D&D Chronicles: The Stars

We pick up the tale mid-battle with a treacherous black dragon, who is kicking our collective butts…

Zillah, Alix and Nightshade are cowering inside a building. They have no idea what has become of Blaze and Squirrel. (The story started here.)


BLAZE

We’re fighting the dragon – well, four of us, anyway: Squirrel, that cowardly snake, having slunk off to hide. Things are going well. I can feel it in my muscles, my bones. I’m wreathing myself in glory, all for my god, through whose grace I draw power.

And suddenly I’m not.

The dragon’s teeth snap around me. Burning. A wrench jolts me from middle to shoulders, and I’m dangling, airborne.

My fault. How could I lose concentration like that? Thinking of glory — fool!

The dragon’s wings push through the air, all strength, power. Thump, thump, thump. We rise. The ground jerks with each wing-beat, and nausea spills through me.

The tightness around my chest releases, and I’m plummeting, down, down. There’s water below. Rushing up. My armour – I’ll be dead weight.

But then I’m floating, still aloft. What? How? Of course! Feather fall. Squirrel’s spell.

I cast around. There. Squirrel! I do a double take. Surely not. But it is. This is no coward’s act.

He’s flying, cloak billowing around him, and he has never looked more magnificent, more brave or noble.

A screech pierces me. The dragon. Air gusts as she flies at me, talons outstretched. I still have my sword and swing at her, and we tussle, but Squirrel keeps coming as if to intercept me.

I’d never have guessed at such courage. Then the dragon seizes him, and there’s a spray of blood.

My back hits the water and I’m sinking, fast. I flail but go down. Nearby, something splashes into the water.

No air. Can’t breathe. Have to get this armour off. Can’t. Sunlight glimmers through the water’s surface, the last thing I’ll ever see.

No. Wait. I have an idea. Tree shape. I summon enough calm to perform the spell, and I am bobbing up and floating, a giant log. All I can see is blue sky above. Harsh sunlight.

No sign of Squirrel, but I know he’s dead. That spray of blood. There were limbs too.

It hits me hard. He died for me. He gave his life for me. The world is backwards.

The dragon blots out the sun, and I see a shape, limned against the sky, falling, walking. Squirrel – is he…? No, that’s Alix. Mercy, that dragon-bitch will have us all by the end of the day. The dragon screeches again, but I’m bobbing about with no control. If only I could stay still and see what’s happened to Alix.

Then I hit something. Solid. The bank. Only it’s the wrong one. I release the spell and haul myself ashore. Everything is in ruins. How can I get back? There. A lump of wood. I transform it to a small and not very stable raft, and carefully, quietly, launch myself back onto the water and propel myself to the other side.

In the middle of the square, her back to me, the dragon is focused on something; I sneak ashore…

tree-shape


ZILLAH

After a quick discussion, we down healing potions and get back outside to confront the dragon again. It’s all we can do. I want the Stars.

I take a few deep breaths then step outside, where the dragon waits. I get in some great blows! The dragon roars, spews acid (which I dodge)… then flies away.

All we can do is stare as it soars then descends into the middle of round building a couple hundred yards away. We’ve chased it off! We actually made it flee!

Now we have to finish the job before it recovers.

Blaze arrives as we’re scooping up the contents of the treasure chest left abandoned in the middle of the square. (So many coins and gems!) I’m enormously relieved to see him, but then he tells us what has happened to Squirrel.

My chest tightens with shock and grief — but I can’t let that overcome me now. Not until this is over. Not until that dragon is dead and we have the Stars in hand.

I’m still wrestling with the swirl of emotions when a stranger appears in the square. I stare at this decrepit little old man. Fenfaren he is called. I don’t have time or energy for him now. I don’t know where he’s come from, or why. I don’t care.

All I care about right now is killing that dragon.


ZILLAH

Nightshade and I stand side by side in the stands of an ancient stadium, magic, fire-spelled arrows nocked. Waiting.

Below, the arena is flooded and (we suspect) concealing the entrance to the dragon’s lair. Our plan — suggested and implemented by Fenfaren, who is full of surprises — is to drain the stadium to drive the dragon out.

The water starts moving, swirling, a sign Fen has begun the drain. Then, with a roar, the dragon bursts out of the water.

Nightshade and I take aim, launch the magic arrows.

They work beautifully against the dragon, which hovers nicely in range while it attacks Alix and Blaze, who fight back with gusto. We have no defence against this dragon. We can only hope to wear it down first.

Each arrow explodes into flame as it hits. I’ve never enjoyed my longbow so much.

flaming arrow2

Still, the dragon is fearsome and vicious. It munches on Blaze and tries to carry Alix away again. My heart jolts at the thought of losing another companion, especially Alix. But, just as I start to fear the dragon was not as injured as we’d assumed, it finally falls.

It crashes onto the lower stands, broken. Defeated. Dead.

I suppress the euphoria trying to sweep through me. First we must locate the Stars. Then we can celebrate. Then we can mourn.


ZILLAH

Fen is not a decrepit little old man, it turns out. Once his illusion died, he was revealed as a furbolg. Taller than an average human (nearly two feet taller than me). Bright red hair with some grey streaks. Strong. He says he’s been camped out on the hill, watching the dragon and the Rakshasa for a while.

He assists Nightshade and me to wade into the dragon’s underwater lair. Our attempt to drain the depths of the area succeeded in rousing the dragon, but the water has levelled. We’re going to need to swim.

We use the water breathing potion I’ve been carrying for a while. Two doses. Just enough for me and Nightshade, who is the strongest swimmer of all of us. Fen uses his mage senses to confirm the location of the dragon’s treasure.

The chest is made of stone, and heavy. There are six water-logged sacks as well. We grab those first, take them back to Fen and the others. Then we carefully carry the chest out of the water.

The chest has a complicated lock on it. A grid of stone buttons. Somehow we know that if we press them in the wrong order we will die.

Alix arrives at the solution. Alix, who often seems to come up with the right spell at the right time. She casts ‘stone tell’ and talks to the stone, asks the stone for the right combination to press. And it works.

We open the chest. No-one dies. And there they are… the Stars. The Stars of the Flail of Wind and Rain. (And treasure…)

The hour is late, but it is done.


ALIX

Poor Squirrel.

That foolhardy, light-fingered, ‘turn sideways and where-did-he-go’ young man who always seemed to be right next to me. Except for one time. The last time, when maybe it would have made a difference. And now he is gone.

