life, and Mark was stunned. "Lying to me about what?"

Fr. Leo beckoned to Ryan, who fled willingly enough. They withdrew, and soon Teresa came in. Pete locked eyes with his father. "You going to tell him, or shall I?" Mark, increasingly upset, said, "Tell me WHAT?!"

Thomas asked plaintively, "Can't we at least wait for Catherine to get home?" "Dad... Kate's self-trained, yeah, but she's good. If it's important enough, she doesn't need a plane. Call her." "She surely doesn't know Mobility." "No, but she's got other tricks - she'll probably arrive at that tree in the yard she likes so much. Call her."

Mark started to edge toward hysteria. "Will somebody please tell me what the HELL is going on?!" When neither of his parents corrected his profanity, he got if anything even more upset. Pete finally told him, "Hey. Hang in there, bro. All will be explained when Kate gets here, all right?" When Mark started to shout over him, he said, "Hey! Two rescues are worth a little patience, aren't they?" That shut him up.

Thomas protested, "Jacob should be here..." "Oh for... He'll live. Call her. Or I will." Cowed, his father withdrew, pulling out his cell phone.

Q(Very Unlikely): Does Jake make it in? YES.

It happened faster than even Pete would have believed possible. Fr. Leo (who was considerably better with Mobility than Pete was) managed to fetch Jake, and Kate managed to witch her way into Pete's yard rather than the family home. Pete joked wanly to her, "Getting better, I see." She kissed his cheek. "Thanks, big bro."

Eyes widened all around: Jake's and Kate's at Mark's battered condition, and Mark's and Kate's at Jake's knightly tunic and surcoat - he hadn't taken the time to change being fetched from the chapterhouse.

Mark, exasperated, finally said, "NOW will somebody explain to me what's going on?!"

Thomas sighed. "Peter, if you please?" Pete nodded, and set his hand to Invictus' hilt, drawing it forth from its sheath. He reversed the blade and knelt formally, presenting the hilt to his father. "À votre service, seigneur des Marches."

Nobody breathed as Thomas gripped the hilt of Invictus, which began to glow. (Though it was no longer attuned to him, it always recognized the lawful Count.) Jake protested, "Father, the tradition..." "Enough, Jacob. The die is cast. I believe Peter is right in this."

Thomas looked ten years younger in the light of the sword he had loyally borne for so many years. "Mark... Catherine. You already know our family's proud history as rulers of the County des Marches in Provence. But you do not yet know all."

He began at the beginning. "For as long as the world has been, it has cast a Shadow: A darkling place, full of dread and doom. Fell beings lurk there, thirsting for the lifeblood of all who live. And for as long as the world has been, there have been those called to the defense of the world itself, to man the walls of Creation. Our ancestors were among them."

"For untold ages, the Demarches have fought and bled and died in a secret war, a war on behalf of those who dare not know of it. Our deeds have been mostly unsung, our battles unseen. But God sees, and the angels sing."

"Twelve centuries ago, a grateful King of the Franks granted to our illustrious ancestor Bertrand, first of his name, the county we have held all the long years since. You surely must have wondered why our lands are called 'the Border'? They are not particularly close to any other nation - we were meant from the first to stand guard against the dark."

"And so when Holy Mother Church saw fit, three centuries later, to form the Order of St. Michael to oppose the Shadow, Bertrand's descendants were among the first to take vows. Every generation since, we have answered the call."

"When Revolution came to our homeland, we fled; valuing life and the needs of our war over fear of dishonor. We have made a new home here, in the United States of America; yet we are still the blood des Marches. The love of Provence flows in our veins, yet our love for the world is stronger yet. We serve, as we have always served."

"But though we have lost our land, we have a greater treasure yet: This sword, the blade Invictus. Unconquered, unconquerable, it cannot be broken save by its wielder breaking faith. It is wielded now by your brother Peter, my heir. Rise, Squire Peter."

Pete's heart broke at the title. "Father..." "Rise. And receive that which has come down to you." Peter rose and accepted the blade from his father's hands. Raising it in salute, it continued to glow; the mark of his inheritance.

"Mark and Catherine, your brothers, Peter and Jacob, have sought formation as Knights of St. Michael." Pete and Jake both looked ready to contest Pete's status, but Thomas quelled them both with a glance. He continued, "You need not do the same, when you are able. The call must be freely heeded and freely taken up. ... Our tradition has always been to reserve this knowledge from the young until they attain to the age of twenty-one years, but circumstances have dictated otherwise in this case. I am sure you have questions."

Mark said at once, "Yeah. Where do I sign up?" Teresa sobbed once, then dried her eyes; she had long since accepted the family she had married into. The boy said, "I know, Mom. But the war's already found me, right? I may as well do some rescuing as well as being rescued." Here he grinned at Pete, who grinned back.

Thomas could not contain his pride, but he strove to keep his voice neutral. "You will have to be Confirmed first, Mark, and then likely graduate from college; times change, and the Order follows the Church's modern rules in these things. But be you faithful and true, I doubt not but that you will be accepted."

Kate broke in. "Okay. So the Church opposes this Shadow, I get that. And I think I've seen hints of it, enough to agree that it's worth opposing. But where does the magic fit in? How do you square what Pete and I do with the Catechism, Dad?" Mark asked, confused, "What you do? What do you mean?"

Thomas looked to Pete, who replied, "We're mages, Mark. Wizards, sorcerers, whatever you want to call it. Some people have it, others don't. Kate and I do. And we're both damn good, if I do say so myself. The Demarche blood has always run strong." Kate had to grin at that.

Mark struggled to come to terms with this. "Do I have it?" "Nope. And no, you almost certainly never will. Sorry." "...Is that how you did the rescuing?" "Yep. Along with a bit of chop-chop with Invictus here." He sheathed the blade.

Kate waved. "Yoo hoo. Still awaiting an answer here." Pete turned to her. "Magic's a tool, a technology. There ARE evil things that can be done with it, things that the Church forbids. Both experience and Divine Revelation have shown that some things are simply never worth doing, are outrages against human nature. Trying to contact the dead, for example. Or trafficking with spirits. Or predicting the future. Things like that inevitably corrupt the people who try them, no matter how pure their motives are in the beginning."

Kate's eyes narrowed. "So because I talk to fairies, I'm a witch and a sinner, is that it? Suffer not the witch to live?" Pete rolled his eyes. "Fairies aren't spirits, sis. Sheesh, you're powerful, but you just don't KNOW much. You need training, I keep telling you that." Kate blinked several times at that.

Mark held up a hand. "Wait, wait, wait. Fairies?!" Pete laughed, and even Thomas cracked a smile. "Okay, look. The world casts a Shadow, right? But two things are needed to make a shadow - a light source, and the object that obstructs it. Opposite the Shadow is the Light. It's a source of life and energy and magic; the Shadow is a sink. Nothing lives in the Light itself - complicated! - but some things live here that have metabolisms based directly on the flow of Light. Traditionally we call them fey, but fairies will do. They're just people, like us, only generally more powerful. Some of them are decent folks, others are jerks, and a few are real scumbags. Heck, you know how in the Arabian Nights some djinni are good Muslims? That happens to be true. And some fey are good Christians too."

Kate was flabbergasted. "Next you'll tell me there's an Archbishop of Faerie!" Pete looked to Thomas, the history professor. "That was tried in the 15th century, wasn't it?" Thomas paused to remember. "1437, as I recall. The Protestant Reformation bollixed things up so badly in Faerie that the title's mostly honorary these days, attached to the Primate of Ireland." Pete grinned at Kate's rising confusion. "See, one thing you really can blame the Protestants for!"

Everyone was shocked when Kate suddenly burst into tears. Teresa went to embrace her, and when she started to calm, Pete (her favorite brother) asked her gently, "Kate? What's wrong?"

"What's WRONG?! You all let me think I had to choose!" "Choose between what?" "Between my faith and what I AM!" Nobody had a reply to that. Thomas' voice trembled as he said, "Catherine..." Kate fought free of her mother and spat out, "Don't start, Dad. Just don't even start." She stormed out.

Thomas started after her, but Jake (of all people) stopped him. "Let her go, Dad. She needs to work through a bunch of stuff, but she'll come back. I did, didn't I?" Pete looked at his brother with a faint spark of appreciation. Aloud he agreed, "She's a Demarche."

Q(Likely): Does Leo take care of Kate? EXCEPTIONAL YES.

Thomas bit his lip, then also agreed. "She's a Demarche." Then, to Peter, "I can see it's past time we rethought some family traditions." Mark inquired conversationally, "So, you're telling me this family has ALWAYS been crazy?"

Everyone laughed hysterically at that, draining off a great deal of tension. Helpless with mirth, Pete and Jake leaned on each other... then mutually recoiled when they came to themselves enough to realize it.

Meanwhile Teresa added pungently, "If the ones I've known are any indication..." Quoting the Bard, Thomas said, "I'll stop thy mouth," and kissed her thoroughly to whoops from the boys.

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, the Demons, Goat, Billy, the disk-thing(s), the illusionist (possibly the same as the disk-thing), Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, darkhound pack, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate.

Thread List:

Find out what's happening to Ryan.
Protect Ryan from his old gang.
Treat that damned illusionist to some payback.
Free Ryan from the disk's spiritual hold.
Free myself, for that matter.
Take Goat down a peg or three.
Make ready for the trip into Shadow.
Find the guts to make a clean breast to Jake.

Chaos Factor: 6 -> 5
 

The Shadow

Adventurer
[Just to let you guys know, I'm going to be drop-dead busy the coming week, so I may not have time to post anything until the weekend.]

New Scene: Fallout from the big reveal: More from Mark, Kate, Jake. Altered Scene!

ComplexQ: Okay... No clue what the alteration should be? Expose/Illness. [?!]

Q(Likely): Is the illness in question Pete's infection? YES.

Mark unsurprisingly had a lot more questions, and dealing with those took most of the afternoon. In the course of all that, the news of Pete's and Ryan's infections came out.

Q(Unsure): Does Jake shove his oar in? NO.

Q(Unsure): Is he saving it up for later? YES.

Mark's eyes went round. "What's it going to do to you?" Pete sighed. "The same thing it's doing to Ryan, I'd guess - only slower. I have defenses he doesn't." "And I had it too?" "Yes. Fr. Leo got it out of you, praise God."

Mark swallowed. "Pete... Can I talk to you alone for a second?" Blinking, "Uh, sure?" He looked to his parents and Jake. Thomas nodded, and led the way out.

Pete frowned as Mark struggled to his feet. "You shouldn't be moving around so much." "I wanna look you in the eye." Really puzzled now, "...Okay?"

Q(Very Likely): Does Mark want to come on the Shadow trip? YES - and a Random Event!

Close a Thread: Treat that damned illusionist to some payback. [?!!? This makes no sense! ... Oh. My. Gosh. IT DOES! It totally does! Not that this one thing will resolve the whole adventure, of course, but that something can be set in motion right now that will screw the bastard over!]

That done, Mark said earnestly, "Pete, I want to go with you and Ryan." Pete snorted. "Ain't gonna happen, bro." "Why not?" "This is a strictly need-to-go mission, and you don't need to go. Not to mention that you're a complete babe in the woods when it comes to this stuff."

Mark nodded. "I know. But I've been a babe LOST in those woods, and I need to face them down. First the gang, then those hounds... My God, Pete, what is it?!"

Peter gaped open-mouthed as an insight suddenly crystallized in his brain. "Holy Mary Mother of God," he breathed, "It can't be... can it?" Memories swirled in his brain, as pieces fell into place:

The gangbangers, rendered as circling shadow-things after he destroyed the disk.

Goat saying, "I'm supposed to tell you this fight doesn't matter!"

Ryan saying of Goat, "He said he was in Hell already, and that I'd be joining him."

Being circled by the darkhound pack as they urged him to join them... Just as they'd urged Ryan to join the gang, in human form. And they'd mauled Mark as Shadows, as once they'd mauled him physically.

No sign of the hounds on the chessboard... But Goat was a Pawn.

[I SWEAR I did not consciously premeditate this! But it all fits! Even the disks being intelligent in their own right fits!]

Mark repeated anxiously "Pete?!" But his brother was already tearing the door open. "DAD! When are those Knights getting here? Make sure they're loaded for bear - things just got a whole HECK of a lot more interesting!!"

[Wow, quite a few things just changed in the lists. I now definitively know what's going on with Ryan, so that thread is closed too. Protecting Ryan from his old gang is arguably now the same thing as freeing him from the disk's influence. Several NPC's just collapsed into one, as well. And some threads will need renaming.]

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, the Demons/darkhound pack, Goat, Billy, the illusionist, Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate.

Thread List:

Free Ryan from the darkhound curse.
Free myself, for that matter.
Take Goat down a peg or three.
Make ready for the trip into Shadow.
Find the guts to make a clean breast to Jake.

Chaos Factor: 5 -> 4

New Scene: Fr. Leo putting the icing on the cake. [Heh. While this was neither an Altered Scene nor an Interrupt, it certainly turned out a lot differently than I was expecting!]

