coming July 5, 2016

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

First Excerpt-- The Black Dream Book One: Servant of Dis

After the Ilian War, Tamsen Ka’antira settled into ruling the Elven Realm with her husband, Brial at her side. But when a diplomatic crisis occurs between Ansienne and Hippolytos, Tamsen and Brial are lured out of Leselle into the treacherous currents of human politics.

Tamsen realizes these escalating events are driven by something inimical—something determined to bring the Elven Queen from behind the magical barrier that protects her realm. Whispers of new sorcerers and upheaval among the gods soon coalesce into a single frightening truth. The peace the gods had granted to Tamsen is over, and the rising threat will turn erstwhile enemies into allies.

Only the greatest danger could persuade the Elven Queen to serve the god that once threatened the existence of her entire race. If Tamsen becomes the servant of Dis, the peril overshadows not just the mortal realm, but the realms of the gods.


“Your Majesty?”
I looked up from the pile of parchment that had been baffling me for hours. Bryse hovered in the doorway.
“Yes? What is it?”
“The scouts have sent word that a visitor is approaching Leselle,” she said.
“Who is it?”
“They didn’t say. They said that whoever it is, he is human and riding his horse hard for the city.”
“That can’t be good.” I sighed. “Are the children in bed?”
“Barely,” she replied, her eyes twinkling.
I grimaced. Although the twins were reasonably obedient for eight-year-old boys, Tamarisk was a handful.
“I’d best go down and see who it is.” I stood from my mother’s writing desk and reaching for my cloak.
“Of course.” Bryse curtseyed.
I pulled the hood over my head as I descended the stairs from my little study to the warm central room of our house. As I donned my gloves, I passed the nursery where our children slept, the telltale sounds of regular breathing reassured me that they were truly asleep. I laid a hand on the guardians who warded our home. Instantly, they slid aside, rearranging the disguising trunk of the colossal tree, and I ducked outside into the swirling whiteness of the storm.
The streets of Leselle were silent and empty, due not only to the lateness of the hour but also to the bitter wind that accompanied this early winter storm. I kept my head low as I negotiated the broad snow-covered branches that served as streets in this ancient city. Only in the Elven forest could trees grow to such a size as to support an entire city.
Leselle was built within the protective limbs of six towering oaks, trees so ancient their origins were lost in the dim beginnings of myth. Once, this lovely city had been leveled—razed by Elven mages to prevent its despoiling by my so-not-mourned uncle, the Duke de Spesialle. At my crowning, the Virgin Huntress had resurrected Leselle to stand as the jewel of the Elven Realm once more.
The only bad thing about it was trying to descend icy tree branches at night.
I slid the final few feet to the city gates where Malvern, one of our most experienced scouts, saluted. Behind him, a shadowed form stood next to a steaming horse whose head was lowered.
“What is it?” A tingle of premonition suddenly raced across my mouth.
The cloaked man lifted his head. I looked into the tired face of Mylan de Phoclydies. Although we were nearly the same age, his face had aged. He wasn’t much older than thirty-five, but deep creases lined his stern face, creases, I knew, that were placed there by the death of Anner de Ceolliune on the Ilian flood plain over a decade earlier.
“Mylan!” I rushed forward to embrace my old friend. I threw my arms around his neck and hugged him hard. He was smiling when I pulled back, but shadows lingered behind his eyes.
“We’ll go up to the house,” I said quietly. “Malvern, find Prince Ka’breona and my uncle. I think they’re down here somewhere. Send them up immediately.”
“At once, your Majesty.”
I linked my arm through Mylan’s, and we began the climb through the thoroughfares of Leselle. “It’s good to see you, old friend,” I said.
The young scouts behind us led Mylan’s exhausted horse to the stables Brial had built on the lower outskirts of the city.
“What in the world possessed you to come to Leselle in this weather, and nearly riding a horse to death in the process?”
“We’ll wait,” he said.
His voice was much deeper and more resonant than I remembered. I hadn’t seen Mylan for three years, not since the funeral of Hyagrem de Silenos in Geochon.
We hurried through the snowy streets, and I opened the guardians to escort my guest into the warmth of our home.
