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

Apr 30, 2009


I'm experimenting a bit with Illustrator and comic layout and Blogger, but even so this might seem a bit weird:

Sorry. I can only say in my defense that I'm never quite sure exactly how something will look on the blog until I post it.

Jeezus that's fuzzy. I wonder what happens if I use a file-hosting service:

Yeah, that's better. I'm going with that.

Design Project

In case you're wondering what I've been up to (since I haven't been especially communicative), I've been spending most of my time working and going to college. Here's one of my latest projects for a class:

I like this design, even though it's pretty simple.

Apr 29, 2009

Queen of Parentheses

I've noticed recently that when I'm making informal comments (such as on a forum or blog), I use WAY too many parenthetical statements. I'm better about this when I'm doing more formal writing, but I wouldn't be surprised if my longer comments are incredibly difficult for some people to understand.

I think I do this because I realize about halfway through a sentence that more background info would be interesting or helpful, but I don't want to go back to restructure my entire comment to include the background in a non-parenthetical way. So my comment may include more asides than comment, and sometimes I make asides inside the asides!

I talk this way, too, which is why I sometimes wind up telling a long rambling story when I just meant to tell a quick funny anecdote. Part of the problem there may also be that most of my funny anecdotes aren't funny unless you know the entire story--I prefer contextual humor to snarky one-liners, so I'll start to tell the story, then backtrack to give the context, then deliver the payload only to get a "hmm" from the person who has long since stopped listening. That in itself is probably pretty amusing, though.

Apr 28, 2009

It's Not a Compliment

The more I circulate through non-Objectivist communication fora on the Internet, the more I've noticed something that bothers me a great deal: people complaining about the "objectification" of women (and sometimes men) in "the media". This is a really common thread topic on The Escapist because huge jiggling boobs are a perennial feature of video games. Periodically some feminist or a male trying to be modern will feel the need to raise somebody's consciousness and start a thread about it. Either that, or someone partially infected with the modern quasi-feminist neo-Puritanism will feel the need to trundle out a load of guilt, tangled justifications, and confused psychologizing.

None of *this* really bothers me because I realized that the prevailing view of women as oppressed by American society is hogwash. I personally find it endearing that most (read: straight) men are so enthusiastic over female anatomy. I don't like it when otherwise ordinary (again read: straight) men attempt to pretend that they're "above" all those considerations and only interested in women for their "minds". If their pretense is thin (i.e. they have 800 Mb of porn pics on their hard drive), it's just stupid, and if they take their "modern consciousness" seriously they are repressing and in danger of making themselves psychologically ill.

I don't like it when guys are indifferent to beautiful women, but what really bothers me and, on occasion, has made me so angry I became incoherent, is the attempts by modern men to give me or other women backhanded compliments by saying that overdone women are UGLY.

Indifference is bad enough. Physical beauty is not something that just happens. It takes real work and a willingness to devote yourself to eating right, staying in shape, maintaining your skin and hair with painful exactitude, applying makeup, choosing and maintaining clothing, and a host of other tasks. It's not viewed as work because a lot of women do that stuff anyway, and some of it for reasons other than physical appearance. I don't do it myself, but if I were to go through all that effort I'd hate for my reward to be indifference. I think that this is precisely why I have such a hard time bringing myself to exercise those labors--because I am ingrained with precisely that sort of indifference, and I'm the primary beneficiary!

But saying that a woman who clearly has put in quite a lot of effort is "ugly"? To me, this is frankly disturbing. The ramifications of a statement like that are incredible, particularly when it is made in front of another woman as a sort of compliment, which is how I hear this most often. Even if I ascribe the best of intent to the man making the statement--he is saying this particular woman is not his type--it implies an ugly comparative standard. He is saying to the other woman present that she should be pleased because he is elevating HER appearance above that of this other, idolized woman. I'm sorry, but no rational person wants to be valued only because they're BETTER THAN someone else. They want to be valued because they are good by an objective standard.

The man saying this is, in effect, declaring that he has no objective standards, no judgment, and no respect for anyone's achievements. He is declaring that no amount of effort could raise your appeal if you don't happen to luck into his whimsical and probably undefined personal parameters.

What possible value could the admiration of this person have? It's completely random, influenced by factors even he is probably not aware of. Far from being a compliment, this sort of comparison is an insult.


Yes, there's a new template. I'm thinking of starting a webcomic using this blog and I wanted something with more horizontal display space that utilizes the full window, so I'm trying this for now. You may notice that I got rid of all my links. Partly this is because I hadn't updated them for a long time (and this isn't such a popular blog that my links are going to generate a lot of hits), and partly this was for aesthetic reasons.

Oh, that reminds me that I need to update the template for the Index, too.

Apr 24, 2009

376 pages!

That's the length of everything I wrote for this Cold Blood game after I converted all of it to a .pdf file. That's a good-sized novel. Now back to the real novel!

Apr 21, 2009

Cold Blood: Finale

**Note: This is the last session and the end of the game. FINALLY!!!

The mirror led to an unremarkable corridor of stone and mortar. Windows opened on views of foreign planes, some recognizable, some not. At the end of the hall stood another door that opened on what looked very much like the house they’d just left.

“This leads to Dis,” Kal said. “Let’s hurry.” He stepped forward through the door, or tried to, colliding with a seemingly solid wall. “Ow,” he complained.

“Did you wish me to open the mirror?” Mal asked.

“Please!” Kal said. They climbed out on Mal’s bed and down the stairs.

“Let’s go,” Sheen said. “The Jester’s Palace is a good distance from here.”

The street outside was the same as the Smith Street in Sigil, but it was filled with war. Everywhere devils were struggling against demons, surrounded by hordes of panicking petitioners.

“Oo, a party!” Mal announced.

Haden scoped out the street and led them through twisted back alleys. As they traversed the Lady’s Ward they could see that the buildings were incomplete. The building facades were mostly complete, but the back alleys were empty and sterile, unlike the real Sigil. They crept out into Bloodgem Road, across from the temple of Shang-Ti. At the end of the road, near the park, a pit fiend battled with a swarm of familiar-looking four-winged, hawk-headed demons—Aspects of Pazuzu. They hurried across the street, petitioners racing past them. They emerged again near the Prison, where a blind and enraged demon over thirty feet high had smashed a hole in the wall, allowing a horde of petitioners to run free. One of them, a human woman, approached the group and stopped.

“Talan? Is that really you? It’s me . . . it’s Therya.”

“It can’t be,” Talan whispered. “What are you doing here?”

“I knew you’d come. They told me there’d be no one to call on when I was alone and afraid, yet here you are. I was such a fool, Talan, I made so many mistakes.”

“How can you still look at me after what I did?” Talan asked.

“Oh, Talan, I’ve forgiven you for what you did. You have to forgive yourself. I couldn’t ask you to understand anything I did, or why I did it . . .”

“I didn’t know it was you, I swear I didn’t!” Talan cried. Sheen looked around, but fortunately the fiends were too preoccupied to notice.

“I know, Talan. Please, don’t be sad.”

“What were you doing with those raiders!? How could you?!”