He reminded me so much of Cal that I trusted him without thinking about it. I would even welcome the fights we will now never have. He backed us all up as much as he could and took some stupid risks. Oh, and he liked to throw fireballs and then ask questions. If there was anyone left alive.

Damn it, Squirrel, this whole thing has cost so many lives. Why did it have to cost me another mage who was my friend?

Oh, and don’t be throwing balls at the Gods, Squirrel. They probably won’t like it. And the shiny-shiny? Don’t be picking that up either.

BLAZE

Squirrel’s death sits heavily on me. I misjudged the man: thought him a sly, conniving and cowardly thief, not to be trusted, someone I could never call friend. And yet, in the end, he was the noblest and most selfless man I have ever met, and he not even a paladin.

How can this be? I thought I knew the world and its workings, but I know nothing. Now, I must atone for Squirrel’s death, but how to make amends? A donation to his church? Reparations to his family? Raise a statue in his honour? Offer my services to fight in his name?

Right now, prayer and solitude are what I need: I trust Nievor to give me guidance.

NIGHTSHADE

Damn everything, Squirrel is dead. Not just dead but EATEN by the traitorous Dragon’s water-dwelling pets, if Blaze saw it right.

At least the Dragon is dead as well now, which I’m sure would make Squirrel very happy were he here to know it. Imagine the magical ingredients he could have harvested from the corpse! He would have kept us here for days, stripping and preserving dragon parts.

I need to convince the others to retrieve Squirrel’s body from the water, even if it means catching and cutting open the belly of whichever beast ate him. Surely the Cleric will be able to resurrect him, if he is not too badly chewed? And his gear! The magic books, the maps and notes he was always scribbling down – we will be lost without them, our strength as a party severely diminished. I don’t see we have any choice but to look for him.

One other thing is certain: I will miss Squirrel sorely if he cannot be returned to us, not least because he was the last remaining member of the party I could count on to have my back. The other three – Zillah and Alix, and the oh-so-shiny Blaze – are such squeamish do-gooders they refuse to do what’s needed even when it’s pointed out to them at the tip of a sword. Squirrel, along with dear fallen Blizzard, understood that sometimes you need to get your hands dirty. The do-gooders bleat about the end of the world but think they can prevent such a thing without having to wring too much blood from their clothes afterwards.

Sometimes, I wonder whether I even belong in this party anymore…

ZILLAH

We will miss Squirrel sorely. He was smart. Crafty. Braver than he knew. His skills, forethought and fast thinking helped us navigate many a challenge and got us out of many a scrape. Yes, we will miss him.

I counted him a friend, even though I often felt I never really knew him. Not all his faces. But he was a true companion, as he showed at the end.

Farewell, Squirrel (or whatever your true name was). May your spirit dwell peacefully in the afterlife.

Vale Squirrel


ZILLAH

The master smith, Astra Khara, greets us with wild, bright eyes on our return to Kham Jhara. His fingers twitch as he reaches for the Stars, desperate to join them with the Haft we brought him weeks ago.

He says it will take several weeks to re-forge the Flail of Wind and Rain.

Astra Khara manages to mostly hide his surprise that we prevailed over the Rakshasa and the dragon, but it is there. The round trip has taken over a month. I think we’ll be recounting the tale in taverns for many months to come.

After slaying the dragon and obtaining the Stars, our return trip was uneventful. We managed to retrieve Squirrel’s pack from the depths of the lake the following morning, thanks to Nightshade’s swimming and magic from both Alix and Fen. The maps and documents he carried are vital for the success of our quest.

But Squirrel’s corpse was lost to us. I have no doubt those water monsters tore him to pieces and feasted. A sad end for our companion and friend.

Fen has accompanied us back to Kham Jhara. It will take some time for us to rely on him as we did Squirrel, but he has already proven a worthy companion.

Now we turn our attention to the final piece of the puzzle: the Right Eye of Varrien.


The DM says we’re ‘nearly’ finished… Considering we began in May 2012, it feels a long time coming! Let’s see what happens next.

Thanks to Tracey Rolfe (Blaze), Lita Kalimeris (Alix) and Kirstyn McDermott (Nightshade) for their contributions to this post.

The D&D Chronicles page.

In mourning for tainted books

I spent about half an hour the other night editing some blog posts to extract references to an author who has recently fallen from grace. And by that I mean splat, ejected from the community, ‘you’re not welcome on my kindle anymore’…

But it hurts. Truly hurts. Because those posts were about my favourite books from last year. And, no matter how despicable this author has turned out to be, the books in question are really really good.

grave-674443_1280

The whole situation is making me think about things…

such as how it’s possible for wonderful characters and love stories to be created by someone/people the opposite of wonderful.

such as whether the value of art transcends the merit of its creator.

such as whether we as readers now need to do our due diligence on authors to avoid this intense feeling of betrayal.

Once upon a time, before the digital age and social media, novels were simply novels and readers gave little thought to who actually penned them, other than to wait avidly for the next book by the same author.

Now, for better or worse, readers have unprecedented access to authors. We read their blogs, interact via social media. They become real people as opposed to disembodied names on book covers. We feel like we get to know them.

And we also get to find out when they turn out to be dicks.

The author I’ve eradicated from my three December/January posts appears to be considerably more than a mere dick. It turns out the pseudonym (let’s call the author SH) appears to represent a husband/wife team who have been hiding behind a completely fictitious construct.

This is more than simply using a pseudonym (which is common and perfectly acceptable). It’s more than misrepresenting themselves as a bisexual man in a genre (M/M romance) where ‘own stories’ are less common that we’d all like.

It’s a whole host of manipulative and abusive behaviour (and lies) that I’m not going to repeat. (Go here if you want to know the details.) It’s the very opposite of that social media catchphrase, ‘authentic’.

I’m still not sure the whole truth has come to light, and we’ll probably never know because SH has gone dark. But the furor has caused publishers to drop SH like a hot potato. (And this is a prolific author with representation and multiple publishers.)

Sadly, I’m finding this new reality really hard to reconcile with the old reality. (The one where SH was one of the ‘good ones’.)

Because I don’t want to believe the author of some of my favourite books could be capable of all the things he/they have been accused of. Despite overwhelming evidence and testimonies from people all over the interwebs, I keep wondering (hoping) whether it’s all a terrible mistake.

