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

Dec 7, 2019

Why I'm Tired of Hearing About Empathy

There are few things more omnipresent in modern culture than calls for empathy.  It is everywhere, as if it were the panacea of the modern age.  Empathy is held up as a cure for social problems, family problems, health problems, environmental problems, energy problems, the list is virtually endless.  Whenever someone does something unspeakable, the cause is always construed as a lack of empathy.  Whenever someone does something virtuous, they're praised for their empathy.  It's long past the point of bromide and is edging on toward banality.

And, like all quack nostrums and cure-alls, it doesn't do what is promised.  Not even close.

Before I get in to the reasons why I'm fed up with empathy, I'm going to tell you a little bit about me, but in return I want you to do something.  I want you read this and NOT empathize.  Don't even try, in fact, try as hard as you can NOT to empathize, just read the words like you're studying some detached facts about a distant stranger.  If you prize empathy, you're going to find this difficult, but it's important that you at least try, because while this story is important context it is not the point, and if you can't turn your empathy off for five minutes you're going to miss that point completely.  Here we go.

My entire life has been hideously colored by a bad case of emotions gone wrong, of chronic depression, anxiety, self-loathing, dread, and self-inflicted misery.  I consider it to be a very good week, indeed, if I make it through without thinking about the best way to commit suicide, and all the very many ways that I'm constantly letting people down.  I struggle to find a reason--not reasons, mind you, a, singular, reason--to care about whether I'm alive tomorrow or not.  I'm currently dealing with serious swelling and infection in my leg that I've had now for over a year.  Everyone I know yells at me to go see a doctor, but I haven't yet managed to get so far as making an appointment.  I've been like this since I was eleven, possibly long before that.  I've never been a happy person.  Mostly, I'm uncomfortable, frustrated, impatient, incredulous, or downright enraged.  I hate how slow, stupid, awkward, and incapable I am at every moment of every day. 

When I was eleven, I saw a movie about the end of the world called The Seventh Sign. It wasn't a particularly memorable movie, but something about that concept of the world ending lodged in my mind.  It sat there, a solid mass, like a black hole so dense that not even light could escape.  And it proceeded to eat my life.  The cobbled-together elements of my identity, my interests, loves, motivation, goals, all vanished, never to be seen again.  I became a scavenger picking through wreckage, struggling to hold together against a relentless pull.

Yeah, it was bad.  Still is, in a lot of ways.  I learned to cope, but the way I learned to cope involved a lot of bad habits that I now also have to fight.  But I also learned something else that's relevant here--I learned that one of the worst things I had to endure wasn't my own personal black hole. It was other people's empathy.

Empathy is no panacea.  It's not a cure for anything, much less everything.  It's just a feeling--the feeling that you're sharing in what I'm feeling.  It's an emotional reaction, and like all emotional reactions it can be a terrible, terrible, liar, but because everyone and everything around you is telling you it's a good thing to feel, you don't judge it.  You don't think about it.  You just wallow in it.  Empathy allows people to indulge in the most useless, self-indulgent, and non-productive emotions and feel good about themselves for doing so.  It's not helpful; it's self-centered.  It doesn't make you more conscious of other people.  It makes you oblivious to them, for the simple reason that you CAN'T feel their emotions.  The only way to truly understand another person's problems is intellectually, not emotionally--to engage your brain, not your feels.  I can sit here and describe my emotional struggles until the end of time, but you will never actually feel what I feel.  I don't want you to feel what I feel, heck, I don't want to feel it, myself!  It's terrible, it's not productive, it's a black hole.  I don't need you in here with me.  I need you out there, with some clarity, some perspective, some distance.

Empathy has its place, but that place is at the age of three or so when your mother is trying to get you to stop hitting your sister.  Children that age are just starting to understand the difference between themselves and other people, who are not yet fully real to them.  Empathy relates the reactions of others back to the child in a way that the child can grasp--by drawing on the self as a model.  It is the beginning, not the end, of social development, a starting point where you can gather information that is later used as a foundation for abstraction.  Without abstraction, you're stuck with only the concrete of the moment.  Only as much information as you can fit into your attention at one time.  As Joseph Stalin famously stated it, "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic."  No one can deal emotionally, from empathy, with a million deaths, any more than you can mentally picture ten thousand miles or a billion stars.  It blows out every human faculty but one--the intellectual faculty.

This cultural obsession with empathy is a case of arrested development, where people focus on one concrete after another but are absolutely helpless to deal with complex abstractions.  It's a world where virtue (an enormous abstraction) is increasingly being replaced with virtue-signaling (a concrete).  It is, weirdly, increasingly a world where people gush about how much they feel for others and care for others while simultaneously being unable to truly grasp how others might truly be completely different.  A world that celebrates every kind of "diversity" except one, the one that makes us truly human--diversity of thought.

It's time to stop wallowing.

Nov 18, 2019

Anthem Next -- What would get me to give it another go?

I think I was one of the relatively few people I know who wasn't especially disappointed with Anthem.  I went in to it with the expectation that it would be something new to play for a couple of weeks while I got a break from other things, and that's *exactly* what it was.

The trouble is that from Bioware and EA's perspective, they weren't trying to MAKE a game that'd be an enjoyable distraction for a couple of weeks.  The amount of money and time they invested were not appropriate to that type of game.  So, now they're talking about a ground-up reboot called "Anthem Next" to try and turn Anthem into the game they wanted it to be.

So, what would it take to get me, the most benevolent and un-disappointed of players, back to play Anthem again?  Here's MY take:

1.  Free-Exploring the map was probably the ONLY part of the experience that was unadulterated fun, however from an exploration perspective the map is TINY.  So, step one of this would be to vastly increase the size of the map, making it as much bigger as conceivably possible.  Making it much more dynamic would be a big thing, as well.  If my beloved Dungeons and Dragons Online on their tiny budget can figure out how to make the PUBLIC AREAS in their MMO have dynamic elements, you can do it.  And, this dynamic freeplay environment actually made playing with other people ENJOYABLE, as opposed to the missions, which were a mess every time even if people were making an effort to cooperate (which most simply did not).  Also, fill the map with constantly-changing terrain dangers.

2.  The "story" stuff was unbelievably expensive garbage.  Considering how immensely expensive all those cut scenes had to be to create, they added nothing to the gameplay experience whatsoever, and actively detracted from it if you wanted to play with other people, because you'd be constantly revisiting missions that had story bits in them, but completely out of any order or context.  If you want a game where people actually play together, enable the players to ACTUALLY COMMUNICATE WITH EACH OTHER.  The idea of a LINEAR story is COMPLETELY OPPOSED to online multiplayer gaming with strangers and *cannot* be integrated with it.  It also has the tremendous fault that you "run out" of content to do because it's all locked behind story that you're not allowed to repeat unless someone in your group is doing it for the first time.  It was especially bad because all of the story was written as if your character was a SINGULAR hero, instead of a member of a TEAM.  So, step two is to throw out the pretensions to story, de-linearize everything.  Ideally, this would integrate with the massive free-roaming map.  There are already quasi-dynamic map events and "dungeons" all over the place.  Expand these, HUGELY, and add such a high degree of randomness that you can play for a very long time and not see all the possible permutations.

