The Isengard Job, pt. 2

Chapter Two: Dead Dragon

Our heroes are clearing the dungeons of Isengard in search of the mysterious master of the Necromancer, whom we slew some weeks ago in Edoras. As to what we will do when we find a wizard powerful enough to command the obedience of someone who controls life and death itself – oddly, very little has been said on that subject.

Another Gug, the four-armed giant gaunt eaters with faces which hinge open to reveal a massive mouth, comes scraping along the halls toward us. Giles recognizes the noise and we have a little time to get ready, setting ourselves on the other side of a pool of clear water. The Gug is tall enough to just step over the pool, but no one realizes that until it’s too late.

Which it isn’t, ever! Because the Gug gets pelted with arrows the moment he emerges, and falls down. His body also blocks the entrance against any other Gugs. But Giles is able to crawl over the Gug’s body to make sure no others are menacing the Rangers guarding the exit, and lo and behold, another Gug is indeed creeping toward them! Giles and Rhionwyn attack it from behind, and soon it, too, is history. The rest of the dungeon contains no further monsters, but there is a sloping room that leads to a level below ground level … which, since we haven’t found the Master yet, we have to explore.

The level below is mostly flooded. High ridges screen most areas from sight, but there are flat-topped stones like little islands, with rickety bridges connecting them. There are also some orcs gathered around a fire; they are not easy to surprise, but Giles undoes one end of the bridge leading to their island and then lifts it up, preventing them from crossing over to our island! All of the Rangers and most of the players have bows, whereas only half the orcs do. The orcs run out, see their bridge is stolen, ready their own bows, and get shot down with no injury to our side whatsoever.

Additional orcs and goblins in the dark hurry toward the sounds of battle. One goblin stabs War in the knee, while a crossbow bolt from a skeleton (!) pierces Plenty’s armor. They do not manage to come to close combat, although those orcs with shields last a lot longer, since they can hold up their shields to block arrows.

The two shield-orcs charge, and Giles is able to pry up another bridge and knock them sideways with it, dumping them in the deep, cold, green murky water. One sinks, but the other is rescued after promising to obey. Rhionwyn charges him not to betray us, but the orc haughtily informs her that he agreed not to kill them. Loyalty costs extra. Giles offers a half loaf of wheaten bread, to which the orc says, “Done. Gimme.” And between huge bites and chews of bread, he explains all he knows.

This orc, Zikhnakh, explains that his master is Dead Dragon. The necromancer visited sometimes, taking orders from Dead Dragon. When Dead Dragon spoke to the necromancer, his voice was red, but when he spoke to the orcs and goblins it was normal. When questioned further on this turn of phrase, Zikhnakh insisted that the words glowed red when he spoke.

“If we’re going to slay a dragon today,” said Giles, “we might do better to get the elf, the dwarf and the hobbit down here. Hobbits and dwarves are natural dragon-slayers, from the tales I’ve heard.” Indeed, Elrohir the elf and Bori the dwarf are eager to do something more than guarding the path of retreat, for all that Havoc insists that’s important.

Giles tells Zikhnakh to yell real loud that he’s found the Ring, in order to attract Dead Dragon, once everyone has made his preparations and selected places from which to ambush. But Zikhnakh forgets to wait and blows the plan early! Eerie whishing sounds, like gliding wings, herald Dead Dragon’s approach.

Neither Zikhnakh nor Dead Dragon is the slightest bit imaginative in the matter of names: Dead Dragon is indeed an undead dragon, reanimated by foul sorcery and about half returned to bones, although with some gray flesh still attached. He glides in almost silently and lands on an island with Havoc, Plenty, Zikhnakh and Giles. The dragon strikes out with wings, teeth and tail, but he misses Giles, who jams a plank of wood in its mouth just as it bites down. This drives its teeth into the wood like nails, making it hard to bite.

The dragon’s wings knock Havoc and Plenty aside; both are knocked senseless, and Plenty lands in the water. He would have drowned, but Sylvia hauls him ashore, and the cold water wakes him up. Havoc, however, is out cold.

Arrows pelt the beast to no effect. Rhionwyn leaps up onto the dragon’s back, perhaps in the belief that what works with horses will work with dragons, and slices off one of its wings. Now it can’t escape … which means a fight to the death, except that he’s already dead.

Giles spies a trickle of smoke coming from the back of the dragon’s skull. He points out this weak spot, but then gets buffeted by the dragon’s remaining wing and knocked into the water. Fortunately, he rallies his wits before he drowns.

Zikhnakh, rather than running away, stabs the dragon deep in the vitals! Apparently joining the side of right, or perhaps eating bread, has brought out the hero never suspected to smolder within the orc’s brutish exterior.

Rhionwyn stabs down into the dragon’s skull. Giles had hit the weak point with his scythe, but not hard enough to kill. Rhionwyn’s ancestor sword Rockfall, however, pierces through! Red flame erupts from the dragon’s eyes, nose and mouth, immolating Zikhnakh the Orc Hero but also causing the undead dragon to topple over, dead.

Giles finds a red diamond where Rhionwyn’s sword cut; it is blackened but twinkles with warmth. Bori explains that this jewel is what kept the dragon moving after death, and it must therefore carry a dreadful curse. Giles pockets it anyway. Professional grave robbers can’t be worrying about curses, or they’d never get anything done!

The team searches the rest of the underground. A Nazgul, an actual black-cloaked Ringwraith, is standing before a pyramid of green stone. Otho activates the Ring of Beobaras to make daylight, driving the creature away. No trace is found … could it have been destroyed, as a sunbeam destroys shadow? Or has it somehow escaped?

