Diary of a DevilCat: This is Chenna, signing out

I got a bit of a shock today. Turns out I’m not so indestructible as I liked to believe.

Bone marrow cancer. That’s what I’ve got. The prognosis is “guarded” (which means “not good” is a helluva understatement).

No options for treatment. Barely any options for management.

I’m so anemic I could keel over at any second.

I haven’t been feeling great for the past six weeks or so, truth be told. It’s just been so hard to rouse myself to get out of bed. (Ellen’s bed, under the doona, where it’s nice and warm.) Even eating has been too much effort. (Yes, I know. Who’d’ve thought?)

The upside? I’ve lost a kilogram in weight. (I’ve been trying to lose weight for a while, now… Maybe that much in six weeks is not such a great idea.)

The downside? This will be my final post on this blog. I wish I could make it more devilish in nature, go out with a last hurrah; but I’m just not feeling it. It’s been a while since I’ve had the energy to attack anyone’s ankles — although I did get in a couple of awesome swipes at the vet last week.

Hey, at least I’ll go out with a manicure! The vets did a fine job on my claws yesterday, when I went in for the full workover.

I’m almost 14 years old, and I’ve had a great life. Even if I haven’t had all that many friends… I know Ellen loves me.

Thanks for reading my Diary of a Devilcat posts on this blog. And my Feline in Therapy blog was pretty good too, while it lasted.

This is Chenna, signing out. I’m off to hang out with the cat gods.


D&D Chronicles: Getting our butts kicked in and around Issimbaal


Dealing with Elliana (not)

D&D CHRONICLESWe argue long into the night about how to get the Left Eye of Varrien from Elliana.

The clerics of Phanator refuse to help us, not wanting to start a conflict with the Church of Elloran. I think we all know Elliana and her protector are far too strong for us, but the thought of simply letting the woman leave is intolerable.

Gritting our teeth, we resolve to confront her. Our plan is to waylay them at dawn, try to take them unawares, use Alix’s magic as protection.

None of it goes to plan. Elliana and her henchman take a different route than expected, so we have to chase them. They stop and frown, as though we’re merely annoying insects (and not the giant kind).

Then they kick our arses.

One attempt to engage Tob is all I need to realise I don’t have a chance against him, and then a magical blade is whirling around him in all directions, seriously wounding Blizzard. Nightshade and I manage to get out of the way, but…

In under a minute our entire party is fleeing in the opposite direction. Elliana sends a friendly fireball after us as a final ‘fuck you’.

That was fun.

Elliana leaves with the Left Eye and the taste of failure is bitter.

Are we ever getting out of Issimbaal?

We need to regroup.

Even were I not sworn to retrieve the Right Eye, it seems more important than ever, in case it’s Elliana’s ambition to bring the two Eyes together to raise the goddess of destruction. If only she’d talked to me when I attempted to discover her goal, instead of bespelling me into being her slave. At least that curse has been broken by my recent death and resurrection.

We know Elliana is looking for magic portals, perhaps to reach Tel Marrenor and the Right Eye, lost deep in the broken forest. We considered offering to accompany her on her long journey, but with Nightshade stricken with the zombie disease, she needs the priests here to find the cure.

I’m already half-regretting our decision to confront Elliana. I don’t know whether we could have trusted her and Tob enough to travel with them, but that option must surely now be lost to us, along with the Left Eye.

I don’t know what to do.

The next few days pass slowly for me as we remain in Issimbaal. Squirrel is busy learning new spells, the others are poring over books from the libraries; meanwhile I’m at a total loose end, my mind turning everything over and over and over until I want to scream. I hang out with Fleet, and try to calm down by teaching her a new trick.

Zillah and Fleet

Zillah and Fleet

Those hitting the books find out stuff about the flail and the Eyes, and acquire a couple of maps that could be useful. They don’t discover much about the zombie disease, other than the knowledge it was cast by mages in conjunction with priests of Bahaal. It’s possible the spell creation took place in the Temple of Death, which is about 200 miles down the road.

Zombie hunting

Helping the priests find a cure for this zombie disease has become a bit of a fixation. Nightshade needs it. Not only has she become a friend in the weeks we’ve known her, but her knowledge of the forest, and her passion for saving it, will help us in our quest to retrieve the Right Eye. No doubt she’ll be just as pleased to avenge the Dark Tree too, as we promised the tree ent.

For as long as we’re in this abandoned and now charred city, every night we search for zombies. But they too seem to have abandoned the city, and our hunt is fruitless.

After several days we take the hunt into the broken and deserted lands outside Issimbaal. It’s morning, sunny, and I easily find the tracks of six humanoids, some of which are larger than humans.

(Interestingly, I also find two sets of separate human tracks, likely to be Elliana and Tob, heading in the direction of the Temple of Bahaal — which is decidedly not the direction we expected. It also happens to coincide with our proposed next destination…)

But it’s the zombies I’m interested in for now. Maybe one of these holds the key to the disease.

We’ve been going for about two hours, and I know we’re really close to the band I’m tracking, when my peripheral vision picks up shapes looming to either side and — no warning — we’re under attack.

Fuck. We’re surrounded. Fleet! Fleet is getting ripped into. No!

My brave, bleeding cat falls to the ground.

The world shrinks to her sand-coloured fur, tufts torn out, rivers of red. I’m on my knees at her side, fumbling with a cure light wounds spell. She’s still warm. But my hands tremble too much for me to tell if she’s alive.

My limbs are wooden, my heart empty, as I lurch to my feet. I stand over Fleet, and take in the battle that is all my fault. I led us into an ambush. All. My. Fault.

But Blizzard has a zombie under his control already. One explodes nearby at Alix’s hands. I take out my fear and grief on the remaining zombies within my reach. They do not last long.

As soon as it’s over, I gather Fleet into my arms. Thanks to blessed Emrys, she’s alive. Alix heals her some more and my heart is full again. But I can’t bear to let her go. Her fur is soft against my face. She puts up with my fussing for a while, but then she licks my face and twists out of my arms. I take a deep breath and get to my feet.