So I’m in mourning… For books that are tainted now, even though I can’t help but still love them. These are books I would normally read multiple times. Some I’ve already read more than once.

But now I feel as though I’m not allowed to love them anymore. This is where novels take on a life of their own for me… because I’m feeling for those characters as though they’re now being shunned for something they didn’t do. (Haven’t they already suffered enough?!)

I certainly don’t want to spend any more money with this author, or encourage others to do so, but if I re-read the books I already own in secret, does that make me a bad person?

This situation is entirely a product of the digital age. But, although a small part of me might wish I could have remained in ignorance, in reality we’re all much better off in a world where authors (everybody, really) can be held accountable to those who are buying their books.

Not that I think authors owe readers details of their personal lives, but they do need to be honest and have integrity.

On the whole, I do think art can be appreciated for itself, irrespective of who created it, and those books written by SH have not changed in essence.

But — and it is a big but — those books have been compromised now, and to openly acknowledge them feels like condoning the actions of their creator. So, as much as it doesn’t seem fair to the characters in those stories, they will probably now die a sad and lonely death.

D&D Chronicles: One enemy down, a dragon to go

ZILLAH

The Rakshasa get what they deserve

I fucking hate Rakshasa.

They are lying, smarmy, evil, murdering bastards who have to die. You are the key, their leader told me. You are the point of the sword. I knew at the time he was full of shit, and I was right.

We are not your true enemy. Well, maybe they are not the enemy, but they sure as hell are one of them.

Despite our best efforts, they had little difficulty finding our campsite the evening after our battle. We’d crept as close to their village as we dared, and I guess we should be thankful they sought us out to negotiate, rather than simply attack us again. They offered us a counter-offer against the deal we’d previously made with the dragon.

Our deal with the dragon: kill or drive out the Rakshasa and return the treasure they stole, in return for the Stars of the Flail of Wind and Rain.

The Rakshasa counter-offer: kill the dragon with the aid of a dozen Rakshasa, in return for half the dragon’s treasure and free passage out of here. (With the return of my stolen longsword as a gesture of good faith.)

Basically, we’ve never trusted either party. So we agreed to the Rakshasa’s deal, since maybe there was a chance they’d actually help us defeat the dragon. We figured they would use us to get rid of the dragon, after which they’d probably turn on us.

It seems they’re not that smart.

We’d barely joined forces, when the Rakshasa were hurling fireballs and other spells at us. Twelve of them. Five of us. It was touch and go for poor Blaze, who isn’t so great at dodging fireballs, but in the end we prevailed.

We’ve taken two of them captive for interrogation. Nightshade is scarily good at this — and I’m glad it’s her and not me. At her command, Squirrel dispatches one to demonstrate our intent, and the final remaining one squeals all their secrets.

It seems the Rakshasa are clearing out of their village. This is excellent news — except we need to retrieve the treasure they stole from the dragon. No way are we going anywhere near that dragon without the treasure. Not to mention the rest of the stuff the Rakshasa stole from Alix and me when they killed us a few days ago. I am cursed well getting that back.

Fucking Rakshasa.


The dragon gets the upper hand

Outside, the dragon rampages.

We could honestly do with some Rakshasa allies right about now. But maybe they knew how utterly futile it is to take on a dragon. Maybe we ought to have known — or at least heeded our own misgivings.

But we need the Stars to remake the Flail to take down the goddess Varrien. We never really had an option. We must get the Stars from the dragon — or die trying.

The drowned city of Jhardhemeth shudders beneath the dragon’s onslaught.

She’s a black dragon. Huge. Spewing acid, slapping us with wings and tail. She’s already carried Blaze off and dropped his fully armoured form in the water. I have no idea what’s become of Squirrel, who fled into the bowels of another building.

Nightshade and Alix are, I believe, seeking shelter in the building across the square. It took me a few tries to get the door of this building open, but for a few moments Fleet and I are safe.

Once I’ve caught my breath, I peer outside into the square.

It would have been beautiful once, all marble paving stones and columned archways. The treasure chest we reclaimed from the Rakshasa (so much treasure!) stands where we left it in the centre of the square, right before the bitch dragon decided to betray us. Of course, we expected it. Dragons are not known for fair dealing. But the reality is so much worse than we could have imagined.

I can’t see any of my companions, but the dragon is attacking something over by the next building. I hear Alix and Nightshade shouting, so I run in their direction, just in time to see the dragon rise into the air with Alix clasped in her claws.

Nightshade is sprinting towards me as the dragon takes Alix up high, so high over the water, where there are beasts with long necks and sharp teeth waiting.

Oh, blessed Emrys. Is that how Blaze met his fate?

Where the hell is Squirrel?

With a triumphant roar, the dragon releases Alix. She drops, and my heart almost stops, but then her airwalking boots kick in and she’s sprinting through the air towards Nightshade and me.

The three of us flee inside the building.

dragon


Yep. We obviously called it a night in the middle of a somewhat tricky situation… Will we prevail against the dragon and retrieve the Stars of the Flail of Wind and Rain? (And the rest of the treasure hoard?)

That, my friends, remains to be seen.

But it does unfortunately appear that our party will not escape unscathed. 😦

A year of Mixadventures

It’s almost a year now since I got a Thermomix. (I know!) And I can say with confidence that I have made things I would never have previously attempted. (Cue beetroot relish, capsicum and sundried tomato dip, fruit and nut muesli, creme brûlée, chocolate ganache… even vegetable stock!)

mix_beetrelish2_1

Beetroot relish – second batch!

Moreover, on the whole, I am cooking more frequently. There’s a lot more planning ahead to make things, whether it’s a meal for the week or something to take to my next social gathering. (Sometimes there’s a lot more planning than doing, but I’m getting there.) My D&D friends get experimented on frequently.

When I look at my original goal of eliminating shop-bought/processed stock, pesto, dips, relishes, cakes/slices… I’ve made excellent progress. In many cases this also aligns with my additional goal of reducing consumption of single-use plastic, so it’s win-win.

Having said that, I’m not sure that replacing store-bought cakes and biscuits with the home-cooked variety is very good for my waistline. Hmmm. (There’s been a bit of a sweet theme during January-February.)

Anyway, I’ve attempted several new recipes in the past couple of months. Here are the latest mixadventures.