No matter. The Rangers suggest departing via the Grayflood, the river by which they entered. This is done, and as everyone is bobbing down the river toward the hiding place of their horses, Havoc grabs some grass on the bank and hauls himself up. Just in time, because a platoon of Uruk-Hai is waiting by the riverbank, bows ready!

Havoc motions to the team to keep going downriver; the Uruk-Hai only saw him. Giles figures he’s going to shoot an arrow at them and then run, leading them away from the others.

Rhionwyn uses the Ring of the White Hand to command them to lie down! They do, immediately. More Uruk-Hai amble up, and she makes them lie down, too. She and Sylvia, and probably Bori, clamber up out of the water to stand by Havoc.

They behold a field of Uruk-Hai lying on their bellies, and another Nazgul, silhouetted blackly against the setting sun, astride a great Fell Beast with batlike wings and a long, snakelike neck and tail. The Nazgul points at our four heroes, and as one, the Uruk-Hai all stand up …

… stay tuned for our next thrilling episode, in just one week! And say, while you’re waiting, consider purchasing our fine companion magazine, SKY PELTIER ON THE PLANET OF MISFIT TOYS, available whereever adventure publications are sold!

The Isengard Job: MERP continued

The Isengard Job

Chapter One

“Reclaim Your Substance!”

The burglary crew Jardine assembled for the Paths of the Dead remained together, minus Jardine herself:

OTHO the hobbit thief

GILES GUNDERMAN the human farmer

RHIONWYN the Rohan rider

ELROHIR the elf prince

BOIN son of Oin, the dwarf loremaster

The Ranger team known as the Four Horsemen went with them to Isengard:

HAVOC, their leader

WAR

PLENTY, the supply man

SCIENTUS, the intel man

SYLVIA, a Ranger attached to their mission

Between the Rangers and Rhionwyn’s knowledge, the party went from the capital of Rohan to Isengard by night, avoiding detection. The wizard, or whatever he was, who had sent Blackburn the necromancer to get the Ring of Beobaras was said to be there; his means of spying on the countryside were unknown, so stealth was essential.

The tower of Orthanc in Isengard was surrounded by hundreds of Uruk-Hai. They were carrying furniture out of the tower and stacking it in a big pile. Otho, invisible thanks to the Ring, snuck into the pile and set it on fire. This occupied the Uruk-Hais’ attention, allowing everyone to slip into Orthanc through a lower entrance accessed by the river Isen.

The first chamber they entered contained a clockwork mechanism and a four-armed creature called a Gug. Giles, or possibly Sylvia, chucked a stone deep down one dark hallway and the Gug took off after it. Then Giles and Plenty oiled the floor next to a big stone sarcophagus and slid it over the hallway, trapping the Gug.

Off to the right was a dark lump, which turned out to be a Shoggoth, a creature of pure protoplasm which could shape its substance into eyes, teeth, hands or whatever else it needed. It attacked, proving almost invulnerable to arrows and swords, but flammable. Otho’s Ring flooded the room with daylight, paralyzing the Shoggoth, and then his cooking oil set it ablaze.

Another Shoggoth rolled into the room, down a broad set of stairs. Plenty and Otho had both used all their oil, so that was a concern. Fortunately, when the Shoggoth reared up to make more jaws, its middle section became briefly liquid, and Rhionwyn sliced through it with the sword Rockfall, which although forged to destroy Orcs, wasn’t all that happy with Shoggoths, either. Once it was cut in two, the parts were stunned with daylight and burned separately, using everyone else’s slim reserves of oil. Rhionwyn was mauled by the thing, but still on her feet; that fact couldn’t possibly become important later.

But now, that was it for the oil! Any more Shoggoths would have to be stabbed, which wasn’t going to work. Fortunately, there weren’t any more.

Giles went up where the Shoggoth came from. This elevated room held a forge and a coffin. On closer inspection, the forge was a device to heat a clear black fluid while venting the smoke or fumes, until it was ready to be poured into the coffin, which was really a mold. The shape of the hollow in the mold was that of an Uruk-Hai! Giles deduced that this was how Saruman made his Uruk-Hai back in the War; there was even an image of the White Hand of Saruman fixed into the coffin’s lid, so it would brand the new Uruk-Hai with the emblem of Saruman.

But Saruman was dead, slain by Wormtongue during the Scouring of the Shire. So everyone said.

The Gug came back through another doorway, but Sylvia stretched a cord across it and tripped the Gug. While it was down, everyone jumped on it and hacked it until it stopped moving. Hooray!

Otho examined the sarcophagus which Giles had used to block in the Gug. It contained a mummy, as sarcophagi often do. The mummy had five rings on its left hand, being red, blue, gray, white, and brown. She identified these as the colors of the five Istari, wizards sent by Ithuviel in the First Age of the world. She could not remove the rings, although they were loose upon the fingers, so she broke off the hand. By the Transitive Property of Stealing Things, that meant she had the rings, too.

Giles went down the stairs on the other side of the mold room. There was a big statue of a snail with a squid’s face, set into the floor. However, a gray ooze poured up from beneath the statue, dislodging its many tons as it formed into a face with many eyes and tentacles. It was made of the same matter as the Shoggoths, but many times more vast!

FRRRRREEEEEE, it rumbled. NEVERRRR TOOO BEEE TORRRNNN AGAINN!

It just kept coming up, ton after ton of flexible gray flesh! Our heroes retreated, making sure by questions that yes, they were totally out of oil or other flammables. Rhionwyn took the Ring of the White Hand from Plenty and used it to command the creature, on the theory that if it was made of the same stuff as the Uruk-Hai, the Ring would work on it, too. She commanded it to sleep, and sure enough, it fell down snoring!

