Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Vendril: A Gift from the Clan, Part Four

It was late and the dining hall was empty, but Aesa and Vendril had disappeared into the kitchens and returned with trays of bread, cheeses, and some fruit preserves. Doubtless the cooks would complain in the morning, but it wouldn't be right not to feed their guests.

Aviril pulled a loaf of bread from the stack and offered it to Tavros. "Will you break bread with us, Your Majesty?"

Tavros took the loaf, broke a chunk off the end, and handed it back. "It will be a pleasure."

Aviril broke off a somewhat larger piece for himself, then handed it to the younger woman beside him and reached for the jar of cherry preserve. She followed suit, taking a piece and passing it down; the scowling man beside her took the end, nodded, and pulled a fresh piece of bread to hand to the woman at the next seat down.  

"We are grateful for your hospitality," said the woman beside Aviril, who had given her name as Talyra.

"It would hardly be right not to welcome you after you came all this way," said Tavros. "Even if you had your own reasons for the journey."

The man beside Talyra -- Valaar, his name was -- grunted softly, but everyone ignored him so Tavros did likewise. Aviril said, "It is a rare pleasure to meet the Fontaine heir. Our clan has long been loyal to the throne, though we show it mainly by sending some of our number to support the force at Fort Dido. The attempt by Giles Bouvier to take over has been troubling, but thus far we have not suffered for refusing to come to his assistance."

"Would you come to mine?" asked Tavros, sounding more curious than anything else.

"As we could," answered the elder, cautiously. "Understand that I lack the authority to negotiate; I was sent for... other reasons." 

Tavros nodded. 

"That said... Yes, we would help as we could. Some archers, some scouts, some dark-walkers... And, of course, you have the loyalty of our Sacred Shadow. Even so, we are not a military force. We are a clan of related families. We pay little in taxes, for we produce little that humans consider valuable; we do not hold lands; and we live... strategically. But for all that, we do pay when assessment comes."

"I would not ask more," Tavros said simply, and took a bite from the bread in his hand. 

Aviril finished layering the cherry conserve on his own bread, and took a bite as well. 

"Giles Bouvier is a concern for me as well," Tavros said, when he had finished swallowing. "Perhaps when you return, your clan might send someone to speak with me officially. The assistance you spoke of... Bouvier has been moving almost unopposed, and I would like to see his power-seeking slowed. Were some of his food and materiel to disappear, perhaps, or his wagons to develop a rash of broken wheels... I'm sure we could work out some suitable compensation for anyone willing to risk such attempts."

Aviril looked thoughtful. "Again I tell you, I cannot pledge my clan. Still, I think the elders would be amenable to some such arrangement. Likely they will send someone."

"Have them send someone if Bouvier comes after your clan as well," Tavros said quietly. "I will send what aid I can."

Aviril glanced at Vendril, who nodded back with a slight, almost invisible movement of his head.

"It is well," he said. "Now come, tell us of yourself, and we will tell you of our people, and in the morning we will depart for home."

Vendril is a mix of ranger and rogue, about two parts ranger to one part rogue. He is also now the Sacred Shadow of his clan, which gives him some additional resources. Talyra, I think, took a single level of rogue and then switched to wizard; she's perfectly capable of going Full Wizard for blasting or buffing or conjuring, she just prefers to be more subtle. Valaar is basically a pure ranger, except that in the Clan tradition rangers get sneak attack instead of favored enemy. Aviril is, I think, a wizard turned loremaster.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Vendril: A Gift from the Clan, Part Three

"Come in!" called the voice, and Vendril swung the door open:

"Your Majesty? A small delegation has arrived..."

Tavros turned, stared, frowned for a brief moment, and then said: "So it's true. I'd heard rumors that the Silver Fox was still here. What have you been up to?"

Vendril kept his expression blank, as much a mask as the fox had ever been. "This delegation..."

"Now?" Tavros glanced at the window of his small cell. He wasn't supposed to be here -- Vigo hated when he did this -- but Vendril knew he stayed here as often as he could manage. And the half-dragon didn't seem irritated, merely surprised. 

"They came under cover of darkness," Vendril explained. "They come from my clan -- not Duendewood elves, but dwellers along the coasts around the Forbidden Desert."

Tavros looked at his quill, then moved it away from the parchment before it could drop the ball of ink gathering at its tip. He wiped it and placed it back in its holder, then capped the bottle of ink. "They came to see me?" he asked.

Vendril suppressed a wince. "Not exactly, Majesty. They came seeking me, but with that matter resolved I thought they should speak with you as well."

"Well... all right," said Tavros, and rose. He was still in his armor, still wearing his sword. If he reclaimed the throne he would be a warrior-king, and not some spoiled child whose advisors served only to remind him how wise he truly was. "Have they eaten? We could meet in the dining hall, if they have not."

Vendril managed not to shake his head. For all the airs that Vigo wished to force on the half-dragon heir... he was a paladin at heart, with a paladin's priorities. Still, unlike the nobles, Vendril's clan would appreciate that. "I'll bring them there."

He'd thought to give Tavros a few minutes to prepare and be waiting when his clan-mates entered, but Tavros simply nodded and said, "I'll come with you."

Oh yes, Vigo is going to be most disappointed. The Silver Fox suppressed a grin at the thought.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Vendril: A Gift from the Clan, Part Two

Vendril had his rapier out and was lunging at Valaar. In the same motion, his free hand sent a dagger spinning through the air towards Talyra. He'd expected them both to come at him at once, but Talyra dodged his knife by lunging at Valaar as well. Valaar came up with a pair of shortswords, parrying madly, and managed to cut Talyra once before she got inside his guard and traced a line of blood up his arm with her dagger. 

Then Vendril's rapier connected, and Valaar staggered back, shaking out his shoulder. "That--" He twisted around Talyra, trying to put her between himself and Vendril, but she moved with him, reflexively denying Vendril a shot at her back. She attacked him again, and for a moment they merged into a blur of motion, weapons sliding against and around each other so quickly that Vendril couldn't focus on a target. 

He lunged again anyway, stabbing with the rapier and drawing a fresh dagger. 

Valaar took the blow and collapsed, and Talyra stepped away from him, wariness in every line of her body. "Now how did you manage that?"

Her familiar appeared behind him, becoming suddenly visible as it reached out to attempt an attack. Vendril ducked aside, and it missed, cursed, and flapped away again. He'd been expecting that; he hadn't forgotten that for all that Talyra trained in stealth, she was also quite adept as a wizard. He also remembered that Talyra could work her magics without speaking or gesturing, and had doubtless used that skill to prepare in advance for this encounter. 

She didn't attack immediately, though, and Vendril circled warily. "I was right," she said. "It should be me, but if it isn't me it should be you." 

Vendril glanced around, but her familiar -- an imp -- was invisible again. He wished he was wearing his mask; he could have given the little demon quite a surprise. "For the clan," he said simply, and stepped in. 

She turned his rapier with the blade of her dagger, holding it close against her forearm in a reverse grip, then stepped in closer to try to stab him. He blocked her second dagger with his own, rolled the rapier blade around her forearm, and stabbed down at her gut; she raised her arm beneath it, forcing the point away, and he rocked back to make room for his longer blade, then tried a light stab of the sort known as pointing. 

Talyra hopped up and back to keep her knees out of the way; the blades of her daggers weren't long enough to block a low-line attack. She came in again immediately, blades shifting and stabbing, and Vendril felt one of them open a line of fire across the back of his forearm. He flinched away immediately, and managed to slip loose from magic that the blade released. Lucky, lucky... That magic would have pinned him in place, left him open for Talyra to finish. 

She must have put everything she had into preparing for this, all of it done without words or movements. Talyra was more mage than rogue, and might have done better to stand back and take him with spells; but perhaps she wanted to prove that she could hold her own in this sort of close combat. 

Then Valaar came up from the ground and slammed into Talyra's side, just as her familiar appeared again and touched Vendril's shoulder with the force of a small thunderbolt. He staggered, twisted, and cut with his rapier; the imp fell to the ground, stunned. Talyra, wholly surprised by Valaar's deception and the fall of her familiar, looked down at the shortsword in her gut, and crumpled to the ground as well. 

"Of course you'd both be afraid of me," snarled Valaar, and came at Vendril. He seemed surprised when Vendril flicked his blade aside and extended, just in time to let Valaar run onto the tip of his rapier. Valaar staggered back, shaking his head, looking down at his chest and not seeing any blood. 

In that brief moment of distraction, Vendril leaned in with his other hand-- not attacking with his dagger, but touching the back of Valaar's right hand with his silver ring.

Valaar snarled again and shook his hand as if bee-stung. "What was that?" he demanded. 

"A battle-kiss," Vendril told him. "Come and see what it does."

