World of Warcraft Class Micro-Stories: Druid

 

Pain. Pure, unadulterated pain lanced along her nerves as though every fiber of her body were cut by an infinite number of daggers. She gasped and fell to one knee, digging nails into her chest in an effort to loosen the phantom grip squeezing her heart. Black spots danced in her vision like the devilish Grells, gleefully rejoicing in her torment.

She was not the only one. Other druids in Moonglade were falling as she had, and gritting their teeth against the onslaught of agony, while still more were writhing on the ground or passed out. The lowing of the Tauren was woven in with the growls and howls of the Worgen, as well as the guttural moans of the Trolls and wails of her fellow Night Elves. The screeching of the hippogryphs was so high-pitched it was a wonder her ears did not bleed, and they thrashed about in their nests. Even the dragon, Aronus, was not spared from whatever occurred, having fallen into the small moonwell it hovered over with a roar.

Lynithe Skyshadow’s tears fell to the fertile ground, and when she placed her palm to the dirt, the very earth trembled beneath her hand. Something was wrong. So very wrong. Her first thoughts flew to the giant sword impaling Azeroth in the wasteland of Silithus, but this was something else. Something far closer to home. She snatched her hand back, and for the first time she became a druid she did not want to connect with the earth. Fear thrilled through her as though her blood were turned to ice, and it crushed her throat, making it difficult to breath.

When she managed to stagger to her unsteady feet, she stumbled toward the Shrine of Remulos and the Keeper himself. She and the others could not concentrate enough to shift to their faster travel forms, and instead made their way on foot and en masse down the road, leaving Nighthaven. Lynithe was one of the first to reach the Shrine, but the Keeper held his silence until the last druid managed to lumber their way to the back of the group.

“Keeper!” someone called from the midst of them. “What has happened?”

Lynithe watched as the very grief of the earth poured from his gently glowing green eyes, leaving tracks of tears over his amethyst skin.

“It is Teldrassil,” he said, his rumbling voice full of despair doing nothing to curb the growing horror within the hearts of all present. “It burns.”

World of Warcraft Class Micro-Stories: Paladin

 

Whispers in the ranks, or what was left of them at any rate. The reality was bitter ash on the tongue and a poison in the mind. The wretched undead had taken everything and infected the land. The devastation they wrought had been beyond imagining—yet still they came. Wave after wave. They didn’t stop and they didn’t rest. The dead had no need for such things.

*We must defeat the Scourge at all costs.*

No one could say who started it, but there was a hardness the in the eyes of some that wasn’t there before Arthas’ betrayal. Before Uther’s death…A sharpness of the soul that would cut down the enemy as surely as it would the person wielding such a lethal blade. No sacrifice was too great, and no one was too great to sacrifice.

*Some costs are too high.*

Could they live with themselves? To wage such a war bordered on insanity, and the line between madness and reason was thin at the best of times. These were not the best of times. Sorrow filled the eyes of some of the others, as though all the world was not large enough to contain their heartache. It was a time for much mourning.

*Decide…*

Righteous vengeance or compassion? Follow the Light. Supplicate. Bare your soul. Give your life to the cause. Both ask, but which path is madness and which is deliverance?

*Choices…*

Hone the blade of Judgment and hold it to your throat. Pray to the Light. There is no turning back.

“So, what say you, Paladin?”

World of Warcraft Class Micro-Stories: Mage

 

The faded, crumbling pages of the cracked, leather-bound tome were so fragile, Karsten dared not breath too forcefully lest the pages fall to ruin. Of course, the knowledge in the book was not the only thing in danger of falling apart. The tower, built far too close to the edge of a weather-worn cliff, was in danger of toppling over the edge if he so much as put one foot in the wrong spot.

“It has to be here,” he growled softly. He closed the book, carefully, and put it down in the growing, neatly stacked pile on the sturdy, but rotting, table at the top of the tower.

Just as he moved to pick up another one, the hairs on the back of his neck prickled and he froze, but he dared not turn around. Giving the wayward energies attention only made them stronger.

