Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Abdael: At Last, A Kiss

Tatherine Florilis stepped in, catching the big sword with her two shorter ones and shoving it aside. She lashed out with her blades, one-two, but Abdael danced back out of the way, twisting to bring his blade back up between them. Tatherine advanced again, sweep-and-stab, but Abdael stepped aside with the sweep and wasn't there when she stabbed. With his hands still up beside his head and his point downward, he countered with a stab at her foot, forcing her to sweep her leg back and break her advance.

A two-handed weapon will have the advantage of reach and leverage. It was the memory of trainer Caron's voice that filled her ears, from just after Tatherine had settled on paired short swords as a fighting style. To get past it with paired weapons, you'll need to move in, and you'll need to find a rhythm for using your blades separately and together.

Abdael had his tip up immediately, handle beside his shoulder, blade pointing slightly downwards towards her. He wasn't the most aggressive fighter, which was also a problem: he seemed perfectly content to keep her at a distance and attack her there. If he'd charge, or over-commit on a lunge...

Abdael drew back and leaned forward again, threatening with his blade but not actually attacking. Tatherine shifted her grip to try moving in on him again, and that was when he lunged, tip pointed right at her chest. She stepped aside and swept with her blade, then thrust with her other hand -- aiming not for his body, but for his extended arms.

She wasn't sure which of them was more surprised when the blow landed.

Abdael smiled and stepped back. "Nicely done." The blunted blade had connected solidly with his arm, but the thick leather of his training jacket had soaked up some of the impact. It had probably hurt, but he didn't seem bothered by that. "You have the basics down solid. Have you decided what path you want to follow?"

Tatherine stepped back and lowered her blades. "I was thinking about training as a Ranger," she said.

Abdael nodded. "That's a good choice for you, I think: versatile, independent. I've known a couple of rangers, and even the relatively inexperienced ones had a nice mix of stealth, combat, and magic."

He turned, and she stepped up beside him as he started for the racks of training weapons. "It's not as... court-appropriate as my mother would prefer," said Tath, "but I have older siblings for that. Daina will be the next Countess, unless something happens. I'd like to be the sort of noble who just... goes out and deals with problems."

Abdael nodded and placed the blunted greatsword back on the rack, then unfastened his practice helm and started pulling it off. Tath moved a little ways down the rack and slung the blunted shortswords back into place.

"I think your county will be lucky to have you," he said, as she was removing her own practice helm.

That, she decided, was what she liked about Abdael: he took her seriously. Her mother and oldest sister often seemed vaguely disappointed in her choices; the guards and servants treated her with courtesy; and the other courtiers in her mother's circles were alternately amused and condescending. Abdael treated her like... well, sometimes like her trainers did, but more often like a friend.

"So, Abdael..." He was in the middle of opening the clasps on his leather training jacket when she stepped up beside him, and went completely still when she wrapped a hand around his neck and pulled his head gently down. But when she kissed him, he kissed her back like he'd been wanting this as much as she had.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Abdael: First Battles

"So is the lesson here that I shouldn't rush in to help someone?" asked Tatherine. "I mean, she said I fell for their trick like a rock off a cliff, and she was right."

Abdael was relieved to have her talking again; Tath had been quiet for the last day and a half, trying to digest the shape of her first real battle and the realization that it had been nothing like she'd imagined. He'd said a few words and then left her to it, riding quietly beside her and occasionally looking back at the impromptu corpse-cart behind them.

The two guards who rode behind the Countess' carriage had seemed relieved at their return, and only mildly surprised that they'd reappeared with a horse-drawn cart filled with a few small cloth bags and three dead bodies. It was the one who'd started to object to their riding out who had cocked her head and asked, "Bandits, then?" Tatherine had met the woman's eyes and nodded, and the guards had fallen back to include the cart in their perimeter.

"No," said Abdael quietly. He was a bit surprised to find that he had opinions about these things, but apparently he did. "No, when someone calls for help, the right response is to answer -- as we did. The lesson is that you also have to take precautions, and be sure of the situation before you decide what's the right response. As we also did."

"As you did," Tath said, looking over at him. She'd done that several times over the last few days, but he'd kept his attention studiously elsewhere to give her time for whatever considerations she was thinking over.

Abdael shrugged. "There wasn't time to discuss it, but we'd been hearing those screams for a long time. It seemed suspicious. So yes, I made myself invisible and let you ride in as if you were alone. But if I hadn't been here... would you have ridden out alone?"

Tath had settled back now, and was looking thoughtful rather than wretched. "I... might have tried. But I bet Claris would have followed, and I wouldn't have ordered her back."

Abdael nodded. Claris, he suspected, was the guard behind them. "You're not as foolish as you feel right now," he said.

"Still a little foolish," Tath said, but there was a hint of a smile on her face.

Abdael shrugged. "Some things have to be learned the hard way," he said, "and now that you know more, you can make better decisions."

Tath tilted her head, studying him. "I must ask: why in the world did you become a warlock? I can't imagine you bargaining with some unearthly force for power. Learning wizardry, maybe, with all your books, or becoming some sort of bard perhaps, but... a warlock?"

Abdael chuckled. "I know. It surprised me, too. Truth of the matter is, I inherited it. I've been a warlock literally since I was born. And that's precisely why I couldn't become anything else, however much I might have liked to."

Tatherine fell silent. When Abdael looked over at her, her expression had gone oddly serious. "That's..."

Abdael shook his head. "It's not some personal tragedy. If I hadn't been born this way, I wouldn't have gone to Neverwinter, I wouldn't have been part of that expedition, and I never would have met you. We do our best with what we have." He paused for a beat, just long enough to let that settle in, then asked: "Would you like hear the glorious tale of my first battle as an adventurer?"

Tath looked shocked and intrigued. "...Yes?"

"All right. You have to picture me striding boldly forward, sword in one hand, spell dancing ready on the fingertips of the other, towards the dark walls of a pillow factory and the band of evil, pillow-chewing rats inside..."

Thursday, October 17, 2019

ItB 002: Rescue Mission

"What the actual motherfucking hell?" Celia's voice was low and furious, audible to Caden's cyb alone. Linked into the transport, he could see everything she saw as they neared the source of the emergency beacon: the station in orbit around Ganymede, the elaborate alloy cage extending out from it, and the almost-complete outline of a massive ship inside it.

"Well," he responded wordlessly, "the scan wasn't wrong."

Celia sent back a pulse of pure, wry amusement even as she composed a status report: "Majesty of Earth, we confirm potential capital ship in dock at station Hirakawa's Celestial Triumph. Advise you pull back to maximum safe contact distance at this time. Continuing our approach."

"Admiral Battuta to Ultima Ratio, understand potential ambush Hirakawa paracorporation. Withdrawing to maximum safe contact distance this time. Proceed with all caution."

Maximum safe contact was not even remotely the maximum distance possible here in empty space, where the two ships communicated with low-energy laser pulses to avoid any possibility of interception. It was entirely arbitrary, the point at which even light took a full thirty seconds to pass from the Ultima Ratio to the Majesty, or vice versa. It was a distance at which the Majesty could be notified of a disaster relatively quickly, but probably couldn't respond in time to make any difference -- but it gave them plenty of margin to make an escape.

The arrangement was deliberate. The Majesty carried a dozen long-range guns and a network of smaller point-defense cannons, but it wasn't a warship. Ultima Ratio, for all that it carried only a crew of twelve, was.

Caden was already calling a launch order to his half of the crew. He ran one last check of his systems, then detached his raptor from the Ultima Ratio and let it drift out through the particle shield. It was always nerve-racking, that moment of enforced vulnerablility: if the ship were attacked now, they could all be destroyed. But if they didn't take the risk, they could only wait behind the field and share whatever fate the Ultima Ratio could forge for herself; they couldn't contribute to the battle. So they drifted out, one at a time, until they were all the way through and could activate their own propulsion and their own shields.

If this wasn't some sort of trap, then some Hirakawa tech had made a terrible mistake in activating the emergency beacon. The base itself wasn't an issue; all of the paracorporations and most of the planetary governments maintained research stations in out-of-the-way locations; putting one in orbit around Ganymede was extreme but not illegal. The ship in the cradle, on the other hand, was nearly a quarter of the size of the Majesty, and violated at least half a dozen major treaties. The profusion and scale of its armaments made it very nearly a war crime in itself.

"Signal incoming," said Drake, who was monitoring outside communications. "Originates with the ship, not the station." His voice went briefly fuzzy, and then the message came across the cyblinks:

"Attention approaching vessel: disregard beacon and turn back. Repeat, disregard beacon and turn back. Ship's reactor compromised, explosion eminent. Withdraw to safe distance now. There are no survivors. Repeat, pull back to safe distance now. This message is an automated recording."

"Well, that's..." someone started to say into the cyblinks. Celia cut them off: "Scanners are detecting no unusual radiation, nothing that would indicate a meltdown or even a leak."

"Message has looped and is repeating," said Drake.

"Someone," said Caden, as he eased his raptor further away from the Ultima, "doesn't want us to board them."

