Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Eeshkik's Last Watch



“They’re doing it again,” said Eeshkik. “The humans. You know, the ones we’re supposed to be watching. They’re launching something new. The North American ones.”

The only crew member to so much as glance at her was Kakal, who was wearing a shirt that ironically featured the human letters ‘e’ and ‘t’. He gave her a stare with his huge black eyes and tapped the side of his pretty green head in the gesture their species uses to communicate, “So what?” No one else looked up from the game they were playing.

In the defense of the entire uncaring crew of The Muse of Stars, the game they were playing was one they’d picked up from the planet they orbited and had been tasked with studying. Also in defense of the crew, they were circling Earth waiting for the planet to settle down long enough to make first contact, and while they had only been doing this for half a year, their civilization had been doing it for centuries and the planet was pretty much as studied as it was going to get. In a few weeks, they’d get to go home and some new saps would be left watching the endless wars the local barbarians so loved to engage in. Still, Eeshkik was their captain, so she felt they really should pay at least a little bit of attention to her when she said stuff.

“I’m captain here,” Eeshkik proclaimed. “You need to listen to me!”

Geklac met her gaze. “You’re only captain for another ten minutes. Then it’s Acklec’s turn.”

“I’m aware of the rotation.” Eeshkik sniffed. “But I’m captain for now, and I need someone to write up this new satellite.” She paused for a minute. When no one volunteered, she said, “Geklac, get started.”

“But I’m winning!”

“I don’t care.”

“You’re not winning,” said Kakal. “I see your raise. Anyone else in?”

The other two who had still been in the round nodded their heads to indicate they declined and quietly folded their cards. “Alright, then,” said Geesh, who had been dealing. “Show us what you have, boys.”

“Yeah, let’s see what you went all in with,” Kakal told Geklac.

Geklac did a little shimmy as he flipped his cards. “Full house. Three kings and two eights.”

Eeshkik’s eyes widened in dismay on Geklac’s behalf. The kings were sitting in the middle of the table, on what was called the river, meaning everyone got to use them. Betting all of his chips on the hand had probably been a mistake. Sure enough, Kakal gave an amused huff and revealed his cards to show that he also had a full house, but his was kings and aces.

The curse Geklac handed out doesn’t translate well into English as humans don’t have the body parts referenced, but if you can imagine the most disgusting thing someone could say about your mother’s nether regions, you’d be close.

With a hum of annoyance, Geklac pushed back from the table, rose, and stormed off to find a computer to enter the data on Earth’s latest launch into. Eeshkik slid into his vacated seat, her eyes going to the chronometer. Eight minutes and she wouldn’t be captain anymore. She leaned back, putting her feet in Kakal’s lap. She’d hoped doing so would prompt her husband to massage her calves, but he instead tapped the table to prompt the next deal. Which was proper; personal relationships were expected to be ignored when one was serving as captain. Even if you were down to seven and a half minutes on the job.

Cards went out to everyone at the table, minus Eeshkik, because captains also don’t get to gamble with the crew. “Seven minutes…” Eeshkik muttered under her breath.

Another two minutes passed, during which half the table folded and two new cards came out on the river. Then everyone flinched as the claxon started blaring.

“Collision imminent!” screamed the computer.

“What the Ghost?” Eeshkik exclaimed as she leapt up and rushed to the control room with the rest of the crew running behind her. “Geklac, report!”

“It’s coming straight at us!” Pointing at a screen, Geklac brought Eeshkik’s attention to the display that tracked all the crap the humans had littered their planet’s orbit with. One object was quickly approaching their ship. “How do they even know where we are?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Eeshkik snapped. “Kakal, emergency procedure gamma!”

“Gamma launching!” came the swift response. “Everyone hold on to something! In three... two... one...”

Everyone who could grabbed hold of chairs or the handles spread around the compartment. Everyone else went flying as the ship lurched into motion.

“It’s following us!” reported Geklac. “And I don’t think we can outrun it without stardrive.”

Sure enough, the display indicated that whatever weapon the humans had lobbed at The Muse of Stars had altered course to track with the ship. Which meant that the humans had developed the technology to overcome the jamming illusions all Kuykkan vessels put out when trying not to be seen by primitive civilizations. And had launched a weapon without so much as broadcasting a hello. Talk about rude.

Eeshkik gurgled in exasperation. She still had four minutes left on her shift. “How much time do we have?”

“About a minute. It’s still gaining.”

Well, there was no helping it then. “Fine,” grumbled Eeshkik. Initiating stardrive inside a solar system would be unspeakably dimwitted; the odds of hitting an object before you see it are just too high in such a crowded place. Which meant they had to destroy the weapon despite the fact that this would confirm their presence. The humans had spotted them anyway. “Zap it.”

“Zapping aye,” said Acklec. A few second later, he followed up with, “Target eliminated.”

The crew cheered, but Eeshkik glowered at the chronometer. Still two minutes left on her shift as captain, which meant that the piles of paperwork required anytime the zapper was used were going to be her responsibility, as well as the nightmare task of writing a report trying to explain that humanity now posed a threat to anyone close to their planet.

