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Welcome to the TaleSpeaker Blog

You have wandered here through the labyrinthine twists of the Internet. Some of you may know me already, either through my non-fiction or my work on TV. For others here, this may be your first introduction. Either way, this page is one of discovery. I am not as widely known for my fiction, and many of the fans who have discovered me through television are still learning that I began as — and will always be — a writer. Fiction and poetry, lyrics and songs, these things rest close to my heart, yet ironically, they have become not the focus of my career, but an addendum to it. In many ways, they are my refuge. But they remain a significant part of who I am.

As you will learn in reading this, many of my stories come from dreams. I have always been a vivid dreamer, immersed as I sleep in epic tales with intricate storylines and full casts of characters. Many of these dreams are reflections of bits and pieces of my waking life, but others seem spun from whole cloth, occupying vast worlds to which I happily return. Not all of these translate into full stories. Others consume me until I’ve written them out in some form. As the years have worn on and I have focused on my non-fiction writing, too many of these tales have languished on my hard drive or in notebooks — some as fragments, others as brief snapshots of scenes, complete unto themselves yet hinting at a larger work. So I’ve decided to make a place for my fiction here, to share.

Not everything you read here comes from dreams, of course. And not every dream is radiant or beautiful. There are dark twists and passages in the deep places of my mind, and I make no excuse for them. The eldritch children of those shadowed realms entertain me as much as a writer as the comely and elegant ones. I’ve been reading Edgar Allen Poe since 2nd grade, and Bradbury, Lovecraft, and Stephen King since shortly after that. October Country remains one of my favorite collections to return to again and again — I think it shows.

I share things here because the life of story is in its telling, and very few of these tales will ever find an outlet by any other means. And if these little tales manage to inspire your own stories and dreams, so much the better for all of us.

–M

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All the Pretty Vampires

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All the Pretty Vampires

Since the cover reveal for my upcoming book, Conspiracy of Angels, I've gotten a number of questions about the series -- what's it about? have you stopped writing non-fiction? who's that hot gal on the cover holding the big knife? -- but the most consistent question has been about vampires. Specifically, Will there be vampires in this series? The short answer, of course, is yes.

I mean, how could I not have vampires in my series? I've spent over two decades of my life hip-deep in the modern vampire community, appearing on everything from the History Channel to CNN to talk about it. I've lectured at universities around the country on vampires in fiction, folklore, and pop culture. And I've written foundational works on the phenomenon of psychic vampirism that have helped to shape an entire generation of practitioners. Vampires are, as they say, my thing.

On the other hand, expressly because I have done so much on vampires since the early 90s, I didn't want to make vampires the sole focus of the Shadowside world. So, while Zachary Westland's world definitely includes vampires, they are not the only things my main character encounters, nor does that main character sport fangs himself.

Fans of vampires in fiction will, I think, be delighted and intrigued with my take on this immortal archetype. I've held off talking about the vampires in the Shadowside series until now, however, because I'm not so certain what the vampire community itself is going to think. As a writer who addresses paranormal and supernatural topics in both my fiction and my non-fiction, I'm aware that, for some readers, the lines between real life and the story might seem blurry -- but those lines are not blurry for me.

Vampires

Certainly, in crafting the world of the Shadowside, I have drawn upon my extensive knowledge of psychic phenomenon, occult practices, and paranormal events. The verisimilitude that drives the Urban Fantasy genre is part of its allure to me as a writer -- the technique that weird fiction author H.P. Lovecraft called "supernatural realism." Simply put, with supernatural realism, a generous commingling of facts wedded to the fantastic helps to make the fiction that much more immersive and exciting.

That said, the vampires in Conspiracy of Angels and the later books of the Shadowside series are not based off of anyone in the modern vampire community. Satire -- even self-satire -- was not my goal with this series. The vampires of the Shadowside instead draw upon the vampire archetype as it has been expressed in the time-honored fiction that I love. They have fangs. They drink blood. They wear their sunglasses after dark.

They do not sparkle.

The vampires of the Shadowside are not the good guys. Most are right bastards. They weave skeins and skeins of intrigue, manipulation, and betrayal -- because any being that long-lived would have to -- both in order to survive as well as to alleviate the boredom of an endless march of nights.

There is a distinctly monstrous element to my vampires, and while they make an effort to pass as human, they absolutely do not function on human rules -- as main character Zachary Westland discovers swiftly and to his detriment.

Of course, Zack isn't exactly your garden variety mortal either. As he learns more about who he is and what this means for him, he discovers that, even against ageless, scheming vampires, he can hold his own.

--M

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Conspiracy of Angels

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Conspiracy of Angels

It's real. It is finally real -- this tale that has been roiling inside of me and struggling to get out. The official cover has gone live and Book One of the series, Conspiracy of Angels, can be pre-ordered in all the places where one may order books. It won't be out until October -- always a momentous month for me -- and that seems like such a very long time from now. But maybe it is just long enough -- long enough for me to get the word out. Long enough for me to explain why the story of Zachary Westland has been spilling forth like fire from my lips.

This journey started in 2008. I remember the night with that clarity that sometimes comes with those moments of time that you know, even in the midst of them, are significant. I was working a case with the PRS, and I was sitting outside this house in California with gorgeous acreage -- rocks and trees and wide, starlit skies.

I don't often like to sit idle. My brain is always rushing through words and images and song. All these things demand release from the whorls of my grey matter, so I rarely go anywhere without some means of writing them down.

I had pens and a notepad, and I sat on a crate, hunched over these in the lights for the cameras, scribbling things down. A name. Zack Westland. An image -- riding into a city. My city, Cleveland, Ohio. Although I've grown up in Hinckley and I live in Medina -- both greener, more rural suburbs of the original Metropolis (Superman was born here), Cleveland is the closest major city to where I live, and it's the urban center I claim as my own. There's a lot of history in that town -- known to far too many as the Mistake on the Lake, or the City of the Burning River. But it is also the city where Rockefeller built the bulk of his empire, where Edison worked tirelessly in Nela Park. There are many stories and secrets in Cleveland, not the least of which slumber in the depths of its neighboring lake, Erie.

Conspiracy_Cover_Official

As I sat beneath harsh lights and distant stars in a land far removed from my native Midwest, characters unwound and then dialogue, and then all the bones upon which I would build this story, this world. And a word: the Shadowside. That lay at the heart of it -- or, perhaps I should say, it was woven throughout it. Because, as with most fiction, that point of view character whose name (a short version of it, at least) was Zack, shared things in common with his creator as I wielded my pen. We were both psychic. We both perceived spirits. And from that common point, all the rest of his world -- which looked so much like my world, yet wasn't -- blossomed.

Zachary Westland, who sees through to the Shadowside. Zachary Westland, who feels a compelling need to battle the darker things that spill forth from that shadowy part of reality one step off from our familiar, flesh-and-blood world.

Most of you reading this know that, in 2008, I was writer already. Books on vampires and ghosts and psychic experiences had already spilled forth from my pen. Non-fiction (though I maintain no illusions that many out in the world are quite certain these topics might as well be fiction) was what I was known for, and what had landed me into the curious experience of being a person on TV. And I had a comfortable place as a writer on the weird world of the paranormal and the strange. I was (and still am) happy with the folks at Llewellyn, who published the majority of my work. But they couldn't publish this story -- fiction wasn't in their wheelhouse. So, if Zack was to live and to walk in the imaginations of others, I would have to embark on a journey I knew would take every bit of stubborn persistence that I had: I had to delve into the daunting and competitive world of traditional publishing.

Llewellyn, of course, is a publisher, and by that, a part of the publishing industry. And yet, the great and many-headed beast of publishing itself views a company like Llewellyn as something akin to a digit on a finger. It is not an arm. It is certainly not a head. Llewellyn, for all that it is one of the largest publishers of Pagan and magickal books, is nevertheless a niche market. The publishing behemoths like Penguin and Harper Collins themselves (as I would discover later in this challenging journey) hardly considered it a gnat. I never had to acquire the help of a literary agent simply to obtain the privilege to submit a manuscript to Llewellyn. The company takes unagented work, and they stand at a level within the publishing industry where this is feasible -- and neither party is much in danger of being terribly screwed without the benefit of such an intermediary.

Where I wanted to aim with the Shadowside Series took me into entirely different territory. It was territory I had explored twenty years previously -- often with mixed results. Traditional publishing requires a strong stomach and an even thicker skin. It's not uncommon for good books -- amazing books that later bear out to be best-sellers that change the face of the publishing world -- to meet with rejection not once, not twice, but over and over. I think of it as an endurance test for the ego. And when I was an aspiring novelist in college, I did not have what it took to keep at it. Because that's what you have to do -- find an agent (a process in and of itself that often comes with a great deal of waiting and rejection) and grind your face against what seems like an endless stream of rejection letters all the while maintaining belief in the book.

Maybe I'd never had a story that meant enough to me to keep me going even after some of the blistering or utterly apathetic replies (the critical ones aren't the worse -- the ones that have always killed me are the ones where the editor praises the work glowingly, and then ends with some terse phrase like, "we can't market it at this time," that makes all that praise turn to ash on the tongue). I'd always give up after two or three such rejections. I'd doubt my capabilities. I'd doubt the project. But, most of all, I'd doubt my ability to persevere for the amount of time that landing a publisher would so obviously take.

The Shadowside series was different. It came to me at a time in my life when I knew what it meant to be patient. I knew what it meant to see a book bear fruit. And I had the luxury of time. So, from that night in 2008 and thereafter, I set about crafting a story and a world that I could live in comfortably as a writer for the next ten or twenty years. Not a one-shot novel, but a series. A place that, creatively, I could call home.

And I learned more about Zack in subsequent revisions. And I met Lil, who I can best describe as Jessica Rabbit mixed with equal portions of Kali-Ma. Sal, who is Machiavelli in garters, and soft-spoken Remy who spent at least two days arguing with me in my head over the issue of a hat (he gets his damned fedora eventually, never fear).

Many revisions later, I sought out the Holy Grail of fiction publishing -- a literary agent. And I was lucky enough to have Lucienne Diver, who also represents (among many other noteworthy and recognizable writers) a childhood hero, P.N. Elrod, take an interest in Zack and his world. She agreed to take me on.

Twenty years before, when I'd first been trying to establish my name as a fiction writer, I had decried the necessity of a literary agent. I resented the notion that I had to rely on some other person to help sell my book -- that I needed an agent like Charlie needed that Golden Ticket just for the privilege of even entering the elusive realm of the slush pile.

Now I don't know what I'd do without an advocate as skilled and savvy as Lucienne.

Rejections came in, of course. Some -- well, that's material for another entry, should I feel that it's appropriate to make it. Suffice that, my work as a non-fiction writer, no matter how many books I'd gotten under my belt, didn't necessarily help me. Actually, it didn't really count for squat. And my identity as a television personality in most cases worked against me. TV people don't often write their own books. They are not seen as writers. That label must be earned.

And earn it I did - in the eyes of Steve Saffel at Titan Books -- a publishing company that still leaves me feeling a little breathless at the thought that they were willing to take Zack and his world on.

And now, seven years later, we are here. And there is a cover. Zack has a face, as does Lil. And I am almost able to share his world with all of you.

I have not, by any means, given up my non-fiction writing. I have (as recent appearances on Monsters and Mysteries in America will attest) continued to work in television. But fiction -- and the Shadowside, especially -- is what I want to do with the rest of my life. To live in this story and to shape it, and to share Zack's adventures with all of you.

October 27th, the first book comes out. I can't wait.

--M

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Changing Narratives

In a world of changing narratives: The hero always gets the girl. And sometimes that hero is also a girl.

The bad guy always gets what he deserves. And sometimes what he deserves is to be seen not as categorically bad.

They ride off happily into the sunset. And the next day, they have the minutiae of life to attend to once again.

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Never Look Away

Dream from last night. Putting it here. Current events, obviously, have been on my mind. ----------------------------------------------------

I am, quite suddenly, inside a wrecked vehicle. Some kind of SUV. I am a visitor or observer to this tragedy. I am sitting/hovering over where the driver should be. I am not the driver. The driver is dead. I have a vague awareness of his body in the bucket seat beneath me (although I do not physically intersect with that body). The front of him is covered with blood. It is clotting and slick, so dark in places, it's more like black pudding than blood.

There is a woman in the seat beside him. She is also dead. Her head lolls to the side by the window. There is blood spatter across part of the window, and there is a hole in the window, with the safety glass starred around it. There is blood all down her face. I can only see her one eye -- the right one -- it's open and staring. Her eye is dark brown. Her hair is black. Her skin is a deep brown. She looks to be in her twenties, maybe early thirties. I realize as I stare at her that she did not hit her head. She has been shot. At least one bullet caught her in the head, and there are flecks of things that shouldn't be on the outside of a body spattered on the window and a little on the headrest of her seat.

There is a dog in the car screaming, trapped somewhere on the floorboards. I can't see the dog, but I know that it's hurt badly. It screams without stopping -- a panicked, agonized, ugly noise, so loud and constant, I almost don't hear the woman in the backseat weeping and moaning and gulping for breath.

I turn in the driver's seat and I see the backseat passenger. She is an older black woman. Heavy-set. Her hair in braids, and while the whole of her hair isn't dyed blonde, some of it has been lightened, and it makes a pretty pattern in the braids, the faded blonde woven together with the brown.

