Friday, September 29, 2023

Dark Armor: The Throne and the Treaty

The throne room was much as it had been before: the Obsidian Throne a looming presence but its only occupant pacing angrily at the foot of its platform. Ravaj was there as well, of course, along with Counselor Barias and master Paledes, a smattering of other courtiers, and a half-dozen scribes. Voices filled the air: talking, gossiping, arguing.

"Wizard-King Teres," called the High Magister as they spilled into the room. Her voice carried, and the crowd fell silent by degrees. 

She intimidates them, Pallian thought, in some ways more than my father does. She hadn't shown signs of anything like his father's temper, but she was a queen in her own right... and a powerful one from a rival kingdom. Nobody here wished to offend her, especially not if it might attract the wizard-king's wrath. And she commanded the Shadow of Edrias, just as the wizard-king commanded the Black Knight.

His Majesty stopped and turned, waiting as the royalty of Edrias approached him. Pallian didn't stop with them; instead, he continued on to his father's side, then circled behind him to position himself opposite Ravaj. 

"It seems we have little time left to negotiate," said Kareth Teres. "We must locate this emissary and destroy it. My advisors and I had time to make some small changes to your proposed treaty; please read and tell us if you find them acceptable."

The High Magister came forward and her body-servant followed; Pallian stepped forward behind his father, mirroring the leonine man. 

There was a long silence as the High Magister read, broken by occasional mutters among the gathered nobles. At last she motioned her daughters forward, and showed the treaty to them. Pallian stood and watched as she pointed out particular sections and listened to their murmured reactions.

Finally she turned back to the wizard-king, and Pallian felt himself tense. "Remove the section regarding the river-port tariffs," she said, "and in the face of such destruction as had been reported I will place my sigil next to yours to affirm it."

"That section..." he began, but behind him master Paledes stepped forward. 

"Surely we can resolve that later, Majesty."

Pallian found that he had shifted to watch Paledes as well as the royalty of Edrias; he didn't think there was even the smallest chance that Paledes might put a cursed knife in his father's back, but Westrov's training had been thorough. 

The wizard-king's shoulders tightened and his teeth clenched, but for once he mastered himself. "Very well," he said. "In the face of such destruction... it will be done."

The scribes came forward then, tracing the treaty until they located the offending section and crossed it out. Then two of them dragged a writing-desk forward, and they stood as witnesses while the High Magister and then the Wizard-King placed their sigils at the bottom of the treaty. 

Signed and witnessed, Pallian thought. He wondered what the first-princess of Edrias was like.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Paladins: Laina and Raven and the Boy's Story

"Will you tell it, then?" asked Laina. 

"After dinner, perhaps," said the woman. She was tall and slender and dark-haired, beautiful in her way. Beautiful enough to make Laina feel a bit plain, at least. Raven just studied her, but Laina nodded. 

"As you wish." 

"I could tell my story," said Damlok, emerging from behind the woman, who presumably was his mother. 

She tilted her head to look down at him. "If you like," she said.

Damlok shook his head and straightened. "When I was four years old," he began, "my father buried me in the back yard to prove to his friends that I was his."

Laina frowned. "That doesn't seem like a nice thing to do," she observed. 

The boy shrugged. "I didn't mind. It was kind of cozy. And when I got bored I just dug my way back out."

Laina suddenly remembered that she could detect evil, and activated the ability. She got a vague sense of something moving outside as one of the undead passed near the house, but the woman was mundane. The boy kind of... shimmered... but he wasn't any sort of supernatural evil either. "How did you manage that?" she asked. 

The boys shrugged. "I don't really know. I've always been able to do it, though. It's because of my dad, and he was always doing things like that to test me. Well, until Mother took me away. I thought it was normal."

"It's not normal," said Laina immediately. "Not what you can do, and not what your father did. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you, of course. It just means you're... unusual."

Damlok grinned at her. "I like being unusual. Unusual is interesting. I once made my teacher think I'd drowned when we were out on a boat, but that wasn't as funny as thought it would be. And she said I couldn't be around the other students after that." 

His mother gave a long-suffering sigh. "Damlok..." 

"I know, Mother," the boy said, looking up at her. He looked back at Laina. "I don't do things like that anymore. I try to be a good boy."

"That's good," said Laina. "That means you're learning." I am so far out of my depth here, she realized. She really had no idea how to talk to children, or how to sort out whatever was going on here, or even to figure out why her thrice-cursed goddess wanted her involved in all this, whatever it was. 

"He is a good boy," said his mother.

"Damlok! Sarha! Come and help me set the table!" Shera's voice carried easily down the hall from the kitchen, and the boy and his mother turned to go. 

"Best to just let them do it," said Choran, as Laina started to rise. "They'll all be insulted if we try to pitch in."

Laina considered for a brief moment, then nodded.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Challenge: Bad Mood

(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: How I shake off a bad mood.

I'm actually trying out antidepressants right now because this week at work is horrifyingly stressful, or possibly just horrifying and stressful. We went live with a new system back on Sunday, and honestly? We were still getting reports of issues and errors over the weekend. 

Which... we could have done this. We could have gone live with this system. But we should have done it in parallel with the old system, for at least another month and probably three. Instead, apparently, we're going to close down the old system and lock it for auditing purposes, which means that we'll have nothing to compare against to see if the new system is doing its job correctly. 

Are they helping? By the time I put this up on Wednesday, I hope to have an answer for that. (Update: no, I really don't. Partly because we did the latest Flu and Covid vaccines on Sunday, and holy poot that was a lot.)

Other things I do to shake off a bad mood: 

  • Read. Yes, I know, preaching to the choir on this one. But a bit of quiet time alone with a book is a balm to the soul. 
  • Walk. It's Texas, it was 85 degree F this morning, heading for a high of 98, which means two things:
    • Going for a walk isn't always feasible.
    • It's actually substantially cooler than it has been.
  • Drinking. Can't do this one right now; the antidepressants do not mix well with alcohol. Think dangerous drops in blood pressure kind of Do Not Mix Well. Still, this is probably for the better; drinking is one of those coping strategies that can turn into a problem itself. 
  • Video games. Like reading, a bit of time spent by myself playing a video game can be restorative. I even have a couple of games that I go back to fairly regularly -- sort of like comfort-reads, but comfort-plays instead. 
  • Dungeons and Dragons. Go hang out with some friends, pretend to be someone I'm not, fight the forces of evil... or side with them. Therapeutic either way. 

 So that's me and bad moods. How about you?

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Paladins: Laina and Raven in the Sitting Room.

Laina shook her head. "It was a nudge from the goddess," she said. "There was something she wanted me to see here."

The old man Choran nodded and looked over to Raven, who shrugged and said: "I go where she goes."

"You've seen them, then?" the old man asked, stroking his silver beard. "The things that try to come onto our lands?"

"What?" asked Laina. "No, what do you mean?"

"They're little things," said Choran. "We can't see them, mostly. They giggle when they make their mischief. I think they caused the illness that made the workers so hostile."

Your workers are dead, Laina thought, but decided not to have that conversation again.  "How often do they come?"

"A handful every week. But excuse me, I'm being rude. Would either of you like some brandy?" He picked up his glass from the side table, gestured with it. 

"Not yet, but I thank you," said Laina. Raven just shook her head. 

"Ah, well," said the old man, and tossed off the glass. "That'll make it awkward to propose a toast."

"We're not much for toasts," said Raven. 

"Not until we've had a chance to actually help out," Laina added. "Can you tell us what's going on here?"

The old man looked at his empty glass, then set it aside with a look of regret. "It's not really my story to tell," he said. 

"No," said a woman's voice from behind them. "It's mine."

Monday, September 25, 2023

Paladins: Laina and Raven at the Farmhouse of Death

The front door opened as they approached. "Come in! Come in!" said the old woman, motioning Laina and Raven inside. "The workers didn't hurt you, did they?"