Everyone waited tensely as Fr. Leo examined Ryan magically in the living room. (Everyone including Kate; she and Fr. Leo had gone for a long walk while the others explained everything to Mark. She'd come back teary-eyed, but to a tensely excited family.)

Pete, Jake, and Thomas all gaped when the priest opened the door and poked his head out: None of them had ever seen him scared before. But he was still in command of his voice when he said, "Peter, please join us. I require your assistance."

Entering without a word, Pete looked to Fr. Leo. Ryan was standing slumped in the middle of the room, obviously in a trance. His old teacher informed him, "I realize you may not be able, but I want you to try to cast Lumen Veritatis. I pray that these old eyes are mistaken."

Q(Unsure): Does it work? EXCEPTIONAL NO. [Oh. My.]

ComplexQ: What just happened? Care/Wounds [...Huh.]

Q(Unsure): Pete's wounds? NO. [Okay... that leaves Ryan and Mark. Hmmm.]

Pete nodded. "Of course, Father." He touched his Crux and began to say, "Lu-" when several things happened at once:

Pete's throat spasmed, his breath coming out sounding like a snarl;

Ryan abruptly raised his head, eyes narrowed and awake with a feral light, lips curled back in a snarl of his own;

And Mark cried out in the next room.

Fr. Leo gaped, then said in a commanding voice, "Exsurgat Deus, et dissipentur inimici ejus!" Blinding light flooded the room for an instant; when it faded, Ryan was sprawled on the floor and Pete was hanging onto a wall for dear life. "What on earth was THAT?!"

The old monk was calm once more. "The opening to Psalm 68." "I know that, but what WAS it? Like Banishment, only MORE so!" Fr. Leo was already making for Ryan with controlled haste. "I will tell you someday. For now, I need you to check on young Mark." "Oh my God! Right."

Rushing out, he found Mark (still wearing an old bathrobe Pete had loaned him) slumped in a chair, clutching his belly and gasping for breath. He was crowded by anxious family, but when Pete said firmly, "Out of my way," Thomas drew them aside.

Touching Mark's brow (he was burning up), he asked, "Tell me what happened." Mark gasped out, "It... just hurt! All at once! Like fire! Still does!"

He didn't dare try Lumen Veritatis, of course, but there were all sorts of other tools at his disposal, none of which had given him any reaction before. "Hey. Take my hand. Look me in the eye. You're gonna be okay."

Mark did so shakily while Pete considered. Dunno if I dare try sharing my vitality with him again; it might open him up to whatever I've got inside. But helping people overcome pain is another acceptable use of mental suggestion. He made a connection through Mark's eyes, the windows of the soul: "It's okay. The pain is far away now. Far away. It's there somewhere, but you don't have to pay attention to it right now. All right?"

Mark's face eased slowly. "...Yeah." (Thomas let out a slow breath while Teresa bit her lip. Kate watched intently, while Jake frowned.) Pete said slowly, "I'm going to check you out a bit now. If you feel any pain, squeeze my hand. When you squeeze my hand, the pain will go far away again. Understand?" Mark mumbled, "Yeah, Pete."

Kate said abruptly in a quiet voice, "Pete." Blink. "Yes, Kate?" "I've cast a spell to see the unseen." "And?" "You've, uh. ... You've got a dog-like... thing. Coiled up inside of you." "Not entirely surprising. What about Mark?"

Q(Unsure): Is Mark infected again? NO.

[Okay, true confession time. The original answer to this question was YES. But as I continued on into the next scene, I felt more and more unhappy with how things were going. I paused to take stock, and realized that having Mark get infected again was just plain bad for the story. It was just a reprise of what had gone before: "Once more, with feeling!" So I decided just to wave the magic wand of Retconjuration and call it good.]

[So, while I've kept some parts of this scene and the next one, I've also had to retcon away large chunks of them and fill in the blanks. Lesson learned: When one possible outcome to a yes/no question is bad for the story, don't roll the dice!]

ComplexQ: So what IS going on? Mistrust/Emotions. [...Huh.]

Kate frowned, peering more intently. "His wound is... like a doorway. It leads to someplace very dark." Abruptly, Mark squeezed Pete's hand, his breathing ragged again. "It hurts, Pete! And I feel... weird!"

Pete squeezed back. "Look at me, Mark. It's far away. Weird how?" "I feel... cold. And angry. And... empty. I don't know why!" Pete's brows furrowed in confusion. "Keep telling me what you feel, Mark." He whispered the words to a minor divination.

Mark's head lolled back and forth as if he were denying something with all his heart. "I feel... This is so weird! I love you, you're my brother, you rescued me, but... I feel like I hate you, right now. I want you... not dead, no. I want you to be at my mercy, under my control."

Pete froze for a long moment at what his divination revealed. "It's okay, Mark, no offense taken. Time to sleep now, okay?" Mark shook his head. "No, Pete, I wanna know what's going on." "Okay, I guess you deserve that." He stood, turning an ashen face to his family. "You're weren't kidding, Kate. That wound of his is a direct line to Shadow. I think... he's in contact with our enemy."

[And now a question my gut tells me I have to ask: ]

Q(Somewhat Likely): Is the illusionist connected in some way, however esoteric, to Jake? YES.

Q(No Way): Does Jake realize that? NO.

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, the Demons/darkhound pack, Goat, Billy, the illusionist, Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate.

Thread List:

Free Ryan from the darkhound curse.
Free myself, for that matter.
Take Goat down a peg or three.
Make ready for the trip into Shadow.
Find the guts to make a clean breast to Jake.

Chaos Factor: 4 -> 5

New Scene: Taking stock and plotting the next step.

Mark wheezed out a chuckle. "Does this mean I get to go with you after all?" Thomas and Teresa said, "No!" in unison, while Pete said, "I really don't know at this point, bro," and Jake frowned.

Thomas collected his wits. "Peter... What in blazes is going on?! Shadow doesn't work this way!" "Tell me about it, Dad! I'm as flabbergasted as you are!"

Teresa folded her arms and demanded with authority, "Somebody explain, please. RIGHT NOW!" Peter said, "Uh. Sorry, Mom. We've just never seen anything like this before. I mean, Shadow has all sorts of monsters, most of which want to feed on people in some way. And people who get too deeply entangled with Shadow can get corrupted into 'dusklings' themselves. At first I thought something similar was happening to Ryan... But this? Deliberately transforming people into Shadows? Forging spiritual connections across dimensions? I mean, sure, there are some Shadow-beings who are good at magic, but this is just bizarre!"

His mother said icily, "A few hours ago, I heard a priest begin the Rite of Exorcism over you and my baby." Mark's eyes widened at that. (He squeezed Pete's hand again, and was comforted.) She continued, "The Knights' prayer invokes St. Michael's protection against the Devil. Just what is so bizarre about this? Am I to understand this isn't demonic obsession?"

Pete shook his head. "The Shadow isn't Hell, Mom. You can't fight the Devil with swords, or even with magic - only with faith and the sacraments. Diabolical forces can tempt Shadow-beings the same way they tempt us, but Shadow is usually too blunt an instrument for their purposes these days. The Order saves peoples' lives and sanity, not their souls."

"And the Rite?" she demanded. "To be more precise, Fr. Leo used the opening words of the Rite to channel what he intended to do. Magic is mostly about intention; the words are mostly there to focus and canalize our intentions so that we don't go off-track. There's... more to it than that, yes. But not less."

She still wasn't convinced. "That seems a rather cavalier way to treat a prayer and a sacramental of the Church." "I'm not saying he wasn't praying, Mom. That was undoubtedly his intention. It's just that a mage's intention can be... energized... in ways beyond what is normally possible. That's one big reason why we use Latin, you know - if we got in the habit of energizing things we said in English, things'd get messy quick!" Kate's eyes widened slightly at that, but she said nothing.

[I realize this seems like a massive infodump, but in point of fact I was feeling out for myself just how these things work as I went, and trying to smooth over some inconsistencies that were starting to really bug me. I'm still not 100% happy with it, but you know what? This is a story, not a treatise. Moving on!]

Fr. Leo opened the door to the living room, looking haggard. Ryan followed him, the boy's face streaked with tears. "Lord have mercy," Leo sighed. "I've never seen the like of this - though I've read of similar things, in the twelfth and seventeenth centuries."

Thomas paled as he considered the ramifications of that. He asked quietly, "What is it, Father?" The priest shook his head. "Some Shadow-mage has developed a... rather better imagination than the usual run of these things, along with a power source that remains obscure to me. He MUST be stopped before he gets any more skilled." Pete sighed. "It gets worse, Father. Take a look at Mark here."

Leo did so. "That... would be very interesting if it weren't so terrifying." Mark rolled his eyes. "Gee, thanks." Pete replied, "That was my take, too. But do you really think he did this on purpose? What's the point?"

Q(Unlikely): Did he? NO.

ComplexQ: So what's going on? Inquire/Dispute. [Hmmmm.]

Leo shook his head. "No, I don't. I think he left a trigger in you to prevent your investigating. When you tried to cast Lumen Veritatis, it woke the curse in you, and, by extension through the pack, in Ryan as well. Mark was close by, and vulnerable to outside influence... The bleed-off exposed him to our enemy's working again, but in a way he did not anticipate. I am not certain how long this effect will last... but as long as it does, we have a direct line to our foe."

Q(Somewhat Likely): Does the bad guy know about this connection? YES.

Q(Unsure): Is he trying to close it off? EXCEPTIONAL NO. [Oh, for...]

Jake spoke up sharply, "Direct line or not, it's too dangerous! HE has a direct line to MARK as well!" Nobody disagreed with him. "Can't you rip it out of him?"

Q(Unlikely): Good question. Can we? NO.

Q(Unlikely): Will it fade on its own? EXCEPTIONAL YES. [Huh!]

Kate said abruptly, "Moot point! It's fading away!" Leo nodded. "She's right." Mark yelled in pain for a second, then panted heavily. "I think... I think he's gone." He squeezed Pete's hand again, more for gratitude than for autosuggestion.

Q(Unlikely): Did he succeed in doing anything nefarious to Mark? NO.

Pete asked him, "Did you feel anything more?"

[At this point I put the game on the back burner for a good long while to simmer - the retcon had really bothered me and I wanted to come back to it fresh. So, coming back to it several months later: ]

Mark paused, collecting his thoughts and his breath. "He... envies you? I think. It's like... he hates you because you have something he can never have."

Pete blinked at that. "I do? Like what?" "I don't know! But it's personal, I can tell you that. Not that he's a social butterfly or anything, but he doesn't hate anybody the way he hates you."

Everyone pondered that. Pete turned and asked Fr. Leo, "How on earth have I managed to personally offend a Shadow-being?" The elderly priest shook his head. "I do not know, Peter... but none of my guesses are pleasant ones."

Pete thought of Morven, and of Jamie. "Yeah. I guess they wouldn't be."

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, the Demons/darkhound pack, Goat, Billy, the illusionist, Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate.

Thread List:

Free Ryan from the darkhound curse.
Free myself, for that matter.
Take Goat down a peg or three.
Make ready for the trip into Shadow.
Find the guts to make a clean breast to Jake.
Get to the bottom of my relationship to the illusionist.

Chaos Factor: 5 -> 6
 
Last edited:

The Shadow

Adventurer
New Scene: Mopping up the Demons

With the amount of firepower - both physical and magical - that the Knights of St. Michael could bring to bear if sufficient need existed, it didn't take much to roll up the Demons. The Shepherds of Gideon even sent a liaison to the operation, Brother Hezekiah White. (Pete grimaced inwardly at that. He and Hezekiah had history together, from the summer he'd spent with the Shepherds under their mutual 'exchange program' with the Knights.)

[The Shepherds are the Reformed Protestant counterpart to the Knights. Unlike the Knights, they officially regard all magic as intrinsically evil, and all creatures of Shadow as 'Hellspawn'. But both groups are pragmatic enough to work together when the need arises... Magic may be wrong, but there's overflowingly ample proof that Michaelite mages and the Hellspawn aren't on the same side!]

Q(Unlikely): Do any of the Demons escape? NO.

Q(Somewhat Likely): Any of them killed? EXCEPTIONAL YES.

The gang members suffered under the disadvantages both of being creatures of Shadow and of being human. Michaelite mages could track them once they knew what to look for, but the possessed gangbangers proved unable to draw on sufficient power in the Earth plane to be real threats.

Their master proved pitiless indeed. Several of the Demons died by remote command shortly after capture; several others were found dead before they could be captured. Only a few were taken alive and placed under powerful wards before they could be discarded. Goat was, thankfully, one of them.

Q(Somewhat Likely): How about Billy? YES.

Pete asked Sir Athanasius (a mage on loan from another province that he didn't know well), "So, what do you think? Can they be cured?" The older man snorted. "Not so long as they've got kill-commands bombarding them the second the wards come down, no. The wards scotch our own best efforts too... Honestly, though, as deeply embedded as the changes seem to be, I don't think the prognosis is good even under ideal conditions. If they've freely chosen to be infected... That makes everything harder."