We return to Issimbaal by midday with two zombies under Blizzard’s command. Hopefully the clerics can do something with them.

I just want to curl up in a corner with Fleet and feel her warmth against my side, her rhythmic purr vibrating through my bones.

Fleet (a desert cat) is Zillah’s second animal companion. Her first was Ash, a dog, who was killed in the broken forest. All our D&D adventures are listed in order with links on the D&D Chronicles page.

Singing acapella in the tea room

The most important aspect of singing for me is creating harmonies with other people and filling a space with music. There’s a kind of magic created when multiple voices weave together and unfurl, blending and enhancing and expanding, the whole so much more than the sum of its parts.

This is why I have been singing in a community choir for the past three and a half years. And it’s also why I leapt at the chance 18 months ago to be part of something incredibly special.

A group of women from my ‘choir’ (which isn’t a choir in the ‘carmina burana’ sense) were hanging out together, when one of them voiced an idea. Every one of the nine other women present said yes to this idea without hesitation; and now, a year and a half later, we are still getting together monthly to sing at a local hospital palliative care unit.

As one of my fellow songsters said on Saturday, it’s the most worthwhile thing I do.

Once a month we sing acapella in the tea room, with the idea that our sound will travel down the two long corridors where the individual rooms are. Sometimes the tea room is mostly empty, with the occasional staff member or visitor wandering through; sometimes those patients who are well enough wander down to listen; sometimes we gather a bit of a ‘crowd’.

The main idea is that we fill the space with music for a time, hopefully bringing comfort to those who are dying and their visiting family.

Some of us have been known to sing at the beach as well.

Some of us have been known to sing at the beach as well.

Even when it feels like no one is listening, it’s tremendously uplifting for us; because that’s the thing about music — it travels into all the nooks and crannies of space and somewhere it’s making someone feel a bit better. It goes way beyond the simple joy of singing together.

This past Saturday, we were invited into a patient’s room for the first time. The man himself was very ill, but his daughter explained that he had been in a choir and would love to hear us sing. So, after our usual half-hour set, we gathered around his bed and sang a few songs.

Although he could not respond, he seemed to be aware and listening, and I cannot explain how moved we all were to be able to do that for him.

Each month is different when we sing in the palliative care unit, but it’s always rewarding. I know that we all gain something each time from the simple act of singing together, but it makes it so much more worthwhile to think that our music brings something to others as well.

Priddy’s Tale: book review

priddyPriddy’s Tale is another gorgeous love story from Harper Fox. It’s a fantastical tale about a lost young guy who lives in a Cornish lighthouse and falls in love with a merman.

I love this story so much. It’s told in a fairy tale style — which isn’t usually my thing, because I prefer a closer relationship with the characters. But Harper Fox managed to weave her magical words around me until I felt every bit of Jem Priddy’s confusion and uncertainty about his life’s direction, his yearning for Merou (the mysterious guy he ‘rescues’ from the waters), his growing conviction that his future lies somewhere else entirely.

Priddy is adorable — blond curls and blue eyes, just out of high school, and recovering from an almost fatal experience with a party drug that has left him prone to wild dreamings. His best friend Kit has gone to college without him, leaving Priddy caretaking a fully automated lighthouse for the winter. After he calls in the rescue chopper for a boat about to be wrecked on a stormy night (and where was Flynn Summers, where?), Priddy dives in to help the man swimming beside the boat, and changes his own life forever.

The beautiful man in the water is Merou, who doesn’t of course need rescuing at all, until Priddy touches him and he’s transformed… The magic of this story doesn’t lie in the mystery, though, and it’s pretty damn obvious from the start (to the reader at least) that Merou is one of the mer people.

Merou is charismatic and charming, an ancient traveller of the oceans and time. To Priddy, he’s like a prince — worldly, confident, fascinating, even if at first he seems a bit of a nutcase. (Or possibly a hallucination.) And Merou clearly desires Priddy, calling him such sweet names as ‘daisy-brained sweetheart’ (my favourite) and ‘king of the mountain’, based on the Welsh derivation of his name, ap-Ridih.

I’m trying not to re-tell the story here, but it’s hard, because it’s such a sweet gender-flip of traditional mermaid stories. Merou romances Priddy without artifice, and Priddy is swept away (at times quite literally) by his man of the sea. There’s a glorious sexy scene down at the bottom of the ocean, where we learn a little about the physiology of mermen, and Priddy learns what it would take to be with Merou forever.

There are some tense moments, mainly surrounding the introduction of a genetic scientist who wants to capture one of the mer for research purposes. But the resolution of this — and the afterward, written by a fictitious academic who also presents a foreward — is just perfect. I finished reading this long novella (short novel?) with my heart full and a smile on my face.

It’s the way this relatively simple tale is told that makes it so wonderful. It’s filled with magical and impossible things — like horses and apples from the sea, and a stranger who mysteriously knows about Priddy’s penchant for pastries — and infused with beautiful language and an abundance of ocean-themed imagery.

Like all the author’s work, Priddy’s Tale is also evocative of place — in this instance the wild and exciting south-western tip of Cornwall, where several of her books have been based. Inspired by the old Cornish folk tales, Priddy’s Tale is Harper Fox at her lyrical and beautiful best.

Here’s the Amazon link. You won’t be disappointed. I’m reading it again… and maybe re-reading some of her others as well. I just can’t get enough Harper Fox books in my life!

D&D Chronicles: Three battles, third time not so lucky


Zombies inspire reckless action

D&D CHRONICLESIt’s around midnight when we finally find a band of zombies towards the outskirts of Issimbaal. There are six of them, five of us. This should be easy.

Although I must remember we need to take some alive for the clerics to study. I’m much better at killing zombies than anything else. In fact, they’re one of my favourite enemies. After the frustrating and fruitless afternoon we’ve had, the others will probably need to hold me back.

Except they don’t.

I charge first into the thick of it and start laying about me with both weapons. Yes. Zombies begin to wobble and fall. But, er… now I’m surrounded by them and… Ow. The bastards! It seems my companions have held back and I’m alone facing ALL THE ZOMBIES.

