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Tiressia

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The Black Swordsman

Spoiler:
“That look on your face,” I said to Vigil. “Was it really that odd?”

“You are clearly proud and lustful as well as an exceptional person. The world not only will bow before you, it should do so. Yet you don’t want that? Not only do you not want it, but you actively rail against it? I don’t understand. And even more than that, I don’t see how it’s possible.”

“I made a choice,” I said, as though that answered everything, because it did. “It’s that simple.” Time to change the subject. “So, shall we reveal you to the others now?”

At least, I started to say that. I was interrupted by the massive statue of Karzoug coming to life. Because of course it did. It looked right at me and spoke. “You again. I can’t help but be inspired by your optimism, but alas, you will not live to turn your weapon against the might of Xin-Shalast. Your fate is death, here in the Runeforge.” With that, the statue swung at me. I narrowly avoided being turned into paste, and only because I had quickly cast a spell to surround myself in mirror images while it was talking.

Paulie laughed. “GLORIOUS!” He quickly cast his own spell. With a great creak, the statue of Alaznist lurched to life, brandishing its massive ranseur.

“GIANT!” Lenn roared, charging the statue of Karzoug.

“Heh, heh, heh,” Lenntu chuckled and began firing. I’d have to teach him a more shotgun appropriate battle cry later.

“We will fight you, no matter what you send at us!” Aurora declared, dancing between the statue’s legs and slamming her blade into one of its calves.

“A pity,” Jack said. “Nothing interesting about the insides of a statue. Unless it’s got hidden compartments to store loot. Ooh. Let’s look for those! Hear me, greed lord? WE’RE GOING TO TAKE YOUR STUFF!”

That last one enraged Karzoug and he changed his focus, going after Jack instead of me. Jack used his chameleon skin to make himself harder to see, and thus, hit. I took advantage of the reprieve and tried hitting the statue with a spell, but nothing. It wasn’t resistance, it simply was immune. Great.

In the end, Paulie’s statue grappled Karzoug’s and our heavy hitters began beating the statue to death. Or whatever. It was weird.

Karzoug didn’t take it well. “This is not the last! Fine. Come then, heroes. Seek me atop Mhar Massif, if you value life so poorly. You should be honored to be the first fools executed under the banner of Shalast in ten thousand…” He didn’t finish, because Lenn smashed the statue’s head. I didn’t even get to make a ‘pwned’ joke.

In case you’re wondering, the statue didn’t have any secret compartments.

Once we were done, we filled in the remaining holes in the Rangers’ gear with some of the loot we’d gathered in the Runeforge. I gave the wizard, Ikki, one of the many spellbooks we’d found to replace the one he’d lost when he had been transformed into a fish. He would need to get a new spellbook of his own, eventually, but this would work for now.

I also handed him a magic satchel. “What’s this?”

“Useful scrolls. Inside is a handy guide for when to best use them.”

“I’m not expecting to get into a fight.”

I shrugged. “It’s best to expect it, but hope it doesn’t happen.”

“Fair enough. I’ll give it a read.”

“I’d skim it now, while we get you all some potions.”

“Expecting something?”

“Not really,” I said with a smile. “But we did kill a dragon outside and one of the ancient stories suggested he had a mate, so better to be prepared before we leave. Again, not expecting anything, but you know, better safe than sorry.”

“Got it.”

With that in mind, I made sure every one of my easy to access compartments on my armor had a steel phial with a useful potion in it and hung my last few grenades in easy reach off my belt. Nothing out of the ordinary, just the same basic preparations I did every single day. No way would anything happen.

I left Vigil instructions for while we were gone, then we opened the portal and stepped through, once more returning to the icy chamber. So far, so good. Then we heard a woman scream. “That came from one of the passages!” Aurora called out. “We should go help!” It was clear that her weapon was influencing her already strong protective tendencies.

We rushed off towards the sound of the scream. We only made it about halfway down the hall when my magic sight revealed the activation of a runic circle trap. “Yep,” I said softly, analyzing the trap in the second or two I had before the trap went off.

It was a very powerful, very complex trap. It would teleport the target – that would be me, only I could trigger it – back to the main chamber and block the tunnel we had gone down with a wall of iron. Then the entire cave system would become a dimensional anchor. For roughly an hour, no one in the cave could teleport.

Which means that I was the primary target. “I was wondering when you’d show up,” I said, all spitfire and bluster.

“Oh?” a voice answered. “Are you trying to say that you’ve been waiting for me?”

“Of course, Lyrie Akenja. It was only a matter of time before you came after me again. I have to ask though, why me in particular?”

“You killed my cat,” she said, her voice icy.

Had I? It was such a blur, but I focused a second. Huh. “Well, so I did. Look, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry for that. But in my defense, it attacked me first. I’m sure I can claim self-defense in a court of law.”

“COURT?!” she screeched. “There is no court for you! I tried to kill that which you most loved, to show you how it felt. I even arranged to have her soul eaten by daemons, to really drive the point home. But you screwed it up. You took the trap for her. I don’t know how you managed to get away from the daemons I arranged, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll kill you here again, then I’m going to go finish off your friends so no one will bother reviving you.”

“Oh? You mean you aren’t planning on having Lucrecia kill them first to fill me with hopelessness?”

“Lucrecia?” she laughed. “That b#!#+ got what she deserved.” Interesting. “No. I’ve moved past that. I just want you dead and out of my life.” Good. It sounded like she hadn’t come with anything overwhelming for them with me split from the group. As long as she didn’t leave, they might have a chance.

As we had been speaking, I began casting buff spells. I had no way of being certain what she intended, but I knew what I would have done if setting a trap for a wizard. So I did my best to be prepared for that. I had been trained on how to fight other wizards, and it was all down to who had thought of everything and exploited their foe’s weaknesses best.

I also took time to assess what spells she had buffed herself with using my magic sight. The standard ones were there, but she was missing protection from targeted spells. Well, so was I. But that was on purpose. Yep, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Lyrie struck first. “DIE!” she shouted before using magic to try to turn me to stone.

Luckily, my newly enchanted weapon – proof against the effects of harmful transmutations – acted as an interdiction of the spell on my behalf. “You’ll have to do better than that!” I crowed, casting the last buff spell I would need.

“DIE!” she screeched again, hitting me with a ray of disintegration.

Which was another transmutation spell. Either Karzoug hadn’t told her about the effects of these weapons, or she was foolishly wasting more powerful transmutations to break through the defenses than necessary. If it had been me, I’d have hammered in a number of weaker transmutations before finally going full bore. “HAHAHA!” I laughed, then unleashed my rebuttal: Prismatic Spray.

Seven beams of light, all the colors of the rainbow, streamed out from my hand, darting forward at random angles and spreading out in a cone of chaos before me. Two of the beams hit Lyrie. The first was yellow, which functions as a powerful jolt of electricity. The second was the indigo beam. That would have been the game ender, rendering her completely insane. But she managed to resist its effects.

Or she was already completely insane, thus it having no effect.

Smarting from the damage I had caused, she leapt back into the nearest tunnel and covered its entrance with a wall of force. And here I was, having used up both of my prepared disintegration spells for the day. “You think you’ve won? You think this was my main plan, to trade blows with you?”

“I was hoping, yeah,” I said. If I could just kill her, even at the cost of my own life, my friends could revive me later. But now she was beyond my reach. I was kicking myself for not having made a laser gun, which could have fired right through the force wall. I immediately cast a spell to surround myself in a random array of illusory duplicates.

“Nice try, but you’ll find my golem more than capable of tearing through your mirror images.” With that, I saw the illusory wall she had cast fade, revealing a massive construct of mithral. It looked… familiar, for some reason.

It was the perfect choice. For fighting a wizard, nothing was better than a golem. Their natural resistance to most magic rendered us reliant on indirect attacks or on buffing our party members. Alone, with no party, I was probably screwed.

But I could buy time. The walls were high, and a mithral golem would only be able to use its ability to transform into liquid metal – T-1000 style – to attack me for about a minute before it no longer could. So I hit it with a slowing spell – the only of its two magic vulnerabilities I had actually prepared – and dashed right up the wall.

Once I was up there, I realized why it looked familiar. “The Gleam Eyes?!” I said incredulously. Sometimes it seems like the world likes throwing references at me that I’ll recognize. This time was almost uncanny. The golem looked like a massive goat-man, almost a perfect replica of a monster from an anime. Lyrie had even crafted an immense falchion for it to wield.

As predicted, the creature turned into a giant blob of liquid metal and began whipping its substance at me, trying to injure me. But I was surrounded by mirror images and further magic made it even harder to determine where I was. Between that and Juiz’s ability to take blows for me, I was sure I could last.

I cast quickly, summoning a flying Bralani azata. I shoved a small bag from my belt into her hands. “The instructions are in the bag!” I shouted. “Get to cover!”

“You think a summoned creature can help you?” Lyrie shouted. “You’re just wasting time, hoping your friends will save you. You’re going to be sorely mistaken.”

Eighteen more seconds. I cast another buff. I took a direct hit and my armor took damage. “Your overconfidence is your weakness!”

“AND YOUR FAITH IN YOUR FRIENDS IS YOURS!” What. Did we really just do that?

Twelve seconds. I recast one of the shorter buffs. “If this ends with your second in command throwing you down a shaft, I’m out.”

“What?” No one understands me.

Six seconds. I recast my mirror image spell. “Don’t worry about it. It’s over your head. Hey, Lyrie.”

“What?”

“That I would be vulnerable if you got me alone. I’m glad you thought that.” I conjured a wall of stone nearby, creating an area where the golem couldn’t go.

“You saying it’s untrue?”

Zero seconds. I used a spell to repair all damage to my armor and jumped down behind the wall, out of the golem’s reach now that it could no longer become liquid metal. “Oh, no. It’s true. If you got me alone, I would be extremely vulnerable to your golem. Especially if I was low on spells. Only problem is, I’m never alone.”

“What’s that supposed to…”

“The rock cried out, ‘No hiding place!’,” I said softly, giving the cue to the summoned Bralani. I heard her begin breaking gems in her hiding place behind a nearby pillar. “Sweet Mother, sweet Mother,” I chanted loud enough for Lyrie to hear. “Sweet Mother, sweet Mother, send your child unto me, for the sins of the unworthy must be baptized in blood and fear.” I then cast the spell I had prepared for specially for Lyrie’s attack.

You see, I had known it was coming. Xalassia had this quill, you see. I had pretended to the others that it was simply a magic writing tool that would help me write down spells more quickly, so they let me have it. But that was wrong.

It was, in fact, an artifact known as a Revelation Quill. Once daily, one could use it to learn cryptic information about specific events in the future. And I had managed to discover Lyrie’s intentions to ambush us here.

So why not tell the others the truth about it? Lyrie is a wizard, and like me, she is capable of scrying to learn what others are doing. It is said that, to deceive your enemies, it is often necessary to first deceive your friends. So I had.

And I had been preparing for this day since the moment I was last revived. The sack I had given the Bralani, for instance? Four elemental gems. A wall of force wasn’t much use if something could glide through the surrounding rock to bypass it.

Kira laughed. “NOW THAT’S MORE LIKE IT!” As souls began trading places and my body changed to match, she spoke to me. “Hey, Kyle.”

“Yes?”

“Have you ever wondered why it is that you wear black all the time, even though purple is your favorite color?”

“Not really. I just kinda feel naked if I’m not wearing black.”

“That’s because it’s my color,” Kira said. “The one who has kept you safe in numerous previous lives always wore black.”

Then that meant… oh wow. “I made the armor for you all along.”

“That’s not the only thing you made for me,” she said, drawing the two hilts from our belt. “LYRIE AKENJA!” she shouted. “I am Kira O’Halloran, Kyle’s twin. But that is not the only name I have been known by. I’ve had many names in my many lives, but in each of them, I was a warrior of skill, dressed in black and wielding a pair of blades forged by my twin.” She pressed the buttons on each of the swords and shards of black metal flew out, interlocking into long, slender blades. “So I will be your opponent. No longer do you face the wizard. Today, you face the Black Swordsman!”

The golem finally managed to break through the wall, giving Lyrie a moment to see Kira standing there. “So what, Kyle, you think you can change yourself and beat my golem with those ordinary steel swords?”

Kira snickered. “Ordinary steel? Is that what you think?” She was right about that. Those swords were not made of ordinary steel. “Hey, Kyle.”

“Yes?”

“Thanks. You have no idea how good it feels to have Fairy Steel in my hands again.” Again? Why would she say…?

As the secondary soul, I was no longer as restricted by the bonds of flesh. My entire life flashed before my eyes. But it wasn’t my current life.

“Well done, Prince Cedwyn!” the king said. “So few can stand against me like this.”

“Please, your majesty, you flatter me. Besides, the credit does not belong to me. I’d never be able to last this long if I didn’t have swords capable of standing up to yours without breaking.”

“Truly, a marvel to be sure. Your sister is an amazing woman. Alas that I do not have a son so our two houses could become one.”

“A daughter would suffice just as well, Majesty,” I said. “I have a brother, after all, and he has not yet wed.”

“A fair point, Princess Rhoslyn. So tell me, how did you make these marvels? Sorcery?”

“Not at all, Majesty. I simply studied the techniques used to make the steel of Damascus and improved upon them using a few more difficult to find materials. If you truly understand the steel, you can make it do anything you want.”

A figure wandered out from the shadows of a nearby tree. “Apologies for my intrusion, Majesty, Highnesses, but we have at long last located the dragon’s den.”

“Excellent, Merlin,” the king said with a fierce hunger. “Prepare an expedition at once!”

“As you command, Majesty. While I am here, I would also like to extend an offer to our guests. Care to join me in hunting a dragon?”

“I was born for this,” Cedwyn said.

“You can count on me, Old Crow,” I agreed.

The wizard grinned. “Just as expected from the Fairy Blacksmith and Prince Mordred Silverdew. Come, let us be off!”

What. “You were MORDRED?!” I asked my sister.

“I never liked that name. It was more of a title, really. It meant ‘bravery’. Got it for the time I killed two dozen Saxons single handedly.”

“So, does that make me…?” I left the question hanging.

“No. That’s a very fictionalized version of mother. They left you out of the propaganda. They had to, or they might have had to explain how you burned down Camelot.”

Oh. That. Yeah. I guess burned wasn’t the right description. I kinda called down a meteor. Or six. Look, that’s a story for another time. “We have a fight to worry about.”

“Good point. The Black Swordsman is fighting The Gleam Eyes. Think you can provide a little music?”

Well, I had been wearing the telepathic interface. I focused my thoughts. “Juiz, can you hear me?”

“Acknowledged.”

“If I were to play music in my head, can you play it from the speakers?”

“Acknowledged. Shall I add in accompaniment from other instruments?”

“Do it.” I mentally manifested a violin and began playing.

“THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT!” Kira roared as the sounds of Swordland began filling the room. She charged, and for a moment the golem, a construct with absolutely no emotions, looked afraid.

“Now you’re mine!” Lyrie shouted. But before she could do anything, a quartet of earth elementals popped out of the ground around her and began wailing away. They wouldn’t be enough to kill her, but they could keep her busy long enough.

In my time adventuring with my companions, I’ve been a first-hand witness to a number of people’s fighting styles. Aurora fights with finesse and determination. Lenn throws his all into a single perfect swing. Geo studies, waiting for the perfect opportunity. All three fight to protect others.

Kira fights because she loves fighting. No. You misunderstand. I don’t mean she loves fighting. I mean, she LOVES fighting. Like, that way. I could feel it, the sheer giddiness as she joined battle, swords in hand, for the first real fight of this lifetime. And she couldn’t be happier. She fought with such an abandon, every inch of her body responding as if it had its own brain.

Even without the buffs I had cast on our body, I’m not sure the golem would have had a chance at defeating her. Even the few blows that connected were glancing, at best. Most were deflected by her twin blades or simply dodged.

And she was laughing the whole time. “FASTER!” she roared. “YOU’RE TOO SLOW!” Fairy steel bit into mithral. Inch by inch, cut by cut, she dismembered the golem. Soon it fought her with no legs. Then an arm was gone.

Dodging its weak, unwieldy blows, she peeled open its torso like a gift-wrapped present, exposing its magical core. “Do it,” I told her.

“HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!” she cackled, driving the crossed blades into the golem’s heart. It twitched, then stopped moving.

“I am impressed,” Lyrie said, bloody but alive after contending with the elementals. “But this ends now.”

“So it does,” I said, my voice projecting through the speaker. I gave Juiz a mental command to activate the radio. “Once upon a midnight dreary, as I pondered, weak and weary…”

A voice rang out over the radio. “Quoth the raven, Nevermore!”

I switched my playing to ‘Luminous Sword’. At the end of the other tunnel, Aurora was launched by the others, just like they’d launched Lenn earlier. She tore through the wall of iron like a football team through a team banner. Shards of iron exploded out like a shotgun blast, utterly shredding the wall of force.

Lyrie screamed incoherently and conjured a Hamatula – also known as Barbed Devils, the guards of infernal vaults of treasure and favored summons of powerful greedy summoners – between her and Aurora. Aurora engaged the devil and Kira dodged past it, at Lyrie. Our foe, panicking, conjured a wall of stone between her and us.

Then Lenn was there. And the wall didn’t have a chance. With the entire cave protected against teleportation, she had nowhere to go. I felt jubilant. Sure, I didn’t like the idea of killing someone unnecessarily, but this wasn’t unnecessary. So I stopped playing and began to sing.

“No hiding place down here!
No there’s no hiding place down here.
You know I went to the rock to hide my face,
But the rock cried out, ‘No hiding place!’
No there’s no hiding place down here.

You know the sinners gonna be running
At the knowledge of their fate.
They’re gonna run to the rocks in the mountains,
But their prayers will be too late!
You know they forgot about Jesus,
Not knowing that the end was nigh.
But they will be running, trying to find a hiding place
When it comes their time to die!

No hiding place on the mountain.
No hiding place in the waters.
No hiding place down here.
No hiding place!

I went to the rock to hide my face,
But the rock cried out, ‘No hiding place!’
There’s no hiding place down here.

You know, when the world catches on fire,
There’ll be no hiding place.
When the waters start boiling,
No hiding place!

No, there’s no hiding place down here!”

And thus it was that Lyrie Akenja, one of our most dangerous enemies, died, a victim of her own hubris. She thought that she had everything under control, only to learn that not to be the case. She took care of everything so that I could not escape her, but when the tables turned, it was she who could not escape.

A good lesson for the future, that. This work is dangerous, and often dirty. One must always be prepared for any eventuality, or when the time comes, you might find yourself running to the rock to hide your face and find that the rock has cried out 'no hiding place'.

And, of course, a good lesson for everyone: When you’re mad at someone for killing your cat, maybe a murderous vendetta isn’t the way to go. Call the cops. Or maybe take a crap on their patio. Run your lawnmower over their begonias. Key their car. Whatever, just keep it proportional and not insane.

I’m just sayin’.

Sorry this one took so long. It was a beast working out the varying rolls and everything with everyone. And my weird work schedule didn't help much.


1 person marked this as a favorite.

Humourous but not Funny

Spoiler:
It’s not like I can’t understand what’s bothering Aurora. I worry about her as well. And beyond that, I can understand why she’s so worried. If everyone I had ever cared about had died, I might be overprotective of those around me as well. So, don’t get me wrong. I get it. I’ve just always chafed a bit under the watchful eyes of those I love.

Heavens know my parents could tell you all kinds of stories. Like the time I snuck out to walk to the library during a lightning storm because my mom didn’t want us going outside until the storm had passed. Got pelted with hail for my trouble. Also, grounded. But dammit, I got that book I’d wanted. And six others. Hey, I needed something to do that afternoon and the internet was down, because, again, lightning storm.

It was something Aurora and I would have to work on. I could devote myself to her, but I also need freedom to take the dumb ass risks that sometimes are just a part of who I am. I gotta be me.

Speaking of dumb ass risks, I may have used too much C-4 on the phylactery. Because the explosion shook the entire Runeforge complex like a major earthquake. The cops showed up, telling us that the people on the demiplane two blocks down were calling in noise complaints. Our landlord slipped a passive aggressive note under the door telling us he was jacking up the rent by a hundred a month because we violated the complex’s ‘no party’ clause. And our downstairs neighbors started banging on their ceiling with a broom handle.

No, but seriously, the explosion shook everything, almost knocking me from my feet. Once the rumbling stopped, we checked to make sure that the coffin was destroyed. Destroyed was the wrong word. ‘Rent Asunder’, perhaps. There were pieces of it embedded in the walls. And the floor. Not the ceiling though, which was instead riddled with dents where pieces of stone had bounced off of it.

But regardless, the phylactery was utterly destroyed and all its magic had dissipated. To quote one of the great thinkers of my generation, Cyborg: “BOO-YAH!”

As we reached the central Runeforge chamber, we were nearly bowled over by the Rangers, who were running our direction at full speed. They smelled awful. Like, Comic-Con awful. “What happened?” one of them asked. “The ground shook.”

I couldn’t help myself. “The ground shook? Perhaps you made love?” Aurora made a choking sound. I grinned.

“What?”

“Well, you see, when a man and a woman, or a man and a man, or perhaps even a man and a high end sports car love each other very much, sometimes the man…”

“Kyle,” Aurora chided.

“Sorry. We may have gone overboard destroying a lich’s phylactery. How about you guys? You seem to have gotten into some s#%!. Literally.” I zapped them with cleaning magic to make my point.

“Thanks. Yeah, we encountered resistance. Before you get mad, we didn’t intend to engage anything, but these demonic ooze things ambushed us and dragged me into the water – if you can call it that. I was lucky that Joei managed to release that water elemental.”

One of the other adventurers blushed. “I was just throwing levers and hoping something good would happen,” she said.

I laughed. “We’ve all been there. Good job, you guys. Now, tell me, what intelligence do you have for me?”

“Oh, right. Here’s the map we’ve drawn. The water elemental is currently in this room. It ignored us after the oozes were gone. It’s probably still in there, furiously trying to clean up the room, not that it will be an easy job since there are pipes still pumping in that disgusting sludge.”

“We’ll go there first and see if we can shut those off,” I said. “Again, excellent job. Get some rest.”

The smell when we entered the halls of Sloth was intense and disgusting. I’ve never smelled anything that bad, and I’ve been in some sketchy as hell gas station bathrooms. The scent seemed to be coming from channels of some horrific effluvium. Calling the place a sewer would have been a kindness.

“Those walkways look slippery,” Aurora noted, looking a bit green around the gills.

“Yeah,” I said. “I noticed that. Give me a moment to prep a spell. We’re going to rise above this.” I pulled out my spellbook and got to work. It was harder than you’d think, and I was surrounded by a bubble of fresh air that would help shield me from the odor. It was that bad, that it was getting through. I can’t imagine how bad it was for everyone else.

Once I was done, I cast the spell, giving each of us about twenty minutes of wall walking. For my next trick, web slinging and sarcastic quipping during fights.

<You already do that second one.>
<Sarcastic? Moi? You wound me, sis.>

We walked up the walls to bypass the dangerous walkways. Well, everyone except Geo, who used the climbing ability to just walk along the walkway without risk of falling. Spoilsport. At least Lenn was enjoying it. I’m sure he’ll have somehow given himself the ability by this time next week.

The massive water elemental was furiously scrubbing the room when we entered. As the Rangers had told us, more disgusting fluids were flowing from pipes high on the wall. I cast a spell to let me speak Aquan, the language of the plane of water. “Hey there,” I said. “Sorry this place is so messy. The old owners were slobs.”

“Filth. Filth. Filth,” the elemental repeated, ignoring me.

“Good chat. Look, we’re going to try to turn off these pipes to stop the filth from flowing, then we’re going to go on ahead and make sure there aren’t any creatures left to get in your way, so you can clean in peace. Once you’re done cleaning, if you head out to the central chamber, one of the other tunnels leads to a place with a likely portal to the plane of water so you can get home. Just ask the mephits when you get there.”

It stopped cleaning and studied me for a moment. “Good,” it said. “Fair trade.” It then went back to cleaning, leaving us to study the levers. Upon inspection, there was a plaque underneath the levers, but it was unreadable due to being covered in filth. Easy enough to fix with a little magic.

Sure enough, each lever was labeled. Once we could see that, it was simple enough to pull them, though we had to have Lenn do it since they were stuck. Once that was done, the flows trickled to a stop. That should do it.

We headed down a fairly narrow hallway, too narrow for Lenn to walk on the wall, so he had to walk in the shallow sludge. We’d have to burn those boots if my magic couldn’t get them clean later. About thirty feet down the hall, it opened up into a round chamber maybe fifteen feet across.

Once Lenn reached the middle of the chamber, he disappeared under the sludge. I reacted quickly, conjuring a trio of small water elementals. “Our friend fell in the muck,” I told them, still speaking Aquan. “Pull him out, quickly!” They clearly didn’t like the idea, but they were bound to my will and did it.

They dragged Lenn up, coughing. “Gross!” he roared. “I breathed in some.”

“Paulie, you got a disease curing spell?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah. Let me get him.”

I commanded the elementals to check under the muck for any dangers, then cleaned Lenn with magic. A few moments later, the elementals returned, carrying a magic rod and a bag emblazoned with the rune of Greed. “What did you find?” I asked the elementals.

“Body below. No dangers. This was all he had left.”

“Thanks,” I said. “You did good.” I took the disgusting stuff and let them disappear, returning home. After cleaning both, I checked in the bag and found the wizard’s spellbook, which had been protected from the sludge thanks to the bag’s magic. Nice. At the rate I was going, I would have my own library of spellbooks soon enough.

We continued along, coming to a room where one of the walls had been eaten away by the toxic sludge, carving out a cavern in the sewer. That got me to wondering what would happen if the walls were breached. Were we in some kind of vaccuum? Was their air pressure outside? Was there an indestructible wall around the Runeforge? Scary thought. I mean, I’ve got protection. But what about the others?

I didn’t have long to contemplate the matter, because out of the water flew a pair of giant tadpoles. I recognized them immediately. “Chernobues!” I shouted. “Be careful, their poison is extremely dangerous.” They were Qlippoth, natives of the Abyss I’ve mentioned before. These particular creatures are known to love spreading their filth anywhere they can, trying to destroy mortals and end the existence of sin in a bid to prevent demons from spawning in the Abyss. Basically, a giant turf war between Qlippoth and demons, with us mortals caught in the middle as a strategic resource one side wanted to deny to the other. Of course, these could swim through the air.

“GLORIOUS!” Paulie shouted. Crap. “Come forth, my ancestors! Let us share in the glory!” He conjured an army of ghostly figures, all armed with bows.

When in Rome, do as the Romans. When in the Festering Halls of Sloth, summon things to fight for you. And when the cat man summons his axe crazy ancestors to fight fiends, don’t let yourself be outdone. I don’t think they cover that lesson at Hogwarts.

I conjured a Bralani – a type of celestial I’ve mentioned before – to help me. She popped into existence before me, took one look at the Qlippoth and grinned. “You,” she said to me, “can summon me any time you want!” She turned into a ball of wind and began throwing lightning bolts and blasts of air at the foes. Bralanis love a good fight.

Aurora gave me a dangerous look, one eyebrow raised. “Friend of yours?”

“Never met her before.” I didn’t need to read her mind to tell that she was a bit skeptical about that.

Aurora used her gun rather than risk flying over the water. Geo and Lenntu abused their wall walking to get into prime striking range. Lenn, being Lenn, flew straight at them. When the fight was over, we had to fish him out of the water, again, after he flew right into a wall. I’m getting the feeling that water elementals everywhere are starting to form a union to demand people like me stop sending them into the muck after their friends.

We entered what can only be called the ‘Throne of Sloth’ and, let me tell you, it was a sight. In each corner of the room was a slow flowing pipe, dripping differing colored liquids: red, black, green and yellow. Yep, you guessed it. The ‘Four Humours’. And here I had hoped that stupidity was just an Earth thing. Well, I guess the ‘Four Elements’ were a thing here too, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

On the massive throne sat a corpulent, bloated blob of a man. From his chest erupted a mass of slimy tentacles. “Greetings, foretold heroes. You have done well, clearing out those fools from the other wings. Lord Krune was wise to let you live. I, Jordimandus, his humble servant, bid you welcome.”

Paulie gave him a look and began laughing heartily. I glanced over at him once he’d stopped and he just shrugged. “Don’t mind him,” I said. “He’s strange. Look, we’re not unreasonable. So we’ll make you an offer. You will go with us to the place where your master was putting people in stasis and we’ll do the same to you. Then, once he wakes up, if he wants to come get you, that’s up to him.”

“And let you continue to mess up my home when it’s already how I like it? Sorry, but even if the master wants to see you destroy Karzoug, and yes, he has indeed figured out your target, you can’t just walk into a man’s home and start messing with his things.” He cast a spell, conjuring five babau – emaciated horned demons whose leathery skin weeps an acidic sludge, perfectly fitting for this environment – between us and him.

I laughed. “Interesting words to speak to a group of murder hobos. Well, maybe not hobos anymore. We do own a house. Anyway, a fight it is, then.”

“One moment,” Paulie said. “Tell me, Jordimandus. What would the chief priest of Lissala say if he knew you had consorted with demons? That WHAT WOULD KRUNE SAY IF HE KNEW YOU SERVED JUBILEX?!” Oh, wow. I had completely missed that.

“You’ll never find out!” Krune shouted back. “Attack!”

He conjured more and more monsters to keep us from reaching him, including a hezrou*, a trio of chaos beasts** and a number of varied elementals.
<*Massive, scaly, disgusting demons; **Writhing masses of tentacles whose very touch can cause one’s body to lose the stability of its form>

Honestly, the demons were a wise choice. I’ve already shown a tendency towards using lightning to attack and many demons have a natural immunity to electricity. Devils might have been a better choice, considering our firebug tiefling, but still, it wasn’t a bad choice at all. The joke was on him, however. I didn’t have much left in the way of direct attack magic prepared.

I did have one more summon spell of any merit left. I used it to conjure up a quartet of Lantern Archons. Immediately after doing so, I realized that those would have been great against the nightwing. Oh well, we lived, it was fine. And they were doing a fairly good job of focusing on individual demons to thin out the enemy ranks.

Jordimandus had taken to the air and was raining down damaging spells on us. Honestly, despite the dangerous acid spells he was throwing, I was more worried that he might go all Asylum Demon and try to butt slam us. He was a rather large fellow, after all.

Then he decided to do something stupid. He blasted Lenn with a disintegrating ray.

Our companion cried out in pain, but survived the blast. Geo flipped instantaneously back to Jack. “Master Kyle, I implore you, bring him to the ground so that I might tear out his heart with my bare tentacles.”

His voice, calm yet icy, sent a shiver down my spine. Still, I couldn’t resist. “Will do. But I should warn you, there might be protective magic on him, so you’ll need to repeat the chant of protection when you do so. I’ll teach it to you.” He nodded and I cast the spell to cause my body to emit an antimagic field. “Aurora, alley oop!”

She turned and nodded. I ran towards her at full speed and jumped into her interlaced fingers. She lifted me as hard as she could as I jumped again. Once in the air, Juiz activated the stabilizing jets for a boost.

The look of surprise on Jordimandus’ face as I grabbed his dangling leg was priceless. The look of terror as he realized he was falling, equally so. But I’d bet the best face of all was mine when I realized that he was above me as we fell.

I narrowly avoided becoming a mancake, but still managed to remain close enough to the corpulent wizard that he couldn’t fly away. Stuck on the ground, he couldn’t even stand on his own.

“Wait!” the wizard cried out. “Please, don’t hurt me! I have information you’d find useful. I can tell you how to use the Runeforge! And there’s more about the prophecy that I can tell you! Just please, spare me!”

I gave Jack a look. “Sorry, Jord, can I call you Jord? But it seems my friend Jack here has his heart set on this.”

Jack laughed sinisterly at my inadvertent pun. He then straddled the man and began chanting. “Kali ma, Shakti de! KALI MA SHAKTI DE!” And as the wizard screamed in a mixture of terror and pain, he ripped the writhing, black, be-tentacled heart from the man’s chest.

It was horrifying, but part of me wanted to laugh at the fact that I’d actually gotten him to chant that. Well, that was one more thing off the old bucket list.

<Your bucket list is really weird.>
<There are some things a man just has to do, you know?>

The sounds of fighting died down fairly quickly after that. “Everyone okay?”

“The vile fluids in the corners were alive and attacked us,” Paulie said. “So I killed them. Gloriously.”

“Yeah, that’s probably fine.”

Lenn held up the limp form of a dead quasit. Where had that come from? Jordimandus’ familiar? “Can I make this into sausage?”

“Probably best not to,” I said. “I’m sure it would ruin the flavor of anything you put it into.”

Lenn licked it and made a disgusted face before tossing the corpse away. “Okay.”

Jack held up the slimy heart of Jordimandus. “Can I keep it?”

“Probably best not to. But let’s take a vote. All in favor of burning the demonic heart before something horrible happens, raise your hand.” Everyone but Lenn and Jack raised their hands. “All who instead want to let him keep it?” Just Jack. “The ‘Burns’ have it.”

Jack shrugged. “Was worth a shot. Just curious, really. So tell me, Master Kyle, why did you call me Jack earlier?”

Oh crap, I did say that aloud, didn’t I? “It’s just when your personality shifts like this, you remind me of someone famous back home.”

“Oh? What was he famous for?”

“He was, uh, very curious about the internal anatomy of people and wasn’t one to let a little thing like the fact that people were alive dissuade him from studying their insides.” Well, to be fair, no one really knew what Jack the Ripper’s modus operandi was. So, yeah, no one needed to tell him that I thought he was a few drinks away from murdering hookers out in the fog.

He grinned. “I like it. You may continue.”

We searched through Jordimandus’ things. He had some interesting stuff, but most interesting was the set of notes and one sealed letter tucked into his spellbook. The notes were basic observations, including his suspicions on what would work as catalysts for weapon-making in the Runeforge. For the most part, my guesses had been right. Either he had been bluffing about his knowledge of the prophecy, or it simply wasn’t written down.

The letter was more interesting by far. I touched it and the seal reacted, allowing the letter to unfurl on its own.

To the Star Traveler,

I bid you greetings. My divinations have revealed to me that you shall be facing off against my hated foe, Karzoug, when your time comes. So it is that I have decided to help you. You find yourself at a crossroads. By this point, you realize that you need a weapon made of the Runeforge to continue, but you know not who best to wield it. Of course, you also likely suspect that if one is not attuned to it, one will have trouble wielding it properly, which would also be a mistake.

Long ago, for you at least, the lords of the Runeforge learned a method for discerning what Virtues of Rule one was most attuned to. At least, they claimed to have done so. By taking a person who embodied all Virtues and giving them a drink from the waters of the Runeforge itself, they could see the Virtue that the person’s disposition most opposed. Again, or so they claimed.

In truth, they could see something, but they lacked the ability to decipher what they saw. That is why I am most excited that you have made it this far. You see, the prophecy has stated that you alone would understand these visions. That you alone would have the knowledge needed. So, in the spirit of friendship with one who would bring down one of those opposed to me, I give you this knowledge.

I understand that you will not likely be one who embodies all Virtues, nor is it likely any of your companions will either. But our divinations have revealed that one can still make it work if you can take the lacking virtues into yourself temporarily, though what that means, they did not say.

It is my sincere hope that when I return, I will find you waiting with a hand extended in friendship and gratitude for my aid. It would be unfortunate if you were to forget those who did you favors in the past.

Your friend,

Krune

Huh. Weird. Well, it was at least understandable why he might help. And perhaps better to risk us winning than to risk waking to find Karzoug ready to destroy him. It was a simple matter of probabilities. If we lost, then he was one hundred percent screwed. If we won, well, maybe he’d be able to negotiate with us. Bide his time before trying to destroy us.

And, of course, there was the possibility that we’d die even if we won. So yeah, smart money was on hoping we’d win.

I explained the note to the others. Aurora didn’t like it. “Perhaps if one of us did it and told you?” she suggested. “You might be the only one who can break the enchantment, if it’s a trap.” It was a fair point. But I still got the feeling that it wouldn’t work if someone just described it to me. Maybe the vision is dependent on the person, for instance, and I was the one in a million point where the vision would be understandable?

“No, I think it has to be me. Look, we can also just take a guess at what works best. No guarantee, of course, but it’s worth consideration at least.”

“What are the odds it’ll be the deciding factor in our final confrontation?” Lenntu asked.

“No idea. I suspect small, but perhaps not negligible.” I sighed. “Let’s do it. If worst comes to worst, just kill me and revive me somewhere when you have someone who can break the enchantment.”

“I still don’t like it,” Aurora said. “But if you think it’s best, I’m with you. Do you have any idea how to accomplish it?”

I held up Jordimandus’ list of ingredients. “Yeah, I think I have an idea. But it’s kinda disgusting.”

And so it was that about an hour later, I found myself standing before the Runeforge, holding a tankard filled with a mixture of Ethillion, waters from the Pool of Elemental Arcana, ashes from the flames of Wrath, Inib wine and – most disgusting of all – a mixture of the four humours from the throneroom of Sloth. Next to me stood Juiz, holding a small cup filled with liquid from the Runeforge.

I drained the tankard. It took all I had just to avoid throwing up. “The other one, please. Quickly.” I downed the liquid from the Runeforge in a single gulp. You know, it wasn’t that bad. Tasted a bit like Pepto Bismol, which was handy because I really needed some right now.

The world seemed to partially melt away and I saw a formless being standing next to me. “Greetings!” he said, jovially. “I am the spirit of the Runeforge, not that you can understand me…wait, you CAN understand me?” I nodded. “Glorious day! At long last, the master has arrived! I knew you would come. I just knew it! I could sense it in you when you first arrived. That’s why I called out to you.”

So that’s why I had felt drawn to the Runeforge when I first arrived? “Slow down here,” I said. “I’m your master?”

“Yes! You slew the other lords of Runeforge and you can understand me! I am at your service, Lord.”

“What is your name?”

“I have no name. I am simply the embodiment of this place, an amalgamation of seven arcane essences given life. If you wish to give me a name, I will gladly accept it.”

“Fair enough. Vigil, then.” Yeah, I know. Laziness. I promise, I’ll let Aurora name our children if the best I can come up with is Squall Leon or Yuna Rikku.

His eyes widened in awe. “Oh heavens, I think I like that name. Vigil. Yes, that will do quite nicely.”

“Okay then. Vigil, I’ve been told that you can tell me what Runeforged weapon would best suit each person.”

“Well, sort of. I don’t know, myself. But I can show you the form of that which they should contest. None before has managed to understand it, but you are the first to understand me. You are the master. You will understand.”

Well, it was worth a shot. “Show me.”

I witnessed the world melting away before my very eyes. I was back in space, walking among the stars. Nothing was happening around me, but I knew there had to be something. Yes, as I looked, I began to see it.

Constellations. I could see them. My mind overlaid lines upon the stars and it began taking shape. Aurora and Geo were fighting a giant serpent. Lenn battled a boar. Lenntu fought against a massive bear. And Paulie was facing against a wild-eyed goat.

Heh. The prophecy wasn’t kidding when it said I would possibly be the only person who could understand the signs. Not only did I see the constellations, which might be difficult for anyone, but I knew what each of those meant. Because it was in an anime. As to how that happened, I don’t know. But the four humours stupidity had reached across worlds, so why not this?

Aurora and Geo were battling Diane, the Serpent Sin of Envy. For them, I would combine Wrath and Gluttony to give them each a weapon against abjurers. Lenn was fighting Merlin, the Boar Sin of Gluttony. For him, I would combine Envy and Lust – weird, but he does like hookers – to make a weapon against necromancers.

Lenntu was fighting King, the Grizzly Sin of Sloth. For him, I would combine Wrath and Pride, to make a weapon against conjurers. And Paulie was fighting Gowther, the Goat Sin of Lust. For him, I’d combine Gluttony and Greed to make a weapon attuned to fighting enchanters.

That left me. But I couldn’t find a constellation for me. “Vigil, am I not represented?”

“No, Master. You are hard to read. It is likely because of the magic you worked to commune with me.”

“Ah, I see.” Well, truth said, if the others were set in stone, there really was only one choice for me. We needed one, after all. “Okay, take me back. It’s time to begin crafting.”

“Of course, Master. Now that you’ve been attuned, you can touch the waters of Runeforge with no danger, so make use of my power as you need.”

We were back in the room, everyone looking at me like I was crazy. “They can’t see you. Any way to let them see?”

“Oh, yes. If your mind gives me form, I can let them see whatever form you give me. Though only after they are attuned to their weapons.”

“Let’s get working, then.” I crafted each weapon, but before giving them to the others, I cast a spell to allow me to hear their thoughts. I was worried about what effects these weapons would have on their minds. Vigil tried to assure me that they would simply amplify their natural tendencies, but still, I was concerned.

Juiz had been handling the weapons so I wouldn’t touch them after they had been enhanced. With her artificial mind, she would be immune from the empathic weapons’ effects. She gave Lenntu his gun first. His mind was a jumble of competing thoughts, but finally the weapon and his mind attuned. “The path of virtue! Freedom from tyranny and fear. LIBERATION!” Vigil crowed. He didn’t seem to be concerned over what the attunement was, simply exultant in serving his purpose.

Next came Paulie. His mind was also a jumble – which is normal, for the cat man. More than that, it became a cacophony of voices each speaking at once, before ringing out as a number of bells as they all attuned. “I hear many voices!” Vigil marveled. “For some, the path is that of sin. The ability to join together with others and take what they need. PARASITISM! For the rest, it is the path of virtue. The ability to join with others to benefit both sides. SYMBIOSIS!”

Lenn was next. His mind was mostly blank, but it began to attune with an intensity I hadn’t seen. “The path of sin,” Vigil said. “Envy of others, not what they have but who they are and what they can do. JEALOUSY!”

Then came Geo. “There are two minds within, though they are somehow the same and different all at once. For one, it is the path of sin. Taking joy in hurting others to advance oneself. SADISM! For the other, it is the path of virtue. Willingness to do what is necessary to help others, no matter how much it hurts oneself. COMPASSION!”

Aurora came next. Unlike the others, there was no moment of hesitation. She attuned immediately. “The path of virtue! Duty, honor and concern for the well-being of others above oneself! COMPASSION!”

Finally, it was my turn. With trepidation, I took my gun, which I had modified with the power of Pride and Lust, from Juiz. My mind was filled with images. Such terrible images. It was as if I could see the world of the future. With the power I had gained, I could return home and become the greatest person to ever live. Whole nations – no, entire worlds! – would bow down before me. All I had to do was reach out and take it.

I would be a dictator, but I could do so much good. I could end poverty. I could prevent all war. Disease would be a thing of the past. The world would be perfect. It would be difficult. But I could make the world what it truly should be.

I had thought these things before, like many of my generation. Thought that, if the world would just listen to me, just hear my wisdom, then it would be a better place. I had the power to make the world listen now. And with Aurora at my side, I was sure we could truly make the world a better place.

But that would rob people of their free will, their right to choose their own destiny. No, I couldn’t. That was the path of sin. I wasn’t okay with that. Who was I to dictate what was right? Not even God took away man’s right to choose his path. What right had I to do so?

But perhaps there was another way. Not the way of the dictator setting the path, but of the trailblazer, finding one of many paths, clearing the way for others to follow. Some would follow me, and I would hold out my hand to pull them along forward with me. Yes. That I could do.

The images the weapon showed me began to change. No longer did I see visions of rule. None bowed before me. I instead saw myself running forward, and others following behind. And there were those beside me, helping blaze the trail.

And that was the way, wasn’t it? To be the tip of the drill, revolving ever forward, with each step becoming more than we were before. Little by little, advancing with every turn, each person’s dreams revolving together in a many-strand helix, drilling forward to tomorrow. That’s Tengen Toppa! That's Gurren-Lagann! Our drill would be the drill that creates the very face of existence, from tomorrow, to the day after and the day after that, up into an infinite future!

Vigil stared at me, his mouth open. His face told me that I had done something unexpected. “Th-The path of Virtue! The desire to lead only those who wish to follow in creating a shared path to a better tomorrow!

“COMMAND!”


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Spooky Scary Skeletons

Spoiler:
Death is often described as cold, and the grave as foreboding. Well, when we entered the Gluttony wing of the Runeforge, known to the empire of Thassilon as the Ravenous Crypts, we certainly felt all of that. Aurora was especially affected by the aura of desecration my magic senses could see all around us. She described it as feeling “wrong, as if the very air was dead”. But she was far from the only one. Each of us felt uncomfortable in that place.

Except, of course, Geo. Whatever that man has done to himself, he’s no longer like the rest of us. At this point, that truth is plain as day. I don’t think he’s truly undead either, though. If anything, he’s perhaps like a dhampir: living, but at the same time, very much not.

So, of course, he felt right at home in the Ravenous Crypts.

We entered the first chamber of the crypts, a circular affair whose walls were decorated with ten giant skulls carved out of stone. And, in case the whole death motif was too subtle to indicate that this place was for necromancers, six mummies popped out of the mouths of the skulls to attack us. I tried to grab my Abbot and Costello pokeball to throw at them, but somehow I left it in my other pants.

Paulie, still stuck in firebug mode, did something more useful and lit one on fire. So I took my cue from that and activated my armor’s wand crystal, launching a fireball into a small group of them before they got close enough for me to risk hitting an ally.

All in all, it was a refreshingly straightforward fight. Our melee fighters beat the ever-loving crap out of the mummies in very short order, and Lenn didn’t miss a single hit. Feels good, man.

Beyond the chamber was a walkway that stretched over a hundred and fifty foot deep pit, the walls of which were lined with hundreds, maybe thousands, of coffins. All of those were empty. Because of course they were. Feck my life.

There were ornate doors leading off in all four directions. Aurora felt something evil to the north, so we decided to bite the bullet and get that part over with. We didn’t want whatever it was coming for us from behind. So we went north. Or, at least, I think it was north. I wasn’t exactly using a compass, but based on where I was facing when we entered the portal and the turns I’ve made since then, I think it was north.

Beyond the double doors, we discovered the source of what Aurora felt. A gaping black portal from the Plane of Negative Energy stood before us. Well, that explained why the whole place felt evil.

Let me explain. Positive energy is like a fire, a fire from which all life springs. It is said that even our very souls are constructed of bits of this fire. In small amounts, it is safe, even very necessary. In large amounts, it would blast apart the atoms of your body.

Negative energy, on the other hand, is like the ocean. Cold, uncaring and, more than anything, hungry. And in the same way that positive energy is the source of life, negative energy is the source of undeath. This was an extremely dangerous thing to leave lying around.

Feeding the portal was a pair of pylons, one on either side. “We’ll just see what Mister C-4 has to say about that,” I said. “Juiz, be a dear and set up a charge on each for me?” As an AI controlling a suit of powered armor, she wouldn’t have to worry about her life force getting sucked into the portal. I could have also sent Geo to do it, I suspect, but sometimes I worry about his judgment.

“Understood,” Juiz acknowledged. A few moments later, we retreated to a safe range and I hit the detonator.

Mister C-4, a very stable compound of few words – a true stoic among explosives – only had one thing to say. “Boom!” he intoned, shattering the pylons into a million pieces. And then all hell broke loose. Or, more specifically, the collapse of the portal created a kind of suction in its death throes, dragging something from the other side into this world. And it was a doozy.

On the seam where the Plane of Shadows touches the Negative Energy Plane, there exist creatures twisted by darkness and evil, beings of shadow called Nightshades. It is said that the heroes of Valor’s Triumph faced down a great number of these under the control of a rogue devil during the battle for the city. That tells me just how powerful they must have been, because just the one was an incredible foe.

What came through was a bat-like Nightshade, colloquially called a ‘nightwing’ – not to be confused with an adult Dick Grayson. Its greatest asset is its flight, which was limited in the portal room. “Everyone, keep it in there! Don’t let it get into the larger room!”

Aurora charged and put herself between the foe and the door. Lenn followed, then Geo snuck in past them to attack from behind. Lenntu fired over their shoulders, while Paulie and I remained behind them.

It was a creature of shadow, so I hit it with a blast of radiant light, but it resisted. It still didn’t like the light. “Keep trying that!” Aurora called back, calling up her halo. The nightwing recoiled from the light.

“I’m out!” I called. “Paulie, you have any light-based attack spells?”

He fugued again. “Why are we trying to hurt the poor bat? We should, like, live in harmony with all of Mother Planet’s creatures! All life is sacred, you know?”

Oh crap, the hippie. “It’s an undead from another plane!” I told him, exasperated.

“Oh, that’s okay then. Undead are, like, bad!” He held out his hand and a beam of searing light struck the enemy. This time, it didn’t resist, howling in anguish and trying to push past Lenn and Aurora, who managed to just barely hold it back.

I had to do something. If it got past them, we might be in serious trouble. But I was out of offensive light spells. All that I had left… heh. Spell resistance is a fun thing. It protects you against magic, but not always against the consequences of magic. I cast a spell, creating a light strong as day upon a coin and held it up. I walked forward, so that it would have to pass me to get to Paulie. And if you don’t know what came next, you haven’t been paying attention.

“You cannot pass!” I shouted. “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the Flame of Anor. The dark fire will not avail you, Flame of Udun! Go back to the shadow. YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”

Paulie launched another blast of light, and once more it tried to press past, wanting to kill him more than it wanted to escape the light I held. I heard voices behind me. “We are Rangers. We walk in the dark places no others will enter. We stand on the bridge, and no one may pass. We are One. We live for the One, we die for the One." I glanced behind me, and there three stood, each holding up a sunrod – an alchemical torch that puts out as much light as the spell I had cast. As they spoke, they each activated another, so the light coming from behind me was blinding.

The light was too great and the nightwing tried to retreat further back into the other room, and right into reach of Geo. I don’t know what he tore out. But he tore something out and the nightwing crashed to the floor. We advanced, holding our lights before us. It weakly tried to flee, then Lenn put it out of its misery.

I was touched by how quickly and how thoroughly the adventurers had taken to the Rangers, but I didn’t want to risk losing one on the first day. Yet, I couldn’t tell them to stay where it was safe. So, I decided to turn this into a teaching moment. “Thank you for the help. Your intervention was timely.”

“We couldn’t just sit around while you fought to clear this place out.”

I nodded. “Understood. But these halls are too small for so many. So instead, how about I put you to your first official task as Rangers?” They nodded. “Okay, the most important task as a Ranger is gathering intelligence so that the organization can act on it. So that’s what I want you to do. Head into the Sloth wing and try to map out what you can. Take your time, keep an eye out for traps. Avoid engagements when possible. If you reach a point where an enemy blocks your way, fall back to the central chamber and set up a defensive line. Remember, the information is the most important part. Come back with it at all costs, but don’t take unnecessary risks. If you die, no one can bring back the information.”

They voiced their acceptance of the order and headed out. I turned back to the others and Aurora’s expression was filled with approval. I could feel some teasing coming on, so I suggested we get going.

We picked one of the two remaining doors randomly and headed south. The hallway curved back west, leading into an ornate crypt. At a distance, I could see an inscription under a well-kept sarcophagus. It read:

Lord Anklerius Mankray Inib of House Inib
Master Vintner and Beloved Father
An assassin’s blade did what hundreds of duels could not.

Standing – maybe the wrong word – next to the sarcophagus was a clay statue plated in iron. It had the lower body of a snake and the torso of a naked woman – no nipples, anime style. Its head was a sihedron rune. “Lissala,” Paulie said. I knew that one. That made me feel better after the whole Milani thing.

Quick background. Lissala is – was? – goddess of runes, fate, duty, obedience and the rewards of service. It was from her that the Thassilonian virtues of rule came. All in all, not a good person. Rune-headed snake thingy. Whatever.

At this point, it didn’t surprise anyone when the statue started advancing on us. “Another golem?” Aurora asked.

“Yeah, probably.”

“Will my ammo work for Lenntu?”

“Yeah. Toss him your clip of adamantine ammo before engaging, please.” It was nice to have these simple, straightforward fights once in a while. Something for Lenn to beat down. It keeps him happy, and that makes the rest of us less nervous. Happy Lenn, happy party, I always say.

No, I really don’t ever say that. But bear with me here. I’m just relieved not to have to face some horror from beyond. Give me a nice, simple golem any day. Or even better, a dude in armor with a spear. Something simple, straightforward and not horrifying, is all I ask. If only every fight was like this.

After the fight, Paulie grinned and walked over to shelf. He grabbed a bottle of wine, popped it open and took a swig. “Whoa. This is Inib wine! Dude. Sweet.” He downed the rest of the bottle.

Aurora and I exchanged a glance. “Well,” I said, “let’s throw a few bottles in the bag. If nothing else, maybe we can use them in the Runeforge?”

“I WANT SOME TO MAKE SAUSAGE!” Lenn roared. One of these days we’ll get him to understand the concept of ‘indoor voice’. But there were dozens of bottles, maybe as many as a hundred. We could certainly get a couple for him too.

Wine safely stowed in magic bags, we went back to the crossroad walkway and continued on through the final door, heading east. Straight into a room covered in blood, gore and half-harvested corpses. Because of course we did. I knew I was going to get smacked down for feeling relieved.

I examined the corpses to see if they had been harvested for magic use or for eating – we were in the Gluttony wing, after all – and was able to determine that it had been done for magic. Though I’m not sure that made me feel any better. I think I would have been happier if they’d been feeding them to the dogs or something. I also wasn’t happy by the level of skill the harvester displayed. We were dealing with a powerful necromancer here.

From the clothing that they still sort of wore, the corpses had come from the Abjurant Halls of Blah Blah Blah. Yeah, you know the place. Envy. They had likely taken as many corpses as they could during the uprising, and it looked like they were rationing them. Rationing. CORPSES.

Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality. Open your eyes, look up to the skies and SEEEEEE! Okay, I’m better now. I think.

Beyond that chamber was a workshop, though it looked unused. Still, there were a number of valuable chemicals lying around. There were also books. As we examined the place, I noticed Geo putting some books in his bag. “Anything interesting in those?”

“In what?”

“Those books you’re putting in your bag.”

“I’m not putting any books in my bag,” he said as he put another book in his bag. I gave him a look. He glanced down at his hands. “How did this book end up in my hand?” I just shrugged. I wasn’t going to answer. I’m not sure I’d survive making Jack mad at me.

From there, the path split north and south. We ended up going north first, chosen via coin flip. Geo led the way, and not just because I wanted to keep him where I could see him, though mostly because I wanted to keep him where I could see him.

We walked into another laboratory, where we found some kind of zombie hungrily munching on a corpse. When Geo entered, it regarded him suspiciously, then shoved the entire liver in its mouth, like a little kid trying to keep a treat away from another kid. Creepy.

Then the zombie saw Lenntu. If this were a cartoon, I’m guessing that would have been the point where the audience sees Lenntu as a giant chicken leg or something, because he charged straight at the big guy.

That was a mistake. Lenntu smacked him with the butt of his gun, knocking him to the ground. Then the other melee fighters surrounded the prone undead and hacked it to death. It was pretty pathetic, if I’m being honest.

After the fight, Geo began grabbing more research notes. As he did so, I stopped him after noticing a few words on one page. “What is it?” Aurora asked me.

“I think we’ve found info on how they preserved Zutha, the Runelord of Gluttony.” Paulie, a little drunk, started giggling. “Anyway, they were planning to make a special phylactery, a book in three parts. Once reassembled, this ‘Gluttonous Tome’ would allow him to return.” We would have to let the Rangers know. Finding that tome, coating a piece of it in concrete and mailing that concrete to another planet would be a pretty high priority.

We headed out of the lab and headed down the remaining hallway, coming up against more of those damn mummies. But this time, we faced them in a hallway, making it hard for our melee fighters to get engage.

But we had other options than melee. Aurora took up the front, I laid on the ground just behind her and fired from between her legs, while Lenntu stood over me and fired his shotgun over her shoulder. My automatic fire was particularly effective at chipping away at the mummies, I must admit.

Then Lenn got bored, pushed past us and took out the last two on his own. I’m more surprised that he waited the full thirty seconds to get bored, if I’m being honest. He was being nice and quiet while we looked through the previous lab, like that fidgeting kid at the bank that you just know is desperate to run screaming through the lobby, flinging deposit slips at the old lady with the bag of pennies.

Inside the crypt, Geo found a hidden passage in one of the biers. Why he was looking in there, I will not speculate. But he found it, and we headed through it and into another lab.

And that’s where we found the lich. Because of course there was a lich. And sadly, this one wasn’t so incompetent that he turned himself into a patch of fungus like the last one.

“Greetings,” he said urbanely from his seat at a workbench. “I am Azaven, master of these halls. I must kill you all. For that, I apologize. Your body parts are too valuable to my research to let slip from my grasp. But I promise you, if you cooperate and tell me of the world outside, I will make your deaths as quick and painless as possible.”

“Counter offer,” I said. “You let us kill you quick, and we won’t be forced to use the remains of your phylactery in the manufacture of codpieces for the elderly men at Saint Albius’ Home for the Sufferers of Disgusting Venereal Diseases.”

Lenn aside, everyone in the room gave me one of those head-tilted, eyebrow-raised looks that tells you that they can’t believe what the heck you just said. Well, to be honest, the lich didn’t raise his eyebrow. He didn’t have eyebrows. Oh, he had flesh, but very little. But no eyebrows.

“A pity,” Azaven replied, then struck me with a powerful necromantic attack spell one of my instructors liked to call ‘Finger of Death’, because the caster points a finger at you and you die. Look, these are left-brained thinkers here. Creativity isn’t usually their strong suit.

That hurt like hell. Against a wizard, that spell is a killer. Someone stronger, like Aurora or Lenn, probably could have tanked through it, maybe even shrugging it off like it was nothing. But I’m just a wizard in power armor, which, while good against things like rays of fire, is useless against necromancy.

I felt myself falling, losing consciousness. The last thing I remember before hitting the ground was the sound of Aurora screaming my name. It looked like game over. And it would have been, if not for two things.

The first was that I also done a little necromancy that morning, weaving a shell of necromantic energy that could take some of any damage I took, making wounds that should have been fatal merely painful, and wounds that should have been extremely fatal only somewhat fatal. So yes, I still died, and with that, I still collapsed to the ground.

But that’s where my second preparation had come in. I had enchanted my armor with the power of Determination, the ability to automatically heal its wearer if they fell unconscious or died in combat. It was very expensive, but extremely useful when you needed it, even if it could only work once per day. I was going to put it on Aurora’s armor, but she insisted that I do mine first. After this, I would be putting it on everyone’s gear as soon as I had the resources and the time.

As I hit the ground, I felt a wave of healing energy hit me. I opened my eyes in time to see Paulie walking over to me. He cast a massive healing spell on me once he reached me, and suddenly I felt as good as new.

Paulie helped me to my feet and I took in the sights of the room. The lich had put up a wall of force between us and him, giving him time to cast buff spells with impunity. To keep us busy, he had summoned a devourer, a terrible undead creature that consumes the souls of the living to fuel its powers. Aurora and Lenn – halos out – had engaged it while Geo was once more at its flank, trying to perform a living autopsy of sorts.

Lenntu was trying to shoot through the wall, ineffectively. Like trying to use a blaster on a droideka. “Help them,” I told him as I cast a spell on myself to allow me to see through the illusory defenses I saw Azaven casting. “This lich is mine.”

“Like, got a plan?” Paulie asked me.

“Twelve percent of one,” I replied. “I’m thinking I’ll use some spells I prepared in case Lyrie showed up today. Got anything that can really mess up his day?”

“Totally.”

“Good. Then get ready. It’s you and me. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” I gave Azaven a death glare and held out my hand. “SHAKA WHEN THE WALLS FELL!” I shouted, unleashing a magical ray of disintegration at the magical barrier, utterly destroying it.

Azaven attempted to cast a spell, but Paulie was faster. Chains of light erupted from the ground, binding the lich. He could still move, which meant he could still cast, but it was difficult. It became even more difficult when Aurora charged him and began striking him repeatedly.

Thank god this wasn’t World of Warcraft, or I might have had to yell at Aurora for breaking the crowd control. But the chains held.

“HOW?!” The lich cried out.

“Kiteo, his eyes closed,” I said. Understanding was beyond him anyway. “It doesn’t matter. None of this matters, for you at least.” I held out my hand again. “In the name of God, impure souls of the living dead shall be banished into eternal damnation.”

“AMEN.” Aurora and I said simultaneously. I’d have to thank Kira again for getting us those animes. It was nice having Aurora understand what I was saying. Next: MEMES. AHAHAHA!

<You’re such a dork.>

Another disintegrating ray shot out from my hand, striking the lich. He roared – not in pain, he would feel none – but in outrage. And then he was silent forevermore. The river Temarc in winter. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

The others finished off the devourer, so Paulie went over to heal them up. Aurora, meanwhile rushed over and grabbed me by the shoulders. She looked me over, scowling. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

She hugged me tight to her. “Don’t scare me like that!” she said. She was crying, so I held her. It was a little awkward since we were both in armor.

“Sorry,” she said. “I don’t know why I’ve been so emotional. Just please, promise me you’ll be careful.”

“Don’t worry. Nothing’s going to happen to me.”

“Okay,” she said. “Now what do we do?”

“We have to find the lich’s phylactery.”

“Why don’t we have a drink or three first, to celebrate?” Paulie asked. That wine wasn’t going to last through the end of the wing at this rate. I found myself wishing there was something for him to light on fire just so I wouldn’t have to deal with the hippie anymore.

“Once everything’s calm, Master Paulie,” Geo interceded. “But first we should see what’s down that hidden trap door.”

What. “Trap door?” I asked.

“Over there, in the corner. Can’t you see it?”

Now I was annoyed. “Of course I can see it, but I need proof you can see it. Open it.” No, I couldn’t see it. But I was cranky after having died. Again.

<You were dead for less than a second.>
<Eight point oh three two milliseconds, to be precise. What’s your point?>
<Oh, you.>

“See?” Geo said. “Right here.” He opened the hatch, revealing a ladder down into another chamber. He dropped right down through the hole. None of that did anything to make me less cranky.

I followed after Geo. We were in another crypt of some kind with three sarcophagi. “Hold back,” I told the others. “The room is fairly small and we don’t want to crowd the place. I’ll just use my magic sight to look for traps while Geo looks for more mundane ones.”

Only, I didn’t get to complete the last sentence. Three words in, I noticed Geo opening one of the sarcophagi. It doesn’t matter which one. All were emanating obscene amounts of necromantic magic.

Picard, his hand outstretched. Picard, his face in his hand.

Decorative reliefs upon the walls shifted, unleashing a wave of powerful necromantic energy through the room. I cried out in agony. Not gonna lie, there might have been tears. It hurt a lot. I vaguely recall Aurora crying out my name in concern.

There was kind of a clicking sound all around, as if the trap was trying to draw on a source of fuel that simply wasn’t there. Then it was silent and I was lying there in Aurora’s arms. Once she was sure I was okay, she dropped me. “You jerk!” she shouted, storming over to the ladder but not leaving the room.

Geo, none the worse for wear – in fact, he looked more vibrant and alive than before – had managed to open the first sarcophagus. Within was a pile of valuables, which we gathered up for deconstruction later. In the second, which I only let him open because the magic aura was gone, was a pile of books.

Geo began examining the tomes, but before he could snatch any, I stopped him. “Nope,” I said. “Those are spellbooks. Mine.”

Geo grinned. “Fair enough. Let me know if there’s anything I might find useful in there.”

Like that would happen. “Sure.”

The final sarcophagus had a magical aura remaining, but it was different than before. I had Geo open it, but not until I was on the far side of the room. Aurora put herself between me and the danger, but she still didn’t say anything.

It was all for nothing. The stone coffin opened with no incident. I went back to inspect it and was amazed at what I saw within. The Lich was beginning to regenerate. It was very, very preliminary, but there could be absolutely no doubt.

“What’s that?” Geo asked, pointing at the newly formed bone fragments.

“This whole coffin must be his phylactery,” I said, using my magic sight to confirm. “Yes, it seems to be.”

“So, what do we do?”

I pulled a full brick of C-4 from my back. “Do you even need to ask?”

We headed back up the ladder and Paulie healed my wounds once more, taking the time to do so more efficiently with numerous smaller spells. Then, only when he was sure I was okay, Lenn hit me.

“What the hell?!" I asked from my vantage point on the cold, hard ground.

“STOP MAKING AURORA CRY!” He pulled me to my feet and his face was inches from mine. I would have to invest in a toothbrush for him. “She’s a girl. It’s not good to make girls cry.”

I thought he was going to hit me again, but Aurora intervened. “It’s okay, Lenn,” she said, her hand on his forearm. “Our work is dangerous. Sometimes one of us is going to get hurt. I don’t like it. It terrifies me to think something might happen to him, or any of you, for that matter. But it could happen. I just have to get used to the idea and try to remember that, no matter what happens, so long as one of us lives, they’ll make sure to bring back the others.”

Lenn let me go. “That’s okay then.” He glared at me again before his face returned to its usual oblivious expression.

“That said,” Aurora whispered into my ear after Lenn had walked away. “If you die on me and don’t find a way back, I swear I will find you in the afterlife and kill you.”

It’s great to be loved. “Right back at you.” I held out the detonator. “You want the honor?”

“We’ll do it together,” she said, giving me one of those smiles that turn my brain to mush.

Just like my parents always said, it’s the little things couples do that keep a marriage strong.

A Star Wars reference followed by a cluster of Star Trek references? It's more likely than you think. :P


Vanykrye wrote:
I'd read your silly side project.

Alrighty, once I figure out where I'm going to host it, and finish a couple, I'll toss a link in here.

Though it won't be until I have reached a point where I'm waiting on the other guys to move on to the next section of the main plot, so I wouldn't expect it til at least once Chapter 5 is done.


1 person marked this as a favorite.

Grapes of Khan

Spoiler:
So, apparently, I don’t know everything. Yeah, I’m shocked too. I would have thought that after ten years, I’d have a finger on the pulse of Golarion. But it seems there’s at least one entire faith I’d never heard of.

Paulie and Aurora filled me in on Milani’s deal. Apparently she was a minor goddess who had previously been a saint in the now dead god Aroden’s faith. Now, she’s the patron deity of those who seek freedom from oppression. As the Rangers were founded specifically to prevent the return of the oppression by the Runelords, she fit fairly well.

So, that only left one question. Why was that in my dream? Had I tapped into knowledge I didn’t realize I had, perhaps something gleaned while I wasn’t paying attention? Or had someone sent me a vision? Either way, it was interesting, though the latter only opened more questions.

<Maybe we’re famous, fam!>
<If Erastil shows up to ask us our favorite biscuit recipe, I’m out, k?>
<Before or after you tell him how to make Granny O’Halloran’s cheddar soda biscuits?>
<Before. Some things have to be kept family secrets.>

We considered the remaining wings and decided that the denizens of Wrath were the most likely to take a proactive approach and hit us while we were distracted. So that’s where we’d go first. Then on to Gluttony and finally to Sloth. We hoped we could count on Sloth to procrastinate doing anything to attack us until we came on our own terms.

The entrance to the Halls of Wrath was actually fairly tastefully elegant, with polished black marble floors and walls sheathed in white marble. This continued on into the first room, a rather large chamber whose primary feature was a mural that covered the walls, depicting a red headed woman on the back of an enormous red dragon, holding a flaming ranseur above her head.

On the far side of the room was a thirty foot tall platform that led to a hallway further into the compound. In front of the hallway stood a ten foot tall statue made of iron depicting a woman holding a bow. Yeah, sure. “Aurora, switch your gun to steel-jacketed adamantine rounds. Paulie, Geo, use adamantine arrows. Lenn, hit it if it gets close. Lenntu, sorry, but I forgot to load you a drum of adamantine bullets.” Meanwhile, the statue reached up and pulled a rope, setting off bells ringing through the room, and likely through the complex.

The iron golem flew above our heads, firing bolts of energy from its bow. It was not really ready to deal with adamantine bullets. Nor was it prepared for me to launch a lightning bolt at it, which slowed its movements and attacks to a crawl. It had to rest on the platform to fire, making it easier for us to shoot at.

Most direct magic is useless on a golem, but each has a set of weaknesses. An iron golem is weak to lightning, which slows it. Luckily for me, I like keeping a lightning bolt spell prepared for situations where I just really need to hurt something.

Truth is, most adventurers would have needed to resort to flight magic to hit this enemy. But we had guns and the right ammo for the job. All in all, it wasn’t too hard of a fight. Lenn did seem to be getting a bit frustrated by his inability to hit it, though.

Aurora and Paulie flew up onto the platform – Paulie was really getting the hang of his armor’s flight capabilities – and lowered a rope for the rest of us. Not to be outdone, I played with my power armor’s Van der Waals generator and spider climbed right on up. An unnecessary use of battery charge, to be sure, but fun. Everyone else climbed up the rope with little issue.

Down the hallway, we found a smaller room with a pair of runic circles inscribed on the floor. I studied them and was able to determine that they were magical transports paired with similar circles in another room elsewhere, one as a ‘to’ and the other as a ‘from’. They would be able to take four of us at once.

Aurora, Lenntu, Geo and I went first. We appeared in a similar room connected to what appeared to be some kind of training hall. We could see movement within. They were forming up to fight us. Geo stealthed and crept into the room. I hit their back line with a burst of radiant light while Aurora and Lenntu rushed forward.

Lenntu struck the first enemy with the butt of his shotgun, knocking what appeared to be a sinspawn prone, then shooting it in the face. Aurora whirled in and cut another sinspawn down. Behind me, Lenn and Paulie ported in. Lenn charged and struck a sinspawn down and Paulie peppered another with arrows.

Then the enemy counter attacked. Behind the line of sinspawn was a group of mage-knights. They launched a volley of explosive fireballs. That hurt like hell. But it had other effects than just injuring us.

I heard high pitched giggling a bit behind me and to the left. I turned in horror. I knew that sound. “YYEEE!! FIRE!” Paulie shouted with glee. And then he launched his own fireball, much more powerful than theirs.

“Oh shi~!” I half said. “GEO, LOOK OUT!” My warning came too late. Geo was more than a little singed by it, but he ignored the direct hit and struck one of the mage knights from behind. Several of his attacks whiffed, despite looking like they had connected. “They’re using an illusion to appear a couple feet from where they are!” I warned the others.

Angry at the fire, Lenn rushed a mage-knight, and whiffed. “RARGH!” he roared, swinging once more and whiffing again. Aurora dealt with the magic by making wide swings, sacrificing some hits to ensure others would connect. Geo did the same, striking with his dagger in one direction and his tentacles almost like a shotgun.

Lenntu did what I suggested and flipped the switch on his gun, going from slugs to scattering shot, then firing in the general direction of foes. Paulie launched cones of flame, not caring who he hit. I carefully selected a zone of fire that would exclude my allies, then just held down the trigger and went full auto into an area that should contain three foes.

When it was over, aside from the two sinspawn, Lenn hadn’t hit anything. He was getting really ticked off about that. It took Geo several moments to calm him. Meanwhile, we looked around. There was a dining chamber of a sort and a number of small, Spartan bunk rooms just off the training rooms. Additionally, there were two additional chambers, one on either side, with pairs of teleportation circles.

I was surprised to see how young the mage knights were. They looked to be no more than seventeen or so. There had to be something strange going on here. Where were the adults? The real adults? Had they all perished during the whole thing when the Lords of Envy had tried to take control of the Runeforge?

We weren’t sure which way to go, so, after healing up, we picked one set of teleportation circles and stepped in. This time Geo and Lenntu came in during the second port.

We found ourselves in a room with nine more mage-knights. They seemed to be involved in some kind of research, intensely studying a cauldron of some kind of bubbling mass that smelled horrific. “Spread out!” I told the others, figuring we could expect more fireballs. “Don’t make yourselves a good target!”

Once more, Lenn was having serious trouble with these people. The rest of us managed well enough, though I burned through so very many bullets doing so. I still had several magazines, but I knew I would definitely need to make more soon. It didn’t help that I couldn’t risk using grenades and had to check my fire to avoid hitting the shelves filled with alchemical supplies. There was no telling how bad that could get if we hit the wrong two bottles at once. All in all, it was a fairly standard fight except for one thing. Well, two if you count the fact that Lenn whiffed every single one of his hits.

Several of the ‘researchers’ used their swords to toss globs of whatever the heck was in the cauldron at us. Later inspection revealed it to be a type of proto-flesh, kind of a magical and/or alchemical vat of stem cells on lysergic acid diethylamide, if you know what I mean. We mostly managed to dodge it, but Geo and Lenntu both got hit.

Geo grew a completely useless eye on the tentacle that got hit. Lenntu grew a tiny, emaciated arm from the spot on his shoulder that was struck. After the fight, we managed to remove both, though Geo wanted us to keep the place intact for later study. Seeing how much he wanted it, we reluctantly agreed.

<Nothing bad could possibly come of this.>
<Look, I was outvoted again.>

Research notes all around the room suggested that they had been working on dealing with the problem of lowered population. It seems that they do a kind of ‘Logan’s Run’ thing around this place. Once someone reaches a certain age, they’re allowed to breed, then are converted into sinspawn for use as defenders and, well, target practice. That explains the lack of older folks around.

But too many were lost in the fight with the Lords of Envy, so they needed more people to maintain a viable reproductive population. So they needed to find a way to revert the sinspawn to people. All things considered, it was an interesting solution. Certainly better than going to the halls of Lust to find some breeding options.

We ported back to the other room and took the alternate set of circles to a different chamber. This one looked like some kind of personal training room, likely for the leader of the wing. Heck, instead of torches, even magical torches, the room was lit by a bunch of ornate magical weapons. Was. Lenn thought they were pretty and yanked them out of the wall.

Some light remained, coming from glyphs on the wall that I recognized as being associated with magic weapon creation and evocation, specifically with the evocation of fire. They were more than enough to illuminate the wall of smoke that blocked view of what was beyond the door on the far side of the room.

The smoke wasn’t real. It turned out to be nothing more than an ornate illusion, like the wall I’d created to block the magic mirror in the Halls of Pride. We were able to walk right through it, and found ourselves in a room full of crazy. The first thing I noticed was that the ceiling was on fire. Or specifically, there was a wall of fire on the top of the room. It bathed the room in a warm red light and left the temperature about fifteen degrees higher than I would have liked. Not that I really noticed, enveloped in my magic bubble of cool air. I just saw Aurora sweating a bit and felt bad about it.

On the ground, there was a massive silver sihedron pressed into the floor. There was also another crazy mural, once more of a red haired woman who I’ve come to believe to be Runelord Alaznist. Her face was contorted in rage. Kinda like the face of the white haired woman flying up near the wall of fire. Well, the nine faces of the woman flying near the wall of fire. She was using mirror images to make it harder to hit her.

“I am Athroxis! I know not who you serve, but your invasion ends here! For Fury and Hellfire!” She shouted it in Thassilonian, so only Paulie and I fully understood her words. But I’m pretty sure her tone conveyed the important parts to the rest. Still, that would have been a great time to have a Hellfire missile at my disposal. The irony would have produced such hilarity.

She wasn’t alone. There was a Glabrezu flying up near her, which was weird. I didn’t think they had the ability to fly. But Athroxis was likely a wizard, so she probably did that.

“I’ll take the demon!” Aurora said, unsheathing her wings. “Kyle, support me!” I love it when she takes charge. Rowr.

“On it! Paulie, conjure your spiritual bow and focus on firing arrows to purge the mirror images!”

“I wanted to light her on fire!”

“The ceiling’s already on fire!”

“FINE!” he pouted.

Lenntu and Paulie peppered her with gunfire, everyone staying spread out to avoid likely fireball retaliations. So, of course, she opted for bigger hits. Icy cold winds and shards of ice erupted from her hand, buffeting us and causing some serious damage.

Aurora and I didn’t have too much trouble with the Glabrezu. He tried to use a spell to reverse gravity and throw some of us into the wall of flames, but I managed to counterspell him before it was too late. Aurora then kept on him so he would be unable to cast. The holy power of her rage tore through his defenses, causing massive damage.

In one of her passes, Athroxis got close enough for Lenn to swing at her, but he missed. The frustration reached its boiling point. “WHY IS EVERYTHING SO HARD TO HIT?!” he roared. He focused and began screaming in rage. His halo appeared, which was normal, but then the wall of fire above started swirling, which decidedly wasn’t.

A massive gout of flame, a whirlwind of fire, reached out from the wall, as though Lenn was pulling it in. His halo began turning from blue to red, then burst into flame. From his back erupted tendrils of flame, like Aurora’s wings, but made entirely of fire.

Aside from Aurora and the demon, the fight had stopped, all of us watching in shock as Lenn did what once again seemed impossible. His axe burst into flame and he charged straight at Athroxis. His mighty blow sent her flying into the ceiling. She passed through the fire and struck the stone above with a powerful crack.

“We’re doing that?!” Paulie screeched. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?! YEEE!” His body became enveloped in flame and his flesh was replaced with living fire. Fire Elemental Paulie then shot out of his armor, into the air and slammed into the stunned Athroxis as she passed once more through the fire, slamming her upward again.

Lenn launched upward again, catching the falling wizard with another blow and once more slamming her through the fire and into the ceiling. Then Paulie hit her again. And Lenn. It was a brutal, no holds barred beatdown.

Aurora also wasn’t what the demon was expecting. I don’t think he planned on fighting a child of celestials. He tried to retreat, but there was nowhere to run. He dropped to the ground and attempted to strike her with multiple attacks.

That was a mistake. Geo had been waiting. When Aurora dropped down and attacked the demon from the front, Geo came at it from behind. It cried out at her flurry of blows as they bit into its flesh. It couldn’t even cry as Geo drove his dagger into a soft part of its carapace and jammed his tentacles inside. They rooted around and withdrew holding something that looked important.

Aurora delivered the final blow, rising into the air, through the wall of flame and kicking off the ceiling into a dive, driving one end of her double bladed sword through the demon’s skull at full speed.

Once you parse out Lenn’s sudden growth of flame wings, I’m not sure which part of the fight was more insane. And how the hell had he done that? I mean, I know I’ve seen him do some things, but this was crazy even for him. And it got me wondering about the halo in the first place.

So, in the aftermath of the battle, I asked him. “Lenn, buddy, how did you do that?”

“Don’t know. But Aurora has a halo and wings, and she’s normal like me, so I knew I could do it.” I don’t even know where to begin with logic like that. But it confirmed for me that he didn’t know. There was one other question.

“Lenn, what’s up with that mark on your head?” He had a new glyph on his forehead, right in the indentation where the giant had hit him so long ago.

He shrugged. "I like it."

“I might be able to answer that,” Juiz chimed in.

“Go ahead.”

“Several of the notes about the Runeforge note a ‘Mark of Wrath’ gifted to the leader of the servants of Wrath here. It increases their strength and aggression in combat.” Great. That was just what we needed. A stronger, more aggressive Lenn.

The body of Athroxis was charred and barely recognizable. Only through the magic imbued in them did her gear survive. We grabbed that and some of the ashes around her. I had the feeling that those would serve as fuel for the Runeforge, though I wasn’t entirely sure.

I studied the sihedron circle on the floor with magic sight and confirmed what I suspected. This was the ‘Master Circle’, spoken of in Vraxeris’ journals. Any teleportation magic cast here would open a portal outside, probably back to the place we entered the Runeforge.

As we made our way back to the teleportation circles, I stopped Geo, asking him to help me adjust a strap on my bag that had gotten loose and ensuring that he and I would be the ones left to teleport after the others. While he was distracted, I cast a spell. “What did you do to Lenn?” I asked once the others had teleported.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, but I think you do. You implanted something into Lenn, didn’t you? So, again, I ask, what did you do to Lenn?”

His face contorted, once more becoming twisted and cruel – his alter ego, who I have started calling Jack after ‘Jack the Ripper’. He grabbed me by the collar and slammed me into the wall. “Something glorious!” he shouted.

But that’s not all I heard. My spell allowed me to hear his thoughts. “Tell me,” I said, doing my best to feign calm. “Where exactly did you get the heart of a Peri?”

It was a valid question. There was no ‘Body Parts R Us’ where you could walk in and go, “Hey, where’s Peri?” and walk out with the fiery heart of a celestial being thought to be descended from fallen angels.

His eyes blinked and he reverted to normal. “H-How did you know that?”

I smirked. “Lucky guess. Mind setting me down now?”

He suddenly realized our position. “How did that happen?”

I shrugged. I don’t think telling him about his crazy alter ego was a good idea right then. “So, where did you get it?” I asked as he let me go.

“I needed it, so my friends got it for me.” Still reading his mind, I had to hide my shock. The worshipers of Nethys from before had gotten it for him. He needed it to ensure Lenn survived the brain surgery. There was more to them than I had realized.

“Fine. Fair enough. But, you haven’t implanted anyone else with anything, have you?”

“Of course not. I have had no need to do so.”

Then, from the recesses of his mind, I heard the voice of Jack. “Not yet, anyway.” Then he gave a sinister laugh.

I barely managed to avoid running full speed to the teleportation circle.

As an aside,

Spoiler:
I'm almost caught up to where we'd ran up to(we sat down for a couple hours and semi-ran the entire Runeforge last time our GM was in town). If I get bored while waiting for GM and other player to help me prep the next section, I might start working on a silly side project I've been considering. If anyone's interested in checking out my Alternate Universe "Runelords High School" project, let me know and I'll leave a link after I have one or two entries up, though I will not update this thread any further with stuff about that afterwards.


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Horny Demons

Spoiler:
After spending several minutes considering the hilarity of building a catapult to launch clone corpses at one of the other wings, we continued on to the Halls of Lust. In truth, I had been dreading this. It was gonna be like that one time, back in college, when I went to that one party and everyone was doing ecstasy and I had to leave before that dude came back and tried to hump my leg again.

I did come back to drop off a couple cases of Gatorade – hyponatremia can be just as bad as dehydration, you know – in hopes no one would die. I hear the cops ended up getting called on them a couple hours later. Probably for the best.

The entire wing devoted to lust was one massive chamber. If Pride had built a chapel to self-aggrandizement, Lust had erected a cathedral to debauchery. Massive marble columns carved into the shape of a naked woman who had obviously been a bit cold when she was modeling made a ring around the room, perhaps ten feet away from the walls. Along the walls were various cages. We could not see any cages with someone actively in them, though there were likely many obscured by the massive silk pavilion in the center of the room.

The ceiling was ninety or so feet high and domed. A fresco painting covered the ceiling with images of men and women engaged in all manner of depraved carnal acts. I heard Aurora gasp as she took it all in. “Juiz, would you be a dear and record images of everything in here, making special note of the mural on the ceiling?”

“Affirmative,” Juiz responded.

I gave Aurora a questioning look. Her cheeks were flushed and she was obviously aroused. “Ideas for later,” she whispered in my ear. I love that woman.

A quartet of bat-winged Alu-demons – the half-demonic female offspring of a succubus and a mortal – flew around the room, leering at us. Two of them clung onto pillars above and began commenting on their suspicions of each of our sexual prowesses. When they got to me, their description of what they wanted to do to me set Aurora off. I had to stop her from shooting them then and there.

I had a better idea. “Greetings!” I called out. “We’ve come to trade with your Mistress, Delvahine! We learned from Vraxeris that we need something that she can provide to help us in our fight with the Runelord of Greed!”

Their eyes went wide at the word ‘Vraxeris’. One of them closed her eyes, likely telepathically contacting her mother. A few moments later, I heard a voice in my mind. “Friends of Vraxeris?”

“I wouldn’t call us friends,” I sent back. “But we bear him no ill will, and he has been invaluable in aiding our cause.”

“And you seek to slay the Runelord of Greed?”

