18 November 2012

Inquire Further

08 October 2012

Inquire Further

02 July 2012

Inquire Further

05 June 2010

Vaszura Do'Ar, Chapter 3

And here is the third installment, which will be the last until we play again. The primary purpose of this segment was to get the disparate characters forged into an actual team. Hopefully we interact more smoothly from here on out, but no guarantees. &-:

Zura wasn’t surprised when Belhrys fell in beside her as she walked towards the duke’s palace for her meeting with him. It was broad daylight for a change, and Zura had her headdress and veil firmly in place to block out most of the sun. That wasn’t the only change, though. Belhrys’s good humor seemed to have gone. “There have been a few changes in the political landscape,” he told her. “For now, I’m calling off the job. You performed admirably, but the political climate is not right for trying again. Not right now.”

“The duke is offering me a job today. Since he’s the one who wound up with the artifact, this could work to your advantage,” Zura said. Belhrys smiled faintly and shook his head.

“Sometime later, perhaps, when the political climate shifts again. For now, no. Still, you performed admirably. Even if you didn’t succeed, I think you’ve more than earned the rest of your commission.” He handed her a sack of coins. Zura gaped at him for a moment before taking it. She had botched the job by letting greed cloud her judgment. Still, gold was gold and she wasn’t going to complain. She decided to change the subject.

“You told me there would be a diversion at the ball. Did you arrange for the Monkeys to attack?”

Belhrys smiled ruefully. “You know, I almost wish I had. But, no. That was a happy coincidence. The diversion I had planned would not have been nearly as effective. Then again, my diversion also wouldn’t have resulted in guards storming up the staircase at just the wrong moment. Ah well. That’s fate for you.”

“Some secret staircase,” Zura muttered reproachfully.

“Come, come. I knew the guards were aware of it, but I had no idea that the countess knew of it as well.”

Zura muttered to herself. If she hadn’t had to waste time opening the secret door, she probably could have gotten out of there without being shot at. Belhrys shrugged, possibly in apology.

“I don’t know when I might see you next,” he said, “but I wish you well.” The duke’s palace was coming into view, and Belhrys seemed to take that as his cue to leave.

“Vedaust,” Zura said.


It was only after he’d gone that Zura realized she’d never told him who the buyer was, and that he’d never even bothered to ask. It might have been an oversight, but something seemed off. She tried to think it through as she climbed the short flight of stairs into the duke’s ballroom and followed a guard to the meeting chamber. Then it hit her. In the port town, she’d met Rhyl’mur’ss right after meeting Belhrys. At the ball, Belhrys had appeared shortly after Rhyl’mur’ss had gone. Coincidence? Maybe. She hoped it was. She rather liked Belhrys and the thought of him associating with the likes of Rhyl’mur’ss lessened her opinion of him. For now, she put those thoughts out of her mind.

When she saw the meeting room, Zura winced. Bad enough that the silly human wanted to meet during daylight hours, he’d also chosen a room with a skylight. Most of the room was bathed in painfully bright sunlight, but there were stuffed creatures in each corner that provided some shade. Zura took refuge in the shadow of a large stuffed reptile, perhaps five feet long with a sort of fin on its back that was at least as tall as the reptile was long. It reminded her somewhat of a riding lizard, but the spine would make it useless as a mount or pack animal. She was the first to arrive, and while she waited she pulled out her hand crossbow and loaded it. She meant to give a lesson in manners if the deva showed up. As luck would have it, he was the next to arrive. She sent a crossbow bolt whistling by his ear, and smiled. That is how you fire a warning shot,” she said, calmly lowering the crossbow while she waited to see how he would respond. He seemed genuinely surprised. She couldn’t quite hear what he said, something about not intending to warn anyone. Zura shook her head disgustedly. That was exactly the problem. When she was certain he wasn’t going to pull out his own crossbow to retaliate, she put hers back in its holster on her back. She had the impression he was trying to make some sort of point by standing in the brightest part of the room while Zura stayed in the blessed relief of the shade. She shrugged to herself. If he wanted to demonstrate that his eyes were less acute due to constant damage from the damned yellow orb, that was his problem.

They waited in uncomfortable silence for a few minutes, until the elf and the goliath showed up with the duke, and a rather peculiar looking fellow. He seemed to be covered in metallic dust for some reason, and there were odd stains over most of his exposed skin. As for the duke, he seemed quite pleased that all four of the interlopers had shown up again. He carefully closed the door before speaking. Zura didn’t see the point when there was a great big window in the ceiling, ready-made for spying. “My friends,” the duke began, “I am going to share something with you that only a very few people know. I have discovered that there is a traitor among my staff, and a plot on my life. You four are outsiders, so I can be certain you are not in on the plot. I need you to try and learn who is in on it, and who has betrayed me. More importantly, though, I need you to protect and train my son.”

Zura’s mind began racing. A plot on the duke’s life? Could the Monkey attack have been a part of it? Or … or perhaps that had been the original diversion Belhrys had spoken of, the one the Monkeys had interrupted. He had spoken of working for someone else, someone Zura was better off not knowing about. Suddenly she wondered about the timing. He had made certain to meet with her before this meeting, quite possibly to avoid awkward questions. She brought her mind back to the people at hand. The elf asked who stood to gain from the duke’s death.

“Unclear,” the duke said. “The island would likely descend into chaos within a few months, forcing the king to send troops from the mainland to restore order.”

“What other family do you have?” Zura asked. They were always the most likely suspects. “Sisters? Brothers? Cousins?” But the duke was already shaking his head. There was no one else on the island who could claim his position.

“My wife might manage to hold onto power for a short time, but I do not think she would last for very long, and my son is not yet of age.”

Son? Zura cocked her head to one side. “If I were planning this, I would take out your son before going after you,” Zura said. The duke’s face said he was all too aware of that possibility.

“That’s why I need you four to protect and train him,” the duke said when he had recovered. “He needs to know magic and he needs to know how to defend himself. But until then, he needs to be protected. That’s why Noonien Sungh is here with us.” He gestured to the guest who was covered in odd stains. “He is in the process of constructing a war-forged to help protect my son. The project is not yet complete, so until then, I will be relying on the four of you.”

Noonien Sungh took the floor and began describing in great detail the processes involved in creating the warforged. It mostly involved very intricate and technical magic, and Zura had never had much of a head for that sort of thing. While Noonien rambled, she pondered other options. She wondered how close the son was to coming of age. In a drow household, it was almost expected that the First-Daughter would go after her mother’s position when the time was right. She’d heard that humans often stepped down to allow their children to take over, so perhaps this didn’t happen as often in human society. Then there was the wife. Her absence was perplexing. She was the mother of the child they were to protect. She should have a say in their hiring. It was insulting not to include her. Zura reminded herself that surface dwellers had a bizarre habit of coddling females and keeping them from positions of power. Perhaps this one had had enough of being upstaged by her husband and thought she could do a better job. She may even have deliberately fooled the duke into thinking she was incapable to lull him into a false sense of security. From what Zura knew of surface males, mentioning this would probably drive the duke into a fit of rage, so Zura would have to look into it herself, discreetly.

Noonien finally subsided from his technical harangue, much to everyone’s relief. Zura wasn’t going to suggest the duke’s son or wife as suspects without any evidence, but there were other obvious candidates. “What of Belhrys and Rhyl’mur’ss, or whatever their real names are?” Zura asked. “Belhryss is very familiar with your palace layout and Rhyl’mur’ss was willing to carry out illegal business under your very nose.” Zura didn’t count her own attempted heist in the same category. That was stopping illegal business through good, honest stealing. She would have preferred not to mention Belhrys, but the others had seen him as well, so there wasn’t much point in trying to hide him. For now she kept her suspicions of a connection between him and Rhyl’mur’ss to herself. The duke shook his head, though. “I did not recognize the descriptions you provided, and I’m sure that the traitor is someone that I know.”

