25 December 2020


While watching the many folk and fairy tales that are on the TV during the Christmas holidays, I realized that Czech take on Hell and its inhabitants is perhaps a bit unusual. In pretty much every story, the devils (or rather čerti, singular čert) and Hell are displayed in a positive light.

Čerti are not malicious, true evil is always found among humans. Čerti might be lazy, bureaucratic and ineffectual, but in the end they are there to punish and take away the sinners, thus leaving Earth a bit better off than before. Interestingly, angels, Heaven and God appear very rarely, and justice is generally served because čerti and good humans cooperate against evil humans. The mills of God Hell grind slowly but surely.

A čert coming out of the oven to get you!

Three main types of čerti appear in the folk tales:

The trickster čert is charming and the most diabolic, tempting people to sell their soul for money, power or magic. However, he likes and oftentimes ends up helping good people who defy him, even borrowing them magic items or coming to their aid. He will employ his human friends to get at sinners who protect themselves from Hell with holy ground or other magic. He will always have a contract for one's soul ready, to be signed in blood.

The punch-clock čert is ugly and dirty, but scary only because it's his job. He will try to frighten you, but if that fails, he will probably offer you a roast and a beer, then complain about how boring the job is, or hellish wages, or some such. He's very likely to be fooled and trapped by some evil human, who than uses stolen hellish magic to commit actually evil deeds. In that case, the čert will need to be saved by the human protagonist.

The clueless, young čert is either the protagonist, or his (soon to be) friend. He's really not good at this devilish stuff, and one of his blunders will probably strand him on Earth until he can recover a lost magic item / find a fugitive sinner / otherwise make up for his mistakes. He also tends to fall in love, which generally ends up in a wedding (becoming human optional).

When Lucifer, the King of Hell himself, appears, he ranges from being a wise mentor to the protagonist, to a strict and grumpy, but still fair and just ruler. He always comes off as nearly a saint in comparison to the corrupt, lazy, spiteful and outright cruel nobles on Earth. He will grant a wish (or three wishes) as compensation to innocents dragged to Hell by mistake (caused by the young čert above).

Lucifer in attendance on human wedding.

Every čert

  • is male. Female čertice are very rare.
  • has horns. These grow with age and power, so a young and weak čert will have tiny horns, while an older čert will have much bigger goat's or ram's horns.
  • may have a hoof instead of one foot, or a tail. This is not always the case, though, so let's say 1-in-6 chance of each.
  • spits brimstone, which can start fires.
  • is immortal and immune to fire.
  • is repelled or even burned by anything holy.
  • cannot harm an innocent person.

d6 Hellish Powers

  1. Human disguise: Loose the horns, hoof and tail, plus change from any demonic garb into a commoner's clothes (weak čert), huntsman or soldier uniform (trickster čert), or a noble attire (powerful čert). Also removes the soot and smell of brimstone.
  2. Animal form: Transform into a black (d6) dog/cat/goat/horse/crow/rooster.
  3. Hell portal: Teleport between Hell and Earth with a cloud of smoke and brimstone. Most čerti can only do this when they drag a soul to Hell, but Lucifer and his trusted lieutenants can pop anywhere at will.
  4. Pyrokinesis: The more powerful the čert, the hotter the flames.
  5. Telekinesis: Only the most powerful čerti.
  6. Wish: Can grant wealth or build palaces to humans who sign away their soul in blood. Only Lucifer can grant wishes without getting a soul in return.

d8 Gifts from Hell

  1. Cloak of invisibility: As any other cloak of invisibility, but doesn't work when wet and burns up when touched by holy water.
  2. Tablecloth of wine and dine: When you unfold it, conjures a magnificent feast.
  3. Sack of soldiers: Open to summon a squad of damned soldiers that will be loyal to whomever holds the sack. Treat as normal HD 1 soldiers, except they have Morale 12 (if they run, they go back to Hell; if they die, they go back to Hell) and disappear in flames when killed.
  4. Bag of many items: Take out any item you can think of and that could fit inside of the bag. Each item taken is a sin.
  5. Coat of gold: A dirty, threadbare overcoat. When you reach into a pocket, you always find a gold coin. However, no amount of grooming can make you presentable (-4 Charisma, -4 to Reaction rolls) and the coat disappears if you ever take it off.
  6. Seven league boots
  7. Scarf of fire resistance
  8. Posh needle: Knits the most beautiful attire you can imagine out of thin air, but the clothes become ash when touched by sunlight.

All of these were given to the protagonist of one fairy tale or another.

Sinners in cages and boiling in cauldrons.

Here are several films that should give you a taste of čerti and their Hell:

  • Anděl páně (Angel of the Lord): A čert tempts his angel buddy to fall, then does his best to get him back to Heaven. Available on Netflix.
  • Čertí brko (The Magic Quill): Quite anvilicious, but has very nice depiction of bureaucratic Hell. Available on Netflix.
  • Nejlepší přítel (Best Friend): This one actually inspired the post. Available here, but without subtitles.
  • Princezna ze mlejna (Princess from the Mill): Your friendly neighbourhood čert. Available on Netflix.
  • S čerty nejsou žerty (Give the Devil His Due): Basically a cult classic around here. Available here, but without subtitles.
  • Z pekla štěstí (Devil's Own Luck): How being friendly with Hell can help you slay a dragon. Available here, but without subtitles.

So maybe the next time your players run into devils, these might be well-meaning collectors of evil souls, or good-natured spooks just doing their job.

22 December 2020

d100 Checks against 3d6 Stats

I like d100 rolls, even though I mostly ever play with d20 systems. You encounter percentages every day in your life and thus can gauge your chances at a glance, while a d20 roll can be trickier. I mean, what's easier to immediately grasp - a plain d20 against DC 16, or a percentage roll against 25% odds?

Then you add bonuses to the mix

  • Roll against DC 17 with +3 bonus.
  • Roll against base 65% skill with -30% difficulty adjustment.

and d100 is much easier to understand.

I like 3d6 stats, probably because I mostly ever play with d20 systems. They are so deeply ingrained in my mind that when I see something like Strength 58%, I just don't know what to do with that. It doesn't look right, I want my attributes in the 3-18 range. And yes, that is nothing but personal preference, but so is any other discussion of a gaming system.

I like attribute checks. Skill systems and all are great, but what if you suddenly get a corner case that doesn't fit under any of your carefully defined skills and you don't want to pluck a DC out of the thin air? Plus you can use them in place of specialized Saves, where they make a lot of sense - rather than some nebulously defined Save vs Magical Devices, roll against Dexterity to dodge the ray, or against Endurance to tank it.

And here's the conundrum - how to make my flights of fancy fit together into a coherent system? They are pretty disparate bunch, after all. Yet I might have a possible solution (aside from telling myself to go and do something more productive).

Use your normal 3d6 attributes, but when you wish to attempt a stat check, multiply the attribute score by a number corresponding to the difficulty of the task from the table below. This gives you a percentage chance of your success, and also gets rid of any further adjustments, as they should already be taken into consideration when deciding the difficulty.

We are still somewhat "plucking a DC out of the thin air", but I believe it's easier to say that a task is challenging than coming up with a DC 14 to beat. So guesstimate the difficulty, multiply the attribute and you have a percentage chance of your success:

Difficulty Multiplier 
 With 8 in Stat 
 With Average Stat 
 With 16 in Stat 

Easy: An average person can do this reliably and somebody skilled shouldn't even need to roll in the first place.

Normal: A toss-up for normal people.

Challenging: This is where the inadequate will start to really struggle.

Hard: A toss-up for talented people.

Heroic: This is a d100 roll under the basic attribute score. At the very, very best, you will have a 1-in-5 chance, and that's only with game-breaking stats. An average person can cross their fingers and pray, yet even those truly gifted will most likely fail.

Your average 3d6 attribute will have a score of 10.5, so a normal task will have a 52.5% chance of success. I can live with that little extra bonus over equal odds.

by Mateusz Mańka

Q: Hey, you claimed this will be easy and intuitive, then suddenly you want us to solve math?!

A: Well yes, but it's simple math!

Q: Aren't the chances a little low? For an average character, a normal task is 50/50 and an easy task has just under 75% chance of success?

A: Let's take for example Lamentations of the Flame Princess for comparison, shall we? A 1st level Fighter will have +1 to hit, and attacking an unarmoured opponent (AC 12) should be a normal task for them. They will have exactly 50% chance of a successful hit, so I'd say my percentages are not that far off.

Funny how the chances don't look so good, yet nobody bats an eye to roll a d20 against such odds.

14 December 2020

Class: (Un)limited Warlock

Years ago, I read a book about a demon and a wizard. I remember neither the name of the book nor anything but bits and pieces from the plot - the demon was trying to corrupt a young girl who could one day become a great force for either good or evil, the wizard was sent to stop the demon - but the way that magic worked for the wizard stuck with me.

