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

Mar 29, 2008


I know I haven't done a lot of political posting on this blog, and I haven't done much posting at all recently, but I wanted to pass this along. Little Green Footballs has posted a link to a short video on Muslim atrocities: FITNA. (Click on the title of the post.) Assuming you have a strong stomach, you may want to watch this, if only to show solidarity with the people who have received death threats from the disgusting stone-age thugs that are the leaders of this religion and the even more disgusting cowards that allow them to get away with it.

(That being said, it is not the responsibility of companies like LiveLeak to put themselves in the line of fire in order to save us from our complacency. It is the job of the government to react instantly against those who issue these threats. The government is NOT DOING ITS JOB.)

The barbarians are screaming at the gate. Will Western Civilization, like Rome, eventually allow itself to be sacked? Do we really want another Dark Ages?

If we allow one to come about through our own complacency, we will have deserved it.

Mar 22, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 16

Sheen was roughly battered by people trying to force their way past her out the door. Joris was crushed against her left side, and Talan nearly climbed onto the table trying to get out of the press. Ari whined and crouched away from heavy boots. Growling, Sheen pulled up her claws and waved them at a few people’s faces. Instantly, a clear area formed around her and the jostling lessened. In less than a minute, they were the only occupants of the tavern. Toranna leaned over to a nearby table, grabbed an abandoned drink, and gulped it down.

“You’d think they’d have the sense to barricade themselves in the building instead of charging out where they’re certain to get into trouble.”

“You know that crowd mentality,” Talan said. “As soon as a few people act, everyone else follows.”

“One of these days someone needs to explain to these people that humans are not herd animals.”

“Says who?” Talan demanded, laughing.

“Herd animals don’t eat meat,” Sheen announced. “Right. Everybody spread out and search for an entrance to a hidden cellar.” After a minute or two of poking around, Toranna located a trap door in the kitchen underneath a few barrels. Sheen heaved the barrels out of the way and pulled the door open as quietly as possible. It squeaked a bit, but not loudly. A set of wooden stairs descended about fifteen feet into what looked like a storage room. Flameless magical torches glowed in tasteful sconces, illuminating the room.

“I hear breathing, someone’s down there,” Talan whispered.

Sheen dove down the stairs, and put her back to the wall, bracing for an attack, but nothing came. The room was full of the sort of supplies she expected to see in the basement of a tavern, apart from one detail. A long, heavy bench, about waist-high, had a man strapped to it. Sheen approached carefully. It was Haden.

“This can’t be good,” Talan said. “Joris, do you think he’s all right?”

“He doesn’t seem to be injured,” Joris said. Sheen began undoing the straps carefully, wincing at the ugly red chafe marks on Haden’s skin. His eyes opened slowly and he blinked a few times, numbly. Haden opened his mouth slowly, closed it, and looked confused.

“Are you all right?” Joris asked.

“I don’t . . . my head hurts,” Haden murmured. His voice was hoarse and weak.

“Can you sit up?” Sheen draped one of Haden’s arms over her shoulders and pulled him slowly upright.

“What happened?” Talan asked urgently.

“I don’t know,” Haden said again. “I can’t focus . . . I . . .” He looked down at Sheen and his eyes abruptly filled with tears. His body shuddered with sobs.

Joris turned away, unable to keep watching. “Bright Lady, what did they do to him?”

“Don’t . . . don’t cry . . .” Sheen said helplessly. Talan reached out and patted Haden’s back awkwardly.

“We’re here now.” Joris turned around and Talan shot him a look of pure fury.

“Right,” Joris said. “We’ll get you out of here as soon as we can.”

“Help me get up,” Haden said, and began working his legs off the bench. Sheen held onto him while he wavered on his feet, then managed to balance.

“Take it easy,” Talan said. “We’ve got time.”

Haden scrubbed at his face with his hands, then looked down at Sheen, who seemed a bit reluctant to let him go. She recoiled a little at his expression, which was oddly cold, suspicious. She released her grip and backed away a few feet, coughing and fidgeting with her cloak while she regained her composure. She examined the door on the far end of the room for something to do.

Talan tugged on Joris’ arm. “I’m not sure he’s all there. Is there any way you could check on him? Quietly.”

“I can try,” Joris said, and called on divination magic to aid him.

“We should search the rest of this place quickly and get out of here,” Sheen said, opening the door. The room beyond was living quarters, unexceptional apart from the level of wealth and comfort. A large bed occupied one side of the room, and the rest was filled with trunks, wardrobes, a vanity table with a mirror, and a thick rug muffling the floor. A familiar skull mask sat on the vanity, its mirrored surface casting infinite reflections on the silvered glass above it.

“Be careful,” Sheen murmured. “Baltazo may still be here.” Joris glanced around the room briefly, and frowned.

“Haden, I think your things are in the trunk, there,” he said. “It’s radiating magical energy . . . faintly, but it’s there.”

Haden worked his way across the room and opened the trunk gingerly, pulling out the purple crystalline sword and leaning it against the wall, then beginning to strap on his black leather armor. He grimaced as his shaking fingers fumbled at the buckles and straps, and Joris reached out to help him.

Sheen opened the double doors at the far side of the room and peered down an unremarkable hallway to yet another set of doors. Shrugging, she trotted down the hall, hoping that the building was unoccupied. The doors at the far end of the hall opened abruptly, revealing an immense lion, easily as tall as a draft horse at the shoulder. It sprang down the hall at Sheen and she held up her hands, summoning a shield of force to protect herself.