"No, but--" Laina shook her head. "What's going on here?"

"I don't know," said the woman. "There was an illness that swept through the farmworkers a few weeks before harvest. We did what we could -- sent for herbwife, summoned master Dobsin -- but it was no good. After a while they all recovered, but they turned strange. They won't let anyone near them, or near us either."

"You know they're all dead, right?" asked Raven. 

The woman looked to be somewhere in her eighties; her hair was pure silver, her skin wrinkled, and her movements careful. She was wearing a simple dress, and the expression on her face was pure shock. "What? Nonsense! Just look at them out there, hale and healthy. Brought the harvest in, put aside their share... No, they're very definitely still alive."

What is going on here? Laina turned to look out the front windows, and sure enough the workers in the fields were vibrantly alive. As she watched, one of them turned to gesture to another, who approached and fell into a thoughtful conversation."They were... they were skeletons and zombies when we were outside," she explained, wondering if she had gone mad. 

"That hardly seems possible," the old woman said firmly. "But come, make yourselves at home. I have to get back to work or dinner will burn, but surely you can stay long enough to partake of our hospitality."

"I-- we-- Yes, of course," said Laina, feeling slightly dazed. Were the old woman's teeth just a little too sharp? No, she didn't think so. What was...?

"Damlok! Damlok! Where are you, child?"

A child of perhaps ten years emerged from the hallway, and looked the two of them over with a severe expression. "You aren't supposed to be here," he said. 

"Damlok," the old woman chided. "Remember your manners. These are our guests, and we will show them proper hospitality. Be a dear and show them to the sitting room while I finish making dinner."

Damlok sighed, then turned to look at them again. "Welcome to our home," he said woodenly. "I'm Damlok."

"Ah," said the old woman, "and I'm Shera. I'm sorry, I quite forgot to make introductions in all the excitement."

"I'm Laina, and this is Raven."

The boy tilted his head. He was dark-haired and dark-eyed, with olive skin, and he wore a neat jacket over a linen shirt. "Now that's a good name. I wish my mom had named me Raven. Well, come on. The sitting room is this way. You can meet Grandpa Choran there, if he isn't napping in his chair."

Laina and Raven exchanged a glance; then Raven nodded. Laina gestured for the boy to lead the way, which he did while Shera-- presumably his grandmother? --turned aside into a large and well-appointed kitchen. The house around them seemed clean and well-maintained, and Laina found herself at something of a loss. 

The sitting room was equally nice, decorated with a couple of paintings and a handful of tapestries; there were bookshelves and padded chairs and small tables. An old man, easily the same age as Shera, was snoring softly in a chair; but his eyes snapped open as they came into the room. "Ah," he said. "You're here. Good. It's been so long since we've had visitors." 

"This is Laina," said Damlok, carefully formal, "and this is Raven. Laina and Raven, this is my grandfather, Choran."

"A pleasure," said Laina. Raven stepped up beside her and offered an uncomfortable-looking smile. 

"Well, do have a seat," said Choran, gesturing at the variety of chairs and the small loveseat. Most were angled to face the fireplace, though there was no fire set. "I imagine my beautiful wife will have dinner ready for us all in just a bit."

"Yes, of course," said Laina, and seated herself across from him. 

Raven moved to stand beside her chair.

"I should really go and tell Mother that we have guests," said Damlok. 

"Yes, do that," answered his grandfather. He turned his attention back to them as his grandson departed. "Now then... what brings the two of you here?"

For my own reference: Laina is a low-level paladin of Nepthys, the creator-goddess and guardian of balance. Raven is a low level cleric, with the Magic and Knowledge domains, possibly of Amun or possibly without having really settled on a patron deity yet. (Need to talk to the DM about whether that's really possible in this world.) Overall, we're talking level two characters here, maybe three at a stretch.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Dark Armor: Tea in the Garden

The paths came together again at the far end of the gardens, in another wide half-circle of white gravel. Lady Vathira had arranged for small tables to be waiting for them, set with many refreshments: fruit juices, teas, and soft wines; honeyed pastries and fresh fruits; fine cheeses and delicate crackers to hold them. 

Pallian waited until their guests had filled their cups and plates -- all silver, of course, and fit for royalty -- and then filled his own. The midday sun was growing warm, and he found himself unaccustomed to it; he'd spent too much time living in the crypt. He would have liked to sit quietly, perhaps with a book, but again that would have been rude. Instead, he seated himself with Lady Vathira and the Royalty of Edrias, carefully watching to make sure his attention was divided evenly between them. The High Magister's body servant had taken a seat at a second table just outside of their circle. He ate with quick, precise bites, his eyes flicking alertly around.

Lady Vathira had just finished a brief account of how the Scholarshome had come to be built in the city -- Pallian wasn't entirely sure how they'd gotten onto the topic, but he was glad not to be the only one talking -- when the messenger approached.

The messengers of the citadel were taken from among the younger servants, often friends of noble families or children from the wrong side of the bed. The role gave them an income, but also taught discretion and the importance of making connections; royal messengers might move to serve particular Houses, or rise to become secretaries or even find noble marriages if their backgrounds permitted. 

This one was, by the look of her, only just coming into womanhood; still a child, but a child who knew and understood her responsibilities... and the dangers that came with them. She stopped well back of the assemblage, even before Pallian or the body servant could rise, and knelt. "Noble-born," she said. "We have just had word. The city of Marinul has fallen. The Emissary reached it in the night. The earliest reports suggest that nothing remains save for the dying and some few survivors outside of the walls. The Wizard-King bids you come at once."

The High Magister rose, surveying Pallian and Lady Vathira by turns, and then focused on the messenger. "Take us to him." She turned to her body-servant. "Send your eyes to confirm."

The lion-man nodded and gestured, and for a moment a ghostly eagle sat on his wrist. Then the bird took to the sky, impossibly fast, and they were following the messenger back to the keep.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Paladins: Laina and Raven at the Farm

The estate was large, and the house -- set far back beyond the fields -- was grand. A little ways off, a dirt road traced its way from the main road, through the fields and to the house. Laina sighed and started walking. Behind her, Raven sighed even more loudly and followed. 

"Do we really have to do this?" asked Raven. "Necromancy is so boring."

"Is it?" asked Laina, curious. She still wasn't certain why Raven had decided to come with her, what the girl actually wanted, or how much of what she presented to the world was genuine and how much was pretense. 

"Real death is better," Raven said. "Real death is final."

"Well, get ready," Laina told her. Several of the zombies and skeletons around them -- all carefully dressed as ordinary peasant farm-workers -- had straightened and turned to face them. "Real death may be coming after us."

Raven looked around as they moved in, then lifted a hand. "Oh, please," she said, and Laina felt the power gather and move out from her, carrying a vague sense of affront. One of the zombies collapsed; the rest shambled away. "Boring."

Laina chuckled and continued down the road. 

More farmhands -- zombies and skeletons all -- turned and approached them, and this time Raven's gesture didn't turn them all away. "Someone," Laina observed, "doesn't want company." Then she moved among their attackers, slashing with the knife, angling to make sure her attacks didn't slide empty between unclad bones. Behind her, Raven had sighed, pulled out a morning star, and made good use of it. Those of their attackers that remained went down. 

"I kind of want to meet whoever's doing this," said Raven, and Laina nodded. She did too. The way to the house was clear now, so she strode ahead.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Paladins: Laina and Raven on the road

"There's something wrong here," said Laina, and turned to look out the window of the coach. 

"There's always something wrong," said Raven, but she straightened and pulled the curtains aside as well. 

The road was brightly lit, and they were passing a large farm; the workers in the field toiled steadily, ignoring their passage. Something... It was something about the way they moved. Something very wrong about the way they moved. 

Laina opened the door and stuck her head and torso out. "Driver! Stop the carriage!"

