Icewind Dale: Swearing an Oath

Crow stared into the fire and reflected on the day. He was a tall man, lean and wiry, muscular but not musclebound. His yellow eyes reflected the fire, which warmed his skin from its usual pallor. He would have liked to blame his complexion on the year without sun up here in the ass end of the Forgotten Realms. He scoffed to think about it. Forgotten. He’d never thought about Toril growing up, and only the vagaries of Fate had brought him here. Fate… and those damned creatures.

He sat in the common room of the inn, Buried Treasures, in the town of Bremen; one of the Ten Towns of Icewind Dale. He and one other were on watch. That other was a pale skinned dwarf, bald with tattoos on his head, and a bound beard. Skinny for a dwarf, but still huskier than a human of the same proportions would be. He knew the dwarf’s secret, but he and Ripper Cobb had worked out an understanding. They were on watch together, whiling away the middle hours of the night, the Iron Watch. The one that began with the Witching Hour.

It had been a rough day, to say the least. Burying the Fairedylns in their basement, swearing quietly while the wizard pretended not to hear. The taste of the words had hung on his lips. There was something holy about them. They were words he had sworn before, but somehow they had more weight.

Waiting, the boring waiting, the less… scary… members of the party tried to entertain the children.

The children, no, the orphans… gods. His own history played in gory detail behind his eyes. How many orphans were his fault?

And then the meeting. The White Druid and the tiefling spellcaster. Avarice was her name. They’d talked it out, decided that when the druid left they would take down the tiefling. She had been in charge of the bloody pumpkins. She was somehow part of the White Rat network.

That made the White Druid “number 15”. They had charged out, engaged the witch in combat, and then the fire. Flames eating at his skull, burning his flesh. Then darkness, for just a moment.

But in that moment. That feeling, when the blackness had claimed him… something inside… moving…

But the light, that gentle warmth that pulled him back. Warmth he had not felt since his home. And the girl was the source. Her face and her hair danced in his memory. So much like Xylomena. She could be a spitting image. But she could not be a reincarnation. Xylomena was only dead this last year, and the girl, Lumikki, had a much longer life than that.

Crow listened once more to the quiet of the night. The moose call had not repeated itself, but he was certain it was the White Druid’s moose. There was awareness in that thing. Similar to the poor White Rat. He chuckled.

“What are you laughing at?” The dwarf’s drawl, so different than the ones here from Kelvin’s Cairn.

“Just the symmetry of it. The moose, the druid, the rat. All white.”

“Hrm,” Ripper grunted.

Crow’s face itched, the left side, the one facing the witch’s spell.

“Time for another round. How long until we wake Zal and… Mal. Gods, they’d kill me if I said that out loud.”

“One might try,” Ripper laughed.

“Which one?”

“Money’s on the barbarian.”

Crow nodded.

“So the glass says half a bell,” said Ripper.

“Time for one more walk. I’ll be back.” Crow suited action to word and levered his lean frame up out of the chair. He prowled through the lower level of the inn, through the quiet and cold rooms, disturbing only a small mouse as he moved through the area. A pause by the rooms of the inn’s owners to hear quiet snoring. The matronly Cora seemed to be sleeping fitfully. He wondered briefly what the connection to the hag, the witch, and the supposed “black ice” that had been mentioned earlier. How much could he believe that story, if at all? Still, the woman was kind to them, and seemed to be almost a mother to Nikolai and Lumikki, and if the girl was going to trust this woman, Crow decided that he would too.

“What are you doing?” he muttered to himself. Xylomena was dead, and there was nothing he could do about it, except find her and kill her. He’d seen what she’d become. Nothing of who she had been was left.

And you’re next, his darkest fears taunted him.

With a quiet snarl Crow returned from his patrol of the lower level. Back in the common room he took a look at the dwarf again. A strange comrade, but Zak vouched for him. Why and how would have to be a future question, if any of them made it that far. Ripper Cobb was studying his hand, holding it up toward the fire, seemingly mystified by its appearance. It wasn’t the weirdest behavior Crow had ever witnessed in an arcanist.

At the foot of the stairs, Crow shucked his heavy boots, and went up. The heavy soles would cause him to clunk back and forth and maybe wake everyone else. He moved slowly through the halls, mouth slightly open and breathing deeply and slowly. First past Zalefrax and Malser’s room. The strange man was some kind of spellcaster. His sword was uncanny, to say the least, gilt and beautiful.

The barbarian was snoring softly. Another strange man. He had none of the tattoos common amongst the Elk tribe that Crow knew, his age indeterminate. He seemed eager for the fight, at least.

Next past Lumikki and Nikolai’s room. He heard one of the wolves shift to the door and snuffle at its base as he passed. Apparently his scent was acceptable, for the wolf yawned and lay down again, its bulk pushing against the door.

All quiet.

He returned to the common area and sat with Ripper for the next half hour. Eventually their watch concluded. They moved upstairs. Cobb retreated to the room while Crow opened Malcer and Zalefrax’s door. He cautiously woke Zalefrax, who was sleeping on his side, cradling his exotic sword like a lover. The human’s eyes snapped open and he locked eyes with Crow. Yellow eyes met yellow, and Crow felt a little of his soul stir. Something in those eyes unsettled him.

The spellcaster came awake without any of the usual sluggishness that most people had. The transition to from fully asleep to fully awake happened instantly, as though he had not been sleeping. “Time for watch?”

“Aye. Nothing happened for ours, just that damn elk squalled a few times. Could mean the that white druid is at it.”

Zalefrax considered Crows words for a moment, but nodded. “I’ll get him up,” the spellcaster nodded toward the gently snoring warrior.

Crow nodded, then left for his shared room. Cobb was already asleep, or whatever passed for sleep with the dwarf. Relaxed, he seemed… very still. Crow stared at him for a few moments, then shucked his boots and took off his armor.

“Ye look like a chicken without a head when you do that,” the dwarf mumbled. Crow growled and shook off the chainmail. He lay down on the straw mattress and pulled over the heavy furs. Three more hours of sleep. Maybe some rest would come of it.

He lay there, eyes closed, shifting every now and then, but sleep was elusive. Positive memories, maybe that would do the trick? Did he have any positive memories anymore? No, not really. Every time he thought of Xylomena he thought about the thing she had become.

“It’s your fault,” whispered a voice in his head.

Go away, Sathiel, he thought back. The presence retreated.

Sleep finally came over him. As the blanket of blackness closed in he felt it, almost dreaded it. Then he was out.


Then he wasn’t in his bed anymore. Soft, gray light without source surrounded him. At first Crow thought he was floating, but then details started to filter in. There was a stone floor under his feet; old, old cobbles, ancient grout made of ages upon ages of wear. The stones were smooth, worn under countless feet. Walls were next. They rose out of the gray light, but they didn’t move. They were there, and had always been. In front of him now was a wall, and two bonfires flanking a dais. An empty throne topped the dais.

White banners hung from the walls flanking the throne, only they weren’t banners, he realized. They were scrolls; scrolls with names on them. So many names… Hundreds, thousands… tens of thousands? He could not count them all.

“You are summoned, Son of Noldovir.” Two figures now stood in front of the empty throne, both dressed in dark plate armor. One male, one female. It was the woman that spoke.

She appraised him frankly, without rancor. Her hair was bound tightly behind her head, iron grey with streaks of silver, but still thick. She stood tall and proud, perhaps more so than her companion, and though her face was lined with age, her eyes carried the weight of experience. Here was a being that had stood her tests, faced her trials, and came out the other side with confidence enough to move mountains.

“How do you know my name?” asked Crow. He had not heard his surname in quite some time.

“Cormorant Noldovir, third son of Neris and Dasorin, from the island of Vedrian, on the planet Coliar. I am Lord Doomwarden Alcon Vex. I speak to you in a dream, as there is presently no way for me to get to you physically.”

Doomwardens! Hoar’s name had come to his lips readily, his pledges had been said in his heart. A divinity that seemed to desire what he desired: vengeance, justice, retribution… but how had he attracted their attention here, of all places. The Ten Towns were about as far removed as it was possible to get from anywhere on Faerun.

Vex turned up the corner of her lip in a smirk. “Your lips to Hoar’s ears, his wish on feathered wings to mine. I can see you have your own guide standing somewhere there, but she can’t interfere with this. Know then that Hoar has heard your prayers, and taken measure of your oath, but most especially he has noticed your willingness to die to see vengeance delivered. Your actions against the wizard this day cemented the decision of the Doombringer. Do you know who we are?”

“Knights of Hoar, carrying vengeance to the wicked.”

“Punishing those who do wrong. We are less concerned with the niceties than those spotless fools who bow and scrape to Tyr. We are not the arbiters of the law, we are its executioners.”

“And you know of those who have wronged me, whom I am pledged to destroy?”

“I do. I also know that you fear they have wounded you deeper than you know. Know then that your fears have merit. But then, you already knew that, or so I was told.” She paced a little and then turned to look at

Crow again. “I like what I see, I like what I have heard. You stood down a creature that by all rights was the death of you, but you have also shirked your duty in the past.”

Crow winced, then nodded. “And I was punished for it as well,” he admitted. Sachiel’s words of condemnation hung in his heart.