One explodes to my right. (Thanks, Alix!) Another breaks from the fray, but — ow! Shit. Fuck.
My head is swimming and my limbs feel like water. I’ve got to get out of here.

I edge back from the battle, but I can’t retreat far enough to stop them coming at me again. But then Nightshade is standing right in front of me like a shield, and they’re ignoring her. In fact, they almost stop their attack. Alix is free so I scream at her for some healing.

It’s over soon after that and Blizzard has a zombie under his control. I didn’t know he could do that. Why can he do that? It’s horrifying (but I’m reluctantly impressed). Two of the other zombies aren’t quite “dead” yet, so we take them back to the priests as well, but it turns out the only one that’s useful is the one Blizzard captured.

They give us some gold for the zombie, but I’m far more interested in whether they can use it to study the zombie disease. Find a cure. For Nightshade.

It’s very late and we fall into bed.

Tomorrow we face the beholder guarding the one room in the mage college we haven’t been able to get into yet. We crawled all over the second floor of that college this afternoon and found pretty much nothing. Let’s hope the contents of the workroom prove more rewarding.

Battle with the beholder

The beholder appears to see us immediately Squirrel and I enter the workroom. So much for our elaborate plan involving sneaking and invisibility potions and invisible twine and coded tugs…

But it doesn’t attack us. It looks… curious, with its one enormous eye, and other eyes on stalks sticking out like a tentacled sea creature. Except it swims in air and according to Squirrel each of those eyes will unleash a vicious spell.

I pray to blessed Emrys those other spells and blessings and shields and the deathward cast on us by Alix and Blizzard work.

The beholder abruptly scuttles up high, out of easy reach. Squirrel is visible now — he must have attacked. Our agreed plan was to retreat if the beholder saw us, but Squirrel doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Blizzard’s in the workroom now, wielding that floating sword he has. I guess we’re staying. I have my bow out by now and I start firing arrows into the creature.

I have no idea whether it’s attacking us back — I can’t see any sign of spells and I don’t think any have hit me. I hope the others are similarly lucky. It’s all very chaotic and messy, but in a surprisingly short time the thing is twitching and dead at our feet.

Nightshade pounces on the corpse and begins, er… eating it? I guess better its blood than ours.

After a search of the workroom we discover the fourth and final part of the key to what we assume is a door leading into the tower. To Squirrel’s delight and relief, we also find ingredients for the ink he needs to transcribe and learn mage spells.

I wouldn’t say this mage college has delivered enough bounty to offset the gold (for lives) we’ve sacrificed here, but the prospect of Squirrel with new spells is at least a positive.

Going one-on-one in the mage arena

Trying not to betray my trepidation, I step across the threshold into the mage arena. Squirrel tells me how to say the command word in the Tuyar language. As soon as I repeat it the air coalesces around me into one of those whirling wind creatures — air elementals — that we’ve confronted here already.

With a swallow, I raise my swords. It’s just me versus this creature in one-on-one combat. If I win the physical challenge, we will hopefully gain entrance to the top floor of this tower. If I lose… I can’t lose. This is a last resort. The other two levels of the tower have yielded precisely nothing except for a magic quill. There must be something here to find. Why else would we have to scavenge so hard for the four pieces of key?

We engage in battle, me with my two strong blades versus… magical air?

I have no idea how I’m going, but I feel strong. Steel flashes in the arena mage light. My companions are cheering me on. (I imagine the stands are packed full of cheering onlookers — how amazing that would feel.) Am I making a dent? There’s no way of knowing. I just have to keep going and try to beat this thing.

Air rushes past me as it flings me through the air. I crash against some sort of frame, but there’s no time to figure out what. I haul myself to my feet, aching now, and re-engage. I hope I’m putting a dent in this thing, because it’s certainly putting a dent in me. But I’m okay for the moment.

I’m hurtling through the air again. It’s almost like flying. The arena surface slams up to meet me.

A third chance at living

I open my eyes and the world rocks and shimmers around me. In my mind, there’s the echo of words, important words, words I can’t quite remember. Words from my god.

My skin prickles. Emrys spoke to me. I strain to recall the words and clutch them to my chest.

I become aware of the others hovering over me, alongside one of the clerics of Phanator. Sitting up, I look around this sacred room, take in their solemn faces, and I know exactly what has just happened. That cursed air creature killed me after all. Fuck.

But I’m alive. The priests have performed their third resurrection for our party in about as many days. And I feel… whole. We’re down a lot more gold (again) but I can continue my sworn quest to retrieve the Right Eye of Varrien.

And get the Left Eye back from that bitch cleric of Elloran, Elliana. (The others look at me in relief when I say this. I cannot quite meet their eyes.)

And find a cure for the zombie disease so we can cure Nightshade.

You may be interested to know this is the second time Zillah has died and been resurrected. The first time was all the way back in August 2014 (In the depths of the barrow there’s a wurm and an eye). She was not the only one that night. Our DM should go back and read that post when he’s feeling sad…

The D&D Chronicles page has some background and all posts listed in order.

D&D Chronicles: Trying to survive the mage college of Issimbaal


early afternoon

D&D CHRONICLESThank blessed Emrys we are holed up in this temple with these clerics of Phanator. They have resurrected Blizzard with very little fuss.

It has cost us, though — and me especially. It is no secret among our group that there is little love lost between Blizzard and me, but I will be doing penance for a good long while for my actions earlier today. I contributed half the resurrection price, but it hardly seems enough. The fact I was bespelled when I slew one of my own companions doesn’t salve my conscience.

At least Blizzard seems back to normal, more or less. As unlikable as ever (although I cannot truly blame him for his hostility towards me at present).

We are now headed back to the mage college to resume our attempts to enter the library and retrieve the information these clerics need to cure the zombie disease. We have devised some strategies for avoiding a repeat of the disaster inflicted by the ‘Guardian of the library’ spell. Squirrel managed to cross that threshold without ruin this morning. Perhaps he can do so again, with a few safeguards in place…

early evening

It’s been a truly terrible day. After losing and reviving Blizzard this morning, we have now lost Squirrel — literally. He succumbed to the library spell, disappeared into the bowels of the college and never came out.

