Thursday, July 18, 2019

Music: Glory Be

The band is Coyote Grace. This is a bit more laid-back than most of the music I post, but I like it:

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Blogging Challenge: Fictional Worlds I'd Like To Visit

Right, so, the usual bit of context: Weekly Blogging Challenge over at Long and Short Reviews. Hit their homepage to see the current week's responses, and add a link to your own if you're so inclined.

This week's challenge is "Fictional worlds I'd like to visit," which (under the right circumstances) is most of them.

Several, of course, are worlds that I've created. That's pretty much why I write, in fact: so I can visit all the really cool places in my head. Well, that and because writing is cheaper than therapy. I don't usually name my worlds, since most of my characters just think of their surroundings as "the world", but...

There's a dark-fantasy setting which is characterized by three things:
-Magic actually works, if you speak its language.
-There are naturally-occurring (we think) portals to other worlds from there; magic does not exist in those.
-The sky has its own ecology, with predators and prey and scavengers, just as the land and the sea do.

There's a more classic high-fantasy world which is currently in the process of recovering from the recent defeat of the Dark Lord and his armies of monsters.
-Large sections of the world have reverted to wilderness.
-The war left behind all sorts of ruins, along with stray bits of magic and monsters.
-The monsters who made up the Dark Lord's armies were suddenly freed from his control when he died, and now have to figure out what to do next.
-The last survivor of the group of heroes that killed the Dark Lord is still roaming around the countryside with a bad case of survivor's guilt.

Then, of course, there's a variety of Dungeons and Dragons campaigns that I'm involved in, one way or another.

But there are plenty of worlds from other people's fiction that I'd love to visit, too. I've already talked about some of them, so let's look at a few that I haven't mentioned:

The Land of Pell, setting for the delightful Kill The Farm Boy, No Country For Old Gnomes, and The Princess Beard is a delightful and absurd place in which no classic fantasy trope escapes unscathed, and I'd love to visit it.

Hogwarts, of course, because even as a Muggle that would be pretty awesome -- and also because if you're visiting Hogwarts then you're not actually a Muggle pretty much by definition, and I'd love to be a wizard.

Arawiya, the setting for We Hunt The Flame. Yes, it's a land under a curse, but the various realms within it are fascinating, and there's a decent chance that the heroes might actually manage to lift the curse and restore magic to the land.

Camp Half-Blood, one of the chief settings for Percy Jackson and the Olympians, because who wouldn't like to be a demigod? Intriguing as it is in the Rick Riordan books, though, I think I'd actually prefer my friend Ana Mardoll's version.

Lastly... I'm not sure it has a particular name, but I adore the gothic Russian-folktale quality of Emily Duncan's Something Dark and Holy books. It's a dangerous place, but I'd love to visit it.

So there are my votes for this week's challenge. What are yours?

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

A Crisis on the Logging Road

As usual after an expedition into the dungeons of the mad mage, Lord Aldenmier gave the players some time to relax and recover. They put it to good use, healing wounds and recharging spells, and meeting with the proprietor of the local magic shop. Lord Aldenmier had called in some sort of favor for him, making available a variety of magical items at 100 gp each -- well below their actual value.

The monk arranged to have his sword enchanted. The dark elf rogue acquired Slippers of Spider Climbing. The cleric swapped their plate mail for a set of mithril plate, keeping their protection but substantially improving their ability to move quickly and quietly. The Dragonborn Sorcerer claimed a Jug of Alchemy, which ought to prove useful in a variety of circumstances. The Halfling rogue... we're not sure yet. The cleric's player has made a couple of suggestions, but we haven't been able to connect with the halfling rogue's player to ask him about it.

We did, however, get Skype working for the cleric's player, so we had a quorum this session.

During this time, the Dwarf announced that she'd left home because she was tired of being underground all the time, and Lord Aldenmier decided that he could find other work for her and released her from her banner contract.

A couple of days later, Lord Aldenmier joined them at dinner. He had, he said, a new proposal for them. He had invested in a logging expedition on some lands he had acquired, and currently had a team out there cutting a road into the trees (and hauling out some lumber for sale in the meantime). The team itself seemed to be fine, but they kept losing horses - about one every other day. Since it was not part of their banner contracts, they would keep any loot they found -- but since he didn't expect them to find much out in the wilderness, he would also make it worth their while (depending on what they found and how hard it was to deal with). The group decided that Lord Aldenmier had been honorable so far, and accepted.