That noise brought many Uruk-Hai down from the levels of the tower above. The party took a side turning, which led to a cul-de-sac, but fortunately the Uruk-Hai did not see them. They did eventually scent the blood of men. Women, actually, as it was Rhionwyn’s blood. So Rhionwyn used the Ring to wake up the great gray hulk and command it to “reclaim your substance!” The creature was, indeed, the main mass from which the Uruk-Hai were made by tearing off a piece of its substance, a process the creature disliked. Rather than flowing like mud, it struck like a snake, and the Uruk-Hai were no more.

At this point, Havoc summed up the adventure:

“There’s no more reason to think the wizard is in this section. Moving on.”

Faster Than Light

I’ve had a Star Trek-themed story rattling around for years, and today I came up with what might make a pretty good start:

One

Not Close Enough

The starship’s four mighty engine tubes — two above, two below — were never precisely synchronized. Their massive space-bending artificial gravity output pulled everything in the main disc between them up, then down, sixty times a second, in a vibration that space sailors soon accepted, then learned to ignore, then missed when the drives were silent. Only when the drives increased or decreased the rate at which they warped space around the ship did the crew experience acceleration, generally sternward, because the tubes were mounted just aft of center.

Downward acceleration, sufficient to hold them in their chairs, was achieved by mounting the lower drive pods slightly closer to the disc than the upper, so that they pulled slightly downward. In a badly synched ship, the crew could feel feather-light, so that standing up sent them drifting away like a balloon, or heavy as lead, making any effort in the vertical plane a Sisyphean task.

A smaller ship with only two engines was easier to balance, and generally delivered a smoother ride. The big battlewagons with three or even four engines on a side did their best, at the cost of ceaseless vigilance and tinkering, but even their best was never quite good enough to keep the crew from shaking slightly, like peas in a can, every hour and every week of plain sailing.

There was no weather to disrupt the smooth progress of men and machines, as there would be on an ocean or in an atmosphere. But space, especially near a star, was not flat in the dimension through which the stardrive warped it. Any object with mass bent space towards itself; a ship doing a flyby would be dragged toward the planet unless it compensated. This was familiar, of course, as another word for the curvature of four-dimensional space is “gravity.” Man grows up used to gravity, unless he is growing up in an orbital or deep-space hab, in which case he learns of it first in school, rather than shortly after he is born.

But men, either planetbound or space-living, does not normally have to deal with the local disturbances of four-space known as gravity waves. These, created by the motion of massive bodies, are a result of the fact that gravity does not move at infinite speed. The distortion of space radiating outward from a moving body, say an orbiting planet, ripples its local space, moving outward at a speed much greater than that of light, but slow enough that a ship can be slowed, speeded, or deflected by the gravity of a planet which is no longer where it was when it first bent the medium through which that ship moves. Gravity waves, unlike planets, are invisible, though sometimes they can be inferred by their effect on the thin interplanetary or interstellar gas present in some parts of the galaxy.

As a result, a ship moving at speed through a region dotted with stars, each in motion in a different direction, will find itself breasting invisible three-dimensional waves of gravity, the combination of all the proper motions of those stars, attenuated only by the distance between them and the ship. These waves affect the whole ship at once, or rather, the enveloped of stressed space within which the ship hangs. For although no material object can move faster than light relative to its local space, that space can itself move, or rather bend, at the speed of gravity, carrying everything within it along at that same sheerly, starkly inconceiveable pseudo-velocity.

Thus, as the Earth starship Atlantic bore through space at many times the velocity of light, her hull, fittings, equipment, stores, cargo, and every soul aboard her buzzed back and forth, up and down, sixty times a second, moving a perceptible fraction of a millimeter each time, while also rising and falling on a skew curve somewhat more slowly, four or five seconds of “rise” followed by a pause, and then four or five seconds of “fall.” Like the vibration of the nearly-but-not-quite-perfectly synched drives, this motion was so familiar to the sailors aboard that it occasioned no comment, not even internally and subverbally.

To the non-spacemen aboard, however, it was a constant surprise. In some, it was an irritant, the source of the dreaded “space-sickness” common to first-voyagers. To others, it was a source of delight, as their material bodies rode the very shape of space, outward bound at the speed of thought itself, vouchsafed a sensation previously available only to the angels.

Not all angels, however, are benevolent.

Matthew Costello, Commander in the Skyfleet and currently in command of UES Atlantic, fell upward and forward at the same time. His posture remained the same at first, but since he had been sitting in his chair at the center of the bridge, the tension in his muscles which the chair had resisted now bent him into a crouching, almost upright, position.

“Upright” relative to his feet, that is. His head was pointed at the deck, his boots at the overhead, and his face at the position-plot indicator which dominated one quarter of the bridge’s circumference. Overhead and PPI screen were approaching his boots and face, respectively, at a frightening rate.

Frightening, but not unfamiliar. Starships bounced like the free end of a diving board rather often in an eventful cruise, flinging their inhabitants about like so many flipped poker chips. Usually the cause was collision with interstellar dust clouds, which slowed the front of the ship sharply, or with material objects such as meteors and missiles, which kicked the ship in whichever direction they happened to impinge.

Costello raised his forearm to protect his face while holding his other hand downward, in case gravity resumed its usual direction before he hit the screen.

It did. He fell stomach-first across the railing which divided the central conn, containing captain, helmsman and navigator, from the outer bridge ring of workstations. The upper surface was thick plastic, foamed and soft, which didn’t make the collision pleasant but wouldn’t leave bruises, either.

