Friday, March 31, 2023

Dark Armor: Second Chances

Pallian was half-dozing in a sort of miserable fugue when they came to fetch him for his execution. He managed to rouse himself when he heard the the first faint groans that heralded the loosening of the bloodsteel latches of the Tomb of the Living, but held himself still until the great stone lid was raised. If he moved now...

His father was standing across the room from him, accompanied by half a dozen mage-guards and the holy half-dead Amedin, and all hope of escape suddenly fled. The Wizard-King of Teregor smiled as he met Pallian's eyes and saw the sudden change of plans there. "Still spirited, boy?" he asked. Then he said, "Good. You'll need that."

Puzzled, Pallian asked: "I need to be lively when I'm executed, your majesty?"

"Insolence, boy. You're being given another chance, but don't press me."

"I... I think I see," he said, though it was anything but clear what was going on. "My apologies, Majesty." 

"And call me Father," said the Wizard-King, irritably. "You won't be executed today. You'll accompany myself and the Heir when we go to meet House Edrias."

House...? Pallian nodded, glad that he'd managed not speak that thought out loud. "As you wish it, Father."

The Wizard-King nodded. "Good. Better. Amedin will check you over, and when we reach the Citadel, and you will be permitted one new initiation with his approval. Choose it wisely." His expression turned sly. "It would have been two if you'd shown proper respect."

Pallian bowed. "I am grateful, Father." It wasn't hard to sound sincere; he was genuinely grateful for the chance to add a new initiation, even if it would have to be approved by Amedin and his father would know immediately what he had chosen. If they were going to be meeting with house Edrias -- and not, from the sound of things, on the field of battle -- then he'd need all the help he could get.

But why in the Seventeen Hells are we meeting with them now?

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Duendewood Resistance: Working Weapons

"Behold," said Amaranth, "my latest work." She was pleased with what she'd created, and pleased to be able to finally show it off.

Darvinin looked over the blades that she'd laid out on a section of oilcloth and asked, "What am I looking at? Besides a very nice selection of swords and daggers?" He could feel the magics on them, but would need to cast spells to determine exactly what those magics were.

"A bit of possible disruption," Amaranth told him. "Blades for members of the resistance who are likely to end up in combat. Or blades that you could arrange to have captured by Lamont's officers."

Darvinin tilted his head. "And why would I do that?"

Amaranth sighed. "I was planning to craft weapons that would be particularly useful against humans, for those in the resistance that might need them. Then I got word that Tialleron's group had run afoul of a human patrol--" 

"How do you know about that?" Darvinin asked sharply. 

"--and the patrol Captain was now boasting about using that very nice shortsword that Tialleron inherited from his grandfather." 

"Okay seriously," said Darvinin, sounding slightly panicked. "How do you know this?

"I'm equipping a number of groups," she told him. "Your mother organized them well: I've only met one person from each group, and none of them show their faces. They never tell me their names or where they are or what they're working on. But they do give me word when somebody dies, and that was one of the death-names that was passed along."

"Huh," said Darvinin, relaxing slightly. "Did they tell you that the patrol captain was murdered a few weeks later, and the blade disappeared?"

"They did not," Amaranth said blandly. "How very mysterious. I wonder what could have happened, and where that blade might have ended up."

Darvinin glanced at the small stone building behind her, then over at the outdoor forge where she worked. He suddenly had a very good idea of what could have happened and where that blade might have ended up. Shaking his head, he said: "So these blades...?"

"Humanbane, all of them," she said. 

"Ah," he said. "So they're enchanted." A humanbane blade would do extra damage to humans, and was likely set with at least basic enchantments to make it both sharper and easier to use. He reached down to pick one up.

"No," said Amaranth. "They're cursed."

Darvinin yanked his hand back. "And you want to give them to our people?" 

Amaranth smiled a very unpleasant smile. "The way the curse works is this: they look and behave exactly like ordinary enchanted blades, and they're completely safe to use that way... unless you use them to draw elvish blood. If an elf is using one of them, then it's also a humanbane weapon; if anyone else picks it up, it's just a standard magic blade. But the moment one gets used to draw Elvish blood, the curse kicks in: the person holding the weapon goes completely berserk and starts attacking any humans they can see. Also, the blade starts being humanbane again. The killer can't put the blade down, either. If they run out of human victims, then they'll calm down a little and be able to sleep, feed themselves, whatever... they just can't put down the sword, and the moment they see another human they'll go berserk and start attacking again."

Darvinin stared at her, but Amaranth just kept smiling. 

"That's--" Disturbing. "--amazing," he said after a moment. It'll certainly give them second thoughts about claiming trophies from our dead. After a moment's further consideration, he asked: "Could you make one, a strong one, that activated the moment a human touched it?"

Amaranth nodded. "I could, but I didn't intend for these blades to turn every single human against their own kind. They're intended to target the ones who prove themselves our enemies."

"I understood," Darvinin said, looking at the longswords and shortswords and daggers, "but if you could make something like that, I think I know somebody who could arrange to send it to one of Duke Lamont's closest advisors as a gift."

Amaranth's lips pursed, and she made almost a chewing motion as she thought it over. "And here I always thought you were the boring twin," she said. 

"What became of your mother?" asked Darvinin, suddenly eager to change the subject. Shalmistra was off putting arrows into Duke Lamont's troops, and this suddenly looked like the sort of attention that he definitely didn't want. He might be misreading Amaranth's response, but if he wasn't then he needed to signal that he definitely wasn't available.

Amaranth blinked, and her face went through three different expressions so quickly that Darvinin couldn't place any of them. "You won't believe it," she said. "She gave it all up." 


"Threw in with the druids. No more nice dresses, social obligations, or establishing our social class through obscure courtesies. She's given it all up, taken a fox for a companion, and gone back to nature."

"Milathyra Anthelorn has apprenticed herself to the druids?" Darvinin shook his head. Gods above, the world really is ending... 

"I think she might be happier than she's been in a long while," Amaranth said. There was a brief pause, and then she added: "What about you? Any word from Ruin?"

Darvinin shook his head. "They stole some sort of magical artifact from the Order of Secrets and used it to travel to another world -- at least, that was their last dispatch indicated. Nobody has heard from them since." 

Amaranth nodded. "Let me know if he shows back up, will you?"

