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Between the Shadow and the Light (Updated February 26, 2023)

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

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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
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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

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

[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
Last edited:

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
Last edited:

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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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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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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