Paper and Dice

Gaming from an author's point of view, and fiction from a gamer's point of view.

Oh My Goodness

Saturday, October 17, 2009 - 9:55 PM

Sometimes you blink and the time whistles by like a bullet. By the time you figure out where the bullet came from, you have to dodge the next bullet. Now I've got some cover.
Just a couple of odd notes: First, given all the time I'm spending at a college these days, I'd like to mention that my experience of the average men's bathroom puts considerable doubt into our reproductive method. Seriously, the accuracy is Lacking. I'm amazed our population is as high as it is. I've heard tell that women's bathrooms are worse, but I have my doubts.
Second, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is lodged in my brainstem. This means I have Kurtz, in stereo, 24/7. The horror!
What follows is a kind of warm-up for a game session that I am working on. Yes, it is postmodern, surreal and fragmented. But I like tossing things like this out for players.

"The Lady is indisposed. Come back another time."

From a cobwebbed balcony, he watches the gray dancers below as they gust back and forth over the dance circle. They laugh and smile and touch with eyes, but they are silent, and their music is a succession of thin, strange memories that tangle the air like the clinging gossamer that blankets everything in the place. He watches them, forever apart, and he keeps no opinion. They are different from what was, and so is he; even his oath is finished, a trail of blood-stained shards leading back to a day when the court shone with art and beauty and he bent the knee to a great lady. And yet, he remains.
He must keep them safe. The Mother of Terror nests above, and must be watched over. Even in a place where forever can be measured, things must be done in the proper time, and time must be dealt with properly.
But caught in the timeless, he is alone, more than he has ever been. Once, it was his way. Now he has little choice. There is only one other court in the Manor now, and he will not go there.

"All I wish is to be free, but I keep my promise."

She must always run.
Her companions would help, but they fear him even more than she does. She cannot go back to her home, because it is full of memories that kill. She cannot go back to her brethren, because they are locked to a court where death cannot exist and a monster lords over them with his pain. So, proud as she has been, she must run, because he is always searching. The sky is her enemy; the black birds will show him the trail. The trees do not talk to him, but he moves through them as easily as the wind. Once, the gate was open, but now she must race back and forth, because of the day when the second palace burned and the humans died and the Manor drifted into slumber.
She cannot go back, and she cannot leave, because she will not abandon her beloved friend. One day she may know whether she can be let go, but until then she must escape his attention. He is all unfeeling animal fury and hunger and anticipation, and she knows that running makes him chase her, but she is too afraid to stay still.
One day she may know, and then perhaps her promise will no longer be needed.

"Dreams? There are no dreams here. Everything is real."

Three, they watch the thing move slowly through a forest so gnarled and twisted that it is difficult to tell one tree from the next. The thing is equally awkward; all stilts and scarecrow, it moves like a crippled insect. But the three look next to the drifting lights that follow it, and the dark one nods.
"Something else comes," she whispers, and the other two pay attention; one swiftly, one slowly.
"For blood and wealth," says the hard-eyed one, and she smiles like an opened razor.
"Dancing, and then love, and then sleep," murmurs the third as if remembering.
"Foolish," bites the second. "One does not come here for joy."
"There is no joy in you," retorts the third, but her eyes are sleepy, and she strokes her clothing.
"What good is joy," snaps the second again, the sneer implicit. Her fists are clenched. "Joy is transient. It cannot last."
"Ah," sighs the third, touching her lips. "No matter how cold, your joy is enough. I have seen that."
The second cannot rebuke the third, because both fall silent at the whisper.
"Oh, the threads of the old shadow are coming, the old shadow unraveled and rewoven. The old shadow who left us before we were bound here. Come, sisters; we must sing."

"Redemption, like sin, is a human word, for human ideas. We tried to understand them, and it ruined us."

They watch over him. He stands, mid-step, his hair fanning out as if the wind around him had suddenly turned to ice, and the light that filters down through the glorious dome breaks around him through the uneven, pinkish crystal he resides within. They are small, dwarfed by the opalescence of the memorial tomb around him, and the place makes them restless, makes them feel alien and left out, just like his beauty does. They have accepted as much as they can, but they can do nothing for him. There is only the exorbitant tomb, full of the pale pinnacles of song from a hundred gold and diamond birds, full of sculpture so smooth that it seems grown, full of engravings so delicate and precise that the walls are a book. And yet, all this is not enough for him, and they fester at the inadequacy.
They want to belong.

"If you lose, I can go. If I lose, you can go. Simple."

Sometimes the ache and the longing was overwhelming. It was impossible to count how many deaths occurred here, nor how many times his companions changed. Others would come. Some went around him, dodged his wary eyes, and were snared. Others met him and he threw himself against them, a tornado of frustration and will. There was no point in warning them; nothing would come of it, save more blood among the flowers or another statue in the hall.
It had been too long, he thought, but he remembered fearing the dana aelf and their ways, and he remembered years of howling exultation, of steel and sweat and heat and breath. Sometimes the writing almost spoke to him, as if it could give him all that time back again, but everything else was nothing more than the hollow sounds of the great hall and the compelling oath, the silent and invisible goad that prickled over his heart like brambles.
He loved so much that he had no choice, and he no longer dreamt. He had heard that no one dreamt here, but then, he was more part of the hall than a human being now.
Watching the woods, he tapped a finger on his weapon, and waited for destiny to arrive.

"I cannot reconcile the fact of my son."

There is a mirror. He spends time staring at himself in the mirror, and it shivers like a pool of blood when his eyes touch it. Others do this too, when his eyes touch them. He is aware, but he is indifferent.
He picks up a crystal goblet, practically invisible but for its shape.
This, he thinks, is nothing but a collection of wounds that have not yet happened.
As if to punctuate this thought, he lets the goblet fall from his hand to shatter into jagged, beautiful points, scattered across a polished floor.
He studies this casual act of ruin for a long moment, and then realizes that there has been a lull in the singing. Turning slowly, looking past the bower of long-thorned white roses, he sees the crescent of shapes made ghostly by a waxing moon.
They attend me because they crave me, he thinks, not because they wish to.
Their singing resumes, another of the old songs (which he loves, though the songs have grown as pale as the space between them and the moon), and he turns away again to face the mirror.
What must I do, he thinks, and in a fit of sudden rage, he points at the shattered goblet.
"I wish for my court to dance."

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Dreams of Corant 3

Friday, June 12, 2009 - 9:04 AM

Apologies for such a delay. I was off getting married this past weekend, and that has a tendency to take up a lot of time. The wedding was about as perfect as a wedding can be, and I thought the Edward Gorey theme worked very well indeed. Pictures on the way later.

For now, we're finishing up the story of Corant.

When the party met Corant, they were sneaking around a distant village where the people had been slain and piled up like garbage. A few rather nervous armed men were going through some of the houses, taking anything useful as supplies. When the group did some covert investigating, they noticed the signs of some horrible damage done to a few of the bodies, as if they'd been tortured by someone with a very bad temper.

A bit of listening revealed that the men worked for someone named Lun, who they were more than a little spooked by. Further sneaking revealed one of the houses had been set up as living space; a pot of something pungent was bubbling over the fire, and inside a rail-thin woman hard at work bandaging another woman. The other woman looked unconscious, laying on a table, and her arms and legs were stumps, currently wrapped in fresh bandages.

Concluding that some heinous business was going on, the party bushwhacked the enemy. They steamrolled the mercenaries, and when the thin woman came running out, they put the hurt on her too. In fact, Lun gets taken down quickly.

That was when the sobbing, laughing swarms of black birds came boiling out of Lun's house. The door burst, and a limbless woman came floating out towards the party.

Corant by ~Galindorf on deviantART

They managed to put Corant down, but they were badly shaken by the experience. They thought she had been some innocent made into a floating battery for evil magic, and thought to purify and consecrate her body the following day, at dawn. But in the night, they discovered that it was not easy to kill Corant. She woke up and attacked them again, resulting in the death of one of the party.

Mearowyn was later resurrected by the priests of Dumuzi, who sacrificed one of their own to balance out the debt to the underworld, but she found that even after Corant's final death that there was a splinter of Corant left in her. The aftermath of Corant's 'sharing' slowly made Corant's story apparent.

By the time the group met Corant, Corant was fully immersed in the dark solipsisms of Shepherd philosophy. She was a library of collected secrets, which provided her the means to impose her view of the world on the world around her and inflict her emotions and experiences on others. Lun by that point was insane, but utterly loyal to her older sister, attempting to learn from Corant as best as she could.

The Credo that the Shepherd had given Corant still hung around her neck, encased in a small metal book, and the party took it with them. It was the subject of much speculation. I used an excerpt from the works of Aleister Crowley (Liber V vel Reguli) as a basis for this riddle, modifying the words to point the Credo further inward and making it more a vicious cycle than a tenet for exploration. Corant's Credo was thus:

I am Omniscient, for naught exists for me unless I Know it. I am Omnipotent, for naught occurs save by my Comprehension, my soul's expression through my Will to be, to do, to suffer the symbols of itself. I am Omnipresent, for naught exists where I am not, who fashioned Purity as a condition of my consciousness of myself, who am the center of all, and my circumference the frame of my own wisdom.
I am the All, for all that exists for me is a necessary expression in thought of some tendency of my nature, and all my thoughts are only the letters of my Name.
I am the One, for all that I am is not the absolute All, and all my all is mine and never another's; mine, knowing there are others like myself in expression and illusion, but unlike in essence and truth.
I am the None, for all that I am is the perfect image of the imperfect; each partial phantom must perish in the vision of itself, each form fulfill itself by devouring its equated sins, and satisfying its need to be the Absolute by attainment of annihilation.

One disturbing effect of all this was Corant's bottomless vitality. The party could not figure out why she kept reviving after taking tremendous physical punishment. Later, it was revealed that Corant had Lun cut off Corant's limbs, because Corant didn't want to touch anything (the world was filthy and corrupt, you see), and in fact, the process of keeping her limbs stumps was an ongoing process, as Corant's vindictive body kept trying to grow them back. The party found the steaming pot in the village hut to contain a poultice made of liblit flower, which if ingested puts the mind in a fugue state where one cannot lie.

It turned out that liblit flower was what could kill Corant, and a single knife coated in the juice of the little purple blossom put an end to Corant. As Mearowyn said afterwards, “She couldn't bear to face the truth.”

And that was true.

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Dreams of Corant 2

Saturday, May 30, 2009 - 5:27 PM

The concluding vision of Corant's past.

You sit and comb out your hair. It is almost to your ankles these days, long and luxuriant and glossy, and it is one of the pleasures of your life. You enjoy running fingers through it, combing it out, feeling the weight of it swing back and forth. Usually, you'd pin it up later and take a long walk.

But today will be different.

Only an hour ago, Tobin had an argument with you. This wasn't surprising, because you two often argued. It was always about small things, small things that you didn't even notice but he always did. These little considerations of comment or glance or word just weren't very important to you, but for him, every little thing forgotten was something to carry as a grudge.

For a while, you just ignored it. Tobin is kind enough, but he could never understand you, or what you know, and you were too busy dreaming. The secrets in you twine around your belly and make you warm at night, and the mysteries you ponder are ones that Tobin would never be able to grasp with his weak-fingered mind. You did love that he tried so hard to please you, as if he were apologizing for the marriage, but you didn't love him. So you were both lonely in your own way, and that was just how it was. You knew he suspected a lover, but he would never know the truth. You tried to be kind, but after a while, his touch was something you tolerated.

He called you cold, so you were. He wept, so you comforted him. You were still a woman, however apart you felt, and so you tried to be good, but Tobin's resentment stained any chance of friendship. So you resented the distance too, and consoled yourself with trying to understand the credo your teacher had left.

But lately it had been harder. There had been no children from Tobin's impassioned fumbling, and he really wanted children. You knew it was your duty, but you were thankful there weren't any.

Tobin was a good man, yes, but the thought of bearing his children bothered you.

You were a little bothered about something else too. Did your teacher make sure there would be no children?

It made you worry about your sister, too, because the things you shared with her seemed to weigh heavy on her. They were difficult for her to bear, perhaps. She could not explain the dull ache in her eyes, and that makes you sad. You thought Lun would join you in understanding, but she couldn't understand.

Despite it all, you love your sister, even though she also makes you feel alone. At least you know she loves you back.

But now, combing your hair out, you have to make a decision.

Tobin got angry. He'd grabbed hold of you when you tried to turn away, and he'd never laid a hand on you before, not like this. You finally you decided to tell him what you thought. All the words you'd kept to yourself about him being insecure and weak and controlling and foolish and stupid; you dusted the edges off and you were ready to send them flying, however insincere some of them were except in anger.

But with the first whisper of breath through your lips, a thread slipped from you, a tugging that you felt slip out of your heart like a needle coming out of your skin, and it went through him
Blood covered the wall, and he died, just like that.

You stood there, numb with fear but suddenly elated.

This is what your teacher had meant about communication.

That is when you started to really understand what hid in the credo.

Tobin, you tell yourself, was a good man.

You are sorry for this, you tell yourself. You are sorry, but the hollow in your stomach makes you understand that this one accidental event has killed the Corant who played along the river bank, the pretty Corant who danced in the circle at the coming of spring, and the Corant who was the pride of her parents. You can't stay here anymore.

I am sorry, you tell yourself through Tobin's memory. I am sorry I could not be a good wife to you, and I am sorry that you died. I did not mean to kill you, but I cannot weep for you, because my love is not for you.

With a sigh, you look at yourself in the mirror, studying your proud beauty, and your long dark hair flowing around you like a waterfall at night. Then you take up the sharp knife, and you hack it short. You will leave the hair behind with Tobin's staring body, and you and your sister will leave.

But first, you will wash. You feel dirty.

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Dreams of Corant

Thursday, May 28, 2009 - 12:10 PM

More dream-experiences of Corant's life that Mearowyn got to enjoy after being horribly hurt by Corant's form of expression.


He told you, from the beginning, that you could not share what you knew.

“I trust you,” he said, the first night. “Keep what I tell you safe, and keep me safe.”

Each dark of the moon, you'd go out and meet him, and all night, he'd speak to you in his low, rich voice, telling you tales and poetry older than the White Tower at Kaylan. Sometimes he'd even show you dreams made real, sifting out of the shadows that always boiled around him. He wasn't like other teachers at all; he'd ask about your thoughts, and you lived for the moments when you surprised him with an observation or a comment. It would make him smile, and he might even touch your hand, stealing your breath away.

It was too much joy to bear, and when Lun got curious, you told her. She didn't believe you, so you told her to come with you, to hide and wait.

And so you wait, near the river, in the darkness, and you keep waiting, but he is not there. Your hands start to get numb, and you don't want to sit down. The time passes by like water slowly freezing solid, and you know you've started shuffling fitfully, but you can't help it. When Lun finally gets tired of the 'game' and leaves, you stay, hoping, pleading inside, please, please I won't do this again, just come back, please, I'm sorry.

It is late when he comes out, and suddenly you feel like a stupid little girl, thinking that you could fool him. He stands there and looks at you, unreadable like he usually is, and your shiver isn't just from the cold.

“I'm so sorry,” you say, barely, but he hears you.

“Corant,” he says, making paradise out of your name. “I trusted you.”

And that's when you can't help it, and burst into tears. This only makes it worse. You feel stupid and ugly when you cry, and you wanted everything to be perfect.

“It's all right,” he says, then, and you look at him. He does not say it like your parents do when you do something wrong. And then suddenly he's there and his arms and his shadows and his cloak all wrap around you like snow gone warm, and you start crying again as his perfect hand brushes against your hair, but now it is because you've always wanted him to do this and why why why did it have to be because you did something wrong?

“It's all right,” he whispers, steam from a warm teapot. “When you know enough, you can teach Lun and share with her. Until then, this was just a game. You can tell her that. Go home now, and I will be waiting for you next time.”

And then he's gone again, with only a memory of his cloud of darkness around you, and the faint, burning-wood smell he left behind.


Your parents want you to marry, but what do you care? Tobin is a good enough man, sweet, even, but you don't really notice him. You are too full of your stories and studies, and everyone wonders at your knowledge and skill these days. Eighteen now, and strong, and beautiful.

Over the years, you've made a little place for yourself where you meet your teacher, a camp site across the river. No one ever finds it; you know it has something to do with Him, but that's all you need to know.

He keeps it safe for you.

So, you sit and comb out your long, dark hair, wrapped in the blanket you wove last month to wait for him. A small fire burns nearby. It reminds you of him, the fire. It isn't that he is warm, but he makes you feel secure. He is strong, and his power can destroy, but it purifies; fire makes all things clean again, burns away impurities.

It also reminds you of him because of the baths, the long, scorching hot baths you take to wipe away all the sweat and dust of a long day. Resting there, lazy and immersed, it is easy to think of him as warm, enveloping. He's never held you like he did the one night, but he's touched you.

Your hands remember every moment of it.

And then, he arrives, the fire going eerie and blue for a moment, and you look up from braiding your hair. He emerges like a shadow lengthening, and there is the blazing white affection for you in his luminous eyes.

“Corant,” he says, like he always does, and you smile and get up to curtsy as he taught you. And then you both sit, and there are lessons. Lately it has been more and more about the power in experience, and the profound understanding that can change one's outlook or health or even the soul. He discusses quietly how pieces of disparate knowledge can be joined by a single thought, and this is often how magic works; the creation of a complete pattern where all the power can flow cleanly. And then he shocks you.

“You are ready,” he says softly, and the fire stutters. “Your thoughts and your will are trained, and waiting for wisdom that will grant you great power.” One of his dark, wrapped hands extends and gives you a folded piece of vellum.

“This is a credo for you. Live by it. Learn to understand it. Comprehend the secrets in the words. Finish the pattern, Corant, and then I will come back to you.”

Then your heart stops. “You are leaving,” you say. You've long since been able to speak with him openly. “Why are you leaving me?”

“Because the student must learn on their own. You can teach Lun what you know, now. Take her with you. There are so many keys to understanding this, and you sometimes you must travel to find them. I will only hinder your learning if I stay.”

But I love you, you want to say, and yet your tongue refuses. It isn't the right time. Instead, your mouth opens, and some resigned part of you says, “How long must I wait?”

“Until you have lived the credo, Corant. When you complete that pattern, I will come to you, and we will be together again. I know you will succeed in this.”

You take the paper, not looking, and you nod fiercely to belay the tears. “I will, I promise.”

Then he stands up, and offers a hand, which you take, readily, and then he pulls you in, easy as the wind nudges a leaf, and before you know it, your head is tilting up and your lips part and he kisses you, he drains the breath out of you with his cool mouth and threads of fire slip through your muscles and knot in your stomach. You know you make a sound, but you don't remember it, and then he's gone again, gone into the darkness where you know you can't follow.

But one day you will. You hold the paper in one hand and you swear one day you will.

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A Few Brief Words

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 - 8:21 AM

Between class, wedding planning and miscellaneous intrusions of that thing called life, my brain has been a little short on words lately. This isn't to say the brain is short on ideas, of course; it cranks out concepts and characters and potential plots at alarming speed. This makes me frustration incarnate at times; it is like having a crowd of new people crammed in my skull, all clamoring for development, recognition and a voice. Above all they want that voice.

They want to live long enough to make their name mean something.

Sometimes I think that this is one reason I am a gamer. Gaming is like a quick solution to the mob of unborn characters. Need a new face in the game setting? Easy. The demand for expression is met, however briefly, and my players get to see yet another uncannily human NPC. Or uncannily inhuman, I guess.

Given all the travel and mess in the next few weeks, I imagine updates here might be a bit thin. So, for the next few posts, I'm going to share a few things I've already written rather than my usual practice of writing direct-to-blog. For starters, I'm going to post some material that is connected to my previous mention of the Shepherds, and specifically referring to an NPC who had a tremendous impact on my DnD group, both in and out of character. In fact, I think Corant had the greatest impact on the party out of any NPC.

Corant was an introduction to the Shepherds. She was an example of someone who had been seeded with a fragment of knowledge, and was transformed by letting it grow through her. By the time the players met her, she was horrific, but she'd started as a normal, intelligent young woman. Corant killed by communicating, and one of the party got dropped by her 'conversation'. As a result, that party member was stained by what Corant had known and experienced, and later had these vision/dreams, reliving small moments of Corant's life.

This was certainly one reason Corant affected my group so much, but I believe there was something more to it. The evil of the Shepherds, when expressed through others, comes out as a lonely, desperate creature. It is a despairing, empty kind of evil, a gnawing and mournful thing. This has the effect of generating sympathy as much as loathing or hatred, and this is one reason why the work of the Shepherds is so dangerous. As a patron of the group once said, 'The Shepherds never force anyone to do anything. They only offer.'

Corant accepted that offer, and here is the first part of that story.


To the north, there are the Nightsigh mountains, and you've always loved watching them, the fog that broke over their toothy crowns every evening. You imagined them as giant emperors and empresses, long ago turned to stone by their mighty patience, facing away from the bleak and terrible land everyone knows lays beyond them. The elves would come and tell tales, but never tales of what was beyond the Nightsigh. 'Sad and horrible,' they said, but nothing more.

But you would walk along the river, with the sun at your back, and warmth in your step. Swift runner, sharp-eyed, you could outwit and outrun most of the boys, and today, it makes you smile to think of them wanting to chase you. Lun was always so jealous of you, and you thought it was funny. You've always been the pretty one, with your long, dark hair and bright eyes, and besides, you're oldest, so that means you get courted first. You have just reached your fifteenth year, so it will start soon!

But mother also says ladies don't play about like you do, and you do it anyway, running down to the river to fish or watch the birds or climb trees. Sometimes your hair gets tangled up or you come home dirty, but mother always forgives you because you sing so beautifully, and you know all the old poems and your calligraphy is perfect. Today, it is catching salamanders, ankle-deep in the wide, muttering river, dreaming about the future. You've always wanted a horse, but home is too rocky and uneven for real riding. Tara's son said so; he'd been south, to Wevnir, and open ground. Perhaps when you do get married, there will be horses... but you won't be like other ladies. You'll ride where you wish, forever!

That's when you notice that someone is watching you from the other side of the river, and you look up, startled, because no one lives there.

That is when you see him


standing there in the shadows, with shadows boiling around him and a streak of darkness held in his


hands like a shepherd's crook, and he looks at you with blazing white eyes, the most dreadful and beautiful thing you have ever dreamed of, and suddenly you don't want your hair to be so tangled and your hands are all muddy and your feet dirty, and he just looks at you and then he smiles and your heart flutters like a butterfly you caught in between your hands once. And then it flies free, because he speaks to you, in a voice just like the fog breaking over the Nightsigh.

“I've been waiting a long time to find you.”

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Adventure Seed

Thursday, May 21, 2009 - 9:24 AM

Some additional information for my players, on a person who has been in the background for a long time...

