Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Tavros Fontaine: Whispers, Part Four

Written by our DM, the final fate of Vigo the Whisperer... 

Tavros followed Abbess Sturmgart down the hallway. They were under the main complex, in seldom used tunnels that he was unfamiliar with.

“Here,” the Abbess gestured to a small cell, being used more literally in the spirit of its namesake. It was guarded by two very serious looking guards wearing regalia not of his house, but of the temple – men loyal to the Abbess. She had been wise not to trust anybody of the Fontaine household with the prisoner, who might claim to be acting in the purported best interest of their king. It was an effort by the Abbess to put the power of decision making back in Tavros’ hands.

“Thank you,” he said, “you are one of the few, and always have been, who look after my genuine best interest. Really, I… I appreciate it.”

“Of course, my child. I know it’s important to you.”

“It is. If I continue to let everybody think they need to step in and fix things for me – if they continue to think that I’m incapable of doing these things for myself – I will never truly be king; I will only be a puppet.”

The Abbess nodded and smiled graciously. Tavros felt a surge of warmth. No matter how grown up he felt, the Abbess had a way of making him feel like he was that young boy again, running amuck around the temple.

“Who told him?” Tavros inquired.

“It was one the maids who served you and Jacqueline a few nights ago. It turns out that neither your mother nor Andraska had any recollection of ever hiring the girl. You see, with so many people coming and going here and at your mother’s estate, everybody just assumed that someone else had hired the girl. In reality, nobody hired her, but she’s been going around for months, serving your food, folding your clothes, and all the while funneling information back to…” she paused.

Tavros’ face became stoic, “Yes, well we’ll see about that. Thank you, Abbess.” He bowed low. It was how he used to defer to her, as a disciple – not entirely appropriate as a king, but well, there was nobody here to see. She smiled again, and touched him affectionately on the cheek – also not appropriate, but damn it all!

After the Abbess walked away, Tavros, took a deep breath, nodded to the guards, and barged into the room. It was a spartan cell, in the fashion of many in the temple, but this one was deep in the bowels, windowless, and barely furnished. Vigo the Whisperer sat a table, writing. The Abbess had treated him as a political prisoner of importance rather than throwing him in a proper dungeon, again giving Tavros the opportunity to decide how he would be treated.

“You ran away!?” Tavros blurted angrily.

“Of course,” Vigo responded calmly, “you were going to execute me. How can I serve my purpose if I’m dead?”

Tavros sneered, “Well I hope our dear Reverend Mercy didn’t mistreat you too badly.”

“He found me in the Savage Hills, halfway to Brightland. I have to say, I’ve never been eaten and shat out by a snake before.”

”Yes, well,” Tavros brushed the scales on the back of his head, “Marshall finds that a convenient way to store and transport things.”

Vigo finished writing and put his quill in the holder, “I’ve taken the liberty of drafting a list of others that you should execute alongside me. I assume you’ll make it a public affair, likely with some light torture to emphasize the price of crossing the king.”

“I am not torturing people!” Tavros stamped his foot in frustration. This was exactly the problem with Vigo. “Besides, wouldn’t you be included in this group?”

“Yes, of course, assuming I don’t escape. But public torture is nothing compared to the real thing – just some minor dislocations, cutting out a few internal organs -- …”

“Enough!” Tavros yelled, “why doesn’t this bother you?”

“As we discussed,” Vigo said with a moderately bemused look, “I have nothing left to lose. But truth be told, I’d rather not be executed at all.” He got up and came over to Tavros, dropping to his knees. He grabbed Tavros’ enormous claw and started begging, “please, my liege, spare my life. I will swear to serve you, on your terms!”

“Are you -- ?” Taavros snatched his hand away, “begging!? Get up, it’s…”

“What’s wrong with begging?” Vigo asked as he stood up.

“Aren’t you ashamed?”

“No,” Vigo said simply, “I want to live, so I’m begging you to let me live.”

“But,” Tavros said, eyes narrow, “you also don’t care what I do to you.”

“Not really,” Vigo said honestly, “but I beg you not to kill me, so that I may serve you.”

“You’ve served me enough,” Tavros said angrily.

“At least,” Vigo implored, picking up the list, “look at my list.”