“In the most exquisitely painful way we can manage. Perhaps you could offer us tips on how to prolong it so we can enjoy it the most?”

I heard her laugh in my mind. “I *LIKE* you. Come. My daughters will escort you all inside and we shall see what you need – and what you have to offer in exchange.”

“What’s happening?” Aurora asked.

“We’re going inside to trade?”

“Trade?”

“If nothing else, I can make her a copy of my porn collection.”

“Oh, that’d be okay.” I think she had been jealous. Aww.

Aurora and I took the lead as we were led into the massive pavilion. Of course, we ran into trouble as soon as we entered. “Hold!” I called back.

“What is it?” one of the demons asked.

“Those,” I said, indicating a number of stone giants in front of us.

“They’re harmless,” she responded.

“One of our companions might fly into a rage and attack them if he sees them. Think you can draw that curtain before we continue?”

She regarded me carefully. “Will he be a danger to any of us?”

I shook my head. “He can be controlled as long as it’s not giants,” I said. “It’s a bit of a thing for him.”

She rolled her eyes then used her ranseur to reach up and pull the curtain closed. “Can we continue now?”

“Lead on.” As we walked through the pavilion, something bugged me. “Do you people have enough pillows in here, or what?” They were everywhere. It was like someone was a hoarder or something.

“Do you not like it?”

“It just looks like a Bed, Bath and Beyond threw up in here, is all I’m saying.”

We walked into the pavilion’s central chamber and found Delvahine reclining upon another mound of pillows. Before she or any of the rest of us could speak, Lenn beat us to the punch. “YOU LOOK LIKE THE HOOKERS!” he said.

The succubus’ eyebrow twitched dangerously. “Oh?”

I sighed. “Vraxeris had six simulacra of you hanging out in his bedroom.”

“WHAT?! I’ll kill him!” She looked like she was ready to rush off and do it then and there.

“Well, I have good news,” I said.

“Speak!”

“Like, the brah forgot to renew his clones or something, so he suffered some gnarly death,” Paulie, having changed again when we weren’t looking, said.

She gave him a strange look and then began laughing. “That idiot! No wonder I haven’t seen him in so long! Oh my, mortals, you have brought me such amusement today! But tell me, if he’s dead, how did you learn about me?”

“He was, like, too dead to object to us reading his diary,” Paulie replied.

“Fair enough,” she said, still grinning, one wicked fang peeking out from under her lips. “Tell me, what is it you need from me?”

“If we’re understanding the notes correctly, we need one of your “naughty toys” to infuse a weapon with the ability to pierce through Karzoug’s Occlusion Field,” I replied.

She considered it. “I think I can part with one, but in exchange, I want one of you to join me in my boudoir for, say, ten minutes of fun?”

I grinned. I knew she would say that. “I think we can arrange that.”

“Kyle,” Aurora protested.

“Not me, love.” That wasn’t what she was protesting. You had to be a moron to sleep with a succubus. But I had an idea. “Geo’s been wanting some alone time with a beautiful woman.”

I saw realization dawn, but she hid it immediately. “Oh, that’s okay then. I just didn’t want to share.”

The succubus laughed. “Fair enough.” She appraised Geo, taking a good long time looking at his tentacles. “I think I like this one better anyway. Come, Geo.” She led him through the door to the boudoir, tapping the wall and magically closing the curtain behind her.

So we found ourselves waiting with four scantily-clad alu-demons. I needed to distract them before things started. “How about I sing while we wait?”

“Sounds good,” Aurora replied.

“Juiz, track four thirty six, please.” I took up my position.

“Understood.”

“It's close to midnight and something evil's lurking in the dark
Under the moonlight you see a sight that almost stops your heart
You try to scream but terror takes the sound before you make it
You start to freeze as horror looks you right between the eyes,
You're paralyzed”

As I danced and sang, I heard Geo tap the radio to on. “Please, beautiful. Let me get behind you so I can have a good look at those beautiful wings as we go for it.”

“'Cause this is thriller, thriller night
And no one's gonna save you from the beast about to strike
You know it's thriller, thriller night
You're fighting for your life inside a killer, thriller tonight!”

“Ooh,” the succubus cooed. “I love the feeling of your tentacles on my skin. And those little claws, such exquisite pain to go with pleasure.”

“Then you’re going to love this,” Geo said.

That was the signal. “NOW!” I commanded, ending the song abruptly. Aurora and Lenntu struck, taking the closest two alu-demons down before they could retrieve their ranseurs. Lenn looked confused at first, but trusted us, so he drew his axe and attacked a moment later. His target tried to deflect the swing with her weapon, but his powerful blow went straight through.

I could hear the sounds of the giants from the next room making their way in. But I had other things on my mind. “Go!” Aurora told me. “We’ll take care of the giants!”

“GIANTS!” Lenn roared.

I cast a spell to protect me from evil and then tried to open the door into the boudoir. You wouldn’t think silk curtains would be that difficult to breach, but these weren’t made of ordinary silk – some kind of spider silk, if I had to guess – and were pulled taut by magic. There was no time to fiddle with the latch. For all I knew, it was keyed to Delvahine. But I didn’t need to activate the latch. I just needed to get through somehow.

I set a breaching charge. The directed explosion shredded the silk and created an opening. I rushed in and was shocked by what I saw.

Geo was strewn across the room, yet somehow I think he got the better end of the deal. Two shining children – semi-humanoid creatures of solidified light from an unknown evil plane – lay dead near the largest parts of Geo’s corpse and Delvahine wasn’t in much better shape.

In his surprise attack, Geo had managed to cut both of her Achilles’ tendons. He had also managed to break both of her wings. One of his spiked tentacles had raked across her throat, tearing her larynx. She had backed into a corner, cowering.

I hit her with a magical spell to dimensionally anchor her, preventing her from teleporting away. I held out my arms and Juiz separated the armor from me. “You’re wondering why? Tell me truly, you were planning to kill Geo, weren’t you? Oh, right, you can’t speak. Well, let me guess. You tried to drain Geo’s life force, but something was wrong, wasn’t it?” I grinned. “It was almost as if you were trying to drain the life of an undead, yes?” I could tell from the look of horror on her face that realization was dawning. I’m not even sure if she realized that Geo would pull himself together shortly.

She attempted to swing her whip at me, but Juiz intercepted it and yanked the weapon from her hand. “Permission to put this creature out of her misery?” Juiz asked.

She was probably right. I had gloated enough already. “Sorry, it’s nothing personal, really. You were a danger to us and we don’t make deal with demons, is all.” I turned my back to her. “Juiz, activate wand crystal. Force bolts, continuous volley until target is dead. Aim for the soft tissue. I don’t think Geo will be happy with us if we damage her skeleton.”

“Understood.” Since Juiz was taking care of that and it seemed like the others had the other room well in hand, I decided to finish my performance.

“Darkness falls across the land
The midnite hour is close at hand
Creatures crawl in search of blood
To terrorize y'awl's neighbourhood
And whosoever shall be found
Without the soul for getting down
Must stand and face the hounds of hell
And rot inside a corpse's shell
The foulest stench is in the air
The funk of forty thousand years
And grizzly ghouls from every tomb
Are closing in to seal your doom
And though you fight to stay alive
Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist
The evil of the thriller.”

Once I was certain that Delvahine was dead, I popped my head back into the other room and saw that they had just finished the last giant. “Hey, guys, we’re gonna have to wait an hour while Geo pulls himself together again.”

“Bummer dude,” Paulie said. “But at least we have time to explore this place.”

“What happened?” Aurora asked as she walked into the boudoir. “Oh.”

Lenn walked in behind her, took one look at the room, and then punched me as hard as he could. “What the hell?!” I asked. From the floor. Eight feet back from where I had been.

“DON’T BLOW UP GEO!”

“That WASN’T ME! It was the Shining Children!”

He looked at the corpses. “Oh. That’s okay then. Fighting those by himself was stupid, but Geo does stupid things sometimes.”

What.

I decided to let it pass and we began searching for anything useful. Most importantly, we found a number of jeweled sex toys. We put them in a bag we found, carefully using my forge tongs to avoid touching them. Because eww.

Outside of the pavilion, we found a number of cubes that held rotting corpses. That was strange. The magic of the Runeforge should be preventing that. Unless there was a differing localized effect here that overrode the general effect of the Runeforge? I studied the magical auras with my magic sight and came to a horrified realization.

This magic did not maintain ontological inertia. Whereas the magic of the Runeforge simply suspended the ravages of time, the magic here simultaneously blocked that effect and placed a new one on the inhabitants that stopped aging when someone reached sexual maturity, because of course it did. But the magic was sloppy. Anyone who walked out of this wing would suddenly feel all the weight of the time they had spent within, aging in an instant.

That might not be a problem for something that can be preserved through the ages. Metals kept under the right conditions, for instance, would be fine. An immortal demon like Delvahine would also be free to come and go as she pleased. But a person? That would get real gross real fast. Of course, we would find someone in there after I’d thought of all of that.

He was trapped in a force cage lined with gold and silver in a far corner of the cathedral. I ended up using my power armor’s wand crystal to slowly bust through the walls and free him. After that, he tried to attack us, but Aurora and Lenntu subdued him.

He was pretty far gone. The succubus and her daughters had drained much of his life force, and the abuse had left him insane. If we had been back home, all that would have been left for him is to live the rest of his life sedated in a padded room so he couldn’t hurt himself or others.

But we weren’t on Earth. Paulie used a couple spells to cure both maladies as simply as if he were magicking away a nick from shaving. Well, not so easily. The amount of raw magic required was much higher. But you know what I mean.

The man introduced himself as Nelevetu Voan. He had apparently been a commander in Sorshen’s army, but had run afoul of one of the caretakers of this wing of the Runeforge shortly before the fall of Thassilon. He had spent centuries here, enduring the worst sexual tortures imaginable, before it finally broke his mind. They would heal him and start it all over again.

While we waited for Geo, he told us stories of ancient Thassilon, of the brutalities the Runelords, all of the Runelords, had visited upon their people. He begged us to stop them from returning. I promised him that we would find a way to stop Karzoug but that I wasn’t sure what we could do to stop the others.

But there was one thing we could do at that very moment. “Help me?” I asked the others, jumping to my feet. “I’m smashing all of these cages.” It was symbolic at best, but it was an important step. Nelevetu gave me a strange look. “What?”

“I’ve seen this before, in a vision. All of you, this moment.”

Interesting. “Wouldn’t be the first prophetic vision about us,” Aurora noted. True enough.

Geo returned a bit later, after we had destroyed about half the cages. “Cleaned up the succubus’ skeleton?”

“Why would I do that?” he asked, genuinely puzzled.

“For your collection?” Lenntu asked.

“I don’t have a skeleton collection.” He seemed to have returned to normal. Well, as normal as Geo gets.

“That you know of,” I quipped before letting him know what we had learned from Nelevetu and why we were smashing the cages. He joined in and we finished about an hour later.

Once the cages were destroyed, we all sat down to decide what to do next. Paulie had burned through a majority of his high level spells, and I wasn’t far behind. Pushing forward without replenishing was folly. No, we had taken care of Envy, Greed, Pride and Lust. We could rest before tackling Sloth, Gluttony and Wrath – not necessarily in that order, of course.

In truth, thanks to the Runeforge’s magics, we didn’t need sleep. But we did need to wait until the magical pathways in my mind refreshed, which was about twenty two or so hours after the last time I woke up. Which meant we needed to rest.

There was no point in creating the magic mansion. We didn’t need food or sleep. But since I had time, it behooved me to create the workshop and get cracking on breaking down and reconstructing some of the loot we’d gained. That robe alone would take up most of the time the assistants in charge of breakdowns would have.

We went back to the Halls of Envy first and had the adventurers there join us in the Lust wing. It was more comfortable there, and we would be able to work together if someone from one of the other wings came out to attack us.

After crafting something glorious for Lenntu, a massive electromagnetic riot shotgun whose design I called ‘Requiem’, I found Aurora seated on a cushion against a wall, relaxing. She patted her lap, beckoning me over.

I laid there for an hour, talking with her as she gently ran her fingers through my hair. Then, buoyed by the feeling of comfort, I fell asleep.

I had another dream. This one wasn’t like the others. I don’t think it was a vision of things that had happened. Nor did it seem like a hint of things to come. Instead, I think my unconscious mind was sorting through the things I had learned about ancient Thassilon, trying to figure out how to prevent the world from living under that tyranny ever again.

It was the American Revolution that I saw. I was fighting in it. Instead of Redcoats, it was soldiers of Thassilon. I took a hit from musket fire. Lying on the ground, I could see the streets were filled with blood, but out of the blood grew a single red rose.

Then, as life faded, I found myself once more floating among the stars. I heard first one voice, then many. They spoke words that I knew, and I quickly found myself speaking with them. “The universe speaks in many languages, but only one voice. It speaks in the language of hope.

"It speaks in the language of trust. It speaks in the language of strength and the language of compassion. It is the language of the heart and the language of the soul. But always it is the same voice. It is the voice of our ancestors speaking through us and the voice of our inheritors waiting to be born. The small, still voice that says: 'We are one. No matter the blood, no matter the skin, no matter the world, no matter the star. .. We are one. No matter the pain, no matter the darkness, no matter the loss, no matter the fear. .. We are one.' Here, gathered together in common cause, we begin to realize this singular truth and this singular rule that we must be kind to one another. Because each voice enriches us and ennobles us and each voice lost diminishes us. We are the voice of the universe, the soul of creation, the fire that will light our way to a better future. We are one.

"We are one.”

I found my consciousness racing through the stars, and I could hear other voices. The whole universe, perhaps. I rushed forward, star by star, until I came to a planet. I traveled down to the world, and into a mountain, through a portal. Then I found myself floating over my own sleeping form. Lenntu, Nelevetu and several of the adventurers had come to speak with Aurora. They were whispering, so as not to wake me.

“I understand what you mean,” Aurora was saying. “But how can so few stand against the return of an empire like you describe?”

“I do not know,” Nelevetu responded. “I only know that I feel like a great darkness is coming, and I feel powerless to stop it. I find that I do not like this feeling.”

Lenntu nodded. “We have fought great odds before, but this feels like too much. Like trying to hold a single bridge against a massive army, our fate merely to be ground down to dust before them, no matter how many we can stop before we fall.”

“I wish there was some way we could help you stop Karzoug,” a female adventurer said. “But the truth is that this seems too big for so few of us.”

“Stopping Karzoug will buy us a longer time of peace. Indeed, it is our best hope to retain the peace,” Aurora said. “But if even one slips through, it may be for nothing. We need to be victorious over all of them. And that is an even larger task.” That was it! I knew what we had to do. I willed myself forward, once more into my own body.

I sat up abruptly, startling the others. “Help me gather the gold and silver of the cages into a pile,” I said. Aurora gave me a concerned look. “I think you’ll like this.” I gave her a mysterious grin.

It took about ten minutes for us to carry over everything. I spent the last two minutes preparing two spells, my first for the day. Curious, everyone had gathered around to see what I was doing. I cut my hand and used my blood to fuel the parts of the second spell that wouldn’t use gold or silver. Then I began shaping the material before me.

It took only moments. When I was done, there stood before me a sculpture of a single rose – rosa chinensis, if you’re wondering. Its stem and leaves were woven of intertwined gold and silver, its petals red glass. Above the rose was a single star, held in place by two figures, one of gold and one of silver. Their races were hidden by their armor. Below the rose was a ‘pool’ of stained glass, blood red.

Resting upon the pool was a number of small emblems, each the same. One gold and one silver figure, looking at each other across a blue planet, Golarion as seen from space in my dream. There were dozens of the emblems.

Aurora’s fingers interlaced with mine. “It’s beautiful, but what is it?”

“A declaration. This place, the Runeforge itself, will become the home of those who would oppose the return of the Runelords. From here, those who follow us will continue looking for signs of their return and will prepare to prevent it, or oppose them if that fails, at all costs.”

“But how?” Nelevetu asked.

“By recruiting adventurers and more. We will create an entire guild for adventurers. Mercenaries, of a sort, that earn their living by hunting down threats to the people, or exploring old ruins. We will teach the new members, and they shall teach others in turn. Those who show promise, both in skill and in commitment, shall be given the option to join the inner circle in this place, here, where they will learn the true mission.

“These we shall call ‘Rangers’. It will be their calling to hunt down leads, and find ways to counter the Runelords and their agents, as well as other, equal threats.”

“But why this place?” Geo asked.

“The Runelords cannot come here, nor can their most powerful agents.”

“I wish to join,” one of the adventurers said, standing forward.

“As do I,” another agreed.

“Me too,” the third said.

“I think my adventuring days are done,” their wizard said. “But I’d still like to help if I can.” They would need scholars. He would be the start of that segment of the group.

“If what you told me earlier is right, I do not think I can leave this place,” Nelevetu said. “But count me in. I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

I grinned. “I was planning to put you in charge of the Rangers,” I told the ancient warrior.

“Me?”

“Well, I’m not sure I can do it, so I figure I need someone with free time on his hands.”

“I will do my best.”

“Good. Now let me explain something to you, all of you…” I repeated the words from my dream. It was context they would need. I then scooped up five of the emblems on the ground. “Now repeat after me…”

They spoke all together, in one voice, repeating my words. "I am a Ranger. We walk in the dark places no others will enter. We stand on the bridge, and no one may pass. We are One. We live for the One, we die for the One."

When it was done, I pinned their new crests upon them and thanked them. They would be the beginning, those that would follow us. We would take care of Karzoug, and they would do their best to prepare against the others. We would help where we could, but there was no way we could do this by ourselves.

“It’s probably a good idea,” Paulie told me, as we prepared to head out for the next wing. “But tell me, what’s with the Milani imagery?”

“I was wondering that too,” Aurora said. “Though she’s not a bad choice of a patron goddess for the Rangers, mind you.”

“Wait,” I said. “Who’s Milani?”

For the record, Kyle epically failed that final knowledge check.


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Mirror, Mirror

Spoiler:
We made our way out of the Halls of Greed, happily confirming that the mist was indeed gone from the entrance hall. Our biggest difficulty was convincing Paulie that we didn’t have time to pry up all the darkwood boards we had spotted in the library.

That isn’t to say we didn’t take anything. We have quite a few more books to add to our library resort. But that didn’t take very long. Definitely not nearly as long as it would have taken to pry up the boards.

Thanks to the time spent healing up the magical brain damage caused by that stupid pool – it had been hard to notice in Lenn, to be honest – and gathering loot, Kira woke up around the time we made it back to the central Runeforge chamber. “Samantha wanted you to know that there’s probably not any danger regarding Leng. Unless Karzoug and his minions are stupid enough to actually enlist the aid of Leng’s denizens. In which case, we might all be completely screwed.”

“Yeah, that makes me feel better,” I replied sarcastically.

“Glad to help.”

Lenn led the way into the Halls of Pride, or whatever they’re called. “This place is bad too!” he growled. I braced myself as I crossed the threshold into the wing to once more feel uncomfortable and out of sorts. But instead, once I had entered the place, I found myself feeling a hundred feet tall and more confident than ever. It was like the world around me didn’t matter, like I could take on anything. Nothing was beyond my scope.

Well, that made sense. Envy wasn’t my thing. Nor was greed. But, if I have an affinity for one of the deadly sins, it’s gotta be pride. Even my propensity towards lusting after numerous women was almost more driven by a desire for simple comfort from the nightmares than it was by sexual desire. As soon as Aurora started comforting me while I slept, my desire for anyone but her almost completely vanished. Like, eighty five percent gone. I’m in love, not dead.

And look at the others. No one, except for Billy Mays Paulie, seems to be driven by greed. And Lenn… I could see envy. He was so jealous of Aurora’s halo that he forced himself – somehow – to manifest one of his own. I also had another suspicion.

“Lenn, when did you decide to learn to cook?”

“What?”

“When did you decide to learn to cook?”

“Geo was learning to do something new and I wanted to learn to do something new too.”

“Why cooking?”

“There was lots of meat lying around.”

I gave Geo a look. He looked as confused as me, then I saw it dawn on him. “When I was studying anatomy?”

“You had a dead rabbit nailed to a table.” Aurora gave Geo a look. She also looked a little ill.

Yep, time to derail that train of conversation. “Well, that supports my current conclusion. Paulie! Stand proud! We have before us a chance for glory!”

The tiefling fugued again. “GLORY! ONWARD!” He led the way down the hall, turning left at the ninety degree fork. Lenn and Lenntu also made it around the corner before s$$~ hit the fan. I didn’t see it happen, but having studied the magic, I suspect that this is how it went down.

They rounded the corner, and caught sight of themselves in the hallway filled with mirrors. Additionally, they caught sight of the reflection of their reflection in an opposed mirror. Then the magic went off and mirror images stepped out of each to attack us. That means there were two each of Lenn, Lenntu and Paulie.

We backed up and used the tight corridors to our advantage. I used my suit’s wand crystal to hit them with a fireball and we moved into a firing line to burn them down quickly. All in all, it wasn’t too bad. They had our peoples’ abilities, but not our party’s overall tactical acumen.

After that, I threw down an illusory wall on the opposite side of the hallway to block line of sight between the two opposed mirrors and we continued forward, coming to a massive cathedral walled floor to ceiling in mirrors. There were four massive chandeliers hanging through the hall. Peacock motifs abounded.

On a dais, around a beautiful throne, stood six blond wizards, each copies of a single man. My mind reacted quickly, formulating a plausible story for dealing with these magical guardians. I just needed to convince them that I was here on legitimate business with their creator. Nothing could be simpler.

Of course, that would have required them allowing me a chance to speak. They attacked immediately, unleashing a flurry of fireballs made of quasi-illusory shadow-stuff. I saw through them and they still hurt a bit. The others were in a lot of pain.

The trio of fireballs was followed by a trio of magical rays to mentally enfeeble our front line. The first target to react after being hit was Lenn. Honestly, he didn’t seem all that different, though he forgot how to speak, resorting to growls and roars.

Next was Lenntu. Basically, he just became Lenn, though his body lacked Lenn’s ridiculous strength. Don’t get me wrong, he was still perhaps around as strong as Aurora, which is insane, but nowhere near Lenn. He also lost all ability to speak.

Finally was Geo. He stood stunned for a moment, then his body warped, becoming taller, lankier and in general terrifying. He drew his blade and licked it, then pointed it at one of the enemies before disappearing as his skin and clothing went chameleon.

Meanwhile, I turned my gun sideways and threw out a cone of suppressive fire and Aurora, who had been bringing up the rear, prepared to charge. But ultimately, it was Paulie who made the biggest contribution.

Wielders of divine magic have some brutal things they can do to arcane casters who aren’t prepared. With a single spell, Paulie caused his shirt to radiate a field of silence, then ran into close range with his foes.

At that range, he was able to use his armor’s weapons systems to their full. Beams of energy tore through the wizards as they also faced an onslaught from our melee line. And, outside the range of the silence, I was free to unleash my own spells at our foes.

Geo appeared out of nowhere behind one of the wizards, his blade protruding from its chest and his tentacles raking through its jugular. It was the first to fall, collapsing into a pile of snow. Right, simulacra. You know, I should make a few of those to keep an eye on my place in Magnimar and protect the servants.

<Ooh! Make a dragon to protect Sandpoint!>
<You know, they could probably use one.>

Paulie had to spend some very powerful heals to remove magical effects from Lenn and Lenntu. Geo seemed to have shrugged it off all on his own. We then took a couple hits of magic healing wands each to clear up the damage from the fireballs.

We continued on to the next chamber, finding a meditation room of sorts filled with piled up scrolls and tomes. “Juiz,” I said.

“Understood. Noblesse Oblige.” My armor separated from me and Juiz began analyzing the surrounding writings.

“ETA for full analysis?”

“Estimated time to process entire room, eight minutes.”

“Excellent.” How did I ever get along without my own AI?

We worked our way through the other artifacts in the room. There was a sadly non-magical peacock statue made entirely of gold, so we tossed that in one of our bags. There was also a corpse propped up in one corner. Looked like this was the wizard whose simulacra had attacked us. He was clutching a mirror and wearing some extremely valuable robes. EVIL robes, at that. I’d only ever seen Robes of the Archmagi once before, back when I was studying. One of the administrators had a set.

I think his were neutral, despite what some of the professors said about him.

So, yeah, we stripped the corpse. I’d break those down later for a huge chunk of magicite. We also took his mirror. Obviously, he didn’t need it anymore. He didn’t need his belt, cloak or any of the other magic equipment he was wearing, either.

Passing through the meditation room, we found the most horrible thing I had seen since coming to Golarion. Aurora could sense my dismay. “Kyle, are you okay?”

“They burned them.”

“I know.”

“Why? Why would they do that?”

“I couldn’t say.”

I felt tears welling up as I stared out over the ashes of what had once been a great library. I dropped to my knees before one of the great bookshelves and reached out to touch the ashes. I tried using magic to repair them, but the books were too far gone.

For all I knew, what I needed to get home had been here. That alone was enough to anger me. But beyond even selfish concerns was the fact that centuries of knowledge had likely been lost. That put me at a place beyond anger. I had transcended rage and an eerie calm came over me.

One book, protected by magic, managed to survive. We found it buried in the ashes by following its magic aura. It was a tome that permanently imbued its first reader with boosted force of personality. Well, Paulie used that to cast his spells, so we gave it to him to read.

Eight minutes had passed, so Juiz reattached the armor to me and returned my magic bag, now filled with the books and scrolls from the meditation room. At least those had been saved. “Report,” I told her.

“The man whose corpse we found was known as Vraxeris. He had learned that the Runelord Karzoug was beginning to awaken, so he had begun putting together a plan to kill the runelord and use his wealth to find a way to awaken his own master, Runelord Xanderghul. He believed that the Runewell used to preserve Karzoug could be found in ancient Xin-Shalast, located on the mountain Mhar-Massif.”

“Why hadn’t he gone?”

“He was in the process of preparing a counter for the occlusion field that surrounds the upper reaches of Xin-Shalast, as well as preparing a steed to carry him up there, when a degenerative neurological condition ended his life.”

“Tell us more about the counter he had planned.”

“He believed that if a weapon were imbued with the combined powers of Runelords Sorshen and Xanderghul, it would be able to pierce the occlusion field. To this end, he had made an alliance with someone called Delvahine, the ruler of the wing of the Runeforge complex associated with Lust.”

“How does one create such a weapon?” Aurora asked.

“By using the Runeforge. Submerge a weapon within the waters and add objects that are tied to the power of the wings. Vraxeris believed that shards of the mirrors here would work for his wing, while what would be required from the wing of Lust would likely be something he euphemistically called Delvahine’s ‘equipment’. Likely devices of a sexual nature.”

So, we just dunked in a weapon and tossed in some mirror fragments and a magical dildo. Right. Still, that made me wonder if other combinations were possible. Perhaps counters for each of the seven Thassilonian specializations? “Tell us about his neurological condition.”

“Some kind of dementia caused by a genetic defect. He had suffered the condition two hundred and four times previous. Each time, he had escaped his body into a clone he had created through a customized and advanced clone spell.”

“Kyle!” Kira pleaded urgently.

“I know.” It could be the research we needed to find a way to create a body for my sister and get her out of my brain. “Were his notes about the spell among the saved tomes?”

“Affirmative.”

“Index those and save them for me. I want to research this later.”

“Acknowledged.”

“Tell us about the steed he was preparing.”

“Through an agent of Delvahine, he managed to acquire a mare. After hours of painstaking research, he enchanted her with powerful, permanent alterations. She is no Pegasus, though she has wings and can fly via magical means. He was unable to control her, however, so he imprisoned her in a mirror in his room.” That had to be Rainbow Dash.

“Any other relevant information?”

“I have indexed one more piece of information as likely relevant. Vraxeris planned to leave the Runeforge via what he called a ‘master circle’ that can be found within the wing associated with wrath.” That made sense. Though I did wonder why not put the easy exit in the center of the complex.

As we continued our search, we found rooms filled with dead, naked clones. Aurora said what we were all thinking. “Well, that’s creepy.”

We opened the final door to find a room filled with mean, dilapidated furniture, a large freestanding mirror and six relaxing, naked succubi. Not six individuals, though. Six of the same succubus. “Well,” I said softly to Aurora. “This is awkward.”

At that moment, the shrunken head Lenn wears around his neck decided to go off. “I LIKE HOOKERS!”

Apparently that was the wrong thing to say. The six succubi let out an unholy screech and began attacking. One began by singing. They weren’t just succubi. They were bards. In the halls of wizards, they sent bards to fight us.

Bards. I unleashed a burst of radiant light right on the singer. She screeched in anger. Aurora intercepted one of her sisters who had rushed to attack me, punching her right in the face. They seemed to be doing their best to stay away from Lenn and Lenntu, but one of them used a magical charm on Geo.

If I had cast such a spell, it would have convinced my target that I was a dear friend. They would see me as trustworthy and would instill a sense of loyalty in my target. It would be much the same for most any wizard. But this was a succubus who had cast it. Instead of loyalty, it inspired lust.

The succubus cowered behind Geo. “You won’t let these mean people hurt me, will you?” She gave him her best doe-eyed look.

He appraised her, tracing a lanky finger across each part as he spoke. “Of course not. You’re far too lovely. Just look at those beautiful cheekbones. And that slight ridge on your eye socket. The sharp, perfect bones in your shoulders. Your perfect sternum running between your well defined ribcage. No. I’d never let them harm you.”

His voice dripped with desire. And suddenly I was very aware that he was still in his mutated form, with the personality change that came with it. A personality we knew very little about. The succubus hadn’t caught on to the danger, but I was more than a little terrified. “Thank you,” she said. “Please keep them away from us.” At least, I think that’s what she had started to say. But she didn’t finish the sentence, because Geo interrupted her.

“I must have your perfect skeleton for my collection.”

Her eyes went wide as, in one deft, practiced motion, Geo’s hand shot into her abdomen, under the ribcage and up into her chest. His arm disappeared til above the elbow. She cried out in pain as his muscles tensed and he crushed her heart in his hand. He gently lowered her to the ground, whispering for her not to struggle as the life faded from her eyes.

As she reached the ground, her form collapsed into snow. Great, another simulacra. We all – us and the succubi – stared in horror at what we had just witnessed. Then Lenn broke the silence as he charged with a roar.

“WHY?” he swung his axe, instantly destroying the second succubus. “IS?” he killed another. “EVERYONE?” And another. “SNOW?!” A fourth fell. Aurora dropped the final one as she tried to escape. Only I was paying enough attention to hear Lenn mutter, “I want to be snow.” His face was pouting.

I couldn’t help it. The absurdity of it all. First Geo, now this? I burst into laughter. Aurora joined me. Then Lenntu and Paulie. Finally, Lenn started laughing.

After several moments, Lenn stopped laughing. “Why are we laughing?” he roared, causing me to laugh all the harder.

After a bit longer, I finally regained my composure. “Lenn, Lenntu, would you two carry that big mirror into the main hall?” I then leapt into Aurora’s arms like a princess. “Carry me so I don’t have to look at the library again?” She rolled her eyes and laughed, but carried me as I shut my eyes.

In the main hall, I prepared a spell and awaited the arrival of the men with the big mirror. It took them a bit longer than expected, as they’d had some trouble navigating a corner with the massive thing. As they set it up, Aurora asked, “So, why did we have to bring the mirror in here?”

“Because Dashie’s gonna need some room to stretch her wings, of course.”

“Right. How could I forget? This has to be another one of your strange horses.”

I broke the enchantment on the mirror, releasing the horse within. Her coat was bright blue and her mane and tail were prismatic. She eyed me suspiciously. She obviously hadn’t had good experiences with wizards. It’s possible that growing those wings had been extremely painful.

“What?” I asked. “I was just looking for someone to race.” She obviously recognized the word ‘race’, because she whinnied and stomped eagerly. “Thought so,” I said, casting a flight spell on myself and drinking a speed potion. “Dear, call the race start?”

Once more my wife rolled her eyes, but she did a three second countdown and we were off. Obviously, I wasn’t as fast as a horse. I especially wasn’t as fast as a horse that had been gifted with magical flight and speed. But I did well enough. Winning hadn’t been the objective. The race itself was.

When it was done, I gushed enthusiastically about how awesome it had been. I then held out my fist, and the horse gently kicked it. Aurora gave me one of those looks that said that I had done something weird. “Brohoof, yo,” I explained. She still didn’t get it. That’s okay. Good marriages always have their quirks. I was ours. I patted Rainbow Dash on the neck. “The place we’re in is too small for you to really fit. I’d like to put you to sleep for a bit and shrink you down. Then, once we’re somewhere you have room to really fly about, I’ll wake you up. Deal?”

She snorted and then nuzzled me and Aurora, so I took that as a yes. Using a wand, I shrank her down into a tiny stone figure and carefully put her in my pack. “So, we’re heading into the Halls of Lust next?” Aurora asked innocently. I couldn’t resist.

“Dear! I’m shocked at you! That’s for tonight, not in front of all these witnesses!”

She caught my innuendo and turned beet red. “Kyle!”

I dipped her back and gave her a kiss. It wasn’t particularly long or passionate, more love than lust, really. At least, that was the intention. She was having none of that and held me there for several passionate moments longer than I had intended. Lenntu led the others in breaking a mirror and gathering up the fragments we’d need in an attempt to give us privacy.

Once I pulled Aurora back squarely on her feet, she giggled and booped my nose. Women.

Barring another incident of sewage raining from the ceiling - don't ask - might manage to get the next out by the weekend. If not, early next week.


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Into the Runeforge

Spoiler:
I followed Aurora from the workshop and found Geo in the common area, still contemplating the Slinky. “Geo, buddy, get some sleep.”

“I have slept while still watching this device.”

“Oookay…”

“I must know how it works.”

“I’ll write up the math behind it for you later if you’ll just go to bed.”

“Understood.” He didn’t seem to be moving. Well, I tried.

I had more dreams about my previous life. What was going on was unclear, but it was another dream about combat. I was standing with that same wizard among an army that was facing off against another large army. I want to say that someone near me yelled something about “Driving back the Saxons”, but things were far too chaotic to really understand.

That seemed important, though. In the back of my mind, I knew that fighting against the Saxons meant something – alluded to something I had read before, but I couldn’t quite recall. And Kira wasn’t exactly forthcoming with information as to why.

<Oh, stop whining. You found out later that day.>
<Yeah, and it was a hell of a way to find out.>

I woke up to the sound of illness. Aurora wasn’t feeling well. Very loudly. “What’s wrong?” I asked, standing in the doorway to the restroom.

“I got up and stepped outside to get some exercise, but there was a smell outside and it made me sick.”

“I’ll look into it.” I stepped outside and was greeted by the delectable smells of cooking meat. Oh, I see.

I headed down to the kitchen to find Lenntu making some bacon, pork chops and eggs. “Want some?” he asked.

“No thanks,” I replied. “Where’s the servant who runs the kitchen?”

“He kept yelling at me about my cooking, so I sent him away.”

“I see. I’ll go find him, I need him to make something for me.”

“Before you go, I have two questions, if you have a moment.”

“Shoot.”

“After the dragon fight, I have come to the conclusion that we need more ranged weaponry. Will you make a weapon for me, preferably something I can use both at close and medium range? And make it big, so I can hit things with it?”

I remembered his dismay the previous day at seeing the original Lenn naked. “Big, huh? Compensating for something?” Look, I tried to stop myself from saying it. But I’m a bad, bad man.

“Yes, our lack of ranged weapons.” If he had caught my joke, he wasn’t showing any sign of it.

“Fair enough. I can do that, but probably not until we rest for the night. Second question?”

“Do you know when it was I learned to cook? I don’t remember learning it.”

I shrugged. “I had assumed it was something you picked up before the accident. Guess not.” After that, I left and ran down the spectral Gordon Ramsay and gave him my order before heading back up to our room.

Aurora was lying on the floor with a wet washcloth on her face, looking miserable. “So what was it?”

“Just meat,” I said. “Your stomach must not have been used to the food you had last night. I’m having something brought up that should settle your stomach.” It was a lie, but it was a small one. She would have to get used to being away from meat for a couple months, or whatever the first trimester was for her biology.

“Good, I’m starving.” She gave me a pained look. “I don’t think this magic ring is working anymore.”

“I’ll take a look later,” I promised.

A short while later, spectral Gordon brought up a plate covered by a cloche. He opened it to reveal an assortment of foods and a small glass of ginger ale. At my insistence, Aurora started by sipping the ginger ale and eating the lemon sorbet, then followed it up with the carrot, spinach, kale and walnut salad. After that was a couple pieces of whole grain toast.

My mother had eaten similar breakfasts when pregnant with my youngest sister, Maggie. I don’t know why they had worked for her, but they had. I knew that meat, especially the smell of it, would trigger a reaction, so it had to be avoided for now. I made a mental note to stock up on safer foods next time we were in town. But I could also conjure up another temporary magic mansion every day to get her what she needed. It was a very powerful spell and took some effort, but she was worth it.

Breakfast done, we met with everyone and returned back to the outside world. I collapsed the mansion behind us and we began activating the entrance to the Runeforge. After turning all seven keys, a portal appeared in the center of the frozen cathedral.

Inside the portal, we found ourselves in a short hallway. Once the last of us had entered, the portal closed behind us, leaving a dead end where it had stood. So we followed the hallway out to a central chamber.

There were seven other hallways leading out of the chamber. At its center was a circular pool filled with a bubbly, prismatic liquid. I had read about it. This was the Runeforge, a powerful tool for crafting wondrous works, both magical and non-magical. I would have loved to have weeks just to study it, but we didn’t have that kind of time. Still, as I stared into the water, I couldn’t help myself. I reached out and touched it.

That was probably a mistake.

My mind was filled with swirling visions of events that had been, events that were happening at that very moment, and events that might happen in the future. I grasped and tried to hold on to the visions, but I could only retain two sets.

The first was a series of visions of knights and other soldiers dressed all in black, from full plate to light chain with a black cloak. But instead of filling me with dread, each and every one filled me with hope and pride. Kira seemed amused by it, but wouldn’t elaborate.

The second set of visions was of events that had happened very recently, perhaps only a few days prior, when the earthquakes had flared up in Varisia. Or perhaps a bit further back, a little before we had come to Sandpoint for the first time. But certainly no less recent. It was likely within the bounds of those two points.

It started when the Runeforge itself “rebooted”, for lack of a better term. The denizens of the Runeforge had stirred from their daily doldrums and returned to a flurry of activity. I suspected that the event had happened when Karzoug had begun awakening.

It was the lords of Envy that had moved first. They attempted to seize the Runeforge and wall away the other halls from accessing it. The others had reacted poorly, and the lords of Envy were no more, destroyed by a very temporary coalition of the others.

When I returned from the vision, I shared this with the others and we made a decision. If the halls of Envy were empty, we’d go there first. Hopefully we could find something useful there to help us against the lords of the other halls.

Lenn walked into the hallway first. Immediately, his face perked up, like he’d just gotten an endorphin hit or his favorite song had just come on the radio. “I like this place!” he roared.

Most of us had an opposite reaction. I can’t speak for the others, but the whole place felt a little wrong, like I was out of my element. Paulie didn’t seem to be having any reaction at all. I began having suspicions, but would need more data to confirm.

We hadn’t stepped in more than a few feet when a giant, floating, illusory mouth appeared. “STOP! These are the Abjurant Halls of Eager Striving! Know that your powers will be crushed and you shall die! You are not worthy!” Yeah, like we hadn’t heard that before.

We ignored the mouth and continued on, finding a chamber that was empty aside from what I thought looked like a Rod of Cancellation – an extremely dangerous tool capable of completely eradicating the magic in a single item – embedded in the floor. What was more, it appeared to be broken. Sparks were jumping here and there throughout the room. I held everyone back and we observed for a few moments.

As I suspected, the broken rod unleashed a disjunctive pulse. Had any of us been in there, it is quite possible all that magic gear I had created could have been destroyed. That offended me on a deep level. “One moment,” I told the others. “I’ll be right back.” Honestly, we could have waited for the next pulse and rushed through the room safely. But something about the whole thing just rubbed me the wrong way. No. We were dealing with this now.

I entered the Runeforge chamber and reached into my bag, withdrawing a small, lead lined case. From within that, I retrieved a lump of noqual, a transparent green metal known for its anti-magic properties. The Runeforge was meant for crafting. Let’s see what it could do.

I shoved the lump of noqual into the prismatic waters, but this time fought the visions. I focused my will upon the water through my touch and began to feel the noqual soften, as though I had heated it in a proper forge. Using my bare hands, I spun and shaped the metal into a long test tube-esque shape, a fair bit larger than the exposed rod. Then, once more focusing my will, I commanded the metal to harden.

Once I had retrieved my work from the water, the effort of suppressing the visions came back to hit me pretty hard. Waves of nausea washed over me. Aurora caught me before I could fall to my knees. “You okay?” she asked, worry creasing her brow.

“I’m fine,” I said. She continued frowning at me. “Don’t make that face, you’ll get wrinkles.” I laughed and she laughed with me.

Returning to the rest of the group, I pulled Geo aside. “Do you have any strong glue?” He nodded. “Good. I need you to take off whatever magic items you can safely remove, then carefully put this over that rod and glue the top to the floor.”

“I can do that. You take a break. You don’t look so well.”

“Yeah, thanks.” Geo waited for the next pulse, then moved in, quickly and deliberately, but also quite carefully. In a matter of moments, it was done and I felt a lot better.

Truth was, the use of noqual was probably unnecessary. Glass would likely have done the job of blocking the pulse’s line of effect. But this stuff was as hard as steel and, as mentioned before, had anti-magic properties. It would easily contain the bursts.

We continued down the far hall and came to a room with a pool. Inside the pool was a mercury-like metal. I studied it for a bit. It was impressive stuff. I was reasonably certain I could use it in fashioning magic items like I did with magicite. I remembered seeing a reference to this in one of the books from the library, but I couldn’t quite recall the name.

I didn’t have to. Paulie did it for me. “Ethillion!” he breathed. Yeah, that was it. It was capable of leeching the magic from enchanted items for use in crafting other items. All in all, it was nowhere near as efficient as magicite, but you didn’t have to be exceptional and amazing to make the stuff. You just needed to know how, which in and of itself was a lost art.

“I’d like a vial of that to study,” Geo said.

“Agreed,” I replied. “Whatever’s left after that goes in a big bottle for crafting?” The others agreed, even if they were uncertain what it was.

We came to a room filled with a foul, probably poisonous gas. Obviously, I was completely fine, up until the fire nation – err, I mean, mustard jelly – attacked. It had become fiendish, likely absorbing dark magics on its way into this room, likely via a crack in the wall.

It came for me first. Aurora intercepted it, which might have been a mistake. It suddenly pulsed black and began striking her with fiendish energy. Every time she and Lenn slashed, the damn thing split. Which was perfectly fine by me.

I pulled a grenade from my belt pouch. “Fire in the hole!” I shouted, lobbing it into the room. Lenn and Aurora withdrew quickly. All eight oozes turned to paste in the blast.

Grenades are just so much more effective in tight quarters with multiple targets. :D

Once the ooze was gone, the cloud cleared up quickly. So we searched the room. Geo found a hidden panel, behind which were several major healing potions. Aurora ended up needing to drink all of them. So net profit for that room: Negative one grenade.

The path into the rest of the ‘Abjurant Halls of Eager Striving’ was blocked by a collapsed ceiling, so we returned to the Runeforge Chamber. “Where next?” Aurora asked.

“Greed?” Lenntu suggested.

“That makes sense,” I said with a nod. “That is our primary enemy here. Might as well start by learning their secrets.”

Lenn was once more the first one in the hallway. “Don’t like it here!” he said. Great, he’d be in a foul mood. The others similarly seemed disconcerted, though Paulie once more seemed unaffected. I, on the other hand, found the place truly oppressive. I absolutely did not want to be there. If it hadn’t been for all the practice not panicking I’d had recently, I probably would have started hyperventilating.

Aurora put her hand on my shoulder. I nodded that I’d be okay. But the sooner we got this done with, the better. I did what I could to try to ignore that sense of dread.

Down the hall, we found a massive steel door studded with jewels. It was so obviously a trap that I didn’t even need my magic sight to call that out. Geo agreed, pointing out a secret door just a bit down the hallway.

Curiosity got the better of me, and I pulled out a wand from my pack, using it to conjure a semi-corporeal servant. “Go poke the big metal door,” I commanded. The servant did as I said and was immediately crushed as the wall shot out and slammed against the opposing wall. Moments later, gears grinded as the whole thing reset itself.

Obviously, this was a trap intended for someone who had never played a video game.

The hidden door opened into a further hallway filled with a sickly violet fog. “Give me a moment,” I told the others. With my magic necklace, the fog couldn’t harm me, so I walked right through it, looking for some kind of deactivation mechanism. “Nothing. Let me study its properties.” I scanned it with my magic sight. “Ouch. This stuff is brutal. We definitely want to overcome the barrier rather than try to push through it.” I didn’t tell them that this stuff would forcibly transform them into some kind of animal if they succumbed to it. They didn’t need to know how bad it would be.

“Any suggestions?” Geo asked.

“I can disperse it or temporarily dispel its magic. You’ll only have a few seconds, at best as many as twenty, to get through. It’s a fairly short run and then open air.”

“Let’s go with dispersing it,” Aurora said. “So we can better see where we’re running.”

“Got it,” I said. I took up a spot between them and the fog. “As soon as I cast, run through.”

I cast the spell and a gust of wind blasted away the fog. The others ran through. I waited where I was in case I needed to cast my prepared dispel to suppress any reforming fog. Thankfully it was unneeded. I strolled through and caught up with the others.

Lenn, bored, had already pushed ahead. We moved to catch up with him, and found him conversing with a group of water mephits – non-evil imp-like creatures associated with certain elements – who were swimming around in a pool. They were negotiating something when I arrived.

“Four sausages for information about bad wizards here,” Lenn said, finalizing their agreement. He doled out the snacks. “Now talk!” The mephits told us to be careful of the bad man made of silver who came and cast hurtful spells at them every few days. They also told us that they hadn’t seen anyone else around the place in days.

We continued on. The mephits seemed to want to be left alone and they weren’t really a threat to us, so we pressed forward down one of the hallways into a room with another fountain. Fountains and pools seem to be a bit of a thing in the Runeforge, I was beginning to notice.

At the center of the fountain was a statue of a wizard. I didn’t recognize him, nor did I have much time to contemplate him, because that’s when the statue came to life. Because of course it was secretly a stone golem. Why wouldn’t it be?

The first golem went down in a few seconds. I say first because others stormed in from other rooms. One had apparently stomped through the mephits’ pool, because they were clinging to and attacking it. It was pretty comical, I must admit.

During the destruction of the last one, I noticed a pulse of magic when it died that looked similar to the aura of magic from the fog. Perhaps they were somehow tied to it? And there was something more. In the fountain was a number of goldfish. When the last golem died, a few of them transformed into people!

Apparently they had been a group of adventurers who had stumbled into the Runeforge several centuries before and had been transformed by the fog. They had been trapped as goldfish for that entire time. We asked if they wanted to join us, but they declined. They wouldn’t be able to leave the place, because their cleric had died, so we agreed to teleport them out when we were done, and directed them to the Halls of Envy or whatever the Thassilonians had called them. I gave them strict instructions not to mess with the noqual jar.

As we continued along, we found a bunch of chambers laced with fabrication magic. Anyone inside who could focus the magic could easily transform any set of materials into any object they knew how to make, but as soon as you left the room, it would break down into components again. It was the crafter’s version of masturbation: fun, I guess, but ultimately less than satisfying.

We continued on into a library. Immediately upon entering, we were struck by a field of reversed gravity and fell to the ceiling. While all the furniture was anchored, several books, not on shelves, fell to the ceiling with us. “MONSTER!” I shouted reflexively. No one messes with books and lives, yo.

A disintegration beam hit Paulie, hurting him a lot. The caster was invisible, but I could see all of his magic auras. And I had a plan. “Prepare to fall,” I warned Aurora in English. She unsheathed her wings. The second the flying enemy got close enough, I unleashed a very powerful counter I had prepared against the enemy wizards I figured would be encountered within the Runeforge. With Paulie hurt, I figured this was the best time to do it.

A field of antimagic erupted around me, nullifying all spells in a ten foot radius, though not touching things like Aurora’s wings. We fell, and so did our enemy, who was now visible. Aurora carefully glided down and Juiz activated my jump jets to stabilize my fall. Our foe, on the other hand, didn’t fall nearly as well. He slammed into the corner of the table and fell prone.

We finally got a good look at him. His skin was made of mithral. Not that it did him any good. We surrounded his prone form and tore into him in a flurry of bullets and blades while Paulie stepped away from us to heal up. I almost felt sorry for the bastard, but then the artificial gravity wore off and the books on the ceiling fell down. So I shot him twice in the head at point blank range.

I looked around the library. That could take hours, even for me. But I didn’t have to do it. “Juiz, disengage the armor and remain here. Scan and record all books and prepare a report on any solutions the Lords of Greed found regarding the fall of Thassilon.”

“Understood. Noblesse oblige.” I held out my arms to the side and my power armor removed itself from me. Juiz began getting to work on her task and I cast a spell to protect me without the power armor.

On the dead wizard’s body was his spellbook. I only comment on it because it was a mess. It was like the man kept forgetting where he was as he was writing down the spells. I was having doubts about his capabilities. I could only hope it was his predecessor who wrote the books on their previous efforts.

Beyond the library was a room filled with what appeared to be golden statues. But as we got closer to one of them, it became apparent that these had originally been people. Men and women who had been alive when someone had coated them in molten gold.

Ancient Thassilon deserved to die. Of that, I was certain.

From the shadows of the ceiling descended a corpulent nalfeshnee, a demon of greed. “Stay your blades,” he asked, hands outstretched. “I would bargain with you.”

I sighed. “You have one minute to speak.” It wouldn't hurt to hear him out.

“I have been bound here by Ordikon, whom you have slain. By the terms of the magical contract, I am now stuck here for eternity, with no way to escape. Release me from my binding, and I promise to leave this place without offering you any resistance. In addition, I will grant you a great treasure.”

I exchanged glances with the others. With just a look, we made a decision. Aurora and Lenn’s halos began showing. “Sorry,” Bat Paulie said. “We don’t free demons.” The look on the nalfeshnee’s face was priceless. Kira sang “Ave Maria” as we brutally and efficiently murdered the fiend. No one was even seriously injured.

The demon defeated, we pressed on to the wing’s final room. Within, we found another pool – it REALLY seemed to be a pattern in this place – filled with blue water that danced with gouts of flame and flashes of lightning. As we neared the pool, waves of disorientation washed over the others. I just felt pain. Talking with everyone later, we all felt like the pool was trying to steal our souls. In fact, we later learned from the small library here that it was doing so in order to use the souls of people not driven by greed to fuel magic item creation.

The Lords of Greed called it “The Pool of Elemental Arcana”, because I guess “Soul Sucking Pool of Magic Forging” was taken already. Probably by some guy in Wisconsin living in his parents’ basement.

“Get away!” I told the others. Lenn, Geo, Lenntu and Aurora moved back to the doorway. Aurora tried to pull me out, but stumbled and had to be dragged away by Lenn. Paulie just got that weird look he gets when changing personalities.

Sure enough, moments later, he was standing over me. “Want me to pull you out of here? Act now and I’ll happily throw in a jar of Soul Balm, for those times your soul just isn’t feeling its shiniest!”

I couldn’t think straight, it hurt so much. Even with Paulie’s help, I was certain I was going to die. Then the strangest thing happened. “We can’t have you dying on us now, can we dahling?” I knew that voice. But that was impossible. And then she began to sing.

“If some are grouchy, pay no mind
Surprise instead with something kind
Lo and behold, you may just find
A smile is what you bring.”

The pain began to subside and a warmth filled me. “That’s it, dahling. You can do it.” I began to push to my feet. I couldn’t see her, but I had a sense that if Kira’s mouth were open any further, her jaw would be on the floor. I started singing as I stood. And Rarity sang with me.

“Stitch by stitch, pulling myself together.
Greed’s power looms, though Generosity is my might.
Even in the hall of evil’s power
My strength is at its height.
Hey Karzoug, you’re ostentatious,
Wait until we drag you in the light.
We’re coming for you together.”

The look on the faces of my friends said it all. They could see the spectral pony standing before me too. Huh. And that’s when Paulie tried to sell the horse a hay substitute.

She rolled her eyes at him and disappeared. The back of my left hand began to glow. I pulled off my glove and got a good look. It was now marked with three blue diamonds. Heh. I had a cutie mark.

“Um. But. Who? What. How?” Kira asked eloquently.

I winked. “Friendship really is magic, apparently.” I turned to Paulie. “Let’s get some samples for study, then let’s blow up this stupid pool.”

It wasn’t that easy. When I tried to scoop up some of the water in a vial, it actually retreated from my touch. “I’ve got this,” Paulie said. “Using my new triple chambered flask. Keeps your hot liquids hot and your cold liquids cold!” This place was really bringing that side of him out. He then threw one of his wands – the major healing one that was almost empty, if I recalled correctly – into the pool. It suddenly began glowing brighter than a torch. I studied it for a moment and realized that not only was it fully charged, but it would likely keep recharging on its own something like my batteries.

He threw another one in and it exploded. Guess it was a gamble.

I tried to throw a grenade into the water, but it the explosion didn’t do anything. I was afraid to use anything bigger for fear of damaging the whole complex. But then I had an idea. It was a terrible idea. But it felt like it might work.

I stood at the edge of the pool and drew my knife. Then, thinking about the last time I gave all those toys to the orphans and wrapping myself in the warm feeling it gave me, I cut my left palm, literally giving my own life blood to protect others who might wander in here. Several drops of blood fell from my outstretched hand.

The pool roiled and churned for several moments, then the waters suddenly froze solid. I wasn’t sure if that was a permanent solution, but it would protect anyone who came by before we had time to do something more permanent. The magic aura was definitely no longer projecting throughout the room. I was thinking we’d do a ‘Cask of Amontillado’ reenactment here later. At least the vials seemed mostly inert and safe.

We returned to Juiz, who had readied her report. “The Lords of Greed built a Runewell larger than any previously attempted. It was going to be used to put Karzoug into stasis in a realm between Golarion and the demiplane known as Leng.”

“LENG?” both Kira and Paulie hissed simultaneously. The latter was no longer doing a Billy Mays impression.

“I’m going back to the Dreamlands to talk to Samantha about this,” Kira said. “Wake me if you need me.”

Unable to hear Kira, Aurora asked Paulie, “What is Leng?”

“It’s a bad place, child,” he said. He didn’t sound like any of his weird personalities. “Shrouded in rumors and myths. If he is there, we can’t go after him. The spiders will devour our very souls.”

“We’ve been to bad places before,” Lenntu said.

“Not like this. Do not go to Leng, or it will be your doom!” He fugued again.

“Paulie?” I asked.

“Yeah, brah?”

“Nevermind.”

“So where do we go next?” Geo asked.

“The Righteous Galleries of Honest Pride,” I said.

“Why there?” Aurora asked. I just held up my hand, revealing the fading cutie mark. She didn’t have to ask further. She knew the truth now. A little pony had told me, though she didn’t know what exactly I’d been told.

"Rainbow Dash is in trouble
You need to get there by her side
You can try to do what you can now
When you find her in the Halls of Pride!"


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Ancient Legends

Spoiler:
Since the stanzas told us that we needed to go during the evening, we stuck around Sandpoint until late afternoon. That isn’t to say we loafed about. There was plenty of studying, training and crafting while we waited.

For myself, I focused on finishing Paulie’s suit of power armor. It wasn’t the same magitech marvel I had crafted for myself. He didn’t want anything too fancy. It was a simple animated suit of “Living Steel” enchanted to be capable of flight and projecting beams of energy at fairly short range.

A note on Living Steel: It’s a type of metal leeched from the ground by a type of tree that incorporates it into the system. When harvested and forged into a piece of gear, it retains living properties, capable of repairing itself, for instance.

I’ve also been unable to craft it from magicite or using blood magic. Which meant I had to buy all of it. That was painful. At least it’s not as expensive as adamantine and mithral.

Overall, the armor was pretty great. Paulie’s ability to use it to fly, however, needed work. Aurora and I played some air tag with him for about an hour, and he was terrible at changing direction. Given time, I’m sure he’ll get it.

My research uncovered some interesting tidbits about the Runeforge. Apparently it was warded so that no Runelord or their top agents could enter. Maybe it would make a good fallback position if things turned bad.

It was the place where research was most concentrated during the days of the Runelords. And it was filled with enchantments that would reduce the pace of aging and remove the need for food and sleep. If we were lucky, the researchers might still be there. We could pick their brains about their latest projects.

And that was of real importance. Apparently they had been researching ways for the Runelords to survive a coming apocalypse that promised to destroy the empire. And that meant it might hold the key to preventing Karzoug’s return.

The apocalypse they were referencing was the Starfall, when a large asteroid hit the planet and plunged it into darkness for some time. Somehow, they had learned it was coming and had tried to prepare. Based on what I knew of the Runelords, I get the feeling it never occurred to them to just teleport to Castrovel with a number of their retainers and return after a dozen or so years. It also seems to not have occurred to them to make their own Runeforges to chill in during the apocalypse. Because why go with the simple solution when you could overcomplicate things massively?

It’s like these people have never read the Evil Overlord List.

I also spent a little time researching the lake. Apparently it was at the base of the Rimeskull mountain, which was a mountain carved like a skull. Or so it seemed nowadays. In truth, it had been carved with the visage of the former emperor Xin, but the Runelords had been too lazy to imbue it with magical protections against the effects of time they had put on monuments with their own faces. Vanity, thy name is Runelord.

<Says the man who spends more time on his hair each day than anyone he knows.>
<Hush, you.>

At the back of my mind, there was a nagging suspicion that I had heard more about Rimeskull before, but I just couldn’t recall what it was. I pushed the thought aside. How important could it really be if I couldn’t recall it?

<Dead man walking.>
<Yeah, it was like I’d triggered a flag just by thinking that one.>

When the time came, I prepared magic for as many situations as possible, scryed on the lake and teleported us out there. The weather was chilly, but the heat radiating from the hot springs helped a bit. Well, I say that, but with my amulet, it’s not like I felt any of it. But Aurora assures me that was what it was like.

It wasn’t hard to find the monuments. They were ten foot tall stone heads and were staring at each other. I recognized a couple of the Runelords from sketches and monuments I had seen before. Paulie filled in the rest. It was definitely the place.

The stone head of Sorshen, Runelord of Lust, looked like it had been damaged. Kira had some horribly lewd ideas as to what caused the damage, but I’ve decided not to repeat them here.

<You’re no fun.>

Activating the first statue was easy – so were the others, I didn’t need more than a cantrip or minor spell for each of them – a quick cast and the head screamed. Yeah, screamed. No, I don’t know why either. Then a key appeared in its mouth, which I grabbed before moving on to the next one.

After the second head, I began getting this nagging feeling that we were being watched, but I couldn’t spot anyone nearby. After a few moments, I shrugged it off and moved to the next head. And the next. And the next. I managed to get the last key in my pocket just before the dragon attacked.

Oh, right. That’s what I had been forgetting.

Shoanti legends tell of a dark time, several hundred years ago, when a massive white dragon known as Arkrhyst would swoop down from its home on Rimeskull. It was said to kidnap people, sheep and even adult cows to devour. It would also raid Shoanti settlements to steal valuable things for its hoard.

Then one day, roughly two hundred years ago, it suddenly stopped coming. It was thought that someone had killed it and had died before being able to return and claim credit. Others posited that the dragon was simply in a long hibernation. Occam’s Razor suggests that since you have to suppose less, the latter was more likely.

Well, it was apparently true. We had woken up the dragon and it was really cranky. I really, really hate Occam's Razor sometimes.

The dragon did a sweep at us with its breath. We dodged, but the statues didn’t. I could hear the stone creaking at the sudden cold. Terrified by the possibility of feedback if the spell foci were destroyed, I called for everyone to get away from the small plateau and make for a nearby stand of trees.

Paulie fired a salvo of special arrows containing small flasks of alchemist’s fire while Aurora and I unleashed barrages from our firearms. Geo and Lenntu also fired a couple shots, though their weapons lacked the penetrating power of guns and the bevy of enchantments present on Paulie’s bow. Lenn just waited until the dragon got close enough to hit.

“It’s just going to run away,” I warned the others. “We have to find a way to bring it down here or we’ll have to keep an eye out behind us for its next attack.”

“What if we hit it like those girls hit the Nevermore?” Aurora asked.

She was already coming up with ideas based on episodes of RWBY? God, I was so turned on at that moment. “Think you can finish it in one hit?”

“Not me,” she said, indicating Lenn with a nod of her head.

Oh, this could work. It was completely insane. But it could work. “Keep firing. I’ll make the cord we’ll need.” I cut my palm and unleashed the magic, fabricating a thick elastic cord in my hand. “Those two trees! Double up on it!” I said, indicating some nearby trees.

“On it!” Aurora said. She took Geo and the two Lenns with her. I instructed Paulie to keep firing, to try to slow down the dragon. Meanwhile, I cast a number of enchantments on myself. There was only a limited field where the slingshot could fire. It would be my job to get the dragon where we needed it. And I knew exactly how to do it.

You could say that the idea came to me in a dream.

Now, I’m not an expert on dragons, but I’ve studied them. They’re strong, fast and highly resistant to magic. They’re also generally vain and prideful. Specifically, this told me two sets of things. First of all, it would be faster than me. I couldn’t rely on my ability to outfly it on the straight. I had to use my size and lesser inertia to my advantage. I could turn much faster than it could. I could weave through smaller openings. If I failed to use that, I would die. With my combination of spells, it would be a bit more than twice my speed. That was the stakes there. Time would not be on my side.

Now, I’m not a great flyer. But I’m good enough and I had some technological advantages I could call on. But again, it would only be a matter of time before he caught me. I had to out think a creature whose species was known for being highly intelligent.

The second thing I could count on was being able to use my knowledge to piss it off. The Shoanti tell a tale of the one time they managed to chase Arkrhyst off. It was a trap by an ancient hero whose name I hadn’t learned. But that wasn’t important. The fact that the dragon had run would be enough.

I loaded my gun with a special magazine. The first bullet in it was highly enchanted and would buy me the head start I would need. It would also really tick the dragon off.

“VI,” I said. “Play the instrumental version of ‘Ragnar the Red’ over speakers.”

“Acknowledged.” It was time to sing.

“Theeerrrreee once was a dragon named Arkrhyst the White,
With a face like a cow turd and a huge overbiiiitteee!
A coward in battle, he fled to be sure,
When a fair fight erupted at a place now obscure!
So laugh at this dragon, once more forced to flee,
When it becomes apparent he’ll never catch me!”

The dragon roared and wheeled about, flying straight at me. I took aim, prepared to fire as soon as I could be sure I’d hit. The bullet I was using was extremely expensive and I only had one of them. If I missed, I was pretty much screwed.

But I didn’t miss. The horrible little bullet buried itself into the flesh of the dragon’s chest, just above where a human would have a collarbone. And that’s when the real horror of the thing began.

You see, the bullet was enchanted to burrow around in the flesh of its target, like a steel worm eating through a corpse. The damage it does is surprisingly minimal, but the pain is intense. It makes it hard to concentrate on what you’re doing. In my estimation, this is a very good thing if what you’re doing is trying to kill me.

I would have anywhere from eighteen to thirty six seconds where I would be faster than the dragon. After that, the bullet would go inert and the dragon would regain its focus, which I’m sure would be on nothing so much as killing me.

Of course, I was generally against that sort of thing, so I bolted off into the sky.

The dragon chased me as I darted through obstacles, getting face fulls of tree branches in the process. It was really ticking him off. Which was good, in my perspective. The bullet running its course in roughly twenty seconds, on the other hand, was bad.

“VI, activate maneuvering jets!” I had installed jump jets in my power armor, which were also designed to be used as stabilizing thrusters for flight. ‘Jets’ isn’t quite the right word. They’re more like gravitic repulsors. Yep, artificial gravity. But ‘Jump Jets’ is a phrase that has meaning to me, and this means that’s what I’ll call them.

The sudden activation threw off my movement pretty heavily. It didn’t help that the VI didn’t compensate for current motion by unevenly activating the left and right side jets. I was getting really tired of its inability to anticipate new needs. I flipped the jets over to manual operation and corrected my spin.

I glanced at the progress the others had made. They needed at least another minute. I wasn’t sure I had a minute, but I resolved to do what I could. Angling right, I sped towards a rocky outcropping. From my belt pouch, I drew a sticky grenade. Yes, sticky grenade. They worked for Gribbletoo during the battle of Valor’s Triumph, and they’d work for me.

I tossed the grenade onto the narrowest point of the outcropping. The dragon, only a few seconds behind me, was treated to a blast of debris, which slowed it down and bought me more time. I then made straight for the side of the mountain.

Without removing it from my belt, I activated another grenade. Thick smoke poured out behind me, making it hard for the dragon to judge the distance to the stone wall. I’m sure the dragon realized what I was doing and had already taken measures to avoid full on collision. But I wasn’t really trying to get it to slam into the wall. I mean, it would have been hilarious if it had happened, but it wasn’t my primary goal, at least.

I pulled another sticky grenade from my belt as I neared the wall. I armed it and then just dropped it, letting the momentum carry it forward before veering right. I had cut it close, actually having to run along the wall before kicking off in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, Arkrhyst had slowed enough to only lightly tap the wall. He was also right there when the incendiary grenade exploded.

Let me tell you something about white dragons. They really, REALLY don’t like fire.

Arkrhyst roared in anger and I answered with a hearty, mocking laugh and another salvo from my gun before putting all the juice possible to my jump jets and shooting off in the other direction. I was desperately hoping the others would be ready when I got there.

I sped through the dissipating smoke cloud. When I came out the other side, I could see that they were almost ready. I just needed to stay ahead of the dragon and lure him to the target zone. Aurora and Starbrite would have Lenn loaded up and ready to go when it was time.

This, of course, was easier said than done. Newton’s laws gave me some edges, but even when dealing with acceleration equaling force divided by mass, a sufficient force will override a mass advantage in relation to acceleration. And strong with the force, dragons are.

I was less than ten feet ahead of the dragon when I heard him begin taking a deep breath. Managing not to panic – if only just – I popped my parachute and immediately hit the release. The next few seconds were a blur.

The first thing that happened was that the dragon inhaled my parachute and began coughing. The second thing that happened was that Arkhryst, continuing on his flight forward, crossed the point where Aurora would need to launch Lenn. Third, Aurora cut the rope, launching Lenn. Fourth, the dragon lost altitude. Not much, but enough.

Lenn sailed through the air, his axe biting into the dragon’s wing instead of its side. It wasn’t a clean blow, and the axe got stuck. The damage caused the dragon to spiral out of control, dragging Lenn with him.

In all the time I’ve known Lenn, I’ve never heard him curse. Oh, he uses crude language, but always in a jovial manner. And he sputters in rage all the time, but somehow never curses then, favoring simple, declarative statements like “I’ll kill you!” and “That makes me angry!”.

That’s why, in spite of everything, I was surprised when I heard Lenn utter a simple, unadorned curse. “S%&$.”

I spun back, and watched in horror as Lenn and the dragon spiraled down towards the plateau containing the statues. The damaged statues. The statues I was afraid might explode if they were damaged further. The statues I was sure would go up in a chain reaction if even one of them went off.

They crashed into the statue of Sorshen.

“Stars and stripes forever,” I said, in the most PG curse I’ve ever uttered. I don’t even remember saying it, but the VI must have heard me say it, because suddenly it started playing. So it was that it was playing when this whole farce reached its conclusion.

Sorshen exploded. Blue lightning cascaded through the plateau. Next was Zutha, who exploded in orange lightning. Then Belimarius in green and Xanderghul in violet. Krune erupted teal and Alaznist red. Finally Karzoug exploded in yellow. And again, this was all to the tune of “Stars and Stripes Forever”, because my life is apparently a farce.
Arkrhyst died instantly. I say that because there was no more dragon anywhere on the plateau. We did find bits and pieces of him embedded in nearby rocks, dirt and trees. We even heard later that there was a shepherd tending his flock on a hillside halfway to Riddleport who lost a sheep to a flying bit of dragon bone.

We expected Lenn to be in the same situation. After all, it effectively vaporized the dragon. There was no way Lenn could have survived that. We were going to have to find a small piece of his corpse and pay for a full resurrection. Those don’t come cheap.

However, Lenn is… sort of like the Orks from Warhammer. Things happen if he believes in them. And if he doesn’t, they either don’t touch him or at the least have a reduced effect. So, to our not quite complete surprise, when the dust settled, there stood Lenn. He was certainly injured. His body was covered in char marks and Lichtenburg figures. But he was still standing, looking more annoyed than in pain.

His clothing and gear, however, don’t seem to have the same property. His clothes were just gone. There was nothing left. His armor was a charred wreck. I could repair it magically, but it would take at least an hour, even with my strongest spells. Only his axe was still serviceable, likely protected to some degree by its heavy enchantments. It would still require some repair, but I could do that in a matter of minutes.

I had the time. It would take Geo a few minutes to get him to believe that healing potions would fix him up and another couple minutes for him to put on some new clothes, which he would have to borrow from Lenntu.

Speaking of Lenntu, he wasn’t surprised at all. In fact, he was focused on something else. “Hey, Geo, buddy. I think you may have made a mistake when you cloned me.”

“Oh, how so?”

“It’s just…there seem to be some anatomical inconsistencies, is all. A few things are not quite to the same scale as the original.” For the next couple hours, this sent my wife into bouts of snickering any time she thought no one was looking.

Lenn insisted we press on, even without his armor, so we headed up a set of giant carved stairs that led up to where the dragon had come from. Either it was where we needed to go, or the dragon had its hoard there. Either way, worth the trip.

On the way up, we encountered a pair of elder earth elementals. They hadn’t reckoned on fighting people who could fly and use guns, so they had almost as bad a day as Arkrhyst. And no one had to blow up to kill them, so that was a bonus.

Whoever had created this path was a stickler for the old, tired clichés that unimaginative wizards think impress everyone. We had to make our way across an invisible walkway – that I could easily see thanks to my magic sight – and up an invisible ramp – which I could also see.

I mean, maybe the whole idea was new ten thousand years ago. But nowadays, it’s like shag carpeting. Yeah, everyone thought it was the cool thing to have once, but now we all just look back and shake our heads at those people’s lack of taste.

At least it amused Lenn. “Heh. The floor’s invisible.” Whatever it took for him to believe it was there. I didn’t want to have to carry him because he didn’t believe in a floor.

At the top of the ramp was the entrance to a cave. Following the tunnel inside, we came to a chamber with seven exits and seven pillars covered in ice. In the center was a sigil of a sihedron. Houston, we’ve found the entrance to the Runeforge.

There was more thing in the chamber. Well, it was many things, but it was one collection. A hoard, really. A dragon’s hoard, most likely. And it was massive. Tens of thousands of coins and various artifacts. “It’ll take me a couple hours to break this down into magicite,” I told the others. “Shall we take a rest so I can work on that?” I covertly pointed at Lenn while looking at Aurora and Geo.

“That’s a good idea,” Aurora agreed.

“Yes,” Geo said. “I have something I want to work on, too.”

“Okay,” Lenn acceded. “Not enough fights today, though.”

“It’s okay,” Aurora said. “We can do some sparring while the others work.”

He brightened up at that. “Okay.”

“So, where do we set up the tents?” Geo asked. “Main chamber, or a side tunnel?”

I gave him a sly grin. “Tents? What do you take me for? Some kind of pleb?”

“What’s a pleb?”

Sigh. “Ignore that. The important part is that we’re going to be sleeping in beds tonight.” I struck a dramatic pose and cast a spell. A portal opened before me. “BEHOLD THE WIZARD! BEWARE HIS POWERS! UNSPEAKABLE POWERS!”

Aurora slapped my ass. “You’re such a dork,” she said lovingly.

“That’s LORD DORK, MOST POWERFUL to you!” I quipped. “Come, minions! Carry our filthy lucre into the mansion!” To show I was just playing, I slid the portable hole under the largest pile of loot and carried it in myself.

On the other side of the portal was a mansion that looked like it belonged in some kind of science fiction game. The floors were polished concrete, the walls were made of metal and there were tasteful art objects interspersed throughout in a minimalist style. The building itself was massive, with more than enough space for over a hundred and fifty guests. Elevators, escalators and stairs offered paths between the floors. Soft music played in all the common areas from hidden speakers.

More than two dozen nearly transparent human and asari servants dressed in black and violet Federation style uniforms – late DS9, of course – stood ready to assist us.

“My companions are bringing treasure through the portal. Aid them in carrying it to my workshop. Then show them to VIP quarters on the third level so they may shower and have their clothing cleaned. Instruct them on usage of all the facilities. We shall sup in two hours.”

The servants gave a small bow and got to work.

About half an hour later, thanks to the use of shovels and the portable hole, all the loot was in the building. Geo reported that the other tunnels were all empty. It made sense, since not much would want to live near a cranky dragon.

I took Aurora up to our penthouse suite and we took a quick shower and a long, luxurious bath in the hot tub, looking up at the starry skies – an illusion – through the ‘skylight’ above. The stars looked as they would from Earth, specifically from my memories of the skies during a camping trip I went on when I was nine. She enjoyed learning about the constellations.

For dinner, we were served a veritable banquet of fast food and ridiculous restaurant fare by a magical servant that looked vaguely like Gordon Ramsay. Geo dined on some ridiculously spicy vindaloo. Lenntu had one of those seventy two ounce steak challenges, topped with shrimp and grits. Paulie ate some fish and chips. Lenn was served a German sampler platter and a Happy Meal on the side.

Hand to God, he still has the toy somehow. I didn’t think anything could be taken out of the temporary mansion except for what you brought in and food you had eaten, but somehow Lenn still has his wind up race car.

Even though we didn’t need to eat, Aurora and I joined in. I had three delicious Doritos Locos tacos and a side of those cinnamon thingies. Aurora ate a triple Baconator, a baked potato, a plate of nachos and a chicken nuggets Happy Meal. She also has her toy, a My Little Pony figure of Shining Armor, which she kept because he reminds her of Starbrite. Apparently my magic hands out Happy Meal toys based on gender just like back home. Oh, I almost forgot, we all had some ice cream. Red White and Bluebell for me, because ‘Murica.

I decided not to comment on Aurora’s sudden incredible hunger. I may have grinned like an idiot as soon as no one was looking at this new confirmation on suspicions, though.

Cast from inside the extraplanar space, my workshop spell didn’t create a new space so much as convert the existing one and populate it with workers. I set them to work breaking down the loot to magicite while I set to the task of repairing Lenn’s armor.

A while later, Aurora came by the workshop. She put her finger to her lips and motioned for me to follow. Intrigued, I did so. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what I saw.

Lenn was playing on the escalator. Seeing the big man just letting go with child-like abandon did me some good. It’s the simple things in life, really. And he wasn’t the only one. Paulie was trying to plank between the two escalators and Geo was intently trying to figure out how they worked through observation.

I got a horrible idea. I grabbed a bit of magicite, did a little math in my head and fabricated something. I took the elevator up and motioned Geo over. Then I set the Slinky – the exact right size and composition for the task – off down the up escalator. That would keep Geo busy for a while.

Aurora took Lenn to go spar and I returned to the workshop to begin work on something important. It was something that had been needed for a while, but that I had finally decided to do something about after failures today.

Simply put, the VIs were no longer good enough. I had to make something better. I had the computing power. I had the knowledge. I just needed to do it.

Typing was too slow, so I created a telepathic interface, once more using magitech as a shortcut due to my limited time. That would allow me to program and compile at the speed of thought. And I could think rather quickly. I could even use my ability to multitask to program multiple sections at once.

Nonetheless, it took hours. Seven, in fact. I’m vaguely aware of Aurora coming by and rubbing my shoulders, but at no point did I stop working. Programming for qbits is an interesting experience. Programming multiple segments of said code simultaneously with nothing but your mind is nothing less than trippy.

I had lost such track of time that I have no idea how long Aurora had been there when she finally said something. “Kyle, you’ve worked enough. Come to bed,” she chided.

I smiled. “Okay. I just finished.”

“What is it you’ve made?”

I gave her a mysterious look. “Watch.” I plugged the quantum computer into my powered armor and activated it.

The suit stood at attention and a feminine voice spoke. “Booting. All processors…nominal. Data inputs…nominal. All systems appear to be running within ninety-seven percent of peak efficiency. Creator, please state your request.”

Aurora let out a whistle, clearly impressed. “What is that?”

“Something glorious,” I said. “Juiz. I want you to review all documentation related to your hardware as well as go over all fictional programming stored within your core to study ways I may use the suit’s systems. Additionally, begin running simulations and tests to properly familiarize yourself with all current capabilities. You have two and a half hours to work while I get some rest.”

The suit looked at me for a moment. “Understood. Noblesse Oblige. I pray for your continued services as a savior.”

As I stood there, listening to the words of Earth's first fully functional AI, I couldn’t help but grin.


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The Mother’s Wrath

Spoiler:
Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself. The morning of Hemlock’s arrival started the same way the last several days had: Tangled in blankets and blissful. The sunlight streaming through the part of the window not covered by curtains illuminated my wife’s beautiful face like some kind of union between a Renaissance-era divinity painting and something by Nikolai Ge. It was heavenly.

Not that we were without problems. “I’m going to have to leave the house soon,” I said to Aurora.

“I don’t like that idea,” she protested, running her finger down my chest.

“But I only have one more day’s supply of bachelor’s snuff,” I countered.

She crawled up on top of me, her face an inch from mine. “You’re not a bachelor anymore,” she purred. Yes, purred.

I kissed her, tucking my arm around her and rolling her onto her back. “Is that your way of saying you want kids?”

“I don’t think I’d mind.”

I hadn’t really thought of it. You know, I don’t think I’d mind either. However… “Probably not a good idea until we finish taking care of this runelord business.”

She pouted. “I guess you’re right.” Suddenly she got an impish grin. “Unless, of course, the matter isn’t moot.” Right. I had forgotten the first night. Look, it was my wedding night. I had other things on my mind. Look, it’s the only time I’ve ever forgotten since I started taking the stuff. So hush.

Statistically speaking, we had something like a less than three percent chance of conception not knowing any other factors. I say that because I don’t know what part of her cycle she’s on. She doesn’t know either. Apparently she doesn’t have periods. Yep, covert estrus. Like freaking lemurs.

Can someone explain to me again how she managed to go so long without realizing she was an aasimar?

Either way, it certainly complicates the math. If I knew what portion of the cycle she was on, I’d be able to make a much better guess. The odds are anywhere from “statistically insignificant” to “eighty something percent”. And that, of course, assumes there is a cycle like I’m expecting. What if aasimars ovulate based on intercourse combined with feelings of love or something?

Before you try to tell me that primate biology doesn’t work that way, let me remind you that I’m on an alien planet and talking about a woman whose family tree has enough angels in it to make an entire choir. So what I’m saying, is I have no idea what the possibility is that I might have already set in motion events that could lead to being a father in nine months, and yeah, I might be a little terrified, no matter how okay I am with the idea in the speculative.

Also, I have no idea if it’d even be nine months. What if it’s ten, or eight? WHAT IF IT’S FOUR?! Oh, God.

<Breathe, Kyle.>
<Kyle’s not here right now. Please leave a message after the beep.>

What passed as our honeymoon wasn’t all sex and panic. We also spent a lot of time enjoying the wedding gift we got from Kira and Samantha. Before you ask, yes, I was terrified at the possibilities when Kira told me that they got us a gift. But I was worried for nothing.

They got us anime. :D

Well, not just anime. A couple live action series and western cartoons as well. Yes, ponies included. But nothing from more than a couple years after I left. Apparently time travel was involved, because Samantha travels in four dimensions. It’s hard to explain the reasons. Don’t try to figure it out, unless you have a doctorate in calculus. Just trust me on that.

In case you’re wondering, Aurora apparently loves space operas. Despite being light years away from geek culture, I think I managed to marry a geek. And I’ve never been happier. I don’t even mind having to take time to explain all the tech stuff as we go along. I haven’t had to explain basic things more than once. I have friends back on Earth who still can’t wrap their heads around why some spaceships have to spin, but Aurora picked it up well enough after I explained it to her.

We were watching some RWBY when there was a knock on the door. We were wearing robes and sitting on a couch, so I just paused the show and bade the servant to enter. It was our butler, Genji. As an aside note, I’m pretty sure Genji used to be some kind of warrior, unless I really am to believe that he lost his eye in an unfortunate bar tending accident as he claims.

“My apologies for bothering you,” he said. “But there are two men downstairs who say they have urgent business with the two of you, as well as your companions.”

“Who are they?” Aurora asked.

“Belor Hemlock and Abstalar Zantus from Sandpoint. They say that a number of guardsmen have gone missing.”

Somehow, I wasn’t surprised. That damn village just can’t catch a break. “Send runners for the others,” Aurora commanded. “Let them know that we will be down as soon as we’re done changing. Tell Victorica to serve them some tea while they wait.”

He bowed slightly, “I have already seen to it, Madame.”

“We’ll get changed and head down in a few minutes.”

“Of course,” Genji responded with a bow before leaving and shutting the door behind him. Somehow, despite the fact that we have magic at our disposal, it took about fifteen minutes to change. No comment.

We made it down around the time the last of our friends arrived. I guess they hadn’t been lounging around in their underwear watching cartoons like we had. To each his own, I guess.

We had some of the tea blend that passes as the closest thing to Earl Grey around here and our guests from Sandpoint filled us in on what had happened. Here’s the basic rundown. Apparently Tower Street had collapsed during the earthquake, taking the north wall of the town garrison with it. No one had been injured, luckily, because the cells in that area were empty. The rest of the town didn’t receive but minor damage from the earthquake, and a few people had received scrapes and bruises from falling objects, but nothing serious.

The first night after the collapse, horrible sounds had emanated from the sinkhole. Guards were sent in during the morning and haven’t returned. Looking down from above, Father Zantus noted that it looked like the catacombs we’d taken him down to in order to cleanse that Lamashtan shrine. The sounds were getting worse and everyone was afraid that eventually what was within would come out to attack the town.

They offered us payment for going down there and dealing with the problem. Several thousand gold, in fact. We exchanged glances and came to an agreement.

“We decline payment,” Geo said.

“Just cover our room and board and we’ll kill your problem,” New!Lenn asserted, gripping the handle of his new axe excitedly.

“And, once your problem is dead, we’ll take its stuff!” Paulie added in his Billy Mays voice.

“That’s worked for us so far,” Aurora agreed with a shrug.

“I LIKE HOOKERS!” Lenn interjected.

“Lenn likes hookers,” I concurred, nodding sagely. “Now the only question is: Who is riding in the hole?” I held up the portable hole for emphasis.

As indicated, damage in Sandpoint seemed minimal aside from the sinkhole on Tower Street and the damaged barracks. A couple apprentice wizards with the right cantrip could repair most of the basic damage in a couple days. I’d have to talk to the mayor about funding that before the small issues grew into larger ones and someone got hurt.

The sinkhole itself was fifteen feet deep at its deepest point. And sure enough, it looked like the catacombs we had explored before. If we looked, I’m sure we’d find the remains of that Runewell we destroyed under the rubble. I turned on my magic sight and was startled by what I saw.

There was a magical aura all over the hole. “I don’t think we destroyed the Runewell as thoroughly as we thought,” I said.

“That certainly complicates entry,” Aurora said, realizing what I meant.

“Or we could just go in the same way we did before,” Geo pointed out.