Raspberry and coconut muffins

A few days after Christmas, we had a family working bee in my “garden” to get it under control. It was a short, sharp attack, over and done with in a few hours. Needless to say, when one is gifted with free labour, one needs to provide refreshments. But what to do when the cupboard is bare?!

I scrounged around my supplies and trawled through the Thermomix Recipe Community to find a muffin recipe I could whip up in the morning, before they arrived. And this recipe for raspberry and coconut muffins was the one I found (and adapted).

Frozen raspberries – check! Coconut – check! Egg – check! (I only had one egg.)

Because the raspberries were frozen into a chunk and I was in a rush, I blitzed them in the Thermomix instead of folding them through. (You could only really do this with a Thermomix.) And I used at least double the quantity. The muffins came out pink (of course) but I really liked the raspberry flavour infused through the whole muffin.

These were definitely a hit and very easy to make (my MO). I have since made the recipe again, this time cooking in a loaf tin instead of muffin cases. It certainly works very well as a cake too.

Rice salad from Basic Cookbook

We played D&D on a scorching hot day in January, so I made the Basic Cookbook rice salad for us to have as a light meal. You could make this easily without a Thermomix, but I’ve found I rather like cooking rice in the Thermomix so it works for me. (I previously didn’t tend to cook rice often, not having a rice cooker.)

While the rice cooks, you steam the vegetables and the eggs in their shells. I added a can of corn and more than doubled the eggs. The combined salad keeps really well, and easily did six of us for a light meal with leftovers. I have since made it again using half the amount of rice (minus the corn) and it lasted me for three meals.

mix_ricesalad_1

Yogurt Cake from Basic Cookbook

Remember what I said up the way about eliminating shop-bought cakes and biscuits? This is a direct result of that… That is, I talked myself out of buying biscuits in the supermarket in lieu of baking myself a cake. (Naughty.)

This cake is simple and tasty, if a bit too light for my personal tastes. After I ate the whole cake (don’t judge me) I was pretty bored of it. But it would be a good afternoon tea cake, I think.

(I’d take the raspberry coconut cake over this one…)

Tiramisu

My D&D friends copped my average first attempt at tiramisu. I absolutely adore eating tiramisu, and decided I needed to try making it… But, being a tiramisu lover, I also have high expectations. Expectations that I failed to meet. Ugh.

Firstly, who knew there were so many ways to make tiramisu? I started off looking at the Basic Cookbook recipe… then cross-checked it with the recipes on the marscapone cheese and sponge fingers. Then, perplexed, I hit google. The major variations in tiramisu recipes are:

  • Raw eggs whipped through marscapone OR eggs/egg yolks beaten and cooked in the sugar to make a saboyon before folding the marscapone through
  • Eggs used whole OR separated using the yolks in the marscapone mix, with the egg whites sometimes whipped up separately and folded through
  • Whipped cream folded through OR no cream
  • Many different ratios of “custard” to sponge fingers soaked in coffee with/without alcoholic infusions

A little reading suggested that the traditional recipe is the whole raw egg version with no cream. Which corresponds to the Basic Cookbook recipe… so that’s the one I ended up making, after all.

My attempt was… OK. I don’t think I soaked the biscuits enough, and I think I beat the “custard” too much so the eggs began to separate a little. It just wasn’t quite… right.

mix_tiramisu_1

You can see there’s disproportionately more custard on the top. And that’s a large quantity of grated chocolate you can see in the layers… Grating chocolate is one thing the Thermomix is extremely good for!

But it was edible, and after most of my friends politely ate a piece I took the rest home and gorged on it until it was gone. I’m not entirely sure I’ll make it again, or if I do I might try a few adaptations. We’ll see.

So that’s my last two months in the kitchen. I’m currently eating my way through yet another batch of soup, based on sweet potato and carrot, into which I tossed some red lentils as well as some other vegetables. The soups are always pretty yummy.

D&D Chronicles: In which Rakshasa prove masters of the common ambush

ZILLAH

By the time I come around, I know I’ve fucked up. Badly.

Voices first… some familiar, others not. Someone sharpening a blade. The rustle of cloth. They’re all everyday sounds, as though we’re in some form of settlement. Beside me, Fleet is purring and nuzzling my face with her nose.

I blink up at Alix as she sits back, withdraws her hand from my brow. She looks weary but relieved. The expression is familiar and she doesn’t need to tell me what’s just happened. What she’s just done for me.

Blessed Emrys, how many more times must I die for the sake of this cursed quest? I think this makes three. Or is it four?

I have no idea where we are, although we appear to be in some form of hut. I hear the others asking how I feel, but I can’t bear to look at them. I’m too mortified. It was all my fault. Alix and me, two of us alone, facing six Rakshasa. Hopelessly outmatched and outnumbered. What the fuck was I thinking?


18 hours earlier

It’s early afternoon when I see a lone Rakshasa creeping through the forest. She’s only 100 feet away from our camp, and my blood freezes. Behind me, Blaze is hovering over his potion, while the others are recovering after an eventful morning dealing with six crawlers. We’re camped in the forest above the drowned city, preparing and planning how to defeat the Rakshasa. Surprise is going to be key. I have to do something about that spy I just saw.

I activate my airwalking and follow silently.

tiger

image from pixabay

The Rakshasa is moving stealthily, but I can’t figure out whether she’s detected our camp or not. To be on the safe side, I decide to take her out.

My entangle spell has no effect and she lets out a yell. But I’m committed now, and my swords are out. She gets off a fireball then flees. I give chase until she meets up with five more of her kind. More fireballs and other spells. Fuck.

I turn on my heel and flee, cursing myself. That did not go to plan at all.

There doesn’t seem to be any immediate pursuit, which both relieves and troubles me. What are they doing? I really don’t want them to get away with news of our presence in the forest. (Although maybe the fireballs have put paid to that already.)

Meanwhile, my companions have of course been roused by all the fireball action and three of them show up in one of the smouldering glades. I quickly update them and tell them I want to track the Rakshasa to see where they go. Alix comes with me, while Squirrel and Nightshade return to watch over Blaze who is still brewing his potion.

I have no trouble following their trail through the undergrowth, but when six sets of tracks become four, we stop. Oh no no no… I can’t see the missing two in any of the trees, but they can definitely see us… hence the fireball that explodes right in our faces.