The Nakibs of Jundo Anha serve two primary purposes. They are wise women and men who offer counsel and a sharp eye to the rulers of their people. They are also mystics who study and watch over the swamp-riddled verdant land, and gather threads of power from the earth. Nakibs (or Nakibas) do consider themselves custodians and wardens of the natural world, but there is nothing rustic about them. They are as clinical as they are reverent about increasing their understanding of the world, often cultivating libraries as well as greenhouses, and carefully studying the interlaced balance of animal and plant.

Most Nakibs begin as scholars, members of the aristocracy, and as they advance in understanding and skill, they are usually assigned regions of land to watch over. Most find some individual facet of nature to focus on, and they often share information with one another.
A handful of Nakibs have achieved extraordinary skill in their craft, and gather no little fame. Many of these Nakibs still attend the plutocratic court of Jundo Anha, but a few have wandered far from home to study and understand other parts of the world.

Nakiba Hafsah al'Kabir was one of these. Daughter of a merchant who traded in art, rare flowers and books, Hafsah had access to a high level of education and sophistication. Her family did not have a Nakib, but her father did keep a greenhouse, and she showed an aptitude for horticulture early on. Originally, her father had hoped she would become a Hakima, a truth-sayer and magician, but Hafsah lacked the subtle wit and unrelenting self-awareness for that lofty position. However, her exhaustive knowledge of local plants and animals attracted the attention of another Nakib, who appealed to her father to allow her the Seven Tests of Empathy. Hafsah passed them easily, showing the proper sensitivity, perception and insight to weave the threads of a Nakiba.

After her induction, she rose quickly in skill, and was named Nakiba within a year's time. Her apprenticeship to a Nakib was cut short with the sudden death of her father, who died in a shipwreck while en route to the port of New Ombos. Being eldest in the family, Hafsah had to make decisions about the family business. Wealth is extremely important for status in Jundo Anha, and Hafsah preferred to maintain high standing above and beyond the quiet recognition as Nakiba. She spent a few years acquainting herself fully with all the trade routes her father used, branching out the business and doing some exploration of her own. After securing and refining her family business, Hafsah returned to Jundo Anha and resumed her studies as a Nakiba.
Her social status and considerable talent won her the plot of Andira Laa, a particularly humid pit of old swamp, which Hafsah spent a couple of years overseeing. The richness of life in such a fertile but hostile environment was fascinating to her, and she experimented heavily with alchemy using processes and materials from Andira Laa. Some of her experiments won considerable accord from her Nakib peers, but Hafsah would be known for transplanting flowers from other places.

Specifically, during her travels Hafsah had been exposed to the rare and peculiar flora of the Shemshir basin. Flowers and plants grow there which will not grow anywhere else, due to some elusive quality of the earth or the weird sorcery of the Par'hu who live there. Hafsah became aware of plants there which could revive the recently dead, allow sight into the future, and create other wonders. She experimented with crossbreeding and grafting in the Andira Laa, seeing if these plants could fit into ecosystem there, but only had limited success.

The bizarre and potent drugs from Shemshir also caught Hafsah's attention, and she began to make use of some of them recreationally. But she also found one in particular which increased her sensitivity and awareness to the plants she was working with. She could hear their growth like a form of soft music. This subtle level of perception allowed her to make leaps and bounds of progress in mystical horticulture, and by the time she started to study what little was known about Par'hu garden sorcery, the other Nakibs came to her with concerns about her extensive use of Shemshir drugs. They were grudgingly surprised by what she'd done with the Andira Laa, but also pointed out that she'd broken several rules about transplanting species.

Choosing to withdraw honorably, Hafsah publicly apologized for her failings, gathered up her merchant business, and relocated to Korai, where lack of strictures on imports and exports caused her wealth to increase. She began to heavily invest in the small but potent market for Shemshir plants and products, and quickly became known as a seller for them. Her experimentation continued, and eventually she became fascinated with the ability of certain Shemshir plants to overcome or transform the effects of death, as well as those which behaved more like animals.

Eventually, Hafsah's studies branched further into arcane practices, looking at the patterns of necromancy and the concept of ecology created in conditions where necromantic forces were prominent. Her erudition and magical skill grew, as did her wealth, as did her level of experimentation. Her original affinity for swamps did not fade, and she continued to study the fecundity of an environment that was so full of death. Much of her experimentation at this point was performed on herself, or under tightly controlled conditions. She did not introduce her work to any natural environment at that time, and traveled a fair amount to collect books, materials and information to expand her work.

Hafsah developed a reputation as a remarkable apothecary, a talented necromancer and a skilled herbalist and horticulturist, as well as a clever and influential merchant. In the recent days of her career, she has grown increasingly reclusive, and purchased a large swath of forbidding sub-tropical swamp in the Purayu islands, presumably as a home. Particularly recent findings are a bit troubling, however; indications show that she had been doing extensive work with the frightening Shemshir ochre tilia, a beautifully colored but rather mangy clinging plant whose pollen puts animals into a deep hypnotic state...which the plant uses to slowly consume them.

What is happening on Hafsah's island is still a mystery, but many of the local populations have suddenly ceased contact with neighboring islands.

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Inherently Evil

Wednesday, May 13, 2009 - 12:49 PM

We have had some great comments on recent posts... inspired by Elf Rage. This post is a bit late but I think some people will find it very interesting reading.

It is important to note that in a fantasy setting, just like science fiction, you are dealing with the concept of beings who simply do not think or feel the way humans do. They don't perceive the world the same way, either. Being human ourselves, we have to use the human perception as a baseline for these depictions, but it is important to understand that an entirely different species might make decisions on an entirely different set of thoughts, rationales and feelings. and this is rather more absolute than merely having an opinion. Evil implies motive, and if something cannot help but be what it is, how evil is it really? This is one reason why I don't think the presence of absolute evil makes things suddenly black and white. Absolute evil does not negate moral shades of gray.

I will also mention that I don't believe that something born inherently evil is automatically Absolute evil. Absolute evil is reserved for those supernatural things such as demons, who are removed entirely from the constraints of natural law. In my mind, something like a demon might be able to make sense, but ultimately, their way of thinking would be almost entirely incomprehensible to a mortal creature.

Of course, right from the start, you have a problem with the terminology. What does inherently evil even mean? Considering how out of control 'what if my paladin...' threads get in RPG forums, it is pretty easy to see how differently people view good and evil (my favorite one-liner is from a friend of mine: 'if you have to explain why it isn't evil, it's probably evil'). Instead of philosophizing, I'm going to use some examples of three intelligent races from my own campaign which are commonly regarded from the human standpoint as 'evil'.

Goblins are widely considered a dangerous nuisance. They are not very bright, breed very quickly, and can be extremely tenacious. They are careless with resources, but are capable of living in places humans won't even go near. Goblins have only one real sense of morality, and that is the survival of their own kind. The fae blood in their veins has given them a degree of creativity, whimsy and fascination, but the goblin view of beauty is a bit skewed, and they find the extreme of creatures in shock or pain oddly compelling; it is like one step up from the human tendency to stare at a car wreck. Part of this is how they were bred; goblins were made to be expendable soldiers, meant to fight and die en masse for their ogre autarch masters (the Gavarrhan).

Goblins left on their own don't want to fight wars, but there is a constant danger implicit to a goblin population. Bred to obey, goblins are compelled to follow orders from hobgoblins or ogres, and will do so even if it kills them. Goblins fear their masters for this reason, often actively avoiding contact with ogres or hobgoblins, but they literally cannot comprehend direct disobedience to either. They can coexist with humans fairly well if coached, and are quite capable of emotions like love or compassion. The irrevocable splinter of obedience to the Gavarrhan is troublesome enough, however, and there is a lot of prejudice towards goblins. Goblins, not understanding prejudice as a concept, attack would-be attackers furiously in order to protect their own, and have no compunctions about resorting to torture or atrocity to scare other races out of their territory.

The pheesu are a rather different case. Like goblins, they were manipulated into becoming a race of their own, but in this case the pheesu were merely uplifted to sapience from their original animalistic state, and left to develop on their own. Originally pack-hunting reptilians, the pheesu developed a kind of 'over-pack' hierarchy that provided a foundation for a large society, bolstered by an acknowledgment of racial identity. But the old tenets of predator-prey relationships and territorial rights were hard-wired in the pheesu psyche. As much as the pheesu became capable of rationalizing or comprehending, their instincts were in them from birth. Their initial conquest was merely for more territory as their race grew, but they were not interested in subjugating other races for any other reason than to use them as cattle. The pheesu were indifferent to the philosophy, art or science of prey animals. They would toss human captives to their hatchlings so that their hatchlings could fight over the food, giving their young practice at killing as well as weeding out the weak.

Pheesu were ferociously protective of their children, but they did not make allowances for runts of the nest. The strong live, the weak die. Killing was just part of being a pheesu; the imperative of predation would overwhelm them if ignored for too long, and the average pheesu would have to kill an animal once a week or so. This was not regarded as a hindrance to them. It was just part of being pheesu. Likewise, physical confrontations between packs were an accepted occurrence. Like many animals, they had behavior allowing for minimal harm of their species in a confrontation, and that became a ritualized but nonetheless brutal act of resolution. They had no empathy for prey races, such as humans. A pheesu was not being cruel when it started eating a human alive. It would not have thought to spare the human the pain, because the human was merely not important. At no point did the pheesu ever ask whether or not they were doing something wrong. It would have been exceedingly difficult for them to even understand the notion that it would be wrong from another point of view.The pheesu only respected or communicated with those creatures that were individually tougher than a pheesu, or for some reason did not set off their territorial instinct.

The Shepherds, descendents of the Alfar who studied human symbols of corruption, are all sages and scholars. They seek out forbidden secrets and keep many of the same, occasionally letting one or half of one slip to watch as the disease of knowledge spreads through the world. They study corruption in all forms; body, mind and soul. They examine the countless ways corruption might manifest and grow as well as how it is stopped or dealt with. Shepherds watch the process of secrets growing into different secrets, and collect all manner of lore that is regarded as repugnant, grotesque, frightful or blasphemous. The malice of a Shepherd is incredibly subtle and far-reaching, and thus to the common mind, they do not seem nearly as cruel as they actually are. The act of manipulating other beings is so ingrained to a Shepherd that it is instinctive. They are capable of compassion, but it is often for the purpose of building trust so that they can violate that trust in the future. Though the horrors they practice on others (and sometimes themselves) do further their constant study, Shepherds feel contentment in doing these things, and regard it as quite healthy and normal.

All Shepherds consider themselves part of a family. All Shepherds follow a common goal, which is so integral to who and what they are that it is an intimate bond between them. In a sense, one can consider all Shepherds to be in love with one another. In their view, no one else can see the depths that a Shepherd has descended to, and no other race can possibly understand how far a Shepherd can go. To a Shepherd, the world is a strange place, for it does not mirror the nightmare life that they are content with nor the twisted, selfish place they see the world as. Expressions of love between Shepherds border on atrocity in the eyes of other beings, and the compassion they show to non-Shepherds is pain at best.

So, which of these is inherently evil? Which of these is evil at all? How much black and white morality do you see here? Could any of them be potentially allies or heroes? What about antiheroes?


Elf Rage 2

Tuesday, May 5, 2009 - 3:58 PM

The drow, or dark elves, are a creature straight from the Dungeons and Dragons universe, and they have a long and colorful history despite their monochromatic appearance. They originally started as one of the most frightening opponents in the RPG, portrayed as ancient, decadent and amoral creatures who have a burning hatred and contempt of other races, especially their elven relations. The original descriptions of what the drow were like pointed at a vicious and depraved culture that was nonetheless highly educated and sophisticated. There were hints of the wonderfully inhuman Melniboneans from the Michael Moorcock Elric saga.

When the Forgotten Realms setting came out, things changed. The popularity of Forgotten Realms brought out a very different kind of drow elf, one which I abhor to this day. The fickle decadence was replaced by an adolescent portrait of cut-throat politics and pretentious power struggles. The alien behavior of the drow was lost, and they became like other elves; pointy-eared humans, who in this case had morality issues and an allergy to sunlight. One of the major reasons this version of the drow became popular was the work of R.A. Salvatore, in his portrayal of the rather melancholy renegade drow Drizzt Do'Urden.

What happened?

The drow all suddenly became cloak and dagger caricatures, smirking and swaggering around in arrogant circles. The fragments that Gygax and his contemporaries produced were swept away under this new hierarchy, and the drow lost their identity. The RPG world was suddenly filled with redemptive anti-hero drow, renegades against the oppressive matriarchy of their society.

This is the seat of my Elf Rage. I loathe this version of the drow, and for several reasons. Cheesy moustache twiddling villains rub me the wrong way, no matter what they are, but losing the elegant inhuman ugliness of the original dark elves was just plain inexcusable. I also find it laughable how some people interpret the drow from a metagame standpoint, in particular the fact that they are depicted with black skin. That's black as in ink, not black as in negroid, though some people seem to have made that mistake on occasion.

As it turns out, a good look at early DnD monsters will reveal some bits and pieces of very old mythology. Svart alfar were the dark elves in Nordic/Germanic myth, and these were the direct basis for the drow themselves. Svart, for those who do not already know, is literally 'black'. It's the root for the word 'swarthy', meaning dark-skinned.

So, why not make them ink-skinned? Take your racial theories elsewhere.

Also, the notion that the matriarchal religion of the drow represented some kind of gamer fear of women is patently ridiculous. I point to the simple fact that, originally, the drow had sexual dimorphism: the dice sets for female stats were better than those for males. The women had better innate magical abilities, and they were even physically bigger than the men. This is in keeping with the arachnid theme of their own deity. Now, perhaps gamer fear of women figured into later depictions, but I refuse to believe it was originally part of the drow aesthetic.

Also, some have complained about the notion of a race that is born evil. Well, why not have a race which is literally born evil? This IS fantasy, after all. It brings up some very interesting questions about morality, of course, but I do not happen to believe that the concept of a race born evil makes everything suddenly black and white, particularly if the evil in question is actually just a very different set of operating parameters. A tiger kills the ox to eat. It is a killing animal, born and created for it. If it were intelligent, would it continue to have this killing instinct? Would it need to exercise that instinct regularly? Would that make it evil in the cosmic sense?

When I designed evil elves for my setting, I wanted to avoid a couple of specific factors involved with the drow. First, the drow society is entirely a construct built by their female demon-goddess Lolth. I try and avoid direct divine intervention as much as possible in world building, saving it for specific circumstances. Second, the drow are basically attacking the surface world because of the usual needs for vengeance, conquest, just plain malice, etc. I wanted something more sophisticated than that, something less human and much less short-term.

This post went on for a bit, so I'll cap it off with a little introduction to the next. It's only fair that, having pig-poled the drow, I should show what my own ideas have been about what an evil elf would be. So, consider this.

The elves were born from the alfar's attempts to understand human symbols and concepts. One among them noticed that humans had some strange ideas about decomposition, decay, and fear. The word corruption as an intangible, moral concept did not exist for the alfar. The alfar noticed that the concept was most often associated with cities, and so the one who chose to study the concept built one. All of those who wanted to study these concepts went to the city, and began the process. Later, that city was sealed off, and their leader told the other alfar that isolation was required for a time.

After a great deal of time the other alfar began to wonder what had happened to their comrades, and they went to the city to alleviate their concerns. What they ended up doing was leveling the city and scorching the surrounding land to nothing but rock.

But what they did not know was that some citizens of Uryashar had long since left the city to walk covertly among the other races. It was not enough for them to study by becoming; they had to continue their study by influencing, manipulating and creating events in the lives of others.

In later days, these once-alfar would be called the Shepherds.

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Elf Rage?

Monday, May 4, 2009 - 4:18 PM

Over at the Burning Zeppelin Experience, there's some excellent talk about Elf Rage, which is something I've both seen and been part of.

I'll be clear. I don't hate elves, or even the concept of elves. I do have elves in my DnD game, and I would cheerfully include them in a fantasy novel. But I hate how they are usually portrayed, especially in modern fantasy literature, and particularly in RPGs. My primary reason for this is simple.

Elves are not humans.

I've touched on this topic before, but it bears repeating. One of the biggest problems in fantasy literature (particularly modern fantasy literature) is that non-human races are basically humans with some odd quirk or physical difference. They are often culturally very limited in comparison with humans, usually only with one basic social pattern ('we love nature' is a fine example). Though this makes a certain degree of sense with particularly long-lived races, as a culture might homogenize itself after a very long time, it's still not very likely. The one exception to that might be if the actual psychology of the race is different from the human norm, but we have already pointed out that in most examples, it Isn't. They act and react like humans, they follow basically human lives under a patina of carefully applied theme, and in most cases are even biologically similar to humans.

That said, my own Elf Rage is mitigated by my acceptance that elves are an archetype of their own. Whatever their depiction, the notion of these otherworldly, beautiful and ancient creatures is ever-present. You may call them something other than elves, and perhaps they have horns instead of pointed ears, but they are still in keeping with the elf archetype. Fantasy stories in particular are replete with the Fair Folk, even if only mentioned. People quickly grasp on to that archetype, and it has been present mythologically for ages. It's easily accessible at its heart, even if the peripheries are silly.

So, what do you do to make an elf separate from the aggravating tropes they've been connected with?

That's the hard part. I do with elves what I do with any non-human race. First I decide what fundamental mode of behavior is intrinsically different in them, and then I carom this facet off of the usual survival mechanisms to see how everything changes. Then I start fitting it into the world I'm placing them, and the rest tends to fall together. I should mention that I am a huge psychology/sociology/anthropology geek, so I have a lot of patterns in my head to play with, and a lot of questions I don't even consciously ask anymore. They just answer themselves eventually.
To make my elves accessible, I do keep a few of the standard concepts behind them, but the way I handle them are considerably different from what I've bumped into in my reading.

My own elves are latecomers. Humanity has been around a lot longer than they have, and one of the big keys to the elf world is that they are trying to understand humans and how they fit into the universe. The elven predecessors, the alfar, did not have a shape of their own. They Became whatever they wanted to be, and that was how they understood something. So, in the beginning, they were clouds and mountains and trees, and in all respects they were clouds and mountains and trees, existing as these things in order to know the greater whole. But then they saw that humans gave meaning beyond what was there, and this puzzled and intrigued them. To the alfar, fire was fire. You didn't need to explain it further than that. To a human, fire could meant security, safety, sometimes emotional warmth, passion, volatility or even anger.

The alfar were astounded, and thought that perhaps humans understood the world on a level that the alfar did not. They did not comprehend symbols at first, but they did what they had always done. They became the symbols in order to understand them. Most of the alfar broke into groups in order to study and meditate on these abstract human concepts, and carefully built themselves a new shape in order to learn. This would be the beginning of the elves, and the relation to human concepts is why elves appear somewhat human. As time went on, some alfar found themselves so deeply absorbed into their study that they lost the power to change again, and these were the first elves, grounded forever into the universe as humans were. Elves are still engaged in their attempt to understand humanity, though some have given up on the process. They've been companions to humanity since the beginning, and though neither really understands the other, humans will always find the elves fascinating and the elves are always drawn to humanity.

The alfar themselves are for the most part gone. Those who did not become elves left the world in shame and outrage because of the studies of one of their own, who found the human concept of corruption fascinating, and built a city to explore it. They leveled the city and departed, leaving behind only a handful of their own to watch over their now-lesser children.

I did keep many pieces of the old elf template. As you can see, I kept the Tolkienesque notion that the elves were connected to one of the world's great evils, innocently stumbling into something that consumed them. The elves do live a long time, but their lifespan depends strongly on what philosophy they were born from. Some only live as long as a human does. Also, this translation of elvenkind accounts for the notion that there must be many different kinds of elf, something that I was merely looking for a good way to explain. If humans have so many ethnicities, why not elves, after all?

So, here you have elves which are walking symbols. Unlike humans, elves really are stereotypes, whatever their personal differences in attitude and opinion. Some elves can always be counted on to be vindictive, for example, and some are always passionate and quick-tempered. It is part of what they are. Humans are amazed at the self-confidence and utter certainty of the elves, and elves wonder at the ever-changing nature of humanity with its shifting boundaries and mutable personalities. This isn't to say that elves do not change their behavior; they do. But elves don't have any illusions about who or what they are. Their illusions are in what they want to become.

This is one reason why the elves fell prey to themselves in the city of Uryashar, and why there are some branches of the elven race which are feared and despised to this day. And no, that wouldn't be the drow. But the drow are a topic for another day. Most of my Elf Rage is vested in that very specific subject.

So, do I support Elf Rage? To a degree, yes, it is justifiable. But all stories use archetypes, and elves have become just another archetype.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009 - 1:34 PM

In my campaign setting, there was once a fiercely human empire of great power and influence, where experiments in magic, art and science changed the world on a regular basis. The empire was destroyed, and only those few citizens who were not in the nation at the time were spared. All the rest were slain by the disaster.

A session ago, the player characters found a fellow who once belonged to this empire during its heyday. He was stuck outside of time, due to the influences of a magical amulet, and having freed him, the party made sure to see him safely to a patron of theirs. They were worried about him going mad once he found out his former home was gone, but they also recognized what a rare source of information he would be. Given how things are going, it might be a while before they chat with him again, so I thought I'd present a little piece of his point of view here.

On the map, the wide peninsula extended south from Morugai. Roughly in the middle, the peninsula's center was gnawed hollow by a huge, abnormally perfect circle of ocean. Ambrose could see a few spots there, indicating islands. The mapmaker had drawn a larger circle in red, centering the hollow, and written the rune for 'Forbidden'. Written over the water-filled crater was the word 'Umar'.

To Ambrose, it had only been two weeks ago when he'd walked down the gleaming sapphire cobbles of a wide thoroughfare, where tall trees of crystal and translucent ivory cast violet shadows across the road leading to the Zurunan Palace of Arcane Learning. He'd sat down for a meeting in a vast hall where blue-streaked pale marble had been literally grown into vast caryatids, whose huge arms supported a domed ceiling of perfectly polished silver which would never tarnish. He remembered looking up at the constantly shifting orrery of burning spheres there, hovering and spinning in perfect harmony to cast a shifting, warm light through the hall as a tiny ceramic golem poured rare Deshune frostmountain tea into chalcedony cups. There, he had sampled sliced fruits from places as far as the Ixte jungle and the cold, dripping forests of Shanmora, discussing philosophy and metaphysics with men and women whose educations beggared some of history's great sages. Like the nation of Umar itself, they were makers of history. The world would not stand on their shoulders to greatness; the magicians of Umar would teach the world to fly.

But three hundred years ago, Umar plummeted from the sky and was obliterated. The Zurunan was dust. The arcane explosion of Umar fed upon itself, perpetuating for over a year in a seething beautiful cataclysm, leaving behind a chewed-out crater that the ocean filled. Even after so long, the area was full of agonized cobwebs of magic, wracking time and space as easily as flesh and bone. No one dared approach.

