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

Dec 30, 2007

In Color

My Aunt Terri sent me a nice gift card for Christmas, so I splurged and got some markers and a pen to try doing some of my drawings in color. I think these aren't bad for a first attempt. It's nice to be able to branch out and try new methods.

Dec 29, 2007

Cold Blood: Sheen and Haden

THUMP. THUMP. THUMP. Haden winced as spikes of pain shot through his skull. Someone was hammering on the door. He considered shouting at them to go away, but the agony he knew would result didn’t seem worth the effort. Fighting down nausea, he climbed off the bed and opened the door. This turned out to be a poor choice as well, because the hallway was brightly lit. Haden cringed and Sheen glared at him.

“Are you still in bed? I thought you were going to go get us another invitation to that party thing,” she declared without preamble.

“Not . . . not right now,” he said with an effort.

“What do you mean, not right now? What’s wrong with you? Are you hung over again?”

“Oh, how I wish,” Haden said, stumbling back to the bed and lying down again, his back towards the door. Refusing to take the hint, Sheen walked right in, sitting down on the end of the bed. Haden fought down the nausea again.

“What’s wrong with you?” Sheen demanded for the second time. “If you’re sick, maybe Thea can help or something . . .”

“No,” Haden hissed. “Thea can’t help. Nothing helps. Even drugs barely take the edge off. Just go away. I have to wait until it goes away on its own.”

“So you are sick?”

“No, I’m not sick. This is perfectly normal . . . for me.” Haden was startled to feel her begin rubbing his back. Oddly, the contact caused no pain. He sighed.

“What do you mean?” Sheen asked, her voice soft and gentle.

“Do you know what I am?”

“Well . . . no. I didn’t think it was important. So you’re a little . . . odd-looking. Who cares?”

“A lot of people around here are Planetouched . . . that means that one or the other of their parents is descended from a planar being of some sort. Most Planetouched are either Tieflings or Aasimar . . . their parent had either fiendish blood, or celestial blood. I’m both. My mother . . . my mother is fiendish, and my father is celestial.”

“That can’t be very common,” Sheen said.

“No . . . as far as I know, I’m the only one. The two parts of my heritage . . . don’t get along very well. I get terrible headaches, nausea, the light hurts, noise hurts . . .”

“Why didn’t you just say that from the beginning?” Sheen asked. She was still rubbing his back. It felt . . . good.

“It’s not important.”

“Not important? It’s debilitating! Is that why . . .”

“Yes,” Haden hissed between his teeth. “That’s why the drink, and the drugs . . . a hangover is better than this. It doesn’t always work, though.”

“You should have just told us.”

“I don’t like people to think that I’m . . . weak. That I’m a liability.”

“You think you’d play it up to get women,” Sheen said. Haden could hear the smile in her voice. He snorted, then winced.

“Ow.” He sighed. “You think I’m easy? That I’d sleep with anybody?”

“You certainly act like it. I wish I could do something to help you. I know what it must be like.”

“No, you don’t. I appreciate the sentiment, but you don’t know what it’s like. It’s always the same. You start out pitying me. Then it starts becoming a problem. You’ll find yourself wondering just how pathetic I am to be so debilitated by a little headache. Then you’ll start to despise me.”

“No,” Sheen said. “When I . . . when Gyderic turned against the Council, they thought I was involved. They . . . shredded my mind, to get at the truth. Tore me to pieces. It was months before the pain started to recede. I couldn’t see straight, I could hardly keep food down . . . the slightest noise was like a spike in my brain. I don’t know how I survived. So I know just how ‘little’ these headaches of yours are. I really do wish I could do something. Watching someone struggle with pain is not a pleasant sensation.”

“Thank you.”

“I’m sorry I’ve been so judgmental.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Sheen frowned, thinking. “You know, maybe there is something I can do.”

“Like zap me with your powers, or something?”

“No, nothing like that. But I can try to teach you some meditations . . . the mental discipline of psionics may help you with the pain. I can’t promise any results, mind you . . .”

“If it takes my mind off of my misery, I’m all for it.”

Sheen smiled. “All right. We’ll start tomorrow, then. When you’re feeling better.”

Cold Bood: Shopping

Sheen sat down next to Joris and groaned theatrically, leaning forward until her forehead rested on the table. “I am SO out of shape,” she announced.

Talan leaned over and poked the rock-solid muscle under her sleeve. “Really,” he said skeptically.

“For smithing,” Sheen clarified, rubbing her arm and glaring at him. “I’m out of condition. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“So is that where you’ve been all day the past couple days?” Joris asked. “We were beginning to think you’d pulled a Haden.”

“I got a job in that shop we saw near the Black Sail,” she explained.

Talan scowled and folded his arms. “So you’re just going to go off and leave us, then, is that it?”

“No, of course not. It’s just a temporary thing. I’m a smith, Talan, I don’t think it’s fair for you to expect me to give up my life’s work entirely just because we’re not in Faerun any more.” Sheen sighed and leaned back in her chair, stretching until her spine popped. “Besides, we can’t expect windfalls like this last job to come along all the time.”

Talan nodded. “Maybe we should all find work. It’s not good to be sitting around idle, and I’m sure we all have our passions that have nothing to do with hunting down missing barmies.”

“I’d like to find a temple of Mystra, personally,” Joris said a bit shyly. “Temples always need hands and feet, if not swords and shields.”

Sheen nodded. “What about you, Talan?”

The half-elf thought for a while. “I’m curious to know where all the food comes from around here, actually. Do you see any farms? Animal herds? I’m betting when I find out, I’ll find someone that’s also in need of some assistance,” he said. “And I like animals. Dogs especially. I’d get one, but Chirper’s doesn’t allow pets.”

“You actually asked?” Joris said, startled.


“Well, that brings me to another point,” Sheen said. “Dr. Rhas has a room above the shop that he rents out. He had to toss out the last tenant because the man was a deadbeat. He wants me to take the room. It’s a lot cheaper than living here. And, well, it’s nice to have your own place, so you don’t have to carry all your belongings on your back everywhere you go.”

“There’s something to be said for the free and unencumbered lifestyle, though,” Talan said, smiling.

“I’ll bet you say something different the next time Chirper’s is crowded and they shove us all in one room together. You know how Joris snores,” Sheen said.

“I do not!”

“Sounds like a bull moose being strangled,” Talan said agreeably.

“It does not!”

Talan laughed at Joris’s indignant expression. “So now all we have to do is convince Haden to find gainful employment, and we’re all set.”

“Ah, but I already have a profession that occupies all of my time,” Haden said, sitting down. He was still a bit paler than usual, but when Sheen gave him a concerned look he smiled wanly.

“What’s that?” Talan asked.

“I lounge, my dear friend, I lounge. Someone has to do it so that all you busy bees get to experience the self-righteous pleasure of looking down your noses at me.” He feigned a long-suffering sigh and adopted a martyred expression. “It’s a terrible sacrifice, but one I will endure for the sake of my friends.”

“Don’t hurt yourself,” Talan said, chuckling.

“Are you feeling better today, though?” Sheen asked.

“If you’re asking whether I still feel that it would be a relief to remove my own head with a pickaxe, then yes. Besides, we have an important chore to take care of before we go get the invitation from my . . . before we get the invitation.”

“What’s that?” Sheen asked.

Haden grinned. “Shopping.” Talan and Sheen looked baffled, but Joris groaned.

“What?” Talan said quizzically.

“We have to get fitted for dress clothing,” Joris explained.

“What’s wrong with the clothing we have now?” Talan asked.

“Nothing, if you don’t mind being mistaken for a stable boy,” Haden said. “The elite of Sigil tend to be a little particular about who they admit to their parties. If we want to attend, we have to dress the part. We’ll need masks as well, of course.”

“Masks?” Sheen blinked.

“Yes, masks,” Haden said, rolling his eyes while he pulled out the invitation and pointed to the word ‘Masque’. “It’s a costume party. Oh, there are always a few people that forget, so they have masks at the door, but it would be well for us not to stand out in any way if we’re going to pull this off.”

“We’ll bow to your expertise, then,” Talan said.

“Come along,” Haden said, standing. “There’s a lot to be done. First stop, the spa.”

“A spa?” Sheen said. “I think I’m capable of grooming myself, thank you.”

Haden sighed. “To be honest, no you are not, at least not up to the standards of the wealthy and powerful in this city. I’m not trying to insult you, I’d just be more comfortable knowing everything was being done by professionals.”

“You wouldn’t appreciate it much if we joggled your elbow while you were working at the forge, Sheen,” Joris said.

“All right, all right. Let’s get this over with.”

* * *

Sheen gasped as an urn full of water was dumped over her head to rinse the perfumed soap out of her hair. The coiffeur gripped her under the chin and tilted her face to the side as though she were a mannequin. He grabbed most of her hair, twisted it into a knot and clipped it to the top of her skull, then set to work with scissors and comb.

“Madame must tell me who colors her hair,” he announced, lisping effeminately. A young woman attacked Sheen’s hands while a second girl, indistinguishable from the first, critically examined her feet. “This is an excellent shade, very hard to reproduce.”

“N-no one colors it,” Sheen sputtered. Her neck was beginning to ache from the uncomfortable position, and she stretched to relieve the pain. The man seized her chin instantly and forced her back into place.

“Madame must hold still,” the coiffeur said stiffly. Haden wandered in to the room in a bathrobe, showing signs of his own scrubbing. He sat down in an empty chair, stretching his legs out to the stool in front of him and leaning back.

“How are we doing?” he asked.

“Better than you would expect,” the coiffeur said. “Madame’s skin and hair are superb, they simply need conditioning.”

“Calluses,” the girl working on Sheen’s hands reported, displaying the offending palm to the coiffeur. He tsked irritably.

“Use the pumice scrub,” the coiffeur ordered. “Madame should take greater care with her hands. Soft hands are the true mark of a lady.”

“Madame is not a lady,” Sheen said, snatching her hand away. “I need those calluses, thank you! I’m not going to spend months with blisters and burns!” The coiffeur’s spine stiffened, his nostrils flared, and his lips narrowed.

“Don’t worry about it, Severan, we’ll make her wear gloves,” Haden said soothingly.

“One does not like to present less than perfect work,” Severan said stiffly.

“I know,” Haden said, “but you also have to put up with less than perfect subjects sometimes.”