We preferred to live simply in Leselle. Nothing really indicated that this home was the residence of the royal family, save perhaps the shelves full of books that few Elves would own. I removed Mylan’s heavy fur cloak and pushed him onto a couch before the heaped Elfstones glowing on the hearth. I added cinnamon and nutmeg to a tankard of wine and heated it with a thought. One of our servitors appeared with a tray of cheese, bread, and fruit as I handed the hot drink to him. I dismissed her for the evening and served the Earl myself.
His green eyes were dulled with fatigue as he thanked me. I sat on the couch opposite after pouring myself a glass of wine. The guardians slid aside, and Brial strode into the room. A wide grin split his face as he walked toward his friend, arms outstretched. Mylan rose and the two men embraced, Brial almost dwarfed by the greater bulk of the human knight. Behind them, Wilden Ka’antira, my uncle and the last male of the Ka’antira line, smiled. When Brial pulled away with a hearty slap on Mylan’s back, Wilden stepped in and clapped Mylan’s shoulder.
Brial came to my side, and his smile faded as he looked into my face. “What is it, cariad?”
“I’m waiting for Mylan to tell us.” I turned my attention back to the man who had fallen back into the cushions of the couch.
“I came to fetch you two,” Mylan said gruffly. “You are needed in Geochon.”
“Why? What’s going on?”
“There’s trouble over the Spesialle succession.”
“Why didn’t Mariol come to tell us, then?” I asked, puzzled.
“Mariol sent me to you. Dantel de Tizand is doing everything he possibly can, but—” Mylan spread his hands. “There are complications. If Dantel knew I was here, he’d probably throw me into a dungeon. The Council is divided.” Mylan’s voice hoarsened. “I have come, not for the Elven Queen, but for the Countess of Asphodel. Dantel needs friends, and you are probably the only two that can help.”
“Naturally, we’ll come,” I said. “But what could be the problem with the Spesialle succession? Rontil has held the duchy for over ten years.”
“Rontil has finally chosen a wife.” Mylan spoke carefully, as he always had when he was concerned about my reaction.
Of all the dear friends I’d made while on the Huntress’s game, he was the one whose good humor and high spirits had remained intact. Whatever he’d come to tell me, he was worried about how I’d take it.
“Well, that’s good isn’t it?”
“Not necessarily,” he said. “The wife he’s chosen is Alcmene, the sister of Queen Antiope.”
I sat back in my seat, thinking quickly. Thirteen years ago, Alcmene and her sister, Admete, had been sweet-faced little girls. They would be fully-grown warriors now who stood in line to the Hippolyte crown behind their older sister, Antiope. Antiope was still without an heir; the only child she’d borne was the posthumous son of Anner de Ceolliune who could not inherit the throne of a fabled race of female warriors. The political ramifications were obvious—and threatening to those who didn’t understand the terms of the Geochon accords as well as I did.
Brial let out a long whistle. “That’s an awfully big army for an Ansienne Prince to lay claim to. At least, that’s what the courtiers probably think, isn’t it?”
“You’ve got it,” Mylan said. “It doesn’t matter how many times we tell them that men are just a convenience to Hippolytes, the stupid Council doesn’t listen. All they can think of is Rontil sitting in Spesialle and his wife’s sister controlling the legendary legions of Hippolytos and what a huge military power that alliance forges.”
“How did they meet?” I asked.
“They met when Antiope paid a visit to her son,” Mylan wrapped his big hands around the tankard, as if he was trying to warm himself. “She and Mariol agreed to meet in Spesialle, so Mariol took Anteros down to Rontil’s palace. Antiope brought her sisters along and, well, you know Rontil. One thing led to another, and the two became betrothed.”
“How did Antiope take it?” Brial asked.
“She seemed to be all for it at first, but when word of the Council’s uproar reached her, I guess she forbade the whole thing. As a result, the girl took off and now is lodged firmly in Geochon while the whole thing plays out.”
That premonition was back again. I rubbed the back of my newly tense neck. “Where?”
I was afraid I already knew the answer.
“Alcmene is staying with your cousin,” Mylan said blandly. “For some reason, Cetenne thinks this whole thing is funny.”
So without my knowledge, Cetenne has involved the Elven Realm. No wonder Mylan is being so cautious.
I rolled my eyes to the heavens and let out a long-drawn sigh. “By the gods! Why didn’t Mariol come to tell us sooner? We could have headed this whole thing off weeks ago.”
Mylan’s expression darkened. “Mariol couldn’t come, Tamsen. He’s dying.”

