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

Feb 17, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 13

Haden hauled himself up the stairs to the second floor of Chirper’s, grinning at the muddy smudges he left behind on the stairs, the banister, and the walls. “You know, I think I could really start to like this intrepid wilderness explorer gig,” the aasling said cheerfully. Sheen made an incredulous noise.

“No, really!” Haden persisted, pausing on the landing to make an expansive gesture with his arms. “I could roam secret glens upon which no man hath laid eyes since the very dawn of time, and yea, listen to the mysterious wisdom of the noble beasts that dwell therein . . .”

Talan grinned. “You’d be bored out of your mind within hours,” he said.

“Not at all,” Haden announced, waving a dismissive hand in Talan’s direction. “I could while away the hours, conferring with the flowers . . .”

Talan laughed outright. “And consulting with the rain?”

Haden rolled his eyes. “And that, my friend, is why you’ll never be a poet. It almost scans, but what sort of rhyme scheme are you going toward here? Rhyming couplets are passe. You’d have to start a new phrase there.”

“Give it up, Haden,” Joris said. “You’d never stand for all the vermin. I saw you cast that spell on the hut. You can’t de-louse all outdoors.”

Haden shrugged. “So my head I’d be scratching while my thoughts were busy hatching . . .”

“If you only had a brain?” Sheen suggested. Joris choked and Talan doubled over laughing, nearly tumbling headfirst down the staircase in the process.

“A born critic,” Haden announced, sniffing contemptuously and pointing his nose at the ceiling while sweeping his cloak dramatically over his shoulder and prancing up the stairs. Then he stopped short.

“What is it?” Sheen asked, hurrying up the steps and looking around cautiously. The door to the room Haden, Joris, and Talan shared was slightly ajar.

“I know I locked it,” Sheen whispered.

“Housekeeping?” Joris breathed.

“I don’t think it’s housekeeping,” Talan said. “They’d be making some noise.”

“Right,” Sheen growled, drawing her short sword, and threw open the door. The man sitting inside on Talan’s bed jumped in alarm and shrank against the wall as Sheen stormed in. He waved his hands desperately.

“I’m unarmed!” He had short hair and a thin mustache, which, coupled with a pair of half-moon spectacles, made him look almost like a caricature of a harmless clerk.

“This had better be good,” Haden remarked conversationally, peering around Sheen’s shoulder.

“Please, I’ve been looking for you!”

“And you can’t wait for us downstairs like a normal person?” Sheen demanded, sheathing her sword again and looking disgusted.

“How did you get in here in the first place?” Talan asked.

“Housekeeping,” the man said. “And I couldn’t wait . . . they’re looking for me. I’m Shillman. I’m so grateful to you for rescuing me . . .”

Talan glanced at Joris and said, quietly, “We need to have a word with housekeeping.”

“We didn’t rescue you,” Haden said, chuckling. “At least, I don’t think we did.”

“Oh, but you did!” Shillman said. “The Citadel of Fire, remember?”

Sheen scrutinized the man’s face for a moment. “Oh, that was you? Um, you’re welcome, I guess.”

“I don’t suppose you came looking for us just to thank us, though,” Talan said. Haden flopped on his bed and propped his feet up on the footboard.

“You were hoping we could be persuaded to save you again, since we’re obviously such nice people and all that?” Haden asked.

Shillman hesitated. “Well, it’s about the Illuminated.”

“We’re listening,” Sheen said grimly.

“I’m sure they’ve sent someone after me, so I thought you lot might want to hit them first while the opportunity is still there.”

“So, basically you’re telling us that you’ve lead them straight to us?” Talan said, crossing his arms and frowning.

“I’m not worried about that,” Sheen said. “We can take care of ourselves. Hit them how?”

“Well,” Shillman said, still hesitating, fingering a holy symbol hanging from a chain around his neck. “I was pretty devout before I went barmy, so their programming didn’t work well on me. They still thought it would take eventually, though, so they didn’t care what they said in front of me. I can tell you where they’re based: in Plague-Mort.”

“Oh *that* ought to be fun,” Haden said immediately, rolling his eyes. “The gate-town to the Abyss? Yech. Might as well just jump into a pit of burning sulfur and call it a day.”

“I don’t know where they’re based in Plague-Mort, but the portal in the Citadel that only Marvent and Baltazo knew how to open . . . that’s where it went.”

“And how do you benefit from all of this, exactly?” Sheen asked.

“Well, I’d like to see them pay for what they did to me, to all those poor sods. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to be sane again, but I can’t say I appreciate their reasons for doing it.”

“So, assuming we’re interested in risking our lives by bearding the enemy in his stronghold—again—how would we go about getting to Plague-Mort from here?”

