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  #151  
Old 11-13-2016, 02:59 PM
DarkAngel DarkAngel is offline

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If you haven't noticed, I kind of has to call off November in November this year. My involvement in a certain other fan project has been eating steadily more time, and I just can't do it anymore.

I will try to get a post off by the end of the month -- but I honestly don't remember what it was going to be about.
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  #152  
Old 11-30-2016, 09:36 PM
Malygos Malygos is offline

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May your other endeavors be fruitful.
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  #153  
Old 12-01-2016, 05:52 PM
DarkAngel DarkAngel is offline

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Orb of Slow Dispatch #37

Hey, now. I was most of the way to having this ready by the time you posted! It's got some weld lines, but it had to get out the door ASAP.

* * * * * * *
Personal log, November Terra:
I’ve done many things as a Ghost. I’ve infiltrated the highest security in Terran space. I’ve assassinated senators, scientists, and corporate executives. I’ve even rescued children. But I never—not even once—imagined I’d be standing watch over a sleeping Spectre. With time at seventy-one hours, I’m doing exactly that.

I have half a mind to kill her while I have the chance—but she’s also proven herself. She could very well turn around and waste me, but I don’t think she will. Not for a while yet. She’s here for a reason—a bullshit reason—but one that’s at least half true. Besides, if she wanted me dead, I would be. She wants something; what I still don’t know.

That healthy skepticism is why I only gave myself four hours down. I was deliberately slow to kill the alarm, making it look like a sleep-shrug. I was apparently just in time to hear Blood-breath try talking to Tybi. “Care for some breakfast?” she asked. “No? You’ve got to be hungry by now.” I held still. My position would be much better if I could read the situation before she knew.

“Not from you.”
“My rats are perfectly safe. I’ll take the first bite if you want.”

“Not from you!” my younger self repeated.
Blood-breath was nonplussed. “Well, then. Miss Sunshine can keep it bottled up until she explodes. I should warn you.”

“Shut up! You’re worse than she is!”
“Am I? I’d say I’m just further along. Someday, she’s going to be me—and I guess you are too.”

“No! Just stop it!” She sounded on the verge of tears.
I rolled over. “That’s enough. Leave her alone.”

If nothing else, it switched her attention. “Ah, so you are awake. I was starting to wonder. Ghost discipline doesn’t allow sleeping in.”

I sat up, holding her gaze while Tybi scurried back to her hiding place. “No. It doesn’t. No fraternizing with outsiders, either. I assume Spectres kept that one too.”

“A rule you had the habit of breaking,” she added.
I glared. “You would know.”

She glared right back. “Indeed I would.”
I stood up, crossing my arms as I walked over. “You wanted to talk. What is it?”

“Always to the point, Nova. As I said, I’m here to protect you.” Her smirk was all the more infuriating because it was mine.

“Protect me from what? I’m a damn Ghost—the best Ghost. What could I possibly need to be protected from?”

The look she gave me was piercing, like I was looking into my own soul. “Yourself.”

It was enough to make me hesitate. “Myself? I need to be protected from myself?”

“You do. You may be the best Ghost there is, but you’re not perfect. You make mistakes; you break the rules. All Ghosts do. That’s what they got wrong.” Her fingers absently drew a terrazine canister from her belt. “The Ghost Program tries to create machines, but the Ghosts are still human. You hunger desperately for human connection, but you can’t have any.” She raised the canister to her lips and took a drag. “The job doesn’t allow it. So you start making exceptions—that’s how you live with yourself. Oh, I let him live because he smiled at me while I was under cover. I let her slip away because she reminded me of someone I’ve been made to forget.” She looked right at me. “I helped that little girl because I was symbolically helping myself. You love to do that one.”

I glared again. “Your point?”
She matched me. “My point is that hunger can make you do stupid, self-destructive things.”

“Like inhaling terrazine?”
“Yes.” She gave me that piercing look again. It wasn’t angry or condescending. She was just stating the facts. And that’s what made it so damn scary.

“Are you seriously telling me my humanity is what makes me into a blood-sucking monster? How is that even possible?”

She looked down. “In a word, Tosh.”
I snorted. “If I see that bastard again, he’s going to get a hole in his head.”

Blood-breath looked up again. “Yeah? I think you’ll find terrazine has a way of undoing brain-panning. Someday, you’re going to remember your history—and how you felt about him.”

“Felt about him? The very thought of that monster makes me sick! What could possibly get us back together?” I only later realized I’d tipped my hand about remembering.

Yet the Spectre didn’t notice my slip. She looked away. “Toom was dead. Mal was dead. We were both looking for a rebound—and there we were, both fully remembering the Academy.”

Suddenly, the pieces fit together. Meeting Tosh. Toom dead. Full memory. It all converged at one point: Ghenna Station. But that’s already in my past. “What happens to Mal?” I asked carefully.

Her fists clenched. “Hauler kills him—or Bennett—or whatever his name is. Happens right in front of you, too—and there’s nothing you can do about it. You should...prepare yourself.”

I gave her my best smirk. “I’ll prepare by killing him the moment we see each other again—if I ever get out of here.”

Blood-breath gave me that unsettlingly familiar smirk. “You’re me all right. Now do you see why I’m here? I can save you a hell of a lot of pain.” I said nothing, pretending to consider her offer—but she didn’t wait. “Think about it,” she said, standing up. “It’s my turn to get some shuteye, and I’m going to trust you not to disappear—or kill me.” Her eyes narrowed. “Remember, I found you once. I can find you again.” She pushed past me and made herself comfortable in exactly the place where I’d just taken my rest. The symbolism wasn’t lost on me. Needless to say, I won’t be racking out there again.

It’s been quiet for an hour now. From her breath, my Spectre self appears to be asleep, but I’m still on guard. Lulling an opponent into complacency is what I would do, and...she is me in a way. But she isn’t me. Not really. She’s some twisted version from an alternate reality. My Mal is very much alive—for which I should be thankful. Without him, I’d be one of them, massacring my way across the sector.

She’s right about one part, though. I could’ve been saved a lot of pain if I’d known what was up ahead, and it’s not too late for the other copy of myself in this room. Tybi, however, wasn’t much more interested in conversation with me than with Blood-breath. In fact, she deliberately faced the other way while she ate. I may have to make talk a condition of these hand-outs. As it stands, feeding two is burning through my rats at almost double. Some in situ resource acquisition may be in order. Nova out.

* * * * * * *
It's kind of ironic, but I've had a copy of Spectres sitting next to me for almost a year now. I can't bring myself to open it for fear of contaminating my Nova with the official one.

Still, I was pleased by what Mickey did with her in the comic -- that she on some level acknowledges the evil of her occupation. He suggested an idea that might get used in a few more posts...
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  #154  
Old 12-01-2016, 09:39 PM
Malygos Malygos is offline

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Just in time for the Nova vs. Spectre brawl.
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  #155  
Old 10-24-2017, 02:46 PM
DarkAngel DarkAngel is offline

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Bloodlust Dispatch #38

Quote:
Originally Posted by Malygos View Post
Just in time for the Nova vs. Spectre brawl.
Actually, it seems you were almost a year early. Sorry about that.

To any other readers, this is the finale to the big burst of posting stuff. Rest assured, however, that I'm arranging my schedule to make November in November possible this year.

* * * * * * *

Personal log, November Terra:
With my clocks reading seventy-six hours, I find myself fighting a new enemy, one that comes from the inside. My mouth is dry from more than the climate. My thoughts are scrambled. My senses are on red alert. I don’t know what’s happening. I must be getting sick. Ah, screw it. I do know what I’m feeling. It’s called ‘fear.’

Fear’s nothing new, of course. It’s just been a very long time since I felt it this strong. Ghosts are trained to suppress emotion—which is much easier to do when you have a clear objective. I don’t. I’m caught in someone else’s game. I don’t know the rules, and I certainly don’t know the win condition.

I came out here to learn more about the Nexus. I thought maybe there’d be a weakness somewhere I can use to escape—but my alternate selves are making that very difficult, each in her own way. One is a weight I can’t bear to throw away. The other has become a menace with my face.

I guess it’s a good thing I spent most of the last three hours scouting for new hide-outs. I’ve identified three—made easy by the orgy of looting at Phagun’s. Every resident for blocks is there, squabbling over anything the thugs didn’t take first. Under other circumstances, a diversion that big would’ve made it easy to swipe some local food, but things didn’t pan out that way. The Luxorians, it seems, serve their food on huge communal platters. Hard to grab one of those with out getting noticed. Harder still to carry it anywhere. And to take the food itself would get dirty fast. I might need to find some kind of container before this is viable.

