Friday, June 30, 2023

Dark Armor: Old Friends

"Pallian!" called a voice behind him, and Pallian turned to see a man of his own age approaching. For a moment he didn't recognize the face; the man was taller and stockier, and of course older than he remembered. "Back from the dead, are you?"

It was the voice that did it. "Koplis!" he called, and extended a hand. 

Koplis ignored the hand and came in for an embrace instead; Pallian managed to avoid spilling his wine down the back of his old friend's velvet cloak, but it was a near thing. "How have you been?" asked Koplis. "Where have you been? You just sort of disappeared. We all wondered."

"A bit of study, a bit of travel," Pallian said. "What of you? Still determined to earn your place at the head of a troop?"

"Father agreed that I was ready last year. He had me serve six months with a scouting unit, then put me in charge of a battalion of skirmishers." Kolpis grinned happily. "We just got back from the assault on Marinul, and Father sent me here to represent the family. Has Edrias arrived yet?"

Pallian resisted the urge to look around. "A few hours ago. I expect they'll be here shortly." It was interesting that Kolpis' father had sent his heir instead of coming himself; that might be a show of trust in the Wizard-King, or it might mean the nobleman was busy with something else. Pallian had no idea what the current political landscape looked like; the bits and pieces he had known, mostly gleaned from Kolpis and the other noble hostage-students he'd shared his lessons with, were three years or more out of date now. "Formal introductions were made earlier; this meal is strictly a social event."

Kolpis chuckled at that, and Pallian nodded to acknowledge the irony. Nothing here was ever free of political significance. He studied Pallian for a long moment. "The Wizard-King's son... I would never have guessed. Why didn't you say anything?"

Because it wouldn't have made any difference. Because I was just as much a prisoner in that classroom as anybody else. He shrugged. "I liked the anonymity. How well do you think we'd have gotten to know each other if I'd announced it?" 

Kolpis laughed. "Fairly taken," he said. "Oh! I think the guests have arrived." 

Pallian turned, looked, nodded. "House Edrias," he said. "High Magister Tamirya, second-princess Arwidden, and third-princess Ashmiren." Counselor Barias had stepped forward to greet them, and the leonine body-servant had positioned himself discreetly beside the High Magister, in easy reach of the counselor. Pallian looked away again.

"Word is they're eager for an alliance, after the thrashing we gave them at Marinul." 

Kolpis sounded smug, and before he could stop himself Pallian said, "Word is, there's been an Emissary from the Tomb of the First." 

Kolpis deflated. "Oh," he said, sounding as if Pallian had just punched him in the diaphragm. "I should've known they wouldn't be that impressed with our military prowess, even with Black Knight there to break their champion."

"Was he?" asked Pallian. 

Kolpis nodded, then looked past Pallian at the House of Edrias again. "...But this may not be the time to discuss it."

"We should meet later, then." Pallian told him. 

"I'll see what I can arrange." Kolpis' expression was sober now, cautious. "And I'll let the others know you're back, if I see them."

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Ruin: Evolving Relationships

No D&D this week -- sorry and/or you're welcome -- so instead you get this little Slice of Life from Ruin as he prepares to depart for Duendewood to help Martini assassinate Duke Lamont.


"Ruin?" asked Anica, then hesitated. 

That hesitation was unexpected enough -- Anica was usually outspoken and headstrong, sometimes to her detriment -- that Ruin stopped polishing his sword and turned to face her directly, giving her his full attention. 

"I guess this isn't exactly any of my business," Anica said after a moment, "but... are you sleeping with the Avatar of Demeter? The two of you keep sneaking off, and people are starting to notice."

"Am I...?" Ruin chuckled. "No. No, but I can see why people might think so. The Avatar herself asked if I was flirting with her at one point, so..." He shook his head. "No. We've been sparring."

There was a long, long pause. Then Anica said, "You've been what?" 

"Sparring," said Ruin. "I can't give her the kind of contest that Tavros did, but I can at least offer some challenge and I heal quickly afterwards; meanwhile, I can try out some things on her that I'd be afraid to test on anyone else. But we can't let people see, because..."

Anica nodded. "Because Vigo made such a big deal about Tavros being able to stand up to her."

Ruin nodded. "Exactly. Which is also why I haven't said anything about it, not even to you. Tavros knows, but only because he caught me going back to my room after our first bout, and he knows me too well not to guess."

Anica said, "Oh." She looked thoughtful for a moment. "Would you... would you tell Aesa as well? I know she has Vendril now, but I think she might still be kind of hurt. I don't want her trying to measure her self-worth against an Avatar."

"Ah," said Ruin. "Yes, of course." I'm an idiot.

* * *

"So that's it," Ruin said. He hadn't expected to have to make his explanation to Vendril as well as Aesa, but Vendril could keep a secret almost as well as Vigo himself. He didn't need to worry about that, at least.

"Sparring." Aesa sounded dubious.

"It's not a euphemism," said Ruin, "and there's nothing else going on."

Vendril asked, "And you're deliberately getting yourself badly injured, over and over, because...?"

Ruin shrugged. Why shouldn't I be? "I have some new attunements that I haven't fully explored. This is a way to get a feel for them that doesn't endanger anyone."

Aesa sighed. "Well... thank you for telling us, finally, at least."

"I should have thought to do it earlier," Ruin said. "I'm sorry. Still, it's better if people think..." 

"I know." Aesa didn't sound unhappy, at least. "It might be a little embarrassing, but at least we know better."

"Ruin?" asked Vendril. "Now that this is settled, can I talk to you outside?"

Ruin flicked a glance at Aesa, who nodded. "Of course," he said, and rose. 

Vendril followed him out the door and down the hall, well away from the room the Shadow of the Clan shared with Aesa and the rooms that Anica shared with Tarric and Werendril. The cell that had been set aside for Ruin was a little further down, and he opened the door and motioned for Vendril to enter before him. Vendril quirked a grin and stepped inside.

"So..." said Ruin. 

Vendril studied him for a long moment. He was slender and wiry, strong in his own way but not in the way that Ruin had cultivated. "I wanted you to know that I didn't set out to... to steal her away from you. I was curious so I met her, and the more I saw of her..."

Ruin shook his head. "I never saw it that way. She wasn't mine for you to steal. We had what we had -- in Rose, we still do -- but I was never going to be the kind of partner and support for her that you can be. And I've seen you, you're good with Aesa and good with my daughter." He hesitated. "Our daughter. I'm including you in that."

"I try my best," Vendril said. "I never expected to end up raising someone else's child."

Ruin nodded his understanding. "I want Aesa to be happy," he said, "but I don't think I can be the one to make her happy. At this point, I wouldn't even bet that I could be the one to give my children a safe and secure future." He hesitated, because he didn't really know Vendril and wasn't sure he wanted to confide in the man. But... What the hell, why not? "If the Order of Secrets brings Vecna back to life here in Midgard, I am very likely going to die. And if that happens, then I want Aesa and Rose to have someone who can care for them..." He chuckled darkly.  "...and who isn't dead, of course."

Vendril nodded thoughtfully. "I know that what happened between you and Aesa was... almost an accident. I also know that she still has feelings for you, and that you care about her as well." He paused, then said: "What I intend to say is: don't stay away on my account." 

Ruin smiled. "I won't."

* * *

"Why didn't you warn me this might happen?" asked Rita, as Ruin nestled against her. 

They were still catching their breath, and would likely go again; but Ruin took advantage of the momentary stillness to ask, "The children, you mean?" 

"The children, I mean," said Rita. "It's not that I regret it or resent them, you understand, but a bit of warning would have been nice. Not having Grandfather try to keep from giggling as He explained the situation would have been nice, too."

"It didn't occur to me," he said honestly. "In all honesty, I wasn't really thinking about the possibility of children, and if I had it wouldn't have occurred to me that you wouldn't already know yourself, but... I wasn't thinking about consequences at all. I was just reacting."

Rita tensed, but a moment later she relaxed and admitted. "So was I."

Ruin kissed the back of her neck. "I'm glad we can still do this," he said. "And I do like our children." 

"They like you too," Rita said. "That's why they keep trying to gnaw on you. At least you're tough enough to ignore that; most of the mortal races aren't."

Ruin chuckled. "Pain is kind of an old friend at this point."

"Ruin," said Rita, suddenly serious. "You know this isn't anything permanent, right? I enjoy you, but I don't love you and we'll never be mates."

Ruin nodded and nuzzled her shoulder. "I know. I'm afraid in some ways I'm still just reacting." He stretched his left shoulder, which had been tucked under his head, trying to get some blood flow back. "I would like to be with you in watching our children grow up, though. Maybe helping them on their way. If I can. If this business with Vecna doesn't kill me."

"As you should be," she said. "So... whatever happens, whatever's coming... please don't just resign yourself to dying. I know it's not something you can predict or control, and I don't want to dictate your decisions, but... I want you to be around for the children. If you can. And I want you to strive for that as hard as you can."

"I will," said Ruin. 

Then Rita pressed back against him, and he found something else to strive for as hard as he could.