The rail was to stop officers from being thrown the width of the bridge by a transverse acceleration, and unofficially, to discourage officers from getting in the captain’s face when he was working. His stomach didn’t appreciate it, but it was, on balance, a good thing.

Costello couldn’t seem to fill his lungs, no matter how hard he breathed. He knew that would pass before long, but he wanted to speak right now.

What hit us? was one of the things he wanted to say, but he also wanted to say, How’s my ship? at the same time. By the time his breath returned, he’d decided that whatever had hit the Atlantic, no one aboard her was going to live very long at all without their trusty starship. Therefore,

“What’s our condition?” was the first thing out of his mouth after the crash.

“Power’s good,” reported the watchstander at Engineering. “No damage.”

“Weps up,” said Domingo Kassock from his left, right on top of “Sensors up,” from Hannah Westin at Sciences. “Grav readings coming in …”

She would update him when he needed to know more. If something were shooting at the Atlantic, that would be later.

“Pressure’s down in some starboard compartments,” said executive officer Riva Tavor. Born of expat Kashkin parents, she had the upswept ears, pointed nails, and unnervingly intense gaze common to that feline-descended species. Just now, her eyes swept dozens of reports as though they were escaping prey, capturing the important facts and leaving the rest to snack on at leisure. “Damage control parties away.”

She pressed a stud. The General Quarters alarm rang throughout the ship, though not on the bridge, where anyone who was unaware of the emergency would qualify as a casualty.

Speaking of which …

“Casualties?” Costello asked Riva.

“Dr. Mitchell is in communication, but not sending. Presume assessment is under way … yes, Nurse M is assembling summary now. No red tags.”

Red tags on casualty reports indicated deaths or critical injuries. Costello felt some of his tension drain away.

That wasn’t good – he had an infinity of things to do!

He had just regained the center of the bridge; his abdominal muscles protested, strenuously, as he sat, but he commanded them to be as quiet as every other thing whose opinion was not needed immediately.

“All engines stop,” he said, pressing the stud that relayed his words to Engineering. Then another stud, this one colored blue.

“Continuous sensor sweep of immediate area.”

Hannah acknowledged, causing the stud to light up. She also flicked text to his chair arm.

Grav shear equivalent to 300 kc, the text read. Like we sideswiped something moving 700 light-years per day.

That was not much less than the Atlantic’s cruising speed. Collision between starships was always a chancy thing, since their space-warp bubbles tended to merge with each other, even at considerable distances. A “sideswipe,” as Hannah called it, was vanishingly rare. Much more often, starships colliding in warp tried to occupy the same dimensionless point simultaneously, forming a very small black hole which became a permanent menace to navigation.

Well, at least that hadn’t happened. Had it?

“Mr. Rakizidek reports blowout patched on Deck Three, Frame 115,” Riva said. “Repressurizing. Seams strained across the aft starboard quadrant, but no appreciable leakage at this time.”

“Any sign of what hit us, or nearly hit us?” Costello asked the world at large.

Riva either had nothing useful to say, or deferred to Sciences. Hannah spun around in her chair to face Costello, bouncing in her seat with excitement.

“Nothing for parsecs in any direction, Costello!” she said. “Even the interstellar gas density is way down. It’s like something swept a broom through here and gave empty space a good dusting!”

“Like a … magnetic sweep, or something?”

“Like it, yes. But it, no. Magnetics leave ions in their wake, H-two, all sorts of signs. Remember how we found that Kashkin ship that was using that invisibility field?”

He did indeed.

“Well, that was electromagnetic in nature. And once we started looking for H-two versus H-one densities, it was like they painted themselves in data. This is nothing like that.”

Good. The Kashkin, never quite at war with humanity but never very close to peace, either, had used their invisibility to get lethally close to a pair of Earth vessels, where their torpedoes could scarcely miss. The Atlantic had come within seconds of being the third kill on that Kashkin’s scoreboard.  If Riva hadn’t been able to get the grav tubes back on-line, although the compartment was venting into space, they would have been.

Any human, even a colonial-variant phenotype like Hannah, would have passed out before jury-rigging the plasma line back together. Without oxygenation of the blood, your brain doesn’t care how strong your willpower is. But Kashkin blood vessels prioritize under stress, even more than ours do. It was Kashkin physiology which defeated Kashkin technology and tactics, an irony of which Riva seemed supremely unaware.

“Could whatever almost hit us be out of sight by now?” he said.

“Seriously? Parsecs, Costello. Fifteen light-years easy. Even at 300 kc, they couldn’t be out of range yet.”

“And there’s never been any way to camouflage a grav signature …” Costello mused.

“You mean ‘mass’? No. There isn’t.”

“So if it wasn’t a ship, it has to be a gravity wave, doesn’t it? From where?”

He had a notion, but he was unwilling to expose himself to further scientific ridicule. On the other hand, if it was for the good of the ship …

“How about a ripple? Just one gravity pulse, which rolled over us and moved on.”

“Could be, if gravity worked like that. But mass doesn’t just appear, make a wave, and disappear again. Even if you blew a planet to atoms, those atoms have just the same mass as they did before. Their center of gravity might shift a little, but nothing as sudden as what hit us.”

“Matter can be converted into energy, though,” Riva said suddenly. “Turn a planet into massless gamma rays, and there would be a massive – no pun intended — gravity spike. All that mass suddenly stops pulling on everything.”

Riva was speaking into a dead silence.

“I study weapons,” she said. “Planetbuster bombs are bad enough, but planet-annihilators are still science fiction … or they ought to be. The delta-ray pulse would sterilize a whole system. We know the Hundr don’t have anything like that, because they would have used it by now if they did.”