Talan yanked his swords from their sheaths as part of the wall began to retract with a loud grating sound, revealing a small room almost entirely filled with yet another overly large lion. Toranna looked up and gasped as its jaws closed around her torso. Blood spurted, and it dropped her to the floor and sought out another victim. Talan stepped forward, swords at the ready, but Ari whined and pressed back against the side of the bed, too confused to fight. The strange, nondescript woman, Kalisa, tried to join in the battle, but her blows were useless, less than raindrops.

The lion landed on Sheen with terrible force, almost knocking her to the ground, as she ripped into its hide with the claws she called into existence.

Joris wavered in the center of the room, trying to decide who was in more immediate need of assistance. Talan was already bleeding from a couple claw wounds, while Sheen fought on doggedly with the lion’s jaws clamped around her shoulder. Then a horrifying darkness swept over him, shot through with lurid purple and green flames, and he knew he was going to die.

“Joris!” Haden yelled as the cleric collapsed to the ground with a sharp scream. Almost as quickly as he’d fallen, though, he seemed to regain his senses.

“A spell, it was a spell! Phantasmal killer! Baltazo is here!”

Talan shrieked in pain as the lion sent him sprawling onto the bed with a massive paw. Joris quickly darted forward to and cast healing magic over the ranger. Haden blinked, sure he heard a muffled cry of distress coming from under the bed. It appeared that Ari had vanished, as well.

In the hallway, Sheen’s eyes began to glow brightly as she channeled energy into her metabolism, keeping her many hideous wounds from incapacitating her. She’d torn her way through the lion’s hide, only to find a jumble of wires, gears, and steel cables where a normal creature would have muscle and bone. Sparks leapt from the holes she’d made and the lion construct moved jerkily. Something in its clockworks was fouled up. Sheen decided it was a hopeful sign as it slammed her against the wall, nearly causing her to black out.

Talan jumped back into the fray and Joris started to follow him, only to be startled when Haden’s fist contacted his jaw. “What the . . .” Joris said, staggering sideways and rubbing his face. Haden’s eyes appeared to be trying to look up his own nose.

“Bitch, where’s my money?” the bard mumbled incoherently.

“Blast, it’s another spell,” Joris grumbled, and called on the Lady to unmake it. Haden winced in pain and stared down at his bruised hand. “Trust me, you don’t want to know,” Joris explained, launching immediately into another healing spell to, somehow, keep Talan on his feet. Haden began summoning up magical energy as well.

A lightning bolt arced down the hallway behind him, missing him by a foot or so, and struck Joris in the chest. He hit the ground hard and lay still. Haden immediately reached out with his small portion of magical energy and healed the cleric’s wounds, hoping to keep him alive.

“Sheen, Talan, we need to get out of here!” Haden cried.

Sheen screamed in raged and punched forward with her claws, burying them in the “lion’s” chest. Seizing hold of the mechanism inside, she braced her feet against the wall behind her and heaved. Her muscles and bones creaked with the strain, then something gave way and she found herself holding what looked like a small engine. The rest of the machine fell to the floor, lifeless. Sheen looked down at the still-working mechanical device, recognizing Dr. Rhasmanayet’s personal sign.

In the bedroom, the other mechanical lion bore Talan to the floor and opened its jaws wide to crush the life out of him. Joris scrambled to help, but his mace was of little use against steel and clockwork. He and Kalisa stared at each other in mute futility. Haden gasped as a bolt of eldritch fire sailed past him and impacted on the lion, lifting it briefly into the air before it exploded into blazing metal shards.

An unfamiliar man stood at the entrance to the room, watching them all with enigmatic eyes. He was obviously elvish, face and ears narrower and more finely-drawn than Talan’s half-blood features. He had long black hair and wore tasteful black and silver, with a few purple accents.

“I seek one called Haden,” he said quietly, as if they were meeting quietly on a street corner where nothing notable had or would ever occur.

Mar 6, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 15

The dark, shadowy outlines of men hung in the air, reaching out towards Sheen even as they keened their wrath. She stumbled backwards, raising her claws, but one of the shadows touched her almost casually, it’s fleshless shape passing through her armor without resistance. There was no real pain, just a chill and the sense of her will draining away. Sheen stared blankly.

“They’re incorporeal!” Joris yelled. “You need magic to hurt them!” He waved his holy symbol furiously in front of the creature’s ‘eyes’, and one shrank in on itself, burning away like a puff of foul vapor. The sound of his voice cleared Sheen’s head and she raked her claws through her attacker, tearing it to ribbons. Joris brandished his symbol again and the remaining shape was blasted into dust.

“Thank the Lady!” the cleric announced. “Sheen, are you all right? Where’s Talan?”

“I’m here,” Talan said, reappearing and adjusting his cloak. Ari barked happily.

Sheen blinked slowly for several moments. “Afrgl,” she announced.

“What?” Joris asked. “Did it hit you?”

“Um . . . uh . . . something like that.” Joris pressed his palm to her forehead and rattled off a peculiar chant. Sheen felt some of the fog recede from her mind.

“Better?” Joris asked.

“Yes, thank you.” Sheen looked over at the table, at the mask and the gem. “They were protecting those items. I’ve seen something like them before, actually. A lot of psions use similar objects in their work. We’d better take them with us; we don’t want them falling into the wrong hands.”

