Saturday, December 29, 2012

Sockpuppets and trainwrecks

Sigh...I guess I just can't avoid being dragged back into the Dark Phoenix Publishing mess. It's certainly not for lack of trying to avoid it. A few days pass, it appears that the stupid subsides a bit, and then I wind up finding something else double-take worthy.

The latest sad development is the posting of a review for Vampire: Undeath, by none other than "Mark Smith". This is so obviously a sockpuppet review it just stops being not funny and diverges into really pathetic. The choice of words, grammar, Unnecessary Capitalization, and odd turns of phrase ("in the modern nights") are dead ringers that it was penned by our friend Mykal Lakim. In addition, the review does nothing but directly address talking points Mykal Lakim himself has made (using levels, the wound system, Empathy, etc) or justify/defend problems that RPG.net review and others have brought up (lack of distribution, editing, ads in the middle of the book). Mentioning Vampire: Undeath is part of the "Wastelands of Damnation series" is another dead giveaway. The name for the series wasn't coined until after Vampire: Undeath was released - yet the review tries to come off as someone who just randomly bought the product and Vampire: Undeath says it's part of the G.A.M.E. or L.I.F.E system.

While it's possible that because of the minor amount of attention that the game has received an independent party went to the Dark Phoenix Publishing Facebook page, perused everything, and then came to the decision to support the underdog and buy the book - it's much more likely that this is a sockpuppet. "Mark Smith" created a Google+ account and immediately posted the review, on a blog creatively titled "Vampire Undeath Review", that has precisely one post. "Mark Smith" and "James Pendragon" - the other suspected Mykal Lakim sockpuppet account - have similarities in the way their information is wordedIt's really not surprising, as Mykal Lakim was banned from RPG.NET for confirmed sockpuppeting - so this review is just continuing sad behavior from someone who can't seem to quit sad behavior. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Cara Gray'on (sample character)

Cara Gray'on is a Joanite Templar from a minor offshoot of the Uhan'on clan. She was a Blade for number of years, serving along the Seven Fingers. While leading a raid on a Serf settlement in the No Man's Land between Vimary and Hl'kar, Cara and her fellow Blades were attacked by Z'bri defending the village. Many of the Joanites died in the first few minutes of the battle, and the survivors sought refuge in a mostly collapsed ruin. Cara defeated a monstrosity made up of the corpses of her Joanite sisters in single combat and,  unlocking an unknown potential for powerful Synthesis, successfully drove back the Melanis Iv'chet leading the defenders. For her devotion and bravery, Joan made Cara a Templar on the spot - an unusual, but not unheard of, move on the Fatima's part. For Cara it was a bittersweet triumph, as her longtime companion Selia was killed in the battle.

Since becoming a Templar, Cara has joined the small number of voices speaking out against Judge Cylix Seth'on and the burgeoning Watch. She believes the creation of the Watch was misguided at best and a blatant power grab at worst. She sees what happened to her in Hl'kar as a symptom of a Nation that is becoming complacent and opening itself up to a large-scale incursion by the Z'bri. Her opposition to the Watch has made her a small number of influential allies in the Grand Council, but also attracted the attention of much more powerful political adversaries in the form of both Cylix Seth'on and Shaman Storm Cry. Of late Cara has noticed that Joanites Blades are disappearing in small numbers - not enough to raise suspicion that it is nothing other than the normal risks Blades take, but still enough to worry her. All of these factors are making it harder and harder for her to ignore her principles when she sees abuse by the Watch or remain silent while Joanite battle readiness deteriorates.

