Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Augmented Reality Explained

It feels like every week some new technology bounds into our lives like a big dog and licks our faces.  Which is fun until it's ten dogs, or twenty.  So when I heard about Augmented Reality, I thought, "What the heck is that? I have enough trouble dealing with Regular Reality."

Augmented Reality is an electronically-generated layer of information over physical objects.  A better explanation is this 30 second video of Legos.  You hold up the box and the computer shows you a picture of what the object will look like when it's built.

(Here's the link if the video doesn't work.)

Most Augmented Reality uses smart phones like the iPhone and Droid paired with a software application, but a laptop computer with a webcam can also work.  You might aim your phone at a movie poster and a preview will run on your phone's screen.  Or aim it at a house that's for sale and see information about when it was built, how many rooms it has, and the asking price.  Or aim at a restaurant and see their menu and prices.  There are many possibilities.

A lot of articles I've read predict AR will move from your phone to a set of glasses with a heads-up display like a fighter pilot uses.  And eventually, contact lens may replace the glasses, or at least provide a less bulky option. 

I think the real hurdle for AR right now is simply introducing people to the idea and helping them understand it.  The key will be to make it useful in their daily lives.

So the next time you see someone aiming their smart phone at a building, they may not be taking a picture.  They may be reading the menu.

(Here's a helpful video that demonstrates different uses of AR.  And a great explanation from commoncraft.com)

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

Here in the United States, the last Monday in May is set aside for Memorial Day to honor those who died in our wars.  So please take a moment and think about your family, friends and all the rest who served their country in war and say a prayer for them.

(I found the excellent photograph at http://starcraftcouple.blogspot.com/)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Comment controls

On the advice of more experienced bloggers, I've instituted the Comment Moderation controls to keep out spam.  Leaving comments should remain an easy process that can be as open or anonymous as you'd like. 

I will try to check for comments every day, but there will be a slight delay before your comments appear.  Sorry for that, but I'd rather you all didn't have to wade through any spam on this site.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Practice and Persistence Makes Very Good

Today let's set aside the science and technology and think about art.  Ever see pictures like the one above of ancient Roman ruins with small figures in 1700s-style clothes crawling around on the stone blocks?

The picture you saw was probably an etching by Italian artist and architect Giovanni Piranesi (1720-1778).  Born the son of a stonemason in Venice, his family recognized early that Piranesi had artistic talent.  He studied with his uncle, an architectural engineer, and learned the basics of construction.  Then at age 20, Piranesi went to Rome as a draftsman for the Venetian ambassador.  While there, he learned the art of etching on copper plates.

However, Piranesi was unable to find steady work as an architect.  The Roman ruins all around him inspired Piranesi to drew a series of imaginary buildings, which he released as a book, but it didn't sell.  He returned to Venice and worked for a local studio, then went back to Rome in 1745, where he acted as a seller and agent for other artists and their works.  This must have been difficult, considering he couldn't sell his own art.

Despite these setbacks, Piranesi persisted.  And equally important, he didn't rely on his innate talent--he practiced constantly.

He drew 16 imaginary prisons, that strangely sold well, probably due to their sheer imagination and menace.  But it was when Piranesi began to draw the ruins of ancient Rome that he found his muse.  During the Dark Ages, the shrinking population of Rome had looted the stone blocks of earlier buildings for construction, which made it hard for artists to envision the buildings 700 years later.  However, Piranesi used his background in engineering to understand the ancient structures.  The project took him a decade, but his Views of Rome was hugely successful.

Piranesi's art inspired people throughout Europe and around the world, including the Americas.  With the help of his etchings and written works, people formed an appreciation of the architecture of the ancient world, an influence that is seen to this day in our public buildings.

(Sources:  Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, Gardner's Art Through the Ages, and YourDictionary.com, pic from www2.siba.fi)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Redbox followup

Alert reader Tony wrote, "I don't have cable, but I do have Internet, Netflix streaming, and Hulu Plus. The only Netflix DVDs I get are ones that aren't available on streaming. Its cheaper and more convenient than HD cable and a DVR."