3.  Does this mean dumping all story from the game?  No.  You just need to make it non-linear and individualized.  How do you do that?  By turning the story into a COLLECTION, namely, a collection of PEOPLE.  They don't SET you on tasks by giving you defined quests.  You QUEST, and you do things like rescue people who HAPPEN to be there, and add them to your "stable" of people you know.  Then you can bring them things to advance your relationship with them, like weapons, crafting materials, explored map sections, etc.  The idea is that the stuff you do anyway to play the game triggers the story on YOUR terms, instead of the STORY advancement LETTING YOU DO GAME STUFF.  This format also makes it super-easy to add new people (and thus new storylines).  Another big part of this is that every person (and story line) that you can collect HAS to tell you something ABOUT THE WORLD.  I don't care about German Accent Guy's love of fashion.  I do care about German Accent Guy's love of fashion if fashion has some significance IN THE WORLD.  There was so bloody much invested in cosmetics in this game, but they have zero significance other than looking cool.  Well, this is a world where thoughts can influence reality!  And you're telling me that how you feel about your own appearance doesn't matter?!  C'mon!  Also, treating characters as a dynamic collection means that you can have opportunities to absolutely blow up your relationships with people, to the point where they become your *enemy*.  Some character questlines can be exclusive with other character questlines.  You can integrate a choice system with the dynamic world missions where you can complete them in different ways.  You can have a system where you can do a bunch of grinding to recover a blown up relationship.  But the essential dynamic should be the inverse of what it was in the original game:  Instead of people give you mission --> you do stuff, it should be you do stuff --> people react to it. And the reaction doesn't have to be some Shakespearean drama, it can be little stuff like, hey, when you come back they're wearing clean clothes, or they've stopped coughing, or they're eating better, or they've cleared the junk away from their shop location, or they have a neon sign instead of a paper placard, etc. etc. etc.

3.  The tiny number of enemy types was boring in the extreme and the game spams you with absolutely ridiculous numbers of them.  Fewer, more diverse enemies make game gooder.  Every type of foe should have a huge backstory and unique place in the world that you can gradually uncover.

4.  Fuck loot, leveling, and the game difficulty system.  No, I'm serious about this, insane as it sounds.  Fuck loot upgrades as a concept and make the game skill-based and option-based, not numbers-based.  Bioware is absolutely garbage on the game mechanics side of game design.  They will NEVER, EVER, EVER get this system working, particularly with the concept of scaling so that a level 2 person can play with a level 40 person.  Just drop the entire idiotic idea.  Uniqueness/customization, not power, should be your touchstone in re-designing the "advancement" in this game.  Adopt a "one million builds" model where you can put your suit options together in an enormous number of ways that have very complicated dependencies.  It isn't about finding some piece of junk with 1% better numbers on it, it's about manipulating your loadout to where it complements your style PERFECTLY and you can do incredible stuff.  It's not a race for The Biggest Numbers.  It's about playing a beautiful game.  Which ties in to:

5.  Competition.  No, not PVP where you just shoot at each other and the winner is whoever lives the longest.  Actual competition to complete timed objectives.  Races.  "Capture the flag"-style events.  Turret defense.  Navigating randomized mazes.  Solving puzzles (just not that godawful hot/cold puzzle every damn time).  Be creative.  Also, have awards for "feats", like defeating enemies without taking damage, etc.  Reward SKILL not mere GRINDING.

6.  Money sinks.  (I don't mean cash money, I mean in-game "money" or resources that you earn via gameplay.)  This is supposed to be a game about hardscrabble struggle with a hostile, unforgiving, and constantly changing world.  Make that a part of the gameplay.  Charge people to change their suit loadout.  Charge them for repairs.  Charge for ammo and health drops instead of having enemies poop them randomly.  Charge for short-term consumables.  Have suit fuel/power that needs to be recharged.  Have the game eat their resources like a teenage athlete eats a pizza.  Normally, I wouldn't suggest this as a game mechanic, but Anthem is actually well-suited to this kind of thing, because this IS what the gameplay IS--resource gathering/exploration--and it ties into the meta-story of hanging on the edge of disaster.  Not only would this system create a good, solid, rewarding basic gameplay loop, it would actually be INTEGRATED with the story/world.  And it would make the competition aspect more important, because that's how you'd "get ahead" resources-wise . . . you'd have to actually go after dangerous sources that other people wanted, and struggle for them, instead of just picking the flowers.

Do I expect to get ANY of that?  Not really.  I'm over Anthem except as an intellectual exercise.  From their track record, I'm pretty much expecting that they'll make some modifications that don't address anything truly fundamental, as if you can tune up the engine from a Volkswagon Golf and turn it into a drag racer.

Oct 13, 2019

Rise of the Rune Lords Session 28: Thunderbolts and Lightning


Pavander barreled off down the southern passage, the rest of the party not far behind. The badger was double his normal size due to a spell Melissah had cast, and was doing a fine job of clearing the path. He burst into a room full of boiling cauldrons and assorted muck, all overseen by three enormous green-skinned hags. Melissah threw a snowball at the first hag, while Pavander leaped on her, shaking in badger rage and leaving huge gashes in her rubbery green flesh. The hags surrounded the badger, clawing him back, but Foss leaped in and the melee was soon far less one-sided. Two of the hags dropped and the third shrieked and retreated.

“Mercy!” she howled. “Mercy, I beg of you!”

Jori stepped around the corner and dropped a flame strike on the hag, scorching her badly.

“You have two choices,” Foss said, raising an axe. “Spill your guts, or I can spill them for you. Where is Lamatar?”

“In the shrine!” she shrieked, pointing off to the northwest. “Barl gave him to us when he was done with him, to reward us for bringing the rains, but we thought he was spying on us, so he guards the Mother's place!”

“Does that mean he's dead?” Iozua asked.

The hag grinned wickedly. “Not any more.”

Melissah jumped as a shadowy human form shambled up behind her, its hands reaching. It was covered in ice and hideous in undeath.

“Gods,” Iozua said. Nevis cast a hasting spell and the fight was on again, Foss keeping his promise to the remaining hag and Pavander trying to keep the corpse of Lamatar from destroying his druid. Iozua cast grease on the stairs and the wight and badger skidded ungracefully across the floor, winding up at the bottom with Pavander more or less on top and Lamatar in half.

“Poor guy, that sucks,” Melissah remarked, and then kicked Pavander savagely as the badger attempted to roll in the ick.

“Can we salvage the body?” Iozua asked. “Or is this going to be a closed-casket situation?”

“The ghost nymph said she only needed a piece of it,” Nevis said.

“Oh, right, she wanted to reincarnate him?”

Melissah nodded. “Now that his spirit isn't bound to this unholy monstrosity, it should be able to join with a new body. My preference would be to carry the poor man out of here and give him a decent burial, taking only a relic back to the nymph.”

“First everything else in this place dies,” Foss said.

The place pointed to by the hag contained an altar and shrine carved with the image of a monstrous pregnant woman with the head of a three-eyed jackal, Lamashtu, Mother of Monsters. The room was otherwise empty, so the group headed north, where the cavern opened into a massive chamber, open to the sky, that sloped upward between two wide ledges. Statues with angular faces stood above, and the ramp stepped up to the foot of an immense stone throne, where a stone giant was seated. Another giant stood beside him, glaring down at the adventurers.

“So, this does all end in tiers,” Iozua said, deadpan.

“Lidiar con estos ├ícaros. Ya me han causado suficientes problemas,” the seated giant grated.

“No hablo Gigante,” Iozua snapped back.

“Que lastima! Pendejos Gigantes!” Nevis yelled.

“He said 'deal with these mites, they've caused enough problems for me',” Jori translated. The second giant lumbered forward, roaring. Behind Foss, Melissah finished casting a spell and the cavern shook as lightning struck the attacking giant. The other one stood from the throne and hurled a fireball, scattering the adventurers as they attempted to take cover. Iozua beat at his smoking clothes and made an arcane gesture, a wall of fire blocking the giant wizard's view.

Nevis began to sing, somewhat oddly. “Magnificooooo, no no no no no no no!” Foss charged and Jori cast a ray of searing light at the same moment, dropping the first giant, leaving only the wizard, who stepped through the wall of fire and cast another spell. Foss winced, but managed to shake off the effect. He was not so fortunate as the giant's earthbreaker hammer struck him in the chest, sending him crashing to the ground.

“Crap,” Jori said, and raced forward with a healing spell in her hands, but the giant struck again, crashing through the arm Foss raised to defend himself and leaving the fighter unconscious in a pool of blood. The backswing cracked against Pavander, who yelped but continued to claw and bite in best badger style. Iozua's force missile struck hard and the giant staggered, coming into range of Jori's knife. She dropped the healing spell, and with a look of concentration, she sank the blade into a stony eye and wrenched. A torrent of dark blood followed and the monster collapsed at last.

