Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Oct 30, 2007

Cold Blood: Session 2

Sheen looked down at the strange groveling creature briefly, then around at the blasted landscape. “They really need to hire some landscapers around here,” she announced. Her voice trembled only slightly. Probably the best she could hope for in the circumstances. Assured of self-control if not peace of mind, Sheen turned to the prostrate devil.

“What do you think you’re doing? Get up! At least pretend to have some dignity.” Sheen took a few steps down from the platform, striking an arrogant pose with her arms crossed and feet braced apart. The creature rose slowly to its feet but it wavered on its feet uncertainly. “Well? Do you have a name?”

“Halitsu,” it said in a voice like glass grinding together. Its eyes darted towards a large brass-bound horn positioned at the far end of the outcropping. It attempted a disarming smile. Sheen could hear Joris step forward to take up position beside her. He looked a little white, especially around the knuckles and the face, but he seemed to gain strength from her unyielding position.

“What do you know about this portal, Halitsu?”

The devil shrugged. “You’ve come to Avernus. I don’t know from where, I only know that it’s a one-way trip. The Bronze Citadel, fortress of Bel, is not far away.” Sheen glanced over at Joris to see if the name made any impression on him.

The cleric grimaced. “Bel is Lord of the First, the archduke of this layer.”

“He keeps the demonic invaders at bay,” Halitsu ground out. “All Glory to Bel!”

“Right,” Sheen said. So he’s in charge here? He sounds like just the devil we need to speak with, then.”

“Heh heh. It’s your funeral.”

“Have any other humans come through this portal recently?”

Halitsu grinned, seeming to relax a bit. “There was a half-elf a couple weeks ago, but he got away before I could get help. The other one, though, the other one was delicious.” The devil waved toward a heap of peasant clothing and well-chewed bones.


“Cari,” Joris said, sighing.

“The half-elf was some Clueless sod, not a couple of bloods like you two.”

“We happen to be looking for a ‘clueless sod’. Where exactly did he run off to?”

“East, towards the mountains. Prolly to see the mad witch. That’s what I told him when he asked about another way out of here.”

Sheen rolled her eyes. “Well that’s just so very helpful. I’m sure your important responsibilities prevented you from detaining him, so we’ll just have to track him down ourselves. Goo—er, Evil Day,” she spat and stalked away from the portal and the devil. Her spine tingled and itched; turning her back on the creature was sheer torture. “Come along, Joris.”

“Right, right . . .” the cleric muttered and hurried to keep up. “What if he calls for reinforcements?” Joris whispered.

“Can we do anything about it?”

“Um, probably not.”

They walked steadily until they were out of sight, then Sheen sat down on a rock to let the strain out of her limbs. “Are you all right?” she asked Joris. She could almost imagine that she could see faces frozen in the rock, screaming in endless horror.

“I think I’m so afraid that I can’t even feel it any more.”

Sheen chuckled dryly. “Exactly. I thought it was better not to correct that devil’s misapprehension of the situation.”

“That was probably wise.” Joris wiped sweat off his forehead and swallowed some water. The landscape was hot and parched. Sheen found herself very glad that simple energy sustained her. She could imagine how miserable it might become in a short while. As they crested a rise they could make out a black mass to the south, an army of fiends wandering around on the plain below. They walked for what felt like a long time, climbing towards some large rocks that might pass as mountains.

Squinting into the distance, Sheen thought she could make out a humanoid form approaching. She gripped the haft of her longspear tightly and loosened her short sword in its sheath with a feeling of deja vu. Joris shielded his eyes with a hand, trying to make out the newcomer. It looked like a half-elf wearing a suit of studded leather armor. His bright green eyes watched them uncertainly and he fingered the bow over his shoulder.

“Hail, traveler!” Sheen called, feeling, again, that she’d done this before. The half-elf stopped and regarded them for a time.

“Hail yourselves! From where do you come?”

“We are most recently from the Larch Hills, near Waterdeep. I am Sheen, and this is Joris.” Joris nodded politely.

“Well met. My name is Talan.”

Sheen nodded. “We all seem to be in the same difficulty. Might I ask how you came to be here?”

“It is funny you should mention the Larch Hills. I am from the High Forest, on my way to visit friends when bad weather made me seek shelter in an abandoned home under a hill. I then, somehow, found myself here.”

“That sounds familiar,” Joris remarked.

Sheen nodded again. “We have just come from the same place. That mound was home to a wizard interested in planar travel. He built a large portal in his workroom that has thus far transported several unwary persons here. I would like to find this wizard, if possible. We would welcome your company; this does not seem like a good place to wander alone.” A fireball burst nearby, sending a wave of heat rolling over them.

“I accept your offer on one condition,” Talan said. “I am looking for a witch, a sorcerer who may be able to help us all get back.”

“That sounds like a good idea to me. I have no idea where the wizard may be, a search for him may take some time.”

“Judging from the condition of his house, he left years ago,” Joris affirmed.

Talan drummed his fingers against his arm briefly, then pulled out a wand. “Does this look familiar to either of you?”

“I fear I know little of the arcane,” Sheen said, waving the wand away. Joris frowned thoughtfully.

“Do you know the command word for it?”

“I think Hexla used the word ‘repastus’ to make it create food. Before I lost her, the witch told me to visit the Pillar of Skulls and ask about a portal and a key.”

“Did she mention how to find this pillar?” Sheen asked.

“She left me a map with directions before she disappeared.” Talan unrolled a bit of cloth and the three of them looked at it.

“All right, then I suppose we’d best be on our way,” Sheen said after a moment. The three of them turned and began walking. “This place isn’t so different from Faerun. Arrive, get lost, someone gives you directions, and you end up walking all over the place. Well, apart from the foul stench and the bleak landscape, I mean.”

“Sometimes we walk back the way we came, too,” Joris said.

“It does leave something to be desired,” Talan said. “So, Joris, how did you and Sheen meet?”

“I was on my way to Waterdeep with some friends, and we decided to help the villagers in Red Larch when some children went missing. We . . . we ran into an owlbear. I was the only survivor.”

“As for myself, I encountered Joris on the path much the way we just encountered you.”

“I am sorry, Joris, it was not my desire to cause you pain by dredging up evil memories, but do you think the villagers you were looking for could possibly be here?”

“No, we found all three. Dead.”

“It would seem that our only current task is to rescue ourselves,” Sheen said quietly. “I am here because the wizard Morard was implicated in a . . . plot . . . of sorts.”

“You knew the wizard?” Talan asked just as Joris said, “Is this the duty you were talking about?”

“No, I did not know him. He was building a device for a frie . . . an acquaintance of mine. Ex-acquaintance. It seemed prudent to investigate.” Sheen coughed a bit and looked away. Joris shrugged it off, but Talan stopped dead in the path. Sheen raised an eyebrow at the half-elf.

“What is it?” Joris asked.

“If we are to guard each other’s backs, it would be best to get the secrets out of the way. Anything that has no bearing on my safe return can rest, but if it affects our chances of getting home, I would like to hear it.”

“It is nothing that will cause you any difficulty,” Sheen explained, pulling a large moonstone out of her belt pouch. “It came to my attention that the wizard Morard was building some kind of destructive item. I know little else about it. It was intended to be used in Waterdeep, I believe, but I don’t even know whether the wizard completed the device.”

“We didn’t see anything like a weapon in the mound,” Joris said. Talan leaned forward to get a better look at the stone. Pulling one of her gloves off, Sheen touched the otherwise ordinary-looking rock. It vibrated and began to speak. She shivered as the sound of Gyderic’s voice washed over her again.

“It is an item that can record messages, nothing more. I played the message accidentally some time ago, that is how I discovered the existence of the wizard. I had nothing else to do and nowhere to go, so I thought I would have a look.”

“So are you the pawn this Gyderic speaks of?” Joris asked.

Sheen gritted her teeth. “Yes, to my shame. I made a mistake, I have paid for it, and I’d rather not discuss it any further.” Joris patted her arm a bit awkwardly. “At least he didn’t get away with it.”

Talan smiled. “We all make mistakes, even elves.”

“Where is he now?” Joris asked.

“Dead.” Sheen chuckled sharply and without humor. “Who knows, he may be around here somewhere.”

“If nothing else,” Joris said, “this excursion has restored my faith that the wicked get what is coming to them.”

“Who is Baltazo?” Talan asked.

“I do not know. I never met him.”

“I am not asking from idle curiosity,” Talan explained. “This destructive device, do you have any idea what it might be? I have no wish to see Waterdeep come to harm.”

“I know nothing. Maybe I can ask this pillar about it.”

They climbed a hill to the southwest and descended into a fuming pit where a massive pillar stood, the Pillar of Skulls. It was not truly made of skulls, it was a pile of living heads belonging to creatures of all descriptions, some not even identifiable. They were all in various stages of decay and decomposition and they argued constantly, their voices shrill and manic.

“How are we going to get any sense out of something like that?” Sheen murmured. Sighing, she stepped forward. “Hail, creature or creatures! Attend!” The heads fell abruptly silent and their eyes swiveled towards her. Joris swallowed nervously. Then, all the heads began to talk at once.

“Hey . . . I know . . . you want . . . I can . . .”

“ENOUGH!” a booming voice cried. The heads fell silent again. Talan tugged on Sheen’s arm, then whispered in her ear.

“I just remembered that Hexla said we will have to offer them something in return for information.”

An immense head that must have belonged to an ogre or a giant force itself to the fore, rolling its eyes grotesquely. “State your business,” it slurred.

“We wish to know two things,” Sheen said. “The whereabouts of the wizard Morard, and the way to exit this plane—specifically a portal, and a key. Tell us your price.”

“We also wish to know where Hexla is,” Talan said.

“So many questions,” the ogre head muttered. “Serve me and I will answer all.”

“Serve how?” Sheen demanded. Instantly, all the heads began to speak again.

An elf cried: “Knock him out, and I’ll tell you about the portal!”

“Bring back a fiend, and I’ll tell you about the wizard!” shouted a chubby human.

“For magic I will tell you of the witch!”

“So many answers,” Talan said.

“I hunger. For knowledge,” the ogre continued. “Give me. The smartest of you. And I will answer. All.”

“What do you mean, ‘give me’?” Talan demanded.

“Press him. Into the Pillar. He will be mine. Truth will be yours.”

“Absolutely not!” Sheen yelled. “Joris, give me your mace!” The cleric thrust it at her and she grasped it, concentrating. Then she swung it directly at the Ogre head. There was a loud *crunch* and it drooped, unconscious. Sheen handed the mace back to Joris. “Hmph. As if we would hand over one of our companions.” She pointed at the elf skull. “YOU! Tell us about the portal!”

“The portal leading from Avernus lies to the west, and the key is a fiend’s spine.”

“You leatherhead! That portal’s five days from here! The nearest portal is south! The key is a brick from the Great Avernus Road!” Several other heads spoke their agreement.

“Where is the Great Avernus Road?” Talan asked.

“And where does the portal lead?” Sheen added.

“The road is southeast of here, past the river. If you want to know where the portal leads, that’ll cost extra.”

Sheen held up the moonstone. She didn’t really need it any longer. “If I give you this, will you tell me where the portal leads?”


