AoA 04: Voz and the Ward

[author’s note: Check this post for background on these fantasy bits. This particular cut scene is my favorite of the campaign so far… detailing a small sidebar in the Age of Ashes adventure path that I couldn’t otherwise find a way to reveal to the players. Voz is one of the two main bad guys in Book 1 of the adventure.]

Voz Lirayne sat in a dark, candlelit room. Her thin, pale hands shook from exhaustion and concentration as carefully, very carefully, she placed a black onyx stone on the wooden table in front of her. Voz’s eyes darted left and right, silently measuring that the onyx sat directly in the center of a circle of lit candles dotting the table’s edge. Satisfied, she turned her attention to the other object on the squat table.

The severed head did not stare back at her, because its eyes were long since gone. Pallid, dry flesh clung to its black-haired skull, lips peeled back from crooked teeth. Even in death, it’s clear that the living man’s nose had been broken countless times and sat above the leering mouth as a twisted lump.

Voz closed her eyes, breathing deeply and centering herself. After long moments, her dark eyes opened and focused on the onyx.

She began to chant in a muttering language, the sounds alien. The candle flames dipped low as they seemingly bowed to the eerie tongue, almost guttering out.

For hours Voz droned on. The chant, if anyone but Voz were there to hear it, harkened to lonely, moonless graveyards and ruined crypts. Her voice gained speed and volume, and as it did the candles’ flames rose in response. The candleflame turned a sickly green.

Finally, with a hoarse shout, Voz threw back her head and opened her arms wide. And, as she did so, the head on the table groaned. Voz smiled tightly, sweat beading her brow. The onyx was gone, a blackened smudge on the table.

“Where–? Where am I? What has happened?” the head croaked in a dry whisper. Yawning eye cavities searched the abandoned storeroom. “What is this place?”

“Silence,” Voz snapped. The head turned slightly to regard her, the stump of spinal cord of its neck twitching against the table. “I have questions, and you will provide me answers, corpse.”

“Corpse. Ah…” the head sighed. “That explains it then. We are in the crypts, it seems. And, yes, I see now, we are in the back storeroom. Ask your questions then, wizard, and leave me be.”

“Who were you in life? A full Hellknight?”

“A Hellknight, yes. Grachius Felix, of the Order of the Nail, stationed at the glorious Citadel Altaerein, in backwater Isger. A land of heathens and disorder needing to be tamed. Indeed, I was the one who–”

“Desist,” Voz snapped. “I don’t care.”

“I see. So you are neither a follower of Asmodeus nor his Law. Then I suppose I am here for some other purpose. Ask your questions, desecrator. Ask.”

Voz absently smoothed a hand over her pale hair, pulled back in a high ponytail, ensuring not a strand was out of place.

“We, you and I, Grachius Felix, are indeed presently within the basement and tombs of your citadel. Yet there is a lower level to this place, yes?”

“Not built by the Order’s hands, but yes. There are elven ruins below. Ah, but I see your ears now, so perhaps that is the connection. Go to them and leave me be, half-elf abomination of a spellcaster, whose parents did not value purity. You do not need me to see the ruins for yourself.”

Annoyance in her voice, Voz asked, “Did the Hellknights here ever decipher their purpose?”

“A temple to your elven gods, long forgotten, we assumed. There must be ghosts there you can pester, necromancer. Why rouse me?”

Voz sniffed. “The way below is blocked, the stairway collapsed.”

“Ah. Alas. The citadel has fallen, then. All things must eventually fall beneath the eternal gaze of Asmodeus, I suppose.”

“Is there another way in?”

The head of Grachius smiled, running a black tongue across its withered lips. “And there is the question that rouses me from eternal sleep, it seems. Of course. There is always another way in, fool.”

“Where? Tell me.”

“Alas, I must answer your questions, foul deathspeaker, however I might wish otherwise. It is odd, to be compelled in such a way. Quite novel.”

“Tell me!”

“Yes. There is a cave, six miles from the citadel, that leads back and under to the elven ruins. Or there once was. Who can know? My time has passed, and my knowledge with it. So much must have changed, if the mighty Order of the Nail now lies in ruin.”

“Where is this cave?”

Just then a sound like a large WHUMP! echoed from nearby. A purple light washed over the room and beyond, passing through the walls like a wave crashing onto a beach.

“What was that?” Voz gasped, eyes wide.

“Ah. I wondered if it might still be intact. Hoped it would be. The whole thing took rather longer than I expected. I was… stalling, you see. As best I could. I must answer, but it need not be quickly.”

“What was it, slave?” she snarled.

“A necromantic ward,” Grachius leered grotesquely, lips peeled back.

“A what?”

“Ah, not so powerful a wizard, it seems. The Order guards its tombs from necromancy, half-elf abomination. See for yourself, see for yourself.” Grachius chuckled. A purplish glow had begun to form in his otherwise empty eye sockets.

Voz stood, limbs protesting from fatigue and inaction. She smoothed her robes and went to the heavy door behind the still-chuckling head.

It was a long, dark room lined with headstones. As her keen eyes adjusted to the shadows, she heard the scraping of stone on stone. The sound repeated from several places around the room.

Something was opening the Hellknight tombs. Something from within.

Voz hustled back into the storeroom. The head of Grachius continued to chuckle, its eyes now fully aglow with purple light.

“Fight fire with fire, eh necromancer? Even in its demise, the Order is wise. Goodbye, mongrel scum.”

“Where is the cave?” Voz snarled, stuffing materials hastily into her satchel. The sound of heavy stone lids hitting the floor echoed nearby.

“I am free of you now. Savagery must be quelled in the land, home, and mind. Begone!” The head screamed, and as it did so burst into a purple fire. All around the table, the green-flamed candles guttered and died.

Cursing, Voz rushed to her escape tunnel at the back of the storeroom, a raw and jagged hole in the wall. Something wailed despairingly from deep within the tombs, the eerie sound echoing as the thump of something–several somethings, actually–began bumping and shuffling beyond. It sounded as if the entire complex was waking into undeath.

“Necromantic fucking ward,” Voz growled, and vanished into the dirt-walled tunnel.

Well, she thought, willing her stiff legs forward as another distant voice wails, she had what she needed. She was one step closer to unlocking the secrets of Alseta’s Ring.

