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

Jan 31, 2008

Psionics Game: Nan

Wayland busied himself applying a salve to the massive bruise on Calix’ shoulder. “You ought to be more careful,” the cleric said. “Lathander is good-natured, but He isn’t one to suffer fools.”

Calix grimaced. “I was being careful. It’s that Nan, she’s vicious!”

“Can you really blame her?” Wayland asked.

“Well, no,” Calix said, “but the other women seem to have . . . moved on. Found new lives. But Nan is like a machine . . . all she does is practice.”

“Her progress has been pretty impressive,” Justus remarked, leaning casually against the fence. “She certainly gets the better of you easily enough nowadays.”

Calix shook his head ruefully. “If you ask me, it’s too impressive. It’s like something is driving her, something more than just mortal anger. It may be dangerous if it gets out of hand.”

“I haven’t sensed any corruption in her,” Wayland said. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“It doesn’t have to be evil in order to be dangerous,” Justus said. “You should know that by now.” Nan walked past the men, still in armor and carrying a walking stick in her hand.

“Where are you going?” Calix asked, scrambling to his feet. Nan just shrugged, her usual method of communication. The other women had gone to some effort to learn alternate means of communicating, but Nan had simply become more withdrawn. She seemed to take a perverse sort of joy in remaining incomprehensible. Calix was loathe to deprive her of it, but it could be infuriating at times. “Well, be careful,” he said.

Nan simply nodded and continued walking, heading away from the relatively safe environs of the school. Sometimes, she would leave for hours at a time, and no one knew where she went. It wasn’t safe, but no one had the heart to try and stop her. Today, she climbed up to her favorite place, a rocky outcrop where a gnarled old tree perched, leaning precariously over the drop. It was a peaceful place, and often she fell asleep watching leaves rustle in the wind.

She leaned back against the trunk of the tree, and it seemed she had hardly closed her eyes when a voice spoke.

“Your heart is heavy within you, child, and I fear this burden is more than your mortal life can bear.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, and in the dream she was not surprised to find that she could talk. “I am strong, like this old tree. I will endure.”

“Some poisons cannot be endured, they must be purged lest they destroy. I know who you are, Jenan ath Soharryd. I know why you hide, and I know how it feels to have the old skills come back to your hands as though you never put them down. It feels good, yes? But with them comes a terrible old grief that makes your new grief intolerable.”

“I gave up that name a long time ago.”

“But the past never gives you up, Jenan.”

“What do you want with me?”

“It is not so much what I want, as what I can offer. I bring you a gift of peace, Jenan.”

“Peace? There is no peace for me.”

“It is not the kind of peace that you seek. There are two kinds of peace in this world, Jenan. One is the peace of solitude, of a world untouched by rapacity or evil. It is an accidental sort of peace, one that is gifted only to a few and then only by the mighty works of others they do not know and do not wish to know. You will never have that type of peace, Jenan, though you spend all your life seeking it in vain. I offer the other kind of peace.”

“And what is that?”

“The peace of seeing your enemies fall beneath your feet in righteous battle! SEE me!” Bright multicolored light flared and took the shape of a woman with golden skin and a furious mane of white hair. Rainbows danced in her clothing, her eyes, and on the blades of the curved swords she held high. “I AM GWYNHARWYF, WILL YOU SERVE ME, JENAN? WILL YOU EMBRACE THE PEACE OF FEROCITY AND BATTLE?”

Nan shivered, awed. “I will. Tell me what I must do.”

“That is not my way,” Gwynharwyf said, her voice subsiding slightly. “You will know what to do. Your fate comes on you soon. I will give you a weapon so that you may face it.” The mighty eladrin held out her hand and a spear took shape. “Sleep now, and dream truly, child. The storm is coming.”

Psionics Game: Session 19

Fa’ss’th paced the cylindrical chamber beneath the crystal, occasionally looking up to see whether he could spot any obvious flaws or imperfections. He scuffed the thick layer of scunge on the floor and was surprised to see a dim reddish glow. Bending over, he began scratching the detritus of years away from the floor of the chamber, revealing a circle of faintly glowing runes. Barak joined him and examined the runes as well.

“It looks like a protective circle,” Fa’ss’th said after a moment, examining the runes carefully. “It might be the portal, it’s just not working because the crystal is sucking it dry.”

“Does it protect what’s inside, or protect *from* what’s inside?” Kyrian asked.

“It’s protecting whatever’s inside the circle,” Fa’ss’th said after a moment.

“Does it make a cylinder, or dome, or what?” Barak asked.

“Dome,” Fa’ss’th said.

“So what now?” Kyrian asked. Barak gestured upwards at the crystal.

“The problem I see is that we have no idea what is going to happen when it shatters,” Fa’ss’th said. “Otherwise one of us can probably get close enough to blast it.”

“With what?” Kyrian asked.

“Lightning worked on the other one,” Barak said.

“I have a shatter spell, too,” Fa’ss’th said, “but it’s arcane so who knows whether it will work.”

“Well, I could fly you up there if I leave some of my stuff down here,” Kyrian said.

“Works for me,” Fa’ss’th said, nodding. “We can try shatter first and see what happens.”

“Barak, would you hold this for me?” Kyrian asked.

The’ss’it waved a claw manically. “Oo, oo, I’ll take it!”

“I will want it BACK,” Kyrian admonished as he handed his swords and backpack to the lizard. The’ss’it balanced the backpack on his head.

“Oh well, that’s good too,” he said.

Kyrian picked Fa’ss’th up and flew upwards toward the crystal, holding the little lizard while he chanted and gestured. A faint sparkling light flew out from Fa’ss’th’s claw, struck the crystal, and vanished. There was a faint noise that sounded something like ‘fwoob’, but nothing else happened.

“That’s it?” Kyrian asked.

Fa’ss’th grumbled under his breath and pointed a single finger at the crystal, firing a crackling beam of electrical energy. The electricity was absorbed into the crystal, which began to hum faintly. The hum grew louder and louder as bright lights began to flash in the depths of the crystal.

“Uh, run?” Fa’ss’th said, alarmed. “Er, fly. FLY!”

Kyrian zoomed towards the side passage, now a considerable distance above the floor of the chamber. Below, Barak concentrated for a moment, then vanished and reappeared in the tunnel as well. The flashing crystal began to spit arcs of bluish lightning. Then it exploded. House-sized chunks of crystal went rocketing in all directions. The’ss’it glanced around as the red runes suddenly flared to life. Then a wave of sound and light hit him.

Barak, Kyrian, and Fa’ss’th cringed as the tunnel shook violently and dust showered down on them. The cataclysm faded away, leaving only a ringing in their ears and, faintly from below, The’ss’it shouting: “AWESOME! LET’S DO THAT AGAIN!!”

“Is he crazy?” Barak asked.

Fa’ss’th nodded. “Yes.”

“Uh-oh.” The’ss’it announced. Barak scrambled to the edge of the tunnel and looked down. He saw The’ss’it begin squeaking and running around in a panic as a wall of water surged over the sides of the vault and began to pour down into the room. The red runes flared and the water divided in midair, flowing through the floor and vanishing into nothingness. Realizing he was still unhurt, The’ss’it looked up at Barak and shrugged.

“But where’s it all going?”

Barak blinked as an extremely disgruntled-looking water elemental flew past him. Seconds later, it was followed by a strange blue-skinned demon that shot by with a loud: “SKREEEE!” After a few more minutes the flow of water stopped and The’ss’it climbed up to the tunnel.

“I think you broke it,” he told Fa’ss’th.

“Broke what?” Fa’ss’th demanded.


“At least now we know what the circle is for,” Barak said. They climbed back down into the room and began looking around. The floor was littered with pieces of crystal, most of them as fine as grains of sand, but a few fist-sized chunks remained, glowing faintly. Fa’ss’th bagged them up on general principles.

“Okay,” Kyrian said. “We blew up the crystal that was draining the magic from the portal, so where is the portal itself?”

“We’ll have to look around and see,” Fa’ss’th said. “It’s possible the belt was used to create it in the first place . . . if we take the belt away, the water may not come back.”

Kyrian looked around the room. “I think this portal has been out of commission for some time.”

“Yes,” said Barak, “and everything just flew back into it. So how do we turn it around and get water flowing back into the swamp? Maybe we need to use the original process to get it started again.”

“I just want to know where all that water went,” Fa’ss’th said, poking the floor. “This floor is kind of odd. The’ss’it, swing your pick right here.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, right here.”

The’ss’it spat on his palms, rubbed them together, and took a two-handed grip on the pick. Swinging it mightily overhead, he brought it smashing down on the floor. It stuck firmly into the surface. Grunting and swearing, he managed to wriggle it free again, only to dance backwards in surprise as a jet of fire shot out of the hole he had made.

“Um, I don’t think that’s going to stop,” Fa’ss’th said, pointing to the edges of the hole, which were beginning to glow redly. “Anyone else have any ideas, except to get out of here before something explodes?” They shook their heads. “Let’s get out of here, then.”

They climbed back out the tunnel to the base of the ruined tower. Outside, the water had completely drained away, revealing a lot of mud, tree roots, and submerged blocks of ancient stone. Confused fish flopped in the mud.

“Well, that’s not exactly the result we were looking for,” Barak said.

“Great, I succeeded in making it worse,” Fa’ss’th grumped.

“Sorry, The’ss’it,” Kyrian said.

“It’s okay, I guess,” The’ss’it said, sighing. “We can always move or something. It’s not such a bad outcome if you think about it. You got rid of the water elementals and the demons, and this isn’t bad land. Plus, now we know what was going on.”

“You don’t mind that your swamp isn’t a swamp any more?” Barak asked.

“Well, it’s not the end of the world,” The’ss’it said. “Leastwise I don’t think so. Of course, now those damn farmers are going to try to move back in, but you can’t have everything.”

“I hope the rest of your people will feel the same way,” Kyrian said.

“You realize that all the creatures that live in the swamp will start attacking for food and so forth,” Fa’ss’th cautioned gloomily.

“Then we should go find the tribe and make sure they’re okay,” The’ss’it said.

“So, which way do we go?” Kyrian asked.

“Beats me,” The’ss’it said. “I could ask God if you like.”

“Well, if it helps . . .” Kyrian said after a while. The’ss’it built a small fire, tossed a bunch of herbs into it from one of his pouches, and began dancing around in a circle waving his arms and shouting “huh!” periodically. Then he abruptly stopped.

“God says that way,” The’ss’it announced with finality. They walked through the swamp for several hours, following The’ss’it’s less-than-precise directions.

“Did God tell you how far?” Kyrian asked eventually.

“No, but he said to use a different type of incense next time, this one makes him want to hurl. Phew!” After another hour or so of trudging through the increasingly dry mud, they found two lizardfolk sitting in a tree and peering dubiously at the ground below.

“Hallo,” the first lizard said without preamble.

“Why are you sitting in a tree?” Fa’ss’th asked.

“It seemed prudent. What are you doing here, Fa’ss’th?”

“Well, sadly, I tried to fix the water issue, only to make it worse. So now we are going to warn people because I don’t think it will ever be fixed.”

“Oh,” said the second lizard. “So we can come down, then? We were thinking it might all come flying back at any moment.”

“It doesn’t seem likely,” Kyrian said. The two small lizards jumped to the ground. They were dressed very much like The’ss’it: only a few leather straps to hold necessities. One was armed with a pair of small swords, and the other carried a bow.

“I’m Ve’ss’intorr,” the sword-carrying lizard said, “and this is Marthi’ss. We don’t see other races around here very much.”

“Probably all the swamp, or, well, ex-swamp,” Barak said.

“Quite possible,” Marthi’ss said. Shall I assume you’d like to go meet with the Elder?”

“That’s probably best,” Fa’ss’th said. “People need to know what happened.”

“Come on, we’ll show you the way,” Ve’ss’intorr said. “Really, you’re lucky you found us. You might have run right into the Blackscales if you hadn’t.”

“Blackscales?” Barak asked.

“Yes,” Marthi’ss explained. “They’re another tribe of lizardfolk around here. They’re MUCH bigger than we are, but also stupider so we don’t have much trouble with them. You can ask the Elder about them if you’re curious.”