Talan grabbed her hand. “Wait! If we give you the stone, we want more information.”

“About the witch? We will share the payment. We will tell you.”

“That works for me,” Sheen said. She pressed the stone into the pillar, glad she was wearing gloves.

“The portal leads to Sigil, the Cage, the City of Doors. It opens in the Bazaar.”

Sheen turned to look at Joris. “Is that an improvement over here?”

“Yes. It’s supposed to be the city at the center of the universe.”

“I thought that was Waterdeep.”

“Heh, and I thought it was Silverymoon.”

“As for the witch,” the heads continued. “She is in the Bronze Citadel. She has an . . . agreement with Bel. She could not survive here, otherwise.”

“So she’s still alive,” Talan said. “Good.”

Sheen rubbed her head tiredly. “If Morard went around exploring the planes, he probably went to Sigil at some point. I think we’ve dealt with this . . . thing . . . long enough.

The river was easy enough to find, but it contained no water. The banks were filled with a sluggish flow of blood. It took them some time to find a place shallow enough to ford, and even then the blood was waist deep. They secured their belongings and began wading across.

“How is this reasonable?” Sheen demanded. “Nothing could bleed this much. Pfaugh.”

They trudged on for some time, their feet squelching in foulness on the river’s bottom. Then Talan gave a horrified yell. A leech the size of a small dog had attached itself to the small of his back. He tore a dagger off his belt and began trying to cut it away from his skin. Joris moved to help him, and with some effort they managed to cut the creature loose. It burst, sending a gout of fresh blood downstream.

“Gah, I’ve got one too!” Joris yelled, and they repeated the process. Sheen looked around and realized another leech was swimming slowly away from her. She stabbed it with her spear and it exploded. She realized she was feeling a bit lightheaded. All three of them raced up the far shore and collapsed.

“This place,” Sheen announced, panting. “Is REALLY stupid. Giant attack leeches living in a river of blood? COME ON.”

Talan laughed. “It’s challenging, I’ll grant you that.”

“Let’s go find our brick and get out of here,” Sheen announced and shot to her feet. Her eyes crossed and she listed heavily to one side, propping herself up with her spear. She burned off the last remnants of her power and managed to get upright once more.

By the time they’d limped to within half a mile of the Road, they realized that retrieving a brick might be trickier than they expected. A vast army of devils was assembling, apparently mustering for battle. They covered the road from edge to edge and far into the distance.

“Right,” Sheen said. “So who is really, really sneaky. Not me, in case you were wondering.”

“I doubt Mask himself is that sneaky,” Joris said. “But it looks like they are getting ready to move out.”

Sheen nodded. “Why don’t you two try to get some sleep while we wait? I’ll keep watch.”

Talan nodded. “Wake me for second watch, you need your sleep as well, right?”

Time passed. Eventually Sheen reached over and nudged Talan. He awoke instantly. “Did anything happen?”

“Not really. I’m going to get some rest. If they don’t start moving, I guess we’ll have to come up with something else.” Sheen made herself as comfortable as possible and drifted off. She awoke, slowly, to Talan shaking her shoulder. The fiends had been joined by a wing of flying devils and a huge figure that might well be their commander. Slowly, the train began to move. After far too long, they were out of sight.

The three of them sprinted towards the road, Sheen pulling out a hammer and chisel. She pounded the chisel into a gap between two stones and began trying to lever it out.

“Not to rush you, but . . .” Talan said, pointing. Another mass of flying devils was approaching fast. Sheen grunted, but the stone moved only a little. The devils grew closer as she continued to work. Then a hideous cry rang out.

“They’ve spotted us . . .” Talan hissed. The stone came free. Sheen dumped it into her pouch and they ran for their lives. The devils were faster, but they had a lot of ground to cover. Ahead, they could see the portal atop a great rise. Joris began to lag behind, slowed by his armor. Talan and Sheen grabbed his arms and hauled him along by main force.

“If . . . I . . . ever . . . find . . . that . . . wizard . . .” Sheen panted. They were almost to the portal when a tall, slender figure seemed to rise up out of the ground. The flying fiends shrieked and began to slow, circling overhead like terrible buzzards. The figure looked almost human, with black hair, angular features, and a penetrating gaze. He held up his hands in welcome and it appeared that his fingernails were three or four inches long.

“What ho, travelers! I bid you good health and welcome you to this portal! I am Ar’kle-mens, its guardian. What can I do for you.”

“We’d like to pass through?” Sheen said uncertainly.

“We have a brick,” Talan announced.

“If you wish to pass through, I ask that you do me a small favor.”

“And that would be?” Talan asked.

“Take this through with you,” Ar’kle-mens said, holding out a small brass orb. “I promise it will not harm you.” Sheen stared at it. For some reason, she was certain this was Morard’s weapon.

“Oh yeah?” She said. “But it will harm someone else?”

“If you do not take it, you will have to fight me. My friends”—he gestured at the sky—“would not appreciate that.”

“I’ll take it,” Sheen said. Ar’kle-mens’ face contorted into a terrible smile. He handed her the orb, which was light and strangely cold in her hand, then stood aside.

“After we cross, what happens to that orb?” Talan asked.

“That question would be better answered by the wizard who gave it to me. He’s somewhere on the other side.”

The portal leapt to life as they stepped through. It was disorienting, but not as bad as before. They emerged from an archway into the bustle of a city. Buildings stretched in every direction, including upwards. The horizon curved in on itself. The crowds were full of creatures, humanoids and fiends, men with goat legs and horns and even stranger things.

The orb in Sheen’s hand grew colder still. Cracks formed in the surface and it abruptly turned to dust and blew away. She sighed, too exhausted to care. “Is that an inn?” she asked quietly. They turned and began to walk in that direction.

Psionics Game: Calix's Riders

Calix made his way carefully to the top of the ridge and squinted down at the assembled force below. He put his hand on Signey’s back and the ranger handed Calix the spyglass.

“What do you make of it?” Calix asked as he squinted through the lens.

“Orcs. But they have a lot more goods than you would expect. If I had to guess, I’d say this was a supply detachment.”

“A supply detachment? That seems a little . . . organized, for orcs.”

“There are no tribal banners, no war-standards. It doesn’t make sense,” Signey complained.

“It’s unusual, to say the least, but if they are orcs then they’re up to no good. If we can clear them out, maybe we can find out what they are doing here and why.”

“Is that . . . wise?” Signey asked. Calix grinned. “No, of course it isn’t. What was I thinking,” the ranger muttered and rolled his eyes.

“Have I gotten us killed yet?” Calix asked. “Come on, let’s go back and get the others.” Signey followed morosely while he re-wrapped the spyglass and placed it carefully back in its box. Justus, Isaic and Wayland were waiting at the bottom of the ridge. They observed Calix’s grin silently for a while.

“Well?!” Isaic demanded.

“Orcs,” Calix announced cheerfully.

“LOTS of orcs,” Signey added.

“Oh, don’t be so defeatest!” Calix told him, clapping the ranger on the shoulder. Isaic rolled his eyes and pulled a book out of his backpack.

“I don’t think I’m ready for us to tackle an army today, brother,” the wizard said, flipping through his pages of spells. Justus nodded.

“We may be able to harass and delay them, but there are only five of us.”

Wayland fingered his holy symbol. “How many are there?”

“Just under twenty,” Signey announced before Calix could open his mouth. “They have wagons, horses . . .”

“Draft horses. We have the advantage of speed and agility . . . not to mention surprise. Do you really want to let them go? What are you going to say to the villagers they kill? Sorry, we thought it might be a little risky?” Calix snapped.

“He’s right,” Wayland said.

“Yes, but you always think that, Wayland,” Justus said, smiling faintly. “If we’re going to do this, let’s do it. No more discussion.”

The five friends climbed onto their horses and settled themselves, going through last-minute checks of weapons and armor. Isaic put his spellbook away and began mumbling under his breath, bringing his spells up to the forefront of his mind. Wayland bowed his head and said a quick prayer, and they nudged their horses into a fast walk.

As the rounded the foot of the ridge, Justus urged his horse into a charge. Signey let arrows fly, quickly bringing down several orcs while Isaic waved his arms and chanted. Sticky lines sprang into existence, entangling several of their enemies and preventing them from closing. Calix, Justus, and Wayland were in their element, hacking down the surprised and confused orcs.

Isaic wasn’t quite sure what happened next. It felt like a soundless explosion, an invisible violence that sent his head ringing. His mind screamed in agony as he tried to regain control over his limbs. Calix’s horse collapsed and Isaic’s brother fell to the ground, stunned. Justus managed to keep his beast upright, but it was a near thing and the fighter dropped his weapon. The orcs swarmed in.

Isaic saw a goblin emerge from behind one of the wagons, waving its arms and shouting. Its skin looked strangely blue as it grinned and shot a line of crackling power from its finger straight at Wayland, dropping the cleric like a stone.

One of the orcs near Signey held up a hand and a glowing red blade formed seemingly out of nothing. Isaic tried to call out a warning, but the orc threw the blade and Signey fell off his horse. Isaic began chanting again, desperately, pointing his own finger at the blue goblin. A great rush of fire exploded into being, then Isaic was on the ground, struggling with a snarling orc. He felt a hideous pain in his shoulder and then the weight was abruptly removed.

“Look after Wayland!” Calix yelled, blood streaming from a cut on his forehead. Isaic crawled to the fallen priest and crouched over him. He looked around, cautiously. Signey had dispatched his assailant and was once more sending arrows into the crowd of orcs. The blue goblin was a charred corpse . . . it looked like Isaic had accomplished that much at least. He frowned and chanted again, sending a few small missiles arcing through the combat. It didn’t appear to do much good, but even a distraction could be a valuable ally in the melee.

It seemed almost like the orcs all heard the same signal, for as one they turned and fled. Justus began to pursue but Calix shouted him back. It was rapidly growing dark, and the orcs could see better at night than humans could.

“What was that thing?” Calix demanded as they surveyed the damage.

“I don’t know. It looked like a little blue goblin.”

“I saw you fry it, little brother, good job. It might have been the end of us.”

Signey was badly hurt and Wayland was unconscious. Calix, Justus, and Isaic had all sustained injuries that would need treatment. Isaic, being the least hurt, took over the task of gathering up their horses. Miraculously, the animals had escaped with little more than bruises and small cuts. Calix searched the remains and loaded what they could on the wagons.

“So where do we take all this stuff?” Calix asked. Signey pulled a map out of his pack and looked it over.

“There’s a village nearby . . . Rumero, I think. It’s that way,” the ranger said, holding up a shaking arm. Calix nodded.

“Let’s go. We can figure this all out in the morning. A good night’s sleep in a tavern is just what we need.”

* * *

“Are you sure this is the place?” Calix asked incredulously, staring down at the ruins of a small farming village. “It’s a wreck.”

“I know,” Signey murmured, “but this is the right place. It looks like an army came through.”

“I think I see movement,” Calix whispered. “Hand me that spyglass.” They waited patiently while Calix scrutinized the ruins. “It’s not orcs . . . looks like humans. Survivors, maybe?”

“They may be hostile . . .” Isaic began.