Darvinin considered that for a long moment. "He has children already," he told her, "by at least two different mothers. Werendril is helping to raise them."

Amaranth shook her head. "No, I didn't know that." She looked thoughtful for a moment, then shrugged. "Let me know."

"As you wish," said Darvinin, and started considering how best to distribute the cursed weapons.

So Amaranth has taken over an old stone shrine somewhere in the Duendewood forests a bit southwest of High Grove. She's forging weapons for the Resistance, but definitely in her own inimitable style. As a Bladecrafter she's also a very capable fighter, and has limited access to some arcane magics. This piece is set sometime between the fall of Annun to Duke Lamont and the death of Baethira Anthelorn (Ruin and Darvinin's mother) and the return of the Twiceborn. Amaranth has an apprentice, Tovarin, who's just on the cusp of adulthood, though he does not appear in this vignette. It's very likely that when she learns of Ruin's return, she'll start crafting a falchion she thinks suitable for him -- but ultimately, that's up to our DM.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Challenge: Best Nonfiction Book

(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: Best Nonfiction Book I've Ever Read

That's a tricky one. I don't read as much non-fiction as I should, and there aren't that many that stuck with me well enough for me to recommend. Still, I do have one: 

You're Stepping On My Cloak And Dagger, by Roger Hall. It's an autobiography written by a fellow who was assigned to the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) during World War II -- how he got there, his training, and eventually the missions he took part in. It's not what you might expect: not a lot of grand deeds, or the horrors of war, or important victories. What it is, more than anything else, is an insightful and humorous perspective into what it was like to be involved with the United States putting together one of its very first spy agencies.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Duendewood: Graveside Part Three

"Killed them, you say?" Darvinin had finally gotten back to the inn that he'd been using as his base of operations. Until the king was proven dead, he was still one of the King's Own, and so he did what he could to assist the resistance and protect the people. Occupied as he'd been, he was only now realizing how Ruin had known how to find him at their mother's grave.

Narissa nodded. "Your twin took one look at them and went after them -- like, one heartbeat he was here, the next he was standing behind them with his sword out. Took down two of them before they even knew he was there. Then the woman walked outside and turned into a dragon, and..."

"Dragon." Darvinin shook his head, half-disbelieving. Of course he'd be traveling with a dragon now. And with the legendary bard Geddy Lee Geddy, and with Martini -- who's far too smart to ever let herself become that well known. He hadn't realized that the other woman was a dragon when they'd met, but at this point nothing surprised him when it came to Ruin. "So: four priests of Vecna dead, and at least one of their elite guard. And no reprisals?"

"Nothing," Narissa told him. "No more robberies, either. Not here, anyway."

Darvinin took a long drink from a mug of watered ale -- he didn't want to be drinking anything stronger at this point -- and considered that. "Any other visitors since then?" 

"A handful," Narissa admitted. Knowing why he would ask, she added: "Everybody was still talking about it, so of course they would have heard. But all anybody here knows is that the group went north on dragonback when they left."

"Well, that's a relief," said Darvinin quietly. "But I still might need to--"

"Darvinin?" called a voice from the doorway behind him, and Narissa immediately drew back from their discussion. 

Darvinin turned and beheld his father, Hirethal Moonshadow, standing in the door of the inn with a woman just behind him. He stood immediately and offered a slight bow -- familiar, but still formal. His father bowed in return, but the woman behind him slipped past and moved directly towards Darvinin. He didn't reach for his blade, but it was a near thing: her expression and her movements were very intent. 

She stopped in front of him, staring, and then said: "Yes. Her eyes. You're Darvinin, firstborn of Baethira Anthelorn?"

He nodded, then glanced at his father, who stepped up and put a hand on the woman's shoulder. She tensed, but only briefly. Then she relaxed and settled back. 

"This is Tamisira Eldrish," Hirethal told him. "Tamisira, my son -- and Baethira's -- Darvinin." 

"Ah," said Darvinin, as things suddenly became more clear. "You're Sam's mom." The phrasing in Elvish was sloppy and shorthand, colloquial and undignified, but Tamisira smiled broadly and showed no sign of offense. 

"Just so," she said. "Sam, and her brother Vairethin. You know them?"

"I know Sam," Darvinin told her. He couldn't see what Narissa was doing behind him, but he was pretty sure the innkeeper was hanging on every word. "She's spoken of her brother, but I've never met him."

"Do you know where they are now?"

"Sam has her own crew, which includes my near-sister Sherra. The last I knew, the five of them were skirting the edges of the human usurper's authority and spreading songs designed to embarrass and provoke him. The resistance has used at least two of those occasions to trap and destroy teams of his assassins."

"Stop," said Tamisira "Usurper? Resistance? Assassins?"

Darvinin held up a hand, then turned his back to look at Narissa. "A bottle of the Keldovar '49, please. I'm good for it." 

She smiled. "I know you are." A moment later she was passing the bottle across the bar, along with a trio of glasses

Darvinin turned back and gestured towards one of the tables. "I've changed my mind," he said. "I need whiskey for this."

His father took the bottle, and Darvinin scooped up the glasses, and the three of them retreated to a table in the corner. 

A thought occurred to Darvinin, and he fished around in one of the pouches on his belt and then pulled out a small amulet on a silver chain. "Here," he said, handing it over to Tamisira. 

His father was busy filling their glasses with whiskey; Hirethal looked relieved to have something definite to do. Darvinin knew he was being far too informal and familiar with his elders, but he couldn't seem to stop himself. I'm acting like Ruin. Then again, maybe that was for the best, with everything that was happening now. 

Tamisira took the amulet, looked at it, and nodded. For a moment, her fingers closed around it and she squeezed her eyes closed. Then she lifted it up and clasped it around her neck. 

Her eyes widened in surprise. "It's connected to somebody." She frowned. "Not Baethira."

Darvinin nodded.  "My brother, who has not taken a name but calls himself Ruin more often than anything else. He is much like you, or so our mother told me. She gave him the matching amulet, and he learned from it. He, too, is near-brother to Sherra, and if Sherra and Sam aren't married already then they will be by the end of the season. He is someone you should know, or at least know about."

Tamisira glanced at Hirethal, who nodded. "I had my worries," he said. "They were unfounded." He drew a breath, then seemed to reconsider and released it instead. "I think it would have pleased my once-wife for the two of you to know each other."

