Friday, February 28, 2020

ItB 012: Familiar Territory

The pair of soldiers moved along the corridor, and Campbell's doll-sized familiar followed. The soldiers were armed and armored, their expressions invisible; they were too disciplined to talk as they moved. The familiars were mechanical, partially-autonomous constructs that rode the back of Campbell's armor until he needed them. Now, following Padma's orders, he had sent one of them to follow the two sentries from Hirakawa's Ninety-Fifty. At the same time, he was leading the others after his familiar.

Balancing his attention this way required concentration, but he enjoyed the challenge. One part of his mind was moving the tiny construct forward and monitoring what it saw, heard, scented; the rest was walking, leading the others along the trail, and keeping watch for danger to his own body. In training, his first potential commander had dismissed him for being distracted; but Caden had invited him into his own squad, with the observation that it wasn't a matter of distraction so much as being aware of what Campbell was actually observing. Campbell had folded himself into the group and found a place there. The others understood him, or at the very least appreciated his contributions, however abstracted.

So when he guided his familiar around a corner and found it facing an armored soldier with her weapon raised and the words, "I told you I heard something," on her lips, he immediately brought it to a stop and raised its hands. With the rest of his awareness, he made himself stop and raised a hand to halt the others behind him.

"Easy," he said through his familiar. "We aren't here to hurt you."

The other sentry frowned at him over the sight of his gun. "You aren't supposed to be here at all."

"No?" And then, because he'd been listening in on everyone else to keep from becoming distracted from his job, Campbell said: "We weren't supposed to encounter you until after the Majesty reached Tanivar and found you there ahead of us. You were going to enforce the Hirakwa paracorp's claim on the planet, and prevent Earthgov from establishing a colony."

The two soldiers exchanged glances, despite the masks that hid their expressions. Then the woman lowered her weapon slightly. "That may be," she said, "but we have other problems now."

Campbell made his familiar nod. "The station is compromised and the Ascendancy isn't going anywhere. Let us help."

The two soldiers stood staring at the tiny mechanical doll for a long moment. Then the woman lowered her rifle and raised a hand to the side of her head. "Captain?" she said. "Situation's gone fluid out here."

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Dark Armor 009: Back to the Camp

It was a near thing, in some ways. The arrow had pierced Ravaj's lung, and the healer-sorcerers struggled against his initiations to mold the flesh so that they could withdraw it cleanly. In the end he lay on a cot, deadly-pale and corpse-cold but breathing, until they brought one of his servants for him to drink from. Still, he rose back up as his old self, his flesh healthy and color in his cheeks. Pallian, who had stood watching over him, silent and still in his role as the Champion, had offered a single, simple nod of acknowledgement.

Ravaj stood and strode out of the tent, calling for his staff. Pallian simply followed. He doubted their father was watching anymore, but the Champion of Teregor was nothing if not obedient.

Two minutes later they were standing in a command tent at the center of the camp. "I want our adepts out checking the wards. Nothing gets in; nothing escapes if it tries." Pallian watched Ravaj turn to High Captain Borwith. "I need your clairvoiyants, and a half-dozen scouts skilled at concealment. I want to know what's happening in the enemy camp."

Pallian remained impassive at that, but internally he approved. Far-seeing was useful, but it could be fooled by magical or mundane means; adding the scouts would give them a much more reliable report.

"Our seers will begin at once," answered the captain, "and I will have scouts sent out. We should have news of how the Champion's attack affected their disposition shortly."

Pallian ignored the look the officer turned in his direction; part of his role as the Black Knight was to remain indifferent to mere human concerns such as politics. He did as the sorcerer-king ordered, killed whom his father willed. Nobody outside the privy council knew whether the Champion of Teregor was alive, undead, or a construct of his father's magics. And the latter isn't that far from the truth. Even so, maintaining the role was important: if the Champion behaved in human ways, it might be suborned in the ways an ordinary person could. But the Champion of Teregor never did.

And now I'm thinking about myself in the third person, Pallian thought. Thanks again, Dad. Though in truth, his thinking was off for other reasons. He was still shaken from his encounter with the archer, and the Shadow of Edrias before that. This has not been a good night. He was feeling emotions, damn it, and that was never good when he was wearing the armor. Hell, it wasn't ideal when he was out of it.