Tavros received the list begrudgingly. He scanned it, his eyes getting bigger, “are you serious?”

“Of course,” Vigo said, “these people are your enemies.”

Tavros stopped suddenly, his mouth open, “Martini D’wintlithar!?”

Vigo nodded, “She’s dangerous, angry, and evil. She tried to turn in your pivotal battle against the Goddess of Secrets, offering to join her. It would be better for the kingdom if she were dead.”

Tavros turned away, massaging his aching temples.

“Surely,” Vigo said, “you don’t consider her situation different than my own? It’s true that I might betray you, if I felt it necessary, but I haven’t yet. She has.”

Tavros sighed, turning back to face his former spymaster, “Vigo, I sentence you to death. There will be no torture, no fanfare, no performance. I will do it traditionally and honorably: With a block of wood, a sword, and my own hand. I pledge to you it will be over quickly, but it will be over. My mind is firm on this matter. I am sorry.”

Vigo nodded, thoughtfully, “that is… sub-optimal. But… it suits you. Good job.”

Tavros looked at him aghast, shaking his head, “Vigo, you confound me.”

“My apologies, my liege, for I seek only to aid you.”

There was nothing left to say. Tavros just shook his head, and made for the door.

“Wait,” Vigo pleaded, “one week. Give me one week.”

“One week for what?” Tavros asked.

“One week of you,” Vigo replied, “one week to tell you everything I know, everything I’ve learned, everything I have planned. If I will no longer be here… at least let what is in my head live on in you. It is clear I have no leverage, and I am out of time. The best I can do for my kingdom… is to give it all to you.”

“You can do that in a week?” Tavros asked, skeptically.

“Yes. You will arrive at eight o’clock each morning, and we will go through supper. We’ll eat our meals here. I will be provided spare quills and all the parchment I need. What I don’t say, I will write. All of it, all my knowledge, it will be yours.”

“That’s,” Tavros searched for words, but had none. He did not understand this person at all.

“No disruptions,” Vigo said firmly, “you give me one week left in this mortal world, but I want all of it. Your other advisors must wait, for now.”

“I,” Tavros stuttered, trying to find the hole or trap in this suggestion, “I - …”

“And on the eight day, can you execute me at mid-day?”

Tavros looked at Vigo in surprise, “Why?”

“I just,” Vigo seemed to think for a moment, “well, I guess I wanted to see the sun one more time.”

Tavros laughed once, mirthlessly, “Confound is not a strong enough word. Very well, I will execute you at high noon of the eighth day, on MY terms.”

Vigo bowed deeply, “thank you, my liege. For what it’s worth…”

There was an awkward pause. Tavros didn’t know what to say, so he just waited for Vigo to continue.

“I think,” Vigo said, “you will be a much better king than your uncle. I am proud of you.”

Tavros swallowed. For all the horrible things Vigo had done, for all the certainty he had about this decision, it was still hard for him. He was not good at sentencing people to die. “Thank you,” was all he could muster. Then the two men stared at each other in silence until Tavros left the room.

Once outside the room, Tavros had a pit in his stomach, but then something tickled the back of his brain. Was it mistrust? Or perhaps a developing, ingrained vigilance?

“Double the guards,” he ordered, “and nobody is to see the prisoner except for myself.” After a moment, he added, “that includes the Abbess and my mother. Absolutely nobody, is that clear?”

The guards nodded vigorously, virtually wilting under his gaze. A part of him felt bad, but another part nodded in satisfaction. Dammit, he swore to himself, a little piece of that bastard is already inside me.

Monday, December 4, 2023

Aftermath, Part Three: Ruin, Werendril, Aesa, and Tarric

They weren't in their rooms, nor were they down in the primary chapel, nor was Werendril up in the Chapel of All. They weren't out in the practice yard, and Akkora hadn't seen them. It was only when he stepped into the antechamber to the Abbess' office and the halfling priest Birno rose to his feet with a resigned, "Ah," that Ruin thought he might be able to locate the rest of his people. 

"You know what I'm here for?" Ruin asked. 

Birno nodded sadly. "They will be in the Chapel of Farewell."

"In the what?" In all his time in the temple, Ruin had never heard of the Chapel of Farewell. 

