Thursday, September 21, 2023

Paladins: Laina and Raven at the Farm

The estate was large, and the house -- set far back beyond the fields -- was grand. A little ways off, a dirt road traced its way from the main road, through the fields and to the house. Laina sighed and started walking. Behind her, Raven sighed even more loudly and followed. 

"Do we really have to do this?" asked Raven. "Necromancy is so boring."

"Is it?" asked Laina, curious. She still wasn't certain why Raven had decided to come with her, what the girl actually wanted, or how much of what she presented to the world was genuine and how much was pretense. 

"Real death is better," Raven said. "Real death is final."

"Well, get ready," Laina told her. Several of the zombies and skeletons around them -- all carefully dressed as ordinary peasant farm-workers -- had straightened and turned to face them. "Real death may be coming after us."

Raven looked around as they moved in, then lifted a hand. "Oh, please," she said, and Laina felt the power gather and move out from her, carrying a vague sense of affront. One of the zombies collapsed; the rest shambled away. "Boring."

Laina chuckled and continued down the road. 

More farmhands -- zombies and skeletons all -- turned and approached them, and this time Raven's gesture didn't turn them all away. "Someone," Laina observed, "doesn't want company." Then she moved among their attackers, slashing with the knife, angling to make sure her attacks didn't slide empty between unclad bones. Behind her, Raven had sighed, pulled out a morning star, and made good use of it. Those of their attackers that remained went down. 

"I kind of want to meet whoever's doing this," said Raven, and Laina nodded. She did too. The way to the house was clear now, so she strode ahead.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Paladins: Laina and Raven on the road

"There's something wrong here," said Laina, and turned to look out the window of the coach. 

"There's always something wrong," said Raven, but she straightened and pulled the curtains aside as well. 

The road was brightly lit, and they were passing a large farm; the workers in the field toiled steadily, ignoring their passage. Something... It was something about the way they moved. Something very wrong about the way they moved. 

Laina opened the door and stuck her head and torso out. "Driver! Stop the carriage!"

The little girl -- Adira, age six, and sitting on the bench across from her with her mother -- gasped and pressed into her mother's side. Opposite them, the girl's father Drabben said, "Here now, there's no cause for--" 

The carriage was already slowing. "You're certain?" called the driver, glancing back and down. 

Laina nodded. "The road should be safe enough for you, but we need to get off here."

The man sighed. He was young, and had looked at both Laina and Raven with... maybe not lust, exactly, but at least hope. "As you wish." 

Drabben said, "This hardly seems--" but his little girl met his eyes and said: "Hush! They're adventuring."

"We most certainly are not," Raven said glumly. "We're just going to go put ourselves in danger because Nepthys wants us too. It will probably end very badly."

Laina glanced back at her, grinned, and then met the little girl's eyes. "There are other, better ways to help people, Adira. Just being fair to them is always a good place to start."

The girl nodded solemnly, and Laina swung herself out onto the road as the carriage came to a stop. A moment later Raven stepped out behind her, and the driver set the brake and scrambled back to help them with their gear. "Take care," he said. "I'll be back through in four days. I'll keep an eye out for you, though I'll be headed back to Drisnan Springs. But if you don't mind the wait, we can start out fresh after that."

"He's sweet," said Raven flatly, as if that were a condemnation. 

"You stick to your duties," said Laina, "and let us stick to ours. If Nepthys wills it, our paths will cross again... and if She doesn't, then I wish you well in all things."

The young man blushed. He'd never even managed to give them his name; he was just the driver of the mail coach. Still, he smiled and waved as he climbed back onto the bench and clicked his mouth at the horses. The little girl Adira put her head out the window and waved. "Kill the evil!"

Laina waved back.

"What now?" asked Raven, looking at their bags where they sat on the roadside. 

Laina considered the heavy one with the full plate armor, then the brigandine coat that she'd managed to coax out of the Temple of Amun. Neither really appealed to her; nor did the sword, or the shield. She'd found a leatherworker in town to make a leather sheath for the silver bread-knife, which she now wore at her hip. That had been enough so far; Nepthys willing, it would continue to be. 

"Let's get this stuff into the bushes," she said, "and see what's going on at this farm."

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Ruin: The Bear Necessities

Ruin ducked, and the bear-woman's claws tore a chunk out of the tree behind him. He slipped aside, parrying as best he could with his sword still in its sheath. The attacks were unrelenting, and he hadn't had a chance to draw it yet. For a moment he considered trying to Dimension Door out of reach, but he wasn't that desperate yet. 