"Good. I want the Champion to make a sweep of the perimeter." Pallian remained still as Ravaj turned to look at him. "Take your sword and go on foot. Black needs time to recover, and I want you moving slowly enough to look for anything the wards and watchers might have missed."

Pallian nodded. He could speak in front of the command staff -- the helm disguised his voice every bit as well as it hid his face -- but it was better not to. Instead, he turned and left the tent, collecting his sword from the rack beside the door as he passed.

He was only four strides away from the tent when a soft, directionless voice said: Ah, the Champion of Teregor again.

The Shadow of Edrias was here in the camp.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Challenge: My Favorite Memory and Why

This is part of the weekly Blogging Challenge over at Long and Short Reviews. If you'd like to participate, you can find the prompts here. They also put up a post every Wednesday where you go and link your response -- and see everyone else's. Check out their homepage to find it.

This week we're looking at memories. Specifically, we're going off the prompt My Favorite Memory and Why.

Memory, as I've mentioned before, is a funny topic for me; memories are both important and unreliable. And honestly, these days I don't spend as much time looking through my memories as I used to -- mostly, I think, because I'm too busy. I don't get that time to just sit and think (and if we're being honest, I kind of miss it).

But my favorite memory? If I'd looked at this earlier, I could probably have given you a pretty decent answer. I have a lot of good memories, and a lot of memories that might not exactly be good, but are very memorable (if that's not redundant). But without a prompt like this, I don't really go back through them looking for the high points. If I'm ever about to die and my whole life flashes before my eyes, I'm going to spend a fair chunk of it thinking, "Oh, yeah! That did happen, didn't it?"

So, I mean... having fun as a kid? Plenty of good memories there, from biking around the neighborhood to doing unlikely things at summer camp, but nothing I'd particularly consider a favorite. First kiss? Pretty meh, actually. Neither of us knew what we were doings, and... yeah. Hanging out at the 7-Eleven before school in high school? That was low-key fun, but again not really a favorite. (Though there was that one time when a police officer pulled into the parking lot just as we were all jumping into our cars to head back to the school, and the guy running the 7-Eleven came rushing out to reassure the officer that no, we hadn't been causing trouble and hadn't fled at his approach and actually we were going a long way towards keeping him in business.) College had some interesting moments (like that one time I fell off a cliff or when I was climbing around the buildings at night) but again... nothing I'd count as a favorite, exactly.

So maybe I could just find a favorite memory? All right: when we were young, my father use to read to us from the Winnie the Pooh books before bed. I would have been seven or eight, and my brother would have been three or four. It's a memory without a lot of detail, anymore: I couldn't tell you much of what happened in any of the stories, or particular instances. What I remember mostly is the fact of it, that he read to us many nights. (And that he did the voices for the characters.) It's been decades, but I still remember that.

And that's a good memory.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Saltmarsh 002: Near-Death Experiences

So, after finishing their big fight with the boss-and-minions for this adventure, the group retired back outside join their carriage driver, Remy Mertin, who was willing to stay and camp overnight but not to enter the house. Remy was cooking his dinner over a fire when they returned, and while the others ate from their rations the noble gave Remy cooking advice and then ate his meal. Then they settled in to get some sleep -- though they did, at least, decide to set a guard. The Chevalier took first watch, for at least a solid ten minutes before he fell asleep beside the fire. Raven, the little girl/halfling, woke herself up for the middle watch... which was a good thing, as about halfway through she noticed movement from the direction of the house.

Two dark figures had come into the yard and were looking at the campfire -- at a distance, but still easily visible. "Get the others," said one, as Raven snuck back to camp.

There were four when they approached the camp, a number which forced Raven to awaken her father and Kane the Undertaker. A brief battle ensued, which ended with the party victorious and even mostly unscathed. Salty Walt had slept through most of it, only awaking near the end to help give chase to the last two as they fled. The carriage-driver Remy, on the other hand, was huddled down beside the last remaining coals of the cookfire, having seen actual battle for the first time in his life.

Concluding that the haunted house contained no further enemies, the group sent Remy back up the road a little ways to camp somewhere safer and return during daylight. They then trooped back inside, looking for proper beds to sleep in. Deciding that the ground floor was no use for that, they trooped up to the second floor, found an empty bedroom, got distracted by something shiny, and then very nearly got themselves completely wiped out when swarms of spiders attacked them. Concluding that they'd killed everything in this room, at least, they elected to throw down some bedrolls and sleep there.

