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

Dec 18, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still

To be absolutely clear: I didn't see this movie. I'm not *going* to see this movie. I'm not really reviewing it, I'm just noting how philosophically horrific this movie is.

The basic premise seems to be that humans are "destroying" the earth and thus some super-powerful aliens have decided to get rid of humanity in order to "save" the earth. What are we doing that's so bad? Technology.

Now, here's where it just gets STUPID. How the hell did these aliens get the power to destroy us WITHOUT technology? We're being attacked by super-powerful HYPOCRITES? Wow, that's inspirational.

In addition to this spectacular bit of idiocy, the trailers gave some evidence that a Jesus-like sacrifice will be required on the part of the female protagonist in order to prevent this catastrophe. (I don't know if this actually happens or not.)

If you are confronted by presumptuous hypocritical aliens demanding sacrifices, do yourself (and, by extension, the rest of us) a favor and tell them to go to hell--which is the only rational and appropriate response. Like Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, don't give someone holding you hostage the excuse of pretending that it's *your* fault that they are killing *you*. They don't even deserve *that* much concession.

Nov 23, 2008

It's an Honor Just to Be Nominated

Woohoo! My short review of Fallout 3 landed in the first heat of The Escapist's review contest!

Quick, go read my review and vote for me!

Nov 19, 2008

To GM: You Are Embarrassing Yourself By This Behavior

I'm sure a lot of people are aware of the proposed bailout bill for the "Big Three" automakers. I'm sure most of the people I know aren't very happy about it. Then, what should I receive in my email but this:

Dear Jennifer Snow,

You made the right choice when you put your confidence in General Motors, and we appreciate your past support. I want to assure you that we are making our best vehicles ever, and we have exciting plans for the future. But we need your help now. Simply put, we need you to join us to let Congress know that a bridge loan to help U.S. automakers also helps strengthen the U.S. economy and preserve millions of American jobs.

Despite what you may be hearing, we are not asking Congress for a bailout but rather a loan that will be repaid.

The U.S. economy is at a crossroads due to the worldwide credit crisis, and all Americans are feeling the effects of the worst economic downturn in 75 years. Despite our successful efforts to restructure, reduce costs and enhance liquidity, U.S. auto sales rely on access to credit, which is all but frozen through traditional channels.

The consequences of the domestic auto industry collapsing would far exceed the $25 billion loan needed to bridge the current crisis. According to a recent study by the Center for Automotive Research:

• One in 10 American jobs depends on U.S. automakers
• Nearly 3 million jobs are at immediate risk
• U.S. personal income could be reduced by $150 billion
• The tax revenue lost over 3 years would be more than $156 billion

Discussions are now underway in Washington, D.C., concerning loans to support U.S. carmakers. I am asking for your support in this vital effort by contacting your state representatives.

Please take a few minutes to go to www.gmfactsandfiction.com, where we have made it easy for you to contact your U.S. senators and representatives. Just click on the "I'm a Concerned American" link under the "Mobilize Now" section, and enter your name and ZIP code to send a personalized e-mail stating your support for the U.S. automotive industry.

Let me assure you that General Motors has made dramatic improvements over the last 10 years. In fact, we are leading the industry with award-winning vehicles like the Chevrolet Malibu, Cadillac CTS, Buick Enclave, Pontiac G8, GMC Acadia, Chevy Tahoe Hybrid, Saturn AURA and more. We offer 18 models with an EPA estimated 30 MPG highway or better — more than Toyota or Honda. GM has 6 hybrids in market and 3 more by mid-2009. GM has closed the quality gap with the imports, and today we are putting our best quality vehicles on the road.

Please share this information with friends and family using the link on the site.

Thank you for helping keep our economy viable.

Sincerely,



Troy Clarke

Unbelievable. It's so awful it's almost self-parody.

Let me lay it out to you, GM. I would love for the Big Three automakers to stay in business. However, if they had any kind of reasonable business prospects they would be able to get a loan from a PRIVATE organization. The simple fact that they've had to go to the government for this "loan" means that they aren't offering anything in *exchange* for the money, just their naked need. Well, I'm sorry, but the millions of people in this country that $50 billion is going to be looted from have needs, too, and since WE made that money I don't see where you think you get off asking us to throw it into the black hole of your incompetence!!

You ASKED for this mess when you didn't stand up for your RIGHT to only pay your workers what they were worth to you. You ASKED for this when you repeatedly pushed for tariffs on foreign manufacturers. You are addicts sucking at the government teat and it is HIGH time for the government to CUT YOU OFF.

Yes, it's sad that it has reached the stage where a LOT of people will probably be hurt when the "Big Three" fail. Pain and failure are the eventual result of bad decisions. That doesn't make it right to spread the pain over thousands or hundreds of thousands of additional people--INNOCENT people--while enabling the addict to maintain his addiction.

No, I'm not begging ANYONE to help you out--and the very request is disgusting.

Nov 17, 2008

Strange Conversations To Have In Public

Adam: "The price of tin went up, so the miniatures are more expensive. A lot of the companies are switching to plastic, which is nice. You know what would really get me? If we had another big war, like World War II again, the government could come in and seize my minis to make bullets."

[PAUSE]

Me: "So, we're talking about World War III here, and your biggest concern is that the government might take your miniatures?"

Adam: "That's a lot of freakin' money!"

Me: "I just, when you weigh probability of nuke landing on house against government taking your minis, it just seems like a weird concern to me."

Adam: "Well, in a normal war--"

Me: "Oh, come on, by the time the government has gotten around to seizing miniatures, SOMEONE will have broken out the nukes."

Friends can be so entertaining sometimes.

Nov 14, 2008

Quantum of Solace

I have to say that I still like Daniel Craig as the new James Bond more than I expected to, but there's something fundamentally *off* about Quantum of Solace. It's difficult to put your finger on precisely what's wrong with the movie, but it falls seriously flat.

The first thing that is obviously not right is the plot. It starts out well enough, with Bond on a mission to root out the secret organization that was moving behind the scenes in Casino Royale. There is actually quite a bit of highly entertaining cleverness as James runs into unexpected situations, yet takes advantage of them with skill and iron nerves. He manages to track down a man who has all the hallmarks of being the organization's go-to guy, a minor cog in the machine that might lead to greater cogs and exposure of the entire complex.

And there it just kind of . . . stops. Instead of leading into a fantastic global conspiracy or anything that might resemble a real Bond villain, you get left with a sordid little two-bit scam. A scam. To corner the water market. In Bolivia.

Let me reiterate: Global high-powered conspiracy turns into scam to corner the water market in Bolivia. Not even a particularly *clever* scam, either, if you know *anything* about basic economics. The villain's big threat? "We now control 60% of the water resources in the country."

Okay, let's follow this logic for just a second here. What the heck are they going to do with that water? Keep in mind that they've just spent a tremendous amount of money building secret underground dams in order to collect this water. If they just *cut off the supply*, they've sunk a bunch of money into this scheme for nothing . . . except that the price of water will skyrocket and all their *competitors* (you know, the people who control the remaining 40%) will make a killing. Or, let's say they raise their prices through the roof--then their competitors will just charge slightly less and STILL make a killing, because all those competitors aren't bearing the cost of building all the expensive secret dams.

I mean, it's literally mind-boggling how bad of an idea this scam is. I think it's probably about 80% of what's wrong with the movie, really, but coupled with the stoic, low-key acting, the fact that numerous characters are marched onscreen only to be resolutely whacked several scenes later, and that no one really seems interested in the GLOBAL CONSPIRACY going on in the background, and you have a real recipe for a train wreck.

Yes, there are chase scenes and explosions, but granted that most of the action scenes use the fast-cuts-violently-shaking-camera cinematography that for some reason has become popular, they just aren't as cool as you might think. The occasional moment where the camera HOLDS STILL so that you can actually watch what's going on is really awesome. The rest of the movie, not so much.

Heck, even the TRAILERS were boring. An Adam Sandler/Walt Disney comedy. Eh. A new movie about a plot to assassinate Hitler--starring Tom cruise. PASS. A disaster movie starring Keanu Reaves. PAAAASSS. A conspiracy movie starring that guy from Shoot 'Em Up involving an Evil Bank--can you say "ripped from the headlines" topical crapola? PASS!!

Sigh.

Nov 6, 2008

Fallout 3 Screenshot


I'm going to review this game in full later, but for now I'm just posting this screenshot I made. (I also have an ulterior motive for this, but I ain't tellin'.)

Oct 12, 2008

Painting VI

Okay, so I wasn't as finished tonight as I thought. I made some minor changes that I think help a lot.

Oct 11, 2008

Painting V

And here's Haden, finally. I tried to go with more dramatic lighting this time through, but I'm not sure it was completely successful. I think he looks decent, though.

Painting IV

I'm still messing around with this painting, which I see now more as an exercise than a discrete work. I fixed the neck, which was too long, and made some other minor changes. I also did something with the background, which was kind of blah before. (In case you're wondering, it's supposed to be a cave. It makes me insane when people look at my pictures and ask "what's that?" Eyeballs! Use them!)

Oct 3, 2008

Hurricane Ike: Kicking Ohio's Ass

What do you get when you combine:

many big old brittle trees
70 mph winds

One day without power, three weeks with no phone and no internet, that's what. It really reminded me of the situation in Virginia when we'd get big snowstorms. No one knew what to do or how to do it, so we wound up sitting around for quite some time before the streets got cleared and it was possible to go outside again.

We were lucky--many people were without power for almost as long as we were without internet. You just don't *get* 70 mph winds in Ohio. Well, unless it's a tornado, which is an entirely different sort of problem. Tornadoes tend to be localized. They don't knock out entire states.

Sep 10, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 40

“Well, there’s no sense in wasting the rest of the day,” Sheen said. “We should go see if we can find a scale and a feather, then.”

“That sounds like a trip to Tivvum’s to me,” Sly Nye said cheerfully. “Give Lu my love, would you, Haden?”

“Why, are you suing her?” Haden asked.

“No, but I represented her in the Court of Woe a few years back. She’s a sweet old bat.”

The cab dropped them outside Tivvum’s Antiquities a little before lunchtime. The shop was crowded with daytime traffic, but Alluvius managed to locate a bright green scale and brilliant white feather among the heaps of junk and bric-a-brac.

“Well, should we go, then?” Sheen asked as they climbed back into the cab.

“I’m all for putting this off as long as possible,” Haden said quietly.

“I think I’ll have to agree with Haden,” Talan said. “I’m in no hurry.”

“Putting it off isn’t going to make it nicer,” Sheen chastised them. “It will make it worse.”

“We don’t have to go right away,” Kal said, “but Sheen’s right.”

“It’s like pulling out a splinter. If you wait, it’ll just get infected.”

“Yes, dear,” Haden said, endeavoring to sound resigned to the idea.

The cab trip across the Cage to the Shattered Temple was long and tiresome. The afternoon was well under way by the time they pulled up outside. The ruined husk of a building was almost entirely covered in a massive tangle of razorvine, giving it the fearsome appearance of a dire beast crouching in wait. A pair of guards stood outside, but they didn’t appear all that interested in guarding. They didn’t notice Sheen until she was almost on top of them.

“Ahem!” Sheen cleared her throat imperiously. “We’d like to use a portal in your temple, please.”

“And that’s all?” the left-hand guard asked her skeptically.

“That is all.” The right-hand guard scrutinized them carefully, then raised a reed pipe to his lips and blew out a quick line of notes.

“Caylean’ll show you around.” Within minutes, a think young tiefling appeared in the entrance. He had large dark eyes in a bony face and a wide, toothy grin.