The werebear reached for him with both paws, mouth open and coming down for a bite, and Ruin shoved the tip of his scabbard into her throat. She drew back, startled and choking, then took a step back and settled back down into her True Elf form.

"You're right," Nym told him, rubbing at her throat. "That's fun. Harder than it looks, but fun."

"You've got the makings of a formidable warrior," Ruin told her. "Your natural abilities alone..." 

"Yes, but with practice--" Her eyes sparkled with glee. "--I could do so much more. I could keep everybody safe, even the druids."

Ruin nodded. 

"And I'm not the Jensenian Virgin anymore," she said, eyeing him with a barely-concealed smirk. "In fact, I'm late. I might be carrying your child."

"I wouldn't mind that," said Ruin. "Not if you don't mind. I don't know how much I'll be around to help as a parent, though. My track record isn't great on that account."

"You'd better at least make it a point to come around, even if Alnira and I..." 

Ruin blinked. "If you what?" he asked, genuinely curious. 

"We've kind of been... you know... together." 

Ruin shook his head. "I didn't know. Congratulations. I..." He shook his head, at a loss for words. "I'll come around as much as I can, of course."

Nym studied him for a moment and said, "If you live."

Ruin blinked, then blinked again. "Yes. How did you--?"

"I heard about the battle at the grove, and how you're supporting the Two Kings against the Order of Secrets, and working as the champion of Corellon Larethian..." 

"You-- I'm what?" asked Ruin, honestly aghast. 

"There was this bard who came through. He asked a lot of questions about you, but he also told a lot of stories about you. And I'm not stupid, Ruin. We've heard about the warbear queen. I think that Jensen person came out here and provoked me into attacking him just so she could become a werebear. There aren't that many of us, and it seems like an awfully big coincidence otherwise."

"Ah," said Ruin. "Oh."

"Do you want to become a werebear?" she asked. "I mean, it would make some things so much easier. And you'd be stronger, less likely to die. I could bite you all gentle-like."

Ruin hesitated. He was more tempted than he was willing to admit, but... "I don't think I have time to learn to control it," he said. 

"Later, then," Nym smiled. "In that case, do you want to... go inside? I know you've been with Alnira again. I can smell her on you, and it's making me... a little crazy. Can we do something about that?"

"We can do something about that," said Ruin, and walked with her towards the inn.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Vendril: Midnight Excursions

Vendril watched the hooded figures slip across the rooftop, then stood up and followed, mimicking their movements as he slipped in among them. There were six of them, and for a moment he seemed a seventh. Then, with a light touch of silence and the quick flick of a blade, he left the sixth in the shadow of an enclosed stairwell and became the sixth himself. 

He'd come up to the roof because being in high places helped him relax and think. He hadn't intended to thwart an assassination, but as long as he had the opportunity...

Ahead of them, the roof ended at a low stone wall. Beyond that, it dropped to a lower roof, and from there to the training yards at the center of the temple. The intruders had come equipped with ropes and grappling hooks padded with strips of cloth to make as little noise as possible. It wasn't a bad approach; very likely nobody would have noticed if Vendril hadn't been standing on the roof already. 

He darted to one side and murdered another would-be assassin, leaving the corpse in a pool of shadow. The dagger was new, as was the bracer on his left forearm where it usually rested. It was an artifact in two pieces, the weapon and protection of the Shadow of the Clan. 

Five figures reached the inner edge of the roof at carefully-spaced intervals, and for all that his garments didn't quite match theirs, Vendril stood and moved as one of them. There was a momentary pause as they stopped to assess their course. Then the one on the end gestured-- and caught himself, realizing that one of his companions was missing. 

By then, though, two of the assassins were already over the wall and down, leaving behind ropes hooded to the stone wall. 

Vendril threw the dagger. It should have been an impossible shot, but the dagger was enchanted to fly further than an ordinary blade. It struck the leader and he staggered; the remaining assassin turned, silently drawing a pair of daggers. Vendril drew his rapier as the dagger returned to his hand. 

The assassins on the lower roof had realized something was wrong; Vendril could hear the faint scuffing as they came back up their ropes, but it was too late to matter. The rapier did its work, and the assassin in front of him fell: uncut, but too battered to move any further. That one would live. He ducked aside as a trio of darts flashed past him, probably tipped with something horrible, and used the bracer to make himself invisible as the other two scrambled over the edge and onto the upper roof. 

They were well-trained, and knew how to work as a team; they immediately formed a triangle, putting their backs to each other. 