Two days later, in the company of a pair of carts (each led by one of Aldenmier's guards) they found themselves approaching a bridge. Just in front of the bridge was a group of four human bandits, led by a half-elf. The bandits attacked immediately.

Firstborn's Dragonborn sorcerer was in front; he stepped up, cast Burning Hands, and took down two of them. Shadow took a shot with his crossbow, but missed; but then, he was at the back of the group, behind the carts, and a pretty good distance off. The monk had slipped under the larger cart when he first saw the bandits, and was hanging on its botttom; he decided to emerge, and annoy them by playing cymbals as he advanced into attack range. The Halfling rogue (who was being played by the Monk's player, since we couldn't get ahold of his actual player) took a longbow shot at another bandit and wounded him.

At this point, the remaining two bandits fired their crossbows at the sorcerer, doing considerable damage. Their leader tried to cast a spell, but instead of a nasty bit of lightning he stumbled back, cursing and shaking out his fingers. (Critical fail on his attack role.) The cleric went last, casting a spell at the wounded bandit - who managed to shake it off.

The dragonborn sorcerer suddenly remembered that he wasn't a front-line fighter, and retreated behind the larger cart. From there, he tagged the spellcaster with a bit of poison damage, but not nearly enough to take him down. Shadow tried again with his crossbow, and this time took out the wounded bandit, leaving only the spellcasting leader and one henchman. The monk decided that the spellcaster had no business being on the bridge, and tried to throw the bandit leader into the stream; unfortunately, he slipped just as he started to grab the guy, and wound up in the water himself instead. (Sometimes critical fails are catastrophic, but sometimes they're just Vaudeville.)

The cleric switched over to her crossbow, and put bolts in both of the remaining bandits, taking them out.

The group continued on, and early the following afternoon arrived in the camp, where they found a fist-fight in progress; a woman and man were squaring off, while a gnome and several other men and women watched them.

The pair stopped at the party's arrival, shook hands, and came strolling over. One of the other men bent down and said something to the gnome, who waved him away with a talk-about-it-later gesture.

At this point, a man in purple robes came strolling out of one of the larger, nicer tents at the back of the camp. A longsword was floating along behind him, bouncing here and there at his heels. He introduced himself as Bobilis, the man in charge of the expedition -- at least, the one in charge of making sure they were following the map and logging the right sorts of trees and like that. The woman who'd been about to get into the fistfight was Katra, who was in charge of the workers -- both making sure they worked, and making sure they were working safely. The gnome turned out be named Jou (Joe); he was responsible for tools and equipment: mending, sharpening, repairing and suchlike.

A single horse was grazing in one corner of the camp; apparently that was all they had left.

The sorcerer immediately asked Bobilis about the sword. He explained that several years ago, on another logging expedition, he'd stumbled across some old ruins and found the sword on some sort of altar inside. Curious, he touched it... and it rose up as if held by invisible hands, then made a slow circle around him, and then just sat there, bobbing in the air. When he left, it went with him, and it's been with him ever since. While he spoke, the sword made a quick circle of the nearest members of the group, then settled back beside Bobilis' feet.

Neither the sorcerer nor the cleric could think of any bit of history that involved floating swords, though the thing was obviously magical and appeared self-willed. The dragonborn sorcerer decided that it was cute little sword-boy, and they moved on. The monk tried to ask the horse about what was going on, but the horse only snorted and went back to grazing. The Mousefolk Cleric can, by virtue of being mousefolk, communicate with small woodland critters -- but she couldn't immediately locate any around the camp.

So, with the logging camp introduced, the group decided that their best plan was to stand guard over the remaining horse tonight and see if they could figure out what was happening and stop it. The loggers began unloading the carts, and the characters settled in to rest and make ready.

The party spent 500 GP on magic items, leaving them with a total of 221 GP and 15 SP.
Searching the bodies of the bandits also yielded:
-A quarterstaff
-4 shortswords
-4 light crossbows
-78 crossbow bolts, which the cleric claimed for future use.
-25 GP

So their total is 246 GP and 15 SP, plus some weapons they can probably sell when they get back to town.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Why did he have to use snakes?