* * *

Ruin groaned and turned his head. Blue with spots of white... the world came back into focus, and he was staring at open sky and a few small, scattered clouds. He shifted his weight, felt his left shoulder slide back into its socket. Better, better... enough trees to screen them from sight, a cooling breeze off the edge of the lake, and Terra Windblade studying the back of her left bracer. "You back yet?" she asked. 

Ruin grunted as he sat up. "Another minute... and I'll be right... as rain." He got his feet under him, rose, swayed, and looked around for his sword. His shield circled around him like an obedient puppy, its enchantments ready to guard him. Ah, there. The falchion had half-disappeared into the grass; he picked it up and checked it over. 

The blade was still in fine shape; Amaranth did good work. 

"That was good," said the Avatar of Demeter. "Three solid hits, and you blocked the windblade." She took a step forward, studying him. "Are you sure you haven't come a'courting?"

Ruin smiled and shook his head. "Not here," he said. "If we'd met out in the field somewhere, maybe."

"If you say so. In that case, are you sure you don't want to sleep with an Avatar anyway? It's not like there's anybody else around to see."

Ruin chuckled. "What would your goddess think of that?" he asked, purely curious. 

Terra laughed. "What would the goddess of fertility think? You have seven children, Ruin. You're practically one of her chosen already."

Ruin swallowed. "Seven?" Not five? But then, it's not as if I didn't know it was possible... 

Terra broke into helpless laughter at the expression on his face. When she could breathe again, she said: "Seven. Or it will be seven, anyway." She paused, turned her head slightly to study him. "We could make it eight."

For a moment Ruin hesitated, but then he shook his head. "Not here," he said. "Not while I'm staying at the temple. It wouldn't... feel right."

Terra's expression went momentarily serious. "All right. I can respect that. But in that case, why do you keep fighting me? You've got a pretty good grip on your abilities, and a solid strategy for how to use them. Why keep getting yourself beaten up?" 

Ruin snorted. "You really want to know?" When she nodded, he continued: "Because... if I get it out of my system now, I'm..." He gestured vaguely. "...less likely to throw myself into an unsurvivable situation later."

"Oh." Terra studied him for a long moment, then said. "You good now? Or do you need one more?"

Ruin cracked his neck and rolled his shoulders. "Let's go one more. A small sacrifice for a bit of healing."

Terra smiled uncertainly. "You are very possibly the strangest person I've ever met, Ruin." Then she grinned. "Let's do this."

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Challenge: Recent Songs

(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 Recent Song I've Loved

I actually have two that are recent songs that I love. The first one is by Taylor Swift -- apparently I'm a Swifty? -- and it's called "Anti-Hero".

The second one is by Miley Cyrus, and it's called "Flowers". The video, um, may not be entirely work-appropriate; our girl Miley does like herself some skimpy outfits.

What songs have you been enjoying lately?

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Alliances Offered, Part Nine

Aesa slid an axeblade aside and stepped forward, cutting on the pass; the would-be raider collapsed behind her, losing axe and torch alike. The falchion should have been too big for her, but its enchantments made it responsive and easy to handle. To her right, Anica slapped a raider's hand with her shield, driving the woman's torch into her own hair; Anica stabbed her in the gut as her hair caught fire. Two more were closing in on her, but she had the situation well under control. Beyond her, Werendril was dancing through their attackers, leaving deep slashes as he passed. More raiders were moving towards him, too, but for the moment Aesa was... 

Oh. The man in front of her was big, broad-shouldered and heavy; he moved like a bull, and was carrying a two-handed axe. Oh, that has to be the leader... They were an oddly mixed bag, these raiders, but then based on what Lady Andiras had told them, this Thesean fellow had probably hired whatever ruffians he could find to create this distraction. 

The man smiled, showing the semi-tusks that indicated orcish ancestry, and shifted his grip on the axe. "Oh, little girl," he said, "I am going to rip you in half and you are going to thank me for it." 

Amun save me from overconfident men, she thought, and started forward. 

Whoever he was, he wasn't subtle. Aesa dodged back from a powerful horizontal swing of the axe, then came in behind it, calling on Amun for strength. The god's blessing flowed through her, and the curved blade of the falchion came down like a stroke of lightning, cleaving through rough armor, collarbone, ribs... It caught for a moment in his spine, and she followed through with a movement that Ruin had drilled into her until it was automatic: step forward, and then kick and yank the blade back at the same time. Her falchion came loose, and the body tumbled away onto the ground as she stepped back to catch her balance.

As the corpse hit the grass, a voice came into her head: Aesa, I need you back in the bedroom. Thesean brought friends, and Tarric needs healing. She focused on the magic there, and thought as loudly as she could manage: Coming. 

"Anica! Werendril! I'm falling back!" she called. 

"We've got this!" Werendril called back, spinning through a movement that brought his blade around like a scythe and dropping another raider.

Then the garden turned suddenly bright as day as lightning struck one of the raiders and leapt to the next and the next and... Those who didn't fall turned and fled. They didn't get far; a second bolt followed the first. 

Lady Emiliana Fontaine had arrived.

Aesa saluted her with her sword, then turned to race back to the bedroom.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Alliances Offered, Part Eight

It was only a couple of hours before the dawn when the hound began baying, before the sound was abruptly cut off. Jacqueline Bouvier snapped awake, and turned her head in time to see the human paladin Anica give her a nod and then start shaking her husband Tarric awake. She did it by grabbing his foot, which seemed odd until Jacqueline realized that doing it that way kept her out of reach of fists or daggers as he flailed his way into consciousness. 

Following her example, Jacqueline reached over and shook Aesa's foot. The half-elf priestess came awake immediately, reached for her armor, and started pulling it on. "Direction?" she asked, almost breathlessly. 

"North wall," said Anica, almost as quietly. 

Tarric groaned, rolled over, and started grabbing for bits of armor. Like Anica, he was a human paladin. Their husband, the true elf paladin Werendril, was already on his feet and slipping into his armor; he wore a suit of enchanted elvish chainmail, and was ready to go almost immediately. 

"It's a raid," Jacqueline said quietly. "Thesean won't be leading it; he'll use it for a distraction. Anica, Aesa, and Werendril, will you go and meet them, so they don't do too much damage? I need Tarric here."

Anica nodded. "We'll handle it. You're sure you can handle this Thesean?" 

Jacqueline nodded back. "With Tarric's help." She'd spent a full day watching them spar; Tarric wasn't the best, but he had a solid defense. Not as untouchable as Werendril's, but Jacqueline wasn't quite prepared to put that much trust in an elf just yet. 

Outside the window, someone screamed. It didn't sound like it was close by, but it was still a call to battle. 

Tarric took a moment to check the arrangement of the cushions on the bed that were supposed to be mistaken for Tavros, then stepped back into his corner, just beside the bed and opposite the door, on the same side of the room as Jacqueline. Jacqueline took her own place behind the door. Anica, Aesa, and Werendril rushed out, pulling the door closed behind them. As they departed, Jacqueline heard Anica mutter, "His Majesty will be safe here. Let him sleep. Protect the walls."

Several long, nervous breaths passed before the door eased open and a pair of cloaked, hooded, masked figures slipped into the room. They paused, eyeing the bed suspiciously, and then moved closer... 

One of them shook his head, leaned down, and shook the pile of cushions beneath the blanket. Tarric stepped out from behind the dressing screen and cut that one down with a two-handed blow of his longsword... then shuddered as a broad-shouldered figure appeared from nowhere behind him, and plunged a dagger into his back. He stumbled forward, hit the bed, and twisted around. 

Thesean. Despite her determination to end him, Jacqueline Bouvier targeted his remaining assistant instead. Searing Rays slammed into that one's back, and it spun around and charged her instead of climbing across the bed to flank Tarric.

Tarric got his sword up and laid a line of blood across the front of Thesean's thighs, then took a precise step back with his shield raised. Jacqueline lost track at that point, because Thesean's flanker had reached her, and was trying to stab her, and it took every bit of technique she could remember as well as the magical protections she'd laid on earlier to avoid being cut. 

That's more than enough. She touched the small crystal sphere in her pouch, spoke the words, and worked the necessary gestures into her dodges. A Freezing Sphere engulfed most of the room, just far enough away to catch her attacker but not her. The shrouded figure shuddered and collapsed; unfortunately, so did Tarric. Thesean turned to her... and then stopped and gaped. "My lady?"

"So not yours," she told him, and fired off another set of Searing Rays. 

He staggered, but didn't go down. "You... Your father..." He came at her then, dropping his dagger, hands extended to grab her. 

She met him with Shocking Grasp, and he gasped and collapsed. She stepped past his helpless form, picked up his dagger, and regarded it. She knew how to use such a weapon; any noble lady worth her bloodline did. She turned back to him, approached him, knelt down beside him. "You should have learned how to take 'No' for an answer," she told him, and delivered the coup de grâce

It was possibly the most satisfying thing she had ever said. Her father might never hear it, but this ridiculous servant of his had. She straightened... and then remembered Tarric, fallen on the far side of the True Heir's bed. 

He wasn't dead, at least, but he wasn't far from it. My fault. Sweet Helios, my fault. She had no spells for healing, no knowledge of how to bind his wounds. But she had readied Message, and she spoke it now. "Aesa, I need you back in the bedroom. Thesean brought friends, and Tarric needs healing."

