The Hearth~ Our story thus far

Second-Hand Rumors~ chapter 21

     In the school of hard drunken knocks, one lesson gets beaten into most learners early on. Bar fights are maelstroms of fists and feet. You can’t avoid getting pulled into those vortexes of violence if the gods of light beer have your number that night. The convention center that the blackmail gala took place at definitely wasn’t a dive bar, though the Dwarf King Gorge certainly smelled like one. Liam knew from experience that turning his gaze away from this fight for even an instant would draw him into it. The thought of getting killed certainly acted as a deterrent against any sudden heroics, but that wasn’t the only complicating factor. Fighting while protecting your incompetent friend was nigh on impossible. Liam decided it was all around better to leave the fight to real fighters.

     A sharp yelp from the other end of the room drew everyone’s attention. Christopher Goodbody, pinned to the wall by the scrabbling claws of the giant wolf set on him by Gorge, had opted to resort to force. He simply bopped it once on the nose with incredible force.

     The wolf’s front paws remained steadfastly pressed against his chest as Christopher raised a fist to bop the wolf on the nose again, “Bad wolf!”

     Liam winced in sympathy as the wolf pulled its nose away from the offending fist. While Robert’s eyes were on the wolf, Gorge grew bolder. Grasping his captor’s elbow, he yanked hard and twisted Robert closer to him, pulling the blade away from his throat. As Gorge tugged him around and threw him to the floor, Robert rapped him once on the temple, staggering him and causing him to collapse in a heap. Robert hit the ground next to him hard and gasped in pain. They lay on the ground facing each other, both unable to move for the moment.

     The wolf shook its head and started to attack Christopher again. Liam felt sure that giant wolf would be the death of them, until he heard a shrill voice exclaim, “Fluffy!” Jenny came flying in from the other side of the room and tackled the wolf around the neck, crushing it into a wall. With her arms wrapped around the wolf, she resembled a small child cuddling a wolf plushie into nightmarish oblivion. The wolf’s pained expression told Liam it was reevaluating the pecking order in the room.

     Turning a pained gaze to Robert, Liam asked the question on everyone else’s mind, “What exactly am I supposed to do with that?” He pointed a finger accusingly at Jenny, who was now cooing sweet nothings to her newest pet.

     Robert appeared mortified at her actions, “Don’t ask me, you brought her to the party.”

“She’s killing the mood!” Gorge somehow managed to get to his feet. Dwarf folk are stubborn, after all. With a roar, he made a charge at Jenny, but found himself unable to reach her. She still had her arms wrapped around the wolf’s neck, which had risen to its hind legs in a determined effort to shake her off. Gorge’s proximity ended up backfiring when a particularly spastic movement sent Jenny flying into him, sending them both tumbling backwards.

     Gorge rose on unsteady feet, his balance completely thrown by now, “I’ll not let you ruin my fun, you crazy girl!”

     Liam marveled at Gorge’s restraint. He was sure Jenny had been called worse things in the past. She was an acquired taste, one which Gorge likely couldn’t appreciate. The fight slowed for a moment, as the respective opponents sized each other up. The wolf wanted no part of Jenny, and eyed Christopher warily. That left Robert, but when the wolf edged closer to him, Gorge cut it off and grabbed it by a foreleg, spinning around and tossing it into a wall. The wolf rose on unsteady feet before collapsing once more. It didn’t get up again, but it was still breathing.

     “Not him! That one is mine!”

    That moment of selfish determination, along with his lack of balance, is what led to Gorge’s death. Jenny struck, moving so suddenly that Liam was hardly aware she had begun her attack before it was over. Gorge might have dodged well enough, had his balance been good. As it was, when she stabbed at his neck with a hitherto unseen tiny knife, he pulled towards her when he meant to pull away. Grabbing at her wrists with his hands, he let his wound bleed. Pulling her down, he grabbed her around the neck and began to choke her. His focus on her took his attention from Robert, who joined the fight again to break one of Gorge’s wrists. With the force of one arm alone, he was unable to hold on to Jenny. Using the palm of her hand, she punched his jaw and sent the king sprawling.

     Even though holding a hand to the wound of his neck might have saved him, or at least prolonged the inevitable, he kept his arms at his side. At the sight of the dwarf king humbled on the ground, Liam ran to his side. He felt compelled to ask him a question, partially from pure curiosity and partially because he knew Simon would want to know the answer. Cradling Gorge, he pulled close and whispered softly, “Why did you do it? What could possibly have convinced you to help someone like Adrian Denavi?”

     Gorge coughed and whispered into Liam’s ear for a long time. It was hard to understand some of the things he said, but that happens when you’re talking to someone whose throat was just punctured. Liam’s face fell, the more he listened. Rising to his feet, he knew that had been the right decision. Gorge Doomsayer had certainly earned his name, only time would tell how much.

     “I don’t like it.” Christopher walked over to Liam and nudged over Gorge’s body to look at his face.

     “What? We killed the king, we got everyone out, and once I check that the Dirt Gremlins did their job, we can go home and get wasted.” Liam inched towards the door. The longer they stayed, the more dangerous this job got.

     “I don’t like that we didn’t get the job done, and I don’t like how long it took me to notice him.” Christopher pointed to the far side of the room. Standing next to the punch bowl, wearing an expression Liam couldn’t quite place, was Adrian Denavi.

     “Oh, don’t mind me, “Adrian purred as he helped himself to a cup of punch, “I was just watching you all congratulate yourselves on a job well done. I wonder if you would be so happy if you knew you’d played directly into my hands.”

     Liam cocked his head. This had to be a bluff. “How the hell did we do that? We stole your investors out from under you and got rid of the information you had on them as well.”

     “Bravo, you held up your end of the job. I knew gathering all my little wage slaves in one place would be too tempting a chance for Simon to pass up. I counted on him coming to kill them all, but I never dreamt he would want to save most of them.”

     Christopher scowled, “Unlike you, Simon isn’t a monster.”

