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Friday, 7 August 2020

The art of the possible

It was a pleasure and a privilege to be invited by Ralph Lovegrove onto his Fictoplasm podcast recently. Normally the structure of an episode involves Ralph reviewing a novel and then considering how it might inspire roleplaying games. Particularly recommended: Nineteen Eighty-Four, Mythago Wood, The Tremor of Forgery, The Chronicles of Prydain, Kill the Dead, The Eclipse of the Century, Lyonesse, and Elric of Melnibone. Talking of that last one, Ralph is currently embarking on a marathon read-though of Moorcock classics, so stay tuned.

A previous guest on the Fictoplasm podcast was my wife Roz Morris so to balance things out I guess Ralph just had to ask me. Tune in here for our long discussion which takes in Brexit (鎖国), Tetsubo (鉄棒), my planned Sparta RPG (Λ), Mirabilis (), Frankenstein (🧠), Tirikelu (₸), and of course Jewelspider (💎🕷 or 宝石クモ, take your pick). We also talk about politics, gamebook design, the Congo, Nazis, Sagas of the Icelanders, and roleplaying in soon-to-be-sunken lands from Abraxas to Lyonesse but I've got no kanji or other symbols for those.

Jamie mentioned after listening to the podcast that I came across a bit like Tony Blair at times. Apparently he meant because of my vocal inflection rather than my politics. I suggested we might do a regular Fabled Lands podcast. (Jamie would be the Gordon Brown of the partnership, presumably.) So far I haven't been able to convince him, but maybe if there's enough demand...

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

The Conclave on Kindle

If you followed last week's installments of the Conclave campaign and want the full novella, it's now available on Kindle. This brings the story to a conclusion, fixes some of the plot holes, fleshes out some scenes, and also includes background details of the narrator, Surma. To quote from the blurb:
Creation is losing the flavour of things, becoming colourless and uniform under the skin of reality. This is why the old songs lose their melody, why the fisherman’s catch is mostly minnows, why the young cast their elders out into the cold, why the storms are violent and unseasonal, and dragons hide in distant clouds.

The world is an archipelago of a hundred islands, beyond whose furthest shores lies illimitable ocean. Magic is real, though rarely tamed, and the College of Wizards maintains a careful balance so that use of magic does not damage the fabric of reality.

But now a new force is at work, twisting and blurring the true names of things that are the root of all that exists. If it goes on unchecked, magic and wonder will drain away. Even life and death will cease to have meaning.

Seven of the greatest sorcerers of the age are invited by the Master Summoner of the College of Wizards to travel to the island of Dain at the archipelago’s heart. The Summoner’s hope is that this conclave, untainted by the politics and intrigues of the College and unrestrained by nature, will be able to hold back the force that is picking reality apart.

Yet to be effective in their fight, the conclave must first work the hardest spell of all -- trust.
If anyone who read the first seven installments on the blog feels like giving the book a review on Amazon -- well, consider yourself rich in undying gratitude! Surprisingly (but also quite pleasingly) some readers have praised it as homage to Ursula K Le Guin -- and as I still haven't read the Earthsea books that's surely a first. An anticipatory homage!

By one of those strokes of serendipity I discovered this week that the filmmaker Michael Powell wanted to make a movie of the Earthsea trilogy. It was designed as a project for his film school students and it was only five minutes long, but what a treasure that would be if it still exists anywhere. Powell incidentally was just as baffled as I am that the trilogy was published in the UK by Puffin (Penguin Books' children's imprint). That's the reason I didn't notice it back in my teens when I was devouring a lot of fantasy and SF. When Powell asked Le Guin why it went to Puffin and not Penguin's adult line, she said, 'Because Kaye Webb is a smart cookie.' I suspect it was because it was assumed back then that a fantasy novel written by a woman must be for ten year olds, so it's surprising that Le Guin thought it was a good decision. I guess it didn't hurt her in the long run.

Friday, 31 July 2020

The perfect way to play

It was a while back now, but Jeff McDowall did such a great intro post on the Fabled Lands Facebook group that I just had to share it:

I've been a fan of Fabled Lands since finding a curious book series called Quest, which included a pair of dice on each cover. How odd and fascinating! After devouring book 1 and 2 in the 1990s, years later I discovered there were four more titles and lands to explore but alas I could not find them. Then in 2011 I discovered them back in print and so bought books 1-4. I backed the Kickstarter for book 7, and bought the rest of the books by 2017. The last books arrived just before Hurricane Irma roared ashore. When the power went out, I introduced my son to the series under the LED glow of lamplight. While waiting out the storm we traveled the roads of Sokara and Golnir, climbed the mountains into the plains beyond, sailed the seas near Dweomer, and stayed well clear of Uttaku. When the skies cleared he was Rank 4 and long after remembered our first journey together in the Fabled Lands. In 2018, having given up on getting Book 7 in hardback, I ordered it from Amazon to complete the collection.