“I know you have sorrow and pain and anger, but you have a new life now, that’s all that matters,” Therya said. The building shook as the huge demon flailed against the Tower of the Wyrm. A few moments later an enormous wyvern, perhaps the largest that had ever existed, freed itself from the wreckage.

“We’re a little exposed here,” Haden cautioned nervously.

“Follow me,” Therya said. “I know another way.” She led them toward the prison. “I was infiltrating the raiders, trying to find their base, to find their leader. I should never have taken part in that raid, but I knew they’d turn on me if I didn’t.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? You knew I would be sent after the raiders if they attacked anyone!” Talan cried at her as they raced down the street.

“I felt that there wasn’t time . . . it was a mistake, Talan. I’m sorry that we both paid so dearly for it.”

“I’m so sorry. It was all my fault.”

“It wasn’t your fault, Talan. You couldn’t have known. And you deserve to be happy again. Listen to me, Talan, you don’t have much time. This passage will take you up to the Twelve Factols and the Palace is just across Penate Square. I have a gift for you, it will lead you to the door.”

“Aren’t you coming with us?” Talan asked. “I can help you, I can find a way to help you.”

Therya shook her head. She opened her hand, revealing a tiny iron key tied with a ribbon of red and gold. “Be sure to lock the door behind you.”

“What about you?!” Talan demanded.

“I’m done, Talan. I’ve been waiting for you so I could give you this and say goodbye.”

“NO! NO, you have to listen to me. I can help you! We’ll get you out of here.”

Therya shook her head and pressed her lips to Talan’s cheek, but they were insubstantial as mist.

“Where did you get that key?” Haden asked.

“A gold-skinned man with white wings gave it to me not long after I arrived here. He told me to keep it safe, that Talan would come for it some day.”

Haden smiled. “I thought I’d seen it before. Cerellis will take care of her, Talan.”

“Can’t we resurrect her?” Talan asked hopelessly.

Kal shook his head. “She’s a Petitioner, Talan.”

“You don’t understand!”

“She could save herself. She’s chosen to save you. Don’t waste it.” Therya waved sadly as they dragged Talan away by main force. The tunnel led to the Twelve Factols as explained. A huge automaton stood in Penate square, vomiting fire onto the hyena-headed demon attacking it. Talan seemed to have recovered a bit and led them around the square.

“I’m glad these demons are here,” Sheen muttered. “We’d have no chance otherwise.” They sprinted as a circle of Vrocks took to the sky, dancing their circle of ruin. A balor fell out of the sky like a flaming meteor, landing only a few yards away. Then they were inside the palace. It was oddly quiet, the corridors deserted and silent.

“The key is warm,” Talan said. He waved it through the air, feeling the temperature change slightly.

“I think I know where we should go,” Haden said, and led them deeper into the palace. By the time they reached a massive stone gate with a strangely undersized lock the key was almost too hot to hold. Standing before the door was a tall devil with a fearsome leonine head. The red glow of his eyes fixed on them.

“Had I known you would bring me what I needed, I could have saved myself so much time,” Alocer said. “Instead, I have lost my deceivers. I have lost so much, but I will not lose my Iron Cage. Prepare to die.”

Kal made a desperate gesture and Alocer suddenly flew straight into the air and smashed into the ceiling. “Quickly!” He yelled, shoving Talan forward. The ranger shoved the key in the door and heaved, but it only shifted a fraction of an inch.

“It’s too heavy!” Talan yelled.

“FACE ME, COWARDS!” Alocer babbled, trying to find some way down from the ceiling.

“NO!” Cried another voice. “Face me, instead!” A celestial stepped into the hall, dressed in shining mail. Catriona stood close behind him. “I make lawful challenge, Alocer! You dare not refuse me!”

“Oh, hello, Grandfather,” Haden said. Faodhagen smiled and nodded but did not look away from the devil lord.

“I don’t fear an eladrin milksop!” Alocer bellowed. “I heard about what they did to you in Shendilavri . But I accept your challenge.” He grinned. “But my minons are not bound by that agreement.”

“That’s not fair!” Sheen yelled.

“One does not become a duke of Hell by being fair, stripling,” Alocer growled. Two devils materialized beside him and Sheen charged. Catriona drew a weapon and moved to help her.

Kal applied his shoulder to the door beside Talan and they managed to move it a few inches more. Mal and Haden helped and the heavy weight began to move. The four of them scrambled through and shut it behind them, Haden shooting Sheen a last look before the stone slammed against the stop. They could hear devils hammering at the outside even as the lock caught.

“It’s going to be VERY difficult to get back out of here later,” Haden remarked.

“Yes, well, we’ll get that sorted out later,” Kal said. He pulled the ritual book out of his back along with the Hand while Mal produced the two stones. There was a chuckle from deeper in the room and they all whirled. A tall, slender man stood near the throne. He was wearing an elegant black suit and had dark reddish skin and black hair.

“Don’t mind me,” he said. “I’m just here to observe.”

“Who are you?” Kal demanded.

“No one of consequence,” The man insisted.

“Right.” Kal shook his head as the door boomed heavily. “Mal, give Haden the stones. We have to hurry.” Haden took the stones but felt unable to look away from the unknown man.

“You’re Asmodeus, aren’t you?”

“That is one of my names. One of many.”

I have dreamed of death . . . whispered the Eye in his hand. Haden jumped. I have dreamed of death. Death is the first dance, eternal. Destroy the deceitful Tear if you must, but spare me and you will never die. I am of the Age before Ages; with my brother, I created all that is. You know I speak the truth.

“Once, when the Tear was mine,” Asmodeus said, “I was called Ahriman.”

Inky blackness began to spill from the Tear as Kal chanted. I am the miracle, it said. My dance is the second, without end. Why not spare me, and destroy the sleeping Eye? I shall remake the world in whatever light or shadow you choose, and it will be yours to rule forever. None can deny my power.

Kal reached forward, grabbed Haden’s hands, and began to move the stones together. Their auras merged and blurred, but the stones pushed back and remained separate.

“That felt, odd,” Haden said, wincing. Kal’s voice wavered, but he grit his teeth and resumed the chant. Haden glared at the stones. “Listen to ME,” he said. “We don’t have time for these games. People will die. Do you want to be trapped like this forever?”

Mal added his voice to the chant and placed his hands over Haden’s as well. The stones moved closer together but still resisted. “Talan!” Haden said. The ranger thrust his hands into the tangle, adding his strength. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the stones moved toward each other. With a scream of inhuman pain, they fused. Haden reeled back, leaving the single stone in Kal’s hands.

“So the struggle between the children ends,” Asmodeus commented. Kal transferred the stone to his left hand and drew the Hand. He chanted further words of power and the jewels on the dagger’s hilt flashed.

I am Law, said the Heartstone. My tongue is the Language Primeval; I brought Law from Chaos before I was sundered. Destroy me, and all creation will return to the void. You must not do this.

“Wait,” Haden said. “Seriously?”

“We don’t have time to debate this NOW!” Kal shouted. The Hand became immensely heavy in his grip and he dropped it. Talan grasped the dagger and struggled to raise it from the floor, exerting all of his strength.

I am freedom, said the Hand of Chaos. The dances of death and deceit will win you nothing, but love is the dance of eternity. Spare me, and destroy this feeble tool of Order. Your love will know no end. Chaos existed before Law. I cannot be ruled by any power. Believe me.