     Adrian took a sip of punch, “More’s the pity. Not one of the people who left here tonight will ever make it home. The party game of the evening was everyone signing over their property to me in their wills. I am now funded for life. As a fun little bonus, I get to kill the one person who’s been a thorn in my side. Liam, I was hoping he would send you.”

     That look of recognition in Gorge’s eyes suddenly made a lot more sense. Liam backed up a few steps. Christopher stopped him from running, “I wouldn’t dash just yet. If he’s had all those people killed, he’s got teams all over the area. Even if they don’t kill you, they can still capture you.”

     Adrian tossed aside his cup, “Drat. My plans are foiled again. Now, I’ll have to go through all of you to kill him.” Removing his coat and tossing it aside, Adrian slowly started rolling his sleeves up.

     Jenny stepped between Liam and Adrian, “I’ll never let you lay a finger on my Liam.”
Adrian tucked his tie into his shirt and cracked his knuckles, “I was hoping you would say that.”

     The whole mission was a stunning failure. From start to finish, they had been played, and now Liam was in real danger himself. From the way Adrian was looking at him, it felt as though he was the primary objective the whole time. Robert and Christopher edged closer to him, attempting to insert themselves between him and Adrian. With a sudden clarity, Liam knew exactly what he needed to do. It would be considerably more difficult to take money from their blackmail victims if the blackmail were common knowledge.

     “Christopher, hold him here for just a bit. I can still ruin his night!” Liam turned and ran for the room his Dirt Gremlins had been sent to. Maybe, if he were very lucky, they had gotten lost. His directions had been poor, after all.

     “Oh, sure, “Christopher watched Liam’s back retreat around a corner, “I’ll just stay here and fight the murderous psychopath with my friends, then, shall I?”

     Liam raced towards the door which led up to the blackmail material. Seizing property would be impossible for the Society if Liam could prove it was deeded against the owners will. When he finally reached the door, he paused just long enough to catch his breath before opening the door. The Dirt Gremlins were playing with reckless abandon, and nothing useful remained in the room. The papers had been clumped together in a massive pile of grime and spit. It resembled a dung beetles prized possession. The digital equipment had fared even worse, having been smashed against the wall repeatedly to the point where Liam couldn’t even tell what they had been smashing. The Dirt Gremlins stood in the center of the room, looking towards Liam with expectant faces shining full of hope.

     “Uh,” Liam faltered. He had never been a father, but it was hard to dash the smiles on those tiny faces. They would just have to take the hit on this one, “Good work, guys.”
Listening for any movement, he could hear boots approaching. The Society killers must have finished their work and come back to support their boss. As he looked down the stairs, the murder brigade ran by at full tilt, presumably headed for Adrian’s last known location. Liam waited till he could no longer hear them. While he waited, a thought occurred to him. It wouldn’t be a fair fight, even with Jenny, against Adrian. With all those ex-soldiers running it, it would become even more one sided. If they were going to escape, they were going to need a distraction to get out of there. Liam was no good in a fight, but if it was a distraction they were looking for, Liam had the perfect plan right in the room with him.

     Racing back into the room and pointing to the ball of paper, wadded up and gross as it was, Liam turned to his Dirt Gremlins. “I’ve got a job for you,” that got their attention amazingly fast, “I need to take that thing downstairs and light it on fire. I’m not sure this is covered by the Geneva convention, but if it’s not, it really should be.”

     One of the Dirt Gremlins struck a pose, his arm pointing dramatically towards the door, “Dirty!” It exclaimed once.

     The ball looked incredibly flammable, but Liam suspected it also might be highly corrosive. It never seemed to bother the Dirt Gremlins, but his hands couldn’t always take it. Grabbing the ball, which was about as tall as they were, the Dirt Gremlins rolled it down the stairs and towards the hall where he had left his friends. His return went unnoticed by Adrian, who was squaring off with Christopher and Jenny. They were both panting, though, Adrian looked as though he had hardly exerted himself. Robert had his back pressed against the wall, taking in deep breaths to get himself back into the fight.
Fishing through his pockets, Liam found a lighter and lit the ball on fire, giving it a kick towards the center of the room. It’s wet sounds drew the attention of everyone in the room. Even if it had been completely silent, the noxious fumes the ball began to belch almost immediately would have done the trick. Liam gestured to Christopher and mimed putting his hands over his mouth. Who knew if that little trick would be enough, but Liam had to try. Nobody had enough lifetimes to live down letting their friends die.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 45

     Grief is a quiet emotion which happens in the little moments. There’s no room in the noise and the chaos of the storm for hearts to heal. Only once the chaos has died down and everything else is as it should be does loss truly sink in, slowly and with sudden, silent fury. Jack leaned against the passenger side window and watched the once familiar woods fly by as Stan drove them back to the Goodbody family home. With his sister gone, Jack had nothing which linked him to his family anymore. It wasn’t familiarity which drove him back home, but a desire to take a few days to put his head back on straight. Time had left his home untouched, as though it was mired in the past. For once, he didn’t think he would mind that too much. Keeping his sister’s room closed meant her smell would linger. Walking through her doors would be like walking through a portal to the past where she still lived. With a start, Jack realized he understood his father better than he realized.

     All hopes of peace and quiet were dashed the second Jack passed the gates leading towards his family home. The years of debris covering the road in a thick mat had been removed meticulously. The long dormant house was full of noise and laughter. In all the worry about his sister, he had forgotten it. The family meeting was a semi-regular event, which only happened when the head of the Goodbody family called for it. When that happened, all the stray Goodbody’s who had left the family home returned like desperate little birdies escaping the storm. It also called in those smaller families which served the Goodbody family in the field. Each one of them had their own family homes, in imitation of the Goodbody house, only with less bad blood.

     One of the skills Jack had perfected with his sister was the ability to duck responsibility like a well-honed machine. Why waste time talking for hours with people who pretended to like you when you could be training or working? With that in mind, Sam had come up with a path through the house which would avoid almost all the confrontation and get them to the study. The footsteps echoing down the stairs spurred Jack into action. Walking through the hall, Jack took a little used door directly to the left of the werewolf. That led to a hallway which ran the circuit of the left side of the house around to the servant’s quarters. Ignoring the looks Jack got from the staff, he climbed the stairs to the second floor.