“It is the never-ending trial of the true artiste,” Severan announced and returned to marshalling Sheen’s hair into order. He pulled a ruler out of his apron, and after surveying Sheen’s head with it several times, whipped the smock from around her shoulders with a flourish. “Voila, we are finished. Madame must wear a hair net to sleep, and of course she will need to return on the day of the event to have her hair dressed and set. And, of course, the makeup.”

“You mean we’re not done?!” Sheen screeched.

“Of course not!” Severan sniffed. “These are just the preliminaries!”


Haden grinned impudently. “I’m sorry, Sheen, I don’t set fashion. You’re getting off lightly, really, you wouldn’t believe some of the things women will do to themselves in this city.”

“It’s not fair,” she said petulantly.

“No, but it’s not fair that a woman can stop a man in his tracks with a single glance, either. It balances out, trust me.” Haden frowned, his gaze growing as though he wasn’t seeing his immediate surroundings any more.

“What?” Sheen asked.

He jumped slightly. “Nothing. Now we go to the clothier and get you a dress,” he said, offering Sheen a hand to help her extricate herself from the chair. She started to reach for her clothes but Haden shook his head. “Leave them, Severan’s people will have them cleaned and ready for you when we leave.”

Sheen look shocked and tightened her bathrobe. Haden rolled his eyes.

“Will you please try to relax? All these people are professionals,” he gestured down at his own robe. “They don’t care.”

She sighed. “I’m trying, I’m trying,” she let Haden pull her down the hall towards the door to the clothier’s. “I’m just glad Severan said they didn’t need to do whatever it was with the hot wax and strips of cotton. Being an elan has its advantages, I suppose. So, why does it have to be a dress, anyway? Can’t I get by with satin trousers or something?”

“No,” Haden said flatly. “Will it really kill you to look like a woman for one evening?”

“It might, if I trip and break my neck.” He just gave her a disgruntled look and shoved her through the door.

* * *

Talan smoothed the front of the dark green tunic with his palms and glanced in the mirror. “It looks good,” Joris said, struggling with the cuffs of his own blue and purple outfit. “I think this is a little too tight,” he added, and the tailor nodded.

“I will have the sleeves let out,” he said, and bustled away, taking the jacket with him.

“So, you think I’ll make a good date, then?” Talan said. “I won’t embarrass you or anything?” Joris made a face and Talan laughed.

“Will you stop with that,” Joris grumbled uncomfortably.

“I don’t know why it bothers you so much. It’s not like we have a reputation to lose. Who cares if people take it the wrong way? Do you think your mistress will dump you or something?” Talan was expecting a laugh, but Joris turned bright red and stared at the floor.

“Oops,” Talan said. “Sorry, none of my business.”

“It’s not what you think,” Joris started to say.

“If it makes you that uncomfortable, then I don’t want to know,” Talan said. “I know you wouldn’t go hiding anything that was actually important. Let’s go see how Sheen is getting on now that the screaming has stopped.”

“Yes, let’s do that,” Joris said, relieved. He followed Talan down the hall towards the ladies’ dressing rooms. Haden was already there, his outfit stacked beside him in tidy boxes. The aasling had gotten a glass of red wine somewhere and was lounging on a couch.

“Come to enjoy the show?” he asked, smiling.

Sheen emerged from one of the cubicles with a red-faced maid. The tailor stood nearby with his hands on his hips. His vest and the top three buttons of his shirt were undone, his hair stuck up wildly, and he was wringing his measuring tape in his hands. Clearly, the man was not enjoying himself. He exchanged scowls with Sheen.

“No, no, no,” Haden said, waving his glass in the air. “She looks like a circus performer, Erturo. I can’t go to the ball with that.”

The tailor’s shoulders slumped. “I am sorry, sir, madame’s coloration is problematic. We cannot use the black because her skin tone . . .”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Haden said. “Her skin is too dark for black, her hair is too orange for red. I don’t know where you got that color green, though, did you murder a parrot?”

“I thought perhaps the dark blue . . .”

“Do you want her to look like an old lady?” Haden frowned, thinking. “What about white?”

The tailor looked shocked. “White, sir? That’s really not in . . .”

“I know, I know, but try it. You have to have something.”

Sheen glared. “You said you didn’t want me to stand out,” she said accusingly as the maids hauled her bodily back into the dressing room.

“I said I didn’t want you to stand out because you looked terrible,” Haden corrected. After several minutes of rustling, thumping noises, and occasional cries of “Ouch! Be careful!” the doors were flung open. The tailor frowned.

“Hmm.” He glanced at Haden.

“Hmm,” Haden replied. He glanced over at Talan and Joris. “What do you think?” Talan just chuckled.

“It looks . . .good?” Joris offered weakly. The maids had stuffed Sheen in a long white satin sheath with a choker collar around her neck. Her shoulders were bare.

“Turn her around,” Haden ordered and the maids complied, exposing the low-cut back of the dress. One of the girls tugged at the fabric.

“It still needs to be fitted, of course, but it suits her fairly well. The other dresses were tight around her shoulders, she’s so muscular.”

“What do you think, Sheen?” Haden asked.

“What, I’m allowed to have an opinion?”

“You have to wear it, after all.”

“It’s fine. I’m not sure about these shoes, though,” she said, pulling up the hem of the dress and displaying a pair of high-heeled sandals.

“Right,” Haden said. “We’ll take it.”

“Haden, I can’t wear heels like this!”

The tailor winced. “Madame cannot wear flat shoes with that dress, it will make her look six inches tall.”

“Don’t try to pretend that you’re awkward, you know I’m not going to believe you. I’ve seen you fight.” Haden climbed out of his chair and examined Sheen from close range. “Stand up straight, for crying out loud. Let’s see you walk.” Sheen took a few clumsy steps, her shoes clumping loudly on the wooden floor, then she stumbled and staggered sideways. Haden grabbed her arm.

“Stop that,” he whispered into her ear.

“I look ridiculous!” Sheen hissed back.

“No, you don’t. You’re sabotaging this on purpose and I won’t have it. I can’t believe,” he said, sneering, “that you’re afraid of a dress.”

Sheen’s face when white and she inhaled like an opera singer, her nostrils flaring. Her spine straightened as she drew herself up to her full height. “Good girl,” Haden said before she could get anything out. “Now walk.”

Sheen twitched the hem of the gown out of her way sharply and circled the room. Talan and Joris applauded politely. “There, are you happy?”

“You’ll do,” Haden said, and waved at the tailor.

Dec 23, 2007

Cold Blood: Sheen's New Job

Sheen opened the door to the Hands of Time a little hesitantly. The shop was busy and the proprietor seemed to have his hands quite full. The small living construct spotted her and hopped down off its shelf again, waddling quickly across the floor to bump into her feet insistently. Not knowing what else to do, she bent and picked it up.

“Peep!” it announced.

“You shouldn’t go running around,” Sheen told it severely. “You might get lost. I saw a cousin of yours not long ago, but it wasn’t very talkative.”


“Ah, it’s you again,” a voice said behind her shoulder. Sheen jumped. The proprietor reached out and took the little construct from her again. “That’s truly fascinating. It seems to have become attached to you. Yet they’re not supposed to be able to feel emotions.”

“I’m sorry to bother . . .” Sheen started, but the man held up a hand.

“Don’t apologize. We didn’t have a chance to talk much, before, but you don’t seem like the thieving type. My name is Pranav Rhasmanayet . . . Dr. Rhasmanayet, actually, if we’re being formal.”

“I’m Sheen.” He waited a moment for her to add more, then raised an eyebrow inquisitively. “That’s all the name I have.”

“The dwarves didn’t give you a patronymic?”

Sheen smiled. “You have a good memory. They did, but I gave up that name and adopted a new one when I was changed.”

“Changed into what?” Sheen’s lip twitched. “Ah, forgive me, we’ve just met and I’m being rude. My curiosity gets away with me sometimes.”

“Do you know what an elan is?”

Dr. Rhasmanyet’s eyes brightened. “Yes! Psionic human, correct? That’s wonderful, you may be able to help me out!”

“Um, really?” Sheen said, perplexed.

“Yes, yes, do you know anything about working with crystal and ferroplasm? A customer recently brought me some, and I’ll be deuced if I can figure out what to do with it. Here, I’ll get you the specification sheets he provided . . .” the Doctor said, and began rummaging through stacks of paper.

“It’s not difficult to work with,” Sheen said, “just like metal, really, if you have psionic power. I don’t know how to work it otherwise, though, so I’m not certain I could teach you . . .”

“Then you’ll just have to work it yourself. I’ll hire you. I really need to get this job done immediately. It’s not complicated, but I don’t know anyone else that can do it. Most psions don’t seem to like working with their hands for some reason.”

“How much?” Sheen asked, smiling slightly.

“Whatever the customer paid for the work, as soon as I can find it . . . minus a small finder’s fee and a charge for using the shop. We’ll work out the details later. Here, let me show you the forge.”

Dec 22, 2007

Cold Blood: Session 8

Sheen stared at the golem. “This can’t be good,” she remarked. It returned her gaze with dull, lifeless eyes.

“Ever the optimist, you are,” Haden said. Very slowly, the golem turned back to face the sea of flame.

“It could be worse,” Talan said.

Perplexed, Sheen approached the golem. “Hey, do you speak?” It did not move or utter a sound. “It is a golem, isn’t it? What is it doing here?”

Joris frowned. “It may be here to defend the fortress against elementals. It’d be immune to almost anything they could do. Look how old it is. It’s very possible that the Illuminated don’t know how to control it.”

“That seems sad,” Sheen said. “Do golems get bored?”

“Let’s hope not,” Talan said, “ Or this one might want to play with us.” Haden yawned, bored. “Let’s go before we overstay our welcome,” Talan added, pulling on Sheen’s arm.

“All right,” she said. “Where to next? We’ve explored almost everything, I think.”

“What about those stairs?” Haden asked, pointing across the room. They climbed again, and went around a curve to another massive set of double doors. These doors, however, were hanging open, the room beyond a sheath of white marble. Five people stood in the center of the room, obviously waiting.

“Which one of you is the psionic?” one of them asked, stepping forward. It was a tall, emaciated woman with a nearly-skeletal face and yellow, spotted skin. Sheen recognized her as a githzerai, a member of a planar race known for their psionic power. She gripped the haft of her spear tightly.

“I am.”

The gith gestured and a blade-like plane of force appeared in her hand. “Good.”

