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Fiction: The Head That Wears the Crown

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I found the crown during one of my spelunking raids under the city. Here, everything is built on ruins. The basements lead to the metro, and if you take the right tunnel, go through the right door, you’ll find yourself a thousand years in the past, among ancient ruins and medieval catacombs.
The government is quite serious about protecting the sites. There are all sorts of rules about who can go in, and when, and what they can carry in. You absolutely can’t take anything out. But they can’t police all the tunnels, and the black market is always hungry for artifacts.
The crown was without a doubt the most well preserved piece I’d ever seen. It looked ancient, all black iron points and long chains that ended in ornately carved weights. There wasn’t a spot of rust anywhere on it. I found it wrapped in layer after layer of rotting shroud, on top of a skeleton in a side tunnel I don’t think had seen any visitors in half a millennium. Even the chains were intact, coiled underneath the crown as I lifted it away from the corpse. There was some resistance, as they caught on the wrappings, but one good tug and they came loose. The skeleton was less hardy than the artifact, and it crumbled under my touch. As I stowed the piece, I reminded myself to be more careful. Any damage would make the sale price plummet.
An hour later, I was back in my apartment, carefully scrubbing away the grime of centuries. The crown was gorgeous. Polished, it seemed even more well-preserved. It felt remarkably solid. It would take some time to find a buyer for it, but I was sure that I could sell it for a good price. I was no archeologist, but I guessed it was at least from the thirteenth century. But I’d never seen something that old so well preserved in the field before.s
I locked the crown in my hidden safe, carefully tucking the weighted chains underneath it. I double-checked the lock and replaced the trapdoor and rug. ‘Safe as houses,’ I thought, and went to clean myself up after a night in the underground.
I really was beautiful, I thought while shampooing the gunk out of my hair. I’d have to do a lot of legwork on this one, but it would be worth it. Most of the stuff I recovered had some material value: Gold, silver, semi-precious stones, that sort of thing. I always tried the antiquities markets first, but if I had to dump it for materials, I could. The black iron crown was different. It was a real artifact, still intact, with all its chains and moldings unblemished by rust. There was somebody in my little black book that would kill for a piece like that. I might even need to have an auction for it.
On the other hand, I could always keep the crown for myself. It was a brilliant show piece. A little bit of a resume, if you will. With something like this, I could break into contract work. I’d have to sell it a bit, do some research, come up with a better story than tripping over it while exploring, but it would be worth it. Being on a payroll meant having someone to bail me out, or bribe the cops to look the other way.
I’d definitely keep it, I thought. I went back to the safe and pulled it out again. It was surprisingly heavy, especially with all the little weights and chains. I wondered who wore it. Not a king, obviously. It didn’t have the right sort of ornamentation about it. And not a bishop. It lacked a certain holiness. A warlord, I thought. Or a duke. I could picture him riding into battle, armored, with the crown atop his head. The chains must’ve hooked into armor, or a helmet, maybe. It was the crown of a leader, a strong man. A man like me.
I almost looked around sheepishly before I tried it on. But I still tried it on.
***
I blink. and take a breath, and for a moment, I’m disoriented. I remembered fire, and a crowd… I blink again, and look down at my hands. They’re larger than I recall, and hairy on the backs. They’re a man’s, not mine. I stifle a shriek, and the muffled squeak I do make is lower than I expect. I shake my head, and I feel the see the chains rattle around me, feel the familiar pendulum weights shifting at their ends. The Ebon Crown. Someone put it on. The spell worked!
I’ve cheated them all! Death, Plague, and most especially that sanctimonious prig of an Inquisitor. The body isn’t really mine, but I wear it like a gown. I ride it like a horse, and with both legs, not some feminine sidesaddle foolishness. I feel the rumbling horror and complaints of the original occupant. I ignore him, let him fade to the edges this mind like the sound of the sea.
I stride to a mirror, my gait unsteady. It’s huge, and takes up most of one wall.It isn’t silvered, but something else, something clear and bright. His features are nothing remarkable. The little room, though. Such a room! In one corner stands something like a garderobe, but with flowing water, and a roman bath in the other. And lamps! Lamps hang in the ceiling. Their light is so steady and bright that they hurt my eyes to look upon. The man who has placed me on his head must likewise be some sort of sorcerer, I think, although none of his magic is known to me.
I explore his strange chambers, and in one room, I find a parchment. I can barely read it, but It gives the date as A.D. 2018. It has been over eight hundred years. I take some time to consider the gulf of time.
The rooms are filled with books, with light, with strange devices whose functions I slowly wrest from the scruffy little smuggler whose body I now wear. I spend days watching, reading, listening and learning. This world, this clockwork future, is beautiful and strange, but not so different as my own time. There are no witches here. The Inquisitors, having hunted us all, turned their eyes to merely the stranger, the outsider, the heretic. They burned themselves out in foolish hate. And now, they no longer believe in magic. The world thinks we never were, I am the last witch, and there is no one to protect them from me.
Oh, what delights I shall find here.

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Podcast: CCRC55 – Halloween is Grinch Night

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Tonight your hosts, Hugh, Rich the Time Traveler, Jurd, and Opop, watch the Grinch’s holiday special – no, not that one, the other one.

Click HERE to listen to the commentary!

And Click HERE to watch the special on YouTube!

Chrononaut Cinema Reviews is presented by http://skinner.fm and http://hughjodonnell.com, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

This podcast was originally published at Skinner.FM on Thursday, October 10, 2019.