This woman's skin is a different shade from the dead woman. Ashen. Perhaps because she's in shock. Her eyes are wide and her mouth hangs open as she stares at the dead woman in the seat. She is wailing and close to hyperventilating. There's something wrong with one of her legs -- she's right behind the driver, and I think his seat has been pushed back on her. She's wounded, perhaps trapped, but what has gutted her and riveted her to that seat more than any physical pain is the horror of seeing that younger woman slumped over in the front seat, the one eye staring at some point under the dash.

I think the younger woman may be her daughter.

I -- I am there and not there, not a physical presence, but perceptible. This often happens to me in dreams, especially dreams like this one, where I seem called to witness a terrible event.

I reach back to where the woman's hand rests on the shoulder of the driver's seat (there is a police officer at the wreck -- more than one, but I only see the black officer when he comes up to the passenger side of the vehicle). He breaks the window, yelling to shut that damned thing up. It's a dachshund mix, its back broken so the animal looks bent in half. It's out of its mind with pain, cringing at the feet of the woman in the front seat. When he sees it, he shoots it.

I know now where the bullet came from that killed the woman. Bullets. I think there were several fired -- I don't know what killed the driver. I never turn around to see the state of the windshield in front of him. I get the feeling the air bag didn't deploy, because of the state of his chest -- like the steering wheel smashed all his ribs. But there is so much blood on him, around him, I suspect he also has been shot, and this is why the vehicle wrecked.

The older woman -- I want to help her, feel compelled to ease some of her pain. And if she keeps staring at the dead woman in horror, I'm afraid she's going to slip further into shock.

I reach out my hand to touch her hand. When my fingers cover hers, she can see me. Her eyes flick in my direction.

I say, "Look away."

I mean it to be soothing. I mean for her to stop looking at the blood and the flecks of bone and brain.

She doesn't take it that way.

She meets my eyes with a fierce, proud, and unyielding passion. Her eyes are hazel, tipping toward green. In a low voice rough with tears but wrapped around steel, she says, "Don't you say that to me. I will look. I will memorize what she looks like in this moment. I will never blink or look away. To look away is to deny her death. Not this day."

The officer starts getting a door open then. I have no idea why shots were fired. I have no idea what started this, or how it ended. At her words, so full of determination and anger -- anger that I would even suggest she look away -- I begin withdrawing, chastened.

The dream fades. I wake with her words still lingering in my mind.

I will look.

--M

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The Whately Mansion Saga

The Story Thus Far: The vampire Alexander LeMourru acquired the Old Whately Mansion for reasons known only to himself. Formerly the scene of unspeakable murders, Alexander and his crew have refurbished the ramshackle mansion, making it home to a curious collection of blue-shirted cultists. They keep mostly to themselves, save for opening the place to the litterati of New England for grand seances on the weekends.

Alexander has long been a thorn in the side of the local Giovanni, a family of vampires and necromancers thoroughly entrenched in the shadowed underworld of Providence. Led by the stern and sometimes hot-headed patriarch, Antonio, the famiglia has determined that whatever Alexander is up to in the old mansion, it is not in their best interests.

After a week of preparation and recon, Antonio, his enforcer, Menecrites, and the grim, solitary necromancer Karl Beck headed out to discover what secrets the old murder house might hold.

No plan survives the field. The three sought to capture Alexander's cat's paw, Jeff York, unawares, but the spirit of Old Man Whately gave them away. While the Giovanni had hoped to infiltrate the mansion bloodlessly, they are hardly the sort to shy away from conflict once it becomes inevitable.

Adapting to complications none of them could have foreseen, Antonio, Menecrites, and Beck successfully take York as a hostage -- but not without some losses. Jeff pulled what appears to have been an Oblivion bomb from his pocket, and in the resulting explosion of negative energy, Julie, Karl’s wraith, as well as the wraith of Old Man Whately, were both consumed by the darkness. The bomb also did a level of aggravated damage to all of the living (or undead) beings standing in a ten foot radius around its epicenter. This included Jeff York.

As everyone recovered from this development, Karl discovered that his ring of unseen presence was no longer working. With a sinking feeling, he checked his other soul-forged items, only to discover that they now were also inert. The spirits bound to power them had been devoured by the concussive wave of Oblivion just like Old Man Whately and his companion, Julie.

This led Antonio to check his prize swordcane, forged with the soul of the Assamite once sent to kill him. Upon inspecting the blade, veins begin to stand out on Antonio’s forehead. His hands tremble for a moment, and then, closing his eyes, he puts forth a monumental effort to maintain control and not give in to frenzy. But it is very clear that Antonio is not pleased with this development.

In the parlour, one cultist, a young woman, lies dead, shot between the eyes by Menecrites in a mercy killing. Although Menecrites’ gun is equipped with a silencer, the girl’s desperate screams prior to her death caught the attention of at least one cultist who remained in the upstairs portion of the mansion. From the sound of things, that person has come to the top of the stairs and is calling down to York to see if everything is ok.

The story continues tomorrow ...

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Staring into the Abyss

Providence. 1929. The Whately mansion -- once abandoned on the heels of a terrible string of murders, now refurbished and home to a mysterious cult, with the vampire Alexander pulling their strings.-----------------------------------------------------

Jeff York and an unfamiliar mortal woman stand in the front parlour of the Whately place – oblivious to the three members of family Giovanni observing them from down the hall. No words pass between Karl, Antonio, or Menecrites. No words are necessary. They have fought together often enough that a single look conveys everything. Meeting Karl’s eyes, Antonio gives a single, slow nod.

There is a taut and breathless moment where time feels suspended – and then a flurry of action unfolds. Karl reaches into the pocket of his overcoat and withdraws an enchanted ring. With a smooth series of motions, he pulls off one of his leather gloves and slips the ring onto the index finger of that hand. His lips move with a word of command – mouthed, not spoken. He barely imbues the syllables with breath. But his intent is enough. In the next instant, he vanishes, the cloak of shadows in the wraith-forged ring obscuring his presence.

At the door to the sewing room, Antonio touches a pendant at his throat. With a murmured word, he, too, disappears as he activates the obfuscation of the enchanted item. Although their presences are unseen, both Antonio and Karl still make audible sounds. They each move with slow and measured steps so their footfalls do not reveal their positions. They creep toward the lighted parlor.

Menecrites hangs back in the darkened sewing room, taking up Antonio’s previous position at the door so he can watch as things unfold and step in when he’s needed.

Jeff is still chatting with the girl. She’s pretty, in a classy kind of way. She looks nineteen or twenty. Although she wears the collar of her blue shirt buttoned up tight, bruising on her neck suggests that she has been bitten some time in the past few days. York seems interested in biting her again, and he pulls her close as he leans in to feed.

It’s the perfect distraction. They want to catch York unaware so they can restrain him and use him to learn where their true quarry is hiding -- Alexander.

Antonio and Karl move swiftly down the long hall, past the locked basement door. They step invisibly into the parlour at approximately the same time. Almost as if they had planned this part, Karl steps to the left, Antonio to the right. They circle around, closing in on Jeff. When they get within ten feet, however, Jeff suddenly looks up.

“Wraith!” Julie hisses, trying to direct Karl’s attention to something swooping down the hall.

“YOU HAVE NO BUSINESS IN MY HOME!!!” the spirit bellows in a hollow voice audible only to Karl and York’s flesh-and-blood ears.

The wraith – an old man with a shock of white hair and a long, grizzled beard – goes directly for Karl. He balls his hand into a fist and pops Karl squarely in the jaw. Karl staggers backward – more from shock than from pain. He’s seen this wraith before. It’s Old Man Whately. And the dead bastard still packs quite a wallop. Karl daubs the back of his hand against his split lip. It comes away smeared darkly with blood.

York looks up from his dinner and whirls around, trying to spot the source of the disturbances. He sees Old Man Whately as the wraith lashes out – although, for Jeff, the enchantment on Karl’s ring means he can’t quite see Karl himself. York focuses first on Julie, but it’s clear that she is not whatever Whately is striking. It’s obvious enough that someone is hidden. Jeff squints at the air in front of Whately, and his eyes shimmer with power as he struggles to see past the illusion.

Antonio prepares himself to take a flying tackle at York, not wanting to completely lose the element of surprise.

In the next moment, York starts off by moving obscenely fast. In the space of two eyeblinks, he reaches into an inner pocket of his jacket, grabs something the size and shape of a red rubber ball, and tosses this item hard onto the polished wooden floorboards. He aims for a spot about a foot in front of himself and roughly between Karl and Antonio’s cloaked forms.

The item hits the ground and shatters. Antonio and Karl both tense, expecting to be caught in a fiery explosion. There’s not enough time to get to cover.

Instead of flames, the thing erupts into boiling waves of darkness. A numbing concussion of frigid shadows ripples out from the point of impact, sucking the air from the room and temporarily blinding all present. The shockwave hits with a silence so intense, the air seems to shriek with absence. Bitter talons of ice lash against every scrap of exposed flesh, biting somehow deeper than flesh, bone-deep and soul-searing. All thought, all reason is driven before that numbing wave and it’s all anyone can do to keep their feet. Karl stumbles and Antonio is nearly driven to his knees.

Karl and Antonio each take one aggravated wound.

The wraiths shriek and the sound tears at the very air. They’re tossed like autumn leaves in the silent gale rushing from the epicenter, and the pulsing waves of dark shear gobbets from their forms. Old Man Whately howls as he lifts his hands to cover his face – and the memory of flesh is torn down to the bone. Julie pleas for help from Karl, clinging with bitter desperation as the darkness eats her before his eyes. She’s blown like rags along the air, a tattered, screaming form, and then – nothing.

Both Antonio and Karl’s enchantments are ripped away as well, and in the wake of the awful storm of darkness unleashed by York, the two vampires stand, shaken and staring. York looks as shocked as they do. Menecrites catches only the tail of it from his position down the hall. He pokes his head back out the door once the worst of the shockwaves has passed.

The mortal woman is screaming. The sound rises and falls, desolate and empty of all reason. She screams till she runs out of breath, then takes a hiccupping sob and screams some more.

She’s on the floor and she crab-walks back from the point of impact. Her back hits the wall and she doesn’t stop, just keeps trying to crawl backward into it. She claws at her eyes, fingers hooked and nails gouging.

York looks down in stupefaction at the item he dashed onto the floorboards. There are bits of broken glass and bands of some metal – probably copper – scattered in a two-foot radius. From this epicenter, that chilling darkness lingers, though the waves are nowhere near as powerful as the first concussion that caught everyone unaware.

“Shit,” York swears unhappily at the shattered remnants of the bomb.

Antonio doesn’t waste another moment. He tosses his swordcane to one side and levels the Toreador with a powerful flying tackle. He’d prefer to just kill the bastard, but he needs to question him. He catches York by surprise so the smaller man can’t engage his supernatural speed. The two of them tumble down in a heap.

Menecrites dashes into the room. Karl is still stunned by what he witnessed happening to both of the wraiths – Julie especially. The stoic necromancer isn’t one to brood on his feelings, but watching his companion torn apart before his eyes has nearly unmoored him. He stands frozen in place, staring at the air where she had been.

As Antonio wrestles with York, the mortal woman’s shrieks change in pitch and frequency. She slams her head backward into the wall, still digging at her eyes. Her hands are bloody. Her mouth moves in nonsense sounds and she’s still trying to push herself backwards with spastic kicks of her legs.

Before anyone can suggest otherwise, Menecrites pulls out his gun and shoots her once between the eyes. It’s a mercy killing, efficient and quick. She falls silent at last.

Antonio throttles York, landing punch after punch on his face.

“What the fuck was that, York? What the fuck was that?” Antonio bellows. "Menecrites! Hand me my swordcane. I'm gonna take this bastard's head."

Through the ruin of his mouth, York begs for his life, screaming, “I had no idea it would do that! Please! I’ll tell you everything! Just don’t kill me!”

Abyss To be continued …

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Into the House of Death

1929. Night has fallen on Providence, and in one ill-fated house near the town cemetery, darkness comes to call.-------------------------------------------

Wednesday night comes, and they all pile into Antonio’s Packard. He kills the headlamps a few blocks from the Whately place, then cuts the engine as he turns into Kirkwood Cemetery. He lets the car coast for as long as he can, maneuvering it along the narrow gravel path that twists amidst the stones.

Once the car stops, he engages the parking brake and they all get out, taking stock of their equipment. Antonio has his trusty sword cane, an item enchanted with the bound spirit of a vampire assassin once sent to kill him. Antonio killed the Assamite and claimed his soul instead. The Giovanni patriarch has his gun as well, and guns are good enough for mortals. But the cane – especially with the screaming spirit bound to its hidden blade – that has a real bite.

Menecrites opens the boot and pulls out two large glass bottles, trying not to clink them together. The bottles hold a murky brownish liquid that could pass for urine in the wrong light – bootleg mead. It’s not the best stuff. In fact, it’s barely drinkable. But it doesn’t have to be good to be incriminating. Menecrites tucks one bottle under each arm, nodding to Karl and Antonio that he’s ready.

Julie the wraith hovers near Karl’s shoulder, humming to herself. Her reedy voice intermittently crosses to the flesh-and-blood world with a sound like wind sighing through the naked branches of frozen trees. Nadia is nearby as well, but Antonio whispers to her, asking her to stay near the car and keep an eye on things from a distance. If things go south, he wants her to hustle back home and let cousin Luci know to hit the place with everything the family’s got.