“If you’re looking for the portal to the Astral, that one closed several years ago,” Caylean said.

“There’s a portal here to the Elemental Plane of Air,” Sheen explained. “It’s supposed to be on the second floor, just off the stairs.”

“I know the one you mean. Upstairs in the Old Temple Wing, I think. Follow me.”

“So why is it called the ‘Shattered Temple’?” Sheen asked as they walked.

“Because Her Serenity shattered it, luv,” Caylean said, laughing a bit. “See, they used to worship Aoskar here. The God of Portals. Then one day Aoskar poached one o’ the Lady’s dabuses—that Fell berk—an’ made ‘im one o’ ‘is priests.”

“I guess I can see why she might be annoyed,” Sheen conceded.

“He was plannin’ on kicking Her out an’ takin’ over the Cage for hisself.”

“Seems like a misstep, in retrospect,” Kal remarked.

“It didn’t work out so well for him,” Haden said.

“The Lady kilt Aoskar and laid waste to this Temple. An’ that makes it perfect for us—it’s a whassa, allegory. The gods ain’t as all-powerful as they’d have you believe. The portals certainly seem to be getting along jus’ fine without a god to represent them. You take me, fer instance. I was born with withered legs, couldn’t walk even a single step. The day I renounced the ‘gods’ as frauds an’ joined the Athar—that very day—I started walkin. I ain’t never looked back.”

“An atheist miracle?” Haden asked. “Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?”

“I wonder if the Sensates would consider joining the Athar as a new experience?” Kal mused.

“Um, the factions get pretty upset if you try to join more than one at a time,” Haden told him.

“Curses,” Kal said cheerfully. “For being so open-minded, they sure are close-minded.”

“All the factions are like that, friend,” Caylean said. “Turnin’ stag ain’t the best way to demonstrate loyalty. Folks might think yer one’a them blasted Anarchists.”

“Anarchists? Like the Revolutionary League?” Sheen asked.

“Yeah, buncha tosspots.”

“People don’t like the Anarchists?” Talan asked.

“They’re always tryin’ to tear down everything we’ve built up. Can’t say I care much for that, no.”

“It’s hard to like someone whose only interest is in causing trouble,” Sheen said.

“Everyone deserves the chance to practice their beliefs,” Talan said stubbornly. “Even if I don’t agree with them.”

“It’s hard to live and let live when someone else’s beliefs consist of trashing yours,” Haden said. “Like that Pazuzu mess.”

“You mean the Xaositects,” Mal said.

“The Xaositects just act randomly on principle. They’re not a problem on the same level as the League,” Haden explained.

“You mean there are two factions that go around disrupting things? Fantastic,” Kal said.

“Don’t forget the Sinkers,” Caylean said. “They disrupt things ‘cos they think it’s the natural state. Anyway, here we are. I never knew the key for this portal.”

Sheen brandished the lillend scale and the archway flared to life. The scale instantly burst into flame and burned. They stepped through the portal into near-blinding brightness. They were standing on a flagstone patio under a spectacular blue sky that extended apparently forever in all directions. Small wisps of cloud hovered in the middle distance and a faraway storm seemed to hover around a floating castle.

The patio was part of an earthen sphere that seemed full of a tropical garden, a riot of extravagant colors, shapes, and smells. A tree seemed to hang downward from roots buried in a floating marble sphere, its leaves cast shade over a statue of a bull rearing over a naked woman, caught in the act of penetration. Beyond the garden a closed door flanked by two torches stood at the base of a tower, but this received little attention. Haden reached out with one hand and covered Sheen’s eyes.

“I don’t think it’s going to hurt me to see it,” Sheen said, laughing. “And anyway, it’s too late.”

“It’s hurting me and I should know better,” Haden grumbled. “At least I tried.”

“Nice statue,” Talan remarked, clearly disgusted.

“The mystery of the minotaur now resolved?” Kal asked.

“You just *had* to go there,” Haden groaned.

“Well, it seemed reasonable,” the wizard explained.

“It certainly doesn’t look very comfortable,” Sheen said staunchly. Haden gave her a horrified look. “You don’t have to be so upset. It’s not your fault.”

“I know,” he said. “I’ve been working very hard to leave all . . . this . . . behind me. Sometimes it feels like I’ll succeed.”

As they passed the tree, Talan turned to look curiously at several large dark patches in the trunk. A loud, droning buzz seemed to emanate from inside the wood. He stopped and peered closer, then jumped back as a thousand miniscule ruby red insects began to pour out of the hole. Before he could even cry out a warning, they had enveloped Sheen in a stinging cloud.

Talan swatted at the insects, but there were so many he didn’t seem to be having any effect. Haden tried to help, only succeeding in getting himself stung, while Kalenthor backed away. The wizard fetched up against the door to the building and smelled a hideously powerful chemical stink. He grabbed one of the torches and waved it experimentally: the stink intensified.

“Aha,” he said and charged back toward the swarming insects, swinging the torch like a weapon. The wasps recoiled and fled back into the trunk of the tree. “Ha! Take that!” the wizard enthused. Sheen dropped to the ground, holding her head. The many red welts covering her skin gradually began to fade.

Haden lifted her gently. “Are you all right?”

“Well . . . let’s not do that again.”

“Agreed. What did you do, Kal? It was impressive, in any case.”

“I think there’s something in these torches that repels them. Don’t want hellish stinging bugs inside the house, after all.”

The door to the tower was locked, but Sheen simply inserted two fingers into the keyhole and turned the metal apparatus to slag. The base of the tower was a luxurious parlor, a circular chamber about thirty feet in diameter. The walls were covered with crimson curtains of velvet so exquisite that it begged to be touched. Two archways led to short corridors on either side, and a narrow ironwork staircase spiraled into the ceiling.

“I’d like to clear something up,” Kalenthor said. “In what capacity are we here? Is your mother likely to welcome you?”

“The hellwasp swarm didn’t clue you in?” Haden asked.

“Many have guard dogs.”

“Well, let me enlighten you. We’re breaking and entering. And no, Mother isn’t likely to be happy about it.”

“Ah, so it’s capture and interrogate, then. Very well. Shall we start with her?” A woman in her mid-thirties had just emerged from behind one of the curtains. She had a kind of exquisite, ageless beauty that suited the surroundings perfectly. Behind her, a naked young man was shackled to the wall. He would have been handsome, but his expression was wild and crazed, barely conscious.

“Katrin,” Haden remarked.

“You know her?” Sheen asked.

“In a sense,” Haden replied. “So Mother finally got you a job that suits your talents?”

Katrin rotated elegantly on the sharply-pointed toes of her boots. “Hello, Haden. Finally come back, have you?” She shifted her gaze to smile at Kal, Talan, and Sheen. “Get them once and they always come back, sooner or later. So what do you want?”

“Where is Margone?” Haden demanded.

“That’s no way to speak of your mother. And I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t know where she is. She left a while ago, to go back to Sigil, I think. She said she had a new assignment.”

“But she has been here?” Haden asked. “Good. Show us her office, or wherever she conducts her business.”

“Are we just going to leave that man there?” Sheen asked. “Why is he here, anyway?” There was a faint groan from behind another curtain. Sheen crossed the room and tossed it aside, staring with shock into a familiar face. “Margram?” she asked, shocked. The ex-Illuminated just stared at her blankly.

“Don’t ask me,” Katrin said. “The only name I have for them is Mud.” Sheen set to work cracking the shackles and collar open, grimacing at the sight of the torn flesh beneath. Mal found a third man behind another curtain.

“This one looks familiar somehow,” he said. It was Bendon.

“It’s just as well, Her Ladyship was getting bored with these,” Katrin said.

“Then she won’t mind if we take them with us,” Haden spat. “Office. Now.”

“Suit yourself,” Katrin said., leading the way up the stairs. Haden followed her; at the top of the stairs, briefly out of the sight of those below, Katrin crowded against him. “You always were such a . . . fighter,” she hissed biting her lip. “Didn’t we have such wonderful times together? I wonder what they’d think of you, if they knew?”

“Shut up, Katrin,” Haden said shortly.

“This front you put up, it’s such a lie. I know what you really want.”

“No, I really don’t. Now shut up. Lie down on the floor.” He placed one food on the back of her neck, holding her down while he examined the room. Kal and Talan climbed up the stairs to join him. It was a bedroom, furnished with exacting taste, from the wide unmade bed to the ceiling fresco of a woman passionately embracing an octopus. A single enormous book occupied most of the desk, instantly drawing Kal’s attention. From the tousled bed came a faint snore. Haden drew his rapier and pointed it at the occupant’s throat.

“Wake up, Splinter. Let’s see you join your friend Katrin on the floor here,” he said sharply. The tiefling lazily opened one eye and glared. Talan pulled a sheet off the bed and began tearing it into strips, then began tying the two women up securely.

“Wow, this book . . .” Kal said, then read aloud: “GENESIS: Being a True and Complete Accounting of the Origin of the Planes, the Gods, and Mortal Life. Volume the first: The Unity of Rings, The Rule of Three, The Center of All, the Twin Serpents, The Eye of the Dawn, the Tear of the Night. Volume the Second: The War of Law and Chaos. Apocrypha: The Lady of Pain.” He paused for several moments.

“Huh.”

Sep 8, 2008

Painting III


So, here's the same picture again with some more work done to it. I think I managed to correct the "fat face" problem I was having before--Sheen looks a little more feminine this time around. I may still fiddle with it a bit but it's probably time for me to start working on a portrait for Haden as well.

Sep 7, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 39

“Did you just say what I think you said?” Talan asked, startled.

“That’s right,” Hexla said. “I did it!” She beamed at the party, then her expression went stiff when she spotted Tarsem. “Have we met?”

“This is my, well, my brother,” Sheen said awkwardly.

“We had an interesting trip, to be sure,” Haden added.

“The kitchen’s finally done,” Yolette remarked, leaping out of her armchair as though it had goosed her.

“Oh, good job,” Sheen said. “I’m exhausted. Three days on horseback.” She sat down with a sigh. “What are we going to do next? Look for Lady Margone?”

“The best place to start looking for my mother is probably Honorgard. Felise knows a lot more about the family finances than I do. But we should really find a buyer for those poor animals first,” Haden suggested.

“I like my horse, I may keep him if I can find proper accommodations,” Kalenthor said.

“There may be stables at Honorgard that you can use, I’m not sure. In any case, we should head there soon.”

“Agreed,” Talan said. “Did you notice that someone was watching us from the street when we came in?”

“Is it unusual to be watched here?” Kal asked.

“I saw the man,” Mal intoned. “Lir is following him. He is most likely returning to his demonic liege to report.”

“That reminds me, a tiefling woman came by looking for you,” Hexla said, gesturing vaguely in Haden’s direction.

“What? Who?” Haden queried.

“She had catlike eyes. I’ve got the name written down somewhere, I think it started with an N.”

“Noxana?”

“Right. She said she’d call again.”

Haden shrugged. “I told her I’d try to find her a place to stay.”

“Speaking of places to stay,” Kal said. “Can you recommend a good inn?”

“Chirper’s is one of the better places we’ve seen here, but it’s a good hike. Vander’s or the Black Sail are closer, but they’re also kind of . . . seedy,” Sheen pondered.

“Well, I’m sure . . .” Kal began, but he was interrupted by a loud rapping on the front door. Joris turned the handle and peered outside.

“Firil?” he said, startled. “Is something wrong?”

“It’s Numeledes, Joris, he’s . . . um, who’s this? Have we met?” she asked, staring over Joris’ shoulder at Kalenthor. “Is that a moonblade?”