“The light has abandoned you, and your darkness reigns instead. But I can use that. Embrace it, Cormorant Noldovir. Feel that despair and turn that into rage, fury. That fury will burn away your foes, reduce them to ash, and dispense Vengeance where it is most sorely needed.”

He had already experienced this, and the power had been growing. More and more with each passing day until it almost felt to him that… something… something would come bursting out of him if he just let it. The thought scared him, yes, but it also excited him.

“I hear you, Doomwarden,” he replied, bowing his head to show his acquiescence to her advice.

She nodded and stepped back in front of him. To her left side, the man who had made the journey with her moved up toward the both, taking a position to her left, Crow’s right. He had a massive sword at his hip, far too large to be a longsword, sized more for a two-handed grip. Its crossguard was, now that he looked at it, remarkably ornate. As he looked into the man’s eyes he realized that he couldn’t really see the face. His eyes wouldn’t focus.

“Will you accept this invitation to join the ranks of the Doomwardens, fallen one?” Alcon Vex asked. Her words snapped his attention back to her. She intoned the words with great solemnity, an oath she had delivered many times before.

“I swear,” Crow said, feeling something stir within him, an excitement that grew.

“Will you be forthright and direct? When given the choice between two foes will you always fight the greater evil?”

“I swear so.” The stirring took on greater energy in his mind’s eye, but also the eyes of the man next to him seemed to gain a glow.

“Will you forswear mercy for the wicked, and never swerve from your duty to deliver vengeance to your sworn enemies?” Alcon’s head tilted up, and a fervor or zeal showed in her own eyes.

“I swear,” Crow replied. The knight to his right inhaled sharply, his left hand tightly gripping the sword at his belt.

“Do you swear to set aside your qualms and do whatever is necessary to exterminate your foes?”

Crow’s knuckles popped as he clenched his fist. “I so swear, enthusiastically,”

Alcon smiled a bitter, wintry smile at that response. The male knight’s presence increased yet again.

“When you foes wreck ruin upon the world, it is because you failed to stop them. Do you swear to help those harmed by the unjust, and the betrayers?”

“With all my heart, I swear so.”

The energy writhing in his mind popped, and he shuddered as it left raised hairs all across his body. The male knight breathed out a drawn out and ecstatic, “Yes,” and Crow felt what he could only imagine to be a bond between himself and the being, and the High Doomwarden.

Vex stepped to the side and the other knight took her place. When Crow looked on him now he saw the hint of great feathered wings beating at his back, emerald skin, and eyes of gold. “I am Thareniel, Warden of Hoar, Messenger of Vengeance. My voice carries doom to the wicked, succor to the injured, and death to betrayers. You have sealed yourself to the will of Hoar, aasimar. Break these oaths at your peril.”

Crow stood frozen under the weight of the angel’s judgement. Such power as he could scarcely have imagined washed over him, rooting him to his place in the dream. The sword was out now, springing from its scabbard with a high pitched ring that pierced Crow’s ears. The angel placed the sword first on Crow’s left shoulder, then on his right.

“You have taken your oath, and with your oath been made new in the eyes of Hoar’s Wrath.”

In a blinding flash the creature backhanded Crow across the mouth. Searing pain flared in his jaw and he collapsed to the ground. He groaned in agony, but pushed through the pain and looked up at the creature, anger flaring in his eyes and soul.

Joy suffused the angel’s essence, a white smile that looked as though the sun was rising split his face. “Good! That is the last blow you are obliged to suffer. None now have the right to strike you, ever again. Rise anew, paladin of Hoar.”

The High Doomwarden reached out her hand to his. Crow accepted the grip and with her aid rose to his feet.

Vex smiled at him, cold and fierce. “Rise anew, Doomwarden.”

SoL 1-2

“A story?” he repeated. She nodded. “And some food?” She nodded again, looking up to meet his eyes. She had the look of a puppy, almost, and it hurt his heart to consider turning her away.

Uallas shook his head slightly. Something about her prickled his senses, but everything he saw said otherwise. She was just a waifish girl, probably not more than fifteen years old, who had spent a very large amount of her life outside. Like him, she had simple shoes on her feet, the kind that would wrap around the toes and heels to keep the feet somewhat safe. In cold weather they could be stuffed with grass for insulation. She had a woolen wrap that made up the largest part of clothing he could see, and loose trousers that went down to her mid calf. She was slender, and almost seemed to shiver in the uncertain evening light.

“Well, it’s bad luck to turn away someone from your fire, especially if they ask,” he finally said.

She grinned at him and bounced a couple of times. He stepped back over to the fire stood for a moment, looking over the flock before he squatted down. Sealgair moved with him and settled nearby.

Miri stepped over to the fire opposite Uallas and Sealgair and sat down, crossing her legs, meeting his eyes from across the embers. In the red glow of the embers and the subtle light of the Eye her face seemed to glow as she waited.

“You know, first meetings by the light of the Eye aren’t always supposed to be the best,” he said.

She frowned and waved a hand dismissively. “Silly superstitions,” she said.

He shrugged. He generally believed that one. No one he’d ever met by Eyelight had been particularly nice. So far she seemed to be breaking the pattern, so Uallas felt somewhat relieved. Besides, Sealgair liked her. A lot. Dogs were great judges of character. He nodded and relaxed more surely.

“Food will be a little bit, it’s still warming up.”

“Sure, I don’t want to impose too much, I can wait.” She folded her hands in her lap, but as if on cue there came a small gurgle from her side of the fire as her stomach protested the wait. Her face fell and Uallas chuckled.

“It’s okay, it’ll come soon enough.”

She smiled brightly and briefly. Uallas dug in his pack for a bit of dried meat he had left over. Sealgair’s tail thumped firmly into the ground as he pulled it out. “You too, huh,” he joked to the dog. She shuffled in place and licked her chops. Uallas broke the piece of meat into three somewhat equal parts, tossing one out to Miri and one to Sealgair. The dog snapped her portion out of the air and loudly chewed it, while Miri caught hers and looked at it. Uallas tore a chuck out of the remaining bit himself and chewed.

Miri sniffed her portion and stuck out her tongue to taste it. Her face twisted up and she blinked her eyes a few times. “Ooh, salty,” she complained.

“Yeah, it’s jerked beef,” Uallas replied. Hadn’t she ever had it before?

“My grands didn’t use salt for this is all,” she apologized.

“Oh, sorry if it-“

“No, it’s good! I just surprised me is all.” She accompanied action to assurance and bit into the jerky. Sealgair looked on with a little disappointment. Uallas thought she might be hoping for Miri’s bit since the girl seemed initially to not like it, but then again Sealgair always wanted anyone’s bit–she was a dog after all. Miri chewed her mouthful with some concentration, and Uallas thought maybe a little bit of performance. He chuckled and offered his canteen.

Miri cocked her head and looked at the container he offered. It was covered in tightly knitted cloth, firmly stitched all around with a shoulder strap wrapped around it and a bright silvery metal top. Her eyes widened a little when she realized what it was and she reached out gingerly, mumbling an inarticulate “Thank you.”

The canteen was one of his prized possessions. He could probably get a lot of coin for it if he went into down one of the cities, but he’d found this a long time ago, before his mom had passed from the cough. She’d woven and stitched the covering, so like the linen cloth it was special. Miri took the lid off after examining it for a moment and then took a few sips of the water inside. She closed the lid and handed it back, giving him that brief, bright smile again.

“That was wonderful. Very clean.” She wiped her mouth off with the back of her hand and took another bite of her jerky, nibbling at it in that way that gave Sealgair ideas that the girl might not finish it and maybe, just maybe, toss the dog a morsel. The dog wiggled her rear end and her tail wagged while she gave Miri her best puppy eyes and lolling tongue.

“Easy there, girl. You don’t want too much, you’ll get fat,” Uallas said to the dog.

She looked up at him and he could swear he read disdain in her eyes. He imagined he could hear her saying to him, ‘No I won’t. I’ll just run it off. I’m a good dog!

“Yeah, you got yourself a vole this morning. Nice juicy fat one, too.” He countered the imaginary protest and scratched her haunches. The rear right leg immediately began thumping as he got ‘the spot’.

Miri giggled. “She really loves you, you know.”

“Ah, everyone’s dog loves them,” Uallas dismissed.

“No, no. You’re lucky. Lots of people have dog friends. Sealgair thinks you’re special. She really loves you.”

The dog’s head turned toward Miri and her ears perked up. Miri giggled again and the dog’s tail wagged once more. The girl took one last nibble of her jerky and tossed the remaining half of it across the coals to the dog. Sealgair immediately snapped it out of the air and chomped away at it, tail wagging victoriously.

“Wow,” muttered Uallas.

Miri shrugged, hitching her homespun around her a little tighter. “I have a way with animals,” she said, looking directly at the fire and away from his eyes.

“I’ll say,” he replied.

“What were you carving?” she asked.

He realized of a sudden that he’d let his whittling project get away from him. He looked around and found it on the trampled down grass near his fire pit, picking it back up and blowing off imaginary dirt and dust. He held it up to the light so she could see.