"You're back!" cried Torea, as the paladin Alein staggered back into the temple of Helios. "I was so worried!"

Alein embraced her apprentice, then turned back to her rescuers. "Come in, my friends. Come in and make yourselves at home. You might as well rest here tonight."

Ruin reached out to touch Marshall Mercy on the shoulder as Martini and Azrael stepped into the building. He'd been thinking, and now he had questions. This human priest had been better company than he'd expected: willingly fighting as part of the group; healing the others, including himself; and generally behaving as just another member of their odd little band. He'd even gotten them answers from the wererat. Still...

"The wererat leader, Squim." Ruin looked at Mercy, who nodded. "He was awfully sick when we found him. Almost like he'd been poisoned."

"Indeed he was," agreed the priest in his slow, drawling accent. "Awfully sick."

"You didn't actually cure him of the poison, did you?" Ruin was certain of it now. "You let him walk away thinking that he was cured, while the poison was... what? Delayed?"

"Well, yes," said Mercy in that same slow drawl. "I suppose I did."

He seemed to be looking for a response, but all Ruin could come up with was: "Huh." He motioned for Mercy to go on into the temple, and the priest inclined his head and went inside. After a moment, Ruin chuckled. Then he followed, closing the door behind them. Mercy had stopped a couple of steps into the room; the apprentice paladin Torea had thrown her arms around him and was thanking him volubly for rescuing her mentor.

After a moment Torea released the cleric and turned her delighted smile towards Ruin.

He took a half-step back and held up a hand. "I'm just here to kill things." So, he supposed, was Marshall Mercy... but the cleric seemed to do his killing in the service of his peculiar sort of faith in Artemis, rather than with the goal of subjugating anybody who wasn't human. And if so, I can live with that... He still wasn't sure he entirely trusted the human cleric, but at the very least he didn't need to have his guard up all the time around him.

...And probably not around this human apprentice paladin either, he supposed, as he watched her expression collapse. "I'm sorry," he said. "I am glad we could help. It's just... been a very long day, with a lot of otherworldly horrors."

She brightened, but at least she didn't step forward and try to embrace him. "Oh. I understand completely. Come on, let's get you settled. Do you want food, or rest, or...?"

Unsure of what her vows to Helios permitted, Ruin settled for asking: "Are we allowed to have beer in the temple?"

Friday, July 12, 2019

Post-Apocalyptic Time Travel dreams

I woke in the middle of a dream where I'd met a young woman (who either was, or was played by, Kirsten Dunst). It was set in some sort of post-apocalyptic future where nomadic family groups roamed the plains, so it was always a bit festive when two groups came together. Her father had set up a sort of small shelter by draping a tarp over one side of a bush, creating a little cave-like space underneath.

So we're lying there, enjoying not being out in the open for once, and she's showing me this odd little medallion she wears - basically round and flat, but with a couple of upraised curved bars sweeping across the face of it... and a couple of what look like tiny little cybernetic spiders that apparently live on it. (Ever been flirted with by tiny little cybernetic spiders? It's weird. Especially since they obviously don't talk.)

Anyway, somewhere in the course of looking this thing over, I get a weird flashback scene of decisions made and decisions not made and then a sort of still frame and dissolve -- and by dissolve, I mean "everything turns to dust and blows away" -- and I'm suddenly very sure that if we could just figure how the amulet works, we could put everything back the way it's supposed to be.

That was, unfortunately, the moment that the alarm went off, and while I remember thinking "Holy Hell, that's detailed enough to build a whole movie around," I wasn't able to get back into the dream afterwards. Eh, c'est la guerre...

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Blessed One must fall

So I came back from the Dungeons and Dragons game at 11:00 p.m. and the entire house was still awake. Beautiful Wife was awake. The thirteen-year-old was awake. The nine-year-old was awake.

I am so, so tired now.


Picking up on our last game, we basically have two leads: a bookstore somewhere in the Westhill district, and the apparent murder scenes in Southspur.

Before that, though, we needed to head off to a nearby temple of Helios to get some cures. In addition to the more ordinary diseases acquired from being attacked by dire rats, our cleric had been bitten by a wererat and potentially infected with lycanthropy. It was just a bit after midday when we emerged from the (smoldering, corpse-filled) bell tower, so getting directions to the temple wasn't hard.