“You stay here, little brother, I’ll go check it out,” Calix said and nudged his tired horse forward again. Isaic looked over at Justus, who shrugged.

“We’d better hope they’re not hostile,” the fighter said tiredly. “We’re in no shape to fight again.”

Calix was gone for some time, but when he returned he seemed in good spirits. “You have to meet these people to believe them. They’re really . . . strange.” He announced.

“Strange how?” Isaic demanded.

“It’s hard to explain. You’ll see.”

Oct 29, 2007

New York to Colorado in Three Days

Well, I've relocated again, this time covering 1800 miles. It was a very long drive, but it was also a very enjoyable trip. Cruise control ROCKS. Some of the highlights:

1. Pennsylvania is GORGEOUS in the autumn with all the trees turning scarlet. The whole drive was up the hill, down the hill, and around the hill. Good times.

2. I stopped in Medina to visit my friend Brandon. His dogs didn't like me very much for some reason, but we chatted about this and that. Probably the only time I'll ever get to see him in person.

3. Stopped for the night in Dayton. Although downtown Dayton is a pit, there is a lot of construction going on in the surrounding areas. I had a couple of bad moments because some familiar places didn't look the same, there were so many new buildings. Adam took me out to the Mongolian grill and I got stuffed.

4. I was through Indiana practically before I realized it, although I did have fun driving through Indianapolis. I realize that I will be on I-70 for approx. 800 more miles. Yikes.

5. Illinois. It rained most of the time I was driving through this state. Not very interesting. I did have a brief interesting interlude when two cars with no license plates pulled out in front of me. It seemed odd, so I used my Onstar to contact the police. Not sure if that did any good, but at least I tried. I keep expecting the trees to go away and everything to flatten out, and it does for a little while, but I'm still going up and down some pretty major hills when I get to:

6. St. Louis! Mapquest told me to go *around* the city, but I went straight through so I could see the arch close up. It was a beautiful day and the metal glowed with a bluish tinge that made it look like Rearden Metal. Ahh, the nostalgia. I've actually been to the top of the arch previously when I was four or five. I remember standing precisely in the middle of the observation area because the floor tilted and I was afraid I would slip and roll down an elevator shaft. Still, the view was awesome, and that began a long tradition of going to the tops of Very Tall Structures, such as the Sears Tower, the Eifel Tower, the Space Needle, things like that.

7. Ah, finally the trees are going away. Oo, look at the Ozarks. Very pretty. I stopped for the night just short of Kansas City.

8. I did actually take the Mapquest Detour around Kansas City. Not sure if I'd do that again, because you wind up driving for more than an hour through the middle of NOWHERE. I'd rather face the traffic than squint endlessly at nothing in a driving rain. It was pretty miserable until the sun came out again, but the lightning was impressive.

9. I don't understand why people think the high plains are boring. I think it's pretty. You can see forever.

By the time I got to Colorado it was dark, so I didn't get to see very much. Mapquest had me drive through the back roads again to get to Kelly's place, so for the most part it was miserably pitch black. I was forcibly reminded of my first Dakota Sue post. It really is eerie being all alone in the dark when you can't see a single light anywhere. And it gets REALLY dark! I came across a guy in a Beetle going the same way I was. I hope I didn't freak him out too badly by following him.

Anyway, I arrived with no troubles. The countryside around here really is lovely, so if you get a chance to drive around it, go for it!

Oct 27, 2007

Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer

For the most part, I enjoyed Neverwinter Nights 2. I'm not claiming the game was flawless, simply that I enjoyed it, so I was really looking forward to the expansion when it came out. Well, now that I've played it through I can give you my impression of it. It was disappointing.

I was a bit leery from the beginning when I learned that Obsidian was introducing a bizarre and pointless extra game mechanic, the "spirit energy" bar. From what I understood, the idea was to prevent you from resting too often (to recharge spells and abilities) and force you to wage a war of attrition as in most action games. My reaction: D&D is a STRATEGY game, not an ACTION game. The end result of any war of attrition in D&D is always death for the players unless the DM is an absolute management GENIUS. Besides, this was supposed to be the EPIC expansion, and no one feels very EPIC if their adventure is simply a lengthy process of being nickel-and-dimed to death instead of facing something, well, EPIC.

This kind of gets back to some central difficulties with converting a paper-and-dice system to a computer game. D&D is also a turn-based game, which means it doesn't translate especially well to computer games that want to be real time. (Recent turn-based D&D offerings--Pool of Radiance and Temple of Elemental Evil--have been PARALYZINGLY boring.)

In order to compensate for the fact that *no one* could *possibly* keep up with the real-time system and still make all the complex strategic decisions inherent in D&D, the first NwN game limited you to 1 PC. While this goes against the "party" dynamic of D&D, it was at least acceptable. Sure, the enemies were easier because you were only one guy, and they had to make it possible for classes with wildly disparate abilities to overcome all the major challenges, but it was fun.

In NwN2, though, you were back to the unmanageably large party. Obsidian's solution? Not a sensible return to the old Baldur's Gate style of doing things, where you can actually manage your entire party simultaneously without resorting to the semi-useful suggestions (that meaning: your party doesn't always obey them) of "follow", "attack", and "stand there like a complete moron". Instead, we get annoyingly stupid AI, in which the druid NPC persistantly uses one of her most powerful class abilities to transform herself into a badger and thus make herself utterly useless in combat (literally the ONLY way to stop her from doing this is to turn off ALL class abilities ENTIRELY, turning her into little more than a mediocre healer and a secondary blaster). Still, I persevered because, once again, I was having fun.

My concerns about the Spirit Energy Bar were laid mostly to rest when I found out that this is a plot development (i.e. there's a reason for it other than "we didn't want to design actually interesting encounters"). In fact, at the beginning of the expansion it looks like rather a clever plot. It reminds me of my own GMing style to an extent, which a friend of mine once described as "we are screwed". The ceiling falls in on you, and you have to cope.

Sadly, it just doesn't live up to its potential. I was a little anxious at first when I thought my spirit energy might tick away quickly, but I never had *any* difficulty resting. In fact, you can complete the entire game without being *forced* to use your more unsavory abilities, rendering the "moral conflict" aspect somewhat unfulfilling. There are very few areas to explore and most of them lack any significant degree of unexpected cleverness. It is also necessary in some areas to transit though a "shadow world" and complete a different set of challenges on the SAME map. Double your tedium. That mirror universe thing? It's been done.

Obsidian also bragged about how well-developed the NPC's were. Well, that's easy to do when there are ONLY FIVE OF THEM. (And two are exclusive, you can only get one if you don't get the other.) This paucity of companion choice and some really dumb design ideas (hey, let's just make it so that this door mysteriously can't be opened by the spell that HAS NO PURPOSE OTHER THAN TO OPEN DOORS) mean that there are some things you cannot do as a good character unless you, personally, play the Rogue class. I don't mean class-specific quests. I mean like entire sections of maps that you simply can't access because you can't unlock the freakin' door.

Still, I persevered because I was having fun. It took me a while, but I did eventually get caught up in the story. This was easy for me because the backdrop of the plot is a colossal, monstrous, EPIC injustice and the idea of correcting it and doing battle with the fundamental forces of the Forgotten Realms universe was really, really SWEET.

And then it turns out that you can't actually do anything about it in the end. You can't complete the EPIC goal, you can only manage to sorta save yourself. LAME. In fact, they go to great effort to pound your helplessness in the face of this enormity in the conclusion by having one of the NPC's get screwed over by it AGAIN.

Oh, and they sort of end on another cliffhanger. Sigh.

Oct 25, 2007

Psionics Game: Session 9

“All right, folks,” La’ss’a began. “I say we start out with some small tidbits, nothing specific. I would suggest mentioning that there are more of us in town and another group headed to Athkatla to deal with Sulveig directly—assuming he’s there, of course. I think this will give them the idea that we’re not alone and there is more at work here than just us.”

Kyrian nodded, he hoped sagely. “We might mention what Demaris mentioned to us, that Sulveig might be trying to compromise the Cowled Wizards.”

La’ss’a blinked. “Okay, when did that happen?”

“Oh, um, I overheard her talking to Oren before we split up. I don’t know, I just think that doing anything directly against Sythillis might hurt Tom. The ogre mages seem to keep things organized around here, mostly.”

“I think I know how Sulveig will disrupt the wizards. We experienced it back at the grove. We also know some ogres that had recent dealings with Sulveig and basically folded on his plan when we arrived. They let us escape.”

“You mean the hobgoblins?” Kyrian asked.

“There were ogres, too!” La’ss’a harrumphed. “All big hairy man-beasts look the same to me.”

Sam tapped the table idly with a finger, apparently thinking. Ligeia stretched and yawned. “Well, fascinating as this may be, I think I have some . . . personal ideas. I’ll meet you back at the inn,” she said, and stalked out lazily. A moment after she left, Elice peeked her head around the doorframe.

“Everything all right in there?”

La’ss’a waved to her. “We just need a few more minutes.” Kyrian shrugged, baffled.

“Ah, okay then. If you say so,” Elice retreated again to the other room.

“I guess that’s as good a place to start as any, La’ss’a,” Kyrian said. “We can also offer to pass along anything we learn in the city.”

The three of them stared at the table some more. Finally, Elice peeked back into the room. “Can I come in now?” La’ss’a nodded.

“We seem to be done,” Kyrian said.

Elice turned a chair around and sat down, crossing her arms over the back of the chair. “I was going to offer a suggestion, if you’re interested.”

“We might be,” Sam said. He smiled a bit, softening the words.

“Please, continue,” Kyrian told her, blinking a bit at Sam.

“One of the better places to go get a handle on the politics around here is the fighting pit near the Government building.” Elice grimaced briefly. “I should know, I used to be a pit fighter there. You can pick up some spare cash by betting, or even fighting, if you’re brave enough. Pretty much anyone with any kind of axe to grind shows up there sooner or later.” She shrugged, struggling to look diffident. “It’s just a suggestion. If you want, I can show you around.”

“It couldn’t hurt to mingle with the locals a bit,” Sam said. “Thanks for the tip, Elice.”

Elice grinned, looking pleased with herself. “Hey, I’m glad to help. You have to look out for your old friends in this world, otherwise pretty soon you wont have any and then where will you be?”

Tom waddled awkwardly into the room, his arms full of a large crystal sphere that he chucked unceremoniously onto a shelf. “Customers!” he announced, dusting his hands off and surveying the group with a jovial expression. “Now, what can I do for you folks?”

“I guess we are back to trading information,” La’ss’a said. “I know three things you may be interested in.”

“You made up your minds? Good. I hate dealing with indecisive people,” Tom said. He threw himself into a chair and propped his feet up on the table. “I’m all ears. Well, figuratively speaking.”

“The first thing we can relate concerns our strength in the field. There aren’t just four of us by any means. We have another support group here in town, and a third group on the way to Athkatla.”

“I suppose that’s interesting. What else do you have?”

“We might just know how Sulveig plans to overpower Athkatla’s wizards. They rely on magic, of course, but there is a . . . certain phenomenon that can release psychic energy by draining off magic,” La’ss’a continued.

“A ‘phenomenon’?”

“Yes,” said La’ss’a. “It’s as good a word as any. It’s a thing that you take to a magic center, it will feed off the energy and create a psychic field.”