The back end was still a roughed out chunk of wood, but the front end bore the distinct resemblance of a wolf or dog. Uallas intended it to be a dog, at least. He hoped she saw that. He’d just begun carving out the gap under the belly when she’d startled him. Miri admired the wood and nodded. “You’re really good,” she said.

He blushed and murmured a thanks. He noted then that steam was escaping from the pot, so he pulled out from his back the little iron plate he used for a grill, unwrapping the somewhat greasy rag that covered it. He set it down on the coals and shrugged. Next came a little wrapped parcel of waxed paper. He unwrapped it, exposing a little bit of sheep’s milk butter, which he rubbed on the iron. “Sorry, I should’ve put that out sooner,” he apologized.

Lastly from the pack he pulled out a single loaf of flat bread, itselfwrapped in another linen cloth. He looked at it, and at his guest, then promptly tore the bread in half and put both pieces on the impromptu griddle.

While the bread began to sizzle Miri shifted in her stance, eyes bright as she looked at the food. Uallas sympathized. He knew what was in the pot wasn’t the best food he’d ever had, but darn it he was hungry. And now that he thought about it, sharing the anticipation of a meal with someone was a pleasant experience.

Soon enough he judged the bread to be done. He wrapped his hand in several cloths and fished the pan off the coals, laying it on the beat-down grass between them.  While she gingerly snapped up a piece of the bread  he used a pair of sticks to remove the earthenware pot from the coals and likewise set it down between them. He hooked the lid with one of the sticks and removed it, then fished inside with his utensils and pulled out a dollop of pottage to place on Miri’s bread and another somewhat equal portion to put on his own. He scrapped outwhat he could of the remainder and split that between them as well.

The food was essentially a vegetable mash, liberally seasoned, with some creaminess from sheep’s milk thrown in, and a few bits of chipped beef he’d bartered for on his last trip to the market. It was very savory and a little bitter, but it went well with the bread, and he was very hungry. He took a bite of his portion and savored it, lamenting only a little at the reduced portion. When he looked across at Miri and saw the simple joy illuminating her features, he felt fuller than the missing portion could have supplied.

Sooner than he’d have liked, the meal was concluded. Uallas leanedback against the ugly tree and licked his fingers clean. Sealgair thumped her tail so he laughed and held out his hand for her to lick off the rest. When she was done, Uallas washed down his dinner withanother splash of his canteen’s water, relishing the flavor. He’d filled it last at a natural spring nearby. Very crisp, and the metal of the container leant the water an even finer flavor. Certainly notthe dull tang of using a sheep’s bladder. He passed the canteen off to Miri, who took a longer pull from it than last time before she handed it back. A quick shake told him there were at least a few more pulls in it. He’d refill tomorrow while he moved the flock.

“That’s from one of the old places, isn’t it?” Miri asked. She nodded when he held up the canteen with his eyebrows raised.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “I found it rescuing Biddy over there.” He pointed to she sheep who just stared her level dumbest back at him. The sheep chewed absently.

“She got in trouble?”

“You could say that. Old dummy found a particularly juicy plant that she just had to eat over a small ledge. Kept going farther and farther, and by the time I noticed it she was down in the gully. I got down inside and found a bunch of old stuff, but lying under a rock was this skeleton.”

Miri shuddered, but he pressed on. “I know, really creepy. He… huh… now that I think about it I’m not sure if it was a he or not… anyway they were dressed in old scraps that must’ve survived for a really long time, but near the feet under some scrabble rock that Biddy had kicked up was this shiny bit of metal. Found some other tidbits too, turned those into some nifty coin. I really need that a few years later.” He stopped talking as a lump grew in his threat. He realized that he really didn’t feel like talking about how his mom died to Miri.

He glanced over at her and saw that she was looking down with her shoulders hunched up, and strangely Uallas felt that she might be reflecting his inner emotions. When he was quiet for a while she looked up at him and met his eyes. Those emerald green eyes dazzled at him across the fire. They were so alien. He’d never seen a person’s eyes do that. Of course, most people from the town didn’t like the dumb orphan shepherd boy, but still. She looked away.

“So, you said your favorite story was the Sword of Light, right?” she asked. She wasn’t looking him in the eyes, but rather away and at the sheep. Biddy stopped her chewing and locked eyes with Miri and sat still.

“Um… Yeah. My uncle used to tell it. About the Claíomh Solais. It goes something like this…”

Sword of Light 1-1

Green hills covered in scattered scrub and small ugly trees stretched in all directions and the sky was a beautiful dark blue, just on the edge of turning into night. To the west the Sun was setting, dipping out of sight and turning the sky there orange. Just over the southern horizon the Eye was just becoming visible, shining its dull red glow, and the vault of stars was beginning to shed its daytime cloak. The Moon glowed her usual white, with the Wound plainly visible.

A young man sat with his back against a stunted tree idly whittling on a chunk of scrap wood as he surveyed the land around him with clear green eyes. He had shaggy brown hair that hadn’t seen a barber’s shears in months and drifted down into his eyes from time to time when it escaped the leather thong binding it up in back. It wasn’t long enough to braid, and besides, he hadn’t earned that right yet. A staff with a gnarled knot at one end leaned against the tree, resting against his shoulder, retained by the crook of his carving arm and shoulder.

Around him a flock of sheep cropped grass and chewed their food, rich with wool as it was nearing time for their shearing. Soon, but not yet. They ate and looked around placidly, stupidly. His uncle Eachann often said that sheep were the dumbest animals in all of Creation, with the possible exception of Humankind. Whereas sheep were dumb and slow, they possessed none of the tenacity or downright meanness of geese, which his uncle maintained were the spiritual progenitors of Humans.

“Uallas, my boy,” the oldster would say, and the young man could hear his uncle’s thick Eastern accent in his memory, “Men are spiritual half breeds. We’re made of different stock from all the animals. We’ve the spirits of sheep and geese, and the ferocity of bulls, when we’ve a mind to it.”

It was a bit heretical, Uallas thought. He knew his mother always nervously looked around whenever Uncle Eachann would talk like that, looking to see if any of the proctors heard him, but the old man was unafraid of being thrown in the town stocks for a few days; as tough as old hickory he was.

He put a few more cuts into the piece he was working on, subtly nicking the wood and scoring it just so. He had nimble fingers and strong hands, good for a shepherd to have. He looked around again, making sure that nothing was creeping up on his flock. He changed his breathing to long, deep, quiet breaths and tuned out the noise of his body, straining to hear if anything hand changed.

After several moments he nodded absently, satisfied, and stood up. The nearest of the stupid sheep, a fat old one he’d named Biddy, shifted and eyed him nervously. He turned his knotted staff end for end so the crook was upward and stepped out walk a circuit of the flock.

Sealgair popped her head up as soon as Uallas stood. He whistled softly and patted his thigh. The dog, a smallish black and white mutt, trotted over and assumed a subservient position by his right hand side, just a little behind him and to the side. She looked up and he gave her a scratch behind the ear. She panted and gave him a happy dog grin. The two set off and circled the flock, with Sealgair keeping a ready eye out while Uallas counted the flock. He should have 37 of the placid little turd factories in his flock.

“Thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-size, thirty-seven!” He exhaled in relief as he counted the last of the sheep and moved back toward the little ugly tree. He patted Sealgair on he head and gave her another scratch then sent her off to the other side of the flock once more. He knelt by the tree, and the small fire pit he’d constructed earlier that day, and set about building a small fire. There was just enough pottage left over from breakfast that he just had to heat up and it would make a fairly decent dinner.

He stoked the fire and got a few sticks of dried wood burning well, and sat patiently while they burned down to red embers, occasionally looking up at the sky.

The Eye always looked back. He wasn’t so sure that it was the symbol of Humanity’s evil that the friars said it was. He was never sure how people were supposed to be involved in a star in the night sky, but there were all sorts of stories about that.

He liked stories. Some people told great stories, some told awful ones. He poked the coals and fished out the sealed earthenware pot from his pack. It was wrapped tightly to keep the lid on, in an old linen rag that had once belonged to his ma, before she’d died of the plague a few years ago. It’d been a cloth, once upon a time, now it was a rag, worn and frayed, but still loved. He carefully folded it and put it away, then moved the earthenware pot with its scorched bottom over to the red coals and nestled it in.

One of his favorite stories-

“Is about the Sword of Light?” asked a small voice off to Uallas’s left.

His heart nearly stopped. He whirled to look, scrambling back from his position and grabbing his shepherd’s staff to get it between him and the… whatever it was. Sealgair reacted to her master’s sudden movement, standing to see over the settling grazers to see what was happening, and the nearest sheep bawled in indignation at the surprise. Uallas blinked.

Cowering away from him up against a thigh high wall of moss covered field stone was… well… a girl. She was small, he could tell that much.

“I’m sorry! Sorry! Please don’t hurt me!” called the lilting voice. The girl was huddled into a mass of clothing and hair, just peeking out with one eye, her face not visible at all. So much of her was brown, the brown of homespun, the brown of skin used to the touch of the sun, but her hair was a reddish color that Uallas had never seen before in his life. and the eye was so emerald green it seemed like a a jewel from the bishop’s hat was casting firelight back at him.