Talan nearly dropped the Hand. “Don’t lose it!” Mal cried, eldritch power flaring and encircling Talan’s arms, helping him stand. Talan lifted the blade and struck the stone. The world vanished in a flare of white. After a time, it seemed they could see something, and they realized they were looking at Asmodeus, still standing before them.

“Well done,” he remarked dryly, and snapped his fingers. Instantly, they were standing in the house on Smith Street.”

“I’m not sure I should be happy that the Lord of All Hell thinks I did a good job,” Haden said after a while.

“What happened? Sheen asked. Faodhagen and Catriona also stood in the parlor.

“Good work!” Fagan said. “Your father would have been proud of you, Haden. I know I am.”

Mal, Kal, Talan, Sheen and Haden exchanged glances. “So, that’s it then?” Sheen asked.

“It seems to be,” Kal replied. He heard something and turned toward the door. “Festival!” he cried, delighted, and ran out of the room.

“No one will ever know what we’ve done,” Talan said wonderingly.

“Does that really matter?” Hexla asked, entering the room and taking his arm.

“No, I suppose not.”

Cold Blood: Session 52

It took some time, but in the morning Sheen, Kal, Mal, and Talan returned to Sigil through the portal and headed back to the house. Haden had clearly been waiting, because when they arrived he climbed down from a roof and hugged Sheen tightly. He handed a book to Mal. “I got this from Tarsem at the Circle,” he explained. “There’s more, but this isn’t the time to go into it.”

“What more?” Kal demanded. Haden sighed.

“Kalisa, Catriona and Joris went and rescued my grandfather, Faodhagen while we were preoccupied. Then Sauraphine showed up looking for you, so I left. Quickly. I’m sure they’ll both come looking for us once they’ve gotten themselves straightened out.”

Kal winced.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Mal opened the book and flipped through it, frowning. Sheen looked over his shoulder, but the writing was gibberish to her. “What is involved in this ritual, anyway?”

“The Hand of Chaos, for one,” Mal said. “Margone still has it. We need a minute to complete the ritual. The escape window is vague, but the ritual likely must take place at the Dis-Palace of the Jester.”

“What will we need to do in order to escape?” Sheen asked.

“Well, with luck Disigil doesn’t have the Cage’s property that prevents escape with conventional magic. But we might be able to convince the stones to help us one last time,” Kal said. “The timing is still going to be dicey.”

“This is exactly when you need a simulacrum,” Haden remarked. “Let’s go.”

They approached the house, but slowed when they spotted a Harmonium guard standing outside.

“I didn’t know you hired extra help,” Kal remarked.

“I didn’t hire them,” Haden insisted. He walked up to the guard. “What’s going on here?”

“The neighbors reported some trouble, so we came and chased off some Sensate hooligans. Apologies,” he added in a plainly unapologetic tone.

“But we can go inside, correct?”

“The Captain’s inside if you wanna talk to him.”

The foyer was a mess, furniture turned over and stacked against the walls, but nothing looked damaged, only rearranged. Haden stepped forward into the dining room and came up short—dead Hardheads were stacked three deep. Lady Margone smiled from the kitchen door. The Harmonium guard stepped into the doorway behind them and shimmered, revealing a massive devil carrying a length of spiked chain.

“You should have brought more men,” Haden snapped tensely, drawing his rapier.

“I don’t need men, darling.” The devil lashed out at Talan while Margone concentrated her will at Kal. The wizard shivered and cringed, but evidently resisted the spell. Talan and Sheen engaged the devil, wounding it badly in a single pass. Margone spit furiously and stabbed at Haden with her dagger. He backed away and slammed into Mal, ruining a spell.

“Dammit!” Kal yelled. He concentrated briefly. “I wish I had the Hand of Chaos!” The room rippled strangely and the dagger vanished from Margone’s hand to appear in Kal’s. “Well now, that changes the landscape a bit,” the wizard remarked.

“NO!” Margone screamed.

“Let’s get the hell out of here!” Kal said. Mal pointed toward the stairs and both elves ran. Margone tried to chase them but Haden blocked the way. Sheen and Talan were rapidly dismantling the devil—a Cornugon—and didn’t seem to need help. Frustrated, Margone drew another dagger and stabbed at Haden again.

“You know,” Haden said, grabbing her wrist and dodging the blow, “you’re beginning to annoy me.”

“We’ve got the portal open!” Kal yelled from upstairs. Sheen and Talan exchanged a glance.

“Go!” Sheen said, and the ranger dodged up the stairs. The Cornugon attacked him, narrowly missing with a sweep of the heavy chain. Sheen buried her claws in its leg and it toppled heavily to the floor. Sheen grabbed the spiked chain and pulled its head right off.

“Haden, you worthless son of a bitch, you’ve ruined everything!” Margone shrieked. Haden slapped her hand aside with his rapier, inflicting only a mild scratch. “Look at you, you cant even hurt the person you hate most in the world!”

Haden took a step back. His expression was amused. “I don’t hate you, Mother. You’re not worth that much effort.”

Margone’s face twisted. Haden lowered his sword and waved Sheen away. She frowned, but complied. He then grinned and spoke a long, complex poem. Margone blinked and her eyes slowly glazed.

“Go back to your summer home and pack anything you want to keep, Mother. If I ever see you again, you won’t like the result.”

“That . . . sounds like a good idea,” Margone said dreamily. She returned her dagger to its sheath, dusted herself off distractedly, and meandered out the door.

“Let’s go,” Haden said to Sheen. They climbed the stairs and followed the others through the portal.

Cold Blood: Sessions 50 and 51

Sheen gestured to the dragon and spoke again in Margone’s voice. “Hold! Give us the stones, or you will all die here and now.”

“Why are you assuming we still have the stones?” Haden asked, throwing dispelling magic over Sheen. She blinked and her expression changed again.

“Kill them all!” someone yelled from far above them, and the dragon spat out a cone of fire. The group scattered, leaving Betzalel and the dragon temporarily alone in the street. The dragon casually knocked over a house and snapped at Talan, getting a sword in the nose for its trouble, but Talan was badly hurt nonetheless. The sky darkened as thunder rumbled. Betzalel found Mal and slapped the warlock with a fiery claw while Sheen tried to divert the dragon and failed. Kal had vanished, perhaps gone invisible.

Haden crouched under a porch and tried to think of something to do. Sheen and Talan were being methodically ripped apart by the dragon. Betzalel seemed to have Mal cornered. He felt the horrible oppression of a mental power and fought it off. It was becoming clear to him that they would all die soon if they stayed. He turned himself invisible and scooted down the street past Mal and the devil. “Margone is up there on the roof!” Mal cried, pointing as Betzalel knocked him down yet again. She flew down toward the street to cast another spell and a line of bright green force emerged from another building, striking her. She screamed in horror, barely diverting the disintegration ray.

Haden cursed under his breath and manifested another mental power, contacting Mal. He felt the warlock receive the message and then raised his voice. “You’re going to have to catch me if you want the stones!” Haden yelled. Then he turned and ran.