The wizard wasn't an innate magic user, all of his magic was given to him and what he was given was everything he had. Several times throughout the book, he ended up in a situation where he really needed a spell, only for a flashback to reveal he had already used up that spell, years ago. Other times, he performed magic even though there was another way, and then a flashforward had shown us what kind of trouble this will bring to him in the future.

He had loads of power, but it was a finite, non-renewable resource.

Summoning Demons by Lukas Banas

Which brings me to the (un)limited warlocks.

Magic users tend to start weak, barely capable of casting a handful of cantrips each day, but then their power grows exponentially. Depending on your system, high level wizards might end up creating their own planes of existence and summoning dragons or angels to do their bidding, each and every day. But what if we turned this around?

Suppose that warlocks are given all their power by a patron. And by "all their power" I mean all of it - they get access to the whole spell list at level 1. However, they only get to cast each spell once, ever.

  • In Vancian system, they have no spell slots and no spell level limit. Yes, they can use wish immediately at the start of the game.
  • In GLOG, they have infinite MD and can put as many MD into a spell as they want (mishaps and dooms still apply).
  • In mana point systems - well, I don't really have experience with those...

Your warlock player might absolutely obliterate the first boss with a single fireball - and that will also be the only fireball they will ever cast. They might trivialize the first set of obstacles - but what about the second one, or the third?

The (un)limited warlocks are all about self-restraint and adaptation to growing limitations. They start overpowered and grow weaker with each spell they cast and mark off their list. Soon, they will have to get creative, because they ran out of spells that would fully fit the situation. They will have to resort to the weird spells nobody bothers to take on most magic users. Even cantrips will become a scant resource.

And once their last spell is cast and gone, their pact will be due and their patron will collect their soul for purposes unknown. No save.

Is that balanced? Hell no!

Isn't that overpowered? Of course it is!

Is it playtested? Not at all.

Would it be fun? You tell me!

A patron and their warlock.
From Dark Souls 3

Oh, and if the player wants to get all clever with multiclassing into another magic user or learning new spells - that's a no go, friend. Your patron is keeping a very close eye on you and they will protect their investments with a vengeance, if necessary. After all, they already own your soul and can repossess it in case of your early death. It was only the contract you decided to breach that was preventing your sudden demise.

26 October 2020

Into the... Spire?

prior | next
"What-" Eli and Sharaf spoke up in the same instant.

"Later, later," Mr. Kipfel interrupted them both. As his eyes darted over them, Eli realized she had already seen this exact same expression on his face before, when he had been talking to the djinni.

"Is everything alright?" he asked their jailer.

The armoured jailer grabbed his helmet and took it off. He was black-skinned, bald-shaven and quite young-looking, maybe even close to Eli in age.

"Mostly? There was an activation alert earlier today. Tracker and Dreamwalker went to investigate, came back with some captives for interrogation. I've only heard rumours, but they might've found traces of nanotech. Real, functioning nanotech."


"As I said, I've only heard rumours. But it could actually help you. Most masters are in a meeting with the grandmaster right now, all gathered in the sanctum."

"And the security is on high alert, I presume."

"Thankfully no, there were no omens of imminent danger, so current orders are to prepare several squads to return through the newly activated Gateway and make a thorough sweep of the whole area. You shouldn't dawdle, though. The meeting will probably end soon and the grandmaster might want to lead this mission himself. I also relieved the guard here, so you should be clear at least to the lift."

"What's going on," Sharaf said. "Is he friendly? What is he saying?"

Eli saw confusion spreading over the jailer's face before Mr. Kipfel stepped in: "We really shouldn't dawdle, then. The containment fields, please?"

"Yes," the jailer reached into a pouch on his belt for a card embellished with gold. "This card will get you into the sanctum. Master Arinrin Ajo is currently deep in trance, so she shouldn't find out I stole it and have it blocked, but somebody will notice that the cell fields were deactivated and they will raise alarm, probably sooner rather than later. Nothing I can do about that, so you'd better get moving as soon as I let you out. Ready?"

"Ready as ever," Mr. Kipfel smiled and Eli managed a stern nod when the jailer glanced her way.

He swept the card through a reader at a wall-mounted control panel and the force screens sealing their cells flickered off. Mr. Kipfel confidently strode out of his cell and Sharaf followed close behind, though bemusement was showing on his face. Eli was a bit slower in crossing the boundary of her cell, then unwittingly quickened her pace as she was passing by the jailer. The heavy door slid open as they approached, letting them out into the empty and peaceful hallway.

"Hey," the jailer called out, "the card!"

"Indeed," Mr. Kipfel turned around and snatched it from his hand with a smile. "Thank you."

He glanced down the hall both ways and after a split second of wavering deliberation, went left.

"No," the jailer said, doubt creeping its way into his voice, "the other way."

They did as he told them, but haven't made it more than three steps before the jailer caught up with them.

"Wait a second," he reached out, but let his arm flop back when they stopped. "Do you know what you're doing? I mean, are the implants... Are you sure?"

He sounded very much unsure, himself.

Mr. Kipfel looked him straight in the eye, his voice dead serious. "Of course we are. We wouldn't be here if there was any doubt in our minds. We know what we must do. But you too have a part to play, still. You do know that you have to see your role in this to the very end, right?"

The jailer's face turned grim but purposeful. "Yes, yes I do. You are right and... thank you. I will have the distraction ready in five minutes."

He hesitated, as if there was much more he wanted to let out, but then he turned to go. "I will see you in Heaven. For freedom!"

"For freedom indeed," Mr. Kipfel replied already to his back.

The second the three of them were out of sight, behind a bend in the corridor where the lift was, Sharaf grabbed Mr. Kipfel and pushed him against the wall.

"An explanation would be appropriate right about now," he said.

"Our jailer released us and gave me this access card that should open all the doors that we need opened, apparently," Mr. Kipfel replied in a jovial tone.

"Why did he release us? What kind of a game are you playing here?"

"No game at all," Mr. Kipfel still smiled.

Sharaf was now gripping Mr. Kipfel's coat, until Eli laid her hand on his fist. He glanced her way and let go, stepping back from Mr. Kipfel but still shooting angry glares.

Eli had to swallow first before being able to speak up: "We shouldn't stop moving, if you know where to?" She looked at Mr. Kipfel.

"No, not really. No."

That took both her and Sharaf by surprise. "No?"

"But you are right that we have to keep moving if we want to get away from here, and even though I don't have the faintest idea who that likeable young man was, he provided us with the means for our escape. I suggest we take the lift to the basement and find a back door, preferably unguarded."

Sharaf glowered as Mr. Kipfel leaned to insert the card into a reader by the lift door.

"Who are you?"

Behind them, the young jailer was back. This time, though, he was holding his rifle aimed at them.

"What is the meaning of this?" Mr. Kipfel said, sounding aghast. "You would betray your brothers? Didn't we all swear to fight together and if need be even die together, for freedom? And when we're this close, when everything is going according to the plan, you turn against us?!"

Disappointment was practically dripping from his words and he shook his head, never breaking eye contact with the jailer.

"Stop. You are not... You are not one of mine. I've heard you. You were arguing in some weird language, you were fighting. So who are you and where are my people?"

"I don't know what you think you heard, but-"

"Don't," the jailer practically growled and advanced at Mr. Kipfel, who was quick to back off. "Stop lying. You are the off-world captives, aren't you?"

"There's no need to point the rifle at me," Mr. Kipfel said, "I can assure you that-"

"One more lie or blather and I will shoot you," the jailer took another threatening step forward. "Do you even know what you did? If I can't get to my brothers in time, if someone raises an alarm too soon because of you... We all would first take our own life than be subjected to probing, but they will still find the gas bladders during autopsy. They will adjust security, have full-body scans or countermeasures... The others will have to start from scratch. This all will have been in vain!" He sounded as if he was at the very brink of a meltdown.

But he put himself within an arm's reach of Sharaf.

Sharaf leaped forward, knocking the rifle aside. The jailer wasn't fast enough to dodge, but he still reflexively pulled the trigger. Eli felt a blast of heat miss her as a glob of white-hot plasma struck the nearby wall of matte glass, shattering it. Sharp tiny shards flew everywhere.

The jailer lost his gun as Sharaf slammed him through the new hole, into a room with nothing but a few racks of electronics. Some of them seemed damaged by the shot, melted or sparkling, and the whole hall was quickly filling with the acrid smell and smoke of burning plastic. A fire alarm went off.

Eli stared at the rifle lying at her feet. It didn't look that different from any assault rifle you would see in a film. Black, rather boxy but lean, with no blinking lights or glowy parts. Not that she was an expert on any guns, let alone sci-fi ones. She never held a firearm in her whole life so far, and she could've gone without it and be no less happy.

