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

Jul 31, 2019

Day 9

 Still life of purple coneflowers in colored pencils.

Jul 30, 2019

Day 7 and 8

It took me more than one day to finish a vector portrait for Melissah, but I'm pretty happy with how it turned out.

Jul 29, 2019

Rise of the Runelords Session 21: A Night at the Inn

The smoke of the burning Graul farmstead dwindled in the distance as the night came down. By the time the adventurers reached Turtleback Ferry the night was well advanced and the tavern was beginning to empty. Melissah conjured water rather than disturb the innkeeper, and after a hasty but thorough scrubbing and a fresh set of clothes, she joined the others in the tavern where a sleepy girl was setting out tankards. Nevis was already standing on a table, strumming furiously at her lute and singing at the top of her surprisingly powerful voice.

Shalelu came in, scraping mud from her boots and hanging her cloak by the door. “It seems you were successful, then?”

Melissah gestured to the three Black Arrows hunched around a table near the fire. “Well, we found these three alive, at least. And the Grauls shouldn't be causing any more trouble.”

“Well, that's a mercy,” the elf woman said. Her eyes widened as she recognized Jakandros among the survivors.

Jori peeked over Jakandros's shoulder at the map he was drawing. “Do you know how many ogres are in the fort?” she asked. All three rangers spoke at once.

“No.” “A lot.” “Too many.”

Jakandros shrugged. “BUT, we know the fort better than they do. There's no way they've found the secret caverns or explored the tunnels underneath.” He made a finishing touch to the sketch and turned it around so that everyone could see. Nevis jumped from her table to this one to have a look.

“Those sound like adventurin' words!” the gnome announced. “What better a tale than one that starts with sneaking into a keep through secret means and climaxes with thrilling heroics!”

“Uh, yes,” Foss said, looking somewhat overwhelmed by Nevis' enthusiasm. “Solid plan.”

“Can any of you fly?” Vale asked.

“If you throw me, I can try!” Nevis declared.

“I could do that,” Foss said. Nevis gave him an exaggerated wink.

“In short, no,” Iozua concluded, shaking his head.

“No, you can't fly, or no, I can't throw Nevis?” Foss asked.

“Either,” Iozua replied. “Both.”

Vale pursed his lips and pointed to the crude map. “This aerie was where our giant eagle allies nested. They were killed by the ogres, but there's a tunnel leading from the aerie down into the fort.”

“If necessary, I can fly and carry others as well,” Melissah said.

Kaven blinked. “Well, we could always try the drainage ditch,” he said, not sure if she was serious. He pointed. “There's a sluice gate there that we use to dump stuff downhill into the creek.”
Jakandros frowned. “I don't know. That's pretty close to the south gate.”

“I think I've had enough vile waste for a while, thank you,” Melissah said.

Iozua shrugged. “Drainage ditch is a step up from what we just dealt with,” he muttered.

“To be honest,” Kaven said. “I was hoping to be talked out of the idea. But it's an option.”

Jakandros took his turn to do the pointing. “There's a secret tunnel behind this waterfall, but there could be shocker lizards back there.”

“They keep to themselves, mostly, but during mating season they can be aggressive. We smoke 'em out with bitterbark then,” Kaven added.

“IS it mating season?” Iozua asked.

“No,” Melissah said.

“We should just have Melissah do her thing and send the lot of them stampeding into the fort,” Foss announced with a grin, apparently finding the idea amusing. Iozua put a finger to the side of his nose and pointed at Foss, but Melissah shook her head and Foss immediately attempted to pretend that he was serious.

“I'd just as soon fly in to the aerie. I can prepare spells that will be good from above that way. Shocker lizards are magical and are highly resistant to druidic influence.”

“So you're saying there's a chance,” Iozua insisted.

“Ooh, I like those odds,” Nevis said.

“It might make a lot of noise if things go poorly.”

Iozua shook his head. “So you'd fly up and pelt them from above while the rest of us entered the gates?”

Melissah smiled. “No, I can carry the entire party up to the aerie.”

“You don't think they'd notice that?” the wizard protested.

“I could go in at night, as something silent like an owl. Ogres can see in the dark, but their range is limited.”

“If the moon is hidden or dark I suppose that could work,” Iozua allowed.

“Wait, we could RIDE you?” Nevis said, suddenly realizing the point. “I could make us all invisible for the flight in!”

Melissah smiled at the enthusiasm. “Or that,” she said.

Foss leaned over to Iozua and Jori. “These new recruits are kinda useful,” he said in an undertone. Iozua nodded. Foss raised his voice, a little embarrassed. “For a defensive structure, there sure are a lot of ways in that aren't the front gates,” he said.

“How did the ogres get in, do you know?” Melissah asked.

Vale snorted. “That's the real question, isn't it? I mean, we weren't there, but...”

“Vale thinks they had help from the inside,” Kaven said.

“No, I'm SURE they did.”

“Why?” Iozua asked. “Perhaps they relied on numbers?”

“Just a gut feeling, is all,” the massive Ranger said, somewhat defensive.

“It IS a bold move, for them,” Jakandros allowed. “I can't rule out that they're working on someone else's behalf. That's just another reason I want to get in there.”

“So, now we just need an owl harness,” Iozua said, looking thoughtful.

"WE'RE GOING TO RIDE A GIANT OWL!!!" Nevis squealed. “More drinks!”

“Are you going to make us push on and try this tonight?” Jori demanded as the barmaid fetched alcohol. “I burned through a lot of spells back there.”

“Tomorrow, certainly,” Iozua said.

“Oh, praise Desna,” the cleric replied, relieved.

Jakandros seemed about to protest, but Foss laid a hand on his shoulder. “We'll avenge your comrades soon enough.” The older ranger sighed and sat down, staring into his mug. Shalelu sat down next to him, and their eyes met warily. Kaven and Vale left the table, joining the rest of the party where Nevis had resumed singing.

Foss took a drink and directed a bemused look at Iozua. “Whoah. When did I become such a crusader? This time last year my biggest worry was getting to the next beach while the waves were good.”

“That's how the good fight works, Foss,” Jori told him.

“This time last year I was singing and drinking!” Nevis said.

“You like the sea?” Melissah asked, pleased to hear her usually taciturn companion in an expansive mood.

“I do. It calls me regularly. But it's been a while.”

Melissah nodded. “Oddly, I've never spent much time at the seashore. My people all live in the swamps further inland.”

“Your people?” Foss asked.

“Well, the druids who raised me, anyway. My mother wasn't married so I didn't have a family.”

Jori raised her mug. “Hey, my mother wasn't married either! Bastards unite!” She grinned. “My father's people are pretty powerful and famous in Varisia. But, since he didn't marry my mother, I don't really call myself one of them. I follow the Harrow.”

“I grew up in Sandpoint,” Iozua said softly. “This is the first time I've really left. I try not to think too hard about it, because if I do, it's pretty overwhelming. After the Late Unpleasantness at home, I really began to question if I would find a use for the art I'd spent so many years learning. Fire was . . . not popular.”

“I've been all over the place,” Foss said. “For five years now I've done nothing but wanter. It's amazing what you see out there when you cut your ties with home.”

Melissah nodded. “I've been wandering between villages in this area for a while now.”

Foss looked at her. “So, you were raised by druids, but your people come from the swamps? Sounds like you've had an interesting life, Melissah.”