On foot, the three Giovanni head toward the house, moving silently among the canting, weathered stones of Kirkwood Cemetery.

Lights are on in the parlor and some of the curtains are drawn. As they watch, the familiar figure of Jeffrey York passes in front of one of the windows. The glimpse is brief, but they all recognize Alexander’s cats’ paw.

The rest of the house is dark, except for what might be a reading light in one of the upstairs bedrooms. With a gesture from Antonio, Karl heads around back. Antonio and Menecrites crouch as they pass near the windows to the parlor, gliding soundlessly through the grass as they move toward the side of the house. Once they’re clear of the lighted windows, Menecrites stashes the mead in the bushes. Antonio studies the windows on this side of the house for a likely point of entry. The foundation of the house is fairly high, so all the windows are a little out of reach, but between himself and Menecrites, that shouldn’t be much trouble.

As Karl approaches the back door, he calls upon his particular path of necromancy, reaching out to the spectral echo of the physical world. Most of the Giovanni necromancers can summon and compel spirits, but Karl’s from a line that has a different sort of knack. It’s one reason the Italian family “adopted” their German cousin. Karl can peer directly into the realm of the dead. Better than that, with effort, he can reach across and even walk through it. It’s a tasking ability, and not without its risks, but it’s a talent Karl’s had since the days he became a vampire.

Stepping carefully onto a regrettably creaky back porch, Karl has a momentary flash of déjà vu. It was this door precisely where he had previously broken into the Old Whately Place with Jack all those years ago. This was the house where he’d first learned spirits could physically hurt people. This was where he’d seen undeniable evidence that attested to his own skills.

He pauses at the door, his gloved hand hovering over its knob. Closing his eyes, he reaches inward to what feels like a dark and fathomless well. Cold power rests in that space, and he dredges it up. Even his undead flesh feels the chill as it bursts forth, flooding him. When he opens his eyes again, the world has bled of all color. The house before him is decrepit again, and all its angles have gone wrong – he’s looking at it through the shadowlands.

Karl presses forward, starting to step across, but he quickly realizes that the house exists very solidly in both the skinlands and the shadowlands. If anything, the place has more substance in the shadowlands, probably because of all of the stories told about it. The fear and horror associated with the place have soaked into every board, making the place unassailable. No wonder the wraiths couldn’t get in. Alexander didn’t even need wards – all he had to do to block the spirits was close and lock the physical door.

Karl steps back across, never actually moving from his position directly in front of the back door. Then he takes a couple of lockpicks from of his coat pocket and jimmies the lock. Julie teases Karl gently over having to resort to this.

He shoots her a look and whispers, “I suppose you could do better?”

She sticks out her tongue playfully, but quiets back down.

Elsewhere, Antonio and Menecrites move quietly to a side window. No lights burn in the room beyond, and some empty wooden crates lie close at hand in the yard beside an wheelbarrow. Quickly and silently, Antonio and Menecrites stack the crates. Antonio hands his cane off to Menecrites, then steps up first. Drawing upon his skills of stealth and security, he lets himself in through the darkened window. Then he reaches down for his cane. Once it’s in hand, he helps Menecrites through the window behind him.

The half-Greek enforcer is not as silent as Antonio, and for a few breathless moments, the two of them stand, stock-still in what appears to be a sewing room. They listen to the rest of the house, but after a few moments, it seems obvious that no one heard them enter. The door leading out of the room is slightly ajar, letting in a sliver of light from the hallway. Motioning for Menecrites to stay put, Antonio creeps soundlessly forward to the door.

At the back door, Karl succeeds in picking the lock. Julie pats him on the back with a ghostly hand. Ordinarily, he would send her in first to scout the place out, but if the vampire Jeff York is in residence, there’s a chance that he’ll see her. The Giovanni vampires might have the market cornered on necromancy, but they can’t control who is and who isn’t a natural spirit medium. The in-born skill makes Jeff especially inconvenient to them.

Murmuring so low not even vampire ears could hear him, Karl instructs Julie to stick close, following a step or two behind him. Crouching low to the ground, he turns the knob and cautiously pushes the back door open. The hinges creak and the sound seems loud as a car wreck to Karl’s ears. He halts, then listens. Nothing. He resumes pushing the door open slowly, but the hinges groan again in protest and, preparing for the worst, Karl gives in and just shoves the door all the way open.

No one seems to hear – or, if they hear, they’re not making any noise of their own.

Karl decides that he’s in the clear for the moment. He edges through the doorway with Julie close behind. The necromancer finds himself in the kitchen. The only light is the ghostly blue flickering of the pilot light on the stove. It streams weakly through the latticed burners. The kitchen is large, with a sizable butcher’s block standing in the center of the room. A rack of pots and pans hangs above the butcher block. Karl makes note of the collection of knives sitting on the block, including a well-honed cleaver. Those might be useful later.

Moving as quietly as possible, although he’s not particularly skilled at stealth, Karl steps toward the door on the far side of the kitchen. He can see weak light coming in around the edges. That way lies the front of the house and Jeff York.

From the darkened sewing room, Antonio peers carefully through the crack in the door. Directly in front of him is the side of a staircase, a thick, highly polished banister leading upstairs. There is a door at the base of this staircase. It probably leads to the basement. The door is closed and has a sizable lock. The lock is clearly new – its brass fittings are shiny compared to the knob and hinges on the door. Faint, rust-colored symbols are visible along the very edge of the door, where it lies flush against the jamb. Wards of some sort.

Filing that piece of information away for later, Antonio glances down the hallway to the right. There’s a dining room, unlit. At the far end of the dining room is a door that probably leads to the kitchen. As Antonio watches, Karl steps carefully through that door and surveys the dining room. Antonio locks eyes with Karl and motions for the black-clad necromancer to stay put for a moment. Karl nods, taking a step back so he stands deeper in the shadows.

Looking to the left, Antonio sees that the hall continues toward the front of the house, leading toward the parlour. York is there, standing in about the middle of the room. The gaslights in that room burn away all the shadows. Their dancing, yellow light paints weird patterns across the flocked wallpaper in the hall.

Standing close to York is a young woman. She wears the powder-blue button-down shirt and the long, navy skirt that is to be the uniform of the female cult members. Her russet hair is twined in a French braid and knotted at the base of her neck. York appears to be hitting on her. He is wearing a powder-blue button-down shirt as well, but he has a navy suit jacket over it. He wears matching navy trousers. From the way the suit jacket hangs on one side, Antonio can tell that York is wearing a shoulder holster. So he has a gun, at the very least.

Karl stands rigidly in the shadows of the dining room. He doesn’t breathe. He doesn’t move a muscle. He watches in silence as Antonio cranes his head out of the door to a side room, peering down the one lighted hall. After a moment, Antonio turns back to face Karl. Gesturing silently, he holds up two fingers to indicate that there are two people in the lighted room. He mouths a name that Karl knows well: “York.” Then he raises a finger to indicate one other. Mouthing “York” again, Antonio gestures to indicate that Jeff has a gun.

Karl nods. Menecrites steps up behind Antonio. It’s time to put the next part of the plan into action.

Haunted

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A Council of Shadows

We return once more to our shadowed version of Providence, a city of vampire gangsters and spectral femme fatales.--------------------------------------------------------------------

The Giovanni vampires tail the cultists for the better part of a week, Menecrites with the living, Antonio and Karl with the dead. Monday night, Antonio has them meet in his office to go over what they've learned. He knows time is pressing, but he's dealt with LeMourru often enough to be wary - - he won't rush in until he's certain he will win.

The patriarch of the family sits with his elbows on the big mahogany desk, hands laced under his chin. His eyes are distant as Nadia whispers to him. Karl arrives first, with his own wraith, Julie, trailing in his wake. He has a fist full of receipts and an expression that seesaws between bewilderment and irritation.

The eyes of the two wraiths dart fleetingly to one another – – a token acknowledgment. Simply because they're dead and working for the same people doesn't guarantee that the two ladies get along. Nadia presses herself a little closer to Antonio, clearly possessive. Julie makes a big show of yawning in a spectral pantomime of indifference. Karl shoots Julie a look, clearly not in the mood.

Menecrites bursts into the room, bringing a welcome distraction from the tension strung upon the air between the two wraiths. He's dressed smartly in a suit and tie, a matching handkerchief meticulously folded and tucked into the breast pocket of his vest. He carries a creased manila folder under one meaty arm.

"Sorry I'm late, boss. I had one last thing to check before I put everything together." He pats the document-stuffed folder with no small amount of pride.

Antonio gives Menecrites a perfunctory nod. He pushes back from the desk, stretching in his chair. "So what we got, boys?"

With a baffled air, Karl tosses his receipts onto the desk. He says, "Bees. These people are crazy about bees."

"Hunh?" Antonio responds. Abruptly, he settles forward on the chair, the rollers hitting the tile with an audible clack.

"I checked in at all the shops in town, trying to catch purchases that tied them to occult activity," Karl explains. He adjusts his hat on his brow -- Reynaldo hadn't caught him this time in order to tell him to take it off indoors. "What I found is these cultists have a thing for bee-keeping. They've cleaned the city out of related supplies."

Antonio pages through the bills of sale, squinting at the writing as if this could somehow help what he was seeing make more sense.

Menecrites shuffles a little self-consciously, muttering, "Well, you just blew anything weird I had right out of the water."

Karl shrugs helplessly. "What they're doing with the bees is anyone's guess. I don't know any occult practice I can connect with it.”

"Not just Alexander's Elder Cult and Bridge Club, then," Antonio murmurs.

"Say what now?" Menecrites sputters.

The family patriarch laughs a little at his cousin’s response. He tilts his head in Nadia's direction, forgetting that Menecrites has trouble seeing the dead. "That's what she called 'em. I guess when they're bored, they play a lot of cards. Bridge Club."

Karl makes a frustrated noise. "I have no idea what these people are up to."

With a flourish, Menecrites presents his manila folder. "Then allow me.”

Both Karl and Antonio focus curiously on him. Menecrites is fairly brimming with giddy pride. He says, “I don't got the benefit of spooky dead things for spying on people, but I do got a lot of eyes and ears on the ground.”

He opens the folder and spreads its papers in an arc in front of Antonio. The elder vampire’s brows tick up and he lifts one of the pages to read it more closely.

"This is a timeline," he murmurs with some measure of surprise.

"Yeah. It's like I'm organized or something," Menecrites says.

“Eight AM, breakfast. Nine to one, gardening. Group lunch. Indoctrination. Séance.” Antonio rattles off activities as he goes down the list. “You’ve got their whole day mapped out.”

“Their whole week,” Menecrites corrects.

“Nadia couldn’t get inside the place,” Antonio admits.

“Neither could Julie,” says Karl. “It’s warded or something.”

“Well, everybody gets a visit from the milkman and the ice man, and those guys report to me,” Menecrites explains. “I got my buddy Cicero over in the cemetery trimming the bushes, and he’s got a real nice view. Then there’s the gal at the grocer’s – those crazy blue shirts might make a lot of honey with all them bees, but they don’t grow all their food. They got people coming into town pretty much daily.”

Antonio continues reading over the papers, nodding vaguely at his cousin’s points. “This is good work, Menecrites,” he says.

“Wait,” the big half-Greek says. “It gets better. Look over on the next page, boss. Wednesdays are like cultists’ night out.” He leans over and taps a finger in the middle of the sheet. "The place is never empty, but that’s our best window. A whole bunch of ‘em go out and party at the dance houses and stuff. They don’t come back till at least midnight. Three or four stay behind, with Jeff York playing babysitter.”

“Seems like his regular job,” Karl agrees. “The only vampire Julia saw coming and going with any regularity was Jeff. No sign of LeMourru.”

“Nadia saw LeMourru once,” Antonio says darkly. “He didn’t arrive by any obvious means, just kind of showed up on the inside of the house. Surprised her.” He sets Menecrites’s meticulously lettered timetables down. Nadia lays a spectral hand on his shoulder and Antonio’s looks softens for a moment. The expression swiftly fades.

“You think he’s learned how to obfuscate?” Karl wonders.

“Nah,” Antonio counters. “That’s not his style. He loves that pretty face of his too much to hide it like that.” Pensive, he picks at a slight bend in one of the corners of the manila folder. “I bet he’s got a haven under the building or something.”

“Then we have to get in there,” Karl responds. “The wraiths can’t get past the perimeter, so we don’t have much choice in the matter.”

Menecrites noisily clears his throat, waving his hand between Karl and Antonio. “Hello,” he says. “Already thought of that. We should break in Wednesday.”

Karl’s eyes flick to Menecrites, his pale lips pressed into a disapproving line. “You said yourself the place is never empty. What do we do with the mortals? We can’t risk being exposed, and you can bet they won’t just sit around while we rifle the place.”

“Killing them is always an option,” Menecrites responds. In unison, Karl and Antonio shoot him dirty looks. “Hey,” he says, shrugging, “Don’t tell me you weren’t thinking it.”

Antonio takes a breath and sighs unhappily. “Oh, I was,” he acknowledges, “And a couple years ago, I’d have been all for it. But if I know Alexander, he’s just waiting for an excuse to expose us.” He tears off the ragged corner of the folder with his nail. Sharply, he flicks it away, tracking it as it flutters to the tiles. “Nah, we gotta find a way we can raid the place that will hold up in court. You can bet he’ll try to drag us into some shit otherwise. That’s why he’s practically drowning in mortal patsies in that house.”