“Set a course to the other side of the astroid belt,” the captain said in a defeated voice before slinking off to her cabin as she griped internally about how if all of this had happened just five minutes later, it would have been Acklec’s problem and he would be the one spending the next several shifts dealing with bureaucracy. Some things really weren’t fair.

The above image is from a poster by an unknown artist. You can buy it on Amazon.
 
It was offered as prompt on my Wording Wednesday Project

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The Queen's Holy Orb

As the three gnomes sat in a tree, Minz, Moin, and Maleka felt rather overwhelmed and quite sorry for themselves.

“They just keep playing with it,” Minz moaned, her eyes on the pair of very large canines batting The Queen's Holy Orb around the clearing. The trio of gnomes were at their wits’ end. Clearly, they couldn’t just let the dogs continue to play with the religious artifact they’d been charged with carrying through the forest from its old home in Egdasmont to its new home in the recently built cathedral in Umnaspurt. But the dogs were massive, both taller than Maleka, who was herself much larger than Moin, who was in turn taller than Minz. And the dogs were obsessed with The Queen's Holy Orb, to the point of ignoring the similar sized ball the gnomes had already tried to distract them with. Although, on the plus side, they were also too obsessed with The Queen's Holy Orb to try to eat the gnomes, something the gnomes greatly appreciated.

“Hey, dogs!” yelled Maleka. “That belongs to the church! It was a gift from Queen Elspin!”

The dogs were not impressed. They didn’t so much as glance at Maleka as they wrestled each other for the honor of being closest to The Queen's Holy Orb.

Moin leaned forward, balancing so that his arms rested on his legs as they dangled from the branch he sat upon. “There are two dogs and three of us. If two of us could each distract a dog, the third could grab The Queen's Holy Orb.”

“Sure,” agreed Minz. “But how would we do that?”

“We could jump on them.”

Minz and Maleka stared at their companion. “Jump on them?” Maleka repeated. “You mean after we ask them nicely to lay down and be still? Hey, dogs! My friend wants to jump on you! So if you could stop running around and lower yourself closer to the ground, that would be awesome!”

No one was surprised when the dogs failed to comply, choosing instead to growl at each other as they tried to push The Queen's Holy Orb in different directions. The growling made Minz shiver. She’d had a bad experience with a Pomeranian as a child that had instilled a great distrust of all canines into her psyche. She’d been the first to climb the tree and was determined to be the last to leave it.

“What if we hit them with something?” Moin said. “You know, knock them out? Don’t you always carry a pouch of sleep powder, Minz?”

“I do,” the shortest gnome answered. “But I’d have to hit them right on the nose, which would be hard to do from up here. And there’s only enough for one of them.”

Maleka made a thoughtful noise. “Okay. So we’d have to send someone down to hit one of them right in the face and then hope the dog doesn’t try to eat that person while waiting for the powder to kick in. But that would still leave one dog obsessed with The Queen's Holy Orb. If we assume we couldn’t successfully jump on him and steer him away, what could we do?”

All three gnomes shook their heads, stumped.

“Do we have any food?” Minz asked, remembering that dogs like food.

Between them, they found a hard candy that had seen better days, a melted piece of chocolate, and a quarter of a donut that Moin had been saving for later. They tossed the donut and one of the dogs did actually notice it, but only for as long as it took to swallow the baked good in one gulp.

“Well,” said Moin. “I think I would have been better off eating that myself.” And the others couldn’t argue otherwise.

“Could we steal a dog whistle?” Maleka asked. “One of us could run far away and blow it, then the others could grab The Queen’s Holy Orb when the dogs ran to the whistle.”

They all liked that idea, but no one had any leads as to where they could find a dog whistle.

“We could pray?” Minz offered. “I mean it is a HOLY Orb, right? So maybe the gods would try to protect it? You know, if we told them a pair of dogs was playing with it.”

The other two shrugged and they all bent their heads while Maleka addressed their deities. “Oh heavenly parents, ill has befallen the most sacred Orb of the Heavens. Please help us free The Queen’s Holy Orb from the beasts that have taken possession of it so that we may see it interred in the cathedral in Umnaspurt. Um… We offer you this piece of chocolate and hard candy in addition to our adoration as we pray that you will come to the aid of us, your unfortunate children. Thank you for listening. Amen.”

“Amen,” the others chorased.

Then they all looked around expectantly, their shoulders falling as no bolts of lightening struck the dogs. Moin sighed. “Maybe they didn’t hear us? Should we try again, but louder? Maybe if we all spoke at once?”

Frustrated, Minz ripped a pinecone from the tree they sat in and lobbed it at one of the canines. It bounced off with no effect other than to make the dog let out a bark of annoyance. No one was surprised as throwing things at the dogs to get them to run away was the first thing the gnomes had tried.

From somewhere behind the gnomes, a door opened. A human voice cried out, “Hestor! Brunhilda! Dinner!”

The dogs’ heads snapped up. Before the woman had finished calling for them, they were sprinting toward her, The Queen’s Holy Orb completely forgotten.

“Ah,” said Maleka. “I suppose the gods don’t work instantly.”

The gnomes slid down the tree and the taller two picked up The Queen’s Holy Orb between them while Minz kept a lookout to make sure the dogs weren’t returning.