I returned as the afternoon heat was reaching its height. True, the sun goes right through you when you’re cloaked, but that doesn’t do anything about the heat. If you can stay out of it, you should. My Spectre self was still down for the count, but Tybi was up. She was listlessly wandering the room—which was an improvement. But as I got closer, I realized she was crying again. “Hey,” I said, decloaking. I said it as gently as I knew how, but she turned her back the moment I became visible. “Look, I’ve been rough with you at a time when you’re very hurt. I just want you to know I understand what you’re going through.” She said nothing. “I know everything seems really hopeless right now,” I tried again, “but I also know you’ll get through it.” I reached out to touch her shoulder—and she shrugged me away almost before contact. “Believe me. Deep down, you are so. Strong. You have power you don’t even realize.” Still silence. It was like talking to a wall. “Please, say something—just so I know you’re still in there.”

Tybi’s voice was so soft I almost didn’t hear it. “I don’t— I don’t want to be a murderer,” she whispered.

I looked down. “I didn’t either. But I got over it. You will too. That’s how strong you are.”

Suddenly, she turned. “No!” she shrieked. “I don’t want to be a murderer!” She scurried back to her favorite hiding spot behind the piled furniture. I could hear her trying to stifle the sobs—in vain. Was I really such a basket case?

“Very smooth, Nova.” The voice was my own, but slightly lower, raspier.

I turned. Blood-breath had rolled over to watch me. “And I suppose a Spectre is going to give me a lesson in tact.”

She smirked. “If only. I’m you, remember? I don’t have any better graces than you do.”

“Then can it.”

Blood-breath sat up, her motion too familiar for comfort. “You’re rejecting my offer, then? You don’t want advice from someone who’s been there?”

“I never said that. I think it’s a conversation we need to have.” Changing the subject seemed like a good idea.

Her version of my face warped into a sadistic grin. “Then consider this your first lesson: There are lots of people who are attracted to you. Some will take pity on you. But you’ll never be able to love any of them back because you’re too damaged. You'll spend the rest of your life fumbling around in your relationships like Delta trying to read.”

So much for changing the subject. “For your information, Delta did learn to read.”

“True,” she admitted, “but it was never effortless. Not like you, Tosh, or any of the others. It was work. That’s how it’ll be for you, an emotional cripple.”

Now I really needed to change the subject. “Speaking of Delta, I hear you blood-suckers couldn’t catch her.”

She sighed. “You still like her. You always did. I suppose she was the first.”

“The first what?”

“The first lost puppy you collected. You have to stop doing that—or quit your job.”

I looked away. “Okay, so I’m not a robot. Your point?”

“Remember how I said your humanity makes you do dumb things?”

There was a crack in the wall, just to her left, that suddenly seemed very interesting. “I didn’t get to be the Dominion’s best Ghost by forgetting things.”

“No, I mean it. Her name is Lila. You will meet her on Altara. Stay. Away. From her.”

For a moment, my heart stopped. Luckily, my Ghost discipline stopped it from showing. “Why?”

“Because you’re going to kill her.”

It took everything I had to not react. “Big deal. What’s one more death to an assassin?”

“Don’t say that!” Her tone suddenly reminded me of how Spectres are prone to wild emotional swings. Hell of a time to remember. I instantly went into combat stance. She was in one too. “She’s practically a clone of you! You break some of the most sacred standing orders of the Ghost Program to help her—and then...” Spectre me was well and truly choking up, her breathing ragged.

I chose my words very carefully. “If you liked her so much, why kill her?”

Blood-breath pulled herself up straight, fighting back the emotion with a very familiar resolve. “Because of this,” she said, pulling the terrazine canister from her belt. She took a drag and held it so long I thought she was going to pass out. But when she finally did release it, she was back in control. I’m not sure whether my relief showed or not. “Terrazine exposure has to be paired with a healthy dose of jorium or the subject goes insane. Lila didn’t know that. She was just a kid.”

“How—”

She took a step closer. “One can. Left where she could reach it. That was all it took.” It was strange to see my face looking so...defeated. “Gabe offered to take care of it, but I insisted on doing myself. I put her in the situation. She was my responsibility.”

Is it possible for Spectres to feel regret? That’s sure what it looked like—but I couldn’t let it show. If it was an act, she had to think it wasn’t working. I sighed dramatically. “Too bad memory-wipes don’t work on Spectres. You could really use one.”

Her expression changed to wry amusement. “That is what you’d say, isn’t it? That’s your solution to everything—to forget.”

“How dare you,” I said evenly. “You know as well as I do what I’ve been through—how strong I’ve had to be.”

She shook her head. “You’re not strong. You’re weak. The Dominion asked for your soul, and you gave it to them without a second thought. You became exactly who they wanted you to be because, as painful as it was, it was less painful than being yourself.”

This again. “I think your ‘advice’ has gone on long enough,” I told her. “The Dominion made me who I am. The Dominion made me great.”

“Then pardon me for calling you by the wrong name, Agent X41822N. That’s all you are to them: a number.”

“All I am to them?!” I retorted. “How many men were under my command? How many?”

In retrospect, I should’ve curbed my outburst. I was talking to a Spectre. I lost my cool. She blew up. “How can you still not get this?! Yes, Emperor Mengsk created a whole squadron just to be your personal backup. But you never commanded the one person who mattered: you!”

“Every choice I made was my own!”

She scowled. “Becoming a Spectre was the best choice I ever made. You know why? Because it forced me to take a long, hard look at who I am. No more forgetting. No more running away. Just me, trying to live with myself.”

I glared back. “I guess terrazine really does make you lose your mind. And for the record, those mind-wipes haven’t changed a damn thing about who I am. I rediscovered framberries after every one of them.”

“Yes, because there wasn’t a damn thing about you they needed to change. Train. Kill. Forget. Train. Kill. Forget. Is that all you want out of life?”

“Yes!” I shouted. “Now leave me alone!”

“Like hell I will!” She vaulted across the room, bringing her leg up for a kick.

I was ready. I caught the kick and twisted her to the ground—which was, unfortunately, her intent. Her other foot hooked behind my ankle to drop me as well. I rolled and lunged at the same time she did, which threw us into a wrestling match. We grappled for who knows how long, neither of us able to gain the upper hand. Suddenly, I had an opening. She switched to fighting one-handed for some reason.

I figured out where the other hand had gone when I felt cold, sharp steel against my neck. “You are so...small—and pathetic,” she panted. “You’re cruel and lonely and miserable. Admit it!”

“Killing me won’t accomplish anything. You said so yourself.” I tried to sound tough, but it just wouldn’t come.

Blood-breath looked confused. “Then— Then her.” She nodded toward Tybi’s hiding place. “Who will take care of her if you’re gone?”

Something was very wrong. She was becoming more unstable by the minute.

“What do you want?” I asked as evenly as I could.

“You are my past,” said without looking at me. It was like she was slipping into a dream. “If you somehow ever get out of here, you can stop me from ever existing. Please, tell me you will.”

“Yes,” I replied, trying to sound calm. “I won’t make the same mistakes you did.”

“Good, good.” She rolled off me, returning the knife to the scabbard on her thigh. We sat staring at each other. Without warning, she stood up and walked away. I stood up too when she picked up her rifle. I was scared—and for me, that’s saying something. People trying to kill me I can deal with. They act in predictable ways that you can counter. Not knowing is whole other level.

To my surprise, Blood-breath thrust the weapon toward me. “Here,” she said. “You’ll need this.”

“What?” I was beyond shock. For a Ghost to hand over her weapon is sacrilege—heresy. She’s me. She had to have been taught the same things I was.

“TAKE IT!” she shouted. I accepted, even more confused than before. “Now, more...recon. Yes, that’s it. Find more places to hide.” The Spectre sprinted up the steps to the roof, then stumbled and fell at the top. I saw her get up as the cloak activated.

“What just happened here?” I said out loud. There was no answer. Of course there wasn’t. There’ve been fewer and fewer answers the farther I go along.

The smart thing to do right now is to get out of here and into one of the new hide-outs ASAP. It’s dangerous to go anywhere with that...thing running loose, but it’s even more dangerous to stay here. Nova out.

