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

Apr 23, 2008

Cold Blood: Haden and Cerellis

Haden closed the door behind Talan and Felise as quietly as he could. The movement brought his gloves into view. They were filthy, sticky with blood. Haden’s stomach wrenched and he ripped them off, followed by his rapier and sword-belt, his armor, and his boots. He leaned his face against the wall, shaking, then slowly crossed the room on bare feet and sat on the bed next to Cerellis.

Haden found himself tucking his feet up under his legs, the way he’d sat when he was a child, listening to his father’s stories for hours on end until he’d fallen asleep and Felise or one of the maids had come to carry him off to bed. His hand trembled as he reached out and stroked Cerellis’ thin hair, extending a tendril of psionic power in the hopes of finding something, anything left of his father’s mind. The effort made him shake more; his faint powers were all but exhausted. Very slowly, Cerellis blinked and his eyes seemed to focus.

“Dad?” Haden whispered.

“You haven’t . . . called me that . . . since you were a little boy,” Cerellis breathed. “I missed . . . I think I missed it.”

“Not since you turned me over to Mother,” Haden said bitterly, then cursed himself mentally. He hadn’t meant to say that. What was the point? It was too late. It had probably been too late years ago.

“Yes, I know. I probably . . . shouldn’t have done that . . . she hurt you so much . . .”

“What?” Haden gasped, sitting up straight in shock. “You knew? You knew about that? You knew what she was doing?”

“Yes . . . I knew . . . I may be . . . old, but I wasn’t . . . blind.”

“And you just let it happen?” Haden’s throat was tightening; he felt like he couldn’t force enough air past the terrible constriction that had seized his windpipe. “How could you do that to me?!”

Cerellis’ hand rose an inch or two and fell on Haden’s knee. “How could I . . . do anything else?” Haden felt sick. He wanted to recoil, to run from the room, the house . . . the city. Pain flared behind his eye and he slumped, dizzy. “You don’t really . . . know your mother . . . Haden. It’s not . . . your fault. It was my . . . fault. I was never strong enough . . . or wise enough. You were always so much . . . stronger, than I was . . .”

“Dad, what the hell?” Haden burst out. “Me?! Strong?! That’s a joke. She walked all over me, almost turned me into a monster . . . she did turn me into a worthless bum! That’s what I am! Worthless! And you had . . . you had to keep on saying you were . . . proud of me . . .” Haden ground the heels of his hands into his eye sockets, struggling to hold back useless tears. Cerellis’ hand gripped his knee for a moment then fell slack again.

“My poor son . . . I am proud of you . . . you don’t know what it was, to watch you struggle with her . . . my son, my beautiful son . . . I kept telling myself . . . I had to stop it . . . you couldn’t take it . . . but you did . . . she couldn’t beat you . . . and if you could keep taking it, then I had to . . .”

“I . . . but . . . but why?!”

Cerellis blinked slowly. “Because . . . I loved her, and I couldn’t . . . I couldn’t give up on her as long as there was a . . . chance, there was any chance . . . she could be saved.” He sighed. “You never knew . . . you always saw her as strong, powerful, in command . . . but when I met her, she was so little and frightened . . . so very frightened . . . she still is . . . anything you endured, she endured tenfold at the hands of the fiends that were her masters . . . but there was something else there, too. I didn’t want to let you be hurt, Haden, but I knew it would . . . destroy her . . . if I turned against her . . . for your sake. I loved both of you . . . so much . . . how could I choose between you? I don’t expect you to understand or forgive. I know . . . you’ve never been in love . . .”

“Yes I have,” Haden choked out. “I am.” He tried to take a deep breath, but it caught in a sob.

Cerellis smiled very slightly. “I’m glad . . . maybe you will be . . . happy. I’d like to think of you being happy . . . after I’m gone . . .” Cerellis lay still for a long moment, long enough that Haden’s chest seized with fear. “I hope . . .”


“I hope . . . that you’ll be able to . . . remember me . . . fondly, son. That it . . . wasn’t all . . . for nothing . . .”

“I’ll try.”

Cerellis seemed to smile faintly once again. “And . . . take . . . care of your . . . mother . . . for me . . .” The old celestial’s eyes closed. He still breathed, faintly, but Haden could tell that his mind had gone at last.

Cold Blood: Session 27

Joris dropped to his knees and pressed his fingers to Hexla’s wrist, frowning. Then he nodded, smiling in relief. “She’s alive.”

Talan also knelt on the floor, clenching and unclenching his hands as though he was uncertain what to do with them. “Why isn’t she moving?”

“I’m not sure,” Joris said. “It could be magic; let me try dispelling it.” The cleric waved his hands through the air and Hexla suddenly gasped for air. “Some variation of the spell the Shadowknave was using, I think.”

Talan leaped to his feet, startling Joris and bumping into Sheen. Talan turned to apologize and Sheen got a look at his expression: worried, hesitant, embarrassed. “I’ll just . . . look around, shall I?” Sheen said awkwardly.

Hexla sat up slowly, then noticed Talan standing over her. She blanched and flung up an arm. “No! Get away from me, impostor!”

Talan reached a hand toward her, then dropped it helplessly. “Hexla, it’s me . . . you have to believe me. See? Here’s Joris, and Sheen, and Haden . . . and Ari, look, she wouldn’t be here if I were a fake.” Ari whuffed

“Clearly she is mad and will have to be put down,” Mal said coldly. “It’s the humane thing to do.”

“MAL!” Haden groaned, hauling the elf backwards out of Hexla’s line of vision. Mal stared at him, confused. Talan shot Joris a look of appeal.

“He’s right!” the cleric said hurriedly. He pointed up the hall towards Baltazo’s corpse, sprawled inelegantly in a pool of blood. “That’s the imposter. He can’t hurt you any more. He won’t hurt anyone any more, Talan saw to that.”

“What about the other one, Gyderic?” Hexla asked quietly. “Did you get him too?” Talan shook his head and Hexla sighed. “I didn’t see him, anyway, just Baltazo muttering about him and someone called Cerellis . . .”

“Cerellis and Gyderic?” Haden asked instantly. “What could Gyderic want with my father? What would that accomplish?”

Sheen paled. “Haden, we’d better go back to Honorgard NOW.”

“Sheen’s right,” Talan said. “Anything to do with Gyderic can’t be good.”

Haden shrugged. “We should probably make sure Hexla is squared away, first. Come on, Talan, pick her up and let’s get out of here.”

Talan extended his arms stiffly towards Hexla, who levered herself upright and hugged him. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry . . .”

“I’m the one who’s sorry, I should have been there to protect you,” Talan said. “Do you think you could walk, or I . . .um . . . maybe . . . could carry you?”

Hexla sniffed and wiped tears off her face. “I think I can manage, but thank you.” Talan brushed her hair away from her face and kissed her forehead.

“Okay, but I’ll be right here.”

Sheen made an impatient noise, grabbed the front of Haden’s armor shirt and began dragging him bodily towards the exit. “Come on. You may not be worried, but I know what Gyderic is capable of better than anyone. Whatever it is, it’ll be terrible.”

“Okay, okay!” Haden grumbled, struggling to stay on his feet. “I’m coming!”

Talan looked down at Hexla, his expression troubled. “Maybe I should take you someplace safe and then go meet up with them.”

“I feel safest with you,” Hexla averred.

“Talan, just come with us before she chokes me to death!” Haden declared.

Talan shook his head. “All right, let’s go.”

It was very dark outside, near anti-peak, so they took the most direct route through the Great Bazaar, walking quickly instead of taking a cab. Sheen kept stepping up the pace until she was nearly jogging, staring into every alley and cul-de-sac as though she expected an enemy. Haden tried to keep up simply to calm her agitation, but it didn’t seem to help. The heavy brass gate of Honorgard was firmly closed, which was to be expected, but there was also no sign of a gate guard, which was not. Haden stuck his head through the bars.

“Halla?” he said, his eyes piercing the dark to reveal a pair of legs extending from beneath a bush next to the wall. “Uh-oh,” the bard whispered, real fear clenching his throat. He looked at Sheen. “I think something’s happened to Halla.”

“Right,” Sheen said and grabbed the brass bars. The metal began to deform as she pushed at it, almost as though it was touched by the heat of the furnace. In seconds, Sheen had cleared a hole large enough to step through, which she immediately did. Haden touched the metal a bit nervously, but it was not even faintly warm, showing no sign of what had just occurred. Haden ducked through the hole and hurried along the wall, dropping down beside the motionless body.

It was Halla, torn open by sharp claws. The blood had cooled, seeped into the ground; he might have been lying there for hours. Haden knelt on the ground for long moments, cursing in Abyssal. Then he bent and picked up the githzerai’s body, heaving it over his shoulder with a grunt of effort. He dug into a pocket and tossed Sheen the key to the front door. They slipped soundlessly into the house.

“Everyone stay together,” Sheen said quietly, looking around the silent, darkened hall. “If Gyderic is here and he manages to separate us, it could go very badly.”

“He’s here,” Haden said, his enhanced vision piercing the shadows to reveal a man standing at the end of the hall. He put Halla down carefully on a couch near the doors and drew his rapier. Talan drew sword and dagger, and Sheen flexed her hands growing dagger-like claws.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” the man said, gliding forward with only a faint susurrus of disturbed air.

“Sorry we weren’t more punctual,” Haden growled.

“Always so polite, you are. Don’t think it isn’t appreciated,” Gyderic added. “You had no trouble with Baltazo, then, I take it?”

“You worm!” Sheen snapped. “Don’t imagine that you’ll give us any more trouble than he did!”

“You are finally going to get what you deserve,” Talan added.

“Oh, you’re quite right, Talan. The Great Wheel has provided me with exactly what I want . . . and deserve. All I have to do is to take it from you. You remember how to give me what I want, don’t you, Sheen?”

Sheen’s eyes began to glow a furious green as she summoned up psionic power. “Come on, then!”

“Don’t let him provoke you,” Haden whispered.

“She’s outgrown you, Gyderic,” Talan said. “Sheen is already much more than you will ever be.”

Gyderic’s eyes flashed violet. “How DARE you, ranger! I will be first in the world to come! None of you will stand as more than ashes when the City of Mirrors rises!”

“I only speak the truth,” Talan said, taking a quick step forward. Gyderic backed away a pace, anticipating an attack. Seeing him distracted for just a moment, Sheen charged. Two massive devils, ogre-sized skeletons with papery skin stretched over their bones, erupted from the shadows, moving to intercept her, but Mal uttered an incantation that made time seem to slow. One of the fiends raked Sheen with a claw, but she was past them, bearing Gyderic to the ground and ripping a bloody chunk of flesh out of his arm and chest.

Gyderic laughed as his eyes flashed again. Talan shrank away from the crushing force of the psion’s will, fighting a terrible command. Sheen released Gyderic and started to turn, her muscles clenching as she, too, fought the command. Talan stared at her in horror, wondering who would win, as the fiends scrabbled their way across the floor toward him. Talan touched Ari’s head and both of them suddenly vanished. The fiends shrieked, denied their prey.

Haden took a deep breath. “My apologies to Shelley,” he muttered, then recited:

“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

“You . . . will . . . obey . . . me!” Gyderic snarled. Mal drew forth a strange mixture of magic and eldritch energy that engulfed one of the bone devils, making it howl. Sheen flung herself sideways and clawed at the devil, her eyes glowing hideously. Its jaws opened and engulfed her arm while the barbed stinger on its tail buried itself in her leg. Talan reappeared a few feet away and tried to help her, attacking the devil with his swords and forcing it to retreat a few steps. The ranger’s earlier wounds began to bleed again.