Uallas blinked, then stammered. “Um, I’m not… well I wasn’t planning on hurting anyone.”

“Oh,” she said, it sounded shaky, very unsure. “You seemed really, really ready to though.”

The girl unfolded a little bit, lifting her face up out of the folds of her brown homespun. In the dull light of the Eye and the dim glow of his fire he could make out that she had fine boned features, with a pointed chin and narrow face. After a fashion he supposed she was pretty, but pretty like a lady from a painting in a book, not pretty like Orlaith, the Miller’s daughter. She cocked her head at him, and blinked her large eyes.

“Um… well… you surprised me is all,” he said. It felt like a lamed calf when he said it. Pitiful, really. His voice felt coarse in his throat.

“Oh,” she said again. “I’m glad, I was pretty sure you were nice.”

Her words confused him. She was speaking nonsense. How long had she been there?

“Not that long,” she answered with a bright smile.

“W- wait… are you listening to my… my mind?” he asked, a dull dread creeping into his thoughts.

“Um,” she said, recoiling a little, very slowly, “That would be bad, right?” She moved like someone who was sure the dog was going to attack. Wait… wouldn’t that make him the dog?

“Well, I suppose so, yeah.”

“Then no, I am definitely not reading your thoughts.” She said it with such certainty that he wanted to believe it, but he wasn’t that dumb. Sure some folks in town called him the dumb one, the idiot, but that was because he didn’t like talking to any of them. They were all cruel, anyhow, and had been especially cruel to him and his mother after his father had died. He’d read that followers of the Church Eternal were supposed to be hospitable and welcoming to strangers, but apparently that hadn’t extended to his mom, or to her only surviving son.

“So,” Uallas said, drawing it out and relaxing his posture, “Who are you?”

“You can call me Miri,” she aid, uncoiling from her own defensive posture a little.

Sealgair chose this moment to come over and investigate the new person. As she came over, ‘Miri’ shifted her attention to the dog. Her stance became restless and she clutched her hands tight, but as Sealgair came closer the girl’s stance shifted. The dog loped in and Miri suddenly knelt down, a glowing smile suffusing her face. She wrapped the dog in a hug, one which Sealgair apparently relished, for she looked up to meet Uallas’s gaze while she panted happily.

Miri leaned back on her heels, breaking the embrace, and Sealgair marched over toward Uallas. She promptly planted herself on his right side and leaned into his leg, panting happily and looking up at him. He reached down and scratched her ears.

“Well, Sealgair likes you, so you can’t be all bad,” Uallas said.

Miri smiled brilliantly at him. “She’s a beautiful soul. She loves you very much. Dogs are excellent judges of people.”

That’s what he was about to say, too. When she smiled at him a pair of dimples formed. She smiled with almost childlike glee, eyes squinting almost closed, showing teeth and everything.

“So, Miri, what are you doing here, who are you, and… well… what are you?”

The girl’s joy evaporated and she looked up at him, biting her lip. “I just wanted to hear a story, and… maybe… share some food?”

The Dance – 01

Quiet and melodious tones infiltrate your existence.

Gently, slowly, you awake. It is the type of drifting into wakefulness that can only be achieved with modern technology and advanced chemistry, but you can afford it. It was part of the contract.

Your eyes open, and you stretch. You know the cameras are watching. They always are, for security purposes of course. The contract explicitly states that only limited AI may view the stream from the bedroom and that you have final approval on whether to keep of dump any footage.

Responding to your movement, the glass of your bedroom windows slowly shifts its polarization, letting in more and more of the morning light. Outside is the city.

Brilliant cerulean sky dotted with wispy clouds fills your vision. The thin contrails of aerodynes and airplanes are visible, and there, off in the extreme distance, is the faint vertical contrail of a delta slipping the gross bonds of earthly constraint. You try to trace the contrail and your eyes comply with your desire to see more clearly. Your vision zooms in, smoothly, as you search for the plane itself.

There! That brilliant flash of light, a speck really. Do you see it? Yes, there. You can just make out the triangular shape of the spaceplane. That’s from the Company’s spaceport. The people on board could be goin anywhere, but you know where they’re going, don’t you.

The Crystal Palace.

You sigh. You’ve always wanted to go there, but like every other earthbound schlep you can’t afford it. Even with all this luxury around you, you still can’t afford even a round trip ticket. Maybe a suborbital hop so you could see it with your company eyes…

You sigh and stretch again. Time to get real. Work will start in… query… one-point-seven-two-five hours.

Joy.

You experience a mild annoyance as you become aware of your system’s subtle offer of a mood enhancer to go with your thoughts, waving it away with a pass of your hand. Time to get up.

You get out of the comfortable bed and pad across the apartment toward the bathroom, glancing outside one more time. From your upright position you can see more of the City.  You aren’t in the tallest building, and you’re nowhere near the penthouse, but you’ve got one hell of a view. So many rooftops beneath you, with their green spaces and gardens, and a few even have recreational areas on the rooftop.

There are people there, you can see them from here, with the same clarity of vision that you picked out the delta with. Plebs. Going about their lives, living for now in their immediate pleasures. Some are beautiful, you think idly. Of course, anyone who can afford to play on a rooftop garden can afford to be beautiful.

Your eye catches on one lithe form, moving through the water of a rooftop pool. They are in excellent shape, almost sculpted. Probably are.

You divorce yourself from the view and move back to your preparations for the day. A shower first, after the morning necessities.

While you take care of business the smell of coffee begins to fill the apartment. You’re not sure really if it’s your bio monitor “helping” you out or if it’s really coffee in the kitchen. It doesn’t matter. It’s a better alert than having a flashing neon sign in your vision that says “Coffee’s Ready! (r)”, like one of the plebs.

You step into the shower and luxuriate in it. The water perfectly warmed to your preferences, the nine automated shower heads aiming the streams exactly where you need them, when you need them. You scrub your scalp the old fashioned way, with hands. You’ve read about AI manipulators that can do that, but that’s for the best of the best. The Old Lady on top of the company probably has that. No, strike that. She’s powerful enough she probably has a pair of full body conversions to do the job for her.

Everyone talks about freedom in America like it means something, but you work for the company, you know better. Power breeds privilege.

Enough idle thoughts. The shower is done and you exit the booth. You’d love to have a tub, to soak in, but the shower is more water efficient. It’s easier to recycle the water in the shower too, thus cheaper. With all the luxury around you sometimes its easy to forget how much efficiency rules the day.

Your absorbent bathrobe is already at the perfect temperature, a hot, warm embrace that enfolds you as you shrug it on after your brief towel dry.

Into the kitchen then, for a seat at the bar on the kitchen island. To your left is another view of the City. More distant though. You could go out onto the balcony, but then you’d have all the noise too. You don’t want that. Morning workout is coming, followed by a quick cleanse. But right now, coffee.

You cradle the steaming mug in your hands, smelling the steam, then take your first sip. The bitter and the sweet, the thrill of it. The warmth, just right. Just hot enough to be uncomfortable so you have to blow it it a little bit.

The AI chef has prepared it just right, exactly to your preferences, with just that little bit of randomness thrown in to give you the hint of human imperfection. If it were the same, exactly the same, every day, day in and day out, that would become mechanical. But it isn’t, it’s just a little different every time. Perfect. Isn’t technology is wonderful?

It better be. The amount of time you spent on getting a “perfect” chaotic principle to work with AI food prep is what landed you this job and this contract in the first place. You’d better enjoy the perks!

You savor the coffee and as you glance at the wall. The apartment’s computers read your interface and know you want the news, so there it is. Or what passes for news these days. The newsfeed doomscrolls as you browse headlines all while Net72–“The Last Real News Channel (r)”– plays in a feed to the right, your interface reading your response from the minute cues you give it subconsciously. 

Ah, there’s something interesting. Amidst all the glitz and glamour and sex and depravity and hate and murder (with occasional cute local ragamuffin stories at a 0.27% ratio) there’s another hint of poaching in your field.

Remember when they used to call it headhunting? Yeah, back then, when your grandma was worrying about the 2020s, that was headhunting. It was clean and legal and all (mostly) within bounds. But this one, oh that’s dark. Professional hit team. Well that’s a breath of fresh air, real professional. They only used bullets against the robots. Huh. Professional hitters with ethics? Weird.

With the last sip you finish off your coffee and put it in the boundary area for the kitchen AI to take care of. One more cup for afternoon break. That sounds like a reasonable bit of excess, doesn’t it? Yeah, it does.

You stand and move across the living space to the small home gym that’s included in this apartment package. This is the best part. It’s almost like a vacation before work. All the research these days says that creatives and code warriors work best when they are healthy and fit, and that chaos principle was a nice bit of work, so you get 30 minutes of workout a day on this baby. Lots of chrome on this model, makes it flashier. The seat is properly cushioned in the right spots, no hard spots for your workout. The resistance gear, the supports. No weights these days. Free weights are for people without money.

You change into your workout clothes. It’s a bit unnecessary, you think. No one can see you work out, not anyone except the AI and maybe your psychologist, but it just doesn’t feel right. It’s not a workout without the shorts and tank top. Who could handle bits of themselves flopping around without proper containment during a workout? That’s just uncouth.