“Odd that the man in black, your Belhrys, only showed up after the man in red had gone,” the deva said.

“Not that odd,” Zura said, despite her own thoughts in that direction. “He had probably been waiting for me to deliver the package and became concerned when I was late and when the palace turned out to be full of Monkeys.”

“Speculation will get us nowhere,” the duke said. “For now, I want to move on to other business. In addition to protecting my son, the four of you will be sent out on missions to protect the security of my dukedom. You may or may not realize that the Monkey attack on the ball was completely at odds with normal Monkey behavior. They had to travel over a very long distance to get here, a journey that would take more than a full day, and their attack was completely illogical. The Monkey Mage’s speech would have been accurate a hundred years ago, but no one on the island has actively hunted or enslaved Monkeys since before I was appointed duke.”

“What about the Monkeys we knocked out?” the elf asked. “What happened to them?”

“They are imprisoned in a secure facility,” the duke said, “and they are all claiming insanity. This is hardly a surprise, but in this case I am inclined to believe them. They claim that they barely remember the attack, and that all events from the time they left the jungle until they woke up imprisoned are hazy in their minds.”

“Have you tortured any of them yet?” Zura asked, earning a glare from the scholar. Apparently shooting people for no obvious reason was fine, but torturing them for an actual purpose was not.

The duke hesitated for a moment. “Ye-ess… and they told us nothing new.”

Zura nodded, satisfied, though she would have offered her services if the duke had been too squeamish to order torture himself. There seemed to be little else they could do without first gathering more information. The others threw out various theories, each wilder than the next, while the duke outlined their mission. They were to go to the place from which the attacking Monkeys originated and find out what was really going on. Zura looked around the room and wondered if she really wanted to team up with a trigger-happy deva, an axe-happy goliath, and, gods-help-her, an elf. Strangely, she found she so far liked the elf better than any of the others, possibly because he was the only one who hadn’t tried to kill her yet. He also seemed completely indifferent to her drow heritage. Zura would have expected at least a glare or a questioning look—she’d certainly looked askance at him often enough—but it really didn’t seem to bother him. Better not to question her luck, she supposed. Still, she’d seen what they all could do in battle and it was impressive, so long as it wasn’t aimed at her. She’d have to watch her back if she joined forces with them, but that was nothing new to her. Only among her family had she been able to relax that constant vigilance, and even there not completely. She decided that she would join the duke’s team on this mad quest. They clearly needed the guiding hand of someone familiar with treachery and deceit, and who better to fill that role than a drow? She did decide on one small caveat. If the deva ever, ever, fired his crossbow at her again, she was going to slip a poisoned dagger through his ribs while he slept.

Inquire Further

Vaszura Do'Ar, Chapter 2

Here is Chapter 2. I tried copy/pasting into Compose mode this time to try and preserve formatting. I hope this doesn't cause loading issues, since I'm seeing a ton of code littered throughout. Anyway, this is where the campaign actually starts. Two of the other player characters are present at the beginning: Gar (the goliath guard), and Allonar (the deva artificer). This is the same Allonar as the previous campaign, but in a former life (since devas simply keep reincarnating). The fourth player character shows up in the battle with the monkeys (he actually had more to do with them than the rest of us, as he was in the ballroom when they first showed up). He appears as an elf bard, but is in fact a changeling bard. None of us know this IC; as far as we're aware, he's just an elf.

The day the transaction was to take place, Zura made her way up the secret staircase and hid in the canopy over the bed. She did not care for there being only two ways out of the room, but there wasn’t much she could do about that. A bookcase in one corner opened out onto the secret stairs when the correct book was pulled out. Opposite that was a mirrored dresser. There was also an armoire that matched the rest of the furniture and an old rickety table that didn’t. Zura didn’t know if the duke’s colors were blue and gold or if the person who had last occupied the room had just really liked those colors, but all the furniture except for the table had been lacquered in varying shades of blue and gold. The canopy was certainly not the only place to hide, but while most guards would look inside and behind things, they rarely thought to look up. She waited quietly, wishing the window in the room were better covered. She was just starting to get impatient when her prey walked in and set a lit candle on the table. The light from the window was adequate, more than adequate, for any sane creature, so Zura did not see the point of the candle. From a tiny tear in the fabric of the canopy, Zura could see that this was the infamous countess, a rather portly woman with an unhappy tendency to wear flimsy white dresses that would look better on someone half her size and age. Blast. A goliath guard, nearly twice Zura’s height, followed the countess into the room. Zura had seen the guard trailing the countess around, but she’d hoped he would be left behind for the transaction. She hoped he was as big and dumb as his size suggested, but knew better than to count on that. She was mildly surprised when he only looked around the room without bothering to look inside any of the cupboards or drawers, and more surprised when the countess didn’t call him on it. She could have chosen a more comfortable hiding spot.

It took Zura a moment to place the race of the next person to arrive. He was tall, though not as tall as the goliath, and slightly built with strangely glowing eyes. Glowing eyes… Zura realized that he must be a deva. The wicked crossbow on his back seemed out of place, as everything else suggested that he was a scholar of some sort. Behind the scholar was a human in a red cloak. Zura stiffened in rage when she caught a good look at his face and recognized Rhyl’mur’ss. She did not like being played for a fool. She found herself wondering if it was just coincidence that she’d run into him both in the port-town and now here. She schooled herself back to quiet patience. At the very least, she had to wait and see which of the two was the buyer before doing anything to interrupt the proceedings. Her best bet would be to wait until the transaction was over and follow whoever wound up with the object. She knew this. But if it was truly valuable, and she could act quickly, she might be able to get both the money and the object. It would make things more difficult, but she decided it was worth the risk. After the four were settled at the table, Zura softly leapt down beside the bed. The bed still hid her, and from here she could move quickly if she needed to.

The countess suggested that they begin. She opened the box she’d brought with her and pulled out an object roughly the size of Zura’s head and in the shape of a dodecahedron. Each side bore symbols similar to the one she’d seen on the monkey statue in the port-town. An unexpected calmness settled over her, telling her she didn’t want to fight. It was a very mild compulsion, and she had no trouble resisting, but she was certain it came from the object. It quickly became clear that Rhyl’mur’ss was there to buy it and that he’d brought the deva scholar to verify that it was real. Most of the time they whispered together, but Zura caught tantalizing hints here and there, including one that suggested the object would be useless on the mainland. This news seemed to disappoint Rhyl’mur’ss, but he still wanted to procure the object. When the bargaining started in earnest, Zura mostly ignored it. She wanted to wait for both the money and the object to be on the table before acting. Her ears pricked up when the countess called Rhyl’mur’ss a “king’s man.” For just a moment he seemed nonplussed, but then he challenged her to find a single person in the king’s employ who would recognize him. Then he looked at his scholar and suggested they leave if the countess was only going to play games. A moment after she threw the smoke bomb, Zura realized she’d moved too soon. Again. But it was too late to take it back now. She had thrown the canister straight at Rhyl’mur’ss, and was gratified to hear him start coughing as a black column of smoke formed around him. The others reacted more quickly than she’d anticipated. The Countess put the object back in its box and started running toward the apparently not-so-secret passage. The scholar tried to follow her, but the guard swung his axe at him. “Don’t follow us,” he growled as he himself got up to follow his charge. The scholar seemed shocked. Zura needed to catch up quickly, but the blasted countess had shut the passageway behind her. She leaped across the bed and raced over to the bookcase, ignoring the scholar and the hacking Rhyl’mur’ss as she reopened the passage and threw one of the flash-bangs down into it. That was when things went horribly wrong. The scholar pulled out his crossbow and took a shot at her. It wasn’t an ordinary shot, either. She felt the painful sting of acid burning her. She was hurt. Badly.

“I'm not here for you, foolish angel,” she said, practically growling. “But if you wish to die, by all means continue.”