“Ohthankthegods,” Iozua breathed, rushing up the steps to see if Foss was still alive. He was, barely, and Jori frantically healed the damage, restoring him to consciousness.

“Hey, look, there's loot!” Nevis said, pointing to the throne. Indeed, there was, but even more valuable than trinkets was a rolled mammoth hide with a message written on it.

“Barl--

“Latest contact with Teraktinus indicates he has narrowed the search—he believes a human town called Sandpoint could hide what my lord seeks. Teraktinus will lead several of the people, as well as the dragon, on a raid into the town soon. When they return, they may be pursued, and I may need your ogre slaves to aid in Teraktinus' retreat to Jorgenfist. Be ready to return at my command!

“--M”

“What the hell did Sandpoint ever do to anyone?” Iozua grumbled, reading the message.

“And what the hells could be so important that we don't even know about it?” Jori asked.

“'M' could be for 'Mokmurian',” Nevis suggested. “That's who Lucrecia said she was working for.”

Iozua nodded. Melissa shook her head. “How big of a dragon are we talking, here?”

“I can't imagine M would bother to include it in this message if it was a tiny one,” Nevis said. She seemed excited at the prospect. Iozua grimaced.

“Probably not,” the wizard grated.

“We should get back to Sandpoint sooner rather than later,” Jori said.

“We still have those trolls at Storval Deep to deal with,” Melissah reminded her.

Iozua shook his head. “I know, but my parents are at Sandpoint.”


Oct 11, 2019

Rise of the Rune Lords Session 27: Hook Mountain


Hook Mountain, home of the Kreegs, was a nasty, frozen slab of granite this late in the year. Nearly two miles from summit to peak, it was a grueling climb. The ogres had not made much effort to conceal the entrance to the clanhold, a wide cavern vanishing into the mountainside. Two alert ogre guards stood at the entrance, shielding their eyes from wind and blowing snow. Nevis, Jori, and Iozua hung back while Foss led the way, Pavander tagging at his heels and Melissah not far behind, clutching her spear.

The ogres jeered when they spotted the adventurers, but Pavander was not one to tolerate this disrespect and charged, biting and clawing at anything he could reach. The badger dodged nimbly aside as clubs swept down, and Foss stepped up to engage the second ogre.

“Duck!” Iozua called, rushing to the side of the melee, where he unleashed a lightning bolt that struck both ogres, crisping one and leaving the second badly wounded. Foss quickly finished the remaining guard and they moved forward quickly to the mouth of the cave, not wanting to lose the element of surprise.

The cave entrance was lined with massive bones, but they didn't look like giant bones. Iozua frowned and identified them as blue dragon bones. “The coolest of terrible, tyrannical dragonkind,” he said.

“I'm pretty sure white dragons are the coolest,” Melissah corrected. “They breathe cold, after all.”

Nevis began dancing with excitement. “Dragons?! Gosh!”

The entrance hall ended in an alcove with a statue worthy of a giant fortress, a forty-foot-tall giant with black skin covered in fissures and cracks, like the bed of a dried river. He wore majestic armor, gilded and encrusted with gems, and gripped a towering glaive in his armored fists. His full helm bore the sneering visage of a fanged devil, and around his neck hung a familiar seven-pointed star—the Sihedron amulet, mark of the Runelords.

“This thing is everywhere we go any more,” Foss remarked. Melissah grabbed Pavander before he could pee on the statue, but Nevis raced past and began climbing toward the armor.

“I'M GONNA GET MY HANDS ON HIS JEWELS!” she shrieked, and then almost fell laughing at herself.

“How are you even going to carry that armor,” Melissah said. “It's bigger than you are.”

“Uhh . . . dammit. I'll be back for you later, big boy,” Nevis said, and patted the statue on the crotch before sliding back down.

“Giant-chaser,” Iozua remarked.

“I prefer size-queen!”

“Oh, oh, is THAT what people refer to as a size queen?! Now I know,” the wizard looked sad for a moment. “And can't un-know.”

Nevis poked her head around the corner, seeing a deep pit that emitted rank odors of decay. “Ew, butthole,” she added.
Fortunately for everyone's sanity, the next intersection was guarded. “HELP! TROUBLE!” an ogre bellowed. Melissah conjured fire in her hands and threw it at him while Pavander harried his shins. A solid blow landed on Nevis, who squawked, and then the melee was joined, Foss striking with his axes while Iozua threw a fireball over his shoulder, scorching the room. A massive creature, larger than an ogre, hurled a boulder at Foss, who just barely managed to dodge.

The fighting was vicious and bloody. Iozua cast scorching rays at the hill giant, but it kept on coming, smashing the wizard aside with its greatclub before Foss finished it off. Everyone was battered and bleeding, and they could hear the sound of running feet as more ogres ran toward the intersection from deeper within the clanhold.

“Jori, heal us, quickly,” Iozua said, and the Harrower rushed to comply. Several ogres appeared in the eastern passage, and Melissah quickly cast a spell. The ground beneath their feet cracked and a flume of boiling water erupted, filling the hall and blasting the ogres aside. Foss attacked while they were still disoriented, but more ogres continued to spill out of the cavern, forcing him back. Nevis and Iozua rained down spells into the struggling crowd.

Then Pavander dashed forward and abruptly doubled in size. On almost equal footing with the ogres, he clawed and bit while Foss hacked his way forward.

“I want to ride him!” Nevis called as Iozua's spell melted the last ogre's face clean off his skull. Once again, it was quiet.

Pavander sniffed around for something to fight, and pointed deeper into the caverns.

Sep 27, 2019

Rise of the Runelords Session 26: Let Me Sum Up


“Barkley, why is there a huge pile of dirt in front of my church?” Maelin Shreed asked. When Barkley looked baffled, the priest pointed helpfully.

“Er, adventurers, yer honor.”

“I'm fairly certain it's a pile of dirt, Barkley, not adventurers. Adventurers tend to be pointier.”

“No, I means the adventurers MADE the pile o' dirt, yer honor.”

“And then they couldn't be bothered to clear it away? How rude!”

“Well, yer honor, they was protecting the church, I think . . .”

With a loud jangle of strings, Nevis the bard appeared in front of the irritated priest. “I'LL explain it!”

“Please do!”

WHANG! The strings resounded. “The rain fell down from the sky! The water arose from the lake! The village was doomed to be drowned! And then there was a big snake!”

“A . . . snake?”

It was too late. Nothing could interrupt now. “The snake had swallowed a child! All was darkness and dread! But then the Foss-man appeared! He whacked the snake on the head!”

“Er . . . good?”

“The snake it was now deceased! But the bad guys weren't ready to quit! From out of the lake came a monster! A worm with the arms of a squid!”

“That don't rhyme,” Barkley observed.

“Yes it does!” WHANG! “The worm attacked the church! Its fury unlikely to flag, yah! It battered upon the walls! The worm's name is Black Magga!”

“Black Magga!? From Storval Deep?”

“STOP interrupting. Ahem. I think I lost my place. Shall I start again?”

“NO!” Both men shouted.

“Well, then, be quiet. Ahem. Where was I? Oh yes. The wizard hurled a fireball! The worm, it started to smoke! But still it attacked undeterred! It thought our spells were a joke!” Nevis eyeballed the men, but they remained silent. “The worm struck at the Foss-man! His flesh was tattered and torn! His mighty axes went hacking! A mighty legend was born!”

“So he defeated it? And who is Fossman? Have we met?”

“I'm NOT FINISHED!!!”
“Oops, er, sorry. Continue.”

“The worm was mightily cleaved! It turned its tail and fled! The heroes won the day! But sadly the worm isn't dead!” Nevis ended with a flourish and bowed. The humans goggled at her. “It's all right, I'm done now, you can talk.”