Once more I’m fleeing Rakshasa through the forest, but this time they are pursuing with intent, flinging fireballs with abandon. All six of them are right on our heels, playing with Alix and me like cats with two pathetic mice. They’re faster than us. Stronger than us. Basically Alix and me against six Rakshasa have no hope at all…


It turns out we’re in a furbolg village, of all things. Apparently some furbolgs turned up in the forest yesterday afternoon to see what all the fireballs were about, and invited us here to regroup.

Both Alix and I were dead when the others found us, but Blaze was able to resurrect Alix with a potion… The Rakshasa took our best weapons and our belt pouches and I can’t help but wonder why my companions would bother resurrecting me, given my series of supreme fuckups. Especially as I no longer even have any decent weapons with which to make myself useful.

I spend the rest of the day feeling guilty and sorry for myself.


After a full day and two nights (during one of which I was dead) in the furbolg village, we set off to take on the Rakshasa. A few of the furbolgs are coming with us to help.

We still haven’t finalised a good plan, but we do know the only way we’ll have any chance is to a) dose up on protection spells and b) ambush them in small groups somehow. They seem most vulnerable in melee, impervious to most of our magic and heavily reliant on magic themselves. Added to that, they can move much faster than we can and they have the home ground advantage.

We’re camped for the night on an old overgrown road, when a fireball lights up the night. There are just two Rakshasa attacking us, but they create enough havoc, especially once they succeed in their slow spell. We chase them off and relocate camps to pass the rest of the night uneventfully.

In the morning, we proceed along the road, intending to diverge off it around midday. But those cursed Rakshasa get the drop on us again. And this time it’s a major ambush.

Blaze sets it off by falling into a pit trap. Nightshade and I are off the path, skulking through the forest either side of the party. We’re all too far away from Alix, our source of protection spells, and already our plans are completely unravelled.

There seem to be Rakshasa everywhere in the forest. Fireballs bombard our party on the path. Nightshade is surrounded. The slow spell is crippling us. Soon one of the furbolgs is seeking shelter in the pit after helping Blaze escape it.

Knowing it’s the only chance we have, I run back to Alix to get the protection spell. Then, wielding my borrowed short sword, I enter the fray. These fucking Rakshasa have to die and I will get all my stuff back if it kills me.

Dosed up on magic and rage, I feel invincible. Even if all I have is a short sword belonging to Nightshade.

But I’m only just getting started when the Rakshasa start to retreat, slinking away into the forest like cowards. Hollering in fury I would chase after them and kill all the fuckers, but they are too fast for us. Down on all fours, they scamper away like the cats they are, leaving us frustrated and fuming.

Now we must regroup fast and go after them while they’ve exhausted their magic for the day. No doubt there are more of them in their stronghold, but we cursed well have to try.

Read all posts on the D&D Chronicles page.

Mongolia Journal ~ Drama and a “terrible” campsite

It seems the only international travel I’m getting to do of late is virtual… so I’ll have to content myself with some more reminiscing about Mongolia. It’s almost three years ago — geez. Here is the next installment of the horse trek – Day 8!


2 July 2015

Lunch – Day 8

Lunchtime. Hot. Hot. Hot. Sunny. Bit of a breeze. Waiting for lunch to be cooked. Hope it’s not soup.

The full moon last night was beautiful. It rose up over the hill, big and round and perfect, casting glorious moon shadows. After a late dinner, we went for a moonlit walk, dodging the enormous marmot holes.

trek_day7_sunset

Day 7 – sunset before the full moon

Side Note: I’ve decided to call one of the insects we see fluttering about ‘flutterhops’. They’re one of the many different types of grasshopper we’ve seen. They kind of flutter and hover in the air, unlike butterflies, clicking and whirring. Very distinctive sound.

This morning was fairly typical — K & I up first, waiting waiting waiting for our boiled water for coffee, which came with breakfast. We lazed about, packed up… finally rode out late morning.

The horses seemed a little slow this morning, but after about an hour we found them water and then they perked up and actually seemed to want to run. We cantered a bit on our way to this lunch stop, which actually isn’t that far from where we watered them.

trek_day8_lunchstop

Day 8 – lunch stop (humans) and water stop (horses)

In fact, it’s on the same water course and the horses are having a delightful time. My rein (rope) is now very soggy and muddy – ugh.

Evening – Day 8

Drama! We were headed to a campsite with trees on a hill — sounds lovely, right? But we didn’t quite get there…

We’ve been riding the horses pretty hard these last few days. Yesterday they were supposed to have a rest day, but we still moved to a different campsite. Today, Ganaa led us up a steep hill and then around another steep and rocky hill — I couldn’t quite believe we were riding horses there, but it was pretty cool. We went up and down some more and (being a hot afternoon) met the car a couple of times for water. My knees were singing so loud, I even got off and walked for five minutes at one point. It made all the difference.

The last part of today’s ride was across a broad flat area of steppe, heading up to the aforementioned hill with trees. We were tired, trying to minimise the amount of trotting… Then, without warning, Ganaa’s horse simply lowered itself to the ground with her still mounted.

She got him up again and we kept going, but a short time later she pulled up to meet the car, which had gone a little way ahead up a slope towards our intended campsite. She dismounted, hobbled her horse and chucked a tantrum. (Whacked her horse with the rein a few times.) After much discussion in Mongolian, us sitting quietly on our horses, perplexed, horrified, waiting… Burmaa came over: “We camp here.”

trek_day8_camp

day 8 – overlooking our “terrible” campsite

It’s a terrible campsite. Completely random. No shelter or cover for private business. We went for a walk to survey the campsite that was not to be, sniffled disconsolately. We don’t know what the problem was, but assume it was related to her horse lying down earlier. Tension in the camp is pretty high at the moment.

trek_day8_clouds

day 8 – horses grazing at camp

David has just taken the horses for water, although it’s hours after we arrived. We think Ganaa’s horse is really tired — he’s always the one that gets ridden when the other horses get a bit of a break and is the one David is riding now. He must have been feeling pretty bad to have lain down while being ridden. Poor poor buckskin boy.

trek_day8_selfie

day 8 – the great unwashed!

Reading Highlights from 2017 – Part 3 (Final roundup)

It’s time for the third and final post in my 2017 reading highlights. At this point I will explain that for the past couple of years I’ve been keeping a list of all the books I read, assigning them a rank out of 10. So far my top ranking is 9.

Favourites for the year!