In the morning, partly but not fully rested, they explored the rest of that wing of the second floor, discovering some interesting clues -- and a bound prisoner in his underclothes, who'd been knocked out, tied up, and left in that room for a day and a night. The prisoner was a rather handsome half-elf named Venred Kindleaf, an adventurer who'd stopped in the house for shelter on his way to Saltmarsh. The Chevalier de Lorraine, who'd previously been entertaining lascivious thoughts about Remy the coachman, now turned a lustful eye towards Vennie, and went all the way back down to the basement to fetch him clothing from the corpses there.

With Vennie (dubiously) dressed, the group proceeded to explore the rest of the second floor. Or they would have, if a section of balcony hadn't given way and dropped the paladin all the way to the first floor. "We'll have to jump across," cried the halfling/seven-year-old Raven, and proceeded to completely fail her skill check and come crashing down on top of the slightly-stunned paladin.

"This is not so difficult, sirrahs," announced the Chevalier, and leapt across to the far side of opening with surprising ease.

"I can do this!" announced Salty Walt, and promptly leapt to a point halfway across before plummeting down atop the paladin as well. Raven dodged out of the way onto Kane's head; Kane dodged... well, no, actually he didn't.

"I should try again!" cried Raven, and took off across the entry hall and back up the stairs.

"Come, you handsome devil!" called the Chevalier, with a saucy wink at Vennie. "I'll catch you!"

The half-elf took a running jump and landed gracefully -- so gracefully, in fact, that he ended up in the Chevalier's arms, with one arm around his neck and their lips temptingly close together. Raven, meanwhile, came racing back down the balcony and jumped across again... or, well, actually she missed and fell back down on top of the paladin again. C'est la guerre.

And that was where we stopped.

I'm still not sure this was the best campaign for this group, but what the hell. It's a pre-built world that requires minimal prep-time from me. And I think they'll get through it, in their own idiosyncratic way. So... onward! Let the dice fall where they may!

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Oh Fuck No

Right, so: last weekend was beating. This week has been a beating. I think I want to rewrite the last scene from Dark Armor -- I don't think it's going quite the way I want it to, though it does accomplish its two primary objective so I suppose I could leave it and fix it later -- but I can't quite focus well enough to see what needs to be done.

So instead, um, here's a perfectly insane clip of a wrestler leaping off a second-floor balcony of a mall into the ring; I'm honestly amazed that nobody died.

More worthwhile material when I'm rested. And no, I have no idea whether that'll include the next scene of Into The Black. That's going to depend entirely on how tomorrow goes.

I need to figure out a better schedule for this.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

A Dog and His Boy

I had a request for a picture of the dog. The handiest one available features Firstborn, too. Kind of a two-fer.

Challenge: Types of Exercise I Enjoy

This is part of the weekly Blogging Challenge over at Long and Short Reviews. If you'd like to participate, you can find the prompts here. They also put up a post every Wednesday where you go and link your response -- and see everyone else's. Check out their homepage to find it.

This week's topic is Types Of Exercise I Enjoy, and folks, I have a confession to make. (It probably won't surprise anyone.)

I don't actually enjoy exercise in any form. I suspect I am far from alone in this. Also, I have no discipline; I suspect I am far from alone in this as well.

So in order for me to get exercise, I have to do it almost by accident. It has to be part of something else I enjoy. That used to be things like gymnastics, martial arts, even track. (I don't actually like running on flat surfaces like an actual track, but give me the sort of cross-country that borders on Parkour and I'm in. Or at least I used to be; my knees aren't as cooperative as they once were.) Gymnastics has kind of an age limit on it - nobody reputable will even let me near their equipment, and that's been true since my late twenties -- and while I'd love to get back to martial arts I've been out for nearly a decade now and I don't see anywhere in my schedule to put it. (I'd love to get the boys into some sort of martial arts, but the same problem applies there: there's nowhere in the schedule where it wouldn't be hugely disruptive.) Same on all accounts for various sorts of fencing.

