Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Vlad and the Portal Under the Stars

For years, people had been asked why old Matopher wasn’t dead yet. His diet consisted mainly of hard cider. He’d lost most of his teeth and his body had been wasting away. One night when it looked like his time had finally come, he gathered his brood and told them a story about the standing stones on the plain south of the trading post.

No, this had nothing to do with the White Queen. This was before he found out anything about the White Queen. This was about the night a doorway appeared beneath the central standing stone. He stared at the door for hours and then opened it into what appeared to be a treasure vault. In the dim light of his torch, everything sparkled and shone—including the spears that were hurled at him from out of the darkness. He’d often wondered, what if he had been braver, what if he had been stronger, what if he had been better armed. . .

Most of his children shook their heads and told grandpa to calm down. But Vlad and Mihir listened, especially when Matopher told them he’d been watching the stars, and they were edging closer to the same configuration that night in the spring of his youth . . .

Vlad and Mihir listened to their dying grandfather’s story and decided to seek out the adventure he described. They camped out by the standing stones for a couple nights, waiting impatiently for the proper alignment of the stars. When the portal appeared, they entered what seemed to be a tomb, rife with magical traps to ward off grave-robbers. After taking a few knocks and jabs, the cousins stopped to collect a suit of the fine, black-lacquered scale mail that Matopher had spoken of. Vlad judged it to be functionally inferior to his own plate mail, but he assisted Mihir in putting it on. Passing from chamber to another, they encountered a giant, horned snake, which first spoke to them before attacking. They fought back, but were confounded by the serpent’s tough scales, barely wounding the monsters while they were jabbed again and again by quick jabs of its long fangs. Mihir battered it with the magic staff he’d taken from Lareth. The staff shattered with an explosion, throwing the snake against the opposite wall. Though battered and stunned, when it coiled up to resume its attack, the two cousins fled for their lives. They led the snake in a chase through the tomb, and into a two-story hall dominated by a fire-shooting statue. Dollops of flaming oil slipped off Mihir’s new armor and onto the stone floor, arresting the snake. A second burst of oil hit the snake and it was consumed by the fire. After a rest, Vlad and Mihir decided that they would continue to explore the tomb.

In another, dimly glowing chamber, they encountered a half-dozen living statue, fashioned of transparent crystal. They gathered around Mihir, seemingly fascinated by the torch he was carrying. Holding the torch out from his body, Mihir led the crystal people out of the chamber, with Vlad following behind. They descended into the lower level of the tomb, and here discovered a much larger group of living statues, these made of clay, and much more martial in temperament. Their leader stood up from his throne and seemed to order an attack—the statues raised their spears and marched toward the intruders. Mihir tossed his torch toward the clay soldiers. The crystal people, chasing the light, met the brunt of the clay soldiers attack. Vlad raised his crossbow and shot a crossbow bolt at the clay king. His second shot misfired. Mihir recommended retreated. Although the crystal people’s powerful fists were capable of shattering a clay soldier with a single blow, they were being overwhelmed by numbers. Also, there was the issue of light . . .

Vlad and Mihir fumbled their way through the long passage to the stairs. As they climbed the stairs, they heard the clay soldiers marching behind them. At the top of the stairs, Vlad and Mihir paused in the dimly-glowing room where they’d met the crystal people and lit another torch. As the clay soldiers people reached the stop of the stairs, Vlad and Mihir once again took to flight, this time heading for exit from the tomb. They didn’t look back until they were once again outside, their lungs stinging with the chilly night air. The stars had changed and the portal was gone-- once again the standing stones framed only the Alyan night sky. They had recovered little treasure, only the strange suit of black armor that proved to their grandfather he hadn’t been dreaming when he first saw it fifty years before.

(Grandpa Matopher, by the way, was out of bed, and getting around as healthy as an old drunk could be.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Emperor's Third Peculiar Request

How can someone who is stone explain what it’s like to someone who isn’t? One fine day, Beatriss was awakened by the sensation of someone rubbing her face, at first her cheeks and nose. And then her mouth. And then her eyes—so they opened and she remember she hadn’t never fallen asleep exactly. She’d been fighting a basilisk, and then looked into its deep cold eyes.