"This way," said Birno, and set off. He walked quickly for a halfling, making it easy for Ruin to match his pace. "The Chapel of Farewell is where we bring the dead, where we clean them, and where we see them off on the journey from which they will not return. It's the open-walled chamber in the western tower."

"Ah," said Ruin, as Birno threaded their way across the temple and up the stairs. "That seems..." He wasn't sure how to finish that sentence, and finally settled for: "...appropriate."

"Under the circumstances, it was the best we could do." The halfling sounded pained, and perhaps also frustrated.

Ruin swallowed and choked back his rage. He had no doubts that everyone in the temple had done their best. No, what he needed to now was to finish wiping out the Order of Secrets, and then find some way to get to Asgard and kill Galvera again, this time properly. She needed to die in a way that even a goddess couldn't recover from, and he needed to make it happen.

No. What he needed to do now was raise his children and pay his debt to the druids. But someday... Someday.

The Chapel of Farewell was like nothing he had ever seen before. Three wooden tables had been covered with blankets, and a circle of chairs surrounded them; there was even a series of cots along the outside walls. The western wall was entirely open, and as the sun set its light would fill this room. 

Each table held a body wrapped in a shroud, but before he could even begin to confront that he was faced with the survivors: Aesa, holding their daughter Rose; Tarric and Werendril, sitting side by side in shared grief. They were sitting in the chairs and watching over the bodies. 

Aesa saw him first. She rose, and the two paladins were so lost that they just watched as she walked over to him. "Ruin..." she said. "We saw... And Anica, and Vendril, and Rune..." 

"I know," he choked out, as Birno disappeared silently back down the stairs. "And I know they can't be brought back."

She nodded, then collapsed against him, keeping Rose just far enough aside to avoid crushing the little girl between them. Ruin held her until she finally drew back; Aesa didn't cry, but he thought that was only because she'd used up all her tears already. Rose actually smiled at him, and for a moment his heart caught. It should never have come to this. More people, dead on his account. More people he had cared about, lost to him. It should never have come to this. 

Tarric rose, approached, and studied them. "I know this was Vecna's fault," the paladin said, studying Ruin's expression closely. "I know it. But I still hate you for it."

Ruin nodded. "So do I."

Tarric snorted. "Is it weird that hearing that helps?"

Ruin shook his head. "Not at all." He stepped past Tarric, past the chair where Werendril still sat looking pollaxed, and went to each of the bodies in turn. Anica, always so fiery, was still and quiet now; death had taken that fierce energy from her. Vendril... Ruin wasn't sure he'd ever understood the man who had stepped in to court Aesa and help raise Rose, but he didn't need to understand to feel the loss. The Silver Fox was irrevocably dead, his soul carried back to Asgard despite Vecna's defeat. Oh, yes. It might take centuries, but Ruin was going to find a way to cross over, and to slay the false goddess. 

He went to Rune at last, and that was when he broke. For a long, impossible moment he didn't even realize he was sitting on the stone floor. All he could see was his child's face, still and cold, all traces of that child's curiosity and developing awareness wiped away. The image consumed him utterly. He couldn't chase it away with justifications for the battle or thoughts of vengeance; he couldn't focus on anything else but the face of his son. 

It was the knowledge of his other children that brought him slowly back. Rose needed him here. Scar, Risk, and Sun needed him here. Whatever children Alnira and Nym eventually gave birth to would need him here. 

Galvera had been wrong. She'd seen his ties to the world as vulnerabilities, and tried to make him see them that way too. They weren't, though. They were strengths. They were anchors, dragging him back from despair. 

Werendril came and knelt beside him, holding him as he sobbed and keened. That was an anchor, too. Then Aesa came as well, and finally Tarric. And when the last of his tears ran out, they held him still. It didn't make things all right. Things were never again going to be all right. But it made things possible.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Dark Armor: Answering the Call

Pallian was deeply asleep when the image of his father's face formed above the pedestal just to the right of his door. He snapped awake when it spoke his name, rolled off the bed, and knelt. "Father," he said. "I hear and obey." 

He tried to, anyway. His throat was dry, and the words came out in a mumbled croak. His father barely seemed to notice. 

"The Black Knight will attend the Wizard-King at the fallen city of Marinul. We will join our forces with those of Edrias when we arrive, and you will lead the search for this emissary."