“There’s sure to be a portal somewhere in Sigil. I also know one man you can look for, Margram . . . he was a cleric, too, he hated Brandal, just hated him. He left the Citadel before you showed up.”

“You still would have been safer waiting downstairs,” Sheen said. “What if a bunch of Illuminated had showed up? We would have just found a corpse in the room, that’s what.”

Shillman shuddered. “I tried that, but there were so many people *watching*!”

“It’s not like their eyeballs are going to hurt you,” Sheen said.”

“They always talked about ‘loose ends’ in the Citadel. ‘Tie off your loose ends. Send Fade to write them in the dead-book.’”

“Right,” Haden said, standing up abruptly and making everyone jump. “Thank you so much for coming, it was so nice to see you, we need to talk. Privately,” he rattled off, hustling Shillman out the door and closing it emphatically. “Do we have any idea whether this fellow actually IS entirely sane?!”

“I’m not sure I trust him or his story,” Talan said. “If anything bad happens, I’m going after him myself.”

“If it is some kind of trick, it’s an incredibly stupid one,” Haden said.

“It doesn’t really seem like Baltazo’s style, does it?” Joris asked. “Are the Xaositects pulling our legs?”

“Bah,” Haden said, throwing himself on the bed again and resuming his ostentatious more-casual-than-thou position. “Even if we wanted to check out his story, we couldn’t. Knowing there has to be a portal to Plague-Mort is not the same thing as being able to find said portal.”

“What about your friend?” Talan asked. “The one who catalogs all the portals in Sigil?”

“Lissandra?” Haden asked. “We’re not exactly friends.”

“Well, if not friends, then at least acquaintances. She know something we can use.”

“She might be harder to find than the portal, to be honest,” Haden said. “The only place she regularly visits that I know of is Tivvum’s Antiquities, here in the Market Ward.”

“I’m in favor of checking it out, at least,” Sheen said.

Talan nodded. “What do you say, Haden?”

“All right,” Haden conceded, “but first ?I want a bath and a hot meal and some sleep in a real bed. THEN we can go check it out.”

“Agreed,” Talan said. Sheen nodded, resigned.

“I’m going to go down to the Hands of Time while you gentlemen do whatever it is that you do. Dr. Rhas still has an open room there and I’m not that interested in sticking around here if it’s that easy to get in.”

“Probably a good idea,” Joris said.

Some time later, after she’d transferred her few belongings to the small, but tidy and serviceable room above the Hands of Time, Sheen climbed the stairs at Chirper’s again and knocked on the door. Haden opened it, wearing only a towel above the waist, his chin about half-covered in shaving suds.

“You could wait downstairs like a civilized person, you know,” he quipped immediately, then waggled his eyebrows suggestively. “I’m naked.” Sheen laughed. “So what do you want?”

“I brought you something. I helped Dr. Rhas make it, but the guy that paid for it got himself killed, so the doctor said I could keep it.” She held up a long, thin package to Haden, who took it and shredded the wrapper with the unselfconscious abandon of a young child.

“Oh,” he said, startled. “It’s a sword.”

“A rapier,” Sheen corrected. “Like the one you already have. I’m not really into the whole pathetic skinny little sword thing, but I figured you might be.”

Haden drew the blade from the simple black leather sheath and swished it through the air experimentally. “Good balance, but it’s . . . purple. Still, a glass rapier, that’s fairly unique. I can work it. I’m manly enough for purple.” He leaned over and bussed Sheen on the cheek, smearing her face liberally with shaving cream. “Now go away and let me get dressed,” he told her and closed the door in her face.

Sheen rolled her eyes and walked off down the hall, scrubbing at her face with the back of her hand.

The door started banging loudly first thing in the morning, and Talan rolled over in bed to give it the evil eye. “You’ve got to be kidding,” the half-elf announced.

“I can only wait for you three slugs for so long,” Sheen said, her voice only slightly muffled by the intervening wood. “Let’s go.”

“The shop won’t even be *open* yet,” Haden groaned, pulling the blankets up over his head.

“There’s no use arguing,” Talan said, already pulling his clothes on.

“We need to get her a hobby,” Haden grumbled.

Tivvum’s was impossible to miss, a five-story cylinder of greenish marble. The name was chiseled into the exterior in curving letters that reached to the roof. An archway led inside, to a room crowded to bursting with barrels, crates, and bins all overflowing with an amazing assortment of absolute junk: marbles, bone chips, feathers, flower petals.

“What is this, a kleptomaniac’s rummage sale?” Sheen asked, gaping at the trinkets.

“Most of these things are useful as portal keys, dunce,” Haden grumbled, making his way up a narrow spiral staircase to a counter covered in swaths of multicolored fabric. Three women had their heads together, talking. The one behind the counter, and thus most likely to be the proprietor, was a tiny, elderly tiefling with frizzy white hair, dark spectacles, and long leather gloves. She was talking to a lovely forty-ish human with a head of carefully-tended auburn hair. The third woman was Thea.