“It . . . sounds like quite an impressive battle? But what about the pile of dirt?”

“Oh, that was the druid,” Nevis replied dismissively.

“I . . . see.” Maelin did not see, but he didn't want to ask for further clarification in case Nevis actually provided it, and it was even worse than the poetry thus far forthcoming. “So . . . what happens now?”

“Now the heroes are traveling to Hook Mountain to deal with the ogre menace! Should be exciting!”

“What about Black Magga?”

“Oh, the villagers told us that maybe some trolls let her through some kind of gate they have up at Storval Deep? Something like that? Don't worry, we'll take care of that next. Busy busy! Can't stop, off to save the world!”

“Well, er, thank you?” Maelin said as the gnome ran off as quickly as she had appeared.


Sep 17, 2019

Rise of the Rune Lords Interlude: The Kids are All Right, part 1


“Is that bird trying to get inside the house?” Teeva asked. Her grandfather, Coralon, squinted, and Teeva pointed helpfully. The shadow of a small duck was poking at the wax paper of the window with its bill, and as they watched it ripped open a substantial hole.

Coralon emitted an enraged old-man shout. “Here, you, get away!” sounding like all one word: heerugiway. He slapped at the wooden sill and the duck retreated, producing a very similar-sounding quack. “Damn birds! Those windows are expensive!”

Teeva bit back a laugh. “It's not like they're glass. Just paper.”

I'm not made of money! And winter's coming on, too. The roads will be a mess!”

Teeva shook her head. “Relax, I'll fix it. Here!” She made a pass with her hands and the hole vanished. The window paper turned a brilliant chartreuse. Teeva blinked, then immediately attempted to pretend that she'd intended this outcome. Coralon was not impressed.

Oh, girl, now look what you've done! Haven't you been practicing? What would your mother say?

I'd probably be glad she didn't set it on fire. At least I know she's getting some real lessons from that miserable old coot.” Bethilde, Teeva's mother, set her packages down on the kitchen table. In contrast to her tall, somewhat skinny daughter, Bethilde was on the short side, and very sturdily build, although only someone who had no further use for their tongue would call her plump. Both women had unremarkable curly brown hair and deep brown skin, but they shared unusual electric-blue eyes. Looking at Coralon's unexceptional brown often left people wondering at their heritage, especially since Coralon had never given any evidence of possessing a wife. In Nybor, though, this was not all that uncommon and it passed without remark, if not entirely without note.

At least I fixed the hole,” Teeva said, pointing helpfully in case her mother had missed this evidence of Teeva's handiwork. Behind her there was a loud clattering noise and a duck fell down the chimney, into the thankfully-cold fireplace.

Desna!” Coralon yelped.

Oh, for pity's sake, Teeva, did you enchant that fool bird?!” Bethilde demanded, stomping over to the hearth and fishing the bewildered duck out of a heap of ashes.

Not me, mother, but look at it! I bet someone did!” The duck was, indeed, strangely docile. Bethilde gave it a shake and it stuck its foot out, revealing a roll of paper tied to its leg. Bethilde snapped the bindings and broke open the protective coating of wax. When she saw the direction on the letter her lips thinned to a white, hard line.

What?” Teeva demanded.

Bethilde held the paper out to her father. “It's for you.”

Coralon took the paper and blinked at it for several moments, moving it forwards and back in front of his eyes in the hopes of getting the blurred letters to focus. Finally, it did, and he smiled. “Oh, I see. Here, Teeva, read it to me, or I'll be all day about it.”

Bethilde snatched the paper back before her daughter could take it. “Teeva, you go outside. I'll read it to you, Father.”

Teeva thought better of protesting. She knew that iron look on her mother's face. This situation called for expert strategy—a diversion, and then a flanking attack. “Yes'm,” she said, and scurried out of the kitchen. Once outside, though, she took a lesson from their visitor and ducked down beside the window to listen.

It's from Melissah,” Bethilde was saying.

Don't call your mother that, Tildy, it's disrespectful.”

Teeva could imagine her mother's expression. “She says she's stopping at Fort Rannick . . .”

And don't summarize, dear, read it out.”

There was a longish pause while Bethilde no doubt skewered her father with a displeased glare, but this was not effective against the patriarch of the family, who was too old, secure, and short-sighted to care. Finally, Bethilde loudly cleared her throat and began to read. “'Dear Coralon, it's been some time since we last communicated, so I hope this missive finds you well.' Hmmph, some time! At your age she's lucky you aren't dead!”

Thank you, daughter,” Coralon said dryly.

Ahem. 'My travels have brought me south of the mountains of late, and I came across ill news of animal attacks, floods, the fatal sinking of a pleasure barge, and the disappearance of messages sent to Fort Rannick requesting aid from the Black Arrows. As the townsfolk had no one else to send, I journeyed to Magnimar to ask for aid in approaching these concerns. The Lord-Mayor sent me back with several adventurers and we discovered that Fort Rannick had been captured by Kreeg ogres, the largest portion of the Black Arrows slain.

'The adventurers were able to oust the ogres with some small aid from myself, but the fort is now all-but-empty. I know that much of our family resides near you in Nybor, and it is my hope that some of the younger generation may have an interest in such an opportunity for travel and work and would be willing to join me at Fort Rannick. If there are any other young persons you would vouch for, they can certainly expect to find a situation here as well. Thank you kindly, and all my love to you and Bethilde, who must be well grown by now and a lady in her own right. Melissah.'” Bethilde choked on the last part. “Well-grown! I'm an old goodwife with eight children!”

Your mother reckons time differently than we poor humans,” Coralon said, fondly.

If you mean she can't keep a thought in her head for two seasons together, yes.”

Now, Tildy--” the old man started.

Don't 'now, Tildy' me. And don't even think of showing this to Teeva. She's half-trained at best and not ready to go out on her own, whatever she thinks. One look at this and I'll never hear the end of it. 'Mama PLEASE let me go! You never let me go anywhere!” Teeva scowled. She did NOT sound like that. She was an expert maternal-handling strategist, and never resorted to whining. “She's going to stay here and finish her training where it's safe!”

Teeva huffed, indignant. They'd see about that!

XX

So, what are you doing in the stable at this hour?” Dashell asked. Teeva nearly jumped out of her skin, startling the sleepy pony. Sibling alert!

SHHHH!” she hissed at her older brother, who stood with his hands on his hips. Dashell grinned, thinking he now held all the cards. “If you must know,” Teeva told him, “I'm going to see cousin Storrik.”

In the middle of the night? With full saddlebags and a pack half as big as you are? Are you running away finally? Can I have your books?”

No.”

No which?”

No, you cannot have my books.”

So you ARE running away?”

Teeva gave him a thoughtful look. He hadn't threatened to tell on her yet, so he was angling for something. Annoying as he was, Dashell was a useful sort of fellow, but he needed handling. “Well, kinda,” she allowed.

Izzat so?” Dashell produced an apple from somewhere and began chewing. He was a picture of a big, healthy farmboy, and was always eating. The only problem was that his family was all tradespeople: Grandpa Cor owned the general store, his mother owned the inn with her husband, and Dashell didn't have much to do other than spend his time hunting and fishing. He had no interest in taking over a business, and with five brothers in need of situations no one considered it worthwhile to argue with him.

Nanny Bee sent Grandpa Cor a duck--”
A duck?”

Yes, with a message!”

And you know about this how?”

I was there when it showed up. Anyway, Nanny Bee says that ogres attacked Fort Rannick!”

Sounds dreadful.”

And exciting!” Most of the Rangers were killed, so Nanny Bee wanted to know if any of us Meadhouse cousins would like to come help out! Talk about opportunity!” Was that too much? You had to be careful selling things to Dashell, if he started to think you were sugarcoating work he'd get stubborn.

Opportunity to get killed, maybe,” he grunted. “Have you ever SEEN an ogre?”

Well . . . no. Not as such. But one of the regulars at the inn is a half-ogre, and he's not so bad.”