That didn’t help.

Costello spoke first, after a moment:

“An entire planet – annihilated into energy? Wouldn’t that take a, well, a planet-sized mass of antimatter?”

“More like a Sun-sized piece of antimatter,” said Hannah. “312 kc-equivalent, according to my readings. And it would have to be within … wait, that can’t be right. One parsec? There isn’t even one star that close to us right now.”

“Black sun?” Costello suggested.

“Not on any of my charts, sir,” said O’Neill, the duty navigator. At General Quarters, the senior navigator, Ontiir, was billeted to replace him, but he evidently hadn’t made his way to the bridge yet. “I know we don’t get out this way every day, but the Survey people are pretty careful about those things.”

The ship wasn’t in immediate danger; indeed, it was completely alone in space.

“Would we detect another such wave heading toward us, in time to evade?” he asked Hannah.

“A little. But Costello, that thing was fast. We’d have seconds to act, if that.”

“And we don’t know what direction it came from?”

“Well, sure we do. 355 mark one.”

“Just about directly out of the Galactic Core,” Costello said. The Atlantic was operating in unclaimed space, roughly equidistant from the Earth colonies, the Kashkins, and the Hundr Empire. One reason it was unclaimed was that it was right on the fringe of the core of the galaxy, whose gravity currents were deadly and whose radiation made a swath of space 5000 light-years wide utterly uninhabitable by anything not sealed into a starship.

They weren’t into the radiation zone yet. And the gravity currents, while they could shred a ship down to its component molecules if they hit it the right way, were at least predictable.

Or had been, up to now.

“Is there any measure we can take to avoid this hazard that we aren’t already taking?” he said to the bridge at large.

No one spoke. Hannah shook her head, as did O’Neill in a minor key.

“Then we proceed on mission,” he said firmly. “Mr. O’Neill, plot us a course to the rendezvous that keeps us as far from the Core as possible, consistent with arriving at the appointed time. I believe we had nearly a day of leeway built up, owing to our excellent sailing thus far?”

“Twenty-five hours and a bit at best speed, sir.”

“Outstanding. Use every bit of it to increase our southing.”

North was toward the Core, the center of the galaxy; south, therefore, was toward the Rim. The United Earth Alliance had been dominated since its beginning by nations in the Northern Hemisphere, to whom the center of the map was the North Pole. The nomenclature had followed man into space, even though humans from Earth’s North now made up a tiny fraction of the Alliance’s population, if not its leadership in both civilian and military spheres.

The less Terrocentric terms were “coreward” and “rimward”, which had the virtue of being impossible to misconstrue. Indeed, official reports and documents used them exclusively. But just as no one in conversation said “a miss is as good as a kilometer,” so, too, did the old terms persist in the less verbally formal settings which most sailors inhabited most of the time.

The arm of his chair whistled; Dr. Mitchell had never mastered the automated report-reply equipment, for the simple reason that she had never attempted to do so. She was calling in on voice.

“Costello here,” he said by way of acknowledgement.

“Matt, I’ve got sixteen wounded, none life-threatening. What the devil are you playing at up there? Did we hit something in space? How hard is that to do, anyway? Space is mostly empty, or that’s what I’ve been led to believe.”

“Is one of them Ontiir?” He still hadn’t shown up.

“Yes; broken arm. He fell onto a table in the wardroom; caught it at an angle. I’ve got him splinted and immobilized, but regeneration will have to wait until his blood pressure comes down. Do you want to hear about the fifteen others, or is it just Ontiir you called about?”

“You called me, Doctor.”

“So I did! To report my casualties, which I’ve done. Now, what did we run into?”

“We’re working that out now. But we’re also leaving the scene at a bit over our usual cruising speed, so whatever it was, we should be leaving it far behind.”

“Good. Should I strap my patients in?”

“I don’t know why you would. We don’t expect any more shocks of that kind.”

“You didn’t expect this one, either! I’ll keep you posted as they return to duty. Sickbay out.”

Radio procedure had also followed man to the stars. It didn’t require the sending station to request permission to sign off, no matter how lofty the rank of the receiving station was. Perhaps that was why Dr. Mitchell preferred voice, Costello thought.

“Mr. O’Neill, Mr. Ontiir will not be relieving you until further notice. Will you require relief at the end of your watch?”

“No, sir. If I could get fifteen minutes for a sandwich and a cup of coffee, I can stand the next watch as well.”

“Mr. Tavor, are you at liberty to relieve Mr. O’Neill?”

Riva pressed a few last buttons and stood up, pulling down the hem of her black shipboard jacket.

“I relieve you, sir,” she said formally to O’Neill, staring at him as though he were about to try and escape.

“I stand relieved,” he replied. “And how!”

O’Neill showed Riva the plot, current location and local spatial conditions. She had no questions, sliding into his seat with an elegant stretch.

“Captain, I can stand Mr. O’Neill’s second watch when it begins,” she told Costello. “I am well rested.”

Kashkin were good at focus, intensity and quick thinking. They were not ideal for routine tasks, in which nothing changing for hours was considered a success.

“Thank you, Mr. Tavor, that won’t be necessary,” he said. “We have several officers qualified to navigate, and I want you fresh when we arrive at the rendezvous. With luck, neither the Coffman nor the Magellan will have had the same difficulty getting there that we have. But just in case …”

Neither the Coffman nor the Magellan had made it to the rendezvous at all.

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Why We Fight

Because the enemy is Lucifer himself, Satan (which means “enemy”), rebel against God and scourge of the human race. That’s why.

Oh, you want the details.