And now the person (it was Cair, the wizard) was rubbing her chin, her neck, her shoulders.


He dropped his hand. “If you say so.”

Beatriss looked down and saw that the rest of her body was still stone. She was in a luxurious room, surely in the Emperor’s palace. Yes, there was the Emperor, lounging on a sofa, feasting with Jiaohu and other concubines. Beatriss frowned at Cair, “What are you doing?”

Jiaohu said, “Why did you start with her face?”

The Emperor, half-laughed, but his happy surprise was obvious—he tossed his plate of food aside and rose from the bed. “It’s working! You must continue!”

Cair bowed. “Yes, it’s working.” He pointed to a line on the floor, “But if it pleases your imperial majesty . . .”

The Emperor frowned, but retreated.

Cair spoke to Beatriss in a low whisper, warning her that once Cair's magic had taken its full effect, and Beatriss's natural flesh was restored, the Emperor intended to add her to his harem.  Cair had another idea-- the same one he had proposed to Bayan-- that they should join together in escaping Khanbaliq and Xiaodang altogether.  Beatriss said that she would need time to think it over.

When the Emperor interrupted the conversation, Cair showed him the empty pot of ointment.  Another whispered conversation, this one between Cair and the Emperor and much more heated ensued with Cair promising over and over, "More can be made, more can be made, two days, just gave me two days .  . ." as he bowed and scraped his way backwards out of the chamber.

The next morning, the Emperor made his intentions known to Beatriss.  Yes, he did want her as a mate, but less for his carnal pleasure than for the sake of son whom a woman of such proven martial talents could bear for him.  He went on to discuss a visitor from Monravia and his garden . . .

Beatriss did not follow the Emperor's interest in snow peas, but she did understand that the Emperor would consult his astrologers on the best time for her to conceive a son, and if she cooperated, she could, after a year or so, leave Khanbaliq with the Emperor's blessings, and with his assistance in constructing her own small rural fortress.  The boy would stay in Khanbaliq and be taught to be a great general.

Beatriss agreed.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Emperor's Second Peculiar Request

Beatriss & co. returned to Monastery of the Two-Fold Path later that week. They found more signs of structural damage—in one room, where they’d collapsed a wall, the ceiling had collapsed completely, half-filling in the pit in the floor. Heavy rains that week had turned the room into a swampy mess. Large reptilian footprints going up the wall before them showed that they needed to be prepared by anything.

They were not surprised to meet a dragon-like beast. They were surprised at the way it made their blood to look into its stony, languid eyes. They tried to fight without looking at it, but Beatriss stumbled on the crumbling stone steps—looking up for a moment, she met the monster’s gaze and was turned to stone. Naron, Feng Feng, and Bayan all fought with the swords, slashing through its thick scales so the steps ran black with its foul blood. But its death throes, it caught Feng Feng its claws and pulled him to its face so that he too turned to stone. Bayan and Jumay puzzled over how to restore Beatriss, but then Naron noted that there was another Basilisk in the room beyond. The party fled. Back in the imperial City, they told the Emperor what had happened. The Emperor summoned Cair, a foreign wizard who was a long-term “guest” (prisoner) of the Emperor, and ordered him to assist the others in rescuing Beatriss.

Cair promised that he could help them and the Emperor agreed to allow him and his associate, a priestess named Myrrha, to leave the Forbidden City. Bayan suggested they should also equip themselves with well-polished mirrors, hoping that they could use them to petrify the second basilisk that they would otherwise have to risk fighting with their swords.

The new company returned ventured once more inside the monastery. Bayan’s plan using the mirrors worked exactly as planned—the second basilisk was turned to stone. The next part of the plan—restoring Beatriss and Feng Feng—proved more difficult. Cair made a series of eleaborate gestures with his wan while standing in front of Beatriss’s “statue,” but she remained a figure in stone. He told Bayan that what he really needed was money—and help getting the statues to coast, where his ship lay waiting. If they could escape Xiao Deng and return to Faerun, he could call on the help of other wizards, and have access to magical materials not available—

Bayan cut him off. No, he had promised he had the power to restore Beatriss. And he had proved himself untrustworthy. She refused to compound one mistake with another. 