Tamisira touched the amulet, then nodded. "I will keep that in mind. For now... tell me of this usurper and his assassins, and then we can decide how best to find my children."

"I'd like to help you with that," Hirethal said, and Darvinin glanced at him. "I'm not so strong in battle, but I sat on a regional council that helped resolve certain sorts of disputes. I still have some connections."

Tamisira nodded, almost absently, and then looked at Darvinin. "Tell me what's happened while I've been away."

Monday, March 27, 2023

Tavros: Marriage and Other Matters

"Married?" asked Tavros, and Leira nodded, smiling happily. 

Sacha cleared his throat. "I had intended to ask for your blessing first, Majesty. I did not expect the great god Helios to arrange for us to be married as part of the Trials of the Avatar."

"Leave off with the 'Majesty' bit, may it please the gods," said Tavros firmly. "Vigo has his ideas, but this estate is as much privacy as we're going to have, and it's only the three of us here -- and you're my son-in-law, it seems. And it's not as if I didn't know this would be coming."

Sacha flushed. "It-- I--"

"It was amazing," Leira said. "Even with nobody to see it, and my dress kind of dirty from going through those doors and being old. Sacha did so well! He did the whole wedding ceremony, all the way through the end."

Tavros shifted his attention to Leira to spare Sacha any further embarrassment, and simply said, "I'm so glad everything has worked out." Then another thought occurred to him, and he slid the ring from his finger. 

"Here," he said, turning back to Sacha and proffering the ring. "We found these earlier, and I'd intended for the two of you to use them as wedding rings. Better late than never, and they'll help you protect each other."

"My ki-- Um, thank you. Profoundly." Tavros watched as Sacha slipped the ring onto his own finger. 

"So when are you going to get married, Daddy?" asked Leira. "I mean, you really should. It's amazing. You make all these promises and then you finally get to have sex while you're still young and beautiful."

Tavros coughed. "I'm sure my time will come," he said, and then wondered if that sounded as ominous spoken aloud as it did in his head. It wasn't that he was opposed to the idea, exactly, it was just that between his much-needed attempt to claim the throne and the inescapable guidance of Vigo and Dante, he had no idea whom he might end up with. Whoever it is, I shall have to be kind... but not too kind. He still wasn't too taken with Helios, but he supposed the god did have a point about dispensing justice. He looked at Sacha, and said: "In case it's not clear, you do have my blessing -- and would have earlier, had we managed to work this all out in advance."

"You have no idea what a relief that is," Sacha said. "I would not do anything to make Leira unhappy."

Leira put her arm through Sacha's and said, "You make me very happy. Let's go... be happy together."

Tavros managed not to change his expression, and fortunately his silver scales didn't color the way a full human's skin would have. "Go on," he said gently. "Take your time together. You've certainly earned it."

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.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Challenge: Historical Figures

(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 Historical Personage to read about

I don't have a particular favorite. I do read some history, but I don't generally read biographies. That said, I do sort of have a type: I enjoy reading about the wilder, less famous historical figures -- the ones who did outrageous, ridiculous things, and were frequently some sort of hot mess into the bargain. Consider, for example...

La Maupin, born Julie d'Aubigny: duelist, opera singer, cross-dresser, seducer of men and women alike, and absolute 100% drama magnet. 

The Chevalier d'Eon: diplomat, spy, soldier, and most likely what we would refer to today as a trans woman; at one point she was even blackmailing the King of France (and quite effectively, too).

Nelly Bly: pioneering investigative journalist, who among other things took Jules Verne's Around The World In Eighty Days as a challenge, set off, and made it the entire way in seventy-two days -- with a brief stop to meet with Jules Verne himself. 

I like reading about people who lived these utterly wild lives, in other words.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Sacha: Unexpected Discoveries

Sacha had scared him. The priest, that was; Sacha had scared him. At least, he thought so. He hadn't meant to, but... Kroni still haunts me, even if he no longer threatens to consume my mind and take over my body. There were memories, habits, urges... He shook his head. 

He was dressed now, though not armored. The thong was safely locked away with the rest of his belongings in a chest that the abbess had provided for his cell. And the young men who had carried it in -- lay members, as he understood it -- had informed him that Cardinal Cloverfield, the newly-appointed head of the Order of the Golden Sun, wished to speak with him. Sacha had no idea what such an exalted personage would be doing here in Caristhium, at a temple of Amun, but apparently there were more of his fellows here than he'd realized. 

Perhaps the temple was offering shelter to any adherents of any of the Covenant of Amun? That seemed possible, even likely. The abbess here certainly liked to keep her hand in things. 

"This way," said the halfling, and Sacha followed him down the passage. 

"I-- forgive me," said Sacha. "What was your name, again?" 

"Got a lot on your mind, eh?" asked the smaller man. Without waiting for a reply, he said: "Birno. Priest of Amun, obviously. I tutor the new initiates, priests and paladins alike."

"And guide lost paladins of Helios, it seems." 

"Oh, you know how it is." The halfling looked up at him and grinned. "Duties as assigned, and all. But being here, and being around the Twice-born and the Solari, I've heard something of your story. I won't bother you for more, but I'm curious enough that guiding you to meet with Cardinal Cloverfield isn't a chore."

Sacha quirked a self-deprecating smile. "You flatter me," he said. "I'm just another fallen paladin."

"Not fallen, I don't think," countered Birno. "Otherwise you wouldn't be here. And you wouldn't have been opposing the Wildlanders. Or defending Springhollow."

Nonsense... Except that the little priest wasn't truly wrong. What evil Sacha had done, he had done unwillingly. It was no less evil for that, and no less his evil to atone for, but Birno was right. He wanted to atone. He wanted to make things right, or as close to right as an afternoon's work could manage for wrongs done in the morning: right with Helios, right with Leira, right with himself. To become the Avatar of Helios, he thought again, wondering and more than a little awestruck. 

"Well," said Birno. "Here we are." He reached up and opened a door, and then stepped back. 

"Thank you," said Sacha, and stepped through. 

Inside was a small room, intended for meals and meetings, with an oval-shaped table in the center and a dozen chairs lining the walls, six on either side. One of the chairs had already been pulled over to the table; the priest that he'd met earlier was sitting in it. 