"I hear and obey," Pallian said, lowering his head in acknowledgement of his father's rank and power. 

"Depart immediately, then. The carriage has its instructions already." The image winked out. 

Pallian rose, still in his smallclothes, and drew on shirt, pants, belt, and boots. He didn't hurry, but neither did he delay; he kept his movements deliberate as he waited for his body to shake off the weight of sleep. He didn't need to be fully alert just yet, but he couldn't afford to be logy, either. 

He was halfway to the chapel before he realized that he had left the glowstone lights behind in his chambers, and the halls of the crypt were pitch-dark. Stupid, clumsy... Pallian Teres should not be able to see without light, and if he could then nobody else should be allowed to realize it. His survival depended on his father never learning that he had gone to visit the Grandmother, and been changed by her. Fortunately, none of the servants had seen him...

...Until now. Someone was approaching with a glowstone lamp. Pallian moved back, found a door, and slipped into it. 

It was a linen closet. Wooden shelves were set just inside the walls and loaded with folded cloth, and baskets of bes-rice had been set out to pull the moisture from the air. More importantly, there was a sconce just inside the door; a glowstone waited beneath a simple wooden cover for some harried servant to uncover it and so light the room. 

Pallian stood in the dark and watched the light pass by outside the door; then he lifted the wooden cover and claimed the glowstone underneath. The servitors would replace it as soon as someone realized it was missing, and now he could continue his journey to the chapel without giving himself away. 

Better, he decided. Much better. He opened the closet door, and found himself face to face with one of the servitors. 

He managed not to shriek, but it was a near thing. Fortunately, this one was dead; it would not say anything about his actions or his presence here. It might even set a replacement stone itself. But that was also why it was carrying a stack of linens along a night-black hallway; the dead had no need of light to find their way. They knew this place as the living never could.

He stepped around it and continued on. He needed to be wearing the armor and climbing into the carriage right now; his father might notice even the slightest delay.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Aftermath Part Two: Ruin and Eva

The nursery was crowded, but the three young half-dragons had been given a small room to themselves. With their claws and their strength, it was too easy for them to damage the other children -- accidentally, or in a fit of temper. 

Ruin paused in the doorway, swallowed, and then stepped over the short metal gate and went inside. Eva followed him in. 

The children were engaged in some sort of game that involved building a fortress with wooden blocks and setting the carved figures of human soldiers on its walls. He suspected there would soon be a moment where they went to tear the whole thing apart, but instead Scar looked up at them, focused on Eva, and said: "You're not Mother."

Eva nodded approvingly. "That's correct. I'm your aunt. Your mother was my sister."

The other two fell silent as well. Then Sun said, "Was?" She was Ruin's daughter, and frequently more perceptive than her brothers. All three looked obviously worried, but it was no surprise that Sun was the one who'd latched onto the change in tense. 

"Was," confirmed Ruin, watching them closely. "My children..." He seated himself, leaving Eva standing, and motioned for them to come over. Sun settled in front of him, and Scar sat beside him; Risk actually crawled into his lap. "Your mother..." He swallowed. "Your mother fell in battle yesterday. She was killed by a goddess, and we cannot bring her back."

Risk turned and tried to bite him; Scar tried to sink his claws into Ruin's arm. "You lie." Sun just sat in front of him, looking stunned. Fortunately, neither of the boys was able to do enough damage to actually break the skin. 

"I wish I was," Ruin said simply. "I wish it was just a story, and not something that happened." She died of knowing me, he thought, and squeezed his eyes shut. He knew the thought was wrong and self-important: Rita had been killed for being Eva's sister more than for anything to do with him. He knew it, but he couldn't shake it off. 

There was a momentary scuffle of movement as Risk tried to bite down harder and Scar tried again to claw him. Eva swayed slightly, but held herself back from trying to interfere. 

Then Sun leaned back and said, "But you killed the goddess, right?"

Ruin choked out something that was half laugh and half sob. "You bet your scales we did. Beat her down, destroyed her plan, wiped out her priesthood..." There was more to do on that front, he knew, but that could wait. They were still too bloodied and bruised for it now. 

"Good," Sun said firmly, and the two boys stopped trying to tear their father apart. 