Sheen concentrated and a field of force manifested before her yet again. “Come to me, soul knife! Your paltry tricks don’t frighten me!”

“Great, there’s two of them,” Talan whispered to Joris.

“Not for long,” Joris said. Talan drew his swords and dodged to the side, attacking what appeared to be a hobgoblin in full plate, while Sheen charged at the soul knife, gouging the gith solidly with the spear.

Talan staggered back with a cry of pain as the hobgoblin retaliated, burying his greataxe in the half-elf’s slender chest. The hobgoblin sneered and moved in to finish Talan off, but Joris reached out a hand and healing magic closed most of Talan’s wounds. The other mercenaries moved in to surround the cleric and ranger, while a man wielding two swords attacked Haden.

Haden struggled to fend off his attacker, but the two-hander was clearly the better swordsman. Calling upon his fiendish nature, Haden threw up a sphere of darkness and scurried away. He could hear the other man lumbering heavily after him, his plate armor rattling with every step. It gave Haden an idea.

“Slow as a snail ye are, ye are,
Marching off to make war, make war.
When you arrive there is nothing to save, to save,
But daisies that grow on a grave, a grave.”

He heard the man snarl angrily and felt himself well rewarded. Emerging from the darkness, he dodged past Talan and stabbed the gith, who was keeping Sheen at bay after wounding her severely. Joris cracked one of the mercenaries in the skull with his mace. The man wobbled and went down. Talan was trying to avoid the hobgoblin and bore several more axe-wounds. While Joris tried to heal the half-elf again, Haden dispatched the other mercenary and tried to help Sheen with the gith once again. Under their combined assault, she finally went down and Sheen concentrated, her eyes glowing as she tried to knit her wounds together again.

The two-hander fumbled his way out of the darkness, and seeing Sheen preoccupied he attacked her. She dodged aside awkwardly, but took his sword in her leg all the same. The hobgoblin finally dropped, and Haden, Talan, and Joris turned to regard the two-hander.

“Berk, you’re surrounded,” Haden said. “Give it up now while you still have a chance.” The man glared at Haden, furious, then threw his swords to the ground in disgust. Haden smiled thinly. “So, tell us everything that you know. Seriously. Everything.”

“I’m Trent, the captain of the guard for the Citadel.” He pointed at the gith. “Imogen recruited me.”

Haden grimaced at the blood staining his clothing in several places. “And what a pleasure it has been to make your acquaintance.”

“What can you tell us about the Citadel?” Talan asked.

“Yes,” Sheen added, “And tell us about Baltazo.”

“Baltazo?” Trent said, laughing. “That’s like telling you about a shadow. I’ve only seen him three times, and every time he had a different face. As for the Citadel, Efreeti built it, thousands of years ago. I don’t know how the Illuminated found it. When Toranna said you were coming, they actually pulled all the guards out. Can you imagine?”

“What, were they frightened? Of us?” Haden asked skeptically.

“I don’t know,” Trent said. “I think they wanted to consolidate their strength to take back the Citadel. I never understood what they were doing here, anyway.”

“We don’t want your stupid Citadel,” Sheen said. “We’re just here to stop you from screwing with people.”

Joris nodded. “Yes. How can we end this ‘Eternal Boundary’ nonsense?”

Trent turned around and pointed across the room, to where a blue-glowing gem sat on an alter of sorts. “That’s what protects the Citadel from the fire.”

Sheen frowned. “So, if we take it with us when we leave, the entire place is destroyed? I’m sure the golem would be THRILLED about that.”

“You ought to have enough time to reach the portal back to the Mortuary, if Alver was right. I think Marvent enchanted it, but I don’t know much else about it.”

“Do you know how to open the other portal?” Sheen asked, as Haden began methodically stripping the bodies of the fallen and gathering their valuable equipment together.

“We should take these weapons and the full plate with us, their worth a fair bit of cash,” he said.

Trent shook his head. “No. The key is a spell you cast on it. Marvent and Baltazo were the only ones who could open it.”

“So Baltazo is some kind of wizard?” Sheen asked. Haden pulled a sheaf of documents out of Imogen’s belt pouch and began leafing through them. Joris and Talan crowded over to have a look as well.

“He was Marvent’s apprentice.”

“Did you ever meet someone named Gyderic?”

Trent frowned. “No, but I heard Baltazo talking about him once. He was upset that someone wrote Gyderic in the dead-book, since it cocked up his plans. That’s about all I remember.”

“There’s a letter here, and an invitation,” Haden said. “Command the Citadel and guard it from any attack. If you’re free, please join me at the Jester’s Masque. You may be able to help me with a promising new recruit there. Best wishes, Baltazo. The invitation is to the Masque, for the bearer and a guest. Convenient.”

“I think someone should go with you, Sheen,” Talan said.

“What, me?” Sheen asked, startled. Haden grimaced.

“What is it, Haden?”

“It’s a big society ball for people with more money than could possibly be good for them,” Haden explained. “If you REALLY think we should go, I MAY be able to scare up another invitation.” He paused. “Hells, I’ve become attached to you people. Unbelievable.”

Talan laughed. “Yeah, and we’ve become rather fond of you.”

“Don’t tell anyone, it will ruin my reputation,” Haden said.

They gathered up the prisoners and anything in the Citadel that looked interesting and activated the Mortuary portal with a glass bead. Then Talan climbed up the stairs to remove the crystal, and sprinted back towards the portal. The temperature climbed rapidly, roaring flames licking at the edges of the stone. Sweat pouring down his face, Talan leapt through the portal into the comparatively cool Mortuary hall. A dozen Dustmen guards were waiting. One of them grinned at the sight of Toranna.

“Skall has some questions for you,” he intoned. A look of pure terror crossed her face as they hauled her away.

“Let’s go back to Chirper’s,” Sheen said. So they did.

Dec 21, 2007

Psionics Game: Sessions 14 & 15

Kyrian felt himself fighting to avoid dizziness as he gazed upon the heavens. The sky above him in this tiny realm standing apart from the lands of Abeir-Toril stretched off endlessly in all directions, filled with more stars than he believed could actually exist, shining in every color of the rainbow. They were so close and so bright that he felt that he could stretch out his hand and pluck them like fruit. Bright as the stars were, though, they were nothing beside the great billows, pools, and swirls of vibrant color that drifted among them like silent thunderstorms.

The land beneath his feet seemed almost ordinary compared to that awesome panorama, but he could tell that it held its share of wonders as well. A few small human-seeming buildings clustered near the edge. Beyond them a vast jungle sprang up, shrouded in a thick mist that seemed to coalesce out of the very air. Enormous spires of rock, too tall and narrow to be mountains, rose out of that jungle and strange bright structures were visible at their peaks. One of them glowed harshly, impossible to look directly at for any length of time. The light it shed was warm, too warm, really, in the sticky humid air, and Kyrian suspected that this was the “sun” of Nymbus’ realm. It was daytime.

He squinted at the spires, the gem on his forehead contracting as it aided his powers of vision. “Look . . . there are rope bridges connecting the spires. They’re awfully high up . . . they’d be among the clouds, if there were any.”

La’ss’a leaned back, trying to see, and almost toppled over. “So, all we need to do is fly up there.”

“Easy enough for some of us,” Olena said.

“I’m more interested in these buildings,” Sam said. Fa’ss’th trotted towards the nearest door and knocked, eliciting no response. He turned and looked at the second building, which was emitting loud, regular clangs.

Baugetha looked up from her forge when they appeared in her doorway and wiped her hands on her apron. “So you’ve arrived. Make yourselves at home, although there’s not much in the way of amenities here, just my house, Athur’s, and Salmede’s.”

“Whose is empty?” Fa’ss’th asked.

“Athur’s not here at the moment, of course, and Salmede’s off in the jungle somewhere. He usually is. Salmede’s house is probably the most comfortable. Athur doesn’t have much use for that sort of thing.”

“Why’s that?” Kyrian asked. Baugetha grimaced as though he was dense.

“Because he walks right through them?” the elderly dwarf said.

“Oh.” Kyrian replied, feeling foolish.

“We weren’t there when the others met him,” Olena said.

“It doesn’t really matter,” Barak said. “We probably shouldn’t stay here that long.”

“Suit yourselves,” Baugetha replied. “Nymbus left a lot of things here, but most of them are virtually inaccessible. The place sat unattended for a long time, and even Salmede doesn’t know most of what’s here.”

“What kind of things?” Sam asked.

“I couldn’t begin to tell you. He was always constructing some apparatus or another, but they’re so advanced compared to my own work that I can only rarely determine what they’re meant to do.”

“You mean like the observatory back home?” Fa’ss’th asked.


“Did Athur ever figure out what it was?” Fa’ss’th pressed. The dwarf woman snorted.

“Athur doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground where it comes to machinery.” Olena giggled a bit nervously at the vulgarism. “He never was one for hands-on work, for obvious reasons.”

“So did you do any research on it?” Fa’ss’th asked.

Baugetha shook her wide, heavy head. “I’ve been trying to finish this suit of armor for Tobrin, so I’ve been a little preoccupied over the past couple of weeks.”

“What about the big clumps of crystal that latch onto magical sources and suck them dry?” La’ss’a asked.

“Say what now?” Baugetha demande, her eyes widening.

“That’s what happened to our Valley,” Kyrian explained. “These crystals appeared, and magic was transformed into psionic power.”

Baugetha shrugged again. “A lot of Nymbus’ methodology revolved around the resonant properties of various different crystals, but I’ve never heard of anything even vaguely similar to that until now.”

“Nymbus died because of these crystal formations,” La’ss’a said. “And now more of the same thing is threatening our swamp. It seems tied to the astral and material planes at the same time.”

“I’m a dwarf, I’ve spent most of my life living around every type of stone, earth, and mineral, and Nymbus could still find things that would surprise and dumbfound me. I’d give anyth—almost anything to know where he got them from, but he never said. Always close-mouthed he was, but in a way that you didn’t notice until long after the fact.”

“I wish we could have met him,” Olena said quietly.

“Maybe we’ll find something here that will shed some light on the problem,” Kyrian said.

Fa’ss’th pointed to the snake stuck on his arm. “Any idea what this thing is?” Baugetha pulled a pair of spectacles out of her pocket and examined the snake closely.

“It looks familiar. I think I saw Nymbus wearing it a time or two,” she said. “It’s not hurting you, is it?”

“No,” Fa’ss’th replied.