     Halfway down the hall was a little room reserved for Uncle Reginald. He never used it, so a younger Jack and Samantha had used it to store things they bought at a novelty shop in town. To Jack’s surprise, they were all still there, useless pieces of junk that they were. It took him one trip to realize what took Samantha dozens. Nothing they ever bought from Remy would work. Still, every time she went, she would browse the store with breathless enthusiasm. Stashed away in a corner was a supply of alcohol from the days when Sam had begun to grow up faster than Jack. A ladder stood in the middle of the room, directly under a hole they had meticulously cut into the ceiling. It led to a room on the third floor right next to the study.

     Climbing the ladder, Jack hopped out into the empty room and closed the hatch behind him. Exiting the hallway, Jack found himself face to face with the one person he needed to see the most, though he would never admit it. Aldea Demois was the current head of her family, and the woman Jack loved. It wasn’t exactly a forbidden love, but he refused to acknowledge it because they were distantly related. She wore a white sundress which came down to just below her knees. She had woven a crown of wildflowers into her light brown hair. The amusement at finding Jack exactly where she thought she would find him twinkled in her blue eyes as she watched him falter in his tracks. That expression quickly turned to concern as she saw the state Jack was in.

     “You look like a wreck, Jack. What happened to you?” That voice was sweet, forbidden music to his ears. “Everyone’s been wondering where you were.”

     “Aldea, I would rather not talk about it right now.” Jack looked at his feet and shuffled back slightly, hoping she would let him pass.

     Cupping his chin, Aldea gently tugged it up to meet her eyes with his, “I’ve known you entirely too long for that nonsense, Jack Goodbody. You tell me what’s wrong right now.”
Unable to avoid the truth when faced with her eyes looking directly into his, Jack blurted out the truth, “My sister is dead.”

     Aldea pulled him into a tight hug, holding him close and refusing to let him go. When she did let go, tears wetted her cheeks. .He knew Aldea and his sister had been close, “What happened to her, Jack?”

     “She was taken from me while we were tracking down a cult in Maine and…” Jack’s thoughts wandered to his father, “Is my father home? He was gone last time I left. Everyone seems confused.”

     Aldea pulled away from Jack and spared a glance for the stairs, “Your father is still gone, and everyone is confused. He called a family meeting, and then he simply vanished? That doesn’t make any sense. With him gone, there’s nobody left to preside over the meeting. If nothing happens soon, people are going to start leaving. I heard Mr. Warden talking it over with his wife this morning.”

     That wasn’t entirely true. Jack was there. He would have argued Julian would make a better leader than him, but Julian valued his freedom and his art enough to throw Jack to the wolves. Maybe he had been running away from this his entire life, but now he had run out of places to hide. He was the de facto head of the Goodbody family, at least until a warm body with more rights to the job than him came along. He thought back to the ride up the mountain, and how willing he had been to wrap himself up in a thick blanket of nostalgia and mourning. The world didn’t need a Goodbody family obsessed with the past. It needed one that was looking forward and thinking about the future.

     Seeing Jack lost in thought, Aldea hugged him again gently, “I’ll let you go into the study. Do you have anything you want me to do, Jack?”

     “Open all the windows. Clean out every room, whether it’s being used or not. Bring in more food and set up the dining room table. I want the whole family in one room for dinner tonight. This is a new Goodbody house, so it can’t keep looking like the old one.”
Aldea walked him to the study door and let him enter alone. Jack took the opportunity afforded by the stunned silence to enter the study and lock the doors. He sat in his father’s chair, which was now his chair, and fell into a deep sleep. It must have been the deepest sleep he’d ever fallen into, because when he woke up, everything had changed. The curtains against the wall had been pulled aside, and the windows left open. The night air came flowing in, dispelling the sickly sweet smell of his father’s long stay in the room. From where he sat, Jack could make out the stars twinkling in a cloudless sky.
One more addition to the room, which Jack certainly hadn’t requested, was his cousin Julian. He had set up his easel in the room, and worked away painting at it while Jack watched.

     “It’s nice of you to watch over me while I slept.” Jack shifted in his chair and finally noticed a plate full of food sitting on the table next to him. Digging in with abandon, he realized it had been a long time since he had eaten regular meals.

     “After your insistence that everyone eat dinner in the same room, there were a lot of people who were quite insulted that you never bothered to show up.” Julian didn’t look up from his easel for a second while he responded to Jack.

      Jack stopped eating just long enough to ask Julian, “Who exactly was upset with me?”

     “The Warden family in general, because they feel very important. Aldea, because she loves you, and a host of others out of misplaced concern showing as anxiety and anger.”

     Jack sputtered out a mouthful of food, coughing in shock, “She doesn’t love me!”

     “Yes she does, and you know she does, you doofus. I heard about Sam, by the way. Nobody is mentioning it specifically, which naturally means everyone is talking about it whenever they get a chance.”

     “It’s my fault, Julian. She’s gone and it’s my fault.”

     Julian stopped painting, “She’s not dead, Jack. At least, she’s not dead yet.”
Racing to Julian’s side, Jack grabbed him by both arms and shook him, “Don’t you lie to me!”

     As Julian shook back and forth, he pointed a violently waving finger at the canvas he had been working on. It was a painting of Samantha, sitting on the ground against a wall. Her left eye was bruised and swollen and she seemed to be nursing a broken arm, but she was otherwise unharmed. It took Jack a minute to realize what he was looking at.
“Of course, even though this is live, it doesn’t tell us much about where she is. I can only see her and her immediate surroundings, so that doesn’t leave us much to go on.” Julian set his brush down and gently pried Jack’s hands loose.”

     “How do you know your hunting magic means she’s alive?” Jack watched as his sister flicked off some unseen person.

