Saturday, September 28, 2013

Dark Redemption chapter 14: Exclusive Scoop

Beneath the gleaming skyscrapers and picturesque facade of the City of Redemption lies another city; a community of dark and ancient magic populated by creatures of the night. Dark Redemption is a shared-world novel based on an online role-playing game by James Crowther.

Reporter Cassandra True, has been invited accompany Strephon MacKenzie to a party being held by Melchior Aesermann, wealthy owner of a computer game company. She hopes that interviewing Aesermann will be the break she needs to get a promotion.

Cassandra could not believe her luck! Not only was she finally getting her interview with Melchior Aesermann, but she was rubbing elbows with some of the most powerful people in the city! Fortunately, she thought to bring a camera with her. She tried to be discreet about her shots -- no need to push her host's generosity. On the other hand, if she came back from this party with no pictures at all her editor really would flay her the way he promised that morning after he spiked her story about the wolf attack. If you're going to write about wolf attacks, I wanna see you sprouting fur! he said; At least gimme a statement from an old gypsy! What about the naked corpse? Where's the sizzle? Well, that was just fine by her. She wanted to make a name for herself with real serious journalism, not trashy spooks and UFO garbage.

"I'm sorry to cut this short, but I really must be seeing to my other guests," Aesermann said.

"Oh, no, no! That's fine! Thank you so very much for your time!" Cassandra gushed as he turned away to chat with another group of people. She sighed. Here she thought he'd be a jerk, but he turned out to be very polite and charming.

As she fumbled with her purse to return her pocket recorder, she noticed one of the guests staring at her; the skinny pizza-faced guy in glasses wearing the tuxedo a size too large. He shuffled his feet and looked over his shoulder apprehensively. The he mustered enough courage to approach her.

"Hello, You're a reporter?"

"Yes, my name is Cassandra True. I'm with The Daily Oracle" she said.

Once again the geek glanced furtively around the room. "I'm Byron Sanders. Senior Game Designer." Cassandra blinked. He didn't look old enough to be senior anything. On the other hand computer games was a young man's field. "I created the original Virtual Hot Tub," he added with undisguised pride. Yes, she could believe that.

"Really?" Cassandra said fishing the recorder back out of her purse. "That's very interesting." This could be useful background material for her Aesermann profile.

"I suppose Mister Aesermann told you about our new virtual reality platform?"

"A little bit. It sounds exciting."

"Oh it is!" Again the apprehensive pause. Had the guy never spoken to a girl before? Cassandra remembered Virtual Hot Tub. Maybe not. "We have a working prototype. Would you be interested in seeing it?"

Now it was Cassandra's turn to look over her shoulder. She suspected that Byron was seriously overstepping his authority. If Aeserman wanted to show this gizmo to the press he would have suggested it himself. Snooping around like this was a sure way to get herself booted out of the party. On the other hand, she already had her interview; what could she lose? "Sure!"

The two slipped out of the party without raising comment. Cassandra considered telling Strephon where she was going, except that he seemed to be trapped in a conversation with the banker's wife. Poor Strephon! Cassandra made a mental note to rescue him once she come back.

Byron led her to a nest of cubicles two floors down from where the party was. He cleared off a desk in the messiest cubicle and placed a console the size of a laptop computer on it.

"Where are the helmets?" Cassandra asked. She'd played virtual reality games in arcades before; they generally required cumbersome equipment.

"This is all we need." Bryon placed a headset on her head. "This is just the prototype mind you. Eventually we'll be able to directly jack into the player's brain."


Bryon donned a second headset and booted up the game. Before Cassandra could protest, she saw the cubicle around her dissolve to be replaced by a woodland scene in bright crayon colors. Byron's clothing had also been replaced -- her own too, Cassandra realized -- by a colorful t-shirt and shorts. A group of cute fluffy bunnies with pastel-coloered fur and shimmering white wings waddled out of the forest. The bunnies joined hands in a ring around the two and began to dance and sing.

"We are featherbunnies!
We like to dance and play!
And if you rub our fluffy tails
We'll grant a wish today!"

