Paper and Dice

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

Thinking Epic

Tuesday, August 18, 2009 - 9:23 PM

Caradoc is a man my dnd group loves to hate, and hates to respect. Given that they are just touching the edges of his level of influence and priority, I thought I might post a little something from his point of view.

When people talked about heroes, they were talking about any one of those rare individuals who refused to be daunted. When people talked about the Archmage, they meant Caradoc. Dour chin resting on one knuckle, he peered at the world map in the war room. It was a mural, created in conjunction with an accomplished seer.

“Show me the armies,” he said, and tiny blots of ink pooled on the map.

“The House of the Sun is massing again,” said Lord Irmin.

“They only do that to remind Jashapur who has the larger army. But they won't move. Pharaoh is too cautious for an assault.” Caradoc scanned the map like a hawk, and then turned to the small group of sages, generals and scholars standing around the council table. “Someone's building an army in the south of Sarrgim. Find out who.”

“Yes, sir,” said one of the soldiers. He saluted briskly, and left immediately.

“Otherwise, looks like business as usual, except for whoever is hiding.” Caradoc dismissed the map blots with a wave, and focused his attention on his lieutenants. “Any other word from Ollamh?”
“Nothing new, sir,” said the broad-shouldered man with the embroidered sepia Academy robe. “They still have eyes on Avissar, looking for residual magic.”

“And watching the insane Prince, no doubt,” murmured a sardonic, greying general.

Caradoc gave the old man a pointed look. “We don't know if Beckhardt is actually insane. He's a good player; don't assume. Right, we've...”

The door opened, and Piers half stepped in. He was Caradoc's new chamberlain; young and efficient, mousy but with an exorbitant tailoring bill. “Apologies, my lord...”

“Someone here to see me?”

“Yes, my lord, and very insistent on it,” replied Piers. “The Balebane Company.”

There was a faint wash of bemusement in the room.

“Very well, we're about done here anyway,” Caradoc announced. “You all know what you should be working on. I want reports on the cult of the Eye and the whereabouts of that rogue binder by tomorrow.” He walked over to his desk, paused as people began to file out. “Lord Irmin, you're attending the masquerade in Purayu?”

“Yes, sir, received the invitation two weeks ago. Should I change my schedule?”

“No, just a reminder; I expect a new Dolnan spy there. Keep an eye out.”

Lord Irmin nodded, and left. Piers hovered by the door, patient, until Caradoc motioned for him to bring the visitors up.

At one time, Caradoc had wandered the world, gathering wealth and power and righting wrongs along the way. He'd been a fiercely moral man, firmly convinced that there were no reasons but greed or sloth to justify squandering one's talents. His morals had gotten worn down a bit as the years passed, and now he had far too many enemies to be an adventurer. He had nothing to prove, and no need for glory; people like the Balebane Company could have it all.

“Balebane Company, my lord,” announced Piers, opening the door again to admit four hard-eyed men and women.

Caradoc studied the four. They'd made an effort to come properly dressed; all wore finery appropriate to meeting the Archmage, though one looked ill at ease in it. He also knew he was not what they expected. Many magicians were scholars foremost, and used to easy living. Caradoc loved easy living, but he would never be soft; he was tall, trim and muscular. Though his hair was white and his face weathered, he was strong and fit. He also made it a point to dress well.

“I have a meeting in ten minutes,” he said. “What business do you have with me?”

“I am Caedwallon,” said one of the four, a lean and tough looking man with long black hair and a distinctly aquiline profile. “I'm the ...”

“I know who you are,” said Caradoc, studying the man without expression. Strong decision maker, but heavy insecurities. Obsessed with making a mark on the world. Lots of personal charisma, probably prone to self-indulgence. “And I know your group's reputation. What business do you have with me?”

The interruption stung a bit, but he saw that at least half the group was flattered he knew them. Of course I know you, thought Caradoc. I know all of the local independent contractors.

“We come to offer our aid to you,” said Caedwallon with a faint hint of irritation.

“Very well,” said Caradoc. He walked around his desk, shuffled through his papers just to make an impression and found a list he'd known the location of from the start. “There's a mine south and east of here, at the border of Maev province. It's an abandoned silver mine, and the local governor will give you any maps you need...this document here...” Caradoc signed and sealed an envelope. “... will see to that. Go to the mine. If there are green-robed fanatics there, find out what they are doing and come back here. Yes, they will likely be dangerous. You can do further investigations when you get there. Be wary of infiltrators in the town, but you can be sure of the governor.”

He handed the envelope to Caedwallon, who accepted it with a puzzled look.

“Ah... what is this about,” ventured the younger man.

Fixing Caedwallon with a falcon-like stare, Caradoc folded his arms. “If you want to aid me, I've just told you how. Off you go. If you need compensation, talk to my chamberlain. I assume you are competent. Any further questions you have are ones you can answer yourself.”