Mm,” Dashell replied, chewing thoughtfully. “And you asked Mother if you could go?”

Well . . . not as such.”

So that's why you're overloading that poor pony in the middle of the night. What I still don't understand is what poor cousin Storrik has to do with all of this.”

Well, I've never been down that way, but everyone knows cousin Storrik is the best woodsman in these parts. If anyone could guide me, he could.”

Dashell rubbed his fuzzy chin, nodding slowly. “I think that about covers everything, then. I can't let you do it.”

What? C'mon!” Here came the sibling blackmail. Carefully-tuned disappointment was paramount.

No, it's completely out of the question. Unless.”

Unless what?”

You take me with you.”

Teeva weighed her options, and went with enthusiastic. Dashell loved to feel older and wiser, even though he was mostly just older. “Really!? You're the best!” She lunged at him for a hug, and he held her off with one hand.

You also have to follow my instructions, starting with leaving that poor pony alone. You're going to go to bed and get some sleep, and we'll leave in the morning. I'll write a note for Mother that I'm taking you with me to go fishing. She won't expect us back for a couple days at least. Then we can go get Storrik and leave a note with one of his buddies about where we've really gone.”

Okay, okay! I'm doing it, I'm doing it!” Teeva griped, heading back toward the house. Plan stage one, the unobtrusive exit, was nearly complete.

XX

The Elder Brother Takeover resumed promptly the following morning, and Teeva did her best to keep up the litany of complaints so Dashell didn't get suspicious.

You can't bring all this,” he lectured. “No, we're not taking the pony. Mother needs him to pull the cart. IF you want to go adventuring, you have to carry your gear. We're not going to Magnimar for the Season. You can't bring all these clothes.”

Oh, why don't you go do your own packing and leave me in peace!” Teeva declaimed tragically.

I'm already packed, thanks. I've been on plenty of trips.” Meaning two, that she knew of. Dashell reached under his bunk and produced a surprisingly ancient and battered-loking satchel, which he slung over one shoulder. “Did you eat a good breakfast?”

Yes.”

Did you use the privy?”

Yes!”

Did you pack, you know, girlie stuff?”

DASHELL!!”

Right, off we go, then.”

It was a pleasant morning walk downriver to where Storrik had his shack. The weather was chilly but not frigid, and the sun was more-or-less out. The woodsman was sitting outside by the fire, fletching a stack of arrows. One of the eponymous buddies stretched out nearby smoking a pipe. Unlike the brown-skinned, brown-haired siblings, Storrik was very pale, with ashy gray-blond hair. Their only evidence of relation was identical shocking blue eyes.

Cousin and cousin, greetings,” he said mildly. He also had peculiar, not-quite-human mannerisms—a placid refusal to be hurried. “Share my fire. This is Hogarth.”

Hogarth nodded gravely to them. He was a big fellow, with a broad, heavy skull and an outslung jaw. That, alongside his projecting brow and squashed, upturned nose screamed 'orc'. Half-breeds were quite common in Nybor, which prided itself on toleration.

Are you out for a jaunt, Dashell? The giant minks are starting to turn their coats. Should be a fine season this year,” Storrik continued.

We're not out for the hunting, thanks. In fact, we have an exceptional favor to ask.” Ugh, Dashell always got weird and formal when asking people for things.

Of course.”

We want you to take us to Fort Rannick!” Teeva burst in before Dashell could take another twenty minutes explaining. Storrik's eyebrows rose.

Fort Rannick?” he repeated. “That's a goodly way. Why this sudden interest?”

Dashell started to say something but Teeva hurriedly cut him off. “Grandpa Cor got a letter from Nanny Bee saying the Fort needed recruits and asking if we could come!”

Storrik's eyebrows climbed further. “You specifically? That doesn't sound much like Grandmother.”

Why not? She travels all over the place by herself.”

Yes, but she's a druid and has more experience with travel than all of our cousins put together. It's a poor time of year to travel, too. Maybe in the spring, but I wouldn't risk such a long road I know nothing about at this time of year.”

This was a problem. Storrik was far too level-headed and practical to be badgered into something he thought was unwise.

Pardon me if I intrude . . .” the half-orc rumbled.

Not at all, friend Hogarth.”

I've visited Fort Rannick on several occasions. It's not the easiest road, but not that bad, either. I have friends who would gladly undertake the journey just for your Grandmother's good opinion.”

Great!” Teeva called out before Dashell or Storrik could protest. “Let's go!”

Not just yet, if you please,” said Hogarth. “While I appreciate your enthusiasm, I have a favor to ask.”

Sure! I mean, we'd owe you one!” This better not be anything weird. Dashell was looking concerned, and Storrik had on a bemused expression that Teeva couldn't read.

Hogarth turned his pipe over in his hands, considering. “I know a cousin of yours, Polette. We've met only a few times, briefly, but I . . . sensed her mother disapproved. I wonder if you would be willing to carry her a message, from me.”

Against Aunt Zulah's wishes?” Dashell asked, dryly.

Yes.”

Dashell drew himself up and crossed his arms over his chest. “And what if we don't approve, either?”

Then you can run along home, boy, because you'll never make it to Fort Rannick without my help.”

Dashell, don't be a prig,” Teeva whispered.

Why not?” he replied aloud. “I don't know him, and I'm not sure I trust him, especially not with my virgin sister.” Teeva kicked him. There was no other response to an older-brother emission like that. “Hey!” Dashell protested. “I'm trying to look after you, here!”

Virgin sister indeed!” Teeva leaned over to address Hogarth directly. “I'll have you know that Old Man Dash here turns purple and stutters if a pretty girl so much as looks at him. If I'm a virgin, then he's a . . . double virgin!”

TEEVA!!!” Dashell bellowed, trying to grab her to stifle the stream of embarrassing revelations. Teeva danced out of reach with the skill of long practice, and Dashell almost fell into the fire.

I assure you, Hogarth's intentions are honorable,” Storrik said when everyone had regained their balance and dusted themselves off. The half-orc looked astonished at this encomium, and Teeva could have sworn he actually blushed.

Thank you,” he said hoarsely, and then coughed to clear his throat.

Well . . . if you vouch for him . . .” Dashell slowly allowed.

I do. Absolutely.”

Well . . . all right then.” It wasn't graceful, but Teeva would take it.

If it makes you feel any better,” Hogarth said, “I believe Madame Meadhouse's objections are rooted less in my appearance than in the state of my purse, something this journey may bring opportunities to improve.”

You're awfully prosy for a half-orc,” Teeva said. “Er, no offense meant.”

Hogarth hazarded a small smile. “None taken. In fact, my friends are a small company of strolling players, well used to the road. They have helped me refine my speech considerably. Let me just write my note.”

The fancy talk explains Polette, anyway,” Teeva mused while the half-orc busied himself with scribbling. “Dames love it.”

Dames like yourself?” Storrik asked, amused.

Nah, I've got six brothers. I'm, whazzit, in, innik . . .?”

Innoculated?” Dashell finished for her.

Yeah, that.”

XX

In the end, Teeva went into town by herself to find Polette, since she was the least likely to arouse suspicion by trying to get in to see her cousin alone. For a little good luck, said cousin was at home studying, and Aunt Zulah was in the market tending her stall. Teeva went around the farmhouse and threw some gravel in her cousin's window.

What the . . .what are you doing down there?” Polette demanded, sticking her head outside. “You made a mess all over the floor! Wait, Teeva?”

I got a note from your swain,” Teeva said.

My . . . what?” That wasn't quite the reaction she'd been expecting.

Your lovesick swain. Hogarth. He of the gray skin and smushed nose. His heart burns with eternal passion for one touch of your fair hand, et cetera.”

Desna preserve us, just be quiet and give me the note, thank you very much.”

Teeva wrapped the flimsy paper around a stone and tossed it up. Polette read for some time, then she stepped away from the window. Teeva heard rustling noises, and in a surprisingly short time Polette reappeared dressed in warm, sensible traveling clothes. She tossed a pack out the window and then followed it, hanging from the windowsill before dropping and landing neatly beside Teeva.