“Lead on, then,” Fa’ss’th said. They arrived at the lizardfolk village a short time afterwards. The houses, if such they could be called, were all set in platforms in the trees, and the village was surrounded by a veritable forest of sharp stakes buried deep in the mud. A lizard wearing a robe jumped down from the main platform and regarded them all seriously. Fa’ss’th bowed, and Barak and Kyrian did so as well after a second or too.

“Ah, Fa’ss’th, you return, and I see you found The’ss’it, too, how nice.”

The’ss’it grimaced, offended. “Shouldn’t that be the other way around?”

“I know what I said,” the Elder replied mildly. “Now don’t interrupt. I am Xivi’zz, the Elder of the Poison Dusk Tribe.” Xivi’ss extended a claw towards Kyrian. “And what may I call you, young fey?”

“I’m Kyrian, your, um, Elderness.” Xivi’ss patted his hand.

“Very good, very good. And you, human?”

“I am called Barak.”

“You are welcome in the huts of this tribe.”

“I’m grateful,” Kyrian said, “we’ve come a long way to be here.”

“I notice that your arrival was preceded by a rather unusual phenomenon. Were you involved in that at all?”

“Sadly, yes,” Fa’ss’th said. We came to try and help with the water problem, only to make it worse. We found the old wizard’s tower, which had a chunk of crystal growing off the arcane energies. We’ve seen what the same crystal does in other parts of the world, so we removed it. Unfortunately, that didn’t cause the water to return, only drained it faster.”

Xivi’ss waved a claw. “No matter, we had already made up our minds to pack our belongings and quit this place. I am mostly glad that you are still alive and, apparently, in good health. How is your sister? She did not come with you?”

“La’ss’a is on her way to another continent, Maztica. We’re trying to stop a bastard from waging war,” Fa’ss’th said.

“A worthy cause, no doubt,” Xivi’ss said, nodding. “Now, what hospitality may we offer you? I am afraid that we are all a bit busy, but if we can help you have only to ask.”

“Have you ever heard of this belt?” Fa’ss’th said, handing it back to Barak.

“A belt?” Xivi’ss asked. “May I see it?” Barak offered it to the lizard Elder, who examined it in detail. “Turquoise, that’s a foreign stone. You won’t find it around here, it’s imported. These disks appear to be made of silver--” he tasted the metal speculatively—“very poor quality, though, crudely manufactured.”

“Foreign?” Kyrian asked. “Maztican, perhaps?”

“Perhaps,” Xivi’ss said. “I’m not familiar with the place, myself.”

“Have you ever seen anything like it before?” Fa’ss’th asked. “We think there are several more we need to find.”

“I’m afraid not,” Xivi’ss said. “Your question would be better posed to the great sages in Halarahh.”

“Where can we find them?” Fa’ss’th asked.

“Go to the city and throw a brick, I should think,” Xivi’ss replied, amused.

“I meant . . . oh, never mind. I guess some rations would be good and a map if you have one.”

“How far is it to Halarahh?” Barak asked.

“Eight or nine days to the northwest on foot, mostly through farmlands, though, so it’s not an arduous trip.”

“That sounds good,” Fa’ss’th said. “We should probably head out soon. I’m not sure how much of a head start the other group has.”

“We were planning to depart tomorrow in any case,” Xivi’ss said.

“Do you have a new home in mind?” Kyrian asked.

“Not at present, but we are resourceful. I have no concerns that we will find something eventually.”

“Oh,” Kyrian said. “Good fortune go with you, then.”

The lizards turned one of the huts over to them and provided them with a selection of food: roots, fruit, and a bowl of choice grubs. Kyrian avoided the grubs and, bored, began wandering around the village and listening in on the various conversations.

“Can I have a word, Fa’ss’th?” he asked, returning to the hut some time later.

“Sure,” the lizard said, chewing on a handful of grubs.

“It looks like your people are moving out, but it seems like a disproportionate amount of their preparation is being spent on making weapons. Arrows, and vials of blue stuff. Do you know what that is? Or what’s going on?”

“Well, we are the Poison Dusk. We specialize in poisons. The blue stuff is probably blue whinnis, it saps the body and if you’re unlucky, down you go.”

“It just seems like a *lot* of poison arrows for the occasion,” Kyrian continued.

“Well, as I said before, a lot of the creatures that live in this swamp might be hungry and angry about it. Moving out isn’t exactly a safe proposition.”

“They said they were going looking for a new home, and odds are that someone lives just about everywhere,” Barak said.

“I’ll go and see what’s up,” Fa’ss’th said. He wandered off and began hissing at other lizards. After a while he came back.

“Well, apparently the Blackscale tribe has been raiding a lot recently. Leaving the village means no fortifications. The Blackscales are more brutal than we are.”

“Oh,” Kyrian said.

“We could stick around and help the tribe move if you want,” Fa’ss’th said.

“Well, I’d like to help,” Kyrian said. “What about you, Barak?”

“Sure, it shouldn’t take long,” Barak said.

“I’m surprised those ol’ Blackies would be raiding, they must be pretty desperate or something,” The’ss’it said speculatively. “They’re pretty darn stupid, so they don’t farm or anything like that. Mostly they just hunt and fish.”

“I’m going to go find the Elder and offer our help,” Fa’ss’th said. Xivi’ss was surprised by the offer.

“That is extremely generous of you, but you are our guests.”

“Yes, but we sort of got you into this mess,” Fa’ss’th said. “If I didn’t blow up that crystal, you might have had more time to organize.

Xivi’ss nodded. “It is truth. I am concerned that we don’t have enough scouts. If we use the young or the bulk of our goods to a raid, we may be hard pressed to start over somewhere else. It would be best to avoid a battle if possible, really.”

“Wait a minute,” Fa’ss’th said. “HEY BARAK!!!” Xivi’ss covered his earholes protectively. “YOU STILL CAN ASTRAL CARAVAN, RIGHT?!”

“Yup,” Barak said.

“Feel like relocating a bunch of people to take over Nymbus’ realm?”

Barak pondered for a moment, then an almost evil grin spread over his face. “I think I can do that,” he said.

“The power just requires us all to hold hands,” Fa’ss’th explained. “How many people are there, total?”

“Thirty adults and twelve young,” Xivi’ss said promptly.

Fa’ss’th frowned. “Looks like I need to find a mate and help out a bit,” he said. Kyrian stifled a laugh. “So, Elder, how about a hot, steamy jungle with a big lake?”

“It sounds acceptable,” Xivi’ss said.

“Well, if Barak doesn’t mind, we can transport the tribe to this place we know about where they should be safe.”

“Don’t forget Baugetha and Salmede, though,” Barak said.

“I’ll bet we can work something out with them,” Kyrian insisted.

“Right,” Fa’ss’th said. “So, get everyone organized, Xivi’ss, and remind them that they can only bring what they can carry.”

The Elder had all the lizardfolk assembled within an hour, all of them carrying weapons, armor, and assorted goods. Xivi’ss explained the plan and the lizards all seemed to accept it. The idea of traveling to another plane either didn’t concern them, or they didn’t understand it. The’ss’it performed a short ceremony that involved a lot of dancing and shouting to bless the undertaking. Then Barak walked through the group, touching each lizard on the head. He held up his hands and a shimmering curtain of ectoplasm formed around the group, occasioning a few comments of, “ooh, pretty” from the assembled lizards. The curtain descended, and they vanished into the Astral Plane.

Jan 23, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 11

Haden looked around at the oppressive yet apparently empty jungle. “So what do we do now?”

Talan pointed away from the clearing. “It there’s a path here . . . of sorts. It looks like some large animals came through here recently. VERY large animals, look at this.” Thick branches more than ten feet from the ground were snapped in half, revealing green wood sticky with sap, and some trees had even been uprooted and trampled underfoot. Water seeped into wide, roundish footprints with short triangular toes.

Sheen poked Talan in the shoulder. “Here, you’d better carry this sword. Maybe it’s useful for something.”

“Thanks,” the ranger said absently, shoving the blade most of the way into his backpack, the hilt still protruding. Sheen looked at the tracks.

“I don’t see any other way to go. Let’s give it a try, at least, they may be herbivores.”

“It’s not like we have a lot of other choices,” Talan said. They set off. Talan kept his eyes on the ground, examining the tracks, while Sheen hopped from log to log, trying to keep her feet dry. Haden splashed heedlessly through the puddles, looking for all the world as though he was enjoying himself. Joris brought up the rear somewhat nervously, stopping every few dozen paces to look behind.

“It looks like someone or something was driving this creature, it was moving at a fair clip,” Talan said after a while.

“Wouldn’t it have left tracks too, then?” Haden asked.

“Yes,” Haden said, pointing out some boot prints in the mud. “Hunters.”

“Maybe the ‘Vile Hunt’ Pwyll was talking about,” Sheen offered. Haden tilted his head back to look up at the far-distant canopy.

“What a strange bird . . .” he said idly. Talan’s eyes flicked upwards.

“That’s a pteranodon.”

“Gesuntheit,” Haden said.

“A what? What is that, a dinosaur?” Joris asked.

“Yep,” Talan affirmed.

“A missionary in Silverymoon told me they have them in Chult, I never thought I’d see one, though.”

Sheen frowned. “I think it would be more important to ask, a.) does it eat meat, and b.) is it hungry?”

“Yeah,” Talan said, and they resumed walking, somewhat more quickly than before. “It does make me wonder what else is out here.”

“This is actually rather pleasant,” Haden said after a while.

“You mean apart from the heat?” Sheen asked.

“It could stand to be a bit cooler, I suppose,” Haden replied.

“And the strange beasts,” Talan added. “Speaking of which, I get the feeling that if we leave them alone, they’ll leave us alone.”

“And the humidity . . .” Joris said, wiping sweat off his forehead with an already-damp rag.

“And let’s not forget the bugs and the mud and the rotting vegetation . . .” Sheen continued. Haden kicked her in the leg.

“Don’ t be so gloomy.” Sheen stuck her tongue out at him.

“It’s much better than the masque,” Talan said, grinning. “At least we all have comfortable clothing.”

Haden lowered his voice suddenly. “Look alive, people, we may have company.” He pointed his chin at the trees ahead. Joris squinted into the greenish half-light.

“I see them, too.” Ari, trotting along at Talan’s side, began to growl slightly.

“Just when we were getting comfortable,” Talan said. He reached down and scratched Ari behind the ears. She stopped growling to wag her tail for a moment, then resumed. Sighing, Sheen hefted her spear and walked forward into the trees.

“Hello? Who are you and what do you want?” The only response was a whooshing sound from above as an immense net of vines and creepers plummeted towards them. Sheen raised her spear to try and deflect it a bit while the men dove out of the way. The heavy weight landed on Sheen’s shoulders and bore her to the ground while lizardmen rappelled down from the trees on all sides.

Haden rolled to his feet and threw a dart at the nearest lizardman, but it vanished somewhere into the underbrush. The lizards charged waving large, knobby clubs while Talan took his sword to the net, trying to help Sheen get loose.

“God-stealers!” bellowed one of the lizards in a tongue that sounded like Draconic. Sheen tore free from the net and rolled across the ground as Joris waved his holy symbol in the air, calling on divine power. The shouting lizard froze in mid-strike.

Haden parried a club awkwardly with his rapier and smacked the flat of the blade against the lizard’s nose, causing it to wince in pain and dodge backward. Ari jumped on a lizard as it attempted to club Talan, who punched it in the gut with the hilt of his sword.

“Throw down your weapons!” Sheen shouted in Draconic. “We mean you no harm!” Joris raised his shield defensively as the shouter started moving again, but the lizard simply yelled, “Do it!” The lizards hesitated, then shrugged and lowered their clubs.

“What’s this about god-stealers?” Sheen demanded. “What’s going on here?”

The lizardfolk leader shrugged. “You not god-stealers. Voorix be dead if you were. I am Voorix. Who you?”

“I’m Sheen, and these are my companions: Talan, Joris, and Haden. We came here to help Pwyll, do you know him?”

