Sunday, August 31, 2014

Flashbacks: Ourevel: Part 7

Yet another vignette concerning the nature and life of Ourevel the Lustful:


A cold mist blows up from the River Selene, obscuring the Library and the Rivé Gauche in a thick, wet blanket of white. The night-lamps stay lit well into the morning, but do little to penetrate the fog, and few citizens find their way out of doors. At the low buildings of the newly reconstructed college, it's spires not-yet erected, a knocking is heard, an already low rap muffled further by the heaviness in the air. Amelia Grimari answers the door to find a slight figure waiting, completely shrouded in a heavy woolen robe against the chill air, a delicate white-gloved hand protruding to knock again. With a polite cough the figure speaks, the voice quiet and feminine. "Tell your master, Herr Doktor de Fleur that I seek admittance as a student to his institution. Also, I wish to speak to him immediately concerning the whereabouts of my brother."

Somewhat taken aback by the lady's abruptness, Amelia strains to look under the hood, barring the woman's entrance, "Who, might I ask, are you, to demand such?"

The small woman slides deftly under Amelia's outstretched arm and into the hall, then removes her hood, revealing the brilliant amethyst-coloured eyes, sharply pointed ears, and ageless face of an eldar. "Tell the good doktor that the Lady Megtévesztésre of the Ten-Spires Phratry wishes admittance to his school."

Amelia's eyes widen, and then her face goes blank. She bows, her hands on her thighs, bending at the waist, her face finally parallel to the floor as she speaks.

"We are honored by the emissary of the Ten-Spires. I will seek Doktor de Fleur immediately. In the meantime, if you would prefer to wait somewhere more comfortable . . . ."

As her words trail off, Aemelia reaches through nothingness and opens a small door in reality. On the far side is a comfortable personal library, with a crackling fire in a polished pot-bellied stove.

As soon as Amelia has closed the door to the outside, Louis glides through it, startling her again. "Remember Amelia, I am both everywhere and nowhere. Now, to our guest." And again, Louis glides forward noiselessly toward the open door to Amelia's private library. "Amelia, remember that you do need to get all these works cataloged for college." Amelia has the grace to look abashed as Louis glances down his long aquiline nose at her. "Yes Professor." Louis makes a note to himself to spend a little more time following up on her activities or perhaps have that little sneak Gavorche put someone on her. She was being entirely too secretive for her own good.

Louis returns his attention to the guest in the private library and glides forward to greet the emissary of Ten-Spires Phratry and bows over gracefully to her. "Pardon my appearance and please be seated. Don't stand on my account.", he says gesturing to a high-backed chair to one side of the crackling stove and taking the other to the right of it and settling into it as well as he was able being insubstantial. He had mastered the necessary maneuvers to make it appear as though he were sitting, knowing that when the affect wore off, he would be ready for it and make the transition as easy as possible.

"Now my deal dear lady, what is it that we at the College can do for you today and what may I do to assist you?" Louis inquired.

The lady smiles and gracefully takes the proffered seat. "Thank you, Herr Professor. I have come seeking admittance to your esteemed collegia. While I can offer much insight into the arcane practices of both my own people and the Targolid Empirium, you'll find that my specialties lie more in the fields of history, prophecy, and sociology than magic, which may not mesh well with the school you are building. However, I am most interested, currently in pursuing a study of one thing in particular. That, if I may be so bold, is you Herr Professor. I am most curious how the Spire of Despair came into existence. For you are not one of the true Seven. You, like Betrayal and the other Scions studied by our brotherhood, are an outlier, an enigma, not part of the clear order."

As she has been speaking she has grown more impassioned. She stops, brushes a stray hair from her face, and folds her hands again in her lap. "Also, I am looking for news of my brother, a lost member of our Phratry. He took the path of the Exiles a long time ago. We know that he lives, but not what name he goes by now, but once we called him Seronaneth, which is to say, "One who is a lover to his mother.""

Louis looks her over, attempting to get a read on what she is really after, trying to gauge what she isn't saying..."What do you hope to learn about me that you haven't already gathered from those other supplemental spires that you have studied? What is it that you hope to learn that can't learn by studying your own existence Lady Deceit?" Louis inquires. "I will grant you access to those documents related to prophecy as such that you would ask for, and access to my own notes that I have made regarding my....condition. However, direct access to myself, I am afraid is out of the question. I am far to busy at this time re-building a college of higher learning and other necessary research into the very nature of reality."

"With regard to your "brother" it is possible that I may know something of his whereabouts." Louis offers cagily. If she is indeed the lady of deceit as he believes she is, she could be playing any number of games beyond his current ability to fathom. It is something to take up with Ourevel before granting any such outright knowledge to her. It would be up to Ourevel to make a determination as to the veracity of her statements. "Let me look into the matter further and I will pass on such information as I receive it." "In the mean time, I will allow you access to Bernard Clairvaux who specializes in history and prophecy." Louis turns and calls to Amelia who, during the course of the conversation, had drifted to another chair in the room and seated herself, listening intently. "Conduct the Lady to see Bernard." Louis rises from his seated position, having regained his corporeal form and extends his hand to the Lady who takes it and Louis gracefully bows over hers. "Until we meet again." Louis turns and opens another door next to the fireplace, seemingly out of nowhere again and departs for his own quarters.


The Naked Blade:

The tumbling of stone, flame, roaring of cannons, screaming of wind, even these can be beautiful. This time they remind Lust of the time to depart. A ship descends from the sky, hovering above the corpse of the fallen god: a Flying Dutchman, a portent a doom, Lust's ride to safety. Her brothers cry for her to join them aboard. As the winds howl about her and the world breaks apart Love's mind reaches out again, scenting through the chaos a friend not far off...

In the barracks of the Irulian Guard, a song begins to play, coming from the void, a song of home, a song of freedom. Roused by the music, the guards awake to find Sigrdrifa once again standing in their midst, shining in her naked glory. "Awake, warriors. The false god of the southrons is slain. It saddens me to see you still enslaved to the Tetrarch's will, but I will never bid you to break vows you have taken freely. Only remember, you are chosen from among my sons, women desire you and will not deny you, so you should not deny yourselves." A band of crimson silk appears wrapped around her upper arm, and an apple in her hand. "Look for these. They are the signs of my new daughters in this land. Protect them and they will welcome you."


The blade shines, honed and sharp. The nicks have been worked out of the blade. The edge, good Northern Skysteel, has held through a thousand thousand conflicts, through generations of the Vanir and their silent watch on the edge of the world.

"It sates itself on the life-blood of fated men." The horn grip was polished by a sure hand, over the centuries the Irulian Guard has stood watch over Mortal Kings.

"Paints red the powers' homes with crimson gore." Notches in the hilt mark the passing of things from five worlds, and the creatures of the troll gods.

"Black become the sun's beams in the summers that follow, weathers all treacherous." The point has taken men in the throat, monsters from one side to the other. Never has it faltered in its target.

A female voice finishes the death-prayer, in throat-bruising purity of accent. "Do you still seek to know? And what?"

The sword fails to find its target, the heart of its wielder. The blade slips, and clangs to the floor, choked in gore. "My Lady. The Naked Blade. I have failed. Oaths are undone."


The Red Apple:

The red rain from the dying angels and the blackened sky from Lord Despair's enchantments swirled overhead as the Saints Rose and Ivy watched both the foul Akairian and the Emperor dissolve into their component parts. Glancing about, the two sisters looked at the shattered castle, swiftly filling with ever more water, and nodded to each other, feeling the gentle voice of Love in the back of their minds telling them that they were relieved from the battle. 

With a single word, the two were back in the inner sanctuary of the newly built Temple of the Open Bloom in Holy Selene. A quick survey of the room showed that it was still secure, the young apple tree in front of their private altar in early bloom despite the harsh weather outside. As the two knelt, thanking the Mother Goddess for their safe recall, a faint odor, familiar, similar to the blossoms they so fondly worshiped, yet older, mature, almost musty, brought them to alert. 

They turn to find a slight elven woman, standing exactly where they had appeared not a second before, one hand fingering a slender knife, the other holding a deep red apple. "Good evening, Daughters of Lust. Tell me, how oft do you speak with your lord?"

Rose eyes the woman warily, keeping her hand away from her whip, and silently casts a spell to reveal the truth in people's words. "We pray daily, lady. If that is your meaning. What brings you to our sanctuary?"

Disszonál smiles at the two wary priestesses, recognizing the weave of divine energy now filling the room, and wishing her sister had taken up this mission. "It seems I must speak frankly with you, or not at all. I am called Disszonál Ahashtyn. I am the sister of your Lord Lust. You may say I am the first servant of this church which he created, for I was given a task by my brother before he went to sleep so many centuries ago." She holds up the crimson apple. "He asked that I should bring him this, that he might eat of it and remember. Unfortunately my brother is as slippery as a well-lubricated prophylactic. I thought that you might aid me in getting close enough to him to complete my mission."

Rose shakes her head in bewilderment, "Why do you expect us to help you with this? Just what do you expect him to remember when he eats this particular fruit?"

"I expect him to remember...everything...."

Friday, August 29, 2014

Flashbacks: Ourevel: Part 6

Yet another vignette concerning the nature and life of Ourevel the Lustful:

Wrath's People:

"Hey! Y'fergot yer titfer, Twist!"

Petticoat lane is, half a year after the Seige of Selene, coming back to life. Gallowsfolk mingle, and the fine wares of Petticoat Lane are on lacy display. One woman, her eyes looking bruised with caked makeup, and with a faded tattoo of a cornflower on her cheeck, pursues a Reeve from Les Innocents back out into the street and hands him his bowler hat. He mutters, embarassed, cheeks flaming, takes the hat, and jumps quickly into a cabby carriage that has pulled through the muck and puddles. The john does not look at the slight figure that descends from the carriage, but the woman's eyes widen slightly.

"Whit're you doin he...." her voice trails off and blood drains slowly from her face.

"Don't worry just com'd by to talk. But I know that talk or what not, the time costs the same." As a small bag of coins hangs swinging from his hand, "let's take to talking inside." As he walks forward to show that it was not a question. "I am sure you'll be into listening close to what I have to say," he says with what could almost be a smile on the faceless boy.