It was at this time that I went back to my thoughts in 2011, on how I wanted to join in on the adventures with others. I wondered how FL could be a multiplayer co-op adventure. I jotted down a few notes, got sidetracked with life, and finally this summer we made it happen. My son’s cousins, about the same age as him now as teenagers, were a bit bored one day, so I brought out the series, dusted off the old co-op rules, and our adventures began. After a few days of playing we are all at Rank 6, captains of two ships, and proud Paladins of Ravayne, This is how we did it:
  • Each character began at Rank 1 like normal. We had Valtass the Warrior, Sun-turtle Sage the Mage, Harpo the Rogue, and my character, Hayoo the Wayfarer.
  • I redrew and printed out a poster-sized map of the world and used wooden tokens to mark our location and our ship.
  • I created background cards they could choose from to give their characters some flavor, even if their character choose a different profession later in life. For example, those who grew up on the streets gained the pickpocket skill, able to roll for some shards (or a beating) when in a city. Those growing up in Hogwarts, I mean a mage tower, could use one premonition each session (which allowed a look ahead of one section to see if a choice caused death. Quite powerful but didn’t always reveal an actionable answer and they were always afraid to waste it). I acted as partial narrator, allowing the group to take a vote on actions (usually on the side of recklessness, until their first brush with death, when they became suddenly quite wary. At least they were wary until the vampire incident. Why did you let him in!?! Thank you, Valtass, for that sanctity roll!).
  • For skill tests one of us with the greater chance would do the roll, while another companion could help with a +1 if they had an equal stat (an incentive not to neglect abilities).
  • During basic combat encounters each of us faced off with a copy of the original threat. For boss fights, an appropriate target of the threat was assigned to each character. Harpo, for example, had the privilege of attacking a dragon’s head throughout a battle and almost succumbed when the rest of us came to his aid, having already dispatched wings, claws, and a tail.
  • Each character could buy a ship but had to pay for his own crew and roll their own combat. Should a storm take one of our ships, characters could be rescued with their personal possessions but the trade goods and crew would be lost with the ship.
  • Class quests could only be completed by the character it was meant for, so a good part of our journeys were finding each other's quests so everyone could catch up in Rank.
  • Each character also had to buy their own resurrection deals, which came in handy during a disastrous encounter in the Forbidden Forest. The two of us who survived recovered their items from the ground where they were pulverized and waited out the weeks and months for the others to make their way back to us.
  • I will soon introduce caravans to them, a land-based variant of ships which need drivers and guards that they can use to harvest and transport grain (if they have a house in Wheatfields), metals (if they have a house in Caran Baru), and any of the the other goods from appropriate locations around the world, but encounters on the road can cause losses if they aren’t prepared.
Everyone had lots of fun and good memories, even though we only explored most of Sokara, a good chunk of Golnir, a quick trip to Akatsurai and Dweomer, and little of anything else yet. But I'm happy to say new fans have been made and we look forward to our continuing adventures.

*  *  *

Thanks for those inspiring words, Jeff. I hope it's okay to share it here -- I felt it deserved a wider audience now that so many are abandoning Facebook.

Thursday, 30 July 2020

The Conclave: "Complaining About Miracles"

If you've been following the write-ups this week, I hope you enjoyed the glimpse of what it's like to play in one of our games. For those with no patience for game-inspired fiction, I do know what you mean. Most of this stuff only really makes sense if you were there. But after all, roleplaying games are not a spectator sport (not the good ones, anyway) and write-ups of blow-by-blow game action are always tedious, so I hope that by making this account character-driven I've turned it into something at least readable. And take heart -- normal blog service will be resumed tomorrow.

Oh, one other thing -- I should probably clarify that my character, Surma, is no more powerful than the other PCs, but I did manage to roll a lot of critical successes (5 or less on 3d6) for his spell-casting that helped him do exactly what he set out to do. In particular when it really mattered I several times rolled a 3, and it was interesting how the other players reacted to that. Some accepted it as part of game-reality, ie that Surma evidently was an exceptional wizard, but others insisted that he "didn't realize his own luck". (How different from the real world, where if somebody gets lucky several times in a row we think he or she is a genius.) I suppose that sums up the two different approaches to roleplaying, ie whether you see the world through the character's eyes or as a tabletop simulation where you always remain aware of the mechanics.

