Monday, July 31, 2023

Alliances Offered, Part Fifteen

They were outside the manor when Aesa said, "So... you and Tavros?"

Jacqueline snapped back to attention. Aesa was Tavros' friend, and her opinion was important. "I don't know. I hope so. Maybe I'll just embarrass myself." She paused. "I could live with that, I think. It's not too late to go into hiding, after all."

Aesa laughed. "I don't think it'll come to that," she said easily. "I think that just by doing what you're doing -- being here, and helping as best you can -- you've shown your quality. I mean, maybe you're just earning our trust so you can betray us later. Vigo could do that, I think." She glanced at Jacqueline, sidelong. "Most people couldn't, though, and I don't think you are."

Jacqueline considered. "I don't think I could," she said after a moment, "but in any case I'm definitely not. You have no idea how much better I like it here." She shook her head, because actually shuddering was unbecoming for a lady of noble birth. "All of you can just... help each other out. Be nice to each other. Say what you mean and expect to be understood. Honestly, the foremost disadvantage to making an offer of marriage to Tavros is that I'll end up having to deal with the court again."

Aesa was silent for a long, thoughtful moment. Then she said, "He'll need someone to help him with that, though." She paused, still thinking. "And the court under Tavros may be somewhat different from what you remember."

"I hold to the hope," Jacqueline said fervently.  

"Well," said Aesa, "for whatever it's worth: I won't advise him against it, either. Marrying you, I mean."

Jacqueline hesitated, but she would never have a better time to ask and she wanted to know. "What was it like for you and Vendril?"

"Strange," Aesa said immediately. "I wouldn't call it a proper courtship. I was already raising a daughter, and her father had finally returned, but this presence kept showing up out of nowhere to talk to me and ask me questions. We'd heard of the Silver Fox even out here; he was a legend. He was a ghost. I still don't know what he saw in me, and when I ask he says it was just me. But eventually he asked if he could meet my daughter, and I told him he'd have to take off his mask for that... and he did, and Rose seemed to like him. It was a while after that before he asked if he could kiss me, and by then I was... comfortable, having him around. He kept doing little things for me: collecting Rose from the nursery, leaving small gifts, interceding to make sure that Anica and I didn't end up in a death battle with a bunch of elven bandits in the hills. He was there, and... concerned? ...when Ruin couldn't be. And he needed my support, too. He'd lost most of his companions, and finally been driven out of the city where he'd chosen to make his stand. I don't think he entirely knows who he is if he doesn't have somebody to protect. It was... I don't know. We just fit."

"And Ruin?" asked Jacqueline. "Don't answer if it's an indelicate question. It's just that Tavros seems to have a surprising number of elves around him, and Ruin and Martini are the closest to his concerns. Is Ruin... Is Ruin a problem?"

Aesa offered a reassuring smile, though there was a hint of sadness there as well. "Ruin is Ruin," she said. "I don't know how to describe it any better than that, and that won't make any sense if you don't know Ruin. He's... he's loyal, but also a little self-destructive and a lot angry. I don't think I can properly explain how we ended up having a child together -- it was a very fraught couple of days -- but he didn't deceive me or take advantage of me. If anything, he was trying to help me and things just..." She gestured. "...got out of hand."

"Vendril seems like someone I could trust," Jacqueline observed carefully. "You're saying Ruin might be too."

"You can trust him," Aesa said. "Honestly, I'd be more worried about Martini. But given what the kingdom is facing, Tavros needs someone murderous and scheming on his side too." 

Jacqueline nodded as she digested that. "Then I should trust Tavros' friends the way he trusts his friends."

Aesa shrugged. "Caution is never a bad idea," she said, "but ultimately I think... yes."

Friday, July 28, 2023

Dark Armor: Inquiries and Impressions

So what do you think of my fiancée? 

Pallian had shut his brother down when he'd tried to ask that question at dinner, but back in his room -- and finally alone -- he found himself struggling with it. What did he think of her? And was her oldest sister, to whom his own troth was theoretically pledged, anything like her? 

How serious was any of this? Was his father planning some sort of betrayal? Was the High Magister? How much of a disaster would it be if they went through with it? How much of a disaster if he disappeared from Teregor at the first viable opportunity?

The servants had brought water for a bath, at least. That much had been a welcome relief, and Pallian had sunk himself as far down as he could manage in the hot water. He was clean already, or near enough, but simply soaking in the warmth had been a welcome relief after the dinner had finally ended. And his father must not have been terribly displeased; at least, when Pallian had proferred his farewells, the Wizard-King had dismissed him with nothing more than an absent nod. 

He was utterly exhausted. So why was he lying here in his old bed -- softer than he remembered -- tossing and turning and asking himself difficult questions? He would need the sleep he was missing. He would need to be alert to survive his father's attention, let alone to navigate the rest of the court. 

How would he answer Ravaj?

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Divine Alliances: Consequences for Ruin

(We're catching up a bit here, as all of this would have happened before Martini took Ruin and Marshall to kill Duke Lamont, and Tavros, Leira, Geddy, and Ava went to execute Bouvier. Still, this is relevant and hopefully anybody who's following along can keep the timeline sorted out for themselves.)

Ruin took a moment to look carefully up and down the corridor, but nobody else was nearby. He lifted a hand and knocked gently on the wooden door. "Terra?"

The Avatar yanked the door open so quickly that Ruin wondered if she'd been waiting behind it. She reached out, grabbed the top edge of his breastplate, and pulled him into the room, slamming the door gently -- by her standards -- behind her. "Ruin," she acknowledged.

He looked at her, looked at the simple travel bag on her bed, half-packed, and then at the open doors of the wooden wardrobe. "What...?" he asked with a puzzled frown.

"I think it's time for me to leave," she told him. "Your friend the would-be king -- probably will-be king, even without my help -- is too easily influenced. If he won't hold to his bargain, then there's no point to my being here."

Ruin shrugged. "I just came to see if you wanted another bout."

She stopped, studied him. "You did, didn't you?"

He nodded. "Will you tell me what happened?"

"Another Avatar showed up, and a representative from Indra -- Ezra somebody-or-other. I couldn't tell if he was an avatar or the head of the Order of the Mischievous Winds, but he was arrogant enough for either. Your king gave way to them immediately. He told them, right in front of me, that he wouldn't be converting the Temple of the Elements to a temple for Demeter." She stopped, studying his face. "So I'm leaving."

Ruin hadn't come prepared for any of this. Politics wasn't his business; he had children to raise and a once-nameless god to murder. But Tavros... he took a deep breath, let it out slowly, then took another. Finally he said, "May I venture to give you some advice?"

Terra held up a hand. Ruin had never been good at reading people, but he could see her anger warring with a fundamental desire to help. The expression was uncomfortably familiar.

He looked away, waited.

Finally she said, "Very well. What would you advise?"

Ruin sighed. "Tavros has this problem where he listens to people and actually wants to help them. It's a difficulty for him. And in this case, I think you may actually have contributed to the difficulty."

"Oh?" Terra Windblade tilted her head and narrowed her eyes, and Ruin resisted the urge to step back... or remove himself to somewhere else entirely.

"As I heard it," he said carefully, "you yourself suggested the Temple of the Elements as a site for the new Temple of Demeter. It is, after all, mostly demolished, and the one deity whose temple remains there intact is one we have no particular reason to trust. And Tavros may be a paladin, but he's not an Avatar. It probably didn't occur to him that the gods whose temples had been there would object to having them replaced with temples to other gods entirely. He likely thought they'd write them off as having already been destroyed by Indra, and direct their wrath at the Blue Devil. If Indra's temple was destroyed in turn -- which seems like something we might have to do -- then the slate would be clean and Tavros could build his Temple of All there."

He paused, but Terra studied him for another long moment and then said, "Go on."

"I don't pretend to understand the ways of the gods," or want anything to do with them, really, "but it should hardly surprise you that if Indra and... is it Belrab? ...arrive at once, Tavros would consider their objections to that course of action reasonable. That doesn't mean he won't keep faith with you, it just means that whatever he commits to won't be on the site of the Temple of the Elements. The Covenant of Amun will still become the official religion of Sol Povos--"

Terra narrowed her eyes, suddenly thoughtful. "Just the Three?"

