i_love_freddie: (Freddie)
At the beginning of the year, I had an article about me and my German Shepherd dog Cory published in Dog's Monthly magazine. The article was about how learning to handle a very fearful dog forced me to face my own demons, and it can be read in full on my public blog: http://emmaayres.wordpress.com/2014/11/09/how-a-dog-helped-me-fight-my-demons/

Now voting has opened to find the winner of the HiLife 'Best Friends' Trophy 2014 - and we are eligible! But to be in with a chance, we really need people to vote for us. After everything we have been through; to win this would be utterly amazing.

To vote, just email Kathie.L@abmpublishing.co.uk - putting 'Best Friends' in the subject box - and I vote for Emma Ayres and Cory, February 2014 in the email.

Voting closes 4th December 2014.

I will leave this post unlocked; if anyone wants to share it or link to it then I would be very grateful.
i_love_freddie: (Freddie)
Kane Theaza groaned and opened his eyes. And then blinked and shook his head, confused. Everything was completely black. He raised a hand up to his face – nothing. What happened? Am I blind?

“It's all right,” Benny's voice was a reassuring sound in the darkness. “Jonas, can we have some light?”

There was a low murmur and finally a faint reddish glow pierced the thick blackness. Benny was kneeling over him, looking concerned. Jonas stood a little way back, holding his staff up to provide the light. He looked more than a little annoyed. Cory, the half-elven assassin, was sitting on the ground a little way off – his wrist roughly bandaged. Valia was looking around groggily, her face scratched and bruised.

“Glad to see our leader is awake and in one piece,” Riandur said drily. He and his smaller companion, Phellan, were over by a wall that Kane realised was made of rock. “I hope you are ready to hear some really bad news.”

“I...” Kane sat up, feeling a sudden stabbing pain in his ribs. “Where are we? What happened?”

“Well, here's the thing.” Benny sighed before reluctantly continuing. “You remember that dragon we were fighting? It went a bit crazy and brought the whole ruins down on top of us.”

“In short,” Riandur continued expressionlessly, “the entrance is blocked and we appear to be trapped down here.”

As the disorientation wore off, Kane was able to get a good look around him. They were in what appeared to be a series of small rocky caves. At one end was just solid rock, at the other was a pile of mud, stone and rubble. The roof was low, at six foot tall he could just barely stand up straight without hitting his head. “Oh rats!”

“Yep, that's what I figured,” Benny nodded, “they are way too big for mice.”

“What? Where?” Looking around the dark cave, Valia let out a piercing scream as she saw the furry black bodies slinking away. She hated small furry things with a passion.

Riandur charged after them, pouncing and spearing them both with his sharp claws. Within seconds both were dead. “We might want to eat these later.”

Valia, Cory and Jonas looked slightly sickened at the thought.

“Well, maybe we shouldn't jump to conclusions,” Benny tried to be the optimistic one. “Let's all search a bit of the cave and see if there's any exit before we all start panicking.”

Read more... )
i_love_freddie: (Freddie)
There were always clothes to mend.

Whenever she sat down in front of the fire with a pile of torn clothes beside her, Valia would remember being a young girl and sitting in the warm kitchen beside her mother. Fascinated, she would watch the older woman cut and sew and effortlessly repair the garments worn by her two older brothers. “Boys will be boys,” she would say with an indulgent smile.

The plague had taken her mother's life, while the youngest of her two bothers had been killed by bandits. Estranged from her father and her other brother, Valia carried on with life the best she could – and continued with what she had been taught. She had boys of her own; not children, but her lover and the other men she travelled with.

They could look after themselves, but she did not like to think of that. She was no warrior. They tried to teach her to fight but she had never quite picked it up. She could not pick a lock or sneak effortlessly through the darkness. She could not hunt. Without them to protect her and feed her, Valia knew that she could never last in the wilderness.

But she could wash and mend clothes, cook delicious meals from whatever meat and vegetables they could find, and clean and dress their wounds. This she did willingly and happily with all the care and love that her mother had given to her brothers.

She liked taking care of them – her boys. It made her feel useful.

Because of the circumstances, it was impractical to carry too much extra baggage. Mostly what clothing they had was worn. So there were always things to mend.

-------

“Are you sure you don't mind doing that, Val?” Cory asked, his brow furrowed with concern as he watched her carefully stitch his cotton shirt. He had to admit, her careful handiwork was so much better than his clumsy stitching. “It's only a little tear.”

“It'll only get bigger if we leave it,” Valia said wisely, her slender fingers working busily. “I don't want you left without a shirt if this one tears any more.” She liked Cory – the young half elf always had time for her and was genuinely grateful for everything she did for him.

“Did your mother teach you to sew like that?” he asked, his blue eyes unusually solemn. She nodded, eyes fixed on her task. “I always figure that this must be like to have a mother.”

“Did you ever know her?”

“No, not really. She died when I was about three... but she was never around before then either. She had a job to do, and children born within the guild are raised almost – well, almost like property, I guess.”

“Can you fix my cloak, Val?” Pausing behind her, Kane gave her a brief kiss on the top of her top of her head in a rare display of affection. Not waiting for a reply, he dropped it on the pile and disappeared behind the trees.

Younger wolf man Phellan had been lying quietly, acting partly as Cory's pillow through the exchange. As his friend sat up to pull his shirt back on, the curious youngster glanced over to where his mentor was lying on the other side of the fire.