He could tell they wanted to ask anyway, but they eventually filed out. Caradoc shrugged, and started sorting through reports he'd received earlier in the day. There is never any shortage of would-be heroes, he thought. When Balebane Company goes and kills the local necromancer or the resident brute or saves some noble scion from being kidnapped, stories get told. Songs are sung. Everyone knows, and the Company gets to celebrate being heroes. When I do my work right, no one ever knows they were threatened or saved.

Peering critically at a report from the far north, he frowned.

And there is just never enough time, he thought. I'm overdue for a little celebration.

“Piers,” he called. “Send word to... Lady Aeronwyn, I'll be back in Yhelm to meet with the Academy next week.”

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Epilogue from the Other Side

Saturday, August 8, 2009 - 1:35 PM

Still here. Wedding, two receptions on two sides of the country, a stint in Paris (ah, Paris), and a road trip as well as various bureaucratic ordeals have kept me very busy. In my last game session for DnD, the players came to the end of the Big Plot Arc, and became very famous people indeed. This got me thinking about gaming epilogues, of course, and I decided to show something from The Other Side.
Sometimes a victory is a two-edged sword.

Yesterday, Julian was inconsolable. He had wept blood, thrashed as if he wanted to destroy his own body against any surface he could find, and howled until his voice failed. Avar had to restrain him, binding the smaller man.

Today, Julian sagged with despair. There was no spark left in him, and he followed Avar meekly. Silent, Julian would not or could not speak, and Avar did not press him. There had been fits before, frothing and gnashing, but Julian had never been so broken. Avar did not rely on conversation, but as the two of them through thick, dank woods to the Manticore, he felt alone. Julian usually sang quietly or offered occasional words, but he walked silently, withdrawn.

Leoric had sent word that morning for them to come to the Manticore. Ever since their failed journey to the Alyach, finding it impassable, Leoric had stayed in the north of the Wound while the rest had gone back to attend to the growing army and preparing for the onslaught against the Green Veil knights.

But yesterday, Fidelity suddenly withdrew, leaving his cult confused and dismayed. Julian and the other Wormkeepers all became howling wrecks. Something had changed, and Avar expected that Leoric would have an answer.

When he crested the dead trees of the Manticore, he emerged to see Leoric standing at the edge of the Manticore's 'head', the slight overhang that looked down at the Wound. Nearby, Tancred stood, leaning heavily on a gnarled club, and a scabrous ghoul of large size crouched next to Leoric.

Isabeau, wearing her ghoul, Avar thought. As he and Julian moved to join the three, Leoric turned slightly.

“I am glad we didn't lose Julian. Many of the Wormkeepers died yesterday.”

“Yes,” said Avar. “And Fidelity left. What has happened?”

“The impossible,” said Tancred bleakly, but Leoric's glance killed anything else Tancred might have said.

Instead, Leoric pointed north, and Avar could see a whirlwind of harpies, this time swirling over the constant thick smog of the deep Wound.

He furrowed his brow. “I thought they did that once a year.”

“Watch,” said Leoric. “What has happened was not what we ever expected, but I have seen the runes, and I understand now. The harpies are waiting, just as we are.”

Avar decided not to ask, and as he expected, part of the answer occurred shortly. A great shadow crossed over them, sweeping a horrible sour odor through the wind, and he looked up to see a tremendous harpy, a giant around which a vast cloud of flies buzzed. Other harpies followed in her wake, and he could feel the uncomfortable tickling at the back of his mind that indicated she was a Disciple.

“Beauty,” murmured Tancred with awe.

The giant harpy glided and dipped through the air, joining the huge vortex of her countless children, and then her devastating voice echoed through the Wound. It swept up the voices of her children, building a storm of angry wordless song that built steadily.

A sharp scuffing sound pulled Avar's attention away, and he glanced back at Julian, who had crumpled himself into a little weeping ball. Isabeau's ghoul also glanced at Julian, and took a slight step towards him.

“Oh no,” murmured Julian. “No, no. No.”

The steady tide of the harpy song built and then broke into a frightful harmonic screaming, equal parts anguish and rage and triumph. Avar felt, rather than saw, creatures fleeing from the Wound. Somehow he knew that even the most diseased and corrupted animals were running away. Tancred shifted uncomfortably, and for the first time Avar saw fear on his weathered face.

This time the question would not be restrained. “What is happening,” he said softly.

“Watch. Watch for the stirring of His corpse,” said Leoric.

Like dust billowing out from the collapse of a cave, the smog at the deepest end of the Wound suddenly burgeoned out, a foul greasy thunderhead of thick vapor. It rolled over the edges of the Wound, seeped in and around the trees and boiled over the hills. The brunt of it spilled through the deep canyon of the Wound, obscuring even the shallow areas with ochre-green smog. Avar saw a good many harpies plummet from the sky, dead.

There was a moment of profound silence, and then the earth groaned. A tremor went through the ground, a jolt of anguish.

“The Alyach is open,” said Leoric with satisfaction. “The Disciples all gathered at the Tree, because Hope was slain. Hope is dead.”

Avar tilted his head, and was not at all surprised that even the ghoul looked discomfited.