Character Aspects

  • Templar of Joan
  • Tribal
  • Opposes the Watch
  • Handpicked by Joan
  • "The Z'bri cannot be ignored"
  • Blames Herself For Selia's Death

Specialty Aspects

  • Joanite (Strength)
  • Devotion (Dream)
  • Fury (Dream)
  • Exceptionally Strong Dreamer (Willpower)
  • Blade Blessed By Joan (Resources)
  • Many Sisters Within the Blades (Resources)
  • Blinded By Principles (Persuasion)

Abilities
Physical: Agility: 2; Endurance: 2; Perception: 2; Strength 3
Mental: Craft: 1; Knowledge: 2; Reasoning: 2; Willpower: 2
Social: Deception: 1; Empathy: 2; Persuasion: 2; Resources: 1
Affinity: Dream: 3

Advantages
Dreamer

Power Advantages:
Synthesis
Rotes:
Battle
Force

Interesting news

On January 1st, Lucien Soulban, Jean Carrieres and Ghislain Barbe are announcing a new project. All three of them are former Dream Pod 9 staffers and have extensive experience in the tabletop rpg industry, as well as video games and entertainment. Lucien Soulban wrote for the Tribe 8 rpg;  Jean Carrieres worked on Heavy Gear, Jovian Chronicles and Tribe 8; Ghislain Barbe was responsible for the distinctive art style in the Dream Pod 9 games. The last time all three of them worked together that I know of was Tribe 8. This doesn't mean that the new project is an rpg, but regardless of what the project is I am very, very intrigued.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Werewolf wangs need to be...just...right

I know that I really didn't want to post any more about Dark Phoenix Publishing. But this was too good to pass up and I just had to capture it. Annotated so you can zero in on the good parts.


Sneaksy

I was finally able to start Dishonored last night. Mental note: when trying to configure a hard drive and a little voice keeps telling me "You've done this before" don't answer, "Yeah, so why isn't this working?" and keep bashing my head against a wall for over an hour. It means you've done this before and there's a drive with Windows installed on it in the desk drawer, already configured, from the last time the SSD died.

Dishonored so far is very much in the same vein as Thief, which makes me pretty happy. Stealth games are typically so much better than regular old FPS frag-fests, and the Thief series is one of my all-time favorites .I would go further and say Dishonored is a perfect bookend for the Thief series (at least until a new one comes out, hopefully next year). I was able to slip right in to Garrett mode, and the guards seemed like old friends, just with different slang and new tunes to whistle. It was liking putting on a nicely worn-in pair of old boots.

One of the things I miss about Thief is the light gem. This one little UI element, indicating how illuminated your character is, helped immensely in remaining stealthy. A few times it even reminded me I still had a weapon drawn ("I'm totally in the dark, why isn't the gem black? Oh, I still have my sword out."). Deus Ex: Human Revolution was able to make up for the lack of a light gem by having augmentations for displaying what direction the enemy is looking and their alertness level. Dishonored has a similar power, called Dark Vision.

Playing video games - especially good ones - makes me think about roleplaying games and how their concepts and subsystems might work in a roleplaying environment. When well done, video games excel at setting tone and mood. I've wanted to run a Thief-like game for a very long time, borrowing stylistic elements and tone, but it's always seemed hard to get the feel right. One concern is the genre wouldn't seem to lend itself well to multiple characters, since they are almost always very solitary. This is hardly a huge deal, and I might tackle it in a later post. But the most important thing is stealth has to be done right - possibly even as a mini-game.

Stress Tracks...Again?

Coming at it from a FATE perspective (specifically, Strands of Fate), my first instinct is, "Stress track!" Our sneaksy characters would have a Stealth custom stress track. I'm thinking it would have stress boxes equal to something like: (Deception + Agility + Other Modifiers) - Size. The character's own actions and movements mark off stress boxes, with Consequences representing miscalculations or other events ranging from "Stepped on a stick" to "Knocked over a box" to "Caught in the open". Stealth stress boxes clear at the end of the scene, but there might be actions which could clear some as well.

As an alternative, or even a counterpart, guards and other characters may have an Alertness stress track to represent how alert they are. An Alertness track is a little trickier, because it runs "backwards". More alert characters would have a smaller track, while distracted or less alert characters would have a larger one. One solution would be to have the track start at a fixed value - let's say 6, but it could possibly vary by the quality of the guard - and subtract Perception plus any other modifiers. Consequences would reflect increased levels of alertness, from "I think I heard something" to "I should check that out" to "Raise the alarm!". Like the Stealth track, Alertness Consequences would clear over time or after performing specific actions. For both Stealth and Alertness, various Edges and Determinations can be set to represent specialized equipment or the mental state of the stealth character or the guards (setting up the classic situation where the guard is always trying to catch the thief).