Were I to grant every prayer, it would still not be enough, for entitlement is in the mortal heartbeat and ingratitude in their life’s breath. You doubt my words? If you who read this are a mage, work a miracle. Twist reality till it snaps, reshape it, build a new truth out of your will. Do you hear that whine, tedious to your ears as the buzzing of mosquitos? Those are mortal voices, prompt with their complaints that your miracle could have been done better.
But I return to my narrative. On the deck of the Sea Lion, the Watcher lately avoided, I addressed my companions. ‘We need a spirit who can tell us the path Obsidian walked to godhood.’
‘Summoning such a one from the Dry Lands is a drastic measure,’ said Hurstyk.
‘We are embroiled in total war. Behold the hourglass. The Watcher is barely a minute behind us. No action is too drastic.’
‘I have summoned a wind,’ said Wax as our sails strained to fullness. The sands of the hourglass reversed their flow.
‘Breathing space,’ muttered Farris with a wry smile.
‘I could summon my dead master,’ offered Aareth. ‘He and I had a complex relationship. What is the best way for me to describe it? First I must tell you of events from twenty years past…’
I began to seriously consider joining Pale’s faction, until Wax said, ‘I will call up the spirit of my father, Ear of Ear, who taught me to be a shaman.’
Perhaps it was the effort of the summoning, but the wind he had lately raised died to a flutter. We waited. A streak drew itself from the western horizon across the water. As it reached us, a wet shape boiled up out of the depths and hauled itself aboard. A giant crustacean, garlanded in years of coral growth, stood dripping there. I could not understand its chittering speech, but it seemed to cast trepid glances out to sea as if it feared pursuit.
As Wax communed with his father’s shade, I elaborated on the plan. ‘We will send our emissary into the Dry Lands, and there he will walk the dreamquest that Obsidian used to amplify her power. With the counsel of Ear of Ear, along with the pattern Idhelruin can read, he will know the way. Gate will get him there bodily. I will provide the rainbow armour that refracts and resists Pale’s attempts to blur together all names, just as the rainbow splits white into distinct colours.’
‘You mean to send Eli?’ said Hurstyk.
‘He is an inquisitor, whatever that means.’
‘What does it mean?’ wondered Aareth.
‘It means he is one who believes himself to have a purpose. What one mage can do, another can do. Eli will undergo apotheosis and challenge Obsidian directly in the Dry Lands just as we stand against her here.’
‘Inquisitors are sworn to protect the world from malevolent sorcerers who seek to destroy or conquer it,’ said Abdiel. ‘Like you.’
‘Like me? Not Obsidian? She does threaten exactly that – but I, who seek to prevent her, excite you to ire? Abdiel, you are an imbecile.’
‘Woe!’ cried Wax. ‘My father comes apart. Surma, save him!’
The first prayer. The crab-form that Ear had taken in this world was decaying, its shell cracking apart. I read the spirit’s name with exact precision, caught the laws of life and death neatly between two fingers, undid and retied the knot of existence. ‘Ear of Ear, stand before me in your true form, in your prime, with your powers at their peak. You are once more a living man.’
There was a presence beside me. A woman in pale garments with a rent in space behind her. She stroked her hand over the fingers I had brushed against the Watcher’s. ‘Surma, come; you belong with me.’
I regarded her. ‘You squat in the Dry Lands, Obsidian, but I am the god of sudden death and I banish you.’
She could not resist. Another miracle? Perhaps we overestimate her power. It had been no struggle for me to withstand her, and yet –
‘Your arm,’ said Hurstyk.
‘Yes, it seems to have no feeling in it. The effect began when the Watcher touched me and now is spreading. Perhaps it is the White Death.’
Hurstyk shook his head. ‘Some other kind of curse.’ He began to work his healing magic, then reached for aid from Idhelruin. ‘Aareth, you help us too.’
‘Perhaps the blurring of well and unwell is what my Lady Pale wants,’ said Aareth, declining to add his force to the enchantment.
Hurstyk stood back, momentarily drained by his efforts. ‘It is all I can do to stop the curse spreading further up your arm.’
‘No matter. I’ll see to it myself when there is time.’
‘You should already be dead,’ said Idhelruin.
‘There has not been time even for that. Ear, what can you tell us of Obsidian’s long game?’
‘My father can tell us little,’ said Wax. ‘He died long after Obsidian entered the Dry Lands twenty years ago.’
‘Then why did you propose we – ? Never mind. Is there anything he can tell us?’
‘Pale’s design is to erase all differences in the world. There will be no true names left for a mage to discern.’
‘Thank you. We already knew as much.’
‘I saw her crush an apple and an orange together,’ Aareth remembered. ‘It is a ritual that represents loss of identity.
‘And she uses that ore, which is not gold nor silver nor mercury. This is not new information. Mirrowaith, can you elaborate?’
‘We of Hythe know nothing of any practical use,’ he said, or words that amounted to as much.
‘I depart for my home,’ said Ear suddenly. ‘My son, I thank you.’
Of course. Why would he thank the living god who restored him to life? Mortals, as I have said.
‘Take Sprugel with you, Father,’ said Wax.
‘I go now. But I leave you with this.’ And he put a small blessing on Wax’s coral spear, such as I might grant on a whim if distracted by other matters. We watched him depart on the turtle’s back.