"Hang on, hang on," Byron said. He conjured a phantom console in front of him and fiddled with it. In the middle of the second verse, the bunnies froze and large luminous letters appeared in mid-air reading "PAUSE".

"Sorry about that," Byron said. "I wanted to make sure we weren't overheard and this was the only way."

"What's going on?" Cassandra asked.

"Listen. I've got to tell someone! The world's got to know before it's too late!"

"The world's got to know what?"

"It's Aesermann! He isn't human!"

"Oooo-kay." This was starting to weird Cassandra out. "Then what is he?"

Byron became frantic. "I don't know! I think he might be an alien! Him and his people!"

"Hang on. Let's start from the beginning." Cassandra felt she could take this a lot more seriously if not for the ring of bunny rabbits with frozen attitudes of cuteness smiling at her. On the other hand, it gave the whole thing a surreal quality. She had to believe it. Either that or someone was crazy. She dearly hoped it wasn't her.

Byron took a couple breaths and calmed down. "It started about a year ago when Aesermann bought out the company and renamed it Aeser Technologies. We were already a successful game company, but he made us bigger. Then he started bringing in his own people. He said they were programmers, but none of them know a line of code; I'd stake my life on it! But every one of them is a whiz! They seem to do it instinctively! Like they just wish the computer to do what it wants!

"They're the ones who developed this new platform. Now I know programming. And I know a fair amount about hardware. But I have no idea how this works. It seems to interface directly with the player's brain to create an illusion world.

"But that's not all," he continued.  "There's something about him and all his people.  It's like they have some kind of mental powers or something.  It sounds crazy, but they do!  They know what you're feeling and they can affect your emotions and she enters your dreams so you don't know what's real anymore!"

"She?"  Cassandra asked.

Byron turned bright red.  "Lilith, Aesermann's assistant.  She... well she..."

"I get the idea."  Cassandra remembered meeting the assistant and mentally filing her as "Maneater."  The poor boy was no match for her.  With a guilty start she wondered how Strephon was faring.

Suddenly, the bunnies and the forest disappeared.  A wall of static surrounded them.  "Uh, what just happened?  Did the power go out?"

"No, if it did we'd just leave the game.  Someone must have removed the game disc.  Bollocks!"  Byron conjured up the console again, but before he could to anything, the world changed again.

Now the two stood in a small stone chamber with a vaulted cieling.  Heavy wooden doors faced them from each wall.  Cassandra realized that she now held a semi-automatic rifle.

"Bugger!"  Byron said.  "Felching heck!"

"What is it?"  Cassandra looked wildly around, fear beginning to gnaw at her.

Byron slung his own rifle over his shoulder and tapped frantically at the phantom keyboard.  "It's a virtual reality version of one of our shooter games, Nowyr 2 Run, Nowyr 2 Hyd.  It's not ready for commercial release."

Somehow that innocuous-sounding euphemism chilled her.  "How do you turn off the game?"

Byron looked up at her, a cold sweat on his face.  "It's not letting me."

The door to Cassandra's right opened and the orcs came pouring out.

Next: Smooth Operetta

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Dark Redemption chapter 13: All Alone In a Crowded Room

Beneath the gleaming skyscrapers and picturesque facade of the City of Redemption lies another city; a community of dark and ancient magic populated by creatures of the night. Dark Redemption is a shared-world novel based on an online role-playing game by James Crowther.

Strephon MacKenzie, a half-fae recluse, has been invited to a party being held by Melchior Aesermann, a Fae noble posing as a mortal. When Melchior agrees to be interviewed by Strephon's date, reporter Cassandra True, he leaves leaves his personal assistant Lilith behind with Strephon to entertain him.

"I see you have acquired a toy of your own," Lilith said as Cassandra went off with Melchior.

"Miss True?" Strephon sipped his champagne and tried to keep his tone nonchalant. "A pleasant lass, if a bit impulsive. I met her in here in your lobby the other day, as you may recall. I wouldn't call her 'my toy', though."

Lilith gave a musical chuckle. "Don't be so modest, Strephon. I can see the signs. That girl has been touched by the Fae." She sat on the armrest of his wheelchair. "So, have you been naughty?"