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Youth DnD: Catching up

The boys are out of school today in celebration of the birthday of Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau or something, I don't even know. But it's basically a long weekend for them. Between that and one of the players dropping out, this session was down to Firstborn and his friend who plays the Halfling Arcane Trickster.

This was the session where I finally came back to a bunch of the stuff that we had pending, but it started with the group going back to explain to Lord Aldenmier about the orcs. Aldenmier, it turns out, has a stake in a mining concern; and since these are Delving Orcs (who normally live underground) he thinks he could find a place for them at this mine if they were willing; they could even carve out their own living chambers in their spare time. This immediately caused some friction with the Orc Chieftain Ghazat, who's definitely not giving up control of his tribe, even if they'd be taking orders from a half-orc. But, the group talked Ghazat into coming out and meeting Aldenmier, and Aldenmier said basically that the half-orc foreman would be in charge of the work, but that Ghazat would be in charge of the tribe. Ghazat was at least willing to consider that; they'll just have to see if it'll work out.

They did, however, establish that it was possible to walk the orcs through the magical shield-membrane that keeps the dungeon sealed, as long as there was at least one member of the company already outside and at least one member still inside. This was a great relief to the cleric, who is looking forward to freeing their mousefolk clan from somewhere further down in the dungeon. Lord Aldenmier said he'd need at least two more days to finish making the arrangements with the other house who has a stake in this mine, and Ghazat went back inside to share the news with their people.

As they were leaving the orcs, the small cat statue that the Dragonborn Sorcerer has been carrying around began to meow and purr again. (It does this occasionally; they haven't yet figured out the pattern.) As they neared the exit, they nearly walked into another adventuring company who was clearly on their way down to the depths. This was the Laughing Beasts, a banner company in the service of a mysterious and much-rumored house; their leader is a gnoll, there's a massive lizardman with a greataxe, a couple of orcs, a kobold...

The gnoll stops to look at the group, while the rest of them file past him and into the room with the kobolds; this is immediately followed by the sound of dying kobolds. Then the gnoll walks over to the Dragonborn sorcerer, takes his hand, and makes a cut across the palm and up the arm with his knife. He nods once, then turns and walks away. Our heroes restrain themselves, because they're pretty sure that attacking the Laughing Beasts would be suicide... and because the Toruv, the sorcerer, is pretty sure that the wound was deliberately superficial -- that this is something in the nature of a "Welcome to the club" ritual.

So they head back outside, and back to the Aldenmier estate... where someone is waiting for them: older Human, brown robe, excited expression... He's a druid and a professional Griffin trainer, and he's come up from the Griffin Ranch to see these eggs. He's actually fairly excited about it -- "Ooh! Speckled Mountain Griffin eggs! They're nocturnal, most unusual..." -- and offers to buy them on behalf of the ranch.

...Which is when the PCs erupt into argument about keeping the eggs, learning to ride griffins, costs of feed, etc. etc. etc. while Aldenmier looks on, bemused. After a couple of minutes of this, the druid makes an alternate suggestion: he's been thinking about retiring, and if lord Aldenmier would help set him up with a farm (preferably somewhere isolated, with stone buildings) and a stake for starting expenses, he could set up his own ranch for griffins and other exotic animals. He'd be willing to raise the speckled mountain griffins and train them to the PCs as part of the process, thereby demonstrating his skills for one of the local Banner Companies and their illustrious lord.

Lord Aldenmier is amenable. As it happens, he has some magical rings of unusual potency, which he could sell out to local nobles and adventurers to recoup his costs. (These would be the Rings of Protection +2 that the group was farming from the treasure chamber.) Mainly, though, he's interested because this would give him another business venture that none of the other Houses have any stake in.

After that there's a lovely dinner before the druid flies back to work things out with his current employer, and in the morning Toruv (Dragonborn draconic sorcerer) and Barrith (Halfling Arcane Trickster) head into town to sell off treasure and look for useful supplies.

They're just nearing the market when a massive figure steps out of a cross-street and throws its hood back, then sweeps its cloak open. It's a skeleton... a very large skeleton, with a bull's skull and large horns, carrying an axe that's roughly the size of Toruv and has blades the size of Barrith. It attacks, injuring Toruv fairly severely. Barrith takes a moment to cast False Life on himself so that it can't squash him immediately, and Toruv turns and sprints away. The skeletal minotaur attacks Barrith this time, but misses.

Toruv skids to a stop at the edge of the market, then turns and lifts his hands to cast...
A massive, scaly hand comes down on his shoulder. It's the lizard man from the Laughing Beasts company. "What's that?" he asks, looking at the minotaur.

"No idea," says Toruv."

"I know what it is," says the lizard man. "It's fun." Then he lifts the axe off his shoulder and starts striding towards it. Toruv grins, then casts a doubled Catapult spell, prying up a couple of cobblestone and hurling them at the skeleton. They hit, and it staggers. Barrith, dancing in and out of its legs, adds some damage with his staff. Then the lizard man arrives and slaps the thing with the flat of his axe; it definitely feels that.

The minotaur attacks the lizard man but fails to connect, and Toruv finishes it off with another pair of magically-propelled cobblestones, which at that point are sufficient to kind explode the minotaur's rib cage. It collapses.

The lizard man looks back at Toruv and calls, "Well done." Then he strolls casually off into the crowd, while Barrith and Toruv look over the body -- or, well, the pile of bones.

Somebody has tied a small pouch to the spine, just below the neck. There's a note in it.

It's from the lich who runs the library outside of town. He'd be pleased to meet with Toruv and Aspen and provide them with assistance in their research, as long as they are honest with him about their goals and their findings. They will need to bring their own supplies if they stay for any time, as he does not keep food on the library grounds; but he does have guest rooms with small kitchens for visiting scholars of the sort who aren't undead yet.

And that was where we ended. I need to do math on the treasure, but that's more than my brain is prepared for right now.

Treasure they're carrying from this last adventure:
-silver coffer (worth 200 gp)
-3 rubies (100 gp each)
-50 PP
-Bottle of perfume

Current party treasure by my count is 25 PP, 1217 GP, and 31 SP.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Abdael: A cry for help

"At the risk of stating the obvious," said Abdael, "you don't dress at all like your mother or any of her entourage."

"Yes, well..." Tatherine drew herself up, then turned her head very deliberately to look at him. "I have two older sisters and an older brother. I'm never going to be the Countess Flurilis."

"Ah," said Abdael, taking a moment to digest that. "So you're training to become an adventurer instead?"

Tatherine sighed. "I wish it were that simple. I can't just take off in search of adventure."

I didn't do that either, Abdael thought, but he held his tongue while Tatherine continued.

"I am training, and I think I'm pretty good, but I'm also still a noble. Probably the best I can hope for is to marry someone who shares my interests. If I don't manage an advantageous marriage, then I'll probably end up using my skills on behalf of my family and our people." She looked ahead at the carriage, then back at Abdael. "I'm rather jealous of you, you know."

Don't be, Abdael started to say, when a scream rang out from somewhere back in the woods alongside the road. A moment later the same voice was shouting, calling for help. Abdael blinked, looking around, but the sound was far enough back that he couldn't see the source; he could only hear which direction it was coming from.

Tatherine looked up at the pair of guards who rode behind them. "Stay with the carriage," she snapped. "We'll take care of this."

One of the guards nodded sharply in return; the other opened her mouth, then closed it again. Tatherine was already turning her horse to leave the road and push through the brief underbrush into the relatively open area between the trees. Abdael turned his mount and followed.

The woods were heavy enough to slow them, but not heavy enough to force them to dismount. The cries for help continued, and after a long moment of smothering his misgivings, Abdael dropped his reins over his horse's neck and made himself invisible. The mount they'd given him was not the most spirited he'd ever ridden; it followed Tatherine's horse willingly enough.

There was a clearing up ahead, and now they could see movements as well as hear the cries for help and some rough, guttural voices. Tatherine urged her mount to move faster, and Abdael's mount followed suit.

They burst into the clearing to see two men holding down a smaller woman; all three were Human. A small cart stood nearby, with a horse in front of it.

"Unhand her!" called Tatherine, in a passably commanding voice. She drew a shortsword.

The two men startled, then stood and backed away from the woman, who rose slowly to her feet... holding a crossbow, which she leveled at Tatherine. "I thank you, brave warrior, but unfortunately I need your horses, your weapons, and all your equipment. Turn them over to us, and we'll let you walk out of these woods, no real harm done."

Abdael watched a series of expressions flicker over Tatherine's face: surprise, anger, more surprise, fear, and finally a sort of affronted disbelief. "You're going to rob someone who tried to help you?"

"Easy now, hero," said the woman, still sighting down the crossbow. "It's a classic ruse, and you fell for it like a rock off a cliff. So turn over your stuff and learn your lesson, or it'll go much worse for you than it has already."

Abdael looked around carefully, but he didn't see anyone else: it was just the three would-be bandits. He lifted a hand, extended it towards the woman, and loosed a bolt of eldritch darkness that slammed into her and flung her to the ground. He was visible now, but the odds were even.

The two men looked at each other. "Kill them?" asked one.

"I'm not going back to jail," said the other. They both drew swords.

"Abdael, watch out!" yelled Tatherine, as she moved to intercept the first one. Abdael was already calling his shadow out, forming it into a black, smoky sword that turned aside the second man's slash.