She made herself bend down and pick the rifle up. It was surprisingly heavy.

The jailer, though shaken, managed to break Sharaf's grip and get a few good hits in. It was quickly becoming apparent that Sharaf cannot win this in a straight fight. Both were good in a scuffle, but with his body armour, the jailer could shrug off attacks that made Sharaf grunt in pain. He was forcing Sharaf to fall back, pressing him into the damaged racks.

A larger flood of electric sparks made Sharaf flinch and the jailer's hook got through, driving Sharaf even further off-balance. He failed to block the next knee to the guts, and his defense started to crack after blow after blow after blow. The jailer pounded him into the ground, then turned, bleeding from the nose and many a scrape, panting heavily, face scrunched into a violent grimace.

"Stay back," Eli faltered. The gun was clumsy in her hands and she didn't want to point it at anyone, though she tried.

"My brothers will die a useless, pointless death because of you," the jailer said, glass crunching underfoot.

"It doesn't need to end that way," Mr. Kipfel soothed, "We can help you if you help us."

He crumpled when the jailer punched him.

"Stay back!" Eli repeated as he was already just a stride away. He didn't seem to pay any attention to the rifle in her hands and she knew she wouldn't shoot.

He never touched her.

From behind, an arm slipped under his chin and hauled him down. He struggled, but Sharaf had him on the ground in a sleeper hold. His eyes eventually closed.

"Really glad he didn't put his helmet back on," Sharaf rasped. He pushed the jailer off and stood up, much more slowly than he normally would.

"That was very unpleasant and painful," Mr. Kipfel dusted himself off.

"Are you alright?" Sharaf limped to Eli. His lip was split and a thin trail of blood traced its way from his left ear to his chin.

"I'm sorry," she said, "I should've... I could've..."

"You did good," Sharaf cut her off.

"We all did good," Mr. Kipfel chimed in, "great even!"

Sharaf ignored him, still focusing on Eli. "We need to move, okay? He will be waking up any second and it's a little miracle that this alarm hadn't brought an army on our heads yet."

Eli nodded and glanced at the rifle in her arms.

"Yeah, I will take that," Sharaf smiled.

Mr. Kipfel had already swiped the card to call the elevator, but he stood to the side of the door, and Sharaf did the same on the opposite side. With a soft ding, the door opened and Sharaf barged in, rifle at ready.

"Great God," he muttered.

The cabin was empty, made of glass and apparently travelling along the outside of the building. The view was stunning.

They saw an expanse of tiny houses and crooked alleys, incredibly deep below. The streets were teeming with people and carts and animals of all kinds and maybe even a vehicle here and there. The building was a skyscraper dropped into the middle of a fantasy town, a spire of steel and glass rising high enough to touch the clouds. Its long shadow stretched all the way past the city walls and onto the dry savannah that continued towards the mountains on the horizon, covered in jungle and enormous metallic ruins.

The door of the lift closed softly behind them as they were still admiring the sights. Mr. Kipfel regained his composure first and pressed the button for the underground floors. They started downwards, accompanied by a soft, cheery music.

"I think I might have an idea where we are, now," Mr. Kipfel remarked.

"Well?" Sharaf prompted when no further explanation seemed forthcoming.

"It's a bit of a long and boring story, but the important part is that I know for certain that there is a Gateway under this building. I can explain the rest once we're safe and sound back home."

Eli hit the stop button and the lift came to a sudden halt. There was surprisingly little perceptible deceleration, given how fast the cabin was going and haw abruptly it stopped.

"You can explain right now," she snapped. "We were kidnapped by some paramilitary weirdos with plasma guns, not to even mention the djinni and portals and that stuff. We don't have the faintest inkling about what's going on and you suddenly want to act all tight-lipped when it turns out you do know something after all? Hell no!"

"Very well," Mr. Kipfel relented after a brief pensive silence. "There is an ancient prophecy, dating back to the end of the Atlantian war.
When the might of the djinn was broken, when the angels have retreated to their endless sleep and the hollow men all but disappeared, what remained of the great circle of magi that led the Atlantian forces rejoiced and celebrated the final end of their enemy. Yet one of their number, a seer unparalleled in all of history, had rebuked them for their revelry. While the enemy was defeated then, she had seen a far future when a new leader of the fallen would arise, who shall awaken the seven choirs and bring back the glory of the Chrome Everlasting. His coming, she said, would be heralded by the rise of a great tower, a tower like none that the world had ever seen."
"Are you saying that this is the tower?"

"No, of course not. But this is the citadel of the Knights of the Tower."

"Who are..."

"Who are watching over the Earths ever since Atlantis had sunk, to take down any forgotten remnants of the old war, but mainly to topple the tower, should it ever emerge. Even though it has been millennia and there's no sign that the prophecy would get fulfilled any time soon, if ever," he shrugged.

Eli exchanged a look with Sharaf.

"That didn't help us at all," she said.

"Which is why I claimed we shouldn't waste our time with explanations in the middle of a daring escape," Mr. Kipfel retorted. "Can we please go now?"

"And it does help us in one way," he continued as Sharaf pressed the destination button again. "We can now be certain that we were really lucky to have only run into a mook, as the true master knights are said to be all gifted with-"

Eli felt the air pressure in the cabin shift and something was suddenly right behind her back. She whirled around, but caught only a split-second glimpse of a tall man grabbing Sharaf by the throat before they both vanished into thin air.
prior | next

19 October 2020

Out of the Frying Pan

prior | next


Mr. Kipfel stood up and approached her, gently putting a hand on her shoulder.

"It's okay, don't worry. Eli, right? You're just fine. Now that I got rid of the djinni, we can go our separate ways. You can forget about all this and your life doesn't have to be disrupted any further."

Eli shook off his hand and stared at him for a second: "Have you by any chance noticed that we are in the middle of some desert?"

"Of course, we are pretty close to Petra in southern Jordan... Oh."

"Yeah. I should be back home for the dinner at the very latest, mister wizard."

"Well, the good news is that we are not stranded. We shouldn't be more than an hour or two of walk away from civilization."

Eli looked up at the burning Sun and sighed. "What's the bad news, then?"

"Another good news is that you can now truthfully say that you saved the world! Nobody will believe you, but-"

"What is the bad news?"

Mr. Kipfel fidgeted. "You will be late for that dinner tonight. No matter how briskly we walk, I don't think we're catching a flight back home quite as soon as we both would like."

"We teleported here. You can't take us back?"

"No, not really. No."

"The djinni just waved his hand!"

"True, but that was a djinni - very powerful, very dangerous, should have been dead. We're lucky that his transport capsule held out for so long, it must have been lost and out of power for centuries. I'm..."

"...a wizard, yeah. I thought you were an actual wizard. One that can do stuff," Eli grumbled.

"Sorry to disappoint."

"What about the portal? We could walk through to somewhere closer."

"This is the closest Gateway, that's why I've shown him here. I frankly failed to realize you might tag along. My apologies."

"I didn't..." Eli turned away, frustrated. "Mum and dad will be frightened to death when I don't come back."

"You might want to tell them it will take a while."

"And how am I supposed to do that when we're half a world away?!"

"...by phone?"

"Shut up," Eli said and reached into her waist pack. She glared at the phone, angry at this ridiculous situation and unsure of what to say.

Hi mum, guess where I am?

Hi, I'm just calling to tell you that I found a djinni imprisoned in a bottle and let him out. Also that trip we planned for the next year? I've already got it covered.

Mum! Magic is real! I met a wizard! He can't do shit! I'm in Asia now!

"Hi sweetie! What's up? Everything's okay?"

"Hey mum, um..."

"Hey!" somebody shouted.

Eli followed Mr. Kipfel's gaze to a soldier with a sub-machine gun slung over his shoulder. He emerged from behind a nearby rock and was now quickly making his way towards them.

"What are you doing here? Are you lost?" he asked.

"Eli? Are you there?"

"Sorry mum, just a second."

"Hello sir and sorry, we did not really mean to be here," Mr. Kipfel said.

"Oh, you speak Arabic?" the soldier said.

"We do, a little. And we are indeed a bit lost."

"I don't speak Arabic," Eli muttered to herself.

"Sorry?" she heard her mum say. "I didn't catch that."

"Oh no," the soldier smiled at Eli, "I think you Arabic is quite good."

Taken aback, Eli looked at Mr. Kipfel who was just starting to speak again, when the soldier's smile froze as he caught sight of the djinn door.

"What the..." he reached for his gun, but halfway through the motion, a bright flash struck him in the chest and he crumpled on the ground, lifeless.

Eli whirled back to the portal which was now active again, two figures in black stepping out of it, their featureless body armour nearly blending into the even deeper darkness of the door.