Strephon's polite smile tightened slightly. Of course she expected him to deny it and become flustered. No, he'd play the game. "A gentleman never tells." He calmly took another sip of his glass. Not too much; he needed to keep his wits about him. Why didn't he think to order something non-alcoholic?

"Do you like impulsive girls?" Lilith dipped her fingertip into his champagne and gave it a lick. "I can be very impulsive." She slid over a little closer to him.

"Indeed." Strephon felt himself growing warm again. "Do I have to remind you that we are in a public place?"

"Not anymore."

Strephon suddenly realized that the party conversation had muted. He looked around and saw a grey veil of mist surrounding Lilith and himself. The rest of the guests seemed oblivious to them.

"It's a zone of privacy, clouding our presence from others." Lilith swung her legs across so that she now straddled his lap. "They won't notice a thing."

"Ah. Splendid. Then we may speak openly."

Lilith nibbled on his earlobe. "I like openness."

"Did Lord Melchior attempt to have me killed last night?"

Lilith ceased her nibbling and drew away. "What are you talking about?"

"A group of werewolves attacked Miss True and myself the other night, only scant hours after I had left this building."

Lilith sniffed. "Wolfen. What they have nothing to do with us."

"Melchior is making alliances within the were-community, is he not? I believe some of the guests tonight are in fact pack leaders."

Lilith squirmed a little. Strephon found that more than a bit distracting, but took some satisfaction from seeing her uncomfortable for a change. "That's just business. The wolfen are a law unto themselves. What makes you think the ones who attacked you had any connection with Melchior?"

"One of them wore a collar inscribed with fae runes. Now, unless someone is putting enchanted fae fetish gear on the open market, that suggests a deeper alliance. But you would know more about that than I."

Lilith bit her lip. "Melchior gave no such order. I would know if he did. If anyone is supplying fae artifacts to the wolfen, it is not this company."

Strephon frowned at her. For a moment she almost sounded sincere; then her voice slid back into its sensuous purr and she wriggled up his lap again. "Lord Melchior is very interested in you. And he's not the only one. I'm so glad you didn't get hurt..." She placed her arms around his neck and drew her lips towards his.

Strephon felt trapped. There was nothing he could do but move his own arm around Lilith...

...And dump his champagne down her back.

Lilith screamed and the grey mist vanished. Everyone in the room turned to stare at Lilith scrambling off Strephon's lap.

"How very clumsy of me," Strephon said; "I've spilled my drink all over you. Terribly sorry."

Lilith glared hatred at him. Now that was sincere.

NEXT: Exclusive Scoop

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Dark Redemption chapter 12: Networking

Beneath the gleaming skyscrapers and picturesque facade of the City of Redemption lies another city; a community of dark and ancient magic populated by creatures of the night. Dark Redemption is a shared-world novel based on an online role-playing game by James Crowther.

Strephon MacKenzie, a half-fae recluse, has been invited to a party being held by Melchior Aesermann, a Fae noble posing as a mortal, and has brought along reporter Cassandra True as his date. Several of the most powerful figures in Redemption's supernatural community have also been invited to this party, as well as a few other surprises.

"It's that detective," Cassandra whispered. "What's he doing here?"

"Undoubtedly he is wondering the same about us," Strephon replied under his breath. To his relief, however, the detective's companion headed straight for the buffet table and he followed her lead.

Strephon watched the little drama at the meat tray intently. Since the "Big Dogs" had taken an interest in his life, it only behooved him to take an interest in theirs. He wondered why Melchior was gauche enough to invite leaders of more than one pack to the same party. Then again, perhaps it was a deliberate political move to ensure that no single pack was snubbed. Or perhaps a reminder to whichever leader he was negotiating with that they were not the only pack in town. The detective faced down the President of the Decency League. Intriguing. The somewhat befuddled young man who had interrogated Strephon that morning was nowhere to be seen; the detective now possessed an intensity, a drive and a bite. The detective's companion observed the altercation with a combination of apprehension and satisfaction.

"Pardon me," one of the waiters interrupted him with a tray of champagne glasses. "Would you care for a drink?"