“It suits me. I've never felt much desire to stay in one place for very long. My teacher would have called me flighty, but he was a bit of a crotchety old fart, if you ask me.” Iozua snorted a laugh.

“Well, sometime, when this is all over with, we'll have to find the best beach around. Surf all day, drink all night. That's the life,” Foss said.

“What's surfing?” Nevis asked, looking up from her playing.

“Riding the waves on a wooden plank. It's more about the experience than anything.”

“Don't you have wider ambitions?” Melissah asked. “Most of the people I meet are ambitious. Myself, I like to watch the towns and villages grow. I try to use what I know to help them when I can.”

Foss shook his head. “No, not in the least. Jori and Iozua here are destined for greatness, count on it. But I peaked already and I'm glad for it.”

Iozua twitched. “Eh, Jori, sure.”

Jori stuck out her tongue and made a dismissive raspberry. “I'm not cut out to be a great Deverin. If I can be a great wandering Harrower . . . that, maybe, I could do.”

“The cards again?” Iozua asked. “Didn't that . . . not work out so well the last time you listened to them?”

“The cards speak the truth. The least I can do is listen to them.”

“And Nualia?” the wizard asked softly. Jori winced.

“She . . . I've done everything I can for her. It's up to her to find the path now.” Her cheeks turned red and Iozua patted her hand awkwardly.

“Perhaps you're right,” he said.

Melissah smiled at the awkward silence that followed. “You may always find a purpose if you keep looking,” she offered. “It's a big world.”

Foss raised his mug. “I find that if you spend your life looking for one important thing, you may find it. But you also miss all the other stuff along the way that you ignored. So, I just take life as it comes, and tonight I'm here. Getting drunk with all of you. And then we go kill ogres.”

Jori raised her mug in answer. “Hear, hear!”

“I think I would go mad if I waited for life to come to me,” Melissah said.

Iozua took a long drink from his mug. “It has hardly slowed down since the goblins attacked Sandpoint.”

“No kidding,” Foss said. “One crazy event after another.”

“I hope the ogres are less disgusting than the Grauls,” Iozua grumbled. “Why can't we have a pleasant crazy event for once?”

“They could hardly be MORE disgusting,” Jori said.

“Not all adventures are fun, but they are adventures all the same,” Nevis murmured, the drink catching up with her.

“Oh, you can have pleasant crazy events along the way, Iozua,” Foss said with a grin. “It just involves talking to more women and having fewer morals.”

“Oh. Well. Ahem.” the wizard coughed artlessly.

“Is he blushing?” Melissah asked, grinning as well. The wizard seemed to have found something terribly interesting in the bottom of his mug.

“I think Iozua wants to talk to ONE woman,” Jori said.

“Oh? Do tell.”

“NO,” the wizard snapped.

“As you wish,” Jori replied. “But the cards don't lie.” Iozua shook his head, his mouth a thin line.

Melissah glanced over at Jakardos, who had finished speaking to Shalelu and was now sitting with Vale and Kaven again. “I do have one question for you three, though,” she said, pitching her voice toward their table. “What are you planning to do after we retake the fort? Stay there, just the three of you?”

“Ask Magnimar's Lord-Mayor for reinforcements, to start.” Jakardos said. He ducked his head and yawned. “I'm afraid that's as far as I've gotten.”

“I don't want you throwing your lives away trying to hold a fort by yourselves, not when we went to so much effort to rescue you.”

“It was a moderate effort, really,” Iozua said, recovering from his embarrassment. “But she's right.”

“Yeah, I don't want that either,” Kaven said. “See, Jak? She's pretty AND smart.”

Melissah shook her head, smiling faintly.

Outside, it began to rain. Hard. The roof drummed overhead. The innkeeper cursed from behind the bar. “Last time it rained this early, this much, we got floods. That were, what, forty-some years ago? Turned out there was a witch behind it all. She were tryin' to turn us all int' frogs or somethin' with all that rain!” Everyone blinked at him. That seemed to be the signal to break up the drinking and head to the inn to sleep.

Shalelu joined the adventurers for breakfast in the morning, before the Black Arrows arrived. “I should thank you for saving them,” she mentioned as the innkeeper brought out a platter of sausages and bacon and a crock of eggs.

“I'm glad we were in time,” Melissah said.

“Me, too. We were able to . . .reconcile.”

“So you know why he left, then?” Iozua asked.

Shalelu nodded. She spotted Kaven coming down the stairs. “I'll tell you later.”

Foss lowered his voice and leaned in close to her. “Stick by Jakardos during the action tonight. I can tell he's a strong man, but he's shaken up. I've seen it before when I was enlisted, and it's not good for combat.”

Nevis hurtled down the stairs after the rangers. “What'd I miss you guys?” she slurred, burping and looking disturbed by the taste. She grabbed a bottle. “Hair of the dog that bit'cha!” she declared, and upended it into her mouth.

“I hope she doesn't throw up when we start flying,” Melissah muttered.

Jul 28, 2019

Day 6

 This drawing is entitled "Jen got mad at PC cases being a flaming pile of bad design again".

Jul 27, 2019

Day 5

 For today, we have a baby hippopotamus.  The values were a struggle, the original was taken in very bright light so it was completely washed out.

Jul 26, 2019

Day 4

 I'm actually pretty pleased with this one.  I made myself sketch the complete shape before I started in, and the proportions look pretty decent overall, without major, obvious distortions. I also made some use of values, and I think it makes it a lot more lively, particularly around the eye.

The fur was super-hard to do, because the chipmunk has light and dark hairs together that form its pattern, and it was hard to figure out what overall value to use there without making it look like it was shaved.

Jul 25, 2019

Day 3

I was pretty busy today and drawing a blank on what to draw, so you get Random Dragon Sketch.

Jul 24, 2019

Day 2

 An attempt at a color version of yesterday's pencil sketch.  I'm not completely pleased with the result.  I need more practice with colored pencils and I'm way too dependent on being able to erase errors.  It's very hard for me to draw without an initial outline in graphite pencil, but I enjoy the practice of drawing free-hand even if I mess up the proportions.

Jul 23, 2019

Day 1

 So, a friend of mine on Facebook is doing this project called "100 days of drawing" where you do a drawing every day for a hundred days (obscure, I know) and I volunteered to draw along.

I'm super-rusty, so here's a sketch of my character Melissah for today. Mostly I was working on getting the proportions and the stance together, so the values are super-meh.  It actually took me almost an hour just to find some pencils I could draw with!

Jul 22, 2019

Rise of the Rune Lords Session 20: The Eviction

Foss opened the door deeper into the foul Graul house, and a scything blade sprang out of the door frame and slammed against his armor, knocking him to the side. He grunted but appeared unhurt, and levered the blade out of the wall.

The larger room on the other side of the door stank of putrefying flesh. Eight wooden chairs were crowned with bleached skulls. The monstrous table was covered with a crude tablecloth of tanned human skin. A rotting human head sat where the centerpiece would normally be located.

The rest of the group crowded around the door while Foss searched for more traps, finding scythe blades at two more doors and disarming them quickly and efficiently. He then booted open the northern door while the rest of the group edged around the chairs.

The revealed room was strewn with toys of carved wood and bone and partial animal carcasses, a hideous parody of a nursery. The walls were marked with crude paintings drawn in blood.