* * * * * * *

Things could be getting ugly in the next few posts...
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  #156  
Old 11-13-2017, 05:56 PM
DarkAngel DarkAngel is offline

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Oil Dispatch #39

It's been a bit, but I figured it was best to let the BlizzCon hype die down before proceeding. I'd go so far as to say I'm happy about it happening at the beginning of the month than the middle or end, which left November in November buried and forgotten in previous years. In addition, becoming a better writer means I make more smoothing passes than I used to. That should be improving quality.

* * * * * * *
Personal log, November Terra:
It’s only been two hours since my last message, but there’s been a very big change. Tybi is talking to me. I almost can’t believe it. It’s like Blood-breath’s speech affected her somehow, though it wasn’t immediate. She didn’t make a peep while we moved to our new hide-out, one I picked out on my morning sortie. While I can’t be certain we weren’t seen, silence—and the mid-day heat—upped our chances considerably. Then again, it’s that Spectre, not the neighbors, that worries me. I have no doubt she’s out there prowling the rooftops just like I would be. That’s why I left her rifle behind. I’m never one to give up potential weapons, but I couldn’t take the risk it had some kind of tracking beacon. I’m not stupid.

For her part, Tybi didn’t need much coaxing. I just told her we were going, and she went. It wasn’t far anyway. She did, however, spend a lot of time scratching her head. I think her fuzz is getting to a length where that wig is really uncomfortable—which explains why the first thing she did on our arrival was to throw it on the floor. She hasn’t touched it since.

I offered more food as we got settled in, which she took without a word. I could’ve put conditions to make her talk, but I didn’t feel like it after what my Spectre self said. That…rattled me. In a way, though, it was my own uncertainty that opened the channel between us. I just stayed where I was and started talking. “I’ve been thinking,” I told her, “about what you said—about not wanting to be a murderer. I...agree.” That got her attention. “You’ve seen my memories. I made the choices I did because I didn’t see any other option. After what happened, I couldn’t go back to my old life even if I’d wanted to. I wanted more than anything to forget—to disappear—to just stop existing. I was...weak.”

“No.” I almost jumped when she spoke. I guess I was used to being ignored by now. “You did...what you had to. That’s what has me so scared. All those people...” Her voice trailed off.

“Are you...blaming yourself?” I asked. “Don’t. You’re me—but you’re not me. You live in a different world. You don’t have to do what I did.”

She looked at me for the first time in days. “But what if I do? What if there’s some force of fate making me like you?”

I shrugged. “So what if there is? This is Luxoria. There’s no Ghost Program taking kids from their families. You can be anything you want.”

Tybi suddenly looked away, leaving me to wonder if I’d hurt her again. She had me convinced she’d gone silent by the time she spoke. “Anubet. That’s what we call them here. When our lord, the mighty Ta-sadar, pledged himself to Sut, the Destroyer put his mark upon him and increased his power a thousand fold. He demands that all gifted ones—like me—be joined to him and marked as his children.” She shuddered. “They are his elite guard, our most powerful weapon against the swarm—after the temple.”

I thought a moment. Elite status. Unfathomable power. “Wait. This mark—it wouldn’t happen to be the head of a dog, would it?”

“A jackal. But yes.”

“I see.” I stood up and paced away. “Phagun wasn’t the only one after you.”

“No. The king’s men killed my parents—my whole family. I was away when it happened, but—”

“But you came back and found them,” I finished for her. I turned. “Similar, but different.”

She nodded. “They left us alone because we were nobility. Then, one day, they came anyway. Why would they do that?”

I looked at her. “Honestly? Maybe this Tassadar is a jerk. Maybe the war is going worse than you think. Does it matter? Shit happens. You just have to figure out how the make the best of it.” My smile was almost unintended, layered with all the burdens of a professional killer. It’s weird how sharing a load can make you do that.

Tybi mirrored my expression perfectly, and for once I was glad about it. I knew exactly what she was feeling. “You’re right,” she said quietly. “I’m glad you’re here to help me with that part.”

“So am I.” The words came out before I could stop them. I cringed. “Uh, I’d better take a look around; make sure we weren’t followed.” I didn’t look back.

Tybi—I don’t know how to feel about her. Maybe Blood-breath was right. Maybe I do keep trying to rescue myself. That would explain the attraction. I’m also getting too close. But I guess it’s past time to worry about that. WAY past time. Nova out.

* * * * * * *

Probably the chief hurdle of the Luxoria story arc is that this is my first attempt at a character who changes over the course of the story. You have to balance the forces and start hinting at an emerging new self in conflict with the old self, which leads to the ending above. Nova has tremendous difficulty allowing herself to be vulnerable, but that's the solution to the problem with Tybi. Too bad -- oh wait, I can't tell you that yet.
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  #157  
Old 11-30-2017, 06:50 PM
DarkAngel DarkAngel is offline

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Runes Dispatch #40

With mere hours remaining in November, I'm dropping one more bit of November. I really wish I could've gotten more out to you guys, but I'm also trying to improve my quality as much as possible. The two things just aren't compatible. Sadly, production will have to slow down again until next year. I do hope to get off a few more dispatches before next November, though. Commentary after the passage.

EDIT: Merry Christmas, everyone! I managed to find a new ending after all.

* * * * * * *
Personal log, November Terra:
There are times when I miss the predictability of the Battlegrounds. At least there I know what my objective is and who my enemies are—even if we’re fighting over nothing. The world outside is more...complicated. In the past, I’d just shut it out and wait for the next memory wipe; but I don’t have that luxury anymore. The only thing I can do is try to stay focused on my self-assigned mission to escape the Nexus—which has become all but impossible. It seems more and more like my enemy is toying with me, creating alternate versions of myself as a distraction. Well, it’s working. Eighty-three hours since my departure, I’m still at a loss for how to move forward.

Of course, even when you don’t know what to do, it’s important to keep the initiative. Letting your opponent dictate your moves never results in success. I thought I was doing that by giving Tybi a surprise. I’m certainly good with surprises, but mine usually involve bullets. This one was about food. Tybi hasn’t had anything but field rats since we met, and I figured something local would pick her up a little. Actually, the bland, preserved cuisine in my pack has been starting to wear on me too—which is odd. Ghosts never complain about the chow because of the memory wipes. You can’t miss having better food because you can’t remember anything else. You just have a vague feeling that something’s missing.

Luxorian food, though, I’m reluctant to try. The dish I grabbed was a platter of mashed beans and onions with flatbread pockets. Whatever it’s called, it smelled stronger than Vilnorian curry. The family I dropped in on smelled like it too, and I’d rather not join them. In any case, my appearance was enough of a shock to disappear before they could decide what to do about it.

Tybi was...less than impressed. She was more suspicious than happy when I decloaked with her present. “I brought you a treat,” I told her. “Not the Antigan buffalo you used to get, but it has to be better than a protein slurry pack. Well, okay, anything beats those.”

“What?”
“Nevermind. It’s real food. From here.”

Her eyes narrowed as she came closer. “How did you get this?”

I held up my hands. “Nobody died—and I waited ‘til after they were mostly done, so they’re not starving either.” Her look of suspicion only deepened as she scooped some filling with the bread. “Alright, compassion isn’t my strong suit. You said it before. I just...don’t like exposing myself.”

She sighed. “I know the feeling. I shouldn’t judge.”
“You’re only judging yourself,” I added with a smirk.

My other self instantly unleashed my own glare against me. “No,” she said forcefully. “I am not you. Similar, but different.”

“Similar, but different,” I conceded. “Do you mind if I ask some more questions?” She paused, but then resumed eating. I decided to take that as a ‘no.’ “Is there a reason why the sun comes up in a different direction every day?”

Tybi shrugged. “It just does—ever since the war started. Some say Ka is angry with us for defiling his temple.”

I paused. “So...how did the war start?”
“I don’t really know; It happened when I was very small. I just heard messengers reporting to my father.”

“That’s more than I’ve got.”
She stopped to chew another handful. “Well, Semkhet sent Zagara, the Scorpid Queen, to kill us for our wickedness. The gods refuse to help us—except for Sut. The scorpids just kept coming and coming until we couldn’t fight them anymore. We’ve been trapped inside the wall ever since.” She took another bite. “They say we have enough farmland inside the wall to hold out forever. But people keep disappearing.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Disappearing how?”
“They...disappear. Why do you think there are so many empty buildings?” Her eyes narrowed. “You think you can fix this.”