Ambrose had learned that the world now feared Umar. They saw his people as having been arrogant, careless and decadent.

In the quiet of the archmage Caradoc's library, he sat in a simple but comfortable chair, with a small cup of mundane green tea, and shut his eyes against the present. He was very alone.

Yes, he was thankful to Caradoc for being a peer and a friend, however reserved the archmage was.

Yes, he was thankful to those who released him from the effect of his amulet, and thankful to them for their own compassion.

Yes, he was even thankful that he survived, because at least some truth from Umar survived with him, some part of the great dream that hadn't been stained with three hundred years of despise and fear.

Hands folded around his teacup, he sat in silence, inhaling the clean, paper-scented air of the library, and forced his emotions to stillness. Concentration was normally easy for him, bu today it was slippery, tangled in the swelling feeling deep in his chest.

Even though his home was gone, and all of those who he'd known and loved were gone, there was something much greater missing from the world Ambrose found himself in. Looking at the small stack of books he'd consumed in the past couple of days, catching up on the three hundred years he'd lost, he finally understood what it was.

When Umar died, a vision died with it. Ambrose saw the tiny hints, the unspoken gaps in the histories and accounts. He read the whispers behind the words when people decried the works of Umar, and spoke out against the ambitious. They thought it was Umar, but he came to understand their fear was not of Umar or Umaran works. They were afraid of failure, and did not want to see others succeed.

Fear of failure had never been a part of Ambrose's world.

This is something that I can give to the world, he thought. That and I carry with me traditions that were lost or shunned centuries ago... so, in me, Umar does survive. My world does exist, and perhaps humanity may learn to fly again.

Letting the thoughts console him, he sighed, sipped at his tea, and then abruptly smiled. The smile turned into a small, pleased laugh.

He knew of at least four people who did not fear failure, and he sincerely hoped he would see them again.

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The Wazir of Woe

Tuesday, April 7, 2009 - 12:19 PM

A tiny handful of desert hermits and sages know that the Wazir of Woe was indeed a former inhabitant of the ancient city Ombos. They have pieced together tiny pieces of information and description from the diverse tales to indicate that the Wazir was an acolyte and embalmer, likely born to the last generation of Ombos before the warlock-priests transcended and returned their beautiful city to the wasteland it had been built in. It is suspected that at least three Ombosin escaped the holocaust at Ombos, but the Wazir is the only concrete indication of one having been active long after Ombos was destroyed.

This same handful of hermits and sages are not willing to share much of their information about the Wazir, because they have also noticed that people researching very deeply into the Wazir folklore have a tendency to disappear. An astute scholar might also note that in history, those regions where the Wazir was said to have been active have a number of traits in common. First, all of them are currently harsh desert or similar inhospitable climates, uninhabited and often largely forgotten. Second, in the tales of the Wazir, all of these regions are described as having been fruitful and green in their associated stories. Third, and most telling, originally all of them were close to or bordered the Sirri desert, in the center of which Ombos once stood.

Those who sift the far-scattered records of ancient history will notice one other commonality: by rumor or fact, each of these regions was noted to have been in custody of some treasure from Ombos. In all cases, these treasures have been lost to time, and no one can say where they've gone or what has happened to them. It is well known, of course, that the incessantly wandering warlock-priests of Ombos lay waste to any trespassers that go near their ruined city, but they rarely wander so far out from the desert to attack cities or settlements at the edges of the Sirri. Further, their trail is easy to track; they are walking natural disasters, unthinkingly blasting apart buildings and streets.

The truth is that the Wazir of Woe is in fact a vestige of ancient Ombos. His name is Zindhir, and he studied under the twenty warlock-priests, learning about the primordial channeling magic they had mastered. Like other students, Zindhir sought out elemental affinities with the raw forces and aspects of nature, and he was one of three who went on a mystical pilgrimage to increase that affinity just before the warlock-priests finished their own evolution as channelers. Ombos was sundered while he was gone, and he quickly headed back to his home to find that treasure hunters were already converging on the ruin. He was outraged, and began to track down those treasure hunters who had managed to sneak past the patrolling warlock-priests.

To his dismay, he found that the warlock-priests attempted to bar him from reaching Ombos as well, and being unable to communicate with them, he interpreted this to mean that they were attempting to complete some great work he was not yet ready to be part of. This was painful for Zindhir; at the time, he thought he was the only survivor outside of the warlock-priests, and Ombos was all that he'd ever known. Dedicated to his vanished people and his faith, Zindhir chose to continue his own studies, hoping that one day he would progress far enough to be called back to Ombos again, and he also chose to track down all that had been stolen from Ombos. He would safeguard it all until the day he could return it to its rightful place.

It has been nearly five thousand years since Ombos died. Zindhir's primal magic allowed him to hibernate for long stretches of time, and it also prolongs his lifespan, which is why he is still alive to this day. But the long dormant periods and stresses of his spiritual path have worn away at Zindhir. He is a paranoid, isolationist creature who is obsessed with his privacy and the secrecy of Ombos itself. In past centuries, he would indeed arrive in those kingdoms where he'd tracked some item or scroll or teaching of his home nation, and he would work his way into the kingdom as an advisor. Zindhir would stay quiet long enough to learn specifically what traces of Ombos were present, and then he would begin a process of fomenting violent discord and unrest.

Frequently he would take control, using his powers to bring other stresses to the kingdom, and in the ensuing cloud of confusion, he would systematically eliminate anyone bearing knowledge of ancient Ombos and taking back any relic of his people. Survivors of any unrest were often driven off by the terrible weather that tended to follow Zindhir's arrival, and within a few years of the region being abandoned, the area was a wasteland where no one would want to live. Zindhir would then move on to his next work.

In the current age, Zindhir believes he has obliterated all traces of the true Ombos lore. He knows that some treasure hunters still venture into the ruins, but he is patient, and is currently more interested in furthering his progression as an Ombosin channeler. He resides in the furthest south region of Antambil, where the desert wasteland meshes with the barren, hostile tundra. The contrast of boiling desert and dry, frozen wasteland intrigues him, and these concepts are those he is cultivating an affinity for. After so much time, his piety and dedication to ancient Ombos is crystallized and sharp, but the temperament and manner that his chosen affinity demands of him makes Zindhir spend large amounts of time far from Ombos. In being like the wasteland, Zindhir must also be uncaring if not hostile to civilizations and trespassers alike, and his obsession with privacy and the secrets of his homeland has only grown. He is also bitter that so many other civilizations have thrived and flourished, and yet Ombos remains in ruins, unrecognized in the current age except as a failed remnant of a once-great civilization. Yet, Zindhir cannot show the world the teachings of Ombos, nor have them recognize any part of what he knew as a paradise.

So, Zindhir emulates his warlock-priest teachers, wandering the uninhabited, brutal frozen desert he's chosen as his home, stopping to briefly meditate at various eroded ruins he's discovered there from a time before even Ombos. One day he may come north again and begin anew his process of seeking out treasure hunters, or perhaps someone might discover his presence and come seeking questions about the past. Given proper incentive, he might even enlist an outsider to attempt to enter Ombos and discover what has been going on there for the past few thousand years. He is very curious, and he yearns to be called home again.

Zindhir's studies have changed him physically. Though he can transmute himself into what he once looked like (or for that matter into any other human shape), his true form is broad and hunched, with a massive build and heavy head. His skin looks thick and gray, with blackened extremities. Some reptilian characteristics have begun to show; dull scales have begun to form in patches on Zindhir, his teeth have grown sharp and black, and his body constantly exudes layers of a kind of resin, which gives him a peeling appearance as if he were shedding his skin. Ancient glyph tattoos of mystical import still decorate his body, and they burn with a cold red light in brief surges.

Zindhir has embedded the most valuable Ombosin treasures he's recovered in the layers of resin on his body, which in turn is mostly covered by his layered robes. This makes him look like a walking archive of small tomes, random pieces of jewelry, icons, figurines, amulets and ceremonial pieces. Some of these things dangle slightly, making him sound like a collection of dull chimes or bells when he walks.

When he changes forms, this collection appears to be an exorbitant amount of jewelry. His mode of dress is definitely beautiful, keeping to flowing and layered garments of a delicately patterned cloth similar to silk. His chosen colors are gold, yellow, black and russet. It would be easy to assume him overdressed, considering that he wears what amounts to ceremonial clothing. On his right arm there are three cuffs of seething material; one burns like white-hot iron, one appears to be ice with the sun filtered through it, and the last is a band of constantly changing agate. These fit snugly around his upper arm, shifting size to accommodate him, and represent his three chosen realms of mastery. The Wazir's golden turban represents the yellow and gold wrappings that Zindhir keeps around his head, representative of his focus of study. The sunlight crawls and burns along the edges of this cloth, as if it were burning, but late at night, it merely appears as yellow cloth. The 'eye' is actually Zindhir's leftmost eye, which has been enchanted by magic in an ancient Ombosin tradition, and though he does not keep maps in his shoes, Zindhir's incessant wandering is certainly due to an Ombosin belief that movement is necessary to proper understanding.

In his usual human form, Zindhir appears as a spare, middle-aged man whose muscles and bones ripple underneath his dark bronze skin. His thin black hair is kept short. Faint black stubble frequently shows on his lean, wolfish face, and his eyes are incongruously pale, an old Ombosin trait.

Interactions with Zindhir are difficult. He is not interested in company, generally, and usually drives off trespassers. He does have a tendency to mutter to himself in combat, usually something to the effect of 'Mine, it is mine. Not yours. Mine.' or 'I must be alone.' However, if a dialogue does begin, Zindhir is extremely eloquent. His conversations are liberally dotted with colorful descriptions and quotes of obscure poetry. He has not adjusted his speech patterns to fit with the modern age, and it does show even when he is infiltrating in another shape. Indeed, he regards most common conversation as crass and ignorant, with no music or color to it, and refuses to compromise his art. Despite this penchant for flowery discourse, Zindhir's manner is fairly laconic and grim.

Using Zindhir:

Zindhir is not to be trifled with. Though he cannot match the raw power of the warlock-priests, he is still extremely strong, and he does not shirk at death and destruction. His ambitions are hidden from others, but his isolationist attitude might lighten a bit with proper motivation. Some of these have already been mentioned, but there are some other options for why people might interact with Zindhir.

He is a scholar of tremendous age and learning. So long as no information about Ombos is asked about, Zindhir can provide a plethora of first-hand historical information, as well as facts and locations about various ruins strewn throughout the deserts of his continent. He also knows that others might be enlisted in his quest to recover Ombosin artifacts, and he might provide information and incentive for others to do so on his behalf, though he would prefer to manipulate them into doing it rather than to be upfront about it. Of course, any pawns or associates who try to make off with Ombos lore or relics will be tracked down and destroyed. Zindhir might also send people out to gather materials from other wastelands in the world or otherwise contribute in ways to his own progression (without any real explanation of course; the phrase 'I could tell you but then I'd have to kill you' is no joke with Zindhir).

Zindhir's machinations, when he gets to them, are always convoluted and considerable. As time has gone by, he has stepped further and further away from the limelight, and prefers it that way. Unraveling a Zindhir conspiracy would make for a fine campaign, even if the heroes never actually confront Zindhir himself. He is eccentric, and over the centuries, he's developed an odd sense of the dramatic. Though he is quite subtle, Zindhir has a weakness for flares of extravagance and over-the-top events. He understands this is a habit he's trying to overcome, but he isn't done with it yet.

Zindhir of Ombos
Large Human (Augmented)
AC 30 (touch 18, flatfooted 25) MV 30, Init +4, BAB 15, F+22 R+6 W+18
STR 16 DEX10 CON 31 INT 26 WIS 22 CHA 26
Attacks: +18/+13/+8 melee touch attack (5d6 dessication damage) or by weapon (note 10 ft. reach)
Skills: Appraise +28, Bluff +26, Concentration +30, Diplomacy +30, Disguise +28, Forgery +20, Gather Information +28, Intimidate +28, Knowledge (arcana, history, planes) +28, Listen +20, Search +20, Sense Motive +25, Spellcraft +28, Spot +24
Feats of Note: Extend Spell, Improved Initiative, Empower Spell, Maximize Spell

Acolyte of Ombos (Sp): Zindhir casts spells as a Cleric, level 19. He may Rebuke Undead as a Cleric of the same level, and he may select any spell with the Cold or Fire descriptor from the Druid list. If you happen to have either WotC's Frostburn or Sandstorm, selecting elemental domains appropriate to Zindhir is a fine idea.
Glyphs of Dedication (Ex): Zindhir is +2 to save vs. all fire effects, and has Fire Resistance 20. He is immune to cold effects.
Ombosin Channeler (Su): Zindhir can cast spells of the fire or cold type that pierce elemental resistance. Any resistance is ignored, and fire/cold immune creatures take half damage. Fire spells cast in this way use a spell slot one level higher than usual, but any cold spell cast by Zindhir is automatically affected by this trait without adjustment. Zindhir's fire spells manifest as silent beams or blasts of shimmering desert light that scorch and wither what they touch. Likewise, his cold spells are intense washes of invisible bone-snapping cold, generally involving little to no ice or snow.
Any cold spell or effect Zindhir uses adds +2d6 damage.
Lord of the Wasteland (Su): With a touch, Zindhir can leech the moisture from a target and start to calcify them. As a melee touch attack, he can dessicate someone for 5d6 points of damage. Once per day, Zindhir can cause this effect at a distance (Medium range), causing 9d6 damage (Fortitude DC 23 halves). If the creature is killed, it becomes a perfect statue made of salt and dust, but its gear remains intact. These statues are very fragile and easily broken apart, but if a Stone to Flesh spell is cast upon one, the person is returned to life and treated as having taken no damage from Zindhir's touch.
Storm Eye (Su): Once per day, Zindhir can fix someone with the gaze of his left eye, prompting a Fortitude save (DC 22), or the target takes 2d10 cold damage and becomes Fatigued. This is a free action.
Desolate Aura (Su): 6x/day, Zindhir can create an aura around him as a free action. The aura lasts for 1 minute, and he gains a +2 bonus to Will saves and Charisma-based checks, including Rebuke/Command checks. He also inflicts an additional +2d6 damage with any cold or fire spell he casts.
Encasement (Ex): Zindhir has a +15 natural armor bonus, due to years of enduring the harshest climates and channeling brutal wasteland magic, as well as for the layers of scales, resin and treasure stuck to him. In addition, the ambient magic of some of the relics he has attached to his body contribute a +8 deflection bonus.
Ombosin Embalmer (Su): Zindhir can create golems of sand, salt or obsidian as well as mummies created by soaking corpses in brine. This process generally takes about a month for a mummy, and two weeks for a golem if he has proper wasteland ground to work with. Further, once per week, he can use a special Dominate Monster and/or Mass Charm Monster effect (DC 28) that functions only on undead, vermin, or construct creature types. The effect lasts until Zindhir chooses to relieve his servant from duty. These silent creations are the basis for the Wazir myth's 'grim servants'.
Secret Keeper (Su): Zindhir can Alter Self 3x/day. Attempts to pierce this Alter Self with True Seeing or similar spells must succeed in a caster level check against Zindhir.
Heart of the Desert (Ex): Zindhir's studies have created a well of innate power in him. The area around Zindhir for 100 feet is incredibly arid, and either intensely cold or hot depending on the prevailing weather conditions (i.e. if in winter, the cold is intense, if in summer the heat is tremendous). Unless he consciously suppresses this ability (free action) each round, it is constantly on. Every 10 minutes someone spends within this area, they must make a Fortitude save (DC 30) or take 1d4 nonlethal damage. Each additional 10 minutes adds +1 to the DC.
If Zindhir spends a year in a given location, he can create a wasteland, slowly breaking down the area to desert or a similarly hostile and arid environment. An area of 40 square miles acts as the epicenter of this effect, and it spreads 1 mile every 1d4 years afterwards. Droughts occur during the first year, and plants begin to wither and die. By the end of the second year, the earth has become extremely dry and cracked, and if a desert happens to border the region, it starts creeping in. Again, Zindhir can suppress this effect if he chooses. This is an acceleration of natural processes, using Zindhir's arid presence as a starting point, and powerful magic such as Limited Wish or Wish is needed to restore the damage done or to stop it.

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One for Phoenix

Friday, April 3, 2009 - 3:37 PM

I heartily encourage my players to randomly improvise small cultural details or whatever else doing the course of my DnD game. These things are often swept up and integrated into the whole of the world I've been using, and I occasionally develop them heavily. This is one such case, and I dedicate both this and the next entry to Phoenix, who came up with the golden turban of the Wazir of Woe one particularly rollicking session.

The continent of Antambil is notable for its large number of nomadic cultures, and as a result of this prevalence, certain tales and characters have found their way into every corner of Antambil. One such notorious character is titled the Wazir of Woe.

Sometimes provided with a given name (Ugoru among the Betrani people, Izvira a'Yela to the Tanul), the Wazir is identified in various stories primarily by his title. Unlike many other characters in folklore, the Wazir's characteristics are remarkably consistent from culture to culture. Despite his changing name (or lack of name altogether) the Wazir is always depicted as a small man of considerable presence, wearing exorbitantly expensive and well-tailored clothing. He is usually described as being festooned in large gemstones, and he wears a turban of gold cloth with a jewel upon it. The Wazir is intelligent, eloquent and cruel, and in those stories where he is directly quoted, the tales note his rather poetic and expansive choice of vocabulary. In Betrani and Mugiira cultures, for example, the Wazir always speaks in rhyming couplets, whereas among the Jashapur people all of his sentences are built on metaphors.

A cursory examination shows that the Wazir appears to fill the 'villain behind the throne' archetype. He makes himself an advisor to some beleaguered or naïve ruler, swiftly establishes a stranglehold on politics, and promptly begins to drive the kingdom into the ground with his overindulgent spending, bribes and warmongering. Though he is often depicted as semi-comical in his ambitious malice, the Wazir is cunning and clearly a terrible foe. Sometimes the stories of the Wazir are cautionary tales, ending with the Wazir scorning the ruler he once served, and departing the now-ruined kingdom in an arrogant huff. Other times, the seemingly self-destructive whims of the Wazir are put to an end by one hero or other, who often must confront those they are loyal to in order to drive the Wazir off. In either case, the Wazir never concretely dies; in the Betrani version, a palace collapses on him, but the hero warns everyone that the 'Wazir is never finished'.

There are deeper levels to the Wazir. Though many historians regard the Wazir as merely an allegory for the incompetent advisor or the self-indulgence of nobility, there are a few consistent characteristics in all Wazir tales which set him apart. The Wazir is always described as being isolated or the last of his line in some oblique fashion ('the Wazir, last of his ancient kin'; 'Him who came from the desert alone, alone for his people were gone'; 'Woeful, for he was the orphan of the empty land'). He always claims some ancient lineage, but never gives name to it. Nor does the Wazir ever mention his homeland or where he came from. In fact, the Wazir never arrives with anything or anyone except his incredible amount of personal wealth. Some scholars think that the Wazir is a folkloric echo of some kingdom which no longer exists, perhaps something that collapsed under its own weight.

Further, the Wazir always ends up with servants. In nearly every tale, a point is made that these servants came from somewhere else, and they are silent and 'grim faced'. It is never defined where the Wazir gets these servants, but they are absolutely loyal to him. In most tales, particularly those involving a hero figure going against the Wazir, these servants are an implied threat, but they never get directly involved in the action. In fact, no tale describes the hero having to fight, trick or otherwise confront these mysterious servants. The servants add to their puzzle by vanishing from the story as soon as the Wazir departs, and no explanation is offered for this.

Most people assume that the Wazir is supposed to be some kind of magician, but again, there is no overt aspect of the stories that would confirm this. The Wazir does seem to have a way of making things happen, but this seems to be attributed to a mastery of human nature and a particularly far-reaching cunning rather than sorcerous powers. However, some scholars have noticed a few commonly described aspects of the Wazir which point to some very old magical traditions, again supporting the notion that the Wazir represents a now-vanished kingdom.

First, when the Wazir perceives a secret or otherwise discovers information important to him, it is often stated that 'the Wazir's eye came upon it' (or similar phrasing). When the Wazir scrutinizes something, the word eye is never used in plural, though it often might be for other characters. This ties in with the never described but always named jewel called the Banika's Eye, which hangs from the Wazir's gold turban. Among the now-defunct shamanic traditions of the Mugiira, who once ranged over much of southern Antambil, the jungle cat called the mbanikk was thought to be a sorceror in animal shape, and charms resembling cat's eyes were often placed at doors to scare away spirits or reveal transformed magicians.

Second, a frequent mode by which heroes thwart the Wazir is to access his shoes. The Wazir's shoes are often described as having folded papers hidden in the soles, usually maps of some kind. The hero usually deduces that these maps led the Wazir to the location, and somehow destroying them makes the Wazir depart. In the Purayu version, the heroine lights the maps on fire, and causes the Wazir to flee the kingdom on burning feet, eventually running into the sky on a road of smoke. The exact purpose of these papers is never fully described, but again there are indications of an older tradition here. The custom of scribing maps and placing them within footwear existed in several of Antambil's deep desert cultures. It was a ritual component for tribal magicians who sought greater power or insight, and after creating their magical footwear, they would wander until realization hit. The maps were frequently abstracts or designs leading to places that never existed.

Third, the Wazir is always, without exception, mentioned to be in possession of bracelets that shine like the sun. He wears them on both arms, and though they never play any part in any of the stories, they are mentioned very specifically in every Wazir tale. In the Jashapuran and Rukh-Sadra versions of the Wazir, it is also mentioned that the bracelets cannot be removed, which brings to mind a comparison with shackles. Indeed, the Rukh-Sadra version describes them as shackles specifically. The number of bracelets are never described outside of 'many'.

Only a very few scholars recognize the potential significance of these bracelets. In the ancient days of Antambil, the city of Ombos was ruled over by warlock-priests who called on tremendous primordial powers. Their proficiency with their sorcery was measured in magical bracers which circled their arm, and could not be removed. Thus, again the Wazir represents a vanished magical tradition, but this time one parallel can be specifically discerned.

But the warlock-priests of Ombos were not conquerors, and neither did they intrude upon others as advisors. In fact, the city of Ombos was purposefully constructed in the deepest, most inhospitable part of the Antambil desert. The warlock-priests could not even be said to have had neighbors, and no records or tales exist of them ever having reached out to other cultures in their age. So, who was the Wazir of Woe?

Over the centuries, many have claimed the title, adopting an ostentatious wardrobe and attempting to gather power with a legendary reputation. Unlike the Wazir of the tales, however, these Wazirs frequently end up dead from assassins, heroes or their own disgruntled allies. A few, in egotistical fury, ended their own lives rather than watch their plans be foiled. Though a great deal of superstitious unease still revolves around the Wazir, few educated people believe that the Wazir actually exists, and in modern culture, he is a sinister trickster who elicits laughter as much as despise in the dramas, songs and poems of the day.