Then Risk burst into tears, and a moment later all three children were sobbing. Ruin wept with them. Rita had never been destined to be his one true love, but he had loved her -- in his own idiotic, distracted way -- and he felt her loss keenly. 

When things had settled back down, minutes or hours later, Eva knelt down and put a hand on Ruin's shoulder. "Let me take them for a while," she said. "I know you have other business."

Scar studied her suspiciously. "You can't be our new mother."

"No," Eva agreed. "I can only be your aunt, but I can help to take care of you. Right now, all four of us need food; and your father has other duties." She glanced at Ruin. "We'll need to make some decisions before too long."

He nodded and looked down. After a moment, Risk scooted off of him, and Sun stood up and offered her hand to Eva. That seemed to settle the other two, and she was able to lead them out and off towards the dining hall.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Aftermath, Part One: Ruin and Eva

"They can't be brought back, can they?" Ruin stopped beside Eva, where she stood at the railing and looked out over Mar Dentro at the distant shore and the tall trees of the Duendewood rain forest beyond.

The gold dragon, currently pretending to be a rather attractive human woman, shook her head. "No. I asked Grandfather. He said that with their souls brought across that way, there was nothing that either mortal or god could do to send them back." Her eyes never left the distant line of the rain forest. There was a long moment of silence, before she added: "He promised to negotiate a place for them, a chance to become Celestials and perhaps -- eventually -- gods in their own right, if they can find enough worshippers here in Midgard."

"But for now, for us, they are dead and nothing more." Ruin's voice was flat. He didn't want hope; he wanted to understand.

"For now," Rita agreed. "For now, they are dead and we must look to the living." She tore her gaze from the forest and turned to regard him. 

Ruin had stopped with a full pace between them: close enough to talk, but no closer. No shared whispers; no intimacies.

"My sister had children by you," Eva said quietly. "My nephews and niece."

Ruin nodded. "Scar, Risk, and Sun."

"We should go to them."

"Will you take me?" That was why Ruin had come to stand beside Eva. He had no comfort to offer her; she had no comfort to offer him. But she could carry him back to the temple, and they could present the news together. It was the fastest possible way to get there short of teleportation, and until Marshall recovered enough to resurrect Leira there would be no teleportation. 

"Ruin?" called Tavros, from the far side of the deck. The half-dragon sensed trouble, though not as well as Ruin did with the crystal at his belt. "What are you--?"

"Yes," said Eva, and reverted to her dragon form, her wings beating hard to keep her weight off the deck. Tavros staggered back from the force of the artificial wind; so did several of the sailors. She snatched Ruin off the deck in one claw, and rose into the air. "Let's go find what remains of our families."

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Tavros Fontaine: Whispers, Part Three

"Tavros!" Jacqueline smiled warmly, then hesitated as she studied his expression. "You look worried." They'd met for an evening meal at his mother's house, with Emiliana's Steward Andraska to watch over them and make sure that all the proprieties were maintained, while ostensibly just directing the servants who brought the meal.

"I am," he said, quietly crestfallen. "You barely survived our battle with Vecna, and Tabitha... Tabitha is gone beyond recall. You could have been too. And now I learn that Vigo the Whisperer was once a Secret of Vecna -- something I should have discovered much earlier -- until the dark army threatened the kingdom and he betrayed them."

Jacqueline considered that for a long moment. It sounded like exactly the sort of thing that Vigo's political enemies -- and some of those still survived -- would spread around to discredit him. "First of all... you were fighting a god. There were always going to be consequences to such a battle. Second, it was not your choice to endanger us. The guilt for that belongs to Galvera, and Galvera alone. You didn't know Tabitha--"

Tavros dismissed that with an anguished shake of his head, and she loved him for it. "I know that she was important to you. I know that her aunt corresponded regularly with my mother. Had she lived, I would have known her better."

Jacqueline bowed her head. Tabitha's absence was an emptiness in her chest. She had been Jacqueline's closest, most trusted friend -- and now she was gone. 

She'd also been clever. If she'd been carried over to Asgard, she might eventually teach the Goddess of Secrets a thing or two about trickery. Jacqueline could at least hope. 

Tavros gave her a moment to be silent with her grief. When she looked back up, he was studying her face. "I'm sorry," he said. "I seek to justify myself, and cause you pain instead."