Sacha grabbed a chair from the opposite wall, and pulled it over so that he could sit on the far side from the priest. They regarded each other in companionable silence for a long moment, before Sacha said, "So when does the Cardinal arrive?"

The priest blinked. "He came in just a few minutes before you did."

Sacha looked around the room, puzzled, but didn't see anyone else here.

"It's me," said the priest. "I'm him. Cardinal Clovis Cloverfield, in the flesh. I got here a few minutes before you did."

Sacha looked around the room again, mostly because he couldn't think of any other way to respond. This couldn't possibly be happening. "You," he said. "You. Are the highest of the Order of the Sun, the chief religious of the worshipers of Helios."

The priest nodded, looking miserably embarrassed. "I was the highest one left after the Solari Hunters murdered everyone else. I didn't-- I'm not--" He sighed. "What you have to understand is..." He closed his mouth again, shook his head once, and straightened. "That's why we need you to become His avatar."

"And Gosder Cherilus?" 

"Fallen. Against the Solari Hunters. In a final defense of the throne."

Sacha nodded slowly. "Then the duty comes to me, if Helios wills it." And if, in his mercy, he allows it. The chance to transcend his vows, to serve his god and at the same time be able to give Leira the love she deserved... He would do anything, survive anything for that. 

"Helios wills it," said Cardinal Cloverfield. "He sent me a vision."

"So you said. How can this be done?"

"Do you know, your luck may actually be worse than mine?" Cardinal Cloverfield shook his head, then cleared his throat. "You have confronted the darkness. To find your way back to the light, you must travel to the land of the sun and undertake the trials of the avatar. I'm almost completely sure that that's the island of Solouro. You will be accompanied by three companions--"

"Leira?" asked Sacha. 

"She pledged herself immediately," Clovis told him. "The proper king, Tavros Fontaine, pledged himself next, and the legendary bard Geddy Lee Geddy immediately after. Geddy's companion, the mysterious Lady Eva, will accompany you but is not properly one of your companions."

Sacha sat back in the carved wooden chair. Leira. Together, they could do this. They must do this. There was no other way. Failure would result in damnation; success would be his salvation. Their salvation. He had to succeed. And with these companions, he began to believe he could.

It was never really a question. Not if Cardinal Cloverfield received a vision. I cannot but do the will of Helios, especially if it will allow me to marry Leira. "You must excuse me," he said, and rose. "I have things to discuss with my companions, and preparations to make."

* * *

He found the future king Tavros Fontaine in the Chapel of All, in the northeast corner tower. The half-dragon was kneeling silently, evidently praying to someone other than Amun -- which shocked him. No priest or paladin of Helios would actively pray to another god. Acknowledge them, yes, but offer worship? Never. 

Still, the Temple of Amun and the Order of the Titan King had their own rules and their own ways of doing things, and clearly they were more open to the presence of other gods than the Order of the Golden Sun. There was even a True Elf paladin of Corellon Larethian here, apparently on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. So he came and knelt beside the would-be king, just far enough away not to disturb, and waited. 

After a time, Tavros blinked and rose, and Sacha rose with him. "Your Majesty," he said. Was it his imagination, or did the half-dragon twitch when he said that? No, that definitely wasn't his imagination. 

"Just Tavros, please. If there's a proper coronation, then afterwards perhaps formalities will be appropriate." 

Sacha nodded. "Cardinal Clovis informs me that I am to become the Avatar of Helios, and that you and my beloved and the legendary bard will help me in my quest."

Tavros nodded, his expression unreadable on that not-quite-human face. His voice, however, was warm when he said: "So he informed us as well. I'm looking forward to it. Leira can take us there in the morning, if you feel ready."

Sacha didn't feel ready; he felt... He felt a burning need to do this now, and realized immediately that it was the sort of uncontrolled, undisciplined, driving impulse that got people killed. He couldn't afford that. He had to succeed at this. "If I could, I would leave tonight," he said honestly. "On the moment, even. But there are preparations that I need to make first." He would need to think on what those preparations should be, but he couldn't just charge in. 

Tavros stopped and studied him seriously. "Take some time," he said. "We need to do this right."

Yes, my king. Sacha barely managed to choke back the words, and nodded instead. He was profoundly relieved. This Tavros understood him, understood the needs that drove him. 

"This is the Chapel of All," Tavros continued, gesturing towards the unmarked altar. "Sanctified, but not consecrated to any one deity. Take some time here, offer your prayers to Helios, and get yourself centered."

"I will," he said, and then his lips quirked and he added, "Your Majesty."

Tavros sighed, but he closed the door behind him when he went out.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Dungeons and Doggos

The kids' D&D game on Saturday morning was... odd. We were missing one player -- his character has temporarily fallen into a pit trap which immediately sealed over so that the other characters couldn't get to him until his player returns -- but, we were up by two whole doggos. 

Of the two players who attended, one is disabled and not very steady on his feet; so it was quite a surprise to look outside and realize that he was trying to get out of the car while two mid-sized dogs were racing around the yard, wagging and sniffing and generally being friendly. They weren't wearing collars, and we didn't see anybody who looked like an owner, so we herded them through the house and into the back yard. (Crotchstomper was thrilled by this. New doggy-buddies? And they came to visit him? More, please!) 

The dogs remained in the back yard while the boys explored the dungeons and encountered mysterious floating skeletons which turned out to be the remains of victims still being dissolved by a gelatinous cube. They battled the cube, and defeated it with the help of the wizard who hired them and some of the workers he'd brought to clear the entrance to the ruins. 

With this chapter of the adventure resolved, we took the dogs over to a nearby vet. Sure enough, they were chipped and we were able to send their owner a message; he came and collected them as soon as he could. (We had, of course, caught him at a doctor's appointment or somesuch.) Turns out he has a young daughter who thinks it's fun to take their collars off and open the gate for them, so this is the second or third time they've gotten out in the last few weeks.

Still, all ended happily, with a successful resolution to both quests.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Dark Armor: Battle-fatigue

Fourteen hours later, Pallian was standing in the vault and regarding the Spear of the First where it was lashed to the wall. He wore his own sword, not the gauntlet-sword carried by the Black Knight, on a wide black leather belt, over a thin, off-white shirt and darker brown pants. He hadn't bothered with boots; here in the crypt, he usually wore sandals. 