This is bad. Really bad.

Earlier, we triggered a cloud of poisonous gas in one of the corridors (which almost did for me), and we fear Squirrel entered it in his bespelled state. It’s pitch dark inside the college without mage light, so we cannot even search for him without succumbing to the poison gas ourselves.

To make matters worse, Nightshade is unconscious and not responding to healing. During our exploration of the ground floor of the college this afternoon, she succumbed to a fear charm at the entrance of what looks like a great hall. I didn’t get the chance to enter, before she was fleeing out the front door of the college.

We hadn’t dared to open the front door yet — for good reason, as it turns out. In her blind panic, Nightshade found herself facing four of the whirling wind creatures on her own. Once she fell, I managed to drag her back inside, but now we cannot bring her around at all. We can only hope the clerics of Phanator are able to help her.

Darkness has fallen and we are a sorry trio stumbling back to the temple for the night, carrying one companion and missing another. I am still weak after my encounter with the poison gas, and Blizzard is probably still coming to terms with his death experience. Alix remains our strength.

We fear Squirrel is dead.


I didn’t think today could get any worse. I was wrong.

The clerics say Nightshade has succumbed to the zombie disease. They can do nothing for her — although they have fortunately restored my depleted constitution. This makes me even more determined to find them information that will help them develop a cure.

We cannot let Nightshade turn into a zombie.

The clerics tell us that she must be fed blood. I can barely comprehend it. Blood. Blizzard, Alix and I have each allowed her to feed from us, and she is now awake.

Her eyes are now red and she is still weak. She has begged me to take Domino, her ferret companion, until her blood cravings ease. (I’m not sure what Fleet will think of this.) Apparently Nightshade no longer needs sleep or any other human sustenance.

I do not know how I will sleep tonight. I cannot stop thinking about Nightshade’s predicament, but she is our companion and we will find a way to save her.

And Squirrel. His motivations may be a mystery sometimes, but he has proven his loyalty to our quest time after time. I hope to blessed Emrys we can retrieve him safely tomorrow. I fear we will once more be grateful for the presence of Geretam and his fellow clerics.

And then of course there is Elliana — the cleric of Elloran who stole the Left Eye of Varrien. She is the whole reason we are here in this desolate abandoned city. Geretam is not sure how much longer they can delay her departure. And even if they do, we somehow need to figure out how to wrest the Eye from her.

Without dying.


the next day

Last thing I remember was stepping across the threshold of the library. I’d done it before, no ill effects — unlike Zillah, going berserk and killing Blizzard out of some ensorcelled sense of protectiveness for the mage school.

Next thing I know, I’m returning to consciousness on a cold altar at the temple. Alix is saying, “Welcome back”, and Zillah and Nightshade are helping me off the slab, my legs as weak as a newborn foal’s. Alix calls down some holy goodness and before too long I’m able to proceed under my own steam, the woolly fog cleared from my mind.

“I died again, didn’t I?” I ask. This weakness, the confusion, the sense of having been gutted of all energy and fitness, is sadly familiar.

“We had to give up your cloak in part payment,” Zillah says, and I count the loss of yet another piece of magical accoutrement. I’m pretty much down to just the dagger I’ve borrowed from Blizzard and the bracers my parents gave me. And I can feel the loss of physical fitness; coming back from the dead takes its toll. I should know – that’s twice now. Third time’s the charm?

The others fill in some of the blanks: I’d been trying to access the library again, and I’d fallen foul of the charm ward, been turned into a guardian. My companions had the good sense to stay out of my way; but then, presumably, I embarked on a perimeter search or perhaps undertook an inventory.

They found my body in a hallway filled with poison gas, the remnants of a trap we’d triggered earlier. Fortunately, it had been dissipated sufficiently for them to retrieve my corpse.

Pause to consider that, again. My corpse.

Is this mission worth the risk of dying again? Yes, I’ve become a more accomplished mage; yes, my skills at larceny have been honed. But my body, and my mind, have been weakened, and I’ve precious little to show for the all the discomfort and death other than a bulging spell book.

Heh. That could be payment enough, if I could just get my mind around them. But for that I need to transpose them into my own grimoire, to imprint them, to harness them, to my will. And for that I need special ink…


And the next morning

I was so wrong about Elliana! She is truly the nicest and most honest cleric I have ever met. I knew I was right in thinking her motives in taking the Eye from the Church Elloran were altruistic. She and I sat down together last night and talked everything through.

I’m not sure why she’s interested in learning about magic portals, but since we finally managed to get all the books out of the library yesterday (a good present for the newly resurrected Squirrel — he needed a quiet day to regather his strength), I was able to retrieve all the books we hadn’t already given to the clerics of Phanator (on plants and the like), and which Squirrel hadn’t already claimed for himself.

I felt a little bad sneaking out to the college in the dead of night, not telling my companions, but they wouldn’t understand. Besides, Elliana swore me to secrecy, and I trust her. (They have busted me now, though… they noticed all the books were gone today. I have tried to explain to them that Elliana is our friend and we should help her — and let her help us — but they don’t believe me.)

And at least it means Elliana is now staying an extra day while she reads through the books I salvaged for her. I’m looking forward to seeing her this evening and hearing whether they were helpful.

In the meantime, we continue to search for answers in this terrible college, risking death with every step. The clerics need still more information to cure the zombie disease, and we are hoping to find objects and information that will aid (and fund) our quest. Most of the rooms are little more than dull classrooms — although we did find a most useful storage room with all kinds of useful gear, and a few other miscellaneous rooms of little interest.


The most interesting doors are protected by fierce magics. I don’t know how we’re going to get past most of them. Perhaps I should ask Elliana tonight whether she will aid us — assuming we make it through the rest of the day…


Early afternoon

Did I mention I need magic ink?

It might be worth risking death again, because in that school of magery is a workshop. And in that workshop, I suspect, are all the ingredients I need to make up a useful batch of ink – and who knows what other valuable trinkets might be in there?