Clothes–the right clothes–adorning your body, you move into the small gym and sit down. You pick up the little silver box on the side and open it, almost reverently. You can’t escape the anticipation of what awaits. Inside the box are the little chrome-covered bits and pieces. They’re beautiful work. Two ear buds, two nose filters, and four studs.

You slot the studs in your wrists, see the lights. Connection good.

You plug in the nose filters, always a little funny at first, but then the slightly oily scent of the machinery is replaced with a soft floral vanilla. Good.

Now the earbuds. They fit well, firm but not hard, their sili-gel ™ molding to fit your ear canals. The white noise starts and then you can’t hear much of anything. Also good, though a little disorienting.

Lastly the plug for your neck and the base of your skull. With the ease of long practice you slot the plug beneath your left ear, right behind the lobe. It settles in with a comforting click. Then the last one, the base of the skull in back. You move your hair to the side, feeling for the biogel cover. The nanotech moves out of the way and you slot the last stud, right into your central nervous system.

Now, where to go today?

You’ve been thinking about it since before coffee. When you saw the delta taking off for space.

Yeah, that’s it. The Crystal Palace. Patric-A just did a tour of the Palace for Skydance Virtual, and you haven’t been on this one yet. They always do such a good job with their VR sims, let you feel all the senses. Heck, they even work in enough sim so that when you want some direct motor control you can do that. That sounds about right.

Hovering in your field of view are all the choices of where you could go for this workout. A quick 30 minutes in the Palace would do wonders for your, wouldn’t it? Of course it would! You select the sim, roll your head left and right, and reach up to grab the gym’s handlebars.

The move is very assertive, direct, and you don’t really feel yourself doing it as the sim starts to take over. Maybe some bench presses today? Who knows. Your legs were sore after the last one so maybe today is arm day. Your vision begins to fade as the mechanical arm starts to push down and your begin your bench press. It feels so weird, this moment of disorientation as your arms and body do what the machine wants them to do, what your workout needs them to do, but you don’t.

Wait, are we going to question who you are?

What is you?

Nah. Too existential for your jaunt to the Palace. You fade to black quickly, and the next thing you know you’re in.

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Looking out the window like this? It costs so much money to have a window seat in space. Most folks hitting the orbitals are stuck in steerage, but not you. You’re special. You can afford the window seat. And there it is, floating in space, a great spinning jewel with multiple bands of color, a wheel. No, really it’s more of a cylinder.

Oh, you’re in for a treat today, you’re coming in during the morning! The three giant panels that make up the radiators and solar cells are opening up, reflecting the sunlight down into the rotating cylinder, creating what you only hope to witness tomorrow morning, Sunrise on the Crystal Palace ™.


You come to consciousness sometime later. You are in your bed. Your arms hurt a little. So does your back. The lights are off, the room is dark. Your arms itch.

The lights aren’t coming on at your desire. They should, but they aren’t. You sit up in the darkness. Did the windows polarize? Why are you here? You should be on the bench. That’s where you wind up after every other virtual.

What’s that smell? You realize your nose filters are gone. You can smell… something… coppery? You reach up to rub your nose and realize that the smell intensifies.

“Lights,” you croak out. Nothing.

“Shades?” you try. Still nothing. Is the power out in the apartment? How is that possible? The building has its own reactor.

The windows rattle. Not just the windows, the entire room rattles, and you sense motion outside.

LIGHT!

Sudden! Intense light! As if God Himself spoke the words of creation in your ear, light!

The bright, actinic white is accompanied by the low buzzing orange/red/blue of the cops.

You look around the room, in shock.

This can’t be.

Why are your hands covered in drying blood?

Dungeonworld 3

Will groped desperately for new hand and footholds. He tore his gaze away from the eddies in the mist and looked for a means to save his dearly purchased carcass, heart thundering in his chest hydraulic hammer. He found a vertical split with his free hand and managed to catch a tiny outcropping with one foot, then the other.

He took several moments to catch his breath, holding tight to the red rock of the chasm wall, panting, eyes closed. His heart slowed. He caught his breath. The rock was cool against his cheek. The mist had a reek to it. Vaguely sulfurous, almost like bad eggs, but not quite to the gut churning gag of truly rotten ones.

Several deep breaths later, he was ready to continue. More caution was called for. Best to dial the cockiness back to simple self-assurance.  He resumed his descent, picking his way with care and trepidation, always keeping an eye for the swirling mist. He was sure there was something in there, just not what it was.

Finally he reached the ledge with the purple penitent–and his gear–on it. He crouched near the body, close to the chasm wall as he could, keeping as much of his front toward the red mists. He wasn’t sure if they were changing momentum, but it felt like they were. Best to assume the worst.

With quick hands he worked at removing his pack from the poor brute’s body. It was lying face down on the shelf, what remained of its face staring sightlessly off into the mists. Most of the bones in the arms were broken, but the right arm as lodged under the body, blast it.

Will moved its left arm, maneuvering the dead flesh so that he could slip the pack strap free. The arm squished and small grating noises came from within. Will felt his gorge rise. The arm was far too flexible in all the wrong spots. But he needed the pack, now, so he gritted his teeth and got it over with as fast as he could.

He exhaled hard when the penitent’s arm came free and flopped back to the ground, the clammy dead flesh making a flat smacking sound. Now the other arm. He would have to roll the body away from him to do this, hope it didn’t catch the pack’s other strap.

The mist seemed to roil again, and Will froze. He looked around the shelf, gauging his fighting space, and wishing like everything he’d picked a fighter. Thief builds were good at sneaking and backstabbing, great at stealing. They weren’t so hot at fighting fair fights. Only magic-users were worse. He’d tried to build for that; picking a finesse build, light weapons, the works. And a fighter would’ve died on the way down here. There was something to be said for actually having a skill named Scale Sheer Surfaces.

The eddies in the mist slowed. Did that mean whatever it was intended to strike? Had it left?

He waited. Based on the size of the drifts in the mist, whatever might be there was either huge, or not alone. The mist had a consistency that, up close, reminded him of water. It moved like a liquid, but it was clearly a gas. Was it (they?) swimming? Floating?

Nothing moved.

Will took a slow, shaky breath and turned back to the penitent’s body. His mind stayed on the mist as he tried to solve this problem at his feet. What could it look like? If the mist was a gas was it naturally buoyant? Maybe it was a big puffer-fish-looking thing with tentacles.

The image of a giant silver object floating through the sky with glowing yellow text on its side flashed in his mind. He superimposed waving tentacles or… what was that on microscopic organisms? Flagella? Yes.

Not for the first time he wondered how he knew all this weird stuff. There were no floating gas bags in the Dungeonworld. People only flew with spells and magic items, things they either gained in one of the many dungeons or bought with dearly hoarded karma. This whole problem could’ve been solved if he’d waited longer, hoarded more. A flying carpet would’ve been really awesome to have right now.

“Focus, man. Focus!” Will muttered. “Get the pack off the body, then speculate. Idiot.”

Will shook his head. He needed to solve this problem, and solve it now. He was certain his reprieve from the moving mist was only temporary.

He tried several poses to get the necessary leverage to lift the brute, finally settling on one knee on the ground and the other foot flat. He grabbed its right shoulder and began to roll it, lifting it and pushing out toward the edge of the precipice. He got it up on its left shoulder and started working the strap down its right arm, which was in even worse shape than the left.

Finally he had the strap almost off… then the damned brute’s body started to roll over the precipice.

Everything happened in a rush.

The mist suddenly boiled, a churning knot from the far side coiling and rocketing toward him. The penitent’s body twisted as it fell, loose wrist tangling in the strap. The pack lurched with the body, trying to yank itself out of Will’s hand, but he held on.

Then: Thud! Crunch!

The roiling mist reached him, washing over him like a wave at the beach, the sulfurous odor of the mist suddenly overpowering. Something huge and barely seen smashed into the penitent. Will had the impression of jaws on a head the size of a dairy cow closing on the penitent’s legs with a crunch. Wet ichor sprayed everywhere, spattered him.

Then it twisted its head and yanked. The penitent’s wrist was still trapped in the strap, so body went, the pack went, and Will flew off his perch into the mist, clinging to his pack with all the desperate strength he could muster.

A Rare Flower of Much Potential

“There you are!” Kera exclaimed upon spotting the object of her quest. The brilliant red-and-purple petals of the Octavia’s Orchid glistened wetly in the sunlight, apparently still dappled with morning dew. She knew that was a lie, of course. The dew was a substance the plant excreted to attract prey. The supposed dewdrop was quite sticky, and once an insect like a fly or bee landed on the plant and tried to sample the offered bounty, it was caught. The broad red petals would curl up and the paralyzed bug would soon be devoured.

Excitement and relief overcame her motor control in that moment and the branch she was holding out of her way slipped free from her hand. The pitchy tree limb slapped her in the face. She stumbled back, sputtering and coughing, trying to wipe away the gooey pine needles that stuck to her hands, cheeks, and nose. She spat several times, somehow having got several in her mouth as well.

