Posts Tagged ‘Barry J Northern’


Episode 186: Staff Pick 2015 – A School Story by M. R. James

Show Notes

Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge our batteries, plan the year ahead, and highlight some of our favourite episodes. As part of joining the Escape Artists family, this year we’re pulling out all the stops. We’re running 10 staff pick episodes over the month, each one hosted by a different member of the Cast of Wonders crew.

We hope you enjoy artist and founder Barry J. Northern’s favorite story from 2015, A School Story by M. R. James and narrated by Alasdair Stuart. The story originally aired August 2, 2015 as Episode 172.


by M.R. James


Two men in a smoking-room were talking of their private-school days. “At our school,” said A., “we had a ghost’s footmark on the staircase. What was it like? Oh, very unconvincing. Just the shape of a shoe, with a square toe, if I remember right. The staircase was a stone one. I never heard any story about the thing. That seems odd, when you come to think of it. Why didn’t somebody invent one, I wonder?” 

     “You never can tell with little boys. They have a mythology of their own. There’s a subject for you, by the way–‘The Folklore of Private Schools.'” 

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Cast of Wonders 152: Staff Pick 2014 – Captain Cleveland Grackle’s Galactic Cabaret vs. The Goblins of Vishnu 6 by Jamieson Ridenhour

Show Notes

Every year in January Cast of Wonders takes a break to catch our breath, plan out the year ahead, and highlight some of our favourite episodes from the year just passed.

We hope you enjoy Barry’s favorite story from 2014, Captain Cleveland Grackle’s Galactic Cabaret vs. The Goblins of Vishnu 6 by Jamieson Ridenhour, which originally aired November 17, 2013 as Episode 104.

Captain Cleveland Grackle’s Galactic Cabaret vs.
The Goblins of Vishnu 6

By Jamieson Ridenhour

Load-in is always a bitch on a gas giant gig, but the moisture off the methane sea on Vamana really played havoc with my drum heads. The city, Upendra, was a big, domed thing with old-school terra-forming and flora-powered atmos that amounted to a human-made jungle in the midst of the rocky moon. We were playing the Municipal Amphitheatre, a screamingly Corporate name that was typically boring and grandiose all at once. That we got booked at all is probably due more to the backwater status of Vishnu 6’s fifth moon than any real thought about whether we’d be a good fit—we were a hell of a lot cheaper than the big CorpMuses who played closer to Earth.

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Cast of Wonders 142: Marrow by Mav Skye


By Mav Skye


I have eyes but do not see.

I have ears but do not hear

I have a nose but I cannot smell

My mouth wears a stitched frown…

And if I get close, I suck bones out your crown.


What am I?


A gaggle of teens stalk sugar on All Hallow’s Eve. It’s a beaut of a night and we’ve got ourselves a whole crowd of ghouls. Why there’s Frankenstein and Vampire, Werewolf and Gorilla, also Kitty, Witch, and Dorothy carrying a live Toto in a basket. Toto yaps and all the kids laugh. They’re high on sugar as the moon is full. Werewolf howls, and the girls giggle. They’re carrying pillowcases overflowing with candy, pitching rocks at Mr. and Mrs. Vandyke’s cornfield. The cornstalks are picked clean as bones. And the dry, leathery sound they make when the wind blows is eerie enough to scare the nuts off a squirrel.

(Continue Reading…)

Metacast 2: State of the Union 2013

Listen above or download here.

Show Notes

Hello everyone! This is your editor, Marguerite Kenner.

Every year, one of my favorite game companies publishes a Stakeholders Report. As Steve puts it, while the company only has one shareholder, lots of people have a stake in its success and so he writes them an annual report about how well the company has done, what projects it tackled, and its plans for the future.

But we’re a podcast. Rather than writing you a long blog post, I’m taking a tradition from my American homeland. Welcome to Cast of Wonder’s first State of the Union address for 2013.

Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at

Camp Myth: Phoenix Watching – Chapter 9

By Chris Lewis Carter

Listen above or download here.

Show Notes

Welcome back, campers! Ready for Chapter 9?

Last week Felix met Loam the golem, and took a tour of Camp Myth.

Tonight’s a big night for the campers, let’s get started. Now where were we. Ah yes…

This week’s camper spotlight is Ox, the Warmhearted Warrior.

Felix says “Ox is, without a doubt, the toughest Minotaur wearing a Camp Myth sash, but he also has a baby snowy owl, Olot, that never leaves his side. Yesterday, an Ogre thought that it would be a good idea to steal the bird for an afternoon snack. About three seconds later, Ox made sure that the Ogre’s next meal would have to fit through a straw. I guess Minotaurs can have a soft side after all.”

Ox was invented by Roger Sellars. You can find the picture of him on the Camp Myth webpage.

Camp Myth: Phoenix Watching is a Cast of Wonders production brought to you by Wolfsbane Publishing. It features the voice talents of Kate Baker, Adam Black, Tina Connolly, Graeme Dunlop, Christiana Ellis, Marguerite Kenner, Alethea Kontis, Alasdair Stuart, Ian Stuart, and Barry J. Northern. You can learn more about the world of Camp Myth at our website,

The Camp Myth theme music, “August”, is by Cast of Wonders’ favorite musical artist Alexye Nov, at

Camp Myth: Phoenix Watching – Chapter 7

By Chris Lewis Carter

Listen above or download here.

Show Notes

Welcome back, campers! Ready for Chapter 7?

Last week Felix made it safely back aboard, thanks to Lil’s dryad magic and the dramatic appearance of Moxie the Kitsune.

Still listening campers? Good, now where were we. Ah yes…

This week’s camper spotlight is Mayumi, the High Flying Vulpine.

Felix says “Mayumi the Kitsune came all the way from Tokyo to attend Camp Myth! I found her hanging around the Golem Statuary, which she enjoys because they remind her of the sculptures and stone carvings found in her native homeland.”

Mayumi was invented by Trudy Goold. You can find the picture of her on the Camp Myth webpage.

Camp Myth: Phoenix Watching is a Cast of Wonders production brought to you by Wolfsbane Publishing. It features the voice talents of Kate Baker, Adam Black, Tina Connolly, Graeme Dunlop, Christiana Ellis, Marguerite Kenner, Alethea Kontis, Alasdair Stuart, Ian Stuart, and Barry J. Northern. You can learn more about the world of Camp Myth at our website,

The Camp Myth theme music, “August”, is by Cast of Wonders’ favorite musical artist Alexye Nov, at

Episode 99: Little Wonders 3 – Scary Stories

Come With Me

by Beth Hull

Everything about her suggested impermanence.