When the trio finally made it to the cathedral in Umnaspurt, they handed The Queen’s Holy Orb over to the bishop and went straight to the pub, where they offered a toast to the gods but swore never to take another job from the church.

The above image was painted by Alfred de Dreux. 
It was offered as prompt on my Wording Wednesday Project

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Roll for Initiative!


Jarreth gulped at the beast before him. He knew he shouldn’t have come this far into the caverns on his own, but it was no use berating himself over the choice now. He gripped his sword before him, settled into a wide stance, and stared directly up at the looming monster. It wasn’t that big. Merely twice his height. And it only had six arms. Or six legs? Jarreth couldn’t really tell. They seemed to all have hands on the end, but several were being used for standing on… And the creature’s skin probably wasn’t really made of stone or it wouldn’t be moving so easily, right?

The monster smiled. With its huge, protruding teeth, its smile wasn’t exactly comforting to Jarreth.

“Roll for initiative,” a voice called.

“What?” Jarreth blurted, his eyes flicking to the ceiling the voice seemed to come from.

The monster picked up one of the odd shaped rocks before him and gave it a toss. The rock had a lot of sides, each one with a number written on it. “Fifteen,” the creature said as the rock came to a rest. The monster then looked up at Jarreth like it expected him to do something interesting now.

Jarreth shifted. His arms were getting tired already.

The voice returned. “The human forfeits his right to roll. You go first, Hubert.”

“The human did what?” the human asked, but everyone ignored him.

“I swing my pitchfork in his direction,” the monster announced. He rolled the rock again. “Curses. Nat one.”

The ceiling laughed. “Okay. You swing your pitchfork at the human invader, but you hit the ceiling by accident. A chunk of rock breaks off and falls on your head. Roll a D8 for damages.”

“A D8? Sheesh.” The monster rolled a different rock and let out a relieved breath. “Two.” He picked up a piece of chalk and made a mark on the wall. I’m down to 20. Could have been worse.”

“Okay,” said the voice. “You’re up, human.”

“Um…”

“I assume you’re going to battle him,” said the ceiling in a leading sort of way.

Jarreth took that to mean he should be taking action. Attacking made sense, so he took a swing at the beast.

“Hey!” The monster jerked back with a hiss and stared at the line of blood that bloomed on its arm. “You swung your sword at me! What the hell, man?”

“Aren’t we battling?”

“In D&D, dude!” The monster put another few feet between them. “What kind of asshole actually swings a literal sword? Did you even bring your dice?”

“Um… No. I don’t own any dice.”

The monster gaped. “You went into a D&D dungeon without any dice? How do you expect to beat anyone without dice?”

Jarreth jiggled his sword around. “Well, I kind of thought I’d use this.”

“Dude!” The monster plopped down on its rump. “This isn’t that kind of dungeon. This is a D&D dungeon. Didn’t you see the sign at the entrance?”

“No?” Jarreth thought back to his entering the dungeon. “No signs… There was a painting of some kind of serpent.”

The monster sighed. “That was the D&D logo. You know, Dungeons and Dragons?”

“Never heard of it.” Jarreth finally allowed himself to lower his weapon. He didn’t seem to be in danger and his arms were seriously aching.

“It’s a game,” the monster explained. “It allows people to fight without getting hurt. Which is better for everyone, don’t you think? You can win without having to get buff enough to actually hold that sword properly. Or you can lose without actually dying. It’s pretty fantastic. You can take my treasure, or I can stop you, but either way, everyone gets to go home and no one has to bleed all over the place.”

“Huh…” Although he’d never heard of this, the idea was intriguing to Jarreth. It wasn’t like he enjoyed working out or having his skin pierced by things like pitchforks. And he was absolutely certain he wouldn’t enjoy dying. “And everyone abides by this?”

“Oh, yeah. If you don’t, the Dungeon Master will smite you.”

“Come again?”

The voice from the ceiling popped back in. “You play by the rules or I kill you. Since you clearly didn’t know any of this, I’m giving you a pass on hurting poor Hubert here, but if you swing that stupid blade of yours around anymore, you’ll get a lightning bolt to the chest.”

Jarreth wasn’t altogether certain the disembodied voice could summon lightning, but figured it probably wasn’t worth taking a chance on. Instead, he slid his sword into its scabbard. “Sword’s going bye-bye.”

“Good,” said the voice. “Now… We’ll pretend you rolled what just happened. How bad’s your cut, Hubert? About a point of damage or is it worse?”

“I don’t think I’ll need a bandage or anything,” Hubert responded. “So certainly not worse than a point.”

“Okay. So you lose a hit point, but so does the human.”

“Why me?” asked Jarreth.

“Because you strained a muscle. Moving on… Hubert?”

“I pick up the rock that fell on my head and try to bash him with it.” Hubert grinned and rolled a die. “Yes! Nineteen. I assume that hits?”

“Yeah, that hits. The human obviously has a low armor class. What the damage?”

“Blunt damage…” Hubert rolled a rock. “Six.”

“Nice. Human, you lose six hit points.”

“Okay. What are hit points?”