The little girl -- Adira, age six, and sitting on the bench across from her with her mother -- gasped and pressed into her mother's side. Opposite them, the girl's father Drabben said, "Here now, there's no cause for--" 

The carriage was already slowing. "You're certain?" called the driver, glancing back and down. 

Laina nodded. "The road should be safe enough for you, but we need to get off here."

The man sighed. He was young, and had looked at both Laina and Raven with... maybe not lust, exactly, but at least hope. "As you wish." 

Drabben said, "This hardly seems--" but his little girl met his eyes and said: "Hush! They're adventuring."

"We most certainly are not," Raven said glumly. "We're just going to go put ourselves in danger because Nepthys wants us too. It will probably end very badly."

Laina glanced back at her, grinned, and then met the little girl's eyes. "There are other, better ways to help people, Adira. Just being fair to them is always a good place to start."

The girl nodded solemnly, and Laina swung herself out onto the road as the carriage came to a stop. A moment later Raven stepped out behind her, and the driver set the brake and scrambled back to help them with their gear. "Take care," he said. "I'll be back through in four days. I'll keep an eye out for you, though I'll be headed back to Drisnan Springs. But if you don't mind the wait, we can start out fresh after that."

"He's sweet," said Raven flatly, as if that were a condemnation. 

"You stick to your duties," said Laina, "and let us stick to ours. If Nepthys wills it, our paths will cross again... and if She doesn't, then I wish you well in all things."

The young man blushed. He'd never even managed to give them his name; he was just the driver of the mail coach. Still, he smiled and waved as he climbed back onto the bench and clicked his mouth at the horses. The little girl Adira put her head out the window and waved. "Kill the evil!"

Laina waved back.

"What now?" asked Raven, looking at their bags where they sat on the roadside. 

Laina considered the heavy one with the full plate armor, then the brigandine coat that she'd managed to coax out of the Temple of Amun. Neither really appealed to her; nor did the sword, or the shield. She'd found a leatherworker in town to make a leather sheath for the silver bread-knife, which she now wore at her hip. That had been enough so far; Nepthys willing, it would continue to be. 

"Let's get this stuff into the bushes," she said, "and see what's going on at this farm."

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Ruin: The Bear Necessities

Ruin ducked, and the bear-woman's claws tore a chunk out of the tree behind him. He slipped aside, parrying as best he could with his sword still in its sheath. The attacks were unrelenting, and he hadn't had a chance to draw it yet. For a moment he considered trying to Dimension Door out of reach, but he wasn't that desperate yet. 

The werebear reached for him with both paws, mouth open and coming down for a bite, and Ruin shoved the tip of his scabbard into her throat. She drew back, startled and choking, then took a step back and settled back down into her True Elf form.

"You're right," Nym told him, rubbing at her throat. "That's fun. Harder than it looks, but fun."

"You've got the makings of a formidable warrior," Ruin told her. "Your natural abilities alone..." 

"Yes, but with practice--" Her eyes sparkled with glee. "--I could do so much more. I could keep everybody safe, even the druids."

Ruin nodded. 

"And I'm not the Jensenian Virgin anymore," she said, eyeing him with a barely-concealed smirk. "In fact, I'm late. I might be carrying your child."

"I wouldn't mind that," said Ruin. "Not if you don't mind. I don't know how much I'll be around to help as a parent, though. My track record isn't great on that account."

"You'd better at least make it a point to come around, even if Alnira and I..." 

Ruin blinked. "If you what?" he asked, genuinely curious. 

"We've kind of been... you know... together." 

Ruin shook his head. "I didn't know. Congratulations. I..." He shook his head, at a loss for words. "I'll come around as much as I can, of course."

Nym studied him for a moment and said, "If you live."

Ruin blinked, then blinked again. "Yes. How did you--?"

"I heard about the battle at the grove, and how you're supporting the Two Kings against the Order of Secrets, and working as the champion of Corellon Larethian..." 

"You-- I'm what?" asked Ruin, honestly aghast. 

"There was this bard who came through. He asked a lot of questions about you, but he also told a lot of stories about you. And I'm not stupid, Ruin. We've heard about the warbear queen. I think that Jensen person came out here and provoked me into attacking him just so she could become a werebear. There aren't that many of us, and it seems like an awfully big coincidence otherwise."

"Ah," said Ruin. "Oh."

"Do you want to become a werebear?" she asked. "I mean, it would make some things so much easier. And you'd be stronger, less likely to die. I could bite you all gentle-like."

Ruin hesitated. He was more tempted than he was willing to admit, but... "I don't think I have time to learn to control it," he said. 

"Later, then," Nym smiled. "In that case, do you want to... go inside? I know you've been with Alnira again. I can smell her on you, and it's making me... a little crazy. Can we do something about that?"

"We can do something about that," said Ruin, and walked with her towards the inn.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Vendril: Midnight Excursions

Vendril watched the hooded figures slip across the rooftop, then stood up and followed, mimicking their movements as he slipped in among them. There were six of them, and for a moment he seemed a seventh. Then, with a light touch of silence and the quick flick of a blade, he left the sixth in the shadow of an enclosed stairwell and became the sixth himself. 

He'd come up to the roof because being in high places helped him relax and think. He hadn't intended to thwart an assassination, but as long as he had the opportunity...

Ahead of them, the roof ended at a low stone wall. Beyond that, it dropped to a lower roof, and from there to the training yards at the center of the temple. The intruders had come equipped with ropes and grappling hooks padded with strips of cloth to make as little noise as possible. It wasn't a bad approach; very likely nobody would have noticed if Vendril hadn't been standing on the roof already. 

He darted to one side and murdered another would-be assassin, leaving the corpse in a pool of shadow. The dagger was new, as was the bracer on his left forearm where it usually rested. It was an artifact in two pieces, the weapon and protection of the Shadow of the Clan. 

Five figures reached the inner edge of the roof at carefully-spaced intervals, and for all that his garments didn't quite match theirs, Vendril stood and moved as one of them. There was a momentary pause as they stopped to assess their course. Then the one on the end gestured-- and caught himself, realizing that one of his companions was missing. 

By then, though, two of the assassins were already over the wall and down, leaving behind ropes hooded to the stone wall. 

Vendril threw the dagger. It should have been an impossible shot, but the dagger was enchanted to fly further than an ordinary blade. It struck the leader and he staggered; the remaining assassin turned, silently drawing a pair of daggers. Vendril drew his rapier as the dagger returned to his hand. 

The assassins on the lower roof had realized something was wrong; Vendril could hear the faint scuffing as they came back up their ropes, but it was too late to matter. The rapier did its work, and the assassin in front of him fell: uncut, but too battered to move any further. That one would live. He ducked aside as a trio of darts flashed past him, probably tipped with something horrible, and used the bracer to make himself invisible as the other two scrambled over the edge and onto the upper roof. 

They were well-trained, and knew how to work as a team; they immediately formed a triangle, putting their backs to each other. 

Vendril took a moment to pick a target and judge his throw; then he put the dagger into the back of someone's neck. The assassin staggered and collapsed, and the other two turned on Vendril: attacking had made him visible again. 

He dodged another trio of poisoned darts, but took a dagger to the shoulder. Damn it. They moved in, trying to flank him, but he caught the leader with his rapier and he -- no, she --  fell. The remaining assassin attacked desperately, but he was scared now and it threw off his technique. Vendril took him down with the rapier as well. 

So: six assassins, three dead and three still alive. He could turn them over to Vigo, of course, but no. He remembered too well what that had been like. And there were other ways to get information. 

A healing potion took care of the cut on his arm, and a few minutes of careful searching relieved the assassins of their equipment. He used their own ropes to tie up the survivors, and their own hooks to hang them off the side of the temple. 

* * *

"You can't make me talk," said the assassin. The man was human, his face red as he hung upside down. "Kill me and get it over with."