“Riandur? Why don't we wear clothes?”

Riandur – ever indulgent towards his young apprentice – did not laugh. “We don't need them, Phellan,” he explained kindly. “Our fur protects us from the sun and the cold, and having things on our bodies would just slow us down.”

“Oh,” Phellan looked a little downcast. Feeling sorry fr him, Valia put down her needle and thread.

“You know what, Phellan? Maybe you don't have clothes like us, but you are still wearing something – and that can be cleaned and mended just like Cory's shirt. So. I think it is time we gave you a bath!”

Phellan looked both pleased and alarmed. Cory couldn't help but smile. Across the fire, even he sombre Riandur grinned.
i_love_freddie: (Freddie)
To survive is just a basic human instinct. Nothing is too bad, too degrading or too difficult when there is no other option but death.

That was a lesson that Kane Theaza knew very well. It was something that he had learned from experience, and he had the scars to prove it.

Triggers: mention of violence and rape, non-graphic )
i_love_freddie: (Freddie)
“Cory?” Phellan called, as he watched his friend anxiously. “Are you okay?”

The young assassin nodded tensely, his concentration focused on easing his way across the rooftop. He was comfortable with heights, for his training had involved scaling high objects and working off the ground. Unfortunately it had been raining and the tiles were wet and slippery, so it was a struggle to keep his balance. Nonetheless Cory persisted, slowly getting closer and closer to the nervous cat, which sat perched on a nearby chimney watching him out of green eyes.

Just as he got close enough to grab at it, the beast took a flying leap, landed on a nearby wall, and jumped down into the street.

Cory cursed loudly.

*****

It had all started very early that morning. Cory had woken before sunrise and hadn't been able to fall back to sleep, so he had decided to take a walk around the city. Of course, Phellan had heard him go and immediately followed him.

The city was never silent, day or night, but those early morning hours were usually the most peaceful. The thieves and the prostitutes had finished their business and retired. Most citizens were still asleep. The taverns were mostly silent. Mostly it was just the market traders who liked to set up early, and the fishermen and the sailors who came in from the docks after a night at sea. So Cory enjoyed strolling around quietly, lost in his own thoughts or answering Phellan's many questions.

Walking in the alley behind the marketplace, Cory didn't see the little girl until he almost tripped over her. She couldn't have been more than six or seven years of age. She was wearing a pink dress and leather sandals on her feet, and her long blonde hair was pulled back into pigtails. The reason he didn't see her was because she was sitting on the dusty ground crying.

Immediately concerned, Cory knelt beside her. “Hey kid,” he said calmly. “Are you okay? You should be home in bed – won't your parents be worried about you?”

She looked up at him, her blue eyes shining with tears. “I've lost my kitty. She ran away, and now she's lost and I can't find her. She'll be so scared all alone.”

“Look, what's your name?”

“Elvira,” she sniffed and wiped her eyes. “Kitty is called Serenity. She has never been to the city before.”

“That's a pretty name. I'm Cory and this is Phellan. Would you like us to help you find your little cat?”

The girl looked up at him hopefully, “Can you do that?”

Cory smiled at her. “Sure we can. Phellan here has the best nose in the city. Do you have a toy or a collar or something that has your cat's scent on it?”

Elvira opened her hand to reveal that she was clutching a little blue collar with a bell on it. “Kitty dropped this when she ran off. I hope she is all right.”

“You just stay here, and we'll be right back.” Taking the collar from her, Cory held it out to Phellan. “Can you track it down?”

The wolf-man nodded and took off like a shot. Cory smiled at the little girl and ran off after him.

*****

After chasing the cat down from the rooftop, the two friends followed it to the marketplace. It was attracted by the fish stall, and they attempted to corner the creature there. Unfortunately it was too quick for them. Grabbing a piece of fish, it bolted into a back street. Phellan, unable to slow down, crashed right into the stall, sending bits of fish and plates flying all over the street. Cory fell over him, knocking over a pile of crates. The stallholders shouted at them as they picked themselves up and fled the scene.

Having sensed a rat, the cat gave chase, leaping over the boxes of rubbish that had been left outside all night. Phellan tried to avoid it too but his frame was too bulky and he didn't have the graceful movements of a cat, so some mess was unavoidable. Unfortunately he was so intent on chasing the cat that he failed to notice that his tail was sweeping the rubbish up and throwing it everywhere. Cory was just grateful that his training had taught him to be quick on his feet, for he had to duck his head and twist his body to avoid getting hit by it.

As the cat leapt over a wall, Phellan bounced upwards and finally succeeded in catching hold of its tail. The creature – a beautiful, sleek animal with markings of black and white – struggled and hissed, but the wolf-man managed to hang on until Cory caught up with them.

“Serenity seems like a very odd name for this cat,” the half-elf commented, as he picked her up and received a swipe on the cheek from a very sharp claw. “I think it is supposed to mean calm, peaceful – and this thing doesn't fit that description in the slightest.”

“I don't like that cat,” Phellan eyed the animal warily. “It scratched me. I don't think it wants to be friends.”

“No, I don't think it does.” Cory finally managed to restrain the fighting cat by wrapping it up in his cloak. “Still, the kid should be happy to have her back.”

*****

Little Elvira was waiting just where they left her. She had stopped crying, and was instead focused on playing some kind of skipping game using the cracks in the cobblestones.