Somehow, Jarreth got the impression the disembodied voice was rolling its eyes. “Okay, we’ll say you had fifteen. Then you lost one to the strained muscle. And now six to being bashed with a rock. So you’re down to eight. You need to grab a copy of the Player’s Handbook before you come back. Now, what are you doing to do?”

“Stab my sword into his eye! The left one!” Jarreth felt clever for coming up with that.

“I don’t suppose you know your agility stat?”

“You would be right.”

The voice sighed. “Okay, well, as you can clearly see, he has tiny little eyes and the lighting in this room isn’t great and he’s a lot taller than you. So you’re pretty much going to need a nat twenty to do that, but go for it.”

Jarreth shook his head. “How? I mean, you told me not to really use my sword…”

“You roll,” said Hubert helpfully. He held out a twenty-sided die. “With this. You can borrow mine.”

“Thanks.” The die was larger than one made for a human would be, but Jarreth managed to toss it anyway. It tumbled a few times, then landed with a one pointing upwards. “One! That’s the best, right?”

Hubert gave him a pitying look as the voice asked, “Were you not paying attention earlier? Twenty is the best. One is the worst you can do. It’s so bad that you’re likely to hurt yourself failing. In fact, you just did. You rush toward Hubert, intent on spearing him in the eye, but you trip and fall onto your sword yourself. Roll for damage. Piercing with a sword is a D6.”

Jarreth rolled the die again. “Twelve.”

“That was a D20,” Hubert said. He held up a cube. “This is a D6.”

“Doesn’t matter,” said the voice. “I’ve realized he pierced his own eye instead of yours and the sword sliced right into his brain. He’s dead.”

“But!” Jarreth threw his hands up. “That’s not fair! I can’t be dead just because you said so.”

“Dude…” Hubert waved four of his hands around. “Drop it. Accept what the DM says and come back with a stronger character next time. Maybe a party. Definitely your own dice. Using your opponent's is bad luck.”

“But-”

The lightning bolt that land right next to Jarreth’s foot got him to shut up. “Okay,” he squeaked. “I’m dead. I’ll leave.”

“Great!” said the voice, suddenly sounding friendly. “There’s a cute little shop in town called Leaves of Adventure. There’s a woman there named Amanda who can sell you all the stuff you need and get you up to speed on the rules.”

“Amanda’s great,” Hubert put in. “Tell her I said hi. I’d go with you, but the townsfolk tend to freak out when we dungeon dwellers show up on Main Street. And they don’t play the game out there, so people get hurt for real. It’s pretty sad. Not to mention barbaric.”

“Right.” Jarreth nodded. “Go find Amanda at Leaves of Adventure.”

“Oh!” Hubert straightening in excitement. “And can you bring some ginger sparkle-sweet when you come back? And maybe some of those cherry sugar ropes they sell at the candy store down there?”

“I guess, sure.”

Hubert waved as Jarreth turned and left the dungeon. By the time he made it to the entrance, he had himself half convinced the whole thing had been a hallucination brought on by some kind of gas in the cavern system. But there it was, the painting on the rockface of what he now realized was a dragon twisted into an ampersand. And when he made it to town, there really was a place called Leaves of Adventure. A book in the window had the same picture as the cavern entrance and it was sitting beside a pile of wildly colored dice in a variety of shapes.

Not sure how his life had gotten to this strange spot, Jarreth nevertheless went into the shop and asked for Amanda.

The above image is by Guy Davis. More of Mr Davis's artwork is on his website at https://www.guydavisartworks.com/ 

It was offered as a prompt on my Wording Wednesday project. Other responses to the prompt may be shared on the official Wording Wednesday blog.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Modern Gospel of Lady Luck


Marisa was the type of wealthy who could look bored while risking a hundred thousand Geodes on the spin of a roulette wheel. Her kind wasn’t uncommon in Essar’s gambling halls. Congregating in such places had long ago taken the place of attending temple worship amongst the upper echelon of Agrani society. Worship of the gods was out of style, replaced by worship of random chance.

People tended to assume that I was pleased with the state of affairs in Agran. I am, after all, the Goddess of Luck and thus the only deity actually in vogue right then. But I wasn’t. I love my Parent, They who created everything, and hated to see how many of Their creations had turned their backs on Them. In Agran, They used to be called the Father of All and invoked daily. But in the Thirtieth Century, the average Agrani wasn’t even sure They exist.

Choosing Marisa as my Prophet raised some eyebrows amongst the Heavens. No one could understand what I saw in her. Sure, she followed me, but she didn’t exactly do it enthusiastically. She only went to the casino every week to keep her parents from lecturing her on the importance of making appearances. But that was part of her appeal.

It was Marisa’s lack of concern for my whims that made her seem so approachable. That her wealth and social standing made her someone people would at least pretend to listen to was an added bonus. Trying to speak through someone who cleaned bathrooms for a living would appeal to my brother, the Lord of Toil, but would have made things considerably more difficult. When would that person even have time to go around lecturing the realm rather than doing something she would get paid for anyway?