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Time to Abolish Political Parties

So here we are, America, less than four months from the general election for the President of the United States, and our political system is a disgrace. The recent WikiLeaks exposure of Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign emails has unleashed an online outrage against both – and against the mainstream media that colluded with them to manipulate our electoral system and defeat Bernie Sanders in the primaries.
Those same emails display the contempt with which both hold the American people, particularly dismissive of and prejudiced against the Latino and LGBTQ communities. Sunday’s resignation of Debbie Wasserman Schultz hours before the Dems’ national convention began was inevitable. What was shocking to many was that Clinton promptly hired her as “an honorary chair” of her campaign – thereby demonstrating how out of touch Clinton is with the American public. As I write this, thousands of people have taken to the streets in Philadelphia to protest, and the DNC is literally constructing a fence to protect delegates from the protesters.
Meanwhile, Republican nominee Donald Trump has been handed the keys to the Oval Office on a silver platter, while Libertarian candidate, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein are stuck on the fringes of the election, without access to the media (who all apparently are being monitored and coached by the DNC) and not even invited to participate in the presidential debates, where the United States will be offered a choice between the embattled Clinton and her corrupt party and campaign and Trump, who may be the only presidential candidate in history who is more unlikable. Normally, neither of these candidates would be electable. Now we are confronted with a choice that frankly should never have existed.
Full disclosure: I’ve been extremely critical of the party system for a long, long time. I’ve voted for a major party candidate once since 1996. I’ve listened to countless harangues about how I’m “wasting my vote” or how my voting priorities “gives the election” to an undesirable candidate. For years, my opinion that the party system is inherently malignant to American interests has been laughed off as some sort of radical position.
And yet, here we are with undeniably the two worst major nominees for President in history, and suddenly Americans are wondering how we got here. How is it possible that Donald Trump managed to gain the GOP nomination when a year ago everyone thought his candidacy was a joke? And how is it possible that Hillary Clinton’s nomination was secured through a collusion between the Democratic National Committee and the mainstream media to rig the state primaries and caucuses in her favor?
How did either of these candidates gain the backing of major political parties when their history is peppered with disdain and condescension for the citizens they purport to represent?
You have to go back to 1828, and the horrific presidential campaign between Andrew Jackson and incumbent John Quincy Adams, to find anelection as divisive and corrupt as the one we face now. Interestingly, that election led to the creation of what became the two political parties we have now. And with an American political system already renowned for mudslinging, that campaign sank both parties into a cringe-worthy morass of scandal and corruption.
But this election bids fair to eclipse the 1828 campaign twice over.
America is, primarily, a nation of moderates. But our elected representation isn’t. Our country is governed by an explosive blend of far-left and far-right politicians, whose representation of their constituents is compromised before they ever even take office. In their drive to be elected, candidates require the financial and organizational support of a party. In exchange for that support, they are compelled to run on the principles and party stances as set forth in their party platform. The Republican Party platform can be found here, and the Democratic Party platform here. Take a look at them: As a voter it’s essential that you know what you’re voting for.
Because you aren’t voting for people. you aren’t voting for someone you feel will represent you best. You’re voting for that party platform, and anyone you elect is bound to follow those principles. Oh sure, your local Representative may tack on some funding for a new bridge in the pork attached to major legislation. The platforms don’t cover things like bridges or road repair.
Technically, the U.S. has a multi-party political system, but there have only been a couple of viable third-party candidates for anything since the end of the Civil War. In fact, in our current Congress, there are only two independents – and they caucus with the Democrats. That’s it. There are no members of the House who are independents. Statistically, that’s kind of horrifying. Our representation on the national level is comprised almost entirely of people bound to those platforms: 248 Republicans and 192 Democrats in the House of Representatives, and 54 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and the two independents in the Senate. Our legislature is ripped in half with direct opposite goals and priorities, and there is very little crossover.