“Faerie dust?” the tiefling asked. “I believe I have some upstairs . . . it isn’t a common key. Had another fellow looking for some just the other day . . . I may have sold him the last bit I had.” The auburn beauty opened her mouth to speak, then spotted Haden and stopped. Then she smiled, displaying perfect white teeth.

“Hello, Haden!” she purred.

Haden grinned widely and threw his arms around her. “Annali! Goodness, I almost didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.”

“Oh, it’s good to see you, Haden! My house just isn’t the same without you moping around with your lost little puppy dog expression,” she said, pulling Haden’s face down and kissing him rather thoroughly. Joris glanced nervously at Sheen and saw her face freeze into something resembling a statue.

“Yes, well, I don’t like to become too predictable,” Haden said. “I’m adventuring now. Everyone, this is Annali, a friend of mine. Annali, these are Sheen, Joris, and Talan. And Ari.”

“Ooh, how charming,” Annali cooed, freeing a hand from Haden’s neck to offer it to Talan. “And what a delightful way to experience everything the multiverse has to offer.”

“I’ve certainly gotten to experience getting up early in the morning several times, although it wasn’t my first choice of experience by far,” Haden said. “Have you seen Lissandra around? We were just trying to figure out how to get to Plague-Mort so we can do some adventuring there.”

“Oh, can’t say that I have,” Annali said. “Lu might have, though,” she offered, nodding her head in the elderly tiefling’s direction. “Oh, where are my manners? This is my friend Thea . . .”

“We’ve met,” Thea said feebly.

“Maybe I’ll bring the group by your place some time and we can make a day of it,” Haden said cheerfully.

“Oh, please do. I’m tired of rutting with the same dull old bores, and your crew looks young and juicy. Just what we need!”

Talan blinked. “Haden never mentioned that he was so . . . adventurous.”

“I hardly think we’d be interested!” Sheen declared hotly, her face brilliant scarlet.

“Oh,” Annali said, sounding disappointed. “No? Too bad.”

“Speak for yourself,” Talan said, giggling.

Sheen pointed an accusing finger at Haden’s face. “I can’t BELIEVE you!”

Haden stiffened and gently disentangled himself from Annali. “I beg your pardon?”

Sheen ignored him and turned to glare disapprovingly at Annali. “I’d expect as much from him, but aren’t you a little old to be running around like a painted jezebel and making a disgrace of yourself?”

Annali laughed. “Oh, honey, clearly you’re new around here. You’re never too old to have a good time. And I hardly think it’s disgraceful. Oh, it’s not for most, but neither is being a virtuoso pianist. That doesn’t make it immoral.”

“You will apologize to my friend,” Haden said, his voice low and threatening.

“I will not!” Sheen retorted instantly. Annali laughed.

“No need, in any case, I’m not insulted, dear.”

“Nevertheless, you will apologize,” Haden snarled. Sheen crossed her arms and stuck out her jaw stubbornly.

“That’s not going to work . . .” Joris started to say hastily.

“I will *not* apologize. If you want to engage in all manner of lewd and disgusting behavior, that’s your business, but don’t think for one minute that I’m going to tolerate her parading around like some kind of . . . umph!” Sheen finished incoherently and turned her back on Haden abruptly.

Annali caught Haden’s arm as he started to lunge forward. He breathed heavily for a long moment, then stood stiffly and looked down at Annali. “If you will excuse me, madam,” he said, turned, and stalked out of the store. Annali gave a low whistle and examined a broken fingernail in the stunned silence that followed.

“Now *that* was *hot*. I’ve never had a man defend my honor before. I ought to talk them into it more often!” she declared happily, flipping her luxurious hair and waggling her hips. “But I’d have to get some honor, first, and that would be a crashing bore. Oh well.” She sighed. “Supposedly it’s good for men to get their hearts broken every once in a while, but don’t you think that was going a bit overboard? Haden’s always been a bit fragile, after all. I’d hate to see him break apart. He’s a sweet kid.”

“Fragile?” Sheen sputtered. “Him?”

“Of course,” Annali said. “Isn’t it obvious? Ah, I see Lu has my fairy dust. Do really come by some time and we can chat. Or screw. Or some mixture of the two, whatever you’re into. Ta-ta! Come, Thea!”

“What can I do for you, dearies?” Lu the tiefling asked.

“We’re . . .” Talan hesitated, looking at Sheen, but she was glaring at something no one else could see. “We’re looking for Lissandra, we need to find a portal to Plague-Mort.”

“Of course, of course,” Lu said. “The only portal I know of ain’t there no more, but Lissandra knows that better’n me.”