 

* * *

 

Voz stood with maps arranged across the table. It was daytime, the sounds of Breachill awake drifted faintly into her small shop. Her lips were pursed in concentration as she measured and marked the maps, measured and marked.

“Six miles… six miles…” she muttered. “I’ve got you!”

Voz stood excitedly, checking her work and measuring again to be sure. But she had it. She slammed her hand down on the table in triumph.

Dabbing a quill hastily in an inkwell, she jotted into her notes, “Aha! Entrance to Alseta’s Ring–Guardian’s Way” and laughed into the empty room.

Someone knocked at the front door of the shop and Voz whipped her head around. She narrowed her eyes, annoyed. The tall half-elf stood, deftly and with practiced hands locking the door of her small research room behind her.

Voz took a deep breath and smoothed her robes. Absently, she ran a hand across her head to ensure that her white-blonde hair was in place. The door to her shop opened. Standing there, a motley crew of Jacques du Tank, Yoonla, Obedience Fletcher, and Zonja-ex arrayed behind him, was Jethro Vermillion.

“Pardon me, ma’am,” Jethro said. “May we come in?”

AoA 03: We Remember

[author’s note: With any Age of Ashes posts, check out this blurb for some background. I should also say that if you happen to be a Pathfinder 2 player and interested in the campaign, proceed with caution because there are spoilers in these cut scenes! This was Jethro’s third haunting vision so far.]

 

Jethro Vermillion found himself standing at the edge of a makeshift graveyard. Clouds stirred peacefully overhead. Crows called out, unseen, from distant trees. The high walls of Citadel Altaerein loomed in the background, casting into shadow the plot of land with its simple stone grave markers.

He stroked his beard thoughtfully, frowning at the figure standing within the graveyard.

Alak Stagram was as Jethro had last seen him, his once-handsome face now half-peeled of its skin, skull leering beneath. His matte plate armor, once pristine, was now scratched and dented from claws and weapons. The undead armiger, one eye plucked from its socket, attempted to smile. At least Jethro thought it was a smile, though the horrifying, blood-slicked visage was the stuff of nightmares.

“Jethro, yes?” Alak’s voice was surprisingly the same as in life, rich and dripping with highbrow disdain. “I’m afraid I never learned your family name.”

Jethro tried to answer but found himself unable to speak. His frown deepened.

“Skeleton got your tongue, perhaps? Well, no matter. I suspect this,” he waved a ravaged hand into the air, “conversation will be as brief as our acquaintance. Tell me, were you ever able to find my family’s signet ring?”

Jethro nodded.

“Was it within the back vault? Perhaps in a drawer with a false bottom?”

He nodded again.

The skeletal warrior sighed and slumped his shoulders. “Yes, after searching the first level I suspected my mother would hide it there. She spoke of that room, sometimes, and that drawer. For all their love of order, the Hellknights do love their secrets. Perhaps the apple does not fall far from Asmodeus’ tree, eh? In any case, do bury the ring with my remains, if you please. I literally died for that thing.”

Alak straightened and fixed Jethro with his remaining eye. “It seems I was somewhat of a fool for not accompanying you into the citadel vaults, a mistake for which I cannot atone. My impatience got the better of me. Alas. Alas.”

The soil to Alak’s right began to stir, and a frog-like hand pushed its way from below. The hand searched for purchase. Alak followed Jethro’s glance.

“Aha. As promised, our conversation will be brief. In a matter of days, priest of Sarenrae, the bodies have piled up beneath you and your merry band.”

Jethro’s eyes widened as multiple corpses now pulled themselves free of their graves. There were frog-like boggards and monkey-like charau-ka, and a small legion of skeletons with their glowing purple eyes. Behind Alak, a furry arm of a bugbear began pulling its owner from the soil, a dirt-caked dagger clutched in her hand.

“I would caution you, priest. Your merry band is running headlong towards an apocalypse, an event that could scar the world. And when it happens, when that Age of Ashes, as it were, is upon you…”

Many corpses had pulled themselves free, still bearing their mortal wounds. Slashes from swords and magical burns marred the creatures. Some seemed to have holes the size of goblin fists through their throats and chests. They assembled behind Alak silently, dead eyes fixed on Jethro. With each moment that passed, more bodies filled out the ranks of the graveyard.

“…well, when that times comes…” Alak shrugged, opening his hands wide. “We remember.”

White lightning crackled overhead, and Jethro saw that what was once an overcast sky had become the angry threat of a storm. Colors flashed in the clouds: red, green, and blue.

The wet, black soil surged up and around Alak and his surrounding zombies, violently pushing them high into the air. The rumble of the erupting earth echoed in thunder overhead.

And then, towering over Jethro, was the form of an enormous creature, like a worm or snake made from the graveyard soil. Dotting its length were the bodies of the dead, with Alak Stagram at what would be the creature’s forehead, the armiger’s arm, shoulder and mangled head visible. The graveyard worm loomed over twenty feet high, swaying and dripping both soil and ichor at Jethro’s feet.

“WE REMEMBER!” announced all the heads in the creature, human and boggard and monkey and skeleton and bugbear as one. The voices then screamed wordlessly in defiance and anger, the sound like the roar of a dragon, as the worm-like creature opened its maw and struck down at Jethro.

 

 

Tangled in sweat-soaked sheets, Jethro Vermillion screamed into the morning darkness, the dragon’s roar still echoing in his ears.

AoA 02: A Dragon’s Warning

[author’s note: Please see this post for some background information on anything tagged “AoA.” This was Jethro’s second haunting vision and was a fun writing experiment. Marcus, Jethro’s player, and I wrote this collaboratively back and forth via Facebook Messenger.]

Jethro Vermillion stepped forward hesitantly, blinking and confused. He took in his surroundings.

The cleric stood at one end of a long tunnel that seemed to be made of hardened lava, long ago scorched and melted. Tiny cracks and fissures lined the walls, within which an orange glow flickered and gave the tunnel a soft, fiery illumination. The air was uncomfortably warm and smelled of smoke.

An archway just behind him glowed with gold and silver mist, and it seemed to Jethro that humanoid figures moved within it. At the far end of the tunnel, perhaps a hundred feet, an identical archway shimmered with mist.

“What manner of place is this?” Jethro asked aloud.

Just then blasts of fire and smoke poured out of the tunnel’s walls. Jethro flinched from the sudden explosion of sound and heat. Within moments, the burning form of a dragon coalesced mid-length of the passageway.