The temple itself, though, was hidden behind a wall of unnatural fog, which Azrael (the wizard) recognized as Obscuring Mist. Also, someone in the mist was screaming. Ruin charged right in (did I mention he has no sense of self-preservation?) and the others followed, though the cleric (Marshall Mercy) stumbled onto the door to the temple and went inside while everyone else followed the screams around one side of the building. Ruin (with his barbarian movement speed) came around the back of the building and practically ran into a pair of robed figures trying to carry off a paralyzed paladin. The abductors were so startled that they dropped the paladin; Ruin was so startled that all he did was demand: "What are you doing???" They hissed at him in reply, which wasn't creepy or ominous at al.

That was where the first bit of fighting started. With Ruin right on top of them and their reckoning completely thrown off, both of the robed figures failed to cast their spells. Azrael arrived behind Ruin, and tagged one of them with scorching ray. Martini, our elegant would-be assassin, moved to position herself, and Ruin finished drawing his sword and promptly beheaded the wounded spellcaster. The remaining caster hit him with an acid arrow, but is startled when Marshall Mercy emerges from the back of the temple practically on top of him. He dies in surprise and bewilderment, stabbed from behind by Martini.

The paladin woke up as we were checking her over. She was a human woman, large and strong, and she was deeply concerned that Alein, her mentor and the head of the temple, had been kidnapped. She's merely an apprentice, and her name is Torea.

Reverend Mercy steps in with Cure Minor Wounds and his bag of snakes: the second kidnapper isn't quite dead yet, so he pulls him back to Just Barely Alive and tries to question him. It... doesn't work: "When the Gates swing wide, the world will fall into the void!" Mercy starts his spiel, holding his poisonous snake, but the cultist keeps ranting: "The bells toll to ring the end of time! The Blessed hears the voice of the Speaker in the Dream! The Blessed leads me in praise of the ones outside, the ones who will come!" In the midst of this, he reaches up and grabs the snake, wrenches it out of the cleric's hand, and manages to bite its head off.

Reverend Mercy is furious. Like, Rambo escaping from the police furious. John Wick regarding his dead dog furious. The Bride waking up in the hospital furious. He kills the cultist, but... Yeah, no, that isn't going to satisfy him.

The apprentice paladin does provide some help, in the form of a bit of wolfsbane which the cleric eats to try to fend off lycanthropy. She also recruits one of the local urchins to fetch us a meal of hand pies from one of the local carts, since the group is worn out and the spellcasters, in particular, need a proper sleep to recharge. Ruin tips the child generously, mostly because, well, food. Ruin is definitely not a big old softy when it comes to children.

By the time everybody is done resting, it's well into the night. (About 10:30.) Reverend Mercy uses some of Alein's possessions to scry for the paladin -- always scry for the paladin before walking into the magical trap -- and gets an image of her bound in the corner of a stone-walled room, guarded by two more robed cultists and an abomination of shifting flesh and sharp-toothed mouths: a gibbering mouther. The group sets out in search of the book store -- a guess, but a reasonably informed one. They leave the apprentice paladin behind, in case Alein somehow escapes and makes her way back to the temple. (And, well, also because she seemed pretty inexperienced.)

The Westhill district is really quiet, eerily so.

Then, as we're walking down the street, everything goes weird: shimmery, off-balance, out of focus. A horrible, otherworldly monster - like a slug with tentacles coming out of its mouth, but huge -- rises up out of the street and moves to attack us.

It's... slow. Embarrassingly slow. We could probably escape just by casually strolling off down the street in the other direction. But Ruin has no sense of self-preservation, and Mercy is out for blood, so of course we attack it instead.

Fortunately, it's not too hard to kill it. Unfortunately, it has very nearly killed and eaten Ruin by the time the others do kill it. (Ruin got a good hit in at the start, but then it got its tentacles on him and... it kind of went downhill from there.) Reverend Mercy delivered the final blow with the Fangs of Artem-hiss (his double-bladed scythe) just in time.