“Pwyll. Not god-stealer?”

Sheen looked over at Talan helplessly. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

“What is a god-stealer?” Talan asked in Draconic.

“Dark hunters, from beyond the Home in the Clouds.”

“Are we in the Home in the Clouds now?” Talan asked after a moment of blank confusion.

“Yes. Our home, Home in the Clouds. The great gods, those we worship, dark hunters come to take them away. Masks always helped us, saw one mask taken by dark hunters.”

“What do the dark hunters and the masks look like?” Talan asked.

“Mask we saw was ear-pointed, like you, maybe.”

“The Verdant Guild?” Sheen asked.

“I’ve never had much to do with them,” Haden said, “But I have heard that they all wear animal masks.”

“I’ll be the dark hunters are the Vile Hunt, then,” Sheen speculated.

“I think you’re right,” Talan said.

“And the great gods are . . . the dinosaurs?” Joris asked. “They’re actually petitioners, the souls of the dead, who take the form of animals in the Beastlands.”

“That’s a bit creepy to think of, actually,” Haden said.

“People who come here when they die love the wild,” Joris said.

“Still, there’s a difference between loving the wild and actually wanting to be some kind of animal,” Haden replied.

Sheen looked at Voorix. “Do you know where we can find either the Masks or the Dark Hunters?”

“Dark Hunters took Mask. Were here. Went down path,” Voorix explained, pointing a claw down the direction the group was already traveling. “Son is tracking.”

“We’ll go after them, too, and . . . help,” Sheen said.

“I come,” Voorix said. He turned to look at the other lizardfolk. “Hoist net. More hunters may come.” With the new addition to their group, they resumed walking again. “Dark hunters and horned evils together are god-stealers. Take gods to bad, dark place,” Voorix said conversationally as they walked.

“Like one of the Hells, do you think?” Haden asked after this was translated. Voorix looked confused, not understanding the language.

“If the dinosaurs are petitioners, could demons or devils be stealing them for some reason?”

“Maybe,” Joris said. “I’m not sure why they would, though. I’m even less sure why Baltazo would be interested.”

“What’s the difference between the dark hunters and the horned evils?” Talan asked Voorix, his face dark with suppressed fury.

“Horned evils not . . . how to say . . . people. Made from evil.”

“Fiends, then,” Joris said.

“If they’re as annoying as that lemming, we may be in for a tough time,” Sheen cautioned.

Joris stared at her blankly for a moment, then laughed. “Lemure, Sheen. Lemure.”


“When you say that they’re stealing the gods, how are they stealing them? Have you actually seen them?” Talan continued, ignoring the conversation going on in the background.

“They hurt gods, chase them into dark place. We fear to go there.”

“They chase them into a portal?” Haden asked.

“To the two trees,” Voorix said when Talan repeated the question. The lizard steepled his hands in the shape of an arch. “Two trees.”

“That sounds like a portal to me,” Talan said.

“Right,” Haden said. “Well, this may not be an insurmountable problem, then. Let’s move a little faster, though, shall we?”

“Clearly something that needs to be stopped,” Joris said, jogging now to keep up with Haden.

“Clearly,” Talan growled. They had gone on for another mile or so when they heard something moving around in the underbrush next to the path. It was obviously not making any effort to be quiet. Sheen hefted her spear, then shook her head as another lizardman burst out of the shadows.

“Father!” it called out.

“Vorssh!” yelled Voorix.

“Evil ones try to catch hammertail god by water! Come!” shouted Vorssh and set off running without a backward glance. They dashed through the jungle to another small clearing, Sheen concentrating and manifesting her battle powers as she ran. Ahead they could see a massive dinosaur with thick armor plates, spines, and a great knobby tail beset by three roughly humanoid attackers. Nihmron stood not far away, directing the operations.

Haden walked out into the clearing, oozing nonchalant, and idly ran one finger along the blade of his rapier.

“For every giant there are fleas,
thinking themselves king of the trees,
watch them gloat and dance
watch them float and prance
they’ll soon lie under the weeds.”

“You!” Nihmron growled, and everyone winced as a pillar of fire dropped out of the sky and struck the ground where Haden was standing. There was a terrible cloud of foul-smelling smoke. Then Haden coughed once.


“I’m thinking he’s okay,” Talan said.

“Looks like it,” Sheen nodded. “Get them!” The ankylosaur, seeing its attackers distracted, helpfully smashed one with its tail. Instead of becoming a smear in the mud, however, the creature bounced back to its feet and attacked Sheen. She poked it with her spear, finding that it looked strangely . . . familiar. “It’s Halitsu!” she groaned, catching a sword blow on her arm.

“Legion devils!” Joris said. He waved his holy symbol around and threw a spell at Nihmron, who was trying to cast another spell. The druid waved a dagger furiously as he fell silent in mid phrase. Voorsh catapulted himself onto Nihmron’s back, but the druid dodged and ripped the young lizard open with the dagger.

“AIEEE!” Voorix screamed and ran across the clearing, somehow managing to avoid the legion devils. Talan and Ari attacked one of the devils while Haden waved his sword uselessly at another, connecting but having no effect.

“Damnit, I need a magic weapon,” Haden hissed. “Talan! Use the wooden sword!”

Talan ducked away from one of the devils, reaching around to the hilt sticking out of his pack. Sheen drove her spear entirely through Halitsu, but the devil didn’t stop moving, pulling itself towards her up the haft of the weapon and backhanding her across the face with a spiked arm. “Haden, you and Joris go help Voorix!” she yelled, spitting blood.

Talan managed to pull the wooden sword free as Joris and Haden ran past him, bringing it over his shoulder and straight down into the chest of the legion devil attacking him. The creature howled as blood spurted, then all three of the devils dropped down dead.

Voorix caught up with Nihmron and clubbed the druid fiercely. Haden jumped over Voorsh.

“Do we want him to talk?!” the aasling yelled, hesitating.

“NO!” Sheen screamed.

“Right,” Haden said, and skewered the druid through the chest. Nihmron coughed blood and fell to the ground, grinning horribly as he died.

Jan 22, 2008

Psionics Game: Session 18

Sam walked out of the nave and past the group, heading once more towards the doors. His expression was grim and he stared at the floor, lost in thought. Elice blinked, startled.

“Wait, Sam!” she called, jogging a few steps after him then turning to regard the group in confusion. “Where is he going?”

“I don’t know,” Olena said, equally perplexed.

The little gnome priestess, Peytan, folded her arms. “Probably to the main temple of Gond, but he doesn’t have to go this instant.”

Sam hesitated at the doors, glanced at Elice, then turned and rejoined the party. “Well, on the up side,” he said, “she’s not making me pay to replace the scroll. On the down side, I have to go FIND a replacement.”

“Right now?” Olena asked, astonished.

“Since she put a geas on me to make sure I perform the task, I think so,” Sam explained.

“You have a bit of leeway if you have other things you need to get done,” Peytan said.

“It can’t be any harder than getting that mask from Sythillis,” Elice said. “I’ll bet the gnomes around here don’t even lock their doors at night. Too bad Deen didn’t come with us.”

Oren gaped at her. “I do not think we’re intended to steal one. There has to be a legitimate method for getting a scroll.”

Elice braced her fists on her hips and regarded the paladin. “Oh yeah? How much money have you got on you?” Oren flushed. “I thought so.” Sam squeezed Elice’s arm gently.

“Peytan tells me to check with the main temple of Gond, near the center of the island.” Sam held up a piece of parchment with a rough map scratched on it.

“Isn’t the usual method some sort of bizarre task?” Demaris asked.

“That’s what I’m assuming, yeah,” Sam said.

“Don’t you want us to come with you, Sam?” Olena asked.

He shrugged. “Well, I just figured, you know, you already did so much to get me here, it was probably up to me to take care of it . . .”

Elice punched him in the shoulder. “You silly. We’re all in this together, you know.”

“She’s right, Sam, don’t be silly,” Olena said. “Besides, we would all end up sitting here waiting for you to come back before we go see the witch anyway.”

“Witch?” Sam asked.

“Oh, right, you missed all that!” Olena said.

“I’m guessing I was just a little dead at the time,” Sam said dryly.

Olena launched into an explanation of their landing with the gnomish villagers and the subsequent near-lynching. Sam sighed heavily and shook his head. Halfway through the presentation, La’ss’a poked her head in the temple and jumped, startled to see Sam up and walking around again. She listened to Olena babble for a few minutes, then cut in with: “Will this help us get a new boat and get off this stupid island?”

“If some evil is at work here, I would think it the task of all right-thinking people to look into it,” Oren said with some asperity.

“Yeah, someone other than us, then,” Elice cut in.

“Well, it’s not a forest, but it’s still nature being affected and that . . . bothers me,” Olena said.

“Yes, but what about the BOAT?” La’ss’a demanded.

Olena shrugged. “I don’t know, but the fisherfolk would owe us a favor . . .” La’ss’a growled irritably.

“We owe her a few thumps if she’s responsible for those sharks, anyway,” Demaris offered.

“All right, look,” Sam said. “Let me go check with the temple first, then we can go have a look at the witch, at least. It beats sitting around here.”

“The temple doesn’t look that far away on the map, maybe a day or two on foot,” Elice said, turning the map over and squinting at the crude scribbles. Oren cleared his throat loudly and everyone turned to look at him.

“I have an idea,” the paladin said. There was a long pause.

“And?” Sam asked, gesturing for Oren to continue. Instead of answering, Oren stepped outside the temple and held up his hands, calling up a brilliant white glow that coalesced into the shape of a massive warhorse. After a moment the glow solidified and the horse turned around, shaking itself and snorting. It tried to eat Oren’s hair and he pushed it away.

“We HAVE to get some rest and healing before, well, before we do anything,” Oren explained, patting the bay horse’s shoulder and beginning to check its tack. “Why don’t you take my warhorse to the temple. It’ll be faster, and we’ll be ready to move out when you get back. I’m sure Folkeir won’t mind,” Oren said to the horse in a coaxing tone of voice. Sam looked up at the saddle uncertainly.

“I guess that would be faster . . .” he said weakly while Folkier eyeballed him. “But I don’t really know how to ride . . .”

Oren smiled encouragingly. “Don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine. Here, let me give you a boost . . .” Folkier sidled away and regarded the two men suspiciously for a few moments. Then, heaving a deep sigh, the massive horse bent his legs and lay down on the ground. Oren scratched his head. “Well, I guess that works, too.”

Sam approached the horse carefully and climbed into the saddle, fixing his feet in the stirrups and throwing his arms around Folkier’s neck while the animal stood up slowly, one set of legs at a time. Oren grabbed the reins and held them out toward Sam, but Folkeir switched his head in annoyance and swept them out of reach. Giving Oren the hairy eyeball one last time, the warhorse turned his nose toward the road and set off at a jarring trot, Sam hanging on as best he could.

“He’s really very good natured!” Oren shouted after them. Elice covered her mouth with her hand to conceal a smile. Olena hugged Oren delightedly.

“Pity the horse got all the good sense, really,” Demaris remarked under her breath. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’d like some food, a bath, and about three days of sleep. Maybe we can ask the villagers for some provisions.”

The villagers proved more than amenable to the idea, and very soon they’d set out a feast of fruits, vegetables, bread and fish on brightly-colored picnic blankets. Bottles of brandywine were opened, and several gnomes produced accordions and tambourines and started a lively dance.

“I hope Garmon’s crew made it to shore all right,” Olena said, nibbling on a piece of toast.

“I didn’t see much but debris under the water,” La’ss’a said. “I stayed down for a bit while I healed. Stupid psionic disruption. I know the psychic storm has to be given orders . . . it was obviously sent to destroy the ship, not particular people.”

“Then someone sent it?” Olena asked.

“Well, yeah.”

“You said something to Sam on the ship about ‘another one’. You’ve seen this before?”

“Yeah, that’s what happened to your father, that and a big crystal exploding. We were behind an ectoplasmic wall at the time, so we didn’t get a good look at what happened.”

“So who sent it, then?” Demaris asked.