“You found kitty!” she cried as Cory released the cat from his cloak. “Oh thank you, she must have been so scared, lost in this big city all alone.”

“I think she can take care of herself,” Phellan muttered, licking his scratch wound.

“Thank you for helping me. I don't have anything to give you, but you can keep kitty's collar.” Happily she scooped the cat up in her arms. “Come here, Serenity, you bad kitty! It is time to go home, this plane is too dangerous for you.”

As the animal rested contentedly in her arms, the little girl began to change. She grew taller, her features became twisted and deformed, her skin turned yellow and leathery. Her hands turned to claws while her legs fused together into a tail. A ball of light appeared, shimmering and growing until it became a door-like shape. Without a backwards glance, Elvira stepped through and the portal closed behind her with a faint whistling sound. Cory and Phellan were left frozen to the spot, unable to believe what they had just witnessed. Cory spoke first, in a strained voice that did not sound like him at all.

“Did I just imagine...?”

“No.”

“Did you see...?”

“Yes.”

Cory looked at Phellan. Phellan looked at Cory. Without another word, they turned on their heels and fled.
i_love_freddie: (Freddie)
There was never much greenery to be found in a large city. A few trees here and there, a small few patches of grass fenced off where the children sometimes play. Some of the wealthier estates had small gardens with brightly coloured flowers. But for those who wanted to experience nature without going outside of city limits, their options were limited.

There was one such place of refuge – at least for members of Howling Wolves assassin's guild. On the roof of the huge building that served as the hideout to their headquarters, the guild has created their own garden. Using a combination of nature and magic, they grew fruits and vegetables, various herbs for use in making poisons and antidotes, and a few bushes and plants – including batflowers, a plant that looked like it had multiple eyes, and a very large venus flytrap.

Benny could often be found there; when there were no targets for him to take care of and his friends were all safely occupied with other matters. He enjoyed all the noisy and buzzing activity of the city – up to a point. But when they stayed too long, he was overcome with a yearning to be back in the wild; where he could engage in his shapeshifting at will, roll in the grass as a cat, run through the trees as a graceful leopard, or howl at the moon as a wolf. In a world where there were no others like him – and more fear and mistrust than understanding – it was hard to balance his human side with his animal urges.

And even with good friends around him and a lover within the city, sometimes the assassin felt lonely. He would never admit it, even to himself, but it was what it was.

------

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i_love_freddie: (Freddie)
Given the health issues I have been having and how severe they are, I don't know if I will be able to hold out on writing regularly, but I will be annoyed if I don't give myself a shot.

I am signing up for Last Chance Idol.

Hopefully all you guys on my list will read and vote for me. And if you have always wanted to try taking part in LJ Idol and never have... this is probably the last chance.

(As a random aside, why do my entries show up as locked even when I have set the security to public before posting? It is annoying having to go back to edit them.)
i_love_freddie: (Freddie)
It had been hate at first sight.

From the moment Kane Theaza entered the Howling Wolves assassin's guild, recruited from the streets at twelve summers of age, he found a rival in Jonas. Both the same age, they loathed each other on sight. No one ever really knew why; though it was speculated that Kane was envious of Jonas' relatively stable upbringing within the guild, while Jonas was jealous of Kane's confidence and his ability to fight anyone and anything that got in his way.

“You are such a show-off,” Jonas muttered, having overheard Kane being praised for a nice bit of sword-work.

“And you are a stupid little creep,” the street-boy shot back, “and I know which I would rather be.”

“Your mother was a filthy whore!”

Kane laughed. “You are hardly one to talk. At least I knew who my mother was.”

Read more... )
i_love_freddie: (Freddie)
“No boss, please – not the chair! I'll do anything, I swear! I'm innocent!”

The young man's panicky pleas could be heard throughout the main floors of the guild headquarters. Assassins paused in their training, those who were sleeping briefly opened their eyes, the ones who were eating stopped in their tracks. Then, registering relief that it wasn't their turn, they resumed their tasks.

“Seems like Lance is in trouble,” Kane Theaza observed, setting down his tankard of ale. “What's going on, Benny?”

The shapeshifter glanced around the table. The only others in attendance were the half-elven assassin Cory and Phellan the young wolf-man; Riandur hated the city and was hunting rats in the catacombs, Jonas was studying scrolls at the library, and Valia had gone shopping. Leaning forward, he lowered his voice.

“You know that smuggling job last night? It was a set-up. The guards got several of our boys and now they are in the city jail.”

“Someone betrayed us?” Cory asked, wide-eyed at the thought that one of their own men would turn against the guild. It was an unwritten but very strong rule that thieves watched out for their own, and backstabbing was never tolerated.

“It looks that way,” Benny said seriously. “The guards knew exactly who was there and what was happening, information that could only have been given to them by someone involved in the planning.”

Kane nodded, pondering this for a while. “What an idiot,” he said finally. “So Randal - ” referring to the cold, calm and highly effective master of the entire guild “- gets to do what he does best, huh? A few minutes on the chair will make them crack.”

Cory nodded, looking terrified. “No one could stay silent when faced with that thing. It is so scary.”

“A chair?” Phellan had been listening intently, but something was puzzling him. “Like what we are sitting on? What is scary about a chair?”

That was quite a question. Every man in the Howling Wolves assassin's guild knew of 'the chair'. Made from solid oak with a straight back and two thick arms, it did not look threatening at a glance. But a closer look would reveal the strong leather wrist and ankle restraints, the adjustable mechanism that could be adjusted so that the sitter could be gagged. Once restrained, varying degrees of torture could be used to encourage the subject to talk.