“I cannot allow that artifact to fall into evil hands,” the scholar said. “By your actions, whatever you are, I doubt your intentions are honest!”

“Honest?” Zura spit and glared towards the man in the red cloak. “A fine word for someone who works for the likes of Rhyl'mur'ss. I would doubt it if he told me the sun was bright. I seek only to protect the Duke's interests. I'm sure he would not appreciate his upper chambers being used to fence stolen goods.” Inwardly, she smiled. Every sentence but one was true, and that one was nearly true. She was protecting the Duke’s interests, but that was not her only, nor even her primary, goal. The scholar was not convinced, however.

“I suppose I should trust a creature that lurks in the shadows and assaults people with incapacitating gasses? I know little of this man or the seller, but I know that artifact is not leaving my sight until I'm convinced it’s in the hands of the proper authorities!”

Zura fixed a smile in place. “Very well. Help me take it from these thieves and we can present it to the Duke together. Bring Rhyl'mur'ss along if you like, but don't let him out of your sight.” If necessary, she would go all the way to the duke himself and tell him she had only recently entered his service. It would be the simple truth. She would have entered his service when it became clear there was no way to get the object away from the damnable trigger-happy deva. With luck, though, there would be no need to take it that far. The scholar turned to his employer, who was already heading for the main staircase. “If you ever want that artifact in your possession, you will follow me.”

Rhyl’mur’ss paused for a moment, assessing the situation. Zura couldn’t read his expression at all, not even to tell if he recognized her. She’d left behind her cloak and veil this time, so perhaps he didn’t. Finally he shook his head. “Not worth it.” He continued down the stairs.

The sounds of Monkeys whooping came from the supposedly secret staircase. Zura didn’t know where they’d come from, but she was grateful. They might delay the countess and her guard long enough for Zura to complete her mission. She kept an eye on the deva as she entered the blessed darkness of the stairwell. The countess groped around blindly and didn’t seem to have heard Zura’s approach. Good. The flash-bang had done its job on her, though it didn’t seem to have affected the guard. Zura took the package from her easily, but now she needed to keep out of reach of the guard’s axe. She cast a cloud of darkness around her, letting it swallow the top part of the stair well, and she quietly dropped to the ground, rolled to one side, and became a part of the shadows. She held her breath as the goliath guard fumbled his way through the darkness and back up into the room, but he’d come nowhere near her. She smiled when she heard him ask the scholar where she’d gone. Time to move again. She stood up and stepped into the countess’s shadow and out of a Monkey’s shadow. Unfortunately this left her adjacent to the countess, and a dead Monkey. The countess recovered her senses just as Zura’s cloud of darkness dissipated and tried to grab the box back. With Zura and the box little more than shadows, her hands closed on nothing. Zura smiled at the countess, and wished she hadn’t when the woman began bellowing for her guard. She made room for him on the stair above Zura and he swung his ridiculous axe at her. If she hadn’t been in shadow form, that blow would have taken her out instantly. As it was, she was panting for breath and barely able to move or think. She had to get out of here. She teleported again, but could only make it to the opposite side of the monkey. She tried to run, but the battle-crazed Monkey managed to bite her before she could. It was barely a scratch compared to the axe or the crossbow, but she’d had next to nothing left. The world went black around her.

The next thing she knew, there was a vile taste in her mouth, and Belhrys was standing over her. Her ears were oddly sore, so he’d probably used a flash-bang while she was unconscious. Presumably the vile taste had been a healing potion. “Belhrys? What are you doing here? What’s going on?”

Belhrys gestured down the stairs. “There are some guards down there who insist we all accompany them to help fight some Monkeys who are causing problems downstairs, or else,” he sighed, “they will arrest all of us.”

Zura nodded vaguely and looked up the stairs. The deva with his damnable crossbow had pushed past the countess and her pet goliath. He seemed uncertain whether to point the thing at Zura or Belhrys. Zura resisted the urge to tell him exactly what he could do with it. She tried to whisper another question to Belhrys, but the potion had made her voice hoarse. “What do we do now?” she asked her contact, ignoring the deva’s glare.

Belhrys’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “We follow the nice guards down the stairs, fight some monkeys, and show what good, honest citizens we are.” As he helped her stand up, he winked, and Zura had to hide a smile. She was still weak, though, and decided now might be a good time to use some of her own healing magic. The energy rushed through her, undoing some of the damage the treacherous deva had done. She was still badly hurt, but at least she didn’t feel ready to fall over at the slightest twinge. She cast a baleful eye up at the scholar and the goliath, but they seemed equally willing to go along with the guards’ request. Even so, she didn’t like having them at her back as they traipsed down the stairs, but she put them from her mind as she beheld the chaos that the duke’s ball had become.

A dozen or so Monkeys like the ones on the stairs were busy decimating the buffet table. Larger ones were attacking a line of noble guests. It looked like most of the non-noble guests had managed to get out, though some of their corpses littered the dance floor. The duke led a contingent of guardsmen against the larger Monkeys as best he could, aided by a handsome elf wielding a fiddle. Zura braced herself, but the elf didn’t even bat an eye when he caught sight of her. Of course, he was busy trying to charm a Monkey with his fiddle at the time. Zura drew her sword and attacked one of the smaller Monkeys as it tried to break off from the buffet, and worked to put some distance between her position and the elf’s. There were a few elf guests in the room as well, but they seemed to be too busy screaming and running to pay a lone drow much mind. While Zura fought, she tired to keep Belhrys in sight. It wasn’t too difficult. All she had to do was follow the line of smoke clouds and listen for the flash-bangs. He threw the canisters left and right as if he had an unlimited supply. Then Zura saw him use the cover of one of the smoke bombs to dash behind the stage. Curious, she followed. He looked up as if he’d been expecting her.

“I need to get out of here before I have to answer too many questions,” he told her, “but I’ll contact you in 48 hours.” Zura nodded, and asked if he happened to have any more of his alchemical toys to share. Grinning, he handed her two of each before rushing out a side door. Zura hurriedly stuffed them into her backpack before rejoining the battle. At the duke’s request, they knocked most of the Monkeys out rather than killing them, though apparently some larger one with magical ability had already gotten away. Despite the apparent chaos, it was mostly a mop-up operation at this point, and it didn’t take long to incapacitate the remaining Monkeys. Zura looked around, wondering if anyone would notice if she, too, simply wandered off, but then she saw the countess and the duke disappear into a room with the box. At the very least, she would like to tell Belhrys who had wound up with the thing. She certainly wasn’t going to make another try for it until her wounds healed from this attempt. It seemed an eternity before the duke and the countess emerged again, but the duke now held the box and the countess seemed quite pleased with herself. Presumably the duke had paid her well for it. Zura sighed. It would probably be even more difficult to take the thing now that the duke had it. Instead of one goliath to get past, there would probably be an entire regiment of soldiers.

Before Zura could slip away, the duke called out for all those who had helped fight the Monkeys to stay a moment. Zura winced. She should have gotten out while he was distracted with the countess. The fiddling elf seemed no happier, oddly enough, though the goliath and the deva seemed merely curious. Zura glared at the deva but he didn’t seem to notice. When the four of them had gathered ‘round the duke to his satisfaction, he sent the rest of his guards away. “Most of you have heard by now that I am seeking magic users. You four have proven yourself tonight, and I would like to meet with all of you in a few days time to discuss employing you as a team.” Zura wondered what the duke’s guards had told him about the scene in the staircase. For that matter, she wondered what the countess had told him. “I will give you full details then, but I can tell you now that I pay very well.” That caught Zura’s attention. She certainly wouldn’t be receiving the rest of her commission from Belhrys, and she’d need to find some source of income before the rest of the advance ran out. It was certainly worth her while to show up at the meeting and see if the duke’s job interested her. Even if it didn’t, it would certainly be easier to steal the artifact back from him if she were in his employ and able to move freely around the palace.