The half-elf priestess responded with a single word: "Coming."

Friday, June 23, 2023

Dark Armor: First Meetings

"You're here early," whispered a woman's voice beside him, and it was only because he was actively focusing on remaining calm that Pallian didn't startle and drop his glass. He looked around cautiously, but didn't see anybody. 

So he whispered back, "So are you." The voice was unfamiliar, and though he thought he could feel someone standing just beside his left shoulder he wasn't entirely sure that he wasn't imagining that. "I thought the current fashion was to arrive late?"

"Ah," the voice whispered back. "Ordinarily it is, but when visiting the keep of a long-time enemy the fashion is to scout ahead before arriving officially."

"Understandable." Pallian lifted his glass and took a sip, to make it look less like he was muttering to himself. He was attracting enough attention just by being at Court and not being executed; he didn't need rumors of his madness spreading through the Obsidian Citadel. "Subtle, too," he added. "Very subtle."

It wasn't the High Magister; that woman was all business and would never have risked giving herself away. One of the princesses, then, and likely not the sturdy second-princess in the soldier's clothes; that left third-princess Ashmiren.

A soft laugh answered him. "I had thought to ask you about my future husband," she said. 

"Not here," he said quietly, pretending to take another sip of his drink. "Perhaps I could offer to give you a tour of the garden tomorrow."

"That might work. Very well, in fact." She paused. "All right, I'm going now. When we arrive in a few minutes, do try to look surprised."

Pallian pursed his lips to hide a smile. "Stay away from the bald man near the main doors," he suggested. "And keep your thoughts to yourself when you're around him."

"Oh." The princess sounded surprised. "All right. Thank you."

"My pleasure," he whispered back, and was surprised to find that there was no irony in the words at all.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

The Execution of Lamont, the Priest of Artem-hiss, and the Assault on Wellfort.

We head for the Teleportation Circle, retrieving one of Martini’s traps and disabling the other. There are four elite guards in the room. Marshall: “Dwarves, you’re up.”

Head dwarf: “So everybody else in building is dead. So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going t’pay each o’ ye 1,000 gold to walk away.” 

Guards: “Done.”

So we put the blood on the braziers and the teleporter opens up to what appears to be a small room in an isolated cabin. In the corner is the teleport circle, carefully etched on a raised platform between a pair of candelabra. There’s a table with 6,000 platinum and two chests. Martini checks for traps; neither are trapped… or locked. Marshall opens the first chest, and at that point we can hear creaking in the boards overhead; maybe two people. We don’t hear anybody in the next room over, though. The first chest contains piles of official papers, delicately prepared and suitably decorated. They appear to awards of land rights to the followers of Appollyons, who were driven out ages ago. This, presumably, is how Lamont has bought their loyalty. This is being presented as reparations, which is not entirely inaccurate historically. 

The second chest contains a shining orb that appears to be made of flowing liquid mercury in a crystal globe; whatever it is, it’s immensely powerful. There’s a folded note lying next to it. It’s from Almonda, Lamont’s minister of the Arcane. Apparently this was written from the dungeons of Janbridge. “Good news, lord! We have determined that this orb can not only control dragons, but also on their bastard spawn. It should guarantee your victory against the Pretender. I admit I am somewhat jealous.” 

Marshall immediately tucks it away. We take the land allotments, too. This is going to be a bit of a sticky issue. Martini checks the door for traps and finds nothing. Martini and Ruin sneak into the next room. There are two plates of food on the table and two chairs. Outside the windows, is… nothing. There are lights in the difference that might be stars, glowing clouds shifting through the void… Apparently the cottage is extradimensional, and they added windows to see it. 

Martini immediately sits down and starts eating. There’s wine on the table; it’s extremely high quality stuff. It’s probably from a winery in Springhollow. There’s also a cabinet with a little magical chamber for warming food, plus the usual run of eating utensils. We stroll upstairs; Martini is still carrying the chicken leg. 

One side of the bedroom is constructed with balconies looking out into space. There are two men standing there. One is Lamont, and the other looks like another Cardinal carrying a very large flail. 

Martini: “Hello Reynard.” 

Lamont: “Cathemar! Do your duty! Protect me!”

Cathemar looks from us to Lamont and back. Lamont is still holding the scepter. “So, you did it the hard way.”

Ruin: “Was that supposed to be hard?”

Cathemar: “The demon? The ice devil? Cardinal Cyrus?” 

Marshall pulls out Cyrus’ head. 

Martini: “Satisfied?”

Cathemar, to Lamont: “You know my order only respects strength. Yours has run out.”

Lamont: “So, I think this is all a big misunderstanding.” 

Ruin: “I have here a confession. We took it from your torture chamber. We’re going to need you to sign it. It outlines that every piece of land you took was stolen, that every bit of land and title that you awarded is invalid. After that, you’re going to lose at least one finger. If you don’t sign, it’ll be worse.”

Lamont: “Very well. Make it quick.” He drops to his knees. 

Martini… emasculates him. Forcibly. While he’s busy screaming and howling, Martini says: “This is what happens when you hurt my brother.”

We get him patched up and Ruin throws him over his shoulder. Cathemar wants to tell us the story of his people, and we reluctantly assent. Apparently his people were badly discriminated against, forcing them to emigrate. Eventually many of them settled on the island of Nameless, where they were claimed by Friar An’Drow. Unfortunately, their population has long outgrown the island. Lamont offered an exchange of ancestral lands in return for their military assistance. Would we be interested in the same deal?

Ruin: “Could you convince your people to stand aside while we finish our business with Lamont?” 

Cathemar: “I would have you take word to your king that we are not ruled by the devils; we rule them. I realize that an army of devils might not be your king’s preference…” He pauses. “But we do have Lady Dreadflail, who might be willing to try herself against the warbear queen.”

They have an avatar. Of Appollyon.

Of course they do. 

We leave with Cardinal Cathemar. We return to the castle, and Cardinal Cathemar departs to return to the island of Nameless and there prepare his people for a possible return. 

We teleport to Janbridge. There we are greeted by four guards who lower their halberds. “My king! Put him down!” 

Ruin: “Look, we already murdered everybody in the castle.” 

Martini: “I’m good. Who’s going to hold Lamont?” 

Ruin hands him over to the head dwarf, who promptly holds a knife to his throat. “Drop yer weapons or yer king dies.” 

There’s a sudden clatter of weapons hitting the floor. 

Dwarf: “See? Earning m’keep.”

We march Lamont outside despite the violent opposition of his Solari, who are now thoroughly murdered. We leave the pile of bodies in the square in front of the gate. We walk outside. 

Martini: “Dearly beloved, we have gathered you hear today to announce that we have freed you from the tyranny of the false king in the north. And now, we do the king’s justice and execute him.” Martini’s skill at diplomacy is absurd, and by the time she’s finished there’s a full on celebratory festival going on. There’s a full-on scaffold in the middle, and also a stake for burning witches. Marshall carried Lamont up onto his own statue, and Martini casually flings a dagger into his throat. His blood drains over his statue. 

Marshall then turns into a snake, and tosses the body up into the air and swallows it. 

The square goes silent. As Marshall flies around overhead, Martini launches into an impromptu, totally inaccurate speech on the glories of Artem-hiss. Marshall has serious notes to follow-up with Martini on, but he also has a couple of thousand new followers. 

Ruin looks down as a True Elf child tugs on his sleeve. “What do you turn into, mister?”

Ruin: “...”

We return to Caristhium, and Vigo comes running out. “You’re back! How’d it go? Did you get Lamont?” 

Marshall vomits up Lamont’s body, which lands on his very expensive bed which Marshall has also vomited back up. Vigo: “This is good! Were you quiet about it?” 

Ruin: “Very discreet.”

Vigo: “Excellent. Excellent.”

Meanwhile, Tavros and Geddy and Liera were packing up to go kill Giles Bouvier. The primary delay here is separating Leira and Sacha, who are in full kissy-face mode. 

Ezra Cardon returns (after his earlier hissy-fit) and consults with us. Kaz Drachma, Maodeus, and the Hierophant were all there before Bouvier took over. Kaz Drachma was their head researcher. 

When last we were at Welfort, we noted that there was a tunnel down at sea level, which comes up in the laboratory; so we come up that way, and we can collect any research, notes, and whatever that the dark army left behind. Ezra seems to have a serious interest in whatever information might be there. So he’s basically sending us to get information on the dark army, which means he’s really not giving us anything we wouldn’t have found anyway. That dude is definitely not going to end up as a state religion. 

We creep in through the tunnel; Geddy hears a flapping sound up ahead, like a bunch of birds flying around. Tavros creeps up the passage, surprisingly (to him) quietly. He now hears loud flapping charging down the corridor towards him. 

It’s not a flock of birds; it’s some sort of abomination made of hundreds of wings. It sweeps past Tavros, stops in the middle of us, and releases a horrid, heart-stopping shriek. Leira and Geddy immediately die, as does Eva. 

Tavros races past the thing, taking a hit for minor damage along the way. He scoops up Leira, and the thing moves right up next to him and wails again. Tavros ignores it, and takes a step over next to Geddy, and picks him up. The monster follows, and attacks with wings and tail, doing quite a bit of damage. Tavros takes another step and scoops up Eva as well. It moves after him and mauls him again. 