Pete nodded sadly. At least under ward their darkhound personae would be removed from Shadow. "Well... Let's see what we can find out." He went in to talk to Goat.

[Removing the Demons from the NPC list other than the named members.]

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, Goat, Billy, the illusionist, Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate, Brother Hezekiah, Sir Athanasius.

Thread List:

Free Ryan from the darkhound curse.
Free myself, for that matter.
Take Goat down a peg or three.
Make ready for the trip into Shadow.
Find the guts to make a clean breast to Jake.
Get to the bottom of my relationship to the illusionist.

Chaos Factor: 6 -> 5

New Scene: Interrogating Goat

Q(Unlikely): Goat still got the attitude? NO.

Q(Unlikely): Does he want to make a deal? NO.

Pete entered Goat's cell, followed by Sir Athanasius, Fr. Leo, Brother Hezekiah, and a few other Knights. "Hello again, Goat. Or should I say Aaron?" They knew his name now, of course.

Aaron Taylor, otherwise known as Goat, was rather deflated from the smirking youth Pete had seen last. Being shackled to the wall and dressed in prison clothes somehow didn't bring out his sparkling personality... He didn't meet Pete's eyes. "Whattaya want, Teach?"

"Answers, mostly. I would suggest giving them while we're asking nicely. Because we don't have to play nice."

Aaron snorted. "What are you gonna do? Kill me? I'll already die the second I step out of here. Torture me? Get in line. I've had pain before, I don't think I'll crack." He sounded more sullen than defiant, though.

[The Knights would never torture him, of course. But they could try to cure him of the deeply-embedded darkhound curse, which Aaron probably wouldn't enjoy at all.]

"Maybe not. But how'd you like to have your life back?" The young man shook his head. "You can't give me that." "We could... if we took your boss down." Aaron rolled his eyes. "Yeah, that's gonna happen. But even if you could... You'd let me go free?"

"Relatively speaking. We wouldn't let you run off and form your own gang again, no. But you also wouldn't be beholden to an inhuman thing from another dimension, either."

With a deep sigh, "You just don't get it." "What don't I get?" "Being 'beholden to an inhuman thing' was the point." "Ah. That's how you felt bigger than other people, got it. How you felt like you actually mattered."

Goat glared at him. "What would you know about it, huh?! You're a f*ckin' wizard, you got a centuries-old magic f*ckin' sword, you got everything!"

Pete shook his head sadly. "And that's what you don't get, Aaron. Yeah, a lot has come down to me... but it's not all fun and games. Duty comes with it. I'm called to protect people, not to gratify my own desires."

Aaron laughed bitterly. "'With great power comes great responsibility', huh? Great, you're f*ckin' Spiderman." "Nope. I'm Uncle Ben. I'm trying to encourage you to be a hero, Aaron. You want to be a hero? You want to help take down a threat to the entire Earth? Because that's what I'm offering you. You can be somebody like you've never been before."

"Sure, sure. And who'll know about it?" "The most important person of all: You will. And if it matters to you at all, so will I - the guy who's got everything except the answers you can give. And so will these gentlemen."

"Thanks for the PSA, Teach. That was a real Important Message this fine Saturday morning, I feel really f*ckin' uplifted." "Good, glad to hear it. So talk."

"Why should I?" "Why not?"

Aaron deflated a little more. "I don't know anything you can use, anyway." "Try us."

It took a lot more encouraging, but Goat eventually spilled his guts.

Q(Unsure): Does he actually know anything useful? NO.

There wasn't a whole lot there, other than some contacts in occult matters the Knights would definitely want to follow up. Nothing they could use against their primary enemy... though Aaron did confirm that his erstwhile master - who in his dealings with the Demons took the grandiose name of 'Azazel' - had a highly personal grudge against Pete.

Afterward, Sir Athanasius mused, "Nicely handled," while Brother Hezekiah added with a glower, "Aye, you maneuvered him like a proper Jesuit."

Pete laughed. "Coming from you, Hezekiah, I'll take that as a compliment." "That you should not." "I know. Which is why I will." At this, Hezekiah threw up his hands and exclaimed, "Papists!" while the Knights exchanged amused glances.

[Hezekiah's speech patterns are a deliberate affectation - a few of the Shepherds are like that, longing for the Good Old Days.]

[The thread of taking Goat down a peg or three is now clearly resolved.]

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, Goat, Billy, the illusionist/Azazel, Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate, Brother Hezekiah, Sir Athanasius.

Thread List:

Free Ryan from the darkhound curse.
Free myself, for that matter.
Make ready for the trip into Shadow.
Find the guts to make a clean breast to Jake.
Get to the bottom of my relationship to the illusionist.

Chaos Factor: 5 -> 4
 

The Shadow

Adventurer
New Scene: Telling Jake and Dad the story

Preparations for the expedition proceeded apace. As they did, Pete began to feel more and more ill at ease... and not just because he was going into danger. There was still his penance to perform, and he dreaded it.

[I don't know how this would work under Mythic rules, but a flashback just works here, so I'm going with it: ]

-----------------------

Pete remembered a family Labor Day gathering the previous year. He and Jake had been fighting one of their less-than-friendly fencing matches - with practice swords, of course.

It'd been quite the battle-royal; both brothers took these bouts deadly seriously. Pete had put up an excellent fight... but he'd divided his studies with magic, while Jake was a natural with a sword. In the end, Jake had managed to feint in sixte, turn Pete's answering stroke aside, and lay his point against Pete's gut. Gloating, he'd said, "You'd be dead if we were in the field, bro."

Pete had completely lost it. "In the field?! Are you kidding me?! In the field, I'd be wielding Invictus. In the field, I'd be using my full skill-set." Gloating viciously now too, he'd added, "You'd be putty in my hands, bro."

He still remembered how Jake's face had closed off all emotion. How he'd stalked off without a further word. His father had asked, "What did you say to your brother?" and Pete had replied, "Nothing he didn't already know."

---------------------------

Finally he screwed up his courage and asked Jake and his father to meet with him privately.

Thomas said, "I saw the transcript of your interrogation of that 'Goat' fellow. You did well." Pete swallowed. "Thanks, Dad." Jake just folded his arms and asked impatiently, "What did you want to tell us?"

"I, uh. I'm supposed to tell you why I left the Knights. And I guess I need to tell you, too." Jake's face closed off like a mask, but Thomas' softened. "We're listening, Peter."

Pete paused to collect his thoughts and still his pounding heart. "I, uh. I was sent on a pretty routine patrol. We'd had word of a darkmasque feeding in the area, so we were checking out this apartment building for signs of activity. Sir Robert and I were keeping watch outside..."

[Here, have another flashback. I wrote up this scene for the original campaign, years ago: ]

-----------------------

Jon started awake to a sudden noise, reaching instantly for his pistol. He lay still, listening, when it came again - a creaking floorboard, followed by a whispered, "Jon? Are you awake?" (For once, someone didn't make the tired old 'Frère Jacques' joke!)

"Peter?! Is that you?! I nearly shot you! How-" "Shh. I kept telling you guys that your magical security wasn't up to snuff, but of course nobody listened. How you expect to set up decent teleport wards without any mages is beyond me." "But why are you here...?" Jon turned a lamp on, and only then saw the tears in his friend's eyes. "Oh, brother." Without further words, he rose from the bed and embraced Pete's trembling form. "Speak to me."

"I have to, Jon. I have to. I can't... talk about it with any of them. It's too raw, for all of us." Hesitantly, Jon asked, "Is it... Jamie? I heard..." "You didn't hear everything. Because I'm the only one who knows it all." "Tell me, then. I'm listening. And... I won't judge you." He hadn't been sure that was the right thing to say, but apparently it was, because Pete couldn't contain his tears any longer.

After a long interval, "Ever heard of Morven?" "The vampire? Of course. He's dangerous." "Yeah." Long silence, then Pete continued with an effort, "He snatched Jamie out of a team on an unrelated mission, just like that. Nobody knows why him; maybe it could've been anyone." "Good Lord!" "It's worse, Jon. Morven... turned him. And sent him back, to kill us."

Jon could only listen in mute horror as Pete described events in a dead, flat voice - a computer regurgitating data, except when overpowering emotion forced its way through. "Sir Robert and I were watching the rear while the rest of the team checked out a building where we suspected a darkmasque was feeding. Something jumped down on Rob from the roof with no warning; messed him up bad, though they think he'll pull through. It gave me enough time to draw Invictus and fire off a Lumen Dei spell... the light showed me it was Jamie."

"It burned him, of course. He... howled... and jumped at me. And... And he said... 'Do it, Pete! Kill me! I can't live like this!' All while trying his best to tear my throat out. Oh God..." "And you did. You gave him the release he needed." Pete nodded, exhausted by the flood of tears. "You did right, Pete. You have to know that. He'd have killed you if you hadn't, and more good men would be dead today." "I know all that. I do. Really! But it doesn't make me FEEL any better!"

Jon said frankly, "I can't even imagine what it feels like. I've seen men die, but I've never had to kill a... Well, I guess he wasn't a brother any more, was he?" "It was HIM, Jon! It was him! He wanted to die, he just couldn't." "Maybe it was a trick, to set you off guard?" "If it was a trick, he..." "What?" "He wouldn't have said, 'Pray for me,' as he died." "He didn't die then, Peter. Jamie was already dead. That thing you killed may have had Jamie's looks, his voice, his memories... maybe even some of his attitudes. But James, our brother, was gone." "How can we KNOW that?!"

"Peter, think! Jamie was your friend. He loved you! He wouldn't try to kill you!" "There's such things as magical compulsions. I know the theory, though I'd never TRY it." Jon winced. "I know." "And you yourself said I 'released' him, right?"

Harshly, Jon replied, "I did, but I guess I just don't want to believe it. That alternative is too horrible." "Huh?"

"If that thing WAS Jamie... then he was Hellspawn. Damned." Pete shoved Jon away violently. "How dare you say that! HOW DARE YOU?!" "Would you rather I lied?" "Jamie was a good man!" "This isn't the time to argue about works-righteousness, Peter." "F*ck you and f*ck your narrow, ugly, Calvinist... BULLSH*T!"

Jon sought desperately for a way to de-escalate. After a silent prayer, he said quietly, "If I've been narrow and ugly, I ask you to forgive me, Peter. I'm your friend and your brother, and I love you." He opened his arms; Pete held back for a moment, then fell into them again, sobbing. Jon said quietly, "I don't know what's the right thing to say. Maybe there isn't anything right just now." "So shut UP, will you?!" Silence reigned.

After a long time, Pete pulled away and said with a ghost of his usual humor, "I forgive you for being a narrow, ugly Calvinist. Though I'm not sure you have true contrition and a firm purpose of amendment..." Jon took a bow. "Thank you, brother. I forgive you in turn for being a superstitious, sophistical Papist, always confusing the plain sense of the Bible."

"You forgot 'jesuitical'. That's got the proper Reformation brimstone to it." "Of course! I hereby forgive you for being jesuitical as well, unto seventy times seven a day." "What if I'm jesuitical 491 times a day?" "See, now that's exactly what I'm talking about!" They both laughed, Pete a bit feebly; all the same, Jon was relieved.

"Are you going to be okay, Pete?" "I... don't know, Jon. More likely now, though, I think. Thanks." "I'm glad. And honored that you place your trust in me."

Pete paused in the act of casting Mobility to return home. "Who else could I trust more?" Jon said quietly, "I feel the same way. Go in peace, Peter." "Amen, amen. I sure hope so!" With that he faded from sight; as ever the magic tugged at Jon's perceptions, making him wonder despite himself if Pete had really just walked out the door or something.

"I hope so too." With that, Jon knelt to say a prayer for his friend, then for Sir Robert Bauman and the other Knights of St. Michael, then for the family of James O'Reilly. He started to rise, paused. Then, resolutely, he prayed for Jamie himself too. Catholic superstition? Maybe. But it seemed right, all the same.

---------------------------

With trembling voice, Pete described how Jamie, newly vampirized by Morven, had attacked him while begging to be killed. How he'd granted that request.

He was shaking uncontrollably by the end, tears trickling down his face. He couldn't look either of them in the eye.

Thomas looked upon him with wonder and pity. "Oh, Peter..." but Jake's flat voice cut him off. "That's it?"

When both Pete and Thomas gaped at him, Jake bulled on, "This is why you left your vocation and sullied the family name? Because you killed a vampire that was trying to kill you? Please."

Pete flinched, but Thomas went hard and cold as ice. He said warningly, "Jacob..." Jake glared at him. "What, Dad? I'm supposed to feel all sorry for Pete because he had to kill one of the Knights? If it'd been ME in Jamie's place he'd've been glad to do it! And he nearly got Mark killed - or worse! - so we can see what blood counts for..."

Thomas roared, "SILENCE!" Thomas had yelled orders for years in the Knights, but his sons had rarely heard him raise his voice: Jacob shut up.

Thomas continued, "It is no secret to me that there has been no love lost between the two of you for years. But I had no idea that your envy of your brother had brought you to this."

Q(Unlikely): Does the penny drop at this point? YES. [Wow, that was a pretty darn unlikely roll at Chaos Factor 4!]