The fiery creature was so large that it had to crouch, its head laying between claws and staring directly at Jethro with burning eyes.

“So…” the dragon croaked, and smoke billowed from its maw. “Here is the newborn of the Dawnflower. You think you are prepared to defeat my followers, newborn? To confront the Eternal Destruction itself?”

“I… I… I am not ready. I know not of what terrible fate you speak. I know not of your followers. You call me newborn of the Dawnflower–I follow the Goddess yes, though I claim no such title. But I know this, foul creature: I am willing. I am willing to play my role to the world’s end, whatever the cost. And if you are that lover of oblivion called Dahak, as I suspect you to be, I know that I will serve my goddess and do all in my power to bring you–and all who name you lord–to the light!”

The dragon squinted, looking irritated. “Light. Bah. I serve no one. Not your goddess. I will bring destruction to all, and you, little one, will help me.”

“I would sooner die a thousand deaths than serve your purpose.” Jethro seemed to lift his head taller, his stammer forgotten as he stood on familiar theological ground. “In the end, we all must serve, beast. But the morning comes each day, and if it is indeed my help you seek, I offer you this: It is never too late to repent. The true destruction you wreak is of your own soul. May you find a true spark of wisdom before your own light is extinguished for good.”

The dragon blinked, clearly surprised. Then a slow chuckle bubbled from its throat, filling the tunnel with smoke that burned Jethro’s eyes. “So young. So naive. Your doom is all but guaranteed. You are nothing. Those with you are nothing. Your dreams and plans merely ash in the wind. Proceed on this path, and each step brings you closer to me.”

After a pause, it asked, “What do you hope to accomplish in Breachill? Beneath Asmodeus’ barren citadel?”

Now it was Jethro who blinked, unsettled by the change in tone. “I know not what purpose this citadel or what lies beneath may serve, only that it is right that I am here, that whatever part I have to play starts here. Know this, breather of hot air: where I find good, and those who serve fires of hope and truth, I will provide succor. And where I find evil, and those who would cast this world into endless darkness, I shall bring the flaming sword of redemption. And while we may be inexperienced, the companions who have found me and I, we will only grow stronger, as we have already, and more prepared to stop you!”

“By all means, then, grow stronger. But you will fail,” the dragon sneered. “You and anyone with you will die, flayed and dragged into the Great Darkness to feed me. And then I will rise, finally free of this prison. Your utter failure will unleash me upon your world.”

It inhaled deeply. “Now… Burn, little dragon hunter. BURN!” and the fiery beast opened its maw wide.

Flames filled the tunnel, washing over Jethro and turning him to ash.

 

 

Tangled in sweat-soaked sheets, Jethro Vermillion screamed into the morning darkness, the dragon’s roar still echoing in his ears.

AoA 01: The Dragonstorm

[author’s note: For general background, please see this post. Here is the first of Jethro’s haunting vision cut-scenes, inserted the first time the party all spent the night resting.]

Anso pulled on the bin of rotting vegetables and discarded bread crusts. At ten years old, he was a strong boy, but the bin was large, heavy, and unwieldy. Anso grunted and twisted his body, straining to move it across the road of hard-packed earth. It was springtime, with a chill in the air, yet still the lad was plastered in sweat.

“Erika!” Anso gasped. “Gods! Are you going to help or what?”

Anso’s younger sister was a wisp of a girl, all elbows and knees beneath a mop of jet-black hair. She looked up from poking a beetle with a stick, startled.

“What?”

“Help me, you twit!”

Erika wandered over to the bin and frowned. “It’s too big, yeah? We can’t get it all the way to the stables.”

“Ma said to take it there. She told both of us. So you help me right now, or I swear I’m gonna–”

A deep rumble of thunder rattled shutters and sent nearby dogs barking. Both kids looked skyward, blinking and confused.

What had moments before been a clear blue sky was now swarming with angry clouds, moving overhead like thick sludge around a drain. Blue lightning crackled within the mass, along with orange flame and some sort of green ethereal highlights. Thunder boomed again, shaking the earth with its bellow.

Drops of rain began to fall, and Anso heard something hiss amidst the light patter. He looked at the discarded food within his mother’s bin, which seemed to be smoking. Lettuce leaves and half-eaten cucumbers curled, pockmarked.

“Ow!” Erika complained. She was holding her hand out, a blistering dot smoking from her fair skin. Another drop struck her forearm and she yelped. “Ow! Anso!” she said, shaking her arm. “It hurts!”

The temperature suddenly dropped. Anso’s eyes darted from his sister to the smoking vegetables, panicked, his breath making a puffy cloud before him. Thunder boomed again.

“Erika! Run!” Anso screamed. “Get inside!”

His sister had apparently realized the threat of the rain and was ducking, hunched to try and make herself small. Without realizing it, Anso had retreated to the far side of the street, under an awning. He reached out his hand to Erika. Several raindrops struck his outstretched arm, though, burning him and causing him to snatch his hand back.

“Aargh! Erika! Hurry! Run!”

His sister’s little stick legs tangled and she fell, then scrabbled to pop up again. She was crying, not looking where she was stumbling, guided by her brother’s voice. Thunder boomed again, and Anso could hear panicked horses screaming along with the dogs. Voices of people all around him began to yell in fear and pain. Erika was five steps away. Four.

A ball of fire fell from the sky with a whoosh, engulfing Erika in its bright blaze. The resulting explosion of fire and dirt sent Anso sprawling backwards into his father’s tavern, hitting his head hard against the wooden wall. When he looked up, disbelieving, where his sister had been there was now a five-foot circle of black earth and a charred lump. The bin of vegetables was on its side, flaming and smoking and gathering a thin film of frost.

Anso’s eyes darted left and right. He whimpered. A lightning bolt, searing itself onto his vision, struck the building across the street, immediately followed by a boom of thunder so loud it stole Anso’s breath.

Another ball of fire landed in the street. Behind eyes squeezed shut, another flash of light was immediately followed by another deafening boom. His ears rung from the cacophony, and behind the ringing he could hear people and animals screaming everywhere.

It was almost unbearably cold now, coating everything in frost. The rain increased, eating away at everything it touched. Lightning and fireballs fell constantly from the sky.