“If I knew for sure, I would have gone after them instead of getting involved in this mess,” La’ss’a said. “I’m assuming it was Sulveig, but we can’t prove it.”

“Well, you know what they say, once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is conspiracy,” Demaris saidt. “If it shows up again, we’ll know it was Sulveig.”

“I hope we have a better idea of how to fight it by then. Ouch,” Olena murmured.

“Why not Sulveig’s boss?” La’ss’a asked. Olena and Demaris looked at each other.

“Sythillis?” Olena ventured. “Isn’t he dead?”

“He wasn’t a psion, either, at least not that I know of,” Demaris added.

“I don’t know,” La’ss’a grumped. “Sulveig isn’t making much sense to me at the moment. Why would he run toward Maztica when he already had one of the keys? Why not go back to Murann?”

“Well, when we catch him, you can ask him,” Olena said.

Sam rode somewhat uncomfortably through the night, eventually arriving outside a large, albeit squat, building with a sign outside helpfully indicating “Temple”. Folkier snorted at the sign and stuck his nose in the air.

“Yeah, well, they’re gnomes, what do you expect?” The warhorse turned to give Sam a look that said, clear as day, “get off before I find something to scrape you off on”. “All right, all right, sheesh,” Sam said and climbed down to the ground.

The main doors of the Temple were wide open, and the interior looked more like a workshop than a proper temple. When Sam looked inside, there was a loud bang and the air was suddenly full of acrid-smelling smoke. He had a vivid flashback to the “improved stealth grapple” a gnome once sold him, failing to mention the tremendous noise it made when fired. He shook his head yet again.

“Phew!” announced a gnome wearing a greasy leather apron as he emerged from the smoke, waving a hand in front of his face. “Well, hello there! What can I help you with?”

“I was sent here to get a scroll,” Sam said.

The gnome’s brow furrowed. “Oh, so you’re not here about the exploding duck?”

“Um, I doubt it, but if it gets me the scroll I need . . .”

“Oh well, I could have sworn someone was supposed to come today and pick up the exploding duck. Maybe that was last week. Anyway, I’m Hertrian Volentrude, I’m the high priest around here. What type of scroll are you looking for? I’ve got lots, although I warn you that magic really isn’t as reliable as some people seem to think. I prefer a good bit of machinery, myself.”

“A resurrection of some sort . . . I kind of used the one from the other temple . . .”

“You did? Why?”

Sam stared at Hertrian for a moment. “Because I was dead?”

“Oh, see, now THAT makes sense. More than what I was thinking, anyway. Wait, wait, was this PEYTAN’S scroll?”

“Um, yes . . .why?”

“Oo,” Hertrian said, scratching the small white beard that adhered to his chin and causing a small cloud of dust. “That’s an ‘spensive spell. Honestly I don’t know what Gond does with all those diamonds, but there’s not much use arguing with Himself when he’s in a mood. I can make you one if you want, but I kind of need . . . compensation. Sorry, kid.”

“So what do I have to do?” Sam asked.

“Weeeeell, I could send you off to do a job, I guess. That’s the usual thing, isn’t it?”

“Traditional, anyway,” Sam said.

“The trouble is, it’s hard to know what to send you to do. This is a peaceful island, not really any monster troubles or invading warlords or typical adventure stuff. Unless you’re a mechanic?”


“Too bad, Begloby mashed his flying machine again.”

“I could make sure he never mashes another one . . .” Sam started, then grinned. “Never mind. Any other ideas?”

Hertrian waded through piles of junk to a desk covered in papers. After several moments of digging he returned and handed a piece of paper to Sam. “Here we go. Seems I’ve got a complaint here from the mayor of Fasheezy about a witch terrorizing the countryside. I don’t know what the going rate is for witches, but it seems pretty reasonable to me. What do you say?”

“No sweat. Which way is Fasheezy?”

“It’s just up the road towards the coast. You can’t miss it.”

“Towards the . . . oh. Witch. Right. Why am I not surprised?” Sam rubbed his forehead.


“I was just there.”

Olena came buzzing up like an overexcited dragonfly when Sam rode back into the village. “Sam! Did you find another scroll?”

“Well, I got a task, anyway. Apparently there’s a mayor with a witch problem around here.”

“Oh,” Olena said. “Well that’s . . . convenient?”

“Do we know where she lives?” La’ss’a asked, trotting up on her short legs.

“The gnomes said upstream,” Demaris remembered.

“Well, no time like the present, then. We need a ship off this place. Soon.” They hiked upstream, which proved to be quite easy because a well-maintained path ran along beside it. The water trickled along merrily, and it was a pleasant day with only a slight wind and bright, warm sunshine. Within an hour, they could see smoke rising from a small half-timbered cottage set into a shady glen. The roof was thatch, in good repair, and overall the scene was pleasant and homey. The cottage even had a water wheel turning briskly in the stream. As they approached, however, they could smell a harsh chemical stink and see several large vats on the other side of a split rail fence.

“Smells like the place,” Sam said. La’ss’a ducked through the fence to examine the vats and came up short when she encountered a large humanoid figure marching around the yard. She froze, but it ignored her completely. On second glance it wasn’t that human. It looked more . . . gelatinous, and where its large blobby ‘feet’ touched the ground the earth scorched and smoked.

Sam walked toward the door, passing a sign nailed to the fence that read:

This means YOU!

A second sign, smaller and more dignified, was half-concealed under the first:

Personnel Only

And a piece of yellowed paper tacked up beside them read:

Posted: Lantan Workman’s Compensation Notice

By the time he reached the door, Sam could hear a repetitive whirring and clacking noise coming from inside the cottage. He reached down and knocked heavily on the door.

“GO AWAY!” shouted an angry feminine voice from inside the building.

“NO!” Sam yelled. There were some banging noises and a moment later the small door flew open, revealing a rather young gnomish woman in brightly colored robes.

“Whatever you’re selling, I don’t want any!”

“Fair enough,” Sam snapped. “What will you give me to not burn down your house?”

The gnomess’ jaw dropped, but she rallied after a moment, drawing herself up to her full height and waving a finger in the general direction of Sam’s face. “How dare you threaten me!” She began to rattle off a stream of arcane gibberish. Olena gasped and charged forward with Spellreaver. The sword seemed to move of its own accord and struck the gnomish woman, who screamed and fled into the house.

“Stop it!” Sam yelled after her retreating back. “We just want to talk!” There was a loud clang from inside the cottage, then silence. “Why does everyone always resort to violence?”

“Because you threaten to burn their houses down?” Olena ventured.

“I had to say something to get her attention.”

“So what do we do now?” Elice asked, bewildered. Demaris crouched down and peered into the house. The front room was simply a space to leave boots and cloaks. Sam shrugged and followed, edging into the next room, which proved to be a cozy sitting room with a dining room behind it. Small stairs coiled up to a second story. A door in the dining room was still swinging slightly.

“We probably would have heard her running up the stairs,” Olena said, looking around. The four humans, half-fey, and lizard ducked their heads and crossed to the swinging door, which opened into a tidy kitchen. The gnomess peeked nervously out of the pantry.

“Go away and leave me alone!” she squeaked.

“We can’t do that,” Sam said as patiently as he could manage. “We need to talk.”

“It’s those villagers, isn’t it! Why can’t they just leave me alone!”

“I’m not sensing any evil here,” Oren said quietly.

“Maybe because you keep shouting at them?” Sam snapped, beginning to lose his temper.

“I’m trying to run a business here! I never hurt anyone!”

“Still shouting. Stop it.”

“They say you’re poisoning their fish,” Olena said, holding out a healing potion towards the pantry. The gnomess regarded it with deep distrust.

“What? Poisoning? Ooo, those no good rotten smelly stupid crazy . . .”

“Easy, now, that’s what they said,” Olena explained. The gnomess emerged from the pantry and glared at everyone equally.

“I didn’t poison their stupid fish! They hired me to figure out a way to make them grow bigger! This after they boycott my factory and almost put me out of business. I ought to curse them but good. Anyway, who are you people? You’re huge. You haven’t been eating the fish food, have you?”

“Oren, could you . . . I don’t know, heal her a bit?” Olena asked.

“Is he a cleric?” the gnomess demanded.

“Paladin, actually,” Oren said.

“Well . . . all right, but no trying to cop a feel.” There was a brief pause, then Oren and Olena both turned red. Sam shook his head and leaned up against the wall, tapping his fingers against his belt impatiently. Oren put a hand to the gnomess’ forehead and the large ugly gash left by Spellreaver gradually closed. “Anyway, I’m Madam Twell. You aren’t maybe in the market for some textiles, are you?”

“Is that what you’re factory’s for?” Olena asked.

Madam Twell grinned proudly. “Yep. Fine woven cloth and leather goods, lowest prices you’ll ever find! That’s because of my Secret Manufacturing Process.”

“Something you use a big gloopy construct for?” La’ss’a asked snidely. Madam Twell deflated a bit.

“Oh, did I leave it out in the yard again? Drat.” The gnome tromped across the floor to Sam and extended a hand. “Sorry about trying to curse you, earlier, but I was only going to turn you into a newt. You’d have gotten better eventually.”

Sam looked at her dubiously, then sighed and shook hands. The gnome’s tiny fist vanished in his palm.

“So what is this about growing fish larger, and why do the villagers think that they’re poisoned?” La’ss’a asked.

“It’s a long story,” Twell said. “Why don’t we have some tea and I’ll tell you all about it. Potboiler! Tea!” she shouted, making everyone jump. The small iron stove in the corner of the kitchen suddenly sprouted six arms and began running around, grabbing the teakettle with water, arranging cups on a tray, slicing bread . . . all with amazing speed and dexterity. Madam Twell grinned again. “Cookery golem, my own invention. I thought, who wants a great big iron golem stomping around the place and smashing the furniture, but this one can cook a seven-course meal for ten people in fifteen minutes!”

“That’s . . . um . . . impressive?” Olena offered. The tea tray was deposited on the table with a plate of sandwiches and a basket of hot rolls with butter and jab. Madam Twell poured the tea and made herself comfortable at the table.

“Well, it’s like this,” the gnome said after sipping her tea and sighing. “The fishermen down in the village all used to work in this factory. Back when my father still ran the place, that is. About three years ago he took ill and had to stop running the business for health reasons, so I came back from Faerun to help out.

“You would not believe how inefficient the place was when I got here. He could barely afford to keep food on the table, payrolls were in arrears, we were in debt to practically everyone on the island. So, I set out to introduce some cost-saving measures, a few process improvements. But these villagers . . . they are so stupid and superstitious here about magic. They REFUSED, just refused, to work in the factory with my golems. I don’t get it, myself. There’s machinery all over the place here, who cares if it’s powered by magic or clockwork! I use both! Hmph. The fools almost bankrupted me before I managed to turn the entire operation over to golems. They decided they were going to take up fishing, of all things.”

“Were they hungry?” Olena asked innocently.

“I don’t know, but they weren’t very good at it and their catch was very poor. One of them came to me surreptitiously and asked if there was any way I could help. So I tried to figure out how to make the fish bigger. Maybe it had some odd side effects or something.”

“There are some really big sharks out there, anyway,” Olena said.

“Really? So it worked?”

“What worked?” La’ss’a asked.

“My growth formula, of course. I wasn’t sure it would. It’s not like I could go down to the village and check.”

“You just poured a potion into the ocean to grow fish?” La’ss’a pressed.

“It was a science experiment,” Madam Twell affirmed.

Demaris frowned. “Big predators eat smaller fish and get a larger dose of the potion . . . your giant sharks may have denuded the ocean of the fish the villagers were eating.”

La’ss’a frowned. “So the potion may not affect the smaller fish at all.”

“Silly question,” Sam broke in, “but was it the Mayor that asked you to invent the growth formula?”

“You mean Gibsi the Foreman? Yeah, it was him.”

Sam groaned. “No wonder he’s so anxious to get rid of you. Was he expecting to take over the factory from your father, by any chance?”

“I don’t think so. I think he likes his new job being boss of the village better, anyway.”

“He didn’t mention that part,” Olena said. “Not even when Elice was . . . helping.”