Most of my current exercise comes of walking our newly-acquired dog. Mind you, it's not the walking I enjoy, it's that this give the Beautiful Woman and myself a chance to get out of the house together for a little bit. (Sometimes the boys come too, but usually it's just us.) These can be fairly extensive walks, so it definitely counts as exercise (and with the way the dog pulls on the leash, it's more work on the stabilizers and the core than you might expect). I do make it a point to get up and move around at work also, but again: it gets me out of the building for a little while.

The rest of what I get comes from boys jumping on me, often with Nerf weapons. Which is more enjoyable than you might expect, since I get to fight back with the Nerf battleaxe.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Saltmarsh 001: A rogue, two bards, and a paladin walk into a bar...

We had our first Saltmarsh game (and got the Tuesday night group back together for the first time in weeks) back on Tuesday. It went... really well, all things considered.

What things, you ask? Well, first of all, this is a group of players that tends to go off in its own direction. The characters are not always going to focus on what's best for the group or what's best for the mission. Which is fun, as long as you're ready for it. It means the characters are pulling the story along. It also means that the story is likely to depart from whatever you were expecting.

An example? Well, okay: our heroes have been hired to investigate a reputedly-haunted house a few miles outside of town. An ordinary group would have approached cautiously, perhaps made a thorough search of the area. With this group, well... the noble just strode up to the door, banged on it with his cane, and demanded to know if there were any ghosts inside. His newly-self-appointed daughter, who acts like a seven-year-old human girl but is actually a halfling in her twenties, used her mind-speaking power to pretend to be a ghost and answer him. Also? As far as the rest of the party is concerned, they've brought a seven-year-old to the dangerously haunted house -- or at least allowed her to tag along. They were a bit startled when she turned out to be an extremely competent murderchild, but they weren't concerned in the way that another party might have been.

And they got surprisingly far into the house with this approach. An ordinary group might have done some exploring, perhaps found some clues to the history of the house, and eventually uncovered its secrets. This group essentially walked straight into the middle of everything, managed to survive the fights they found themselves in, and are well into the secret areas at the end of the first gaming session.

The group consists of:

Raven, a halfling rogue masquerading as a human child; she has selected the Chevalier to be her human father for this role. Also, as the group discovered later, a gleeful and effective killer.

The Chevalier de Lorraine, a noble human bard who comes from the highest society but has no money of his own; when his lover cast him aside, he took the first ship available and wound up in Saltmarsh; he was crying into his cognac there when Raven found him. ("Are you my daddy?" she asked. He poured her a glass of the cognac and shared his tragic tale.)

Kane, a human paladin and the town's mortician; he feels responsible for making sure that the dead stay in their graves. A brooding, stoic sort, he came to join the others when a fellow in the bar announced that his master wished to hire people willing to explore a haunted house. He carries funeral dressings with him, and will prepare bodies with the proper rites after he kills them. Fights with a sharpened shovel.

Salty Walt Collins, a human shantyman (bard) haunted by ghostly fish that only he can see; he came along in the hope that exploring the house might give him some insight into the spirit that haunts him.

So next week I need to tell the group what they found after their big fight; I also need to work out a better way to take notes during the session. But on the whole, it came together pretty well and I think everybody had a good time -- and that's what you want out of a game.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Sleep Study & Writing Self-Accountability

I didn't get anything written for Into The Black this week, and I really don't want to rush through writing the next scene just so I can throw something up. I did at least get something written for Dark Armor, though I may yet go back and revise that. I'm trying to get back into the habit of writing regularly -- or, more to the point, stay in the habit of writing regularly -- but life as a married adult with a job and kids offers plenty of distractions and interruptions.

Last night's particular distraction was a Sleep Study. My doctor, noting that I'd complained of being tired at my last dozen or so annual physicals, suggested that I fill out a "might be Sleep Apnea" form and see about getting set up for this, and since my brother definitely has sleep apnea, well... So anyway, last night I went to bed at 10:00 -- Who even does that??? -- and got a full eight hours of sleep, albeit with a box strapped to the front of my chest, an infrared sensor on my finger, and a breathing tube sampling the air in my nose and mouth. (That last part isn't as intrusive as it probably sounds.) I'm supposed to turn the test device back in today, so we'll see what they have to say about it. At this point, anything that can get me back to having more energy is worth a try. Well, I mean, maybe not Meth, but... anything that helps and doesn't have horrible side-effects. Yeah. Let's go with that.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Dark Armor 008

Okay, new plan... Pallian rolled over and brought his shield up, covering his chest just in time for an arrow to slam into his left knee. It didn't pierce, but as Pallian rolled back to his feet he could see where it had left a dent. Another arrow slammed into his right knee and shattered. Testing for weak points in the armor, Pallian thought, and cursed.