It was a reckless mage that didn’t clean up leftover magical energies, and the former owner of the tower had been such a practitioner. Left to its own devices, such magics would be pesky at worst, but given the magical pursuits of the less-than-sane owner of the tower…It would be best if Karsten finished his business here. The faster the better.

As he reached for the book again, a menacing hiss sounded from behind him. He glanced over his shoulder, nonchalantly. He then decided that he deserved some commendation for the fact that he kept a bored, neutral tone, instead of having his sandy blond eyebrows fly from his face in shock.

It was a large, oozing blob formed from an amalgam of magics, ranging from fire to fel. Where its drippings fell to the floor from what Karsten assumed was its mouth, it ate through the already corroding stone.

“It was too much to ask that this would be a simple task, wasn’t it?” Karsten sighed. He then snagged the book, shielded himself, and blinked through the window toward the crashing waves eating away at the cliff.

The roar of the blob as it lunged to bite Karsten, followed by a howl of displeasure and crashing of the tower as it fell into the merciless ocean, did little to assuage his foul mood. The resulting wave from the tower’s demise didn’t hurt him, but shields kept out magical and physical damage, not seawater.

He thought about slogging his way to the shore before making a portal, but then had a better idea. To be fair, the person who’d sent him on this inane task deserved nothing less than what Karsten had experienced. He held the still dry tome above his head, and with a wicked grin started the portal spell.

World of Warcraft Class Micro-Stories: Death Knight

 

The rattle of bones churning in the dry ground offered a hollow, delicate melody, like a wind chime caught in a breeze created by the damning sighs of the many people she’d killed. “Such sweet music,” she crooned. Her glowing, ice blue eyes flashed in anticipation as she pondered the grave before her.

The tombstone was so old no one living would be able to decipher the weather-worn stone, and for the first time in years she smiled. It cracked her bloodless lips and revealed a set of sharpened teeth, which were almost as startling as her exposed bones and minimal skin.

“Rise,” her raspy voice called, and the one in the grave before her had no choice but to do as she commanded. “Rise,” she urged, “and obey.” The final word held power like thunder, and was like the cracking of a whip.

As the rotting, putrid ghoul heaved its way from the earth as though it were being spat out, it quivered at the feet of the creature in front of it. “Come,” she said, her voice full of compulsion like lightning striking at what was left of the ghoul’s brain. “We have much work to do.”

World of Warcraft Class Micro-Stories: Shaman

 

Melancholy hung in the air, giving the grief of those gathered a weight that could be breathed in, sitting heavy in the chest like a crushing stone. Their Chieftain had died in glorious battle, and the gathered mourners were howling their despair to the moon hanging full and low in the sky.

Torchlight bathed the deceased’s many wounds and countless scars in an orange glow. Even in death, his grim visage spoke of a life of hard-won victories and hardship. He’d carved a better life for his people from this land like a skilled butcher, and they had flourished under his command.

The first indication that something was amiss was the hissing. Then, slowly, murmurs rose from the back of the crowd like the rising tide, and the crowd parted in a reverent wave. Snakes, nearing too many to count, slithered between all those gathered to coil at the base of the dais where the Chieftain lay. Their eyes glittering in the low light, they stilled, and waited.

Following on their tails, a woman walked with an almost lyrical step, as though there was music only she could hear. Hips swaying, her dusky purple skin glistened with sweat, and the ornamentation of carved bones around her neck clattered softly as she moved. She studied the Chieftain’s body with keen eyes.

Then, a husky voice came from the depths of her hood; “Da whispas of da loa hold true: his spirit lingers here, waiting for a guide back ta his body.”

Shock reverberated through the crowd, followed closely by a sudden burst of hope. The shaman pulled her hood back, revealing a thick braid from the top of her head trailing down to her mid-back with the coloring of the azure waters of the sea. Her hands began to glow with the soft green of growing things in the spring, as though she wove the very magics of life to her will. It bathed the Chieftain in a pale light.