Thinking about the artifact brought her mind back to the battle. The box holding the artifact had been open, and a strange sort of chain had gone out from it. Zura wasn’t sure of its nature, but it seemed to be more difficult to hit a target who was part of that chain. She didn’t know if it made the target stronger or weakened the attack, or something else entirely. The deva scholar might know, but Zura wasn’t about to ask him. By all accounts, deva were supposed to be good, honest creatures, yet this one had shot her in the back without so much as a warning. That was treachery worthy of a drow, and Zura did not mean it as a compliment. She would have fired a warning shot first, or at least tried to talk. The deva clearly had his own agenda with regard to the artifact and could not be trusted. She kept a close eye on him when it was clear the duke’s speech was over. He seemed to be negotiating payment from the duke, for what wasn’t clear. While they were occupied, Zura slipped out one of the side doors and headed back to her room at a nearby inn.

Inquire Further

Vaszura Do'Ar, Chapter 1

We've started Fibonacci's new campaign. It's been interesting. My account is a bit long to put into one post, so I'm going to break it up into several. Parts of this were worked out long before the campaign itself started. Really, the campaign starts with the second installment.

My character is a drow assassin, Vaszura Do'Ar. Vaszura means something like "blood exile", and Do'Ar translates to "Walkers in Poison." I actually generated the name "Zura" first then decided I wanted it to correspond to an actual drow name. I really like playing this character. She is in fact a good drow, but she's one who has had to live and work within the main drow society, so she has to be used to thinking like the more common drow do. This results in some curious notions and attitudes. Note: none of the other player characters are present in this part. Here's Chapter 1:

It was with some trepidation that Zura stepped off the boat onto the dock. Monkey Island was about as far from the Underdark as it was possible to get, and she felt a wave of homesickness pass over her. Gone were the dark spires and caverns of her homeland, perhaps never to be seen again. The sky above her was not nearly solid enough, and the light of the cursed sun made it seem more ephemeral still. Though it was certainly warm enough to go without her cloak and headdress, she kept them on. Both helped hide the ebon blackness of her skin. Her face was still visible through the veil, but she hoped the veil’s mottled colors would keep casual onlookers from noticing the color of the skin underneath it. If nothing else, it gave her eyes some additional protection from the cursedly bright sun. Her fellow travelers didn’t seem to mind the brightness, though Zura noticed she wasn’t the only one wearing more clothes than the weather really called for. Everyone has something to hide, she reminded herself.

Most travelers were burdened with various chests and satchels, but Zura had only what she’d been able to fit into her backpack. She could have taken more, only that would have required taking one of her family’s riding lizards to help carry it, and that would only have drawn attention when the beast was reported missing. Her family had been in enough trouble already, and not just because of Zura’s carelessness. She remembered the horrible sinking feeling when she’d had to report to her mother that she had been seen. In a noble family, Xullin’bryn Do’ar would have been considered the matriarch, but it was dangerous for a merchant family to use such a title where others might hear, particularly where the priestesses of Lolth might hear. If Zura had only waited for the signal before moving, her face would not have been seen, and she might still be back with her family in the blessed dark under the earth. But Zura, fresh from her training at the assassins’ school where nearly half the females in her clan had been educated, had been too impatient, too eager to prove herself, and she had moved too soon. Perhaps if nothing else had gone wrong that night, they might have been able to simply silence the two junior priestesses who had seen her, but there had been no time. They’d been lucky to escape with no one killed or, worse, captured. Zura still didn’t know the full extent of what had gone wrong, as she’d had to leave before hearing the full story. Now, she probably never would.

The wooden dock beneath her feet creaked and shifted with every footfall on it. The planks were in sore need of repair. The smell of fish and salt grew stronger the closer Zura got to the island proper, which seemed backwards to her, but she’d noticed the same thing boarding the ship from the mainland: the smell was worst just up from the water. She looked around at the hustle and bustle of the port town whose name she’d forgotten and sighed. There was no mud in the streets of the Underdark, as there was no weather there. She’d heard that a wizard of Menzoberranzan had once summoned a storm over the city to put out a fire that burned the stones themselves, and perhaps then there would have been mud, but there was certainly nothing like the oozing mess now masquerading as the street nearest the docks. There were some inns along that street, but Zura hoped to find one on a street that did not suck at her feet as she tried to walk through it.

The streets did dry out as she got further from the docks, much to Zura’s relief. She found an inn three streets in that seemed to fit her needs. She had seen similar places in the Underdark, though there the inn would be carved out of rock rather than built. Patrons carefully avoided looking too closely at one another, lest they themselves be examined closely, so no one paid any mind when a small lithe figure wrapped from head to toe despite the sunny island climate came in to ask for a room. The innkeeper did give her one quick startled look, but he recovered quickly and went back to looking bored and uninterested as he handed her a key. When Zura got to the door, she wondered why he bothered with keys. The lock seemed ready to fall apart with a gentle tap. She had her own ways of protecting the room, of course, but she wondered if the innkeeper would be grateful or annoyed if she did some work to repair the lock.

She pulled G’eld’s cage out of her backpack before doing anything else. The little spider, barely larger than one of Zura’s hands, had been locked up in it for the whole voyage from the mainland. She skittered out, eager to stretch her legs and hunt down some prey. Zura had learned quickly that surface dwellers feared even a tiny spider such as G’eld, and hadn’t wanted to risk letting her out to hunt on a ship where she did not have private accommodations. She often wondered what surface dwellers would make of the mid-sized spiders that roamed the streets of most drow cities. They ranged in size from a foot across to larger than a house, and she’d even heard stories of some spiders larger than mansions that had created an entire drow city from their calcified webbing. She hadn’t seen it before it burned, but even she found the idea hard to credit.

While G’eld hunted, Zura drew the curtains on the room’s one window, grimacing when that didn’t block out all the accursed light. She pulled the blanket off of the bed to help and nodded in satisfaction. There were still lines of brightness around the very edges, but it was no worse than the light-clocks used to keep track of time in most drow cities. That done, she settled into reverie to pass the time until darkness fell. When the room had darkened noticeably, she came out of reverie, carefully pulled the blanket off the window and opened the curtains. The sky bore the breathtaking mix of colors that meant the sun was not quite gone yet. Zura could think of nothing in the Underdark to match the play of colors in the sky at dawn and dusk, though she thought having to deal with the horrible yellow orb was too steep a price to pay for them. She waited, watching the colors fade into near-blackness. The stars made much better companions than the sun. Now she could go out without feeling like her eyes were going to burn off. After a moment’s hesitation, she left her longsword behind. She hadn’t seen anyone wearing swords in the streets, so wearing hers would probably draw attention. Her hand crossbow was small enough to hide on her back under her cloak, though, and she had four daggers that she was never without. She was more hesitant about the backpack, but finally decided to put G’eld’s cage on it and leave it as well. There was nothing of real value in it, and G’eld’s presence would likely discourage most casual thieves anyway.

Zura headed back to the inn just as she noticed the sky growing light again. She’d spent most of the night just learning the ins and outs of the town, but she’d decided that there were far too many elves in it for her peace of mind. From what she’d gathered, the island was mostly populated by humans and elves, and she’d managed to land in a concentration of her lighter-skinned cousins. Thankfully, between the night and the natural variation in skin tones amongst the islanders, from a distance no one seemed to think Zura’s skin color particularly remarkable. Still, it would take only one elf getting close enough to see both her skin and her ears for Zura to find herself in real trouble. She sighed. Surface elves had driven her people underground and into Lolth’s arms. The first was forgivable, the second decidedly not. Neither side was entirely blameless, though, and unlike most of her kind, Zura held no particular grudge against surface elves, but she certainly didn’t trust them, either. Better to avoid them in case they took it in their head to attack her for being drow. To avoid them, though, she would need to get out of this town, and that meant deciding where to go next.