Valaar attacked, but now his blows were rough and imprecise; his blades wanted to jerk back, to turn aside. His body no longer seemed willing to attack, however much he demanded it. And when Vendril leaned in and lined up his rapier, his hands were slow to bring his swords across to defend. That dull-gray metal blade poked him in the chest: once, twice, a third time. Darkness closed in around the edges of his vision, and Valaar went down. 

Vendril sighed, sheathed his rapier, then bent down and sliced Valaar's cheek with his dagger. It wasn't much of a wound, just enough to draw blood and perhaps leave an interesting scar. Then he stepped back quickly, looked at his uncle Aviril, and said: "Blood has been shed. The terms are met."

Aviril clapped his hands. "The terms are met. The Choosing is finished."

Vendril's rapier is magic, and is imbued with the Merciful enchantment: it deals non-lethal damage unless he commands otherwise. When Vendril is out for blood, he uses daggers instead.

Friday, May 26, 2023

Dark Armor: The Greeting

The throne of Teregor was the heart of the Obsidian Citadel, of a piece with the rest of glassy structure. It was layered in enchantments that connected it to the whole of the keep, and from there out into the surrounding city and the lands beyond. It was said that the Wizard-King of Teregor could sit upon his throne and know all that transpired in his kingdom, alter the weather, send commands to his troops, and turn the land itself against his enemies. 

Pallian suspected that such things were said mostly because they were true, and because they were the sorts of things that people ought to know if they wished to avoid being struck down and turned into more of the animated skeletons that kept the depths of the Crypt clean and free of vermin. 

From where Pallian was standing, the throne was thirty feet away and fifteen feet above him, overlooking the shadowed hall where he waited with his father and his brother. The Wizard-King had diplomatically elected to meet the royalty of Edrias in the hall itself, but the throne still loomed on its raised platform behind him. Ravaj stood at their father's right hand, wearing an elegantly-cut black jacket over a ruffled white shirt, a ruby medallion and a set of matching rings to add a touch of color. Pallian himself had been placed to their father's left, and slightly back: arguably subordinate, but also the sort of placement a bodyguard might occupy.

A scribe sat at a discrete desk off to one side, all but invisible in his dark gray robe; a handful of half-familiar ministers had spread out quietly around the edges of the room, knowing better than to speak without their king's permission. The other nobles, however, had been sent away, perhaps as a precaution against ill-considered words. The House of Edrias was, after all, a long-standing rival to the House of Teregor.

The Royal Steward -- for a moment, Pallian couldn't recall the woman's name; then he found it: Vathira -- stepped into the throne room and then placed herself beside the wall just inside the great doorway. "The House of Edrias," she announced, and her voice filled the whole of the hall, almost strong enough to drive out the shadows. "High Magister Tamirya Edrias, and her body-servant." 

The woman who entered the room was tall and willowy, graceful even in a heavy robe, and had her hair swept up into a knot that was held in place with a pair of silver pins. She was followed by a massive, heavyset figure of leonine cast: clawed fingers, warm-gold fur, hair and beard that resembled a lion's mane. Even his face held something of that shape, the jaws protruding into more of a snout than any of the the uninitiated ever would, his nose reworked into a feline configuration. Pallian squinted, but yes: those were whiskers, as well. 

"Second-princess  Arwidden Edrias," announced Vathira, and another woman entered the throne room. She was shorter than her mother, with broader shoulders, and her dark brown hair was cut short against her skull. She wore the clothes of a woman soldier -- a split skirt and heavy blouse with a vest -- but in expensive silk decorated with elegant embroidery, and she wore a shortsword on her left hip. Her eyes flickered across the royalty of Teregor, and settled briefly on Pallian; she might have given a faint nod.

Vathira's voice filled the room again. "Third-princess Ashmiren Edrias." 

This woman wore an understated, courtly dress, and both her hair and her makeup had been carefully assembled. She moved gracefully, falling into place beside her mother and opposite her sister; then she stopped behind them and off to the side, opposite Pallian himself. 

The High Magister of Edrias shifted her head, and Pallian could see a few lines of silver tracing through otherwise-black hair. "Wizard-King of Teregor," she said, her entire attention focused on Pallian's father. "We have come at your invitation." Then she smiled, sharp as a knife. "It must have really hurt to send that."

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Tavros: Alliances Offered, Part One

"I still think a Kingsmoot would--"

"No," answered Tavros in a tone of absolute finality. "He would have prevented us from stopping the Tarrasque, and left the beast to continue its rampage. He is a traitor to the people he wishes to rule, unworthy of land and title, and he needs to be deposed. Now."

Vigo paused. "You plan to take care of it yourself, then, Majesty?"

"Yes," said Tavros. "We wouldn't want to risk any lèse-majesté, and if we take him out ourselves we can spare his armies. I suspect we're going to need them before this is all over."

Vigo fell silent, and Tavros could almost see the loom spinning in his head, tracing out plans, contingencies, possibilities...

"And after him, Lamont?" Vigo frowned. "That will be dangerous, Majesty; if Bouvier falls, Lamont will be warned."

"Not after," Tavros said. "At the same time. Martini will organize that expedition."

"I see," said Vigo. "And your concerns of lèse-majesté?"

Tavros was quiet for a moment. "You know Lamont's reputation. Bouvier, at least, can claim that he was trying to restore order and rebuild the kingdom. Lamont took his troops into Duendewood to try to carve out an independent kingdom for himself at the expense of the elves. Bouvier may be permitted to die with some small dignity... but for Lamont, nothing."

"We may make a proper king of you yet, Majesty." Vigo bowed and started to turn away. 

"Your Majesty!" called another voice, and Tavros suppressed a groan as Vigo stopped and turned back. 

Werendril was coming down the hallway, moving lightly with long, easy strides. He stopped and offered a bow, with just a hint of a mischievous smile to let Tavros know that he was doing this even though he knew that the half-dragon hated it. "You have a messenger, your highness."

Tavros turned his head slightly to the side. "From whom?"

"A young woman just arrived," said Werendril. "Human, neatly dressed. She claims to be the lady Tabitha Andiras, in the service of Jacqueline Bouvier."

"And where is she now?" asked Vigo, cutting in automatically. 

The true elf paladin studied Vigo the Whisperer for a long moment, then turned his attention back to Tavros. "Tarric and Anica took her down to the dining hall, Majesty. They sent me to find you."

Tavros motioned for Werendril to lead the way, and Vigo fell in beside him as he followed. "Slow down," Vigo whispered. "You must keep a dignified pace." 

"Later," said Tavros. "Tell me about Jacqueline Bouvier."

Vigo fell silent for a long moment. Then he said, "Jacqueline Bouvier is the eldest daughter of Giles Bouvier. She would be... twenty-four now, I believe. She's said to be well-educated, skilled in the courtly graces, and not unattractive -- though I have not had the privilege of meeting her myself."

"Any idea why she would send a messenger to me?" 

"Many," answered Vigo, "but none that I would care to place money on. Perhaps once we have heard the message, Majesty."

Ahead of them, Werendril reached the wide doorway of the dining hall and passed through. Tavros slowed, and Vigo slowed with him. With dignified steps, he entered the hall.

There was indeed a human woman sitting with Tarric and Anica, plates of food in front of all three of them. The woman looked up, saw him, and started to rise -- but Tavros shook his head and gestured, and she settled herself again. It would have been awkward to have her trying to bow or curtsy while trapped between the table and one of the long, wooden benches. 

The room wasn't terribly full, but it wasn't empty either. A handful of novices and acolytes were clustered at one of the round tables in the back corner, and the Abbess and Sister Tiva had managed to settle in to eat within easy earshot of the new arrival. Brother Alaric was chatting with a couple of the newer clerics over near the serving area, and one of the other paladins was having a quick meal alone; his spear leaned against the wall beside him. 

Tavros crossed directly to the bench opposite the young woman, and seated himself. 

"You-- Your Majesty," she said, catching herself neatly. 

"I'm told you carry a message for me," Tavros said, as Vigo slid onto the bench beside him. 

Lady Tabitha Andiras glanced around. "Would you have me speak of it here, Majesty?"

Tavros considered that briefly, because that had been exactly what he intended. Still... "I could arrange an audience at my mother's estate," he offered, "if you would prefer that."

The lady clicked her tongue once, then shook her head. "No, better here. I only thought..."

"These are my people," said Tavros, glancing around. "I do not care what they hear. But if the message is particularly sensitive, I will arrange for a smaller and less haphazard audience."

The young woman studied him for a long moment, then said: "I suppose it matters not. I am lady Tabitha Andiras, in the service of lady Jacqueline Bouvier. My lady sent me to bring you warning."

Vigo opened his mouth and drew breath to speak, then closed it again and exhaled when Tavros looked at him. "What sort of warning?" asked the half-dragon. 

"Lady Jacqueline warns that her father intends your death. He has sent some of his Solari to ambush you should you try to destroy the great beast in Summerwind; he has hired assassins to find you at your mother's estate; and he is considering mounting an attack to conquer Caristhium itself."