Nevis winced. “By Shelyn . . .this place.” The gnome was turning a delicate shade of chartreuse. Two smaller ogrekin shrieked. Foss slashed at one with his axe, dropping it, and turned to the other, while Jori raced up beside him and attacked with her knife, missing. The melee was brief but intense, and Melissah tried to help and received a nasty wound from a spear for her trouble.

“Two fewer nightmares,” Iozua said. Melissah passed her hand over the wound, channeling protective energies. The wizard shook his head. “Anything worth spending further seconds in this room for?”

“I don't think so,” Melissah replied.

Foss grunted. “I can't imagine anything valuable enough.”

They moved quickly to the next door, a closet of sorts filled with dozens of humanoid fetishes crafted from all kinds of unspeakable junk. Foss looked the room over and found a jade ring on one of the human fingerbones dangling from the walls. The next room contained a bearskin rug before a tremendous hearth and a huge couch haphazardly upholstered in animal hide and human skin and decorated with animal talons, enormous hairy spider legs, fox heads, and human hands and feet. There was a dark, foul pit in front of the couch.

The next door led into what should be the final room on this floor. Foss glanced over the group, made an apologetic face, and opened the door. The room was a vile bedchamber, with three walking corpses standing guard and everything swimming with blood, rot, and flies. An enormous, blobby female with stringy black hair and grayish skin shrieked in rage.

“Now you fireball,” Melissah said to Iozua.

“Ya think?” the wizard demanded. He retreated slightly and hurled a flaming gem into the room, where it exploded, setting the undead Grauls on fire and covering Mammy Graul in a layer of blackened scorch that improved her appearance tremendously.

Jori ducked into the room and cast a ray of light at Mammy, scorching her further, and Foss charged. Mammy took his axe through her arm, but then she levitated toward the ceiling and cast a spell of vile corruption at Foss, who shook from a wave of sickness. Weakened, he hacked at her again, cleaving the grayish flesh.

Mammy Graul fell to the floor and the boards gave way. She tumbled into darkness and landed with a wet, crackling thud. Something below growled, then roared.

“Can I please burn this place down now,” Iozua whined, gulping and trying not to breathe. There was a slithering noise, and then . . . munching.

Foss edged forward and peeked into the hole. “Can someone please help with whatever that witch did to me before we have to deal with that . . .thing?” he said, pointing to a monstrous heap of plant and fungus life with two immense tentacles and a gaping maw.

“It's some sort of carnivorous plant,” Melissah said. She glanced at Jori, and between the two women they managed to remove most of the affliction, leaving only a bit of lingering weakness that should heal on its own.

“Thank you,” Foss said. “Both of you. Let's go down and deal with it. We can't let it live.”

“I can hit it with spells from here,” Iozua said.

“Who knows what else might be down there, though,” Melissah cautioned.

“Only one way to find out!” Nevis announced.

“It's EATING her! You think any innocents are alive down there?” Iozua demanded.

Melissah shook her head. “I was more concerned with an explosion of toxic mold or slime spores or something like that.”

“We haven't found the Black Arrows' equipment yet,” Jori said to the increasingly hysterical wizard.

“I've already offered to resupply them. I stand by that offer,” he snapped. He pulled a vial of dust out of his pouch, rolled it between his hands. “Here, I'll distract it!”

The fireball boomed under the floorboards. Two tentacles shot out, grabbed the wizard, and hauled him through the hole before he could even yell.

“Iozua!” Nevis shouted, and jumped in after him. Jori followed, hacking at the strange beastie, while Melissah cast a spell that summoned a crackling sphere of violet electricity. The tentacles continued to move, sweeping Iozua into the creature's maw, where he vanished with one gulp.

Foss leapt, burying an axe in the creature's back—if it had one—and slowing his descent slightly. A flurry of axe blows followed, and the plant monster flopped to the ground. Foss continued hacking until he'd opened a hole into the creature's gullet. Iozua fell out in a gush of slime, choking and swinging wildly with his daggers.

“What. The. Actual. Hell.” the wizard gasped out after he'd cleared the slime from his mouth.

“Damn, Iozua, you win the disgusting award this time. Thanks for coming to work today.”

“It slimed you!” Nevis declared, fascinated.

“Thank--” Iozua started. He choked, and hawked up a wad of slime. “Thank you, Foss.”

“I'm a little glad Pavander isn't here, actually,” Melissah said, surveying the dark pit. He'd be rolling in everything.” Foss chuckled a bit at her weak humor. “Let's get out of here. Please.”

The north door led to a tiny cubby with a chest full of equipment, much of which bore the Black Arrows' markings. Foss shoveled the rest into a bag and they left quickly through the southern doors, which led to a dark and foul but otherwise unremarkable stone hallway, a storage room, and then a room occupied by another Graul, this one with a tiny conjoined twin stuck to its back, and two enormous rats, called donkey rats by the locals.

The rats leaped across the room, and one of them sank its teeth into Foss' leg. He glanced at Melissah, wondering how she would react to the sight of more animals, but she shook her head. “Don't hold back!”

The fight was short but brutal, with Iozua burning one rat to death with a flaming sphere, Melissah summoning a small pack of stirges that latched on to the other rat and drained its blood, and Foss dueling the Graul, taking several blows from its ogre hook but ultimately winning. Jori winced at her rat bites and summoned a healing aura over the group that removed the worst of it.

The remainder of the vile house was foul, but empty of further enemies.

“H'okay,” Foss said, “I need to lie down for a bit. I think I've seen enough of their faces.”

“I need a bath,” Melissah concurred.

Jul 15, 2019

Rise of the Rune Lords Session 19: Honorable Arachnid

The monstrous ogrekin guard took off after Kibb with a bellow, and the party emerged from the trees to creep up on the barn. Melissah detoured to the farmhouse, casting a spell that summoned pillars of ice from the ground that would, with any luck, block the doors.

Foss planted his shoulder and heaved the wooden barn doors open, revealing a wide room with mounds of molding hay, grain stores, and even a large but crude still. He readied his axes as three ogrekin armed with spears looked up from where they were keeping watch. Behind him, Nevis began to sing and gesture, filling the air with hastening magic.

Iozua, bringing up the rear, made a broad two-handed gesture, and the far side of the barn filled with a roiling wall of fire. The ogres yelped as the heat washed over them, then the nearest yelped again as Foss charged, dodging a half-hearted spear thrust to sink both axes into the beast's torso, felling it.

Jori edged around to the catwalk and hurled her starknife, but the second ogre dodged it and both guards rushed at Foss. He jumped back and ducked, narrowly evading their spears. Melissah walloped one with her quarterstaff to little effect, while Nevis the gnome transformed her lute into a sword and hacked away at the other guard, opening a gash on its leg.

Iozua summoned another gout of flames and the fight was abruptly over, Foss taking the opportunity to finish off his final opponent.

“Well, that went swiftly,” Nevis said, wiping her blade clean. “Foss, you are a force to be reckoned with!”

“I think the giant cong-flagration had something to do with our success,” Foss said.

“Yes, my conflagrations are kingly,” Iozua replied, blowing smoke off his fingers.

Melissah peeked back out of the barn door to see if any other ogres had heard the noise, but apart from the increasingly-distant bellows of the guard thrashing around in the underbrush, there was nothing.