The truth of the Wazir is a very obscure one, and only a small handful of Antambil scholars know it.

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The Other Side, 6

Monday, March 30, 2009 - 2:28 PM

Here, we find that the Bad Guys go on quests just like the Good Guys do. Last session of DnD, there were so many bits and pieces foreshadowing the end game it was practically a movie trailer, and the characters are more than ready in their hearts to get the big confrontation done, even if their minds acknowledge their limitations and the need for caution.
Saving even a corner of the world isn't an easy thing.

Meeting in the mossy halls of the Citadel of Tongues, Leoric gathered his lieutenants after Avar had returned from Fidelity's grove. They were alone in the chamber save for Leoric's ever-present servant Merin; even Isabeau had left her spiders behind.

“The work is done,” she announced, seating herself in an ancient wooden chair that made her seem twice as small. “The room is sealed as much as I can make it. Do speak freely, my lord Leoric.”

Leoric nodded slightly in acknowledgment, and then studied his companions. He was aware of the improbable circumstances that had eventually brought them all to this point, and he regarded it not only as a blessing but as a kind of cosmic approval. They were meant to be.
Tancred slouched, Avar sat with shoulders squared and arms folded, Isabeau languished, and Julian leaned heavily on the table. But all of them, even Julian, watched Leoric.

“I know what Hope is doing,” said Leoric in a quiet, inevitable voice, and saw the wary interest in Isabeau and Tancred. Avar didn't even blink, and Julian merely seemed curious. “We are meant as a foil, nothing more.”

“Why,” asked Avar.

“When our attack occurs, all the world will focus on us. Our siege will be a distraction so that Hope may work unimpeded in the south. She truly follows in her master's footsteps; the two-sided threat was always something he enjoyed.”

Tancred sneered. “What of it? Our assault will still be what it is, and we shall overrun the Green Veil, bring the reach of the Grandfather further.”

Shaking his head slightly, Leoric turned his discerning eyes to Tancred. “So it seems, but Hope has lied to us. I'm sure there are other lies. What if we are expected? What if she leaves a trail for others to find us? She's done these things before. If the Leandrites know we are coming, our chances for loss are much greater. Our army is not so mighty as that... not yet.”

Isabeau simply listened, occasionally running a finger up and down her neck, but Avar spoke again. “Then what do you plan?”

“That Hope might betray us is not really a surprise,” Leoric replied reasonably. “The Disciples are not compelled to be our friends. Even in the days when the Grandfather walked among us, they fought with each other. Yet, he bound them all.”
Leoric paused, and looked at Isabeau. “Have the palimpsests awakened?”

Now a spark of curiosity showed in Isabeau's lazy eyes. “Yes, my lord. What do you require?”

He gestured slightly, and Merin cringed forward, stretching out his slender arms to offer Leoric's stone-headed mace, which Leoric took in one hand, resting it on the table. At the touch, the table groaned, and small splinters burst from the area near the twisting metal haft.

“I brought the Arm of Ruin back from the Wound,” Leoric announced. “It was a key to many things, more than a mere weapon. When I went seeking it, I discovered other fragments of history. There are other relics in the Wound, if one can get into the Alyach... and one did, before.” He traced a few of the writhing letters of wormscript on the haft. “His name was Laurent l'Arquen, and he is now the palimpsest who uses the rune 'Sar' as a name.”

“And he will know the proper rites to enter the Alyach, then,” murmured Isabeau. “I will have him give these secrets over to us. But, Leoric, the Alyach is no ally to anyone.”

“That is why we will all go. Combined, we will emerge again, and with the gifts the Grandfather has left for us there, we'll not fail in our work here, no matter what Hope's machinations are. With the relics, even the Disciples will recognize our place. Further, our success will serve the Grandfather, and therefore all Disciples. It will delay our emergence, but I do not think Hope cares. She's waited a long time, and she will wait until the time is perfect. What say you all?”

“Yes,” grinned Tancred. “Yes. To enter the Alyach at last? We may even find the tomb of the Grandfather himself.”

“Pray that we do not,” sighed Julian. “I have seen it in my dreams, and it would be the end of us. Yet, I will follow you, Leoric. I have no choice.”

Avar gave Julian a strange, searching look. It passed swiftly, and he answered Leoric with a short deferential nod. “I will go.”

“Naturally, I shall,” smiled Isabeau. “But I do ask if you have something in mind, and who shall rule in our stead while we are gone?”

Cradling the Arm of Ruin in the crook of one arm, Leoric answered her smile with a thin one of his own. “The Arm of Ruin has sister relics. The Weeping Knife, the Scepter of Rust, and the Maggot Hourglass are still in the Alyach somewhere, and these are only the known creations that the Grandfather made in his breathing days. You know as well as I their potency, if they can be found. And I believe they can. Each of them demands a great price for its use, but we are well-equipped to pay any cost to succeed.
“As to the matter of leadership, that is simple enough. How many palimpsests are active and sane enough to speak? Five. Assign each of them to each of our contingents, and I shall make a statement upon our departure that any disobedience will result in punishment by the palimpsests themselves. If they have no use for the transgressor, I am certain the harpies or Fidelity will.”

“As you say,” said Isabeau.

“When do we depart?” asked Tancred. “I can be ready today.”

“As soon as Isabeau reads the palimpsest and gathers what we need for entry, we shall go.”

“A day, my lord, no less,” put in Isabeau. “Julian must help, however. He will know the Words better than I in some cases.”

Julian nodded affably, but his eyes despaired. Handing the Arm of Ruin back to Merin, who accepted it with great deference, Leoric surveyed his lieutenants for a moment.

“We must be swift,” he said. “There are others working against us, and we do not know what they plan. Go and prepare. We will meet again at Beauty's Rest, the day after tomorrow, and then travel to the deep end of the Wound.”

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An interlude

Tuesday, March 24, 2009 - 11:17 AM

This little bit is part of a larger work I wrote for my DnD party on request, detailing the perspectives of the various animals the party owns/associates with/just enjoys, including the ranger's rather intelligent wolf, the conjuror's pseudodragon familiar and the tiny, incredibly dumb fungus-eating critters that the party is endlessly fascinated with. Here, we see the point of view of Frank, a large piebald rabbit who was originally a hostile hill giant before being transformed by the conjuror. Frank has become a kind of party mascot, and his point of view was a particular favorite for the group. Enjoy.

Nibbling at some grass, Frank was not entirely aware of being a rabbit. That is to say, Frank knew he was supposed to be a rabbit, and he had some vague awareness that he was one, but he wasn't quite capable of understanding what that meant. If he had the opportunity to be around other rabbits, he might have been a little puzzled as to why they avoided him, but he rarely was.

They certainly wouldn't have considered him a sane rabbit.

Frank knew, for example, that he should be afraid of the wolf. In fact, he should be afraid of anything that wasn't a rabbit, really. And he was, too; he would get a moment of alarm when approached by one of the cats or the wolf. But if they got too close, something happened, and Frank would find himself charging.

He wasn't sure why.

In his little rabbit-mind, Frank occasionally had flashes of memory that he couldn't understand. These disturbing flashes made him feel very, very big and very, very hungry. Problems of size and scale also plagued him, and he had a habit of bumping into obstacles that for some reason he thought he'd be able to step over. But mainly, it was the sense of being far more powerful and aggressive than a rabbit should be, and that was the puzzle.

When one of the cats decided to stalk him, he was overwhelmed by the idea that he could grasp the cat in one paw and dash it into the ground... largely because he didn't comprehend how his paws could grasp anything, and in fact, the notion was alien to his rabbit mind.

And yet, he'd always find himself confused, watching the cat he'd solidly kicked run off in surprise, leaving a gnawing feeling in his simple brain that he should have been the one running away.

So, Frank preferred the quiet moments when he could sit and chew on grass and think about nothing, which is something rabbits are supposed to be good at, and this reassured his rabbit-mind that here he could be a good rabbit. Being afraid was supposed to be a rabbit trait also, but he was terrible at that.

The only exception was with the little dragon. Somehow, when this thing came flying down at Frank, he had a sense that this was a problem, some kind of challenge, something to be concerned about. So, he would run, but only so far. The little dragon never seemed to actually hurt him. It just liked to chase him.

He had a similar sense of concern about the humans who took care of him, but it was a far more vague concern, and he really didn't notice anything about them except that there was one who liked to pet him and carry him around, one who was somewhat comfortable to be around, one who Frank was unnerved by (the colorful one with the little dragon!), and the one who Frank thinks he hurt badly somehow. But a rabbit couldn't possibly hurt someone that big so badly, so Frank was convinced he must be mistaken.

Frank chewed his grass, not thinking about it, and continued his efforts to be a good rabbit. Somewhere, some distant part of him wondered if the humans found it so difficult to be human.

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The Other Side, 5

Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - 4:37 PM

Though Fidelity was gigantic, there was something more than his mere size that made Avar feel small. It was true that Fidelity was impressive to witness, but his monolithic presence touched some primal root in a person's soul. Avar had seen strong-hearted men struck dumb by Fidelity's presence before, rendered barely able to speak as if in terrified awe.

For Avar, whose soul was gnawed hollow, Fidelity was not so impressive, and he knew that was why Leoric had sent Avar to Fidelity's grove.

“Revered Disciple,” he pronounced. “My liege, Leoric, bids that you send him answer.”

Branches groaning faintly, Fidelity's trunk twisted slightly, sending ruddy flakes drifting to the thick black earth like petrified leaves. In general appearance, Fidelity was a massive tree, with long tendrils like a willow but with the stocky, gnarled shape of an oak. His branches and roots looked like huge, distorted arthritic limbs, and the heavy, mossy bark looked as if it covered over contorted masses of people. Avar knew that occasionally, another sacrifice would find its way underneath bark. Judging from the empty, smiling eyes of the Obedient around them, he did not think there would a lack of volunteers.

Fidelity lowered one of his many faces closer to Avar. Hanging from a branch, the head seemed to grow directly from the branch, dangling by its rather tangled black hair. It did look quite human, albeit pale and slightly malformed, as if it were imperfect clay. But the maroon eyes peered at him with deep intelligence, matching the deep, bellows-heavy voice that emitted from the trunk itself.

“We do not serve your liege,” replied Fidelity.

“...of course not,” sighed Avar. “Yet, you and he serve the same great patron. Your father and teacher.”

Fidelity's leaves hissed and whispered, and the head hanging before Avar lifted slightly. Several of the other heads turned to peer at him with a severe expression.
“We,” announced all of the heads in various voices, as well as the wind-thunder voice from below, “do not serve your liege. We are beholden only to Harrow. Hope may play her games, but we are above them.”

Avar folded his arms, looking up at the closest of the heads. A light rain had started, adding another whisper to the constant, soft chorus among Fidelity's branches, and Avar pulled his hood up. The Obedient, a scattered mass of rustics wrapped in threadbare cloaks, simply ignored the weather. Generations of being subject to Fidelity's will had ensured they would cheerfully die of exposure if Fidelity wished it. The purplish stains of Fidelity's fruit remained on some of their complacently smiling lips.

“My liege does not follow Hope's ambitions, though he reveres her as he reveres all of your kind,” said Avar carefully, remembering what Leoric told him to say. “You are a creature of omens and portents; my liege follows them as well, and he knows that his actions follow in Harrow's vision. That you understand Harrow's will better than he, my liege understands, but he also sees that the signs are plain. He has the Citadel's wisdom, and the words of a prophet of the Worm, as well as his own ordeal in the Wound to show him. You have already dedicated some of your people to our cause; he merely asks for more, in order to spearhead the eventual attack south.”

As Fidelity's multitude of cold eyes watched him, Avar had a faint sense of irritation at Leoric. Avar was not a diplomat, though he felt well-spoken enough. Sending him to negotiate was not generally what Avar was directed to do. Most people found Avar's presence uncomfortable. He had a deadly serenity around him, long having been resigned to the slow deterioration of his inner being. But even as he made others fearful of him, fear was dead to Avar. Fidelity might have made him over-conscious of being small, but Avar was not afraid of the Disciples.

Of course, even with his experience, Avar knew he could not hope to relate to Fidelity. He wondered if the creature even perceived time the same way as humans did. Fidelity was ancient beyond Avar's understanding, having been changed by Harrow hundreds of years ago. What was a year to Fidelity? A clutter of memories that only recalled what might have happened, but not when? Were all years the same? Avar did not know.

Now, watching Fidelity consider in silence, Avar understood that he couldn't even guess what thoughts the monstrous tree had.

“And what do our children have to gain from this,” asked one of the heads in a low, skeptical voice.

“The Wound will lengthen, revered Disciple, and my liege does not intend to slaughter everyone who opposes him. He promises that one portion of captives will come to you.”

“Leoric intends to take the convent of the Green Veil.”

“Yes,” replied Avar, frowning slightly.

“All clergy and contemplatives,” announced Fidelity. “All of them who do not die will be secured there, at the convent. For this, we give half of the Obedient to serve your liege.”

This is not what Leoric thought Fidelity would say, thought Avar, and he realized that he would have felt cold if his soul were intact. Leoric originally intended to let the healers flee south, carrying word of the world to come. He knew the knight protectors of the Green Veil had made many a foray against Fidelity's cult in the past, and it seemed the Disciple had a taste for vengeance. “... you do not wish them brought to you?”

“Nay,” thundered Fidelity, with every voice in his branches. “For we intend to come to the convent ourselves, and root there when the conquest is done. Yes, we shall bring them faith, and it will begin with the blood offerings of our children.”

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The Other Side, 4

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 6:37 PM

Another installment of the bad guys. Incidentally, if you have an interest in some of the thoughts and portraitures that lurk behind the scenes of the writing process (as well as some fine authorship), you should take a look at the Burning Zeppelin Experience. There's some great thought-provoking observations there.

In the distance, the Wound was a gaping mouth, a canyon that broke the spotted and poisonous verdant landscape with impossible size and depth. To one side, the hunched plateau of Beauty's Rest sat on the Wound's edge, spilling a mottled gray slope into the depths like a waterfall made into bones. Over this, Leoric could see a growing whirlwind of harpies, sweeping up from the Rest and spiraling out over the depths of the Wound.

“Seers cannot see into the Wound,” said Leoric to Avar, who stood quietly nearby. “It rots their vision. But there are other eyes, and we must be sure to blind them.”

“Yes, my lord,” replied Avar, hands resting on the top of his ever-present axe.

That was Avar, thought Leoric as he watched the aerial vortex of harpies. Succinct and to the point. There were never any excuses nor explanations, no sign of the need to explain himself.
“Do you have everything you need, Avar?”

“Yes, my lord,” came the steady reply again.

“Is there any news?”

“Julian returned from the Manticore yesterday. Lakhesis calls on her haruspex to take omens before she agrees to an alliance. Omphale brings news that she has many new hatchlings. The cult of the Obedient has finally arrived at the main camp, with a message from Fidelity to Lady Isabeau. Tancred's work goes quickly, and most of his things have been distributed already. Also, the palimpsests at the Citadel have begun to wake, and Lady Isabeau will be negotiating with them soon.”

“Have any other Disciples shown interest?”

Avar shook his head slightly. “No, my lord.”

Leoric folded his arms, looking back at the younger man. Avar was broad-shouldered, with the easy, powerful build of a man comfortable with hard labor. A sullen, dark-eyed face was shadowed over by a long fringe of black hair, today half-heartedly tied back in a small knot. Mismatched armor blanketed Avar's solid body in a haphazard quilt of metal, chain and thick leather. Every piece was marked with the ruin of its previous owner, but each piece was meticulously cleaned; it was Avar's habit to wear his trophies in this way.

He liked Avar, all the more because Avar was frequently underestimated. Avar didn't brag, nor did he seek recognition. Many assumed he was just a pawn for Leoric, but the truth was Avar was very clever and wise, and capable of surprising subtlety. Certainly his sheer will should have been respected, but very few could even comprehend the terrible agony Avar bore every moment. Few even noticed the precise diction and control of his speech, which hinted at the ceaseless gnawing Avar endured.

No, they only saw Avar the Oathbreaker, Horse-Killer, the Hammer of Kerosh.

“Be sure Julian is properly rested. I will need his mind sharp for questions later,” mentioned Leoric, looking back at the growing tornado of harpies over the Wound. “Tell Lady Isabeau I will return to the Citadel later, and tell her to promise the palimpsests whatever is necessary. Also tell Tancred that no, he may not run off to hunt the 'blasphemers'.”

“The Obedient, my lord?”

“They are there to die for Fidelity, so train them up for the front line.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Leoric saw the huge funnel of harpies darken, the taper thinning and the top widening. He pointed. “Avar, have you ever seen this before?”

“No, my lord.”

“Once a year they do this. All of the harpies go there to praise their ultimate father, Beauty's teacher...”

Avar began to speak, but Leoric put up a hand to silence him. Only a moment later, a single wailing note began in the depths of the Wound, which swiftly washed upward through the cyclone of harpies as each harpy added her voice. The layers of wordless song clashed and spun in liquid cacophony for a few moments, and then the entire whirling flock harmonized in a single, heart-squeezing voice. The song was mournful, triumphant and longing all at once, rising and falling as it echoed throughout the valley.

Leoric could have listened to this song for hours, immune though he was to the heady enchantment of a harpy's voice. It was a confirmation to him, a reminder of what he fought for and what he had made himself. This was why they were Beauty's children. Whatever bitter cruelties harpies may have visited on themselves and others, this was the truth in them.

It was an hour before the harpies began to break their massive cyclone apart, separating into flocks and heading to respective roosts.

Leoric sighed, turning towards Avar, whose expression had not changed.

“You may go,” said Leoric quietly, and Avar curtly walked away.

Avar's soul might be too scarred to feel beauty now, thought Leoric, but mine is not, and I have chained myself to open eyes. The horrors of the Wound are nothing new, and nothing different. Leoric's understanding began when his father hung from the gallows for doing what was right. That understanding was complete the day he stood before the gore-covered madness of Hope's Tree, where corpses hung like fruit and the air was thick with the breath of the dying.

Mankind did not deserve the blessings of earth, for he did nothing but waste them. Mankind did not deserve the compassion of society, for he is opportunistic and greedy. Mankind did not deserve mercy, nor love, nor faith; he praises each of these only at his convenience. Mankind clamors for healing, for peace and for truth, but stamps on sacrifice and destroys those who would offer a kind hand.

The End would be the truth mankind needed. It would flow out from the Wound and blast the hypocrisy of the world away. Yes, thousands would suffer and die, but all would suffer and die equally. In the end, there would be peace.

All that I had, you took, he thought. All that I gave, you squandered. When I come forth, you will cry out and call this vengeance, and yes, I do hate you. I hate all of you.

But one day you will realize that what I have given you is justice.

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The Other Side, 3

Monday, February 9, 2009 - 8:46 PM

This little bit fell out while I was writing the other day. Though it isn't explicit, there are some really seriously unpleasant implications here. Sensitive people may suffer a bad case of hives if they read this, so some readers may want to skip it.

Through the eyes of her ghoul, Isabeau's body seemed smaller than she remembered it.

Isabeau was a small, sleek woman, with pleasantly round shoulders and a tiny waist. Her hands were dainty and ink-stained, with carefully trimmed nails. Soulless, her head lolled to one side as if asleep, pale hair scattering over her small, heavy lidded eyes which rested under a sad tilt of eyebrows. A rather long and sharp nose drew the eye towards her neat, impertinent lips.

Crouching over her own body, Isabeau spent some time admiring the lines of her throat, and let the ghoul's long, sinewy hands hover over it. The very notion that she could murder her own flesh and blood and survive it made her shiver. Isabeau's vices were few, but she reveled in them; they were towering, horrible things.

Some part of Isabeau understood that she'd been a little girl once, but any flicker of recollection was swiftly crushed underfoot. Sometimes during one of her rare moments of sleep, she would wake suddenly with her heart hammering in her chest, remembering some vision of strong, warm arms and tea in winter and a great hall where she'd wondered at tapestries of unicorns and griffons.

But in her indulgences, she assured herself that here was a woman who could never have been innocent. No one who had been innocent could have possibly conceived, much less done, what she did to herself.

Or what she'd done to other people.

She made her ghoul lean forward to kiss her body's neck softly, moving a hand to palm one of her small breasts. Pressing, feeling the firm, liquid weight of it, she then withdrew her hand and imagined her body sighing gently.

Of course, her body was soulless, and therefore did nothing.

In part from annoyance at her body's passivity, she dragged the ghoul's nails down her body's thigh, leaving several angry red scratches. This would be something to inspire her later, she thought, and then noticed one of the nails had dug deeply enough to bring flecks of blood to the surface, like drops of red dew.

The ghoul's nose was sharp; the scent of the fresh blood was distinct and sweet, and Isabeau involuntarily made the ghoul's lips curl in a toothy smile. She dipped the head down to lap briefly at the scratch, sighing to herself as the small shocks of blood rolled her senses in warm velvet for a moment. The ghoul's body was always starved, and even such a delicate taste was liquid bliss to it.

It did remind her that it had been nearly a day since she'd left her body. Her body would be hungry, too.

Moving the ghoul to her wardrobe, she fetched some clothing, and then returned to begin dressing her body. The sensation was muted by the ghoul's dead flesh, but it still pleased her to let the taloned fingers linger on her hips and waist and stomach, tracing over the little unfeeling hollows and paths there. She slipped each article of clothing as if they were caresses and restraints both, giddy in her power over herself, and when the robes and scarves were finally all in place, she withdrew her soul from the ghoul and back into herself.

It was like being cold for hours and then slipping into a comfortably warm bath. She had to sit for a moment, overwhelmed by the vast sensation of her breath moving in and out of her chest, and by the slow steady drumbeat that kept her lifetime for her. The understated stinging of the scratches on her thigh increased her sense of warmth, and she smiled gently at the prickle of them.

Sitting up, she waved the ghoul away. "I have no further need of you; return in two hours unless I call you again."

The ghoul slouched in the bow she'd forced it to learn, and then scuttled off like a feeble imitation of Isabeau's huge spiders, who watched without expression from the ceiling. The spiders had also been subjected to her spiritual possession, but she knew they were not conscious of it. It was no different to them than their normal compulsion to obey her. They simply didn't have enough sense of identity to distinguish whether it was her mind or theirs that made their bodies move. In that, it was less satisfying to her to inhabit them instead of someone aware and unable to stop her.

The spiders were useful in many ways, though. She used their silk and venom for her work, and they made excellent steeds for her. Under her direction, they were capable of unswerving, precise tasks as well.