The first man caught Tatherine with a shallow cut across the thigh; in response, she vaulted off her horse and came down on top of him, pinning him to the forest floor with a shortsword through each shoulder. The second man danced away, his attention still on Abdael, then came in for another attack; Abdael swept it aside and thrust, and the man went down.

Tatherine straightened up, smiling briefly, then looking sick. A moment later she doubled over and threw up. On the far side of the clearing, the cart horse watched them placidly. "That--" She began, as she straightened back up, then scrubbed at her mouth with her sleeve. "They -- and they're dead. We just..."

Abdael swung down off his horse and went to put his arms around her. "Yes," he said gently. "We did. And you're right to feel sick about it."

She clung to him. "I just... I just killed him. I mean, he came at me with a sword and I just killed him."

"To be fair, he was trying to kill you." Abdael kept his voice gentle. "It was inarguably self-defense. But that doesn't make it any less ugly. And knowing that we've kept them from robbing or killing future travelers doesn't make it any less of a waste."

Tatherine shivered once, then straightened. Abdael let go of her and stepped back.

"Does it... does it get easier?"

"Not," said Abdael, "if you're the kind of person that you need to be."

Tatherine nodded, and Abdael watched with genuine admiration as she took a deep breath and put herself back together. She put a foot on the corpse beside her and yanked her swords back out, then wiped them carefully on the man's jacket before returning them to their sheaths. "Now what?"

"Traditionally, we check the bodies and take anything of value. In this case, I think you should just... take a moment. I'll check them over. Then I'll put them in the cart, and we can carry them back to somewhere they can get a decent burial. We shouldn't leave this poor horse out here anyway; even if we turned it loose, I doubt it would survive."

"That..." Tatherine swallowed. "...makes sense. Thank you."

Abdael nodded to her and went to check the first body.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

ItB 001: Mourning Has Broken


Captain Caden Stillwell didn't answer immediately. He was sitting on the floor of scrubroom, letting hot water cascade over his head and sipping occasionally from the contraband bottle in his hand. He recognized the voice, of course, but he wasn't sure whether to be grateful or irritated that Celia had come looking for him.

"How long are you planning to sit in that shower?" She was standing just outside the curtain now.

He brushed the water out of his eyes and looked down at the bottle, then back up at her shadow on the curtain. "Until I use up all the hot water."

There was a long pause, then movement outside the curtain. She couldn't be... that would be... She pulled the curtain back and stepped into the shower with him, every bit as naked as he was. ...insane. She nudged him with her foot and he scooted over; she immediately sat down beside him, one shoulder in the hot shower and the other pressed against the smooth wall. "I know for a fact that the water is heated by a tap from the ship's reactor," she told him. "The Majesty will literally fall apart before you run out of hot water."

"That does put a crimp in my plans." He offered her the bottle and she took it, keeping her thumb over the mouth until it was out of the running water. She took a long pull, then looked at the bottle speculatively. "Good stuff."

"I've been saving it." She handed him back the bottle and he took another drink. "Maybe I'll just stay in here until I finish the bottle."

"Maybe I'll help," Celia said. She looked at him. "You going to be okay after that?"

Caden nodded. "I just need a chance to drown my memories and obliterate my consciousness, and then a solid twenty-four stans of sleep. I'll be fine."

"You'd better be. I'm not taking the wing out without--"

The alarm hit them both at once. The siren in the scrubroom was redundant; the alert and its attendant information came straight through their cybs, scrolling orders across the inside of their eyes even as it repeated them into their auditory nerves. They exchanged a glance; then Celia and Caden both were moving, Caden to shut off the water and Celia to scoop up the bottle and slap the lid on it before they charged out to get back into their uniforms.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Challenge: Books That Did A Great Job of Explaining X

So, I'm coming at this late and half-sick, and this response is going to be much shorter than it probably should.

Starting with the usual bit of context: the topic is from the 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 Books That Did A Great Job of Explaining X.

I don't have an extensive list for this, mostly because I'm doing this at the last minute and off the top of my head, and I have no brain this week. (Well, I mean, I do. What I don't have is any energy. I seem to be shaking off some sort of virus or cold, but it's stubborn and enervating.) So I'm only going to put out one recommendation here, and it's one of the YA classics:

My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George. I haven't actually read it in years, but it's basically about a boy who runs away from New York to go live in on his own in the Appalachians (on some family land, if I remember correctly). This book explains (in just enough detail to be interesting) the various things that Sam Gribley has to do in order to survive -- hunting, trapping, foraging, making his own soap, carving out a shelter -- and is largely responsible for my early interest in camping, wilderness survival, and various other things that came up in my response to last week's question about what I'd want on a desert island.

So, yeah... only one recommendation this week, but it's a heartfelt one.

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Isle (Eye-sle) of Vecna

So no shit, there we were...
When we finished the last game, the group had defeated a dark naga and taken shelter in its cave, which seemed to cut through from one side of the ridge to the other. Night falls while we rest, but outside something is scuttling around the (steep but not vertical) side of the ridge. Martini slips outside to check on it, and sees a large, multi-legged beast clinging to the rock; she distracts it, and shortly after that we hear it scuttling around on the far side of the ridge, but nobody goes outside after that.

Eventually we wake up and proceed, following the path/ledge that seems to lead up towards the center of the island. After a short walk, Ruin hears some sort of scratching sound up ahead, and moves up to investigate. He moves as quietly as he can manage, but when he stops to look over the side of the ledge, the behir sees him. Mercy and Asrael move up; Martini hides, and then moves up more slowly. The behir scrambles up the cliff to its prospective next meal (us) and Ruin smashes it a couple of times, after which Marshall Mercy lays into it as well. It then bites Mercy and lifts him up in its mouth.

Ruin, Azrael, and Martini all make their best efforts to beat it down, but despite all this it swallows Mercy and bites Ruin, lifting him up in preparation for the same treatment. Martini finishes the beast, and Azrael -- who has already figured out what happens next -- casts Feather Fall on the corpse. As a result, Mercy and Ruin float gently down to the bottom of the cavern, rather than dropping like mortally-endangered rocks. Ruin pull himself loose of the mouth, and Mercy starts trying to cut his way back out, and between the two of them they cut Mercy loose before he dies. Martini throws down a rope, and Ruin climbs back up to the top with Mercy clinging to his back. (Just to show off, he doesn't use his legs.) (Mercy, of course, is absolutely exhausted by the time the climb is done. "Hangin' on like that is hard work, son, especially in armor...")

We proceed, and fortunately don't encounter anything else before we reach the top of the ridge. At this point, we've got cliffs on either side, and the massive silver dragon is still circling overhead, and it's... terrifying. So terrifying that Martini collapses into a fetal ball of make-it-go-away, while the rest of us have to wait until it circles away from us before we can move at all.

In keeping with his dream, Ruin stops and leaves his weapons at the end of the path. He proceeds forward, motioning for the others to hang back, and... abruptly disappears. Reverend Marshall Mercy starts forward after him, just as Ruin calls out to let everybody know he's alive.

The top of the peak seemed to be flat plateau, with nothing on it but a golden egg at its center. Ruin has fallen right through the illusion. Marshall, of course, falls through it as well. Azrael comes along behind, dragging Martini with him.

Inside the room, the fear effect dissipates and we're able to look around.

This whole room, every inch of walls and floor and ceiling, is covered in writing: old secrets, bits of ancient court gossip, knowledge that might have changed the course of empires had it been in the right hands centuries past. In that, it is much like the tree we found earlier. In light of our recent discoveries, it seems likely that this stone is a repository for important secrets that were traded to the Vecna cult. There's a single passageway, leading out of this room and down; it is also covered, every inch of it, in ancient secrets. We've come this far, and there's still a dragon up above; we follow it.

Ahead, we hear a steady tink-pause-tink-pause-tink-pause, as though someone is using metal tools on stone. The gods alone know where we are, but we line up for the superhero stride and walk in together and find...

...an old guy carving on the walls, with a small hammer and a sort of enchanted engraver's kit on a belt around his waist. He's working mostly in the dark, though there's an additional doorway that lets in a faint red light.

Then he turns his head to glance at us, and his eyes have been replaced with glowing orbs.

Mercy runs through everything he can remember about Vecna and the worship thereof, and comes up with this: the clergy of Vecna have a ritual that allows them to see through other people's eyes. This guy seems to be part of that. Except that aside from that one glance in our direction, he isn't really behaving like an enemy cleric at all: no speeches, no attacks, no threats. In fact, he's gone back to his endless carving.

So, the group moves forward to see what he's been carving recently. A lot of the recent stuff involves Party 2 (our previous-but-not-original set of characters), so we start looking ofr things we should know and find:
-Duke Corbin of Jainbridge/Corwick (one's the city, the other's the duchy) has a mystic minister Almonda, who is a (the?) Vision of Vecna, and sends assurance of a pending alliance with the dwarves.

Mercy hauls some more memories out of cold storage, and gives us a monograph on Vecnan ranks: Memories (level 1-5), Thoughts (level 6-10), Secrets (Levels 11-15), and Visions (levels 15-20) - so a Vision of Vecna (or even a Secret) would be the equivalent of a Solari in the human empire of Sol Povos, capable of turning the course of a battle on their own.