“It’ll take longer, but it might be safer,” Aurora agreed.
Then Lenn jumped down into the hole. “I’m bored!” he shouted. Guess we were going down the hard way. Aurora flew down and I hopped down into her arms. Meanwhile Geo, Paulie and the other Lenn – I’ve decided that I’m calling him Lenntu, using the sound of the English word ‘two’ to keep him from realizing I was using a number to refer to him – climbed down using a rope.

Most of the catacombs looked as we had left them. The only difference we found was a stairwell that had previously been blocked by debris had been cleared. We had intended to come back and clear it for later exploration, but hadn’t had the time yet. Obviously, someone had. Very recently too, from the looks of it.

We descended into darkness. I activated my suit’s headlamp and cast a light on Aurora’s blade. Others activated their own light sources. A bad feeling ran down my spine triggering memories of horror movies. If we ran across a xenomorph, I was bombing whole thing.

The stairs opened into some kind of antechamber. The walls were covered with the scrawlings of a madman. Most of them were Lamashtan prayers, but there was one verse that stood out. It didn’t belong with the rest. “If magic bright is your desire, to old Runeforge must you retire! For only there does a wizard’s art receive its due and proper start.”

I had seen references to the Runeforge in the library. “VI, index all works containing reference to the Runeforge for later reading.”

“Acknowledged,” the mechanical voice replied. It was still pretty bad at controlling the suit, but it could do this task easily.

Opposite the stairs we came in was a large archway that lead into what looked like a shrine to Lamashtu. I got a sense of foreboding from it and didn’t want to go that way, remembering the mark that the man in the afterlife bar had shown me. The Mother of Monsters and I were not remotely what you’d call BFFs right now, so I didn’t want to approach her little altar there if I didn’t have to. So we went north instead, down a hallway that lead to a room with a crystal clear pool of water.

“It’s a birthing pool,” Bat-Paulie said. “The cultists would have come here to bring their disgusting spawn into the world. I’d suggest no one drink any.”

He didn’t have to tell me twice. “Any secret to destroying it?” I asked.

“I don’t believe so.”

I didn’t want to risk the pool’s contents getting into the water table and causing other problems, so I filled it with an alchemical powder that turned the water into a hard foam, which we pulled out and set aside. I then set a charge in the base of the pool, which I could remote detonate later when we didn’t have to worry about a cave in elsewhere.

We headed back through the antechamber and went down the hallway to the south. There were two rooms off that hallway, though the ceiling had collapsed in one of them. The other appeared to be some kind of meditation cell. Nothing interesting in there aside from more ravings, including another out of place verse.

“On Eastern Shores of steaming mirror, at end of day when dusk is nearer, where seven faces silent wait encircled guards at Runeforge gate.”

An annoyed Paulie explained that in the time of the Runelords, some hack artist had repeatedly used mirrors as a metaphorical representation for lakes, which had been further used by a number of hack poets. The way he described it, he seemed to feel the whole thing was beyond tacky. But it was an important clue. We needed to find a lake with hot springs.

Geo knew one such place. He had heard of it from Shalelu. I didn’t pry further. It was enough to know where it was. I was getting excited. Everything I had read about the Runeforge suggested that it was an excellent place to learn about ancient Thassilon. We might even find something that would help us stop our enemy there. Or perhaps the spell I could use to get home.

Oh, we were going.

We went back to the main chamber, took a deep breath and approached the altar. It was standard Lamashtan, flanked on either side by nine foot tall statues of pregnant women with jackal heads and holding a pair of kukris. On the floor was a glowing image of a three-eyed jackal.

And that’s when the demons attacked. Glabrezu, fifteen foot tall horrors with four arms and lobster claws. They’re said to grant wishes, but with a monkey’s paw level of twist. You get what you want, but with terrible and destructive consequences. And they’re no slouches in combat. Which is why it sucks that there were two of them.

One of them charged us while the other stayed back and kept using the spell I’ve termed “Chaos Hammer” to fire blasts of primordial Chaos at us. Lenn and I were fine, but Paulie, Aurora, Geo and Lenntu all took major hits from each blast. Aurora entered a fury state and challenged the caster to combat, pushing past the other and charging while the two Lenns and Geo worked to eviscerate the melee foe. Paulie helped her by firing arrows at the caster and I unleashed what support magic I could.

It was tough, but we were getting the upper hand. When the melee glabrezu fell, the other called out, “Great Lamashtu! Your servant, Yerrin-Ku, needs your aid!” And that’s when the statues came to life. Because of course they did.

My life sucks sometimes.

I wasn’t sure we were going to pull this one off. Not without losing someone. We could revive them, but it would cost a fair bit. But Paulie had an idea I didn’t. Because I’m not insane.

<Your dead sister lives in your brain.>
<Amendment: I’m not the same kind of insane as Paulie.>
<Better.>

“Pazuzu!” Bat!Paulie shouted. “I offer you a chance to harm your hated foe!”

“What.” It was all I could think to say.

A voice in the wind spoke. “Is that all you offer?”

“Destruction,” Paulie replied. “Do it,” he told me. Do what? I had no idea what he was…oh. I pulled the detonator from my belt and hit the button. The room shook as the charge I had placed in the birthing pool exploded. The image of the jackal on the ground howled in range. “And we’ll do the same to her shrine when this is over.”

“DONE!” roared the voice gleefully. A trio of large air elementals appeared and began attacking the statues, letting our party focus on the glabrezu. Once he was down, we then moved on to the closest statue, felling it quickly. All in all, it went rather well, I thought. “Do not forget your bargain,” the voice in the air spoke again. “Or I shall destroy you.”

I still don’t know if invoking a demon lord was a good idea, but it had been done. And the price was something we would have done anyway. So, no harm, no foul, I guess? I just don’t know.

I started making my way towards the altar to blow it up when the glowing jackal image moved from the floor to the wall holding the shrine. “You will pay for your insolence!” a woman’s voice shouted at us from the image. Aurora screamed in agony and collapsed. Lenntu and Geo also crumpled to the ground, though Geo seemed more fascinated by what was going on than in pain.
Lenn roared and enraged, conjuring his halo. He was still in pain, but whatever was happening wasn’t affecting him like the others. Paulie didn’t seem to be affected. Because he was a tiefling, maybe? And for some reason, neither did I.

“It’s a concentrated Evil aura,” Paulie said. “She’s trying to warp our very beings and make us demonic. It wouldn’t affect me. Not sure why it’s not working on you.”

“Earthlings are protected from this kind of thing. Anything that affects your alignment directly, remember?” Kira said.

Right. “As for God, his way is perfect: The Lord’s word is flawless; He shields all who take refuge in him.” I began walking towards the altar. Forget waiting til we were done. I was going to smash the damn thing here and now.

“NO!” the voice commanded. I could feel Lamashtu bringing her will to bear on me. She could not change me, but she could bring me pain. Pain unlike anything I had ever felt before.

My knees began to buckle, but I pressed on. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” As I continued on, the pain became excruciating. I heard Paulie collapse beside me and tried to continue to press forward, knowing that if I could just destroy that stupid altar, this would be over. “The God of my rock; in him will I trust: my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my high tower, and my refuge, my saviour; thou savest me from violence.”

I was still but a man. And no man could match wills with a god. The pain was too great and I collapsed, writhing in agony. “Kyle! Get up!” Kira called to me. “You’re stronger than this!” She began calling out to me in my other names, the names I had held in my past lives. But I was in too much pain. I kept my eyes shut, begging for the pain to end.
Then one name caught my attention. I can’t even remember it now, but it got a response. “Ced…win,” I responded automatically, opening my eyes.

“I’m here! You have to get up!”

“It hurts too much!” I protested.

“I know it hurts. But you have to do it, for Aurora.”

I looked reflexively. She was writhing in agony, clutching her abdomen. A part of my brain, divorced from all the pain, thought that was significant. But why? And then it dawned on me, a multitude of information coalescing into a single thought. I actually laughed through the pain. “So much for less than three percent,” I said. There was no doubt. I couldn’t give up. I struggled and pushed myself to my feet.

“HOW?!” the voice demanded, intensifying its will upon me.

I almost fell again under the further intensified pain, but pressed on, hobbling towards my goal. “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” I hummed, trying to focus, as I continued my slow, arduous trek the remaining ten feet. At last, I reached the altar. “I. MAY. FALL. But not like this! AND NOT BY YOUR HAND!”

Then I put my gauntleted fist through the altar. A forceless explosion – sound and fury alone – erupted through the room and the jackal projection was gone.

The pain gone, I rushed to Aurora’s side. She had passed out from the pain. She had already been partially warped by the dark magic. “Please, help her,” I prayed, harder than I ever had before.

I heard Essielle’s voice. “I’m sorry. But we can only help those of Earth. That’s the rule.”

“That’s a stupid rule!” I bellowed. “And what about free choice?”

She seemed intrigued. “What do you mean?”

“She chose Earth!” I said.

Essielle appraised me. “By the Lord! You’re telling the truth!” She considered Aurora for a moment. “We can extend protection to her to protect her free will as you receive it now, but I’m afraid we won’t be able to fix anything already done. You’ll need to find someone who might be able to help her. Act quickly. In a couple hours, the damage will be irreversible.”

We would have to flee the shrine for now. We didn’t have anyone who would know how to help her with us. Not unless… “Paulie.” He had seemed to know a bit about what Lamashtu was doing.

“Yes?”

“Do you know a way to cure them?”

His face did the thing it does when he’s swapping personalities. “Like, sure, brah. They need some serious positive vibes. Like, teleport them to the positive energy plane for, ya know, two seconds so it’ll cleanse them but won’t incinerate them.”

That was beyond my capabilities at the moment. Also, it was insane. “Any other options?”

“You could try mixing a healing potion with some kind of righteous holy brew, then have them drink it. Then, right after they swallow it, hit them with a lesser disease curing spell.”

That was certainly less insane, and we had plenty of healing potions as well as wand charges for the disease curing. The only question was where to get a ‘righteous holy brew’. Do I whip out some tea bags and holy water?

“Use the mug, Luke,” Kira said, doing her best Obi Wan Kenobi impression.

Realizing what she meant, I pulled out the magic tankard of Kira’s from my pack. I prayed as I spoke the magic word, filling the tankard with a weak alcohol. Then I dumped in our strongest healing potion as Paulie pulled out the wand.

I lifted Aurora’s head and put the mug to her lips. She drank a small amount as Paulie cast the spell. The change was gradual, but began almost immediately. Soon, Aurora was completely healed. “The child will be fine as well,” a man’s voice said in my ear. “Give some to your friends as well, if you wish.”

I nodded and gave Lenntu a drink. His flesh began to return to normal as well. Lenn remained unaffected, so I went to Geo next. I offered him a drink and he declined. He seemed fascinated by the change, which had primarily affected his tentacles. Instead of suckers, he now had pointy hooks, like a Humboldt squid.

Only Geo would find the good in being mutated by an evil demon goddess. But it didn’t seem to have affected his personality, so I decided not to press the issue.

I returned to Aurora and gently woke her. She hugged me tight and cried. I had never seen her cry because of the pain, and I’ve seen her take some major injuries before. The pain she went through had to have been excruciating. Far beyond anything she had been through before.

I knew the feeling. I wanted to do the same, it had hurt so much. But I didn’t. I almost wasn’t strong enough for her, I could be strong now.

I also refrained from mentioning her “delicate condition”. It was likely far too early for her to have discovered, and I wanted to let her enjoy the experience. She’d only have her first pregnancy once.
While I held Aurora, I looked around the room and discovered another out of place verse among the rambling prayers scrawled on the wall.

“Each stone the grace of Seven Lords, one part of key each ruler hoards. If offered spells and proper prayer, take seven keys and climb the stair.” It sounded like if we went to the aforementioned lake, we would probably find a number of statues or otherwise marked stones. Casting spells of the proper school on each would activate a hidden receptacle and give us access to a key. It was a fairly common ‘access code’ used, I’d seen it before in other, smaller ruins, though I couldn’t remember seeing it required that one needed all seven schools before.

To say that I was intrigued would be a gross understatement.

Once everyone was healed, we moved down a hallway to the south. About fifteen feet in, the hallway opened into a chamber that had a number of signs of battle. There was blood everywhere, splattered higher than Lenn’s head on the wall, as if one of the victims had been taken straight out of a manga. We also found a number of small bones that showed teeth marks. Geo confirmed that the bones were humanoid – the missing guards, perhaps – and suspected that the teeth marks were from some kind of canine. We gathered up the few bones and put them in a sack for burial, or perhaps cremation.

Continuing on, we didn’t have to wait too long to find the creatures that had attacked the people. Someone had a kennel stocked with yeth hounds, fiendish canines from the evil planes granted to servants of evil entities. They were mildly dangerous, but the tight quarters worked to our advantage. Hit and run or flanking tactics wouldn’t work, so they were easy targets for Lenn, who seemed angrier than usual.

On the wall of the kennel, we found another verse. “On frozen mountain Xin awaits, his regal voice the yawning gates. Keys turn twice in sihedron, occulted Runeforge waits within.” It sounded like we went up a path from the lake to find the door for our keys, but it seemed vague without seeing it. I was sure it would make more sense when we got there.

The tunnels led to another chamber, with nothing within, at least to the naked eye. But my eyes weren’t naked, they were wearing their magic blue glow that indicated I could see magic auras. So I easily spotted the trap at the entrance to the mist-filled hallway to the north.

It was some kind of mind affecting trap. That much was sure. But what it did exactly, I don’t know. I didn’t need to. I was having trouble dispelling it, so Paulie placed a magic suppression field on the doorway and we walked right through.

A ways down, on the right side of the hallway was another chamber. Inside was the man who had scribbled all those prayers and strange verses on the wall. Lenntu had earlier nicknamed him “the Scribbler”. Sounded like a third tier Batman villain to me.

Didn’t fight like one, though. This was more like a fight with Bane, even if he wasn’t a big guy(for you).

This time, the tight quarters worked to our foe’s advantage and he resisted our magical flashbang, so things went pretty poorly initially. Several big wounds were taken just pushing into the room. If not for her adamantine armor, Aurora might have been incapacitated by a powerful blow at the beginning.

And that’s before you consider the magical trap within the room. It was a forbiddance field, likely attuned to Lamashtu’s alignment – Chaotic Evil, in case you’re wondering. It hurt Aurora and Lenntu the most. Geo partially resisted its effects. It would have likely had a lesser effect Lenn, who fully resisted anyway. Paulie and I took turns firing from the hallway, so we didn’t need to enter.

Our foe was fierce. It was not going our way, despite the numbers. And to make matters worse, I was having trouble hitting the Scribbler, since Geo was on the other side. And that’s before we consider his magical wards making it hard to see where to attack.

“Use your full fire option, Master Kyle!” Geo shouted.

“But then I’ll hit…” I started to respond, before realization finally set in. Right. Hitting Geo was irrelevant.

I popped around the corner and held down the trigger. Hot iron slugs tore through the bodies of our foe and our ally. When the gun was out of ammo, I reloaded and fired again. And again. Geo fell first. The Scribbler gave me a look. “You would sacrifice your friend to kill a foe?! Impressive!” He charged me, leaving himself open. Lenn buried his axe in the man’s back, felling him.

We tended the other wounds, while waiting for Geo to literally pull himself together. I went into the room. The pain was intense, but bearable compared to that from earlier. A few moments later, the spell had been dispelled and we could take stock of the chamber and the enemy.

Paulie knelt by the body. He reached out and carefully closed the man’s eyes. “Rest well, Xalassia,” he whispered. I couldn’t place which of his weird personalities had taken control now.

“You knew him?” Aurora asked.

“We grew up in the same town. His parents were devoted to the Peacock Spirit. I think they would be disappointed to learn he had joined the service of Lamashtu. I always suspected he would come to a bad end.”

“Shall we give him a proper funeral?” Lenntu asked.

“A pyre would be nice,” the tiefling said.

There was another body in the room as well, that of Corporal Jaren Basvear, a guard we had met before. Xalassia had kept him preserved, likely to use him for knowledge of the world above. There was no telling how long the man had been trapped down here. This was also supported by the fact that he had taken a number of notes along the walls, all about the situation in the rest of the world. An uncomfortable number of these mentioned us.

Additionally, there was a final verse. “And now you’ve come and joined the forge, upon rare lore your mind can gorge. When you slough the mortal way in Runeforge, long your work shall stay.” It sounded like little more than a closing stanza, but it seemed to hint at immortality for the denizens. The place would be dangerous in the extreme.

Once Geo was up, we revived the fallen corporal, who was incredibly grateful, though sad for the others who had fallen beyond our ability to raise. We then took the body of Xalassia up to the smashed Lamashtan altar, where we laid it.

I gave it the most spectacular pyre anyone has ever had, using thermite. Thermite cleanses all. And it would ensure that the other demon lord could find no fault with our thoroughness in the destruction of the altar. Then, in case he planned to hold us to our words in a more literal sense, I blew up the ashes. I did not want any fiend having anything to hold over us. I still wasn’t comfortable with Paulie having invoked him, but it was over and done. No use worrying for now.

We returned to the surface as heroes to Sandpoint once more and spent the rest of the day helping to seal the ruins for good.

That night, Aurora and I retired to our quarters and slept. Once more, I dreamt of another time and another place.

“Watch the claws, Old Crow!” I shouted at the wizard flying nearly fifty feet above us.

“Don’t worry about me! Just do your part!” the wizard, a man of thirty six who looked no older than twenty nine, grunted back.

“You’re going to need to move a bit to the left!” my twin brother Cedwin complained. He looked about seventeen, which suggested that I was also seventeen in this memory. “No! Your other left!” he shouted when the wizard went the wrong way. I giggled.

It wasn’t the reaction one would expect on such a deadly battlefield. The dragon we faced had destroyed two towns and seemed unstoppable. But the wizard had a plan. We would lay a trap. The dragon was said to be too strong for mortal weapons, so we would seal it in another plane of existence.

At last, the dragon, angered beyond reason by the wizard’s hit and run attacks, followed him into the proper spot. “Now!” the man called out.

Cedwin fired his catapult, launching a mithral chain weighted at either end with massive iron balls into the air. The hit was dead on. The bola tangled up around the dragon’s wings and sent it crashing to the ground.

Right into the center of the hidden mithral rune circle I had been tirelessly forging into the rock for seven straight days. I cut my hand. “By the offering of my blood, I command you! Bind the wyrm!” I wasn’t doing magic. Not really. I was just invoking the contract signed on my naming day.

A swarm of pixies carried chains of black metal attached to metal clasps, which they closed on the dragon’s limbs. The dragon roared in anger, sending the pixies fleeing in terror. Many of them cowered behind me.

I gently patted one on the head. “It’ll be okay. You did good,” I told her. She and the other pixies beamed.

“Do it, Storm Crow!” Cedwin called out.

The wizard landed. He carved the same runic symbol that was on the ground into his flesh using a sliver of the same mithral I had used to forge the circle. “By my life, I bind thee! So long as my soul remains on this world, you shall never return from the place of binding!” The dragon roared and attempted to attack him, but was held in place by the chains. “Begone! And trouble this world no more!”

The dual rune circles glowed and the dragon disappeared in a flash of light. The dozens of us there let out a cheer. “We did it!” I shouted, exultant. Lost in my excitement, I threw my arms around the wizard’s neck and kissed him.

He was shocked, but moments later he decided that he was fine with being kissed by a beautiful young maiden and returned the kiss. I felt his hand on my backside. A few moments later, we separated and I saw Cedwin staring at me, his mouth agape. “Umm, sister…”

“Not a word,” I said.

He shrugged. “Your secret is safe until Mom asks.”

“Coward.” I grinned at the wizard. “You’re not afraid like my brother, are you?”

“Any man who doesn’t fear your mother a little is a fool,” he said. “But courage is doing things in spite of fear, not because you lack it.”

“Doing things, you say?” My tone was flirty.

“And beautiful women.” He kissed me again, hungrily.

I was suddenly very warm. “You didn’t happen to prepare any teleportation magic today, did you?”

“Somewhere private?”

“VERY private.”

I woke up to find Kira “sitting” in a chair on the other side of the room. “I’m glad that dream didn’t go any further,” I said.

“You and me both.”

“Take it you aren’t going to tell me any more about all that yet?”

“Not yet. However, I will say that I was relieved when you swore off men after that lifetime. You’ve never had good taste in men. Anyway, I’m off to visit Samantha for a bit. Catch you in the morning.”

I grinned. “We’re going to find us a Runeforge.” And perhaps a bit more than that, though I didn’t know it at the time.


And thus begins chapter 5. Sorry this one took a while. Moving, weird work schedules(we've gone through three different people who would have covered my weekends!), and some other stuff killed my free time to work on this.

On an interesting note, apparently I'm going to Kyle's hometown in September. My grandfather passed away a few weeks ago(we've known it was coming for months) and they're doing the memorial at some kind of military cemetery there. So I'll know more about it than my previous quick look through Wikipedia and google maps told me.


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The Conquering Heroes

Spoiler:
I think my fiancé is trying to kill me. I wake up every morning and my skin is on fire and I have a queasy feeling radiating through me.

<Quit being a drama queen. She’s not trying to kill you. She’s just decided that the two of you should wait until marriage for certain things.>
<But she wants to wait SOO LONG! The wedding is planned for after we stop the Runelord’s plans.>
<Pansy.>

In the days since our unfortunate little adventure into the land of the dead, things have been fairly good. Aurora and I worked out the schism caused by our earlier words and we’re back to sharing a bed – the nightmares, you see – though we now have a chaperone. Aurora’s idea. Apparently if I had just gone for it earlier, the whole sex thing would have totally happened. But now that there was a wedding in sight, she wanted to wait.

Well, I’m a good Catholic boy, and everyone knows the most important part of a Catholic wedding is waiting until the baby is born. I kid! I kid! Essielle, please let God know I’m only joking, kay?

<It’s a little weird that we’re on a first name basis with our guardian angel.>
<Kira, I can name a dozen things that have happened to us that are weirder than that without even referencing our time dead.>
<Good point.>

I finally took time to discuss Geo’s work with him. Despite the fact that I really didn’t want to know, part of me thought I really ought to learn about it anyway. He had in fact made himself part woman and used his body to rapidly grow a clone of Lenn. And he had combined himself with an undead using fleshcrafting with the help of that Oenipion Fleshforger. As such, he was pretty much unkillable without certain conditions being met. I could shoot him in the face and he’d heal from it in anywhere from a few minutes to an hour.

He had done it so he could survive the “birth”. Because that’s soooo much smarter than just building a cloning vat. And no, as far as I know, no one’s done so before, but I defy you to find me evidence that someone has ever done what Geo did. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Yeah, that’s what I thought.

I also spent some time calibrating my power armor. There were a few points where it chafed a little and I needed to fix that. I also came to the conclusion that the VI I was using wasn’t powerful enough to fully control it. It could follow simple instructions, but I needed a more robust platform.

While I worked on that, Paulie stopped by. He was really interested in what I’d done. As I listed the features and the costs, he decided he didn’t need nearly that much. We hammered out the details and I promised I’d get to work building him a more bare-bones model. With magitech, that would be a lot easier than you’d think. Build first on a foundation of magic, then add in the tech. I was thinking electro-beams.

It took a few more days to gather all the treasure and finish scanning everything in the library. After that, Voidstrife forces had arrived, so we set up a new library liaison to work with the clockwork librarian. Construction crews were also brought in to renovate the fortress into a tourist destination for academics from all over the world. In a matter of months, the place would be bustling with scholars and support staff of all types. I still hadn’t gotten Chadwick behind me on the “luxury spa destination getaway” thing, but he’d come around.

Once we were satisfied that things were where they needed to be, we began the trip back to Magnimar. In truth, we could have teleported, but we had to get the carts and horses back. So we went by land for much of the trip, then took to the skies for the last half day or so, leaving a few people to bring in the horses.

It was early evening when we got back. Apparently someone had told the people we were coming. The streets were decorated with banners welcoming us back and the streets filled with throngs of people cheering our return. I couldn’t let an opportunity like this pass by. “Do a lap around the city!” I commanded over the radio. “VI, armor on.” Aurora gave me a questioning look. I grinned back. “Let’s put on an air show. Anyone want to join us?”

“Go. Have fun,” Geo said.

I tapped into the speakers on the helicopter and loaded up some AC/DC, then cast my flight spell. Aurora activated the magic in her armor since her wings wouldn’t be safe as we exited. I gently booped Aurora’s nose. “Tag. You’re it. Catch me if you can.” Then I fell out of the helicopter.

We played tag through the skies of Magnimar to the tune of “Shoot to Thrill”, which I would occasionally punctuate with sky effects from different spells I had prepared as well as spells my armor was capable of using. The lightning bolts, fireballs and even magic bursts of radiant light probably looked really cool from the ground. The lights on my suit streaking through the sky being chased by the lights of Aurora’s halo probably didn’t look too bad either.

Around the time “TNT” loaded up, someone on the ground began setting off their own fireworks – likely planned as part of our arrival – near the Lord Mayor’s estate. We looked over and saw that the helicopters had landed, so I let Aurora catch me. I switched the music remotely and we flew hand-in-hand through the fireworks to the tune of “I’m Gonna Fly” from Kiki’s Delivery Service – don’t judge me.

<Oh, I’m judging the hell out of you.>
<Hush, you.>

We did two tightening circles above the front of the manor where the Lord Mayor’s retinue was waiting for us. Every noble in the city had to be there. Apparently someone had called ahead. I dispelled the flight spells on us, allowing the residual magic to slow our descent to a few feet per second, or about the speed you’d reach jumping off a kitchen chair. We came in facing each other, my hands on her waist, hers around my neck. Her wings were flared out to help further slow us.

The crowd cheered the maneuver as we touched down. “A little service for the fans?” I whispered to Aurora.

“A little what?” she asked. Meh, close enough. I popped open my faceplate, slid my arm around her and dipped her back in a passionate kiss, drawing enthusiastic cheers from the onlookers.

What the hell? Was literally everyone in this city shipping us?

<You’re such a show off.>
<It’s only showing off if you don’t have enough style to make it look good.>
<You can’t see it, but I’m rolling my eyes at you harder than I ever have before right now.>

Lord Mayor Grobaras greeted us with a well-rehearsed speech. I’m not going to bother writing it here, as it was exactly what you’d expect. Hail the conquering heroes, champions of our hearts, blah blah blah, yadda yadda. That sort of thing. Also, I may not have been paying all that much attention because even just by holding my hand, and standing comfortably close, Aurora can manage to get my full, nearly undivided attention.

Afterwards, rewards were dished out. Meaningless titles, for the most part. Useless aside from obligating us to further serve the city and – most importantly from the Lord Mayor’s perspective – they cost the city almost nothing to give. The only real benefit is that we were now capable of owning land and collecting rents on it, which I’m sure Chadwick and I could turn a profit on, not that I was really worried about it. Maybe I could have my portion pay out to a local orphanage or something. I have more than enough money at the moment.

Chadwick apparently bought a house in town, so Aurora and I stayed there while the others took up back at the inn we’d been staying at. The furnishings were nicer than what we’d seen at any inn, complete with a nice day bed for our chaperone, because of course.

Aurora and I debated – openly in love, we didn’t argue as such – over when to have the wedding. Aurora made the case for waiting until we’d saved the world. I wanted to teleport to Absalom and have my priest friend there perform the ceremony that day. Maybe the next day, at the latest.

Of course, when has the man ever had the choice? Apparently we were waiting so we could do it right. All I needed for it to be perfect is for her to be there. And maybe a chocolate cherry cake. I was putting my foot down on that one. If she’s picking the date and the rest of the details, I get to pick the cake, dammit.

I dunno. I really don’t care. I just want to get it over with before she realizes that a slightly high mileage wizard may not be the best choice at the dealership.

Since I had been given the timetable of “once we’d saved the world”, I spent my time focusing on going through the digital version of the library in order to see if I could find a way to speed that whole thing up. Even digitized and indexed, it was slow going.

It didn’t help that I was also working on a lot of other things. I was building Paulie’s new armor, “wiring up” the new shield stone to the Lord Mayor’s mansion, studying to find a way to make a body for Kira without resorting to Geo’s craziness, fabricating new furniture for Chadwick’s house – his stuff was good, but I could make memory foam, so I win – and hand crafting Aurora and my wedding bands.

Let me take a moment to talk about those. First of all, no diamonds. Worthless rocks with artificially inflated prices, those. Instead, I managed to find a couple really nice white sapphires, which I used a combination of lasers and magic – my only use of magic on the project beyond using magicite to make the metals – to hollow and inject with a few drops of a mixture of Aurora’s and my blood, enchanted to never coagulate, turning the white gems red. I then carved them into dual-heart shapes and polished them carefully.

Then I made the bands, which were each made of three interwoven strands, one of titanium to represent Earth, one of mithral to represent Golarion, and one of adamantine to represent the starry skies between them. I set the sapphires into the bands carefully and engraved the inside of the rings with our names.

I showed my work to Aurora and she was suitably impressed. “Now we can run off and find a secluded little chapel,” I joked.

She smiled and rolled her eyes playfully. “No, but those will be wonderful at our proper wedding.”

“Is it really that important?”

“It is,” she said. “I know you’re eager to bed me, and believe me, you’re not the only one that’s having trouble waiting, but it’s truly important, okay?”

“Fine,” I said, giving her a kiss just improper enough for our chaperone to smack me with that wooden stick she carries. I don’t know who gave her that stick. I don’t know who told her to hit ME with the stick. But I know that one day I will find out. And someone will rue that day. RUE, I SAY!

The next morning, Aurora got up before I did and went off with Lenn for more training. He was teaching her how to harness her rage by yelling at bugs. Hand to God, I’m not making that up. I went and watched once. He made a grasshopper explode by yelling at it. The other Lenn – I really need to figure out something less confusing to call him – came by not long after and asked me to forge a new weapon and some armor for him. He wanted an axe like the one Lenn uses and told me that anything in a mid-range armor would be fine.

As I worked on the axe, Kira decided to sass me. “You really haven’t figured it out?”

“Figured what out?”

“The wedding thing.”

I really hadn’t, so I told her so. “Please enlighten me, dear sister, font of all womanly knowledge,” I teased.

“Jackass. You’re more of a woman than I am. You’re just apparently too dumb to pay attention.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that I’m going to really enjoy one heck of a laugh at your expense later.”

Later that morning, Chadwick dropped by and asked me to copy the scanned library for him, which meant I had to make him his own computer and copy over the VI to run it. While I was at it, he had me copy over my music as well.

“Anything else?” I asked as he was preparing to head out and continue his work on the trade negotiations with the Lord Mayor. It was turning into more than just a favored status for the Voidstrife group, but into a true negotiation with my adopted brother negotiating on behalf of Absalom.

“Actually, yes. I was thinking of having one of the new servants stock the liquor cabinet. You want anything for when we celebrate this trade deal?”

“If you’re really that close to concluding it, then some high end brandy would be nice.” Brandy's a sophisticated drink for sophisticated people and I have an image to maintain. Now if I could just get some Sprite to mix with it.

“Done.” He turned to leave and stopped. “Wait! I almost forgot. There is one more thing I would find useful if you could make it for me?”

“What’s that?”

“You remember when you told me your world had devices that could record events as they unfolded. Do you think you could make me one?”

I considered it. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I could make a video camera. “Sure. Why?”

“Once the formal treaty is written up, I’d like to record the signing to show back home.”

That made a lot of sense. Being able to show the fruits of his labors would really raise the family’s standing. “I’m out of spells of the right level to pull it off. If it can wait until tomorrow, however, I’ll make it happen.”

He clapped me on the shoulder. “I knew I could count on you. I won’t need it for a few days at least, but don’t tarry too long. I’ll need you to teach me how to use it.”

With Aurora back sharing a bed, the nightmares were gone once more. Now that she knows she’s separate, Kira’s pretty sure she could consciously dispel the bad dreams. She can now sleep whenever she wants – which she does to give me privacy – and is not necessarily bound to sleeping when I do. She has to limit movement to keep from leaving me exhausted, but she can even take over the body when I’m sleeping.

The nightmares were gone, but the strange dreams were back. This one was set in some kind of secluded castle. In a cave.

“I can’t believe you got the dwarves to give you Castle Honnleath, sis,” my twin brother Cedwin was saying to me.

“That’s your doing, brother.”

“My doing? I didn’t even talk to the dwarves.”

His confusion amused me. “No, and thank the gods for that. What you did was more important. You killed and humiliated their enemy. Your… what would you call him? He’s dead, but I guess he’s still technically your father-in-law. Anyway, the dvergar hated him. He killed some of their lord’s kin who had been sheltering with him through a bad storm.”

“So they were grateful I killed him back? Grateful enough to give us a castle?”

“Not exactly. He was a well-known human purist. I may have told them that you killed him so you could take his only daughter and ‘taint’ his line’s human purity with a bit of elf blood. That insult to his entire lineage amused them enough to offer us this unused castle.”

“But that’s not what happened at all!”

“It may not have been the intention, but it did technically happen. Look it had lost us any support of the human lords already, so there was no harm in spinning it into a tale that helps us. We needed somewhere we could be safe from the humans.”

“I guess that’s fair enough. But it makes me look like the bad guy here.”

“Just by having the audacity to exist, we’re already the villains. Don’t worry about it. I would worry about your wife instead, were I you.”

“What’s wrong with my wife?”

“Well, based on your bride’s illness the last few weeks, I suspect that you’ve already ‘contaminated’ her father’s line.”

“WHAT?!”

“I’m going to be an auntie, brother.”

“I have to go see her.”

“By all means,” I said. He hugged me and ran off. I ran my finger gently over the parchments on the table, feeling the texture of the ancient documents. There was a lot we could do with full maps of the dwarven tunnels. The humans would soon learn the folly of attacking us.

And when I found that wizard, I was going to cut out his liver and feed it to him if it was the last thing I did.

I woke up and discussed the dream with Kira. She confirmed that it was actually a memory, but was unwilling to tell me more. She seems to think it’s a good idea if I try to recall it on my own. Of course, while I’m awake, it’s all coming up blank. Maybe I just need to wait for it. Or maybe I take a page out of Katie’s handbook and find a way to put Kira in a half-Nelson until she spills the beans. Either’s good.

<You’re welcome to try.>
<I can build powered armor and giant robots.>
<Oh. Right. Still not telling.>

And that was it. For almost two weeks, nothing happened. I built things. I studied. Aurora trained. Chadwick made deals. Lenn taught noble ladies to make cakes. Geo worked with his weird cult friends. Other Lenn practiced with his new axe. Paulie… did Paulie things. I don’t know. I lost track. I’m sure that won’t come back to bite us in the ass later.

But for nearly two weeks, I didn’t have any moments where I feared for my life. I didn’t have to investigate anything horrifying. There were no ghosts, no monsters, no inbred hillbillies eating the flesh of the innocent. And we didn’t need to commit genocide once.

Yeah, I’m still thinking about that. Look, it’s not that I’m feeling guilty. It’s that I’m feeling guilty that I don’t feel guilty. I mean, I beat myself up over not realizing there was dissension in the ranks and not reaching out to those who could have been our allies. But I don’t at all feel guilty over killing all those giants. They were going to hurt others, and I put them down. Well, others did most of the heavy lifting. But you get what I mean.

S.L.A. Marshall did a study in World War Two that found that a rather high percentage of soldiers weren’t firing to hit their targets, just aiming in the general vicinity. It’s considered controversial nowadays, with many citing problems with the science, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Most people don’t have it in them to kill under any but the most extreme circumstances. Things like severe rage or fear are required.

Yet I can gun down hundreds to save thousands without batting an eye. Like they’re simple numbers. I wonder what that says about me. Am I some kind of psychopath? Shouldn’t I feel guilty?

I don’t have an answer. And I don’t think I have much motivation to really worry about it. Bad people died. Innocents lived. And I sleep well enough at night aside from the unrelated nightmares I get when I sleep alone.

Maybe I’ll just refrain from ever running for any public office bigger than a local school board. Just to be safe.

The end of my idyllic days was heralded by the mid-afternoon arrival of Chadwick. Apparently he needed my help with the negotiations. Yay. Trade agreements. My favorite. At least I could run through code permutations in my head to try to further improve my VIs while the boring discussions happened around me.

After the second day of tedium, my mind must have craved stimulation, because I had another dream. This one was weirder than many. The stars above were all out of alignment, looking familiar, but just different enough to be terribly wrong.

What was weirder is that I could see the stars even though the sun was out.

I was in a field of various daffodils, primulas, rosas foetida and sunflowers, but I didn’t smell the scent of any of those. I smelled a faint scent of lilac – likely from the real world proximity of Aurora to me – and hydrangeas. Samantha was nearby. I also caught the scent of the Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus – the daylily – a flower whose scent I noted as being present after a transformation into Kira has just ended.

I’ve had lucid dreams before, but this felt different. In a lucid dream, I could do things like gift myself with flight or teleport, but I couldn’t do that here. It was almost as if I was somewhere else entirely, but also in a dream.

I followed the scent of hydrangea and daylily, moving quietly to avoid detection. I’m not sure why I was being stealthy, but I had the feeling I should be. I even tip toed through a patch of tulipa tarda, though that might have just been for pun’s sake.

I crept up behind a kerria japonica hedge – bush? shrub? – and heard voices. “And he suspects nothing?” Samantha was asking.

“No, he’s too focused to realize what’s going on around him,” Kira replied.

“Excellent. I do hope you’ll tell me all about the look on his face when he finds out.”

“Oh, I will, but it might cost you,” Kira said. I knew that tone. That was the tone one uses when fishing for a kiss – or more. As curious as I was about what they were talking about, I wasn’t invading Kira’s privacy like that, so I noped right the heck out of there at all reasonable speed while maintaining as quiet a retreat as possible. On the way out, I ran across a troop of nightgaunts. I might have been in danger, but they seemed afraid of flowers for some reason. I decided not to try to figure out why.

<Hey! You heard us in the Dreamlands?>
<Considering what you were hiding from me, you have no room to be outraged. Also, “the Dreamlands”?>
<Oops. Extra special no comment.>
<I guess that explains the nightgaunts, at least.>
<I’ll talk to Samantha and ask her to make sure you aren’t pulled in too. You aren’t mad, are you?>
<Why would I be mad?>
<Because I’m dating your ex?>
<Why would I begrudge her happiness? As long as the two of you take things slow and do your best to make sure neither of you gets hurt, go for it.>
<Since when are you so mature?>
<I believe I learned it from a pony.>
<Ah, there it is.>

I woke up from the weird dream to see Aurora’s face inches from mine. Her eyes were open and, for lack of a better term, she looked hungry. Not literally hungry. We were both using rings that reduced need for sleep and eliminated need for food. Whoever had coined the term “man eater” had seen that look in my fiancé’s eyes.

“You okay?” I whispered.

“I don’t know if I can take it anymore.”

“Take what anymore.”

“The waiting. I don’t want to wait. I want to go throw out our chaperone and stop waiting.”

My heart skipped several beats. “If you don’t want to wait, then don’t. I’m suddenly extremely ready right now.”

She giggled. “I do love you, you know.” She kissed me a little too long and the chaperone hit me with a stick. I’ll be honest, the chaperone was a little too reminiscent of a nun for me to sass when she did that. Like any good Catholic boy, nuns terrify me.

I had a spell prepared. In an instant, the psycho nun could be unconscious. But I could tell Aurora was strangely relieved that she had intervened. “So, I’m guessing not today?”

Aurora sighed and nodded. It was clear she was just as frustrated as I was. “It’s important.”

“If you say so,” I said. “I’ll respect your wishes. Just call off the lady with the stick.”

The next day, Aurora had gone before I woke up. I decided to start doing more research, since it was too early to wake anyone. I thought I had a breakthrough in my investigation into placing Kira’s soul into a new body, but I was wrong. I’m pretty sure if I explore that line of research further, I could use it to create a spell to completely combine our souls – the opposite of what I’m trying to do, really – with the little side effect of maybe never being unable to untangle ourselves. On the plus side, it would probably give us an intense boost of power.

At least I was making progress there. I could tell you all about Karzoug’s war with Alaznist and a ton about the old empire, but it didn’t give me any hints on how to find and stop him. It was like a mental form of blue balls to go with the more real version I was getting from Aurora’s need to wait on the wedding.

I was so focused on my research that I forgot to go with Chadwick to the day’s negotiations. So he came and found me after they broke for lunch. “We’ve had a breakthrough. I need you there for the signing. Get cleaned up and put on something fancy.”

“How fancy we talking?”

“Remember that suit you wore to Mother’s birthday party last year?”

“You want me in a tuxedo?”

“We’ll be recording this.”

“Tuxedo it is. Black, white and purple okay?”

“Should be fine,” he replied. “Just hurry up.”

I gave him a look and then used magic to cleanse myself, change my clothes and even style my hair and trim my facial hair. “Good enough?”

“It’ll have to be. We don’t want to be late.” I thought I detected a smug satisfaction in his voice. I debated whether it was too late to strap on my holster, but decided it would create an ugly bulge in the otherwise perfectly fitted suit.

We arrived at the Lord Mayor’s mansion and servants ushered us through. It was obvious they expected us and had been impatiently awaiting our arrival. It was quickly apparent that they were ushering us out towards the large private garden. Why were we signing documents in the garden?

I tried to ask Chadwick, but he just hurried me along. Then I began to hear music. I recognized that music. “Chadwick…why are we signing documents in the garden?!” I was almost panicking, but I didn’t quite realize why.

He just grinned. “It was the best place.” That was a lie. He was lying! I was outraged. He signaled to the servant waiting at the door to the garden. The man rushed along. A few moments later and the music changed. It was clear that the orchestra had practiced this.

The song they were playing caused a memory to flash. I was back in that cabin where I had nursed Aurora back to health, humming the same tune – “Pastel Pure”, the opening to Marimite, in case you’re wondering – as she slept. She woke up with a small smile. “That’s a beautiful song.”

“I think that one day I’d like it played at my wedding,” I said, not really thinking about it.

“Tell me about weddings on Earth,” she said sleepily. So I did, giving her a bunch of variations, including the American standard, traditional Irish touches and even adding in details of my perfect wedding, including the aforementioned Pastel Pure as the song during the prelude before the processional. I then went into detail on the clothing worn, especially focusing on the bride’s dress…

Oh, crap. While describing the dress, I had made a joke that “Only virgin brides can wear a truly white dress, of course. Ladies who have soiled their purity have to wear a lesser shade of white.” It had been a joke. I thought it was a silly thing to worry about. But she must not have caught the joke.

She thought that I thought that it was important. That’s what the last few weeks had been about. She had been abstaining because she thought it was important to me. I couldn’t help but be moved by that. It was so silly of her, but she had done all that to make things as perfect as possible for me.

Well, the least I could do was to do my part flawlessly. I looked over to my right and there were several of my friends in their finest outfits, some in clothes I’m pretty sure they didn’t own before this. They’d even manage to make Geo’s tentacles look presentable. That was a minor miracle if I ever saw one.

Even Calais, my old friend, was there. I must have been really distracted to let them get all this done without hearing a word of it. He congratulated me and we all took our positions, marching in shortly after to stand at the altar, where a cleric of Shelyn stood to officiate.

I glanced over the crowd and saw so many familiar faces. Mother Voidstrife was there, seated next to Chadwick’s wife and child. Behind them sat numerous others from Absalom, including Calais’ uncle, several of my old bandmates and a couple of my former instructors. There were so many, it’s hard to name them all, honestly. I was surprised to see the Lord Mayor seated in the crowd, as he seemed a logical choice for escorting Aurora down the aisle.

The orchestra finished its song and, after a brief pause, began playing “What a Wonderful World”, signaling the start of the processional. It started out softly and reached a triumphant crescendo as Aurora walked in, escorted by Lenn – our older friend, not the one Geo made. It was a sight, the giant man bent slightly to allow my tiny Aurora to hold the crook of his arm. He walked with practiced patience, which in and of itself was amazing. And the sight of my bride was nearly enough to take my breath away. No, I mean it. My heart skipped a beat and I almost fainted.

She was wearing a dress so white it was nearly blinding, but also trimmed with green – I had mentioned that my mother’s wedding dress was, so she had done so as well, I suspect – and illuminated by a soft glow from her halo, which she had managed to project without producing her wings or metallic skin. “Heavenly” doesn’t even begin to describe the sight. I fear that I could write for years and never do justice to the vision of my beloved walking down that aisle.

She walked up and took her place at the altar. My knees went weak as she pulled up the veil. At that point, there’s a bit of a blur in my memory of events. I mean, I’ve seen the video, but I don’t remember doing much of it. We said our vows, exchanged rings and then came time for the kiss. That part I remember. It started out chaste – we were in public – but Aurora would have none of that. She spun me around and dipped me back, planting a kiss so hot that I’m surprised parts of my clothing didn’t spontaneously catch fire. And, true to what I described, a Taldan translation of a verse from the English version of “Sakura Kiss” was performed during the kiss.

And I would like to find a hand like yours to take mine,
And with one kiss we could stop time, and I'd fall in love with you.
Tomorrow's far away; let's place our hope in today.
Just you and me in a beautiful spring...and we'll always fall in love, again.

Why? Because I’m a dork. There was a reception – well, more of a ball, really – with every wealthy member of society present. Aurora and I danced our first to an orchestral version of “Eyes On Me” as everyone watched, but for me, there was no one else in the room but her. She had improved considerably. I suspect that her time training with Lenn hadn’t just been shouting at bugs.

We then danced with friends and family as traditional as well as some of the members of the local government hierarchy. And then came the most important part of the reception. The time dreaded and held in awed anticipation by all. Yes, that’s right. You know what I’m talking about.

That’s when we danced the Chicken Dance.

Yes, thanks to a joke made to someone who I didn’t think would remember anything, I have unleashed the Chicken Dance upon a second planet. One day, humanity will stand on trial for that. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.

Chadwick revealed that he was giving us his house in Magnimar as a wedding present. He also told us that he’d be returning to Absalom after the party and leaving us to make ourselves at home. We would be all alone. I almost felt giddy. That big house and just me and my amazingly beautiful – also beautifully amazing – wife. Well, okay, we had the servants that he’d hired – they were paid up for the next six months! – there as well. But they were good people and none of them would hit me with a stick for grabbing my wife’s splendid backside.

For a split second after he told me about the house, there was a part of me that wondered if Aurora would be cool with me putting up a couple Gurren Lagann wall scrolls in the living room. That part of me was quickly beaten into submission by the other parts that didn’t want it to screw up our wedding night.

After we had spent enough time dancing, feasting and socializing, Aurora and I boarded a pimped out carriage – thankfully, I hadn’t told her about the tin cans tradition – and made our way home. Kira put herself into a dream state to give us some privacy before we arrived. I carried my wife over the threshold – I think she said a prayer to Alsetta as we crossed – and up to our bedroom.

Alone at last, I was suddenly nervous. But Aurora had waited long enough. She kissed me ardently. After several minutes, she pulled away. “Do the magic thing and make our clothes go away,” she commanded. Luckily, I had that spell prepared in case of an emergency. Like if our chaperone had gotten herself locked in a closet somehow and we only had minutes to take advantage of it.

A few words and a flick of the wrist and we were both naked in the light of the moon streaming in from the skylight. In a strange reversal, now Aurora was blushing furiously. She looked very nervous. But now I was no longer unsure of myself.

I took her hand and led her to bed, where I made love to the most astonishing woman I’ve ever known. She made up for any inexperience with boundless enthusiasm. There’s something special about sex with someone you truly love that sets it far above sleeping with random others. It was honestly the best I’ve ever had. The earth moved.

No, really. There was an earthquake during… let’s just say the timing was beyond incredible. It was a three, maybe a four – more likely the former – on the Modified Mercalli Intensity scale. Aurora seemed startled. “Is that normal?” she asked, unsure about whether she was imagining the tremors.

I kissed her reassuringly. “I’m just going to call that the gods’ way of telling us they approve until I hear otherwise.”

“Should we go investigate?”

I shrugged. “We could. Or…” I said, kissing her neck and leaving the sentence hanging.

She moaned softly and wrapped her arms around me. “Definitely ‘Or…’,” she breathed hungrily.

It’s a damn good thing we have those magic rings that let us get by on only two hours of sleep, because it was a long night. In fact, we spent the next several days in bed. We probably would have stayed there longer, but Sheriff Hemlock arrived late one morning.

Apparently the earthquake had been a little stronger back in Sandpoint – a six or so on the MMI, hearing him tell it. And, of course, that was only the beginning of their problems. Because Sandpoint never has simple problems.

I guess I would have to wait to complain about our cake being lemon until later.

Chapter V starts officially in the next entry, which might take a short while as I've gotta focus on the rest of my move first.


There are unmarked spoilers ahead for the last couple posts. Be warned.

You know, reading through those last three again, and I'm not sure I'm happy with where I went with some of that stuff. I'm going to leave it because it's already been posted as well as GM approved, but still.

I'm just going to say it. Things went a little ridiculously Mary Sue in the Boneyard. I put it in because it's world building for a related story I want to write, but at the same time it really doesn't do anything for THIS story.

I am fine with making Earth out to be a place of great importance to the future of existence because of the experiments of a lone god, but I just think I went too far with the character's strength, as cool as the star thing was.

For the record, very little in the spirit world aside from the revelation of who Kira actually is will have much bearing on further events. There are a few smaller things, but nothing major. Don't want to spoil much of what roles are planned for things.

And, coincidentally, the two magic items they got out of it cost about the same as the two raise deads. Since the trap was triggered by fiat(note: Kyle handily beat the reflex DC and failed his save in order to Aid Another to help Aurora on hers, which she barely made, in case you're wondering), effectively no wealth was created or destroyed by this side adventure.

What I am happy with is the events of Aurora's section.


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Kira's Commentary Ledger "The Dawn Will Come"

Spoiler:
Let me first state, before I write anything, that this journal has been protected from reading by someone with the power of a god, so if you’re reading it, then either you’re meant to do so or will be punished later, I’m sure. Kyle, if you’ve found a way to read it, stop. You especially are not meant to read this. Stop or you might literally make the baby Jesus cry. I have that on good authority.

That out of the way, let me state that the reason I’ve started writing this is because there are details Kyle doesn’t know about. He believes that he tried his crazy plan, overtaxed himself and passed out. He believes that Samantha saved us. He’s wrong. He believes that because that is what he is meant to believe. They won’t be able to keep it from him if he dies again and spends enough time out of body to begin recalling past lives, but this was the accepted solution. Here’s what actually happened.

As you know if you’ve read his journal, we were backed into a corner. We had two options. Things played out as it has in forty seven of our past lives. I told my twin to run, intending to buy time and escape, or buy time with my death. Either way, I was good with it. Granted, I know now that if I died, she would have died too, but it wasn’t something I knew during any of those past lives. I knew now that I had to escape too, but I was confident that I could once Kyle was clear.

In those forty seven lives, I made that suggestion and my sister rejected it outright. Then she’d get that same look Kyle had now, that grim determination tinged with madness. It doesn’t take much to make my sibling jump right off the slippery slope. Give her an excuse, and she has always jumped right past what Kyle now calls “the Godzilla threshold” with almost childlike glee, unleashing insane, forbidden magic of some type or another. In forty six of those lives, we died HORRIBLY from what she attempted. Not because of what it was meant to solve, but because of what she herself did.

And during this point, he had access to insane levels of power, so I knew I wasn’t going to like what he had come up with. And I know how he thinks, so I knew the song he was humming was also not a good sign. It was a song associated with mornings and sunrises.

“Well, s%+@,” I said as I realized what he was doing. Without looking, I quickly dispatched a trio of daemons. I would have tried to stop him, but it was too late. He had created a truly massive amount of hydrogen in space above us and had already begun the process of swirling it together, moving his hands about in front of him as if manipulating a floating basketball. In fact, as he worked, an illusory representation of the matter he was manipulating formed in that space.

I managed to kill several dozen more daemons before the 100 mile wide star above us ignited into something akin to a red dwarf, though from accessing the stellar knowledge in Kyle’s brain, it seems it would still be 346 times too small to be a class M9V star, whatever the hell that means. All I know is it was so close that it dominated the sky and made everything around us extremely hot, though not unbearable, if only just.

Kyle let out an insane laugh. “THE SUN IS A MASS OF INCADESCENT GAS, A GIGANTIC NUCLEAR FURNACE!” Well that’s it. That’s game. We were going to die horribly.

He raked a finger across the illusory star in front of him and the larger star reacted. I could feel it rumbling as it underwent a star quake and unleashed a solar flare, which reached out through space and slammed into the roiling mass of daemons. Even frenzied, that gave the survivors pause.

“The sun gives HEAT, the sun gives LIGHT, the sunlight that we see! The sunlight comes from our own sun's atomic energy!” Kyle compressed the illusion, unleashing a coronal mass ejection – again, I’m not entirely sure what that means, but that seems right. All I know is it looked like a giant stellar shotgun blast into the daemons. And it was incredibly cool. At least if we were going to die, it was going to be the most metal death in history.

The effort of not just using a star as a weapon but from even holding that impossibility together in the first place was exhausting Kyle. Of the tens of thousands of daemons we’d faced, only a few dozen remained. It was time to get rid of the star. “Throw it away before you lose control of it!” I suggested.

And, to my incredible surprise, he actually listened. He Kamehamehaed the illusion away and the star shot off in a streak of light, becoming a tiny speck in the sky before exploding brilliantly. He fell right on his ass. “You get the rest. I’m just gonna sit here for a moment.”

The rest of the daemons broke and ran in terror at what had just happened. I turned my attention to berating my sibling. “Are you insane?! You could have gotten us both killed, along with everyone for hundreds of miles!”

“It could have been worse,” he said.

“It scares me that I know you actually mean that. You actually thought it through?”

“Well, I had considered creating a gun powered by a Schwartzchild Kugelblitz black hole that fires concentrated Hawking radiation at a power level of roughly 129 petawatts.” Was he kidding me? A black hole?! What the hell was wrong with him?!

“And it never occurred to you to make a hundred auto-turrets or something else also less insane?”

He gave me a look of amazement. “Auto-turrets! Of course! That would have been so much easier!” My brother, the idiot.

We soon found ourselves surrounded by dozens of psychopomps and armed aeons. Yes, I believed we were under arrest. No, I didn’t have the energy left to run. “What’s the meaning of this?!” a woman demanded. She was ashen-skinned with white hair and white eyes – it was really freaky! – and she was wearing a hooded robe and carrying an hourglass filled with red sand. And more than anything else, I should note that she was beyond angry at us.

“You’ll need to be more specific,” Kyle mouthed off. I cringed. The hell was wrong with him? “We’ve done so much today.”

A familiar radiant peal of laughter cut the tension before the woman reacted. I heard the sound of someone biting into an apple and turned to see Samantha reclining on a black cloud behind us, enjoying what looked like a pink lady, or maybe a gala. “Sleep,” she commanded Kyle. Even I could feel the strength of the words. If it had been directed at me, I don’t think I could have resisted the command.

“Good night,” he said. His eyes rolled back into his head and he passed out where he sat. It was rather funny.

“Who are you?” the white haired woman demanded angrily.

“Oh come now,” Samantha said. “Surely you recognize me, seeress! It has been so long since last we met, back when the stars were new. But it was such a memorable meeting I was sure you’d remember me.” She took another bite. “Your thoughtlessness wounds me, right here,” she said, her mouth full. She pointed at her chest.

The other woman, who I suspected was Pharasma, goddess of death and prophecy, took a long look at the golden haired Samantha. Her eyes went wide. I mean, really wide. I wasn’t aware gods could be scared. “That’s impossible!” she hissed. “We killed you!”

“That is not dead which can eternal lie,” Kyle muttered in his sleep. He then began singing the opening theme from “Haiyore! Nyaruko-san!”. Badly.

“What is he doing?” Samantha asked me, ignoring the angry and/or terrified goddess standing off to one side.

“I think he’s subconsciously comparing you to a moe anthropomorphization of the Nyarlothotep.”

“Moe?”

“'Cute' might be the best translation. She was a character in an anime.”

She laughed. “The things you people come up with! That’s interestingly astute yet so horribly wrong. I’m totally telling him about that next time I run into him, though.” Nyarlothotep was real? F~+@. F$*# f&#$ f#@#-ity f+!%.

Our hilarious little moment past us, we turned back to the seething and/or terrified goddess. It really made me wonder what Samantha was that she scared a goddess. Drawing on Kyle’s knowledge of Lovecraft, I’d suspect that she’s an Outer God. I doubt it would take a coalition of gods to take on a Great Old One, no matter how insanely dangerous they were to us mere mortals. And if that was the case, she was terrifying. And hot.

What? You don’t see me shaming your kinks. That said, don’t spread it around. Wouldn’t want my brother finding out I have the hots for his ex.

“Anyway, what he said. You can’t kill me. That’s why you cut me into a thousand pieces and scattered them through the cosmos. A lost paladin on a shantak found the largest piece and now neither of us exists anymore, existing as a rather interesting amalgamation of the two. Truth be told, I don’t even think I could recombine with the other pieces anymore.”

The goddesses Sarenrae and Desna suddenly showed up, along with several beings I think might have been empyreal lords. Apparently word of Kyle’s little show had gotten around. “What is going on here?!” the sun goddess demanded.

“This creature has assaulted my domain,” Pharasma accused, indicating Samantha.

“Don’t be silly,” Samantha replied. “I only just arrived. What was done was done by the hands of these two. I only came here to protect them from reprisal for their actions, which were only done in self-defense. In fact, I suggest, based on what I know of them, that their decision to stand and fight was only because teleporting away would have left a horde of frenzied daemons here to attack the residents of this area.”

“Creating a star might have been a little much,” I admitted sheepishly.

“But it was really cool!” Kyle protested, still asleep as far as I could tell.

“How the hell is he doing that?!” Samantha demanded with another laugh. I could only shrug. “Look, if you want me to leave, I will. But I do not trust the children of,” she said a word that made my head hurt, like something in me was preventing me from hearing it, “to your care. If I go, I take them and their angel with me.”

“What is your game?!” Pharasma demanded.

“No game,” Samantha said. “Just self-preservation. Or has the tide of chaos the creatures of Earth have caused robbed you of your vision? Yes, that’s it, isn’t it? You can’t see. Not since the Earthlings drove out the Fair Folk, leading to the ill-fated Wild Hunt that led to the death of the Great Hero’s ancestor that ultimately led to my return.” She was talking about revelations that came during the lead up to the battle of Valor’s Triumph! Earth had something to do with that? And it had affected a goddess’ ability to see the future?

“What are you talking about?”

“Let me show you.” Samantha was instantly in Pharasma’s face, hand on the goddess’ forehead. “SEE!” she commanded.

Pharasma moaned in agony as her mind was flooded with visions. Her voice boomed as she spoke. “AND THE ROUGH BEAST SHALL BREAK FREE OF HIS PRISON! THE GODS THEMSELVES WILL BE SLAIN AND THE UNIVERSE DEVOURED! ONLY THE CHILDREN OF,” there was that word again, “SHALL BE ABLE TO SLOW HIS MARCH, THOUGH THEY TOO SHALL FALL. WHEN HE COMES TO THREATEN THEIR BIRTHPLACE, THEY SHALL UNLEASH THE FIRES OF CREATION, DESTROYING THE MATERIAL PLANE AS IT WAS MEANT TO BE. GROETUS WILL TURN OUT THE LIGHTS ON CREATION, BUT AS HE TURNS TO LEAVE, A NEW LIGHT WILL SPARK AND THE FIRES OF CREATION SHALL KINDLE A NEW EXISTENCE.”

Samantha let her go and she slumped to her knees. “Unlike you, I’m tied to the material plane. You might be fine with it ending completely, but I rather prefer the idea that its destruction be temporary.”

Sarenrae had stepped in between them, concerned, but Pharasma put her hand on the other’s shoulder. “Its okay. It was just a vision.” She gave Samantha a look. “Who are the ‘Transcended’?”

Samantha shrugged. “The gods of the new universe. I showed you everything I’ve seen.”

“Then go. We will not bar your way. But do not return to this place.” I have no idea what had just happened, but if I’m interpreting what she just said correctly, then the god of destruction was going to stage a prison break and eventually attack Earth, where Earthlings were going to kill him using the power of THE BIG BANG.

Neat. That sounded like a fight I could really enjoy.

Samantha shrugged. “No promises on the not coming back if it amuses me.” She blew a kiss to Desna for some reason – no, I’m not jealous – and teleported us away. Now that I think about it, Desna never made any kind of move against her. The others had been hostile, but the butterfly woman had seemed merely curious.

We found ourselves in some kind of demiplane of non-Euclidean properties that would drive normal people mad. It didn’t seem to faze me. Essielle was still unconscious and Kyle was “Do do dooing” the tune “Popcorn” in his sleep for some reason.

Which meant that Samantha and I were more or less by ourselves. “Alone at last,” I said, sidling up next to her. My tone of voice spoke volumes.

She gave me a surprised look, then burst out laughing. “Have I mentioned how much I love you people? Statistically speaking, you should be insane right now. And it’s not just you! Nyarlothotep likes to visit your world and reveal the truth of the universe from time to time. So very few of you go mad! Everywhere else, the rate is 1% retaining sanity, or 2% for humans, with your flexible minds. But for some reason, you Earthlings retain your sanity almost a quarter of the time!”

“Should I take that as a rejection?”

“Take what as a what now?” Had she really been so amazed that I hadn’t gone crazy that she hadn’t noticed that I was hitting on her? Eh, screw it. I’m not a pansy like Kyle. Boldness! I planted one heck of a kiss on her. She kissed back for a moment then stopped me. “You know I can’t be with anyone because I can’t risk that even happy in my melding I wouldn’t take the chance to escape if I…wait, that’s not an issue! You’re also a girl!” Nice of her to notice, not that I really feel like one, since the vast majority of my lives have been otherwise.

She kissed me again, this time with abandon. After several very enjoyable minutes, we parted. I’m sure I was grinning like an idiot. “We can leave them asleep a bit longer, right?”

“Unfortunately, no. I’ve brought you both back in time as far as I dare and it’s time they wake up. There are things you have to see.” Back in time? What? “But before I do, there are a couple things I need to ask of you. First, don’t tell Kyle about what he did with the star. Believe it or not, I actually had the permission of your god to rescue you and he wanted me to make sure Kyle didn’t remember the extent of what he’s capable of. He thinks it will mess with Kyle’s decisions when revived.”

“That’s fine. What do I tell him?”

“He’ll remember trying and passing out. Tell him that I showed up after he fainted and took care of everything.” I could do that. “And leave out the involvement of all those gods and especially the prophecy. He doesn’t need to know.” I could do that too. I nodded. “And finally, tell him to work on getting you your own body.” Her tone made all sorts of promises I intended to hold her to one day.

She woke up Kyle first. He took a look around us and immediately began trying to figure out the math of our environment. “You know, I think, given a few weeks here, I could come up with a new system of math to express what’s going on here.” Samantha and I shared a laugh.

Essielle’s reaction was a bit more terrified. She was a celestial, so it didn’t affect her like it would a human, but I think the ramifications that she was in the realm of an Outer God really terrified her. I think only the fact that Kyle and I were calm kept her from freaking out long enough for Samantha to prove to her that she had been asked by God to come get us out of danger.

Which was weird. Then again, what hadn’t been weird since we’d died? Or in any of our lives, for that matter? We attract weird. Why would God sub-contract to an Outer God? Look, I don’t have any answers, just questions.

Samantha conjured up a screen. It was made of meat. Like, real zerg s~#% here. “This is what you need to see.” She tapped the screen and we were watching as Kyle pushed Aurora out of the way. The screen was set to view things using the same kind of magic vision Kyle uses, so we got to see the crazy spellforms used.

I don’t know crap about magic. Kyle does, however. And he explained what we were seeing. Let me tell you, fam, it was effed up. Lyrie had attuned a curse to the Lamashtu malus, likely because she knew we had cleansed several shrines and really ticked off the evil goddess. It was like planting a bug, and was powered by the soul it was attached to. Kyle was impressed. Apparently it was pretty sophisticated magic.

The problem with it was that it had been meant for Aurora, not someone with as many lives as we have under our belts, so it got overcharged, hence the swarm. Making it for Aurora had really ticked Kyle off. And then we got to see her rant. Kyle got so angry that Samantha’s domain started melting around him.

Kyle asked Samantha if she could revive us. Essielle pointed out that it would be interference, which was against God’s rules. So Kyle pointed out that she’d only be answering the prayers invoked in the failed resurrection attempts. They settled on that being an acceptable justification. It was rather amusing to watch, if I’m being honest.

I talked Samantha into helping us make an entrance, by projecting a recording of my voice during the resurrection. She also did a thing to bind us together so that if we died again, the fact that two souls had to be brought back wouldn’t stop the spell from working anymore.

I’ll admit, the entrance was awesome. Kyle’s magitech armor worked extremely well and the gun he’d made for Aurora had been quite useful as well. Also, Samantha’s addition of the black tentacles was pretty great, too, though I’m not too enthusiastic about the sounds the zombies made when they got torn apart.

Now, let me talk about what Aurora wrote down about the events that happened. Yes, I’ve read her journal. Kyle may be too much of a gentleman to do so, but I’m not Kyle. I’ve always been overprotective of my sibling, and I’m not going to stop now just because I actually approve of the person he likes.

We human beings are not great at remembering things exactly as they happen, especially when emotion is involved. Aurora’s journal is a textbook example. The fight was well documented, though I don’t think Aurora quite understands just how amazing it was that she managed to learn how to channel her rage from Lenn and then turn it into a true blood rage. Kyle’s fairly certain that she’s going to get access to a limited supply of sorcery at some point as she continues to use anger to tap into her bloodline. That’s WAY beyond “You ever been so mad you hit a guy with a cactus?” or whatever your favorite version of that demotivational says.

No, her report on the battle was accurate, if lacking in certain perspectives and a bit spartan. What was inaccurate was what she wrote about the whole scene afterwards. I find it heartwarming that she actually remembers it all that way, but that’s not how it went down at all.

She did get on one knee. They did kiss. There was clapping. But it was far more like two awkward nerds on their first date than anything like how she wrote it. Look, at one point, she managed to headbutt him when going in for a kiss. It broke his nose. Paulie had to heal it. I’m not even joking. And they never would have had that second kiss if Chadwick hadn’t started a “KISS! KISS! KISS!” chant.

All in all, it was absolutely adorable. They were both just so nervous, it was like seeing Kyle back when he was still in high school. I just wish I had it on tape to play at their 25th anniversary party.

It has been two days and they’re finally getting over that ridiculously sweet nervousness they’ve had around each other. It probably would have gone by more quickly if they’d just bang and get it over with, but for some reason that hasn’t happened either. No, I don’t know why. I go into something of a nap state to give them privacy when they’re alone.

They did spend some time talking over their argument. Working from a place where their mutual love was out in the open, they finally managed to work it out. I’m really happy about that because the days leading up to our death had been really frustrating and annoying.

The day after we got back, an interesting bundle was brought to us by Magrim Emberaxe. Inside was a craftsman’s hammer and a stein, along with a note addressed to me, so we knew something was up.

Kira,

I just wanted to thank you and your brother for the great time the other day. T and I really enjoyed the battle. If you ever find yourself up this way again, you’re always welcome at my bar. I even set you up a tab. The stein is from me. Once per day, feel free to enjoy the finest beer magic can conjure. It’s not quite as good as the real stuff, but it’s still pretty good. T sent the hammer for your brother. He was so impressed with that spear that he just felt the craftsmanship should be rewarded.

Speaking of the spear, we recovered it from the site of the other battle you had. That fight was some impressive work. T’s planning to give it to a worthy hero in his or her time of need. Hope that’s alright.

Anyway, thanks again for a great time and good luck on your adventure. We’re rooting for you.

Cayden

Yeah, our life is weird. Like super, super weird. Yet, that said, I can’t imagine I’d have it any other way. I’m really glad I remember who I am now. Now Kyle and the others just need to finish analyzing that library so we can go kill that Runelord. Then my brother needs to make me a body. Maybe I can take the Runelord's body. He won't be needing it? Or would that turn Kyle into a girl again? Should I invest in one of those gender thingy belts before?

You know what? I'll just let Kyle figure it out.


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Misroi wrote:
I can think of no better way to show how Golarion's gender politics differs from our own than Aurora proposing to Kyle, and nobody thinks its weird.

Well, that's part of it. The other part is that most people there(or at least, anyone in charge) have been shipping the two of them for quite some time. Also, everything Kyle does is weird, so at this point, I doubt anyone would really notice one more thing out of the ordinary even if it was out of the ordinary. :P

It probably isn't. I can't imagine it would be considering what I know about Golarion. Just saying that if it were, it's just one more on the whole pile of weirdness. Hell, they could have done it on Earth with people who know him and I'm certain at least one person in the crowd's first thought would have involved the poor lighting or some other mundane triviality.

Also,

Spoiler:
Kira has some stuff to add about the whole thing in her section.


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Aurora's Observation Journal: “Steel Your Heart”

Spoiler:
A fear like none I’ve ever known tore through me as I hit the ground and something exploded behind me. I got to my feet quickly and rushed to Kyle’s side. It looked bad. He had a shard of metal sticking through his abdomen. I was pretty sure it had severed his spine.

“Thank god,” he whispered to me as I fumbled with my belt pouch, desperately trying to find a healing potion. “You’re okay.” He was slipping away. I had to do something.

“No. No. No. No,” I kept repeating as I dropped the potion. It shattered on the stone floor. This wasn’t real. It wasn’t happening. This COULD NOT BE HAPPENING. I grabbed desperately for another potion, using every bit of my training to focus and open the potion without dropping it. I poured it into his mouth and looked expectantly at his wounds.

They weren’t closing. Why weren’t the wounds closing? This was the most powerful potion I had! It should be strong enough! I fought unsuccessfully to hold back my tears of frustration. This wasn’t reality. I would wake up any moment and then I would sit down and talk to Kyle. We would clear up this misunderstanding between us. He wouldn’t die thinking that I hated him. Why had we been fighting anyway? At that moment, I couldn’t even remember.

“PLEASE!” I screamed through a sob. “SOMEONE HELP!” I cradled his head to my chest. The tears I had been fighting to hold back came full force.

I don’t know how long I sat there, alternating between screaming for help and sobbing, when I finally heard the sound of several people running. I looked up and saw the blurry forms of Paulie and Geo. The two had been on patrol together nearby.

Geo gently pulled me away so Paulie could work. He removed the massive shard of metal from Kyle’s midsection and pulled out some diamond dust from his bag. He cast the spell to raise Kyle from the dead. The diamond dust swirled around and was consumed, but nothing happened. My heart felt like it was being torn in two.

“Does he not wish to be revived?” Geo asked.

“I don’t get that sense, brah. It’s like something is holding him back, somehow. Almost as if his soul has been weighted down. I think I just need more power. Let me try again, with more dust.” He poured all the dust he had remaining, enough for nearly two castings, on Kyle’s body. He then cast the spell again. I thought I saw the body stir, but then nothing.

I wailed. Geo hugged me. “We’ll take him to Magnimar. One of the clerics will have a spell strong enough to revive him. Whatever the cost, we’ll get him back,” he promised.

“I wouldn’t count on it,” a woman’s voice said before breaking into laughter.

My heart nearly stopped. “Lyrie,” Paulie said, in that strange deep voice he sometimes has. “What have you done?”

“Not what I intended. I had planned to come here and fill in that wizard,” she almost spat at the description of Kyle, “about what was happening to the girl. That’s why I keyed the trap for her. A pity. I was looking forward to watching his expression as he heard about how part of her soul fed the revival of my lord and then was met in the Boneyard by a pack of hungry daemons. And then, only when all hope was lost, I would have killed him. Oh well. At least I know his soul is being torn apart and devoured as we speak. And don’t worry, you’ll join him soon. My army of ghouls will see to that.” I heard the sudden sound of slavering undead.

In the place in my heart where fear and despair had lived but moments ago now burned a terrible fury. She had done this. She had hurt Kyle. For a moment, I considered letting the rage fill my entire being. I considered letting go and fighting as Lenn does, with complete abandon. I’m certain that if I had, I would definitely have slain her then and there, though at the cost of my own life. But years of training had taught me a better way.

I subdued the frenzy, took the heat from its flames and prevented it from raging like a wildfire. Then I focused it instead in a single place, imagining it becoming ice and hardening in my veins. My angelic blood reacted with the fury flowing through it and the bloodrage became not an inferno but a directed river I could harness. Without even willing it, my blood called forth my halo and wings. My skin became silver, leaving only my wings and eyes as outward signs of flesh.

I rose from my knees and drew my blade. With only the barest hints of anger at the edges of my voice, I calmly declared my intent. “Lyrie Akenja, in the name of the righteous, I hereby judge you. Your life is forfeit. Surrender now and I will make your death quick.”

“KILL THEM!” she shouted in alarm. Ghouls flooded the room. Six came within my reach and six fell before me. More appeared behind them. Lyrie cast a spell to block access to the room with a wall of stone. And for some reason, I began hearing whispers around the room, though I couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. I suspected that they were a trick.

Another wave of ghouls rushed me and I cut them down. Geo was standing between Paulie and Kyle’s body and more of the dead. I began to be able to make out the whispers, as they were getting louder. It sounded like a woman’s voice. “- of the mind, key to life –“

I cut down a giant zombie and moved to attack Lyrie, but was cut short by a wall of magical force. “You really didn’t think I was stupid enough to let you get close to me, did you?” she asked with a smirk.

“- Soul of the lost, withdrawn – “

“If it’s the last thing I do, my blade will separate your head from your body like it should have done the day we met you,” I said softly.

“- Soul of the mind, key to life’s – “

“Strong words from a dead woman.”

“ – Soul of the lost, withdrawn from its – “

“This isn’t over.” Zombie wyverns flew down from above. I took to the air and engaged them. Paulie supported me with arrows where he could, more focused on the next wave of ghouls on the ground. I winged past two of them and focused on the largest, slamming into it and dragging my blade through its torso.

“- Let strength be granted – “ I was really starting to become curious as to the nature of the whispers, which were almost at a conversational level now. The only reason I couldn’t hear them all was the sound of the battle around me.

I dodged as another wyvern slashed at me, then countered with a swift cut to one of its wings. A roar erupted above me and I looked up just in time to catch sight of a zombie dragon as it breathed acid at me. I tried to dodge, but was unsuccessful. I slammed into the ground pretty hard, knocking the wind out of me and causing me to lose the focus of my blood rage. Every inch of my body ached from having held the rage so long. How exactly does Lenn do it? Is it just practice?

From where I lay, I got a good look at the dragon and was astounded by what I saw. The wounds still evident on the flying corpse were consistent with those taken by a black dragon I had heard about while we were in Sandpoint! That was Black Fang, the dragon that had been slain by the famous heretics, a trio whose very names were never to be spoken as decreed by the faiths of no fewer than four gods!

I stood weakly and Paulie healed my wounds, but I was still exhausted and we were still surrounded by ghouls. “All your big words,” Lyrie gloated. “And now you –“

She was interrupted as the repeating whispers became too loud to speak over. “Soul of the mind, key to life’s aether. Soul of the lost, withdrawn from its vessel. Let strength be granted that the world might –“

“WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?!” Lyrie screeched. “Kill them and find its source!”

“Soul of the mind, key to life’s aether. Soul of the lost, withdrawn from its vessel. Let strength be granted that the world might be mended. That the world…“

“MIGHT. BE. MENDED!” Kyle shouted. My heart skipped several beats. I turned to look, but suddenly the whole room disappeared in a blast of white light. Zombies cried out in pain. Lyrie cursed. Paulie and Geo began working to take advantage of the situation. Lenn continued trying to tear down the wall from the other side. “VI, activate encounter suit. Fast equip mode,” I heard Kyle whisper.

“That’s impossible!” Lyrie roared. “You’re dead!”

Kyle ignored her. “When you have a bad day and your life is laggin’,” he sang. “It gets much better when you cap a dragon!” I heard the sound of gunfire, much louder and not quite as rapid as that put out by his usual gun. The dragon roared and, as I regained my sight, I watched it crash into the ground.

Kyle stood nearby in strange black armor with a purple glass faceplate. Hints of light were visible through the glass. In his hands was a much larger gun than I had seen before, but there was something off about how he held it, almost as if it had been made for smaller hands than his. “Oh,” I said softly, as I realized that he had made it for me.

He took aim at the nearest ghoul, held in place by a mass of crushing black tentacles. No, I’m not sure where the tentacles had come from. The only spell he’d cast had been his light pulse. It had been stronger than normal, but nonetheless, still that one spell only.

One squeeze of the trigger and the ghoul’s heady exploded in a shower of sparks and gore. He had even enchanted the gun for me. I was touched by the thoughtfulness. Even as we’d been arguing, he had spent time working on it.

Kyle and Paulie shot down the remaining wyverns and I helped Geo finish off the ghouls that hadn’t been grabbed by the tentacles. Those that had been grabbed met a much more gruesome end.

“This isn’t over!” Lyrie screeched before activating some kind of contingent teleportation to escape. She was right about that. I was going to kill her.

Just maybe not today. “VI, remove armor and go into defensive mode. Remove the stone wall blocking the entrance.” I turned to see Kyle standing behind me, his armor removing itself and taking the form of a machine man. “Aurora,” he said. “I’m so very sor-“ he didn’t finish the thought as I threw my arms around his neck and kissed him with all of my might.

I could feel tears streaming down my face as we eventually pulled away. “Thank you for being okay,” I whispered softly.

He reached out and wiped a tear from my cheek. “So all I had to do to get you to kiss me was get myself killed.” He let out a soft chuckle. “I shudder to think what I’m going to have to do to get you to marry me one day.”

I hit him on the shoulder for joking about that. “You don’t have to do anything,” I muttered. “Just say yes.”

He was silent for several moments. I looked up at him and his mouth was open in shock. “Aurora? Did you… Did you just propose to me?”

A flush spread up my face as I suddenly realized that, in my moment of relief, I had actually done so. Where the heck did that come from? No, I knew where it came from. No more hiding from my feelings. I laughed. “I believe I did.” I removed my helmet, dropped to one knee and took his hand, to do this as properly befit a knight. “Kyle O’Halloran. I love you and want to spend the rest of our lives together, and perhaps beyond. So, will you marry me?”

He gave me an appraising look. “I don’t know. I mean, you didn’t even get me a ring…”

He was teasing me! “I’ll buy you a ring, you ass!” The nerve of that jerk!

“Well, in that case, how could I possibly say no?” With one yank, he pulled me to my feet, slid his arm around me and gave me a passionate kiss. The warmth of my embarrassment in my face spread all over, becoming a different kind of warmth.

I think that kiss may have lasted until we passed out from lack of air, but we were interrupted by a voice somewhere behind me. “ABOUT TIME!” Lenn said approvingly. Suddenly realizing that we weren’t alone, I pulled back and turned around to see Lenn and dozens of soldiers standing in the entrance to the chamber. Chadwick was grinning like an idiot and began the round of applause.

In moments, the cavern was filled with the raucous cheers of almost everyone. I’ve never been so embarrassed. I thought I would explode. Kyle pulled my attention back to him. He gave me a look that told me that he planned to kiss me again. “Wait! How can we with so many people here?”

“What people?” he asked. “I don’t see anyone else here but you.” He kissed me again. How could I argue with that? I closed my eyes and returned the kiss, allowing the rest of the world to just melt away around me. All that existed was me, the man I loved and the happiness so powerful that nothing else mattered in that moment.


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Shadows Fall and Hope Has Fled…

Spoiler:
I don’t know what I expected. I mean, maybe I didn’t really expect the white light and tunnel. And I’m not sure I expected to find myself in a queue on a cloud at a literal set of pearly gates. But what I wasn’t expecting was a massive necropolis with a serious Dia De Los Muertos theme going on.

And while I had secretly hoped I would be woken in the realm of the dead by the singing of a beautiful woman, that too turned out just a bit different than I had expected.

My young love said to me, my mother won't mind
And my father won't slight you for your lack of kind
And she went away from me and this she did say:
It will not be long now till our wedding day.

She stepped away from me and she moved through the fair,
And fondly I watched her move here and move there;
And then she went homeward with one star awake,
As the swan in the evening moves over the lake.

The people were saying that no two were e’er wed,
But one had a sorrow that never was said,
And she smiled as she passed, with her goods and her gear,
And that was the last that I saw of my dear.

I dreamt it last night that my young love came in,
So softly she came that her feet made no din;
And she laid her hand on me and this she did say,
“It will not be long, love, till our wedding day.”

I’d first heard that song long ago, at a wake for my great grandmother. I had only been six at the time, so I didn’t get to stay up with the adults and do any of the heavy drinking, but I remember that song clearly. I had met her several times and had always like the crazy old woman. I remember bawling. The tune still brings a few tears to my eye.

As the song ended, I could feel myself start to stir and began to take notice of several things. The first was the scent of several flowers, including fragrant agrimony, marsh orchid and several others I could almost but not quite identify. I also noticed the feel of soft fabric on my right cheek and slightly damp grass beneath the rest of me. I felt a hand softly brush a loose strand of my hair aside.

A voice, the voice of the woman singing, whispered softly into my ear. “Time to wake up, dear brother. I don’t think the locals are very happy with your redecorating.”

I stirred. “What redecorating?” I murmured as I tried to rouse myself.

“Open your eyes, dear brother.”

I opened my eyes to see an alien sky above me. It almost looked like we were in a violet nebula or something. But strangely, the patch of sky directly above was clear and blue. So too it was with the ground around me. While the place we were in appeared to be some kind of Mayan or Incan temple in a jungle-like setting, the ground for maybe fifteen feet in any direction looked like it had been transplanted straight from an Irish meadow.

By the curious looks of those around us, I was guessing that this wasn’t exactly normal. Creatures of many types had flocked around us, trying to catch a glimpse. I recognized a few of the differing types of beings nearby. Some were angels of varying types, as well as their celestial kin, archons, agathions and azata. But there were other beings, not just celestials. Aeons, inevitables, proteans, Valkyries and even the occasional devil passed by, as if we were in the courtyard of some interplanar campus, or perhaps a park next to a courthouse.

Right. The Boneyard. The domain of Pharasma, goddess of death. That explained the psychopomps flittering all over, making everything look kinda like Tucson during All Souls Weekend.

I looked up at the woman cradling my head. To say she was beautiful is an understatement, but there was something more about her, a familial quality as well as a familiarity I was having trouble putting my finger on so soon after waking. It finally clicked. “Katie?” I asked, sitting up. It wasn’t quite right. Her hair was a bit different, much more red than my elder sister.

“You’re in the right neighborhood, dear brother, but at the wrong door,” she said, smiling sweetly.

I studied her features closely. She wasn’t Maggie or Molly. No she looked more like Katie, but there was something different. I almost couldn’t put my finger on it, but suddenly realized it. She looked a bit more like me, but in a good way. “…Kira?”

My twin sister threw her arms around my neck. “I’ve been waiting so very long to see you again,” she said, her voice thick with emotion.

I hugged her back. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting.” After several moments, I spoke up again. “So, going to give me the tour of this place?”

She gave me a look. “I just got here.”

“Where were you before?”

“I think I was with you, but it’s like I was half asleep.”

Well, that isn’t weird at all. “You should have said something.”

“I would have, but I don’t think I knew I was me. I thought I was you. Or something.”

That didn’t make any sense. Not unless… “Fleur.”

Her eyes went wide. “Yes! I remember that! That’s what you kept calling me.” Huh. So my crazy split personality wasn’t actually me being crazy. It was my dead twin sister’s soul living in my brain.

You know, when I see that written out, it doesn’t sound any less crazy than it did in my head. In fact, it seems even more crazy.