Amidst the chaos, a green mist rose from the streets as if from a haunted bog. It was the mist that killed Anso, burning his lungs from his small, strong body before he had finished taking a single breath. He dropped to his side, mouth agape, eyes bulging, and frost forming over his horror-stricken face.

Over the town of Breachill, the clouds swirled and swirled, ever darker. And from its center, drowning out all screams, explosions, and peals of a thunder, a mighty dragon roared.

 

 

Tangled in sweat-soaked sheets, Jethro Vermillion screamed into the morning darkness, the dragon’s roar still echoing in his ears.

Where’s your writing? What’s this fantasy shit? I thought you liked superheroes? — an author’s note

For the last year+, I’ve been in a weekly writer’s group in Oakland, CA working on a post-apocalyptic superhero novel. Thus my (limited) writing energy has gone into a story I’m not yet ready to share.

But in the past several months, I’ve also begun a journey as a Game Master (GM) of a Pathfinder Second Edition game with five wonderful friends: Marcus, Owen, Jared, Dylan, and Ryan. Part of being a GM of a tabletop roleplaying game is doing a fair amount of writing, and that writing is something I’m happy to share here.

We are playing through the Age of Ashes adventure path, starting with Book 1: Hellknight Hill. The general plotline of the first book is that a group of adventurers unexpectedly save the the town of Breachill’s residents from an arsonist fire. Investigating the fire leads them to the abandoned Citadel Altaerein (known by the locals as “Hellknight Hill”) a mile outside of town, and thus headlong a much deeper series of events that may threaten the world of Golarion itself. Pretty classic high fantasy stuff, and we are loving both the adventure path and this new edition of Pathfinder.

The leader of the adventuring party is Marcus’ character Jethro Vermillion (played by a bearded Jared Leto …we cast all of our characters), a cleric of the goddess Sarenrae. Poor Jethro was born in Breachill, but was plagued by haunting visions that drove him as a teenager out of town and eventually into the faith of his goddess. As he’s returned to his home town the visions have returned. These visions are thus far the main source of writing I’ve been able to do for the adventure, adding in “cut scenes” for the group that foreshadow the possible doom they’re approaching.

(As an aside, each player has either written or is writing a cut scene for their character, which I’m inserting into our sessions at strategic times. This blog is for my writing only, so I won’t include their prose. Suffice it say, though, it’s been a truly wonderful experience of collaborative storytelling.)

I’m now on the FOURTH version of my fledgling novel, and each version has been significantly better than the last. My hope is that eventually I’ll have a finished manuscript to share. Until then, enjoy the random superhero short story here.

And, at least for now, please enjoy the prose I’ve been inserting into our weekly Pathfinder game.

i. Ironside

The room was one-way glass on four sides, two facing the Hollywood studio’s bustling office and the other two facing the hazy, morning urban sprawl of Los Angeles. In this mirrored box, high above the City of Angels, three laughably diverse celebrities sought to change the world.

“Alright, let’s get started,” Christina Ng said. She was often described behind her back as the Corporate China Doll, a petite, seemingly ageless CEO of one of the world’s most successful companies. Christina barely capped five feet tall even in her heels, yet she was clearly the leader here.

“We’ve got video of their auditions if we need it, plus interview transcripts from our conversations with them, photos, and bios in those packets in front of you all. Our goal today is to cut our group in half, from sixteen candidates down to eight. It’s going to be a long day, and we’ll take breaks as we need them. First up is John Bliss from upstate New York, whose Guardian name is Ironside.”

“He’s too fucking nice,” Hudson barked. “This is an extermination service, not a nursery. I need killers.” Nearly seven feet tall, Hudson was built like a comic-book version of a pro-wrestling action figure. An ergonomic office chair strained under his muscular bulk. His simple tank-top displayed not only his physique but his oily jet-black skin, patterned with yellow like a salamander. Hudson was the first videotaped Guardian, and thus one of the most famous and iconic figures in the world, a true American hero. He was also an asshole, and Christina immediately found herself annoyed.

Christina sighed. “You weren’t a killer when you transformed. You were an electrician. Guardians are rarely killers when they change.”

“Alright, fair,” Hudson said reluctantly. “But I wasn’t no choir boy even before I transformed. This guy is.”

“Fair,” Christina nodded. If they were going to spend the entire day debating candidates, it wouldn’t do to fight with Hudson in the first minutes. “Remember that this is a brand play for AlphaTech as much as it is an extermination service, as you put it. You need people who can fight. I need people I can market.”

“He’s definitely marketable,” Andromeda Stacey, twice People Magazine’s Most Beautiful Person in the World, purred.

Andromeda looked fake she was so perfect, even here where all the cameras were off. Her Disney-large eyes, pouting lips, and long neck were as unbelievable in person as the lithe, toned curves beneath her halter top. Blonde hair piled on the supermodel’s head except for a couple of artfully curling wisps brushing each high cheekbone. Whereas Christina sat perfectly erect, Andromeda draped across her chair like a swathe of silk. Christina was a heterosexual woman well into her forties and even she found Andromeda distracting.

“He’s like a 1950’s poster,” the model continued. “Beefy, blonde, handsome, and wholesome. And the kids will think his powers are cool.”

 

* * * * *

 

“Alright, John,” the skinny cameraman said, “We’re ready when you are. We’re rolling.”

John Bliss nodded and took a deep breath. The southern California sun beat down mercilessly.

John grew up in White Harbor, a manufacturing town in upstate New York, and except for four years in the Army he hadn’t traveled much elsewhere. When John had auditioned for Alpha Squad, the world’s first privately-funded team of Guardians, with its big Hollywood studio crew and high-tech corporate backing, he’d assumed everything would be slick. Like a sci-fi show.

So far, it felt sort of the same as New York.

He’d flown coach to Los Angeles. The hotel right near the beach was pretty nice, he guessed, but the room was awfully small. And here he was, miles and miles from Hollywood in some no-name California town, in a big, sprawling junkyard for his first and maybe only audition. Nothing so far had matched his fantasies about Alpha Squad. John was not an entitled guy, but he found himself a bit disappointed by something he’d hyped up in his mind so much.

Still, best thing was to do his best, like his Mom would tell him. The instructions from the film crew were simple as day:

Destroy the truck.

It was a big truck, a Ford F150, sitting about fifty yards away. New.