After spending half the day in reverie and the rest practicing with her knives and sword, Zura headed out into the island night again, hoping to learn of a nearby town that was not overrun by elves. Unfortunately, from what the human residents told her, most of the surrounding area seemed to be elf-territory. Up the river a ways, there was apparently a Capitol city run by some human duke who answered to a king on the mainland, and it had a larger concentration of humans than elves, which would still be an improvement. So far, only two elves had seen Zura for what she really was. The first one’s eyes had widened, but when Zura did nothing more threatening than keep sipping her drink, he’d simply backed away quietly and left her alone. The second had given her a rather nasty glare, to which Zura had responded by letting her face go completely neutral. It was a gamble, as some would see that look as a challenge, but the elf only wheeled around and stalked away, glaring back over his shoulder occasionally.

The bartender, a portly human with a neat mustache, had smiled faintly, probably relieved there wouldn’t be a fight. “If you went to the Banana Festival,” he told her, “No one would think twice if you covered your face. Monkey masks, banana masks, I’ve even seen some people dressing up like bits of the jungle.”

“What makes you think I need to hide my face?” Zura asked. She didn’t wear the veil at night, though she did wear the part of the headdress that hid her ears. Anyone seeing black skin and elven features would draw the obvious conclusion. Mostly people had either not noticed or not cared.

The bartender just winked at her. Zura took another sip and asked him to tell her more about the festival. It was apparently a celebration of Monkey culture, only it was apparently a celebration by humans and for humans, which seemed odd. “Do the Monkeys participate?” Zura asked.

“Oh, some do. The ones that live in towns, anyways. I hear the wilder ones won’t come in t’town until it’s over, though. Not that t’wild ones come in much anyways. Biggest celebration’ll be up in ‘e Capitol, o’course. People go plum wild there.” He continued describing the festivities while Zura listened bemusedly. The more she heard, the more she thought it sounded like a celebration based on what people thought Monkey culture was like, rather than on actual Monkey culture. No wonder Monkeys preferred to avoid it. Still, she was curious about the Monkeys, and seeing what people generally thought about Monkey culture could be a useful first step to learning about them. She could have chosen any small enough island to avoid the Underdark, but she’d chosen this one specifically because the stories of Monkeys had intrigued her. She hadn’t seen any in the streets here, but the bartender assured here there were more in the Capitol. “Not too fond o’port towns,” he explained. “Too far from ‘e jungle.” Zura nodded, thinking it sounded rather like drow and the caverns of the Underdark. The bartender kept regaling her with stories, both of the Monkeys and the Festival, until she’d finished her drink and was ready to go. She doubted any of them were entirely true, though she suspected that the most repeated themes were probably accurate.

She stepped out of the bar back into a narrow, poorly lit street. The best kind, in her opinion. There weren’t many others about, as it was getting late by surface reckoning. Silly surface folk and their fear of the dark. As she walked, debating where to head next, a small wiry figure in a dark cloak fell in beside her. “Vendui,” the man said in horribly accented drow as he pressed two fingers to his lips. Zura barely stopped herself from running. Had Lolth’s priestesses managed to track her even to this island? But, no. He’d clearly only seen the word written down, or he would have known how to pronounce it. “Vendui,” she responded, carefully overemphasizing the correct pronunciation. Though there was no need to make it a formal greeting, she also touched her lips and waited to see what he would do next. She mentally checked the location of her daggers, knowing she wouldn’t have time to get to the crossbow on her back.

“I've been watching you,” he said after a moment, “and I've been reading about the Drow. This is a long way from the Underdark.”

“Yes,” Zura agreed, “It is. That’s sort of the point.” One of her hands moved nearer a dagger, but she didn’t try to grab it just yet.

The wiry man nodded. “If you’re staying on the island for a while, you'll want employment. It's easy enough to find work as a dock hand, but I might have something more...interesting.”

Zura blinked for a moment, trying to figure out why a human would reveal he knew she was drow in order to offer her a job. Either he thought a drow’s abilities might be useful, or he thought he could blackmail her. She responded cautiously. “Indeed? I had hoped to find work as a guard, not a dockhand. Does your job involve guarding ... something?”

“Guarding? Not at the moment, although good body guards are hard to find. What I want is someone who can move discretely, gather information, and then obtain a certain item. Preferably without killing anyone who will be missed.”

“Interesting,” Zura said, but mention of killing raised her adrenalin level still higher. Had he also identified her as an Assassin, trained in the ways of manipulating Shadow? She kept her worries carefully hidden. “I take it you don't want the other Houses finding out about your operation. Do you work for a House or are you also in exile?” He carried himself with the easy grace of a noble, and having information to use against him would be useful. Strangely, though, the question seemed to amuse him.

“I'd have to say neither,” he said, not quite grinning.

Once again, Zura blinked at him. Though her family were merchants and mainly dealt in poisons, there were those in the great Houses who knew that many of the Do’Ar family were trained as assassins and sought them out for those talents. Any who learned too much were summarily eliminated, of course. But it was rare, very rare, for someone not connected to one of the great Houses to seek such talents, rarer still to do it in the open air like this. “In drow society, those are the only possibilities,” she said, not quite truthfully, but close enough. “Is surface culture really so different, then?”

“There's no one surface culture. On this island, things are very much clan-based if that's what you mean. But I was just being cryptic. It's better for both of us if you don't know who I'm working for.”

“Ah. This I understand.” It still seemed odd to deny connection to any House, but refusing to identify which House was a common part of the Game. If this human were more skilled in the Game, he would have given her the name of a rival House to try and cause trouble for it rather than denying any connection outright. “Very well, what are the risks and benefits to myself if I agree to work for you?”
“The benefits are that I pay well, and if you execute the job successfully it may lead to other jobs. The risk is that if you are caught trying to steal from the Countess De l'Hôpital...well, you aren't important enough to warrant a trial.”

“Trial?” Zura said, surprised again. “What is a trial? Do the heads of houses not simply execute intruders when they are caught?”

“That's precisely what they do...unofficially.” He seemed to be hiding a grin. “I think I like Drow society. It sounds so much more honest.”

“In some respects, perhaps,” Zura said carefully. Honest? Drow? She wondered what he could possibly have been reading to get that impression. No one told the truth unless it was to her advantage or she didn’t expect to be believed. “Your job offer does intrigue me, but before accepting I must ask whether you have any connection to the Spider Queen.” Given his naiveté in certain matters, it seemed unlikely, but she watched his reaction carefully.

“Spider Queen?” he said, sounding genuinely surprised. “I’ve met the Monkey King, but he likely does not remember me.”

“Lolth is the name she takes for herself, and she insinuates herself into every nook of drow society. She would stifle us and have us be nothing more than sophisticated barbarians.”

The man paused for a moment. “Lolth… isn’t that a goddess?” Zura nodded. “If so, I assure you I have no connections to her. Or any deity.”

“Ah, good,” Zura said, letting out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “Nor have I. I do respect Corellon for taking in the drow who wished no longer to be drow, but that was never an option for me.” While Zura understood all too well the desire to be out from under Lolth’s watchful webs, she could not comprehend why any of her kind would leave behind their heritage and birthright: their place in the Underdark. She had had no choice in the matter, but these no-longer-drow did have a choice. It made no sense to her. She looked up when she realized the human was still speaking.

“Religion isn't very widely practiced around here,” he told her, and paused. “Except by the Monkeys, but they worship the spirits of their ancestors.”

Zura tried to picture this. “Do the spirits actually appear?”

He shrugged. “I’ve heard stories about what happens deep in the jungles that make the blood run cold. And the Monkeys don't let outsiders into their temples, so who knows. Also, there are Monkeys and then there are Monkeys. They don't all wear clothing and run fruit stands.”