“Have you seen her?” Talan asked.

“Yep, she came by last night and said she’d be in the Lower Ward lookin’ for another new portal. She usually stops by Vander’s when she’s over there. You need a key when you’re done talkin’ to her, you come see ol’ Lu.”

Talan found himself smiling slightly on hearing the name of the inn. “Thank you,” he said, bowing, and hurried toward the door. Joris tugged on Sheen’s arm and she started walking.

“We should, um, probably go on without Haden for now?” the cleric ventured.

“Fine,” Sheen said abruptly. Talan hailed a cab and they climbed inside, silently.

Vander’s was a fairly typical inn/alehouse, not too dark, not too rough. It felt a bit crowded with twenty or so people filling the rough tables in the common room. Lissandra sat talking to a tiefling woman near the corner where Hexla sat reading through stacks of notes. Talan’s attention was instantly riveted on Hexla when she looked up and smiled at him. The ranger grinned hugely, looking more than a little goofy.

“Hey, it’s you!” Lissandra said disingenuously as Joris and Sheen walked over.

“Sorry to bother you again, but it seems we need to go to Plague-Mort this time,” Sheen explained. Behind her, Hexla continued to smile at Talan.

“Hello again,” The witch said softly.

“For someone I never thought I’d see again, you seem to keep turning up,” Talan said.

“I could say the same thing about you,” Hexla replied, chuckling. “Here on business, I suppose? I went by Chirper’s the other night, but you weren’t around.”

“You did? I did . . . I mean, I was out. Um, maybe you could come by again. Later, I mean.” Talan stared down at his feet and blushed.

“I’d like that,” Hexla said. “I’ll try to catch you at home.”

“Okay,” Talan mumbled. “It was really great seeing you, but I should probably . . .” he gestured toward Sheen and Joris.

“Oh, of course,” Hexla said, reaching up to grip Talan’s armor and pulling him down so that she could kiss him gently. He blinked and wavered a little on his feet. “I’ll see you soon, though.”

“Okay,” Talan mumbled again, wobbling away from her table.

“Ugh, Plague-Mort,” Lissandra said, opening her book and leafing through the pages. The tiefling beside her sat forward and put out a hand.

“I’m Jazra. Lissy told me about what you did at the Masque. Great work, that!”

Sheen blinked, startled, and shook the offered hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Sheen.”

“Jazra hates Officer Ringhammer more than just about anyone else in the Cage,” Lissandra said idly.

“True enough, lousy piking sod,” Jazra affirmed.

“What?” Sheen asked. “Why?”

“He jailed a friend of mine for a crime she didn’t commit. Sure, the Guvners found her guilty, and the Mercykillers run the prison, but he’s the lousy berk what pinched her.”

Sheen looked at Joris for help threading this conversation. “That sounds . . . unfair? Why don’t you appeal then?”

“Cos she’s dead.”

“Give it a rest, Jazra,” Lissandra said.

Jazra resumed her seat. “Sorry if I’m a bit preoccupied. Things haven’t been going that well today.”

“There used to be a portal to Plague-Mort in the Armory,” Lissandra said, “But something happened to it. I think someone closed it.”

“Only the Lady can do that, Lissy,” Jazra remarked.

“I *know* that! It isn’t the only one, either. I have a hard enough time keeping up with new portals without having to worry about them disappearing.”

“Is something strange happening?” Sheen asked. “We found a portal in Kirigala that had clearly been defiled somehow. It was pretty grim. We destroyed it.”

“Really?!” Lissandra demanded.

“A bunch of fiends were using it to steal dinosaurs. The locals didn’t appreciate it much.”

“Nothing like that,” Lissandra said, “but that’s pretty interesting. Wait, here we go. There’s another portal. It’s down below, but it’s the only one I’ve seen.”

“Down below?” Joris asked.

“What the Clueless call ‘UnderSigil’,” Jazra explained.

“Like you Cagers have a better name for it,” Lissandra said, laughing.

“This place has a basement?” Sheen asked.

“Yeah, the whole flamin’ Cage has a basement,” Jazra said.

“A lot of basements, all connected to each other in a way only a barmy monkey could appreciate,” Lissandra added.

“Sounds like the Underdark,” Sheen said. “I grew up in Undermountain, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.”

“Oh yeah?” Lissandra asked. “What was that like?”

Joris grinned. “Oh, that’s right, you’re from Faerun, too.”

Sheen shrugged. “It was dark, mostly.”

Lissandra chuckled. “I haven’t been down there to look at this portal in years, but I can give you some idea where to go.”

“If you can tell us what the key is, too, that would be great,” Sheen said.

“It’s a black rose, of course. It’ll be consumed when the portal opens, though, so you’ll need more than one.”

