Monday, May 10, 2021

Duendewood vs Solari: Ruin meets Aesa

So, our DM has apparently arranged that our Duendewood characters will have been moving down to meet up with the Dark Army while we're currently playing our Solari characters in the dream-world of Fanaxia. This has led, among other things, to my True Elf barbarian/horizon walker Ruin reaching the Temple of Amun where my half-dragon Paladin Tavros from the Solari party got most of his training. And that means... well... you'll see...

The Temple of Amun sat atop a high hill -- or low mountain -- just outside of Caristhium, and its builders had taken full advantage of the fact. The ways to reach it were narrow and steep and easily defended and the temple itself was a single, large citadel; but the space within was composed of sheltered gardens, wide and sweeping stairs, and broad balconies carefully placed to take advantage of the view. There were magical fountains that drew water from the air, and a massive library that his mother would have ached to visit. Despite himself, Ruin was beginning to admit that he actually rather liked the place. 

He still wasn't entirely certain why they'd stopped there, but Martini had been insistent and that was good enough for him. She didn't always share her reasons and he didn't always understand her motivations, but he knew she wouldn't betray them. And somehow between them, she and Geddy had managed to talk their way inside. 

It probably helped that Geddy was one of the Heroes of Fort Dedo. Then again, given the way they'd been given free run of the place, maybe that hadn't been as important as he'd first thought. The Temple of Amun didn't seem to be terribly convinced that the elvish nation was an enemy of the human kingdom. The halfling priest who'd greeted them at the gate had been friendly and welcoming, and they'd been allowed to enter with all their weapons and equipment. If anyone was keeping tabs on them...

"Hi," said a voice nearby. "I'm Aesa." The owner of the voice was a young woman, dressed in white robes that were trimmed in runes picked out in some sort of brass-colored thread. She was studying him curiously, and seemed completely indifferent to the fact that he had his two-handed scimitar across his legs and was gently polishing the edge with a whetstone. "You're a true elf, aren't you?"

Ruin nodded and turned his attention back to his blade... and then looked back at Aesa. "And you--"

She nodded back. "Thinblood," she said. "It's okay to say it."

"I wasn't going to say that," he told her, even though he'd absolutely been about to say that. He went back to his polishing.

She came forward, but stopped just out of reach of his blade. Not that he was thinking about taking a swing at her, but still... she knew the safe distance, and that caught his attention again. This was not the sort of priestess who had never been around blades before. She met his eyes and said, "My mother was human, and my father was an elf. When my father was driven out -- he went to Duendewood -- my mother thought I'd be safer here, as an adherent of Amun."

Ruin blinked. "Are you?"

She nodded, then said: "That's what I wanted to let you know. That you and your friends are safe here, unless you do something to... I don't know, hurt people or steal things or something. Amun is a god of all peoples."

Ruin stared at her. She was young and arguably even pretty, though the short cut of her hair and those figure-concealing robes did her no favors; but she seemed too absolutely sincere to be trying to trick him into some sort of confession. "No," he said. "We're not here for that. And that's the humans' job, anyway."

She fell silent, studying him, still just out of reach. "How do you mean?" 

He put the stone away. He took out a cloth and cleaned his blade. He oiled it, and eyed it, and finally sheathed it again. Aesa just stood there, waiting. "Raiding. Killing. Stealing. That's what the humans of Sol Povos have done to anyone of elvish blood for centuries, now." He looked up at her face, saw uncertainty and determination, and then looked around. "Maybe it's different here. It seems to be, for you. But in Duendewood, where I come from, humans are always a threat. It's not even that they want what we have; it's that they assume it's theirs already."

Aesa said, "Oh." She looked thoughtful. "That sounds terrible." 

Ruin leaned back on the stone bench and looked over the stone railing of the balcony at the sunset and hoped she'd go away. 

Instead she said, "Are you angry with me? Because I live with humans? Because my mother is one of them?"

Ruin looked back at her and then, almost reluctantly, shook his head. "No. We all have to do what we think is best, with the information we have. Your... your background, your understanding, is very different from mine. That's all." 