But the workshop is guarded by a beholder, and it is a fearsome sentry. My father told me of them, these concoctions of master wizards. It is a floating ball of stalks set around a central eye, with each stalk ending in a tiny eye. Forget sneaking up on a beholder. Each eye is more than just observant – each has a special power. The ones my father mentioned were spells such as paralysis, weakness of mind and body, and, of course, death.

I’ve convinced my companions to finish searching the school, in hope of finding a keyword or somesuch to disarm the beholder. Failing that, we’ll have to fight it, assuming I can convince my colleagues the potential payoff is worth it. But I’m up for it. I need to be able to access these spells. Our lives might depend on one of them.

Still, in the back of my mind rings the warning: third time’s the charm.

Thanks to Jason Nahrung for Squirrel contributions. See the D&D Chronicles page for all posts in sequential order.

Travelling in the 90s: Venerable Rome

It’s been a year since I posted the last extract from my 1993-1994 travel journal for the Travelling in the 90s series. I’ve been distracted. But there’s only a couple of weeks of Italy to go on the entire trip, so I’m going to focus on getting to the end.

Our last stop was Florence — a bit of a disappointment in gloomy February. Will Rome be an improvement? (Oh, yes, I think it will!)

[Thursday 15 February, 1994] We took a train to Siena this afternoon, but upon arriving discovered that the train station was at the bottom of the hill (mountain) upon which the town perched. We tried to ring a hotel and got someone who only spoke Italian. Then we tried to catch a bus (up the mountain) but couldn’t work out how to get tickets.

Then we both had a tantrum, and in a fit of pique decided to trash Siena and Go Rome!

So we jumped back on the next train to Rome. When we got there we didn’t see any pickpockets (I have to admit to being paranoid) and were taken by a scout to Soggiorno “Vichi”, which is where we are now. However, there are not many blankets on the beds, and the shower is only so-so, so I’m not sure whether we’ll stay for the nine nights we have left. In the meantime, Rome awaits — I can’t wait to see some of it tomorrow!

[Wednesday 16 February, 1994] Today, we basically explored Rome. Our LP guide book gave a suggested route, which we more or less followed, and which included many of the major piazzas and monuments. Rome has so many of these that there is no possible way to see them all in one day.

We’re staying in a not-so-interesting area near the train station, but it’s certainly convenient as far as carrying packs goes. It means that we have to walk somewhere to get into the atmosphere of Rome. Initial impressions include smog, crazy driving, enormous, and the incredible number of piazzas — small or large squares, often with fountains in them.

There is the fountain in the piazza del Spagna (near the Spanish Steps, which are all uneven and higgledy piggledy); the famous and beautiful Trevvi Fountain (which was by far the cleanest thing we saw today — sparkling white); the fountains in the piazza del Navona (the central and main one is called “The Four Rivers” and in fun we named them Tiber, Arno, Rubicon and Grand Canal); and fountains in the piazza Farnese (two old bath tubs). We threw coins in the Trevvi Fountain (as one must) and also I believe in some others along the way.

Another feature of Rome is obelisks!

It was a great day. I really enjoy wandering around a city and just soaking up the atmosphere — Rome doesn’t hit you the way Paris or Venice do, but respect and wonder kind of seep in. It’s a GRAND old city and reminds me (in a literary fling) of a crusty old grandfather, who has seen so much of life that now everything is taken in his stride. Age and position command respect!

Our route today included the major sights of the Spanish Steps, Trevvi Fountain and the Pantheon. This last is an amazing piece of architecture — a huge dome with a hole in the top. The inside is mostly Christian, having been consecrated to the faith in 609BC. It was originally dedicated to all the Roman gods.


Pantheon, Rome

The Campo de Fiori was very un-bustling — I guess you have to catch it in the morning. And the via Vittorio Veneto is absolutely DEAD in the morning! We went through a pedestrian subway between via Veneto and piazza del Spagna which must have been half a kilometre long. We also walked for quite a while along the Tiber — it’s pretty, but seems almost forgotten. The grass is overgrown, and I got the impression that traffic zips over the bridges without even noticing that there’s a river there at all. Poor river.

Tiber River, Rome

Tiber River, Rome

There is so much more of Rome to see! More piazzas, heaps of churches, ruins, museums, not to mention the Vatican. Rome has so many layers. Venerable City!

Tonight we solved the dilemma of whether or not we should use our kettle (which MUST BE EARTHED) on the Italian sockets. For the operation we donned rubber-soled shoes and flicked the switch with a plastic spoon. It worked and boiled water twice without electrocuting us! But we shall continue to be careful…

[Thursday 17 February, 1994] It’s incredible to think that it’s only a week until we leave for home. Today I amazingly woke up with the 8:30 alarm, and actually got out of bed into the freezing cold morning. H was about half an hour behind me.

We went to the ancient sector of Rome today — the Colosseum, the Forum and the Palatine hill. The Colosseum turned out to be free for the first level, which suited us. A ruined stadium looks much the same from all levels.

Colosseum, Rome

Colosseum, Rome

Next we went to the Forum which reminded me a bit of Ancient Corinth. It was a mess of ruined temples and basilicas — we were taken aback at how disorganised it was. We were forced to buy a guide book in order to discover what everything was. However, the book proved to be really good value with lots of interesting and useful facts.

There is not much left standing in the Forum. The Temple of Saturn has about six pillars, Castor and Pollux three, and Vesta three. The Temple of Antoninius and Faustina has about eight as well as a Christian basilica built in the centre. There were also temples to Julius Caesar, Venus and Rome, Romulus, and an interesting one to Apollo on the top of the Palatine Hill.

Ancient Forum, Rome

Ancient Forum, Rome

The guide book also covered the ruins on the Palatine hill, which consisted mainly of palaces and houses. The architecture of these buildings is really amazing. The Romans seemed to mainly build with flat bricks, so as a result the ruins look less ancient than ruins in Greece. They also tend to be covered in green vines, blending into the side of the hill. It was a very enjoyable day. We had a picnic lunch beside the temple of Venus and Rome with a view of the Colosseum.