These ideas, or something similar, combined together could create a mini-game where stealth is the focus of the action, almost like "stealth combat".

Zones

The final consideration for a stealth-centered game is how zones are set up. By necessity the map would look a lot different than one set up for a swashbuckling fight or a shoot out. It would probably outline zones of various light levels, little or lots of cover, or alternate routes such as overhead or underneath an area, etc. Aspects like Intermittent Light or Hard Metal Floor or Soft Carpeting would round out a good stealth zone map. Combined with some stealth track and some alert guards, this looks like a promising framework for all of the sneaksy stuff I'd need in an rpg.

Sins of the Sister, Part 2

I had no sooner sent an initiate to bring some mulled wine, when Nostra Guy'on appeared in the doorway of my chamber. His Templar bodyguards were not with him, but I thought there was someone standing in the shadows outside the doorway. Dressed in a long, simple robe Nostra Guy'on looked more a tired old man than a Grand Councilor. He unarmed - not that he needed a weapon. His weapons were power and his armor subterfuge, and he used them with a deftness unmatched by any Dahlian or Magdalite.

"You know why I am here."

"The boy," I responded.

"He is secure here in the Tower?"

"Yes, he is in a cell awaiting an Inquisitor." My throat tightened around the word.

"And the others?"

"The girl was found and turned over to the Red Gaol, who will deal with her. The boys will attend to me, until such a time as Joan deems all of them fit for the Arena." I paused for a moment, carefully choosing my words. "Not to disrespect, Elder, but I don't think you came here to check on an imprisoned halfwit and a handful of derelicts."

Nostra worked his nearly toothless gums for a moment, his eyes dark and cold. "Your actions have placed us in a difficult position. Shaman Storm Cry was disrespected, gravely so, and you acted against his - and the Council's - authority."

"But Joan spoke through me. Her will..."

"Do not confuse Joan working through you with knowing Her will. Joan seldom speaks, much less through her Templars. It is not surprising you would be a little confused."

His words stung like a slap in the face. I knew what I had experienced, what Joan had said through me, and there was no mistake. "That cannot be. I felt her anger and her frustration. We have had so much taken from us...Vimary stands half-defended our fate has been placed in the hands of others? Joan is..."

"Enough!" Nostra snapped, then sighed deeply. "The Beasts' backs were broken when Joshua slew Tibor. That was nearly three generations ago, they are no more than shadows on the wall now. Darker forces are at work within the Nation, but you and the other crusaders fail to see it. You want to stand on a watchtower," he motioned skyward with his hands. "Ever vigilant for a threat that has long since been cowed by the Fatimas' power...even if it means the rest of the Tribes fall into degeneracy behind you. The Tribe of Joan must stand with all of the Tribes, for the purity of all of the Tribes. That is Joan's Will." He pinched the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger, looking at me through hooded eyes. "That is why you will do as I say or I will throw you to the Beasts myself, since you seem to prefer their company to your own kind."

I silently nodded my capitulation. He gestured and the person outside the doorway stepped into the light. She was short and slender, covered completely in a burial shroud of black muslin. "This is Den'a. She is a Sin Eater."

I tried to speak, but the words stuck. The Yagan Sisterhoods were secretive, but the Sin Eaters made them look like an Evan gossip circle. Stories about Sin Eaters were the kind repeated only in hushed tones: they had transformed themselves into wights, struck pacts with the Z'bri, or were responsible for Zom attacks. I found myself suddenly wishing for the wine.

Den'a unwrapped the layers of fabric concealing her features and I was surprised to see a beautiful young woman instead of a wizened crone. Her face was round, the death mask tattoo contrasting with her bone white hair and pale skin. The tattoo was unlike any I had seen before, shifting subtly in the shadows cast by the firelight, coalescing into another visage...Nyeda. A chill ran through me. Mercifully she looked away slightly so I would not have to avert my own gaze.

