Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Art of War, Part two: Plan carefully

"Plan for what is difficult while it is easy, do what is great while it is small."
- Sun Tzu
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I've gone on metaplanar quests before.  In each of those excursions I've had to confront the Dweller on the Threshold.  The Dweller has confronted me with terrible challenges in each of my quests.  I've confronted the ghosts of the people and creatures I've killed, confronted dead chummers and one dead girlfriend, been called to account for my crimes and sins and had my mind and soul battered.

This time the Dweller must have decided that enough was enough, because he was trying to cut me into small pieces.

"Who dares to approach!" The Dweller bellowed.  The ten meter tall, four-armed giant bore four glowing swords.  Each flickered as if they were on fire.

I was determined to show no fear, even though I felt it to the core of my being.  I shouted my name, my real name, to the Dweller and hoped against hope that it would let me pass.

"Tommy."  The Dweller growled.  "DIE!"  It lunged forward with all four swords.

I felt the heat from those blades as they passed within a centimeter of cutting me into ribbons.  My reflexes, though enhanced by powerful spells, were barely sufficient to keep me from being skewered.  My hand went for my gun by force of habit, only to find nothing there.

"Whimpering pup!"  The Dweller roared. "You DARE,  confront me!?!  I'll cut you to ribbons, then feast on your soul!"

I'm not going to lie to you. I was scared.  The Dweller moved with the fluid grace of a spirit, all quicksilver and shadow.  Swords flashed out at me and it was all I could do just to avoid being skewered.

"There are secrets beyond your grasp mortal!" A giant glowing sword flashed by my head.

"There is knowledge which you shall not possess!"  I ducked under two swords as they streaked above me.

"You think you are worthy to just reach for any knowledge, any power, just because you happen to see it?!?!  Power is not some low-hanging fruit for you to pluck!"  A flurry of strikes came at me. I jumped back, desperately trying not to die while the Dweller was making a fantastic effort to murder me.

"Your time is at an end, mortal!  Whether by my blade of the passage of time, you will die!"  The Dweller pressed his attack. With those swords his reach was every bit of seven meters, making it all but impossible to get out of range. He was fast and looked strong enough to cleave me in half with little effort. "DIE, TOMMY! DIE!"

There was a primal rage in that voice.  I ducked, jumped and spun to keep myself alive but I hadn't managed a counterattack. It was just a matter of time before I would be dead.  The Dweller bellowed his challenge at me, a terrifying prospect made all the more urgent by the flash of blazing steel.  The Dweller raised his swords high, preparing for a flurry of strokes that would leave me as nothing more than shattered soul fragments.

I pointed and loosed the first spell that came to mind. "IGNIS MAGICAE!"

A ribbon of white hot flames shot from my outstretched finger, catching the Dweller in his right eye.  The eyeball exploded and the Dweller howled in rage and pain, dropping a sword as one hand went to his ruined eye.

"IGNIS MAGICAE!" I loosed a second spell, catching the Dweller's left kneecap and bringing him tumbling down in a crash of steel and a rattle of the planes themselves.  The castle gate behind him remained closed.

"I forbid your entry.  You shall have to kill me in order to pass." The Dweller sneered as he pushed himself to a seated position.

"Ignis. Magicae." My spell caught the Dweller in the crook of the arm supporting his weight.  Once again he fell, the landscape shuddered as if from a great earthquake.  Steel rang as his swords fell.

"Disgraceful." The Dweller's voice was laced with pain.  "Finish me then, mortal.  Go beyond and claim your blood stained prize."

I raised my hands toward the Dweller. The giant reeked of the sickly scent of burning flesh. There were perhaps a dozen different spells that came to mind.  The giant was powerful but badly injured and another spell would kill him.  I stood there, my hands aimed like weapons, and stopped.

'Why would I kill the Dweller? Is it even possible?  What is the point?" These thoughts raced through my mind as the Dweller stared at me with his one good eye, his face etched with pain and defiance.  I knew at that moment that I had the power to kill him.

I also realized that I had no reason to.

"No." I said.  "I won't kill you.  I didn't come here to fight.  I came here seeking knowledge."

I lowered my hands. "I won't kill you for a convenience. I don't know what all your hostility was about, but we'll see each other time and again as the years pass."

"You? You would show mercy?" The Dweller seemed genuinely surprised.  For a moment, I felt a profound sense of shame.

"You sound surprised." I replied.  "Yes. I grant you mercy. Until next we meet."  I turned, intending to find my way back to my mana flooded home, but encountered the castle gate.  It loomed large and open before me.

"For some, being merciful is a great challenge." The Dweller's pained voice whispered into my mind. "Until next we meet."

*****

I walked through the gate and into a swirling current of water. I kicked up toward the faint light of the surface.  The current was brutal, and kept pulling at me as I struggled to escape. Minutes passed as I fought my way to the surface. In the distance I saw a small island crafted of fitted stones, a single stone pillar rose from its surface. The water around me was clear and the sky above was a beautiful shade of sea-green.  Seven moons hung in the sky.  I turned my gaze from the dark moon, fearful that it might take notice of me. To my right and slightly behind me, a stone arch rose from the depths.  I turned and saw five others that were intact while the seventh was a crumbled ruin. A light blazed atop the pillar.