Maybe that’s why we were drawn to her.

It wasn’t just the ethereal blond waves of her hair, or the goth-pale skin of her slender hands. It was her total, absolute ease at being the new student in our tightly-knit prep school.

She drifted into junior home room on a lotus-scented breeze.

Every guy sucked in a breath, and the girls—we don’t know what the girls were doing because we could see only her.

“Come with me,” she said, singling each of us out. For a day, for an hour, for a week we were her best friends, her lovers, her confidantes. But none of us knew anything about her—not where she was from, not the school she went to before ours, not even her name.

“Call me Beatrice,” she said.

“I’m Circe,” she said.

Morgan. Hermione. Rebecca. Medea. Anne. She was all; she was none.

And because of that impermanence, she felt safe. We could get involved. We thought we knew her type—military brat, probably, accustomed to moving, making new friends, and then saying goodbye. She’d be the perfect girlfriend.

“Come with me,” she said to us, and we went. She threw parties in a grand house just outside of town. September is still warm in California, so we swam in the pool, sipped beer, wine, and champagne in the spa, played foosball and watched independent foreign films in the basement theater until our brains were so addled we couldn’t remember our mother tongue.

“Who are her parents?” our mothers asked. “What do they do?”

We shrugged. We didn’t know any of that. We just knew we loved her and when she said, “Come with me,” we followed.

On a clear day in October, I walked with the girl across the quad at school, her slender fingers cold and tightly wrapped around mine. She said, “Come with me.”

“Where are we going?” I couldn’t believe the question had never occurred to me before. Maybe the sun was different that day, and broke the spell. A pimple was coming to a white head just below her right nostril. The first imperfection I’d noticed.

She smiled. “Sevanouir.”

“Where’s that? Some place in France?” I could buy a plane ticket, and I’d go, no question. One pimple was just that—one pimple.

I thought it was a trip for the two of us. I set aside a portion of my trust fund allowance. But then I learned she’d invited everyone—the entire junior class.

“Come with me,” she said, and we skipped school for a Sevanouir planning party.

It was too cold for swimming, but some people swam. I sat in a chair next to the pool, a bottle of beer in my hand, but I didn’t feel like drinking. I’d noticed another flaw in this temporary, impermanent girl: a small, t-shaped scar just below her ear. It was nothing worse than Owen’s forehead scar from field hockey, or Madeline’s mismatched eyes. But why had I never noticed it on her, whom I studied so intently?

I began to notice more imperfections, not only on her person, like the mole on her upper arm or the bright lines of veins on her shins. I saw the rusted outdoor chairs, the cracked tiles edging the pool, the dead leaves on the surface of the water that my friends paddled and splashed through as if they didn’t see them.

And I noticed her—Beatrice, Circe, Morgan, Hermione, Rebecca, Medea, Anne—walking up to each of my friends and placing something small and black in their drinks. My friends peered into the bottoms of their cups in wonderment, but with a light touch and a smile, she distracted them before moving on.

Owen stopped swimming and began to sink.

“Owen!” I tore off my shoes and jumped in the water, struggling to find him among the swirling leaf-sludge at the bottom of the pool. I brought him up, shaking water and decayed leaves from my face. I paddled to the shallow end and turned him around. His eyes were cloudy. Open, they dully reflected a flock of black birds flying overhead. I did something I’d only seen in the movies, and checked his neck for a pulse. Nothing.

Other people sank into the pool around me, collapsed on their chairs, and fell to the concrete steps.

“Stop drinking!” I yelled to the small group nearest me. “She put something in our drinks!”

“Why would she do that?” They drank, and fell.

The girl watched from my lounge chair.

“What did you do to them?”

“We’re going to Sevanouir,” she said. “Come with me.”


She took a sip of my beer, then held it up in a salute. “I’ll see you in Sevanouir.” The bottle fell to the concrete and shattered.

She kept her smile even after her eyes clouded over.


by Ian Rose

He came one day down the northern road, his skin paler than the local men, and his eyes a lighter blue than we had ever seen before. There was a scar above his left eye, and he carried no bag on his shoulder, nothing but his pipes and a flask on his hip. The king had sent word of his people’s need far and wide, sparing a few of his dwindling horsemen to carry the plea. Word had reached the piper, who had dealt with this problem before, and so in time the piper came.

When he blew on his pipes, we followed him without thought or question. My father went first, then my brother, then one by one the rest. They crept at first, then walked, then ran after him, wanting or needing to stay in earshot of the song. I followed the crowd more than the noise itself, my hearing having never quite fully recovered from a bite in the head from the miller’s cat a few months back.

I huddled into a hidden spot that barely fit me, pressed between the reeds. My muscles twitched, my mind and instinct arguing about whether to help or to hide. Chances are that I could not have helped anyway, and I’ve never been particularly brave. So I hid, and I watched. They all went into the dark brown water and for a moment, it looked as if they would simply swim across. My father had taught me young to avoid the creek at all costs, but in their frenzy, their feet could have carried them to the other side. It wasn’t the safety of the bank, though, that called them. It was the piper standing in the center of the creek, and they huddled around him as they fought to keep their ears more than their mouths above water.

When the last of the swimming had stopped, and he waded past them and out of the river, I alone followed him back down the wooded path to town. I was careful to stay hidden and always ready to run, but he barely ever looked back. I wanted to study his face, hoping to detect a sign of regret or maybe just relief. Relief would have been enough, a sort of acceptance of a hard but necessary thing done. When he did turn and I caught a look at his face, he looked pleased. But it was not the kind of pleasure that a man feels on his way home from a job well done. I’ve seen that contented look, in the miller and the cobbler that lived in our house back in town. This was different, more smug and more scary than that. He was thrilled with himself. The face that he made as he cantered back to town – I’d seen that before too, in the soldiers returning from war. A few of them came back so different from the way they had left, with something new and cruel in them. They had tasted blood again and again. They had come in time to expect it, and at some terrible further point, to hunger for more.