I looked around again. The crowd was growing. “Let’s get up and try to blend in while we figure out what’s going on around here.”

“Sure,” she said. She hopped up quickly, her green sundress barely even fluttering from the fluid motion. I considered lecturing on the poor fashion choice of combining a sundress with combat boots, but decided now wasn’t the time or place.

Not that I was dressed much better. I looked like the fashion result of a fusion dance between a BronyCon Starswirl the Bearded cosplayer and something out of Shadowrun. What I’m saying is that my goggles and bandolier clashed horribly with my starry robes. I really wanted to fix that.

I didn’t even have to focus. Just my desire manifested a change to my outfit. I found myself in my normal clothes, minus to the hat and coat. The shirt also changed to read “Don’t Fear the Reaper” above a picture of Ryuk from Deathnote, for some reason.

“Neat trick,” Kira said.

“No idea how I did it.”

Our attempt to hide ourselves in the crowd proved an abysmal failure. You wouldn’t think it would be difficult to hide a couple dead people in the land of the dead, but you’d be wrong. I mean, we clearly weren’t Outsiders, but we were far too well defined to be the quasi-incorporeal normal dead, which Golarion theology terms as “petitioners”. That meant we were either living planar travelers, or something else.

Of course, the daemon attacks didn’t help either.

Outsiders of all alignments can be found in the Boneyard, arguing for ownership of particular souls, but as I understand it, they mostly keep to their own sections, venturing to the edges to attend the courts that handle cases of souls that can be said to straddle a line. But that isn’t to say that none leave their domains to conduct business under the watchful eyes of the aeons and psychopomps that tend the realm.

Even then, daemons are mostly forbidden from leaving their section due to their hunger for souls. They do so from time to time, astradaemons especially, usually to plunder the River of Souls for a snack. Even then, it was beyond weird to find a distressingly insane derghodaemon deep in the inner sector of the realm like this, almost as though it was waiting for us. It certainly looked that way when it made a beeline for us.

I didn’t scream like a girl when it roared and began charging us. The angel that interceded must have just noticed the daemon on its own.

“Back, vile fiend!” the angel shouted, raising its longsword. The daemon was unfazed. Truth was, the daemon was much more powerful than the angel and there was nothing close enough that might help. Not unless I felt like making a pact with a devil.

“He’s losing!” Kira hissed. “We have to help!”

“I don’t disagree, but how?”

“That thing you did with your clothes, can you make a weapon?”

Now that was an interesting idea. Somehow I knew I could. “Any preferences?”

“Whatever! Just hurry!”

This was a dangerous foe. Not just anything would do. It had to be both strong and easy to wield. And it absolutely needed a bit of reach. There was only one type of weapon that fit the bill. I closed my eyes and focused my mind, just like when I Fabricated something. It needed dwarven craftsmanship. It had to be adamantine. But there was no adamantine around. And, being dead, I had no blood to sacrifice. But there was air, and water.

The air crackled as I tore the molecules of water apart with my mind. It then burned as I fused the hydrogen, again and again and again, into adamantine. The sounds of hammers striking metal sounded as the tip took shape, followed by the sounds of grinding as an edge was honed. The ground split and a tree grew. I sundered the darkwood and carved it into a shaft, perfectly shaped to my sister’s hands.

The tip attached itself to the haft, which grew around it, securing it in place. But that wasn’t enough. It needed magic. I wrought my will upon it. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of runes burned into the spear’s flesh. It would strike true, tearing the wind itself asunder as it passed. And what’s weirder is that I knew it had a name.

Kira grabbed the spear. “Gugnir?!” she exclaimed, either out of recognition of Odin’s spear or from reading my mind. Hey, maybe that’s a thing we can do. I don’t know. We didn’t have time to contemplate it further. The angel was in trouble.

I say “was”, because once Kira moved, it was over. She literally flash-stepped over to the daemon. She was a blur as she fought, dancing around the foe, striking multiple blows so quickly that I was certain only one had been made.

It seems that with a weapon in her hand, the daemon never stood a chance. Heck, I’m not even sure a nascent daemon-lord would have been able to go toe-to-toe with her. Not in a purely physical contest, anyway. That’s how fast she was.

“Stop!” someone shouted at us, once the fighting was done.

I knew that tone. I didn’t even have to look and see the stern faced psychopomp bearing down on us to realize the authorities were coming for us. I’ve been in that situation. Usually right after jumping out of a young woman’s window. So instinct took over. “Cheese it! It’s the fuzz!” I shouted. Because apparently I’m a character in West Side Story.

We took off running. We didn’t have a plan beyond fleeing. And, let’s be honest, I’m not the fastest person. But I had already discovered that I could quickly change my clothes. Frictionless was a change I could do. So I changed the soles of my boots and had Kira push me.

For the record, we went about fifty miles an hour. And in case you were wondering, yes, that’s faster than living humans should be able to run. But Kira wasn’t exactly a living human. So the rules don’t exactly apply.

Like I said before, we didn’t exactly have a plan. We were just running. We might have kept running, but someone yanked us inside a building as we passed as though we were in some kind of cartoon. And if we had been in bodies rather than some kind of corporeal-ish extraplanar entities, I’m pretty sure we’d have gotten whiplash.

A lean, semi-muscular man with brown hair and an amused smirk set us down just inside what appeared to be a tavern of sorts. It reminded me of the Hanged Man in Dragon Age 2, if I’m being honest. Also, for honesty’s sake, I must tell you that I did not in any way forget that my shoes were frictionless when he set me down. Which means I did not fall flat on my face. It also means that I didn’t scream in an undignified and hilarious manner. It also means that I didn’t have to wait until the laughter subsided to thank our rescuer.

“Don’t sweat it,” he told us. “Come, join us and have a drink. My treat. From what I hear, you kids have had a heck of a day.” We joined him and a grey-bearded dwarf at the only occupied table in the bar. I tried to introduce myself and the man shook his head. “We don’t stand much on formality here, even if T here is a bit of a stick in the mud sometimes.”

The dwarf drained his tankard. “Your bar, your rules,” he said sagely.

“That’s one of the most important rules,” the brown haired man said with a nod. “So, what kind of beer will you have?”

I gauged my surroundings carefully. I was pretty sure no one would make me a gin and tonic if I asked, and it didn’t look piratey, so rum was probably out. “I’m not a huge fan of beer,” I said. “You wouldn’t happen to have mead, would you? Or I could do a root beer, if beer it must be.”

He gave me a narrow-eyed, suspicious look. “You don’t like beer?”

I had been afraid of that. I was going to school in Colorado before I left, so I truly understood that some people take beer far too seriously. I would have to be careful how I played it. So I shrugged. “Life’s too short to acquire a taste for something when there are so many things to drink that I like already.”

The dwarf laughed. “Lad has a point.”

“Fair enough,” the man said with a chuckle. “How about you?” he asked my sister.

“Something dark and thick enough to stand a knife in,” she said. I must have given her a look, because she shrugged at me and said, “What? Just because you want something with a little umbrella in it doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a good beer.” That got another laugh.

I would have been offended, but I found myself seriously wondering if the little umbrella was actually an option and if I could get it with some pineapple slices. I decided not to ask. Best not to press my luck. “So, is it usual for newcomers to get attacked by a daemon?”

“Not that far from their section,” the dwarf said somberly as we awaited our drinks.

“It’s also not every day that someone creates a miniature sun and pulls a spear out of it. Neat trick. Some sort of extra-dimensional carrying space?” News apparently travels fast in the waiting room of the dead. Most waiting rooms I’d been in before only had old copies of Golf Digest for entertainment.

I shook my head. “Not exactly. I was just fusing atoms to make the metal I needed to fabricate the spear.”

“You crafted that?” the dwarf asked, surprised. “May I see it?” Kira and I exchanged a glance and she handed it over. He analyzed it with a crafter’s eye. I was suddenly very self-conscious. He let out a low whistle. “That’s pretty impressive. Never met a demi-god who could put out this kind of work. Though, in the future, I’d recommend just willing it into existence. No need to make a miniature star to get metal.” He gave me a knowing smile.

“I’m a what now? I think you’re mistaken. We’re normal humans aside from the fact that we’ve been sharing a body since we were born.”

The dwarf gave me a look of disbelief. “That can’t be right,” he said.

“No, it’s true,” Kira said after taking a drink of her disgusting looking beer. “It gets a little cramped in his body, but I didn’t want to leave him by himself when I died.” The way she said it was hilariously nonchalant.

“No, the body thing is a little weird, but not what I’m talking about. The normal human thing is what I’m talking about. There’s no way you two are normal.”

Kira gave an exaggerated pout. “That’s not a very nice thing to say.”

“I only mean it in the best possible way,” the man quickly corrected. “Your souls are far more developed than one would expect from someone your age.”

I started thinking about it. There were quite a few possibilities that I knew of. “Would spending a year in outer space with a woman fused with some kind of dark space entity affect the strength of one’s soul?”

“You did what now?”

I took a few minutes to explain the whole Samantha thing. The two exchanged glances before the dwarf answered. “That…probably wouldn’t explain everything, but it’s a place to start. She might have done something. Mind if I take a look?”

“Take a look at what, exactly?”

“Just looking for blessings from gods and godlings. Those persist after death and might explain it, if enough power has been expended on you.”

“I guess it couldn’t hurt to check.”

He created a small globe of light and gently tossed it at me. It hit me and exploded, almost like a water balloon, releasing a soft resonant glow all around me. Within the glowing light were a number of small snowflake-like structures. Kira joined both men as they looked them over.

“There are a bunch of different ones,” she said. She pointed at one in particular. “There are a few like this one, which look more elaborate than the rest.”

“Good eye,” the man said. “Those are the direct blessings of deities and other powerful beings, where they’ve taken personal notice. That one, for instance, appears to be the mark of a particularly powerful nymph.”

“Is that normal?” I asked. “I mean, do deities take personal notice of people very often?” After all, if I was special, I’d need to know so I could start a Tumblr when I got home.

“For normal people, it’s fairly rare. But if you’re an adventurer, it’s more uncommon to not get the notice of a few powerful beings.” Ah, okay. So nothing all that special. No more than any normal adventurer. “The nymph one’s fairly interesting though.” He gave me a wink that suggested that he had made up a rather lascivious reason for its existence.

Kira missed the look and continued on, unfazed. “How about this one?”

“This one’s a blessing from a member of a god’s clergy. There are dozens like it. It seems that your brother has made quite an impression on the priesthood of Shelyn.” Made sense. Ever since I’d come to Golarion, I’d found the patron goddess of love and the arts the easiest to work with, and I’d done my best to be generous. “There seems to be one acolyte of Shelyn in particular who prayed for you every day for almost five years.”

Oh. “I think I know the one.” I’m sure I looked guilty when I said it. Mostly I was feeling guilty wondering if she might have survived if I had gone with her when I had the chance.

“Seducing one of Shelyn’s acolytes? You dog.”

Kira laughed. “Sure, if you count looking like a sad, pathetic puppy as ‘seduction’.”

“Truly?”

I sighed. “Yeah. I had just been dumped and was a bit disheartened by teleporting to Golarion instead of back home. I was desperately lonely and she felt bad for me.”

Kira thankfully changed the subject, pointing at another mark. “How about this one? It’s dark and foreboding.”

“Ooh, that’s a rough one. It’s a malus. Looks like you’ve personally pissed off someone. Let me see if I can see who.” He gently tinkered with it. The malus zapped him. “Yep, definitely Lamashtu.”

Kira actually laughed. “Cleanse a few shrines, kill a few priests and suddenly someone has to go holding grudges.” The rest of us couldn’t help but laugh along with her.

“What about these?” I asked, pointing to an odd looking snowflake. “They look different from the rest.”

The man examined it. “I’ve never seen one of these before. It’s a blessing from a priest, but it’s not for any god I recognize. T?”

The dwarf examined it and his eyes went wide. “Where did you say you were from again, kids?”

“Earth,” Kira said, taking another drink of her beer.

“We also call our planet Terra. It’s in the Sol system.”

The dwarf took a long swig of his beer. “You’re in the wrong place. Send for some of Pharasma’s people,” he told the man. “We need to make arrangements to send them to their correct afterlife as quickly as possible.”

Well that was interesting. Apparently our afterlife was segregated from the rest for some reason. I got the feeling that asking why would get me nowhere. Not that I had a chance. Suddenly, the mark from Lamashtu started flashing. “Uh, guys? What’s going on there?”

“It’s acting as a beacon. We’re going to be under attack any moment.” The dwarf grabbed a war hammer and prepared for battle. His friend pulled his rapier and tossed Kira her spear.

“You need armor,” I told my sister.

“I won’t argue with that. Hook me up!” I touched her shoulder and focused my will. As far as I knew, there were no limits other than that it had to be able to actually exist. In seconds, she was wearing a hi-tech hardsuit of ceramic plates – more than twice as strong as adamantine and about ten thousand times as expensive – on a mesh of carbon nanotubes and adamantine fibers woven together like human muscle tissues. All in all, it was very sci-fi looking. Maybe one day, this would be standard issue for human soldiers, but it would take some serious technological breakthroughs to make it affordable enough. “Holy crap!” she exclaimed.

“Enjoy it while it lasts. Even if they revive us, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to afford to make one of these back in the land of the living. Tap the nodule on your temple for the helmet.”

Kira did as I’d said and a helmet of ceramic plates unfolded, covering her head. “Promise me that you’ll make me another one of these one day.”

“I’ll do my best,” I promised. I then willed another suit into existence, covering myself. I then armed myself with a surprisingly light rail gun. God, I love having access to high tech alloys and ceramics again.

Dozens of daemons of many types burst into the establishment from multiple directions. The man was as fast as Kira, while the dwarf relied on strength and an iron will over speed. Kira and the man killed fourteen each. The dwarf slew eight. I managed to kill one.

In my defense, it’s really hard to fire a railgun into melee when you’re worried about hitting allies who move faster than the eye can track. I needed a weapon I wasn’t worried would pierce Kira’s armor. That wasn’t hard. I slung the railgun over my shoulder whipped up a couple highly enchanted Pizzicatos. Something that low caliber would have trouble breaching my specifically designed bullet defenses but would be useful if we encountered any more daemons.

As long as none of them were cyberdaemons. In that case, I’d need a rocket launcher.

“Strange that Lamashtu is sending daemons after you. You sure you didn’t piss off the Horsemen as well?”

“I might have started a society on a path towards better sanitation, which will result in a lot fewer deaths from disease. So, yeah, probably.”

“Really? That’s a shame. I kinda like the muck. Gives cities character.” I’m pretty sure the man was joking.

We made jokes as we stood guard, waiting for the arrival of the local authorities. Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait long. A few minutes later, a half dozen psychopomps and a number of aeons arrived, along with a dowdy-looking celestial woman in a gray business suit, glasses and sensible flats.

“What am I going to do with you two?” she asked, her voice very put upon. “I take my eyes off of you for a moment and you go disappearing on me.”

I stared in disbelief. “You’re the nun!” I accused. The ghost nun from that time I went back in time, if you’re having trouble remembering.

“Not exactly,” she said with a small smile.

“Greetings, honored guardian,” Kira said in the celestial tongue, bowing deeply. When did Kira learn celestial?

“Greetings, Gemini,” the angel responded warmly. “It is good to have found you both at last. Come, we have an embassy not far from here. You should be safer there while we sort all of this out.”

We followed her outside and boarded some kind of hi-tech celestial shuttle craft. The schizo nature of the tech in the afterlife was really screwing with me, not gonna lie. The seats were even made of rich, Corinthian leather. I couldn’t be sure if they were stuffed with eagle down, but I suspect there were no eagles under the floorboards. Which meant it was the economy model.

The shuttle took us to a building that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a framing shot of Earth on Star Trek. A number of azatas – bralanis, I think – dressed like Secret Service agents met us on the landing pad and escorted us inside. They were doing their very best to look serious, but small twitches on their lips made me suspect that they were constantly one mistake away from corpsing en masse and ruining the performance.

They led us into a rather spacious office, complete with a waterfall fountain in one corner and a desk made of aluminum and glass with some kind of celestial computer on it. The monitor appeared to be a holographic projection, as did the keyboard. I didn’t see a mouse, but I suspected that would be handled by using the monitor like some kind of touch screen.

“Neat,” Kira said what we were both thinking.

The celestial woman, Essielle, invited us to sit in the plush chairs in front of the desk and took her seat on the other side. “So, now that we’re safe, would you care to explain where exactly you’ve been?” She sat and listened quietly as we explained everything, stopping us only to ask clarifying questions. She seemed most concerned about Samantha’s involvement. “And you don’t know what kind of entity is sharing her body?”

“No. I suspect it’s one of those things so alien that we mortals might classify it as evil, but I’m not so sure that’s the case. Or maybe it is and being stuck with her really has mellowed it out.”

“Understood. We’ll have some agents look into it. But now that I have your stories, it’s time for us to begin discussing the big choice.”

“The big choice?”

Kira put her hand on my arm. “She wants us to decide whether we wish to reincarnate again or if we’re ready to pass on to Heaven.”

“We get a choice?”

“Free will and choice are God’s whole deal,” Kira said. “You really don’t remember?”

Essielle cleared her throat. “It usually takes longer than this to begin remembering past lives and this whole process. We can wait until you’re ready to decide if you want. Right now is just the point where we discuss things.”

“Okay, yeah, waiting would be good,” I said. “I have a ton of questions. First of all, why is Kira remembering more quickly than I?”

“We’re not sure. The two of you almost always remember at the same time. I suspect it’s because she’s technically been dead for years, so the death process is less of a transition for her. As a side note, we’ve been trying to figure out where she was for years. It never occurred to us she might have hitched a ride in your body.”

“Okay, that brings up another question. You’re talking as though we’ve been through this together multiple times. Is that normal? Do siblings usually get reborn into the same family? Also, how many times have we been through this?”

“Actually, no. You two are a very unique case. The truth is that you two existing as separate entities is some strange accident. During your first cycle, we only sent one new soul to be born. It caused a lot of commotion when two children resulted.” She laughed. “I thought they were going to fire me for messing up my paperwork and sending two souls, but then you two died and returned to us. Back then, it was very easy to tell that your souls had split. Now, after so many cycles, we’d have trouble telling if it weren’t for the secondary effects.”

“Secondary effects?”

“You can’t live without each other. It took us three stillbirths to realize that we couldn’t separate you. If one of you dies, both die. That’s why we were so concerned when one of you went missing but the other still lived. We thought your souls had recombined. Our best guess is that after so many cycles, recombining would give you enough combined life experience to evolve into something new.”

I could actually feel my sister’s shock. “Evolve? You’ve never mentioned that before.”

Essielle nodded. “It’s just a theory. No one does what we do. It’s one big experiment. The Lord wanted to see what you all would become if allowed to accumulate enough life experience. But, as Kira said, he’s also big on free will. He wasn’t going to force you.”

“So, do a lot of people take advantage of it?”

“Fewer than you’d think. Most people only go one or two extra cycles before deciding that life is too hard and messy to bear. In addition to the two of you, there are only eleven others who have gone at least ten cycles. Before you ask, the person with the most cycles is a bit past one hundred and the two of you are on your eighty-ninth cycle. There are three total with more than you.”

Something she said made a connection in my mind. “So, if you count us as a single entity, then that means that there are twelve total? And you called us ‘Gemini’, so…”

She laughed. “Somehow, I knew you’d catch that. Yes. Those of us in Heaven’s Bureaucracy have nicknamed each of you long timers after the signs of the zodiac. Capricorn is the oldest. Virgo and Pisces are the two behind him.”

“I doubt you remember yet, but we’ve actually met Capricorn and Aquarius before in the afterlife,” Kira added. “We ended up all dying at the same time during a battle back in the old Roman empire. Capricorn was the centurion I served under and Aquarius was our legion’s prefect.”

“I wasn’t aware women served as legionnaires,” I said without thinking.

“I never noticed any. I was a man during that cycle.”

“So it’s interchangeable?” I asked Essielle.

She made a “sorta” hand gesture. “For most people, they can choose before reincarnating. However, likely because of the whole ‘two halves of a single soul’ thing you two have going on, you have this weird yin-yang thing going on where you’re always opposite. There was even this one time that we put you two into the bodies of identical twins as an experiment, resulting in the first known birth of a boy and a girl who were nonetheless identical twins.”

“Monozygotic,” I corrected.

“What?”

“Not identical, just born of the same egg. And I seem to recall reading that it has been documented where a pair of boy/girl twins was monozygotic due to an XXY zygote forming before the split.” They both gave me a look that told me that they were shocked that I knew that. I just ignored it. Look, I get bored on Wikipedia sometimes too, okay? “So, that brings me to another question.”

“I’m afraid to ask,” Essielle said.

I ignored that. “Does this all mean that when I got hit by the cursed belt, I somehow managed to make myself look like Kira’s past life?”

Kira literally laughed so hard she fell on the floor. Even Essielle is caught up in her mirth. I failed to see what was so funny. “Sorry,” the celestial said. “It’s just that you’re working from a false premise. You have indeed correctly realized that Fleur and her brother were past lives the two of you lived. You just mixed up who was who.”

Kira snorted. “That’s right! YOU were the French stripper!” She lost herself in laughter again.

“Not quite the right word, but effectively true,” Essielle admitted.

Well, at least I was hot. Rather than linger on the matter and question what exactly I had done for information to help the resistance, I changed the subject. “Okay, next question. How are things back home? How is our family?”

“I can’t elaborate much on the state of things back home, but as a kindness, I can tell you a bit about your family. Everyone misses you, of course. Maggie is still in college. Molly is an architect with a large firm. Kenneth is in law enforcement. Katie became a surgeon and has a job at a hospital in Tucson. And Major O’Halloran joined the marines shortly after you left. Your parents are still in their old jobs, though your mother has retired from the city council to focus on her career.”

It was good to hear that life went on back home. I was curious as to what she couldn’t tell me, but I understood there were rules. I also understood that if she left to go to the bathroom, I was hacking her computer to find out what was going on, since I got a feeling from her tone that it was something big.

“So, anything else interesting about our past lives?” I asked.

“Nothing you won’t remember soon enough. I am curious as to how your second time as a man has gone.”

What. “Second time?”

“Your very first incarnation, back when your people spoke in mostly grunts, was pretty disastrous. A rival tribe attacked, tried to kidnap your sister. She was doing well enough defending herself, but then you got hit with a rock and died, taking her with you. You were so traumatized that you refused to be a man again until it was culturally acceptable for your sister to protect you instead of the other way around.”

“Sorry I haven’t been much help on that front,” Kira said.

“It’s not your fault,” I said immediately, patting her shoulder reassuringly. She seemed happy at that response. “That said, that’s a pretty horrible ratio. Have we had many lives like that?”

“I can count on one hand the number of lives you two have had that didn’t end with one of you dying in a violent and often horrible fashion. It honestly beggars belief that the two of you keep choosing to reincarnate after what you’ve been through.”

“That bad, huh?”

“You were burnt at the stake once.”

“Like witches? Yeah, that’s pretty bad.”

Kira laughed. “To be fair, you actually were a witch on that one.”

It was getting a little frustrating that my sister was able to recall everything like that while I wasn’t able to get more than vague flashes from my last couple lives. “While we’re waiting,” Essielle said. “Mind if I do a scan? I need to see what you were up to while you were away from us so we can log it in the research notes.”

I suddenly started feeling like a lab rat. “Um, sure.” She pulled out a tricorder. “Lol, what.”

“God’s a Trekkie.”

“I knew it.” No I didn’t. But what the hell can you say to that? I guess it explained the building.

She scanned me. “Okay, so let’s see. Wow, that’s a lot of women.” I actually felt kinda embarrassed. “You know, he keeps this up, he might actually break your record.”

Kira scoffed. “Never happen. He’s in llluurrrvveeee.” Constantly getting ripped on by Kira would take some getting used to.

“It’s academic anyway, since you both died before he had a chance.”

“Don’t count us out yet,” I corrected. “One of our friends can raise the dead.”

That surprised her. “Necromancy?”

“Well, he probably has that somewhere too, but no. Standard revival.”

“Impressive. It also says here that you’re a wizard. That’s definitely going to be interesting if you make it home. In fact, you’ve joined a team of adventurers? It’s been forever since that was a thing on Earth. I suspect that’s all anyone back in Heaven will be able to talk about for a while.” Why did I get the feeling I had just signed myself up for being followed a twenty-four seven angelic camera crew? Or dedicated scrying. Whatever it is they do.

An aide came in, seeking Essielle’s attention. “I apologize, but there’s a matter needing your immediate attention.”

“Of course. You two, there’s a game console over there,” she indicated a section of the large office with a sofa and television. “Feel free to play some Smash Bros or whatever while you wait. I hope I won’t be gone too long.” As she was walking out the door, she stopped. “The computer is set to explode in the event of tampering. Please don’t force me to get a new one.” Dammit.

Nothing better to do, we actually did as we were told. Not normally my first inclination, but we had been told to play video games and it has been almost eleven years. It was quite fun, though it was obvious just from that one game that I had been gone for a while.

For instance, when the heck did they put Bayonetta in Smash? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I love Bayonetta. I just never saw that one coming. What’s next? Ubisoft taking a full year and some change between releases of Assassin’s Creed titles?

Pfft. That’ll never happen.

We played a few matches before we began noticing the sound of gunfire outside. We looked out a window and saw that the grounds were being overrun by daemons. “Well, s!%@,” Kira said.

Essielle rushed back into the office. “We have to get you to the shuttle and get out of here! We’re under attack!”

“I’m pretty sure they’re after us, or at least me,” I confessed. “No idea why, though.”

“Then it’s even more important that we get you out. Follow me!” She pulled out a freaking Desert Eagle and began leading us through the halls. I didn’t unnecessarily roll across doorways, because that would be fun but completely undignified. And I’m nothing if not dignified.

<Margin Note: Funny, but I’m fairly certain I saw you rolling like a dork.>
<Margin Note: Nope. Never happened.>

We fought our way through the halls, celestials of all types covering our escape. On the roof, it looked like a scene out of Starship Troopers. Frenzied daemons were scaling the walls on the piles of their brethren’s corpses.

We rushed to the shuttle and were in the air in seconds. As suspected, the daemon onslaught ended and followed us as we flew off. Fire teams continued doing what they could to thin out the swarm, but they were running into ammunition problems, forcing them to fall back on spell casting and melee weapons.

“What the hell is going on?!” Essielle demanded.

“I have only a few suspicions,” I said. “Nothing concrete. But it is somehow tied to a malus from Lamashtu.”

“That’s it, we’re having a word with her representatives here. Pilot, plot heading for the demonic sector.”

“Roger that,” a voice from up front shouted back.

“Now, let’s have a look at this malus and see if I can –“ she didn’t finish her sentence because we were struck by something outside. The shuttle spun out and crashed hard into the ground. When I managed to free myself from my restraints, I found Kira alive – in the most broad definition of the term imaginable – with minor injuries and Essielle alive but unconscious. The pilot didn’t survive impact.

Outside, Kira and I found nearly a hundred daemons closing in on us. I couldn’t help but laugh. “Just a perfect day,” I sang as I fired my railgun into the mass of enemies.

“Drink sangria in the park,” Kira sang back, stabbing the first enemies in range. ““And later on…”

“...when it gets dark…”

“We’ll go home.”

<Both> “Oh, it's such a perfect day!”
<Kyle> “I'm glad I spent it with you.”
<Kira> “Oh, such a perfect day.”
<Both> “You just keep me hanging on.
You just keep me hanging on!”

So it was, that the two of us – Kira and Kyle, Kyle and Kira, Gemini – sang as we slaughtered daemons by the dozens. When it was done, we twins stood victorious on a mound of corpses, as it perhaps was always meant to be.

But it seems that there was no end to the daemons that pursued us. In the distance, less than a minute away, was a swarm thousands – maybe tens of thousands – strong. F%#~ this day.

“Kyle, leave me the weapons and run,” Kira said. “I’ll buy you as much time as I can.”

“No,” I said, resolve filling me. Also, a lot of anger. “I will not leave you. We’ve been running all day. I’m tired of running. This ends here, one way or another.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Oh, but I am,” I said, the fear having been washed away and replaced with a combination of resolve and a darker emotion. I tossed her my railgun and both Pizzicatos. “Don’t take any risks, but buy me as much time as you can.” I focused, gathering my will, and began humming Morgenstimmung.

Note: Part 1 of 3. Next part will be from Aurora's perspective and will be up in about 15 minutes. The third part will likely take a few days.


GM_Beernorg wrote:
Can't wait to see what happens with Kyle...great stuff Poldaran!

Some big reveals coming up, relating to

Spoiler:
Fleur
among other things. The next section is a three parter, first Kyle's perspective, then Aurora's and finally an addendum from
Spoiler:
Fleur
.

2 people marked this as a favorite.

Sky-Blue Days

Spoiler:
We were attacked almost immediately by a pair of frost giants –silly me, I forgot my Mjolnir back at the inn – who commanded a whole pack of animals. Of course, giants wouldn’t have any normal animals, so we weren’t talking about a bunch of dogs or even wolves. Nope, they had a dire bear and four mammoths. Yes, mammoths.

And, of course, silly me, I forgot my tribe of Neanderthals back at the inn.

“GIANTS!” Lenn roared beside me.

“GIANTS!” Lenn roared above me. Wait, what? I looked up to see that Geo had transformed once more into what we were alternatively calling ‘Old Lenn’ and ‘Lenn Classic’ and was now doing a fairly good impression of fast roping down from the helicopter. I hadn’t taught him about that technique, so either it was used on Golarion in some fashion or he was inventing it right then. Either way, pretty impressive.

And forget what I said about forgetting my tribe of Neanderthals.

The fighting, as it usually is, was quick and dirty. Lenn and Geo!Lenn worked well together, even more than Lenn and Geo did. Between that, a few grenades, Paulie firing from above and Aurora dive bombing a mammoth, it wasn’t too difficult of a fight.

Once we were sure the surface area was secure, we had the helicopters land and I radioed Squibbles. “Outer fortress secure. Begin moving remaining forces in. Pick up that shield stone on the way. We’ll be leaving Orik and his forces to secure the area while we continue inside.”

“Got it!” Squibbles said excitedly.

We headed into the Black Tower at the heart of the fortress. Inside, we were greeted by a rush of cool air. It felt pretty nice. Like glorious air conditioning. But, as they say, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. As we made our way inside, it became clearer that it was going to get colder. I pulled off that silly sihedron medallion and popped on a magical necklace like the one I’d worn through space with Samantha. It protected me from vacuum, so a little cool air shouldn’t be an issue.

As comfortable as I was, we would still have to move quickly. The enchantments I’d put on Aurora’s armor to make it more comfortable would offer her about as much protection as those suits scientists wear in Antarctica, but everyone else was stuck putting on what they had for basic winter gear.

In the center of the room, we found a trapdoor frozen shut. A bit of magical fire later, it was open and we found ourselves staring down a fifty foot shaft into darkness. I dropped a torch down and estimated that we were looking at a roughly eighty foot descent all in all based on the time it took to hit bottom.

Geo!Lenn jumped down, intending to slow his descent by pressing against the walls of the shaft as he fell. Unfortunately, he hadn’t noticed that the shaft was coated in ice. He shot down at nearly full speed and landed hard.

“I’m okay!” he shouted up at us. “But hurry down!”

Lenn dropped down after him, not bothering to slow his fall. Then Aurora went next, using her wings to land safely. I dropped down after, slowing my fall with a knife in the ice and relying on my boots to take care of the rest. Moments later, Paulie followed after us, sliding down on a rope.

Oh, right. We had rope. Oops.

I had been right about the cold. It was probably somewhere in the region of ten below zero – Fahrenheit because I’m American, of course – not that it bothered me at all. Magic is great sometimes. And again, if it’s good enough for use in outer space, it’ll probably at least be some help planetside.

I heard the enemy before I saw him. “The green light! The green light!” he kept repeating in Thassilonian as some kind of madness mantra. We got eyes on him quickly and I was not happy with what I was seeing.

Then again, I doubt anyone would be happy to see that they were trapped in a chamber with a flying Thassilonian mummy. Yes, flying. His legs were bound together, so how else was he supposed to get around?

He tried to hit us with a breath attack, some kind of necromantic poison gas. The others had to dodge away, but the gasses he was breathing were unable to reach me thanks to the magic of my necklace.

The real problem was the flight. Only Aurora could fly up and hit it, which became a problem when it hit her back and stunned her, sending her crashing to the ground. Paulie and I could shoot at it, but it seemed like it would take forever to do any real damage.

Once more, Paulie remembered we had rope, managed to hook it with several lines and we dragged it to the ground where Lenn beat it to death – death plus, maybe? – with his axe. It let out a horrible screech of terror as the big guy beat its face into a pulp.

We looked around a bit and found nothing of interest aside from the massive adamantine scroll case on the mummy’s back, so we took our prize and made our way through a door into a much warmer room beyond to get a better look at it.

In the light of Aurora’s halo, we could see that the case was sealed with a combination lock made of five spinning rings. If Geo had been Geo at the moment, I would have pulled apart a radio and rigged it into a listening device so he could safe crack it. But Geo!Lenn informed me that he didn’t have that kind of skill.

So we forced it open with a crowbar. Adamantine or no, the hinges were still vulnerable. We only destroyed three of the scrolls within. I could repair them later. Besides, what was undestroyed was more interesting.

First of all, there were five more scrolls. That was cool. Then there was a full set of nine scrolls attached to a single set of rods. Together, they were some kind of artifact. I know this because I was unable to destroy them after my first attempt at reading them.

Let me explain. I pulled it open and even as I did so, I felt it resist. Then, as I read the runes on the page – vaguely interesting information about monsters of Thassilon – I began hearing voices. Voices whispering madness.

And this time, it wasn’t Fleur.

<Margin Note: You will give in! You will teach wizards to make Chunky Monkey ice cream! OOOOOHHHHH!>
<Margin Note: Give in to Glorious Cherry Garcia Master Race.>
<Margin Note: Hate you.>

I know a cursed artifact when I see one. So I tried lighting it on fire. It burned, but was not consumed. Then the fire spontaneously went out. We came to a quick consensus that we would encase the whole thing in cement and throw it into the first volcano we found.

There was one more thing in the scroll case that really piqued my interest. It was an invitation to a library. Yeah, maybe I’m a bit of a nerd. Just a little. Don’t tell anyone. It was to be presented to some kind of “Clockwork Librarian” at the “Therassic Library”. I had heard that word before, Therassic. It was some order of monks in ancient Thassilon. It was entirely possible that this was their monastery and the library was nearby. One could hope.

The writ had another bit of interesting information. Apparently the library had bronze doors warded against intrusion and there was a password. The password was “Viosanxi”, the name of the library’s architect. Sounds like he was the kind of guy who uses “Password” for access to his bank account.

We fought our way past another giant and his pack of bears, making our way into what looked like living quarters. There wasn’t much of note there aside from a journal we found. It stuck out to us because it was written in Elven, but had obviously been written by a giant. Where a giant learned Elven, I don’t know. But it was.

Her name had been Conna, and she had been excited about our arrival. Apparently Mokmurian had killed her mate and taken over their tribe. She was hoping we’d help her overthrow him so her tribe could return to their proud traditions and beloved isolation.

At this point, you know how this story ends. We showed up and I’m pretty sure we had already killed her and most of her tribe. Using my mortars and helicopters. Crap.

Inside the room that seemed to be a larder, we found tons – literal tons! – of meat in the form of numerous skinned animals. In one corner was a barrel marked “Candy” in the language of giants. We opened it and found a bunch of eyeballs, and they weren’t all from game animals. One more thing to add to the burn pile later.

In the tunnels, we came across a kobold. She furiously attacked us and came up against the brutal attacks of two Lenns, then fled. Now, I’ve heard stories of adventurers attacking kobold dens. There’s a particularly legendary man, missing both legs and an arm if the tales are to be believed, who described a horrific encounter while trying to deal with a group of kobold bandits. His name was Tucker or something, I think.

Anyway, I knew we couldn’t let her escape and I had a plan. I spotted something very interesting around her neck. “Lenns! Hold back! Paulie! Light her on fire!”

“YEEEEEEE!” the tiefling screeched happily, unleashing a fireball. I used magic to hit her with burning conjured snapdragon as well. I’m not sure which attack did the work, but it doesn’t matter. What killed her was the multiple fireballs from her magical necklace as one of our spells set off all the beads.

Lenn enjoyed the show and laughed loudly. It was infectious and we all joined in. It was pretty great. During the mirth, I looked over at Aurora. Our eyes met and she frowned and turned away. So much for the mood of levity.

We continued onward and found ourselves first against a pair of mentally enslaved dragons. I managed to free one of them, and it flew off. We found it shortly afterward, fighting against a pair of lion bodied lamias in a makeshift temple to Lamashtu, because of course there was a temple to Lamashtu in there somewhere. We murdered them and decided we’d have Magrim come in to cleanse the temple later and continued onward, deeper into the tunnels.

We came across some kind of statue. From a distance, I thought it looked like a golem, but when Lenn and Geo!Lenn approached, nothing happened, so we continued on. However, when I passed, it moved. But it didn’t attack until Aurora stepped forward. I suspect it had been ordered to attack any non-giants that passed. Lenn and Geo!Lenn passed as giants by its reasoning – not that I’d ever tell them that – and I had been tall enough to make it hesitate for a moment, but Aurora had certainly set off its attack.

Like most of our foes thus far, it fell to a combination of LENN SMASH and PAULIE BURN. The sound of the fight attracted the attention of some kind of headless ogre and its zombie ogre minions. Don’t ask me to explain how the headless ogre heard the fighting. I don’t know. Vibrations in its feet or something?

Lenn was still a bit worn out from the last fight, so Aurora took the lead on this one. Her lightning fast strikes were akin to a lawnmower against zombie flesh, making short work of the headless ogre while the rest of us supported her.

Tiny, but fierce indeed.

Having caught his breath, Lenn took the lead when the Forgefiend – a ten foot tall barrel shaped fiend from the Plane of Earth(the dirt, not the planet) that eats metal ores and occasionally armor and weapons – attacked. No idea how Mokmurian had bound it, but it didn’t matter. It looked like a weird giant, so Lenn beat it to death. He really was in his element here, his element being “hitting big things with an axe”.

Beyond the forgefiend was a massive cauldron. “A runeslave cauldron,” Paulie said in his “gargling gravel” voice, indicating another personality swap. That’s what I’d been thinking. Also, he’s been getting really good at controlling these swaps. They seem to tire him, though.

A quick vote later, we decided that something capable of enslaving giants was both too powerful and too horrible to allow to exist. We attempted to destroy it, but just like the scrolls, it was too powerful to break with normal means. I remember there being a method for it, but I either never knew the method or couldn’t recall. So, concrete and volcano it was once more. We just needed to find a volcano.

We continued on and found our way to a set of bronze doors. I found myself getting excited. Who knew what this library held. Maybe I’d find what I’d been looking for. “Viosanxi,” I said. The doors swung open, revealing an impressive library within.

A clockwork construct approached us. It was pitiful. The poor thing had spent thousands of years in here without any kind of maintenance. I activated my magic sight and could see that there were spells about to prevent the effects of time on inanimate objects within the library, but they wouldn’t help the poor librarian. It had been forced to repair itself and had been pretty inadequate for the job.

One of its three legs dragged behind it, one of the gems it used for eyes was missing and one arm was completely useless. Beyond that were numerous smaller issues. It was a wonder that it could even run. I felt incredibly bad for it.

<Margin Note: You probably feel sorry for this lamp. That is because you’re stupid. The lamp has no feelings and the new lamp is much better.>
<Margin Note: Hush, you.>

I presented the writ to the librarian. “Welcome,” it said in a halting, grinding voice. Understandably, it spoke Thassilonian. “Which volume of lore would you like me to retrieve for you? There are currently twenty four thousand, four hundred ninety one volumes, scrolls, pamphlets and unbound manuscripts available. Please indicate your wish by author, title, subject or date of acquisition by the Therassic Monastery.” I believed the number. The library was massive with a sixty foot tall domed ceiling and magical crystal chandeliers hanging throughout. No expense had been spared in the pursuit of knowledge.

I managed to convince the librarian that I was the library’s new caretaker and would be repairing it at my first opportunity, though I had the more important task of dealing with dangerous vermin in the areas outside the library before I could get to that. At my request, it directed me to another exit on the far side of the library. While it waited, I asked it to find me anything it could on teleportation magic capable of transporting one interplanetary distances.

Through the door was a strange room with only one corner. I was almost confused, but when I heard the howl, I realized the brilliance. It had been made to house Hounds of Tindalos, They inhabit the angles within space-time, while the rest of us inhabit space-time’s curves. By creating a room with only one angle, you create a perfect room to greatly increase the length of servitude for such creatures using symbolic magic.

I wasn’t sure if the room had been designed by the Thassilonians or if Mokmurian had altered it for his needs, but it really didn’t matter. What did matter was that he had a trio of the beasts at hand to attack us. But, again, we had a two Lenns, a tiefling archer/caster, a knight who was brokering no foolishness and one wizard with an SMG. They were pretty screwed, though I’m sure their howls warned their master we were coming.

We made our way through the tunnels to what the librarian had described as the lecture hall. From outside the door, we could see that the room was filled with fog. I touched the fog, revealing that it was the kind of magical fog that slowed one’s movement. I silently activated my magic sight and peered within.

While I could not see the creature within the room, I could see all of its magical auras, giving me a rough idea of where it was. Based on the auras, I could also deduce the magic items it was wearing. And based on that, I was fairly certain we were looking at a wizard or sorcerer who could see through the fog and was ready to engage us by using the terrain to his advantage.

It was a smart play. But he was being stupid. He had set himself up in a defensive position, surrounded by magical traps so we’d have trouble reaching him. He was a bloody amateur. Don’t believe me? Just ask Michael Westen.

“When a pro plans an ambush, they capitalize on the element of surprise. They attack aggressively so their opponent has to react from a place of weakness. An amateur, on the other hand, is more likely to take a defensive posture which means they are the one acting from a place of weakness.” That isn’t to say he’d be a pushover, but I knew that if I could make him angry, I could force him to give up his advantages.

If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s pissing people off.

Fleur had even set the groundwork. “Mokmurian’s inside. Prepare to charge. You’ll know the signal,” I whispered to the others. Then I tapped my hat and changed a few things about myself, including my hair color and style into long teal braids. Only then did I begin to sing.

“Wanna join me, come and play
But I might shoot you, in your face
Bombs and bullets will do the trick
What we need here is a little bit of panic!”

The fog spell he’d used was a clever trick, but it was defeated by a single powerful gust of wind. The amount of magic it takes to create fog literally as thick as pea soup is also much higher than the magic required to create a gust of wind, if you have the spell prepared.

If you’re a wizard who thinks they may have to use mustard gas against your foes, it’s only prudent to prepare the wind spell in case something goes wrong. Now, I know prudence isn’t my really my strong suit, but in this case, paranoia will suffice.

Upon singing the word “panic”, I unleashed a gust of wind, tearing away the veil of fog. Mokmurian, scarred by the corrosive mustard gas, reacted by unleashing a cloud of poisonous gas – the locals call the spell “Cloudkill” – upon my position.

“See how you like it!” he shouted, snarling in rage.

My companions rushed into the room and out of the cloud. I just stood there, nonchalantly checking my fingernails for dirt. “It’s fine. Not a very good smell, mind you, but it’s fine.” Unlike me, he hadn’t given himself permanent at will magic sight. Which meant he didn’t know that I was still wearing the necklace I had put on to keep out the cold. Again, if it works against the vacuum of space, no simple gas cloud is going to be a danger.

I winked and he howled again with rage, unleashing a magical ray of disintegration at me. It hurt, but I survived it just fine. And at that point, I was no longer the threat to him. He had two Lenns and Aurora upon him and Paulie had conjured up one of his ancestors. “ON-WARD!” the tiefling sang out.

Aurora cut one of his Achilles’ tendons and he responded by using telekinesis to throw her against a wall. In the process, he exposed himself to attacks from Lenn and Geo!Lenn, which proved brutally effective.

Suddenly realizing the real chance of losing, Mokmurian tried to cast a spell to teleport away. That was what I had been waiting for. I analyzed the magic and targeted him with a dispel, cutting a few necessary threads before the spell’s matrix could coalesce, leaving him trapped in a room with a pair of angry Lenns.

It wasn’t pretty.

As he lay on the ground, dying, I walked over calmly and drew my gun. “Please, spare me!” the giant wizard begged.

I raised my weapon, aiming it at his head. “I did warn you this might be the outcome,” I said with a sardonic smile before shooting him in the face.

“Pwned,” Fleur chimed in. Dork.

If I were a better artist, this would be the page with an illustration of the black tower with the date, time and the words “Fortress of the Stone Giants: Secured” or something written on it. But I’m not great with non-technical illustrations, so, I apologize for not doing so. But that does bring me to reveal a bit of something as way of apology.

Thanks to the smuggling of my new MP3 player, I had learned so very much. But there is one thing that I hadn’t even considered until a few evenings prior, when I noticed it had a running calendar. I now knew what day it was back home. So in lieu of illustration, let me just write:

8:47pm UTC-07
March 1st, 2025
Fortress of the Stone Giants: Secured
Happy Birthday to me.

I have been gone for a little under eleven years. But I was beginning to believe that it wouldn’t go as long as twelve. And yes, by some goofy coincidence, we defeated Mokmurian on my birthday. I mean, it’s only a one in a three-sixty-five chance, so it’s not that big of a coincidence. But it was amusing.

But that wasn’t the only thing that happened then. Because immediately after I shot Mokmurian, his body stood, his eyes glowing. A voice that was not his own poured from his lips, resonating through the chamber at an oppressive hundred and ten decibels.

“So these are the heroes of this age. Gasping worms to be crushed into the earth when I awaken the armies of Xin Shalast, when the name of Karzoug is again spoken with awe and fear. Know that the deaths of those marked with the Sihedron – a bounty of which you have provided this day – hasten my return, just as yours soon will. Fools, all of you! Is this all that could be accomplished in ten thousand years?”

I stood defiant. I don’t like bullies. “You have yet to begin to see what we can do. Bring your armies. We’ll crush them like we crushed your giants.”

The voice laughed. “Once more pride tests itself against me. Come then, and we shall see what you can do!” The giant’s body crumpled once more, disintegrating and leaving nothing but his gear. So much for any thought of using the Runeslave Cauldron on his corpse to bring him back for use against our enemies.

Not that I had ever even considered such a thing, mind you.

We secured the upper levels and a path to the library, then I set to work repairing the librarian with the aid of the technicians. Between us, it didn’t take all that long at all to set it back to full working order. The poor thing was so grateful that I’m sure I had its undying devotion.

When I fabricated a handheld document scanner the next day, it was more than happy to begin scanning everything in the library for me. It also gave me a special prize it had found, the torn fragment of a scroll that once held a spell that would have allowed me to teleport home across any distance. It wasn’t quite enough for me to reconstruct the spell, but it was a place to start.

We continued working through the vast tunnels, securing zones and massive piles of treasure. In fact, the treasure was so great that we weren’t going to be able to move it all out on our own. We needed help. So I sent a message to the Voidstrife factor in Magnimar to make the arrangements on our fourth day.

Imagine my astonishment when Chadwick appeared out of nowhere that evening with the unmistakable pop of teleportation magic. “What are you doing here?” I asked my adopted brother.

“Our office in Magnimar has been sending me some very concerning reports. When you requested we send a wizard with a half dozen portable holes to move some stuff to Magnimar, I decided I would come personally and address the concerns.” Yes, six portable holes. There was a lot of treasure.

“Okay, what are you concerned about?”

He pulled something out of his pocket. “This. Why did you have our factor acquire so much of it?”

I laughed. “That’s it? That’s the big worry?” I opened my bag and fished around for a minute. “Do you know what this is?” I asked, handing him a small metallic disc.

His eyes went wide. “I’ve never seen so much of it at once. Where did you get it?”

I tapped the rock he was holding. “From one of those. The alchemical processes people use to get aluminum are expensive and only work on rarer sources. I can extract it easily from very common sources. I had him get it on a hunch because I may need it to build something we can sell at value. But if not, I’ll just extract enough to double our initial investment without oversaturating the market and keep the rest for my own work.” I had explained why I might need all that bauxite, but I guess I had forgotten to mention that aluminum was a metal known on Golarion that was more valuable than platinum.

“Okay, good. So you haven’t gone crazy.”

“No more than usual. So, did you bring the portable holes?”

“I did. We’re charging seven percent of the value of goods for transport to anyone in your party, so I believe we stand to make mutual profits from this arrangement. Normally, it’s ten, but they’re with you, so I’m giving a discount. Of course, anything of yours can go for free. That goes for anything Aurora sends as well.” He must have seen me wince when he said Aurora’s name. “What’s wrong?”

“We’re kinda fighting right now.”

He smacked me upside the head. “Then go apologize for whatever you said or did.”

I had tried. It was just hard to talk to her the last couple days. The first day had been bad. She was still really upset. We ended up fighting some more. Then it had been pretty silent. Every time I tried to talk, I could tell she didn’t want to. So we explored in silence.

I took refuge in crafting. I needed to take my mind off of it, so I worked on completing the present I had been making her – which I was pretty sure she wouldn’t want anymore, but I couldn’t leave it incomplete – and then I began work on my own special project. Top secret. Very confidential.

“We think there might be a few more areas to scout. Can you wait until tomorrow evening to head out?”

“Sure, as long as you have somewhere for me to sleep and enough food.”

I nodded. “Easily done. In the meantime, want to check out the library?”

“Library?”

“Ancient Thassilonian. Amazing stuff in there you have to see.”

I took him to check it out. No more than half an hour in, he had made a decision. “We have to own this. Do you think we’d be able to take all of this back to Absalom?”

I shook my head. “Nope. Anything in here that gets taken out undergoes the full ravages of the time it spent inside the library upon leaving the room. I’ve been making copies, but this has to stay here.”

“Then who owns the library?”

“It technically belongs to a long dead order. The librarian has accepted me as the monastery’s new caretaker, though, so I’m sure we could have the family take over the whole thing, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“I am. Someone’s going to claim it. Might as well be us.”

I grinned. “Put everyone here on the payroll. Waive the transport fee as payment for services rendered. Make it official and I don’t think anyone will complain. Especially if you give the artifact we seized to the Lord Mayor as a joint bribe from the Voidstrifes and the Potent Rainbow Lions. Then retain at least one squad of the PRL to guard this place alongside family forces. Everyone wins. It’s either that or years of legal contests.”

“Done. I’ll make the arrangements tomorrow.”

With Aurora sleeping in another room, the nightmares returned that night. This time, however, they maintained the theme my dreams had been going on. I was in the burned out husk of a village, the torched remains of huts still smoldered around me. “CEDWIN!” I called out. I didn’t know how, but I knew my parents were still dead. My brother was all that I had left in the world. I had to find him. But I felt like I was walking in wet sand and couldn’t get anywhere. He was nowhere to be found.

I was awoken by a scream of agony. At first, I thought it was part of the dream, but when I opened my eyes, it was still there. I got up and rushed towards the sound. Aurora met me in the hallway and we ended up having to kick in the door to Geo’s room.

I will never forget what awaited me inside.

For lack of a better term, Geo had exploded. Bits of him were all over everywhere. In the center of the room stood Lenn, naked. “What happened?!” I asked.

Before Lenn could answer, a voice behind me roared. “I’M TRYING TO SLEEP!”

I knew that voice. I turned and saw Lenn looking out from another room. “What.” It then dawned on me. Geo had done it. He had managed to clone the old Lenn within his own body, but he hadn’t survived the process. I turned away from the room, dropped to my knees and started retching.

We had enough money to pay for the more expensive resurrection he’d need – and dammit, it was coming out of his share! – so, once my stomach settled, I began using light telekinesis to gather his remains up in a bucket. It was a long, disgusting process.

And then it got even more disgusting about an hour later when his remains began crawling together towards the pile I had in the bucket. I never screamed, no matter what anyone tells you.

Ones re-gathered, the body knitted itself together and Geo stood before me like nothing had happened. Well, his clothes hadn’t survived. That was two naked men more than I had hoped to see that day. And weirder, anything he had done to his body to accommodate the process had reversed. “What,” I said for the second time that morning.

“I’m pretty hungry,” he said. “Pregnancy takes a lot out of you.” Just like it was no big deal. What the hell is wrong with my life? At that point, I could either further analyze what he had done to himself, or I could pretend it had never happened and go on with my day.

I’m pretty sure you know what I chose.

After I finished my crafting for the day, I joined Aurora to continue searching through the tunnels. The truth is, what really happened is that I went alone and she followed because she had sworn to be my protector and wouldn’t break that promise, no matter how mad at me she was.

In truth, the chamber we were entering was one we had found the previous day, so there was little to no danger, since we’d already swept it for traps and other hidden hazards. As best we could tell, it belonged to the dragon we had slain in Sandpoint. Its hoard was sizable if not terribly valuable. I would catalog it and then we could divvy it up. I could claim the bulkier, less valuable portions in equal value and break them down into magicite, allowing others to take the more portable filthy lucre.

No one followed us into the treasure hoard. Likely Chadwick’s doing. He was dead set on Aurora and I fixing our problems so we could get together like he wanted us to. Damn shipper. Get a Tumblr blog already.

I was careless. Everything that happened next is my fault. That someone might have snuck in and put in traps after we had searched the treasure hadn’t occurred to me. If I had, perhaps things might have turned out differently.

“Maybe we should talk,” I said, finally.

“I’m not sure I’m up to fighting today,” Aurora said quietly. I knew how she felt. But if there was any hope of salvaging our friendship, we had to talk eventually.

“We’ll take this slow, then,” I said. I paused to formulate my words carefully. In the silence I heard a sound that made my blood run cold. I didn’t know exactly what it would set off, but it was definitely a spell trigger. And the sound came from where Aurora was standing. “Look out!” I shouted, diving without thought at her.

I pushed her away and heard an explosion. Pain tore through my body, then I realized as I hit the ground that I couldn’t feel my legs. How cliché was that?

Aurora rushed to my side. She was saying something, but I couldn’t make out the words. My ears were ringing. Why did everything hurt so bad? “Thank god,” I said, though I couldn’t hear my own voice. “You’re okay.”

As I lay there, the blackness closing in all around me, I could only think of one thing. I had never apologized to Aurora. Like a coward, I could not admit to her how sorry I was for what I said. At that moment, I would have given anything for just a few moments to say those words to her.

But try as I might, I simply could not find the strength to speak. And please believe me, I tried. I tried harder than I’ve ever tried to do anything in my life. But it did no good. It was beyond my ability. I could not do it, for what seemed like an eternity but was likely only a matter of moments.

Instead, all I could do was look up at Aurora, cradling my dying body in her arms. Were those tears in her eyes? Had I made her cry? That was unforgiveable. No. I had to tell her. I gave it my all. Every ounce of strength that remained and even a few ounces I didn’t have.

But it wasn’t enough. As I died – not for the first time in my life, having died on the operating table for a few seconds back when my older brother had nearly beaten me to death – I simply sighed. The darkness that closed in on me was almost comforting, like an old friend.

At least the pain was gone.

From the Desk of Fleur:

Spoiler:
Mm, what'd you say?
Mm, that you only meant well
Well of course you did
Mm, what'd you say?
Mm, that it's all for the best
Of course it is
Mm, what'd you say?
Mm, that it's just what we need
You decided this
Mm, what'd you say?
Mm, what did she say?


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The Battle of Jorgenfist or "What's a mortar with you?"

Spoiler:
Harry Shearer, of Simpsons fame, once famously said, “I am one of those people who thrive on deadlines, nothing brings on inspiration more readily than desperation.” I must say, it’s interesting if nothing else.

We had one night to finish everything we would need for the assault on the giants’ stronghold. We had the mortars and machine guns, of course, but those were now knowns for the enemy. I had to assume they would be ready to counter them, so that meant I had to have other plans. I had fabricated a number of options, but our biggest plan B lay with the work we had done to the carts. But we had to finish them first. The deadline loomed.

I sang pony songs as we worked because my workshop, that’s why. Well, Fleur sang with me, but no one else could hear her. And she’s me, so I guess technically my original statement still holds. That’s it. I’m seeing a psychiatrist first thing when I get back.

After today, maybe I could officially add PTSD to my list of conditions to talk with him about.

I tried not to think about it as I worked. Perhaps a little too hard. I ended up humming the tune to Narwhals for about an hour before someone complained.

Despite all of my worry, we finished what we needed to do. The last step was to upload specialized copies of my VI into the carts and hope that everything would work out. I mean, they should work fine. I designed them. But no plan ever survives contact with the enemy, even when it’s Plan B.

So it was good that I’d prepared Plans C through H. Each was more horrible than the last and several would need to be censored if I ever released this journal back home if I wanted to stay out of a war crimes trial. But the important part was that I could whip them up quickly as needed, with only a few of them requiring pre-preparation.

This would be simpler if I could Fabricate plutonium. But I can’t. Yes, I tried. Well, that’s a lie. I can Fabricate plutonium, but the quantities I can get per cast are so ridiculously small that I’d be looking at months, or perhaps even years before I had enough to make a single weapon. Same goes for enriched uranium.

Depleted uranium, on the other hand? That I could get if I needed it. It just wasn’t as valuable, which somehow meant it was easier to make. I don’t get it. But believe me, if we come across some kind of adamantine golem, I’m making depleted uranium shells. Not that this was really likely to be helpful with today’s work. So we’d call that Plan U.

We Earthlings have a whole history of very inventive solutions for the age old problem of how to kill each other. To abuse another quote from home: “War. War never changes. Since the dawn of human kind, when our ancestors first discovered the killing power of rock and bone, blood has been spilled in the name of everything: from God to justice to simple, psychotic rage.”

My people have been killing each other for millennia. It would be laziness of the highest magnitude if we hadn’t at least gotten good at it in the process. Back at Sandpoint, we gave the giants a glimpse of that brutal efficiency. Today, at Jorgenfist, they would learn just how good we were at it.

This would be so much easier if I had the facilities I really needed. Thankfully, I can shortcut with magic, but there’s a limit to just how much of that I can do each day, and I’ve only recently gotten good enough to really crank that up to eleven.

What I need are factories crafting composite materials, mines gathering what I need to make those necessary materials by the truckload, paved roads or railways to deliver what I need en masse. I need whole workshops of college educated engineers to put together what I’m designing. What I have is magicite, four people trained in crafting magical constructs and nearly a dozen temporary robot helpers in addition to a smattering of technology equivalent to somewhere between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries.

When I leave, I won’t be leaving behind a tech revolution. What I’ll leave behind is a number of artifacts and perhaps some innovative ideas someone might use to craft new magic items that mimic some of my technological devices. Heck, the longer technological legacy I’ll leave is likely to be from my efforts to speed along technological evolution through the Voidstrife organization, and all I’ve been doing there is focusing on jumping tech roughly five years for every one to slowly build the tools society needs to build the infrastructure I’ll need to build the tools I need to build the tools society needs to build the infrastructure I’ll need… and so on and so forth.

If this whole Thassilon thing fails to provide a way home, I’m fairly certain I could now build a ship capable of getting Aurora and me safely to Castrovel in about three years using a combination of Earth tech, alien tech from the guide and a few of my own innovations. I’m sure that if an MP3 player was enough to buy a trip home that I have something valuable enough to buy a copy of the spell itself for my spellbook.

I do have that screen I made and did put a few hours of pornography on my new MP3 player, after all. And if that fails, maybe I could build the wizard an entire central air conditioning system for his home powered exclusively by magitech batteries. After all, there is no pleasure, no rapture, no exquisite sin greater than central air.

So, in the end, finding a way home is no longer the priority it once was. I’ve actually more or less got that sorted. Finding a faster way is still a goal, but for now I just need a way to survive til then and finish what I’ve started.

So, to war I will go.

I finished what I could and went to lay down for sleep. Aurora was waiting for me. “Can I get your help?” she asked.

“Sure,” I replied. “What do you need?”

“Help me out of my armor?” It seemed dangerous this close to the enemy fortress, but I figured she might need to make use of the camp’s crude facilities, so I didn’t say anything. “Okay, lay down,” she said once we were done.

“Huh?”

“You need your sleep and I need to not hear you whimpering so I can sleep. So lay down.” Ah, so that was it. I did as I was told and she laid down next to me, her head on my chest. I must have been pretty tired, as I fell asleep almost immediately.

My dream that night was pretty weird.

--
“YOU KIDNAPPED A NOBLEMAN’S DAUGHTER?!” I screeched in a strangely musical soubrette. “What the hell is wrong with you, Cedwin?!”

The half elf before me looked ashamed. “It all went to pot. They wouldn’t surrender. I tried to knock the lord out, but I hit too hard and cracked his skull. The mother attacked me with a knife and Talfryn shot her before I could react. After that, with the remaining staff scattered, we didn’t want to leave her for bandits, so we brought her with us.”

Curse him. He had a point. “Okay, that’s understandable. Mistakes were made, but you did the best you could. I’ll find a way to figure this out.”

“I knew you’d understand.” He turned to leave, then suddenly stopped. He took a deep breath and turned to me again. “She wants to meet you.”

“Oh?” I raised an eyebrow dangerously. I could already tell I wasn’t going to like this.

“Since you’re head of the family, she feels it’s her obligation to do so.”

“Ced? What did you do?!”

“It was her idea.”

“Ced?!”

“It’s not my fault.”

“CED?!”

“We, uh, got married.”

I tried to scream at him, but I couldn’t. I had gone so far past angry that it had become hilarious. I just fell to the floor laughing. My brother, the idiot, just stared at me, certain that when I was done, I was going to turn him into a newt.

But I had other plans. Yes, this could work. It would cost us some allies, but what was done was done. Those allies were gone. No, I had to simply adapt. And I would certainly adapt.

The black knight had a long season ahead of him.
--

I woke up confused, with Aurora looking at me. “What?”

“You were laughing.”

“It was a weird dream.”

“Sounds like the camp is starting to get ready to move. Shall we get up?”

“Yeah, I think I’ve gotten my two hours. You?”

“I slept a few hours while you were working. I’ll be good.”

We got up and I helped Aurora into her adamantine apparel, checking all the fittings to make sure everything would be secure. We didn’t want any mishaps today of all days. After that, I prepared my spells for the day. It was a combat heavy list, containing some direct attack spells as well as a number of support spells. Unlike most days, I only left a handful of slots blank.

Better to have something prepared that isn’t exactly right than to have nothing prepared and need something immediately and desperately.

I met up with Orik at his campfire. “Everything ready?” he asked.

“As ready as we’re going to get,” I said. “How about on your end?”

“The Lions will get the job done, even if the Flails have to carry the whole operation. There is one thing I’m concerned about, though.”

“What’s that?”

“The big guy. There are going to be a lot of giants. Can you keep him under control?”

That was a good question. “I think Geo can direct him where we need him. And if not, then we always have plan B.” I grinned. “But if things go sideways, just imagine how much fun it’s going to be to watch your gnome explain to the boss how he screwed up the operation because he got tired of waiting back at the cliff.”

He laughed. “You really don’t seem to like gnomes.”

“I don’t understand them. There’s an uncanny valley thing about them, like they’re normal beings like humans, elves and dwarves, but there’s just that little bit off about them.”

“That’s a surprising observation. I mean, they’re weird, but no one pays them any mind. It’s just their way.”

I shrugged. “First time I met someone that wasn’t a human was when I was nineteen. I’m a little sheltered.” Maybe it was something I needed to work on. I dunno. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that when I was near one, someone was watching me. I mean, other than the gnome.

We set out just after sunrise, planning our arrival for midmorning. Truth was, with the hobgoblins, there was no reason to show up at night. That would just hand them a sight advantage. And we were traveling east-ish to get there, so no reason to show up at sunrise. No, midmorning was our best option.

We timed it pretty well, reaching the Valley of the Black Tower around nine am or so, based on the position of the sun. The valley was massive, which made sense considering it was used by giants. Not too far inside the valley was a watch post of sorts. Our group of five mounted up and rushed it, hoping to hit it before it could raise an alarm, the carts following behind us at the quickest pace they could reasonably manage.

Of course, we weren’t quite quick enough, because that would have made me happy. As we neared, red smoke – the color likely coming from an additive easy enough to produce with a little alchemy – billowed up from inside the palisade around the smallish watch post.

“Oh ho ho ho,” laughed the grotesquely scarred taiga giant woman standing at the gate. “Now everyone knows you’re here. But we don’t have to wait. I’ve heard so much about how dangerous you are, so prove it. Send out your champion and let’s see how strong you really are.”

I exchanged a glance with three of the others, and without words we immediately agreed that there was only one choice. “Lenn?” Geo asked.

“GIANT!” the big man roared. Yeah, he got the idea.

Honestly, had Lenn not been there, I would have just suggested we decline and swarm her. But I hoped that if he got it out of his system now, at least a little, he would be easier to hold back during the larger fight.

The battle was quick and brutal. She was wielding what looked like some sort cross between a battle axe and an ogre hook, but it wasn’t any bigger than Lenn’s weapon. A crazed look in her eye – bloodlust, most likely – she charged in with a heavy overhand chop. She anticipated the sidestep anyone else would have made and arced it left at the last moment, bringing it down against his rising axe. Normally, both weapons would have survived the encounter, but he had the strength on his side, both of arm and of weapon.

Lenn’s axe cleaved right through her weapon without even slowing and continued on. Striking off kilter, it didn’t so much chop her head off as it popped her head clean off, almost like a grotesque Rock Em Sock Em Robot. All that held her now decapitated head in place was a loose flap of skin just over her spine.

She fell backward from the force and crumpled in a heap upon the ground.

Four more giants poured out from the post. Our fight with them was nowhere near as brutal as Lenn’s fight with their commander. Lenn, Geo and Aurora each soloed one, while Paulie and I worked together to conserve spell resources. We had plenty of arrows and bullets, but spells might become a limiter later.

We inspected the corpses and the camp as we waited for the rest of our forces. I was dismayed by what we found. I called Aurora over. “What is it?” she asked.

“These runes,” I said, indicated one of the four minions’ corpses. “They’re Thassilonian. They’re used to enslave creatures. Giants, specifically, for these.”

“What?”

“Our enemies may not be in control of themselves. Certainly many of them aren’t.”

“What do we do?”

I shook my head and sighed. “I don’t think there’s anything we can do, honestly. We continue forward.”

“Okay.” She put a hand on my shoulder. “Kyle, this is important. You can’t show any hesitation and especially no fear today.” She pointed an arm out towards the valley, where we could already see hundreds of foes stirring and beginning to make their way towards us. “In about an hour, we’re going to be fighting for our lives against an overwhelming force. The only reason any of us are still here is because you’ve told us we can win this and we’ve seen enough to believe you. If you start looking doubtful, it’ll turn into a rout and we’ll all die, okay?”

I nodded. “Okay. I’ll be a big brave dog today.” I grinned. “Everyone else is almost here. Guess I should make a speech, huh?”

“It would probably help. No pressure.”

I relayed instructions to Orik and Squibbles. They began barking orders to their soldiers and setting up the barricades just like we’d practiced. Large walls unfolded just like my scrying mirror and were secured in place with all practical speed. Massive caltrops and landmines were deployed, creating avenues of approach that we could fire down.

I stood up on one of the wagons and had the VI connect my radio transmitter to the speakers I’d attached. “I need a moment, everyone.” Work stopped and all eyes were on me. “I’ve come to trust each and every one of you, with my life if necessary. But I have heard murmurs of discontent. In your eyes, I see the very fear which at times threatens to take me.” I motioned over the valley, at the armies assembling to meet us. “How could it be otherwise? We’re a few, taking on many. They are larger and stronger than we. Yes, how could it be otherwise indeed?

“I’m not going to lie to you. The odds against us seem insurmountable at first glance. But let me explain something. Those forces out there? They aren't a threat to us. They're a threat to everything — everyone. If we fail, it will be the end of Sandpoint, of Magnimar and every other settlement within hundreds of miles. If we fail, every human, elf, dwarf, gnome and people of countless other races within the region will be dead or enslaved within the year. The few that survive to become slaves will envy those who have found the release of death. Those are the lives we're fighting for. That's the scale.

“It's been a long journey, and no one's coming out without scars. But it all comes down to this moment. We win or lose it all in the next few hours. And make no mistake, we CAN win this. But it’s on us. So, make me proud. Make yourselves proud.

“Mokmurian seeks to bring an apocalypse down upon us. If we do nothing, we might just live to watch the end of the world we know. But that isn’t going to happen. A day may come when the courage of Men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship. But it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields, as the Age of Civilization comes crashing down! But. It. Is. Not. This. Day.

“Because today… Today, at the edge of our hope, at the end of our time, we have chosen not only to believe in ourselves, but in each other. Today there is not a man or woman in here that shall stand alone. Not. Today. Today we face the monsters that are at our door and bring the fight to them! Today, we are CANCELING THE APOCALYPSE!”

Cheers erupted from our forces. Aurora nodded approvingly. I winked, deciding not to tell her today that I had cribbed my words from multiple sources. I’d have to tell her eventually, of course. After all, even if she missed the others, what were the odds that she’d never watch or read Lord of the Rings after we got to Earth?

I inspected the work as it went. These people were not just professionals, but driven, so it was going well. One of the technicians stopped me as I went along. “You really think we can survive this?” the young man asked, in front of far too many witnesses.

“You’re damn right I do. You know why?”

“Why is that?”

“Because we’re too gods-damned pretty to die.” I glanced over at Orik, who was helping his men work. “Okay, one of you keep an eye on Orik. I’m only giving him a fifty percent chance on that whole ‘too pretty to die’ thing.” Several of the soldiers laughed. “Alright. Keep working. I’m going to go grab a few more grenades.”

I walked around a cart, out of sight of the soldiers. Then everything I’d been suppressing hit me like a ton of bricks. I retched violently, though I barely managed to stifle the sound. I would have vomited if not for the fact that there was nothing in my stomach to vomit. My entire body was shaking.

What the hell was I doing here? I saw that army. From my count, there had been one hundred twenty seven assorted giants, fifty three ogres, three hundred hobgoblins, ninety three goblins and one hundred eighteen assorted undead. I had fewer than fifty men and women with me. This was insanse.

Don’t get me wrong, I had confidence in my tech. But had we brought enough, or was this going to turn really ugly really quickly? All I know is that I’d have traded all my forces for a fully loaded B-2 bomber right about then.

Aurora managed to sneak up on me. I only noticed her when she put her hand on my shoulder. “You’re doing fine. Just hang in there.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll be fine once we’re actually fighting.” At least, I hoped so. She nodded and got back to work.

“‘I always get the shakes before a drop,’” Fleur quoted. “‘I've had the injections, of course, and hypnotic preparation, and it stands to reason that I can't really be afraid. The ship's psychiatrist has checked my brain waves and asked me silly questions while I was asleep and he tells me that it isn't fear, it isn't anything important — it's just like the trembling of an eager race horse in the starting gate. I couldn't say about that; I've never been a race horse. But the fact is: I'm scared silly, every time.’”

I grinned. I’ve always loved that book. “If Rico can do it, so can I.”

“Then let’s get out there. C’mon, you ape! You wanna live forever?!” You know, actually, I think I’d rather like that. An eternity to game and science aplenty to study when my thumbs needed a break? That sounded like heaven. Maybe it was something I’d look into once I’d solved the ‘getting home’ problem.

But that was a thought for another day. “Then let this be the hour when we draw swords together. Fell deeds awake. Now for wrath, now for ruin, and the red dawn!”

Fleur laughed a berserker’s laugh. “Forth now, and fear no darkness!” I grabbed a few more grenades like I’d said I would. If it came to it, if we failed, I would take as many with me as I could. Because I was no one’s lunch.

When I got back, everything was ready and the enemy was almost close enough. Time enough for one last speech. “Hear me! Those bastards out there, they attacked our homes, our friends! They think we're helpless. They're wrong. They started a war, but we're not here to finish it. We're here to make them regret -- to show them and everyone else what happens when you go too far. No more running, no more waiting. Let's hit them where they live. Load the mortars! Arm the machine guns! Let us teach them fear! They will show us no mercy, so let us give them no quarter! CRY HAVOC AND LET SLIP THE DOGS OF WAR!

“Fire!”

The sounds of mortar fire erupted all around me, reverberating through my whole body. The sounds of machine gun fire pierced the very air, threatening to overwhelm my eardrums. It was an experience like no other. And, in a strange way, it was magnificent.

Those sounds signified our strike against those who would harm the innocent. They were our voices, crying out in a terrifying cacophony against those who had harmed us. But more than anything, they were a roaring testament that I had done it. They were the glorious tribute to my brilliance.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite as smug as I did in that moment, watching modern – and even more advanced than that – tools of war tearing through the ranks of this monstrous force before us like a scythe through a field of wheat. I couldn’t help myself. I threw my head back in a mad scientist’s laugh, just like Maximillian Hertz – AKA Dr. Hertz, one of my favorite comic book supervillains.

If you’ve never heard of it, there exists on the internet something called “The Evil Overlord’s List”. It’s a list of things one should or should not do if one ever finds themselves in the position of becoming a movie style evil overlord. Most of the advice is common sense, though some of it is fairly specific to recurring mistakes said overlords make in fiction. As such, some of the entries make sense for more than evil overlords. Some of the entries also apply quite well to gentleman adventurers and mad scientists, which I must admit was a reasonable label to apply to me at the moment.

Please allow me to quote number twenty from the Evil Overlord List: “Despite its proven stress-relieving effect, I will not indulge in maniacal laughter. When so occupied, it's too easy to miss unexpected developments that a more attentive individual could adjust to accordingly.”

Truth is, if I had been paying attention, I might have noticed the magical shield the enemy army had erected in time to save around two dozen shells. But I wasn’t, so a couple extra volleys got through. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it’s not like we really had that many shells to spare.

“Hold your fire!” I commanded upon noticing the shells exploding in the air upon impacting a nearly invisible barrier. I scanned the field looking for a cause. It didn’t take long to spot Lyrie and Lucrecia. They were standing next to a giant shorter than the rest, who I guessed to be Mokmurian. The three of them, along with others, were taking turns channeling magic into an artifact of some kind. If I were a betting man, I’d guess that had to be what was creating the shield.

I pulled out my scope and took a closer look. The artifact was an orb of polished marble, covered in Thassilonian runes set on an ornate stand made of black metal – I recognized it. It was a shield stone. It was believed that some of the Runelords used them to protect their strongholds against attacks from siege engines and enemy wizards. As long as it was fed magic, it would take the force of a nuclear bunker buster to penetrate. The upside was that it couldn’t be moved while it was being used and had a limited radius, though I wasn’t sure how limited. Large enough to cover a fortress, at the very least.

It also wouldn’t stop everything. Only objects traveling at high speeds and magic attacks would be blocked. People could ride right through it if necessary, which was an advantage for our enemies, not us. They still had roughly half their forces after taking the first couple volleys unprotected. At the very least, that was giving them pause. We had bloodied them and they were unsure how to react.

Well, most of them were unsure. The hobgoblins immediately took advantage of the situation by setting up crossbow teams at the boundaries. They’d stick the weapon out and shoot, the majority of their bodies protected from retaliation. We had our teams raise the metal walls to give themselves some protection.

“Geo,” I said over the radio. “I have a question for you.”

“Go ahead.”

“We can’t hit them with the mortars unless they start to close. Is there anything you can do about the hobgoblin leadership?”

“I can try to get close, but it might be impossible unless you can offer some kind of distraction.”

“Understood.”

Meanwhile, the enemy massed its undead forces for a charge. It was a suicide mission, and they had to realize it, but it would force us to waste valuable ammo on expendable troops. And those were the ones we hadn’t bothered hitting during the initial volleys, so they were at full strength. “Any suggestions about the undead?” came Orik’s voice over the radio.

“Use the machine guns to thin them out. Fire in bursts to conserve ammo. When the remnants get close enough, switch to melee. Have the gunners focus on the giant spiders. Be mindful you don’t go too far out and end up in the minefield.”

“Got it. Squibbles, Lenn, Aurora and I can handle whatever makes it through.”

Which left me to deal with the second front, coming from the hobgoblin side. They had whipped their goblin slaves into a frenzy and sent them charging at us. “The mortars will make quick work of them,” Fleur commented.

She was right. I was just about to order the bombardment, but then an idea crept into my mind. “Mortar teams. Fire two smoke rounds behind the charging goblins and one explosive round in front of them.”

“What are you playing at?” Fleur asked. “You should just destroy them.”

“That would be a violation of the Third Rule of Acquisition.”

“Which is…?”

“‘Never spend more for an acquisition than you have to.’ Words are cheaper than shells.”

“You’re going to use words to defeat goblins? Goblins?! How can you possibly hope to do that?”

“Rule One Ninety Four: ‘It's always good to know about new customers before they walk in your door.’”

“I worry about you risking our life on something you learned from Star Trek.”

The shells were fired and landed more or less where I intended, though the explosive one ended up clipping the front of the goblin wave. In truth, that was probably for the best. I rode out in front of the horde. “Goblins!” I shouted in their language. “You have seen the power of our fireworks! I am willing to trade some to you! Will you trade with me?”

They stopped in their tracks. I had uttered the magic word. Goblins love fireworks. “What you want for fireworks?” one shouted back.

I grinned. “Hobgoblin heads!” They exchanged glances. They were on the fence about that one. “I’ll give you this many fireworks for each hobgoblin head,” I said, holding up all five fingers on my left hand. “And I’ll throw in a barrel of pickles as a bonus if you can bring me thirty hobgoblin heads!”

It didn’t take long for them to do the math. Well, “math”. They didn’t know how many fireworks exactly they stood to gain, but they knew it was more than they’d likely ever seen. Almost as one, they turned and charged back at the hobgoblins, who were still oblivious thanks to the wall of smoke.

“I think that distraction will work nicely,” Geo said over the radio. I caught a glimpse of him as his skin changed color to blend into his surroundings while he crept up on the enemy army.

Of course, it didn’t all go our way. The shield seemed to block missile weapons in both directions, but spells were a different story. It was only logical that a Runelord might want to attack his enemies from inside the safety of the shield, so I wasn’t surprised when a fireball flew out at us several minutes after the goblin chaos began, just disappointed. I had really been hoping that wouldn’t be the case.

“I have to bring down that shield,” I said to no one in particular as a volley of magical projectiles came flying at our position.

“Any ideas, bruh?” Paulie asked from where he was heroically trying to protect one of our mortar teams.

“Just the one, and I don’t like it.”

“Sounds like we have no choice,” he replied.

“You’re right about that. I’m going to need my horse.” I walked over to where Pinkie Pie was. “Okay, girl. We’re going to do something stupid, but the part after could be fun, right? Yeah, I thought you might agree.”

“Wait,” Fleur interjected.

“What?”

“I know what you’re planning. You’re not up to this.”

“I don’t exactly have anyone else I can send. Has to be me. Someone else might get it wrong.”

“Not true. There’s one other person who can do it.”

“Who?” I was genuinely curious. I was hoping she meant Squibbles, since this was stupid bordering on suicidal and I still owed him for the thing the other day.

“Me. I will take the ring to Mordor. And I know the way.”

“What?”

“Believe in the you who believes in me. We’re in this together.” Was she insane? Was I insane for considering it? Probably yes on both counts.

I sighed and then chuckled. “Let it go. Let it go! Can’t hold it back anymore.”

“Time to give me an entrance. No Digimon this time. And no Power Rangers either.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, yes.” I walked over to the front lines with Pinkie following me. I then tapped into the speakers again and struck a pose. “My Heart: UNLOCK!”

Fleur laughed. “Shugo Chara! You went with Shugo Chara?! You’re such an ass!”

I smirked as I activated my magic hat. As always, it felt weird as my whole body began to writhe and roil in its transformation. The last thing I did while in control was to start the activation of my magic bracers to allow Fleur to change her clothing to fit her mood.

…And suddenly, the transformation was over and I found myself in charge of our body. Fuddy Duddy just stared. “Fleur? Why do you look like Jinx?”

I beamed, looking adorable with my dimples and blue-green pigtails. “Because!”

“Oh god. This was a mistake.”

I ignored him and hopped on Pinkie Pie’s back. “Let’s go! For cupcakes! For victory! FOR PONY!” Pinkie charged straight forward. We weaved our way past undead, narrowly avoiding crossbow fire.

“Wouldn’t it be better to sneak around behind them?”

“Maybe, but not as fun! Besides, I bet they never expected this!” I tapped the radio. “Mortar teams! Be prepared to fire on giants! I’ll try to leave you a few!” I threw grenades behind me to slow down several giants that had started pursuit, then drew our gun and kneecapped another in our way.

We charged past several more bewildered giants and I began pulling out the little surprise Fuddy had hidden in his bag. “You know how to use that?” he asked.

“I was watching when you made it. I think I can figure it out.”

“We’re going to die.”

“Oh hush. I need to concentrate.” We were close. I could see Lyrie, Lucrecia and even Mokmurian giving me incredulous looks, completely unbelieving that just one of us would charge them. I’m not even sure they realized it was me doing it. Just that any one of us would do so. I winked at them, not sure I was close enough for them to see it. “Wanna join me? Come and play!” I sang at them. “But I might shoot you in your face…”

“Oh, God. She’s singing that song. We’re definitely going to die,” Fuddy muttered.

I ignored him. “Bombs and bullets will do the trick, but what we need here…” I threw the armed canister, only slightly larger than a football, at them and wheeled Pinkie around to begin our escape. “…is a little bit of panic!” The canister exploded upon impact with the ground. Even at my distance, I caught scent of an overwhelming stench of garlic and horseradish as the explosion instantly released a massive cloud of highly pressurized mustard gas instantly.

I looked over my shoulder. Lucrecia grabbed Lyrie and the two teleported away. Mokmurian covered his face with his hands and ran, desperate to escape the cloud. From what I could tell, the rune-covered enslaved giant sorcerers currently channeling on the artifact didn’t even try to escape.

Pinkie charged past a pair of dumbstruck giants. I fired several rounds behind me at them. “Do you ever want to catch me? Right now I'm feeling ignored! So can you try a little harder? I'm really getting bored!” The giants roared and began to give chase. I tossed another grenade behind me as Pinkie dodged an ogre’s thrown club.

“The shield just fell,” Fuddy told me. I hadn’t even noticed. “You should radio the mortar teams and tell them to fire.”

I tapped the radio. “Come on! Shoot faster! Just a little bit of energy yeah!”

“Do you really need to keep singing?”

Pinkie was enjoying it. So yes. I really did. “I wanna try something fun right now, I guess some people call it anarchy!” The sounds of mortar fire began striking all around, though carefully aimed to not hit anywhere close to me or where Geo might still be over by the hobgoblins. I began riding around ogres in a circle, herding them into a tight ball as the goofily tried to follow me instead of working together to head me off.

I tossed a couple grenades into the crowd, laughing my head off as I did so. “Oh no,” Fuddy gasped. “This isn’t good. This is definitely doubleplusungood.”

“Quit being a drama queen!” I laughed.

“You don’t understand! I finally figured it out!”

“You going to get to the point sometime today?” I asked as I gleefully threw yet another grenade.

“Rarity died because of my generosity! Applejack died because I chose to be honest with myself! Fluttershy died after I had a moment of kindness!”

“So?” I said, giggling as one of the bullets I fired hit a pursuing hill giant in the forehead. I threw another grenade.

“PINKIE PIE REPRESENTS LAUGHTER!”