Back in the day when cable arrived, it was a big jump from antenna.  But in most areas, cable companies had a monopoly and viewers didn't have choices.  What Tony described above is a great example of someone building their own service based on what they watch.

For the sports junkies, HD sports may be a must.  Others watch more TV shows, while some folks watch mostly movies.  These days you have more control and the ability to customize, and that's cool.

Thanks for the comment, Tony! 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Fusion. Some like it hot.


Sometimes when we see the news, it's all bad--wars, revolutions, terrorism, natural disasters, disease, corruption.  Seems like everyone is bent on killing and robbing each other.  So when I read about something positive, I like to share it.

I'm racing through Michio Kaku's book PHYSICS OF THE FUTURE, and learning new things in every chapter.  In the chapter on the future of energy, Kaku writes about visiting the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and how the building housing the experiment is as wide as three football fields and ten stories tall. 

The NIF fires 192 lasers at a tiny pellet of deuterium and tritium in the hope of achieving a controlled thermonuclear burn with an energy gain.  In other words, they want to produce more energy than it took to ignite the pellet to begin with.

Why is this important? Our current nuclear power plants use fission, not fusion.  And fission produces tons of radioactive waste that must be stored and stays dangerous for many years.  Fusion works by fusing hydrogen atoms, which releases energy but doesn't produce nearly as much waste.  And a fusion plant cannot melt down because it can't have a runaway chain reaction.

If we can figure out fusion and build reliable fusion plants, we can solve many of our energy problems.  Seawater could be used as fuel, and the energy produced is staggering.  Kaku points out that an "8-ounce glass of water is equal to the energy content of 500,000 barrels of petroleum."

This is science on a grand scale.  Giant facilities.  Thousands of workers.  Huge freaking lasers.  Like something Jack Kirby drew in the comics from the 1960s.  But the best thing is the idea that a lot of smart, hard working people are trying to do something positive.  Something that may help solve the energy problems of billions of people, including you and me.

(The picture above is the installation of the targeting chamber, which looks like a junior Death Star.  It is from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  Check out the NIF site here for more pictures and articles.)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Thank you!

This blog is a learning process, and at times a humbling one.  Yesterday I learned to check my statistics on Google, and realized that in two months, chimpwithpencil has had 452 page views.  The site is averaging 10 page views per day, with folks visiting from the US, Russia, Hong Kong, Greece, the Philippines and many more countries.  These stats really motivate me.

Thank you for reading!

I hope you'll continue to visit and if you read an article you enjoy, please tell your friends.

Sincerely,
Mark

Monday, May 23, 2011

e-readers and the environment



Many of you out there like to read, whether it's nonfiction or fiction, whether it's online or in paper.  And more and more, you read on e-readers.

People read on the Kindle, Nook, Sony, iPad, iPhone, Droid, Kobo, Diesel, and gosh knows what else.  This weekend I read Liberty Media offered a billion dollars to buy the Barnes & Noble book chain, simply to get its hands on their popular Nook e-reader.  And Amazon says that on their site, ebooks now outsell hardbacks and paperbacks combined.  Combined.  That's amazing.

But something my friend Lynn said months ago cropped up in my brain.  He was kidding me about writing with pencils and paper, then he chuckled and said his laptop computer probably used far more energy than making the paper I used did.

E-readers are neat, and I love how people can download books instantly.  And I imagine we're saving millions of trees by not committing these same books to paper.  Yet the energy to charge the e-readers has to come from somewhere.  When we plug them in, we're using oil or coal or natural gas from the electrical grid to energize these devices.

I honestly don't know which is better for the environment--paper books or ebooks.  And I can't claim to be without some bias here, because I release my stories in electronic format. 

I suspect that the process of cutting down trees, making paper, printing, storing physical books, and shipping them by truck to stores uses a great deal more energy than maintaining the vast farms of servers that hold ebooks and the Internet that enables their downloads, but I may be wrong.

But it's something we should consider as we embrace these new devices.