Vendril leaned out from the wall, sitting comfortably in the rope harness he'd tied for himself. "No," he said. "That's not how this works. I know you'd rather die than tell me who hired you. I also know that given enough persuasion, you'll tell me anything I want to hear. But I don't have that kind of patience, and I don't enjoy that kind of work. So if you don't tell me what I want to know..." He nudged the man's shoulder with his boot, turning him so that he could see the other two captives. "...I'm going to drop him, just to show you that I'm serious. And then, if you still don't answer, I'm going to drop her.

He was betting that would do it. The assassin might not fear his own death, but getting his companion and then his leader killed would be something else again. 

"You won't do it," the man said. 

Vendril laughed and kicked off the wall, swinging out and coming back in beside the next assassin. "No," said this man. "Please. Not like this."

Vendril took hold of the rope; the dagger was in his hand, its magically-sharp edge parting strands already as he touched it to the rope. Don't make me do this, he thought, but he let nothing but utter indifference show on his face. "Your call." He moved the blade, and the fibers started to part. 

"Wait!" yelled the woman. "Just-- just wait!" She was struggling against her bonds. Useless, since the best she could hope for would be to free herself and fall to her death. 

Vendril turned his head to look at her. 

"They can't tell you," she said. "They don't know. I don't know."

"What," asked Vendril, "do you know?"

"Jacqueline Bouvier," she said immediately. "That's who we were sent for. She's here in the temple somewhere, spying for her father."

Vendril decided not to argue over the details. "I know," he said. 

"Then you know we have to kill her. We're here to help the king, not to... not to kill him."

Well, that's a refreshing change. "I don't think the king will see it that way," he said thoughtfully. "He knows who she is, and he seems quite taken with her. And Giles Bouvier has been reconciled, and sworn loyalty to the Fontaine heir."

"He... what?" The woman struggled briefly, then settled again. 

"Someone's been feeding you bad information," Vendril told her. "Though I suppose the news wouldn't reach Brightland all that quickly."

The woman stared at him, and he knew he'd guessed correctly. "Benoit?" he asked. 

She nodded reluctantly. "Lara Benoit. That's how you should know we wouldn't..."

Vendril nodded. "Very well. Try to stay still. I'm going to fetch a couple of big, strong paladins to haul the three of you back up."

* * *

"We're in your debt," said Lara Benoit, looking at Vendril and then down at Brother Birno. Behind her, five other hired killers murmured their thanks. Three of them were still weak from resurrection, but they were all on their feet. 

"Properly," said Birno, who had done the resurrections himself, "justice should be done for your attempt at murder."

The woman flinched but didn't look away. "Then let it come for the one who hired us -- and who let us think that we were assisting the king's cause. The one who failed to mention that the Silver Fox was guarding this hen house."

Vendril raised his eyebrows. 

"Tabor saw your ring," she told him, then stepped forward and proffered a dagger. 

Vendril took it and looked it over. It was a fine piece of craftsmanship, with Benoit carved into the guard. "If you ever find yourself in need of aid," Lara said, "present that blade to any of our people, and you'll have it. I won't say it was a pleasure, but..." She shrugged. "Sometimes it's good to meet your heroes."

Friday, September 15, 2023

Dark Armor: The Hedge Maze

The next path led around the back of the hill, curving under the branches of an ancient and massive oak. A pair of marble benches had been placed in the shade of its branches, and were currently occupied by a trio of court ladies so deep in their own conversation that they failed to notice the new arrivals until the path curved in front of them, at which point they suddenly cut off, then rose and made courtesies. The High Magister offered a nod of acknowledgement, and after a moment the ladies returned to their gossip. 

Pallian had caught only a little of it, but they seemed to be discussing a potential marriage match for someone named Ethrinelle; nothing that would matter to him. 

"It is a lovely place," said High Magister Tamirya, just loudly enough to be overheard.

"Thank you," said Pallian. "I have always found it so."

"I must say it does my heart good to know that the House of Teres cultivates such beauty beside its gloom," Ashmiren said. "Especially if I am to live here."

Pallian glanced at her and nodded. "I hope I will find someplace suitably gloomy in Edrias, where I can take similar comfort."

"You think your father will accept our offer, then?" asked the High Magister. They were far enough from the tree now that the question wasn't indelicate or awkward; one of the ladies might perhaps use an Initiation to listen in, but anyone sophisticated and bold enough to do that would also be wise enough to keep to themselves anything they learned. 

"I do not know my father's mind," Pallian said, "and dare not presume to speak for him." He made it sound like a platitude, though it was more than true. "Still, in the face of an Emissary we must stand united -- and for that we must be able to trust each other. I do not see how that is possible without, as you put it, guarantees."

The High Magister nodded thoughtfully. Second-princess Arwidden opened her mouth to speak, hesitated, and then asked: "What is that?"

"That," said Pallian, "is the hedge maze."

The walls of the maze began dozen strides from the white-pebbled path. They were twelve feet high, neatly trimmed, and solid as a castle wall. Ahead of them, a sidepath led to the entrance.

Arwidden frowned. "Are those thorns?"

Pallian nodded. The thorns that guarded the walls of the hedge maze were as long as his fingers, jagged as lightning, and wickedly sharp. "My great-grandfather had very strong feelings about people trying to cheat the maze by forcing a way between the bushes."

"Ah." Arwidden looked impressed, and more so the closer their progress brought them. "Have you ever gone through it?" 

Ashmiren looked at her mother and raised her eyebrows; her mother gave a slight shake of her head, and Ashmiren feigned a momentary pout. It occured to Pallian then that the House of Edrias knew each other and liked each other a great deal better than his own family did. It took him a moment to shake that off and turn to the second-princess, but he said, "Several times, in my youth. The grotto was substantially less intimidating."

"I can imagine," Ashmiren said. "Down there you'd only have to worry about haunts and cave-creatures. Those thorns, by contrast, are scary." 

Pallian smiled. The third-princess might make light of it, but he thought she understood. "The grotto is lit with small enchantments, and holds a small waterfall in its belly. I always found it soothing. The hedge maze was for when we were feeling adventuresome or testing each other's courage. Of the two, well, you know which is my favorite path."

"Just so," Ashmiren said, and smiled in a way that made him want to make her smile more -- smile, and laugh, and relax. 

He caught himself just in time. It would be rude to focus his attention on her to the exclusion of her mother and sister, and he would not be rude to the Royalty of Edrias -- especially in front of Lady Vathira. He turned to the High Magister and said, apologetically, "I do not believe I could lead you through the maze without some risk of becoming lost, and in any case doing so would take us out of the sun."

The body servant gave a very slight nod at that. For all his height and bulk and leonine features, he was discreet; he'd followed and remained silent so long and so well that Pallian had almost forgotten he was there.

She nodded, and once again exchanged glances with her daughters. "Well taken," she said, glancing into the entryway of the hedge maze as they passed the side-path. "Let us continue on, then."

"If it pleases you," said Pallian, though in truth he was relieved. "Lady Vathira, do I recall correctly that the section ahead is the topiary garden?"

"It is, your Highness," said Lady Vathira. 

"Would you be so kind as to offer us some insight as to its contents and their creation as we pass through, then? I find my knowledge of that area lacking." Please take over the conversation for a moment, in other words, but it would also allow her to perform her role as the Royal Steward rather than a mere follower of the royals around her. 

She nodded firmly and smiled. "Of course."

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Challenge: Favorite Fairy Tale

(This post is part of the Wednesday Weekly Blogging Challenge. You can find links to other writers' answers over at Long and Short Reviews.)

Prompt: Favorite Fairy Tale or Legend and why.

You'd think with my interests and reading habits that this one would be easy, but I actually had real trouble coming up with something. It's much easier if I include myths in the mix as well, but I also think of those as a different category of things from Fairy Tales and Legends, so I'm not using any of them. (I think it's completely fair if anybody else decides to go that way with their answer, though.)