Whispering gently, she beckoned the smallest of them down. Bodkin was about the same size as Isabeau, with a flat red-black coloration that traced rich maroon threads at the joints and over the impassive mask of Bodkin's features. The lengthy fangs she'd named Bodkin for were also maroon, but the spider's eyes were like little globes of polished obsidian. She stroked the hard carapace, murmuring in the sibilant, breathing language that laid patterns into the spider, fondly preening the fangs, and then sent Bodkin out with a short 'tch' sound. Settling herself at her massive half-wheel shaped desk, she busied herself with the works she'd been asked to review, immersing her mind in arcane riddles and tainted words until Bodkin's return.

The spider herded a young, wild-eyed man into the large chamber. The man wore the green and white smocks of an acolyte, and his hands were gloved; chances were good he was working in alchemy before Bodkin brought him up.

"Hello there," said Isabeau pleasantly, delicately setting her book down. The young man bowed immediately. He knew perfectly well who Isabeau was. She didn't recognize him, of course; he was just a new acolyte.

"Do you know why you were brought here?" she asked as she examined him. He seemed sturdy enough, if a bit thin.

"No, my lady," came a hesitant reply.

"Have no worry," smiled Isabeau. "I did not bring you here to berate you for anything."

Bodkin struck at that moment, burying venomous fangs into the young man's leg. The result was nearly immediate, and the young man crumpled from pain before his body began to seize up. With a signal from Isabeau, two of the spiders descended on the victim, lifting him up to Isabeau's stone table.

Isabeau stood, moving to the table and opening a slim metal case to expose her pristine dissection tools.

"I do apologize," she said to the wide-eyed frozen face of the young man. "But I'm starved, and as much as I'd prefer you to marinate for a day or two, I'm just going to start in right now."

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The Other Side 2

Monday, February 2, 2009 - 4:14 PM

When Leoric returned, he carried a swollen, battered head with him. It dangled from one hand, lanky hair falling around the grossly distorted face like damp weeds. Behind him was the humbled figure of Merin, Leoric's constant companion, head bowed and feet light. Merin carried Leoric's weeping-face helm, with its mane of woman's hair, and cradled Leoric's terrible weapon, the Arm of Ruin, close to the chest.

Leoric was a very tall man with a thin, dour face. Though his face was wry and keen in expression, his narrow eyes were cold with the sort of hate that has grown lazy and immutable over time, staving off madness and smothering redemption. Some thought his hate had prematurely turned his hair white, but it was merely a hereditary quirk of his family line.

Avar watched Leoric's approach from a distance, seated on a mossy stone that had once been part of a small settlement. He leaned his shoulder against the long haft of his axe, folding his broad hands around it, and glanced over at the hunched, feral shape of the ghoul that slouched nearby. It glanced back at him with bright eyes, lips pulling back uncomfortably from the long, sharp teeth in an attempt to smile.

“Julian comes with him,” said Isabeau's voice, strained through the cage of the ghoul's vocal chords.

Darting his eyes back towards the path, Avar spotted three large shadows dropping down from the sky, drifting through the trees to light near Leoric. It was a harpy harridan, with two of her lesser brethren carrying Julian between them. He watched as the two smaller harpies flapped up again in a small cloud of leaves and feathers, while the harridan walked with Leoric, showing the oddly graceful swaying gait that harpies had on land. Julian was herded along by the crook of one great wing.

Isabeau, in the ghoul's body, loped a few steps forward to peer closer. “Omphale, of Beauty's Rest,” she said.

Avar simply nodded. Omphale was harridan over one of the biggest harpy flocks in the Wound, and that meant a strong alliance. Harridans were opportunists of the highest order, and if Omphale chose to join with Leoric, other harridans might also join, if for no other reason than to force Omphale to divide her spoils. He'd had little doubt that harpies would join Leoric, but they were bitter and surly creatures, and reluctant to make alliances.

Most humans certainly prefer to stay well away from harpies, Avar thought, if for no other reason but the smell. As Leoric and his companions approached, Avar's nose could already pick up the brassy, rancid sweat-and-sulfur odor surrounding the harridan.

“That means a lot of archers,” said Avar to Isabeau. “Is Tancred still at the mines?”

“Yes,” came the reply. “He is still working in the vats, trying to finish the elixir to revive the giant corpse.”

Avar shrugged slightly, keeping his eyes on Leoric, watching the harpy's constant touching of Julian. If Tancred succeeded, it would be wonderful, but Avar really didn't care so long as Tancred was working and not distracting himself by hunting down druids. "There are times when I think Tancred's ambition fogs his vision."

Isabeau nodded her ghoul's head, and then had the ghoul perform the parody of a curtsey as Leoric came closer.

“My lord Leoric,” Isabeau said.

Leoric gave the ghoul a slight, regal nod. “Lady Isabeau. Master Avar, well met again. How are my soldiers?”

“They could be better,” said Avar blandly. “But they will be. What news, my lord?”

“We have time,” announced Leoric, taking another slow step forward and raising the head he was carrying. “Fidelity sends his regard, and promises aid from his children and their followers. He instructs us to be patient; the omens are good. Hope has returned to the Wound, and her work elsewhere proceeds even though her heart is destroyed. She is tending her Tree now, looking for the words to call our master back to us.”

“May our Grandfather come again soon,” purred Omphale, nuzzling at Julian's hair. Like all harridans, she had wings as well as arms, one of which she'd wrapped around Julian's waist. Her human-like torso tapered into a woman's waist and hips, but her thighs sprouted soot-black feathers and her lower legs crooked like those of a bird. Similar plumage blanketed her upper back, where her wings spread, fringed her forearms and swept back from her lovely human face in thin feathers that flowed like stiff hair. Omphale's figure was rather more lush than most harpies, emphasized by her lack of clothing and the natural harpy posture having a tendency to push the chest forward.

Of course, Omphale was a harpy, and therefore utterly filthy. Remnants of past meals caked her chin, filth stained her leg feathers, and her skin was dusky with grime. Typical of harpies, her strong and beautiful features were deliberately scarred, giving her a permanent cruel sneer and scoring her cheeks deeply, lengthening the look of her face. Vulture talons pierced her ears and patterns of burn marks dotted her shapely torso.

“Your flock will be joining us, then?” rasped Isabeau. “What of the others?”

“Mine, and the flock at Gutcrag,” said Omphale, rubbing a hand over Julian's chest possessively.

“Lakhesis waits for Beauty to wake from her last glut, so the flock at the Manticore will not join you yet. But do keep in mind, Hope is not the only disciple in the Wound, Avar. If Beauty says we stay, then we stay. All of us.”

Leoric nodded without concern. “That is understood quite well, Omphale. I am certain, though, that if the End comes, all of Harrow's children will come forth from the Wound.”

“If the End comes,” smiled Omphale, pressing Julian's head against her breast. Julian complied like an indifferent cat. “And we hope it will. But what is this about Hope's heart being killed?”

Avar told Omphale briefly about recent events, the celebration of the Leandrite people, and what was known of who had done it.

Omphale sneered, eyes vicious. “Heroes have come to the Wound before. They came to kill the Grandfather before. They came with their chants and spells and weapons and virtues, and where are they now? Bones at Beauty's Rest. And we are still here.”

“That is true,” said Avar quietly. “And yet, we could not find the heart. They did, and they destroyed it. This means that Hope can die.”

“It will be about time,” laughed Omphale. “Yet, she was the favored one, in the beginning. So, what is to be done with those five now?”

They all looked at Leoric, who smiled slightly, and told them.

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The Other Side

Friday, January 30, 2009 - 11:33 AM

Faint sobbing whispered inside the wide dome in the Citadel of Tongues. It mingled with the thin threads of bitter incense smoke and the gloom huddling around sparse candles. A forest of cobwebs hid the upper part of the dome, hanging like translucent drapes, and tapestries in green and rust covered the walls. Eyes drawn to the tapestry would flee again instinctively from the furtively vile hints of the art.

The tapestries were familiar, and therefore ignored, by the four .

“Leoric is not coming,” said Avar to the others. His voice was even and smooth, falling flat against the tapestries. A sharp ear would note unusually precise control and diction; the only outward sign of Avar's ferocious internal struggle. He had to keep an iron grip on the horror his soul had become, every waking moment. This required sanity of a sort, and Avar endured, knowing that losing his rationality would break his discipline, and that would be his death.

His companions had the luxury of madness. Avar was stained enough with his own atrocities that he could understand Tancred's fanaticism, or the torture of Julian's visions. But Avar still had a small, howling conscience inside him, the little piece holding him together, and thus Lady Isabeau's madness was something he could not understand.

“Why not,” wheezed Tancred, crouching rather than sitting.

“Because he's gone to the Wound,” replied Avar, glancing at the huddle of mouldering leather and mossy cloth that was Tancred. “He left immediately after Julian told him what happened.”

Lady Isabeau touched her sharp teeth with her tongue, thinking, and then leaned back with a sigh from her repast. The soft weeping came from her long, pale coat; her meal had ceased whimpering a while ago. “Hope's heart recovered, and then destroyed,” she said thoughtfully. “All that we have done, and we could not find it. But these others did.”

“Blasphemers,” hissed Tancred. Tangled red hair hid most of his face, but his agitation was apparent. Avar expected a rant coming. Instead, Tancred bit his lip and glanced furtively at Lady Isabeau.

She did not seem to notice, and turned her small dark eyes to Julian, who sat draped over his chair as if he were a cat. “Who were they?”

“Five,” said Julian, and then jerkily scratched at the base of his neck. Avar imagined the worm was particularly bad for Julian at the moment. When Hope's heart had been destroyed, Avar had held Julian down until the screaming had stopped.

“Five,” continued Julian, turning wide eyes up to Isabeau. “The Lady Knight, the Moonstone druid, the gray paladin, the Durzani astrologer, the priest of Law. They took the Heart from a tomb, and destroyed it in a great hall of hypocrisy. The five provinces celebrate even now, and they were given great regard for their act. Leoric goes to Hope's tree, to discover what we must do.”

“The Moonstone is mine,” rumbled Tancred, rubbing his callused hands together.

“What head we might find, we take,” said Avar blandly. “But we haven't heard anything from Hope yet.”

“Indeed not,” mentioned Isabeau as she dabbed at her lips with a napkin. “Julian, where are the five now?”

Julian wrapped himself in his own arms, his pointed face vacant, and Avar reflexively dabbed away a line of drool starting on Julian's lip. They were frequent companions, bound together by common dedication and the cost of an ordeal. Julian had survived the Augury of Maggots, tying him to the nightmare consciousness of the Wound, and his mind was always full of horror and whispers. He found Avar's presence quieting, and Avar had great sympathy and admiration for Julian's willingness to accept such a burden.

A strange friendship had developed, a balance between a man whose body and mind were wracked with prophetic worms, and a warrior whose body and mind were powerful, but whose soul was rapidly being displaced by an abomination.

“Still in Effernar,” murmured Julian, starting slightly as if waking. “The blood is still on their hands, but it will fade. They will not stay, though. They are restless.”

Tancred looked immediately at Isabeau. “Let me handle this, let me gather my monks and we'll put them down, we'll bring them back to the Wound.”

“You will do nothing of the sort,” announced Isabeau thinly. “Leoric is our leader, and we will wait for his command.”

Subsiding, Tancred clicked his long nails together and breathed deeply, taking on the look of some huge, mangy predator who patiently waits for some unsuspecting animal to get within reach.

“We should send Julian to the harpies,” said Avar. “They'll listen to him.”

“Yes,” agreed Isabeau. “Find out what the harridans wish to do, Julian. Do you understand?”

“Beauty's children will know,” responded Julian, shifting uncomfortably. “Beauty may know. I will go.”

Isabeau favored Julian with a slight smile and then aimed herself at Tancred again. “You should get back to work, Tancred. Gather your people and work faster. We need more of the cauldrons and bellows. Increase work at the mine.”

“I will do it,” said Tancred. “When Leoric returns, all will be ready.”

Isabeau and Avar looked at each other.

“The students and teachers here are already organized, but this news lends me to believe I have a number of matters to look into immediately,” said Isabeau, rising as the massive spider she sat on lifted itself from the floor. “Avar...?”

“The army is growing, and it is ready.”

Isabeau nodded, fastened her scarves, and her spider silently pivoted her away and out of the room. Tancred rotted into the shape of a mangy crow, flapping his way up through the cobwebs to exit from the oculus of the dome.

Avar stood, waited a moment for Julian to begin to leave, and then looked at the silvery skin and broken, pure feathers of the angel on Isabeau's dinner table. It had been a meal by stages; the gorgeous creature's torso was nearly empty, and its crystalline bones stripped of flesh on most of the limbs. Isabeau had left the face intact but for the eyes, which she had consumed early on.

That is what I have become, he thought for a moment, and then turned his back, leaving the Citadel to attend to the end of the world.

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Monday, January 19, 2009 - 7:06 PM

Yesterday, my dnd group hit the biggest plot benchmark they've had in the entire game, and I am unreasonably pleased about it. Starting with small gangland conspiracies in the world's largest city, they began a turbulent journey upward to the status of heroes following the horrific traces of a conjured disaster. They've all been through trials of fire, tests of the soul and changes of heart. Tensions within the party have risen and fallen, sometimes to the point of open conflict, but through all this time they've kept their eyes on the ultimate goal of confronting the terrible work of someone history has labeled a master of atrocity and abomination.

Well, they've kept their eyes in that direction, anyway.

In their world, they've gained recognition as daring explorers, scholar-adventurers who lift up forgotten histories from ancient cultures and bring them to light. They've translated old books and tablets, discovered facets of their own cultures that most have forgotten, and wandered through places that went untouched for centuries. They've made friends, influenced people, and ticked more than a few off. It wasn't as if they weren't extraordinary before last session.

But in chapter 88 of this adventure, they accomplished something that was thought to be impossible. They destroyed the heart of Hope, a monster-once-a-healer who was condemned to live forever by the creature she tried to redeem.

With this act, they've put themselves into history. They've become ancestors, people whose names will be remembered in tales and songs and records. They have taken the first step into being heroes of the world, rather than heroes of a nation or provinces or a single people, and the hands of those above are reaching down to welcome them. Looking back through my notes and stat blocks, I see the long trail of blood, tears, victory and loss they've come along, and I can easily see that they've begun to transcend the 'dungeon' and are moving up to the 'dragon' end of adventure.

Yeah, they've leveled up. And they earned every single experience point. Emphasis on experience.

Especially for me.

Thanks, guys.

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From the Z-file: Sindisuentha

Thursday, August 21, 2008 - 6:10 PM

Note: Yes, why not? Another one from Tirilan's entourage. I promise the next post won't be another NPC.

The Aluvasein people sprawl across the lower half of the Talad region, across a wide variety of terrain, and with them are a wide scattering of customs which are long forgotten or much changed by their neighbors or their far more prominent ethnic relatives in Leandr. Half hidden by some broken marshes and treacherous barrow-mound riddled land, the province known as Blackshield spent generations apart, originally a settlement built around a keep for a war that ended ages past. But the people of Blackshield maintained their martial traditions for quite some time afterwards, being the sons and daughters of soldiers, and still having the hot Leandrite blood in them.

In more recent generations, many of the old customs have drifted away, and the once-strong regard for the landed families has grown sour. New, safe roads from the Aluvasein merchant lords opened Blackshield up, bringing with them new ideals and new prejudices against the “antiquated and often vicious” older customs.

Sindisuentha, born Lady Sindisuentha 'shtoyan Kazothmar, grew up in a society that barely recognized her nobility and had grown to regard her family with great suspicion and loathing. In past ages, the Kazothmar family had been the hereditary keeper of the shield for which the province was named, and had the once-vaunted and much dreaded honor to be the commanders of a large force of undead soldiers. These soldiers were originally regarded as the last of the last resorts to defend Blackshield. Over the years, the Army of the Broken Shield was used less as a defense and more to resolve border disputes or blood debts in symbolic combat; two members of the Kazothmar family would split the force, representing the two sides in a conflict, and send the already-dead troops to battle against each other. This ritual warfare also became an annual event, in a battle recreating the glory of past days when Blackshield province was still a place of war. The Kazothmar family became historians and morticians, antiquarians whose duty was to keep the burial grounds safe and occasionally assist in disputes of heredity or heraldry. But within the family, the old Kazothmar obligations were always taken seriously, and heirs of the line all the way to Sindisuentha were taught to be generals and warriors. Those who showed the proper sign, the unusually cold presence that was indicative of power over the dead, would be given the arcane training so that they could raise the Army of the Broken Shield.

Unfortunately, prejudice against any form of necromancy began to strangle the Kazothmar reputation three generations before Sindisuentha. By the time she was a young woman, the house was all but broken. Rumors of foul practices in the family made her a pariah, and though no one would call it anything but an accident, she was certain that the arrow that killed her father had been intended for him. Though she endured the continuing slanders, wearing her bloodline like armor, this only infuriated the people of Blackshield. They called her a proud monster, among other things, and eventually, they brought an ultimatum to her and the remains of her family: be banished and forfeit all lands and wealth, or be burned as a corpse-eater.

Sindisuentha's mother and uncle both died in the ensuing siege on the modest Kazothmar manor. She and her three siblings escaped, running off into the marshes to hide, and it was there that she raised the remainder of the Army of the Broken Shield, bringing it back to wage a guerrilla war against the rest of Blackshield, which was now bolstered by Aluvasein caravaner guards and mercenaries. Acquitting herself very well for her age and experience, particularly in her knowledge of local terrain and use of ambushes, things would not have gone well for her except that Tirilan and some of his allies arrived on a back road into Blackshield. He'd come looking for the lore of the Kazothmar family, and with his assistance, Sindisuentha salvaged what was left of her family inheritance. Sacrificing most of her undead soldiers to make the people of Blackshield content that she was defeated and gone, she and her siblings went with Tirilan, heading southward. She is the head of the Kazothmar family, now, and she intends to eventually return to Blackshield and take back what is hers... eventually.

About Sindisuentha:

Still a young woman, Sindisuentha had to grow up very fast. She's killed, and she will likely kill again; at this point, she regards it as a natural part of being a Kazothmar. Her pride in her family line is considerable, and she adheres to the family codes of honor fastidiously, which is one reason Tirilan is happy to have her as an ally. Likewise, she admires and idolizes Tirilan, and she's been caught up in his vision of the Black Sun. This is particularly true after her discovery of references to the Black Sun as part of her own heraldry (the Kazothmar's very first coat of arms, from nearly a thousand years ago, was a black sun on a purple field, which is why Tirilan originally went to Blackshield).

Sindisuentha has grand ambitions. She has been released from a very dusty corner in her life, and through this liberation has decided that all dreams are possible. She is a voracious learner, highly competitive and firmly believes that the harder she tries, the more she will achieve. Also believing that being in Tirilan's army fulfills the destiny of her family line, she is firmly set in her loyalties. This is combined with her need to behave with honor and aplomb. She strives to always act with restraint, decorum and dignity.

Though a hard-eyed general on the battlefield, Sindisuentha loves indulging her refined tastes. She sees no reason why a woman of her standing should not enjoy creature comforts if not actively on campaign... and sometimes, why not on campaign? Likewise, her undead soldiers are clean, wearing well-polished armor and even have dress uniforms. She very much enjoys Tirilan's penchant for holding courtly events, and makes a great effort to look as good as she possibly can when meeting others.

Sindisuentha's view of the world is through a rather romantic lens, where she is becoming a legend, and subconsciously, she expects things to progress as a story would. Her honor and her family line are matters of foremost importance, and she thinks the age of the Black Sun will bring the Kazothmar heritage into the glory it deserves. Her vision is that the Kazothmar will become rulers of a kingdom as well as protectors, and she believes that Tirilan is lighting the way.

She is not so naïve as to think that this sort of dream can be achieved cleanly.

Despite her shades of gray philosophy, Sindisuentha is troubled by some of Tirilan's other allies. She knows some of them follow Tirilan only for personal power, not for some greater purpose and certainly not through any real loyalty to him. She is confident in Tirilan's judgment, however, and believes implicitly in his decisions.

Of course, that his allies deal with undead doesn't bother her at all. What does bother her is the lack of people who could be close friends.

As written, Sindisuentha represents a very aggressive, eager part of Tirilan's following. Though she is a necromancer of sorts, she is not evil, and offers a very fresh, very alive sort of contrast to some of his others. Her competitive nature and honorable behavior are also a fine foundation for some wonderful interactions with heroes opposing Tirilan. She will, after all, accept an honorable surrender.

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From the Z-File: Tirilan

Tuesday, August 19, 2008 - 3:07 PM

To understand Tirilan, one must first look at his mother, Jolani. A midwife and dragon-line scholar of the Durzani people, Jolani had a husband who was rich and powerful. Though she was a successful midwife, Jolani could not bear children of her own, and her work as a midwife began to dwindle after her marriage. The Durzani are strong believers in sympathetic magic, and a midwife who cannot herself bear children was an ill omen. Further, as time went on, her husband kept her only out of honor and respect for her and her family.

As a result, Jolani was often left alone for long periods of time, and accumulated a huge library of books on various subjects. Reading on metaphysics and magic is a tradition for high-born Durzani women, and she pursued this avidly to help her forget her shame. In her solitude she was discovered by a rather notorious magician who, walking unseen, was struck by her talent and her hunger for a better life. He inducted her into Forsaking, the strange unlife-seeking cult of necromancy, gave her the tools to continue, and then guided her to a new home where he intended her to be another tool of his own.

Unfortunately for him, his enemies discovered his location, and he was forced to flee. Left to her own devices, Jolani became the head of a large Forsaker cult, and her quiet madness was matched by her brilliance. She believed that her teacher had been her husband, off on matters of importance, and was obsessed with producing an heir for him. In Jolani's delusions, she tried many things, her powerful maternal instinct warped by the Forsaker teachings.

Eventually, Tirilan was born, cold and dead, but life was breathed into him.

As a young man, Tirilan was sent north to the Sarcophagus near Urakh, to learn further and seek out information Jolani needed for her own work. He went there with a small group of trusted Forsakers, but when he returned some while later, his mother and nearly all of his 'family' were destroyed (PCs happen). He recovered what he could, performed proper funeral rites for his mother, and left the catacombs he'd played in as a boy. Though his mother had impressed upon him the envy and hatred of the world, finding his home in ruins had made that hatred real. Tirilan realized that in order to carry on his mother's legacy, he must be prepared to meet the animosity of the world head-on.

So, Tirilan began to travel to places his mother had referenced in her work, gathering up knowledge relating to unlife, undeath, mortality and similar topics. Along the way, many were swept up in the wake of his personable, passionate nature and the strength of his purpose, which had grown to be far more than a need to learn.

As a boy, Tirilan had increasingly frequent and vivid dreams about the rise of a black, seething sun that cast shadows in indescribable shades of darkness. These dreams filled him with wonder and exultation, and in later dreams, he saw himself in armor, flying a wide, white banner, while an army marched behind him. The black sun would rise further into the sky the further he and his army marched. While studying in Urakh, he discovered a brief reference in a decrepit document about the 'signs of the Black Sun', and he was astounded and intrigued. From then on, he dedicated himself to martial arts as well as the esoteric, moving research of the Black Sun to the top priority.