Nevis trotted over to the stinking still. “This smells drinkable if we mix it with a little berry juice and some wormwood,” she remarked.

Melissah twitched. “To a gnome, perhaps.” The little folk were renowned for being hardy and foolish, after all. “I don't see anyone coming, maybe try getting the doors open?”

Nevis found a dented brass cup from somewhere and dipped it into the spirits. She took a swallow, frowned, and then began choking and spat out the acrid fluid. “WOOOOOOOooo damn, no.”

“Excellent,” Iozua said. “This party needed someone to make really, really questionable choices. Now we are complete.”

“I aim to please,” Nevis coughed, smiling weakly.

“I wouldn't trust your aim right now,” the wizard replied.
“I wouldn't trust that hooch right now,” Nevis said.

“Or ever,” Jori told her.

Foss heaved away the boards blocking the far door, but it was still very slow to open. Shoving hard, he discovered that the far side of the door was covered in resilient spiderweb that parted only reluctantly. The large, stuffy chamber on the other side of the door was covered in disgusting webs that formed a funnel dropping down into the ground. In the far corners there were square platforms fenced in by wooden beams, forming crude cages. The walls inside the cages were studded with manacles, three of them containing emaciated, unconscious men.

“I can heal the men if you'll keep an eye out,” Melissah said. Iozua took up position next to the outer doors. “Will do.”

Nevis and Foss stepped into the webbed room, watching carefully. The gnome jumped and called out as a spider the size of an elephant emerged from the funnel in the floor and loomed abruptly over her.

“What are you gasping about in there?” Iozua demanded as possibly-venomous slobber dripped from the spider's mandibles onto the gnome's head.

Melissah quickly cast a spell. “Nice giant spider!” she said. It turned to look at her, bulbous eyes seeming to glow in the dark, and then it settled toward the ground.

“Guys, do you need help?” Iozua called. “I heard spellcasting.”

Nevis wiped at the goo. “Woah.” The spider continued its non-attack. “It's okay?”

“It's all right,” Melissah said. “Just . . . don't go crazy. It's still a big bug. I don't control it like a puppet. It will do what comes naturally if you provoke it.”

Iozua was sounding increasingly irritated. “I'm sorry, a big bug? What?”

Nevis peeked out the door at him. “I don't know if you should be happy you missed the spider or not!” The wizard shook his head, bewildered, and turned to watching the door. Foss, seeing that the situation was under control, moved to join him, and Jori followed.

“There's a spider in there. It's frickin' enormous,” Foss explained. “I mean, really . . . frickin enormous. And Melissah just told it to chill out . . . and it did.”

Iozua looked skeptical. “Huh. Nice.”

In the cage, Melissah and Nevis surveyed the injured men. “I've got antitoxins?” the gnome offered.

Melissah used water from her waterskin to wipe dirt away from their injuries. “They don't look like the spider has actually bitten them, they're just beat up and exhausted.”

“Holy hells, they are LUCKY!” Nevis said, casting a still-nervous glance at the spider, which was still watching them. She went bounding out of the room.

“Iozua! Iozua! You have to SEE this thing! It is SO BIG!”

“Nevis!” Melissah hissed. “They don't like rapid movements!”

“IT SLOBBERED ON ME!” the gnome bellowed.

Iozua rolled his eyes. “So, what, dog-sized?”

“Bigger! Like bigger than FOSS!”

“Oh, for pity's sake, if you want to see it, just come see it,” Melissah griped as she concentrated on healing the prisoners.

Iozua shook his head. “Ehhhh . . . I'm fine.”

“It was soooooo COOL!”

One by one, the men staggered out past the docile spider and collapsed on the marginally-cleaner hay in the outer room. Melissah followed them.

“Melissah, question for you,” Foss said rather diffidently.


“What is this thing going to do if we just leave it here, with no ogrekin to control it? Is it going to eat everything in a ten mile area is what I'm asking.”

“It probably won't be good for the surrounding things,” Nevis said.

“Well, it is a hunter,” Melissah said, shrugging. “It'll do what any hunter in the woods would do. But web-spinning spiders generally don't move around that much. If you want, I can try to encourage it to head for less-civilized lands.”

Nevis grabbed Melissah's tunic and stage-whispered. “Ride it like a pony!”

“After you,” the druid whispered back.

“I trust your judgment,” Foss said. “I just don't want the local folk calling for help with a nightmare spider in a year or so.”

“We could put up a sign, like 'Beware the Spider',” Melissah offered. “I'm actually not opposed to burning these buildings down. They're just going to harbor something nasty unless people decide to come live here. But I'd move the spider out first.”

“Did someone say 'burn buildings down'?” Iozua asked.

“Oh dear,” Melissah said. “Now I'm sorry I suggested it.”

“That still should go up a treat,” Nevis announced.

“We should probably find out what's in the house before we go committing random arson,” Melissah said.

“It's targeted arson,” the wizard protested.

Out in the clearer air, the three captives, all apparently rangers, were starting to look a bit more alert. One looked much like Foss, only somewhat lighter in build, with a short, dark beard. One of his eyes was scarred. He matched the description Shalelu had given them of Jakardros. The other two were a large, dark-skinned human, and a smaller, slighter man with blond hair, who even in his current state managed a grin.

“Kibb,” he croaked. “Where's Kibb?”

“He's outside distracting the guard,” Melissah said with as much assurance as she could muster, “but he should be back soon.”

Jakardros looked relieved, but then he frowned. “Who the hells are you guys?”

“The Mayor of Magnimar sent them with me to see what happened to the fort after all the disturbances.”

The blond man, who Melissah vaguely remembered was named Kaven, punched Jakardros on the shoulder. “You don't remember Melissah? The bee lady? You must be getting old to forget a pretty face like hers.” He grinned, white teeth showing through the filth. Melissah produced a weak smile in return.

“I'm glad we found you alive. Shalelu was worried about you.”

Jakardros started to climb to his feet, but couldn't quite manage. “Easy, brother,” the dark-skinned man, named Vale, said. “Take it easy.

“She was worried about me? Truly?” Jakardros asked, his voice thick.

“We have a lot of questions,” Foss said, “but there is still a house full of these beasts. Will you be all right while we go finish this rescue mission?”

“There aren't any more Black Arrows here,” Vale said, grimly. “But if you're going to kill off the Grauls, then gods speed you on your mission.”

Kaven nodded. “We'll be fine. Things have gone pretty well for us so far.” The other two rangers shot him disbelieving looks. “What?”

“I like your optimism, sir,” Nevis said.

Melissah looked at Jakardors for a moment. “The first Graul we encountered had a bunch of Black Arrow patches . . . do you know if the others were . . .slain?”

Jakardros nodded wearily. “My patrol wasn't at Fort Rannick when the ogres attacked. I lost a third of my men trying to retake the fort, and when we retreated south into the Kreegwood we were easy pickings for the Grauls.” He sighed. “I can't imagine anyone's left alive at the Fort. If I'd returned sooner, we could have helped defend the place, but now a forty-five year tradition is dead because of me. Commander Bayden would sooner have died than surrender the fort, so I assume the worst.”

“I would say it's dead because of the ogres,” Melissah said. Kaven reached out and squeezed Jakardros' shoulder.

“You have GOT to stop blaming yourself for this, Jak.”

