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

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.”

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