Aesa nodded at that. "Can I come and sit beside you? The sunsets are very pretty from here." 

Ruin gave a short, sharp nod. Then he managed to hold himself still as the girl came and settled beside him. "It seems like a good place," he offered. "And the sunsets really are excellent." 

They sat in silence for a time, and Ruin was starting to allow himself to believe that he might get to simply enjoy the setting sun, when...

"So if you hate humans so much, why are you here?" 

He turned his head deliberately to look at Aesa, then turned to look back at the sunset. "I'm not entirely sure. My friend Martini caught word of someone called Mother Mia, and led us here to see if she could find her." 

"Oh, the assassin," said Aesa, and then put a hand to her mouth. "I mean, she's retired now. She's taken vows. And she's very sweet, really. Please don't tell anybody I said that." 

Ruin blinked, because actually that explained a lot. "...That would probably be her. And no, I won't say anything."

Aesa lowered her hand slowly. "Your friend Martini is an assassin too?" 

Ruin nodded. "By training, at least." He wasn't going to admit that she was also an assassin by inclination, or that she was one of the most effective killers he'd met. Too many of the humans considered killing in battle honorable, and killing by stealth dishonorable -- at least unless they were doing it themselves -- and Aesa, while she wasn't an adherent of Helios, might share their views. 

"That's pretty neat. I'm still figuring out what I want to do. I mean, I've prayed to Amun and He's granted me spells, so I'll probably join the clergy here but... I don't know." She glanced at him, then quickly looked away. "I pray to Corellan, too, and sometimes I can feel His presence." 

She said it quickly, almost defensively, and Ruin answered in spite of himself: "I have a friend who's a paladin of Corellan. His name is Werendril... he's still in Duendewood, though."

"My first friend here was a paladin. Tavros. He was a half-dragon."

Did you pester him as much as you're pestering me? Ruin kept the thought to himself, and instead asked: "What happened to him?" 

"Oh, well, there was this thing... Tavros and the others went and rescued some people, and he ended up fighting a hill giant all by himself, and I guess word got around because some people came from the King and took him off to the capital to be a Solari."

"A half-dragon," Ruin said reflectively. Well, if you're going to face off with a hill giant, I suppose that would help.

The sun was halfway gone, and still sinking slowly; Ruin sat and watched it. Aesa sat beside him and stayed quiet, and finally he started to relax. Only the barest sliver of the sun was still visible and the last of the day was giving way to twilight when Aesa said, "You don't talk much, do you?"

Ruin shrugged. "I barely know you."

Aesa bit her lip and looked away. "You're right. I'm sorry if I'm bothering you. It's just... you and your friends are the first elves I've seen in a long time, and you're the first true elf I've seen ever, and I just really wanted to... I don't know. Talk to you. Make a connection."

Ruin frowned -- thoughtful rather than angry, but Aesa drew back anyway. Then he said, "Fair. Except I don't know what to talk about."

She hesitated, then relaxed. "I mean... We could talk about fighting. Tavros and I used to spar sometimes, back when I still thought I could maybe become a paladin. I was never very good at it, though."

Ruin shrugged that away. "It takes practice -- or in my case pure, undiluted fury." He paused, then added: "For you it's going to have to be practice."

That startled a chuckle out of her, and she smiled. "Would you come and practice with me, then?"

Ruin considered. He didn't have anything else he particularly needed to be doing, and it did sound like fun. "As you wish," he said.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Character Sketch: Dominic Chaddock

Dominic is also beginning his first year at Sunhaven Academy. Highborn and very much aware of it -- his father holds a seat on the Council of Midnight -- he is competitive, proud, and cruel. Like the rest of his family, Dominic is a vampire (though not undead). He is tall, broad-shouldered, lean, and pale; he dresses extravagantly when not in the school's uniform. His focus is an elegant smallsword, and he fences skillfully with it as well.

