Friday, March 24, 2023

Dark Armor: The First Initiation

Pallian covers the braziers and sweeps away the ash traceries of the pattern that has covered the small clearing in front of the stone bench at the back of the gardens. The other elements of the ritual are already gone, devoured by the forces that answered his call. He has acquired another initiation, the first he has chosen for himself.

His father might disapprove, and that risk is why he has kept his actions secret. Still, limiting himself to the skills and abilities that his father has chosen for him is a risk as well, especially here in the heart of the court. He has chosen his path carefully, selecting an initiation that will complement those he has already, and offer him resources that don't rely on sorcery.

He hears footsteps along the gravel path, and shoves the twin braziers back into the bushes. By the time the servant arrives and kneels beside him, he is sitting on the stone bench and staring idly up at the moon: a young man taking in the evening air.

"My lord," says the servant softly, "the Wizard-King demands your urgent presence."

His heart freezes solid for a beat, then another, then a third. At last it begins to beat again, and he turns to regard the girl without expression. "I attend," he says, and starts back towards the keep.

I know that those of you who've been following this story for a while have seen this scene at least twice before. That's a fairly normal part of the writing process; I like this little flashback, and it still fits with the current plotline, so I'm simply slotting it back in where I think it makes sense. We'll move on to new developments next week.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Good!Party: The Trials of Helios

The Sun of Helios  is carved into the floor in a little clamshell off to the side of the caldera. There are five doors beyond it. The points of the sun are marked with the Six Virtues on one side and the Six Vices on the other. Four of the doors are marked with symbols; the middle door is double-width and unmarked. 

We camp for a night and then head down. (Sacha and Leira stay on opposite sides of the camp, and it’s all very decorous. Sacha volunteers to go through the valor door. We send Sacha into Valor, Tavros into Justice, Geddy into Honesty, and Leira into humility. 

Leira appears on the outskirts of a moderately-sized town. She’s older, with little streaks of gray in her hair - positively elderly, in fact, at least thirty. She faints. She wakes up to Sacha fanning her; he still looks young and fit. She suddenly remembers that she’s part of a traveling theater company. The man who looks like Sacha introduces himself as Reese. They’ve traveled hundreds of miles from the last town, which they were apparently run out of. They have finally come upon this town. The troupe is completely broke, about eight actors and twenty significant others. 

So naturally there’s a contest on; three troupes of actors will perform in front of the court. The winner becomes court acting troupe; the second gets a monetary reward and a dinner; the last gets put out of town. There are three women in the troupe; and Leira has apparently written the play that they will be performing. Serafina is the youngest and most beautiful, an excellent singer but a so-so actress. Amaranth is a bit older, a good actress but not such a good singer. And Leira is good at acting and singing, but she’s lost her looks with age. Reese will be the leading man. There are three roles for the women: Reese’s mother, Reese’s love interest, and the villainous countess. 

Leira decides that Amaranth will be the villain. The really pretty one can be the love interest, but Leira needs to watch her make out with Reese first to make sure they have chemistry. Reese will definitely be carrying the acting scenes. That leaves Leira in the role of the mother. 

The day of the performance comes, and Leira introduces it to the audience. The play goes very well, and they win the context; Reese thanks Leira for writing the script that helped the win. He gives her a gold necklace with a token on the end of it; then everything goes foggy and she’s back out in the hall. She will pretend to be crying when somebody else comes out. 

Tavros, meanwhile, has stepped through the Door Of Justice. He finds himself on a high seat; he is a magistrate. The court rises as he enters. The Bailiff comes in; there are three cases on the docket. There are five possible judgements: Not Guilty, Ten Lashes, Lashes and lose a finger, Ten Lashes and a broken leg (crippled), or death by hanging. 

The first defendant is Martini Fartathren. Which case is this? Pie, rose, or empty box? We’ll go with rose, whatever that means. 

Bailiff Bull reminds us: Martini was in love with a man, but that man was in love with another girl named Rose. They were to be married. Martini, jealous, captured him on his wedding night, raped him before he consummate the marriage. Prosecution wants hanging, since Martini is a menace; the Defense notes that the punishment of death can only be given for death. Martini is lashed in the court and released.