Then his shield slammed back into his chest, and he was on his back on the ground again. He caught a brief glimpse of an arrow hanging in the air before it began to fall, completely intact despite the fact that it had just struck him like a battering ram. He needed to respond, now. Another spell? His ranged options were limited, intended more for spreading chaos on the battlefield around him than for picking off a single target. And his armor wasn't invulnerable, at least not to this archer; the arrow in his palm had come loose on its own, but it had pierced the inside of his gauntlet and the flesh underneath it. The archer had drawn blood. She has to run out of arrows sometime, doesn't she?

He got his shield up again and moved his body around behind it. Black neighed as another arrow shattered against his barding.

Then the edge of the ridge erupted in a wall of flames, and his brother drifted down out of the sky beside him. "Get up, little brother," said Ravaj. "Get Black, and get back to the camp." The flames surged, and even at this distance Pallian could hear screams.

He crossed quickly to Black, and yanked the arrows out one at a time. It wasn't as gently as he would have preferred, and the stallion shrieked with each one. Still, a moment later Black drew a shuddering breath and rose. Back to the camp. He was reaching for the reins when another arrow dropped out of the sky, falling almost vertically, and slammed into the top of Ravaj's right shoulder. Ravaj looked startled; then he swayed and collapsed. The wall of fire went out.

Pallian cursed and scooped his brother up, mounting Black with Ravaj hanging over his shoulder. The stallion huffed, then turned and trotted away. More arrows followed them, but Ravaj had recovered enough to throw up some protections and none of them found their mark.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Challenge: Books I reread or want to reread

Long and Short Reviews has a set of prompts for their Weekly Wednesday Blogging Challenge for 2020. If you'd like to join me, the prompts are here and you can check in on their home page every Wednesday to find a post with links to people's responses. (If you do participate, add your own links so the rest of us can come and read them!)

This week, we're discussing Books That I Reread Or Want To Reread, and folks... that's so, so very many of them. I re-read books all the time. Sometimes it's to go back and see how the author did a particular thing. Sometimes I'm trying to recapture a particular mood. Sometimes it's purely for the pleasure of revisiting a favorite story or character. I have some that I come back to repeatedly -- Good Omens, for example, or Cabal -- and some that I come back to when the mood takes me, like A Night In The Lonesome October.

For me, rereading a book is the emotional equivalent of comfort food. It might not add anything particularly new, but it's safe and enjoyable and it's nice to come back to that experience.

Monday, February 10, 2020

DnD: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

So... our Dungeonmaster for the Tuesday night game decided that he needed a break in 2020. This is completely understandable; running a game requires a fair amount of work (and energy) and he's been running this one for us for... a couple of years now? I've been involved in it since at least 2018. So he's taking a break, but he's willing to have us meet at his house if someone will step up and do the planning and run the games.

And since nobody else did, well: it's me. I'm doing it. I'm moving us from 3.5 to 5e, because it's simpler, and I'll be running this out of the Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign (ditto). I briefly considered running a campaign of my own design (Den of Thieves) in which the characters would spend most of their time on the wrong side of the law in a dark and decadent island city, but when I polled the group I got one definite vote for Den of Thieves, one not-very-definite vote, and two firm votes for Saltmarsh. So, Saltmarsh it is.

This pleases my sense of nostalgia: I owned two of the three original AD&D modules and probably still have them around somewhere. And in reading through the Ghosts of Saltmarsh sourcebook for 5th Edition, I'm pleased to see that they've kept a lot of the original adventures and expanded on the setting enough to make it usable for an entire campaign. I'm almost sorry that I didn't start the kids' D&D adventures with this sourcebook instead of Roslof Keep, though that wasn't really possible; Saltmarsh hadn't been published yet when we started playing.