As we're discussing this, the Secret-Carver turns to us. "So," he says, "you're here for my eyes." Then he attacks, damaging Martini.

He's terrfyingly fast, and his follow-up takes Martini down. Ruin and Mercy grapple with him, but then he... is standing loose, like it just didn't happen. We have the vague (and also terrifying) impression that he's somehow undone what just happened. This is doubly disturbing for Ruin, who left all his weapons at the peak; grappling is about all he has left, and while he's ridiculously strong that's no help if the enemy can just... decide not to have been grabbed.

We aren't finished yet, though. Azrael manages to trap the guy with Black Tentacles, and someone -- Mercy or Martini -- manages to injure him; the guy decides that the injury didn't happen, but he's still grappled by a tentacle. Ruin takes advantage of the moment to pin him, and Azrael uses his longsword to finish him off.

It is at this moment, when the glowing eyes leap from the now-dead old guy to Azrael, that Ruin realizes that we are truly, totally, and completely screwed.

Azrael's first words, after he finishes writhing and screaming, are: "Holy shit, guys. This is so metal." To our tremendous relief, Azrael is still Azrael. The eyes have brought him a tremendous amount of power; not only can he reproduce the old guy's ridiculous speed and supernatural defense, he can... well.. there are about one hundred people in the world who have cut deals with the cult of Vecna that involve trading out one of their eyes for an eye from the cult. With a bit of concentration, Azrael can now see out of their eyes. He can also see... well, almost everything around him. Which is going to get really boring really fast, because he can't leave this chamber and he's going to go mad if he doesn't get back to carving secrets soon. In fact, he's already picked up the toolbelt and is reorganizing it for greater efficiency. But he can see something on a pedestal in the next room, and he tells us that if he could get to that he could leave this chamber.

So Ruin just grabs him and barrels through the illusion concealing the doorway into the next room. Sure enough, there's a pedestal in the center, and a map on the far wall. It's a map of the island; at this size and from this angle, it's also the symbol of Vecna.

We're standing on an eye-land.

Ruin barely breaks stride in the face of these revelations. He sets Azrael down in front of the pedestal and backs away quickly while Azrael reaches out... The golden orb pours power into Azrael's new eyes, and the moment it's done we book it back out of that chamber. This turns out to be a good decision, because the island is now coming apart and sinking into the ocean.

Azrael: "This is so metal. I should tell Wendy about this."
Martini: "I will murder her and you if you do."

In the treasure that we took from the Dark Naga -- remember the dark naga? -- there was a folding bolt. Ruin grabs his weapons again as the others are unfolding the boat and tying Azrael down, and we all hop in as the island finishes sinking. This silver dragon flickers and fades; it was only an illusion after all. With some effort, we row back to the boat that brought us here.

We settle in for the voyage back, and Azrael uses his lucid periods to look through others' eyes in search of answers. We don't really get those, but after piecing together several different accounts and making some educated guesses at geographical locations, we eventually figure out that there's another army entirely being led on its march into Sol Povos by a brass dragon named Estrelecada. Estrelecada is a Voice of Vecna - the high priest of Vecna on this plane.

We finally dock, and the captain sees us off with perfect politeness and no small amount of relief. We travel briefly overland, and soon reach Annon...

There are dead, tarred corpses hanging from the gate. "Traitors," explains the gate guard when Ruin asks. "The High Provost rooted them out and put them down."

We... decide not to go directly to the High Provost, even though he was the one who sent us on this mission. Instead, we cart Azrael into the temple of Artemis. After extensive negotiations, and despite the High Pristess' absolute bafflement at Mercy's insistence that Artemis (whom they both worship) is a snake-goddess and more properly addressed as Artem-hiss, we manage to convince her that, well, we need a miracle for Azrael. (Ruin: "If you could, I'd like you to consult with Artemis herself; I'm hoping she'll see fit to help us for, well, the survival of this whole plane of existence.") Eventually, we strike a deal that costs basically all our gold and Mercy's Necklace of Adaptation, and the following morning the high priestess performs the miracle: Artemis moves through the temple, and the glowing orbs that have replaced Azrael's eyes fall out and coalesce into a pair of 100-faceted gems, which we quickly dump into the bag of holding and close up. Azrael is sane again, but he still has no eyeballs.

He still needs to have them regenerated, but the High Priestess is exhausted and we can't afford it.

We still need to talk to the High Provost, though honestly OOC that was late in the evening and this may not have been our best judgement call ever. So Ruin suggests that we say nothing about glowing eyes, and just say that Azrael was blinded as a result of the battle.

We're just a block away from the High Provost's compound when a rock hits Ruin in the shoulder. He turns, sees a shadowy figure in an alley, and motions for everyone to stop and Martini to flank. Martini heads around a corner and then runs up a wall as Ruin steps into the alleyway after the figure.

It's Ruin's twin brother Darvinin. He says something is amiss with the provost: he claims to have hung the traitors who supplied that mysterious army, but there's no way this happened on such a scale without him being complicit. It was too easy for all that equipment and all those provisions to find their way there. We can't trust him. Also, in probably-unrelated news, nobody has heard back from the elvish expedition to the Dwarves, which means that Ruin and Darvinin's mother is missing.

Ruin brings Darvinin over to the others, and they agree: we can't trust the High Provost. But it'll be even more of a problem if we don't report in. So Ruin, Martini, and Azrael will go, and see if we can cadge enough money to fix Azrael's eyes while not admitting that we acquired anything from the island. Mercy decides to stay outside with Darvinin, and watch over the bag of holding that currently has the eyes.

We are shown to the High Provost immediately, and the interview goes... badly. He's not buying Martini's story that we put down a demon but it blasted out Azrael's eyes, and he says we should have come to him first; but he's also unwilling to admit that he sent us to that island with a specific goal in mind and a good idea of what he expected us to find there. So he says that if we happened to acquire an artifact, it should be hidden where the cult of Vecna can't find it -- we should take it back to Martini and Azrael's hometown, and consult with their father (emphasis explicit) who will know what needs to be done. He's also almost immediately made aware (by an underling) that Mercy and Darvinin are outside

Ruin is angry and disgusted and ready to gut the man on the spot, but the Provost hands over enough gold to get Azrael's eyes regrown and start us back on our way. And at least he isn't trying to imprison us, even if it's obvious that he doesn't trust us and we can't trust him.

Which gives us a choice of whether to be led further, or whether to pick our own path. The two main options are either to head back to Martini and Azrael's hometown, or to go see what's happening with Ruin and Darvinin's mother and the Dwarves, but there are other options.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Abdael: Home Life

Tatherine Flurilis followed the warlock through the door to his parents' home.

"Mother? Father? I've brought a guest." Abdael sounded relaxed and cheerful, but Tath was suddenly nervous: bringing word to the family herself had seemed like a proper assumption of noble responsibility when she'd suggested it, but now she wondered if it would turn out to be intrusive instead. Or, since she was a human of noble blood (albeit young and untitled), if it would be seen as arrogant.

But no, the woman who emerged from the far door was Human and roughly the same age as her own mother, and smiled even as she gave Tath a searching glance. Then she looked back to Abdael expectantly. "Is this one of your adventuring friends?"

Abdael cocked his head just slightly, still smiling. "After a fashion. She's an emissary from the Lord's Alliance."

Tath felt herself flush, but before she could answer another voice said, "That sounds very official," and an Elf stepped out of a side door, which seemed to lead to some kind of study. He stopped, studying her in that subtle way that Elves sometimes did, and said: "Welcome to our home. I am Alviros Polnes'sil..."

"...And I am Kiria Chourin," continued Abdael's mother.

Tath offered a bow. "I am Tatherine Florilis, daughter of Countess Evrinel Flurilis. I'm not properly an emissary, but my mother received word this morning and asked me to see if I could locate Abdael. The Lord's Alliance is gathering everyone who was involved in the rediscovery of the Wave Echo Cave to give formal accounts, and hosting them at the estate of Duchess Morwen while they do. Since we'll be departing in the morning to return there, I thought I should bring the news directly."

Abdael's father looked thoughtful, but his mother just turned to him and said, "Fortunately you've already done some writing on the topic."

Abdael nodded. "Yes, and after dinner I should make a copy of it; I'd like to take it with me, but Janaes had expressed some interest and I'd like to make available to more than just the library."

"I'll make the arrangements," said Kiria.

"Well," said Alviros, "it sounds as if we have time for dinner, at least. Will you join us, Lady Tatherine? I have some naithbread in the oven and a small kettle of niris that should be finished soon."

It sounded delicious, and in fact the smell was just beginning to fill the room and Tath felt her stomach growl softly at the scent. "I would be honored," she said, "but... I've intruded enough already, I suspect. You should have Abdael to yourselves for tonight, and I need to go and report back to my mother in any case."

The warlock's parents protested, but Tath was fairly certain they weren't displeased; so she gently insisted, and Abdael walked her back outside.

"You handled that well," Abdael told her as they stepped outside. "I hadn't realized this was your first time doing something like this."