“Flagrion!” Margone shrieked. The dragon lifted heavily into the air and gave chase. Betzalel turned away from Mal, who ran in the opposite direction, grabbed Sheen and Talan, and vanished. Sheen gave the warlock a disgruntled look as the three of them materialized in the forest.

“It was Haden’s idea,” Mal explained quickly. The fiends and dragon were all chasing Haden toward the portal, Margone screaming conflicting orders.

“Don’t get yourself killed, you idiot,” Sheen said, unable to do anything more than watch. Betzalel teleported down to the pier and was instantly struck by a tremendous bolt of lightning. Talan cheered as Halfleikr erupted from the lake and dealt the fiend a blow with his massive sword. Betzalel panicked and dove through the portal. The dragon crashed into Halfleikr a moment later, but it was slowed by its wounds and the giant struck its head from its body with a single blow.

“Best ally ever,” Mal remarked as the portal flared a second time.

“Try and get them now!” Haden yelled, invisible, and jumped through the portal.

Cold Blood: Sessions 47, 48 and 49

**Note: These three sessions took place during weeks when we were having severe scheduling problems, hence they were all fairly short and quite confused. I've condensed them all as well as I could to help with this issue so I can get the rest of the writeups finalized.

Mal sat translating from the book of Genesis, needing little sleep. Sheen and Kal were preparing for the expected battle, but Haden, unusually, was also awake, perhaps too nervous to find any real rest.

“So what will happen if we destroy the stones?” Haden asked. Mal glanced up.

“Well, they will not be able to use them to unmake the univerise, I am assuming.”

“Yes, I know that, but can we assume that destroying them won’t have terrible consequences, like returning everything to the stuff of chaos?”

“It will have terrible consequences, but only on a localized scale.”

“How localized?” Sheen demanded.

“They’ll only destroy Disigil,” Kal elaborated. “Assuming we can find it.”

“That wouldn’t be so bad, but what about whoever does the destroying?”

“It will destroy the stones, the Hand of Chaos, and Disigil for certain. Other than that, I am not certain,” Mal said, frowning. Then he brightened. “Perhaps we could get Talan to do it.”

“What’s the Hand of Chaos?” Sheen demanded.

“I do not know,” Mal said, “but we need it to perform the ritual. Perhaps Uilleam will know.”

“Bah, I’ll do it,” Kal said. “If I survive, I’ll have one hell of an experience to share with the other Sensates. And if not, well, you’re welcome.”

“I hear reincarnation is a blast,” Haden joked. “Maybe you’ll come back as a woman.”

“Ooooh,” Kal breathed, grinning.

“This is all well and good,” Mal interjected, “but don’t we have a castle to storm at the moment?”

They left the cabin, blinking in the half-bright afternoon sun. Moments later Hafleikr emerged from the lake, now wearing a breastplate and carrying a sword as tall as he was. It didn’t seem possible that any creature could wield such a weapon, but the giant tossed it over his shoulder easily.

“Let’s hope he’s still friendly,” Mal muttered through his teeth while smiling and waving.

“Or that he hasn’t gotten any smarter,” Haden replied in a similar fashion.

“Maybe we should pretend that we’re some of the people he’s been ordered to ‘round up’. You know, so they don’t get tetchy as we approach,” Kal suggested. “Or, you know, invisibility.”

“Brilliant,” Mal said. He turned slowly in a circle and his body seemed to shimmer, finally settling on the image of a human peasant. Sheen, in her ragged, practical clothes, matched him perfectly.

“I could cast a spell,” Haden said dubiously.

“Oh, just roll in that mud puddle,” Mal suggested.

“Are you ready?” the giant demanded.

“Yes, I believe we are,” Mal said as Haden sighed and cast a spell to make himself look human. They trekked up the hill with the giant alternately in front of and behind them as his immense strides ate up the distance.

“Got prisoners for His Lordship!” Halfleikr bellowed as they neared the walls. The guard above the gates shouted indistinctly and the portcullis began to rise slowly. Several other guards joined him and gazed downward suspiciously.

“I can’t believe you’re working for that monster!” Sheen harangued them. “What’s the place coming to, that’s what I want to know!”

“Shush!” Haden spluttered, horrified.

“C’mon, maggots!” Halfleikr bellowed.

The gate behind the portcullis opened, revealing two more guards and another man who looked like the guard captain. He blinked once or twice. “I thought I knew most of the people in the village.” Mal sighed and waved his hands again. The Captain’s eyes crossed briefly, then uncrossed. “But how could I forget my good friend!” he gushed. The other guards looked startled, then reeled back, dazed, as Haden hit them with a psionic blast. The Captain stared, baffled, and everyone stepped forward quickly into the gatehouse.

“Your guards look a bit out of it,” Haden said to the Captain. “I think Mal would like you to get them out of here.” Mal nodded emphatically and the Captain escorted the stunned guards up a staircase and out of view.

“Quickly!” Kalenthor said and they ran toward the Great Hall, pausing only to close the inner doors behind them. The hall occupied most of the keep. A runner of faded red carpet led to an unimposing throne where a bored-looking fey with lavender hair and butterfly wings was sitting. A massive fiend lurked behind him, taking up most of the space behind the throne.

“Ah, Maloranserani Valtheris’Heranusee,” Uilleam said slowly. He stood up and was instantly wreathed in flames.

“Right,” Kal announced as the Malebranche charged. It ducked its massive head and caught Talan a blow with its horns, flinging him into the air. He drew both swords and landed more or less on the devil’s back while Sheen flew at its face, claws extended like an angry housecat. A mad melee of swords, claws, teeth and horns ensued.

Haden stepped nervously around the combat and fixed his attention on Uilleam. He thought for a moment and declaimed:

“Oh what wonders the planes bring
A butterfly and a devil-king
But which one is the foulest rose
The one that grew or the one that chose?”

Uillem snarled and rainbow light erupted from his hands, catching Mal squarely. The warlock stiffened and fell to the ground with a thunk that shook the room and took a chip out of the floor. “Uh-oh,” Kal breathed. Sheen managed to get a grip on one of the malebranche’s wings and ripped it to shreds.

Halfleikr clapped his massive hands together and a stroke of lightning arced across the hall. It glanced off the devil’s nearly-impervious hide and struck Uilleam, singing the fey a bit. Kal attempted a spell, but the fey shrugged it off and threw a green ray back at the giant, making Halfleikr double over in agony as his flesh began turning to dust. The giant hefted his sword and felled Uilleam with a stroke, but he was badly burned by the flames and forced to retreat. The Malebranche seemed unconcerned by the loss of its ally, flinging Talan and Sheen away again. A spell from Kalenthor bounced harmlessly off the beast as it snapped at Sheen with its huge teeth. That, however, proved to be a mistake. As the fangs came down around her like a cage, Sheen jammed both of her claws down its throat and pulled its heart out through its mouth. It fell to the floor, dead, without another sound.

“Fey’s still bleeding,” Haden muttered and cast a quick spell to prevent Uilleam from dying outright. Halfleiker battered down a door with his fist and stumbled off down the hallway. “So what do we do about Mal?”

“Be cautious,” Lir croaked, the first time Mal’s familiar had ever spoken to them. “The fey can enchant you without a word or even a touch. Bind him in iron.” It then landed on Mal’s stony head and began pecking as though trying to wake the warlock. Sheen picked up an iron candelabra and formed it into rough shackles, binding Uilleam to the throne just as he regained consciousness.