     “Because if she was dead and I had attempted to use hunting magic to track her down, it would have killed me. I was willing to take that risk for this family.”

     “Julian, that was crazy. The last thing I needed was to wake up and find you dead on the ground. What would Raul say?”

     Chuckling weakly, Julian tried to brush aside the concerns, “That’s not his name, and we’re taking an extended break. Apparently, killing monstrously giant spiders really kills the mood in a way that you can’t come back from.”

     Jack watched the portrait of his sister move around slightly every few moments. She was alive. That’s all he could think about, until a lurking thought of his father came along which he couldn’t shake, “Say Julian. You know my father up and left, right?”

     Julian shook his head, “I know what you’re going to ask, but no such luck. Hunting magic only works if I have something to tether the painting to the target. I need a hair, some blood, something I can put into the paint. Your sister left enough hair in her room to line the nests of the most liberal minded song birds in creation, with room to spare. I could find no evidence that your father existed in this room. There wasn’t a speck of him. I tried anyways, and the results weren’t good. You can take a look if you like, they’re in the corner.”

     Facing the wall was a stack of portraits. The canvas was turned away from them so that only the rear of the work could be seen. Jack crossed the room and turned over the first portrait before hurriedly replacing it. Whatever his cousin had painted, it wasn’t human. Horrible, blackened fingers grasped out towards the viewer, as though the figure in the painting wished to drag you away never to be seen again.

     “What the hell is that?”

     Julian turned white, and his hands shook a little as he spoke, “I have no clue. I’ve never failed completely, even without materials, to the point where my painting fails to show my target entirely. Either your father is very good at avoiding being tracked, or…” he trailed off, but Jack knew what he was saying. What kid of monster was his father, really?

     That left the matter of the family meeting. With Samantha currently dangling in the wind, it left the meeting in a secondary position. Returning to his seat, Jack sat back and closed his eyes. How does one stop a meeting which has already been planned? Abandoning his sister was out of the question, canceling the meeting was also impossible.

     “Why don’t you just ask them for help, Jack?” Julian’s words cut in through his thoughts like a knife. Of course, he had considered that. The resources he could bring to bear as the head of the Goodbody family were considerably greater than his own. To ask them for help, at an official meeting, meant accepting his position as head of the family. In truth, Jack had only considered himself as warming the seat that belonged to his father until he returned. Ordering the families to do his dirty work would be as good as admitting he was the heir. The alternative was to deny himself the chance to rescue his sister, and that was simply out of the question.

     “Julian, are you willing to help me find my sister?”

“Of course. Just tell me what you need, Jack.”

     Jack paused for a long time before he responded, “We’re having the meeting as planned. I’m going to ask for help finding my sister and my father. Normally, I would ask my sister to come with me to the meeting as my second. With her gone, you’re the only full relative I have left. Will you sit by my side and help me argue we should look for Sam?”

     Nodding, Julian began to pack up his supplies, “I can do that, Jack. I wouldn’t want you to have to face off with the families on your own. Without your father here, I bet some people would even rather deal with my father right about now.”

     Jack hardly heard his cousin as he spoke. His mind was already on the upcoming meeting. Family gatherings were rare in the Goodbody family, and they only happened when the head of the family called them. That his father had called a meeting and the promptly vanished raised many questions, which he wasn’t present to answer. Varnes Goodbody never did anything without a reason. Maybe if he asked the right questions at the meeting, he could find out for himself why the meeting was called.

A note from the fireside~ 8/5/18

     Hello, dear friends. I’ve missed you a lot these past weeks, I really have. Please forgive my absence this last week, I’ve just been doing a lot of thinking about this blog and my goals and how I’m going about them. Firstly, let’s talk about the upcoming chapters, then I’m going to throw down a little writing theory, or ideas. Lastly, I want to talk about my plans going forward from here and see what you all think. Paranormal Cleaners and Second-Hand Rumors are both going into their home stretches. Paranormal Cleaners will see Jack come home to a house without his father. He’s going to have to navigate his changed position in the family. Really, the whole struggle for him is how he doesn’t really want to be involved with his family anymore, and this is the tipping point in the next couple of chapters. Rumors continues the fight from where it left off last week. I’m still working on that, but I should be able to get it out on Friday. I really don’t want to spoil the chapter, but I’m looking forward to it.

So let’s talk about tone. I am, at heart, a humorist. I think I intended something very different for Jack and Stan from the start. I wanted to make it funny, but here’s the catch. So there’s a gag manga I like to read called, “I didn’t ask for this kind of here” or something like that. It’s about a psychic named Naga who joins an organization of superheroes called Spoon to fight against a group called knife. It’s utter nonsense, but it does have a plot. I may be the only one who cares about seeing a resolution, but you can’t keep telling me characters are so badass and then never let them do much of anything. It’s like watching a baseball player wind up to pitch, and then just quit halfway over and over. My writing for these series buzz the most when I’m being funny, and I get that. I just want you to know that, even if nobody else does, I take the plot seriously enough to want to see it resolved. It has a rough ending spot it’s heading for. There’s so much more history than you know, all planned out, that may never get shown.

I may have bitten off more than I could chew as well, which leads me to my third and final point. Effective as of last week, this inn will close every other week so I can get other writing done. That snafu this last month was really not my fault. It’s hard to write when you’re exhausted from moving boxes all day, and then I went on a trip. I also had some medical problems to deal with, but the stress really got to me. In order to provide you all with the best chapters possible, I have to pace myself better. I have other writing projects I need to complete, and much as I love you, I can’t keep breaking myself like this. You all are my world, as a writer, but I need to figure out how to do this in a healthy fashion. I’m kind of nuts, and I would break myself to get you a good story. I’m sorry for my absence, please forgive me. Expect a chapter tomorrow for Cleaners and Friday for Rumors. Next time we meet will be the week after next. I’ll miss you terribly. Please come and visit us again. I’ll be sure to save your seat right where you left it by the hearth.