‘I have read the pattern for Eli’s journey into the Dry Lands, such as I am able,’ said Idhelruin.
‘And see where the gate stands open,’ said Hurstyk. ‘I have tried to ensure it opens only one way.’
Encased in the rainbow armour, Eli took a step forward. He was like a man who, sunk days in draining fever, suddenly awakes and musters all his remaining strength. He went through the gate, closing it behind him – but in that moment we saw a woman, tall and pallid, stand ready in the other realm to embrace him.
We looked at each other. ‘Eli is resourceful,’ I said at last. ‘Obsidian may think she has the measure of him, but even if she has him captive she dare not relax her guard, and in the Dry Lands she will not have power to destroy him. Eli will be a constant threat to her, one that distracts her attention from us.’
‘Remember the hourglass!’ said Wax. ‘Behold, the thing is upon us again.’
‘He’s right,’ said Abdiel, who had stationed himself at the stern. ‘There is its hand upon the rudder. But it shall not pass me.’
Farris glanced over the rail, raised his bow, and loosed an arrow that dislodged the creature’s grip. Gripping his coral spear, Wax ran to the side and jumped in, giving me just seconds to weave the Watcher’s true name into the spear’s tip so that it could not fail to find its target.
Idhelruin read the patterns of the sea around us, ensuring that currents would favour us and not the Watcher.
‘Give me the means to breathe underwater,’ called Abdiel.
‘You have gills,’ I told him. ‘Webbed fingers. Fins on your heels and arms. You may move through water as easily as air.’
He plunged in. Already Wax had found his foe and hurled the spear like a harpoon against a whale. It broke on his breast, and the Watcher was sorely injured, but not enough to stop him from using Wax’s true name. Wax went rigid, forgetting to breathe, and sank like a stone into lightless depths still more absolutely representative of finality than the Dry Lands.
‘See there!’ said Aareth. ‘The turtle is coming back!’
And it seemed mere moments since Ear had left us. Of course, he must have set out on his long voyage to the south and then considered how ill-omened it would be to undertake the journey without giving due thanks to the one who had brought him back to life. As it happened, events were to come thick and fast and so he would forget a second time to render those thanks, but his return was fortuitous. He plunged the turtle against the Watcher. A brave and futile gesture. Sprugel resurfaced bloody and near to death, while Ear sank after his son.
Abdiel swam close and tried his sword against the Watcher, but it deflected him with ease and if not for Idhelruin’s foresightful patterning it would have gutted him there and then.
Hurstyk worked magic to cure Sprugel of his wounds so he could dive to recover Wax and Ear. By now you may be sure I had grown tired of the Watcher’s continual appearances and I decided it was time to end them. Naming it exactly, I bound its fate to the hourglass in which I had made Time’s sands to flow. Then I reversed the effect. Now, instead of tracking the Watcher’s progress, the hourglass compelled it. And lastly I turned the hourglass on its side, and with a crunching of the gears of reality the Watcher was held between two instants of time. Upside-down it hung in the frothing furrow between two waves, some of Sprugel’s breath caught forever as bubbles hanging frozen there around it.
‘Why don’t you send it to attack her holy reverence the Lady Pale?’ said Aareth.
‘Is it frozen in space or just in time?’ mused Mirrowaith.
‘Can we transport it?’ wondered Idhelruin.
‘It depends if the world is round and moves, or flat and stationary,’ said Hurstyk. ‘If you consider the angular velocity of a point in space…’
‘You should have controlled it, not merely frozen it,’ grumbled Abdiel as he climbed back aboard.
In short: ‘I don’t like that miracle, why can’t I have a different miracle?’ Again I could appreciate the sentiments that led Obsidian to conclude the entire world should be razed and built anew.
Sprugel resurfaced with the limp bodies of Wax and Ear, which he dropped on the deck. Hurstyk and Abdiel bent over them. Seeing them busy at healing, I decided it was time to rid myself of the Watcher’s curse, not least because in freezing it in time I had also frozen the hourglass and my hand. If I could not break the curse, the ship would have to sail on without me.
Knowing the Watcher’s name made it easier. I drew out the curse and flung it away into the Dry Lands. What I had not anticipated, but was not unwelcome, was that the Watcher went with it. The hourglass was now empty of sand as the Watcher had no location in the world anymore.
‘She summoned the Watcher here when she was still alive herself,’ I said. ‘Now, if none of us is foolish enough to summon him, perhaps he’ll stay there in the Dry Lands.’
‘But your arm,’ said Farris.
I glanced down. It was turning to a gritty black dust.
‘That’s just like the dust her magnificent highness Lady Pale wanted me to taste when she saw me in the underworld,’ said Aareth.
Pale’s influence again? She was becoming simply boorish. I dispensed with her attempt to exsiccate me with one syllable of power – even to use an entire word would have too far dignified her frankly tedious efforts.
Mortals, at least, are infinite in their variety. I like the world as it is, coloured by them. Pale is drear, her outlook stale, and so despite their carping ingratitude I resolved to stand against her on humanity’s behalf.