But while I have issues trying to come up with a favorite fairy tale, I do have a weakness for a well-done fairy tale retelling. And this particular one is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, from the perspective of the hapless fairy who's desperately trying to keep her from awakening and escaping the tower to do horrible things... and has been stuck in the empty castle for centuries in the process.

The book is Thornhedge by T. Kingfisher, and I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Dark Army: Hoist On His Own Petard

Kas Luthien paced back and forth across the chamber, occasionally glancing at the darkwater pool. It still showed the library, empty. The would-be king and the traitors were gone again. They were obviously still in the tower somehow, and every minute that passed brought all of them closer to the restoration of Fanaxia and the resurrection of his mistress Vecna. 

Still, they kept doing things that they shouldn't have been able to do. Watching the morgs paralyze the little gnome and the Dwint'lithar girl had been deeply satisfying, but then that brat who called himself Ruin had ripped the morgs off them and tossed the undead right off the tower. The heretic priest had taken a few blows, but he'd also been fighting with a flame blade that somehow worked despite the suppression of their magics. Their sorceress was all but useless now, but still she could somehow fire off magic missiles... and the half-dragon had cut the Angel of Decay apart. 

None of that should have been possible. 

He still didn't know how they managed to disappear. Whatever they were doing, they were obviously using the opportunity to rest and heal -- though again, how that was possible he couldn't imagine. They should have been dead three times over already. 

Almonda was right, he decided. He had his magics; they didn't. He should go down there and kill them himself. He turned and strode for the door, placed his hand upon the handle, and yanked it open. 

A fly buzzed past his ear. 

He stopped in the doorway. Slowly he turned and looked back at the darkwater pool... and at the twin piles of platinum beside it. 

He couldn't. If he went down there and ended this himself, he would be cheating on the bet he'd made with Malafar. It was one thing to lose a bet with the Hierophant; it was quite another to try to cheat him. No, he was trapped in his artificial maze just as much as his intended victims were. Which was, no doubt, exactly what the Hierophant Malafar had intended. 

"You fucking bastard," he rasped. He had to wait for their arrival now, relying on the measures he'd already put in place. Relying on Almonda, very likely. He felt a sting with the realization. Malafar couldn't help but win, at this point. If their enemies died, then the Order of Secrets came out ahead and the Hierophant could point out that he had blessed Luthien's endeavor. If they somehow survived the maze and slew Luthien, then there was one less rival for their Mistress' attention. And if Luthien went downstairs, even to assist Almonda and her forces, he would be violating the bet and giving Malafar an excuse to be rid of him. 

Standing in the open doorway, Luthien called for food and drink and then went to settle himself beside the darkwater pool again. None of that mattered, he told himself. This would work. 

It had to.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Ruin: Hierophant Candidates, part Seven

"You understand I have no interest in jellied shots," said Elendor, watching him from across the campfire. "I was... misled... to take up the worship of the sacred dragon Jensen, and I will not be tempted by the pleasures of the flesh again."

Ruin glanced down into the flames for a long moment. "Perhaps you think I wish to sleep with the druids who might become Hierophant, and judge them on that basis." He looked up and met her eyes. "No." He paused, drew breath, released it. Then he drew breath again and said, "I want the druids restored. They -- you -- are a vital part of Duendewood, and we are weaker without you."

Elendor studied him for a long moment, then settled back. "It is good that you know that."

Ruin kept his expression still and resisted the urge to shake his head. Elendor might prove to be the best leader for the druids, but the fact remained that he simply didn't like her. For a bastion of natural wisdom, she was abrasive, opinionated, and very set in her way of thinking. 

"I could do the job, of course," she said. "The others would follow my lead. But I have responsibilities here." She hesitated visibly, then added: "And after going astray in the worship of Jensen, I am not wholly sure I trust myself to take charge of any more than I have now."

Ruin nodded. "What of Zoriel?" 

"Young," said Elendor, "and perhaps a touch too sure of himself. Still, he was first among Saldhael's apprentices, and he did try to hold us together after the Hierophant died. He failed, but he did try. We could assuredly do worse than Zoriel, and with the position formally conferred he would have a much easier time of trying to lead us."

"Would you support him?" 

"If you chose him? Yes. Absolutely. I will support whomever you decide on, though why the Hierophant left that decision to you..."

Ruin shrugged. He was more than a little sympathetic to that reaction. "The old man had some peculiar ideas about balance and responsibility," he told her. "I don't understand it either, but I'm trying to do right by him. What of Alnira, then?"

"I don't know. I certainly question some of her decisions," Elendor said, giving Ruin a pointed look, "but she had done her best to guide and protect the less experienced of us. She is much like Zoriel in some ways; she too is young, and she too was the foremost apprentice of a respected druid. Does she desire the position?"

"No," Ruin admitted. "She feels her responsibilities here, and to the Council of Nine. She would do the job if it fell to her, but but she doesn't feel that she's ready for it."

"Wise girl," said Elendor. "And you have no interest in becoming Hierophant yourself, it seems."

Ruin shook his head immediately. "My connection to the world and its environments is very different from yours. I suppose that to some extent leadership is leadership, but I don't see how I could provide that without a fundamental understanding of the nature and needs of the druids."

"Well then," said Elendor, "you certainly have your work cut out for you. Have you any other questions for me?"

"No, but I'll come and find you if I do." Ruin rose, bowed, and turned away. Behind him, Elendor went back to mixing ingredients for poultices; it seemed she was expecting to have to treat more wounds before long.

Friday, September 8, 2023

Dark Armor: Studies in Obsidian

The white gravel path wound gently beneath a staggered series of cherry trees, though it was too late in the season to see the blossoms. Soft, lush grasses spread beyond them to the right, while to the left lay a long, stone-edge pond; the path traced the edge of the pond, but far enough out to give the trees room to grow. 

"It is lovely," said the High Magister. "Are those koi, in the waters?"

"Goldfish," Pallian said, meeting her eyes and offering a respectful nod. "There's said to be an ancient one, twice as long as the height of man, who surfaces sometimes during the dark of the moon to whisper secrets or grant wishes."

"And does this beast exist?" asked second-princess Arwidden. 

Pallian considered, then said: "When I was a child I was convinced it did, but every child in the citadel knows the story; and the details of who saw it and what it said or granted seemed to vary according to who was telling the tale."

The High Magister laughed. "We have such tales in Edrias as well. Some of them may even be true."

At the end of the cherry trees they left the pond of the goldenfish behind, and now the path began to climb, albeit slightly. On their right was one of the statue-gardens, this one traced by cobblestone paths to mark its departure from the path they walked. "May we?" asked third-princess Ashmiren, motioning towards it. 

"Of course," said Pallian, and turned aside to lead them into it. 

The statues here were all of obsidian, but their pedestals had been inscribed with names and descriptions and the carved letters were filled in with gold to make them visible. The plantings behind each statue had been chosen to complement it with particular colors or themes that matched the nature of the subject. The poet and satirist Devolio was surrounded on three sides by roses, equal parts beauty and barbs; that of the famous mage-general Vokor was given lilies, for all the deaths he had caused. 

At the third statue, Queen Simirana the Deathcaller, Arwidden stopped and turned to study Pallian speculatively. "Even here..." she said. "Forgive the crudeness of my question, but... what is it with your House and obsidian?"

Lady Vathira drew breath, but Pallian held up a hand while he sorted through the memories of some of his earliest lessons. "Understand first, that the stone possesses certain qualities that the early House of Teres considered symbolic: born of the burning blood of the earth, and things like that. Many of the earliest knives and other tools were of obsidian, either sung into shape or painstakingly chipped to be deadly sharp." He paused to draw breath. "What really sealed it, though, as I recall, was that the princess Niza used her control of obsidian blades to slay an enemy whose initiations rendered him immune to fire and steel." He was fairly sure, at least, that the enemy champion had not belonged to the House of Edrias. If he was wrong about that...