“At least we’ve found the portal,” Talan said, pointing at the second arch in the room. Sheen nodded and opened her belt pack, pulling out a black rose while she stuffed the mask and the large spherical gem inside. The rose burned to ash almost instantly when she held it up and the portal yawned like a hungry maw. Sheen took a deep breath and stepped through in a blast of frigid air.

Joris grimaced. “I don’t care how many times we walk through one of these things, I’ll never get used to it.”

Talan grinned. “Wanna hold hands?” Joris chuckled and they both stepped through.

They arrived in a cold, dank room. The floor was dark and sticky with some foul-smelling substance. Massive carcasses hung on hooks from great chains.

“This can’t bode well,” Talan said, fending off an enormous slab of meat.

“We need to keep a low profile until we can learn more about this place,” Sheen said, struggling towards what appeared to be a door. It opened onto what looked like the back room of a shop, a grocer, apparently. Sheen looked around nervously, seeking some egress.

“I’m not getting a good feeling about this,” Talan muttered.

“Why couldn’t that Armory portal have worked?” Joris asked.

“Be quiet!” Sheen hissed, opening the door to the shop proper. Her eyes met the gaze of an adolescent human, tall, gawky, and covered in spots.

“Hey, Rothwell . . .” he said, startled, but he didn’t really look alarmed. An older man in a blood-smeared apron appeared and studied Sheen for a moment. Then he raised his fist to his temple in some sort of salute. After several nudges, the boy copied him.

“We weren’t expecting no agents,” the older man, Rothwell, said. “Our reports made it back all right, then?”

“I know nothing of your reports,” Sheen said brusquely. “We are in some difficulties and request any assistance you can provide.”

“Right,” Rothwell said. “Our safe house is your safe house.” Talan winked at Joris while the boy scrutinized them with great care.

Sheen adopted a haughty look, “Is there some problem?”

“Maybe. What if they ain’t agents, Rothwell?”

Rothwell popped the boy on the back of the head with a fleshy hand. “Then they wouldn’t be usin’ our portal, you sod. No one outside the League knows about it.” He looked at Sheen. “Do they?”

“I doubt it’s been compromised, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful,” Sheen managed.

“Roight,” Rothwell said, seeming satisfied. “Anyway, if my report didn’t make it back, I can sum up ther situation thusly: soddin’ awful.”

Joris and Talan both looked at Sheen desperately. She sighed internally, recalling what a miserable liar she was, and said, “You mean, even worse than it was? What happened?”

“I was just tellin’ how some of the cutters who was plottin’ against the Arch-Lector got writ in the dead-bock last night. That teamster, Onuris, got hisself crushed by a load o’ fallin’ barrels. Kyna was poisoned, and Hallfred got hisself a knife in the back in a bar brawl.”

“Our handler back in the Cage was concerned lest all this agitation cause . . . slippage,” Rothwell added.

Sheen exchanged glances with Joris and Talan. “We weren’t expecting this, but if you have a safe place where we can rest and recover for a bit, we’ll see what we can do to help you while we take care of our own business.”

“Sure,” Rothwell said, “upstairs behind the armoire. Call me if yeh be needin’ anythin’.” A bell jingled in the front of the store. “Zigor! Counter!”

The boy turned and hurried away. Sheen began climbing the stairs wearily, wondering what to expect, Joris and Talan following.

“I’m not sure what’s happening,” the cleric said uneasily.

“I’m a bit confused, myself,” Talan said, scratching Ari behind the ears. The upper floor held a tiny apartment that, indeed, contained an armoire. It opened on a rack of clean, worn clothes, and a small crawl-hole that led to a hidden room. Sheen went through on her belly, cursing the awkwardness of her armor and Ari, who thought this a grand game and squirmed through before Sheen had finished extricating herself on the other side, planting a paw firmly on the back of Sheen’s head.

“So what’s going on here?” Talan asked Sheen when they’d all squeezed through and closed the door behind them. “You seemed to have a decent idea.”

“Specifically? No. But isn’t there a faction that calls itself the League? Free League, maybe?”

“It seems very cloak and dagger for them,” Joris said, “Unless they’re hated in Plague-Mort.”

“Mmph,” Sheen said. “Haden would know better, of course. Anyway it works out in our favor and I’m not going to complain . . . at least, not until after I’ve had some sleep and a bath.”

Talan frowned in thought. “Isn’t there also a faction called the Revolutionary League?”

“Could be,” Joris said. Sheen sat down on the bed and fiddled with the stone and the mask for a bit. The stone lifted off her hand and began a slow orbit around her head.

“I have a moon,” she said, startled.

“Is that supposed to happen?” Talan asked, laughing.

“Ohhh,” Joris breathed. “That’s an ioun stone!”

Sheen watched the stone for a few moments, then shrugged when it didn’t seem eager to do anything else. Her head felt a bit clearer, her will sturdier. “I wonder if the leaguers are aware of the Illuminated here. Assuming they are here. In any case, let’s rest and see what we can find in the morning.”

“Let me see where that shadow hit you,” Joris said unexpectedly. Sheen looked down at her chest.

“Um . . .” Joris rolled his eyes at her and made her pull her shirt up over her head so that he could probe the “injury”. The flesh was a bit purple, like a bruise, but it didn’t hurt. Joris lit some incense and made Sheen eat some foul-tasting herbs that made her cough. “Now get some sleep,” he admonished.