Strephon nodded and took one of the glasses. Cassandra reached for one, but then paused. "Um... could you bring me a rum and coke?"

"Certainly." The waiter glided away to bring the drink. Strephon directed a narrow glance at Cassandra, who returned it with a secret and slightly embarrassed smile.

Melchior was engaged in a conversation with the Aoi Kurayami while Lilith hovered at a discreet distance. They seemed to be discussing Aesermann's new game system and placing them in Miss Kurayami's cyber-cafes and possible strategies for international distribution. It all seemed quite conventional if one didn't know the gentleman was a Lord of the Fae and the woman a powerful vampire.

Strephon glanced over to the bald thin man with the thin, beakish nose. He was now speaking to a man in a grey suit with a peculiar aura. "Who is that?" Strephon asked.

Cassandra, sipping her rum and coke, looked over that way and shuddered. "I don't know. He gives me the creeps, though. He looks like a mortician." Strephon nodded; the man did have an aura of death about him. Now he recognized the man; it was Mr. Grey, a ghost of his acquaintance.

"Ah, Strephon; I'm glad you could make it." Melchior came over to him and offered his hand. "I hope you're enjoying yourself."

"Yes, I am," Strephon replied politely. "I don't think you've met Miss True." He gestured to Cassandra.

Melchior took her hand and gave her a charming smile which froze as Lilith whispered behind him, "She's a reporter. From the Oracle."

"It's so good to finally meet you," Cassandra said sweetly. "I was hoping I might ask for a few moments of your time."

Melchior curled his lip, but only for a moment. Then the mask returned. "Why certainly, my dear. Come with me. Lilith, will you keep Mister MacKenzie entertained while I'm gone?"

Lilith gave a predatory smile. "Why certainly."

Strephon cursed again. This was the last thing he wanted.

NEXT:  All Alone In a Crowded Room

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Dark Redemption chapter 11: What a Swell Party This Is

Beneath the gleaming skyscrapers and picturesque facade of the City of Redemption lies another city; a community of dark and ancient magic populated by creatures of the night. Dark Redemption is a shared-world novel based on an online role-playing game by James Crowther. Strephon MacKenzie, a semi-immortal half-fae, has been invited to a party being held by Melchior Aesermann, a fae noble posing as a human and owner of a technology firm. Strephon has asked reporter Cassandra True to be his date for the evening.

"You're sure I look all right?" Cassandra asked for the third time since she got into the cab. "You didn't say that this was going to be formal or anything."

Strephon sighed. He had dressed in formal dinner clothing because that was What One Wore to Dinner. He was too unfamiliar with 21st Century fashions to wear anything else. The dress she was wearing looked adequate, as far as he could tell, and she had applied the artifices that mortal women use to approximate faerie glamours well enough. "You look very beautiful," he lied. She was by no means plain, but compared to the women of the Unseen Realms, no mortal woman could rank higher than "nice". Having lived among mortals and indeed having loved one, Strephon knew that there were things more important than a staggeringly beautiful appearance; but he rightly judged that this was not a good time to explain this.

"I just don't want to look like a fool in front of Melchior Aeserman and his rich friends. This could be a big story for me!"

Strephon mumbled something vague in reply. He was still in a testy mood. Devon had appeared whilst he was dressing for dinner and requested a report on what he had learned. Strephon told him to soak his head. He also was having second thoughts about attending this party. Perhaps there was no connection between the werewolf attack last night and his visit with Melchior, but the appearance of a wolfen detective afterwards was too coincidental for Strephon's liking.

He regretted bringing Cassandra into this. Already she had nearly been killed and now he was bringing her into the intrigues of the Fae. She had no idea what kind of danger she faced. And for what? To serve as a shield from another fae's romantic overtures? Several times that day he considered calling her and cancelling their date, but he couldn't quite work up the nerve. He couldn't think of an adequate lie to protect her. And he did promise to give her the chance to interview Aesermann. Now he would have to try to learn more of Melchiors plans without revealing his own intentions and protect Cassandra all at the same time.

Tobais pulled up in front of Aesermann Technologies. "Here you are. Have fun, you two!" He unfolded the wheelchair and held it as Strephon hoisted himself out of the cab on his canes and slid into it. Strephon paid his fare and bade Tobias good night.