"Tamor Verwind," said Arwidden. "There are still songs of that battle, and even a few first-hand accounts."

So the soldier-general is also a historian, Pallian thought, but simply nodded. He wasn't that surprised. "If you're interested in the details of the history, and what symbolism the early House of Teres associated with obsidian, I'm certain Lady Vathira could arrange to have some texts sent to your room. But to answer your unspoken question: yes, it does feel somewhat... ineluctable... at times."

Arwidden studied him for a long moment, then nodded and turned to Lady Vathira. "If you can provide as your prince promises, I would very much like to see those texts."

"Of course, second-princess," said Lady Vathira, without so much as a glance at Pallian. 

"Second-prince," said Ashmiren, looking at Pallian. "Am I correct in assuming that the statues here, however edifying the study of the figures they represent, are not the reason that you most favor this path?"

"You are," Pallian admitted. 

"May I ask where it is you intend to take us, or will that spoil the surprise?"

Pallian laughed. "It wasn't intended to be a surprise, as such. I was just hoping to offer you a pleasant morning's entertainment. I have a particular fondness for this path because it leads over the hill that looks down on the water gardens, and then descends into the grotto."

"The grotto?" asked Ashmiren, looking genuinely surprised. "You brought us out here into sunlight only to takes us down into a grotto?"

Pallian felt himself flush. No, he really hadn't thought this out as well as he should have. "I... perhaps you should see it first, and then I will explain my feelings for the place." Lady Vathira raised her eyebrows, and he added: "It is carved from the limestone below the citadel, and deeply enough to be cool and damp and drip water from the ceiling. If any of that displeases any of you, then I apologize in advance and suggest that we use the path at the end of the statue garden to cross to another path that remains above ground."

Pallian watched the three women exchange looks, and Lady Vathira watched all of them. 

Finally the High Magister said, "Perhaps it would be best if we all remained in the sun for now."

Pallian nodded immediately. "Of course. You are our guests. Take your time with the statues, and when you are satisfied we will cross to the next path."

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Good!Party: The Dead Things In The Library

We have reached the library, and the undead have emerged to kill us for Kas Luthien.In doing so, they have set off the traps that we attached to the library doors.

Ruin attacks the Held dread wraith beside him, but the damned thing is intangible and the magics that would let the falchion hit it anyway are inactive. He misses completely. Geddy whips out a Flame Blade and attacks the hulking corpse behind him, hitting easily. The fire sword takes him down. Tavros cuts down another hulking corpse

Martini moves around the balcony. The dread wraith shakes off the Hold effect. He attacks Ruin and hits, draining his constitution. The Devourer tries to trap Marshall’s essence and suck him into its belly, but fails. The angel of decay emits a rotting aura, and Marshall is nauseated and damage. He’s just sure that’s from all this walking around on his actual feet. The morg tongues Marshall, who ignores the bad-nasty effect. Then it attacks him and hits, and tries to grab him… Marshall shoves him back. “Ah do not consent, Sir!”

More morgs mover out of the room. A second one tries to tongue Marshall but misses; the third one tries it on Geddy, and paralyzes him. Marshall is busy being nauseated. Leira pulls her own Flame Blade and attacks the wraith. Ruin follows up and kills it.

Tavros races past them on the way to assist Geddy and Marshall. The trap we set on the far side goes off, catching a devourer and a hulking corpse. The other devourer attacks Marshall again, but he shakes off the effects. The morg that paralyzed Geddy claws him up and then grabs him. Morg #2 tries to tongue Marshall; so does #3. He does not get paralyzed, but he does take a bit of damage from being punched in the face.

Marshall whips out a Flame Blade and attacks the devourer, hitting it three times. Leira switches to the magic missile launcher and fires one off, Ruin races up behind Tavros and swings at a Morg, but misses. Tavros kills it and moves to block the doorway.

The devourer tries to claw Marshall, but misses. He still takes damage from the angel’s rotting aura. The morg who grabbed Geddy is just trying to eat him. Another morg attacks Tavros, but he shakes it off; the angel of decay’s aura hits him, but he shakes off most of it. Marshall flame blades the devourer, and Ruin pulls the morg off of Geddy. Tavros cuts down the morg and the devourer, clearing the doorway, and steps into the library.

Martini continues around the outside balcony, away from the fighting. The angel of decay’s aura is doing bad things to us; the angel of decay steps up and hits Tavros with two claws and a wing. The morg tries to break free of Ruin, but fails; another morg is approaching. Marshall steps up and flame blades the angel of decay. Ruin throws one morg off the side, and then steps between Geddy (still paralyzed) and the incoming morg.

Martini steps in and attacks the morg. Marshall and Tavros are still being affected by the angel of decay. The morg licks Martini, and paralyzes her. “Meat!” He claws her and then grapples her.

Marshall again goes after the angel of decay, doing some damage. Ruin pulls the morg off Martini. Tavros vomits and then lays into the angel of decay, and kills it.

Marshall spots the other devourer, which is still Held by the trap that Martini put on the door. Leira shoots the morg that Ruin’s holding, and Ruin throws it off the tower. He then moves into the library, spotting the devourer and heading for it. Tavros moves with him. Marshall follows, gasping for breath at all the unaccustomed exercise. Ruin scrambles over a bookshelf to flank the thing, and Tavros attacks it. He cuts it apart and then moves to the doorway. The hulking corpse on the far side is still held.

Marshall moves outside and puts his Flame Blade in the hulking corpse.  Ruin moves over next to it and grabs it: “I have an idea.” Tavros comes up on the other side, and they throw the thing off the edge.

We haul Geddy and Martini into the library and wait for them to recover from the paralysis, and take the opportunity to heal everybody up… except for Ruin, who is still weakened from constitution drain. Ruin steps into the map room and grabs the giant, detailed map of Fanaxia from the wall. He looks around, but doesn’t see anything else of interest. Martini checks out a reading room and finds some old, unique religious tomes that are Fanaxian and possibly heretical. We decide to sell those later. She finds an old map and ring of animal friendship in another room; we decide to sell that as well.

We move around the room, opening doors and collecting treasures: 85,000 GP worth of art, a Formorian crossbow that does 4d4 acid damage and has 20 shots per day (ranged touch attack). Geddy climbs up the book ladder, and it’s… extensive. There are also miscellaneous scrolls and books of magic… all of it would be worth quite a bit of money, if we had working bags of holding. We’ll come back for it, we hope.

The next door has movement on the other side. Tavros and Ruin move to guard it.  Martini moves on and finds a bunch more art, and also an Evil Pop-Up Book with a portable hole in the back. There are also four powerful scrolls: Mass Charm Monster, Maze x2, and Greater Shadow Invocation. We decide to sell them.

Another reading room has a desk with a locked drawer. There’s a scroll of Wish in there; we keep that one.

She checks the opposite door, and from the sounds inside she concludes that there are probably four morgs inside.

We set up outside the door with the half-dozen things moving around on the other side of it, attempting to come up quietly enough to surprise them. Geddy opens the door.

Hunched on the desks among the books are a bunch of Blasphemes and two entropic reapers. Tavros takes advantage of surprise and attacks one of the entropic reaper. Martini steps in and beheads a blaspheme. The entropic reaper attacks Tavros, hitting him with a scythe and doing some damage. Marshall moves around to engage the other entropic reaper and smacks it with his scythe. The blaspheme behind Marshall tries to bite him and misses. Another assaults Martini, damaging her.

Ruin moves in and cuts into that Blaspheme, and Leira hits it with an acid bolt. Geddy steps back and fires his crossbow at the entropic reaper next to Marshall. Tavros takes out the entropic reaper next to him and moves to assist Marshall. Martini attacks the blaspheme that bit her. The other entropic reaper attacks Marshall and hits him, doing some damage but not inflicting its entropic damage. A blaspheme attacks Martini and damages her. Another one bites Ruin, dazing him and sucking away his strength. Marshall is similarly stricken.