Everything about the task seemed absurd. There were literally junk cars piled up around him that people had discarded, but here was a perfectly good truck that his Daddy would have loved to drive, and that was the thing John had to destroy. It wasn’t even moving, just sitting there unsuspecting and innocent. John didn’t see how beating up on a defenseless truck was going to tell the judges whether he could or couldn’t defeat a Demon. But instructions were instructions. The Army’s drills didn’t always make sense either. He’d do his best and make his parents proud.

John turned away from the truck and jogged the other way, about another thirty yards further from that doomed, new truck. It was as much distance as he could get in the junkyard with a clear path between him and his target. A pile of old appliances loomed a couple feet from his back like a scrapyard totem pole as he turned and faced the truck again.

He blew out another breath and rocked his neck back from side to side. This is why he came all the way across the country. Time to do his best.

Time to be a Guardian.

He started running. With a thought, wrought-iron metal plates appeared from seemingly nowhere to wrap around John’s body. The entire process took less than a one-Mississippi, and it looked and sounded a lot like something from a Transformers movie. Slabs of metal several inches thick slapped around him in a shifting mosaic, encasing him in armor as he ran. The metal was black, pitted and industrial, like pieces of an unpainted locomotive. Pistons ran along his arms and legs, connecting at running gears on his elbows and knees. A large blast pipe started at his waist and wrapped to jut from behind one shoulder, billowing steam as he moved.

When it was done, John Bliss had become considerably taller and wider, encased in full armor that appeared to be a cross between a medieval knight and an ancient train. His head was an iron cylinder with one Cyclopean eye that glowed white even in the bright sun, an iron, wedge-like grill in front.

CHUNK-CHUNK-CHUNK-CHUNK

His armored feet bit into the arid dirt and weeds as he ran, leaving churned craters behind. Faster and faster. Pistons worked. Steam puffed from the blast pipe and occasionally one of his joints. John, now fully the Guardian his town had dubbed “Ironside,” barreled forward.

His Daddy had clocked him at well over a hundred miles an hour when he got going, as long as he was moving in roughly a straight line. John figured he must have been close to that speed when he collided with two-and-a-half tons of Ford.

The sound was deafening, and for a moment all John could see was twisted metal everywhere. Blind and deaf, he instinctively threw both hands out wide, ripping the mighty vehicle in two and sending both halves spinning away.

As the violent noises of the collision died away, John looked around him with his one, shining eye. Debris from the Ford truck was everywhere… behind him, in front, and especially to each side. He hadn’t realized it, but he must have carried the truck dozens of feet before ripping it in two. That beautiful new truck was now unrecognizable junk for the junkyard.

“Is that it?” John asked. In his Ironside form, his voice was much louder, deeper, and echoed as if he were standing at the bottom of a well. “Am I done?”

The camera crew gaped at him from thirty feet away.

“That was awesome,” John heard one of them say.

 

Meet the Judges: Andromeda Stacey

Andromeda Stacey, twice People Magazine’s Most Beautiful Person in the World, evaluated her face in the mirror.

“You are stunning,” said the man to her right.

Andromeda almost pointed out the many flaws. For starters, those three damned freckles, too-large pores on her nose, the shadows under both eyes, how one nostril was slightly larger than the other, and the faint remnants of a pimple near her lower lip. But she never said such things out loud.

Instead, she quirked one corner of her mouth into a smile and said simply, “Thank you, Peter.”

Peter Moore had aged well, thanks in large part to unending wealth and power as a studio executive producer. He possessed a strong jaw and clear green eyes, the kind of looks that melted young Hollywood aspirants into spread-legged piles of drool. Peter could easily have been a rugged forty years old or a fit sixty. Only the deep smile lines around his eyes revealed more sixty than forty. His shaved head glowed in the bright lights surrounding the mirror.

“Listen,” he said in his deep baritone, straightening his tie in the reflection, “I know you’ve caught a lot of flak for being part of this show, but I hope it’s falling on deaf ears. You’re the perfect third judge for Alpha Squad. The audience is going to tune in because of you.”

The other person in the room, her make-up artist Barbie, was applying concealer below Andromeda’s eyes. The shadows there disappeared as she brushed out the concealer with practiced, quick strokes. Soon the other obvious flaws would be obscured. Goodbye until tonight, freckles.

“Thank you, Peter,” she said, almost without moving.

“Don’t move,” Barbie scolded.

“Good luck today,” Peter said, smiling his brightest at her in the mirror and winking. “Knock ‘em dead, and don’t take any shit from either of them, you hear?”

Andromeda quirked her lip again. After a second or so, the smile faded.

“Right then. See you on set, gorgeous.” He turned and walked out of her dressing room, the door closing behind.

“Asshole,” muttered Barbie.

“Peter? He’s not so bad.”

“Don’t move. If you say so. All he did for five minutes was talk about your looks and then ended by putting you in your place. You’re better than him.”

Andromeda put her hand up, signaling Barbie to stop with the brush.

“Put me in my place?” she asked, quirking an eyebrow.

Barbie was built like a twelve-year-old boy, all skinny limbs and sharp angles. Her pink hair was short and spiked out from her head artfully. Today she wore a simple tank top, showing off tattoos that covered every inch of skin below her chin. The most dramatic ink was the Asian-looking tiger crawling from shoulder to elbow, but Barbie’s body was a mosaic of fantastical animals, obscure symbols, and cartoon characters.

“I shouldn’t have said anything. Sorry,” Barbie said, not sounding sorry in the least.

“No, please. What did you mean?”

“It’s just…” Barbie sighed loudly. “I mean, ‘third judge’? Like the other two are obvious and you’re the tag-along? And that follows a reminder that some people don’t even want you on the show. It just felt like tearing you down more than building you up, is all. Saying people will tune in because of you is just telling you that you’re hot, like you’re only there as eye candy. This sexist industry gets to me sometimes is all.”

Andromeda settled back into the chair, signaling it was time to resume. Barbie started expertly applying highlighter along the top of her cheekbones in silence.

In a couple of minutes, Andromeda spoke. “I don’t even hear those things anymore, to be honest. And let’s not kid ourselves. I’m only on this show as eye candy.”

Barbie snorted. “No. You’re not.”

“How so?”

“If you were here as eye candy, you’d be the host. You’re a judge. You’re here for your opinions.”

“And as eye candy.”