“Yes, yes it is,” Kal said proudly. “I am Kalenthor Nailo, recently of Silverymoon.”

“Firil Starwing, late of Arvandor. I’ve never seen a real moonblade before.”

Joris cleared his throat. “Numeledes, Firil?”

“Yes! He needs you, Joris, he’s dying.”

“Oh!” Joris said, looking grim. “Will you all excuse me, I’d better . . .”

“You don’t have to ask, Joris,” Haden said, amused. “Off you go.”

Joris grabbed his cloak again, but by the time he returned Firil was deep in conversation with Kalenthor about moonblades. The cleric was forced to wait several minutes to get her attention and then herd her forcibly out the door.

“How that ditz got to be a renowned scholar I’ll never understand,” Haden said, laughing.

“So, am I the only one concerned with the demons following us?” Mal asked.

“I’m a little more curious to know if they are real or imagined, actually,” Kalenthor said.

“I certainly didn’t see them,” Haden added.

“Well, the one that was lurking across the street is headed to the Lady’s Ward right now.”

“Isn’t that where Honorgard is?” Sheen asked a bit dubiously. “He could be a spy for Lady Margone.”

“He’s gone into the Temple of the Abyss now,” Mal grumped.

“It wouldn’t be my mother, then,” Haden said. “She’s infernal, not abyssal. She’d be about as welcome at the Temple as a plague of locusts.”

“Can you think of any demons who might be interested in us?” Sheen asked.

“I don’t know,” Haden said. “Maybe something to do with that Pazuzu fiasco?”

“Pazuzu?” Mal asked. “Kelisatreanugori? Asmodeus?”

“Gesuntheit,” Sheen told him.

Mal waved his arms and conjured an image of another place in the center of the room. It was readily recognizable as the Temple, seen from somewhere high in the rafters. A man with vaguely fiendish features, perhaps a tiefling, was speaking to another rotund tiefling with umber-hued scaly skin.

“That fat one looks like the High Priest, Noxana’s father,” Haden said. “Nashtoreth.”

“The other tiefling looks familiar,” Talan said. “Really familiar.”

“Hmm,” Sheen said. “I don’t think this is of major importance right now. Let’s get some rest and go looking for Lady Margone tomorrow.”

“Agreed,” Haden said. “I’m sure we’ll find out what’s going on when Noxana shows up again. If you see the tiefling again, we’ll jump him and let Mal scare the truth out of him. Come on, I’ll take you to Chirper’s.” Haden gathered Kal, Tulio, and Tarsem up by eye and led them out into the street.

“You wanted to see the real Cage, Kal, this is your big chance,” Tulio remarked. “We gotta go through the Hive to get to Chirper’s.”

“What?” Tarsem asked. “Is that bad?”

“The Hive is what you’d call the Slums here on Sigil. We’re armed and it’s still daylight, so it’s not that dangerous. Won’t hurt to stay alert, though.”

“Got it,” Tarsem said.

Chirper’s was much the same as ever, with Sigrund manning the door and Marlowe waiting tables. Kal began chatting with the bariaur while Tulio vanished into the crowd looking for Thea. Haden turned to look at Tarsem again.

“You seem like you have good sense, but just in case I’ll warn you that you should NOT wander around this city alone,” Haden said.

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

Haden set his lips in a thin line and stared into the distance. “Only two types of people wander alone in this city—easy marks and people with powerful protection. It’s impossible to fake inclusion in the latter group. Still, after you’ve been seen with us for a while, you’ll be upgraded.”

“You seem like you have something on your mind,” Tarsem ventured. Haden sighed.

“You’ll find out eventually, and it’s probably better if you form your own judgment,” the bard explained. There was a loud squeal from the other end of the room as Thea encountered Tulio. “Uh oh. Will you keep an eye on Tulio for me? He and Thea don’t have a spoonful of common sense between them.”

“Sure thing,” Tarsem said.

“THANK YOU!!” Thea shouted, trying to flag Haden down.

“That’s my cue to leave before she tries to squeeze the life out of me. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Haden dawdled on the way home, reaching the door well after dark. Sheen was standing outside trying to figure out how to put the key into the lock.

“Are you all right?” Haden asked her, startled. He opened the door to let her inside.

“I feel dizzy. They wouldn’t let me leave! They made me drink like . . . I don’t know how many tankards?”

“Who?” Mal asked. “Demons?”

“No, no, the dwarvesh. Dwarves!”

“Demons and dwarves? Now we’ve really had it!”

“Why do you smell like a tavern?” Talan asked.

“I sh-suffered a massive attack of dwarven hosh-hospitality,” Sheen slurred. “And don’t laugh at me,” she told Haden severely.

“I wasn’t laughing.”

“Yesh you were, I could tell.”

Haden chuckled. “All right, all right so I was.” He picked her up and carried her up the stairs. “Good night, all.”

Kal found his way back to the house very early in the morning, startling Mal and Sheen who were variously meditating and fixing breakfast. It wasn’t long before Haden and Talan joined them.

“Do you still have that fan you took from the enclave?” Haden asked while they were eating.

“Somewhere,” Sheen said, grabbing her bag and rummaging through it.

“Good, I just hope you haven’t handled it too much. May I see it?” Haden accepted the fan and cradled it in his palms for a long time. “It looks like Mother is definitely involved with Betzalel. He told her to go back to her ‘summer house’ . . . but I don’t know where that is. It’s probably in the records somewhere.”

“I met your mother once, right?” Mal asked.

“Once,” Haden said.

“Do you know which plane her summer house would be on?” the warlock continued.

“I don’t know. It could be in the Nine Hells for all of me.”

“The Hells, really? Also,” Kalenthor said, “I’m now a Sensate!”

“We know,” Sheen told him. “Oh, do you mean officially?”

“Well, as official as they seem to get, anyway. I guess I’m what you’d call a Namer for now. So were you just joking about the Hells?”

“My mother’s half-fiend,” Haden explained. “And that’s the good half.”

“Do you know what type of fiend?”

“Grandmother was an erinyes. I don’t know anything about my maternal grandfather, but I suspect she ate him.”

Suinjes opened the gate when they stepped out of the cab. “Welcome back, Master Haden.”

“Is Felise still in residence?”

“For now,” the githzerai said. “Your father’s lawyer is inside as well.”

Haden sighed. “I should probably talk to him and get it over with. Thanks.”

“How is he holding up?” Talan asked Sheen as they filed through the gate.

“What do you mean?” Sheen asked, startled. “He seems fine, why shouldn’t he be?”

“It’s his mother,” Talan said. “You don’t think he’s upset?”

“He hasn’t said anything.”

“Hello, Sly,” Haden said, walking into the study. A tiefling with bone-white skin and no discernable nose glanced up at him.

“Haden! Good to see you, rascal. Sorry I haven’t been by to meet you, but the Court of Woe’s had me tied up for weeks.”

“You’re calling me a rascal? Everyone, this is Sly Nye, he’s Father’s lawyer. Or he was. I suppose he’s my lawyer now.”

“If any of you ever need legal representation, don’t be afraid to consider a Xaositect lawyer. We achieve not just the impossible, but the unthinkable.”

“I assume you’re working on settling the estate?” Haden asked.

“I am, and it’s a good thing you came by when you did.”

“I just assumed everything went to Mother.”

“Not as such.”

“What do you mean, ‘not as such’?”

“Well, you get the house on Smith Street, Cerellis added that just before he passed away. There’s also a warehouse in the Clerk’s Ward that went to a bardic academy, I’d never heard of it before I saw it here. But Honorgard and nearly everything else have been left to an outfit called the ‘Winter Concern’. Oh, there a couple of charities that get this and that, but your mother gets only a pittance.”

“Did you talk to her about all of this? Wait, what am I saying, of course you didn’t. You still have all your limbs attached.”

Nye grinned, displaying pointed yellow teeth. “Very astute. I haven’t seen her since your father passed away.”

“I need to find her, though, we have some unfinished business,” Haden said. “Do you know anything about her properties? Does she have her own lawyer?”

“Of course, she employs an erinyes by the name of Enlilil.”

“Do you know if she has a summer house?” Haden asked.

“Summer house?” a voice said behind him. He turned to look at the blue-skinned Felise, who had come in quietly while they were talking. “I’ve heard her talk about a summer house. She was telling that man, Gyderic, about it while he was here.”

“What?” Sheen demanded. “When did Margone meet with Gyderic?”

“Oh, a couple of times, before Lord Cerellis was taken from us.”

“Before Gyderic KILLED him, you mean,” Haden snarled.

Felise gasped. “Yes, that’s what I mean. She had all kinds of strange folk in here at all hours of the night.”

“What did she say? Tell me everything you remember,” Haden demanded.

“She said that if their ‘usual meeting place’ ever became unavailable, to go there instead. There was something about a portal and a key.”

“Something?”

Kalenthor sighed. “That approaches being useful without ever crossing the line.”

“I’m sorry,” Felise said, “I’m trying to remember. She said it had two keys, one for each direction.

Sheen jumped as a sharp bell-like tone rang out in her mind and grabbed Haden’s hand. “No!” she yelled, pulling his fingers away from Felise’s face.

“I was just going to help her remember!” Haden declared.

“You were going to make her remember! There’s a difference!”

“Rod of Law, Haden, what’s gotten into you?!” Felise demanded.

Haden looked down at Sheen, then took a deep breath and subsided a little. She relaxed her grip on his wrist. “I’m sorry.”

Felise coughed. “Believe it or not, I think you helped me anyway. The portal is in the Shattered Temple, an archway leading out to a balcony just off the stairs on the second floor. The key on this side is a lillend’s scale, and the key to get back is an avoral’s feather. It leads to the Elemental Pland of Air.” She backed away. “Now, if you’ll excuse me . . .”

“Wow,” Kal remarked. “That went from vague to specific very quickly.”

Sheen rubbed Haden’s arm. “Are you all right?” He looked at her without saying anything for a long time. Sheen looked over at Kalenthor. “So what do you know about the Elemental Plane of Air?”

“It’s really quite breathtaking,” the elf said cheerfully. Talan groaned and rolled his eyes.

Haden wrapped his arms around Sheen and pressed his face into her hair. “I won’t hold you to that fiancĂ© thing if you’d rather not,” he whispered.

“Don’t be stupid,” she told him severely.

“She loves you, Haden,” Talan said.

“Th-thank you.”

Sep 6, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 38

“Are there any survivors?” Kalenthor asked.

“I sense no thoughts here,” Mal intoned. Sheen tapped Lady Margone’s fan against the palm of her hand.

“There’s nothing here.”

“I expect the artifact is gone, as well,” Kal sighed. Sheen walked past him up the stairs. Tulio and Tarsem both watched her, but she gestured them out of the way imperiously. Her eyes flicked to the door, where a human-shaped shadow moved, then vanished out of the light.

“Who’s there?” a voice asked.

“You first, my friend!” Haden called out as Sheen ducked behind a desk.

“Is that . . . Haden?” The shadow edged cautiously around the door frame. It was a tall man, rail-thin, with blue robes and white hair. He held a hand over his eyes as he squinted into the building.

“What the hell are *you* doing here?” Sheen demanded.

“Now, be nice,” Haden told her. “My apologies, every time you run into us she’s having a bad day.”

Eliath shrugged. “I’m looking for a devil named Betzalel.”

“Is that so? We’ve heard of this devil.” Sheen said. “What do you want with him?”

“I need to talk to him about the future of my soul. I swore fealty to him before I went mad. Afterwards, he lost interest in me.”