"At dawn, you will accompany Den'a, the boy, and the three young Joanites to Mortuary. You will do exactly as Den'a asks of you. You will tell no one that you are going or of what transpires afterward, upon pain of Banishment or worse. This is the decree of the Grand Council and the Fatimas' will." He rose from the chair slowly and left without another word, Den'a following close behind. She glanced back at me before disappearing into the darkness, her eyes sympathetic.

I sat on the edge of my bed for a very long time, staring into the darkness beyond the doorway. The shadows moved, forming shapes the flowed into one another before they could become anything recognizable. I knew whatever awaited Robbo in Mortuary would change his life. Naively I failed to see it would change mine as well. With the weight of the day pressing down on me, I silently began my preparations for the next.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

So no Dishonored for me

At least until I get Windows re-installed on my secondary drive. This is the second SSD I've had fail - both OCZ Vertex 2s. I guess they're not the most reliable things on the planet, as the first lasted about 14 months before it croaked and the replacement lasted about 2 1/2 months. I love the speed of an SSD, but the cautionary tale here is the extra $100 or whatever that's saved by going with a cheaper brand is more than compensated for by the flakiness of the drive. Meanwhile, the secondary drive that will get pressed into service is a Western Digital SATA drive that must be well over 6 years old. It's slow, and noisy, but perfectly serviceable. When I get the new SSD back, I'm not even going to put it back in as the system drive. I'll wait until I can get a newer, more reliable drive and even then I might have second thoughts.

EDIT: OCZ responded back and said they would upgrade the drive, most likely a Vertex 3. I asked if they could make it a V4, because I know several people who have them and haven't had any issues.

Vampires and Trainwrecks

Near the end of November, discussion of a little known (as in, nobody seemed to know about them at all) "game company" called Dark Phoenix Publishing began to pop up on tabletop roleplaying game forums. The subjects of the games that this company purported to publish seemed very familiar - vampires, werewolves, mages, faeries, ghosts. A review of the vampire book, Vampire: Undeath, by yours truly confirmed that the system and concepts were extremely familiar and the product was a hot mess.  Sure, there are minor changes from White Wolf's system and the fluff isn't word for word, but you can't spit on the book without hitting a direct parallel between Vampire: Undeath and Vampire: the Masquerade.

Since then, the whole thing has turned into some kind of weird slow-motion trainwreck. It dips it's toes into the league of much larger trainwrecks, such as Paul Cristoforo/Ocean Marketing and The Oatmeal vs. Funnyjunk dispute, but never goes all in. The reason for this is Dark Phoenix Publishing's "CEO" and apparently the one-man-band behind the company, Mykal Lakim, has no personality. With other trainwrecks we had dudebro Cristoforo or Ramones-shirt clad, bad song-writing Charles Carreon. Mykal Lakim has condescension, but it's the whiny teenage angst of "You just don't get me!" He has the legal threats that are so characteristic of one of these trainwrecks, but never came close to following through and the threats faded into whimpers. Marketing and public relations? No spine there either. Mykal Lakim just isn't rising to the challenge set by previous trainwrecks.

Of course, it could be said that the trainwreck was over long before it started. Mykal Lakim apparently has been involved in the Indiana LARP community to some degree for a very long time. He has obvious and verifiable familiarity with White Wolf's offerings, despite protests that he hasn't paid attention to them since NWoD was released. Apparently NWoD upset him, as it did many others, and he decided to stop playing White Wolf games (again, as did many others). After that he seems to have gone off the rails. This is speculation, but it looks like Mykal Lakim thought White Wolf had "abandoned" the OWoD and it became fair game to start creating thinly veiled carbon copies of their properties. In essence, he pulled the same stunt that my kids do when they start playing with somebody else's toy the moment the other kid puts it down. "But you weren't playing with it anymore!" "I had to go to the bathroom!". Never mind that ceasing publication doesn't invalidate a company's copyrights, or that any number of OWoD books are available in PDF format, or that Onyx Path is actually publishing OWoD books (at least in the form of anniversary editions). Why they would keep their IP for OWoD alive isn't anyone's business, either. For his troubles, Mykal Lakim has been blocked from White Wolf's Facebook page and had his pages deleted from Wikipedia. His explanations of all of these events amount to nothing but double-downs and more bullshit.