"Now I am looking for a old dear friend. One we both know. Let me be cut'n the short of it. But the coin for your time," he says as he throws the bag of coins on the bedstand. She looks to the spilling coins and thats all he needs. With unnatural speed and reach the faceless boy swings a war-razor from out of nowhere and back again. Slicing only one hair from the end of her long ponytail. She feels a cold breath on the back of her neck and she snaps around to see the faceless boy. But a smile come to her face as if the welcomed sight of a dear friend had come to her eye. And with that he latches the door behind him with the other arm."I"m looking for Prim Rose." He wait a few seconds to see the thoughts run in her eyes. "You are one of her Flowers? Sure she has stay in touch."

"Weel, if'n I wasn' sure it was some other twist! Good to see yeh, er..." Her face shows a slight confusion and then the magic takes hold again.

"Yer lookin' fer Rosie, then, are yeh? Well, take a butchers around and mak' sure ye've not been followed. Then it's up the apples and pears. Once we're inside and out of sigh', we'll talk." She turns and flounces up the rickety stairs, tacked onto the building after the first stairs were burned during the Petticoat Uprising.

"Well? C'mon then!"

He looks over the room and up the stairs with unseen eyes. And follows up the stairs. "My dear, as you know no one knows I be back. I come to see you for info but I have little time. So let us talk straight away and quick. Do you know where Rose is? It is improtant that I speak to her. It would be best for all her garden flowers that we talk."

Up in the flea-infested flophouse, the flower-girl tosses her top onto a bed, scratching absentmindedly at an angry red rash under her arms. 

"So, only Primrose'll suit you, eh, Johnny? Well, I'm afraid she don't take clients. I've seen 'er no more'n once r' twice since the Seige. But...if ye'll keep it quiet, I do know som'n who might know where she is. Mother Clap's. Ask for Ivy."

And with that he flips a coin to her "Do FORGET the change." As she pulls the coin out of the air the words she hears "egnahc eht TETROF oD" She would think, how wierd that all these words and moments are running backwards out of my head, if she could remember that they were gone. She is left with a drink in one hand and the extra coin the john dropped in the other. And no memory of the faceless boy.

As he slips through the shadows out of the room, the faceless boy notices a note protruding from the girl petticoat's, bearing a silver wax seal stamped with the mark of lust and smelling of apple blossoms.

With the movements of something otherworldly the boy pulls the note from the coat and seems to drop into a shadow in the floor and is gone. Outside on a side street the boy smells the note and opens it. The skin over his eyes pulls way to show his black soulless eyes as he reads the note.
Beloved Wrath, 
I have seen your servants crawling about near Mother Clap's and Petticoat Lane. My gaze does not yet reach deep, but it's breadth is expanding rapidly and it can see into the shadows in which you hide. Know that the whores are under my protection and I will not stand idly by if your knives find their way into their beds.
I do, however, propose a trade, Brother Wrath. People tell many secrets in the throws of passion and my daughters are like to acquire much information that you will find of use. In exchange I ask that you encourage your servants to indulge in the baser pleasures of their flesh, and so do me homage, and to keep watch over my daughters that are in your territory and see that they remain neutral in your wars. 
Remember, we are as gods, so we might as well get good at it.  
A ragged street dog comes to a stop lowering down, baring teeth and hair raised. It looks at the boy that is filling it with more fear then ever. For the boys face slowly forms lips and a large smile. As Wrath has thoughts of rusty "knives finding their way into their beds." The dog moves forward but falls in two parts before it knows that Lockjaw has cut through it. And the smile is gone along with the whole face. He puts the thoughts away for later. The boy thinks this to himself, "Let my sist...broth...well whatever it is today, Lust, know that Wrath and his sons will protect and take of Lusts servants pleasures. In trade for the secrets of those who called the anger of wrath." And with that he feels his little friend trying to send the thoughts to Lust's mind with the pictures of what counts as Wrath's "baser pleasures". All with blood and razors. He picked the dogs head up. And says "Lets go see an old freind." The boy skips down the street singing a goodnight song from the Gallows.



In the streets of the city, the children run swiftly, racing to post more notices than their peers. Within hours every lamp post on every street corner in every quarter of the city bears a double-dozen large, red-lettered bills strewn with apple-petals, somehow unharmed by the cold. "A Holiday!" They declare, "Like none other." The first of many, they promise. The doors of every brothel thrown wide and the ladies (and men) better-dressed, clean, and offered up for free to any who would wish to come and partake. "Freedom!" They declare. Where previously it had only been whispered, the whores now shout it, it seems. "Tzaluth is Dead! New gods are risen! The People are Free!" And the 14th of Februarius shall be the city's great day of celebration.

As the children go about their chores of publicity, Cornflower, looking a good deal cleaner and more rested than the week before, slides into Graygavel's office and leaves a small envelope, sealed with a silver wax stamped with the targolid heiroglyph for 'Lust'. "A message for you and your master, from our Lord and Lady."

"What I'm not the post you know! Dum Wom.......Ye look right for the town." As the drwaf pushes the hair down on his head and smooths out his beard. "No, need for ye to run so soon, Cornflower." He kick out a draw and pulls a bottle of hard wine out. "Ya Master Lust as call holiday?" He smiles.

Cornflower sits down on the dwarf's lap, and pours them each a glass. "Aye love. Lady Love has called a fest'val, so I guess she don' mind if I stays a while." Cornflower winks at him and pulls out a letter opener. "Mayhaps I should finish deliverin' the message first though."

She reads it aloud, her eyes glazing over and her voice flat and expressionless as she does so:

~Wrath and the Wanders,
It appears you've poked your heads up and been seen. This does not suit either of our causes. I am doing what I can by way of distraction; a day of free whores should go a long way towards giving the folk something other to speak of than your indiscretion. Please, use this time wisely.
As she finishes reading, she seems to forget the contents as she throws the note aside onto the table and begins to drive home on Graygavel exactly how distracting free whores can be...



"Holiday!....Freedom!....I take it if I want it wench." The men yelled as the glass hit the wall of the brothel common room just to the left of Jack's head. Jack looked up from his cards and let out a breath. "I'll be right back ladies." As he put down the cards on the table, "And no peeking." He walks away from the table of cards and other peoples garments, over and to the side of the loud drunk man. "We're here for fun now mate." As he throws an arm over the man's shoulder.

The man looks mad but then stunned as he sees Jack is wearing only boots, hat, and a smile. "Maybe my kind of fun is......." (Where did he get that??) the man stops as his eye catch the frost covered wand at his ribs. Still with a smile and friendly voice as to not waste the fun time of others Jack says, "This is a house of Lust, and Wanders keep a eye over it for the Lord Wrath's sister." And with that the cold of the wand burns into the man side and his eyes go wide then roll up and close. "Wooo, HAHA, Friend sleep it off. Not all of us can make it through the whole holiday on our feet."

Jack sits the man in a chair by the far wall. "I'll get someone to come for your body friend," he says low with a smile and a friendly hit on the chin. Jack turns and walks back to the table of half clothed ladies. "So, where were we? O yes I raise you a hat." The hat lands on the table.


An Eunuch:

Piracy, interesting sport. Love reveled in the wind, the song, the camaraderie. Lust too reveled in the camaraderie, of a different sort. On seedy docks by the Sea of Glass, Lust and her brother Pride found the man they were looking for. A poor wretch, missing many a limb, Love's heart wept for the man's suffering, Lust had other ideas. "Heal him," they both said to Pride.

As Pride walked away with his ill-gotten gains, quite shaken by his ordeal from having ridden along in Lust's war-troll sexcapades, Lust stopped a bit, fondling her friend's newly re-grown genitalia, shining with the afterglow of her pleasures and an inner holy power. "You're quite the ride for a eunuch. Know that vou've been touched by the Lord of Lust himself and your pleasures will never again go unsatisfied."  She produces a pale apple from god-knows-where, slightly slick with her own sweat. "Take it, eat. If you serve me and are good to my daughters, they will always do well by you."

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

PBM: Chapter 3: An Old Lady in Melvaunt: Part 2

In which the party experiments with democracy, considers the benefits of human sacrifice, and makes plans to defend a village against a horde of kobolds...

“Thank you.” Lyra seemed to be looking more at Sister Ryesha when she said it.

After Lyra accepts the earrings from Donovan, she turns to address the dwarf in common. “I apologize. We seem to have put you in even more danger than we found you in.”

Then she rummages around near the food crate until she finds a handkerchief wrapped around a pile of combs, small mirrors, and other trinkets. She gingerly picks up one of the mirrors, and sits back down near the chariot. She methodically wipes the blood off of her face, and examines the arc of small circular marks, the shiny pink of freshly healed skin still evident. The lower arc was on the apple of her cheek just left of her nose, and the upper on her brow, going down to just between her eyes. Since it was healed so quickly, she hoped it was unlikely to leave lasting scars.

Lyra carefully balanced the mirror on her knees, and angled it so she could see the earrings as she put them in.

“Bah, a few kobolds aren’t much of a danger. A dwarf lives every day in danger. It seems many would rather be our enemy than our ally. Except you, this ragtag group of elves, humans, and even a goblin, are as kind and bold a party as one could hope to meet. I’ll remain with you, helping as I can.”

Yamtwit, from this vantage, can see that the man is lying prone at the bottom of the pit, which is perhaps fifteen feet deep, pinned by his own pack, with one leg twisted at an angle that no normal human leg should ever be in, bent almost in half in the wrong direction. The man turns his head to see who is calling down to him, and looks utterly surprised to see the goblin again. “GET ME OUT OF HERE!” he screams.

Yamtwit yells back to the others. “Looks like the old guy has a broken leg. He looks way too big for me to carry out, anyone want to lend a hand?” He turns back to the pit and starts climbing down. “I’ll see what I can do about your leg, geezer. My friends will be along shortly to haul you out.” He reaches the bottom and walks over to check out the man’s leg. He grabs the man’s leg gently, “This will hurt…”, he says, then quickly pops the dislocated knee back into place. “So, where are you from? Maybe we can give you a lift home. And are you still selling your wares?”

The old man responds to Yamtwit’s mid-leg-setting smalltalk with a prolonged, high-pitched scream.

Hearing the commotion (and noting that the goblin not only didn’t stay away from the pit, he entered), Hrud gestures towards Donovan, pantomiming being asleep and pointing at the hole in the ground.

