The following is a very flippant, spoilery recap of the events in the first three books. However, it is not a formal synopsis. Those things have all the fun and personality of weekend calculus homework, so I only write them under duress. Which means this little scene will not be a good way to catch up if you haven’t read the first books. You may actually be left more confused by reading this—to the point that it generates false childhood memories or pulls random skills out of your brain in a kind of vortex of negative comprehension. You may lose the ability to recognize grapes, or you may forever have to think really hard about whether the word you want to say is “conscious” or “conscience” and sometimes still get it wrong because they’re both brain things, and that stupid second “n” slips out so easily.
Anyway, these are the risks. But if you have read the first three books, and optionally the short stories, then you should have the necessary mental framework to proceed. Please use this story as a way to remind yourself what the heck is going on up to this point. Then you’ll be all ready for book four, Dawn Razed.
“Checkmate,” Penny said.
Gabe stared down at the board. “I…” He searched for ways to move his king past the barricade of pawns the sprite had constructed, but quickly realized there wasn’t one. “How did you do that?”
Penny shrugged and flicked the king over dramatically. “Nobody pays attention to the little ones.”
“Huh,” Gabe replied. He started picking up the pieces. “Again?”
She shrugged and reached into her bag of chips to pull out an overflowing handful, then began cramming them into her mouth. Gabe imagined her attention for the game would last about as long as the snacks did.
“So anyway,” he said, “all that stuff is just background. My dad was a crappy con artist and a worse father, my mom was a broken alcoholic who ran away right when I needed her, and I was pretty much raised by a combination of television, comic books, and a rotating assortment of small-time criminals and bar personalities. Like an old sitcom, but with none of the fun.”
Penny nodded. “I see it.” The words were barely intelligible past her chewing.
“Thanks,” he said dryly. “But the interesting stuff didn’t start until James sent me into that damn mansion on what was supposed to be an insurance fraud job.” He finished placing the pieces and gestured for her to go first. “Life took a pretty weird turn when I suddenly had a succubus tied to me and a god crammed into my head.”
“Aka Mama,” she said in a singsong tone.
“Manah,” Gabe corrected.
She moved out a pawn. “Oh! And that was the Grundle lady, right? The one who tried to make you into her demon husband and take over the world?”
“Gwendal,” Gabe corrected again. “But yeah, pretty much.” He moved his own pawn out to match hers. “Of course, if it hadn’t been for that whole mess, I never would have met Heather. So it wasn’t all bad.”
“Just mostly,” Penny said, moving another piece.
“Yeah,” he replied. And then that thought made him reach for the bond with Heather, and he could feel she was somewhere at the far end of their complex in the Warrens. Probably in the gym based on the exertion and focus in her. She immediately felt him there too, and sent back a little bump in his mind like a sudden smile. “Maybe more like fifty-fifty,” he admitted.
Penny took a long swig from her soda, then burped triumphantly. “So, miss Heather dragged you through that stuff kicking and screaming, huh? How come it took you so long to believe in us Umbras?”
Gabe studied the board for a minute. “Well, obviously now I wonder that myself. But back then…I don’t know. Maybe I overthink things. Or maybe I’m so jaded that I can’t help but see lies in even the most obvious truths.” He moved out one of his knights. “Either way, I still don’t think it was unreasonable for me to have a few hours of healthy skepticism for the lady trying to convince me she could eat souls.”
Penny slid out another pawn. “But didn’t you have a whole god in your brain by then?”
Gabe moved another piece. “Okay, that part was hard to explain away. But still, strange crap happens all the time without people jumping straight to the conclusion that the devil did it.”
She looked up at him doubtfully.
“Alright, fair point,” he conceded. Then he reached over for his own soda—only to find that it was actually the one Penny was now drinking. He thought about getting up to grab a new one from the fridge, but decided he shouldn’t leave the sprite alone with the board.
“So that whole episode was a disaster,” he went on. “But manageable in the grand scheme. We got rid of Gwendal, got Aka Manah out of my head, and stayed mostly in one piece. Unfortunately, I also lost my house, lost track of that bokor Reznick and Paul the Hound, and landed myself in a whole mess with the Hunters. Also started a war with the Knights of Solomon, and got myself firmly planted on any number of watch lists. Not to mention that a bunch of innocent people died. But other than that…”
“Also Aka Mama took over your dad’s body!” Penny chirped. “Don’t forget that.” She moved out another pawn.
Gabe nodded, trying not show how much that one still stung. “Manah. Yeah.”
“And you got magic!” she continued. “And a bunch of new friends, and a cool ice sword, and so many fun adventures that—”
He held up a hand to stop her. “Right. That stuff too. Though I don’t necessarily agree with the fun part.” He turned his hand to look at the image of the Qi Dragon branded into his palm. “We also met a weird dude named Phillip who turned out to be an agent or manifestation of the Endless Dark, and he…” Gabe waved the thought away. “That’s later. So, after everything happened in Lincoln and I basically lost my whole life, there was some time in a cabin in the Canadian Rockies. That was mostly boring though, getting into better shape and learning the basics about all you wackos.”