I followed him until the palace hedge, and watched him march to the gate, the townspeople in a tight cone behind him. I chose not to blame them for their perverse excitement, because I had seen what they had all been through. The sheer scale of death that had fallen on our town over the last year was staggering, and their faces were marked with it. To have so many of them die in such a short time, when they were accustomed to living so long; it had to be jarring. The miller and the cobbler had lived with us for generations. My grandfather’s father had known them, and I got the sense that they were not even children then.

They somehow knew that we were involved, even if they didn’t understand how. They could not have known that the fleas that often woke us at night with their itchy little bites carried the disease that was killing them all so quickly. They didn’t see the fleas. They only saw us, and where they saw us there was death, and that was proof enough.

The piper passed through the main gate and into the palace, his eyes bright and proud. But to hear the townspeople tell it later, the king must have been even prouder and more sure of himself, because when the piper asked for his payment, the king laughed and refused. “We are in your debt,” he proclaimed, “but what you ask is too much, a fortune for the task of removing a pest.” He offered to pay a small part of the original price; still, the king said, a handsome reward for a bit of fluting. He hadn’t seen what I had, hadn’t noticed the shine in the piper’s eyes. He couldn’t have seen it or he never would have tried to bargain.

The Boatman

by J A Ironside

Soon he would have to row back to the castle. It rose on the opposite bank, a stark, black silhouette against the titian sky. Even from his perch in the stern of his boat he could hear the ravens across the river, prophesying death in their harsh voices, although most people would not have understood them.

The river that bobbed and swelled under his barge felt alien to him. He supposed the Thames was alright in its way but it wasn’t his river. He didn’t know every eddy and shallow of its teasing tides. The Thames was younger, sleepier, less alive. It dreamed and sometimes he watched those dreams.

It flowed through the city and captured reflections – here a scrap of blue velvet – a rich young noble man with a half dressed woman in the wrong part of town; here a skinny child, head to toe in thick mud, ancient eyes in a young face; And here a young woman, cloaked and muffled against recognition, a brief flash of a pearl encrusted slipper.

Time to ready the barge. He pulled his hood closer to hide his death’s head grin. Even the dead had never reacted well to it so he supposed that it probably would disturb the living more. Screaming and swooning seemed excessive in the boatman’s opinion though. At least this work exchange program would be over soon. The truth was when the little scroll of parchment had been delivered to him he hadn’t read the details very thoroughly. It had seemed the opportunity he was waiting for; A change of scenery. He’d had no idea that he would end up half way around the world and 1500 years into the future to boot.

Well he couldn’t argue that the scenery wasn’t an improvement but the rest of the assignment was just downright bewildering. If he had had flesh on his cheekbones he would still be blushing with mortification at the memory of leaving several nobles and a bishop waiting on the tower side of the river despite repeated summons. When he’d finally realized that he was supposed to ferry his passengers both ways on this river and collected them, the bishop had refused to pay him.  

The cloaked woman had reached the barge. He held out a wrapped and gloved hand to help her aboard braced for her to notice the lack of flesh on his finger bones.  She said nothing. Her scarred bodyguard climbed aboard. Not the usual man, the boatman noted. The barge moved smoothly onto the river.

Halfway across the river, the guard stabbed a long knife through the boatman’s back. Without waiting to check on the boatman, he turned on the woman brandishing a second knife. Her face was pale, her lips compressed. The boatman was fascinated. He’d never seen a murder committed, only ferried its victims across the river. The guard’s knife grated against his fleshless ribs. He pulled it out. It clattered to the bottom of the boat. Distracted by the noise the false guard spun, almost losing his footing. Which meant the boatman’s pole caught him full in the face, smashing his skull. Grinning a genuine death’s head grin for once, the boatman hit the guard again knocking him into the cold waters.

“My thanks sir” The woman was a little breathless but composed, “ask for any reasonable reward and it shall be yours”. She pushed back her hood to reveal red hair dressed with pearls.

“No reward necessary, my lady.”

She peered forward into the depths of his hood. He braced himself for a scream but she merely sat back, a considering look on her clever features.

“May I have the name of he to whom I am so indebted.” It was not a request.

“Charon, my Lady”

“Elizabeth” she replied, gazing over the water after her would be assassin. There was not a ripple to show his passing.

All rivers dream and remember in dreaming that they are echoes of the great river between life and death; The Styx .The Thames bore the guardsman’s corpse downstream for the mud larks to find and exclaim over.

The Boatman smiled again.


JA Ironside. Jules Anne Ironside started writing as a child. She grew up in Dorset in a house full of books, fed on a diet of myths, legends and spooky tales. She particularly likes to take well known myths and turn them on their heads. Jules is a keen martial artist having taught karate for fifteen years now. In her free time she likes to read and add to her collection of dead or little use languages. She has had several other short stories published in the anthologies Reading is Magic and Stories for Homes both available from Amazon. Her next published story will appear in the A Chimerical world; Unseelie anthology. You can follow her on Twitter.

Episode 65: The Great Game, Part 7 – The Mustard Wyrm by James Vachowski

Show Notes

The Mustard Wyrm is final installment of a series of stories called The Great Game by James Vachowski and narrated by Barry J Northern. To find other episodes in the series search for the tag The Great Game.

The Great Game, Part 7–The Mustard Wyrm

By James Vachowski

What is that infernal screeching?  In God’s Holy Name, child, leave that poor cat alone!

Eh?  Music?  So you say.  To these ears it sounded more like a banshee being skinned alive.  Do yourself a favor and quit now, while you still have your youth. Your talents clearly lie beyond the world of music, and I dare say you will need all available time to discover your true skill.  By virtue of your heinous display of what I can only assume was intended to be a strain from Schubert, it is safe for us to rule out the violin as your life’s calling.  

Besides, any devotee knows there is but a single instrument worthy of mastery.  Which one, you say? Do you jest? Surely your music professor has taught you the wonder of the bagpipes?  No? Child, the pipes are the birthright of the Highlanders, the instrument of ancient Scottish kings! Here now, be a good lad and wrap that quilt round my knees.  Close the window as well. The night grows cold, and I fear we have tormented the neighbors enough for one evening, what with your attempts at harmony.