A ranking of 9/10 means I adored the book all round — story, writing, characters etc. It means the book resonated with me and I keep thinking about it and will almost certainly re-read, maybe more than once. A 9/10 generally means it is pretty well written, or at least there’s something I love about the writing, although it may not necessarily be perfect from a craft perspective.

In 2017, I rated the following 12 books and series as 9/10:

  • Spindrift — Amy Rae Durreson
  • Stygian — XX (name removed)
  • Spirit — John Inman
  • Spectred Isle (The Green Men book 1) — KJ Charles
  • Sins of the Cities (series of three) — KJ Charles
  • The Community (series of three) — XX (name removed)
  • Wolfsong — TJ Klune
  • Bear, Otter, and the Kid (series of four) — TJ Klune
  • House of Cards — Garrett Leigh
  • Preacher, Prophet, Beast (Tyack & Frayne book 7) — Harper Fox
  • Locked in Silence (Pelican Bay book 1) — Sloane Kennedy
  • Murder in Pastel — Josh Lanyon

The above list will likely explain why I focused on TJ Klune, XX and KJ Charles in my first highlights post, and then spotlighted three “spooky house” stories in my second highlights post.

Here are a few thoughts on the remaining novels in the above list.

house-of-cardsHouse of Cards by Garrett Leigh is one of the multi-author Porthkennack series, which spans both contemporary and historical m/m romances set in the fictitious village of Porthkennack in Cornwall. For starters, I’m instantly attracted to anything set in a Cornish village, and I love all the Garrett Leigh books I’ve read; she writes about broken characters wonderfully well.

Here, a tattoo artist flees a toxic relationship and finds himself staying with a friend (another tattoo artist) in Porthkennack. In addition to the gorgeous setting, it’s all the small details I love: the beloved old-style tattoo machine, the chicken rescue activities, the smuggling(!), the fascinating secondary characters. I’ll be reading this one again soon, so I can dive into the next one by Ms Leigh (Junkyard Heart).

preacher-prophet-beastPreacher, Prophet, Beast by Harper Fox is the seventh in her Tyack and Frayne series. It’s also the only novel-length installment and takes our heroes and their daughter to some interesting and horrifying places, centred as usual around paranormal happenings in Cornwall, and specifically their new family home on Bodmin Moor.

This is a wonderful series that takes Gideon (a policeman) and Lee (a psychic) from their first meeting (in the brilliant Once Upon a Haunted Moor) through dating, marriage, fatherhood… and in this installment they’ve been married for three years. It’s a series (mostly longish novellas) I will re-read over and over again.

locked-in-silenceLocked in Silence is the first in a new series from the extremely prolific Sloane Kennedy. It’s very different in style from her popular Protectors and Barretti Security series — and a level above, I think. This one is more grounded in reality. More poignant, as both men have been wrongfully accused and vilified for different transgressions.

The premise is not earth shattering: a concert violinist returns to his home town broken and in disgrace, only to discover his childhood nemesis suffered a tragedy that broke him and ensured he’s never left… But the journey is layered and complex, with all the feels. I hope Ms Kennedy returns to Pelican Bay soon.

murder-in-pastelFinally, Murder in Pastel is a republication of one of Josh Lanyon’s early works (originally under another pseudonym, apparently). I’m a big fan of Ms Lanyon, whose novels usually revolve around some form of crime to be solved. This one is a whodunnit set in a seaside art colony in California, and involves the usual cast of eccentric characters.

The viewpoint character is a young mystery writer and son of a renowned painter who disappeared a decade ago, along with his masterpiece painting — so, in addition to the person who inevitably gets murdered, there’s a cold case to solve too. It’s kind of timeless, the way it’s written, and it’s probably now one of my favourite Josh Lanyon novels. (The Adrien English series would come first.)

Also worth mentioning

In my personal ranking system, a rating of 8/10 means it’s above average in terms of my enjoyment, and I logged 45 of these. I’m not gonna list them all, but here are some particularly worth mentioning:

  • Hailey Turner’s Metahuman Files is kind of x-men meets military adventure series (3 books)
  • Undaunted by Devin Harnois is a secondary world quest fantasy with vampires and werewolves(!)
  • Anna Butler’s Taking Shield series is excellent award-winning military science fiction set in the far-distant future (4 books so far, more to come)
  • NR Walker’s two-part Imago series is set in Australia with butterflies, her Thomas Elkin series is a three-part May-December romance featuring architects, and Switched is a fabulous standalone novel about a man who discovers he was switched at birth
  • Leta Blake’s Slow Heat is a sophisticated take on the MPreg non-shifter genre (if you can get past the whole MPreg thing)
  • Aqua Follies by Liv Rancourt brings 1950s rock n roll to life in a gritty romance with jazz and synchronised swimming
  • Amelia Faulkner’s incredible Inheritance series features ancient gods and psychic powers in San Diego
  • Silver Scars by Posey Roberts is about two scarred men who meet through a work secondment
  • Renae Kaye’s The Blinding Light set in Western Australia is about a guy who takes on a housekeeping job for a blind man

And that, my friends, is the end of my annual reading highlights. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve been very patient.

If you read in the m/m genre, I hope you’ve found a few interesting ones to try. There are certainly heaps of speculative fiction titles listed — both urban paranormal series, classic science fiction and some fantasy.

Thanks for reading this post! I wish you all another fabulous year of wonderful books.


This post has been edited to remove references to a particular author, who was revealed to be seven shades of unsavoury.

Reading Highlights from 2017 – Part 2 (Spooky House stories)

Three of my favourite individual books from last year were “spooky house” stories. Two were straight up ghost stories — Spirit by John Inman and Spindrift by Amy Rae Durreson. The third was a different kind of paranormal story, although had a similar spooky feel — Stygian by XX (name removed).

Each of these three novels has lingered with me long past finishing, and I will definitely be re-reading them, probably in the very near future.

Interestingly and coincidentally (I think?), all three are published by Dreamspinner Press, where they’re available in all formats of e-book, paperback and audio — I’ve included buy links.

Spindrift – Amy Rae Durreson

spindriftOfficial Blurb:

When lonely artist Siôn Ruston retreats to the seaside village of Rosewick Bay, Yorkshire, to recover from a suicide attempt, he doesn’t expect to encounter any ghosts, let alone the one who appears in his bedroom every morning at dawn. He also doesn’t expect to meet his ghost’s gorgeous, flirty descendant working at the local museum… and the village pub, and as a lifeboat volunteer. But Mattie’s great-great-grandfather isn’t the only specter in Rosewick Bay, and as Siôn and Mattie investigate an ill-fated love affair from a bygone era, they begin a romance of their own, one that will hopefully escape the tragedy Mattie’s ancestor suffered.