“You should have just let me frog you,” Kal complained as the fey began to whimper and thrash. Lir took flight and landed on Uilleam’s chest.

“Fix the master or lose the eye!” the raven shrieked.

“You can’t threaten me!” Uilleam yelled. “I have nothing to fear from you.”

“Oh, you would be surprised,” Haden replied. “You think my mother and her associates are the danger? You don’t know that we’ve already beaten them. I don’t know what they offered or promised you, but we have the stones now as well as the key to unlocking their power. So I suggest you start talking.”

Halfleikr returned to the room followed by a crowd of villagers. A small girl went immediately to the Mal-statue. “It is him,” she murmured. Haden ignored them.

“If all that is true, there is little I can tell you,” Uilleam said. “It is only a matter of time before they come for you.”

“What and where is the Hand of Chaos?” Kal demanded. The fey laughed.

“If you’ve defeated Lady Margone, then you already have it—it is in her possession in the form of a jeweled dagger.”

There was a pause, then an odd, organic sound as Mal suddenly returned to flesh. “Is that better?” the girl asked in the silence.

“Yes,” Mal replied.

Kal shook his head. “That dagger.”

“It takes many shapes,” Uilleam said. “She’s forcing it to keep that one since she finds it . . .useful.”

The girl bowed formally to Mal. “I’m Iona. Mother said you’d be coming.” Mal bowed in response, glancing toward Uilleam.

“So,” Haden said after a while, “It sounds like we should take the stones to Disigil and wait for my mother to show up looking for them.”

“That doesn’t sound like a very good idea,” Sheen said immediately.

“No, it sounds like a very BAD idea,” Haden said, sighing and sitting down on the steps to the throne. “And what are we going to do with him?” he asked, indicating Uilleam.

“I will deal with him,” Mal said, walking across the room. He placed his hand on the fey’s shoulder and began to speak in a strange tongue. The fey writhed and began to weep piteously. His features began to melt like candle wax and reform into something hideous.

“What are we going to do?” Haden asked again.

“It sounds like our choices are to try and destroy the stones—as they expect—or give them to someone and risk having them stolen.”

“Or we could just go into hiding and hold onto them forever and ever,” Sheen said, “but I’m thinking that’s a really poor option. I’m not interested in martyrdom.”

“In destroying them?” Mal asked, apparently finished with whatever he ws doing.

“I was talking about trying to hide them,” Sheen clarified. “Can you imagine what that would entail? Can’t ever have friends, can’t ever have a family, just have to keep hiding and stay on the run . . . forever.”

“So does this mean we have to destroy them by default?” Talan asked.

“It would appear so,” Mal replied.

“This is going to sound strange,” Haden said, “But I’d prefer that we not destroy the stones.”

“What?” Kal demanded.

“They’re sort of sentient, after all, and they did help us out. It would seem cruel, like killing a puppy.”

“In any case, we need to get the Hand away from Margone,” Kal said. “So we have to find her regardless.” Searching for a distraction, the wizard glanced at Uilleam and winced. “What did you do to him?” He asked Mal.

“He onced served the Lady as part of her cabal, now because of him she is dead. It is no more than he deserves.”

“He betrayed the Lady to my mother and Alocer,” Haden snarled. “You should have done something worse.”

Iona climbed the steps behind Mal and studied Uilleam for a while. “He betrayed the Lady of Mirrors?” she asked.

“Aye,” Mal replied.

“What happened to her?” Iona asked.

“She has passed beyond this realm and walks in yesterday and tomorrow,” Mal said after a moment.

“You mean she is dead. My mother is dead.”

“Our mother is dead,” Mal corrected.

“Trade you,” Haded muttered bitterly.

“Haden!” Sheen hissed.

Mal took a deep breath. “For the Tuatha de Dannon death is not an end.”

Iona frowned. “I saw her in a dream a few nights ago. That’s exactly what she said. She said my brother was coming and gave me this to give to you.” She held up a small glass sphere to Mal. “There is a Place between mirrors, a place where mirrors in many planes meet. The sphere can take you there. One mirror is in the Iron Cage. It’s the only way in that she could find. The mirror in your house leads to the Place.”

“Well, then,” Kal said. “Destiny knocks with a gauntleted fist, it seems. We should see if we can get one of our allies to start seeking the book with the destruction ritual. It won’t hurt us to have options. Sheen, I believe your brother is in the business of acquiring such objects, yes?”

“Wait,” Sheen said. “I thought we had the book with the destruction ritual.”

“We do not,” Kal said. “The book we have speaks of it and names the book, but that is all.”

“You two haven’t been very forthcoming about what is in that book,” Haden complained.

“I am sorry,” Kal said, “but it is so unclear that sometimes I forget what I’ve explained and what I haven’t.”

Sheen sighed. “All right, Haden and I can try to contact Tarsem psionically.”

“If you wouldn’t mind,” Kal said graciously.

They healed their wounds and rested again from the battle, but all too soon they were awakened by a loud wind and a bright orange glow coming from the windows. Sheen and Haden scrambled to their feet and went outside. At the far end of the village, near the foot of the hill, a row of buildings had burst into flames. They were burning vigorously, but without the usual dense pall of smoke of a burning building. The others joined them just as a dark blur rose in the sky above the village. It seemed to hover in space for a moment, then great leathery wings shot out and it swooped low over the village, leaving a streak of fire in its wake.

“That is a dragon,” Kal said slowly.

“Whatever,” Sheen announced and began trotting toward the village. Haden followed her, alarmed. “HEY!” she bellowed as they approached the flames. The dragon wheeled to assess the source of the shouting.

“Do be careful, dear,” Haden said quietly. Mal and Kal were furiously casting spells, nearly mirror images of each other.

THERE YOU ARE. a mental voice roared. Hellfire flashed and Betzalel appeared in front of them. He swatted at Talan with burning hands but the ranger dodged just in time. An aura of dark power enveloped them. Sheen felt something strike her side and realized vaguely that it was Talan’s sword. Haden found himself running, stumbling over obstacles and into buildings before finally emerging from the aura. He couldn’t tell what Mal and Kal were doing, the darkness and confusion hid them from his sight.

WHERE ARE THE STONES?! Betzalel demanded. The dragon crashed to the ground in the middle of the street and snapped up Sheen in its jaws. Haden cursed and summoned crystalline shards, doing only a little damage. There was a flurry of activity and the dark aura suddenly cleared. MARGONE!! I NEED YOU!! the devil roared as Talan leaped. Haden rushed forward and was nearly knocked off his feet as the dragon spat Sheen out in a flume of blood and spittle. A strange look came over her face and she spoke in a voice not her own.

“Why, hello darling.”

Cold Blood: Session 46

Mal stood in Dancer’s Square on the fringe of the Guildhall Ward with Kal, Sheen, Talan, and Haden arrayed around him. They had prepared for a long trip as well as they could, dispatching messages to their many friends across Sigil, and now they were waiting for the warlock to open a portal to a small demi-plane called Glenloch. Mal had found a pile of ancient detritus—wooden scaffolding that had become cemented together into a rough trapezoid by rain and neglect. Bowing formally, he began to dance. Faint lights flickered from deep within the wood and a portal leapt into existence.