“This is not going well!” Joris said, dodging the other fiend and casting healing over Talan. Mal spoke words of power and the monstrosity’s eyes went suddenly blank: it staggered past Joris and slapped at the air instead. “Oh, nice one,” Joris said thankfully.

Haden skirted the edges of the fight quietly and unobtrusively, coming up behind Gyderic and delivering what would have been a textbook thrust with the rapier . . . if the psion hadn’t moved at precisely the wrong moment. Still, the blade went through the back of his hand, disrupting his attention momentarily if nothing else. It was enough for one of Mal’s sizzling energy blasts to roll past Gyderic’s psionic shield and knock the man from his feet. Gyderic struggled to raise himself on his elbows, looking up at Haden coldly.

“You can’t stop what is to come.” Haden looked at Sheen, who was under assault by the devils, yet was ignoring them now, having seen Gyderic go down.

“Stay there!” Haden said. “You’ll get yourself killed!”

“You cannot win,” Gyderic continued, red foam dripping from his mouth.

“That’s as may be,” Haden said. “But you’ll never know it.” He took the rapier in both hands and stabbed downward, leaning on the slender blade and twisting it in Gyderic’s chest. The psion choked.

“No matter what . . . she gives you . . . part of her . . . will always be . . . mine.” The last word came out as a whistling gasp and Gyderic fell back, dead. Talan lunged at the attacking fiends, chopping into black bone with Greenheart. Seeing the fight turn against them, the devils barked words of foul might and vanished, leaving behind a stench of burning brimstone.

Sheen staggered toward Haden. “He’s . . . dead?” she asked. Haden ignored her and charged across the hall, sprinting up the stairs.

“Felise?!” the bard called. Then, after a moment, “DAD?!” Sheen’s legs buckled and she sat down abruptly beside the psion’s corpse. Even dead, his expression was twisted, mocking.

“Perhaps someone should accompany Haden,” Mal intoned. “Other threats may remain.” Talan squeezed Hexla’s arm briefly and ran after the bard. He reached the top of the stairs to see Haden fling a door open, give the room a cursory glance, and hurry to the next door. At the far end of the hall, a smaller door creaked open and a pale blue face emerged.

“Felise,” Haden said. “Where’s father?”

“Oh, Master Haden!” Felise gasped. “He’s . . . he’s in his bed, I don’t know what that man did to him . . .”

“Show me,” Haden said in a tone that brooked no argument. Felise opened the doors to the master bedroom. Cerellis was lying on top of the blankets, looking very small in the vast bed. His eyes stared vacantly. Haden looked down at him for a moment or two, then turned to regard Talan and Felise. Felise cringed at the implacable expression on his face.

“Out,” Haden said softly. Felise reached for Talan’s arm from sheer reflex, and they both hurried from the room as though expecting some kind of catastrophe. The door closed behind them with no more than a soft thud.

“We should go downstairs and check on the others,” Talan said.

“Thank you for coming, sir,” Felise said.

“We could do nothing less for Haden. He is our friend,” the ranger replied, crossing the floor to where Joris was ministering to Sheen, who was bleeding heavily. She didn’t seem to notice, however, she was still staring down at Gyderic’s face. “How are you?” Talan asked Felise gently. “Can we do anything for you?”

“I’m all right, thanks. I hid as soon as the trouble started. I hated to do it, but getting myself killed wouldn’t have accomplished anything, either.”

“Yes,” Talan said, wrapping his arms around Hexla and stroking her hair gently. “You’re not a warrior.”

“Where’s Haden?” Sheen asked listlessly.

“He is upstairs,” Mal said.

Sheen shook her head. “I can’t believe he’s finally dead.”

“How do you feel?” Joris asked her tentatively.

“I’m . . . not sure. It all happened so fast. Is Cerellis all right? What’s going on?”

Felise shook her head sadly. “He is not well. His mind is . . . broken, I think. Master Haden is with him, now. I believe he wishes to be alone.”

“Oh,” Sheen said. “I guess then we just . . . wait. It’s late . . . are there guest rooms here, or something? We all need some rest.”

“Of course,” Felise said instantly. “Follow me.”

Apr 18, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 26

“What’s going on?” Sheen asked, joining the group in the shadow of the Glass Pearl. Joris was praying loudly. Haden, Talan and Mal all cast a few spells over themselves. “Getting ready for a fight?” Sheen asked. Haden nodded, so she closed her eyes and began concentrating, directing psionic power throughout her body to bolster her natural abilities. She flexed the claws that had grown from her fingertips and smiled.

“We think we’ve tracked down whoever kidnapped Hexla,” Haden said. “Presumably Baltazo. We thought you’d want to be here for whatever happens.”

“Are we planning to just storm in and attack him?” Mal asked.

“We may have to,” Talan growled.

“He’s a wizard,” Haden added. “If we don’t attack him immediately, there’s no telling what he may do. Let’s go before he realizes we’re here.”

They ducked under the “closed” sign, passing down a narrow corridor into a large wide tiled hall. The air was warm and humid, and the tiles formed into an elaborate mosaic: two dolphins swimming intertwined. The walls were lined with niches where visitors could place their belongings. A passage to the left was marked “Male”, with another passage opposite it marked “Female”. A wide marble counter stood at the end of the hall, with what looked like another exit behind it.

“Can we . . .” Haden began, but instantly a hideous bellow shook the room, followed by another. Two hulking figures leaped the counter and landed with a crash: fiends with metal plates bolted to their flesh. Black blood oozed around the bolts, staining their armor. Rotting tusks sprouted from their lower jaws, and their howls seemed composed equally of rage and pain.

“You look like you’ve had a bad day already, friend,” Haden said. “Better to turn back before it gets worse.” He drew his rapier as the fiends howled again and started forward. Sheen charged them, ripping armor plates with her claws. It knocked her aside with a massive spear, only to be confronted by Talan’s swords. The other fiend closed in on the ranger while Sheen struggled to her feet.

Mal held up his hands and bellowed an arcane curse, causing the second fiend to shriek and stagger away from Talan. Ari growled and snapped at its legs while Haden shaped a storm of psionic power into a blast of sharp-edged crystalline shards. Then Sheen was in front of it again, taking another blow from the spear but keeping her feet this time. Toothy worms sprayed from the wounds she inflicted as Joris scrambled into the fight, making everyone rear back in disgust and pain.

Ferocious spear attacks slammed Sheen and Talan to the ground again as a lightning bolt exploded across the room, striking Joris in the chest. Haden started forward, half-deafened, hoping he could at least distract the fiends, when something impacted his ribs with incredible force. A mass of animate water had boiled up behind him and was reaching out with dripping fists.

Mal chanted another spell and the water elemental paused, then slowly turned its attention to the wizard. A bolt of eldritch power struck it, making the water sizzle as it lurched forward. Haden fought to pull himself upright. Sheen and Talan had downed one of the fiends, and Joris was back on his feet. So where . . . Haden heard a step, or what sounded like a step, not far away from his head. He snatched one of the beads off the necklace he wore and flung it across the room, curling himself in a ball as fire erupted. Someone screamed.

“Baltazo!” Talan yelled. Haden thought he heard a voice mutter, “Damn!”, then footsteps running away. He held up a waving arm, trying to point Talan in the right direction. The ranger jumped over him and came down with a scream of rage on a patch of apparently empty air. There was a complicated moment of raking swords, and Baltazo went sliding across the floor, now very visible and trailing a cloud of blood.

There was a loud meaty noise as Sheen ripped off the remaining fiend’s arm, followed by Mal chanting and an explosion of light. The water elemental boiled across the floor and vanished into a drain.

Talan stared down at Baltazo’s corpse, breathing heavily. “We got him,” he said. Then Ari started barking. They limped and staggered into another room, where Hexla was sitting behind a desk, bound and gagged.

Cold Blood: Session 25

Sheen looked up at the townhouse and wrinkled her nose. “It’s filthy,” she commented. Indeed it was, covered in soot and the grasping fingers of razorvine.

“It just looks like everything else on the block,” Talan said, gesturing along the line of similar houses.

“Well, what were you expecting?” Haden asked, fiddling with the lock.. “It’s been vacant for some time. Come on, let’s go inside and have a look.” With a loud screech of corroded metal giving way, the lock turned. They stepped inside, exploring the dusty, silent rooms.

Joris shook his head. “If Yolette really wants something to clean, we’ve got a job for her now.”

Haden nodded. “It looks serviceable, it just needs some work.”

“I’ll be back,” Sheen said, moving her fingers as though going through a mental list. She walked out the front door, still counting silently to herself.

Ari snorted dust up her nose and sneezed, then bounced through the kitchen to sniff around the back door. Talan wrestled with the hinges and Ari catapulted herself into the small back garden with a joyful bark.

Haden brushed some dust off a frame in the front parlor and was startled to discover an ancient family portrait still hanging there. It was a beautiful painting, but he found himself thinking that there was something a little strange about it. He didn’t move again until Sheen came stomping back and dropped a stack of buckets pointedly on the floor. Yolette grinned at Haden nervously.

“Are you going to help?” Sheen demanded, waving a scrubbing brush at him.

“Of course,” Haden said, “but not like that. See what Mal’s doing?” Sheen glanced into the back parlor and saw the elf waving his hands around in the air. Dust billowed into the air as though swept by invisible brooms, then was sucked into a whirlwind and vanished. Haden grinned. “I can do that, too.”

Sheen grimaced. “I’m not sure I approve of using magic for cleaning.”

Mal glanced over at her blandly. “Why not? There’s nothing virtuous about doing things the hard way. Magic leaves more time for the important things in life. We are not ants.”

Sheen examined the magically-cleaned floor. “It still needs to be scrubbed and waxed, though.” Mal shrugged as Sheen pulled Yolette into the garden and began drawing water from the well. Ari bounced over and stuck her head unceremoniously in a full bucket. Loud slurping noises ensued. Sheen gave the dog an offended look and Talan laughed.

By nightfall, they had the first floor clean enough that even Sheen was satisfied, the old tile and wood floors gleaming, the walls and ceilings restored, even the fireplaces unblocked and drawing properly. Haden and Mal, having turned out to be temperamentally unsuited to drudge work, spent most of the afternoon ferrying their gear from Chirper’s. They bought some firewood and candles and turned the front parlor into a temporary camp, arranging bedrolls around the walls in lieu of furniture.

“Where’s Mal?” Joris asked, settling to the floor with a groan and tossing his damp hair out of his face. A day spent scrubbing had meant that he’d needed to scrub himself afterwards. It seemed bizarre to him that you could get dirty cleaning, but that was the way it worked, apparently.

“He spotted a wizard’s society up the street and went to have a look. You know, it’s been a long time since I’ve lived in a house,” Haden remarked, poking up the fire.

“Me too,” Yolette said.

“I’m sure we’ll get used to it,” Haden replied.

“Where did you live, then?” Yolette asked after a moment. Joris had slumped down with his eyes closed, either asleep or well on his way there.

Haden shrugged. “Here and there. Inns mostly, but I stayed with friends sometimes. And I woke up in some pretty peculiar places with a hangover, but we won’t go into it.”

“That sounds like fun,” Yolette said. “Well, the inns and friends part.”

“You’d think so,” Haden said, “but it’s not really. You miss having a place that’s *yours*.”

Talan came in, yawning, and sat down on his own bedroll. Sheen followed him, giving the room a last scrutiny and a tight-lipped nod: apparently it met her standards satisfactorily. “Well, I’m going back to the Hands of Time. I’ll see you fellows in the morning.”