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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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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, 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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Greater of Two Evils, Epilogue

Friday, October 17, 2008 - 2:57 PM

I've had my head underwater for a little while now. This is a bit overdue, but here it is... enjoy.

Drifting unseen over the vast city of Yhelm, Tristan surveyed the spread of lanterns, fires and candles below him. It created a lovely webwork of warm, golden light that made the darkness surrounding it so much richer. Very soon, he would be leaving the city, but he had one final task to attend to before his departure. Then it would be west again, to meet with the Hierophant.

Over the years, Tristan had wrested a fair number of supernatural powers from dark spirits and demons. Not wanting to take them for granted, and preferring to stand on his own merits, Tristan did not use them often. Generally, he brought them to the fore only when needed.

But occasionally he did indulge himself. He could have walked to the north docks, and there was no need for haste, after all. Earlier, standing on the tower balcony with the wind in his hair, Tristan had craved the opportunity to fly, and so he chose to make his way to the north docks through the night air. He could not move as swiftly as Serina, but the speed was enough to suit him and it was in no way tiring.

So, slipping through the air like a pike through water, he drifted, floated and rushed his way over Yhelm, occasionally pausing to let whispers and words reach him. There was no hurry, and though he knew some of his servants would be concerned about his solitary wandering, he was not worried at all.

Some of them would eventually learn that Tristan never did anything unless he'd considered the risks and found them acceptable. He was careful, and preferred to think five steps ahead in all things. It was always refreshing to find someone else who thought so far ahead; those were the ones he preferred to recruit.

Sweeping silently down over the gloom of the docks, he spotted the isolated guard post he was looking for, and faded back into view as he landed. But when he approached the guard post on foot, he found it empty.

The slightly raspy voice that came from behind him was courteous but cool. “The only reason you are not dead is that you came here openly.”

Tristan smiled. “May I turn to face you?”

“No. Stay as you are, state your business, and then leave the city.”

Nodding, Tristan reached into his sleeve... slowly... and withdrew a folded piece of paper, which he dropped on the ground. “You already know that one of the Practical Ones has come to the city, but you haven't found him yet. That is where he is hiding.”

“Why give it to me?”

Tristan knew what the paladin Keira looked like, and in his mind's eye, he knew that her face would not have changed expression. She understood the need for masks, and he understood that hers would be one he couldn't remove. “He threatens one of my interests. I have the means to locate him, but I am not the law here. So I give him to you.”

“Clever,” came the calm voice, without much inflection. “Is that all?”

A few conversations flowed through Tristan's mind, but he dismissed them. It would be impossible to recruit Keira, as much as he'd love to do so. There was no compromise in her; she understood what he was, and far better than any other paladin in the city. Best to keep it short.
“No, that would be it. May I leave?”

“Seeing as you are here,” Keira said in the same level, slightly rusty tone,“... you have my warning. Never come back to Yhelm. The next time you do, there will be no talking. Now go.”

Pleasantries were also useless, so Tristan simply nodded, and strolled away on foot, back towards the center of the city. He and his entourage would have until morning to leave, and he fully intended to do so. The work in Yhelm was done. After walking briskly a good distance, Tristan faded from view and flitted back into the night air, heading back towards his balcony.

He knew Keira would find the Practical One, but not for him. It was an opportunity, and she understood opportunities. Most paladins, being armored of purpose and mind, would have immediately considered his actions a trap in some way, and utterly refused. But Keira had been an assassin; she knew that even among the wicked, there were laws. She would wonder at his interest, yes, but that was to be expected. But she knew he was not a fool, and that meant his offering was a tribute, a mutual interest and nothing more.

The ones Tristan had an interest in were the same as those Keira called friends, after all.

The Practical Ones were masters of death, subtle or unsubtle. Their prices were very high, their contracts very strict, and any failure of theirs would only be whispered, if at all. If Keira found and killed the assassin, the contract would be over, and the Practical Ones would wash their hands of the matter. If the Practical One killed Keira, Tristan could return to Yhelm sooner than later.

Either way, he had the Reeve to settle the difference, if need be, and the world would never know.

Yes, he thought as the wind whistled past him. Without men like me, there would be no heroes. I wonder how many heroes know how much men like me treasure them.

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Greater of Two Evils, part 5

Friday, October 3, 2008 - 7:26 PM

All three of the men had something in common; they would not look Tristan in the eye.

He sat comfortably in a velvet-lined chair, the ocean-borne wind whistling over the tower balcony and tousling his long, dark hair slightly. His customary colors made him a handsome study painted in blood and night, and at his feet slept his two hoarfoxes, ghostly white and silver in the late evening gloom. Behind him, beyond the low balcony guard, the vast tiered city of Yhelm spread out in a maze of shadows and lantern-light.

“My lord,” one of the three began. Tristan lifted his chin slightly, and the man went quiet.

“You know,” said Tristan, “what comes of excuses. Are you so weak as that? Bring me the truth.”