Next up is Marshall Mercy, on the matter of the pie. This Marshall was selling pies on the street, and a one-legged ruffian stole one of his pies; Marshall chased him down, and in the ensuing scuffle the ruffian died; Marshal stands accused of murder. The man was stealing food to feed his family; they will starve without him. The Prosecution wants death; the Defense says the death was an accident, since Marshall basically tripped and fell on him. Tavros judges him guilty of killing, but murder; he will lose a finger and be lashed. 

Lastly, Ruin is brought in for judgement on the case of the empty box. He led a local band of outlaws and ambushed a royal carriage that was supposed to be carrying money; however, the carriage had not yet picked up the money, so there were only empty boxes. The prosecution again asks for hanging. The Defense points out that one cannot be punished for stealing nothing; assaulting the guards is really not much more. He’s innocent; let’s go.

Everybody leaves the room and the room dissolves into a blurry light outline in the shape of a sun. A deep voice that sounds like Justice but is probably Helios says, “Your compassion gets the better of you! A killer goes free, a rapist lives, and an attack on the king goes unpunished.” Tavros feels something tighten around his neck and begin to lift him into the air. 

Geddy, meanwhile, is in the Trial of Honesty. There appears to be one door with a mouth carved around the handle. Elderly Geddy crosses the room and attempts to open the door. Naturally, when he grabs the handle, and a cuff closes around arm. A pair of faces appear the door. He is in a land of only liars and truth-tellers; it’s written on the door above them. Red face says they’re both liars. Geddy glances at his wrist: “Isn’t this handy.”

They ignore him. 

Geddy. “I have never died, ever.”

They still ignore him. Geddy considers this claim, and decides that logically it can only be possible that the red face is a liar and the blue is a truth-teller. The next room has iron guardians; one door leads to certain death, and the other leads back to the temple. On the floor is the challenge: one guard always speaks truly, the other always lies; Geddy can ask one of them one question. He asks the one on the left if it’s safe to go through the door behind him. He says “Noooooo…” Geddy goes through his door and dies. 

Leira hears a door open and Sacha come tumbling out of the Door of Valor; he has the rune, but he’s just staring at. “What have I done?” Leira continues crying, and Sacha snaps out of it and moves to comfort her. Another door opens, and Geddy’s corpse falls out. 

Tavros is missing. 

Leira goes through the Door of Justice, and becomes a magistrate; Tavros is hanging from the ceiling by a rope. 

They resurrect Geddy, and he does the Door of Honesty again. This time he comes out with the rune.

Judge Leira, meanwhile, is judging Martini over the matter of the empty box. Prosecution: death. Defense: nothing was stolen. Leira: Martini gets lashes and loses a finger. 

Next up: Marshall Mercy and the matter of the pies. She hangs him. He is missing a finger.

Finally: Ruin Springblossom and the matter of the Rose. Prosecution wants hanging. Defense said he can’t be slain for anything less than murder. Leira orders him lashed and crippled. The room dissolves into the blurry light of Helios. “You are just but harsh. You must pay a price for your cruelty.” Leira takes ten lashes and ten CON damage, but returns with the rune. This time she’s actually sobbing. We pull the Wand of Lesser Restoration and heal her. 

The middle door now has a rune on it. It’s a picture of two stick people arm in arm. “The Chosen and One Other must enter.” Geddy starts strumming The Power of Love

Sacha holds her hands: “Are you sure you want to do this, my love?”

Leira: “Come on, in we go.”

A long hallway leads to an altar room. Sacha seems kind of unsettled. There’s a red carpet, golden decorations, and white rose petals scattered across the floor. There are pictures on the walls, of somewhat racy subject matter. Helios’ sigil is on the wall behind the altar. 

Sacha: “That symbol on the door… are you aware of what it means?” 

Leira: “Should I be?”

Sacha: “It’s a marriage symbol. You look beautiful. I mean, we don’t have a priest, but if we say the words beneath the Sun of Helios…”

Leira: “Let’s do it. But we have to have a second ceremony later, when my dad’s not dead.”

There’s a pair of rings laying on the altar. Sacha: “Oh…. shit.” 

Leira: “I collected two of these damned medallions for you, you’d best not back out now.”

Sacha walks them through the wedding ceremony. “Well… we’re married.” They consummate the marriage on the altar. They now have the Blessing of Helios; they both get a +2 Cha when they’re together. 

Meanwhile outside, Geddy’s asleep, Tavros is stiff with rigor mortis, and Eva can smell that something is going on. At length. 