I intoned my levitation spell, rose up from the water and floated over to the island. It looked just as I remembered it.  Each detail on the pillar was exquisitely carved.  I floated up and gazed at the searing power of the totem capping the top.  The stone arch I had arrived near shone with hellish firelight.  A dozen swirling whirlpools were scattered around it.  Above the blue moon a single point of light crept across the sky. The twin suns were on the horizon, bathing the sea-green sky with a warm red-gold glow.

I watched an saw the same beautiful place I had once taken refuge in.  It was nearing nighttime, the air carried the salty sent of the sea.  Only the whirlpools and the pinprick of light over the blue moon were different.

The suns set and darkness draped the sky.  By the light of six moons and my spell enhanced senses I basked in the beauty of the place.  For a time, I'm not certain how long, I forgot my purpose. When I finally regained my focus, I noticed a something moving beneath the churning waters of one of the whirlpools. I floated over and plunged down into the water to get a better look.

It was a man.

He was dressed in a white suit with a brilliant red tie.  A black pentagram tiepin, held his tie in place.  His hair floated about his head and he bobbed about at the mercy of the currents.  He didn't respond to my presence so I swam out to him, fighting the currents as I went, until I was facing him from a distance of three meters.  His features were locked in an expression of dread realization.

He was dead. I swam over to the corpse, the current tugging at me all the while.  I grabbed his arm, and began to swim toward the surface.  It took most of an hour to pull the dead man from the sea and onto the island of stone.

There weren't any signs of injury so I assumed that he drowned, unable to free himself from the whirlpool.  How a corpse got to a metaplane was a profound question. His suit looked quite modern and the tiepin was imbued with an aura of enchantment.  I went through his pockets, looking for any clue as to who he may have been.  I found a credstick (Which is a REALLY weird thing to find in a metaplane!), a high-end pocket secretary (Equally weird!), and an ID card proclaiming membership in the Fraternal Order of the Garden State Thaumaturgic Union.

My corpse was from New Jersey.

I dropped his credstick and ID card into the pocket of my drenched bathrobe.  His pocket secretary still had power so I pressed the corpse's thumb to the screen and watched as it came to life.  'No Signal' was promptly displayed across the top of the display.  I accessed the calendar and found it indicating an appointment for the early afternoon,'Exorcism?' was noted in the event details as well as an address and contact name.  There were pictures of a woman and two young children in his photo gallery, as well as a text file from a sender indicated as 'Beth' that appeared to be a selection of school supplies.

"Damn, chummer." I said. "What happened to get you all the way out here?"

Thankfully, the corpse didn't answer.  {Hey. It's not paranoia, I've seen that happen before.~ T.}

I was pondering the possibilities when I saw the ghostly outline of a skyscraper take shape in the waters behind the stone arch beneath the blue moon. It was of a familiar, modern design and though it was translucent in the way of ghosts and spirit manifestations it suddenly displaced a vast amount seawater, throwing up a tremendous wave that washed over the island and cast me back into the sea.

The rising suns revealed an additional dozen whirlpools around the gate I had arrived near.  The blue moon above took on a thin sliver of gold that ringed it in the sky. I waited for the sea to calm its fury, then plunged down into waters near the whirlpool I had emerged from.  A spiral of trapped air churned and bubbled in the fierce current that tugged me downward.  I was twenty meters down when I saw a that the sea bed was formed of fitted hexagon-cut stones.  They stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions.  Beneath me, many of the stones were cracked and worn.  Bubbles rose from one broken stone, flowing up the current and into the whirlpool.  Faint light lined the crack that ran the width of the stone. There were a score of stones with similar damage scattered around the stone arch.  Strange shadows, phantasmal terrain, and ghostly figures appeared and vanished in the light erupting from the cracks.

I dove down to the fractured stone. It was six meters across, give or take a few centimeters.  Small bits of stone, broken from the large hexagon, littered the surface.  I picked up a few small bits of the debris and slipped them into the pocket of my bathrobe. The light shooting through the cracks reminded me of the blazing orb in my basement.  The light felt warm there in the depths.  The water held a chill and was rushing into the cracks as bubbles streamed up.

The bits of stone that littered the surface seemed to have come from the cracks.  I picked up one of the larger pieces, found a space along the cracks that it appeared to fit in, lined it up and lowered it into place.  The stone fit seamlessly, and the stream of bubbles became less pronounced. Another stone was fitted into the place, then another. With each bit of stone that was replaced the whirlpool's current weakened and the stream of bubbles lessened.  I fitted all of the pieces that I could see but the crack remained.  It was smaller and the current was far less intense than when I arrived.

I peered down into the crack and saw nothing more than a brilliant light. I found myself falling into that light and was engulfed by it.