How old are you again, child?  No, forget I asked. Even if you were my age, the tale I am about to tell would still be too much for your precocious ears.   It happened in Ypres, that cursed town in a cursed country. Our men stood shoulder to shoulder with our boys, some very near to your age I should say, lined up to charge at the endless waves of men and boys on the opposite side.  Despite all I had seen and done thus far, it was early in the War and the fighting was still furious. The job of messenger was usually left to the youngest boys, but as every set of legs was needed, my fleet feet were conscripted for running to and fro between the lines.  I dashed back and forth with each shifting of the barbed wire strands, ensuring the field marshals could accurately sight their deadly artillery fire. The booming shells continued to fall as the longest day poured into night, and I wager that I killed more men using my feet than I ever had with my hands.

The stars disappeared from the sky, drowned out by the powerful artillerymens’ flares.  Kitchener’s Wood itself was a casualty, the trees snapped in half from the day’s constant bombardment.  The impact of the shells shook the Earth into a steady low rumbling and rocking, not unlike a ship at sea.  Minute by minute, yard by precious yard, our fire rained down upon the Germans and forced them to cover. Our advance was costly but steady, and for the briefest of moments I thought that we might have won.

The stench of corpses filled the air for a few brief seconds, till a gust of wind beat forth from the east.  It was a hot, steamy air, but I shuddered as I felt it on my skin. The jets of current pulsed toward us in rapid surges, as if powered by the very bellows that stoked the fires of Hell.  Behind me, one of the boys in our company shrieked in terror. He held his pink finger skyward, pointing toward a looming shadow flying low in the sky. In spite of myself, I felt my legs freeze thick to the ground.  Of course I had seen dragons before, my child, but never one as fierce as this!

The black beast was closing the ground quickly, spurred forward with each flap of his leathery wings.  His neck twisted up to inhale great gulps of air, then rolled back down toward the earth to spew forth a thick yellow cloud.  The sky around the creature became tinted with haze as the cloud sank down towards our men. It brought with it a sour, acrid taste that burned on my skin.  Some of our number were already bent over at the waist, retching and gagging like dogs with the sickness.

As the dragon circled overhead, filling its demonic lungs with more fresh air for another pass, the bravest of His Majesty’s troops struggled to form a skirmishing line for our defense.  What a sight it was, child! The Moors from Algeria stood shoulder to shoulder with the Gurkhas and the Sikhs. Enfield rifles were brought to bear, held at eye level among the line of fezzes and turbans.  Their sharp cracks echoed out on either side, but it was no use. Even the sharp steel bullets just bounced off the beast’s hide.

For all of the times I had cheated death, my child, I couldn’t for the life of me see a way out.  The battle seemed as futile as the War itself, and all of our victories were about to be for naught.  The rest of our troops scattered to the trenches for cover, wrenching off their doughboy helmets to don canister masks in the hope of some scant protection.  The beast blew down a second cloud of the mustard-colored gas, which swirled around us in thick plumes. Men of the fittest health were crippled in seconds, their bodies collapsing down into convulsing piles of broken flesh.  Death comes to us all, I had reached that conclusion long before, but no man deserves to die like those wretches did. Dozens went down, then hundreds. Before long it was thousands.

I had tried to hold my own breath, but reached my physical limits after just ten minutes.  My lungs nearly collapsed at that first inhalation of gas, and my head spun as I fell to the ground.  Though dizzy, I could still see that great black dragon circling overhead, preparing to make one last pass over the battlefield.  His Majesty’s troops were falling beside me in all directions, fighting a futile battle for fresh air. A lone Scotsman collapsed to my right, with a look of despair cross his fair face.  Our eyes met, and we shared the same thought—that as quickly as this battle was sure to be over, the War would end just so.

With an air of resignation, the Scot pulled himself to his knees, dusted off his tartan kilt, and reached for his pipes.  Breathing more of that foul air surely doomed him, but he did it still, as he pulled his pipes to his lips. With a final breath, he blew the first note of a Highland tune, no doubt intended as a funereal goodbye to his comrades.  The slow, droning buzz carried out across the forest. From the corner of my eye, I spied several other mops of red hair raising themselves up from the ground, heads lifted aloft by the sound of their homeland.

And then, from above me, I saw it!  The fierce dragon was beating his ferocious wings even harder, an act which sent him spiraling up in angry circles.  It was clearly an attempt to distance his evil ears from the glorious sound of the pipes, and I stirred myself to nudge the Scot and draw his attention.  The lad received my message, sucked in another deep breath, and redoubled his efforts. The sweet melodies of Edinborough carried out over the battlefield, sending the dragon even higher in the sky.  The putrid yellow gas lifted momentarily, which allowed our men to find their legs and scatter. Several other companies bade their pipers to join in the tune, and before long the earth was shaking not from the pounding of artillery, but from the buzz of bagpipes.

Lifting my head to the night sky, I caught sight of the dragon.  Above the clouds, writhing in the light of the moon, the beast was clearly tormented by the symphony of such beauty.  Unable to escape it, he wrapped his wings around his head to muffle the sound. But those bony wings could not drown out the noise completely, and a shout of joy went up as the men saw the dragon stop circling.  Indeed, with his wings occupied in such a defensive manner, the creature could not fly at all!  

A rush of joy rose in my heart as I saw the wrym start to plummet from the sky, but the feeling turned to dread when I observed him directly above me!  I tried to run, but it was no use! In less than a second the creature had collapsed to the ground, the impact sending shock waves across the whole of Europe.  My legs went numb beneath the weight of its tail, twitching and shaking with rage, and my body turned cold as the beast’s head twisted around to face me. Its horrible white fangs gnashed out, and I steeled myself to receive a final blast of the deadly mustard gas.

But our troops had regrouped, and before the dragon could exhale again, it was swarmed from all sides by a squad of brave Gurkhas. Their curved blades found the mark over and over again, until finally the beast lay unnaturally still.  I felt hands pulling me by the shoulders, out from under the carcass and a safe distance away. It may have been an hour before we were sure it was truly deceased, but when we were, a cry of victory rang up over the battlefield.

It was my last battle, child, for a soldier without legs is by necessity an ex-soldier.  For me, the War was over. I gave my final order from a hospital litter, directing the Gurkhas to behead the fierce creature.  Some days later I would present the dragon’s head, horns and fangs and all, to His Majesty King George in exchange for the Victoria Cross. A fair trade, I would say.  The War continued on without me, as wars before and since have done, and now precious few seem to notice the battles a pensioner fights.

Ah, but the tales of my life have been long and hard in the making, and I tire of telling them.  Bring the blanket, child, and draw the curtains. The night is growing cold.