I really really must go back to Rome. It was one of my favourite cities on this trip. There’s still more to come from Rome, but next post will be a side trip to Naples and Pompeii. More amazement!

(As usual, terrible photo reproduction… adds to the experience!)

If anyone has memorable travel experiences of Rome I’d love to hear them in the comments.

Book Launch: City of Hope and Ruin

It’s been a while (too long) since I’ve talked fantasy novels on this blog, but I’m excited to get back into it today to celebrate a new release from indie publisher, Turtleduck Press. I’ve featured a few Turtleduck Press novels over the past couple of years — not only are the team friends of mine, but they are also devoted to “out of the box” speculative fiction.

So today Siri Paulson joins me to talk a little about her new novel City of Hope and Ruin, co-authored with Kit Campbell, and released just last week.

City of Hope and Ruin ~ Kit Campbell and Siri Paulson

City of Hope and Ruin ebook coverEvery night the monsters hunt.

A city that is the whole world: Theosophy and her companions in the City militia do their best to protect the civilians from the monsters, but they keep crawling from the Rift and there’s nowhere to run. Theosophy knows she’ll die fighting. It’s the best kind of death she’s seen, and at least she can save lives in the meantime.

They say the Scarred carve you up while you’re still alive.

A village in the shadow of a forest: Refugees from the border whisper about the oncoming Scarred, but Briony can’t convince her brother to relocate his children to safety. Briony will do anything to protect them. She owes them that much, even if it means turning to forbidden magic.

When Theosophy and Briony accidentally make contact across the boundaries of their worlds, they realize that solutions might finally be within reach. A world beyond the City would give Theosophy’s people an escape, and the City’s warriors could help Briony protect her family from the Scarred. Each woman sees in the other a strength she lacks—and maybe something more.

All they need to do is find a way across the dimensions to each other before their enemies close in.

Buy via Amazon Kindle | Amazon print version| iBookstore | Barnes & Noble | Kobo

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Here’s Siri responding to my questions…

What was the inspiration behind City of Hope and Ruin?

Our aim was to create a shared world that the four authors at Turtleduck Press (Kit and me, plus Erin Zarro and KD Sarge) can all play in. The initial inspiration was combining Kowloon Walled City, an incredibly dense and unregulated semi-modern urban environment, with the sort of “pocket universe” that you find in stories like Neverwhere (or think of Diagon Alley in Harry Potter). We wanted to create a place that had been magically sealed away, which of course led to the question: why? The rest of the story grew from there.

What kind of experience can readers expect?

It’s a dual-POV portal fantasy, except that both sides of the portal are secondary (fantasy) worlds. One side is more urban or even post-apocalyptic-feeling, and the other side is more traditional fantasy, but they both have some juicy worldbuilding surprises. Kit and I both love fantasy that’s heavy on character, and our early readers have told us that one of their favourite things about the book is the rich cast of characters.

What do you love most about this book?

Theosophy is the type of character who’s dear to my heart. At the beginning of the book, she’s a total cynic, hardened and closed-off. She’s given up on hope. By the end… well, you’ll just have to read it to find out! I’m also really pleased with how the worldbuilding turned out. It’s not just magic and magical creatures, although there’s that too; there’s a certain level of technology with hints that there used to be more, way back when. I love books that play with the boundaries of genre, and we definitely did that with ours. And I’m proud that we’ve written a fantasy novel starring two female characters of colour who fall for each other. That’s why we started Turtleduck Press in the first place — so we could write and publish the stories that might have fallen through the cracks of mainstream publishing.

How did the collaborative writing of the book come about and how did it work?

We knew that we wanted to set up a shared world. All four of us at Turtleduck Press are pantsers (seat-of-the-pants) writers to some extent, so we brainstormed together a bit, but the only way we could really dig into the world was to write a story about it and see what came out – ideally with more than one person’s input. Kit and I volunteered to go at it together, and the rest was history.

We decided early on that we were each going to take one side of the portal to explore. So there are two POVs in alternating chapters and they intersect regularly, but in between, each of them has their own subplots and side characters. That gave us a lot of autonomy.

Luckily we have a similar writing process. We established the main turning points and the climax we were writing towards pretty early, and then we did a rough outline of each quarter as we got to it. There was a lot of reading each other’s chapters and leaving notes to each other in the document and writing emails and video-chatting throughout the process. We had a lot of fun playing off each other’s worldbuilding and genre tropes/expectations and our respective character arcs.

What aspect of storytelling are you most passionate about?

Oooh, that’s a tough one. As you might guess from my previous answers, I really love the combination of a big character arc and fun worldbuilding in a fantasy or science fiction setting. Description is one of my favourite things to write — that’s why I love travel blogging. But the most satisfying part is writing a character who’s struggling to find her way or a community or a life that will let her be true to herself, and watching her face her fears and open up into who she is. That’s me writing courage to myself, and also hoping that the story will find a reader who needs it.

About Kit Campbell

It is a little known fact that Kit was raised in the wild by a marauding gang of octopuses. It wasn’t until she was 25 that she was discovered by a traveling National Geographic scientist and brought back to civilization. This is sometimes apparent in the way that she attempts to escape through tubes when startled.

Her transition to normalcy has been slow, but scientists predict that she will have mastered basics such as fork use sometime in the next year. More complex skills, such as proper grocery store etiquette, may be forever outside her reach.

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About Siri Paulson

Siri Paulson writes all over the fantasy and science fiction spectrum, including (so far) secondary-world fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk, Gothic, historical paranormal, and YA with spaceships. She is also the chief editor at Turtleduck Press. Siri grew up in Alberta, Canada, but now lives in an old house in Toronto. By day, she edits non-fiction for the government. Her other current passion is contra dance, a social/folk dance done to live Celtic and roots music. Her favourite places in the world are the Canadian Rocky Mountains and a little valley in Norway.

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Sounds awesome! Please go check out City of Hope and Ruin — and if you read and like it, please consider leaving a review to help the authors out.