“Then I’d leave it alone for now. So, you two fey aren’t Nymbus’ students, then? Athur didn’t mention the pair of you, but I assumed you must just have slipped his mind. You radiate psionic power strongly.”

“No,” Olena said, “my brother and I got caught up in all of this when our Valley was changed. Behind her, La’ss’a pulled the jaguar mask out and showed it to Fa’ss’th. Fa’ss’th held up his arm to let the snake have a look at it.

“What valley?” Baugetha demanded.

“The Valley,” Kyrian said less than helpfully. “It’s not far from his school. It’s a fey enclave.” The snake on Fa’ss’th’s arm suddenly came to life and poked its blunt nose at the mask, its dark purple tongue flicking out.

Baugetha stared at Kyrian, then Olena, blinked rapidly several times, and burst out laughing. The twins favored her with puzzled expressions.

“You’re not entirely fey, are you? You’re half-fey?” the dwarf woman asked.

“That’s right,” Olena said. “Our mother is a Naiad.”

“We never knew our father, but we assume he was human,” Kyrian added. That sobered Baugetha abruptly.

“And likely, you never will, now,” she said.

“What do you mean?” Kyrian asked warily.

Baugetha hesitated, making a face. “Well, I shouldn’t jump to conclusions. May I see your hand for a moment?”

The twins exchanged a glance, then Kyrian pulled off a glove and offered the dwarf his hand. Sam and Barak likewise looked at each other, then Barak smacked his forehead and Sam hid his mouth behind his hand, laughing silently. Baugetha took Kyrian’s hand in her rough, calloused palm and concentrated. Her eyes glowed with silvery light as she stared into some other world invisible to the people around her. Olena looked at Kyrian, then at the two humans.

“I thought so,” Baugetha said, half of her mouth quirking upwards. “I wondered why he was so fussed when Salmede visited those fey.”

“What?!” Olena demanded.

“There are generally two ways to become psionically active. One is to be a bit of an odd soul already, or in odd circumstances,” Baugetha said. “When you like crosswise to the world, you develop correspondingly odd talents. That’s me and Athur, and most of you, I expect. The other way is to inherit it for your parents. I know who your father was. It was Nymbus.”

Olena exhaled sharply and sat down with a thump onto an upturned bucket. Kyrian simply stared, his eyes wide and blank. Baugetha appeared unimpressed by the display. She bustled into the kitchen and returned with two cups of strong-smelling brown liquid.

“Here, drink that, it’ll help. Honestly, I don’t know why you’re so shocked. He was around for a long time, and everyone has their urges. He may have children scattered all over the Realms, for all I know.”

After arguing quietly for some time with Fa’ss’th, La’ss’a put the jaguar mask on. The snake stretched out towards her and tried to climb on her arm, then settled down apparently immovably. Fa’ss’th scratched his head.

Olena slurped down some of the tea without thinking and gasped, horrified. It tasted lie tree bark boiled in turpentine. Kyrian politely hid his cup behind some furniture.

“So, what about this ‘true world’ Sulveig’s minions talk about? Where the heck is it?” Fa’ss’th asked after the silence had gone on for a bit too long.

“Treefather!” Olena squeaked. “That means Demaris is our sister! Well, half-sister, anyway.”

Baugetha rolled her eyes and looked over at the lizard. “You mean Maztica? That’s what the locals always call the place, anyway. I’ve met one or two . . . dark people with reddish skin and black hair. They worship different gods from the rest of the Realms, and they’re big on sacrifices. I don’t know much more about them, really, I’ve never been there myself. Do you think Sulveig went to Maztica and got allies?”

“So it seems,” Kyrian said, rallying.

“The dragon was from there, so it does seem Sulveig went there and found a number of strange allies.”

Baugetha shrugged again. “From what I hear, they’re pretty simple people. It’s probably easier to teach them psionics than your typical Faerunite who is already steeped in the standard magic and religious fare.”

“I get the impression they either already have psionics, or some other form of magic. Eztli talked about their heroes being turned into monstrous creatures to gain special favors.”

Baugetha tossed her white-frosted braid over her shoulder. “If you want information, Athur is the one you should ask. I’m a craftsman, but he’s a Seer. If he doesn’t see all and know all, he sees more than most, at least.” She made a shooing motion towards the door. “Now, you kids go amuse yourselves, I have work to do.”

“Where is Athur?” Fa’ss’th asked.

“Athur is still at the school, of course. You could go find Salmede and talk to him, though, he’s practically as secretive as Nymbus was. Maybe he knows something useful.”

Sam sighed. “Well, I guess we go wandering through the jungle, then.”

Kyrian nodded. “Yes. Thanks for the tea,” he said awkwardly.

Baugetha smiled. “You’re welcome. It’s good for you. Puts hair on your chest.”

Leaving the building, Kyrian glanced at Olena. “How much did you drink?” She shook her head, amused. “So does that mask do anything?” Kyrian asked La’ss’a.

“It makes the snake happy, at least.”

The stone spire nearest Baugetha’s house stretched towards the sky. It appeared that a wooden staircase once circled the spire, but it lay now as a pile of wreckage on the jungle floor below. The damage was so extensive and the wood so rotten that there was really no way to tell if it was destroyed deliberately or was a simple casualty of age and neglect. Kyrian flew up a few feet, then looked down at the humans and lizards. “Should I lower a roper?” he asked.

Sam grinned and tapped his chest, a thin film of what looked like black oil crept over his body, sheathing him in a seamless surface. He jumped up, slightly, and began trotting easily up the vertical stone, his feet sticking to the surface. “Nah, I’m good.”

Barak concentrated and became translucent, then wafted upwards, borne by currents of air. La’ss’a and Fa’ss’th exchanged glances.

“How much do you weight?” Olena asked. La’ss’a rolled her eyes.

“C’mon, La’ss’a, you don’t want to stay down here and wait for us,” Fa’ss’th implored.

“I don’t like the idea of being carried. What if she drops us?”

“Two words,” Fa’ss’th said.


“Feather fall.”

La’ss’a rolled her eyes again. “You and your stupid wizard tricks. All right, all right, let’s go.”

The top of the spire was only a dozen feet across, and unremarkable save for the bridge anchored to the stone by heavy metal brackets. The bridges led from ledge to ledge for some time, criss crossing the dizzying heights, before finally reaching the top of what might more accurately be called a plateau. A wide lake covered the top of the plateau, draining off one edge to form a spectacular waterfall. In the center of the lake, a tiny island sported a large, majestic tree.

Kyrian peered at the lake while Barak muttered under his breath about magical springs. “Nothing could bring water up here fast enough to supply a waterfall. This isn’t natural.”

“Is anything here natural?” Kyrian asked. He thought he could make out sinuous, long-bodied forms swimming through the clear water, and wondered whether the inhabitants of this place were friendly.

“Define natural,” Barak said. “This is a created demi-plane, and therefore . . . therefore they don’t even have water normally! What the heck is making all this water?”

“Let’s cross the puddle and go see what’s at the big tree,” Fa’ss’th said.

“Um, yes,” Kyrian said, still watching the snake-like creatures swimming.

“Maybe I should go first,” Sam said, catching the direction of Kyrian’s gaze. He began walking carefully over the surface of the water. La’ss’a tested the water with a toe. It was pleasantly warm, suiting the tropical surroundings.

Out on the water, the sinuous shapes abruptly changed direction and began swimming purposefully in Sam’s direction. Sam started to hurry, but the creatures closed and reared out of the water. They looked like snakes with human heads.

“Hyou sssstop!”

Sam dug his feet into the water, sending up a wide fan of spray, and came to a halt.

“Thisss our lake.”

“Okay, your lake,” Sam said placatingly. “Is that your island, too?”


Olena flew out to join Sam. “May we please have a look at the island?”

The snakes conferred. “If you are peassceful, you may look. If you are not, we will bite you.”

“I, of course, am totally peaceful,” Sam said. “Look, I carry no weapons.”

“Hyou do not sssmell like the bird-folk. You may passss.”

“Bird folk?” Kyrian asked, joining them.

“Yesss. Red and blue. Fire and issce. They kill usss for food. Ssso we sssteal their eggss and ssmassh them before they can hatch. But hyou are not them, ssso we will not attack you. The mother would not like it, the God would not like it.”

“Who is the mother?” Olena asked. The snakes exchanged perplexed looks.

“The mother isss the mother. Sshe dwelss at the Housse of the Sserpent.”

“Who is the god, then?” Sam asked.

“Our fatherss fatherss knew the god and sspoke with him, but he comess here no longer. For a time we were bereft, but now we ssimply wait.”

“They mean Nymbus, don’t they?” Olena asked.

“Shh,” Sam told her. He waved at the snakes, who swam out of the way and returned to whatever it was they were doing before they were interrupted. He finished crossing to the tree and examined it closely. It was immense, many hundreds of years old, its heavy roots covering the small island entirely.

Kyrian flew around the island. “Hey, look over there. There’s a ripple or something, like a jet of water coming out from between the roots.”

“Well, Barak was wondering where all the water came from,” Sam said.

“It looks like there’s something down there, wedged between the roots,” Kyrian said. He took a deep breath and plunged his head into the water, only to be nearly knocked off the island by the force of the surging water. He flung himself back, sputtering and coughing.

Sam shook his head, amused, and ducked down for a closer look. “It looks like there’s a glass bottle down there.”

“Magic,” Olena said. “Got it. Maybe we should leave it there, at least for now.”

“Yeah,” Sam said. “I think the snakes like their water the way it is.”

They left the island and continued around the edge of the lake, to where another bridge led to another plateau. This one had many large rectangular buildings on it, each one apparently constructed out of glass. The buildings appeared to be full of dead and desiccated plants. In the center of the buildings, a dried-up basin fed into several equally dry channels, each one leading toward one of the buildings.

“A green house, unattended,” La’ss’a said. “Why even have a green house in the middle of a forest you created?” She blinked in sudden darkness as the light streaming from the top of one of the spires was abruptly cut off. Another building, on a nearby spire, flickered fitfully several times before beginning to shed a soft, silvery light.

Fa’ss’th grinned. “Nighttime, maybe?” He headed down to the bridge that led to the nearby glowing island. A round building of glass and stone stood there. The light was bright, but not blinding, and as Fa’ss’th neared the structure it seemed to diminish in strength until he could see through the glass to a dozen metallic mirrors rotating slowly around a large chunk of glowing crystal.