“That’s somewhat alarming,” Tom said. “Even so, psychics are so rare that it doesn’t seem tremendously useful.”

Kyrian sat forward a bit. “It also has the potential to change something’s nature from magic to psionic, as happened to me.”

Tom frowned. “So, you could turn a wizard into a psion?”

“I’m not sure,” Kyrian replied. “It’s a painful transition if you fight it, though.”

“Sulveig is a psionicist himself,” La’ss’a said. “I would bet some of his followers are psionic as well. This would benefit his group tremendously. If Sulveig and his allies can tap into it, they could easily outlast the mages.”

“Or incapacitate them outright,” Kyrian added.

Tom shuddered. “Do you mean to tell me he may actually succeed in taking over Athkatla?”

“The possibility exists,” Kyrian affirmed.

“That is . . . worrisome.”

“Only if we fail to stop him,” La’ss’a said, grinning mischievously.

“That’s why we want your help,” Kyrian said.

Tom nodded. “I’m starting to get the idea. So what’s your third bit of information?”

“Well,” La’ss’a began. “We ran into a group of hobgoblins that had recent dealings with Sulveig. In fact, Sulveig left something with them. We took it, but the hobgoblins basically let us do it. They didn’t seem very interested in holding onto it.”

“Say what now? What hobgoblins?” Tom was beginning to look a bit panicky.

“Well, there are fewer of them now,” La’ss’a said.

Kyrian noded. “Their leader is named Magsaid.”

“What, Magsaid?! I know him, he’s a captain under Cyrvisnea just like all the other hob tribal leaders. I would have thought he’d be marching on Athkatla now with the rest of them.”

“Hmm,” La’ss’a said. “So the value of this information seems to have . . . increased.”

“I’ll say,” Tom grumbled. “I’ll have to corroborate some of this, but it definitely makes me think that there are things going on here I don’t know about. That’s bad, by the way. What you don’t know can kill you.”

“Two days ago, Magsaid was still in his stronghold,” Kyrian offered.

“I have people I can send out to check on these things. It shouldn’t take long. Now then, what do you want to know?”

La’ss’a shrugged. “Well, first if we’re going to accomplish our goals, we might want to find someone who wouldn’t mind helping us against Sulveig.”

Kyrian nodded. “Then we can find out exactly what Sulveig is planning, and why.”

Tom considered for a while. “There are a couple of people in town that were wooing Sythillis’ favor before Sulveig showed up. Most notably Dark Mistress Reldrin and those lunatic Thayvians.”

Kyrian swallowed audibly. “Thayvians worshipping Kossuth?”

“I know they have at least one cleric with them.”

“Oh. I . . . encountered them before,” Kyrian murmured.

“You did? Oh, that’s right, they’re staying at the Crimson Road.”

“You may want to update your facts,” La’ss’a said. “There were at least five of them there.”

“It’s hard to tell the Red Wizards and the clerics apart sometimes. I think they have a monk, too.”

“And one of them is hot,” Sam said. Elice kicked him under the table and he copped an innocent look. “What?” She stuck out her tongue at him and then winked.

“Let me make sure I understand . . . Sulveig hurt their influence with Sythillis, then?” Kyrian asked, bewildered.

“Well, Sythillis refused to meet with them, at least. I think . . . they’ve been courting Yoag now instead. But I don’t think they’ve made any progress towards their objective, whatever it is.”

“So who is Yoag?” Kyrian asked even more blankly.

“Sythillis’ gopher. He’s a cleric of some sort, but he’s not entirely an ogre mage. I think one of his parents was a dragon. He’s ugly as sin, in any case.”

“So what can you tell us about Reldrin?” Kyrian asked finally.

“She’s a drow, she’s renting a house here in town with her little harem. Well, heh, I say renting, I think they just came up out of the Underdark in the basement and evicted the former owners. She’s ostensibly some kind of merchant, but I think she’s here to get slaves for the markets down below. She spends most of her time in the fighting pits, watching her consorts beat the snot out of the competition.”

“Are there any other groups?” La’ss’a asked. “Or maybe the better question is, where does your group stand in all this? What do you stand to gain here?”

“Hah, that is a good question. I’m here to see to it that we keep bringing in money, no more and no less. I don’t take sides apart from trying to prevent the sort of chaos that would completely disrupt commerce. Murann is like a gold mine for us. We can bring anything into Amn through this place and not have to bribe guards or take precautions to hide our operations.”

“I see,” La’ss’a said. “You want someone in charge that is agreeable and doesn’t ask too many questions.”

“Exactly. As long as the situation doesn’t devolve into war, I’m not too concerned with the specifics. Sulveig worries me, though. He strikes me as being . . . difficult to deal with. Hmm.” Tom scratched his head. “If you want information on Sulveig specifically, you could always try to suborn some of his own people. He brought the strangest collection of critters with h im on that ship, and they didn’t all leave with him. I’d tread carefully if you plan on trying that, though, you could easily tip your hand before you’re ready.”

“Ship?” La’ss’a asked.

“The ship he arrived in. It’s still in the harbor, I think.”

Sam nudged Elice with his elbow. “It’d be a shame if something were to HAPPEN to it . . .” Elice burst out laughing.

“Can we get some names for these cohorts? Descriptions, even?” La’ss’a pressed. Tom turned to look over at Elice. She tried to get her laughter under control.

“Well, there’s Eztli . . . and Drask, too, I guess. Eztli is a troll, but he’s a weird troll. He’s the pit champion currently. He’s not always trying to feed his face, it’s like he’s got other priorities. Drask is a duergar. He sometimes competes in the pits, but for the most part he keeps to himself.”

Kyrian frowned. “If we take out the troll, we might make a friend of Reldrin, if she’s so invested in the pits.” Elice snorted loudly.

“Yeah, good luck with that. You might want to see him fight first before you go throwing your life away.”

Kyrian was hurt. “I’m just throwing out ideas. Could Drask be the duergar we saw on the way over here?”

“Well, since he’s the only duergar in town as far as I know, yes.” A loud *ding* sounded in the front of the store and Tom cursed.

“Sorry, that’s a customer. I’ll be back.” He rose and vanished behind the curtain.

“If you’re interested in Eztli and Drask, you should just go down to the pits and see for yourselves,” Elice said.

“Is there anyone else?” La’ss’a insisted.

“Not that stayed behind. Sulveig had another duergar he took with him, and this weird woman with spots all over her body. There were a bunch of big toads, too, and a giant bug. Plus a lot of miscellaneous orcs and goblins and so forth. That’s all I can remember, sorry.”

“Big bug? What did it look like?” La’ss’a asked.

“I’m not a bug expert. It looked sort of like a praying mantis, I suppose.”

“Thri-kreen,” La’ss’a announced.

Elice fidgeted a bit. “If you don’t mind my asking, what was the ‘thing’ you took from the hobgoblins? Is it anything like the weird ‘thing’ Sulveig gave to Sythillis?”

“I don’t know,” Kyrian said. “What was it?”

“It was some kind of mask that looked like the head of a cat.”

“This piece of info may cost you . . .” La’ss’a began.

“Hey, go easy with her, she’s volunteered plenty already,” Sam said gruffly. Elice smiled at him.


“We know who Sulveig’s old mentor is,” La’ss’a explained. The mentor and Sulveig had a falling-out. Sulveig kidnapped the mentor’s family. We rescued the family.”

“So this ‘thing’ is actually a person?” Elice asked, blinking. “Not what I was thinking at all, then. Sorry.” La’ss’a tugged on Sam’s cloak and whispered into the human’s ear. “I can leave if you want to talk privately again.”

“Nah. I just remembered something from our days at the school.”

Elice smiled a bit. “I’d love to hear all about that later, when you have more time.” La’ss’a looked at her, then glanced over at Sam. Then the little female lizard grinned hugely.

“Let’s head to the pits and watch some carnage!” Sam announced.

“Well, come on, no time like the present,” Elice said. She stood and led the way out to the street. They walked for some time, eventually ending at a large warehouse-like building on the waterfront. It looked like it once had windows, but they were boarded up so firmly that no chink was visible. A husky half-orc stood outside the entrance watching people enter and exit. As Elice approached, he held up a large palm.

“It’s just me, Hideere,” Elice said quietly.

“Ah, Miss Sandy.” The half-orc’s voice was deep, rich, and cultured, more suited to a drawing room than the seedy waterfront. “We have not had the pleasure of your company for some time. These are friends of yours, I take it?”


“Well go right on in. I’m sure Aichezin will be pleased to see you.” Hideere opened the door with a flourish, standing back out of the way. Sam nodded to the half-orc, and went inside, the others following.

Immediately within, a wooden staircase led up to a wide mezzanine, once likely used for storage, now turned into a tavern of sorts. The warehouse floor below was brightly lit, but the mezzanine was dim, offering the security of anonymity to the many diners and onlookers.

In the pit below, a fight was just winding up. An elegant male drow bowed to polite applause as round beetle-like machines rushed into the pit and cleared away what looked like the wreckage of a third machine. A tall, human-shaped machine wearing a suit of clothing strode into the center of the pit and declaimed: “Victory to Dark Mistress Reldrin! There will be a brief recess while the next entertainment is prepared.”

“That’s Aichezin the Machine,” Elice whispered. “He manages the fights.” La’ss’a peered between the bars of the railing to see what might be involved in the fights. It looked simple and straightforward enough, like the proprietor just cleaned out the bottom floor of the warehouse.

Sam snagged a seat with a good view to watch the upcoming battle. The drow warrior climbed up another staircase and joined a group in one of the corners. A woman leaned forward out of the shadows and stroked him like a beloved pet. Her features were dark and haughty, thoroughly drow.

“Have you ever done something like this before, Sam?” Kyrian asked, perching nervously. Elice pointed past him at a surprisingly ordinary-looking human sitting at the largest table in the place. Another large half-orc sat beside him on a heavy iron-bound chest.

“That’s Prak’parit the Oddsmaker if you want to place a bet.”

Sam glanced at Kyrian. “Not this openly, and not this professionally. Mostly, I tried not to die bleeding in the gutter.” Elice started to reach out a hand to touch Sam’s shoulder, realized it might be presumptuous, and buried both of her hands in her lap.

“Athkatla only looks nice from the top,” she said.

“I . . . I’m sorry, I have no idea what to say,” Kyrian stuttered.

“Not everyone gets to grow up in a nice home with a loving family. For some of us, there’s only the street,” Elice explained.

“It’s not like it ever did happen, and you never tried to kill me,” Sam said, shrugging.

Kyrian shivered. “I know I’m fortunate to have what I have. I wish it could have been yours.”

“Don’t make wishes like that, uh, Kyrian, right? You never know what might happen. We all have our good times and our bad times. I pity those whose good times are all in the past. I figure mine are still in the future.”

Sam nodded. “You’re a good kid, Kyrian, don’t wish you were like me.”

“That’s not what I meant—not exactly, anyway . . .”

Below, in the lit circle, the machine-man strode out to the center again. “Our next fight pits Dark Mistress Reldrin’s champion Irix against the current pit championi, Eztli!” Another drow warrior edged his way nervously into the circle, scanning the shadows. With shocking speed, a troll wearing a white tunic decorated with feathers and a chain shirt knuckled his way out of the darkness. Aichezin the Machine raised one clockwork arm and brought it violently downwards.