“You’re welcome.” Donovan says to Lyra, then, “Glad to have you aboard, Sir Bo,” to the dwarf. Donovan looks at Hrud quizzically, then shakes his head emphatically, to indicate that he has no desire to sleep in that hole in the ground. Hearing the scream, he walks over to the edge of the pit to look in. “I’m afraid I don’t have any levitation spells or the like prepared Mr. Yamtwit. I think we have sufficient materials to make a stretcher. Then we could haul him out that way, perhaps.” He waves at the others, “Rant, do you think you and Hrud would be able to the man out of there?”

Winona looks around at the kobold corpses. “This may sound unpleasant, but if we toss the bodies in the hole, I think there are enough to mostly fill it up. Or make a ramp to get him out more easily…” She looks down in the pit, “That will also solve the problem of leaving the pit behind, and disposing of the kobolds. We’ll just have to be careful dropping them down there so that we don’t hit the old man or the goblin.”

Frantiska rides around, scanning the area for more assailants, and stopping to collect one of the sleeping kobolds, then finally returns satisfied that no more enemies are incoming. She climbs down off Thistledown and deposits the sleeping kobold near the back of the wagon. «Lyra, these kobolds seemed to organized to be a truely random attack. Are your powers sufficient to discern whether these attackers belonged to a larger tribe or group that might launch further attacks on travelers?»

Lyra shakes her head. «’ve never done anything that invasive, and I’m not inclined to start. Teldicia has experience with reading surface thoughts. Might that yield something if we question it?»

Donovan, overhearing the conversation, walks back to where Lyra and Frantiska are looking at the unconscious kobold. “I have a spell that can determine if they belong to a larger group, but not much else…” Donovan casts know faction, then stares at the kobold and shakes his head, “That simplified matters…” he mumbles sarcastically. “Lady Frantiska, the short answer to your question is yes. The kobold’s allegiances are fairly complicated, but it is definitely part of both an organized military unit and a larger kingdom, and it seems like that kingdom may be involved in some larger conspiracy…”

With no apparent objections to her idea forthcoming, Winona begins unceremoniously shoving kobolds into the pit. Sister Rye bounces over and glares at her reprovingly.

“Don’t look at me like that, Bunny,” Winona quips. “The Laws of Phlan clearly state that in instances of opposition to the law, violent social uprising, terrorism, or banditry that ‘the dead should be sown naked into linen sacks, transported in reusable coffins to cemeteries beyond the city walls, and buried without a coffin in a mass grave.’ Phlan, being the closest civilized city and the diocesan seat of Bishop Braccio clearly has legal jurisdiction over these lands, and these kobolds were clearly engaged in acts of banditry. We are already outside of the city, therefore transport is not necessary, so, as the law says, these criminals shall be ‘buried without a coffin in a mass grave.’” She shoves another kobold in, this time watching to make sure she does not strike Yamtwit or the old man. “In addition to fulfilling the law, in this case, throwing their bodies in serves several other useful purposes. One, filling up the whole quicker, since we clearly need to fill and cover it to get the wagon past. Two, getting rid of the bodies before they start rotting in the swamp water and become a risk of disease. And three, steadily raising the level of the bottom of the pit so that it is easier for our friends to get out.” She stomps off into the mud and returns with two more bodies to throw in. “Brother Rant, Master Dwarf, would you two care to help?”

Hrud unfastens the saddle from his pony, carefully setting aside any attached items – of which there are few – and walks over the hole. Setting the saddle down for a moment, he pulls up the rope and makes a wide loop with it. The barbarian then loops the rope around the saddle horn a couple times before running the loose end underneath the saddle and out through the rear rigging dee – a simple iron loop used for hooking saddle bags – on the left side, then back under the saddle and through the ring located on the right side. The remaining rope goes back under the saddle then out back and up, where the loose end is knotted to the rope a foot or so where the Hrud estimates the man’s head will come to.

Testing the knot and satisfied that it will hold the man’s weight, Hrud lowers the saddle into the hole. “Yen wong ngemu tali minangka nitih munggah, kang ngirim nggoleki.” he calls down to the goblin.

Bo is not familiar with the laws of Phlan, but he appreciates a well-reasoned argument when he hears one. He leaves off his mental plans for an oversize block and tackle so that he may assist dumping the dead (and maybe not-so-dead) kobolds into the hole.

The old man, somewhat recovered from the bout of screaming brought on by Yamtwit resetting his knee, watches in growing horror, suddenly bursts out screaming again on seeing the rain of kobold corpses. “No. No. You didn’t?!” The scream turns to weeping. “It’s bad enough that you attacked me, chased me back this way, and broke my leg so that I could not deliver the tribute from my village. Now you’ve killed them?! They’ll slaughter us all!”

The goblin looks completely startled, but whether from the dwarf and the priests dropping dead kobolds on him or the old man’s screaming is hard to tell. “Hey old coot, we didn’t attack you, that was just a misunderstanding, and you should watch where you are fleeing better. It’s not our fault you fell in this hole…” The remainder of the old man’s statement hits hits him then. “Wait? Tribute?” He points at the pack, “That’s all stuff you were going to give to the kobolds?” His shoulders slump, and, completely flustered, he begins to rant in his native tongue, “Merde! Yon kamloteoute pansei. Koboldsyo nan kwit manje aplike bèlsayo tout somurajteou?! Kobolds fouchèt bèl tankoubaouta fucka poukisa? Lèsaa, lanfèyo ale jis kapabou. Pou Spò komès renmen kobold dégoutant bezwenoupafèsa nou! Lanfè ale! Nou sou tonbe koboldsyo fuck poukisa tou nan?!”

When the saddle plops down next to him he looks up from his explosion to hear Hrud. “Oke. Aku bakal sijine coot lawas ing jaran-jog. Bebas kanggo nyelehake lawas kobold-fucker sanadyan.” He takes a few deep breaths then turns back to the old man. “Meat-head up there says he can haul you out if you sit on the saddle.” He cuts the straps on the man’s pack and grabs him under the armpits, “Here let me help you. Then you can explain your insanity to everyone else up there…”

Hrud hauls the old man up out of the pit and starts to untie the rope from the saddle. Winona’s call down to the goblin suddenly reminds him that Yamtwit is still down there. Quickly tying a smaller loop (sans saddle), lowers the rope back into the hole.

The strange bubble around the wagon finally collapses and Teldicia climbs out, clutching her head, blood trickling from her nose and ears. “Remind me not to do that again…” she mutters. She leans heavily against the side of the wagon, the veins in her forehead standing out and pulsing grotesquely.

Donovan looks at Teldicia in horror. He tears open his pack in a hurry and yanks out the silver rod, only to find it cold and lifeless. Damnit, I already used it today, he thinks. He puts a hand on the faux-elf-girl’s shoulder, “Just hang in there, the headache will pass…I think…”

Winona kicks another body into the whole, then yells “Sorry!” when it barely misses landing on Yamtwit’s head. “We’ll try to be more careful.”

Yamtwit ties the old man’s pack to the rope and then hops on the saddle to ride up, “Matur nuwun, Hrud.” He then runs over to Donovan, “Hey Whitehead, the old guy’s no peddler. Apparently he was delivering ‘tribute’ to the kobolds and is worried that since we stopped him from doing that, and killed a bunch of kobolds, that we might have just doomed his village.” Yamtwit looks genuinely concerned as he makes the report.

Frantiska listens as the goblin then looks at the kobolds lying dead around them. “Do we have any guess how large of a force these kobolds could field? Surely the loss of a force this size should be a notable loss for them. If the kobolds have been threatening and extorting money from the man’s village, we should find some way to help.”

Yamtwit looks even more upset, “Are you proposing we attack the Scything Claws?!”

Would it still be possible to deliver the tribute? I’m not sure we can take on a kingdom of several kobold tribes….

Donovan looks severely troubled. “This seems like a lose-lose situation all around. We’re definitely not in any position to be launching a full-scale assault on the kobold kingdom. We could offer to take the tribute to Greshlyrr for them, but, given what we’ve seen of the kobolds around here, I pretty sure that the kobolds would, at best, construe all of our possessions as tribute as well, or at worst, kill us all anyways.” He sighs and starts helping Winona roll kobold bodies into the pit. “I think our best option is just to take the man back to his village and hope for the best. Unless their home is very close, the few kobolds that got away are not going to be returning with reinforcements any time soon, and they have no reason to suspect that our actions in defending our caravan have anything to do with the tribute the man was carrying. If we drop him off and then make haste to Melvaunt, perhaps we can convince the city to dispatch a garrison to his village to guard against any possible kobold retaliation.” He chucks another body in the hole. “Or perhaps Frantiska and someone else of our party could take the two horses and ride back to inform Sir Justin at the tower of the increased kobold threat.”

Hrud’s brow furrows with the effort of producing an idea, “Apa yen orcs utawa hobgoblins njupuk upeti? Punapa kobolds nyerang wong-wong mau?”

Yamtwit smiles at Hrud’s cunning. “Big guy says we should frame some orcs for stealing the tribute…” he says to the others. Then, to Hrud, “Hrud, kowe duwe gagasan carane kita bisa pucuk iki ing sawetara orcs? Aku wis tau rampung pigura-proyek sadurunge.”

Lyra nods at Donovan’s suggestion, but still looks concerned. “Even if we got word to Melvaunt and the Tower, would they be able to mobilize to defend the village in time?” She wraps her arms around her knees, hugging them to her chest. «I’m not sure I can make it that far in my current condition, and I certainly can’t make it back. I haven’t been able to concentrate long enough to meditate properly for days.» Her Elven was whisper soft.

Donovan has to focus and use his eyes, more than his ears, to pick up on Lyra’s last statement, her words soft fluttering things like pastel-colored moths. He was pleased to find that he could understand them now, rather than just viewing them. «That’s why I suggested we send riders,» he says softly. “As slow as these oxen are, it shouldn’t take Frantiska and Thistledown more than an hour or so to ride back to the tower, then another hour or two to catch up. The priests of Helm seem to favor mounted patrols, so they should be able to offer at least a few men with similar speed. Given how slow a kobold on foot is, especially in this terrain, I would imagine that any retaliatory force would take a couple days at least to muster and deploy. Even as inexpert as we are, we are each more than a match for a half-dozen kobolds a piece, it should not take a particular large force to defend the man’s village—especially if they are experienced soldiers.” Donovan hopes that no one notices that his attempts to sound reassuringly strategic and knowledgeable is entirely guess-work.