La’ss’a circled the building, trying to see what made the apparatus flicker, and came upon a small door. It opened easily. The inside of the building was bitter cold. Beams of freezing energy arced between the mirrors and formed an impenetrable web.

“Um, I say, could you assist me? I seem to have gotten myself into a bit of a . . . situation . . . here.” A man peered at La’ss’a from inside the web.

“And you are?” La’ss’a asked. The man’s voice had a slight echo to it, as though more than one person was speaking, not quite together.

“Ah, forgive my manners. I am Salmede. You must be the students Athur told us about, yes?”

“Maybe,” La’ss’a said cautiously. “Why is your voice all weird?” The others followed her into the building and gathered around the apparatus.

“I beg your pardon?” Salmede asked, sounding offended.

“You echo, almost.”

“Yes, but I hardly think that makes one weird. If you must know, I am a synad, meaning that I have three minds instead of the one most humans are stuck with.”

“Ah,” Kyrian said. “How can we assist you?”

“Well, if it’s not an imposition, could you move these mirrors so that I can get out?”

Barak examined the mirrors. “Are you sure that’s a good idea? They seem very . . . energetic.”

“How did you get trapped in the first place?” Fa’ss’th asked.

Salmede shrugged. “I am not at all certain whether it is wise, but I would prefer not to stay here all night waiting for one to shift position and freeze me where I stand. I was investigating the apparatus when it turned itself on. I lost track of time, it was my own fault.”

“Let’s help him out,” Olena said.

Fa’ss’th circled the room, examining the mirrors and muttering to himself. “I think if I move this one, and that other one over there, it should make a big enough gap for this guy to fit through.” The little lizard put his claws on the heavy metal disk and pushed. The cold shocked him, but it came loose with a crackle of ice and moved smoothly to a new position. “Right,” he said, and tried to move the other mirror. It was stuck fast, so he pushed harder and harder at it, struggling to get it to move. With a great crunching noise, it broke free and went shooting across the room. A beam of freezing energy waved around wildly.

Sam, Olena, Kyrian and La’ss’a hit the floor, sustaining only minor frostbite, but the beam struck Barak full in the chest. Ice instantly covered him. Fa’ss’th eeped in alarm, pulled a crystal out of his pack and raced across the room to look at the frozen human.

“Oh, dear,” Salmede said.

Color was slowly returning to Barak’s face, and the ice melted and fell to the ground. “I’m sorry!” Fa’ss’th said. “It looked simple enough. Can you get out now, Salmede?”

“I think so,” the synad said. He lowered himself to the floor with conscious dignity and scooted across the stone until he could stand up again.

“Are you all right, Barak?” Olena asked.

“I’m fine, just a little chilled,” Barak said.

Salmede clapped him on the shoulder heavily. “Good chap! Stiff upper lip and all that!”

“Sure,” Kyrian said. “Stiff with frost.”

“I should put the mirrors back now. Do you guys want to wait outside this time?” Everyone hastened towards the door as Fa’ss’th began putting things back in place.

Salmede brushed off his robes and surveyed the group. “So, Baugetha talked you into coming here, eh? I’m not really sure what she and Athur want with you folks, but I learned not to argue with them some time ago.”

Sam blinked, surprised. “What they want with us?”

Salmede flushed a bit, as though he realized that his phrasing was more than a little suspicious. “Well, yes. They seem to have decided that they’re going to . . . er . . . let you handle the current problems that seem to have cropped up.”

“Really?” Sam said. “They’ll just LET us handle them? How generous of them.”

“I’m not sure there is anyone else who can handle them,” Kyrian said.

Salmede shrugged. “Well, it’s best if we don’t try to interfere.”

Barak scowled. “Yes, rather than interfere, they’ll do what, exactly? Float around and act mysterious? Work a forge in a nice cozy demiplane where they don’t have to be disturbed?” Olena snickered and covered it quickly with one of her hands.

“And they assume we are looking into what, exactly?” Fa’ss’th asked.

“To tell you the truth,” Salmede said, “I don’t really know. I know something happened to Nymbus, and Athur tells me it’s important in some way, but he doesn’t want us to become involved in Faerun if we can possibly avoid it.”

Sam bared his teeth. “Nymbus DIED. He died while Athur was busy not interfering in Faerun.”

“Oh, that’s sad,” Salmede said, sounding very much as though the sympathy in his tone was forced, “But he was an old man, after all. These things happen. Humans are so fragile.”

“It had nothing to do with age,” Fa’ss’th snapped.

Salmede smiled faintly, condescendingly. “I’m sure you’ve had a difficult time of it, scrabbling to survive in the Realms by yourselves! I’ve heard they can be quite hostile.”

“Parts of the Realms are peaceful. For the time being,” Olena said.

“Baugetha was irate when she found out Athur threw you out of the school, but I don’t see what else he could have done. We didn’t know who you were at the time. No doubt you understand now why we go to such lengths to keep psionics quiet and out of the public eye!”

La’ss’a frowned. “Athur didn’t throw us out. We went to find Demaris, although I’m not sure what good that did.”

Barak shook his head. “No, he told us that we had to leave and ‘suggested’ that we find Demaris. Big difference. So, Salmede, do you plan to help out in Faerun, or will you stay here with Athur and not interfere?”

Kyrian looked at Salmede. “I’m not sure I understand, perhaps because I don’t know what it is that you are doing.”

“Athur’s advice has always been sound,” Salmede said with some asperity. “I’ll not move without his counsel.”

Olena coughed slightly and said with brittle cheerfulness, “So, what can you tell us about this demiplane?” Salmede turned his back pointedly on Barak, clearly signaling that he was done with that line of inquiry.

“It is divided into two sections, as you may have already noticed. The jungle below, which is largely inhabited by the tribes of the birdfolk, and the nagas . . .”

“Tribes that seem to be at odds,” Olena said.

“Yes,” Salmede replied. “I fear they had some sort of falling-out during the time they were unmonitored, wretched creatures.” La’ss’a and Fa’ss’th had a muffled conversation, then turned and walked away towards the next bridge. Salmede continued to pontificate, unaware that his audience was diminishing. “The spires house various apparati that Nymbus built. You’ve just seen one. The tribes have a somewhat . . . religious view of their functions, but I believe they have some greater purpose.”

Sam and Barak stared at Salmede in disbelief, then glanced at each other. Sam made a cutting motion with his hand and Barak shook his head slightly, then flexed his hands, manifesting a small amount of power. Sam smiled thinly.

Salmede finally came to a halt, perturbed by the silence of his audience. He grimaced. “I am sure that when you have some more experience with the greater universe, you will come around to our view of things. It does not do to focus only on the narrow, day-to-day problems of a particular place. You lose all perspective.”

“Sulveig is doing his best to bring psionics into the public eye,” Olena said quietly. Barak flung up his hand in front of Salmede’s face, and there was a bright flash as a power discharged. The synad blinked, startled, but appeared otherwise unaffected.

“I say! I hardly think that was called for! Explain yourself!” he huffed.

“No, you explain yourself!” Barak snarled. “Do you have any idea at all what is happening out there? Do you know what’s going on? How many people are dying or worse because your vast experience says you shouldn’t dirty your hands? What are you doing that is worth even the small portion of that horror I have seen with my own eyes?”

“Oh, come now. I understand that you are upset, but it is of paramount importance to consider the bigger picture in these matters.”

“Screw your bigger picture,” Barak said. “Come on, Sam.” The two humans turned their backs on Salmede and stalked away.

“Oh, I say!” The synad harrumphed angrily. “If you will excuse me, I don’t believe I have to submit to this treatment! Good day!”

Olena opened her mouth to apologize, then swallowed and hurried after Kyrian, who was running to catch up with the humans. Kyrian poked Barak in the shoulder to get his attention.

“Wow, Demaris would be so proud of you right now. Too bad she missed that.”

They passed the building that had only recently been radiating bright, sunny light. Glass lenses surrounded a crystal inside that glowed only dimly, now, like the embers of a dying fire. The air was still very warm. The next plateau held a ziggurat made of great plates of dark glass. A small archway led inside the building. The glass on the inside was covered with stars . . . not the astral stars outside, but similar to the ones that could be seen on Faerun. The floor was covered with rows of raised stone plates that looked as though they could be moved. La’ss’a was circling the room slowly, pressing the plates one at a time. As she did so, faint lines would appear linking the stars, outlining various unfamiliar constellations.

“Ooo,” Olena murmured.

“Great, all the tools you need to fake a real world. Can we go yet? This place makes me feel dirty.”

Fa’ss’th shrugged. “I am hoping we find some sort of library so we can figure out what the crystal in the cave was. Or if we can fix the crystal that is destroying our homeland.”

La’ss’a pressed a stone with the carved shape of a serpent on it, and a voice spoke. Everyone jumped. “Did anyone understand that?” she asked.

“No,” Barak said. He concentrated for a moment. “Try it again.” There was a clunk as she pressed the stone a second time, and Barak translated.

“The couatl will come to let them know the way,
my feathered snake of wisdom and might’
my chosen daughter shall greet me on the shore,
know her, she wears the Cloak of One Plume,
and the Ice of Summer, frozen under heat and fire
will prepare the path to my door.”

“O-okay. Like that makes any sense,” La’ss’a said. She scrambled across the floor, searching for a jaguar constellation. “Here we go!” When she pressed that stone, the voice spoke again.

“My enemy, lord of war, greedy for hearts. Zaltec will be humbled when I return.”

“That voice sounds like Nymbus,” Sam said.

“Well, he did create this place, so the recordings would be in his voice,” Fa’ss’th offered. “The question is if ‘I’ means Nymbus or is just the exact wording of a prophecy he found.”

“We seem to be collecting prophecies,” Olena said. La’ss’a continued her circuit of the floor. Several of the other stones spoke, as well.

“Azul, giver of rain and taker of bread, chac-father. He will be my ally.”

“Plutoq, master of earth and stone.”

“Tezca, ruler of sun and fire.”

“Eha, wind sprite.”

“Watil, guardian of plants.”

“Nula, guardian of animals.”

“Kukul, ancient father of the Gods.”

“Maztica, mother of life, the world.”

“Kiltzi, my sister, giver of health, growth, nourishment, and love, mother of Demaris.”

Sam raised his hand. “All right, all in favor of going to this ‘True World’ and making them regret they ever heard of us?”

“Is it possible Nymbus was one of these gods?” Kyrian asked. La’ss’a waved a claw dismissively.