Vendril took a moment to pick a target and judge his throw; then he put the dagger into the back of someone's neck. The assassin staggered and collapsed, and the other two turned on Vendril: attacking had made him visible again. 

He dodged another trio of poisoned darts, but took a dagger to the shoulder. Damn it. They moved in, trying to flank him, but he caught the leader with his rapier and he -- no, she --  fell. The remaining assassin attacked desperately, but he was scared now and it threw off his technique. Vendril took him down with the rapier as well. 

So: six assassins, three dead and three still alive. He could turn them over to Vigo, of course, but no. He remembered too well what that had been like. And there were other ways to get information. 

A healing potion took care of the cut on his arm, and a few minutes of careful searching relieved the assassins of their equipment. He used their own ropes to tie up the survivors, and their own hooks to hang them off the side of the temple. 

* * *

"You can't make me talk," said the assassin. The man was human, his face red as he hung upside down. "Kill me and get it over with."

Vendril leaned out from the wall, sitting comfortably in the rope harness he'd tied for himself. "No," he said. "That's not how this works. I know you'd rather die than tell me who hired you. I also know that given enough persuasion, you'll tell me anything I want to hear. But I don't have that kind of patience, and I don't enjoy that kind of work. So if you don't tell me what I want to know..." He nudged the man's shoulder with his boot, turning him so that he could see the other two captives. "...I'm going to drop him, just to show you that I'm serious. And then, if you still don't answer, I'm going to drop her.

He was betting that would do it. The assassin might not fear his own death, but getting his companion and then his leader killed would be something else again. 

"You won't do it," the man said. 

Vendril laughed and kicked off the wall, swinging out and coming back in beside the next assassin. "No," said this man. "Please. Not like this."

Vendril took hold of the rope; the dagger was in his hand, its magically-sharp edge parting strands already as he touched it to the rope. Don't make me do this, he thought, but he let nothing but utter indifference show on his face. "Your call." He moved the blade, and the fibers started to part. 

"Wait!" yelled the woman. "Just-- just wait!" She was struggling against her bonds. Useless, since the best she could hope for would be to free herself and fall to her death. 

Vendril turned his head to look at her. 

"They can't tell you," she said. "They don't know. I don't know."

"What," asked Vendril, "do you know?"

"Jacqueline Bouvier," she said immediately. "That's who we were sent for. She's here in the temple somewhere, spying for her father."

Vendril decided not to argue over the details. "I know," he said. 

"Then you know we have to kill her. We're here to help the king, not to... not to kill him."

Well, that's a refreshing change. "I don't think the king will see it that way," he said thoughtfully. "He knows who she is, and he seems quite taken with her. And Giles Bouvier has been reconciled, and sworn loyalty to the Fontaine heir."

"He... what?" The woman struggled briefly, then settled again. 

"Someone's been feeding you bad information," Vendril told her. "Though I suppose the news wouldn't reach Brightland all that quickly."

The woman stared at him, and he knew he'd guessed correctly. "Benoit?" he asked. 

She nodded reluctantly. "Lara Benoit. That's how you should know we wouldn't..."

Vendril nodded. "Very well. Try to stay still. I'm going to fetch a couple of big, strong paladins to haul the three of you back up."

* * *

"We're in your debt," said Lara Benoit, looking at Vendril and then down at Brother Birno. Behind her, five other hired killers murmured their thanks. Three of them were still weak from resurrection, but they were all on their feet. 

"Properly," said Birno, who had done the resurrections himself, "justice should be done for your attempt at murder."

The woman flinched but didn't look away. "Then let it come for the one who hired us -- and who let us think that we were assisting the king's cause. The one who failed to mention that the Silver Fox was guarding this hen house."

Vendril raised his eyebrows. 

"Tabor saw your ring," she told him, then stepped forward and proffered a dagger. 

Vendril took it and looked it over. It was a fine piece of craftsmanship, with Benoit carved into the guard. "If you ever find yourself in need of aid," Lara said, "present that blade to any of our people, and you'll have it. I won't say it was a pleasure, but..." She shrugged. "Sometimes it's good to meet your heroes."

Friday, September 15, 2023

Dark Armor: The Hedge Maze

The next path led around the back of the hill, curving under the branches of an ancient and massive oak. A pair of marble benches had been placed in the shade of its branches, and were currently occupied by a trio of court ladies so deep in their own conversation that they failed to notice the new arrivals until the path curved in front of them, at which point they suddenly cut off, then rose and made courtesies. The High Magister offered a nod of acknowledgement, and after a moment the ladies returned to their gossip. 