As a people, we all have differing points of view. I am an independent moderate. I tend to be more liberal on social issues, moderate on foreign affairs, and conservative on fiscal issues. With third-party candidates rarely able to garner enough support on the state level to get onto the ballot, those other points of view rarely make it to the Senate or House floor. In the presidential race, America is handicapped by an electoral system that’s literally winner-take-all. American presidents have to have only a plurality of votes, and there is no consolation prize. Originally, the candidate with the second-most number of votes was elected Vice President, but all it took was a couple of contested elections between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to inspire the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, which gives us the system we have today. The election of 1800 was particularly horrible, with Jefferson and Aaron Burr both receiving the same number of electoral votes. The Twelfth Amendment worked fine for a time – a time in which fewer than 10% of the American population was permitted to vote.
But that’s no longer the case. In a nation of some 320,000,000, the system no longer works. The choices no longer represent the cross-section of the population, and during this election cycle that fact has been hammered home with a hydraulic jackhammer. As a country, we can no longer afford the restrictions inherent in party politics. We can no longer afford a system in which better candidates are repressed by an all-powerful political entity that is not elected by the people. We can no longer afford a system that disqualifies candidates from major political office because of their stance on a single hot-topic issue. We can no longer afford for single-issue PACs and lobbying organizations to dictate American policy that runs contrary to the will of the American people.
Last week, we watched the circus that was the Republican National Convention. This week, we are witnessing the almost-certain fiasco of the Democratic National Convention. Then, we will emerge into a political season that will only increase the unrest and divisiveness our nation is currently struggling with. And while we struggle with a terrible choice between Clinton and Trump, potentially better candidates will be ignored by the mainstream media, denied invitations to debates where the American people can actually learn about these candidates, and ignored by both the major parties as not worth bothering with.
And those of us who refuse to vote either Democratic or Republican will be the ones who “gave the election” to one or the other.
At this point, it doesn’t matter who’s elected in November. Either candidate will be an unmitigated disaster in the Oval Office. But what we need to start doing now is creating the movement necessary to destroy the absolutism of party politics in this country. Let candidates stand on their own merits and their own principles. Deny mega-lobbies that represent a tiny fraction of the citizenry the ability to fund or interact on a policy level with either candidates or elected officials. Keep corporate money out of politicians’ hands. Give the American people a chance to go to the polls and vote according to their conscience, instead of herding them like sheep toward one side of the aisle or another. 
Because I have to tell you this: The majority of the people I know could give two hoots about creating a national infrastructure bank, but do care about 401k legislation. Those of my associates who are pro-life are usually anti-automatic weapons. The ones who are pro-immigration restrictions believe in equal civil rights for LGBTQ Americans.
But they don’t get to reflect that in their voting choices. They are forced to determine their choice based on the single issue most important to them. So if they’re in favor of stronger gun ownership legislation, they have to compromise their beliefs on abortion rights – and vice versa.
Our system inherently makes citizens settle for ideological beliefs that do not reflect their own.
Abolishing political parties across the board is the only way to stem this destructive tide, and we cannot wait much longer to do so. And since Adams and Jefferson got us into this mess, it seems only fitting to close out with a pair of quotes from them that apply only too well to the political system that evolved as the result of their rivalry.
From John Adams, second President of the United States: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
And from Thomas Jefferson, the third President: “Our country is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to destruction, to wit: by consolidation of power first, and then corruption, its necessary consequence.”
The Founding Fathers were oddly prescient at times. If you think about the system that led Donald Trump to the threshold of the most powerful position in the world, and the corruption that has elevated Hillary Clinton to her party’s nomination, you have to wonder if they weren’t psychic. Because if we don’t do something to resolve this national horror, America will lose everything – including itself.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Paranormal Reality Shows and Shifting Societal Beliefs--And The Profits