On the far side of the main  room, we can hear things throwing themselves at the door that Martini blocked.

Leira fires off another bolt, and Geddy starts shooting at the remaining entropic reaper. Tavros moves behind the blasphemes and attacks them across the table, killing one and very nearly killing the one beside it. Martini finishes it. Ruin carves into the remaining blaspheme for a fair amount of damage. The remaining entropic reaper hits Marshall again, and this time does entropic damage: he is now in agony as his form twists and mutates horribly.

Leira shoots the blaspheme with her crossbow, adding a bit more damage. Geddy shoots the blaspheme, hitting it once. Tavros takes a step and finishes the remaining blaspheme, and Martini throws her dagger at the entropic reaper and hits it. Martin turns and walks out the door. The reaper continues tearing up Marshall. Marshall is still dazed. Ruin and Leira attack the entropic reaper, doing more damage. Geddy fires off a couple of crossbow bolts at it, then Tavros steps in and finishes it.

Martini retrieves her dagger. Marshall climbs back to his feet and heals himself with the wand. Ruin and Tavros head for the door on the far side, and Martini reluctantly follows. The door sounds like it’s about to come down, but it holds and Ruin and Tavros get into position. Marshall and Geddy follow, healing Marshall along the way. They make it into position too.

It takes the better part of a minute for the door to give way. It finally gives way, and the morgs charge out. We attack them as they emerge, doing quite a bit of damage.

Geddy fires off more bolts with his crossbow. Tavros cuts one down, steps forward, and finishes another. Martini throws her dagger again. Marshall cuts into more morgs with his scythe, and it tries to tongue him in return, then hits him. It then grabs him. Geddy shoots at Marshall, or rather at the Morg that’s grappling him. Regardless, he puts a couple of crossbow bolts in Marshall. Tavros kills the Morg in the doorway, and Martini puts a magic missile into the Morg holding Marshall. She manages to stab it twice, and Marshall once.

Marshall: “Why is everybody shootin’ me? This seems to unfair.” He tries to reverse the grapple despite his strength loss, and succeeds. The morg immediately reverses it again. RUin hesitates; Leira fires off the crossbow and hits Marshall. Geddy waits, and Tavros pulls the thing off Marshall and promptly throws him off the balcony.

We start searching rooms. The west wing yields a book of Charisma+5, and also a voice that calls for Martini’s attention. It appears to be coming from a rock named Oliver, which is being held by a statue. He claims to be a lucky stone, and it can cast Shocking Grasp, Cause Fear, and Rage. He’s also a leftover Vecna experiment, so his magical effects work. Martini claims him.

The east room has a bunch of miscellaneous books, a bag of 2,200 PP, plus five scrolls: Freedom, Dominate Monsters, Shades, Mass Hold Monster, Energy Drain – all at level 9. Martini proceeds to check for hidden doors, and finds one in the art room. Beyond it she finds a +5 stat book and a Book of Infinite Spells,

We decide to stop and rest, because despite our victory we’re in pretty rough shape. We open the Nine Halls and take advantage of actual beds, then use the wands to bring us back up to full health. (A full night's sleep will take care of the stat damage.)

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Goodparty: Corellon's Bard

Picking up from here...

He did. Of course he did.

"No," said Ruin. "You will absolutely, positively, definitely get slaughtered."

"I do not fear," Aldareis said, straightening. "The Swift Hunter will keep me safe."

"Ah like this fellow," Marshall drawled, apparently completely serious. "He's funny. It'll be a shame when he does get killed."

"No, no, I'll just stay behind you and watch, and then I'll write songs about what you do."

Tavros sighed. "I am not used to thinking of Bards as part of a holy order," he said, "and perhaps that will make some difference... but unless you are somehow able to make yourself invisible to things that can see invisible people, everything in the tower is just going to assume that you're one of us and try to kill you."

Aldareis the bard sighed. "Perhaps so. But I was given this duty by the god himself. I cannot shirk it."

"Hooo boy," said Marshall. "This is going to be funny to watch."

Martini looked the young elf over. "We should let him come. He can serve as a distraction. And he is pretty."

The bard glanced at her and swallowed. 

Tavros sighed, looking pained. Leira was no help; she was still making her goodbyes to Sasha in the shadow of the gates. Geddy seemed indifferent, and Eva was waiting silently, though her eyebrows were raised. And Ruin was, again, just staring at the boy: his full attention, but no hint of engagement.  

"I see," he said finally. "But bear in mind that you can trust Corellon to protect you every bit as much as I can trust Amun or Marshall here can trust Artemis. That is to say that they grant us strength and power and magic, but they do not prevent the consequences of our actions. And we are confronting the Order of Secrets in the lair of Vecna herself, an action with a very definite risk of horrifying death."

"But you're all still alive," said Aldareis, and then blushed with embarrassment.

"True," said Tavros, "but resurrection is neither cheap nor easy. I do not wish to make a merchant's matter of the most sacred of magics, but having you along would force us to waste resources on resurrecting you--" 

"--or not--" Martini interjected. 

"--when we might badly need those resources for ourselves."

Aldareis swallowed, but stood his ground. "I must still come with you."

Tavros stopped, completely at a loss for words in the face of such mindless insistence. Young idiot, he thought, but not without a touch of fondness. Had he been any different?

It was Ruin who stepped forward, planted himself in front of Aldareis, held his gaze for a long moment and said: "Here's how it happens. You come with us on the boat, we reach the tower, you're slaughtered in the first battle or trap or whatever the Order of Secrets have prepared for us. The rest of us leave you there, and if we survive we come back and resurrect you later. You miss the whole thing, and you have to take our word for what happened, just as if you'd stayed here in the first place." He paused, measuring the young bard. "Or, you go to the wizards and see if one of them will lend you a crystal ball. You watch through the crystal, from a good, safe distance -- in a room where you have a writing desk, an inkpot, a quill, and some sand to dry the ink." He moved just slightly closer. "Which -- and I ask this as the, not the Avatar, but apparently as the champion of Corellon Larethian -- Which sounds better to you?"

"Ahhhhh..." said Aldareis. "I suppose when you put it that way..."


Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Dark Army: Luthien Thwarted


“Luthien,” Almonda said, “slow down, what are you talking about?”

“They were there in the pool, looking at the dead body of that bitch’s brother, but now they’re gone. They’re nowhere!”

“What do you mean, Luthien? They can’t be nowhere. They’re still in the tower. And you assured me they had no magic!”

“I don’t know, I was watching all of them. That damned wanna-be king got pummeled by our golem into a pathetic puddle and I was sure they were done for, but somehow the bitch Dwint’lithar slew the thing. Somehow her magic dagger is still working. Then they opened my present, and next thing I know, they’re gone!” Luthien was frantic, casting every divination spell he knew into the obsidian pool.

Almonda gave him a hard stare, “What… present, Luthien?”

“I… the bitch’s brother, Behemoth gave him to me. It’s just a husk, they can’t bring him back or anything…”

“Gods, Luthien,” Almonda shook her head, “I knew you were a sick fuck, but…”

“Look, these bastards have been thwarting my plans for years, they deserve everything that comes to them!”

“So you decided to taunt them with the girl’s dead brother? Quit being an idiot, Luthien, and just end them. You have magic, and they don’t. Be a man, go down there, and fucking END THEM!”

“I can’t,” Luthien squealed, “they’re gone! I don’t know where they are! Oh shit, oh shit, we’re screwed! Game over, man! Game over!”

“Luthien!” Almonda exerted a force of will through the link in the magical, obsidian pool, “Get yourself together. They still don’t have magic. Wherever they are, they’re weak. Get your forces together, and be ready. When they face us, they will fall. Have faith in our dark mistress.”