“We don’t even know they are gods. They could be figureheads of some sort, like lords or priests.”

“Still . . .” Kyrian said quietly.

La’ss’a turned and marched towards the door. “Come on, two more buildings left.”

After climbing nearly two hundred feet on bridges that nearly resembled ladders, they came to the next structure, which was another pyramid, this one constructed out of great blocks of obsidian, each edge of the volcanic glass razor-sharp. Olena gasped as they entered and looked up into the vast and delicate machinery of an immense orrery. The erratic stars that scholars called other worlds moved ponderously around a large, spherical crystal that glowed with orange light. Selune orbited Abeir-Toril on a metal track of her own. The surface of the world was mapped out in exquisite detail, so much so that the adventurers could almost believe that if they squinted, they could see people going about their daily business on city streets.

Kyrian flew upwards to look at the True World, which was mapped in similar detail. La’ss’a pointed to a dark smudge over Athkatla, and another, brighter smudge where Murann would be. Fa’ss’th climbed under the machinery to get a look at his home. A tiny, bluish-white triangle occupied the center of the swamp where the portal had once stood. He scratched at it with a claw and the skin of the world split, revealing it to be a film as thin as a soap bubble, that fell lightly to the floor in a heap.

Fa’ss’th touched the map again, and it spread itself out over the floor, becoming a flat projection.

“Maybe we should hang on to that,” Kyrian said after a moment.

“Can you lay it out flat, then stretch a section to make it larger?” Barak asked, kneeling down to examine the map. It stretched easily, and it was easier to see things on the stretched portion, but he backed into the machinery and hit the back of his head. “Ouch. Let’s take it with us.”

“Last building and then we return?” Fa’ss’th asked.

The climb to the top of the tallest spire was difficult, and the structure there was very different from the others in the realm. Those were geometric in form, composed of a few very basic shapes. This structure was the carven coils of an immense serpent. Instead of scales, however, it was covered with finely-detailed feathers, and great feathery wings stretched from its back.

“Could be a job for Qotal,” Olena said. La’ss’a held up the small golden snake on her arm. There was a rumbling noise like a house moving on its foundations, and then the building lazily opened one eye, revealing a great yellow orb clouded over by a dense, milky film.

So you have returned. I thought you had forgotten me. There was no sound, only the faint whisper of psionic communication. What is your will?

Sam and Barak stared at La’ss’a, waiting for her to make some response. The little lizard’s eyes bugged out, and she remained silent. Finally, Olena asked, “Who are you?”

The eye blinked, slowly. Have you forgotten your servant, o Lord? Is this all I am, a tool to be used and cast aside, to linger here in the shadows of the world until Time itself comes to an end?

“No, no, of course not!” Kyrian said hurriedly.

“Time has not been kind to us, either,” La’ss’a ventured.

Would I that I might pass from this life, though I know nothing awaits the immortal in the halls of the dead. If you have no more use for me, o Lord, would you set me free?

“Would that bring an end to this place?” Olena asked tentatively.

No more than t’would bring an end to the ’versal world. I am not so mighty as that.

“What tasks have you performed for me before?” Kyrian asked.

Do you forget, o Lord? Is that why you have stayed away so long? Has your dreaming of mortality brought you to this?

“Er, something like that,” Kyrian said.

I bore your daughter to you from the True world, the child you sired on your sister out of a desire to learn the pleasures of morality. You were angry with me then, your fury like to crack the heavens did you retain your ancient strength. Is it your anger that has bound me here? Are you still displeased with me, o Lord? When you made this place, did I not do your bidding? Did I not come to dwell here, and bring forth my children to be your servants? Have we not toiled long and well for you?

“The nagas,” Olena whispered.

The psionic voice took on an edge of pleading. Have we not always done as we were bid, o Lord? I beg only that you look upon us with favor once more . . .

“What must we—I do to free you?” Kyrian asked.

“I wish I could,” La’ss’a added, “But I am not sure we are who you think we are. We can try to help you pass on if you will tell us how.”

What does an immortal know of death?

“We are not your lord,” La’ss’a said. “Do you seek Nymbus?”

The eye blinked slowly once more. Nymbus. That mortal name. So you are not the Lord, then. What do you wish of me, mortals? Have you come to torment me?

“No!” Olena cried.

“We are only here seeking knowledge about the crystal formations that are destroying our home,” Fa’ss’th said.

“Yes,” Olena said. “Maybe we can help each other.”

Crystals? The feathered dragon stirred slightly and its other eye opened. Perhaps we can, at that. I know the crystals of which you speak. If you promise to end me, I will tell you what I know. It is little enough, though.

Olena looked at Fa’ss’th. “I feel like we should. What do you think?”

La’ss’a nodded. “I’m not sure that’s a fair exchange for knowledge, but sometimes sacrifices are required. So, yes.” The small snake on her arm perked up as though interested in the proceedings.

The GodMind comes. The power of the Gods takes the shape of these crystals in the mortal world. Long ages ago, when the Father and Mother of the Gods first came into existence, they sired many children. These children created mortals, as well as creatures like myself, guardians and servants to the gods. Mortals were greedy and unruly creatures, though, and lusted after the power of the Gods. To protect their power from misuse by mortals, the Gods consolidated most of their knowledge and strength into one great crystal. They locked it away. Each God had his own key to access the power. But strife grew among the Gods. Qotal and Zaltec battled. Zaltec was defeated, and locked away as well. Long years passed in peace.
But Qotal shamed himself and was cast from the realm of the gods. He left the True World, crossed the waters in a vessel of reeds. He took the keys that belonged to the other Gods with him. So much power, contained for so long . . . there is no telling what may happen. That is all I know.

“How does one use a key?” La’ss’a asked.

I do not know. The Gods were wont to lend their keys to their mortal servants, imbuing them with great honor and power. In the great city of the Gods, now lost, there is no doubt a portal that can be opened.

“And this is, no doubt, why Sulveig wanted the keys,” La’ss’a finished grimly. “Is there any way to stop the formation of the crystals?”

The crystals are like plants . . . cut off their source of nourishment, and they wither. They can be destroyed, but the backlash is dangerous. End me, now. I am so weary.

“So, how do we do that?” Olena asked nervously. The snake on La’ss’a’s arm suddenly flung itself into the air, landing on the ground, where it slithered industriously towards the head of the great couatl. The little snake hissed viciously and bit the couatl. With a sigh, the great feathered dragon lowered its head, its eyes drooping closed. There was the faintest of whispers, and a yellow sheen suddenly covered the dragon’s corpse. Kyrian touched the surface in disbelief: it was cold, hard, and metallic. The dragon had been transformed into solid gold.

The little snake slithered back to La’ss’a’s feet and curled up, apparently pleased with itself. “Well, now we know what it does, at least,” La’ss’a said after a long moment. So it appears we have two choices. collect the keys before Sulveig does, or make a run for the lost temple and secure the big crystal.

“Do we even know what these keys are?” Sam asked.

“Hell, no,” Fa’ss’th replied. “Except that they should be somewhere in Faerun, since this is ‘across the seas’. So far, attempts to detect any magical or psionic power on the keys we do have has had no result. So what do we do? Trail Sulveig and bonk him over the head each time he finds a key, until we’re done?”

“We kind of lost his trail in Athkatla, though,” Olena said.

“Yes, but people are easier to trail than artifacts,” Fa’ss’th said.

“Heading home to save it sounds good to me,” La’ss’a said.

“Demaris will probably want to keep following Sulveig,” Olena said. “She’s my sister, now, I guess, I should stay with her.”

“The situation in the swamp seems more urgent,” Kyrian said. “We should split up again.”

“You’ll need fighters like La’ss’a to deal with Sulveig, and I may be some help with destroying the crystal,” Fa’ss’th said.

“Likewise,” Barak added. “I’ll go with Fa’ss’th and Kyrian . . . Sam will have to go after Sulveig.” He held up his hands and began concentrating. “Let’s get out of here.”

The Astral Plane passed away on either side of them, and they landed in the Palace Plaza once more, surprising Demaris, Elice, and The’ss’it, who were waiting.

“Did we miss anything?” Kyrian aked.

“Not really,” Elice said. Gariad got crowned and Elminster left.”

“We were helping with the recovery, but we were told politely but firmly to butt out,” Demaris added. Elice grinned.

“There have already been three attempts on Gariad’s life. I’ve taken to wandering the palace corridors at night and seeing if I could catch an assassin. It’s good fun.”

“We’ve decided that half of us will go with The’ss’it to Halruaa, and half will pursue Sulveig . . . if we can figure out where he went.”

“The tough part will be traveling back to our home,” Fa’ss’th said. “The’ss’it, how did you get here so fast?”

“Those wizards teleported me. Why?”

“Maybe we can find some more wizards and do that again.”

Olena looked at Demaris. “There’s a more, a lot more.”

Demaris shrugged. “Tell me about it later. According to the harbor master, Sulveig was last seen heading West on a ship. That’s the only useful thing I know.”

“Then I’ll bet he already has another key,” La’ss’a said.

“A what?” Demaris asked. “Is this the ‘more’?”

“We found out that Nymbus was my father, too,” Olena said. “And Kyrian’s, of course.”

“It figures he’d do something like that,” Demaris said, shrugging again.

“It means we’re your half-siblings,” Olena said.

“Well, yes, having the same father tends to do that,” Demaris replied.

Elice grinned. “Well, I go wherever Sam goes, so it’s the sea for me, too. We’ll have fun.”

Olena asked, trying to sound casual, “Have either of you seen Oren around?”

“Yeah, he’s been praying a lot,” Demaris said. “You can probably find him in the palace chapel.”

“Maybe we can find Sulveig on the map?” Barak mused. They stretched it out until it covered a large portion of the courtyard, earning peculiar looks from the passers-by. La’ss’a climbed over the surface and squinted at the ocean. “There’s a ship here, I think. About halfway to Lantan.”

Fa’ss’th nodded. “All right, then, everyone, that’s enough talk. Let’s go see what arrangements we can make.”

Dec 16, 2007

Cold Blood: Session 7

Sheen held one of the red glass beads up towards the portal and it flared to life again. “So, any volunteers to find out whether this leads into a fiery pit?” Haden reached out a hand a bit tentatively. When his fingers passed through the plane of the portal there was a terrible sucking noise and he was yanked off his feet, vanishing in a flare of light. The portal itself began to waver and flicker.