Let's go,” she said, reclaiming her pack. Polette was several years older than Teeva and the acknowledged beauty of the Meadhouse extended clan. She had warm golden skin, long golden hair, and the family crystal-blue eyes. And here she was, running off after a half-orc! It boggled the imagination.

Hey, where are YOU going!” a painfully-young voice shrilled as they hurried down the lane, and here came Polette's younger brother Kedry. “You're not supposed to be out!”

Kedry, go inside!” Polette snapped.

Nuh-uh! You're running away! Mama told you spiffacly not to run away!”

I'm not doing any such thing! Now go inside before I paddle you!” Teeva shook her head sadly. Polette clearly needed some tutoring on handling younger brothers.

If you paddle me, I'll scream, and Mama will hear!”

The whole town would probably hear,” Teeva muttered. “Kedry, if you go away and don't tell Aunt Zulah, I'll give you a silver piece.”

So Mama can grill me on where I got it? Nuh-uh!”

Ooh. This case of little-brother-itis was clearly far advanced. Teeva hated to do it, because letting them set the terms was always more trouble than it was worth, but someone else could show up at any moment. “What'll it take for you to forget you ever saw us?”

I want to come, too!”

Absolutely not!” Polette snapped. “You're far too young. Mama would kill me!”

She'll kill you anyway, for sneaking off,” Kedry observed accurately.

You don't have a pack!”

Yes I do! I hid it down by the pond! I promise I'll be good! PLEEEEEEEEEEEEEASE?”

He's not THAT young,” Teeva wavered. “Do you want to go or not?”

All right! But you have to keep up, and if we tell you to do something, you do it! This is a real journey we're going on, not some day trip, understand!”

I understand!”

They stopped at the pond to retrieve Kedry's pack. Polette made him turn it out to see that he'd actually brought something useful, which he mostly had. While annoying, Kedry was actually quite sensible for his age. Why he'd decided to stash travel kit he refused to explain, but Teeva had a sneaking suspicion he'd been waiting for one of his cousins to run away so that he could follow along. He was quite good at keeping his own counsel and firmly believed that asking forgiveness was superior to obtaining permission.

XX

Storrik looked rather surprised to see the three of them, or as surprised as he ever got at anything, which wasn't much. “Greetings, cousin, cousin, and cousin. Are you all coming?”

Yes,” said Teeva firmly, hoping to stave off any more arguments.

It would be best to stay here tonight and start tomorrow,” the woodsman suggested. “You can practice setting up camp in the clearing, there.

Right,” Teeva said, and started unpacking. The day, it seemed, had one final surprise still in store. Teeva watched Polette collar Hogarth and draw him aside, so she handed her bag to a protesting Kedry and crept along the bushes until she could hear. She didn't want any secrets on this very important journey.

I'm glad you came,” the half-orc was saying. “I'll do everything in my power to make sure you don't regret it.”

Er, did you tell Teeva you were my . . . well, my lover?”

What?! No, no, I never . . . I would never presume! You have my word!” How very odd, Hogarth sounded just like a certain priggish older brother Teeva could name.

Oh,” Polette said faintly. Did she sound . . . disappointed? Couldn't be. No way.

Not that you aren't, I mean, that I'm not . . .”

Fortunately, Teeva had extensive experience with these sad cases. She peeked out from behind the bush. Hogarth had his back to her, good, and anyway he was trying to figure out if he could sink into the ground and disappear without the aid of magic. Teeva waved to her cousin to get her attention, then dramatically made the kissy-face. Polette glared. Oh, well, there was no helping some people.

Hogarth's wounded peroration finally stumbled to a halt. Polette reached up and brushed her fingertips against the side of his face. He flinched slightly, but he pressed his face into her palm.

I . . . I promised your cousin . . .”

I didn't,” Polette said firmly. She shot one last glare at Teeva, then stood on tiptoe and kissed him. Teeva nodded in satisfaction at a job well done, then shook her head again as Hogarth tried to figure out how to hold Polette without, you know, actually touching her in any way that could possibly be construed as taking liberties.

All in all, it was a good start to their adventure. All the elements were in place. The fearless leader (Teeva of course), the dumb but strong backup (Dashell), the knowledgeable guide (Storrik), the romance (Hogarth and Polette), and the obnoxious sidekick nevertheless capable of saving the day in a pinch (Kedry).

This was gonna be GOOD.

Sep 15, 2019

Rise of the Rune Lords Interlude: Hurry Up and Wait


Jakandros watched the Magnimar adventurers ride off into the early-morning mud. The Black Arrows were staying behind to watch Fort Rannick. They didn't have horses and wouldn't reach Turtleback Ferry in time to help with the evacuation.

“All right, Sovark, I've been patient long enough! The interlopers are busy, it's time for some explanations!” It was impressive just how much bellow a motivated halfling could produce. Jakandros took the full brunt of it at close range and nearly fell off the wall. “You always were a moper!” Niwen Merce concluded, glaring up at him. Arrayed behind the halfling were the two other reincarnated Black Arrows along with Vale and Shalelu.

“I'm not moping,” Jakandros retorted from reflex. Arguing with Niwen was always a struggle. She, um, he? was, er, had been? Whatever. HE had a forceful personality developed from decades of training new Black Arrows. Even when he agreed with you, he had a tendency to dominate. The transition from gray-haired, leather-faced woman to short black-haired halfling only seemed to have a concentrating effect, making the steely glare more penetrating.

“Brooding, then. Whatever you call it, it's time to stop. You're in command here, so command. At least tell us what HAPPENED.”

“Look, Niwen, there just isn't that much to tell. The Kreeg attacked. I was out on patrol, Lamatar was . . . away. You fought. They won. Magnimar sent out some adventurers, they saved our lives and re-took the fort. When they get back from helping the Ferry, they're going to see if they can find Lamatar.”

“And we just sit on our hands while your precious adventurers pull our ass out of the fire? We're Black Arrows!” Niwen sniffed.

“If you hadn't noticed, there's plenty to do here.”

“Scrubbing floors and mending! Anyone can manage that. I'm asking about the FUTURE, Sovark! What are we going to DO?! Six rangers can't hold Fort Rannick through the winter. Five, if you don't count that squirrely git you locked in the dungeon. If we're leaving, we should be packing up and making plans. If not, we need to get more people in here, fast. There's always more Kreeg, you know that.”

“Lamatar--”

“Is dead!”

Jakandros finally let his simmering irritation boil to the surface. “So were you, not long ago! Just give it a few more days, Niwen! If we don't have better news by then, we can ALL decide what to do.”

Vale growled. “Like what to do with Kaven? He told them how to get in here. He practically admitted it. We don't need to wait--”

“What's this?!” Niwen demanded. “Is that why you've got him locked up?! I figured it was cowardice, or--”

“No, he went out whoring and told some spy bitch how to take us out,” Vale snapped.
“Watch your language, boy!” Niwen bellowed. There was abrupt silence in the rank, Vale glaring at the halfling and flexing his hands. Jakandros rubbed his neck, trying to think of how he could regain control of this situation. He felt very tired. Niwen turned to look at him.

“This is what comes of treating the Black Arrows like a rehabilitation house for thieves,” he spat. “I'll gut him myself.”

“You'll have to wait in line after me!” Vale snarled.

“No,” Jakandros announced, keeping his voice level. “Things are bad enough without turning on each other.”

“He's not one of US! He's a coward and a thief and a traitor. It's time for you to do something, not just follow along waiting for someone else to fix all our problems! Or did the Grauls cut your balls off while I wasn't looking?!”

“Vale, that's enough! You're not helping!” Bindra, the elven woman standing beside Shalelu, said. She hadn't spoken before, in fact, she rarely spoke at all. Her main interest, even before when she was a human, was in herbalism. Jakandros wondered briefly why such a retiring person would have the willpower to return from the dead. Apparently, there were hidden depths to Bindra.