With a flash of psychic energy, Eztli was instantly on Irix, connecting with both claws and a mouthful of teeth. Irix slashed the troll viciously with his sword. Blood sprayed everywhere and Irix fell to his knees. From the corner, a loud angry curse cut through the noise of the crowd.

“Coward!” the Dark Mistress shrieked as her champion tried desperately to catch her eye. Aichezin the machine called out from his post on the floor.

“Irix wishes to yield . . .”

“NO!” Reldrin screamed. “No yield! It’s just a troll!”

“Heh, JUST . . .” Sam commented. Below, Eztli backhanded Irix in the chest and the dark elf skidded a good ten feet. Then, weirdly, the troll crouched down and waited for his opponent to stand again. Prak’parit the Oddsmaker leapt to his feet.

“Hey! Hey! What are you doing!? You know the rules!”

Kyrian blinked. “She was right. That doesn’t seem like very trollish behavior. That was a lot of psionic power, too. Biofeedback, Hammer, Thicken Skin . . . that first move was a Psionic Lion’s Charge.”

Eztli rumbled, “He yielded,” and knuckled away into the darkness again.

“DAMN it!” Prak bellowed. A few people presented to collect their winnings and he turned them over with poor grace.

“I don’t get it,” Kyrian asked. “The troll won. Did the Oddsmaker think he’d kill the drow or something?”

“I don’t know,” Elice said. “Bets are straight win/lose, so it shouldn’t matter to Prak either way. It’s weird that he’d yell at the champion, Eztli is a big moneymaker for him.”

Aichezin reclaimed the floor. “Irix will not be accepting any more challenges tonight. However, there are still openings should anyone wish to issue a challenge at this time.”

“Do they have any lower tier fights? That’s a skilled troll.”

Elice shrugged. “There are fights at any level, and you can enter as a group if you like. Aichezin won’t let you challenge someone he judges to be weaker than you are, but it takes him a few fights to really get a feel for that sort of thing.” She suddenly waved at someone in the crowd. “Hey, DEEN!”

A halfling in blackened leather armor with an enormous mop of curly blond hair atop his head came running towards the group. He was followed shortly afterwards by a human in Calishite desert gear.

“Hi, Elice!” the halfling said, looking around. “New friends? I’m Deen! This is Dunloch! We work for Silver Tom, don’tchaknow . . .”

“Well met,” Kyrian said. Sam nodded briefly, keeping an eye on the proceedings below.

“I’m the best catburglar around these parts,” Deen continued, “and if you’re looking for an assassin, you could hardly go wrong hiring my buddy Dunloch, here!”

“Deen!” Elice hissed. Sam blinked slowly and turned to give the halfling his full attention.

“I, ah, I’ll certainly keep that in mind . . .” Kyrian stammered.

“What? come on, Elice, you have to advertise to beat the competition nowadays!”

“You could kill the competition and save time,” Sam said.

“Nah, people don’t like that for some reason. Plus, we don’t like to kill and rob people if we’re not getting paid.”

“Fair enough,” said Sam. “It seems like a growth industry these days, anyway.”

Below, Aichezin the Machine bellowed, “We have a challenger! A new contender comes to the pit tonight, La’ss’a the lizardfolk, against two hobgoblin fighters! Place your bets now!”

“What the . . .?” Kyrian asked. Everyone looked around. La’ss’a was, indeed, missing. Kyrian and Sam both stood and went over to Prak. The Oddsmaker’s smile was full of teeth that seemed just a little too . . . sharp. Kyrian found himself struggling to find his own smile.

“What odds can I get on the lizard to win?”

“I’m giving odds of 2:1 against the lizard. That means that if you bet one gold piece, you get two. If she wins, of course.”

Sam dropped 10 platinum on the desk. “The lizard,” he said. Prak busied himself with collecting Sam’s money and writing out a betting chit. Kyrian offered cash and Prak repeated the process.

“The lizard a friend of yours? I hope you won’t be disappointed.”

“Oh, she’s full of surprises,” Sam said.

The two hobgoblins made their way into the pit, but La’ss’a was nowhere in sight. Aichezin didn’t seem the least perturbed, it simply raised its arm and brought it down again. “Begin!”

The hobgoblins looked around nervously, then La’ss’a dropped from the shadows onto one’s back. He squalled as she dug in her claws, discharging a psionic power at the same moment. She dropped to the ground and the hobs moved to flank, one gashing her badly with its sword. Then La’ss’a grinned, and did a very good impression of a snarling, clawing whirlwind. One of the hobgoblins fell to the ground, unconscious, and the other stumbled back.

“Yield! Yield!” La’ss’a spat his earlobe out cheerfully. Kyrian threw his arms around Sam and hugged the human, who stared at the young half-fey as though Kyrian had sprouted another head.

“Victory to La’ss’a the Lizardfolk!”

“Damn it, Chez, you call that a challenge?!” Prak howled. Below, the machine shrugged with a great clanking noise.

Below, La’ss’a glanced behind her as she was ushered out of the pit. The upright hobgoblin limped away, but his unconscious companion lay unattended. The shadows swelled and thickened, then suddenly lashed forward. The hobgoblin’s body arched in pain, then went limp in death. Then it was dragged from sight.

“I wonder who I could sucker him into matching me with?” Sam thought aloud, gesturing to his lack of weapons.

“You fight with your bare hands, now? Did you become a monk and not tell me?” Elice asked. Sam grinned at her.

“Something like that.” La’ss’a rejoined them at the table, still trying to worry the last few bits of hobgoblin meat out of her teeth. Without warning, Hideere appeared beside her.

“When you have a moment, Eztli would like to speak with you.”

Oct 24, 2007

Cold Blood: Session 1

This is a game that one of my friends is running for me and (hopefully) some other people soon. At present, I'm playing Sheen.

A year ago Sheen would never have thought it possible, but the walls of Waterdeep were beginning to feel like a cage. She wrapped her threadbare cloak a little more tightly around herself, fully conscious of the contrast between her destitute state and the City of Splendors. It was just as well that she had little need for food; it had allowed her to stretch the money this far, at least. She went through her pouches and pockets methodically one last time looking for anything else she could sell.

The tools in her belt pouch shifted aside and something shone whitely beneath them. Mystified, Sheen dug for it, but only with the aid of an awl was she able to pry it loose from the cranny where it was wedged. It looked like a moonstone, and a large one, easily the size of the last digit of her thumb. Where had it come from? She didn’t recall packing it, but she’d been so hurt and terrified that she’d simply stuffed her pockets with whatever would fit. Perhaps she’d thrown one of Gyderic’s belongings into her pouch without noticing, where it had remained undisturbed until now.

She smiled a bit at the irony. Gyderic’s last act would be to pay for new clothing, lodging, maybe even a new start in a new city. She tossed the stone in the air and caught it with her other hand. One of her fingers poked through a hole in the glove and made contact with the stone. It began to vibrate slightly, emitting a soft glow. Then a voice spoke.

“Baltazo, if you’re hearing this then I am dead and my mission has failed. My pawn does not suspect her role in our drama, but the Cullers have caught my scent and I may be exposed before the artifact is mine.

“It now falls to you to avenge me. Years ago, before our current plot was hatched, the wizard Morard devised a weapon for me, similar in principle to Sheen’s creation but with far greater destructive potential. It was too blunt a tool for our attack on the Elder, but the time for subtlety is over. Now it will serve us well.

“Journey northeast to Morard’s home in the Larch Hills east of Redlarch. He won’t know you, but tell him ‘The Great Eye beholds the City of Mirrors’ and the wizard will know you speak for me. Bring the weapon back to Waterdeep and use it in the manner we discussed at the Feast of the Moon. Blame will fall upon the Cullers, and when the smoke clears the artifact will be yours.

“I wish you luck, my friend. I know the cause will live on. Your brother in arms, Gyderic.”

Sheen dropped the stone on the ground and leapt back from it as though it were a poisonous snake that might bite her. Actually, knowing Gyderic, that was a possibility. “That bastard!” She yelled, causing several passers-by to look at her oddly. Realizing her position, she scooped up the stone and stuffed it into her pouch again. There was no possibility of selling it now, of course. Anyone could handle the stone and hear the message.

“Damn him!” Sheen muttered viciously, winding her way through the crowd. “The Feast of the Moon is, what, five days from now? Where’s Redlarch?” She snagged a random pedestrian. “Pardon me, sir, would you happen to know the way to Redlarch?”

He stared at her blankly for a moment. “It’s northeast of here, about sixty miles I believe. You should be able to get there by following the signposts on the road.”

“Ah, thank you.”

“No trouble,” he said, rolling his eyes.

“I suppose I could go there and see about this wizard. It would be something to do at least, and it might even be profitable.”

The system of roads around Waterdeep were well-patrolled, so Sheen walked undisturbed for three days. Her only trouble lay in puzzling out the unfamiliar road signs and finding somewhere to rest at night.

Redlarch was large for a village, but everywhere looks small after Waterdeep, so Sheen selected the first inn she came to—The Blackbutter Inn—and walked inside with a measure of confidence. It seemed little different than any Waterdhavian inn. A few locals and travelers were scattered around the tables, drinking and talking. A thin, dusky-skinned man with an permanently laconic expression gazed at Sheen from behind the bar.

Sheen strode across the tavern and spoke in a loud, clear, well-modulated voice. “Pardon me, good sir, but might I trouble you for some refreshments?”

The proprietor grinned. “Certainly, my lady! I welcome you to the Blackbutter Inn! Do you bring news from afar?”

“I fear not, I have only recently come from Waterdeep.”

“Oh, well, I haven’t been there in ages, either. What’s the word in the City of Splendors.”

Sheen made small talk while she drank her beer. She didn’t really need it, of course, but it did wash away some of the road dust, and she’d found people were suspicious when she didn’t eat or drink. The proprietor might even take it as an insult to the quality of his establishment. She put one of her few remaining gold pieces down on the countertop in payment.

The proprietor smiled. “Where are my manners? I am Dhelosk Quelbeard, the owner of this fine inn.”

“I am known as Sheen. I do not mean to trouble you, but I am a stranger to this village and I fear I may have some difficulty orienting myself.”

“Oh, well, it’s no trouble. I was a stranger here myself, once. Barglun Blackbutter ran this place until the wolves got him eight years ago, and I’ve been running it ever since.”

Sheen nodded. “I am looking for a man, a wizard. His name is Morard. I believe he lives nearby.”

Quelbeard rubbed his chin. “Morard . . . hmm . . . sorry, I don’t know the name, but tehre was an old wizard who lived half a day east of here, in the Larch Hills. No one’s heard much out of him for years, but they stay clear of his place still. Ranph over there thinks it’s haunted.”

Sheen turned to look over at the indicated Ranph. “Haunted? Why haunted?” she asked. The man looked up at her.