“Black roses?” Sheen asked. “That sounds difficult to come by.”

“Not necessarily,” Jazra said. She opened her pack, pulled out a heavy book, and began leafing through it. Hundreds of roses were pressed between the pages. “I collect them,” Jazra explained, “but I can always get more.” She withdrew a pair of black roses and handed them to Sheen, then as an afterthought added a single red one, making a sort of bouquet. “When you see Haden, give him this one for me.” Sheen’s face instantly purpled.

“We’ll do that,” Joris said. “I’d hate to tackle Sigil’s underbelly without Haden along.” Sheen gave him a black look.

“Yes, but he decided to wander off, so we’ll just have to make do,” Sheen said archly.

“We may still run into him,” Talan said.

“You cutters are lucky, she usually charges for chant like this,” Jazra remarked.

“Thank you,” Talan said. “If we can ever return the favor . . .”

Lissandra waved them away. “Some other time.” Talan grinned at Hexla again as they left. Once they were outside the inn, Sheen exploded.

“Look, I don’t care what you two think, but we are not stuck with that cretin and we do not need him!”

“I beg your pardon?” Joris said stiffly.

“We’re probably better off without him if he’s going to be this irresponsible.”

Talan held up a quelling hand. “We all expect more from people we care about,” he said.

“I don’t care about him! He’s been driving me insane since we met him!”

Joris scowled. “I do.”

“He can be a bit maddening,” Talan said, “but he’s proven himself to be a valuable ally when it mattered.”

“He’s gone anyway, so there’s no sense talking about it,” Sheen said.

“Do you really think he isn’t coming back?” Joris asked.

“I think we should be prepared for the possibility,” Sheen replied after a pause.

“I’m sure there’s a valid reason why he left,” Talan said. “It wasn’t just random.”

“He left because Sheen made him angry,” Joris said tiredly.

“Oh, come on,” Sheen growled.

“He *has* feelings, Sheen. You did kind of walk all over them. Regardless of the *nature* of his relationship with Annali, they were close and they’ve known each other a long time. I know *I’d* be furious if I heard someone insulting *you*.”

“Mmph,” Sheen said.

“I have to say Haden would likely defend your honor just as furiously,” Talan said. “I think we owe it to him to give him a break.”

“It’s a weird world here in the Cage, we can’t expect everything to be like it was in Faerun,” Joris pressed. “And, like it or not, Haden knows this world better than any of us. Better than all of us put together, really.”

Sheen glared at both of them equally while they held their breath. Finally, she threw her hands up and rolled her eyes. “All right, all right, FINE, I screwed up. But I don’t see how it matters because he’s *not here*.”

“I think she meant that,” Joris said.”

“Maybe we can at least take a quick look around for him,” Talan said. “Or leave a message at Chirper’s. Heck, let’s steal one of his tricks and send one of these kids back there with a message.”

“Yes, yes, fine, do whatever you like,” Sheen grumped.

Feb 5, 2008

A Righteous Petition

I stumbled on this petition demanding the release of Perwez Kambakhsh, an Afghani journalist who was recently sentenced to death for downloading information from an "anti-Islam" site. It looks like calls for signatures are going up all over the place, like on Richard Dawkins' site and numerous forums. Please sign the petition. It may not achieve his release, but at least it will demonstrate that some people are unwilling to tolerate vicious irrational religious totalitarianism in the name of "multiculturalism".

Feb 4, 2008

Cold Blood: Session 12

Voorix cradled the body of his fallen son mournfully. Joris sighed and looked at the other members of their small adventuring company. “Is anyone hurt?” he asked quietly.

“A bit, but I’ve got it,” Sheen said, letting her remaining power drain into her wounds, which closed rapidly.

“I’m fine,” Talan said.

“Then I’m going to help the dinosaur,” Joris announced and made his way towards the enormous ankylosaur crouched on the far side of the clearing. It bellowed as he approached but was too exhausted to avoid him.

“Be careful getting out of the way of that tail, Joris!” Sheen called as the dinosaur regained its feet and began eyeing the cleric unpleasantly. Joris scurried quickly away. The ankylosaur snorted derisively and trudged into the brush. It was rapidly hidden in the undergrowth, but chewing noises became audible a few moments later.

“Thanks for doing that, Joris,” Talan said. Joris smiled.

Haden stood up from investigating Nihmron’s cooling body, a crude medallion in his hand. It was a circle of greenish metal stamped with a baatezu on one side and a peculiar symbol on the other. “Portal key, perhaps?” Haden asked. “This is the symbol for Baator, the Nine Hells.”

“It would make sense,” Talan said, “what with all those legion devils around.”

Sheen shook her head. “I do not think we can tackle another serious battle today. We need rest.”