Episode 61: The Great Game, Part 6 – When Stars Fall by James Vachowski

Show Notes

To find other episodes in the series search for the tag The Great Game.

The Great Game, Part 6–When Stars Fall

by James Vachowski

Child!  Quickly now, come here!  Pull the drapes back, there’s a good lad, and roll me to the window.  See…there! That flash of light! 

What?  A meteor?  Don’t be a dunce, child, there’s no such thing.  That was a star falling from the heavens, as sure as I’m alive.  But draw the curtains now, if you please. A single shooting star is an omen of luck, but seeing several foretells death.  I’ve seen enough death in my time, and I fear that my own summons cannot be too far off.

Ah, thank you.  The stars are beautiful flashes of silver from afar, but terrifying when viewed up close.  What? Of course I’ve seen a star up close, child! In fact, I’ve actually ridden in one!

Eh?  You don’t believe me?  Your disbelief is clearly fueled by pure envy.  Here, pull up a chair and I shall explain. It was in Egypt, of course, that mystery of a nation.  The city of Cairo was a sunlit nightmare by day, the heat rising up from the dusty streets and back alleys, but at dusk the air would cool and the imam’s call to prayer brought with it a pleasant peace.  I would take my ease after each long day of directing Allenby’s moronic staff, content to lie on the roof of the Embassy and contemplate the pantheon of stars stretching out in the inky night sky. Our Earth itself is so young compared to the stars, but to be in Egypt is to be within Time itself.  Ah, the memories! Yes, Cairo was probably my favorite posting during the War… at least until the bombs started dropping.

The Kaiser was a wily strategist, you see, and he aimed to cut a swath through the Levant by capturing the Suez.  The canal was nothing more than a dredge torn through the Sinai, but during the War it became the lifeblood of our troops.  Without it, transports bearing supplies and troop reinforcements would grind to a halt. If we lost the Suez, I wager to say that we could all but surrender India.

We knew an attack must be coming, child, but we knew not how.  Our sharpest eyes were fixed towards the West, scanning for telltale dustclouds signifying the movements of enemy troops across the desert, but all was still.  Then, from nowhere, a series of slow-moving shapes caught the sun’s rays on the horizon. They shimmered in the light, making their forms impossible to discern until they were nearly upon us.


The Kaiser’s aeroforces had slipped over our outer perimeter, racing in from Bulgaria on a brisk easterly wind.  The watchmen raised the hue and cry too late, as the attack had caught us by surprise! While our men scrambled to arms, struggling to winch our machine guns skyward, the first bombs fell.  The bloody Krauts walked them in on their approach, each successive impact louder and more forceful.

My actions were more of reflex than bravery, child, as my swift legs covered the mile to the airfields in mere seconds.  I ran towards the nearest Sopwith and threw the propeller, twisting the engine to life. In a flash, I was aboard and taxiing down the runway, explosions falling nearer and nearer behind me.  I pulled the throttle back with all my might, willing the aircraft to rise just as the runway came to an end. Feeling the impact behind me, I risked a glance back. The entire runway was pocked with craters, all of the hangers ringed with flames.  In less than a minute, an entire wing of the Royal Air Corps had been destroyed!

All save for me, that is, but I feared my fortune might be short lived.  Dozens of fighter escorts left their zeppelins and swarmed towards me, hailing down waves of bullets that turned the skies black.  Five of them, then six and seven, went down in my crosshairs before a single lucky shot clipped my tail fin. The plane started spiraling downward at full speed as I fought to hold control, black smoke belching from the engine.  Greasy hydraulic fluid spurt forth across the fuselage and streaked up over the windscreen. It was at that point, child, when I reassessed the odds I faced. As much as I despise cowardice, I began to think that a hasty retreat from the battle might be prudent.

With every last ounce of strength in my arms, I muscled the throttle back and somehow got the small plane level.  We buzzed over the city rooftops, the Kaiser’s aeroplanes hot on my tail as I headed west, hoping to lose them in the setting sun.  The pilots were tenacious beasts, though, no doubt hoping to win the glory of bringing me to ground. I heard the staccato hammering of their propellers as the fleet grew ever closer, their poorly aimed bullets whizzing close by.

We cleared the city walls, crossing low over the Nile River, and my hopes grew dim.  Before us lay naught but open desert, with no cover for my escape. In an instant, though, a thin cloud passed over the setting sun and I spied the pyramids of Giza!  My heart lifted, and I opened the choke to dump the remaining fuel. The little Sopwith shot ahead of the pack. I knew the gain in speed would be short lived, but hoped it would be just enough to make one last run for cover.

My plane came in long and low, the rubber wheels bouncing thrice off the rocky desert sand.  I shot straight for the Great Pyramid of Cheops and just as I had planned, the German planes pulled back.  The fools thought I was landing in order to surrender, so they gave me room. At the last second, however, I stomped down hard on the pedal to bank left.  The first two of the Kaiser’s men shot past as I tilted around the base of the pyramid. I was so low that my wingtip grazed the sand, and it took all my skill to wrench it back level.  Seconds later, I pointed the nose into the sand for a hard stop, landing directly between the legs of the Great Sphinx.

There was no time to pat myself on the back, though!  The sound of buzzing propellers grew louder, followed by rows of bullets zipping into the sand behind me.  Ahead, I spotted a dark doorway at the base of the Sphinx, so I raced forward and dove inside, straining to push the stone door back on ancient hinges.  It slammed shut with a thud, just as scores of bullets impacted on the outside.

I was safe!  Trapped inside of a rock, yes, and surrounded in thick darkness, but safe!  I paused briefly, hoping to catch my breath. My hands trembled as blood surged through my veins, and I fought to clear my head.  It seemed there was no way out, and I wondered if I had just traded a swift dispatch from German machine guns for a slow demise by way of asphyxiation!

After several more long moments, my eyes began to adjust to the darkness.  I sensed the dimmest blue glow, and could make out what appeared to be a long tunnel that cut through the rock.  With a heavy heart, I summoned my courage and shuffled further along. There was no way of knowing what awaited me, but what lay outside the Sphinx was an absolute I had no desire to face.