Writing progress has been erratic lately -- there are a lot of things going on right now, and I've had trouble finding time and focus. Still, I've made a decent start to the story, introducing Darian and his family and his best friend. These little sketches should be helpful when I finally get him to the school...

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Writing progress - whuf

If I were going to sum up my current writing progress in a single word, that word would be: "Whuf." I keep trying to come back to it. I like what I have so far -- I mean, it's only a page and a half of opening, but I like it. It's not even like I don't know where to go with it next. 

No, mainly it's just that everything around me is being busy and stressful and by the time I sit down to work on the story I have nothing left to put into it. 

I love writing. I love picturing a scene and then making it come to life in words, finding a rhythm and pulling together something that fits what I'm trying to do. I love it when I can find that focus and just go with it. But right now I'm discombobulated and unfocused and very much aware that I'm not making any progress, and haven't in a bit over a week. 

Still, there are things I can do try to fix that. I've listed them before, but I'm more likely to actually do them if I list them out again. So: 

  • Setting up a pattern. One that's worked for me in the past is to spend half an hour (or more, some days) doing something that clears my brain of everything else: playing a video game, or going for a walk, or maybe reading. (It can't be something like Twitter; too much stressful stuff on there.) Then take a bath or a shower and use that time to think about the next scene and what needs to go into it. Then, finally, sit down and try to write.

    The catch here, of course, is that this needs to occupy a couple-of-hours stretch of uninterrupted time, and right now my evenings are fraught with interruptions. Still, some of that will settle back down fairly soon, and even if it doesn't always work it's worth lining up for the attempt.

  • Signing up for a writing class. I've... actually already done this; it starts next week, and it'll be online. Laurie Schnebly Campbell is teaching it through WriterUniv.com, and I'm optimistic that looking at the project through the lens of the class will help my brain get back into gear on actually writing it.

  • I'm also considering getting a book coach: someone who I'd talk to about the book (not entirely unlike the way I'm trying to write about my progress here) who could offer suggestions, advice, or sympathy as needed. This wouldn't be the same as having someone proofread, beta-read, or edit; "coaching" really is the right word for it.

    I want to finish the writing class and see how I (and everything around me) is doing before I really start working towards that; but one of the things I miss from high school and college is hanging around in art class and at lunch and etc. talking about story and art ideas, character development, and how things are going on our projects. This sounds pretty low-pressure, and like it might really help with that. (Dungeons and Dragons does a lot of that for me, but it doesn't help with non-D&D projects...)

  • Tea. Writing always goes better if you have good and interesting teas to sip on while you think, and possibly to relieve the pressure on your sinuses as well. And yes, I've already put an order in on this as well.

So... I don't know. Without throwing in a bunch of personal details, that's where I'm at. I feel like if I could just pull myself together I could make some real progress, but I've also got a ton of other stuff to catch up on: dishes and laundry and bicycle tires and putting a new doorknob on Secondborn's door and assembling a trampoline so the boys can be in the back yard for this summer and that's completely leaving aside the stuff I need to catch up on -- or get moving on -- for work. 

And I do think it's possible to balance those things. But first I have to stop and lay them all out like this and just try to get a handle on the whole situation. (And then I look at this and think, No wonder you haven't made more progress, have you looked at what all you're trying to keep up with? And then I feel a little less bad about myself, and that helps too.)  It's not insurmountable, it's just a lot

Here's hoping your 2021 is going a lot more smoothly, with roads rising to meet your feet and the wind always at your back and like that. Take good care of yourselves, my bold and noble readers, and do your best to keep the faith.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Solari: The Nightwing Comes For Us.

Isa Nagi has explained to us that he was responsible for the endless rain, because he killed Iza Cuchee; he tells us to go away and talk to the others. We cut off the medusa's head and put it in a bag.

We come back out from the snake statue and proceed to the south; at one point we hear hissing from up ahead. We find another snake statue, and Marshall uses a Poison spell to activate the torch. Iza Nami emerges and announces that it's her fault that it rains without mercy; she should have been here to protect Iza Cuchee, and now he's missing. The shadows drove him out of this world.