“I don’t sleep,” Sheen grumped, and settled down to meditate, the stone still floating erratically through the air. She fidgeted for an hour or two after the rest had restored her energies, then finally went downstairs, hoping it wasn’t too early. Zigor and Rothwell were hanging around behind the shop’s counter, gossiping like fishwives.

“Feeling better, ma’am?” Rothwell asked.

“Yes, better,” Sheen said. “So tell me more about what’s going on in this town. We’re looking for some nasty individuals who have been causing trouble in Sigil proper.”

“Now, I don’t want to hear the specifics of your assignment,” Rothwell said. “Plausible deniability and all that, but I’m still here to help.”

“This burg’s full up with nasty individuals,” Zigor added.

“Quite,” Sheen said.

“Any one of those ne’er-do-well’s in particular?” Rothwell asked.

“One of them is named Margram, we think,” Sheen said. “There were others, but we wrote most of them in the dead-book.”

Rothwell just shrugged, but Zigor nodded. “Good for you, milady.”

“You know the name, then?”

“Aye, he’s got his kip not far from here. Sold him a haunch off a stench kow before the blight, milady.”

“Don’t ‘milady’ me, just point me in the right direction,” Sheen said, a bit of irritation creeping into her voice.

Zigor blushed. “Sorry, mi—ma’am. I just don’t see many women-type cutters in here.” Sheen waved a hand dismissively and looked away, realizing Talan and Joris had both come down the stairs and were grinning at her. Talan rolled his eyes at Joris.

“Oh, like no one ever fawns over you,” the cleric said, chuckling.

“That’s different,” Talan announced decisively.

Blushing even more furiously, Zigor pulled out a rough map of the city and marked a spot near the northwest corner. “It’s just off Rich Man’s Row,” he said.

“Thank you,” Sheen said. “You’ve been very helpful.” Zigor smiled. Then Rothwell cleared his throat noisily and ordered the youngster to sweep the floor.

Outside, the air was bitter cold and the streets were full of people standing around in small groups. The glances they shot at Joris, Sheen, and Talan were dark and suspicious. No one spoke, but the tension was palpable. They entered a square where several streets converged. A woman was addressing a sizeable crowd.

“How much longer are we gonna take it? These wicked berks claim to defend our town, but they’re rotten with corruption, and their so-called boss is no better!” They skirted the edge of the crowd, listening to angry mumbles.

“Rothwell wasn’t kidding, was he?” Joris asked.

“I’m wondering if we should try saying something,” Sheen said.

“It might just make things worse,” Talan said.

“You’re right. I’m not eager to be the guest of honor at a lynching.”

“Father always said that the nail that sticks out is the one who gets pounded,” Joris muttered.

“We should do a little listening and scouting before we try anything,” Talan said. “We already stick out. Low profile, remember?”

“We need to find Haden, that’s what we need to do. Let’s go,” Sheen declared. They cut through a few streets of obvious slums, arriving at a modest home on the edge of a wealthier district. It had a shut-in look about it, as though the door wasn’t often open and the curtains had covered the windows for some time. Sheen pounded on the door with her usual assertiveness, making the wood tremble and conveying, as always, that if someone didn’t come open the door, she’d continue pounding until the wood got out of her way of it’s own accord.

After a minute or so of this treatment, a voice inside the house shouted, “I’m COMING!!” There were loud clicks and grinding noises as several locks and bolts were unfastened. Then the door creaked open a few cautious inches, revealing a young man with a thin, pinched face. He wore drab brown clothes, except for a small, brightly-painted peacock feather on a string around his neck. His face screwed up in alarm. “Who are you lot?”

“We’re here to see Margram,” Sheen said evenly.

“I’m Margram.”

“Good for you,” Sheen said. “We need to have a little chat.”

“Regarding?” Margram quavered. “I’m, uh, pretty busy.” He shifted his weight slightly, blocking the door.

“Regarding something we can’t talk about in the street, thank you. But you might be interested to know that Brandal won’t be troubling you any more.”

“Oh,” Margram said. “Well, come in.” He stepped gingerly out of the way to let them inside, then glanced up and down the street before closing and locking the door securely. “Tea?”

“Thank you,” Joris said politely. Margram bustled into the kitchen while Joris and Talan sat down on dusty but serviceable chairs. Sheen browsed around the house, curious. She pointed out a small female statue, possibly of a goddess, to Joris.

“Hera,” he said after a quick look. “Olympian pantheon, isn’t she?”

“Correct,” Margram announced, bringing out a tray of tea and setting it on the table. Sheen took a cup and sipped it carefully. “You lot are the ones who found Toranna out, aren’t you?” Margram burst out miserably. Sheen almost choked.

“Good guess. How did you wind up getting involved with the Illuminated? You seem a bit atypical.”

“I made a huge mistake, is how!” Margram lamented.

“How did you recognize us?” Talan asked.

“I was in the Citadel when she came through the portal,” Margram explained. “Most of us were evacuated. If you got rid of Brandal, then you’re welcome in my house! I want no trouble with you!”

“They acted like they expected an army to come through with us,” Sheen said mildly.

“It’s Baltazo’s way. He’ll do anything to avoid a confrontation, even when it’s not really to his advantage. I was duped into thinking I was helping those poor barmies . . . I mean, I was, but not like I thought I was.”