When it came time to consider how to carry the statues of Beatriss and Feng Feng back into the city, Cair showed that he was not completely useless. Using his magic, he caused himself to grow into a giant, strong to lift each statue and place it outside the monastery walls. He did the same for the non-petrified party members. Cradling one statue in each arm, Cair, walked with the others back into the city. The guards would not allow the giant Cair to approach the city walls. The party rested at a tavern outside the walls and, after Cair returned to his normal size, they hired a cart.

The Emperor ordered the statues to be displayed with honor and under heavy guard.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Emperor's First Peculiar Request

The Emperor was looking for a Cynidicean concubine and Beatriss agreed to help him find one.  Not immediately, but after she heard the whole story.  One of his newest concubines, name Jiaohu, purchased from the Monastery of the Two-Fold Path perhaps noticing the Khan’s interest in Beatriss, had told him, that “The Monks have another pale one like her, but younger and prettier, but they are holding her for someone special.  And did I mention she had strong thighs, too?”

Jiaohu repeated her account to Beatriss while the Khan implied that if Beatriss could rescue this girl from the monastery (which sounded like a miserable place for anyone), then he would allow Beatriss to leave Khanbaliq and build her castle in the south.  He had sent messengers to the Monastery of the Two-Fold Path, offering thousands of taels for the “pale girl,” but none in the parade of women they offered him was a Cynidicean.  The explanation that Jiaohu repeated was that the monks were keeping the pale girl hidden as a prize for someone they thought more important the great Khan Kublai.
Here was what Beatriss needed to know to find the Cynidicean: According to Jiaohu, the pale girl spoke a strange language and had been named Ciuciu by the other slaves.  Jiaohu’s friend Xing was still held by the monks in the cells beneath the monastery.  If Beatriss could find Xing, then Xing could help her Ciuciu and if Beatriss found Ciuciu, she could convince her to come out with her.  Jiaohu taught Beatriss to say a password by which she would identify herself as a friend to Xing.

Beatriss gathered four other adventurers to assist her.  These included Naron the warrior and Jumay the priest, both companions from her expedition to Tempat Larang.  Feng Feng the magician she had met before in Khanbaliq.  Finally, there was Bayan, a servant woman whom, after being rejected by the princess she’d been hired to serve, had been how to fight by Beatriss herself.
The group of five entered the Monastery of the Two-Fold Path through a postern gate into the ruined half of the compound. The collapsing walls and unstable floor provided the most serious danger until they encountered a sickly-sweet smelling and tentacled compost pile.   Beatriss, with uncharacteristic bravado, rushed at the strange monster with her sword, handily slashing it into pieces—but not before getting slapped across the face with one of the sticky tentacles.  Writhing on the floor, she struggled to breathe—the quick-thinking Bayan supplied an acidic liquid to dissolve the cloying syrup.

The party found their way out of the ruins and into one of the out-buildings, meeting a group of monks who attacked them on sight.  The fortunate ones were paralyzed by Ju-May, the others were cut down by Beatriss and Naron.  After the short battle, a woman peered out from under some straw in the loft area above.  She identified herself as a slave, and asked if they would take her away from the Monks.  Beatriss used Jiaohu and the woman identified herself as Xing.  She knew of Ciuciu and offered to lead the party there.  There was one way that led through a dangerous overgrown garden and another way that led directly down, but through the lair of the antmen.  Beatriss asked Xing to lead them by the second path.
Xing led them to the dungeons below the monastery and, as she had warned them, as they explored the narrow tunnels dug through crumbling clay soil, they were attack by three bipedal ant creatures, each carrying two shields and wielding two swords.  They were fearless fighters, and also crafty, using a weighted net to ensnare Beatriss while attacking her friends.  Naron stood in the passage to protect the others from melee, shielded by Jumay’s call for divine protection.  Feng Feng used his magic to kill one of the antmen and when Beatriss freed herself from the net, she and Naron killed the other two.  At some point during the battle, Xing had disappeared.  From the darkness behind them, they heard a female cry and then a thud and sound of crunching bones.