“Yes, my lord,” said the one again. He paused. “They have many friends among the alfarkinder, and so it is not easy to ask questions.”

“Did you attempt it?”

“, my lord,” came the hesitant reply.

Tristan saw a sideways glance from another, and noted it. Elis wants promotion, and thinks he can get it.

“Good,” said Tristan decisively, and the predicted surprise on their faces was quickly hidden. “Anything else?”

“Yes....yes, my lord.”

Serin, a nervous shadow of a woman, slipped up and gave Tristan a goblet of wine while the man started reciting some tired information. Much of this Tristan already knew, but he enjoyed discovering how thorough his servants were. Or how treacherous, if they choose to leave something out he knew they'd find.

Many people believed Tristan's perception was supernatural, that his words carried more than mere sound, but the truth was he simply knew what to say and when, to whom.

Yes, he had supernatural means as well, but he preferred to rely on the mundane.

“That's all, my lord.”

“You two,” Tristan indicated the others. “Go.”

There was a furtive silence, and the two left, shown out timidly by Serin, who then cringed back to Tristan's left to fold her hands and sit very still. In turn, Tristan peered at the leader, who was very nervous.

“Be at ease,” Tristan said, and put his smile in his voice.

The man looked up despite himself, eyes wide, caught himself and tried to look down, but he could not.

“Do you understand why I approved of your choice, regarding the alfarkinder?”

Uncertainty flickered over the man's face, trying to reconcile threat with the pleasant warmth that Tristan was projecting.

“No, my lord.”

“When you figure that out, come back and see me again. Keep your men in line, and watch Arrald and Elis both. They'd like your position.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

“Good. You may go. Also, kill Murdoch.”

“...Of course, my lord. I do your bidding.”

The man bowed deeply, and waited for Tristan's leave to go, which was granted. Serin shut the stone door, avoiding the man's regard, and shivered against the door when it was closed. The shiver turned to a ripple, smoky wings spread from her back and her body redrew itself into long, graceful lines. When she walked back to Tristan, the shadow of the timid, wary Serin was utterly gone.

“Murdoch is valuable,” she said in her true voice, all candles and winter.

Tristan regarded her with idle fondness, and sipped at his wine. “Yes, he is. But his loyalties are conflicted, and his death will push the others to make choices of their own. We need that right now.”

Serin nodded, leaning against the side of his chair and curling one of her wings over him like a blood-spotted canopy. “He's also very popular.”

“I don't like popular men without firm loyalties, Serin... at least, not in this case.” He stood up, accidentally waking the foxes. One tilted its elegant snout up at him, peered sleepily, and then tucked itself back into a large, silvery ball.

Tristan moved to the balcony edge, looking out at the moon rise over the city. “We're almost done here, in any event.”

Serin turned, sweeping her other wing out of his view, and leaned towards him again, resting an elbow on the balcony's rail. She did this with the eerie grace of her kind, as if the tower itself had adjusted slightly to accommodate her movements. “And what of the priest and his friends?”

Tristan nodded, thoughtful. “The priest understands sacrifices. The rest will eventually, or so you said.”

“Yes,” said Serin quietly. “That is what I have seen in them. But they will be your enemies, Tristan.”

“Does that trouble you?”

She tilted her veiled face to one side, watching him with crimson eyes. “It does not. I know you. And yet, they are clever adversaries. Do you not worry that they'll undo what you have built?”

Tristan shook his head slowly. “Right now, we are on the same side, whether they like it or not. Whatever I do, it will be serving them, just as I have done for others. Some succeed, and some fail. That is how it has been since the beginning.”

“They will never accept you as an ally, Tristan.”

“Oh, I know. But I am their ally regardless, even if one day I must kill one of them.” He took one of Serin's hands, feeling the silken warmth there, and gave it a gentle kiss.

“They won't take that well,” she replied wryly, her veil hiding a slight smile.

“Now you are trying to be funny,” Tristan said quietly, smiling despite his admonishment. “But I'm being quite serious. What freedom fighter comes to greatness without oppression, Serin? What man takes up the sword to right wrongs if all he knows are peace and prosperity?” He paused, setting her hand back down. “It doesn't matter whether or not they understand. They'll do what they were meant to do, and the world will benefit from it.”

“And you, Tristan?”

Turning to look out at the city, he thumbed the edge of his ruby signet ring, and for a moment, he was a boy looking out at the poverty of Shanmora. “I? Without men like me, there would be no heroes.”

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Greater of Two Evils, part 4

Thursday, October 2, 2008 - 2:10 PM

For twenty years, Lord Endelcar had sifted gold and silver out of seaborne trade, ranging from the coast of Jaevarrin to the Purayu isles and all the way south to the deserts of Antambil and even the far tropical jungles of the Ixte. Though he had little land of his own, his words were valuable to the merchant guilds in many nations, and his wealth and influence were quietly considerable. But like many men of power, Lord Endelcar could not rest. Even as old as he was, he still captained his own ships on occasion, and was constantly traveling, always seeking something more. As his son would describe him, he was 'grey like iron, not like an old man'.