Another flash came right for Eli.

It struck her in the stomach and sudden numbness spread from the point of impact, making her legs buckle. She tried to catch herself, but her arms were already clumsy and slow to respond. She slammed into the sandy ground face first, hands awkwardly bent and drooling from a mouth slightly ajar.

"Eli? What was that? Eli! I can't hear you!" the phone was blaring.

She saw as Mr. Kipfel dashed all of two steps before a third flash sent him down, too. There was a crunch of heavy boots on sand, but her vision was already loosing focus and-


Occasionally, Eli had scarily lifelike dreams. It didn't happen often, but she remembered times when she woke up on the day of a big exam absolutely convinced that she had already took the test. Other times, she needed to pee and her brain tricked her into dreaming about going to the bathroom. Of course, there often were some weird, dream-like elements, but she couldn't tell those apart right away. The dreams were coherent and convincing enough that she had to sit on her bed for a second and think back if she really had been to the bathroom or if the teacher had flown to the classroom through an open window.

As she was waking up, she knew this was one of those dreams. She'll have to tell her mum that for whatever reason, her brain had made her find a djinni instead of a geocache. If only life was that cool.

She opened her eyes, staring at the painfully bright light fixture. She wasn't in her bed, one of her eyes felt full of sand and she definitely haven't just got a nightful of sleep. It took some effort sitting up, her limbs wobbly and her mind a morass.

She was in a small cell with nothing but this narrow bed, a metallic toilet and a shimmering force screen instead of bars.

"Better not touch the containment field. It's quite painful, if I may say so," she heard Mr. Kipfel from a nearby cell.

"Who would've guessed," she said to herself. It was so easy to let out at least some of the confusion and fear through a petulant tone.

There was a zap followed by muttered cursing from even further down the hallway. Eli stood up from the bed, arm held out to the wall to stabilize herself, and came as close to the screen as she dared, until she could see the soldier in yet another cell, nursing one of his hands.

"As I said, very painful," Mr. Kipfel nodded to himself.

The soldier scowled. "Who are you two? Where are we?"

"No need to try and use English," Mr. Kipfel smiled at the soldier. He was rummaging through his pockets until he found a pen case. "Both me and my young lady companion are comfortable with Arabic and I'm sure it would be easier for you, too. Anyway, I'm afraid I'm not yet sure-"

"I do not speak Arabic," Eli protested, vehemently. Too many things made no sense.

"You do now," Mr. Kipfel said, prodding at the force screen with a pencil, every touch prompting a burst of electric sounds and sparks. "The djinni must have melded you before I arrived. You probably didn't understand him, so he decided to make you understand with a dose of nanites."

"But I don't-"

"The nanites make you speak any language required and make you understand what you hear. Real-time override on the neural impulses between your gyrus frontalis inferior, plica vocalis and organum spirale. It's really quite impressive technology."


"Okay, in even more simple terms, you have some translator microbes in your-"

"Shut up for a second! I know what you're talking about, I'm just a little overwhelmed here, if you don't mind."

"My apologies. As I was saying," he turned back to the soldier, "I regrettably don't know who kidnapped us and to where, except that it's obviously a prison too advanced for your Earth. They likely took us back to their base through the Gateway and if I may guess their motives and intentions, they arrived very soon after our opening of the old djinn door, so they were likely alerted and searching for the reason of the seal being broken."

The soldier glared at Mr. Kipfel for a few silent seconds. "I don't know if you're insane or joking, but if I don't report back, people will come looking."

"Very nice but unlikely to help, unless the Jordanian military has been hiding a lot of things from the rest of the world."

"Can you get us out of these cells?"

"Maybe, but it will take time," Mr. Kipfel replied, already searching through his pockets again.

"Can I help?"

"No, not really. No."

"Miss?" Eli startled. "Are you okay?"

"I think so. Yes," she said. "Thank you."

"We will get through this," the soldier continued, "and then we can see about getting you back home, okay?"

She just nodded.

"My name is Sharaf. Nice to meet you."

"Eli. I'm Eli. Nice to meet you too. I mean..." she started to giggle.

"Don't worry Eli, it's okay. It's going to be okay."

Mr. Kipfel suddenly gestured for silence and Eli managed to bite back both laughter and tears. Footsteps were drawing close outside of the heavy door of this cell block. There was a muffled sound of short conversation, then with a faint click, the door opened and slid sideways into the wall. One of the black armoured figures stepped through. Its helmet wouldn't look out of place on some motorbike rider, the dark glass betraying not a hint of a face inside. The figure had a strange and dangerous-looking rifle slung on a strap around its neck, the many other potential weapons hidden in its utility belt notwithstanding. With a hiss of pneumatic propulsion, the door behind it closed and clicked shut.

"Hello there," Mr. Kipfel smiled. "I was wondering if you wouldn't mind letting us out of here?"

"Of course. Sorry it took so long."


prior | next

11 October 2020

Who's Watching You?

I happened upon a nifty applet called Blacklight that allows you to verify your actual privacy when visiting any website. Just paste a web address into the applet and you can see for yourself what kind of information the web page gathers about you.

Blacklight will show you the number of ad trackers or third-party cookies passing information to places unknown, whether the page provides data to Facebook or Google, or even if your mouse movement and keystrokes are captured.

Funnily enough, there is only a single ad tracker on Google and nothing more. I think we can all guess which ad tracker that is. Reddit is also nearly clean. On the other hand, I found out that many news sites have a disproportionate number of ad trackers active.

30 September 2020

Weres of Vanth

Weres are notorious if rare on Vanth, the victims of a hereditary curse that brings about excessive hair growth*, alarming allergies and a monthly involuntary transmogrification associated with one of the Vanth's moons. The origin of the curse varies by the family line, from a pissed-off deity or experimental gene splicing going awry to the unspeakable depravity of bestiality. (Who am I kidding, it was the bestiality most of the time.)
While certain level of animosity against these animal-shifters is not uncommon, a poll carried out in the Realm of the Hobling Emperor and the cities along the western coast of the Sea of Great Peril showed that most citizens are accepting of their therianthropic neighbours, as long as all fowl devoured during the full moon is promptly compensated for. In the south-eastern jungles, Weres even tend to hold positions as revered druids, shamans or other religious leaders, due to the belief that they can commune with the spirits of nature much more easily than other folk, especially in their animal form.

By contrast in the Slaver Kingdoms, Weres are considered a high-priced commodity, as they can be sold either as curios to extravagant nobles, or as quality breeding stock**. And don't even ask about the Shunned Towns.

A recent study published in the Paranature journal suggests that it is not advisable to tell any jokes along the lines of "You mamma was a bitch. Literally." in the presence of Weres. The study concluded that such a joke tends to elicit a brutal, violent reaction from 93.7 % of Weres.
Wereshark, werecheetah, werebat and weregator.
When you roll this racial option, assemble your therianthropic curse from the tables below, then roll on the table of races again to find your actual race when you're not prowling the night in animal form.
From Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Beast Form
You turn into an animal form. Roll here.

If you don't like the result, you may reroll, but only once. If your beast form is particularly tiny, you may turn into a swarm of such animals instead.

While in your were-form, you have all abilities that the animal would possess, whether extra combat effects, better senses, or new forms of movement, but you cannot wield weapons or wear armour. Wounds carry over between forms.

You always shape-shift into your animal form on the night when your moon is full, and cannot turn back until morning when you revert automatically. At any other time, you may try and roll Great Feat to change. This roll can only be attempted once per day, whether to turn into an animal, or to turn back.

You can communicate with animals of similar type as your beastly form, no matter your current form.
d20 Banes
When exposed to your Bane (skin contact for the materials, otherwise as appropriate), take d4 damage per round. When attacked with your Bane, take double damage.

  1. silver,
  2. gold,
  3. iron (but not steel),
  4. copper (including bronze),
  5. chrome,
  6. obsidian,
  7. gems,
  8. glass,
  9. ice (but not snow),
  10. paper,
  11. fresh wood,
  12. old bones,
  13. synthetic fibre and plastic,
  14. sea water,
  15. alcohol,
  16. garlic,
  17. music and singing,
  18. phasics,
  19. magic spells and weapons,
  20. the light of your moon; you change on new moon instead.

d8 Moons
  1. Black Moon
  2. Green Moon
  3. Grey Moon
  4. Half-Moon
  5. Red Moon
  6. Skull Moon
  7. White Moon
  8. Yellow Moon

Vanth actually has nine moons, occasionally. The Blue Moon, also known as the Capricious Traveller or the Stargazer's Bother, tends to appear sporadically for a few days, then not be seen for many months. Its erratic presence thankfully doesn't affect any vanthian Weres, who would otherwise be quite inconveniently at the mercy of its quantum whimsy.
Good old werewolf transformation.
From Hemlock Grove
*) Not to be confused with the much more common super-hair-growth mutation. Also note that non-mammalian Weres tend to develop small patches of feathers or scales instead of becoming hirsute.
**) It has been shown that interbreeding with Weres increases the intelligence of animal offsprings to near-human levels. The loose alliance of several Were tribes known as the Horse Tamers voluntarily uses this quirk of biology to breed their world-famous, highly intelligent horses.