We continue on, and run into a batch of shadows and a greater wraith; Tavros, up front, takes ability damage. Mercy turns the shadows to his side, and scares off a greater shadow; Alexej and Tavros kill the greater wraith, and we quickly move on to where we find another snake statue and the shattered remains of a second statue. We hear hissing to the west.

Marshall casts Poison again, to activate the torch. Another ghostly snake appears; this one is weeping.

Marshall: "Don't cry, Iza Curo."

Iza Curo is mourning because her brother has been taken from this world by shadows and so she can't make it stop raining.

Marshall: "What if I destroy the shadows?"

Iza Curo: "If that is your quest then I give you my blessing."

The broken statue is tainted with the evil magic of Urgroth/Vecna. Marshall consecrates the ground there. Iza Curo reappears and tells us this was a good start, but we have to drive out the shadow priests. Still, her brother's soul is not so sad anymore. "Also, you should go and tell Mother and Father about this.

We hear loud hissing to the southwest. We go to investigate, mostly because as far as Marshall Mercy is concerned there are no bad snakes.

This one, however, is huge... and it slithers towards us. Marshall casts Speak With Animals and starts to talking it. The snake is the guardian of the entrance to the temple. Apparently we need the blessings from the other statues/spirits as well.

Marshall explains that he's consecrated the broken statue and opposes the shadows, and receives a second blessing. We move on, and hear something crunching off to the southwest.

We return to the first statue, and convince Iza Nagi that he was tricked by the shadows, and we are here to oppose them and drive out the shadows. Thus does Marshall gain the third blessing. We head towards the temple, and then Alexej gets ambushed by a pair of acid-spitting monsters.

Marshall immediately dominates one of the monsters and orders his shadows to attack. Tavros charges the other one and carves a chunk out of it with his sword. The shadows come in behind him and swarm over it, draining its strength; Leira then tags it with a magic missile. Alexej moves up to the badly damaged monster and finishes it.

Unfortunately, another one emerges from the bushes and sprays Alexej and Tavros and two of the shadows, killing one shadow -- and a fourth one emerges to spray Marshall and Leira. Alexej hears more of the shadow mastiffs - a pack of them are approaching.

Tavros is immune to fear, and his presence reassures his friends; but Leira still starts to panic. Marshall casts Sanctuary on her as she starts to run away, which should hopefully keep her safe. His dominated acid-spitter charges the one that just sprayed acid on him and they fall to clawing at each other.

Voice: "It is too late! I have summoned the Nightwing! You will never reach the temple!"

Tavros kills a couple of hounds; Alexaj moves in and kills another. Then he tries his whirlwind attack and takes out two more dogs. The remaining acid-spit-monster -- a Digester, apparently -- retreats, leaving the other two busily trying to maul each other. Leira, meanwhile, has fled into the woods.; Marshall heads out after her.

Another Dread Wraith attacks Alexej; it's still pontificating about how it's summoned the nightwing and Alexej is all alone and doomed. And that's when Tavros steps in with his ghost-touch blade and slices through the thing. "Never underestimate the power of friendship, foul creature!" As far as the wraith is concerned, this comes out of nowhere, since Marshall's earlier spell has rendered him invisible to undead.

Alexej attacks and manages to wound the thing despite its being sometimes intangible.

Marshall, meanwhile, has run into another digester; the other two are still fighting each other. He turns undead again, but the dread wraith ignores him and attacks Alexej again, draining yet more of his health. Tavros attacks again, and finishes the wraith.

Leira is still terrified and running; she can hear something moving around nearby. Alexej looks around for something else to kill, and sees nothing. Marshall moves off, looking for Leira, and finds the digester that had retreated earlier. Leira, meanwhile, has run into a line of impassable brush, and is now cowering in the bushes.

The digester retreats again, avoiding us. Alexej and Tavros move to catch up with Marshall Mercy, who casts Restoration on Alexej and restores his health. Tavros calls for Leira; she answers in a very small voice, but fortunately Marshall hears her.