“I be havin’ a vision of da future, love,” she whispered softly, so only he could hear. “It not be ya time ta die yet!”

Book Review ~~ Dave vs. The Monsters: Emergence

 

 

They say the only two things guaranteed in life are death and taxes. Dave Hooper has managed to avoid both, though the IRS and recent events in Dave’s life are doing their best to cash in on his debts. Dave is a father in a self-destructive, downward spiral who is currently fonder of hookers, blow, and booze than of taking care of or seeing his kids—or paying taxes. Though, who can really blame him about the taxes?

He was heading back a day early for his shift on an off-shore oil rig, hungover and hating life in general, when his world crashed down around his ears. Monsters were attacking the rig and eating his guys. What’s a safety manager to do? Piss your pants and kick monster ass, of course.

Art by: Concept Artist and Illustrator Ray Lederer for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Emergence is the first book in John Birmingham’s Dave vs. The Monsters series, and it follows our, (as per the back of the book), ‘unworthy champion of humanity’. Apparently, humans learned nothing from Tolkein’s Dwarves of Moria and they dug too deep, releasing monsters not seen on Earth since humans thought caves and mud huts were high class living.

Overall, the book is an enjoyable read and an interesting take on what would happen if your average Joe Schmoe were thrown into a monster madness situation. I do have a few issues with it, but not enough to keep me from reading more into the series.

First, the pros:

  • As I said above, it feels like a more realistic take on the average person being thrown into one of these situations. Whereas in similar books with comparable concepts, (Monster Hunters International comes to mind), the person has some special skill, are blessed by Fate, or have been training all their lives to fight the adversary, whoever or whatever that may be. It’s a sort of Buffy the Vampire Slayer syndrome for main characters. I’m not saying these special people have it easy because of their powers, only that they do have them right from the get-go, and generally know how to use them.

Dave, on the other hand, is not the first thing that comes to mind when you picture a ‘hero’. I won’t spoil anything about the book here, but let’s just say that Dave’s rise to herodom is both awkward and not a little painful.

  • The military stuff in the book is mostly accurate. I really enjoyed the fact there wasn’t some government agency that crawled out of the woodwork having expected something like this to happen. As Heath, our Navy officer in charge, points out, “All you’ve got is JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command).” And Heath isn’t some super-commando, he just happened to be the closest military presence to the oil rig when all the bad stuff went down, hence he’s put mostly in charge.

It also takes time to mobilize military assets, especially during unknown encounters and in a situation where there is no Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for what’s going down. Because the monsters aren’t following a pattern that a typical terrorist organization would follow, and the fact they have no idea where they’ll show up, it’s impossible to adapt procedures that quickly.

  • I liked the monster descriptions and concepts, as they weren’t based on anything from myth or legend on Earth (for the most part). It felt like it pulled from various fantasy worlds, like the Drow in Forgotten Realms and some Vord from the Codex Alera for their hierarchy and hivemind-type stuff. The different clans and abilities of clans were also interesting.
Found at: http://codexalera.wikia.com/wiki/Vord

Now, the cons:

  • My biggest gripe with the book is the endless exposition that could have been done through interaction with the monsters and other characters. I got more than halfway through the book and there were only two interactions with the bad guys at that point: the initial one, and a very brief one after Dave gets out of the hospital.

It felt more like an alternate history book than a fantasy novel. I wanted to see more interaction with the monsters to get details on how they worked, instead of Dave just constantly doing his thing. (Not going to tell you what it is, you’ll just have to read for yourself). Dave’s thing should have been used as an addendum to the interactions, not the primary source. Which brings me to my next issue…

  • The monster viewpoints in the book added almost nothing to the book overall, and even less to the plot. In fact, you could probably skip the ones that are chapters by themselves and not miss out on much. While it could be interesting, and it gave us a look into their hierarchy and how they function, it got incredibly tedious to have to basically translate their way to a human understanding/concepts.

Everything we learned from their viewpoints could have been done in Dave interactions with the monsters. In fact, the little bits woven in where the monsters interacted with Dave and we were getting information from their point of view were great—in small doses.