"Thank you," she said, suddenly relieved. And he's right! I managed to deliver unwelcome news without insulting anybody or making it awkward. Another thought occurred to her, then. "For tomorrow, will you ride in the carriage or would you prefer to travel on horseback?" She paused. "If it's horseback, then I can ride with you instead of being stuck in the carriage with my mother and her maid. Well, some of the time, anyway."

Abdael shrugged, but his mouth quirked. "You'll have to provide me with a mount, I fear," he said gravely. "After a life of danger and exploration on the road, I wouldn't know how to make myself comfortable in a carriage."

Tath grinned, delighted. And I won't have to listen to my mother drone on in constant speculation about the current political situation! "Tomorrow, then. And Abdael? Thank you for being so... easy... about all this."

Abdael gave a small shrug, looking slightly embarrassed. "My life has never gone quite the way I expect it to," he said. "It'd be weird if it started to now."

Friday, October 4, 2019

Current State of Me and also Music: Bills

Was home sick yesterday, and basically didn't move for the whole day. (Seriously: I started a load of dishes, and I picked up Secondborn from school. Those were my big adult achievements for the day.) Feeling better this morning, but I don't know how long it'll last... and I still should be careful not to breathe on anybody, because Firstborn returned from school yesterday with a just-under-102-degree fever and when I emailed a couple of his teachers about pending assignments, what I got back was basically, "Oh no, I hope it isn't Flu, we've had a couple of confirmed cases already." Which, y'know, great.

Meanwhile I'm feeling a lot better (which isn't a high bar, but I'm mobile and functional and I'll take it) but I also have some things that I meant to follow up on yesterday, plus a couple of major things that I really ought to finish today. So instead of any of the things I'd been meaning to write, you get thematically-appropriate music:

"Bills", courtesy of LunchMoney Lewis:

Kind of an anthem for modern life, TBH.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Challenge: What I'd Want On A Desert Island

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 What I'd Want On A Desert Island.

So, I mean, let's start with the basics: a ready supply of fresh water, enough food sources to provide a varied diet, and some way to find or make a shelter. (I'm good with caves, or with enough resources I could probably rough out a lean-to or maybe even a tent. Caves, by the way, don't tend to be terribly good shelter; either they're cracks in the rock, in which case they usually don't keep the elements out, or they're water-carved, in which case they tend at least to get damp and very probably to flood in the weather when you most need to be in your shelter. There are exceptions, of course.)

After that? Well, I mean obviously, an Internet connection and something access it with. That way I can call for help. I don't get that? Really? No cell tower on this deserted island? Well... drat.

Next up: a knife and some way to make fire. If I was stranded as the result of, say, a plane crash, then I don't have a knife on me because the TSA is a pack of idiots engaged largely in a theatrical approach to security. But I do carry a lighter, even though I don't (can't, really) smoke myself. It's a throwback to my misspent youth, when I hung out with a number of smokers and none of them could ever keep up with their own lighters. The number of cigarettes I lit for people whom I then had to move away from because they were, well, smoking... but I digress.

So fire is probably covered. Honestly, even without the lighter I might be okay; I know how to start a fire with nothing more than some dry branches... in theory. I'd hate to have to do it that way in practice. And then if I did, I'd have to make sure I always kept enough live coals to wake the fire again when I needed it. It could be done, but it would be a constant concern and a lot of work.

Some kind of knife or axe, though... I'm either using keys, or I'm hoping to find a usable rock. Or I'm basically banging rocks against other rocks in an attempt to chip them or smooth them into usable shapes. That's a hell of a thing to be doing when you need to be out looking for food or figuring some way to build a shelter. I do normally have my key-ring with me, so the keys might help if used creatively. (The pens, pencils, and thumb drives that also travel with me probably wouldn't be much help.)

I realize that I really haven't listed anything about what I'd want to have available in order to pass the time until I got (hopefully) rescued. That's because honestly, unless the island already had a bunch of resources in place (e.g. I've somehow landed on some millionaire's private island, and it's got a very nice house with some sort of working power sources and plenty of food and supplies, it's just currently deserted) then honestly I probably don't have time to read or listen to the battery-powered radio that miraculously washed ashore with me. At best, I'm telling myself stories while I do all the other necessary things; at worst, I'm panicking and cursing. (Or, y'know, being mauled by a Komodo dragon or something.)

...Which brings me to the main thing that I'd want on a desert island: I'd want to be &^%#ing rescued.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Abdael: An Unexpected Summons

"Oh! Your commission is finished, my lord!"

Abdael stopped in the doorway of the scrivener's shop, surprised: he knew the shopkeeper, but he hadn't expected the book to be ready, and he certainly hadn't expected to be addressed as nobility. He'd honestly just stopped in to make sure that he'd be able to take a copy of his favorite book back to Neverwinter with him when he returned. He blinked a couple of times, then said: "Gleaming Gods, Janaes, you know I'm not a noble. You can't call me a lord."

The man behind the counter was an older elf, his golden hair touched with silver and the smooth, youthful skin of his face just giving way to the faint lines of age; but then, he'd looked like that for Abdael's entire life, and likely would long after. "Ah, but you're a big famous adventurer now, and I wasn't sure how else to address you."

"How about, 'Hello Abdael, I remember when your parents had to pry you back from gnawing on my merchandise as a toddler, it's so nice that you actually purchase the books now'?" Abdael grinned. "I mean, if you knew somebody when they still wore cess-cloths, you shouldn't be that impressed with anything they grow into. And anyway, I'm not that important."

The door opened again behind him in a soft, tinkling melody of silver bells, and Abdael stopped to glance back.

The woman in the doorway was Human, expensively dressed, and wearing a pair of shortswords and a bow across her back. Abdael blinked; in Neverwinter, such a sight would be normal enough, but here in Splendorhaven the majority of the population was Elven, of one sort or another. Humans were unusual; armed humans even more so. This one had the distinctive look of an adventurer, or -- and this was when Abdael realized that she was actually a little younger than himself -- someone who very much wanted to be seen as an adventurer.

Janaes looked at her, then flicked a glance at Abdael. He nodded, as subtly as he could manage; Humans tended to be blunter and more excitable than Elves, and it would likely be best if Janaes dealt with her first. Inclining his head, the older elf asked, "Gentle lady, how may we help you today?"

The Human slowed, however. She glanced at Abdael, then looked back at the scrivener. "You... seem to be already engaged. I can wait."

Janaes didn't respond, a courtesy that some humans would have taken as an insult; instead, he turned back to Abdael. "If you'll grant me a moment, I'll fetch your commission."

Abdael nodded, and Janaes disappeared through the curtain into his workshop. He emerged a moment later, holding a book in a leather travel case. "Here it is."

Abdael drew the book out and looked it over, then flipped through it. "Oh, you transcribed the whole thing."

"You said you wanted all of it," answered Janaes. "So yes, I copied A Wizard Most Wondrous: The Many Accomplishments of Mordenkainen the Mage along with your Born in the Blood."

"Ah," said Abdael. "And you included that in your bargaining? That wasn't extra work atop the price you asked?"

Janaes shook his head. "No, you asked for an exact copy of the volume, and here you have it."

Abdael nodded. It was extremely nice work, carefully scribed on proper vellum and bound in leather, with a travel case to protect it from the elements. Expensive, but certainly worth the money. He pulled the bag of golds that he'd brought along just in case, and handed it over to Janaes. "Your work is admirable as always, Janaes."

Janaes smiled. "Give my best to your parents. Your mother said you'd penned a monograph, and if you'd care to have copies..."

Abdael grinned. "I'll send it over." It would be a gratuity of sorts, something that Janaes could sell to those who wanted a copy of their own.

He turned and started towards the door. Behind him, he heard Janaes address the human woman: "Now, young lady, what may I do for you?"

"Well," she said, "I was going to ask you if you'd seen a warlock named Abdael Nightflower..."

When he turned around, she was looking directly at him. "...but I think I may have found him."

He sketched a bow. "You have indeed. What is it you want from me?"

The young woman didn't answer immediately, but returned the bow instead. "I am Tatherine Flurilis, daughter of Countess Evrinel Flurilis." She was definitely familiar with Elven customs, or else had been coached extremely well before coming here. "The Lord's Alliance has asked that those who were... involved... in the discovery of the mine and its current disposition come to the manor of the Duchess Morwen and give their accounts of the events leading up to the current state of affairs." She paused, studying him, then added: "Basically, my mother asked me to find you because important people want to talk to you and she was busy with politics."

"It's good that you're not important," observed Janaes, absently, from behind the counter. "And that you're not yet a big, famous adventurer that important people would want to talk to."

Abdael shot him a friendly glower and shook a melodramatic finger at him: "And don't you forget that!"

Janaes must have been waiting for that, because he answered immediately: "Don't wave that finger at me, young man. I remember when your parents had to pry you back from gnawing on my merchandise as a toddler, so it's nice you actually purchase the books now."

Abdael half-choked, then burst into laughter.

Janaes chuckled and retreated to his workshop, leaving Abdael to face Tatherine alone. "Very well... do you want to take me to your mother? Should we arrange a meeting? How are we doing this?"