“Can you tell us where to find the other Illuminated here in town?” Sheen asked. “We’re getting a bit tired of this entire affair.”

“You’re not here to kill me, are you?”

“No,” Sheen said. “Why should we?”

“Is that why you didn’t want to let us in?” Talan asked.

“I don’t know,” Margram said miserably. “I keep expecting someone to try. Ever since I left the Citadel, I’ve been waiting for a new assignment. I keep hoping that they just forgot about me. If you want to stick it to the Great Eye, you should go to the Bell and Whistle. Baltazo keeps his case there.”

Sheen blinked. “I don’t think we’re that interested in his luggage.”

“No, that’s where he lives. What are you, Clueless?” Margram suddenly looked alarmed. “I-I’m sorry. That was rude.”

Joris and Talan both smirked, trying not to laugh. Sheen harrumphed to herself. “I’m not the one hiding from a ruthless organization hoping they might have forgotten about me, thank you. If anyone merits a few pejorative terms . . .”

“Right,” Margram said nervously. “Anyway, he has some sort of secret cellar there. I’ve never been in it, but I heard them talking about it sometimes.”

“Who else has he got with him? I’m assuming he has . . . people.” Sheen said.

“He has, but I’m told he doesn’t like people, living people, that is, to be his bodyguards. Too risky. So he has constructs. There’s a few bashers in the tavern, but you can probably handle them. Baltazo will bolt at the first sign of trouble, anyway.”

“Great,” Sheen said. “We should go, people in the street have seen us. Moving quickly is our best plan now. You should really consider getting out of here, yourself.”

Margram looked down. “They’re sure to figure out that it was me who told you. Maybe I can try to get my life back on track now, who knows.”

Sheen pursed her lips. “Do you want to go back to Sigil with us?”

“I . . . sure.”

“Get your stuff packed, then, and we’ll come back for you on our way out of here. It’s the best we can do.” Margram’s face lit up, and he hurried away into the house.

“That was . . . charitable of you, Sheen,” Joris said as they closed the door behind them.

“Are you sure about this?” Talan asked.

Sheen shrugged. “Baltazo’s assassin may have a way of catching up with him wherever he goes, but I figure this gives him a fighting chance.”

“All right,” Talan said. “Makes sense.”

They cut across town again, looking for the Bell and Whistle. In the far distance, they could hear other assembled crowds chanting. It was not an encouraging sound. A sign hung above the in, displaying a massive tocsin and a silver flute, but someone had painted a massive blue eye over the picture.

“So, any suggestions for how we get into the cellar?” Sheen asked. Ectoplasm formed and ran over her skin as she manifested powers, preparing herself for a battle to come.

“If it’s a secret cellar, there’s probably no way in from out here,” Joris said.

“Do you think there’s a hidden passage or a portal?” Talan asked.

“We’ll find out,” Sheen said grimly. Joris mumbled a few spells, then they pushed the door aside and walked in. The tavern was a dark, depressing place, with crude wooden tables and dim, smoky lamps. A few bulky uniformed men eyed them, but said nothing.

Joris surveyed the room and gasped. “Isn’t . . . isn’t that Toranna?”

“Uh oh,” Talan murmured. Sheen shrugged and walked directly to the table, surveying Toranna and a woman she didn’t know.

“Well, isn’t this interesting.” The women stopped talking, and Toranna looked up.

“Well met.”

“You seem to be leading a charmed life,” Sheen said.

Toranna gestured to the other woman. “Kalisa, this is Sheen.”

“Hello,” Sheen said shortly, not taking her eyes off Toranna.

“Toranna and I have a shared interest in dismantling the Illuminated,” Kalisa said quietly. Her face and voice were almost perfectly unremarkable. “So I wager you and I have something in common.”

“It’s possible,” Sheen said, “but the reasons for our interest probably diverge. Maybe we can form an alliance. A short-lived one.” Kalisa glanced over Sheen’s shoulder at Joris. A strange expression passed across her face briefly. “We’ve been informed that Baltazo has digs in the cellar of this very establishment. We’re about to stage a raid. Would you ladies like to join us?”

Kalisa and Toranna smiled carnivorously. “Let’s . . .” Toranna began, when the door abruptly banged open, letting in a blast of cold air.

“Murder!” a voice screamed. “The Hounds have murdered the Arch-Lector!” Panic spread through the crowd, and people began stampeding towards the door.

Mar 5, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 14

Sheen leaned her head against the side of the cab and watched the city go past the window. Joris and Talan were sitting silently as well, absorbed in their own thoughts. Eventually, the cab stopped and the driver thumped on the wall, shouting, “Twelve Factols!” as if to make sure that they got the hint.

Talan pushed the door open and Ari promptly jumped outside, wagging her tail so furiously that her entire body wavered from side to side. She looked over her shoulder until Talan hauled himself to his feet. “Rrrruuroooo!” Ari bawled enthusiastically.

“I’m coming!” Talan said, laughing and waggling the end of his cloak in front of Ari’s nose.

“I wonder what the purpose of this building is?” Sheen asked, looking down the stone staircase that descended into the depths. Others might have found the architecture ominous, but Sheen, raised among dwarves, found it familiar and comforting. She trotted down the stairs nonchalantly. The hall below was lit by glowing crystals. Dwarves and baraiur sat quietly at tables, mostly absorbed in their food. A few looked up as Sheen walked past, but their bland curiosity held no hostility.