“If they were doing something obviously occult, I might be able to spin public opinion,” Karl offers.

“You just said their only weird thing is bee-keeping,” Antonio responds.

Karl shrugs. “I checked in with Shipton to see what kind of books they’ve picked up.”

“And…?” Antonio asks.

“Nothing.

“The Tremere could be lying,” Menecrites offers. “I mean, being a Tremere and all.”

Karl snorts. “He was lying about something. Which is why I had Julie watch the place,” he replies. “And if he’s selling them occult books, he’s doing it where those transactions can’t be observed. So, again, a brick wall.”

Antonio’s eyes have grown distant. He taps one nail against the blotter on his desk. Almost to himself, he murmurs, “Honey.”

Menecrites piques a brow at the family patriarch. “Squeeze me?” he quips.

Karl scowls at the enforcer with a look that eloquently damns Menecrites’ inability to be totally serious even at the most vexing of times. Menecrites either misses the look or ignores it – it’s an even bet. Antonio’s too immersed in his thoughts to catch any of it.

“I got an idea,” he says at length. “All that honey. They could be using it to make mead.”

“Julie didn’t see anything like that,” Karl objects.

Antonio barks a laugh. “I didn’t say they were actually brewing stuff. It don't matter. This will be the very definition of railroading. All we gotta do is plant a few casks in that house. Anything gets ugly, my police contacts can take care of the rest. We’ll be bustin’ up a bootlegging operation, after all.”

Understanding dawns across Karl’s face as he follows Antonio’s train of thought. The Doge of Providence, suddenly animated, slams his hand down on the surface of his desk in his excitement. The sound is enormous in the windowless basement office. His eyes glimmering with purpose, he says, “Menecrites – how quick can you get your hands on some honeywine?”

“Shouldn’t take much, boss.” Menecrites grins. Antonio’s excitement is infectious. “Then we hit the place Wednesday night, right?”

“Like you said, cousin,” Antonio replies, “that is the best possible time.”

Bee-Keeping

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An Honest Night's Work

It's 1929 in a version of Providence that's home to vampires, cultists, and the restless dead. A family of Italian necromancers have a choke-hold on the city, and they're looking to take down their rivals, lead by Alexander LeMourru.-------------------------------------------------

Nightfall finds Menecrites on the docks. The big man leans against a stack of weathered crates that don’t look like they’re going anywhere any time soon. His dark eyes luminous beneath heavy brows, he watches the ceaseless activity of the dockworkers as they load and unload the ships. It’s late, but this is a thankless job, and many of the men work well into the night.

Menecrites can hear half a dozen tongues shouted back and forth between the vessels in the busy harbor. Italian he knows, and he recognizes Polish, though he doesn’t understand anything more than the tone. Irish, Russian, Czech – and some lilting, rhythmic thing that must hail from the Caribbean, given its speaker’s exotic appearance. The world has many names for this diverse collection of people, few of them kind.

Menecrites sees them for what they are, these stevedores and roustabouts. They’re hard-working men, all trying to put food on the table through an honest night's labor. Immigrants and half-breeds, most of them can’t call any one place their own. The city doesn’t welcome them, but without their raw muscle, it would wither and die.

These are Menecrites’ people – the ones no one else will claim. He understands their struggles because he, too, stands out as someone who doesn’t properly belong. It’s not about being a vampire – that identity is so thoroughly woven into the fabric of family Giovanni, he doesn’t think of it as strange. No, Menecrites is half-Greek in a family that treasures its pure Italian bloodline. When his mother named him, she might as well have pressed a brand to his head. She bequeathed to him her dark coloring – black eyes and hair, skin less olive than brown. Maybe Antonio doesn't think that's a big deal, but all the others – especially back home – they treat the half-Greek like something they scraped off their shoe.

All Menecrites really wants from the world is some respect, but even Antonio doesn’t always manage that. It’s in the little things, like how they often talk around him in the meetings. Half they time, they only remember he’s standing there at the very end. And no one ever asks his opinion on any of the tactical decisions. The occult stuff, he understands. That’s not his bag, and he’s ok with that. Leave the spookfest to Luci and Karl. But would it kill them to ask what he thinks about the family business once in a while? Maybe thank him for some of the work he’s done? All they ever do is bitch at him when things get broke, after they gave him clear orders to go out and break them.

“They mean well,” he sighs. Though good intentions don’t mean things are changing any time soon.

He tracks the activity of a knot of workers who seem to be knocking off for the night, idly tapping the baseball bat he’d brought along against the side of his shoe. Menecrites has potence – the vampire gift of supernatural strength – so he hardly needs a baseball bat to protect himself no matter what part of town he finds himself in. But he’s learned that the bat makes a statement, and that statement is, Menecrites doesn’t fuck around. He almost never has to throw a punch when he walks around with the Louisville slugger casually balanced on one shoulder. That’s pretty handy for keeping his supernatural levels of strength discrete.

And the bat is such a regular thing that it doesn’t even raise an eyebrow among the usual gang of dockworkers. They all know Menecrites. He gives them jobs for extra cash, sneaks them a little hooch, and pals around like they’re society guys.

He falls into step with the group of roughnecks as they head away from the harbor. They chatter among themselves in accented English, crude and boisterous and unabashed. None of them stares at Menecrites like he’s out of place, though with his neatly-pressed shirt and his smart pants, he’s too well-groomed for this lot.

A couple of them greet him – they’ve seen him before. He pulls a flask from his back pocket and starts passing it around. It’s Prohibition, and good liquor is hard to find. His family regulates most of it – the stuff in the flask isn’t the usual coffin varnish these guys are used to.

“Hey, fellas,” he says at length, after pretending to take a belt from the flask himself. “I maybe got some work for you.”

“For more of that giggle water, sure,” one of them says. He’s a big guy – bigger than Menecrites himself. His skin’s so tanned and weathered from his labor outdoors, it’s impossible to tell if he started life white or brown. His features could be anything. His accent’s local. Menecrites treats him as he sees him – a man unafraid of hard work.

“I’ll do you one better,” the vampire says. He fishes in his pocket for some money. He holds up a ten dollar bill. That gets attention. The whole group stops walking and clusters around him, eyes bright as they listen.

“We don’t do breaking law,” says a squint-eyed fella with an accent so thick, he might have gotten off the boat last week.

“No worries there, buddy,” Menecrites says. “This is honest work. All you gotta do is watch.” He points two fingers at his eyes for emphasis. “There’s these people in town. You probably seen them. They dress kinda funny. Blue shirts, blue pants --”

“My sister talks about them,” says a whip-skinny man with a porkpie hat. “She works over at the grocer’s. Says they’re real strange.”

“You ain’t just whistling Dixie,” Menecrites laughs. “They’re strange as they come, and they’re up to something. You guys, you don’t gotta do nothing but keep your eyes open. You see them in town, you watch where they go. They talk to people, you see who they are. Then you tell me.”

“We could bust ‘em up for ya, Mr. Giovanni.” That comes from one of the regular guys – Cicero. His skin’s so black, it makes lanterns out of the whites of his eyes.

“Nah, Cis, we don’t need nothing like that now,” Menecrites responds. “You know I don’t make you go bustin’ kneecaps.” He grins as he shifts the bat on his shoulder. “That’s my job.”

Most of the men chuckle. They know the score. The new guy looks dubious, but he falls in step, laughing awkwardly along with the rest.

“I got a sawbuck for every guy that brings me useful information. Emphasis on the useful part,” Menecrites adds. “Don’t try to fool me – I ain’t stupid and I ain’t a charity.” The dockworkers nod and Menecrites flashes a brilliant grin – so well practiced, he manages to hide the pointy ends of his canines with his lower lip. “Play right by me and I’ll take care of ya. You know I’m good for it.”

“There gonna be trouble?” Cicero asks.

“Only for these blue-shirts who’re making trouble for us first,” Menecrites replies. “They’re into some not-so-good stuff, so don’t let them catch you. I wouldn’t want any of my boys getting hurt.”

Cicero takes off his hat and thoughtfully rubs his bald pate. He's been in Providence long enough to be worried -- not about the Giovanni, but about what must be brewing on the horizon with the blue shirts.

Menecrites sees his look, then hands off the ten-spot to Cis. “You all heading to that juice bar down the street?” Only the new guy hesitates before he nods. Menecrites’ grin widens. “Buy a couple rounds on me.”

Longshore Workers

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Her Breathless Kiss

Providence. A city of secrets, each stranger than the last. The year is 1929 and the vampire family Giovanni seek to maintain their version of order in this darkened mirror of New England, where ghosts and vampires are not the worst one can encounter in the long hours of the night.--------------------------

At the Fratello Brothers Funeral Home, Antonio steps inside his office and moves aside a bookcase to access a hidden room. There’s no real mechanism involved. He’s got casters on the bottom and a rough little track, but most of the work is by main force alone. The puissant vampire physically lifts the solid mahogany bookcase out of his way, settling it back into place when he’s done. He’s glued down most of its books (who has time to read all that stuff, anyway?) and has hand-holds in the back so he can more easily shift the six-foot-tall piece of furniture from the other side.

It’s not the prettiest door to a secret passage, but it’s functional enough for Antonio. Sure, he could have had Menecrites get one of his contractors to fix a door up real nice – but then others in the family would know about the room, and the whole point’s about secret spaces.

The hidden room beyond the bookcase isn’t much – just an old broom closet. Reynaldo probably knows about it. The old ghoul originally belonged to Antonio’s sire, Scapelli, and he’s been around longer than most of the family’s full-blooded vampires – at least as far as the Providence branch is concerned. Reynaldo knows more than he lets on about pretty much everything, but over the centuries, he’s also learned to hold his tongue – a valuable quality in a family like the Giovanni.

Antonio knows he probably doesn’t have to keep this work-room a secret. It’s more for personal reasons that he does, and he’s all right with that. Antonio’s research into the family’s trade-mark skill of necromancy is something he likes being private about. Not too long ago, Antonio could barely whistle up a shade, let alone bind a ghost. A dirty little secret – and one engineered by his scheming sire, Scapelli.

Scapelli had manipulated Antonio’s heritage over generations of family Giovanni’s living relatives, forcing marriages and cross-pairings the way other men might breed prized hounds. Some he brought across as vampires, others he kept as breeding stock, using each and every one of them to forward his own inscrutable aims.

Scapelli felt he’d gotten a real prize with Antonio – the Giovanni was a remorseless killing machine, strategic, efficient, and brutally strong. But the old bastard hadn’t wanted brains in his lapdog, so he’d done his damnedest to keep his protégé stunted in all other arenas, the better to rule through Antonio as the power behind the throne.

Except Scapelli erred in cultivating Antonio’s hard-headed pride. No one makes a fool of Antonio Giovanni and lives to brag about it – not even the elder vampire who’d pruned their twisted branch of the family tree since the time of the Medicis. Antonio made sure that Scapelli was good and dead. He didn’t do the deed himself – blood-bound to Scapelli, he couldn’t have no matter how much he wanted to – but when an opportunity for freedom arose, Antonio did what Scapelli had groomed him always to do: he seized it, and he never looked back.

Now free of the old patriarch’s corrupt influence, Antonio does his damnedest to be the vampire the family needs to rule the city of Providence – not merely a cold-blooded killer (though there’s surely a place for that), but someone with skills on all fronts and a head for politics that would have put Machiavelli to shame.

Antonio strikes a match against the wall and lights one of the candles on a nearby shelf. He doesn’t need much light, and the room is small. One candle is more than enough.

There’s an old steamer trunk pushed up against one wall with a piece of silk cloth draped over its pitted surface – nothing so formal as an altar, simply a workspace, a little prettied up. There’s a ritual dagger and a chalice for offerings of blood. But the thing he’s interested in is a woman’s brooch. Silver, slightly tarnished, with one leaf bent, it’s a single, delicate rose. It serves as a fetter for Antonio’s favored wraith.

Nadia.

The spirit is as enamored with the taciturn Giovanni as he is with her. A woman who, in life, fell victim to her own father’s ceaseless rage, Nadia sees Antonio not as her oppressor, but as her savior. He'd freed her from the place where she’d known only suffering and grief, hunting down her father and making him pay.

The hard-headed Doge of Providence spent weeks secretly frequenting the site of Nadia’s murder, struggling to pierce the Veil so they could speak. He hadn’t planned on anything more than using her. That’s what the family did with most wraiths – summoned them, bound them, compelled them to serve. But once he got the hang of communicating, Antonio found himself growing fond of Nadia. Now a bond lingers between them, the unliving and the dead. The wraith is not a servitor, but a friend.

She is also the only woman Antonio feels that he can love without remorse. He’s a brutal man, and he knows it. With his volatile temper and his violent way of life, he’s left behind a bloody swath of people he’s tried to hold close. He has a marriage of convenience to a mortal woman arranged at childhood by Scapelli – and while the hardened former hit-man sometimes wishes he could love his wife, the best he can do most nights is keep her safe from harm.

But Nadia – Nadia is already dead. She’s lived through the worst life had to offer and come out the other side. More than that, she sees Antonio for exactly what he is – and it has never made her flinch.

Antonio takes up her rose, running his thick, blunt thumb along the delicate filigree of its stem. A thing of beauty, fragile and precious. A symbol of all the things which – beyond the walls of this secret room – Antonio is denied.