“I didn’t say that. I just want to have situational awareness.”
“Yes you do,” she declared. “You like to think of yourself as a hero.”

“I...what? I’m a Ghost. I take orders, and I carry them out. That’s the opposite of a hero.”

Tybi chewed harder. “You can’t lie to me. I know you too well.”

I had half a mind to tear the platter away from her. “No, you don’t,” I told her. “I’m not letting you read my thoughts, so don’t think you know what I’m thinking. Similar but different, remember?”

The look she gave me wasn’t angry. In a way, I wish it was. It’s easier to ignore something when you’re under attack. “I don’t need to hear your thoughts. No one made you help me. No one made you rescue Li Li. No one made you go back for her hat. You like helping people. You’re just not very good at it.”

That was when I heard the sound—a very quiet sound, but one I know all too well: a cloaking field dropping. I turned. Tybi dropped to the floor. Blood-breath was there, a stupid grin on her face. She used our hear-to-heart to get the drop on us. “Way to make my point,” she said casually. “You dropped this, by the way.” She shoved the rifle back into my arms. Something about that grin made my skin crawl. It was my face, but so not me.

I positioned myself between her and Tybi. “What are you doing here?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” She cocked her head at a strange angle. “I’m here to protect you, same as before.”

“Then why do I feel like I’m in danger?” I unobtrusively jiggled the rifle’s ejection lever. The feel told me there was a round in the chamber—not that it mattered at this range.

The Spectre took a step closer, bringing us almost nose-to-nose. “Because...you are in danger. There’s a mob outside, screaming for your head—all of our heads.”

I listened. I heard only the sounds of the city at night. “Is that something to smile about?”

Her expression stiffened. She backed away, blinking. “No. No. I won’t do it!” she shouted at the wall.

Calculations spun through my head as my training kicked in. Blood-breath was an unstable, unpredictable threat. We might be perfectly matched in physical terms, but her distraction gave me an opening to end the fight before it began. There really wasn’t a choice. I swung the rifle’s butt across her jaw.

She reacted faster than I’d anticipated, spinning out of my swing and planting a boot in my gut with one motion. The kick, however, took too long to come around. By the time it arrived, I had caught it on the rifle, directed it up, and layed her out on her back.

The Spectre landed heavily, now staring down the barrel of her own gun. “Finish it,” she breathed.

“What?” I tensed, ready for her to spring up as I would do.
“Finish me. You have to.”

My finger twitched on the trigger. “You...want this.” I said my realization out loud.

“I’m out of jorium.” The stupid grin returned. “You know what that means.”
I almost lowered the gun. Almost. “You’re going to die anyway.”

“No.” Her voice cracked. “If I run out of terrazine, I die. If I run out of jorium, you die—the whole damn city dies. There’s only one thing I can do to keep you safe.”

“Kill yourself,” I finished. “With me being the only one you trust to do the job.”
She nodded. “And if not...” Her hand went to the knife.

Maybe, if it had been just the two of us, I’d have ended things right there. But I wasn’t alone. Tybi blew past me before I could react to stop her. “No! Not again!” She was headed for the exit, but her path took her too close to Blood-breath. A grab to her ankle brought my younger self down beside her.

The Spectre turned on her. “Get out of my head, you little brat! Get out of—” The knife flashed in an arc, up and over. The motion exposed her chest, and I already had a bead. She was dead before she hit the floor—or rather Tybi. The body came down right on top of her.

Tybi screamed. Over and over. I tried to dig her out. I tried to hug her and say something comforting, but...my skills in that area aren’t up to the level they need to be. The only thing I could do was hold her close while the body dissolved—and the rifle with it. It’s like the Spectre was never here at all, but the damage she did… I don’t know.

Eventually, Tybi just went quiet. I’m taking that as a good sign. If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that Tybi Pterah has the strength to pull through this. We’re different—but similar. Nova out.

* * * * * * *

This passage was one of those infuriating cases where you think you have everything planned out, then you start writing and go somewhere else. There was supposed to be another philosophical discourse with Spectre Nova, in which she would taunt our heroine by suggesting she'd inherited her father's naive humanitarian streak -- which would then lead to admitting she knows Nova has her memories. Instead, the appearance flowed so naturally into the fight that I couldn't not take the opportunity. It's almost always better to go with the flow on these things. You have to let the story be what it wants to be.

On top of that, I had to take a pause to really pin down what's been happening in Luxoria up to this point. I honestly had no clue what my notes from a year ago meant. Then, I had to take another pause to research Egyptian food. They like spices and pitas, apparently.

The irony is that both of those points were for the first part, which I added because I wanted to lighten things up before the big, bloody mess. Sorry about that. It's the most envelope-pushing thing I expect to do in the whole run of the story, but it has to be done. You'll see why. Actually, that was one of those go-with-the-flow things. Spectre Nova's suicide had to be messy, yet Ghost Nova ended up with a gun in her hands. So, if you thought it was a little out of character to freeze up in that situation, you're right.

I hope someone out there is enjoying reading this as much as I am writing it. There was a certain joy to seeing how many different meanings I could give to that "similar but different" phrase by repeating it in different contexts.

UPDATE
As you may have noticed, the new ending is in place. The plot-essential events have happened, and there was no bloody mess. I even still used the knife I foreshadowed earlier, if quite differently. That's a win for author abilities. My only regret is the loss of how the other version used the "different but similar" reversal to show Nova acknowledging the Spectre as representing a facet of herself.
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Last edited by DarkAngel; 12-23-2017 at 10:06 AM.. Reason: Added new ending.
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  #158  
Old 04-28-2018, 05:20 PM
DarkAngel DarkAngel is offline

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Slow Dispatch #41

To any readers that may still be out there, I probably owe you an apology. It's been a long time since the last update -- a VERY long time. Most of you have probably written the project off as abandoned; and considering how little time I've been devoting to it, you wouldn't be entirely wrong. I assure you, however, that it isn't. I remain committed to getting Nova out of Luxoria at the very least.

Longtime readers may recall that I like to keep a main project and a side project. Currently, the main project is another attempt at an original novella (not the one mentioned previously), and the side project is creating a portfolio. That doesn't leave much, if any, time for this. Sorry.

* * * * * * *

Personal log, November Terra:
My clocks say it’s been 142 hours since their last reset, though I’m not sure it makes sense to measure time that way anymore. Hell, nothing makes sense anymore. The sun can’t decide which way is east, I’m trapped in a city of disappearing people about to be eaten by bugs, and the best explanation I have involves angry gods. To top if off, I’m sitting next to a facsimile of myself whose last words were to reject me.

That...hurts a lot more than I thought it would. I wanted her to be like me—exactly like me. I wanted her to be just as strong and disciplined and effective as I am. I guess that was kind of selfish. Tybi isn’t me. She isn’t as strong. She...broke somehow. She hasn’t said a word for days. She just sits there, staring at the floor. I can put food in front of her, but she won’t touch it unless I order her to eat. She’s gone—worse than Lila. If I was still a teep, maybe I could reach her. But I’m not. I’ve...failed. There’s nothing more I can do for her.

Damn that Spectre. Damn her, damn her, damn her! Is there something worse than hell? Because that’s what she deserves. She did this. She destroyed the girl who wanted something better—who deserved better. I killed the bitch, but that means nothing. She’s back in the Battlegrounds, no doubt fully healed and wracking up kills. And I sit here next to a husk, unable to move on. I need to forget—maybe now more than ever. I’d subject myself to days of torture just to get home and have a memory wipe. But if I want to get out just so I can forget again, I’ll be proving her right. Am I really that weak?

No. I came here to learn about the Nexus and what it is. My mission is unchanged, and I will accomplish it. No more distractions. No more alternate selves. There’s nothing I can do for Tybi. She’s dead. She’s not coming back. I can’t reach her. But I do know someone who might be able to—someone who probably wants to see her. If I play my cards right, I can still get the information I came for. It’s risky. But what to I have to lose?

I’m going to get my gun back. Nova out.

* * * * * * *

Probably the biggest lesson I've learned from Dispatches from the Nexus is that writing a dynamic character takes careful planning. If your protagonist is on a physical journey, you'd start by drawing a crude map and thinking about what's going to happen at each place along the way. The same is true for protagonists on spiritual journeys. You have to outline steps in between the starting character and the ending character and create circumstances that push him/her into each new position. I failed to do that here, and the result has been a mess.