Haden blinked. “You won’t stay?”

“Of course not,” Sheen said. “I already have a room, remember?”

“So do I,” Joris muttered sleepily, “but I’ll never make it back there t’night.”

“Oh,” Haden said, somewhat at a loss. “Well, you shouldn’t go out in the streets by yourself at this time of night,” he announced finally. “I’ll walk you back.”

“So then you’ll have to walk back by yourself?” Sheen asked, amused. “No, it’s just around the other side of the Foundry. I’ll be fine. Good night.”

Haden scowled at her retreating back. “Apparently I’ve been overruled,” he groused.

Light was only barely beginning to peek through the bay window when the front door slammed open and Sheen barreled into the room. She yanked Talan unceremoniously out of his blankets and thrust a piece of paper in front of his eyes. The ranger blinked rapidly, trying to get his eyes to focus.

“Um, good morning?” Haden said.

Talan took the piece of paper carefully from Sheen and held it a bit further away from his face so that the runes would stop blurring. “I have the ranger’s witch,” he read, then gasped. “Where did you get this?!”

“Just finish reading it,” Sheen said grimly.

Talan cleared his throat. “I have the ranger’s witch. I wish to exchange her for the Eye of the Dawn. Surely you know by now what I am capable of. Antipeak, tonight, in front of the Trioptic Nic’Epona. Baltazo. P.S. No tricks.”

Joris turned pale and Haden sighed. “Well, this isn’t good,” the bard remarked after a moment.

“Oh really?!” Sheen demanded. “What was your first clue?!” Haden reached out and grabbed her hand.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be flip,” he said gently.

Mal peeked into the room. “What’s all this noise? Goodness, Talan, you look like a loved one has been kidnapped.” This earned the elf a black glare from everyone in the room. Sheen passed him the note silently.

“This doesn’t really concern everyone,” Talan said abruptly. “I can go find Hexla and meet up with you later.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Sheen spat instantly.

“She’s right, Talan,” Joris said. “You know better than that.”

“It concerns me, at least,” Mal said. “He wants what rightfully belongs to Her. The Baltazo must be made to understand what it is to invoke Her wroth.”

“I’m trying to be logical,” the ranger said. “I don’t want to drag you all into this.”

“You aren’t dragging us,” Joris said, “we’re volunteering. Aren’t we?”

“Of course,” Sheen announced. Talan reached for Ari and hugged the dog, stroking her silky fur in silence.

“Indeed,” Mal said. “I have a plan. We will need a spell and a cut glass duplicate of the Eye.”

“Say what now?” Haden asked.

“It is a minor spell—one that will place the semblance of a magical aura on the cut glass,” Mal explained.

“Nystul’s Magic Aura?” Haden asked.

“I can prepare that,” Joris said.

“You can? It is well. The ruse will not fool the Baltazo for long, but he no doubt plans to double-cross us, anyway,” Mal replied. “It will serve to buy us some time, however.”

“It’s better than what I was planning, anyway,” Talan said thickly.

“What was that?” Joris asked.

“Charging,” Talan said briefly.

Haden stared at the floor, frowning in thought. “You’re assuming that he’s intending to bring Hexla to the meeting, though.”

“I may be able to peer into his mind and discern her location if he does not,” Mal replied. “He may know that I am doing so, however.”

“Yeah, me too,” Haden said. “However, he’s a wizard. We can’t discount the fact that he may make arrangements we can’t predict.”

“Is there any way to figure out where Hexla is before tonight?” Talan asked hopelessly.

“There has to be,” Joris said. Talan rose to his feet and began pacing the room.

“Let’s go and confirm that Hexla is actually missing, eh?” Sheen said. “This may just be a colossal bluff.” Talan halted in the middle of his pacing and stared at her.

Joris swallowed and his face brightened in relief. “Gods, I hadn’t even considered the possibility.”

“Good thinking, Sheen,” Talan said. “I’m letting my emotions run away with me.”

“Let us split up,” Mal said. “One group seeks Hexla, the other prepares for the meeting.”

“That’s a good idea, Mal,” Sheen said. “Why don’t Talan and Haden go look for Hexla at Vander’s while the rest of us go scout the meeting place and see if we can come up with anything?”

Talan made a frustrated noise. “I don’t want to get stuck away from the action!”

“You’re a tracker, Talan,” Sheen said. “If anyone can figure out what happened to Hexla, it’s you . . . with some help from Haden in asking questions and so forth.”

Talan took a deep breath. “All right, I can see the sense in that.”

“You want me to just stay here and keep working?” Yolette asked in a small voice. “I don’t think the Doctor needs me today.” Mal looked down at her.

“I may have a use for you,” he said.

“Wassat?” Yolette asked.

Mal gestured and a crystal replica of the Eye formed out of the air, light and fragile as a soap bubble. “Take this to a glassworker and have him craft one exactly like it.”

Sheen snorted. “I can do that myself,” she said. “I’m a crystal worker.”

“Perfect,” Mal said. “A bit of prestidigitation and the magic aura should fill in the rest.”

While this discussion was happening, Haden had sidled across the room and took the note out of Mal’s inattentive hand. He settled himself in a corner and concentrated for a while. “Is anyone familiar with a mosaic of two dolphins?” he asked abruptly.

“What?” everyone demanded simultaneously.

“I can see a mosaic of two dolphins, chasing each other’s tails. That’s where Baltazo was when he created this message. I’m trying to see more . . . quiet . . .”

Three pairs of baffled eyes turned to look at Sheen. “He’s *reading* it,” she explained. “Some people can use psionics to look into the past that way.”

“Ohhhh,” Joris breathed.

“Does the talent actually extend the user’s perceptions through time, or is he simply picking up thoughts imprinted on the object?” Mal asked.

“I’m not sure,” Sheen said. “It’s not my area of specialty. I do know that you can sense the identities of previous owners and pick up some details of their involvement with the item.”

“It almost looks like the paper came from Arvandor originally,” Haden said, “but I believe Baltazo bought it from a woman in the Clerk’s Ward, right near the Hall of Speakers.”

“Can you sense anything about Hexla?” Talan asked.

Haden put the message down, rubbing his head like it pained him. “No, I can’t tell whether the paper was ever in her presence. But the stationery shop is very near the Trioptic Nic’Epona.”

“It is possible that Baltazo has his hideout in the same general area, then,” Sheen said.

“Should we search the area where the Baltazo procured the parchment, then?” Mal asked.

Haden nodded. “You should go with Joris and have a look around, at least. You may want to pose as tourists and see if you can find out where that mosaic comes from.”

Mal nodded. “Joris, can you cloak your appearance? I can wear the mien of another and perceive the invisible, but Baltazo would recognize you, would he not?”

“He would, and no, I can’t,” the cleric said. “It’s a pity. Kalisa could.”

“Do you still want me to work on the fake diamond?” Sheen asked.

“Yes,” Mal said. “If nothing else, it could buy us a minute or two.”

“All right, I’ll get cracking.,” she said, and left the house.

“To Vander’s, then?” Talan asked Haden, who nodded. The four men put on their cloaks and hurried into the streets.

“What did Baltazo look like when he was buying the paper?” Joris asked.

“Human and dumpy,” Haden said. “Sorry, it wasn’t very clear.”

“Don’t worry,” Joris said, glancing at Talan. “If there’s anything to find, we’ll find it. Good luck.” The cleric and the elven wizard turned at the corner and began heading toward the Clerk’s ward. Talan and Haden turned the other way.

“You okay?” Haden asked Talan, who was walking without paying attention and had several near collisions with other pedestrians.

“I . . . just the sound of that name makes me . . .” the ranger shivered. “I don’t know how you hold it together so well, Haden, I really don’t.”

“Maybe all those years of fighting my mother were good for something,” Haden theorized. “Can Ari track someone by scent? I know some types of dogs can do that.”

Talan grinned down at his companion. “Yeah, she’s really good at that.”

“Well, if Hexla’s like most women, she wears perfume and has a very definite scent. It might be easier if we could get some of her clothing or something like that.” Talan turned very red. “Oops, I didn’t mean it like that,” Haden said. Talan’s face was now burning. “I can’t see why you should be embarrassed. You do like her, don’t you? You care about her? So what’s the problem?”

“You wouldn’t understand,” the ranger muttered. “You’ve probably had dozens of women.”

“And what does that have to do with anything?” Haden asked, his curiosity piqued. “Every woman is different.”

“That’s assuming you’ve been with more than . . . I mean had . . . oh, just forget it,” Talan finished in a strangled voice.

Haden chuckled. “You think *you* have problems?”

“What?” Talan asked, turning to look at the bard. “Anything you want to talk about?”

Haden chuckled again. “Well . . . maybe. But now’s probably not the best time.”

“Yes,” Talan said. “Once we rescue Hexla and severely punish Baltazo, we’ll have to sit down and chat. There’s Vander’s, maybe we’ll see Jazra or Lissanrda.”

“Speak of the Devil,” Haden muttered, pointing a bit further down the street to where Jazra had her arm around some poor Clueless-looking sod, a young man looking around apprehensively. Haden raised his voice. “Hello, Jazra!”

“Oh, hey there, Haden!” Jazra released the Prime--who stared nervously at Haden but appeared relieved at Talan’s ordinary appearance--and winked salaciously at Talan. “You gonna bring my roommate home any time soon?”

“I’m not sure I understand what you mean,” Talan said stiffly.

“She left here with you yesterday afternoon, you dolt!” Jazra bawled.

“Well, at least that answers that question,” Haden muttered.

“I figured after my gripin’ about havin’ to share my kip, you two wanted some privacy.” Talan looked from Haden to Jazra and back to Haden helplessly.

“Jazra, that wasn’t Talan,” Haden said. “That was a shapeshifter who looked like Talan.” The Prime looked alarmed.

“When I get my hands on him . . .” Talan growled.

“Why don’t you go in an’ get a drink, dearie,” Jazra said to her Prime. “I’ll catch up with ya shortly.” The man hurried inside the inn. “All right, ya two, what’s going on here?”

“Did you see where they went?” Haden demanded.

Jazra frowned. “He asked her to go for a stroll. Lemme think . . . Hex said she loves Bloodgem Park, I remember that.”

Haden glanced at Talan. “He would want to get her out of sight before he did anything dramatically out of character.”

“Hmm,” Jazra said. “Talan . . . I mean, that guy, said he ‘had another destination in mind’. That was all I hear, sorry. I had no idea it wasn’t you.”

“If Hexla couldn’t tell, how could you?” Talan asked.

“What about Lissandra?” Haden asked. “Was she there?”

“Yeah, but she ain’t here now. She’s chasin’ a portal in the Guildhall Ward somewheres. ‘Sides, she din’t see any more than me, I don’t think.”

Haden sighed. Talan was looking dejected. “Let’s see what Ari can sniff out?” the bard suggested. Talan pulled out a lacy handkerchief and held it out for the dog to sniff. Ari glanced up at the ranger, seeming to realize how serious this was, and began carefully circling the area, her nose to the ground. It was only a few moments before she gave a sharp bark and took off down the street, leading them towards the Clerk’s ward. The two men chased the dog down the street, drawing odd looks from the passersby.

Ari stopped outside the Hall of Records and began circling again, making the occasional distraught whine. “It’s okay, girl,” Talan said. “It’s okay. You can do it.”

Haden grimaced, looking around. “You know, I just remembered that Baltazo can teleport.”