Tatherine looked momentarily nonplussed, then straightened: "I think perhaps we should visit your parents first, so I can explain. Then we should return to my mother."

Abdael nodded slowly. That sounded as if there was some urgency to the summons, which might mean the possibility of more work or might be the result of some noble's expectation that everyone should hurry for them. Either way... "Very well," he said. "If you'll follow me..."

Monday, September 30, 2019

Youth DnD: Back into the Dungeon of the Mad Mage

So we finally managed to get everybody together for the youth DnD game again, and this time it went pretty well.

OOC, we've started enforcing the Don't All Talk At Once rule, and it really does seem to be helping. Unfortunately the crown that I ordered still hasn't come in, so we had the Roman Gladius of Talking instead. I also talked a bit about playing their characters so that they can work together, and told them that Lord Aldenmier gave them a lecture on the need for teamwork the following morning. So, with that hammered out (hopefully) they headed back into the dungeon.

The first thing they wanted to do was finish exploring in the area where they'd encountered the orcs last time. So they headed back there, and the Dragonborn Sorcerer used Mage Hand to open one door from a good, safe distance. Which was an excellent plan, really, since there was a spear-throwing trap behind it. He then did the same with the door on the opposite side of the corridor, which opened onto a room with three zombies in it.

I need to pause here, because this campaign book has one really major weakness: a distinct (and occasionally glaring) lack of proofreading. The monster description says very clearly that there are three zombies. The room description says equally clearly that there are ten zombies. So the group ended up destroying three zombies, but I warned them OOC that next time there would probably be the full ten. Metagame knowledge, but under the circumstances I felt like they deserved the warning.

So they finished the zombies and found a silver coffer on the floor behind them, containing 50 PP (platinum piece, so worth a total of 500 GP), 3 rubies worth 100 GP each, and a bottle of extremely nice perfume which they plan to sell. The coffer itself is worth 200 GP. Overall, it's a very nice hall (and a good argument for the idea that there should have been more zombies).

They then proceeded past the orcs and on to the next room down the hall, opening the door to find... more orcs, and even more evidence that this is some sort of permanent camp, and not something that the Dungeon is generating. One of the orcs was a guard the last time the group encountered them, and he looks up when the door opens. "You change mind? We fight this time?"

The Mousefolk cleric assures him that none of them have changed their minds and promptly closes the door again. The Elf monk opens the door again, and asks if he can buy some food because he's hungry; the orcs, it turns out, are willing to trade for weapons, so the monk passes over the spear from the spear-launching trap. At this point everybody comes inside, and the Dragonborn Sorcerer uses his Alchemy Jug to pour out a full four gallons of beer, and suddenly these orcs are the party's lifelong friends.

So they're eating and chatting when suddenly the door opens again and this really large orc walks in, looks around the suddenly-silent room, and demands: "Who these people? You no guard no more? You kill them--" One of the other orc quickly steps over, whispers something in the big guy's ear, and presses a mug of beer into his hands. The large orc takes a long drink, lowers the mug, and glowers around the room again: "Why you no tell me our friends were here?!"

This is the Orc chieftain Ghazat.

So it turns out that the orcs wandered into the dungeon somehow -- they can't find the passage that brought them in anymore -- and have been stuck here ever since. This sounds remarkably familiar to the Mousefolk cleric, but when they ask about other Mousefolk the Orcs don't know anything.

We stopped at that point (which doesn't sound like a lot, but we spent more than a little bit of the game time ironing out how we were going to play so everybody could enjoy it). I told the players to think about what they wanted to do with the orcs for next time -- and suggested that they might want to consult with Aldenmier before just trying to walk the whole tribe of them out the main entrance. The group seems to agree with trying to help them out, not least because it may give them really helpful information when they try to extract Aspen's people later on.

Treasure they're carrying from this adventure:
-silver coffer (worth 200 gp)
-3 rubies (100 gp each)
-50 PP
-Bottle of perfume

Current Party Treasure:
They sold off everything they didn't need (and I finally did the math) with the following exceptions:
-Everyone received a Ring of Protection +2; the rest of those went to Lord Aldenmier.
-The bronze shortsword also went to Aldenmier because nobody in town is buying non-steel weapons at present.

Current party treasure by my count is 25 PP, 1217 GP, and 31 SP.

There are also two griffin eggs being cared for at the Aldenmier estate; but we'll get back to those.

Friday, September 27, 2019

The Dread Isle of Dragony Dangerousness

When last we left our heroes, High Provost Luthien had sent them off to an obscure island in the inland sea. It was one island among many, but he claimed to have evidence that the followers of Vecna were hiring pirates to seek something in particular among the islands... and a missive that we'd captured earlier gave him enough clues to make a guess at where we should be looking, and what we should look for when we got there. He was also concerned enough to arrange transportation for us: through the forest in a wagon train, to a fishing village where we were picked up by a boat that would take us to Urda Tol, which is now an island sacred to the conclave of dragons or something similarly important.

There's a whole big fiction from our DM which takes place during this portion of the journey, and I might publish it later; it's pretty wild, and alternates between our heroes and Ruin's recently-tortured brother Devonin, who's half out of his mind and determined to figure out what actually happened to him. For the moment, though...

Berg is the captain of the ship, and he gets us to the island and sails once around it at a good, safe distance. (No, we're not sure what "safe" means under these circumstances. It mainly means "whatever keeps the captain from panicking and sailing away".) The island is roughly football shaped, about seven miles across east-to-west and about five miles across north-to-south. The north and east is dominated by high ground, with high cliffs and borderline-mountainous peaks. We spot a small copper dragon flying around over the east end of the island. (Actually it might be as many as three or four, but we're not telling the captain that.) The western end is topical forest, but the trees grow sparser and the ground grows swampier along the south edge of the island. Somewhere in there, a black dragon breaks cover to fly up and then falls on something in the swamp. There's a high peak near the center of the island, probably overlooking a lake; we catch glimpses of the water here and there. A giant silver dragon seems to be perpetually circling the peak.

The stunted, blighted trees and the swamp seem unnatural, possibly the result of the black dragon's influence; but based on the High Provost's gathered clues, that's where we need to go. Captain Berg isn't sailing anywhere near it, but he reluctantly lowers a lifeboat and tasks a handful of his crew with rowing us to shore. They get us to the beach, then row back to the boat as fast as they can.

It's fairly late in the day by this point, and Marshall Mercy (our human cleric) has been violently seasick for most of the voyage. So our wizard, the Gray Elf Azrael (real name: Lelilian Elisbian, or Lily) casts Rope Trick, and we all take shelter in a nice, safe, extradimensional space. When we emerge it is dark and silent and Mercy is still asleep. Then a shadowy shape glides past overhead, Nazg├╗l-style. Azrael, nerd that he is, identifies it as a Nightwing -- a hugely powerful flying undead. So we move off the beach and into the trees, and hide under them until dawn. The Nightwing passes overhead once or twice more; it seems to be patrolling this area, but it doesn't find us. Mercy sleeps right through all of this.

When morning comes, the Nightwing fades out of sight and Mercy finally wakes up. Having taken a few minutes to pray for new spells, he casts Divination and is told to "seek the lowest depression with the four trees". Azrael sends his familiar out to look, and Horatio (the owl) locates a likely-looking clearing about 3/4 of a mile away.

We're slogging through the swamp -- except for Martini, who's used her Slippers of Spider Climbing to keep her dress out of the mud -- when Martini spots a giant spider moving through the trees towards us. The rest of us stop, and Martini remains hidden... until she suddenly bursts out and assassinates the beast, killing it instantly. We proceed forward to the glade, using a Silence spell to avoid further attention.

In the glade are several trees, including a large stone carving of a tree... which is covered in writing. We approach it.

Yes, the other trees are treants. No, they aren't the friendly kind. There's a brief burst of combat, which ends when Azrael casts Fireball and immolates them.

The stone tree is a sort of giant history book, but it's all esoteric & obscure court gossip from a centuries ago. On one side, however, there's a sort of plaque with a brief rhyme (and I'm not really doing it justice) about a feathered serpent in the green jungle beneath the canopy.

Mercy casts Divination again and learns that the beast is a fallen Couatl - once a human priest, until it made a deal with the god of secrets (that would be Vecna) and was trapped on this island, a symbol of purity in the service of evil.

We move on to the jungle. There's an odd, humming chirping sound in the distance. Azrael hears a voice in his head: "You are too late..."

Meanwhile, we're being eaten alive by mosquitos.
We step into the jungle.
The Jurassic Park soundtrack starts playing.
And we roll initiative.

Ruin notes the T-Rex, considers, then attacks and gets bitten. (Ruin has no sense of self-preservation.) Azrael tries Glitterdust, but fails to blind it. Martini whips out her bow and promptly shoots Ruin in the back, as one sometimes does in battle. Marshall charges in and gets hit as well, but manages to hit the beast back. The battle rages on, and the Tyrannosaurus swallows Marshall Mercy... a moment before we kill it and haul him back out.

We collect some of its teeth as souvenirs. This time Marshall hears the voice: "I am the symbol of purity with the soul of blackness." When he looks up, he sees a beautiful human woman, completely naked except for a strategically-arranged snake. He's not compelled, but he is horny; he starts towards her. Ruin tries to talk him out of it, but he's determined to get that snake. So Ruin yells at the woman, and she disappears. Marshall hears the voice again: "I hunger!"