No matter where you turn, it seems like reality entertainment based on the paranormal is everywhere. From long-running television shows like SyFy’s Ghost Hunters to Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and Dead Files and YouTube channels run by investigation groups, the options for the paranormal enthusiast are everywhere.
And while a segment of the population is strongly skeptical, a Harris Interactive poll indicates that 51% of the public, including 58% of women, and 65% of those aged 25 to 29 but only 27% of those aged 65 and over, believe in ghosts, while a Live Science article from 2011 indicates that 71% of Americans believe they have experienced some sort of paranormal phenomenon.
The popularity of paranormal-based entertainment seems to reinforce the empirical evidence. These shows are long-lived because the target audience is growing. And now that science is beginning to make a concerted effort to explain paranormal phenomena, that belief is growing. Whereas once, ghost hunting was done by groups seeking knowledge, now it’s big-time entertainment with big-time dollars – and not just in Hollywood. A October 31, 2014 Fortune article entitled “The Boo-tiful Business of Ghost Tourism”by Melissa Locker makes this clear.
Ghost tourism is its own cottage industry that stretches from coast to coast. San Diego’s Whaley House, home of the city’s first public gallows, runs ghost hunts for $50 per investigator with extra-spooky activities running throughout the month of October. Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary is a boon for amateur and professional ghost hunters alike. The crumbling prison’s Halloween activities even have corporate sponsors, including the expected (Spirit Halloween stores) and the unexpected (Peanut Chews).
While supernatural attractions are cashing in on the public’s interest in the paranormal, theactual business of paranormal investigations isn’t really a business at all: “It’s a very expensive hobby.”
Paranormal tourism is taking off, and many families are starting to see the appeal.  John Williams of Kennesaw, Georgia took his wife and youngest son on a paranormal vacation last year. “My kid watches paranormal TV shows and was interested. My wife was thinking, ‘Whatever.’ But it was a great bonding experience for us as a family. We went to nine haunted sites in seven states. Best money I’ve ever spent. Great family experience, even though we had no experiences of our own.”
Many allegedly haunted sites offer ghost-hunting overnight stays if you’re an amateur investigator – another side of the ghost tourism business – and haunted location owners are cashing in. For example,The Sallie House in Atchison, Kansas is run by the local Chamber of Commerce and charges $189 per person per night.
Ghost-hunting groups have to pay those fees too, along with the cost of their equipment which can be extremely expensive. The added advantages of new video technology don’t come cheap. One night-vision camera can cost up to $500, while the thermal FLIR camera can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $8,000. These groups have tens of thousands of dollars of equipment without the benefits of a production company’s backing. And as most paranormal groups don’t charge to investigate a site, their hobby is very expensive indeed.
But most people live vicariously through ghost-hunting shows, and not all of those shows are on television. I’ve got a history of shredding poorly done paranormal shows like A&E’s Cursed: The Bell Witch(a legend I am intimately familiar with as I grew up in the area) and Destination America’s laughable Exorcism Live. Even the longest-running television paranormal shows have come under scrutiny amid accusations of faking evidence and hoaxing – both prospects being much easier with production company equipment and the drive to produce payoffs for each weekly episode.
Williams watches both televised ghost-hunting shows and online investigations. “It doesn’t seem like online groups have as much incentive to exaggerate,” he explained. “We love televised programs, but it seems like they would have more motivation to fake stuff. Shows like LiveScifi seem totally sincere.”
I agree. That’s why I believe the best paranormal shows can be found on YouTube. It’s where you’ll discover anything about ghost investigations you could possibly hope for – and in many cases in such a fashion as to preclude the possibility of hoaxing. To these groups, the money is unimportant. What they’re after is information – and knowledge. But you have to know how to negotiate the tangle of groups looking to cash in on the paranormal craze and find the few that balance more on the side of investigation than entertainment.
LiveSciFi Bloody Mary Ritual Investigation