Talan winced. “You’re right. There is the possibility that Ari can’t find the scent because it’s vanished into thin air.” Ari barked again and ran off. “Or not!” Talan said, shooting Haden a quick smile and chasing after the dog. She led them even further along the ring, past the Civic Festhall and to the edge of the Guildhall Ward. Before them lay the Great Gymnasium, headquarters of the Transcendent Order. Ari bypassed it before they could take more than a cursory look, however.

Ari’s pace finally slowed in front of a massive building sporting the Olympic style: white marble and rows of fluted columns. The words “The Glass Pearl” were carved in runes on the lintel. Just below that, a cloth banner bore the message “Closed for Renovations”. Ari parked herself in front of the entrance and looked at Talan.

“Good girl,” the ranger said.

Mal and Joris made their own way to the Clerk’s Ward, through ten miles of heavy traffic. Mal called on fey power to disguise his features, then tossed his hooded cloak to Joris. The cleric looked over the garment, then shrugged and tossed his helmet into his pack. They looked around, seeing the facade of the Hall of Speakers, the Trioptic Nic’Epona, and the Power of the One.

Joris started when Mal abruptly made a sharp whistling noise and held up a gloved hand. A large glossy black raven settled onto the elf’s arm and cawed. “What?” The cleric asked.

“This is Lir, my familiar,” Mal explained. “I am going to have him scout this area for Baltazo and Hexla while we visit yonder printer.”

“Oh,” Joris said, a bit nervous now that he was alone with the mysterious elf. They walked into the shop, which was crowded with a massive printing press and an assortment of lap desks, quills, papers, and inks. There were very few customers, and a young human woman hurried over to greet them immediately.

“I was wondering if you could help me?” Mal said, murmuring something under his breath. The woman’s eyes glazed slightly and she looked at Mal with adoration.

“Yes, sir?” she asked.

“I am looking for a friend of mine, short, somewhat dumpy, and human. I have reason to believe he was here recently,” the elf continued.

“Doesn’t sound terribly familiar,” the shopkeeper said.

“You sold him this paper,” Joris piped in, showing her the letter. She examined it briefly.

“Yes, finest quality, superior workmanship. An excellent choice. Perhaps I do remember. Let me think. He was an odd fellow. Had powder on his hands, I remember that much, it smelled of perfume. Talc, probably.”

“Did he say where he was staying or where he could be found?” Mal asked insistently.

“Not that I recall, but talc is commonly used by bathhouse workers.”

“Do you know of one that bears a mosaic of two dolphins?” Mal asked.

“The Great Gymnasium is the only one I frequent, milord, and there is no such image there. At least not that I’ve seen. But the Gymnasium is mostly for Ciphers, so there are some others in this district that cater to the members of other factions. Just head further into the Guildhall ward, and you’ll see plenty.”

Mal shot Joris a questioning glance. “It’s, um, that way,” the cleric said.

“Shall we go, then?” Mal asked. Joris nodded and they headed out into the street, crossing in front of the Great Gymnasium. A commotion started at the far end of the street, and they turned just in time to see Ari, Haden, and Talan go running past.

“Talan!” Joris yelled, but they didn’t slow and the cleric cursed. Mal shook his head and began whispering another spell.

Talan peered into the Glass Pearl, which was quite dark. “Can you sense anything?” he asked Haden. The bard suddenly winced.

“I can sense Mal. He just sent me a cantrip hail saying that he and Joris are coming up the street. Let’s wait for them. Do you think we ought to get Sheen?”

“I shall send Lir for her,” Mal announced, walking up. “Where is she now?”

“Probably at the Hands of Time,” Haden said.

“Very well,” Mal said. “We wait.”

Apr 10, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 24

Haden stared at Lady Margone. “Mother?!”

“You were expecting someone else?” she asked.

“Expecting? No, that isn’t the word I’d use. Hoping, maybe. What are you doing here?”

“I came to see your father, of course,” Margone sniffed, leaning back against the couch.

“Is that so? And what are you after this time?” Haden demanded.

Lady Margone snapped her fan open in front of her face and fluttered it sharply. “That’s no way to talk to your mother,” she hissed. In the corner, Splinter took a step forward. Cerellis blinked in confusion.

“Is Haden here?” he quavered.

“Yes, darling, he’s just arrived with some . . . others.” Margone made the word sound like a pejorative term. Cerellis hauled himself upright and looked around the room until his eyes fixed on Haden, then he broke slowly into an incredulous smile. Haden clenched his teeth and shot Margone a poisonous look before making an effort to return the smile. It did not come off very well. Margone, in her turn, shifted her sneering expression to Sheen.

“My boy . . .” Cerellis said. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” Haden said shortly, then realized that this was a bit impolite. “Things are . . . things are actually going fairly well, for now.”

“Good,” Cerellis said, then repeated himself slowly, “good.”

“You remember my friends?” Haden essayed. “Joris, Talan, and Sheen? And this is Mal.” Mal waved a hand limply; he seemed engrossed in staring at a small jade ornament. Cerellis looked at each of them for some time.

“I . . . yes. I believe I do,” he said finally.

“I heard that you were . . . better,” Haden continued, “so I . . . we thought it might be a good idea to visit and . . . say hello. But if you’re busy, I can come back.”

“Your father and I were—“ Margone cut in.

“Enough!” Cerellis said, his elderly voice taking on a surprising tone of strength and authority. Haden and Margone both stared in shock. “I am never too busy for company.” The elder celestial levered himself to his feet and shuffled over to look at Mal. “You are fey-marked, are you not?”

“I am of those who are,” Mal said hollowly.

“Not of the Seelie Court . . . but not Unseelie either. Fascinating,” Cerellis said distantly.

“I don’t know *what’s* gotten into him,” Margone growled under her breath.

“Do you know something about the Fey, Father?” Haden ventured.

“Indeed he does,” Mal said, staring suspiciously into Cerellis’ face.

“Would it be all right for us to sit down?” Sheen asked. “It feels a bit awkward, just standing here.”

“Oh, take my seat,” Margone said, her tone vicious. “I have more important matters to attend to, since that devil-loving witch passed over my generous offer, I’m forced to look for other opportunities.”

“I’m sure you’ll find something,” Talan said stiffly.

“You know, it’s so . . . charming . . . that you all still trail along so loyally after my son. Like a pack of dogs. Come, Splinter!” She swept out of the room, her bodyguard trailing behind. Cerellis watched her with an expression of deep pain and longing on his face, an expression that Haden did not miss. It made him grimace. Sheen stared at them, bewildered, and started to sit down, but Haden grabbed her arm and nudged her into a chair.

“Better not,” he said quietly. “You don’t know where she’s been.”

“Where . . . where was I?” Cerellis said after a moment. “Ah, yes. The fey.” He sat down carefully in an armchair. Mal plopped down on the floor, like a child waiting for a story. Cerellis began to speak, his voice faltering a bit at first, but gradually gaining strength as the words came back to him.

Sheen watched Haden, saw him sigh and rub his forehead tiredly, even though he was obviously trying to listen. “Are you all right?” she whispered.

“I’m all right. I was just hoping . . .” Haden’s voice trailed off for a moment. “I’m not really sure what I was hoping. I wasn’t expecting Mother.”

“And to this day, no fiend would *dare* approach that bridge, knowing the price we paid, and would still pay, to defend it,” Cerellis finished.

“Do you remember Catriona, milord?” Joris asked. Cerellis frowned in puzzlement, then seemed to recover.

“By the Stars! Catriona! Now there’s a name I have not heard for some time. Of course I know her!”

“Is it always like that with you two?” Sheen whispered to Haden. “You and your mother, I mean.”

“It used to be worse,” Haden said dully, “but now that I’m old enough to have some autonomy she’s been reduced to impotent sniping.”

“We saw Catriona in Arvandor,” Joris was saying. “She sends her love.”

“Does she, now,” Cerellis murmured. He smiled distantly. Sheen glanced at Haden’s face, and saw that he, too, was smiling slightly.

“You admire him, don’t you?” she asked.

“Well . . . yes, I suppose I do. He *is* a hero, after all. And he tells wonderful stories. I just never understood how he could get involved with someone like Mother.”

“I kind of wondered a bit about that myself,” Joris murmured, “given my own, ah, situation.”

“Love chooses who it will,” Talan said.

Cerellis reached out and grabbed Haden’s shoulder suddenly, winking. “You know, son, Catriona had feelings for your grandfather . . . had she not been sworn to another, our family might have been rather different! Indeed, her consort was the one that Vaeros and your grandfather went to rescue from the Abyss in the first place!”

“Um, I don’t think I’d have made much of a celestial, Father,” Haden joked weakly.

“Ohh,” Cerellis said, waving a hand in front of his face sharply. “Give it time, son. Give it time.”

“Wait,” Mal said to Talan. “That’s Haden’s father?”

Talan blinked at the elven wizard in shock. “Yes. You only realized that now?” Mal shrugged.

Haden cleared his throat. “I did actually want to ask you about something, Father. If you don’t mind.”

“Of course, my boy.”

“The five of us have been adventuring together, and it’s become a bit . . . awkward for us to stay in public inns. Our business has gotten kind of involved.”

“Oh?” Cerellis said.

“Yes,” Haden explained. “I thought I remembered that we, er, you own several townhouses, and I was wondering if there’s one available we could . . . borrow for a while.”

“Oh! Certainly. Certainly!” Cerellis said cheerfully. “Come, let’s adjourn to the study, this way . . .” he rose creakily to his feet once more and shuffled slowly out of the parlor and down the hall, to the study they’d seen on their last visit. A huge map of Sigil hung on the wall. Cerellis sat down at the desk and pulled one of the drawers out: it was full of dozens of keys. “Now let me see . . .” he said, moving his finger over the drawer.

Haden stalked around the room uneasily, looking at the map and examining the books on the walls without really seeing them.

“I have a house in Swordhold, at the edge of the Lady’s Ward,” Cerellis said eventually. “But it’s close to the Foundry, which is, well, it’s smelly.”

Sheen choked.

“I think that would be wonderful, Father. Thank you. Besides, Sheen’s a metal-worker by trade, it won’t bother her any.”

“That’s not far from my place, either,” Joris added.

“I have my own place, though!” Sheen asserted, a bit too late. Haden blinked at her, then he flushed slightly.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply—“

“No, no, it’s okay!” Sheen babbled desperately.

“I thought the point of this was that we needed to move from our known places of residence,” Talan said.

“Um, I think it’s more that the inn is just too public,” Haden averred. “Too many people in and out all the time.”

“I may have something else, if you’d rather?” Cerellis asked, clearly confused by the rapid-fire conversation taking place around him.

“No, of course not,” Haden said. “I really appreciate this, Father.”

“It’s the least I can do for you, son.” The old celestial pulled a ring of keys out of the drawer, but his hands trembled and he dropped it onto the carpet. “Oh . . .” he started, frustrated.

Haden ducked and grabbed the keys, handing him back to Cerellis in a single smooth motion. “Maybe you should get some rest?” the bard suggested.

“I . . .yes. I think it must be that time,” Cerellis said. He passed the keys back to Haden. “It’s the brass one with the interwoven swans, there.”

Haden smiled sadly and patted his father on the back. “Thank you.”

“No, thank *you*, son.”

“We should . . . we should probably head out . . . make sure Yolette’s all right . . .” Sheen murmured.

“Right,” Joris said. “Right.” Talan sniffed and passed a hand over his eyes.

“Yes, I want to have words with that Tulio fellow,” Haden said. He took a deep breath. “We interrupted a bit of a robbery earlier today, you know. Nothing important, but it’s probably better to follow up on that sort of thing. Um.”