Eventually the happy couple staggers back out. Leira is extensively rumpled, and Sacha has a spring in his step. 

So the final thing is for Sacha to draw a sword that has appeared in the middle of the temple. . But, we will have to face his inner evil and conquer it, so we need to go somewhere and resurrect Tavros before that. We also buy two more scrolls of True Resurrection, because after bringing Geddy back we were out. 

Meanwhile, in Duendewood, Martini wakes up less a finger and screaming in pain. Ruin wakes up across the camp with his legs crippled. Marshall, of course, doesn’t wake up.

Back in Solouro, Sacha explains that we’ll all be pulled into another place to confront his inner evil and slay it once and for all. We lay Death Wards on everybody, Sacha draws the sword, and we feel as if we are being drawn into the sky at incredible speed. In a moment we’re standing on the ice is the caldera, and a snowstorm has rolled in. 

About a hundred feet away we see Kroni. On the plus side, we now have Sacha with a glowing sword. On the minus side, there are fewer of us than we had the last time we killed him. On the minus side, the black dragon from Fanaxia and this wizard woman with a black obsidian staff and Ameroc the werewolf and a couple of his thugs have all shown up as well. Sacha and Kroni immediately engage each other, leaving the rest of us to deal with the others. Around the edge of the caldera are a thousand robed acolytes of Helios chanting The Duel of the Fates

Geddy and Eva take to the air to keep the dragon distracted; Tavros and Leira will go after the werewolves and the wizardress, who seems to be the goddess Vecna back when she was still human. Tavros immediately applies Silversheen to his blade, because werewolves, and Geddy casts Haste on everybody. 

Geddy and Eva take to the air, with Eva casting Mirror Image on herself. Leira opens with Sunburst, getting through the dragon’s spell resistance. The dragon and the dark one manage to avoid being blinded, but the werewolves do not. She follows up with a quickened fireball, and the werewolf lords are pretty badly damaged (and also blind). (Did we mention blind?)

The dragon takes to the air and casts a quickened magic missile at the mirror images, taking out five of them and leaving two. He then casts disintegrate at Geddy, and hits; Eva soaks half of that. 

The dark one raises her staff and casts an intensified Horrid Wilting on Leira, and owing to their protective rings Tavros soaks half of that. Desperately, Tavros charges the dark one and cuts her down. The werewolves turn and attack Tavros, who takes a couple of hits from the leader and will now become a giant werewolf so he can take on Jenny. Tavros kills two of the werewolves in return. The werewolves attack but miss, and Tavros kills another one. Ameroc the werewolf is the only one left, and he dies at the next pass. Tavros runs back over and lays his hands on Leira, healing her back to consciousness. 

Meanwhile in the air, Geddy has been zapped with a disintegrate but is still alive – barely. He starts playing his lute to sing the Song of Greatness, strengthening himself and Leira. Eva tears into the black dragon and does some damage. The black dragon throws a quickened magic missile on Geddy, but fails to kill him. The black dragon attacks her and does some damage as well. 

Geddy casts a mass Cure Moderate Wounds, curing both himself and Eva. Eva attacks again, taking advantage of the fact that she’s Haste-ed, and does more damage. The black dragon realizes that he basically can’t miss, and power attacks. He takes out her last two mirror images and does some damage. Geddy focuses on the dragon and strums a power chord rockin’ enough to shatter scales and draw blood. The dragon hisses at him. 

Eva circles for altitude and then drops on the black dragon, clawing and biting and lashing with her tail. The enemy responds by dropping a quickened shield on himself, and then power attacks again, doing a chunk of damage. Geddy strums the guitar and adds more damage to him; Eva needs to take him down now, or she’s going to fall. She manages to connect with a claw and a tail swipe, but doesn’t take him down. 

The black dragon manages to miss with a claw, and so fails to take her down. Geddy hits him with a chord from the electric lute, and Eva manages to get in and rip his throat out. He falls. 

Meanwhile Sacha and Kroni are wearing each other down… but as the rest of us move in, Sacha strikes the killing blow and Kroni evaporates. Leira takes the Dark One’s obsidian staff, Voidbreaker. It is an epic staff that allows her to use the Intensify feat three times per day. That basically maximizes damage… and then doubles it. We strip the rest of her equipment, with an eye towards using it ourselves. 