It had been in the guildmaster's chambers for as long as anyone could remember. They called it 'the confession chair' and many of the men had been subjected to it at one time or another. It was the ultimate punishment.

Kane, Benny and Cory exchanged a long look. “Want to take this one?” Kane directed at Benny.

The long-suffering man only sighed.
i_love_freddie: (Freddie)
Why are we going here? What is a desert? Why is it hot? Doesn't the sun like us? Can I have some water? What is this yellow stuff? Why are we hiding in the dark? Why do they want to kill us?


The Bountiful Bosoms,” she read out loud. “What sort of name for a tavern is that?”
“It’s not a tavern, it’s a whorehouse,” Cory said absently without thinking. He quickly regretted it when Valia turned to him with a horrified expression.
“It’s a brothel?”
At exactly the same moment, he felt a nose nudge at his leg to get his attention. “What is a wh… whorehouse?” Phellan asked. The young wolf-man – new to the ways and the language of humans - had previously been content to lie quietly by Cory’s feet, but hearing a new word had aroused his curiosity too much for him to stay quiet. “Why is it not a tavern?”
“Well, it’s… it is like a tavern, but there are many women in there.” As he stumbled over the words, the half-elven rogue could feel his face heat up with embarrassment. “And those women can be… men give them money and the women do things for the men. Like sexual things.” Seeing that Phellan still looked confused, he added, “You remember when I explained how men and women made children? Well, they do that sort of thing.”

… …

Phellan had been thinking a lot about what Cory had said – it didn't all make sense to him, but he thought that he finally had it figured out. So he waited until the evening when the group had stopped to rest, and then hit Valia with his question.
“Are you a whore?”
Valia looked stunned. Across the camp-fire, Kane started to laugh. Benny raised an eyebrow and looked over at Cory, who hid his face in his hands.
“Where did you learn a word like that?” Kane finally spluttered.
“Well, Cory said that women who don't wear many clothes and who do things for the men are whores. So I thought that Valia must be a whore too, and she might know all about them.”
At this point, the young druid got up and fled into the trees, sobbing loudly. The men watched her go in silence, a silence that was only broken by Benny.
“I think further explanations are needed,” he said with a sigh.

Read more... )
i_love_freddie: (Freddie)
It had just been innocent fun. Cory and Phellan had not meant to cause any trouble – and yet their inquisitive natures had gotten them into trouble yet again.

“Oh dear,” Phellan said sombrely, as he watched the monkeys they had accidentally released flee from the caravan. “This is bad, isn't it?”

“Yes...”

“Hey!” Jonas cried from somewhere outside. “A monkey just stole my staff! Cory – I know this has something to do with you.”

The half elf swallowed nervously. When he spoke, his voice was almost inaudible. “This is very, very bad.”

-----

“Run this past me again,” Jonas said bitterly. “Why do we have to round up these horrible creatures, when it was their fault - ” he glared at Cory and Phellan “ - that they escaped in the first place?”

“Because if we don't deliver seven live monkeys, we don't get paid,” Kane said impatiently. “And I haven't escort this caravan across thirty miles of wilderness just to lose our reward now.”

“But - ”

“Everyone takes one monkey,” Benny suggested, ever the voice of reason. “We need to round them up before they run off too far, or get eaten by wolves or bears. If we take one each, it'll be done in no time and no one will be any the wiser. Hey, think of it as a bit of light relief. We have fought dragons, zombies, vampires and giants recently - so how difficult can capturing a few monkeys be?”

As it turned out, it seemed that he had spoken a little too soon...

Read more... )
i_love_freddie: (Freddie)
The piece of parchment was pinned right in the middle of the adventurer's guild noticeboard, its placement intentionally obscuring several older jobs. The request was written in bold, strong lettering but it had a rather frantic element to it:

Urgent! My only daughter had been kidnapped by a vampire lord and taken to his castle in Witchwood. Large reward for any adventuring group brave enough to bring her back to me.

“So what is the deal with this one?” Kane Theaza asked the half elf who just happened to be in charge of the guild that day.

“Ah, that one only came in the morning. Lord Elgetor Armorsmith is convinced that his daughter has been kidnapped. She disappeared at some point yesterday evening and then a threatening note was left on her father's doorstep this morning. He is offering a lot of gold, a special weapon from his personal armoury and a plot of farmland to anyone who can find her and bring her back. But Witchwood is reported to be cursed, so I doubt there will be many takers.”

The raven-haired warrior grinned. “Can I see that threatening note?”

-----

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i_love_freddie: (Nano)
Keep Calm and...

The most successful adventurers, mercenaries and guild-masters all had one thing in common. Not age, or race, or their basic profession. Not even gender – though women being as good as men at things was still seen as quite surprising. No, each and every one of them had all reached the heights of success by following the unwritten but golden rule: Always keep calm.

Surrounded by monsters? Keep calm. Discovered an assassination plot on your life? Keep calm. Lost in the middle of nowhere and can't find the map? Keep calm. An invisible demon is causing havoc in your guild? Keep calm. Your party wizard just woke up five golems, your thief has his foot caught in a snare, and your ranger just fell down a bottomless pit? Keep calm.