Right on cue, the grenade I tossed exploded. Normally not a problem, but the concussive blast sent a piece of metal, either from the grenade itself or another source, flying directly our way. It missed me, but hit Pinkie Pie in the neck, severing both her carotid artery and jugular vein. She was dead before we hit the ground.

I got to my feet quickly, winded from the fall, but otherwise okay. For the moment at least. I was surrounded by hostiles, only had a couple dozen rounds before I had to take the time to change the battery on my gun – a longer process than swapping a clip – and was down to only a couple grenades.

I tapped the radio to a commander only channel. “If I fall, hit this area with the full spread of the mortars.” I began firing in desperation. The closest were only ogres, so they fell quickly, but it was looking grim. Fuddy began calling out targets, aiding me immensely and allowing me to focus on making my shots count rather than having to decide which enemy was the most immediate threat.

We managed to buy a little breathing room as our enemies tried to decide how best to attack us. I think the only reason we were alive now was that Geo had been successful. There’s no way the hobgoblins wouldn’t have taken advantage of this if they weren’t in chaos at the moment.

But I had to face the truth. There was no way out of this. All I could do was as much damage as possible before dying. “Sorry,” I told Fuddy. “I got carried away and messed up.”

“Don’t give up hope. Keep fighting.”

“I’m not sure we have much fight left.”

“You’d be surprised. ‘The humans, I think, knew they were doomed. Where another race would surrender to despair, the humans fought back with greater strength. They made the Minbari fight for every inch of space. In my life, I have never seen anything like it; They would weep, they would pray, they would say goodbye to their loved ones, and then throw themselves without fear or hesitation at the very face of death itself, never surrendering. No one who saw them fighting against the inevitable could help but be moved to tears by their courage. Their stubborn nobility. When they ran out of ships, they used guns, when they ran out guns they used knives and sticks and bare hands. They were magnificent. I only hope that when it is my time, I may die with half as much dignity as I saw in their eyes in the end.’”

He was quoting fiction again. Unfortunately, I knew the end of the quote, the part he left out. As we continued fighting, I finished it for him. “‘They never ran out of courage but, in the end, they ran out of time.’ Just like us. Our ammo is up and so is our time.”

He smiled. “I wouldn’t say that,” he replied mysteriously. I braced myself for the death blow coming from a stone giant, flinching in anticipation of my death, but it never came. I looked again and this time I saw a glowing halo, white wings and silver skin standing between me and the giant. “Huh. She has a new manifest characteristic.”

“Sorry I’m late,” Aurora said. “I had to tell them to send in Lenn.”

“You’re just in time!” I replied excitedly. We might just live after all!

Another ogre charged, but was brought down by a half dozen well placed arrows in the side of its skull. I glanced over and Paulie waved from several hundred yards away. Then suddenly Geo was next to us.

“Need some help?” the tentacled man asked.

“I’ll take it,” I replied. “How’d it go with the hobgoblins?”

“There wasn’t much left once your goblin friends got through with them. Nasty little buggers never even realized they were outnumbered and fought to a brutal end.” I must admit that I felt kinda bad for them.

I didn’t so much see Lenn as I saw the effects of Lenn. Giants started falling at the other end of the horde, with his attack turning into a rout fairly quickly. He reached us shortly with a big grin on his face. “I KILLED GIANTS!” he roared.

“Good job, big guy,” I said. Safe at last, the adrenaline began to wear off and it all caught up with me. My muscles faltered and my legs gave out under me.

“You overdid it,” Fuddy said. “You’re not used to this.” I couldn’t even summon the strength to argue.

Aurora caught me before I fell. “Easy now.”

“L-Loosen the ribbon in my hair?” I asked. She nodded and gave it a tug. I surrendered to my exhaustion as my body reverted and gave Fuddy control back.

“Are you okay?” Aurora asked me, our faces close enough to make me blush slightly.

“I’ll be fine,” I said, popping off the magic bracers and returning my clothes to normal. Fleur really had overdone it. I would have killed a man for a two liter of Baja Blast or a six hour nap. With Aurora’s help, I stood up completely. “It sounds like they’re out of shells and we still have work to do. I just need a few moments to catch my breath first.” The enemy didn’t give me those few moments.

On the walls of the fortress were some massive catapults. One of them fired something that wasn’t stone or any normal ammunition. What landed was the stuff of nightmares.

First of all, let me state that I don’t think it was an undead creature. It was a construct of some kind. But it was made mostly of bones. Giant bones. And maybe some mammoth bones. It was a massive centipede like thing, with seventeen sets of legs, each of which was taller than I. In the front it had a pair of massive scything blades made of what looked like glaucite – an alloy of adamantine and steel, if you’re curious. Its “head” was made from a mammoth skull combined with the fanged jaw of some great dragon, with four massive, glowing red eyes.

I knew a raid boss when I saw one. First things first. We needed a tank. I tapped the radio. “Orik! I need you to grab its attention. Use that shield of yours to stay alive!”

“On it!”

“Lenn! Try to take out its legs!”

“RRRRAAAAAAWWWRRRR!!!!”

“Aurora, go get some grenades and try to hit it from the air.” I had another idea. “Also, take this to Paulie,” I said as I handed her several pre-measured wads of C-4 and some detonators.

“Be careful out there!”

“You, too.” I turned to Geo. “You’re the anatomy guy. See any weak points?”

“Several along the spine.”

I handed him more C-4 and detonators. “They’re all ready to go. Slap them on stick and in the detonator. I’ll set them off when you’re clear.”

“Leave it to me.”

I radioed again. “Paulie, has Aurora given you what I sent?”

“THIS IS A GLORIOUS FOE!” Oh, great, he’d shifted again.

“So, is that a yes?”

“Indeed!”

“Attach a lump to your arrow and carefully put in the detonator. Then fire where you want to do damage. Those are impact detonators, so they should go off when you hit. Try to aim for the monster’s jaw and the shoulders where those blades are attached.”

“FOR GLORY!”

I could do little more than watch as the others fought. It went pretty much as planned. Paulie’s shots were magnificent as usual. With three arrows, he neutralized the construct’s strongest weapons. Aurora and Lenn’s attacks quickly reduced its mobility. And Geo was amazing. He ran right up the thing’s side and managed to place each of his charges without slowing down once.

Once he dove off, I shouted, “Clear!” into the radio and set off the charges with a radio trigger. The construct fell apart in a half dozen places and our men cheered.

“Now that was badass!” Fleur said weakly.

“You did good too,” I said approvingly.

She flashed an exhausted smile. “What now?”

“I’m tired of their s$#*.” I tapped the radio. “Begin conversion procedures. Authorization O’Halloran Delta Three Four Sigma Magnus Six.”

“Acknowledged,” the VI responded.

“Mortar teams, if you have any smoke rounds left, put up a screen between our carts and the fortress. I want this to be a surprise. Orik, Squibbles, ready teams as we’ve discussed.”

Paulie brought me a spare horse and hit me with rejuvenative magic – which is the next best thing to an IV drip of Baja Blast, so I felt great. We then rode back and I began overseeing the transformation of the pair of modified carts – well, more like carriages, really – into helicopters.

Truth is, for them to simply fly, the transformation was unnecessary. They were animated constructs and could magically fly on their own. The magitech powered rotors were for enhancing stability, speed and carry weight. For reference, a Black Hawk can carry up to 20 lightly equipped personnel. My X-187 Thunder Horses can carry up to ten heavily armed and armored individuals as well as enough armament to control or destroy a small Third World nation. And it could do all of this at a speed of about one hundred forty miles an hour.

Conversion took no more than five minutes. We were in the air two minutes after that. Naturally, when we took off, I had the outside speakers blaring Ride of the Valkyries.

Flight was controlled by the VI’s interface, but I had put in all the familiar controls out of a sense of propriety. Truth be told, if I needed to, the whole thing could run on voice commands. All it was really missing was ergonomic leather seats.

“Warning,” came the VI’s voice. “Bogeys detected. Initiate countermeasures?”

“Do it,” I replied.

Our helicopter came to a halt and rotated about twenty degrees before unleashing a barrage of hot lead upon a trio of harpies flying our way. They never had a chance. “Targets eliminated. Detecting additional bogeys. Firing anti-air missiles.” Three missiles fired from each helicopter, taking out a bunch of wyverns that were rushing to meet us and raining gore upon anything below.

I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. “Strafe the walls. Use rocket pods on the siege engines and machine guns on everything else. Prioritize anything that can attack us back.”

“Acknowledged.”

It was a slaughter. There were giants, hobgoblins and ogres – semantically, they’re a type of giant, but I hold a special hatred for them, so I’ll continue keeping them separate – stationed all along the wall. Not a one of them was a match for the wall of hot lead that poured forth from the two helicopters. The siege engines didn’t fare any better, being utterly destroyed by dozens of rockets.

I felt elated as I watched the devastation before us. Not because we were killing people, but because each death potentially meant one less danger to the people we were trying to protect. Regardless of anything else, I was certain we were saving a lot of lives today, even as we were taking so many.

My elation vanished when I saw the look of horror on Aurora’s face. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“How can you be happy? This isn’t war!” Her tone was accusatory. “There’s no glory, no honor here! We aren’t fighting an enemy by strength of arms or testing our cunning versus our foes! This is just a slaughter, as though these were no more than ants before us!”

It has been said that war never changes, but as I looked upon Aurora’s face in that moment, as her words washed over me, I realized how wrong that was. In the span of time I had been on Golarion, not only had war changed, but I had been the one to change it. War had gone from being a contest of strength where you faced your enemy on the field of battle, where you got close enough to see the anger in your opponent’s eyes as you tried your very best to kill one another in manual combat.

War had been something personal, almost ritualized. But in one day, it had gone from that to being something done at a distance, almost indiscriminately. I had taken changes that happened over a millennium back home and had inflicted them on this world in a day. And Aurora, who had always idolized knighthood and the rituals of combat, had been there to witness it. It was possible that she hated me now. The look in her eyes certainly made me feel like it was a possibility.

I’m not saying what happened next was right or even smart. What I’m saying is that I need you to understand the pain I was in before you judge how I reacted. The look in her eyes hurt so much that I could only react with anger if I didn’t want to succumb to despair. “Honor?” I asked, my tone filled with rage. “You think there’s honor in killing? No, there is no honor in war and never has been! The only honor is in protecting those who cannot protect themselves and they don’t care how you do it. The only thing that matters is killing your enemy or making him so afraid that you’ll kill him that he’d never dare harm an innocent. Glory is only in coming home to see those you protect.” If I had stopped there, maybe it would have been okay. But I didn’t. I had to keep speaking. “So forgive me if I don’t subscribe to your antiquated notions of glory and honor of war.”

Seeing how much my words hurt her, I regretted it immediately after saying it, but I was still so hurt that I couldn’t apologize. I wanted nothing more than to leave the situation and hit something. I looked out the side of the helicopter. We were hovering about a hundred feet over the fortress walls. With my magic boots, I could survive easily, and I was sure there was one other person who could go with me. I tapped Lenn on the shoulder. “WHAT?” he bellowed over the sound of the rotors.

“Let’s go see if there are any giants down there still alive.”

“GIANTS!” he roared, leaping out the open side of the helicopter.

“VI, switch the music to something that rocks.” I prepared to jump after him, but Geo stopped me. “What are you doing?!”

“I’m going to go secure a landing zone so we can disembark and find some enemies.”

“Why?”

“Because apparently we’re only supposed to kill them face to face like civilized people,” I sneered, still angry. The music finally changed and I couldn’t help but chuckle darkly at the VI’s choice. It was gloriously appropriate. I took a deep breath with the intro, then sang along with the music as I jumped after Lenn. “I see a red door and want to paint it black!”

As I fell, I couldn’t help but think that I had, in a few moments, ruined any shot of remaining friends with Aurora, much less ever being together. A part of me hoped that the fall would kill me, but I landed softly in a three-point stance. I surveyed the area around me and only Lenn was moving. A pity. I really wanted to shoot something right then. Though, for all I knew, even that would lack in glory or honor. Alone, momentarily at least, my grief washed over me. At that moment, more than any other, I regretted coming to Golarion.

No colors anymore, I want them to turn black.


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Aurora’s Observation Journal: On the road to the Fortress of the Stone Giants

Spoiler:
In the days after our trip to Absalom, I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching and I’ve come to one horrifying conclusion:

I’m in love with Kyle. Yes, I know. How could I be so stupid? How could I let that happen to me? But I'd gotten careless.

I’m not sure when it happened, exactly, though it was before the trip. But it wasn’t until after that trip that I was able to be honest with myself about it. What remains is to decide what I do about it. I’m terrified by the implications of all the potential answers I’ve come up with to that question.

Should I bare my soul and tell him how I feel? What if he doesn’t feel the same way? Or worse, what if he used to feel that way but doesn’t anymore? I could live the rest of my life knowing I missed out on that chance.

And if he doesn’t? What would he do? I know he wouldn’t take advantage of me, not exactly. But with his views on relationships, that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be interested in some other form of relationship, borne of friendship and carnality but lacking in love.

Could I really be satisfied with something like that? Or would it be better to just stay silent and keep what we have now? The gods know that I’ve never had a friend like this before. Would it be worth it to risk that for something that, for all I know, wouldn’t necessarily be better?

I finished my shift on watch and headed to our tent to see if I could get a little time cuddling with Kyle before he got up, but he was already gone when I got there. I hadn’t seen the specialists from the Golemworks get up, so I was a bit concerned. I checked the usual part of the camp and found a pair of guards watching the usual magical door. They stood at attention when I approached.

“Can we help you, Ma’am?”

“I’d like to check up on Kyle.”

“Of course. Just need to do an identity check.” Despite my capture of Lyrie’s mask, Kyle had instituted a number of these mildly paranoid policies. But we were all humoring him. If he was wrong, then no real harm done, but if he was right, then we’d be grateful we’d listened.

“Go ahead.” It was a simple magic spell. Took a couple moments.

They cleared me and I headed into the magical workshop. I heard the sound of hammer blows, rhythmic and precise, as well as the sound of singing. Kyle’s powerful voice resonated through the room, sending a shiver up my spine. I stopped to listen, not wanting to interrupt.

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter, don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store

I was born one mornin', it was drizzlin' rain
Fightin' and trouble are my middle name
I was raised in the canebrake by an ol' mama lion
Cain't no-a high-toned woman make me walk the line

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter, don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store

If you see me comin', better step aside
A lotta men didn't, a lotta men died
One fist of iron, the other of steel
If the right one don't a-get you, then the left one will

You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter, don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store.

While he sang, I watched sweat dripping down his muscled back. He was wearing a leather apron to protect his front, but his back was bare. I enjoyed the sight of his well-defined muscles as he worked. It wasn’t a sight one would expect from watching a wizard. I’ve worked with wizards before, back when I was a mercenary, and every one of them looked like a stiff breeze would snap them in half.

But Kyle was also a blacksmith, which is not a profession that usually allows one to remain delicate. You either get muscle or can’t do the work. And I was enjoying the sight of that result. I really wanted to walk up and find out if his backside was as defined as his back, but I didn’t want to interrupt his work.

He finished singing and measured out three more hammer beats before stopping. He pointed at one of his magical assistants, beginning a string of orders. “You, raise the temperature of the metal eight point seven Kelvin over one thirty four seconds. You, collect forty three milligrams of tin. You, one seventy three micrograms of gold. You, sixty six grams of mithral.”

The machines got to work doing what he had commanded. Satisfied, he wiped his brow with a towel and turned to me. “Hi,” I said awkwardly, blushing in spite of myself.

“Hey,” he said back. “What’s up?”

“Just checking up on you. What are you doing?”

“Secret project for a very secret client. I’m remaking a metal that hasn’t been crafted in over a millennia, if I’m right.”

Oh! I kinda knew what he was talking about! “You mean that stuff you’ve been reading about on your screen thing?”

“Exactly! You see, it’s incredibly complex stuff. There’s math involved that hadn’t even been invented when this material was discovered. The creator just sorta did it all by instinct. Can you imagine how difficult it had to be to get the proper harmonic resonance in the stage four copper integration to get the required gradiation without use of calculus?”

“Um, that does sound, uh, rather difficult.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but I seemed to have hit on the right answer, as he continued on for several minutes on the subject, continuing to work as he talked. It was rare enough, but he did this sometimes, becoming lost in a topic that no one else seemed to understand or care about. And he seemed completely unable to realize that we weren’t all into it the same way he was. He called it “geeking out”.

I knew it would pass, so I just let him keep talking. Occasionally, I’d nod agreement or say something to indicate that I was following along. I just kept myself occupied enjoying the sights before me. I actually got so engrossed in it that I didn’t even notice he’d finished his lecture.

“Aurora?” he asked.

“Oh, sorry,” I apologized.

He laughed. “Don’t worry about it. I went on a bit of a tangent there. Sorry for boring you.”

Just let me run my fingers over your chest, I thought to myself. I promise I won’t bite you. Not too hard. And that workbench over there looks pretty sturdy. Let’s go test it! Tear off my clothes! Let the machines watch! I DON’T CARE! JUST DO SOMETHING! But that wasn’t what I said.

“It’s fine.” That was what I said.

“Well, I need to work a new tempo. Feel like singing with me?”

“Me?”

He shrugged. “You have a very pretty voice. You really should sing with me more often.”

I felt my face flushing. My ears burned in embarrassment. I was grateful that he was focused on his work and not looking at me. “Okay,” I said, a shiver running down my back once more. My heart was racing. “But will I know the words?”

He looked up and grinned. “It’s a rare thing that I meet someone who has never seen karaoke.”

“Carry what?”

“Karaoke. Go grab the player and display off the counter there.” I did as he said. The screen was very flexible. I wasn’t sure what the material was, but it was pretty amazing stuff. “VI,” he said, his tone commanding. “Next song in the list, enter karaoke mode.”

“Acknowledged,” a strange voice responded.

Music began playing. “Just follow the bouncing ball,” Kyle said.

I looked at the display and watched as words began to appear. A ball bounced next to them, then after a moment, began to bounce over to the words. Kyle sang along with the first two lines as I watched and got the hang of this ‘karaoke’ thing.

“I thought love was only true in fairytales
Meant for someone else but not for me”

Then I joined in.

“Love was out to get me,that's the way it seemed
Dissappointment haunted all my dreams

Then I saw her face
Now I'm a believer.
Not a trace
Of doubt in my mind.
I'm in love
(ooooooaaaahhh)
I'm a believer, I couldn't leave her
if I tried”

And we continued on, through that song and on to another, followed by yet another. All in all, we sang for over an hour, our words punctuated by the sounds of hammering metal and raucous laughter. We took breaks when Kyle had to get his assistants to make other preparations as the work proceeded.

After that hour or so, I decided to go get some sleep. My magic ring was starting to kick in, so I was needing less and less sleep, but I still wasn’t quite to Kyle’s minimal level of sleep. I asked Kyle if I could borrow the music player, and he had no problem with that, saying that he had all the songs he needed memorized anyway. He suggested I use something he called “ear buds” so that it wouldn’t bother anyone else in camp. He showed me how to use them and suggested that I use just one so that I could still hear things around me.

I went back to our tent and laid down, not bothering to remove my armor since Kyle had enchanted it to be comfortable to sleep in. I turned it on and told the thing that controlled it – Kyle calls it a “virtual intelligence” – to play something at random.

I was startled to hear a woman’s voice speak with no music. “Hello, Kyle,” she said. “I’m sure you’re surprised to hear this, but I wanted to let you know that I’m on to you. Sure, I don’t know what you’re doing, but I know you well enough to know something huge is going on. You’ve been acting like it could be a long time before you see us again. Well, I trust you, so I won’t go warning everyone before you go. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to nag you, baby brother.

“Whatever it is that you’re doing, whatever is so important, I want you to take care of yourself. And don’t screw things up with that girl you were telling me about. What was her name? Aurora or something? It’s clear that you’re crazy about her, so man up and tell her how you feel. She won’t know if you don’t tell her.

“I’m serious, Kyle. You tell her, then you bring her back here so we can meet her. And you had better come back in one piece, okay? Don’t compromise who you are. I’m proud of who you are, and I’d like to think I had a hand in that. So just come back, okay? Come back and tell us all about everything that you couldn’t tell us before leaving.”
My heart was racing as I listened. Was this the voice of Kyle’s older sister? And had he really told her that he loved me? She continued speaking. “I remember all those times, back when you were little, when there would be a storm. You were so afraid of the thunder and lightning. Remember, baby brother? Remember how the only thing that could calm you was mom singing to you? Do you remember the song she always sang? I know you rarely forget anything, with that big brain of yours, but you were little. Do you remember?

“I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance,
Never settle for the path of least resistance
Livin' might mean takin' chances but they're worth takin',
Lovin' might be a mistake but it's worth makin',
Don't let some hell bent heart leave you bitter,
When you come close to sellin' out reconsider,
Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance.

I hope you dance....I hope you dance.”

My eyes brimmed with tears at her song. My heart felt it would break at the worry in her voice. I swore to myself once more that I would get him home, no matter the cost. I wanted to meet this woman who so loved him. I was a little jealous that he had grown up with people like that around him, when I’d grown up so alone. But that was in the past. I didn’t want to be alone anymore.

I was going to tell him how I felt. As soon as we were done dealing with Mokmurian, I would tell him everything. And if we weren’t meant to be, then so be it. But I wasn’t going to hold back anymore.

“VI,” I said. “Next time Kyle requests a song, override and play this entry again.”

“Acknowledged. Shall I enter a shutdown state?”

“Play me some music that’s good for falling asleep.”

“Acknowledged. Loading the lullaby playlist now. Sleep well.”

Wrapped in the protective embrace of the armor the man I loved had made for me, and listening to the music he had chosen for sleep, I fell into a deep and restful slumber.


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Weird Science

Spoiler:
I awoke about an hour before Aurora, but I didn’t want to disturb her, so I decided to just lay there and think about some of what I had learned. Eventually, I settled upon contemplating the nature of adamantine. Just what was it? Was it some new, never before discovered element? Could it be an alloy of some kind? Or perhaps it was simply a stable isotope of an already known element?

And if it was that last one, which element? I mean, I had some suspicions. Rhenium or tungsten fit the bill nicely enough, though the difference in the number of neutrons would have to drastically and fundamentally affect certain properties in order to make those fit. On the other hand, it being an alloy of tungsten, rhenium and some other things would certainly account for the properties of the material. And if it required specific conditions to manufacture, like high pressure combined with low gravity, then it would be exceedingly rare on inhabitable planets.

And if either of those meant that it could only be artificially manufactured, then that would explain why Titania couldn’t get any for her goddaughter. She likely didn’t have access to the tech needed.

Also, who the hell was this “Fairy Blacksmith” and why did she have not just a fairy godmother but a godmother that was queen of the fairies? And why was it that somehow, somewhere deep inside, I felt like I already knew the answer?

“Don’t ask me,” Fleur responded to my unasked question. “I just live here. Though, you’re right, it’s almost like we read about her somewhere once before and just can’t recall where. We’ve read a lot of books, you freaking nerd.”

“Speaking of reading about someone somewhere before, why is it that you look like a dead Frenchwoman?”

“Because that’s what form your subconscious chose when you put on that cursed belt?”

That was probably true. Fleur did seem to be a reflection of the schism in my mind. “Okay, but how did I know what she looked like?”

“You probably saw a picture of her somewhere. If not in the scrapbooks, then perhaps she was in Badass of the Week or something?” I guess it was possible, if not exactly probable. And it’s not like I could look it up.

I put it out of my mind and began planning out my day. I had a busy day before me. I had to make bombs, guns and all sorts of other tools before we reached Mokmurian’s fortress. I could really use some assistants, but I guess I would have to settle for Lit’s “Over My Head” on repeat while I worked.

Aurora finally woke up, stretching her wings and rubbing her eyes. “Okay, time for you to leave so I can get dressed,” she said after a moment.

“What? You mean I don’t get to lie here and watch?”

“Out,” she said imperiously.

I grabbed my clothing and got dressed in our suite’s common room, then sat down and began preparing my daily spells. I left a few slots open in case I needed something specific, but most of my day’s loadout was for crafting.

Aurora headed down to see what kind of breakfast was available and I began jotting down my crafting schedule, using code names for what I was making in case of spies. Someone has to be mindful of operational security.

Geo came up to see me while I was working. As usual, it was weird. The first thing he said to me was, “I need a sample of your blood.”

It was going to be one of those days. “Good morning to you too.”

“Oh, yes. Good morning. So, can I have a sample?”

“I’m gonna need to know why.”

“Oh. Okay. Well, I’ve been considering that stuff you were exposed to in the great dark beyond. The stuff you said had powerful mutagenic properties.”

He wanted to know more about radiation? “And you think you can learn something about it from my blood?”

“Yes.”

Well, I couldn’t really see a reason to argue with that. “Fine, but sterilize the needle first.” He pulled out a steel syringe and sterilized it with moonshine, then took a sample from my arm.

Then he immediately injected the blood directly into his carotid artery. “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!”

“Analysis,” he replied calmly.

“You’re insane.”

“No, Master Kyle. On the contrary, I’ve never been more sane,” he said as he left. I would have crapped my pants if there was any crap in my colon. Thank God for small favors.

“SAW-DAW!” Fleur – now wearing a long black wig – said ridiculously once Geo left, referencing one of my old fears.

“No jokes,” I said. “That was more than a bit creepy and you know it.”

“Of course it was. But it probably won’t be an issue much longer.”

This would be good. “Oh?”

“I don’t think he confirmed your blood types before giving himself that injection.”

“Oh crap!” I shot up and ran after him. I found Geo collapsed on the floor at the base of the stairs having a seizure.

“Kyle, what’s going on?” Ameiko asked, having heard my cries for help.

“Get Paulie!” I ordered. She quickly rushed to get him.

It was unnecessary. Suddenly the seizure stopped and Geo opened his eyes. “What seems to be wrong?” he asked me.

“What the hell happened?” I asked.

“I started feeling a terrible reaction, so I injected myself with a tonic to fix it. Apparently, the combination resulted in what you saw.”

“What was in the tonic?”

“Alcohol as a solvent and extracts from a number of plant sources.”

“Like what?”

“The major ingredient is from the seeds of the castor plant.”

What. “YOU INJECTED YOURSELF WITH RICIN?!”

He shrugged. “I don’t know what that is, but it worked.” He had a point.

“Okay, fine. Just remind me never to drink anything you’ve made.”

I headed back upstairs and cast my workshop spell. I needed something to take my mind off of that whole thing. I started trying to work on guns, but that wasn’t keeping my attention. I then started working on Aurora’s armor, but that was also too straightforward. I needed a real challenge, something I had never seen done before.

So I built a quantum computer.

It was surprisingly simple once I knew the principles behind it, which were in the book I’d read. The ironic part is that it’s likely that no one in the Technic League would be able to understand it for hundreds of years without a major breakthrough. But I had the knowledge they lacked. I was able to build on the work of those before my time. I knew the work of Rosen, Heisenberg, Einstein and Podolsky. I’ve made metamaterials in my dad’s garage, unstable and poor quality though they may be.

With my magical assistants working on the boring stuff, I managed to complete a working quantum computer in a little over two hours. I managed to create a housing for it and Fabricate a USB interface and keyboard for it in another half hour. By that evening, I had programmed a very basic but functional Virtual Intelligence interface to serve as something of an operating system.

Bill Gates, eat your heart out.

Orik made it in just after sundown. He brought with him several technicians from the Golemworks hired by the leadership of the Potent Rainbow Lions. Apparently they had been more than sold on the gun idea and wanted me to fully weaponize the carts of the companies they were sending. The techs were to help me in any way I needed. They also brought an entire cart of expensive crafting materials. Aww, yeah, baby.

“Oh, I also have something for you from your man in Magnimar,” Orik added.

“What’s that?”

“He sent you a horse, but I think you should find another one.”

That had me curious. “Oh?”

“She seems very odd. I mean, just watch her run.”

One of his men led her on a run from the back of his black gelding. Orik was right. She didn’t run. She hopped. Or maybe bounced was the right word. I was starting to get a feeling about this one. “Anything else odd about her?”

“She seems more playful than any horse I’ve ever seen. Sometimes, it’s almost as if she’s laughing when she makes sounds. And she won’t seem to let anyone ride her, not that anyone would want to ride a horse that runs like that.”

I grinned. “You just have to know how to read them. Someone bring me a cupcake.”

Five minutes later, using a tart since no one had a cupcake, I had won Pinkie Pie’s trust and we were bouncing around the town square. I was singing a jaunty tune and she was singing along – in a very horse-like kind of way. Orik looked on, very confused.

I grinned at him once more. “TO THE BAKERY!” I commanded the horse, laughing. She whinnied and began heading directly there, somehow already knowing the way.

That night, Aurora came to bed wearing underwear, to my great sadness. We talked for a bit and I let her know what I was planning for her armor, which she agreed to wholeheartedly. Then we went to sleep and the dreams began.

This time it started off as more of a memory than a dream, sort of. Shortly before I left Earth, I had been accepted into the alpha for a new MMO. It promised to be revolutionary, something no one had ever managed to do before.

It was to be something of a cross between a heist simulator like Payday 2 and a more traditional fantasy MMO with classic pen and paper RPG elements. It was meant to offer a number of possible missions with multiple ways to solve them dependent on your group makeup. For instance, conquering a dungeon might mean you go in and hack your way through the obstacles, or it might mean you sneak past everything and steal the treasure. Or maybe you befriend someone get invited in, bilking your targets out of their valuables. Or a combination of those.

And there was a faction system. Each player joined a side and might be given missions that affect the standings of the factions, offering benefits to all members of a faction until the balance had been tipped back.

It also had an extremely robust system of voice filters so you could roleplay while in game as whatever character you were, regardless of disparity between real life and character. This allowed the game to eschew almost entirely written chat unless you were using hearing impaired mode, which hadn’t been implemented at the time I played.

We were a team of six and were given a single directive: Rescue one of our faction’s spiritual leaders before he could be sacrificed in three days time. Failing that, we could anoint the altar of our foes with a small amount of the consecrated blood of an ocelot, our people’s spiritual animal, to prevent the sacrifice from pleasing our foes’ god.

We considered multiple solutions, including murder of our own holy man before he could be sacrificed, but decided on a rescue attempt since bringing him back alive got us a larger reward. We would infiltrate during the feast the day before the sacrifice from multiple angles.

I was playing as the party’s most social character, Rhoslyn Silverdew, a half-elf sorceress, so I went in as a wealthy socialite wanting to attend the party. Our party’s knight would serve as my bodyguard and three of the others snuck in as hired help of some kind. Our sixth member would – and I quote – use his “L337 N1NJ4 5K1LL5!” to enter by hugging the shadows.

Of course, Hoboken – yes, that’s what he called himself – wasn’t the ninja he thought he was. We were found out and the guards arrested my companions one by one. My protector was cut down quickly. I was all that remained and my arrest was imminent. This is where the dream started.

In real life, I had thought quickly and managed to spin a story about being there against my family’s wishes to convert to their religion, but hadn’t been able to say anything while my protector lived. They were dubious, but allowed me to perform the ritual, which ended with cutting my palm and dripping my blood on the fire. Only I mixed my blood with that from a vial of ocelot blood I’d smuggled in and completed the secondary objective, with them none-the-wiser.

The dream played out differently. I mean, first of all, I was my character, not just sitting in front of a screen. “Filthy creatures,” I spat. “You take our homes, murder our families and you demand we bow to your damnable god?! I don’t think so. BURN!” I then dropped a fireball right on myself, knowing I’d easily survive. I then quaffed a healing potion, stepped over their smoldering corpses and methodically murdered everyone in my way before marching the holy man right out the door, along with two of their own priests.

I don’t know what the dream meant, but I’m assuming it’s some sort of reflection on a new, more aggressive nature I’m trying to adopt since deciding to come back. And I’m not entirely certain why I’m bringing it up, other than the fact that I’m feeling bitter realizing that someone back home is probably playing that game right now. I hate that guy so much.

The next day, I got together with the people from the Golemworks and gave them an hour long lecture about operational security. “Okay, to summarize: You will not speak about our work outside of the extraplanar space. You will not sketch anything or do any models outside of the extraplanar space. If you need more time to plan and strategize, we will create a space safe from scrying to do so. All journals will go into a sealed chest that will not be opened outside of the protected spaces. Do you have any questions?”

One of the workers, a fairly attractive sorceress in her early twenties, motioned that she did have one. I nodded to her to go ahead. “Isn’t this a little much? I mean, we are careful around the shop, but this is strict even compared to that.” Several others nodded in agreement.

“Our enemy has shown an extreme ability to infiltrate and gather intel on our activities. This is all we can really do to counter that. So, unless there are any further questions, let’s be about it. We need to get a full day’s work in today. We’re expecting to leave either tomorrow or the day after.”

I cast the spell to open the magical workshop and we wheeled in one of the carts. Of course, they were suitably impressed by the masterwork that is my spell. But we didn’t have time to get worry about that. We had work to do.

I got them started animating the cart, explaining what we were doing and overseeing the project while I also began crafting weapons and some necessary mechanical components for it. This was going to be quite possibly the world’s first magitech construct, so I wanted to do it right.

I’ll be honest. I was having the time of my life. We even hooked the MP3 player into the shop’s speakers. Yeah, that’s a thing my spell could do and I hadn’t even realized it. I’m not sure the others quite got J-pop and Taylor Swift, though the geth workers seemed to enjoy it. The others liked the classical stuff well enough, though.

After a full day’s work was done, we closed up shop and exited to do other things. I spent a couple hours training with Aurora. The woman is a harsh instructor and would give Gunnery Sergeant Hartman a run for his money. Or maybe she’s not that bad and I’m whining because I have sore muscles I didn’t realize I had. All I know is that I feel like she’s a demon and it has nothing to do with a bed. No, she’s a perfect angel there, much to my chagrin.

Afterwards, I fabricated a screen for the MP3 player and had the VI load up the Fairy Blacksmith’s journal. It did pretty well, considering that the system didn’t have a text reader on it. I then cast a spell to allow me to read any language and started reading.

I must first note that they hadn’t sent me a single journal. This was a whole library of journals. I guess the good doctor had been playing her cards close to her chest. My second note is that there were two parts to the journal. She methodically kept notes about events on the left page and notes about research on the right pages. It’s almost like she was a bit OCD.

The events were pretty interesting. She was the daughter of the ruler of all the elves in Britain. They were apparently a simple folk, living in small villages but using magic to keep in touch and work together. They initially got along well with Camelot, but things went downhill for reasons she didn’t get into. She was the only one to see it coming, so she began preparations years before the trouble began.

The most important preparation was the creation of a new metal, which she called Fairy Steel, which was a brilliant substitute for adamantine. I was fascinated by the process in which she figured it out, which took almost five years, followed by several years of research as she crafted arms and armor for her brother. She ended up creating a suit of nearly invulnerable, yet surprisingly mobile armor that incorporated elements that history wouldn’t see again for centuries.

I decided that I would make the swords my future self had told me to craft out of Fairy Steel. Sure, it didn’t really offer any benefit beyond that provided by adamantine, and they’d require more costly materials – and thus a larger personal injury – to fabricate, but damn if it didn’t sound cool.

That evening, an advance contingent arrived and let us know that our remaining support units would be arriving sometime around noon due to a broken wagon wheel. Which was fine, since it gave us time to get more work done.

<Margin Note: Important work, like teaching a dozen villagers how to “Gangnam Style”?>
<Margin Note: Yes.>
<Margin Note: You’re so embarrassing.>
<Margin Note: EEHHH! SEXY LADIES! OP OP OP! OPPA GANGNAM STYLE!>
<Margin Note: One of these days, I’m going to find Samantha, reach out my hand and give her a high impact palm reading for taking you back home and letting you smuggle back that mp3 player.>
<Margin Note: Oh, come on, Fleur, you know you love it.>

The rest of our contingent, larger than I expected, arrived late in the morning and we set out. We found signs of giants all over, heading in the same direction we were going. A smarter man might have rethought the plan to go where so many giants were going, but I’m not a smart man, I’m a genius. So, obviously, I ‘m too stupid to know better.

I’m familiar with London. “I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” I’m also familiar with The Kurgan. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away. Something something there can be only one.” It’s why I’m back here, after all. So onward we marched. Well, I rode, but some people marched. The crafters slept in a cart I’d outfitted with makeshift shock absorbers so that they’d be rested and ready to work when we made camp.

For the most part, the day was pretty uneventful, though the evening did have an interesting event. It was just after dark when Pinkie Pie hopped out of our makeshift corral and began hopping around playfully near a tree at the edge of camp. She looked like an overexcited puppy, if I’m being honest.

I shined a light on the tree and spotted the winged woman I had seen several times before. She looked at me quizzically then, with a single flap of her massive wings, shot off into the sky. I sighed. “I’m guessing no one saw her that time either?”

Aurora gave me a look. “Of course we saw her. She was right there.”

Really? Maybe I wasn’t going crazy after all. “But why didn’t you see her those times before?”

She shrugged. “Just missed seeing her, maybe?”

I was about ready to just drop the whole thing and instead focus on why she kept showing up, but Paulie interjected. “I’ve seen her before, bro.”

What. “What.”

“Yeah, bro. Sometimes, she comes while I’m keeping watch and just stares at your tent while you’re sleeping.”

I was speechless for a moment. “My tent? Like, specifically my tent?”

“Yeah, bro.”

“And you never mentioned it why?”

“Well, she seems pretty cool, so I didn’t want to bother you with it.”

I don’t remember what I said, but I think it was in Angrish, so I don’t think anyone else remembers what I said either. I vaguely remember something about wanting to turn Paulie’s pelt into a hat. I also remember repeatedly bashing my head into the muddy ground. At some point, my horse tried to bring me an apple. I think. It’s kind of a blur. I don’t think I actually attacked him. In fact, it probably looked like I was having a seizure or something to most people.

The first clear moment I have is waking up in my tent, Aurora sitting on her bedroll and giving me a concerned look. “I think I’m okay now,” I said. “But from now on, we set someone on watch with Paulie. I’d really like to be informed if someone we don’t know is entering our camp in the future.”

“Okay,” Aurora said. “It is a little creepy,” she admitted with a nervous titter.

“Well, not much we can do about it at the moment.” I said. “I need to get to work. Strip.”

“What?” She looked scandalized.

I grinned. “Your armor. I’ve figured out a way to adjust it to fix your little problem.”

“Oh, okay. Help me out here.”

That night – or morning, as it were – I showed my hired assistants what we were doing next on the first cart, fabricated the parts they would need and had several of the geth help me enchant Aurora’s armor. I was using an enchantment design commonly favored by the strongest paladins and luckily much of the base work was already done. All I had to do was add the beta and gamma runes – a moderately time consuming but not all that difficult task – to give it heavenly properties and lighten the armor significantly.

While I’m talking about that, let me rant for a moment. I will never understand my fellow magic crafters. This enchantment is a well-known one – Celestial Armor, they call it – adapted for a heavier set of full plate armor. So far, so good, right? Well, whomever it was that designed the spell form ascribed it a rigidity in the lightening department. It doesn’t so much lighten the armor as it sets the armor’s weight to a specific weight. Which is fine, if you’re using it on chainmail like it usually is. But, in order to not make it inordinately expensive to enchant, they had to raise the weight it changes to when using it on plate. Which again, is normally fine.

That is, of course, unless you’re using it on a suit of mithral plate, in which case you end up shaving off about an eighth of a pound. So, if you wanted to reduce the weight down to around that achieved in the chainmail version, you end up having to pay roughly triple the enchantment’s full cost, including the cost of the alpha enchantment – which is just the basic magical enhancement to the armor’s hardness and effectiveness.

Because, of course, they tied the reduction to the armor’s physical dimensions, not the armor’s weight. If instead they had made the enchantment work as a percentage of the armor’s weight, it would have been easy to adapt to all kinds of armor and would have instantly solved the mithral plate problem. And it wouldn’t have been all that hard, though the downside is that it would have been a little bit more expensive for regular steel armor. Still, I may do it when I have three or four weeks to just sit down and work on the problem.

But Aurora’s armor is adamantine, and thus I don’t really have to worry about it right now. The enchantment works just fine with adamantine’s properties.

The next day was dominated by fairly boring travel, which I got through by reading more about the Fairy Blacksmith’s work and playing music for Pinkie Pie because I didn’t want her to get bored and wander off. Like I said, you’ve just gotta know how to handle these strange ass horses.

As we moved, I had a eureka moment. It was beautiful. In one instant, I could see everything in the process right before my eyes. I began swapping things around and moving the parts by adding in the kinds of precision only possible with modern equipment. The Fairy Blacksmith’s work was brilliant, but I had tools she never would have dreamed of. I could revolutionize her work. What could be done with days of slaving using the old methods could instead be done in about six hours with a few assistants and extremely precise equipment. Even then, it would take extreme skill.

Luckily, I’m amazing. So is my horse. It tastes like raisins. Probably. Look, I’ve never licked the horse, though I did watch her lick a toad earlier. It was a little strange.

Anyway, I was naturally glad when we stopped early. The mercenary commander - Orik’s fellow commander, goes by the name Squibbles or something – decided we needed to stop because we didn’t want to reach the Storval Stairs after dark. He’d also spotted signs of some kind of animal herd – ibex or something – and wanted to get in a bit of hunting. I’m sure he wanted to study the creatures’ internal organs or something, since he’s a gnome and they do things like that.

But all that mattered is that I would have time to work on my very special project and would be able to let the technicians rest, since they’d been whining about the grueling pace we had been setting. Let them relax their way, I would relax mine. Then, when I was done, they could get to work while I rested my muscles.

I was using music to time my blows, and was in the middle of singing when Aurora showed up. I was also immediately aware that I was shirtless – it was hot, okay? – and wearing only a leather apron over my chest. And okay, so maybe I flexed a few times when I thought she might be looking to show off my arms. But is that really so wrong?

I talked her into singing with me for a bit while I worked, which was great for taking my mind off the ache in my shoulders and the sweat dripping from my brow. She really does have an incredible voice. With a little training, I’m sure she could sing for an opera.

No, I really mean it. She speaks with a powerful contralto, but sings in both the mezzo-soprano and soprano ranges where necessary. We really do make beautiful music together. And I’m not saying that figuratively. She’s a hell of a lot of fun to sing with and I’m sure anyone listening would enjoy the experience. In fact, having her there made it hard to concentrate. I kept imagining tearing off her armor with magic, tossing her on a nearby workbench and ravishing her thoroughly. But I didn’t prepare that spell today – she’s sleeping in her armor on the road, so there’s little risk of needing to get her armored up in a hurry – and she’d probably kill me if I tried.

I was right when I thought that it would take about six hours to complete the sheet of metal. This was followed by about an hour of work with a precision laser to cut out and sharpen the blades and cut them into the necessary pieces. All that was left was the technological component, which I could work on later.

I cleaned myself off, set the technicians to work and laid down with Aurora for a bit. After the rest, I recovered my mp3 player. I told the VI to play me something fun, so it loaded up a message from Katie for some reason. I’ll have to work on that.

I’m just glad it didn’t play that message for Aurora. It would have been embarrassing to have her hear what Katie had said about my feelings for her. Still, it was good to hear my sister’s voice. I’m sure she must be worried sick. I would have to find a way to make it up to her and the rest when I got home.

Rested, I got back to work with the technicians. Now, I’m not going to tell you exactly what I have them doing to the carts, but let’s just say that I’ve been considering the names of Native American tribes to name them after. I think I can say that. It’s not like Lyrie would ever realize the significance of that if she ever got ahold of this journal.

During the night, the hunters returned, grabbed our smaller merchant cart and Paulie, then headed back out. I went around camp verifying the battery levels on all our radios in case something came up, then returned to my vigil over Aurora’s sleep.

Naturally, Fleur kept teasing me by singing “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing”.

Shortly after dawn, the hunters returned with the cart fully loaded. I was expecting a few animal carcasses, and those were there, but they were joined by a number of large barrels. I went to check it out, and it turns out that they had found a burned down ranch and evidence of ogre cattle rustling. They had apparently come for Paulie because they needed someone to help burn the bodies of the ranch’s inhabitants. They also hunted down the ogres, who had gotten drunk and passed out, then returned and inspected the ranch. In a cellar, they found the barrels, which contained a rather expensive tasting brandy.

We opened up one of the barrels and shared it around the camp – roughly a cup for each person – and then sent the rest back with some of the support staff to sell. We were pretty sure that the road behind us was clear, so it would be pretty safe for them to do so.

On the road late the next morning, we came across a destroyed caravan. Most everything of value was gone, as were almost all the people. Only one person remained. We found him injured and trapped under an overturned cart. He was pretty beat up and dehydrated, but healed up quickly once we smacked him with a healing wand and gave him something to drink.

The merchant told us that his fellows had been set upon by a group of hill giants and ogres. Some had been killed in the fighting – and the fact that the bodies weren’t still there told a stomach-turning tale – while others had been dragged off alive. As we suspected, the giants had headed off towards the Storval Stairs.

The merchant decided to stay with our army, worried about the fate of his surviving friends. We gave him a crossbow and taught him its use, then told him to stay out of our way. We then continued on towards the only path up the escarpment.

The Storval Stairs were literal stairs carved into a cliff side. Using telescopes, we got a good look at the garrison manning the top. Geo was troubled by what we saw. “Giants don’t usually work with hobgoblins.”

“Likely mercenaries,” Aurora said. “I’ve encountered hobgoblin mercenaries before. They’re brutal and ruthless.”

“But giants wouldn’t hire hobgoblins like that.”

“Lyrie might,” I interjected.

“I’m really starting to wish we had killed her when we had the chance,” Aurora said.

“I warned you.”

Orik just shook his head. “So what do we do?”

“It’s going to be rough getting to the top. I’m thinking we fly up a shock force and take down the most dangerous troops up there before bringing up our main force. Paulie, you ready to burn some people?”

The cat man twitched, then grinned. “I’m ALWAYS ready to burn people!” He was perhaps a tad too enthusiastic.

“Good man. Then that’s what we’re doing. I’ll grow larger, cast as many flight spells as possible, then we’ll ferry people up. Orik, pick out your top three soldiers for this kind of role. Squibbles, we have room for three of yours as we-” I stopped suddenly. “Anyone know where Squibbles went?” I was answered by the sound of explosions. I spat out an invective I’m not going to repeat here. “The mortars!”

We rushed over and found that the gnome, as one of the very few who knew about the mortars I had fabricated, had pulled the weapons out of a cart and had started raining technological death upon our enemies.

I was livid. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!”

“It seemed faster,” the gnome answered with a shrug.

“And now our enemies know we have them! These were supposed to be our trump card against the giants, and now they’re going to have a full day or more to prepare countermeasures.” I would have hit him, but Fleur told me to focus on the situation at hand. “Give me that,” I said to a nearby soldier. “We don’t have the shells to waste on you lining up a proper shot.” I ran calculations in my head in a matter of seconds and fired a trio of precise shots, knocking the shack at the top down on its inhabitants.

I then nodded at Aurora and she sounded the charge.

The fighting was quick and brutal, but in the end we were victorious with minimal losses. Two deaths and three injuries was an amazing victory considering the strength of the force we were up against.

We made camp at the top of the stairs to lick our wounds and pick through the intelligence we managed to gather from a few hobgoblin prisoners. I then spent the rest of the night figuring out new technologies to bring to bear against our foes, in case they were successful in countering the mortars. I did have one thing going for me, though I am loathe to admit it. But as they say, all’s fair in love and war, and we were looking at the likely complete extermination of all human life in a hundred mile radius if we failed. So what was that advantage, you ask?

Well, clearly our enemies weren’t signatories to the Geneva Conventions, obviously. That gave me an entirely new dimension of hell I could unleash upon them.

The fight for Jorgenfist promised to be nothing if not interesting.

This to be followed with an Aurora's Observation Journal I'll upload once I've finished eating breakfast.


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Not Quite Paradise: Part 2

Spoiler:
“Absalom Pathfinder Society,” I typed. More than thirty-eight thousand results. I followed the first to a wiki. I was amazed by what I read. The next hour was me wiki-walking my way through hundreds of articles.

Someone had made a game like Dungeons and Dragons and set it on Golarion. And they had gotten a lot of things incredibly close to correct. Not all of it, but more than enough to be more than coincidence, though unfortunately not enough to help me. But still, was I not the only person from Earth to ever visit Golarion?

I utilized all my skills and within a few minutes of setting out to do so, had not only the name of the game’s creator but a private phone number as well. I called. Someone answered fairly quickly. “Hello?” a voice asked, sounding startled.

“Are you the creator of Pathfinder?”

“Who is this?”

“You’re not going to believe me, but I’ve been there. I’ve been to Golarion.”

There was stunned silence at the other end. After a moment, I heard a voice that sounded muffled, like someone not properly covering a phone. “Dad. It’s actually him.”

The phone made some noises, as though someone else had taken it. “You must be Kyle,” an older gentleman’s voice said.

It was my turn to be stunned. “How do you know that name?”

“That is a bit of a long story. Do you have time to listen?”

If I didn’t, I would make time. “Yes.”

“I will make it as short as I can. My father fought in World War 2. His unit liberated one of the German POW camps. One of the prisoners was a Russian soldier, Corporal Kuznetsov, with whom he became friends. They stayed in the area for several nights helping coordinate moving the freed prisoners to places where they could return home.

“One night, his Russian friend told him a fantastic story. He told of how, during the first world war, he had met a young woman who had performed fantastical magical feats. She told him that she had traveled from another world to hunt the Mad Monk, Rasputin. Her Russian was excellent, but she had a terrible American accent, he told my father.

“During a battle, they were attacked by mustard gas. In her haste to protect herself with a magical barrier, she wound up dropping her diary. She and her friends left before he could tell her, so he picked it up. Immediately upon opening it, a letter addressed to him materialized out of nowhere in his hands.”

I began working out the magic required for that. It was doable, if perhaps not something I could do. “What did it say?”

“He opened the note. Inside, in perfect Russian, was a set of instructions. It gave my father’s name and told him to give the diary to him when he met him. Story told, he did just that. Curious, my father opened it immediately.

“A letter addressed to my father appeared immediately when he did so. He opened it and inside were instructions that he pass it down to his child on my twentieth birthday. I also received instructions. Mine were that my own child would receive a phone call from a man named Kyle today at this time and that I should have the diary handy. It was only off by a few minutes.”

“What else was in the diary?”

“Descriptions of cities, organizations and peoples as well as a number of personal details, including some of a very salacious nature.”

Samantha had to be involved. “Can you read me a passage? I think I might recognize the writing style if I hear it.”

“Of course,” he replied. “Just give me a moment to – huh.”

“’Huh’?”

“A letter appeared when I opened it. It’s addressed to ‘Kyle, The American Wizard’.”

“Read it to me, please.”

I heard the sounds of an envelope opening. “I can’t. I don’t recognize the language.”

“Can you scan it and email it to me?”

“Sure, give me a moment and tell me your address.” Less than five minutes later, I was looking at a scan of a letter in Ancient Thassilonian. But even more shocking: It was in my own handwriting. “What does it say?” asked the voice at the other end of the phone.

“It’s a note to me from myself,” I said.

“That’s impossible.”

I actually laughed. “You’d be surprised what I’ve discovered is possible. This actually fits consistently with what I’ve learned in the last few days. The gist of the note is that the girl whose diary that is hasn’t been born yet. Apparently she’s my daughter. Beyond that, it’s some advice, which it suggests to keep to myself.”

“If the girl who wrote that is your daughter, then I probably shouldn’t read any of it to you. She’ll probably want to keep certain of these details from her father.”

He might have a point. “Okay. Fair enough. Do me a favor, okay? Exactly two years from today, open the diary again and see if another note appears. I want to ask you to send something to my family about that, but I don’t want to make the decision on the spot. So if it is a good idea, I’ll enchant the diary with another request for you.”

“That sounds complicated.”

“Yeah, time travel’s annoying.”

“I’m still not sure why I believe any of this. I guess I wouldn’t, if I hadn’t seen those letters appear out of nowhere like that.”

“Yeah. I can’t blame you. It’s amazing the things I’m willing to accept these days.”

We said our goodbyes and I turned again to the letter.

“Kyle, as you know, I can’t tell you any more than the bare minimum, for fear of creating a time paradox. But be comforted by the fact that I get as annoyed at time travel as you do. Exactly as much as you do, in fact.

“Do try to remember that my survival may not necessarily mean you will also survive as you may be on a different branching timeline. However, we’re going to assume you’re on the same one as I went through, since I can’t give you any advice at all if not.

“So here it is, my one piece of advice. You need to start carrying around a pair of swords balanced for dual wielding. They need to be on you and easily accessible, but hidden. I will leave it up to you as to how you do so. Hell, make lightsabers if you want and have the resources. But they need to be on hand and light enough for someone who isn’t as strong as Aurora. You’ll know when their time has come and I don’t think you can screw it up. But failing to have them when the time comes will be a problem. Additionally, you can’t tell anyone at all what you’re doing. It would be bad if the wrong people found out. So make them concealable.

“Finally, I must tell you that things will get worse. There are hardships before you. But there is so much worth fighting for and the future gets better. So, no matter what happens, don’t lose sight of who you are. Do what you think is right. And most of all, never, ever give up. Because failing will potentially mean disaster for two worlds.

“So, you know. No pressure.”

After reading that, I had come to one conclusion. Future me is an a-hole. But I’ll show him. I’m going to eat a ton of ice cream and then he’ll have to deal with being fat. That’ll show that jerk.

But he had given me potentially important information. I would need to get a pair of swords. Honestly, I’m not even sure I needed to make them anything all that special. Just make a couple basic but functional one handed swords, something in a twenty-five to thirty inch blade and then stick them in one of those closed tubes architects use to carry blueprints. Boom, done.

But he had suggested light sabers, probably as a joke. Or was it? I mean, blades made out of hard light like that might be beyond my capabilities, but I bet if I tried I could come up with a way to make swords out of molten metal or superheated plasma suspended in an electromagnetic field. The costs, however, might be prohibitive. I would have to consider it. There had to be a happy medium, something that would be cheap enough to make but not a burden for me to carry.

As I prepared for bed, I remembered one last thing I needed to do. I hadn’t shredded my documentation of my older brother’s attack on me when we were younger. It would serve no purpose for him to get blamed for my disappearance. So I ran it through the shredder, ran the scraps through again and then soaked the whole wad in laundry bluing.

What? I take identity theft seriously. You should too. The stuff is like two bucks for a thirty two ounce bottle. The identity you save could be your own.

After tossing my gloves, I sat down to check my email one last time before getting some sleep. My main accounts had nothing of interest, but one of the burner accounts I’d created to send out all those translations and tech schematics did have a new message that looked interesting, so I opened it.

“To the Crimson Scholar,” it began. Yeah, I’m still bitter they never made another season of Maoyuu. “I have enclosed my Skype contact information. Please contact me as soon as possible, any time day or night. During an archaeological dig in the UK, we located another document written at least partially in the same language as the Voynich Manuscript. We were planning to wait until archivists could finish touching it up before releasing the information. However, as it seems that you have managed to decipher the language, we would love to have you take a look at it for us.” It was signed, “Elizabeth Whitworth.”

I looked her up and she was indeed the head of Archaeology at a recognizable university. “What the hell,” I said to myself. “Might as well see what they’ve found.” It was five in the morning over where she was, but she did say to call any time. I fired up Skype and, bouncing the call through three proxies, I dialed her up.

A respectable-looking middle-aged British woman answered. “Hello?”

“Greetings,” I said. While I could see her, she was seeing just my silhouette thanks to some special filters I’d installed on my feed. “You said you wished to speak with me?”

“You’re the Crimson Scholar?”

“I am,” I replied. “Tell me of this document you found.”

“Yes, of course.” She pulled up a page and displayed it over the feed. “This is the first page of a journal we found in what can only be described as a vault discovered in Wales. Most of the writing within the trove was in an older, pre-Welsh dialect, suggesting that it was built somewhere between the years five-fifty and eight hundred or so. This was the only piece of material out of place. The journal is written in two languages. The first is the same as the Voynich document, while the second is another unknown.”

My mind made a logical leap. “And you want me to translate this one because you believe that the ancient Welsh documents will confirm whether I’m telling the truth, thus corroborating my story?”

She looked surprised. “That was part of the reason, though in truth I’m more interested in what the journal says. If the other documents are telling the truth, this could be the find of the century.”

Well, that had me interested. “Okay, give me a moment.” I read through the page. Wow, she wasn’t kidding. This could be huge like Xbox. “‘My brother and I went to visit cousin Gwain today. Her new husband seems like a strong man. Having him on our side against the invading Saxons makes me feel better. But what interested me most of all is that sword of his. After Gwain explained to him that I was a smith, he let me take a look at it.

“‘I’ve never seen a finer blade nor have I ever seen the metal it’s made of. I asked for a demonstration of its strength and he obliged. He took another sword and with a single strike, cleaved it in two. Awestruck, I remarked that surely a blade as fine as that must have a name. He told me that it was called Excalibur.’”

She looked surprised. “You really can read it!”

I was just as startled. “Is this right? Is this really the journal of THE Guinevere’s cousin?”

“It would seem so. Here’s the next page.”

“‘When we returned to the village, I could not get the blade out of my mind. A few weeks later, on my naming day, my godmother came to visit. I told her of the fantastical thing I had witnessed, and she listened carefully, as she is wont to do. When I finished my tale, she regarded me thoughtfully for a moment and spoke. ‘This metal you describe is known as Adamantine. I have seen it on many worlds. You would be blessed to find such a rare material to work. Would that I could give you such a gift for your naming day, but it comes from the sky and is beyond my domain. Ask instead for your own weight in mithral or Summer’s Bronze and I will gift it to you, but know that Adamantine is beyond my ability to give.’

“‘‘Beloved Godmother,’ said I, ‘I understand. Instead will I endeavor to make something just as great using materials you can provide. I will use the techniques of the Byzantines of Damascus to create something new and glorious.’

“‘Wise Titania laughed. ‘Were I any but your godmother, I would strike you down for your arrogance. But as I am your godmother, I find myself intrigued. Show me your power, little smith. Tell me what you need and I will provide it, so long as you ask not for adamantine or foul cold-iron.’’”

“Did you just say Titania?” the archaeologist asked.

“Yes.”

“As in, queen of the fairies?”

“I’m as shocked as you, though I’m getting the feeling that there’s something you’re not telling me.”

She nodded. “Perceptive of you. The accompanying documents state that the journal belonged to someone known as the Fairy Blacksmith, born in the ‘Elven village of Dragonlea.’”

It was my turn to be surprised. “Does it say what happened to the village?”

“It was put to the flame by Camelot’s crusade.”

What. “What.”

“Apparently, after driving back the Saxons, the Knights of the Round Table set out to wipe out first dragons, then all numbers of non-human species, including elves, dwarves and even giants. It said that a half-elven woman named the Fairy Blacksmith and her brother were some of the last to fight against Camelot’s campaign of genocide, but in the end, even they fell before the armies of mankind.” She smiled. “Obviously, it’s an exaggeration. But it does suggest that there was another race of people that once lived in ancient Britain that was wiped out.”

“What if it isn’t an exaggeration?” I asked. I turned off my visual feature, revealing my face.

“Of course it is. There’s no such thing as elves or dragons.”

I shook my head. “The language this was written in is the language of dragons.”

“That’s impossible.”

It wasn’t worth arguing about it. “I’m just relaying what my source said.”

“What source?”

I hadn’t thought that far ahead. “I found the information on the Deep Web.” It was a good lie. Most normal people have either never heard of or knows almost nothing about it, so it’s a mythical land you can use to justify anything. “That’s where I learned the language. I found a hidden spot in the Deep Web where some people were talking about long extinct creatures, including their languages. This was the only one I felt I could get the information I needed to begin learning it without getting caught.”

“So what, some kind of ancient secret society trying to keep ‘the real history’ hidden?”

“Could be. Seemed like a bunch of kids playing around. If it wasn’t for the language, I’m not sure I’d believe any of it.”

“Fair enough. I’m emailing you a scan of the whole journal. If you manage to translate the rest of it, please let me know.”

“Will do. And I promise I won’t go public with any of this. I wouldn’t want to risk those people realizing what I’ve done, anyway.”

“Stay safe,” she said.

“You as well.”

The majority of the rest of the journal was in another language. It looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. Aside from that, it looked like research notes. She was trying to perfect the method to make a material similar to adamantine without using adamantine using the same methods used to make Damascus steel.

I suspect that the reason she used a different language is because Draconic isn’t good at dealing with numbers in general and fractions in particular. Dragons don’t have much use for complex math and use a base eight number system anyway. Base Eight isn’t too hard for me or really anyone nowadays, but for someone working back in the dark ages, it likely wouldn’t have been worth the effort.

I took the time to pull out the MP3 player I’d hidden and added the new document to it. I had some ideas for making a compatible screen for it, so it wouldn’t be too hard to read later. I then carefully replaced it and hid the work from my past(future?) self.

The first two days of the paintball excursion went as before. I walked right into the same traps I had fallen for the previous loop in order to avoid a paradox. As if I hadn’t already changed enough. Yeah, I don’t know. Time travel gives me a headache.

The third night, Samantha didn’t come. I waited an additional hour beyond when she had arrived last time and then decided to set off to find her. I strapped on all my knives, grabbed my bear mace and headed off into the woods.

I crashed around the woods for a while, searching for her with no avail. I had just about given up when I stumbled into a clearing and found a black bear fishing in a stream. I froze and tried to back away, but the damn thing roared at me and began to charge.

I pulled out the bear mace and fumbled with it. I couldn’t even get it open. Why the hell hadn’t I removed the overwrap before going into the woods?! In my panic I dropped the can. I cursed in three languages as I desperately sought an option.

It came naturally. I pulled in the power and focused my mind. A bolt of magical force erupted from my hand and struck the bear in the face. I felt vindicated. My academic side also found it interesting that only one bolt had formed, since future me casts the same spell with a result of five bolts.

The bear seemed surprised, but didn’t stop its charge. I pulled out my knives and prepared to go down fighting. The bear leapt at me with a mighty roar and it’s possible I flinched as I prepared to meet my maker. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Okay, yes, I was there, in a physical sense. But my mind kinda checked out for a bit.

There was a loud crash and, after a few moments, I opened my eyes. The bear’s corpse was lying right in front of me. It had been cut in half with a mighty slash. If I hadn’t known better, I would have called it Lenn’s handiwork. It was that brutal.

I looked around, searching for the one who had saved me. I caught sight of the glint of mithral in the moonlight. An extremely beautiful blonde woman in black scale mail armor was standing before me. I was shocked to realize that her body was no longer asymmetrical, though a mask still covered half of her face.

“The two parts of me have worked out our differences,” Samantha said, sensing my question. “So tell me, are you stupid?”

“What?” I asked, shocked.

“I went to all this trouble to give you what you had been asking for. You’ve spent weeks just b#&$%ing and moaning over your situation. So I sent you home through the reaches of time and space. Yet all you can think of is going back. Why?”

It was a good question. And it wasn’t just weeks I’d spent complaining. I had been complaining for years. “Because if I don’t, then things will change. People will die. I don’t know if I can live with myself knowing that I did nothing. One day, I will die. On that day, my twin sister will be waiting for me. I want to be able to tell her that I did what I thought was right.”

“There’s no guarantee that things will be better if you go. There’s no way of knowing if things will work out as you’d like. You may fail and die, and the world may be worse off for your having tried.”

“If I let myself be paralyzed into indecision by what might be, I’ll never be able to act. All I can do is what I think is right and hope it works out.”

“Are you sure it’s not just because you want to see your knight again?”

She had a point. “That might be part of it. But if I knew things would be better without me, I’d live with that. But I can’t know, so I have to do this.”

She smiled softly. “If that’s what you want. Let’s head back to your camp. Once your body is safe, I’ll send your consciousness back forward and reset your current self’s memories back to how they were when I first met you and have my past self come for you as before.”

“Wait,” I said. “We have this perfectly good bear carcass. We should do something with it.”

“Oh?”

I took a piece of flesh off the cut section using light magical telekinesis. I then wrote something on a rock with the blood.

“‘Red like roses fills my dreams and brings me to the place you rest’?”

“It was the first thing that popped into my head.”

“Oh. I wanna write something too! Any suggestions?”

“Depends. Do you think Courage would eat pieces of the bear if you bring them?”

“Of course.”

“Then write this…”

I couldn’t wait to get back and find out how people would react to a bear with missing forepaws and the message “…the right of the people to keep bear arms shall not be infringed” written on a nearby rock. I had to explain the joke as best I could to Samantha, but I’m not sure she got it. She was willing to believe my assertion that it was a very funny joke, at the least.

As we walked back, I became curious. “Samantha, there’s something else I have to know. Will you answer if I ask?”

“Why I left you on Castrovel?” she asked. I nodded. “That’s a question that requires a little background. Before I answer, have you ever wondered why it was I chose you to go with me?”

I really hadn’t. “I had always assumed it was more or less blind chance. You were letting Courage rest and heard me playing.”

She shook her head. “I told you back then that I had encountered a dark presence in the depths of space, remember?” I vaguely recalled that. I don’t recall if I’ve ever written about it here, but it’s why she’s different. An eldritch horror in the depths of space came to possess her. But it hadn’t considered the possibility that it would be trying to take over the body of a paladin, one who might actually resist him. “It’s too bad it wasn’t Obrek that the creature ran into,” she said, referring to her comrade-in arms from the city of Valor’s Triumph. “He might have pushed it into a little ball and kept complete control. But it wasn’t him. The girl I was could not overpower the will of the being.”

It hurt me to think about how Samantha, no older than I had been when I left Earth, had been all alone with an alien presence trying to overpower her mind and dominate her body. She must have been terrified. “So you chose your battles?”

She laughed again. “Not exactly. It isn’t so much that one of us overpowered the other. In the end, we came to terms with the differences in ourselves. He’s not evil. Not exactly. It’s more that he doesn’t think the way most people do. He’s a nigh unknowable presence with values that are simply so different from our own that they defy explanation.” She sighed. “I’m not explaining this very well, am I?”

“You’re talking about ‘Blue and Orange’ morality,” I replied. Let me explain. Imagine a graph. A simple one would be a single axis up and down. Good and evil. But there is another axis, from left to right. Order and Chaos. Those aren’t precise terms. You could just as easily label them Tyranny and Freedom. It’s a matter of perspective. Perhaps Order and Freedom would be the best way to go about it.

Now that you have both an X and a Y axis, consider this: Most humanoid beings fit somewhere on that singular plane. But what if there were another axis? What if this Z axis were so out there that we couldn’t comprehend it? This is the Blue-Orange axis. It’s an unknowable morality. There are beings who fit somewhere on one of these axes that interact with humanoids, but even then, they generally fall within a realm we can understand once we know certain base facts about what it means to be one of them.

But what if there were beings so far out there that we had no hope of understanding them? And what if they were like us in that they couldn’t understand Good and Evil? Honestly, we’d probably label them evil and be done with it.

So if Samantha had something like that in her mind, then it explained a lot.

“I forgot how refreshing it was to talk with you,” she said. “You understand the weirdest concepts. It’s almost like talking with Gribbletoo sometimes.”

I decided to take that as the compliment she intended. Gribbletoo’s blue-orange axis had Pancakes at one end. No idea what the other end held. Truth be told, I don’t think I want to know.

“What I’m getting at,” she continued, “is that the being could influence the paladin. But it couldn’t completely control her. As such, it wanted out. Taking you with us was its ploy for escaping this body.”

“Me? How was that supposed to work?”

“It didn’t need you, specifically. What it needed was a man with enough charm to make the paladin fall in love and let her guard down. Which meant that it had to be subtle. It couldn’t afford to let her raise her guard. So it nurtured a sense of loneliness in her, making her think finding someone was her idea.”

“I’m still not seeing the end game. How does that allow it to get free?”

Samantha smirked at me. “Well, you see, Kyle, when a man and woman love each other very much, they do certain things with and to each other.”

A lightbulb clicked on in my mind. “It was trying to get your body pregnant so it could escape into the child?!”

“Picking you was a stroke of luck on the creature’s part. You were timid enough to fear the drama that would occur if you pushed the paladin too far too quickly. But you were charming enough that you wormed your way into her heart over time.” She giggled. “All I could think about was how I was going to tear your clothes off and thoroughly ravish you first thing upon arriving on Golarion. Both of us wanted it, though for very different reasons. It was only luck that made the paladin realize the monster’s intentions at the last moment. But even then, she wasn’t sure that she would be able to resist it if you were the one who initiated things, which seemed to be something you were working up to. So you had to be left behind.” Her voice had grown softer as she spoke. Then she whispered, “I’m sorry. It’s all my fault.”

The pain in her voice was almost too much to bear. I could tell just how lonely she felt. Without even thinking, I hugged her close to me. “Don’t be. I should have realized what was going on earlier.” We embraced for several moments before letting go, though I could tell she did so very reluctantly. “I realize now that we never could have been together. But if it’s all the same to you, I’m going to lie and tell anyone who’ll listen that I tapped that ass.”

She looked dumbstruck for a moment, then began laughing. It was a hearty, rich sound that rang through the crisp night air. “You’ll always be one of my dearest friends,” she said. “Are you sure that you don’t want to reconsider your decision to go back? I can’t interfere there without alerting some dangerous foes to my presence, so there’s no guarantee that I can protect you.”

“You’ve already done quite a bit,” I said. She gave me a confused look. “Don’t think I’m not on to you. I’ve had a lot of time to think about how I met Aurora. That was no coincidence, was it?”

She laughed again. “It was also really funny. For such a deep voice, you have such a high pitched scream.”

We walked the rest of the way back to camp in silence. When we arrived, she smiled wistfully. “You know, I didn’t finish telling you why I chose you to go with me.”

“No?”

“I told you the monster’s reasons, but the paladin’s motive was a bit more focused.” She laughed softly once more. “You know, it’s funny. On this world, there are so many people who profess beliefs in things like justice, who will tell you all about how they would do whatever it takes to protect the innocent. Yet, when you peel back that thin veneer, it’s not true. Don’t get me wrong. Consciously, they fully believe it. But deep down, it’ll be no more than a passing priority at best. But the propensity towards that belief made my search difficult.”

“So you were looking for a good person? It makes sense. You’d want to be near someone like yourself.”

“It’s more than that,” she said. “The paladin didn’t know what would happen to her. She feared that if she lost the battle for her mind, she would become a monster. She wanted to find someone to carry the torch for her. She needed someone who not only believed in the ideals of Good, but would do what it took to make them a reality. In truth, she sought a replacement.”

That hit me hard. A paladin had wanted me to replace her? It didn’t even make sense. “Then why choose me? I don’t respect authority. I’ll sleep with almost any woman who gives me the opportunity. I’ve spent more than my fair share of time thumbing my nose at society’s rules. I’m no paladin. I’m more of a hedonist. I just do things that I enjoy.”

She nodded. “That’s exactly why I chose you. The paladin I was upheld the ideals of Good because it was my duty. I did good things because it was what I was supposed to do. I also believed in helping those in need, but it was almost a ritualistic thing for me. I did good because the being I worshipped expected it. But you… Do you know what I found in your mind when I looked?”

“What was it you found?”

“I found exactly what you said, a man who did things only because he wanted to. A man that did things that he enjoyed. But, in spite of that, or perhaps because of it, he kept doing things that were good. Not because he was supposed to. Not because it was his job. Not because his god demanded it, though yours does and you do seem to care about that. No, I found a man who does good things because he enjoys them. That’s how I knew you’d make the world better in my place, because it was something you’d enjoy.”

I have never considered myself a good person. Hell, I’m sure I’m the poster boy for at least three of the seven deadly sins. I’m talking about Lust, Wrath and Pride, in case you’re not paying attention, though maybe Gluttony in the non-food sense also fits. But especially pride. I’m at least ten times more prideful than anyone I know. Maybe I’m good on a couple virtues as well, but at best that just means I’m not a completely awful person.

She seemed to read my mind. That’s a thing she can do, in case you’ve forgotten. “You’re better than you think you are,” she said. “And you’re much stronger than you know. Even now, you’re here trying to find a way back into what has felt like hell to you.”

“Shall we get this over with?” I asked, wanting to change the subject.

“If you’re sure. I can’t do much to help you once you’re back. This is your last chance to change your mind.”

“I’m not changing my mind.”

“Even with as much of a baby you’ve been about how scared you are every single day?”

What Samantha didn’t understand was that I had always been afraid. My whole life, I’ve lived in a constant state of fear. There’s a part of me that pipes up every time I do anything to warn me of the risks. I just have another part that has always told that part to shut up and forces me to live my life, regardless. I could feel myself smirk as I answered. “I may be a baby,” I said. “But sometimes a baby’s gotta do what a baby’s gotta do.”

She laughed. “I do so very much miss spending time with you. Close your eyes.” She gently grabbed the back of my head and pulled it forward. I felt the soft touch of her lips on my forehead, then she released me. “Take care of yourself, Kyle.”

“I will,” I started to say, but got only one syllable in before the world began to taste very, very purple. Then I passed out.

I awoke to a feeling of warmth on my back, not too warm but instead exactly the perfect temperature. I felt the strong arm around me, heard the soft, rhythmic breathing of sleep and smelled the faint scent of lilacs. I was back.

I carefully extricated myself from Aurora’s embrace and walked over to my bag. I opened it and searched inside. The enchantments made it hard to find what I sought, since it was much deeper inside than before, but I found it nonetheless. Excitement washed through me as I carefully pulled out the crude metal case. Within, nestled in a bed of memory foam – the remnants of a shredded pillow – was my mp3 player.

I just stared at it for several moments, awash with varied emotions. “I’m not a coward, I’ve just never been tested. I’d like to think that if I was I would pass…” I whispered the first words that came to me. I had been given an out. I could have walked away. But I hadn’t. It wouldn’t have been right. Maybe Samantha was right. Maybe I was stronger than I had given myself credit for.

“Yeah, you did good,” Fleur said. “But does this mean you’re done whining about your predicament?”

“And give up all the fun I have annoying you?”

“Touché.” She stuck her tongue out at me. “Better get back to bed. Someone is waiting.”

I turned and saw that Aurora had stirred. She had crawled over to the foot of the bed and was looking at me inquiringly. In her curiosity, she had forgotten to cover herself with a blanket. In the moonlight, I saw everything.

EVERYTHING.

In the moment, my brain wasn’t functioning properly. But even then, I knew better than to comment on any of the bits my brain wanted to comment on. So, in desperation, I spoke the first words that came to mind. “Huh. I didn’t know you shaved your armpits.” Smooth like buttah.

Aurora’s face went white in horrified realization. She mostly managed to stifle a scream and dove under the blankets.

“Can you just forget you saw that?” Aurora asked after several uncomfortable moments of silence.

“I’m pretty sure that would be impossible, even if I wanted to do so.”

“Oh.” The uncomfortable silence returned.

“Look, I’ll go sleep in my room,” I said, standing. I turned to leave but felt a hand on my arm. I looked back and Aurora had gotten up and stopped me, once more forgetting the blanket.

“Please don’t look,” she pleaded. I closed my eyes and pulled her to me, wrapping her in an embrace. She squeezed me back, burying her face in my chest and conveniently making it impossible for her to notice me sneaking a peek at her glorious backside. “Let’s just go back to bed,” she said.

“Okay,” I replied. “But I’d rather not lay with my back to you anymore.”

“I don’t want to lay with my back to you either,” she responded.

I considered it for a moment. “Well, then I guess one of us will have to lay on their back and have the other rest their head on the first’s chest.”

She giggled. “And I guess you’re volunteering?”

“Mais oui,” I said in a goofy French accent for no reason.

“Well tough. I’ll lay my head on your chest.”

I sighed exaggeratedly. “Well, fine. But you’re going to miss out on my patented Motorboat Alarm Clock.”

I laid back down and Aurora climbed into bed with me, laying her head upon my chest, wrapping her arm around me and pressing her soft body against mine. Carefully, I put left arm around her and rested my hand on her waist.

“I’ll get the blanket,” I whispered, preparing to cast a cantrip to pull it over.

“Wait,” she said, looking up at me. There was a slight tremor in her voice and I could see trepidation in her eyes. She was nervous for some reason. As she closed her eyes and focused, it didn’t take me long to understand why.

Great white feathered wings extended from her back as her halo reappeared, glowing with a very pale light. I was awestruck. “Aurora, those are amazing!” I finally exclaimed after several moments.

“Y-you don’t think they’re weird?”

Of all the things to be self-conscious about. I hugged her gently. “I think they’re beautiful.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

The light of her halo turned to a soft golden and I could see her smile. She hugged me tight. “Thank you,” she said. She stretched out her wings and carefully covered both of us with them. They were comfortably warm.

I lay there for several minutes, just enjoying the warmth of her body and the smell of her hair before a question struck. “So, the wings… is that why you aren’t wearing your other nightgown?”

She blushed. “I was afraid I’d tear it accidently if they came out.”

It was more than that. She’d been working up the courage to reveal that part of herself she’d only recently discovered to me, and she didn’t know how. I was touched that she cared. “You know, that brings up a good point. We’re going to have to modify your clothing so you can pop those out if you need to. And that’s before we even consider your armor, not that it’ll be easy to fly in your armor.”

“You don’t have to go to any trouble on my account.”

“For you, it’ll be no trouble at all. However, now that I think about it, that does bring up another question.”

“What’s that?”

“Well, I understand now why you aren’t wearing a nightgown, but what’s up with the lack of panties?”

“Well, I, that is…”

I grinned. “You also grew a tail, didn’t you?” I teased.

Her eyes grew wide. “NO!”

“Oh, but how can I be sure unless I see for myself? Though I guess there is one way…”

“Kyle, what do you mean by…KYLE!” she protested, giggling as I grabbed her butt.

“Well, I guess you’re right. No tail here.”

“Then you can remove your hand this instant.”

“Sorry. Can’t. It’s stuck and won’t respond.” I goosed her again, prompting another giggling protest.

I could tell that despite the fact that she was somewhat enjoying this, she was also a bit uncomfortable. I decided not to press the matter and moved my hand back to her waste, softly tracing my finger along her skin the entire way. I could feel goosebumps on her arms where they touched me.

It confused the heck out of my subconscious. She was sending signals that she was open to advancing things further, but at the same time, I was getting clear signals that she didn’t want to, though I’m not entirely certain how to describe them here. I decided that I would give her time, let her slowly acclimate to the idea of further physical intimacy between us. Half the fun was in the chase, after all.

Once she fell asleep, I carefully put on my headphones and flicked on the mp3 player, turning it to random. I almost laughed at the irony as the same song that woke me back in my room played once more, though it was the original and not the metal remake. As I listened, I contemplated the events of the last few days and what they meant.

My entire life, I had been afraid. Everything scared me, so long as it had a horrible potential consequence for me to obsess over. But I had always soldiered on. I refused to let my fear define me. But that had started to change. Things have been so far outside of what I had ever encountered that I hadn’t been able to cope. I suspect that’s why Fleur and I had become two somewhat separate entities. I had stopped listening to her. But that had to change. I wouldn’t allow my fear to define who I am. I would not allow fear to blind me.

This world wasn’t my hell. I wasn’t taken here completely unknowing what awaited me. No, not Hell. This is the future I chose. So I will no longer give in to my fear. I shall move forward doing what I think is right and to hell with the consequences. Fiat justitia ruat caelum. Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.

And if those are the words that end up my epitaph, so be it. If those are the words I’m remembered by, then I can live with it. I could certainly do worse than a legal maxim cited by several heroes of history that chose to do what was right instead of what was easy or popular.

So here I am on the road again. Here I am upon the stage. There I go playing star again. Here I go…

Turn the page.

Okay, so first of all, sorry this one took so long. Holidays, five weeks of illness, marathoning Skyrim mods videos... well, you get the idea. I had actually written this a while back as a possible thing to throw in(somewhere around mid-chapter 2), but when we got here, things had changed so much that I couldn't really salvage the whole thing. I'd say about a page survived the rewrite.

Either way, it ended up being one hell of an infodump, introducing things that had been planned all the way from day one and new ideas inspired as we went along. Some of this is foreshadowing things in the campaign, but one part is primarily foreshadowing the epilogue. Let me make one thing clear though. This world is an alternate Earth, so if I got certain aspects of our world wrong, it's because that's how they are in this one, so deal with it. :P

As for the next section, I've already begun work on it. Hopefully won't take nearly as long. As for a hint of things to come?

Spoiler:
Daa-da-da-da-DAA-da, da-da-da-DAA-da, da-da-da-DAAA-da, da-da-da-daaaaaaa!


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Not Quite Paradise: Part 1

Spoiler:
I awoke to the sound of a guitar riff, not unlike the warning sound of my magical camp alarm. I leapt up, attempting to ascertain where the threat was coming from, but instead got tangled up in the sheets and fell off of the bed. That was my first sign something was wrong. The bed I had fallen asleep in didn’t have sheets, just a blanket.

My next clue was the fact that while I couldn’t really see anything through the bedding, I could see that it was daylight in the room I was in. I had gone to bed sometime around midnight. Since I sleep only a few hours a night, there was no reason I should be up now.

The third clue was the bedding itself. The sheets were at least six-hundred thread count cotton sheets. Now, I’ve slept in a number of soft fabrics since coming to Golarion. Hell, my sheets in the Voidstrife mansion are silk and soft as hell. Nonetheless, I’ve never seen cotton bedding of this quality anywhere on Golarion.

Then there was the fourth clue. The sound that woke me didn’t stop. And it was music. Familiar music. IN ENGLISH.

On a long and lonesome highway east of Omaha
You can listen to the engines, moanin' out it's one old song
You can think about the woman, or the girl you knew the night before.

I laid there for a moment trying to figure out what the hell was going on when I heard the door open. “Kyle,” a voice said. “Are you okay? I heard a crash.” That voice was impossible. There was no way I heard who I thought I had.

As I struggled to untangle myself, I heard footsteps and the music stopped. I managed to work my head free of the sheets and saw an impossible sight. “How?” I asked, at a loss for words as I stared at my bedroom – my bedroom back on Earth – and the woman who couldn’t possibly be there.

My older sister laughed. “I’d guess you got startled by the alarm and fell out of bed, silly. You’re such a spaz.” She helped me untangle myself and pulled me to my feet.

I stared at her, dumbstruck, for several moments before throwing my arms around her. “Onee-sama!” I exclaimed pathetically, using the term as I always had ever since I started doing it to irritate her when I was twelve.

She laughed. “Hey, hey! No hugs before you put on pants!” She looked at my face and her expression darkened. “Kyle, you’re crying. What’s wrong?”

I couldn’t speak. I just hugged her for a while, sobbing. She got over the fact that I was just in my boxers and held me until I could compose myself. I pulled away. “I’m okay,” I said.

“What brought that on?” Katie asked.

“Sorry. Had one heck of a nightmare,” I said.

She shrugged. “Must have been. Well, when you’ve calmed down, put on some pants and hurry downstairs. Dad’s making chocolate waffles.” With that, she left.

My stomach rumbled. That wasn’t right. My magic ring should be keeping me nourished. I looked at my right hand. It was gone! I looked over at my computer chair and saw my bag. I looked inside and it was amazingly empty. It was like it wasn’t even enchanted.

“Yet,” I added as my babe-a-day lingerie calendar caught my eye. I stared at it in disbelief. “It’s the Friday before my paintball trip.” I then stared at my mirror. The person staring back was the young man that had existed before I left, tall and barely muscled. Much different that the man who had been training daily with Aurora, the man I should be now.

I looked at the teddy bear on my bookshelf, Percival. On one side of him was a graduate-level astro-physics textbook and three books on motherboard architecture. On the other was my binder of Ponies fan-comics and a half dozen video game artbooks. “So, Pashibaru. Do you have any idea what the hell is going on?” He didn’t answer. He never does.