Zura nodded vaguely. “I’m afraid I’ve drifted from your job proposal. I would like more details before I decide. How much more can you tell me?”

“The Countess will go to the Capitol for the Banana Festival. All the heads of houses are there, and much business is conducted, both openly and behind closed doors. I have information, very privileged information, that the L'Hôpital estate has been suffering financially for some time, and the Countess is desperate for money. I have heard that she intends to sell an object of great value. I want to know who she's selling it to, why it's such a secret, and I want the object.”

“I take it that I will not know what this object is beforehand... How much time will I have to study the household and its habits?”

“The festival starts in eight days and goes on for a week. I don't yet know when or where the transaction is to take place, but I will contact you as soon as I do.”

Zura hid an eager smile. This was the kind of job she’d trained for. Normally she’d be expected to assassinate someone in the process, but it was still a chance to put her hard-won skills to use. “Very well,” she said, pretending indifference. “This job intrigues me, and I was interested to see more of Monkey culture anyway. I will agree to aid you in this for suitable compensation.”

It was instantly clear that neither of them was much good at haggling. The human offered her 200 gold. She considered a moment and asked for 400 instead. Shrugging indifferently, the human suggested 360, and Zura accepted. “With 90 in advance. I’ll need a few more supplies.” He handed over the coins without argument. Zura looked at him thoughtfully. “You give me this money with no specific instructions for contacting you again, beyond travel to the Capitol?” It was a strangely trusting thing to do. If he’d really been reading about the drow, his source had to be woefully inaccurate in many respects.

“If I've misjudged your interest in the job, the loss is my own fault. I'll look for you in the marketplace, at this time of night.”

“Curious,” Zura said, “But acceptable.” She looked at him a moment longer before saying, “Vedaust,” and bowing slightly. “I will look for you in the Capitol.”

“Vedaust,” he responded, pronouncing the farewell marginally better than he had the greeting, and then he turned and headed towards the docks. For a moment she considered trying to follow him, but there were rooftops and alleys all around her, and it seemed unlikely he would have approached her without someone keeping a close eye on things, likely someone with a crossbow. There were other ways of finding more information, especially here near the taverns. After waiting a few moments to make it clear to any unseen watchers that she was not trying to follow, she headed the same way towards a more disreputable tavern she’d passed on the way to this one. Thankfully it, too, was frequented mostly by humans. The reputable one was a better place for acquiring aboveboard, easily available information. Disreputable ones, however, were better if you needed underhanded, hard to come by information.

This place was about as disreputable as a place could get and still run something resembling a genuine, legal business. It was dim, smoky, and crowded inside. It was not as loud as might be expected for the crowd, likely because most of the discussions were about things not meant for other ears. Zura wasn’t interested in any of the groups. Instead she found a quiet, shadowed alcove and began looking around. In most places like this one, there would be a watcher sitting on the edges, where he could see all the comings and goings. She spotted a likely candidate sitting by himself in a dark corner, much like the alcove Zura had chosen. He seemed slightly out of place here, as he was older than most of the crowd. At first glance, Zura thought him frail due to his skeletal appearance, but then she noticed that he sat with his back ramrod straight and that he held himself with an air of confidence and strength. His red cloak pooled around his chair, probably picking up every bit of muck and dust on the floor. A simple silver brooch held the cloak in place. The clothing visible underneath the cloak was fine and in very good repair. Though he seemed lost in thought, Zura could tell that he was keeping a close eye on the other patrons, as if watching for anyone who might be paying attention to him. So far as Zura could tell, he hadn’t noticed her yet. She watched him for a few more moments. When no one else approached him, she cautiously moved out of the shadows and walked toward his table. His eyes were on her almost instantly. She couldn’t read his expression, but she thought he was waiting for her to speak. “I’m trying to find information about a human who approached me tonight,” she said. “Shall I continue or leave you in peace?”

“Continue,” he said, giving her a disdainful look. “I am unconscionably bored.”

“He is short and wiry with grey hair, and a curious sense of humor, and tonight he was dressed entirely in black, but I suspect this is common for him.”

“I can think of someone who might fit that description. He buys and sells information.”

“Curious. Where do his loyalties lie?”

“I’ve no idea, except to say that the word ‘confidential’ to him means ‘worth a higher price.’” Zura opened her mouth to respond, but then she caught an almost familiar gleam in the man’s eye. He was playing her, manipulating the conversation to some end of his own. Well, two could play that game. First to find out if he really knew her mysterious man-in-black.

Zura nodded. “Sounds like my kind of person. What can you tell me about his pronounced limp?”

For a moment, the man in red seemed inordinately puzzled, then he stood abruptly. “I've really never seen him that close. But I must be going. Affairs of, ah, things to do. Good day.” He began hurrying through the crowd to the door, looking back frequently to see if Zura was following. She gave him enough of a head start that the crowd might be able to hide her and did just that. He seemed to notice her anyway and quickened his pace. As she exited the tavern, she caught a glimpse of him turning down an alley and raced to follow, but she was too late. There was no visible sign of him as she rounded the corner. She hid herself in a shadow and waited for a few more minutes before deciding she’d well and truly lost him. She muttered drow curses under her breath and headed back out of the alley. She had no idea who the man in red had been, but the name Rhyl’mur’ss, “shadow spy,” suited him. His reaction suggested he did know the man in black, but Zura didn’t think she could trust anything the man had actually said.

The encounter made Zura even more anxious to get out of the port city. Something about the man in the red cloak unsettled her. She first put her advance to good use procuring lockpicks, footpads and camouflaged clothing, and then began looking for the best way to get to the Capitol. Naturally, the boats that carried passengers up the river only ran during the day. She found one that had cabins, at least, so she could spend the day in Reverie, away from the horrible brightness. It was slightly more expensive, but worth it she decided, especially for a journey that would take a full week. The Banana Festival would already be in full swing when she arrived. There were hints of the festivities even on the boat, and Zura watched curiously as otherwise sane-seeming people walked around in an odd gait apparently supposed to resemble the way monkeys walked and called to each other using strange whoops and howls. By comparison, the few actual Monkeys Zura saw on the riverbank seemed calm and serene.

That impression was only magnified when she saw the actual Festival in progress in the Capitol. People walked around dressed as bananas, trees, monkeys, and a few in costumes made to look like the statue Zura had glimpsed from the ship that had brought her to the island. It was probably supposed to look like a Monkey, but everything had been made with sharp angles, so it was hard to tell. On its stomach had been a curious shape. She hadn’t sensed anything magical about it, but that sort of magic wasn’t really her strong suit anyway. The costumes didn’t quite manage to get the angles right, but they were at least recognizable, which was more than Zura could say for many of the costumes. It was clearer when they wore only a fake monkey tail and ears, but somehow that seemed even less dignified to Zura’s sensibilities, perhaps because the wearer’s face was clearly visible. After walking around for a while, Zura realized she wasn’t the only one eyeing the reveler’s antics askance. When no one was watching, so did many of the Monkey residents. They smiled genially when they knew someone was watching but they didn’t always notice Zura standing in the shadows, and then she often saw weariness when they dropped their genial façade. She supposed she’d feel the same way about a Drow Festival where surface-dwellers painted their skin black and dressed up like spiders.

She’d been in the Capitol only one night when her contact approached her again. On a dark side street, he suddenly fell in beside her as she walked. It startled her less this time, though she still made sure she could reach all her daggers. “I know where the transaction is to take place,” he said by way of greeting. Zura nodded and listened. “The duke is having a ball two nights from now. The Countess De l'Hôpital will attend, and she plans to meet with her buyer in a tower bedroom. I happen to know that there’s a secret passage leading out of this room down to the servants’ halls.” Zura was curious but knew better than to ask where he’d gotten this information. She asked for more information about the layout, but that seemed to be it. One public staircase and one secret staircase, and a window, barred of course.