Ruin lifted his hands, uncertain. "Based on a conversation I had earlier today, I believe so. I make no promises, O my favorite opponent."

"Then what of the proposed temples for Corellon and Artemis?"

"Moved north to Duendewood, to be supported by the elvish king Mythrandril once Duke Lamont is--" He coughed, pretending to subtlety. "--deposed."

The Avatar of Demeter eyed him. "You're planning to murder him, aren't you?"

Ruin leaned forward, met her eyes, and said: "Thoroughly."

The Avatar of Demeter laughed. "I shouldn't like you as much as I do, Elf." She frowned. "Will Tavros promise anything to the Avatar of Belrab?"

Ruin thought about that. "Perhaps a token of support to help rebuild that portion of the Temple of the Elements. Nothing beyond that." He thought a moment longer, then added: "Does your goddess know that Vecna's priesthood is trying to resurrect her here in Sol Povos? That's our primary fear. That's why Tavros is trying to pull the kingdom back together so quickly. He doesn't actually want to be king, and he's deathly afraid he's going to mangle the job. And if we're being completely honest here, that's why I want you to stay. Because if Vecna does find a way to violate the Compact, having you with us makes me that much less likely to die horribly."

"Well..." Terra said grudgingly. "I suppose I should at least stay long enough to hear him out."

"Thank you. The far side of the lake again? In, say, an hour?"

"Why not now?" asked Terra.

"I would, but I need to check in with Tavros and make sure I'm not misrepresenting the plan."

Terra eyed him. "And if you are? Say you were... honestly mistaken... in what you just told me? What then?"

Ruin shrugged. "Then I'll tell you exactly what I've I learned in an hour, right before you knock me into a few more trees."

Terra laughed. "Go, go," she said and made a little shooing gesture.

Ruin made a quick calculation, then transported himself to the dining hall. He might not find Tavros or Mythrandril there, but it was a good place to start.

* * *

Five hours later, Ruin stood at the entrance to the Chapel of All, hesitating for a moment before he stepped inside. There was nobody here, and nobody approaching. For this one small moment in the deep of the night, nobody had come here to pray.

Aesa's voice came back to him then: young, excited, and only newly a priestess. Can you feel him? She'd asked. She'd meant Amun, in whose cathedral they'd been standing at the time. Or Corellon? He hadn't, of course. He never had. And he'd never wanted to.

What in the depths of the Abyss am I doing here?

It was an empty question. He knew perfectly well why he'd come, uncomfortable though he might be with his own decision. He made his way slowly forward until he was standing in front of the altar, then reached down and laid a hand on it. Corellon Larethian. You listening, Grandfather?

He still didn't feel any response, but that was fine. This was too close to actually praying already; he didn't want to find himself suddenly engaged in some sort of communion. "Corellon," he said again, this time out loud. "I don't pray to you. I never have. I wouldn't really know how. But there's a lot going on right now, between Vecna trying to find a way around the Covenant and a bunch of other gods gathering to take advantage of a turning point in the history of Sol Povos. I'll do what I can, but nobody's going to associate me with you. So if you're going to protect your people and increase your influence... now's the time to step in, Old Man."

He lifted his hand from the altar and turned away, heading for the exit.

Werendril was standing in the doorway, leaning against one side of it. Only... this wasn't Werendril. The figure cast no shadow, and though its chest moved no breath stirred the air. "I knew you'd come around," the paladin said, but that was wrong too: the words didn't make the faintest echo off the stone walls all around them.

"...Grandfather," Ruin acknowledged. He touched the hilt of his blade, more for comfort than anything else. He doubted that having it in his hand would make any difference to this at all.

"Is that any sort of way to address me?" It was Werendril's voice, or it would have been if Werendril were bodiless and also slightly amused. "The creator of your race, to whom you owe your very existence? Show some respect, Child."

Ruin felt himself go completely still. Then he said, "I welcome your attention, O Divine Creator of the Elves, Mighty Hunter, Fleet of Foot and Sharp of Eye. How may my humble self serve Your Greatness?"

The image of Werendril seemed to study him. "Are you being sarcastic?"

Ruin shrugged. "At this point, I can't tell either." And that was utterly true: in this, as in so many other things, he was operating purely on intuition.

Soft laughter filled the Chapel of All. "Well, then. What is it you would have me do? Should I intercede on behalf of your friend the half-dragon? Or perhaps on behalf of Mythrandril and Duendewood instead? Should I call forth an avatar of my own?"

Ruin just stared at him, at Werendril's face, for a long, long moment. "Why does everyone with power want me to make decisions for them?" he asked. "And why does it always feel like a trap when they do?"

The image of Werendril tilted its head in acknowledgement. "True, you carry an obligation to the druids already." It paused, suddenly serious. "Would you become my avatar? I could take the crystal from you, and with it the debt it carries. Serve me, and I will choose the next Hierophant and see that the crystal is delivered to its proper heir."

Ruin hesitated for a long, long moment before he asked: "Are you being sarcastic?"

Werendril's likeness shrugged. "Better you than someone who yearns to be close to their god, to receive my guidance and follow my direction. You would take my power and go out and do things with it, instead of bugging me all the time to make sure your actions were in accordance with my will."

"...That sounds like you've had issues before." Ruin couldn't believe he was having this conversation. He more than half hoped he was imagining it. "I don't want to know. But no, the debt to the druids is mine to pay, however I came by it."

The image of Werendril smiled. "I could make you my avatar anyway, you know."

Ruin didn't doubt it. He wasn't even entirely certain that he wouldn't eventually come to enjoy it. But that old, old anger was still there; and for all that had happened, he was who he was. "You will do as you will, All-Father of Elvenkind," he said, "but if the choice is mine, then I would refuse it. I came here to make certain you were... aware of events. Not to ask for favors, nor to offer my help."

Werendril's likeness smiled. "As you wish. There are other ways to make my influence known." Still smiling, he disappeared. 

That sounds ominous. Ruin waited for the length of a breath, and then another. His heart was racing, and he wasn't certain if he was relieved or disappointed. Then he strode forward, passed through the doorway, and made his way back to his cell.

The bard showed up the next morning.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Challenge: Job I'd be good at

(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 job that I'd be good at.

There was a time when I would have said, "Anything physical." I used to be very athletic, and the idea of becoming a firefighter or part of a rescue service for our national parks seemed like a perfectly realistic possibility. Twenty years in Information Technology, and particular the last five years or so, has pretty well put paid to that notion: I am not in anything like that kind of shape anymore. 

I'd like to get back there, but then I'd like a lot of things.

So realistically, right now, I'd probably be good at anything to do with words and writing and like that. Technical writing, for example, if that was a skill that anybody in any kind of management position actually valued. I might make a reasonably successful author, except that between the full time job and being a parent I really haven't had time or energy until just recently. So maybe, but first I'd have to pull something together that I actually can publish. 

Game design seems like a reasonable possibility; I've played a lot of games over the years, and -- for tabletop roleplaying games in particular -- I'd have a lot of fun writing flavor text. 

Beyond that... I don't know. I could be professionally decadent -- I'd be really good at that one -- if that were a career possibility. And I still like to think that I'd be good at solving supernatural mysteries, with or without a talking dog to help me. Wizardry? I mean, I've got good pattern recognition and troubleshooting skills, so maybe. I don't think I could ever go full-on Dark Lord of Evil Evilness, but I could wander around in robes and try to figure out the cheat codes for the Universe that would let me do otherwise-impossible things.

What about you? What would you be good at?

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Alliances Offered, Part Fourteen

"M'lady Fontaine?" asked Jacqueline Bouvier, as the bald-headed servant led her into the wizard's study. The room was almost a cliche: bookshelves around the outside walls, and a pair of tables in the center, one loaded with alchemical apparatus and the other covered in a sheet of paper peppered with scrawled calculations and a sketch of a tower at its center. 