I must have walked for a hundred yards, or it could have been a hundred miles, before the rock opened around me and the light grew exponentially brighter.  It was an open chamber, child, in the heart of the Great Pyramid itself! The floor was surfaced in slick marble, and when my eyes came to focus on the center of the room, I could not hold in my gasp.  There before me was a great silvery object, shaped like a walnut and pulsing with cool blue light. Believe me when I say that I had traveled half the world by that time, but had never beheld such a wondrous saucer.  Even now, with all my years, I struggle to describe it.

My shock at this sight was such that it seemed no more unusual that the starry craft should be tended by an equally obtuse pilot.  He stood half my height in his naked, grey skin, with a bald bulb of a head and the black eyes of a cat. I should have been scared, I suppose, but I knew not what to make of him.  We stood there regarding each other for the longest moment. Looking back, I suppose he should have felt the same curiosity about me!

We spoke no words, but somehow I knew he sensed my anxiety.  A picture of the Kaiser’s mighty zeppelin air force flashed through my mind, and I spotted the creature’s head tilting slightly sideways.  I don’t know how I knew, but I knew, that we were sharing the same image. His chin dipped forward in the most imperceptible of nods. Slowly, he opened his hand and pointed four fingers toward the cosmic galley.  It was an obvious invitation; one I had no intention of refusing.

A hatch appeared before us, closing just as quickly once we climbed aboard.  A seat stitched from the finest Corinthian leather rose to meet me. My newfound ally stood tall, somehow bringing the craft to life with his mere thoughts.  I felt the briefest pulse as the ship flashed blue…and in an instant we were outside, thousands of meters in the air! When the shock of the teleportation had passed, I found myself looking down on the Kaiser’s fleet of dirigibles.  Night had fallen, and we floated overhead as just one more blue star in the sky.

The sight of those murderous blimps below filled me with rage. The creature must have sensed my heated thoughts, for he dipped his head in a nod of acknowledgement.  Seconds later, we were slanting downward, diving straight towards the airfleet! Jets of laser-hot rays shot forth from our ship, turning the mighty gas-filled zeppelins into nothing more than a quick succession of floating fireballs.  This battle was over before it even had a chance to begin, my child! Ah, the horrors of that War still play fresh in this old mind, but none more so than the sight of those burning steel hulls tumbling downward to melt into the still desert sands.

Before I could comprehend the sheer impossibility of what had just transpired, I found myself standing down in the desert itself, just outside the city walls, watching the last of the zeppelins burn.  From the corner of my eye, I spotted a blue burst of flame rising up into the sky. The airship was bound for the heavens, I suppose, or to some other galaxy in need. And though my eyesight is not what it once was, I still look towards the constellations each night, hoping to catch a glimpse of my old friend and his star ship.  Alas, I have never again seen a falling star quite like his, but sometimes I look up in the sky and wonder…

Episode 58: The Great Game, Part 5 – The Dark Continent by James Vachowski

Show Notes

The Dark Continent is part 5 of a series of stories called The Great Game by James Vachowski and narrated by Barry J Northern. To find other episodes in the series search for the tag The Great Game.

The Great Game, Part 5 — The Dark Continent

by James Vachowski

Light a lamp, child, and be quick about it.  The day is fading, and my eyes are not what they once were.  Ah, that’s the rub. This room closes in when night falls. Oftimes I find myself back in the dense brush of the Kalahari.  Were you to speak a smattering of Bantu, odds are fair I would mark you by size as a pygmy Bushman.

What?  A Bushman, child!  Do you mean to tell me you have no knowledge of the fiercest warriors on this Earth?  The scourge of the Dark Continent? Those diminutive spearmen have dispatched tens of thousands of Her Majesty’s riflemen to their end, and it is no embellishment to say that I was nearly one of that number.

Your professors might say Africa was a secondary theater during the War, but it became a most primary concern for my soldiers once tiny spears came whistling over our heads.  It was a covert mission you see, one of the utmost importance, and so the General would assign it to none but myself. We were en route from the port of Dar es Salaam to rendezvous with a reconnaissance team atop Mount Kilimanjaro, in the heart of the Kaiser’s territory in East Africa.  It was a dangerous task, made more so by the thousand-mile trek through the wilds of Zanzibar.

We were barely a week’s march into the brush when the fiends encircled us and attacked!  Tiny spears rained from the treetops, blowgun darts felled men like killer bees. Our brigade was halved in a matter of seconds by this treacherous ambush.  My men took up defensive positions, bless them, but it was only for show. Thousands of pygmies stepped out from behind tree trunks and sawgrass bushes. Clad only in leather loincloths, with ritual scars etched across their chests, their intent was clear as they bared their filed teeth.  Their battle leader approached, and I had no choice but to lay down my arms in surrender.

The Bushmen were clearly indentured mercenaries of the Kaiser, so I doffed my pith helmet and demanded parlay, hoping to channel the spirit of the great explorer Livingstone.  I doubted that the dark warrior fully understood the meaning of my flowery greeting, but I assume that he received my peaceful intent, just by the fact that I was still alive. With a shrill whistle, the leader summoned a spotted giraffe, who prostrated himself to receive passengers.  He and I climbed aboard, and we cantered across the bush at treetop level, occasionally ducking to miss stray branches.  

Hours later, with the sun still perched high above, we arrived in the Bushman’s village.  It was nothing more than a few haphazardly constructed straw huts surrounded by a circle of thorns, but the village came to life as we made our entrance.  Dusky women clutching babies to their breasts edged forward to gawk at my fair skin. The giraffe slid to a halt in front of the largest hut, graciously laying for us to dismount.  

The chieftain emerged from his hut in due time; whether he was intentionally making us wait or simply needed extra time to arrange his finery, I know not.  He was a giant among the Bushmen, standing three and a half feet in stature, wearing a loincloth spun from pure gold fibers. A beaded crown topped his nappy head, but his face was concealed behind a carved wooden mask.  A gigantic cowrie shell stood in place of his lips. By magic, its edges moved with the weight of his words as he spoke.

“Welcome to our home,” he said, in a clipped form of pidgin English, “and yours as well, at least for a short time.  You shall serve as our dinner of course. Bring your men ‘round forthwith. They are to be decapitated, disemboweled, and stewed.”

Forgive an old man a pun, child, but the thought of having my men slaughtered in such a fashion was quite distasteful.  My mind raced as I struggled to bargain for their lives. In an effort to buy time, I fell to my knees and kowtowed before the chieftain.  “My Lord,” I said, “Such a feast might be fine, but my men are exhausted from the War and our long journey. I fear that the stringy meat on our bones might not be pleasing to your royal palate.”