He’s too practical to brood on it for long. Every moment he delays, Alexander builds his power and the cultists do who-knows-what in the Old Whately place. There’s work to be done, and the dawn doesn’t wait.

“Nadia,” he calls to the air as he cradles the rose in his palm. “I got work for you, doll.”

Almost instantly, she fades into view. She wears the memory of a flattering knee-length dress, her shapely legs crossed primly as she sits upon the trunk. Death has leached most of the color from the fabric and from her skin, but hints of auburn cling to the carefully dressed waves of her hair.

“Whatcha want, tough guy?” Her voice is all syrup and honey upon the air.

Antonio wastes a moment just looking at her. Nadia’s a real swanky gal, built like a starlet. It's a shame her father robbed the world of her light.

“I got some trouble with that pinko Toreador, LeMourru,” Antonio says. “He’s holed up in the old Whately murder house, gathering power before he makes another move. I need eyes on his people so we know the score before we bust the place up.”

“You know I’m always up for a favor for you.” She drifts from the trunk, circling behind him in the small room. He feels her presence near his shoulder like the promise of a touch.

“He’s got a gang of cultists – mortals. Probably ghouled. I want to know what they eat, where they sleep, and when they take a dump. There’s a couple of vampires in there, too, more than just LeMourru. Jeff York, for one. I need descriptions. Names.”

Spectral fingers trail idly through his hair as she listens. Softly, she murmurs, “York. I remember that one. He can see me."

Antonio nods. He reaches a hand up to her hand. They can’t touch exactly, but her fingers press against his just this side of connecting. He says, “And LeMourru, you remember -- that guy’s dangerous. He’s got that oblivion power, nihilism. He can hurt you.”

“He’s hard to look at,” she admits, shifting to his other shoulder. Her voice is a breathless whisper against his ear. “Swirling darkness. Hungry void. I won’t forget what’s attached to him.”

Antonio closes his eyes. At the same time, he curls his fingers tightly around her tarnished silver rose. For a moment, he allows himself to dream of a different life. A life where he doesn’t have to wage campaigns of terror and bloodshed for the sake of the Family. A life where Nadia is still a breathing woman of flesh and blood. A life where his own existence isn’t one circumscribed by endless, violent nights.

Nadia clings to Antonio’s arm. He doesn’t realize how tightly his shoulders have tensed. But she notices. She knows his moods. He takes a breath – he doesn’t have to, except to speak – and exhales slowly. He lets the fantasy life that can never be drift from him like smoke.

“You spy on ‘em, Nadia, but the minute you see LeMourru, you beat feet, you hear me?” he says. “I couldn’t bear to lose you.”

With slow reverence, he places her fetter back in its position upon the trunk. The candle gutters and in its dancing shadows, Nadia leans close and presses spectral lips against his cheek. Her kiss is lighter than cobwebs, but it lingers like the burn of a brand. When she retreats, the stuffy little broom closet feels vast and empty as the yawning maw of hell.

Nadia

Take me to the next chapter.

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Providence: Forbidden Books

The year is 1929 and the city is Providence -- but this is our world through a glass darkly, a place where magic and monsters hold sway in the night and the visions of Lovecraft are not portents of madness, but searing and horrible truths. ---------------------

Forbidden Books

The next night, Karl checks in at Shipton’s Books. A string of little brass bells hanging near the door tinklingly announces his arrival. Travis Shipton, the local purveyor of rare and magical tomes, fusses behind a long, wooden counter. When he sees the dour necromancer, the rail-thin thaumaturge grows as pale as the ruffled bit of lace at his throat.

“Ah, um, Karl. It is Karl, isn’t it?” Shipton asks, his words clipped with a dated British accent. The book vendor straightens his brocade waistcoat. Born some time in the middle seventeen hundreds, the city’s lone Tremere had never adapted to modern fashion.

“Cut the crap, Shipton. You know who I am,” Karl responds. His wraith, Julie, makes a face at him, but her antics serve only to annoy. Karl waves her off. The anachronistic Tremere is oblivious to her presence, and just as well.

Shipton purses his thin lips. “I haven’t done anything,” he says, with the air of someone fearful of being caught.

“Well, if you’ve got nothing to hide, then you won’t mind giving me a little information,” Karl prods.

Shipton maneuvers slightly so a large stack of books sits between them on the counter. He eyes the Giovanni necromancer warily, the briny blue of his irises glimmering with a faint sheen of power. Karl scowls when he sees it.

“You don’t need to use Auspex to see if I’m lying,” Karl barks. “Play nice and I’ll be out of here quickly.” He slams a list of names down onto the counter. Shipton jumps back as if expecting the list to explode like a pipe bomb. Karl says, “I want you to tell me what books any of these people bought in the past month. See? Simple.”

Shipton takes the list gingerly, pulling an old pair of pince-nez from his vest pocket and perching them on his nose. He squints at Karl’s handwriting, which wasn’t amazing on the best of days, and he’d written the list in a hurry.

“Ah, yes,” Shipton says, tapping a particular name. “I know this group. My ghoul Liza calls them the Blue Shirts. That’s all they wear, you see. Blue shirt, navy slacks for the gentlemen. Blue shirt, long navy skirt for the ladies. There’s been rather a lot of them of late.”

“I know,” Karl growls with more ferocity than is strictly necessary. Shipton nearly drops the list.

“You don’t have to be so cross with me. I’m not your enemy,” the Tremere objects.

“Yeah? You’re not my friend, either,” Karl retorts. “You’re selling books to these people, and they’re causing trouble for my family in this city.”

Shipton takes off his ridiculous antique spectacles, tapping them absently against the creased bit of paper. His eyes dart around the over-laden shelves that reach to the rafters, searching for something. He frowns, saying, “This book store existed before your family came to this town, and I have no intention of shutting my doors for the convenience of a few short-tempered Italians.”

Karl starts to hurl an excoriating response at the old Tremere, but Shipton stands his ground for once. No power is exchanged between them, but something in Travis’s eyes gives Karl pause.

Snippily, the Tremere says, “Before you threaten to tear off my head with your customary brutish zeal, let me remind you that I’ve been nothing but helpful to you and your people when events in this city have gotten … ” Shipton falters in his search for a fitting word, finally uttering, "Complicated." He tosses the list back onto the counter, making no effort to hide his irritation. “And none of these people have bought anything I would class as a dangerous book. I’d have mentioned something to Luciano at the Occult Council if they had.”

Karl glares at Shipton, balling his fists so tight the leather of his gloves creaks in protest. Shipton knows better than to stare back directly into Beck’s eyes, but he squares his shoulders and gives a haughty little lift to his cleft chin as he fixes his eyes unwavering at a point to the left of Karl's head. Beside her master, Julie the wraith whispers soothingly. She doesn’t see anything amiss in the store.

“If anything changes, you tell me,” Karl says at length.

“Not Luciano?” Shipton inquires.

“Cousin Luci is not to be bothered. You come to me,” Karl reiterates, drilling his meaning into each individual word. “We clear, Shipton?”

“As a gypsy’s glass,” Shipton says with a disdainful sniff. “Now buy something or get out. This is a place of business, after all.”

Karl leaves, slamming the door behind him so hard, the little string of brass bells crashes noisily to the floor.

Take me to the next chapter.

Antiquarian Books

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Providence: A Family Affair

We return to the world of In Providentia, set in a fictional version of Providence, Rhode Island that blends elements of Lovecraft's New England and Vampire: the Masquerade's World of Darkness. The year is 1929, and the Giovanni necromancer Karl Beck has been sent to investigate the history of an ill-fated house that is now headquarters to his family's rivals, Clan Toreador. ----------------------

Fratello Brothers Funeral Home Funeral Home

Karl slips from the city archives where he’s been doing research all night. It’s nearly four in the morning. He’s got a little dark left. He heads back to the Fratello Brothers Funeral Home, where he’s sure to find Antonio and the others at this time of night.

Sure enough, the head of the family is meeting with his right-hand man, Menecrites, while Grandpa Reynaldo tidies things up for the night. Karl nods to the old family ghoul as he enters, taking off his fedora and hanging it on a nearby coat-rack when Reynaldo frowns and reminds him of his manners. Karl waits on the bench outside Antonio's office as the Doge of Providence -- Antonio preferred that title to the Camarilla standard of "Prince" -- finishes up with his enforcer.

Once they're done, Karl steps in and plops the old newspaper clippings onto the broad cherrywood desk Antonio keeps in his windowless basement office. Menecrites leans against the doorjamb, his thick, muscled arms folded negligently across his chest. Antonio’s a big man himself, and while he sits in an expensive suit behind the desk, Karl knows the elder Giovanni’s veneer of humanity is a thin one. Karl’s never been one to be afraid – not even of the family’s powerful patriarch, but he’s wise enough to be cautious. Especially when bearing news that Antonio could construe as bad.

“I've been looking into the Whately Mansion,” Karl begins.

Antonio nods smartly, indicating that Karl take a seat in one of the leather chairs arranged in front of his desk. “Go on.”

“Well, I've found some things that are … interesting,” Karl hedges.

He could practically feel Menecrite’s eyebrow climb at this, even though his back was to the enforcer. Antonio says nothing, just sits still as a corpse, his dark eyes gleaming attentively in his sallow face.

Clearing his throat, Karl goes on. “Back before I met any of you I visited this place with my old occult group. The place was supposedly haunted but it was also supposed to contain some sort of lost treasure. All we ended up finding was a very angry wraith of Old Man Whately who scared off the person I was with by nearly breaking his jaw. Needless to say we didn't look around too much and we left.

I never thought about the place again until we found Le Mourru there, and since then I have done some digging. It turns out about 50 years ago Old Man Whately butchered several people in his home. He then performed taxidermy on them and arranged them throughout the house as if they were guests or residents. This guy even killed an eleven year old boy named Kevin Blackwell, and then proceeded to hang him from the rafters, complete with a set of angel wings he constructed from different things including human bones. Whately was never found but he was pronounced dead and since I saw his wraith, I would say that is correct.

Now I am telling you this for a few reasons. The first is that my old associate Jeff York has a wraith of a little boy and I am guessing that the boy is probably Kevin Blackwell. If York doesn't know what's going on, Kevin might. Secondly, Le Mourru picked this place for a reason, and when this is all said and done we need to find out why. It could be the wraiths, Whately was quite powerful, but I doubt that. There has to be something there, whether it was a treasure of gold or something mystical that attracted Le Mourru. My guess is the second one.”

Still, silence from Antonio. Menecrites shifts in his post at the door, the only thing giving him away the subtle whisper of the starched collar on his shirt.

“All I am asking here is that we don't blow up or bulldoze this place until we figure out what is so special about it,” Karl concludes, sparing a glance for the enforcer. Menecrites hadn't encountered a problem yet that he thought couldn't be solved with a wrecking ball.

Antonio tents his fingers, leaning back in his chair far enough that the springs creak.

“Very well,” the patriarch says. “We won't destroy this location until we know more. After all, it could be worth something. As for York's wraith; how is he controlling it? Has he picked up necromancy somehow? We can’t allow that.” Antonio’s scowl made his dark eyes glitter. “The guy’s a natural medium right? Maybe the wraith wants something, maybe we can give it to it. If it really is this murdered kid, that might be how we can learn what’s up with the location.”

Menecrites moves to stand behind Antonio and a little to his left. The big man looks down at the clipped articles, brow furrowing as he reads.

Pensive, Antonio taps the edge of one nail against the wooden surface of his desk. “We also need to know what influences control this site. I will use my contacts in local business to run a deed search, pull a few strings in bureaucracy to get my hands on the deed itself, then I’ll get my police contacts to dig up the file on the murders. Karl and Luci can use that to gain information on the wraiths, maybe figure out a few of their fetters. If we’re lucky, there’s some old evidence somewhere in the back of the courthouse that the police can pull. One or two things there might be useful.”

He turns to Menecrites and says, “You tap into your contacts, too, and see who controls this site.” Menecrites nods, making notes of some of the names. Antonio turns back to Karl. “You did good tonight, Karl. We’ll get these bastards and run Alexander out on a rail. Or maybe I’ll just run one through him.”

A chilling smile curls the elder Giovanni’s pale lips.

Take me to the next chapter

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The House of Death

The year is 1929. The city is Lovecraft's Providence, set in a fictional version of New England where magic is real and vampires roam the night. Some of those vampires belong to the family Giovanni, a clan of necromancers who have held control over the city of Providence for many years. The Giovanni's power in Providence was recently challenged by an elder Toreador, Alexander. Although Antonio and his boys got Clan Toreador to back down, shaming them publicly, Alexander and his minions have taken up residence in what was once an abandoned house, infamous for a string of grisly murders. With death such an integral part of the family business, the local Giovanni are investigating Alexander's involvement with this ill-favored residence because they know he is planning something -- the only question is what. The first member of the family sent to investigate is Karl Beck, a master necromancer related by blood, if not by birth. -----------

The Whately House

Something has been bugging you, Karl, about the old mansion the Toreador seem to be using as their home base. It nagged at you so bad, you decided to do a little research on the place. When you saw the old newspaper article in the archives of the Voice of Providence, it hit you why this place seemed so familiar. You had been there on a dare when you were just getting involved with your group of human occultists.