On the plus side, the next time that the group decides that they want to adventure somewhere outside of Roslof Keep, I can always send 'em down to Saltmarsh.

But, yeah: new campaign, and I'm running it. Only one of the players has reported in with a finished character, and there's at least a possibility that the group will be composed entirely of bards, and I still have to figure out how they met and how they ended up in the coastal town of Saltmarsh, but... I guess we're going to sort that out by tomorrow night. Or on tomorrow night.

One way or another, we'll get it done.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020


So I was going to check in for the blogging challenge this week, after I'd had a chance to kind of reset and catch up on sleep and ha-ha-no, that's not what happened. February isn't as crazy as January was, but it still has a lot of random stuff scheduled that I have to take part in.

Plus, this week's challenge is Celebrity Crushes, I think, and... I don't really have any? Mostly because I really don't follow celebrities outside of whatever art they produce, as a general thing.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Small Break

So I am, for vague and highly personal reasons which aren't entirely clear even to myself, taking a small break. Like, today and tomorrow. I expect to be back on Wednesday for the blogging challenge, and follow up with the usual installments of Dark Armor and Into The Black on Thursday and Friday. But in the meantime, I'm not going to push myself to produce content, and I'm going to think about maybe DMing for the Tuesday Night Group, while our regular DM takes a well-deserved break.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Youth DnD: Lost Lore of the Library Lich

So, the players had requested a chance to do something outside of the main dungeon. I fully support this: a change of scenery, a change of pace, and a chance to try out some situations that wouldn't come up in the main quest. So with a quick refresher on the background, they departed Roslof and made their way to the Lich's Library. This is something that we came up with early in the campaign, like so:

"Favorite bit of semi-OOC interaction: Firstborn remarked that they had to be the weirdest adventuring party in the Keep. They're not, though they're definitely off in the right direction for that. But that gave me the chance to tell them about The Librarian. The Librarian is a Lich who lives in a small complex in the forest, about eight miles outside of the town. He pursued magical knowledge and power and eventually attained undead immortality so that he could finally finishing reading and writing all the books that he wanted to read and write. With the right letters of introduction, his library is a god-send to anyone doing research. He is the sort of librarian who keeps his library quiet and calm, and in fact he can enforce magical silence through the entire complex. The players were absolutely charmed to know that this place existed, and at some point they're almost certainly going to have to pay it a visit."

Later in the campaign, the Mousefolk Cleric and the Dragonborn Sorcerer had a letter sent to the Lich, asking permission to visit and do research on some sort of guard-dragons; the Sorcerer received a response a few days later while out and about in the town, when he and the Halfling Rogue were attacked by a skeletal minotaur. Upon slaying the undead monstrosity, they found a note tied to the inside of its spinal column indicating that the lich found their request acceptable. (Some of you may be wondering if I lifted this method of epistolary from the Elder Scrolls games; the answer is absolutely yes.)

So, the group arrived at the library and was unpleasantly surprised to find another skeletal minotaur standing at the gate; but this one led them back to the library proper (the largest of the buildings in the complex) and then returned to the gate again. They stood around inside until the Lich arrived to greet them. The lich is about what you'd expect: a tall, skinny human, now withered and slightly rotted, with burning red eyes. He led them through the library, past a beholder that floated in the midst of a circle of stands, apparently reading six books at once; then past a cyclops who had stopped to remove her monocle and wipe it clean, and then into a back room where he pointed out an empty shelf. "You see my problem?"

The group confirmed that they did.

"I loaned it to a wizard," the lich explained. "Loaned it to her, and she left without returning it."

"What kind of book was it?" asked the Swashbuckler.

"A spellbook, of course."

"Wait..." said the Barbarian quietly. "That whole shelf was for just one book?"

"I can't keep it beside other books," answered the lich. "It might interfere with them."

"So you want us to get your book back," asserts the swashbuckler.

"Yes. You must retrieve it before it takes over the wizard. And if it does take over the wizard, you must kill her and then bring it back."

"This book... it doesn't have spells that open portals to the plane of elemental fire or anything, does it?" asked the Swashbuckler.

"Not that I know of. If it does, it has never mentioned them."

"Right," said the Sorcerer. "Get the book, kill the wizard if needed, and bring the book back here. Any idea where she went?"