“He never came back here to explain?” La’ss’a asked.

“Well, a few villagers did storm up here and try to burn down my house last month, but the golems scared them off.”

“I bet he said ‘Something strange! Must be the witch’s fault!’” Olena guessed.

“Maybe,” Madam Twell conceded. “Personally, I wouldn’t credit him with thinking ahead that far. Or at all, really.”

“Is it possible to shrink the fish?”

“Permanently, you mean? If you only want a few minutes, I think I have a scroll around here somewhere. Oh, wait, that only works on humanoids. Never mind.”

“Maybe you should just come down to the village with us and explain to the villagers directly,” Sam suggested.

“And get lynched? No THANK you.”

“We could protect you.”

“Oh yeah?” Madam Twell asked, regarding Sam skeptically. “What’s in it for you?”

“We get our own scroll,” La’ss’a said shortly.

“Oh. So you’re not just doing this from the goodness of your various hearts, I take it?”

“Maybe some of us,” Sam said, “The rest of us are a bit more practical.”

“Good, nice to see some self-interest around the place. If it will get the villagers off my case, let’s go talk to them.”

Olena’s face fell. “That’s awfully . . . mercantile. Still, if there’s enough gratitude to get us a ship out of here . . .”

“Ship?” Madam Twell demanded.

“We were shipwrecked here.”

“Yeah, and some of us got eaten by giant sharks,” Sam muttered.

“REEEEly,” Madam Twell said, rubbing her chin. “Where were you bound.”


“REEEEly. I hear there are big opportunities there for entrepreneurial types.”

“Does that interest you?” Olena asked.

“Well, yeah, I’m getting sick of the idiots on this rock. And humans buy a lot more cloth. Plus I could expand, export to the mainland . . . exotic goods, you know. You see, it just so happens that I HAVE a ship. Well, a prototype, anyway. It’s a mechanical ship. I’d like to see how it handles on an ocean voyage, but they say there are some big monsters out there, so I didn’t want to try going all by myself. They’re bound to start dismantling my boat in the middle of the ocean or something.”

“I’m getting a baaaad feeling about this,” Sam said quietly.

“Oh pish tosh,” Madam Twell said. “It’s perfectly safe, not like that underwater boat that maniac Ahgreef designed. THAT was a disaster. Let’s make a deal.”

“We can at least give it a try,” Olena said.

“Right!” Madam Twell announced, shooting to her feet. “Have you got any rope?”

“Rope? What for?” La’ss’a asked.

“Well, I’m figuring we should give the villagers a good show. You tie me up, parade me around, give them some spiel about how you caught the evil witch and you’re going to take me off to be punished, then I pack up the factory and we split. You protect my boat from the monsters, and I’ll get you to Maztica. Well, barring unforeseen circumstances.”

“Um . . .” Olena said.

“I know this sounds like a lot of FUN,” Sam said sarcastically, “but why don’t we just . . . leave?”

“Well, I suppose we COULD do that,” Madam Twell said, looking disappointed. “If you wanted to be boring.”

Sam’s expression blackened. “You know what? Fine. Have your show. I have to go back to the Temple anyway,” he said and ducked out the door. Elice hurried after and caught up with him on the path. She walked beside him, watching him glare at the dirt. At first she was hard pressed just to keep up, but after an hour or so he seemed to work off his irritation and slowed.

“You know,” Elice ventured, “It will probably take them a good long while to get organized. We don’t have to hurry.”

“You’re assuming everything will go according to plan,” Sam snapped. “At this rate, we’ll come across a new chasm, a group of merry bandits, and a demon that speaks in rhyme. And the crew will get arrested and have to be rescued, all in a hurry.”

Elice sighed and looked away.

“What?” Sam asked after a moment. “What’s wrong?”

“Well, nothing really, I guess. You’ve just seemed upset. And frustrated. I want to help, but I’m not sure how.”

Sam sighed. “How long have we known each other? Five years? Six? A long time, anyway. My life used to be simple. Hectic, but simple. Steal, run, spend. Simple.”

Elice nodded encouragingly.

“Then I met Nymbus and life was simple. Wake up, study, practice, repeat. I LIKED Nymbus, I looked up to him.”

“And now?”

“Now I find out that he’s some crazed ex-deity who creates whole worlds populated with sentient inhabitants, then abandons them to have a kid with is his own sister. I started out on this whole revenge thing, which coincides neatly with a defend my homeland from foreign invaders thing, except that I don’t really like my homeland that much and the revenge thing is looking kind of hollow, since it looks like Nymbus was pretty much a scumbag who was planning to take over the world and systematically tortured his own daughter. AND I can’t even take a freaking boat ride without something going wrong! And then, when I try to work things out, everyone screams at me and won’t LISTEN!” Sam shut his eyes, breathing hard, then resumed walking again. Elice reached out and tugged on his arm gently. “So, I’m a little frustrated. Thanks for listening,” he said harshly.

“I’m sorry,” Elice said. Sam reached out and draped his arm over her shoulders, squeezing her against his side.

“It’s okay. You’ve been great. I can’t even say how much worse this would have been without you.”

Elice smiled. “I may even know how you feel . . . a little bit, at least. I’ve spent the past six months working for the Shadow Thieves, under protest, and fighting in pits so Tom could make money gambling. I feel lucky to be alive, but man, I hated every minute of it.”

“Under protest?” Sam asked sharply.

“Well, Tom bribed the guards to get me out of prison, I didn’t exactly volunteer. Becoming a pit fighter wasn’t really one of my personal development goals. But he made it clear it was that or go to the block with everyone else.”

Sam was silent for a long moment. “It’s probably best I didn’t know that at the time, or things would have been even more complicated.”

“Aw, and they say chivalry is dead,” Elice joked.

“Maybe I’m just a really bad man,” Sam said, grinning crookedly, “but I like to have an excuse handy?”

Elice laughed and felt Sam relax a bit more. “What I was trying to say, though, is that I’ve learned that it’s rare for people to be all one thing. If you expect them to be, you just make it harder for yourself. Nymbus was good to you, right? Maybe it’s best if you just remember that and don’t worry too much about what else he may have been.”

“Maybe,” Sam said, sighing. “Maybe he really did change and wasn’t that guy any more.”

“It’s possible. Most people would look at us and just say: smugglers, they’re no good. But we’re not just the one thing.”

“Oh yeah? What else are we?”

Elice inserted her ankle between Sam’s feet and pushed him over into the stream, then jumped after him. “Wet!” It took them some time to dry off.

The others, with Madam Twell now in tow, returned to the village some time later. They discovered Captain Garmon with most of his crew being harangued by Mayor Gibsi.

“Captain!” Olena called. “Good to see you again!”

“Um, yes,” Garmon said. Gibsi was staring open-mouthed at Madam Twell. The gnome sorceress cleared her throat dramatically.

“Oh WOE is ME, for I have been CAPTURED and face a DIRE FATE . . .”

Olena stared blankly.

“I said I faced a DIRE FATE!!” Twell bellowed.

“Um, Silence, you Miscreant!” Olena said, jolting to attention. “As you can see, we’ve defeated your witch! She comes with us now to face JUSTICE!!” La’ss’a groaned and covered her face with her claws. Oren just looked embarrassed, and Demaris tried to conceal a coughing fit. After a long pause, there was a smattering of applause from the gathered villagers.

“We’ve, um, we’ve also made sure that your fish problem is over,” Olena added.

“You, you can’t do that!” Gibsi squeaked.

“We jolly well can! Suck it!” Madam Twell declared. Olena froze again.

“Anyway, we thank you for your hospitality,” La’ss’a said hurriedly.

“But, but . . .” the Mayor sputtered.

“We’ll . . . we’ll just be off now,” La’ss’a continued, dragging Olena and Madam Twell back toward the path. Garmon and his crew followed quickly. A last “But . . .” trailed after them.

“Did you see that!?” Olena squealed ecstatically. “I liked! Did you see it! I LIED!”

Oren winced. “Um, yes.”

“Oh, I’m not going to make a habit of it,” she said, backtracking hurriedly. “It’s just, you know, nice to be sure that I could! Sorry about the ‘miscreant’,” she continued, “But I forgot my line.”

“No, no, that was fine,” Madam Twell said magnanimously. She led them to a side path that ended on the shore of a small lake where a small shed stood. After scrabbling around in the weeds for some time, she pulled a lever. The roof of the shed ratcheted back, revealing a sleek black shape floating in the water. “Let’s load up.”

Garmon stared at the ship. “Oh HELL no.”

“I was afraid of that,” La’ss’a said grimly.

“It’s all right,” Madam Twell said. “It doesn’t take much of a crew. Now help me with these boxes.”

Jan 20, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 10

The floor in front of Margone cleared with amazing alacrity as she swept through to Haden, the small red-haired tiefling trailing conscientiously behind her. Margone twitched her fan lazily as she regarded her son over the enameled and lacquered wood with a single eye.

“Invited, you say? Well, Jeremo is insane.”

Haden stood stiffly, his body half-turned away from Lady Margone, and made no reply. A nearby debutante, thinking herself clever, giggled and said in a stage whisper, “Maybe so. He does keep inviting Her Ladyship.”

Margone’s eyes swiveled in their sockets and her lips curved faintly upwards. “MacDaer, isn’t it?”

The debutante hesitated. “Why, yes. I am surprised you recognized . . .”

“I didn’t,” Margone snapped, closing her fan abruptly and pointing at the debutante’s midsection. “But only a MacDaer would so punish the seams of an otherwise innocent dress.” Sycophantic chuckles erupted from the gathering crowd and the debutante shrank away into the crowd. Margone placed a hand on Haden’s shoulder and pulled him around forcefully. “Don’t you have a kiss for your dear mother?”

“No,” Haden said, glaring into space. Margone chuckled. On the other side of the dance floor, Sheen looked at Joris. The young cleric was still scowling slightly and looked a bit white around the lips and eyes, so she shrugged and began apologizing her way in Haden’s direction. Talan and Hexla were also heading that direction.

“Splinter, my dear, you haven’t met my son yet, have you?” Margone said, looking at the red-haired tiefling.

“Not yet, milady,” she replied, eyeing Haden coldly.

“Trust me, it’s not worth the effort,” Haden said, returning Splinter’s cold stare. “We wouldn’t want you to get attached to me, after all. It might be awkward when Mother finally tires of you.”

“No worries there,” Splinter said softly. “Unlike some, I know the meaning of the word ‘loyalty’.”

“Marvelous, I’ve always wanted a walking dictionary,” Haden returned. “Tell me, do you also know the meaning of the word ‘thug’?” Splinter hissed.

Sheen touched Haden’s elbow a bit uncertainly. He flinched but controlled it quickly. “This is your mother, Haden? Why don’t you introduce us?”

“Why, for the same reason that I wouldn’t strip you naked and throw you into a pit of scorpions,” Haden told her.

“Even scorpions don’t deserve that,” Splinter said dryly. Margone held her fan up to her face as though shielding herself from an unpleasant sight.

“Oh, how charming dear, you’ve acquired a . . . pet. Does it have a name?” Haden’s face began to take on a purplish tinge.

“My name is Sheen.”

“Oh, how quaint,” Margone said, waving a limp hand in Sheen’s direction. Confused, Sheen reached out to shake hands but Margone’s lips twitched and she withdrew her hand again. “Don’t dirty my hands, dear, it’s uncouth. Next time you’re scrubbing floors use a little of the soap on yourself.”

Sheen blinked. “I don’t scrub floors. I’m a blacksmith. I’m slumming.”

“Oh, how delightfully plebian. No wonder you’ve attached yourself to my son, it must me nice to feel something soft after a long day straining over hard . . .”


Margone laughed, flashing white teeth that came to frighteningly sharp points. Then her playful manner peeled away for just a moment. “If you must be weak and pathetic, at least you needn’t advertise the fact, Haden,” she sneered. Then it was back. “But really, I’m glad someone finally took you in. Let’s hope she doesn’t throw you back out again when she discovers how useless you are. As delightful as our chat has been, I really must cut it short before anyone thinks we’re associated. Adieu.”