It's these double-downs, and others, that really bring out Mykal Lakim's spinelessness. Dark Phoenix Publishing claims to have at least two dozen books in the pipeline, under a release schedule that even the biggest companies in the industry can't match (or at least, can't match and keep their fanbase). When told his claims of having 20 employees seem far-fetched, Mykal Lakim's response is "Also, why would over ten employees make us big? If other companies don't have that many people working for them that would explain quite a bit." Never mind the fact that any company of the scale Mykal Lakim claims Dark Phoenix Publishing is would be very well known by now. Dark Phoenix Publishing can't even get a distribution agreement with DriveThruRPG - solo game authors are able to at least get that much done. Everything has an excuse as well. The failure to get products on DriveThruRPG? It's due to "moral reasons." When it's pointed out his "artwork" was mostly lifted from other sources on the Internet without attribution, suddenly the pieces are placeholders (in products that are already being offered for sale or were available as demos ). When the horrendous editing and writing are brought up, it's because the books aren't done yet (again, on books people can buy). When the questions and criticisms get too uncomfortable, Mykal Lakim simply blocks the people asking the question, deflects it or ignores it.

Every time I've discussed this with people outside of a small group, the question seems to come up, "Why do you even care?" It's a valid one, too. Dark Phoenix Publishing doesn't really warrant a lot of attention, especially when there's Dishonored to be played and really great rpgs that need to be read. In the end, Mykal Lakim is a wannabe game designer without a single clue how the gaming industry works. He doesn't comprehend why people would compare his games to White Wolf games. He has no concept of how to write rules or put together a product. He can't communicate with customers who pose difficult questions without resorting to calling them "Trolls" or dismissing them completely. Anyone who defends White Wolf is automatically a shill or part of some conspiracy. He wants so hard to be in big leagues and the only way he can keep up the charade is to double down and shovel bullshit faster. The only people who take him seriously are those that buy the bullshit, at least until he finally missteps and gets smacked down by a team of crack White Wolf lawyers.  The entire situation screams that we just put it out of our misery and forget about it.

That is exactly what is happening, fortunately for Mykal Lakim who is probably breathing a sigh of relief. As people forget about him, he's free to rebuild his little bubble where he's an awesome game designer with radical ideas, shaking people up and scaring the big gaming industry. The "haters" and "Trolls" can be easily pushed off the page with irrelevant crap or memory holed. But ignoring Mykal Lakim means nothing changes for him. He's still ripping off White Wolf, he's still claiming he's not, and he's still selling crap. So even if Mykal Lakim and Dark Phoenix Publishing isn't something that I particularly want to continue writing about, at the very least I will keep the issue alive (if only by virtue of the fact that I wrote this post, even if it winds up being the only one on the subject).

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Sins of the Sister, Part 1

From the confession of Cara Gray'on:



It began with three members of the Watch - two boys and a girl - beating a boy in the street. Tensions between the Watch and the Templars had forced me to turn a blind eye to these sights more often than not, but this time I knew something was terribly wrong. Maybe it was because the figure on the ground just lay there, not crying out. Perhaps it was the expressions of the small crowd that had gathered, standing between the cobbled together merchant stalls or overhead on the bridges between the upper levels of the crumbling sky towers.

"What exactly is going on here?" I said, my voice echoing off the stone buildings around us.

Two of the them looked up at me, eyes widening when they saw I was a Templar, and clumsily stopped mid-blow or kick. The third was so focused on kicking the person on the ground, the girl had to grab his arm and pull him away.

"He...he killed a Joanite Blade..." The girl said in a quavering voice. She couldn't have seen more than 16 summers, barely old enough to raise a sword.

It was then I saw the Joanite laying face down just a few paces away, blood slowly seeping from underneath her body into the dirt. Her sword was sheathed and a bloodied blade rested on the ground nearby. I looked down at the crumpled form of her alleged attacker expecting to see a Squat or perhaps one of the Fallen. To my surprise I saw Robbo.