  • Compton isn’t filled out very well as a character, and as a result his actions at the end of the book had the plot fall on its face right at the finish line. In fact, some of the characters we meet for only a few pages leave a more lasting impression than Compton.

It might have to do with another character explaining Compton’s motives instead of Dave (especially), Heath, or Ashbury having any real confrontation with him. He just doesn’t come across as anyone willing to throw their weight around enough to do what he does at the end of the book.

  • The main character can be hard to connect to for some people. For people who haven’t gone through any self-destructive behavior in their life, Dave can come off as an emotionally stunted, major scumbag, and incredibly unlikable. He’s very: Work hard. Play hard. Damn the consequences. Even to the detriment of his family. So, there might be a majority-ish of people who can’t understand his motives and actions.

The nitpicks:

  • I have never met a woman who says they have, “good breeding hips,” so J2’s comment made me cringe a bit. Perhaps it’s a regional thing, and I just don’t ‘get it’.
  • Some of the emotional reactions of characters didn’t track for me, and left me scratching my head as to why they reacted the way they did. There were times people got pissed off at Dave for something he said, that left me wondering why they reacted to him like that. I’m putting it in the nitpicks because that could just be a failing on my part, and not the author’s.

The tl;dr:

Concept: Good. Execution: Shaky.

All in all, I give it 3/5 stars.

As I said, the cons won’t stop me from reading the rest of the books, but I’d like to see more plot and character interaction, and less exposition. Where it ended for the first book had the feeling of the middle-point in your average novel with good pacing and plot.

I’d relegate the series to something you could read between waiting for your favorite authors to release their next book, and I don’t think I’d ever buy a hardback if the rest of the series is similar.

Tales of the Graveyard Shift: The Greasy Goblin ~~ Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven

 

It turned out that Celinwel called the owner after she was released, and quit. So much for saving her to make my life easier. The night wasn’t that bad, though, since I forgot to account for Thea. She was efficient, quirky, though decidedly chatty about anime. I mean, I wasn’t sure how she was getting internet out in the Middle of Nowhere, Creepy Ass Woods, U.S.A., but it was probably highly illegal and I didn’t want to know.

As a weird speck of normalcy in the weirdest week of my life, I went to my nephew’s birthday party. They were lucky I showed up at all. Between sleepless days, working nights, and trying to solve a goblin murder to keep my brother’s tail out of the fire, I was dragging ass like a pug across a carpet. My only saving grace was that Saturday was my day off, and I’d managed some decent sleep before the party on Sunday. Slies had been conspicuously absent, but I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth and start to question it. I really didn’t want to wade through a pack of screaming children, but I needed to talk with my brother about a fair few things, which may or may not end with me yelling at him.

What kind of brother keeps the existence of the supernatural from his sister, and as a result she ends up beholden to a goblin leader to keep him from whatever terrible fate said goblin could concoct? A lame one, that’s who.

“Holly!” Candy’s voice cut across my nerves like the steel on steel squeal of a car collision.

If there was one word to describe Candy, it was ‘bombshell’. She was curvy, blond, stylish, and her eyes were a deep blue that almost seemed to flash indigo at times. Honestly, she was so perfect it was unreal. If she hadn’t had four kids with my brother, (and how unfair was it that she still looked that good after four kids?), I’d have guessed she was a robot.

She wore what I called ‘rich mom chic’, with a flowing, gauzy navy-blue shirt, black slacks you couldn’t call slacks because it was supposed to be ‘casual’, and silvery high heels. Her perfectly curly hair was swept into an up-do with a few artfully placed loose strands, and her various pieces of jewelry that could feed me for at least six months flashed in the low light of the entryway. The fact was, I was jealous, no two ways about it. She exuded grace like she was born to it, and the best I could manage on a good day was, ‘at least I’m not wearing sweat pants’.

“Hey, Candy,” I choked out without sounding too incredulous. I was getting better with time. It’d only taken me how many years to manage that? Still, point to me.