Of course, he suffered from barbed rumors, creeping up behind him with accusations of dishonorable conduct or fraud or hidden sins. He knew the score; no one liked to see another man succeed beyond the norm. Bitterness and envy would always bring hatred to your doorstep. But Lord Endelcar was secure in his reputation as an honorable, educated, disciplined and generous man. After all, that part was true.

He was also a devil worshiper, but there were no rumors about that.

Resting his rope-worn hands on a marble balustrade, he watched the members and guests file in below him. The grand dome above him was painted with a marvelous depiction of a view from beneath the sea, resplendent with jeweled fish and the prow of a boat, and he found it quite lovely. The pageantry of the Kingmakers was important, and finding a place splendid enough for their grand Convocations was a duty intrinsic to his position.

“Is he here yet?” The voice that reached him was hollow from behind a blank mask. It was the Reeve, who usually came and went unnoticed.

“He is not,” replied Lord Endelcar. He didn't trust the Reeve entirely; no one did. The Reeve was there to do things the other Council members were unwilling to do, or those things which would compromise them. As the Hierophant, Lord Endelcar had bound the current Reeve with dreadful oaths and dark promises, so he knew how secure the Reeve's loyalties were. Even so, the man was just a monster, albeit a carefully controlled one.

The Reeve continued after appraising the gathering below. “Do you truly believe he is what he claims?”

“I saw the proof of it,” said Lord Endelcar shortly. “There's no disputing it. But all will... all must see for themselves tonight. That is why we are having a Convocation.”

The Reeve's flat eyes did not change, but he bowed in the slightly awkward yet congenial way he favored. “Forgive my doubts, grand Hierophant; I'll not dispute you.”

You had better not, thought Lord Endelcar, watching as the orrery of people below him began to establish themselves into the proper orbits. The other Council members were taking their places to either side of him now, greeting one another quietly. Convocations occurred only at great need, so many of the Council had not personally met in quite some time. The eight had ways of keeping in communication, but it was a rare day indeed that all were present.

After tonight, the Council would be nine, and the thought of this happening at long last put both dread and wonder into Lord Endelcar's armored heart.

The Manciple, all in black with a precious metal abacus cradled loosely in one arm, approached and offered him a smile, which he returned. They exchanged polite greetings momentarily, and he could see the questions coming. So he put up a hand to silence her, and indicated the neatly arranged audience below.

“He is there,” said Lord Endelcar, and the other Council members looked as one at Tristan, who was entering the great hall.

With Tristan came silence, and his poise swayed the court as if he were an oncoming storm and they were merely reeds. All in red and black, his flowing desert garments matched the ones worn by his unearthly vizier as well as her wings, all blood and shadows spreading out from her back. She was veiled, and on his arm, escorted like any lady of the court.

On his arm! Not bound, nor subservient; nor clearly the teacher and he the student. But on his arm! Lord Endelcar felt it difficult to breathe for a moment, but he mustered his voice to announce what all present already knew. “The Council recognizes the Monarch.”

As Tristan continued, climbing the stair, Lord Endelcar felt dizzy with the significance of the evening. It had been three generations since there had been a Monarch. Oh, yes, there had been pretenders... and devils were very good at discovering the truth, and very good at punishing liars. Lord Endelcar had craved the title, of course. Who among the Council did not? But to hold one of the Council seats was demanding enough, and by the time they claimed a seat for themselves they were old and wise enough to know the Emperor of Hell would not have accepted their petition. Indeed, He would have crushed them for bringing Him a flawed offering.

Pride, so the Book of Lies said. Pride so pure that it was untainted by arrogance, or fear, or need. Pride that demanded nothing Less, that burned away the flaw of hubris.

And Pride is very young this time, thought Lord Endelcar with a sliver of envy.

Tristan took his place at the balcony, with the vizier standing slightly behind him, and raised the gleaming red signet ring. At the same time, the air around his head scarred and tore, slits of seething crimson light that flared, burning red and white, and describing a barbed crown of letters in a jagged script.

Lord Endelcar began to kneel before he even realized it, but he restrained himself just long enough to be the last to do so. Even so, his grudging pride was swept away entirely by numbing elation as Tristan's voice filled the hall with dark beauty.

“What is Mine?”

The Kingmakers all replied in a humbled murmur, lifting their words up to him like the smoke from a burnt offering.

“The right to Rule.”

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Greater of Two Evils, part 3

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 - 12:26 PM

With his entourage camped in the murmuring quiet of an oasis a few miles away, Tristan exulted in his solitude. Around him, the desert's empty landscape dissolved into the dark of night, with only a few scattered stones to mark the endless sand. The bright of the moon made everything pale and grey, even the rich red and black of his flowing scarves. There was a power in these wide roaring spaces, especially at night when the horizon was destroyed and distance was a dream. He remembered experiencing such a place in his youth, standing at the cliffs that overlooked Slumberdrake glacier, and he was pleased to find the same wonder in himself now.