I opened my eyes and found myself covered in ectoplasmic goop.  It was disintegrating rapidly but it still covered me totally.  I stood up and found that I was chest deep in the muck.  My bathrobe was drenched and I was very cold.  The elemental spirits had vanished, their service done.

My astral senses showed that the ball of light was still brighter than it had been, but the stream of ectoplasm had stopped.  I touched the engraved circle with my bare toe and exerted my will to deactivate the circle.  Ectoplasm rushed out, knocking over my chair and the candles that had burned down to nubs.

I shivered violently and padded upstairs to see if Aria and the girls had left yet.  I was halfway up the stairs when something buzzed in the pocket of my bathrobe.  I reached in and pulled out the pocket secretary I had found on the corpse.  The display indicated an incoming call from "Beth" and the network connection was busy pulling down several messages.  The small device buzzed incessantly at me until I opened its battery compartment and pulled out the power cell.

My own pocket secretary was upstairs, still sitting on the nightstand next to the bed.  Of Aria and the girls there was no sign.  I thumbed the accursed device and found a dozen messages from Aria asking me to call her when I 'got back'.  The date display was January 10th, and it was almost 1900 hours.  I had been gone for almost two days.

*****

The sudden surprise in the night and the immediate need to evacuate the family struck me.  I spent the 11th and the 12th setting up a new safe house and fitting it with things we, as a family, would need if we ever had to go to ground.  I brought Lilly and Rose there individually, so as not to leave Aria without help.

My ally spirits are my children in every way that matters to me. I also depend on them to protect the family when I am away. We have certain contingency plans in place, what to do if there is a medical emergency with the twins, what to do if Aria gets hurt, what to do if/when I die, and other more mundane plans.  After this incident we had a family meeting.

"Girls, I want to talk to you about the future and another set of standing instructions.  Things to do if particular things happen." I told them.  Lily and Rose looked at me intently while Aria sat close by side, her hand gripping mine.  The twins were playing with a pair of stuffed toys on the rug before us.

"You know we have code words.  Those that we've set up like 'Flashlight', 'Medic', 'Diaper change' and so on.  Today, I want to talk to you about a new code word.  This one is 'Rapture'..."

We discussed the plan in detail.  Neither Rose nor Lily liked it at all, and Aria renewed her insistence that I summon another ally spirit.  The twins played through the entire discussion, giggling and fumbling around until they became suddenly quite silent as Aria made me promise to summon another ally.

"You can't expect the girls to do that without you having another on hand to help you." she said.  "Promise me, Tommy. You'll bring another to help.  Promise me."

I sighed.  Summoning another ally spirit was a good idea if ever we needed to evacuate.  The time and energy it would require would be immense, but I was confident that I had recovered enough power from my summoning of Lily that I could bring forth another without breaking my own magic in the process.  "Okay, honey.  I'll do it as soon as I can."

I was going to say something else.  Provide a rough estimate of when I could conduct such a summoning, but the reason for the twins' sudden silence hit me as the foul stench wafted up from the rug where they sat, blushing.

"Oh, my God!" Aria proclaimed.  "Girls, did you poop?"

"I hope so," I injected. "If not, I can't imagine what it will be like when they do."  I stood up and spun a little magic in the air, lifting the tiny, stinking children into the air. "Rose, Lily, 'diaper change' is in effect."  We walked the girls to the changing tables and did battle the with the stench of filthy diapers. It was terrible. The twins giggled the entire time.

*****
In my basement laboratory, small bits of fractured stone sat in a containment circle I had scribed onto a work table.  They emitted a faint luminescence in the dark and glowed with mana energy to my astral sight.  The fragments had come through in my pocket, just as had the pocket secretary and credstick I took off the corpse.  The tiepin focus I stored within a separate containment circle, just in case.

In the days following this incident, there were sporadic news reports of strange astral happenings at various sites around the world.  I did some matrix searching, public/legit user kind of searching, and found mention of a missing person from the Far Hills area.  The picture matched my corpse.

I began to formulate the design for a third ally spirit, devoting a few hours each night after I came home from work.  I had a plan and I needed to be prepared to implement it if the need arose. Years as a Shadowrunner had taught me to be ready to bolt when you need to.  It only took a couple of years of family life for me to get comfortably settled. It's easy to lose your edge when you're comfortable.

'Rapture', I hoped I never had to use it, but I had to be ready.

*Continued in Part three*

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Thank you for reading my fan fiction!

I hope you are enjoying The Art of War story arc.

I do also release RPG material under the SRD 5.1 OGL (as published by WoTC).  Presently my newest book, Whispers of Persephone, if on KickStarter.  If you would, please do check that out and share the link with others.  I'm placing a link below.  I am also a creator on KickStarter's Drip platform, which is similar to Patreon in some respects.  You can find my Drip page HERE, so please do give that a look too.

Thank you.  I hope you'll check out Part Three.


2 comments:

  1. I love reading your Shadowrun material so much. You have a gift!

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    Replies
    1. Wow! Thank you Jordan! That is an incredibly cool thing to hear. I really appreciate it.

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Thank you for your comment chummer.