Because in a world where monsters roam freely, bandits launch attacks on unsuspecting travellers, those in a position of power are frequently threatened, and every man must look out for himself... anyone who loses their head in a crisis stands a very good chance of physically losing their head. And no one wants that.

------

Situation 1 – Keep calm and kill zombies

“Benny?”

The shapeshifter was standing quietly at the far edge of the silent market square. Staring into the thick trees that surrounded the border of the town, his head was tilted slightly to the side and he seemed to be listening for something – not even responding to his friends. His expression was tense, wary.

“What is it?” Kane tried again. “Do you hear something?”

Finally Benny acknowledged them, but his first words were not what they wanted to hear. “I think we need to get out of here now.”

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i_love_freddie: (Nano)
“Watch yourself there,” the wolf-man said. Riandur's tone was mild, but there was a thinly veiled threat beneath the surface. “That was a little too close for my liking.”

“Yes, and?” the wizard retorted. “I have to practise, you know.”

“Practise what? I thought that being an idiot just came naturally to you.”

Jonas began to respond, but suddenly thought better of it. “Look, I am trying to concentrate. If you don't like it, go somewhere else.”

“I happen to be on guard duty. Much as I would like to be somewhere else, I can't see Kane or Benny being too happy if you managed to get eaten by monsters or skewed by bandits while everyone else is sleeping. Why don't you move?”

Magic happened to be a very sore spot between the two of them. Riandur's people – the wolf-men tribe from the northern swamplands – feared magical power and shunned it completely. Riandur himself took a slightly more practical view. Having travelled with the group for several months, he had grown to understand that magic could serve a purpose at times. Nonetheless he also recognised it for what it was; a dangerous, unpredictable force that was beyond the ability of man to comprehend. So he remained constantly wary and suspicious of anything or anyone that displayed any kind of magical abilities.

Of course, there was also the little fact that he found Jonas to be an arrogant, over-confident idiot.

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i_love_freddie: (Nano)
“I need a real man.”

Cory glanced down at his plate of uneaten bread and cheese. He had no appetite. All he could think about was her, the beautiful blonde young woman he had met in the marketplace. He had not spoken to her himself, but he had overheard her conversation with her female companion. She was lonely, she stated, and her family were pressuring her to find a husband.

His companions were worried. The half-elf – the youngest member of their small group – was always cheerful and happy. To see him moping around and off his food was strange, to say the least.

Read more... )
i_love_freddie: (Nano)
What Doesn't Kill You...

It is hard to be the voice of reason, all the time. But that is how things have worked out. There are seven of us; and four of them view me as a father figure. I was partly responsible for training Cory and Jonas, back in the days when I was a teacher in an assassin's guild. And Kane is as much my son as it is possible to be without being related by blood. As for young Valia, her own father used her as bait to carry out a plot for vengeance... so it is hardly surprising that she would look elsewhere for a substitute. And of course, Phellan from the wolf tribe is constantly looking for knowledge and approval – so although I am not his mentor, it is hard not to feel responsible for him as well.

They don't go out of their way to make my life easy. Cory's curious nature constantly lands him in trouble – often Phellan too. Valia can be emotional and struggles being around men all the time, with no other women for company. Kane can only be described as hot-headed, reckless and impulsive. Jonas never quite managed to pick up the skills of getting on with people.

All things considered, it is ironic that the two most stable members of the group – the two of us who keep everything together – are me the so-called 'demonspawn', and Riandur, the stoic and silent wolfman who rejects most elements of human society. He is the one I trust to watch my back... and the one who understands how hard it can be to care for someone.

They are like my children. Sometimes they drive me crazy, but I want to protect them. It is hard, but it is my life and I wouldn't have it any other way.

-----

There are moments when I feel helpless because of events that I was unable to control. When a rash of killings and disappearances broke out in the city – and Valia mysteriously vanished. We tracked her down, of course, and found out that the monster responsible was a lich with a thing for human women. Unfortunately by the time we battled through his hoard of undead creatures, she was naked, bruised and bleeding.

Such things are not uncommon in the life we lead. We all have our scars to bear, both physical and mental. But when brutal things happen to those you care about, you always wonder if there was something else that could have been done. If only we had been faster, if only someone had picked up more clues earlier, if only someone had been with her, if only...

Kane likes to be alone when things get too much – he was an abused child and bottling up emotions is second nature to him. I know where to find him; sitting on the roof of the inn even though the night is cold and rain has started coming down lightly.

“Are you okay?” I ask, settling by his side. He glances over and gives a brief, tight nod. “How is she?”

“Not so good. She won't speak or eat. I don't know what to do. Cory and Phellan are with her now.”

Understandable. As innocent as they are, I doubt that either of them really understand what happened to her; and that is probably for the best. But Cory is very sensitive and they are both caring.

“She is probably in shock. I can't even begin to imagine what she went through”

The raven-haired warrior stared out into the distance, though his eyes saw nothing. “I can. There was blood, Benny, so much blood. She said... something about a knife.” His hands, involuntarily clenched into fists, were shaking. “He branded her... tortured her. I should have been there... I was too late...”

The blame, always the blame. I feel it too – but I am better at hiding it. After all, what will happen if they see me fall apart? “It is not your fault, Kane! The only one to blame is him, and he will suffer for what he did. I swear it.”

That gets him to look at me. “You aren't going after him alone?”

“None of you can fight a lich. And I can't take him on if I am worried about his magic killing you. Leave him to me.”