29 September 2020

The Hunt

Several strings of footprints stretched along a narrow, snow-covered path leading up to the top of the world. Enormous white mountains pierced the serene azure sky, like ancient titans sworn to protect the land from the corrupted civilization. Here the glorious nature which gave birth to Marx and Lenin showed its true might. This was the Earth of yore, untouched by the capitalist filth.

High and higher the footprints lead, into a small cave hidden in the very core of the Himalayas mountains. They continued deep into the cave, where a tunnel twisted and winded through endless stone. Finally, the pathway opened into a heavenly valley, happy to be isolated from the outside world. The footprints made their way downwards, following a small group of men. Slowly, the snow disappeared.

The tiny group travelled through a village full of marvellous far-eastern architecture, past glittering waterfalls and gardens resembling a tiny paradise each, towards a tall temple of jade and precious metals. There most the men stayed, and only two entered the ornamental gates surrounded by six finely crafted statues of Buddha.

In a long nephrite hall with no furniture but a plethora of engravings, they sat down in front of an old monk. Slowly, he stopped humming the mantra of meditation and opened his wise and compassionate eyes. The two men removed their hoods, revealing the respected and self-confident face of the Great and Glorious Leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the scarred, sombre face of his feared bodyguard, Ivan Gorovits.

"Welcome to my humble abode, comrades," the monk greeted them.

"Blessed be Lenin, who guided us here and shielded us from the rockslides, avalanches and the smart missiles of our enemies! And blessed be you, the most honoured elder of Shangri-La, ancient lore keeper of Shambala, great governor of Tralla-La, O wisest of the wise in Xanadu! I came here with an offering of an alliance between your people and the people of the Soviet Union!" declared the First Among Bolsheviks in a strong and resonant voice, the same voice that had shown the true and right way to the lost masses of the proletariat for many years now.

"Ah, so our anguish is not unfamiliar to you. For two millennia we had lived in utmost joy, embracing the wise words of Tripitaka and Das Kapital, until the fateful yesteryear. A wicked capitalist named Emmanuel Goldstein found our valley, forced his way inside, and tried to seduce us with his lies about private property, huge profit and untold riches brought by capitalism. We now presume he had a malevolent plan to buy our valley and turn it into a theme park for western tourists, but we managed to drive the man out. Capitalism be cursed forever!"
A terrible cloud of unprecedented anger descended upon the brow of the old monk. "Yet we are not truly rid of this terrible cancer. We face the accursed abundance, never-ending innovation, unstoppable progress, social decadence and independence, and worst of all, selfish freedom of capitalism. The seed was sown and threatens to bring us to self-destruction unless we act quickly! As the president of the local Communist Party, I was forced to take drastic measures to prevent a civil war in our beloved, backwater valley. We will be thrilled and thankful to join the Soviet Union in exchange for your help."

The Most Beloved Lord and Master of CCCP nodded with deep sorrow. "We know all too well about the trappings of the sly capitalists. The Great Soviet Union, our beloved homeland, was defiled by Goldstein just eighteen months ago. Its happy collective farms were abolished and our people driven to poverty, unemployment and despair. Dark influence of the Enemy is spreading like plague across our lands! We must strike back, we must strike together, we must strike hard! The seed of dissent will not grow if we squash it and all of its ilk in an exemplary bloodshed. I humbly offer to lead the troops of Shangri-La against the foul imperialists, destroying their way of life and driving them out of their vile, resplendent dens."

"Yes," Ivan ventured. "Leader need good men to kill bad capitalists who chase him away from CCCP! Ivan good man and cossacks good men but cannot restore Leader alone. Soviet Union need more people than twelve."

The Illustrious and Irked Leader shushed Ivan and turned back to the old monk. "As I was saying, we need to work together and act quickly to shatter the very spirit of the bourgeoisie!"

"Indeed," the monk replied, reflecting and ruminating. "We ought to work together. However, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. I must be assured that you are a worthy ally. First, I shall test your wisdom. Tell me, how many Zen Buddhists does it take to change a light bulb?"

The Wise and Brilliant Leader smiled. "All of them and none, of course, for such is the nature of Zen."

"Great answer and greater still the man who spoke it," the monk nodded.

On some unseen signal, a novice monk appeared along with a white cow. The old monk gave the Leader a sharp look: "Now tell me, does this cow share the truth of Buddha, or does she yet strive to embrace the wholeness of Marxism and Leninism?"

The Best Leader That Ever Lived replied: "Yes!"

"Moo," the cow said, pleased.

"Correct," the old monk bowed in a polite acknowledgement of the superior intellect of the Leader. "Last but not least, I must ask you to describe the sure sign of a CCCP kolkhoz being founded in the middle of the deep Siberian taiga."

"The sound of trees falling in the forest."

"Praise Buddha and Marx! Russian communists are indeed as wise as I was told!" the monk cried out in ecstatic joy.

"Great, then signing a pact is but a formality now, right?" the Leader enquired. "How many masters of ancient and powerful martial arts can you lend us? How many occultists and sorcerers, espers and psykers? Maybe even some conventional weapons? Tanks and troops, a nuclear bomb or two?"

"Not that fast, my esteemed comrade. Enlightenment surely is the most important trait of a man and a communist, but it alone won't win a war. Strength of body is needed, too. I can give you as many troops as your heart desires, once I am sure they will serve side by side with the best of Russian bogatyrs. As per tradition, you ought to succeed in a difficult and dangerous quest before the alliance becomes reality."

The Incredibly Intrepid and Impatient Leader almost started to protest, but the monk continued: "A frightful monster raided our village recently, coming through an extradimensional portal that opened right in this very temple. The casualties suffered were low, nothing that couldn't be compensated for, but on its escape from our defenders, the creature took with itself our most priced possession of all, a life-sized copy of Lenin's mummy. Slay the beast and bring back the mummy of our beloved Father of the Revolution, then we shall know the true strength of your communist conviction and the capitalistic oppression will crumble before our united might!"

The Most Gloomy Leader sighs: "Well, okay then. Can you at least tell me what kind of a monster are we looking for?"

"Most definitely, yes. None have truly seen the beast for it attacked on a moonless night, but we have scrutinized the sacred scrolls and tomes of forbidden knowledge, until we found a passage we believe pertains to this horrific anti-communist thief."
The old monk intoneed in a dark voice: "On tienoo äkkiä niin hiljainen ja musta ja mörkö niin kuin vuori tuijottaa, ja jäinen maa on täynnä kammotusta, kun kuustakin pois värit putoaa."

There was a stretch as silence, broken only once the Notably Frustrated Leader asked in a voice that betrayed none of his inner thoughts: "And that's all? Really?"

"Indeed," the monk replied. "Do you believe yourself up to this task, O Most Monumental Master of the Only True and Righteous Philosophy?"

The Resigned yet Resolute Leader whispered something briefly to Ivan. Ivan opened his backpack, taking out the hereditary weapons of his family: an AK-47 covered in notches, one per slain capitalist; his grandfather's collection of grenades and his gas mask; the bulletproof vest his grandmother wore during the Great October Socialist Revolution; a hammer and sickle given to his father by Lenin himself; and finally a massive scimitar of old Russian steel, used by generations of his forefathers. Then he strode to the door: "Ivan go prepare cossacks."

In a minute, the rest of the group that stayed waiting outside of the temple was marshalled, all hardy cossacks of the Tried but Triumphant Leader's personal squad.

"Follow me," the old monk said and all followed him through wide halls of jade, then steep stairs of granite, then narrow tunnels of gneiss, then rickety ladder of pine wood, then dim passageways of caked dust. There in a chamber forgotten for many a millennium, a bluish glowing portal yawned in the mid-air.

The old monk spoke up: "Be careful, brave warriors, for the road you will tread on is violent and may well lead to your death. May the spirit of Lenin guide you to victory!"

But on the faces of the small squad nothing but eager determination could be seen, as behoves a true Soviet comrade. Facing the portal, they all gripped their trusty kalashnikovs.

"For father Lenin, for the Party and for our Great and Glorious Leader!" Ivan exclaimed and the cossacks joined him in a thunderous battle cry. Then one by one, they stepped into the luminous rift. The last to go was Ivan, a wide grin on his heroic face: "Ivan ready to hunt."