A shadow of worry crossed the chieftain’s mask.  “Yes…” the fiend hissed, “that would not do at all.”

Seizing this window of opportunity, I went on.  “Might I suggest an alternative, your highness? Perhaps my men would better serve your village as slaves.  They could bear fresh water daily from Lake Victoria.” The thought of my troops baking under the red sun and suffering a slow, exhausting demise was not much better than the image of them being eaten, but at least it would postpone their deaths for weeks, if not months.

The cowrie shell twisted into a wrinkled smile.  “Yes…” the chief hissed again, “that would be of great benefit to my tribe.  Water is hard to come by in my kingdom, and your soldiers might prove very useful to us.”

He had been sold on the idea of luxury, so I seized upon the power of negotiation.  “It is settled, then. As a representative of my men, I will submit to a challenge. If I fail your test, we will surrender ourselves completely as your servants.”

The carved wooden eyes narrowed in suspicion.  “Why should I test you, white man? Your army is still surrounded.  I could give the order and have them all killed in a matter of seconds.”

I smiled at that, sensing my position of advantage.  “Ah, my Lord, but if you kill us, then who would bear water to your village?”

The oversized mask nodded up and down.  “’True…”

I went on.  “So I have your word then, sir?  If I pass your challenge, we shall have our freedom.”

A long pause before he answered.  “Yes…” the cowrie lips hissed, “you shall. I propose a riddle.”

The tribe gathered around us let out a collective gasp, and I felt my blood run cold.  It was said that the African riddles were older than the continent itself, and no white man’s mind could fathom their depth.  But before I could refuse the challenge or protest the unfairness, the tiny sorcerer spat forth his puzzle:

“Who has more courage than a Bushman?”

My face flushed as I stalled for time.  It was a trick question, with no right answer.  To state that any other being was more courageous would surely be viewed as an insult, and I would be killed immediately for insulting the chieftain’s honor.  A squad of warriors nearby sensed this, and bared their filed teeth in anticipation. “Surely there is none, sir” I cried. “A Bushman is the fiercest, bravest warrior. He is true of heart, and none can best him in battle.”

The chieftain grinned an evil grin.  “Your words are just, but do not answer my riddle.”  He summoned with his arm, and a pair of warriors stepped forward.  Their intent was clear by the sharp spears that they shook over their heads.  I swallowed hard, fighting back the urge to scream. It seemed I was headed for the stewpot, my men for short lives of servitude.

I steeled myself as they approached, vowing not to die without a fight, but my mind was still caught up in disbelief.  “Two Bushmen” I whispered quietly, shaking my head at my fate. But suddenly, the ashy soldiers stopped. They turned towards their dear leader, as if for confirmation.  I glanced up in confusion and did the same.  

The chieftain’s cowrie shell lips wrinkled into a sly smile.  “More flattery, white man….but it is true. The only thing that could be braver than a Bushman warrior would be two Bushmen.  Your words have earned your freedom, and safe passage through my realm.”

The women of the tribe ululated in a chorus, and a few celebrated by throwing their children into the air.  They would be denied their cannibalistic feast, but did not appear distressed at the prospect of continued hunger.  As I fought the urge to grin, I bowed low once more before the fierce warrior king, thanking Providence for his mercy in the darkest of the world’s wastelands.

My men were brought forth within minutes.  The tribe produced a feast of roast bushmeat and steamed cassowary eggs, then went about preparing mounts for the rest of our journey.  The soldiers wept at the news that we were to be spared, and the clamor they made was a joyful one. We spent the night in merriment, bonfires burning late in complete ignorance of the jackals prowling outside the thorn ring, or of the Huns marching outside the continent.

Ah, child, to see Kilimanjaro again.  The peak was still capped with snow when we arrived at the observation post several days ahead of schedule.  We were loaded down with gold bars and raw diamonds that we had literally scooped up from the red clay during our ride. Valuable treasures, to be certain, but they were naught compared to the priceless look on the reconnaissance mens’ faces when we arrived with our caravan of zebras!

Episode 54: The Great Game, Part 4 – In The Bowels of the Sick Man by James Vachowski

Show Notes

In The Bowels of the Sick Man is part 4 of a series of stories called The Great Game by James Vachowski and narrated by Barry J Northern. To find other episodes in the series search for the tag The Great Game.

Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at

The Great Game, Part 4 — In The Bowels of the Sick Man

by James Vachowski


What is that swill you have brought me?  I called for coffee!

From Colombia, you say? Where? South America? My dear lad, America is but a speck along the timeline of history and hardly worth mentioning, much less pinpointing on a map. Ah, but real coffee… now that is something timeless. 

Of course, there is only one place on earth where one can get such a draught. Hmm? I mean Istanbul, you fool! Here now, if you cannot manage to make proper coffee then at least steep a kettle for tea, and be quick about it.

Where was I? Oh yes, Istanbul. During the War it was a dusty den of thieves, as I imagine it still is today, but a loyal soldier does not have the luxury of choosing his assignments. I was sent on this secret mission behind enemy lines for one purpose and one purpose only: to assassinate both the Sultan and his Vizier. Their motorcade was due to arrive at the Blue Mosque for early services one Friday morning, and I was ready as always. I had surveyed their route and cached my arsenal of weapons. Child, believe me when I say that the Great War would have ended in a quiet fizzle had I seen my task through and not stopped to take a bath.

What? A bath, child! Surely you are familiar with the magnificent luxury of Turkish baths? No? Well, it is my hope that one day you might experience them. This particular bathhouse was a palatial steam room, built of the finest Italian marble. I had just begun to relax and prepare my mind for the mission to come when a squad of the Sultan’s own bodyguards crept up behind me, their scimitars at the ready.  My plot had been discovered! It took all of my speed to elude their grasp and disappear away into the thick clouds of steam. I shimmied down a drainpipe and was off, flying through the city’s back alleys in a wet, nude blur. The mist of the bathhouse shifted into a thick cloud of opium smoke as I raced through the bazaar, pausing only long enough to steal a caftan and a pair of slippers. The chase was on! 

I fled the city heading west, hoping to seek cover in the Taurus Mountains. We ran for miles, until the setting sun glowed blood red in the sky, but still I could not break away. My chances looked grim indeed! The Sultan’s cadre was hot on my heels, their rifle shots whistling perilously close above my head.