On some level, Nova is right. This whole subplot with her alternate selves has been a distraction from the physical journey. It was, however, an important idea to play with -- both from a character development perspective and from a skill development perspective.
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Old 06-29-2018, 01:38 PM
DarkAngel DarkAngel is offline

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Darkmoon Card: Portals Dispatch #42

Greetings, fellow travelers! I happen to have had some extra time in my schedule, so I used it to assemble another update. Some of that was motivated by the uptick in traffic this subforum has been seeing -- and part of it came from guilt about the last Dispatch being weak. I guess it's one of those really confusing things: Nova's character has been slipping, but that's kind of the point. Dynamic characters change. How much do they change? How fast? That's a judgement call you have to make from experience -- which is basically impossible for a first timer. However, no form of Nova would sit around feeling sorry for herself. When she has a problem, she goes on the offensive.

* * * * * * *

Personal log, November Terra:
Each time I’ve left the Battlegrounds, I’ve been looking for information about the Nexus—what it is, how it works, and how to get out. With 147 hours on the clock, I might be closer than ever before. It could just as easily be another dead end, but I’ve got time. You really can’t run out of it when you’re functionally immortal. It completely changes the rules. All sorts of things become possible that you’d never try otherwise—like eating at Tasty Food. If you get yourself killed, so what? Just try again.

Besides, it wasn’t like I didn’t have a sense of what to do. I’m a Ghost. I’m trained for infiltration—and that means I’m used to being outgunned. Plenty of ways to deal with that situation. The best way is to avoid the superior force. You distract, deceive, and hit them by surprise. The second best is to make them think they’ve already won. It makes them get sloppy.

My plan depended on the second. As much as I prefer the first, it wasn’t going to achieve my objective. No, I needed to get close—close enough to ask questions; close enough to feel out the politics. In other words, I had to play diplomat. I’m probably the worse choice in Dominion space for that mission profile, but I’ve only got myself. I had to hope I’d be so foreign and exotic they’d overlook any insults. If not, I was dead. Again.

The first step was to prep my partner, though I couldn’t be sure she’d go along with it. Her mind is broken, but very powerful. That made this the most delicate part of the whole op. “Tybi,” I started, “I need to show you something.” She didn’t look up from the floor. No surprise there. “Come on,” I tried again. “This is really important.” I crouched down in front of her. “Hey. Look at me.” Nothing. I lifted her chin, forcing eye contact. “I know you’re still in there. I need your help. Please.” All that got was a glimmer of recognition.

In the end, it took a good ten minutes of cajoling before I felt it: the barest tingle of contact. Just like last time. And just like last time, I had a package waiting for her. It was a bundle of ideas meant to brief her on the mission ahead—all painstakingly chosen. Tell her too much or too little, and she wouldn’t play along. Unlike last time, however, I couldn’t afford to shock or scare her. I had to spoonfeed each and every one into her grasp. Between the persuasion and the agonizing process of delivering the briefing, it took almost the whole morning to get her ready. But I got it done. I took one, last look around our final hideout; and then, leading my alternate self gently by the hand, stepped out into broad daylight.

The day’s heat was rising, but plenty of people were still out on the street. To a one, they stopped and stared. Maybe it was my skinsuit. Maybe Tybi was right about “straw-heads” being rare. Maybe they remembered her from Phagun’s edict. It didn’t matter. I just smiled and waved. For this to work, we needed to be seen. The more people saw us, the more likely one of them would alert the guards.

Unfortunately, that took quite a bit longer than I’d hoped. The sun climbed higher. The people withdrew—but we couldn’t. We just kept walking along, waiting to be intercepted. I could feel my neck starting to burn under the solar assault, but I had to stay visible. So, while it might sound strange to say I was relieved to see the enemy, I was. Up ahead, at a place where the streets converged on a well, a familiar face was floating. I approached cautiously. Atenhotep was powerful enough to drop a psi-storm, and the suspicion on his dog-face was clear. At the same time, he was my ticket out of the deserted streets and blazing noonday sun—even if that meant landing back in the Battlegrounds.

“Come no further,” the Anubet called as we entered the plaza. I did as he asked. No point in pissing him off just yet. “You wanted to be found. Why?”

I smiled. The guy was straight to the point. I could work with that. “Look,” I told him, “I came here to get information. Our first meeting didn’t go so well, so I thought I’d try again.”

Atenhotep was unmoved. I guess I’d be skeptical too if somebody switched from hostile to friendly in less than a week. “I am aware. But why now? Where is your companion, Li Li?”

The pressure on my mental defenses ticked up. Way up. Time to divert his attention. “Things have changed,” I said evasively. “My new friend here saw the whole thing, if you really want to know.” The suggestion did the trick. He suddenly stopping his push against my mind and focused on Tybi.

He paused, no doubt scanning her mind and digesting what he found there. I crossed my fingers. If I could convince him he already knew what he wanted to know—and convince him it was accidental—he wouldn’t need to take the answers from me. “Interesting. Your actions today are...out of character.”

I shrugged. “She was wrong about me. I’m no hero—and I’m certainly not an angel.”

“Snemar would attest to that.” The contempt in his voice brought doubt to mind, but it was too late to turn back now.

“Okay, yeah. I got a little carried away last time. But where am I going to run? Turns out you’re my best shot at getting what I want.”

He floated closer. “Maybe so, but you’ve proven yourself too dangerous for ordinary confinement. We’ve had to prepare very carefully for your arrival.” There was a blinding flash of light, not unlike arriving in a new battleground. Instantly, the sun was gone. We were somewhere dark and cool. “This chamber should be sufficient to contain you. You will remain here until the pharaoh decides what should be done.”

As my eyes started to adjust, the first thing I saw was a globe of golden energy around us. It was the only source of light in the room, though thin enough to make out the walls beyond. They were stone. That, coupled with the low temperature and high humidity, suggested we were underground.

I crossed my arms. “Let me get this straight. I take out a warlord terrorizing your streets, bring you the kid you’ve been looking for, and your reaction is to lock me in a cage?”

“I will concede the Pterah girl has been of interest to us for some time. But you are still a murderer.”

I was about to protest further when something caught my eye. There was man outside, watching us. His ridiculous cobra hood almost had me thinking he was another animal/human hybrid.

Dog-breath followed my gaze—and did a double-take. “Lord Xul. I was not aware—” He genuflected.

Xul waved dismissively. “Carry on, Atenhotep. I was merely observing. A creature from another world is a rare sight indeed.”

“As you wish.”
“Why don’t you take the girl upstairs?” he added. “I’m sure our master will be pleased.”

“Of course.” Atenhotep somehow opened a hole in the dome around us. He floated through it, and Tybi followed—probably mind control. No, definitely mind control. There was something unnatural about the way she moved. Not her walk—not my walk.

“She will be okay, right?” I asked.
He paused. “She will. I daresay you’ve saved us the first phase of the process.” The hole closed as soon as they were clear, my other self walking in front now.

I felt something watching them go—so I didn’t. I turned my attention to Snake-head. “You. What’s your role in all this?” He said nothing. He just watched me like some kind of lab specimen. “Is this how you treat your other guests?” I pounded a fist against the wall in his direction. Maybe that was reckless, but it didn’t hurt. It was just a solid, perfectly smooth surface under my hand. The only response it got was a smirk. He could hear me all right, but he turned and left without saying anything. There’s been no movement since.

It’s infuriating, really. I’d hoped to either be free or dead by now. Instead, all I can do is wait. I wish I didn’t keep thinking about Tybi. She’s screwed, but that really wouldn’t be a change. Besides, attachments are what got me into this mess. All I can do now is wait for the pharaoh’s verdict. If I’m lucky, he’ll see the value an assassin can bring to his war. If not, I’m dead. Nova out.

* * * * * * *

Maybe the hardest part of advancing the story from here is going to be the shifting ground. All those years to plot and scheme on the skin descriptions and suddenly I have to work around a story in progress. Suddenly, the Raven Lord is blowing up other realms. Suddenly, we have confirmation the Lady of Thorns isn't the same person as Queen Nightshade. Suddenly, we have a new character, Orphea, who'd arguably fit Explorer Li Li's role better. (It's pretty obvious she's one of the "heroes from the Nexus itself" they were teasing.) However, this "singularity shell" idea dropped into my lap at exactly the right time. Thanks Blizz!
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  #160  
Old 10-18-2018, 01:27 PM
DarkAngel DarkAngel is offline

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Lightbulb Dispatch #43

You may have noticed the recurring problem with doing "November in November." That problem is BlizzCon. It happens in November every year, which tends to overshadow anything I write. Therefore, I'm starting early in 2018. It means more time write before the show starts -- and something to read during your breaks from constructing that murloc costume.