"He's going to be badly surprised," muttered Anica. Tabitha glanced at her, but she shook her head. 

"They failed in Summerwind," Tavros observed. 

"Already?" asked Tabitha. "May I ask how you managed that? The Sorceress Reina was very strong, one of lord Bouvier's best."

"Ours proved better."

"And the great beast? It is slain?"

"Turned to a statue in the town square," said Tavros. 

"A great victory for Your Majesty," said Tabitha, looking down at the table. 

"I would credit my friends," Tavros observed wryly. "Though I suppose that choosing the right allies is the mark of a good king." He had changed that much, he thought. He had begun to think that he might have the makings of a king.

Lady Tabitha looked back up, studying him while trying to look like that wasn't what she was doing. He wasn't sure what she read on his face -- being a half-dragon gave him a very different bone structure, and his expressions weren't easy for most people to read. He'd long ago learned not to show his teeth when he smiled; his fangs were sharp, and made it look like he was snarling even when he was nearly helpless with laughter. 

"As to the assassins," she continued a full breath later, "my lady says not to fear a night attack, but rather to check and re-check anyone recently taken into service."

Tavros glanced at Vigo, who nodded. "I will speak to the lady Emiliana."

"As far as my lady knows," Tabitha said, as Tavros returned his attention to her, "her father has not gathered forces for an assault. He has merely made plans, perhaps only as a contingency."

Tavros nodded slowly. 

Anica said, "Good. Any force marching on Caristhium is in for a nasty shock."

"How do you mean?" asked Tabitha. 

Anica shook her head, and Vigo said: "It is good for you know that we have forces prepared to defend this place, but not their nature, disposition, or capabilities."

Tabitha nodded. "Lady Jacqueline said you would think me a spy, and all this a trap. I do not know how to convince you otherwise, but... she would be your ally."

"Why?" asked Tavros, because it seemed that someone needed to.

"Giles Bouvier," she replied, "has lost the Mandate of Heaven; such were my lady's words. She says that her father might be forgiven for trying to murder the last remaining Fontaine heir, were you a fool or a madman; but it is obvious that you are neither. And I was there when she begged him not to kill you before you had a chance to slay the great beast, but he insisted that the best opportunity would be while you were busy fighting it. He would have left it alive to destroy what it would, just to be rid of you."

Tavros frowned thoughtfully. "Does your lady seek shelter?" he asked. "I am willing to provide it, even to the firstborn child of Giles Bouvier."

"She dares not leave the court at Wellfort," said the lady in waiting, "at least not yet. That is why she sent me."

Vigo's eyes narrowed, but he said nothing. "Very well," he said. "What of you? Would you prefer to remain here, or return to your lady?"

The young woman who had introduced herself as Tabitha Andiras swallowed, then said: "I would prefer to remain here. I am sorry; I know that makes me look even more like a spy. But it would be even more of a risk to try to return than it was to leave." She hesitated, then added: "Lady Jacqueline bade me tell you that she can still speak to me while I am here, and hear my replies. I know how that sounds, but she said that we must begin with honesty to avoid misunderstandings later."

"I see," said Tavros slowly. "She too is a sorceress?"

"A wizard," lady Tabitha replied.

"Then in honesty, your lady should know that I am going to have to execute her father."

Lady Tabitha paled. "She would hate that," she said, but then after a heartbeat she added: "But I think she would understand."

"Very well." Tavros looked at Vigo, then rose. "You may stay. We will assign someone to watch over you, to serve as guard, bodyguard, and guide."

"I'll do it myself, for tonight," said Anica, and Tavros nodded. "No doubt the Abbess can arrange things for tomorrow."

Tavros met the Abbess' eye as he stood, and she winked at him. Yes, someone will definitely be keeping an eye on lady Tabitha. He stepped out from the bench, turned, and departed again; Vigo followed slightly behind him. 

"It's her," said Vigo, when they were out in the hall and safely out of earshot. 

"What?" said Tavros. "No, that's insane. Why would Jacqueline Bouvier come here herself when she actually could send one of her ladies to spy for her?"

"I don't know," muttered Vigo darkly, as if the admission pained him. "But I'd swear to it. There was a moment there when she very nearly said 'my father', and her reaction when you told her you planned to murder Giles Bouvier--"

"Execute," corrected Tavros. 

"--execute Giles Bouvier," Vigo restated. "It was too firm, too definite. She knows that Jacqueline Bouvier would understand because she understands, and she is Jacqueline Bouvier."

Tavros took a moment to weigh that and try to find a measure for it. Finally he said, "You may be right, but it's still utterly ridiculous. And regardless, for now we treat her like the lady-in-waiting and possible spy that she appears to be." 

Vigo nodded. "I hear and obey, but also -- I concur, Your Majesty."

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Vendril: A Gift from the Clan, Part One

Vendril was throwing knives in the practice yard of the Temple of Amun when a voice behind him said, "Master Fox?"

He turned easily, then nodded down to the halfling priest Birno, with whom he'd passed a couple of pleasant evenings at cards and stones. "Master Birno?"

The halfling quirked a grin. "Could I borrow you for a small matter? I have a group of elves at the gates, but they won't come inside. They're looking for someone, and it might be you -- if your true name is Vendril."

Birno knew damned well that the Silver Fox's true name was Vendril, but the Abbess had decided that it was better to keep that a secret from the townsfolk, and so half the temple didn't know or had grown confused. The other half, including Birno, was cheerfully pretending to have no idea as to the true identity of the Silver Fox, even if he'd deigned to take shelter among them. 

So Vendril frowned and nodded. "I'll see what I can do," he said, and they left the practice yard and made their way back to the gate.

There was indeed a group of elves there, and they were indeed familiar.

"Uncle Aviril," Vendril said quietly, and offered a bow. 

The elf regarded him without expression. There were others gathered behind him, a dozen or so cousins of varying degrees, and they bowed politely while the older man remained still. "I see you, Vendril. I call you forth."

Vendril stepped forward automatically. "I answer. What is the matter, Uncle?"

"The matter is the Choosing," said Aviril. "The Tellers of the Clan have read the signs, and they say the time has come again. The Clan must have its Sacred Shadow." 

Vendril nodded. Beside him, the halfling priest Birno said, "Should I call for...?"

Vendril shook his head. "No. Only step back, and witness. This is not secret, but it is sacred." 

"Ah," said Birno. A moment later, with unexpected and devastating insight, he asked: "Then do you wish me to send for Aesa?"

Vendril hesitated, then nodded. 

Aviril held himself still as Birno withdrew, and pulled in one of the acolytes to carry the message. As the young man hurried away, the elder elf asked: "And who is Aesa?"

"My beloved," answered Vendril. "A priestess of Amun. You will see momentarily."

"Let it be so," Aviril said, and nodded sententiously. "All involved should witness."

"And who all," asked Vendril, "is involved?"

One of his cousins straightened, grinning like a wolf. "Vendril," she said. "I hadn't expected you to be hiding here."

He shrugged. "The clever hunter places himself where the prey doesn't expect him. Talyra, it is good to see you. You were selected?"

She nodded. 

"Well earned. It will be a pleasure."

"Tchah!" said a male voice, and both Vendril and Talyra turned to look at their cousin Valaar. "Vendril, you should withdraw your claim. You do not serve the clan; you are much too far away."

The elder Aviril drew breath, but Vendril spoke first: "I did not make my claim," he said. "It is not my place to withdraw it. I serve as best I may. If you fear to face me, perhaps you should withdraw your own."

Valaar scowled. "I do not fear to face you, Cousin." 

Vendril offered him a bow. "Then it will be a pleasure to face you as well."

Aesa came into the gatehouse then, but stopped beside Birno to regard the scene. Vendril could see his kin evaluating her, feel their reactions, but he held himself completely still and waited. She came forward after a moment, stopped just behind his right shoulder. "May I fight beside you?"

Vendril shook his head. "This is a matter of individual prowess, but you are my beloved and you should witness it."

There was a momentary pause while Aesa digested that. Then she nodded. "You know I trust you." She stepped back, paused, and added in very precise Elvish: "Kick their asses into next week." Then she went to stand beside Birno. 

"Is there any further reason to delay?" asked Aviril. It was a ritual inquiry. 

Vendril held no doubt that his own father had submitted his name as a candidate, and refused to either withdraw it or summon him back. That was why the challengers had come here. "I find myself suitably armed," he said. "I am prepared to begin."

"Likewise," said Talyra. 

"At last," said Valaar. "I stand ready."

"Very well," said Aviril. He stepped back, drawing the remaining cousins with him. "Let the will of the gods be written in blood. Begin."

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Caristhium: The Golden Children Part Three

"You're here to see Ruin?" asked Anica, and her face was a momentary stormfront. 