When I gave her a little wave her eyes widened at the soft cast on my hand.

“What happened to your hand?” she asked, some of the shininess in her voice wearing off. I should punch goblins more often.

“I, uh, lost my temper,” I said lamely.

She raised an eyebrow in expectation of more, but I simply smiled my most guileless smile, letting her know that was all I was going to say on the matter. I couldn’t very well tell her that a goblin healer had wrapped my hand, stating it was all he could do because goblin flesh was far too different from human for him to use his abilities. He said it was just fractured, but that I should still go to the hospital. I respectfully declined. I could barely pay for food let alone a medical bill.

“You wouldn’t happen to know where my dear brother is hiding, would you?” I asked, going for innocence, but probably not managing it very well.

“Oh, he’s—”

“Aunt Holly!” The unholy screech was my only warning before I was attacked by a pack of beasts, also known as my nieces and nephews. In total there were four of them: two boys and two girls, and they were all elementary and pre-school age.

At the moment I was only being accosted by three of them: Brielle, 7, Owen, 5, and Evelyn Rose, 3. Jason, the birthday boy, was turning 9 and likely commanding his birthday guest minions in some game of mischief or another. The child could wage a full-scale war from his tree house against the best military strategists out there, and I’d still bet on my nephew. If I hadn’t seen the birth certificate I would have sworn ‘Devious’ was his middle name.

“Hey, you three! Not causing too much trouble, are you?” I asked and hugged them close. Their behavior and my opinion of their mother’s name notwithstanding, I did love my nieces and nephews.

“Nope, just the right amount,” Brielle said, giving me a smirk to match her cheek.

I laughed, and turned at the insistent tugging of Evelyn Rose. She held her arms out to me in the universal toddler gesture of up, and I melted in the face of her forget-me-not blue eyes. Her hair was the white blond of small children, fine, and softly curling. It sat loose to her shoulders, because if anyone got near her with hair ties she threw unholy fits of rage.

I handed Candy the gift for Jason, and she tried to protest on my behalf since my arm was injured, but I waved her off with my good hand. I picked Evelyn up with one arm and she cuddled close to me, tucking her head beneath my jaw and resting on my shoulder. She took in a deep breath, and then stilled. Her sudden lack of movement made me freeze in response. Toddlers were naturally squirmy things, and any behavior outside the norm with them was cause for concern.

“Aunt Holly?” she said, her childish voice questioning and with an edge of confusion.

“Yes, Evy?” I asked, trying to keep my voice relaxed.

“You smell funny,” she said, and sat up enough for me to meet her eyes.

My breath caught in my throat at the sight: no longer blue, her eyes were the shade of mulberries, and the sensation of falling forward despite not moving threw my brain into full-out panic mode.

We’re falling! Primal Brain choked out, half in fear for us and half with instinctual fear for the potential to hurt Evelyn. Or maybe because of Evelyn.

We are not, but it’s unsettling, Rational Brain noted queasily.

“Evelyn Rose Bell—you will control yourself this instant, or you will be sent to your room!” Candy’s words rang out in the front hall, louder than they should have been but not in the sense of sound, and the reverberations made my bones ache.

Evelyn let loose her famous pout face, and I made to protest on her behalf, but Candy pulled her from my arms.

“Young lady, you know better. Now, go up to Nanny until your father and I are done speaking with Aunt Holly. Brielle, take her up. Owen, head out to play with your brother,” Candy said, issuing commands to each of the children in clipped tones I’d never expected from the perky woman.

As I shook what felt like fog from between my ears, I watched my nieces and nephews move quickly to do as their mother said. Apparently, this is what they meant by whipping out the ‘Mom Voice’.

When they were all gone Candy turned to look at me, and her eyes weren’t flashing indigo this time: they stayed that color. She stepped into my personal space and inhaled deeply right in front of my face, closing her eyes slowly as her lungs filled.

“Oh, Holly,” she said sadly, and opened eyes full of sorrow. “Come on, Joel is in his office. I think we all need to have a chat,” she finished, her voice soft.