“Well, I can’t say fer sure, but three of the local kids went out there last week to have a look around. They musta tripped somthin’, ‘cause we heared a roar comin’ from a secret room. Jeya and Farnie took off, an’ who wouldn’t? Cari disappeared though. I came runnin’ back here, I ain’t no warrior.” He lowered his gaze in shame. “We was lucky, though, three folks headed to Waterdeep went out that way not an hour ago. They said they’d find our missin’ and bring ‘em back.”

“That is well, I suppose. Forgive me, but I had best be off myself. I don’t want to arrive only to discover some mischief has occurred. Might you direct me?”

“Certainly,” Quelbeard announced, and gave Sheen some directions. “Are you sure you want to head out now, milady? It’s midday, you may not make it until dusk.”

“I fear my business cannot wait, but I would be glad to purchase a few torches from you, and some flint and tinder.” She placed another gold coin on the bar.

“Let me just see what I have back here . . .” Quelbeard ducked under the bar. There were some rattling and clanging noises, and he emerged with a striker and half a dozen torches. Sheen smiled and tucked the torches into the quiver with her few remaining javelins.

“Good day to you, goodmen.”

“Good fortune to you!” Quelbeard called after her.

Sheen followed the directions, concerned that the hills might be dangerous, but her trip was uneventful. The good weather held and the local wildlife was lively. At the end of the nearly-overgrown path, she found a large dirt mound with a doorway in one side, unusual tracks marking the dirt. They didn’t belong to any creature Sheen could identify, but it was clearly large and had come this way more than once. The led towards the north, further into the hills, and as Sheen squinted in that direction she realized a figure was approaching her. It looked humanoid, but in the rapidly diminishing light it was difficult to tell.

Sheen planted her longspear in the dirt and waited patiently for the figure to grow nearer. After a few minutes she was able to identify him as human, wearing scale armor and carrying a mace. He had black hair that he wore tied back, and his face looked weary. His clothing, especially his cloak, was tattered, but it didn’t look like ordinary wear.

“Hail, traveler,” Sheen called to him.

He paused and blinked at her for a long moment, then sighed. “Well met. Are you Cari?”

“No, I am Sheen. What might your name be?”

“I am Joris. Joris Crownsilver.” He sighed again. “I suppose it really would be too easy to find Cari wandering around out here.”

“You are one of the travelers from Redlarch, then, seeking their lost kin?”

“Indeed. We—I only found Farnie, or at least, what’s left of him.” Joris closed his eyes for a moment. When he reopened them, he pointed at the tracks. “I wanted to look in the mound first, but Jerris insisted we follow the tracks. They belong to an owlbear. We—I found Farnie’s remains in its lair, but it killed my companions before I could finish it off.”

Sheen bit her lip. “Ah. I am traveling in that direction myself. I believe I can spare the time to render you some assistance. Should you need any, that is.”

“I . . . I would appreciate that.”

“Would you wish to check the mound now, or return to the monster’s lair?”

Joris shook his head slowly. “There’s nothin gin the lair, I warrent. Except for the graves I dug. I’ve looked around the periphery a little, too. I didn’t see much. So I’m ready to go in if you are.”

Sheen leaned her longspear up against the side of the earthen mound and addressed the door. Up close, it looked decrepit and violated. The door swung awkwardly from one hinge, creaking occasionally in the wind. Considering again, Sheen lit a torch and loosened her short sword in its sheath. It would not do well to be surprised. The door swung open creakily, miraculously still clinging to the hinge.

A hall led deep into the mound, with a pair of double doors on the right. Sheen opened the doors and peered through, but it proved to be nothing more than a closet with a few moldy, moth-eaten cloaks still hanging in it. The main room ahead appeared to have been thoroughly looted. Furnishings were tossed aside or piled in heaps. The place was a shambles. Someone looking for secret compartments had even gouged holes in the walls and pulled down the wall hangings. A vast bronze dome held up the ceiling, and there were several doors leading out.

Sheen felt her mouth tightening into a hard time. “Looters and imbeciles!”

“What sort of wizard would let this happen to his home?” Joris asked.

“One that was far away or deceased.”

Methodical as always, Sheen began the search by going to the first clockwise door. It appeared to be a bedroom: along the wall were remains of dressers and a wardrobe, utterly smashed. Sheen poked the slashed-open remains of the straw mattress.

“What were these people even looking for?” Sheen asked, mystified.

“Most wizards keep things of value, if only to other wizards.”

“Yes, but they don’t often keep them inside their bed. At least, not in my experience.”

“Heh, my father would, but he’s . . . unique.”

In the next room, sawdust filled a bed frame without a mattress. Inside the frame was a moldering, dessicated corpse. At the sight, Joris clapped his hand over his nose and mouth and took several steps back. Sheen blinked at him, then reached out and squeezed his shoulder gently. Then she rolled up her sleeves and, gripping the corpse’s ankles, began dragging it outside. Joris paled noticeably.

“Why don’t you check the closet?” Sheen asked as she continued dragging the body out into the hall. She hadn’t gone more than a few paces before she heard the door open and Joris shout an alarm. Sheen drew her sword and dove back into the room, just in time to see what looked like a molten mass of humanoid flesh claw at Joris’ armor.

Sheen drove her sword into the main mass of the creature, but the viscous, doughy flesh only yielded without taking any harm. Joris swung his mace ferociously, but it simply rebounded as though he’d struck rubber. A claw caught Joris on his chest and ripped off several scales, leaving a horrendous bloody gash.

“Get back!” Sheen yelled and threw her torch into the broken pile of furniture. Flames licked eagerly at the dust-dry wood as the creature oozed forward, but it was utterly unharmed by the fire. Sheen cursed. “How do you kill this thing?!”

Joris laid his hands over the bleeding hole in his chest and began to chant. A purplish glow formed and the injury vanished. Sheen dodged around the fire and struck with her sword again. Her blow was more solid this time and a large chunk of the creature’s substance tore free. It howled in pain.

Encouraged, Joris attacked again with his mace, this time making some appreciable impact. Claws ripped at Sheen, leaving nasty gouges in her arms and legs as she buried her sword deep in the fleshy mass. The blade passed completely through and what was left of the monster split open like an overstuffed matress, spilling gore.

Joris looked faint and turned away to be sick. Sheen herself fought to keep self control, cleaning her blade then exploring the closet where the creature was hiding. The half-eaten remains of a peasant girl greeted Sheen’s exploration.

The furniture fire choked itself out in short order, leaving the room a smoky, vile mess. Sheen looked at Joris and chewed the inside of her cheek in thought. “Are you all right now?” She asked.

“That . . . that was a lemure.”


“It’s a fiend. The least of all fiends, but still!” He seemed to regain a measure of composure. “I’m sorry, let me take care of those injuries,” he said, repeating his chanting and gesturing performance.

“Do not apologize. I think I simply had all the horror wrung out of me some time ago.” She examined her unblemished limbs. “Thank you.”

Joris swallowed some water. “I’m sure it’s wrong, but I feel a little jealous. Growing up in Silverymoon was pretty . . . safe.”

Sheen shrugged. “Come, let us get out of this terrible atmosphere and bury these bodies.” She resumed dragging the ancient corpse, then returned for the girl. Joris attempted to help, but she could see him getting a bit green in the face so she pushed him gently but firmly away.

“I think this was Jeya,” he said while they were displacing the dirt outside the mound. Sheen nodded and finished placing the last rocks of the crude cairn.

“Do you say words or some such?” she asked awkwardly.

“I’m sorry? I don’t follow you.”

“Words. For the dead. It is not my custom, but I thought you might wish to . . .”

“Oh! Yes, I can, anyway. In fact, I seem to be getting a lot of practice lately.” He performed a quick burial ceremony, or at least that’s what Sheen guessed he was doing. The ritual seemed to comfort him and allow him to center himself. It was now quite dark, approaching midnight, in fact.

“Let’s get some rest before we continue. It’s been a long day for me and a longer one for you, I expect,” Sheen said.

“Yes, I think you’re right.” They took shelter in the mound, Joris blinking around in the darkness. “Should we camp in one of the bedrooms? That way, there’s a door between us and . . . whatever.”

Sheen shrugged. “I’d rather not have to worry about trying to open a door in the dark if it becomes necessary.”

“Oh. I hadn’t thought of that.”

Sheen sat down in a corner, wrapping her still threadbare cloak around herself. “Get some rest, I’ll watch for a bit.” Joris made himself as comfortable as possible on the floor. He looked at Sheen, obviously wanting to talk, but his exhaustion was too much and he dozed off very quickly. Sheen kept herself awake until the wee hours of the morning, listening to the noises of wild animals. When she couldn’t keep her eyes open another moment, she shook Joris’ shoulder gently. He mumbled something that ended with ‘-ora’, then his eyes focused and he smiled.

“I feel much better now. Please, rest up, I’ll take it from here.”

Sheen nodded, then curled into a tight ball and fell asleep almost instantly. An uncounted time later, she returned slowly to consciousness, feeling greatly refreshed. Some dream had passed through her mind, but she could not recall it now. Moving slowly, she stood, stretched, and let the power banish her hunger and thirst.

“You didn’t seem to want to wake up,” Joris commented. “You needed to rest as badly as I did.”

Sheen shrugged. “I have been on the road for several days with little rest.”

“As have I. Our next rest is surely far ahead of us, I felt we should make the best of it.” Sheen raised an eyebrow a little at the ‘our’, but Joris didn’t seem disposed to notice so she let it pass. “I considered poking around without you, until I remembered what happened last time. Still, shall we press on?”

“Of course,” Sheen replied. Joris was beginning to worry her a bit. He seemed a little too friendly.

The next room proved to be a library, but the books were strewn over the floor and the furniture was reduced to kindling. Sheen’s face whitened in rage. “When I think of what may have passed beyond knowing here, I am infuriated,” she announced bitterly.

“Indeed,” Joris replied. “The Lady of Mysteries would share your rage.”


“I’m sorry. Mystra, the goddess of magic. My goddess.”

“Oh,” Sheen said, blinking. “I’m afraid I have never heard of her.”

Joris looked surprised, but shrugged it off. “I never really had the gift of arcane art, but thankfully I can serve my Lady as a cleric.” He paused. “Is there a god you pray to, Sheen?”

She laughed. “Oh, no. I’m too busy for religion.”

“I . . . see.” He seemed more perplexed than anything. Sheen felt the need to explain further.

“The dwarves didn’t want a human visiting their shrines and temples, and afterwards I always had work or studies or . . . other things.”

“Well, I suppose not everyone has a divine calling. Maybe you just haven’t found yours yet. I know a gnome who’d love to tell you about Gond . . .”

“Later,” Sheen interrupted sharply. She looked around the library a bit more, then continued to the next room. The floor there was littered with smashed glassware. The dust was quite thick. Moving carefully, Sheen tried to avoid stepping on any of the broken glass. Underneath a workbench, she spotted a book. It looked surprisingly clean compared to the disarray all around, so she reached down and carefully retrieved it. The words ‘Lab Notes’ were burned into the leather cover, but it read more like the journal of a madman. A madman that called himself Morard frequently, in the third person.

“Mmph. You’d expect a wizard to be more methodical. Look at this gibberish.” Sheen turned and showed the book to Joris. He leafed through it, his face alternately fascinated and perturbed.