Friday, May 20, 2011

It's not a Tardis, it's a Redbox

So Blockbuster is closed and I don't use Netflix because I don't watch enough movies to justify the monthly fee.  Then Redbox installed a kiosk nearby.  You stop at the box, go through the menu via touchscreen, pick a movie, zip your credit card and you're gone.  It's one dollar per day to rent.  Sweet deal.

I stopped one night on the way home and tried to rent Tron, and then Inception.  They were both out, so I ended up with a martial arts flick.

Took the movie back the next day and thought, "This is perfect for me.  No signing up for a service, and I'm only charged when I use it."  But I went on to think about the Redbox business model, especially since Blockbuster went the way of the dinosaurs.

More and more content is now available over your Internet connection.  Netflix members can watch movies on their monitors.  And cable companies like Comcast and Knology offer the On Demand service where you can watch free reruns of your favorite TV shows or pay to watch the latest movies.  Where does this leave Redbox?

According to their website, Redbox has 26,000 locations and is in all 50 US states.  But does offering physical DVDs make sense anymore? Certainly there are people who do not have computers or computers with fast connections, but how many people in the US don't have cable television?

Books, movies, and music are all data.  Data that can be placed in electronic packages and sent around the world.  I don't understand how a business model based on physical DVDs can hope to survive.  Perhaps they only plan to exist for 5 or 10 years, make as much profit as they can, and then fold.  I don't know.  But it's hard to think that people smart enough to build a chain of 26,000 locations don't see the digital flood all around them.

I'd better hurry up and rent Tron.

(Pic from pulse2.com.  Info from www.redbox.com)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Vampires versus Raccoons





Sometimes reading two books at the same type can spark a crossover thought.  I'm reading F. Paul Wilson's classic horror THE KEEP about a mysterious creature murdering German soldiers in 1940s Romania.  And I just finished another thriller where a key part of the mystery involved a character with rabies.

The character in the thriller suffered fever, sore throat and anxiety, which eventually ramped up to hallucinations, broken sleep cycles, fear of water, hypersexuality, aggression, and hypersalivation.  The author also had a scene where the investigators find a copy of Bram Stoker's DRACULA in the character's apartment.  And I thought, "Wow, rabies does seem a lot like vampirism.  Or rather, vampirism seems a lot like rabies."

A quick visit to the Internet revealed that others made this connection years ago.  Personally, I've never been all that fascinated with vampires, but many people are.  I am more interested in rabies, which is scarier than any vampire, especially the glittery kind.  If a person who is bitten is treated soon after, they won't develop rabies.  But if untreated, once rabies reaches the point where symptoms develop, it's almost always fatal.  And the incubation period is odd--anywhere from several days to more than a year, with the norm of two to three months.

People have been aware of this danger for a long time.  The Codex of Eshnunna dating to 1930 BC in ancient Ur mentions the disease.  The Sanskrit word 'rabhas' means 'to do violence.'  And our modern word derives from the Latin 'rabere' or 'madness.'  A rabies epidemic moved through Europe in the 1700s, with a particularly bad outbreak in Hungary from 1721-1728 where dogs and wolves bit people.  This may explain a lot of the vampire folklore from that area and time.

So the chances of a cute vampire biting you are slim, but if a dog or a raccoon or any other animal bites you, go to the hospital.  Don't be one of the 55,000 people around the world who die from rabies each year.

(Research for this article came from webmd, wikipedia and this BBC article.)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Cool new cover

Thanks to graphic designer Tony Felty Jr., my novel HIRED GUNS has a very cool new cover.

Good job, Tony!

Heard any good music lately?

You know when you pull up to a stoplight and the car next to you has the windows open and some middle-aged dude is singing along to Van Halen's "Panama"?

I'm that guy.

Most of us think they stopped making music the year we graduated.  At a certain point in your life, you realize you don't have any friends who are in bands.  And instead of buying music, you're buying more important stuff.  Like food.  Health insurance.  Shoes for your kids.

I thought rock stopped when Rush released 'Grace Under Pressure.'  Didn't rap end when Ice T and LL Cool J turned into actors? What happened to punk after The Clash? Or alternative after Nirvana? Did U2 keep making records after 'Joshua Tree'?