When she turned and headed deeper into the house, I stumbled along behind her, my mind clearing more with each step. The newfound panic I’d discovered this week along with the existence of the supernatural was screaming and raking claws along my nerves, making me jumpy. I’d thought I’d already tumbled over my line of tolerance and found an equilibrium with co-workers, but this was family. Whatever was going on here was pushing me toward an edge in my mind, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to climb back over. Even I had my limits.

Candy knocked softly, but didn’t wait for a reply before opening the door.

“Dear, I said I’d be down in time for the cake and presents. I’m alm—”

“Joel,” Candy said, her voice still soft.

I stepped into the room in time to see my brother’s head snap up and his brows furrow with concern at his wife’s tone. Then his eyes turned to me, and his head tilted in question. My brother and I shared the brown sugar colored hair, hazel eyes, and need for glasses, but in everything else we differed. He was tall like everyone else in the family, while I was short, and I took more after our mother in looks and he our father. Typical genetics. My brother was clean cut, no facial hair, and if he hadn’t hated the thought of traveling he might have followed in our father’s military footsteps. He cut a nice figure in his business suits when he was working, but here at home he was dressed in the same artful casual as Candy.

Candy closed the door behind me, and remained standing a little back and to my left.

“Hey, Buttface,” I said, trying to defuse the tension with my affectionately dubbed nickname for my brother, and waved my injured hand at him.

He snorted, and gestured to my hand. “Getting into trouble still, Stumblebum?”

I harrumphed and tried to cross my arms without jostling my hand. “Technically, this trouble found me.” Then I scowled at him. “In fact, I’m holding you partially responsible for this.”

He raised a single eyebrow, leaned forward on his desk with his elbows, and steepled his hands in front of him. “Oh, really? Do tell.”

“Well, it might have something to do with someone named Gozuk,” I spat acidly at him, yearning for a reaction.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Joel jumped to his feet, his eyes flashing with anger as he strode around the desk. When he started toward me I did my best not to take a step back in surprise or fear, I wasn’t sure which, and then his hands were tightly gripping my shoulders.

“He didn’t hurt you, did he?” he asked, his voice hoarse and low with fury and concern.

My eyes burned with the start of tears, but I knew if I started I might not stop, and I didn’t want to be a blubbering mess at my nephew’s birthday party. The fact was, though, that my brother and I might pick on each other to the point where we didn’t speak for months, but no one was allowed to lay a finger or level an unkind word in our directions. Making each other miserable was our prerogative and no one else’s.

“Not directly, no, but he put me in a situation, or a few, to be injured,” I said, my voice going soft like Candy’s. Then I turned my face up to search his eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me about…them?” I asked, hesitating on the last word.

Joel sighed and loosened his grip. He shoulders slumped and he looked anywhere but at me when he spoke. “We’re not allowed to. There are rules and governing bodies in the various supernatural factions that prohibit it. I wasn’t even allowed to say anything when I was questioned about having you as a manager at that fast food place. They thought since I was…tolerable, for a human, that you might be as well. If you had reacted poorly they would have simply wiped your memory and sent you on your way.”

He picked up my injured hand in his and ran a finger over the rough material of the cast. “Now I wish I had just told them you wouldn’t be able to do it.” Guilt was rolling off him in waves, and I sighed, exasperated.

“It’s fine, Joel. You didn’t know Stribs was going to get murdered and that Gozuk was going to drag me into it,” I said, and did something rare and unexpected: I hugged my brother. It was awkward, but we both needed it.

Candy cleared her throat, and when the two of us parted we both looked at her. Her eyes darted between us and then she broke out into a genuine smile.

“You two are more alike than you let on,” she said with a little laugh. It died almost as quickly as our hug, though, and her mouth turned down in a frown. “Joel…” she said, nervously, biting her lip. Her eyes darted to me, and the panic from earlier was back.

Joel sighed again. “Holly—”

“I’m not sure I want to know,” I said, interrupting him. My eyes were wide and panicked.

No, no, no, no, no, Primal Brain said in a sing-song voice, covering their figurative ears.