"A magnificent prize," said his father, the wizard-king of Teregor, from behind him. 

Pallian immediately turned and dropped to one knee. "My sire."

"Was it worth the cost, do you think?"

Pallian hesitated, but only for a moment. "I do not know," he said. "As the Champion of Teregor, I only do as I am ordered."

"Duty," said his father. "Did you do your duty there in Marinul?"

"I came when I was called, did what I was bidden, and departed when I was ordered," Pallian said carefully. "I am, as always, your obedient servant."

"Then why," asked his father, "does Rebka, my daughter and my heir, lie slain in the city of Marinul? Did you not have a duty to protect her?"

Pallian swallowed. Rebka, dead? "I do not know, father--"

"Do not call me that."

Pallian kept his head down. "I came when I was called. I led the attack that broke through their earthworks and slew their sorcerers. I defeated the Champion of Marinul, though he was armed with the Spear of the First. Rebka herself ordered my return to the crypt, to make safe her prize and heal my wounds."

"You defy me, boy?" The wizard-king's voice rose, outraged. "You dare claim that your wounds were more important than the safety of my heir?"

Pallian opened his mouth to argue, then closed it again. His father had already decided what would happen here; that much was clear. He settled back, then looked up and met his father's eyes. "May I at least ask how Rebka died, Your Majesty?"

Caught off-guard, the wizard-king swallowed. "Killed in her sleep. A single knife to the heart. No doubt from the Shadow of Edrias."

Pallian settled back. His anger and his outrage drained away; with the strain of battle and healing, he was simply too tired to sustain them. So after all that, I am to be blamed for something I could not have prevented. The Shadow of Edrias was a legend, a murderous piece of the night itself, created to be the Champion of Edrias just as the Black Knight had been crafted to be the Champion of Teregor. 

He knelt in silence for two full breaths before his father -- no, the wizard-king, he was only that now -- demanded: "Well, boy?"

"What would you have me say, Majesty?" He kept his head down, waiting.

"Tell me you understand the depths of your failure." The wizard-king's voice was tight with cold fury, he raised one hand in front of him. "Admit that your sister's death was your fault. Beg for my forgiveness."

Pallian drew a resigned breath, then looked up and met the king's eyes. For a heartbeat longer he remained silent, taking in the narrow face with its high forehead, the clenched jaw, the hands curled into fists. Then he said, "You Majesty, I cannot."

For a moment the wizard-king looked stunned. Then his face smoothed and his expression turned cruel. "And for that insolence, you will be executed. Seize him!"

Pallian let himself relax as the skeletons surrounded him. He didn't have the strength for another battle yet, and he had no hope at all of defeating his father. So he remained still as the closest of the skeletons pulled him to his feet and removed the sword from his scabbard. He didn't resist as they marched him out the door. He didn't have a plan yet, but if he was to have any hope of escape he would have to wait.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Ruin and Tavros: The Order Of Secrets And Other Matters

"We're going to have to find them," Ruin said. "I know you want to pull the kingdom back together, and I don't disagree, but... the Order of Secrets loosed all this bloodshed, murdered your cousin, and left the kingdom in chaos. We can't assume that whatever they do next won't make everything worse just because they've gone into hiding and we don't know what they're planning."

"I know," said Tavros, pouring a glass of wine and handing it to Ruin. "But the best information we have is from the four of you: they've been seen up in Duendewood. We have to establish a presence there before we can search for them."

Ruin took the glass and nodded. "If we can gather the druids and the remains of the army..."

Tavros poured himself a glass of wine, glanced at it, and then set it aside and downed the rest of the bottle. "I think you should try. That might give us enough of a foothold that we can make a real search. If Amun has mercy on us -- or Corellon, for that matter -- they might already know where the Order of Secrets is hidden."

"Any word from that priest who showed up during the storm?" Ruin asked. "Ezra, I think?"

"Cardon," Tavros filled in. "Ezra Cardon. No, he just showed up, griped at us, and disappeared again. He didn't even leave us any way to get word to him. I suspect he'll show up again the next time he wants something from us, and be just as high-handed and peremptory as before."

Ruin drained his wine glass. "We need more allies," he said. "And fewer assholes."

Tavros shook his head. "This is why you should stay out of politics," he observed, and handed the second wineglass over. "Why I should, too, because I agree completely."

Ruin paused, sipped his wine, and then said. "Very well, O my friend. There is one other matter I want to bring up."

"Oh?" asked Tavros. 


Tavros' jaw clenched. "Have you been talking to my mother?"

"As it happens, yes -- but not about that. No, my own mother had mentioned the need for Mythrandril to find a queen and father some heirs. And, well..." He looked the half-dragon over, then shrugged. "None of us are immortal, even now."

"True," said Tavros. "I don't know. If I must be king, I would prefer to marry a queen I loved... but I lack your experience in romance, I fear. And my being a half-dragon complicates things, as do the possible politics of any royal marriage." He shuddered. "I told you about that one noble daughter..."

Ruin laughed softly. "You did. And, as a personal favor, I will not try to give you advice on your love life. But you should think about finding someone, even as part of a political alliance, whom you can at least befriend."

Tavros paused with his hand on the neck of another bottle of wine. After a long moment, he said: "I will think on that."

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Challenge: Something Funny

(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: Something Funny That Happened To Me

So I've been thinking about this for a couple of days, and I'm honestly not coming up with much -- which is probably more a failure of memory on my part than a lack of Humorous Events in my life. But I went digging around, and finally came up with one: 

A couple of years back, I received a phishing scam in my inbox. It happens; usually it's not a big deal.

Problem is, this one was fairly convincing: the email address had been spoofed and looked more-than-reasonably legitimate, the text was clear and simple and didn't have a lot of typos (some, but not many, and nothing that was obviously a non-native English speaker). The only real "tell" was that if you hovered over the link, it went to something random and definitely not anywhere on our site/network. 

And I looked at that and thought, "Holy hell! If I got this, then other people are getting it too, and it's too good - somebody's going to fall for it." So I immediately stopped what I was doing, and composed a warning by forwarding the thing with the link removed and a big note at the top that said:

This is not from Information Technology. This is a phishing scam.
Do not click on the link, do not fill anything out. If you already did, please contact the help desk immediately.