As the beast fell, the world sort of shimmered again and it vanished... but the citizens of Westhill began emerging from their houses, asking what had happened and why Alein hadn't shown up to help. Apparently she has something of a reputation in this area. The rest of us are carefully avoiding mentioning that Alein has been kidnapped when Reverend Mercy burst out with, "We're looking for some robed fellows who might have kidnapped the paladin just a few hours ago."

The robed fellows, it turns out, all hang around a local bookstore called the Reality Wrinkle. There's essentially no chance that this is not the place we're looking for. It's a three-story building with a basement, narrow, with a door at each end. The only windows on the ground floor are the ones in the doors; there are windows on either end of the building higher up. Reverend Mercy, still furious about his snake, sends the brother and sister Grey Elves (Martini, our rogue, and Azrael, our wizard) around to the back of the building. He and Ruin march up to the front door, intent on attracting as much attention as possible.

Mercy opens the (unlocked) door, but an older man quickly shuffles over, explains that they're closed, and shuts and locks it. Mercy pounds on the door until the guy opens a slot in it, then demands the book he ordered weeks ago. (He didn't. We've only been in town for three days, if that.) The old man shuffles off, and comes back with three books, reading off the titles. Mercy cries out at the middle one, and bluffs his way into getting the old man to hand it over. He passes it out through the slot in the door... and Ruin promptly grabs his arm and pulls, slamming him into the door.

Meanwhile, when Mercy first started pounding on the door and shouting, Martini started picking the lock on the back door. She and Azrael found themselves looking at the back of a pair of robed cultists, who were peeking through a doorway to see what was going on in the front of the bookshop. Martini lifts her bow and shoots one of them in the back. Azrael follows up with a magic missile and kills him. The other cultist spins around just as the bookseller is getting slammed into the front door.

The remaining cultist casts Acid Arrow at the rogue, but misses. Martini returns fire with her bow, but also misses. Her brother the wizard follows up with an acid sphere, doing minor damage. Mercy decides it's time to make his entrance, and rams his shoulder into the door without so much as budging it. Ruin promptly raises a foot and kicks it open, and with enemies on either side the final cultist falls.

There's a strange perception-warping effect in the building, but most of us manage to ignore it.

So we descend to the basement, and find an antechamber and a door. The cleric takes a moment to cast Shield of Faith and then to Bless the rest of the party, and then Azrael shoves a Stinking Cloud spell under the door.

The two cultists in the room come staggering out, straight into Ruin (fighter/barbarian) and Mercy (really, really angry priest of Artem-hiss). Martini moves into position behind them. They don't last long.

The Gibbering Mouther is another story. Ruin and Martini are immediately confused by its babbling, but fortunately they only end up babbling for a round themselves. Marshall Mercy and Azrael carry the attack, and the Mouther tries to attack Mercy. None of that has much effect, except that the Mouther keeps screwing up its attack and getting some of its mouths caught in Mercy's armor. It spits a bit of acid and manages to temporarily blind the cleric, but it doesn't make too much difference: by this point Ruin and Martini are back in the fight, and after a while we beat the thing down.

We loot the bodies while Azrael heads upstairs to check out the books. Each of the cultists had +1 bracers of armor, and the bookshop had a couple of books related to arcane knowledge. We untie the paladin, who is physically okay but obviously not all there mentally, and help her walk out of the bookstore.

Once outside, she's better. She doesn't know why she was kidnapped, just that she was hit over the head and woke up in that basement with the strange voices in her head and her captors talking about the Blessed and needing to go upstairs to consult with him. Yeah, that got everyone's attention.

The paladin assured us that she'd be all right if we left her outside the building, so Ruin handed his silvered greatsword off to her and we all trooped back in.

The second floor was empty: a small table where two cultists had been playing cards until they'd gone downstairs and gotten killed, and a couple of small and very plain bedrooms where they probably slept. Martini, however, heard movement further up and alerted the cleric.

He led us up the next set of stairs, to another landing with a door back to a single room. Marshall Mercy opened the door, seeing a single robed cultist waiting for us. Marshall walks up and gets in his personal space. The cultist steps back, and hits the cleric with a magic missile.

Ruin moves in and notices another figure clinging to the ceiling like something out of a Japanese horror movie. He changes directions and tries to stab it, but his blade slides off some sort of magical protection. This cultist, still scrabbling across the ceiling, retreats to the corner and casts a spell. Another of the tentacle-slug abominations appears out on the landing by the stairs.