Penny grinned proudly.
“And then we eventually fell in with Esme and the Hags to steal the Iglas,” he said, reaching over to slide a bishop out to take one of her pawns. “Though at the time, we thought it was just the one. That’s when we met Mutambe, Dante, Hwei-ru, and…” He paused for a second as the last name tried and failed to slip through without catching on any emotions. “And Lorelei,” he finished softly. “Who is now Heather.”
The sprite glanced over to him with a tinge of worry, as if hearing something of the lingering discomfort in his voice. But then she seemed to dismiss it and moved yet another pawn out to the middle of the board. “And me next?”
Gabe started to jump his knight to take another of her pawns, but realized it was protected from every angle. He slid a rook over one space instead. “You came later. At this point, we were still flailing with where to go next, and we got swept up into the whole end-of-the-world mess. I thought we were headed for a vacation in Europe to learn about my magic and fix my headaches, but instead we wound up parachuting into rural China and fighting a metal lightning dragon that turned out to be a figment of my traitorous imagination.” He snapped his fingers. “Oh, and we met Ken before that too! Totally wrecked his house, stole his priceless rock, and fired a ballista at a golem. Big party. Lots of body parts.”
She screwed up her face in amusement. “You make friends in funny ways.”
“Tell me about it.” He watched her move out another pawn, this time opening up her queen. “The Phillip guy came back around then too,” he said. “Got into my head and started throwing threats around. It turned out he was also manipulating Lorelei the same way, only…more successfully.” He pushed his rook out and took another pawn. It didn’t seem to phase the sprite at all that she was already losing.
“She was your friend too?” Penny asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “For a few days.”
He didn’t bother adding that he felt like he knew Lorelei far better now that Heather was in her body and being subtly shaped by those memories. And that the closer he got to the ghost of who she’d been almost made the grief of her death retroactively worse. He’d finally come to believe that it wasn’t his fault, that he couldn’t have prevented it…but he also knew he hadn’t hesitated for a moment to use Lorelei’s empty body to save Heather. And he didn’t regret it at all. He’d made his choice. It had even been the smart one, probably, but that still didn’t make it a completely comfortable thing to live with.
“That’s about the time when Dante died,” he went on, forcing himself along with the story. “Well, technically. He got resurrected by Reznick, and was a bad guy for a minute. But we worked all that out.”
Penny nodded solemnly. “I’m glad.”
“Me too,” Gabe said.
The sprite held a finger over her queen as if contemplating using it, then moved out one last pawn, leaving behind only the one in front of her king. “I don’t like that Reznick man. He’s mean.”
“Yeah,” Gabe said, moving a pawn out as a sacrifice just to break the wall of hers. “He sure is.”
But Penny ignored the bait and inexplicably moved her king out of hiding instead. “We should kill him sometime.”
Gabe chuckled. “Believe me, I think about it every time I see his stupid face, but…” He glanced over the pieces and tried to figure out what the sprite’s strategy could possibly be, but came up empty. It looked like nothing. So he hopped his other knight out onto the field. “But I’m not an executioner. It’s just not in me. I’ll obviously defend myself and my friends as best as I can—do what I need to do and try not to let it crush me—but I’m not the type of guy who can just murder someone in cold blood. Regardless of how much he may deserve it.”
“Definitely deserves it,” she corrected him, moving her queen across the board to take out his bishop.
He blinked, blindsided that he hadn’t spotted that threat.“Uh, right. Definitely.” Then he sighed. “But not even then. If a fight starts and somebody gets dead, well, I guess that happens. But I can’t kill a guy purely based on my personal definition of right and wrong, because what if I’m wrong about what’s right? I’m not quite so ego-maniacal yet to believe I’m qualified to be the sole arbiter of goodness, no matter how objective I think the truth is. Death is very permanent.” Then he spotted something and smirked before jumping his knight over the line of pawns to threaten her king. “Well, mostly. Check.” He leaned back and crossed his arms, suddenly more confident about everything. “And if fate or the universe or whoever doesn’t like that quality about me, then they can damn well get themselves another hero, because I have fully stopped caring about the opinions of bloodthirsty bystanders watching through the slits of their pristine fingers while my hands get dirty.”
Penny looked up at him then, and the light behind her eyes was suddenly much older—closer to her real purported age of forty-something…or possibly much more. “Okay,” she said, simply. There was no hint of whether she agreed with the philosophy or not, but it did at least feel like she approved of it for him, even if not strictly for herself. That was a severely eerie thing to see play out on her child face. Then she slid a bishop over and took his knight without breaking eye contact.
“Damn,” Gabe said. He hadn’t thought she’d been paying that much attention. So he consoled himself by sliding his rook over and taking another of her pawns. “Anyway, we got the first Igla, obviously, and sent Phillip back to whatever nonexistence he came from—or at least, we thought we did. Then everything more or less went into recovery and planning modes while we figured out what to do next.”