Squalid crowds, ancient teetering cities and the decadence of a people who had nowhere to go; these things were the legacy of Tristan's birthplace. For the spirit to survive, one found a way to drown the poverty or one reached inside to find silence and space. Half a world away from his birthplace, and half a world away from the desperate, frightened and determined boy that he'd been, Tristan felt as if he'd finally come home.

Alone, listening to the howling of the arid eastern wind, he felt the first true smile he'd had in weeks come to his face.

Part of it was the success, he knew. His arrival was the conclusion of a long pilgrimage of ruin. Like a subtle fire, he'd swept through a good many demon cults, secret societies and splinter religions on the way south. He'd left them in ashes, sparing only those few with potential or loyalty enough to suit his purpose. Over time, he'd painstakingly collected certain secrets, little tatters of legend and rumor, and it had created a map for him.

Now, walking through pearl-gray sand, his mind matched the broken stones around him to the map he'd drawn. The worn nubs of stone were like the hands of dead men, rising from the earth in a last attempt to be remembered, and Tristan was pleased to know them. Following their guidance, pausing on occasion to discern the correct direction, his walk began to take him towards a great heap of rock and sand.

The fragments were the corpse of a city. Like its name, it had been eroded near to nothing by the passing of time. It had been a wise and cruel place, full of learning and sophistication, a place of monuments, kings and scholars. Tristan did not know why it had come to an end, but he'd known why it was built.

Tristan's first teacher had been a failed scholar, a plodding man with no intuition and no imagination. From him, Tristan had learned about devils and spirits, and the dangers of making pacts with them. He learned instead, with his own fierce determination, how to find them, bind them and steal power from them. His refusal to become a pawn to the infernal drove him further than he'd expected, but he eventually had to recognize the risks. Tristan had been lucky, and he didn't like relying on luck.

So, he'd found a patron worth an alliance with. He would gamble one last time, dare to beg that patron's indulgence, but if he succeeded, he would have the authority and power he wanted. He would be above and beyond the constant infighting and squabbling that was the only constant of demon cults. Here, in the ruins, that patron would select his chosen. Never a pawn, but a peer.

Finally, he stood before the remains of a sphinx, faceless now except for the scars of wind-driven sand. Once there had been an aisle of sphinxes, a great hall of columns with a tremendous oculus peering down on a great dias. Now, it was only a single twisted heap of rock and pools of sand, but Tristan imagined the grandeur it would have been in the past. Standing beneath the featureless oval of the head, he peered up to check the positions of the stars, and found that he had only a few moments yet to wait.

Being in the exact right place at the exact right time filled him with a tranquil confidence. From here, there were only two possible futures for Tristan, and he had done all that he could to ensure one of them. There was an inevitability in the situation that pleased him. For years, he'd struggled against doubt and uncertainty. He'd managed to stay alive and unbroken in his cold-hearted homeland. He'd outwitted his enemies, betrayed and destroyed so many of the wicked, and piece by piece built the beginnings of his own merchant house.

Now, the months-long ritual that began with the destruction of the Crimson Boar cult would come to an end, one way or the other. It would not be his choosing. There was no room for doubt.

Extracting a gold pin from his cloak clasp, he pricked one finger and let a droplet of blood fall on what remained of the sphinx's withered paw. The droplet made a small black dot on the stone, and then there was a great rush of hot wind that whipped Tristan's scarves around his shoulders. With it came coils of dark red flame, whirling into a spiral as if it were dust or sand, and it howled and hissed into a tall shape with plumes of blazing shadows. A second later, and it was a slender, lethal, crimson-lit thing with wings that bled, and then it was a woman wearing the sashes, veils and scarves of an age lost. She flowed into a slight and antiquated curtsy.

“Your blood is the blood of kings,” she pronounced with a heady voice. “You are the recognized Heir, to bear again the inheritance of the Iron Crown. To you comes the authority of the Trueblood Scepter, and the right to rule.”

A ring had taken the place of the drop of blood. She swept this up and offered it. “Your signet. Behold, your court awaits you even now, and you have but to claim it.”

Accepting the ring, he slipped it onto his hand, steadily looking at the dark eyes which studied him in turn. “Does my patron offer any other message?”

“Your patron, my liege, knows that you need no messages.”

Tristan, for the first time in his life, bowed with all sincerity.

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Greater of Two Evils, part 2

Friday, September 26, 2008 - 10:47 AM

Tain hated Tristan, but he did so quietly.

From the smoky shadows of the Crimson Boar hall, Tain watched the dark-haired man, lounging next to the priests of the demon cult. Around them, the other cultists were enjoying the spoils of their furtive labor; they'd sacked a caravan earlier that night, and had dragged what remained to their lair.

And of course, there had been whispers about Tristan. It was Tristan who found the route, Tristan who convinced the caravan master to hire certain guards, Tristan who discovered the opportunity. Tain was thankful they'd looted a lot of fine wine; the whispering had since faded, replaced by far more raucous activity as the cult started abusing the surviving caravaners or each other.