The normal chilly shock of translation was replaced all-too quickly by another, far more worrying shock: the portal emerged deep under water. It was dark, murky, and frigid, like a mountain lake. Sheen flailed and felt one of her legs strike something solid, perhaps the bottom. She bunched her body and pushed off toward what she hoped was the surface. Mal waved his arms through the water and it took on shape and sentience. He directed the Water Elemental to collect everyone and take them to the surface. A few moments later, they were all treading water beneath an overcast sky.

“Not the best place for a portal,” Haden managed, shaking wet hair away from his face.

“That is not where that portal normally opens,” Mal retorted. He sounded extremely annoyed, unusual for him. “It is supposed to be at the end of the third pier, which you can see has collapsed.” Everyone paused in their swimming to look. The third wooden pier did look a bit odd, like part of it had been uprooted and carried away. When they reached the shore, Talan examined the ground.

“There are tracks here—humanoid, but whatever made them was immense.”

“So this Glenloch isn’t uninhabited, then?” Kal asked dryly, or as dryly as he could manage with water sheeting out of his robes. Mal helpfully aimed a finger in the wizard’s direction and water shot furiously in all directions. “Thank you,” Kal said.

“There are locals,” Mal said. “Quiet, friendly people.”

“Friendly giants,” Kal corrected.

“They be not giants,” Mal insisted.

“As far as I can tell, the giant walked down here and straight into the lake,” Talan added.

“The lake is vast,” Mal said.

“Shh,” Talan interrupted. “I heard creaking.” He turned and noticed that the door to a nearby cabin they had thus far ignored had opened an inch or two. There was no light coming from inside, but the creaking noise had been clear if not loud.

“Tilbury?” Mal asked. The door started to close, then opened a bit more.

“Maloran? Is that you?”

“Aye. What has happened here?”

The door opened wide enough to emit a human in his early fifties. He wiped nervous sweat off his bald, domed forehead. “These friends of yours?”

“Yes, yes,” Mal said dismissively. “They are friends. Are you injured?”

“Nah, I’m all right. You may want to get inside, though.”

“Why?” Sheen asked.

“Cos all manner o’ trouble is up in the village, ma’am, and it might not do for you to be seen.”

Mal smiled, suddenly. “She is still with us. Why else would we find ourselves here in time to aid Her allies?”

The cabin was cramped and none too tidy, but they all managed to find seats inside. Tilbury bustled around nervously, unused to guests and unsure of what to do. “I’ve got cold tea, if anyone’s needin’ such.”

“I would prefer you explain what has happened here,” Mal replied.

“I’m sure. One of the fishermen who lives up on the hill told me the story. This morning the fey went mad. Not bloodthirsty, mind you, just crazed. All the regular folk panicked as I’m sure you can imagine.”

“Is that how the portal wound up at the bottom of the lake?” Haden asked.

Tilbury nodded emphatically. “The pier was never meant to hold so many. A couple hours later this weird elven fop showed up and restored order. Belus, the fisherman, said he’d never seen this fellow before.”

“An elven fop?” Haden demanded.

“Aye, said he had lavender hair and wings like a butterfly.”

Talan laughed. “I’d like to see that.”

“I have seen it,” Haden said.

“It is Uilleam Evershade,” Mal said shortly.

“Someone like him was there with my mother, Alocer, and Betzalel in Thazia.”

“What?” Mal demanded, shocked. “Tell me of this meeting. Does anyone have any cold iron?”

Haden shrugged a little, confused. “I didn’t get a very good view, but it looked like they thanked him or paid him off or something and he left. I think he was a traitor.”

“We shall find him and question him,” Mal intoned in a voice that brooked no argument.

“Before Belus left in his boat, he said that Uilleam holed himself up in the keep,” Tilbury volunteered. “He’s holding some folks there in the dungeon—mortal and fey alike.”

“We should prepare,” Mal said. “If he is in league with the giants there could be resistance.”

“Giants?” Tilbury asked, baffled. “Oh, you mean Halfleikr. He went up to the keep this morning and came back a few hours ago. He’s got a castle under the lake and a daughter who’s been stayin’ at the keep.”

“Is she a prisoner, too, then?” Kal asked.

“Could be, Halfleikr was in a mood when he came back down.”

“Maybe we can ally with the giant, then,” Kal thought aloud.

“Could be. He’s got a devil’s temper, though.”

“How are we supposed to get at him if he lives under the lake, though?” Sheen demanded.

Talan glanced out the small window. “I think this is fast becoming irrelevant . . .” he said quickly. The wooden floor shook with thumping and a large portion of the roof lifted off with a terrible cracking and groaning noise. An enormous bearded face was thrust through the hole and Halfleikr roared at them. Everyone grabbed for their weapons as Mal shouted something and waved his arms furiously. The giant’s eyes crossed, then slowly uncrossed, and his visage rearranged itself into something resembling a puzzled grin.

“Why are my friends hiding in this little house?”

“We were just about to contact you,” Mal said with a slight bow.

“Oh? What for?”

“We were wondering if you knew anything about the current events at the keep.”

“I was just thinking of going up there to give them a piece of my mind.” A brilliant flash illuminated the cabin and the floor trembled again. “That Uilleam wants me to round everyone up. He claims they’re all dissidents and a threat to my daughter! He’s already killed the mayor. I would have stretched him out like a chicken if it weren’t for that fiend backing him up.”

“What fiend?” Kal demanded.

“Hmph!” Halfleikr snorted, creating a brief windstorm in the cabin. “It’s even bigger than I am, if you can imagine that. Big horns, covered in scars, big mouth, too. He called it Jebelat.”

“Sounds like a Malebranche,” Haden muttered.

“Bollocks,” Kal swore. Sheen waved dismissively.

“We can handle the fiend.”

“Don’t be hasty,” Kal cautioned. “Those things are supposed to be stout.”

“We should rest,” Mal said. “I do not think we can face them unprepared.”

“I’ll be here when you’re ready,” Halfleikr said and lowered the roof more or less back onto its supports. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

“So,” Haden said, trying to find a comfortable spot.

“So what?” Sheen asked.

“Just ‘so’ at the moment.”

Apr 6, 2009

Cold Blood: Session 45

Author's note: In case you're wondering why this session is so short, we spent half of the time talking about having Mal hax0r the shareware Boccob's Blessed Book and trying to figure out whether we could buy an Amulet of Farspeaking that could cross planes. Gamers. So weird.

Without so much as a word, the adventurers began silently preparing for a fight. Talan glanced across the clearing and realized Haden was staring right at him—the aasling looked quickly away, but Talan understood. “Haden knows we’re here,” he whispered.

“So what am I supposed to do with these rocks, anyway?” Haden said loudly, startling even the fiends in the clearing. “Stick them together?”

“Yes,” Margone replied. She reached down to lift what looked like a small bird cage. “It takes energy, though. Energy which I’m all too happy to provide.” Haden rolled the Eye of Dawn and a different stone, this one jet-black, around in his hands, his expression distant. Suddenly, they began to glow.

“What is he doing?” Sheen demanded, whispering.

“What are you DOING?!” Margone demanded across the clearing.