War took Heaven and Hell into account throughout the Middle Ages, as a matter of course. Then we moderns thought we could handle our wars without involving God too much. There were always some weird stories, of course, about supernatural evil, or the near-equivalent unpredictable view of morality the Elves brought to the table. But by and large, armies could worry about beans, bullets, bandages and battles, and leave Eternity to those who lived there.

That’s until 1917.

The Great War was going badly for the Central Powers by then. Germany had knocked most of its enemies out of the war, except France and Britain. When the Americans showed up, it was a kick in the teeth to their morale.

If the Germans, who haven’t exactly earned a reputation as quitters, were worried, you can imagine how Austria-Hungary felt. Burdened with a dozen sullen nationalities, and having lost most of their best soldiers early in the war to truly incompetent generalship, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was looking down the barrel at dissolution, followed shortly by invasion, occupation, annexation, and if some of the Balkan peoples had their way, virtual extermination.

Roumania had been hammered right out of the war by the Germans, they having foolishly declared for the Allies when the Allies were riding high. But some of Roumania’s denizens were notoriously hard to kill, Abbott and Costello notwithstanding. They only came out at night and had fairly stringent dietary requirements, along with a pre-modern understanding of the rights of the common man. They presented themselves to Austro-Hungarian officials of increasingly high standing, eventually reaching the ear of the Emperor, young Karl I.

Soon, Karl wasn’t coming out in the daytime any more, and the Empire was officially Austro-Hungaro-Roumania. All the nobles of the Roumanian third of the Triple Monarchy were vampires.

Even that didn’t save the Austros once Germany collapsed. As the last of the Central Powers still in the war, they got the full attention of the Allies, such of the Allies as were still in the fight. The vampires suggested darker powers, those from which they derived their own immortality, might be disposed to aid the Empire, should its leaders but ask.

They did. And the answer was “yes, of course. And it won’t cost you a thing … nothing you’ll miss, at any rate.”

Austro-Hungaro-Roumania held off the entire Western Alliance until 1922, when they finally sued for peace. By then, actual demons were walking the Earth. The Allies were stepping up their own supernatural resources, such as the Dwarvish Brigade and the Legion of Withering Devastation, an Elf outfit loosely attached to the BEF. It was time to call it quits.

The Austros, to give them credit, told the demons their services were no longer required. It takes a lot to make a demon laugh.

Everyone says this next war was inevitable. Well, all I can tell you is that it sure didn’t look that way at the time. The doughboys went home and got jobs. Then the Depression hit, and that was Enemy Number One for a long while. Which is how I joined the Army in the first place, because even Elves have to eat.

If it really were inevitable, we’d have done more to prepare for it. Wouldn’t we? I’d like to think we would, instead of ending up right back behind the eight-ball again, having pissed away twenty years that the Enemy, to give him his due, hadn’t wasted at all.

Maybe you didn’t want the details after all, eh?

T/Sgt. Mithrandil NMI Murphy

35th Division, King Co.

Somewhere in the Alps

September 20, 1944

Middle Earth Episode #3

The ghost of the wizard Beobaras has been more than fair with our heroes, so Rhionwyn suggests they go get his body and restore him to his resting place. There are orcs in the upper galleries, and some few of us get banged up, but eventually we discover they are led by Lughnuht’s ghost! Once Beobaras’ ghost gets hold of him, Lughnuht doesn’t last very long.

Beobaras’ body lies where Blackburn, the Necromancer, slew him, right in the middle of his wizardly work room. A vast cauldron holds heaped blue-black crystals of mordite, the concentrated essence of death. Other hoards of alkahest, the ultimate solvent, and orichalc, the ultimate metal, are kept apart, because if the irresistible acid ever touched the undissolvable metal, well, there’s no telling what would happen!

His body wears the original ring of which our ghost-hiding rings are copies. Otho takes it, with Beobaras’ permission, and asks what it does. It bends, scatters and gathers light, allowing Otho to become invisible. Which is what happens with hobbits and rings, apparently.

Unfortunately, as we carry Beobaras’ body back to his coffin, it seems the bandits we ran off in episode 2 have come back! There are more of them this time, and they are positioned between us and our loot. Their leader has a mithril shirt under his clothes, which breaks every arrow Rhionwyn and Elrohir can land, until the see the glint of mithril through a rip and change targets to his legs. The bandit is captured.

He says Jardine sent them to get Beobaras’ ring – her Uruk-Hai are no longer with her, and she seemed under duress when she gave the bandits their orders. So perhaps someone else is making her do this, but it hardly matters – either way, we cannot just go up to Jardine and count out her share without risking an ambush, or worse.

What, then, shall we do? Otho volunteers to become invisible, find Jardine, and determine what’s going on, while the rest of us remain nearby to help. And that is where things stand for the present …

Middle Earth episode 2

Having looked into the tomb of Queen Inadria, whose ghost screamed bloody murder, our intrepid dungeonators cracked the lock on Prince Durrow’s tomb. HIs coffin had a trap, springs set to do something at the foot of the coffin when the heavy lid was removed. Otho bollixed the trap and they found a something large between the feet of the Prince, but they left it alone.

Elrohir the elf arrived, having been held up by elfly errands. He arrived in time to rescue Bori from a horde of orcs, or was it Bori who rescued Elrohir? It really depends who you ask.

Rhionwyn was talking to the ghost of Beobaras, the sorceror. She proposed repairing the witchsilver seal on his tomb, which he would be grateful to accept. Now she had to convince the others to do the ghost a favor instead of robbing.