“Okay, sure. But it’s your words that are going to shape this show, not the luscious lips saying them. I get really tired of people treating you like you don’t have a brain, and I’ve been working with you long enough to know you do too. Your looks get you in the door, but you are smarter than anyone at the studio and both of those judges combined.”

“Hm,” Andromeda said noncommittally.

Several minutes later, Barbie was using a fluffy blending brush across her eyelids when Andromeda spoke again.

“It’s ironic,” she said, “that the person hired to enhance my looks is saying this.”

She heard Barbie snort again. “The fact that you see that irony only proves my point.”

Nearly an hour later, both women stared in the mirror, evaluating her face critically. Clay, her hair stylist, had artfully piled Andromeda’s blond hair atop her head, with spiral locks curling down each side to frame her face. That face was now smooth, perfectly symmetrical, and, Andromeda silently admitted to herself, flawless. Cheeks shone. Lips naturally pouted. Her eyes looked back from the mirror large and sensual. Purple eyeshadow glittered, ready to match the miniskirt dress that hung behind her. She had become an airbrushed photograph come to life.

“I think we’ve got it,” Barbie said.

“Yes,” Andromeda said, “Me too. The Trojan Horse is built.”

Barbie blinked, startled. Then her face broke into a huge smile.

“God yes. That’s what I’m talking about. Go get ‘em.”

Meet the Judges: Hudson

The door to the Blue Cat bar crashed open, a panting, skinny white kid silhouetted in the door frame. He wore hipster slacks, a button-up shirt with a too-big collar, and those thick-rimmed glasses that made nerds seem cool. In a glance, Hudson decided the guy was a complete waste of a life. He turned his back on the kid and returned to his Dos Equis.

A few seconds later, the kid was breathing heavily behind him. Hudson frowned.

“Mr. Hudson, sir?”

Dammit. Fanboy.

He sighed and looked at Sylvette, the bartender. She was a pretty thirty-something black girl with a halter top and a sweet afro. Hudson liked Sylvette, which is why he always came back to the Blue Cat whenever he was in LA. She saw his expression and winked, leaning back against the counter to watch the show.

Slowly. Dramatically. Hudson slid off the barstool. Stood up. Turned around.

The kid stepped back involuntarily, just like Hudson intended.

Hudson was about six-and-a-half feet tall. Right now he was wearing a white tank-top, fully displaying his physique. Oh, and his oily jet-black skin, patterned with yellow like a salamander. Seeing Hudson on TV and in person were different experiences, he’d found. He looked down on the kid with pupil-less, white eyes. The punk hipster swallowed audibly.

“Something I can do for you, man?” Hudson rumbled.

“Ah. It’s just, well…” he stammered.

“Yeah? I’m sort of busy here, as you can see. So get to it.”

“Mr. Hudson, sir…”

Hudson grunted. “Shit, man. That’s not my name.”

The kid faltered. “Um, what?”

“My name is Deshawn Andrews, so you can call me Mr. Andrews. Or you can call me Hudson. My fucking last name sure as fuck isn’t Hudson, though. That’s my Guardian name.”

“Oh. Right. Okay.” He was sweating and seemed to gather himself. “Mr. Andrews, sir. I’m from the studio.”

Hudson crossed his massive arms over his massive chest.

“And?”

The kid almost wet himself. It took him a couple of tries to find his voice. “And you’re supposed to be on set now, sir.”

Hudson paused, frowning. He turned back to the bartender.

“Sylvette? What day is it?”

She smiled a bright white smile, framed by those luscious chocolate lips. She had a big gap between her two front teeth. Damn fine woman.

“It’s Monday, honey.”

Hudson grunted, “Damn.” He turned back to the kid, who took another step back.

“When were we supposed to start?”

“Um,” the kid checked his phone. “It’s eleven AM, so we don’t start shooting for a couple of hours yet. But you were due at nine for make-up, wardrobe, and prep.”

“Shit, man. A couple of hours?” Hudson eased his bulk back onto the barstool and turned back around. He took a long swallow of his beer.

It took the kid almost a full minute. Hudson didn’t move. Sylvette didn’t either, though her smile became bigger the longer the silence stretched on. Finally, the kid cleared his throat.

“Mr. Hud– Mr. Andrews, sir?”

Hudson took another swallow. Sylvette shook her head, still smiling.

“Mr. Andrews?”

“What, man?” He still didn’t move. The kid appeared in his peripheral vision.

“Um, we have to go, sir. I’ve got a car outside.”

“Nah.”

“Um, what?”

“You deaf? I said no. I’m enjoying a beer with this fine woman in a mercifully empty bar. Go away, kid. I’ll be there before they start shooting.”

“But… The studio wants you there for…”

“I don’t need that other shit. They get me when I get there. Thanks for letting me know.”

“But…”

“Fuck off.”

More silence. Sylvette couldn’t help it and bust up laughing. She had a sexy laugh, that Sylvette. Hudson thought he would ask her out one of these days.

“I’m, um, I’m going to call the studio,” the kid said uncertainly. “I really think they want you there now.”

“Cool. Do that. Outside.”

Another few seconds of awkward silence, then footsteps and the Blue Cat’s door opened and closed.

“You really filming something today?” Sylvette asked, cocking her head to the side. Big hoop earrings flopped around when she did that, which Hudson thought was sexy.

“Yeah. Apparently.”

“Commercial?”

“Nah. Television show called Alpha Squad.”

Sylvette’s whole face lit up like fireworks. “Oh! I heard about that! That’s the reality show for a new Guardians group! You going to be in it?”

Hudson shrugged. “I’m one of the judges. Then they want me to lead the group after the show, I guess.”

“That’s so sweet! That show’s going to be epic.”

“Hope so.”

“So why you giving that studio guy such a hard time, then?”

“Punk kid annoys me. I’m not taking orders from him. Besides,” he opened his arms out wide and smiled. “Like I said, I’m enjoying a drink with a fine woman. Nothing should interrupt that.”

Sylvette laughed and shook her head. Those hoop earrings jangled around.

“You ever going to ask me out, honey? I’d say yes.”

Hudson kept smiling. “Someday.”

The door opened again, letting in daylight for a second before shutting. The kid all but ran over to his side again. He was holding his phone out like passing an Olympic torch.

“They want you there now, sir. Mr. Moore wants to talk to you. He’s on the phone. Here,” the kid waved the phone around. He looked terrified and sweaty. Good.

Hudson sighed and took the phone in his enormous hand.