“It looks like this book describes Morard’s interest in traveling to other planes. It looks like he was frustrated at first, but he eventually succeeded in contacting beings from another world.”

“Hah, that would explain the meringue or whatever it was.”

Joris snorted with laughter. “The lemure, yes. It looks like he eventually transported himself bodily to another realm.”

“That bastard. Now I’m never going to find out what he . . .” Sheen began, then stopped. Joris wasn’t paying any attention to her, anyway. “Let’s keep looking around,” she said finally.

A door led away from the laboratory. When closed, it merged with the wall, but it was leaning open and thus fairly obvious. At the end of a short passage was a heavy, ironbound door. Joris scowled at it, but Sheen simply reached out and tried the latch. Surprisingly, it was not locked. The iron-banded door opened into a large vaulted chamber lit by a pale blue glow that seemed to radiate from the walls. Alchemical equipment lined the walls, and other tools covered a table close to the center of the room. In the exact center there was a magical diagram on the floor, inlaid in gold. Something about it seemed to be repelling the dust, for it was clean even though nothing else was.

Sheen stared for a moment, then closed the door. “Let’s make sure the rest of this place is clear before we mess around with the scary glowy magic stuff, hmm?”

“You’ll get no argument from me.”

The remainder of the dwelling was empty, or nearly, save for ever-present dust and cobwebs. Joris poked through a mound of collapsed bricks and emerged holding a couple of vials. “Huh,” he said. “Healing potions.” He turned and offered Sheen one. She hesitated before she accepted it. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m just thinking. If Morard went through that circle, it is probably my duty to follow him.”

“But it could go . . . it could go anywhere! Anywhere at all!”

“Yes, I am aware.”

“So why is it your duty? I don’t understand.”

“It is a long story and most likely no concern of yours.”

Joris stared at her, perplexed. “Fair enough. In any case, the clues to his fate must be in that room.”

“That’s why I wonder whether I should take this potion. You may have more use for it than I.”

“I can heal myself. Maybe you should take both of them,” he said, holding out the other one. Sheen grimaced, then chuckled. “What’s so funny?”

“Just my pride.” Sheen accepted the potion. “Thank you. Let’s go back and check the vaulted room, then.”

“All right.”

When Sheen stepped into the room, dust rose in little clouds around her feet. Beneath the dust, she could seer more gold inlay on the floor. The gold inscriptions, hidden under the dust of years, extended far beyond the circle in the center of the laboratory. The diagram covered the entire room, and it began to glow. A warm wind hurled the dust into the air, where it glinted in the bluish glow. A hazy nimbus surrounded Sheen, sweepig her up in a surge of magical force, and the room spun into a blur.

When she came to herself once more, Sheen was lying on a stone surface, surrounded by a glowing lattice. The air was hot, almost too hot to breathe, and full of the stench of ozone and sulfur. The glow gradually faded, allowing her to see that she was still lying in the center of the diagram, but it wasn’t the same one; it was a duplicate in black rather than gold.

Grunting, Sheen hauled herself to her feet. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” she muttered angrily. The sky above was a burning red, starless, sunless, moonless. A rocky red landscape stretched away in all directions. In the vague distance, a fireball erupted from the ground and arced randomly overhead before exploding.

“Oh, Lady of Mysteries,” Sheen heard. She turned around to gape at Joris. The cleric’s face was very white, his eyes wild.
“You followed me?”

“I tried . . . I tried to grab you.”

“You do realize that I could rightfully call you some pointed names right about now.”

“Oh, I thought I could pull you back! What was I thinking!”

“Don’t be like that.”

“Do you know where we are? DO YOU?!”

“No, but does it really matter?”

Sheen heard a sharp intake of breath behind her and turned. She saw a humanoid creature with deep red skin. It wore studded leather armor and a chain coif, and sported a vicious snarl that revealed sharp teeth. It was carrying a longsword in one hand, and its other arm ended in a bloated, iron-studded forearm with a tiny withered hand dangling off it. Sheen blinked as it flung itself on the ground, prostrate.

“Hail, great cutters of the planes!” it croaked.

“Avernus,” Joris said. “This is Avernus, First of the Nine Hells.”

Oct 23, 2007

Psionics Game: Session 8

Nan led the way slowly up the path into the rocky upland. The dirt trail was well-trampled and the stone walls that shouldered close to it bore odd scrape marks at head height. Demaris fingered one speculatively, then rejoined the group.

Fa’ss’th looked up at the village woman. “I suggest Nan head back to the village now. This trail is pretty obvious, there’s no need for her to strain herself now.” Nan simply shrugged.

“Do you think you will be safe making your way back to the village by yourself?” Oren asked. She shrugged again and turned to leave; she didn’t seem to care whether she was safe or not.

The path led eventually to a great crack in the stone; a black maw opening on an unknown depth. Barak approached slowly and peered into the darkness, his weak human eyes straining.

“What’s down there?” Yorick asked.

“I can’t really see,” Barak said, digging through his pockets until he found a smooth glowing stone. “It looks . . . empty.” He took a few steps forward, paused, then turned around and walked out again. Everyone stared at him in surprise. “I’m not going in there.”

“What? What did you see?” Fa’ss’th demanded as the entire group took several steps backwards in unison.

“Nothing. There’s nothing in there.”

Giving Barak a skeptical look, the lizard wizard scrambled around the rocks and peeked into the hole himself. He entered the cavern and looked around. It was a dry, dusty hole, rough-hewn from the stone, but otherwise unremarkable apart from its size. It was large enough to swallow the inn back in the village. A wide slot in the stone appeared to lead into another chamber. Olena dug a sun rod out of her pack and tried to follow Fa’ss’th, and was mystified to find herself repeating Barak’s performance. Some strange feeling filled her mind and blunted her will.

Outside, Yorick examined Barak a shrewdly. “If there’s nothing in there, why won’t you go in?”

“I don’t know. Leave me alone,” the human said, sitting down heavily on a rock.

“He’s right,” Olena announced. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Why?!” Yorick demanded.

“Because there’s nothing here,” she said, and began walking back up the path. Demaris shot a perplexed look at Oren, and the paladin trotted after Olena.

“Wait!” he said, plucking at her sleeve. She stopped and they spoke quietly for a few moments. Finally, she let him draw her back to the cave entrance.

“There’s something fishy going on here,” Demaris murmured. Yorick walked into the cave, twitched in surprise, then groaned.

“There’s an Aversion trap in the entrance, is what,” he muttered.

“An Aversion?” Demaris asked skeptically. “You mean, it’s a psionic trap?”

“Drat,” Fa’ss’th said, examining the stone in detail. “I can’t find the source. Heh, not like I could really remove the trap now, even if I could find it.”

“How far into the cave did you go?” Yorick asked the lizard.

“Not far. If there’s traps I can’t see, I don’t want to go messing around in there much.”

Yorick took on a sour expression. “I, well, I have that ability.”

“Right,” Demaris said. “So what are you waiting for?”

“Staying out here is still a good idea,” Olena offered.

“I’m with her,” Barak seconded.

Yorick stared at the entrance for a long time, then flattened himself to the wall and shuffled carefully into the cave. He pointed at the ceiling. “Trap’s up there . . . if you are careful, you can squeeze past. Do you have some way to break the rock up there?”

Fa’ss’th poked the ceiling repeatedly with his shortspear. There were a few sad pinging noises, but otherwise little result. “I can try blasting it, but it’ll make a LOT of noise. Do we want to try that?”

“Let’s see if we can get past it without doing that,” Yorick replied.

Oren frowned at Olena, then dug a scarf out of his pockets and offered it to her. “Perhaps if you cover your eyes, you will be able to approach.”

“All right, but you’ll have to lead me,” she said, tying the cloth around her eyes. She put her hand on Oren’s shoulder. The paladin gritted his teeth and stepped into the cave, sighing in relief when he suffered no ill effects. Olena began to balk, though, and rather than stop, he scooped her up in his arms. She squeaked angrily and fought briefly, but once they cleared the entrance she relaxed again.

Demaris examined Barak, “If you think I’m going to carry you again . . .”

Barak glared at her angrily. “Just go in. I’ll stay here on guard in case anything comes.”

“Suit yourself,” she said, and trotted into the cave.

Olena took off the scarf and blinked in the darkness. A faint glint caught her eye and she bent to pick up a strange object. It looked a great deal like a piece of fine, clear quartz, but it was a thin plate the size of her palm instead of a squarish block like most quartz crystals. She held her light up to it and smiled at the rainbow of colors that resulted. Opening her pack, she started to squeeze it into a corner and was startled to find that the crystal flexed slightly in her hand. “Hey!” she murmured. “Strange.”

Fa’ss’th and Yorick made for the entrance to the next chamber, both of them looking up at the ceiling again first. “There’s another trap here,” Yorick said shortly. “It’s much like the first, but I think it will have a different effect.”

“Oh well,” Fa’ss’th said and trotted through the passage. He felt some clinging tendrils of power, but his will brushed them aside contemptuously. Yorick flattened himself to the wall again and repeated his comical shuffling. One at a time, the others braved the trap and entered the next chamber. The room was full of wooden chests—battered and salt-stained--stacked more or less randomly. Yorick squealed and began flipping through the boxes, examining their contents. Coins and gems shone brightly.

“Here we go again,” Demaris said. “We don’t need money. We need to know what’s going on here!”

“There are some dead gnolls here,” Fa’ss’th called from the far side of the chamber, where another passage led into yet another chamber.

“Well, at least that saves us the trouble,” Olena replied, joining the lizard in examining the walls and ceiling. Yorick reluctantly turned away from the chests and approached them.

“There’s not much room here,” he said. “It will be hard to get past.”

“Oh well, let’s get to it,” Olena said, and began squeezing along the wall. There was a faint sound, a deep, low grumble, then the three of them abruptly collapsed. Demaris covered her eyes with a hand.

“Great.” Oren started to creep forward towards the fallen comrades , but Demaris grabbed the back of his tunic. “Are you insane? Do you want to get caught in it, too?!”

“We can’t just leave them there,” the paladin retorted.

“No, we can’t. You go back outside and get Barak,” Demaris ordered as she began edging towards the limp bodies. Oren gaped at her.

“So you are just going to walk into it?!”

“Yes,” Demaris said, gritting her teeth as she continued her slow approach. “The difference between us is, I know what I’m doing. I think.”

“Oh that’s very reassur . . .”

“Just do it!” Oren sighed and left the chamber. It was some time before he returned with Barak, and he discovered that Demaris had already retrieved everyone in the interval. Barak leaned down to touch Fa’ss’th and winced as he took on some of the lizard’s injuries. Fa’ss’th wrenched back to consciousness, his mind screaming in agony.

“What, what happened?!” he squeaked. Then he felt in his pockets. “Oh no! Oh no oh no . . .”

“What?” Demaris demanded, kneeling over him and trying to get a look at his eyes. Oren waved his hands and cast healing over Yorick, and then attempted to do the same with Olena. Fa’ss’th pulled a handful of crystal shards out of one pocket and a tiny dead snake out of the other, and burst into tears.

“I think she’s dead,” Oren whispered.