“If I’m up there alone, I’m going to need some way to create a distraction,” Zura said.

Her contact grinned. “Oh, there will be plenty of distraction later on. I’ll see to that. But it may or may not spread to the upper floors.”

“No, I mean up in the room. Something like… a noisemaker to draw people’s attention or a smokescreen to cover my escape.” As a drow, she could cast a cloud of darkness around her, but it didn’t last very long. She thought she might need more than that to pull this off.

If anything his grin grew wider. “Oh? I think I have just the things.” He pulled out some strange looking canisters. Four of them were black cylinders. Two were double red cylinders. All had a curious metal ring at the top, and were small enough to fit comfortably in one of Zura’s hands. “This,” he said, gesturing toward the black canisters, “is a smoke bomb. It blocks line of sight and will spread out to cover an area 35 square feet in about 24 seconds. After that it begins to dissipate. Be careful that you don’t breathe in the smoke, though. This one,” he gestured with the hand holding the red canisters, “is called a flash-bang, and it does just that. It will blind and deafen most opponents for a good long while. Both work the same way. Just pull the pin and throw it where you want to go.” He handed the canisters to her. Zura wondered what other interesting devices he might just happen to have with him, but decided not to ask. He hadn’t told her his name, but she decided Belhrys, fire-starter, suited him, and she told him so. The name seemed to amuse him. “Anything else you might need to know?”

“Is it possible for me to get into this duke’s palace and scout the area beforehand?”

“Yes. During the festival there are so many comings and goings that you shouldn’t have any problems.”

Zura nodded. “And once I have the object, how do I find you again?”

“Oh, you don’t need to worry about that. I’ll find you. I might find you more quickly if you head straight out from the servants entrance when you’re done.”

Zura nodded and smiled inwardly. She found she was looking forward to the challenge. Belhrys took off into the crowd again, vanishing as quickly as he’d appeared. She let the smile appear on her face once he was gone. There was something comforting about his presence. Just as she’d felt an instant dislike for Rhyl’mur’ss, she felt an instant liking for Belhrys. She wasn’t foolish enough to trust him, of course, and she wondered how far he really trusted her. She could try to keep the object for herself. If it was worth paying to steal, it would probably sell for a fairly high price. Unfortunately, Belhrys was her only contact on the island and he had demonstrated twice that he had no trouble whatsoever locating her whenever he felt like it. Besides, he had done nothing to earn such a betrayal. Unlike most drow, the Do’Ar clan preferred to have a reason to betray someone.

Inquire Further

Dissolution and Condemnation

I finished the next two books in the War of the Spider Queen series. As far as I can remember, this is the first series I've read with multiple authors. It can be a bit jarring to go from one book to the next. Each separate author has so far done a good job, but there tends to be a slight feel of discontinuity between books.

Dissolution is written by Thomas M. Reid. Overall, his writing style is much better than Richard Lee Byers', author of the first book, with one glaring exception. Plotting, awesome. Description, very good. Characterization? Eh... That was one place where Byers excelled: creating vivid characters. In Reid's book they feel flatter and less interesting; the vibrancy is gone. Still, the skillful plotting and writing nearly makes up the difference.

Here we find our dark elf "heroes" on a journey to neighboring Ched Nesad, another drow city, to find out if Lolth has singled out Menzoberranzan or if she's abandoned all of her drow children. It's something of a pity that the city is destroyed by the end of the book, as I found the description quite interesting. Giant spiders, the size of mansions or larger, created a web in this large cavern, and some magical process was used to strengthen and harden the web so it could be walked on and built upon. Buildings there look like egg-sacs attached to the webbing. Not surprisingly, the lowest levels of the web house the poorest residents, and the nobles all reside in the highest tiers. Or, well, they did. Turns out that people who live on hardened webbing shouldn't throw stone-burning chemicals.

As far as the plot of the series goes, the important detail is that not only has Lolth abandoned all drow, she has also abandoned other races who worship her. So our anti-heroes now need to find out why. Their attempt to find a way to do so leads into the third book.

Condemnation, by Richard Baker.
Baker is good both at plotting and at characterization, though he didn't quite keep Pharaun's flavor the same as when Byers first established it (Byers' character was the better version, imo). My biggest complaint about Baker is that there are several places where he completely glosses over battle scene because the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Sometimes I agreed with this and didn't object overly much, but there was at least one situation where I was not convinced this was the case. I started to wonder if he was just incompetent at describing battle scenes, but those he did include were fairly well done. I think the omission would bother me less if there were a few sentences indicating roughly how things went. Blow-by-blow would probably be overkill. It just annoyed me when he just jumped to the next scene. It felt very much like a made-for-tv thing, where the commercials would fit into those gaps.

I won't go into too much detail about what they learn, save to say that it's a bad idea to bring a priest of a rival god into your goddess's inner sanctum. Admittedly, they had no way to get to said sanctum without help from the priest, but it was still a bad idea.

We also meet a scion of Elistraee in this book, who tries unsuccessfully to convert Halisstra (rescued from Ched Nasad in the second book) and pays a high price for it. Elistraee is a daughter of Lolth and tends to be the goddess of choice for non-evil drow. Or, well, did prior to this series. My impression is that either this series or its successor (Lady Penitent) will change that in a big way.

I now have the last three books in the series, but haven't started on them. I'm rather curious to see how it goes. Reviews of the fourth book on Amazon variously claim it to be the best or the worst book of the series. * shrugs * Likewise, several reviews say the series was good until the fourth book and then went downhill while others claim it keeps getting better until the end. I'll state an opinion when I've read them. :-)

Inquire Further

24 May 2010


Wow, long time without posting. Basically, taking over as DM used up most of my creative energy that had been going into this blog. However, my scenario should end this week, and Fibonacci's begin, and I have nearly all the details worked out. A few still need polishing. I'll probably post something on that once I get back into the habit of posting. This post, though, is about a book I just finished reading. It's called Dissolution, and is set in the drow city of Menzoberranzan. I wanted to refamiliarize myself with the drow mindset, as in Fibonacci's next campaign I'm playing a drow assassin. She is not a typical drow, in that she's good-aligned, but she's also not going to be a whiny, angsty "can't we all just get along" drow. She's part of a merchant family dealing in poisons. They travel around the Underdark, and act as a sort of underground railroad for drow misfits. They would like to make drow society more cohesive, and less chaotic (meaning they don't serve Lolth), but mostly do what they can for drow who don't fit into the extant society. Anyway, that has nothing to do with the book other than my motivation for reading it.

The book is not perfect. There were places where I wanted to slap the author for sloppy writing and general pretentiousness. Nonetheless, the book is quite enjoyable for its characters and plot. We have Pharaun, a wizard outcast from his family but now tolerated for his high position in the wizards' school. He's something of a fop. Imagine James Bond as a drow wizard with little concern for bystanders. Then there's Ryld. He's a commoner who's risen about as high as a commoner can in drow society: he trains the city's males as fighters. He could be guard-captain of a noble house, but, as he points out, this would put him under the thumb of a matron mother and her retinue. Then we have Quenthel and Gromph. Quenthel is the high priestess in Menzoberranzan and Gromph is the high wizard. They're also siblings, and Gromph is plotting to kill his sister. This is not particularly noteworthy, other than the rank, as drow take "sibling rivalry" to the extreme; Pharaun's sister is also plotting to kill him, for instance. A few others become prominent later in the book, but it looks like they won't be truly major players until the second book of the series.

The cornerstone of the plot is that the priestesses of Lolth in Menzoberranzan have lost contact with their goddess, and no one knows why. As soon as some of the drow malcontents realize this, they set about taking advantage of the situation. Pharaun and Ryld are called in to track the malcontents, knowing only that they've disappeared. Gromph decides it would be a good time to try and kill Quenthel, since her powers will be diminished. Without giving too much away, all this eventually leads to a slave uprising in the city itself. All the goblins, bugbears, orcs, kobolds, and other "lower races" decide it would be a good time to rise up against their oppressors. There's more to it, but that would be giving away too much.