“That’s nice,” Cerellis said. “I’ll just be off to bed, then.” Haden’s hands twisted the keys as he stared at the floor. Cerellis braced himself on the chair arms and stood with effort.

“Good night, Father,” Haden whispered.

“Yes, good night,” Cerellis said. He glanced around the room. “Take care of my boy, won’t you?”

“I think he takes care of us, more,” Sheen said gently.

Haden snorted, but it sounded more like a sniffle than an expression of disbelief. “Oh, come on,” he said thickly.

“I believe it,” Cerellis said, reaching out and plucking hesitantly at Haden’s sleeve. Very slowly, the bard detached one of his hands from the keys and extended his arm. Cerellis wrapped his arms around Haden’s shoulders and gripped him tightly. “Take care of each other, then.” He turned slowly and shuffled off to bed.

Haden took several deep breaths, trying to regain his composure, and stared at the wall for a while. “I need a drink,” he said finally.

“We, ah, passed the Black Sail on the way here,” Joris said as they all began filing towards the doors. Haden stuffed his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders, staring at the street as he walked, lost in thought.

Sheen glanced at Joris. “I don’t know how much this helps, but I don’t think your situation with Kalisa is really parallel to Haden’s,” she said.

“No?” Joris said, relief evident in his voice.

“No,” Sheen said. “I’m not completely sure why, but she just doesn’t strike me quite the same way that Margone does. If Margone were after you, she’d make sure she left you no options, and she’d gloat over your helplessness every step of the way. Kalisa seems to have gone to a lot of effort to leave matters up to you.”

“That was my first time actually meeting Her Ladyship,” Joris said, and gave a mock shiver.

“Fun, isn’t she?” Sheen said. “I know she’s being nasty, but both times I couldn’t think of a thing to say.”

“I can’t imagine why Hexla wouldn’t want to do business with such a generous dame,” Talan said sarcastically. “She probably got drawn in before she knew what a self serving . . . Margone she is. But she pulled out in time, that’s good, right?”

“Maybe,” Sheen said, “but she has Margone’s attention now. That can’t be good.”

“Mmph,” Talan said. “You’re probably right.”

“Well, so do we,” Joris added.

“Yes, but we are more independent,” Sheen said. “There has to be something we can do to help Hexla so she doesn’t have to get involved in this kind of thing any more.”

Talan smiled and nodded. They walked into the Black Sail. Haden smiled at Salja and asked for a table. The tiefling’s face lit up and she hauled some drunk out of a seat, swiped the table clean in a twinkling, and corralled five chairs for them.

“I knew you’d be comin’ back through that door,” she said happily. “Now what’ll it be?”

“A bottle of wine, and some of whatever you’re serving for dinner,” Haden said. Joris raised an eyebrow at the bard skeptically. “I said I needed a drink,” Haden added with some asperity, “not that I was going to get drunk. Facing Sheen’s temper with a hangover is not an experience I care to repeat.” Sheen scowled.

“I’ll drink to that,” Joris said.

“Is that the house just across the street, there?” Talan asked after a minute or two. The building looked solid, but every inch of it was covered in soot, or razorvine, or sooty razorvine.

“It looks like it could use some work,” Sheen remarked.

“So could the whole ward, for that matter,” Talan opined.

“It’ll give us something to do while we’re waiting for the next development, anyway,” Sheen said. “Someone’s going to turn up looking for that rock.”

“Yes,” Haden said. “Mal, isn’t there anything you can tell us about why you’re here?”

“I wish I could,” Mal said quietly. “I know not even what she wishes done with the Eye.”

“You don’t know, or you can’t remember?” Sheen asked.

“I do not even know if I ever knew,” Mal said.

“It’s terrible not to know what’s going on inside your own head,” Sheen offered, just as Talan shot the elf an exasperated look. Mal glared at him.

“DO YOU THINK I CHOOSE THIS, TALAN?!” he exploded. The bar instantly went quiet. Talan winced.

“Well, no, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s really very frustrating,” the ranger said.

Mal stared around the bar. “WHAT?!” he demanded. Everyone very quickly turned their eyes away.

“Settle down, friend,” Haden advised. “What can we do to help you?”

Mal lowered his head. “I’m sorry,” he said in a subdued voice and stared at his clasped hands. “I can do nothing. We wait. Her desires will become manifest when she wills.”

“Maybe it’ll come back to you,” Joris said carefully.

“I find it helps to keep busy,” Sheen said. “It keeps you from losing your mind, anyway.”

“Sometimes I start to feel closed in . . . when I’m around too many people, meditation helps.”

“You need to shack up with some books and find out more about the Eye,” Haden said.

“We have the Tome of Knowledge I took from that Baltazo creature,” Mal said. He pushed his plate and glass away and stood, tossing a few coins onto the table.

“Let’s go see the house,” Haden suggested. “It should be quieter than Chirper’s, anyway.” They left the common room, passing the bar. Mal swiveled to look at the huge bar mirror, then abruptly climbed over the bar and pressed his face to the glass.

“Oi!” Salja called, startled.

“Why?” Mal whispered. “Why do you do this? What penance do I pay? What crime bought me this sentence?!” He pounded on the glass with a gauntleted fist, cracks spreading. “WHO ARE YOU?!” the elf bellowed. The glass gave way and rained down around him. Sheen grabbed his shirt.

“Mal, come on Mal, you’re making a scene!” she hissed.

“I’m sorry! Please, I’m sorry!” Mal pleaded, grasping at the shards of glass.

“Mal, come down before you cut yourself!” Sheen insisted. Mal let her help him down from the bar, sobbing weakly and mumbling.

“Come on, let’s get you home,” Joris said, taking the wizard’s other arm.

Haden looked at Salja, who was incoherent with fury. “I’m sorry about that. We’ll pay for the damages, of course.”

“Glad to hear it!” Salja said coldly.

Cold Blood: Session 23

They walked through the streets of Sigil, not bothering with trying to hail a cab during the busy part of the day. As they passed the Tenth Pit, an alehouse more disreputable than most, the door burst open and a massive red-skinned devil trundled out, dragging a smaller devil by the neck. It looked them over, then turned and stomped into an alley, muttering something that sounded like: “. . . mouthing off to a superior officer . . .”

“I’ll never get used to seeing things like that wandering around in the streets,” Sheen said after it had left.

Joris looked over at Haden. “Are you? Used to it, I mean.”

Haden thought for a long moment, then chuckled. “The fact that I don’t really know probably means that the answer is ‘yes’. I never realized there was anything to get ‘used to’. If you think about it, humans are more of an anomaly here than devils.”

“Oh, I think about that all the time,” Joris said.

“We probably look as strange to them as they do to us,” Talan offered.

“I don’t know about that,” Haden said. “What strikes me as odd is that the planar creatures have use for or need of a city at all.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” Joris said. “Yet they have so many.”

“Their existence is secondary, really, borne from the nature of the planes themselves. And yet they adopt so many human ideas, mannerisms, and habits. It makes you wonder who’s really in charge of the Universe.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Joris said.

Sheen unlocked the back door to the Hands of Time, looking askance at the Harmonium guards lounging around the front of the shop. “Should put up a ‘no loitering’ sign,” she muttered. “The washroom is that way. I’ll go get some towels,” she added, and hurried up the stairs.

The men peered around the back room, which was full of interesting gears, springs, and other bits of clockwork. A half-finished mechanical nightingale sat on a workbench. Then raised voices suddenly rang out from inside the store proper. Haden and Talan peered around the corner, trying to see.

Dr. Rhasmanayet and Yolette were talking to a Harmonium guard, a dwarf, whose back was to them. He was holding a young male human by one arm, and two other hardheads stood in the shop aisle, guarding the front door. Haden straightened up and strode into the room, his hands nonchalantly in his pockets.

“Well, hello,” he said. The dwarf turned: it was Fritzan Ringhammer.

“Hello again, Mister Haden,” Dr. Rhas said politely. Haden adopted his mother’s favorite expression as he looked down at Fritzan, as though he’d just touched something disgusting but was far too polite to mention it.

“I hope we won’t trouble you stopping by like this, Doctor, we were just going to tidy up a bit.”

“Not at all,” the Doctor said smoothly. “My home is yours. We’ll have this cleared up shortly.”

“If I may enquire, what happened?” Haden asked.

Yolette looked at the dwarf, their heads were nearly at the same height. “This piker was trying to run off with a planar sextant,” she said. “He put it in his pocket, then he tried to walk out the door.”

“Language, Yolette!” Dr. Rhas corrected.

“The proper term for Fritzan is ‘hardhead’ or ‘berk’, anyway,” Haden added mildly. Fritzan glared black death at him, grinding his teeth.

“Why’d I have it in my hand when you shouted at me?” the human demanded. He looked more frightened and cornered than indignant, though. “I wasn’t tryin’ to hide nothin’!”

“He’s here, Officer Ringhammer,” one of the Harmonium by the door said suddenly.

“Good,” Fritzan growled. “Let him in.”

Haden looked the alleged perp over curiously. “What’s your name? I don’t think I’ve seen you around before.”

“Tulio,” the human said sulkily. “I just arrived here from a Prime, they tell me.”

“Ah?” Haden asked. “Which one?”

“Place called Thazia. Things were gettin’ bad there.”

“Things aren’t much better here for amateurs,” Haden said. “If you want to do something in Sigil, then you have to do it *well*.” The guards ushered a man into the room, a tall human dressed in elaborate red and black robes. Most of his head was shaved, with the remainder of his straight, glossy black locks arranged in a queue on the top of his skull. Sheen came down the stairs carrying an armload of towels, and blinked to see Joris, Talan, and Mal all gathered around the door frame.

“What’s going on?” she asked. Then she saw what they were looking at. “Oh.”

“He looks like he’s from Kara-Tur,” Joris murmured. “That’s the Mercykillers faction symbol . . .”

The strange man bowed to Haden. “Kuroda Norinaga, at your service,” he said gravely.

“Ask this one if he tried to steal this sextant-thing,” Fritzan growled before Haden could respond. Norinaga glanced at Tulio for barely a second.

“It is not necessary. He is guilty.”

“Good enough for me!” Fritzan said, grinning, and started to haul Tulio across the floor. The human paled in horror. “Come on, berk, it’s the Courts for you . . .”

“EXCUSE me!” Sheen interrupted, storming across the floor to block Fritzan’s path. “This is Dr. Rhasmanayet’s shop, thank you, if anyone should be deciding what to do here, it’s him.” She glared at Fritzan over the top of her towels.

Dr. Rhas looked down at Yolette. “You saw him try to take it?”

“Aye,” Yolette said nervously. “That’s what I been sayin’.”

“Then, yes, please arrest him,” the Doctor said. Sheen shot the doctor a black look.

“Now are ya happy?” Fritzan growled at her.

“He has broken the law, Sheen, he must be punished. Surely you can see that?” Dr. Rhas asked Sheen gently.

“No. He attempted to break the law. There’s a difference.”

“Doesn’t he get a trial or a chance to defend himself?” Talan asked from across the room.

“Of course he does,” Fritzan snapped.

“Really, and here you’re already talking about punishment,” Talan insisted.

“I’ve heard all about what happens to people you arrest!” Sheen shot back hotly.

“I’m not surprised, what with the cross-tradin’ company you lot keep!” Fritzan bellowed. Dr. Rhas crossed the floor and took Sheen’s arm gently.

“I’m sorry, Doctor,” she said. “I wouldn’t interfere if I had any faith in these proceedings, but as it stands . . .”