After a while, the old monk looked at the Daring and Dashing Leader, who was still standing next to him: "You... won't go?"

"No, of course not. Now, don't take it the wrong way, but it might be a while and I don't particularly fancy sitting here in the cold temple halls the whole time. Do you have a pub or something around here? I could use a bottle of vodka. Or two."

28 September 2020

Variant Chess

Chess is a multiversal constant. Everywhere there is an intelligent life form capable of crafting a chequered board of two alternating colours and a set of playing pieces, a variant of chess will sooner or later arise. Scholars might mark this phenomenon a case of convergent evolution, but it could as well be a mathematical inevitability, or a silly joke of some obscure godling.
This is one of the many variants of chess displayed in the Black and White Hall of the Magpie Museum in Tam Ruat.
This variant of chess is played on a board of 12x12 black and white squares:



Pieces that "jump" can move over other pieces rather than being blocked by them. In normal chess, the only jumping piece is a knight, but there are several more in Tam Ruat variant.

Barbarian (b)
Barbarian moves one square diagonally forward to the right or left, but captures by advancing one square; like an inverted pawn. Similarly to a pawn, a barbarian cannot move backwards, can move two squares on its first move, can capture en passant, and can be promoted if it reaches the opposite side of the board.

Chariot (C)
Chariot is the same as a rook in normal chess.

Cleric (c)
Cleric is the same as a bishop in normal chess.

Ghost (g)
Ghost does not start on the board, but instead can be summoned whenever a warlock (see below) captures a piece. The ghost then appears on the square of the captured piece. Each player has two ghost pieces, but if a ghost is captured, it can be re-summoned again.

Ghost moves similarly to a grasshopper, so it can jump any distance orthogonally or diagonally, but only over another piece, landing in the square immediately after that piece. It may jump over pieces of either colour, but only captures if the square beyond the jumped-over piece is occupied by a piece of the opposing colour. Ghost cannot move if there is no piece to jump over.

King (K)
King is the same as in normal chess. Additionally, a king who reaches the opposite side of the board is promoted to an emperor, who moves similarly to a queen except it still cannot check.

Knight (k)
Knight is the same as in normal chess.

Paladin (P)
Paladin moves as a combination of wazir and alfil. Thus, it either moves one square orthogonally, or jumps two squares diagonally.

Queen (Q)
Queen is the same as in normal chess.

Warrior (w)
Warrior is the same as a pawn in normal chess.

Warlock (W)
Similarly to a king, warlock can move one square in any direction. However, unlike all other pieces, it captures by jumping over an adjacent enemy piece in any direction. If the player has a spare ghost piece, it is summoned on the square of the captured piece. A warlock cannot land on an occupied square, even if it's occupied by an enemy piece.

Wizard (X)
Wizard can use the moves of ferz, camel and dabbaba. It can jump either one square diagonally, or two squares orthogonally, or in an elongated knight's move - one, then three squares (aka "1-3 leaper" move). It is, however, colour-locked.
Knight by Stephen-0akley


All rules of normal chess apply, excepting the few changes below.

Castling does not exist, as the bigger board would make it harder to execute yet very powerful for moving the king to safety.

Promotion of barbarians and warriors can only be done into pieces that their player has lost - ie. when promoting, you select one of your captured pieces to resurrect in place of the barbarian or warrior, not any piece you would like. This prevents the player from getting several queens, but thanks to the number of new pieces with unique move sets also brings some nice tactical decisions.

The player that bares the opponent's king wins without the need for a checkmate. Given the existence of the emperor piece, too many games could end with tedious chasing after the highly mobile emperor.

2 August 2020


Some time ago during a boring meeting, I happened upon Spwack's old mini-game called Wanderer and got caught up in playing it. There were some occasional bugs, so I fixed them, then ended up making adjustments and additions and introducing new bugs, until I had a whole new version of the game.

And with Spwack's kind permission, I present to you this Wanderer Next, Wanderer++, Wanderer 2.0 that can be played right

Unlike the original, which was a score-based exploration game, my version is more roguelike-ish. You can find armour, cast spells, fight, die, and maybe even uncover secrets. There's also a boss and one other way to win the game.
Click to embiggen.

The source code can be found on GitHub, though I would like to warn anyone who works with JavaScript that I never used it before, plus I was just piling new additions on old code without much forethought or refactoring, until I ended up with the player being represented by an assemblage of global variables... Yeah, you can stop laughing now.

Anyway, feel free to post any comments or criticism, and please report all bugs you find so that I can squish them.

Happy hacking and don't die!

30 July 2020

My Dream

Hunger woke me up in the middle of the night. Again.

I slipped out of my bed and quickly, silently dressed. Father was still sound asleep and hopefully will remain so until dawn. I couldn't explain myself if he asked where I was going, so I'd better get back soon and secretly. I caused him enough trouble already.

The whole winter was a blur for me. I had been delirious from fever and my father tended to me the whole time, just like he had had to my mother all the years back. I got better where she didn't and I knew he was all the more happy for that, but it did cost him. He had to neglect the farmstead for me, and though the neighbours helped where they could, it will be a tough year to get through yet.

Even without my rumbling stomach.

I left the cottage and ran up across the garden and hayfield, to the forest above. The sky was clear and the Moon was large, casting deep shadows but also enough light to go by. There was a spring a short walk into the woods where I knew many a critter would come to drink from, so I laid some snares around it.

I caught a rabbit. It was scared, poor thing. Half-choked on the snare, it still tried to shy away from me as I came closer. In a way, I was happy that the other traps were empty. One will have to be enough.

I grabbed it and snapped its neck.

"Look what we have here!" a voice cried out.

"We caught ourselves a poacher," another joined in with a chuckle, and the light of a hooded lantern ran over me and my catch.

I nearly dropped the rabbit, scrambling to my feet. Three men were approaching from deeper in the forest, reins of their horses in hand. They were all wearing red cloaks and had swords on their belts.

A patrol from Rudohrad, the Red Baron's men.

"But a pretty one, for once!" the loud one exclaimed.

"If dirty feet and ruffled hair are your thing, I guess. But wait, I forgot about your wife! Of course you're into that," the tall one nudged him.

I started to speak, but I stuttered, not knowing what to say. I was backing away step by step, but they were already too close and starting to flank me. The forest brook and bramble bushes cut off the rest of my escape routes.

"What shall we do with a pretty poacher, early in the morning," the last one intoned. He wrapped his reins around a tree branch. He didn't smile, just stared at me.

"Please forgive me, Masters. I didn't mean to-"

"Pretty face talks after all! Does she also know how much trouble she's in? Who's woods are we in?" the last one interrupted me, his voice cold and dangerous.

"Let me go, I beg-"

"Who's woods are we in?!"

"The baron's."

"And what didn't you mean to be doing in the Red Baron's woods?"

I felt their stares even as I unwittingly lowered my eyes. "...poaching," I couldn't stifle a whimper, and the loud and tall one laughed at that, hard.

The cold one suddenly drew his sword, one smooth sound of sharp steel on well-oiled leather. I stumbled back and he blocked my way with the blade, forcing me to a tree. He drew close and his sword slipped under my chin.

"Poachers loose their hand, you surely knew that." His breath was surprisingly odourless, but his eyes felt like fire on my skin.

"You wouldn't want that, right?" He let the blade down.

"But it doesn't have to end-" he started to speak, but as he groped me, I punched him, without thinking and hard.

He took a step back and his mates suddenly stopped laughing. There was a droplet of blood on his lower lip. He didn't even say anything, just struck me with the pommel.

There was a split second of numbness, and then my hands slammed into the ground and I was blinking spots out of my eyes. He kicked me in the side, knocking the wind out of me and pushing me over, then kicked me again and again.

"I like it more when they cooperate. This is frankly a bit of a turn-off," I heard the loud one saying over the blood thrumming in my head.

"This time it really was her fault, though," the tall one shrugged.

I felt another kick in my stomach, and it rumbled much harder than ever before.

Then everything went black.


I stumbled from the forest half-blinded by tears. Everything was so calm and quiet as I ran towards the village, struggling for breath and suppressing grunts of pain.

Behind the first house, I flung myself at a rainwater barrel. The face staring at me from the dark water was caked in mud and blood. My hands trembled as I started scrubbing and scraping away all the grime, clawing at my own face. I felt nauseous, but no matter how much I wanted to puke myself clean, I could only retch and shiver.

My stomach felt so full and satisfied.

I curled up in the shadow behind the barrel, thinking about my father's serene sleep.

I had to get away.

The soldiers will be missed when they don't return from their patrol in the morning, and others will come to investigate. If I stayed here, they would find out, find me and burn me at the stake, or even worse, claim my father or the whole village was complicit, burn me at the stake and send them away for hard labour. We all knew better than to expect mercy from the Red Baron's men.