Being the good little IT person that I am, I sent the warning to everybody in the organization.

...And immediately got a visit from the Director of IT, because apparently this was a test they were running on the IT staff and I'd just spoiled it. 

I make no apologies for this.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Sol Povos: After the Rescue

Sacha took a long look around the room, then began to disrobe. He hesitated when he came to the last of it, the thing that he still wore under everything else. Lulu would do terrible things to him if he removed it without permission... Then he shook his head, and forced himself to do it anyway. The Blood Sister no longer owned him. She had fought a duel with Tavros Fontaine, the paladin of Amun and possible heir to the throne of Sol Povos, and fallen at the first exchange of blows. By the terms of the duel and what passed for law among the Wildlanders, Sacha now belonged to the half-dragon instead, and so they turned him loose. 

With the thong now safely discarded atop the clothing that Tavros' party had purchased for him, Sacha stepped into the bath. The water was hot, almost too hot to be comfortable, but after a moment the heat began to soothe his aching muscles...  

Leira... He did not know what he should do about the girl. She loved him, she claimed, despite everything he'd done and everything that had been done to him. Hers was the grace that had kept him going when even Helios seemed distant. He wanted... he wanted things that a paladin of Helios could never have. Love, marriage, incredibly hot sex... Impure thoughts, he chided himself, but then... I have so much to repent for already, he thought. Surely this is not so much more. 

He couldn't break his vows to Helios. He couldn't. He had been called, and chosen, and those vows were his life. But... somehow, Leira had become his life too. He couldn't turn his back on her. Helios, Light of the World, I beg your guidance. Tell me what I must do... 

The god didn't answer directly, of course. He seldom did. But Sacha felt a touch of impatience, almost irritation, with his struggles. Sacha wasn't sure how he would have expressed it in words. Walk it off, maybe.

Then a man in the robes of a priest of Helios entered the bathing room. "Sacha?" 

Sacha turned his head. "Here."

The man nodded and walked over to the pile of clothes, then reached down and picked up the thong. Frowning as he held it up, he asked: "What's this?"

"Don't," growled Sacha, then stopped and cleared his throat. In a more normal voice, he said, "Don't throw it away."

The priest regarded him with an emphatic side-eye. "You want to keep it? I mean, I'm sure it fits... um... snugly... but--"

"No," said Sacha. "I want to burn it. Ceremonially."

"Oh." He dropped it back onto the pile.

Sacha studied the other man. What was a priest of Helios doing here in a temple of Amun? Then again, I'm here and nobody seems to think anything of it. And there is a war on, after all. He thought they were about the same age, so the priest couldn't stand too high in the hierarchy... 

Sacha gave up and decided to ask his questions. "Father..." he said, and the other man turned to face him. "Is there any way a servant of Helios could have a family and continue to serve the Sun God?"

The priest blinked, and then shook his head. "Not among the Orders. We have a temple down in the city, and the priestess there is just-- and I can't even--" He shook his head. "My luck. There might be a few hedge-priests whom Helios lends his countenance to but who never took formal vows. And, of course, the Avatar of Helios is beyond all that."

That's what I thought. Sacha could feel his heart breaking. He could still love Leira -- he would always love Leira, with the whole of his scarred and darkened heart -- but he could never marry her. Theirs would be a chaste love, and the most they could look forward to was a passionate celibacy. She deserved better. She deserved someone who could make her happy, body and soul. 

"It's funny you should ask about that," said the priest. "I mean, I was going to wait and bring this up later, but... I had a vision. About you. And we need you to become the Avatar of Helios."

Sacha went still. His body was already still, but his breath slowed and he would swear forever after than his heart ceased needing to beat. His thoughts, so jumbled a moment before, went blank. 

Then everything came rushing back in and he sat up so quickly that he spilled water from the tub. His heart was pounding, blood racing like fire through his veins. His hands gripped the sides of the tub. "How?" he demanded. 

Redemption. Reconciliation. Love. By the grace of his god, all three were suddenly within his reach.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Spring Reset

The boys have started Spring Break, which means that I'm working in the office again. We're moving towards That Time Of Year again -- May, I mean -- and the number of projects and related stress is starting to build up. Being in the office will actually be an advantage for this, especially if I come in early -- with any luck, I can catch up on some of the things I got behind on while Beautiful Wife was out of town last week. 

Writing progress is slow and erratic, at least on the longer projects, but it's still progress. I need to figure out what happens next in the Dark Fantasy project, but while I'm waiting for my brain to catch up with that, I re-opened Random High Fantasy and threw another couple of pages on there. And, of course, Dark Armor is coming along here on the Blog o' Doom. I've been taking advantage of Friday Night Writes, and having a couple of hours blocked off (even once a week) is proving hugely helpful. 

I managed to get everyone else down to bed on Saturday night, and was sitting in the back reading, and apparently at some point in there I finally just... relaxed. It was a wonder I made it into the bed. I slept for about ten hours, with some really nice rapid eye movements in there, and woke gradually. (Dreams were weird, and mostly focused on making it back on time from a conference myself. Not stress dreams, though; like, things were working out and I was on my way to the airport when I woke up.)

(I do miss having monster dreams, but I think I'm just not watching and reading enough scary material.)

All in all, I think I've got a pretty good start going into this week, so the goal is going to be maintaining it: getting enough sleep, keeping my energy up, getting exercise in the form of walking (with or without the dog), and just generally being careful not to overextend myself. 

Seems doable.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Dark Armor: Healing

Pallian wasn't certain how long he'd been in the bath before the single bone of his left leg separated, reforming tibia and fibula, patella and femur. It burned, but he gritted his teeth and waited it out, and when it was done he could flex his leg again. Darkest gods, that hurt. He knew how close he'd come being slain by the Champion of Marinul, and the knowledge was sobering. I need to find another line of work, he thought, but unless his father decided to raise him to the court and appoint another to the role of Black Knight, there was little chance of that. He'd done what he could to protect himself, but defying the wizard-king's will was a quick path to a certain death. 

"You seem much recovered," said a voice, and Pallian stirred himself to look at Amedin, who had come into the room and now stood looking at him. 