Leira starts feeling her way back towards the group, and encounters one of the tigers from last session. (The one we didn't kill, obviously.) It doesn't look interested in attacking her, but it also doesn't look real interested in letting her by. Leira sits on the ground and weeps.

Marshall sends his shadows to find Leira, and follows them. Alexej and Tavros follow Marshall, and all three of them promptly get sprayed by another digester. Marshall moves away, getting clawed in the process. Tavros moves to intercept and slices into the digester; Alexej follows suit, and finishes it.

Marshall drops Hide From Undead on himself and Alexej. His shadows have now found Leira, and attack the dire tiger in an attempt to protect her. As the rest of us appear, the tiger moves back over to its dead elk.

The shadows continue their assault on the tiger, weakening it considerably. Leira is busy being traumatized, but Alexej has had enough of this tiger and moves over to attack it. The tiger slips back out of reach and runs away. The shadows follow, and finish it.

Marshall moves over and drops hide from undead on Leira as well. Tavros says reassuring things, and Leira finally gets back up but refuses to let go of his hand. We move back towards where the beasties ambushed us, looking for Leira's trident. The tiger is down and being swarmed by shadows; Leira is still weeping as we walk. Distantly, we can hear the last two digesters; they're still fighting.

We return to where the battle started, Marshall locates the trident, and discovers that his digester has been killed and its opponent is barely on its feat.

A terrible, howling cry rises from the southeast; we're all pretty sure it's the nightwing. Leira translates: "The scary voice says, 'What is this foul magic? It burns!'"

Marshall looks at the last remaining digester and slashes at it with his scythe, killing it. "I am done with thee!"

The howling continues in the distance, and now it sound angry. Alexej is booking it south, towards where we found the guardian serpent.

Something flies past overhead, and a voice in our heads says, "Ahhhhh... you lit my way."

Alexej, meanwhile, has reached one of the guardian snakes. It coils around him but doesn't begin crushing him; Alexej says, "Help me, big snake! I am friend of snake-man!"

The Nightwing (which is some sort of horrible undead bat-bug thing) has arrived, and casts Hold Monster on the snake. The snake is now frozen in a sort of living wall around Alexej. He climbs out from its coils, and positions himself on the far side of the Nightwing from Tavros.

We slip around the thing, and run into more large snakes; one of the grapples Alexej.

Marshall finally arrives, and all the snakes turn to look at him. The Nightwing lands next to Marshall and starts feeling around, trying to figure out where he is. Leira prevents the snake from swallowing Alexej with Hold Monster, and Marshall persuades the snake to let go of him. The nightwing, however, has heard us; he comes over and attacks Alexej's animated shield.

Another snake comes and coils itself around us. Marshall dismisses the Light spell on his shield and creeps of after us into the darkness.

Nightwing: "AHHHH! WHERE ARE YOU? CURSES!" A blast of cold air and the sound of crackling branches comes from behind us.

Marshall talks to Iza Bomi, the big hungry one. It opens its mouth, and Marshall crawls right in. We follow.

We find ourselves in a small clearing beneath a large tree. The far side of the tree is hollow, and there are stairs down to a tunnel. The tunnel is, of course, completely full of snakes; but we walk along it and emerge from another tree into a clearing with golden snake statues. We are not safe here, but at least the Nightwing doesn't know where we are.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Alexej: Lost in the Forest of Shadows

Aleksander Václav Dvořak Bohatýr-Popovič, you have made one of the five classic mistakes found in the great tragedies: you have run off into the haunted woods with no light.  

Even with that thought ringing clear in his head, Alexej could not stop himself. The howling of the shadow mastiffs had been terrifying, and that terror had overwhelmed everything he knew of strategy, tactics, and martial skill. He knew exactly what he needed to do -- stay in the light from Marshall Mercy's shield, and use his guisarme to trip the hounds as they drew near and so control the battlefield -- and yet he had been unable to stop himself from dropping the polearm and running off into the darkness. You are not a frightened child, Lord Řízek, he thought to himself; but to his disgust he was still running. 