Emiliana Fontaine looked up from where she'd apparently been pacing back and forth while reading from a scroll. "What? Yes?" She focused on Jacqueline, and the priestess Aesa who had accompanied her. "What is it, child?"

Jacqueline swallowed. "You know who I am. You said I could ask you anything. I'd like to know... would you support me if I asked Tavros to marry me?"

The lady Fontaine blinked, then blinked again, and finally again. After a moment she she asked, "Would you permit me a question first?"

"Of course."

"Why?"

"Why would I ask him, or why would I openly ask for your support?"

"Yes," said Lady Emiliana Fontaine. "Both. You're scheming, obviously, but you want me to know it and be part of it. So... what's your angle?"

Jacqueline sighed. "This would all be so much simpler if Tavros had simply executed my father for treason," she said. 

"Yes," agreed Lady Fontaine, "but try telling him that."

Jacqueline chuckled. "No, I know. I even think I understand. In any case, it's too late now." She paused, sorting her thoughts. "I want... I want, more than anything, to be free of my father. He is... I don't even know how to explain it. But... if he isn't dead, then I want him not to have any more control over me."

Lady Emiliana regarded her for a long, silent time. "I can sympathize with that," she said at last. "Tavros was, in his way, my own form of protest -- though there was more to it than that, of course."

"Of course," answered Jacqueline. She knew something of the court gossip around Lady Emiliana, and she knew better than to trust that gossip. "The way I see it now, I have two options. I can disappear: change my name, go somewhere else, and try to live a life as someone who is not the daughter of Giles Bouvier. Or, alternatively, I can make an alliance with someone who elevates me above my father's station. That would be your son. And... if I'm telling you all... I like your son. I think... I think I would actually enjoy being a partner to him."

"All well for you," said the lady Emiliana, "but what is it that you would offer him?"

Stability. Heirs. The thought of being taken by someone so strong, so fierce, so utterly loyal overwhelmed her for a moment. Support. "I know how the Court works," she said. "I've seen its intrigues and its finances. And I'm not afraid to stand beside him. I know what he wants, or at least I hope I do. I could help show him how to get it, and my advice wouldn't be tainted by other loyalties."

Lady Emiliana set the book in the corner of the table. "Do you wish me to petition him on your behalf?"

"No!" Jacqueline covered her mouth, feeling slightly horrified. "No, I only hope you won't object when I petition him myself."

The Lady Emiliana Fontaine took a moment to consider. Then she smiled. "Very well. I will leave it entirely to the two of you, and if Tavros sees fit to ask me I will give my endorsement." She paused, then added: "I know you are helping my son with the petitions from the Order of Demeter, and I know that he is grateful. I do not know if he has thought of marriage, but I know that he appreciates you, and the help you have offered."

Jacqueline felt her cheeks burning. "I just hope I'm worthy of it."

Emiliana's smile widened. "Don't just hope. Be worthy of it. It always takes work. Always."

Jacqueline swallowed. "Do you know... when I first arrived here, the paladin Anica advised me to be Tavros' friend. Not just because he trusts his friends, but because his friends make him stronger than he would be alone. That's what I want from this. I want to be part of something like that. I want to belong to it."

Lady Emiliana hesitated, then approached her. For a moment, she studied Jacqueline's face; then she kissed her twice, once on each cheek. "Trust is not an easy thing to learn," she said quietly. Then: "But I know my son. If you are loyal to him, he will be loyal to you. It will take more than that, of course. But you can find the way if you seek it."

"I... Thank you," said Jacqueline Bouvier. "I... I will..." She swallowed. "Thank you."

She barely remembered leaving the room.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Ruin: Hierophant Candidates, Part Two

"So," said Alnira, now that they were safely ensconsed atop the limb of one of the ancient trees outside of Calisthum. "You murdered Saladhel."

Ruin sighed, looking for all the world as if he expected her to attack him and felt compelled to allow it. "Not exactly," he said. "My friends and I were trapped on an island world called Fanaxia, which used to occupy the land where Mar Dentro is now." He hesitated, studying her face. "It's a long story, but this is basically where the Dark One who became the Goddess Vecna arose."

Alnira nodded cautiously. 

"While we were there," he said carefully, "we reawakened a second Druid Hierophant, an ancient true elf called Zilf. Unfortunately, there cannot be two Hierophants in the same land... and Fanaxia, for all its troubles, was once a part of Sol Povos. As the only true elf present, Zilf made me choose which of them would stand, and which would fall. At the time, Fanaxia seemed to be in much greater danger than Sol Povos, so I chose Zilf." He squeezed his eyes shut. "And condemned Saladhel."

"Ah," said Alnira, thinking that over. It certainly made more sense than the cold-blooded murder that Zoriel had half-implied. "And now you have to choose the next Hierophant." Word of that had swept through the remaining druids in the wake of the battle at the Sacred Grove. 

"I'm not sure it's choose so much as find," Ruin said. "So... on top of everything else, I'm searching. But, well... I studied with the druids in my youth, but I never became one. Who might be a good candidate? Would you?" 

Alnira considered. She'd been an acolyte of Vuelisharrn, and intended someday to take her place among the Council of Nine. Not yet, though... She didn't feel ready, and hadn't expected to be ready for another century at least. She'd been trusted, yes, and she'd done what she could to save the least experienced, but...

She shook her head. "I don't believe so. Maybe in time, but... My teacher Vuelisharrn had his own particular duties. I might have spent a century or so learning them, and two more teaching them to another, before I was ready to be considered for some greater authority. Add to that the fact that if you choose me it might look like favoritism, as there's a very definite chance that I'm carrying your child."

Ruin studied her for a long moment; then he nodded. "Will that be a problem for you, O my lover?"

Alnira shook her head. "I wouldn't have let it happen, were that the case. Is it a problem for you? It's early yet; I could still end it. But I find I like the idea of raising a child, even with..." She gestured vaguely. "...All this."

Ruin was quiet for a long moment. Then he said, "It's only a problem for me in that I want to make sure that any child of mine is loved and happy, and I don't know if I'll be able to ensure that."

"I'll ensure it," Alnira said quietly. "Our child will grow up here, among the druids. It won't lack for care or company." She hesitated, then added: "The same for the child that I suspect Nym is carrying. I don't know if she's realized it yet."

"I suspected," Ruin said. Terra Windblade had told him he would have more children, and Nym and Alnira were the most likely to be their mothers. "I'll need to talk to her about it." He hesitated, then turned the conversation back to his original purpose: "Who else should I ask about the next Hierophant?"

Alnira looked off into the branches around them for a long moment. "Zoriel was Saladhel's foremost apprentice," she said. "I think he hates you, but that alone doesn't make him a bad candidate. Elendor is probably the most powerful druid left, so you should talk to her as well. But Saladhel did have other apprentices, and even if they aren't suitable they probably have insights to offer."

Ruin nodded, looking thoughtful. "Then I'll have to speak to them as well. Thank you." He tilted his head and met her eyes again. "Don't rule yourself out, though. You give good and thoughtful advice."

Alnira smiled. "I do my best, but... Can we be a little less thoughtful, now?" she asked. "It's been a long day, and I know a nearby glade where the grass is exceptionally soft..."

Friday, July 21, 2023

Dark Armor: A Place At The Table

Pallian found his place at the high table and waited. Ravaj stood beside him, and the Wizard-King stood at his customary place at the center of the table. To the Wizard-King's left stood the High Magister of Edrias, with her daughters standing to her left. The favorites who had attended the royal party in the antechamber had taken places along the lower tables, but also remained standing. The other courtiers, who would have arrived for the meal alone and entered through the doors at the sides of the hall, stood to join them. 

The Wizard-King paused for a long moment; then his voice, enhanced by a minor enchantment, rolled through the room: "Nobles of Teregor, my friends and relatives, we feast tonight in honor of the royalty of Edrias. Be merry, and make welcome our guests. Let there be good food, good music, and good company."