‘The people of Tartuva do not believe in wizards,’ Hurstyk told us as we sailed towards the port.
‘They think all magic is chicanery,’ agreed Idhelruin. ‘All except the power of their god, the divine Warrior-King.’
I looked at Mirrowaith. It had to be asked, though I knew the answer. ‘Did the wizards of Hythe ever make a study of these people?’
‘We leave them alone. It is the balance.’
‘If only you had applied that principle to all of nature, not a one of your books need ever have been written. Well then, we’ll go ashore armoured in ignorance.’
‘They will not take me for a wizard,’ said Idhelruin. ‘I seem but a shambling old man.’
‘What does a wizard look like in any case?’ said Farris. ‘If they see few strangers here then they’ll have no reason to suspect us.’
‘For myself, I bear no taint of magic,’ spat Abdiel. If only he and not Eli had gone to the Dry Lands; Abdiel and Pale would get on well, I think.
‘Then perhaps I should remove those gills I gave you,’ I suggested.
‘I… have already removed them with my own magic,’ he said, pulling a scarf close around his neck.
A platoon of militia stood ready to meet us at the quay. They seemed suspicious of outsiders ‘Why are you here?’ asked their captain, a man named Canto.
‘We are interested in your religion, which is widely admired,’ said Hurstyk.
‘You speak courteously, stranger. But you could have gone to one of the larger ports. The ziggurat here is but a small shrine to the divine Warrior-King.’
‘You are too modest. This is thought to be the origin of the faith, and so we hope to find the worship of the divine Warrior-King in its purest form.’
‘Again, well said. Will you dine with us?’
‘With pleasure.’
Canto and his men led us through streets that seemed exceptionally squalid even in comparison to the festering ports I’d seen so far. Down one alley stood some rudely nailed coffins, stacked for victims of the White Death that we sensed in the mud and ordure all around us. It gave me pause to reflect and even feel a stirring of that emotion mortals call nostalgia for, I thought, at least my own worshippers are clean, given that the wind there dries all filth in minutes and they have not enough possessions for their shacks ever to become cluttered. Between rock and ice floes and leaden sea, with ice-sharpened gales scouring the land under sun and stars alike, it is a land of beauty most unlike the teeming foetid pits of –
But no. That is the line of thought that led Obsidian to the Dry Lands.
Despite the squalor, Hurstyk spoke as though the town were immaculate, praising it for cleanliness and order until even Canto could take no more. ‘Do you press your finger in that wound to mock us?’ he demanded.
‘We can help.’
Canto was torn. ‘I must consult with the elders,’ he said.
‘Do so. We’ll wait.’
‘Touch nothing,’ said Aareth in my ear. ‘The water in the pitcher is infected with a multitude of ailments, and the blankets on the beds are rife with the White Death.’
We looked out of the window towards the ten-metre ziggurat from which the Warrior-King’s temple overlooked the town. The shrine of the Sightless Ones lay further inland. Possibly some details of the relationship between these two cults could be found in the books that Aareth and the others had read, but I could not bear to hear the Hythean explanation, more tortuous than any maze, that would ensue if I asked them. And what did it matter anyway? To save the world we needed the prismatic jewel that lay in the labyrinth. That single thing was our sole purpose here.
Canto returned. ‘The elders have agreed to accept your offer of help. Come with me.’
He took us to a hall in which some fifty plague victims lay on pallets. ‘I must not seem to use magic to heal them,’ said Hurstyk.
‘Of course not. They would regard it as chicanery and refuse to be well.’
He began to walk between the patients, touching them with herbs to cover the use of magic. As each sat up, fully restored, he urged them to lie still and rest. Because, of course, mortals would hate to tolerate a miracle cure and would surely file back the next day to demand why Hurstyk hadn’t made them younger and more handsome along with merely banishing the deadliest disease in creation.
Seeing that Hurstyk had it under control, and his ministrations would usefully distract the attention of Canto and the other militiamen, I decided to head inland to reconnoitre the temple of the Sightless Ones. Farris accompanied me, but all the others decided the best use of their time would be to stay and watch Hurstyk perform his herbcraft. Immediately we left, from the hall behind us, we heard the muttering begin:
‘Where are those two going? Has Lady Pale subverted them?’
‘Can they be trusted?’
‘Why didn’t Surma stay and watch me heal these people, the toad?’
‘Surma cares nothing for mortal lives…’
The voices trailed mercifully away. ‘They do realize we’re literally trying to save the world, don’t they?’ wondered Farris.