Tirilan's study of the Black Sun has long since turned to devotion and conviction. The more he discovers about the Black Sun, the more he believes he is its herald, the one who will return the unlight of the Black Sun to the world and balance out the sun which currently exists. He intends to destroy the shackles of life and death. Though originally he was regarded with a great deal of skepticism, Tirilan has evinced the ability to call miracles from the Black Sun. The more he studies it, the more he uncovers about it and the more people he convinces of its power and importance, the more powerful he gets.

As a result, Tirilan has become the center of a fractured cult, composed of Forsakers, undead, necromancers of all sorts, and those who are merely interested in such things as spiritualism and life beyond the borders of death. His utter faith in the Black Sun along with a tremendous force of personality and years of arcane study have drawn the interest of many, and Tirilan's following continues to increase.

Given that Tirilan's closest followers organize themselves in a militant fashion, there is considerable worry about what the Black Sun might call Tirilan to do next. This worry has spread to some who follow him, also, and there have been a couple of attempts on Tirilan's life.

Notes on Tirilan:

Tirilan's mother was highborn Durzani, and she raised her son to be a gentleman, a warrior and a scholar. He was thoroughly educated in literature, arts, sciences and courtly manners. The importance of honor and courtesy were impressed upon him. He is unfailingly polite, sometimes almost deferential in his manner, and adheres strongly to a chivalrous code of conduct. Those who meet him are often astonished by his open, generous bearing, and his attention to formality and social ritual.

However, Tirilan's philosophies come from a Forsaker background. His mother treated her controlled undead as if they were her children, and after his birth, the undead were his family. When he learned dance, his partners were undead. His playmates as a boy were often undead, as well. Now, the ones that he creates or controls are his friends and sworn protectors, and even the mindless ones are accorded a certain respect. Tirilan has no problem with creating and consorting with the dead, pressing evil spirits into his service or killing those who would impede his quest. If his enemies meet him with courtesy and fairness, he'll fight them accordingly, but the horrors he inflicts on traitors are enough to discomfit some of the necromancers in his following.

Thus, Tirilan is a study of bizarre contrasts between a reserved and genteel noble and a death-obsessed necromantic templar. He holds salons of philosophical and arcane debate, teaches courtly manners and arts to his followers, and pays artisans well for their work. But he also recruits from crypts and graveyards, tortures and then binds the spirits of those who defy him, and fills his court with the walking dead. He treats women and children in particular with generosity and profound respect, even though he knows that many of them will die when the Black Sun rises. He kills those who torture the helpless, but he often recruits from some of the darker corners of necromantic study.

Tirilan himself is efficient, very intelligent and a born leader. He is filled with the certainty of his quest, though he does not yet completely understand the Black Sun's purpose, and he acknowledges that he has much to learn. It is a mistake to think of him as a fanatic; Tirilan approaches his faith with an open mind, and he rarely loses his temper. He is a clever strategist, and very good with people (at least, those who can get past some of his affectations). He has an astonishingly casual attitude towards the macabre, and has absolutely no fear of death except as an inconvenience to his plans. Supremely confident in his duties to the Black Sun, Tirilan may seem arrogant, but he ultimately regards himself as a true knight-protector; a servant, not a master. His friends find him completely trustworthy, and so do his enemies.

As written, Tirilan is focused on raising a great army in order to seize lore that is being hoarded or otherwise kept from him, and to secure a hold for the faith of the Black Sun. To that end, he is actively drawing in as many allies as he can from various ostracized communities, schools of magic, and outcast priesthoods. Though it disgusts him to associate with certain sorts of necromancer, he weeds out those he can and makes use of the rest. He is secretly committed to slaughtering the most wicked of them when his work is done. Tirilan is meant to be the honorable but relentless adversary, someone that the heroes could easily respect as much as they fight against him.

Some of his lackeys, on the other hand, are pretty foul. If the heroes don't kill them, Tirilan will eventually.

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Campaign Twists

Saturday, August 2, 2008 - 9:30 PM

So, next in line for my valiant dnd campaigners is an adaptation of Nicolas Logue's 'Library of Last Resort'. As much as I tend to enjoy Logue's material, this one didn't really touch me at first; it seemed to be a very straightforward (if dramatic) dash across rugged wilderness to slay this monster or that in order to gain access to a boss fight and the big Plot Cookie. Sometimes those adventures have their place, certainly, but the recovery of some piece of ancient lore utterly forgotten by the rest of the world seemed to warrant something a bit deeper.

This is particularly true when you take a look at my playing group. Though they enjoy a terse combat from time to time, they are really there for the character interaction, the plot, the unwinding of the riddles and the strategy. I knew that, as is, I could make the scenario exciting, but I didn't think they'd really appreciate it as much as other groups.

So why not just come up with something different?

First and foremost, I like to give credit where it is due. I modified quite a lot of the 'Prince of Redhand' adventure, but it was still the Prince of Redhand. The two portions of 'Library' that hooked me were as follows: the notion of a library of lore literally encased away from history, and the notion that it was druids that created it, not the usual wizardly scapegoats. These were Logue's ideas, and so the basis of the adventure stays to credit him

The idea of the library outside of time very much intrigued me. I thought about this quite a bit. The Lodge of druids responsible for it, I decided, were caretakers of knowledge of all kinds, and locked away all of the material in the library because it was horribly dangerous to know, or horribly useful. How they figured out a way to lock it up wasn't important to the general plot, but the impact of what happens to the world when the library is opened is... you see, when the Library of Last Resort is accessed, you better absolutely NEED the information you want, because there's no such thing as browsing. ALL of the information in the library is returned to the world at that moment. Facts are reinserted into historical books, books written and vanished reappear as if they'd followed the path they would have if they hadn't been removed from history, and so on. Stories that would have been told over generations are suddenly remembered by people who would have known them.

That's what I call earth-shaking magic, and that sort of decision (do we dare open the library? do we really need what we think we need from here?) is exactly what my players love to deal with.

So, rather than set it up as a series of combats, I decided the set encounters were going to be with druidic sects that had been removed from the world as well, for some reason or other. Perhaps they had teachings which were in danger of being wiped out. Perhaps they were traditions that were frightening and violent, in compared to other druidic groups. Whatever the reasons, the Elders who watch over the Library will send the players out to contend with these groups. A different trial would be warranted for each of them: win the respect of, convince another group, outright battle this group, and so on. This is done so the characters can prove themselves worthy of the library, but also because the Elders want them to see first hand what else they'll be releasing into the world.

Part of telling a good story is telling a story the listeners want to hear, but keeping it twisting enough that it grows into something new for them, something new within them. This particular arc is going to be very significant for the group, being the culmination of over a year and a half of plot buildup, and I certainly want them to feel the weight of that.

Edit: I wrote this a while back, but didn't want to post in order to preserve surprised for my players. I'm now posting this shortly after the first actual session at Tilagos, and the interparty debate over some of the decisions to make was the fiercest I've seen it in a long time. They've also had a lovely time exploring some of the unusual druidic traditions lurking there.

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From the Z-File: Shalis

Friday, August 1, 2008 - 10:19 AM

Shalis is one of several examples of potentially-never-used characters currently sitting in my z-file. Periodically, I'll be posting some more of these people here.

Outlawed in most of the known world, blood magic is condemned for its addictive nature and the deteriorating effects it tends to have on both morals and ability. The swift and terrible power it can offer is a strong lure, however, particularly to those who have little aptitude or patience for arcane arts and sciences.

Temni and Admeia were two apprentices to a Bindsu Curator, one of those who quelled the spontaneously occurring undead in Urakh and watched over the tremendous fossil-and-bone edifice known as the Sarcophagus. Temni, like most apprentices, had been taken from a poverty-stricken home at a young age, whereas Admeia's mother had served the Curators for nearly twenty years before resigning from exhaustion and strain. The Curators have a relentless meritocracy, full of tests both intellectual and moral in order to assess who might stand as a Curator, and competition is quite fierce among the apprentices to prove themselves worth the position.

Temni had the ambition, but magic did not come easy to him. Admeia adored his ambition, having little of her own, and the two fell in love. Admeia's mother had secretly taught her the seeds of blood magic, telling Admeia to use it just enough to get ahead, and then put it aside. But Admeia, during a particularly brutal year, shared these secrets with Temni, and at first, magic seemed very simple.

Unfortunately, the headiness of power overwhelmed them, and their blood magic was discovered. They barely escaped with their lives, and ran off to hide in the deep forests of Urakh. Like most novice blood mages, they had fallen prey to the arcane lassitude of their art, and they never became great magicians.

They did, however, bear a son: Shalis.

From conception, Shalis was subjected to the ebb and flow of blood magic. From birth, his parents realized that he had inherited their arcane addiction, and in a fit of conscience, attempted to create a ritual involving a captive vampire to transfer the 'hunger' to the undead creature. Their lazy innovation worked, but only in part.

Shalis lost the hunger for blood magic, and gained a hunger for vampires.

Shalis, to the disappointment of his increasingly muddled parents, had little talent or interest in magic. He held them in contempt for their addiction, and was content to leave their fog of failed ambition and high expectations when he was fifteen. He found his way to Urakh's slouching capitol city, and learned quickly that the world was as merciless as his parents made it out to be.
He also found that he had talents beyond other young men, the foremost of which was an unusual magnetism that could inexplicably lure people to him or send them shivering in terror.

Enjoying his new sense of power, he started a ragged band of street urchins to pickpocket for him, and began a small network of allies in Urakh's stifling underworld. As he grew older, however, the unusual traits unwittingly given him by his parents became both more apparent and harder to repress. When he slew a vampire's bound servant for coin, he was compelled to glut himself on the man's blood, and instinctively realized the nature of the gnawing that he'd carried within him for years.

Not yet skilled enough to fight a true vampire, he nonetheless killed the man's master later. This event surprised both of them; it was a combination of luck and an unusual resistance to vampiric powers. When Shalis drank the vampire's blood he felt complete in a way he had never known. Unfortunately, the vampire had many allies in Urakh, and Shalis was forced to flee.
Since then, Shalis has grown in skill and talent. He wandered through Urakh's countryside for some while, tracking vampires and killing them, and eventually left Urakh because of restlessness.

Notes on Shalis:

Shalis is sarcastic and daring. He is one of those people who seem like they'd be awesome to be around in a book or movie, but in real life they aggravate everyone. He doesn't care about the opinions of others, and doesn't particularly care about anyone as a rule. Despite this, he is periodically dapper and courteous, and he can be very eloquent when it suits him; Shalis makes friends easily and drops them just as easily.

In general, Shalis trusts people to be self-serving, and that is the only way he trusts them. His own goals are simple enough: make profit in order to purchase or obtain comforts, find vampires or vampire-bound creatures to persuade them to give up their blood, and stay alive. This last has turned into a game for him, and his contempt for most people shows best when he deals with vampires. In general, Shalis prefers to find vampires, cater to their whims, and play on their arrogance. He is very careful and methodical in this process, wheedling his way into their servitude, learning as much as he can and then planning their destruction. He mocks and despises vampires for being what they are, and sneers at their sense of superiority.

Shalis has another motivation that he is not entirely aware of, however. Though his uncaring nature is quite sincere, Shalis would very much like to care about something. His ceaseless wandering is an outward sign of his restless search for someone or something to believe in, something to prove his cynical view of the world wrong at least in some small sense. He knows he's strong, and he knows he could be a hero, but he doesn't believe in anything worth fighting for except himself. Shalis is, essentially, a loner by nature, but he doesn't like it.

In the plot I wrote him for, Shalis has found some purpose in Tirilan, who is nothing like the stilted, dreadful necromancers Shalis grew up knowing in Urakh. Tirilan certainly raises undead and commands them, and he certainly is capable of foul deeds, but he comports himself as an officer and a gentleman. Shalis originally thought Tirilan's sense of courtesy was to catch foes off-guard, but he has come to realize that Tirilan is chivalrous because it is the proper way to behave. Honor is all-important to Tirilan.

Of course, Shalis also enjoys the luxury of being a companion to one who can literally summon vampires and make them do his bidding... but Tirilan's utter devotion to the coming of the Black Sun has intrigued Shalis, and the hollow within is beginning to clamor for purpose.

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Names and Faces

Sunday, July 27, 2008 - 12:34 PM

I am addicted to writing new people. While doing some planning for the next session of my DnD group, I came to fully realize how much of the work I do is character-based. My favorite plots are by far character driven, and one of my favorite aspects of RPGs in general is intercharacter relations. There are very few NPCs in the games I run who do not have some kind of backstory. Even if the players never find it out (or care, for that matter), it's there, waiting.

This, unfortunately, also dredges up tons of stories and plots that never get used. This plethora of inspirational bursts all end up in a couple of extensively huge files which I comb over on those occasions where I'm drawing a blank on the next puzzle piece of whatever story I'm running. Not unlike the vast amount of material in my gaming library, I could probably spend a good ten years without using everything in that file. Sometimes it is a bit aggravating, but it's also a source of fascination to me, sorting through these names and faces and thinking 'Where did this one come from?' It's like rediscovering an old book that you forgot you had.

The added layers of interaction provided by an RPG really brings these characters to life, both for themselves and the players who meet them. In the course of the games I've run, there have been many characters who my players remember very well indeed, and I'm pleased to have been able to provide that experience for them. Some of these random characters started out as mere henchmen or local craftsmen, and as players settled into their own roles, they discovered more about these people and thereby discovered more about the world their own alter-egos were wandering about in.

That sort of perspective is, I think, why a game with well-made characters will shine above others. Immersion is a key to any story, and the fastest way to make someone relate to a situation is to provide them with a sounding board in the form of a character they can find something in common with. In a world where the impossible can happen, it can be hard for the participant from our world to really grasp how the thoughts and feelings of those in the impossible will be shaped. When you provide complete people from that world to interact with, their perspective gets shared in a contained way that the player can take in and use.

Added perspective also lets players flesh their characters out further. Character development is often relegated to 'awful things happen, what do you do' situations, and that's a pity; it can be so much more. For example, in my current campaign, the party encountered a rather horrific woman named Corant, who was capable of some ferociously awful things. Certainly the fight against her was a nasty one, but it wasn't the fight that truly impacted the PCs; it was what they discovered much later about her past as a girl. Corant is laid to rest, but the seed of her history still sits in the players, and over twenty sessions later, the girl who would later become a monster still influences their decisions. On a much gentler note, this same group has had their characters grow from conversations with archmages explaining to them what it really means to save the world, from moral dilemmas and debates thrown from one to another, and even merely from one repentant NPC, seen only one session, who offered a PC his sword as an apology for fighting against them.

The progression of the story and watching my players go through the story, changing it as they go; this is a significant part of why I run games. And now, as I describe Tirilan, Jolani's son, in words and numbers, I wonder to myself what new twists he will offer them.

If they ever meet him, that is.

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The Flavor of Machinery

Saturday, July 12, 2008 - 10:24 AM

While combing through the 4ed Monster Manual the other day, I came to a sudden realization.

I didn't recall seeing a single monster who, outside of basic skills, had any special ability outside of combat applications.

I did a second look-thru, and though a very, very few exceptions exist, the monsters in the book are nothing but blocks of combat stats. Even in the case of the exceptions, there are barely any indications as to how these abilities are used except in combat situations.

Before I continue, I want to be sure people don't consider this observation a complaint on my part. This is the flavor of 4ed; it is a combat game, and emphasizes combat more than 3.5 by quite a bit. So, it is what it is. However, I think that the significance of this mechanical foundation is being overlooked by a good number of people.

When you build a conflict resolution mechanic for a game, it will influence the overall feel of the game. It doesn't matter how well you story-tell around the mechanics of a system; one way or the other, the mechanic will affect the mood and the tone. Further, what gets delineated mechanically and how will certainly affect how people build their characters, and therefore influence how the characters behave during the course of the game.

In Kult, for example, the system makes combat very dangerous. There is no heroic dodging of bullets in this game; if someone pulls a gun, you take cover, because it doesn't matter how tough you are. By the rules of the game, any slob with a gun can kill you with one bullet. This mechanical emphasis on how fragile a character is enhances the claustrophobia and paranoia of the setting overall. Also, for practical reasons, it influences people to keep their characters out of combat.

Another fine example is Riddle of Steel, where things which are important to your character actually enhance your performance in the game system. This provides a mechanical reward to players who pursue their character's passions and agendas, and also allows them to communicate to the GM in no uncertain terms what they want to do in the game... particularly because these same agendas and passions are given specific game statistics and are responsible for generating experience points in that system.

In 4ed, noncombat skills have been boiled down and reduced to a smaller set of categories. Skill challenges are an interesting new tension-filled way to handle use of skills (though really, some GMs have been doing something similar with 3rd for a while now). However, the vast majority of mechanically defined applications and abilities (and I do mean vast) are all to do with combat. There is a nominal smattering of 'utility powers', and certainly the ritual casting opens up a good few options, but again, it's few options. Combine this with the level requisites for various rituals, and you quickly find that outside of a small parcel of trained skills, your average 4ed character is not, mechanically, very versatile.

I'm going to break my usual rule about comparing 3.5 and 4ed at this point, because 3.5 is the nearest best point of contrast for what I'm observing here. In 3.5, everything was delineated, and skills were fairly extensive. Their use was further enhanced even in an out-of-combat capacity by various feats, prestige classes and sometimes magic items. Monsters often had abilities which were certainly out-of-combat oriented, even if they were only spells and the like. Utility spells complemented skill use, and skills such as Performance provided additional options for players in the social context.

In contrast, I note that, as written, neither the Succubus or the Pit Fiend in 4ed can even detect magic. In the case of player characters, utility-style abilities are heavily level dependent, and you only ever get a limited few. Skill checks are the primary way to get anything done mechanically outside of combat, and in 4ed, anybody can make a skill check. Some are better than others at it, certainly, but if you have a hankering to build a skill-focused character, your options are few. The vast majority of abilities as presented are for tactical combat.

Certainly the GM can add or subtract to a game whatever they like. My policy is that you do not let the system run you; you run the system. But looking exclusively at the mechanical support for given types of actions in 3.5 and 4ed, one can see what the feel of the game is going to be. That said, the feel overall of 4ed may change depending on where they take the game from here (and that is a very big question). As it stands, those people who enjoy diversity in a character and social interactions outside of a peripheral view will probably want to stick with 3.5. How you define your character may start in your head, but the numbers let you know what you can and cannot, absolutely, do in the game. In 4ed, those numbers are almost exclusively, and very specifically, about combat.

Is it wrong? No. A different game than 3.5? Absolutely yes. I'll play both, myself, but I can readily tell what players will enjoy which game more. I still maintain 4ed is a very clean system overall, but it is (currently) a very focused system with a strictly limited perspective on how the world works.

One might think they were planning to make a computer game out of it or something.

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Paths, pt 6

Thursday, July 10, 2008 - 10:18 PM

Redemption had always been part of Naello's plans, but he frequently felt as if the opportunities for it were stolen from him, and his bitterness had increased, drop by brackish drop, over the years. This in turn whetted the hunger for atonement, but he could find no way to earn that which he wanted most.

When the neshniya came back with the wrong blood on their hands, at first he'd been outraged. They'd never failed him before, but somehow, the damnable four had managed to evade the neshniya. He quickly realized that being angry at the neshniya was pointless, and feeling foolish quelled his temper just as quickly. But in gathering information, they'd overheard something that made their failure worthwhile.

He looked out the tiny stone window to the broken, bleak land that hid him in apathy and fog, and his back shivered involuntarily at being turned to the neshniya.

This was a possibility, at last.

“Tell me again what you heard,” he said.

The low, impassive voice that replied was like a wisp of cold fog given voice. Chalciere was the neshniya leader, and generally spoke for all of them. “In the city of Arn, a man claims that he has the soul of Martel the Gorecrow. This information was taken from a traveling tinker, heading south from Arn.”

“What else did you hear,” said Naello.

“The information warranted interest, as the quarry might be following the same trail,” continued Chalciere in an even, expressionless tone. “We interrogated several, and discovered the following: the soul is contained in a red glass hourglass, set with hematite. The man in possession is a very rich man in Arn, but he does not pay alliance to any Guildmaster there except in normal dues. The man in possession hires many bodyguards, and intends to sell the hourglass to the highest bidder. He will not leave Arn, knowing that his trade is illegal elsewhere. We know his name and countenance.”

Naello smiled without humor. It was a triumphant grimace more than anything else. Martel's reputation was so tremendous that even now, after his death, people did not want to say his name or remember what he did. Some hadn't even believed he'd been slain.

And the four had killed him.

What if a terrible mistake occurred? What if Martel came back from Hell and destroyed the four who sent him there? And what if Naello were to come forward and defeat Martel in turn?
The red hourglass was almost certainly one of those crafted in Mancora, designed to hold one's life in place for the duration of their unnaturally slow sand-fall. The hourglasses were not well known, and most measured a century rather than an hour. The glass will have been turned, then, to contain Martel's blood-stained soul, and it will hold him for a hundred years... or unless his soul is given somewhere else to rest.

Revenge and redemption, thought Naello.

“Forget the quarry. Go to Arn. Find this man and take the hourglass, and bring it to me. Be as quiet as you can, but kill anyone who interferes, and kill any witnesses who see you take the hourglass.”

The command made his heart contract; he remembered the first time he'd told the neshniya to kill witnesses.

“...kill them quickly,” he added, turning to look at them. “No side trips. No feeding. No torture. But bring me the head of the man with the hourglass.”

They stood there, wrapped in black cloth and hunger, with no sign of deference. Their empty black eyes looked through him, and for a moment, he had to repress the urge to flee, to hurl himself out of the window rather than let them satiate themselves on his body. But they obeyed, leaving the cold hall swiftly on silent feet, with Chalciere last, light as a spider.

When he turned back to the window, the hall seemed colder.

He ignored it.

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Dinner with the Despot

Monday, June 30, 2008 - 10:02 AM

For quite some time now, I've been adapting the plot arc from the Age of Worms adventure path (Dungeon magazine), and my group had finally gotten to the point where they needed information from a decadent prince's advisor. This brought us to Richard Pett's inspiring "Prince of Redhand" adventure, which is more or less entirely revolving around a dinner party.

Being the sort of fellow I am, I'd long since decided to have an in-game dinner party. Due to various difficulties in wrangling NPCs, schedules and other incidents where life kicks one in the shins, this party kept getting delayed. But a weekend ago, pressed for time, I pushed it, and things came together at last.

I didn't get much rest that weekend, but the result was well worth it. The original menu was very bizarre, but I simply didn't have time to do the food fabrication I would have preferred, and instead adhered to a menu with the theme of 'things hidden'. It went for five courses, dinner was all in-character, and people had a fantastic time.