Pallian had caught only a little of it, but they seemed to be discussing a potential marriage match for someone named Ethrinelle; nothing that would matter to him. 

"It is a lovely place," said High Magister Tamirya, just loudly enough to be overheard.

"Thank you," said Pallian. "I have always found it so."

"I must say it does my heart good to know that the House of Teres cultivates such beauty beside its gloom," Ashmiren said. "Especially if I am to live here."

Pallian glanced at her and nodded. "I hope I will find someplace suitably gloomy in Edrias, where I can take similar comfort."

"You think your father will accept our offer, then?" asked the High Magister. They were far enough from the tree now that the question wasn't indelicate or awkward; one of the ladies might perhaps use an Initiation to listen in, but anyone sophisticated and bold enough to do that would also be wise enough to keep to themselves anything they learned. 

"I do not know my father's mind," Pallian said, "and dare not presume to speak for him." He made it sound like a platitude, though it was more than true. "Still, in the face of an Emissary we must stand united -- and for that we must be able to trust each other. I do not see how that is possible without, as you put it, guarantees."

The High Magister nodded thoughtfully. Second-princess Arwidden opened her mouth to speak, hesitated, and then asked: "What is that?"

"That," said Pallian, "is the hedge maze."

The walls of the maze began dozen strides from the white-pebbled path. They were twelve feet high, neatly trimmed, and solid as a castle wall. Ahead of them, a sidepath led to the entrance.

Arwidden frowned. "Are those thorns?"

Pallian nodded. The thorns that guarded the walls of the hedge maze were as long as his fingers, jagged as lightning, and wickedly sharp. "My great-grandfather had very strong feelings about people trying to cheat the maze by forcing a way between the bushes."

"Ah." Arwidden looked impressed, and more so the closer their progress brought them. "Have you ever gone through it?" 

Ashmiren looked at her mother and raised her eyebrows; her mother gave a slight shake of her head, and Ashmiren feigned a momentary pout. It occured to Pallian then that the House of Edrias knew each other and liked each other a great deal better than his own family did. It took him a moment to shake that off and turn to the second-princess, but he said, "Several times, in my youth. The grotto was substantially less intimidating."

"I can imagine," Ashmiren said. "Down there you'd only have to worry about haunts and cave-creatures. Those thorns, by contrast, are scary." 

Pallian smiled. The third-princess might make light of it, but he thought she understood. "The grotto is lit with small enchantments, and holds a small waterfall in its belly. I always found it soothing. The hedge maze was for when we were feeling adventuresome or testing each other's courage. Of the two, well, you know which is my favorite path."

"Just so," Ashmiren said, and smiled in a way that made him want to make her smile more -- smile, and laugh, and relax. 

He caught himself just in time. It would be rude to focus his attention on her to the exclusion of her mother and sister, and he would not be rude to the Royalty of Edrias -- especially in front of Lady Vathira. He turned to the High Magister and said, apologetically, "I do not believe I could lead you through the maze without some risk of becoming lost, and in any case doing so would take us out of the sun."

The body servant gave a very slight nod at that. For all his height and bulk and leonine features, he was discreet; he'd followed and remained silent so long and so well that Pallian had almost forgotten he was there.

She nodded, and once again exchanged glances with her daughters. "Well taken," she said, glancing into the entryway of the hedge maze as they passed the side-path. "Let us continue on, then."

"If it pleases you," said Pallian, though in truth he was relieved. "Lady Vathira, do I recall correctly that the section ahead is the topiary garden?"

"It is, your Highness," said Lady Vathira. 

"Would you be so kind as to offer us some insight as to its contents and their creation as we pass through, then? I find my knowledge of that area lacking." Please take over the conversation for a moment, in other words, but it would also allow her to perform her role as the Royal Steward rather than a mere follower of the royals around her. 

She nodded firmly and smiled. "Of course."

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Challenge: Favorite Fairy Tale

(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: Favorite Fairy Tale or Legend and why.

You'd think with my interests and reading habits that this one would be easy, but I actually had real trouble coming up with something. It's much easier if I include myths in the mix as well, but I also think of those as a different category of things from Fairy Tales and Legends, so I'm not using any of them. (I think it's completely fair if anybody else decides to go that way with their answer, though.)

But while I have issues trying to come up with a favorite fairy tale, I do have a weakness for a well-done fairy tale retelling. And this particular one is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, from the perspective of the hapless fairy who's desperately trying to keep her from awakening and escaping the tower to do horrible things... and has been stuck in the empty castle for centuries in the process.

The book is Thornhedge by T. Kingfisher, and I highly recommend it.