* * * * * * *

Personal log, November Terra:
Only three hours have passed since my last entry—but that’s plenty of time to find out how wrong I was in coming here. My mistake was assuming the local leadership would be sane. They’re not. It turns out, even with their backs to the wall and death staring them in the face, the Luxorians are too busy fighting each other to save themselves. Maybe they deserve to get eaten.

The intrigue should’ve been obvious when I got a visitor—one that came alone. I recognized him; he was the one with the ridiculous cobra headdress who watched me come in. And just like last time, he said nothing. All he did was stare, observing and calculating. That made him dangerous. People like that are either your best friends or worst enemies.

Obviously, this couldn’t go on forever. I may be trained to deal with distractions, but that’s very hard to do when you have literally nothing else to think about. I finally just marched over and confronted him, a lower risk than you might think. No matter what powers he had, he’d have to open the containment field before he could do anything to me—and picking a fight with a Ghost after you’re in touching distance is a losing proposition.

“Alright,” I demanded, “who are you and why do you keep watching me?”
To my surprise, he answered. “I am Xul, High Priest of Ka, most-trusted adviser to the mighty Ta-sadar. I’ve come to find you quite a fascinating puzzle, ‘Nova.’ That is your name, yes?”

“It is.” It was best not to give him any more information until I knew where he was going with this.

“You must forgive me if I stare,” he continued. “When we brought our realm into the Nexus, we were led to believe the so-called heroes would never affect us—yet here you are, up close and personal.” He started pacing clockwise around the chamber. “I must admit you aren’t what I expected. You don’t look dangerous, but it seems you are…quite the professional.”

I smiled at that. “So you’ve seen the memories. You know what an asset I can be. Let me out of here, and I’ll join your cause.”

“Tempting.” His smile was infuriatingly sarcastic. “Alas, I’d be a fool to do any such thing without proof of loyalty. Why should you fight for us?”

I looked down. “It turns out I don’t really have a choice. There’s an army of bugs outside your walls, and my best bet to not get eaten is to help your king.”

Xul suddenly reversed course, now circling counterclockwise. “Ah, yes. About that. As I’m sure you’ve discovered, Luxoria has its troubles. Some are obvious; and some are…not public knowledge.” He paused. “I need to know what I’m about to say will be kept in confidence. Understand that it could get us both killed.”

Something about his voice put me on edge, but if the information was so special, I needed to have it. “If you’ve seen the memories,” I told him, “you know secrecy is nothing new to me. I know the drill.”

“Good.” His gaze was piercing. “I don’t know how much you’ve learned from your time in Amarnis, but I expect you’ve noticed our realm is under threat by more than Zagara and her scorpids. People are disappearing; the heavens are in chaos; reality itself is collapsing around us. All these things are related.” He took a deep breath for dramatic effect. “The connection is our ruler, Ta-sadar. He has grown increasingly desperate these last few months, doing reckless things that are tearing our world apart. He has to be stopped. And I can’t trust anyone in the palace to deal with him.”

I crossed my arms. “Stop right there. Do you really think I’m going to fall for that? Losing your boss makes it easy for you to take over—and you can blame it all on the outsider who’s already distrusted. I’ve seen this holo-vid before.”

Snake-head wasn’t happy to hear that. He thought a moment before speaking again. “Would it interest you to know the whereabouts of your young friend? Lady Pterah is undergoing the ritual to become Anubet as we speak.”

“I don’t care what happens to Tybi.” I paced away to emphasize the point. “She’s an empty shell—dead for all intents and purposes.”

“Don’t be so certain. The first phase of the process is about breaking down the old self, but the second is about building up a new one.”
“And I should care about this because?” It was a good thing I was facing away.

“And then there’s the third phase,” he continued, “when the subject is infused with the power of Sut and experiences the physical transformation. It’s an agonizing process—and that’s for those watching.”
I swallowed hard. “Again, relevance?”

“It’s relevant because, if someone were to…interrupt the ritual now, her mind would be repaired—and her body would remain.” His voice purred with satisfaction.

“And how would ‘someone’ get there?” I asked suspiciously. “She seems to be bottled up at the moment.”

I watched him cross over to the far wall. “That would indeed be difficult. A confinement field like this one presents an impassable barrier.” He ran his fingers through some grooves in the stone. “Alas, it seems to have been set incorrectly. With the elemental harmonies getting further and further out of balance, it’s only a matter a time before—” There was a bang, and the barrier suddenly dropped. “Oh dear. Someone’s going to lose his career over that one—and probably his head.”

“Shouldn’t that someone be you?”
Snake-head took it in stride. “Perhaps it should. Why don’t you do the honors right now? I’m sure the royal court will believe you.” He paused. “Wait, weren’t you saying something about being on our side? This could complicate matters.”

I narrowed my eyes. That snake on his head was very appropriate. “So, now what?”
“Oh, don’t be a fool,” he said casually. “You should never take orders from people you don’t trust, and you obviously don’t trust me. So, step out, have a look around. I think you’ll find everything I’ve told you to be true.” He gave me an expectant look.

I glared back, making sure to put my cloak up. No way I was turning my back to that man if he could see me. I didn’t move a muscle until after I was safely invisible—and even then, I used my stealth training to minimize sound.

Xul turned, estimating my position to be on the stairs well before I reached them. “And just so you’re aware,” he told the empty steps, “your weapon is in Atenhotep’s office. Up the stairs and to the right.” He waited another minute and left.

I watched him go. It’s best for him to be as far in the dark about my location as possible, and he’d never expect me to stay here. Still, the idea of having my rifle back is tempting. Making Anubet means this place has to be crawling with them—and my one chance is to out-range them. Plus, even if I do nothing, it’s only a matter of time before my “escape” is discovered. I have a feeling I don’t want to be here when that happens. Nova out.

* * * * * * *
Serpent King Xul has nothing to do with Diablo Xul, but he is a fun character.
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  #161  
Old 10-18-2018, 01:29 PM
DarkAngel DarkAngel is offline

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Lightbulb Dispatch #43

You may have noticed the recurring problem with doing "November in November." That problem is BlizzCon. It happens in November every year, which tends to overshadow anything I write. Therefore, I'm starting early in 2018. It means more time write before the show starts -- and something to read during your breaks from constructing that murloc costume.

* * * * * * *

Personal log, November Terra:
Only three hours have passed since my last entry—but that’s plenty of time to find out how wrong I was in coming here. My mistake was assuming the local leadership would be sane. They’re not. It turns out, even with their backs to the wall and death staring them in the face, the Luxorians are too busy fighting each other to save themselves. Maybe they deserve to get eaten.

The intrigue should’ve been obvious when I got a visitor—one that came alone. I recognized him; he was the one with the ridiculous cobra headdress who watched me come in. And just like last time, he said nothing. All he did was stare, observing and calculating. That made him dangerous. People like that are either your best friends or worst enemies.

Obviously, this couldn’t go on forever. I may be trained to deal with distractions, but that’s very hard to do when you have literally nothing else to think about. I finally just marched over and confronted him, a lower risk than you might think. No matter what powers he had, he’d have to open the containment field before he could do anything to me—and picking a fight with a Ghost after you’re in touching distance is a losing proposition.

“Alright,” I demanded, “who are you and why do you keep watching me?”
To my surprise, he answered. “I am Xul, High Priest of Ka, most-trusted adviser to the mighty Ta-sadar. I’ve come to find you quite a fascinating puzzle, ‘Nova.’ That is your name, yes?”

“It is.” It was best not to give him any more information until I knew where he was going with this.

“You must forgive me if I stare,” he continued. “When we brought our realm into the Nexus, we were led to believe the so-called heroes would never affect us—yet here you are, up close and personal.” He started pacing clockwise around the chamber. “I must admit you aren’t what I expected. You don’t look dangerous, but it seems you are…quite the professional.”

I smiled at that. “So you’ve seen the memories. You know what an asset I can be. Let me out of here, and I’ll join your cause.”