“Don’t distract me,” Haden said. The adventurers exchanged a look and sprang into the clearing, then the world suddenly went white in a blaze of power. Instantly, they were stumbling over furniture. When their vision cleared, they realized they were all in the living room of their house.

“Ha ha!” Haden shouted. “It worked!” He chucked the stones onto the couch with a disgusted look, picked up Sheen, and began dancing around the room.

“Um, well done . . . I think,” Talan said, extricating himself from an armchair.

“What did you DO?!” Sheen demanded. Haden put her down.

“A lesson for everyone: never hand the artifacts of ultimate power to someone who hates your guts.” His grin began to fade a bit as he realized Mal was glaring furiously at him. “Sorry,” he said, now a bit sheepish. “I didn’t know what else to do. They would have killed all of us if I hadn’t agreed to take the stones, and then when I had them I could sense . . . something. They seemed almost alive, so I, well, sort of persuaded them that we ought to be here instead of there.”

“And they just . . . made it happen?” Joris asked.

“They got through the boundary protecting Sigil, even,” Kal said. “Frightening.”

“What boundary?” Sheen asked.

“The one that prevents dimensional travel except through the portals,” Kal said patiently.

“I guess they did,” Haden said, “I wasn’t sure it would work, but I didn’t know what else to do.” Mal raised a hand and pointed at him furiously, causing the startled Haden to recoil.

“You left her.”

“I did? It looks like everyone is here.”

“You LEFT her!”

“The Lady of Mirrors,” Kal said to Haden’s blank look.

“Oh,” Haden said quietly.

“I’m going back after her,” Mal announced. “I can open the portal myself.”

“I’m sorry, Mal, It just didn’t occur to me to bring her along,” Haden said as the warlock stormed out of the house.

“We shouldn’t just let him go alone,” Talan said. “They won’t be expecting us to go right back, anyway. It’s at least as safe as here.” The stones on the couch hummed briefly, then went silent. Kal picked one up curiously.

“Be careful with those, Kal, they were quiescent before but I think they’ve woken up,” Haden warned.

“She’s doing something,” Kal said, startled.

“If we’re going to follow Mal we should tell Hexla and Yolette to stay somewhere safe until we get back,” Sheen interrupted.

“It’s gone. She’s done it.” Kal said.

“Kal, what are you talking about?” Haden demanded, grabbing the wizard’s arm. He blinked and looked up at Haden.

“Margone just killed Uin the Unseeing, and Thazia along with him. This just showed me.”

“Then where is Mal going?” Sheen asked, horrified.

“Maybe the portal simply won’t work,” Kal offered.

“We can’t count on that!” Talan cried.

Sheen and Haden ran for the street. Talan grabbed Kal and pulled him along, since the wizard seemed inclined to stay and commune with the stones a bit longer. Kal finally dropped them into his haversack, not wanting to wave them around in the street. “This way,” Haden said, ducking into an alley. “I know a shortcut.” They dodged and ducked down some of Sigil’s more bizarre side-streets.

“Was that a demodand service station for Arcadian Ponycabs?” Kal protested as he was pulled along. “Bizarre.”

They found Mal outside Chinzpeter’s Used Clothing trying to open the portal. Fortunately it appeared nothing was happening. Frustrated, Mal waved his hands and eldritch power arced into the shop, evoking a startled scream.

“Mal, stop!” Sheen yelled. The warlock whirled, his eyes ablaze with eldritch power.

“You left her with them!”

“She wouldn’t want you to throw your life away,” Talan insisted.

Mal turned to look over at Kalenthor. “The stones . . .” he said desperately.

“They won’t help, Mal. Thazia is gone.”

“If they brought us here, they can take me back!”

“Before Margone murdered Uin and unmade the entire world, maybe they could have. Come on, we should leave,” Kal insisted, extending a hand. Mal pushed past him into the street, flaring power randomly.

“She treated him like a pet,” Haden muttered, watching the warlock rage.

“Do pets not love their masters?” Kal asked.

“Slaves should not be loyal,” Haden replied. “So what next? We have both of the stones, but can we do anything with them?”

“Can’t you ‘read’ them?” Talan asked.

Haden shook his head emphatically. “I’m not trying mortal powers on things like that. For all I know, it might bring the universe to an end.”

“It would be best to destroy them,” Sheen said, “but somehow I don’t think that will be possible.”

“My mother believes that the stones were instrumental in bringing this universe about . . . and that they can be used to unmake it and create a new one.” Joris winced. “Yeah, a universe in Margone’s image. Isn’t that a pleasant thought.” Haden sighed. “I don’t think she was lying, but I could be wrong.”

“Then they’ll try to get them back, right?” Joris asked after clearing his throat nervously.

“They’ll either come after the stones or Alocer will come up with a new plan. Maybe both.”

“If we try to hide them away, sooner or later someone will stumble on them,” Sheen said. “Lock them in a vault, and someone will figure a way to break in. There’s just nothing responsible you can do with power like that.”

Haden rubbed his forehead tiredly. “I don’t think Alocer’s people are all in agreement over what to do with the stones, though. Maybe we can get them to fight each other, somehow. Hey, Kal, do you know if it’s possible to locate the stones using magic?”

Kal looked up from where he was speaking with Mal. The warlock was tucking the stones into his bag and looking a bit calmer. “They’re artifacts. Maybe Legend Lore would work. If they’re close enough a simple locate object spell would suffice.”

“I thought it wasn’t possible to use common divinations on most artifacts.”

Kal shrugged. “I slept through most of my divination classes. I never liked the idea of knowing what was going to happen. I’d rather be surprised.”

“Standing here in the street accomplishes nothing,” Mal said sharply. “At least we can retrieve our belongings before they raze the house.”

“We may want to leave Sigil,” Haden said. “It’s safest for our friends to stay where there’s people, but it’s probably safer for us if we go somewhere remote.”

“I may know of a place,” Mal said.

“Can’t we bring Hexla with us?” Talan asked back at the house while they packed quickly. Hexla and Yolette were also preparing to leave.

“We can use magic to check on her, but if Hexla comes with us she might get caught in the crossfire,” Haden said quietly.

“I know,” Talan said. “I just hate that I can’t be there to protect her. What if we’re wrong and she’s not safe here?”

“They don’t care about Hexla or Yolette or Kalisa. They won’t kill them because it won’t help them find us. But if they’ve already found us, all bets are off.”

“Are we ready?” Mal asked. “There is a demiplane, Glenloch, where we should be safe for a time.”

“I’ve always wanted to make one of those,” Kal remarked.

Cold Blood: Session 44

Sheen glared at the empty doorway in frustration. “Well, if you want to get Joris, then get him!”

“He is on his way,” Mal intoned. Within twenty minutes, Joris came jogging up the street. He looked tired and worn and had evidently given up shaving, but his face brightened at the sight of them.

“Well met,” he said.

“Are you having some sort of problem you haven’t told us about?”

“Numeledes passed overnight,” he explained. “I’ve been keeping a vigil, then I took him to the Mortuary . . .”

“Maybe he will bring us souvenirs when he returns,” Mal remarked gracelessly. Kal shot him a quelling glance.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Sheen said, but it was clear her heart wasn’t in it.