People are still making music.  Not necessarily the people you listened to when young, but others have stepped forward to take their place.  But how do you find them? Radio is no help.  If you turn off your 80s station and try something else, the DJs don't tell who the band is or the name of the song.  A computer just loads the next commercial.  And don't bother with anything that got recognized on one of the numerous music award shows.  It'll be crap.

No, take yourself to the Internet.  My buddy Chris told me about Pandora a few years ago--a free over-the-net music service that actually learns what you like, lets you set up your own stations, and lists the band, the song title and album.  I've discovered a lot of good new music this way.  Or you can use the net to listen to radio stations from different places, or hit some music review sites, or download free samples from your vendor of choice.  Heck, hit YouTube for videos and be the first to discover some unknown guitar hero.

When you find some bands you like, support their efforts by buying their music.  Music downloads are cheap and easy now, so there's really no excuse to pirate.

So find yourself some new tunes, then roll those windows down and sing along.

I'll be in the car next to you singing Gnarls Barkley.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Dr. Frankenstein and Agent Smith build you a vacuum cleaner

Artificial intelligence is interesting, and important in the sense that we need to be ready when the robots try to take over.  This is assuming we humans haven't already fallen to a zombie apocalypse.

I've been reading Michio Kaku's new book PHYSICS OF THE FUTURE and Chapter 2 covers the future of AI.  Kaku writes about a trip he took to see the Dawn computer at Lawrence Livermore.  Dawn is used to simulate brains.  In 2009, Dawn simulated .01 of a human's cerebral cortex, which has about 1.6 billion neurons making 9 trillion connections.  For comparison, our whole brain has 100 billion neurons and a lot more connections.

This is cool, except for the problem that Dawn needs 1 million watts of power.  To model a whole brain, it would need the total output of a nuclear power plant.  For one computer to simulate one human brain.

In contrast, the brain in your head uses 20 watts of power.  And it's faster than Dawn.

So when I look at the future of AI, I don't know if hardware will be the answer.  Current robots that are truly independent can't do much.  People get confused because they see the Predator drones flying around, but those are piloted by a person with a joystick and a fast, 20 watt brain.  Modern independent robots are about as smart as a roach. 

To reach the level of something like a cat, or a monkey, I think it's possible scientists may try to use real brains.  After all, it's cheaper to use a cat brain to pilot your robot vacuum cleaner, and the energy cost is far lower.

It's possible some whacko will grow a human brain and then stick it in a robot as a cheap wetware alternative to hardware.  I don't want to be anywhere near that robot when it gets loose.

I'm kidding about some of this, of course, but take a minute and think about the wonderful device at the top of your spine.  The human brain is an amazing thing.

Now let's go shoot some zombies!

(brain pic from brainhealthandpuzzles.com.  Actual facts from http://www.physicsofthefuture.com/.  Ideas from my twisted imagination.)

(If you liked this article, please support my writing by purchasing one of my novels.  Thank you!)

Thursday, May 12, 2011

System of a down...the system is down...what?

I'm making a few changes to the descriptions of my stories on Amazon, so various works may not be available for a day or so as the changes go into effect.  Thanks for being patient.

In other news, the editor of BeatToAPulp emailed me that he will be publishing another one of my crime stories.  Very good news.  Because they schedule way ahead, the story won't be out until October, but in the meantime, you can enjoy plenty of other hard boiled stories there.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The future is cloudy


A lot of tech news this morning.  Microsoft is buying Skype for 8.5 billion gil.  (That might have cool repercussions for the Xbox.)  And Google is offering a new cloud-based music service, movie rentals for Droid, and a home help service where you can control your dishwasher with your Droid phone. 

The AP story I read said to think of the music service as "the Internet service Pandora, but based on your own music collection."  I love Pandora, so this caught my attention, but I had two thoughts.  What is cloud computing? And where the heck is my cassette version of Rush's Chronicles?