"I had heard from Grandfather something of what happened when he first arrived here. I was... curious about what you had partaken with him. So when the Twiceborn passed into the depths of Duendewood, I sought him out and discovered for myself."

"...And he went along with it, of course," said Anica. She was still frowning, but her expression was relaxing from anger into resignation.

"Of course," whispered Aesa softly, but loud enough for Anica to catch. Just as he did with us.

Anica sighed and sat back. "I apologize. Please continue."

"I'm not here for him," said Rita. "I'm here because Grandfather thinks he should know the full number of his children... and I think also in case something happens here. I think He wanted me placed to defend his temple, should the need arise."

"Will you?" asked Werendril.

"With my children here?" Rita started to rise, but Werendril made a calming motion. 

"It was a request," he said. "I do not doubt you." 

Rita settled back.  "Are we... rivals?" she asked.

"No," said Aesa firmly. "Do you want Ruin? As a... mate? A long-term partner?"

Rita frowned, but the expression was thoughtful. "No. I wouldn't mind more of... but no."

Aesa glanced at Anica, raised her eyebrows, and then turned back to Rita and nodded. "We are in much the same place-of-mind." The phrase was elvish, but Rita didn't appear to have any difficulty translating. "That being so, we are not rivals. We might, I hope, be partners."

"Partners?" asked Rita, looking slightly dubious.

"Everyone here defends the children. All of our children. To the best of our ability, whatever it takes. We keep this place safe. And we work together to do it."

"I am not accustomed to working together," said Rita. "In the jungle..."

Anica raised her eyebrows. "Are you saying you've never needed assistance?"

"From--?" Rita cut off abruptly, blinked several times in rapid succession, and then said: "No. I am not saying that. And I have fought alongside others... once. Forgive me. I see the need, but I need time to adapt to the idea. And I suspect we will need to practice hunting together before was can assist each other to best effect."

"That's what I was hoping for," said Aesa. "We know you're stronger than any of us. But you're still safer, the children are safer, all of us are safer if we're all fighting together."

"I see it, Chosen of Amun. I hear Grandfather's wisdom in your words."

"Then perhaps we should rest for now," suggested Werendril. Tarric, who was casually leaning back against him, nodded agreement. "This is not easy, and I think we all need a bit of time to... adapt."

Rita considered, then nodded. 

"Then if you'll come with me," Aesa said, and rose to her feet, "I'll take you to a place where you can rest."

"My children..." 

"The nursery has them in a room with my daughter and Anica's son, and no others."

Rita frowned. "Do they have claws? Scales?"

Aesa shook her head. "No, but one of the lesser mages apparently figured out a way to drop some magical protection on them. I think they'll be safe with each other."

"Let us look in on them first," said Rita, "and if all is well, then yes: I shall rest."

Monday, May 22, 2023

Caristhium: The Golden Children, Part Two

Tarric found them before Aesa could find Anica. 

"Is everything well?" he asked, hurrying over. His eyes were on Aesa, so it took him a moment to process that the woman with her was a true elf, and unfamiliar; it took him another moment after that to realize that the children who accompanied them were covered in golden scales. "More half-dragons?" he asked, glancing at Rita. 

She simply tilted her head slightly, studying him. 

"Yes," said Aesa. "Ruin's, apparently."

Tarric frowned. "Ruin's? But how could Ruin make--" He froze for a moment as he put it together, then glanced at Rita and swallowed. "Ah. You are welcome among us, soror semideum." 

Rita winced. "You have the worst accent imaginable, but I thank you."

"My apologies," Tarric said, as Aesa tried not to grin. "I'm out of practice, and I was never a good student to begin with."

He turned, knelt, and regarded the half-dragon toddler Scar. "Hello, young one. It's good to meet you."

Scar promptly bit him. Fortunately, he was still in armor and the new-formed teeth merely scraped across the metal of his bracer. "Fearsome," Tarric said, keeping his face and tone entirely serious. "It'll be a pleasure to teach you weapons."

"Will you?" asked Rita. "Teach them weapons?"

Tarric glanced at Aesa and nodded. "Everything I can," he said. 

"Frater ignis," Rita said. "Let us proceed."

Friday, May 19, 2023

Dark Armor: Nightfall and Smoke

The small retiring hall served a variety of purposes; padded chairs and small tables were placed beside the walls, and a love seat was positioned near the fireplace at the back. Amedin was already there, tracing a line of ash across the floor as he described a particular design. "Stand there," he directed absently. "Not the central circle, but the wave-edged triangle beside it. Disturb nothing."

Pallian didn't bother to nod, and crossed the half-finished design carefully to stand in his appointed place. He waited patiently, shifting his weight in small movements to keep his joints and muscles from growing tired and his mind from wandering.

The half-dead finished the design, nodded decisively, and rose smoothly to his withered feet. He turned to Pallian, and said: "I'll need your blood." 

Pallian nodded, drew his dagger, and made a small slice along his fingertip. He squeezed the finger as Amedan extended one desiccated hand, fingers cupped, and let the blood fall. 

"Good," said the half-dead. "Now spit." He nodded towards the same hand, so Pallian spat into the half-dead's palm. He shifted his own grip to apply pressure to his wounded finger, and felt the faint itching that suggested the cut was closing already. 

"Yes, that should serve..." The half-dead priest turned away, stepping out of the design and crossing to one of the small tables, where a small bag sat with its mouth open. He reached inside, pulling out three small censers of delicately-hammered bronze, and spilled a bit of the mixed blood and spittle into each of them. Returning to the design, he placed them carefully, then lit them with a muttered word and a snap of his fingers. Wisps of incense-smoke began to curl upward immediately, wandering towards the obsidian ceiling. 

Pallian watched as the half-dead crossed to his bag again, and returned with nothing more complicated than a handful of dried leaves. He placed those in the central circle, then paused, watching as the narrow streams of incense rose and began to gather into a faint cloud. After a moment, he stepped forward again, dipping a hand into the small pouch of ash he carried. He touched his fingertip to Pallian's forehead, and Pallian once again held himself still against the urge to flinch away. Four quick movements sketched some particular design, and then the half-dead stepped back, taking himself out of the design on the floor. 

He spoke the same word and snapped his fingers, and the leaves caught fire as well, pouring a great cloud of smoke towards the ceiling. "When I tell you," said Amedin, "Speak these words." Safely outside of the place of the initiation, he spoke. 

For a moment, Pallian's mind refused to process. Then he recognized the language, and caught the meaning: 

Smoke borne at the speed of wind
Smoke become one with me
I become the smoke
Smoke carry me

The last of the leaves crumbled into ash, and Amedin nodded. 

Pallian spoke the words. 

For a moment, impossibly, the smoke slowed in its currents of movement. Standing there, just beside the center, Pallian could feel the moment when something came to invest it. Then he inhaled, and the smoke rushed into him. 

It should have choked his lungs, so much smoke at once, but instead it continued on, spreading out through his limbs, filling him and settling into place. For a moment, he could see how to direct it, and he did so immediately. He needed to lock that knowledge into place before it faded. 

For a heartbeat, the world turned a hazy gray and the sound of rushing wind filled his ears. Then he was standing behind Amedin, faint swirls of smoke dissipating around him. His clothing was still in place; better still, his weapons were as well. 

He tried it again, taking himself back to the place beside the three bronze censers, where everything  -- all the smoke, and even the ash that had formed the design on the floor -- was gone. He stopped there, trembling and suddenly weak. That was all the initiation was good for just yet: two short jumps, and it would have been better and safer to stop himself at one. Still, even newly implanted and as far as possible from its eventual strength, it would serve. 

"Success," said Amedin, sounding deeply satisfied. 

"Success," Pallian acknowledged, forcing himself to breathe slowly and hide his sudden exhaustion. His other initiations were already working to restore him, and he now had his first initiation that was more than a simple physical enhancement. For a brief moment, he allowed himself to be pleased. "Will I see you at the greeting?" 

Amedin shook his head. "The Wizard-King wishes me to attend to the security of the libraries. If you wish further counsel, we can meet later."

Pallian did not, under any circumstances, wish for the half-dead's counsel; but it was important, on several levels, to be seen to seek it. So he nodded and said, "I will set aside time for that when I can."

"Until then," said Amedin, and turned to gather his bag. 

Pallian took that as his cue to depart. He would be expected in the throne room before too much longer, and he did not intend to be anything other than punctual.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Good!Party: Back into Fanaxia

We return to the remaining group: Martini, the elf assassin; Eva, the gold dragon; and Geddy Lee Geddy the bard.

But first, we take a minute to remember Fanaxia. We had a magic mirror that let us view the past where it involved the dark one. We got a couple of glimpses of her early childhood, and then the moment when the Archmagister Prospero first invited her to study at the castle Fanax. She refused to go, not wanting to leave her mothers or her best friend, Vecna Orlok. So, we went to view her parents’ house. 