Her foot caught a raised root of the evergreen sapling that assaulted her and she stumbled back, finally thumping her butt down on the much larger exposed root of the massive old growth fir that loomed over everything. The unbearable tension of the morning suddenly abated. Her mirth at the ridiculousness of her current situation could no longer be contained. A small chuckle grew into a full-throated laugh. She pumped both hands in the air, sticky pine needles be damned, and exulted with a loud “Yes!”

She’d been looking for a witch flower, as the common parlance would have the thing be called, for two days. Two miserable days hiking without license through the royal reserve to the east of her so-called school. That alone was worthy of a dungeon cell for a few days, or maybe even a visit to the stocks for some public humiliation in the peasant town next to the school, which was never, ever pleasant. Collecting fauna illegally would merit an even harsher penalty, but that was part of the test. Could she, as an apprentice, go where she needed to get the necessary components for her Art and not be caught?

Some of the other students claimed that their parents had paid the sheriff and her rangers to look the other way, but a nobody like Kera didn’t have access to that kind of cash or influence. She was already a mercy case at the school, only kept there by the graces of her mentor and her continued successes.

Kera considered her situation. She had another two days to complete the exercise, but would need at least one to get back to the laboratory at the school to properly process the plant. She would probably need to bribe staff to get access to the necessary reagents, unless she beat everyone else back and could steal their supplies before they stole hers. That was unlikely. Cole Granville probably had and uncle or an aunt with a garden that actually had witch flowers so his Quest into the Wild was a trip down cobbled streets and a knock on a door or two. The stuff-shirted toad.

She was modestly convinced that her own mentor had such holdings as well, but the old maestro was explicit in his instruction to Kera and the others under his auspices. If they couldn’t find their own materials, then their own Artistic endeavors weren’t worth the canvas they were painted on. “No amount of raw talent can be excused for a lack of self-sufficiency,” he’d said, and bid them go complete their trial by week’s end.

Kera reached into her pack to pull out a handkerchief. The fine linen had an embroidered edge that was mostly straight. She’d done it by hand five years ago, so she was still thoroughly proud of the quality her thirteen-year-old hands had made. The cloth was much stained by years of use, the remnants of Art worked upon it. She unfolded the cloth to show yet another quick working. On the linen she had painted several symbols and images with a quick, fine stroke. In the middle was a picture of a steaming bowl of water, freshly poured from a teapot.

With practiced effort she stilled her thoughts, quickly chasing out jealousies over other students, frustrations with her maestro, and difficulties such at a pitch covered face and sticky hands. In the space of several heartbeats she could reach into her inner stillness and tease out the single thread of the Art that she had left unbound in the handkerchief.

The fabric had been used for this purpose before, so the vessel was well prepared and used to harnessing the ebb and flow the energies she was manipulating. Holding the cloth in her left hand, she reached with her right and pinched the invisible threads of power together. The handkerchief seemed to grow in mass, suddenly, the very possibility of it adding weight to her reality.

She reached into the handkerchief and grasped the edge of the bowl, almost losing the working when she grasped the hot surface. She grimaced and pulled the bowl of hot water out and quickly, but carefully, set it in her lap.

A wave of exhaustion flowed over her, but Kera refused its lure. She blinked several times and stifled a yawn. Not giving into that yawn was critical. All it would take is one long, drawn out…

No! No yawning! She thought, angry as herself for almost giving in.

The lethargy passed. Kera inhaled the steam and smiled. With quick hands she pulled a battered tin mug out of her pack and set it on the broad root next to her. She dropped in a tea ball and immediately poured in some of the hot water. No sense wasting it on only the one task.

Next she dipped the handkerchief, now completely missing the painted scene of the bowl of water that sat in her lap, into the bowl and began scrubbing the pine needles and their attendant sap from her face. The water was very hot, just as she’d imagined it would be when she’d painted the cloth and worked her Art into it. She was thoroughly pleased with her forethought and the success of her effort. The sap came away and left her feeling clean and refreshed. Even the pain in her feet was beginning to fade.

She picked up her tin mug with the damp washcloth and sipped at her tea. The minty herbal concoction soothed her senses further, and she allowed herself to smile.
Today was turning out very good indeed.

After finishing the tea and using the last of the water, and stowing the middling quality bowl from the working and her implements back in the bag, she set about collecting the Octavia’s Orchid. She used special gloves for the purpose, as the sap of a witch flower was toxic to normal people. It wouldn’t kill a person, or even render them insensate, but it would leave one itching for days. All over. Even in places where a body never touched the darned thing. In private she’d laughed herself hoarse over the itching fits Granville had got into after the last time he messed up handling witch flower precipitate. Even now that gave her a wicked smile.

Once stored in her specimen bag, she took the gloves off, carefully peeling them inside out and dropping them in the bag as well. They could be cleaned in the laboratory. A good dip in the acid vat would cleanse them nicely.

She just had everything packed up an ready to go, rather dreading the long walk back to the school grounds, when the beast snorted.

Kera froze.

Branches snapped to her left and the monster snorted once more. She slowly panned her head to the left and saw the yellow eyes with the square pupils that were staring at her. Those eyes shifted when she looked, making contact with hers.

The creature was huge, its shoulders easily up to her collarbone, and massively built. It hunched forward, its head hung low and swaying ever so slightly. The pelt was tawny brown, striated and dappled. The ivory tusks that waved above the forest floor drew her eye. Each was the length of her forearm. She recognized the beast from the fauna journals of the region. It was a brindlecombe boar.

The page from Natham’s Journal of Applied Naturalism, 1774 edition, with Forward by Louisa Smith, Head of the Order of Hermes flashed up in her memory, with all the relevant facts of the beast condensed into a thin column of text that explained how much it weighed (a lot), how fast it could run (faster than she could), what its predators were (nothing natural), what its prey was (everything), and its proclivities (omnivorous with a taste for meat). At the top of the page floated a sterile and stenciled piece of text. Boar, Brindlecombe.

How in the name of the Seven Heavens did she wind up in trouble like this? It was ridiculous!

A wholly inappropriate giggle escaped her lips. The beast’s eyes narrowed. She clamped her lips together and felt fear sweat run down her back. She was so dead.

Unless…

The beast was a good fifteen meters away. It hadn’t charged her. Not yet! And it seemed to be puzzled by her appearance. Natham’s insisted that Artists like Kera smelled different to the beasts of the wild. More natural ones like a brindlecombe, even if they had their origins in Art gone out of control, didn’t particularly care for their scent, though they were drawn by it. Several natural scientists speculated that it was a centuries old failsafe worked into the bedrock of the Art that made created creatures easier to control. As such it might not actually come rushing in unless she did something rash like running away in a mad panic.

She wondered if she could test the theory. She moved her left hand slowly into the pouch at her waist. The leather packet hung crosswise, so she could reach in this way, and feel the contents inside. The square shape of the parcel cradled its contents without letting them get crushed or bent. That was especially important with these items. The handkerchief had been meant to be folded, so folding it up and warping the Art on it was insignificant. That was not even remotely the case with the cards in her pouch.

She felt the stirrings of the Art in each lacquered placard as her fingers brushed over them. Each sensation was different, and enough to identify it. Of the fifteen or so she had prepared, two were marginally useful, one was perhaps most, and another was an absolute last resort. That one was actually illegal.

Kera stilled her emotions and thoughts, reaching for the Art in the cards, and pulled out one that bore the image of a serene lake. She felt calm every time she looked at the picture, so she’d painted that onto this one over a month past. It was a fair copy of one of the best pieces of Art in the campus central library. The Reflecting Pond by Adowa Bah, said to be a scene from her village in the Kharkhum before it was destroyed. Kera felt proud that she’d managed to work even a little of the massive emotional enchantment into the card that Bah had worked into her masterpiece.

She put the card up between her and the brindlecombe. The boar tensed, eyes narrowing at her. A foreleg pawed at the forest floor, violently gouging up a shower of dried pines and cones. Fear struck like a viper into the calm of her working. The certain image in her mind that the beast would charge, and charge now, trampling her into the ground, snapping her bones. She would…

No! Control the fear, control yourself. First, breath slow. A slow breath is a calm breath. Now slow the heart. Good. A calm heart is a calm mind. Release your fear and reach for the Art.

She did.

The brindlecombe took a single step forward, but she found the threads of power in her placard and joined them. Power flared into the substance. She flung the card toward the beast and the image seemed to grow.

Rather than a shaping of mass and the creation of reality, this was an enchantment. It had no physical presence, only metaphorical. The calm and peaceful relaxation of the Reflecting Pond settled over the forest clearing that she shared with the massive and slightly unnatural beast. Lethargy flowed over her, sapping her strength, urging her to lie down and succumb.

She resisted.

The boar did not.

It’s eyes drooped, then fluttered. They grew wide and it snorted, and she could almost read the defiant outrage in them, but the calming flow of the Art’s working pulled at the beast harder and harder, and its mind, simpler than a human’s and therefore more susceptible to the influence, gave over. The eyes drooped shut and did not open. It heaved a huge sigh and settled down on its belly. A soft rumbling snore emanated from it. The terrifying beast was asleep.

Kera’s breath left her in a rush. She couldn’t believe she’d pulled that off. She took a stumbling step back from the boar, then caught her feet. The after effect of working that much power still dragged at her, but with a spring in her step she hurried away from the clearing.