I pulled on some pants and a t-shirt then headed downstairs. I somehow managed to not choke up upon seeing my parents and all my other siblings. Katie didn’t show any outward sign of concern, but she was watching me the whole time.

After breakfast, I returned to my room and fired up my computer. I opened up my CAD program and began putting together a design for the batteries from the Technic League member’s journal. I didn’t add in any of my magical upgrades, since I was going to have enough trouble explaining how I came up with the battery without overcomplicating it.

I was so focused on what I was doing that I didn’t hear someone come in. “That’s pretty interesting looking,” Katie said over my shoulder. “What is it?”

“It’s a battery,” I said, motioning for her to shut the door. She closed it and sat down on the edge of my bed. I turned my computer chair to look directly at her. Now, what to tell her? I couldn’t exactly explain to her that I had been on an alien planet for the last ten years or so. Next ten years. Err, both? Yeah, it gets a little confusing when time travel becomes involved.

“A little secretive for just a battery.”

“That’s because it’s one hell of a battery. It represents a breakthrough in quantum physics for humanity. At a few inches across, one of these should be able to run a small car for a couple hours at least. If I’m being honest, I don’t exactly know the energy requirements of a car off the top of my head. I’m just making a best guess estimate.”

“Really? Wow. How does it work?”

“It uses quantum phenomena to story energy. Which is the breakthrough, because it’s beyond our previous understanding of physics.”

“And it works?”

“I’ve already built one.”

“Damn, Kyle. You’re going to win a Nobel prize for this!”

I didn’t want to take full credit for this, but at the same time, what the hell was I going to tell her? Oh yeah, I’ve come from the future, where I flew through space on the back of a Lovecraftian monster to another world and got alien tech? Yeah. That wasn’t gonna happen. I like not living in an asylum, thank you.

Maybe if I could show her some magic, maybe then I could tell her, but I wasn’t sure I could. Even assuming magic was possible on Earth, could I still do it? I mean, I knew how, but some of it is a physical thing. What if I tried and hurt myself? No, that would take days of slow building until I could properly be sure I could do it. For now, I would have to assume I couldn’t until I had time to test it.

So, I guess I just had to take credit for it for now. I’d have plenty of time to work on the magic thing. I mean, I finally had what I wanted. I was home. That’s all I’d wanted for over ten years.

So why did I feel so bad?

Argh. Time travel. There were so many questions. Would everything I’d affected change? Would I just disappear suddenly, Aurora waking up alone and never sure where I had gone? Or would she never have met me? And what if I’m the nail?

In case you’re wondering, I’m referencing Poor Richard’s Almanac. “For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.” I don’t think my part is any more important than those of any of my companions, but without me, does Aurora go to Sandpoint? Does Paulie? How about Lenn and Geo? Without the five of us, how many die in the goblin attack? Does Aldern get stopped? What about the things that lie beyond?

I had what I wanted. I was home. But could I really take my happiness at the cost of everyone we’d saved? And what about Aurora? Would she be okay, or would she die of alcoholism? I mean, if I knew she’d be okay, maybe I could. But without knowing? I’m not sure. But even then, I really wanted to.

But your thoughts will soon be wandering the way they always do
When you're riding sixteen hours and there's nothing much to do
You don't feel much like ridin', you just wish the trip was through

Everyone has that little voice in the back of their minds. Some call it their conscience. Others see it as the little angel that sits on their shoulder. For many, it’s the sense of guilt that makes them do what’s right even when they’d benefit by doing otherwise. Most people don’t hear it actually speak, it’s just a feeling in their guts that tells them to do the right thing.

Mine speaks to me. It always has, though it has gotten much louder lately because of trauma I’d gone through on Golarion. Today, however, she was back to the quiet voice in the back of my mind, suggesting that the greater definition she’d gained was due to actual physiological changes.

“It’s up to you,” Fleur whispered. Yes, Fleur is my inner voice. What you perceive as your conscience is more than just the impulse to do good. It’s not just the little angel on your shoulder. Sometimes, it’s also the little devil on the other shoulder. “No one will ever know.”

I wasn’t prepared for that. If she had argued with me, maybe I could have tried to justify it, but at that moment, my entire soul felt laid bare before me. What I chose in this moment would define me for the rest of my life. What I chose now would reveal who I was now and forever, though, as Fleur had said, no one would ever know.

Almost no one. “I’ll know,” I subvocalized. And just like that, in an instant, my choice had been made. I had learned who I was in the dark, where no one else could see. And, surprisingly, I liked what I found. I had always feared that deep down I was a coward, and unworthy of all the blessings I’d had. But maybe not. Given the chance, I could prove myself worthy.

And that meant that I had to go back to Golarion. I had to find Samantha and set this right.

But that didn’t mean I couldn’t take advantage of this opportunity while it was here. “Katie, I’ve been offered a position overseas at a university where I can continue my education while being given free rein to research in a well-stocked laboratory. I didn’t want to tell everyone until I’d made my decision.”

My older sister hugged me. “Kyle! That’s amazing!”

“I need to do some teleconferencing tomorrow morning, but I had also wanted to go to the mall in Tucson to pick up a few things for my paintball trip. Were you planning to do anything then?”

“Not really. I can take the girls and make a morning of it, if you want.”

That would keep my younger sisters out of my hair. “What about Kenneth?”

“He goes by ‘Ken’ now.”

“Oh, really?” Somehow I’d missed that on the last trip. My brothers and I don’t get along, so I rarely chat with either of them. But I knew a girl with a younger sister named Barbara. I’d have to set her and my brother up if I had the chance.

“Yep. Asserting his independence. Anyway, he has practice tomorrow.”

“Ah, yes.” Right. Band nerd. Forgot about that.

“But, in exchange, I want you to come with me to see Father Alejandro tonight. He’s been bugging me to come do a couple music videos for his Youtube channel and I know he’d love to see you too.”

“Fair enough.” Let me explain. Father Alejandro was a good friend of the family, in addition to being a trusted priest at our local church. He had also been in a band before the car crash that killed his band mates and turned him to the services of the Lord. But he still liked to play his guitar, so we often hung out and played music together. Not just me, but a number of folks in the community would get together with the priest and rock out – or not, if you were into a different kind of music. What would you call it if you were getting really into something like country music? Tonking it? I dunno. Random rambling. Moving on. Chaika moment. Shocking truth.

And it wasn’t just music that made him such a cool priest. The man was also into video games. Fact of the matter is that it was he who had gotten me into my World of Warcraft guild. I had been sixteen at the time and looking for someone to raid with. He was the main tank for one of the top guilds on the server and got his guild leader to bend the rules for me and let me in, despite the fact that the guild didn’t allow anyone in who was under the age of eighteen.

In thanks, I got him a good webcam and taught him about music videos on Youtube. He wasn’t sure if he should be making videos since he was a priest, but ended up doing it anyway. He just wore a luchador mask while doing it. It became his gimmick. I don’t remember what his channel was called, but those of us who knew him just called him Padre Lucha Libre. His channel had over ten thousand subs, which isn’t bad for a guy in a luchador mask and a cassock singing rock or video game theme covers and hymns while strumming on a guitar.

It’s more than I had on my channel. Granted, all I ever did was rants on games or whatever. And that one time I spent fifteen minutes discussing required material strengths for certain Gundam scenes. That’s my most popular video, actually, with views in the near hundreds, despite all the calculus involved. Or maybe because of it. It’s not that I wasn’t planning on doing more, I just hadn’t gotten around to it.

Anyway, he’d been bugging several of us to come join him for some collab videos. Katie had always put a ton more time into practicing piano than I ever had the violin, at least before Golarion, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she was the one he bugged the most.

“Good,” Katie said. “I’m holding you to that.” She, like Aurora, was a lot stronger than me. When she said she’d be holding me to it, she meant by the arm twisted behind my back if necessary. “So tell me, how else are things at school? Any lovely young women in your life?”

Lying to Katie is an art. You can fudge information, you can leave out details, but it has to be mostly true or she’ll figure it out. For instance, I was planning on finding a way back to Golarion, so I had told her I would be going overseas. The core truth was the same. I was going away. It was just the scale I had fudged.

So it was with this. I couldn’t completely lie. I could either tell her a truth scaled based on time period, or I could clam up. I would do better preparing if I had her help, so I needed to use a delicate touch here. “I’ve been to a few parties. May have enjoyed the company of a few young women.” I said it nonchalantly.

“Anyone serious?”

Now that was going to be difficult to lie about. So I’d go with the truth. “It’s complicated.”

“Now I’m really curious.”

I shrugged. I could use the advice. “What does it mean when a girl who says she isn’t interested in you sleeps naked with you and cuddles your back?”

“You’re…going to need to explain that one further.”

“You may want to get a beverage. This is gonna take a bit.” I laid out the basicness of my relationship with Aurora, making her sound like a foreign student – Romanian, if you’re wondering – at my school. I explained that I had laid out my feelings for her several times, but that she had let me down easy.

Katie thought about it for a bit. “Well, as I see it, there are a couple possibilities. It could be some kind of foreign thing we don’t get. It could be that she’s interested but afraid of commitment. Or…” she laughed.

That worried me. “Or?”

“Maybe she just likes messing with you.” I hadn’t considered that. Was Aurora trolling me? If she was, two could play that game. Though I guess I’d probably have to eat something to retaliate with a Dutch Oven. “But it does say one thing about how she feels about you.”

“Oh?”

“She trusts you. She’s putting herself in a very vulnerable position and she trusts that you won’t do anything to her without her permission.”

I laughed. “Maybe. Or it could just be the fact that she’s strong enough to break me with her pinkie.”

“Kyle, a stiff breeze could break you as long as it was carrying a long black wig.” Hey, I was little kid when I first saw the Japanese version of The Ring. Shut up.

“She could probably beat you in a fight, with one hand tied behind her back.”

She looked surprised. “Okay, then maybe she doesn’t have anything to worry about from you. But my point stands. I think she trusts you completely. Either that or she wants you to make a move but has some kind of hang up making it hard for her to say anything.”

“Thanks. It’s all clear as mud now.”

“Glad to help.”

She left to go work on her studies and I got back to work on putting my knowledge into schematics. I had a lot to do. I had a great number of designs I could choose from, but only a limited time to do so. So I focused on those things that could most help the world as well as a few things that could make me a lot of damn money while I was gone.

Because I gots to get paid, yo.

(Margin Note: You really didn’t just write that.)
(Margin Note: Don’t be a hater, Fleur.)

That evening, we had Taco Bell for dinner. I ate five Doritos tacos. Considering how long I’ve gone without those and how often I have sex, I can almost literally say that they were better than sex. Almost. Sex is still pretty damn good.

After dinner, Katie and I swung by the church to visit Father Alejandro. We arrived just after the Friday evening Spanish mass. The jovial middle-aged Hispanic man waved us over once the last of the regular Friday parishioners had left. “Hey kids! What brings you to the house of the Lord this fine Friday evening?” He suddenly noticed what I was carrying. “Can it really be? Has the man-in-black finally come to grace us with his musical talent?”

“Dubious as that talent may be,” Katie added.

“Ha. Funny,” I said deadpan. They had no idea what they were in for.

“Let’s go back to the studio,” Father Alejandro interjected mildly.

The “studio” was a small room in the back of the church. As I understand it, it had been a storeroom before the padre had cleaned it out and put up a bunch of those foam sound-dampening squares all over the wall. It wasn’t really what one would call a professional studio, but it was pretty good for some amateur performances.

“So, you two need to warm up?” he asked us.

“I’m good,” I said, drawing a look from Katie. “What? You think I can’t keep up?”

“It’s just that you’ve never been one to practice much. You can play versions of some simple eight bit tunes.”

I turned to the padre. “Fire up the webcam. You have a mask for me?”

“I only have the one spare,” he said. “We’ll need to make one of you one out of a bandanna.”

I picked a long one and cut some holes in it, looking very “Dread Pirate Roberts-y” once I had it on. I then pulled out my violin and handed my sister the sheet music that I’d put in there the day I’d gotten in. “Locatelli’s Caprice in D Major Op. 3 No. 23?”

“Il labirinto armonico.”

“This looks really complicated,” she replied.

“It’s one of the hardest pieces for a soloist in existence,” I said, throwing on my coat – which I had only brought for the look, it was March in Arizona – in a dramatic fashion. “Fire up the webcam and prepare to be amazed.”

“Watch out,” Father Alejandro said. “We’ve got a badass over here.”

For the next few minutes, I played my heart out. The instrument’s sound wasn’t what it could be. I hadn’t used magic to improve it yet. In the future, it would be better than any Stradivarius, but now it was just a fairly good quality instrument. Hell, it was capable of supernatural feats, allowing me to be able to play two different parts at once. Still, notes poured out sweet and joyous and I played flawlessly without any signs of strain.

Out there in the spotlight, you’re a million miles away
Every ounce of energy, you try to give away
And the sweat pours out your body, like the music that you play.

Once I was done, I twirled my bow like some kind of Final Fantasy character doing a victory pose, then went and ended the recording, since the other two were far too stunned to do so.

I considered going and making some tea to give them time to regain their composure, but my sister finally spoke up. “Where the heck did that come from?”

I looked her dead in the eye. “I’m a time traveler. I’ve spent over ten years on an alien planet, during which time I had to become a better violinist in order to earn money for schooling I needed to get home.”

She didn’t know how to respond to that. Fortunately for her, Father Alejandro interjected. “You’ve been practicing to impress a pretty girl, eh?” he asked, clapping me on the shoulder.

I gave him my best fake sheepish grin. “That’s the one.”

“Good boy. Well, then let’s throw out this kiddy level music I had planned and rock out.”

We spent just under two hours recording a number of songs before Katie and I headed home. When we got there, I decided to do things differently than I had before. So what if it changed the past? I wanted to spend time with my family. So I went up to my mother’s study and knocked lightly.

“Come in,” came her voice from within. I opened the door, revealing the woman that looked like a simply older version of Katie. “Kyle? What’s up? I figured you would be in your room playing some game or something.”

I shrugged. “Servers are down.” I didn’t want to worry her. “What are you up to?”

“Just looking through some old scrap books. You can join me if you want.”

Ouch. Scrap books. Oh well, it was the time with Mom I wanted. What we did really didn’t matter. “Sure. But you’ll have to explain to me what any of these pictures are.” I had always managed to get out of looking at these somehow, but I was committed now.

Twenty or thirty minutes – or maybe hours, I dunno, it was really boring – into it, Mom pulled out something she thought I might find more interesting. She flipped it open and looked for a moment. “You were such a cute kid,” she said, handing me my baby book.

I flipped through it. She was right. I was “totes adorbs” as they say in the modern vernacular. After reaching the end, I went back to the beginning, to a page before where she’d started me. I was surprised at what I found. “Mom? What’s this?”

She looked at what I was showing her. Her face blanched. “Oh. That. Well, I guess you’re old enough to know now.” She inhaled to regain her composure. “I’ve been meaning to tell you about it for a long time, but the time never felt right.” She pointed at one part of the ultrasound. “That’s you.” She then pointed at another portion. “That’s your twin sister, Kira.”

“I have a twin sister?!”

“No. Something went horribly wrong about a month before you were scheduled to be born. I’m still not sure on the details. They had to perform an emergency caesarean. You spent the first two and a half weeks of your life in the NICU. Kira died before they could deliver her. There was nothing they could do.”

That certainly explained why my birthdays always seemed a bit more somber than others. They tried their best to hide it, but my parents were grieving the loss of their daughter while also trying to celebrate the birth of their son.

Suddenly, I had one of those weird thoughts that I sometimes get. “Mom? What happened to Kira’s body? Did you bury her?”

“She’s at the cemetery. Your father can take you there tomorrow if you want.”

I was relieved. Last thing I needed was to discover that her body had broken down in utero and been absorbed into mine. Hell, maybe we had been conjoined and half my brain was hers. That would certainly explain Fleur, but God would it be creepy. And that kind of thing does happen. Something like one in eight multiple pregnancies ends with one fewer child than originally expected. Hell, I’ve even heard of a case where a man was found not to be the father of his own child due to having his fraternal twin brother’s testicles.

“I think I’d like that.” Time for a less somber subject. “Okay, so we’re done with that book. Got anything in the ‘great-grandpa kicking Nazi butt in dubya dubya two’ genre?”

Mom laughed. “Actually, I think I might. Your great grandmother was the one who got me into this scrapbooking thing.”

Curse you, Nana! CURSE YOU!

Nana had three – THREE! – books filled with photos and memorabilia of my great grandfather and other world war two memorabilia. For the most part, it was pretty simple stuff. But there was one thing that was pretty shocking.

My mom, who must have noticed that I was staring at a single photograph for an incredibly long time, nudged my shoulder. “What’s wrong?”

I couldn’t look away. How could I? There was a woman in the picture, dressed in a can-can outfit and chatting with my great-grandfather and one of his friends. I knew that woman. I’d seen her many times before, but this time I wasn’t looking in a mirror or seeing a face with my mind’s eye. “Who is this woman?” I asked, pointing at the photograph that just couldn’t be.

“I’m not sure what her name was. Let me check the back of the photograph.” She took the book from me and checked. “Ah, here it is. Her name is Fleur Renaud. She was a dancer. Apparently she and her brother worked for the French Resistance. He saved granddad’s life, but she was the one who got the intelligence.”

“A dancer?”

“Yeah. Says here that she had a stage name. She apparently called herself Fleur de Lis.”

“What.” I must have hit my head. That was it. This was just some weird ass dream. There was no way this was real life.

We continued looking through books for another hour before I excused myself and went back to my computer to do some more research. I didn’t find much on the Renauds, but I did find a few more pictures. Both of them looked incredibly familiar, but I couldn’t place why. It was driving me crazy.

That night I had an extremely vivid dream. I was the woman from the photograph. It almost felt like I was seeing her memories. But that was impossible. Unless what I thought of as a part of me was maybe some kind of ghost dwelling in my body with me. And now she was sharing her memories with me. Maybe?

It wasn’t a great theory, but let’s be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised at this point. My life is weird.

The next morning, Katie and I discussed what I needed from the mall. “Big list for a paintball trip,” she said.

“It’s not all for the trip. I just figured that since you were gonna be there anyway, you could grab me a couple other things.”

“Fair enough. But you’re paying for lunch.”

“Done,” I said with a grin. “I had a couple of stocks go up over twenty five points unexpectedly yesterday.” It was true. I also happened to know that they would drop thirty points on Monday thanks to time travel, so I had sold them off. I made a crap ton of money.

“Really? What you up to?”

“More than two hundred thousand now.”

“What the heck?! Why are you not managing my finances again?”

“Not bad for someone who started with a couple hundred bucks of Christmas and birthday savings.” It had started during my sophomore year in high school. I knew that, starting that summer, I would be expected to get a part time job. I didn’t want that, since it would cut into my reading, gaming and studying time, so I decided to do something about it.

I had been saving a portion of my birthday and Christmas monies for five years, so I had a couple hundred bucks in my credit union account. I took that and spent a weekend devoted to understanding the stock market. I then spent a week researching companies. After that, I created an account on an online trading site using my father’s info and began investing. By May, I had turned my two hundred dollars into an amount of money that gave me an excuse to dust off the old Vegeta meme. What I’m saying was that I had an account worth more than nine thousand dollars. I closed the online brokerage account and put the money into my bank account.

When my parents told me I needed to start looking for a job, I pulled up my account and showed them. They were so impressed that they couldn’t even be mad that I had basically stolen my father’s identity to do it. After that, my part time job was managing their retirement fund. By the time I graduated from high school, I managed to get them nearly a ten-fold increase on their investments – and my own, for that matter – doing only about eight hours of research a week, usually watching anime while I did so. Beat the hell out of pushing carts at the local Walmart like my older brother did.

To be fair, some of that was luck. But it was the kind of luck you make yourself by giving yourself good odds and understanding where risks aren’t as high as they look and rewards are better than they seem. It was like being The House in Vegas. Yeah, it was a gamble, but The House always wins.

I set up a schedule to transfer ten grand into my sister’s account over the course of a week, the ability to do so being a benefit of registering hers as a preferred account with my online bank. “Kyle! What the hell?!” she exclaimed.

“You’ll spend about a grand on the stuff I want. Then, of course, I owe you lunch. You can also buy the girls a few things if you want. I hear that Maggie’s been bugging for a PS4 and Molly always wants jewelry. Keep the rest. It’s only money and I can make more. Even if I’m wrong and somehow can’t just get a ton more from investing, it’s not like I’m dipping into my food budget or retirement fund. Besides, with the money I’m going to make from that new battery, I’ll be a multi-millionaire by the time I’m twenty five, and that’s a conservative estimate.”

“Fair enough. See you this afternoon.”

After the girls went to the mall and Ken left for band practice, I changed into something respectful and went with Dad to the cemetery. He led me to the site of my twin sister’s grave. The tombstone had been meticulously cared for, as though someone had been by to clean it every few weeks since she had died.

“Take your time,” my father said, his strong hand upon my shoulder. “I’ll be waiting by the car when you’re ready.” Then I was alone.

What do you say to the sister you never knew you had? How do you apologize for never coming to see her? I was at a loss for words, so I rambled. I told her everything that had happened – everything that was going to happen. I apologized several times. I lose track of just how many times I said that I was sorry.

Then, making sure there was no one around to be bothered by it, I pulled out my violin and played a couple songs for my long dead twin, my other half that I had never known about but suddenly realized I had been missing my entire life. I’m not even exaggerating. There were times when I was younger that I felt like I had to share something I’d learned with someone, but upon thinking about it, would realize that I didn’t know who it was I wanted to talk to. Perhaps that person had been Kira.

After I finished the third song, my favorite hymn, I stood in silence and said a prayer, asking that Kira be watched over. When I finished, I put away the violin and prepared to leave, but was stopped by a young woman. “I’ve always loved that one,” she said.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize there was anyone else here,” I said. “I hope my playing didn’t bother you.”

“It’s fine,” she said. I got a good look at her. She was wearing a nun’s habit. I didn’t know we had nuns in this town.

“Oh, sorry Sister.” I’m a Catholic boy. There will always be a part of me that’s terrified of nuns.

“I’m sure she’ll be happy you finally came to visit,” she said, indicating the gravestone.

I turned and looked without thinking. “How did you know that…” but when I turned back, she was gone. Yeah, too spooky for me. I rushed to Dad’s car as quick as I could without looking disrespectful.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Dad said to me. I told him about the nun. He laughed. “Nice try. Tell your mom you almost had me there.”

“What are you talking about?”

He looked at me critically. “Your mom didn’t put you up to this?”

I shook my head. “Why would mom have put me up to anything?”

“You really don’t know. Oh, wow. Umm, well, the day you were born, I spoke with a nun while standing outside the NICU trying to deal with what had happened with your sister. She tried to comfort me for a while and disappeared when I turned away to get a coffee from the machine. At my request, they pulled the security tapes and there was never anyone in the room with me, despite how sure I was that I had seen her. And you just described her.”

Wow. “She wasn’t in the footage at all?”

“Well, sort of. There was a figure reflected in the observation window, but you can’t really make her out. But no one was actually in the room, if you believe the footage.”

“Well, there goes all sleep I was going to have tonight.” I had encountered a lot of things on Golarion, but never anything like this on Earth. It spooked me more than I cared to admit. Earth was safe from spooky stuff. Here, everything was all in my head, right?

Says the man who left Earth on the back of a Lovecraftian horror and flew through space without a space suit. The Nile isn’t just a river in Egypt, apparently.

When we got home, I made the mistake of looking up the video. It was actually on the net. It was spooky. I also got to see baby me being amused by his own reflection in a rare moment of not sleeping. Good to see some things never change.

I got back to work, preparing things for while I was gone and studying information I could use when I returned to Golarion. On the latter front, I gathered schematics and read up on a number of engineering principles I needed a refresher on. It was pretty straightforward.

On the former, I set up timed releases going up for twelve years. It wasn’t too difficult. What was difficult was having them come from different sources so they would be more difficult to track down. I didn’t want anyone get ahold of the tech before the previous steps were in place, since it would make more money to do it this way.

Satisfied that I had done everything I could, I leaned back and stretched. “And for my next trick, decoding the Voynich Manuscript.” Huh. “Well, let’s take a look at it.” I went ahead and loaded it up.

The damn thing was in Draconic. That left me with a whole new set of questions. First of all, it proved that there were dragons on Earth at some point. But that made me wonder why they had the same language as the dragons of Golarion. Was that the language that their gods created them with?

I wrote up my translation and sent it out anonymously – well, I signed them with a pseudonym – to a number of universities. Then, for the heck of it, I loaded up some other ancient untranslatable texts. Many of them seemed to be gibberish, but a few – particularly ones said to be in Enochian – were in the language of the celestial realms. Those translations I sent out anonymously to some religious scholars, as the texts concerned such things.

Then I began to wonder about the “gibberish”. What if it was just another language I didn’t recognize? It was too bad Aurora wasn’t there. I’m sure her magical angel language powers would make quick work of it if it really was a language.

If anyone figured out I was behind all these seemingly dissimilar events, my disappearance was going to become LEGENDARY. There might be a whole fleet of documentaries about me. Then I could come back like a rock star.

Focus, Kyle. You have to get back home first. Let’s not get ahead of myself here.

I still had time before my sisters would get home, so I ran by the hardware store. Rather than listing what I bought, let me ask you something. Are you aware that you can build a forge from things you can get from your local hardware store? Well, you can, so I did. It was very easy to set up, too. I mean, it wasn’t built to last, but it would get the job done.

After that, I spent time under a canopy in my parents’ back yard, listening to heavy metal while working some heavy metals on the forge. In the end, what I crafted wasn’t my most elegant work, but it didn’t need to be pretty. It just needed to be functional. It was too bad that I didn’t have more time, though. I could have made some jewelry for my mom before I left.

When my sisters got home, Maggie rushed upstairs and flung open my door. I shook my head. Twelve years old and still no sense of privacy. “Oh my god! Best big brother ever!” she shouted, throwing her arms around my neck. “I can’t believe you got me a Playstation!”

I laughed. “What games did you get?”

“I got five games! And a year of Plus!”

“Killzone? Extra controller?” I asked. She nodded. “Well, go get it set up then. I’ll be down in ten minutes to school you so hard that you’ll forget that it’s Spring Break.” She laughed the whole way down the stairs. Truth is that she’s better than me at most shooters.

I closed the website I had been browsing – research on defensive architecture, if you’re curious – and headed downstairs. Molly showed me the new phone Katie had used my money to buy for her. I was impressed that she didn’t blow it on fancy jewelry. Then we all spent the rest of the evening hanging out and gaming. We even busted out our instruments for an impromptu jam session, culminating in me performing for them a song I had written about Aurora though I’ve never sung it for her, “The Knight and the Maiden Fair”, sung completely in Taldan. They couldn’t understand the words and thus were unaware of anything but the title, but not a dry eye remained in the room by the time I had finished.

Actually, it’s probably better that they didn’t understand the words. I’m confident in the music itself, but I’m no poet. That is why I won’t share the lyrics here. But, if you’re interested, the song is a ballad. It starts telling the story of a young maiden, alone in the world. Then it transitions to the story of a gallant knight. Several verses weave the stories of the Knight and the Maiden together and it seems inevitable that the two will meet and fall in love. But at the end, the narrator reveals that the knight and the maiden are the same person and that the person the knight has spent the song saving is the narrator himself, who has fallen deeply in love with her. Basically, it’s a true story, is what I’m saying.

Before bed, Katie gave me the MP3 player I had asked her to get. “I’ve already put a bit of music on there for you.”

“Sweet.” My sister and I don’t always have the same taste in music, but I had the space to spare, so no worries. “Thanks.”

The next morning, I spent more time with my family before they took me into Tucson so I could fly back to Denver. During the afternoon, I recorded a few songs for my family, embedded them into vlogs and set them up to be sent every year on my birthday.

I had dinner with a couple buddies and then headed back home to finish packing. I did everything like before, except this time I put the new MP3 player in the radiation shielded case I had forged and carefully sewed it into a hidden spot in my bag. It would not be perfectly shielded, but my other player survived the trip, so I figured it would be good enough.

With time left on my hands and nothing to do, I browsed the internet. “Breaking into the Pathfinder Society Library,” I typed on a whim. I was not prepared for what I found.

“168,000 results,” read the display before me. And they looked relevant. The hell?


This section got a little long(17 pages 10 point, if you're wondering), breaking into two parts. Commentary on second part.


Turin the Mad wrote:
What's Bloodborne?

PS4 game by the makers of the Souls series. A game where intense difficulty isn't a flaw, but a main selling point. Uploaded a bunch of boss kill vids during my first playthrough a while back, if you're interested.

A lot of games I play, I do themed runs based on characters from this campaign. Actually just finished a Kyle run in Skyrim(using mods to insert guns and some more interesting spells). My Bloodborne Kyle run is going to be a gun focused build that also uses some of the game's limited magic. To be honest, though, I mostly just saw a coat that screamed to me "This looks kinda like Kyle's!" and ran with it. Since I don't have any particular artistic skill, I figured this would be my best chance at showing off at least a close approximation of what Kyle looks like in my head.

At some point, I have plans to do a Fallout NV Lenn run, Fallout 4 Kyle and Aurora runs and probably some kind of Dragon Age trilogy run using a combination of multiple characters.


Spent a little time trying to recreate Kyle and Aurora in Bloodborne. No luck on Aurora, every attempt somehow ended up looking like a psychotic schoolmarm, still not sure how.

But I managed to pull off something close for Kyle. I'd imagine the clothing choices in game helped.
http://wow.allakhazam.com/Im/image/267653
http://wow.allakhazam.com/Im/image/267652


So, here's one. After saving a certain town from a major attack(Chapter 4), the town has a barbecue in honor of the party. Two things of note happen during the party.

1)The only Irishman on the entire planet ends up getting into a drunken fistfight because "apparently I'm a walking stereotype".

2)The entire town consumes dragon flesh, except for one member of the party. Later, they discover that the everyone in town is now fire resistant, except for said party member. This is discovered when, testing whether a flame was actually burning cold because it hasn't hurt anyone else when they touched it, said party member confidently thrusts his hand directly into the flame.


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The Attack on Sandpoint Part 2: Aftermath

Spoiler:
I tapped my microphone. “Shelter leaders. Threat appears to have passed. Give us ten minutes to sweep the town to confirm. Meanwhile, I need everyone to do a headcount and make sure everyone assigned to you is present and accounted for.”

Duty done, I was able to let the victory wash over me. I danced a jig, right there on the roof. Several of the people on the street hooted and hollered, others joined in. I hopped down and started grabbing hands and dancing with several of the women in celebration.

“We did it!” Ameiko laughed.

“We’ve done the impossible, and that makes us mighty!” I shouted. Cheers erupted around us. “Alright, everyone, work isn’t done. Begin sweeps in groups of three as planned. Geo, give me a sec and I’ll get you a listing of all unsprung traps. I may have missed a few going off, so there’ll be a few extra, but it’ll be a good place to start. Sheriff Hemlock, after that, I need to speak with you for a moment.”

I got Geo the list and he got to work disarming traps. Then I pulled the Sheriff aside. “Is this about the Vinder girls?” he asked.

Oh, right. I needed to figure out what to do with them. “Indeed,” I said, loud enough for anyone listening to hear. “Let’s talk more privately.” He agreed and we found a place with a little privacy to talk. “Actually, this has nothing to do with them,” I whispered. “We need to do something about them, but this might interest you a bit more.” I handed him the note I’d snagged from Scarnetti’s damaged desk.

He read the note, his face contorting in a mixture of anger and vindication. “I knew it!” he said.

“We have to handle this correctly. After the sweep, once we call for the people to come out, we’ll have everyone assemble in the plaza in front of the cathedral. You have your guards arrest Jubrayl Vhiski. I’ll take Titus Scarnetti into custody. Then we’ll escort them and Jubrayl’s top men to Magnimar for justice. Until then, play this close to the vest.”

He nodded. “So, what do we do with the Vinder girls?”

I sighed. “We need to find out what the hell they were thinking. Then we’ll decide.”

“Sounds good.”

My earpiece crackled. “Kyle,” Aurora said.

“Go ahead.”

“One of the giants is still alive, but unconscious. Should we finish it off?”

“No. I need the closest group to the dragon’s corpse to go collect the cables Paulie used to bring down the dragon and take them to Aurora.”

“We’re on it!” Ameiko answered.

“Aurora, bind the giant when she gets to you. Post a pair of guards with a radio on him. Tell me when he wakes up.”

All in all, the town survived the onslaught with minimal damage. Geo managed to pull up and disable the traps fairly quickly and with little incident. The caltrops in the river would have to be removed by someone with a boat. I whipped up a fairly large magnet to make it easy.

Once we were certain the town was secured, we let everyone out of the shelters and gathered up the leaders and anyone who wanted to learn more at the square. We organized teams to clean up the corpses and repair damage, with a focus on the gate.

Jubrayl Vhiski and his Sczarni friends hadn’t come to the square, so I signaled Sheriff Hemlock to go get them, having Lenn go with them to prevent anyone from trying anything. Then I called up the four nobles who had served the town so I could recognize their efforts. As I shook Mayor Deverin’s hand, I slipped her the note and told her to read it while I addressed the others.

Titus Scarnetti was the last one. As I shook his hand, I looked over my shoulder. “Mayor, with your permission, may I act on what I’ve given you?”

Her face was livid. “Do it.”

“Titus Scarnetti, for conspiracy to commit arson, I hereby place you under arrest. You and your accomplices will be taken to Magnimar to face justice. Any attempt to resist will be met with swift and immediate force, including deadly force if you make it necessary.”

“What is the meaning of this?!”

“You and that bastard Vhiski burned down your competitors’ mills!” the mayor accused. “It’s all here, in your handwriting!”

“Lies and slander! Where did you get that?”

I shrugged. “Some giants were looting your house. I stopped them, of course, but not before they threw some of your stuff on your lawn. I noticed that your big, fancy desk, which was upside down, had a secret drawer, which had broken open as the giants tossed it. I didn’t want that letter getting wet and ruined, so I picked it up. I glanced at it, and since I read really quickly, I absorbed it and realized what you had done.”

“You’ll pay for this!” He swung at me. Aurora brought him down with a swift kick to the back of his knee. She pulled his arm behind his back and kneeled on the small of his back. He groaned in pain.

“I did warn you,” I said as Aurora bound his hands.

The town watch returned a few minutes later with several Sczarni gang members, including Jubrayl Vhiski, in tow. “I can fit seven of them in our wagon,” Sheriff Hemlock said.

“We can take three of yours and Scarnetti,” I said. He looked at me in confusion. “We’re teleporting over to take care of this now.” I planned to take Aurora, Hemlock and Orik, so we only had the room in the hole.

“Even better. Should we have the Vinder girls cool their heels until we get back?”

“Right. Them.” I guess it would be better to deal with them now rather than later. “No, let’s go talk to them. Orik, can you and Lenn help the watch keep an eye on these guys for a few minutes?”

“Got it.”

Aurora, Hemlock and I went to Venn Vinder’s store, where the girls would be waiting with a couple members of the town guard. Mayor Deverin decided to come with us to witness the conversation. Venn was waiting with his daughters when we arrived, so I knew this would prove interesting. Katrine looked embarrassed and ashamed. Shayliss was hiding her mental state pretty well.

“Alright. Let’s start with you,” I said, pointing at Katrine. “What were you thinking? Why were you on that beach?”

“You came to me and told me to meet you there!”

“What.” I rubbed my temple. I could feel a headache coming on. But I’d promised myself I’d be nicer to her. “Okay. When did I come tell you to do this?”

“Right before you spread the alarm to send everyone to the shelters. You told me you wanted me to be somewhere safer than the shelters, so you were going to take me somewhere safer.”

I sighed. “I’m sorry, but I never came to visit you. I was in the air at that time.” At least this time I’d have witnesses. But it troubled me. She didn’t seem like she was lying. She actually believed what she said. “Let’s come back to that. You,” I turned to Shayliss. “Why did you tell Lenn to abandon his post?”

“I was trying to help you,” she said. It was true, to a point. There was more to it, but I wasn’t sure how to continue that line of questioning. More importantly, why did Katrine believe that I had told her to do it? There had to be something I was missing.

“Hey,” Fleur said. “Access your memory of talking to Lyrie.”

I closed my eyes for a moment and focused. On her belt. What was that hanging there? “Oh god,” I gasped. “No. Nononono.”

“What is it, Kyle?” Aurora asked, putting her hand on my shoulder.

“Lyrie has a Stalker’s Mask!” Aurora’s eyes widened in surprise.

“A what?” Mayor Deverin asked.

I was nearly hyperventilating at this point, so Aurora answered. “A magic item that lets you masquerade as someone else. Aldern Foxglove, the Skinsaw Man, had one and used it to impersonate Kyle during some of his killings.”

The mayor was a smart cookie. She looked at Katrine and back to Aurora. “Would that let her impregnate someone?”

“I’m not sure. Kyle?”

I focused on the technical problem, trying to come back down to a level where I could function. “Not on its own. It’s just an illusion. She would need something like my hat to bridge the gap by turning herself into a male humanoid before using the mask.”

Katrine blanched at the realization that she’d been seduced and tricked by someone into thinking she had been with me. Shayliss had no reaction. Was she lying about having slept with me after all? Venn, on the other hand, just looked confused.

“So you’re saying that a woman tricked my baby girl and got her pregnant? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work that way.”

“It does when the other woman is a sadistic wizard.” I gave Aurora a look that said “I told you we should have killed her when we had the chance.”

“So what’s going to happen to my baby girl?”

“Your daughter and her child should be fine, but they’re going to need your support.” I turned back to Katrine. “I’m sorry. She probably used you to get back at me. I won’t take responsibility for what I didn’t do, but I do feel like I should help out. I’m sorry to say that I’m not interested in you like you want, but I’ll see what I can do.” If nothing else, I’d find a way to set up a proper education for her child. It was the least I could do.

She sniffed and nodded. “Do you plan to bring this woman to justice?” Venn asked, his eyes wild.

“No,” I said. “Justice for this would be to make her pay to support the child she fathered. I’m pretty sure she planned it.”

“No? Why not?”

“Because I’m going to kill her,” I said. “Though I might sell some of her magic equipment and give you the money to help take care of the baby.”

Venn actually smiled. “I’m going to hold you to that.” He held out his hand. I took it and we shook hands in agreement.

The mayor agreed to spread the word of what had happened, so we went back and tossed the prisoners in the portable hole and teleported off to Magnimar.

(Margin Note: Hey, when did we get that Portable Hole, anyway?)
(Margin Note: We picked it up weeks ago, Fleur. We’ve had it the whole time.)
(Margin Note: Well, I guess we had to have it, otherwise we never would have been able to teleport everyone a few days ago.)
(Margin Note: Yep. THE WHOLE TIME.)
(Margin Note: Just like mini-moose.)

We took the criminals to a judge that Hemlock trusted. They were shocked at the arrest of the nobleman, but were willing to accept our word and the letter as proof. We were promised that they would be punished for their actions.

Orik then went off to go speak with his leadership, telling us that if we had to leave early, he’d catch up with us in Sandpoint within the next day or so. The rest of us headed to go visit the Lord Mayor and give a report of both the attack on Sandpoint and the situation at the fort.

Lord-Mayor Haldmeer Grobaras was rotund as usual, but he made immediate time to meet with us, so I won’t talk too much about how sweaty and out of breath he was. “I received your missive, but tell me what has transpired.”

We filled him in on the details. “A dragon and nearly a dozen giants, yet no one died in Sandpoint?”

“We had one rather close call,” I said. “But things worked out. That said, there’s a danger I need to warn you about.” We filled him in on what had happened with Lyrie. “So, if I come to you at any point in the future, have your guards immediately disarm and bind my hands. I don’t know that she has any plans to attack you, but it’s better that we take precautions and not need them than need them and not take them.”

“Prudence does seem warranted,” he agreed readily. It was his own ass on the line, after all.

“We’re planning to take the fight to the giants, just as soon as we figure out where they are,” Aurora said. “We’ll probably need some help.”

“It does not seem prudent to send out the city’s forces with so many giant patrols wandering about. Especially since you don’t yet know where they are.”

“One way or another, we’ll find out by tomorrow,” I said. “We have a prisoner and I’ll use magic to get it out of him if I have to.”

“Of course, but I still would rather not commit any additional forces. It would leave the city vulnerable.”

He had a point. “What about the Potent Rainbow Lions?”

He considered it. “I’ll urge the council to free up funds to hire at least a few squads for you. Where shall we send them?” A few squads? Well, it was better than nothing, but it was still a token force. We would have to introduce more tech if we wanted to take on the giants.

“Sandpoint,” I said. “We’ll wait there a few days while we prepare ourselves for combat.”

“Sandpoint it is, then. Godspeed, heroes.”

Aurora, Hemlock and I left the Lord-Mayor’s residence. There were a few things I wanted to take care of in Magnimar before we returned, so we decided to head towards the Voidstrife factor’s office. I swear, it was for legitimate business reasons and had nothing to do with wanting to avoid helping clean up all those giant corpses.

We made our way through the Alabaster District and headed towards the Silver Shore – clear across town. Along the way, we stopped at a magic shop and I grabbed Aurora a ring like my own. It would be almost a week before she no longer had to sleep a full night, but now she had it. I also loved giving Aurora a ring, even if it was mostly from her own funds that I happened to carry for her.

In the Dockway District, we found a large crowd gathering along the main thoroughfare. I didn’t want to take the effort to take another street, so we just tried to make our way around the edge of the crowd, which we realized was gathered around one of those “end is near” doomsayers. Being a town filled with cults – mostly worshipping celestial beings – it wasn’t uncommon.

He was covered in tattered sackcloth robes and was talking about some monster coming to destroy the city. He had seen it in a vision. And he wanted to tell everyone about it. The basic gist was that some kind of serpent would awaken a mighty queen, which would devour the city. You know, basic doomsday stuff.

It probably would have been little more than a minor anecdote, but he spotted me and called out to me. “You! The man in the black! I must speak with you!”

I sighed. “What?”

“You are the only one who can stop the beast and save us!”

I humored him. “And how, precisely, am I supposed to do that?”

“You know of the great being known as the Defender of the Universe! Only he can possibly hope to defeat the vile queen.”

“I’ll, uh, keep that in mind,” I said.

“Good! Remember, the Defender is the only one who can pierce her thick scales. The greatest weapons man can make will not do as much.”

“Okay, that’s fine. Now, I’m gonna go ahead and just go somewhere a little less crazy, mmkay?” There was no way he meant what I thought he meant. But you know what? I’ve seen weirder things. And if he was right, then I would need to prepare. And if he was wrong, then it wouldn’t be a total loss either, if I played my cards right.

We passed a number of stalls selling various wares as we continued past the docks. One of them caught my eye. The owner was selling various minerals and gems. I browsed the wares, quickly finding what I was looking for. I got several of the items extremely cheap, since the people of Golarion hadn’t yet learned what value they had.

We met with my factor, who had made it back to Magnimar safely. “Milord, I am pleased to report that you were correct about the ambush. It seems that the Potent Rainbow Lions sent several squads as requested and managed to surprise the ambush, killing half a dozen giants in the process. Others managed to escape, and the Lions pursued until it was clear that they had been eluded.”

“Do they pose any further danger to the people in the area?” Aurora asked.

“Yes, unfortunately. But the city has sent some of its own troops to patrol the surrounding areas. It is hoped that this will be enough to keep them at bay.”

“It should work for now,” I said. “So, tell me, what does the mineral market look like at the moment?”

“Some are cheaper than usual, others more expensive. If you tell me what you need, I can be more specific.”

I pulled out the minerals I’d purchased. “I need these, and some others. In large quantities. Can it be done?”

“How large are we talking?”

“A warehouse completely filled with the materials.”

His eyes grew wide. “We can do that, milord, but it would cut into profits greatly. May I ask what you need them for?”

“Hedging my bets. If we actually need them, then they’ll be instrumental in saving the city. If not, I can teach you how to turn them into something that will make a great profit.”

He smiled almost reflexively at the word “profit”. He considered for a moment. “Of course, milord. I will see to it. Though I am curious as to what value this in particular has.” He held up the piece of bauxite I’d collected.

“That is perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle. Trapped within is a metal my people call aluminum. It is complex to extract, but if you know how, not so difficult. I can make an alloy with it and several other metals that will be as strong and as light as mithral, but cheaper by far. Of course, it requires some mithral in the mix, so we can’t bypass it altogether, but it will be necessary for something I may need to build.”

It was an alloy described in the technology guide. It was described as being used in shuttle or fighter hulls. There was enough information that I was pretty sure I could replicate it, but they never named it. Of course, that meant I was free – no, OBLIGATED! – to name it myself. I considered calling it Tritanium, Trinium or something else from sci-fi, but opted to go with Mithracite, since I’d already started calling the material I’d made of magic Magicite.

“Of course. If you give me a list of the ratios you need of these, I will fill a warehouse with what you need.”

“Excellent. There is one other task I need completed.” I pulled out a round of OCP-L. “I need you to make me roughly one hundred thousand of these.”

He gave me a dubious look. “What for?”

“If we can’t deal with the stone giant threat the way we’re planning, I’m going to have to convince the city to buy a lot of guns. Those guns will need ammunition. They need to be exact. Don’t deviate on size or shape. And they need to be made of steel or iron.”

“And what if you do manage to deal with the threat?”

“Then I’ll just have to figure out another buyer. I’ll come up with something.”

“Of course. Anything else I can assist with?”

“We’re gonna need a couple wagons and horses to pull them. Get in touch with the Potent Rainbow Lions and send them with the units they send to Sandpoint. Also, I need another horse to ride. My last one got blown up.” I sighed. Requiescat in pace, Fluttershy.

“As you wish, milord. I won’t claim to understand any of that, but I’m sure it’ll make money somehow.”

We stopped at “O’Halloran’s”, a tavern run by the Voidstrife cartel and serving traditional Irish dishes from recipes – as well as several bastardized American versions – I’d provided several years back. There was an “O’Halloran’s” in four major cities, including Magnimar and Absalom, with plans to open in several other cities. I didn’t need to eat, but Aurora and Hemlock did. I had a shot of whiskey and a cup of tea, while Hemlock had a bowl of coddle and Aurora ate the most expensive thing on the menu, a bacon cheeseburger, served medium rare.

Look. No one on Golarion needs to know that a cheeseburger isn’t traditional Irish food. I won’t tell if you won’t. And hey, I resisted the urge to put tacos on the menu. Give me some credit here.

We returned to Sandpoint to find that cleanup was going well. Most of the giant corpses had been piled and burned and all the traps had been disassembled, aside from the caltrops in the river. Not to say that problems didn’t remain.

“You cannot repair those!” Paulie shouted as he stood out in front of the town hall. “They are monuments to my glory!”

“I have an order to patch the holes,” a tradesman was saying.

“What’s going on here?” I asked, against my better judgment.

“The mayor has ordered me to repair this damage, but this man won’t let me.”

“It’s a monument to my glorious deeds!” Paulie exclaimed.

“What is?”

“These holes where I anchored the cable that helped bring down the dragon.”

“The holes are a monument to your glory?”

“Yes.”

“So, they’re… glory holes?” Fleur lost her mind with laughter. I managed to keep a straight face.

“YES! EXACTLY! You cannot fill in my glory holes!”

I could feel the corner of my mouth twitching. “Look, I agree with you. But in ten years, most people will forget what they mean. What if I instead use some magic to make a statue or something?”

He considered it. “That would be an acceptable compromise.” He clapped the craftsman on the shoulder. “Okay, my good man. You may proceed with your work. I will protest no longer, though it pains me to see you fill my glory holes.”

I managed to make it just out of sight before I collapsed to the floor, convulsing with laughter.

A bit later, someone came to let me know that the giant prisoner had finally woken up, so Aurora and I headed over to the large, walled pen where we were keeping the giant. The pen was usually used for farmers bringing in livestock to sell, but it had been repurposed for this.

I tried befriending it, that didn’t work. So I tried the whole “Punisher torch thingy” since it had worked for me before. The giant was too stupid to understand the concepts, so it failed too. I thought I was going to have to take a day and prepare magic to get the information out of him after I’d slept, but Paulie came and found me. Apparently, on hearing that I was having trouble with the prisoner, his personality had flipped again.

“I can get the information you want,” he said, his voice once more sounding like he’d been gargling rocks. He was hanging upside down from the eave above me. “Just give me fifteen minutes with the prisoner.”

“You won’t kill him, will you?”

“I will be careful.”

I don’t like actual torture, but lives were at stake. And while I don’t believe that it gets results, it wouldn’t hurt my chances of getting the info with magic. “Okay, sure.”

One of the town guards said that he needed to oversee the interrogation, which was fine. He’d done the same for my attempts, so it wasn’t a big deal. Right before going in, Paulie stopped. "I need to borrow your little knife.”

I pulled out my small folding knife. “This one?”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I need.” I really didn’t want to know.

For about twelve minutes, there wasn’t a sound from the other side of the wall. Nothing. It was really eerie. Then suddenly, the giant began screaming. “Make it stop! I can’t take it anymore! Please, I’ll tell you anything! Just make him stop!”

Paulie opened the pen door. “He’s all yours.” He handed me back my knife and looked back at the giant. “Don’t make me come back here.” The giant whimpered.

Aurora and I exchanged a concerned look and went in. “Okay, so now that we have that established, it’s time to ask you a few questions. Let’s start with the basics. Tell me what you can about Mokmurian.”

“He is our lord. He will grant us great riches. When his armies march down from the Storval Plateau, he will take everything from you.”

“I see. And how does he command your loyalty? Is he the largest, most powerful giant?” I wanted to know if it was possible we were dealing with an idiotic meathead.

“He is a child of the stones, but he commands the magic of the Ancient Lords. He can turn flesh to immobile stone and his skin to armor like granite. And I’ve even heard that he can cause the very stones of the earth to quicken and pull those who stand atop them into a tomb below the earth. And that is just the barest tip of his power. You have no chances against him.”

“You mentioned Ancient Lords. What can you tell me about them?”

“They are gone now, but our elders tell us that they once ruled this land. They enslaved our ancestors and forced them to build the monuments that grace the land even today. Some of us believe that he is an ancient lord risen from the grave to rebuild his empire.”

That sounded a lot like the Runelords. But, as far as I knew, none of them were giants. “Tell me more about your forces. How many does Mokmurian command? And when does he plan to attack?”

“Seven tribes, numbering in the dozens each, follow the great Mokmurian. He also enjoys the support of conscripts from among the lesser races. Ogres, hill giants, ettins, trolls and even a few lamias recognize his strength. He will lead them down to reap your puny race like wheat soon, maybe by the end of the month. Already his scouts map your lands.”

That was a lot of giants. I made some quick calculations and realized I would need to make some much bigger weapons to make this assault viable. “Okay, then, if I want to show him how weak the powers of the ancient lords really are, where would I find him?”

“Ha! I would love to watch your death when you try. If that’s where you wish to go, then find Mokmurian in Jorgenfist, his stronghold in the Valley of the Black Tower in the Iron Peaks, east of the Storval Stairs. He dwells deep below Jorgenfist, in hidden places only he is allowed to go.”

That was almost everything. “What was your mission here? Why did you attack Sandpoint?”

“We were to take those filled with greed as prisoners, as well as what wealth we could gather. Lord Teraktinus was also here on a special mission to take a stone from the building you call Old Light. He didn’t say why, but our people have the ability to coax secrets from stones. Perhaps the stones there knew something Lord Mokmurian needed.”

I couldn’t think of anything further. “Thank you for your time.” We all went outside.

“What do we do with him now?” the guard asked.

“Confirm with Sheriff Hemlock, but I believe he is guilty of attempted murder. Just do me a favor and if you execute him, try to make it quick and relatively painless.”

“Of course, milord.”

“Also, I have to ask. What exactly did Paulie do?”

The man suddenly went full thousand yard stare, like a homeless veteran suddenly recalling ‘Nam. “He just sat there, staring at the giant. For what seemed like forever, he just stared, not breaking eye contact.”

What? “Then, what was the knife for?”

“He pulled out a hunk of cheese and kept cutting slices off and eating them.” That didn’t sound bad, but the way the man said it made me decide not to press it.

Later that afternoon, we joined Paulie and several regular patrons of the Hagfish in mourning the two casualties of the battle, Fluttershy and the hagfish, Norah. It was a tasteful, if slightly drunken, ceremony.

That evening, the town threw one hell of a party. Even done at the last minute, it rivaled the festival we attended when we had first arrived. Part of me spent much of the night waiting for goblins to show up. They served dragon four different ways, which was a pity. I kept having to turn down meals because I refuse to eat anything that intelligent.

“I have one rule when it comes to eating meat,” I told Ameiko. “I never eat any species capable of calculus. Doesn’t matter that they haven’t discovered it, but dragons are certainly capable. So I don’t eat them.”

“I guess that’s fair,” she said after I’d explained calculus to her. “What about drinks? Can I interest you in some kind of beverage?”

“Well,” I said, thinking about it. Then it hit and I sang my answer, once more relying on my mental collection of other people’s songs as a shortcut. “‘When we raise our flagon to another dead dragon, there’s just one drink we need.’”

“And what’s that?”

“Nord MEAD!”

She and Aurora laughed at my lighthearted singing. “Mead I have. I think there are two or three kegs in the cellar.”

“I’ll buy every one of them. Tap those things and let’s all get drinking!” A number of the townsfolk cheered.

We partied for hours, with most of the town joining in. A local bard did some great performances until he was too drunk to sing, so we all took over and sang a number of drinking songs. I knew a few songs that fit the bill.

There was also dancing. Through the night, I took a turn on the dance floor with a great number of women, including the town’s mayor, who was pretty spry for a middle aged woman. I even danced with Katrine Vinder, who had timidly asked. I think she still felt embarrassed and a bit ashamed over what had happened to her. I couldn’t think of any reason not to, so I went ahead and we danced to a faster number that Ameiko herself performed. Strangely, Shayliss didn’t make an appearance at the party. Probably off sulking, I told myself.

There was talking. Ameiko and Mayor Deverin told us that they had commissioned new windows for the repaired town hall, which had been damaged by the dragon’s impact. The glassworks would be working with an artist from Magnimar to make a bunch of windows depicting the morning’s battle. That was pretty cool, but I asked that they make sure to emphasize that the real victory was that no one died, aside from a horse, a fish and a bunch of giants.

And of course, the only Irishman at the whole party managed to get into a drunken fistfight. It wasn’t my idea, and I wasn’t exactly drunk. I don’t like being drunk. In a world where everything is trying to kill you, it’s probably a bad idea to voluntarily take leave of your senses. And a wizard should never get so drunk that they slur their words. Never know when you’ll need a good incantation.

I didn’t know the guy’s name, but I recognized him as a Shayliss supporter from the other day’s brawl. He couldn’t have been a day over nineteen. He stood on a table and denounced me in front of everyone, demanding to know why the people of town had “forgiven my misdeeds”.

He then hopped down and declared his intentions to “settle me personally”. I tried to talk him out of it, and Sheriff Hemlock tried to intervene, but I eventually came to the realization that this wouldn’t end until he’d hit me.

So I offered him the chance. I flung my arms wide open. “Okay, go ahead, give me your best hit. Then, once it’s out of your system, let me buy you a drink and let’s talk this out.” He swung once, then again, and again once more. Aurora moved to take him down, but I waved her off. “Okay, I guess if that’s what you want.” I tapped my magical cuffs, turning my long coat into a light vest that wouldn’t get in the way of a fistfight.

Now, I’m not a fighter, not truly. Any one of the people I travel with could lay me out pretty easily. But this was just a drunk idiot farmer or something. And I’d been practicing a bit with Aurora. Add in my height – and thus, reach – and the fact that I’ve stared down death a number of times, and you’ll find that this callow youth was out of his league.

I had knocked him out after three decent punches. Hemlock had a couple of his people throw him in a cell to sleep off his drunkenness and the party resumed.
Ameiko came over to check my injuries. She didn’t like what she saw, so she cast a few healing spells on me. I had forgotten that she was a bard. I guess they’re not all bad.

“Come on,” she said, satisfied that I had healed. “Let’s go have another drink.”

She handed me the mug closest to where I had been sitting earlier. I looked at it quickly. “This isn’t mine,” I said.

“Oh?”

“I made a mark on bottom of the handle.”

She handed me the other mug and took hers back. We each took a long drink, then she set her mug down and walked dangerously close to me, then pressing herself against me. “You know,” she said, running a finger down my chest seductively. “You’ve danced with all the other girls, but you haven’t invited me out to take a turn on the dance floor.”

Fleur just stood with her mouth agape for a moment. “MUSIC!” she shouted, though no one else could hear her. “SOMEONE PLAY SOME MUSIC!”

And music there was. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to dance with someone who both had formal dance training and the youth to make the most of it. “Someone play the Csárdás!” I shouted for the hell of it. No one would know what I was talking about, but someone did start up something with a nice tempo and we wowed onlookers.

After the end of the song, we ended with Ameiko dipped backwards and thunderous applause. I pulled her up and she whispered in my ear. “I’m going to leave the party now. Come up to my room in fifteen minutes.” Her voice was dripping with the kind of raw, animal sexuality that you just can’t ignore.

Thanks to the whole thing with the Vinder sisters, I had decided that it wasn’t worth it to sleep with anyone in this town anymore, but this wasn’t just anyone. This was Ameiko Kaijutsu. I had been trying to get in her pants since we’d first come to town, and I wasn’t going to miss the chance now.

They say that you can tell a lot about how good someone will be in bed by how well they dance. Ameiko had been perhaps my best ever dance partner, and while I will not confirm nor deny just how good the night was, I will say that the old wisdom has some basis in fact.

I ended up sleeping in the next morning, waking somewhere around seven or eight in the morning when Ameiko woke with a groan. “Morning, sunshine,” I said to her.

She looked at me and blinked a few times. “Kyle? What happened?”

That startled me. “You don’t remember?”

“My head hurts too much to remember. How much did I drink last night?”

I started to panic a little. Had she been too drunk? She only seemed a bit tipsy, no worse off than me. My mind quickly raced through the images of her drinking. I didn’t think she could have had more than three or four drinks over the course of the whole night.

“I didn’t think you had that much. Are you one of those really functional drunks?”

“No more than usual. I need a moment.” She sat on the edge of the bed and held her head in her hands and concentrated. “It’s starting to come back to me, bits and pieces.”

I wanted to scream. I never would have slept with her if I’d realized how far gone she was. “Do you need some Alchemist’s Kindness?” I was referring to a popular concoction for hangovers mixed up by alchemists in every major city.

“That might help.”

I went over to my coat and pulled out my bag, which I had shrunk and stuffed into a non-magical pocket. Inside, I pulled out a little vial and a skin of water. I poured the water into a cup and tossed a couple tablets from the vial in as well before handing her the cup. She took down the medicine in two gulps and returned the cup. I went ahead and prepared some for myself.

Relief is extremely quick with that stuff. “Wow,” she said, gaping at me. “WOW.”

“What?”

“I’m starting to remember and now I realize exactly why I’m so sore. Do you do that kind of thing with every woman?”

I grinned despite how horrible I still felt. “Most women aren’t limber enough.”

“I’ll bet.” She continued to focus, remembering her night. “No, I wasn’t too drunk. I can recall everything now. But something did come over me, something I’ve never felt before. You never use magic to seduce women, do you?”

“Not beyond using it to impress them, no.”

“I think someone used magic on me. I suddenly found myself overcome with lust for you. Gods, it was so intense!” Her face flushed and other parts of her body immediately showed signs of arousal.

“Really? That does sound like magic. Give me a moment.” I pulled out my spellbook and prepared a spell. I then cast it, causing my eyes to glow a pale blue and allowing me to instantly see magical auras. There was a faint but recognizable one permeating her entire body. “This almost looks like you drank a love potion, but it’s much stronger than anything I’ve ever seen in any of my classes. I’ve never heard of one that could last a whole night. Give me a moment. I have a spell that can remove its effects from you.”

She grabbed my arm and pulled me onto the bed, causing me to drop my spellbook on the floor. “I don’t think I can wait a moment. Sorry,” she apologized, her voice filled with urgency.

We were already nude and she’s a lot stronger than she looks, so it wasn’t too hard for her to do what she wanted. Well, it was hard enough, but it wasn’t difficult. You know what I mean. And it’s also not like I was really fighting. Not all of me wanted to stop her.

Half an hour later, she lay next to me, out of breath. “Please hurry and prepare that spell. Before I lose control and force myself on you again.” I just nodded. It’s not like I really objected to it, aside from feeling guilty because she was in an altered state, not that I’d had much choice in the matter.

A minute later, I broke the enchantment and relief seemed to wash over her. “Thank you. And I’m sorry for that.”

“Don’t be. I’m the one who should be sorry. I should have known something was wrong. I should have –“

She stopped me with a finger on my lips. “Let’s just call this one of those mistakes people sometimes make. No one’s at fault here and it’s not as though it was unpleasant for either of us. I really should go get some contraceptive herbs, but beyond that, no harm was done.”

I nodded. “Better safe than sorry, though I did take something to keep from getting you pregnant last night right before I came over.”

“Good, but I’ll get some herbs later this morning all the same. For now, I guess the real question is how I ended up drinking the potion in the first place.”

That was indeed a good question. “If it behaves like the weaker kind of potion I’ve heard of the reaction would have been nearly instantaneous after drinking it. When did you first notice it?”

“Right before we danced.”

I thought about it for a moment. “That means it was when we had that drink after the fight.”

“Right! And remember, we almost got our cups mixed up. Do you think someone had meant it for you?”

“It’s possible,” Fleur said. “But who do you think would have… Oh wow. Look back at our memory of right before we drank. What do you see?”

I focused and scanned the memory. It took me a moment, but I saw what Fleur meant: Red hair peeking out from behind a nearby chair. “Shayliss,” I said flatly.

“You’re kidding.” Ameiko somehow didn’t seem all that surprised.

“Nope. She was waiting right there, where she could pop up right after I drank it in order to be the first person I saw, which is how those things work. She must have mixed up the cups as well.”

Ameiko then asked possibly the most important question. “Where do you think she got the potion?”

I cursed. “It must have come from Lyrie.”

“That can’t be good.”

“No, it really can’t. I’m gonna go wake up Aurora and then pay Miss Vinder a visit. Would you get Sheriff Hemlock for me and ask him to meet me at the Venn’s store?”

“Of course. But before you go…” She grabbed me and pulled me close, then gave me a lingering kiss on the cheek and a pat on the backside. “Just to make sure you know that there are no hard feelings. You’re a good friend.”

Yeah, I guess there was no reason to keep being hard on myself. There was no way I could have known and she didn’t blame me. So screw it. I’d just be happy I got laid.

I went to our suite and knocked on Aurora’s door. She was already awake, so I let her know what was going on and headed downstairs. It was within seconds of reaching the ground floor that I realized that it was going to be one of those days.

Lenn had several of the women from the brothel in Ameiko’s kitchen. They were making pancakes. But they weren’t normal pancakes. If they were, it would have been fine. No, they were making pancakes using alchemy.

I didn’t even know Lenn knew how to perform alchemy. But apparently he had figured it out from the recipe the gnome – who I still suspected was Gribbletoo, champion of Gozreh – had given him. I watched for a minute while I waited for Aurora. They had the technique and formula down. I was pretty impressed.

Aurora came down, the fox that had become a fixture at the Rusty Dragon since we’d rescued it riding on her shoulder. She was just as shocked as I was at the sight of Lenn and his friends making breakfast, a term I use loosely because I certainly wasn’t going to eat it.

The fox, on the other hand, was interested in the eggs they were making. He jumped off Aurora’s shoulder and onto the counter, grabbing an omelet. “Give that back!” Lenn roared, scaring the fox. He darted under the stairs, out of Lenn’s reach, omelet still in his mouth.

Aurora got between Lenn and the stairs, not wanting him to traumatize the poor animal again. Eventually Lenn calmed and relented, proving even his animalistic rage could not stand against Disney Princess Aurora. “I’ll keep him out of the kitchen while you’re working,” she promised the big guy. She moved to coax the animal out from under its hiding place, but I stopped her.

“Let me talk to it. I know its language.”

“FOXES DON’T TALK!” Lenn said loudly.

“That’s where you’re wrong. Back home, we have learned the languages of all the animals. We even made a song to teach them to children.”

“I WANT TO HEAR IT!”

Well, if he insisted…

“Dog goes "woof"
Cat goes "meow"
Bird goes "tweet"
And mouse goes "squeek"
Cow goes "moo"
Frog goes "croak"
And the elephant goes "toot"
Ducks say "quack"
And fish go "blub"
And the seal goes "ow ow ow"

But there's one sound
That no one knows
What does the fox say?”

I knelt down and looked at the fox before continuing.

“"Ring-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding!
Gering-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding!
Gering-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding!"
What the fox say?

"Wa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pow!
Wa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pow!
Wa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pow!"
What the fox say?

"Hatee-hatee-hatee-ho!
Hatee-hatee-hatee-ho!
Hatee-hatee-hatee-ho!"”

Aurora was laughing so hard I was afraid she’d pee herself, yet simultaneously making no sound. That had been my goal, since she had seemed a bit out of it that morning. But despite the fact that I was just being silly, the fox still cautiously came out, leaping to Aurora’s arms immediately. The look of amazement on Lenn’s face was priceless.

“I WANT TO LEARN TO TALK TO FOXES!”

I patted him on his shoulder. “Just have to practice, big guy,” I said with a completely straight face. Aurora was wiping tears from her eyes from laughing, though Lenn had his back to her and didn’t see it.

“Can you imagine if he actually figured it out somehow?” Fleur asked me.

“It wouldn’t be the most impossible thing we’ve ever seen him do,” I replied. “Not by a long shot.”

Aurora and I made our way to the square where the festival had happened. I cast several spells, giving myself permanent arcane sight at the cost of self injury, which I then healed with almost all of the remaining charges on my wand. Using that sight, I sought out the mug Ameiko had drunk from.

Sure enough, I found it where we’d left it. There were still traces of the potion on the inside of the mug, so I carefully picked it up using gloves, careful not to smudge any fingerprints. I didn’t think I would have to use that kind of technique to prove anything, but I was prepared to do so anyway. I concentrated and turned off the arcane sight, stopping the glowing in my eyes. I was confident I could resume it at will if I needed it in the future with no need to recast the spell.

We met up with Sheriff Hemlock and explained the situation before knocking on the door. Venn opened the door, looking annoyed. “What is it now?”

“Sorry to bother you Venn, but there’s evidence that your youngest got involved in some mischief last night.”

“And what evidence do you have?”

“I’d prefer to give her a chance to respond to the accusation before we discuss evidence.”

“Fine. Come inside.”

We presented the charges against Shayliss, and she denied them, naturally. I explained the evidence. She continued to deny, as I expected. So I played a bit of hardball. “The truth is, I think you’re a pawn. I just want the person pulling the strings. Tell us the truth now, or I will be forced to use either technology or magic to prove your involvement. If you make me do that, any talk of leniency is off the table. I will press charges and require that you receive the full punishment under the law.”

“You’re lying,” she accused.

“Where I come from, we have a technique that allows us to determine if someone touched something. It wouldn’t take all that long, but it would waste a spell that I wanted to use for other things today in order to make the supplies I need. And if you were smart enough to pour in the potion without touching the mug, I could just pop over to Magnimar, grab a priest of Abadar and we could see about using some of his spells to compel you to tell the truth. So why protect someone else? Your own skin’s on the line.”

“I would never betray a friend.”

Now we were getting somewhere. “A friend? What makes this person your friend?”

“She’s the only one who sees the truth.”

I had her. “And what is the truth, exactly.”

“You belong with me! All the other girls are just distractions! You and I are meant to be together! I won’t let any of those harlots stand between me and my destiny! So what if I used a magic potion to try to ensorcell you? It’s for your own good!”

Venn looked pissed at his daughter. “Just what in the name of the gods is wrong with you?! Your mother and I raised you better than this?”

“You and mother have been blind! I’ve been running around with men behind your back for over a year. You think I’m still ‘mommy and daddy’s little angel’? Just how stupid can you be?!”

Venn slapped her across the face. “You little whore!” Hemlock stepped between them and prevented further escalation.

I cleared my throat. “We’re getting off topic here. Shayliss, I need you to tell me where you got the potion.”

“I. WILL. NOT.”

That was about enough of that. “One moment. I’m going to prepare a spell.” I had learned a spell that would allow me to dominate the mind of another and force them to do what I commanded. It was strictly meant for use in infiltration and interrogation, but even then I’m loathe to cast it. I hate taking away anyone’s free will. That was more Lyrie’s style…

Wait.

I concentrated, reactivating my arcane sight. I looked right at Shayliss. “What are you doing?” She demanded.

“Saving your ass, apparently.” My hunch had been correct. She was under a very subtle mind altering spell. She would view the one who had cast it as her dearest friend. Everything she had done had been under her own free will, but this mitigated it a bit, sort of like turning murder in the first to murder in the second.

I prepared a different spell than I had originally planned. A few moments later, I dispelled the charm. She blinked a few times. “What happened? I feel so strange.”

“You were under a spell that made you view the caster as a friend. While it doesn’t absolve you of responsibility for your actions, it does mitigate it a bit. So tell me. Who put you up to this?”

“A woman named Lyrie.”

“And did she tell you why she wanted you to do it?”

“She just said that the party was a chance to finally get what I wanted. She said she was just trying to help me.”

A thought occurred. “And what did she say to get you to go do what you did during the battle?”

“She said that you needed my help. That everyone was out of position and not responding. She said that you would appreciate what I had done and would thank me.”

“I see. Okay. Sheriff, check with Ameiko and see if she wants to press any charges. If not, I think we can leave Miss Vinder to whatever punishment her parents decide on.”

“As long as it doesn’t turn violent, I can accept that. You good with that, Venn?”

He looked at Shayliss. “First thing tomorrow, if the roads are safe, we’re taking you to see a matchmaker in Magnimar. If she can’t find someone who can accept you and your wanton ways within a week, then you’ll be entering a convent.”

“Ooh, that’s harsh,” Fleur commented.

Perhaps a bit too harsh. “When you get to Magnimar, see the Voidstrife factor. I’ll give you a note instructing him to find the best matchmaker in town.”

We left, Hemlock bidding his farewell. We strolled through town for several minutes before Aurora spoke. “That was a little weird.”

“I know, right? Do you think we were too hard on her?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“I just wish we had gotten something useful on Lyrie. With that Stalker’s Mask, she’s going to be incredibly dangerous.”

Aurora stopped suddenly. “T-That…may not be a problem anymore.” She sounded embarrassed and maybe even a little ashamed.

I felt my blood run cold. “What do you mean?”

She reached into her belt pouch and pulled out a small, folded object. “I wasn’t sure how to bring this up, but I managed to take Lyrie’s mask from her.”

I was going to kill Lyrie. I was going to kill her in the most painful way possible. Would I drown her in a lake? Would I feed her to a snake? Would I hit her with an axe? Put arsenic in her favorite snacks? No matter what I did, my rage had gone positively Seussian.

“What happened?”

“She came to our rooms last night, looking like you. I think she was trying to do to me what she had to Katrine.”

If I was a bit stronger, my clenched fingers would have ripped through my palm. I managed to keep my voice calm. “What happened?”

“I had changed for bed, and when she realized it wasn’t working, she tried to attack me.” She looked away from me. “She tore the nightgown you gave me.” Her voice was soft, barely above a whisper. I put my hand on her shoulder. “I managed to fight her off. I broke her nose. But, Kyle, I’m sorry. I haven’t been scared like that since I killed the nobleman who wanted to force me to marry him.”

I pulled her to me. She seemed a bit nervous at first, but buried her face in my chest. “It’s okay. We’re going to kill her together. I’ll have Lenn prepare us a picnic and we can make an afternoon of spreading her ashes to the four winds.”

She wrapped her arms around me, under my coat. “Can we have chicken?”

“That depends. Is chicken sausage and pancakes okay?” She laughed and hugged me tighter. “So, what you’re telling me is that I should still consider it impossible to get in your pants, eh?”

She laughed again. “That is probably a good idea.”

“Damn.” I kissed her softly on the top of the head. “I do have two questions.”

“Hm?”

“How did you know it wasn’t me? I mean, what made you try to pull off a mask you couldn’t see?”

“She said some things that you wouldn’t have. Also, she didn’t smell right. What’s the other question?”

“How much longer should we hug before it starts to look weird?”

She laughed again. “Maybe a bit longer?”

“Works for me.”

After that, I knew I needed to get some work done. Regardless of what was going on, we were going to need some equipment to assault Jorgenfist. Thankfully, the giants had brought us plenty of materials for me to work with, and Lyrie’s mask was also available for breaking down. I also began instituting greater operational security. No one but Aurora and I knew what I was making, and we wouldn’t discuss that outside of my magical workshop, which was protected against scrying and other methods of spying available to our enemies.

That evening, the five of us joined the town’s nobles and Sheriff Hemlock for dinner at the mayor’s house. We discussed plans for the town’s security going forward while dining on herbed chicken, which Aurora was happy to see. I had a little so as not to be rude, and it was fairly tasty.

During the walk back, I noticed that something was wrong with Geo. He was walking kinda funny. It was like his pants suddenly fit poorly. It almost reminded me of times I’d tried to keep wearing the same clothes after a shape change into Fleur. But Geo looked the same from the waist up. If he had changed, it was only his bottom half. But that would be far too weird…

Crap. This was Geo I was talking about. It wouldn’t be the weirdest thing he’d done. And he’d borrowed my notes. But what was the purpose? You know what? I didn’t want to know. Let Geo do all the weird self-experiments he wants. Just keep me out of it.

Aurora turned in early and the rest of us had one more drink with Ameiko and Shalelu before bed. And, of course, the day’s weirdness wasn’t done. “Ameiko! Look out!” I shouted upon noticing that her hand had somehow unconsciously drifted into a fire.

She looked at the fire and pulled her hand back reflexively. She examined the hand, finding it wasn’t injured. “I didn’t feel a thing!”

“Maybe it’s not a very hot fire?” Geo suggested. He stuck his hand in the fire and held it there. “It’s pleasantly warm,” he commented, fascinated.

“I WANNA TRY!” Lenn said, sticking his hand in there. “IT’S NOT HOT!”

There are two kinds of people in the world. The first is those who will believe you if you tell them the fire is – or isn’t – hot. The second is the kind of person who will stick their hand in the fire to check it for themselves. We are all apparently the latter. One by one, we all did it. And one by one, we all found it lacking the heat to injure.

All except me. I confidently stuck my hand right in the flame and – with a curse – immediately pulled it right back out. “There’s nothing wrong with the fire!” I said as I poured cold water on my hand. “Whatever’s going on is something to do with you.”

We tried it out like scientists, testing with numerous different flames. Normal fires were fine, but when I raised the heat on a flame by using a bellows Geo borrowed from the nearby blacksmith, suddenly they found the fire too hot to bear.

Meanwhile, we tried to figure out what it was that was different about me from the others, and eventually it hit me. I hadn’t eaten any of the dragon. The flesh of a red dragon was rumored to have some kind of magical property, but this was a bit unexpected. If that was the case, then the whole town would be affected. We would need to make sure we informed everyone, and more importantly, informed everyone that it might not be permanent. But that was a topic for the morning. For now, I was tired and ready for sleep.

So it was that I headed up to the suite I shared with Aurora over an hour later than I had intended. I entered the suite and re-locked the door behind me, then set a magical alarm. I then walked over to the door to Aurora’s room, knocked lightly and opened the door.

Aurora’s hand shot to the dagger she had on the table next to her. “It’s me!” I said, in English. “Don’t stab me, bro!”

She relaxed and set down the knife. “Sorry. Just making sure.” Her hand was shaking a bit, but I don’t think it was fear. I think she was still angry at Lyrie.

“Don’t worry about it. Honestly, I probably would have panicked and thrown the knife.” I sat down on the edge of the bed. “Mind if I join you?”

“You don’t have to worry about me. I’ll be fine, if you want to go spend the night with Ameiko or someone. Don’t hold back to protect me.”

I scoffed. “Protect you?! You think I think I can protect you? I wanted to stay here because I thought you could protect me!” In the dark room, I could still see that she was staring at me. “What? You think I should set up some land mines or something?”

She laughed. “So, you’re not here because you want to protect me?”

“No more than normal. What I mean is that two of us together can protect ourselves better than one of us, so that’s always a factor, but would it surprise you if I just wanted to be near you?”

“I guess not.”

“I’ve been considering it for a while,” I said. “I think I’m done sleeping around. Hell, I kinda wish I had skipped last night.”

“Why? Is it not fun anymore?”

“Incredibly fun. But, truth be told, at some point, the fun became secondary. It’s more just a way to forget my troubles. It should be more than that. So I think I’m done having sex until I can do so with someone I actually love.”

“I guess that makes sense. And you’re absolutely sure you’re not here because you pity me?”

“Pity you? Hell no. I’m here because I sleep better in the same chaste bed as you as I do in a bed where I’ve exhausted myself in the arms of a pair of naughty young women. I mean, I think I’ll be fine by myself if you want me to go to my room, but I would certainly rather sleep in here if you’re okay with it.”

“In that case, go ahead and change for bed and join me,” she said warmly. “You’re not the only one who sleeps better with a good friend to share a bed with.” That was good enough for me. I stripped down to my underpants and climbed into bed. “Turn your back to me,” she said. She scooted up behind me and wrapped her arm around me.

If she wanted to be the big spoon, I wasn’t going to argue. But there was something unusual I noticed as she pressed herself against my back. “Um, Aurora?”

“Yes, Kyle?”

“Are you not wearing a nightgown?”

“No,” she said. I could hear the blush in her voice and could absolutely feel more than that against my back. “You… never fixed it for me.”

Oh, crap. I had forgotten. I tried to sit up so I could go do that immediately. “It’ll just take a second,” I said.

She pulled me back down. “No, stay here. Your back is so warm.” She almost purred the last sentence.

I activated my arcane sight and took a quick look at her face. It really was her and she wasn’t under some kind of enchantment. I settled back into position and within moments I could hear the soft sound of her rhythmic breathing, telling me she had fallen asleep.

I have never been so confused to be lying in bed with a half-naked woman. I reached down and gently felt her hip. She wasn’t wearing underwear. Let me amend that: I’ve never been so confused to be in bed with a fully naked woman.

But, as I fell asleep enveloped in the sweet scent of lilacs, I realized that I could get used to it.


Next up is a side story where Kyle ends up somewhere unexpected. Having to completely rework it, so probably take as long as normal. Add in the fact that I'm stuck with a trainee at work(where I do most of my writing) and it'll be a week or two after Thanksgiving before the next part's out.


Turin the Mad wrote:
Please do. It makes the most sense in-game by our (perhaps warped) logic.

It never has to make sense if you make it Sheogorath doing the summoning. :P

Spoiler:
Wabbajack!


1 person marked this as a favorite.
Turin the Mad wrote:
Frag grenades?! AWESOME!! ^______^

You should see what he's planning to construct for the assault on the giants' fortress. :D

Also, I like to think that somewhere, in an alternate universe, there's a board where someone was running a "Giants vs. Humans" campaign as the giants and is now complaining about how unfair it was that their GM turned what should have been an easy city raid into

Spoiler:
Tucker's Kobolds.


2 people marked this as a favorite.

The Attack on Sandpoint Part 1: Sandpoint Blitz

Spoiler:
I woke up a couple hours later. I didn't want to get up, but I had to do so. I wasn’t sure what the situation would look like when we got there, so I prepared as many combat spells as I could reasonably get away with. Then I got to work.

First, I began working on Orik’s gun. He hadn’t gotten all the materials for me yet, but I wanted him to have some progress to show his boss if necessary. I owed him. With my geth assistants, I had worked through the materials I had for him in short time.

Then, I began working on some arrows for Paulie. He had requested fifty giant killing arrows, split thirty-twenty between normal and large arrows – the large ones were nearly the size of javelins. He’d wanted the large ones in case he decided to grow larger, since the magic that facilitates that stops working as soon as an arrow is loosed.

After that, I began working on some stuff for Lenn and Geo, basic improvements for some of their current gear. Afterwards, I crafted a dozen radios. The book stolen from the Technic League described commsets capable of transmitting audio and video in crystal clarity. Very advanced equipment to be sure, but they wouldn’t really do anything more for me than some basic Earth tech radios. Add in the time it would take to make them and the energy cost of running them and it was simply a much smarter choice to use the more boring, yet more practical option.

Once I’d expended the time in my workshop, I emerged and found the others waiting for me. They’d had just enough time to eat breakfast and prepare. With Paulie’s help, I Fabricated a bunch of Earth-tech fragmentation grenades. You know, the ones that look like pineapples. After that, Aurora used her armor to hostel Starbrite and I used the wand I’d acquired to shrink down our mounts and turn them into stone figures.

There were three others coming with us, which put us at our limit for teleportation using my secret weapon. Shalelu wanted to get back to town and Orik needed to report in to his superiors, so he and Belgren Blackhammer would be joining us. They’d help with the town defense and then head to Magnimar. Meanwhile, Magrim Emberaxe would command the forces remaining at the fort to assist Jakardros and the Black Arrows.

“It looks like we’re ready to go,” I said. “So only one question remains. Who is going in the hole?” I pulled a small, folded piece of cloth from a non-magical pocket – that part’s very important! – unfolded it and tossed it on the floor. Paulie, Geo, Orik and Belgren hopped inside the now accessible extradimensional space. I then picked up the cloth and refolded it. “Okay, we have two minutes.” I handed it to Aurora. “Open it immediately when we get there.”

The four of us remaining held hands and I teleported us to Sandpoint. We arrived in the center of the square in front of Sandpoint Cathedral. There were no signs of battle, which was good. Several of the villagers recognized us immediately and greeted us warmly. Others seemed a bit wary of me specifically, though I wasn’t sure why.

I didn’t have to wait long to find out.

Katrine Vinder rushed through the square and threw her arms around my neck. “Beloved! You’ve returned to me!” she exclaimed before planting a kiss on me.

“Get away from him, b#&%$!” another voice yelled. I couldn’t see the woman’s face, but I knew the voice. Katrine was wrenched away as Shayliss yanked her hair. The two tumbled to the ground and began trying to kill each other in that way only two women fighting over a man can.

Several of the town’s young adults tried to pull them apart, but they were also clearly taking sides. Within moments, the square had devolved into a nearly twenty person brawl centered right on me. “What.”

Geo, fresh out of the hole, walked over and whispered something to Lenn. “QUIT IT!” the huge man roared. The fighting stopped immediately. Everyone stared at Lenn warily.

“He’s on the brute squad,” Fleur said.

“He is the brute squad,” I replied automatically.

Just then, as I thought it had finally died down, I was proven wrong. “You!” a voice boomed. “I’m going to wring your scrawny neck!” Venn Vinder charged at me. He was wielding some kind of meat mallet.

In a swift motion, Aurora stepped between us, swung her arm up and grabbed his thumb, disarming him and pulling his arm behind his body in a thumb lock. “Please, sir. I understand you may be angry, but I am his sworn defender. I highly recommend you use your words and, if he has truly done wrong, proceed with this using proper legal channels.” She smiled sweetly at him. “Or I could just break your thumb now. Your call.”

Venn’s face paled. “I’ll speak, then.”

“Good,” Aurora replied, releasing him.

He glared at me. “You seduced and got my little angel pregnant! I demand that you take responsibility!”