At first, Marisa ignored my call. Although she was my first Prophet, I was expecting that. It was only after I cursed her favorite runball team, the Sarseet Seekers, to a winless season the year after they won the championship that she seemed to even believe I was who I claimed to be. “You have a choice,” I told her the next night I saw her in The Thelton, Sarseet’s premiere casino. “You can either have dinner with me or I can curse your niece’s hitdisc team next.”

“Seriously?” She stared at me. “You’re using a little girl’s peewee team to strongarm me?”

“Yes.”

A laugh burst forth. “Yeah, okay. I guess that does back up your claim to be a god. A human wouldn’t be that much of a bitch.”  

I shrugged and didn’t argue the point, although I was fairly certain any number of humans were capable of being just as shitty.

An hour later, we sat in a swanky restaurant with plates of pasta and glasses of wine in front of us. An hour after that, the pasta was gone and a second bottle of wine had just been opened. “So,” I said as the server left with our empty plates and an order for a fresh baked dessert that would take at least half an hour to fill, “are you willing to work for me yet?”

“Will you hurt Liza if I don’t?”

“No. I’m not that awful. I might make your niece lose a game, but I would never make her lose a limb or her life.”

“Alright…” Marisa took a long drink of wine. “What do I have to do to get you to leave her alone completely?”

“I need you to write a book.”

Her eyebrows went up. “I’m not a writer.”

“Ever hear of divine inspiration? The goddess of arts owes me a favor. I can totally make you a writer.”

“Fair enough.” She swirled the red liquid in her glass, watching it slide along the sides of the container. “But why do you need me? Are you illiterate?”

I laughed. “No. But it’s against the rules for me to speak directly to the public. I need a Prophet to channel my words.”

“That makes no sense.”

“Can’t argue with you on that,” I said. “But my Parent is very clear that it’s a rule, and there’s no arguing with Them.”

“Them?” She put down the glass an leaned forward. “Plural?”

“No.” I shook my head. “Nonbinary. They were the first being in existence and the only one of Their kind. Why would They have a gender?”

“Huh.” Her gaze went distant for a while before she took a long swig of alcohol. “That sounds lonely.”

“I imagine it was. That’s probably why They created all of this.” I gestured around the room, but, of course, meant the entire universe.

“Okay…” She took another drink before meeting my eyes. “So you want to dictate something to me?”

I nodded. “Yes.”

“What?”

“People are turning their back on my family. I want to fix that. Especially for my Parent.”

Marisa made a tutting sound. “So a book about how we should revere the gods and honor the Creator? No offense, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to read that book.”

“Not even if the luckiest person in the world wrote it?”

There was some amount of jerking about of eyebrows. “I get that I was born to wealth and privilege, but the luckiest person in the world? Plenty of people have more money than I do. Some of them even have epic love stories and adorable children to add in. Whereas my runball team couldn’t even win a single match last year. I lost a million Geodes this evening at roulette. Who would believe I’m that lucky?”

I smirked. “Well, you aren’t yet. But you will be. We’re going to spend the next ten years making sure everything in your life is perfect, that every bet you make you win, that every company you own stock in excels, that you get whatever you want out of life, from even more money to true love.”

“You can get me true love?”

“Of course.” I waved my hand. “Romantic Fate is my nephew, remember? All I need it to know who to match you with, then I use my luck to make certain you meet.”

She considered this for a while, long enough that the waiter came out with our flamed custard pies. As she picked up her spoon, Marisa said, “What will it cost me?”

“I already told you. You have to write a book.” I tilted my head to my shoulder in a partial shrug. “And promote the book. Possibly build a new temple. But you’ll be remembered as a Prophet after living your perfect life.”

“And my children?”

I drew in a breath. “I’ll treat them like my own.”

“Oh, no.” She lowered the spoon without taking a bite. “I’ve read too much about how you divine types treat your kids. I want you to treat them like you love them.”

“Cynical, aren’t we?” I took a bite of my own custard. It was creamy, sweet, and pleasantly tart. “Alright. Deal. I will watch over your descendants as though they are my personal treasures.”

“And I’ll have children?”

“If you want them. I’ve never understood the big deal about having them, but I’ll intercede with the Fertility Twins if I need to. Blen and Blynne have been after me for centuries to have my own offspring, so I can’t imagine they’d hesitate to help my Prophet in that department.”

“Alright,” she said softly before finally started to eat her dessert.


She looks over our opening ten years after that conversation as she sits before her computer screen with me pacing behind her and says, “I don’t like it. I mean, it’s what happened, but it doesn’t read like a holy text, does it? Those are all full of archaic wordings and outdating phrasing. Makes it all sound more official.”

I roll my eyes. “Mar, you’re being silly. Those texts are written in archaic language because they’re ancient. This isn’t. Look at the title, ‘The Modern Gospel of Lady Luck.’ It’s modern. Of course it’s not all, ‘Thou shoudlth look into thyself and observe the holy light of holiness within thine soul.’ Why would it be?”

“But how will people know it’s real?”

With a laugh, I give my Prophet a hug from behind. “Let me worry about that. You just type. Now, for Chapter Two...”
The above image is by artist Isaac Maimon. Learn more about his work on his webpage.