Pete's eyes went round. "Oh my God!" They both stared at him. Thomas said, "Peter, this isn't..." "No, Dad! I think I just figured Azazel out!"

All business once more, Thomas said, "Tell me." "It's obvious, now that I look at it from the right angle! Look, we know Azazel has something deeply personal against me, right? Mark said that I had something he could never have. And look at Goat, whom Azazel deeply influenced - he too envied me and what I had. And in the Bible, Azazel is the one who receives the scape-goat, the one the sins of the people have been laid upon."

"Where are you going with this, Peter?" "Come on, Dad! We know strong emotion can influence Shadow! It's why the public can never know about the place! And Jake, like all of us, has been there from time to time - that amplifies the effect. I'm saying that Jake's envy of me produced Azazel! Or no, he had to be a mage already. But it at least helped... energize him."

Jake threw up his hands. "How did I know you would find some way to blame all this on me!" Pete shook his head. "Nope. You may have gotten the ball rolling, but in the end you're a victim of all this as much as the Demons were. More so, even, because most of them chose it with eyes relatively open. Azazel's been ... feeding on you. He has a connection with you." Pete started pacing. "Of course! That's how he forged a connection with Mark! Because both of us were right there in the room with him!"

Jake said in a strangled voice, taut as a bowstring, "That's not the only reason." Blinking, "Oh?" Wrestling within himself, looking sick, Jake finally said, "Mark's always liked you better."

They both stared at him, appalled. Pete said almost conversationally, "That's pathetic, you know that, right?" Thomas was about to roar Pete down in his turn when Jake said in a dead voice, "Of course I know that. Why do you think I've been confessing it for years?"

Pete admitted, "I've been confessing hating you for years too. ... Aw man, I just realized! I'm one of Azazel's juice boxes too! That's how he got under my skin so easily!" Thomas broke in gruffly, "It seems high time the two of you forgave each other."

Pete sighed. "Easier said than done, Dad. But I agree the attempt has to be made. And it's clear enough that Jake has to come with us against Azazel."

Jake said quietly, "Are you sure that'll help?" Pete nodded. "Yeah, I am. Remember how Azazel's connection with Mark faded almost the instant you expressed the desire that it do so?" [That was purely the dice at the time, but wow, did it sure turn out to fit in! Downright spooky!] "When you showed your love and concern for Mark, that overcame the envy that made the link possible."

Jake shook his head. "Are you asking me to believe the bad guy can be defeated by the power of friendship? Shadow isn't a Disney movie." "No, Azazel's got power of his own. He won't be a pushover by any stretch. But I'm suggesting that we can cut off a major part of his power, yeah. And I'm suggesting that love is stronger than death, as Scripture puts it. Do you believe that, Jake?"

Jake swallowed. "Yeah. I guess I do." He took a tentative step forward, and Pete met him halfway. They embraced one another sincerely for the first time in... Pete couldn't even recall when. Thomas beamed at them both, full of relief.

Pete finally said, "Do you mind, Dad? I think Jake and I have a lot to talk about."

[Two more threads resolved!]

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, Goat, Billy, the illusionist/Azazel, Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate, Brother Hezekiah, Sir Athanasius.

Thread List:

Free Ryan from the darkhound curse.
Free myself, for that matter.
Make ready for the trip into Shadow.

Chaos Factor: 4 -> 3
 
Last edited:

The Shadow

Adventurer
New Scene: The team assembles

Pete stayed in the Knights' chapterhouse while the team coalesced. Paddy O'Reilly was in, of course. "I'd not miss this fight for anything," he'd said laconically - and nobody was willing to say him nay with that grim light in his eyes. Sir Robert Bauman had volunteered too, which touched Pete. To his surprise, so had Sir Martin Vanderley (Pete's old Field Instructor) but his going had been vetoed by the Chapter, as he was too sorely needed. [Sir Martin has been really gruff to Pete since he left, basically because he felt it was expected of him - but in private, he's talked up Pete's solo exploits to the senior knights to the skies with pride.]

Ryan was starting to get a little wobbly as the gravity of the endeavor began to sink in. But he remained game; what other choice did he have? Jake spent some time getting to know him, in hopes that he could weaken the curse's hold.

Q(Unsure): Does it work at all? NO.

Hezekiah had returned to the Shepherds to report on what had been learned; shortly after he returned, with Jon in tow.

Pete lit up upon seeing his friend. "Jon! I knew you'd come." They clasped forearms, then pulled one another into a quick embrace. Hezekiah glowered at them, but they both ignored him. Pete said, "But I'm a little surprised they let you, actually."

Hezekiah growled, "We didn't." Jon grinned. "No, they didn't. So I quit." Pete gasped. "You didn't!" "I did. And then they changed their mind." Hezekiah supplied, "His name is Jonathan after all. Go figure." Pete grinned - the Biblical Jonathan had defied his own father, King Saul, for his friend David.

The older man continued, "It's not as if any of us are like to live through this in any event, so where's the point in disciplining him? Truth be told, I'd have thought less of him if he hadn't insisted."

Pete gave Hezekiah an odd look. "Wait, you're coming with us?" "I am," he affirmed. "I thought you didn't like me." "No more I do. But I owe you a debt - and a Shepherd always pays his debts." Pete nodded, suddenly understanding. He'd saved Hezekiah's life from a murkwolf on an op during his summer with the Shepherds.

"Are you sure you can take orders from a 'Papist'?" Hezekiah snorted. "I can take orders. Men who won't take orders in Shadow die, and I am not eager to die." "Good enough for me."

Pete wandered off with Jon. They seldom got to see each other, but each time it was as if no time had passed. "There's nobody I'd rather have at my side in this than you, Jon." "I feel the same way, Peter." "How much did they tell you?"

"Enough. You're facing a Shadow-mage, an illusionist who has cursed you and this... Ryan? You plan to track him down through Ryan's curse and destroy him if possible." "Right. But they didn't know to tell you that Azazel - that's what he calls himself - is empowered by the bad blood between me and Jake."

Jon stopped in his tracks. "Oh." "Yeah." Jon knew all about Pete's relationship with Jake, of course. "How... is Jacob taking all this?" "We've made a start at burying the hatchet. It feels good, actually. But..." Jon nodded. "But the bad blood of years can't be dropped in an instant." Pete sighed. "Yeah." "At least not humanly speaking. With grace, all things are possible."

"Very true... but grace builds upon nature." He said it deliberately, knowing Jon would pick up on the reference to their old arguments. Sure enough, Jon punched him in the arm, grinning. "Sorry, brother. The impulse to strike you was..." He drew it out, and they said in unison, "Irresistible!"

Pete couldn't maintain the levity. "Jon, God willing we'll both make it back home. But..." Jon held up a finger. "No buts. We'll meet each other with joy in the New Jerusalem someday. The only question is how soon that day will come. I'm not afraid to die, Peter. Are you?"

He meant the question sincerely, Pete knew... Jon didn't have a superior or duplicitous bone in his body. Pete shook his head. "At times I can almost envy your TULIP. It makes things so much simpler... No, I don't think I'm afraid of death, per se - I know the God in whom I have trusted. I'm afraid of dying. I'm afraid of watching friends die. And yes, I have a certain amount of fear of Judgment, any sane man who's not a saint would. ... No lectures on this subject, please."

Jon just smiled. "I love you too, Peter. As for our loved ones, should one of us not return, it's too obvious to need saying." Pete smiled back in relief. He never needed long explanations with Jon.

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, Goat, Billy, the illusionist/Azazel, Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate, Brother Hezekiah, Sir Athanasius.

Thread List:

Free Ryan from the darkhound curse.
Free myself, for that matter.
Make ready for the trip into Shadow.

Chaos Factor: 3 -> 4 [Although this was a pleasant scene, things are getting tense.]

New Scene: Farewells and departure.

Eventually all the supplies were ready, the contingencies laid, the plots hatched. Everyone had initially acted like Pete was in charge, but he insisted on deferring to Jake. "This is his show." Sir Robert and Hezekiah had objected, given Jake's rank as a mere squire; but Pete reminded them, "I'm a Squire too, and a defunct one at that." (Though his solo experience against Shadow since leaving the Order compared quite favorably with that of most Knights.) Jake still seemed almost bewildered by Pete's support, but Jon - and Fr. Leo - just kept grinning about it.

Finally the time came to depart. The Demarche family, among others, gathered in the Michaelite chapterhouse, in front of the Shadow Door - a grim basalt arch that could be energized to lead to the fell dimension.

Pete embraced each of his family in turn. Teresa told him, "I'm lighting a candle for you each day." She had invariably done that every time her husband or either of her elder sons had gone on a mission - along with spending many hours in prayer.

Pete told her seriously, "I'm certain it'll lead us home." He hesitated, then added, "I know how hard this is for you, Mom..." She shook her head. "No, son. After all these years, I'm a Demarche too. This heart of mine will bear whatever it needs to bear, that the world may keep turning in peace." She touched his cheek. "I've never been more proud." Pete choked up, unable to reply.

After a pause, she added fiercely, "And when you meet that evil THING, you tell it in no uncertain terms that it had better lay down and die, because an enraged mother bear is next in line!"

Pete grinned. "Dad sure does know how to pick 'em! You're on." But his grin faded as he said seriously, "I love you, Mom." She pulled his head down to rest against hers. "Go with God, Peter. Only He knows how much I love you."

When it was Kate's turn, she whispered in his ear, "Make sure you come back to us, big bro!" "I'll do my best, sis." She'd been really pensive lately, and had ensconced herself several times with Fr. Leo.

Kate added shyly, "I made something for you." She pressed a clear faceted crystal into his hand, depending from a silver chain. The thing seemed to give back somewhat more light than it took in, gleaming faintly. "I don't know how well it will work, but it may help with casting in the Shadow. I'm told it takes more effort there."

Pete smiled and kissed her cheek. "Thanks, sis. Every little bit helps! And yeah, casting is a real bear on the Dark Side." He hung it about his neck. Thankfully, the chain was long enough that it didn't obstruct his Crux, though it was a bit uncomfortable under his body armor. Oddly warm, though.

With a wink, he added, "I'm honored to carry milady's favor." She shook her fist at him in mock outrage. "Oh, YOU! Now you have to come back, so I can smack you properly!" "How could I possibly resist such sisterly affection?" "I, for one, can't imagine."

When he came to Mark, his little brother gave him a bear hug despite the pain it obviously caused him. "Give 'em Hell, bro!" "I plan on it! Still want to come?"

Q(Unsure): Does he? NO - and a Random Event!

NPC Negative: Abandon/Emotion. The dice say that the NPC should be: Ryan. [Huh. I was thinking for sure it would be Mark, and was prepared to overrule the dice, but that works too.]

Mark shook his head. "No way, Pete. From all I've seen these past couple weeks... this is serious stuff." Pete nodded. "It is. You're just not ready yet."

Mark hesitated, then said, "Neither is Ryan. He's scared." Pete sighed. "I know. It's only sane of him, really." Ryan was standing there like a block of wood in the body armor the Knights had loaned him. He'd managed a feeble smile when Thomas had affirmed him as one of the family and the other Demarches had given him their best wishes, but showed no other reaction.

Fr. Leo knew what to do, as always. He held up a small vial of chrism. "Ah, Mr. Langley... If you desire it, I am prepared to administer emergency Confirmation. No Catholic should go into danger without the initiation sacraments." Ryan gaped. "Uh, sure, Father? I guess."

The old priest nodded. "Peter, if you would stand as sponsor?" Pete nodded in turn and stepped behind Ryan, placing his right hand on the young man's right shoulder.

It was over very quickly. Fr. Leo said the ancient prayer from Isaiah for the Seven Gifts, then anointed Ryan on the forehead with chrism: "Ryan Michael, be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit."

There was some polite applause, and Ryan looked overcome. Mark said irreverently, "Who woulda guessed you'd be Confirmed before I was!" and laughter released the tension. Ryan admitted, "Not me!" and that just set everyone off again.

The time came for the formal Leave-Taking of the Knights. The group to leave knelt (Hezekiah and Jon remained standing) as Fr. Leo blessed them, then all the Knights together recited the Prayer of St. Michael. Then, out of consideration for the Protestants present, they stood and said the Lord's Prayer as well.

When all was done, they formed up before the Shadow Door. Jacob said firmly, "Ready for departure, sir!" The Knight Provincial, Sir Malcolm, nodded. "Permission granted; go with God. Squire Peter, if you would?"

Pete nodded, heart pounding. He stepped forward and said slowly, energizing the words, "Nam etsi ambulavero in medio umbræ mortis, non timebo mala, quoniam tu mecum es." Yea, though I walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.

The Shadow Door responded, waking to life: an unearthly darkness sprang into being at its center, spreading to form a gaping hole between worlds. A chill breeze sprang up, rushing toward the hole. Peter said resolutely to Jake, "At your order, sir."

Jacob nodded. "Form up! March."

They marched forward into darkness. Pete, who was holding the portal open, went last. Concentrating, he dared not spare a last glance at those he loved.