What. “Sir, there are so many things wrong with that statement that I’m not sure where to begin.” He growled at me. “Okay, how about we start with this. There are three women in this ever growing crowd I’ve had sex with, but neither of your daughters is one of them.”

“You dare accuse my daughter of lying?!”

“I’m not even sure which of them you’re talking about, but yes!”

“You know damn well which of my daughters you violated, villain! Unless you mean to tell me you’ve taken advantage of both of them!” Now he was snarling.

“I’ve done no such thing!”

He swung at me. Aurora grabbed his arm and took him down. She didn’t break any of his bones, as much as I would have found that satisfying. The melee began again, but now there were three sides – in addition to the Shayliss and Katrine camps, there was now the “Kyle didn’t do anything” camp. I was starting to get a pain behind my eye.

“THAT. IS. ENOUGH!” I shouted, punctuating my words by unleashing a lightning bolt into a nearby rock wall, sending chunks of stone flying. Everyone stopped what they were doing and started at me. Some of them really were stopped mid punch. “We don’t have time for this.” Sheriff Hemlock had arrived right around the time of my outburst. I looked right at him. “Keep every member of the Vinder family away from me for the next few days. And to the rest of you. If I hear of one more fight about this, I will turn everyone here into newts.”

“You wouldn’t dare –” someone began, cut short by my glare.

After daring anyone to try me further, I looked over at Sheriff Hemlock. “We need to speak with Mayor Deverin immediately. There is an urgent matter that she must be informed about.”

“Alright people, move along. I will be forced to arrest every last one of you.” He helped Venn to his feet. “I know you’re upset, but I need you to go home. I promise you that once I find out what is going on, I will hear your grievances against this man and, if warranted, we can discuss legal options. But for now, I can’t keep the peace if you don’t. And please take your daughters with you.” Venn glared at me but did as he was told. The sheriff nodded to me and motioned for us to follow him. Once we were out of earshot of the crowd, he stopped and gave me a look. “You wouldn’t really turn everyone into newts, would you?”

I shrugged. “Maybe.” It was, of course, a bluff. I didn’t have a spell to pull that off. But they didn’t need to know that.

“So tell me, did you sleep with either of those girls?”

I sighed. “No. I really didn’t.”

He groaned. “I was afraid of that. There’s no way I can get you to marry one of them anyway?”

“Sorry. Isn’t going to happen.”

“Yeah. Didn’t think so. I have no idea how I’m going to defuse this situation.”

“Why not get a cleric of Abadar?” Aurora asked. That was a damn fine idea. That church had some great magic for piercing lies. Hell, I’d even pay for it.

I just nodded, making a note to thank Aurora later. “That’s definitely on the table. But for now, we have bigger problems.”

“Bigger problems?” Sheriff Hemlock asked. “How big we talking?”

“Much larger than our friend here!” Paulie said a little too loud while pointing at Lenn.

“GIANTS!” Lenn bellowed.

The pain spread and was now behind both eyes. “We’ll explain further once we have assembled the mayor and the other nobles.”

We waited in the town hall for representatives of the city’s ruling families to be gathered. As we waited, a man I recognized as one of my adopted family’s business agents in Magnimar found us. “Milord, I have information on a matter you asked me to look into.” He was likely talking about finding Delek Viskanta, the man who had taken advantage of Nualia. I’d asked him to do a little footwork on the matter for me, telling him that the man owed me money and I wanted to collect personally.

“Tell me about it after the meeting,” I said.

“Of course, milord.”

The nobles all arrived within a few minutes, so I suspect that Hemlock’s men had impressed upon them the importance of the meeting. “So, what waste of time have you called us to this time?” Titus Scarnetti, asked, his tone dripping with contempt.

It was going to be one of those. I glanced around and it was clear that the others wanted me to deal with this. Shiny. “We’ve come across evidence that the town is going to be attacked. Soon.”

“By whom?” Mayor Kendra Deverin asked, startled.

“You’re not going to like it,” I said, motioning for Geo to hand over the letter from Mokmurian. He pulled out the hide. Several of the nobles were shocked by the sheer size of it as Geo laid it on the table before them. “Read it over. While you do so, understand that we obtained it from the possessions of a stone giant that had taken over a band of ogres and was forcing them to produce weapons and armor. Lots of weapons and armor. We estimate anywhere between one and three days before they arrive.”

The mayor stood up abruptly. “Sheriff, begin preparations. We have to evacuate the city before these giants arrive.”

“Wait,” Shalelu said.

“Miss Andosana?” Mayor Deverin asked.

“I’m not entirely certain that would be the best course of action. We believe that someone escaped the cave, a lamia named Lucrecia. Thus far, she has proven shrewd and dangerous. It is likely that she will anticipate that course of action and will prepare some kind of ambush, hoping to take out as many townspeople as possible while they’re at their most vulnerable.”

I hadn’t thought of that. In fact, I had hoped we could evacuate all but a small crew of people to defend the town. “She has a point. Lucrecia has taken advantage of every opportunity available to her.”

“Then what would you have us do? Let everyone stay in their homes and just hope the giants don’t grab them when they come?”

“Why not evacuate everyone to the chapel in the catacombs beneath town?” Aurora asked.

“Not entirely certain everyone will fit,” I said. “But if we split everyone between a few key evacuation points, we should be able to defend those places well enough. And the bulk of the people should be able to find refuge in the catacombs and smugglers’ tunnels.”

“And then what?” Scarnetti asked. “We allow the giants to take what they want, burn the rest of the town and leave unchallenged?”

“Not exactly,” I said. “My friend Lenn here would be unhappy if we didn’t kill at least a few of them.”

“How many is a few?” Ameiko Kaijutsu asked.

“All of them, Innkeeper Tightpants.” I smirked as I tented my fingers menacingly. “We’re going to kill all of them.”

Mayor Deverin was skeptical. “And how many citizens do you intend to sacrifice to do this?”

“As few as possible. Depends on how long we have before the attack. That said, if they give us three days, I think we might have fewer casualties than the giants do, assuming they bring less than a score of giants.”

“A big claim,” Titus Scarnetti accused. “But can you back it up?”

“We’re going to need the help of the townspeople to prepare. So, do we have your support, or are we going to have to convince everyone on our own?”

“I’m with you,” Ameiko Kaijutsu said after a moment, the first to respond.

The others agreed in turn, with Titus Scarnetti at last giving us a grudging “Do whatever you want.”

We spent roughly an hour hashing out the rough plan. We could refine it as the days went on, add layers to offset gaps in coverage. Then we gathered the entire town for a meeting. It went as well as one might expect, I guess.

At least we managed to stop the panicked exodus before anyone was trampled.

“So what? You want us to remain here and just wait for our deaths?” one man asked. The crowd rippled with murmurs of agreement.

“NO! I WANT YOU TO STAY AND KILL GIANTS LIKE A MAN!” Lenn roared.

The crowd looked ready to try to bolt again, so I stepped in. “While my big friend here is essentially correct, I want you to understand that no one is asking you to go toe-to-toe with the giants. What we need most of all is for everyone to pitch in and help us construct preparations. If you do not wish to tangle with the enemy directly, then we won’t force you. Your contribution could be little more than digging a hole, or gathering scrap materials just lying around. Maybe you help stockpile supplies for those hiding from the giants, or maybe you do nothing more than find a place to keep watch so you can alert the town.

“If you want to help out further, but still don’t want to engage the enemy, then you can volunteer for the fire brigade. And if you do want to engage, we will need a number of volunteers to perform hit and run strikes. No one is going to be putting themselves in more than a minimal amount of danger.”

“And you think you can really kill giants that way?” some woman yelled.

“Yeah, you can’t beat giants! They’re too big and too powerful!”

I could see this needed a different approach. “You’re wrong about that.”

“You deny that they’re too big to stop?!” another voice asked from within the crowd.

“Were the goblins too small to harm you?”

“What?”

“The goblins that attacked the town. They killed a number of people. To them, you might as well have been a giant. So tell me, were the goblins too small to harm you?”

“Well, no,” someone said. “But the goblins lost a lot of their warriors.” The crowd murmured with agreement. “Yet you think we can do better?”

I grinned. “I am much smarter than a goblin. And so are you. Stick with me and I think we can do this. I can’t absolutely guarantee no one will die, but our dead will be a small number. Much smaller than we suspect trying to evacuate will lead to. So, are you with me?”

The first man to object stood again. “Let’s do this.”

After the meeting, I set aside a few minutes to speak with my agent from Magnimar. “Okay, so what news do you have on Delek Viskanta?”

“He’s dead, milord.”

That was actually a relief to hear. I felt like I needed to find and punish him, but someone beat me to it. “Truly? Are you certain?”

“Yes, milord. We used magic to speak with his spirit and confirm it. He did not recognize your name, nor did he have any fortune stashed away to make good on the debt. I apologize.”

“Don’t worry about it. Did you happen to ask who killed him?”

“He said it was a woman named Nualia. An ex-lover of his, it seems.”

I actually smiled. “Good for her,” I said.

“Milord?”

“I was actually attempting to collect the debt on her behalf. It seems she managed to beat me to it. Go ahead and consider this matter closed. Now, tell me, is there anything else I should know?”

“There have been several patrols of giants spotted all around the region. Lord Mayor Grobaras has already begun preparing both the city’s forces and several bands of hired mercenaries to deal with the threat. In truth, however, there is talk among the commanders that they simply cannot keep up with the giants and fear that a larger attack is coming.”

“There probably is,” I said. “Do you know a way to get back to Magnimar while avoiding the main roads?” I already knew he would know several. All merchants know of a couple smuggling routes in their territories.

“I believe I can make it back to the city without being spotted,” he replied without actually confirming what I was asking.

“Excellent. Prepare to depart. I need you to deliver two letters for me.”

“Of course, milord.”

I wrote two notes. The first was to the Lord Mayor, apologizing for and explaining my actions from the second. The second was to the leader of the Potent Rainbow Lions, explaining our suspicions about Lucrecia’s ambush between Sandpoint and Magnimar. In it, I asked that he send a couple squads out to deal with it. Orik wrote a letter more or less confirming mine.

The next few days blur in something of a montage as we did a ton of preparation. We dug holes, set up trip wires and rehearsed ambushes. Anyone with any blacksmith skill helped make giant caltrops, which we set up in the shallow river. People scoured the local junkyard for usable scraps, which were either used for improvised traps – the caltrops and swinging spiked log traps, mostly – or got turned into magicite for me to make into more useful things.

The local apothecary prepared more vials of acid in those couple days than he had in any two years ever. Guardsmen tipped their crossbow bolts with an ingenious poison Geo gave us – I’m as shocked as you are that he whipped up any kind of potions – that had originated in his village. He called it “giant dazing venom”, and, as far as I can tell, it works by temporarily disrupting neurotransmitters in a stone giant’s brain. Thankfully, the primary ingredient is a plant found around Sandpoint abundantly.

I fabricated grenades for the trained soldiers and guardsmen, then made tanglefoot bags and bottles of liquid ice and acid for the volunteer militia we had recruited. I could have made alchemist’s fire, but I didn’t want to risk catching any buildings by accident. We trained the soldiers with dummy grenades and the others with water balloons. They got pretty good at it fairly quickly, though I knew this wouldn’t necessarily translate into smooth action during the heat of combat.

Speaking of water, we had some citizens fill barrels and other containers with water and set them near flammable buildings to make the jobs of the fire brigades easier. We then set up a number of watch positions, all of which I set up with a radio, which I taught the watchmen to use.

There were a number of interesting events that occurred during preparation.

Geo caught up with me the first afternoon. He returned my observation journal from when I had been changed into a woman the first time by the cursed belt. I had recorded a number of data points and all of my experiences. “I apologize for borrowing it without asking, but you were busy in your magical workshop and I didn’t want to bother you.”

“It’s cool. I don’t really mind.” I was a bit terrified as to why he needed it, but I decided to take the ostrich approach. If I didn’t ask, hopefully he wouldn’t tell. Then I could assume that he was simply trying to understand women so he could better woo Shalelu.

And it just kept coming. That evening, Paulie asked me to join him in a trip to a local tavern, the Hagfish. Apparently it had been his dream as long as he could remember – not that this was very long, mind you – to take the Hagfish Challenge.

If I had known what that entailed, I would have found a reason not to go.

The mascot of the bar was a hagfish called Norah. If I remembered my biology class from high school, she was a specimen of the species Eptatretus cirrhatus, the broad-gilled hagfish, but we only spent a day talking about them, so I could be wrong.

Look, my teacher was originally a marine biologist but he retired after an illness. We spent a lot of time talking about sea critters, even if they weren’t part of the required curriculum. He found the damn things fascinating.

If you don’t know much about hagfish in general, they exhibit a behavior when attacked where they exude a slime or mucus from nearly a hundred glands on their bodies. When mixed with water, this stuff expands, turning up to twenty liters of water into a gill-clogging slime.

The Hagfish Challenge involves drinking a stein of this slime and not throwing up. So that’s what Paulie did. To the chant of, “Chug! Chug! Chug!” from the inebriated crowd. Just watching, I dry heaved several times. Aurora looked green around the gills, but managed to hold down her lunch.

The challenge completed, Paulie got to carve his name in the rafter and took the prize purse, containing eighty silver pieces – not much for us, but a huge sum for the locals. He bought a round for the house and made a good number of friends.

Aurora and I left to return to our rooms at the Rusty Dragon. As we walked, Aurora broke the stunned silence. “I don’t think I ever want to eat again,” she said.

“I’ll see what I can do about that,” I promised.

Ameiko was waiting for us. She had a couple glasses of something to calm our stomachs. News had traveled fast that Paulie had completed the challenge. “Careful,” I told her. “You don’t want me to seduce, lie and impregnate you, do you?”

Ameiko laughed. “Don’t worry about the townsfolk. They’ll come around.”

“I hope so,” I said. I had spent the whole day working with people giving me looks when they thought I wasn’t looking. It was clear they assumed that I had done it. “By the way, which girl did I supposedly impregnate and which did I just seduce?”

“Katrine’s pregnant. To the best of my knowledge, she has been mooning over you since you brought her back to Sandpoint. Truth be told, I actually doubt she’s been sleeping around. She only has eyes for you, apparently.”

Yeah, that wasn’t helping my case. “And you really believe I didn’t do it?”

She shrugged. “You’ve been trying to get in my pants since you came here. What she says you said doesn’t match your style. If she had just said you’d slept with her, then there would be plenty of reason to believe it, but to say that you promised marriage just to have sex with her? I doubt it.” She looked over at Aurora. “Right?”

Aurora considered it. “True enough.” It meant a lot to me that they believed me. I respected both of these women and it would hurt if they thought the worst of me. On the other hand, I really did want to marry Aurora. I’m not sure that I like her thinking that about me.

The next morning, I got to work early and continued making required supplies. When I finished, I delivered things to the different ambush points. Despite the early hour, people were working hard to prepare. They realized that lives literally depended on our preparations.

I ran across Paulie, who looked none the worse for wear, at the third site. He was lucky he had a spell to end illness, otherwise I was fairly sure he’d be puking his guts out. He held up a green piece of volcanic glass. “Hey, do you think you can synthesize this stuff with your magic? I’d love to have a bunch of arrows tipped with this. Would probably be really good against giants.”

I refused to touch the stuff. “That’s viridium! That’s going to make you really sick!” The toxic trace minerals in viridium can impart a leprosy-like wasting sickness on anyone that handles them unless stored in a magical bag.

“Really? I’ve had it in my pocket for weeks.” That didn’t make sense. He should be violently ill. Unless…

That would make sense. Aurora’s body rejected his healing magic sometimes. His ancestors looked human. And viridium didn’t affect him. “You’re not a catfolk,” I said aloud as I realized it. “You’re a tiefling! One of your ancestors was a rakshasa!”

He looked surprised. “I thought you knew, bro.”

I didn’t! I had made assumptions based on faulty knowledge and had ended up making a mistake. I would have to keep that in mind. As smart as I was, I wasn’t immune to making mistakes. “Okay, in that case, I think I can make your arrows, but you’ll need to use magic to cure me afterwards and promise to keep them in your magic quiver when not using them. They’ll be a danger to every one of us. Only Aurora might be able to handle being near them.”

I fabricated the arrows, including a couple javelin sized ones. Then Paulie cured both the disease I had likely contracted and the damage using my blood had wrought on me. Then I got back to work. I had a lot to oversee.

Later, I ran across Orik chatting up Arika Avertin, one of the twin daughters of the owner of Sandpoint Savories. She and her sister had been running the place for a while, but rumors told me that she was getting bored of the job. Considering Orik’s previous taste in women, I made a note to keep an eye on her. She was probably a Hastur cultist or murdered hobos for their kidneys or something.

The next morning, I woke up early and got back to work. When I had finished my work in the magical workshop, I went downstairs to give the day’s tasks to the supervisors I’d appointed. Downstairs, I found Aurora playing with a little girl. They were playing with dolls, believe it or not.

Aurora had no idea what she was doing.

“So, what is this one supposed to do?”

“She’s the princess. She has to wait for the knight to save her.” The little girl had to be about five years old.

“But, why can’t the princess save herself?”

“Because that’s not what princesses do!” The child was getting exasperated.

“Want some advice?” I asked.

The little girl looked surprised to see me. “Mommy says I’m not supposed to talk to you.”

“Oh? Well, then I’ll talk to Aurora and you can’t help it if you hear.” I turned to Aurora. “Switch the dolls. Make the female doll the knight."

“That’s not how it works!” the little girl said. “Girls can’t be knights!”

“Aurora is,” I replied.

The child was shocked. She looked at Aurora. “You’re a knight?!”

“Yes,” Aurora said.

“And you’re a girl?!”

“Yes,” my friend said again.

“Have you ever saved any princesses?”

Aurora turned to look at me and gave me a mischievous smile. “Once or twice,” she told the little girl. I feigned offense and tapped my magic hat, turning it into a tiara, then ‘stormed off’. A few seconds after I’d left the room, I popped my head back in and stuck my tongue out at Aurora. Her silvery peals of laughter filled the room.

Later that morning, shortly after showing one of the ambush teams the proper way to throw a water balloon, I ran across Lenn. He was out in front of the local brothel with the full contingent of prostitutes. And he was teaching them how to fight.

Badly.

“Just swing as hard as you can!”

One of the women struck one of the poles they were using as a practice dummy with a wooden cudgel. I cringed inwardly at the sound, since I knew just how much that would hurt your hands to do that. She cried out in pain and dropped the club.

“Don’t let go!” Lenn bellowed.

“But it hurt!” the girl complained.

“That’s because you aren’t swinging hard enough. Look!” He picked up the club and swung with all his might. The blow ripped the pole from the ground and sent it flying through the air. It embedded itself in a nearby wall. “Just like that.”

To my great surprise, the women renewed their attempts. I would have run away and signed up for some other job immediately. But for some reason, these girls really trusted our slightly psychotic warrior.

After I left Lenn and the doxies, I ran into the retired paladin, Jasper Korvaski and his not-entirely-secret lover Cyrdak Drokkus, owner of the local theater. “I wish to join one of the major ambush teams,” the paladin told me.

“You can’t!” the bard protested.

“I have a duty to help defend the people.”

“You retired from that life long ago! Please, you can’t!”

“I can and will!”

“Fine,” Cyrdak said dangerously. “If you’re going to join a team, so will I.”

“You will do no such thing.”

“I will and you can’t stop me.”

I cleared my throat. “Gentlemen, please. There is no need to argue. If you wish to join the efforts, I could use more ranged and spellcaster support. The role would be minimally dangerous to each of you, but a great help to us in defending the town. Would you each be able to live with the other functioning in that role?”

“That is acceptable, though I have no spells to aid you with,” Jasper said.

“You can heal people?”

“A few wounds per day.”

“Good enough. Also, there’s a special target to take out, try to save your holy wrath for that one.” He nodded.

That night, before bed, Aurora and I sat in front of the fireplace in our room, filled with the campfire bead rather than normal logs. “Thank you for your help,” she said.

I cocked an eyebrow. “What help was that?”

“The little girl. Apparently she learned about the giants coming and has been terrified ever since. Her mother left her with Ameiko for a few hours while she tried to get some sleep. Ameiko asked me to watch her and I wasn’t having much success calming her.”

“She seemed pretty calm to me,” I said.

“She was focused on the dolls, but she was still pretty scared. After you left, she really started calming down. I think you telling her that I was a knight really helped.”

“Oh?”

“A few minutes after you left, she crawled in my lap, asked me to tell her a story and fell right asleep.”

“And what story did you tell her?”

“The first minute or so of the story you told me about the princess who gets put to sleep by the evil fairy. She seems to like princesses.”

“Good call,” I said. She still didn’t realize that her name was the same as the princess from that story, since I left out names when I told that one. “I am a bit jealous of the girl getting to sleep on your lap.” I winked.

She rolled her eyes playfully and smiled. “Come on, let’s get some sleep. Long day ahead of us tomorrow if your guess is correct.” Despite having separate rooms in the suite, we climbed into the same bed. She faced me and pressed her head into my chest. Okay, maybe I can get past my jealousy.

Over the couple days, I didn’t have any further trouble with Katrine Vinder. She had taken my threats of newtification to heart and left me alone. Shayliss, on the other hand, kept bothering me. I found her naked in my room both nights I returned to the inn. I ended up having to have Sheriff Hemlock throw her in a cell for a couple hours to make her get the hint that I didn’t have time for her bull crap.

By the end of our third afternoon of working – second full day – I was fairly certain we had done all we could in the time we had. It was possible that they would take even longer to get to Sandpoint, but I wasn’t counting on it. Still, if they did, I could make a bunch of muskets for the town and we could really stick it to those invading a-holes.

And, of course, if we had another week and tons of materials, I could probably have set up a number of machine gun nests and a surface-to-air missile battery. But we didn’t have that kind of luxury. So no sense in worrying about what we didn’t have.

The last night before the attack came was fraught with nervousness and very little sleep for most people. I got my two hours, but I may have been the only one who got a full night’s rest. We believed the attack would come at any point in the night. But it didn’t. It came at dawn.

Cocky bastards, giving up their main advantage.

The first group of giants showed up at the town’s only wall, which covered the road north. I actually spotted them from the air during one of several patrols in a three hour period. So we had plenty of time to get the townsfolk to their designated shelters. Three of the four noble families served as shelter leaders, tasked with keeping people calm and safe as the rest of us dealt with the giants. The fourth family’s only living representative, Ameiko, was stationed up top with one of the ambush groups. When the hit and run squads retreated to their fallback point, it would be her job to keep them safe and prepare them if we needed to use our secondary ambush points.

We had three main ambush points and had setup makeshift barricades and a few traps on the other routes. The first ambush point was on Church Street, in the northern section of town. That point was manned by Lenn, Orik, Balor Hemlock and Shalelu, who would join them after scoring a few hits on the giants and falling back from the north gate. She would lead them into the trap and then they would face those three, two members of the town’s watch and four volunteer flask throwers as well as the traps we’d put in place to soften them up.

It was our most secure position. We figured that if the giants came en masse, they’d come through the open terrain, planning on overwhelming us rather than using subterfuge. So we’d put our strongest front there.

I used magic to turn invisible and took up my position on the top of the Scarnetti manor. Only Aurora knew where I would be and I had whispered it to her so none could overhear. From there, I could keep an eye on everything using a spyglass, coordinating efforts via radio.

I tapped the microphone on my throat. “Enemy units approaching north gate. Movement spotted in the trees to the east,” I reported. “All squadrons, report.” Each unit confirmed that they were reading me, which I heard in my earpiece. Each of the nobles had a radio, as did Aurora, Paulie, Geo, Shalelu, Orik, Hemlock and one of the guards we’d stationed on the roof of the Valdemar manor, posted to keep an eye on the four noble households on the peninsula south of the city – they were unaware that I was nearby, but had been commanded not to engage any threats without my go ahead. At Geo’s suggestion, we’d left Lenn without a radio. We didn’t want him shouting directly in our ears.

I kept an eye on the situation. When the giants reached the gate, I once more tapped the microphone. “All units. Commence operation.”

The giants broke down the gate and two of them followed Shalelu’s retreat. A third took a parallel road and moved to flank the defenders, almost as if they knew what we were doing. Their wizard had done his homework.

Of course, we had planned for this possibility. The giant stepped on a trigger and set off a trio of what I call “Springing Flaskthrowers”, specialized landmines I’d created that acted like old German S-mines, shooting up into the air and exploding. But instead of a damaging explosion, they launched a number of flasks of acid and liquid ice in all directions. Yowling in pain, the giant stumbled over one of Geo’s tripwires. He slammed into the ground hard, which is where the second component of the tripwire found him. He was crushed under a massive log embedded with steel spikes.

The remaining two giants found themselves injured and wandering right into range of Lenn and the others, where they didn’t last long. I almost felt sorry for them. Almost.

“More coming from the east,” I said. “Crossing Tanner’s Bridge. Geo, you’re up.”

Two giants and a trio of massive bears rushed over the bridge. Geo hit them with a grenade and ran them towards his ambush point at the intersection of Undercliff Way and Soggy Alley, where Ameiko and Jasper waited with several watchmen and a few volunteer flask throwers. The bears didn’t make it past the five deadfall traps Geo had prepared along the cliff above. That once again left two giants to meet the meat grinder. Once more, they didn’t even last long enough for the volunteer flask throwers to need to rabbit away.

“Be careful,” I noted. “Big Red incoming. Paulie, get to cover.”

The dragon was coming from the north. He flew over and breathed fire on the Sandpoint Garrison, a mostly stone structure just across the road from the town hall, where Paulie had taken up a sniping position. After the dragon passed, Paulie peeked his head out. “I’ve got the fire, bro.”

Meanwhile, another pair of stone giants had tried crossing the river just south of Mill’s Pond, but found the caltrops to be too painful to navigate. They headed north and crossed Tanner’s bridge. “More incoming, Geo,” I warned.

“We have a problem,” Orik radioed. I quickly looked over and saw Lenn leaving his position and running towards Geo’s.

“What the hell is he doing?” I asked.

“He heard there were more giants that way.”

“Who told him?”

“That red-headed girl, Shayliss, just showed up and told him that Geo would need his help with the giants over there.”

I cursed. “I fear your position has been compromised. Fall back to the secondary ambush site at Shell Street. Balor, take Shayliss into custody. I don’t know if she’s just trying to be helpful or if the enemy used her to compromise your position, but we don’t have time to sort it out now.”

The dragon flew over and hit the cathedral. The north wing, which was predominantly wood, caught fire, which Paulie quickly dealt with. Geo and his team managed to get to cover before the dragon could get close enough to attack them. It somehow missed spotting Lenn running by. Once it had passed, Lenn and the others dealt with the giants heading their way.

Meanwhile, I radioed that another pair of giants was heading across the Lost Coast bridge on the southeast side of town. The lingering smell of beer drew them to the Two Knight Brewery, where they began demanding tributes of beer to the empty building. Aurora hit them with a grenade to get their attention and then rode straight towards the ambush at the corner of Salmon and Market streets, where Cyrdak and Daviren Hosk waited with more guards and flask throwers. The giants, once more severely weakened by landmines – these being directional anti-tank mines – were easy pickings for the defenders.

Longtooth, who I could now tell was a juvenile red dragon, breathed flames on Sandpoint Theater. Cyrdak rushed over to assist in quelling the flames. With his help, Paulie managed to save the mostly wooden structure.

While all this was happening, I didn’t notice a trio of giants stalking into the area below my vantage. My first notice was when the building shook. They bashed their way into the Scarnetti manor and began tossing out loot. I tapped my microphone and whispered, “Post Epsilon, assistance incoming. Hold fire until enemy is distracted.”

I looked over at the path onto the peninsula. The enemy had managed to miss the mines. I quietly flew over to the other side of the house and conjured a Bralani – a type of celestial creature with wind and lightning powers that also looks like an attractive elf.

“Hit the three giants with a lightning bolt and lead them over to the point on the road with the rune on the ground. Fly the whole way, but stay near the ground. Once you’re ten feet past the rune, turn and engage with everything you have.”

She nodded and took off. Meanwhile, I conjured a trio of lantern archons, which I also ordered to engage the giants, but to stay out of reach. “Epsilon engaging,” came the call over the radio. Between the celestials, the guards and the mass of mines, the giants fell extremely quickly.

I looked down and the pile of loot. A fair number of valuables, but mostly nothing of note, except for the overturned desk. It had a secret drawer under the normal drawers. Curiosity drew me over to check it out. No one could see me as I carefully popped open the drawer and grabbed the document inside. I scanned it quickly and was amazed at what I found. But I didn’t have time to worry about it, the battle was still ongoing. So I pocketed it and got back up on the roof.

The dragon breathed fire on the Hagfish, catching the bar, the docks and a small boat moored there – the “Wistful Widow”, if you’re wondering – on fire. I conjured a pair of small water elementals and sent them out to deal with the fire. I didn’t speak their language, but they got what I meant when I pointed at the flames.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something on the roof of the Kaijutsu Manor. I looked over and spotted the winged creature I had seen before. But she wasn’t looking at me. I followed her gaze and found what she was looking at. Katrine Vinder was just standing there on the sand near the Hagfish. And we weren’t the only ones who saw her.

The dragon landed on the beach, licking its chops. Its attack had been completely devoid of anyone to snack on thanks to our preparations. I cursed again. “Aurora! The dragon’s on the beach! Move quickly! Anyone with a clear shot, take it now!”

The last thing I’d said to the poor girl had been after losing my temper. If she survived, I promised I would be kinder. But it didn’t look likely. She was done for.

Then I heard hoof beats and saw my horse – completely riderless, mind you – barreling down onto the sand between the dragon and the woman. She stamped defiantly and glared at the dragon. A. HORSE. GLARED. AT. A. DRAGON.

The dragon paused, somehow cowed by the equine’s death glare. I shook off my amazement and took off like a bolt.

The horse and dragon would probably have still been at a stalemate when I reached them, but someone threw a grenade. It overshot the dragon and landed between the two. The dragon weathered the painful blow, but the horse didn’t fare quite as well.

I’m fairly sure they’ll be finding pieces of Fluttershy in the sand for years to come.

Aurora struck the dragon in the side with the full brunt of her lance, shattering it into almost as many pieces as Fluttershy. Meanwhile I swooped down and grabbed Katrine. “Hold on!” I commanded. Unable to see me, she did her best to grab on tightly as I flew her back across the harbor and deposited her on Valdemar Manor. “Don’t let her out of your sight!” I told the guards.

Still shaken from the horse’s actions and injured from Aurora’s lance, the dragon took off into the sky once more. More out of pique than anything, it breathed fire on the buildings over near Salmon Street, catching the Sandpoint Mercantile League, the Fatman’s Feedbag and several other buildings on fire. I conjured more water elementals to send out to deal with the problem.

Meanwhile, Paulie hit the dragon with a magical dragon-killing arrow he had managed to find at a local shop. There were more powerful versions that I could make, but I simply hadn’t had time.

The dragon roared in pain and wheeled north. It tried to grab at Paulie, but ended up merely striking him, sending him off the roof. Already flying in that direction, I heard him land. It sounded very painful.

I landed on the roof of the town hall and looked down where Paulie fell. He was still moving, but he looked dazed. I looked at the fleeing dragon and scanned the town. We had won. The giants were dead and the dragon was fleeing. Deaths were minimal, if anyone had died at all. All that was left was to clean up the damage and figure out where to go from here. But there was a little girl who would live in fear, always wondering when the dragon would return to eat everyone.

Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.

“Everyone find positions near the town hall. The dragon is probably coming back our way,” I said softly over the radio. “Someone get Lenn. Paulie, I need you to get up. This will be a great chance for glory.”

“We’re with you,” Aurora responded.

“Let’s do this,” Geo said.

“The town is with you,” Balor Hemlock said.

“Just tell us when to attack,” Shalelu said.

I dispelled my invisibility and cast the spell to allow me to shout extreme distances. “We are victorious, my friends! Look and see as the cowardly dragon Longtooth flees from our might! Laugh! Laugh with me at the coward!” Everyone did as I said and laughter rang through the town.

It wasn’t enough. The dragon wasn’t turning around. I was going to need to sing. I didn’t really have time to make something up, so I just sang the first thing that popped into my head.

“Brave dragon Longtooth ran away
Bravely ran away away
When danger reared its ugly head
He bravely turned his tail and fled
Yes, brave dragon Longtooth turned about
And gallantly he chickened out

Bravely taking to his feet
He beat a very brave retreat
Bravest of the brave, Longtooth!”

The dragon roared and wheeled about. “I will make sure you never sing about me again!” he snarled in draconic.

“Oh, I think I’ll sing this song in all the great cities of the land. Everyone will know of you, o dragon! Unless you think you can stop me.”

“I will enjoy watching your life fade from your eyes!”

“If you want it, come and claim it!” I shouted, turning my body to a duelist’s stance and drawing my gun. I heard the sound of something hitting the walls of the building. I had my suspicions, but I didn’t want to look and risk tipping my hand.

“And you get mad at me for MY plans?!” Fleur asked.

“Your plans don’t usually involve you jumping out of the way at the last second,” I responded.

“Fair enough.” She got bored waiting, so she began singing.

“Oh it's been getting so hard
Living with the things you do to me
My dreams are getting so strange
I'd like to tell you everything I see.

Do you see the man in the black as a matter of fact
His eyes, focused on his gun
And the girl in his corner let no one ignore her
Cause she thinks she's the passionate one

Oh yeah! It was like lightning
Everybody was fighting
And the music was soothing
And they all started grooving”

The dragon was almost in range to breathe fire on me. But I had to wait a few seconds more. “NOW!” I shouted at last as the dragon breathed in.

And the man in the black said, "Everyone attack!"
And it turned into a Sandpoint blitz

I squeezed the trigger and unleashed a barrage of bullets at the dragon’s face. Arrows and crossbow bolts flew from every direction, slamming into the dragon’s sides. I heard Jasper declare the holy wrath of Abadar upon the dragon and a massive crack was followed by another one of those practice poles Lenn had been using came in flying through the air, smacking the dragon in the wing and causing it to choke on its breath.

But perhaps the most important projectiles came from below the dragon. A trio of javelin sized arrows connected to cables made of interwoven strands of steel and mithral slammed into the dragon’s underbelly. “ON-WARD!” Paulie sang out. “TO GLORY!”

I jumped from the roof and flew off west towards the Sandpoint Garrison. From there, I watched as the cables went taut and the dragon slammed into the side of the town hall. It disappeared down the side and I heard it strike the ground.

I got to a better vantage and began summoning more lantern archons, but it was unnecessary. Geo dove from the roof of Savah’s Armory. As he fell, he drew his dagger across the dragon’s wing, shredding it. His tentacles grabbed onto the large bone in the wing closest to the body and snapped it right in two. Aurora rode up and impaled the dragon with another lance, pinning it to the home across Tower Street from the town hall.

Lenn charged in, axe raised high, aimed at the dragon’s head. I smirked at the dragon as I stopped my casting. “Looks like you’re about to get pwned.” The dragon’s skull offered almost no resistance to my friend’s mighty blow. Its brains splattered all over the street.

Relief washed over me in waves. I began to laugh. It started out small at first, but within a few moments, I was roaring with laughter from on top of the building. Everyone else joined in. We had done it. Against all reasonable expectations, we had slain the giant invaders and a freaking dragon. And even crazier, we had done so with no reported casualties.

I probably would have laughed for ten straight minutes, but a projection appeared before me, that of an attractive ebon-skinned woman. Her face was one I had never wanted to see again. “I warned Teraktinus not to underestimate you. His people paid for his mistake.”

“I warned my friends we should have killed you when we had the chance, Lyrie. So I guess we’re even there.”

She actually laughed. “True enough.”

“So, come to offer your surrender?”

“No. I just wanted to see the look on your face when I told you that we got what we came for. And I wanted to thank you for killing the dragon. Lucrecia wasn’t sure how we were going to manage that.” My look must have betrayed confusion. “Take a look at his left hind leg.”

I didn’t need to look. I had a feeling I knew what I’d find. We’d just given the dragon’s soul to power whatever they were claiming souls for. “We gonna let that stand?” Fleur asked.

“No,” I subvocalized, reaching into my pocket.

Lyrie continued ranting about how we would lose and should give up now. Fleur began singing again as I drew the device from my pocket.

Luck be a lady tonight
Luck be a lady tonight
Luck if you've ever been a lady to begin with
Luck be a lady tonight

I began to smirk and Lyrie trailed off. “What is that?” she asked. I didn’t answer. You see, I knew the spell she was using. She was nearby, but she wouldn’t risk this from inside the city. That meant she was likely in one of maybe half a dozen spots. She couldn’t be invisible, not for the spell to work. So I could narrow it down to four spots. Four spots I had earlier suspected would be useful for the enemy wizard to use as vantage points. Unfortunately, I had only been able to prepare against two of those spots, which meant I only had a one in two chance of this working.

I could live with those odds.

Luck let a gentleman see
How nice a dame you can be
I know the way you've treated other guys you've been with
Luck be a lady with me

I hit the button on the detonator. Even as far away as we were, I felt the shockwave as two charges of C-4 exploded. The image of Lyrie reacted in shock and faded. I grinned. A few moments later, another projection appeared before me, slightly bloodied.

“You! I will make sure you pay for this! Teraktinus and I live, but soon you will not. I will meet you again, but next time will be with the full force of Mokmurian’s armies!” The projection faded.

I looked around quickly, spotting them just in time to see them teleport away. Damn. Oh well, nothing to be really ticked about. We’d done well. Better than well. I had no idea how this would affect the greater war, but we had won the battle with a decisive victory.

I had initially planned for this to be a single entry, but I found myself on page 15 of this with at least several pages to go, so I went back and cut it right at the end of the fight. The next section will be the events between the end of the fight and the next section, a special side story I've been looking forward to posting for a while.


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Attack on the Kreeg Clanhold

Spoiler:
We ended up taking Orik, Magrim Emberaxe, Shalelu and Jakardros with us after a quick swing by the fort on our way up to the mountain. That meant we were officially nine, or Fellowship-ready. I’m not soloing a balrog, so someone else will have to be Gandalf. I’ll be the most useless hobbit. Frodo. Yeah, that’s his name.

The trip up to the Kreeg lair was uneventful and we found ourselves looking at a cave entrance guarded by a pair of ogres. We pulled back to the horses. “So, any suggestions on how to take them both out before they can raise an alarm?” I asked.

“Shalelu, Jakardros and I should be able to sneak close enough to take them out simultaneously,” Geo said.

“Polysike, Aurora and I should be ready to support them with bows just in case,” Orik added.

“Perfect, that’ll be the plan. Paulie, you should take up a position over… Okay, anyone know where Paulie went?” I had a bad feeling about this. I rushed over to our vantage point in time to watch the cat man walking calmly over to the ogres.

“Who you?” one of the ogres asked, sounding exactly like I expected.

“You need not be afraid, friends. I come in peace to speak with you about the glories of mother nature,”

“He’s talking about your mother,” one ogre said to the other.

“Don’t talk about my mom!” the other shouted. “She’s the prettiest girl in the Kreegs!” He swung a meaty fist at the cat man, catching him on the side of his head and sending him flying. Paulie hit a tree and lay there for a moment. His eyes were open and just staring out into space.

“We need to help him!” Aurora whispered.

I put my hand on her shoulder. “Not yet. I’ve seen that face before. This could be very interesting.”

The cat reached up and wiped the trickle of blood from his forehead. He licked his finger. “That, my friend, was a mistake!” he sang out. “Ancestors! Let us show them what true glory is! ONWARD!” He said the last word in a sing-song. The whole thing seemed vaguely familiar to me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

Nearly a dozen translucent spirits rushed out from the cat’s body towards the ogres. Before they could so much as cry out, the giants had been beaten to death in a most violent and bloody manner. Their work finished, the spirits evaporated.

“You notice that?” Fleur asked.

“What?” I subvocalized.

“The ghosts. They weren’t catfolk.” Oh wow. She was right. That seemed important, but I wasn’t sure why. There wasn’t time to dwell on it. We had work to do.

Paulie’s face was devoid of all semblance of thought when we got up to him. “What the hell was that?”

“I visited honor upon them.”

“Visited honor? What? You just killed them.”

“Don’t be foolish! Killing equals honor!”

“Oh, right. I forgot. Honor is a code that states that since history is written by the victors, you need only kill all your enemies and tell everyone you were honorable.”

“Exactly! ONWARD!”

We couldn’t have him at the fore of the group. Just like we couldn’t have Lenn there either. Not if we hoped to hit the enemy quietly and bring them down without raising an alarm through the whole compound. Lenn was easy. He’s used to letting Geo scout, so he just took Geo’s request to guard the rear as his natural job. He knew we’d call him to the front for real action.

Paulie, in this state, however, would take some deft handling. “Paulie, can you keep a secret?”

“It is within my capabilities.”

“Geo alerted me to a number of very recent hill giant tracks in the area, leading away from the cave. I suspect that they’re working with the ogres. Probably a patrol. They could come back at any time. I need someone with a keen eye and quick reflexes to join Lenn in guarding our flank against a surprise attack. Will you take this dangerous job for me?”

He considered. “That sounds like a chance for great glory! Why not take this honor for yourself?”

I leaned in conspiratorially. “Aurora’s staying near party center in order to respond to threats from both sides. I need to stay near her in case something startles me so I have someone beautiful to cling to.”

“Say no more, friend! I shall watch the approach behind us. I may even call out for you so you can join me in earning glory when the giants come!”

“And I will make sure you are aware if any truly glorious fights break out before us.” He grinned at my words and clapped me on the shoulder before moving to join Lenn at the party rear. I breathed a sigh of relief. Thank god Paulie wasn’t nearly as adept at telling when someone was lying as he was at bluffing when we needed him to do so.

We headed into the caverns – large enough for ogres, so more than large enough for our party. Not far inside, we found a bunch of bones decorating the wall. But they weren’t just any bones. “Are these dragon bones?” Geo asked.

“Blue dragon, I think,” I replied. “And carved like some kind of scrimshaw.” Most of the carvings were boring, ogre stories or something. But there were a few worth noting. “Sihedron runes. We’re in the right place.”

The first large chamber we came to had a massive statue in the center. “I don’t think that’s a statue,” Aurora noted.

I used magic to study it for a moment. She was right! It was a giant’s corpse, held in place and kept from decay by magic. And it wasn’t just any kind of giant. “That’s a rune giant!” I gasped.

“A what?” Orik asked.

“The books I’ve read about ancient Thassilon occasionally mention them. One book, the only one with any real detail, said that they were created by the ancient empire to control and enslave other giants. Most scholars seem to believe that they are extinct now. This corpse is probably ancient.”

“Well, then he won’t miss his expensive looking gear.” Orik had a point. The giant was wearing some massive, gem encrusted armor and a sihedron medallion that I’m pretty sure was too large for even Flavor Flav.

“Pull the medallion and I’ll prep a spell to shrink the armor,” I said. “Try to be quiet doing it.”

Immediately after removing the medallion, the corpse crumbled into dust, sending the armor tumbling to the ground. Most of the sound was muffled by the dust, but there was a dull thud as it struck the ground. We waited on high alert for a couple minutes, but there were no sounds of a response from deeper within the caverns. I shrank down the armor and we continued on.

As we continued on, we passed a chamber with a large pit. A coin enchanted with light tossed in revealed smoldering bone fragments. We considered the possibility that Lamatar’s corpse was within, but we didn’t want to risk climbing down until we had gotten rid of the cave’s occupants first. So we decided to come back later if we hadn’t already found Lamatar.

Geo, Shalelu and Jakardros scouted ahead while we were studying the pit. They returned a few moments later. “Careful up ahead. They’re patrolling the cave. We took out the first patrol, but there may be others.” Damn. I hadn’t even heard the kill. I was even more amazed when we passed the bodies of a pair of ogres and a freaking hill giant, which looked to have been killed extremely quickly.

Not far past the patrol, we found what looked like it had once been the main den, but had apparently been converted into a forge. I was disgusted by the conditions. As a trained arcane blacksmith, this was strictly amateur hour bull crap. Ventilation was poor, the tools were crude and the damn ogres obviously had no idea what they were doing. Killing them was no longer just a necessity to protect the people of the region. It was now a service to all blacksmiths the world over.

There were ten ogre workers and some kind of task master. There was little chance to kill them all before anyone could escape to raise the alarm within. And there were two exits at the other end of the room. But I had an idea on how to prevent their escape.

I shared my plan with the others and they agreed to the plan. We would make a fair amount of noise, but at least there would be plausible question about what was going on. If we moved quickly afterward, our enemy would be unable to really prepare properly.

I cast an invisibility charm on Orik and Aurora. They moved quickly and as quietly as possible to block the far exits. Then I told Lenn and Paulie we had giants that needed killing. “GLORIOUS!” Paulie shouted as Lenn charged.

As suspected, several ogres tried to flee, but were cut down by the now visible defenders. The rest died quickly to the party’s brutal onslaught. Sadly, I didn’t contribute much beyond opening with a burst of radiant light that blinded several ogres and seared their very souls due to the evil within. Lenn got the most individual kills and Geo was number one on assists, in case you’re curious.

As everyone’s minor wounds were healed up, I took a moment to look over the ogres’ handiwork. They were making weapons for even larger giants. They’d be moderately effective, but overall were very shoddy. If I had submitted one of these to my blacksmithing instructor, he would have kicked me out of school so quickly that I would have attained infinite mass and/or traveled back in time.

We moved forward quickly and found a trio of annis hags weaving foul magic in a chamber off the main path. Aurora and Lenn both went halo mode and charged in. Not sure about Lenn, but I know Aurora was thinking of the hag Geo had told us about and the state of the bodies she had been dumping. She was at least as angry as I was about that.

The room was too small for more than a few of us to enter, so our other frontline fighters moved in while Paulie, Shalelu and Jakardros took shots from the doorway. I wasn’t certain I could avoid hitting allies, so I watched down the pathway for incoming enemies. As a precaution, I summoned a Hound Archon to act as a wall between me and any oncoming threat.

After a few moments of fighting, one of the hags summoned a cloud of fog and tried to escape, running right into my hound archon, who knocked her to the ground with amazing efficiency. She looked up at me and her eyes showed her complete terror. “Please,” she begged. “Show me mercy!”

“Like the mercy you and your sisters showed those poor people your sister was dumping into the river?” I drew my gun as she cried out in terror. “In the name of the governor of Magnimar, by the authority invested in me to protect the citizens of this region, I hereby charge you with the brutal murders of at least several citizens or travelers in this region. How do you plead?”

“Please! You can’t do this!”

“I can and I will. Your plea has been entered.” I fired my gun point blank, right between her eyes. Blood dripped from a single, perfect wound as the light faded from her eyes. “You have been found guilty. Sentence: Death. Justice has been served.” I turned to the hound archon. “Before you fade, decapitate all three hag corpses.” I don’t believe they have any kind of resurrection power, but I didn’t want to take any chances.

We continued onward and found what looked like an abandoned shrine to Lamashtu. It was a bit curious that the ogres had been worshippers of the mother of monsters and had stopped. Not that I cared. Whatever else they had decided to worship instead was probably just as bad. At this point, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find that they had switched to worshipping a VHS of Deliverance they had found, so anything less unlikely wouldn’t have fazed me.

What did surprise me was the shrine’s guardian. He was obviously a wight. His head was encircled in a crown of ice and his hand was a claw of icicles. But the really surprising part was when he spoke. “Jakardros! I see you have come to join me! I will usher you and your allies into an icy grave so you can come back strong as I did.”

“No!” Jakardros yelled. “Lay down your weapons, Lamatar. We’re going to lay you to rest and return you to Myriana!”

The wight laughed and charged. Aurora stepped in the way and took the blow. It was only glancing, but drew a bit of blood from her cheek. The blood spattered on the wight and it recoiled in pain. Steam rose from where the blood touched the creature.

Aurora took the opportunity to unleash a flurry of her own blows and Lenn charged in as well. I unleashed another burst of light, which also burned the creature. All in all, it wasn’t much of a fight. Nine to one made it fairly easy.

Magrim consecrated the shrine, destroying it. He also consecrated the bones of Lamatar, which we then shoved in a magic bag. Then we continued on deeper in the cave. As we approached what we would soon learn was the final chamber of the cave, we heard someone shout from within.

“Curse you, Lucrecia, you coward! Get back here and fight!”

Fleur growled. “She got away again!”

Within the massive chamber was a massive throne. Seated upon it was a stone giant. If I had to guess, he was maybe thirteen feet tall. In the room with him was one more stone giant who looked like a guard and eleven ogre skeletons armed with ogre hooks.

The fight was chaotic, but this is more or less what happened. Geo and Shalelu focused on the stone giant guard. Aurora, Orik and Magrim focused on the skeletal ogres. Paulie, Jak and I supported everyone where we could and Lenn charged the giant on the throne.

Geo and Shalelu had an easy enough time with it. Geo had been studying for this for years, perhaps even his whole life. Tendons were slashed, kidneys were pulled. Arrows went into the eyes. You know, that kind of thing.

Aurora, Magrim and Orik did the whole “Back-to-Back Badasses” thing. The skeletons didn’t stand much of a chance, especially with Magrim channeling holy energy and Paulie and Jak splintering bones with well-placed arrows.

The real meat of the fight, however, was between Lenn and the giant leader. The giant was apparently the necromancer who had created the skeletons, because he cast a fly charm and took off higher into the chamber. Lenn jumped and swung as he began his flight, managing to score a glancing blow.

The giant laughed. “You are no match for Barl Breakbones!” He flew around the chamber casting spells at us, seemingly at random. Not that I’m complaining. If he didn’t want to focus, that was fine with me.

Meanwhile, Lenn began climbing the wall. Experienced rock climbers will tell you to keep three points of contact at all times. Lenn, on the other hand, looked more like a beast than an experienced climber. But it was effective enough. He got high enough, leapt out and swung, scoring a great hit on the giant, but not enough to bring him down.

Lenn began his climb again, but the giant was smart enough to keep out of jump range. He laughed at Lenn’s frustrated roar. But he hadn’t counted on one thing.

“BEHOLD THE WIZARD!” I sang out. “BEWARE HIS POWER! UNSPEAKABLE POWER!”

“You’re such a drama queen,” Fleur noted.

“I just don’t want anyone to think I’m doing nothing this whole fight.”

The giant’s head snapped in my direction. He looked on in horror as I dispelled his flight charm. I just waved as he began floating towards the ground with the fragmented remnants of his spell. It was either that or wait long enough for Lenn to get frustrated and decide to grow wings.

As the giant neared the ground, I winked and pointed at Lenn. “DIE! GIANT!” Lenn roared and delivered a falling axe from the turnbuckle. I’m pretty sure the ref didn’t see it. I did and I will never forget the sight of his head flying off of his body, slamming into an ogre skeleton, bouncing and landing right on top of another’s ogre hook.

“GOAL!” Fleur shouted, even if only I could hear her.

With Lenn free to help, the remaining skeletons were brought down in a matter of moments. All in all, it was a fairly good fight. In the end, ogre skeletons are way more fun to fight than actual ogres.

Eff my life that I have an opinion on that subject.

We went through the caves and found more evidence of Lucrecia’s presence. It looked like we had missed her after all. It also looked like the ogres had sent out their valuables in tribute to their new giant masters. We did find some loot, including the equipment the ogres were using. Mostly worthless, but it would be worthwhile to break them down into magicite.

We also found a bunch of equipment that the ogres had stolen from the Black Arrows. It was all stamped with their emblem, so it was quite easy to tell apart from other items we found. “Return this to the Black Arrows?” I asked the others. I got nods pretty much all around. Jakardros looked surprised and thanked us.

We also found a large missive among Barl’s things. It appeared to be written on some kind of stretched hide. What follows is the text of the missive.

Barl,

Teraktinus indicates that a human town called Sandpoint may hide what my Lord seeks. He will lead several of the People as well as the dragon Longtooth and the human wizard on a raid of the town soon. Prepare your ogre slaves to cover their retreat to Jorgenfist. Be ready to return at my command. You will obey!
-M

“Sandpoint is in danger,” Shalelu said. “We must hurry back.”

“I don’t have any more teleportation spells prepared. We’ll need to return to the fort and sleep. We can port there in the morning. Besides, I think we have time. Give me a sec.” I was a fair scribe and did a quick analysis. As I thought, the ink was fresh. It couldn’t have been delivered earlier than yesterday. I wasn’t entirely certain where the giants’ stronghold was, but I could make some educated guesses. “Yeah, we have time.”

“How much?” Aurora asked.

I did some quick calculations. “If we assume that they started a day closer than here and assume they travel without rest, then they will arrive sometime tomorrow. But I don’t think that’s likely. ‘M’ – Mokmurian, maybe? – seems cautious. They’ll likely travel only at night to avoid detection until they’re closer. Realistically, they should arrive within about four days, maybe as early as two days if my assumptions are fairly off.”

We loaded up with as much valuable stuff as we could carry and prepared to head out. But I had one more thing left to do with the cave. I pulled out a detonator and pressed the button, setting off C-4 charges I had placed in key places within the cavern as we’d gone along. Yes, I can make C-4, now that I have a proper lab and magicite, anyway. My third cousin used to be an explosives expert for the IRA. I spent a summer visiting family in Ireland and learned a few things. My grandfather wanted me to become a priest. My uncle snuck me some whisky. And my new favorite cousin and I spent time away from town blowing stuff up. It was a good trip.

The ground shook as the caverns collapsed. Several of my companions looked at me in alarm. “What? We don’t want anything else moving into these caves. They’re too close to the fort and village.”

Despite the fact that it was out of our way, we went to the Shimmerglens first. The nymph, Myriana, was overjoyed with the return of Lamatar’s corpse. She immediately cast a spell which I recognized as a reincarnation. Despite the fact that reincarnation is supposed to be blocked by necromancy, it worked, but not without cost.

The nymph’s ghost faded away as Lamatar returned, now a kitsune. The fox man didn’t even look over his new body before dropping to his knees. “Myriana?! What have you done?” he sobbed. Jakardros walked over and put his hand on his friend’s shoulder and Shalelu stood next to the two of them during the wordless exchange. “I swear to you, my beloved, that I will serve as guardian of the place for the rest of my life.”

“I really wish that we could do something for them,” Aurora said. “To have been through so much but to end up parted after all…”

“Yeah,” I said. “But we would need a more powerful spell than what we have access to. If she hadn’t become an undead, we could probably raise her. I think Paulie has the spell we’d need and I can get the materials quickly. But this is beyond us.”

“What about the scroll?” Magrim asked Orik.

“Scroll?” Aurora and I asked simultaneously.

Orik chuckled. “I must have spent too much time with you people to even be considering this.” He shook his head. “We were given a scroll capable of resurrecting even those who have become undead in case of an emergency. Generally, we were supposed to only use it if the person in question was believed to have mission-critical information.” He reached into his pack and pulled out a scroll, handing it to Magrim. “If anyone asks, this was what you required as a payment to make our new gun in addition to the cost of materials. If it’s as good as you indicate, the boss won’t likely chew me out for wasting this thing.”

“Orik,” I said. “You’re my hero.” I looked around for a moment before spotting the pixie. “Yap! Front and center!”

The pixie sped out from behind the bush he had been cowering behind. “What is it, you who helped lay my mistress to rest?”

“After your mistress died, what happened to her body?”

“I recovered it and returned it here, to her home, and buried it.”

“Show me where.” The pixie led me to the spot and I dug out the spot immediately using a magic spell instead of hard labor.

Lamatar rushed to me, livid. He grabbed my shirt and pulled my face in front of his, growling. “What the hell are you doing?!” I didn’t respond, instead just winking. The dwarf, meanwhile, walked over and grabbed one of the now scattered bones. He unrolled the scroll and began reading the spell. Lamatar apparently had some basic knowledge of spellcraft, because immediately realized what was going on. He released his grip on my shirt and moved over to the dwarf, his expression hopeful.

After approximately a minute of casting, the spell was complete. Glowing tendrils of magical energy enveloped the bone. They shimmered and writhed all around, expanding into the shape of a woman and coalesced into flesh.

Myriana’s eyes blinked. She stared at each of us in surprise. Lamatar threw his arms around her and the two shared a heartwarming embrace. I couldn’t help but smile. I’ve seen so many horrible things in this world. This was one of those very rare moments where I got to see something that made it all almost feel worthwhile.

Fleur appeared next to me, sporting a pair of fox ears and tail, looking almost like Holo the Wise Wolf. “You think their kids will be as attractive as Samantha said her friend Veil is?”

“…And the moment is over,” I subvocalized, annoyed.

“What? I’m just saying.”

“As I understand it, Queen Velandhrathal is even more beautiful that Samantha indicated. And two, you know the rule.”

“Fine,” she said, rolling her eyes.

“Fleur, say it.”

“Yes, mother. No yiffing.”

After several moments of embracing her beloved, Myriana reached out and touched a tree. Leaves wrapped around her in some semblance of clothing. Dammit, I had been so caught up in the moment I hadn’t even noticed that she was naked. And she was hot, dammit!

“I cannot repay you for this gift you have given me,” she said. “But I will try my best. First of all, I hereby decree that all friends of your fortress and the village need fear nothing within my domain. And should someone wish to attack them, my people will help as much as we can.” She pointed to me. “And you. Yap tells me that you are a musician, are you not?”

“I am,” I said.

She reached up and carefully removed a lock of her hair tied with a vine. “Then take this and my blessing, musician. And again, all of you, take my thanks.”

It was more than just hair. It was a token of favor, a sign of a nymph’s blessing. I knew bards who would kill for that, since it was well known to be a type of magic that improved one’s ability to perform. Kinda like the patronage of a leanan sidhe, without the demands of love and devotion. Also, nymphs don’t feed on the performer’s life force like their fey counterparts.

Next time I was in Absalom, I was going to rub this in a few people’s faces. But for now, I just thanked her and drew out my violin. Hey, it’s tradition. You’re supposed to play a song for the nymph. If not before, then after gaining the blessing.

I was feeling a bit nostalgic, so I sang one of the most difficult songs I knew – well, it’s easy to get tongue tied singing anyway – in a brogue as I played along. And I translated it to Taldan as I was doing so. Let’s just say it wasn’t easy. Rocky Road to Dublin had always been difficult to do well even in English. But I had no trouble, at least in part thanks to the nymph’s blessing.

The rest of the party just seemed to take it as a given that since I was acting as if I knew what I was doing, I probably actually knew what I was doing. I don’t need that kind of power.

The song complete, we said our farewells and headed back to the fort. The rest of the Black Arrows were as shocked by our return of the magic items as Jakardros had been. They cheered for us and one of the women – an attractive blond who had been making eyes at me since we’d rescued them – took me off to a secluded part of the fort and very enthusiastically showed me her gratitude.

It was too early to sleep, so I decided to burn my last prepared major spell for the day. After all, preparing it had been why I couldn’t teleport us to Sandpoint right now, so I might as well get some good out of it. As I had been putting my clothing back on, I’d had an idea. It had come to me all of a sudden.

Elastic. I wanted to make something out of elastic.

But what to make with it? Sweatbands might be an option, albeit a silly one. And they wouldn’t serve much of a purpose. But maybe there was something that would. Aurora had been trying to make us into a more cohesive unit and I wanted to help her. Perhaps there was a way to do so using the amazing stretchiness of elastic. It would have to be something at once unifying and showing each person’s individuality to fly with our group, kind of how they used to paint planes with individual designs back in the old days. They were all the same, but at the same time were also unique.

I concentrated, forming what I wanted in my mind’s eye. I decided on Catalina blue for the color as it would clash the least with everyone’s clothing. For the base form, I used something I had made before back home, a simple armband. In fact, one should be sitting in my closet right now, if no one has messed with my old cosplay stuff. The one at home wasn’t elastic. Cloth seemed more authentic, but I had started this wanting to play with elastic, not have to measure everyone I knew to get a proper fit.

For the individual symbols, I used something that I felt fit each person. Lenn’s was something of an Iron Chef/Jolly Roger logo, combining a pair of sausages with a chef’s hat. For Paulie, I used that symbol of his with a Cheshire cat grin laid over it. For Geo, I chose a Chibi-fied Cthulu, not for the tentacles, but because that way lies madness.

For my own, I put together a number of symbols, referencing Voltron, Strike Witches and My Little Pony. I figured I’d make up a reason for those symbols later. The only thing that I really planned ahead was the repeat use of the number five. There are five of us and I felt it appropriate.

Finally, for Aurora, I chose an image I recalled seeing of a bunny dressed as a maid and applied “American Kirby is Hardcore” to turn it into a badass, throwing in a couple of chain guns and an eye patch because Aurora’s a badass and deserves a badass emblem. As for why I chose a bunny? Is it not good enough that Aurora’s hotter than any Playboy Bunny?

Not buying it, eh? Okay, the truth is she has a birthmark on her back between her shoulder blades that looks kinda like a bunny’s head. Not a Playboy bunny profile but a rabbit looking at you kind of thing. She doesn’t need to know I’ve seen it, if she even knows she has it. So I’ll make something up. Hell, better she thinks that I think of naked women when I think of her than tell her I accidentally saw her mostly naked.

I probed it with the magic, and despite being an exotic material for the region, apparently elastic wasn’t an expensive spell from a magic perspective. I could make more than five very easily. I decided to go ahead and make some for the Black Arrows with a black emblem on a silver band and some for Orik’s company with a gold emblem on a red band.

I had one of the sentries go retrieve Paulie, then I cut my hand and worked the magic. It wasn’t too difficult all in all. While waiting for the cat man who I was starting to suspect had once been reincarnated just like Lamatar, I bundled up each set of bands in a piece of cloth.

When the two returned, I gave the sentry the bundles and asked him to take them to Orik and Jakardros. Paulie healed me up, right as rain, and I enlisted his help in gathering our friends.

I went to find Geo. He was doing some sort of horrifying experiment with the alchemist who had arrived the other day.

It was at that moment that I finally recognized the tattoo. It was the mark of a guild, one with a particular reputation for magical science gone mad. He was an Oenopion Fleshforger. They used all sorts of magical and alchemical means to try to create new and better soldiers through the horrifying art of fleshwarping.

It was altogether possible that Geo had joined these monsters. I knew he wouldn’t use their torturous techniques on others, but experiments on himself weren’t out of the question. Far from it, they seemed to be his standard modus operandi. Just where this trip down the rabbit hole would lead, I had no idea. But I wanted no part of it.

I told him to come meet us when he was done, then just shut the door and left. I didn’t want to know what they were doing. None of my business.

We gathered a little over an hour later and I presented them to my friends and allies. They seemed to like them and were amazed at the stretchiness of them. As I was putting mine on, Aurora asked me what the Japanese characters on them meant. I couldn’t very well tell her that they said “Disciplinary Committee”, so instead I said “Those Who Punish the Wicked”. It was close enough. In that moment, I felt that we had all bonded in our common goals.

Those who would prey on others, those who would do harm to the innocent. And especially those with Teraktinus who were planning to attack Sandpoint in the near future. Take notice now. The Disciplinary Committee is coming to teach you the rules of society.

Koi koi.

Special note: What follows are links to the images for Kyle, Aurora and Paulie's symbols. I did the one for Kyle using MS Paint, the other two were hand drawn by the other two players. Thought someone might get a kick out of them.
http://wow.allakhazam.com/Im/image/267336
http://wow.allakhazam.com/Im/image/267334
http://wow.allakhazam.com/Im/image/254670

Got a long work week ahead of me, so plenty of time to write the next section. Hopefully have that one up in the usual time, despite how long it is.


UnArcaneElection wrote:
** spoiler omitted **

While it wasn't technically my initial idea, I rules-lawyered the ever loving poop out of the game and Kyle had to pass a number of high-DC diplo checks to get the GM agree to that one.


UnArcaneElection wrote:
I wonder if ** spoiler omitted **

That's actually something I'm considering. I have several options on the table for Fleur, two of which I have concrete plans to use.

Also, I submitted the next section to the others for review last Thursday, but yet another change in one's work schedule means I haven't actually seen him long enough in the last three days to see if he's read it.

Still, while waiting on that, the section beyond is already under way. Just wait until you see what the GM has in mind for

Spoiler:
Shayliss and Katrine Vinder
and the new development with
Spoiler:
Geo
.


2 people marked this as a favorite.

To the Shimmerglens and Beyond!

Spoiler:
Today was the day, and it was going to keep happening again and again.

I slept a couple more hours before waking again and deciding it was time to get to work. I carefully extricated my arm from beneath Aurora without waking her and took a seat before the fire. I mused that it was good that it was a magical fire, since a real fire likely would have sucked all the oxygen from the room by now. I never would have used the bead had I not tested it before, so don’t worry, I’m not stupid.

(Note in the margin: You chose to get up and work instead of cuddling with the beautiful woman. I heartily disagree.)
(Note in the margin: Shut up, Fleur.)

I prepared my spells for the day, mixing utility and combat spells since I wasn’t sure what we would need today. I left a few spells unprepared in case I needed a specific spell later. But right now, I only needed one specific spell.

A few moments later, I entered into my own private workshop in a temporary demiplane. A number of constructs made of magical force were waiting for me. When I cast the spell, the constructs look like robotic geth, but they take whatever shape the caster’s subconscious deems as a perfect representation for a crafter. I’d imagine that most wizards would probably end up conjuring humans, dwarves or maybe even gnomes. I shudder to imagine the hell that would be a workshop filled with gnomes.

Today, there were nine standard geth and a single different looking one. The different one couldn’t do any normal crafting work. Instead, its job was in deconstruction. It could break down any item into base parts, even deconstructing permanent enchantments into useful material.

I handed the machine the mithral head and Aurora’s old armor. “Turn everything into magicite,” I told it.

“Understood, Kyle-Wizard.” It immediately got to work converting the goods.

I should explain what magicite is. If you haven’t already figured out, I was the one who named it, stealing the name from a game. As far as I know, I’m the only one who has ever used this material. In fact, my spell is the only source of the material I’ve ever encountered.

But what exactly is magicite? Put simply, it’s raw crafting potential turned into a physical material. With this spell, I can convert crafted goods and materials into magicite or turn magicite into new crafted goods or enchantments.

As for its physical properties, it doesn’t seem to have any useful ones. It’s metallic, weighs about the same as steel, but isn’t as strong. It conducts electricity, but not well. Its boiling and freezing points aren’t great. It doesn’t seem to alloy with any other materials. It’s only useful in the context of my spell and the more common spell used by wizards to fabricate things from base materials.

Conversion doesn’t allow me to get more value from a material than I could get from just selling the item and buying the materials I need. I have learned how to use slightly less magicite than I should strictly need for any work to get the same results, though this is exactly the same as how I cut corners using normal materials. It’s almost as if some cosmic Game Master has told me that he would allow me to cheat time, but not money at the game that is life. The main benefit of using magicite is that I don’t have to go to a town and buy materials or worry about finding a buyer for valuable loot we find on our adventures. Hell, I can even convert coins into magicite and back again at a static one-to-one ratio.

As for where the idea came from to incorporate this functionality in my spell, that’s a simple enough answer. I figured that if that Thassilonian spell allowed me to convert my blood into crafting materials or magical components, then there must be a way to do the same with other materials. It was a surprisingly simply puzzle to solve.

I had been doing a bit of work – mostly in my head – on understanding the technological devices I’d read about in the copied tome. It had only been a day or so, but I was ready to create not just my first technological marvel, but a Frankensteinian hybrid of magic and machine.

With the help of the geth, it wasn’t too long before I held it in my hand. I grinned as I looked at my first magitech battery. It was like the silver disk batteries I’d read about and much more powerful than anything we could make on Earth at that size, but there was more to it than that. It contained magical properties and would completely recharge itself once per day by siphoning ambient magical energy. As a downside, they were actually a microscopic amount larger than the normal ones. They’ll fit in normal battery slots, but might be a bit harder to get out. Optimally, one wouldn’t need to do so.

In addition to the battery, I crafted another of my own custom designs. In truth, I wanted to craft something from the tome, but I didn’t have the materials to do so. So, instead of making a rifle that fires focused beams of sound for Aurora, I instead made a Submachine Coilgun* for myself. It would be most efficient as a semi-automatic weapon, but if I needed to put out a wall of bullets, it could do so.

(Margin Note: *A coilgun is a weapon that uses electromagnets to fire a metallic slug – usually ferromagnetic material – instead of using an explosive charge.)

I started off simple with the bullets. I had plans for much more complex materials, but for now I would just use steel slugs. With a simple spell, I could craft dozens of them at once from a small block of iron or steel – not sure if I can use magicite with that weak of a spell. Or I could use the Thassilonian spell to turn my blood directly into bullets.

(Margin Note: Blood Bullets? Are we Deadman Wonderland now?)

My work finished, I left the magical workshop. The sun had just begun to rise and Aurora was still sleeping, so I headed outside to the fort’s training yard. A pair of Black Arrows were practicing archery on some wood and straw targets.

“Good morning, my lord,” one said in greeting.

“A bit brisk today,” I said. “Fog’s starting to roll in.”

The other nodded. “Should clear up by midmorning. So what brings you out here this morning?”

“I was thinking of testing out a new toy I just finished. Mind if I join you for a bit?”

“Not at all,” the first said.

As they watched, I aimed the gun and took a shot. Complete miss. I adjusted the sight and fired again. Closer, but only nicked the edge. I continued on this way until I was confident that I had the sights perfectly set.

I learned a lot in about half an hour practicing. First of all, I’m not a great shot. It’s a lot different firing a real gun than it is firing a game gun. I had gotten by with the muzzle loaded pistol due to using it at very close range, but this was an advanced weapon and I had no excuse not to use it at a longer range. So that meant I would have to practice. Either that or make a laser weapon – which would be much closer to a video game light gun – but a laser essentially burns something and there’s plenty of magic protecting against fire. No, that was a weakness I didn’t want to introduce to my primary fallback weapon.

Once the sights were set, the weapon was fairly accurate. On the softer straw target, I could score hits every five or so shots – probably increase chance of hit to one in two if I were a better shot – at about three hundred feet. On the wooden target, maybe one in twenty were managing to penetrate despite having a similar hit rate. This got much better as long as I was within a hundred and fifty feet or so.

Additionally, the sound of firing was much quieter, but there was still sound. After all, the bullets were firing at a muzzle velocity of somewhere around twelve hundred meters per second – I’ve done the math – so it still set off a minor sonic boom.

And finally, it only does about as much damage as a twenty two. But that’s per shot. I could make a bigger weapon, but I’d have to sacrifice either fire rate or make it a two-hander. Neither was acceptable, so it would be fine. I could enhance its damage with enchantments later, or maybe make explosive rounds or something.

“That’s pretty impressive,” someone said behind me. I turned to see Orik standing there. “How do you make it so quiet? Using a different kind of gunpowder?”

I grinned. “Nope. Not using powder at all.”

His eyebrow raised in surprise. “Then how do you fire it?”

“Well, it’s a bit hard to explain. But effectively I’m using artificially created lightning.”

“Magic?”

“Not exactly.” I popped open the gun’s battery casing. “It’s a bit difficult to pull out, let me grab my spare.” I pulled another battery out of my pack. “It uses one of these.”

He inspected it for a moment. “That almost looks like a Numerian Silverdisk.”

That surprised me. “You’ve seen one before?”

“A mercenary I used to run with had one as a lucky charm. I didn’t know they could be used to make guns.”

“They’re what we call batteries. They hold a charge of electricity – which is similar enough to lightning for these purposes. I got ahold of one from a trader for cheap. He didn’t know what he had. I’ve been studying it for months. I don’t know where they came from, but they’re more advanced than what we have back home. Well, I finally figured it out the other day and made a few adjustments to allow it to recharge using ambient magic. And once I had a couple of these, I had to find a use for them, so I made a gun by adapting tech from back home to use these new batteries.”

Yeah, I lied. But I needed to hide where I had gotten the tech from. If the Technic League finds out, there could be trouble. And it wasn’t completely untrue. The coilguns were basically tech I created using knowledge I’d learned back on Earth. I just used alloys and techniques I learned from reading my book to make it work. On a side note, mithral, gold and various trace metals make for an excellent conductive wire. Just in case you’re curious.

I could see the wheels turning in Orik’s head. “Any chance you could make a bigger one?”

“Big enough to mount on the roof of a carriage?” He nodded. “I had a feeling you might ask. I’ve already designed one. Get me the materials and I’ll make one for you, since we seem to be working together a lot. It won’t be as quiet as this one, though.”

In truth, I had designed four coilguns. The first is my little Pizzicato, the one handed SMG. It fires smaller ammunition – all ammunition I’ve designed is a proprietary size, from O’Halloran Coilgun Projectile(OCP) Small to OCP Large – than any of the others and is the only one hander I’ve made. I designed it to look like an M-9 Tempest from Mass Effect because I could. The second is the light machine gun, which I’ve dubbed “Crescendo”. I designed that one to look like a futuristic version of the Thompson and it uses OCP Medium which it can only fire on full auto.

The last two both use OCP Large. The first is the Tremolo, which is effectively a larger version of the Crescendo that can only be used mounted or at least on a tripod. It burns through the belt fed ammunition at an amazing rate – at least on paper. The final one is the Martelé, which is designed to be a semi-automatic weapon with a longer range and more stopping power per round than the other three. And, of course, I designed it to look like an FN P90 because it’s a weapon of war, meant to KILL your enemy.

(Margin Note: You realize no one’s going to get that reference, right?)

“Put together a shopping list for me and I’ll get everything for you as quickly as I can.”

“Actually, the materials I need are fairly hard to find. I’ve made contact with a trader who can get the materials fairly quickly through his network of contacts. Get me the gold to buy them and I’ll have him pick them up.” Again, that wasn’t true. But gold and other valuable metals convert to magicite extremely efficiently, so I’d be able to get what I needed that way.

“Contact your trader and find out how much you’ll need. I’ll see about getting it as soon as I can.”

“Will do. I’ll show your spellcasters how to make more of the bullets from steel ingots sometime between now and then.” I knew exactly how much I would need, but I had to wait at least a day to let him think I was looking into it. He couldn’t give away information he didn’t have.

I spotted Geo as I headed back into the building. He had fresh surgery wounds. If he didn’t want to tell me about it, I wasn’t inclined to ask. It did bug me that I couldn’t recall what the tattoos his visitor had meant. But I had too much on my plate at the moment. I’d figure it out later.

Paulie was trying to sell something to a soldier when I ran across him. He spotted me as I walked by and gave me a wide grin. “Tell me, can I interest you in a wonderful new product?” Great. Apparently he was Billy Mays again.

“Not really. We should start getting everyone together so we can head out.”

“Excellent! Are we going to go back to Turtleback Ferry to hunt down Lucrecia?”

I sighed. “No. We’re going after the fort’s commander in the Shimmerglens.”

“We can make that work. We can sell a lot to a customer who feels indebted to us. Also, I doubt Lucrecia is where I saw her yesterday.”

“What.”

“I told you all about it, but you were more worried about the dam.” When had he told me about… oh. Fleur swore. In the water. She was the snake in the water he had been talking about.

I flagged down a nearby Black Arrow. “Go find Jakardros and Orik Van Caskerkin and send them to me immediately.” The urgency in my voice must have shown. He ran at a dead sprint.

It took less than five minutes for both to reach me. “What is it?” Orik asked, looking annoyed.

“I just learned that Lucrecia was spotted at Turtleback Ferry last night. I need someone to go check on the town.”

Jakardros nodded. “I don’t think my people are up to it yet. I understand if you need to go, though I was really hoping you’ll be going to the Shimmerglens to look for the captain.”

“I’d really rather not put that off any longer,” I agreed. “Orik, can you and your people check into it? There’s a thousand gold coins in it if you can bring me her head.”

“We’ll look into it.” I could almost see dollar signs in his eyes as he took his leave.

“Meanwhile, we’ll need a couple Black Arrows to go clean the corpses out of the river,” I told Jakardros.

“We can handle that.” I turned to leave, but he stopped me. “Actually, a merchant arrived early this morning. Hoping to make a few gold coins selling us supplies.”

“Do you know the man?”

“Yes. He’s a generally okay person, though I’d keep an eye on your wallet while he’s here.”

“Let’s see what he has.”

The merchant had an eye patch, a hook hand and a peg leg. Yarr. Okay, so not the peg leg. But he did have the eye patch and the hook hand. Which begs the question: Is the hook hand directly at fault for the eye patch?

Jakardros introduced me to the merchant, Phileris. The man had brought a number of weapons and tools, but nothing I was interested in. What I did find myself interested in was his selection of horses. He had several horses to choose from. Most were work animals, but there were a couple fit for bearing riders on rough terrain.

Of those, there was one that immediately caught my eye. There was something about the horse that felt immediately familiar. It was a mare with very light tan – almost a pale yellow – coat. She seemed to be hiding from us behind the rest of the horses.

“You have a keen eye for horses,” the merchant said to me. “But she isn’t going to be very good for your purposes. She’s never let anyone ride her and is very nervous around new people. She’s incredibly brave otherwise though. Never seen a horse stare down a snake.”

“You’re joking,” Jakardros accused.

“Absolutely true. Snake just calmed down and slithered off. It’s too bad she’s just no good around people.”

“I have a good feeling,” I said. I motioned over Aurora, Disney Princess Extraordinaire. “I need your help with this horse,” I told her, explaining the problem.

“I’m sure I can convince her to let you ride given a few days,” she said.

I grinned. “I think I can do better. Jak, you guys have any small animals? Chickens or something?”

“Shalelu caught us some rabbits, which we’re breeding for meat.”

Rabbits? Perfect. “Aurora, would you go get me a rabbit and bring it here, nice and calm?”

She returned a few moments later with a snow white rabbit. I sat down on the ground and had her hand it over, then got some vegetables from the merchant. Then, after having everyone back away from me, I began feeding the bunny and singing softly to it.

It took a couple minutes, but the mare began inching her way toward me, curious. A few minutes more and she was right beside me. Without looking up at her, I gave her a carrot and gently patted her muzzle. The horse actually laid down beside me to get a closer look at the rabbit, who regarded her warily. I held it forward so the two could get to know each other.

Within ten minutes, I was fairly certain the horse trusted me completely. “See, Fluttershy?” I said. “People just need to get to know you better, don’t they?” I put a saddle on her back and hopped up. She looked at me and calmed when she realized it was me. “Let’s do a lap around the yard and see how fast you can go.”

After the lap, she let Aurora feed her an apple. All animals perceive Aurora favorably. She would have made a good druid. Meanwhile, I perused the merchant’s magic stocks. It was mostly mundane stuff, healing potions and the like, but he did have a scroll of a spell that would turn an animal into a stone figurine. I bought that to add to my spellbook in case I needed it.

As we led Fluttershy to the rest of our horses, Aurora stopped me. “What spell did you use to do that?”

“No magic,” I said. “Just intuition. She reminded me of a fictional horse I know, so I went with my gut and acted like I was trying to befriend that horse. I think she has a role to play in the prophecy, based on my vision.” I didn’t tell her that I was starting to suspect that this was going to end with six dead horses and that trying to prevent it would fail or, even worse, might result in us failing to stop a much worse result.

She didn’t seem to believe me. No one understands me.

We headed out into the Shimmerglens and were immediately struck by the signs of decay. I’m not sure how to describe it. Swamps are pretty ripe normally, but they’re alive. This place was very much not so. The only life present was insect life. The plants were dead. The fish were dead. Even the snakes were dead, not that I was complaining.

We might have wandered for hours, but then the pixie found us as we were walking our horses through some muddy terrain. He was about two feet tall, which is larger than I imagine when I think of pixies. His hair was blue and spiky – anime hair, really – and he had large blue butterfly wings. “Humans! Help, please! Mistress in trouble!” His voice was high pitched and annoying, but he’s a pixie, so that’s a tautology.

“Of course she is,” I said. “Just once, I want to show up somewhere, have people rush out and offer to help us with our problems instead of begging us for help with theirs.”

Aurora gave me a look that said, “Be nice.”

“Tell us about your mistress,” Geo said. He thought about it a moment. “Actually, what is your name?”

“I am Yap.” Yap? Really? God, I hate pixies. “My mistress is the nymph Myriana, Princess of the Shimmerglens! She is very ill! Death would have been better! Her sickness is infecting the land. You are friends of Lamatar, her human lover, yes? Please, he would not want her left like this! Have tried everything to cure her forlorn heart! You must do something! I will take you to her!” He said all of this without stopping to take a breath.

Well, that was where we were going. We could use a guide. “We might as well,” I began to say, but only got as far as “We mi-“ before Lenn reached out and grabbed the pixie by the ankle.

Lenn sniffed the now upside down pixie and licked it. He made a disgusted face and tossed it aside. “Gross! You wouldn’t make very good sausage!”

What. I pinched the bridge of my nose in an attempt to stave off the aneurysm Lenn was leading me towards. “Lenn, buddy…we really shouldn’t make sausage out of sentient beings. That’s how ogres do things and we don’t want to be like them, right?” I didn’t mention that I was willing to consider making an exception for Lucrecia. After all, I was considering making boots out of the scales on her ass as sort of a symbolic thing once we found and killed her.

At the word “ogre”, the big guy pulled out his axe and looked around. “GIANT!” he roared. “WHERE?!”

If there had been a table nearby, I would have banged my head on it. Instead, I just sighed and went with it. “Sorry, my mistake. It was just a tree.”

He put his axe back in its harness. “Try not to be so stupid. Trees are not giants.”

“Remind me again why we hang out with him?” Fleur asked.

“Name me one person who can hit things as hard as he can,” I subvocalized.

“Chuck Norris.”

“We’re just trying to kill a few bad guys, not destroy reality here.”

“Oh, good point.”

We followed the pixie through the swamp, making decent time. We would have gone faster, but the pixie didn’t seem to understand that he needed to take terrain into account. I kept getting these urges to pull off his wings to make him understand. Naturally, I didn’t do it, or even say it, but I thought it real loud.

For the most part, the swamp was boring. I’m not a biologist, so there wasn’t much for me to see. The only point of interest is that the swamp didn’t seem healthy, but that can only keep you interested for so long before the delusional projection of your alternate personality starts sounding like a little kid on a road trip. Or maybe that’s a problem only I have to deal with. #JustCrayCrayThings or something. I dunno.

Okay, so there was one interesting landmark we ran across. I saw it and just stopped Fluttershy. “What.”

“That is certainly interesting,” Geo agreed.

“How long has that been here?” Aurora asked Yap.

“As long as I can remember.”

“Okay, I’ve seen maps of the region,” I said. “We’re at least a hundred miles from the nearest shore.”

“Right,” Aurora replied.

“That sounds fairly close,” Geo agreed.

“Okay, so would anyone like to explain to me where the hell that came from?”

“No idea.”

“Magic?”

“I’m not saying it was aliens,” Fleur said. “But it was probably aliens.”

“Alright,” I said. “I’m going to go investigate the ship. Anyone coming with me?”

Yes, you heard me right. There was a ship just sitting in the muck of the swamp. It looked old, but at the same time it was more advanced than anything I had seen around Golarion in the time I’ve been here. In fact – and I’m only basing this off of knowledge gained through a weekend on the net after watching Pirates of the Caribbean – but it looked a lot like an early nineteenth century Dutch frigate.

The ship had been mostly picked clean of any treasure, but it seemed otherwise remarkably well preserved. I was curious what kind of chemicals they used to treat the wood, but I lacked the tools to analyze it, so I didn’t bother grabbing samples. The captain’s cabin was the only room of any real interest, since it was the only room with anything in it.