This bothered Tain also, but it was a small, gnat-like bother. He'd joined the cult to get away from banditry. The Crimson Boar cult had terrorized the region for well over two years now. No one went into the dripping, mossy forest where they met, and no one dared to come against them now. He'd wanted that power, to belong to something greater. That drive had made him a captain in the cult, but the priests called him too weak to be ordained.

This rankled him considerably, particularly when it was Cena who said so.

She sat next to Tristan, with her lover Naul to the other side, and Tain tried to stave off the brackish envy rising in him by taking a long drink of wine. She was everything Tain wanted. His fingers ached to touch the little scar that hung from one corner of her mouth, or to breathe hot words in her ear. But Naul was a fierce and jealous man, and a sorcerer besides.

And yet, there Tristan lounged, and Naul seemed content with it, glutted though he was on wine. Even a light touch from Tristan to Cena's hand went unnoticed... but Tain saw. Even through the dim haze of the hall, he could see the softening of Cena's eyes, and wondered how Naul could possibly miss it.

You have them deceived, thought Tain, but I am not.

It hadn't take long for Tristan to win the admiration and envy of the others. He was vastly clever, eloquent, handsome and only threatening to the cult's enemies. His many blessings were offset by a sliver of need in him, the the need to be accepted and approved of. It made him vulnerable, just enough to be safe, to make friends with for the bloody-handed cultists.
No, Tain had never trusted him, but he'd wanted to.

Maybe, said his bitter inner voice, Naul doesn't care if Tristan sleeps with Cena. Maybe he lets it happen, because he trusts thrice-bedamned Tristan.

Tain took another long drink of wine, and did not feel it.

Something changed at that point, and he was surprised to realize that he could hear Tristan speaking. There was a confused mumble from the hall as others realized it too.

“Without me,” said Tristan in an even, clear voice. “Without me, you'd all just be thugs paying lip service to some demon. And I don't have any interest in your petty demon, either, considering he's content with drunkards and base violence.”

Naul blinked fully awake, his face reddening, and then his face went white because Cena stabbed him.

Suddenly, Tain was in the middle of frantic murder. Stunned by the cudgel of incomprehension, he scrabbled backwards to put his back to a corner, and tried to remember where he'd left his sword. There was nothing clean or elegant about what was happening; wine-soggy heads were smashed in by firewood, wine-numbed hands slapped ineffectually against the knives that found their mark again and again. Panicked, Tain managed to find his dagger, but he realized that no one was attacking him.

He saw Tristan standing, unhurried and quite unmoved, studying the bloody ruin that the hall had become. The ones who had killed their own were either watching him or making sure of the wounded. Tristan smiled, then, and the smile froze Tain into the corner where he crouched. He could only watch as Tristan turned and offered a hand to Cena, who breathlessly took it and stood, only to have her throat cut from behind.

There was a horrible moment when Tristan looked straight at Tain, but he turned away again and faced the altar near the hearth. Tain did not understand the words that came from Tristan, but they slipped through his ears and rooted in his bones like threads of ice water. He dimly understood that the others were kneeling now, and his instincts told him that to stand was death, and worse than death. Tristan's words became comprehensible, delivered with iron-clad courtesy.

“Hear me, Kingmaker, Iron-Crown, Overlord of the Ruby Scepter. I do not acknowledge greatness other than yours and mine. I invite you now to my court, taken by my hand from a petty Baron who is not worth your regard. Recognize a new peer, a master over humanity and a possessor of hearts. With our alliance, you shall grant me power over your realm, and I shall in turn grant you power over mine.”

The hall timbers groaned. The blood-stained altar stone split with a resounding crack, and with a sudden chill, Tain realized that Tristan had been heard, and not by the Boar.

“Leave us,” said Tristan in a voice so inevitable that he and the others would have run to the door if they'd had the strength to stand. As it was, they crawled.

Later, Tristan found Tain not far from the hall, shivering not entirely from the cold. Tain saw no sign at all of the vulnerability everyone had seen in Tristan before, and Tain knew in his heart it had all been lies.

“I never trusted you,” said Tain, after a moment. He knew Tristan's traitors were watching, waiting. “Why did you not kill me, too?”

Tristan smiled slowly. “Because you are not a fool, and I have a need for wise men. Come with us; you will never be a mere bandit again. Lead my men for me, Tain.”

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Greater of Two Evils, part 1

Wednesday, September 24, 2008 - 11:43 PM

'Salu catamite' was the first thought Deivon had upon seeing the young man before him. To Deivon's eye, the slight girlishness in the lad's features would harden into rather handsome lines in later years, and the dark eyes would not seem so large. But with his long, sleek black hair and light complexion, the boy would probably fetch a fine price on the slave markets to the south.
But the boy did not have a slave's modesty. He stood at ease, eyes downcast and undaunted, and his shoulders were back. The stony calm around him was one that Deivon recognized, however; it was the sort that covered turmoil, not the kind that came from the heart.

So, the lad's done something, at least.