Second-Hand Rumors~ chapter 20

     Honor amongst thieves wasn’t entirely the myth most people assumed it was. In Liam’s limited experience, it had a higher sliding scale for calculating costs than most people’s sense of honor did. That honor to cost ratio was yet another reason why Liam tended to work alone; because he usually ended up regretting it. Somehow, Liam’s priceless value wasn’t as apparent to your average thief as a diamond the size of his fist. His current cohorts weren’t in it for the money, which meant they were in it for honor or some such nonsense.

     As though to confirm his understanding of the situation, his buzzing phone taunted him with the knowledge that this train was about to go off the rails in a big way. Answering the call, Liam pressed the phone to his ear, “You’ve got Liam.”

     “Hey, Liam.” It was Christopher Goodbody, “I had a thought. JJ told me about one of the Fourteen Kings being here. It’s the dwarf king. Let’s just kill him now.”

     “That’s a terrible idea.” Peering down the hall, he could hear glasses clinking and voices chattering away. It sounded remarkably civil for a party of elites being held hostage via blackmail.”

     “Hear me out, Liam. If we start a fight with the King, everyone will bolt. Our two Revers can catch the bad ones on the way out, and we can destroy the blackmail material before we leave. It’s fool-proof.” Christopher sounded incredibly pleased with his plan.

     “And what happens when someone calls the cops?”

     “All the better. If someone calls in the cops, it will be almost impossible for the Society to call in more goons, and the King won’t be able to escape without attracting attention.”
Groaning, Liam hoped his Dirt Gremlins did their work. His original part of the plan was to help escort innocent party goers from the group, their records expunged by his tiny helpers, “Stick to the plan. I know I’m spitting in the wind, but how exactly do you plan to kill the King?”

     “If I start a fight in the middle of the party, everyone will run. While we go at it in the chaos, Robert will find an opening and strike. I don’t seriously think I can win a straight up fight with him, I just need to give Robert the chance he needs. We can leave during the aftermath and get out before anyone knows what happened This way, we don’t need to escort people out one by one. We can just catch up with them later, and we get to kill one of the Fourteen Kings.”.

     “What do you plan on doing about Adrian Denavi? He’s not just going to let you kill the one guest who probably wants to be here.”

     There was a long pause before Christopher responded, “He’s not here, at least not at the main party. Of the guards I’ve asked, nobody seems to know where he is. Look, I talked it over with Robert, so I’m getting started. Trust me, Liam.”

     The phone went dead. Liam knew one thing. He didn’t want to miss this fight. Not out of some morbid curiosity, but from a genuine fear that everything was going to go wrong. Adrian would never miss a Society event this important. From his limited exposure to the man, Adrian seemed obsessive compulsive about his work. His apparent absence meant he was either somewhere more important, or somewhere out of sight at the hostage party.

     Taking a few turns, Liam found himself standing on the outskirts of the gala. Art pieces had been set up along the walls to provide a veneer of class to the event. Two long rows of tables lay along each wall, most of them filled with finger foods everyone was too polite to eat. High ceilings looked down over the attendees, with murals of cherubic angels losing their cloth diapers in hopes of becoming the next sunscreen baby. The height of the ceilings allowed everyone’s voices to echo around the room, which was having a strained effect on the guests. The attendees had split off into groups of twos or threes, slowly circulating around the room in strange social avoidance patterns. When the groups ran into each other, they would split off and two new, but different, groups would emerge and head off in different directions.

      Liam didn’t know where the King was, so he decided to imagine he was parched and needed to find all the alcohol in the world. If their target was as drunk as Christopher said he was, he would be within standing distance of the largest concentration of alcohol in the building. Even without that mental exercise, the King was easy enough to spot, because he was the only one with a large, and ever-expanding space around him. If the dour sounding name, or the proclivity to drunkenness didn’t give away whose king he was, his stature and appearance certainly sealed the deal. He was short, though not as short as Liam might have expected. He wore his beard in thick braids and twined through it were trophies of past conquests. As a fellow drinker, Liam could certainly see the appeal of his decorations. They were silver and gold decorations taken from exorbitantly priced alcohols he had defeated in the past. Even from across the room, he could hear the Kings booming voice regaling anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot of further times when he had become inexcusably drunk and done dreadful things to the upholstery.

     Gorge Doomsayer wore his name on his sleeve. When presented with impending destruction, people react most commonly in one of two ways. They either eat, drink and grow merry for they know their death approaches, or they give everything up and set about destroying the world. Those were not the clothes of avarice. There was something utilitarian about his black suit which set Liam on edge. The muscles which bulged out from under his suit weren’t earned in leisure, that’s for sure. The only sparkly thing about him were the bits of silver and gold twined through his expansive brown beard. Though laughter hung around the edges of his voice, like a surprise party about to break out at any second, he had a haunted expression in his eyes which Liam had seen all too often. It wasn’t that he just wanted the world to burn, he had already seen it somewhere in the past.

     Liam didn’t have long to contemplate this before Christopher showed up. He had never been more grateful to know that two Revers lurked in the background, watching and waiting for an opportunity. Christopher hadn’t changed for the party. He still wore the same ratty clothes he had been wearing when he left the apartment. If anyone noticed him, and his ratty clothing, they were too polite to mention it. Abandoning any pretenses of subtlety , Christopher simply walked up to Gorge and punched him in the face.

The punch rocked Gorge back and almost pushed him straight off his feet into a table covered with bottles of hard liquor. Regaining his balance, Gorge blinked a few times and shook his head, an expression which must have crossed Liam’s own face many times when reality interfered with his drunken stupor.

     “Ha!” That one laugh, barked out loud enough to echo from the walls of the ballroom, was not the reaction Liam had expected. Christopher took a step backwards and raised his fists. His confused expression told Liam that he hadn’t expected the King to react so quickly to that punch, despite his status and reputation.

     “Now this is more like it! Who sent me the party favor!?” Gorge ripped his black coat from his shoulders and tossed it to the ground. His massive shoulders bulged as he rolled the sleeves of his shirt up, random alcohol trophies jingling with every move.