“That doesn't seem fair,” he mutters, but I can see there will be no real fight from him. “I should be the one to take him down.”

“You know what I think would help more? Go to Val. She needs you, I think being with you will help.”

-----

In the shadows, I watch as he enters the darkened room. She is sitting on the bed, knees drawn up to her chest. Warily Kane approaches her and says something I cannot hear. He reaches for her and finally her tears are released.

It will be hard, but I sense that she will be fine. The scars will heal, in time.

That's the thing about being a in the position of responsibility. You want to wrap them up, keep them close, protect them from the world. But they need to learn. Need to have the freedom to make their own path in life, even if that ultimately leads to suffering. To be broken and then heal... it is the only way to build true strength.

As I ponder the task before me, there is a sudden flash of grey fur and Riandur appears silently at my side. He has watched the events unfold but has said nothing. He doesn't understand human emotions, nor is he big on sympathy. But nonetheless, he is here.

“You need someone to watch your back. I will come with you.”

There will always be cracks. But by standing together, we can be strong enough to overcome anything.
i_love_freddie: (Nano)
Hunting is Just Another Game


“I want to know how to survive in the wild.”

Cory loved learning new skills. He had been born into a well-known assassins guild, and his whole life had been about training and being encouraged to push himself as hard as possible. The art of stealth, picking locks, sneaking valuables from pockets of others, scaling roofs, getting a clean kill – he had learned it all. But he wanted to know more.

Benny was the obvious choice of mentor. In his late forties and having travelled extensively for most of his life, the quiet, dark-haired man was more than a little knowledgeable on the subject of wilderness survival. He was also a calm and patient teacher, who was slow to get frustrated.

“There are three basic ways to trap an animal; a trapping pit, a snare, or a spring trap. Let's start with the spring trap.”

Read more... )
i_love_freddie: (Cory)
There is a lot written about dog aggression. We have all seen the newspaper stories of dogs viciously attacking children or savaging other animals. Then the articles and books written by the experts, giving advice on what causes aggression and how to handle it. The endless statistics. The debates about whether certain breeds of dog are more 'dangerous' than others. Of course the latest theory seems to be to blame the owners; that while some dogs do have inbred aggression, vicious behaviour is mostly a result of bad training.

Both things can technically be true. It is a complex issue with many different factors. But I want to look at it from another angle. As a dog owner, what is like to own a dog who displays aggressive behaviour?

******

Despite intensive research, and a lot of questions, and on-going work with a behaviourist, I still have no real answers as to how or why Cory's problems began. Most people upon meeting us for the first time assume that he is a rescue dog with a history of abuse – yet that is as far from the truth as you can imagine.

His problems could have started near birth – he was one of nine puppies and the runt of the litter, all were removed from their mother early because she rejected them. It could have been something genetic, he was nervous and jumpy right from the beginning. Breed could well be a factor, since German Shepherds are known to be quite wary and nervous by nature. It could be that he was my first dog so I was an inexperienced handler, or maybe he picked up anxiety from me. It is quite likely that several of those factors have a part to play.

Whatever the cause, I do know that it is not due to abuse, or lack of socialisation, or because I have somehow encouraged an aggressive streak. Nor is it because he is a 'nasty' dog. People who know him know that despite his size and some of the behaviour he displays, he is actually a very gentle, intelligent and good-natured dog. He is, however, fear-aggressive – though personally I prefer to use the term fear-reactive. His triggers include strange people and dogs he does not know; the behaviour includes barking, growling, lunging and occassionally snapping. It is worse when he is on the lead, most likely because there is a sense of being trapped. Children in particular are frightening to him due to their general loudness and unpredictability, though he will surprisingly act very calmly around babies.

Of course, it has taken many years to work out what his particular triggers are, how he reacts to those things, and how to handle situations where they are encountered. We have tried most training aids and methods with various degrees of success. He is very well trained in obedience and that allows me some control in potentially difficult situations. He is muzzled in public, which gives me more confidence. We attend training classes and walk a lot, and I try to expose him to as many people and new situations as I can. Vibration and spray collars have been used in an attempt to control the lunging and snapping while he is off-lead. I do my best to ensure that I am calm and relaxed when we are outdoors, so that he doesn't feel that he has to protect me.

At one stage I seriously considered medicating him with a mild sedative, but I decided against it. It would have helped short term but would have solved nothing in the long term.

As it stands he is making progress. Recently we have been working on the command 'Look' – to get him to focus on me and be rewarded with a treat when something scary is near. There is still some unpredictability; he will take treats from most people now and even allow some of them to pet him, but he will bark and snap at other people for no apparent reason. There seems to be no real consistency in who he likes and who he does not.

Because of his nervousness and wary nature, he will never be 100% trustworthy and – as a responsible owner – this is something that I need to deal with for the rest of his life. Given that he is only just six years old, I could be keeping these issues in check for another seven or eight years – a daunting task!

In addition to his own issues and my anxiety, I also have to deal with the reactions of people we meet. Quite a lot of people are understanding and simply curious; they ask about the muzzle, they keep a respectful distance so as not to upset him, and some of them even willing to help with his rehibilation process and feed him some treats. Unfortunately, I also have to deal with some fairly idiotic behaviour too.

The muzzle can cause quite a negative reaction. People cross the street to avoid us, others give us dirty looks – particularly people with small children. I once heard a little girl ask her mother why my dog was wearing a muzzle and the reply was: “Because it's a bad dog.” I really had to bite my tongue, I was so angry.