Hexla patted Talan’s arm and stepped forward to the Lady’s side as she drifted away. “I believe I am the one you have come here to see, milady. Hexla, late of Avernus.”

“Avernus? A bit gauche, don’t you think? I don’t doubt that you are here to see me, my dear. Attend me and I may grant you a moment of my valuable time.” She strode towards a table on the edge of the crowd. It was already occupied, but seeing Lady Margone approaching the current tenants evacuated.

Sheen looked up at Haden, who was still staring wooden-faced into the distance. “So . . . that was your mother?” she said carefully. Haden closed his eyes and the muscles in his neck clenched. Sheen felt herself torn. What was the right thing to say? “I can’t say that I care for the woman. So, Talan, what next?” She turned away from Haden to address the half-elf, who was hovering nearby with a tired expression on his face. Sheen heard Haden slowly exhale behind her.

“I don’t know,” Talan said. “What did I miss?”

“Nothing much,” Sheen said.

Talan shrugged. “Do you have any ideas?”

Sheen shook her head. “I don’t even know what we should be looking for.”

“Dealing with crowds is definitely not my strong suit,” Talan agreed. “You’re the expert, Haden, what do we do?” Sheen turned her head to raise a questioning eyebrow. Haden frowned.

“The problem is that no one knows what Baltazo actually looks like, yes?” Haden said after a moment.


“Well, if you wanted to change your appearance, how would you go about it?”

“I think a better question would be, how would YOU go about it?” Talan replied.

“Magic. Thus,” Haden murmured arcane words and gestured, then began scanning the crowd. Talan grinned.

“Is that really going to help?” Sheen asked skeptically.

“Who knows?” Talan said, and began following Haden as the planar moved through the crowd. Sheen took up position along the wall, fidgeting nervously with a leaf she pulled from a potted plant. An elf in an unremarkable brown tunic slipped through the doors and eyed the party warily. He edged along the wall until he bumped into Sheen, then apologized.

“Excuse me.” Sheen waved her hand dismissively.

“Is there a problem?” Sheen asked when the elf continued to stare at her.

“You . . . pardon me for saying this, but you don’t look like you belong here.”

Sheen scowled. “Really? And what business is that of yours, if I may ask?”

“I’m looking for someone,” the elf said. “I thought you might be the one.”

Sheen turned to examine the elf. She wondered what she ought to do. Anyone else would be better at handling this situation. Haden would be his usual charming self, Talan would look blank until the man explained his errand completely, and Joris would come over as convincingly harmless. “What a surprise,” she said finally. “I’m also looking for someone.”

“Really?” the elf asked, moving closer and lowering his voice. Sheen groaned internally, hoping he hadn’t taken her statement for an innuendo. She took a step back and crossed her arms, establishing a barrier between them.

“What can I do for you?” she demanded in her coldest voice.

The elf tensed a bit. “I’ll just ask, then. Are you Baltazo?”

Sheen’s hands twitched. “No, I was looking for him myself. Are you another new recruit?” The elf eyed her warily. “I was supposed to meet Imogen here, but she didn’t show,” Sheen continued hopefully. She hated lying, not least because she was horrible at it, but also because you could very quickly dig yourself into a pit with things you didn’t know.

“No, it’s Baltazo’s recruit I’m looking for. Name’s Pwyll,” he said, extending a hand. Sheen gripped his hand and shook it firmly, eliciting a startled look.

“Nice to meet you, I’m Sheen.”

“Ever hear of a sod named Nihmron?” Pywll asked.

“No, I’m afraid not.”

“How about the Vile Hunt?”

“Why are you asking me all these questions? If you don’t trust me, go find Baltazo yourself, see if I care.”

“I was HOPING you knew what Baltazo looks like. My people have no idea.”

“Don’t be a fool. No one knows what Baltazo looks like,” Sheen snapped.

“Oh,” Pwyll said. “That explains a lot. We don’t know what Nihmron looks like either, only that he speaks with a lisp.”

“So, who are you exactly, Mr. Pwyll?”

“I’m with the Verdant Guild, but I’m guessing you haven’t heard of us, either.”

“Not in the least, and I’m starting to get the idea that I shouldn’t be talking to you.”

Pwyll shrugged. “If you really are one of Baltazo’s people, then maybe not. If you’re with the Vile Hunt, then DEFINITELY not. Otherwise . . .”

“I have nothing to do with any Vile Hunt. What is it you want, Mr. Pwyll?”

“All right, then. Sorry, I’m having a hard time with all this . . . civilization.”

Sheen smiled slightly. “You should talk with my friend Talan, he’s not too happy being stuck in Civilization either.”

“I’m just looking for Nihmron. He’s got a lot to answer for in the Beastlands.”

“So your interest in him isn’t exactly friendly?”

“No,” Pwyll said, his expression darkening. “The Vile Hunt is my guild’s greatest enemy. I’ve been sent to Sigil to catch Nihmron and stop him.”

“You may want to speak with a friend of mine, then. Maybe we can make common cause.”

Pwyll looked startled. “You think so?”

Sheen smiled. “Let’s just say that we’re not exactly looking for Baltazo for friendly reasons, ourselves. I think I see my friends over by the bar, let’s go.”

“Um, all right,” Pwyll said and followed her.

Haden gradually worked his way through the party looking for the tell-tale emanations of magic on the guests. He passed the bar with Talan and heard the half-elf stop behind him. “What is it?” he asked, maintaining concentration on his spell.

“I thought I heard the word ‘illuminated’ coming from those two cloaked fellows.”

Haden turned to look at the bar, and sure enough one of the men was radiating faint magic, and illusion magic at that. “Nice,” Haden whispered and let his spell expire, clearing the magical haze from his vision. “Who wears a cloak to a party, anyway?”

“What should we do?” Talan whispered.

“I have an idea, you just be ready to back me up.” Haden staggered towards the bar, insinuating himself next to one of the cloaked men and waving exaggeratedly at the barkeep. He heard the men discussing some recent scandal involving Erin Montgomery, but from the way they stumbled over the words he could tell they’d been talking about something else a few seconds before. Talan took a few cautious steps forward, not sure exactly what kind of backup he could offer.

Haden accepted a drink from the barkeep and leaned backwards to tip it into his mouth, then stumbled sideways, grabbing the cloak of the man beside him and leaning his entire weight on it. The man choked, but the cloak was secure enough not to come off, somewhat to Haden’s dismay. The other man stood.

“Clumsy oaf!”

“Oh, oh, I’m so terribly sorry . . .” Haden said, still pulling on the cloak to keep his balance. The other man was wearing a skull mask polished to a mirror shine.

“No harm done,” gasped the man whose cloak Haden was still holding. Haden switched his grip to the front of the man’s tunic and pulled himself upright.

“Hey, you look sort of familiar . . .” Haden said as the skull man tried to dislodge him. “Imogen and Trent send their respects . . .”

“Who are they, friends of yours?”

“Oh, something like that,” Haden said.

“All right, friend, just let go,” skull-face said. Haden allowed himself to be detached.

“That’th better,” said the first man, rubbing his throat. “You thouldn’t drink tho much.” Sheen, now only a few feet away, stared in horror as Pwyll started forward with clenched fists.

Haden straightened and sniffed, offended. “Dost though call me a drunk, sirrah?”

“No, I—“

Haden whipped off one of his gloves and slapped the man in the face with it. “Fie upon the! Get thee hence, beggar!”

“Blasphemer!” Pwyll yelled and catapulted into the lisping man, nearly knocking Haden over.

“What the . . .who is this berk?” Haden gasped, looking at Talan who shrugged helplessly. The skull-faced man began to chant and gesture, so Haden threw up a globe of darkness around the five of them, yelling, “HELP! HELP! MURDER!”

Talan fumbled in the darkness for something to grab and staggered back as a flailing fist hit him on the chin. Not knowing what else to do, Sheen manifested a power, psionic energy bolstering her muscles and increasing her strength. A large spotted cat shot out of the darkness and ran straight at her, she attempted to tackle it but her hands slipped off its fur. Seconds later, Talan and Pwyll came flying after it, cutting through the crowd and running towards the exit.

The guests screamed and began to panic as the cat dodged around them. Within moments, the chaos had spread across the dance floor as people began running for exits or otherwise behaving unhelpfully.

Sheen took a few steps after Talan and Pwyll, then stumbled, turning her ankle in the accursed heels. She turned around in time to see Haden dismiss the darkness.

“What the heck just happened?” she demanded.

“I think that was Baltazo and friend. Where did that elf come from?”

“His name’s Pwyll. He’s looking for some guy named Nihmron who lisps,” Sheen said.

“Ah, a light dawns.” Haden eyed the exits, which were already jammed with struggling people, and sat on the floor beside the bar. “We may as well wait, we’re not going anywhere for a while.” He patted the floor next to him.

Sheen stumbled over and sat down beside him, arranging her dress. “I hope Talan doesn’t get himself killed.”

“He’ll be all right,” Haden said confidently. “And there’s another ray of sunshine here to consider.”

“What’s that?”

“Mother will be upset.”

Talan sprinted down the hall after the cat, dodging a pile of rubble and colliding painfully with a Harmonium patrol. He was only inches away from the beast when it ran through an archway and vanished in a flash of light. Cursing, he struggled to get his breath back and looked around.

“Did that bastard get away?” an elf asked, running up.

“He just disappeared into light. Who are you?”

“I’m Pwyll, I’m from the Verdant Guild. The cat you were just chasing is Nihmron, he’s been causing all kinds of destruction in the Beastlands. Did he just go through a portal?”

“I’m thinking so,” Talan said, “Although we could verify that with Lissandra. Hang on.” Talan peeked through the corridors until he found the tall blond woman still examining some of the stonework. “I think we found your portal, Lissandra.”

“Really?” she asked. She pulled out a heavy book. “Where is it?”

“Over here,” Talan said, leading her to the arch. She cast a spell and began a careful analysis. The halls began to echo with the tromp of heavy feet; Talan and Pwyll exchanged a worried look. The Harmonium patrol stormed into the corridor.

“What was that all about?” the patrol leader demanded.

Talan shrugged. “This guy turned into a cat at the party, so we chased him. He just ran through a portal and disappeared.”

“Is that so? Maybe you’ll be a little more talkative if I take you in . . .”

“Sod off,” Lissandra said without turning around. “They’re with me.”

“Aye? Keep yer noses clean and mebbe they won’t get broken,” the patrol leader growled and stomped away, his patrol following.

“Officer Ringhammer,” Lissandra spat. “I hate that bloody pikin’ sod. This portal goes to the Beastlands.”

“Figures,” Pwyll said grimly.

“The key seems to be an animal bone. It’s a two-way portal, it looks like the same key works both ways.”

Talan frowned. “I guess I could go try to get a chicken leg off the buffet.”

Lissandra smiled. “That might actually work.”

“We should really get our equipment before we try going through that portal, though.”

Pwyll looked surprised. “You’re going to help me?”

“Of course,” Talan said. “I’m a ranger, that’s what I do.”

Pwyll grinned. “Wonderful. I’ve got my sword, I’ll go ahead and leave a trail for you, make things easier.”


Some time later, Sheen, Joris, Haden and Talan gathered around the portal. They’d changed into their ordinary clothing, buckled on armor and weapons, and loaded their packs with food and other equipment.

“Ah, the countryside,” Haden remarked. “It will be like a vacation.”

“I wouldn’t count on a pastoral venue if I were you,” Talan said. “This is going to be more of a primeval wilderness.”

“Well, a man can dream. Shall we?” Talan waved a bone at the archway and the four of them stepped through into a steaming jungle. Some light penetrated the dense canopy of leaves above, lending a greenish cast to the surroundings.

“Primeval wilderness indeed,” Sheen said. “Guess what, Talan?”


“You’re hereby elected leader of this little expedition. So what do we do next?”

“Pwyll said he would try to leave a trail, let’s follow that.” Talan looked around the clearing for a while, then set off. They walked for some time before Talan came to a stop in another clearing.

“This isn’t good,” the half-elf said. “Pwyll’s tracks just . . . stop.”