Overhearing Yamtwit he perks up a bit, “Frame the orcs? That’s not a bad idea. Maybe we could hack the bodies up a bit more, leave one of the green blades behind?”

Lyra tilts her head to the side, thinking. “That might actually work, except for the part where several of them are in a pit already, and that Xvimlar probably wouldn’t actually leave one of Mace’s swords behind. Mother once brought me to a lecture series on entropy because my tutor had to cancel at the last minute. One of the seminars was on various theological perspectives of preservation and destruction. Of the Xvimlar it was said…” Lyra continues in her best scholarly monotone.

“Obey or die in pain and utter destruction. Enslave or slay the weak, and be sure that they know their suffering is in Xvim’s name and by his will. Cause pain and fearful obedience in others whenever prudent. Be a cruel, heartless tyrant, and Xvim shall be pleased. Slay the priests of other gods whenever you can do so without being identified by others. Capture tyrants and take them to senior clergy members to be delivered unto Xvim. Capture all wizards and bring their magic to the church-or bring them to Xvim’s most senior servants so that they can be transformed into creatures who will do service to Xvim as guardians. Spread fear of Xvim over all the lands. Destroy whatever and whoever bars his will and see that word of his power spreads but that no one survives to describe your deeds in detail except mortals who worship him. Destroy all witnesses to secret acts, but leave alive survivors to tell of Xvim’s power when spreading casual destruction. There is a delight in destruction-feel it, and indulge in it.”

Lyra looks thoughtful for a moment, tapping her chin with a finger. “So … significant leaders and wizards would be captured if possible, priests would likely die screaming, and there would be either no witnesses or a few properly terrorized witnesses depending on circumstances.”

Frantiska shakes her head, looking utterly disgusted with this train of thought, “Orcs may be despicable creatures, but Selune teaches that there are always exceptions, and using deceit to start a war between two questionable parties is not exactly honorable behavior. I would rather face the threat of a head-on assault on the kobolds, knowing that we are the ones facing that risk, than deal with the fall-out and likely death of children and non-combatants that would result from starting some sort of internecine war between the two races in this area. I would also have to object to any ‘hacking up bodies’ to orchestrate such a conflict. It is one thing to kill a group of kobolds that attacked us in an act of self-defense and then bury them properly in a common grave as Winona suggests, it would be quite another to mutilate their bodies and leave them lying out in the open as some kind of false witness.”

Yamtwit translates for Hrud. “Cahaya panggung wadon ngandika yen pigura proyek bakal ala lan matèni anak. Putih sirah ngandika kita ngirim mung ninggalake konco ijo pedhang. Wong wadon enom ngandika kita ngirim mutilate badan, nyiksa imam, lan njupuk di pun cekel kedhaftar Piandel.” He then raises his hands, “I think we should take a vote. Everyone in favor of blaming this mess on someone else raise your hands…”

Hrud starts to speak several times, only to swallow his words before actually gathering the courage to speak up, trusting Yamtwit translate:

“«I ask questions and get in trouble. A few more questions will not make things worse for me.

How many children will the orcs and kobolds kill if they’re already busy killing each other? How many will they kill if they are not?

What about the girl we rescued back in the city? Those animals could have been off dying somewhere else instead of attacking her.

One spirit says ‘do what I say’, another spirit says ‘do not do it’. Who do we listen to? Even if I do not worship one spirit or the other?

One group fires blindly into the city, trying to hurt people. The other kidnaps travelers and tortures horses. Let them waste their lives on each other for a while.»"

The barbarian raises his hand.

Teldicia, looking exhausted and still trying to staunch the bleeding from her nose, quietly raises her hand.

Rant seeing Hrud’s discomfort, translates for the others before Yamtwit can mangle his words. Then, to Hrud, “Aku pracaya Frantiska ngangap kanggo anak saka kobolds lan orcs. Sampeyan salah sing wong diwasa sing kasar lan kasar lan pantes Tyr kang kaadilan. Nanging rama dosa ngirim ora bisa payed dening turunane. Setelan ala mungsuh ala liyane mung bisa beget luwih ala. Ora ana siji blaming sampeyan kanggo pikiraken, kanca Hrud.”

Donovan raises his hand, “If it saves a village, and keeps us alive, who cares if it’s fair to the orcs.”

The three Tyrrans, suddenly interested, walk over. Winona nods along to Lyra and Donovan’s reasoning, but when Yamtwit calls for a show of hands, they all vote nay. “I’m sorry,” Winona says, “you’re suggestion isn’t a bad one one from a practical standpoint, but Frantiska is right, even though adventurers are given the right to meet out immediate justice in the defense of themselves and others, the law is quite clear that similar punishment be set aside for instances of false testimony. Tyr and the Council require an accurate accounting of violence that is meeted out in the service of the city.” She sighs, then adds, “And, so long as they are not actively engaged in violence against peaceful citizens of Phlan, the Xvimlar are still are provided equal protections under the law…though with a healthy dose of suspicion of prior malice.”

Yamtwit’s lips curl in consternation, “That’s four in favor, and four opposed. Dwarf? Lyra-girlie? Looks like you’re the tie-breakers…”

Frantiska shakes her head again, “And if they each vote in a different direction?”

Donovan looks over at the peddler, “In that case, maybe we should ask the person who is most affected by this situation to cast the tie-breaking vote…”

“Settin’ the kobolds and orcs against each other is a fine plan, if ya think it will work. Them’s that remains afterward should be easier to wipe out.” Bo spits in the pit. “I’ve got no love lost on either side.” Bo considers it a victory whenever someone isn’t attacking dwarves or their allies.

No wonder the poor man ran when we said we were adventurers, Lyra thought rubbing her temples. “The several blocks between the Xvimlar temple and the road would be caught between the two sides, not to mention all of those settlements we passed before we entered the swamp proper, and noncombatants on both sides. Both sides will escalate matters to make an example of their opposition and to extend their influence, to the detriment of all those who happen to be nearby. We’ve seen the sort of violence the Xvimlar are capable of.” Lyra shakes her head. “I will not bring that upon these villagers. There has to be a better way.”

Yamtwit looks at Lyra and Bo, suddenly realizing that he miscounted. “So, five against five. I guess that wasn’t so useful. So what do you think we should do?” He says, looking at Lyra since she seems to have a handle on the psychology of their perceived enemies.

The old man, sitting on the lip of the pit, glares at all of you with a mixture of rage and incredulity. “What’re you all yammering on about?! There’s got t’ be at least sixty dead kobolds here. If you want to help, how ‘bout you take your murderous hobo selves and go kick the rest of ’em where they live so they’ll stop bothering my village once and for all?!”

“Starting hostilities between the two puts too many innocent at risk. Let the kobolds take this for what it was — a failed caravan raid. The more pressing concern is getting that tribute where it needs to go, or defending the village.” Lyra glances over at the angry old man. “And it seems the one representative we have is in favor of the latter. Shall we see how much he knows about the kobold strength in this area, and get reinforcements from Iniarv’s Tower?”

Winona grins, “That sounds more like it. Let’s go smash some kobolds!” When Ryesha looks up at her sternly, she sputters a bit, “You know…cause they’re orchestrating raids on merchant caravans and are clearly criminals…”

Rye whispers something under her breath which sounds like, “and you’re supposed to be teaching me…”

Donovan shrugs, “So the question now is do we go to the village and wait for the kobolds? Or do we launch a frontal assault?” It is clear from his face that he doesn’t think either of those is a good idea.

Frantiska looks at the old man, “Where is your village, Sir? Is it far from here?” Then, to her companions, “Thistledown has been straining at the reins all day with trying to keep pace with the oxen. I’ll ride back to the tower and inform Sir Justin of the situation. You take the man to his village and I will either catch up, or meet you there.”

Yamtwit nods vigorously, “Rast could use the exercise too, so we’ll go too. Oh, and you all should finish cleaning up the bodies, which will give us a head start and make catching up easier.” Then, to Hrud, “Mangga supaya mripat ing Bobbers kanggo kula.”

Hrud watches the elf and the goblin riding off together – something the barbarian is pretty sure he’s never seen – then turns to stare at the not-quite-a-horse staring at him. It suddenly occurs to him that he’s never handled a donkey before. Cattle, oxen, horses, goats, sheep, a couple of llamas and, one time, even a camel … but never a donkey …

Gently, so as not to startle the beast, Hrud reaches out and takes one of the reigns hanging off the shaggy neck. Giving a soft tug, he leads the animal over to join his pony at the back of the wagon.

When they have gone, Winona turns back to the pile of dead kobolds. “Alright, decision made. Lets get this cleaned up and get moving.” She and the other priests start disposing of the bodies as quickly as possible, Winona and Rant throwing them in the pit while Rye grabs the shovel from the wagon and starts throwing dirt down on top of them to fill in the gaps.

Donovan helps the old man up onto the driver’s bench of the wagon, then begins helping chuck bodies in the hole (conveniently ignoring those that drowned in the mud or otherwise are sufficiently buried for his tastes).

It takes some twenty minutes for the you to round up the remaining kobold corpses and fill in the pit enough to be able to drive over it, by which point Frantiska and Yamtwit are far out of sight. Also by which point, the old man’s initial fright and anger towards your group seems to have abated from glaring and shouting to quietly seething and moaning about his leg.

With the kobolds disposed of, Donovan climbs up in the back of the wagon and pulls out the stack of spellbooks (his, Frantiska’s, Teldicia’s, Finnot’s, and Lyra’s notes from her mother) that he has been working with for the last few days. He flips through the books furiously as they ride towards the village, copying notes into his own. “Lyra, Teldicia,” he asks, “have you had much exposure to the arts of conjuration?”

Winona perks up at the mention of the subject. “What’s this?”

