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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.’


  1. Ah, Surma is *that* guy. The one who derails everything the villain has planned by never noticing how powerful and clever she is. Explains so much. :)

    This has been a very entertaining read, no need to apologize for the content to me, at least.