But if I disappeared, they would have a culprit to chase and no time to spare for harassing the villagers. Everyone knows I was ill for a long time and weird ever since then, yet my father can still truthfully say he never suspected a thing.

I had to get up, had to get moving.

I went hobbling down the back alleys towards the road, where it encircled the inn and took off over the hills. There was still light and babble pouring out of the windows, though thankfully nobody was outside. Parked at the side of the street, I saw a nomadic wagon like those that comedians and gypsies often used. The horses were still harnessed, as if ready to set out in an instant.

I could barely stand already. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, I dashed across the street and climbed into the wagon, waiting for someone to shout out or grab me. But nothing happened.

The inside of the wagon was cramped and dark, full of things I couldn't see that bumped painfully into my head and legs and hips. I found a heap of some clothes or cloth and collapsed on it, burying myself where a chest shielded me from casual glance.

I didn't notice when I dozed off.

Light was streaming through a tiny window in the side of the wagon, tickling me on the nose. I startled, but then caught myself before I made any noise.

We weren't moving.

Careful, I peaked from behind the chest. The half-open curtain at the back of the wagon was looking out on a snowy forest meadow. I shivered and had to borrow one of the big scarves I was lying on to wrap myself in. I climbed out of the wagon and saw my breath turning to mist. The snow was just a sprinkle, but it had no right to be there, anyway.

The wagon was parked under a massive oak standing alone in the middle of a meadow, with no sign of the horses or the driver, nor any road for that matter. There was just the wind whistling through the branches.

I didn't understand. The solstice was already drawing close and no way could I be asleep for long enough to get up into the mountains.

Then I felt something squishy and wet under my feet, and flinched back. It was a heap of viscera and a dead, disembowelled horse.

My stomach rumbled, painfully, like an empty hole was punched right through my middle. I nearly doubled over, and as my head went closer to the carrion, I could smell its raw flesh and drying blood. Nothing ever smelled so good.

I couldn't help it. Fighting revulsion, I reached for a chunk of its meat and gulped it down, then another and one more. It tasted like solstice sweets dipped in shit and gore. Then I heard footsteps.

I turned, startled, and saw an old, robed man, somehow familiar, though I couldn't recall ever seeing him before.

"Are you the wagon driver? I'm sorry I sneaked into your wagon. I had to get away from the village, quick," I managed to say in a strained voice, nervously wiping at my mouth.

The man looked right past me. "I had a bad dream," he said simply.

He seemed not really there in the head, and I couldn't stop myself from stumbling over words as my mind raced in growing fear: "What do you mean? Where were you, where are we? Why is there all the snow?"

The man turned and looked at the snow, as if seeing it for the first time. "A bad dream," he repeated.

"What happened, what do you remember?"

"A bad dream. I've had the same dream for three days."

This must be my fault. He went into some kind of a shock and I didn't know how to help him.

"People screaming," he said. "They scream my name. They scream in pain. Then I scream. Then I wake up."

He finally looked at me. His eyes were entirely black, like my eyes when my stomach rumbles. He turned and I inadvertently followed his gaze up the oak tree.

It was bedecked with bodies. They were hanging from the branches, upside-down, their ankles bound and their bellies slashed open. Their intestines had uncoiled over their chests and around their faces, framing the frozen expressions of agony and horror.

Then I recognized Kaija and Aidan and Drust and Brynn and Tam. It was the villagers, all of them, all my friends and neighbours. They were swaying slightly in the whistling wind and another body turned towards me. My father, who unlike the others had a wide grin plastered on his corpse-white face.

"A bad dream," I heard behind me. I whirled around, panicking, and it was me, another me, lying on the snowbank. She was heavily pregnant and her eyes were solid black. She stared and I stared back, unable to move or look away, and then a contraction scrunched her face in a mixture of pleasure and pain, she groaned and a flood of black gunk went splashing from between her spread legs.

I was screaming now: "Who are you? What are you?!"

I was roused by violent shaking.

I opened my eyes to find myself in an unfamiliar place. Small and cramped, with light streaming through a tiny window and someone breathing down on me, holding my shoulders.

No, it was the wagon and the driver was shaking me awake. I let go where I gripped his wrists and he took his hands off me, stepping back and folding his arms.

"I wanted to let you sleep, but you started to scream."

He was rather young, not the man from the dream. He was frowning, but it was a general frown, not a hostile one or directed at me.

"I'm so sorry. I had to get away and I saw your wagon and I thought... I don't know what I was thinking."

"Yeah," he said. "Sometimes you do have to get away. You can come with."

"Thank you," I said to his back as he turned and jumped off the wagon.

I followed him to the front bench and then sat there in silence for some time. I had too many thoughts flying through my head to talk and he seemed content to just stare at the road in front of us.

"Where are you going?" I asked, eventually.

"Nowhere, really. Anywhere."

"Oh." Anywhere was good. Maybe he would let me stay at least for a while, until I can figure out what am I supposed to do.

He looked at me, studying my face, and I had to fix my eyes on the horizon to suppress a sudden flush of anxiety. There was a group of people ahead of us, women and children with a man here and there, accompanied by ox-drawn wagons full of furniture.

"The highlanders," he followed my gaze.

"They left the outposts? I didn't know it was that bad up in the hills. I know the last winter was harsh," or so I heard when I finally pulled through in the early spring, "even we didn't have much to spare back in the village, but we could make do. I imagine it must be hard, giving up on a land that you worked so hard to make your own."

"It wasn't just the winter," he muttered. He was hunching over, gripping the reins much harder than necessary. It was my turn to look at him, askance.

"The sinners," he eventually volunteered.

I felt my heart flutter. "No."

He was staring at the group of refugees and barely whispering: "Three days ago, a large number of them came down from the hills where my people camped. They found us at breakfast. Killed our dogs, killed our horses. My family and friends."

"What about my village? Do they know?"

He clenched his teeth, drawn himself up and sighed. "I told them. They laughed in my face. Called me out on my tall tales. Something about a horse-loving gypsy was also mentioned, I think."

If there really were sinners in the hills, the whole village had to prepare. I could go directly to the mayor, persuade her to send a message to the baron, maybe request soldiers or something!

But I would have to go back and then even more of the baron's soldiers would mill through the woods around the village...

"The Red Baron has patrols up in the hills. They would come across the sinners. They will stop them," I said without much conviction.

"Yeah," he replied.

"How far to the next town? Maybe I could send a word of warning back home?"

He thought for a moment. "Rudohrad is not that far off. Not down this way, but we could take a turn at the next crossroads and be there in the afternoon."

The image of the baron's dungeons flickered before my mind's eye, even though his people had no way of already being aware of and investigating the death of their fellows. I could try and push my luck to speak with some official, then run.

"The baron might send help."

"If you hadn't noticed, the patrols were getting smaller and scarcer for some time. The baron is broke. He has just enough soldiers to keep himself safe. Not worth the risk to save a small village."

I didn't have an answer. Of course I noticed. We all did, in addition to the growing taxes and number of bandit attacks. The soldiers really wouldn't come.

I must have been sitting in silence for a long time before he spoke up again.

"So, what's your name?"

"Gilda," I replied and smiled automatically. Nobody would help.

"I'm Milosh," he smiled in earnest.

"I have to go back," I started in a weak voice.

"I don't know why you ran, but there probably was a reason," Milosh said. "The villagers won't listen, the sinners will eat you."

"I don't care. I have to try."

"It's not worth it, Gilda. Nothing is worth sacrificing your life for."

"My father's still there."

He slowed down, then stopped the wagon and I got off.

"Thank you for the ride. And the talk. It was nice meeting you."

He just sat there, staring ahead until I turned to go.

"Don't," I thought I heard him say.

"You could come with," I replied and at that, he spurred the horses to motion. Off and away.

I ran most of the way back. Every time I was short on breath, every time my body would protest with pangs of pain and bleeding blisters, the memory of my dead father's grin would make me quicken my pace again.

At first, I was racking my brain about what to do once I arrive. Then as the hours dragged on, I just focused on the deserted road ahead, on the very next step.

It was already past nightfall when I approached the first houses. I was feeling feeble and dead tired. I haven't eaten anything since the yesterday's supper and my stomach was rumbling angrily.

It took me a second to register the shadow crouching behind a wood shed. I froze, eyes darting for anything that I could defend myself with. A cracked spade shaft was discarded in some nettles, good enough as a makeshift club, or perhaps the fist-sized rock lying further down the alley between the cottages?

The shadow straightened and slowly came closer. A child, holding some small animal in its hands. It was Tam, staying outside well past her curfew once again.

I let my breath out. "Tam! What are you doing out here? It's already dark, your mum will be mad."

She stepped into moonlight, her eyes completely black. "Maybe she will even go mad," she giggled. "If I'm lucky enough to get her before the others do."