“Tempting.” His smile was infuriatingly sarcastic. “Alas, I’d be a fool to do any such thing without proof of loyalty. Why should you fight for us?”

I looked down. “It turns out I don’t really have a choice. There’s an army of bugs outside your walls, and my best bet to not get eaten is to help your king.”

Xul suddenly reversed course, now circling counterclockwise. “Ah, yes. About that. As I’m sure you’ve discovered, Luxoria has its troubles. Some are obvious; and some are…not public knowledge.” He paused. “I need to know what I’m about to say will be kept in confidence. Understand that it could get us both killed.”

Something about his voice put me on edge, but if the information was so special, I needed to have it. “If you’ve seen the memories,” I told him, “you know secrecy is nothing new to me. I know the drill.”

“Good.” His gaze was piercing. “I don’t know how much you’ve learned from your time in Amarnis, but I expect you’ve noticed our realm is under threat by more than Zagara and her scorpids. People are disappearing; the heavens are in chaos; reality itself is collapsing around us. All these things are related.” He took a deep breath for dramatic effect. “The connection is our ruler, Ta-sadar. He has grown increasingly desperate these last few months, doing reckless things that are tearing our world apart. He has to be stopped. And I can’t trust anyone in the palace to deal with him.”

I crossed my arms. “Stop right there. Do you really think I’m going to fall for that? Losing your boss makes it easy for you to take over—and you can blame it all on the outsider who’s already distrusted. I’ve seen this holo-vid before.”

Snake-head wasn’t happy to hear that. He thought a moment before speaking again. “Would it interest you to know the whereabouts of your young friend? Lady Pterah is undergoing the ritual to become Anubet as we speak.”

“I don’t care what happens to Tybi.” I paced away to emphasize the point. “She’s an empty shell—dead for all intents and purposes.”

“Don’t be so certain. The first phase of the process is about breaking down the old self, but the second is about building up a new one.”
“And I should care about this because?” It was a good thing I was facing away.

“And then there’s the third phase,” he continued, “when the subject is infused with the power of Sut and experiences the physical transformation. It’s an agonizing process—and that’s for those watching.”
I swallowed hard. “Again, relevance?”

“It’s relevant because, if someone were to…interrupt the ritual now, her mind would be repaired—and her body would remain.” His voice purred with satisfaction.

“And how would ‘someone’ get there?” I asked suspiciously. “She seems to be bottled up at the moment.”

I watched him cross over to the far wall. “That would indeed be difficult. A confinement field like this one presents an impassable barrier.” He ran his fingers through some grooves in the stone. “Alas, it seems to have been set incorrectly. With the elemental harmonies getting further and further out of balance, it’s only a matter a time before—” There was a bang, and the barrier suddenly dropped. “Oh dear. Someone’s going to lose his career over that one—and probably his head.”

“Shouldn’t that someone be you?”
Snake-head took it in stride. “Perhaps it should. Why don’t you do the honors right now? I’m sure the royal court will believe you.” He paused. “Wait, weren’t you saying something about being on our side? This could complicate matters.”

I narrowed my eyes. That snake on his head was very appropriate. “So, now what?”
“Oh, don’t be a fool,” he said casually. “You should never take orders from people you don’t trust, and you obviously don’t trust me. So, step out, have a look around. I think you’ll find everything I’ve told you to be true.” He gave me an expectant look.

I glared back, making sure to put my cloak up. No way I was turning my back to that man if he could see me. I didn’t move a muscle until after I was safely invisible—and even then, I used my stealth training to minimize sound.

Xul turned, estimating my position to be on the stairs well before I reached them. “And just so you’re aware,” he told the empty steps, “your weapon is in Atenhotep’s office. Up the stairs and to the right.” He waited another minute and left.

I watched him go. It’s best for him to be as far in the dark about my location as possible, and he’d never expect me to stay here. Still, the idea of having my rifle back is tempting. Making Anubet means this place has to be crawling with them—and my one chance is to out-range them. Plus, even if I do nothing, it’s only a matter of time before my “escape” is discovered. I have a feeling I don’t want to be here when that happens. Nova out.

* * * * * * *
Serpent King Xul is basically my own creation -- but he is a fun character, don't you think?
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Old 11-14-2018, 02:42 PM
DarkAngel DarkAngel is offline

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Darkmoon Card: Maelstrom Dispatch #44

I probably owe yet another apology to all you reading this. Dispatch #44 was supposed to be out before BlizzCon; and here we are, almost two weeks later, before it's finally released. However, the scene did end up being over twice as long as expected -- and events this important demanded a laser focus on quality. I'd like to think the delay was justified, but that's up to you.

* * * * * * *

Personal log, November Terra:
I have 151 hours on the clock, and the situation’s changed again. First, the good news: The Luxorian military no longer has orders to kill me on sight, the leadership has accepted me as a potential asset, and Tybi is back to herself. The bad news: The leader I was trying to get in with is dead, the kingdom is in even greater peril than before, and we’re probably all gonna die in the next few hours. Oh, and I have a sunburn on my neck. It’s itching and burning like hell, which really sucks when your skinsuit has a collar. You can’t so much as turn your head without—nevermind.

The point is, Xul was right. Everything he said was true. He just left out a few important details. Take my rifle. It was sitting right where he said it was: on the big desk in the office at the top of the stairs. He didn’t mention how suspiciously convenient that was. I HAD to have my gun back if I was going to survive here—and here it was, out in the open, completely unrestrained and unguarded. I expected to set off an alarm when I picked it up, but…nothing. No, the trap he’d laid was bigger. Much bigger.

Once armed, I did recon on my new surroundings. I was in a walled complex of large buildings, all of them grandiose. The painted columns, the murals and statues—not to mention the manicured gardens—meant this had to be the seat of the Luxorian government. The sheer number of guards supported the idea too. They were posted everywhere—everywhere except the apparent security office where I’d been held. It was like somebody wanted me to escape, which I guess they did. Even without the help, getting around was no problem for me. I had the place mapped out in thirty minutes. The one thing that slowed me down was the Anubet. There weren’t as many as I’d feared, but still too many for comfort. Hell, one is too many. I didn’t risk getting too close. Not yet.

That changed when I heard a scream from one of the buildings—and not just one. It was constant: the sound of torture. The subject was female, not a child, but not old either. It instantly pushed my emotional discipline to the limit—for good reason. I was hearing a younger version of my own voice. And that meant Xul was right again, his timing and selective information impeccable. If he worked for the Dominion, he’d probably get a medal for excellence in psych ops. He was the one who arranged my escape. I’d go toward the sound and take revenge on the one hurting Tybi. It was all very neat. Too bad I wasn’t stupid enough to go along.

No, anything I did had to be planned very carefully. He’d already framed me whether I did the job or not, so I had to avoid playing his game. I needed expose him, to gain the king’s trust. And I wouldn’t be able to do that until the panic surrounding my escape had subsided. In the meantime, I needed to learn everything I possibly could about the pharaoh and his court. Of course, the pharaoh was in the room with the screaming—exactly where Xul wanted me to go. What he didn’t know was that Ghosts are trained to maintain detachment in all situations. Just going there wouldn’t force me to act as he assumed.

That’s…not to say it was easy. I more or less had to force total apathy on myself, something I don’t think I could’ve done without the danger. Maybe it’s a good thing the shrine only had one entrance. It forced me to focus on stealth to slip between the guards—and then came the real challenge. The room contained no less than four Anubet, each of whom could kill me with a thought. They were standing in a square around a table in the middle. Or rather an altar. A huge cobra statue looked down on them as they channeled energy into an equally oversized jewel in its mouth. From there, a beam went down into the subject: Tybi, shackled in place and writhing in agony.

I looked away. I had to. I settled on the jewel. It was some kind of glimmering icosahedron with swirls of sparkling light inside a shell. Perched in the serpent’s jaws, it looked like the snake was eating a whole universe as it would an egg. The effect was mesmerizing—and that made it dangerous. I couldn’t afford distractions. Not now.

I forced myself to look at the Anubet instead. They were forming a pyramid with their energy beams, one each going up to the jewel and four more around the base. Their concentration was intense. I didn’t need to feel anything to see the balancing act at work. One of them, though, stood out. He was decked out in finery, with an embroidered stole, impractically broad shoulderguards, and a set of purple crystals. The others were watching him too, taking their cues. He had to be the king—or at least the one Xul wanted me to think was the king.