“So you’re trying to hook up with your old boss? Why did you come here?” Sheen pressed.

“Because he has been here. I would like to terminate the contract, if I can.”

Haden tried to grab Sheen’s arm, recognizing the expression on her face, but she shook him off. “Oh you would? How very nice for you. So sorry, but the rest of us are a little busy taking care of the dead bodies!!”

“Sheen, calm down!” Haden hissed.

“We should go back to Sigil,” she said. “There’s nothing more for us here.”

“Shouldn’t we keep looking?” Kalenthor asked. He had climbed the stairs with Joris, Talan, and Mal. The wizard looked perplexed.

“No,” Sheen replied. “It doesn’t look like any of them escaped.”

“What about Eliath?” Haden asked.

“What about him?”

Kalenthor frowned. “I confess that I’m not really understanding your attitude here. It sounds as though this man may have useful information.”

“He’s also the person that sent us to Avernus and started this mess,” Joris said.

“I see.” Kal said quietly. “Are you also seeking the gem . . . what was it called again?”

“Kal, shut up!” Sheen ordered.

“What did I say?” the wizard asked, perplexed. He turned to look helplessly at Talan. The ranger shrugged.

“Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.”

“Do you mean the Eye of the Dawn?” Eliath asked carefully. “Betzalel had me looking for that for years. It was while I was searching for the portal that I went mad. I may be able to help you.”

“No,” Sheen said. “We can’t know where your real loyalties lie—if you even know yourself. You haven’t killed anyone as far as I know, and that alone is keeping you alive. Keep your help. Whatever the price is, it’s too high.”

Eliath surveyed the rest of the group. “Does she speak for all of you?”

Haden shrugged. “I trust her judgment.”

“As do I,” Joris said.

Talan drummed his fingers on the hilt of his sword briefly. “My trust has to be earned. You’ve not earned it.”

“I understand,” Eliath said. “I’ll be seeing you.”

“Good luck getting your soul back,” Sheen said as the old wizard walked away.

“Thank you.”

“Sorry I yelled, Kal, but I thought you were about to tell him everything.”

“I’m not a complete fool,” Kal said crossly. “I do not envy that man his immediate future. However, I will be more mindful of my tongue.”

“I said I was sorry. He knows more than I like already.”

“To be honest, he seemed like a nice enough fellow,” Mal said.

Haden snorted. “He sold his soul to a devil. Nice doesn’t enter into it.”

Sheen looked over at Tarsem. “Are you serious about coming with us? If you have any gear you want to get, now’s the time. We’re heading back to the portal.”

Tarsem indicated the sword hilts protruding over his shoulders with a quick thumb jab. “I have everything I need right here. Where is this portal?”

“The one we know of is southwest of here, almost halfway between here and Silverymoon.”

“Yeesh,” Kal said. “More walking? And what do we do about the bodies?”

“We can’t do anything for them, and the guards will be along soon,” Sheen said.

“There has to be a better alternative than walking halfway to Silverymoon,” Mal whined.

“No there is not. Come on, I’d like to be gone before the guards do show up.” Sheen insisted.

“Are you sure?” Kalenthor pressed.

“I don’t understand why you’re making all this fuss. It’s a nice day.”

“I’m all for walking,” Talan said cheerfully.

Joris nodded. “If we do walk, we can stop at that one village and, um . . .”

“The Namers may know of a portal here in Waterdeep,” Tarsem offered.

“Not you too!” Sheen growled.

“Lissandra would like it if we found another portal for her, though,” Haden commented. Sheen’s face slowly turned purple.

“All right! Kal, you’ve got twenty minutes to scare up some horses. We’ll stop in Red Larch on the way, and I don’t want to hear any more complaints!”

“Right!” Kal said, and vanished down the street.

“So what are horses, exactly?” Haden asked.

“You’ll see when Kal gets back,” Talan said. “If you took Ari and doubled her in size, lessened and coarsened her fur and elongated her face, I think you’d have a pretty good-sized horse.”

“And, um, what do you do with them?”

“Most people ride them or use them to carry burdens or pull wagons,” Talan explained.

“Or eat them, up ‘round the Spine of the World, if they get snowed in,” Tarsem added helpfully. Talan gave him a black look. Kal returned only a few short minutes later. Haden gave the animals a dubious look.

“No complaining,” Sheen told him severely.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

They rode out of the city without any particular mishap, although Talan had to stop several times to help people straighten out and ride properly. Once past the outer wall the road widened and they settled down to an easy pace in the crisp winter sunshine. Haden dropped back to ride beside Tarsem, who seemed surprisingly comfortable on horseback.

“I know what you are,” the bard said carefully. Tarsem turned in his seat, his face filled with a mixture of surprise, confusion, horror and relief. “I snooped, I was worried you might be a trap of some kind.”

“Well, I wish you hadn’t, but I understand,” Tarsem said slowly.

“Don’t worry about it too much. Sheen’s a good sort when you get to know her, it just . . . takes a while. I was in much the same boat when we first met. Don’t be frightened of her. She won’t hurt you even if you make her really angry, it’s not in her. At the very worst, she’ll yell at you a bit.”

“I can handle that. I think.”

Haden reached over and slapped him on the back. “It was brave of you to go looking for her, not knowing what you might find.”

“Maybe. You love her, though, don’t you?”

“Heh. Guilty as charged.”

“Okay then.”

“Does that bother you?” Haden asked, curious.

“No, of course not.” Tarsem sighed. “I just thought she might be alone, like me, you know? I’m glad to see that isn’t the case—“

“Glad?” Haden asked. “And a little disappointed, maybe?”

“Maybe. You see a lot, Haden.”

“It’s my job,” Haden said. “I try to be good at it. We all spend a lot of time looking for someone we can care for. It’s not easy.”

“You said it.”

Haden smiled slightly. “I gave up on looking, and then she fell right in my lap. If you want some advice, it will probably be better if you tell her yourself, rather than waiting for her to find out.”

“I’ll do that,” Tarsem said.

It was late at night by the time they reached Red Larch, with both horses and riders beginning to drag. Kalenthor eyed the village blearily.

“When were you last here?” he asked as they dismounted in front of the Blackbutter Inn. Sheen did a quick calculation in her head.

“About a month and a half ago, I think.”

“It seems longer than that,” Joris said, “but I think you’re right.”

Sheen knocked on the door of the Inn, a little more politely than usual considering the lateness of the hour. After a minute or so the door opened, revealing the vaguely familiar face of Dhelosk Quelbeard. “I know it’s late,” Sheen said apologetically.

“And I thank you for knocking,” Dhelosk replied, opening the door fully and counting heads as the party filed in.

“We have horses . . .” Talan said quickly.

“We have a stable. I’ll wake the boy and send him out to take care of them. There’s eight of you? I have three rooms free tonight . . .”

“We can manage,” Sheen said gratefully.

“I can rustle you up some tea and leftovers, if you like.”

“That would be wonderful,” Talan mumbled. Everyone was too tired for conversation, so they ate quickly and quietly. Dhelosk pulled up a chair rather than seek his own bed and watched them carefully for some time.

“Headed for Waterdeep, are you?”

“We’ve just come from there,” Sheen said.

“I might have known. Always I guess wrong. Are you folks from around here?” Dhelosk asked, looking at Haden in particular.

“I’ve been here before, actually,” Sheen said.

“I thought I had seen you before. Luster, wasn’t it?”

“Close. Sheen.”

“My apologies.”

“I was here, too, around the same time,” Joris said. Dhelosk studied the cleric’s face for a moment, then shook his head.

“I’m sorry, young fellow, but I’ll have to take your word on that.” Joris snorted and rolled his eyes.

“We went up into the hills looking for a wizard,” Sheen continued.

“Oh, yes, when those children disappeared.”

“We would have come straight back, but there were . . . complications. We did find them, though, all three of them. Unfortunately they all . . . died. But we were able to give them last rights.”

“It is as we feared,” Dhelosk replied. “The families will be glad to know the truth. When you didn’t come back, we figured the wizard’s business had gotten you, too.”

“Almost,” Sheen said. “We should get some rest.”

“The rooms are upstairs, the doors are unlocked. Make yourselves at home. On the house. It seems the least I can do for folks who tried to help us.”

They sought beds in exhausted silence and slept late. Two more days of riding brought them again to the portal in the Lost peaks, and from there they returned to the alley behind the Tenth Pit. The horses were not pleased at being herded through the portal and required all of Talan’s attention until they finally reached the house at Smith Street. The door flew open as they approached and Hexla bounded through, throwing herself on the ranger.

“You’re back! Wait until you hear my news! I’ve finally completed my research!” the witch squeaked.

“That’s wonderful!” Talan gasped, the air knocked out of him.

“Yes! I’ve discovered the secret of eternal youth!”

Cold Blood: Session 37

Sheen peered down into the hole. “Is everyone all right down there?” Joris looked up at her plaintively. He was covered in slime.

“Anyone have a rope?”

“I’ll take care of it,” Kalenthor said dismissively. He mumbled and gestured. There was a loud popping noise and Joris reappeared with Tulio standing on the edge of the pit. “A little flashy, perhaps, but effective.”

“We should ask Riskin what to do with these bodies,” Sheen said. “I’ll be back.” Haden followed as she left the Steelheart foundry and walked back to the Flamebacks’. Talan stooped to examine the bodies.

“I’ve heard of this before,” he said. “Deepspawn. They can create copies of anything they eat.”

“So, are these really dwarves at all?” Joris asked. “They certainly look like it, even on close inspection.”

“They are simulacrums, nothing more,” Kal explained.

“Father’s beard, what in blazes?!” Riskin demanded, appearing in the doorway behind Sheen.

“They attacked us,” Kalenthor said quickly. “There is a deepspawn down below.”

“Deepspawn. Don’t that just . . . huh.”

“What are we going to tell Hoskuld?” Sheen asked.

“The truth?” Kalenthor offered, puzzled.

“I’m sure he’ll be fine, Sheen,” Haden said. “No need to baby him.”

“I wasn’t . . .” Sheen started.

“Of course you were,” Haden insisted.

“He’s just never been very good with the bizarre and supernatural,” Sheen explained. Riskin rigged up a pulley system using some of the junk lying around and began ferrying things from the pit.

“Ain’t that the truth,” the dwarf said as he worked. “Even afore his leg bummed out on ‘im I was always the one goin’ to the surface an’ whatnot.”

“Let’s get out of here,” Sheen said when they’d finished cleaning up. “We need to get back to the surface and look for the enclave.”

“We’ll need a new lead, though,” Kalenthor said.

“I wish I had something, but I don’t.”

“Well, someone’s had a busy morning,” Hoskuld remarked when they reappeared pushing a wheelbarrow.

“Yes, we’re considering going into banking,” Kalenthor said, his face deadpan. The dwarf looked like he was considering laughing for a moment.

“Sheen, I got somethin’ fer ye. Took me all mornin’ to find it, but . . .” Hoskuld pulled an amulet over his head and handed it to her.

“Oh,” Sheen said. “Well, um, thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. Oh, and this. A human feller left this not fer ye a few weeks back.” Hoskuld handed Sheen a letter. Haden stared over her shoulder while she opened it and read it. “Said he was yer brother.”

“Yeah, I’ll believe that when I see it,” Haden said.

“Seemed nice enough, a bit dodgy, but a human down here’s got that right, I guess.”

“Everyone I know is ‘dodgy’,” Sheen muttered. “This Tarsem fellow wants me to go meet him. It sounds like he may know something about the Elan enclave. We probably need to risk it.” She folded the letter and put it in her pouch. At that precise moment, there was a bright light and a loud crash, followed by elven cursing. Kalenthor began to laugh.