“You may rest at village,” Voorix said abruptly, standing up with his son’s body over his shoulder.

“Thank you,” Talan said. The lizardman set off with the adventurers following. They trekked through the brush until they came to a collection of small huts. A few lizardfolk were gathered in the village, and more emerged from the huts as they approached. Sheen folded her arms and waited while Voorix recounted the battle. The lizardfolk made many expressions of grief when they were told how Voorsh fell, but they were glad to hear that the evil druid was no more.

“Strangers are heroes,” Voorix announced. “You welcome. Our home theirs.” A lizardman dressed as a shaman bustled to Voorix’s side, then held out some leather bundles to Talan.

“Gift,” the shaman said.

“Reward,” Voorix corrected. The bundles were three waterskins and small leather pouches containing food. Talan blushed.

“Please, I don’t need a reward. We only wanted to help.”

“We no need,” Voorix insisted. “May help you.”

Talan seemed about to protest again, but Haden shushed him. “Please allow me to accept on behalf of my comrades.” The tribe murmured happily when this was translated.

“I would like to present you with a gift as well, in honor of your son,” Sheen said after a moment. She unbuckled the straps holding her quiver of javelins and handed them to Voorix, along with her heavy longspear. The lizardman’s eyes bulged.

“Gift? For me?”

“It may help you if anything similar happens again,” Sheen explained. Voorix hefted the spear and smiled toothily.

“You honor the Night Thunder. Now rest. I show you.” Voorix led them to a vacant, sparsely appointed hut. While Joris, Sheen, and Haden were inspecting it, Talan pulled Voorix aside.

“I’m not very good at this kind of thing, but as Sheen said, we honor the memory of your son. Please accept this sword and dagger.”

Voorix’s eyes glittered with tears. “Morning, we celebrate.” Talan blushed and ducked quickly into the hut, where Haden had taken advantage of the chief’s brief distraction to cast Prestidigitation and clear out the vermin. The aasling wrapped himself in his cloak and curled up on a pile of reeds. Sheen unbuckled her armor and occupied another corner. Talan joined them in sleep very quickly, despite the loud and sometimes fearsomely unfamiliar noise of the jungle.

In the morning, they watched as the lizards held a funeral for Vorssh. The adventurers hovered on the fringes, which the lizardfolk seemed to appreciate in some unspoken way. They were handed some food, which seemed to signify that the funeral was over, and they settled down for a quick breakfast.

Haden tapped Sheen on the shoulder lightly. “What?” she asked.

“I think I have figured out what you were trying to show me the other day.” He grimaced slightly. “Which is good, because I have another migraine today.”

“You’re not hiding under the bed, though,” Sheen said.

“No. I think those exercises helped. It still hurts, but I’m not incapacitated. Observe,” Haden said. He concentrated, and ectoplasm formed and dripped soundlessly from his fingers for a few moments, then dissipated. “It’s not so hard once you get your mind right,” he said, smiling at Sheen a bit shyly. She gaped at him.

“You . . . you . . . how did you do that?” Sheen sputtered.

Haden blinked. “What do you mean?”

“Do you know how long I had to study before I could do that?!” Sheen demanded.

“I just watched what you do and did those exercises you taught me . . .”

“Is that psionics?” Joris asked, mystified.

“Yes!” Sheen announced. “And you just *watched*?!”

Talan scratched his head, puzzled. “I’m not sure I understand what the big deal is.” Sheen rose to her feet and stormed away, finding a seat near the other side of the camp where she perched with her back towards them.

Haden drummed his fingers on the table for a moment. “All right, explain that to me.” He picked up a beetle out of the bowl on the table and chewed on it absently.

“I think she’s upset because you’ve quickly mastered something that was difficult for her,” Joris said.

“I thought she’d be happy that I’ve learned to do something useful,” Haden said plaintively.

“She’s not always easy to predict,” Joris said.

Haden picked at the table morosely, then abruptly sat straight. “What did I just eat?”

“Don’t think about it,” Talan said, chuckling and scratching Ari behind the ears.

Haden frowned. “You’re right, I don’t want to know. I don’t want to see it again. Shall we go check out the portal before we get pranked again by lizard food?”

“You may want to apologize to Sheen first,” Joris said.

“Yeah, you don’t want her upset at you all day,” Talan affirmed.

“Why should I apologize when I didn’t do anything wrong? What am I supposed to say? I’m sorry she’s slower than I am? She’d KILL me.”

“It’s not about right and wrong, it’s about respecting her feelings,” Joris said.

“Come on,” Talan added. “We all know how diplomatic and charming you can be when you try.”

“And believe me, she’ll be even more furious when I go over there to apologize and say that you didn’t want to,” Joris said.