Tavros takes off down the beach. It follows, and it’s far faster than Tavros. As he’s running, Eva’s body tumbles loose from his shoulder. The beast falls on her immediately. 

Tavros comes up on the Renfall side of the world, and Tavros talks his way into the guards helping them. They lead him to Wendy’s Tavern. He pays her a silver to hide the bodies in a back room, and a half-silver for each of the guards. Wendy catches on to the fact that they’re dead, and Tavros pays her a whole gold piece. She wanders back off, muttering. 

Tavros sets off for the nearby Temple of Nepthys. Meanwhile, Cletus and five guards come with him. Tavros pays them off and collects a priest, then brings him back to Friendly Wendy’s House of Repute. He hands off the scroll, with the understanding that the man can’t brag about casting a ninth-level spell for at least three weeks. The man resurrects Leira, and Tavros makes his donation to the temple and has Leira teleport us back to the temple. We get Geddy resurrected and pick up a couple of more scrolls of resurrection. Then we load up with Death Ward and return to the beach. Eva has been east down to bone splinters. 

Leira throws up. 

Geddy, who has now added a level of cleric, uses one of the scrolls to resurrect Eva. We add an additional death ward for Eva, and get set to fight again. Geddy throws haste on us, and Tavros steps back into the tunnel. He’s trying to be quiet again, but he’s… not. 

The thing comes tearing around the corner again, stops in front of Tavros, and shrieks; but this time we don’t care. Leira hits it with a meteor swarm, but made of ice. (Leira has added a level of Archmage.) The thing’s spell resistance protects it from a lot of the damage, but she follows up with a pair of ice balls. Eva casts Displacement on Tavros. 

Tavros attacks but loses his grip and drops his sword; he dodges past the thing and gets over to his sword. The beast follows him again, and attacks; its primary wings miss, but the lesser wings and the tail all three hit. This is… painful. And the tail attack drains a bit of Charisma as well. 

Eva tries another Meteor Swarm, this time converted to acid. This time three of the meteors get past spell resistance, and hits the thing for a bunch of regular damage and some acid damage. Tavros is caught in the splash, but he approves of this approach; as long as he doesn’t die, he can be healed later – plus, he’s able to avoid the worst of the damage. She follows it up three Scorching Ray spells, but each with three rays of acid. Only three rays get through, but they do a decent amount of damage. 

Eva drops a fireball, and fails to get past the thing’s spell resistance. Geddy fires off a power chord from Lichenbacher’s Electric Lute. Tavros swings at it and misses, and it batters him again. He loses more charisma, on top of everything else, and he’s in pretty bad shape. 

Leira drops more acid meteors. Tavros again mostly avoids the worst of the splash damage, but Leira still does a lot of damage. Tavros is staggered and swaying, but not down. Leira follows up with more rays, and then magic missiles, and the thing goes down. 

We burn through some Cure Light Wound wand charges, and get Tavros back up to spec. We get Tavros restored, and purchase a bunch of Restoration scrolls while we’re at it. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Divine Alliances: Tavros' Proposal

In which His Majesty Tavros Fontaine proposes an idea that everybody hates...
(This is, once again, alternating between my writing and my DM's writing.)

It was just after lunch and the meeting room was full. Tavros sat at one end of the rectangular central table, with Vigo The Whisperer on his left and the Abbess Hilda on his right. Geddy and Eva were seated just beyond the Whisperer, while Martini and Ruin were seated to the right of the Abbess. Lady Jacqueline Bouvier, in her guise as Tabitha Andiras, was seated next to the priestess Aesa in the row of chairs that had been placed along the walls. Clovis Cloverfield, the Chief Religious of Order of the Golden Sun, had taken a seat about halfway down the table, with Sacha and Leira beside him. Marshall Mercy was sitting across from them, looking surprisingly natural in his new scales. Other seats were occupied by other notables, from the local lords and the guilds and the mages; there was a liaison from the Iron Company, and a Blood Sister who'd come on behalf of the Wildlanders. Even Rita was here, though she seated herself in the corner behind him, as unobtrusive as it was possible to be in a room this small.

Lady Terra Windblade had obligingly taken the seat opposite his own, smiling pleasantly and waiting with patient good humor. Tavros was honestly grateful for that; what he was about to say might not be well-received by much of anybody.

When the last of the stragglers had made their way in, and Werendril and Anica had pulled the doors closed, Tarric cleared his throat.

The room gradually fell silent, as the last few muttered observations and bits of conversation died away.

"It has been three days," Tavros acknowledged, and offered Terra Windblade a close-lipped smile. He didn't want to show fangs, after all. "To be honest, I almost wish I'd asked for more, but a decision must be made at some point. I will tell you honestly that I did not intend for Sol Povos to have a state religion under my rule, not even that of the Titan King."

The Avatar of Demeter tilted her head, but nodded.

"Your offer has led me to reconsider... somewhat. You mentioned the Elemental Temple as a possible site for a temple of Demeter, and that led me to some interesting thoughts. The Temple of the Elements, as most of you know, is not a single temple; it is a compound containing multiple temples... or it was, until the necromancer Durest Inglorian destroyed the other three and re-dedicated the site to Indra."

He swallowed. "Now we reach the part where I become unpopular, but I tell you plainly: I think that this is necessary for the good of Sol Povos. Simply put, I was wrong to think that I could refuse to have a state religion. Official or unofficial, deliberate or accidental, we will end up with one. So I propose to have such a thing, but to limit its influence; and I propose to do that by rebuilding the Temple of the Elements as the center of worship in Sol Povos... but rather than a single temple dedicated to a single god, it will once again be a place of multiple temples and multiple gods."

Across from him, the lady Windblade considered that, and Tavros studied her, looking for some response. "What gods?" she asked, sounding curious.

"My first loyalty is to Amun," Tavros said simply. "He must have a place there. But the followers of Helios must have a place as well; they cannot be granted the primacy they had before, but they must not be set aside, either. Lady Demeter must have a place as well, since she wishes it -- and she will, regardless of whether or not you agree to help us. A temple to Corellan Larethian will go a long ways towards smoothing things over with our elven citizens," --no matter what becomes of Duendewood-- "and I cannot ignore the powerful assistance given to us by the priesthood of Artemis."

Halfway down the table, Marshall Mercy made a silent correction: Artem-hiss. But he didn't interrupt, and Tavros offered him a slight nod of acknowledgement. "I propose that the Templum Omnium will become the center of official worship for Sol Povos, with myself and members of my court attending various High Holy Days at each of the temples, and the funding that previously went to Helios alone pided among them. Court appointments would be equally distributed, though with careful consideration of the inpidual candidates."

Halfway down the table, Cardinal Clovis Cloverfield lifted a hand. "And the Great Temple of Helios?" he asked. "Where you were returned to life?"

Tavros offered him a gentle smile. "It will remain intact, but the Order of the Golden Sun must be responsible for its upkeep and the court will no longer attend services there -- officially, at least. Inpidual believers may do as they will. Official visits will take place in the Templum Omnium."

Cardinal Cloverfield glanced at Sacha, who nodded slightly, then gave him a this is your call look. Clovis swallowed and said, "That is better than having worship of Helios overturned entirely, Your Majesty. I would say that this would be acceptable to the Order of the Golden Sun, subject to further discussion of the details."

Tavros paused, then turned back to the Avatar of Demeter. "Lady Windblade, I don't wish to back you into a corner." He tapped his nose twice with a fingertip and smiled wryly. "I've seen what comes of that. So if you have a counter-offer, I am more than willing to hear it. But unless you can offer a better way, this is my intention. Otherwise, it remains for you to decide if this is enough to merit your assistance, or if your efforts are better spent elsewhere. I will include a temple for Demeter in the Templum Omnium regardless."

* * *

Tavros stopped suddenly. In the darkened hallway ahead, a tall man in black robes was slumped against the wall. He looked injured, or maybe just weary. The man raised a hand and Tavros instinctively reached for his weapon. To his relief, the man was only holding a glass of wine. The man took a long, deep drink, lowered the glass, and sighed loudly. When he turned his head to the light, Tavros nearly fell over from shock.

“Vigo!?” Tavros exclaimed.

The man coughed, wiped his mouth hastily, and looked frantically for a place to stash his glass. Finding none, he gave Tavros a grim look, “My deepest apologies, your majesty. I have no excuse, I will go pour this out immediately.”

“What?, Oh, no, it’s, uh… it’s fine, Vigo. I just didn’t know you drank.”

Vigo sneered, “I think I started earlier today.”

Tavros furrowed his brow, “But, I thought you were in negotiations with the representatives of The Lady today.”

Vigo raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.

“That bad, huh?” Tavros gave him a sheepish look, “I suppose things haven’t gone quite as well as I hoped.”

“Bean counters,” Vigo said.


Vigo took another long drink, apparently intent on finishing his large glass of wine before the king rescinded his offer. He sighed again, staring into space, “Bean counters. They have literal… actual… bean counters.”

“Terra seems nice,” Tavros ventured.