The little girl was the pride of the Von Styne clan. There was danger, but she and her parents would have guards. Then the Night of A Thousand Fangs came, and her parents were murdered. The guards fled with the girl, to a tavern. It burned down later, but we went and looked anyway. There was a basement or something under the inn; we made our way inside and found an underground passage. At the end was an ancient bunker full of coffins. There is, however, one room with a bed. The mirror: vampires attempt to console her. The Dark One, cursing and pacing and utterly disappointed with the King’s failure to hit the Wallingtons with more than a token punishment. This is why she betrayed the king; this is why she founded the worship of Urgroth. She had vowed to subjugate the Wallingtons… who eventually wound up as her worshipers. Martini was very impressed with her initiative. 


The next vision shows one of her vampire protectors apologizing that they must leave if she agrees, but Vecna’s dad – Count Orlok – is willing to adopt her. She broke ties with the vampire clans at that point. But clearly she re-established contact later. Kroni, however, was a Dashcov, not a Von Styne – which isn’t the clan that was originally protecting her. 

So apparently at some point at some point Vecna and Kroni joined the vampires, probably under assumed names. We broke into Count Orlok’s castle, found the boy Vecna’s old rooms, and set up the mirror: this vision showed Vecna, sick in bed with his nurse.Then there were alarms and screams about fire, and the nurse left. A moment later a mist flowed into the room, materialized into a man – Kroni – and drained him. Ruin tries out in the garden, and we get glimpses of the Dark One here and there. She had a hidden cave, that had once been used as a campsite. The visions here are extensive and illuminating: this is where the Dark One met Kroni, who was then a refugee of the Dashcov clan. She kept the relationship secret, and over time began to experiment on Kroni, who was perfectly willing to go along with it. Her powers grew. Then in the midst of a great thunderstorm, the Dark One came to Kroni, crying over Vecna’s illness and impending death. She asks Kroni to save him. She’s twelve at this point, but she starts laying out orders and explains the plan. It was soon after this that she went to the castle to study under the Archmage Prospero. 

Ruin, Martini, and Azrael found all this. Azrael, at the time, pointed out that her true name holds power over her; that’s why she’s essentially erased it. Most likely, she took somebody else’s name – Vecna’s. And the boy who was once Vecna might be the only one who still knows her name. We did eventually find the boy, but not his soul; his soul must exist somewhere else. 

So this is the knowledge we have as we approach Ezra Cardon at the appointed time, on the edge of the lake, in the fucking rain. 

(JESUS CHRIST SEND THE DRUNK DM THE PLAN FOR THE NEXT FEW SESSIONS. Murder Lamont, Murder Bouvier - both ideally in surgical strikes, with Vendril getting the Bouvier Crew into Wellfort.

ALSO NOTE: GOZARTD THE DRUNK DM resents that. Yes, he is demanding that I add that to the notes.)

So Geddy, Eva, and Martini head to Lago Gota, where a man in tattered robes leans on his walking stick and waits for them, lightning flashing dramatically behind him as the rain pours down. “Do you have the crown?” 

We do.

“The gem in the crown! That is the Heart of Vecna. You must find the child formerly known a Vecna. With the crown, I can send you back in time to Fanaxia, to rediscover the True Name of the Dark One!”

Eva: “Gods this guy is an asshole.”

Geddy: “Guys, I think I’m kind of done with this whole time travel thing.”

Eva pulls out the crown and Ezra sends us to the City of Fanax just outside the castle. There are fireworks blasting into the sky. It’s an evening of great celebration; King Baldric is throwing a spring ball. 

Eva will be a merchant, the Lady Quixote. Martini is Mistress Balaam, who is quite upset with the merchant for trying to steal away her diplomatic and quite handsome pirate husband Imperius Rax. 


Eva and Martini: “No. No we are not.”

Next plan: Geddy will be Lord Lando, Martini will be Lady Leia, wife of Han Cholo, and Eva will be Han Cholo, bodyguard of Lord Lando. 

Or maybe it’s Geddy will be Lando the bodyguard, and Martini and Eva will be Lady and Lady Cholo. 

The Dashcov’s and the Von Stynes were the vampire clans; the Wallingtons and the LaSonts were the werewolf clans. Elaine and Gloria were the parents of the dark one; Count Orlok was the adoptive father. 

We approach the castle, and a steward asks who we are; we motion for “Lando” to introduce us. Geddy explains that we come from Solo, an obscure holding northeast of Styre. 

Turns out the king is most welcoming of his northern allies. We stroll into the castle, casually mentioning to the Magiknights that they’re all going to get slaughtered. We recognize some the groups – the big guys with the beards are werewolves, for instance. Geddy is somewhat distracted; his memories are pulling him in various different directions. 


Small groups have gathered around a couple of wizards. There’s also an older man who has a bunch of people around bowing very officially and offering greetings. Then there’s a couple over in the corner, looking slightly intimidated but gracious; another old man who has that I-don’t-give-a-fuck air about him is surveying the room. There’s also the really large, muscular guy over in the corner sipping wine. There’s a tall man with pale skin on one corner who’s just kind of controlling the people around him. There’s also a smaller man with a young boy staying next to him. 

So the ladies Han, with their loyal manservant and bodyguard,  head over towards the hot lesbian parents. Martini: “Oh my dearest Elayne and Gloria, we met at that one event…” The dark one’s mothers look a bit deer-in-the-headlights, but Dmitri Von Styne swoops in and introduces himself. Martini immediately sets to flattering him. 

He says that surely we know his tailor….?

“But we so seldom get to Vrist,” Eva chimes in. 

There’s some discussion of the Archmagister Prospero planning to apprentice the girl, and for reasons none of our characters understand he really doesn’t want anybody to know her name. It turns out that she’s back in Vrist because Vecna Orlok is summering in the school. 

We head for the older guy with the boy beside him, and he’s a broad-shouldered guy with pale skin. He’s Alexandra Daschcov, and this is his son… Kroni. Kroni, who eventually became a dark demigod; Kroni, whom we killed to free Sacha from his evil influence.

The trumpets sound, and the herald announces a martial demonstration. Young Kroni tenses. He and Fenric Wallington shall entertain the room with their skill at arms. Fenric goes into his half-wolf form, and pulls out his arm-blades. Kroni is too fast for him, though, even though he can't possibly be a vampire yet. He’s just really, really good. Eventually Fenric gets frustrated: “Arrogant blood-drinkers! You won’t last the year, I swear it.” But Kroni has clearly won, and Fenric is very upset; Fenric’s dad pulls him aside and give him a stern talking-to, probably because he's making threats that will reveal their plans.

Geddy notices that Fenric almost certainly said more than he should have. Kroni is just hanging out with his dad, Alexandra. His attention doesn’t seem to be anywhere in particular, except for the folks who are congratulating him on his victory. A Soothsayer proclaims that dark times are coming to Fanaxia. A time of breaking is coming, when three dark gods who are but two will bring ruin and destruction to our land. The nobles are too blind to see it, and the king will allow it to happen but punish the gods who did it. 

The king orders him arrested, and the magiknights drag him off. The Ladies Han go to talk to Prospero, who was very impressed with the Dark One but can't remember her name. Behind him, his apprentice rolls his eyes and claps his forehead. Geddy sidles over and talks to Victor, Prospero’s apprentice; he thinks the dark one is too young for that kind of power, and they should slow her down and have her come to the capital in a few years. 

The trumpets sound again, and a group of knight march forward and kneel before the king. “Come forth, Thybalt of the Magiknights. Rygar, Barnabus," and the others who were old when we were in Fanaxia later on.

Thybalt has just been knighted as the new head of the Magiknights, to thunderous applause. 

We circulate a bit more. Gerwulf Wallington, and some LaSonts, and the other werewolf clan. Boris LaMorgan was the big werewolf we fought; Martini giggles. Gerwulf is reminding the king that they’re the major economic powerhouse in the region, and they want to be reassured that they have his support. The King and Prospero agree that they have long been allies, and with the expansion of the Magiknights they will need quality supplies. 

“Oh,” says Martini, and walks away. 

We go check out the heavily built guy in the corner, who’s clearly a jock in the company of nobles. Martini: “How do you feel about threesomes?” 

He’s in favor of them. His name is Rin Stonehammer. 

Rita considers this for like a half a second, but she’s in. This guy is just… a classic himbo. And if we have to go to Vrist… yeah, definitely a diversion first. Lord Lando, meanwhile, has made his way over to Count Orlok, and that old guy is bitter about the werewolves and the vampires having all this power. The King is playing along with this. 

King Merric doesn’t seem to be under any particular magical influence, he’s just trying to balance a lot of very fractious and powerful political factions. Geddy starts trying to spread Alex Jones-style conspiracy theories. “Oh yes, everybody always forgets about Clan Kwalish.”