     Christopher smiled, the excitement of a good fight overtaking his common senses, “Does it really matter? I’m going to kill you.”

     Gorge nodded appreciatively, a smile dancing around the edges of his lips, “You must be a Goodbody. Those blue eyes and that absurdly sturdy body give you away. I hope you can show an old dwarf like me a good time.”

     Having said that, he launched himself at an impossible speed towards Christopher, like a human battering ram with a beard. Gorge must have been more drunk than he realized, however, because Christopher was able to step to the side and grab the dwarf by his arm and leg as he hurtled past. Using Gorge’s own momentum against him, Christopher spun around in place and whipped his cargo towards a wall. Hitting it at full speed, he broke through the wall and into the next room. If Liam hadn’t been so worried, it would have been comical when Gorge popped his head back through, his beard slowly popping back out like a glittery brown flower blooming in spring.

     “Oh, you’ll do nicely. I hope you’re ready for what’s coming.” Gorge hardly waited before attacking once more. Rather than slipping back through the hole he had created, Gorge simply walked through the wall. Liam was no stranger to violence. He had seen, and been on the receiving end, of some barbaric acts which still made him shudder to think of it. He had seen fights so fast, his eyes could hardly keep up with them. This fight was entirely without class. It was brutality personified. Christopher, being a Goodbody, must not have been used to fighting someone who could go toe to toe with him. Gorge’s fighting style focused mostly around body blows, as one would expect from a dwarf. When he punched Christopher hard enough to send him flying back a few feet, Liam could feel it in his bones.

     Christopher doubled over and coughed. When his hand came away, it was slick with blood. Gorge wasn’t about to let him rest, however, and ran back to the table he had been standing near. Liquor bottles make convenient rockets in the right hands, and Gorge was a skilled Makers Marksman. Bottles whirred into Christopher, shattering into sparkling showers of glass and high-end liquor. Turning his back to Gorge, Christopher huddled down on the ground and made sure only his back could be hit.

     That wasn’t the worst idea Liam had ever seen. Getting killed by a random bottle to the face felt like an anti-climactic way to go, but that tactic did require him to take his eyes away from Gorge, and the dwarf proved incapable of ignoring such a taunt. Rushing his opponent with a speed which Liam found impossible to believe, given his stubby legs, Gorge leapt into the air, a hitherto unseen dagger in his left hand. He was speeding downwards like a dwarven bullet when he suddenly swung forward gently. Grasping at his neck, Gorge dropped his dagger and swung backwards. Squinting his eyes, Liam could make out the barest glint of metal hanging from the ceiling. He had been alive long enough to notice an assassin’s handiwork.

     That wasn’t the only metal noose hanging from the ceiling. The longer he looked, the more he could see, darted around the ceiling and hanging towards the floor, just waiting for someone to occupy them. Liam wondered whose work that was, Jenny or Robert’s. Given their impracticality, Liam decided that it was likely Jenny’s work. Gorge turned a bright red color and started to bounce up and down. Breaking that filament would be impossible, but the ceiling was less prepared to deal with the exuberant death rattles of a dwarven king. With a resounding crack, a large portion of the ceiling came loose and rained down all around them. With the tension loose, Gorge managed to get the wire from around his neck. Breathing heavily, he was in no state to do any fighting.
Christopher rose to his feet and brushed the glass from his shoulder in a care-free manner which reminded Liam of Sam. Turning to face Gorge, he started advancing slowly, watching him carefully and noting his every move. Reaching into his pocket, Gorge produced a figure of a wolf from his pocket. With a start, Liam realized that figure looked incredibly familiar. He had seen a very similar one amongst the figures in the Nair family vault. That was around the time when Adrian had managed to rob the vault of a few figures. He had no idea what was going to happen, but he knew it wasn’t going to be good.

     Gorge tossed the wolf figure onto the floor and it sprouted, growing rapidly into a living wolf with razor sharp yellowed teeth, about the size of a large grey hound. It stood between Christopher and Gorge, allowing the King a few moments to catch his breath. When Christopher took a step back, it lunged at him, chasing him across the entirety of the room and pressing him into a wall, snapping at his face.

     In his moment of triumph, the dwarf king had failed to watch his own back. Robert, appearing from thin air, materialized behind Gorge and tugged him roughly to his feet. Pressing his own dagger to his throat, he held his captive close and yelled, “Call the wolf off! Now!

      Liam’s blood ran cold as Gorge began to laugh, “Now we’re having a party!” Taking a step back, Liam tripped over nothing and fell to the ground. The sudden movement caught Gorge’s eye, and his eyes registered an expression of recognition which Liam hardly liked the look of. This job was over. Everyone needed to get out right now.

Jack and Stan~ Paranormal Cleaners chapter 44

     Death follows the Goodbody family. It was as much a part of their family heritage as hunting or individuality. Somehow, it still caught Jack off guard when someone he cared about died. The brilliant sickening light cascading from the chandelier blinded him slightly, leaving his thoughts fuzzy, and his motions sluggish and slow. The cult leader, who just vanished up to the third floor in an undignified escape, was the goal which kept Jack going. Cults were, almost by design, incredibly suspicious of outsiders, but in Jack’s experience they treated other cults in much the same way major corporations treated client e-mail lists. They often networked and bickered with each other about their dueling insane beliefs. While Jack felt certain that his ineptitude had led to his sister’s demise, he could still find what was left of her and give her a decent burial at home. He doubted her spirit would stay there long. She had never been a homebody in life, and what remained of her would follow suit in the afterlife as well.

      His thoughts came crashing back to reality with Stan’s mallet, which swung through the air in a short, tight arc and smacked his head into what remained of the wall they had just knocked down. The lenses of his glasses shattered and crinkled to the ground, his ruined frames quickly following them, slipping from his face. This would be a race then. How fast could Jack catch up with this farce of a cult leader while keeping ahead of Stan? Slightly dazed, he snatched the shaft of the mallet before Stan could retract it to strike him again, he grabbed the mallet head and pulled it off. Trying to remove the mallet, or break it, would prove to be too time consuming. With this, at least Stan only had a long stick. What damage could he do with a stick?