When he was lost to sight, the darkness faded into quiescence. Teresa wiped her eyes, and Mark and Kate hugged her.

[In order to properly handle the menacing nature of Shadow, I'm going to use a mixed Theme from Mythic Variations, namely Action/Horror. This means that the Chaos Factor won't go below 5, Random Events will be more common, and I'll use a different random table for generating them, which will make them trend more unpleasant.]

[I might also add that I've deliberately decided nobody has thick plot armor in this. Pete, being the protagonist, is unlikely to bite it; Jon and Jake, being important parts of his story, will not be discarded lightly. But nobody's off the chopping block.]

[Also note that, as mentioned, magic is much more taxing and difficult in Shadow. A number of Pete's "big gun" spells are weaker or just plain off the table, unless he expends major effort. (The crystal may help some with that, but I guarantee it doesn't offset everything.) Magical healing and mental suggestion are still quite doable, though - the former because it relies more on the personal vitality being shared than on the ambient Light, the latter because it takes only a spark of magic to get started - it's not an actual spell. Lumen Dei is also simple enough that it isn't too hard to use.]

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, Goat, Billy, the illusionist/Azazel, Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate, Brother Hezekiah, Sir Athanasius, Sir Malcolm.

Thread List:

Free Ryan from the darkhound curse.
Free myself, for that matter.

Chaos Factor: 4 -> 5
 


The Shadow

Adventurer
New Scene: Heading out.

They didn't spend much time in the Shadow Keep; all the preparations had already been laid. Thomas exchanged handclasps and a hearty, "Godspeed," or "Va avec Dieu" with each of them. To Pete he said, "All has already been said, son. Go with my blessing, and know that I am proud."

The porticullis of the proudly-maintained (and heavily-enspelled) castle was raised, and they marched out into the Shadow proper under a jet-black sky full of malevolent stars.

Pete said, "Okay, Ryan. Looks like it's up to you and me, now." Ryan gulped and nodded, stepping closer. Pete took the young man's head in his hands and concentrated, muttering the words to a divination. (Noting as he did so that Kate's crystal throbbed against his chest. The spell did seem a bit easier than usual.)

Though Shadow was a twisted mockery of the Earth proper, distance and direction in that realm were much more fluid. Getting somewhere specific depended as much on intent, clarity of purpose, and occult knowledge as any map. Pete built up a map toward his enemy using the resonances of magic he found within Ryan - resonances that found disturbing echoes deep within his own heart.

After releasing Ryan, Pete traced a finger along the horizon... then stopped. "There. That's our destination." Jake nodded. "Let's go. Miller, take point. O'Reilly, bring up the rear. Sir Robert, stand guard over our mage; White, you do the same for Langley." Hezekiah couldn't help but harrumph his disapproval of the Devil's art of magic but followed orders willingly enough. Paddy was not best pleased by being rear guard, but he too knew better than to argue. Jon caught Pete's eye and winked as he trotted up to take the lead; he was a natural for ranging in the field. (Though like most Shepherds, he'd seldom been in the Shadow proper.)

Q(Unlikely): Are we attacked first thing? YES - and a Random Event!

Move away from a thread: Free myself from the darkhound curse. [Oh, fun!]

The Keep had hardly left their sight before they were set upon by shadowcats, jet-black panthers like the illusion Pete had faced down at St. Pius. These, however, were distressingly real.

The group moved like a well-oiled machine. Even Ryan, who'd only had a quick crash course in firearms use, got off a couple sweet shots with the silver bullets he'd been given. Hezekiah in particular distinguished himself with knife and pistol, accounting for four 'cats; the man was a legendary fighter among the Shepherds.

But the cats weren't interested in them. They all made a beeline for Pete and Pete alone. His first Lumen Dei took one right in the face; its unearthly screech made the welkin ring. Invictus chopped through another. But the numbers eventually overwhelmed him; a 'cat overbore him and clawed his face before Sir Robert decapitated it, sending black blood flying.

The remaining shadowcats immediately broke off and scattered in all directions. The party accounted for a couple more with gunshot, but the rest got away. Only then did adrenaline fade enough for them to realize Sir Robert was having trouble holding Pete down - he was convulsing violently.

Q(Unlikely): Anyone else badly hurt? NO.

Q(Unlikely): Did Pete lose an eye? EXCEPTIONAL NO. [Hm, interesting. I'll take that to mean he has new 'insight' into Azazel.]

ComplexQ: How has his infection been affected? Move/Peace.

Q(Unlikely): Can he still talk? NO.

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, Goat, Billy, the illusionist/Azazel, Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate, Brother Hezekiah, Sir Athanasius, Sir Malcolm.

Thread List:

Free Ryan from the darkhound curse.
Free myself, for that matter.

Chaos Factor: 5 -> 6

New Scene: Deciding what to do now. Altered Scene!

ComplexQ: What's the alteration? Waste/Animals.

The little group struggled to come to terms with this new development. Paddy said in his usual laconic fashion, "We'd best deal with these 'cat corpses. No telling what'll come of them." The others took that in. Jon helped Sir Robert take care of Pete, while the others started a fire to burn the remains; a horrid black stench came off of them, but nothing else they could sense.

Pete had stopped flailing about, both physically and mentally. Now he was locked in silent struggle with the darkhound persona - weaker, now that so much of the pack-collective was gone. It left him little energy to spare for his surroundings.

Q(Likely): Is he aware of what's going on around him? YES.

Jon asked urgently, "Peter! Can you hear me?" Ryan abruptly spoke up, holding his head. "Yeah... he can. He's just... really distracted, right now. I think?" Hezekiah asked warily, "How do you know, lad?" "I... just do. We have the same thing."

Jake shook his head and said in a hollow voice, "We'll have to abort." Everyone stared at him, then started talking at once; Jake overruled them. "We've lost our only mage, our only way to our foe. What else can we do but abort?"

Jon said steadily, "If we leave now, we abandon Peter and Ryan to their fate." "You think I don't know that?" "I think part of you wants not to care." Jake's face twisted, but he said in anguish, "What other option is there, Miller?"

Jon shrugged. "I don't know. But I'm not leaving." Paddy added, "Nor I." The others said the same. Jon continued, "You're the leader, Jacob. Lead. Anywhere but back."

Jake took that in, panting. Then he strode over to Pete's recumbent form and barked, "On your feet, Squire! You gonna let your little brother do all the work while you laze about?"

Q(Unlikely): Does it work? EXCEPTIONAL YES. [Sometimes, the dice, they actually like you...]

Pete blinked slowly, and quirked a faint smile. "Yuh. You're. Pleasant as always. I see." Jake said, "You gonna state the obvious or get up?" He offered his hand. Pete took it and got unsteadily to his feet. "Curse... stronger. Takes attention... to talk. Hard to cast."

Ryan asked tentatively, "Can you talk through me?" "Muh. Maybe." Jake suddenly said, "I've got another idea. You're wounded. Can you take some of my vitality?"

Sir Robert frowned. "Peter said that healing magic might risk sharing the curse." "Yeah, I know. That's why I'm offering." Hezekiah spat. "You've gone mad." Jon grinned. "No, he's gone sane. Do it, Peter. You know he's right."

Pete fumbled for Jake's hand. "You... sh-sure? Bro?" Jake nodded resolutely. "I'm sure."

Pete nodded back drunkenly and tried to collect his thoughts while the darkhound savaged him inwardly. Speaking the words was out of the question, so he formed them mentally with great care. Energizing thoughts was even more dangerous than energizing spoken words in one's native language... there were a lot of ways things could go wrong.

He pictured the words in his mind's eye, surrounded them with light, lingered on each one in turn: Non necesse habent sani medicum sed qui male habent... His intent took shape and expanded through his contact with his brother's flesh.

Q(Very Likely): Does it work? EXCEPTIONAL YES.

Q(Somewhat Likely): Does Azazel take backlash from it? NO. [Well, drat.]

Q(Likely): Darkhound down for the count? YES.

The wounds in Pete's face closed, and Jake gasped, his eyes going round. "Is that... is that what it's like?" Pete nodded. "That's your envy and my hatred, given shape. Ugly, ain't it?" Then he looked to Ryan. "Dad was more right than he knew, you really are part of the family now in a sense. Sorry about that."

Ryan scuffed his feet. "It ain't all bad..." but he was interrupted by Jake lunging to clasp his brother close. "Pete, forgive me." "Only if you forgive me too, Jake." "With all my heart." "Yeah. Now let's go kick Azazel's butt, huh?"

Paddy just said, "About time," and Hezekiah looked to him with new appreciation. Jon just kept grinning.

[I'm coming back from a couple scenes in the future to plug a gaping plot hole that I left open: ]

Pete said, "First things first, though. Now that Jake's infected, we can send Ryan back. Who do you want to send with him, Jake?"

Ryan swallowed hard. "I want to stay, Mr. Demarche." Pete shook his head. "Out of the question. Your part in this is done." "Is it? What happens to me if you guys don't make it? I go more and more axe-crazy, until they have to put me down or something? Or live under those 'wards' you've got Billy under for the rest of my life? What kind of a way to live is that?"

Pete started to answer him, then stopped. Hezekiah noted, "The lad has a point there." Paddy shook his head. "Not that I don't understand, kid, hell! in your place I'd say the same, but I'll be blunt: You're a liability." "I was just as much a liability five minutes ago, but you still brought me."

Sir Robert laughed. "He's got you there, O'Reilly. And really, it's up to Jacob, but... we can't spare anybody to take him back. We could maybe signal the Keep to send someone, but that'd paint a target on us and take time we don't have."

Pete looked to his brother. "Your call, bro." Jake nodded. "Welcome back aboard, Ryan. God help us all."

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, Goat, Billy, the illusionist/Azazel, Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate, Brother Hezekiah, Sir Athanasius, Sir Malcolm.

Thread List:

Free Ryan and Jake from the darkhound curse.
Free myself, for that matter.

Chaos Factor: 6 -> 5
 

The Shadow

Adventurer
[Sorry for the long absence! I kind of wrote myself into a corner and wasn't sure how to get out, so I took a break from this game for a while. And then a bunch of Real Life happened, and I just plain forgot about it! Then something reminded me of it, I pulled up the file, and a way forward presented itself - I guess my subconscious mind had been thinking it over the whole time.]

[It'll take a while to get to that point, though. I've got a bit of backlog to post yet. I'll try to put something up at least once a week.]

New Scene: Last leg of the journey.

Pete got his bearings through Ryan again and the group ran, eating up the ground.

Q(Unlikely): Are we attacked again? EXCEPTIONAL NO.

It was... easy. Too easy. Nothing barred their way, everything beckoned them on. The darkling, dripping forest they'd been in gave way to plains of razor-sharp purple grass... but it almost seemed to bend away from them as they advanced.

During one of their short rests, Sir Robert shook his head. "I don't like it. It's as if he wants us to come." Paddy shrugged. "So long as we're agreed. Why break concord between such good friends?" But he sharpened his sword as he said it.

Hezekiah grinned. "'Faith, lad, I think I may like you, Papist or no." Paddy shrugged again. "If you help me kill Shadows, then I like you too. Otherwise, go bugger yourself." Hezekiah only laughed.

Q(Unsure): Any other perils? YES.

ComplexQ: Like what? Spy/Animals. [Weird that I've rolled a 92 for 'Animals' several times now. But it fits.]

Pete shook his head. "He's watching us; I can feel it. Probably through the eyes of beasts. Azazel's no fool; we've forced him to change plans several times, but he doesn't repeat his mistakes. The direct approach failed, now he has something more subtle in mind."

Ryan said morosely, "We probably won't like it, will we?" "What, you've been enjoying yourself thus far?" Ryan shook his head.

Jon mused, "Maybe we should try something subtle as well...?" Pete pondered that. "Like what?" "I don't know, I was thinking out loud. Jacob? Any stratagems in mind?"

Jake said, "Well... What do we want from this guy, ultimately?" Paddy said promptly, "Arrrrrgh, gurgle, splut." "Right, but... we're here to free people from his curse. That's all we really care about right now; killing him is secondary." "Speak for yourself."

Pete sighed. "I don't think Azazel will deal in any case; this is personal for him. He's going to try to hit us wherever he thinks we're weak."

[Ohboy. Just had an idea: ]

Q(Likely): Paddy is the weak link now, isn't he? NO.

Q(Very Likely): But his (and Pete's) hatred of vampires figures into Azazel's next move? YES.

As they made ready to move on, Jake said, determined, "Then we'll just have to prove him wrong."

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, Goat, Billy, the illusionist/Azazel, Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate, Brother Hezekiah, Sir Athanasius, Sir Malcolm.

Thread List:

Free Ryan and Jake from the darkhound curse.
Free myself, for that matter.

Chaos Factor: 5 -> 6

New Scene: Arrival. [It's weird how I'm not getting much in the way of Interrupts, or Random Events generally, lately. This is the place where I was expecting them! Fickle dice!]

ComplexQ: So what's Azazel's lair like? Malice/the Mundane [Oooh, nifty!]