Geddy: “Did I hear that you have a son?” 

“A great disappointment to me,” says Count Orlok. “He’s a soft boy. I hope that the magic school will serve him. I would put him in a military academy, but I fear he lacks the constitution for it. He’s always cheating off that Khaledi bitch…” 

So Rin Stonehammer has just finished a big commission up in Vrist, but he doesn’t know the Dark One’s name either. Martini and Eva draw him away from the party, and they go off to find a bed, preferably one with a lot of room.


So it’s only Geddy who’s there when the Alexander Dashcov attempts to introduce Rin Stonehammer, and presents that young blacksmith's arms and armor to the king. 


Rin, meanwhile, is in our hotel room, getting his world rocked. Afterwards, he tells us about how much trouble this Khaledi girl has been. Apparently his forge is right next to the school of magic. And even though she nearly destroyed the forge, Dmitri won’t hear about it. And Vecna Orlok is doing summer school up there, so the Khaledi girl has stayed and keeps distracting him. He also mentions a cave that they might be sneaking out to, but he hopes not because it’s dangerous. 

We return to the party, and Dmitri comes to ask us why we’re here asking so many questions. 

Dmitri: “I understand that you’re not properly part of the aristocracy, but you must understand that economics will win the day.” He starts explaining how having higher-quality weapons will drive the Wallingtons out of business. 

Martini: “That’s true… unless the werewolves threatened you directly and you stupidly ignore it, and then they murder you all. Which actually just happened.” 

She walks away, and Dmitri does too. 

Walter Crow shows up as we’re leaving, with a petition requesting permission to drive out the half-beasts -- the centaurs -- and reclaim the lands for the king’s benefit. Martini grins, because we kill him later. Still, King Merric is not what you'd consider an upstanding individual, even by the standards of politicians. 


We'll head for Vrist next, because clearly the only way we can get the true name of the Dark One is to ask the young man who is still, for the moment, Vecna Orlok, directly.  

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Caristhium: The Golden Children Part One

Aesa strode into the gatehouse, caught sight of Brother Buolson, and sighed in momentary relief. They weren't being attacked, at least. "What is it?" she asked. "The novice wasn't very clear about--" 

She stopped, looking past the human priest to the True Elf woman standing just inside the iron-bound wooden gate... and the three golden-scaled children who stood calmly beside her. "Ah," she said, as a sudden premonition touched her. "Are you looking for Ruin, then?" 

The woman nodded cautiously. "Partly," she said, "but mainly succor and shelter for myself and my children."

"I tried to explain--" Boulson said, and the woman shook her head, cutting him off.

"You discharged your duty admirably," she told him, "but Grandfather was very clear that I was to speak to Ruin if he was here, and one of two others if he was not." She turned her attention back to Aesa. "Yours was the first face he showed me."

"My name is Aesa," Aesa said, and extended her hand. 

The woman looked puzzled, but extended her hand in exchange. "Like this," Aesa said, and clasped her wrist. 

The woman returned the gesture, and released her grip the moment Aesa did. "I am called Rita," she said.

"You and your children are welcome here," Aesa told her, and immediately thought: Dearest Amun, I'm going to have to warn the Abbess. She turned to Boulson, and asked: "Did you send word to the Abbess?"

He frowned. "Should I have?"

Aesa shrugged. "You should now. Tell her I've taken our new guest to meet Anica... and Rose and Rune."

He took a moment to absorb that, then nodded. "I'll see that it's done."

Aesa turned back to the elf, who was almost certainly a dragon. "Ruin went north with his friends a week ago, to try to regather the druids in Duendewood. He should be back any time. Until then... will you come with me? Your children have another brother and a sister, I think, and it might please the gods for all of us to meet."

Rita nodded. "We will walk with you."

One of the toddlers frowned, rebellious. "Not walk!"

"Very well," said Rita, and leaned down to pick the child up. "Then I'll carry you. Scar, Risk, will you follow?"

The two toddlers exchanged a glance. 

"I could carry one of you," Aesa said, "but only if you wanted."

They exchanged another glance. One of them -- Risk, she thought -- studied her for a long moment, then held out their arms. Aesa approached slowly, bent down, and lifted the toddler up to her shoulder. They were heavier than they looked, but she'd been expecting that. She glanced down at Scar, but they shook their head. 

"Well then," said Aesa, "will you tell us if you change your mind?" 

The child nodded tersely. 

"Come then," she said, and went to go find Anica. It was going to be an interesting afternoon.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Duendewood: Milathyra the Druid

"Springblossom?" someone asked. "Springblossom Sunrise?"

Ruin turned, because he already knew who this had to be, even if he couldn't quite believe it: Milathyra Antithian, one of his mother's Old School Friends and mother to the bladecrafter Amaranth. The last time he'd seen her had been in Annun, and she'd been out shopping: dressed in fine clothes with a certain amount of jewelry on display. 

Much, it seemed, had changed. The woman before him was leaner than when they'd last met, and dressed in a simple brown robe, albeit of good quality cloth. A fox sat beside her right ankle, studying him carefully.

As a result, his voice was gentler than he'd originally intended when he answered her: "My name is Ruin."

"You finally chose that?" she asked, evidently approving. "Amaranth thought you might. It suits you."

"And you've become a druid," he observed. 

She nodded, blushing slightly. "Yes, I-- after we fled Annun, I needed to do... something. It still seems very strange sometimes, but... yes."

"It suits you," Ruin said quietly. "You seem... happier?"

Milathyra shook her head, and for a moment her expression went dark. "I'm not sure that being tortured by the false king and his butchers was a high point in my happiness, but..." She stopped, reconsidered. "I do find being a druid more enjoyable than navigating Society in Annun."

"More relaxed, then." Ruin offered a careful smile and changed the subject. "And how is Amaranth?"

"She was well when I left her, though that was months ago now." Milathyra looked briefly wistful. "She said she was going to find a place to set up a hidden smithy and provide weapons to the Resistance. She has an apprentice, though he's barely old enough for it, and she took everything she could from her shop before we left."

"She's still making those magnificent blades, then." Ruin was pleased. Pleased to know she'd escaped Annun, too. 

"She showed you her shop?" Milathyra sounded surprised, then shook her head. "Of course she did. I was the one ashamed of it; she never was. How you two never ended up together..."

"Milathyra," Ruin said gently, "Your daughter and I weren't friends at school. We never had much to do with each other at all. I'd count her as a friend now, but we only had two days together in Annun. And it may be indelicate to say it, but... your very obvious desire for your daughter to hook up with one of the Twiceborn made it all very awkward."

"Oh." Milathyra looked away for a moment. "I really was sort of horrible, wasn't I?"

"Perhaps a little bit," Ruin told her. "Amaranth was more bothered by it than I was." 

"Well... I suppose that's some comfort, since she did make it a point to take me with her when she left Annun." She sighed. "More to think on, I suppose. There's been much of that, but I suppose I brought it on myself. I wonder if there's a way to send her a message?"

"Ask Alnira," Ruin advised. "She might know something."

Milathyra blinked. "She might at that. It's good to see you, Ruin. I'm glad you and your friends arrived when you did."

Monday, May 15, 2023

Caristhium: A Question and an Offer

"Did you know he was going to do that?" asked Anica, looking across the table at Aesa. 

"No," said Aesa. "Well... maybe. That's why I used Hold Person on Valinir." 

"I thought he'd gone back to... whatever he was doing."

"I don't think so," Aesa told her. "He's lost the companions he had, and the capital is... dangerous, even for him. He got Tavros and the others out, and he's been here ever since. Or nearby, anyway."

They were back in the Temple of Amun, just outside of Caristhium, reunited with their children and Anica's lovers. Tarric and Werendril were sitting beside them, and Rune and Rose were buckled into raised seats that strapped to the wooden benches. 

"What happened?" asked Werendril, just as Tarric asked: "Who are we talking about?"

Anica shook her head, frowning slightly. "Aesa and I went out to take care of those bandits in the savage hills," she said, "and we'd just lured them in for a proper battle when the Silver Fox showed up and took them all prisoner."

"You did what?" asked Tarric. "That's why the two of you were gone?"

"We still have our duties," Aesa said firmly. 

Tarric shook his head. "I just don't like the idea of you endangering yourselves. Either of you."

"Too bad," said Anica sharply.

Werendril put a hand on Tarric's shoulder. "We can be concerned," he observed, "without trying to tell you that you shouldn't do it."

Anica hesitated, then settled back.  "...That's fair."

"I was concerned too," said Vendril, setting a plate down beside Aesa and turning a bland face to the others, who were gaping with astonishment. He turned his attention to Anica. "Still, I'm sorry if I stole your thunder, Paladin of Amun."

Anica closed her mouth, opened it again, then closed it yet again. Finally she said, "Much as it pains me to say it, I think it's better that you were there. The elves all survived, and neither of us got stuck with arrows. That's an outcome to be wished for."