“No, it’s all right,” Dr. Rhas said, squeezing her arm. He turned to look at Tulio. “If I let you go with a warning, do you promise never to show your face in my shop again?”

Tulio stared. “I . . . what?” Haden nudged him.

“Here’s your chance, kid, don’t blow it.”

“Yeah . . . yeah! I won’t come here no more. I promise.”

Talan glanced over at Joris. “You know, Sheen really is a big softy at heart.”

“She hides it well, but it’s still there,” Joris said, grinning. He watched Haden palm a few coins into Tulio’s jerkin.

“You may want to consider stopping at Chirper’s for a bite to eat,” the bard suggested quietly.

“Two of a kind, they are,” Talan said.

“So, let him go already,” Dr. Rhas said to Fritzan, “I have work to do.” Fritzan let go of the young man’s arm and Tulio immediately scurried out of the shop.

“I’m watchin’ ya, berk!” Fritzan bellowed after his retreating back. He turned to glare around the shop. “An’ that goes triple fer all o’ you! Gatekeepers my eye!” He stormed out, the other Harmonium troops following. Only Norinaga remained, admiring a pocket watch.

“Well, that was weird,” Yolette said, looking up at Haden. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Haden said. “I’m going to get cleaned up.”

“Okay,” Yolette said.

Talan looked down at Ari, who resembled a shrubbery more than a dog. “I guess we’ll go last, since I’m not sure you want to share the bath with Ari.”

“Not today,” Joris said.

Sheen hurried, but she was still some time getting the filth and webbing out of her hair. When she went to her room to get clean clothing, Yolette knocked on the door tentatively.

“Yes?” Sheen asked.

“I had a dream,” Yolette said nerviously. “I don’t remember having one before.”


“I saw my father, I think.”

Sheen nodded blandly. “That is good. The effects of Baltazo’s treatment are probably wearing off, then.”

“Yeah,” Yolette said distantly. “It’s weird, cos he sang me a song, told me he loved me, but I can’t think of his name. What kind of piker would take that away from someone?” the girl asked, tears welling in her eyes. Sheen realized abruptly that some sympathy might be appropriate, and also that she was the least likely person to give it properly.

“Um . . .” She offered Yolette the towel, not knowing what else to do.

“Thanks,” Yolette said, sniffling loudly. “You’re gonna get him, right? Put him in the dead-book, I mean?”

“Yes, of course,” Sheen said. “The more I find out about him, the more reasons I have. The fact that he’s still wandering around is an offense to decent people everywhere.”

“Good,” Yolette said finally. “Cos I’m still afraid he might come and do it again.”

“With any luck, we’ll keep him far too busy to try anything like that.”

Haden sauntered down the corridor, restored to his usual impeccable cleanliness, and smiled at them. “And how are my two favorite ladies?” he asked cheerfully. Yolette hurriedly divested herself of the towel and threw her arms around Haden.

“Hey, now, don’t muss me,” the bard joked.

“Oh, sorry!” Yolette squeaked, letting go quickly.

Haden laughed. “I was kidding, dear. Women should feel free to muss me as much as they like. Especially you two.” In unison, Sheen and Yolette blushed crimson.

“We should head out,” Sheen said, coughing slightly and finishing tying her hair back. They climbed down the stairs, to find a restored Talan, Joris, and Mal waiting for them.

“That Mercykiller bought two watches,” Dr. Rhas said in wonder.

“Maybe you should have more shoplifters, then,” Haden said innocently. The doctor chuckled.

“I think he’ll be back. Norinaga, I mean, not the thief. And Yolette’s doing well, for a beginner. We’ll keep the forge working until we see you again.”

“I should be back soon,” Sheen said, and they slipped out into the street.

“Gods, I’m so happy to be clean,” Talan remarked.

“And you’re *used* to the wilderness,” Joris said. “Imagine how I feel.”

“Sometimes I think the entire universe is composed of nothing but dirt,” Haden mused. “There ought to be a faction organized around the Dirt philosophy.”

“Finally a philosophy I can believe in,” Joris said. Talan chuckled.

“The path of true cleanliness is to become so filthy that you reach equilibrium with your surroundings and new dirt falls off of its own accord,” Haden continued, warming to his subject. Joris peeked over at Sheen to gauge her reaction. She was obviously trying not to laugh. “It works the same with water. You can only get so wet, and after that there’s just no point any more.”

“Or you drown,” Joris pointed out.

“Drowning is superfluous to my theory,” Haden announced.

“I gotta say that Ari would rather belong to the Dirt faction,” Talan said, patting the gamboling dog fondly.

“Or, at least the Smelly faction,” Haden suggested. Sheen finally broke down and laughed.

“All this talk isn’t helping us walk any faster, you three!” She admonished, giggling. Ahead, at the edge of their vision, pedestrians were dropping out of sight. The effect worked its way slowly toward them like a wave in reverse, everyone in the crowd dropping to their knees or rough approximations thereof. In the square, three humanoids drifted silently over the cobblestones. Two were tall and thin, with dark skin and puffs of white hair that made them look like paintbrushes with delusions of grandeur. The third’s face was a corroded bronze mask ringed with blades—Her Serenity, the Lady of Pain.

“Should we be doing something?” Sheen whispered in alarm. Joris had already knelt in the street. Only Haden appeared unconcerned.

“Who can say?” he asked rhetorically. “If she’s decided she doesn’t like you, then groveling won’t save you. And if she’s decided to ignore you, it probably doesn’t matter. Come on, Joris, let’s cut down this side-street here and avoid the crush.”

“Right,” Joris said, standing again and looking sheepish.

“Probably?” Sheen asked carefully as they skirted the crowd.

“With the Lady, you don’t ever get any better than ‘probably’,” Haden said. “She’s kind of like Mal in that respect.” A few minutes later, they had navigated their way to Aasimon Walk and the gates of Honorgard. Haden hesitated outside the gates.

“What is it?” Joris asked.

“You know, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Why don’t we just leave a message and let Father know we’ll come by later, when he’s expecting us?”

“Having second thoughts about this?” Talan asked.

“Even if you leave a message,” Sheen said patiently, “he still won’t be expecting you.”

“He wasn’t expecting you last time, and it didn’t seem to bother him,” Joris added.

“It’s too late to back out,” Sheen said with finality.

“Oh all right,” Haden grumbled, and walked up to the gate. An unfamiliar githzerai stood at attention on the other side.

“Hail,” it intoned.

“Hello, it’s me, open the gate,” Haden said.

“You?” the gith asked, blinking.

“Me!” Haden said crossly. “You know, Lord Cerellis’ son?”

The gith leaned closer and frowned. “Do you have some identification?”

“Identification?” Haden squawked indignantly. “I live here, thank you! Well, technically.”

“Technically?” Joris asked.

“Legally, yes. Physically, not so much.”

“What is your name?” the gith asked slowly.

“Haden.” The gith pondered this latest development. It looked like it hurt.

“All right then,” he said finally, and opened the gate. Haden clapped a hand over his eyes and shook his head, then walked across the courtyard and unlocked the front doors. The gith watched them for several moments before remembering to close the gate again.

Inside, the building looked much the same, but they could hear voices and see light coming from the parlor, just off the main entrance hall. Haden pushed the door open, peering inside as though he was expecting an ambush. Lord Cerellis lounged on a deep velvet-covered couch, his head in Lady Margone’s lap.

Haden stared. “All right, who are you, and what have you done with my parents?”

Apr 9, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 22

“Sooo, is anyone hurt?” Joris asked, healing his own spider-bites with a pained expression.

“I don’t think so,” Sheen said.

“Not really, just tangled up a bit,” Talan replied.

“I’m fine,” Haden said. “Sticky, but fine.”

Mal did not venture an opinion.

“Did that spider drag Firil down here? What happened to her?” Sheen asked, beginning to explore the lair a bit more thoroughly. Talan hacked the webs away and approached the pile of bodies. He unwrapped the cocoon on top to reveal an unconscious elven woman. She stirred as the web was pulled away, leaving nasty red welts on her skin.

“Are you okay?” Talan asked carefully, in elven. She didn’t respond.

“It may be the poison,” Joris said. “Let me try something.” He held up his hands and a faint silver glow formed around them. When he touched the woman, the glow sank into her skin and her breathing eased. She slowly opened her eyes.

“I don’t like this,” Sheen said. “Let’s get out of here.”

“We can’t just leave her,” Talan said.

“I wasn’t suggesting it,” Sheen replied. “Let’s *all* get out of here.” The two of them picked up the elven woman and began carrying her towards the exit tunnel.

“We should set fire to the remaining webs,” Mal suggested. “There may be egg sacs or young spiders remaining.”

Haden hesitated. “It may set fire to the entire tree. I don’t think the elves would appreciate that much.”

“Perhaps not, then,” Mal said, bending down and liberating a sack of coins from the webbing, then climbed out of the pit.

“Where am I? Ahh!” the elven woman squealed as she was hoisted bodily up the passage.

“Don’t worry, we’re here to help you,” Talan said.

“I’m just supposed to take your word for that?” she huffed.

“Um . . . yes,” Talan stammered.

“You can go back down in the pit if you like,” Sheen added uncharitably.

“Wait! No, I’m sorry, that came out all wrong,” she said. They sat down on the branch outside, breathing the fresh air appreciatively.

“Are you Firil Starwing, then?” Sheen asked.

“Yes, that’s me. Do I know you?”

“I am Sheen, and these are Talan, Joris, Haden and Mal. We’ve become involved in the intrigues of some unsavory people and we came here when we found that their plots involved you in some way.”

Firil stared at Joris, then glanced at the nearby shrine. “That’s my brother’s shrine . . . and you’re wearing his armor and carrying his mace?”

“You left them behind when you left the Circle,” Joris explained. “Numeledes gave them to me. Do you want them back?”

“No, Sarolar would be glad to know that someone decent is using them. So, what unsavory types are we talking about, here? I feel like I should know something, but there’s a big black spot in my mind instead.”

“Do you remember what prompted you to go out?” Haden asked.

“Almost . . .” Firil said, frustrated.

Haden and Sheen exchanged a glance. “Gyderic was here,” Sheen said. “Making people forget is his favorite trick.”

“Let’s go back to the temple,” Firil said. “I’d feel safer there. And put me down,” she said to Talan, “I can walk.”

“Okay,” the ranger said, “but be careful.” Firil took a cautious step forward, then staggered dizzily and nearly fell off the branch.

“Um, never mind,” she said. “Maybe you could help me?” The five of them helped carry Firil down the stairs and across the Moot platform to the temple of Corellon, where the attendant priest immediately began fussing over her. She waved him away irritably.

“So,” Haden began again, “Did you see or meet with anyone unusual today?”

“I . . . maybe?” Firil said. “Wait . . . I did. Yes, I did. He was asking me about something . . . something he needed to know. Once he had it, he . . .that’s right. He told me it was a good idea to visit my brother’s shrine, and I agreed with him. When I looked back over my shoulder, he was gone.”

“Do you remember what he asked you?” Haden queried gently.

“It was important . . . a secret,” Firil whispered. “It was why I left Sigil! I was afraid that if anyone found out, they’d come after me! But what was it? I think he made me forget!”

“Can’t you do something?” Sheen asked, looking at Haden.

“Me?” Haden asked doubtfully.

“Well, I certainly can’t,” Sheen said. “I have psionic power, but I only really know how to use it for physical tasks.”

“Well, I could try probing her mind . . . if she wants to do that a second time,” Haden offered. Talan looked slightly alarmed.