That might have been the end of me, child, had I not spied the slightest opening at the base of Mount Ararat. A cave! I dove, stretched, and was in, just as a ricochet hit the talus slope above and triggered a landslide! I was safe, ‘tis true, but how I was to escape I knew not.

I crouched there, silent, listening to the cries of frustration from the Orientals above as they searched in vain for another entrance into the cave.  I willed myself to remain motionless, holding my breath for several hours until finally hearing their jackbooted footsteps as the soldiers climbed further up the slope. In time my eyes adjusted to the inky darkness, but there was naught to see but the blackest of nights.

Then, from afar, the sooty air was pierced by a soft glow. A magical light in the distance seemed to hover at ankle height as it slowly drifted towards me. Having no pistol for defense, I could but brace at its approach. Both my fear and the cavern’s dank chill set me to shivering. The light fluttered onward, coasting slowly to a stop when it was several paces out. It was only at that distance did I discover its true nature, when I saw that the glow was no more than a lantern of faerie fire held aloft by the stoutest of cave gnomes!

The squat beast made not a sound, but his beardy lips sneered at my disheveled and sooty appearance.  In a flash of movement unnatural to his thick stature, the gnome lunged forward and clasped a set of irons around my ankles. I was his prisoner! The fat monster kicked me square across the rump to set me moving and I followed his command, shuffling and clanking my way further into the cave.

Down and deeper we marched, splashing through a chilly stream that cut sharply into the rock floor.  Blind fish and salamanders brushed past my shackled feet as the chill air turned to a raw cold. My legs stiffened. Up ahead, an eerie glow of mystical origin lit the tunnel and the gnome sheathed his hellish light, as he required it no further. Before us lay the gnomish metropolis of Underworld, capital city of all subterranean dwellers.

Millions of glow-worms dangled perilously from stalactites overhead, giving the city a starry light of full noon. The gnome-kin filling the city streets below us plodded furiously about their labors. Most bore barrows of coal, but a select few worked under heavy guard and struggled to heave carts loaded with precious gems. The scene was extraordinary, child! Were it not for the cavernous ceiling above it should have almost seemed that I was back in the great city of London, but in miniature of course.

Ah, but the opportunity to gaze on in wonder did not last. The gnome spurred me onward with more kicks to my seat, and his weighty boots sent a wordless message that left no room for misinterpretation. I wondered as to our destination, but not for long. Further down we went, into the very heart of the gnomish mines. Waves of steam heat from the forges passed over me, soaking the thin cotton fibers of my caftan and dripping down off my skin in layers of sweat.

Slavery is unjust, child. All who have known bondage will agree. There I was, conscripted into servitude, forced by the stinging end of a whip to mine coal for those wretched creatures! Hour after hour I toiled as endless night gave way to endless night. The pickaxe shaped my hands first with calluses, then with blisters, then finally with raw sores. Were it not for the powerful strength of my youth, my back would have surely snapped from the strain. I strove to keep pace with their demands, but no sooner did I fill a barrow with coal than the tiny ogres would beat me mercilessly, enjoining me to ferry the load over towards their giant smelting furnaces.

I could not believe the sight that my eyes beheld! The War to End All Wars even had fronts beneath the Earth, child! The gnomes were obviously in league with the Sultan, helping to churn out steel for his thousands of artillery batteries. Judging by the frantic pace of the work, I knew they must have been mounting a massive defense against our forthcoming invasion of Gallipoli, miles to the east and leagues above our heads. The information was priceless, but I had no way to warn General Sir Hamilton of the trap that was being set!

At seeing the industry of these creatures’ black arts, my resolve was strengthened anew. I might have been briefly detained from the battlefield, but I was most certainly not going to give aid and comfort to the enemy by working in those gnomish mines! I set my mind to work on drafting a daring plan of escape. Naturally, one was not long in coming.

I pushed myself to work harder and faster, finally gaining the evil gnomes’ trust by convincing them that I had dedicated myself to the Sultan’s cause. I mined coal by the truckload, veritably sprinting each cart down to the smelting furnace now! The furnaces’ fires grew hotter and hotter, the black smoke curling back down through the cavernous passageways until the miserable creatures had no choice but to open the chimney’s flue.

It was then that I made my move! My caftan was still soaked from the steam and the sweat of my labors, so I bunched up the fibers and held them aloft over my head. At a full run, I leaped over the flames from the gnomes’ infernal fires…and was held aloft! The quickly-rising heat from the furnace below filled my damp robes and lifted me up through the faerie chimney. Mobs of surprised bats flurried about in a blind scrabble, rushing to clear from my path of ascent. Rising at a yard per second, I saw the freedom of the blue sky opening up above me.

Quickly, I spread out the folds of my robes to capture more of the heat.  In a flash of blinding sunlight, I was free! I curled the toes of my slippers about the hem of the fabric and sealed my legs tight, forming a balloon of hot air between my loins. I was still going up, over the peak of Mount Ararat, when I spotted an entire company of the Sultan’s cavalry still searching for me on the surface below. At altitude, as I passed through the wispy mustaches of cirrus clouds, the soldiers’ fezzes seemed to me mere specks of burgundy velvet on the rocky plains below. Their angry rifle shots, though aimed true enough, fell pitifully short.

Safe now, I re-fastened the grip on my robes as I floated back eastward, drifting silently over the blessed faerie chimneys of Cappadocia. Such a sight, child! The raw majesty of this hard land concealed too well the evil that lurked within the bowels of the Sick Man of Europe. As for me, even though I knew all too well of the terrible battles for which I was headed, for the briefest of moments even the wretched Ottoman Empire seemed a beautiful place.

Episode 50: The Great Game, Part 3 – The Empty Quarter by James Vachowski

Show Notes


The Empty Quarter is part 3 of a series of stories called The Great Game by James Vachowski and narrated by Barry J Northern. To find other episodes in the series search for the tag The Great Game.

Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at

The Great Game, Part 3 — The Empty Quarter

by James Vachowski

My dearest child,

I was delighted to receive your most recent correspondence. In response to your inquiry, it would give me the utmost pleasure to assist with your History essay. I did indeed serve with Colonel Lawrence during the Arabian campaign, but in those days, before his fame reached its peak, Lawrence of Arabia was known to us simply as Toms. (Continue Reading…)