“Ha! That’s a good one. No, my liege, she’s not the negotiator. After it became clear that you were taking the offer seriously, she sent word back to Mother Noori in Terra Povos, who promptly dispatched two of her top scholars to join us in talks. They showed up with a sack of special grain, which is more resistant to drought and disease. The gift greatly ingratiated them to the Abbess, who unlocked the door and let the two bastards in. The eights hours since have been some of the worst of my life.” He drained the rest of his glass and glared at it reproachfully.

“Hrm,” Tavros nodded, thinking. Then his face lit up, “Oh, I get it. Bean counters!”

Vigo nodded, “I’m not kidding. The intellectuals in the church spend their time cataloging the harvest – every bean, pepper, tomato, onion, or seed. I suppose the best of the best get promoted to high positions in the church, where they can bend their considerable talent for minutia to loftier pursuits. I’ve never seen such attention to detail. Every aspect is considered: How tall is each spire, how many square feet are the grounds, will the front door face east or west, which service will the king attend if it’s sunny, when it’s cloudy, and so on. Why, there’s no wiggle room at all, on anything! How am I to work if there’s no wiggle room!?”

Tavros wasn’t really sure what else to do, so he patted Vigo on the back. The man immediately stiffened, uncomfortable with such contact. Tavros backed up and tried to fill the silence, “Yes, well my fundamental terms remain quite simple: We split the commitment five ways, equally… why are you rolling your eyes at me?”

Vigo grimaced, “No, of course not, your majesty, I would never do that. A thousand pardons, please. I am quite tired, and shouldn’t have had this wine.”

Tavros planted his hands on his hips and gave Vigo a hard look, “Tell me. Tell me what you really think. I want to hear it.”

Vigo look at him skeptically for several moments, nodded, and sighed loudly, “Very well, if his majesty demands it. With all due respect, your terms are not going to work.”

“Why is that?”

“Because if you pide the table scraps five ways, you just end up with five hungry, snarling hounds. It’s enough to keep them coming back to the kitchens, but at that point you don’t want them there.”

“Snarling hounds?” Tavros was skeptical.

“Yes,” Vigo said emphatically, “Snarling hounds. And these hounds are going to eat, sooner or later. They’ll find something to consume, or they’ll eat each other, or they’ll turn on their master. But they’re going to eat something, one way or another.”

“So you believe I should keep fewer, but better-fed… hounds?”

Vigo wasn’t listening. Now he was ranting, “And for what? Almost nothing. Let’s take inventory: Temple of Helios, we get one avatar. Oh wait, nevermind, we already have him. Temple of Amun, we get nothing. Temple of Artemis, we get nothing. Temple of Demeter, we MAY get one avatar, although we’re offering far less than they asked for. And finally, the crème de la crème! A temple to Corellon Larethian, right SMACK in the middle of Solstar, where not only are there no longer any elves, but it will serve the dual purpose of inciting wrath in all the people who still live there. An empty building to serve as a crucible of rage to everyone who walks by, like a giant FUCK YOU on your morning stroll! That’ll heal the kingdom!”

Tavros looked down at the ground and kicked absentmindedly at the corner of an errant cobblestone, “There was another burning in the town square this evening.”

Vigo snapped out of his inebriation and regained his characteristic composure, “The same as the others?”

“Yes,” Tavros said quietly, “the likeness of Corellon Larethian, made of wicker, burned by anonymous protestors.” He looked up at Vigo, “How did this news spread so quickly?”

“You’re a king,” Vigo said simply, “people hang on your every word. When you make a proclamation, it spreads quickly. I have heard of similar protests throughout the kingdom.”

“So much hate,” Tavros shook his head.

“Don’t blame yourself, you’re not going to be able to undo 900 years of animosity.”

“I’m not going to turn a blind eye!”

“I’m not saying you should, but you have to be realistic. Healing the rift between elves and men will take generations. The best gift you can give your people is to lay a foundation upon which small amounts of trust can grow. If you try to force it, the peace will be a façade, and it will only last as long as you do.”

Tavros nodded his head. He hated to admit it, but Vigo was right. He had underestimated how deep the resentment ran. Since he’d made his declaration, everybody seemed to be on edge. There had even been fights in the temple dining hall, right under his nose.

“Okay, but do you have a counterproposal?” Tavros asked.

“Well, if you’re asking my opinion, your majesty…”

“Just spit it out, Vigo.”

“The cheapest option, of course, would be a single –“

“No. I’ve already told you, we will not have a single state religion,” Tavros declared firmly.

“Okay, okay,” Vigo waved his hands, “just making sure. In that case, I do not believe you can support any more than three.”


“Yes. I believe we could afford to double our investment in the church, but no more. Three religions on twice the budget means each is receiving approximately two thirds of the resources we used to send to the Order of the Golden Sun. That’s not enough to make your hounds fat and happy, but I believe it’s enough to bring them to heel. The additional funds I’m confident we could recover by raising taxes in a few territories – rebuilding from the war would be our excuse – and strategic re-working of the merchant charters. Of course, this would run off honest merchants and effectively cede more control of commerce to the Crime Lords, but on the balance, prices should remain stable…”

“That’s enough, Vigo, I get it.”

“And you have to actually GET something for these commitments, my liege.”

“You mean military help?”

“Of course. Our primary objective at the moment is to ensure that your ass actually sits on that throne.” A brief flash of embarrassment washed over Vigo’s face, and he looked at his empty wine glass, “My apologies, your majesty, I should not have spoken to you so.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Tavros waved him off and scratched his chin thoughtfully, “the problem, as I see it, is that we have more churches we want to ally with than we can support.”

Vigo cleared his throat, “If I may, your majesty?”

“Yes, speak, dammit!”

“Are you still intent on restoring this Mythrandril to his throne?”

Tavros’ mouth moved, but no words came out. He was, but he'd been very careful not to speak of it.

“Hrm,” Vigo said, his thoughts unreadable, “I thought so. Then I point out there is another kingdom that could bear part of this burden, one in an area much friendlier to elves and snakes. Perhaps it is time for you to finally hammer out your terms with Mythrandril.”

“You would have me give up entirely on a temple of Corellon Lorethian in Solstar?” Tavros was skeptical. Deep down, he knew that wasn’t the way.

“A simple correction, your majesty,” Vigo offered, “it was the people who misunderstood, not a fault of your own. You just need to clarify: You still intend to build a small temple in Solstar, but as part of some modest reparations, not as a state religion. It will be a small temple: Big enough to give the faithful a place to worship properly, but not so big as to stoke any historical anxieties.”

“And what about the others? If I can only support three, I must go back on my word for one other.”

“Back on your word?” Vigo looked genuinely scandalized, “Of course not, your majesty! You were merely making some suggestions -- examples as to the religions that might be allowed to take advantage of your grace; an easy misunderstanding. In implementation, you will, of course, take the ones that offer you the best deal.”

“To recap,” Tavros said, “I cannot support more than three state religions here in Solstar, and even that requires doubling our budget. If I insist on substantially supporting more than that, I should lean on Mythrandril to build temples in Duendewood. I should avoid building a big temple to Corellan Lorethian because it will just get burned down –“

“Too true.”

“- but I may be able to get away with a small one. And whatever I do, I should base my decisions not on faith or a deep-seated sense of right or wrong, but rather on who offers me the best deal.”

Vigo nodded like a proud father, “Yes, that is my counsel, your majesty.”

Tavros shook his head, “I hate the idea that it might be good counsel.”

“I speak only the truth, your majesty.”

“Very well, I will think on this.”

They stood in silence for a moment, Vigo leaning exhausted against the wall, and Tavros pondering his advice. If I choose three in Solstar, and ensure that the other two are treated similarly in Annon… then all five are covered, and nobody is unhappy… mostly.

A question popped into Tavros’ head, “Vigo?”

“Yes, your majesty?”

“Do you have a god?”

The question clearly surprised Vigo, and he looked troubled, “Not anymore, your majesty. The war robbed me of any such… inconvenience. When I go, there will be nothing but dust left behind.”

Tavros was sure he’d stumbled upon something deeper, but didn’t push it, or rather he didn’t have the opportunity.

“Tavros!” Aesa was practically running down the hallway.

“King Tavros,” Vigo corrected, emphasizing the first word.

“Yes,” Aesa panted, “King Tavros, there are some people at the gate, having quite an argument. I think you should come immediately, one of them is that storm priest, Ezra Cardon.”

“The other?” Vigo asked.

“A…” Aesa sized Tavros up, as if measuring the newcomer’s height against him, “A… dwarf? But the biggest one I’ve ever seen. He said his name is Verkander Stoneheart, and he claims to be the avatar of the Stone Cabal.”

Vigo let out a string of impressive profanities that made Aesa blush. Tavros realized it was time for him to exhibit real leadership.

“Vigo,” Tavros said, “Go to the dining hall. Find Marshall. And get drunk. That’s an order.”

“But, your majesty, what about the evil bean twins?”

“I’ll send Geddy in there to tell them stories. A few hours’ discussion about bunions ought to cool their enthusiasm, at least for tonight. As for me, I’ll greet this newcomer and try to defuse the argument. And pray to the titan king that he doesn’t want to spar.”