But the ghosts aren’t the only ones with secrets, and the things Siôn and Mattie are keeping from each other threaten to tear them apart. And all the while, the dead are biding their time, because the curse of Rosewick Bay has never been broken. If the ghosts are seen on the streets, local tradition foretells a man will drown before the summer’s end.

Seriously, that blurb alone gives me chills of the very best kind. I adore stories set in English villages. I adore everyday people trying to solve mysteries from the past. The characters are distinctive and complex and endearing. The setting is gorgeous. The atmosphere is dark and brooding.

In short, I adore everything about this book. Get it here from Dreamspinner Press.

Spirit – John Inman

spiritThe cover caught my attention with this book — I am a complete sucker for two guys and a kid. And a spooky basement.

Right, so this one is about a guy, Jason, who agrees to babysit his four-year-old nephew, Timmy, for four weeks while his single mum has a holiday with her boyfriend. Turns out that there’s a ghost in his house and Timmy’s presence seems to activate it. Then Timmy’s uncle on his estranged father’s side comes to visit…

There’s a lot more light and humour in this book (compared to the dark and brooding Spindrift), but the mystery is no less intense and the romance between Timmy’s uncles is sweet.

It all blends into another fabulous ghost story / murder mystery that I can’t wait to experience again! Get it here from Dreamspinner Press

Stygian – XX

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This post has been edited to remove references to a particular author, who was revealed to be seven shades of unsavoury.


The first post in the Annual Reading Highlights 2017 series looked at three authors I read (and loved) a lot last year:

And there will be more posts to come. Stay tuned!

D&D Chronicles: The lost city of Jhardhemeth

ZILLAH

We’re high up on the forested hillside, looking over the lost city of Jhardhemeth. It lies deep in a valley, drowned and half reclaimed by the surrounding swamp.

Crumbling buildings cluster at the edges of a lake. Stone gleams white in the sunlight, backed by the serene blue of water and the variegated greens of lush vegetation. The air is filled with birdsong and the whir of insects.

DnD_jhardhemeth

It looks to be a tranquil resting place for the Stars of the Flail of Wind and Rain.

But we know better. Jhardhemeth is not deserted, much as we might wish it were. Down in the submerged city lives a black dragon and its pet giant lizard. Above on the ridge line, several miles around from our camp, is the stronghold of the fearsome Rakshasa tiger people.

Now we have to figure out how to get the Stars and escape without dying.

Skulking in the forest

We arrived here yesterday afternoon, extremely happy that the Rakshasa so far appear to have no idea where we are. After our encounter with them a few days ago in the swamp, we have seen little sign of them.

This is probably thanks to Alix and Squirrel, who successfully located a break in the ancient anti-magic ward that extends along the escarpment on the other side of the ridge. We ascended undetected (we believe) and circled through forest to approach Jhardhemeth’s valley from the side opposite to the Rakshasa stronghold.

In this we were aided by a couple of local furbolgs we met in the forest. It was they who called the city Jhardhemeth (which is neither of the names we had previously heard) and told us of the dragon and its pet. It’s a young adult black dragon, who defeated an older dragon who had been here for thousands of years. Or so the furbolgs told us.

The results of today’s stakeout suggest the Rakshasa do not make a daily habit of descending to the city. We’ve seen glimpses of the dragon’s pet a few times. The dragon itself rose out of the city early this afternoon and we’re currently keeping watch for its return. On the whole, it’s been a rather uneventful day.

Sneaking through the swamp

The dragon returns early in the evening and descends into a round building, shaped like a colosseum. We’ve decided to confront it first, before the Rakshasa. Nightshade is confident she’ll be able to sneak into its lair if we can get close enough. It sounds like a mad plan to me, but we have to do something. Perhaps we can refine this plan as we travel…

Over the next two days we take a circuitous route down into the valley. Eventually the forest gives way to the bog. It’s muddy and wet and hot. Humid. There are giant snakes and other creatures. Not to mention insects. It’s unrelentingly dire. Poor Blaze has ditchd his armour.

We push on into the evening on the second day, driven by the need to find a patch of solid ground for the night. I can sense there’s solid ground on the opposite side of yet another water course, this one 60 feet wide. We’re contemplating how to cross it, when a large multi-legged creature reveals itself on the far bank. It’s purple and has reptilian features. I don’t think this is the dragon’s pet. I think this is something else.

I’m staring at the creature, hoping it will ignore us, since we’re not an immediate threat… when it screeches in fury and breathes out a blast of lightning.

Squirrel curses loudly and flees, gliding atop the swamp with his water-walking ability. Cursing at Squirrel (because I suspect he had something to do with the attack), I’m wading frantically in the opposite direction as well, trying to get out of range. Another lightning blast comes, and then we’re either clear or the creature loses interest.

By the time we find a patch of dry land to camp, it’s late and we’re all exhausted. When a furious Nightshade throws a very nice punch at Squirrel’s face, I’m secretly cheering.

It’s my watch first as usual, and I’m somewhat chilled to observe the distinctive silhouette of the dragon against the bright face of the moon. It looks very much like it’s searching for the source of the disturbance. Oops.

Hiding, watching, waiting

In the morning, we cautiously make our way through the forest to the edge of the river. We’re getting close to the dragon’s lair now and its pet must also be lurking nearby… so we stay put and keep watch all morning.

It’s still fairly early when the dragon appears, dives into the water and surfaces only 100 feet from our position. It’s about 30 feet long. Thankfully it’s oblivious to our presence and launches into the air almost immediately. After a few overhead circles, it flies off.

We breathe out.

We’re still waiting and watching, when we get our first glimpse of the dragon’s pet up close. Without warning, a huge head emerges from the forest to drink in the river about 500 feet away. Its jaw could tear us in two. It’s not a giant lizard at all. It’s a tyrannosaurus. On the same side of the river us us. Just 500 feet away. Oh, god.

Suddenly, I have a great desire to cross the river. But for now we wait, extra quiet, extra vigilant.

Dealing with the dragon

The dragon finally returns not long after midday. It’s carrying something in its talons, and descends not too far away. We think it’s feeding its pet. That’s surely a good thing, right?