Robbo was a simpleton, the son of an Evan family living just outside of Bazaar. Evans put disfigured children to death, as was the custom of all of the Tribes, but sometimes it took a few summers for any problems to become obvious. Children able to work were spared. Robbo was one of those children, incredibly strong and hearty but unable to speak and only able to understand the simplest commands. Instead of an ox, his mother had him draw a wagon full of crops and other provisions to Bazaar so she could barter for other goods. His mother was harsh with him but not cruel, and Robbo always had a smile for everyone and everything. Many were uncomfortable around him despite his kind and gentle spirit. The few words he spoke were always prophecies of death and ill-fortune. Despite this, until that morning he had always seemed harmless.

"Who is this?" I asked, taking a step toward the Joanite lying on the ground. I know this armor, I thought. Please, don't let it be her.

"We...we do not know." The girl answered, lowering her eyes to avoid my gaze.

Of course she wouldn't know. Both of us were from the Tribe of Joan, but lived in different worlds. I stood tall in full armor adorned with medallions, prayer strips and inscribed sigils, a sword blessed by Joan herself at my side. The three children wore ill-fitting leather jerkins and bore weapons hardly suitable for training, much less common use. They had never faced Squat savages or fetid unholy monstrosities made of the corpses of their own brethren. Such things were little more than fables to them. Their enemies were thieves, miscreants, political opponents, undesirables.

I knelt down next to the woman and slowly turned her over. My stomach tightened as I brushed the hair from her face. Oh Nyeda, what could have happened? I thought. Last I heard she had been on the Seven Fingers planning a raid into No Man's Land. What business did she have in Bazaar? Clearly she was taken unawares. The blade had penetrated her plate and shattered and shattered the mail underneath. Robbo certainly had the strength to do this, but where he would have gotten a sword or even known how to use it? I placed two fingers to my lips and then to hers before standing.

"Did you see the boy do this?" I asked, my back still to the three of them.

"N...no..." the girl replied.

"We came when that merchant called for the Watch," one of the boys said, his voice more confident than hers. "He was kneeling beside her. The merchant said he had done it."

"Did he threaten you?"

"No, he was on the ground, sitting beside her..." I could hear the puzzlement in his voice.

"So you began beating a simpleton, on the word of another?"

"It...it is our duty as the Watch..."

Anger and grief washing over me, and I nearly lost control. The River of Dream responded to the rush of emotions, rippling the air around me like an invisible flame. All three of the youths stepped backward in fear. The youngest boy began to shake uncontrollably, a wet spot growing on his breeches.

"It is your duty to watch." I shook my head, trying to clear any rash thoughts before they became something more. "You three are but children...we may as well let Agnites keep the peace. Were you even intending to arrest him? Question him?  Or were you content with just killing him and denying Joan the right to justice?" None would meet my gaze. Robbo remained curled up on the ground, his arms wrapped tightly around his head, not making a sound. He was still breathing, at least for the moment.

The confrontation had attracted a larger audience and more attention. Two large Joanites pushed through the front ranks, followed closely by a rotund Evan man. He strode forward purposefully, a multitude of beaks and claws clattering against his raptor skull topped staff, a feathered cloak marking his station as Shaman of Eva. Shaman Storm Cry.

"Storm Cry," I said dryly, rising to my feet. He huffed from exertion and scowled at me, dabbing at his face with a finely woven cloth. Even with the morning chill, sweat glistened on his bald head. My disdain for him and his political maneuverings were extremely well known. He and the the Tera Sheban Judge Cylix Seth'on were turning the Watch into their own private army of thugs. An Evan, no matter how powerful, had no right meddling in the affairs of Joan.

"Please tell me you have not interfered with the Watch performing their duty, Cara Gray'on," He said. "What is going on here?"

"The only thing I interfered with was your breakfast, Shaman," I replied. He was a hand shorter than me, but outweighed me by at least ten stone. "I merely stopped these three from beating this boy to death."

He ignored the jibe and looked down at Robbo with obvious disgust. "What was his crime?"

"I see no crops or livestock here. His crime was against Joan, not Eva."

"This is a matter for the Watch," Storm Cry admonished me. His tone made the blood rush to my cheeks. "Now you," he pointed to the girl. "Tell me what happened."

"A merchant called out for the Watch. When...when we arrived we found this Joanite dead, and this boy next to her. There is a sword..."