“You’d do that to me?!” Haden demanded. Joris smiled slightly. “You would, wouldn’t you. Ungrateful sod, that’s what ye are,” Haden said, lapsing briefly into cant.

“Oh, you’ll thank me someday,” Joris announced. Haden gave him a sour look and wandered casually in Sheen’s direction, tugging on her sleeve to get her attention.

“Oh, leave me alone,” Sheen said irritably, putting her back to him a second time. Haden grabbed her other arm and turned her around.

“Stop that. You’re being, well, a bit childish here.” Sheen glared.

“Did you have to push him so much?” Talan asked Joris quietly.

“Do you want to go crawling through the jungle with her mad at him all day?”

“I’m serious,” Haden said. “It isn’t my fault that I got lucky. It happens.”

Sheen transferred her glare to the ground. “I know. I know.”

“But you’re still angry, hey?”

“A little. I know it’s not your fault, but it’s not fun to, well . . .”

“Be suddenly shown up by someone you secretly consider to be a bit of a useless sod?” Haden asked disingenuously.

“Well, I wouldn’t use those words, exactly . . .”

“How do you think I feel, trying to contribute to this little group and being sneered at for it?”

“I don’t sneer at you!”

“Oh you don’t?”

“Oy,” Talan said, watching the progress of the discussion. “Maybe you should study up and turn one of them into a dog,” he said, petting Ari. Joris flushed.

“I’d learn arcane magic if I could,” Joris mumbled.

Talan blinked. “Oh, that’s right. Sorry. This all just reminds me of why I left . . .” Talan’s voice trailed off.

Sheen considered Haden for a long moment. “All right, maybe a little,” she admitted. “But not as much as I did. I just . . .”

Haden held his hands up in front of him, “I’m not asking you to like me, all right? Anyway, I’m sorry for hurting your feelings. I didn’t do it on purpose.”

Sheen stared at the ground again. “I’m sorry I got upset for no reason.”

“Right,” Haden said, grinning. “So, let’s go check out the portal before anything else comes through and starts attacking things.” He waved at Joris and Talan, who grabbed their packs and headed for the path out of the village. Voorix waved to them as well.

“If you find gods, send back to us! This their home. If they die, they die here. Home.”

“Don’t worry, we will,” Haden said. He hung back, letting Sheen take the lead, and walked beside Joris. “There, I apologized, are you happy?”

“Yes,” Joris said. “Why, aren’t you?”

Sheen turned around. “Wait, you *made* him apologize?!”

Joris recoiled a little. “I didn’t make him do anything!”

“For gods’ sake, woman!” Haden growled. “I have a headache! Could you just relax for one day!” Sheen sighed, rolled her eyes, and continued walking. Joris sighed in relief and Haden grinned at him slyly. “Just remember, I’ll always get you back in the end.”

“Mmph,” Joris said. “I’m willing to pay that price for a little peace and quiet around here.” Haden chuckled.

They returned to the clearing where they’d battled the evening before, skirting the shore of the lake. A swarm of tiny lizards scattered away from the corpses as they approached. They followed a rough track deeper into the jungle, to another clearing that looked manufactured instead of natural. Something had torn down the trees, leaving only jagged stumps. Only two still stood, growing together to form an arch. Their trunks had been painted with blood and carved with Infernal runes. A rough block of obsidian sat before the arch, covered with a thick layer of dried blood and an elven corpse. Joris took one look at the scene, went white, and turned away to throw up.

“Oh no,” Sheen said, lifting the corpse’s head carefully. “We shouldn’t have let him go ahead.” Talan stood stiffly, clenching and un-clenching his fists. Sheen picked up Pwyll’s body and carried him out of the clearing, where she began methodically hacking at the earth. Joris recovered himself and started to help, sighing.

“I should really start carrying a shovel,” he said grimly.

Haden looked around the clearing at the discarded equipment, evidence of many victims, and surreptitiously cast detect magic. He packed up a few items, knowing this wasn’t the time to offer them to his comrades. It took a long time to get a decent hole dug through the entangling tree roots, but they finally laid Pwyll to rest and Joris said a few words while they filled in the pit. Joris sniffled loudly and wiped his face repeatedly.

“Are you all right, Joris?” Talan asked.

“I’m . . . yes, I’m fine. I had to do that . . . more than once before we left Faerun,” Joris explained, casting a sideways glance at Sheen.

Talan coughed and said gruffly, “Well, I don’t want to pry, but if you need anything . . .”

“Thank you, but I’ll be fine. I think I’m getting better with practice, honestly.” Sheen hugged Joris and he gripped the shoulder plates of her armor and held on tightly for a while. He stood up again, a little red-faced and embarrassed. “Anyway. Portal.”