Vigo made to object, but Tavros cut him off, “Drunk, Vigo. Really, really drunk. That’s an order.”

The aging spymaster looked down at his glass wistfully, “Yes, your majesty. Perhaps that is… for the best, at least for tonight.” He gave a sharp bow and retreated down the hallway. Tavros turned and followed Aesa.

* * *

There was a great crowd gathered at the temple door when Tavros approached, and a man could be heard screaming in rage.

“You keep your bloody mitts off my king! I’ve been helping him for longer than any of you! And now I hear you’re whispering shit in his ears and making pacts behind my back. Oh, don’t I know that you - !”

Tavros could tell the man had turned to address a second person. When he pushed through the crowd, he saw it was Terra Windblade, crouched and poised with sword drawn. She was flanked by Werendril and Anica, who also had weapons drawn. The three of them formed a line across the entryway. It occurred to Tavros that he’d never seen Terra look tense before. Even in their fight, she had been very much at ease. Not good, he thought.

Terra turned her head, “Get back, T! It’s not safe!”

At this point Tavros could see over her and realized it was Ezra Cardon ranting outside the gate. He had just turned to address Terra, and was jabbing his finger vigorously in the air with every word.

“And YOU!” Cardon said accusingly, “You’re the worst of all! Some forest-faery floozy waltzing in here, taking advantage of the situation! Trying to slip into bed with the new monarchy like your fucking god-whore! Did you tell everybody about the Shame of Demeter!? Oh, that’s a fucking story!” He looked around the courtyard with some satisfaction; it was clear he had piqued the interest of the onlookers, and questions would be asked later, “Yeah! That’s right! And last I checked, the Storm God’s temple is the only one still standing in that shithole you all continue to call the capitol! So, all the rest of you are bunch of pathetic beggars at this point!”

“Last I checked, Indra’s temple is occupied by a fallen priest who no longer represents your order. And it’s overrun by the undead.”

The words were spoken in an incredibly low, tremulous voice, unlike anything Tavros had ever heard. He automatically took a step forward so he could see who had spoken, but nearly tripped when he saw the person. Gods, what is that? Aesa wasn’t kidding. It seemed to be a dwarf, but Tavros didn’t realize they could get this big. This one was almost as tall as him, with shoulders much broader. He had a weathered face, grey hair, and a huge, bushy beard, braided in two strands that reached down to his belt. He was standing with his arms cross and legs spread wide, with an enormous battleaxe strapped to his back. On his arm was a large shield that had so many dents and dings that it looked like it had been trampled by a stampede of dragons. The traditional, hemisphere-shaped helmet on his head looked similarly worn, and big enough to be used as a cooking pot. Tavros was filled with a feeling that this “dwarf” must have been through more fights than Tavros could ever, possibly imagine.

“That is an internal church affair!” Ezra Cardon marched fearlessly over to the dwarf, making clip-clop sounds in his ridiculous sandals. He only reached the dwarf’s chest, but that did not stop him from mercilessly unleashing his jabbing finger, punctuating each word with a poke in the chest, “A member of our flock has strayed, and I have come to set it right! It is none of your fucking business, you overgrown mutant! Climb back in the fucking hidey hole you came from and butt out!” He stopped poking, and a grin spread across his face, “Besides, not everything Durest has done is bad in the eyes of the church. It was about time someone leveled that sad little temple of yours.”

The dwarf, who Tavros by now had no doubt was Verkander Stoneheart, calmly drew his battleaxe and stared at Cardon, grinning up at him in his always-wet, tattered robes and floppy shoes. “You are a lunatic,” he said simply, “like your master.”

Terra cursed under her breath and braced herself for combat. Tavros was desperately wracking his brain trying to figure out how not to get the entre temple leveled by an avatar grudge match. Sometimes it was better to be lucky than good, because it turned out he did exactly the right thing – nothing.

Ezra finally noticed that Tavros had walked up, and strolled over, standing inches in front of Terra and her quivering blade. “Ah, your majesty! I have heard such terrible rumors. Thank goodness you are here to dispel them!”

“Ah, yes,” Tavros stammered, “you’re absolutely right, it would be best for us all to just sit down and clear up these misunderstandings over a tall pint of beer!” He tried to put on his best winning smile.

“Oh no!” Cardon replied, “there is no misunderstanding. It’s very simple, you need me, and I have been helping you before any of these shits showed up!” To his credit, he at least spared Tavros the jabbing finger. “You can’t put this kingdom back together with the Order of Secrets still at large, or did you forget that they were the ones who conquered Solstar? Perhaps in their absence you have forgotten the damage they caused, or the power they wield? Perhaps you were stupid enough to think that the likes of Duke Lamont and Giles Bouvier were your biggest enemies?” He spat on the ground, “Those people are fucking ants!”

Tavros patted the air with his hands, “Of course I haven’t forgotten that threat, or the aid you have provided, now if we could just all lower our weapons and have a nice, civil conversation…”

“No!” Cardon screamed like a child, “No, no, no, no! You tell me now, right here! Did you sell out MY temple to this bitch and a bunch of other gods? Or had you ALSO forgotten that the Storm God’s temple still stands! Were you going to tear it down with your own hands? While you are so conveniently forgetting things, I will inform you that I have been arduously pursuing OUR mutual goal, and I now possess the information necessary for you to find the Order of Secrets and end them! But if that is no longer your goal, if you have decided to occupy your time playing king with a bunch of mortal pawns and pretenders – if you have decided to declare WAR on Indra’s Stormchildren, then tell me now! Right here, in front of all these sycophantic bastards! I – was – here – FIRST!”

Cardon actually stamped his foot with the last word, and it would have been laughable if he didn’t have such a damn good point. Tavros had somehow overlooked the fact that the build site he’d proposed for five new temples was not entirely vacant. He looked at Verkander Stoneheart, the avatar of Belrab, with his sleepy brow hiding sharp, all-seeing eyes. That man is not pleased with me, either. And why would he be? I sold his temple as well, even if it’s currently in ruins… Shit.

Verkander crossed his arms again, stretching his shoulders and resting his weight back on his heels. As he stretched, the buckles and leather straps on his armor creaked and groaned. It was like the sound a well-built house made when creaking under the weight of a great storm. Somehow, the analogy fit the situation. He waited patiently for Tavros’ answer. Dammit, Vigo, you little shit. Why did you have to be right about this?

“Ah, yes,” Tavros began, as majestically as he could manage, “it seems some clarification is in order. I had, uh… merely proposed some various churches that might like to discuss terms with the crown… as, an example. Surely you can understand, my subjects sometimes get confused. The art of statecraft is quite complex, it is easy for them to make mistakes. I can assure you that no deals have been made.” Tavros attempted a condescending smile, because that seemed like what a king might do.

Ezra Cardon narrowed his eyes, “That better be true, Tavros. Remember: You NEED me. Don’t fuck this up!” In Cardon’s mind, this seemed to be the end of the conversation, and he began stomping off.

“Cardon!” Tavros called out, “Uh, your eminence? Surely you will stay for a drink?”

Cardon didn’t even turn back. He waved an arm in the air and continued his petulant retreat.

The house-creaking sound caught Tavros’ attention and he turned his eyes to Verkander Stoneheart, who had sheathed his battleaxe, but was taking slow steps toward Terra and Tavros. He stopped directly in front. There was a long silence, and everybody in the courtyard seemed to be holding their breath. Finally, the mountainous dwarf spoke, “I will take beer.”

Tavros waited to see if there was any more, but apparently those were the only four words Verkander intended to say, so he tried to invite the man in as graciously as he could, “Excellent, we would be honored to host you. This way…”

Terra relaxed and sheathed her sword. Tavros could feel a palpable chill come off her.

“Terra, will you be joining us?” Tavros offered, hopefully.

“Unfortunately, no, your majesty,” Terra replied formally, “This experience has been quite trying and I’m afraid I must retire to my quarters and collect myself. Please excuse me.”

That’s just great, Tavros thought to himself as she retreated. Meanwhile, Verkander had begun his slow, deliberate pacing down the hall, by all appearances feeling quite satisfied with the invitation for beer. Tavros looked at him, filling up the entire hallway, with people impatiently piling up behind him. He grabbed a nearby servant and whispered, “Bring another keg up from the cellar. No, actually bring several. Quickly!” The servant scampered off, and Tavros swallowed hard. Another day turning out VERY differently than I expected…

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Alliances Offered, Part Seven

"Here," said the priestess Aesa, and turned to step out through a stone archway and onto a balcony on the western wall of the citadel that was the Temple of Amun. Tavros, as promised, was standing beside the stone rail, watching the sun set. Orange-red light silhouetted his figure, and he didn't appear to have noticed their arrival. 

It was perfect. She'd asked Aesa to arrange for them to meet privately, but to make it look like an accident; the word that had gone around the temple suggested that she was a noble-born refugee from Wellfort, so if she was seen to offer counsel to the Fontaine Heir it would attract unwelcome attention. A chance meeting, though, would be easy enough to dismiss, and if anyone thought it was deliberate they were more likely to think she was courting him than anything else. A noble daughter seeking the attention of a prince was hardly noteworthy, after all.