The stairs continued down into a loud, busy room full of yet more dwarves and other natives of Ysgard, drinking, boasting, and singing. A wrestling match broke out in the corner as they watched, accompanied by loud cheers and shouts of encouragement. Sheen skirted the festivities, followed by Talan and Joris, and went down yet another staircase.

This final hall was lit only by faint blue crystals, which cast an eerie glow on the deep black stone of the walls, ceiling, and floor. Two dwarves in full armor silently flanked an ominous metal grating. One immediately crossed the floor towards them.

“Hail, friends,” he said.

“Hail,” Sheen said in the dwarven tongue. The guard raised a thick eyebrow at her, clearly impressed.

“I’m guessing you’ve come to visit the Realm Below?” he responded in the same language.

“Yes,” Sheen said. “We have need to reach a portal in the Undercity.”

“Ah,” said the dwarf, his expression becoming very grave. “Well, I can’t let you pass unless one of you can defeat me in combat.”

Sheen blinked, then shrugged. She’d learned not to question dwarven customs. “If you would like to engage in the games, I will assent.”

Talan glanced over at Joris. “I’m not sure what’s going on here,” he said.

“Me neither,” Joris replied.

The dwarf laughed loudly at Sheen’s expression. “I’m just pullin’ yer leg! Eldgrim Ringhammer, at yer service!” he announced in Common, thrusting out a hairy, thick-knuckled hand. “Put ‘er there!”

“Any relation to Fritzan Ringhammer?” Sheen asked as she let the dwarf maul her hand briefly.

Eldgrim spat on the ground. “Afraid so, the leatherhead. Those Harmonium berks filled his head with their screed ‘till he forgot all about his clan. Anyway, I *am* supposed to warn you about the dangers below. We get no end of Clueless sods comin’ here thinkin’ they’re gonna find piles of gold down there, I’m sure ye can imagine.”

“Oh, I can imagine,” Sheen said. “We had the same problem in Undermountain. Is it much worse down there than having Halaster for a neighbor?”

“Undermountain?” Eldgrim asked, his eyebrows shooting up again. “No wonder you speak the language so fluently. I wouldn’t know, lass, but we did have a passel of umber hulks tear up the place about ten years ago. I’ll also ask ye not to disturb the dwarven catacombs, but ye seem like decent sorts who’d know better, and not wantin’ any dwarven curses upon ye, of course.”

Sheen nodded. “I was raised in the dwarven halls—I don’t know why, I grant you, that’s all I ever knew—but I know how to behave.”

Eldgrim nodded and started to add something, but there was a loud rattle of steps coming down the stairs and a breathless woman burst into the room. She went straight to Talan and grabbed his arm.

“Odin’s beard, I didn’t think I’d ever find you!” she gasped. Talan blinked. It was Dalla, the Xaositect cleric they’d most recently seen in the company of Mordrigaarz Antill.

“What happened?” Talan asked. “Why would you come looking for us?”

Dalla coughed a couple times. “They took Haden!”

“What!?” Joris yelled. Sheen crossed her arms, scowling furiously.

“Who too Haden where?” she demanded.

“I was at the Butcher’s Block, oh, hours ago,” Dalla explained. “Haden came in for a drink, I didn’t recognize him at first. I got up to talk to him, and a gang of six sellswords scragged him and dragged him out the door. Said that the Great Eye would be upon him in Plague-Mort. They were taking him to Plague-Mort! A chaosman tried to stop them and got a cracked skull for his trouble.”

“Dead?” Sheen asked.

“I’m not sure,” Dalla said. “I came looking for you right away. I knew you had your kip at Chirper’s, but the bariur said you were out . . . took me a deal of looking to find you! I woulda followed them, but I’m not much of a fighter or a sneak and who knows what they’d have done to me if I’d tried.”

Talan squeezed Dalla’s arm gently. “Thank you. I’m sure Haden will be touched that you went to so much effort on his behalf.”

Dalla shrugged. “Well, you seemed to be decent enough folks, like to help out a person what couldn’t quite managed to help themselves at the moment. It don’t hurt to give such folks reason to think well of ye.”

Sheen dug into her pack and produced a small glass bottle. “For the chaosman who got injured,” she explained. “Right, you two. Let’s go kick some Illuminated ass.”

“Thanks, cutter,” Dalla said. “Kill one for Chaos.”

Sheen strode towards the metal grate, the other guard scrambling to open it as she approached. Eldgrim waved after her. “Blessing of the Father upon you as well!” he called.

The darkness below was so thick it had an almost palpable weight to it. The staircase twisted and they were soon out of sight of the faint blue glow. Sheen concentrated and her eyes began to shine brightly, casting narrow beams of light wherever she looked. Joris pulled out his mace and cast a light spell over it as well. Talan scrutinized the cleric suddenly.

“When did you get the new gear?”

“Uh, at the Circle,” Joris said. “There was a cleric who followed Corellon there, but he left it behind.” Ahead, testing each stair cautiously before stepping down, Sheen sighed.

“At least you haven’t made me endure a lecture about this being All My Fault,” she said.

“Hey, we’re all worried about him,” Talan said, bouncing down a few stairs so he could look at Sheen from close range. “Are you all right?”