“I think we should put it to a vote,” the man beside Bindra drawled slowly. His name was Prandag, an expert spelunker and mountaineer, which was only to be expected before he died, when he was a dwarf. Now he was human, and looked somewhat awkward with his new height.

Niwen nodded sharply at the suggestion. “Fair enough. I vote for--”

“No,” Jakandros announced again, fighting to keep his voice under control. Vale, Niwen, and Prandag were all exactly the type of people who would flay you alive at the slightest sign of weakness. Yet, they were some of the best Rangers he'd ever worked with, as well. Was there some correlation between being excellent and being impossible? “There will be no voting. You're all still Black Arrows. You swore an oath to this order, and until such time as Lamatar returns, I'm in command. If you want to be forsworn and leave, I won't stop you, but then you have no place calling Kaven a coward.”

Vale's nostrils flared and he almost took a step forward, but visibly controlled himself. Prandag nodded briefly. Dwarves—even former dwarves—took oaths seriously. But Niwen sniffed again.

“You want to command? Then command!”

Jakandros faced him squarely. “You want orders, then? Here are my orders: we're going to wait. Are you forgetting already that all of us would be dead now if it weren't for those adventurers? Are you going to spit on that the minute they walk out the door? I expected more from you.”

“Oh, you expected more? How much have I given, training recruits for three decades, then watching ogres torture them to death and waking up in a body that isn't my own!” He slapped his chest for emphasis. Then, just when Jakandros thought he was going to follow up with a devastating accusation, blaming Jakandros for being absent, the halfling stuck both arms out in front of him, stretched, and chuckled.

“What?” Jakandros asked, nonplussed.

“You know . . . it's really not so bad. Fifty years seem to have gone mysteriously missing, and good riddance. I had a terrible rheumatism in that shoulder, and it's completely gone.” He shook his head. “I shouldn't be yelling at you. I trained most of 'em, you know. Sent 'em to their deaths.”

“Don't start blaming yourself, Niwen,” Vale said. “That's Jak's thing. He'll be annoyed if you start horning in.”

“Bah, he's an amateur. He just mopes.”

“I do NOT mope!” How had they come around back to this? Were they going to have the entire argument again, now?

“While we're on the subject of balls,” Niwen continued, waggling his eyebrows outrageously, “How DO you fellows keep yours from getting pinched by your armor? If we're going to wait, I might as well get ready to fight.”

Jakandros rubbed his face with both hands. Niwen had apparently decided to concede, and, as usual, was going to do so by making everyone in the vicinity as uncomfortable as possible. “I'm going to delegate Vale to answer that one, thank you.”

Niwen's eyebrows waggled again. “Come, Vale, we have much to discuss.”

“Yes, ma'am. I mean, sir.”

“I may have to learn how to shave,” Prandag rumbled. “This peach fuzz is a disgrace.”

“Oh, I think you look rather dashing,” Bindra said. She took Prandag's arm and the two of them also left.

“Well done,” Shalelu said, the first time she'd spoken.

“No, it was very poorly done. I just tried to think, what would Lamatar say? And there was nothing. So I said that instead.” Jakandros shook his head. “I'm a leader, not a commander. I know how to get people to follow me, but that's different from getting them to obey your orders, especially when they're well out of sight.”

“You could have let them vote. Walked away.”

“Like I did at Crying Leaf?”

“Yes.”

“I . . . I wanted to. I won't pretend I didn't. I'm sorry. I still want to. I'm tired of all this death.”

“Humans. You're still a child. Wait until you've been around a few hundred years.”

“No, thank you. One is plenty for me.”

“That's very human as well,” Shalelu said. “You sink so much into that one that when it's gone, there's nothing left. So you throw away what might have given you comfort along the way.”

“I wish I'd never left Crying Leaf.”

“Regrets are also very human. Look . . . the sun is up. Whatever happens, we'll still need to eat. Take your bow and go hunting for a while. I'll stay here and keep an eye on things. If you're not here, they can't argue with you, and they won't do anything today.”

“All right. I'll go. But I will be back.”

“Good. Don't forget.”

Sep 10, 2019

Rise of the Runelords Session 25: No Fury Like


“That is A LOT of mud,” Nevis declared, looking out over the Shimmerglens. It was a fact that couldn't really be disputed. The trackless swamp was said to lie very close to the First World. The inhabitants of Bitter Hollow had shared stories of nixies laying traps, the seduction of nymphs, and sprites stealing just about anything. It didn't sound hospitable at all, especially with winter's chill fast oncoming.

“We do have a boat,” Melissah said, plonking what looked like a plain wooden box down at the water's edge and releasing a catch. It unfolded, then unfolded some more, in a way that didn't seem quite possible. In moments, the box had turned into a sturdy rowboat with oars.

“That's going to be crowded with all of us in it,” Iozua said, giving the side of the folding boat a kick.

“I could stay behind,” Jori offered.

Nevis surveyed the swamp again. “No, I'll stay behind. This may be a hamlet, but they have a tavern. Haven't been to a decent tavern in days! Plus, I get seasick!”

“There aren't any waves, so how are you going to get seasick?” Foss asked.

“I'm a gnome,” Nevis declared, like that was any answer to the question. “No, you folks run along. Or, er, row along. However that works.”

“Don't come crying to us if we discover a lost civilization while you're getting boozed up,” Iozua said, stepping into the stern of the rowboat. Jori jumped in and sat next to him on the bench. After some struggling that ended with Melissah dumping a haunch of goat into the bottom of the boat, Pavander climbed inside and began chewing. The druid then stepped into the bow and sat down. Everyone turned to look expectantly at Foss, who sighed and picked up the oars, settling himself on the bench.

“So, where exactly are we going?” he asked, using the oars to shove the boat loose. Melissah pulled out the packet of Lamatar's love-poems.

“I don't know,” she said, “but I'm hoping Pavander can help us out.” She waved the bundle of parchment in front of the badger's nose. He looked up, snorted, and rotated in the bottom of the boat so that he was firmly facing away from the druid. “Come on, you, I feed you enough, it's time you did something useful.”

“Snorfle,” was the badger's sole opinion on the matter.

Foss sighed, reached down one-handed, and picked Pavander up by the scruff of his neck. The badger whined and scrabbled furiously. “You listen to the lady, now, or I'm throwing you in the drink. And you know I can.” After a moment's consideration and Foss's sharp motion toward the side of the boat, Pavander whuffled and stretched his nose out toward the poems, sniffing theatrically. Foss let him down and picked up the oars again. At first, Pavander seemed unsure, and Foss simply rowed down the channel steadily, leaving the edge of the marsh and crossing under the branches of twisted black trees. A cold, dark mist rose from the water, bringing with it the sound of evil murmurs and weird, dancing shadows.

“I think, more that way,” Melissah said, pointing to Pavander, who had stuck his nose over the bow, sniffing urgently. Foss corrected course, and the trees seemed to close in as they entered a narrower channel. The murmurs gave way to a faint buzzing sound, rapidly growing louder, and a bright shape emerged suddenly from the fog. It skirted around them and squeaked, “Humans!”

“Mostly,” Foss grunted.

“Hail, friend,” Melissah called to the pixie. “Approach without fear.”

“Greetings and felicitations!” the sprite shrilled. “My name is Yap! Have you come to help? Oh, I hope you've come to help!”

“Oh, I like him,” Foss said. “What help is needed, little man?”

The sprite took a very deep breath, inflating his tiny chest to a startling degree. “My mistress is ill! Very ill indeed! Oh, death instead would have been a kindness! The land sickens with her heart, and it cannot be cleansed until her misery is purged! I cannot do this myself! Please, you must help her! You are friends with her human lover, yes? He wouldn't want her left like this! I'll take you right to her, and you'll help her! I've tried everything to cure her forlorn heart, but to no avail, she wails and moans in Whitewillow, and the trees and plants and nixies and frogs and everything are dying or worse! I'll take you right now! Please!”