One channel I enjoy a great deal is LiveSciFi. LiveSciFi offers a multitude of different investigative styles. Its founder, Tim Wood, does frequent Ouija Board sessions that he live-streams on YouTube. Feeling brave? Here’s a link to the terror. What makes those sessions interesting to me is that he also runs a voice recorder at the same time, and catches multiple EVPs (electronic voice phenomena) in most shows.
But even more interesting are the LiveSciFi live feeds from haunted locations, where viewers can watch uncut, unedited film for 48-72 hours as the investigations are occurring. LSF has done live feeds everywhere, from the infamous Sallie House to the Whispers Estate in Mitchell, Indiana. And for Creepypasta fans, his ritual live streams about legends like Bloody Mary or the Midnight Man are a lot of fun. LiveSciFi is the largest paranormal channel on YouTube with over 300,000 subscribers over its 10-year life span and over a billion views. The Sallie House alone provides hours of binge watching opportunities.
Living Dead Paranormal Investigation of Haunted Willow Creek Farm

The Living Dead Paranormal group is another outstanding online option. Comprised of three brothers – Josh, Rocky, and Shaun Fourman, who lived through a serious haunting in their childhood home – and a friend, Jeff Brown, their body of work is impressive. Their investigations are presented as documentaries, with high production values. The two investigations they’ve done at the Monroe house in Hartford City, Indiana are among the best work I’ve seen. (You can find those investigations here and here.) If you’re made of sterner stuff, a recent demonic haunting investigation is guaranteed to make you jumpy.
We’re not talking about Elvira, Mistress of the Dark shows here. We’re talking about regular guys in sweatshirts and jeans, alone in reputedly haunted locations, and only those guys. No tech crew. No directors. No producer hanging out in the background pulling fishing line attached to props. And trust me: You may watch for hours and see not one darn thing, which makes the things you do witness that much more interesting.
I approach most paranormal claims with a healthy dose of skepticism. You have to if you ever intend to sleep with the lights off. I’m not a gullible person, but my life experiences have led me to an interest in the paranormal – a search for validation of things I’ve seen or witnessed that defy logical explanation.
That doesn’t mean that I automatically accept everything I see; in fact, the jury is still out for me on Bigfoot and UFO sightings. I’ve laughed myself silly at some poorly executed hoaxes on television and at many, many paranormal “investigators” I’ve seen on YouTube. Kind of hard not to. Early Most Haunted  shows are great for that, by the way. Never underestimate the comedic possibilities with a Derek Acorah or a Chip Coffey.
But there are groups out there that might make you think – if you know where to look and what to look for. Hint: If the lead investigator looks like a high school sophomore or is obviously costumed in front of a set that looks like The Munsters, it’s probably best to just move on.
If, like me, you find the paranormal fascinating and entertaining, stop looking in your TV Guide and do a check on paranormal YouTube channels. You can experience all the aspects of an investigation from the comfort of your living room, and sometimes even simultaneously with the ghost hunters, without all the curse words getting beeped out. Because they can approach these alleged hauntings without the obligation to get bang for their buck, their credibility factor is higher. And believe me, if nothing has happened during the first three hours of a live stream, you’ll know that too – which is about 99% of what happens during any investigation.
That’s what this boils down to.
Instead of spending thousands of dollars on equipment and insurance, instead of staying up all night and evaluating scores of hours of footage, instead of walking around in the dark with instruments and talking to whatever inhabits an alleged haunted building, paranormal reality shows allow you to investigate without ever leaving your home. That, in turn, inspires some viewers to either explore paranormal tourism, at sites that now are charging fees so people can enjoy them for themselves – or to actively investigate, spending their money on equipment. And even if you stay at home and live secondhand through television, you’re subjected to commercials up to a third of the show’s running time. Paranormal investigating has turned into big profits for everybody involved.
Except the independents, the ones with their YouTube channels and blogs. That’s where the best paranormal reality can be found. But you have to know where to look as much as what to believe. And while each webisode has both creepy moments and uneventful ones, there’s unexpected fun too – the hilarity of finding out a big guy who hunts for ghosts is terrified of birds, or someone walking face-first into the corner of a wall, or sometimes just the nervous laughter that happens after they’ve been spooked. The entertainment factor of these independent channels is undeniable. The reality part I’ll leave to you to decide.
And that’s what paranormal reality shows are changing in our culture.
“My belief has definitely increased. I was a skeptic. I’ve gone from assuming it’s all BS to belief. Watching Ghost Adventures and then LiveSciFi shows – they’re hard to refute,” Williams explained. “In our family, we say, ‘Okay – whether it’s true or not, they seem to believe.’”

Originally published by Blogcritics, July 8, 2016

Thursday, July 28, 2016

EXCERPT--The Asphodel Cycle 4: The Apostle of Asphodel

I jumped in front of Mariol, using my blade to keep the ferocious bird-women away while the mage muttered behind me. Before long, several of the Harpies deduced that I had the shortest reach of any of the attackers and converged on Mariol and I, their talons clicking together as they hefted the long spears to their shoulders.
“Any ideas?” I threw back over my shoulder, swiping at a grasping claw.
The Harpy screamed and fell back, blood dripping from her scaly leg. Another soon took her place. Mariol didn’t answer me, mumbling under his breath instead.
“An idea would be really good right about now!” I said more urgently, blocking a thrusting spear with my sword and reversing the blade, snapping the shaft in two so that the obsidian point fell to the floor at my feet.