The dwarves fumbled for weapons but Kalenthor waved them away and crossed the room to a pile of armor, where he pulled a suit of chainmail out of the way. Mal gave him a cross look.

“Oh.” The warlock said. “Hello.”

“Hello again, Maloranserani.”

“Another elf?” Riskin asked. “Ain’t you got any dwarven acquaintances?”

“I do,” Sheen said, “but they have the sense to stay home.”

“So, is there another dire turning point that will dictate the fate of the planes?” Kalenthor asked. “Or is this just a social call?”

“Do I know you people?”

Kal sighed. “Not remotely, it would appear. You should probably come with us again until you remember.”

“Is he always going to be popping up like this?” Haden asked quietly. Talan shrugged.

“If you folks are headin’ back to the surface, I can take ye as far as Skullport. I want ter settle things with Xundorn.”

“Let’s go,” Sheen said. “I’m sorry it was such a short visit.”

“It was a pleasure making your acquaintance,” Kalenthor announced.

“I’ll see ye again soon enough,” Hoskuld said. “And tell yer Ringhammer friend that I’ll be having that suit to him right away.”

“I will,” Sheen said.

“You hurry back, Riskin, armor don’t make itself!”

They followed Riskin out into the maze of tunnels. Kalenthor raised his hands and summoned light, giving Haden a smug look. They had not gone far when Talan suddenly stopped, listening. “Something is close.”

“Goddamned minotaurs,” Riskin growled. “Lemme talk to ‘em.” He raised his voice. “Ye can’t sneak up on me, Telegonus!”

A gang of minotaurs, at least a dozen, filed slowly into the tunnel from side passages, cutting off any possible escape. The largest, covered in jet black hair, stepped close to Riskin and snorted at the much shorter dwarf. Sheen crossed her arms, braced her feet, and glared just as Riskin did the same. The minotaurs eyed the pair of them warily.

“I paid you last week, Telegonus. Surely you remember?” Riskin said. “It’s a privilege to use yer tunnels n’all, but it ain’t worth all that much.”

“Who are these?” Telegonus rumbled, shaping each word slowly and with great care. “Friends of yours?”

“I wonder if we can get some steaks off of them,” Mal said to Kalenthor in a sort of stage whisper that was clearly audible to everyone in the tunnel. Kalenthor bit his tongue, trying not to laugh, as Haden winced.

“We’re here visiting the dwarves,” Haden said. “Is there a problem?”

“You have not paid to use our tunnels. If you return to Spiderhaven, you have already been here once.”

“They can count?” Talan asked under his breath.

“I don’t recall seeing a toll booth,” Haden said, “so how were we to know?”

“Yes, you really should advertise,” Kal added.

“It does not matter. You will PAY.”

“Oh, just tell us how much you’re shaking us down for already,” Sheen grumbled.

“You pay 2000 gold. Each.”

“What is this all about?!” Riskin demanded. “That’s absurd!”

“You are just dwarf. They look like they have money.”

“How about we call it fifty gold, TOTAL, and we don’t reincarnate you as beefsteak?” Sheen demanded.

“Perhaps you should reconsider,” Telegonus replied, shoving his damp nose almost into Sheen’s face.

“I don’t really follow your logic here,” Haden said. “If we have money, that means we’re nasty customers in the first place, yes? Are you *really* sure you want to try taking *anything* off us? A few dozen gold, that’s just business, but two thousand? Each? That’s being a nuisance. It’s probably just easier for us to kill you.”

Telegonus surveyed his followers briefly. “We let you pass . . . free. This time. As a favor to our friend Riskin.”

“I ain’t gonna owe you fleabags no favor!” Riskin bellowed.

“Yes, we don’t want to cheat you.”

“Fine,” Telegonus growled. “Fifty gold.”

“And post a sign,” Kalenthor said. “Seriously.”

“Are you sure we can’t work some steak into this deal?” Mal stage whispered again. “What about milk?” Sheen quickly counted out fifty gold into the minotaur’s hand. Telegonus glared at Mal, snorted, and turned to leave, his gang following. Riskin resumed walking, clouting Sheen on the arm as he went.

“I knew that stance’d serve ye well one day,” he joked.

“Aye,” Sheen said, shaking her head. “Crouch of the pissed off little bugger.”

“So do you remember us now?” Kalenthor asked Mal.

“Unfortunately,” the warlock said.

“I thought it was impossible to teleport into Undermountain.”

“You don’t say.” Kal rolled his eyes at Mal’s newfound reticence.

“Right,” Riskin said some time later, when they’d gone up one hoist and reached the river again. “This is where we part ways. Best o’ luck to you. An’ Sheen, if this Tarsem fellow ain’t what he says, ye always got family down here.”

“I know, and don’t worry, I’m sure everything will be fine.”

“Just ye follow that tunnel there, it’ll take ye back to the shaft, then up an’ out.” Riskin gave Sheen a quick hug and turned toward Skullport. The hoist was waiting at the bottom of the great shaft, just as they’d left it. They climbed in and pulled the bell chain. A faint ringing sounded above, and after several minutes the platform began to rise.

“Is this thing safe?” Mal asked.

“Mostly,” Kalenthor said.

At the top, an unfamiliar squad of guards regarded them with great suspicion. “Hallo,” Haden said disarmingly.

“Well met . . . sir.”

Haden nudged Sheen. “Wow, did you hear that, he called me ‘sir’!”

“You’d rather he called you ‘ma’am’?” Sheen asked. Haden gave her a disgruntled look. “Come on, you walked right into that one.”

“I’m such a bad influence on you,” Haden remarked.

“Do you have business in Waterdeep?” the guard demanded irritably.

“We are an advance drow scouting party,” Mal announced. “In disguise.” Joris covered his face with his hands as everyone stared at the warlock in horror—everyone except Kal, who nodded and smiled amiably.

“We just went down yesterday,” Sheen said quickly. “To visit the dwarves at Murkstones.”

“Oh? Which ones?”

“Hoskuld and Riskin Flameback. Please, don’t take these guys and their Comedian of the Year competition seriously. We’re adventurers.”

“Yes, apologies,” Kal said, relenting.

“I’m Joris Crownsilver. My mother, Goneril, runs the House of Wonder . . .”

“Good,” the guard replied grimly. “She can bail you out.”

“You’re going to arrest us?!” Haden demanded. The guard tapped the end of his truncheon against his boot thoughtfully.

“What, I’m not allowed to make jokes? I thought that’s what we were doing. Go on, get out of here.”

“Oh, for crying out loud,” Joris muttered. They hurried out of the cave while the guards sniggered unpleasantly.

“So what is next on the schedule?” Mal asked.

“We’re going to find Sheen’s brother,” Kalenthor explained. Sheen looked around for a while, orienting herself, then began heading toward Dock Street. She passed a festhall called The Hanging Lantern and found a small, shabby door just off the street. She knocked on it with her usual lack of restraint, causing the wood to flex in its frame.

“Hold on!” a muffled voice said inside, then the door opened just a crack, revealing a single eye. “Yes?”

“Are you Tarsem?” Sheen demanded.

“Ah . . . who wants to know?”

Sheen pulled out a folded piece of paper. “I’m Sheen. You left a note for me, remember?”

The man stared at her blankly. “Um, really? I . . . I’m sorry. Come in.” He opened the door slowly and backed away as Sheen trotted right inside. She made a pained noise when she saw the room. It was a mess, with clothing and other possessions tossed at random over the obviously second-hand furniture. The sole table was covered in used plates and bottles.

The single occupant matched the room, dressed in a floppy shirt that had probably once been white and patched trousers. He was small and lean, with shoulder-length reddish-brown hair and a beard that looked more like a poor attempt at shaving. His bright green eyes watched nervously as Sheen began to tidy up. Haden intercepted her and took several plates out of her hands.

“Stop that. Talk to your brother.”

“What am I supposed to say? We’ve never met before!” Sheen asked.

“I’m sorry about . . . all this, but I never thought you’d actually show up!” Mal waved his hands and the room began setting itself to rights, causing Tarsem to shrink back again.

“Where did you come from?” Sheen asked finally. “Where did I come from?”

“You mean you don’t know?” Tarsem asked.

“Not in the least,” Sheen said. “The only family I know about are a couple of dwarves.”

“Our parents were famous adventurers,” Tarsem said, twisting the sleeve of his shirt with his other hand.

“And?” Sheen asked.

“Um . . . and they did something to anger one of Halaster’s apprentices . . . Mandara, I think. She kidnapped you when you were a baby. Father and Mandara killed each other, and I guess the dwarves found you. Mother was already dead, she died giving birth to you.”

“Oh.” Sheen said. “Well, that’s reasonably straightforward. So how did you find me?”

“I’ve been . . . working for the Oghmanytes, letting them pay me back with divination.” Tarsem’s voice trailed off again. His discomfort and shock did not appear to be fading under the interrogation.

“You live here all by yourself? Don’t you have a family?”

“No. Well . . . I suppose I do now. Um.”

“You’re muffing this really badly,” Haden said to Sheen. She sighed.

“I’m sorry, I’m just not good at this sort of thing. Look, I’m not here to make your life difficult or anything like that. The main reason I brought all these people here is that we need to find the elan Enclave again and your letter made it sound like you knew where to find them.”

“Yeah?” Tarsem said. “Sure, I can help you with that. I’ve been keeping an eye on them, just in case.”

“Thanks,” Sheen said, smiling.

“They have safe houses all over the city. There’s one that’s been really busy in the last week or two, a shop that prints broadsheets up in Castle Ward. Sharkroar Horth Shalark’s Broadsheets.”

“Sheesh,, that’s like two blocks from where we *were* looking,” Joris muttered.

“Thanks. I appreciate it.” Sheen said awkwardly. She looked over at Haden, who gave her a frustrated, ‘well, get on with it!’ gesture. “Look . . . it’s about time for lunch. Why don’t you come with us and get a drink and we can . . . chat.”

“I . . . I’d like that.” Sheen backed up, forcing everyone back out into the street, and Tarsem followed.

“So what is it that you do, exactly?”

“Oh, I just help the Oghmanytes to acquire information from . . . uh . . . libraries, lorehouses across Faerun. I guess you could call me a librarian. Or a sage? It’s not really anything formal.” Tarsem’s eyes slid sideways toward Haden and the others as they emerged into the daylight.

“Oh, these are my friends, Joris, Tulio, Talan, Kal, Mal, and Haden, my . . . um . . .”

“FiancĂ©,” Haden said.

“What?” Sheen said, stopping in the middle of the street.

“What what?” Haden replied, looking amused. Sheen opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again. Haden turned and winked at Tarsem, who actually smiled.

“Well . . . all right,” Sheen said finally.

“As for me,” Haden said, “I am a bard, by profession.”

“I’m a smith when I can find the time,” Sheen added.

“Explorer, meddler, wizard,” Kal said.

“I’m a professional burden,” was Mal’s contribution. Kal chuckled.

“I’m a woodsman, and this is my dog Ari.” Talan reached down and petted her. She bounced happily.

“I’m a refugee, mostly,” Tulio said.

“I worship Mystra . . . and a succubus on the side,” Joris said cheerfully.

“Worship is the new euphemism, is it?” Kalenthor asked as they went through the door of the Hanging Lantern.

“What, you don’t like it?”

“On the contrary, I find it delicious.” They found a large booth in a corner and sat down. A waitress appeared with a basket of bread and began dealing out bowls of stew.

“So what made you decide to come looking for me?” Sheen asked.