Azazel's place of strength was a twisted mockery of the Shadow Keep - its proud battlements not merely warped, but bearing dark stains that looked to be blood. Those stains seemed to twist into lurid shapes - leering faces, hungry beasts. Corpses hung all about the walls.

As they studied it in dismay, Paddy punctured the mood: "Edvard Munch would be so proud." Pete barked out a single laugh: "More like Hieronymus Bosch. But yeah."

Ryan asked, "How the heck are we getting in there?" Jon shook his head. "I don't think getting in is going to be the problem."

Q(Somewhat Likely): Are the gates open? YES.

Indeed, the gates stood wide open, though none would call them inviting - a dark maw that suggested an unpleasant gullet. Jake said, "Right. Well, let's not do the expected thing. Let's look for another way in." Pete shook his head. "You're the boss... but I don't hold out high hopes."

Q(Very Unlikely): Are there any other options? NO.

A thorough reconnoitering of all sides of the castle did not yield much in the way of hope. Jake ground out, "Then we'll scale the walls." Sir Robert asked, "With what? We left the trees behind hours ago." "We have plenty of rope. We'll not just march in through that hole." Hezekiah nodded. "Agreed."

Paddy was the steadiest hand of the group, so he tossed a grapple into the battlements. It seemed to have difficulty in catching, however; the stone seemed almost to shrug it off.

Q(Unsure): Does it ultimately work? YES - and a Random Event!

New NPC. [Oh, this can't be good.]

ComplexQ: So what sort of guy is this? Refuse/Nature [Hmmm.]

Eventually, Paddy managed to catch the tines behind a battlement. He tugged on it firmly, and it held. "That's the best we're going to get, gentlemen."

Jon tested the line, then started to climb up... when one of the blackened corpses hanging above them called down, "You're going about this the wrong way, you know."

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, Goat, Billy, the illusionist/Azazel, Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate, Brother Hezekiah, Sir Athanasius, Sir Malcolm, the corpse.

Thread List:

Free Ryan and Jake from the darkhound curse.
Free myself, for that matter.

Chaos Factor: 6 -> 7

New Scene: Dealing with the mysterious stranger. Interrupt!

NPC Negative: Jake

ComplexQ: Huh, need an idea here? Activity/Art. [Huh! Well, they WERE just joking about Munch and Bosch!]

Jake abruptly put his hands to his face and howled in apparent agony - looking for all the world like Munch's The Scream. The corpse above them said sadly, "Told you."

Pete yelled, "Jake!" while Paddy shouldered his rifle, aiming at the dead man. "Art criticism can be a real bitch, let me tell you!" He fired once, then twice. Hezekiah and Ryan joined him. Jon and Sir Robert were more skeptical however; they scanned the horizon anxiously while Pete saw to his brother.

Mental suggestion was of only limited use: Jake stopped screaming but still panted and sweated uncontrollably; he clung to Pete's hand like a lifeline. The dead guy for his part just said, "Bullets? Really?"

Pete called with controlled fury, "Okay, you did give us a slight warning. You get exactly one point for that. Who are you?"

The dead thing said, "Sir Reginald de Crecy. A Knight of St. Michael."

Q(Very Likely): Is that much actually true? [I confess, I want it to be. :)] YES.

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, Goat, Billy, the illusionist/Azazel, Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate, Brother Hezekiah, Sir Athanasius, Sir Malcolm, Sir Reginald.

Thread List:

Free Ryan and Jake from the darkhound curse.
Free myself, for that matter.

Chaos Factor: 7 -> 8
 
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The Shadow

Adventurer
New Scene: Dealing with the mysterious stranger, take 2. Altered Scene!

The entire group broke out with exclamations of disbelief. As they did so, the rope holding the erstwhile knight up broke and he skidded down the wall, landing in a heap before them.

Paddy was on it with his sword to its throat instantly. The thing said to him, "You have some serious anger-management issues, you know that? Let me make this easy for you: You can't kill me as long as Azazel wants me to talk to you." Paddy said grimly, "I can try."

Pete told him wearily, "Paddy, stand down. We may as well hear him out." Jon asked, "Are you sure, Pete?" "I don't think we have much choice; I suspect he's right and we can't get rid of him just yet."

Hezekiah scoffed at that, but Paddy shrugged. "Fine. But I'll keep my sword on his throat, if there be no objection." Sir Reginald shrugged. "Doesn't bother me any."

Pete kept a firm grip on Jake's hand; his brother was still shaking uncontrollably with the pain. "Okay, 'Sir Reginald'. When were you born?" "The year of Our Lord 1143." "...You speak really good modern English, considering." "Oh, you'd be amazed what you can learn, just hanging out."

Paddy rolled his eyes at that. "You sure you don't want its throat slit?" But Ryan said, "Pete! Didn't Fr. Leo say something about the, the..." "The twelfth and seventeenth centuries! You're right!" [I didn't manage to work in that when they followed up with Leo and Thomas on that, they didn't get anything solid. The records were confused and contradictory, though they did talk about things that seemed at least somewhat similar to what Azazel was doing.]

The corpse nodded. "I remember the second big assault a few centuries after ours. They had a few Puritans with them that time too. ... The ones on the wall with me have mellowed out quite a bit over the years." Hezekiah just snorted at that. Jon, for his part, just kept scanning the distance for danger.

Pete said, "You're asking us to believe that Azazel is over 800 years old." "No, I'm telling you that he's over 800 years old, straight up."

"Given that he wants you to talk to us, why should we believe anything you say?" It shrugged. "I don't blame you for not trusting me... But he's not putting words in my mouth. He honestly doesn't think I can tell you anything that can hurt him."

"...Why'd you say we were going about things the wrong way?" "Because you are. Playing games with people is what Azazel does best; and you're not playing along."

Hezekiah said, "Oh, what a shame that is! Somehow we'll deal with his disappointment." "Yeah, you will." Reginald gestured to Jake. "Azazel's been listening to you the whole time, isn't it obvious? Every time you step off the primrose path, he's got snares laid." Ryan burst out, "But if we stay on the path, we're screwed!"

The corpse-thing sighed. "I didn't say there were any good options."

Pete fastened Sir Reginald with a gimlet eye. "You a mage?" "Nope. He's been wanting a Michaelite mage for a long time." "Know any Latin?" "Some. Why?" "Then say the 'Salve Regina' with me. You must know it, the Knights have sung it every evening for centuries."

Q(Unsure): Can he do it? YES - and a Random Event!

NPC Action: Azazel. Travel/Power. [Hoo boy.]

Jake abruptly began to sink into the ground. He yelled wordlessly and gripped Pete's wrist with both hands. Paddy reflexively sliced Sir Reginald's head clean off, but that didn't prevent it from singing in a surprisingly sweet voice, "Salve Regina, Mater misericordiae..."

Jon leaped to help Pete hold onto Jake, while Ryan, panicked, began shooting the singing head. Hezekiah and Sir Robert stood back to back, ready for anything that might come.

"...vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra salve..."

"Jake! Hold on, bro! You can do it!"

"...ad te clamamus exsules filii Hevæ..."

Q(Impossible): Can Jake hold on? YES. [High Chaos Factor makes even the impossible more likely. Still, that was a lucky roll.]

Sir Robert, seeing them struggle, leaped to help. After a moment, Hezekiah did as well. Paddy for his part was methodically chopping at Sir Reginald's head, which continued to sing.

"...ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes..."

Q(Likely): Does Jake pass out from the strain? YES.

In the end, the brothers in arms managed to pull Jacob's unconscious form from the earth's iron grip. They paused, panting in disbelief, then sent up a wordless cheer that dispelled even the gloom of Shadow for a moment, clapping each other joyfully on the back.

"...in hac lacrimarum valle."

Jon then got on his knees and said, "Join me in prayer, brothers! This is the Lord's work, not our own!" In reply, Pete threw back his head and sang with Sir Reginald; soon Sir Robert and Paddy joined him:

"Eia ergo, advocata nostra, illos, tuos, misericordes oculos ad nos converte..." Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy upon us.

They finished the ancient hymn together on a note of triumph, "O clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo Maria!" Meanwhile, Jon and Hezekiah offered their own prayers of praise.

Pete met Paddy's eye, and fished Jamie's old Rosary out of his pocket. He said deliberately, "Our Lady's looking out for us," and kissed the medal. Paddy choked up a moment, then nodded - that had been Jamie's invariable habit. (Sir Robert and Jon got solemn at the sight; they'd known Jamie too.)

That finished, Pete looked to the battered head. "Okay, Reggie. You've made your point."

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, Goat, Billy, the illusionist/Azazel, Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate, Brother Hezekiah, Sir Athanasius, Sir Malcolm, Sir Reginald.

Thread List:

Free Ryan and Jake from the darkhound curse.
Free myself, for that matter.

Chaos Factor: 8 -> 7
 
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The Shadow

Adventurer
New Scene: Get Sir Reginald's story. Interrupt!

Move away from a thread: Free Ryan and Jake from the darkhound curse. [Hmmm. Well, we haven't heard from the vampire in a while...]

Q(Likely): Does the vampire try to snatch Ryan? EXCEPTIONAL YES.

Ryan didn't seem able to share in the general joy... the strain of it all was getting to him in a big way. Jon was the first to notice that the young man was coming unglued: "Ryan? Are you okay?"

No sooner had he said it, when a dark batlike form blotted out the stars and swooped for Ryan with blurring speed. The boy cried out and threw up his hands to shield his face.

Paddy and Pete shared a virulent hatred of vampire-kind, and for the same reason; they reacted faster than anyone else, though Hezekiah was only a quarter-heartbeat behind them. Silver bullets, a Lumen Dei spell, and a silver-chased throwing knife all sped for the Shadow-spawn.

Q(Unsure): Does it succeed in grabbing Ryan? NO.

Q(No Way): Do we put it down? EXCEPTIONAL NO - and a Random Event! [I rolled a 99.]

NPC Action: Brother Hezekiah. Deceive/Power. [Huh! That changes my whole picture of what's going on.]

The vampire shrieked in agony, buffeting its bat-wings about Ryan, but Hezekiah abruptly shouted, "'Ware trickery! It's not real!"

ComplexQ: So what's really going on? Persecute/Magic.

Jon had raised his own piece, but at Hezekiah's warning quickly scanned his surroundings. "Pete! He's after Jake again!"

ComplexQ: Gimme a more specific idea, here! Celebrate/News. [What. No really: What.]

Jake was convulsing, much as Pete had earlier. Pete laughed wildly as the illusion faded out. "Weirdly enough, this is good news!" They all stared at him, but he said, "I'll explain shortly. Hold Jake down. Ryan, you okay?"

Q(Very Unlikely): Is he? YES.

Ryan was shaking like a leaf, but he nodded violently. "Y-yeah, Pete. I'll be fine. Help Jake, he feels really weird!"

Pete handed Ryan off to Sir Robert, then knelt by Jacob. "Hey bro. Hang in there." He shared vitality with his brother again, since they were both under the curse now anyway.

Q(Unsure): Does it work? YES.

Everyone relaxed as Jake's convulsions quieted and stopped as Pete chanted over him; Pete took the wave of exhaustion stoically. Jon asked, "So how is this good news again?"

Pete sighed wearily. "Think, Jon. Azazel's getting desperate. He keeps trying to push us off balance, and he keeps failing. Plus, he's only ever gone after me and Jake for real so far; he wants to jump-start his power source again. He's running scared." He looked to Hezekiah. "How'd you know, anyway?"

The older man snorted eloquently. "I've known the tumble of a knife since before you were in your mother's womb, boy. Azazel evidently hasn't - or at least not well enough to fool me."

Paddy spat. "He could be faking, getting us to lower our guard." Pete shook his head. "I've met the guy. He's all about the dominance displays. While he can be sneaky, I don't think he's that flavor of sneaky."

Q(Somewhat Likely): Is Pete's analysis mostly correct? EXCEPTIONAL YES.

Q(Likely): There's still at least one important piece he's missing though, right? YES.

Pete then called to the forgotten head: "What do you think, Reggie? You're being quiet all of a sudden."

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, Goat, Billy, the illusionist/Azazel, Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate, Brother Hezekiah, Sir Athanasius, Sir Malcolm, Sir Reginald.

Thread List:

Free Ryan and Jake from the darkhound curse.
Free myself, for that matter.

Chaos Factor: 7 -> 6

New Scene: Talking things out with Reggie, take 3. Altered Scene!

Q(Unsure): Is Sir Reginald still there? YES.

Q(Unsure): Something new come out here? YES.

The head was quiet for a moment, then said, "Okay, you're not far wrong. But you're not completely right, either."

Pete went and picked it up. "How'd you end up on that wall, Reggie?" "I assaulted the castle with other Knights..." Pete shook the head slightly. "Yeah, but they're not talking to us. Why you?"

With a sigh, "Okay, you got me. I energized Azazel back in the day." "How?" "I didn't know it at the time. All I knew was that I was crazy-jealous of this other Knight of my Chapter, Alain des Marches. The guy had everything... What?"

Pete was laughing bitterly; everyone else just stared. Sir Reginald asked, "No really, what?" "Alain was my many-times-great-grandfather, Reggie. Peter Demarche, pleased to meet you."