“Okay, okay…” Luthien nodded his head, “Yes, okay. Get it together… They can’t teleport, so they still have to go through the library… the Angel of Decay will end them. No way they make it to your floor, and if they do…”

“I’ll be ready,” Almonda finished definitively.

“Right,” Luthien replied, with more conviction than he felt. She faded away in the pool, presumably to make her own preparations. Kas Luthien tried his best to remain calm but he just couldn’t contain it. He screamed and smashed the pile of platinum pieces, scattering them all over the room. A few flies buzzed out of the disturbed pile of coins.

“Fuck you, Malafar! You hear me!? Fuck you!”

The flies faded from view, as flies are wont to do. He had no idea where they were, or what they saw…

Monday, September 4, 2023

Ruin: Corellon's Revenge

"Corellon's fleet grace! You're him -- Ruin! I was hoping to find you here." Young, Ruin thought, though by Elvish standards he was not a great deal older than the bard in front of him. "I'm Aldareis." He stepped forward, extending his arms for an embrace, and Ruin automatically took a step back. He had, at least, managed to hand his son off to Anica before the bard accosted him.

The elf hesitated, and his smile faltered for a moment before he brightened again. "Right. So... you might not believe this, but I've been sent here to sing of your exploits and extol the virtues of Corellon Larethian. It's a high honor for both of us."

Ruin just stared at him. He hadn't known what to expect when Grandfather had told him that there were other ways to make the god's influence known, but he wasn't at all ready to deal with... this

The silence drew out. Ruin just stood there and stared, waiting for the bard to grow uncomfortable and go away.

Werendril sighed and stood up, stepping around the dining table. "You're not going to get anything more out of him," the paladin said, stopping beside the bard. "Not until he's ready to talk."

"Oh! Hello!" said Aldareis, turning to the second True Elf. "Oh, you're--"

Werendril nodded. "Werendril Al'veLithulrei, of the Order of the Golden Bow."

"Aldareis nav'Edelvorn, of the Order of the Golden Chord."

Werendril nodded. "I recognized the sigil." It was a bit of Elvish musical notation, embroidered in threads of gold on a white background; to anyone unfamiliar, it probably just looked like a collection of lines and dots. "And you've been sent--" 

"By the god himself!"

"--to tell everyone of His glories, by way of Ruin's efforts."

Werendril was trying his best to keep his tone soothing, but even so some of the sarcasm slipped through. Aldareis didn't seem to notice, though. "Yes, exactly! Oh, it's so good to know that we have other worshipers here."

Werendril sighed. "Walk with me, Aldareis. We need to have a talk..." 

"--but--" He looked at Ruin again. 

Ruin just stared at him, stone-faced. 

"...About basic courtesy, and why you shouldn't preach the glories of our god in another god's temple, even if it's only in the dining hall."

"But... Corellon..." 

"Basic. Fucking. Courtesy." 

Werendril's face had hardened, and Aldareis swallowed. "Oh. Oh. I guess I really screwed that up, didn't I?"

Aesa leaned over to Ruin and whispered, "Aren't you going to say anything?"

Ruin glanced at her, and pointedly did not say anything. 

Werendril sighed. "It certainly could have been worse. But... well... walk with me, Cousin."

"I... um... Yes, as you wish."

Werendril started for the door, and Aldareis followed. 

"Okay, so what in the world was that?" asked Anica. 

Ruin sighed and sat back. He considered for a brief moment, then said: "Amun has a single, unified religious order. The priests and paladins live together, work together, share duties and resources. Corellon's worship is... less organized. The primary priesthood is the Order of the Budding Leaf Green With the Coming of Spring, but there are others -- at least three that I know of. His paladins belong to the Order of the Bow Made Golden by the Touch of Dawn... most of them, anyway. And, well, he also has an order of bards, the Order of the Golden Chord That Carries Wisdom." He paused to draw breath, then added: "I'd honestly forgotten they existed until this moment."

"But this is because you prayed to him, isn't it?" asked Aesa. 

"You did what?" asked Anica. 

"I didn't pray to him," Ruin said. "I went up to the Chapel of All, and touched the altar, and told him that there was a lot going on and it involved his people and he really should be paying attention. That was it."

"Ruin..." Anica shook her head. "That's praying."

Ruin scowled, because he was pretty sure she was right but he didn't want to talk about it at all. "Anyway, he asked me what I thought he should do, and I told him to make up his own damned mind, and then he offered to make me his Avatar and I told him I didn't want that. And then he said there were other ways to 'make his influence known' and, well, here we are."

Aesa was frowning thoughtfully. "Do you think he's going to want to come along with you and chronicle your..." She hesitated, then settled on: "...achievements?"

Ruin scowled darkly. "He'd better not."

Friday, September 1, 2023

Dark Armor: The Garden

"Fashionably late, I hope," Pallian said, as the silent servant motioned him forward and then departed again. Lady Vathira was standing in the antechamber with the royalty of Edrias, so he approached and bowed. 

The High Magister exchanged a measured glance with third-princess Ashmiren, but second-princess Arwidden simply gave him a nod. "You didn't delay us," she said, "and your Lady Vathira informs us that you have something special planned."

Pallian glanced at Ashmiren and then the High Magister Tamirya; both were studying him, of course, the High Magister taking his measure and the third-princess with a very slight quirk to her lip that might be the beginning of a smile. He glanced at Lady Vathira but received only the faintest hint of a nod in return; he was to take the lead on this. 

"I hope you will find it pleasing," he said, keeping his voice relaxed. "It occurred to me that not everyone has the deep-seated appreciation of semi-translucent volcanic glass that informs the architectural aesthetic of House Teres, and as our guests you might appreciate a visit to the more solar portions of the keep."

Second-princess Arwidden said, "What?"

Pallian paused long enough to revise his speech patterns and said, "I'd like to conduct you to the garden, and give you a chance to remember that the sun still exists."

The High Magister's expression didn't change, but Ashmiren laughed and Arwidden quirked a grin at him. "My sister said you had some wit," she observed. "It sounds pleasant to me. Mother? Sister?"

High Magister Tamirya nodded, and Ashmiren tilted her head and made a small gesture to Arwidden: You see? or something like it, Pallian thought.

"Do please lead the way," said the High Magister, and Pallian gestured for Lady Vathira to open the doors. 

The gardens were situated on the south side of the citadel, and surrounded by obsidian walls complete with ramparts and crenelations. If they were counted as part of the Citadel, then they effectively doubled its size. The arched double doors, heavy wood bound in black iron, swung open at Lady Vathira's gesture, and then the second pair beyond them; sunlight spilled into the hall, and Pallian blinked at its brightness. 

The doors opened onto a half-circle of fine, white gravel, and Pallian led the way outside, squinting and trying not to stumble. I might need that Edrias initiation that protects people from sunlight, he thought, but he didn't say it aloud because he didn't want to have to explain the joke. Seven different pathways, each filled in the same white gravel, spread out from the half-circle and continued deeper into the garden, their courses obscured by rosebushes and stands of lilies, carefully-pruned cherry trees and a host of other plantings that Pallian honestly couldn't identify.

"Ah," said the High Magister, an almost involuntary reaction that she immediately silenced. Ashmiren looked around, then took a deep breath and released it slowly, looking almost relieved. "Well," said Arwidden, "this is an improvement."

"We hope you find it pleasant," Lady Vathira said, glancing at Pallian in a way that made him think that the words were a reflexive attempt to smooth things over. 

He smiled and looked to Arwidden. "I hoped you would say that. I don't intend to brag, but it is a lovely garden and a strong contrast to the interior of the citadel." He paused, then added: "I am particularly fond of the second path on the left, but you are our guests and the choice is of course yours."

"Your suggestions have been good so far," the second-princess answered. "Would you lead us along the way?" She glanced back at her mother and sister as she spoke, but neither objected. 

Pallian offered another slight bow and said, "It would be my pleasure."