“Well, originally I was just looking for information about our parents. I didn’t even know you existed until I found out how Father died. The Oghmanytes knew you were still alive, but they couldn’t find you.”

“Divinations and Undermountain don’t mix.”

“You found out you had a sister,” Talan said. “That didn’t mean you had to go find her.”

Tarsem stared at him blankly. “She’s my family. Of course I had to find her.”

“I don’t mean to pry,” Sheen said, “but you don’t seem very . . . settled here.”

“I suppose I’m not, really.”

“I say that because I’m going to be leaving very soon. For, well, for Sigil. I suppose it’s not really much of a commute, I’m just used to thinking of the Planes as being a long way away. I should also probably warn you that I’m not exactly human any more.”

“You . . . what? Really?”

“Heh, I’m the only human in this little club,” Joris said.

“What about Tulio?” Kal asked.

“It’s okay, I’d forget me to If I was him,” Tulio grumbled, making a rude gesture.

Tarsem shook his head. “You’re still my sister.”

“I’m sorry things turned out this way,” Sheen said. “My life has been a bit peculiar. If you think you can hack it, you’re welcome to try, but otherwise you’ll probably be best off just forgetting about me.”

“I’ve put too much work into finding you to give up now.”

“We’re going to need a bigger house if this keeps up much longer,” Haden said.

“Maybe we can buy the house next door or something,” Joris said.

“Or we can shrink people,” Mall offered.

“Or . . . right . . .” Talan said, staring at Mal.

“Practical,” Kalenthor approved.

Haden reached out and patted Tarsem on the shoulder. “Welcome aboard. You know, we need some kind of official name for our group.” Then everyone started to talk at once.

“That is so heartwarming I could just vomit,” Mal groused.

“Well, until Tarsem joined up, I was going to suggest ‘Half Elven’. Just by the numbers,” Kalenthor said.

“Nobody likes Gatekeepers?” Joris asked.

“It’s a little . . . vanilla,” Kalenthor complained.

“Hah, you weren’t there to keep that gate.”

“It does make us sound like an old guy who cleans sheds and cuts the grass or something.” Tulio snorted stew up his nose. Kalenthor continued blithely on. “Anyway, I’m not the new guy any more! Now for the hazing! How do you feel about being a goat for a few hours?”

Tarsem gaped at him.

“We could get goat’s milk?” Mal asked.

“Well, I don’t know if I could change the gender, but it’s worth a shot.”

“If you want milk so badly, you could just order some,” Talan said.

“All of you stop!” Sheen shouted. “NO HAZING!!” The restaurant instantly went silent.

“Geez, Sheen, I’m the one that’s supposed to make everyone stare. Was I gone that long?” Mal complained.

Kalenthor grinned. “So, Tarsem, have you run across any particularly interesting texts? I’ve been researching ways to duplicate the inexplicable speed of a creature known as a choker, but thus far my efforts have been fruitless. I’ve upped the licorice content twice now, but I’m still having . . .”

“Kal, be quiet!” Sheen shouted again. “Come on, you maniacs, let’s go scare someone else for a while.” She vacated the booth and headed for the street, Kalenthor and Maloranserani following, still chattering. Joris, Tulio, and Talan went after them. Tarsem looked at Haden helplessly.

“It’s not as bad as it sounds,” Haden explained. “You’ll get used to it.”

“Right,” Tarsem said.

Sharkroar Horth Shalark’s Broadsheets proved to be a stone-gray building covered in flapping bits of paper. If there were windows, they were completely invisible under the coating of newsprint. Sheen walked inside without so much as a second glance. The interior was dominated by a row of massive printing presses. One of the machines was still running, apparently on its own initiative, and the rhythmic thumping shook the floor. A pile of broadsheets had spilled out of the press and onto the floor.

“Shouldn’t there bee some workers here?” Haden asked. “Something?” Sheen climbed the stairs to a raised area in the back with several desks.

“Dammit!” she said, carefully turning over a dead body that she found behind a desk. A vast pool of blood covered the floor.

“It looks like someone . . . beat them to death,” Joris said seriously, looking over her shoulder. In the corner, a large carpet had been thrown aside, exposing a trap door and a stairway leading down. Sheen stood up with a growl, claws growing from her fingers, and stormed down the stairs. Kal, Mal, and Joris all made arcane gestures as they quickly followed.

Haden looked over at Tarsem. “You stay here with Tulio,” he said, drawing his rapier and descending the stairs. The room at the bottom was spacious and well lit, an octagonal meeting room by the looks of it, with a large table that was now overturned and split in half. Seven dead bodies were strewn around the floor. There wasn’t time to examine them, though, as the door at the far end of the room flew open. A hulking statue of blood red crystal burst into the room.

“What in creation is that?!” Kal demanded.

“It’s a psion-killer,” Sheen said. Its glowing ‘eyes’ watched her for a moment, then it charged in silence more alarming than an enraged bellow would have been. Haden held up a hand and sent a burst of sonic energy at the golem. The thunder deafened everyone in the room for a moment, but the psion-killer was unfazed.

“Don’t use powers against it!” Sheen yelled.

“You could have said that before!”

“Magic?” Mal asked.

“I don’t know!”

Talan struck a double-handed blow with Greenheart as the monster rattled past, scratching the crystal slightly. The monster slapped sideways with one of its heavy fists and knocked the ranger aside. Eldritch power flared in Mal’s hands and ended in an explosion of crystal shards.

“That hurt it,” the warlock said with satisfaction as the golem blackened and smoked.

“Unfortunately I’m not much for the explody magic,” Kal muttered. He spoke a short phrase and crouched to pound his fists on the ground. Bark and leaves seemed to grow from his skin as he swelled in size, changing shape. The golem punched him and he recoiled slightly, then struck it a heavy blow with a trunklike arm. Cracks appeared in the crystal as the golem staggered.

“Hit it again, Mal!” Joris shouted. The warlock’s eyes and hands glowed as he summoned another bolt of energy, taking the golem in the face and blasting it to smithereens.

“They’re all dead,” Sheen said from the other side of the room. “Even Aintzane, head of the Cullers.” She picked up something from the floor and held it out, a lacquered wooden fan in vivid red and black.

“I’ve seen that before,” Haden said quietly. “It belongs to my mother.”

Sep 5, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 36

Riskin Flameback trundled through the streets of Waterdeep with the party trailing behind. He passed several streets before ducking into a tavern proclaimed The Mighty Manticore by its signboard.

“So, how does it feel?” the ranger blushed slightly. “With the baby coming, and all.”

Joris grimaced. “As soon as I figure it out, I’ll let you know.” He sat down at the table while the exuberant dwarf ordered a round of drinks. Riskin dropped his sack on the floor between his feet and began rummaging, producing a noise similar to an iron golem caught in a windmill.

“So what is going on?” Sheen asked after the ale had arrived.

“Well, ‘bout a year after ye left, this fellow name of Kolskegg Steelheart moves inter Murkstones. Now, our town ain’t the sort ta turn anyone away—“

“They can always use hard workers if nothing else,” Sheen affirmed.

“Aye! And that’s what we thought we got! He opened his own forge an’ started hammerin’ out his own armor. No problem, says Hoskuld, our quality speaks fer itself. But this fellow, Steelheart, sells his wares ta the topside shops fer nothin’! LESS than nothin’!! Demand for Flameback armor’s sunk like a stone.”

“How can he do that?” Sheen asked. “He’d go bankrupt.”

“Wish I knew, Sheen. Truly I do.”

“It sounds like he has a different agenda from running a successful shop,” Talan mused.

“That’s worse, it’s squeezin’ the business o’ them dwarves down in Skullport. Clack came back that Thaglar Xundorn’s gonna do somethin’ soon, an’ he won’t discriminate who’s what in Murkstones.”

“That’s bad,” Sheen said. She glanced over at Joris, whose face was blank. “Skullport has a reputation for being profoundly unpleasant,” she explained. “Sort of like Plague-Mort.”

Kalenthor bowed slightly. “I tend to agree. This may sound a bit trite, but does Murkstones have any enemies?”

“None I know of,” Riskin said, taking a pull of his ale. “Undermountain is what it is, but we’ve always kept t’ ourselves. Hoskuld don’t want to lift a finger against a neighbor, but I ain’t so polite. Then who should I run across but you lot?”

“Well, we can talk to this Steelheart, see if we can convince him to change his policy,” Haden began somewhat hesitantly. He frowned and looked over at Sheen.

“What?” she asked, perplexed.

“No one likes being run out of business, but it’s not right to threaten this dwarf simply because he’s selling his work cheaply,” Haden said.

“Well, there is one other thing,” Riskin said.

“Isn’t there always?” Kalenthor asked, his tone rhetorical.

“Anyone who’s ever known a dwarf knows he’s got a fire in his belly. Sometimes ya can’t see it, but ya know it’s there. Not Kolskegg. No fire at all, I’ll warrant ye.”

“What do you mean?” Sheen asked. “Then why does he work?”

“Do you suspect he may not actually be a dwarf?” Kal asked.

Riskin stared at Kalenthor, his eyebrows pointing upwards in sharp V’s of surprise. “I hadn’t thought o’ that, but there’s suren somethin’ ain’t right about him.”

Kalenthor waved a hand dismissively. “Wizard. I’m used to things not being what they seem. It is merely a possibility.”

“Aye,” Riskin said, draining the last of his tankard.

“I’m willing to help, but on one condition,” Haden said.

“Name yer terms,” Riskin replied.

“If it turns out that Steelheart is on the up-and-up, you’ll tell this Xundorn he can go to hell.”

“Aye! We’ll do just that. We don’t need no Skullies comin’ around tellin’ us what ta do anyway!” the dwarf gave Haden a resounding thump on the back. “Yer all right, lad!”

“It seems like an odd thing to be worried about, though,” Sheen said.

Haden shrugged. “Despite what anyone says, dog-eat-dog business tactics just ends up with a bunch of dead dogs.” He glanced down at Ari, on station under the table, as usual. “No offense meant.” She favored him with a doggy grin.

“Of course, it’s a description made for humans by humans,” Talan said sharply.

“We’d branch out inta other markets if we had the capital,” Riskin explained.

“One problem at a time,” Sheen said.

“Hah, yer Hoskuld’s daughter all right.”

“How does a dwarven smith wind up raising a human girl?” Haden asked. Talan leaned closer, attempting not to appear interested but failing.

“Ain’t that a tale . . .” Riskin said, leaning back in his chair while everyone besides Sheen leaned in. Then Riskin slapped his knees and sprang to his feet. “It be gettin’ late, we should be goin’ on down below.” He shouldered his clanging sack again and briskly led the way through the streets. They followed a winding route around the foot of Mount Waterdeep, then the docks and the harbor stretched out before them.

“That’s a pretty big lake,” Haden remarked casually.

“Salty, too,” Kalenthor supplied.

“Really?” Haden asked, his tone skeptical. “What for?”

“You know, it’s something I’ve never considered.”

“It’s the Tears of Umberlee, I think,” Joris added helpfully. Kal snorted.

“Sure, but if you strip the religion out of it, I think it has something to do with mineral deposits. I admit the sciences unrelated to magic have never been particularly interesting to me.” He glanced at Joris. “I did not mean to offend.”

“I’m not much for ‘stripping’ religion out of anything. Don’t worry about it, though.”

“Sometimes I just speak,” Kal said in an apologetic tone.

“You can’t possibly manage to be half as offensive as Sheen when she’s in a mood,” Haden told him, chuckling. Kal smiled gratefully.

“Thank you.” They began walking again. Sheen eyed Haden askance.

“Offensive, am I?”