We had four PCs and five NPCs at the table, not including myself. NPCs had 13 points of Favor that they could allocate to anyone else, and they were to keep track of these things. Favor could be given only up to 2 points at a time, but any amount could be taken away at a time. This had little in-game impact, primarily counting for future interactions between the PCs and NPCs, but people were to tell me if they gave someone 6 or more Favor.

Sometimes the Prince didn't care for some of the Favor being thrown around, and it is dangerous to offend him.

On that note, everyone started with points in the Prince's Regard. Everyone also started with three cards, essentially, denoting their ability to resist, influence or otherwise juggle the Prince's Regard. Unfortunately, I was not horribly clear on explaining how to use these cards, so they did not get used as much as I'd hoped... but a few did, and that was quite fine. Each card could only be played once, and of course, the Prince could give or take Regard at his whim. As a result, nobody really knew what their Regard score was by the end of the game... unless it had reached zero, at which point the Prince was not happy with that person, and it was generally fairly obvious.

Even without cards, the politics were fierce at the table, and there was plenty of chicanery going on. I was quite pleased with the result. I'll close this entry off with the rules for Bowling the Devious Heads, which I based off of bocce, and which my players intensely enjoyed (we used a softball for the Dead King, and croquet balls for the Dukes).

Enjoy an ancient Redhand tradition in this simple court game of competition and accuracy, in which individual players divide into Factions in order to win the Throne.

The game is played thus:

One ball is the Dead King.
All other balls are Dukes.
Player order for the first turn is chosen randomly.

I: The host stands at the line and tosses or rolls the Dead King underhanded, to whatever distance desired.

II: The players then take up the Dukes, and each in turn stands at the line, wherever they like, and attempts to land their Duke closest to the Dead King. This continues until all players have made a toss.

III: Players are divided now into Factions. The two closest to the Dead King are one Faction, the two next closest are the second Faction, and so on until all players are in Factions. Factions remain as teams until conclusion of the game.

IV: The player who has landed their Duke closest to the ball is the Regent. He takes up the Dead King and tosses underhanded, just as the host did. If one player is left over after division into Factions, that player tosses the Dead King instead, and is named the Pretender.

V: Players again toss their Dukes in an attempt to be as close to the Dead King as possible, starting with the Regent's Faction partner. Turns follow in Faction order. The Regent throws last of all. If the Pretender lands the Dead King, then he throws second to last, prior to the Regent.

VI: In throwing, it is acceptable to knock the Dead King from his position (this is called Creating an Heir). It is also legal to deliberately knock another Duke away from the Dead King with your Duke (Usurping a Duke), though if the Duke is knocked out of the field, the player gets a new throw.

VII: If a Duke lands or rolls outside of the bounds of the Court, he must be retrieved and thrown again.

VIII Factions accumulate points after the completion of each round. Dukes are scored by the number of Factions which rest entirely outside their distance to the Dead King.
Thus, if a Duke lands closer to the Dead King than 2 other Factions, he scores 2 points. It does not matter whether both Dukes of an opposing Faction are outside, so long as one of them is.
Turns change according to who has the highest points in that round. Thus, a new Regent is appointed. Factions remain the same, and if a Pretender is present, he is always the Pretender.
The game is played until one Faction earns 23 points, though it can be played for longer.

IX In a game with a Pretender, the Pretender cannot win the Throne by himself. His points are calculated normally, but after all other points are calculated, and they are then added to the Faction with the lowest score of THAT round, not the Faction with the lowest score overall. The Pretender can only win with a Faction who scores 23 in the same round they take his point.

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Paths, pt 5

Monday, June 9, 2008 - 10:02 AM

Eoan adored history. He never tired of studying how the threads of event and counter-event were mirrored again and again, nor of watching new threads weave themselves from what had come before. It was easy for him to understand why time was sacred to his people, the Cyroi, and that made him well-suited to be a priest.

To the Cyroi, there were three kinds of priest. Historians were the primary sort, and Eoan was one of these. They recorded, studied, pored over and confirmed the long history of their people, and considered this a prayer to their austere deity, Annum. Of course, Historians were expected to participate actively, whether as witnesses or instigators, in whatever sort of history they focused on, and in that, Eoan was something of a tragic figure.

When the Time for Duty had come to him, he was given to become a Historian of War.

To the Cyroi, to do something is to be resolved utterly to the task. All things were art, and worthy of refinement, if they were going to be done at all. But war was a terrible and repugnant act, and so the Cyroi feared it because they did not like to think about what they became when it was a time for war. Yet, the Unity of Annum demanded that sacrifices be made for the whole, and war, however monstrous, was one of these.

So other Cyroi saw Eoan with respect and sympathy. He was expected to learn war in all forms, to be ready to lead his people if the necessity would ever come, and none ever hoped for it. Like many Cyroi, after the fervor of war had left him, Eoan would weep for those he had slain, but on the field he was a machine of efficiency as cold and inscrutable as the weapons he used.

But studying the wars of the past was not the same. It still tugged at his heart, the death and misery of it all, but he could pore through the scrolls and books and take delight in the patterns there. There was much to learn. Annum taught that strategy is all that is necessary for resolution of conflict. Superior forces and superior numbers can be overcome by intellect.

Every war the Cyroi had been in, they had won because of this teaching. But the cost had been very high indeed, and Eoan's people had long since begun to fade from the world.

Humans, on the other hand, thrived despite all their victories and losses. To the Cyroi view, they were impatient, irrational creatures who kept no vision beyond their children or their children's children, and most were impossibly selfish. But Eoan found them fascinating. He enjoyed charting their progress through history, watching them achieve great things without seeming to think about it, or understand the significance of their actions. Being young, it was only recently that he'd even met a human being, but those had been notable exceptions to the rule.

When his Call had come, the great storm-oracle Maharwen had taken him in, and through her, he'd met the four humans who had rediscovered Camwhyr's tomb, Camwhyr the Seventh King. They'd brought the Fragment from the tomb to the Cyroi people, and that was significant beyond understanding, and he had been impressed with their sense of obligation. The Fragment was, in many ways, part of a greater key to the Cyroi future, and he knew what it meant.

But in his heart, Eoan most adored the four for bringing out the poetry of Camwhyr's age. They'd recovered the Lament of Minmordhan, the death-poem of a guardian soldier whose name was lost to Duty, the paen for Camwhyr, and so many more. For Eoan, their recognition of that beauty was an inspiration to him. As he sat under the stars, lost in thoughts of his race's golden age, he remembered the four who had given his people some of their lost grace, and he prayed that when it came his time, his Duty ended, that he would be as eloquent as Camwhyr himself had been.

“Stone by stone
I built my heart into a temple to my people

Now it is the open sky
And the clouds are my memories to them”

-Death poem of Camwhyr, Virtue of the East Wind, Thunder at Dawn, Master of the Field of Haoon.

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Paths, pt 3

Saturday, May 24, 2008 - 8:59 PM

Three of the golem-men marched past Kivv. They did not see him, squeezed in an old ore fissure, and when they were ten paces away, he slipped down the passage in the opposite direction.

Something serious had happened. Kivv and the others had heard the conflict echo through the old mine tunnels, but it had stopped abruptly. Now, the golem-men were all on alert, patrolling with scimitars drawn, and the strange humans with the arrogant eyes and vicious features also moved in groups. Before, many of them seemed idle.

Kivv had been sent to discover more, and he'd seen the bodies being carried back through the tunnels. Someone else had come against the Dollmaker, and they were accounting well for themselves.

Confusion to my enemies, Kivv thought, and again regretted Tinka's order forbidding him to kill on his outing. Kivv hated wasted opportunities, but an order was an order.

He froze, stone-still except for one long ear which cocked itself to track approaching footsteps. His wrapped feet merely whispered as he moved to crouch behind a support beam, and shortly two of the strange humans strode by. To the kobold view, they were sword-faced, with long features and narrow, wicked eyes. Their heads were wrapped in long silk scarves and they wore long draping coats, but Kivv knew they'd both have light armor underneath. Like some of the other servants of the Dollmaker, these seemed to be very pleased at the idea of combat.
Decadents, Kivv thought, watching them go. But no less dangerous for that... just more worthy of contempt.

Like most kobolds, Kivv's personal philosophy revolved around the linchpin of Advantage. But as a slanik, he lived a fairly ascetic lifestyle, and had a vague disdain for those who loved comforts. He felt that indulgence was a trap, something that softened you against hardship.

Gliding through the tunnels, he clambered quietly into an air shaft, wormed his way upward with typical kobold rapidity, and then rolled into the old crevice he'd found earlier. Some movement of the earth years ago had split the stone between the air shaft and an upper mining tunnel, and from there, he quickly made his way to the hidden camp where his compatriots were resting.
Enek the shaman was keeping watch. Kivv took a moment to spot Enek's soot-covered form, inwardly grinning at the shaman's aptitude, and then moved past him into the grotto where Tinka and her son Tanaruk were.

Tinka turned her shrewd and regal eyes to him. “What did you discover?”

“It is true. Someone else is attacking the Dollmaker, and has destroyed many of the guardians in the lower passageways. They're all on alert now, and are searching for the enemy. They think what we've done is the other group's work. There are still many of the chanters and monastics left, and I cannot get further in to the Observatory without being noticed.”

He recited the locations and numbers of the guard stations he'd seen, and Tinka questioned him briefly. She then turned to Tanaruk, who had been sitting somberly with hands folded.

“My son?”

“...The advantage is ours. Have Enek prepare a distraction below-tunnels. They will be on alert for this. But their resources are tightening. The Dollmaker will not directly intervene, she is too dedicated to her work. Divine when the others may assault again, and trigger the distraction about the same time. When this occurs, we stab for the Observatory.”

Tinka sampled this plan, narrowing her eyes in thought, and then slowly nodded. “That is what we will do. Kivv, bring Enek here and stand guard for him.”


Kivv slipped back down the passageway, grinning, for he knew their time had come at last.

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Paths, pt 2

Friday, May 9, 2008 - 8:06 PM

Few recognized Tepektu as a seer. He loomed over most men, with a champion's shoulders and the grace of some unnamed, forgotten hero. Bereft of his hood, his face was broad and regally handsome, an emperor's portrait carved from polished teak wood. He'd used this proud bearing to his advantage for years, building a business as a spice merchant, and later, as a broker for goods one had great difficulty finding. He was often assumed to be the half-noble by-blow of some Betrani prince, and in time, he'd become the rich and powerful merchant lord everyone assumed he was.

Few would recognize the true reasons for his success, also. He kept his arcane skill a secret, for he knew how much power the unknown gave him over others. But Tepektu's ability to read the Influences was profound. His talent in sifting through the facets of causality had kept him moving, kept him reaching for more opportunity.

It had also infected him with a degree of fatalism.

Before him, moving under his huge dark hands, discs named for events and people shifted back and forth in a web, and he scowled at one small collection of them. Tepektu rubbed at his chin, considering the patterns.

This is how he ferreted out secrets. He would map the Influences, watch the names shift back and forth through the web, and he would note where they did not go. He would study the areas that went untouched, and then he would divine where those areas matched. In those blank spaces, secrets hid.

For some while now, the problem was in four parts, each bumping into the areas he intended to explore. There they were, again, and again: the Lady of Mirrors, the Wolf-Queen, the Star-binder, and the Gate Warden. Ever since they'd beaten him to the tomb of Camwhyr, he'd been dedicated to staying three steps ahead of them, and so far he'd done so. But lately, in his map of fate, they were leaping through obstacles like lightning to the earth.

Tepektu noted other groups moving along similar paths, but none so close to his as they. They knew of him, but they'd never seen him except once in a vision. He knew they were doomed to meet eventually. No matter what decision he made, if he remained dedicated to his course, they would meet. This did not trouble him; there had been others, before.

Tepektu was still here. The others were not.

Watching the four progress through his map, however, troubled him. Tracing the Influences that pushed at them, tugging their path into swerving here or there, he saw grand and dreadful things. The eruption at Sinid that destroyed a city, the death of one of the Three from poison, the strange dead-star that fell on the plains of Uryashar, the raising of a massive temple near Pesh, the hollow man epidemic at Yhelm, the hags from Dourmoor; whether or not these four were involved or even close to any of these dreadful events didn't matter.

The pattern mattered. The ripples pushed and pulled at the choices the four had, and steered them ever onward, driven by whatever their own ambitions might be. They were carrying a great momentum, and finally, he saw now the empty space that these events surrounded. There were portents, huge and far-flung, and Tepektu was watching at the right place and right time to understand what they enclosed.

At the moment, he did not know if the four understood. But he believed they did.

Tracing his hand along the threads, he examined the silvery collection of icons close to him. Around the Ring-Maker were the Locksmith, the Riddled Prince, the Fire Twin, the Eclipse Daughter, and now, finally, the White Ribbon. Reading the Influences underneath his outspread fingers, he let his hand shift along with the whorls and pools of event and counter-event.
Tepektu's quick, grasping mind studied the icons on the way, and chained them together with symbols. It was inevitable. The four would cross his path again. Both of them were aimed at the Moonstone, an icon prefacing the large hollow in the center of the pattern.

When he came to a conclusion and finished interpreting the Influences, he sat back in his chair, folded his massive arms, and frowned. It was with deliberation and determination that he selected a new icon, one made of burnt black wood, and set it firmly into the center of this space.

His study was utter stillness for some while before a voice addressed him.

“And what is that marker for? The end of the world?”

“No,” replied Tepektu. “It is a time when the world wishes it could end.”

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008 - 10:04 PM

Last game of DnD, my players encountered an oracle, who discussed with them some of the events going on that they were unaware of. Naturally, it's a bit cryptical, given that the oracle didn't know precisely what the truth was either, but the players got a fair amount out of it. In essence, there were five other 'parties' running parallel to the player group. These parties had their own agendas, but due to circumstance and coincidence, tend to follow along the same courses the players do.

Originally, to give the players something to think about, I was going to post a brief snippet of the views of these other parties, and what's happening with them. And that got me thinking about how many stories go unspoken in my campaign. Very nearly any NPC with a name has a backstory and a history. Half of them just sort of explode out of my poor head, fully created, and less than a fourth ever get their full story revealed. So, as a periodic addition here, I'll be posting some pieces of NPC information that never got (nor is likely to be) revealed. This is not only for the DnD group's benefit...I'll be including NPCs from other games too, and I'd like to think some people NOT in my games (I don't have time to run for everybody these days) will get some inspiration and enjoyment out of it.

So, here we have the Path of Hunger.

For a long time, Naello had been terrified. It had been a quiet thing at first, a vague whisper of unease, but as he grew older, his fear grew in turn. His faith hadn't given him respite against the slow inevitability of age, and as his warrior's body tired and weakened, his desperation had grown.

He knew perfectly well that what he'd done was wrong, but how could he have continued to help the world if he became some doddering old man?

Now, cast out from his home city and despised by all those who were once peers and friends, he scowled out at a tangled, thorn-riddled forest, wishing the bleak iron gray of the sky into the hearts of those four who had made a ruin of everything.

The deaths in the city hadn't been his fault. The horrors that followed would never have happened if the four hadn't interfered, but they had.

Naello still had resources, and he intended to prove to the world that he wasn't finished yet. He refused to be remembered as a monster, and refused to succumb to the underhanded treachery that fate had chosen to deal him.

Word had reached him that the dwarf Adun was slain. Martel the Gorecrow, an old foe, also slain. The four had been responsible for both, and now they were running some errand for Caradoc, the one man who never trusted Naello, even from the beginning.

Turning from the stone maw of his window, Naello looked at the black-wrapped huddles behind him, and felt a chill.

These are loyal, he reminded himself. They are loyal, and they will die to do what is right. And I will tell them what is right.

“Listen well. These are the ones you must kill...”

In the days that passed, some farmers near the edge of the wilderness would look up, feeling unease, but they would see nothing, and return to work. Rumors of shadows in the woods grew, and children weren't allowed to stay out after dark. No one knew exactly why, but their instincts told them with a shudder that something was out there.

Much later, bones would be found in the forest, hidden, and gnawed clean. The occasional lone traveler would be noted missing, but most of the bones would go unnamed.

The five moved unseen. They would listen at windows in the evening, loping silently along back roads and hidden paths, covering great stretches of ground because their hunger made them tireless. Skulking, they collected whispers and rumors, and over time built a path to take them to their quarry. The five moved like the black talons of a single hand, slipping from the dark thickets of the wilderness to the edges of country roads, and then further north and east to lurk in wide fields and scattered forests.

A month since Naello had unleashed them, they circled a township nestled in some verdant hills, and caught a scout near there. They told him what they wanted to know, and they ate him, and took his bones to leave no traces. They were not the first devourers in that area, they knew; they'd found old ghoul tracks.

When they came near the burial mound hidden in the woods, they felt the faint tingle of consecration on the area, and fanned out, pale shadows wrapped in black, flitting between pool of moonlight and streak of midnight, shifting slowly, intent on their task.

Early that morning, Caer Ondal's villagers heard a frightening ululation in the night, and they wondered if the ghoul-worshippers had not yet been wiped out.

The truth was that the neshniya had found the scent they'd been seeking for so long. By sun-up, they were already miles away, hunting for Naello's designated prey.

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Excerpt: The Hand of Bethor

Saturday, April 19, 2008 - 1:07 PM

“Most years, they stay in the wilderness. We see their witchlights and the violet flames in the distance. It is not well to enter that land, because of the work they do... some years, they come out and bring their work against us. They shout of freedom and power, but we have seen what they are. They are all mad.”
Herennya, Matriarch of the Hhanash iron druids

“The Church of Bethor is insidious beyond measure. Somehow, though they are all mad, many choose to join them. Their numbers swell when they skulk in our cities. Soon after, the battle is joined, and the Church of Bethor attempts to enslave all those who do not join their blasphemy. They hold great power, but it is power which destroys their own as well as others.”
From the roster of Blasphemous Cults, in the High Temple of Kesr.

“Bethorans aren't mad in the way most people think. They see the world differently, maybe, but they're very rational. At least, the leaders are. Look past the insane cultists, look past their zealotry, and you'll notice... they're smart. They plan, they plan far ahead, and they're good at improvising when things don't go well for them. It's easy to say they're just madmen, but the Bethorans have been in the world for over five hundred years. Clearly, they know what they're doing... whatever that is.”
From the personal journals of Wallace Rievenfeld

Viewed as insane cultists with an obsession for stealing enchanted items, the Bethorans are actually a sophisticated and ancient society who views magic as an essential form of expression. Though splinters of the organization have secretly lodged in cities far from their homeland, most still consider the Bethorans as backwards-minded fanatics who have little to no order at all.

The Bethorans are actually two connected groups. Bethoran purebloods are those born Bethoran, usually raised in their magic-tainted homeland. Adopted Bethorans are outsiders who have been accepted into Bethoran culture. These groups work in conjunction to further the goals of the Bethoran whole, although many adopted Bethorans are not sane enough to understand the bigger picture, and are used as a barrier to those investigating the truth of the Bethoran movement.

The Vision of Bethor

Skybending was the first magical technique known to humans. In this method, the magician becomes a funnel for raw magical power, and attempts to shape it with his will as it explodes out of him. Though this process is capable of incredible creation, it is also inherently dangerous, and prolonged skybending in a given area can create various forms of magical pollution. As such, skybending in the current age is completely forbidden in nearly all civilizations.

Humans learned the fundaments of modern magic from the High Elves. The elves presented a cleaner, more efficient wizardry, allowing a reliable technique that did not corrupt the surroundings. Most humans jumped at the chance to learn, but there are rare exceptions mentioned in history. One such name was Bethor Chainmaker.

Bethor was a very successful skybender and warrior, chieftain to a large nomadic clan in what are now the wilds of Amboq. Accounts of the day state that he refused the elven teachings, calling them subtle tyrants who were attempting to control and subjugate humanity by restricting their power. He claimed they feared human ascension, though he did say it was a justifiable fear, for he believed humans are mighty.

Bethor's philosophy was that magic is the purest expression of the human will, and therefore, any attempt to codify or constrain or restrict magic is an attempt to restrain and limit human potential. He believed that magic is for all, and should be used in all situations.

In response to the quickly spreading elven influence, Bethor's clan absorbed several other large clans in the territory, and began to teach skybending to anyone with the fortitude to use it, as a prelude to waging open war. Accounts differ wildly on the events of Bethor's war, but it is true that he drove the elves away from his people, using massive magical assaults that claimed the lives of many of his own people as well as the enemy. The arcane fallout from these magical assaults would be the the foundation for the bizarre and erratic magical influences that blanket the Amboq, influences which would increase further from generations of skybending.

It is uncertain what happened to Bethor himself. It is assumed that any further records of Bethor's life are somewhere in the Amboq, if not destroyed. After the war, his people fortified their homeland and presumably retreated to develop the foundations of modern Bethoran culture. Would-be invaders avoided the Amboq, afraid of the seething magic that had racked the land, and the Bethorans did not leave the Amboq for several generations. The true history of the Bethorans remains unknown, and few historians are willing to brave the Amboq for further records..

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The Cult of Mormo, pt 5: ...Mormo

Thursday, February 28, 2008 - 5:22 PM

Mormo is a coward.

An immortal creature that is terrified of dying, Mormo carries a grudge against all those to whom death is natural (mortals), and those who need never fear it (true gods). He is a dreadfully jealous and embittered monster who gluts himself on the suffering of anything weaker than he is. As noted previously, mere death does not satisfy his hatred, and now he feeds on the acts of desecration and defilement. They are a form of sustenance to him.

Whether or not Mormo was always this way is unknown, perhaps even to him.

There are many theories about his origins. Due to his furtive nature and his diligence at keeping himself hidden, Mormo's trail is a vague one at best. Those willing to examine his works in-depth might discover that the earliest traces of worship to Mormo emerge in the bleak land of Tiharanc, historically an area where disillusionment in religion and authority is high. Tiharanc's population has been crushed under the weight of many a tyrant, who often claim right of rulership through the local faith, and wield the church as a tool of authority.

Perhaps Mormo was some form of very powerful, hibernating ghoul that somehow absorbed all the bitterness and contempt from generations of oppression. Perhaps he was drawn there. There are no answers as to what began worship of Mormo, or whether it was him that approached potential followers, or the followers that approached him. Most theologians believe, like other godlings, Mormo was appealed to, and found worshippers to his liking.

He wanders constantly, skulking from hidden den to hidden den, occasionally lurking near his shrines to gather sustenance and amusement from followers or merely unfortunate passers-by. Most of his plots involve ruining the plans of other beings of power, rather than concocting schemes of his own. He just prefers to see others fail. In fact, he avoids any grand schemes that are in any way likely to be noticed, because he prefers not to draw any attention to himself.