Jack was the one who told you about the place. He'd heard rumors that it was haunted and that the ghost of Old Man Whately was always searching for his lost treasure. Whately had been the eldest of the Whately siblings. He was a cantankerous sort, never married, and he had a reputation for dabbling in unwholesome activities. He lived and died in the house in the 1870s. Or, at least, everyone believed that he died there and, although his body was never found, the presence of his ghost seems to argue against any earthly survival.

At the time that Jack led you to sneak up on the house at night, you didn't know all the details of why the Whately place was reputed to be haunted. Jack's story about the haunting was garbled at best, and as far as you could tell, the self-appointed leader of your rag-tag group of black magicians was scoping the place out mostly to see whether or not there were any items in the house worth stealing. You half suspect that he dragged you along because he was actually afraid of the threat of the ghost.

Your little venture into breaking & entering (does it count, really? by then, the house had stood abandoned for nearly twenty years) didn't end in either of you getting rich by discovering Old Man Whately's hidden treasure. It did, however, prove to you that you had an innate ability to perceive spirits. Because you saw the angry old specter long before the wailing image of Whately hauled off and clocked Jack squarely in the jaw. It was a night of firsts for you: you had one of your first legitimate encounters with a spirit, witnessed by another person, and you encountered a spirit that could reach across the Veil and wallop a living being.

Jack was scared shitless. You were actually pretty excited. The specter took great offense to the fact that Jack had vandalized the back door in an attempt to gain entrance to the abandoned house. He didn't seem to care much about you -- but then, you hadn't busted his back door down. Jack was so freaked by the whole experience that he barely made it five feet into the old mansion before he ran like a scared little girl. You stayed behind, cautiously, and explored a little, but all you found was a dusty, run-down, abandoned house. There were signs that the place had looked impressive in its day, but by the time you & Jack got in there, there was really nothing to see. You do remember finding a door that probably went to the basement. This door was locked and, given the outburst the spirit had accomplished when Jack forced the backdoor, you didn't think it would be in your best interests to force this door either. It seemed thoroughly stuck from the other side anyway, so you called off your explorations and tried to find where Jack had run off to in his blind panic.

The newspaper article you found recently sheds a little more light on the mansion and its tale than you knew back then when you and your old gang dabbled in breaking and entering:

The Voice of Providence Saturday, April 15, 1900 Evening Edition

(continued from page 2)

Deputy Roderick Kemp made the grisly discovery on a sultry afternoon in the summer of 1875. The corpses included the body of Detective Solomon Godwin, 35, Arnold Powell, a drifter, and young Kevin Blackwell, an eleven-year-old-boy who had been missing since March of that year. The Whately mansion as it stands today.























Dr. Jacob Frost, the Providence coroner, worked hard to identify the remains of the other bodies, however, in most cases, decomposition was so advanced that identification was impossible. In all, the remains of at least fifteen individuals were discovered in the home, which, by all appearances, had been abandoned for at least two weeks. No sign of Whately himself was ever found, although it was the opinion of the Providence police that Whately was dead.

Since the house became the scene of one of the most dreadful murder cases Providence has ever seen, it has stood abandoned on its lot not far from the Kirkwood Cemetery. Many tales have grown up around the house, including a persistent rumor that Old Man Whately haunts the property, protecting his hidden gold. The rumor of hidden treasure associated with the house came about from the fact that Whately, the eldest of five siblings, was the sole inheritor of the Whately fortune. Despite this, Whately lived a relatively simple live, remaining in the seclusion of his home and coming into town only to buy supplies every two or three weeks. On these occasions, he was often observed wearing the same patched and soiled set of clothes, with wild, unkempt hair and beard. To all appearances, he lived in poverty, which of course begged the question of what happened to the family fortune.

In twenty-five years, the mystery has never been solved, but it has become a rite of passage for some of the daring young men of Providence to invade the abandoned home, particularly on nights of the full moon, to dare the specter of Wheatley to manifest and drive them from his house of horrors.

--------------------------------------------

Further research led you to a longer recounting of what was discovered in the house, from the memoirs of Deputy Kemp:

Guided by Providence: The Memoirs of Roderick Kemp

Chapter Five: The Whately Place

Now, this was an investigation that I was involved in back in 1875. It’s twenty-five years after the fact, and I will carry the details of this investigation to my grave. In all my days working in law enforcement, I never saw anything so awful, and I thank God every day that I never encountered anything like it since. Some nights, I still wake up seeing scenes from the inside of that house. I knew Thomas Whately. Not real good, but I had seen him now and again, growing up. I don’t know how a man can become such a monster, but Thomas Whately was a kind of evil that should never walk the earth.

Well, you’re not all reading this to listen to me proselytize about man’s inhumanity to man or to conjecture about the metaphysical nature of evil. No, you want the details. So here goes.

Everyone knew that Old Man Whately was up to no good. But since he kept to himself and rarely went out of his house, no one bothered to really call him on it. There were a couple of incidents involving missing persons that a detective Godwin tried to trace back to the Whately house, but his investigations went nowhere. And then Godwin himself went missing, and no one seemed brave enough to suggest that maybe this disappearance was also tied to Whately. Godwin was a good man, and a few of us on the Providence force, we kept niggling at the case, trying to get someone to do some honest-to-goodness investigation into the issue. But nothing ever went forward. Maybe he paid people off. I don’t know, and I don’t care to think about it now. Whatever it was, no one was ever brave enough to confront Whately directly.

In the end, Whately's true crimes were not revealed because the old man was caught. His crimes came to light because Whately himself mysteriously disappeared. And, eventually, the stench coming from his abandoned house became too much for the neighbors, even though there was a good amount of space between them & the Whately house.

A reluctant deputy was sent to check on Whately at his property. He found that the front door was sagging open and a terrible stench wafted out on the summer air. The buzzing of flies was audible through that open door, so loud that the deputy at first thought some kind of machine was on inside the house, running. There were no lights on in the old house, and most of the windows were covered over with heavy cloth. Most of this cloth was nailed directly into the walls around the windows. When the deputy yanked the first of these makeshift window covers off to let in some afternoon sunshine through the streaked and yellowed glass, he found himself staring at the most macabre scene he had ever witnessed. Shortly after that, he was just staring at the gravel on Whately's driveway, as the poor deputy knelt, hunched over, puking his guts out. Of course, by now, you all know that reluctant deputy was me, Roderick Kemp, though back then everyone called me Roddy. I thought the smell was the worst thing I’d ever been exposed to, but that was before I cleared off the windows and got a good look at what was causing that smell. Hell could never look so grim as that house on that June afternoon.

Inside the parlour, arranged in chairs as if they were just over for tea, were three corpses. They were well-preserved -- almost mummified. One of them was the missing detective. One of them was Arnold Powell, a drifter. One was a woman, never identified.

Five more corpses, similarly preserved and staged throughout the house were discovered. The most unsettling of these was the corpse of Kevin Blackwell, a young boy eleven years of age. He was in that attic. Whately (it could only have been Whately) had strung the boy from the rafters. He had also painstakingly fashioned wings for the child, cobbling them together with the bones and feathers of several birds, as well as a few bones from a human -- never identified -- who left no other remains in the house.

The stench of rot came from the basement. Whately's most recent victims were in a jumble down there. Dr. Jacob Frost, the Providence Coroner at the time, identified the parts of at least seven bodies in the festering abattoir that lay beneath the rickety wooden stairs. A bathtub with saws and other implements as well as a worktable with needle, thread, and some taxidermy equipment, suggested that Whately had been planning to put these corpses together in much the same fashion as the others -- only he seems to have been interrupted.

No sign of Whately himself was ever discovered. He must have been dead. I made a thorough search of the house – and I’m not too proud to admit that I had to make that search in pieces, as I had to vacate the premises on more than one occasion to vomit in the yard. After a while, I wasn’t even bringing anything up, but that didn’t stop the smell and the horror of it all from getting to me. Like I said at the outset, I never saw anything like it in all of my years, and I am happy to have never encountered anything so terrible ever again. We never did figure out who all of those body parts in the basement belonged to. Frost, the coroner at the time, he did his best, working late nights to piece the bodies together. But even he had to admit defeat, and Frost was a smart man. Scary smart, though some called him crazy. I think that was just because he preferred to always work at night and he spent so many long hours locked away with the corpses. But my insights on Dr. Jacob Frost – well, that’s all material for another chapter.

Take me to the next chapter

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Gamer Tales

As many of you know, I've been a gamer since about the time I could roll dice. I was in fourth grade when my remarkably progressive public school introduced us to Dungeons & Dragons, encouraging my gifted class to play the game as the perfect union of math and creativity (if you remember how to calculate old school ThAC0, then you definitely remember the math part!). D&D was set in worlds inspired by the fiction of Tolkien and other fantasy greats and while I enjoy high fantasy well enough, I didn't find a game world that really gripped me till Vampire: The Masquerade came along in 1991. They had me at vampires, but the World of Darkness against which White Wolf's storytelling system played out was what really seized my imagination. Set in a modern world a step off from our own where magic and monsters existed in the shadows, the V:tM world had all the grit of Film Noir wrapped up in the syrupy decadence of the fin de siecle art. It was Urban Fantasy before the genre existed. I loved it, especially because the White Wolf gaming system placed more emphasis on the story and the characters than it did on the stats and the dice. It provided a fertile platform with which to weave tales and watch characters come to life.

When the V:tM system took the leap from table-top gaming, where 3-6 players met up in someone's dining room or basement and whiled away the night engaging in a shared story, to LARP, or Live Action Role Playing I had found my niche. Live action was where role-playing games met improvisational theater and collided into something amazing. Costuming, make-up, physical props all could be brought to bear. A simple rule structure governed the magic and powers that were still an integral and interesting part of the game world, but the real strength of a character in a LARP came down to how well you could embody that character.

And for the role-playing naysayers, no, I don't mean that we ran around nightly believing we had turned into our characters. I mean we learned to act. LARPs got gamer geeks like me -- bookish, introverted, and often socially awkward -- out of the basement and into a social life. And I say without regret or apology that everything I learned about public speaking, I learned through playing Vampire: the Masquerade. Yes, it was make-believe, but it was great practice for interacting in groups, learning to spot social manipulations, and comprehending the real power of the spoken word.

And, for a writer, the LARP allowed for a very special experience: creating a story and characters that then came to life right before your eyes. I loved it -- and for many years, LARPs were my medium. I wrote massive multiplayer games for conventions like Origins and GenCon, weaving stories that could sustain nearly non-stop play over periods of three to four days. It wasn't uncommon to have 150+ players in those games, and every one of them had a pre-generated character with a backstory that was a short story all by itself, each of them interlocking so the whole thing was one gigantic, living web of plot.

If I have any regret at all from the years between 1995 and 2000 when my LARP writing peaked, it's that all those stories are nearly impossible to share outside of the medium of the LARP itself. The world I'd created for my chronicle -- the Vampire: the Masquerade term for an ongoing gaming story -- was a rich and unique creation were White Wolf's World of Darkness intersected with Lovecraft's Providence -- with a healthy dose of gangbusters for some wild fun. Set in the 1920s, my fictional version of Providence was a confluence of the weird, with each layer of the city's history peeling back to reveal increasingly bizarre twists. I've still got maps, volumes of the town newspaper I wrote up to pass out for each game, lists and descriptions of businesses, a Who's Who among the town, and meticulously outlined house rules -- reams of supplemental material that grew with each event, indelibly shaped by the choices and actions of the players once they had their characters in their hands.

I've dragged all of you on this rather long ramble about my gaming glory days because I have found on my hard drive something that I can share that captures some of the richness and intensity of this method of storytelling. Sure, I've got skads and skads of those character histories, never mind all the supplemental gaming material -- but those are merely pieces and, if taken in stasis, they do not reveal even an intimation of the whole. To appreciate why this method of storytelling so ignited my imagination, you'd have to see the story as it played out. And almost all of the stories from Providence were like one of those great Tibetan sand mandalas -- something seen while created, appreciated in its fullness for a moment, and then gone.

Except ... in 2009 I did a Providence reunion at an Oberlin college gaming event. And because many of my core characters were played by close friends with whom I have never lost contact, we needed -- for the sake of the story -- to tie up a few loose ends from the game in 2000 when I quit running the big games to focus on more traditional writing.

And because we were far-flung at the time, that particular installment of the Providence storyline did not take place in real-time out in the world. It took place through an exchange of emails, and once I had each player's action for a turn, I compiled everything and wrote the story.

It's still here on my hard drive, all 20k words of it or so. I'd given some thought to editing it into a stand-alone novella, removing the gamespeak, tweaking the tense (it's all in present tense, to capture the real-time feel of the action associated with LARPs). But that was harder than it sounded. And many elements of the Providence story make little sense when removed from the Vampire: the Masquerade setting -- especially my favorite clan of vampires from that game, the necromancer family Giovanni.

But I have a feeling at least some of you will appreciate getting a taste of this favored outlet for my creativity. So, at the risk of confusing a few readers with the gaming jargon that is a necessary part of the tale, I invite you all to come on a little ride with me and meet a few old friends -- Antonio, Menecrites, and Karl, Giovanni all, if not by birth, certainly by blood.

To be continued ...

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Octobers Past

While digging through my hard drive in search of material for a new collection, I stumbled across several old journal entries. One in particular leapt out at me, as it was penned nearly ten years ago during one of my whirlwind vampire-themed tours in the month of October. It's little more than a snapshot of a few moments of calm where I could actually sit and reflect on my work and my life. October 30, 2005 Los Angeles

I'm standing on the veranda of the hotel watching the cars speed by. To my right, over the houses, I can see the rising hills of Hollywood. There are palm trees between the lanes of the streets and little Spanish houses of cream-colored stucco. It looks just like the movies.