“In a good way, I mean.” Haden draped an arm around her shoulders and kissed her forehead gently.

“Is there likely to be a great deal more to this walking?” Kalenthor asked, trotting along beside Riskin.

“Ta get ta Murkstones? Aye, ‘less ya got a better idea.”

“We could hire a wizard to teleport us there.”

“Teleport?” Sheen gasped, startled. “In Undermountain? I’d rather dunk my head in a smelter. You could wind up anywhere . . . and in any kind of condition.”

“Ya can’t teleport in ‘r outta Undermountain at all,” Riskin corrected. “Halaster’s got the whole place warded against it. There’s portals, but none convenient ta where we’re goin’.”

“Ah,” Kal said. “I knew I should have paid closer attention in magical history.”

They wound along the coast for a ways and then entered a cave, which proved to be occupied by half a dozen City Watch guards and a massive, elaborate hoist. “Evenin’, Emory, got comp’ny for t’night,” Riskin said heartily. Sheen smiled politely at the guards, who eyed Haden carefully before opening the gate of the hoist. Kalenthor settled into a seat and peered down the shaft below. He shivered.

“I’ve heard horror stories that start like this. Something about the Chained God—“

“The Chained God,” Tulio muttered. “The City that Waits, The Spidered Throne, Master of Secrets . . .” The hoist began to creak downward. Haden reached out and shook Tulio’s shoulder.

“Are you okay, kid?”

Tulio jumped. “I . . . what?”

“Those aren’t the sorts of names one so young should know,” Kalenthor said.

“That’s Thazia for you. The cult, they’ve burned the land, made slaves or corpses of whole kingdoms. I’d heard of the Lady, heard that Selwyn’s Grove was still safe, but only for her. Not for people. She wanted me to go with her, you know. The Lady of Mirrors.”

“Back to Thazia?” Haden asked.

“Yeah, to serve her. Like Mal does. You didn’t hear it; she was in my head.”

“There is a hefty price to serving such as her,” Kal said.

“Yeah, that’s why I said no.”

“You can’t trust women like that,” Haden announced with finality. Eventually the hoist reached the bottom without too much of a bump. There were no guards down below—no one at all, in fact. Riskin unhitched the gate and wandered into the darkness. Sheen and Haden followed, but Kal, Tulio, and Talan hesitated.

“Er, we can’t all see in the dark,” Kal called out. “Do you have any light?”

Haden turned back to look at him, then shrugged and plucked several motes out of the air. They flared brightly and flew off to hover around Kal and the others. “Fine wizard you are,” Haden teased.

“Hey, I live on the surface,” Kalenthor replied, following.

“It doesn’t get dark on the surface?”

“Not like this.”

“Hsst, quiet back there!” Riskin rumbled. “Stick close to the left wall. Hopefully no one’ll see yer blasted lights.” The tunnel emerged into an enormous cavern cut by an underground river. Buildings of one sort or another stood on both banks. Riskin stuck to the wall, which joined with a tunnel that followed the river upstream.

“Is it really so bad here that we need to avoid drawing any attention?” Kal queried.

“Do you want to find out the hard way?” Sheen replied.

“Point taken.”

The river eventually led to another settlement, little more than a village, and another hoist, this one rickety and unstable-looking.

“You’d think we’d come out the bottom at some point, here,” Haden remarked as they made the descent.

“Right,” Joris said. “Isn’t Kara-Tur just on the other side here, somewhere?”

“It’s kind of a shame that we’re not visiting Undermountain with the usual intentions,” Kal said.

“What, getting horribly killed by one of Halaster’s many, many deathtraps?” Sheen asked, incredulous.

“Well, yes, we’d probably all be killed, but imagine the fascinating things we’d see up until that point.”

“See in the pitch darkness, you mean?” Kal glanced sideways at Haden and shook his head.

“I can see why you two are a couple, anyway.”

After yet more trudging through tunnels, they reached the village of Murkstones, which was little more than a cluster of stone huts surrounding two fuming foundries. Riskin led them toward one, where he fished through his pockets, finally producing a key and unlocking the door. A great forge fire stood at the center of the room with anvils all around it. They, in turn, were surrounded by dozens of suits of armor in various stages of completion. The heat and the fumes were incredible.

An old red-bearded dwarf looked up briefly from a breastplate. “Ah, Sheen, well met. Shut the door, please.”

“Good to see you still working, you old grouch,” Sheen said.

“Aye,” Hoskuld replied. “Any luck, Riskin?”

“Not as much as ye could carry in a thimble.”

“Hmm,” Hoskuld said, putting the breastplate aside and dusting off his hands. “Here, let’s get a look at ye now.” The dwarf eyed Sheen for a moment, then switched his attention to the rest of the group. Haden smiled a bit nervously at the scrutiny.

“Sheen, me girl, I should have told ye before ye left, and I hate to say it in front of yer . . . whoever, but ye are old enough to know the truth,” Hoskuld ground out sententiously. “I ain’t yer real father.” Everyone stared blankly. Sheen groaned and rolled her eyes.

“Are you still telling that horrible joke?” she demanded.

“Oh, come now, I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to say that to ye again.” Sheen bent down and hugged Hoskuld around the shoulders. His expression made him look like a cat being picked up wrong, but he waited patiently until she was done.

“These folks is hungry an’ weary, Hoskuld,” Riskin said.

“Aye, I hope you’ll not be much offended by our simple fare. I ain’t laid a table for elves since . . . well, maybe ever.”

“Not at all, sir,” Kalenthor said helpfully. They sat down to heavy dark bread and slices of roast meat. Riskin explained while they ate.

“While we’re here, I also have some news from Eldgrim Ringhammer,” Sheen added.

“That name’s familiar, though I can’t recall where I heard it,” Hoskuld said, rubbing his beard.

“He’s the head of a clan of dwarves in Sigil. He wanted me to ask you if you’d accept a commission for a suit of armor for his son.”

“Sigil, ye say?” Riskin asked, rubbing his hands together. “Now that’s branchin’ out inta new markets!”

“Yes,” Sheen said. “It’s a bit of a long story, but that’s where I ended up.”

“I knew ye’d the metal in ye, girl,” Hoskuld said. “But I never seen it until this day.” Sheen flushed, startled.

“We’ve had quite a few adventures. They seem to suit her,” Haden added from further down the table. Sheen dug out a piece of paper and handed it to Hoskuld. He frowned in consideration, then nodded.

“Oh, aye, this’ll be grand. I should get ta sleep, so I can get a fresh start in the morning. Night, all,” the dwarf smith announced, and abruptly left the room.

“Is he always like that?” Haden asked. Sheen nodded.

“His mind’s so full of work that there isn’t much room for anything else.”

“It’s been a while since he’s had anythin’ else ta cram in there, too,” Riskin added. “Anyway, yer room’s as ye left it, Sheen. Bed could do with new linens, but otherwise it’s set. I’ll see what I can do fer the rest o’ ye.” Sheen smiled, then stood and left through a side door.

“Well, I can see where Sheen got her social graces,” Talan said quietly. “On the other hand, I can’t fault their food or their hospitality.”

“I was wrong to say she was lucky not to have any family,” Joris muttered. “I’m sure she knew what I meant, but I should say something anyway.” He jumped as Haden abruptly rose from the table and strode across the room, following Hoskuld instead of Sheen.

When Haden found him, the old dwarf was sitting at a small writing desk in his nightshirt, scribbling away at some plans. He jumped when Haden entered the room and glared at the aasling. “What ye be wanting? I’m busy.”

“I can see that,” Haden said, “but this won’t take very long.”

“Aye? Well, speak yer piece.” The dwarf hopped down from his stool and stood with hands on hips.

“I thought you should know that I’m in love with your daughter and I plan to ask her to marry me.” The old dwarf’s eyebrows shot up so far they nearly met his hairline.

“Are you, now? What be your name, again?”

“I’m Haden, sir.”

“And what manner of creature be ye, Haden?”

Haden sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Human, for the most part. A little fiend and a little celestial.”

“And my Sheen be in love with you?”

“I . . . think so. I hope so.”

“Well, she knows her own mind, right enough. I can’t see as how it matters what I have to say about it.”

“It doesn’t,” Haden said carefully, “but I thought you should know. I thought I should be the one to tell you.”

Hoskuld’s eyebrows shot up again. “Ye be a brave man to say as much, and to my face, no less. Ye have some metal in ye, if I’m any judge.”

“Thank you.”

“Well, if ye be wanting my blessing for this undertaking, ye have it. If I know Sheen any, and I do, ye’ll be needing it. Now off with ye.” Hoskuld hesitated for a moment in shooing Haden out the door. “If ye have any sense, ye’ll not give her the chance to argue with ye about it. Stubborn, she is.”

“I know,” Haden said. “Don’t worry. And thank you, Hoskuld.”

They breakfasted quickly in the morning and set out to visit Steelheart’s foundry on the other side of the village. The front door stood open, propped with a large gray stone. Sheen peeked inside. The forge was very ordinary, set up much like Hoskuld’s, but the merchandise was obviously inferior. One of the workers noticed Sheen and tapped another on the shoulder. He gestured for her to come in, with the party following.

“Well met. Can I help you?”

“We’d like to speak with Kolskegg Steelheart, if he can spare a moment,” Haden said.

“That’s me.”

“Riskin Flameback has some concern that your business practices are causing trouble for the people of Murkstones.” Sheen glanced down at the floor, which was mostly covered with soot, all except for a heavy grate that led down to damp-smelling darkness.

“My practices? I sell armor, same as he does.”

“You sell it below cost,” Haden corrected.

“I can’t help it if the Flamebacks charge too much.”

“What’s down there?” Sheen asked, pointing to the grate.

“Drainage,” Kolskegg said flatly.

“Drainage for what? You’ve set it up all wrong if that’s what it is. I don’t like this! Hoskuld Flameback raised me and now you’re trying to push him out? What for? Be square with us and maybe we can all profit, here.”

The dwarf’s mouth twitched. “It drains . . . I’ll show you.” He reached out and grabbed a lever. The grate dropped open, spilling Joris and Tulio into the dark. There was a crash as they hit the ground.

“What in the Hells is that thing?!” Tulio yelled. A low moan issued from below and damp squelching noises.

Haden shoved Sheen behind him—eliciting a noise of shocked protest—and manifested a shield of psionic energy. The dwarves seized weapons and charged Talan, who dodged their blows and drew his own blades. Tulio screamed and Joris shouted something incoherent.

Sheen ducked around Haden to attack Kolskegg as Talan fenced with the dwarves, drawing close to the edge of the pit but not quite falling in. Kal dropped to his knees and peered down into the darkness.

“Gah, there’s all tentacles down here!” he announced and hurled a spell through the hole. There was a peculiar sound and a sudden inrush of air.

“Where did it GO?!” Joris demanded.

“Polymorph!” Kalenthor said smugly.

A door at the far end of the forge opened and a dwarf in full plate charged toward Kalenthor. The elf managed to avoid falling in the hole, but he took an axe in the arm for his trouble while Talan dropped one of the two he was fighting with.

Haden fended Kolskegg off with his rapier. The dwarf was bleeding badly from Sheen’s claws. “This would be a good time for you to consider surrendering!”

“Not while Xovliat lives,” the dwarf ground out. Ari bit one of the dwarves in the calf, pulling him over so Talan could spit him easily.

“Give it up!” The ranger said, rounding on the armored dwarf.

“Not while Xovliat lives.”

“Joris!” Haden yelled. “Find whatever Kal turned that tentacled thing into and KILL it!”