“Look at this,” Sheen said, climbing out of a bush. She held up a narrow sword that seemed to be made out of wood.

“That’s Pwyll’s,” Talan said. “It looks like the belt was cut away.”

Jan 11, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 9

Talan opened one eye and glared at the room door, which was shaking in its frame from the force of the knocking. He glanced at Joris, who rolled over and pulled the pillow over his head with a groan of complaint. Then he looked at Haden, who sighed, threw off his blankets, and staggered across the room. The door opened to reveal, unsurprisingly, an annoyed and impatient Sheen. Even though it was very early, she was fully dressed and looked to have been so for some time.

“What, woman?!” Haden demanded. “We’re sleeping here.”

“We have to go get that second invitation. Now. Today. You know, BEFORE the party.”

“She’s right,” Joris mumbled from under his pillow. Knowing the score, Talan rolled out of bed and began pulling his clothes on. Any attempt to argue would only serve to make Sheen even more angry and demanding.

Haden grimaced. “We’ll get to it.”

“We’ve been waiting five days for you to get to it. You’ve got ten minutes,” Sheen declared and closed the door, perhaps a little more forcefully than was strictly necessary.

“So where are we going?” Joris asked blearily, trying to figure out where he’d left his shirt the night before.

“A . . . house, in the Lady’s Ward,” Haden said. “We should probably take a cab, it’s a long way to walk.” Haden finished doing up the buckles on his armor and opened the door. Sheen was waiting in the common room, idly reading a newspaper. Sigrund the bariaur had already called for a cab. Sheen folded the paper primly and looked up at Haden.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were putting this off on purpose,” she said.

“We don’t all have to go,” Haden said. “I can just go by myself . . .”

“Stop trying to wiggle out of it,” Sheen told him severely. “We’re all going. The way you’re acting, who knows if you’d even come back if we just sent you by yourself.”

The four of them climbed into the cab, and the dwarven driver peered over his shoulder at them. “Where to, guv?” Haden gave an address that sounded like gibberish. The cabbie blinked at him. “Are you sure about that?”

“Yes,” Haden replied, his voice flat.

The cabbie hesitated for a long moment, then shrugged and twitched his crop at the haunches of the Arcadian pony. “All right, guv, it’s your funeral.”

Joris swallowed. “You didn’t say this was going to be dangerous . . .”

“That’s because it’s not dangerous,” Haden said grumpily.

“But the cabbie . . .”

Haden’s lips twitched slightly. “The cabbie doesn’t have my . . . special advantages.”

“Oh,” Joris said.

“What kind of reception CAN we expect?” Talan asked.

“I don’t know, it depends. With luck we won’t have to see anyone.” The cab continued to rattle up what the signs called “Threefate Avenue”, passing rowhouses and businesses. Sheen stared out the window, fascinated, as the buildings gradually showed increasing signs of wealth and prestige. Worked iron gates and walls sprouted out of the ground, dark and ominous as the black thorny vines that grew over them. Harmonium patrols passed to either side of them, the soldiers seeming to occupy every nook and cranny.

“Something tells me this is not going to be as easy as you say,” Talan said quietly.

“I’m shocked you even know anyone in this part of town,” Sheen added. “These people won’t even be inclined to let us in the back door.”

“Just relax, all right?” Haden said with some asperity. “Sheesh. I think I’ve earned some trust by now. Anyway, we’re here,” he said as the cab rolled to a stop outside what appeared to be a miniature castle done up in white marble. Delicate towers soared above them, complete with triangular flags that snapped briskly in the breeze. Instead of black wrought iron, the gate was made of polished brass. Even the razorvine growing over the wall looked richer somehow, like it was watered and tended regularly.

“I thought the gods couldn’t get into Sigil,” Joris murmured. “Who else could possibly live here?”

“The gods wouldn’t need all this,” Talan said.

Sheen gaped, then her expression slowly changed and she rounded on Haden suspiciously. “You didn’t bring us here to STEAL an invitation, did you?”

“NO!” Haden yelled, beginning to lose his temper. “WILL YOU PLEASE RELAX!” A githzerai peered at them curiously from the other side of the gate. The colors of his mouth turned up slightly.

“Good to see you again, Master Haden,” the gith said, and unlocked the gate from the inside. Sheen, Talan, and Joris stared. “If I may say, it has been far too long since your last visit.”

“Now I’ve seen it all,” Talan whispered.

“Yes, yes, Suinjes, just open the gate,” Haden grumped. “You can keep the editorial comments to yourself.”

“Very good, sir.”

Haden frowned up at the enormous house. “You three just stay here while I make sure no one is around,” he said, producing a key from his pocket and unlocking the wide, ornate doors. He eased the leftmost door open very slowly and peered inside, then slipped into the building.

“What on earth is he doing?” Sheen whispered.

“I haven’t the slightest,” Joris replied.

Talen smiled. “It appears ‘master’ Haden may be more than he seems. Maybe we’re about to be introduced to his family?”

There was a loud crash from inside and all three jumped. “What now?” Sheen demanded. “Haden!” she shouted, storming across the courtyard and through the doors.

“Um,” Joris said, uncertain what to do now. Talan shook his head.

“We should probably stay together,” the ranger said, and the two men followed Sheen into the mansion. Sheen was inching along the carpet, peering around the dark hall. Massive chandeliers hung overhead, but none of them were lit. The building was dark and still, smelling of neglect and disuse. A door off the wide hall was open and the three of them peered inside. Haden was standing there with a tall blue-skinned woman, having evidently been caught in the act of rooting through the papers on a beautiful mahogany desk.

“You gave me quite a—who’s this?” The blue-skinned woman asked.

“Hello? Who are you?” Sheen asked. “What’s going on here?”

“This is Felise,” Haden said. “Felise, this is Sheen, and here we have Joris and Talan. We’re just here to pick something up, we’ll be leaving shortly.”

The blue-skinned woman raised an eyebrow. “It figures, far be it from you to make a social call. What are you looking for? Maybe I can help you find it.”

“No, that’s not neces—“ Haden started.

“We need an invitation to the Jester’s Masque,” Sheen explained.

“Oh, THAT thing,” Felise said somewhat scornfully. “They always send your father an invitation, even though he never attends. I think it’s upstairs. Just wait here and don’t touch anything.” She swept out of the room.

“Father?” Sheen and Talan asked together.

“Oh!” Talan said. “Shouldn’t we thank him or something?” Joris whistled.

“Even my father couldn’t afford a place like this. Are you two on the outs? I know what that’s like.”

“No, we are not ‘on the outs’. My family has money. I don’t. What difference does it make?” Haden said. He sat down on the ornate desk chair and sighed. “I’d like to avoid running across anyone else here, so if you could just be quiet for five minutes . . .”

“Felise?” a voice called softly. “Felise, is someone here? I heard voices . . .” slow, shuffling footsteps came down the hallway and an elderly gold-skinned man peered myopically into the study, blinking his bright blue eyes. He was leaning carefully against the wall as though he feared he might get lost if he let go. Great white wings sprouted from his shoulders, but they appeared ragged, as though feathers were falling out. A thin gold dressing robe covered a set of crumpled blue pajamas, but he had apparently forgotten his slippers. The man regarded them all for a long moment. Haden jumped to his feet and started forward, but Sheen grabbed his arm.

The old man’s mouth worked slowly. “Oh, oh . . .” he shuffled forward a few steps. “Haden, is that you?”

Haden shook off Sheen’s hand impatiently and took the old celestial’s hand. “Yes, Father, it’s me. You shouldn’t be up and around like this, you might catch cold. Where are your slippers?”

The old man slowly and carefully tilted his head downward and bent his knees so that he could look at his feet. He smiled tremulously. “Oh, I seem to have forgotten them again . . .” There was another lengthy pause as he straightened up again and patted Haden’s hands vaguely but forcefully. “I’m sorry, I forgot you were coming to visit . . .” He gripped Haden’s elbow and shuffled around his son. “And who have we here? You brought friends?”

“They’re just business associates, Father. Why don’t I take you back to bed, and Felise can make you some hot tea or something.”

The old man blinked in confusion. “Mustn’t be rude if you have guests . . .”

“I’m sure they won’t be offended—“ Haden said hurriedly. Sheen shot him a black look and stepped closer to the old man.

“I am Sheen, sir, and these are my companions Joris and Talan.” The old man gave her a brilliant smile and reached out a hand towards her. His grip on Sheen’s fingers was incredibly strong, and she winced.

“So glad you could come, so glad you could come. I’m Cerellis. You just call me that, you don’t listen to what anyone else tells you, all right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good girl. And beautiful, too, lovely. You aren’t eladrin by any chance, are you?”

Sheen blushed self-consciously. “Um, no sir. I’m an Elan.”

“Oh, a pity. Very metallic, maybe rilmani.” He relinquished his grip on Sheen and returned to leaning on Haden. “You hang onto that one, son. Quite a catch. Quite a catch.” Haden also flushed, embarrassed. Talan grinned. Cerellis shuffled towards Joris next.

“Are you a brave man, and true?” he asked hoarsely.

“I-I try to be . . .” Joris stammered.

“Good, good, that’s the most important thing. That’s . . . most important thing. Yes.” He turned to look at Talan. Haden tugged on Cerellis arm, trying to hold him back, but the ancient celestial was still much stronger.

“Father, don’t interrogate my friends, it isn’t polite.”

“Nonsense,” Cerellis said. “I see greatness in you, young man. Yes. Greatness, that’s what it is. What . . . what did you say your name was again? Have we met before?”

Felise walked into the room, carrying an engraved envelope. She stopped, shocked, when she saw Cerellis. Haden shot her a look of horrified appeal.

“My lord, it’s time for you to go back to bed,” she said firmly, thrusting the invitation into Haden’s hands. Cerellis blinked and looked at her.

“Oh . . . is it that time already? I was just . . . I was . . .” he seemed to remember, and brightened. “Did I tell you Haden was coming to visit? He’s so busy, but he still makes time to come see his old man . . . he’s a good boy, such a good boy . . .”

“I’m right here, Father,” Haden said tiredly. Cerellis jumped, then peered at him.

“Oh! Oh, I’m so sorry, my mind, it wanders sometimes . . .”

“Yes, Father,” Haden said. “But it’s time for me to go now.”

“Oh,” Cerellis said. “You won’t stay for dinner? Methodis is coming, you remember my brother? I spoke to him just the other day, and he said he would come to visit . . . he always likes to see you . . .”

“Father, Methodis died years ago.”

“He did? Oh, yes, he did. Then he won’t . . . he won’t be coming for dinner, then?”

“I very much doubt it.”

Cerellis swayed a little, uncertainly. “Oh. I miss him . . .”

“You should go with Felise now, Father.”

“Yes . . . I should, yes. I’m so glad you came to visit me. I’m sorry I wasn’t ready, but I forgot . . .”

“It’s all right, Father.”

Cerellis reached out and hugged his son tightly. The old man’s lip trembled and his eyes filled with tears. “My son. I’m so proud, so very proud of you . . .” Haden’s face twisted. “You’ll, you’ll look after your mother for me, won’t you?”

“Yes, Father,” Haden choked out. Felise finally pulled the old man out of the room. Haden thrust the invitation at Joris. “Here. Let’s go.” They walked outside and waited awkwardly for another cab.

“Your father seems . . . nice?” Sheen ventured finally. Haden stared at the street in stony silence.

“We haven’t made this easy for you, have we?” Talan asked.

“I’m sorry we put you through that,” Joris said quietly.

“It’s not your fault,” Haden replied.

“This is why I prefer animals,” Talan muttered. “Everything is so much more straightforward.”

“You should have just told us,” Sheen said. “So your father is getting senile, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. He obviously misses you. Why don’t you go visit him more often?”

Haden’s glare was so ferocious that she took a step back, startled. “It’s MY life. Keep your nose out of it.” He climbed into the cab when it arrived and flung himself down on the seat. They rode in awkward silence all the way back to Chirper’s. Still not sure what to say, Sheen left for her ordeal at the coiffeur.