Aesa reached over and clasped Vendril's hand, smiling at him. He smiled back, briefly, then leaned over and kissed her cheek. Werendril and Tarric exchanged a quick glance, then nodded and set to eating while Anica just stared.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Dark Armor: Westrov

The Hall of Swords was dim, its only light coming through the heavy, almost-opaque obsidian that formed one of the Citadel's outer walls. Westrov sometimes hung lamps during training sessions, especially with beginning students, but generally he preferred his students to work with little light. He said it helped them develop a better sense of feel. 

Pallian was no arms-trainer, but as one of Westrov's former arms-trainees, he agreed. 

Still and all, the hall seemed empty. Nobody stood gathered for practice; no weathered figure inspected the racks of weapons or the rows of waiting targets. Westrov was not beside the mirror-wall, moving through one of the many teaching-dances. Nor was he on the mats, practicing the exercises that built strength for lunging, sweeping, and stepping. 

"I'll thank you not to muss my outfit, Arms-Trainer," Pallian said quietly, and turned. "The House of Edrias arrives tonight, and I don't have anything else to change into."

Westrov had been settled in the shadowed corner just behind the doorway. He stopped with one hand extended, then settled back. "You should have checked, Pallian," he said gruffly. "Even if you knew I'd be there. Anticipate your opponent--"

Pallian nodded. "--but always check the terrain. That's what I'm here for."

"Oh?" Westrov was well past his prime, his skin weathered to old leather and his muscles wrapped tight around his bones, with little left to pad them. He maintained his strength and his skills through dedication and willpower, and his position in the court through careful obedience and cautious advice. His hair was gray and thinning, though he cut it so short that it was hard to tell, and an eyepatch covered the thing that had replaced his right eye. 

Not all initiations were subtle, and not all were meant to help.

"I find myself unexpectedly summoned back to the Citadel, and informed that I will be attending father -- as myself -- when the House of Edrias arrives tonight. I am even allowed a new initiation." Pallian paused. "This troubles me, as the last I knew of outside events was that the Black Knight had slain the Champion of Marinul and reclaimed the Spear of the First from the House of Edrias, after which Rebka, Heir of Teregor, was apparently slain by the Shadow of Edrias. Neither my father nor Ravaj has seen fit to enlighten me, and I find myself loathe to ask directly..."

Westrov nodded and offered a congenial smile. "...Especially on the day of your scheduled execution?" 

"Just so."

The older man settled back, momentarily pensive. "I don't believe it's a secret," he said. There was a momentary pause for words left unspoken, and then Westrov said: "There's been an Emissary -- from the Tomb of the First."

And Pallian, feeling the pieces fall into place behind his own eyes, said: "Oh." 

Oh, I should have known. The Champion of Marinul was wedded to the Spear of the First, however briefly, and carried it into battle. If anything would draw their attention, that would. And the emergence of an Emissary is damned near to the only thing that would drive my father to treat peaceably with Edrias. So now we have to figure out how to deal with the Emissary without waking them the rest of the way up.

No wonder he decided not to kill me.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

GoodParty: Take Down the Tarrasque

We reassemble the two teams, then divide up again. Ruin, Tavros, Leira, and Marshall head off to try to take out the Tarrasque.

We load ourselves up with:
  • Haste
  • Death Ward
  • Freedom of Movement
  • Remove Fear
  • Holy Aura (which is actually kind of redundant, but what the hell)
  • False Life (Leira on herself only)
In addition, Ruin has a spiffy new sword, plus the crystal he got from the druids, and Leira has the staff if super-blasting, which probably won’t help much since the tarrasque is magic-proof in much the same way that Godzilla is missile-proof. We layer ourselves with the spells, then one of the wizards teleports us to Summerwind – or the remains of it, anyway. This is the point where it was trapped, until he slew all the Solari there and broke through.

So now it’s lurking in the ruins of Summerwind, and here we are. The Tarrasque notes our arrival and sort of ambles over. Ruin grabs Tavros and Leira and Dimension Doors onto Marshall. Marshall slithers through the air in his colossal snake form He sets us down inside the town wall.

Leira immediately hops off as the massive snake faces off against the tarrasque, and immediately casts Time Stop. She uses the stolen moments to cast Mordenkainen’s Sword four times, dropping animated magic swords all around him.

Tavros charges and gets slapped on the way in, and slips out of its grasp thanks to Freedom of Movement. He hits, but the Tarrasque immediately regenerates and then slaps the actual crap out of Tavros, who takes it like a half-dragon. A firework erupts from a nearby building, up into the sky.

Ruin also charges, and takes somewhat less damage on the way in. He positions himself so that he’s flanking the thing, opposite Tavros. Leira’s swords are doing their work, and flanking each other. She also drops an illusionary Tavros next to the real Tavros.

Marshall drops a Mass Heal, restoring Ruin and Tavros to full health, and then… casts two quickened spells: air walk and control water. He starts pulling sewer water into the area, and Tavros and Ruin start rising to avoid it. Tavros strikes once, then drops his sword; the wound closes immediately, and the Tarrasque turns on Tavros, who did actually manage to hit it pretty hard. It does a lot of damage.

A woman appears in a nearby window – Ruin sees her, and he notices that she is wearing the colors of the newly-crowned Giles Bouvier King in the East. She immediately drops a Meteor Shower on Marshall. This would have been a huge problem if Marshall hadn’t cast the we-thought-it-was-redundant Holy Aura on the group. As it is, the magic resistance protects them from the worst of it.

Ruin attacks the Tarrasque from behind, and does some damage. Then eight archers, in the colors of Giles pop in behind Ruin. They fire off a bunch of arrows at Ruin, and do him a bit of damage. A moment later, a batch of sorcerers show up in another nearby building. And another small group shows up on the street. They are in the water on the street. They start unloading fireballs on the tarrasque. Tavros takes a bit of damage; Ruin takes… one point.

Tavros, unfortunately, goes down. Leira moves away from Marshall, Her swords are just ripping up the Tarrasque. She drops Time Stop, then uses her staff to Intensify Delayed Blast Fireballs and set three of them in place: sorcerers, sorcerers, archers. Two of the archers survive, and none of the sorcerers do. Leira drops Shield on herself, then adds Protection from Elements (Fire). Then she fires off two quickened scorching rays, hitting the head sorceress in the face with five of the six rays for a very solid amount of damage.

Marshall pulls another round of water into the area around the Tarrasque, then used Miracle to turn it into stone. The tarrasque is now trapped in place though still able to attack. The sorceress is likewise trapped. The tarrasque twists around and tries to attack Ruin, though he can’t tail slap. Ruin goes down, and is just a mouse’s whisker away from death.

The sorceress attempts to Meteor Swarm Marshall again, and gets past his spell resistance; he avoids the worst of it, but still takes damage.

Leira’s swords are still in play, and just carving the Tarrasque up. The sorceress is still in the window over there, and Leria throws a Disintegrate at her.

She dissolves into dust.

Marshall drops a Mass Heal, saving Tavros and Ruin. He moves to engage the Tarrasque. Tavros straightens up, realizes that his sword is buried under stone, and runs away; the Tarrasque misses him.

The Tarrasque twists around and attacks Ruin again. He survives, and uses Dimension Door to escape.

Leira’s swords keep chopping up the tarrasque, and after a while it goes down far enough for Marshall to finish it with Miracle. He uses Miracle to prevent the thing from regenerating, and then uses a second Miracle to turn the thing into a Tarrasque-statue.

People start crawling out of their shelters, and before long there’s a crowd of hundreds cheering for us. Marshall immediately seizes on the opportunity to proselytize, and converts most of Summerwind.

Somewhere up in Olympus, Artemis looks around and says: “Damn it, why do I keep waking up with scales? That was funny back when I was drunk, but this shit needs to stop.”

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Caristhium: A Small Band

The cart rolled steadily along the road, pulled by a single ox, and Aesa shifted her weight on the wooden bench and wished she'd thought to add a cushion to it before starting out. She wore the dark coat and pants of a modestly successful trader, and a broad-rimmed hat that was supposed to help hide the fact that she wasn't quite as male as she trying to appear. 

There were bandits on the road as it passed through the savage hills -- elves, according to the reports, probably the remnants of the ones who had tried to take over Caristhium, gathered together with a few others. They really should have stayed, Aesa thought. Martini would have had them worked into shape as city guards. Of course, the guards were all terrified of Martini, but it was the sort of terror that meant that they'd follow her into the face of death itself. 

I wish I knew how to do that, Aesa thought, idly watching the road ahead, and that was when she came far enough around the latest curve to find that someone had managed to lay a mid-sized tree across the road, almost as if it had fallen there. 

She sighed, and make a clicking noise for the ox, who obediently slowed. 