Penny continued staring at him the whole time, but finally broke it off as her regular personality rushed back in. She reached over to drain her soda in one long pull, then used the empty can to start crushing the rest of the chips inside the bag. With her other hand, she moved another piece, seemingly without thought. “Then me?”
“Almost,” he replied. “Next, we landed this place.” He gestured around to the complex, pointing above the walls of the kitchen to the ceiling high above. “After a messy lich eviction. Though it did come fully furnished with those giant obsidian nightmare pillars, so that was a perk. And after that…”
“Me!” she shouted.
“Basically,” he agreed. He moved his queen out to threaten her knight. “We went to Texas and met our very good friend Penny so she could help us fight an armada of Knights and a whole freaking kraken.”
She giggled and tossed the can aside to free both hands so she could lift the bag of broken chips and dump all of it into her mouth. She shook the bag hard to make sure nothing was left behind, then dropped it to the table and forced her lips closed to start chewing. “Mmoohommnthmmum?” she said, the inflection at the end making it sound like a question.
Gabe stared at her for a moment, then shook his head and took a guess at an answer. “I mean, you pretty much know the rest after that. We found and fought more of those Phillip things, which seemed to be bad copies of the real guy. Then we had to go searching for the rest of the Iglas, all while running away from, and then directly toward, the Templars. And the Knights of Solomon. And the assorted monsters in the Maerrywell Clan. And a whole bunch of stupid elves—none of whom apparently thought for even a second that it might be possible we should all be on the same goddamned side!”
The sprite raised two fingers to stop him and hummed something else indecipherable.
“And yes,” Gabe said, taking a breath to relax himself a bit. “I also got kidnapped twice in a row. Once by that freaky Bastian elf and his Twenty Brother army who wanted to take me to their Queen, and then by the Hunters, who wanted to make me either dead, or their new best friend, or their righteous angel of death. It weirdly felt like all three at once, and I still don’t really know.” He reached out to move a piece, then realized she hadn’t taken her turn yet. “Though officially it was more like one voluntary surrender and one full kidnapping. I do occasionally have some agency in my life.”
She nodded along, almost indulgently. Then he watched her bring a bishop clear across the board, through a hole he’d created, to pin his king in what was very clearly a checkmate. He had to look at it for several beats to believe it. He could have sworn that opening wasn’t there.
“Hnkmhayt,” she said.
“Wha…” He put a hand to the back of his neck. “How?”
Penny shrugged delightedly and finally managed to swallow. “Don’t know!” she said, chip crumbs lining her mouth. “I just move the little people. Maybe you’re thinking too hard?”
Gabe studied the board again, still looking for a way out that he knew wasn’t there. “Clearly,” he said.
She stood and gathered up her trash, then took it all over to the silver can in the corner. Ken had picked that out, as he had most things in the place, so it beeped and opened automatically when she stepped up to it. “I know all the rest!” she said. “Next, we fought a whole army of Templars and elves who wanted to kill you for the good of the universe because they were dumbos, and your big evil dad god helped us with his mean friends who were nice for a while but not really. There were portals, and magic battles, and whoosh! And CRASH!” She spun in place, then dropped the trash into the can with a dramatic flourish. “And then you and miss Heather beat up a bunch of giant monsters and a spider shadow guy, and I got my skeleton cat who is the beautifulest, and I almost died, which was scary, but you and Dante saved me, and James was there too with guns and stuff, and you saved your mom, and then there was a big boat, but first you went into the Veil where—”
Gabe held up a hand again to stop her. “Okay, yeah. You got it. You’re all caught up now.” He gestured to the board. “And I think I’m ready for a break from getting beaten anyway. The gist is that I’m trapped here, partly by who I am, and partly by who people think I am. Which might be the same thing, depending on the perspective. Hopefully that explained some of it for you.”
Penny grinned and clapped, then her face fell in confusion. “Explain what?”
Gabe couldn’t help but chuckle at how quickly her brain flitted from thought to thought. “You asked why I was here. Remember?”
She stared back at him for a beat, then finally seemed to understand. “Oh no, silly! I meant here. In this chair. I spilled so much hot cocoa in it earlier.” She circled her arms as if holding a wobbling bucket, then grinned again and spun on her heels. “Good talk though!” She sprinted from the room.
Gabe sat there for a moment, then slowly reached back to feel the dampness on his pants. He grimaced and rose to find the wide circle of wetness that had seeped up out of the cushion, and even spotted a lone marshmallow still wedged in the back crevice.
He frowned and nodded, staring at the chair and the chess board, and wondering how he’d been embarrassed so badly from both sides. Then finally he sighed and moved for the door, picking up the pace as he went. He would almost certainly run into one or more of his friends on the way back to his room, and he decided a confident strut was the best thing for it. When you quite clearly did not have your shit together—either in life or in your pants—the very least you could do was act like it was intentional.
There we go. I hope that helped rattle your memory a little. And if not, well, at least it was free!
Stay tuned for the release of Book 4, Dawn Razed.