Marshall Mercy steps in and takes down the obvious cultist (the one standing on the floor) with his scythe). Ruin crits and takes out Ceiling Mage, who falls to the floor in a lump of deadness.

Martini suggests closing the door and waiting until the summoned abomination has dispersed, but... naw. Mercy is homicidally furious, and Ruin has no sense of self-preservation. (Have I mentioned this before?) We beat it down instead.

Looting the bodies yielded a +1 Morning Star (which Ruin promptly claimed, in case we run into anything that required bludgeoning to get past its damage resistance: part of the reason it took us so long to defeat the Gibbering Mouther was that we were beating it down with table legs and the like) a potion of Cure Light Wounds (always useful), a wand of Magic Missile (5th level, with 17 charges), a ring of protection +1 and slippers of spider climb. (I'm thinking the rogue should keep those.)

The paladin Alein staggers in at that point, still holding Ruin's sword, and pronounces: "You did it. You killed the blessed one..."

We hustle her back out of the building, which has lost a lot of its weird shimmeriness, and head back to the temple... but not before a crowd of the townsfolk gather to follow us. Alein puts us up at the temple, and in the morning alerts us to the fact that the townsfolk want to throw us a banquet -- as it happens, this would take place just before the Baron give his speech. So we're not only successful, we're popular... which is going to have some interesting implications.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Weekly Blogging Challenge: Favorite Authors in X Genre

Right, so, the usual bit of context: Weekly Blogging Challenge over at Long and Short Reviews. Hit their homepage to see the current week's responses, and add a link to your own if you're so inclined.

This week's challenge is Favorite Authors in X Genre. Since my fiction reading is a mix of Fantasy, Speculative Fiction, and Horror (along with a smattering of Romance), and since those are all genres that tend to get a little blurry at their borders I'm just going to sort of jump in.

First up, I suppose, are authors I recommend fairly regularly:
-Martha Wells, in particular Murderbot (SF) and Books of the Raksura (Fantasy), but honestly anything she writes is going to be worth reading.
-Lilith Saintcrow, who works mostly in SF and Fantasy and interesting blends thereof, but actually has books in a wide variety of genres and flavors.
-Roger Zelazny, who again worked mostly in SF and Fantasy. ("I'm writing a philosophical romance shot through with elements of horror and morbidity," he says, when one of his characters accidentally stumbles across him in the basement of the castle at the heart of the worlds.)

But since I've recommended them (or at least mentioned them as influences) before, how about some that I don't talk about nearly so much?
-L.E. Modesitt Jr. writes in Fantasy, Science Fiction, and some worlds that partake of both. I'm currently working my way back through his justly-popular Recluse series, which combine elements of social and political commentary, discussion of economics and various crafts (Order-mages generally have to make a living in a trade, so his characters are carpenters and blacksmiths and coopers as often as warriors of great renown) with some good old escapist male power fantasy.
-Neil Gaiman, whom I originally discovered through the Sandman comics; he co-wrote Good Omens (the video version of which is currently -- and rightly -- getting a lot of attention on Amazon Prime), and has a number of fairly well-known books and shows (Neverwhere, American Gods, Stardust).
-Spider Robinson, probably best known for his Callahan's stories, but always a reliable source of thoughtful, hopeful Science Fiction.
-Clive Barker is... I don't think I can overstate the profound effect that Cabal had on me and a number of my friends, and of course he has plenty of other eerie and enchanting works.
-Jennifer Crusie is still my primary romance author - the one whose books I go back to and periodically re-read.
-Emma Bull, while not as prolific as some of the writers on this list, has written some really great stuff; War For The Oaks is probably the genesis of the entire Urban Fantasy genre (and well worth the read, especially if you're fond of eighties music).
-Alan Dean Foster on the other hand is hugely prolific, writing novelizations (Alien, Aliens, The Abyss) as well as projects entirely his own (the Flinx and Pip books, the Spellsinger books, and various stand-alones and short stories).

...That's a full Top Ten List worth of authors, so I really ought to stop there, but I just thought of one more:
-Steven Brust, probably best known for his Jhereg books, but with a number of stand-alone projects as well (including among them one of the most interesting vampire books I've read).

Right, yes, I think that covers it now.