Then we get the people who just seem to have no understanding of dogs. Sometimes we get people reaching out to touch him without asking permission, which makes him go crazy. Others will happily just walk right up to us, only to freak out when he starts barking at them. Then, of course, there are those who just seem to think that the rules don't apply to them. When I say, “Please ignore/don't touch my dog, he's not good with people,” the correct response is not to say, “Oh, but dogs like me,” and attempt to stroke him – because he will snap. Sometimes I wonder if people like this never developed any common sense. Whatever the reason, it isn't helpful behaviour when I am working to train him.

The third reaction that I hate is people not controlling their dogs. I have seriously lost count of the number of times we have been walking down the street, Cory is on lead and reading nicely to heel, and suddenly a loose dog rushes up to us. Sadly we have twice been attacked by other dogs; once a German Shepherd went for Cory's face and I stepped in between the two of them, the result was that I got bitten, the second time a dog came from nowhere and flew at us, Cory's lip was cut and his nose was grazed. So those situations make us both anxious. Cory panics and tries to bolt, I am holding on to him and trying to regain control, while the other owner is standing there and shouting because their dog won't come back. These encounters make me particularly angry because they always set him back and they are completely avoidable if everyone just kept their dogs on a lead while walking on the streets.

*******

As the owner of a dog with aggression issues, I experience a wide range of emotions from day to day. Sometimes we have a good day; maybe he has performed well in class, allowed a stranger to touch him, ignored a dog in the street. Then I feel proud, happy, confident that we are making progress. Then the very next day he might snap at someone, or lunge at another dog and I will experience an overwhelming sense of despair and wonder what I am doing wrong. It is hard not to blame myself, especially when it seems that the majority of society wants to point the finger of blame at me too. It is frustrating having days when nothing seems to make any sort of difference.

The biggest thing is the sheer amount of responsibility involved. I have to balance his needs with the safety of others, and that involves huge effort on my part. I have to be constantly alert and aware of my surroundings when outside. I have to be careful of where I walk, making sure to avoid children – who may grab at him – and off-lead dogs. It is awkward having people come to the house because of his reaction to strangers. I can't go away and leave him, because he cannot be left in kennels and most people find it too hard to cope with him.

And it is hard. It is difficult to explain in words how having a dog with such severe on-going issues can feel. I deal with the behaviour, the judgements, the limitations it places on my life. I deal with the guilt if something goes wrong, the anger, the frustration. I have days when I have wondered 'Why me?' I wanted a friend and companion, and instead I got landed with what sometimes seems to be an insane, reactive creature.

But I know that underneath is a loving and gentle dog, who would protect me with his life. He does not mean to react the way he does, he just finds the world to be a scary place. Whatever happens in the future, we are a team and I will continue to do whatever is necessary to make life easier and happier for the both of us.
i_love_freddie: (Idol)
The room is dark and quiet, except for the slight snorting and mumbling noises the man makes in his sleep. My feet sink into the soft rug, all the better for making no sound. The rest of the house is silent. I have already taken the necessary steps to ensure that we will not be interrupted by his servants.

Politics are everywhere, finely woven into society in such a way that few are aware of how the system really works. But still it affects everyone in some way. It can be seen every day; and it is pretty black and white. Once a slave, always a slave. Once a beggar, always a beggar. There are exceptions but they are very rare. And those who get a taste of power tend to cling on to that like the leeches they are.

Politics bring power struggles and conflict - I see it first hand in my line of work. The rich and powerful only want the best, and my reputation precedes me. Quick meetings in shadowy back alleys or the taverns in the most run down parts of the city, money exchanging hands... and then whatever is causing them a problem is no more. I take care of it. Quick, clean, no fuss. That is just what I do.

Concealing myself in the shadows, I move closer to the sleeping man. He stirs, but does not awaken. I recognise him – he sits on the council, one of those who regulates the use of magic in the city. There have been rumours about him taking bribes, and it seems as though some of his actions have made somebody very angry.

It is essential to have laws and structure in order to create a society where people can live together; but not all rules are fair, and some people are corrupt. Those in my line of work are criticised, but there has to be balance.

Who seeks my aid? Well, those who are rich or in a position of power often make powerful enemies. Sometimes they are being blackmailed or threatened, and they want protection and someone to remove the threat. I can do that. My network of contacts within the underworld of the city makes finding information easy. Or they need a rival removed; maybe someone isn't performing their role adequacy and need to be unseated with minimal distraction.

I am at his bedside now. He looks so innocent in his world of dreams, but those who know him know differently. This man is far from innocent. The moon slides out from behind a cloud and I freeze as the room is filled with yellow light. I can't risk being seen from outside, but it is a cloudy night. I can wait.

The issue of marriage... well, a lot of people come to me with marriage related issues. Maybe a husband or wife suspects an affair, and wants the third party to be disposed of. In a society where those who are married are expected to stay together, for better of for worse, there's not much sympathy given to those who will interfere. Of course, it works the other way too. One case I saw was a woman who wanted her husband 'dealt with' – she claimed her parents forced her into the marriage, and her husband was a heavy drinker who beat her and slept with other women. She had fallen in love with another man and wanted to be free to marry him, so her husband needed to be 'removed' in a way that would not cause suspicion to fall upon her. Whether the allegations were true, I don't know and I don't want to know. That is not part of my job.