The servant rang the bell again, and Pallian had a moment of confusion before he remembered what came next. He managed to seat himself smoothly as the row of servants pushed the High Chairs into place behind them, then glanced to his left to see that the royalty of Edrias had managed the trick as well. Either Vathira had prepared them, or they were all three quick to react. Good. After his earlier display of ill-temper, the Wizard-King seemed to have remembered his manners, at least. Pallian shouldn't have been relieved by that -- it wasn't a properly filial sort of reaction -- but he couldn't help being pleased that no insult had been done to Ashmiren or her family. 

The servants were already approaching with the first plates of food, and Pallian found himself suddenly ravenous as the scent reached him. He waited, though, until the High Magister had taken her first bite and his father had followed suit. Then, when the two princesses had sampled the fare as well, he allowed himself to take a bite as well. 

The meat was some sort of fowl, lightly touched with a dark sauce that was both sweet and spicy; it shared the plate with a pile of roast vegetables, tartroot and honeyleaf and sapbulb and others, all selected to complement and enhance the taste of the bird. The bread was a light pastry, shaped to resemble a lotus flower, barely enough to take the bite from the sauce. 

Ravaj was watching him with narrowed eyes, but put away several mouthfuls before he asked softly: "What were you discussing with the princess? Second-Princess Arwidden and I could hear some of it, but not enough to follow."

Pallian held a finger up as he finished chewing and finally swallowed. No, his time in the Tomb of the Living hadn't done him any favors at all. And adapting to his newest initiation wasn't doing his appetite any favors, either; at this rate his plate would be empty before the rest of the table had half-cleared theirs. "Humorous nonsense," he admitted, when he could finally speak. "What else would I say to a foreign princess? Especially to one who's promised to my brother?"

"Wise," observed Ravaj. "I think you may have provided her better company than I did for her sister, but then it was Arwidden's suggestion that we try to listen rather than converse with each other."

Pallian shrugged. "Arwidden has the look of a soldier about her," he observed quietly, "or perhaps a general. A courteous and dignified silence might well have been the best approach you could have taken."

Ravaj sat back, mollified, and took another bite. Pallian took the opportunity to finish two more; he was trying to savor the flavors, which certainly deserved his appreciation, but he was almost too hungry to give the food that much of his attention.

Then their father nudged Ravaj's elbow and directed his attention to something at the leftern low table, and by the time Ravaj's attention returned to him, his plate was empty.

"So what do you think of my fiancée?" he asked, even more quietly than before.

Pallian glanced past him at Ashmiren, who was engaged in an equally soft conversation with her sister. Then he leaned back and said, "I think this is neither the time nor the place."

Ravaj considered that, then nodded. "Later, then. How much do you remember of the courtly factions?"

"I never knew enough to be worth remembering," Pallian admitted. 

Ravaj raised his eyebrows, but Pallian just shrugged. After a moment his brother sighed and said, "Well, if you're going to be here then somebody had better educate you."

There was more food on the way, at least. Pallian consoled himself with that thought as his brother began to outline the shape of the court, its agreements and its divisions, its friendships and its rivalries. This is going to be a very long night...

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Good!party: The Tower, the Minions, and the Dragon

Tavros announces to the court that it’s time to attack the Dark Army and finish them once and for all. Atrix the White -- one of the master wizards that we rescued some months ago -- enters the planning session with his white beard and also all the evil books we retrieved from Welfort. 

“This,” he announces, “is a fascinating book. Evil, but fascinating. Truly there has never been a tome more full of knowledge – and evil!” 

We are understandably worried by this, and Tavros tries Detect Evil on Atrix but he comes up as Neutral. We all kind of study him, though, because there’s magic that could disguise that…

Most of us think he’s just a weird old man; Leira immediately concludes that he’s trying to get between her and Sacha. She immediately goes to check on Sacha and finds him alone in their bedroom. 

He explains the ritual that we’re going to need to find Vecna. We’re going to need to paint our naked bodies with sacred oils, and drink a bit of dryad’s blood. We must sound a horn of blasting. Then we must sprinkle powdered black pearl over a cursed rune. Then three of the most powerful spellcasters to cast one of their most powerful spells. Then they must smear their own blood over the crown, which will sap their life force. If we mess up, then we have to buy all the reagents again and also get the blood again, for one point of Con drain. 

We buy three scrolls of True Resurrection, and a bunch of Cure Light Wounds wands. We also upgrade the rest of our equipment. Leira, um, spends some time with her husband. We take a boat out to the center of Mar Dentro, which roughly corresponds to the center of the swamp in Fanaxia. This… takes about a month. It’s late December, near the end of the year. 

In the distance we see the same fog-shrouded ghost tower that we glimpsed in Fanaxia. Leira and Martini both activate False Life. We put Death Ward on everybody. We drop Freedom of Movement on everybody. Marshall adds Spell Immunity for Fireball, Hold Person, Phantasmal Killer and Enervation. We load Protection from Acid on everybody except Tavros, who has Universal Energy Resistance from his ring. 

Leira, Geddy, and Marshall spread their blood on the crown. They each take a point of Constitution drain. 

The words of power are keyword/response combos. 

Leira:
Igneo = Valaam
Librio = Umbrum
Corpreo= Sorum

Geddy:
Omnio = Avam
Diablo = Malum
Incipio = serpem

Marshall
Sigilo = Balum
Abyssio = Tenebrum
Voco = Damium

We manage to get through the call and response by a fucking miracle, and then the ghost tower suddenly becomes clearer, and closer, and then it’s right beside us. There are harpies on the rocks around the edge of the tower, which is about 250’ tall. There’s lightning and thunder swirling in a sudden bank of clouds overhead. This was once Sandorn castle, where the Archmagister of Fanaxia lived. The bottom level was basically a garage, with about a sixty foot ceiling; the doors are long gone. There are bits of the dark army – relatively minor minions, mostly – still hanging around. Harpies, Girallons, Ogre clan chiefs, some Vecna cultists, another T-rex. This is all stuff that we would have very threatening, previously. Now, well...

The boat drifts closer. Ruin looses a barrage of arrows with his shiny new very expensive bow, putting five arrows in the Harpy Clan Leader. Geddy starts singing. Eva breathes a cone of fire, clearing out a big chunk of the entry. Martini dimension doors to the ceiling above the T-Rex and begins to study it. Marshall turns into a snake and flies over. Tavros moves up and starts looking for a way to cross from the boat to the tower. Leira casts Time Stop and then lays down a series of delayed blast fireballs and clears out most of the center of the room. “Surprise!”

The boat moves forward a little bit. Ruin fires off more arrows, and Geddy activates Airwolf and flies over above the barbarians. Eva casts Fireball; the Barbarians avoid the worst of it, and Geddy is immune. Martini casts greater invisibility and continues her study. Marshall casts Holy Aura and Quickened Divine Favor. Tavros charges across Marshall and arrives on the tower. The T-rex charges him and utterly fails to bite him. 

The ogre chieftains emerge and charge. They’re raging, but not enough to actually hit anything. Then the Vecna cultists pour out of a side room, and spread out. Then they drop a succession of fireballs all over us. The dust clears and we’re all just standing there. 

Ruin fires off a bunch of arrows at the t-rex. Geddy plays a tune so tragic that it damages everybody in a sixty-foot cone in front of him. He hits the ogres, the t-rex, and two of the cultists (who die). Eva adds a Fireball to that, and there is screaming. The T-rex dies as well. 

Martini drops from the ceiling. The t-rex is no longer under her and anyways it’s dead, so she comes down – invisibly – behind the cultists. Marshall eats one of the ogres. Tavros charges the other three of them and kills two. Leira dimension doors over to the tower, and hides behind the wall. The remaining ogre hits Tavros, doing a bit of damage. 

The remaining cultists – Thoughts of Vecna – cast Phantasmal Killer on Tavros. We’re immune to that one, because we prepared for it.

Ruin: “I think we just woke up a rather large dragon at the back of the room!” He transports himself from the boat to the tower. Geddy kills more cultists; Eva moves past and incinerates the rest of the cultists. She too shouts, “Dragon!” 

Martini turns around and sees an enormous dragon rising silently up from the back of the room. We remember him: it’s Meowdeus! … And he’s looking right at her. 