Sheen blinked her eyes rapidly a few times. “I’m fine. Let’s just go.” She scrubbed at her face with her hands, which were trembling slightly.

“You’re not the only one missing him,” Talan said.

“I don’t miss him!” Sheen growled. “He hasn’t even been gone for a full day yet! I just, well, I don’t want him to get *hurt*. I’d rather have him around so I can not miss him to his face instead of behind his back,” she explained.

“Me too,” Talan said.

The stairs terminated in a dusty, web-strewn corridor that extended into the black distance. The faint exhalation of equalizing pressure fluttered past them periodically, lifting their cloaks and filling their eyes with grit.

“You think I’m an idiot, don’t you?” Sheen asked after they’d walked for a while.

“No, I think you’re human,” Talan said. “And I think you’re much smarter than the two of us,” he added, waving a hand in the air to indicate Joris and himself.

“Smarter than me, certainly,” Joris said.

“I’m just not very good with people,” Sheen admitted. “I can manage when it’s just a business relationship, but otherwise, not so much.” She continued walking through the dark halls, the light from her eyes shifting restlessly.

“I know what you mean,” Talan said. “I find it much easier to relate to animals than people.” The ranger glanced over at Joris, who kept opening his mouth as though he wanted to say something, then closing it again and adopting a vaguely constipated expression. “That just leaves you, my friend.”

“You may as well spit it out, Joris, you’re entitled to have snarky opinions just like the rest of us,” Sheen added.

“Well,” Joris said, still hesitating a bit. “Magic makes more sense to me than people, but that’s because it has rules. If people have rules, I can’t discern them.”

Sheen smiled grimly. “People have rules that they make up themselves, that’s the trouble.”

Joris chuckled, a bit awkwardly. “Right.”

“You never know what sort of terrible things they may have made up inside their own head,” Sheen added.

“That’s certainly true,” Talan said. “And I think they change them according to some internal whim.”

“Indeed,” Joris said sagely. “Sometimes I think I prefer not knowing.”

Talan nodded. “I have to say that you two—and Haden—have turned out to be worth trusting.”

Joris looked pleased. “Thank you, Talan. If anything, I tend to be *too* trusting. I’m glad it’s worked out for me this time.”

Talan glanced at Sheen. “Since the rest of us aren’t really that interested in other people, we’re really better off with Haden around.”

Sheen eyeballed the ranger, then shrugged. “I never used to have much trouble trusting people. I trusted my own judgment and let it go at that. But now, I don’t know. I can’t seem to make up my mind about him. Do you two ever wonder if this may all be some sort of elaborate plot on his part? That maybe he’s leading us into a trap?”

Joris winced. “Not until now,” he said.

“To be honest,” Talan said, “I’ve never completely trusted anyone who wasn’t covered in fur, but Haden’s done a fair job of dispelling any serious doubts. Why does it worry you?”

“I don’t know,” Sheen replied, staring into the darkness beyond the reach of her glowing eyes. “There’s just something about him that always makes me think he’s after something.”

“We all are to some degree, at least,” Talan said quietly. “How many of us are truly altruistic without any thought of personal gain? Maybe Haden’s just more obvious—or honest—than most.”

“I trust altruism least of all,” Sheen snorted. “That’s why Haden worries me. What does he get out of all of this?”

“Apart from the amusement that his own entourage of Clueless provides?” Joris offered.

“That explanation hasn’t held any water since day one,” Sheen announced.

“You do bring up a good point,” Talan said. “Maybe he simply enjoys having a sense of purpose. It doesn’t seem like anyone has ever expected anything much out of him.”

Sheen shrugged. “Then he could, I don’t know, get a job.”

“I did,” Joris interjected. “I’ve been meaning to tell you.”

“Really?” Sheen asked. “Good for you. There’s just something wrong with a man who doesn’t seek gainful employment.”

“Where’s this job?” Talan demanded.

“At the Circle,” Joris explained. “I’ll be moving out when we get back . . .”

“Moving out?”

“There’s a room for me, there. It’s not much, but it’s my own space.”

“You’re putting down roots, Joris,” Sheen said. “It’s funny, because I was under the impression that you wanted to go back to Faerun more than anyone else did.”

Joris shrugged. “I won’t deny that I still have a hard time dealing with all the weirdness, but I feel, I don’t know, free here. Like I can be whatever it is that I’m supposed to be, not what someone else wants. Does that make any sense?”

“Yes,” Talan said. “It’s a good feeling to have.”

“I like it,” Sheen said. “There’s a definite air here that no one gives a damn about you and you can do whatever without fear or favor.”

“That’s it!” Joris said, his voice echoing loudly through the dark corridors. “That’s it exactly!”

Sheen smiled. “Finding it nice to be freed from the weight of other people’s expectations, Joris?”

“It’s like I was a slave and I couldn’t even feel my chains.”

Sheen scowled as their light struck a crumpled mass occupying the middle of the corridor ahead. Without so much as exchanging a glance, the three of them sank into a defensive stance, Sheen taking the lead. As they drew closer, it was revealed as a shell of chitinous plates—the corpse of some insectoid creature.

“Probably one of those umber hulks Eldgrim mentioned,” Joris said.

Sheen prodded the carcass a bit. “It looks like it was hacked apart by dwarves. It’s been here a while, but best to be on our guard, anyway. Let’s keep going.”