After reading and watching some videos, I came to the conclusion that cloud computing is about storage.  Rather than storing all your movies, games, music, pics, etc. on your computer's hard drive, you can rent storage from a company who will keep and protect your stuff, and in turn, you can access it from anywhere there's an Internet connection.  Good for businesses, and maybe for individuals, too.

Just like when you go to a storage unit rental place, you don't have to buy the whole business.  You just rent as many units as you need.  And you don't need to work at the rental place, since they have their own people at the front desk and on security.  You don't even need to know how the business works, as long as you can show up at any time and retrieve your junk.

My second thought was how will Google handle your music storage? The AP article indicated users could upload 20,000 songs.  Wow.  Lotta upload.  Is it necessary for everyone in the world to upload their version of "Tom Sawyer"? It seems a billion versions of the same four minute, 33 second song would take a long time to upload, plus the storage space. 

What if there was only one copy for each "Tom Sawyer" made? So a copy from the original album, plus one from each concert that's available.  These would take up a lot less space, and perhaps upload could be simplified to some sort of authenticated number, rather than the whole song.  The tricky part might be when a million people try to listen to it at the same time, but hey, millions of people watch the same movies or TV shows or Pay-per-view sports at the same time.  I think it's possible.

But cloudy the future is.

(The pic is from Freefoto.com.  If you want to freak yourself out, there's an Intel video here called Intel Cloud 2015 Vision that reminded me of Skynet from the Terminator movies.  Also, bonus points if you can name what album "Tom Sawyer" first appeared on without looking it up.  Let's see some answers on the Comments.)


Monday, May 9, 2011

Free Comic Book Day 2011

Saturday, 7 May, was free comic book day, so I hurried down to my local comic shop.  It was crowded, but crowded in a friendly way.  The type crowd where you see friends introducing their kids to comics, and the artists wave and call you by name.  Standing by the spinner racks, I looked around and thought about how you read a comic alone, but you really don't.

When an author writes a novel, it's only assembled.  It doesn't come alive until someone reads it, and author and reader together create a shared world.  And so it is with comics.  But unlike a novel, a comic will have a writer, artist, inker, colorist, letterer, several editors and a creator.  It is more of a team effort.

And that last item on the list is of special interest--the creator.  In comics, a character may live long after their creator is dead.  For example, Bob Kane and Bill Finger created Batman in 1939 for Detective Comics issue #27.  Detective Comics is now on issue #876 and Bob and Bill are writing comics in Heaven.

For any non-comic reader out there who may think comics are a shallow medium, imagine a novel with 876 chapters.  Try to picture the depth of character development that length of time allows.  Months, years, decades of development that reflect the attitudes and often the fears of the society around it.  Writers, artists and editors who come and go, each adding something to the overall mythos of the character.

So by the time you sit down to read #876 here in 2011, you will be benefiting from the work of a host of people over a 72-year period.  And that's pretty amazing.

(For more info, check out Wikipedia entries on Bob and Bill.  The excellent cover above is by Tony S. Daniel.)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Ant lion or Myrmeleontidae

Odd how things trigger a memory.  Working in the yard last week, I saw two dozen small depressions in the sand--odd inverted cone shapes, perfectly dug.  A sight I haven't seen, or perhaps not paid attention to, in over 30 years.

The sight took me back to the long summer days of childhood, where everything was new and worth studying, whether it was tadpoles in a ditch, or mysterious pits in the ground.  For at the bottom of these pits lay the deadly ant lion.  And if an ant wandered into the pit and slid to the bottom, the ant lion would erupt up from its hiding place, seize the ant in its jaws, and eat it.

I used to fish for ant lions with a bit of pine straw.  Pull them up, examine them, and then drop them back into their carefully dug homes/traps.  An ant lion is not a pretty bug.  It's a homely sort of thing, and doesn't appear quick or nimble.  It's an ambush predator that relays on camouflage and concealment and it preys on very tough critters like fire ants.