She uses Dimension Door to jump behind him. 

Marshall flies over us and plants himself in front of the dragon, with the full intention of eating him. (He is nominally a cleric -- formerly human and now one of the lizard folk -- but he gained the ability to change into a ridiculously giant serpent due to his faith in Artem-hiss.) 

Tavros looks at the remaining ogre chieftain, and says, “Surrender, and I’ll see that you’re well treated!” The ogre snarls, and Tavros slays him. (But hey, he had to try...)

Leira throws ice meteors at Meowdeus, who is vulnerable to cold and takes a ton of damage. He had just drawn breath to monologue, and then the meteorites hit him. “Foolish mortals! You dare attack me here?!” He looks at Marshall and casts a quickened Freedom of Movement, because he does not want to get grappled by the giant snake. 

Meowdeus then moves up and casts sleep at a bunch of us; Geddy falls asleep on his Obsidian Fly. The rest of us resist the effect. Ruin fires off some arrows at him, but they fail to connect; he’s got protective spells up, and something about this place allows him to move more quickly; he attacks again, touching Marshall and setting him to dancing. 

Eva casts Magic Missile… on Geddy, and wakes him up. Martini continues studying Meowdeus and casts Destruction, which fails to kill him but does some damage. Tavros charges, taking some damage on the way in, and does just a bit more damage than he takes. Something about this place has empowered the evil brass dragon, and this fight is turning out to be a lot tougher than we expected. 

Leira drops an intensified icy meteor swarm on Meowdeus and does just a ridiculous amount of damage. That really pissed him off. She follows up with three quickened frozen fireballs, two of them intensified. Both the intensified ones make it past spell resistance, and while Meowdeus avoids the worst of it that kind of balances out against the fact that he’s vulnerable to cold. 

He casts a quickened dimension door and pops out beside Leira. He then attacks, attempting to rip her apart. He completely ignores Ruin, who is standing right there with his bow still in hand. Leira dies and gets eaten, so we can’t immediately resurrect her. Ruin drops his bow and draws his sword; Meowdeus tries to attack him but misses. Ruin hits him once, doing a bit of damage. 

Geddy follows up with a power chord, which slams into Meowdeus like the end of the world. Meowdeus does this ridiculous double-take. Geddy takes advantage of the moment to ride his magical fly back out to the boat. 

Martini uses dimension door to get behind the dragon again, and hides. Tavros charges and attacks, hitting but failing to kill Meowdeus outright. (He can do that with a particularly successful hit.) The dragon casts a quickened Displacement in response, then tries to disintegrate Geddy. He fails, but Geddy still takes some damage. Eva is sharing damage with Geddy, so she takes half of it. Ruin attacks but misses. 

Meowdeus tries Irresistible Dance on Tavros, who apparently knows how to jive and has never admitted this fact to anybody. He then drops a quickened Mirror Image. Geddy flies up over the dragon, about thirty-five feet above his head. He then casts Mordenkainen’s Disjunction from a scroll that we picked up earlier. The positioning is important here, because he wants to strip Meowdeus of his magics but not catch any of us in the spell's effect, which might disenchant a bunch of our equipment.

Eva moves in to attack physically, but misses. Meowdeus hits her on the way in, doing a bit of damage. Martini slides up behind Meowdeus and tries to stab him but misses. Marshall quits dancing, and drops Mass Heal before slithering into attack range. That snaps Tavros out of his dancing. 

Meowdeus casts a quickened freedom of movement and then tries Finger of Death on Geddy, but we prepared with Death Ward and Geddy ignores it. Ruin rages, attacks, and finally does some real damage. 

Meowdeus tries a quickened Feeblemind on Geddy, but he resists this as well and Meowdeus looks furious about it. He speaks a Power Word Stun, so Geddy is out of it for four rounds. Ava goes full catfight on him, and hits with claws, wings, bite, tail… she really rips him up. 

Martini stabs him from behind. 

He dies. 

...

...

Then he explodes.

None of us actually die. But... Ouch. That was not a small explosion. It does, however, allow us to get Leira's body back. Ruin pulls himself back upright, looks around, and says: "Good. If we keep being quiet like this, we can take them by surprise." This is irony.

We resurrect Leira, and prepare to heal up and move on.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Challenge: Interesting Fact

(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: Share one interesting fact that you know.

All right. I actually know a lot of random, often-obscure facts, but whether they're interesting or not depends on the audience. So for this prompt, I'm going to go with a fact that I hope will just be sort of generally interesting, because it's about dinosaurs and dinosaurs are interesting. 

Except that I'm kind of lying to you, because this particular fact isn't about a dinosaur. It's about Dimetrodon: 


Dimetrodon, you see, was a staple of every book about dinosaurs that I read in my childhood. They showed artists' illustrations, speculated about whether the sail on its back was a way of adjusting its body temperature or perhaps attracting mates, told us about what the creatures ate...

And all the while, those books were lying to me.[1]

Dimetrodon, you see, isn't actually a dinosaur. It's a synapsid, and it predates the appearance of actual dinosaurs by about 40 million years. Which is a pretty big stretch of time for A Child's Book of Dinosaur Facts to completely ignore.[2] And that's leaving aside entirely the fact that the synapsids are actually more closely related to mammals than they are to reptiles or birds.[3]

So there's one interesting fact that I know: Dimetrodon were A) really cool, and B) not dinosaurs.

[1] Yes, I'm still bitter about this.

[2] Really, really bitter. 

[3] So, so very bitter.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Ruin: Hierophant Candidates, Part One

"That's enough for today," Alnira said, looking over her ragtag group of pupils. "Those of you old enough to have chores, get to them. Those of you too young... back to your parents, or whoever's taking care of you now."

She watched as they dispersed. Milathyra had shown up with young Joe R. Pious a week or so after the battle for the sacred grove, and she watched as the two of them moved away again. The boy still woke up screaming in the night sometimes, and after what she'd heard Alnira didn't blame him in the least. Takshin stalked away like he was on the hunt, one hand on each of the scimitars that he'd claimed from the dead. What sort of druid he might eventually become, Alnira had no idea.

As the others moved away, Alnira realized that Ilanora and Nadja, the red-headed weather witch twins, were still sitting in front of her, holding hands. Both were still but girls, but as long as they were together their influence over the weather was uncanny. "Girls?" asked Alnira, to get their attention. 

Nadja looked stubbornly past her. "Who's that?"

Alnira turned, and saw Ruin walking towards them. Towards her, most likely, though his expression was unreadable and his attention flicked from point to point around the camp. "Ah," she said. "That's Ruin."

"I told you," Nadja said to her twin. 

Illanora looked up at Alnira. "Are you in love with him?"

Alnira made a sound that was halfway between a laugh and gasp of surprise. "Sacred Trees, I surely hope not," she said. If ever there was a man who was going to break hearts and never intend a bit of it... "No, but I do need to talk to him."

"Oh," said Illanora, as Ruin reached them and stopped. 

He paused, looking down at the twins, and his expression lost some of its usual intensity. "Hello," he said. "I'm Ruin."

The girls exchanged a glance, then looked back up at him, and after a moment he said: "You don't have to tell me your names, though in some places it's considered rude not to when someone offers you theirs."

"In other places it's safer not to, though," observed Nadja. 

"True," Ruin admitted. "Which sort of place do you think this is?"

Nadja scrunched her face up, thinking furiously, but Illanora said: "It's neither. It's not rude not to give our names, but it's not dangerous to give them."

"Very good," said Ruin. Then: "Girls, will you give Alnira and me some privacy? Not to follow us, not to listen?"

Illanora nodded, but Nadja said: "Wait. I'm Nadja."

"I'm Illanora," added her sister. "We need to check the berries now, but I liked meeting you."

"I liked meeting you too," said Ruin, looking back and forth between them to make it clear that he was addressing both.

Alnira turned to him as the girls stood and walked away. They moved deliberately, not quite as focused as Takshin had been but very much following their own chosen course. "You're very good with them," she said, turning back to Ruin. 