A compulsive whistle threatened for a moment. She wanted to express her joy at the working, at her success in finding the flower. She finally gave in to the urge. A happy, jaunty tune warbled through the air. Even a copycat robin picked it up and started passing it along.

Everything was going to be okay.

There was a horrendous crashing behind her.

Kera jumped and turned. Charging through the forest at her came the brindlecombe boar. Madder than a whacked hornet hive, the beast broke small trees as it charged, and tore up volumes of dirt and fora, sending up plumes of detritus.

In the middle of its forehead a green rune burned in sickly verdant light.

The rune was her name, her identifying sigil, unique to every practitioner of the Art the world over. No two were alike, and she recognized hers instantly.

It was a weapon. Aimed at her.

Kera gulped.

Some Lorcan

The new torc was heavy around his neck. The bulbs at the front ends pinched his neck if he turned the wrong way. He stuck a finger in the gap and adjusted the heavy gold and electrum ornament. He wanted to rip the blasted thing off and toss it to the ground.

“Easy, lad,” murmured Finn from his side. Lorcan glanced sideways at his bodyguard. The man looked markedly different in his new clothes. His previous garb apparently had been unbecoming of the Tanist’s man. Not that Lorcan officially had the title yet, not that he was sure he wanted it. Servants had shown up the day after the king’s dreadful news and provided new clothing for the old soldier. Now the garments were fine wool with ornamental decorations, and he had new trousers and boots. He’d politely but pointedly declined a new belt, griping under he breath about “new leather”.

Lorcan fingered the new torc again. I went with his new wardrobe. He didn’t really know what to do with silk, and preferred the fine wool and linen he’d grown accustomed to. It was warm, at least. The unseasonably warm weather had vanished, it seemed, with the news of Tadgh and Queen Neala’s death.

“Cease your fidgeting,” the king snapped under he breath from his place ahead and to Lorcan’s right. The prince complied. The ancient despot stood at the fore of their little group, which was composed of most of the inner circle of the King’s Council. The High Lord of War, Tobin mac Guinness, stood the king’s other shoulder. Both en were resplendent in the colors and ornamentation of their garb, but his grandfather’s appeared the more military.

The king stood with straight and unbowed by time and in complete defiance of pain. Whatever trace of compassion Lorcan had detected in his grandfather earlier seemed completely expunged now, several days after that horrid meeting. He thought about the intervening days, about council meetings, and men yelling at each other, arguing with and belittling each other. That the whole affair had not combusted into challenges seemed insane.

The whole of them stood assembled on the front steps of the old keep, looking out over the upper bailey and waiting… for his mother.

She was coming in from her castle to the capital to attend her eldest son’s funeral, and see his body. Lorcan had already seen what remained of his brother, and the memory burned in him. It had carved out a hole in his chest that felt empty still, days later. Lorcan was sure his brother had fought to his very end, the wounds were grievous. They would cover the body for the funeral.

Shouts of recognition and the clatter of iron shod hooves on paving stones echoed from the middle bailey. Around the corner, through the inner gatehouse, the procession arrived. Two knights led the way, servants of the house, of his mother, not kingsmen. He recognized their colors, remembered the men but dimly.

The Lady Aelwyd mag Guin ua Néill rode in a carriage. Lorcan’s heart sank. Where was her treasured white gelding, Scamall? She never rode a carriage in all of his life’s experience. Except now.

The carriage was pulled by four large horses, and seemed big enough to fit six passengers. When it stopped two of the knight escorts moved to flank the door while a servant in Ua Néill tartan opened the door and placed steps. The party waited several moments until a young maid descended, offering assistance tho a frail looking woman dressed in black, who descended with care, gripping the maid’s shoulder.

Lorcan felt the punch to his stomach when he realized the woman was his mother. He remembered a tall woman, fit and handsome, with flowing locks of auburn hair and a smile that was equal measures joy and mischievous humor. After his father’s death that had dimmed for a time, but she had regained her good spirits, even if they were different.

But it had been almost four years since he’d seen her last. The Irish Sea was not the best of waters to travel in winter, and she had chosen of late to remain at Castle Mann, where she ruled in regency for Tadgh. The terrible news must have wrought this.

He tensed to move, to go forward, but stopped himself. It was entirely proper that he, as tanist, stand here and await the supplicant’s approach to the throne. Power never went, so said the king. The words and lessons cascaded in his mind, from his mentor to his grandfather. In a moment he discarded them all and broke rank. He evaded a grasping hand and strode to meet his mother.

“Boy!” The word snapped like a whip into his shoulders, and he flinched, but he didn’t slow. His pace quickened as he approached. The two knights flanking Lady Aelwyd at first put hands to sword hilts, but lowered them at the sharp command of the maid holding his mother’s elbow and hand.

Lorcan stopped a half pace away from crashing into his mother. He wanted to crush her into his embrace, but she looked frail enough that he suddenly feared shattering the woman. She was so much smaller than he remembered.

She met his eyes through the back lace of her veil. His soul shivered. Her gaze seemed hollow, as if her soul were an empty cavern with no light left in it.

Her lips trembled, and he barely made out the words “my son.” He stepped forward and embraced her. She fell into him and returned the embrace. He wasn’t sure who started crying first.

Dungeonworld 2

Will wished he knew how he remembered his name.

He wished he could remember how it all started, how he knew that this world wasn’t natural and how he, or anyone else, ended up in it and why he believed it could be another way, or ever had been.

The thought tasted bitter, but not nearly so bitter as the cheap brown ale in his cup, itself a cheap earthenware mug shaped roughly like a small bowl with a small depression sized for his thumb. He sluiced the nutty flavored beverage through his mouth and swallowed the mouthful, wiping excess foam off his lips with the back of his hand.

He seemed to stay the same, whenever he was incarnated as a dungeoneer. His hands had the same coloration and texture, and they had that single half-moon scar over his left index finger knuckle. His face felt the same, his hair and eye color were identical every time. The styles would change, he might have a few extra scars as appropriate to some imagined background, perhaps a birthmark of some kind showing a strange origin, but never a debilitating injury. He had never started an incarnation with a bum eye, amputated limb, or even a hobbled gait.

He’d wound up with those, in the past, usually shortly before dying, but he never started with one.

Unless he started an incarnation as a penitent.

Then again a dungeoneer never started out as a penitent if they could afford it.

But then the philosophical question that he liked to ask, that no one else seemed to care about, was how they afforded it. The best he could figure out, he, and everyone else, had a balance of some sort of nebulous points. He had settled on calling them karma some time ago, perhaps a leftover from some other fellow he’d worked with or fought against some time ago. It was hard to remember past his last thirteen or so incarnations.

But just thinking about it brought up his balance, as if he could see a tally in the middle of the table. Seventy-five points.

Seventy-five.

He drank another swig of the ale. He’d taken a gamble on this one. A starting dungeoneer incarnation cost one hundred. At that level he would be fresh meat for anyone more experienced, easy pickings. His starting currency and equipment would be taken almost immediately, his corpse left within two miles of where he woke up at with those flat memories of a past he’d never lived.

Thank whatever gods existed that he couldn’t remember all of those lives.

Seventy-five would rate him a red penitentcy. Reds were good for city-bound menial tasks. He could earn some karma points back that way, but the penitencies were horribly dull, and occasionally terrifying.

He’d spent fifteen hundred points this time around. He’d saved a lot to get there, done several turns in the blue, taken a trip or two as a purple, even suited up as a yellow a few times to serve as another dungeoneer’s private mercenary. Yellow penitents were good for that. They could fight well, didn’t feel as much pain as a regular incarnation did, not nearly as much hunger, and nowhere near the same level of pain.

A green walked up to his table. In the dim light it sure looked human, but lantern at his table shown off the green skin. There was a sway to the creature that said it was being run by a woman. Valeria.

Valeria was one reason he liked started in Hobblesmith. It was a shit town, the epitome of a dungeoneer’s boom town, with the over-inflated prices, the twitchy locals prone to all sorts of violence, and the sullen looks of people beat to within an inch of their life, but the Silver Tankard, which didn’t have a single troy ounce of silver to its name, was a decent place to socialize, and Valeria was a full half of that.

She was a green penitent, and unlike every other penitent he had known or been, she was a she. Not a one of them had plumbing of any kind. They didn’t need to eat, they didn’t need to shit, and the certainly couldn’t do the horizontal mambo. They just weren’t equipped for it, Valeria included, or so they said.

Will suspected it was so that penitents wouldn’t have to serve their time as harem slaves. It didn’t entirely stop the practice. A penitent could do whatever it wanted to within the confines of its type. Greens were service creatures. They fulfilled menial duties that required some degree of dexterity wherever required. Serving drinks at a tavern frequented by dungeoneers fit the bill as good as working in a kiln or carving scrimshaw.

Locks of pale auburn hair drifted to one side as the androgynous face turned to him with a pleasant smile. “Another ale, William?”

He’d always admired that wig. “No, V, thanks.”

She cocked her head the other way. “You spent big this time, didn’t you? You know you could’ve started in Toningen, maybe got something with a little of that extra starting gold.”