Today I learned that people call them doodlebugs because they leave tracks in the sand that look like random drawings.  The interesting thing is that the creature at the bottom of the pit is only the larva form.  Eventually, this ferocious ambush bug will transform into a long-winged flyer and resemble a dragonfly.  From hiding in the dark ground, it will emerge to soar in the air.  Imagine if monkeys changed into birds!

There are many wonders in the world, and some are in our back yards.

(Edgar Allan Poe wrote about ant lions in one of his stories.  And Charles Darwin mentions them in his work.  I found the cool illustration here.  And a great resource for everything ant lion here.  Thanks to both these sites.)

(If you liked this article, please support my writing by purchasing one of my novels.  Thank you!)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Doorways to Nowhere: The Conclusion

* * *
With one eye on the window next to me, I prepare.  My left boot won't slide on no matter how hard I tug, so I fold it in half.  When I try to tuck it in my satchel, the caltrops I collected spill out.  Nine muddy, crude chunks of iron.

Small weapons, but weapons.

I tear a sleeve off my shirt and tie a knot at one end.  Drop the caltrops in the sleeve, tie a knot beneath them, then a third knot at the sleeve cuff.  Carefully push the wet wool around the ball of caltrops until the barbs poke through.  Now I have a mace of sorts.

Sling my shield over my arms to protect my chest, then pin what's left of my cloak over it.  As long as I keep my enemies in front of me, I'll be fine.

When the rain relents to a drizzle, I limp down from my tower.  Turn and check the steps above to make certain I'm not leaving bloody tracks behind.

The cold, wet ground stuns my bare foot and I hiss.  But if I keep to the stones, they won't find my trail.  I circle through the scramble of broken stone walls and pillars and steps until the wind blows into my face.

Settle for a moment and check my foot.  Mud clots the wound, stanching the flow of blood.

A wind gust brings a scent.  At last in this dead world, something with a smell.  The hint of wood smoke.  There is nothing here to burn.  But there were fireplaces and torches back in the castle, where the yellow mantles ambushed me.  They brought the scent with them.

I smile.  Slip forward.

Follow the smell to a ramp.

Another ramp that descends into the dark soil.  Perhaps even the same I escaped from before.  At the bottom of the slope, one yellow mantle stands guard, crossbow ready.  Across the circular pool, the second man uses a thick piece of chalk to mark the rear wall.

As I watch, he draws an arch--a door.  Then he places something small next to the wall and kneels.  I see his hands move, but I can't hear him speaking.

He is opening a door.

I'd planned to charge them berserker style.  Risk a crossbow bolt in exchange for close combat with my makeshift mace.  But now that plan must change.

I search the ground for small stones.  Pick through several until I find one that is perfect.  Smooth and heavy.

Move to flank them.  Circle around the ramp and its roof, limping fast.

He may complete the spell any moment.  They will step through the door and when it closes behind them I will be trapped on this dead world until I starve or cut my own throat.

Down on my hands and knees, and crawl like a serpent through the mud.  I slither across the roof above the ramp and peek over the edge.  The crossbowmen stands several yards up the ramp with his back to me.  I can't see the spellcaster, but a blue glow seeps past the roof edge beneath me.

I lean out and toss the stone into the pond.

Flinch back out of sight.

Splash.

I hear the guard's boots rub the ramp as he spins.  Don't these acolytes ever speak?

I don't breath.  Try to melt into the mud on the roof.

Wait.  Look.

The blue glow strengthens, lighting the ramp beneath me.  I hear water flowing.  One of the men laughs, but it turns into a scream.  Huge tentacles, thick as a pig, snake out from the pool and grab the crossbowmen.  One tentacle slams him into the wall.

Brains spray across the wet stones.

My chance.

I roll off the roof and drop into the ramp.

Fall to one knee when I land, but spring up.

The second acolyte turns.

He has a glowing blue stone in his hand.  Behind him, there is a gap in the wall.  And through the gap a forest, a living forest beneath a bright sun.

I swing the mace.  The spikes tear his face open.  He falls.  A tentacle whips past my shoulder.  Duck.  Smash the fallen acolyte again.  Pry the blue stone from his fingers and dash toward the wall.

Leap.