We stopped for dinner at a little French bistro. Perhaps predictably, the prices were astronomical, although I felt a kind of soothing familiarity in the rapid patter of French between the waiters. My appetite was hardly prepared for the exoticism of escargot, but they advertised a boulangerie. Everything was whole foods and organic, but the loaves were huge and were just what I wanted. The clerk, in contrast to the waiters, stared blankly at me when I asked for un demi-pain aux noix -- even though nothing in the place was labeled in English. After three or four tries, I finally got my half-loaf, and we headed back to the hotel. The bread was thick and hearty, rich with sunflowers, dates, and molasses. As I chewed thoughtfully, Don asked, will that be enough for you? And I nodded my head. This was a bread that could be a meal in itself, and after a couple of mouthfuls I was full.

We had a long time to wait before Hex started. I was exhausted from the plane ride from Ohio, and so I laid back on the huge king size bed. Although I was used to traveling to California and experiencing a temperature difference of 30 to 40°, for once Hollywood was not much warmer than Ohio. The air was almost chilly, and I regretted leaving my elegant velvet cloak at home.

As I laid back upon the stiff comforter of the hotel bed, I stared at the ceiling and thought, "this is what my life has become." Traveling to a different city every weekend, sleeping in a different bed from week to week, living out of a suitcase. When Jay called, we talked in wonder as he walked through Central Park and I stared out at the hills of Hollywood. I had been in New York with him just the previous day. What a strange life this is turning out to be.

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We Could Not Stop for Death

This is a reprint of a previously published article (circa 2007), but given the recent spate of deaths in both the public and private spheres (including the incredibly swift passing of Podiobooks author PG Holyfield) I felt these sentiments needed to be brought back up.

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A friend of a friend passed away earlier this week. The young man in question was 29 and had died due to complications from a blood clot. Although my friend was only calling for a shoulder to cry on, I offered to take him to the viewing and then to the funeral, because I knew he did not have many people he could rely upon for support.

The last time I had dealt with anything funeral related, it was when we were finally burying my mother. I say finally only because she had struggled with cancer for nearly thirteen years. Throughout those thirteen years, the doctors had warned us repeatedly that she had only months to live, and then she would rally and fight the odds. Because my mother's death was something I had learned to expect and even plan for, I was pretty placid throughout the whole affair. She called me up right before she went, and although she could barely talk, we could each feel the other through the connection. Later, I believe she appeared to me immediately after she died to offer a final goodbye.

As much as I was in a good emotional place to deal with my mother's funeral, it was still stressful. I had a lot on my mind, and I wasn't really able to detach completely from the situation and observe. But at this ther fellow's funeral, someone I didn't even know, I had no emotional investment. I was there as emotional support for my friend, but otherwise, I was simply a detached observer.

What I saw bothered me a little. Now, I'm not bothered by death myself -- it is an inescapable reality -- but I realize that we live in a culture that has a very unhealthy attitude toward death -- we try to avoid it, ignore it, pretend that it's just not there. What this meant at the viewing and later at the funeral was that there were a lot of people between the ages of 20 and 35 who were just wandering around with this lost look, not knowing what to say, how to say it, or even where to begin. There was a lot of hugging and holding and crying from the older folks, but as for the young man's peers -- well, were we ever taught how to handle death?

My friend kept looking to me and asking about protocol. Since he was just a friend and not part of the family of the deceased, was there something different that was expected to him? When was it appropriate for him to view the body? Should he leave something as a token of remembrance? Should he go and offer his condolences to the mother, even though he didn't know her? What -- aside from stand around awkwardly along with all the other GenXers in black -- should he do?

I didn't have a whole lot of answers. What is expected of us when we stand in the face of death? How are you supposed to respond when you are reminded that death is not just something that happens to the old and the frail? It made me wonder how I would handle things if the person in the casket were a relative of mine. (I didn't cry for Mom but her death was so obviously a release from pain, how could I have?) Shudderingly, I wondered how my reaction would be different if the casket was one of those tiny, tragic coffins that cradled the body of an infant or child. Has anything in this modern life adequately prepared us for the reality of death?

Personally, I think that we are at a disadvantage when dealing with these weighty issues because our culture's widespread policy on death is to pretend it isn't really there. We hide it away, passing the bodies of our dead into the hands of strangers to be prepared and sanitized and made all pretty for the viewing. We run from the shadow of the death as time stamps it inevitably upon our own visage with anti-aging creams, facelifts, Botox. And even our cemeteries now look more like golf courses, the memorials flush to the ground so we can look upon a field of the dead and pretend that there are no bones curled sleeping beneath the verdant waves of grass. But unless we acknowledge death, we will still fear it, and when it happens, we will find ourselves at a loss of what to do and what to say. Like so many things in this modern world, death is something we need to talk more about so that when we must confront it in our own lives, we are not taken by surprise.

--M

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For Tomorrow We Die

This is not a ghost story – not exactly. It is a story about the living and what the dead leave behind. It is, I suppose, also a story of childhood and the end of childhood – because childhood ends in that moment when, regardless of our age, we are faced with the sudden, bitter, and inescapable reality of personal loss.

In the world of paranormal investigation, it is far too easy to depersonalize ghosts and hauntings. The spirits we seek in the field are generally reduced to phenomenon – blips on our meters, voices that whisper between the static of recordings. But if we accept that a ghost is a human being surviving in some form beyond the boundary of physical death, then we also must accept that a ghost at some point had a life. The ghost was someone’s spouse or sibling or parent or child, and maybe all of these things to several different people. In short, a ghost was a person – and if the ghost continues to exist after death, then that ghost’s essential personhood also continues to exist after death. So, meet one of my ghosts. It doesn't matter when I saw him. The real story is how he touched my life.

The story starts in second grade. That was when I met his son, Eddie.

We did not begin life as friends.

I was in Mrs. Hatton’s class. He was in Miss Patsy’s – which seemed like it might as well have been another world, being located not only down the hall but at the other end of a whole flight of stairs. The only time students in the two classes intermingled was recess – an activity which I dreaded. I was never one of the cool kids in school. Quite the opposite. And throughout grade school, I suffered the unfortunate combination of being one of the smallest kids in my class as well as one of the smartest. Small meant I didn’t defend myself very well, and smart meant there was often a need to.

I didn’t usually get the names of the kids who terrorized me on the schoolyard. But in one incident, I did – or at least, I thought I did. I knew his first name was Eddie, and while he was chasing me around throwing stones and other small objects at my head, I heard one of the other kids call out his last name.

Last names were magic. Last names meant I could actually tell the teacher which of the many little monsters rampaging on the schoolyard was responsible for my skinned knee that particular week.

Bloody and sniffling, I went up to the recess monitor to tattle on my tormentor. She asked his name, and triumphantly, I said, “Eddie Bitch.”

Yeah, that happened. I didn’t know any better. That was what I’d heard. After sitting in the principle’s office for a while, I eventually learned that his name was, in fact, Eddie Birch – and that other word was something I probably shouldn’t repeat again in polite company.

Did I mention in addition to small and smart, I was also ridiculously sheltered? That made me ever so popular in school.

I recount this now because, years later when the real meat of this story happened, I really didn’t know why I’d been chosen. Eddie and I were not close. Once we’d survived the cruel vicissitudes of the earliest grades, we were no longer active enemies. But aside from attending the same church, I didn’t know Eddie all that well.

So it came as something of a surprise when his father started encouraging us to hang out together. In retrospect, I understand what was happening – Eddie was, in his own way, just as isolated as me. And his family life was nearly as unconventional as my own – I was the child of a single mother in the early seventies, being raised by my maternal grandmother, her older sister, and their younger brother. Eddie’s parents were divorced and he was being raised by his single father. I can’t begin to describe just how unusual that was in those days. When parents got divorced – if they got divorced – the kids almost always went to the mother. That was just how things worked. But there was Eddie, with a last name easily twisted into a word that would land you in the principle’s office for an afternoon, not merely from a broken home, but being raised by his dad.

And did I mention his dad was a biker?

The most shocking thing, really, looking back on it all, is that my grandmother actually agreed to us hanging out in the first place. I suspect my Great-Aunt Rita, always the advocate in getting me out of the house so I could socialize with other kids, had some influence in the matter. And I know for a fact that the shared religious background was the cincher. But, as unlikely as the pairing proved for all the things normally forbidden in my world, I was allowed on several occasions to spend time over at Eddie’s house playing Transformers and G.I. Joe or feeding carrots to the horse named Kat stabled near the back of his dad’s property.

Back in those days, my family always bought season passes to a local amusement park – Geauga Lake. It was a grand old park in Aurora, Ohio filled with roller coasters and water slides and enough spinning rides to make you dizzy for days. I loved it. Eddie came along a few times and we would run around till night descended on the park, chasing each other down the Midway, challenging one another to Kung Fu games in the arcade, and generally having a blast. Those were amazing, sun-drenched days full of stuffed-bear prizes and cotton candy endings.

It was almost always my family taking us to the park. Eddie’s dad seemed to work all the time – I think it was some kind of factory work, but I can’t really say. I only know that the hours were long and Mr. Birch always looked ragged around the edges when I visited Eddie’s house, no matter how much seeing his son put a smile on his face. But one late summer weekend, Mr. Birch approached my family and asked if he could take me and Eddie to the park – not just for one evening but for a whole two days. Mr. Birch had friends near the park and they were willing to give us all a place to sleep for the night (neither my family nor Eddie’s dad were in a position to pay for a hotel, not even for a single night).

Astoundingly, my grandmother said yes. As the woman rarely let me out of her sight for more than a couple of hours, I suspect Aunt Rita had some influence on the decision. Knowing my grandmother, Rita probably had to cut a deal with the Devil to accomplish this. But at the time, I didn’t care what family politics were necessary to get me there – I was going to stay at the park until close. With my family, we’d often stayed until the sun went down, but rarely did we stay for very long once it got dark. I was enchanted by the idea of riding the rollercoasters well into the night, or going all the way up in the space needle to see a sky sparkling with stars.

The day came, and off we went. And it was a time like no other. As much as the season passes gave me access to the park throughout the summer, there were a lot of things that remained off-limits to me. I was being raised by people who relied on retirement funds and social security. They made sure we had enough money to make it to the park, but we packed our own lunches. We brought a cooler for our own drinks. If I played in the arcade at all, I only got a dollar’s worth of quarters – which was a great incentive to excel at the games and make them last. We never played the Midway games. We only bought – at most – one treat.

Eddie’s dad, for those two days in the park, indulged us in everything. Did we want to see him climb the pirate netting and win that massive pink unicorn? Of course we did. And he tried, and tried, handing over dollar after dollar and finally making it to the buzzer. Did we want salt water taffy and cotton candy and funnel cake? Did we want to pay the extra money to go on the special set of water slides? How about eating at that restaurant with the Wild West theme?

Whatever we wanted, he paid for it. I think we must have spent the better part of one afternoon just blasting away at Space Invaders and shooting up Centipedes in the arcade. We pumped quarters into game after game of skee-ball, collecting tickets for kitschy little prizes.

I was after these little colored glass bottles. I thought they would be neat to keep things in – tears, colored sand, little shells. One of them was caramel brown and shaped like an eagle’s claw grasping a sphere. Another was blue and shaped like a fish. None of them were more than two inches tall.

I still have both of those glass bottles. Through childhood and college and more moves than I can recall, I have cherished them to this day.

The time came that our weekend of summer magic came to an end. Mr. Birch loaded up his old station wagon with the pillows and blankets from the sleep over, my tiny suitcase with my swim suit and change of clothes, and with all the big, stupid, badly made stuffed animals that we’d won over the course of our adventures. And we started the drive home.

The park was only about thirty minutes away from Hinckley, where we all lived. But when you’re still a child, that thirty minutes might as well be an eternity.

While we were driving home, Mr. Birch started talking about things. Strange, unsettling things. Eddie and I both fell quiet because this wasn’t the kind of conversation adults usually had. Eddie’s eyes were wide and he looked pale where he sat half buried by the massive stuffed animal in the back seat.

His dad was talking about what Eddie should do in case he ever died.

Mr. Birch tried to present it casually enough. He pointed out that he rode a motorcycle, and that he wasn’t always as careful as he should be. He hated the helmet laws. He took risks.

I’m not sure if Eddie ended up crying at any point during this conversation. I’m not sure I would have noticed if he had – I was never good at noticing things like that -- peoples’ emotional states. My own internal wiring combined with my upbringing rendered me something equivalent to emotionally colorblind. Yet another reason why I was ill-equipped to forge and maintain friendships, yet another reason why being in that car in that moment was so improbable for my life.

If Eddie wept, he did it silently. I do know that he begged his father to stop. Strident, he told his father that he wasn’t going to die. That he didn’t need to talk about such things. That he didn’t want to think about burying his old man.

Mr. Birch glanced up at his son in the rearview mirror. He had brown eyes. They both had brown eyes, and if I’d known enough to recognize it, I’d have realized that Mr. Birch’s eyes were not merely weary – they were sad. Profoundly, achingly sad.

He met his son’s eyes in that mirror and said, “Just one thing. One more thing and then I’m done. If you ever have to bury me, bury me with my beanie and my jeans jacket and the keys to my bike. If you can manage it, bury me with the bike.”