Once it’s disappeared into its lair, we decide to brave the river crossing, still hoping to sneak up on the dragon unawares. Utilising our various air and water-walking abilities, we ferry everyone across easily… but almost immediately we’re attacked by not one, but two of the purple multi-legged creatures of last evening. Still, at close range and solid ground, we have a much better chance of defeating them. And we do.

But… gone are our chances of sneaking up on the dragon. The roar of the tyrannosaur rents the air, and the dragon is winging overhead, about to spew acid. Somehow I don’t think hiding among the trees is going to be much help. I have just enough time to cast protection from energy/acid on myself and Fleet.

dragon

The dragon breathes out two spumes of acid. Myself and Fleet manage to evade all damage. I don’t know how the others fair. They look mostly okay.

After the second acid bath, the dragon addresses us. What do we want, it demands. (Oh, god. I don’t think this is going to end well.)

But then Nightshade steps forward and greets the dragon. There’s something… some kind of connection between them. A rapport. She tells the dragon that we want to bargain, that we seek an artefact. (Blessed Emrys!)

The dragon guesses that we seek the Stars, and I fear all is lost. But — shockingly, amazingly — the dragon doesn’t immediately smite us down. Instead, Nightshade and the dragon reach an agreement.

The dragon doesn’t like the Stars, it says. In fact, the dragon will give us the Stars if we drive out — or kill — the Rakshasa and return the treasure they have stolen.

Bargain struck, the dragon flies away. It hasn’t killed us. This is a good thing. But, if we kill the Rakshasa, will the dragon honour this bargain? I think we have no other option than to find out.

See D&D Chronicles | The D&D Chronicles page

Reading Highlights from 2017 – part 1 (Three standout authors)

Here we are again at the end of another big year of reading. The total comes to exactly 200 novels and novellas, of which 30 were re-reads.

I didn’t reach the same giddying heights as last year (242 total), which I count as a win, because it means I exercised a bit more restraint. Still, 200 is an average of around four per week, so… Maybe only a tiny bit of restraint. Heh.

When it comes time to reflect on twelve months’ worth of books, I always wish I wrote more reviews of the books I loved during the year, rather than trying to do them justice at the death. But, you know what? I was too busy reading them. Maybe next year.

As I did for the 2016 highlights, I’m going to write a series of posts over the next few weeks. This time, however, they’ll be arranged by theme rather than month.

To start with, I’m going to reflect upon three standout authors I encountered this year through significant bodies of work: TJ Klune, [XX– name removed] and KJ Charles.

Only one of them was new to me (TJ Klune). Indeed, I’ve previously read several brilliant books by each of XX and KJ Charles, both of whom consistently stand out above most of the others in the m/m genre.


TJ Klune

How come it took me so long to find TJ Klune? He’s written some of the most iconic works in the m/m genre, and I suspect I’ll be working my way through his backlist for a while.

My first experience of Klune was just last month (November) through one of his newer novels, Wolfsong, which is a beautiful (and beautifully written) wolf shifter story. It’s more sophisticated than most paranormals, with a strong plot about an isolated shifter pack under threat from an evil wolf and a human who becomes part of their pack. It covers a blend of shifter politics and folklore, paranormal fantasy, and a love story — with themes of found family, vengeance, belonging and loyalty. Brilliant. (I think there’s a sequel coming — can’t wait!)

Then I dived into Bear, Otter, and the Kid, TJ Klune’s first novel, which is centred around Bear, whose mother abandoned him when he was 18, leaving his six-year-old kid brother, Tyson, in his care. The premise is heart-wrenching, but the whole series (also comprising Who We Are, The Art of Breathing, and The Long and Winding Road) is amazing and filled with so much heart.

The series takes place over about 15 years, and is about the (fierce) bond between brothers and found family and waiting and fighting for love. The first two books are centred on Bear at 21 as he falls in love with Otter (his best friend’s older brother). Bear is such a wonderful character — completely neurotic with a wild imagination, but so devoted to taking care of his genius (vegetarian, ecoterrorist-in-training) nine year old brother, Tyson. Otter, a little older and calmer, is the perfect addition to their family.

The Art of Breathing is Tyson’s story as he comes of age and finds love; then The Long and Winding Road returns to Bear’s perspective to tell Bear and Otter’s story, no longer focused on raising Tyson, as they grow their family.

I read the four ‘BOATK’ books back-to-back and ended up with a major book hangover. (Just now, reading this over before I post, I feel a little teary.) They are deeply emotional (although hysterically funny in parts) and beautifully written. I laughed (a lot), I cried, I loved. Just fabulous.

KJ Charles

Once again, KJ Charles has produced a wonderful historical series in Sins of the Cities — comprising An Unseen Attraction, An Unnatural Vice and An Unsuitable Heir. Set in Victorian London with Dickensian influences, this series features fabulous, colourful characters from different walks of life and an overarching mystery surrounding an aristocratic family.

In An Unseen Attraction, the main characters are a boarding house keeper (who is the half-Indian half-brother of an unlikable duke) and a taxidermist (or ‘stuffer’). Their romance is very sweet, as someone is murdered and the nature of the mystery comes to light. An Unnatural Vice is about a journalist who gets embroiled with a charlatan spiritualist who holds a clue to the mystery; it has a very different feel, and the whole of this novel is imbued with the London fog of 1892.

The third book, An Unsuitable Heir is my favourite of the three. One of the main characters is a gender fluid acrobat, who discovers he’s actually a lost duke. His non-binary gender identity is dealt with wonderfully well — complicated by the expectations of the time, particularly with issues of male inheritance. I also loved the love story between him and the ‘enquiry agent’ (private investigator) who tracked him down.

I deliberately waited until the whole series was released before reading — and I’m really glad I did, since the mystery spans all three books and many of the characters are present in all three as well. Loved it.

As if that wasn’t enough, I also loved KJ Charles’s book, Spectred Isle (Green Men Book 1). This is a historical paranormal spin-off of the Simon Feximal series, set in London after the Great War. This one has demons and archaeology and occult events and creepy things happening. And, of course, a love story, this time between an archaeologist and an occultist. There are more to come in this series, I believe. (Yay!)

(For the record, my other favourite works of KJ Charles are The Society of Gentlemen series, and the standalone novel, Think of England.)

XX

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This post has been edited to remove references to a particular author, who was revealed to be seven shades of unsavoury.