"And then what happened?"

"They started beating him," I interjected.

"It is the Watch's duty to keep the peace. If they witnessed this boy strike down one of Joan's Chosen warriors..."

"We..we didn't..." The girl looked close to tears, glancing furtively between the two of us. Her resolve was beginning to crumble as the situation sunk in.

"None of them actually saw the attack take place," I said. "Nyeda Morth'on was a daughter of Joan. Judgement on her murderer shall be passed by Tera Sheba, and no other, as is Joan's right and Her will. I have more standing in this matter than you, Shaman. No Joanite will betray honor or oath by taking the Law into their own hands."

Storm Cry raised his voice, making sure all could hear him. "Her attacker could have been Fallen, and there may be more of them! The Watch must ensure the safety of everyone!" I made note of the two fully armed and armored Joanite warriors standing behind him. Luther'ons, both of them. The Luther'on clan was prominent and intensely steadfast in their allegiance to the Watch. Regardless they were still Joanites, and I was still their Templar.

I was about to respond when a woman, sobbing uncontrollably, freed herself from the crowd and ran toward us. I was sure it was Robbo's mother. One of the Luther'ons lunged forward, knocking her to the ground with the pommel of his sword and bringing the tip of the blade to the back of her neck. It must have been too much for the young girl, who screamed and fled down the street without looking back. The second Luther'on drew his sword and started to run after her. The crowd erupted into cries of panic and anger, and the situation looked as if it would spiral out of control.

I yelled "NO!" and mentally opened the floodgate to the River Dream. A torrent of Synthesis rippled down my arm, my sword leaping from its scabbard like a silver fish. The flat of the blade caught the first Luther'on square across the chest with a thunderous clap, throwing him back a good twenty paces. I thrust my other arm toward the second Joanite, palm outward. The warrior slammed into the ground hard enough to knock the wind out of him. Everything and everyone froze, the only sound Robbo's mother softly sobbing. The boy remained perfectly still, but for the briefest moment I swore I saw Nyeda stir.

"How dare you strike my personal guard? Arrest her, NOW!" Storm Cry roared. Both Luther'ons remained on the ground, dazed. The two remaining Watch backed away from me, their eyes white with fear. Stymied, Storm Cry stammered, his voice shrill. "I...I..will have you Banished for this insolence! All of you!"

I returned my sword to its scabbard, feeling disconnected and distant after the release of Synthesis. Conflict rippled through the River, opening a conduit to Joan, and Her will rose within me. "The Daughters of Joan are not yours, Shaman Storm Cry. Your hubris has gone too far. You may be Eva's Chosen, but Cara Gray'on is my Arm and my Blade. I will strike down your lapdogs where they stand should they be dishonored."  My mouth formed the words, but Joan's voice echoed off the buildings.

"You will regret this." His voice trembled, defiant even in the face of Joan's voice. "You do not know..."

"ENOUGH! Your business is done here." The sun broke through the clouds, creating swirling wings of shadow around me that lengthened to darken Storm Cry's face. "The boy will return to the Watchtower, and you will go back to Sanctuary until Tera Sheba has words with Eva about this." Without another word Storm Cry walked away, shoving his way through the crowd. His Fatima had not come to his aid; Eva obviously had deferred to Joan in the matter. Joan left me as soon as she had come, and it was all I could do to keep from falling to my knees.

"Thank you, Templar," Robbo's mother choked out between sobs. She was kneeling on the ground near Robbo, her head down. A tiny drop of blood blossomed on her neck where the blade's point had touched it. I felt sorrow for her, but no remorse for what I needed to do.

"Return to your village," I said quietly. "Robbo's fate is in Tera Sheba's hands now."

She looked up at me, her mouth twisted in a wordless cry of anguish as she shook her head, then buried her face in her hands. I motioned to two Evans standing at the front of the crowd, who gently helped her up and led  her away. The crowd had already begun to disperse, murmuring about what they had just witnessed. By nightfall word would spread throughout all of Vimary, if not further.

"You," I said, motioning to the boys and the Luther'ons. "Find a cart, so we can get Nyeda and this boy back to Joan's Tower."