“Would it hurt?” Firil asked.

“It shouldn’t,” Haden said.

“Then, please, help me if you can. It’s horrible to feel part of your life cut away.”

“I know,” Sheen and Haden said simultaneously. Haden sat down on a wooden bench beside Firil and put his hands carefully on either side of her head. He closed his eyes, concentrating.

“Try to think back to when you left Sigil, maybe that will help,” Haden said softly. “What were you doing? Did you leave in a hurry? Did you pack carefully? Did you say goodbye to your friends?”

“I was worried about what I’d learned,” Firil said quietly. “I didn’t stop to pack, didn’t say goodbye to anyone. I knew I could stay with Sarolar, here on Grandfather Oak. They took me on at the chapel, and it was mine after he died . . .”

“What were you doing before that? Why were you in Sigil at all?”

Firil frowned. “R-research. I was interested in the origin of the planes.”

“How were you researching that?” Haden asked, startled.

“There were a lot of conflicting stories, a lot of different ideas.”

“I wouldn’t know there was even one,” Haden offered. “Were you asking people, or digging through books . . .”

“Oh, books, definitely,” Firil said. “People don’t know what they’re talking about half the time. There was one . . . it had so many answers.”

“Where do you think books come from?” Haden said, amused. Firil closed her eyes, drifting into some sort of reverie, and Haden prodded her a bit. “Dear, I need you to concentrate.”

“Sorry,” Firil said distantly. “That was what he asked me about. I can’t remember why it was important, only that it was. The Eye of the Dawn.”

“What did you say?!” Mal burst out.

“The Eye of the Dawn. It’s a gem—a diamond.”

“What do you know of it?” Mal demanded.

“Less than I did before, I think,” Firil said, staring up at Mal. Haden winced and let go of her, looking mildly disgusted. “That man asked where it was . . . I remember . . . they hid it on the Isle . . . the Isle of Black Trees.” Haden started to laugh helplessly. “What’s so funny?” Firil asked, perplexed.

“Oh, nothing,” Haden gasped. He continued under his breath: “Hey, Bendon, when you went and raided the famous faerie treasure, you didn’t happen to find a big honkin’ diamond, did you? You did? And what did you do with it, exactly? Oh, you hocked it for licker and hoors. How delightful.”

“Do you know of this place?” Mal demanded.

“We know *of* it,” Joris explained.

“Did you find it, then?” Mal asked.

“We found out about a book that explained how to get there, and I told Bendon about the book. None of us actually went there.”

“We knew some people who were looking for a key to a portal,” Joris added.

“But Bendon showed up some time later with my ‘cut’, so I’m assuming *he* actually went there,” Haden finished.

“Then we should go back to Sigil before Gyderic finds him,” Sheen said tiredly.

“Do you think he might?” Joris asked nervously. Sheen stared at him incredulously.

“Is this a trick question? Do you forget that Gyderic so recently had Haden up on the slab and was messing around in his head?! If Haden knows, then so does Gyderic.”

“Don’t remind me,” Haden muttered, wincing.

“I think we all wanted to forget that,” Talan said.

“So we can find this Bendon in Sigil?” Mal asked.

“Yes,” Sheen said. “Let’s go, I don’t want him getting away from us again!”

“Which part of Sigil do you need to get to?” Firil asked.

“Bendon is a Bleaker wizard,” Haden said, “So he’s usually at the Gatehouse. We need to go to the Hive.”

“Then don’t take the portal in the chapel of Labelas Enoreth,” Firil said. “It’ll take you all day to get down there, and twice as long to cut across half the Cage. You’re much better off using the one here.”

“We didn’t know there was one here. We’ll have to tell Lissandra about it.”

“Not too many do, that aren’t elves, anyway,” Firil stated. “It will lead you to the Green Mill in the Lower Ward, which is not far from the Gatehouse. Follow me.” She stood, a bit shakily, and led them deeper into the temple, to a small dining room and gesturing to a lovely arch that led into the kitchen. “The key is a song sung in elvish.”

Everyone exchanged glances. Finally, Haden cleared his throat. “Since mah baby lef me, I foun’ a new place to dwell, down at the end of lonely street at . . . Heartbreak Hotel . . .”

“What the hell?” Talan asked, staring.

“What?” Haden replied, stopping. “Elvis!”

“That’s *not* what she said,” Talan informed him.

Mal rolled his eyes and sang briefly. The portal opened, and they stepped through, beneath an arch in a wide avenue bordered by majestic trees. A tall yellow-green water mill stood at the end of the boulevard, incongruous among the worn gray buildings that surrounded it on all sides. Haden looked around, perplexed, then managed to orient himself on a distant landmark.

“Ah, I know where this is,” he said. “I haven’t been here before, exactly.” He led them into the street, which turned out to be Ragmonger’s Lane, that led into Ragpicker’s Square, right in front of the Mortuary, where the guards scowled at them in a desultory fashion. They ducked through the Alley of Lingering Sighs, still moving at a good clip, and emerged on Bedlam Run, which, in its turn, led them to the Gatehouse.

A long queue of the desperate nearly blocked the gate, but Haden walked past them as though he didn’t even notice their existence, the rest of the party trailing in his wake. The Bleaker tending the line glanced up at him, smiled very slightly, and waved him through. Inside, a handful of Cabal followers were tending the barmies in the processing area, including a familiar face: Derioch Ysarl.

“Ah, Derioch, how lovely to see you,” Haden said. “Is Bendon around? It’s a teeny little bit of an emergency.”

“He’s out exercising our Criminally and Irretrievably Insane guests,” she said shortly. “Wait here, I’ll get ‘im.”

Haden glanced at Talan while they waited impatiently. “How does a wizard ‘exercise’ the criminally insane?” he asked in an undertone.

“I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that,” Talan replied seriously. Mal was scanning the crowd. He abruptly grabbed one of the people in the yard.

“WHERE IS IT?!” the elf demanded.

“Oi! Turn ‘im loose, there!” one of the guards shouted, charging across the courtyard.

“Mal!” Sheen gasped, grabbing the elf’s arm. Mal blinked and a look of surprise came over his face. He released the man he’d accosted.

“I, I’m sorry . . .” Mal whispered. “I don’t know what came over me. I’m all right,” he said to Sheen. “I’m all right now.”

Derioch returned with Bendon Mawl in tow. The tiefling wizard’s pale face split in a wide grin when he spotted them. “Haden! What’s the chant, you hellspawn rascal?”

Haden favored him with a pained look. “Could we talk somewhere a little more . . . private?”

“Uh, sure,” Bendon said, his brow furrowing in perplexity.

“You can use my office,” Derioch offered. “This way.” She ushered them into the building and down a short hall to a tiny stone room stuffed with paperwork, really more of a closet than an office.

“Thanks, Derioch,” Bendon said. She snorted and left. “Listen, I know it’s early, but if you wanna go grab a drink, we can—“

“Bendon,” Haden said seriously, “when you were visiting the Isle of Black Trees, did you happen to come across a rather large diamond?”

Bendon shot Haden a furtive, suspicious look. “Don’t know nothin’ about no diamond,” he said sulkily. Haden grabbed the wizard’s shoulders and shook him. “Aah!”

“Bendon, there’s no time for this. If you know something about this diamond your life could be in danger, and we can’t protect you unless you tell us!” Haden snapped.

“All right! All right! I’ve got it!” Bendon glanced around the room nervously one more time. “I’ve got it right here.” He reached into a pouch at his belt and pulled out a truly monstrous diamond: at least fifty carats, and absolutely perfect, flawless. It glowed even in the faint light of the cell, a brilliant orange that shaded delicately into pink, like the most glorious of sunrises. Mal’s eyes widened and he reached for it, but Bendon pulled it back with a scowl.

“She desires it,” Mal said darkly.

“How much?” Haden asked.

“Has to be worth six digits, at least, Haden!” Bendon scoffed. “Dippin’ inta yer trust fund?”

“And we could just take it off you, but I’m trying to be straight with you, here,” Haden said. “You can keep it if you want, but some nasty people are going to show up looking for it soon.”

Bendon shrank back a bit more.

“Come on, Bendon. The minute anyone else finds out about that thing, there will be murder in the streets. Big gems are bad news,” Haden urged.

“I don’t know,” Talan said, shaking his head. “Maybe we should just walk away. Why should we stick our necks out for someone who doesn’t want our help?”

Bendon gaped at them, his mouth opening and closing soundlessly. Then he closed his eyes and drooped, nodding. “I spent alla rest,” he whispered regretfully.

“Let us give you what we can, and if the gem turns out to be harmless and we wind up selling it to someone, you’ll get . . . 60%. That sound fair?” Haden coaxed. “Otherwise, you get some gold, and we absorb the risk.”

Bendon sniffled, his eyes filling with tears. “Yer a good kid, Haden. Yah always been good ta me.”

“Everyone turn out your pockets,” Haden said to the rest of the group. They dug through their pouches and packs, piling a fair amount of gold on the desk, the only clear space in the room. “Talan, would you go get Derioch?” Haden asked quietly. Talan looked unhappy, but left the room. Haden grabbed a blank sheet of paper and a pen, and scribbled for a while, finishing just as Talan returned. Derioch eyed them all, clearly waiting for an explanation.

“We’re giving this money to Bendon,” Haden said, “but I wanted you to keep it for him, since I know he has a tendency to spend it on things that aren’t very good for him.” Bendon looked disappointed for a moment, then sighed.

“Ah, yer right, I do at that.”

“I also wrote down the terms of our agreement here if you want to look them over, then I’ll sign. That way if there’s a problem later, you can show that to someone.”

Derioch read the paper quickly, then signed it and passed it to Bendon, who followed suit. Haden nudged Mal and leaned over the desk to sign, drawing Derioch’s attention while Mal claimed the diamond from Bendon. With the transfer complete, Haden relaxed a bit.

“Sorry about all that, Derioch, we’ve been finding out some alarming things. We’ll get out of your hair now,” he said apologetically.

“No problem,” Derioch said. “Alarming things seem to stick to you cutters like stirges. Still grateful for all yer help, even though we lost two of them barmies you brung us.”

“Wait, which barmies?” Talan asked.

“Alvion and that other fellow, Ulfwood. The two who thought everyone was a demon come to take ‘em for their sins? Both died in the middle of the night.”

“What happened?” Sheen asked.

“They broke loose and strangled each other, as near as we could tell. The bubber you brought us, though, Clarent, he got better.”

“So he was released?” Sheen asked.

“That’s right. Hope he won’t go back to his old ways, but who knows. Anyway, we should be gettin’ back to work. Both of us,” Derioch added, tapping Bendon’s shoulder. Bendon nodded and shuffled forward, then suddenly threw his arms around Haden in a crushing hug.

“Thank ye. Yer a good friend,” he said, then hurried out of the room. Haden stared, shocked.

“It’s a bit strange, those two strangling each other,” Talan said as they left.

“I wonder whether Shillman is still alive,” Sheen said grimly. “Or Margram.”

“Or Trent,” Joris added. Mal pulled the eye out from under his cape, causing the brilliant sunrise colors to bloom again.

“Any idea what that thing is for?” Haden asked him.

“It is why I am here, but I know nothing else,” Mal whispered.

“So your path is the same as ours, after all,” Joris said.

“Mayhaps,” Mal replied. “They seem to cross and follow the same river for a ways.” He slid the stone out of sight again, before they came to the street where anyone might see it.

“Well, now that we have it, whatever else is going on with that stone will come to us. We won’t have to go looking for it,” Haden said. They walked in silence for a while.