“We're going to kill them,” Nevis said, “but how many of them are in the house?”

“I lost count of how many Grauls are in that house,” Vale rumbled. “Too many, to be damned sure. Watch out for Mammy Graul, little one. She's . . . she's about the worst thing the gods put upon Golarion.”

“Necromancers, man. What can you do?” Kaven said.

“It sounds like this 'family' has been terrorizing this area for long enough,” Foss growled.

As the party gathered itself to leave the barn, they heard a bellow from the farmstead outside. “Where's this danged ice come from?” The guard was poking, perplexed, at the ice pillar outside the farmhouse's eastern door.

Melissah waved her hands, and the giant spider emerged from the back room, striding across the barn and out of the door. Iozua raised his eyebrows.

“Wait, there really IS a spider?!”

“Told you!” Nevis said.

The guard shrank back in horror for a moment, but then he raised a cruel hooked polearm and charged.

Melissah pointed at the ogrekin. “There's someone for you to play with! Give him a hug!”

“Yeah, give him a mouth hug!” Nevis shouted.

The spider leapt forward and sank its mandibles into the ogre with loud snapping sounds. Screaming, the ogre struck back, tearing the spider's abdomen open with a lucky strike of his hook. It hissed and curled up, falling to the ground.

“NO!” Melissah yelled. She hurled a ball of snow at the ogrekin, and it yowled again.

“Damn, I can't wait to see what'll happen next,” Foss said.

Jori grinned. “Right. This is going to be epic.”

Iozua summoned a sphere of flame around the mutant's toes and it finally fell, smoking and charring. He then directed the sphere toward the eastern door of the farmhouse, neatly cutting a hole in the ice pillar.

“Sorry 'bout your loss,” Foss mumbled to Melissah. “I could tell that thing mattered to you.”

“I'll be all right. But thank you.”

“Right,” he said. “Let's go kill more stuff.”

The door opened into a musty kitchen that reeked of blood and week-old meat. It was thick with clouds of fat, greasy flies. Thumb-sized cockroaches ran along the walls, floor, and ceiling. A thick butcher's block sat under three cruel-looking cleavers that hung from a rack. Bloodstained smocks of thick leather, one still dripping fresh gore, hung on bone spur hooks by the door. A crockery platter of severed fingers and toes sat on a rickety old table next to a basket overflowing with hacked-off hands and feet, all sporting stubs of congealed blood where their digits once were.

Iozua's face went hard. “Never mind. I'll buy the Black Arrows new stuff. I'm burning this place down. Because I am not going in there.”

“I want to go in,” Foss said quietly.

“I dislike having to entertain your weird fetishes,” the wizard grumped.

“I want to make sure this ends. I want to see their faces.”

Nevis pulled a vial from her pouch labeled “antitoxin” and downed it. “I need that just looking at this room.”

Foss gestured, and the party stepped inside, ready, they hoped, for anything.

Jul 14, 2019

Rise of the Rune Lords: Melissah's Story

There was a bees' next in the Arbor. The girl could hear the buzzing even over the roar of the swollen river. These weren't the tiny, glittering green bees of the marsh; they were fat orange things, striped in black, that floated almost lazily through the spring air.

Silly nuisances,” Guide remarked, tapping the rotten stump with his staff. “They don't belong here. They'll never find enough nectar in these woods to see them through the winter.”

There are flowers in the water-meadows,” the girl said.

Not bee flowers. These fat fellows are used to farmlands, rich and heady and full of sweets for them to feast on. They'll learn their mistake soon enough.”

The girl thought that would be a shame. She discovered an odd liking for these bees, with their bright colors and placid busyness. They may be foolish, but it was a brave and jaunty sort of foolishness that seemed friendly and inviting.

Guide tapped the girl with his staff and she turned quickly to follow. She had enough work of her own to do, learning to be a Druid. There were six Druids in the Arbor: Guide, Storm, Star, River, Marsh, and Mist. And Girl. She had no name. Undines were named for their work or for their family, and she had neither. Guide had hinted once that the girl's father was no Undine, and the girl was lucky she was still born to swim with the People. Most of those so born had to be left with their unswimming relatives, assuming any could be found. It was a waste, but women had their passions and would bear land children from time to time. At least the girl could be useful.

This last was said with a sniff and a significant glance. The girl did her best to look useful and not at all like the half-foreign children or the strange foreign bees who would starve soon.

Yet, they did not starve. The girl returned to the rotten stump in summer to find the nest had grown enormous. The bees were thriving, growing fat on something in this desolate land. The girl smiled as fuzzy orange insects landed on her.

I am not a flower, silly things,” she said, and gently shook them off. Guide would be returning soon, and there was still gathering to do.

The bees seemed to watch while she dug for roots, cut small green plants, and filled her basket with hard purplish berries. When she paused to rest the bees landed on her bundles or petted her skin with their tiny feet. The girl took a plum from her pocket and cut it in half. “Do bees eat plums?” she asked, putting the fruit on the stump and squeezing it so the juice ran.

* * *

In the fall, the bees didn't drone. They roared. Some ferocious beast had invaded the hive, tearing out a great section of rotten stump and feasting on the bees' diligent work. The girl spent hours digging up clay and straw to patch the hive together. The bees would not be consoled, and stung her hands and arms in their fury. She pulled out the barbs and rubbed mud over her skin to draw out the poison. It hurt, but it wasn't their fault they didn't know she was trying to help.

Maybe you really will starve, now,” she whispered, and astonishing tears dripped down her cheeks. The bees should live. They were pretty and brave and fierce and foolish.

So the girl set a trap. Guide had taught her to catch rabbits and lizards with snares, but from the size of the gouges something bigger and stronger was needed here. The girl spent all day digging. That night, she didn't return to the Circle, where usually she slept. Instead, she slept on the ground after an unpleasant meal of shelf fungus and sour berries. Her hands were blistered and her knees were rubbed raw.

In the morning, she dug again. It took her three days to build that trap.

Guide was furious. He made the girl scrub the floors and sweep the entire Circle and carry water for all six Druids before he let her collapse on her pallet and sleep a few short hours. Then he shook her awake and the chores began again, along with a lecture that she was forbidden to leave the Circle. It hardly mattered. She was too tired to care.

The punishment felt like an eternity, but Guide was quick to lose interest in lectures and finding new chores. Druids were not farmers, after all, with endless rounds of work. When you could summon water with a wave of your hand, why wait for someone to carry it? There were better ways for even a nameless girl to spend her time.

The girl crept back to the pit she had dug, intending only to fill it in. The rains had done half the job already, but when she began to attack the edge with her digging stick something thrashed in the mud, scrabbling at the collapsing earthen walls. The girl shrieked, imagining some kind of furious mud dragon, but then she saw two bright, beady eyes.

You shouldn't be such a thief,” she scolded the animal that lay panting in the mud, the last of its strength spent. “Still, I suppose it's not your fault that you're hungry.”

Getting the animal out of the mud was far more difficult than digging the pit in the first place. In the end, the girl had to braid a rope from vines and tie food to a stick that she stuck almost out of its reach so that she could get her rope around it and haul it from the muck. By the time it was at ground level, they were about equally muddy, but at least a brief wallow in the river took care of most of the mud. The animal lay on the shore, watching her, making no move to leave.

You're a strange-looking thing,” she told it.