     When he had a free moment, and Stan was no longer trying to kill him under the orders of a man they had never met before, he would have to examine him to find out what was going on. Only the unhinged and chaotic nature of the moment stopped that question from rising to the top of his mind. Concern for his friend, along with the time it would have taken to fight him, meant that a frontal confrontation was out of the question. Stan wavered for a moment, holding the handle to his mallet with a dumbfounded expression he had never seen before. It must be the light, which was affecting Jack’s ability to focus as well.

     Time felt as though it was drawing to a stop as Jack dodged away from Stan and took his first step towards the stairs. The cloaked cultists rushing towards the stairs to cut him off looked as though they were moving in slow motion. It was a sensation which Sam had described to him often, the feeling of absolute concentration she achieved when hunting. On rare occasions, he had experienced the same sensation, but it was rare that the work he took with Stan pushed him to that extreme. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, he could see the openings between the bodies cascading down the stairs in a river of angry, undulating idiots.

     It was his instincts which saved him, almost pushing him back a step without even knowing why. The mallet handle shot past him and flew off into the building before lodging itself into a wall. Apparently, that’s what Stan could do with a stick. Time to put some distance between himself and Stan. If they got into a fight, Jack would almost certainly win, but it would take precious moments which his quarry could use to escape capture. Rather than let the moment run away, he decided to let Stan be the one to take out the cultists racing down the stairs. It was the least he could do for Jack, given that he had already attacked him twice.

     Once he decided to avoid any fighting, his path became easier. Advancing up the stairs, taking two steps at a time, Jack slipped himself through gaps in the crowd of cultists. Worming his way in between them, he could hardly slow down a moment with Stan chasing him. Anyone who fell behind him was violently thrust out of the way, as Stan struggled to deal with the brainwashed, robed traffic barriers Jack left in his wake. As he reached the top of the stairs, Jack grabbed one particularly hefty cultist by his robe and helpfully shoved him down the stairs. The cultists below him tumbled down like dominoes directly into Stan, who had to brace himself to stop them from pushing him back. That gained Jack a precious few seconds.

     It occurred to him while he ran up the stairs that Stan’s behavior would immensely improve if that chandelier weren’t shining anymore. That must be what was affecting his own movements, and if it were affecting Stan’s motor skills as well, it would explain why he was having a relatively easy time keeping ahead of him. There was something strange about that light, however. Something which clearly went beyond a normal chandelier. The cult leader had mentioned receiving it recently. Mentally, Jack added it to the list of questions he wanted to ask the man when he found him.

     Reaching the third floor Jack quickly located the chain which held the chandelier suspended over the second floor. It had been lowered via a winch to shine down onto the second floor. That was likely why portions of the floors and walls were missing, so that the light could shine on as many places in the building as possible. He wanted to give it a closer examination, but Stan’s footsteps gave him no pause for thought. All he needed to do was stop the chandelier from shining. The walls around him lacked any switches and the cord ran around a wall off into the third floor. With that in mind, he took the chain in his hands and lifted it up slightly to give himself some slack. Just as Stan reached the third floor, Jack snapped the chain holding the chandelier into two with a sharp jerk. Letting go of the chain, it swung downwards towards the floor and shattered into pieces.
The lights from the chandelier vanished with that crashing sound, and the pain which Jack hadn’t even realized was lurking in the front of his head went away. Stan collapsed to his knees, dust rising around him as he fell forward, barely managing to support himself on his hands.

     Jack was at his side in an instant, checking his forehead with the back of his hand and gently pulling an eyelid open to check his eyes. The pupils were dilated and appeared to writhe slightly as though they couldn’t maintain their shape. As Jack watched, the movement slowly came to a stop.

     “Sorry…boss. Ain’ no way I could’a stopped. Them lights was in my head.” Stan slumped forward and gently hit the ground. His heavy breathing reassured Jack that when he came to, he would be back to his old self.

     Getting up and adjusting his tie, Jack scanned the third floor. The walls remained mostly intact, but thankfully he hardly had to look for his target very long. He was the only other person moving in the whole building. Everyone else was either dead, unconscious, or wishing mightily that they were dead, thanks to Stan’s rampage. The few cultists who were conscious merely sat, holding their heads. Stopping, he leaned down and examined one. He seemed disoriented, lost, and entirely confused as to where he was, or even when he was.

     Leaving the cultist, he turned his attention back to their former leader. As Jack listened, he could hear footsteps retreating away from him, headed downwards. Oh, of course. There would have to be some second set of stairs reserved for a making a quick escape in case the Feds got interested in why so many people were coming onto the property, and just decided to never leave.

     In a building with three stories, and stairs which could only lead down, Jack at least knew the general direction he was headed in. Racing back down the stairs, and winding around the bodies he had pushed past only minutes before, he reached the ground floor in record time. After waiting for just long enough to be sure that his quarry hadn’t simply left via a side door, checking from the front door for flapping robes in the distance, Jack decided to explore the first floor. It didn’t take long to find a door which led down into a basement. In his haste to escape from Jack, he had left it open, but it wouldn’t have taken Jack long to find it anyways.

     It led downwards into a crypt of sorts, with a seemingly endless amount of spaces open for bodies. Many of the spaces were already filled, with believers or apostates, not that it made much difference at this point. He found the cult leader desperately scraping away at a wall with his fingernails. Jack scratched his head. Why would anyone go down this path if there was no way out? Maybe he expected Jack would just leave, under the assumption that he had already left. Panic or overconfidence had led to his downfall.
“I didn’t do anything wrong! This isn’t my fault!” The cult leader’s hooded robe fell away, and the result was as spectacularly underwhelming as Jack had learned to expect. He was a thin man, with pale eyes and a sort of dreamy expression on his face. His few wisps of hair spoke of stressful hours running a rat race which, as a cult leader, he no longer needed to run. On the chart of banal evil, he was evil milk toast, capable of hurting people only because someone had given him something so powerful even he couldn’t screw it up. The power in his voice had vanished, replaced by a cowering, wavering voice which sounded more natural coming from his frame.