"They're good kids," he said, though to her knowledge he had never so much as seen them before. "Do you have some time to talk?"

"I do," she said. "What did you want to talk about?"

"The Druid Hierophant," he said, looking serious again. 

"Saladhel?" She frowned. The Hierophant's death had thrown the druids into disarray, some of it born from fear and some of it simple disorganization. 

"Yes," said Ruin. "I knew him. Not well, but I knew him. And I condemned him to die."

Alnira gasped, then looked quickly around. Ruin had spoken quietly, in little more than a whisper, and nobody around them seemed to have noticed. Still, druids had notoriously sharp hearing, and she had already heard that Ruin was somehow supposed to replace the fallen Hierophant. 

"We should... We should take a walk. You don't actually know how to change your shape, do you?" She didn't think he could -- he didn't seem like any sort of druid or magus she'd ever met -- but there was something about him that was just feral enough to make her wonder.

"No," he said, "but I can do this." He took her hand and the world lurched around them, and suddenly they were standing in the trees well outside the camp.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Alliances Offered, Part Thirteen

"Sacha!"

They had been back at the Temple of Amun for all of two minutes, and Leira was already back in her husband's arms. Tavros smiled as he watched them: they were so completely caught up in each other, so wrapped in joy that everything around them faded away. 

He turned away, suddenly tired. Their assault had been successful, at least, but that was about the best that could be said for it. Giles Bouvier was still alive, and still the Grand Marshall of the Eastern Army, and Tavros wasn't entirely certain how he felt about that. The man was certainly a competent commander, but he was definitely a political creature; his attempts to press for advantage while still disoriented from having been under the control of a Mind Flayer had been clumsy and easily recognizable and more than a little infuriating. 

So Jacqueline's impressions of him as a father were almost certainly correct.

Still, he hadn't attempted to claim the throne of Sol Povos of his own free will, and he was a more than competent commander. He could be left in charge of Welfort and what remained of the Eastern army. It wasn't what Tavros would have preferred, but then Tavros had nobody more trustworthy to promote to that position. Had he grown up in the Court, he might have known someone... 

He sighed as he made his way down the corridor. If he'd grown up in the Court, likely he wouldn't have seen Giles Bouvier as an undesirable candidate for such a position. The man's ambitions and expectations would have seemed perfectly normal. And likely he'd have accepted Vigo's insistence on agreeing to whatever offered the most value as simple common sense, no how disastrous that approach had proven in the past. 

He ducked into his cell, and grabbed the bottle of gnomish whiskey that he'd left on his desk. After the things he'd fought -- and nearly been killed by -- he desperately needed a bath. 

He wasn't ready for that yet. He wasn't ready to remove his armor, or to set his sword aside. Instead he let his steps take him to the stairs, and then to the long passage that led to the western balcony. The day was still young, too early to watch the sunset, but at least he could sit in the shadow of the temple and have a moment to himself. 

He stepped out through the archway, and crossed to the stone bench. 

"Your Majesty?" asked a woman's voice, cautious and polite. 

"Jacqueline," said Tavros, by way of acknowledgement. He glanced back, and noted that another of the junior priestesses -- Anmara, he thought her name was -- was standing beside Bouvier's daughter. Well, too bad if she overheard; he was done with pretending at things. "Call me Tavros, please. Anywhere else, I might be heir to the throne. Here, I'd prefer to be just another paladin."

He looked down at the simple stone bench, then settled into it. 

A single set of footsteps approached, and then Jacqueline asked, "May I join you?" 

Tavros motioned towards the far side of the bench. "Be my guest. I have news, as I'm sure you suspected."

"I'm sorry," she said, but she seated herself on the far end of the bench, leaving room enough between them for another person to sit. Two, if they were all especially comfortable with each other. "I was waiting for you to come back, and I thought you might come here first. Aesa said it was one of your favorite places."

Tavros nodded at that. Leave it to Jacqueline to learn my ways in self-defense. He pulled the cork from the bottle, poured three full swallows down his throat, and then offered it across to her. "Sip," he cautioned her.

After a moment, she took it. After another moment, he looked over at her and found her looking back at him. She looked down at the bottle, looked back at him again, and then tilted her head back and poured a bit of the whiskey into her mouth. 

To her credit, she didn't drop the bottle -- though she did slap the base of it down onto her thigh. She sat for a heartbeat with her mouth closed around the whiskey and her eyes wide. 

Then she swallowed, shook her head, and handed the bottle back as if it had all been nothing worth remarking on. "I nearly killed Tarric," she said, and her voice was only slightly raw from the whiskey. "I suppose this is my penance?"

Tavros poured more whiskey down his throat, then shook his head. "This is what I'm doing to recover from meeting your father. I take it you didn't actually kill Tarric. Did you kill Thesean?"

Jacqueline Bouvier was silent for a long moment. Then she said, "I didn't kill Tarric, but it was close enough that I had to call Aesa back to help. I did kill Thesean, and it was..." She held a hand out, and Tavros passed her the bottle. 

She took a swallow, this time making it look effortless. "It was possibly the most satisfying thing I've done in years," she said. She handed the bottle back. "Did you kill-- did you execute my father?"

Tavros took another long swallow and then shook his head. "No."

"No?"

"No." He handed her the bottle. "He was being controlled by a Mind Flayer, an ancient and powerful one. That was why he'd declared himself king, and why he was willing to let the Tarrasque run loose. He's... I think as a person that he's every bit as awful as you say, but he was the commander of the Eastern Army. I couldn't kill him once the Mind Flayer was dead."

Jacqueline took a drink, thought about it, and then took another, longer drink. "My ladies made it to safety," she said. "There's that, at least. The wizards brought them here, and your mother took them in." She raised the bottle again, reconsidered, and then handed it back. "I wish you'd killed him." She hesitated. "And I don't."

Tavros nodded. He wasn't entirely certain that he understood completely, but he understood being conflicted well enough. "You're more than welcome to remain here, and your coterie as well."

"Tavros..." She let his name trail off. "You look rough. How can I help?"

That... might have been the first time weeks that anybody had asked after his needs. He had advice aplenty, and more demands than he knew what to do with, but actual help? ...No, he didn't have anywhere the amount of help he needed. He looked at the bottle, but didn't drink from it. 

"...Honestly?" he asked after a moment. "The Abbess said you've been helping Sister Tiva with the accounts. Could you meet with Demeter's bean counters and see what we'd actually need to build their portion of a temple for the Covenant of Amun? We'll likely need something similar for Helios and Amun. Vigo thinks that we'd need to at least double what the kingdom formerly donated to Helios alone, but temples bring in their own money and I'm not sure we need that much of commitment once the temples are built. I'd prefer to take the support that Sol Povos was giving Helios, and divide it among the Covenant instead."

Jacqueline was silent for a breath, and then another, and then another. "You're asking me to shape the future of the kingdom, you know," she said. 

"If you don't want to--"

"No." she replied firmly. "I have to live here too. I'll do it. I'll see how close we can get to the former commitment -- and if it has to be more, I'll make sure you know why. The Orders will want a stake here. I can use that. I've seen how it's done."

"Thank you," said Tavros, and settled back. He was profoundly relieved to have someone besides Vigo looking at the issue. Vigo was extremely smart and incredibly good at gathering information, but so many of his assumptions were still grounded in how things have always been done. Tavros meant to change that, as much as he could, and Jacqueline Bouvier sounded ready to help him. 

"Tavros--" He had his eyes closed, but he heard her shift her weight on the far side of the stone bench. "Thank you. You took me in. You trusted me." He felt her lips brush the side of his snout. "You don't even mind that I nearly killed your friend." She drew away, and Tavros felt suddenly, unexpectedly empty. "I'll make this work for you if I can."

Then her footsteps were crossing the balcony, heading back towards the archway. "Tabitha," she said, to remind the priestess Anmari. "I don't care what you heard, for a little bit longer I need to be Tabitha."