“Does anyone else think that we may have bitten off more than we can chew, here?” Sheen asked.

“Yeah,” Talan said. “And then some. At least no one can accuse us of foisting off our responsibilities on others.”

“It bit us first,” Haden said. “The danger will persist until we somehow flush it into the open. There’s no guarantees that we’ll be able to handle it when we do . . .”

“That’s certainly true,” Joris said.

“But we definitely won’t be able to handle it if we let them take the initiative. We’ve been winning so far because we haven’t hesitated.”

“I believe everything will be fine,” Mal said serenely.

“I hope you’re right,” Joris said. Mal grinned.

“Except for Joris, of course. He gets eaten by a bugbear in a few months. I hate being a seer sometimes . . . sorry friend.”

“Sounds like me, all right,” Joris said.

“Maybe we can talk them out of it,” Talan said. Joris chuckled.

“Do you know of any place where we could lay low for a while?” Mal asked. “I need time to contemplate this course of events, and what it may mean.”

Haden frowned. “Chirper’s is becoming an increasingly bad idea. Too public, too many people know we have rooms there. My family owns a lot of property in the city.” He faltered, then said, “Suinjes did say Father was . . . better. I should probably go see him. I don’t know.”

“It wouldn’t hurt,” Sheen said quietly.

“All right,” Haden surrendered. “But let’s get cleaned up first. We’re . . . sticky.”

“We can stop at my room,” Sheen said. “It’s on the way.”

Cold Blood: Session 21

Everyone stood staring at Trillamir blankly. He sighed and said, very deliberately, “Unless I am mistaken, you were recently in Plague-Mort?”

“Yes, we were,” Mal affirmed.

“And if we were?” Sheen asked.

“We are simply curious about what you saw. Catriona’s information”—he nodded to the eladrin—“was secondhand. Not very reliable.” Catriona glanced briefly at Trillamir, then returned to scrutinizing Haden. Haden gave her a polite smile.

Sheen glanced at Mal, then shrugged. “We didn’t see very much, we were mostly concerned with personal business. There were some people who turned out to be demonic stirring up trouble, a bunch of rioting, and a monstrosity claiming some relation to Pazuzu showed up, so we killed it. That was it, really. We didn’t get to see a lot of the scheming and intrigue that we have to assume was going on in the background.”

Trillamir nodded, lost in thought. Haden raised a hand. “May I say something?” he asked.

“Of course,” Trillamir replied, not really paying attention.

“I know that I’m terribly, terribly handsome,” Haden told Catriona, “but all this staring is a bit unnerving just the same.”

“I’m sorry,” Catriona said. “You just look familiar to me.” Talan rolled his eyes and chuckled, elbowing Joris.

“If there were demons in Plague-Mort, Catriona, then you may be right. Their attempt to claim the gate-town may have been spurred on by something else we do not know.”

“Well, they are demons,” Sheen said. “It’s not really necessary to ask *why* they’re evil.”

Frostthorn snorted explosively, causing everyone to jump. “The . . . person, is right. They’ve done it before, they’ll do it again. There’s no sense thinking too much about it.”

“If I were you,” Sheen said, scowling at Frostthorn, “I’d be a little more concerned with the activities o this new cult or organization calling itself the Illuminated. They’ve been causing all kinds of problems.”

Labelas frowned slightly. “I have heard of this group, but little more than the name.”

“Well, *that* we can tell you about,” Sheen said happily. Catriona edged closer to Haden, who tried backing away surreptitiously. Then the eladrin gasped.

“Haden! It is you! By the Stars, how you’ve grown! You wouldn’t remember me, I haven’t seen you since you were a babe. But no one could forget those particolored eyes.” Talan burst out laughing.

“You’d think that we’d be able to find someone who doesn’t know him somewhere,” Sheen grumbled.

“I’m a friend of your father’s and grandfather’s,” Catriona continued. “Or, at least, I knew Faodhagan while he was still with us.”

“I don’t think I ever met him,” Haden said awkwardly.

“No, no, of course not,” Catriona said, “The Abyss took him from us before you were born. I was meant to be on that mission, as well.” She sniffed momentarily. “But look at you now! Isn’t that something!”

“You do *know* that my mother is half-fiend?” Haden asked carefully.

“Oh, sure,” Catriona said blithely. “We all thought Cerellis had lost his mind, but like father, like son I suppose.”

“I . . . see,” Haden replied. Sheen reached out to squeeze his arm gently, looking away and missing the grateful expression on his face. Catriona looked around at the crowd and blushed.

“Pardon my interruption.”

“He’s not the only strange one here,” Frostthorn rumbled, pointing at Mal. “You look like them”—he indicated the elves—“but you smell like us,” he finished, pointing to himself.

“Aye, I am of the daonie-sidhe, at least in part,” Mal replied. “I serve . . .” he started to add, but his expression grew puzzled. Several seconds passed, then he appeared to recover and ended with, “I am of the Fair Folk.”

“I see,” Frostthorn said. “I, too, serve the Seelie, though at times like this I wonder why.”

“Mal actually seems to be having some . . . difficulties,” Haden said.

“What sort of difficulties?” Frostthorn demanded.

“He claims he was sent to aid us, somehow . . . but he appears to have left most of his brains in his other cloak. I’ve lived in Sigil my entire life, I’m prepared to put up with a certain amount of weirdness, but this is too much!”

“I may know someone who can help you, if it will get me out of this accursed moot,” Frostthorn said.

“ . . . sooooo Iii’d haaave to saaaay thaaaat I agreeeee with whaaat you saiiid,” the treant announced slowly.

“I don’t even remember what we asked him, now,” Frostthorn grumbled.

“We could use your aid with one small matter,” Mal commented.

“What is that?” Trillamir asked.

“We are seeking a man that came here some time before we did. What was his name?” he asked Talan.

“Gyderic,” Talan supplied.

“He’s one of the Illuminated,” Sheen explained. “He’s on a mission of some kind here, and I guarantee you that whatever it is, you won’t like it.”

“Then I move we end this moot,” Trillamir said. Frostthorn, Labelas, and Catriona left with alacrity. “What does this Gyderic look like?” Trillamir asked.

“He looks human,” Sheen said, “about five foot nine, brown hair, brown eyes, stupid little mustache.”

“He thinks he’s better-looking than he is,” Haden remarked sourly. “He also thinks he’s more clever than he actually is.”

“We’ll advise our guard and secure all the portals.”

“He has mental powers, you may want to organize your guards so that they can observe each other from out of sight.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Trillamir said, bowing shortly and walking towards the central tree. Sheen shrugged and headed the opposite direction, toward the temple of Corellon. The structure appeared more built than grown, unlike the chapel of Labelas Enoreth below, but it fit well into its surroundings. Inside, a handful of elves were gathered in prayer, led by a priest in green and brown robes. He glanced at them, but continued the service. Sheen opened her mouth to say something, then winced as Haden kicked the side of her boot and gave her a quelling look.

After a few minutes, the prayer seemed to conclude and the priest stepped away from the altar, approaching them. “May I help you?”

“We need to speak with Firil Starwing, if possible,” Haden said.

“I am sorry, but she has just stepped out to visit her brother’s shrine. The timing was a bit unusual, but that is her way.”

“Where is it?” Sheen demanded.

“Higher up the tree, near the old silk farms,” the priest said.

“Right,” Sheen announced, spun around, and charged out the door. Haden blinked.

“Please excuse us,” he told the priest, and hurried to follow. Joris and Talan barreled after them.

“You don’t suppose . . .?” Joris asked.

“I suppose, I suppose!” Sheen said. She groaned looking up the staircase and concentrated, then began climbing the side of the tree itself, her hands and feet sticking easily to the bark.

Haden sighed. “We’re going to feel awfully foolish if this turns out to be nothing, you know.”

“I feel a bit foolish already,” Joris said, puffing his way up the stairs behind the bard. They reached a small shrine in the upper branches shortly after Sheen did, a simple marker covered with memorabilia and the name “Sarolar” carved in Elven script. Otherwise, there was nothing to be seen.

Talan crouched down and peered at the ground. “Someone was here in the last hour or two,” he said. “There was something else, too. Not humanoid.” He stirred some leaves carefully. “It grabbed whoever was standing here and dragged them that way.” Talan pointed further along the branch, where the leaves pressed in, casting dark shadows.

“Right,” Sheen said yet again, and began working her way along the branch. Ectoplasm ran over her skin as she began manifesting powers. Talan searched through the gloom and pointed out a hole rimmed with a whitish crust. The ranger touched it carefully.

“It looks like spiderwebs . . . calcified spiderwebs,” he said.

“Oh,” Joris said. “That kind of silk farm.”

“It’d fit the tracks,” Talan said.

“Wonderful,” Sheen said. “Well, there’s no help for it.” She ducked down and slid into the hole. “Can’t use silkworms like everyone else, oh no . . .” her grumbling retreated into the darkness. “Like to see one of those mulberry-eating little bastards carry someone off . . .”

“Leave it to Sheen to have a vendetta against silkworms,” Haden chuckled. “We’d better follow her before something bad happens.”

Sheen slid down the diagonal tunnel on her belly, landing in a small cave dug out of the wood. The floor was covered with leaves and other bits of detritus that seemed less savory. Her eyes shifted into a strange black-and-white vision, and she realized that she was seeing in the dark just as dwarves did. Ahead of her, there appeared to be a pile of bodies, wrapped in sheets of webbing. The one on the top was wiggling. Sheen scooted across the floor, stopping abruptly when she ran into something in the middle of the room. Sticky spiderweb clung to her armor, clothing and hair, rendering her immoble. She swore viciously.

A droning noise started up in the shadows, as of many tiny clicks blending together in a voiceless moan. Two humanoid forms sheathed in webbing shambled forward. Their “skin” warped and distended, as though fist-sized lumps swum freely beneath it. Sheen twisted and tried to cut herself loose from the web as Talan and Joris came tumbling down the hole almost simultaneously. Joris took a wild swing at one of the monsters, but it backed away and he missed. Talan attacked the other with Greenheart, the blade spilling drops of what looked like glowing blood. The webbing exploded and a swarm of tiny spiders spilled out over Talan’s arms and chest.

Mal landed neatly and surveyed the room. “Tomb spiders,” he remarked as a mottled gray spider the size of a horse scuttled out of the shadows and snapped at him. Haden peeked in a bit more cautiously.

“Well, it’s not *really* appropriate, but you can’t argue with the classics,” he said, then declaimed:

“Old fat spider spinning in a tree!
Old fat spider can't see me!
Attercop! Attercop!
Won't you stop,
Stop your spinning and look at me!

Old Tomnoddy, all big body,
Old Tomnoddy can't spy me!
Attercop! Attercop!
Down you drop!
You'll never catch me up your tree!

Lazy Lob and crazy Cob
are weaving webs to wind me.
I am far more sweet that other meat,
but still they cannot find me!

Here am I, naughty little fly;
you are fat and lazy.
you cannot trap me, though you try,
in your cobwebs crazy.”

[Everyone knows where this poem comes from, right? -- JS]

Joris disabled his attacker, but the small spiders swarmed over him as well, and he yelled in pain at the dozens of bites. Sheen jumped on the giant spider, her claws sinking into its carapace. Then Mal seemed to gather himself, holding his hands up and speaking a word of Fire. The air erupted into a magical blaze, burning the swarms of tiny spiders to a crisp. The giant spider reared back with a shriek like the sound of escaping steam, and throwing Sheen off, it dashed out of the cave and vanished.