Donovan continues, “It seems to me, that, if our goal is to defend a village against a horde of kobolds. The tactical application of a few of the less common spells from the Book of Finnot—opening a gate for a number of lemures into the middle of their forces for instance—might provide us with a substantial advantage. I have some significant experience with localized protective circles. I have a theory that, with the combined magical strength of our group, we could ward the entire village with a circle of protection, thus allowing the use of the fiends in the defense of the town, while warding them without and preventing them from harming the villagers…”

Winona’s eyes light up, “Fiends from the Nine Hells are fundamentally lawful entities, despite their destructive nature. So long as you are very precise in the wording of your commands and take proper precautions, they, especially the lemures called by Finnot’s spell, could certainly be used in such a manner.” She begins expounding animatedly and at length on her own reading of Finnot’s Book, the nature lesser fiends, the nature of planar gates, laws regarding the enforcement of extra-planar contracts, the history and tactics of military uses of lemures, and various rituals for defending against extra-planar threats.

Rye looks utterly terrified by the direction of the conversation. She scurries to the front of the wagon to resume her sewing and tries not to listen to her elder sister realistically discussing the summoning and binding of devils.

Teldicia moves over and sits down by Donovan. “Rietta and I played around with ritual summoning once or twice. She was pretty into the stuff, but I could never really get past the sacrifice bit. We tried to go through a whole summoning once, but I ended up getting sick and having to bail pretty quickly when we got to the part where we had to scalp the subject and break all their limbs. I don’t know if Rietta ever got around to finishing it herself.” She hands a rolled scrap of parchment to Donovan, looking a little sheepish as she does so. “Here are her notes on the experiments. I know that it can be done alone, but is better with a group of up to six. Anyone can participate, but it must be lead by one versed in the arts. It always requires a sacrifice, but theoretically can be done cleanly, and is usually good for a couple of days, though you might have to give the entity a little leeway if you want it to stick around longer and not eat you…”

Donovan looks a little worried as he takes the scroll from Teldicia. Donovan looks at Winona, “So…How does Tyr feel about torture? I assume ritual execution for the purpose of casting spells is definitely off the table?”

Winona shrugs, “It really depends on the jurisdiction you’re in and what crime the offender committed. The Law is Tyr and Tyr is the Law, we say. The Code of New Phlan only allows for four possible modes punishment: a day in the stocks, for minor, non-violent offenses; exile by means of being thrown over the wall at night, unarmed, for most violent offenses; death by hanging for treason against the Council of Phlan; and execution, by whatever means are readily available, for violent acts committed by a monstrous native against a registered citizen of New Phlan. Hillsfar to the south has only a single mode of punishment, trial by combat in the arena, regardless of the crime. In addition, all performance of ‘Necromancy’ (which is so vaguely defined that many judges have interpreted it to mean all magic) in Hillsfar is punishable by such.”

“However…” she continues, in a fairly bored-sounding monotone, as if not particularly uninterested in the topic, “Melvaunt, in whose jurisdiction we are now or soon will be, allows for a wide range of punishments, including torture by means of a Catherine Wheel, as Teldicia described, as both a means of execution and post mortem punishment—both only in cases of aggravated murder, that is, murder committed while in the midst of another crime, or perpetrated against a family member of the accused. Firstly, the delinquent is to be placed belly down, on a cartwheel with their hands and feet bound, outstretched out along the spokes, and thus dragged by a horse to the place of execution. The wheel is then hammered onto a pole, which is then fastened upright in its other end in the ground and made to revolve slowly. A large hammer or an iron bar is then applied to the limb over the gap between the beams, breaking the bones. Twice times on each arm, one blow above the elbow, the other below. Then, each leg gets the same treatment, above and below the knees. The final ninth blow is given at the middle of the spine, so that it breaks. Then, the broken body of the accused is unbound and woven onto the wheel between the spokes. The criminal is then to be left dying ‘afloat’ on the wheel, and be left to rot. The broken man can last hours and even days, during which birds are invited peck at the helpless victim. Eventually, shock and dehydration cause death.”

She raises an eyebrow at Teldicia, “Melvaunt law does not make any specific prohibition on the use of magics of any kind, except when using in the committing of another crime. There is no reason, within the law, that the use of the condemned in the casting of such spells during the rightful execution of their sentence would not be permitted…” Ryesha and Rant both look at Winona with some distaste at the implication of her overly helpful and precise answer.

Lyra gapes, speechless at the conversation going on around her. “Unacceptable! Even if we were able to successfully protect the village from the lemures, Finnot’s work was flawed, and it can be inferred that he fell victim to his own portal at the time of completion. Nor will protective wards around the city assist the rest of the countryside in which the lemures will then be unleashed.”

“Yes, but surely between the four of us,” Donovan says looking at Winona, Lyra, and Teldicia, “we can improve upon Finnot’s flawed workings, and once the battle with the kobolds is over, the kobolds should have done sufficient harm to the lemures that dispatching the creatures should be minimally troublesome…”

Donovan tentatively opens the scroll that Teldicia handed to him and reads it quietly to himself. His eyes widen and he asks, hesitantly, “So…Winona…does Melvaunt have any laws for which the proper punishment would be having your eyes plucked out, then being hung upside down and bisected vertically while still alive?”

Winona’s face goes white and she simply shakes her head.

“Didn’t think so…” Donovan carefully rolls up the scroll and tucks it into his bag. “Let’s nix that idea…” Maybe with some additional research I can come up with something less gruesome, he thinks to himself.

“Mother’s lesson on what happens when a dimensional gateway intersects with a living body using a grapefruit was … unpleasantly enlightening.” Lyra shakes her head. “I barely approve of killing in self defense, and you would ask that of me?”

About a mile further up the road to the east, the ground finally begins to rise and dry out, entering the Moonwatch Hills. The road follows a low cleft, with the grassy hills rising on either side. The land flanking the road looks cultivated, and split-rail fences occasionally demarcate sections. The pastoral scene is less than idyllic though, as small piles of bones or stones have been set up as grave-markers along the road, and many of the fields show signs of having been burned (some recently).

The old man directs Hrud to a small dirt track veering off to the left of the road, north into the hills. “Our village is just over the second rise there,” he says pointing. He waves at a young boy of maybe nine years who crosses the path, driving a small heard of goats between pastures. The boy waves back with his crook, but keeps his other hand close to the crossbow slung across his back.

As they ride along, a thought continues to trouble Hrud. He gently picks up the hammer (so as not to startle the excitable old man), which immediately starts to glow blue, and lays it across his lap. Turning his head to where Bo sits in the wagon, he addresses the Dwarf.

“Hvor lang tid vil det tage en gruppe af Kobolds at grave et hul så stort som den ene tilbage der i vejen?”

Bo gives the barbarian a curious glance, unsure why he decides to speak Dwarvish some times and not others. “De mutts kan sikkert grave det op i en halv time, hvis de lugter noget, der interesserer dem.”

“Så det ville være muligt for dem at grave sådan et hul og ikke ses af de soldater, der patruljerer denne vej.” Hurd says, half to himself, as he turns back around and setting the hammer down.

“Ja, de er halv hund … og alle cur.”

Lyra looks around at the scorched fields and scattered gravestones. “Is this what they do even with paying tribute, or what they’ve done to encourage paying it?”

The old man nods. “A bit of both, Miss,” he says, with still a hint of anger in his voice, perhaps more directed at the kobolds than you now. “Greshlyrr and his people are far from the only raiders out here. We fought the kobos for well over a year, but they outnumbered us fifty to one. We sent word to Melvaunt for help, but it never came. Eventually all our young men were either dead, or too injured to fight back. The Knocker King said he’d let us live and keep our land if we deliver tribute. If we’re late, they come and set fire to our fields or our homes as a reminder.” He waves a hand at a clean skull resting on a pile of rocks. “The graves are mostly travelers, caught by orcs, or goblins, or other beasties less organized than the kobos. The markers are our work, we try to bury travelers that we find along the road—less likely to attract packs of dogs or vermin that way…also reminds other folks on the road to keep a lookout.”

Lyra’s eyes scan the countryside, counting markers. “Undead, packs of dogs, the kobolds … we’ve seen no shortage of examples of the need for caution on the road. Thank you. For seeing that they were taken care of.”

Fifty to one, and we’ll see how large the village is soon enough. But we’ve made it further than many.

You crest the hill to get your first glimpse of the village—some twenty-odd buildings, mostly flanking the one trail, with a small bond on your left as you ride in, and a single well at the north end of the town. The collapsed remains of at least one recently burned home are visible, and the grassy hill to the north shows signs of a sizable battle—the ground churned and dried-out mud with great scorched patches and numerous makeshift grave-markers like those seen along the road. The town seems sparsely populated, but busy, with active fields and sheep pastures to the south of the trail, and numerous people going about the tasks of daily life. You see several women, children, and elderly men, but not a single male between the ages of 12 and 45.

Lyra looks around the valley, frowning. Sight lines for archers or casters from any of the surrounding hills, which also serve to obscure any approaching forces. “Having plans to evacuate the village seems prudent. Being able to fight an army here would require holding the hilltops, and we don’t have the fortifications or manpower necessary for that. It simply isn’t defensible against archers or casters. The hills, fences, and ditches will buy us some time as they move into position.”

Lyra chews on her lower lip slightly in thought, her gaze sliding over Teldicia, Donovan, and the trio of clerics. “Given that the terrain benefits archers and casters outside the town firing in … I think I’m in favor of planning to lure them into the village and move everyone to safety elsewhere.”

As the wagon pulls to a stop in the village, Hrud hops down and makes his way over to Rant and begins to speak in earnest. After some gesturing, which include him pointing variously to the chariot on the back of the wagon, the old man, the rest of the village, and himself, Rant nods his understanding and turns to relay the message to the rest of the party.

“Hrud doesn’t want to fight an entire kobold army if it can be helped, but wonders if the kobolds will scatter should we kill their leader – perhaps by luring him to the village with the promise of this chariot as his tribute. He thinks that maybe the kobold leader will show up in person to ride it back to their home, and that we could ambush him here – that he might only bring a personal guard for protection. Those villagers unable or unwilling to fight may want to get out of here, depending on how long this will take – sending the message and waiting for their arrival. What do you think?”

Donovan look of concern and consternation returns, “Fifty to one?! We’re talking a force of thousands. We might have to resort to the summoning backup option…obviously the non-human-sacrificing version…”

Donovan sighs, “I’m all for the evacuate and ambush plan, but…” He holds up one finger, “How do we get the message to the kobold leader that he should come get the tribute himself?” He holds up another finger, “And what do we do if the kobold leader shows up with more than token protection? There are rumors that Greshlyrr employers casters and has trolls for body guards. Also, presumably he’ll want his ‘subjects’ to be present when he comes to collect the tribute…and might get suspicious if he sees an empty town.”