Haden held up the greensteel pendant he’d taken from Nihmron a bit gingerly. “I hope this works, because if you have to sacrifice someone, I’m not volunteering.”

“We’ll draw straws,” Talan said. The portal flared to life and Haden stepped through, followed by Sheen. Talan waved to Joris. “Please, after you.” Joris shrugged and walked into the portal.

The world they entered was nothing but gray—gray sky, gray rocks, great twisted gray trees. It seemed to suck the color from their skin, hair and clothing, rendering them as gray and dreary as the scene around them. They appeared to be standing in a shallow depression that resembled a dry wash. A gate stood nearby, built of black twisted bones that did not seem to come from anything human.

A great cloud of dust and the roar of a terrible battle rose in the far distance, behind massive corrals built from rough-hewn tree trunks. Exhausted dinosaurs crouched in the corrals, sadly reduced from their former grandeur. A stone building, nearly vanishing into the gray expanse surrounding it, stood nearby.

“Oh, lovely, the Gray Waste,” Haden said.

“Really?” Talan asked sardonically. “How could you tell?”

A small devil flew up to the top of the fence near the triceratops and began taunting it, pulling a sharp spike off its body to throw it at the dinosaur. Sheen began concentrating, manifesting powers as Haden spoke up: “Ahh, my friend, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

The devil whirled in place and squeaked, “Alarm!” The doors of the stone building flew open as the little spiny devil charged at them. Sheen and Talan advanced as a second spinagon and an abishai emerged from the building, the abishai growling angrily and lashing the stinger on the end of its tail. Sheen attacked the second spinagon, rending it down with the claws that grew abruptly from her fingertips.

Talan engaged the abishai as Joris reached over his shoulder and touched the odd wooden sword, which took on a faint pearly luminescence. Talan wounded the devil with surprising ease, then it erupted into a whirl of raking claws, biting jaws, and stinging tail, forcing the ranger to give ground or be torn to shreds. Even scrambling backwards, Talan took several wounds that burned like fire.

Joris ducked behind his shield as the first spinagon tossed a spine at him; it stuck in the wood and smoked sulfurously. He flailed at the flapping creature with his mace, but it dodged him and sneered.

Haden dodged around Talan and the abishai as they went past, then cautiously poked the devil with his rapier. It didn’t appear to cause any harm. Talan struck it again with his sword, and the frustrated abishai pulled a bead from a chain and hurled it to the ground. It exploded in a blast of fire that sent Talan staggering. Even Haden felt the heat, despite his heritage. Sheen grabbed one of the abishai’s flailing wings and tore a gaping hole in it with her enhanced claws, then Talan leapt to his feet and decapitated the monster.

The remaining spinagon had a look at the odds, decided they were not to its liking, and flew away with a panicked squeal.

Sheen flexed her hands and the claws vanished into the ectoplasm from which they’d come. “I don’t understand what the big deal is. These fiends aren’t so tough,” she remarked. Talan just stared at her.

“Tell that to my poor broken body, why don’t you,” he grumbled, hauling himself to his feet. Joris waved and gestured and cast healing over the ranger, who sighed and regarded the corralled dinosaurs. “We have to get them out of here. I’ll handle the tyrannosaur, you three get that trike on its feet.” Talan hauled his way up the wooden fence and whistled down to the massive toothy dinosaur, which snorted and regarded him with wary interest.

Haden regarded the triceratops, which was lying limp on the ground, barely moving. He muttered a few words and sent some healing power into the dinosaur. It stirred slightly, blinking heavy, wrinkled eyelids. Joris crept forward and did the same, and the triceratops began to stir. It rolled its immense head from side to side and huffed, as though trying to decide what to make of them.

“What do we do now?” Sheen asked.

“Hold out your hands,” Haden said.

Sheen hesitated. “What? Why?”

“Just do it,” Haden insisted, pulling out his water flask. Sheen held her hands out dubiously and Haden poured water into her cupped palms. The triceratops sniffed, then lumbered forward and began lapping the water out of her hands with an enormous slimy tongue. Sheen squeaked and tried to keep her fingers out of the way of its beak. As she backed away, it followed her, still lapping at the water determinedly.

“Good,” Talan said, the tyrannosaur following him docilely. “Let’s get out of here.” Haden held the amulet up to the portal once more. It flared, and they stepped through.

Adorable Animal Quiz

You Are A: Bear Cub!

bear cubBears are strong and independent creatures who roam in the forest in search of food. Bears are usually gentle, but anger one and be prepared for their full fury! You're tough, you won't back down from a fight, you have a bit of a temper -- classic attributes of a bear. Intelligent and resourceful, though lazy at times, you are a fascinating creature of the wild.

You were almost a: Duck or a Kitten
You are least like a: Chipmunk or a SquirrelWhat Cute Animal Are You?