Sacha has become the Avatar of Helios.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Challenge: Famous Book I Haven't Read

(This post is part of the Wednesday Weekly Blogging Challenge. You can find links to other writers' answers over at Long and Short Reviews.)

Prompt: A Famous Book I've Never Read and Why

I mean, um, that's most of them to be honest. I read a lot of genre fiction, because I enjoy genre fiction, and there are only so many hours in the day. So let me just pick some quick examples: 

  • House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski. This one honestly sounds like it's right up my alley, but I've never been interested enough to sit down and read it. In this case, that's probably because nobody ever recommended it to me in a way that sounded compelling.
  • Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. It's been made into movies, it's referenced in one of Sting's songs, and I have never read it. Russian literature in general is usually either all-in or no-go for me, and the whole premise of this one just... doesn't do anything for me.
  • The Road, Cormac McCarthy. I enjoy a good post-apocalyptic action/adventure, but this one doesn't sound like it has enough explosions, car chases, or guys in highly unlikely punk haircuts and leather outfits.
  • The Bible, by God Almighty. All right actually yes, I have read this one. Plus several of its more notable fanfics, like Paradise Lost and The Inferno. Sorry, this is what passes for a sense of humor in the tiny mountain village of my people. When I was growing up, we were too poor to afford new jokes; we just re-gifted the existing ones when Christmas rolled around and I, unfortunately, got stuck with the "I've never read the Bible" joke the last time I went home.
I'm looking forward to seeing what everybody else does with this prompt, and in particular how the rest of y'all chose your particular books. Mine were pretty much on the basis of, "What comes into my head when I think of famous books?" (...Which is exactly how that last one got onto the list.)

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Duendewood: Graveside Part Two

"Of course you may," answered the figure with a soft laugh. Then she stood and turned, slotting the double scimitar into its place on her back with an absent gesture. 

Hirethal frowned. "Tamisira?"

She tilted her head, then asked, "Hirethal?" She sounded pleasantly surprised. "Hirethal Moonshadow, it is is you. It's been a long time." Then she nodded down at the grave behind her. "Why has nobody brought her back?"

"She asked us not to," Hirethal answered, letting his hands drop away from his blades. "Tamisira Eldrish, in the flesh. I thought you were dead."

She shook her head. "Not dead, merely... elsewhere. I meant to come back, but there was always so much more to see." 

Hirethal shook his head and offered a disbelieving half-chuckle. "So how did you find your way here?"

"I was in the City of Brass, doing a bit of work, when a particular oracle interrupted her reading of where I might find my target to tell me that my once-love had fallen. I called in a couple of favors to gather more information, and then I came here." She swallowed. "If I'd come earlier, or if I'd stayed..."

Hirethal shook his head sharply. "Don't gather guilt to yourself. My once-wife knew what she was doing. She knew the dangers, and she stood to face them. If either of us had been there, likely we'd have died too."

There was a long pause before Tamisira asked, "Do you know where I might find my children?"

Hirethal swallowed. She hadn't said anything of the sort, but he could almost hear the echo of before it's too late that followed the words. "I don't," he said, "but I know someone who might. Will you come with me now, or do you want a little more time here?"

Tamisira glanced down at the grave. "There is nothing for me here."

"Then come with me," said Hirethal, and held out a hand. "There's an inn in a town south of here. We might find my son there, and he might know of your children. And if not, well, I may need several mugs of ale to tell you of everything that has happened." 

Tamisira considered that. "I might need several mugs of ale to understand it," she replied. Then she reached out and grasped his hand, and took them both away.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Another week...

Between Daylight Savings Time, the boys going back to school after Spring Break, and Beautiful Wife being out of town for a couple of days, last week was a bit of a beating. Not horrible, just... a lot. Still, I'm starting to get the feeling that I could use a few days off. 

The part where a Windows update made one of our critical systems quit working in the middle of the day on Saturday didn't help.The issue wasn't that hard to resolve, but by the time I found out about it, it had been down for over an hour and I was off picking Firstborn up from his workout. It wasn't catastrophic, but it's stressful to know that we could have resolved it much sooner if someone had phoned me directly. I did, at least, mention that when I sent the "It's Working Again" email, so hopefully next time we can get things sorted more promptly. 