D&D Chronicles: Guardian of the library


D&D CHRONICLESIt’s dark. That’s the first thing I notice. And silent.

The air is musty and damp. I seem to be sitting in a chair beside some sort of table, with Fleet’s warm body curled over my feet. She stirs, draws up to rub her face on my hand, which is resting on my knee.

Why is it so silent? I cannot hear any murmurs from my companions, clinks of weapons, shuffling of gear. Just the swish of Fleet’s tail and scratch of claws on the floor.

There’s a chink of light below what I think is a door. My chair scrapes against the floor as I push to my feet. It is a door. It ushers in a dim light, and I can make out furniture and many bookshelves. I think it’s a library.

As far as I can make out the library is empty, so I turn my attention to the corridor outside the door. And pull up short, breath catching.

There’s blood. Fresh blood. Even if I couldn’t see it smeared over the floor, the smell is unmistakable. And still no sign of my companions. Fear surges through me.

Desperately I try to remember. Is this Issimbaal? I remember arriving in that city after a journey of some four days through abandoned farmland. Every night we had to fight off hordes of zombies. And one day there was a fearsome six-headed desert hydra. These lands are deserted, scourged of all life except for that which is undead or wrought by magic.

Issimbaal seemed largely deserted too when we arrived, except for the clerics of Phanator who have taken up residence in the desecrated Temple of Kaltan (Emrys save us from Blizzard’s ill-judged recriminations and posturing on that score). The clerics’ spokesperson, Geretam, said they are trying to find a cure for the zombie disease. They are growing moss for this purpose, and —

My memory triggers. The moss. Geretam sent us to the abandoned Vahdrim college to see if we could retrieve information they could use in this endeavour. In return, they will waylay Elliana.

Elliana, who reportedly has the Left Eye of Varrien, is here. If we succeed in helping these clerics, they will help us retrieve the Eye for the Church of Elloran.

The last thing I remember we were at the Vahdrim college. We defeated at least three whirling air creatures guarding the building, and then Squirrel broke a window to gain us entry.

I have a lingering impression of fighting…


Half an hour earlier

We’re walking through the college corridor, but all I can think about is the desecrated statue back at the temple, the image burnt into my brain. Those bastard clerics of Phanator! Allies, huh? That’s one fucked up way of showing it.

I’m so preoccupied with plotting vengeance that I almost bang into Zillah, who’s stopped. Squirrel’s up front trying to get through a door. The light, coming from behind us, isn’t good, but I can spy him over Zillah’s shoulder, bent over the lock.

Glorious Kaltan, Zillah smells good now she’s had a bath. Can’t help thinking she’s changed lately. We’re not arguing as much — or at least not as acrimoniously. Just yesterday, I found myself agreeing with her when we were discussing what to do with the Eye. It’s strange — I could almost imagine she likes me.

I glance over her: the elegant but well-defined musculature. A good body — got to give her that.

She whirls, both hands pulling swords. Perhaps she’s read my mind! But, no, the look on her face… Fierce as her cat.

Trouble. I cast around. Where? All I can see are stone walls, Nightshade silhouetted behind me, the shape of Alix beyond her.

Before I can ask Zillah what’s going on, she forbids us entrance and declares herself guardian of the library. For a heartbeat, I think she’s joking and am about to laugh, but then she swings at me, and fire flares across my shoulder.


She’s quick. So quick. Two, three, four slashes. I manage to duck one.

“Stop it,” I shout, grappling her to prevent her next attack. Nightshade’s shouting behind me. My ribs burn. My stomach. Liquid warmth runs down my thigh — have I pissed my pants or is that blood? I seize Zillah’s wrists, squeezing hard, trying to make her drop her weapons.

We wrestle. She’s strong, stronger than me and breaks free. Those two blades slice into me. Pain, hoarse shouts — mine and Nightshade’s.

With my falchion, I pommel-strike Zillah across the head, trying to beat sense into her, rather than kill her.

She shows no such restraint. Long sword, short sword, long sword again.

Pain makes me dizzy. Falchion up — my only escape is to knock her out — but she evades it. For a moment, behind her, Squirrel’s face, and then something sticky envelops me. A web. He’s caught us up in a web. Good!

Only she’s out of it, and I’m stuck. Fuck.

I struggle to free my hands. No. Zillah’s blades carve me up.

Nightshade’s behind me, hacking at the web, but I’m weak now, ill. I sag, stars circling my head, but then have one genius thought. If I play dead maybe Zillah will leave me alone.

Embracing the weakness, I let my head droop, but then someone grabs my hair, and Nightshade’s forcing a bottle to my lips, and my mouth fills with a bitter potion that stings my tongue. I cough, splutter, but the potion gives me strength. Again I fight to be free of the web, but already Zillah’s blades are crashing down…


Three sets of bloody footsteps emerge from the blood in the corridor. Stomach queasy, I follow them, Fleet padding at my side. They lead into an adjacent room, across a dusty floor to a broken window.

Outside is a lone air creature at the foot of a tower and the thick hedge we cut through to enter these grounds.

I’m through the window, under the hedge, and retracing steps towards the temple. I pray my companions are there.

But, if they are, why did they leave me? Surely they wouldn’t have abandoned me. What the fuck happened?

The abandoned city creeps me out and I draw my sword. Its edge is bloody and wet. My dagger is also smeared in red. But… I can’t have been in fight; I always clean my blades straight away. Besides, there’s barely a scratch on me.

I lurch into a run.

The door of the temple opens to my pounding. Faces, pale as the moon, turn to face me. Shouts. Weapons bristle.

I drop my swords and hold my hands in a gesture of peace.

On the floor, is that — ? That corpse looks like —

It is. I recognise the armour. The expressions on the faces of my three living companions are hard. Wary. Grieved. They hunch over Blizzard’s corpse protectively.

Oh, god. I don’t understand. I do not like the way they are looking at me.

I remember the blood on my swords. I remember a day long ago in a crater when Calwyn died, and Ammonite —

My stomach heaves. Fuck.

Thanks to Tracey Rolfe for Blizzard’s account of his, er, valiant battle against a charmed Zillah.