It would be better to know, Rational Brain said, not unsympathetic.

“It’s not about you wanting to know. It’s about needing to, to keep you as safe as we can. I expected at your job you’d stay in the shallower end, given the, uh, rabble that works there, but you’ve been thrown into the deep end, and we both know you’ve never been a great swimmer,” he said, his voice firm. He scanned my face, but whatever he saw there didn’t reassure him.

“How about you tell us what’s been going on, and then we’ll move on to more personal matters?” Candy suggested.

I didn’t know why, but her words calmed me. I wasn’t sure recounting my week would help me with whatever bomb they were going to drop on me, but it couldn’t hurt. We made our way over to the pair of couches that faced each other in front of a fireplace. His office was large, the walls covered with bookshelves filled to the brim with law books and accolades. Honestly, the whole room was probably as big as my small apartment.

After we settled, I told them about my very busy week. Joel’s eyes narrowed in parts, in particular when I mentioned Knight and Thea. The former I could understand, he was law enforcement and my brother was a lawyer. Not to mention Knight was a grade-A asshole. Thea, however, was a surprise.

“Please don’t drive her home again,” Joel requested, the words holding an edge of pleading to them that set the hairs on the back of my neck to attention.

I gave him a hesitant nod. I wanted to know why, of course, but I had a funny feeling I was going to get more information than I wanted in short order. I didn’t need to overload on it.

When I finished, Joel leaned back against the couch, his eyes narrowed in thought.

“I might be able to give you some directions to go in, or suggest some people that could help, but I’ll need some time to make some calls. Your, uh, association with certain people will make getting you help difficult. But I’ll try to get you something before you leave from the birthday.”

My brows furrowed at his words. “What associations? The people I work with?” I paused. “You called them rabble earlier. That’s rather rude, Joel,” I scolded.

Candy cleared her throat, and Joel deferred to her with a tilt of his head, which was the most shocking thing so far today. There was more to my supposedly airheaded sister-in-law than I thought, and I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt at the realization. I hadn’t treated her like someone who had two brain cells to rub together, and based off current evidence I’d been somewhat uncharitable in doing so.

Still can’t get over her name, Rational Brain noted, with a sniff.

I silently agreed.

“The Owner of the Infamous Chicken isn’t only known for his talent with food; he also tends to collect outcasts. No one that would cause anything overt as a war with a faction, but those who were no longer welcome with their particular group.” At my frown, Candy continued, “Like Odella. She killed her Master, and though she was within her right to do so based on Code Sanguis, or vampiric law, no one willingly associates or invites vampires that kill their Masters to be around them, or join their Clan. It would be like inviting someone who assassinated the President to live with the newest President, or another world leader. They are seen as pariahs. Hence why The Owner took her in.”

I wasn’t sure I was comfortable hearing about Odella’s life, or rather undeath, from anyone but Odella herself, but Candy was simply trying to give me an example. I couldn’t fault her for that.

“So, you’re saying that everyone I work with, in some way, is an outcast?”

“Yes, and you working with them gives you an unofficial outcast status, too. It limits how much I’ll be able to help, given my position,” my brother said, his lips pressed into a thin line.

I sighed. I was never very good at politics—that was always Joel’s deal—but it sounded like I had indeed ended up in some deep garbage just by trying to be gainfully employed. Fate was having a laugh at me, She had to be.

“Okay,” I said, and took a deep breath. “While I don’t understand all of it, I’ll appreciate whatever help you can give me. They were so sure it was Celinwel, but that theory is trash now.”

Joel nodded, and tapped a finger to his chin as he thought. The silence between us stretched to the point of uncomfortable, and I squirmed a bit.

Just bite the bullet and get it over with, Rational Brain prompted.

I took a shaky breath and met both of their gazes with a pointed look. “Tell me.” The words had tumbled from me before I could think anymore on it.

Candy licked her lips and Joel grimaced.

“Do you remember how Candy and I met?” Joel asked tentatively, as though feeling out my mood.