     “We’re surrounded by those who followed your beliefs, whatever they were, and you have the gall to tell me that you didn’t do anything wrong?”

     “The light! The light will save us all, which shines from any source which has the stone! It knows all, and sees all, and…”

     Jack stopped listening as the situation became clear. It was different than whatever Jack could have expected. This thing he had found, or been given, it was so powerful it had warped his mind. The blind was leading the blind, “And who gave this thing to you?”
“Goodbody!”

     After that, he fell silent and looked down at his hand. He was holding a small black cylinder with strangely familiar black markings. Prying it from his hands, Jack turned away and returned to the first floor without a word. He found a groggy Stan waiting for him.

     “Boss, I ain’t never had that happen before. I got no idea what happened.”

     Holding up the black cylinder he had taken mere moments before, Jack shook his head, “It sounds like everyone was being controlled by this thing. It looks almost exactly like the one we took from Creepy Bug Guy. We can’t let anyone else get their hands on these.”

Stan scratched his chin thoughtfully, “So the reason yer father had them notes on this cult was that metal piece’a…”

     “Yes, it had absolutely nothing to do with the Cult of the Fields, or my sister. We’ve been had, Stanley. All we can do is head back home and get to work recovering what’s left of my sister. I find it hard to believe she’s still alive at this point, given how many of their people she killed in her one woman rampage.”

     “What about them cultists? I smell no blood on you either, what about the guy in charge?”

     Jack paused, “I left him alive, technically, but he’s all alone now. The only member of a cult more helpless than the suckers on the lowest rung is the biggest sucker sitting on top. You learn to think you’re invincible and you forget how to take care of yourself. That guy was a nobody before, and he’s still a nobody now. If the other members of the cult don’t find him, he’s going to die on his own. Nobody will even remember his name.”

     “What’s his name?”

     “I don’t know, I never asked.”

     Tragedy never happens for a reason. People gave purpose to them afterwards, something Jack refused to do. In his haste, and his fear, he had sought out his kidnapped sister and failed to find her. Ezra’s companion, Ishmael Denavi, had sent him on a wild goose chase, and in his eagerness to find his sister, he had fallen for the ploy. He had found another Machina, likely the reason his father kept notes on the place. He had planted a seed, tended it, and watched it grow twisted and evil from afar. That didn’t give this trip purpose, nor did it give his tragedy a meaning. His sister was almost certainly dead, and that was something he would live with. When he found his father, he had some questions he needed to ask him. His father might not like the questions, but Jack wasn’t sure he even wanted the answers. The long trek back to the van and the ride homewards would give him plenty of time to think it over.

A note from the fireside~ 7/22/18

     Hello, dear friends. This will be a short post. I really didn’t want to write this post. God knows I wanted to avoid writing this post. This last week has been such a mess. I have two rough drafted posts, but I finished them far too late for my wife to look at. This last week was mostly spent helping my sister in law move out, and then my wife and I had a mini vacation planned. Between those two things, I got so little writing done. I’m sorry. I was tempted to wait until tomorrow to write a post, but you deserved to hear it from me today. God, I screwed up this last week. For what it’s worth, the added time has really clarified in my mind what I want to get done. Please forgive me, dear friends. I’ve been sick and I’ve been tired, but that’s no excuse. I’m going to give my wife two posts to edit tomorrow, and hopefully this week will be smoother and I can give her two more on Friday. Thank you so much for your patience. You all mean the world to me.

A note from the fireside~ 7/15/18

     Hello, dear friends. I can’t begin to express how much I’ve missed you. This week has been very long, very disappointing and very full. I will attempt to do my best to avoid giving you too much personal details, that’s not really what these posts are about. Neither Cleaners nor Rumors posts are ready. I’ve tried so hard this week to get any writing done.  Today, I rough drafted most of a Cleaners chapter and things felt more certain this week than they have in weeks past. Chapters 44 and 45 will wrap up this arc, and I have something special planned for the end. It’s given me an opportunity to tighten up the last part for Paranormal Cleaners, which excites me greatly. Second-Hand Rumors as well, I felt bad about. Something felt off about this last couple of chapters, and I realized that I may have bitten off more than I could chew. It’s been a learning experience, but it’s not fair that you had to suffer through those chapters.

     I had an epiphany on how to save this last arc and keep my promises mostly intact. I feel bad that there were no posts this week, but everyone had to pitch in to deal with a family emergency. On top of helping my sister in law move, I spent the last couple of days looking after my nephew, who is two years old. Anybody who has a two year old knows exactly how exhausting that can be. That I got any writing done today is honestly shocking. I can’t make any promises for this next week either, because we have to move all their things into a storage unit. I will do my absolute best to find a way to make this up to you. I feel dreadful about the way things have gone. This last week did have some silver lining to it, though. For weeks, I’ve been attempting to function on my desktop. I function much better on a laptop. Maybe it’s silly, and maybe it’s not something I should take seriously, but nobody ever questions the Natural about his bat from a tree struck by lightning, or maybe they do. I have no idea, I still haven’t seen the movie. Anyways, long story short, I splurged and bought myself a laptop this weekend. It’s glorious not sitting in my wife’s grandfather’s studio chair, which is wonderful and sentimental, and had some sharp thing sticking out of it, which pushes into my butt. The seat is almost entirely worn away, in terms of cushioning too.

     Anyways, I just wanted to let you all know what’s going on. I might count this as a break week, and start the five week counter over, though this week was hardly a break. Honestly, taking the time to sit down and write this little note to you has lifted such a great weight from my mind. Once more, I am so sorry that there were no posts this week. I’ll try to be better about posting on my author’s page on Facebook about that in the future. Thank you for coming and seeing me every week. Your visits mean the world to me and my wife. Please come back again soon. I’ll be sure to save your seat right by the hearth where you left it.