Ryesha climbs out of the wagon, “What if we just take the first part of that plan. When the kobolds come, hide all the animals and just give them the chariot, loaded with the other undelivered tribute, and tell them that the villagers had no way of getting the chariot that they found to Greshlyrr, and that the messenger,” she looks at the old man, “fell into one of their traps on the road.”

Donovan nods, “That might work. We’re not exactly using the chariot, and it is taking up a ton of space in the wagon…”

As Rant translates for Hrud, the barbarian’s face becomes clouded with frustration. He speaks with the cleric, who then turns to the others “Hrud asks: You want to give the ‘dog-faces’ a fancy chariot and let them go? He wants to know how this helps the village other than to buy off their oppressors for a short while. I think his fear is that the kobolds might demand more tribute from them after finding such a fine gift. If they can’t already afford to feed trolls with the pots and pans they’re collecting now, they’ll certainly have enough money to do so if they decide to sell the chariot.”

Hrud adds a few more remarks in his own tongue, after which Rant adds, “Maybe if we put it somewhere that would be difficult for them to retrieve and not leave it here in the village? We could attack them when they’re in a precarious position. Nobody forgets a chariot in a place like this, anyway.”

Donovan points at the pond, “What if we roll the chariot out into the middle—or as far out as we can get with it still being visible peaking out—of that pond. If they try to retrieve it, they’ll be up to their knees in mud, presumably, and hauling it out should take a significant amount of time and effort, during which they will be distracted.”

He points to the southern ridge, “We should put ourselves and as many villagers as we can get weapons for on that hill, it has a clean line of sight to the pond, and It looks like there is some tree cover around it that we could hide archers in. Frantiska has some spells that can turn pretty much anyone into a competent archer, and several people at that. If we have a night to prepare, I should be able to load up with enough sleep spells to drop fifty-odd kobolds, albeit not all at once. We’ve also seen that Yamtwit’s entanglements can affect a huge area. If we pin the kobold force down by the pond, so that we control the high ground, use magic to incapacitate as many as possible, and keep up as much fire as we can, we might live through such an encounter…assuming no Trolls or opposing spellcasters that is…”

Hrud’s gaze falls on the graves of what he assumes to be victims of the kobold predations upon the village. “«Does your god let you raise the dead?»” he asks Rant.

Meanwhile, back on the road with the Elf and the Goblin…

As soon as they are away from the group, Frantiska gives Thistledown free rein, allowing the horse to gallop full speed back the way they came, she is quite astonished to find the goblin’s big wolf easily keeping up with, even outpacing, her charger. After allowing the spirited filly to tire a bit, Frantiska and Yamtwit slow their mounts to a fast trot.

“Tell me, goblin,” Frantiska says once they have settled the pace a bit, “how is it that you are with us? I’m afraid I was out for quite a long time. My companions seem to accept your presence, but I’m quite surprised to see one of your kind in our company.”

Though her tone clearly indicates that if it were up to her, he would not be included, Yamtwit does not seem at all offended. “Well lady, I grew up a member of the Scabeater tribe, on the outskirts of Phlan. My tribe lived mostly in the forest outside town where we were mostly farmers—its hard to get by as a scavenger with so much competition. We were never good at it though, and most years we starved, especially with the orcs and ogres taking their cut in exchange for not pulping us. I was a sweet child, always clinging to me mudder’s legs and gnawing on my daddum’s ears. I had six brothers, Corntwit, Beantwit, Peartwit, Peatwit, Mintwit, and the youngest Nutwit, and a sister, Sasha. I liked to play stab the cat, and dangle-dongs, and skull bowling with my mates, and help out in the garden. But, like I said, we never managed to really grow much. In my twelfth winter, we were really short on food, all we had a was a few over-ripe apples and some salted lemming. A big snowstorm blew through, and we were buried in our hovel for three weeks. By the end of the second week, all that was left was nine of the lemmings—but there were ten of us. Mudder and Daddum said that us oldest got to have the lemmings, and then we’d eat Nutwit since he was little and weak. That didn’t seem such a great idea to me, I liked Nutwit, so I gave him my lemming and said that they should eat me instead as I had more meat on me. Then…”

“That’s all very fascinating,” Frantiska interjected, “but I was more wondering about how you came to be with us, specifically, not your whole life story…”

“Right, I’m getting to that.” Yamtwit continued. “Anyways, there I was, about to be eaten by Mudder and Daddum and Corntwit and Beantwit and Peartwit and Peatwit and Mintwit and Nutwit and Sasha. Oh, and me Granmudder. When all of a sudden, this stalk of wheat bursts up through the floor of our house and grows and grows until its a big old stalk of wheat, without a bit o’ scab on it, and I was like ‘Hey! Look at that stalk of wheat!’ So we ate the wheat instead, and then another grew, and another. We kept cutting them down and they kept growing, and it fed us all through the winter. When we finally got out of the snow-bank, we found that close to half the tribe had died, frozen or starved. I went to our shaman, Old Beerdunce, and told him about the wheat that had saved me from getting eaten, and he was like ’That’s some crazy shit! You should go ask a human, they’re into that.’ So I snuck into Phlan and asked Madame Esmerelda, the old gypo-lady, and she told me that wheat was the sign of Chauntea, the goddess of farming, and I was like ‘Woh! There is a god that’s into farming?!’ So I went back and told Old Beerdunce and he said that since I was the one that didn’t get eaten, that must mean that the farm goddess liked me and that I should be her priest. So I went out to our poke-field and tried praying to this Chauntea, and BOOM! Up sprouted a big old bunch of wheat, ready for harvest. So everyone decided that I was the new shaman, and Old Beerdunce became my apprentice, and we all started worshipping Chauntea. We grew so much food that we had plenty to give to the orcs when they came to pulp us, and to give to the ogres when they came wanting some—though they weren’t so much into the veggies so we started raising donkeys and pigs and worgs too—and even some left over, so I started taking it in to the town and selling it, and since everyone in town was hungry too, they would actually give us stuff in exchange for the food (rather than just not beating us), which was quite exciting. Then I learned how to make cheese and butter by refining the milk we took from our donkeys and our worgs, and it turned out that the people in Phlan would give us even more for the cheese than they would for the plants…”

“Is this going somewhere?”

“Right! So I was on my way to Phlan with another load of cheese to sell. At this point I spent most of my time hauling stuff back and forth, as I’d found that the selling stuff was lots of fun, so I let Old Beerdunce be head shaman again and left him to the growing stuff. So I was on my way to Phlan with another load of cheese to sell, and I saw your man fighting a bunch of gnashers. Mind you, Rast hates gnashers, don’t you Rast. And your oxen were running away with your wagon with the little girl in it and no one driving. So we ran and caught your wagon, and brought it back. Then we came back and found you all smashed and beat up. So I used a little of Chauntea’s magic to fix your friends, then gave Mr. Rant some butter to fix you all up. So he rubbed you down with the butter, and you were mostly better, but still asleep. Then Whitehead agreed to buy all of my cheese, at 20% over my usual retail price, and told me how you were on your way to Melvaunt to sell lots of artwork, and I was like ‘Woh! You sell stuff too?!’ So I came along, to make sure Whitehead didn’t get scammed by the people buying his art they way he did when he bought my cheese…”

At the mention of ‘rubbed you down with butter’, Frantiska’s face goes completely white, her mouth becomes a hard line, and she kicks Thistledown back into a full gallop. When Yamtwit catches up, she slows again, and looks down at him briefly, “Thank you…” she says through clenched teeth.

Less than an hour after leaving the wagon, the two ride into the courtyard of Iniarv’s Tower at full speed and quickly describe the events with the old man and the kobolds to Sir Justin and his men.

A page leads Frantiska and Yamtwit to the third floor of the tower where Sir Justin has his offices. Sir Justin waits patiently while Frantiska describes the situation. “I’m afraid that we have our own duties and only a small garrison,” he says, “but I can spare one patrol to aid the village, and I will send a rider to Phlan, though the Council has not previously been willing to spare any of their soldiery for defending outlying settlements.” He waves to a heavily-armored priests who has been waiting just outside the door in the chapel. “Watcher. Please assemble a standard patrol immediately to accompany the Lady Frantiska to the west. You are to stand guard over the village until such time as the kobold threat has passed, or you are relieved by official militias from either Phlan or Melvaunt.”

The priest bows, utters a “Yes Sir!”, and clanks down the stairs to assemble his men.

“We will increase patrols on the eastern road,” Sir Justin continues. “Watcher Benjamin should have the patrol assembled shortly. May Helm’s eye watch over you in this endeavor.”

Frantiska thanks Sir Justin, then hurries down the stairs and outside to make sure that Thistledown is ready for another hard ride.

Yamtwit makes a stop back by the kitchen to chat with the cook some more before they ride out.

Roughly ten minutes after Frantiska and Yamtwit step outside the priest and four soldiers are armed, mounted, and waiting by the gates. Another, less heavily armored rider goes racing out of the gates past them and up the road towards Phlan to the west.

Five more men does not seem like much when faced with such hordes, Frantiska thinks, but they will have to do. She spurs Thistledown out of the gates ahead of the Watcher and his men. “Come on Yamtwit, we’ve got a good ten more miles to cover today, and a village to save…”

Yamtwit climbs on Rast and pats the wolf affectionately, «Sorry Rast, I know this has been a lot of riding, I’ll make sure to fix you a proper supper when we get to the village.»
«You better» the wolf growls.