It's a badger,” came a voice, and the girl shrieked for the second time in one day. Guide reached down, hooked her arm, and lifted her out of the water. “We don't generally see them around here.” His lips quirked wryly. “A honey badger. They do whatever they like, but never anything useful.”

The girl waited, but that seemed to be the end of his commentary, and he turned back toward the Circle. The girl followed, unsure whether she was in trouble again or not. Guide didn't seem angry, in fact, he almost sounded amused, an impression that was confirmed a few minutes later when the girl made a discovery.

It's following us!” she hissed.

Following you. It'll expect you to feed it, now.”

But I don't want it!”

It's a little late to say something like that! You tamed it, that makes it your responsibility.” Guide shook his head. “Trust you to find some completely ridiculous beast to be your companion. I suppose we'll have to start training you in earnest, now.”

Wait, you weren't training me before?”

That did not seem to merit further response.

* * *

There were at least six hives in the Arbor, now. Whenever she passed that way, which was not often, the trees seemed to throb with activity. The girl had learned to move through the woods without causing disruption, enough to sometimes take an extra comb and share it with the badger and the other Druids. Even Storm enjoyed a bit of sweetness in her tea.

This visit would be the last for a long time to come. Warriors had come up the river, bringing gifts to the marsh Druids. Gifts and requests. They were planning a raid on a human settlement where no humans were supposed to be. They wanted the blessing of the Circle. Storm had looked up from her weather-gazing and said, “Send the girl. It is time she earned a name.”

The girl was not so certain she wanted a name if it meant going to war. “What does it matter if some humans live on a beach?” she asked.

It does not matter now,” Guide said. “But they do not belong here. They do not know how to live in these lands. Soon they will grow hungry, and when humans hunger, they attack.” Guide was the angriest at the news. He would have gone with the war party himself, but Storm forbade it. The Druids of the Circle did not go to war.

So, the girl climbed into one of the canoes with the raiders. There was some difficulty as the badger attempted to join her and the warriors thought they could chase it away, but the badger had impressive teeth and claws and would brook no arguments. It finally settled on the girl's feet. The warriors stared at her while they rowed, their gazes flat and unfriendly. The girl wasn't like them, with their deep blue skin and hair like water weeds. Her skin was pale and pinkish, dusted with blue freckles. Only the webbing of her toes and fingers marked her as a swimmer and not a land woman.

She looks like a human,” one of the warriors sneered.

My father was not a swimmer,” the girl said.

So your mother was friendly, eh? Are you friendly?”

Cutter, be silent,” one of the woman warriors snapped.

It's just a question,” Cutter protested. “We could use some friendly women around here.” He pawed at the girl's arm. She felt her lip curling. Bees did not suffer indignities, not even if stinging would cost their life. She called fire into her hand and threw it at Cutter. He flinched aside and the fire missed him, but the other warriors laughed.

I'm not your friend.”

No, you bite,” said the woman, showing sharp white teeth. “Are you a Biter?”

Not with those rabbit-teeth, she isn't,” Cutter huffed, eliciting more laughter. But he turned away and ignored her after that.

The raiders camped for the night a few miles upstream of the human settlement, a crude and ugly log palisade that squatted in the mouth of the river. Undine scouts vanished into the darkness. Weapons and armor were brought out, cleaned, and tested. Strategies were discussed in low voices. No one seemed interested in the girl at all. She stepped into the trees and began to walk.

She threw rocks at the palisade for ten minutes before anyone even came to look, and it wasn't even a human, but some tiny creature that poked his head rather incautiously over the logs and blinked into the darkness. After another minute, the girl realized that he couldn't see her. He looked exhausted, his eyes blinded by more than just night.

Down here,” she called finally, taking pity on him.


Do I sound like Marteth?”

No, but I could hope. Come out where I can see you, whoever you are.” He didn't even sound curious. But curiosity was a luxury, of sorts. The girl edged forward until the little man's eyes focused on her. “Who are you? What do you want? And why are you speaking like a native?” Questions coming from some lingering sense of duty, not any interest. The girl had expected anger and suspicion. But those were luxuries, too.

I am a native,” she said. “What are you people doing here? Don't you know it's dangerous?”

Yes, to our sorrow. What do you want?”

That was the difficult question. Truthfully, she didn't know, but she doubted he could rouse his tired mind enough to comprehend any complex equivocation. “Raiders are coming to chase you out in the morning.” That was direct enough.

Are you by chance making some kind of joke?”

No. They are camped upriver. There are a lot of them. They are armed.”

I gathered as much when you said 'raiders'.”

So, what are you going to do?”

The little man chuckled briefly. “Probably die.”
The girl threw up her hands. “Over this patch of dirt?! You really are mad. Just go. It isn't worth it.”

He stared at her for a while. “I . . . think there's something you need to see.”


Come to the gate.”

Bewildered, the girl walked along the wall until part of it groaned and creaked and tilted, rising from the ground high enough for her to duck through. It occurred to her that the little man might consider her a potential hostage. It was even remotely possible that the raiders were frightened enough of the Druids that they'd be willing to go along with it, but a man needed to have some sort of initiative left to imagine anything so ambitious as hostage-taking. This felt more like a plea.

The first thing she saw inside the palisade were two humans, both straining, red-faced, at the ropes that must be raising the gate. When she approached they let go and backed away, breathing hard. The girl nearly laughed at them, they looked so comical in their identical clothing and armor. They had weapons strapped on here and there, but they didn't look dangerous to her. They looked rather fuzzy and bulky and orange and black in the firelight. Like bees, defending their little hive. One gestured toward his forehead vaguely. The tiny man said something to them in a strange tongue, and both humans repeated the gesture and walked away.

What am I supposed to see?” she asked.

The little man swept his arms wide. “Behold, your mighty foes!”

The camp was a wreck. It was obvious that the humans had meant to build a shelter inside the walls, but they hadn't finished it or had later demolished it for unknown reasons. A few small fires burned fitfully. The people were huddled around the fires, wrapped in filthy blankets. A few sprawled helplessly on the ground. They barely looked up as she passed. They were sweating or shivering or moaning. The camp stank of vomit and piss.

Plague,” she said.

Yes. So, really, raiders or not, we're dying over this patch of dirt.”

The girl surveyed the collection of wretched hulks and sighed. What could you do with people like this? So foolish, but a jaunty and brave sort of foolishness. “I can help.”

It was not the war she'd been sent to fight. She wondered, many times over the following days, if that war would have been easier. Fighting the plague was an endless, grinding effort with no time for rest. The raiders appeared on schedule, whooped a few war cries, and threw a few spears over the wall. The girl climbed up and shouted, “Plague!” at them, and climbed down again, not even waiting for a response. Eventually, they went away. She was too busy even to be amused.

And I thought Guide's chores were bad,” she said, spooning an herbal concoction into a dying man's mouth. The girl couldn't have said whether the medicine was any use at all, but the attention seemed to sooth him, so she kept spooning.

I'm sorry?” asked the tiny man, who she now knew was called Wentzel.

It doesn't matter. Hand me that towel.”