‘If you gave a bunch of chickens the power of magic they would be more use,’ I said with a sigh. ‘You and I together will accomplish more without them, I suspect, though it is passing strange that none of them wants to come with us to the labyrinth that is the whole purpose of our being here.’
We walked a mile or two inland from the port, followed by the two bodyguards I’d freed from Jude’s control into my own. The air was sweeter on the downs, away from the stink of habitation. Tough grass ruffled in the wind.
‘Do you notice,’ said Farris, ‘that there’s no White Death here?’
‘And something else,’ I said. ‘The names of things are sharper. See how reality shines with inner light. It is the opposite of Pale’s bane, that flattens and blurs all into an indecipherable oneness.’
‘Curious that the Warrior-King’s cult should be so opposed to magic, on an island where it is potentially easier than anywhere else.’
I nodded. ‘How are the cults related, I wonder? Does that one exist to hold this one in check – a warrior immune to magic holding wizards at bay?’
‘Sounds like Abdiel’s fondest dream.’
I laughed. ‘Or is it that the Sightless Ones set up that cult to deter mages from travelling here? They want to stay aloof. Otherwise, if it were widely known how much stronger magic is here, Hythe would want to relocate the college.’
‘Mysteries,’ said Farris with a shrug. ‘We just need the jewel.’
We reached the crest of a low hill and saw the compound less than a mile ahead. A low oval wall, that even a child could climb over, surrounded an area about a third of a mile long. The buildings included a temple and what seemed to be living quarters, of an architecture pleasing in its brute simplicity. At first you could take it for great blocks of stone simply piled one on another, like ancient monoliths, but on second look there was more artifice there.
People moved around the compound but had not seen us.
‘The captain warned against entering the compound,’ Farris reminded me. ‘which the priests regard as sacrilege. So we must use stealth – or Send magic – or come up with a plan.’
‘A plan. Just as well we didn’t bring the other five, then. But what do you think those are? Those seven standing stones – no, is it six? Eight? I cannot count them by eye.’
I resorted to Pattern. There were exactly seven. I felt their outrage at being named and numbered, though they were powerless to resist.
‘I could almost imagine them having faces,’ said Farris. ‘And there are seven of them, seven of us. It’s ominous, you have to admit.’
‘We need someone with better Pattern skills.’ I sent a breeze to carry my words to Idhelruin: Come at once.
Shortly came his reply: I am busy watching Hurstyk pretend to give herbs to people he has cured, but will come when I can.
I replied: Our souls may have been taken.
‘Let’s hope not,’ said Farris.
I shrugged. ‘We need to make him appreciate the urgency. In honesty I cannot understand why the others didn’t want to come along.’
We waited a full minute, or very nearly. ‘Oh, this is intolerable.’ I cast a Summoning. Idhelruin appeared on the hillside behind us, kneeling.
‘I regret the discourtesy, but this matter is most pressing. You can stand up, by the way.’
We explained the situation. ‘Is it not likely we have been seen?’ said Idhelruin.
‘Very probably.’
‘We must be careful not to display any use of magic.’
‘You just appeared in front of us out of thin air. That ship has sailed.’
‘A fair point. Why… I cannot count those cromlechs. Sometimes I think there are seven, at other times – now it might be five. Or six…’
‘And have you noticed they seem to have faces?’ pointed out Farris.
‘Disturbing.’ Idhelruin concentrated. ‘Oh, they didn’t like that one bit. But now I see there are seven.’
I leaned to speak in Farris’s ear. ‘I thought the old man would read a pattern better than I did. I’ll have to summon Wax.’
He too arrived kneeling. I don’t think I specify that in the spell, do I? Perhaps it is the natural condition of those who are brought by magic before me.
‘Why do you make me kneel, Surma?’ raged Wax.
‘I make you do nothing. Stand.’
‘The others think you and Farris are both under Lady Pale’s influence. Also they resent that they didn’t get to come with you.’
‘They are children. Just as Eli is hopefully confounding Pale in the Dry Lands, distracting her from her plans, so do we have the mages of Hythe, who I could almost believe Pale has sent to try me.’
Wax read the patterns of the statues, but with no clearer result than Idhelruin.
‘Perhaps I had better summon Hurstyk. Oh, here he comes now.’
The others caught up to us. ‘We thought you were controlled by – ’
‘Oh, stop it! I have actually lost count of the number of miracles I’ve performed in the last week specifically to oppose Pale. From now on I will not hear talk of balance, restraint, or unspecified dithering. We have a world to save, and to do so we need the prismatic jewel that Diamansus left in the labyrinth beneath that compound. Let us now act together, as we briefly did aboard the Sea Lion when the Watcher attacked, and perhaps between us we will prevail against this threat that Pale has unleashed.’
‘Work as a team?’ said Farris. ‘That indeed would be a miracle.’