Stay tuned for the next post, which will deal with the aftermath! All D&D posts can be found on The D&D Chronicles page.

Harry’s WWII memoir: Home on the wheels of a red Mercedes Benz

In commemoration of ANZAC Day, I’m posting the sixth and final installment of my grandfather’s World War II memoir. This details the final leg of his escape and flight through Germany with a NZ sergeant called Smithy.

To read all six installments in order, head to the first post Capture and the Cattle Truck, which now has links to all subsequent posts.


Smithy and I returned to the village we had passed through earlier in the day. Lo and behold, the same people who had been spitting and stone throwing were now sitting on American jeeps, enjoying cigarettes end drinking wine. It made me so mad.

We went on and sauntered uninterrupted along the road, until we reached another village at about 5 o’clock in the evening. We saw a Jeep outside a house and knocked on the door. Inside were three Americans sitting down and drinking with the burgomaster and his family. They gave us food and drink, and at about 8 o’clock Smithy and I finished up in a great double bed with clean white sheets.

In the morning, we went downstairs expecting to see our American friends, but they had gone. We were now two lost souls in a village on our own. We didn’t know if the burgomaster was friendly. He seemed so last night, but then there were three Americans to look after us. We were given eggs for breakfast — another sign of friendship, or were we being delayed until the S.S. could get back? We thanked our hosts and scarpered as quickly as possible. A few locals watched us pass by, and curtains twitched as we walked.

“Can you drive?”

Smithy spotted it — a near-new, beautiful red Mercedes Benz sports car. It was in a garage, with the door open. When we sneaked in, we found the keys in the ignition. It had a doctor’s insignia on the number plate and looked very inviting.

Smithy said “Can you drive?” and I told him I could but I hadn’t got my licence with me! We pushed the car out of the garage, and let it freewheel down the road with us in the two seats. Smithy started the engine and away we went. I had no fear of a bullet — the Doctor would surely not risk hurting such a little beauty.

We left the village, and after an hour or so passed more American tanks and troops going up to the front. We decided that our necks were too valuable at this stage to get shot at by some wild west cowboy; so we stopped an officer, borrowed some petrol, painted a white cross on the red bodywork, and made a Red Cross flag for the bonnet. And so our car became a Red Cross car for our trip back.

Nuremberg and the Very British Officer

We arrived in Nuremberg, which had been taken by the Americans a day or so earlier, at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon. The Town Square in Nuremberg is a huge cobbled area, and it was empty — no movement at all. So we stopped in the centre of the square, ready to scarper at short notice if necessary.

Then we saw him — a British officer with his stick under his arm and buttons polished. I felt very superior somehow… here I was coming back from where he would be going. I went over to him, threw up a salute. I felt like saying “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”, but saw his Jimmy Edwards type mustache, and knew this bloke would stand no nonsense. He scowled at us, and asked us where the hell we thought we were, why hadn’t we shaved, and “why were we dressed like that?”

I could have crowned him. We told him who we were, and he asked where we intended to go, and what were we going to do with the car? I told him I was going to drive it through France (Smithy had said he didn’t want it) and leave it there for collection after the war. “Like Hell!” said he. “Put it in the motor pool and find yourselves somewhere to sleep for the night, then report to the airfield in the morning.” So we knew we were going to be flown home.

“Have escaped from Germany — home tomorrow”

We took ourselves and the car to a Yankee medical unit, where we scrounged a feed and a bed for the night, and sold the car for 200 cigarettes. The last we saw of the Mercedes was the following morning. It was painted khaki with a big white star, and a medical flag on the radiator. I often wondered if the Doctor owner ever saw it again.

We met Marlene Dietrich the next day on the airfield. She was serving out doughnuts and coffee to the troops. I had a set of poker dice I always carried, and I asked her to autograph them for me. I still have them, but the writing has faded with time.

They put Smithy and me in the nose of a Halifax bomber and flew us back to England. We were flown to a place near Reading and given new clothes. I sent a telegram home to Charlotte: “Have escaped from Germany — home tomorrow”. The girl at the Post Office refused to take money for it.

Smithy and I shook hands and said goodbye. One day I may go to Lower Hutt, New Zealand, and say hello. Many years later on Brampton Island in the Barrier Reef, I met a couple who lived in Lower Hutt, and knew Smithy. They told me that when he arrived home, he was given a civic welcome, with the Mayor making a speech, since he was the only man from Lower Hutt to escape from Germany and arrive back before the end of the war. Smithy was discharged from the Army the moment he reached England.

I was given a month’s leave, and did another 12 month’s service. In fact, I was almost posted back to Germany into the Army of occupation. How I scrambled out of that is another story. It was three days later that Hitler died in the bunker in Berlin.

Port Macquarie, 28 years later

In 1973, I applied for membership of the Port Macquarie RSL Club, and this conversation took place:

Secretary: “Can you prove you were in the Army?”

Me: “Sure, here’s my old Army paybook.”

Secretary: “See you have had this one issued in lieu of one lost overseas — that was a silly thing to do wasn’t it? Losing your paybook?”

Me: “I guess it was, but I didn’t have it on me when I was captured.”

Secretary: “So you were a POW. So was I. Which camp were you in?”

Me: “383”

Secretary: “So was I. I managed to escape towards the end.”

Me: “So did I.”

Secretary: “Four of us stole a VW and got back to Nuremberg.”

Me: “Smithy and I stole a Mercedes Benz and got back to Nuremberg.” (I felt very superior because ours was a MB.)

Secretary: “Well, I’ll be damned — for it was you who was the person on the ferry at Nuremberg, and I could not get on. For 28 years I have been telling the story of a lanky British sergeant who got on the ferry in front of me and took the last place.”

He grinned, and said, “I’ll put down on your application form that I have known you for 28 years. That will make the committee sit up and take notice.”

And he did… and they did… So I heard.

As mentioned, this was the final installment of Harry’s WWII memoir. To read all six installments in order, head to the first post Capture and the Cattle Truck, which now has links to all subsequent posts.

Lest we forget