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Fiction: The Halloween Gig

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“What the p’nong is this?” I said, slamming the plastic crate onto polished a synthsteel table. Amy, the bartender, turned around from where she was hanging some kind of banner.
“It’s your costume for tonight, sweetie.” She went back to the hanging, a pattern of orange circles, white ovals, and black crescents, each with a crude printed face. The shapes vibrated gently in station gravity.
“Costume for what?” I picked up the box with my lower arms and riffled through it with my upper ones. It was a length of cheap black plasticloth. I examined it for a minute before figuring out it was a sort of cloak, with holes for my head and all six appendages. The sleeves were all tattered and trailing, and the hood was so deep my head wouldn’t even be visible. It seemed a terrible choice for a musician.
“It’s Halloween, silly!” She didn’t even turn this time. “You agreed to play holidays.”
“Proper holidays,” I said, grimacing. “The Eclipse Festival, Harmonics Night, Harvest of Poetry.” I knew I was being petulant, but I made an attempt. Humans expected it from their musicians.
“It’s a big party night on Earth, we’re expecting a lot of traffic, so wear the costume.” That was when I noticed her face paint. It was a vivid shade of green. She was wearing an impractical black gown instead of her usual ship suit. A pointed black hat rested on the bar.
“Then why haven’t you cleaned properly?” I asked, taking in the room for the first time. The counters and corners were covered with wispy strands of white plant fiber. The stage was dusty, and the edifice of a ruin had been left there.
“Those are decorations, Ch’Brun.”
“They’re unsettling.”
“I was going for spooky.”
“Just what kind of holiday is this?” I asked. My elders thought I was crazy to run off to human space chasing gigs. Sometimes I agreed with them.
“For some humans, it’s a day of remembrance for the dead, but for others it’s a day for dressing up, eating candy, and getting scared.”
“Wait, your civilization frightens itself for fun?” I wasn’t surprised. Humanity seemed to have a collective fetish for destructive behavior. But since I was already working in an establishment that served weak poison as a recreational activity, this didn’t seem out of character for the species. “That’s so human. Give me a few standard hours to research and I’ll see what I can do.”
A few hours later, I took the stage. It was dark, it was grimy, and the house was full, just as she said. There were humans in all kinds of costumes, mostly mythological archetypes like Amy’s witch and a variety of living corpses. Humans have a ton of hangups about death, I guess. There were also costumes based on characters from popular entertainment programs, historical figures, and even elaborate jokes. It was all very weird, but it made a kind of sense. The humans came from a world with only one sun, which meant they had as much darkness as light. They lived in a world that developed scientific understanding of the universe relatively late, and was delayed by a few notable collapses of civilization. They had a talent for stories. So they found ways to laugh at the darkness. They practiced scaring themselves so they wouldn’t be afraid.
I fluttered my robe dramatically as I sat down on the fake step and pulled out my instrument. It was a fretted, stringed instrument similar to human ones, but it had multiple resonating chambers and was meant to be played with all six hands. Amy nick-named it the Ultra-Cello, and it kind of stuck, although my music teacher back home would probably have fits if they heard. In deference to the holiday, I had placed a representation of a human skull over the pegbox.
I flourished my arms, waiting for silence, then began to perform an ancient traditional hymn I discovered in my afternoon’s research. I sang out, a voice shouting against the darkness. The crowd cheered in recognition and glee, and sang along with religious enthusiasm.
“I was working in the lab late one night…”

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Cover photo by Derek Hatfield, used under a Creative Commons, Attribution license.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow

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Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow
Published by Konami
Nintendo DS, 2005
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The sequel to 2003’s “Aria of Sorrow,” Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow” was the first installment of the series for the Nintendo DS.  A savvy reader might point out that ‘Dawn’ isn’t the best name for a sequel, but since it appeared in the first year of the system, it was one of many games that glommed on to the ‘DS’ suffix.
The game once again follows teen reincarnation of the Lord of Darkness Soma Cruz to a maze-like castle in which he will again come to terms with and try to overcome his destiny.  When he is confronted by a cult leader searching for the Lord of Darkness, Soma’s power of Dominance unexpectedly returns, forcing him to confront his past life once again.
On the whole, “Dawn of Sorrow” doesn’t bring much new from its GBA predecessors.  The main game puts you back in the shoes of Soma, with the ability to Dominate and use the powers of various monsters to fight and to solve puzzles.  You can also collect extra souls to power up your abilities and weapons, which is nice, but mostly this game is more Aria of Sorrow with prettier graphics.  The game does have a ‘seal’ system, in which bosses have to be sealed away to be beaten.  This involves drawing a symbol on the touch screen after the fight.  It is a bit annoying, forcing players to keep a stylus tucked in their hand during the fight, but hardly the most egregious tacked on touch-screen gimmick of its day.
The game also features a return of the standard Castlevania extras such as unlockable characters and Boss Rush modes.  The extra mode is a real treat in this version, as it allows the player to switch between characters in a fan-service nod to Castlevania III.
The game still holds up relatively well, with well-designed, highly detailed sprites.  The castle feels nice and big, and it isn’t too hard to navigate with plenty of warp and save areas.  The game had a little trouble running in my New 3DS, however.  It would occasionally freeze or glitch, and the system wouldn’t be able to read the game card.  This wasn’t enough of an issue to prevent normal play, however.
“Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow” is an incremental but worthy installment in the Castlevania franchise, and is well worth your time if you’re looking to explore Dracula’s castle this Halloween.  It doesn’t break a lot of ground, but it is a fun and challenging adventure.  You should be able to find a used copy at your local game store.

Thank you for reading this article.  If you enjoyed it, please share it.  You can also follow me on Patreon!  Visit today to check out a free short story for Halloween!