It was given as a writing prompt by my Wording Wednesday project. Other responses can be found in the comments on that site.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Miracle Chess Kitties


Agnes always played white, because that was the color of her fur and she got confused when she tried to play as black. This fact alone will likely give you some clue as to how good a chess player Agnes was.

Of course, there are those who would say a cat playing chess at all is remarkable, even if she did do it poorly. Her sister Gertrude couldn’t play. But the third of the litter, the long haired black cat named Augusta, could beat most non-ranked humans, so clearly felines can do better than poor Agnes.

Martha was never certain how either cat learned to play chess. She hadn't taught them; she barely understood the game herself. She only owned the chess board because it came in a set of games she bought to entertain her brother's grandchildren when their mother brought them to visit over the Thanksgiving break. The kids opened everything, played once, and then ignored it all in favor of handheld video games.

The following week, Martha woke up one morning to find the chessboard laid out on her kitchen table and two of her cats staring at it. As Augusta nudged a knight up one and over two, Martha poured herself a cup of coffee and wondered if she’d set the board up in her sleep. It was only after she watched Augusta’s queen swoop across the board to capture Agnes’s bishop that she started to wonder if the cats were actually playing the game rather than simply playing with the pieces. And it took Agnes hanging her head in shame over her king getting captured in check mate for Martha to fully understand what she was watching.

While the cats sat the board up for another game, Martha went to the box and opened up the booklet that explained the rules. At this point, she was expecting to have a laugh at her credulity that she could share with her coworkers in the church office, but as she read the rules, she realized the cats were playing by them.

“Mother Mary,” Martha whispered, crossing herself.

When she told Father Fishbourne that she was worried her cats might be possessed, he listened patiently. In his years in the priesthood, he had heard many claims of possession though he had never actually witnessed an occurrence of it. He was fairly confident that demonic possession wasn’t a thing that actually happened, but felt duty bound to respond to situations like this one as though seriously considering the possibility that a denizen of hell had taken over the mind of housepet.

When Father Fishbourne entered Martha’s kitchen, he saw nothing that led him to question his default assumption that Martha had simply seen her cats batting chess pieces about in mockery of human play and misinterpreted the situation, but as soon as he sat down beside the prepared gameboard, Augusta jumped onto the table and gave him a very solemn nod.

“She wants you play,” Martha said. Then she shook her head and muttered under her breath, “I knew I shouldn’t have taken the black one.”

“That’s a myth,” said the Father. “That black cats are evil. They’re no more of less so than any other cat.” Although the expression the cat appeared to wear as he said this made him less certain of the truth of this than he had been in the past.

The good Father’s eyes widened considerably as Augusta craned over the white pieces before her to take the king’s knight into her mouth and jump it over the row of pawns. He countered by mirroring the move, which earned him a slanted look from the cat, who then moved a pawn.

After ten minutes, Father Fishbourne realized he was in check mate. To a cat.

He leaned back and studied the animal. “I’m going to have to do some research.”

Thus began a week of the Father coming over every afternoon to play chess with Augusta. Occasionally he won, but it was clear the feline was the superior player. To salve his ego some, he also played against Agnes, who he typically beat. It was, he considered, a sign of her good nature that she continued to play the game when she so seldom won at it.

He ruled out demonic possession fairly early on with the easy test of blessing the water in their bowl and watching as they drank. The water had no effect, which it should have if demons were involved. What he couldn’t figure out was what was left. Could they be possessed by angels? What would be God’s motivation in arranging that?

The very next Thursday, the Father was given a possible answer to that question when the first major snowstorm of the season hit. The roof of the church-run homeless shelter valiantly held off the snow, but was powerless when half a frozen tree crashed through it. The shelter now had a massive hole in the roof right when the unfortunate souls who relied on its embrace needed it the most.

As the shelter’s board of operations frantically brainstormed how to raise money for a new roof, someone mentioned strange fundraisers they’d seen. “One time, this professional chess player did a fundraiser were he held a series of games where people could pay him to play against them. They built like an entire soup kitchen or something.”

Clarity struck Father Fishbourne and Martha at the same instant. “Augusta!” they exclaimed.

“No… I think he was Russian.”

Father Fishbourne shook his head. “No, Brother Wallie. Not the chess player. Or not the human one. Martha has a cat who plays chess. Well, two of them. But one of them plays well. Do you think people would pay to play against a cat?”

Brother Wallie stared. “I think they’d pay to watch someone play the cat.”

“Playing the cat would be better,” said Sister Teresa, the head of the Sunday School program. “That way they’d know it was responding to them and wasn’t just trained.” She blinked. “Wait. The cat can play chess. Really?”

It wound up being a good thing that Augusta was the better chess player, because when the cats were brought into the church the night of the fundraiser, Agnes flipped out and spent the entire evening hiding behind the refrigerator in the kitchen of the Fellowship Hall. Augusta, however, sat proudly before the provided chessboard, a much nicer one than she had at home, and faced every challenger with dignity.

No one beat her that evening, even though enough people played her to raise over half of the needed funds in the one night.

Two days later, she was invited onto the local newscast were a reporter played against her and lost while his colleagues told him all the moves they would have made in his stead. They were invited to try their hands against her at the second night of fundraising that Friday.