"I'll wait," said Aesa, and stepped to the side, leaning back against the stone wall beside the doorway.

"Thank you," said Jacqueline Bouvier. 

She crossed the ledge slowly, coming up beside Tavros and pausing for a long moment to look out at the sunset. No wonder he likes this place. The view was amazing. 

He glanced over at her after a moment, then turned his attention back to the view. "Lady Andiras."

"Your Majesty." 

"Sister Tiva tells me you've been helping her with her accounts," he said. "She says you have a good eye for detail."

"I needed something to occupy my time," Jacqueline said, honestly, "and it pleases me to be able to assist the ones who took me in." She placed just a little emphasis on the word assist, and Tavros glanced at her. 


"It seems that Giles Bouvier received your package," she said quietly. "He was much displeased, and one of his lieutenants has taken it upon himself to dispatch you. The pretender-king Bouvier was pleased by this offer; he promised my lady's hand in marriage if the man succeeded."

"I take it your lady objects to such a match?" asked Tavros, his voice wry.

"Strenuously." Jacqueline shifted her weight and met his eyes for moment. "His name is Thesean."

Tavros nodded. "How dangerous is he?"

"With the advantage of surprise, very dangerous." She tilted her head, still meeting His Majesty's eyes. "With me to identify him and express my lady's displeasure with him, not so much. He'll likely seek you at your mother's estate; Vigo has done a good job of shifting public attention there, and Thesean is cunning but not especially bright. I'd give even odds on whether he attempts an infiltration, or whether he simply brings help and stages a raid."

"I see," said Tavros, and took a moment to look at the sunset, which was rapidly disappearing. 

"Your Majesty," she said, "this is important to me."

"Eh? Oh, I wasn't going to cut you out. I was just thinking about how to arrange it so that you can get your piece of him without giving away the larger game."

Jacqueline Bouvier felt her shoulders relax. "The easiest way is to do what you already intend," she said. "Execute my father while Thesean makes his way here. Let me deal with him when he arrives."

"If he stages a raid, you'll need others with you," Tavros observed. "Otherwise, you might be overwhelmed, even with my mother on the premises."

Jacqueline nodded slowly. She'd never gone into battle before; he had. He was probably right. "Anica, Aesa, Tarric, and Werendril," she suggested. "Your friends."

Tavros nodded slowly. "Those are... good choices. And it wouldn't seem especially strange for them to visit my estate." He nodded again, this time more firmly. "Very well. I'll make the arrangements. And lady Andiras? I'm grateful. Even if you're doing this for your own reasons, I'm grateful."

Monday, June 19, 2023

Alliances Offered, Part Six

Alone in her small, comfortable cell, Jacqueline Bouvier -- who was pretending to be her own lady Tabitha Andiras -- touched the stone she had carried to Caristhium, and attempted to contact lady Tabitha Andiras, who was pretending to be her. Any news?

There was a brief pause, and then: Your father knows his assassins failed. Furious. Demands someone rid him of upstart. Thesean swears to kill Fontaine, will leave tonight. Father promised your hand.

Jacqueline nodded and sat back on the edge of the bed. She knew another attempt would be coming, especially once she'd learned that Tavros had sent the Solari Sorceress Reina's head back to her father in a box. Her father would demand blood in return, and if he couldn't have that then he would take it out on everyone around him. 

So it was no wonder at all that Thesean had offered to undertake the task, especially if her father was willing to offer her hand in marriage if he succeeded. The Solari was as ambitious as her father, just not so well positioned. Marrying her would put him in place to challenge her younger brother Charles for the role of Heir-Apparent... and departing the court at Wellfort to slay the Fontaine Heir would carry him out of reach of her father's current spite. Charles would have no such cover. And Thesean had wanted her for his own for years; her disdain for him only seemed to encourage him. Coming here himself would be a risk, yes, but one he couldn't resist.

So she needed to inform Tavros -- to tell His Majesty that an assassination attempt was coming -- but almost equally importantly, she need to position herself to spoil the attempt. It wasn't even a matter of continuing their plan or assisting the rightful king to gain his trust. No, this was Thesean, and Jacqueline Bouvier fully intended to kill him herself -- and for herself.

Friday, June 16, 2023

Dark Armor: Thoughts of Escape

If I could just leave... 

That was the thought that had haunted Pallian for the last three years. The crypt had been isolated, and even with supplies and some sort of mount, he would never have made it far enough to escape his father. He would either have wound up dead, or he would have been reclaimed and then lectured to at length, possibly while trapped in the Tomb of the Living. That had always been something he wanted to avoid, and now that he'd spent some time in the Tomb he wanted to avoid it even more. 

But the Obsidian Citadel was nestled deep in the heart of the Imperial City, and if he could use his newly-attained Smoke initiation to escape, he could possibly find food and transport there, and be gone long before his father realized. Having the Royalty of Edrias present would hamper his father's ability to launch any sort of search, too. 

This might turn out to be his best opportunity, but it couldn't be tonight. If he didn't arrive for the dinner, the Wizard-King would call out everyone to look for him, with no regard for how this might look to the Royalty of Edrias, and either have him dragged back for execution or executed the moment he was found. If he could somehow get back to the armor, he could at least put up a fight; but even in the armor he wasn't strong enough to defeat his father. And defeating his father wasn't the point, anyway. Not like that.

No, what he needed to prove to his father -- and to himself -- was that he wasn't a tool, wasn't a toy, wasn't one of his father's possessions. He wanted to become someone that his father couldn't touch, and more than anything else he wished to never have to think about the Wizard-King of Teregor ever again.

Such were his thoughts as he stepped into the banquet hall, and he must have been thinking them far too loudly; for Counselor Barias turned away from a well-dressed servant with a silver tray. The Counselor was smooth-skinned and utterly hairless, dressed in robes of an elegant dark purple which contrasted sharply with the polished bronze skull-cap and chain-belt he had chosen for this evening. He caught Pallian's eye by gesturing towards him with his wine-glass, and Pallian slowed. 

Quiet, Prince, came the voice in Pallian's head. You should not think such thoughts. They are unbecoming, and show your lack of proper filial piety.

Pallian took a quick step closer, so that he could reply without raising his voice. "I lack nothing of the sort. My actions and my service clearly demonstrate the respect and loyalty I hold for my father, and thoughts are merely thoughts."

Counselor  Barias nodded, but the voice in Pallian's head said: To the contrary, Prince, thoughts are far more than that. Thoughts are everything. And you must learn to guard yours better.

Pallian, who had spent his entire life training himself to do exactly that, forced his shoulders to relax and his jaw to unclench and his thoughts to settle into a wordless blankness. He nodded back, and turned away. 

I'm not angry, he thought, and then repeated it to himself until the anger was safely sealed away again. He couldn't afford to be angry, not here. More than that, though, he thought -- as he had several times over the years -- that Counselor Barias meant him well. If Barias could hear his thoughts three strides away, then his father -- always and ever alert for any sign of disloyalty -- might read them from his movements, his gestures, his expressions. 

And that would be a disaster. 

So he straightened, looked around, smiled politely across the room at the Counselor, and went to find a drink of his own while he awaited the arrival of the House of Edrias. Being exiled to the crypt, however honorably, had given him too much room to lower his guard; he needed sharpen those old defensive habits again.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Good!Party: Demonic Carnage

We are currently standing in the throne room that Duke Lamont has claimed in his attempt to become the king in the North. There’s an alarm going off at the doors to the rest of the keep, but Martini kills it. We emerge silent behind a pair of liveried servants. Ruin and Mercy assassinate them, then drag the bodies back through the curtains. Marshall just waits in silence. 

We decide to turn right and head for the barracks. Martini and Ruin sneak over to the baracks door, checks it for traps and locks; it has neither. Martini listens at the door, and hears four voices inside. Martini applies Improved Invisibility to us, which doesn’t work out in the hall; we open the door and stroll silently in, where the magic immediately takes effect and they don’ t even notice us. “You see that? The door just blew open.”

Martini takes a minute to study one of them, while Ruin positions himself nearby. Martini takes one out silently, then perforates another. Ruin is standing there with sword upraised, prepared to end whoever survives, and promptly does. They stroll over to the sleeping man, and Martini attempts to assassinate him but fails, so she just lays into him like a Nazghul attacking a pillowcase. 

We make a quick search of chests and footloockers, which have no traps and very poor locks; we clear out about 20,000 GP of stuff. The weapon racks have their extra weapons, some magical; our total goes up to about 82,000. There is a little closet with a pretty decent lock; it isn’t trapped. Martini opens it, and inside is a teleporter, probably leading to somewhere outside. Some sort of escape hatch, probably. 

We decide against trapping the barracks door, and head back to collect Marshall. 

We alert Marshall and head the other way, and find another door that’s… maybe a guest quarter? We can hear dwarvish voices inside. We block the door closed and move on. There’s another at the end of the passage; this one is locked. Martini goes ahead and opens it, and Ruin puts the keyring away again. Martini motions for Ruin to go first. There’s a bit of light coming from under of the doors ahead. Ruin hears some guards talking through one of the doors. 