Conscious again of the danger that might lurk in the darkness, they walked in silence until they came to the break in the wall of the catacomb Lissandra told them about. A ragged hole like the outlet of some burrowing creature’s tunnel led even further into the unknown depths. Sheen scanned the pit and began climbing down the pile of detritus that passed for a floor, Talan and Joris following.

It wasn’t long before they were able to make out a faint light shining ahead. The tunnel terminated in long pool of water lined with phosphorescent fungi. Sheen looked over at Talan.

“That doesn’t look very healthy.”

“No,” the ranger said, “no it does not.”

“I can’t swim,” Joris said, sighing. Sheen took a deep breath and plunged her head into the water, exploring the submerged tunnel with her glowing vision. She sat back up, blowing to clear her mouth and nose.

“It looks like it’s only underwater for a short distance, I can see surface on the other side. If we can’t swim, we can pull ourselves along the tunnel, at least.” Joris looked mournfully at his armor and sighed again. “There’s no use trying to keep anything dry,” Sheen added. “It won’t work, and we can’t afford to leave anything behind.” She began wading into the water determinedly.

“I hate getting rusty,” Joris murmured and followed. Talan, the most buoyant, came last, striking out with broad, powerful strokes. Ari wavered back and forth on the shore, whining, for several moments, then took a running leap and hit the water with an explosive splash. With deep breaths, all three of them—followed by Ari--plunged under the water, scrambling along the tunnel as best they could.

Joris reached out to grip Sheen’s armor and keep them together when he was shocked to feel her recoil violently. Dark shapes emerged from a crack in the wall, reaching out with hideous claw-like hands. Sheen sprouted claws from her own hands and fended them off, but their dagger-like fingers sank into her flesh and her body went weak and limp. Joris stared into dead face with white, filmy eyes and thrust his holy symbol out, calling on Mystra to protect him. Bubbles of steam erupted from the hideous undead as the force of Joris’ faith burned them. Talan shoved one away from Sheen, cutting it apart with his sword, as Joris rendered the other two little more than floating clouds of vile ash. Together they pulled on Sheen’s arms and struggled away.

They surfaced choking and gasping for air. Talan hauled himself to his feet and stalked down the corridor, looking for any other dangers, while Joris pounded Sheen on the back and tried to get her moving again. She didn’t seem to have inhaled any of the water, but it took several minutes before she had control over her body and could sit up under her own power.

“I didn’t like that at ALL,” she announced flatly. “Haden better appreciate this when we find him.”

“Heh,” Talan said. “I’d laugh, but I’m too tired.”

They resumed their journey through the tunnel, half-climbing, half-walking over piles of scree and rubble. The tunnel broke through into another complex, this one with rough sandstone walls marked with peculiar symbols: hieroglyphics of some sort.

“It looks like the writing of Mulhorand,” Joris said, examining the figures.

“Is it dangerous?” Sheen asked.

“I don’t know,” Joris said, “I never learned to read them. My father can. Some tomb raider came to Silverymoon once and tried to sell him some artifacts, so he took an interest in their history and magical practices.”

Sheen leaned past him. “Squiggle, squiggle, bird, beetle, squiggle. Well, that’s enlightening.”

“If it’s like a Mulhorandi tomb,” Joris continued, giving Sheen a quelling look and pretending she hadn’t spoken, “then yes, it could be dangerous.”

Sheen sighed and forged on ahead. “Let’s assume that if it is dangerous, we’ll find out pretty quickly here.” She began climbing a long, narrow staircase that led up into a vague, dusty darkness.

“Wait!” Joris said when she was already more than a third of the way up.

“What?” Sheen demanded.

“Well, I can cast a spell that will help me find traps,” Joris offered. He cringed a bit under the force of her glare.

“What, were you just going to wait until I exploded? Twerp.” She grabbed the cleric bodily and thrust him up the stairs. Joris cast his spell and began walking slowly, scanning the floor, walls, and ceiling.

“I don’t think there’s anything . . .” he began.


“Oh dear.”

Sheen tried to pull Joris out of the way as a bolt of lightning shot down the staircase, the blue-white glow blinding and the terrible thunder of expanding air nearly deafening in the small space.

“Ow,” Sheen announced several seconds later. Joris slapped his cloak, trying to put out a few small fires.

“Um, magical traps are very hard to find,” Joris said weakly.

“Let’s just go,” Talan said from behind them, coughing a bit at the steam rising from his clothes and armor. “Look at the bright side.”

“There’s a bright side?” Sheen asked, moving her twitching legs carefully.

“At least we’re dry now.”

The room at the top of the stairs was full of great stone sarcophagi, crudely carved from stone. Several of the lids were open, revealing desiccated corpses in varying stages of decay. A large worktable in the center of the room held numerous vials, urns, and tools of unknown nature, all covered in a thick layer of dust.

“Mummies,” Joris whispered. “This is how you make mummies.”

Sheen stepped forward to get a better look. A thin bronze mask sat at the far end of the table. It had a faint bluish patina, but was free of the dust. A large gem sat beside it, a perfect sphere of incandescent blue, like a marble.

“Let’s just figure out which one of these arches leads to the portal and get out of here,” Sheen announced, leaning back from the table. As she stepped forward again, a low wind fluttered through the room, like a slow exhalation. Three wavering silhouettes condensed out of the shadows and reached out with hands that seemed only half real.