Friday, July 14, 2023

Dark Armor: The Dinner Procession

The Great Northern Dining Hall of the Obsidian Citadel stretched well over two hundred feet from the antechamber entrance to the massive fireplace at the far end. Two long tables ran parallel for most of its length, offering seating enough for most of the court. They were only perhaps half-full at present -- Pallian made no effort to count -- and they were set well enough apart for the Wizard-King and his guests to make a procession down the aisle between them. 

Feeling the eyes upon them, Pallian smiled automatically -- a defensive reflex -- and asked, "Tell me, are you allowed to wear colors in Edrias?"

Third-princess Ashmiren smiled back. Her dress was black silk, and her hair black to match it; but traceries of silver thread wove subtle patterns through the cloth and silver hairpins were wound into her hair, giving her something of the look of a moonlit sky. "Oh, yes," she said, and dipped her head slightly. "We even have these strange contraptions of clear glass in the walls of our palace. They're called 'windows' and they let in the light from the sun." 

There was just a hint of strain in her voice; Pallian couldn't be sure, but he thought she didn't like being at the center of the court's attention any more than he did. "More of your barbaric foreign customs," Pallian said lightly, in an effort to keep her attention on him instead of their audience. "Next you'll be telling me that you actually walk outside, and not even at night."

Ashmiren laughed, the sound soft but seemingly genuine. "Oh, yes. In direct sunlight, yet. I'm afraid so. Our uncultured palates lack your sophisticated appreciation of darkness and gloom."

"Ah, then doubtless you've never learned the joys of brooding, either." Pallian's smile widened. "It's quite the pastime around here. You have to learn it in stages, though; it's important to master the basic frowns before you move on to the more advanced techniques."

The Third-princess arranged her face into a solemn expression. "It's a tragedy, but I fear I have not. In the court of Edrias, we have little to entertain ourselves aside from art and music and theater and other such trivialities."

They were halfway to the high table now. 

"It sounds dreadful," Pallian observed. "How do you even survive all that light and levity?"

"Oh, protective initiations, of course." Princess Ashmiren sounded perfectly serious, and Pallian was suddenly taken by the notion that some of the courtly watchers around them would genuinely believe that she spoke truth to him. The idea alone was nearly enough to break his control; that it was almost certainly true only made it worse. He swallowed down laughter as she continued: "Every child in Edrias is given a basic initiation to protect us from the horrors of the sun, leaving only the warmth and the colors it brings."

"A terrible necessity, I'm sure," Pallian replied. "Well, you will find yourself quite safe from such horrors here; the royalty of Teregor only venture outside during the dark of the moon-- or briefly when there's a full eclipse." 

"...Which is why you keep a stable of riding bats," Ashmiren supplied, looking for all the world as if she had just come to this realization. "How else would you travel the realm during an eclipse?"

Pallian looked away, because he was supposed to be making a dignified approach to the High Table and if he met the Third-princess' eyes again he was going to collapse into helpless laughter. He could already feel tears forming at the corners of his eyes from the effort of keeping his expression serious. Ashmiren might survive such an experience, but Pallian was pretty sure that his father would have him put to death if he did anything to trespass against the dignity of the royalty of Teregor. "Just so," he said. "The bats are the only steeds we could possibly trust under such circumstances." 

"You really must take me riding sometime," said Third-princess Ashmiren, and Pallian realized that they had finally reached the end of the procession. Ahead of them, his father and the High Magister were making their way around opposite sides of the High Table to meet again at the center of its length. Ravaj and Second-princess Arwidden were just separating to follow their lead. 

"The bats are very particular," Pallian said as they strolled forward, "but I'll see what I can do."

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Good!Party: the Fate of Bouvier

 We approach the throne room… 

At the top of the stairs we come up into the main halls of the castle. The servants take one look at us and just… stroll casually away. There are a couple of guys in front of the curtains leading into the throne room. 


Guy #1: “I’m Gary.”  He leans back against the wall, looking casual. He looks Leira over: “Might I have your name, lady?”


Leira: “Mrs. Sacha the Avatar of Helios.” She pulls Eva forward. “But she’s single.”


Gary: “Well, um–”


Geddy: “I’m single!”


Tavros: “You should really take the night off. Both of you.” 


Gary: “You’re here to see the big guy?”


Tavros: “Nothing good is going to come of you hanging around here.”


They trade glances and leave. 


We stroll in, and Bouvier is standing on the dais by the throne. He was the Grand Marshall of half of the Sol Povos standing army – the Eastern half. He’s in his military uniform, and he’s wearing a sword: “You’ve got some nerve coming here, Tavros.” 


Tavros: “You’ve got a lot of nerve declaring yourself king.”


Bouvier: “Very well. I propose that we settle this in the traditional noble fashion. I challenge you to a duel, one on one.”


Tavros: “I accept.” 


Bouvier: “Then I call forth a champion.” A door opens and Verkander Stoneheart steps into the room. He’s the Avatar of Stone, and not – at the moment – kindly disposed towards Tavros. 


Tavros: “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” 


They square off. We discuss summoning Sacha to act as Tavros’ champion, but Verkander is having none of it. 


Leira casts Otto’s Irresistble Dance… on Bouvier, who was halfway to an exit. 


The stone of the floor seems to flow, and Verkander is in front Tavros. He swings and misses… four times. Just barely, but still… 


Tavros: “Come on! I gave you beer! I said I couldn’t support you as a state religion, but I said I’d do what I could to help rebuild the temple! What do you want?” He attacks and also misses. 


Geddy activates the Ebony Fly ("Airwolf") and mounts it; he flies it towards Bouvier. The two guards shriek and grab their heads, then run and grab Bouvier and carry him through the doorway, which slams closed behind them. 


Leira casts Wail of the Banshee, but it fails to affect Verkander, who attacks again and hits Tavros once. “Rebuild the whole temple!”


Tavros hits him back: “Well, if you don’t need it done immediately, we might come to some sort of arrangement!”


Geddy: “Hey! Eva! Come with me!” He blasts the door open with a power chord. That sets off a Mass Hold Monster trap, and Geddy is momentarily paralyzed. 


Verkander attacks again, hitting once: “I want cash advance!”


Tavros misses him completely: “Rip the down payment out of Indra! We didn’t break it! And we need time to get money!”


Geddy shakes off the paralysis and blasts the next door and sets off another trap, which fails to affect either of them.


Leira just watches. 


Verkander: “You’re king!” He hits Tavros once more. “You fix! Indra has nae money, only dead bodies!”


Tavros hits him back: “What’s a damned temple cost!?”


Verkander: “Don’t know!” 


Tavros: “Well, we could hand you 200,000 right now and get back to you if it takes more! With beer!”


Geddy blows through another door, having passed through an antechamber and a Valet’s chamber. This one was set with an Energy Drain trap, which misses him. 


Verkander gets in three more hits, which definitely hurts. Tavros comes in and attacks, but misses this time. “What say you?”


Geddy blows up another door; he’s now standing in Bouvier’s bedroom and looking into the treasure chamber. A Mass Hold Monster spell goes off, and sets off a blaring alarm. Tavros: “Leira! Keep everybody out of here!”


Leira preps Hold Monster for whoever comes into the room next. 


Verkander hits Tavros two more times, and knocks him out. 


Verkander puts his axe away. “Now we’re even! Terms accepted!”


Leira: “No, because if he dies I’m taking the cost of resurrecting him out of the temple fund.”


Verkander: “FINE!” He casts Cure Moderate Wounds and yanks Tavros back up to his feet. “I accept your terms.” 


We hand him 200,000 GP. Verkander: “Beer?”


Geddy has passed two kegs of wine. Tavros retrieves them and hands them off to Verkander, who settles back in a back room. He and Leira catch up with Geddy and Eva, who are looking at a stairwell that goes back down into the rock. Geddy uses his own personal Cure Light Wounds, and a wand to cover the rest of what we need. Tavros also Lays Hands on himself, healing a bit. 


We give chase. Geddy casts Invisibility Sphere on the gold in the treasure room, Tavros starts down the stairs, with Leira and Geddy behind him and Eva taking up the rear. We come down the stairs into a long passageway, and there’s a little alcove with a strange, iridescent green crystal that kind of lights the alcove. There’s a skeleton and a chest in there as well.  Eva casts Light so we can see.