There’s a door on the right, barred, which leads into some sort of prison. Through the left door, we hear Ricburt, Silvo, and Rudy. “Get your lazy ass up, you gotta feed them sons of bitches.” One of them goes and throws a pan of something. “Go ahead and lick it up off the floor, you dirty elf.”

Martini and Ruin exchange a glance. Murder? Murder. Martini slips the lock and we move into the prison. Marshall moves partway down the hall. Apparently Ricburt is the one in charge. Silvo is also clearly drunk. Rudy is dealing cards, either some kind of solitaire of just as something to do. 

Martini slips this lock too and walks into the room invisibly. Ruin sashays in behind her. Ricburt comes over and starts giving Silvo shit about forgetting to lock the door. She assassinates Ricburt, murders Silvo, and then throws her dagger at Rudy, who also promptly dies. Ruin just watches appreciatively. 

Ruin takes another key ring off Ricburt, and we start unlocking doors. Behind Martini’s first door there’s an elderly elven woman, who’s been badly used. She looks a little familiar. Martini calls for Marshall. The woman has been tortured, and as far as Ruin’s concerned the competition is over. 

The woman is Mylathera Antithian – Amaranth’s mother. She tries the next cell, and it’s… Joseph R. Pious, paladin and general of the Elvish forces; he is naked and scarred and his manhood has been removed. “Beauregard, Why? Why did you do this to me?”

Marshall walks over to him. “Howdy, Joe. How’re you doing?” There’s something ominous in his tone. Marshall, apparently, consider Joe a competitor for the faith of the elves. 

Martini’s little brother is in the last cell. He’s been whipped, but not mutilated. “Fartathren! You saved me!”

Martini: “Ruin? I found my brother.” 

Ruin walks over. “Well, if we weren’t going to murder Lamont before, we definitely are now.”

We lie shamelessly to the child, explaining that Azrael married a demon chick and went to settle on an otherworldly farm. Apparently they were questioning him fairly gently by their standard; they were keeping him to as bait for Martini. 

This is not going to end well for them.We’ve found Lamont’s cache of high-value prisoners. Grand elder Daealla. She is very pleased to see us. Martini sends her down to the others. She’s putting on a brave face, but she’s the least-tortured prisoner, the one with the nicest clothes, a mattress, food… she’s was obviously cooperating with her captors. 

Martini asks her what they questioned her about. “Nothing.” Martini: “What did they ask you about?” “Nothing.” Martini pulls out her daggers. “That was two.”

Daealla finally catches on and drops to her knees. “They tortured me! Look! They took my fingertips!” 

Martini: “So what did you tell them?” 

Daealla: “I made a deal. I’d be Lamont’s puppet, and they wouldn’t hurt me.”

Martini slits her thoat. Then she memory-wipes her brother. We go open the last cell; Grand Elder Nelaeryn. “Martini! Martini! They gave me papers, and I signed them.” She has been beaten black and blue, and might actually be dying. The papers were mostly for land rights. 

We now have Baby Joe, Foot Joe, Nelaeryn, and Mylathera. We could reunite her with Mythrandril at some point. 

Marshall blows Regeneration to get Mylathera functional again, and we send the two women on their way with young Joe. Foot Joe, on the other hand, comes with us since he’s a paladin and also because he can absorb damage from Martini. 

We cross back to the metal door and Martini opens it. We have found the torture chamber. Martini checks the door to the chamber proper, and in we go. 

The room is foul. There have been efforts to clean it, but… not very well. A lifeless elven body is strapped to the chair; it’s another of the grand elders, the one we rescued from Welfort a while back. We drop her in the bag; we’ll bring her back later. There are pre-written confessions, some already signed, many conceding hereditary rights and lands to Lamont. 

Ruin swipes a blank confession and puts it in his pouch. We move on, a pair of portcullises, each with two guards on the other side. Apparently they can pull a chain and collapse the ceiling. We are… unimpressed. We point out that the collapse is very likely to kill them too. 

After a bit of back-and-forth, they yank on the chains and an alarm goes off. 

Martini turns invisible and walks onto the ceiling cackling; Marshall uses Stone Shape to close off the hall behind us. Ruin tries to see if he can Dimension Door past the bars, but transport magics are still blocked. Martini takes her bow out and murders one of the guards; the other one starts cranking on the winch and then tries to run past us; he finds Marshall’s new wall and stops. 

We leave the other two guards in their room, and go into the first room and open the ice door. The door was made of Mythril but permanently covered in ice. The magic key, however, causes the front to move back and not damage us. 

Beyond it is a portal, and the biggest ice devil we’ve ever see strolls out. “What now, Cylus? Need you more of my blood already?”

Ruin and Martini consider bluffing, but Marshall immediately starts casting Firestorm. 

First, though, Martini looks around the corner. “I was just wondering… would you like to sell us some of your blood?”

He’s willing to, in exchange for Cylas’ body and us dispelling the damned portal. Unfortunately, Marshall bumbles the Greater Dispel Magic. The devil gets impatient and attacks. 

Martini moves first, though, and stabs him. 

Devil: “I am Rebelgar, Baron of Baator! How dare you attack me?” He replies with a quickened cone of cold. Martini avoids it reflexively, and Marshall avoids the worst of it. He follows it up with a quickened Ice Storm. Ruin’s spell resistance allows him to ignore it, but the other two take damage. Joe R. Pious: “Oh, it hurts! It hurts!”

Despite the ice storm, we can hear dwarves smashing through our stone wall out in the corridor. 

Inside, Marshall drops Firestorm. He gets past its spell resistance, but the thing is immune to fire. He drops quickened Divine Favor and a quickened Spell Immunity to make himself immune to Cone of Cold. 

Martini buries a dagger in the devil’s eye and it… dies. Ruin lunges forward and catches the vial of blood on the way down. Marshall adds Righteous Might and dispels the Slow effect from Ruin. 

The dwarves bust through the wall, and Marshall steps out into the hallway. “Y’all want to change sides?” 

The dwarves exchange speculative glances. “Do we get to keep the money Lamont gave us?” 

Us: “Of course!”

Them: “And you’re paying us? How much?” 

Marshall: “How much did Lamont pay you?” 

Them: “Fifty Thousand apiece.” 

We come out to find that Marshall has ridiculously overpaid for the services of what appears to be a fairly powerful group of dwarven mercenaries. 

Ruin: “Gentlemen, the portcullis if you please.”

The two guards look at us. 

One of the dwarves says, “You should. We’re the only cavalry left.”

They open the portcullis. The one guard ran off to try to get help, but Martini put a dagger in the back of his skull; these two just walk away quietly, discussing job opportunities they’ve heard from the town cryer. We move through the fire door, and into the fire room… with a pit fiend. 

“I will have your eternal soul for this, Cylas!” 

Martini holds up Cylas’ head. “Oh, really?” 

Ruin tries to get him to trade for some of his blood, but he really wants to go on a vengeful killing spree here in the mortal realm. So, the Fiend opens with a quickened fireball, which fails to affect Martini and Ruin, but catches the dwarves; one of them, and Marshall, duck away from the worst of it. He then tries Mass Hold Monster. Three of the dwarves are held. The Pit Fiend remains flying over his circle of lava. 

The dwarf charges, getting hit with a claw on the way in, and hits the pit fiend. Marshall moves in and hits him. Ruin charges in but stops at the last minute, and coats his blade with Silversheen. The dwarf attacks. One of the other dwarves tears loose of the Hold effect. 

Marshall wallops the demon again. 

The demon drops a meteor shower on Marshall and Ruin, and gets past Ruin’s spell resistance. Marshall takes the full damage, but he has some temporary hit points and is still in decent shape. Ruin takes less damage and also is fire resistant, so he’s basically okay.

Martini tumbles past the Pit Fiend on the ceiling and stabs the back of the fiend’s head. Martini: “You know, guys, it would be really nice if I didn’t have to do all the work myself.” 

Then Ruin steps in and attacks. He hits, but his weapon is only silvered, not Good; he doesn’t get much past the fiend’s damage resistance. The beast Power attacks Martini, hitting three times: two wings and a bite. Joe R. Pious is still taking damage for Martini, and thus screaming out in the hallway. The bite fails to poison her, or give her a disease. The thing then drops a quickened fireball. 

The other two dwarves break free, and the one that broke free last round charges in, taking a claw attack on the way in. Marshall aligns his weapon and Ruin’s, and Heals himself. Martini attacks, flanking and also annoyed. She hits three times and does a ton of damage, relatively speaking, most of it from Sneak Attack. Ruin, now suitably imbued, attacks and does a decent amount of damage. The Pit Fiend is still attacking Martini, hitting with two claws, bite, and tail – and the bite will try to poison her and inflict a disease. Martini has spent a considerable amount of time building up an immunity to iocane powder, so she isn’t poisoned; she is, however, afflicted with a disease. Joe R. Pious has stopped making noise in the next room; he’s dead. 

The Fiend adds another quickened fireball, and does a little damage to Marshall and the dwarves. The last two dwarves charge in, taking claw attacks on the way. Marshall attacks with his scythe, hitting once. 

Martini begins her assassination attempt. 

The pit fiend dies. 

Ruin gapes. “Fucking really!?”

We take some Pit Fiend blood.