Deivon was the High Magistrate of his province. It was a coveted position, and he'd wheedled, intimidated and bribed his way in. Secure in his station, Deivon presided over all provincial law in interpretation, approval and condemnation, and was never called upon except for the most severe of cases. Generally, unless it was something to benefit one of his powerful friends, he passed on his cases to lesser Magistrates.

This time, the Lord Whitemire made it clear that Deivon should provide, in no uncertain terms, a conviction. He also made it clear without saying so that Deivon would find himself quite a bit richer if all the loose ends were cut.

Buying his son another title appealed to Deivon, so he agreed.

Now, he wasn't sure why the Lord Whitemire was so emphatic about all this. The court was full. The commoners had their blood up. It wouldn't be difficult at all to hammer in the last coffin nail of a conviction. The commoners would even do all the work; he'd seen it time and again. All they needed was a reason to blame someone else for their problems, or a chance to hate someone more than they hated their own lives. It was an easy thing to make them do it.

He was assessing the lad for any similarity to nobles at court, entertaining the notion that the boy was a bastard that needed removing, when the warrants came to him. He glared at the warrants, sat back in surprise, and then looked down at the bailiffs who towered over the boy.
What he had intended to say changed when he saw the bailiffs. They hardly knew Deivon was there. They kept looking down at the boy with the attitude of a very large dog who, having discovered that the cat can inflict great harm, is anxious for permission to hurt back. Rather than address them, he spoke to the boy.

“Is your name Tristan, of the house of Sarna?”

The boy did not look up, and pronounced a firm and rather serene 'Yes.'

Deivon glanced at his peers, and the other Magistrates present looked back at him with cold and wary eyes. He'd heard rumors about devil worship in the province, but there were always rumors, usually targeting little hedge mages. The Tristan rumors were different, though. There was a ring of cold truth behind them, threatening.

He'd expected Tristan to be older.

Filing quickly through the warrants, he noted the silence of the crowd. That was usually preface to the havoc before a hanging, he thought. And what IS Whitemire's interest in all this? He briefly considered finding out Whitemire's interest and using it to push the very rich Lord, but dismissed the thought.

The warrants told him what he'd already heard, but with the dagger pointed at Tristan quite definitively. Evil omens, disappearances, blackmail, a couple of mysterious deaths and a plethora of other complaints he assumed were false accusations. Raising his eyes, he noted Tristan was now watching him directly with dark, hot eyes, and this unnerved him for some reason.

“Tristan ahn'Sarna, you have been accused of commerce with devils,” he snapped, lifting the warrants for emphasis. “You are also accused of causing the curse-death of Magistrate Lira Detweys...”

Here Deivon was forced to pause due to a blast of outrage from the crowd. Lira had been very popular. He let the crowd rant for a moment, and then rang the bell for silence.

“...and of Master Mathlan of Grofae, and of counterfeiting money, of theft, of the disappearance and possible death of five peasants, property of the Lord Whitemire, and of creating evil omens and vile marks in the land. There are a good many other crimes listed here, but they are incidental compared to your first. Do you deny the charges against you?”

Tristan paused for a moment, lifted his chin and spoke in a voice that carried through the courtroom.


The boy is mad, thought Deivon. “Such a crime, confessed, warrants a most painful death. Do you have any contrition? Asking the court for mercy and repenting of your crime may lessen your suffering.”

“I will not ask mercy for my crimes,” said Tristan clearly, and Deivon noticed how everyone listened. “But I will beg the court's indulgence to explain how I came to this, and reveal the name of a fellow conspirator.”

Deivon, at this point, believed the boy a fanatic. Fanatics unnerved Deivon, and he did not want it to show. Looking disdainfully at Tristan, he used his best world-weary but stern voice. “Speak, then, but be brief.”

There was a rumble of assent from the gallery, and Deivon was pleased until Tristan started speaking again. He was beginning to understand why the Lord Whitemire hated Tristan so much. The lad had the sort of poise and voice where people listened, even if they didn't want to.

“Brief as you like,” began Tristan, looking momentarily upward. “You and your fellows leech the wealth from those who create it. You and your fellows use the law to secure your own success at the expense of others. You and your fellows squat atop your hoards of spoiled children, of property and privilege, and you sneer at the common for having nothing. Yet the commons support you, buoy you up, and you keep them ignorant so that they never understand how little they have. And then, you and your fellows put on a kind mask and coerce your sad little followers into dying and starving just to make you richer. You, lords of the land, protectors of the people.”

Here, Tristan paused, and there was silence. Tristan looked at Deivon, carefully, as if he wanted to remember every detail, and Deivon saw a sliver of bright fear in those dark eyes.
Spurred by that fear, he was ready to condemn Tristan but the boy's soft, powerful voice kept him silent.

“Better that I consort with devils, who are sincere about their work, than the hypocritical monsters who judge me now.”

Then, the red flames erupted throughout the court, and when Deivon tried to scream, the fire ripped the air from his lungs and burned the life from him.

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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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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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