By Sunday morning, Father Fishbourne was able to announce that they had sufficient funds to not only rebuild the roof, but add an annex to the building so that it could house more people.

As she prayed her thanks, Martha realized that while God may have given her this blessing to save the homeless shelter, He probably didn’t want things to stop there. The cats could, after all, still play chess. So she started Miracle Chess Kitty Charities and now tours the country raising money for nonprofits with the help of Augusta and Agnes, who eventually grew less terrified of people and provided a good opponent to the type of person who doesn’t want to say they lost a game of chess to a cat.

If you’re interested in booking a match against Augusta, you can contact her scheduling agent at (555) 555-5267. And should you lose to her, you may be interested in commemorating the event with an official “I Lost to Augusta the Miracle Chess Kitty” t-shirt, available in her traveling gift shop after every event.


The above image is by Augusta Agnes Talboys, an artist who painted a lot of cats in the early twentieth century. You can learn more about her at The Great Cat.

It was given as a writing prompt by my Wording Wednesday project. Other responses can be found in the comments on that site.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Defender of Earth



Terra Alexis Duncan sat by herself at Chang’s Famous Buffet. She had come here hoping for some interesting people-watching. Usually a mid-afternoon meal at Chang’s allowed her to view at least one elderly couple who would argue about whether the egg rolls were better here or at China Haven, discuss how the weather is crazier now than it ever has been, and maybe get into an argument about whether the news anchor on the TV in the corner needed to wear less makeup or not. This day there was no such couple, just a pair of dude-bros talking about the babes in their office building.

Dude-bros were moderately interesting to Terra Alexis, though less so than old people. Old people had strange opinions derived at from years of experiences foriegn to Terra Alexis’s own. Dude-bros, on the other hand, had strange opinions brought about by looking at the same world Terra Alexis was born into but with a perspective she was certain was flawed. It was odd that they seemed to believe every woman working into their company was put there to be judged by them, but it wasn’t odd in a fun way. It was more odd in an infuriating way that made Terra Alexis half-hope that the crab legs there were eating and she wasn’t would give them food poisoning. They didn’t seem to care that she could hear everything they were saying, though she had no idea if that was because they figured women’s opinions on their conversation were irrelevant, had deemed her too young to worry about, or just didn’t think geeky teenagers with ponytails and chunky glasses were worth noticing.

The news wasn’t any better. Even without sound, it was depressing. Someone had killed someone, which the analysts were likely saying was going to plunge the world into even greater violence. The leader of her country was possibly going to be removed from office, though probably not. Koalas were on fire in Australia because humans had super-heated the planet. And then the ad break commenced and she was told she needed to buy a new car right this second.

Terra Alexis sighed as she pulled out her phone and opened one of the more mindless games on it. With one hand, she shoved chow mein into her mouth with a pair of splintery chopsticks while the other drew lines through matching fuzzballs on the screen to remove them and rake up points.

When the door opened, Terra Alexis glanced up to see what looked like a third dude-bro. She assumed he was joining the others, so looked back to her phone. However, she looked up again when she noticed he was standing by her table.

He blinked at her and suddenly she realized this was no dude-bro. This wasn’t even a human. Human eyes blink up-and-down, but this person had just blinked side-to-side, like automatic doors opening and shutting at the grocery store.

Figuring a nonhuman at her table was more interesting than her game, Terra Alexis switched her phone screen off and gave the newcomer her full attention.

“Terra Alexis Duncan?” he asked, reading the name off of what looked like a standard seven inch tablet. The hand holding the tablet, Terra Alexis couldn’t fail to notice, had one less finger on it than humans typically possessed. The individual focused on her with an expression that clearly communicated he expected a quick confirmation and for the conversation to move on without her mentioning his obvious status as a nonhuman.

Being creeped out that he knew her name warred with Terra Alexis’s innate curiosity. She glanced around the restaurant. No one else seemed to notice the individual before her. Did that mean they wouldn’t notice if she started yelling for help? She wasn’t sure. “No?”

The individual blinked again. It was even weirder the second time as Terra Alexis realized he hadn’t blinked since that first time on arrival. It was a slow blink, a deliberate blink. His eyes dropped to the tablet and he pressed something on it. Then he looked back at her. “You are Terra Alexis Duncan of Greenrock Village. I am certain of this.”

Terra Alexis stares. Greenrock Village wasn’t the name of her town but of her subdivision. Knowing her address wouldn’t tell you she lived there unless you actually knew the neighborhood. “Who are you?” she asked.

“Bob.”

“Uh-huh. And were are you from, Bob?”

“Vancouver, Canada,” he responded in a flat tone.

Somehow Terra Alexis failed to believe either that he was named Bob or that he came from anywhere in British Columbia, let alone Vancouver. “If I tell you that I actually am Terra Alexis Duncan, will you tell me who you actually are?”

The individual gave a nod that sent some of his blond hair flopping into his face. As he moved brushed the hair back into place, he added the word, “Yes.”

“Alright then.” Terra Alexis leaned back in her chair. “I am Terra Alexis Duncan of Greenrock Village. Have a seat and tell me who the heck you are.”