Jacqueline drew a breath, released it; drew another, and released it as well. Finally she said: "We are all grieving. Let that not rob us of whatever small joys we can find. What I was trying to say is that while you did not know Tabitha, you understand what a loss her death was -- to me, and to the world. We are poorer without her, but even so: it was not your fault."

Tavros nodded thoughtfully. 

"And this news of Vigo," Jacqueline said slowly, guiding them as gently as she could onto a different track. "Where did you hear this?"

"From Vigo," Tavros said. "He chose, I think, to let me know the terms of his service to the Crown and the limits of his loyalty to me."

Oh. Oh my. Oh, that is going to be a problem. Jacqueline made herself draw another breath, and then release it, while she considered. "Tavros... you will be the king. You cannot afford to have Vigo trying to run the kingdom for you, nor would you want to." She hesitated, as she followed her own trail of thought. "Tavros... How much do you trust him?"

"Not at all," Tavros said immediately, and with a certainty that she found welcome. "He carried out my uncle's will, but only as he chose. His Archons tortured and executed anyone of elvish blood. He is precisely the evil that I do not want attending my rule."

"Then you can't dismiss him," Jacqueline said slowly. "You can't count on him to accept it. He will continue to interfere; he might even move against you. I don't know how likely that is, but..."

"He would do it the moment he considered that it would damage Sol Povos less than leaving me in place would," Tavros said. "You are right. I'll have to have him executed-- not as a traitor to Sol Povos, but as an overzealous servant who overstepped his role and committed crimes against our own citizens."

Jacqueline thought about that for a long moment, then nodded. "You'll also need to make sure that the stories among the public mostly uphold this as an example of the new king bringing justice." Her expression turned thoughtful. "It wouldn't hurt to have word leak into Duendewood that his treatment of the elves was a large part of his betrayal." 

She wouldn't have said anything of the sort even six weeks ago, but conversations with Aesa and Emiliana and Hilda and Werendril had gone a long way towards informing her understanding. 

Tavros smiled, and she saw how he controlled it to keep his fangs hidden. "As it happens," he said quietly, "I know a few bards who move through that area."

Then the servants laid the last of the feast on the table, and Tavros Fontaine and Jacqueline Bouvier moved to opposite sides of it to lose themselves in the joy of well-cooked food.

Monday, November 27, 2023

Tavros Fontaine: Whispers, Part Two

"Ah," said Emiliana Fontaine. "You have come directly to your mother, with not even a stop for your future bride. It must be important. What troubles you, my son?"

"Vigo the Whisperer," he said simply, and waited. 

"You want him removed?" His mother offered a gentle smile. "I could arrange--"

"No." Tavros kept his voice under control. "How much have you arranged already?"

"Nothing. I only..." 

"Mother." Tavros kept his voice firm. "Don't lie to me. Don't even shade the truth. Tell me what you've done."

The lady Emiliana Fontaine sighed. "It was for your own good. I spoke with your friend Martini, and mentioned that Sol Povos might be better off without Vigo the Whisperer around, and that I had two hundred or so platinum pieces sitting on a table in a side-chamber that I might be willing to hand over to anybody who brought me a certain sort of news about the man."

Tavros sighed. His mother was a wizard and a noble, but not a paladin and no longer a princess. "Did it not occur to you to consult with me first?"

"A king must be able to disclaim any evil done in his name," she said gently. "No, it did not. I would not have you compromised in such a way."

"Mother..." Tavros forced his expression back to calm, hid his fangs, and held his mother's eyes. "You believe we should be rid of the Whisperer."

"I do," she answered immediately. "He is a subtle poison, certain of himself and his vision for the kingdom, and far too ready to be the power behind the throne."

Tavros nodded slowly. "He would support my rule, actively and effectively, until I took steps he disagreed with. Then he would betray me, with no more care than a craftsman discarding a useless tool. Even so, I will not have him assassinated, or have an accident arranged. Can you call off Martini? Or must I speak with her myself?"

"...It will be less awkward if I do it," his mother admitted. 

"Do so," he said. It was incredibly strange to be commanding his mother this way, but it was also desperately needed. "And don't try to go behind my back again."

His mother smiled, mostly sincere. "I am chastened. I will not."