Mariol grabbed my arm and pushed me aside. Surprised by the unexpected shove, I crashed to the floor with an indignant yell. Before I could clamber to my feet, a ripple of energy detonated over my head. With ragged screams and terrified shrieks, the Harpies tumbled across the chamber to fly against the obsidian walls, falling down heavily to the floor.    
“What did you do?” I asked in amazement.
Instead of answering me, Mariol hauled me to my feet and shoved me toward the nearest Harpy, who was struggling to rise while her wings fluttered around her shoulders. “Go...kill...Harpies!”
The effects of Mariol’s spell, whatever it was, were temporary. As the Harpies flapped around trying to regain their footing, Brial, Wilden, and I attacked them while they were on the ground and presumably weaker. I discovered that their speed of attack was undiminished, although their agility was hampered upon the ground. The first Harpy I confronted hissed at me and I barely avoided the slashing swing of one taloned foot as she lunged for me. Their handicaps lay in the fact that their wings were befouled and tangled, the feathers bent the wrong way and some missing.
But even on her back a Harpy is a formidable foe.
I was able to get close enough to the Harpy to penetrate the frenzied swipes of her claws. Watching the talons carefully and jumping over her flailing wings, I leapt upon her torso and sank my sword to the hilt in her breast. Instead of screaming like a human foe, the Harpy’s eyes dulled and she fell limply off my blade. A second later, I was knocked off my feet as a second Harpy screeched in anguish and launched herself at me.

She hit me hard in the back and I flew several feet through the air with her on me. We landed in the clearing, barely missing the stone bench. As soon as I felt the ground behind my back, I pushed up hard with my legs and the heavy body of the Harpy rolled from my feet and fell some feet away. Without stopping to think, I coiled back up to my feet and went after her.
Somehow, she’d managed to grab one of the spears, and I narrowly avoided being skewered as she thrust it at my mid-section. Sidestepping the spear, I swung the blade and it connected with the soft tissue on the inside of her upper arm. Screaming, she dropped the spear, rolling to her side and pushing herself up with her good hand. More agilely than I would have thought possible, she rose to her clawed feet, one arm dangling at her side, with her wings twisted behind her.
Another detonation sounded behind me, but I had no time to look. The Harpy leapt at me, snarling, one talon extended before her for my throat. I dove to one side, rolled up to my feet and planted my sword in her back between the crippled wings. As with the first, she slid silently to the floor, where she lay face down in the ashes.
I turned back to Mariol. He was under attack by two of the vicious creatures, who clawed ineffectually at the shield he’d erected around himself. I darted back toward him, stooping to pick up a fallen spear. Using it like a javelin, I hurled it at one of the Harpies. The spear struck her side and she screeched in pain, twisting this way and that as she tried to remove it from her flesh. Her companion swung to face me, and for a moment our eyes met.
There was nothing resembling humanity in her stare. She had the same intense glare of any other bird of prey, and it fell unblinkingly on me as I approached her, my sword held before me. I circled around the flailing body of the Harpy I’d felled, who thrashed upon the floor with the spear vibrating as she screamed.
Her attack, when it came, was swift and silent. The only warning I had was the abrupt narrowing of those emotionless golden eyes, then she launched herself into the air. Amazingly, her wings righted themselves and with a single hard flap she hovered above me. Those eyes never left me as the wings furled and she hurtled straight toward me.
A couple of feet away from my unprotected face, however, her headlong dive stopped as if she’d run into a wall. The impact jarred her head back with an audible snap, and the Harpy tumbled to the floor, where she lay dead and sightless at my feet. I turned to look at Mariol. He was pale and sweating, his hand extended toward me still resonating with the power of the shield that he’d shot between us.
Wilden dispatched the still-screeching Harpy I’d speared with an arrow to the throat. When she, too, fell silent, the room echoed with the sudden cessation of noise. I whirled around to look for Brial, and saw him wiping the blade of his sword clean on the feathers of another fallen Harpy. As he straightened, I sagged in relief. He was safe.
To my complete disgust, he grinned at me. “That was fun.”
Wilden snorted, whether in distaste or humor I couldn’t tell, but Mariol’s reaction was spectacular.
Fun?” he repeated incredulously. “Fun! What would you have called it if we’d had to fight a dragon? Or maybe a tribe of cannibals?”
Brial shrugged. “Entertaining?”
Despite myself, and the carnage around us, I began to laugh weakly. Wilden joined in, his deep chuckle resonating against the obsidian walls with a comforting rumble. We fell against each other, laughing helplessly as we wiped tears from our streaming eyes. Mariol was hyperventilating, his nostrils flaring as he drew in deep breaths in an attempt to calm himself.
Then, the greenish-red flames of the huge, smokeless fire sputtered and went out, and our merriment disappeared with it.