“Hey Peter,” Hudson said. “Yeah? Yeah.” Pause. “Okay. I know, I know. I lost track of time, man.” Pause. “No, it’s cool. I’ll come over now.” Pause. “Annoys the fuck out of me, actually. Where’d you get him from?” Hudson listened, then laughed. “Okay, yeah. I won’t kill him until after I get there. Thanks, man.”

Hudson tossed the phone back to the kid. He fumbled it and it clattered to the floor. Fucking useless.

“Sylvette, my dear, my chariot awaits. Thanks for opening up for me.”

“Anytime, honey.”

He reached into his back pocket for his money clip, unrolled a Benjamin and laid it on the table.

“Don’t forget what I said,” Sylvette said, taking the bill and smiling her fine, gap-toothed smile.

“Someday,” he said.

“Well, you got my number.”

“I do. Alright,” Hudson turned to the kid, who had recovered his phone and was looking appropriately uncomfortable. Hudson was going to make this ride hell for the punk, just to fuck with him. “Let’s go then.”

“Okay, great. Great! My name is–”

“Don’t care.”

He could still hear Sylvette’s sexy laugh as they left the Blue Cat behind.

Meet the Judges: Christina Ng

Christina Ng sat in her expensive office chair, staring at a framed photo on her desk. A clock over the closed door ticked seconds ominously in the otherwise silent room.

It was a sizable office, but spartan. Various marketing and business bestsellers lined a modest bookcase mounted on one wall. On the opposite wall hung a framed document–AlphaTech’s first approved letter of funding as a new start-up in Silicon Valley. A tasteful white orchid, to match a tasteful white throw rug. A few modern chairs in which to sit, also white. Occasionally, someone at AlphaTech would ask her about adding some character to her office, and Christina would point out the wall of windows overlooking the San Francisco Bay Bridge behind her. To her, the view was the only aesthetic needed.

The photo showed a younger Christina at her MBA graduation from Stanford University. In it, she wore a red robe and cap, hugging a classmate with eyes shut and smile wide. She could remember that day so well, perhaps the happiest day of her life. Graduating was an accomplishment, but even more a beginning. The day after graduation, Christina began sketching out the business plan that would lead to AlphaTech’s framed funding letter. Staring at the photo brought Christina peace, and hope in troubled times.

Someone knocked on the door twice and then opened it a foot. Samantha Winters, Christina’s executive assistant, stuck her head into the room. She was a young, plump, pale, blotchy, and generally unattractive woman with glasses, and she always had a perpetually startled look on her face. Wicked smart and capable, but easy to underestimate just looking at her.

“Christina?”

Christina blinked from her reverie and looked at Samantha. “Hm?”

“Five-minute warning. Then they’ll escort us to the airport. I’ve got your bags ready.”

“Okay, thanks Sam.”

“Do you need anything?”

“No, thank you.”

Samantha stepped more fully into the room. She was wearing jeans and an unflattering floral top. “You okay?” she asked.

Christina blinked again and smiled with lightly-freckled cheeks. The freckles were the only blemish on her China-doll face.

“I guess. Just sort of thinking about beginnings. It’s a big day, right?”

“Yep. And a fun one. It’s going to be great. Let’s see how you look.”

Christina dutifully stood up and stepped around her desk. White blouse, gray business blazer and matching pencil skirt. She was a small woman–just barely topping five feet tall in her stiletto heels, and petite in every way. Her straight black hair was pulled back in a ponytail and fell to the middle of her back. She smoothed her skirt unnecessarily as her assistant looked her up and down.

Samantha cocked her head. “Beautiful and polished, as always. But…”

“But?” Christina quirked an eyebrow.

“For a Board meeting? Perfect. For today, though, I think the people at the studio are going to spruce you up a bit.”

“Spruce me up? What needs sprucing?”

“Just some color, maybe. A dramatic hat, or a scarf. Something for the audience to talk about.”

Christina smirked. “I’m not exactly aiming for the audience talking about me.”

Her assistant crossed meaty arms and smiled. “Well, maybe I’m wrong.”

“You are, frustratingly, rarely wrong, Ms. Winters.”

A male voice shouted from behind Samantha. “Christina!”

Samantha flicked Christina a look that said, “Want me to get rid of him?” and Christina flicked back a quick shake of her head. It was one of those near-telepathic interchanges both women valued about their partnership.

“And here’s Gareth!” Samantha said, falsely beaming. She stepped aside.

Gareth Graham was a medium-height, skinny Englishmen with perpetually unkempt-yet-stylish hair. He wore a navy-blue suit and a salmon tie, loosened to also look unkempt yet stylish.

“There you are! I’m glad I caught you. Listen, before you kick off this ridiculous enterprise I wanted to try one more time to tell you what a bloody disaster it’s going to be.”

Gareth always had a wild, insistent energy to him. Christina, meanwhile, exuded an aura of serene calm. Their two styles often clashed in AlphaTech’s boardroom. Christina crossed her hands behind her and met Gareth’s panting figure with a half-smile. A moment of silence passed.

Gareth straightened, and exhaled loudly.

“That is to say,” he said less emphatically, “I’d like a word, if you please.”

Behind him, Samantha smiled. “I’ll leave you, then. The studio folks will be here any minute so make it quick.”

“Thanks Samantha,” Christina said as the door closed. Christina backed up a bit and sat lightly on the edge of her desk, gripping the edge with her hands. “Now then, Gareth, we’ve been through this, and the Board agrees with me. You know that.”

Gareth grimaced. “I know. Of course I know. I’m appealing to you to step back and see the wider picture here, Christina. Everything is coming up roses for AlphaTech, and there’s no need to take away that momentum. This could ruin us.”

“I appreciate your concern.” Gareth started to say something, and she held up a hand, cutting him off. “And I appreciate it’s a risk. Companies take risks, Gareth. My job as CEO is to make these decisions. I made the decisions that brought us to such a rosy P&L, you may recall.”

“Yes, but…”

“And if Alpha Squad is a disaster, well…”

“You’ll be out,” Gareth said violently. “You’ll be done. A laughing stock. This company you built will be taken away from you.”

Christina cocked an eyebrow. “Paving the way for a new, vibrant, visionary CEO, perhaps?”

“Dammit. If I wanted the job and wanted you to fail, I wouldn’t be here pleading with you. I’d let you bloody fall flat on your bloody face.”