Some just died, there was no help for them. The first few days, no one even had the strength to move them. The girl rushed from cry to cry and snatched at sleep in between, mostly sitting up wedged in a corner. She feared if she lay down, she would not be able to rise again and do what needed to be done. But, gradually, things began to change. The dead bodies disappeared, one by one. Scraps of shelter appeared over the sickest, then over everyone. Hot food appeared. Clean clothing. The girl allowed herself to fall onto a pallet and sleep, and no cry came, no desperate hand shaking her awake. When she rose in the morning, there were other hands to bathe and clean and feed and soothe.

It looks like we might pull through after all, thanks to you,” said Wentzel.

The girl sighed. “The raiders won't stay away forever.” And she wasn't digging any pits this time. One badger was enough. She didn't need an entire army following her around and making nuisances of themselves.

No, I suppose they won't. What about you? Are you . . . in trouble? You're welcome to stay . . .”

No, thank you. I have other things to do.”

The girl sat in the Arbor, beside the rotten stump full of bees. Her badger dug at the ground, gulping down a wealth of disgusting grubs.

They still don't belong here,” Guide told her.

Not yet, but maybe one day they will.”

Maybe. Why did you return?” In his voice, she heard that he had not expected it, but, strangely, he was glad.

There is still one thing I need to know.”

Ask, then.”

Tell me my name.”

The Guide's face twisted briefly. Then he grinned. “You are Melissah.”

Melissah,” she said, tasting the word.

Honey bee.

Jul 8, 2019

Rise of the Runelords Session 18: Back in the Saddle Again

"I would like to point out that I'm just doing this to be nice and he doesn't actually have any authority over me," Melissah announced, eyeing her new traveling companions. They'd been on the road a week, but she still wasn't quite comfortable with such a crowd. Her wagon-cum-house was surrounded on all sides by people on horseback. Friendly people, supposedly, but also ARMED people.

"I'm excited!" the gnome bard, Nevis, announced. She was nominally sitting next to Melissah in the driver's box of the wagon, but the term was applied only loosely.

The human wizard, Iozua, grinned. “Hey, that's how we got started on this whole thing. Both doing it to be nice and excited. The . . . novelty wears off after the dozenth-or-so corpse.”

Nevis produced a lute and began to strum it, bouncing dramatically along next to Melissah and causing even the placid mules to twitch snort.

Iozua's somewhat alarming friend Foss nodded. “I'm not even sure how I got caught up in all this, but it's been a hoot, so I'm still here. Except for that haunted manor. That place sucked.”

“Would not visit again,” Iozua added.

Meliisah ventured a smile. Aside from Shalelu, who she'd met a few times, she'd known these people precisely seven days. They weren't exactly unfriendly, but they had seemed a little preoccupied and more inclined to talk to each other than to her. And the bard was, well, a gnome. “Well, it's been very nice to meet you all. I'm sure none of you whatsoever are axe murderers.”

“I prefer the bow,” Shalelu announced.

Foss glanced down at the two axes hanging at his belt, then raised his eyebrows at Melissah. He shrugged.

“Define 'murderer',” Iozua said.

Melissah opened her mouth, not sure what was about to emerge, when Nevis' shrill voice cut the air. “Oh, the adventureres who weren't axe murderers . . . did travel to do goooooood . . . on the trail to mystery through the woooooood . . .”

Shalelu's horse neighed loudly and half-rose on its hind legs, causing the other horses to shy and effectively silencing the talk for a few moments.

“You have a lot of energy, eh?” Iozua remarked once his mount settled.

Nevis grinned. “I have a lot of a lot of things! Oh, let me share with you something I'm working on, I call it Divine Swimmer!” The gnome began playing vigorously.

“Is this a . . .song?” Melissa asked. It didn't sound like tavern music. Or any kind of music, really. But then, she didn't spend much time around musicians, so what did she know?

“I've missed this,” the human woman riding beside Shalelu remarked. She hadn't spoken much during the ride, seeming lost in her own thoughts. By the cut of her clothing, she looked like a noble, and an obvious standout in a group of otherwise unexceptional “travel-folk”.

They were riding along the river north of Turtleback Ferry, a village of some four hundred souls. Fort Rannick lay not far on this road, the home of the Black Arrows. They were a group of rangers who patrolled the roads and kept the villages safe, but for the past several weeks no one had heard from the fort. The river was gray and wild, swollen with recent rains. Livestock and even a few trappers or hunters had disappeared, and the wild animals were growing bold and restless.

Then the pleasure barge Paradise went down with almost two dozen people still aboard. That was the last straw for Melissah. She traveled these roads year-long, stopping in villages just like Turtleback Ferry to sell honey, wax, and mead from the beehives she kept in her wagon. While she could handle herself in a fight if need be, she preferred to avoid such things. Much better for proper soldiers to get involved. People who got paid for this sort of thing.

However, that did not seem to be an accurate description of what the mayor of Magnimar had sent back with her. The getting paid part might be, but proper soldiers? Or, any kind of soldiers for that matter? They looked like a troupe of strolling players, and not your high-class Lord Skillian's Men, all done up in livery. No, this group looked like the kind of strolling players who might become bandits themselves if the villages weren't too keen on their performance.

They reached the bridge, where the road crossed the river, and Shalelu pulled up abruptly. “I heard something.” Foss immediately dismounted, moving in the direction the elf was pointing. Melissah pulled on the reins, bringing the mules to a stop at the side of the road, and jumped down. With the music stopped, she could hear the noise herself, a pained yowling.

“It sounds like a firepelt cougar,” she said.

“We faced one of those before, in Thistletop,” Jori said.

Melissah winced. “I can try to calm it . . .”

Iozua gestured for her to proceed. Foss glanced back and nodded.

“If you can, please.”

Melissah edged past into a clearing. Once she was past the first line of trees, the cougar was clearly visible in the underbrush, panting heavily and struggling with loud clanks against a vicious metal jaw trap. Melissah approached slowly and openly, keeping low and giving the animal a chance to look her over. It didn't shy away like a wild animal, in fact, it crawled toward her. It was clearly trained.

“Will it allow me to try and open the trap?” Foss breathed. Melissah took out a jar of honey from her belt pouch and smeared some liberally on a rag, offering it to the cougar. The huge cat sniffed and licked at the sticky sweetness.

“He should, just don't make any sudden motions.”

With the cougar's attention on Melissah, Foss began to work at the trap mechanism. Behind them, Shalelu's head shot up and she hissed.

“Something's coming.”

Nevis instantly vanished into the brush, while Iozua cast a spell, surrounding himself in a silvery haze that settled toward his skin. Melissah glanced at the cougar, then hurriedly did the same, covering her own skin with a layer of toughened bark that would deflect blows.

A pack of dogs burst into the clearing, followed by a massive, lumbering beast that seemed to be half-man, half-ogre, but warped and deformed. The lead dog immediately went down as Shalelu fired an arrow into its chest. Foss kicked the broken trap aside and axes seemed to sprout from his hands, downing another of the oncoming dogs and stepping forward to shield Iozua and Melissah.

A delighted squeak emerged from the underbrush, and Nevis began to sing at the top of her lungs, “Oh, tehre once was a hero named Foss-man the brave . . .” the remainder was drowned out as Iozua gestured and a mass of twitching, heaving tentacles burst from the ground, seizing the dog pack slamming them to the ground with hideous whines and crunching noises. Melissah felt sick.