Muttering to herself and gesturing, she set the brake and climbed down from the cart, then walked over to the fallen tree. It was browning, a little too long-dead to be a convincing recent fall, but maybe the elves didn't want to keep cutting down fresh trees for their banditry. She'd left her blade under the bench; she made better bait that way. 

"Your pardon for interrupting your journey, good trader," said a voice, and Aesa made herself whip around. 

It was an elf, of course -- a common elf, proud and graceful, but nowhere near so formidable as Ruin or Werendril. He was tall and slender, lithe and lean, with soft grey hair that was almost silver and skin the color of honey. "My friends and I, we have need of your cart. More need than you, I fear. Still, we are not unreasonable. If you walk away now, no harm will come to you." 

"A gentlemanly highwayman," Aesa said, looking carefully around. She could see another elf on the road behind the cart, and one just past the fallen tree; all three were holding longbows. "I was hoping to find you here." 

He stiffened. "Were you?" 

Anica sat up from beneath a half-roll of cloth in the back of the cart, reached around under the bench, and tossed Aesa her falchion. Aesa nearly fumbled catching it, but managed to get her hands around it and bring it into a ready position. She unclasped the cover, but didn't draw it yet. "May I have your name, good sir bandit?"

He shrugged. "Valinir Goldstem." 

"Aesa Borrington," she replied. From the back of the cart, Anica added: "Anica desAmun." 

"Very well," said the bandit. "You've found us, and I've offered my name. What is it exactly that you have in mind? There are still only two of you, and twenty of us." 

Anica laughed, apparently delighted, and Valinir glanced at her. 

"An end to your banditry," Aesa said. "The True King Mythandril calls you to service."

The elf shifted, raised his bow. "You," he said. "You claim to speak for the True King?"

Aesa spoke the spell she'd been holding ready, and Valinir fell as if pollaxed. The archer to her left, beyond the fallen tree, was already down; Anica hopped off the back of the cart and headed for the woman on the road behind it. An arrow shattered against her shield as she approached. 

"Archers!" called the bandit woman. "Damn you, archers! Cut them down! Now!"

"They can't," said a soft voice, and Aesa had the rare pleasure of seeing Anica startle back. There was a man standing behind the bandit woman on the road, rapier drawn, his face hidden by a fox mask. She spun, drawing an arrow lightning-fast. 

The fox-masked man behind her didn't so much cut her bowstring as hold his blade in place and let her swing the string across its edge. She stood still for a moment, staring, and no doubt feeling the point against her throat. "Come," he said. "We have better work than this."

The woman swallowed. "The Silver Fox?"

Vendril nodded. "The True King lives, and he calls to his own. Let us gather your companions. You are summoned."

"But--" She looked around, almost desperately. 

"They are alive," whispered Vendril. "You, Valinir, the five archers who thought they were hidden in the trees. I do not kill our own kind, not without the greatest need."

"My lord," the elf breathed, and dropped to her knees. "Command me. Take us to our king."

Slack-jawed with shock, Anica looked back at Aesa, but Aesa could only shrug.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Caristhium: Certain Reptilian Concerns

Tavros snapped awake, clawing at the rope around his neck, trying to reach up and get a grip in it so he could pull himself up and release this terrible pressure from his throat...

His claws sank into something soft and he went still. He could breathe; he wasn't dying. He was... lying in a bed, covered by a blanket. 

"Ah, good," said a familiar voice. "You're back, your most royal Majesty."

Tavros groaned and turned his head, though in truth he was relieved on a scale that was somewhat hard to fathom. "Abbess," he said. "You resurrected me?"

She made a small, dismissive gesture. "You needed it rather badly."

He nodded, because that was kinder than saying, I know, I remember that bastard Helios murdering me. "The others?"

"They returned with your corpse. The rest of them were in rather better shape."

Tavros nodded and started to sit up. "I should see them, find out how things went."

Hilda Sturmgart hesitated, and that was enough to give Tavros pause. The abbess was a decisive woman. After a moment she asked, "How badly do you want to be surprised?

"As little as possible," Tavros answered wryly.

"Well then... The priest who calls himself Marshall has scales."

"Scales?" asked Tavros, certain that he'd somehow misheard. 

"Scales," confirmed Hilda. "He says that by the grace of Artem-hiss, he has become a snake-man. Akkora and Sister Tiva say he's definitely one of the lizardfolk -- the only pudgy one they've ever seen -- but nobody's arguing with him."

"Scales," said Tavros, again. "All right, what else?"

"Well, Sacha is definitely the Avatar of Helios now. He glows a little, unless he makes an effort not to." She paused, then added: "And you're not the only half-dragon in the Temple anymore."

Tavros just stared at her, and after a moment she shrugged. "A young woman showed up with three of them, toddlers, a week or so back. From what I can gather from Anica and Aesa, she seems to be Eva's sister."

Tavros clapped a hand to his face. "Ruin. How does he do it?" 

"I don't know," said the Abbess, "but I'm impressed. Vigo might be able to tell you; he and Dante are quite eager to see you. I had to remind them that they shelter here at the pleasure of the Temple of Amun and in particular me, and that they needed to be back in their hidden rooms."

Dear Amun... All it needed now was for a band to show up outside the door and start playing that damned song. Tavros shook his head and lay back down. "You know," he said, "I think maybe I'll just lie here and recover for a bit longer. Wouldn't want to rush things."

"Yes," said the abbess Hilda Sturmgart. "Your Majesty's health is so important."

Monday, May 8, 2023

The Wolf's Blade

"Ruin?" said a soft voice in the darkness. 

Ruin woke without moving, then realized that he was the middle spoon between a massive bear and a true elf druid, and stirred enough to open his eyes. His twin brother Darvinin was standing in the darkness under the sacred tree, squinting down at him. 

Ruin, of course, could see perfectly well. He shifted his weight, carefully extracting himself from the tangle of bodies. The bear stirred, then lapsed back into a soft snore; the elf, exhausted from the earlier battle, didn't move.  He took a moment to dress, and then followed his brother out from under the tree and into the moonlight. 

"That's quite the crystal," said Darvinin, who had watched him carefully check that it was still in its place in a pouch on his belt.

"A gift from Hierophant Saladhel, and the other Hierophants as well," Ruin told him quietly. "Or perhaps a debt to them, for all that they chose me to decide which of the Hierophants would die. I am to return it, 'with interest,' once this current strife is done."

Darvinin frowned. "What does that mean?"

Ruin shrugged. "I'm honestly not certain. There's nothing quite like elder druids for being ridiculously cryptic. I think I need to provide them with a new Hierophant, but it's possible that I need to enhance the thing with a new power or something like that."

Darvinin let the topic go reluctantly. "I guess we'll find out." He glanced back towards the darkness under the great tree. "Were you sleeping with a bear?" 

Ruin said, "She's not always--" 

Darvinin shook his head. "I meant, should you really be sleeping with anybody else at all? You already have two children..."

Ruin was completely still for a long, long moment. Finally he said, "Probably not, O my brother. But the things we're facing... Darvinin, I died in the last battle, and it's so far from the first time that's happened that I cannot number my deaths. All it would take would be an enemy with just the right spell at the right moment, and I might not return. So I lose myself in the pleasures of the flesh, and I take comfort in the thought that something of me might survive my death."

Darvinin weighed that for a long moment, then nodded. "And you have always been drawn to strength," he said. "Well... You have, perhaps, another conquest -- though she hasn't come in person, and won't."

Ruin cocked his head, curious, and Darvinin held out the package he carried. It was long and slim, and Ruin unwrapped it from the leathers around it carefully. 

His expression in the moonlight was very nearly rapturous as he regarded the long, curved blade, backswept so that the weight rested out near the tip, the carefully curved guard with wolves' heads looking out from either side, the third wolf's head that formed the pommel. "Magnificent," he breathed. 

"Amaranth sends her regards," Darvinin told him. 

Ruin looked up, met his gaze, and nodded. "She knows better than to break cover."

"You have no idea," Darvinin told him. "She's formidable, too. Even our mother would be forced to admit that she would be a good match."

"I know," said Ruin. He was still looking at the blade. "The enchantments on this... Gods. She put everything into it." The blade was wrought of cold iron, easy to wield, sharper than a blade should possibly be, and it looked somehow incomplete resting in his hands. It wanted to be moving, and quickly. 

"She said to keep yourself safe," Darvinin said, "and she said the blade would help." 

Ruin nodded. "It will." He paused, looking it over again. "Give me a moment, and I'll give you payment to take back to her."

"She didn't ask for--"

"I know." Ruin was still engrossed in the blade. "But she'll need it to continue her work, and for a piece like this..." He shook his head. "It wouldn't be right." He slipped a finger-length of blade from the sheath, regarded it in the moonlight. "Tell her that if she refuses the payment, I'm going to consider this not a gift, but a marriage proposal."