And then it got to be too much for Eddie and his dad shut up. The car fell silent, and suddenly all the poorly stitched faces of the stuffed animals we’d won didn’t look silly. They looked sinister.

At a stoplight, some time later, Mr. Birch turned to me and said very quietly, “Promise me you’ll look out for my son.”

I wasn’t any older than Eddie. In fact, Eddie had been kept back a grade, so technically, I was the little one. I nodded – my little fingers clenched around one of the glass bottles I’d bought with my skee-ball tickets. The eagle-claw one. What the hell else could I do?

And then Mr. Birch stopped talking like he was going to die, and we drove home, and that was the end of it.

School started back up. The awkward conversation in the car became a distant memory in the face of new classes and new teachers and all the stress and excitement that came with a new year at school.

I think it was September when Mr. Birch died.

Our hometown – Hinckley, Ohio – is this sprawling, rural township filled with rolling hills and stony ledges and gorgeous trees. The gem of the town is a park – Hinckley Reservation – and one of the main roads going into the park is Route. 303. I loved traveling this road with my mother when she was still around, because she would indulge me at this one series of hills. I called them the rollercoaster hills. The road curves suddenly and then you’re zipping along on these three rapid, rolling swells of pavement. I’m sure they’re not actually as high as the first hill of a rollercoaster, but if you take them at forty or fifty miles an hour, they give you that same delicious fluttery feeling just under your ribs.

That’s a delightful feeling when you’re too young to realize just how hazardous that stretch of road really is. It’s only a two-lane road, and there are trees lining both sides. There are guardrails, but also a sharp drop-off on at least one side.

It happened at night. Mr. Birch was out on his motorcycle. I don’t know if he was wearing a helmet. He was probably just wearing his little knit beanie that he always rolled down over his head of curly hair. It doesn’t really matter – a helmet wouldn’t have saved him. He drove the bike right into a tree. He hit so hard, the front of the bike nearly tore him in half.

Mr. Birch – like everyone who lived in Hinckley – had driven that stretch of road before. Light or dark, he knew its hills, its sudden curves. It was a clear night. No rain. No other unexpected conditions on the road. Mr. Birch took the curve as fast as he could – and didn’t turn.

There was a lot of conjecture about his death. Hinckley was – and to an extent, still is – a very small town. One thing every small town loves is its gossip. Trouble with finances, troubles at work – I heard all of the rumors about Mr. Birch, but I didn’t care. What I cared about was my friend who, from all reports, had stood at the top of his driveway for hours waiting for his father to come back home. Waiting and waiting, when on some level, he had to have known. Mr. Birch had as good as told us – both of us – what was in store on that ride back from the park.

When he saw his mother’s car approaching to deliver the bad news, I’m told Eddie just screamed at the sky. Screamed and screamed in hurt and rage, until he fell to his knees on the winding, gravel drive.

The funeral home was rife with disapproving whispers when friends and family discovered Mr. Birch in the casket wearing not a suit but an old jeans jacket with a beanie pulled down over his head. That they were giving him a Christian burial after all the rumors wasn’t scandal enough to occupy their wagging tongues. No, now they had to hiss and whisper about his clothes – inappropriate, disrespectful, obscene. But Eddie stood by his father’s request. Mr. Birch had made it clear this was exactly what he wanted.

I still remember the awkward way the morticians had bent the man’s big, calloused fingers around the keys to his bike. I will probably never forget.

______________________________________________________

I have used real names here. If, perchance you see this, Eddie, and you disapprove, I apologize. The years have swept a gulf between us, and I've had no luck finding you to reach out. But it was surprisingly easy to find your dad: James L. Birch 1939-1985:

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Feeling the Rhythm: Meditative Dance

Learn about moving meditations and meditative dance in this article previously published in NewWitch/PanGaia Magazine For some people, dance can be a very powerful way of achieving a meditative state of consciousness. Dance combines a number of things that allow for a heightened experience of your body, mind, and energy. First, of course, there are the meditative basics of rhythm and repetitive motion. Dance encompasses both of these, but also ideally includes a focused awareness of your body, your breathing, and also your energy.

The motions of meditative dance do not have to be elaborate or even particularly graceful. Any motion that gets as much of your body as possible moving to the beat of some music can qualify as meditative dance. Even if you just stand in the middle of a room and spin around, letting the music flow around and through you, you’ll be in an august company of meditative dancers. The so-called “whirling dervishes” are a sect of Sufi mystics founded by the 13th century Muslim poet Jelaluddin Rumi. Rumi was a mystic and visionary who would dance around and around in circles – sometimes to a music that only he could hear – and dictate his mystical poetry. In the tradition of Rumi, the whirling dervishes achieve a meditative state through which they experience a sense of union with the divine by spiraling around and around in graceful circles.

In order to use dance as a pathway to the meditative state, the first thing you absolutely must do is become comfortable with the idea of dancing – even if you’re only going to be doing this in the privacy of your own home. A lot of people are terribly self-conscious about their bodies, and they can be even more self-conscious about how their bodies move. Don’t let a few bad experiences at high school dances ruin a very powerful tool of meditation for you. Forget about whether or not you look silly. Forget about the fact that you don’t think you can dance. Even if you feel like you have no sense of rhythm, a lot of that can change the moment you just let go and simply allow yourself to move.

To try your hand at meditative dance, pick a selection of music that appeals to you. It can be any type of music in any type of genre, so long as it has some kind of beat (personally, I find the electronic rhythms of EBM perfect for this kind of meditation, and there is a genre of music called “Trance” that gets its named from the tendency of its sounds and rhythms to induce altered states). Make sure that you either have several songs selected that will run continuously over a period of at least thirty minutes or one song programmed to repeat. You don’t want to just get into the groove with the dancing only to have the music suddenly cut out on you. While it’s possible to still maintain the meditative state even should such a situation arise, it still really kills the moment.

Set some time aside in your schedule where you will not be disturbed, especially if the idea of having someone walk in on you while you’re dancing makes you feel uncomfortable. Make sure you clear enough space so you can move around at least a little without knocking things over or bumping into furniture. Finally, make sure you put on comfortable clothes. In the case of meditative dance, “comfortable” may not mean clothes that are all loose and flowing. Put on clothes that you will feel most comfortable dancing in. For those of you with a traditional Pagan bent, this might mean dancing in your birthday suit. If you happen to be a Goth like me, “comfortable” might include vinyl pants and a corset, though there’s certainly nothing wrong with just jeans and a T-shirt. Others may not feel comfortable unless they’re in full belly dancer gear. Do whatever you need to do to get yourself focused and in the right mood, and then put the music on.

Once you have the music going, take a few moments to just stand still in the middle of the open space. Put your head down, close your eyes, and just listen. Concentrate all of your attention on the music. Let is wash over you and surround you until you can feel it seeping into your very flesh. Don’t break out in dance right away. Start by simply swaying to the beat of the music. Let your whole body feel the rhythm until the sense of it in your limbs is so contagious that you can’t not dance.

Once you have immersed yourself in the sound and feel of the music, start to move around a little more. Pick up your feet and step from side to side. Sway your hips. Move your hands in time with the music. Don’t think too hard about exactly what you’re doing. Instead, let the music move you.

The more you move, the more you will need to breathe, so take a few moments to concentrate upon your breathing. Make the rhythm of your breathing a part of the rhythm of the overall dance, just one more motion that your body is engaged in. Allow your consciousness to narrow down to just these few things: the sound of the music, the movements of your body, the rhythm of your breath.

There will come a point when you are dancing and you’re not even thinking about it any more. There will be a purity of experience that is just the rhythm and the motion and you and the sound, and this is your gate to the meditative state. At this point, do not stop dancing. Make every effort to let your body just keep doing what it was doing, without any special effort or strain. Let your body move around you while you take up a position of perfect clarity in your mind.

Take a few moments to observe what your body is doing, but don’t fixate on it. Let your body move naturally and retain this clear point of consciousness for other things. Feel the air as it moves in and out of your lungs. Be aware of how this rhythm acts together with the rhythm of your heart to carry life and energy throughout your body. Feel every particle of your being as it acts in unison to bring about this activity, dance. And enjoy the stillspace you have found within all this rapid activity. Hold it for several moments so you may fully experience it. Then slowly bring yourself back out of it, allowing your body to finish with the dance. Decrease the motion and intensity until you are again just standing there, swaying to the music. Then bring even that to an end and stand for a few moments, eyes closed, head down, body still, as you catch your breath. As you bring yourself fully back into your ordinary consciousness, experience the absence of motion with as much sensual acuity as you experienced the dance itself. With this balance between motion and stillness, you have achieved your first taste of meditative dance.

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Diversity in Fiction: Changing the Narrative

I grew up in a tiny Midwestern town where the only people of color in my school were the Ahmeds. Everyone else was some flavor of European descent. The Ahmeds were Muslim, but I didn't learn this until some time late in high school. No one ever talked about the family's religion, just as no one ever asked why none of the Ahmeds were ever around for lunch (they very quietly went off to pray to Mecca at noon, as is the custom of that faith). Since nearly everyone in the school had been raised in some form of Christianity, it never occurred to us to consider that someone might not be. This is relevant to my work in fiction. I'm sure you've heard the catch phrase, "Write from life." Well, even if a writer isn't consciously drawing upon their own life experiences, that's how creativity works. The worlds and stories in our heads are cobbled together from what we are exposed to, day after day. When we people our inner worlds, the characters are drawn from what is most familiar to us -- at least, that's our default if we don't make an effort for it to be otherwise.

If, like me, you happened to have grown up in predominantly white, predominantly Christian Middle America, where a person could stand out simply because they dressed differently, that means your default inner world isn't a particularly diverse one.

That is not to say this diversity is lacking due to a conscious decision to exclude other races or religions or lifestyles. It's simply human nature. We default to what we have always known -- the people, roles, and situations we have consistently been exposed to.

TV reinforces most of the things I grew up with -- over and over again, the situations portrayed on television feature predominantly white, predominantly Christian, predominantly straight male protagonists. Are the writers of your favorite show being intentionally racist and sexist when they pen episodes where women and people of color are consistently cast in minor roles -- or where they only appear as victims or villains? Not necessarily. They're just parroting back the world they have been exposed to themselves, a world reinforced by other writers doing the exact same thing.

It's a vicious cycle, and it's one that needs to stop.

The world we live in today isn't the whitebread Middle America I grew up in. Especially because of the advances in media communications, we live in an increasingly global society. Straight, white, European men are only a small part of that. When I grew up, race was an issue of black people and white people -- we didn't even know what to do with the Ahmeds! They didn't fit the script, so we treated them as outliers. We really had no clue. And maybe at that time, we had some excuse. But these days, with the wealth of races and cultures people are exposed to? We have to think differently.

And some of that must start in the stories that we tell.

Again, I'm going to stress that this is not about conscious racism, sexism, and exclusion. It's about a quirk in how humans order our world in our heads, and how everything we subsequently imagine is then shaped by that order.

Humor me for a minute. Imagine a little scene -- let's make it a bustling cafe. Picture the tables, the chairs, the counter, the sign with all the prices and names of the drinks.

Now populate it with characters. People sitting at the tables. People standing in line. People behind the counter. Imagine the scene as clearly as you can.

Now ... take a look at the scene you have built in your mind. What color are the people? If they're all the same color as you (or nearly all of them), ask yourself why. And if your answer is something like, "There's always more white people in places like this," really give that answer some thought.

Is the person serving behind the counter a girl? Why? What narratives have you been consistently exposed to that make women your mental default for a service position? I'm sure you weren't thinking about it that way, but that's how these persistent narratives get insidious. We don't see them as necessarily sexist or stereotyping. We see them so often, we simply view them as normal.

Speaking of "normal" -- what's everyone wearing? What kind of diversity (or lack of diversity) do these outfits suggest? Dig deeper into why this would be your default choice. And then ask yourself -- is it a truly accurate portrayal of people these days, or is it merely the projection of the same old stereotypes we are all exposed to through mainstream media, day after day?

The only way to change that default so it more accurately reflects the diversity that truly exists in our world is to change the narratives. To be conscious of when we are defaulting to an assumed projection of how the world looks, as opposed to how the world -- right now as we are living in it -- actually is.

And you might ask -- if you're writing fiction, why is it important to accurately reflect this part of our world?

Maybe you can get away with not changing the narrative if you're writing high fantasy in a setting specifically built upon white European culture -- but I think, even in that circumstance, it is crucial to ask yourself why that white European basis is important to the story. If the only reason is familiarity, then maybe you should rethink that.

The genre I've chosen is called Urban Fantasy -- although there's magick, the stories don't take place in Middle Earth or Westeros. Urban Fantasy happens right here -- preferably in a big city that becomes something of a character itself. An important part of any city is its diversity. To make that setting genuine in fiction, you've got to capture that diversity.

That means white people and black people, brown people and yellow people -- straight people, gay people, Christian, Sikh, Jew, transpeople, differently-abled people -- all the exciting and varied flavors of humanity peopling our world.

If we are serious about telling stories in books, on TV, and in the movies, we have to stop recycling the same worn, paste-board cut-outs we've been fed over and over again. They no longer show things as they are -- assuming generously that they ever did. If all we ever do is repeat the same tired narratives, those stereotypical defaults living in so many of our heads will keep us blinkered to the world as it really is.

And the real world is pretty damned amazing.

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