Talan’s eyes widened. “As much as Haden . . . we have to go after him!”

Joris nodded and dove through the rapidly dwindling portal, vanishing in a roar of flames. Sheen sighed. “I don’t see any other way forward, here.”

“Ladies first,” Talan said. Sheen took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and held her nose as though preparing to dive into water. Then she jumped.

“Good luck,” Rindo said as Talan followed, the portal closing on his heels.

The four adventurers landed in a heap on a wide flagstone terrace. “Well, that could have been worse,” Sheen commented, disentangling herself from Joris and looking around. They stood at the base of a cliff. Above them, a narrow staircase climbed along the cliff, vanishing into the heights. Beyond the edge of the terrace, a sea of eternal fire churned.

“Not exactly your island vacation paradise, is it?” Haden asked, raising an eyebrow.

“It’s a little more tropical than I like,” Sheen replied. “Enough messing around, let’s go find Toranna.

“Not so fast, guys,” Talan said, indicating the five humans gathered around the foot of the staircase, watching them. They were armed and armored, and two of them were dressed as priests in long robes over their armor.

“Drop your weapons!”

“Oh, look, hostile natives,” Haden said. He did not appear impressed by the threat, even though the humans outnumbered them.

“I’m not sure I like your tone of voice,” Talan said. Sheen glanced over at the half elf, who was gripping his sword and dagger tightly.

“I don’t think we’ll be dropping any weapons today, thank you,” she said.

“I don’t suppose any of you would like to simplify things and tell us where Toranna is?” Talan asked.

“She awaits the judgment of the Great Eye!”

Sheen rolled her eyes irritably and concentrated, a small, curved plane of force taking form in front of her. It hung in the air, glowing slightly. Haden drew his rapier with a silken noise.

“Here stand some angry threatening berks
shouting themselves hoarse and blue.
Well, let’s give them ‘em a side of the works
to go along with their barbeque,”

He declaimed. Talen, Sheen, and Joris all winced and glared at him. He shrugged. “Well, they can’t all be winners. Anything better would be wasted on these idiots, anyway.” The five men charged. Sheen tried to dodge a man with a longsword, but his blow rebounded erratically off her floating shield and tore a gash in her arm. Talan’s swords whipped past a priest as Joris threw a spell, silencing the ferocious bellows of the enemy leader.

Joris grunted as a mace struck him in the chest, nearly knocking him off his feet. Sheen ducked backwards, struggling to concentrate on another power as Haden thrust his sword into Joris’ attacker, distracting him momentarily. Talan ducked under another longsword, driving the other priest towards Sheen with merciless blows. Sheen leveled her spear and the man staggered backwards onto it, skewering himself. She kicked his lifeless body off her weapon and looked around for another victim. Then she was knocked to the side when the remaining priest caught her a glancing blow with his mace.

Sheen glanced at Joris, busy healing himself while Talan and Haden distracted the swordfighters. Shrugging, she drove the cleric back, striking him several times with her spear while he flung his mace around her head and shoulders, ignoring the blood that ran down his armor.

Talan dropped two of the swordsmen in quick succession; the last one turned and fled for the stares. Haden lowered his rapier and gave chase, smiling grimly as he heard the heavy rattle of the man’s armor and his heavy panting. “It’s amazing, the ridiculous things people will try to do,” he remarked, taking the steps two at a time with a dancer’s ease.

Behind him, Talan ducked behind the man Sheen was fighting and stuck a dagger in his ear. Sheen sighed in relief and lowered her spear, looking around. The fleeing man hit a landing and skidded, colliding with the rail. He hauled himself around to face Haden, realizing that he was trapped.

“So, now that all of your rude friends re dead, do you want to explain what is going on here?”

The man gasped for air, looking down the stairs towards the terrace where Sheen, Joris, and Talan were collecting themselves. He dropped his sword and kicked it towards Haden, who put a foot on it. “Well? Who are you people, and what are you doing here?”

“This here’s the Citadel of Fire, it’s where they reprogram the bubbers and barmies.”

Haden rolled his eyes. “I would never have guessed. Are there many more of you people lounging about the place?”

“Yeh. Some of the high-ups left when Toranna told ‘em what happened. The rest are all ‘round the upper hall, most like.” Sheen and Talan reached the landing and stood in silence, watching.

“Where’s that?” Haden asked. The man began describing the general layout of the citadel. “Just out of curiosity, what did they do with Toranna?”

“She’s in the ‘guest chambers’, just like the barmies. Baltazo’s most like to kill ‘er when ‘e finds out she led you in ‘ere.”

“Oh, well, we can’t have that,” Haden said. “We’ll just have to go see for ourselves.”

Sheen jerked her head back towards the terrace. “Off you go, then.”

“Have you got a bead for the portal?” the man asked miserably. She tossed a bead to him and began climbing the stairs again. “Thanks, cutter. Don’t know where there is to hide from the Eye, but it’s better than endin’ up in the dead book.” The stairs came to another landing, this one with a passage leading to the left. Sheen turned and walked down the hall, grimacing at the statues of fiends in grotesque or obscene positions. Black iron doors blocked the end of the hall, carved with terrible runes and curses. The floor before them was littered with broken bones and pieces of rusty armor.

“Careful,” Joris said. “There’s a glyph of warding on the doors.” He frowned. “I think there’s a specific gesture to bypass it.”

“Which means what?” Sheen asked, examining the doors a bit more cautiously.

“Well, if we trigger the glyph, it casts a spell on us. I don’t know which spell, but I doubt it’s good.” Joris stepped forward. “Wait here, I think I can get us past it.”

“Don’t get yourself killed,” Sheen said. Joris stepped forward, drawing an arcane shape in the air. He smiled and took another step forward. A blinding flash filled the hall as mystical energy discharged. Joris yelped in surprise.


Sheen, Haden, and Joris stared at the doors, blinking, as the echoes died away. “Right,” Sheen said after a moment.

“Well, we’re all still standing,” Talan ventured. Sheen strode forward past Joris and pushed on the doors. They opened slowly, creaking like the portal of Doom.

“Are you okay, Joris?” Talan asked.

“I . . . yes. I think it was a blinding spell, but I shut my eyes in time.”

Beyond the doors, Sheen was stomping around a large hall. A throne carved out of some black rock stood at the far end from the doors, flanked by smoking braziers. The walls were covered in ominous tapestries. “I’m not impressed,” she announced loudly, as though chastising someone.

“You know,” Joris said, looking around slowly while Sheen peeked through various side doors, “if I used to be crazy, and I thought I was dead, it wouldn’t take much in the way of convincing to make me think this was the underworld.”

“They seem to have done a thorough job of it, at least,” Haden said.

“There’s an actual passageway through here,” Sheen said, and went through the double doors on the right side of the hall. “Come on, folks, I want to get out of here as quickly as possible.”

They found several disused bunks and rooms that looked to have been cleared out recently on their way up yet another set of stairs. Near the top, they opened the door into a room lined with bars, a set of keys hanging helpfully beside the door. A double row of cells stretched off beyond the iron bars. Some of the cells were occupied.


“We’re not fiends!” Sheen said, unlocking the door.

“I think you have us confused with some other people,” Talan remarked. Haden shook his head, laughing.

“I don’t believe your lies, demon! You can’t keep me from my ascension!”

“They must still be working on these two,” Joris remarked. Looking around the corner, Sheen startled another cell occupant and spotted a fourth person chained to the wall and gagged. Haden looked over her shoulder.

“Well, well, Toranna,” he said. “How are you doing? Quarters comfortable enough for you? Need anything?”

Toranna twisted one of her hands to make a rude gesture at Haden. Sheen opened the door for the third prisoner and handed him a bead for the portal. He took it blankly and listened to her explanation of how to get down to the portal.

“Well, that’s one that seems reasonably sane, at least,” Sheen said. “We’ll come back for the others once we’re sure this place is empty.”

Toranna made an indignant noise and Talan looked down at her. “I’m not sure Toranna wants to leave,” he said.

Haden grinned. “Were you expecting us to let you out so that you can get us all killed? Not likely. Here,” he said, pulling the gag out of her mouth, “now you can cuss all you want. Happy?”

“Maybe you could answer some questions for us,” Talan said diffidently.

“Fine. One way or the other, I’m done with these Illuminated berks, anyway.”

“Why all of this cloak and dagger with the barmies, anyway?” Talan asked.

“That was all Marvent’s idea.”

“And who is Marvent?” Haden asked.

“Green Marvent. He’s a wizard, or was, at least. He started the Illuminated to spread his creed.”

“What creed?”

“Rule what you can, control what you can’t rule, and destroy what you can’t control. He tried sending agents to infiltrate the factions, but they always got found out sooner or later. Well, almost always,” Toranna said, smirking slightly.

“Oh yeah?” Sheen asked. “So what is all this ‘great eye’ nonsense about? And how did Baltazo wind up in charge?”

Toranna shrugged. “Marvent is the Great Eye—I think. Or was it all the Illuminated? I don’t know, he was a cryptic old sod. As for Baltazo, he’s an agent, same as me, slippery as a Styx eel. I don’t know what happened to Marvent, but knowing Baltazo I doubt he’ll be coming back.”

“So where do you fit into all of this?” Talan asked.

“I just passed the ‘dead’ barmies here, otherwise they would have ended up really going to the flames.”

“Have you ever met someone named Gyderic?” Sheen asked.

Toranna blinked, surprised. “The name is . . . familiar, somehow. Can’t place it, though. Marvent kept most of us well separate in case someone got scragged.”

“Are there any other portals that lead away from here?” Haden asked.

“There’s one that I know of on hte highest platform. Marvent and Baltazo are the only ones that know how to open it, though. You have to cast a particular spell at it.”

“Do you know where it leads?” Talan asked.

“No. One of the Illuminated safe houses, I guess.”

“All right,” Sheen said. “Let’s finish exploring and get out of here. Maybe we can figure out how to open that portal.” Talan nodded and they turned to leave the jail.

Toranna called after them, “I’ve been straight with you, don’t forget that.”

“Eventually, at least,” Haden snorted.

They climbed tiredly through more empty rooms to an upper terrace, the second highest point in the Citadel, ringed by thick stone battlements. At the far end of the terrace stood a stone statue of an armored man, nine feet tall at least. With a great creaking and grinding, it turned slowly to face them.

Dec 12, 2007

Psionics Game: Council

“Bandages,” Demaris ordered and Olena held them out to her.