Beobaras’ coffin was lidless, with five dead Uruk-Hai scattered around it at the points of an imaginary pentagon. Satanic imagery being unknown in Middle-Earth, they shrugged and looked inside. Beobaras’ body was not there; there was a wax mannequin instead, dressed in an approximation of his clothes. Beobaras said his body was upstairs; Blackburn, the Necromancer, had come in, raised him from the tomb, and asked him to find a rare jewel, the hearthstone of Merisinthiel. Beobaras went upstairs to the Paths of the Magicians, cast his spells, found the answer, and then Blackburn killed him again, right in his workshop! So if the body could be brought back down here and the coffin repaired, he’d consider himself laid to rest.

The tomb of Juulute Wolfheart, barbarian Captain of the Guard, had various loot, but Juulute’s ghost was not having any of that! His axe, Bonebreaker, levitated in the ghost’s hands and chased our heroes around the tomb, until he caught sight of Rhionwyn, who still refuses to wear the ring which hides her from ghosts. He wanted revenge on the mountain orcs and other tomb robbers … (ahem) so Rhionwyn allowed him to flow into the axe and then wrapped the handle in witchsilver wire, so that the axe was now his tomb! And it’s going to be difficult to rob it. Not sure if she’s going to keep the axe or let someone else use it, because she’s not much for axe-fighting.

However, an even larger bunch of orcs came in from deeper inside the mountain. Much fighting was done, in which both Rhionwyn and Elrohir shot many arrows and cut down most of the orcs. Their leader, Lughnuht (who was immediately named “Lugnut” as soon as he opened his mouth), challenged Elrohir, and got run through by Orcfinder, Elrohir’s enchanted sword.

So at least two hordes of orcs have issued from the dark caves in the heart of the mountain. Unfortunately, the way to the upstairs where the wizard’s body lies is through those dark caves. So we have to ask ourselves: how much do we really want to help this dead guy?

The Ghost Path Score

A Middle-Earth Roleplaying Adventure

Episode 1, played March 27

In a smoky tavern in Edoras, an organizer named Jardine had pulled together a crew for the perfect job.

RHONWYN knew horses. She was a rider of Rohan, but not the prosperous part of Rohan. More the poor side of the meadow, she said. She took Jardine’s bankroll and got some riding horses and a couple for packing. They could move 1000 pounds of loot out of the White Mountains.

OTHO was the locksmith. A hobbit, and therefore a natural burglar, she got burned out of her hole by Sharkey’s mob when he ran the Shire. Now she was looking to build up a stake, and for some payback.

BORI son of Ori was the lore man. A dwarf from Erebor, he’d lived all over, collecting tales and exotic artifacts of bygone days. He’d deal with the riddles, the ghosts, the overhanging statues from ages past.

GILES had been a farmer until he experienced every thrill agriculture could offer. Then he kept on farming a while longer. Armed with a scythe, he was the muscle.

JARDINE had two bodyguards, Immer and Jamais, who had been Fighting Uruk-Hai until they lost the war. Now they were Bodyguarding Uruk-Hai. They weren’t going along; tombs had lots of traps and hidden corners, and they weren’t Thinking Uruk-Hai.

Jardine wasn’t going either. Lots of people knew she was trying for this score; she was always watched. If they didn’t want someone else making the score first, she had to remain behind.

The score was simple: the Paths of the Dead. Folk said Aragorn had redeemed all the ghosts down there, but those who tried going down them said different. Fortunately, Jardine had made several knockoffs of the Ring of Beobaras: made of clear glass, they made you invisible to ghosts. Everybody got one.

Bori enthused that the original Ring of Beobaras could do a lot more than hide you from ghosts. Jardine agreed, but she didn’t have the original any more. Someone had seen it and made his move.

She’d bargained a map off the last guy to try the Paths and come back alive. It only had three labels: the first room inside the caves was labelled MUD ROOM. The middle was labelled GRAND GALLERY and the other end of the map was labelled ONWARD. Which he hadn’t gone, apparently, because the map stopped there.

The crew found the doors easily enough; they’d been all but covered by a rock slide, but one corner was still visible down at dwarf level.

The first room was called MUD ROOM because someone else had wiped their boots there. Lots of someones. They’d left behind a long-handled sledgehammer, a shovel and a prybar, all Man-sized. Three doors exited, left, right and straight ahead. All had had their locks, lockplate and all, busted out of the wood.

Otho went left. That room wasn’t muddy, and it had a trickling fountain. Tasting, she pronounced it good. Mighty refreshing, in fact. Rhonwyn watered the horses and put them up there, where they could reach the fountain.

The room after that held a huge wall mirror with steps leading up to it. You couldn’t walk through it into another world, but you could adjust your haircut and see if your waistcoat were buttoned correctly.

That’s where they got jumped by the goblins. Coming from both sides (although not at once, as they didn’t coordinate especially well), there were a lot of the beasties. Giles threw a torch at them, blinding them after so many hours in the dark. Bori and Otho struck while they were blind, and Rhonwyn rode a horse into their midst, qualifying as one of the only subterranean cavalry charges in the history of Middle-Earth. The surviving goblins scattered.

Giles blocked the doors behind them, so the goblins couldn’t hit them from behind.

Pursuing, they ran into a goblin transfixed with terror at the entrance to the Grand Gallery. There was a ghost in front of him, holding him spellbound.

The rings worked; he didn’t see the crew. Except Rhonwyn, who wasn’t wearing hers.

“WHO COMES TO MY TOMB?” the ghost demanded.

Rhonwyn ducked around the corner and put on her ring. The ghost interrogated the goblin, disposed of him in a sorcerous manner, and came looking for Rhonwyn.