Inside the relatively spacious room was the skeletal remains of the captain, seated at a decaying remains of a harpsichord. The tattered remains of his uniform didn’t give me any indication as to his origins, but the harpsichord held some clues. It was carved with an elaborate scene of a battle between demons and angels, but that wasn’t the only interesting feature. “It’s made of darkwood,” I said. So, not Dutch after all. I wasn’t sure whether I was disappointed or relieved.

(Margin Note: Disalleved, maybe?)
(Margin Note: No, I think that’s what they call it when you get your stomach pumped after trying to commit suicide by naproxen overdose.)
(Margin Note: I hates you, Toki. Seriously.)

“Is it salvageable?” Geo asked.

“No, it appears to be rotting. Probably not worth the effort.”

“What about these?” Aurora asked, holding up several sheets of paper.

I took a closer look. They were sheets of music, slightly faded but otherwise remarkably intact. I read through the score, playing the notes in my mind. “These are amazing!” I said, pulling out my violin. “They’re masterpieces by any point of view. And I’ve never heard any of them. We may have just rediscovered music that time has forgotten.” I played the first song. It was a challenge even for me.

“Valuable?” Aurora asked.

“Priceless, but I’m sure I can sell these to the White Grotto for a fair amount of coin.”

Geo looked out the dusty window. “We should get going before Lenn decides to eat Yap anyway.”

I put the music pages in a protected pocket of my bag and nodded. “And before Paulie starts trying to sell him catsup to make the pixie more palatable.”

Yap led us to his mistress with little incident, but he hadn’t prepared us for what we’d find when we arrived. I had been expecting a beautiful nymph. What we found was an undead horror. There was nothing between her shoulders and forearms. And she was translucent.

What I’m saying is that she was a ghost.

“Yap!” she screeched. “Who are these you’ve brought before me?!”

“They’re friends of Lamatar’s, mistress,” the pixie responded, terrified.

“Is this true?”

“It’s very close,” I said. “We were sent by his friends. They would have come themselves, but ogres killed many of them and injured most of the rest.”

“OGRES!” she howled. “Ogres did this to me! Then they dragged off my Lamatar! He is dead! But when I tried to reincarnate him, the lamia’s foul magic prevented it! I demand that you find his corpse and return it to me!”

“Did she just say Lamia?” Fleur asked. Aurora’s eyes asked the same question when our gazes met.

“Maybe the spell didn’t work because he isn’t dead,” Paulie said.

“LIES!” the ghost roared. “Lamatar would have returned to me if he was still alive!”

“I’m just saying that ogres like to torture people for a while before killing them. We can bring him back alive! And if we don’t, I’ll throw in two free bottles of this powerful cleaning potion and the scrubbing pad absolutely free!”

I grabbed the cat man. “Paulie, you’re not helping! Just be quiet for a…Paulie?”

His expression had gone completely blank. “What is wrong with him?” Yap asked.

“Don’t worry,” I replied. “He does this sometimes.”

A few moments later, a new expression came over Paulie’s face. He took a look at the ghost. “Far out, man. But your chakras are all out of alignment. You should sit down with me for a while and meditate so we can bring your chi in balance.” Okay, so that’s not an exact translation. But it’s close enough.

“What…is wrong with him?” the ghostly nymph asked.

“Well, that’s a subject for the ages. We could discuss it all day, or you could point us in the direction of where the ogres took your love so we can get him back to you sooner rather than later.”

“I do not know. To their den, perhaps.”

“Do you recall what they looked like?”

“Like ogres.”

This was getting nowhere. “You mentioned a lamia?”

“Yes! She was commanding the ogres. She was the one who set up the ambush!”

Lucrecia then. “Then he’s likely been taken to the Kreeg stronghold on Hook Mountain.”

“We’ll need reinforcements,” Geo noted.

“Right. We’ll go get Orik and head up. Best if we can make it during the day. Don’t want to fight ogres after dark.”

“Then you will return my Lamatar to me?” The tone of the ghost’s voice nearly broke my heart.

“We will. But I want you to promise me two things.”

“I will listen.”

“The first is that you won’t take out your anger on any people traveling your lands.”

“I will restrain my anger long enough for you to return him to me. If you do not do so, I make no promises beyond that.”

It would have to do. “Second, if that Lamia comes back into the Shimmerglens, promise me that when your subjects kill her, you’ll send her head to the fort as proof that she’s finally dead.”

The look on her face was terrifying. “I make no promises that there will be enough left of her face to be identified.” I liked this ghost, even if she had just given me a new nightmare.

We teleported to Turtleback Ferry and found Orik and his people helping out with some cleanup. He spotted us and motioned us over. “The townspeople tell us that you all are secretly angels in disguise? And you’re apparently the Angelic Aspect of War?”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “I said ‘God of War’. They can at least get their story straight. Also, it’s going to blow their minds when they see what Lenn can do.” He gave me a perplexed look. “Don’t worry about it. Just suffice it to say magic was involved and the ‘God of War’ thing was a taunt to our foe.”

“You’ll have to tell me all about it later. So, what brings you all down here? You find the fort’s commander? Wait, why does the look on your face tell me that I’m not going to like the answer?”

“Ogres dragged him off to their stronghold in the mountain. Gonna need some backup to get him back.”

“He’s probably already dead, you know.”

“Yeah, but the nymph’s ghost – don’t ask – wants him back even if he’s dead. Besides, I’d bet there are an awful lot of scalps to be had up there.”

Once again, I could almost see the dollar signs in his eyes. “Good point. Let’s swing by the fort, pick up whatever reinforcements we can and go kill some ogres.”

From somewhere behind me, I heard Lenn roar. “OGRES! WHERE?!” I turned and saw Paulie trying to give him a headband he’d woven from nearby wildflowers.

Will someone please tell me what the hell I’m doing with my life?

Other players took a little long reviewing, so I'm a bit late with the upload. Next section looks like it'll be fairly long, so 2-3 weeks. Also, for the heck of it, I've uploaded a document into a shareable section of my Google Drive that has the game document breakdown of the different coilguns, in case anyone's curious. I'm still playing around with pricing and whatnot, but that's where I'm at so far.


Turin the Mad wrote:
In this particular case, my thinking is that the 'suit' is 'beastie'. <grin> Several plays on words are involved.

I'm still not entirely certain I get it, but I've moved Malificent up on my Netflix list(I've had the current movie for two months, so it's gonna be a while).

Also, newest chapter has been submitted to other players for review. Barring major required revisions, hoping to post it sometime tomorrow. Over the weekend at the latest.


Tomi Heikkinen wrote:
Crap, was supposed to write irritaTING instead of irritaBLE but you got my point. Welcome back, looking forward to regular postings :)

Had a feeling that's what you meant, though irritable also fit. :P

Turin the Mad wrote:
If you've seen Maleficent ... it fits, in my mind if nowhere else. ^_____^

Ah, that explains it. Haven't seen it yet. It's on my to do list, though.


Turin the Mad wrote:

Whistles

Well, well, well. Hello, beastie. ;)

Could be the fact that it's past my bedtime, but... Beastie?

UnArcaneElection wrote:
Even though I have just read the Prologues and the first journal post, TOTALLY AWESOME! Looking forward to reading more as soon as I can.

Always glad to hear someone else has been sucked in. The more the merrier. :)

Tomi Heikkinen wrote:
Caught up with the new posts, Poldaran. Your text has a great flow, as usual. And Aurora's even more likeable, and Kyle even more irritable with his explicit and implicit bragging and smugness :)

You think he's smug now? Just wait til the technology comes out. :P

Anyway, since I'm posting anyway, I'm about halfway through the early morning segment(before the rest of the party not using the 2 hour sleep ring wakes up) on the next section. Barring more work-related slowdowns(I spent almost all of last night trying to fix a printer), I'm hoping to have it typed up and given to the other two for review by maybe Tuesday. In fact, I think I'm shooting for an update somewhere in the vague neighborhood of every two weeks.


2 people marked this as a favorite.

The Battle of Turtleback Ferry

Spoiler:
As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol' way
And who shall wear the starry crown?
Good Lord show me the way!

In the omnibus of legends about Thassilon I had been reading, there’s a particular entry that had caught my eye. It was about a creature that sounded like an unholy cross between Nessie and a trans-dimensional horror. Even now, people still spoke of it, but it had been known even as far back as ancient Thassilon. It was said to be older than the gods, the harbinger of terrible storms which it used to capture prey and even speaking of the creature would cause black blood to well up in your throat, preventing you from talking about your experience.

Of course, that last one begs the question of how we know about the creature if it’s true. Unless maybe there’s a loophole in writing about it? I don’t know.

I don’t know, but as the gargantuan creature breached into the shallow water that flooded the town, I was able to deduce some things. It was an outsider – a creature from another plane of existence – but it seemed to have some affinity for the material plane. I could fairly safely rule out the possibilities that it might be a demon*, daemon* or devil*, but couldn’t say with complete certainty that it wasn’t a qlippoth*, though I suspected it had more of an affinity with the Plane of Shadow.

(Margin note: *Demons, Daemons and Devils are creatures generally born of mortal souls in The Abyss, Abbadon and Hell respectively. Qlippoths are native to The Abyss, but aren’t born of mortal souls.)

I would have killed to have a Jaeger, a MegaZord or Voltron handy at that moment. But we had none of those things. We didn’t even have a couple ballistae. Nope, we were on our own, mostly on foot and up against a creature that was literally in the neighborhood of fifty feet tall. Yes, we were living in a science fiction B movie, but instead of a giant woman, it was the attack of the fifty foot dino-squid.

Yeah, you heard me. It looked like someone took all of an octopus’ tentacles and stuck the neck and head of a plesiosaur directly onto them with almost no body in the middle. It almost would have been comical if it hadn’t been so damned terrifying. “You should see if Geo can distract it with a mating dance,” Fleur quipped. I almost laughed.

I analyzed the situation and desperately wanted to be wrong. “It’s not going towards the church. It’s not going towards the church…”

“I think it’s going towards the church,” Fleur said.

I cursed. “Yeah, it’s going towards the church!”

Almost as if cued by my self-honesty, my horse reared up and pulled its reins free from my grip. Aurora tried to catch it, but was too slow and Applejack sped off towards the monster. Yes, towards the monster. The hell kind of horse does that? Apparently the kind of horse I ride.

The yellow blur that was my horse charged forward and spun on its hooves as it reached its target. With a mighty crack, her back hooves connected with one of the massive tentacles. The creature, known by locals as “Black Magga”, roared in pain, the injured tentacle hanging limply at its side.

Of course, against the massive creature, Applejack was still just a horse. Black Magga’s head darted forward terrifyingly quickly, snapping my poor horse right in half. “APPLEJACK! NOOOOOO!!!!” I shouted.

O sisters let's go down
Let's go down, come on down
O sisters let's go down
Down in the river to pray

Aurora drew her weapon. I held up my arm. “No. We can’t go in half-cocked. Give me a moment to plan.” She nodded. It took me maybe eight seconds to take it all in and come up with a quick and dirty plan. “I’m going to make you some lances. I need you to make hit and run attacks on the monster. Hit as hard as you can. Cripple tentacles when you can. Do as much damage as possible otherwise. I’m not sure if we can kill it, but maybe if we hurt it enough it’ll go away.”

She nodded. “What about the people in the church?”

“If you can keep it distracted, I’ll try to get them out. Conjure up your horse. I’ll pass along the plan to the others.” I cast a spell to amplify the sound of my voice. “Lenn, disengage from the snake and attack the monster! Geo, once the snake is down or retreats, move to assist him. Paulie, once the snake is taken care of, lead the children this way, taking shots at the monster as you move!” They all signaled their acknowledgement.

If the creature was an outsider, I likely needed to find the right kind of material to really hurt it. My only clue was the attack by Applejack. That had hurt it. Her horseshoes were made of cold iron, so that was worth a shot. I cut my palm and cast my spells. In a matter of seconds, half a dozen cold iron lances materialized, tips embedded in the muddy ground.

I pulled out the wand we had used against the barghest, Malfeshnekor and enchanted one of the lances. No idea if it was necessary, but it wouldn’t hurt. Meanwhile, Aurora hopped onto Starbrite’s back and grabbed the lance. “Good luck and stay safe!” I said in a magically loud whisper.

“You too!” she responded.

She charged off. I turned to see Paulie and the schoolchildren approaching. “Conjure a light on yourself,” I said. “Stay here and keep firing. I’m going to send the people in the church towards you.”

The catman nodded. “Understo-“ He stopped mid-word and stared off into space for a moment.

After a few uncomfortable seconds, I waved a hand in front of his face. “Are you okay?”

He grinned. “I’m super! Thanks for asking!” His voice had changed. It was very…camp.

I didn’t have time to worry about it. “Can you do what I asked?”

“I would be delighted!” he sang, conjuring a light.

I was going to say something, but decided against it. Whatever the hell was going on with him was at best the fifth weirdest part of my day. And I had my own part to play in the plan. I cast the most powerful spell I had remaining. My body was enveloped in light as I began to transform. “Kylemon digivolve to…” The light spread out around my body, altering a number of things about me. I grew a bit taller, only a few inches, my hair lengthened, my facial features became more regal and a giant pair of white feathery wings grew out of my back. Even my clothing had change, now white trimmed with blue and gold. “…ANGEMON!” I cast one more spell, causing my body to glow with magical light.

With a single flap of my wings, I was off like a bolt. Normally, it would have been adjustment to learn to fly, but I had recently upgraded my intelligence amplifying headband and given it the ability to impart knowledge of flight skills. I impacted on the first floor church window with my full weight, shattering the glass with my gauntleted fist.

People shouted in alarm. “Everybody move!” I commanded. “The church won’t last long against Black Magga. Out through the window. Move towards the glowing cat man and then make your way up to the large building past him. NOW!” They might have protested, but the orders of an apparent angel and the simultaneous shaking of the building from a blow by the beast cut that off immediately.

I helped people out through the window, clearing away glass as quickly as I could. It wouldn’t help to have someone die from an infected wound after escaping this damn beast. As they passed me, I noticed that almost everyone had a sihedron mark on their skin. This was all Lucrecia’s doing.

It took just over a minute to get everyone out. I flew up onto the church’s roof and began casting every spell I had that could damage the creature at it. They were mostly ineffective, though it didn’t like the bursts of light.

Meanwhile, the creature cast a mind control spell, targeting Geo. Geo began doing what the creature commanded – it spoke common! – but suddenly he began to shake violently. His body morphed, becoming that of “Old Lenn” and he began fighting Black Magga once more.

We were losing, but we were holding our own and buying plenty of time for the people to escape, but then disaster struck. A heavy tentacle swing struck Aurora and she was knocked from her horse, hitting the ground hard. She twitched for a moment, but it was evident she was unconscious. Starbrite put himself between her and the monster and began glowing blue once more. Black Magga decided that Lenn and Geo, cut off from rescuing Aurora by the building and water between them, were the larger threat.

I tried to fly in to grab Aurora, but got smacked out of the air by a massive tentacle. I flew back over thirty feet. Paulie rushed to me and healed me before pulling me to my feet.

“I can help her,” Fleur said.

“And let you do something insane that has no guarantee of helping? No, there’s got to be a better way.”

“By the time you come up with something, she’ll be dead! Just let me help!”

“No! I will find a way!”

“BUT IT WILL BE TOO LATE!” I roared, startling the cat man. I looked at myself. “Huh.” I was in charge of the body. Next to me was the imaginary representation of my other self, who I like to call Fuddy-Duddy. I just laughed at him. I was going to save Aurora!

“You go, girlfriend!” Paulie said with a laugh. “I know that feeling!”

I gave him a high five and stuck my tongue out at FD. I cast a spell to protect myself a bit from what I had planned. After that, I flew right over to one of the remaining cold iron lances and hit it with the magic wand from earlier. Then I picked it up and flew up, straight at a crackling thundercloud.

“You can’t be serious,” FD said.

“Me? Serious? Not likely. But I’m doing it anyway. Come on, cheer up. This is the most METAL thing we’ve ever done.”

“Yes,” he said. “Metal.” His tone was dripping with sarcasm. “We’re going to die. You realize that, right?” He began singing.

Guilty as charged
But damn it, it ain't right
There's someone else controlling me

Death in the air
Strapped in the electric chair
This can't be happening to me

Who made you God to say
"I'll take your life from you?"

“Oh shut up,” I said. “Only you could make one of the most badass songs in existence into a whinefest. Either do something useful or go away.”

He rolled his eyes. “Fine.” He cleared his non-existent throat. “Daa-da-da-da-DAA-da, da-da-da-DAA-da, da-da-da-DAAA-da, da-da-da-daaaaaaa!” I’ve never heard anyone sing the tune from Ride of the Valkyries sarcastically before. Eh. Close enough.

I continued to climb, reaching the cloud in less than a minute’s total ascent. As I flew through it, I could almost feel the electrons being stripped from my outermost atoms. In short order, I had reached the same electric charge as the surrounding cloud. I stopped my ascent, coasting to stop. As I reached my apex, I laughed.

“Lucrecia, if you’re watching, I want you to pay attention! We’re coming for you next!” My voice boomed through the sky. If she was within a couple mile radius, there’s no chance she missed it. I did a backflip and with a great beat of my wings, I began diving.

As I dove, FD began frantically reciting Hail Maries. Such a drama queen. We were absolutely going to live through this. Probably.

A number of Black Maggas tentacles turned towards me. On each of these, I could see that the tip was some kind of eyeball. She knew I was coming. Good. “I AM THE GOD OF WAR!” I shouted. “I WILL MAKE YOU SUFFER!” Grasping it in both hands, I extended the lance before me.

FD had bought a pair of magic boots to protect us from injury when falling. Because of these, I didn’t hit as hard as I could have. But it was enough to get the message across. It was also enough to break all of the bones in both of my arms.

I would have screamed in pain, but I didn’t have a chance. As my electrically charged body had raced to the ground, I had ionized the air behind me, creating an electrically conductive path from the charged cloud to the ground.

The lance took the brunt of the impact, but a billion volts of white hot pain still shot through me. It sent me flying again, over ten feet. As I flew, I was nearly deaf from the lightning, but still managed to hear the creature roar in agony.

The damage had knocked Fleur unconscious and I was back in control of our body. My vision blurred with blood rolling down my forehead. Lying on the ground, I could see the giant shape moving towards me. I also saw two other figures. On the roof of the building was someone that looked like Lenn. Then another figure stood between me and the creature, a heavenly figure, incredibly beautiful.

“If you want him, you will have to go through me first, foul beast!” Aurora shouted. In Celestial. I wasn’t even aware she knew that language. But that wasn’t the weirdest part. She had a freaking halo.

I would have asked her what the hell was going on with that, but I passed out instead.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol' way
And who shall wear the starry crown?
Good Lord show me the way!

O sisters let's go down
Let's go down, come on down
O sisters let's go down
Down in the river to pray

I woke up a few minutes later with Geo standing over me. “Sorry, I used one of your wands to heal you. Hope it’s okay,” he said.

“It’s fine,” I said. I glanced over at Aurora and Lenn. The large man was pestering her about something, though I couldn’t quite hear them. “What’s going on with them?” I asked Geo.

“He wants her to show him how she did something, but I’ve been having trouble figuring out what exactly it is she did.”

“Okay,” I said. “Now what’s up with him?” I asked, pointing at Paulie.

The cat man was standing near the river’s edge. In his hand he held a ball of flame and there was a dangerous glint in his eyes. “Don’t be like that! Come out and play! I just want to light you on fire! It won’t hurt, much!” Then he started giggling.

“He said he saw another snake in the water,” Geo said. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Probably a good idea. I looked around further and saw that the rains had stopped and the floodwaters were already receding. Several villagers drew near and began thanking us for helping them. Several of them wanted to touch my coat, others begged me to bless their children. Apparently I would need to be careful where I used the angel spell. I didn’t feel right offering my blessing, but I did agree to pray with them as a compromise.

The villagers filled me in on things they knew about Black Magga. I had already known most of it, but they did pass along their concerns that she had never been seen outside the Storval Deep, which led several, including the town’s mayor, a man by the name of Shreed, to fear that something bad had happened at the dam that held back the massive lake. He offered me a thousand gold pieces to go check out the dam, a place called “Skull’s Crossing” – yeah, that isn’t ominous at all.

I looked at the village around me and declined the gold. “You’re going to have a lot of rebuilding to do after this flood. Your people need the money more than we do. Don’t worry, we’ll still check the dam out.” Geo nodded his approval. Lenn would let Geo speak for him and Aurora would agree that it was fine. No idea whether Paulie would agree, but if he didn’t, I just had to wait something like twelve hours – or minutes, sometimes – and he’d change his mind.

“Thank you, milord. You are most generous. Is there nothing we can do to thank you?”

I thought for a moment. “Offer any support you can to Fort Rannick. They’ve lost a fair number of people to an ogre attack and could use your help. Also, maybe try to get people to get rid of those damn tattoos? Someone’s trying to murder all of you to steal your souls and you’re just playing into it by marking yourselves for them.”

Telling him about the murder plot might not have been the best idea. He stammered for a moment, began hyperventilating and fainted. “It was pretty funny, though,” Fleur commented. I couldn’t disagree with her there.

Several people seemed to want to thank Aurora, Lenn and Paulie, but with the heated discussion between the former two and whatever was going on with the latter, no one was brave enough to approach them.

We left the village to head up to the dam. I was stuck riding on Starbrite with Aurora. Certainly worse fates, I suppose. Still felt bad for poor Apple Jack and now Starbrite was stuck carrying us. I guess I could have gotten a horse from the village, but again, they needed every resource more than we did.

“Also, you get to ride with Aurora,” Fleur said. “Gropey gropey!”

I went right past how inappropriate that would be and went straight for the impossibility. “How exactly do you expect me to pull that off? She’s wearing a full set of armor,” I subvocalized.

"Oh, right.”

As we rode, Paulie kept riding up next to Lenn and floating his fireball above his head, which seemed to irritate the larger man. I stayed out of it, instead contemplating what I’d been told had happened during the fight. I’m still not entirely certain I believe it.

My actions had created a major distraction, which had been a part of Fleur’s plan. “I told you getting caught was part of my plan!” Fleur reminded me.

“Yes, yes, and I’m sure you’re a big guy.”

“For you!” she giggled.

Anyway, while the creature was distracted by my insane ascent, Lenn and Geo had quaffed some healing potions. Lenn had climbed up on top of the church to try to get a good blow at Black Magga’s head. Meanwhile, Aurora, was still unconscious. Paulie tells me that Starbrite had used the distraction to pull a potion vial from Aurora’s belt pouch and had managed to pour it into her mouth. I made a note that next time I had the opportunity I would give that horse some apples or some other treat.

She awoke just in time to look up and see me streaking through the sky at Black Magga. She witnessed my impact and the lightning and jumped to her feet, drawing her blade as she moved to protect me. Faced by the renewed knight, the madman with the axe on the roof, the man carefully slicing at her tentacles from the ground and a sudden fireball from Paulie, she had simply fled. I’m sure my own actions played a part, but I’m not delusional enough to think that I was the one who chased her off.

“It was still completely metal,” Fleur chimed in, interrupting my contemplation once more.

The dam was massive. Sure, it wasn’t as tall as the Hoover Dam, but it was almost as long. If I had to guess, I’d say it was roughly the height of the Glen Canyon Dam, which I’ve visited a couple times. So, let’s say around three hundred feet tall. And it wasn’t made of concrete, instead made of massive quarried blocks, as large as the blocks that the pyramids were crafted from.

Ominously, it had five skulls carved into the face of the dam, which is likely why it was called “Skull’s Crossing”. From where we were, we saw some severe damage to a spot on the dam, likely where Black Magga had burst through. There was a steady stream of water flowing down, but it looked like it was likely less than what it was hours ago.

We left the horses and headed up the massive stairs, which looked to have been carved for use by giants, perhaps the dam builders themselves. If so, that made them ancient, since the dam was supposedly constructed during the Thassilonian era. After the experience in the bell tower, I was a bit wary. Not that I needed to be. Apparently solid stone construction is built to last. Still, it was slow going, considering the size of the damn steps leading up to the dam.

On one side of the stairs was something akin to a railing, with each of the posts being adorned with an actual skull, mostly animal but with a few humanoid skulls among them. Each of these was marked with some kind of drawing of a skull. “Yo, dawg I heard you like skulls so I painted a skull on your skull so you can skull while you skull.”

“What?” Aurora asked.

I didn’t realize I’d said that aloud. “Don’t worry about it,” I said, I turned to our resident giant expert. “So, Geo, any idea what these mean?”

“Not entirely sure, but they appear to be clan markings.” He didn’t seem to be wrong, but it’s not like it told us much more than that the dam was likely inhabited by a clan of some kind of giant, likely ogre or troll.

At the top of the steps, we found a room that looked to be some kind of lair. Smelled like one too. Inside, we found multiple half-eaten corpses, most of which appeared to belong to large felines, though a few smoked human corpses were evident.

As an aside, I can now tell when a cooked corpse is human by the smell. When I get home, first thing I’m doing is posting that to F My Life. Well, second thing. First thing after I go get some tacos. Bastards better still be making Doritos Locos when I get back.

From inside the lair came a shout. “You no bribe me! I smash you for Skulltakers!” From within the shadows charged an ettin, a two-headed giant. No matter what anyone tells you, two heads aren’t better than one. Ettins are generally idiots. So too was this true with this one. Despite having a clear path to charge and Paulie or me, he charged straight at the knight clad in full adamantine armor.

I’ve tried to work out the logic. Maybe he figured that since she was the shortest of us, she’d make the easiest target. Or maybe the blood dragon painted on the armor - the blood red tinge to the armor had faded in some places and grown brighter in others, leaving a design straight out of a certain Bioware series, which may have been a product of my subconscious while creating the suit - offended him. Or maybe he doesn’t like girls. I don’t know. All I do know is that Aurora’s armor neatly deflected the blow.

Aurora returned the blow, cleanly severing one head from the creature’s shoulders. Geo ducked past it and with a quick maneuver pulled its massive arm into a lock behind its body. Paulie launched a small fireball right into…well, let’s just say it probably hurt a lot. Lenn…just stood there. He seemed to be thinking.

I was in a mood. “You no take candle!” I mocked the giant, using a wand to throw a couple force bolts at it. I’m not sure it got the reference, but I’m fairly sure it realized that I was mocking it. It roared and tried to break free to come after me. Aurora tripped it as it wrenched away from Geo and the two of them stabbed it to death.

And again, Lenn seemed to completely miss what was happening. I walked over to him. “Hey, big guy, you missed a fight. We killed a giant.”

It took a moment to register. “GIANT!” he shouted, ferociously swinging his axe into the still twitching carcass.

“A little late there.”

He didn’t seem to hear me. “This giant is already dead!”

“Well, yeah. We killed it less than a minute ago. You missed the fight.” But again, he was off in his own world, lost in his thoughts.

“That must be a pretty empty place to wander. Bet if he shouted, it would echo,” Fleur said.

“Be nice,” I subvocalized, though I couldn’t help but agree a little.

We headed out onto the dam and ran across a small group of ogres. They were trying to damage the dam, but looked exhausted. I recognized the emblem one was wearing. “Kreeg!” I shouted, unleashing my remaining magical flash bang spell on the apparent leader. Geo and Aurora charged the leader and Paulie unleased a large burst of flame, taking down the four subordinate ogres.

Lenn didn’t notice the ogres. Of course he didn’t.

“Hey, buddy, what’s on your mind?” I asked him.

He looked at me. “I want to do the thing Aurora did!”

“Alright, well, how about this. You focus on what we’re doing here and as soon as we finish and make it back to the fort, I promise I’ll sit down with you and try to help you figure it out. Deal?” He considered it for a moment and nodded. “Good. Now let’s go see if we can go find more giants to kill.”

Along the rest of the dam, we found corpses of ogres as well as troll blood, though no corpses. If I had to guess, the ogres had thrown the injured trolls over the edge to drown. As we approached the damaged section, the piles of corpses got larger, as did the wounds they had suffered.

“I think this is where Black Magga broke through,” Geo said.

I nodded. “I was thinking the same.”

We headed into the dam and almost immediately encountered a group of troll survivors. They seemed to be angry. Didn’t matter how angry they were, though. Paulie had fire and I had acid. Lenn even engaged one of them, though he wasn’t really focused on the fight.

There was graffiti everywhere. The same phrases repeated themselves. With Aurora and Geo’s help, we translated the most common words. “Wet Papa Grazuul.” They were always accompanied by crude sketches that looked familiar to me. They almost looked like the illustrations I’d seen of scrags, an aquatic type of troll that would make perfect sense to live in a dam.

We crept along until we caught sight of the scrag. “Lenn,” I whispered. “Charge it and let’s try to bring it down before it can escape. No response. “Lenn. Lenn… LENN!”

“WHAT?!”

“Giant,” Geo said, pointing.

“GIANT!” he roared, charging. The fight was over pretty quick. Apparently what I’d read was true. Scrags don’t regenerate when they’re on dry land. Well, either that or Paulie’s fire had dealt with it. It was hard to be sure. He had been a bit more dangerous than the other trolls, but still easy work.

We continued on, soon finding our way to another large chamber. I’m not sure what the hell was wrong with the dam’s designer, but clearly his mother didn’t love him enough or something because there was a serious skull fetish going on in this chamber. There had been a fair number of polished skulls in the scrag’s lair, but that’s a troll. They collect things like that.

This room had walls covered in carvings of skulls everywhere. And, of course, there was a giant construct made of skulls. And OF COURSE it was a giant scorpion. What did I do? Just tell me what I did to deserve this crap.

The construct charged at the closest target, our scout, Geo. Aurora rushed in to assist, but the creature managed to grab Geo with one of its giant pincers. It tried to sting the knight, but her armor deflected the blow, which meant that she wasn’t hurt by the obviously dripping venom on the stinger.

Paulie and I unleashed what magic we could, but it wasn’t terribly effective. What we needed was Lenn, but he was off in lala land. “Lenn, we could use some help!” The scorpion pinned Geo to the ground. “LENN! Geo’s in trouble!” The scorpion prepared itself, looking as though it would tear Geo’s head right from his shoulders.

“LENN!” Aurora and I shouted in unison. Paulie was just watching it unfold, trying to figure out what kind of fire would make the skulls burn if I had to guess.

Lenn snapped out of his trance and swung his axe at the scorpion, cleaving the pincer holding Geo right off of the construct. “THAT’S! NOT! A! GIANT!” He swung again, burying his axe right in the scorpion’s face. The construct grinded to a halt.

Geo got to his feet, rubbing the raw skin on his neck. “You okay?” Aurora asked.

“I’ll be fine. Let’s just move on.”

We trudged on until we reached the heart of the dam. The room was incredibly large. In the center, we found a pair of magical circles. In one of those was a fiend, an Outsider embodying evil. This one was easily recognized as a devil, a creature of Hell likely in the service of the dark god Asmodeus. And what’s more, this wasn’t just any kind of devil. This was a Pit Fiend, one of the most powerful creatures in all of Hell! This wasn’t the work of just any wizard. Whoever had done this was likely extremely powerful. I suspect that this was the work of one of the Runelords.

I looked at the circles around it. Each set of circles contained three individual rings. The innermost ring was a binding circle, meant to hold the creature in place. The second circle was a summoning circle, meant to bring the creature there. The outer ring was foreign to me. Reading it was like looking at foreign computer code. I could make out the magical equivalent of some “If-Then” statements, but I couldn’t quite figure out what the operands meant. It looked to be some kind of dark magic, likely necromancy.

That would explain the state of the pit fiend. He looked, um, well, I guess the only word that really fits is “desiccated”. Something had been draining the life force from him. In the second binding circle was a pile of ashes. Perhaps he had not always been here alone and his companion hadn’t fared so well?

“Human,” he said in the common tongue. “You will release me from this prison.”

“I’m afraid I cannot commit to such an action at this time,” I responded in the Infernal Tongue, the language of Hell.

He laughed. It was simultaneously sickly and booming. “You know what I am, then, mortal? Then you know that I will honor any bargain. Name your desire in exchange for my freedom and it is yours.”

“I’ll certainly have to think about that for a moment,” I responded. I had no intention of freeing him, but if we could find no way to kill it, perhaps instead we could make sure it was banished from the mortal plane forever by rules-lawyering it into agreeing. I did not want to preclude the possibility of negotiation just yet.

“I have been imprisoned here for millennia. I can wait a few moments. But do not test my patience, mortal.”

I walked over to where Geo and Aurora were watching Lenn. Something was wrong with him. His face was contorted in rage and he didn’t seem to be breathing. It almost looked like the kind of face a constipated person makes while desperately trying to evacuate their bowels. He had gone past red and into a shade of purple usually reserved for royal clothing. Geo and Aurora were desperately trying to get him to stop whatever he was doing, but to no avail.

Everyone has heard of someone who has performed what can only be described as a “grand achievement only made possible by ignorance”. Usually, it’s pretty mundane, like the old farmer who showed up to the Australian ultramarathon in overalls and rain boots, managing to win by running at a slow shuffle for five days straight with no sleep breaks. Sometimes it’s more spectacular, like the martial artist who learned to do the tricks he saw on old kung fu movies, not realizing that those had been done with wires. Hell, people do it all the time when the placebo affect kicks in. You think something should work, so you just make it happen. Nothing too out of the ordinary there.

But then there’s Lenn. From his vantage point on the rooftop, he had seen what I had seen but while I had written it off to an effect of getting struck by lightning, Lenn had no such reason to write it off. And, as a perfect storm, it had been Aurora. Had he seen Paulie or I do it, he would have assumed it was magic and would have just written it off as something he couldn’t do. Even Geo doing it might have been written off as a side effect of his experiments. But, in Lenn’s mind, Aurora was normal. She was just a regular human being like him. So if she could do it, he could too. And it obviously wasn’t a magic item, since she would have just told him so.

So it was, that just as I thought he was about to pass out, there was a strange sound, followed by a light. It should have been impossible. Aurora’s method was easily understandable knowing what I do now but didn’t yesterday. But Lenn doing it was impossible.

Fleur was having a grand time with it. She even started singing. “‘The chances of anything coming from Mars were a million to one,’ he said. ‘The chances of anything coming from Mars…were a million to one…but STILL THEY CAME!”

I’m glad Fleur was enjoying herself. Aurora, Geo and I, on the other hand, just stood, dumbfounded, staring at Lenn’s new halo.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol' way
And who shall wear the starry crown?
Good Lord show me the way!

O brothers let's go down
Let's go down, come on down
Come on brothers, let's go down
Down in the river to pray

Pleased with himself, Lenn calmed down. The rage gone, his halo dissipated as well. That made him angry, so the halo returned. Then he calmed again and it was gone. Satisfied that he could make it come back when he wanted, he grinned. “I DID IT! Just like Aurora!”

“Yeah, you sure did, big guy. You sure did.” Now I found myself having to figure out how the hell Aurora had done it. Not that I had time to think about it right then. Because no one had been watching Paulie.

“Get away from there!” the devil shouted.

“What? You afraid I’ll poke your friends ashes and figure out how to make a fire that can burn you too? I bet you’ll burn real good! I wanna see it!” The cat made a dash for the second circle.

In a frozen moment, the runes came together for me. I could see everything clearly as a copy of the circle hovered in front of my face. The circles powered some kind of mechanism on the dam, though I didn’t know what. They did so by draining the life from the two living creatures within. The creator had been using a pair of pit fiends to power the mechanism for at least ten millennia. That’s why the trapped fiend was so emaciated. His life force was nearly spent. He had maybe one or two uses left in him before he died.

Before I could even call out, Paulie crossed into the circle. The runes on both outer circles glowed and the creatures within cried out in agony. The dam shuddered slightly and I could hear the sound of rushing water.

“Floodgates!” I shouted in surprise. Either in a show of power or a glorious display of shoddy engineering skills, the dam’s creator had opted to give the dam a set of magical floodgates, set to open when the water of Storval Deep rose too high. These floodgates were powered by the life force of two bound devils. It was all in all a wonder of magic and engineering.

It was also ridiculously, unnecessarily complicated. With a bit of engineering, it wouldn’t have taken much to have created a set of mechanical flood gates to do the same thing. He obviously had the construction force to pull it off. But nope, he used a devil-powered design instead.

It’s kind of like using a wireless mouse for your gaming rig when your desk is perfectly capable of allowing for use of a wired one. Sure, you’ve dealt with that pesky wire, but now you’ve got to worry about a battery and have introduced a bunch of interface lag. No thanks.

After a few moments, the spell had drawn the needed energy. Paulie collapsed where he stood. “Pick him up and carry him over the outer circle. Be careful not to smudge the outer circle,” I told the others. I was pretty sure it would take more than scuffing to damage the circle, but better safe than sorry. Meanwhile, I looked over at the devil. Sure enough, that was his last contribution to the dam. All that remained was a pile of ash.

“What’s wrong with him?” Geo asked me once they had Paulie safely out of the circle.

“Life drain. He’ll be fine. Probably just the shock of it. I think he even has a spell to cure himself, though I believe it will burn through some of our supply of diamond dust.”

Geo nodded. “Good to hear. I’m going to look around and make sure there aren’t any more threats here.” He took Lenn with him.

While the two were looking around, Aurora and I checked out Paulie. He was breathing normally and would probably wake up in a few minutes. “Kyle?” Aurora asked.

“What is it?”

“Did you see it too?”

“What do you mean?”

She took a deep breath. “Did I really have a halo?”

“I had just been hit with lightning, so I don’t know how reliable my memory is, but yes. I saw it too. I suspect Paulie saw it as well.”

“Oh.” She looked away.

“Aurora…”

I was going to ask her what was wrong, but Paulie chose that moment to wake up. “Whoah, bro! That was totally gnarly!”

“Welcome back to the land of the living,” Aurora said, managing to hide that despair I thought I had heard in her voice.

“What happened?”

“You stepped into the circle and became a Duracell,” I said.

“That’s like, whoah. What?”

“The spell drained some of your life energy to power the floodgates. If you have a spell to cure that, you might wanna deal with it now before it becomes permanent.”

“Righteous bro. I’ll go do that now.”

I did the surfer sign for “Hang Loose” and he returned it, though I’m not sure he knew what it meant despite sounding like a surfer to me. When he was out of earshot, I turned back to Aurora. “So, what’s wrong?”

“It’s just…I…”

Lenn and Geo returned at that moment. I knew they had returned because Lenn let us know by shouting as loud as possible. “I want to go back to the fort! I’m HUNGRY!”

“Everything else clear?” I asked Geo.

“As far as I can tell.”

I sighed and turned back to Aurora. “I guess we’re going back. Want to talk about it while we ride?” She shook her head. “Alright, well, if you want to discuss it, we should have time tonight to find a nice quiet corner and discuss it.”

She nodded. “Okay.”

While we rode back, I tried to think about what Aurora was worrying about. I knew it had something to do with the halo she’d manifested earlier. I couldn’t figure out what it was that worried her, so I just tried thinking about how she had done it so maybe I would have answers that could reassure her.

As I put many disparate data points together, I began to get a clear picture. Let me outline them here.

1. She had manifested a halo.
2. She had some strange resistance to certain spells. Specifically a spell that uses devil’s blood as a component.
3. Starbrite was the amazing glow-in-the-dark horse and seemed much smarter than a normal animal.
4. Aurora’s vision had been of angels. Everyone else’s visions seemed tied to something about them.

Let me elaborate more on that last point. As the idea began to form in my mind, I re-examined the vision through a different lens. What if it hadn’t been Heaven telling a woman she had been living well as a human? What if, instead, those weren’t random celestials? What if they were her family? Then maybe the vision was more like a family reunion. And that meant one thing.

Aurora is an Aasimar. The blood in her veins is quite literally the blood of angels.

Fleur cleared her throat. “Wait. That was a lot of celestials, and many different types.”

“And?” I subvocalized.

“Wouldn’t that mean her family is like candy to celestials? We need to get with her before the clouds literally part and some freaking six-winged angel descends from on high to snap her right up!”

I groaned. “Fleur…”

“Yes?”

“My days of not taking you seriously are certainly coming to a middle.”

When we got back to the fort, there was a visitor waiting for us. Well, he was waiting for Geo, specifically. He had some familiar looking tattoos, but I couldn’t place what they reminded me of. I explained to several of the Black Arrows what had happened in vague enough terms, only getting specific in my description of the dam.

“So, any time it rains, we may have to go activate it? Won’t it kill people?”

“Kill, yes. People, no. Whoever built it only used devils out of ego.” That wasn’t necessarily true. He might have done it so he wouldn’t have to leave people at the dam to monitor it. But it was more than likely ego. “Judging by the spell’s matrix, the amount of power required can be supplied by a pair of chickens. Just have someone go up there and toss a chicken in each circle and the floodgates will take care of themselves.”

“Excellent. Then, if there is nothing further, the Black Arrows will attend to the corpses in the river first thing in the morning.”

I nodded. “And we’ll head into the Shimmerglens.”

After everyone had eaten, Aurora and I returned to the room that had become ours unofficially. I used magic to clean us of grime of battle and travel. She looked like she wanted to talk, but wasn’t sure how to start.

So I took the lead. “You know, I don’t think it’s anything to worry about. Truth be told, you’re probably just an Aasimar.”

She looked to be on the verge of tears. “That’s what I’m afraid of!”

What. “But it just means you have a bit of celestial blood. It’s not anything to worry about.”

“Why wouldn’t I worry? That would mean that I’m just like Nualia!”

“Nualia wasn’t just a product of her blood. Most of it was because she had a horrible childhood with a father figure who cared more about using her for his own ends instead of caring about what she…Oh. Right. I guess I see your point. But I still think you’re stronger than she was.”

“What if I’m not?”

I shrugged. “Well, when you get to the part where it’s time for some guy to take advantage of you, I’ll be right here.”

Her eyes went wide. “KYLE!”

“And don’t think that I’m going to let you get away either. You screw up and let me impregnate you and I promise you that you’re going to end up married to me for the rest of eternity.”

After several moments of staring at me, she actually laughed. She hugged me. “Thanks. I needed that.”

“Anytime.” I wasn’t completely joking, but I figured I shouldn’t press my luck.

She turned her back to me. “Will you help me out of my armor?”

“Sure thing, but you can sleep in it if you want. It’s enchanted to be really comfortable.”

“I know,” she said, looking over her shoulder. “But with today’s rains, I figured it might get pretty cold tonight.”

Wait. Wouldn’t it be warmer in the armor? Why would she…oh. “Good point. Let me help you with that.”

You know, her fears weren’t completely unjustified. When I’d met her, she had been well on her way down the path of self destruction. And she didn’t exactly leave the path immediately after meeting me.

Her drinking had always been a problem, but it wasn’t until roughly two months after I met her that things came to a head. She nearly killed me. We had gotten into a fight after I’d told her that I learned that her father was dead. She had been drinking. She punched me and I almost died. One blow, and it was almost curtains for me. I think I almost got off easier than she did, though.

Aurora felt incredibly guilty about almost killing me. She didn’t tell me, but after I woke up, she gave up drinking. Unfortunately, when you’re that deep into the bottle, you don’t just suddenly decide you’re done and climb right out.

The first sign that something was wrong was the mood swings. At least, it was the first I noticed. I think she saw other signs before I did. Next, I noticed that her skin was pale and her hands were shaking. It wasn’t long until her first seizure.

We had been in the woods, looking for another set of ruins when it happened. We were days away from civilization. Despite the fact that I had money to pay for magical treatment to help her through it, I didn’t have much hope that she would survive such a trip. The nights had been icy cold and it had rained for several days. She needed shelter, fast.

I took a magic potion that allowed me to fly, then took to the sky, searching for anywhere we could at least get out of the elements. Luck was on my side and I spotted a cabin not too far away. Once she had stabilized, I put her in front of me on Starbrite’s back and we made haste towards shelter.

The cabin wasn’t occupied, though it was clean if dusty. It looked like it saw use only a few times a year. Still, there was plenty of cut firewood and a small building where the horses could shelter with a fenced in corral attached to it and stream access. All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better place in the circumstances, though I would have given quite a bit to have found a witch’s cottage. I had a lot of interesting things I could have traded the witch for her aid, none of which really served me here.

I cleaned out the cabin, using magic to remove dust, checked the cot for spiders and set Aurora down to rest. I reluctantly left her side and tended to the horses. I then gathered up firewood from the bin outside the house and went back in to start a fire in the wood stove and check Aurora’s condition.

It wasn’t good. With her earlier seizure, her rapid and irregular heartbeat, clammy skin, pupil dilation and the tremors in her hands, I knew something was seriously wrong. Sure, I had taken some first aid classes and spent a lot of time online reading about different conditions, but I was no doctor and I had no real medical supplies beyond some fairly basic stuff. Hell, I wasn’t even completely sure what it was she was going through.

When she woke up, she began screaming. After a moment, I was certain I could add hallucinations to her symptoms. I had to magically sedate her and tie her up to prevent her from injuring me or herself. Unfortunately, the magical sedation didn’t last long and soon she was awake, screaming, raging, confused and, as a new symptom, vomiting.

I looked through her stuff to see if I could find a cause. At the time, I suspected a parasite or food borne illness, so that’s where I focused, but I looked at everything, trying to find a clue. It really didn’t take long before I realized what had happened.

As near as I could tell, she hadn’t had any alcohol since I had recovered from being knocked out. With the severity of her symptoms, she was probably going through the DTs. Worst of all, I had no idea how to treat her. Should I give her small doses of alcohol to wean her off of it slowly, or would that make things worse? Was there a medicine I might be able to access through a plant based source to help her out? Maybe I could give her charcoal to soak up toxins in her digestive system?

I had no other ideas, so I made some activated charcoal as I had learned from Youtube long ago. Then I focused on keeping her as hydrated and comfortable as I could, treated her fever, yet another new symptom, and kept her restrained so she couldn’t hurt herself.

While she worked through it, I did what I could to improve our situation. I made snares and left the cabin for short trips to set them. Over the course of a few days, I set a dozen snares, created a fish trap in the stream, gathered a few edible plants nearby and made sure that the horses had plenty to eat. Mostly though, I just sat with Aurora, wiping the sweat from her brow, feeding her broth when I could and making sure that she had plenty of purified water to drink when she asked.

About six days in, she had another seizure. Then she stopped breathing. If I hadn’t been so panicked, I would have laughed. At least now she was going through something I had actually been trained for, though the first step of calling for aid wasn’t available. I managed to pull her back from the brink, though just barely.

She spent several days in a coma. I don’t know that I’ve ever been more scared. I prayed for hours, begging and pleading that she be okay. I wept in frustration. I got very little sleep. I felt so helpless. All I could do was slowly give her ice chips while talking and singing to her, hoping that part of her would hear me and wake up.

Eventually, she did awaken. She was extremely weak, but it seemed that the worst was over. All in all, by the time she was back to full health, it had been over two weeks since our ordeal had begun. Exhausted, I slept for nearly eleven hours on that final day, which doesn’t sound like all that much, but I hadn’t been able to sleep for more than twenty minute bursts for almost two weeks.

Once we had both recovered, we restocked the firewood bin and I left a note thanking the owner for use of his cabin and a few gold coins to pay for what we had used and couldn’t restock.

Before we left, Aurora swore a binding oath to me that she would never again drink to drunkenness. She declared that she would follow the example I had shown her, having no more than a drink or so a day, and even then only rarely. For anyone else, I might have suspected such an oath, but I had come to know Aurora well. She would live by her word. Even if I could not be certain that any drinking at all was a good idea, I had to hope that things would be okay.

At the next town, I paid a cleric to use magic to free her of any damage her illness and long term addiction may have caused. It was an unnecessary precaution, at least that’s what I hoped, but it made me feel a lot better.

So, yeah, maybe she did have cause to be concerned. But I think we’re past that. Everything would be just fine. I told her so as we went to bed.

A few hours later, I woke up on our pushed together bedrolls spooning with Aurora. Sadly, we were both fully clothed. We even still had socks on, though we’d ditched our shoes. She was sleeping peacefully, though I could tell she was still pretty cold. I reached over and grabbed a small bead from one of my coat pockets. I carefully rolled it several feet from us and spoke the command word. The bead transformed into a small campfire.

Aurora stirred. I stroked her head. “Everything’s fine. Go back to sleep.” She laid back down and pressed herself against me, pulling my arm around her. I began singing softly to her. She smiled and a golden halo appeared above her head.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol' way
And who shall wear the starry crown?
Good Lord show me the way!

O sinners, let's go down
Let's go down, come on down
O sinners, let's go down
Down in the river to pray

I smiled. “Love you,” I whispered very softly, but she was fast asleep and didn’t hear me.


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Batcat and the Return to Turtleback Ferry

Spoiler:
Upon returning to Fort Rannick, we found that most of the Flails of Murderers had left the previous day. Additionally, Paulie, Lenn and Geo had also gone, though those three had left that morning. Orik’s people had gone out to deal with numerous troll sightings. None were in the dungeon. Thought you ought to know.

Paulie, Lenn and Geo had headed out to investigate the reason that the waters of the river had become contaminated. Honestly, I think they should have worked to build water purification until the FoM returned, but I’m guessing that Lenn got bored and they needed to get him out and about.

As we were discussing things with Shalelu, who seemed much less ill now, FoM returned. Magrim Emberaxe had been knocked out during their excursion, thus saving me from having to read another one of his dull as hell reports. Orik gave me a very basic rundown of what had happened.

Apparently the trolls were trying to reclaim their territory from the ogres, who had pushed them out as they worked to claim the fort and surrounding areas. Orik and the FoM had disabused them of the notion that this was their territory. In total, they had seventeen troll skulls – they had to take skulls instead of scalps because trolls regenerate. Someone had once tried to keep a troll chained to harvest their scalp repeatedly to make tons of money, so now troll scalps were worthless to the Potent Rainbow Lions. Either way, believe me when I say that this is a lot of dead trolls.

We decided to wait for the other three to return and do what we could while we waited. I spent my time working on a water purification still in case whatever problem they found couldn’t be fixed immediately. There was a fair amount of scrap iron around, so it wasn’t too terribly difficult to rig up something basic. I’m sure that whatever was happening with the others was more interesting, so I’m going to leave a blank space here and have one of them fill it in later.

(Note: The section that follows appears to be in someone else's handwriting.)
*****
Left behind at the fort, I found that I had plenty of time to myself. Contemplating the wretched state of the filth that live in this world got old, so I instead decided to work on my skills. A few of the mercenaries set up a target and we took turns practicing our marksmanship. The weapons they use are noisy and annoying. But I put up with them anyway. It was better to have competition to drive me to greater heights.

Later that morning, the mercenaries set out to deal with reports of troll sightings, leaving me without competition, so I instead focused on practicing my investigation skills. I managed to uncover a number of interesting secrets. It would amaze you how many of the fort’s soldiers were sleeping with each other. Even more than that, it would seem that few realized that their relationships weren’t exclusive.

I also found evidence that one of the soldiers had been skimming rations and selling them to line his own pockets. He was lucky he had already been killed by the ogres. I would not have been as nice. And with the wizard and knight gone, no one would have stopped me. I guess the militiaman might have said something, but I believe that I could have made him understand. And the giant could be distracted with something shiny.

I’m not sure how I got involved with this ragtag bunch of misfits, but we were working together now, seemingly bound by some kind of prophecy. I don’t know how much I care, but we were removing the filth from the world along the way, so I was just fine going along.

The next morning, we discovered that the water coming down the river was bad, so we decided to go look into it. The militiaman suggested we wait for either the mercenaries or the wizard and knight to return, but the giant and I outvoted him. The big guy was bored, but I could smell that this was more than just a simple case of tainted water. My pride as an investigator required that I turn over this particular rock and see what was underneath.

We barely made it into the woods before running into a troll. I made a note to myself to remind the mercenary captain about the importance of being thorough.

The giant slashed off the troll’s arm six times before the militiaman pointed out that we needed to burn the troll to prevent it from regenerating. Of course, I had already known that, but the giant seemed to be having fun. Some of us hang people from rooftops to learn their secrets, others enjoy hacking up monsters. We all need our hobbies.

As we continued upriver, the stench grew more repulsive. I recognized the sickly sweet smell of rotting human flesh. This was no accidental poisoning. When we found the source, I was certain that we would find evidence that it had been placed deliberately. I didn’t even need to subtle ogre musk to confirm that for me, though confirmation is always nice.

We crashed through the forest – between the giant and my yak, we really couldn’t sneak – until we reached a bend in the river. At the bend, we found a trio of ogres, morons all, piling bodies from a crude cart into the water. They were using steel spikes to anchor the putrid flesh in place so the corpses wouldn’t float down the river. Crude, but effective enough.

As soon as he saw the ogres, the giant charged. He cleaved the first ogre in twain before the others could react. Then, from the forest’s edge came another figure, a green hag. She touched the giant and I could see his muscles immediately fatigue. He was having trouble even raising his axe.

The ogres began laughing at his predicament. That was a mistake.

The giant’s face contorted with rage and he snarled. The ogres took an involuntary step back, but it was too late for them. He charged and swung his massive axe, separating both of their heads from their bodies in a single swing.

Meanwhile, the militiaman and I attacked the hag. His tentacles throttled her and I riddled her with arrows, driving her back. “You’re too late!” she cackled. “Even if you kill me, my sisters will finish the work. This valley will drown and the people of the village will be devoured by the Great One! The coven will serve the master in Lucrecia’s name!”

She probably would have continued talking, but the giant charged her. “SHUT. UP!” he roared, slashing her in half from top to taint. Looking around, he could not find an additional foe, so he began to calm, losing his rage-induced strength. His axe began to slip from his fingers. I walked over and cured the muscle damage the hag had inflicted on him.

“Look at this,” the militiaman called over to me. He was standing over one of the corpses from the cart. I walked over to inspect the corpse. Based on his scent, he had died from a combination of dysentery and a dagger to the chest. But that wasn’t what I was supposed to notice. No, he had been marked with the sihedron, just like so many other corpses we had seen. More sacrifices.

Poisoning the water had simply been a matter of convenience. They had the bodies handy, so it was either feed the ogres or poison the river. They probably did both. I’d bet that the wizard would be glad he wasn’t here.

“What she said…” the militiaman started.

“You thinking Turtleback Ferry is in danger?”

“I think it might be.”

“Let’s go, then. We can deal with the corpses in the water later.”

The trip to the village was a dreary affair, defined by rain and the smell of wet yak. We didn’t see any trolls or ogres, so I suspect that the mercenaries had been earning their pay.

When we arrived in town, people had already begun evacuating to the church. The weak always seek solace in religion when they should be taking the reins of their destiny in their own hands. Of course, there were those who hadn’t evacuated yet.

The town’s schoolteacher had taken her students out on a field trip during the rain for some reason. I will never understand humans. The teacher and her students had returned, but were now trapped near the school with a giant snake trying to eat them. Personally, I thought we should just let it eat a couple of the kids. It’s not like it was criminal scum. It’s just a snake, doing what snakes do. No reason to punish it and it would help thin the herd of the weak, stupid or slow. Either that or we could feed it whoever thought it was a good idea to build a school on the river bank.

Whatever we did, we had to choose quickly before the rising waters swept away all the children. So I followed the other two as we rushed to dispatch the snake, which wouldn’t likely be much of a threat to us.

*****

The rains had gotten heavy when a traveler, bedraggled and caked in mud, banged on the gate. After making sure he was alone, the guards let him in and brought him to us immediately. “Please, milord,” he began immediately. “The rains are too heavy. Skull River and Claybottom Lake are going to overflow. Turtleback Ferry will be flooded and people are going to die. We need your help!”

“I’ll need a few minutes to prepare spells,” I said, glancing at Aurora. She nodded approvingly. “You rest here. We’ll try to save everyone.”

I prepared my spells, with a focus on utility. I had spells that would allow me to repair boats or damaged structures, spells for making whatever we needed out of raw materials – or my own blood if necessary – as well as spells to allow me to teleport short distances and coordinate the rescue efforts quickly. I also prepared a fun little spell that should help me rescue people and raise their spirits at the same time. Finally, I readied a small number of combat spells, since you never know what you’ll need.

We had spent enough time in Turtleback Ferry that I was certain I could teleport us there with no trouble. Aurora used her armor’s magic, turning Starbrite into an image on her armor, which meant I could teleport both us and our horses without straining my magic.

For the record, when you cast a long range teleportation spell, glowing runes surround you like something out of a game. It’s really freaking cool, even if the trip itself is a bit disconcerting. The human brain really wasn’t designed to handle being somewhere and suddenly showing up somewhere else.

We arrived to a torrential downpour, though at least the winds weren’t bad, maybe fifteen miles an hour. We spotted Lenn, Geo and Paulie over near the schoolhouse. They were fighting some kind of giant snake with a group of schoolchildren nearby. They seemed to have everything in hand.

Floodwaters already filled the streets, nearly half the town was under a couple feet of water. Lights in the windows showed that people had already evacuated to the church at the center of town. That could work. It was on a bit of a hill, though it was now at the edge of the water. With a bit of effort, we could somewhat waterproof the church’s first floor and keep everyone safe as we dug channels to turn the water away.

“Kyle!” Aurora said. “Look at the currents in the water!”

“Where?” I asked.

“Over in the lake near the shore. Look at that tree. It’s moving incredibly quickly.”

I looked over past the town’s tavern and bathouse to the lake. A sinking feeling grew in the pit of my stomach as I watched the massive dark shape moving along. “Please be wrong. Please be wrong. Oh, god, please let me be wrong,” I repeated, pulling out my spyglass.

“What is it?” Aurora asked.

I got a better look through the spyglass as the “tree” breached the bank. “That’s no tree!” I gasped.

And then the “tree” roared.


This section is pretty short, but only because the one that follows will be fairly long. That said, between the length of the next section, the fact that it occurs over several setpieces(meaning multiple planning sessions with the others) and certain considerations regarding work, it'll probably be a bit longer for the next update. I'd be surprised if it takes more than maybe Friday after next, though.


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Kyle's Version of the Trip to Absalom:

Spoiler:
I woke up early to prepare for our trip to Absalom. After a few minutes of just watching Aurora sleep, I did a quick tour of the fort. For the most part, everyone was feeling a little better, though I’m sure they were all exhausted. A day’s rest, some healthy food and they’d be fine.

Of course, it’s hard to get a day’s rest when Lenn’s busy shouting. I could hear him clear from the other side of the fort. “I LIKE HOOKERS!” He sounded frustrated. I decided to go check it out before he started breaking walls.

I found Lenn in a common area. I froze upon spotting him. In his hand was the statue head we had recovered. “Lenn, why isn’t that head in the jar of oil?”

“IT DOESN’T WORK!” he growled, not answering me.

“Doesn’t work?” I sighed, knowing I needed to figure out what he was on about before I could get the dangerous object back safely in its oxygen blocking medium.

“I keep talking to it and it won’t talk back.”

“What.” Just because it was a head, he expected it to work like that damn shrunken head? That was it. I was going to make an adamantine leash and tether him to Geo. Then my inner troll took over. “Perhaps it’s protected by a code word. We’ll need to find a way to activate it.”

“Tell me how.”

“I’d have to research it, but we can try the most commonly used one. Hold it with one hand by the back of the head and look directly at it. Then repeat after me…” And so it was that at roughly five in the morning, I had Lenn acting out a scene from Hamlet. You know the one, but if you don’t it’s probably not going to be funny to you anyway.

After that didn’t work, Lenn got bored. “This is stupid,” he said, tossing the head over his shoulder. My heart leapt into my throat, but I managed to use simple magic to catch it before it hit the ground. I put it back in the jar, which I sealed and put in my pack. “Out of sight, out of mind” was especially true for Lenn.

We left right around dawn. I promised myself I would put the prophecy’s suggestion of our imminent demise from my head while we were gone. I would try to enjoy myself and show Aurora a good time.

It was around eight in the morning upon arrival. Aurora wondered if the trip had taken time, but understood quickly after I explained the concept of time zones. I was impressed. She seemed to get it faster than people back home. Hell, one of my best friends in high school probably still views time zones as some kind of dark witchcraft perpetrated by the sun god, Helios.

Never let it be said that Aurora isn’t intelligent. She’s well above average, probably in the top fifteen percent back home. But even in spite of her lesser Golarion education, there are some concepts she seems to get on an amazingly intuitive level. Languages, for instance. I have an IQ of over One-Ninety. I can fluently speak and read a half-dozen languages. But I’m amazed by the ease Aurora picks up languages. She has a natural gift and seems to learn them in half the time I do when she feels like it.

Upon arrival, we went down through my favorite shop district – partially to make a few purchases both for the trip and for the return to the fort and partially just to say hello to some old friends – before heading to the orphanage. I always loved to go see the kids. I feel like I have so much in common with them. In a way, I’m an orphan myself.

While there I used magic to restock their art supplies, letting the cleric who runs the orphanage attribute it to a miracle. Then I gave him one hundred and eight platinum coins to pay for education for the kids. I also told the kids a story and handed out all the toys I had been secretly collecting for them on my travels.

Before you ask, no, none of them are mine. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t have any kids yet. There’s only one woman I’ve ever slept with without some kind of birth control. I tried looking her up, but I found that she had died around five years ago. The investigator said he hadn’t heard anything about her having any kids. In her honor, I had already had Chadwick begin building a brand new orphanage large enough to take care of all of the kids the old building held and dozens more. I like to hope that an acolyte of Shelyn would find it a fitting tribute to the love I had for her. I like to think that wherever she is now, she’s smiling down on us.

After leaving the orphanage, we headed for the Voidstrife estate. There, I introduced Aurora to Chadwick, his wife Phoebe and their little one, Alistair, who I also met for the first time. He’s a cute kid, aside from his nose, which he inherited from his father. I was glad to discover that my other two adopted brothers had gone out of town on business, so I didn’t have to put up with them. I shuddered to think about the inappropriate things they would have said to Aurora.

I was startled to learn that Phoebe recognized Aurora. I had known Phoebe had family back in Taldor, but to think that she had been there during Aurora’s victory parade…either way, it was a fun fact to learn and I got to watch Aurora blush at all the attention.

Chadwick informed me that my old teacher, Nepulos, had passed away. He was more than just a teacher. He was a good friend. He was maybe a decade older than I and had the greatest kids. I hadn’t seen them in a year or so, but his son was probably twelve by now and their daughter fourteen. I kinda hope she’s given up on her declaration that she would marry me when she grew up. She was seven when she said it, so I have some faith that it was just one of those things that little girls do, but still. I may be dressed like Dresden, but I don’t need my own Molly.

Nepulos had apparently left me a copy of some advanced work he was doing with an out of town visitor. When Chadwick went to pick it up, however, it had been taken by someone else. And that’s why I was in town. I needed to meet with these people to get the documents. Unfortunately, it was the White Grotto that had them.

Let me explain something. Throughout history minstrels and bards have always had spies amongst their ranks. People love entertainers. They have access to places and people that other people just can’t get at.

It’s a little known fact that every “bardic college” in Golarion contains a group of spies. I know this because the leader of one such group told me so. He didn’t tell me out of the kindness of his heart. No, he wanted me to join the Hidden Grotto, the White Grotto’s secret spy network. When I said no, they drugged me and left me naked in the room of a nobleman’s live-in mistress, who was probably part of the network. I barely got away with my skin intact. I didn’t tell anyone other than Chadwick. No one would believe that’s why I was there, not with my reputation. It did get out that I refused to join the White Grotto, but that was portrayed as a musician not wanting to join a guild.

They didn’t come right out and say that it was the White Grotto who had Nepulos’ notes. They left me a note with a few notes from a song that the nobleman’s mistress had taught me while I was tying sheets together to climb down from her window. As I was leaving, she told me the name of a tavern. I didn’t know the reason and avoided it out of paranoia. That was where they wanted me to go there that evening. If not the tavern, then the square outside it was our destination but either way, we’d be in the right area.

That evening, Aurora and I made our way to the tavern. Outside, I spotted someone familiar, one of the lackeys of the highest ranked member of the Grotto’s spy network that I knew. I hated that slimy toad and had no reason to go ahead with the planned meeting. Instead, Aurora and I made our way straight to the man’s boss. Not that I was fond of him either, but at least I could skip the rest of long, drawn out process he had planned.

We went to the Hidden Grotto’s secret headquarters in the Ivy District, a place I wasn’t supposed to know existed, by the way. I had to show them that I wasn’t playing around and had picked up a few of their secrets as well. I bullied my way past the door guard and we made our way inside.

Marco, the man we had come to see, didn’t seem too surprised to see us. He acted like it, but I could tell it was all for show. He had one of his men show me the first page of the work he had confiscated. It was interesting, to be sure, a clockwork construct with spell casting capability. But that’s not what most piqued my interest. In a simple cipher on the page, there was another message to me. It read, “Nepulos also left you a magically encoded journal. We haven’t tried to break the enchantment for fear of it being destroyed in the process, but we think that whatever is within is what he got killed for.”

I’ll be honest. That piqued my interest. I already knew the answer, but I asked what their price was. Of course, I was right. They wanted me to join them. Marco couched it in terms as joining the guild for Aurora’s benefit, but I knew what he wanted. I sign the contract, I make the deal with the devil and I’m a spy.

I weighed both sides. Would what was in that journal be worth what they asked for? Would they only want what information I turned up on my own or would they require me to go into dangerous situations to get intelligence they specifically needed? The way he worded it, I was just supposed to keep an eye out for things they’d want to know, but I couldn’t really know if that would change.

As if my conscious thoughts weren’t bad enough, my subconscious decided to chime in as well. “Covert ops has its perks. You travel, make your own hours and expense most of your meals. The downside? Lots of people want you dead.” I only saw the image of Michael Westen out of the corner of my eye, but heard his voice clear as day.

Great. Okay, then. “And what do I get out of this? If it’s just the schematics, then the price is too high.”

“We’ll give you access to more than just that. As a member of the college, you’ll have access to a number of resources that will help you on your journey, including rare magical texts that even the Pathfinders don’t have.”

That certainly sweetened the pot. But was it enough? Without moving my head, I shot a glance to the imaginary super spy standing next to me. “Work around spies for a while, and you learn to be careful when it looks like you're getting what you want. That's when you tend to let your guard down - get careless.” So, a healthy level of paranoia was called for. But what should I do? “For a spy, getting someone to lie for you serves a number of purposes. It's less about the lie itself, no matter how useful it is. It's more about how it changes your relationship with your target. Once a guy lies for you, for better or for worse, your fates are tied together.”

Alright. I needed to define our relationship in a way where I had some power. Marco has influence both in the main and shadow organizations. I needed to make sure everyone knew that he was the one who came crawling to me. That way, if I needed an out, Chadwick would have something to work with to help protect me.

“Still not enough,” I said aloud.

“Then tell me what I have to add to sweeten the deal enough to make you accept.” I smiled at Marco’s statement. He was playing right into my hands.

And that’s how the portly recruiter for the White Grotto and its less known companion, the Hidden Grotto, ended up lighting a flaming bag of doggy-doo on the doorstep of the Pathfinder’s Grand Lodge on a busy street in front of any gods watching and a large number of eyewitnesses.

Of course, he had to get his own cheap shot in and made me audition to join. I told the man who brought me the documents that I would play a song for Aurora and if he wanted to count that as an audition, then that was fine. Obviously, I killed the audition, performing “Con Te Partiro”. I also managed to make Aurora blush, so big bonus there.

The designs were amazing. They were from a construct called a clockwork mage. Whomever the visitor was, he had destroyed one and was trying to figure out how to make them from the remains. Nepulos had already filled in a lot of the details, but they were unfinished. Whatever had gotten him killed had happened before he could finish.

It was the most complex construct I had ever seen. It used something called a “wand crystal” to emulate spell casting and if I was reading it correctly, it could do it at a nine CL output. I’ve talked about it before, but let’s go into greater detail.

All spells require a certain amount of magical energy input into them to cast and most spells can be given more energy for greater effect. Most wizards don’t worry about the actual numbers, but my scientific background requires me to classify. I could go on and describe things in more complex scientific terms, but instead I’ve decided to couch things in gaming terms. I mean, I’m a wizard. If that doesn’t sound like it calls for game terms, you’re not from my world. So I call each of these discrete steps “Caster Levels” or “CL” for short. A simple bolt of force requires an input of one CL. Making that two bolts requires a two CL increase, for a total of three CL for a single spell.

The amount of energy required to get a greater effect is not static. For each discrete increase in power, you have an increase in input require that is roughly
110% of the last increase in power. So if one CL requires 1 unit of power input, two CLs has a power level of 2.1, three requires an input of 3.31, four is roughly 4.64 and so on.

Each spell matrix has a minimum input required to generate an effect as well as a maximum amount of extra power you can put in to overcharge it for greater effect. The force bolt described above can accept up to nine CL of input, yielding five force bolts. At that point, however, you’re slinging 13.58 units of magical energy. But the spell at that point is no more complex, it’s simply stronger.

More complex spells require a higher minimum power input to get off the ground. I’ve talked about more complex spells before, giving them a “spell level” that corresponds to their complexity rating. I often use the two terms interchangeably. Anyway, back on topic. A bolt of lightning 120 feet long has a complexity rating of three. As such, it takes a CL of 5 to cast. On the upside, it has a lot more power to throw into damaging a target, so it does a lot more damage than a simple force bolt. Indeed, though it’s more complex, it does damage perhaps more efficiently, dealing roughly the same amount of damage as five force bolts – which again took 9 CLs of power to get – making up for the drawbacks of complexity.

Wizards are the masters of efficiency in this regard. We cast complex spells with a lower CL input required than sorcerers, who don’t necessarily understand the spells and just brute force them into existence. Nevertheless, without modification to the spells through complex adjustments known as “Meta-magic”, the maximum output of a spell is the same for both.

With that primer in mind, wand crystals allow the construct to channel a nine CL output, but the constructs are limited on the complexity of the spells they can emulate. Where I could use that nine CL to burst out a spell with a complexity rating of five, the wand crystals can only emulate spells of up to complexity three. What’s more is that they can only store up to two spells of complexity one, two spells of complexity two and one of complexity three and all have to be from the same school of magic.

On the other hand, what they lack in variety, they make up for in staying power. I can only mentally prepare a few spells of complexity one before I have to sacrifice “slots” used for more complex spells. The wand crystal could cast complexity one spells it had programmed into it all day. More complex spells “overheat” the matrix and are more limited, but it’s still very powerful. Hell, its power output is equal to my own current level.

That said, my own power level has been going up at a rapid pace. Way back when we first met Lenn, Geo and Paulie, my reliable output was at one CL. Since then, it has gone up to nine. In ten years of study, I had only managed to achieve a starter level, but now my magical output was pretty amazing.

I’ve started to wonder if perhaps it’s because I’ve been stuck in so many life or death situations. Try to follow me here. Back in Absalom, when casting spells for practice, you try to improve slowly but surely. It’s like increasing the weight on your barbell by two pounds every couple months. You’ll see muscle growth, but it’s slow. Whereas now, I don’t have time to modulate the amount above my current known level I throw out. I just heave as much as I can and hope I don’t hurt myself. It’s more dangerous, sure, but it damn well seems to work faster.

I studied the schematics for several hours, doing work in my head that would have taken most people three chalkboards. I mapped energy pathways, gear placements and whatnot else, then began making my own adjustments for efficiency. As I worked, I realized that I could change it even further. I could make it more than a protector. I could make it into a second skin.

As I worked on the possibilities, I realized that I could turn myself into the steampunk version of a space marine. That meant I needed a gun. And that’s something I could make.

I used an illusion spell to show everyone what I was thinking, humming the Jimmy Neutron theme while doing it. Aurora seemed especially impressed.

Actually, I think Aurora had been enjoying herself all day. I kept catching her staring at me when she thought I wasn’t looking. It was most evident when we were at the orphanage. She was sitting there, with one of the little kids sitting in her lap, a wistful smile on her face and just watching me. I really wanted to sing “Eyes On Me” and declare my love for her then and there, but we had already talked about it and I knew that I didn’t have a shot. Plus, it would have been unfair to do so when the kids were watching.

While we played Settlers of Cataan, she just relaxed in a way I hadn’t seen before. She cut loose and laughed deeply as we played and joked through the afternoon. No one got why I laughed when Chadwick said he had “wood for sheep”, but that’s okay. I’m used to being misunderstood.

And when we sat there watching Marco light that bag of dog poop on fire and run away, she was crouched almost shoulder to shoulder with me, close enough that I heard her giggling – yes! Giggling! – as he lost his sandal and had to go back.

That night, when I told her that I had arranged for her to sleep in the guest room next to me, she insisted that she be allowed to share my room. That didn’t bother me at all, so I showed her my room and told her we could have someone move another bed into the room. She then insisted that my bed was more than large enough for both of us. This was true. It’s bigger than a California King and could easily hold the two of us. Hell, it can hold me and four young ladies – don’t ask – so I know that it can fit the two of us with plenty of spare room. Nonetheless, it felt like she was sending me conflicting messages. Was she interested or wasn’t she? The fact that she changed into her slinkier nightgown wasn’t helping me decide. So I just hoped that she was planning to take the initiative and jump me.

I remembered one thing that I had been meaning to do and took momentary leave by telling Aurora I was off to look for a servant to bring in a basin for washing our faces. Then I went and found Chadwick. The two of us went to our workshop and I handed him my special magic wand. “Use this one me after I cast the third spell.”

First, I used a spell to make myself larger. Then I used a spell to increase my muscle mass. Finally, I cut my palm and used a spell to fabricate something, using my own blood in place of the requisite materials. The price paid, blood swirled and formed into an exquisitely crafted set of armor made just for my knight. Chadwick used the wand on me once and I used it several more times to cure the damage before the self-enhancements wore off.

“Kyle, is this adamantine?!” Chadwick asked.

I grinned. “Damn straight. Also, the padding is a material from back home. We call it memory-foam. After a few wearings, it will mold perfectly to the wearer. It will also wick away sweat and heat.” He seemed impressed. “You can copy the spells out of my spellbook, though you’ll need knowledge of a material’s construction to make it.”

I returned to my room and climbed into my ridiculously comfortable bed and realized just how much I had missed it. Don’t get me wrong, the beds at the Rusty Dragon are fine, but they’re not made of an alchemically-derived foam developed thanks to funds from a traveler used to better beds than found anywhere in the world. Sadly, Aurora was already in bed and asleep when I laid down. She was on the far side of the bed, her back to me. I sighed softly in disappointment and went to sleep.

The nightmares came as they always did now, but they were a lot less severe than normal. And, as had happened a lot lately, they disappeared in a lilac-scented haze and were replaced by a comfortable sleep.

I awoke maybe three hours later to an even stronger scent of lilacs and a soft warmth on my left side. I opened my eyes and realized that Aurora was pressed against me, her head on my bare chest and her hand on my stomach. My arm was around her, resting on her side. In truth, I had long dreamed about waking up with her like this, at least since nursing her through her near death from alcohol withdrawal. I think that might have been when I realized I had fallen for her.

But dammit these mixed signals were driving me crazy.

“Just wake her with a kiss and ravish her. She’s only sending mixed signals because she wants you as much as you want her but doesn’t know how to say it,” I heard a voice say.

I glanced over and saw her sitting there in the kind of lingerie you only see on supermodels in the really good underwear catalogs. And she had the body to match it. Anyone who looked at her would tell you that the woman sitting at my bedside was a nine or a ten. Yet, no matter how hot she was, she was one woman I’d never sleep with, because she was me.

Once again, Fleur de Lis is the name I gave the other me. When I was stuck in that form, I had practiced all the little moves that many women learn naturally to draw and hold gazes and the result was that Fleur was a sexpot. She always wears the most sensuous clothing, her hair is always just so and her hips sway in just the right way as she walks to hypnotize anyone that sees her pass.

I’m not saying that she could bed any man she chooses. I’m saying that she could bed anyone she chooses, male or female. But that’s not really important. What is important is what she represented to my mind. She’s the manifestation of my subconscious, my baser urges unfiltered by self-control or more than basic, primal morality. She’s the part of me that doesn’t care about the consequences, the part that lives in the moment and does whatever the hell it pleases.

Even before I started having these strange and probably psychotic visions of fictional people coming to talk to me, she had been there. Even before I got turned into a woman, she was a part of me. She’s simply just a part of me. At one point, we were indistinguishable. We truly were one person. But at some point, I disassociated and she became a separate entity within my mind. She started out as just a little voice in the back of my head. When I went back for the Chelish ambassador’s daughter, she had been there. She was there for every seduction as well as many non-sexual risks I took. Introducing bungee jumping to Absalom? All her. I never went along with the idea, but she had suggested it. Even slapping Ameiko’s ass had been her idea.

Don’t get me wrong, the decision to go along with her ideas is all on my conscious mind, but she was still a part of it. And now she had turned her attention towards Aurora. Not that I’m surprised. If there’s anything in the world I want more than everything else, more than even going home, it’s Aurora. I want her to love me like I love her. But I don’t think it’s to be.

“Don’t give me that. Can’t you see? It’s obvious that she wants you to make a move! Grab her ass! Tear off her clothes! Quit waffling, you moron!” I was suddenly taken back to the time I had yelled the very same thing at the TV while watching “Ah! My Goddess!!” Had I really turned into Keiichi Morisato? Was I that blind? Was I really missing just how much this girl with me loved me?

No, I told myself. She’s just trying to get in your head. She knows what you know and is using it to make you do what she wants. Ignore her.

Fleur rolled her eyes at me as I pulled the book out from under my pillow. I conjured a small light, large enough to read by but small enough not to bother Aurora. Sure enough, it looked like a book of fairy stories, just as Marco’s minion had said. But I could see the inconsistencies immediately. He was right, it was an enchanted tome. And I knew how to break the enchantment and find what was hidden.

It was actually quite simple. I just had to find the first inconsistency to figure out which of the predetermined passwords Nepulos had used, then speak the password. That took less than two minutes.

I can’t even begin to tell you just how awestruck I was by what was inside. I think the best way to describe the book is to call it a textbook, though that doesn’t even do it justice. It was filled with schematics, equations and element diagrams, describing materials I had never even heard of. Whoever had written this had access to technology and science perhaps hundreds of years beyond current earthling understanding.

And what was even more amazing is that whoever had owned this book had no idea what he had. He focused on the simplest of things. More complex concepts were completely devoid of the owner’s notes. I could be wrong, but I think the owner of this was some kind of graduate student, or at least the equivalent. He could understand the basics, but he didn’t have the background to understand anything more.

I, on the other hand, have a background in physics, chemistry, math and technology needed. I’ve mentioned that I was a freshman in college when I left Earth. I’ve also mentioned that I have a greater than one-ninety IQ. What I haven’t mentioned is that I had been studying college level curriculum online since middle school. I maintained a lazy image. I was always watching anime or cartoons, but at the same time, I was also always reading and expanding my mind. They say that people are actually quite horrible at multi-tasking, but I must be the exception, at least when it comes to video entertainment and studying. You don’t believe me? I have three peer reviewed papers in major scientific journals and was about to submit a patent for a new kind of computer chip that would probably be in every mobile device at this point if I hadn’t been taken to Golarion. Look the articles up. And if someone found my papers on the chip after I disappeared, you’re welcome.

The book described weapons, space suits(!), cybernetic implants and various and sundry gadgets. What’s more is that the math and other tech implied things that were far beyond what was actually inside. Hell, if I applied the principles within, I’m pretty sure I could create a functional warp drive. Yes, that’s what I said. Faster than light travel. The only problem is that nothing in the book described anything close to the type of power source I’d need to actually run the damn thing. At least, nothing I could use that would be small enough to fit on a ship. I’m sure that if I hooked it up to enough planetary based power plants, I could make it produce a large enough “bubble” to move a large vessel, but that wouldn’t do me any good. Not even anti-matter would provide what I needed. The problem would be power generation.

And the tech was merely the beginning. I had spent ten years studying not just the practical aspects of wizardry, but also its theory. I’m certain that with a little time, I could create a hybrid of magic and technology unlike anything anyone has ever seen. Hell, even while lying there, I had worked out a way to improve the batteries described within into magical ones that recharged once per day by drawing energy from the magical field that surrounds everything.

And I managed to do all that while Fleur sat there trying to convince me to put away the book and do something to or with the amazingly beautiful girl asleep next to me. But I used my skills to focus on what I was doing. I wouldn’t have even realized anything was going on if Fleur hadn’t suddenly stopped singing halfway through “Kiss the Girl”.

I looked up from the book and Fleur was standing right next to the bed, grinning like an idiot. That alarmed the hell out of me, so I set down the book. “What?” I sub-vocalized, a bit alarmed.

“Way to go, champ! I was afraid you didn’t have it in you!”

What was she talking about? And why did she suddenly remind me of Bob the skull? At that moment, I suddenly realized that my left hand was touching something warm and soft yet tantalizingly firm. I squeezed softly and Aurora let out a soft moan. I turned my head slowly and realized that my hand was firmly on Aurora’s beautiful backside. She wasn’t awake, thank God, but still.

In my defense, I panicked. I want you to remember that. Never forget that what happened next wasn’t planned. It was an accident. I swear it was an accident. Please, you have to believe me.

I yanked my hand away and up. It got snagged on Aurora’s nightgown, also yanking it up. Fleur cheered and Aurora stirred slightly. I sat there in shock just staring at Aurora’s now bare chest. Still asleep, Aurora’s arm wrapped further around me and she pulled herself closer to me, pressing her bare flesh into mine.

Still trying to get comfortable, Aurora kicked her left leg over me and now my thigh was directly in her crotch, separated only by the thin fabric of her underpants. My brain may be good at multi-tasking, but a million thoughts at once was far too many for even me. I just sat there, mouth agape, staring. I probably would have sat there, unable to react, until Aurora woke up if I hadn’t noticed something in the faint light of the magical illumination I had conjured earlier.

Aurora’s torso had a number of wicked scars on it. “Battle injuries?” I subvocalized. I craned my neck and looked at her back – not once did I stare and her almost naked behind – and found almost nothing. Every one of these injuries had hit her while in combat. At no point had she been running away. She had stood and faced her foes.

Without thinking, I reached out and touched the scar on the top of her left breast. Let me correct that. My fingers touched the scar. The palm of my hand touched something else. It wasn’t on purpose. It just kinda happened. It might not have even occurred to me that I was groping her had she not let out another soft moan and pressed herself harder against my thigh.

I jerked back my hand and took a few deep breaths. I then slowly pulled myself away just enough to allow me to use some light magical telekinesis to pull down her nightgown once more. Her stomach was still bared, but that would have to do. I pulled the covers up over us, extinguished the magical light, and just lied there, staring at her beautiful face, breathing in the soft scent of her hair and listening to the soft, contented sound of her breathing.

Fleur sang “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” before disappearing.

We lay like that for maybe half an hour before Aurora stirred. I saw her eyes open. She laid there for several moments, trying to assess the situation. “Sleep well?” I asked softly.

All of her muscles tensed. It felt like it was all she could do not to catapult herself out of the bed. “I- I must have gotten cold in the night,” she stammered.

Oh. So that’s what it was. She wasn’t horny. She was cold. “Well, we have several hours til dawn. No reason to get up yet. If you think you’ll still get cold, feel free to fall back asleep here.” I did the best I could to hide my disappointment, but I’m not sure I was entirely successful.

She just nodded and laid her head back on my chest, this time moving closer so her full head and not just her cheek was on me. It didn’t take her long to fall back into a deep slumber.

I laid there for another hour, reading one of the other books the Hidden Grotto had provided – an omnibus of Thassilonian legends – before getting out of bed. I didn’t want to. Of course I didn’t. The woman I loved was in my arms. I didn’t want to get up at all. But I had to. It was either a long cold shower or more fondling and I already felt guilty as hell. Also, those legends were really creepy. I was simultaneously turned on and mildly terrified, which was really confusing my body.

Yes, I