“We’re running pretty low,” Olena warned. Barak dropped to his knees on the pavement nearby and sighed in exhaustion. He reached his hands towards the injured man Demaris was working on. Seemingly without looking up or noticing his existence, Demaris pushed his hands away.

“I’ve got this one. Go get something to eat, man, you look like hell.” Olena winced, expecting some kind of explosion, but Barak simply sighed.

“You don’t look much better,” he said after a moment.

“Yes, but my method doesn’t involve taking people’s injuries on myself. I know it hurts. A lot. And it keeps on hurting even after you’ve healed yourself. I know. After a while you get sort of numb, and that’s when it’s dangerous because you’ll wind up pushing yourself past the limit.” She looked up at him briefly. “I don’t have bandages to waste saving you from your own exorbitant generosity.”

“And how do you know, exactly?” Barak asked.

“How do you think I know?”

“I thought you didn’t use any magic or powers.”

“I don’t use them any more,” Demaris corrected after a moment. She sat back and stretched, grimacing as her spine popped and cracked. “That’s the last one. We’re out of bandages, we’re out of thread, we’re out of uninjured patches of Barak, we’re done.” She stood up and Barak climbed to his feet as well, stretching his own aching back painfully.

Olena got to her feet a bit tentatively and staggered; Barak caught her before she could fall. “I’m sorry, I don’t know how you do it, you two are like . . . like machines.”

Demaris sighed. “We’re not any tougher than you,” she said, holding out a hand that shook visibly. She pointed down at her feet. “You see that? That’s sheer cussedness holding me up right now.” She pointed at Barak. “He’s got his fair share, too. C’mon, Barak, you take that arm, I’ll take this one, and we’ll walk.” Demaris took hold of Olena’s left arm and draped it over her shoulders. They left the makeshift hospital slowly, occasionally pausing so one or more of them could fight off a dizzy spell. They had just reached the entrance to the building when Fa’ss’th appeared.

“Elminster says there’s someone here looking for us,” the lizard reported. “He wants us all to meet him in the council chambers in an hour.”

“Elminster can . . .” Barak uttered a stream of profanity involving animals and perverted sex acts. Demaris burst out laughing and nearly lost her balance; Olena caught her.

“I don’t think I want to be in the room when you tell him that,” Fa’ss’th said. “Maybe I’ll peek through the window or something,” the lizard continued, grinning. “Anyway, he—or someone, I’m not entirely clear on who’s in charge at the moment—assigned us some rooms in the palace. That, and they saw fit to reward us with some equipment out of the Council armory. So I’d kind of like to go, you know, have a look at it.”

“Where’s the palace?” Demaris asked. “I don’t think I can walk very far.”

Fa’ss’th pointed across the square. “It’s that big huge building right there.”

“All right, all right,” Barak said, and they began walking again. After a meal, a bath, and a change of clothes they all felt sufficiently revived to meet with their visitor, whoever it was.

The Council chamber was in the center of the building, situated under a vast stone dome pierced with narrow slits that sent shafts of bright sunlight spearing down towards the wooden table below. The table was a huge round affair carved from some rare and expensive wood and inlaid with red gold. Twenty people could easily sit around its circumference. A small throne sat against the far wall like an afterthought, and it was not surprising that Gariad had ignored it, preferring to sit comfortably and democratically at the table with Elminster, an unfamiliar dwarven woman, and . . .

“Sam!” Barak shouted in delight.

Sam grinned. “Still alive, I see,” he said. “A little beat up, but that’s to be expected. This is Elice, she’s an old friend of mine,” he continued, standing up and stepping sideways to avoid Olena’s enthusiastic pounce on her brother.

“Pleased to meet you,” Elice said. Barak shook Sam’s hand, then suddenly looked away, fighting to hold back tears.

“What’s wrong?” Sam asked suspiciously.

“Nothing. I’m all right,” Barak insisted. “No, really I am. I’m just tired.”

Demaris took a seat at the table and an unfamiliar lizard leaned over, presenting a clawed hand. “The’ss’it,” he announced.

“What’s he doing here?” Fa’ss’th demanded, glaring at his sister. She shrugged.

“He says he’s looking for you.”

Elminster harrumphed irritably. “If you could save the reunions for later, we have some business to conduct. Firstly, His Majesty would like . . .”

“I can speak for myself, if you don’t mind,” Gariad said mildly. “I’d like to thank you all for your assistance in freeing the city from the clutches of evil. I would prefer to avoid any official reward ceremonies given the state of the city, but if you would like one . . .”

“No,” Demaris said shortly. “That’s not necessary.”

“It probably isn’t wise to draw a lot of attention to ourselves right now, anyway,” Olena said.

Gariad nodded. “You are welcome to stay here in the palace for as long as you’d like, but I expect that you have other concerns that will take you away before long.” He smiled. “Adventuring can be like that. That’s really all I have to say, so I’ll leave you to handle your own affairs, now.” He stood and gestured for Elminster to follow him. The Sage glared, obviously curious to hear the rest of the meeting, but obeyed, grumbling quietly under his breath. When the doors had closed, the dwarf woman stood.

“You’re a varied lot, you are, but alloys are stronger so that’s all right. You don’t know me, but I know who you are, so I figure it’s up to me to do the explaining. My name is Baugetha . . .”

“You’re one of Nymbus’ first group of students,” Fa’ss’th said, shooting upright in his chair.

“Yes, I was his student at the same time as Athur, who you’ve already met, correct? He sent me here to find you and bring you some news.” Baugetha pursed her lips. “I don’t really know any good way of saying this, so I’ll just say it. Nymbus has . . . died. We’re not really sure how it happened, he was in perfect health apart from being unconscious, but one moment he was alive and the next moment he . . . wasn’t.”

“That’s not possible,” Demaris said. “It is not possible.”

“This wouldn’t have happened if you’d just come with us when we first found you,” La’ss’a said.

“Is that so?” Demaris demanded. “And what could I have done if I HAD been there, exactly?”

La’ss’a sniffed. “You only have yourself to blame for your grief.”

“Oh, I’m not upset that he’s dead.” Demaris said. La’ss’a sniffed again. “Yeah, fine, look at me like I’m some sort of freak. You know what my first memory is? It’s of my father, yes, my dear, beloved father that you’re all so fond of, pitching me off a cliff into a pit of lava. He was more than a little startled when I managed to survive. Of course, you think I’d be over that by now, seeing as how it was over five hundred years ago, but that’s when he decided to start up his plan.

“I don’t even really know how old I am, since I’ve spent most of my life being carted from one plane to another so that I could be trained. Trained like some kind of dog. A useful dog, one with some impressive tricks, but a dog nonetheless. I spent decades with the githzerai, learning to control chaos stuff with my mind alone. He wanted me to be strong. Well, I got strong. Strong enough to tell him he could take his plan and leap straight into the abyss. I am not going to be anyone’s pawn ever again.”

“We didn’t know,” Baugetha said awkwardly after a few minutes. “I’m certain that if he could take it back, he would . . .”

“I know you never knew. He’d probably mellowed a bit by then, it was hundreds of years before he got the idea into his head to take on more students.”

“In his journal, he said he was sorry . . .” Fa’ss’th offered.

“Oh, I’m sure he was, but it’s too late. It’s too late for apologies or forgiveness. And anyway, it doesn’t matter now,” Demaris said. “It’s over, and there’s work to do.”

Baugetha nodded and pulled several large pieces of colored crystal from her belt pouches. “That is what Athur said, or close enough. He wants to offer you our support in tracking down Sulveig and his allies while we try to gather our planar allies. He sent me here to offer you access to our stronghold.” She gestured with the crystals.

“With those?” Fa’ss’th asked.

“Yes,” Baugetha said. “Nymbus made these for us a long time ago, they can grant you knowledge of a way to travel through the astral plane. It’s the only way to reach the stronghold, it is a pocket Nymbus made, a demi-plane. It stood unused for years, but he granted us access to it when we . . . split.”

“Now I remember,” Demaris said. “Philosophical differences, wasn’t it? What was it he wanted you to do? Raise an army to conquer the Realms?”

“That’s immaterial now,” Baugetha said, bristling.

“It was, wasn’t it?”

“If you must know, yes. Athur believed it was . . . unwise.”

“Hah. Ambitious, my father certainly was. We should all thank him for everything he’s given us. Knowledge. Power. Sulveig. Hey, two out of three isn’t bad!”

Sam slammed his fist down on the table, raising only a dull, undramatic thud out of the heavy wood. “That is enough! Hate him if you want, but don’t think for one minute that we have to think the same way. Nymbus saved my life and it’s a fair bet that I knew him better than you ever will!”

“Think what you like,” Demaris said stiffly.

Baugetha coughed nervously. “Well, I really should be going, but do please come have a look at the stronghold, at least. Most of it is still closed off. There may be things there that you can use.” She held up her hands, there was a brief glow, and she vanished.

Fa’ss’th snagged the crystals. “So how did you guys get here, anyway?” he asked La’ss’a.

“We stole Sulveig’s ship,” she said smugly.

“Oo, that I want to see.” They left, followed by The’ss’it, Sam, and Elice. Kyrian followed them, too, but Olena looked uncomfortable.

“Oren’s been gone a long time,” she said. “I should go find out whether he’s all right.” Kyrian raised an eyebrow at her.

“I’ll go with you,” he said.

“No, I’d . . . ah . . . I’d really rather go by myself.” Kyrian’s eyebrows rose further.

“Well, all right,” he said. “But come back soon, I want to catch up!”

“Of course.”

Demaris sat at the table, idly tracing the gold patterns on its glossy surface with a fingertip. She jumped when she felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up at Barak.

“You don’t have to pretend to feel sorry for me,” she said. “It’s a stretch, I know.”

“I don’t feel sorry for you,” he said. “And I’m not pretending.” He sat down on the tabletop, leaning back slightly and crossing his legs. “Is this how it’s always going to be with you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Are you going to spend your entire life hating everyone and everything because you didn’t like how your father treated you when you were a child?”

Demaris looked down at the table again. “The only thing I ever wanted was to be left alone. That’s all. What do these people want with me? I’m no use for anyone’s ambitions and I like it that way!”

“If you really want to stop being their pawn, you have to do something other than just reject them. You have to let it go so you can think clearly.”

“Yeah.” Barak stood up and began walking away. “Hey,” Demaris said.



He shrugged. “Thank me by doing it.”