He smirked. She was far more perceptive than any green had a right to be. “And how long have you been in there, V? Don’t you ever get bored of serving here? I remember you from what, my last three or four times through Hobbleston.”

She shrugged. A smirk plaid out across her face. It made the normally dull eyes of a penitent sparkle like living things. “Girl’s gotta eat. So tell me, how much?”

“Come on, V, you know I won’t spill that.”

“Depends on what I offer you, doesn’t it, Billy?” she smiled a slow smile and twirled her hair around a finger.

There were stories about Valeria. He’d never tried to investigate those. He just liked how she ran the bar, how unique she seemed among a sea of bland individuals who had chosen to simply go through the motions.

“Sorry, V.”

“Not your type, huh?”

“Nothing personal. I’ve been a green.” It didn’t stop some from trying though. He suppressed a shudder

“Suit yourself. You here to meet anyone? Make an arrangement in your last penitency?” Her painted-on eyebrows–penitents never had hair–rose and fell.

He shook his head. He hadn’t run into a trustworthy dungeoneer in at least five incarnations. “You know what we’re like. I haven’t run into a trustworthy dungeoneer in maybe five incarnations.”

Not since that time as a magic-user.

“Well, luck to you, William the Wonderful,” she said with a sunny smile. He groaned. That had been the magic-user’s name. Why did she have to remember that?

“Please, it’s Will Nimble Fingers this time.”

“You always pick the strangest names,” Valeria chuckled. She shook her head, hoisted her tray and moved on to another table.

There were another baker’s dozen of dungeoneers in Valeria’s tonight. He knew about three quarters of them. He’d killed or been killed by half that number. None of them looked to be quite at the Starter level, but none had the mean look of a dungeoneer starting a Name level either. He hadn’t been able to afford that. He couldn’t imagine anyone saving up the required ten thousand points to start there. Valeria, maybe.

When she finally incarnated as a dungeoneer the rest of Dungeonworld had best pay attention.

A chord strummed from a perfectly tuned mandolin announced the arrival of the person Will had been waiting for.

Saoirse the Bold stepped up onto a dais at the far end of the Silver Tankard’s common room and, without introducing herself (because, honestly, who among them needed to be introduced to her?) launched into one of her famous songs, The Battle of Isfallen Heights.

Will sat and listened, finishing off the last of his ale while he analyzed the lyrics. She sang beautifully, her voice a rich contralto that buoyed the music, supported by expertly time chords strummed from that mandolin. She swayed to the music, wholly invested in the tale and the tones. It transported her from a somewhat ordinary girl into an angel. It didn’t matter what she sang, he had always been enchanted by it.

Isfallen held interest to him. He’d heard it once, a very long time ago, but dismissed the words. Now, he knew better. Now he listened. He’d paid her dearly for this. A direct transfer of nearly a hundred fifty points, arranged on his last foray as a red penitent. She’d kept the song hidden, and no matter where he looked in her archives, he’d never found it.

Saoirse knew what he was about. It had been a game between them. As a red he was, unfortunately, easy to outsmart. They were excellent at recalling facts and figures, with nimble fingers and excellent eyesight, but they had tremendous difficulty turning that knowledge into useful wit and wisdom. But he’d still put up a challenge to the bard of bards. He was more than a little proud of that.

He listened intently to the words as they fell from her lips, trying to memorize every inflection, every tonality. They would be useful he was sure. And the key lay hidden in the third stanza, when the heroes of the lay faced off against one of the Dungeon Master’s generals. Isfallen was the last time such a force had moved in the Dungeonworld, and Will was confident that those four had succeeded where none others had.

Their names were rumored legend. Tostig, the bold warrior, Alathea the Sorceress of Pangal, Luthansa the Thief, who had stolen the Jewell of Life itself, and Zoab the Cleric, who supposedly spoke with gods no one had heard from before or since, who had granted him amazing powers, even, perhaps, over the life of other dungeoneers.

Everyone he’d ever met knew a hundred half-remembered and hopelessly confused stories about each of them. No one knew for sure how or when they met their end, or if they ever reincarnated.

But Will had bet that Saoirse knew.

He’d bet a lot.

Dungeonworld

Will’s purple penitent was half-way across the chasm when the rickety rope bridge finally snapped.

His heart jumped at the whip crack noise, and fell with the misshapen man-thing as it plummeted to its death in the fetid reddish mist filling the depths beneath them.

He’d misjudged the weight, damn it. He’d left one of the packs on the poor brute. The pack with a goodly portion of the camping supplies. Not to mention about 2/3 of his rations and a decently sized pouch of gold.

Will put his face in his hands and swore softly, repeatedly. He rubbed his face, feeling the stubble on his cheeks and chin. The penitent had been carrying his razor too.

He didn’t much like mistreating the brutes, mostly because he hated being one, but he supposed that was part of the system that made them so effective. If he died on this run, again, he was sure to recast as a penitent, doomed to serve another dungeoneer until such time as he either perished or earned enough karma points for his suffering to get recast as another dungeoneer.

He sat back on his heels. The sky was darkening fast, and it would be night sooner than not. What passed for hills in this blasted landscape cast ever deepening shadows, and the light of the world–he refused to call it a sun, because it wasn’t, blast it–hung low in the western sky.

Virtually none of the vegetation in the Perinkoth Crater region were useful. They were all scrub brush and gnarly, hardy sages. At least with the lowering of the Orb the heat would abate some.

Over the southern rim of the blast zone he could make out the Tower. His goal. Other dungeoneers he’d talked to often said that Perinkoth was a crappy and generally unreliable way to try and reach the end, but in Will’s mind it sure beat lots of the alternatives. His last mortal life he’d tried to cross the Cheninborg Bog. That hadn’t ended well. He shuddered at the parade of penitent cycles he’d gone through after that debacle. He’d been stuck with Roger the Red on one of those, and at this point he was pretty sure Roger wasn’t playing to win.

Will was. He wanted out. He needed out. The endless cycle of building karma, trying your luck, failing, and suffering under the cruel hands of his fellows grated on his soul. He had to make it this time. He had to.

So, the tower. He’d never been closer than now, not in any of his incarnations as a dungeoneer. This was the first time he’d tried a thief, though. Normally he went with a ranger or a fighter. Being a magic-user had been a terrible experience, but he’d heard of other dungeoneers who’d had great success that way. And no one ever played a cleric.

His goal might be within reach in a few days, depending on how many more of these chasms there were, and if he could cross with some more rope…

No, the blasted purple monster had his rope too. Shit!

He peered down into the chasm and caught his breath. Maybe all was not lost. The penitent lay on a miraculous outcropping of stone, barely obscured by the red mist. It didn’t appear to be eating the body, or it didn’t seem to be doing so from this distance. The lout was obviously dead, though. A body didn’t live with a head that deformed by impact.

“Sorry, whoever you were,” he muttered. Dungeoneers never knew who the penitents they bought were, and they were too dull to be able to tell their temporary masters their identity. It was a small mercy, he supposed. It kept truly vicious people from picking on specific fellows, though it didn’t stop the generic cruelty that made up life in the Dungeonworld.

As a thief, Will had a decent chance of scaling down to where his penitent’s corpse lay. He might be able to recover some of his gear and press onward. It looked to him like there might be another outcropping on the opposite wall that he might jump to. Maybe.

He glared once more at the Tower. In this light the imposing edifice was but a black, crooked finger silhouetted in the darkening sky. Lights were visible along its height, but he’d never seen them as more than pinpricks.

He would make it this time…

Will went over his remaining belongings and checked every strap of his armor and packs, made sure every piece of gear he had was firmly tied or hooked in place. He pulled his fingerless gloves tight, tugging on the straps once more. He moved a bag of climber’s chalk to the front of his belt and crawled out over the edge of the precipice.

His stomach threatened to void its contents as he swung out, but he kept it to a brief hiccup. His hands found cracks in the rock wall and his feet seemed to know where to go. Slowly, carefully, he descended the chasm wall.

The descent proved far easier that he’d anticipated. He felt very good about his choices. This might even be easy. At three fourths of the way to the penitent’s shelf the rock under his foot gave out with a splintering crack as it disintegrated into gravel. His right foot came free. His left hand slipped, then his left foot!

Will’s body slapped into the rock wall, and the fingers of his right hand screamed their protest. His grunt of agony seemed to bounce off the mist and mingle with it. He stared down at his impending doom and quailed when he saw the mist move, an eddy stirring its surface as though something moved underneath. Was there something down there?

Crap! No one had ever said there were things dwelling in the freaking chasm mists!

But then if they all died, who would be around to tell any other stupid dungeoneers about the danger?

He scrambled for a foothold, handhold, anything. There was no way he was going to fail, not this time, not again.

He had to make it to the end.

He had to kill the Dungeon Master.


This one came from my last dream before waking up this morning. I’m not entirely sure where it goes, but it might be an entertaining fantasy spoof.

Part of this should be the mystery of why these “dungeoneers” are here, what they’re doing. Will, who was intentionally named after Mr. Wheaton, and in some corner of my mind looks a little like him too, obviously has a goal.

I should write more of this, I think.