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

The Conclave: "Under The Earth"

More from our Conclave campaign, which owes much to Ursula K Le Guin -- or so I'm told, not having read the Earthsea books. (I will, but our umpire Tim Harford advised us not to until the adventure ends.)

And incidentally, in case you're confused, the party do indeed seem at this point to have acquired two enemies named Felt and Feltass (or Felteth according to some of the PCs). Or maybe they're one and the same. They've both got to die anyway, so maybe it doesn't matter...

The fish-scale armour made Eli’s heart beat again, and even gave him the power to move. But he was a puppet whose strings I pulled, his own will burned down to a cinder.
‘He is fallen into the sere and yellow leaf, the autumn of his strength. It gives me an idea. I can alter his skin to something like the green of springtime, so that the sun will fill him with fresh vigour. But to do that we need a grove of trees so that I can draw the essence of their sap to replace his blood.’
‘He may not appreciate the metamorphosis,’ mused Hurstyk.
I pointed to the drool on Eli’s slack jaw. ‘He appreciates not even the air that my enclosing armour bellows to and from his lungs. Let us set sail for – ’
‘The nearest island is Tulli,’ ventured Aareth.
I glanced at the hourglass in whose fashioning I had called upon the very name of Time. Its sands flowed swifter, but it would not run out for a day yet. ‘Set a course.’
‘As we go,’ said Aareth, ‘why don’t I read this book, The Black Knot?’
So saying he thrust his hand between its pages, screamed, and wrenched his fingers back. A white gold ring fell to the deck.
‘Lady Pale gave that to me,’ he said, clutching his seared flesh, which Hurstyk treated with his healing magic. ‘I have been under her spell this while, but now am free.’
‘And are you now going to read the book?’
He looked daunted. ‘When I said that just now, I merely meant to cause you mischief in my lady’s service.’
‘Nonetheless, it may hold a clue.’
Reluctantly, it seemed, he turned the pages. Black script on black reminded me of the white on white of Pale’s banner. ‘In the labyrinth of Tartuva there dwell the Sightless Ones,’ read Aareth. ‘They are gods.’
‘All that betokens is the ignorance of the native islanders. I should know. Read on.’
‘A great wizard of the north, Diamansus by name, sought to bring light to the island. He came bearing a prismatic jewel, yet after a battle with the high priestess he was defeated and his jewel was lost in the depths.’
‘That jewel is what we need. Pale occludes true names by dazzling the eye of reality – white on white means that nothing can be perceived. Likewise the Black Knot is darkness layered upon darkness, and in that illimitable caliginosity no true names can be read. The balance between these two is lately disrupted, and if that continues then the world will be washed over with either the blinding light or the blinding dark. There will be no names then. It is the Void.’
‘How do you know these things?’ asked Wax.
‘By consummate and ineffable understanding. You know that I speak the truth.’
The ring still lay between us on the boards. I looked closer and read the true name of the metal. It was of the substance of gold but the essence of quicksilver. ‘There is a mine of that metal very near, perhaps on the island whither we now sail.’
The sages of Hythe chipped in with advice, but I cannot now separate it in my memory from the squawking of the gulls that flew above our sails. It was agreed that they would put their minds to a conundrum, namely how it was that Hurstyk and Wax retained the ability to remember names during our encounter with Feltass, when Pale’s radiance had robbed the rest of us of much of our power.
Moss demurred. ‘I am done with magic.’
‘All of you wizards of Hythe may as well be. You are misers of magic, rich only in the power you refuse to wield even in time of need. Knowledge locked away is not balance, as you like to pretend it to be, but mere indecision. In your cowardice and secrecy you have forfeited the right to dictate to those of us in this conclave who now go forth to face the foe no matter how dreadful her gifts.’
It was agreed that Moss and Mirrowaith would ponder the problem, yet I could see that Hurstyk would find the answer sooner than they.
‘Landfall!’ cried a sailor from the rigging.
Tulli was a small island with a paltry town of low, rude dwellings. Jude’s ship, the one that had nearly intercepted us outbound from Port Karmon, lay at anchor. I noticed a figure in armour swimming across the harbour towards us. I read his name easily but by some intuition felt that it would be impossible to use it in any conjuration.
‘This is strange…’
‘I could shoot him,’ said Ironside.
‘Let’s hear him out,’ suggested Hurstyk.
The fellow came aboard. His armour, which had been of metal, had transformed itself into leather. He announced himself Abdiel, an inquisitor – whatever they may be – and recognized Eli as a fellow member of his order. He leaned close to examine his comrade, who stood rigid in the rainbow armour I had given him but whose face remained slack and without the spark of sentience.
‘He has spent his vigour,’ Abdiel said.
‘We know.’
‘Ah, but I must tell you – ’
‘That our enemy is here. We know that too.’
‘Yes, but what you do not know – ’
‘ – is that they mine for white gold here. That is one of the two reasons we have come.’
We steered the Sea Lion around a headland, out of sight of the port, and Wax on his turtle guided us bare inches above scraping spines of undersea rock until we were harboured safe in a cove near a grove of palm trees that would serve my purpose.
‘What of the ring?’ said Aareth for, like all of us, he sensed Pale trying to scrutinize us through it. ‘Can she see us through it? I’ll put it between the pages of the book.’
‘You’re going to touch it again?’ said Idhelruin dubiously.
Aareth rubbed his jaw. ‘I’ll wear gloves. And handle it with a shovel.’
Abdiel picked up the ring, dropped it between the pages of the book, and closed the cover. ‘Like so, masters?’
‘It is well done,’ agreed Hurstyk. ‘But wait. Abdiel, I perceive you carry a taint. It pervades this whole isle.’ He looked at all of us. ‘The White Death is here.’
‘Fortunately you have mastered it before…’ said Wax, working up to a howl of adoration until he remembered that Hurstyk had forbidden him to do so.
Hurstyk frowned, and turned his magic on Abdiel, finally drawing forth and extirpating the infectious spirits.
Meanwhile, having commanded the seagulls to watch out for spies, I turned my ministrations on Eli. First tender shoots buttressed his skin, working deep through to the bones where sap would refresh his sluggish blood. Green and glossy was his skin. His eyes sparkled now, the dry film gone as new life flowered there. Lastly I enclosed him entirely in the armour, a hard shell in which the burgeoning vitality could come to full fruition.
‘A chrysalis,’ said Aareth.
‘Say rather a seed case, from which Eli’s new life will be born.’
There was a cloud on Abdiel’s brow. ‘I know not he would thank you for this transformation, master. Death is preferable to some fates, I’d say.’
‘Death is easy to deliver. I bring it swifter than most, being the god my islanders look to when a man is impaled on a narwhal’s tusk or slips through a hole in the ice. Working this green magic is not my accustomed way, but to thwart Obsidian we must confound our very natures. And so in this I work a miracle of new life.’