However, Mormo is very good at manipulating others to take a fall on his behalf. His preferred prey in this regard are people of particular talent or potential who are ostracized from society for whatever reason. In whispers and omens, he talks to them, swaying them to a course of action that will feed his voracious hunger, and probably ruin their own life in the process. Despite his reputation as a crude, brutal godling, Mormo is capable of tremendous cunning and subtlety, and he prefers to take a cautious approach in whatever he does. This can result in some convoluted plots, where a charismatic bandit leader is influenced by a canny but unstable shaman, who in turn 'divines' advice from a voice in the woods (a ghoul taking orders from Mormo, hiding).

Primarily, Mormo is interested in surviving. Garnering worship feeds him, but more importantly it supplies him with tools to use. He trusts no one, and assumes that, in their true heart, all other creatures are like him, and therefore would prey on him if they could. He knows that he is formidable, and far beyond the skill of most mortals to defeat, but he still takes no chances. He treats a mere farmer the same way he treats a great hero; he prefers to attack them when they are helpless.

Secondary to survival is his hunger. Mormo does not need to eat, but he is a miserable creature, and glutting himself on the agony of others just makes him feel better... at least for a while. The physical embodiment of this appetite is his habit of eating corpses, which is one reason he is affiliated with ghouls. In fact, Mormo himself can easily be mistaken for a normal ghoul of the undead variety (much to the horror of some very, very unfortunate monster hunters), and he often turns his priests into ghouls upon their death.

Mormo has a particular loathing for those who are spiritually minded. Priests and other religious figures are sure targets for him. He despises faith, for he sees it as a pathetic crutch for the weak, but he also hates the surety and harmony that it seems to create in people. These are things he does not have, and he wants to take them away from others. As noted, Mormo prefers to spoil or ruin what others have made, or what they believe in. He certainly regards love and faith as weakness to be preyed on, but the truth is that he is not happy, and he will never rest until the rest of the world is as unhappy and emptied out as he is. Until then, he'll continue creeping about the edges and preying on what he can.

As might be expected, Mormo has no true allies. There are a small number of unpleasant godlings who he works with on occasion, but he is otherwise universally hated by most faiths and organizations, even the evil ones. Mormo wouldn't have it any other way; hate is the only form of sincerity that he understands.

Cult of Mormo part 4
Cult of Mormo part 3
Cult of Mormo part 2
Cult of Mormo part 1

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The Cult of Mormo, pt 4: Insider's Look

1:58 PM

Now that my players are finished smacking around the cult of Mormo, I'll post a lot they don't know, and a little that they do. I don't doubt that there will be some in-game research on the topic (just in case). From a design standpoint, these fellows were pretty much there to give Adun associates as bad as he was.

I'll emphasize that the cult of Mormo isn't the sort of thing that generates save-the-world plots. Though evocative in their own way, the stories they end up being part of are on a much smaller scale. In some respects, this makes them more personal as adversaries. Sometimes it is far easier for a group to get sympathetic about the capture of a single person than to work against the threat of a thousand people dying. Remember too that the cult of Mormo isn't likely to want to randomly off a thousand people. Somebody has to survive to suffer, after all. They prefer their work to be very, very personal. They aren't going to want to take over a town, say, rather than kidnap the mayor's son, do horrible things to him, cut off his nose and then send him home again.

In my campaign, the party discovered a rather large group of Mormo's followers. Later, they understood that this was quite unusual, and wondered just what the meeting was for (some reasons for that are revealed below). Last session, they discovered precisely why... someone else was recruiting, someone who had nothing to do with the cult of Mormo.

As it turns out, these sorts of cultists can make great fire-and-forget allies for the unscrupulous, so long as you keep an eye on them.

The cult of Mormo is a wide-scattered entity, with information about its rites and prayers transmitted to followers by Mormo's priests. These priests generally wander from shrine to shrine, pausing only to recruit new followers or plan some horrible offering. A few are called to watch over a shrine, and act as keepers of lore for the cult. These stationary priests are often the primary teachers of the cult, and they also have the unpleasant task of having to deal with Mormo himself when he happens by... which he might.

Becoming a priest of Mormo requires ruthlessness, an intensity of purpose, and either self-loathing or utter arrogance. Priests are ordained for their cunning, their expressions of hatred, and their capacity to needle secrets out of others. They must be concise in what they want from Mormo. Those without strong will or sense of purpose will forever hover at acolyte status, there to be used and abused by the priesthood.

An important facet of Mormo worship is Mormo's pact with his priests. He invests power in them in exchange for their service, but insists that their behavior is only what they want to do anyway. Mormo does not send specific orders, and he only has a small roster of tenets that he considers important to follow. It is implied that any of his priests may challenge him at any time, and that they may willfully disobey him if it suits their purposes. In fact, he expects it.

The iron fist within this threadbare glove is simple enough. Might makes right, and the priests know Mormo is far stronger than any of them. To challenge or disobey Mormo means one can expect a visit from him, and death would be the preferred outcome of such a visit. Few priests really know what it means to be Mormo's plaything, but none of them ever want to find out.
The basic tenets of Mormo's faith can be described as follows:

  • Love is forbidden in the faith of Mormo. If you love someone, you must hurt them or kill them. If someone loves you, you must use that to inflict great misery upon them, and then perhaps they will turn to Mormo to get revenge against you. In that way, they will become your ally.
  • Devotion is folly. Mormo offers concrete rewards, and asks only that you do what is natural to you. The more you make yourself strong, the more he will gift you with his power. He does not want worship, only food. You do not want to worship Mormo, you want to BE Mormo.
  • You are a monster. There is no right or wrong. Those who try to cling to right and wrong do so because it makes them feel powerful and protected. Nothing in the world can protect you except yourself.
  • Take joy in hurting the weak. It is what they are asking you to do, after all. The world is nothing more than the strong eating the weak. The weak submit and die. There is no reason to be merciful. All are your enemies, and they will do to you what you are doing to them, if they were stronger than you.
  • Some will attempt to convert you and make you redeem yourself or atone for your foul deeds. This is just a lie to bring you under their power. If you follow their rules, you become a pawn. Lie to them, instead, feign repentance and then betray them.
    Some will attempt to capture you to bring you to justice. Justice is another stupidity to make the weak feel better about themselves. Kill them all, for they will certainly kill you if they get the chance.
  • Laugh at torture, when it comes from those not of Mormo. They only prove your faith by doing it to you.
  • If you are not cruel, you will fail.
  • Wreck and destroy what is loved. The strong will leave it behind, and understand the truth. The weak will weep and you will laugh at them. It is your right to torment those who are so stupid as to cling to these useless trappings.
  • Stay hidden. Being secret gives you more power. The more your prey does not know, the easier it is to do your will. Mormo wanders in the shadows, and he knows best. There are those who wish to destroy you, because they fear you. Do not give them the opportunity.
  • If you want greater favors from Mormo, you must pay for them. He gives nothing for free. He is an honest god.

Favor from Mormo and personal power are the only real measurements of hierarchy in the cult of Mormo. As a result, strife between priests is common, and murder within the cult's ranks can happen at any time. Though Mormo does not care, he makes a point of punishing such murderers if he happens to be nearby. On the other hand, promotion sometimes occurs with a particularly clever assassination. Most priests are solitary as a result, preferring only to keep ignorant pawns and properly subjugated acolytes.

However, on occasion, word spreads from shrine to shrine (usually through magical messages via beetles), that a Ghoulfeast will be had, and this means all priests and followers must find their way to one of the greater shrines, those places where Mormo himself might arrive. It is not mandatory to show up, but a Ghoulfeast is called by either the strongest of Mormo's priests or Mormo himself, and that means a chance to win great favor... or sometimes have a chance at that elusive priest you've been trying to kill for a while now. Ghoulfeasts are usually called when offerings of great intricacy are planned, when something affecting the cult as a whole is occurring, or Mormo has chosen to personally ordain a group of would-be priests. Either way, the area in which a Ghoulfeast occurs is sure to be rife with unpleasant crimes for a few weeks, as all the Mormo cultists attempt to gather favor.

Mormo has refined tastes. His worshipers are expected to produce offerings on a weekly basis, but these can be small, petty things, such as stolen holy symbols or temple alms filched from a collection. Such petty offerings need not be physical in nature, either; slanderous gossip to break up harmony, for example, can be offered to Mormo. Followers are expected to start with these, and include sacrifices of things loved or treasured by them. The more pain that is caused with sacrifices, the better Mormo enjoys it.

Greater offerings are much more severe. Priests of Mormo steal holy relics, deface idols, break up marriages, kidnap children, or perform terrible acts while masquerading as members of other religions. Blood sacrifice is quite acceptable, but mere death is not enough to satisfy Mormo's hunger. The death must cause great misery or betrayal to feed him, but those who can provide such meals to Mormo will have his favor.

Next up: Who IS this Mormo guy, anyway?

The Cult of Mormo, part 3
The Cult of Mormo, part 2
The Cult of Mormo, part 1

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The Cult of Mormo, pt 3

Friday, February 22, 2008 - 12:22 PM

This little bit can be used to provide some in-character information, printed as is. It also provides an example of how the cult of Mormo looks from the outside, to those attempting to investigate it. In the game I am running, the party cleric's research will uncover this letter.

A Letter from the Warden Banashur, to the Hierophant Tan-Gilil

To the dawn I send my hopes, and this letter to you, who calls down the secrets of the Sun.
It is true that my home city is plagued with the wretches who worship the Ghoul Mormo, and I am honored that you prevail so upon my wisdom to allow my words into the Archive. Here, I have enclosed all that I have discovered about the First Ghoul and his ways.

Know too that though we have caught and punished many of the First Ghoul's creatures, some yet prey on our people. We believe that a great shrine to this monster rests under the necropolis, defiling the rest of the dead, and soon I shall lead a mighty force to purge the place of it all.
Here then, are my accounts. Though being witness to such as this has blackened my heart, I know that in time and faith the blaze of the Fire Scorpion will purify me and make me whole again. Send what blessings you are permitted, O Renewing Light; I shall send word again as soon as may be.

Of the First Ghoul
Those who are blessed with understanding know that even among the Gods, some stand greater than others, and though the First Ghoul is a cunning and obscure creature, it is believed that he is a Godson, a monster of power beyond that of mortal life who nonetheless lives in the mortal world. Like other such Godsons, this implies that he is immortal, yet can die at the hands of a mighty hero. Such has been known to happen in the past.

It is an assurance, that the First Ghoul is so weak in compared to our own lofty deities, yet it is also a horror that he can walk among us freely if he chooses. And what can the common man do to withstand him? Nothing, or so we believe. He is a potence beyond the strength of even a well-blessed priest or faithkeeper.

The First Ghoul likely fears the judgment of his betters, however, and this is why he himself acts as do the most craven of his followers. He hides his power, and rarely emerges from his secret lairs, which must be horrible beyond belief, yet none of them have ever been found. Though we know little more of him, we know much more of those who besmirch their souls and follow his way.

Of the First Ghoul's Servants
So long as the monster lives, there will be men to follow him. It is a bitter drink for those of us who strive to promote peace, harmony and prosperity, but it is truth. So long as one man is willing to hurt another man, the First Ghoul's whispers might bind him.

It is important to distinguish the degrees of binding. There are many who serve the First Ghoul and do not know it, for his priests are subtle and full of cunning. It is their way to bait a man into sin by his own will, and then to confront him with the fear of justice or guilt, and so lead him further into the influence of their foul master.

As reported last season, we had captured an acolyte of Mormo, who has understood the depths of his villainy, and has chosen to redeem himself. His information comes to us freely now, and we have found it most instructive. In particular, we have received from him ample information on the recruitment and organization of the First Ghoul's servants, and what they are named by the priesthood.

Of the Corpses
The penitent reveals to us that grave-robbing is the term used by the priests to find Corpses, which are the lowest of the First Ghoul's followers. Corpses are pawns, often unaware of who they are being used by, and usually thugs or other low creatures paid to particular purpose. Alas, the vermin of humanity are always for sale, and they receive their just wages: such unfortunates are often left to take credit for the priest's foul plans, and suffer while he escapes.

Corpses are likely named as such for that reason.

Some Corpses are recruited through their own discontent, bitterness or hatred. The priests find them and take time to befriend such a person. They encourage the Corpse into doing what they wish; the penitent states that they will tailor events to spur their target into action. A man, fearing infidelity from his wife, might be incited to injure or even murder her, spurred on by false evidence.

The favorite poison to press innocents into service is blackmail. It is a dreadful thing, for he who works with them gives them more weight to press him down with. It is noted that they prefer to work quickly, fading like shadows afterwards. Those who resist their attempts at corruption for long are often killed.

The hope of the priest is to break their morality or their sanity, and make them into Flies.
For clarification, I note that cult refers to the actual practice of grave-robbing as 'finding dinner'.

Of the Flies
These poor creatures are those who believe they can do nothing else but what the priests of Mormo tell them. They are utterly bound, by blackmail or guilt or occasionally some curse or enchantment. In their fear and desperation, they will do whatever the priests tell them to do, in order to buy a chance at being free. Perhaps they have been given false promises; our penitent tells us that there is nothing the priesthood enjoys more than using what we love against us, to force us into evil in thinking it must be done to protect our own.

Blessings and sanctuary to those who are so afflicted!

Not all Flies are so hapless. Some are those used to indulgence in evil, or perhaps those with powerful hatred of their own sins and feel that it does not matter what they do. Whatever the case, Flies always know that they are being used, though they may not truly know by what, or feel they can do anything about it. Some of them, out of resignation or wickedness, choose to turn their backs on righteousness, and attempt to gain favor from the First Ghoul. These in turn become the acolytes of the cult, who are called Beetles.

Of the Beetles
Here, the cult finally begins to teach the secrets and true tenets of the First Ghoul. Beetles are subject to much scrutiny and abuse, as the First Ghoul hungers for only the most vile, and no doubt punishes the priests if less is offered up to him.

The penitent was one such acolyte, and he tells us that the first training is recruitment. Beetles must go forth and find Corpses and Flies, and must dedicate themselves to debasement, both of themselves and others. They are constantly exhorted to greater acts of humiliation, violence and defilement. Many such take joy in it. Favor from the priests is arbitrary, but often dependent on the achievements of the acolyte.

In the matter of our captive, the penitent was full of hatred for the rulers of our people, and so he found power to express that hatred in joining the cult of Mormo. He has done many horrible things out of hatred, and was willing to blacken himself further to accomplish more, thinking he could strike out at what he believed to be tyrants and oppressors.

May the Sun grant clarity to those whose eyes are shadowed!

He returned to virtue when he refused the command to kill a child, testifying to us that the priest wished him to do so for no other reasons than the child was precious to someone, that he could, and that the child could not stop it.

From what we can tell, this manner of spite pervades the cult of Mormo. It is not enough for them to merely do injury, or rob, or murder. They must ruin what is precious to others, and dedicate themselves to breaking faith in anything but self-indulgence and, apparently, self-loathing.

The penitent does not know what transition promotes beetle to ghoul, or priest. Ordination (or defilement, perhaps) is a secret event, witnessed only by the priesthood of the First Ghoul, and presumably hidden away in one of his shrines. Only the priests know these secrets.

Of the Ghouls
To know an enemy is to know how to destroy him, and we know little of the ghouls. The penitent tells us many things which are useful to know, but even that is little enough. What we may conclude is that these are the most disgusting and wicked of the First Ghoul's followers, and that they have chosen this. The penitent repeatedly testified that Mormo demands a conscious choice. Though his priests may go mad later, they must be in right mind when they swear themselves to service. Ghouls rarely work together, and it is implied that murder among their own is not uncommon.

Praise be to the Scorpion of Golden Virtue that evil turns on itself!

However, the First Ghoul is generous in his gifts to his priests. They are granted magical power, often to hide themselves and to harm others, and they are given power over certain crude forms of hungry dead. Indeed, some of them are ghouls in nature as well as title. The penitent testifies that a dead priest will often rise up again as a ghoul unless the body is burned, and many of the priests eat the flesh of the dead.

Though we do not yet know the truth, the penitent believes that on occasion, many priests will come together to desecrate a holy place in order to call their master to them and petition him for great favor. He believes this is the truth behind the words 'feeding the charnel pit', but he was not given to know these secrets. It was only through rumor.

I mention this because it may well explain why the cult has so persistently plagued this area for so long. Perhaps, in one stroke, we may make ruin of those whose creed is ruin.

O You who Bears the Morning Warmth, make use of this information as you may! I shall write again when next we have word.

-Warden Banashur, Temple of the Builder of Cities

A brief message, arriving a week after the previous, also from the Warden

Blessed are Those who Carry the Fire

Lament, for the penitent is slain. A swarm of black beetles devoured him alive in his cell. May his soul escape the monster he chose to fight against. Say prayers for him, if you will, and say prayers and burn incense for our acolyte, who has been kidnapped.

Cult of Mormo, part 2
Cult of Mormo, part 1

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The Cult of Mormo, pt 2

Saturday, February 16, 2008 - 1:30 PM

This item is intended to be informational, suitable as a handout in-game if someone happens to be investigating records about the cult. Wallace, the fellow giving the account, can certainly be a contact. Make him grizzled, a bit resigned, a little grumpy and very politely suspicious. The man made a living out of hunting down dangerous cults, after all, and he's never quite sure he got ALL of them.

“In all our years of searching, my men and I never found any more than two shrines dedicated to Mormo. One we found by accident, a mere happenstance. Mormo grants some power to his... holy places; it makes them metaphysically furtive, I suppose you could say. Seers overlook them, trails lead away from them. Now, unless you are interested in a trade like mine, I suggest you let them stay hidden, because Mormo's shrines are deceptive and dangerous.

The two we found... one of them was little more than a niche, cramped under the foundations of a temple in the deep city. The other was much larger, built into the burnt-out husk of an old church. Ah, I'll go ahead and talk about that one, as it was revealed to be a major shrine for the cult, and in researching the works of my peers, I discovered it was emblematic of Mormo's cult.
So, we were tracking our quarry, and our fesshound started whining. It was in the deep woods at night, and we were wary of ambush, so we kept on with weapons handy. Turns out it wasn't anything alive that bothered the 'hound.

The first thing we noticed were the thorns. There were creepers everywhere, and it made for slow going, but we pressed on, and saw the shrine. From the outside, it was a sprawling, hunched kind of building. We could hear some faint clattering and buzzing sounds from within, so we all made our prayers and approached. We figured out the place was nested in a ruin, and the Mormo cult was kind enough to let us know what kind of building it had been. See, in front of the low door, there was a little semi-circle of burnt, old skulls. They all had rusty holy symbols tied to their brows, remains of the faithful who used to pray there.

Inside... all right, before I continue, I have to mention the stink. The reek from inside was tremendous and thick, and all of us had watering eyes as we pressed on. From studying the accounts of my peers, I now know this isn't unusual.

Needless to say, we were careful, but we entered, and ... this is what we saw.

Scurrying away from our light were a number of large black beetles, disappearing into the stained and seamed walls. There were six pillars,each with a single iron spike jutting out from it, and hanging from one was the body of a child. The pillars were arranged in a circle, though the shrine was square in shape, and there were a pair of rusted shackles bolted to the floor in the middle. At the far end beyond the entry there was a stone chair with no back. It was empty, mossy and thickly moldy. On either side of this were troughs in the ground, and we could see heaps of something in these. Rot, mostly, leavings, the slime of decomposition, filth.

The walls were pitted with alcoves. Many of them had small items stuffed into them. Mostly these were trinkets or symbols of faith in various states of decrepitude or damage, but we also found a skeletal finger with a ring on it, and in another, the ruin of a child's doll. In the far corners of the place, there were piles of dead leaves, mold and worse, as if someone occasionally swept up the filth fallen from the pillars along with anything the world outside brought in.

A further search turned up a pair of stone bowls full of stagnant water, a few coils of fresh rope behind the stone chair, and a leather wallet, well-oiled, with a set of small, sharp butcher's tools in it.

Well, we took down the body, and we started cleaning the place out. The walls had some occasional writing, mostly slander against the faithful, but on one wall, there was a detailed painting of a pincer-like black moon, crushing a bleeding sun between its points. We knew for certain it was a place for Mormo, then, and we were just finishing up when the ghouls all came out of the pits in the back...”

--Wallace Rievenfeld, teaching at the Yhelm Academy

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The Cult of Mormo, pt 1

Thursday, February 14, 2008 - 12:13 PM

Here we begin a short series of in-character bits regarding the cult of Mormo. Any of these might be used as hand outs during the course of a game, or otherwise integrated into the story. Later, clarifications specifically for the GM will be posted.

“Paladins! You will not disgrace your faith and your position by executing cultists of Mormo immediately. You will bring them to trial like all other criminals. Do they deserve death? Yes. Are they the vilest of criminals? Yes. But due process of Law must be kept. That is your honor and your life. Trust in your God that justice will be done. And in the case of Mormo filth, it will be done.”
--Captain Carys ap Luthier of the Horizon Guard, addressing new recruits.

“Paladins? They're the weakest of the lot. Cattle, all of them, and we love sending them back ruined if we can. Putting your faith in anything other than yourself is pathetic...oh, what am I doing, you ask? I don't have faith in Mormo. I just know that he rewards me for doing what I'd want to do anyway. And you want to do the same to me, I can tell.”
--From the interrogation of a Mormo cultist, name stricken from the records after execution.

The Portraiture of the Demon called Mormo
Mormo's Titles are Thus: The Hungry Moon, the Black Knife, First Ghoul, the Desecration, Heartgrinder, Thornkeeper

Mormo favors the Colors of Dark Green, Grey and Black or Russet, though few but his most devout followers would openly wear them.

Mormo calls the Weasel, the Shrike, the Beetle, and the Ghoul as his creatures.

His Signs are a Black Crescent Moon, crushing a Sun between the Points; a Black and Eyeless Beetle; and a Red Ring of Thorns.

Mormo is the Lord of Desecration. He sucks in Power from the Ruination of hat which people Love, or put Faith in. He is a Bitter and Spiteful creature, who exhorts Befoulment and Malice, and chains his Followers to him with disgusting Deeds. He is the Patron of Grave-Robbers, Bandits, and Iconoclasts, and all Those who Love Hurt. This Demon has never yet been Seen, but his Power is evident, and he is Despised by all.

You will know the Trail of Mormo by the Broken Lives he leaves behind, and the Defilement of Innocents, and the Blasphemies against That which is Holy. His chosen are Furtive, and slip away from the Eyes of Sorcery. His Shrines are known as Hollows, and they too are Hidden by his Accursed Strength.

By Law, both Secular and Sacred, those who Damn themselves to Mormo are Sent Straightaway to the Hell which awaits them. Those who Slay the Innocent deserve no Honor, nor Mercy, nor Forgiveness. It is an Irrevocable Crime.

The Lore of Mormo is Sealed by Church Edict; go therefore to the Abbey of Kyrilaraun to seek it, if you must.
--From the notes of Ermina l'Onlumey, First Scribe to the Church of the White Lady

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