A great deal of splashing came from below, then a loud, wet slap, followed by several more enthusiastic slaps and a crunching noise. The remaining dwarves eyes rolled up into their heads and they fell down dead.

“Uh . . . guys?” Joris said after the silence had continued several moments. “There’s a LOT of money down here.”

Aug 31, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 35

“Now I know the Elan and remember the man
Who was born out of darkness and light.
Though the elf is a stranger I’ve long watched the ranger
And the cleric devoted to right.
That one loves a fiend with hands incarnadined
Who years to embrace all that’s good,
And yet little I know of poor Tulio
Though his village was close to my wood.
Last comes the soul who I broke to make whole
Whose life is now mine, sworn by pact.
He has called and I’ve come from the world growing numb
To help keep creation intact.”

“I remember now,” Mal said. “I once saw you, all of you, in Baltazo’s cellar. I wasn’t there, but I saw it all the same. You fought the dire lions, the effigies, but you lost. And Haden was killed.”

“Ah, well, no great loss then,” Haden said.

“Oh, but it was,” Mal said. “Without you, the others weren’t able to stop what Fearson had begun, and Plague-Mort fell into the Abyss, taking you with it. It wasn’t a dream or a story, it happened. I saw it all. The Lady knew—she knew you were the only ones who could stop what’s coming. So she sent me—my consciousness, I suppose would be the word for it—back to help you. Back through time. But first she stripped my memories from me.”

“You might have seen one possible outcome,” Sheen said, “but that doesn’t make it the only possible outcome.”

“Perhaps,” Mal replied. “But She believes it. Her reasons are not for me to question.”

“Like hell they aren’t,” Sheen snapped. “We are not pieces in some sort of game!”

Haden cleared his throat loudly. “Yes, but perhaps we should listen to what she has to say now that she’s here?”

“Why did the Lady take your memories?” Talan asked.

“To spare me the pain of the separation,” Mal said. “Stronger men than I have fallen on their swords from the sheer despair of it.” Sheen made a noise. “The problem was that my former consciousness wouldn’t yield, and both of us were confined to one mind. With no memory of why we were brought together, we were forced to rely on a vague sense of what was supposed to happen. I knew I had to call her before it was too late.”

“Too late for what?” Kal asked.

“Whether we are pieces in a game or not, the board is in danger of being tipped over.”

“What exactly do you mean?” Talan asked.

“Now villains you’ve caught, and devils you’ve fought,
But whose hand guides this deadly affair?
Now I must tell of the Lion of Hell,
The Duke known as dread Alocer.”

Kalisa nodded. “It’s true then. Yolette told me that Baltazo summoned a devil called Betzalel. He’s one of Alocer’s minions.”

“Alocer is a Duke under Dispater,” Haden said. “Not a truly major evil, but no joke, either. My infernal grandmother was one of his minions, actually.”

“Alocer’s been working on something for a long, long time. Now he’s racing to get it finished,” Mal said.

“He’s a devil,” Haden said. “They’re always plotting something. Usually several somethings at once.”

“He’s getting desperate now, trying to finish his grand work before he gets cut off.”

“Wonderful!” Kal declared. “I’m sold, what do we do?”

Sheen looked up at the Lady. “If you have some specific information that may help us, spit it out. We can handle things from there.”

The Lady gestured and they found themselves surrounded by dark buildings on an oddly glowing street. Devils and other creatures milled around, passing right through them. The street began to drop away, revealing a dull gray mountain in the distance—a mountain surmounted by a floating ring.

“Sigil?” Kalisa asked.

“The Lion of Hell has fashioned a cell,
An Iron Cage deep in Baator
But that Cage has no portals without an immortal
So the Lion still hungers for more.”

“Alocer is trying to make a Sigil knockoff?” Haden asked.

“Yes,” Mal said. “And has been for some time.”

Kalisa shook her head. “I heard that chant over a century ago, but I was sure it was just hot air.”

“What is he trying to accomplish?” Talan asked.

“And isn’t Alocer an immortal?” Haden asked. “Why can’t he run the place?”

“It makes sense,” Kal said. “From what I understand, Sigil is the key to the planes. To use it now, though, you’d have to fight the Lady of Pain.”

“Once, the baatezu thought that Sigil’s unique properties stemmed from its shape,” Mal explained. “Alocer volunteered to run the project, but now it’s almost finished and there still aren’t any portals. So he started thinking about the other two explanations for Sigil’s portals: its position at the center of the Outlands, and the Lady of Pain. He intended to use Illuminated spies to see if the factions knew the truth of the matter, but you put that fire out quickly enough.”

“So he just decided to gamble that one of the theories was actually correct?” Haden asked, disbelieving.

“Desperation,” Kalenthor said.

“What’s making him so desperate?”

“After all this time with no results,” Mal said, “The Dark Eight and the other lords want to redirect Alocer’s resources back to the Blood War itself.”

“Yeah, because they were getting such great results pouring their efforts into that particular drain,” Haden muttered. Kalisa laughed.

“If the portals are a matter of location, Alocer’s plans are doomed anyway. That’s why he wants to know how the Lady of Pain came into being. So he can become a Lord of Pain.” Mal explained.

“Even if his plans don’t work, that kind of knowledge in the hands of a devil won’t be good,” Haden said. “The Lady’s power comes from her mystery. No one knows how to fight her effectively, so they don’t try. If Alocer learns enough about her, he may not even need his Sigil knockoff.”

“This is true,” Mal affirmed. “That is why he wanted the Eye of the Dawn.”

“What is the Eye?” Sheen asked.

“Truthfully, I don’t really know,” Mal said. “It comes up here and there in the tales of oldest creation, the creation of the planes, the multiverse itself, before gods or immortals or anything else. I believe it’s a focus for bringing order out of chaos, or a reservoir for raw possibility. Or maybe both.”

“Can your Lady tell us anything more about it?” Talan asked hopefully.

“She can . . . but I don’t know that she will.”

Sheen held up a hand. “It doesn’t really matter. Alocer is going to try something else now that his efforts to get the Eye have been blocked. So we should worry about that.”

“Right. That is why I called the Lady here.”

“Alocer thought he won his Sigil a sun
When the Eye of the Dawn was in sight,
But it’s once again mine, so next in his design
Is to hunt for the Tear of the Night.”

“The what?” Joris asked.

“She’s not going to tell us what it is,” Sheen said. “We just need to know where it is.”

“You already know that,” Mal said. “Like me, you’ve merely forgotten.”

Sheen stared at the warlock for some time, perplexed. Then her mouth gradually formed an O of surprise. “That’s what Gyderic was trying to steal from the Elders!”

“Ah, so?” Mal asked.

“Good enough for me!” Kal said. “Let’s go!”

Mal bowed suddenly and stepped over to the Lady’s side. “In any case, I am returning home. Farewell, and good luck to you.” There was a blinding flash and they found themselves standing in Waterdeep’s Market.

“Well, that’s handy,” Kal said after a moment, brushing silvery dust from his robes.

Haden poked Sheen in the shoulder gently. “You’re the native. Where do we go?” Sheen stared around blankly for several moments.

“Kajmalari’s Exotics isn’t far from here,” she said slowly, pointing south down Silver Street.

“Kajmalari’s Exotic what?” Haden asked as they began walking. Sheen didn’t answer. She stoped at an otherwise unremarkable bronze gate in an ugly stucco wall. The only sign was a small, unremarkable placard glued to the stucco. The courtyard beyond the gate looked to have once been a garden, but the plants had gone feral and taken over. At the far end of the courtyard was a towering, ivy-covered building. Enormous diamond-paned windows peered out through the growth.

Sheen opened the gate and walked through, making for a small wooden door inset into larger gates that seemed anchored in place by the ivy. She opened that door as well and went through. Haden started to follow, then stopped short with an alarmed noise. An electric-blue snake as big around as his thigh was hanging from the ceiling just above the entrance.

“Don’t just stand there,” Sheen said, “it’ll thin you’re dinner arriving and drop on you.”

“I am welcoming you to Kajmalari’s Exotics,” a heavily-accented voice said from somewhere in the gloom.”

“Um, thanks,” Kal said, trying to make out who was speaking. “Are you Kajmalari?”

“No, he is being in Chult at the moment. I am being Ulli. Can I be helping you? Are you looking for watchspiders, perhaps? Our trainer has fresh batch ready for saleing.”

Sheen frowned. “We’re looking for a jubjub bird. Or possibly a frumious bandersnatch.”

“How exotic your specious must be, for them to be escaping my knowledges! Kajmalari though, has an EYE for all specious!”

“Look, no messing around,” Sheen growled. “This is important! I know they probably told you to keep me out, but let’s not pretend we don’t understand. I know all about the cellars, so open the door like a nice chap and we won’t bother you any more.”

“I am not knowing what you be meaning, madamy.”

“Try again.”

“Now, unless you had your EYE for some animals, please to be leaving.”

“He keeps emphasizing ‘eye’ very strangely,” Kal offered. Sheen crossed her arms and glared. Finally Ulli threw up his hands.

“If they ask, I was powdering my noses,” he said, and pushed aside a cage full f flaming bats, revealing a flight of stone steps. They descended for a surprisingly long time, into a torchlit room. A nine-headed barbed whip dangled from the ceiling above a woman wearing tight black leather and a bored expression. A man wearing a spiked collar crouched at her feet.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

Kal glanced at Haden. “What role to do the spikes serve, do you think?” The woman smiled slightly.

“I can show you, if you’d like,” she said, hauling on a chain. The man in the collar winced but did not make any sound.

“This isn’t . . .” Sheen said, startled.

“Are you here for the orgy?” the woman asked. Her smile broadened slightly. “You should have brought pets, we’re not equipped to supply you.”

“What orgy?” Sheen demanded.

“Well, I say orgy, but that’s probably not the term you would use.”

“This is a temple of Loviatar,” Joris whispered. “The goddess of agony. This woman is a priestess.”

“I think I may have made a . . . mistake.” Sheen said slowly. The priestess frowned.

“Have you now?”

“We’ll just be going.”

“As you like,” the priestess said, tugging on the chain again. “The Goddess does not forget. She is . . . patient.”

“So, if not there, where?” Kal asked when they had returned to the street.

“I don’t know,” Sheen said. “The Enclave operates . . . operated several fronts all over the city, but . . .hey!” Everyone jumped as Sheen abruptly rushed into the crowd. The dwarf she shouted at froze in midstep. He was emerging from an armorer’s across the street with a heavy bundle over one shoulder.

“I know you, you’re Riskin Flameback!”

“Sheen? Little Sheen! Moradin’s hammer, look at you!” The dwarf threw his arms around Sheen’s waist and lifted her off the ground. “How’s this blasted city treatin’ you? Hope it’s better than it’s been treatin’ US!!”

“Did something happen?” Sheen forced out, struggling to breathe.

“Oh, aye, Murkstones is in a STATE, girl.”

“Maybe I can help? I’m supposed to find Hoskuld if possible and give him a commission.”

“Maybe. These friends o’ yours?”

“Yes. Haden, Talan, Kalenthor, Joris and Tulio. Where’s Kalisa?”

“I sent her back home,” Joris said. “I figured it was safer.”

“I am Kalenthor Nailo of Silverymoon,” Kal added. “The Flameback work is highly spoken of, even in that far city.”

“My brother Hoskuld taught Sheen here all she knows!”

“Although not without some grumbling,” Sheen said.

“Aye. Yers and his. Anyhow, let’s take a walk. I’ll tell ye about it.” Riskin reclaimed his bundle, pausing in the doorway of the shop to shout, “INGRATES!!”