Now, I'd read some Forgotten Realms books before, but this is the first I've read since actually playing D&D. Certain details about the combat made more sense. I would find myself thinking things like "Nope, rolled too low," or "Must have made a saving throw." This didn't fit everywhere, as there were weapons being broken and heads being chopped off and knees being shattered, which is more specificity than usually allowed by game mechanics, but I was amused by the places where I could see it as fitting perfectly within game mechanics. I was even more amused when the book ended with a group of five drow being sent on a quest to find out what was going on with Lolth. Five adventurers, eh? Two priestesses, one wizard, and two fighters (one of whom may be a rogue; he only made three appearances, so it's hard to say).

Anyway, it isn't necessary to play D&D to appreciate this book, but it certainly gives some insight into the structure. If you want a story about scheming backstabbers whose sense of loyalty lasts until they see an advantage in betrayal, this is an enjoyable book. I'm hoping the next ones in the series will be as well. Oddly, all the books in this series seem to be by different authors. This one was by Richard Lee Byers. When he isn't being overly pretentious, he has a decent writing style, and he is very good at writing memorable characters.

Oh yes. One other detail that I found rather interesting. Drow "friendships" are more matters of convenience and familiarity than anything else. There is a place in the book where one friend betrays another, but the more I think about it, the more I think that a set of good characters would have wound up doing the exact same thing. The biggest difference is that the good character would have said "sorry," first, or, possibly, there would have been some conferring and they would have mutually decided that doing things that way would give them the best chance of saving the city. However, since there was a betrayal involved with these characters, it will be interesting to see if it changes the overall dynamic of character interaction in the next book.

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24 February 2010

Mystery Sprain

I somehow managed to sprain, or maybe just strain, something in my thumb. It's not the joint that connects the thumb to the hand. I think it may be the muscles/tendons connecting the two other joints. I'm not really sure how I managed to injure it, but I have a few guesses.

It started on Saturday. My shoulder had been twinging, and at roughly the same time, I felt some tingling in the tip of the left thumb. At the time, I figured something in my shoulder was just pinching a nerve. Then Sunday evening, the area between the two outer joints was very sore and tender. By Monday morning, it was noticeable swollen. I made a makeshift splint out of a chopstick (broken down closer to lenght) and the tape from my desk. This was a trifle odd-looking, but it kept the sore part from moving and reminded me not to use that thumb. After I got done teaching, I stopped at the dollar store. No real thumb splints there, but there was some self-sticking wrap (the kind often used when people donate blood) and a package of tongue depressors. From that, I was able to construct a splint that looked a bit more professional, and kept the thumb immobilized for most of the day, and most of Tuesday.

It's quite a bit better this morning, though I'll probably immobilize it before heading to work, and I think I've figured out part of the cause. I'm still missing a piece, though. On Saturday afternoon, I went to Westwood Discount (they get damaged/clearance/overstock goods, mainly, plus some stuff like you'd find at a dollar store) and didn't bother to get a basket. I was holding my items awkwardly, and my shoulder was complaining from it. I suspect I was using the left thumb to put pressure on something to keep it from falling and either overworked or overstretched something along the back of the thumb. As it wasn't swollen the next morning, it wasn't actually injured yet. That morning, I printed out some D&D tiles and spent some time cutting them out with an Exacto knife and a straight edge (tip: get a straight edge with cork backing; they don't slide nearly as much), and probably used that thumb to keep the ruler from sliding. As the pain didn't start until evening, either there was some final thing that sent it from "overused" to "sprained" or it was just very slow coming on. My bet is on the former, but I have no idea what the final trigger might have been.

Ah well. It wasn't a major sprain, since one of the described symptoms is "unable to pinch thumb and forefinger together." I could pinch, it was just painful to do so for very long.

I've discovered a list of things that are much easier to do with a functioning left thumb, now. "Putting contacts in" is at the top of the list. "Putting ice trays in the freezer" is next; I'm much less proficient at that with my right hand and spill a lot more water. "Adjusting the left strap of a backpack." "Wearing gloves." "Buttoning trousers." I'm sure there'd be even more if it were my right hand, however.

And I keep meaning to post some of my self-made dungeon tiles here... I've borrowed freely from stuff I've found, so I might as well add to the available resources with the ones I've made.

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09 February 2010

My First Stint as DM

We finished up Jeremiah's scenario last week. I put in a very brief segue to lead into my scenario, and this week we actually got started on my scenario. Everyone knew there would be shopping opportunities, so we took care of those mostly by e-mail, and, to make things simpler, I had a fair going on outside the town we'd be getting to. Among other things, it gave my character an opportunity to stock up on things before she gets disappeared for a while.

The story so far:
As the heroes ran from the halfling wizard's tower, it exploded. Most likely the fire (from the fire-elemental-in-a-stone) caught up to the odd randomizing device (among other things, used to switch John Theta's head with that of a goblin ... and back ... twice). They were far enough away that we were not in any danger. As it was cold and snowy outside, they took shelter in a cave. Inside the cave were some blue veins of stone called isildiril. They learned that this stone had teleportation properties, and was likely the source of many of the halfling wizard's powers, and Dovra found that when she cast her light spell on it, the stone would absorb the light and then emit it all at once.

As the sun began to rise, they heard whuffling and pawing outside the cave, and connected it to the wolf-sign they were suddenly noticing. Four gray wolves, two vicious dire wolves and two wolfogriffs (basically flying wolves) attacked. Dovra, keen to try out some new powers she had, cast a Zone of Avarice and used it to keep pulling the wolves away from the cave, and through the attack area of a Fire Pillar that she cast. The wolves were eventually slain, and skinned, and the heroes journeyed on down a path that led through a coniferous forest and to a water hole. Near the water hole was another cave, a sort of crack in the mountainside, and all the visible stone this time was isildiril. Rather tentatively, the heroes scouted through it and found that it was a tunnel going under the mountain to another forest clearing on the other side. When the scouts were convinced it was safe, they waved for everyone else to come through. As soon as everyone was inside, a magical light began rolling through the isilidiril. It teleported people as it caught up with them, taking them to a rather similar tunnel in a different mountain, but this time there was a village visible through the exit, and a fair going on outside the village.

And, yea, the heroes did go about their shopping with much gusto*, and learned that the volcano visible in the town appeared at the same time as a warlock disappeared, and that an evil warlock was controlling the elf who ran the magic-item-shop. They also met up with a dwarf blacksmith and his eladrin, artificer daughter**, whose experiments with area burst grenades greatly impressed them. The sun was going down as they made their way into the city, and the Captain of the Guard simply assumed they were yet another batch of heroes come to rescue Ridol from its curse*** and made them fill out paperwork indicating their preferred burial arrangements.

Next time, we begin in the cursed city with the sun down. ^!^

*I find it inordinately amusing that the only female character was happy to buy exactly two items, and otherwise stock up on necessities like food and alchemical reagents, and learn a few new rituals, whereas most of the males have gone overboard to get as much as they possibly can, particularly of magical items.

**No one seemed to find this odd, which I find extremely odd.

***The captain was designed to be as uncooperative as possible, but they finally managed to convince him that they really didn't know all about the curse already, and got more useful information out of him than I had planned on. So far they haven't drawn the correct conclusions from it, however, so it will probably still work out.

Final thought: I need to get Dovra out of the scenario as soon as possible. There's an exit planned for her, but I think I may activate it a bit sooner than originally planned. It was a bit disconcerting to be half-cheering at how well the pillar/zone combination worked and half-cursing at it for killing off all my beautiful wolves. Also, I think the group can handle rougher encounters than the one I used last night, so I've got a bit more leeway to ramp things up (heh-heh-heh).

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