‘Still and all, Eli was proud of his healthy hue. To be leaf-complexioned…’
‘Enough. He will be the flower of your order. You should give thanks, or prayers even – not stand there and cavil like an actuary of Hythe.’
‘Remember the hourglass,’ said Hurstyk.
He was right. We had less than a day to do the other thing we had come for – to take some of the quicksilver ore in case we had need of it on Tartuva. My senses no longer bound by Time, whose name I’d spoken true, I perceived that the tide would be in our favour when it came time to depart. But we must be swift.
‘I’ll stay with the ship,’ volunteered Idhelruin. He was right; we could not leave it in the command of Moss and Mirrowaith.
A fallen palm frond lay by my foot, as big as a pikestaff blade and nearly as sharp. I took it, knowing there would be need for it later.
As Abdiel led us towards the mine, sand-spitting whirlwinds went swiftly ahead of us – spirits conjured by Wax to clear our way. We’d lost sight of them by the time we reached the mine workings.
A cage came up the shaft bearing half a dozen emaciated slaves. I freed the mind of one, a woman named Alma, and she immediately collapsed. It was only the force of magic, that had till now compelled her service, that sustained her from a weakness that was close to death.
‘If we flood the mine, innocents like her will die,’ said Hurstyk.
‘They have guards who work for them too,’ said Abdiel, unsheathing his sword. ‘I think they are not innocent.’
‘So we descend?’ said Ironside, looking down the black shaft.
‘I could summon Felt to us here.’
Aareth looked at me in shock. ‘Summon a living man? I have heard of spirits being summoned, never that.’
‘You have seen me summon insects and vermin.’ I might have mentioned whales, or indeed the wizard Birch who I had nearly called to me in Karmon. I reached out, divining a part of Felt’s name from our previous encounter with him, when I determined he was the last to read On Those Who Have No True Name.
In the depths of the mine, he felt my influence and laughed. ‘I summon you,’ he retorted, and it was my turn to laugh.
Aareth transformed himself into a fly and vanished into the mine shaft.
‘Well, we won’t do that,’ said Hurstyk. ‘Shall I wait here for you? I’m not a combatant.’
Abdiel and Ironside got into the cage, which it seemed could move up and down the shaft by an ingenious contrivance of counterweights and pulleys. I called down a gull and plucked three feathers. ‘When you hold it thus you are weightless and will float down,’ I told Wax. ‘To ascend, flick it like a small fan thus.’
The third feather was for Hurstyk, but he was already using his own magic to descend. Wisely he had realized that a ‘non-combatant’ would not be safe remaining here alone.
Below we almost immediately came face to face with two armed guards. Scenting battle, Abdiel’s armour transformed itself back into plate steel. He was for butchering the guards, but I felt they would be of more use if I brought them into my own service. ‘Now you are free,’ I told them as they bowed. ‘You have a new master.’
‘Felt and Job are deep below,’ they told us.
‘And the whirlwind spirits?’
‘We did not see them. Our former master makes short work of conjured creatures.’
‘Where’s Aareth?’ wondered Wax.
‘Why didn’t you let me kill these guards?’ Abdiel interjected. ‘You said that men are insects.’
‘I said I had summoned insects, Abdiel, but that is a very good suggestion. Aareth, where e’er you are, come to me.’
I saw a glimpse of a fly trapped in a bottle with a spider, the bottle resting in the palm of a wizard who regarded the scene with a sneer. Felt.
‘He cannot come. Aareth, a fly you are no more. Now be a scorpion bigger than a man.’
From far off in the tunnels came a cry of dismay. Abdiel ran towards it, Ironside close behind him. Turning a corner, they faced a chitinous monster with scything claws and a sting that dripped smoking venom. Abdiel ducked, rolled and was past it, still running. Ironside backed towards us. The scorpion scuttled closer. It filled the tunnel. Its pincers scraped the rock walls. All I had specified was bigger than man-sized; it was Aareth’s own hubris that supplied the rest.
‘Sometimes I am not sure I am entirely infallible,’ I said.
‘That will not be easy to deal with,’ said Ironside, noticing how its sting swayed ready to strike.
‘Scorpion, be Aareth again.’ And our comrade stood there, a little puzzled by what had happened to him.
Ahead of us, Abdiel met with Job, the nameless man. Their swords clashed, and Job fought Abdiel back, but the inquisitor’s armour meant that even a swift and surgical blow was insufficient to draw blood. So closely matched, Abdiel’s enchanted plate against Job’s dazzling skill, they might have fought for an hour without either gaining the upper hand. But then Ironside strode forward and put an arrow through the back of Job’s mouth.
‘Do you know,’ said Hurstyk, ‘I’ve just thought of why Wax and I could remember names when the rest of you could not.’
‘It’s hardly the time – ’ I began. Then I saw the look of benumbed wits in his eyes. The others were the same, gazing about them in mild stupefaction as though our affairs here in the mine were of no more urgency than a stroll around a marketplace.
The hourglass! The sands were close to running out. Some sorcery here had folded time upon us – the very enchantment I had considered earlier and then discounted.
‘Aareth, Hurstyk, regain your senses.’ I dispelled the fog that blanketed their minds, then pulled white gold ore together to make a golem of quicksilver nuggets.
‘We must go back,’ said Hurstyk.
‘We can’t. The White Watcher is already here. We need to find another way out.’
The guards told us where the old mineshaft led out under the sea. They were not sure how to get there from these tunnels, but Abdiel – his mind now magically cleared – drew on a mariner’s knowledge of old timbers, pointing out where the beams were new and where they marked out abandoned sections of the mine.
We came to a dead end. Above, dully, rocks stirred by the tide could be heard scraping on the seabed. I drew forth the palm frond, commanding it to form itself into an iron-hard tube as Hurstyk read the patterns in the tunnel roof, pointing out the cracks through which my tube could insinuate itself, widening until there was a fissure through which we could ascend.
On the surface, I reshaped the palm frond into a raft, in doing so allowing the sea to flood down into the mine. Wax’s turtle rose from the water nearby and took the edge of our raft in its mouth, pulling us back to the Sea Lion, where Idhelruin had had Eli’s pericarp-shelled body brought.
We looked back to where the sea frothed and boiled. The torrent pouring into the mine workings might hold up the Watcher for a few minutes, and with luck would inconvenience Felt too.
‘I was going to tell you my idea,’ said Hurstyk. ‘I think that the White Death is tied to Lady Pale’s power. I deduced the name of the White Death, and I cured Wax of it. That could explain why Lady Pale’s radiance did not fully block our ability to remember names. Of course, it’s just a theory.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘It is a consummate and ineffable understanding.’