Ruin checks for tracks where the woman seemed to be standing, and finds nothing. We move on, and are soon attacked by a pack of smaller dinosaurs. Azrael drops a Stinking Cloud on them, and Mercy -- who has lately purchased a Necklace of Adaptation which renders him immune to such effects -- wades in to kill them while they're too nauseated to fight back. Only one of them escapes.

This time Ruin hears the voice: "You stand no chance against me." He shouts back, "Then come out and kill us if you can!" (Did I mention that Ruin has no sense of self-preservation?)

Another woman emerges from the woods; this time, it's Azrael and Martini's mom. So, before anyone can do anything too stupid, Ruin takes a shot at it with his bow. He doesn't hit anything, of course, but the illusion disperses.

It turns out -- shockingly -- that this is not their mom. It's the couatl, a feathered serpent with sorcerous powers. Azrael casts Ray of Exhaustion at it, but Mercy chooses to parley instead -- after all, it's a giant flying snake and he's a snake cultist. "I know that you have fallen, but you are not forgotten and you are not lost. It is not too late to return, if that is your desire."

Couatl: "Bring me the sweet mercy of death."

Mercy: "Yeah, sorry guys, we gotta kill this thing."

The couatl hits Azrael with Scorching Ray and takes him down. Ruin manages to hit it, but not nearly hard enough to kill it. Azrael expends his last few offensive spells but we largely fail to do any significant damage; so Azrael casts Rope Trick again and we climb up into extradimensional safety where we can rest and the spellcasters can recover their mojo.

So here's the thing: Azrael's Rope Trick lasts for seven hours. He's an elf, so he only needs four hours of rest to fully recover his spells. Mercy, on the other hand, is human and needs a full eight hours. So just before the Rope Trick ends, Ruin leaps down to the sand.

There's another T-rex not far away. It looks up at him as it finishes munching on the last thing it killed. Ruin (Barbarian/Ranger, though not particularly good at either) attempts to keep it calm and kind of suggest that it just finish its meal and leave everybody alone, and under normal circumstances that might even have worked. Unfortunately, the absolute focus with which it regards him suggests that it's been magically controlled, and naturally the couatl is flying in circles a couple of hundred feet overhead.

So Azrael drops out of the Rope Trick, and casts the spell again while the Tyrannosaurus is still distracted by Ruin. Mercy drops out behind him, crosses over, and climbs up into the new magical shelter. The T-rex fails to grab anyone, and we all make it into the new shelter, where Mercy can finish resting and fully replenish his spells.

As soon as that's done, we make ourselves ready and emerge. This time, we're at full strength:
-Azrael has cast Mirror Image and False Life on himself, making him substantially harder to kill - plus, Mercy has cast Shield Other on him, so half of any damage he takes goes to Mercy instead.
-Mercy has cast Prayer on the entire group, giving us a bonus to hit and do damage; he's also buffed his own attack and damage.
-Martini has the benefit of Mercy's prayer, plus invisibility; she steps out unseen and immediately casts True Strike.
-Ruin has the benefit of the Prayer, and he's raging.

Azrael comes out behind Martini, and the T-Rex attacks one of his images. Mercy leaps down and attacks the T-Rex, while Martini uses her bow to put an arrow in the couatl's eye. Ruin leaps down and slams into the dinosaur with his falchion, also doing a fairly substantial amount of damage.

That forms the pattern for the battle: Ruin and Mercy beat the hell out of the T-Rex while Martini and Azrael trade attacks with the couatl, which keeps flying lower as it uses up its longer-range attacks. The T-rex manages to swallow Mercy, just before Ruin finishes it off; Mercy cuts himself out of the thing like a Xenomorph chest-burster. Azrael takes a very nasty blast from an empowered Scorching Ray, but since the damage is split with Mercy it doesn't take either of them down. Ruin switches to his bow and starts trying to perforate the thing...

...And then Martini, who's been studying the couatl, attacks it from the cover of invisibility to take advantage of sneak attack and assassination. It dies.

As it hits the ground it shrinks and transformed into a dying human. "I have not long. Thank you for giving me mercy."

Reverend Mercy pulls out a snake, "Oh, I'll give you Mercy, all right."

The man continues, oblivious: "I was a priest. I made a deal to become a symbol of purity, but he cursed me to guard... In the center of this island is a golden egg guarded by a silver dragon..." He finally finishes dying.

So, all right: we move on into the mountains. We've been everywhere else on this vexatious rock, let's go do some climbing.

The cliffs are really, really steep, y'all. But we find a pass and start into it -- mind you, we haven't had a rest after fighting the couatl, so we're pretty tapped out in terms of spells and other resources. So it's probably a good thing that we spot the pair of Ettins (two-headed giants) who think we haven't seen them and they're going to ambush us.

Ettins are nearly impossible to understand, but we have enough linguists and enough luck to decipher what they're saying: they're mugging us, basically. Which... no. So there's more fighting, and by the time it's over both Ettins are dead, Mercy is down, and pretty much everybody is completely tapped out. We heal Mercy back to some reasonable degree of health, then take a very long rest.

We wake up the next morning and move through the pass, then start up a path. It's clinging to the side of a mountain, so one one side we have a steep cliff and on the other side we have a sharp drop.

...That's when the chimera tries to ambush us. There's another brief combat, in which it takes Marshall Mercy down and Ruin finishes it, and we move further along the ledge/path to where it turns into a cavern. Martini notices that there's something moving in there and begins to study it. Mercy, oblivious, strolls right past her and into the beasts's cave.

Azrael identifies it: it's a dark naga, which seems vaguely racist. Regardless, they're spellcasting sorcerous snakes, and this one immediately casts Displacement on itself, making it very hard to hit. Ruin charges in anyway (no sense of self-preservation, remember) and miraculously manages to hit it. This thing isn't as bad as the couatl was, but we're in another protracted battle with a spell-casting snake-monster, and by the time we finally beat it down we're once again exhaused. It does, however have some treasure: 30,000 copper pieces (sheesh), plus a scroll of Magic Missile and False Life, and a Folding Boat (which is actually really cool).

We make camp in the cave, knowing that somewhere up ahead there's a silver dragon guarding a golden egg that is almost certainly what the devotees of Vecna are searching for.

Ruin considers the possibility of going ahead, unarmed and alone, to parley with it.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

To Court A Dragon

Ruin picked his way along the top of the ridge, climbing carefully but steadily towards the high peak at the center of the island. He was well aware that this might be a suicide mission; the silver dragon had swept past overhead twice now, and was coming around for a third pass. It could stoop on him like a hawk any time it chose, or blast him off the ridge with its freezing breath.

He continued climbing, and the dragon continued circling. He slowed as he neared the flattened top of the peak, then slowed further when he realized that it wasn't a small plateau but actually a small depression, a shallow bowl that made a crown of the island's central peak. And there, at the center, was the golden egg that the cursed couatl had described before its death.

Is that truly what you came here for? asked his mother's voice, and Ruin stopped at the edge of the bowl. His mother wasn't here, of course. He'd come here with Azrael and Martini and the human cleric Marshall Mercy, while his mother had gone on to treat with the dwarves. This was probably something to do with the amulet she'd given him, though hearing her voice was new and disconcerting. Is this better left a secret? This time, he wasn't sure if the voice was hers or his.

A shadow passed overhead, and wide silver wings stirred a mighty wind as the dragon drew near. Ruin braced himself, standing on the edge of the bowl, and let the air rush past him. It tugged hard at his midnight blue cloak, casting it out behind him in a soft reflection of the wings overhead. Then the massive, gleaming shape of the dragon set claw to stone and gracefully settled its weight on the far side of the egg. It looked down at him for a long moment, then cocked its head.

"A true elf," it said, and its voice was soft and cold like the winter wind. "I did not expect to find one of your kind seeking the egg."

"I didn't come for the egg," Ruin answered, folding his arms and letting his shoulders relax. "I came to look upon you." Was that true? It felt true. Had it been true when he'd begun this ridiculous climb? He wasn't sure. I'm going to have to do something about this death wish of mine, he thought. Preferably something involving a large number of easily-slain humans, and a lot of blood and screaming. He'd grown fascinated with the dragon as he climbed, though how much of that was the creature's sleek, predatory beauty and how much was the prospect of an elegant, irresistible death he wasn't sure.

"Be that as it may," answered the dragon softly, its voice an icy caress, "you may not be here. This is a holy place, and you are..."

"Impure," suggested Ruin. "I know. I only hoped to touch your beauty for one brief moment first."

The dragon fell profoundly still. Then it slid forward, coiling its tail around the egg as it stopped in front of Ruin and lowered its head. "This I will permit, Feyborn child."

Ruin raised a hand and shifted his weight to reach out. His fingers caressed silver scales, finding them harder than any armor but strangely warm. "You are blindingly beautiful," he told the dragon.