Hours later a cab delivered Sheen back to the inn, curled, primped, and painted to within an inch of her life. She felt like a package as they unloaded her and helped her into a chair in the common area. She sighed, with no choice but to wait until the men arrived so they could all go to the ball together.

Joris smoothed his cuffs down for, probably, the twentieth time. “What about weapons? Should we check them at the door or just leave them here?”

Haden, who was fully dressed, snorted. “If you have a dress sword—by which I mean a gold-covered knitting needle--you can get away with it, but if you even show up dragging that thing there’s going to be comment.”

Joris sighed and set the mace on the armoire, scratching the finish. “I just haven’t been without it since we arrived . . . I feel naked without it and my armor.”

“What about Ari?” Talan asked.

“Ari? You mean that . . . mutt?”

“I don’t suppose I could bring her along?” Talan frowned at Joris, who was chuckling quietly. “What are you laughing at? She’s better looking than you, even in that ridiculous outfit.”

“No.” Haden said. “Just . . . no. She might mistake someone’s toy poodle for dinner and we’d never hear the end of it.”

“Hmph,” Talan said. “Fine, I bow to your expertise.”

“If we’re ready, we should go find Sheen,” Joris said.

“By all means,” Talan replied. Sheen was sitting bolt upright in a chair, trying not to come into contact with anything, including air molecules. Haden smiled at the sight.

“Well, don’t you look . . . uncomfortable.”

“Mph. I’d scowl, but I’m afraid something would break.”

Talan grinned. “You have to admit your father was right, Haden, she is gorgeous.”

“Don’t make me hurt you,” Sheen growled.

“It’s time to leave, we should arrive early if at all possible,” Haden said.

“I’m not sure I can get up,” Sheen said. Haden made an impatient sound, grabbed her arm, and heaved her bodily to her feet.

“Come on,” he said, and dragged her out into the street. She looked at the cab, realizing there was no way she could get inside it by herself. The cabbie produced a small set of stairs and Haden bent over, picked up the hem of her gown, and handed it to her with a mocking little bow.

“Don’t you dare laugh,” Sheen said to Haden, looking daggers.

“Don’t you two make a handsome couple,” Talan said. Joris laughed and Sheen turned her glare on him.

“I figured I was going to die tonight anyway, so I might as well,” the cleric said.

Some time later, the cab rolled up outside a massive, ancient building, the Jester’s Palace. Haden held up a hand, cautioning everyone to wait until a footman opened the door, which happened within seconds. Joris jumped down, thrust his nose into the air, and strutted towards the entrance. Haden chuckled.

“Just try to relax,” he told Sheen and Talan. “You’ll be fine.”

“Easy for you to say, you grew up with this sort of thing,” Talan said. “I can barely stand to be in a room with all these people. Oh well, at least we’ve got each other. I’d better go catch up with my ‘date’.”

Haden tucked Sheen’s hand under his arm without so much as a by-your-leave. “If it gets to be too much, there will be retiring rooms set up, for people that get overexcited or have a bit too much to drink. There’s a garden, too, if you feel like taking a stroll. It’s a party, not a prison, it’s supposed to be fun.”

They followed the lights to a vast chamber with its ceiling open to the sky. There was a lush garden in the middle. One of the archways was lit up, but a human woman stood at another, holding an open book and frowning seriously. She noticed them approaching and closed the book, flipping her long blond hair over her shoulder.

“Hello, Haden.”

“What a surprise, Lissandra, I thought you avoided these events like the plague.”

“Oh, I’m not here for the party, I’m portal-hunting, as always. I got wind that there was one around here I hadn’t seen before.”

“Your timing is a bit off, methinks,” Haden said. “Let me introduce you to my friends, Sheen, Talan, and Joris. Everyone, this is Lissandra, she has some kind of job but I don’t pay too much attention to that sort of thing.”

“Good to see you’re back to your old self again, Haden,” Talan said.

“Indeed,” Haden replied.

“Pleased to meet you,” Sheen said.

Lissandra smiled. “I’m trying to find every portal in Sigil. If you ever need to find one or know how to open one, come to see me. Did you cutters put Haden up to this? He cleans up nice.”

“Funny you should mention that,” Talan said.


“I have a feeling we’ll be in need of your services sometime soon,” Talan explained. “How long have you known Haden?”

“Not long, we ran into each other a while ago. There was a misunderstanding, but it’s cleared up now.”

“Everyone knows me,” Haden said. “I get around.”

“That’s not exactly something you should be proud of, you know,” Sheen remarked. Haden’s face reddened.

“That’s NOT what I meant.”

“Don’t mind those two,” Talan said smoothly. “They’ve only known each other a few days, but you’d swear they’d been married for twenty years the way they bicker.”

“We really should be going,” Haden said shortly, “but I’m sure we’ll have occasion to catch up later.”

“Right,” Lissandra said. “Have fun.”

A gnome stopped them about halfway down the hall. “Invitation, please?” Haden handed them over gracefully and the gnome added it to a pile inside a crystal box. Then they put their masks on and went inside. Haden surveyed the room from the top of the stairs.

“So what’s the plan?” Joris asked.

“We mingle. Keep your eye on new arrivals, the really important people are always late,” Haden said. He guided Sheen to a seat at a table and procured a glass of champagne for her. Joris skirted the dance floor and headed for the bar. Talan sighed and shook his head.

“I’d better keep up with my date. See you two later.”

“You sit here and try to relax, all right?” Haden instructed Sheen. “I’m going to look around, meet with some people.”

“All right.” She looked across the table at a brown gnome with thick gold spectacles.

“Good evening,” the gnome said, standing up on his chair and bowing. “Quite a gathering, ja?”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“My firm is providing ze securities. Keldryn Gildersleeve at your service,” he continued. Sheen extended a gloved hand and he squeezed her fingers in a powerful grip.

“I’m Sheen.” A man in a purple coat, wearing no mask but sporting a ludicrous plumed helmet, appeared at her elbow.

“Would my lady care to dance?”

Sheen blinked. “All right.” He pulled her on to the dance floor, where he began to babble about giving things away and cranium rats. Sheen felt her eyes begin to glaze over.

By the time Talan reached the bar, Joris was into his second drink. Talan poked him. “You’re not allowed to get drunk. The next thing we know, you’ll be dancing on tables naked with a lampshade over your head.” Joris blinked, startled. “Don’t try to deny it, I know how it is with you quiet ones.” He gestured to the bartender and accepted a tumbler of something cool and vaguely sweet.

“Hello, Talan,” a voice said behind him. He turned around slowly to see a woman wearing an elegant red dress and a gold dragon mask. She smiled. “Could a lady trouble you for a drink?”

Talan sputtered and almost dropped his glass. “He-Hexla? Is that you?”

“It’s me. And I’m quite thirsty . . .” Talan waved to the barkeep again and handed a glass to Hexla without looking at it. “Are you happy to see me? I can’t tell.”

“I’m not sure yet. Should I be glad? How did you recognize me?”

Hexla rubbed her fingertips along Talan’s velvet sleeve. “The way you move, of course.” Out of the corner of his eye, Talan saw Joris finish a third drink and made a cutting motion at the bartender. Joris pouted, mildly offended, and set off into the crowd. “I’m happy to see you, in any case. I thought you might have perished trying to escape Avernus.”

Talan allowed his expression to soften a bit. “I have thought about you quite a bit since Avernus.”

“And I, you. I followed you as soon as I could after I discovered what happened, but Sigil’s a big place. I never would have thought to look for you here.”

“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again,” Talan said. “What happened to you?”

“I went to Bel to ask him to spare you . . . what a mistake that turned out to be! He didn’t even know you were in Avernus until I mentioned it. Fortunately, he had other things to worry about at the time. It’s good you got out when you did. I had a little trouble with Ar’kle-mens, myself, but nothing a good web spell couldn’t fix.”

“Um, yeah. Something I thought I would ask you if I ever managed to see you again . . .”

“Yes, Talan?”

Talan hesitated. “Never mind.”

“Oh,” Hexla said, disappointed. “Are you staying in Sigil?”

“Yes, with some friends. What about you?”

“Me too. Staying with some friends, I mean. I’m pretty broke, so I’m trying to pick up some jink until I can decide what to do. In fact, that’s why I’m here. I’m supposed to meet someone with a business proposition for me.”

“I’m not delaying you, am I?”

“No, I don’t think they’re here yet.”

Talan nodded. “Where are you staying in case, ah”—he found himself blushing—“In case you want me to meet you there for a drink or . . . something . . .”

Hexla smiled and brushed her fingertips over Talan’s cheek. “I’m at Vander’s . . .for now.”

“Ah, well, we’re at Chirper’s for the time being.”

“That’s a nice place. Is Sigrund still there?”

“Yeah. Have you stayed there before?”

“Oh, once or twice. I used to get my hair done there before I became the ‘Mad Witch’.”

“I never did figure out how that devil got you confused with a ‘crazy old witch’.”

Hexla smiled. “In Hell, even a bad reputation can be a good thing.”

“Would you like to meet my friends?” Talan asked.


Wandering through the crowd, Joris spotted Sheen dancing and headed her direction. She shot him an imploring look and he used his elbow appropriately, cutting in even before the dance had ended.

“THANK you,” Sheen said.

“Certainly, you’ve saved me often enough.”

“You dance pretty well,” Sheen said, glancing down at her feet. Joris chuckled.

“Thanks. I’ve had quite a bit of practice.”

“Really?” It doesn’t seem like it would be your . . . thing,” Sheen said. She paused, then blushed, embarrassed. “I don’t know you all that well, I guess. But it’s not any of my business what you do in any case.”

“What? Wait, that wasn’t what you thought it was. Well, all right, it WAS, but that . . . isn’t me. Nothing happened.”

“I’m sure it’s none of my business,” Sheen repeated primly.

“I don’t want you getting the wrong idea about me.”

“Don’t think I’m going to think less of you just because I’m a bit . . . uptight. It’s not my place to say anything. I’m not your mother, after all.”

Joris grinned a bit. “Hah, my mother probably would have been thrilled that I’d finally found a ‘lady friend’.”

Sheen chuckled. “So, did nothing happen because nothing happened, or was it because I walked in at the wrong moment?”

“You saved me from making a big mistake. That’s it, really.”

“Glad I could help. So why is it that parents try to throw their offspring at members of the opposite sex? I wouldn’t know, I never knew my parents.”

“You may be the luckiest woman alive,” Joris said fervently.

“What? Why?”

“Well, between what my parents did to me, and Haden’s parents . . . I don’t know, sometimes I think they’re nothing but trouble.”

“Your parents? And what’s wrong with Haden’s father? He’s just getting old, it happens, you know.”

“Oh, I thought I told you about my father. He’s some piece of work. He’d be right at home in a place like this.”

“Haden’s at home here, too. It’s not my glass of wine, but that’s still no reason to think less of him. Or your father. So, it bothers you that your father is a rich, powerful, big shot?”

“Well, no, but it does bother me that I was never good enough for him. So I’m not smart enough to learn arcane magic? So what?”

“That sounded a little defensive to me,” Sheen said after a moment.

“It’s not like he doesn’t have three other perfectly good children to teach . . .”

“I don’t think it’s your father that’s the problem,” Sheen said.


Sheen shrugged. “I think YOU are the one that doesn’t think you’re good enough.” Joris dropped her, stepping back as though he’d just been slapped. “If you really thought it didn’t matter, you wouldn’t even care what your father thought.”

“You, how can you . . .” Joris sputtered. The music abruptly stopped.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, may I now have the honor of presenting to you Her Excellency, Lady Margone of the Court of Stars!” All heads turned towards the stairs, where a small, slender red-haired woman in black leather bowed to the crowd. She stepped aside and a woman stepped out. Dark, frightening red eyes surveyed the crowd from beneath heavy eyelids. An ornate fan held in a graceful hand snapped open with a noise like the crack of a whip. The dark red bat wings framed a shimmering black dress, and she wore a domino mask so thin it may as well have been drawn on. A faint sigh ran through the crowd as she posed. Then her eyes narrowed, her face registering surprise.

“How did you get in here, Haden?” she snapped, her voice low and threatening.

“I was invited, Mother.”