I stumbled back, but she was now advancing quickly. She dropped into a conspiratorial whisper: "Everyone you know is as good as dead. You're alone. You failed. What did you even think, that you could help? You never helped anyone."

She flung the partly-eaten rat at my face, then lunged. I reflexively slapped at the tiny carcass, opening myself for a quick kick to the shins and knees. My legs buckled and I fell hard. She was already on me, straddling my chest and scraping her nails over my face. Disoriented, I could barely fend off her attempts at clawing my eyes out, let alone stop her when she changed position and kicked me in the loins.

"I would say that you're fighting like a girl but no, your fighting is a disgrace to every girl ever. You really thought you could stop us? You?"

Somehow, I got one leg between us and pushed back, crawling away and kicking to keep her at bay. Desperate, I reached into the nettles and swung the shaft when she next came for me.

It struck true but broke, leaving nothing but a dark bruise on her unnaturally pale skin. She chuckled: "My hungry siblings are everywhere and yet the people are none the wiser. They are as stupid as the sheep they herd. And sheep are for the eating."

When she pounced again, I didn't try to evade or escape. I moved towards her, stabbing with the sharp fragment of wood I still gripped. Halfway through the air, she flailed and contorted and failed to change her course enough. The wood pierced her chest and I let her fall on the ground, then grabbed the rock I saw earlier and cracked her head when she tried to rise, and again and again, until she stopped snarling and my hands were slick with blood.

I was left staring at the body of a brutally murdered child I knew since she was a babe in a crib. When I was younger, I used to babysit her.

I scampered off to the side and dry-heaved, my hands shaking enough that I could have fallen over. Somehow, nobody heard the commotion and came to see me and my little victim.

Of course Tam was already dead even before I found her, but... I couldn't stop now. The sinners were here and ready to strike. I had to raise alarm.

I dragged myself afoot and ran down the alley to the main street, because I didn't trust myself to walk without collapsing. Everybody was inside, dining or preparing for sleep.

"The sinners!" I screamed, "They are here!"

No sooner have I raised my voice when the village came alive. People began to appear from their homes and crowded the street. They gawked at me as I staggered in place.

"What is it?" someone asked.

"Gilda! Oh my poor dear, what in the world happened to you?" That was Brynn, Tam's mother. She ran up to me, distress over my well-being etched into her face.

I stumbled back as if she had struck me. I couldn't let myself break down crying. "The sinners. They came from the hills," I managed to say over the lump in my throat.

She came to a confused halt, doing a double take on my torn face and filthy clothes. Her husband, Drust, touched her shoulder and nudged her away from me, glaring disapprovingly. The people were talking now, arguing.

"They're right outside," I added. Somebody started to cackle.

The crowd shifted and Dugal swaggered out, laughing like a madman. The little shit.

"That's what the fucking gypsy was saying yesterday! You were with the gypsy! He fucked your brains out and then made you scare these good people with the same stupid tales he was trying to make us believe."

I might have lashed out, struck him with the rock I still gripped. The people slowly went from confused and panicked to either shaking their heads and turning to go back home, or staring me down, irate and mocking.

"Hey Fergus, your daughter's back and she is crazy!" Dugal bellowed.

Past the crowd, I could see my father making his way down here from the other end of the village. He looked angry and worried. Very angry and very, very worried.

I could also see a black-eyed figure up on the roof of the mayor's house. It raised its head and howled. A hundred other nearby howls joined it.

Every pair of eyes in the whole village was suddenly fixed on the monster, and the other sinners used the distraction to emerge from the alleys and get between the crowd and their houses. We were mostly surrounded. People started to scream as dead arms reached for them and hungry teeth sunk into their flesh. Some fought back and others tried to flee, making it much harder for each other.

My father broke into a sprint, coming for me.

The black-eyed beast leaped off the roof, landing on Drust down on the street. Its taloned feet bit into his back, and his body convulsed and sagged. I could see him gasping for breath.

The beast was tall, head and shoulders above even my father. Its skin was stretched tight over bulging muscles, its hands and feet distorted into oversized claws. Its head was flayed, the skin hanging loosely around its neck and shoulders, with long blonde hair stretching down to the ragged remains of a skirt and apron it wore around its hips.

Aidan came barging at it, his smithing hammer swinging wide. The beast swatted away his attack and lazily dragged a claw over his body, spilling his guts on the ground and cracking his ribs.

My father wasn't more than a few paces away, drawing a knife from his belt, and I knew it will just tear him apart. I hurled the rock, praying to Sol and every saint that was listening.

The stone bonked off the beast's head and it turned to glare at me with its empty eye sockets in the same moment that my father stabbed it. It seized his arm and broke it without ever taking its gaze off of me. Nearly paralysed with horror, I watched as it effortlessly lifted him off the ground.

I shrieked, incoherent, and charged at it. My stomach rumbled with rage and hunger, and my vision went black.

I awakened in cold sweat. My body ached all over, every piece of me either hurting or completely numb. Only my belly felt worryingly full and content. I struggled to open my eyes.

It was dark, too dark to see. I could still smell, though. A sweet, metallic, revolting smell, like in a slaughterhouse.

And also fresh bread.

A door cracked open, bringing bright light into the room. I fumbled and failed to sit up, until a few quick steps later, my father was standing next to the bed, gripping my arm.

I looked at him, bracing for the disgust or horror on his face. He must have seen me feed.

But he was smiling and propped me up until I could sit, leaning against the wall. I saw him wince a little as his injured arm moved too quickly, but it was properly bandaged and in a sling.

"I'm so glad you're already awake," he said. "I was so worried that you will relapse, lying unconscious and feverish for another month."

Some of my fear and confusion must have shown on my face, because he sat down beside me and put his good hand on my shoulder.

"You saved the village. Scared the sinners off."

"But I was..."

"You were brave. You saved lives. Many lives, including my own. I'm proud of you," he said, then frowned: "But don't be surprised if you get some weird looks from the other folk. They're thankful, just a bit tense. Now come on."

I let him help me stand up and walk me to the laundry chest, then dressed, slow and unsteady, as he waited outside of my room. He supported me as we walked outside and down the main street to the mayor's house. A small gathering of people was talking at the front steps, finding comfort and consolation in the company. They parted as we approached and let us through to their midst.

Sitting on a bench next to the steps was Brynn, rocking back and forth, wiping at her eyes and sniffling. On the other end of the bench, Dugal was kneeling next to a tearful Gerda, whispering to her ear, one arm around her shoulders, the other on her knee.

"Listen, everyone," my father hopped up on the first step and waited until all the people turned to look at him. "We all know what happened last night. We all saw. We all live because of my daughter, so we all keep quiet. Understood?"

My eyes flicked from face to face. I saw a lot of fear, but also the occasional slight and sombre nod.

"For those who haven't heard yet," he continued, "Kaija also died last night. Sorry, Gerda," he added as the girl started to weep aloud. "We will choose the next mayor as soon as possible, but for now, you can ask Moryn or me if you need or want to help. Leigh will see to anyone who needs to be patched up."

"Also, I sent Ewyn and Nyle to Rudohrad. They will make sure that the baron knows, and that he listens to us. He wants our taxes? He has to give something in return!"

There were much more vigorous nods all around.

But my father was looking somewhere past the crowd. "Speaking of the devil..."

Following his gaze, I noticed a group of red-armoured horsemen coming our way. The Red Baron's soldiers, and not just a small patrol. I tensed, making every single scrape and bruise throb and twinge.

My father briefly touched my clenched fists. "I'll be right back," he said. "I should have a chat with them real quick."

He headed towards the soldiers, and I found myself completely surrounded by a grim-faced crowd. Half of the people were watching the baron's men, the other half was staring at me with fear, with awe, with distrust and disgust.

"Thank you," somebody uttered into the silence.

The soldiers seemed to grow agitated as my father talked. He gestured towards the forest and the soldiers started to quarrel between themselves. Suddenly, the leader turned his horse around and spurred it back the way they came.

My father returned and promising to the villagers that he will be back in a minute, lead me back home.

"You should go have some more rest. I never thought I'd see you as battered as you are, and I hope I never will again."

"What about the soldiers?" I couldn't stop myself from asking.

He hugged me tight around the shoulders. "One of their patrols didn't return. They came to investigate, then saw the pile of undead we burnt behind the village. I told them about the attack in the night, told them we managed to fight them off, barely. They realized their patrol is probably dead and they should better inform the baron about all this."

He looked at me and added: "It's a pity the patrol was killed by some sinners."

"Now, there's some fresh bread that Moryn gave me, get yourself milk or cheese and go to bed, okay?"

"Okay," I breathed.

My stomach was rumbling, but for once, it was just and only my own hunger.

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