Iozua blinked at the torrent. “Did you . . . catch that?”

“His mistress is ill and he wants us to fix her,” Melissah summarized. Yap bounced up and down in approval. “Has the human been this way recently?” Melissah asked.

“Er, no? No! He was here, but now he . . . isn't.” The sprite brightened as an idea occurred to him. “Oh, but if you help the mistress I'm sure she'll know where he's gone!” he announced with a child's transparent guile.

Melissah smiled, glancing at Foss and Iozua. “I'm certain we'd be delighted to visit your mistress and see what we can do to help.” Iozua nodded agreeably.

“Sounds good,” Foss said.

“Oh, wonderful! ThankyouthankyouTHANKyou!” The sprite circled the rowboat. “Humans like payment, right? I don't have much but I can give you some pixie dust!” Yap dashed off, then circled back again, squeaking, and resumed an pace more suited to the rowboat's progress. Jori shook her head and leaned back.

The obvious corruption grew as they followed Yap, shadows playing tricks on the eyes. Great spiders hung from the drooping branches overhead, their webs twitching with dying birds. Slithering things with too many eyes squirted away through the murky water.

“Heyyyy, don't they say that sprites and pixies will lead you into the middle of danger and ditch you there?” Foss commented, looking around.

“The only thing I know is that you shouldn't eat or drink anything they offer you,” Jori said.

Melissah shrugged. “A pixie might lead you into danger accidentally from not understanding what would be dangerous to you, but they likely wouldn't do it out of malice.” She gave a brief chuckle. “Although, when your bones are lying at the bottom of the swamp, the difference between malice and mischief can be hard to discern.” Jori almost sprained an eyebrow. “Yap isn't likely to remember that we can't just fly away, for instance. Well, I say we, I really mean you. Don't worry, if you die I can always bring you back as a goblin or a squirrel or something. You won't even notice the difference.”

In the bottom of the boat, Pavander let loose an approving evil snorfle.

“I'm sure I'll be fine,” Foss said. “I mean, I have no skill at surviving the swamp. And this plate armor will be extremely useful. What could go wrong?”

From the stern, Iozua offered the world's most sarcastic thumbs-up.

“Does my spirit have to agree to become a goblin or a squirrel?” Foss asked.

“Yes.”

“Okay, good, 'cause I'm pretty sure it'll be too busy making your life miserable.”

Melissah laughed outright. Iozua chuckled. “The real question should be, can goblins or squirrels surf?” he asked. The sound of his voice faded quickly, leaving a deadly silence. Ghostly, translucent forms emerged from the fog—spectral satyrs, ghostly grigs, phantom nixies, and shadowy sprites floated gently from the swamp, followed by a parade of phantom animals. The fey cavorted and frolicked as they passed, eventually washing over the rowboat and its occupants. Everyone winced and recoiled from the terrible, burning chill.

“We're here!” Yap shrilled from the shore. Foss heaved at the oars and the boat slid up onto the bank, everyone scrambling out almost before it had stopped moving. The swamp gave way to a large clearing surrounded by willow trees that were now drooping and twisted with decay. Yap hugged a tree at the edge of the clearing, cowering. “My lady waits for you within. I dare not go any closer . . .”

“Why . . . why dare you not, Yap?” Iozua asked.

“You'll see.”

The trees shook as they stepped into the clearing, and a foul wind arose. A pale form rushed at them, raising skeletal hands. The rotting wreck of a nymph stood before them, bloodless flesh hanging from blackened bones. The sight assaulted them, an obliterating agony.

“YOU LET THEM TAKE HIM!!” she howled. Iozua hunched, rubbing at his eyes.

“You have mistaken us for someone else!” the wizard yelled back.

The nymph hissed. “WHY have you come to Myriana's court, mortals?”

“We freed Fort Rannick from the Kreeg, and now we seek to discover Lamatar's fate and aid him if he is in distress,” Melissah said formally, her voice quavering.

“They took him. I couldn't save him. I know in my heart that he is now dead, but when I try to reincarnate him foul magic prevents his soul from entering his new body.”

“No body, no death,” Iozua said, facing the wrong direction. “Those are the rules.”

“NO!” the nypmh roared. “Were he still alive, he surely would have returned to my side by now!”

Melissah could see the wizard chewing the inside of his cheek, struggling to control himself. Jori huddled, blinded by the nymph's aura. Foss seemed at a loss for words. “The Kreeg do not easily let their prisoners go, lady. Tell us where they took him, so we can recover him.”

Myriana's rage subsided a bit. “Their lair is high upon Hook Mountain. Their blundering trail will be easy to follow, and your masked friend can follow my beloved's scent, as he has led you to me.” She reached out toward Melissah, who tried not to flinch away. “Child of nature, find his remains and return them to me. I do not need his entire body. A lock of hair, a finger bone will do.”

Pavander snorted, shoving his face against Melissah's leg, startling her into activity. “N-never fear, lady. We will accomplish this task.”

“All's well, then, yes?” Foss said, grabbing the druid's arm and backing toward the boat. He reached out to gather Iozua and Jori as well. “We're going to help you out, and you are going to get prettied up for the return of your love. We're all on the same side.”

“Good. Return my commander to my heart.”

“See you soon, Lady.”

The nymph sank into the ground, and the faint light of the sun reappeared, restoring some warmth to the clearing.

“I can't see a thing,” Jori said. “Is anyone else blind?”

“Yes'm,” Iozua said.

“Anyone else?”

“Not I,” said Foss. “And it looks like Melissah is all right, too.”

Melissah took a deep breath. “If Pavander starts trying to steer you around, whatever you do, don't follow him.” She reached out and gripped Iozua's hand, although for whose comfort it wasn't immediately clear. “This blindness will not pass on its own; it will require magic to remove.”

“Oh,” Iozua said. “Oh, good. And . . . we can do that, right?”

“I can,” Jori said. “Only, you know, tomorrow.” She shook her head. “Note to self: when we come back here, don't look at her.”

“Really?” Iozua snapped. “My note was a bit broader: maybe don't come back.”

“Until then, we make do,” Foss said. “The boat's here, climb in.”

Yap reappeared, babbling excitedly, and led the way back out of the swamp, presenting them with a small bag of pixie dust. They collected a happily drunk Nevis and returned to Fort Rannick well after dark. Jakardros was waiting for them and helped open the gates.

“Hook Mountain?” he said when they explained what happened while digging in to bowls of stew, everyone helping the still-blind Iozua and Jori. “That sounds bad. It's not a difficult climb, but it will be cold with the snow coming on. That, and the ogres, of course.”

“Why would the ogres bother with that swamp? Does anyone else feel like they were targeting Lamatar specifically?” Foss asked.

“They would have known from Kaven that he'd be out there on his 'nature walk', so probably,” Jori said.

“We need to talk to Kaven to confirm that, then. And why would it matter, anyhow? They wanted the fort, right? They didn't need to go after Lamatar to get that.”

“He could rally support to take it back,” Iozua said.

“Or Lucrecia, or this 'Mokmurian', might have had some other reason, too,” Jori said.

“That's what I was thinking,” said Foss. “They need him specifically for something. Or want him, at least.” He finished his stew and went down to the dungeons to talk to Kaven, returning after only a very short time. “He says that somebody up the mountain had plans for Lamatar.”

“It sounds like he might be alive, then,” Melissah said. “I could try to scry him.”

“Depends on how long they needed him for, I guess,” Foss said. “It wouldn't hurt to try?”

“Oh, you know about scrying?” Iozua demanded, grinning.

“Of course,” Foss said with great confidence. “Doesn't everyone?”

“Sure, sure,” the wizard allowed, chuckling.

All plans had to be set aside in the morning, though, as a hammering at the gates before dawn brought everyone awake to see a hunter from Turtleback Ferry sitting on top of an exhausted draft horse. “Anyone there?!” he shouted. “The Ferry is flooded! We need help!”