Wow, apparently, we were going way back. I shook my head and pursed my lips. “At some work party, or something, right?”

Joel gave a nervous chuckle. “Yeah, that was the story we told. The truth is that Candy was…kind of…a reward for something I did for some…thing,” he said.

With each long pause between his words my eyebrows climbed higher and higher.

“Are you telling me someone gave you a person as a reward?” I spat, disgust thick on my voice, and I looked at Candy. I was expecting her support in my revulsion, but I was shocked to find a soft smile on her face as she looked at my brother.

“It wasn’t the best of circumstances, at least not in the eyes of humans, but our world doesn’t work the same as yours. Even the beings who ape humans closely, or were humans before, have very alien customs in the eyes of humans. It’s why we tend to avoid them. That, and the fact that humans tend to destroy what they fear,” Candy chided.

It was still a struggle for me to reconcile what I was seeing with their words. If what they said was true, she was basically a slave and she had no choice in the matter.

“So, he didn’t—” I made a waving gesture with my hand between the two of them.

Her eyes softened at my display of concern. “No, he was very gentlemanly. Despite what he was told about me and my disposition, he refused to do anything until we’d courted properly.” Then she laughed, the sound happy and warm. “It was the first time in my very long life anyone had treated me like a person instead of an object. I would do anything for Joel and the children,” she said, and took his hands in hers.

Watching them, I had to let go of my misgivings. It didn’t sit well with me how it had happened, but at the end of the day it was none of my business. And if they were truly happy, who was I to try and kick over their jubilant little sandcastle of love?

I took a deep breath, and let it out slow. “Okay. I can’t say I’m completely okay with this, but obviously my hang-ups are my own thing, and I’ll get over them. Or, I won’t, but I’ll keep it to myself.”

Candy’s eyes filled with tears, and Joel pulled her into a hug, whispering soothing words to her as he rubbed her back.

At my expression, Joel pulled back from Candy as she pulled an honest-to-goodness handkerchief from up her sleeve to dab at her eyes.

“She’s been fretting how you would react. Though I treat her as she should be treated: with respect and care, not everyone believes she deserves that. Your reaction means a lot, Holly. Ever since you took the job, we’ve been discussing how we were going to tell you everything.”

Something relaxed in my chest that I didn’t know had been tense. “You were going to tell me at some point, then?”

Joel and Candy nodded. “We decided on today, after Jason’s birthday, but then everything with the goblins happened and we were going to postpone,” Candy said. “But then…”

“But then Evelyn’s eyes changed and she said I smelled funny,” I prompted her to continue.

She nodded, but my brother laughed at the face I made when I stated what Evelyn said.

“Don’t worry, she says that about me whenever I come home from meetings with anyone except…her kind. Children, of any sort, are not known for their tact,” Joel said wryly.

My heart was in my throat and I tried to swallow around it. “You have to stop beating around the bush. I’ve already been lectured on asking a certain question,” I said, remembering Lia’s words with a blush of embarrassment, “so please, just tell me.”

Joel and Candy’s expressions were pained. “We just don’t want it to change how you act around the children,” Candy said, fear written plain in the way she held herself still, as though with one move she might break.

“Well, I already call them little hellions, what could be wo—” I couldn’t finish the sentence. When I’d said the word ‘hellions’, Candy flinched and lowered her gaze.

I clenched my hands, my breaths were coming out in quick, shallow pants, and chest was tight. It had been years since I’d had an honest to goodness panic attack, and though this week had pushed me pretty close, this had done me in.

“You-you’re demons?” I asked. The final word came out much harsher than I’d intended, but I’d had to push it out, or I wouldn’t have been able to say it at all.

Candy nodded, still not looking at me, and Joel gave me pleading eyes. Begging me to understand.

I stood up suddenly. “I-” I snapped my mouth shut against whatever was about to fall gracelessly from my mouth, and looked at the door. “I need a moment.”

Then I rushed from the room like a coward, and pretended I didn’t hear a soft sob right before I closed the office door behind me.

 

 

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