The thing's eyesockets widened. "No sh*t? You're the Count?" "My dad is, sort of. French Revolution and all." "You're the heir, though?" "Yep." "AND a mage. AND I'll wager you've brought Invictus. Crap. No wonder Azazel wants you so bad!"

"Getting greedy, is he?" "Well... he's always been greedy. But yeah, he's out for the really big score this time." "So what was I wrong about?"

ComplexQ: Yeah, what? Malice/Love. [Hmmm.]

"He loves matching wits and wills with mortals. Outwitting us, defeating us, crowing over us. Or should I say 'them' now, I dunno? You've beaten him a few times in that department, so he's probably pissed, yeah. But I dunno if 'desperate' is quite the right term. He's good. Well... skilled, anyway. Don't get too cocky, is what I'm saying."

Pete smiled. "I'm not going to get scared either, whatever you say." Paddy barked a laugh. "Good man!" The head rolled its eyesockets. "I'm on your side, dude! I mean, I don't hold out a whole lot of hope - I've had hopes dashed too many times - but I'm stuck here until Azazel goes down."

Q(Very Unlikely): Is that the unvarnished truth? EXCEPTIONAL NO.

Q(Very Likely): Still, he's more than Azazel's sock-puppet, right? EXCEPTIONAL YES.

Q(Impossible): Wait, Azazel isn't HIS sock-puppet, is he?! NO. [Whew!]

ComplexQ: What's the nature of their relationship? Celebrate/Stalemate. [WHOA!]

Pete said, "Maybe you are and maybe you aren't, but..." Hezekiah said gruffly, "Enough banter with the damned thing, Demarche. We've got a job to do." Jon nodded. "He's right, Pete."

Pete ultimately nodded. "Yeah, you're right. Hmm. We could chop him up, he doesn't seem able to die or feel pain, but he's still the image of God... Paddy, you mind giving our dead brother a proper burial? With some relatively tight burial bands?" The young man grinned ferally. "My pleasure." Pete told the head, "Sorry, Reggie. Nothing personal." The thing sighed. "Mother always said I'd end up in a shallow grave, but I don't think this is what she meant..." Sir Robert grinned. "Nope. You've definitely gotten ahead in this world!" "You think you're funny, don't you?"

When Paddy was done, there was only a mound of earth to remind one of Sir Reginald - though it was anyone's guess how long he'd stay there. He put a hand to his chest and declaimed, "Alas, poor Reggie, I knew him, Horatio."

Meanwhile Pete studied Jake's limp form. "Worth a try, I guess, and turnabout is fair play..." Then he turned the volume way up and shouted in his best Sir Martin impression, "Rise and shine, lazybones! You gonna let your sissy mage brother run you into the ground?!" (Sir Robert stifled a laugh - he'd learned under Sir Martin too.)

Q(No Way): Does it work? EXCEPTIONAL YES. [Another really lucky roll! :)]

Jake stirred and mumbled, "You yell... like a sissy... alright." "So get up and show me how it's done!" "Yeah, yeah..." He was really unsteady on his feet, but he did manage to stand with Pete's offered hand.

"How much do you remember?" "I've, guh. I've been awake. Just... busy." "I know the feeling." "Yeah. An' thanks... all of you." The brothers gathered and pounded him on the back.

--------------------------

[Just adding a little mini-scene here, that seems to fit: ]

Jon drew Ryan aside. "Are you really okay?" The boy was trembling hard. "I don't know how you guys take it so easily." Jon told him seriously, thinking of the psychic wounds so many of his brothers in arms bore, "Easily? No. But we have more practice than you do."

"I'm gettin' a crash course, I guess!" "Yes. What you're feeling now is adrenaline. It will pass." "It's not just that. I... pissed myself, when that thing came at me. I was scared." "That only means you're human. If you weren't terrified in that situation, I'd be truly worried for you." "You telling me that Paddy guy would be scared?"

Jon's grave tone did not alter. "Perhaps not. But then, I'm truly worried for him, and have been for as long as I've known him." Ryan stared at him in wonder. "Why?" "He's broken inside. He is strong, but I fear he is brittle. ... Peter nearly went the same way, and for much the same reason. But he is strong in a different way, a way that I trust. So are you."

Ryan's shoulders slumped. "I don't feel strong." "And that is why I trust it. Remember this, Ryan: Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is doing the right thing in spite of fear. A man who is never afraid can never be brave."

"I don't know if I can do the right thing, though!" "Really? Your part in this was done, we were fully prepared to send you back - but you stayed." "You couldn't spare anyone to send with me." "No. But we would have anyway. You talked us out of it; and you gave good reasons too. Have you changed your mind?"

"I... don't know." "That's not a 'yes'. And Ryan: We can't spare you, either." Ryan stared at him. "You mean that." "I do. Come on, our brothers are waiting." Ryan followed him back, chin held a little higher. [And I don't think I'm going to be calling him a 'boy' any more, either.]

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, Goat, Billy, the illusionist/Azazel, Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate, Brother Hezekiah, Sir Athanasius, Sir Malcolm, Sir Reginald.

Thread List:

Free Ryan and Jake from the darkhound curse.
Free myself, for that matter.

Chaos Factor: 6 -> 5
 
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The Shadow

Adventurer
New Scene: Scaling the wall. Interrupt!

[The first thing I rolled was 'Move away from a thread', which I vetoed because it would be too redundant. Then came 'Move toward a thread' which just didn't fit the circumstances. Then came this: ]

Horror - NPC: Thomas. [I was originally going to reroll the NPC based on a ruling I made earlier, that only people in Shadow qualified right now... but Thomas IS in Shadow, he's just back at the Keep. Hmm.]

Q(Very Unlikely): Is Azazel assaulting the Shadow Keep right now? YES. [WOW! That's bold. And it certainly explains why he hasn't been taking more decisive action against our little band.]

ComplexQ: Nature of the horror? Inspect/Benefits. [Utterly bizarre. I'm tempted to reroll, this sounds so... unhorrific... but I think I can make it work. But how is this interrupting the scene...? Oh. Got it.]

Jon was starting to shinny up the grapple-rope again when Sir Robert abruptly pointed. "Look!" Far off on the horizon, a beam of actinic white light stabbed up into the perpetually-black heavens. It strobed on and off several times. "What is it?" Ryan asked.

Pete said in a strangled voice, "A magical beacon-flare - we use them as signals in emergencies. The signal-pattern is that of the Keep!" Jake added, "We're the only ones ranging right now; they must be letting us, specifically, know that's something's wrong!"

The group absorbed that in shocked silence. Then Jake cleared his throat and continued, "Nothing's changed; we can't do anything about whatever-it-is. Continue, Miller." All eyes turned up to follow Jon's progress... and they spotted the vampire they'd seen as an illusion before, screeching its defiance high above. It held a man limply in its claws.

The fell thing stooped like a raptor and descended at the far end of Azazel's twisted Keep. Pete said to Jake in a dead voice, "You realize there's only one person at the Shadow Keep that Azazel would want to snatch right now, right?"

Jake paled and looked sick as he thought it over. "Dad!" "Yeah."

Hezekiah cleared his throat. "It could be another illusion?" Pete shook his head. "Maybe. Let's hope so. But it's probably best to assume the worst." Sir Robert gripped Pete's shoulder in sympathy; even Paddy looked dismayed.

It was Ryan, of all people, who just said in a determined voice, "Well, let's go get him."

[And just because Azazel is proving more devious than I thought: ]

Q(Unlikely): Is he also trying to pull something in the Earth-realm? NO. [Doesn't mean he won't later, though.]

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, Goat, Billy, the illusionist/Azazel, Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate, Brother Hezekiah, Sir Athanasius, Sir Malcolm, Sir Reginald.

Thread List:

Free Ryan and Jake from the darkhound curse.
Free myself, for that matter.
Either rescue Tom, or find out he doesn't need it.

Chaos Factor: 5 -> 6

New Scene: Scaling the wall, take 2. Interrupt! [Again?! Wow, they really aren't supposed to scale that wall. :)]

Ambiguous Event: Celebrate/Tension

As Jon continued to climb, Jake punched the castle wall in anger and frustration. A booming echo arose from the wall, causing Jon to freeze and everyone else to bring weapons futilely to bear.

Jake said wonderingly, "It's... hollow?" Hezekiah looked fit to be tied. "This Hellspawn is indeed a child of the Father of Lies! What is real and what is not?!"

Paddy connected the dots first. "Miller! Get down here! That spot has to be a trap - it's why I could make the grapple catch there and nowhere else!"

Jon slid down the rope. "I fear you're right. Thank God we figured it out!"

Sir Robert was looking at the distorted Keep with narrowed eyes. "This whole place is a trap. What's real, you ask, White? I say: Nothing of it."

Pete was thinking furiously. "What if... What if Reggie was telling it like it was? We're going about this the wrong way."

Jake said firmly, "We're NOT walking in the gate." Pete waved that off. "Fine, but don't you see? By treating this keep AS a keep, we're playing Azazel's game. It wouldn't surprise me if he made the entrance so appalling to encourage us to do just that."

Jake gestured to the wall. "Well, it seems relatively thin. Invictus can cut through nearly anything: Try it. Whatever else it is, it's not treating it like a keep."

Q(Unsure): I have a sudden, extremely nasty suspicion. Is it true? YES.

Q(Unsure): Does anyone figure it out in time? YES.

Who? Brother Hezekiah. [Hm, that actually makes sense.]

Pete nodded and unsheathed Invictus. He started to set its point against the wall when Hezekiah abruptly gripped his arm. "No. That's exactly what the Hellspawn wants." Pete asked, "What? Why do you think so?"

"Because we're simply reacting to the stimuli he gives us. Yon Sir Robert is right: It's all trap, there's no truth. All lies."

Ryan said hesitantly, "Didn't Reggie say something about playing games?"

Pete, having a mage's trained memory, recalled, "'Playing games with people is what Azazel does best; and you're not playing along.' But if you're right, Hezekiah, then we have been!"

The older man snorted. "You're going to take the word of a corpse who is just as much a trap as the rest of this place?" "I think he was more than that... but I see your point."

Jon asked suddenly, "Why would Azazel want us to cut into his wall? You're the mage, Peter - what could go wrong?"

Pete shrugged. "Anything, really. He could trigger all sorts of things off the destruction of..." His mouth abruptly fell open.

The disk Goat had tossed at him. He'd sliced it in two, to release the curse.

Goat, who was now in a...

Pete stared at the wall. "Oh my God." Everyone stared at him mutely. Finally Jake said, "What, bro?"

"It's... it's a huge set of wards! This isn't a castle! It's a prison!"

ComplexQ: Okay, that had to be a massive effort. How come Pete hasn't heard of this before? Extravagance/Anger.

Q(Unsure): Was Reggie telling the truth about the 'castle' being assaulted by the Knights and Shepherds? YES.

ComplexQ: But clearly the records of those assaults have gotten mixed up somehow, otherwise Fr. Leo and/or Thomas would have connected the dots. What's the story there? Debase/New ideas.

[Hmmm. Lots to ponder there. One more question: ]

Q(Unsure): Were the wards made by humans? NO.

[And one more oddball I just thought of: ]

Q(Likely): Is Azazel inside the wards? NO. [AHA!! This explains very much indeed!]

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, Goat, Billy, the illusionist/Azazel, Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate, Brother Hezekiah, Sir Athanasius, Sir Malcolm, Sir Reginald.

Thread List:

Free Ryan and Jake from the darkhound curse.
Free myself, for that matter.
Either rescue Tom, or find out he doesn't need it.
Figure out what on earth Azazel is really up to.

Chaos Factor: 6 -> 7

New Scene: The kid gloves come off.

ComplexQ: What form does Azazel's wrath take? Judge/Fame. [Wha....?]

[I've hit something of a critical mass in understanding now, both of the characters and of where this is going. I don't think I'll need to be asking as many questions.]

A thick, choking darkness abruptly surrounded the group, almost tangible in its malice. Azazel's malevolent voice boomed out, "I weary of the chittering of you INSECTS. Do you dare to set yourselves against me? Many have tried, and where are they now? I was old when your Crucified was in swaddling clothes!"

Pete tried to cast Manifest Glory to dispel the darkness (it would take almost everything he had, but it'd give the others a fighting chance), but the words were strangled in his throat. Several voices drew breath to speak, but it was Ryan's that came out first, mockingly: "Pay no attention to the little man behind the curtain! I am the Great and Powerful Azazel!" Paddy's voice barked out a laugh. "Sorry I called you a liability, kid!"

Pete rubbed his throat and added, "You must admit, Azzie old fiend, this darkness thing you've got going is a lot less stylish than your usual chessboard shtick. Running low on juice, are we?"

Azazel's rage became deadly calm. "You worms think I am all talk? Let us find out." Ryan gave a choked scream and there came a sound of a body thumping limply to the ground. There was also a clatter as the rest of the group readied weapons without much in the way of hope.

The voice of the darkness continued, "Let us be clear. The heir to des Marches WILL work my will in this matter, or the Count his father will die by inches."