Darkness again. I move quickly, removing the dagger from my belt. It is all about the perfect strike. He opens his eyes, just as the blade flashes through the air. There is no time to even scream – just as it should be. He can only stare up at me as the blood flows from the slash on his throat.

The other issue with marriage is people marrying down. If a headstrong daughter of a noble is determined to marry a commoner... then that threat needs to be removed so nothing happens that might affect the family structure. Love just doesn't count for much when money or power is involved. Arranged marriages are very common, but not always welcome. Add to the fact that if a man rapes a virgin girl, he is required by law to marry her and support any child that results – a lot of people don't like that. Unsurprisingly, they want punishment.

I don't mind. It keeps me in a job.

I wait silently until his breathing stops. The sheets are soaked in his blood. As instructed, I drop the dagger on the floor. The eagle crest, the insignia of one of our most powerful noble houses, is visibly carved into the handle. My job completed, I slip away as silently as I arrived.

The world of politics is always a messy one. And things are about to be shaken up a bit.
i_love_freddie: (Nano)
The boy shivered and placed his foot on the first step. 'One...'

Jonas paused and glanced at his appreciative audience. His younger half-brother Cory, and the young wolf-man Phellan, were listening to him intently. On the other side of the tiny camp fire, their companions seemed to be sleeping soundly despite the light wind and the rocky ground.

One by one, he counted down his steps while his friend waited anxiously at the top. 'Two... three... four... five... six... seven... eight...'

There was a slight chill in the night air. Cory shifted closer to the fire, grateful for the heat that the flames provided. The wizard continued with the story, his voice low.

There were ten steps in all. Nico waited, almost holding his breath, as his friend ventured down. 'Nine...' came the slightly frightened voice from below. There was a pause. 'Ten...' Nico gave a sigh of relief and was about to call down when something stopped him in his tracks. His friend's voice continued in a flat tone: 'Eleven... twelve... thirteen... fourteen...'

“What happened?” Cory whispered.

“No one knows. According to the account, it was first assumed that the boy was messing around and a full search of the cellar was made. But no trace of him was ever found. Supposedly a true story.”

“It really happened?” Phellan asked innocently, his eyes wide. Having spent his whole life in a tribe of his own kind, so much of the way of humans was new to him – and so he was more than a little naïve.

Jonas nodded. “There were other stories too – apparently staircases are really common in tales of random disappearances. Another I read was about this shack in the wilderness. It is old and falling apart, but all the furniture remains inside – like the owners just upped and left one day. Behind the shack is a set of broken stairs that seem to lead down to nowhere. Some say the bodies of the former residents are buried down there, others say that you will meet the shadow monster down there.”

Phellan stared at him. “Shadow monster?”

“Yep,” Jonas was really getting into his stride. “Legend says that all you can see of him are two red eyes lurking in the blackness. If you offer him something – like your youth or your wisdom – he will grant you a wish and let you live. Refuse, and he will take your life.”

Seeing that he had their full attention, he continued. “Another story – I actually read this one in a book - is about a staircase somewhere in the countryside. It is supposedly difficult to find because everything around it is overgrown; but certain people will stumble across it. The steps lead down to the deepest reaches of the hells, where all the torture takes place and demons run riot. One rumour says that two young men found it one spring day, and when one of them started to descend, some unseen force grabbed him and dragged him down screaming. He was never seen again.”

“Wow... that is kind of creepy,” Cory said quietly. Phellan said nothing, just stared at Jonas with his eyes wide.

“I know,” the wizard said nonchalantly. “Well, that's enough story-telling for tonight. It is time for me to sleep. Goodnight, pleasant dreams.”

“Cory?” Phellan whispered nervously. “We won't have to go down any stairs again, will we?”

-------

It was during the next afternoon, while they were wandering the forest looking for herbs for Valia to use in potion-making, that Cory, Phellan and Jonas just happened to discover the stone steps leading down into the earth. Covered partly with bushes, there were no buildings or foundations or anything – just those stairs leading down into darkness.

“Cory?” Phellan eyed the staircase warily. “Will there be a monster down there?”

“I don't think so, Phellan.”

“But maybe the stairs will just go on and on and never end? Maybe we will be trapped forever? And just have to keep counting and counting?”

“I think that is very unlikely. Those were just stories. But if it makes you feel better... we could always push Jonas down them and see if he hits the bottom.”

“Hey!” The wizard glared over at them. “That's not funny.”

“Well, this is your fault,” Cory shot back. “You and your stories. Now get down there and show Phellan that there is nothing to be afraid of.”

“I don't want to go - ” Jonas started. At that moment Riandur came out through the trees – concerned that they had maybe gotten lost - and crashed into the man. As Jonas stumbled forward, his boot caught a tree root and he toppled down the slippery stone steps.

Riandur sighed. “Why was he standing there?” he asked no one in particular. Cory and Phellan exchanged a glance, trying not to laugh.

“Are you all right down there?” Cory called down to his half-brother. A groan came back in response. “I guess it isn't a never-ending staircase then?”

“Any monsters down there?” Phellan asked.

“Just a lot of mud and slime. And I'm not okay. Everything hurts.”

Cory smiled at Phellan. “You want to go down and help him?”

The young wolf-man regarded the steps uneasily. It was hard to know what scared him more; the scary stories or seeing Jonas flying down head first. “I guess so... I really don't think I like stairs though.”

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