“I's huntin' kitty cat! No concern o' youse less youse wanna be hunted too!” the half-ogre bellowed. Not sure what else to do, Melissah summoned a sphere of water to knock the monster aside. He stumbled but forced his way through, knocking aside the tentacles that slapped at him.

Foss hacked relentlessly at the remaining dogs while Jori hurled a lance of searing light at the ogre, who was singed but unimpressed. The ogre jabbed at Foss, who avoided the blow. Between the warrior and the wizard, he went down in seconds, struggling feebly against the churning water orb and then flopping, helpless, to the ground.

Melissah dismissed the orb and wrinkled her nose at the carnage. “Er . . . are we just killing this fellow because we can, or were we planning to, um, question him?”

Foss glanced at her a bit sheepishly. “Okay, maaaaybe I am an axe murderer. A little.” He shrugged again. “He's still alive for now.”

“Oh,” Melissah said weakly. “Ew.”

Jori didn't seem concerned with the ogre only a few strides away. “Anyone hurt?” Everyone shook their heads. Nevis emerged from the bushes, strumming a final dramatic chord.

“That was easy,” Iozua remarked. “It's much nicer with several capable individuals.”

The cat edged over toward the half-ogre and growled.

“I can ask the kitty questions if necessary,” Nevis offered. “It's a skill of my people.”

“Go right ahead, it would save me a spell,” Melissah said.

“What do we want to ask him? Why he's here? I guess I can just translate in general.”

Iozua nodded. “Maybe he will just tell us if he knows anything.”

“Animals aren't usually smart enough to intuit what you might consider worth knowing,” Melissah mentioned, “so you'd want to be as specific as possible.” She shook herself. She was starting to sound like her old teacher.

Nevis cast a spell, and the cat eyed her, interested. “He says his name is Kibb, and thanks for saving him,” the gnome translated. “You're welcome! Who's the bad man?” the gnome pointed at the ogre.

“He took my human. Him and his family. We fled the fort but they took him and his friends.”

“Oh, you're from the fort? What was your human doing there?”

“They were rangers. Humans call them Black Arrows. But the big ones attacked. The ogres. Only three Black Arrows escape.”

“Where are the escaped Black Arrows now?”

“Ogre family has them. The Grauls.”

“We were sent to find the Black Arrrows, were we not?” Iozua asked.

“So your humans left the fort? We were headed that way ourselves. Do you know anything about the fort you could use to help us?” Nevis continued.

“No. Humans escape the fort. Grauls have them at their house. Help me save them?”

“Of course we'll help save them!” Melissah announced when Nevis finished translating. The gnome grinned.

“We'll be happy to.”

“I will show you the way!”

“You're going to want to see this,” Shalelu said, pointing to the ogre. She'd ransacked its belongings and dumped them into a small pile. The ogre's spear and belt radiated magic, but the cloak was what held Shalelu's interest. It had a number of black patches sewn on it—the badge of the Black Arrows. Some were bloodstained.

Iozua shook his head. “Those patches bode ill for their former owners.”

Nevis waved to the south. “Kibb will lead us to the Graul house as soon as you're ready.”

Melissah grimaced at the ogre, who was alive if unconscious. “I'm all for just leaving him. It'll be a good long while before he can cause any more trouble.”

“Do you think he could tell us anything of value?” Iozua asked.

Shalelu snorted. “Seems unlikely,” the ranger replied, tossing her bow over her shoulder and reclaiming her horse.

Foss shrugged. “I'm fine with leaving him. We got enough information from the cat.”

“Leave him to harass someone less capable than we are?” Iozua asked. “I'm not sure that's very . . . responsible.”

Melissah felt ill again. “He's not very dangerous by himself,” she protested, weakly.

“I can drag him back to the village and circle back, catch up with you,” Shalelu said, clearly impatient and wanting to get on with it. “For all we know, he's responsible for the disappearances. The evidence on his person certainly suggests guilt.”

Iozua inclined his head to the elven ranger. “As you will.” He glanced at Melissah, who struggled against an audible sigh of relief.

“That's just fine with me!”

Shalelu and Foss heaved the ogre over her horse's back and she set off toward the Ferry. The others mounted up, Melissah and Nevis climbing into the wagon seat.

“Your sense of mercy is commendable,” Iozua said to Melissah. “The question of when to apply it is trickier in practice, I think.”

Melissah shook her head. She felt foolish. “You don't have to tell me about it. What are they going to do, stuff him in the loft over the store? It's a tiny village.”

“They will engage in whatever form of justice soothes them, I imagine.”

“Probably didn't do him any favors, I know.” Melissah sighed. “Well, let's go before it starts getting dark.

Kibb led them to a partially overgrown trail deeper in the forest. It would be best to approach on foot. Melissah released the harness and tethered her mules, poking around in the back of the wagon until she located Pavander, the honey badger who seemed to have appointed himself her companion. He sleepily waddled out to take guard station next to the wagon.

The Grauls lived on a sickly farm in a forest clearing. The woods around their land were decorated with human-shaped fetishes meant to ward off intruders. A tangled field of corn and other diseased plants grew in the eastern section of their land, while to the north slumped two sagging buildings: a barn and a farmhouse. The windows were boarded over, and moss grew heavy on the shaded sides of the decrepit structures.

Iozua squinted from the shade of the last row of trees. “Can anyone make sense of these tracks?”

Jori sighed. “Shalelu could.”

“I can,” Melissah offered.

"Or that. That works too."

"I can vanish and sneak up to check out one of the buildings first if we want, or I can make you vanish for the same.

"Either way." Iozua said.

“I can transform into something small that won't be noticed,” Melissah said. “We'll go together. Safer that way.”

Nevis nodded and spoke a few words, vanishing from sight. Melissah concentrated and became a bat, flapping up into the tree branches and over to the slumping buildings. She couldn't exactly keep an eye on Nevis, but her sensitive bat ears gave her an idea where the gnome was headed. After circling both buildings, they headed back to the others.

Iozua blinked as Nevis reappeared. “Did not hear you return.”

Nevis winked. “That's the hidden song of silence.”

“There are at least three ogres in the barn,” Melissah explained, “and a barred door, so that would probably be the best palce to start. We could try blocking the entrances to the house so that any ogres in there couldn't come up behind us right away. Well, if we can take out the guard quietly.”

“Sounds good,” Iozua said.

“Ah, yes. Yes, I was thinking something like that too. Good plan,” Foss said.

“How many exits are there from the house?” Iozua asked.

“Two, one on the front and one off on the eastern side, there.”

“You've probably seen ol' pumpkin-head guarding the outside,” Nevis chimed in. “Couldn't see into the house without making a ruckus.”

“Then we probably also cannot secure the house doors without being noticed,” Iozua mused.

“Well . . . I have a spell that could block the doors for at least a little while,” Melissa offered. “It doesn't have much range, though, so I'd have to be really close.”

Foss frowned. “Would the people inside know something was up?”

“It involves giant ice spears bursting out of the ground, so they might notice, yeah.”

Everyone blinked at Melissah for a moment.

“That's awesome,” Iozua said, finally. “Let's definitely do that.”

“Heck, now I want to see that,” Jori added.

"Mighty Melissa brought forth frozen fear straight through the portals in front and in rear!"

Melisah boggled at the gnome. "Is that innuendo?"

Iozua grinned. “In your . . . no. No, I will rise above.”

Jori returned a smirk. “Will you, though?”

“This time.”