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew, rendered invisible by their rings, went on into the Grand Gallery. It featured six tombs, sealed by locked doors. Each was identified in witchsilver, a metal which shone brightly in darkness. Cast a shadow onto the door, and the writing was revealed.

They got into the tomb of Queen Ilandria, which had been already visited. There were broken bits of furniture on the floor. There was also a whopping great heap of coins which someone had piled up and neglected to take – perhaps the goblins. It was surmounted by a black iron helm with curving horns, which was solid and heavy and blocked out all sound when worn. Otho and Bori bagged all the loot and took the helm as well, although Bori didn’t wear it.

The sarcophagus turned out to contain Queen Ilandria, looking pale and perfect. They didn’t steal her garments; it didn’t feel right, somehow. Otho did notice a silvery jewel worked into the coffin lid, but she didn’t steal it.

Soon someone spotted a human bandit lurking in the shadows. There turned out to be several, armored in leather and armed with a variety of weapons. I remind you that this was a burglar crew whose muscle was armed with a farm implement. Taking out the two lookouts, Bori and Otho were able to turn the tables on the rest of the bandits, but they were tougher and cleverer than the goblins. The bandits worked around behind our burglary crew and got their horses. Now they knew there were just four of us.

But Rhonwyn heard the horses neigh uneasily, and the two humans ran back to rescue their horses. Bori and Otho followed. There followed a lengthy game of cat and mouse in the dark; there were eight bandits, but Rhonwyn took off her ring and convinced the ghost, whose name was Beobaras the wizard, that the bandits were tomb robbers.

“TOMB ROBBERS!” he roared in a great voice of outrage. Fortunately, he could only see Rhonwyn, who wasn’t lugging great sacks of treasure.

Beobaras’ ghost tore into the bandits, who broke and fled.

Rhonwyn kept the ghost talking while the rest of the crew tried the tomb of Prince Burrien, which didn’t seem as looty as the Queen’s.

And there matters stand …

Nazi Thor

What if Nazi Germany had the aid of the gods of the Vikings?

The short answer would be, the Allies are screwed. Even with the aid of Loki.

There are no Marvel superheroes in this novella. In fact, there are no superheroes of any kind. There are several super-BEINGS, the Aesir, summoned by the Third Reich somehow to turn the tide of the war. But they’re only heroes in their own grim, dark, blood-drenched set of rules.

The Third Reich Triumphant (or almost so) creates a very relateable sense of impending doom which fits the Norse mythos perfectly. And like Poul Anderson, David Brin plays fair with both elements of his story, so there are things the Aesir can do which hit the American commandoes in their soft spots … and vice versa. Who will win? Not Aesir or Allies: that one seems pretty foreordained. I mean who will win: Survival or Doom? The answer surprises everyone, not least the Norse gods themselves. Although maybe Loki saw it coming all along …

A Silver Cross and a Winchester

I found Peter Nealen from a Book Bomb off Larry Correia’s blog. He writes mostly modern military action, which is awesome, but he also wrote a series about Jed Horn, a modern man up against supernatural evil. Jed’s got the backing of the Catholic Church, but some of the things he runs into can’t be scared off with a wave of the Cross.

As in Monster Hunter International, it’s the real world: anything available to you is available to Jed. Older things tend to work better, especially against things that have been around literally since the Beginning. But ultimately, the powers of Hell aren’t physical. Shoot ’em all day long: you won’t scratch the spirit glowing with hatred within. For that, you need the weapons of the spirit, which they didn’t cover in Marine Sniper School … at least, not overtly. Jed will need every skill he developed in Sunday School as well as the military if he’s to keep body and soul together … and on the right side of eternity!

I really liked this series. We grapple not with flesh and blood but with powers and principalities of the spirit, after all. It’s nice to see that reflected in adventure fiction.

This post is titled after my favorite of his titles, but the fourth volume, Older and Fouler Things, is a classic, too. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered it’s from The Lord of the Rings …

Let’s Get Down to Business

You may already be familiar with Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International series. In case you’re not, it’s the present day. Monsters are real: everything from every monster movie or D&D manual is probably creeping around in the shadows right now. Why don’t we know about them? Two reasons: first, the Monster Control Bureau keeps the secret, by intimidating witnesses, destroying evidence, and paying for the second reason: Professional Monster Hunters. They kill the things that go bump in the night, for pay, and keep the world not just safe, but ignorant of the mind-shredding terror waiting outside their doors.

Now, the vampires and werewolves aren’t any less scary than in the movies; Correia isn’t going for the “reduce-everything-to-something-biology-can-accept” cop-out. No, they’re immortal, immune to a lot of things, and laden with supernatural powers. And some of them, at least, are smart about it.

Fortunately, mankind isn’t limited to movie-cheerleader-victim types, either. Do silver bullets work on werewolves? Well, then 2000 silver rounds a minute will work even better! Or perhaps a .50 BMG round made of solid silver fired from half a mile away. They hunt the night? Thanks to thermal and Starlight optics, we can hang in that contest. They heal all wounds? Does that include tissue seared into black dust by white phosphorus?

Sure, our guys have it rough sometimes when they don’t have all the facts. Monster Hunters die sometimes. Or worse, they die and then get back up, but now they’re evil. There’s no such thing as a “good” vampire in MHI-World, and the only sparkling they do is when you mix some magnesium dust in with the napalm.

So it’s a secret war with the Darkness, or the several factions of Darkness so far identified by MHI and its competitors. Can private enterprise, cutting-edge ballistic weaponry, and government agents hold back the night in a series of potentially species-ending crises? Well, so far, yes. But the series isn’t over …

Next up: Your Collection Plate Dollars At War