Flashbacks: Ourevel: Part 5

Yet another vignette concerning the nature and life of Ourevel the Lustful:

An Announcement:

Over the days, weeks, and months that intervene, visions of the sacred heart, the blossoms, and the child intercessor appear in all the brothels, festhalls, and houses of ill repute in Selene, bearing the message of the fall of Merciless Tzaluth, the tale of his birth to a temple prostitute, of the inherent holiness of all whores, and of his replacement by a loving mother-goddess who holds their profession sacred. Gifts of the finest garments, scents, sweet-meats, fruits, wine, and bedclothes appear heaped in their common rooms to be distributed, always accompanied by a single blossoming young apple tree hung with silver coins stamped with an all-too-familiar glyph. Tied to each tree is the same note, repeated in every language, written in blood, and smelling of apple-blossoms:

Know that I am Love. These gifts are yours that your work may prosper and be fulfilled. Know that as St. Elena, the mother of Lord Tzaluth was holy, so you, my daughters, are also holy, as are all who partake in your work of love. The Lord Tzaluth was our child, conceived in love, but there was no love in him. For this, it was our duty to destroy him, for Love bears up against a host of evils. The merciless child is slain and Love reigns in his place. You, my daughters, I task with showing our love to the people. Remembers that Love trusts all, protects all, and above all, Love Hopes. Have hope for the future my daughters. Do not despair for a new world is coming, where people will be free to live and love as they should, free from the terrors and suffering of this one. I ask you to show them how it will be to live in this coming world. Teach them the freedom of Love. Love freely and live freely.

Know that Love provides for you always, you shall never be in want. As you receive freely, so Love asks you to freely give. On this next 14th of Februarius, let there be the first of many celebrations to the freedom of the people!"


A Tryst in Limbo:

Smashing kegs, drunken pixies, and again, the howling of the wind. Wind it seemed had become her lot in life. Lust screamed in agony and exultation as the harpy's claws bit into her back and her own small teeth found purchase at the lillend's beutiful waist, blood raining down on the revelers below.

Amidst the chaos, the blood, the violent passions, Love realizes that these two are also his children, bound to one another by bonds as strong as any more traditional couple. Reaching into their minds he greets them with the image of their six-armed seductress, entwined about an apple tree...

"Sisters...Beloved...You have heard of the world that is coming..."

Slowly, the rich voice of the Harpy blends with the high, clear soprano of the Lillend, as they hear the tune, first so faint, and then stronger, with a pulse like a racing heart.

"I begin to sing of rich-haired Love, awful Goddess /
Of her and her trim-ankled daughter, whom Chronos rapt away /
Given to him by all-seeing Tzaluth, the loud-thunderer /
Apart from Love, lady of the golden sword and glorious fruits.
I will sing of well-founded Love /
Mother of all, eldest of all beings /
She feeds all creatures that are in the world, all that go upon the goodly land /
And all that are in the paths of the seas, and all that fly: all these are fed of her store. /
Through you, O Queen, men are blessed in their children, and blessed in their harvests /
And to you it belongs to give means of life to mortal men -- and to take it away."


All Are Welcome:

The tavern was loud and boisterous and the women were free and easy, as they all had been since their return to Holy Selene. Miltiades San Demaine of the Ordo Apostolic had been told to expect a bloody fight for the city. He was pleasantly relieved when the doors were swung wide and they were all invited in as heroes. After the crusades, it was a welcome respite to get to spend his coin on wine...and not have to spend it on the women.

There was something about this city. Something he couldn't put his finger on. Maybe it was the fact that all the whores were free. Maybe it was the fact that there was more apple-jack to be had than wine. Maybe it was the interesting broadsheets lying on the counters in most of the shops, all of them on high-falutin' academic topics that he felt he should understand but somehow couldn't. Really, he thought it was the fact that, for once, all the Orders were getting along. Just last night he had been out drinking with an Ignatian, a Malleus, and an Episcopal.

He took another deep drink of his apple wine. Yeah, he thought to himself, he was definitely starting to love this city.

And it came to pass on the first day of the week, that the Lady Rose stood up on the steps of the Great Cathedral of Tzaluth in the midst of the people gathered for the celebration of the return of the heroes of the Lord's Crusade against the heretics of Messian and read aloud from the books of the prophecies of our Lord.

"Seventy weeks are determined
For your people and for your holy city,
To finish the transgression,
To make an end of sins,
To make reconciliation for iniquity,
To bring in everlasting righteousness,
To seal up vision and prophecy,
And to anoint the Most Holy.
Know therefore and understand,
That from the going forth of the command
To restore and build Holy Selene
Until Love the Prince,
There shall be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks;
The street shall be built again, and the wall,
Even in troublesome times."
The people cheered and marveled at her reading, but she read on.

"And after the sixty-two weeks
Love shall be cut off, but not for Himself;
And the people of the prince who is to come
Shall destroy the city and the sanctuary.
The end of it shall be with a flood,
And till the end of the war desolations are determined.
Then he shall confirm a covenant with many for one week;
But in the middle of the week
He shall bring an end to sacrifice and offering.
And on the wing of abominations shall be one who makes desolate,
Even until the consummation, which is determined,
Is poured out on the desolate.”
The cheering stopped, and as Rose put down the scroll she stared out into a sea of silent faces, local and crusader alike. "People of Selene!" She decried. "I declare to you this day, that this prophecy has come to pass. Lord Love is slain and in seven days this world will be unmade. Even now Famine, the Abomination of Desolation rides forth to bring ruin and gather its kindred. But, even in death, Lord Love, the true anointed of Tzaluth is not defeated. He offers covenant and reconciliation to all those who wish good will for their fellows, and a home in the new world that is to come."

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

To Cage the Mind

Wow, 100 posts, let's post something a little different for this one, how about something about myself other than my gaming habits. My son's favorite dinner-table conversation starter is "Daddy, tell me a story about when you were <insert randomly generated age here>". This is a thing I wrote a few years ago (the year he was born actually) that tries to explain, to myself as much as anyone else, why such stories are hard to come by. The narrative, if such it is, stops c. 2010, so many details around the end have since changed drastically, but the core principles, such as I can verify, are close enough to the truth...maybe...

An Attempted Exploration of the History Of...Myself

This is a work of non-fiction, with the exception of sections clearly labeled as fictional; the characters featured in this story are completely real. Any resemblance to any fictional contrivance, amusing or otherwise is purely coincidental. No similarity to any mythical, magical, heroic, or super-heroic being either living or dead is intended or should be inferred. 

To set my life into chronological order might be considered an impossible task, as it is a chaotic amalgam of that which has happened, that which might have happened, and that which would have happened were it not for one specific event. To all three of these possibilities, the mind assigns the equal weight of fact. Thus we are left with shadows, mists, and hearsay. Not even the witnesses of the events of our life can rightly say what truly happened or when, until the veil of deceit was lifted and our life began anew. Still, we shall attempt to piece together a narrative from what we perceive as the beginning.

It all started when I was five, though some would say four, and still others seven, and the debate about the time is quite heated I assure you, but we shall say five for this story. At the age of five I fell down a flight of steps. I was running. My sister claims I was racing her. All I recall is a pile of laundry, a turn of the head. We were having pizza, or tacos, or donuts, and dinner, or breakfast, was ready. I tripped, or was I pushed? Regardless of the circumstances, I fell down a flight of steps and cracked open my skull. I was rushed to the emergency room. A few stitches, a few questions, a few blinks of the eyes, and I was released.

Before this accident I had been brilliant, inquisitive, and nearly diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I had boxes of toys: neat, orderly, toys. My GI-Joes were arranged in order of rank. My LEGOs were sorted into bins by color and size. Everything had to be stacked perfectly in the closet before I went to sleep at night. On Sundays and Wednesdays I would allow my parents to dress me in nothing other than a suit for attending church, or else I would throw a tantrum. I would shake and panic if there was dirt on my hands. After I fell it all simply went away. I was no less brilliant or inquisitive, but the need for extremities of order in my life abated. I was . . . cured. No one noticed.

The next years, up through high-school, become a blur of motion and memory. We moved and moved again. I was in many different schools, always excelling, always liked by my peers, but always feeling distant from everyone around me. Only recently was I able to articulate the particulars of my childhood mindset. It occurred while reading Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card with my wife. In the fifth chapter, the child Bean is leaving for school and is confronted by his caretaker, Sister Carlotta, and her need to, as he perceives it, “pretend that Bean loves me.” Bean, in a purely logical manner weighs the pros and cons of allowing the woman who raised him to give him a hug, and decides that the illusion of affection was a fair exchange for the food, shelter, and education she had given him.

At the age of twenty-six I discovered that I could not feel emotion. More specifically I learned that I had not felt emotions since the accident when I was a child. Twenty years had passed and no one had noticed. My new wife, whom I had been dating since I was fifteen and to whom I had been engaged since I was nineteen, had started to suspect the nature of the illusion that had surrounded me my whole life, but not even my parents believed. Even when I showed them a picture of my brain they did not want to accept that I had so completely deceived them.

In high-school I began to become aware that I was different. As a child, people expect less from you I guess, and thus you can deceive even yourself. After I started dating my future wife, I slowly began to realize that I was truly something different, something special I thought. For starters, I never got angry, could not get angry. I was impervious to any amount of insult to myself or our relationship, never acknowledging the individuals involved, believing myself to be supremely self-controlled. Also, I could not feel fear, and would throw myself into all manner of dangerous situations, from being flung from the roof of a car, suffering severe lacerations, to jumping headfirst into fights for the fun of it, suffering numerous broken bones. My various exploits and calm demeanor somehow earned me an even greater reputation among my peers, further feeding my growing narcissism.

It was late in high-school that I hallucinated for the first time. I was running, again. This was not unusual. What was unusual was that everyone else seemed to be moving so much slower than me. I sprinted through the hallways and had the feeling that time seemed to stop. As I neared solid objects they took on a sparkling, wavering quality. As I neared people, they looked two-dimensional and the closer I got, the slower they moved relative to me, until they appeared to stop moving altogether. There is a time in every boy’s life, I think, when they imagine they have super-powers. I was one of the few who actually saw his in action.
These ‘powers’ grew in strength too, until, my first year of college, time broke. I have no clearer way to describe what happened. One day I woke up. Eleven days later I found myself asleep in another state. For eleven days I did not sleep, and barely ate. The days blurred into a single mass of time. What others considered night I spent running around the streets of the city, aimless, staring at lights. At one point I found myself in a classroom having carried a dead pigeon back with me and put it in a cage on my desk which I had constructed by hand from trash I had found on the street. By the end of those eleven days I was crying in a ball on the floor of my future wife's dorm room two states away. By the end of those eleven days, I knew that I was insane.