I guess it’s appropriate that Xul himself cleared up any doubt. He burst into the room and threw himself down before the leader. “Mighty one! Mighty one! I most humbly beg your indulgence!”

For a moment, nothing happened. Well, not quite nothing. The Anubet had to keep their balance as the beams faded away. Tybi’s screams became whimpers, then sobs. When the beams were completely gone, the pharaoh turned to Xul, his own actions as melodramatic as Snake-head’s. “You have an audience before Ta-sadar,” he declared. “Speak.”

“Mighty one, the creature from the Battleground—she, she has escaped!” I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

At least he got his boss to drop the pretense. “What?! When? How?”
“I know not, my lord. I know only that the containment field has failed.”

“Xul,” he said dangerously, “am I to understand that a deadly—and invisible—assassin is now freely roaming the palace?”

“It is the logical conclusion, my lord.”
The pharaoh turned to his assistants. “You, take every guard—on duty or not—and search every inch of this palace and its grounds. Do not rest until she is found. And if she isn’t found by sundown,” he added, “I will crush Atenhotep myself.”

The Anubet bowed and left, followed by the regular guards. Xul rose to a kneeling position. “A suggestion, great one. This creature has shown a disturbing ability to conceal herself from the Anubet. However, if she is a part of the Nexus, the Singularity may be better able to detect her.”

Ta-sadar smiled. “Your quick wit dazzles me as ever, serpent lord. The Singularity is indeed a good idea.” He floated closer to the table and levitated the glowing object into his arms—but he couldn’t see his supposed adviser getting up, drawing a dagger, and raising it over his back. If I didn’t do something now, Xul’s coup would be over in seconds.

I brought my rifle up. One round, and he’d be dead before his stroke landed. It was quick, clean—and wrong. True, my doing nothing had forced Snake-head into a riskier backup plan, but it wouldn’t work if the pharaoh didn’t know I’d saved him. There was only one thing I could do to stop this now and get my in—and that was to take an even bigger risk. I let my cloak drop. “If you’re looking for me,” I said loudly, “I’m right here.”

Both of them whirled, but the look on Xul’s face was priceless. He hadn’t planned for this at all. “There—there she is! We must destroy her!”

“Are you sure you don’t want to know how I escaped?” I asked. “Dead girls don’t tell tales.”

“Do not listen, my lord!” Xul pleaded. “She will twist your mind with lies!”
“Or, you could kill me and ask him—but you might not live long enough.”

The pharaoh glanced at Snake-head. He was smart enough to see what I was implying. “Do not be absurd. Xul has served as my vizier for twenty years. His loyalty to me is absolute.”

“For your information, he was just about to stab you in the back. I’m the only loyal one here.”

“If you are loyal to me, I command you to lay down your weapon.”
“Fine,” I told him. “He puts down his weapons, I’ll put down mine.”

In retrospect, I should’ve complied with the order—for two reasons. First, I’d made myself not an enemy by not resisting. Second, Ta-sadar had a PI to match the most powerful protoss elders. He broke through my mental defenses like they weren’t even there and completely took me over—and I do mean completely. My arms tossed my rifle away against my will. Memories tore through my head faster than I could perceive them. I think the screaming I heard was my own this time, but my senses were so distorted I can’t be sure of anything.

What I do know is it stopped as suddenly as it started. I was on the floor, holding my head, my rifle five meters away. Ta-sadar was gagging and coughing, and a sickly green mist was creeping through the room, centered on Xul. I immediately lunged for my weapon. No matter how groggy or upset I was, I had a job to do. I just wasn’t quick enough. As soon as Snake-head saw me move, a cage closed around me out of nothing. No matter how hard I strained and stretched, the gun was just beyond my fingertips.

On the plus side, the distraction of dealing with me bought the pharaoh time to recover. He shifted into some kind of spectral form and shot to the far side of the room, taking the Singularity with him. A force-barrier between the wall and the table held Xul at bay physically—but not magically. He conjured a ghostly scythe that tore through Ta-sadar and returned to his hand.

I was trying so hard to get my rifle that I fell on top of it when the cage collapsed under me. It was just as well. I rolled, bringing it up and around to finish Snake-head once and for all. Unfortunately, the force-wall dropped just as I was about to pull the trigger. Xul surged forward, and my shot went through empty air. My next round would’ve led him, but I never got it off because the guards chose that moment to storm the room—and they were heading straight for me. Wonderful. I had just enough time to shoulder my rifle and execute a backwards vault, cloaking to make sure they didn’t see where I landed.

It turned out I didn’t need to. The pharaoh had apparently been planning to drop a psi-storm on Snake-head while he was caught behind the wall—but he was too slow. Instead, it was his own minions who got ripped. Those lucky enough not to get caught in the death zone figured out who the real threat was real quick. But they were already too late.

While the guards and I were busy with each other, Xul ended things. He conjured some kind of shadow power around his dagger and plunged it into the pharaoh’s chest. Ta-sadar convulsed, dropped the Singularity—and then dissolved like a Battleground hero. Just like my Spectre self had done a few days earlier. That…was unexpected—but I had a job to do. I took aim, and I fired.

Unfortunately, my luck still hadn’t turned. Snake-head chose that exact moment to bend down and take the Singularity for himself. It wasn’t without some satisfaction, though. The close call finally put a crack in that smug facade of his. He ducked, looking genuinely afraid before fixing me with a death-glare. I’d just fired a shot, so I was fully visible. He pointed at me and shouted, “Beware the creature!”

The guards hesitated. Maybe they weren’t total idiots, but it was enough to turn their heads for a moment—and a moment was all he needed. Xul opened a portal—a rectangular doorway in the air—beside himself and stepped through it, taking the Singularity with him. I, meanwhile, had to hold off on firing again, just in case the minions fell for it and switched targets. By the time they looked back, he was gone. Something about “repaying a debt.”

Naturally, that was the moment Atenhotep entered the room. “Who dares threaten the mighty Ta-sadar?!” he demanded—and just as naturally, he looked at me.

“It was Xul,” I told him. “He betrayed the pharaoh and killed him.”
I wasn’t expecting Dog-breath to believe me, and he didn’t. He was probably moments away from killing me on the spot when something else I wasn’t expecting happened: one of the guards spoke in my defense. “It’s true! I saw it with my own eyes!”

His skepticism slackened. I could feel him pushing on my mind again, but not very hard. From the guards’ expressions, he was scanning the whole room for confirmation. He got it. “Very well,” he admitted, “you are innocent of this crime. You may remain in the court—for as long as it lasts.” He turned to the niche that held the big jewel. “Without the Singularity, it will not last long.”

I thought a moment. “An invisible infiltrator might be able to help with that. I could slip in, steal it back. It’s a mission profile—”

“Nova! Is that you?” The voice came from the table. Tybi.
I nodded in her direction. “May I?”

“You may as well. Completing the ritual is impossible without the Singularity.” Atenhotep turned to the guards. “Release her.”

One of them found the key and began unlocking the shackles, but Tybi didn’t move. I guess she was too exhausted from the ordeal to get up. That made sense. It was my actions that didn’t. Without asking, everybody stood back to open a path for me. I climbed onto the table. I slid my arms under her. I hugged her tight. She had soiled herself—but I didn’t care. Somehow, she was mine. I mean, of course she was. She’s me. But in that moment, it was more than that. She was mine. I…can’t explain it. I could only wince as Tybi pressed her face into my burning neck and soaked it with her tears, whimpering over and over, “You came back. You came back.” I still didn’t care.

“I will arrange a meeting of the pharaoh’s other advisers to consider your offer,” Atenhotep said behind me. “And you will remain visible until then.”

“Thank you,” I told him. It was all I could say.

Why do I keep doing this to myself? Every time I get emotionally involved, I get hurt. Every. Damn. Time. But I keep coming back. I feel something in moments like this—something I…need. I’d give everything I have to keep this feeling—even if all I have is a high-risk mission for strange commanders in a strange world and an emotional, clingy teenager. And a sunburn. Nova out.

* * * * * * *

I kind of had to break Nova's character in that one spot there. There's no way she'd hold herself back from pulling the trigger when an opportunity like that presented itself. In any case, I'm hoping to get one more entry on the books before concluding November in November for the year.
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Last edited by DarkAngel; 11-15-2018 at 07:35 PM.. Reason: Thought of better word
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