“It was his time. That doesn’t make it much easier, but that’s the way things are,” Joris explained.

“It sounds like you have enough on your plate without going to Thazia with us,” Sheen said.

“Oh, no. Firil said she would watch the Circle, and Kalisa’s slipped away again, so I’m actually free for now. I think she was going to hide that tiefling Noxana somewhere. Say, where’s Haden?”

“He decided to scout ahead,” Sheen explained. “If you want to come along, lets go, but I think you shouldn’t. You have no business risking your life right now.”

Kal shook his head and concentrated, reopening the portal. Joris shrugged and stepped through, followed quickly by Mal, Sheen, and Kalenthor. A feeling of great unease settled over them as they emerged in a graveyard under an ashen sky.

“Hmm,” Kal said. “Ambient.”

The graves were violated and empty, the stone doors of mausoleums lying broken. Beyond the wreckage of the wrought-iron gate they could see the charred remains of a village, and beyond that a vast, smoking plain stretching in all directions. Sheen shouldered her pack and began walking toward the village.

“Haden?” Kal called out nervously, looking around the desolate village. The buildings were empty and abandoned, only one remaining relatively intact. “Anyone?”

Sheen pulled a piece of paper off the door of the building. “It’s Haden’s writing. It looks like he went toward the forest . . . what forest?” She turned the message around in her hands a few times, then pointed. “That way, I think. He sort of drew a map, but he’s not exactly an artist.”

Kal shook his head. “He moved pretty quickly, then.”

Mal glanced up from his silent contemplations. “Time moves faster here than in Sigil. Hours or even days may have passed while we waited.”

“Then we’d better go,” Sheen said just as a shriveled corpse stumbled out of the building, its empty eyesockets oozing vile black ichor. Sheen stumbled backward into Joris as the creature wailed, a hideous sound that seemed to rattle the bones in her skull. Kal recoiled and turned as he heard another creature approaching. He chanted quickly and leveled a finger, shooting a greenish ray. It vanished in a puff of foul dust.

Mal hurled eldritch energy at the wailing corpse, splattering black ichor on Sheen and Joris. A bright flash illuminated the top of the building and magical missiles streaked toward the warlock, striking sparks where they impacted his armor. Sheen shouldered past her attacker and vaulted up the side of the building even as Joris raised his holy symbol. The undead attackers shrank away, burning, but the creature on the rooftop seemed unmoved. It raised its arms to begin another spell and Sheen saw that it was missing a hand. She buried her claws in its legs and pulled, catapulting it off the roof. It landed with a gristly crack and Mal dispatched it with a flare of eldritch energy.

“Let’s get out of here now before more of them show up,” Sheen said, jumping down to the ground. Talan was already hurrying away through the rotting village, having picked up some trail or other. Mal and Kalenthor hurried to follow. “Come on, Joris!” Sheen insisted.

“One minute!” he replied over his shoulder, bending to examine the corpses. “I think that thing was an aspect—a minor manifestation of a deity. Like the one we fought in Plague-Mort.”

“Really?” Sheen asked, pulling on his arm until he rejoined the group. “What deity?”

“I’m not very familiar with this one. I looked it up after Tulio mentioned the ‘chained god’ in Waterdeep, but there’s hardly anything about it even in Sigil’s libraries. His name is Vecna—he was a wizard-tyrant who became a lich. Now he’s a quasi-deity or a demigod or something. He’s a god of secrets, so it’s no surprise that there’s not much to find. Apparently he lost something—a relic, his hand or his eye—his cult was searching for it in Thazia. Whether they found it or not, the cultists are long gone. Er, I hope.”

“We’ll keep an eye out,” Kal quipped. “Maybe we can give them a hand.” Joris groaned.

“Well, in any case Haden seems to have avoided the undead,” Sheen said hopefully.

The scorched plain was very flat, almost unnaturally so. As they walked, they could see the occasional mob of undead in the distance, but they wandered mindlessly and were easy enough to avoid. Hours passed, marked only by increasing exhaustion, and they were forced to stop and rest.

“The gloom has lightened a little,” Talan said. “I think the sun may be up.”

“Feeble as it is, it ought to keep the worst of the undead in hiding for now,” Joris offered, sinking to the ground. There was no shelter, but there wasn’t really any need for shelter, either.

“We don’t know yet whether the undead are the worst of it, though,” Sheen said, but she found a place to sit as well. Mal and Kal joined her in meditation while Joris and Talan napped, Joris snoring loudly. They awoke around midafternoon, when the ashy sunlight was brightest.

“I can attempt to contact Haden for you, Sheen,” Mal said with unusual clarity.

“No, let’s wait,” Sheen said. “If he’s doing anything important you may distract him.”

“Then we should be off,” the warlock said. Talan searched around to find the tracks again, not much fainter than the previous day, and they began walking. Kal looked around at the desolate landscape sadly.

“This world must have had heroes, don’t you think?” Talan asked.

“They don’t seem to have done a very good job,” Sheen grumped.

Kal frowned. “The time for Thazia’s heroes is long past. The world has been dying for a long time—the fiends only needed to give it a push. It may not be too late for alien heroes, though.”

“Speak for yourself,” Sheen said. “I’m not here to save Thazia; I have other problems.”

The ruined forest grew slowly on the horizon. Most of the trees were dead, and those that weren’t clearly would be soon. Haden’s tracks led them to a spot where several trees had fallen, knocked down by something large. Many corpses lay scattered among the splintered stumps.

“Wow, he took them on himself?” Kal wondered. “I’m impressed.”

Sheen pointed at a damp section of ground. “I’ve never known Haden to produce large puddles of acid, though.”

“No, but a black dragon might,” Talan said.

“Are you sure?” Mal asked. “How big of a dragon?”

Talan wandered around the impromptu clearing for a few moments, gauging the damage. “An adult at least, I’d say. The dragon went off, to the north, and it looks like Haden followed it at a distance. Its progress was really erratic, though. Something was wrong with it.”

“What might vex a dragon?” Mal asked.

“Confusion?” Kal suggested. “Maybe Haden?”

“It’s really not his style,” Sheen said. “And, well, he’s really not that powerful.”

Kal sucked air through his teeth. “Betzalel could have done it.”

Joris blinked, startled. “You saw him?”

“Briefly,” Kal explained. “He threw confusion on us and then teleported. It was unpleasant. We should make haste.”

The dragon’s wake was easy enough to follow, but it veered sharply westward as it reached the boundary of a grove of living trees. The leaves of the trees were silvery, polished like mirrors. “Haden’s tracks lead in there,” Talan said.

Mal examined the trees. “There is a magical aura here, but it should be safe to pass. I believe it is intended to keep the undead out.”

“A grove of the Lady?” Joris asked.

“This place bears here spirit. There is a clearing further east that she used for gatherings.”

They stepped over the boundary cautiously and moved deeper into the grove. The edge of the clearing appeared ahead, a grayish opening filled with dim twilight. Several people stood in the center—Lady Margone and Betzalel talking to Haden. A short distance from them, a massive red-furred creature with a lion’s head stood with a coterie of barbed devils. Mal gasped suddenly and stared down at his feet. Hidden among the tree roots was the broken body of the Lady of Mirrors.