Still crying, Fa’ss’th pulled a long, slender piece of crystal out of his pack and touched it to the snake. The crystal glowed and the familiar began moving again, slowly, and wrapped itself around Fa’ss’th’s arm. The gold and ivory snake shifted to make room for the familiar as Fa’ss’th waved the dorje over Olena. She shuddered violently and took a breath. Nodding, Fa’ss’th replaced the dorje, sat down, and began sobbing in earnest.

“Um, are you okay?” Demaris asked the lizard after a while. Oren glared at her. “What? It’s just a question.”

“Have some sympathy for him. His familiar has just died, as well as his other . . . thing,” Oren said a bit awkwardly.

“The psicrystal? They’re just constructs. They can’t ‘die’. They were never alive in the first place!”

“Shut up,” Oren told her quietly. Demaris opened her mouth to retort angrily, and he made a cutting motion in the air. “I am serious. Be silent of your own will or force me to silence you; either way the result will be the same.”

Demaris slammed her fist into the stone, bloodying her knuckles. She hardly seemed to notice the damage, but hit the ground again and again until red drops scattered across the floor. Horrified, Oren grabbed her wrist. “Stop it! What is wrong with you?” Demaris was breathing hard, her gaze distant and strange. After a moment, her clouded eyes began to clear.

“It’s nothing. I’m fine. Let go.” She paused. “Please.”

“You should . . .”

“We should get them back to the village. We’re not going any further today.” She stooped and picked up Fa’ss’th, who put his arms around her neck. Oren lifted the unconscious Olena a bit uncertainly. Barak concentrated and grabbed one of Yorick’s ankles. The man slid easily over the stone floor, and the six of them returned back the way they had come. The surviving women watched silently as they built a small fire and arranged their companions around it.

“What colossal stupidity,” Demaris announced. Oren threw down the wood he was carrying, whirled, and stalked towards the edge of the village. “Hey! Where are you going?” she yelled after him.


“But . . .”

Barak shook his head. “Would it kill you to learn some tact?” he demanded.

“I don’t think it’d kill people to get used to the blunt truth, either! I’m not blaming anyone, so why get upset? Everyone does stupid things. The best thing to do is to identify it as stupid and then move on!”

Barak leaned back and stretched. “That’s why you need to use tact. If you’re not trying to blame anyone, then you need to actually convey that idea.”


“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite hear that. I’m assuming you meant to say: ‘thank you for the lesson, Barak, and I will behave better in the future’.”

Demaris’ expression was sour. “I’ll take it under advisement.”

“Do that.”

By morning, everyone had more or less recovered. Yorick groaned and felt his bruises carefully.

“Well, that was . . . fun. Unless you have some better ideas, I suggest we carry on to Athkatla after our little . . . misadventure.”

Fa’ss’th shook his head. “We need to help these ladies, but I don’t see how to make it through those caves. I don’t know very much about traps.”

“Well, I’d like to know what’s in there,” Demaris said.

“I told you I didn’t want to go in there,” Olena announced. Oren winced.

“I am sorry,” he whispered awkwardly.

“Sorry for what? It wasn’t your fault, Oren,” Olena said gently.

Fa’ss’th frowned in thought. “There were three traps that we’ve encountered so far: aversion, brain lock, and ultrablast. I’ve never met anyone that could manifest that last power, well, except Nymbus, and he’s unavailable.”

“The psionic nature of the traps suggests a connection with Sulveig to me,” Olena said.

“If Sulveig did that, we may as well give up now,” Fa’ss’th replied grimly.

Yorick said, “Unless there’s another entrance, I don’t see what can be done.”

“The, uh, ultrablast didn’t go off again right away, a relief to me, I might add,” Demaris explained, “because it made it a lot easier to get you out of there. The other two traps are more annoying than lethal.”

“And how do you suggest we get past the non-annoying one?” Yorick demanded icily.

“You want a suggestion? Use something to set it off, then go through!”

“Are you volunteering?” Yorick sneered.

“Hey, you asked. Oren did find some animals while he was ‘out’.”

Olena winced. “I doubt the Treefather would approve, but these are desperate times. Perhaps a goat could set it off. It would be easy enough to chase one through, but dragging it there, well, not so much.”

“One part that confuses me is the dead gnolls,” Fa’ss’th said. “Traps like this usually allow friends to pass without problems.”

Oren raised his hand tentatively. “Is it possible that someone wanted to protect the rest of the cave from the gnolls?”

Fa’ss’th shrugged. “Sure, it’s possible. I guess Barak and I can produce sonic bolts and gradually destroy the trap from a distance.”

“Well, if we are set on returning, that is how we should probably proceed,” Yorick said, heaving himself to his feet. Demaris suddently turned and looked at Olena.

“Hey, do you still have that piece of crystal you picked up?”

Olena stared at her blankly, then began rooting through her bundles. “Let me check. Ah, here it is. It flexes a bit. It’s very strange.” Demaris held the crystal in her hands, frowing. Everyone crowded close to look. Yorick paled and stumbled backwards, sitting down abruptly.

“That is a dragon scale,” he said.

“Oh! No wonder it’s so pretty!” Olena said, smiling.

“And so deadly.”

“Um, how big of a dragon are we talking about, here?” Demaris asked, turning the scale over and over in her hands. Everyone began talking at once.

“The villagers didn’t warn us? It didn’t look like a very big passage for a dragon . . . maybe it doesn’t live there any more . . .Is it an evil dragon? Probably a crystal dragon, actually, they’re extremely rare though . . . we didn’t see any other evidence of a dragon, did we? Maybe it doesn’t live there any more!”

Fa’ss’th held up his hands. “All right, stop, stop. I am confused. Didn’t Nan tell us the gnolls took some of the villagers to the caves?”

“I think so,” Olena said. “We should ask her about the dragon in any case.”

The village woman was not difficult to find. Olena showed her the scale. “What can you tell us about the dragon in that cave?”

Nan looked panicky. “It still here?” she scratched out with a piece of charcoal.

“Well, we didn’t see it,” Olena began, but Yorick butted in.

“Tell us what you know,” he hissed menacingly. Nan cringed.

“Dragon come with soldiers . . .” she began to spell out laboriously. Fa’ss’th touched her arm and concentrated.

“There, that should help,” he said. “Now ask your questions.”

~There is a lizard talking inside my head?~ Nan thought. Fa’ss’th snorted with laughter.

~It’s okay, it just makes it easier for us to talk,~ he explained. Nan shrugged.

~The dragon came with the army,~ she explained, pointing to the large burn holes in roofs and walls.

~Why didn’t you tell us about it before?~ Yorick demanded.

~I thought it was gone. How was I supposed to know? I only saw it for a second, and it was horrible!~

~Were you left here to bring us to it? Are you in league with the beast?!~

~Yorick, that’s enough!~ Olena snapped. ~Nan, the cave is full of traps now. Do you know what else we may find there?~

~No, I only saw the gnolls take one of the women up the path towards the cave every day or so. Some of the gnolls didn’t come back, the women never did.~

~Um.~ Olena thought, and odd sensation for everyone involved. ~Would you excuse us, Nan?~ The village woman shrugged and returned to her salvage efforts. “All this psionic business ties the gnolls to Sulveig,” Olena said aloud. “They may have left something behind we can use.”

“But if we blast our way in, are we prepared to deal with what we find?” Yorick said, his twisted expression making it obvious that he thought the answer was No.

Demaris rolled her eyes. “I think if the dragon was actually in there, we wouldn’t still be standing here arguing. I mean, if you were going to attack Athkatla, and you had a dragon for an ally, would you leave it behind?”

“I’d never be without it,” Olena said, nodding.

“Heh,” Demaris said, endeavoring not to look pleased at the agreement. “It might not even be possible to leave it behind if it thought it might get some nice loot.”

“All right,” Fa’ss’th said. “Let’s just blast the traps down and see what else is inside. The longer we wait, the further away Sulveig gets. Hey, does anyone have a piece of bluish-green metal?”

“You mean, adamantine?” Demaris asked. She stood ungracefully on one foot and pulled a small sliver of the metal out of her boot. It was barely sufficient to serve as a dagger.

“Good!” Fa’ss’th announced. He jumped up and snatched the metal, then vanished into the ruined town. After a moment, he returned dragging a 20’ pole, looted from a collapsed house. He dug some twine out of his pockets and lashed the adamantine to the end of the pole, then began dragging it in the direction of the cave. The others followed him, mystified. Fa’ss’th stopped at the entrance to the cave and frowned at the ceiling.

“Yorick, invoke that power again so I can see what I need to poke.”

“Um, all right . . .” Yorick said, and concentrated. “It’s right about . . . there.”

“Right!” Fa’ss’th said and hauled the pole into a vertical position. It wavered and wobbled badly, nearly overturning the small lizard, but he braced his tail against the ground, turning himself almost into a tripod, and began chipping vigorously at the ceiling. Demaris coughed violently, trying not to laugh.

Within moments, there was a loud cracking noise and part of the ceiling collapsed with a loud rumble, raising an enormous cloud of dust and splashing everyone with white powder. Fa’ss’th charged into the cave, pole swinging wildly, and attacked the second trap.

Chip . . . chip . . . chip . . . RRRRRRUMMMMBLE. “Yah!” Fa’ss’th yelled and continued on to the third passage. He heaved the pole forward in a mighty overhead swing, catching the ceiling in a particular spot. The pole broke, but it didn’t matter because the ceiling came crashing down.

“FEAR ME AND THE POLE OF DESTRUCTION!” Fa’ss’th roared, brandishing the unbroken portion of the stick. Demaris chuckled and everyone else smiled, amused. Then a long stalk with eyeballs on it whipped around the corner, staring Fa’ss’th in the face. The lizard jumped back.


A squat, three-legged creature came bursting out of the passage, the central mass of its body opening to reveal an immense maw full of teeth. Two tentacles shot out, each ending in a fleshy pad covered in hard thorny growths. It’s eyestalk whipped around, scanning the room. Everyone stared, horrified. Then Fa’ss’th gestured violently and shot a ray of blackness straight into the creature’s mouth. Everyone drew their weapons and charged.

Olena gouged the creature badly with her sword, but a tentacle snapped out and wrapped around her waist. Fa’ss’th and Yorick rained sharp crystals and energy beams at it while Demaris swatted it with her crude staff and Oren sliced at its legs. It flailed and squealed, but it seemed weak and unfocussed in its attacks. For the most part everyone was able to stay out of the way. In less than a minute, it was little more than a twitching heap of decaying flesh.

“What did you do to it?” Demaris asked Fa’ss’th.

“Ray of Enfeeblement, of course!” he announced, looking pleased with himself. “I’m not sure what it was, but it doesn’t much matter now!” He climbed around the monster and peered into the next chamber. It appeared to be full of nothing besides an immense pile of . . . compost. Olena joined the lizard and they both stared at it in stupefaction for a while. Then they shrugged and began digging through the filth. There were no signs of bones, but after a moment they uncovered the top of a large curved object. It looked like a massive piece of quartz, oblong and smooth.

Working together, they were able to free it from the pile and heave it out for inspection. It weighed nearly eighty pounds.

“Oh, wow,” Olena said when they could see it at last. “That looks like a dragon’s egg.”

Fa’ss’th whistled through his teeth. “Sounds like a bargaining chip to me.”