Geddy considers the green crystal as we pass. It’s like a blacklight. 


Tavros: “You think we’re going to need this crystal?” 


Geddy: “Not yet.”


Tavros moves down the passage and comes around a corner to find himself facing a pair of doors. “Geddy? You’re up.” 


He cues up another power chord, and the door explodes. There’s another door behind it, but then the door reforms. Leira casts False Life on herself. Tavros tries the left-hand door, and the doors vanish, leaving the ones behind them. Left left right left… and we’re back. Left left right left left. Nope, it turns out the doors randomize, we've just been stupidly lucky.


Leira tries Dimension Door, but there’s a Dimensional Lock on this area. 


Geddy heads back to the skeleton and the chest. The skeleton was human, and is very very old – crumbling to dust. Geddy opens the chest. Inside he finds several small pieces of a crystal; a bag with 27,000 GP. Geddy grabs the chunks of crystal and returns to the doors. 


When we wave the crystal on the doors, one of them has the visage of a horrible evil mind flayer on it, visible in the light of the crystals. We follow the Mind Flayer images, and emerge at the end of the passage. There’s a portcullis, and the two guards are lying on the ground. Their heads have been exploded. Mutant mind flayers are licking up bits of brain. Bouvier is on his knees in front of this horrible elder mind flayer. 


“Are you the foolish other king? I have been behind Bouvier this whole time. You did not think he had the wherewithal to mount an attempt on the throne himself, did you?” 


Tavros, to himself; Damn it. Now I’m going to have to save Bouvier! He thinks of Jacqueline Bouvier, and draws his sword. The mind flayer Dimension Doors out beside us, and wraps tentacles all over Tavros’ head – ten of them. 


Leira drops an Intensified icy Meteor Swarm, and two meteors get past the monster’s spell resistance. It does a ridiculous amount of damage, but the thing doesn’t go down. Geddy walks up to the monster and uses a scroll of Imprisonment… but the Mind Flayer escapes the effect. 


Tavros tries to tear loose from the tentacles, but fails. Eva casts Cure Critical Wounds on Tavros. The elder Mind Flayer turns his head to look at Geddy and tries to mentally squish Geddy’s head. Geddy: “He can suck out your brain from a distance!”


Leira drops a second Intensified icy Meteor swarm, and this time all four meteors get past his spell resistance. He tries to be incorporeal, but his timing is off; he drops Tavros and tries to dodge aside, partially succeeding. She follows up with a quickened Intensified frozen fireball, but fails to get past its spell resistance. Geddy drops Freedom of Movement on Tavros. 


Tavros turns to attack the beast, but he’s still disoriented from nearly having his brain sucked out and throws his sword past the thing instead. Eva throws another Cure Critical on Tavros. 


The Mind Flayer uses a quickened Dimension Door to get to Leira, and wraps her up in tentacles. Leira transports herself behind Tavros; Geddy takes a shot at the thing but misses. Tavros scoops up his sword and takes a five foot step towards the beast. Eva goes to dragon form, which means she’s blocking the passage and also she’s kind of cramped. 


It tries to use the distance Brain Suck on Leira, but she resists. She tries a frosty Fireball, but fails to get past its spell resistance. Geddy tries again but misses. Tavros manages to connect with his sword, doing some damage; Eva tries to hit him with weakening gas, but he shrugs it off. 


He attacks Tavros with his tentacles again, and wraps up Tavros’ head. However, since Tavros has Freedom of Movement on now, he slips free effortlessly. Leira drops another ice-fireball, and gets past his spell resistance. Geddy tries another power chord, and misses. Tavros attacks, hitting twice, and the thing staggers. Eva hits with a bite and a claw. 


He makes one more attempt to eat Leira’s brain… 


…and she tags him with another frozen fireball. 


The thing hits the ground. 


There are zombie mind flayers on the other side of the portcullis; they go still. Bouvier is back there too, still kneeling and swaying. Tavros lifts the portcullis up, and we pull 83,000 GP worth of art, money, and gems. There’s also a ring of invisibility. 


Tavros checks Bouvier over and wipes his face off with a wet rag. Bouvier: “Thank you…”


Tavros: “Good Lord, man. How long did that thing have you under its control?” 


Bouvier: “...Thing?” 


Bouvier has no memory of anything after the King was killed and the armies split. Geddy talks him through what happened. 


Basically, after the dark army left Welfort, he moved in to seize the fortified position; his advisors were advising him to seize power, and that’s the last thing he remembers. He does not remember declaring himself king. He has no memory of the mind flayers; they might have been drawn here by the Order of Secrets and their dark experiments. 


Tavros brings him up to speed on the current state of affairs. 


Bouvier: “You are the last remaining Fontaine? My King… I am here to serve you.”


We get him healed up a little, and sort through what we need to do next to get everything under control. The LaMarke Merchants in Landsend will have a lot of connections, and want a lot of concession. The Wildlanders – a second batch that Durest left in Sander’s Reach – should also be peeled away and turned to Tavros’ direct service. 


We return to the throne room to find Verkander waiting for us: “Three hundred, and I fight for you!” 


Tavros: “Sure. Another 100,000 will bring us up to your 300,000.” 


Verkander: “AND?”


Tavros: “And beer, of course.”


Verkander: “Deal.”


So, we’ve acquired another Avatar, without a long-term commitment. We start checking treasure. We find Bouvier’s diary from his time under control… he’s perfectly appalled by the contents. We check the desk, but since Bouvier and his magic signet are with us, we don't get hit by the traps and instead find some papers that will allow us to seize ill-gotten assets. 189,000 GP worth, in fact. We find more Kingly attire, and Bouvier turns that over to Tavros. $40,000 worth of attire. The next chest is art; we leave it with Bouvier. The two chests of drawers have clothes; we leave that with Bouvier. We open a chest and find a very nice rapier, which we plan to sell. In the valet’s quarters we find a hidden door with money and works of art behind it. 


We need to rest, and we do; Bouvier makes his public pledge of loyalty, and we meet briefly with his court to make sure everybody is up to speed on the current state of affairs. Then we teleport out to Landsend. 


The keep here is small and worn, but still solid; Landsend relies primarily on Fort Dido for defense. Bouvier has sent an honor guard with us, so we roll up in Kingly style and introduce ourselves. There’s a bit of back-and-forth, and we are taken in to visit Magister McLeod. 


Leira: “‘Sup?”


Magister: “What brings you here?”


Tavros: “Any aspiring king must concern himself with trade and commerce, and where better to find it?”


Leira proceeds to charm the magister, who is very impressed with our culture and dignity. Geddy scratches himself, and then – at the Magister’s request – launches into a song for the court to tremendous applause. 


We are taken into the court. The LaMarke merchants aren’t what you’d call respectable, but they’re very well connected and Tavrios is prepared to flatter them. We clear up the matter of Bouvier no longer presenting himself as king, and we work out terms where Magister McLeod will become Baron of Landsend and environs; he will not lean on the local populace too hard, so we won’t get a discount on equipment, but he will be able to tax merchant trade and impose certain tariffs at the king’s discretion. This is acceptable, so we have a deal. 


We head over Sander’s Reach. It’s a chaotic, lawless mess; Geddy gathers some information. Avina Elton is the warlord captain who’s put herself in charge of the area. She also has an army of 100 regenerating skeletons. She has a rod of control that allows her to control twice her hit dice in skeletons. 


Leira blasts the skeletons and Tavros comes in and challenges her to a duel. She accepts, and dies immediately. We take the rod, and hand it off to Geddy. We’ll throw the skeletons at the demons, and take Sander’s Reach for our own. 


Tavros is pretty much in charge of the kingdom, except for Duendewood which he's turning over to Mythrandril. We send out messengers to announce the current state of affairs and call for any undecided forces to come to our side. Now is the time! We will need everyone loyal to the kingdom to defeat the demons and prepare to take back Solstar.


But first, we need to defeat Vecna. We're going to want the whole party on that one.