A moment of bewilderment.  Darkness.  Stomach in my mouth.  Then I roll over on my back.  See a warm sun in the sky above me.

Something touches my leg and I flinch.  A yard of green tentacle, severed neatly by the closing door.  It writhes, brainless but half alive.  I kick it aside with my bare foot and rise.

The End

(Thanks for reading.  I hope you enjoyed this story.)

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Doorways to Nowhere, Part 2

* * *
Color catches my eye.  A flutter of yellow cloth, then the rain again.

I crouch behind a broken wall jagged as a giant's teeth.  Knife in my left hand.  A stone in my right.

It might be an old pennon, left from some forgotten war.

Spy another flash of yellow at an open window a spear's throw away.

It must be one of his minions.  They are lesser than he and they wear yellow mantles just as his is orange.

I do not know the extent of their powers, or the arms they carry.  Several in the castle had crossbows and I'm tempted to ready my shield.  It hangs on my back underneath my cloak, blocking some of the wind and rain.

If I need to run the shield on my arm will slow me.  I leave it beneath my cloak.

When you've spent your life in the forest, moving quietly through the sodden streets of a dead city is easy.  I flank the building until I spot the hood of the yellow mantle peaking over the rim of a wall.  The mantle moves and I duck, then creep forward.

The rain comes down hard again.  I take a deep breath, then dart through a gap in the wall.  Cast the stone, then lunge forward to finish him with the knife.  Stone strikes stone and a pile of rocks spill over, dragging the yellow mantle into the mud.

It's a ruse.

Something tugs at my cloak.  A crossbow bolt stabs the ground.  Violet syrup drips from the bolt head.  Poison.

I spin and the minion is in clear sight, one foot in the stirrup of the crossbow, rushing to reset the string.

Must retreat and flank.

I leap the wall to put some stone between me and his next bolt.  My right boot strikes something and my ankle turns.  Ignore the pain and run.  There is a second low wall ahead of me.  I hurdle it.  Cold pain shoots through my hand, foot and knee.  Roll over on my back and see a four-pointed iron caltrop sticking out of my right palm.

He sowed my escape route with caltrops.

I pull another caltrop from my knee, and a third from my boot.  Peek over the wall, see him and throw the bloody caltrop at his face.

He ducks.  Levels the crossbow.

I crouch and wait.

He laughs.  The sound is high and weird and foreign, and it has no force in this doomed place.  He leans around the wall, three steps from me.  The crossbow comes up.  He squeezes the lever.

The catgut string snaps.

Misfire.

I lunge.

He leaps back.

I reach for his throat.

Feel a hard blow to my back, the wind knocked from my lungs as I fall.  The acolyte turns and flees, the broken bow held close as he scrambles through the rubble.

Someone shot me from behind.  Another yellow mantle.

There are two minions and one fool in this world.

Cursing, I crawl through the small field of caltrops, gathering them as I go.  Drop them into my pouch, slither around a corner and slip up a steep ramp into the remains of a tower.  Squat beneath a window, push my cloak aside and bring my shield around.  The bolt protrudes just above the brass boss in the middle of the sturdy shield.  Some of the same venomous slime coats this bolt, so rather than break it off with my hand, I use a stone to snap it.  Use handfuls of rainwater from a puddle to wash the shield clean.

My boot gets tighter as my ankle swells.  If I remove the boot, I may not get it back on, but cutting it off would be worse.  I tug the boot off.  My ankle is swollen fat.  The cut on my other foot and my knee are minor, but my hand bleeds.  I cut a strip of my cloak off and bind it.  I'm lucky he didn't have time to tip the caltrops with the same poison as the bolts.

An old sergeant once advised me to count the other side before the brawl starts.

They are two to my one.  They have crossbows.  I have a knife.  They have magics.  I have none.  They are determined.  I am desperate.

Desperate men go beserker, kill the nearest five enemies, then drop dead of their wounds.  Another bit of wisdom from my old tutor.

Hmm.  Beserker.
* * *

(Watch for the exciting conclusion.  Coming soon!)