Beatriss, surmising that neither she nor Xing could be of any further help to each other, pushed onward.  The party passed through chambers seemingly shewed out of the earth and filled with rotting vegetation.  In time they came to a chamber seemingly filled with warm mud.  Beatriss waded into it, and was attacked by what looked like huge, fat white worms—giant ant larvae.  Fighting them off, Beatriss retreated and agreed with her companions that they had been overly bold in their quest.  They resolved to retreated to the Khan’s palace, rest and tend their wounds, and return another day.
On their way out of the subterranean tunnels, they were startled by the noise of two crocodiles, fighting listlessly over what appeared to be a human corpse.  The croc abandoned their humdrum meal in favor of fresh meat.  The party killed the crocodiles.  Before returning to the ground level of the Monastery, Beatriss and Jumay took a look at the corpse, wondering if they would recognize Xing.  The body was naked, hairless, and featureless.  Though damaged by the crocodiles, little blood flowed from its wounds.
Beatriss and the others returned to Forbidden City and gave a full report to the Emperor.  While disappointed in their failure, he was mollified by Beatriss’s clear commitment to returning to the monastery within the week.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Wolfgang and the Rattling Bones

Vulpio, Mardiuw, Wolfgang, Gerrilynn, and Chickie, retreated with the elves deeper into the forest, and stayed there for several weeks. When the buds opened on the oak trees, the company returned once more to the Lake of Lost Dreams, and paddled to the island where they'd search out the crown of the elven prince.

The sought and discovered the ruined building where'd they found the statue, and descended underground by way. The halls below were quiet and empty.

And then they opened the iron door upon the chamber where the bones sprang to life. Gerrilyn raised her holy symbol. The front rank of skeletons turned away, impeding the charge of the others. Vulpio slammed the door and Mardiuw hammered a series of spikes to hold it closed.

And then, while the bones clattered against the door, the group made a plan. They hammered more spikes into the floor, a little distance from the door-- so that when the first spikes were removed, the door could be allowed to open I\just enough\I to let one skeleton at a time squeeze through.

Vulpio volunteered to stand in the breach, with Wolfgang standing behind him to destroy any skeletons that managed to force their way through. Vulpio swung his sword like a whirlwind, and the shattered bones and splintered shields piled up under his feet. He tired, and was knocked to the floor. As more skeletons pushed through trampling Vulpio underfoot, Gerrilyn once more raised her holy symbol and by the power of Raud drove them away. Mardiuw pulled Vulpio to safety, Wolfgang moved into the front rank and Chickie stood behind him. The skeletons charged again-- they were pulverized by Wolfgang's staff and laid low by Chickie's club. The pile of bones was so great that the spikes were knocked free and the door sprang open. The remnant of skeletons poured out. The party overcame them all and it was quiet, but Chickie was grievously wounded and Wolfgang exhausted to the point of delirium.

The group climbed back up the ladder, and returned to their boat. Halfway back to shore, they heard the telltale buzzing of the maverick pixies. With his last ounce of strength, Wolfgang framed their forms in purple light. Gerrilyn transfixed the pixies with a holy rebuke. Vulpio and Mardiuw shot them with arrows. They captured three living pixies and chased away the others.

The elves were heartened by the party's success in capturing the pixies. And Aemornion, after hearing the tale of their battle against two score living skeletons, expressed his confidence that they would persistently return until they discovered the lost crown.

Brief addendum: Wolfgang and Gerrilynn returned to the dungeon on the Island of Lost Dreams.  They fought and destroyed a pair of gargoyles.  In the process they shattered a dark mirror obsidian, breaking the curse on the pixies and revealing the entrance to the Maze of Nuromen.  They returned to the surface to be feted by the grateful pixies who were no longer corrupted by evil and hatred!