“Fair point. So why come?”

“In hopes that on the precipice of this disaster that you’d see reason. Don’t do this. Please. I don’t understand why you’re so driven to make us such a public spectacle. I didn’t think you wanted to be a celebrity.”

“Is that what you think this is about? This is about building a brand, Gareth. AlphaTech’s, not mine. And doing some good while we’re at it.”

Someone knocked on the door.

“Well, I’m off to Los Angeles, it seems. I’m afraid the die is cast, Mr. Graham.”

“Mark my words,” Gareth said, shaking a finger, “this Alpha Squad nonsense will. Not. Work. You may have a meaningless reality TV show career at the end of this, but it will be the end of you leading a global enterprise.”

“I suppose we’ll see,” Christina said gently.

“I suppose we bloody will.”

The door opened, and Samantha stood there with an older, bald white man and several young people with tablet computers held to their chests. Gareth turned on his heel and pushed through them angrily. The group looked on briefly as he stormed towards the elevators, then turned their full, smiling attention to Christina.

“Big day,” the man said in a deep voice, stepping forward and extending his hand. “It’s good to see you again, Christina. You look beautiful.”

“Thank you, Peter.” Christina pulled herself away from her desk and met his grip, her hand comically small in his. “Well, let’s get going.”

As the two of them made their way out of the office one of the young people, a cute girl with sunglasses perched on top of her head turned to one of her young companions.

“I’m thinking we need color,” she said.

“Definitely. We’ll do that in LA. I have some ideas. A yellow scarf, maybe?”

Christina overheard and paused long enough to look at Samantha. Her assistant shrugged.

The group moved to the elevators, leaving the office door open. Only the ominous sound of a clock ticking filled the silence.

Thankful (With Cheese!)

It’s been quite a month! I attended the League of Legends World Championships in Berlin (and brought my son, as a birthday present), which was awesome. I then followed it up with Riot’s first-ever global Talent Summit, gathering all of the Talent professionals at Riot Games from our seventeen global offices into one place. The Summit too was awesome. Since then I’ve been in the year-end buzzsaw, full of compensation reviews, 2016 financial forecasting, and holiday parties galore. Whew.

Speaking of holidays, tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the U.S., and so I’ve been getting in touch with my deep wells of gratitude from this past year. Today’s post might be a tad cheesy, but who am I kidding? I’m sort of a cheesy fellow.

First and foremost, I am incredibly thankful for my wife and two kids. I haven’t always been a terrific husband or father through my working life, but this past year has been a high point on both the husbandly and fatherly front. My job means that I am away from home a lot, but the quality of time we’ve been spending together has been arguably the best ever. We laugh more. We share more deep feelings. We are genuinely sad to part and genuinely giddy to reconnect. I feel interwoven into my kids’ weekly activities and am courting my wife again despite eighteen years of marriage.

What could be causing this quality family time? Well…

…I’m also ridiculously thankful for Riot Games. This past year has been the most fun of my career, which is astonishing in part because I was coming off of two of my least fun years. Read most any of my previous blog posts and you’ll see why 2015 has been so great. Riot’s culture is fantastic. My bosses, Riot’s founders Marc Merrill and Brandon Beck, are two of the best humans I’ve met. I’m challenged at work, and also feel tremendously supported. I’m surrounded by gamer nerds all day every day, and make time to play constantly. If you’re not a passionate consumer of what your company does—if you’re not completely gung ho about your company’s mission—I think it’s worth stepping back and asking why you’re there. I’m sort of bummed that it took my half of my life to figure this obvious truth out, but am really, really happy that I eventually stumbled my way here. I officially love what I do and with whom I’m doing it.

I’m thankful for the Talent team we’ve been building over the past year. We’ve added a cadre of impressive leaders and “T-shaped” folks (meaning professionals who have deep expertise but also a lot of utility) at all levels and across our many sub-disciplines (recruiting, talent development, operations, rewards, etc.). The Summit was in many ways an official kick-off to this team as a team, and I’m excited for what this powerhouse group of folks can accomplish in the coming years. Despite lots of change they’ve continued to stay excited about their work and Riot. And one of the coolest indicators that we’re on the right path is that several times a week now I’m approached by Rioters from other teams wanting to join Talent. Super cool.

I’m thankful for League of Legends, and all of the ways it continues to surprise and delight me as a player. As I’ve mentioned before, League is a game that has brought my family together, and has inspired me to throw a ton of hours into trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to master it. What impresses me is how much the League team takes risks and is willing to change pretty much everything from season to season. It feels like a living, breathing environment. My son Jonah is obsessed with Surrender at 20 updates and League’s developing lore. He also finished the last season ranked Silver 4 in North America. Meanwhile, I’m working on my Diana game after reaching level 5 Champion mastery on Fizz, Brand, and Taric (the next Riot Rumble season kicks off in January, for which I’m thankful too). I’ve played a lot of other games, but League of Legends continues to hold my attention week after week.

I’m thankful for the Golden State Warriors and their record-breaking start to the season after winning the NBA championship last year. I’ve been a Warriors fan since 1998, and let me tell you that the last two seasons feel like nothing short of a miracle. They are such a fun team to watch. Sadly, I’ve also been an Oakland Raiders fan since 1991, which has been a lot more consistently frustrating. Thank you, Warriors.

Finally, I’m thankful for my health. In 2014 I was diagnosed with high blood pressure, which was due to both my stress at work and also unhealthy eating habits. It’s the first time I’ve ever started medication of really any kind. This year I’ve lost some weight, do regular meditation, and generally just feel a lot healthier inside and out. My most recent physical at my doctor’s office was stunning in its turnaround, and sure enough it looks like I’ll soon be coming off the blood pressure medicine. There’s some sort of virtuous cycle happening, where I am loving my job, loving my family, and also feeling better. I can pretty much draw double-ended arrows between all three of those things.

So yeah. Pretty cheesy, as advertised. I’m in a good place. At some point I’m sure to hit a rough patch, and when that happens I’ll write an equally dour and frustrated post. For now, though, everywhere I turn I’m finding a reason for gratitude.

If you’re in the U.S., Happy Thanksgiving. Regardless, here’s hoping you find your own virtuous cycle, full of loved ones, fulfilling work, and healthy habits. Then you too can write with gooey, cheesy goodness!

-jms