Amedin had served the obsidian throne for six generations, far beyond the span of his mortal life. What remained of his flesh was wound tight around his bones, withered and decayed; and it was said that only the darkest of sorceries sustained him. Pallian had never seen him eat or drink, and thought of him as a sort of horrible doll that his father the wizard-king summoned for unpleasant tasks and pronouncements. Perhaps the most horrifying thing about him was that despite his appearance he moved like a young man, swift and sure.

"Considering that the Champion of Marinul near severed my leg, I'd say so." Pallian kept his voice even. 

Amedin knelt and placed a hand on his shoulder. Pallian didn't flinch away, but that was a matter of will and training. It wasn't just his visceral disgust at the touch of the half-dead priest, but the fact that Amedin had been responsible for the initiations he'd received at his father's commands, and -- of all the beings in his father's court -- was the one most likely to uncover the initiations that Pallian had secretly undertaken on his own. Still, there was no avoiding Amedin's scrutiny, and any attempt to avoid it would only make it more likely that the ancient priest would look more closely and learn his secrets. 

That was what had happened to his older sister, Tyrya: like all of them, she had undertaken initiations of her own. Unlike her more fortunate siblings, she had been caught with them. Their father had publicly saluted her courage and initiative, and a few months later sent her off to the front lines of a particularly nasty skirmish with the Lord Martial of Ghenesh's moonriders. She had not returned; the funeral celebrations had lasted a paltry three days.

"Good," said Amedin, after a moment. "Strong." He stood again, smoothly. "Tybben brought you the elixir, of course, but even so..."

"The armor did what it could on the way back as well," Pallian observed, settling back into the bath. He needed food, and sleep, but at this particular moment he never wanted to move again. And that could be dangerous too, he thought. 

He made himself sit up. "You think I need additional help?" he asked, "I don't expect the armor to be breached by anything less than what I just faced, but..."

Amedin shook his head. "No. Not yet." He looked Pallian over, then nodded to himself. "Your initiations are coming along fine. They only need time to mature. And adding more would not help you, not with the armor around you."

Pallian nodded. "So be it," he said, and stood, gesturing to one of the skeletons to bring him a towel. It moved automatically to obey. "It will be food and then rest for me," he told the half-dead. "If you need me, I will be in my chambers."

"I will so inform the king," said Amedin, and turned away.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Good!Party: The Burning Gnome Festival

So, we’re going to try to retrieve Sacha and help him achieve redemption and apotheosis by becoming the Avatar of Helios. The party undertaking this quest is: 

  • Leira, the sorceress; his One True Love
  • Geddy Lee Geddy, gnomish bard, formerly of Sacha’s Crew
  • Eva, gold dragon, and Geddy’s loyal companion.
  • Tavros Fontaine, half-dragon paladin, who can’t keep his claws out of anything to do with divinity and also desperately needs to build more support for his claim to the throne. 

We sort out questions of equipment and head off to retrieve Sacha from the Wildlanders.They were given Fairflower as a spoil of war. There are tent cities outside of the town, occupied by the bandit tribes and their families who followed the armies. The city is completely overflowing with people. 

We stop an assault on the way into town, saving a young woman who is now grovelingly grateful to us. 

Eva notes that the guards could have intervened, and eats them. The girl is a local; the locals are being badly mistreated by the wildlanders. The other guards are very, very sorry. One of the elders of the bandit tribe comes out, and he was clearly pretty badass back in the day. 

Geddy: “We need the one they call Sacha.” 

“Oh, yeah, the White Knight. I wouldn’t hold your breath. The Blood Sisters were pretty irritated and threw him in the dungeon.” It turns out that the wildlander army was led by eight formidable sisters. They’re staying in the keep. He thinks Sacha’s probably dead already.

Also, it’s almost noon and that’s when they hold the executions. We climb on Eva and ascend to the skies, where Geddy promptly makes us invisible. The wildlander army is about 2,700 strong; they’ve completely overrun the city. The city is, of course, a complete mess; its population has basically doubled. The wildlanders don’t seem to be pillaging; they do seem intent on settling here. There are just waaaay too many of them.

The gallows have been constructed in the town square. There’s a crowd of locals looking traumatized, and then there's a crowd of wildlanders who are there to be entertained. The gallows have been used extensively; there are also well-stained chopping blocks beside them. Sacha is not in the line of people being paraded out. Geddy looks at the two groups, and casts Song of Discord on the wildlanders. Their crowd turns from a celebration to a riot, and the guards start packing the prisoners back into the dungeon. 

This what Geddy has been waiting for: he watches to see where they go. 

We follow.

There’s a building next to the keep that seems to be some sort of guard post or prison. More guards are running out to deal with the riot. Eva goes to wait overhead. We load up with Haste, Death Ward, and Veil (to make us look like guards). 

We open the door and stroll into a small room with a desk and a guy at it. The guy behind the desk looks up. “I don’t know you. What are you doing here?” 

Geddy: “Prisoner transfer from outside of town.” He sells it completely; apparently he has now been mistaken for Tiny Earl. However, he really needs us to get out to the gallows and deal with the riot. Clotilda the Blood Sister is on her way. We try to talk our way past, and finally Tavros loses patience and takes his head off. 

We move into the next room, annihilating guards as we go. There’s a stair down to another level, and Geddy can hear some guards talking down there. Tavros goes down the stairs and grabs the guards by the throat. They tell us that Sacha was taken away to be executed two days ago, but one of the Blood Sisters took him for her harem. Lulu is the one who has him; she led him on a leash back up the hill, on his knees. On the plus side, the keep is right next door, so if we want to find Lulu...

Tavros sets them back down and tells them to run. 

We go back outside, and hand off a pair of trout that used to be wildlander guards to some children outside. (Leira is pissed, and the guards didn't run away nearly fast enough.) We collect Eva, and enter the keep with Leira and Eva invisible.

Of the Blood sisters, four have spiked chains, and four are sorceresses. In the far corner, wearing nothing but a leash and a very form-fitting thong, is Sacha. He looks ill-used but intact. 

A Blood Sister turns to us: “What do you want?” Apparently the other king in the east has already sent an emissary to try to recruit them.

Tavros: “Well… him.” He looks at Lulu. “Will you fight me for Sacha?”

She reluctantly accepts, and we line up in the middle of the room. 

Lulu rages and charges into spiked-chain range, swings… and misses. Tavros takes her head off. 