"I asked around," said the lich, "and they were seen in the town of Graindale, a few miles west of here. I do not know where they went after that."

So the group makes a quick decision, and heads for graindale.

Graindale is a town only in the loosest possible sense of the word. It has three buildings: a blacksmith, a sort of general store, and a tavern that doubles as an inn for the few travelers who come through town. Our heroes head for the tavern.

The main room is small (about the size of my kitchen), with four small tables and a small bar at one end. Behind the bar is woman about seven feet tall, maybe three hundred pounds -- most of it in her shoulders. "Ah!" she cries. "Adventurers! Welcome to the Inn of the Dulled Axe!" Sure enough, there's a massive bardiche on the wall behind her, with a strip of thick leather covering the edge of the blade. She is, obviously enough, a full-blooded orc... but while the party is still gaping, a small half-orc comes toddling out from behind the bar.

"Ah!" Cries the Barbarian. "So cute!" He rushes over to the child, who immediately holds out his hands to be picked up. The barbarian scoops up the child, cooing and fussing over him.

"Careful," says the orc inkeeper gently. "We call him Sam. I'm Arlis." They're between meals, but they still have some stew on for anyone who wanders in, and some bread that isn't yet stale. The group decides to eat, and she hauls over a massive pot of stew and sets it on the table (which creaks dangerously) before ladling a good-sized scoop into each of their bowls. Her husband, a middle-aged human, emerges from the kitchen behind her, bearing a tray with the bread and some spoons for them to eat with. His name, it turns out, is Bildur.

They haven't seen any sentient magical spellbooks, but there was a wizardly sort -- a human woman -- among a group of adventurers who stopped in a week or so earlier. They don't normally eavesdrop on their guests, but this group got a little loud and Arlis remembers overhearing that they were bound for Stonereef and would be meeting somebody from Isonwood there.

They've heard of both these places before. Stonereef is a predominantly Dwarven town, known for its mining, smiths, and metalcrafts; there's a much of the city underground as there is on the surface. The name Stonereef has something do with a geological peculiarity of the location, but they're not sure exactly what; it's one of those bits of terminology that makes perfectly good sense to Dwarves -- of course you'd name it that -- and not much sense to anybody else. Isonwood is unusual in being a community primarily of half-elves; it does some trade in lumber (but limited, so as not to damage the forest) and has a thriving artistic community.

The group finishes their meal and heads on to Stonereef. It's an irregularly-shaped walled city on the top of a hill or low plateau, with three stone ramps leading up to three large gatehouses. The group has caught a ride on a turnip-farmer's wagon, but they're pulled aside by a Dwarven guard at the bottom of the ramp. (The horses will have an easier time on the ramp without them anyway.) Stonereef, he explains, is a town of law and order; if they had mounts, they would be responsible for any messes made by their mounts. The same for golems, familiars, and companion animals. There's to be no stealing, no killing, no brawling, and no disturbing the peace. The group assures the guard that they're extremely easy-going and heads up the ramp.

Just inside the city there's a batch of small stalls, carts, and individual sellers. The one that catches their eye is a gnome who's selling wind-up mechanical spiders. Everybody buys one, and I'm sure we'll have spider-races to make important decisions at some point. A young dwarf -- they can tell by the lack of beard -- peels himself off the wall and approaches, offering to show them around the city for the very reasonable rate of two coppers a day. There's a brief discussion of whether he means "act as a guide" or "give them a tour", and he's perfectly willing to give them a tour -- but that would cost a silver each. Instead, they engage him as a guide and ask about places to stay.

Stonereef has three inns: The Golden Bowl is the nicest, and also the most expensive, where the most successful merchants and occasional visiting nobles tend to stay; The Shattered Box in the warehouse district, which caters to itinerant workers and is the least expensive, especially for extended stays; and the Frothing Otter, which is in the trade district near the central market, and offers a respectable place for lesser traders and occasional adventurers to stay.[1]

The group decides that the Frothing Otter is their best bet, and has their guide lead them there by way of the central market.

That was it for today's adventures; I've worked up character sheets for the wizard and her party, so it'll be adventurer versus adventurer if our heroes manage to track them down next week.

[1] It's also a reference to Eve Forward's Villains By Necessity. Firstborn gave a distinct side-eye when I named it.