It snorted and swept its head around, knocking him off the side of the ridge. For a moment he was sailing outward; then he was merely falling. He wasn't sure what lay below him, and it didn't matter. He would strike rock or water, and die or survive; if he survived, he would be crippled or not. There was nothing he could do to change it. Falling was all that remained to him.

A heartbeat later he glimpsed movement above him; a heartbeat after that the dragon was beside him, its form shrinking and softening into a pale-skinned, silver-haired elf woman. She wrapped arms and legs around him, and their descent slowed. After a moment they were drifting out over the lake. "You meant that? You came to seek me out? You think me beautiful?"

Ruin nodded. "It's a deadly sort of beauty," he said, "but all the more appealing for that."

"It has been," she told him, "six hundred and seventy-two years, three months, and fourteen days since anyone sought me out, and far longer since anyone called me beautiful. I hope you rested before you came here, Feyborn, because I intend to make the most of this."

For a moment, Ruin was troubled by the feel of his clothing falling away into the lake below. After that, he didn't care.

It was three days later when he woke back in the cavern that connected the mountain pass with the path to the peak. Or at least he thought it was. Had he dreamed the whole thing? If so, I'm as bad as Reverend Mercy, with his dreams of snakes. Though since she did turn into a elvish woman before nature took its course, perhaps not quite so bad. His equipment was there beside his bedroll, but then it had been placed there before he left to try the path. There was no point in carrying weapons to meet someone he couldn't possibly defeat.

Were his clothes still at the bottom of the lake? He certainly wasn't wearing much now. Had he gone to sleep in his underclothes? Here in a mountain pass, where anything might happen by and try to eat them? ...He couldn't remember. He might have. He could check his pack, and see if that particular outfit of silver and midnight blue was tucked away inside. Or he could let it be; after the chimera and the dark naga, he'd certainly been tired enough to fall into a full sleep instead of a traditional trance. It might be pleasant to wait, savor these memories, and only learn later if this had all been a dream.

Sitting up in his bedroll, he reached for his pack and pulled out the first outfit that came to hand. Across the small cave, Martini shifted her weight and turned to look at him. "You're back? About time."

He wondered how exactly she meant that, but for now he only nodded and started dressing.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Challenge: Authors I Wish More People Knew About

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 Authors I Wish More People Knew About, and yes, I have thoughts.

First: the absolute top of my list until a few months ago used to be Martha Wells and Lilith Saintcrow. But Martha Wells has finally gained some real attention for her Murderbot Diaries (and deservedly so - seriously, if you haven't read them, go check them out -- but check out her backlist, too). Lilith Saintcrow (unfairly, in my ever-so-humble opinion) remains seriously underrated, or at least under-recognized. (If you want more specific suggestions for where to start in on their work, ask me in the comments; both are authors that, well, if they've published it and I know about it, I've probably read it.)

I'd also add Walter Jon Williams, who's best known for the cyberpunk novel Hardwired (which is excellent) but not so much for the rest of his work (which is also excellent). Again, specific recommendations based on your preferences are available in the comments.

But let me also throw out a couple that... I think they're fairly well recognized, but I don't care: more people should know about them anyway.

Charlie Jane Anders uses The City In The Middle Of The Night to tell the story of a human generation ship that was forced to establish its colony on a tidally-locked world: one side always faces the sun, the other side is dark and frozen, and the thin ribbon around the middle is only barely capable of supporting human life, and it's really well done; but she also has a lot of excellent short fiction, and earlier novel (which I haven't yet read) called All The Birds In The Sky.

Hafsah Faizal charmed me with an excellent first novel, We Hunt The Flame. It's technically YA, but I'm a forty-mumble-mumble year old man and I adored it anyway, so I suspect you will too. And I'll be reading the sequel absolutely the moment it becomes available.

Emily Duncan tells a story of Wicked Saints in another YA debut, and where We Hunt The Flame has a very Arabian Nights Feel, Wicked Saints is firmly rooted in Russian folklore with a few other elements thrown in for good measure. The sequel will be out on April 7, and I've already pre-ordered it.

My last one is actually a double-author recommendation, because it was co-written: This Is How You Lose The Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. This is definitely not YA; it's a time-travel story, of course, but it's also a war story and a romance and the whole thing is just bloody and funny and sweet and gorgeous. Does that sound like a good reason to check out literally everything else either of them has ever written? It does to me.

I have a couple of other recommendations, but they kind of fit together thematically and I think I'll address them in a separate post. So... what authors do you wish more people knew about?

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Demigod Therapy

So, I was going to do at least one more Great Conference Adventure but I ran out of time and energy at the conference. Sorry. I'll try to put something together for Monday. Meanwhile, here's something I was doing on Twitter last night after I finally made it home:

Zuul: "There is no Dana, only Zuul."

Therapist: "Now, Zuul, that's no way to talk about-"


Therapist: "That's not how possession works, and we both know it. On this plane, what happens to you if there is no Dana?"

Zuul: "..."
Zuul: "There is no Zuul."

Therapist: "Much better. Now, Dana, do you want to chime in with anything here?"

Dana: "Why... is there... a horn-headed demon-dog demigod in my body?"

Therapist: "'Why' is always a difficult question, Dana. More importantly..."
Therapist: "How do you *feel* about having a horn-headed demon-dog demigod in your body?"

Zuul: "Silence! Soon I will find the Keymaster, and then I will remake this frail mortal flesh!"

Therapist: "Zuul, what did we discuss about waiting your turn?"

Zuul: "...I await."

Therapist: "Now, Dana? Your feelings about being possessed by a horn-headed demon-dog demigod?"

Dana: "It's... pretty kinky, actually. I think I could get into this." (Pause.) "Or get someone else into this. Deep into this."

Therapist: "Very good. Let's recognize those feelings."

Therapist: "And Zuul, how do you feel about manifesting inside this human woman?"

Dana: "Very deep into this. Over and over, deeper and-"

Therapist: "Not your turn, Dana. Zuul?"

Dana: "Sorry."

Zuul: "This is my divine role. I am the Gatekeeper. I seek the Keymaster."
Zuul: "Once we are joined, we open the way for Gozer the Gozerian, Gozer the Destroyer, Gozer the Traveler. Our union is the end of civilizations."

Therapist: "So you both seem pretty okay with sharing this body."

Dana: "Yes! Yes! Yes!"

Zuul: "It will serve."

Therapist: "Dana, this isn't really the place for..."

Dana: "Yes! Yes!"

Therapist: "...Well, I suppose we can talk about that later. Zuul, how do you feel about ending civilizations?"

Zuul: "..."

Therapist: "It's okay, Zuul. I'm not here to judge. I'm just here to help."

Therapist: "Tell me how you feel about ending civilizations."

Dana: "Yes!"

Zuul: "Well, to be honest, pretty bloody awful, mate. I mean, have you looked around this place? New York is amazing! They have theater! And coffee! And orgasms!"

Dana: "Yes!"

Zuul: "Would you want to destroy all that? I mean, what else does this obscure little half-slice of a minor plane have that I'm never even going to find out about because the boss is going to drown it in lava or something?"

Therapist: "That's a perfectly understandable way to feel, and I want you to know that those are perfectly valid reactions and I don't think any less of you for having them."

Zuul: "Just, um, don't tell the boss, okay?"

Therapist: "I doubt it would ever come up, but I agree."

Zuul: "Thanks."

Dana: "Yes!"

Therapist: "So, it looks like the two of you could use a little alone time. Why don't you go rest now, and we'll talk again in a day or two."

Zuul: "Sure. Sounds good."

Dana: "Yes!"

Therapist: "All right. I'll see you both later, then."

::Exeunt Dana and Zuul::

Therapist: "Martha, who's next on the schedule?"

Receptionist: "We have a Louis Tully next on your schedule, sir."

Therapist: "Oh, god. Okay, we'll deal with him after lunch. Take an hour, Martha."

Receptionist: "Thank you, sir."

Monday, September 16, 2019

2019 Conference Adventure Day 1

We've arrived. The intern wanted some pictures to show that he's actually attending the conference, so:

Here he is enjoying the view:

Here he is getting ready for our first training session. (When I take it notes, it's by typing. For him, it looks more like an extreme version of Dance Revolution.)

There's a funny little area with beehives and a pig behind the conference center; the intern was fascinated:

Then we stopped for lunch. He ate... quite a lot.

"When I ordered a 'tall'," he told me that evening, "I had no idea just how tall it would be..."

Friday, September 13, 2019

The Saga of the Crazy Neighbors Comes to a Close!

So, we've had a few issues with the neighbors across the alley.

Last night, I came home from work to find their driveway full of junk: battered furniture, rolled-up carpets, bags of trash... really just a whole bunch of junk set across and around their driveway. I can think of only three explanations: an eviction, a death, or some really extreme spring cleaning.

So this morning, on my way to work, I drove around the front and... if possible, it's even worse:

That bit of red in front of the tree on the left side of the image is a For Rent sign, so I think we can rule out spring cleaning. I just hope the property owners are planning to get all that junk hauled out of there.

I really have no idea what the story was here and I'm honestly not sure I want to know. Kind of just glad to be done with it, honestly.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Music: Drunken Dwarves

The band is apparently called Wind Rose:

This is pretty much how I picture classical Dwarven thrash metal bands, honestly.