I mentioned that I'd been doing Friday Night Writes, and I'm still enjoying that and actually getting some work done there. (Shorter things, like I do for the blog, I can handle on my own; it's the book-length projects that I need help to stay focused on.) On Friday I found that I didn't have the -- something -- to work on the Dark Fantasy project, and went back to Random High Fantasy instead and got about 1,200 words done on it. 

I'm not sure why the Dark Fantasy project is fighting me right now. Possibly it's just because that's the one I'm most serious about, so when I'm tired I start worrying that I won't be able to put my best into it. Still, I think there are a couple of structural issues -- up to and including the thought that the entire first chapter was necessary for me to fill in my background and have something to work from, but isn't really where the story should start. I need to look over it again and think that through, but that -- of course -- requires time, energy, and concentration.

Things to focus on for this week include sleep, exercise, and writing -- plus some interesting developments at work. 

So let's start this week off with some music, shall we? Here's Mono Inc. with Voices of Doom:

Friday, March 17, 2023

Dark Armor: The Tomb of the Living

Pallian closed his eyes and forced himself to go through another round of clenching and unclenching his muscles. Cold stone surrounded him on all sides, not so tight that he couldn't move but tight enough to hold him in place. The sarcophagus was tilted back at a diagonal, which he supposed was marginally better than it being upright, but it was still ridiculously uncomfortable. Fortunately, his initiations kept him warm enough despite the cold stone. Tiny holes drilled through the lid allowed him enough air to breathe, but offered no way to escape. 

He wouldn't die here. This was the Tomb of the Living, used to break prisoners and punish recalcitrant princes. Bloodsteel latches held the lid closed, and Pallian lacked the strength and leverage to break them from within. If I survive this, I'll have to see if I can find an initiation that lets me turn into some sort of smoke or mist. Maybe step through shadows? It's dark enough in here.

Was his father nearby? Pallian doubted it. There might be a guard posted, to notify his father if Pallian broke and started screaming, but his father would not remain in the crypts unless he could savor the fact that his cruelty was working. As it happened, Pallian didn't mind the silence or the dark, and he was used to discomfort. So he divided his time between planning, remembering, and dozing. 

He might be able to act as soon as the sarcophagus lid was opened. He had a couple of tricks that he didn't think anybody knew about, initiations undertaken in case he ever found himself fighting without weapons or armor. If he could take the guards by surprise, he might escape. Where he would go after that, though...

The crypt was a solitary structure in the rocky plains to the north of the city of Teregor. The land around it offered little in the way of shelter, and there were no towns or cities nearby. The single road led directly to the city, and was used only for funeral processions. If Pallian was pursued, he would quickly be caught. 

The alternative was to try to hide within the crypt itself. If he could make it down past the tombs of his ancestors without arousing their wrath, he might be able to lose himself within the sprawling labyrinth of the hintertombs below. He might also be consigning himself to death by going there; strange things lurked in the depths. Still, it was a chance... if he couldn't escape unnoticed, it might be the best chance he had.

Working his muscles and joints again, he drifted off into memories...

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Dracula Dreams

So in an attempt to make the changeover to Daylight Savings Time, I went to bed "on time" on Monday and took a Benadryl to make sure I went to sleep -- what with, y'know, my body still thinking it was an hour earlier than it actually was. And, naturally, I slept like a rock. 

So of course I had weird dreams. 

There were a handful of people using projected portals (think Sliders, if you're old enough to remember that one) to get groups of people to different times/timelines, with the eventual goal of destroying Dracula. (I think the groups that were being transported were basically refugees, while the folks with the gate-keys were the resistance.) There was a lot of running and screaming and chaos. 

After they departed, I found my way into the large building that Dracula was using as his castle in this era. (What era? Modern-ish. Couldn't tell you more than that.) I was spying from some sort of duct when he heard me, and let me tell you: 

Grating doesn't even slow him down; he just kind of oozes through it, like a shadowy T-1000

He's fast, too. No outrunning Dracula. I made it out of the building, but he caught me at the fountain.

Turns out Dracula doesn't feel pain. That's why he such an asshole: there's no good way to rebuke him when he gets deep into his bullshit. I was starting to ask him about that, and how he felt about losing such a fundamental part of his humanity -- we were definitely veering off into Get Dracula Some Therapy territory -- when the alarm went off and I woke up. 

I have absolutely no idea how the Resistance was planning to try to destroy him, but all things considered it's no surprise that it involved time travel. Something like that, it would probably require time travel.