Complying, the nonhuman pulled out a chair and sat down in it. “I’m Ernafhero Eakreian Zhoeho. Please call me Erna. I’m from a planet called Eenren. And I’m here to offer you the chance to save your homeworld.”

Well, that was interesting. Terra Alexis tilted her head to the side as she studied the alien. He blinked at her for what was only the third time and she wondered if blinking conveyed something in his culture or if maybe he only needed to do it once a minute or so. She then wondered if she was using the correct pronoun. Yes, the alien looked like a dude-bro, but maybe all the women on Eenren did. “Are you a male or a female alien, Erna?” she asked.

Erna stiffened, making Terra Alexis realize that probably hadn’t been the most polite way to phrase what she had just asked. She rushed to rephrase. “I mean, which pronouns do you prefer? He/him? She/her?”

“It/it,” Erna said. “You may refer to me as it.”

Terra Alexis smiled a little. “Most people don’t like that one. Most non-binary people tend to like something like ‘they’ or a new word like ‘zhe’ rather than being ‘it’. ‘It’ has a connotation of being a thing, and people don’t like being things.”

“I’m not people,” Erna responded. “At least not human people. Also, I feel I should point out that your planet is going to be destroyed in ten minutes if you don’t agree to come with me before then, so you may want to hurry things along.”

“Oh?” Terra Alexis raised her eyebrows. “Why is my planet going to be destroyed?”

Erna blinked a fourth time. “Because my superiors will destroy it. With a big gun, like in that movie series you have about the political insurrections in space.”

“Star Wars?”

It shrugged. “Maybe? I don’t remember. It’s very long though.”

Nodding, Terra Alexis said, “Yeah, sounds like Star Wars…” Leaning forward on her elbows, she thought for a moment before going on. “So, just to be clear… An alien spaceship somewhat akin to the Death Star will destroy my planet ten minutes from now unless I agree to be kidnapped by you?”

“It’s not a kidnapping. You have been named Champion of Earth. When you agree to accept the title, you will be escorted my homeworld, where you will be trained to battle against the representatives of seven other worlds for the right for your planet to enter the Galactic Union. Three of you will succeed. The other five will, sadly, see their planets destroyed.”

“Battle? Like physical fighting or like playing strategy games?”

Erna waved its hand through the hair like this question was inconsequential. “A series of events that will include both challenges of physical and mental might.”

“Okay…” Terra Alexis nibbled her lip as she thought about this. “Why me? I’m not a warrior.”

“Your name. Terra means Earth. Alexis means defender. And Duncan means warrior. Thus you are Earth Defending Warrior.”

“I see. So I’ll be battling against someone who’s name means Mars Defending Soldier or something?”

Erna shook its head. “No. There are no intelligent beings on Mars.”

Terra Alexis gave him a flat look. “Is everyone from your planet as much of a smart ass as you?”

“Yes.” Erna’s lips ticked up in a smile.

Against her better judgement, Terra Alexis found herself almost liking this alien. Still, she didn’t think she liked it enough to leave the planet with it. “Then I don’t think I want to go there.”

Erna’s smile dropped. “You have to. If you don’t, then Earth will be destroyed.”

Terra Alexis shrugged. “Sounds to me like if everyone in your little game is evenly matched, then Earth would still have a five in eight shot at getting destroyed anyway. And what are the odds that we’re evenly matched? I’m seventeen, untrained, and weigh all of one hundred and five pounds. Are other species really pathetic enough that I have a chance at beating them in physical combat? Are they houseplants, maybe?”

“You would be the smallest contestant this cycle,” Erna admitted. “But there will be training. And also, you are the most intelligent of the contestants judging by what I've seen thus far.”

That provoked a snort. “If humans are the smartest people out there, then the universe is royally hosed, dude.”

“But Earth would not be.”

Thinking about this, Terra Alexis allowed her eyes to drift to the TV. If it hadn’t been there, who knows what conclusion she would have drawn. But it was there, showing her images of a building that was fine yesterday but was now rubble. A lot of people would have seen that and thought they didn’t want their planet to likewise be destroyed. But not Terra Alexis. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I’m not going.”

Erna blinked. “You can’t be serious.”

“I am.” Terra Alexis stood up. “I’m not going to spend my last months torturing myself to learn how to fight for people who don’t deserve it. Let one of the the other planets live instead. I’m going to hit the dessert bar. The coconut pudding here is excellent and I'm down to something like five minutes to enjoy it in.”

As it stared at the human girl walking up to the buffet's selection of sweets, Erna couldn’t help but feel it could have done a better job at picking a representative for Earth. Then it glanced at the TV and wondered if maybe the entire species was selfish enough that it really couldn’t have done better.

With a final blink of its eyes, Erna stood up, loaded the app that would summon a transport beam, and returned to his office to file a report explaining to its superiors why there would only be seven planets in this cycle’s games.


The above image is Chinese Food by Leon Zernitsky. You can order a print of it on Fine Art America.

The story was prompted by a text conversation with my teenaged son. He had gone to a Chinese buffet by himself and was reading the news while listening to some dude-bro types. I texted him back that according to the Hero's Journey he was about to get a Call to Action. He responded that I could use the situation as a writing prompt.