Pete, Jake, Sir Robert, Paddy, and Jon all burst out in harsh laughter at that. Jake said, "Have you MET Thomas Demarche?! If we were to cut a deal with a Shadow to save his hide, he'd have ours! He'd haunt us from his freaking grave!" Hezekiah chuckled. "I'm starting to like him too!"

Azazel was silent for a time. "Then I will snuff each of you out lingeringly, one by one, until the heir's foolish compassion gives way. Who shall be first?" Hezekiah said scornfully, "Do your worst, Hellspawn. I fear you not." The others shouted defiance as well.

Pete was about to speak when the buzzing at the edge of his awareness, down at the level of the darkhound curse, took shape in words: Ryan's desperate, agonized voice:

"Get off the path!"

Get off the path... Stop playing Azazel's game. What's the last thing he would expect?

Pete said, "Okay, you win." He was still holding Invictus, standing next to the wall. He stretched out his hand until he could feel it, judging the distance.

The whole group's voices (save for Jon's) burst out in dismay, but Paddy's was the loudest. "You give this thing what it wants, Demarche, and I'll kill you myself!" Jon's voice came more softly: "I trust you, Peter."

Azazel boomed suspiciously, "Your sincerity is suspect, des Marches. Act now, or the boy will be the first to die." Sure enough, Ryan's voice abruptly howled in agony. Pete nodded, stepping a bit closer to the wall. "Yeah, it is." He rapidly energized the words to Subtlety in his mind...

And stepped through the wall.

NPC List: Mark, Ryan, Goat, Billy, the illusionist/Azazel, Thomas, Fr. Leo, Jake, vampire, Jamie's memory, Teresa, Paddy, Jon, Kate, Brother Hezekiah, Sir Athanasius, Sir Malcolm, Sir Reginald.

Thread List:

Free Ryan and Jake from the darkhound curse.
Free myself, for that matter.
Either rescue Tom, or find out he doesn't need it.
Figure out what on earth Azazel is really up to.

Chaos Factor: 7 -> 8
 
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The Shadow

Adventurer
New Scene: The other side. [Not gonna roll, I'm giving the story its head for a bit.]

Pete staggered, dropping to hands and knees on a rough stone floor, gasping like a bellows as Invictus clattered away from him. Sweat dripped freely from his face, and he shivered so violently it seemed a wonder he didn't fly apart. Casting one of the "spiritual body" suite of spells in Shadow was a major undertaking even under ideal conditions; doing it rapidly, surrounded with Azazel's malice, and without using the spoken word (which Azazel might have been able to choke off) had come dangerously close to killing him.

It was at least a full minute before he could hear anything but the roaring of his own pulse pounding in his ears. When he could, he heard the sound of someone clapping slowly.

Looking up, he saw he was in a bare stone cube perhaps ten yards across. More importantly, he shared it with a tall dark-haired man dressed in a St. Michael surcoat over mail. When the man saw he was noticed, he smiled.

"I've really got to hand it to you, Pete. That little stunt you just pulled is simultaneously the most brilliant AND the most idiotic thing I've seen in centuries."

Pete tried to speak, but his voice came out as a croak. He managed to laboriously climb up onto one knee, then stand, quite shakily. As he did so, he could feel the shards of Kate's crystal sifting down within his armor: It had evidently shattered, perhaps sparing him even worse side effects. He could also sense the controlled threnody of the wards surrounding him, more powerful than anything he'd ever come across before.

Moistening his lips, he said, "Sir Reginald, I presume?"

That worthy chuckled. "You are a clever one. The coming millennia shouldn't be quite as boring as the last one has been."

Pete took a few deep breaths, getting his heart rate under control. "What's going on with my friends?"

Sir Reginald shrugged. "I don't know. You gave the order to bury my eyes and ears out there, if you recall - it'll take a while to dig out. But you must realize that Azazel has no further reason to keep them alive... Once he finishes his tantrum over being defeated once again, of course. I wish I could watch! This one's gonna be a doozy! Once he realizes Invictus there is out of his reach forever, he's going to completely lose it."

Pete staggered over to the blade, picked it up, sheathed it. He frowned in thought when it failed to vanish. Then: "Their lives mean nothing to you?" Again, a shrug. "I'll be honest - not much. People come and people go; you'll see. It's possible they'll get lucky, though - Azazel might expend enough energy in his raving to go dormant again before remembering them."

With unconcealed contempt, "And you call yourself a knight." The tall man grinned. "Not any more. You could say I'm the White King these days."

Pete closed his eyes and sighed. "Who is Black, then?" "Ah! By that there hangs a tale. But I know you've got other questions you want answered first."

In a voice of anguish, Pete cried out, "Why didn't you speak more clearly?! Why didn't you tell us anything useful?!"

Sir Reginald sighed. "Lots of reasons. The King is the most important piece... but its freedom of motion is limited. I'm constrained by being in here, by my agreements with Black... By the rules of the game."

"Why is Azazel trying to break you out, anyway? Would that kill you?" Sir Reginald stopped and stared. "Wow. I can't believe you, Pete! How can you be so smart and so stupid at the same time?! I mean, sure, yes, it almost certainly would kill me. But that's the LEAST of it!"

Pete sighed. "What am I missing?"

"You really thought I was the prisoner here? I'm the freaking warden, kid! And now so are you."

---

Pete took a long moment thinking that over. Then he said, "Well, things seem to have been rubbing along okay with only one warden thus far. I don't suppose we need two." He drew Invictus, noting that the blade's characteristic glow did not appear.

Sir Reginald gave him a pitying look. "Kid. You must know that pigsticker of yours can't actually hurt me, right?" "I don't know that at all, Reggie. More to the point, I don't think you know it either."

The tall man laughed. "Okay, I'll play along. Why wouldn't I?" "You've been out of circulation for centuries, Reggie. What, you think Invictus still has only the powers it had in your day? Every generation of Demarche mages has added new tricks. You might be interested to know that it cuts ghosts as easily as flesh as of, oh, four hundred years ago if I remember right."

Sir Reginald smirked. "Pete, Pete, Pete. I am to your typical ghost what a Lamborghini is to a Go-Kart." "Yeah, well, even a Lamborghini won't start if you put sugar in its gas tank. But sure, maybe you're right. Just a few harmless love-taps between friends, yeah? Let's find out." He took a step forward, raising Invictus to strike.

Sir Reginald took a step back. "You'll notice that it isn't glowing. The wards here..." "Thank you, Captain Obvious. It's not like there haven't been illusions involved every step of the way. Oh! Of course." Pete abruptly realized that he couldn't feel the subtle pressure of the darkhound curse any longer. "Under these wards, I'll bet I can get away with... Lumen Veritatis!"

As the magic took effect, Pete was nearly blinded by the intensity of the wards that surrounded him on every side. But not so much that he didn't see Sir Reginald's features melt into that of a regal, unearthly figure... with an articulated silver hand.

The tall fey told him in a peeved tone, "You are the most thoroughly annoying mortal I've met in a long time. What gave me away?"

Pete smirked, still holding Invictus in guard. "You're just too damn tall to be a medieval Frenchman. I'll admit I wasn't expecting a freaking king of the freaking Daoine Sidhe, though."

The inhuman thing rolled its eyes. "There were plenty of Vikings in the Crecy area! It was plausible... But whatever. I'll forgive you for offering violence to my royal person - if you put that thing away right now."

Pete sheathed Invictus (which was now glowing again) and it disappeared as usual. "Okay. So what happens now? I'm not stupid enough to think I'm in your league, Nu-, uh. What should I call you?"

It gestured tolerantly. "Go ahead, Nuada is just a use-name. You surely didn't think I'd let my truename be bandied about for centuries, did you?"

Pete shook his head. "But I didn't expect you to be stuck in here for centuries, either." "'Stuck' is not quite the operative term. But it's true I've been, as you put it, 'out of circulation' for a while."

"So, is it okay if I ask what on earth is going on? Not even a fey of your caliber should be able to persist in the Shadow for this long - not enough Light to live on. Plus... You've got to be here willingly, as I can't imagine anyone being powerful enough to force the issue. Why?"

Nuada sighed. "There's being forced, and then there's politics. The details are none of your business. ... As for survival, the wards themselves are sufficient for me to get by, though not in the style to which I'm accustomed."

"So, is Azazel trying to kill you by breaking the wards or what?" Nuada laughed ruefully. "You still don't get it, do you? This isn't about me! This is bigger than me."

Pete paused in shock. The Sidhe were not known for their humility, to put it mildly. Their royalty were even less so. "...Bigger than you?" "I know, right? There's always a bigger fish, kid. Oh, okay, fine - maybe your White Christ is an exception, if it makes you feel any better. But we didn't see Him stepping up, so it was up to us."

Pete rested his head in his hand. "I am really confused." Nuada chuckled. "Welcome to the human condition, Pete. All you need to know is that I really am here as a warden... to something that's badder news than anything you've ever had nightmares about. Like, 'the entire Earth is just an appetizer tray' bad. I literally can't explain much more without damaging your sanity. Call it Black - because that's the side it plays."

Pete asked wearily, "And Azazel?" "Azazel is what you get when tiny bits of Black leak out over the centuries and warp Shadows." "Sir Reginald?" "A former pawn of Azazel's, who's carrying quite the grudge against it. He's proven useful for helping keep Azazel in check - pardon the pun."

"You've been very accommodating, your Majesty. But I hope you'll permit me one more question: What happens to me now?"

Nuada stroked its chin. "As entertaining as it would be to play mind-games with you for a couple centuries, you are kind of annoying. But then, killing you hardly seems sporting... and I've always had a soft spot for audacity, which you've got in spades."

Pete asked hopefully, "Surely you've got a way out of the wards?" "I wasn't planning on being here forever, no. But opening the wards is always risky - and Invictus IS one of the few things capable of breaking them."

Pete paused, then rolled the dice. "The des Marches family is also useful to the cause, aren't we? And Invictus is..."

Nuada snorted. "Let me stop you right there. Nobody's indispensable, kid. Yeah, you guys have had your uses now and then, but the world will keep turning without you just fine."

Pete sighed, and nodded. "All right." He went down on one knee and bowed his head. "Then, I guess I'm just asking the boon, your Majesty, of being able to help my friends and family in some way. If I can best help them by staying here... I guess I'm willing, God help me. But if not, please let me go to them."

---

Nuada scowled, stroking its chin with its silver hand. "Dammit. After the guts you've shown getting here, I've kinda got to give you at least a chance. Hmm. Oh!!" The tall fey grinned unpleasantly. "Oh yeah, this is perfect."

Pete swallowed. "Should I be worried, your Majesty?" "Oh, you totally should be, Pete. I've just thought of the perfect simultaneous reward and punishment for you."

After taking and letting out a deep breath, Pete said, "Okay, lay it on me." "You won't be much good out there if you've still got that darkhound coiled up inside you, will you? For that matter, a couple of your friends are compromised by it too."

"Getting rid of it is what we came here for, in fact." "Well, you're in luck, then - that's a boon well within my power to grant. You won't enjoy it much, though. At all."

Pete squeezed his eyes shut and shuddered for just a second. "Okay. I'm down." "One thing you gotta understand, Pete - I'm required to respect human free will. So if you ask me to stop once this has started, I'll have to do just that."

"No offense, but you guys seem to have quite a lot of interpretive flexibility regarding that respect." "Of course! Gotta get our jollies somehow, don't we? Think of this as me taking your measure, Pete - if you wimp out, you probably weren't worth my time anyway."

"...Can I pray for a minute before we begin?" "Whatever. Just... try not to be too loud, okay? That Name is a bit... distracting."

Pete knelt and composed himself for prayer. His emotions were so roiled that it took quite some doing. But finally he just uttered silently, "Be with me, Lord. I offer this through Your wounded hands. You strengthened the martyrs who witnessed to Your Name, please strengthen me now in this trial. Mother Mary, pray for me." When he felt a measure of inner peace, he stood up. "Okay. I'm as ready as I'm going to be."

Nuada nodded. "Groovy." Then without warning, it plunged its silver hand into Pete's chest without breaking the skin and took hold of the darkhound's metaphorical throat.

The pain was indescribable, a searing heat that came from the inside. Pete howled and writhed involuntarily in agony, Nuada's arm the only thing holding him upright.

He could not say how long it lasted, but at some timeless point he seemed to be looking down dispassionately on his own writhing body. From this vantage point, real or not, the tall fey appeared as a network of brilliant rushing lights rather than a man. And past it, over its 'shoulder', was a wizened old man wearing a natty saffron robe and leaning on a staff, watching intently.

Pete 'spoke', though not with sound: "Sensei?! What are you doing here?"

Ichiro responded in the same way, "I have come to give you a shove, so that you stumble and fall to the ground."

Pete remembered the koan: "'Each man walks balanced on a thread between the Shadow and the Light.'" "Yes. The Light scorches you and the Shadow is fell. The time has come."

Ichiro walked around Nuada and placed his hand on the network of shimmers corrresponding to the fey's arm - and Pete's world turned into purest Light.
 

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