The room goes silent. 

Geddy drops Eva's invisibility; there's now an adult gold dragon standing in one corner of the room, looking at people.

Tavros: “So, I assume we can count on your support?”

They want 75,000 GP to come over to our side; Geddy suggests that we can bring back their sister as well. We give them a mix of gold and magic items, meeting their price and resurrecting Lulu. 

We have rescued Sacha and recruited the Blood Sisters and the Wildlander army. We get Sacha’s equipment back, then return to Caristhium. We get Sacha cleaned up, and Leira gets herself cleaned up and into a nice new dress. Up next: we’ll need to visit the island of Solouro and undertake the Trials of Helios. 

Sacha spends some time in prayer with Clovis, and learns of his new quest. Sacha: “Leira, my love. I fear our marriage must wait just a little longer. My god has given me a quest, and I must ask you to support me on this quest – you, above all others. And I’ll give you a really, really nice ring.”

We head to Solouro, the island of the Golden Sun. It’s this very mediterranean-ish island, popular with rich vacationers. There’s a very old temple of Helios – almost a monastery – over on the west end of the island. Clovis hands Sacha this sealed document, and we teleport to the monastery. 

Some monks rush out and greet us; we make introductions. Sacha: “I must speak with cardinal L’ren.”

We go inside and have tea, enjoying the lovely weather, and we explain that we’re looking for the Temple of the Golden Sun. ‘

L’ren: “I know of its entrance, but there is no way to enter it.”

L’ren drops some exposition. This is one of the oldest temples of Helios, and they believe that the entrance is in the volcano, which is… mysteriously frozen. There are ruins encased in the ice, but nobody has been able to penetrate the spell barriers, let alone the ice. 

Tavros: “We can but go and look, I suppose.” 

Cardinal L’ren offers the full hospitality of the monastery to us. 

We stay the night, and wake up the next morning with Leira a day older and still not married. We head up to the caldera by way of teleportation at sunrise. From here we can see the entire island and the sea beyond. Beyond the precipice, we can see the unnaturally clean, flat sheet of ice about fifty feet down. It’s about four miles in diameter, and the ice goes down probably a very long ways to reach the bottom. 

Tavros encourages Sacha to pray. Sacha prays, and then asks if Leira might be able to melt the ice. Leira shrugs and casts Fireball. It make a crater, but the ice reforms almost immediately. Tavros suggests that with the business about the touch of Helios melting the ice, perhaps a Sunburst spell might work better. It clears a lot of ice, but it still reforms. Geddy, however, notices a body about twenty feet down in the ice. 

Leira drops a series of fireballs to expose the body, and Eva leaps down and grabs it. The body looks like an old priest, dressed in clothes of ancient fashion. He is holding a book: the Golden Book, the holy text of Helios. This one’s in a strange language, and Sacha can barely read it. Leira, who speaks about seventeen different languages, looks it over, and says: “Huh. This reads like old Formorian. And there’s a spell.” 

It’s called Rain of Fire, and it requires an extremely skilled caster; several extremely skilled casters would be better. The more casters we have, the more likely we are to succeed. Also, we’re going to need 450,000 GP worth of platinum to make enough magic oil to coat the 2 mile radius of the spell. That’s the bad news. Cardinal L’ren, however, is delighted by the discovery of this ancient holy book, and announces that the temple can donate 100,000 GP towards our goal; he can also call in monks and missionaries to apply the oil. 

We decide to throw a concert, with the Rain of Fire as Geddy’s background. Count Bayport, Baron Silvercliff, and Baron Clearsea all have a lot of money and are devout followers of Helios. We take Cardinal L’ren and have Eva fly us over to the castle of Count Bayport. The Count invites us in; he’s eager to meet with us. There’s a small wrinkle: there’s a small army of Solari who have retreated here and are protecting Bayport. 

Tavros makes his entrance and does his best to charm everybody, including the Solari. Then he tries to sell them on the idea of the concert, which isn’t going too well until Tavros suggests that Geddy give them a sample of his playing. Between that and a discussion of the religious importance of this ritual, we convince him; he donates 150,000 in exchange for choosing the name – Geddypalooza – having a luxury box, and getting his logo prominently displayed. Geddy counters with Burning Gnome Festival, and the deal is sealed. 

Baron Clearsea is much less surprised; he’s ready to see us immediately. We proceed inside amid much celebration. Tavros does more diplomacy, and has Geddy offer a sample performance. He offers another 100,000 GP in raw materials. Turns out there's a platinum mine on his lands.

On the way to Baron Silvercliff, we run into a twitchy guy who… works for Chuck. The vampire. From Evil!Party. They offer 60,000 gp for the exclusive right to sell drugs at the festival and tattoo Chuck on Geddy’s ass. After a bit of negotiation, we get up to 150,000 GP donated to our cause. We agree and head on. 

Geddy comes in with Baron Silvercliff and takes over the diplomacy, and nets us another 75,000 GP. We now have 150,330 GP for the party, and the 450,000 GP we need for the spell. Cardinal L’ren gets his people to put the platinum oil in place. Three of the powerful wizards that we rescued earlier show up for the spell, and one of them loans us an Amulet of Intellect for Leira. 

She casts the spell. 

Fire begins to fall across the caldera. 

Sasha, in the center of the volcano, is burning but not dying. Leira, watching from the edge, realizes that she could teleport down and shield him. She… 


She grabs his hand, and a little bubble of protection forms around them. 

Geddy launches into his twenty-hour performance, rocking tens of thousands of people while the fire rains down behind him and Eva provides additional pyrotechnics. 

By the end of the concert, Leira and Sacha are standing untouched on the top of a nine-hundred-foot-tall cylinder of ice. Leira has sacrificed a level, but for her sacrifice Sacha only loses one level and retains his incredible good looks. Meanwhile, Geddy has given the most epic concert in the history of Sol Povos, and Chuck has even summoned Balaam to mosh at the concert, because Pit Fiends love mosh pits.

At the bottom of the caldera is a temple, and the floor is engraved with a sun. The points of the sun end at symbols for the virtues of Helios; the opposite end has a sort of opposing image, with sacrifice as the theme. Sacha finds an amulet with the symbol for sacrifice; when he puts it on, the sigil for sacrifice lights up on the good side.