It was worse now, of course: the underbrush blocked out the light, the steadily-falling rain swallowed all sounds, and he had caromed off enough trees to lose all sense of direction. It was a wonder he hadn't brained himself against one of them. At least the terror was finally fading; if he could get himself back under control he might still find a way back out of this. Even with the Гончие полуночи, the hounds of midnight, and those horrible, strength-stealing shadows all around...

Then he crashed into something new, and decided that he'd better keep running. Whatever it was, it had been large and solid enough to be some sort of boulder... but it had been warm and furry where his cheek had briefly pressed against it, and it had yowled as he put his foot down. On its tail, he thought. O my dear friend Alexej, now is the time to run like the desert birds do when they are chased by hungry cats.

A bolt of lightning traced its way across the sky, its light broken and diluted by the branches overhead but still enough to offer a glimpse of the stone statue of a snake. He twisted in mid-stride and managed to change direction just before he would have collided with it. Behind him, something coughed -- almost hesitantly, but there was an awful lot of lung-space behind that sound. Whatever he'd stepped on, it was big.

Then, abruptly, he crashed into a line of bushes that refused to give; he bounced backwards off them, uninjured but stymied. Something growled in the darkness, ominously close by, and he reached back and drew the great, two-handed flail from the side of his pack. This was no way to fight and he knew it, but he couldn't see any other choice. Swinging the flail back and forth, he began to feel his way along the stubborn line of underbrush. 

Something closed around his arm, but he jerked loose at the last moment, then fled along the edge of the brush. He could hear -- almost feel -- the movement in the darkness behind him. Whatever was hunting him was too big for one of the hounds, too solid for one of the shadows. It snapped at him again, ripping at his shoulder, but a chance flicker of lightning showed him a target and he cuffed it on the nose before it could bite down and grab him. 

If any gods or goddesses can hear me now, I humbly beg your help. I am Aleksander Václav Dvořak Bohatýr-Popovič, my friends call me Alexej, and I am being hunted by a giant tiger! Unfortunately -- but not surprisingly -- none of the gods appeared to offer him aid. In the stories of his people, they never did -- not for anyone who wasn't already one of their favorites, anyway. Behind him, the tiger let out a snarl that cut through the steady drumming of the rain; it sounded offended. 

The line of brush curved ahead of him, cutting off his escape, and Alexej turned. He could barely see, but he would have to fight. He swung his flail, and felt it crash against something solid. Then there was another snarl, and the tiger fell on him like a mountain. He felt himself battered between its paws, felt its mouth close around his left shoulder, and felt himself lifted into the air. His armor wasn't enough to save him from this; he knew of no armor that would have been. 

He sought for words in the only language that everyone else seemed to understand, and cried: "Is big mistake, tiger friend! I give you sausage if you let me go!" 

The tiger either didn't understand, or didn't care. He tried to pull himself free, but the tiger's fangs were sunk into his shoulder and he couldn't get an angle.

Then something else fastened onto his right foot and pulled. Alexej was suddenly stretched horizontal, four feet above the ground, and worried that his joints might give way. Crazily, he thought of the way that the people of this land would sometimes pull on opposite ends of the breastbone of a chicken, and felt a sudden burst of sympathy for the helpless bone. 

When the light came, he thought it was because he was dying. It was only when he hit the ground hard that he realized it was coming from Mercy's shield and that his friends had somehow found him. The tigers were snarling at each other, and he thought that the dragon-man paladin had slammed that tree-sized sword of his into one of them. Then Lord Mercy was bending over him, whispering, and suddenly his wounds were closing and his strength was restored. Even better, Mercy was holding his beloved guisarme and placing it in his hands. The man might be a crazy snake priest, but at this moment he was Alexej's best friend in this whole horrible dream-death world. 

Alexej tried to say so, but he was never entirely sure if his words came out right in the tongue of Sol Povos. 

Still, his friends had come to save him. That was a language all its own, and needed no translation at all.

Note: Alexej is not my character. This was written with permission from (and the approval of) his player, and I've tried to be true to the character.