The night security guard glanced at the guest list as they entered the lobby and directed them to the lift. Strephon pressed the Up button. Before Cassandra could open her mouth, he said "You look fine. I'm sure you will be the most beautiful reporter there."

The affair, Strephon saw, was not a dinner so much as a cocktail party with a large buffet table. This was probably just as well, for there were many guests and a banquet would have been much less informal. Many of the guests were already here, and Strephon noted with some vexation how many of them seemed other than human.

"Look, that's Aoi Kurayami!" Cassandra said in hushed tones. She gestured towards a small, dark-haired woman wearing a leather coat and dark glasses with a distinct aura of the undead. She had the arm of a pretty young man in a white jacket. A gigolo, no doubt; and probably also a midnight snack. "She runs a big computer firm and owns a chain of cyber-cafes in town." No wonder Melchior invited her. Was she already an ally, or was Melchior trying to cultivate her?

"I think that's Malcolm Raven over by the buffet table. He's one of the most eligible bachelors in town. The woman with him is Anna Chelsea; she's a big marketing consultant." Strephon looked where Cassandra pointed. Perhaps bringing Cassandra wasn't such a mistake after all. She knew these people, by reputation at least. She did not know, however, that the handsome man piling slices of rare roast beef onto his plate and the woman accompanying him were werewolves. So was the man walking up to them.
"Planning on hogging the whole table?" the newcomer said with a deceptively light tone.

Raven flashed a toothy smile. "You're always free to scavenge my leavings, Blanka. It is your style after all."

"Omigosh," Cassandra whispered. "That's Lukas Bianka, head of the Redemption Decency League."

"Really," Strephon said. He wondered if Mister Bianka had ever played Virtual Hot Tub.

A large woman of a certain age and many chins towing a thin gentleman who would barely make a mouthful for either of the werewolves interposed herself between the two males. "Mister Bianka, it is soooo good to finally meet you. I'm Mrs. Trotter, of the Redemption Culture Claque. You might know my husband, Lemuel."

"L.G. Trotter," Cassandra explained, "he's president of the Fiduciary Trust Bank.

"Your organization has done such splendid work. We need more voices like yours speaking out against corruption and immorality in this city," Mrs. Trotter gushed.

"You are too kind," Bianka said with a brief bow.

Strephon turned his attention away from the buffet table. "Who is that?" he asked, indicating a thin, bald man with a prominent, beak-like nose.

"I don't know," Cassandra said.

Strephon narrowed his eyes. That man bore an aura of power and wisdom. He was neither wolf nor vampire; nor was he a fae. A human sorcerer? No, his aura was deeper than that. Strephon decided he would have to get to know that one.

He decided the same about another guest who seemed to have come stag to the party; a thin man in an ill-fitting tuxedo with glasses and a sadly blemished face. He was definitely a mortal. Magic of the fae tinged his aura, but Strephon guessed that he was merely one of Melchior's mortal employees.

Cassandra gasped. "Holy shit! Do you see him?" Strephon turned to this latest guest and almost gasped himself. "That's Simon Knox, publisher of the Morning Star!"

"Indeed," Strephon said. Knox was a broad-shouldered man with dark hair and a fine, pointed beard. A gorgeous blonde hung on his shoulder. Strephon frowned; he could not read the man's aura. He sensed that it was a powerful one, but he could divine nothing of its nature. Perhaps this one was a mortal sorcerer. That would be peculiar, since the Star regularly dismissed accounts of the supernatural. Then again, perhaps it was not peculiar at all.

The doors opened again and another pair of guests entered. One was another werewolf: a knockout blonde with long hair tied back in a braid and possessing a savage animal charisma. Strephon barely noticed her, focusing instead on her companion.

It was that damn detective!

What did this mean? Was the detective a minion of Melchior's? Did that mean that Melchior had sent the wolves to kill him?

Before Strephon had time to ponder these questions, Melchior himself entered the room, accompanied by his lovely and lethal administrative assistant. "Welcome, good friends," he said. "How good of you all to come!"

NEXT: Networking