Before the age of twenty-six I had never heard of such things as the medial temporal lobe or the superchiasmatic nucleus, I had never heard of seizures of any kind other than the ones that made people fall down on the ground twitching, and I certainly never would have thought that something that happened around the age of five would dramatically impact my entire life. I had, however, read a lot about psychological and psychiatric disorders. I was in college, covered by the university health plan, and convinced that I was going mad. Armed with this assertion, I went to the university hospital and asked to be committed to the mental ward.

I was summarily turned away after a few quick tests. While they were quite prepared to diagnose my narcissistic tendencies, the residents and student physicians were not prepared to deal with my claims to memory blackouts, hallucinations, and ‘dissociative episodes’. I was sent in for several drug screenings to prove that I was not experimenting with anything, followed by some overnight observations and an EEG (Electroencephalograph), which involved having lots of electrodes attached to my head and lights flashed in my eyes. In the end of their short inquiry, their diagnosis could be summed up by one short phrase written in their records which I still have – “try not to be such an asshole.”

Finally, after six years of struggling with weeks of sleeplessness, lost days with no recollection of what happened, and death-defying sense of superiority driving me to scale cliffs, drive at reckless speeds, and eat lethally poisonous plants, I quit school. During a visit to Alysha at her graduate school during that last year, I set up meeting with a neuropsychologist named Nadia Webb, who made me a list of all the possible things that could be wrong with me and what tests were needed to diagnose them or rule them out. So, I quit school, I got married, I moved to Virginia, and I took control of my own medical testing.

It seems odd to claim bleeding as a skill, but I am a highly talented bleeder. During those first six years of college the sale of my plasma twice a week kept me fed and clothed. My veins were easy to find, I had no fear of needles, and type O-negative was always in high demand. This ‘training’ in no way prepared me for the track marks I would have in my arms after just a few months getting extensive blood work done on a weekly basis. After six months I returned to Nadia with a pile of test results and a tendency to refer to doctors as ‘vampires.’ Nadia looked over everything I gave her, and gave me two things in return: a significantly shorter list of possibilities, and a referral to a neurologist. What she did not provide me with were any kind of reassurance, her short list contained the following: schizophrenia, an extremely rare type of seizure, or a brain tumor. Never in my life did I expect I’d be hoping I was schizophrenic.

Five years before I was born, Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield saved my marriage. My wife reminds me that Dr. Raymond Vahan Damadian also saved my marriage, or perhaps instead, but for some reason he was not included on the Nobel Prize they won in 2003 for their work. These three are credited with developing Magnetic Resonance Imaging technology, which, among its many other wondrous uses in modern medicine, allowed the cheerful, sprite-like Dr. Gregory O’Shannick to get a very clear picture of my brain. A brain, which, it turns out, had a significant piece missing.

Which brings us back to the beginning; when it all started; when I fell, in the 1980s in West Virginia, MRIs were not readily available. A quick blow to the head, and my life for 20 years became a whirling vortex of chaos. One clear picture, of an irregularly shaped piece of scar tissue, not much larger than a jelly-bean in total volume, slightly overlapping portions of my amygdala and temporal lobe, and my life made sense. Doctor O’Shannick confirmed what Nadia had predicted, that I had temporal lobe seizures; seizures which could be treated fairly easily -- with some extremely expensive medicine.

While all this was going on, the tests, the confusion, and the eventual diagnosis, one other important event occurred, one that, in retrospect now, I might owe much of my existence as a sane, functional human being to. In February of 2007, against all reason, highly under-qualified, and forewarned that I had an undiagnosed mental disorder of some kind, Rosetta Stone hired me. More importantly they hired me on full time, with benefits, which included very good health insurance with an amazingly low co-pay for prescription medication. Thanks to unlikely employment and the wonders of modern chemistry, within three months of being diagnosed, I was functionally cured. That is to say I was asymptomatic as long as I took my pills.
Which brings us to the relative present, a time in which time reasserts its dominance as a linear force, light reenters the world (such that I can look at without having to take more seizure medication), I can once again remember things, and for the first time ever can feel emotion. I would like to say that my new life as a thinking, feeling human being began the day I was married, but in reality it began the day I started my medicine, which more closely relates to when I started work. Thus, the rest of our story is about that which has become our home, the strange place that hired an admitted madman with no prior programming skills to work in their software development department. The present is filled with the strange people that accepted me for what I was, taught me their trade, helped me learn to function with a brain that works a little differently than it used to, and kindly remind me to take my pills whenever I get that crazed look in my eye.

It was a warm February, Rosetta Stone was at the height of development for their upcoming Version 3 product, codename “Dogwalk”, they had a lot of job openings listed, and they must have been desperate. That is the only reason I can imagine that they would give a second glance to a resume that looked more like a Dungeons and Dragons character sheet and described the merits of a dropout from a landscape architecture degree program submitted for one of their Software Quality Assurance Analyst positions. Whether from desperation or some other unknowable thought process, they granted me an interview, listened to me explain in answer to questions about my experience with Windows and Macs that I had only ever used Debian Linux with any real regularity, and somehow gave me a job.

Prior to working at Rosetta Stone I had never maintained a job for long, often simply forgetting that I was even employed. My previous work had covered a wide range of odd jobs, often by employers who also might be described as desperate: renovating and restoring a historic Victorian era house for a professor who had severely injured his hand, wrangling dogs for a clinic giving out free rabies vaccinations when an outbreak occurred, and later running x-ray machines and assisting with surgeries for a kindly, but less-then reputable veterinarian who could not afford to pay properly trained and licensed technicians. My time working in Quality Assurance for Rosetta Stone was no less short-lived.

On February 12th I began work, sitting down in front of a bank of computers and being asked to ‘break’ the company’s new Japanese e-commerce website by any means possible. I had a lot of fun with this. The regularity of going to work every day, with a set schedule, a clear task, and a comfortably quiet and lightless environment (the best thing about programmers is that even the healthy ones like to work in the dark) was very calming. By the end of the first few weeks though, I noticed that those of us doing the testing were not working as efficiently as we could. I brought in a giant whiteboard and hung it on the wall. I bought color-coded stickers and magnets. The other testers looked at me like I was crazy. My manager thought I was a genius. By the end of the March, we had doubled the number of bugs we were finding (though in retrospect I’m not sure if it was related to any process changes or to my insomnia and tendency to work from home at 3am).

Shortly into April I was asked to leave the test lab where I was working and move to the Research and Development team to take over a new project that they were finishing and help transition it into over to the QA group. There was an awkward series of conversations where I tried to argue that I was crazy and my brain didn’t work and I might not be the best person to be in charge of something, but I was kicked into an ownership role and out of the land of testing. I spent the next few months working with the pair of PHD computer scientists who were the ‘Labs’ team, who tried to explain the nuances of things like database management, file-systems, network protocols, and encryption algorithms to me, while I wrote furiously in the piles of notebooks I carried with me. By the end of May, project “Dogwalk” was in full swing with an August ship date, I had learned the rudiments of programming in Perl, and I found myself the somewhat proud and sole owner of cluster of 10 computers dedicated to running an extremely CPU intensive process of pulling all of our language content and the associated picture and sound assets out of the database where they were stored, encrypting them to protect against theft of our intellectual property, and then turn them into swf objects readable by Adobe’s Flash player. Thus was born Rosetta Stone’s “Data Production Department.”

It’s at this point I should probably reiterate that other than being a typical, casual geek, and liking Linux because it was free, I didn’t know anything special about computers before I was hired and had never written a line of code or taken any programming classes in my life. At the beginning of June I found myself suddenly without a manager, in charge of my own team (which consisted only of myself), and tasked with managing this process for turning all of our content into something usable by our software. Conveniently, June also finally presented me with my diagnosis and medication as well.

By the end of July, I had it all worked out. Using my one real talent of looking things up on the Internet, I got the systems administrators to teach me how to set up my own subversion repository and ticketing system, and wrote a pile of what is recognized as some of the ugliest, but still functional, Perl scripts Rosetta Stone had ever seen. It was during this time that I met Dave Dumler, a product manager and someone who shared my obsessive tendency to document things and love of whiteboards. Two years later we would share a common office, lit only by lava lamps, decorated with skulls and live orchids, and blasting with heavy metal music, but for the time we shared a common panic as the ship date for Dogwalk approached. Finally we did. Ship that is.

After the initial panic of Dogwalk, I was once again integrated into the management structure. Chris Karas, the directory of our internal tools group, found my “team” (as everyone insisted on jokingly calling me) and insisted that I reported to him. No one complained. With the first ten language of Version 3 out in the market, the company settled into a routine of making small incremental improvements to the V3 application and translating new languages to work with it. This gave Chris and me time to figure out just what “Data Production” did, other than produce data that is. I had already automated most of the processes I worked with, but many of them took 24 hours or more and consumed entire banks of computers to complete. Chris decided that my efforts should focus, foremost, on researching ways to optimize those.

By the same time the next year the tools team and I had reduced the original content generation process that could take upwards of 48 hours to a consistent 2 hours, and I had solidified my reputation as having a keen eye for inefficiency wherever it raised its ugly head, whether in hardware, code, or human processes. More importantly the rest of my life started to settle into a routine, much different from the life I had experienced before. After a few months of experimenting with dosages and timing, Dr. O’Shannick and I got my medication to the point where I was experiencing none of the symptoms of my injury on a day to day basis. Also, in finally learning what was wrong, I learned what behaviors and situations to avoid to keep from aggravating my condition. So, aside from wearing sunglasses almost constantly (sunlight and fluorescents), and shying away from cameras (flashes), and night driving (red tail-lights), I was finally able to lead a normal life.

Time moves forward, now, at a constant pace, unlike the erratic starts and stops of before. I go to work each day, sometimes tired or stressed from a sleepless night -- though those are becoming rarer – generally looking forward to the new challenges being thrown at me and the small team Dave and I have built up over the intervening space since that first panicked launch. I have my own home by a river, complete with a mortgage, plenty of renovations to make, several ducks and chickens to take care of, and a rather unhinged cat that likes to chase our neighbor’s cattle. I have friends, and can recognize that relationship and what it means for perhaps the first time in my life, and at home Alysha and I just welcomed our first child. There is, thus, a sense of wholeness that has emerged in these last few years. It feels as if I’ve been given a second chance at existence and I’m just starting to become comfortable in this new mind I’ve been given. Still, it does move forward.