AoA Session Intros: 136-150

[Author’s note: What are these “AoA” tags? Check out this post to know why I’m writing these and why they don’t have anything to do with superheroes. After writing only the occasional cut-scene, I decided to do a quick narrative before every Pathfinder session instead of a recap. We already had someone in the group writing recaps, so mine felt redundant, and there were too many opportunities for fiction writing that I was letting pass me by. Below are a collection of intros from our sessions. I don’t love using present tense, but it’s what fits best into these tabletop roleplaying sessions.]

Session 136: Gifts from the Guilds

Aldane runs, such that he’s able, yelling and throwing servants out of the way as he goes. When he shows up to the stables, he is sweaty, red-faced, and has mustard in his beard.

“What!? Have you–? By the gods, man, you did it!” and he begins laughing, loudly and near hysterics.

Then, all at once, he grows quiet. Like a father first-touching his newborn, Aldane Zulran slowly, slowly walks over to Duneshadow and places a hand on his neck. The guildmaster closes his eyes and sighs.

After a full minute, he opens them and they are filled with tears. “How have you done this thing?” he whispers. “You are a master of your craft my elven friend. Legendary! You are named Owl for your eyes of a raptor, yes?”

Session 137: Xotanispawn

It is a dark, desert night, with only a sliver of moon in the sky. Owl has positioned himself over one hundred feet from the horses and has remained perfectly still for over three hours, waiting.

Yet despite the darkness and distance, it is the elven archer that first notices the horses’ behavior, whinnying and kicking their hooves nervously. Silently, he reaches for an arrow from his quiver.

Obedience Fletcher, sitting atop a magical perch floating fifty feet above the desert floor, is the second to notice the horses’ jitters. As he pulls an arrow from his own quiver, he sees the sand near the southernmost horse begin to shift and dance.

The monster erupts from the ground with speed and savagery. It is indeed larger than an elephant, a black beetle glowing with an inner, molten furnace. The horses rear and scream as Obe and Owl almost simultaneously pull back their bowstrings.

Session 138: Deeper into the Guilds

Sabine finds the purple-haired gnome in her office that morning. She greets her with a concerned smile.

“Ah, Sabine. Did you come all alone? How did you make it through the city?”

Sabine swallows, the scaled skin on her neck moving. “It was not easy,” she says in a whisper.

Exavisu sighs and picks up a scroll where she has clearly either taken notes or someone else’s notes have been given to her.

“The news on you is not good, Sabine. As I mentioned in your sending spell, you are indeed wanted by the Zephyr Guard for murder of a Dean of the College of Dimensional Studies. Many people saw you enter with a student there, a human woman named Parnoosh who has since gone missing. Parnoosh told the Zephyr Guard and other bystanders that you had convinced her that whatever had you banned earlier from the College was a misunderstanding. The student said that you asked an audience with the Dean, a longtime instructor named Behfar, and that Parnoosh was totally fooled by your,” she clears her throat, “treachery. Once in Behfar’s office, the student said that you produced a poisoned dagger and said you were seeking vengeance for being banned from the school.

“Unfortunately, many people saw you enter with Parnoosh, and several said that the student was inconsolable afterwards, with Behfar dead by poison and you nowhere to be found. It looks quite bad, I’m afraid.

“Behfar was considered a government official. Do you know the laws of Katapesh, Sabine? Murder of a guild member, Zephyr Guard, or government official is punishable by execution. No trial. You will be killed on sight.”

“What is the crime for killing someone else?” Sabine asks, aghast.

Exavisu waves. “Not as severe. Six months in prison, a fine, and an official warning. The point is that you cannot show your face on the streets of Katapesh. Ever.”

Session 139: Piroozan and Wahar

The goblin mage Piroozan is leaving with the last dregs of the crowd, in a group of a half dozen stadium attendees. It doesn’t look like he’s with the others, just part of the crowd. As always, he’s looking shifty and sinister, bulbous head in a broad red hood, orange eyes darting left and right.

He looks in Jethro’s direction and eyes widening when he sees Margaret. He charges the ratfolk paladin.

“Oh! The Skewer Rat! Now that is a turn of events I didn’t anticipate. You made me a handsome fortune against that plague giant, yes. Tell me something, if you would…” He reaches into his cloak.

…may I have your autograph?” And he pulls out a large dagger, the sheath of which is marked up with all sorts of writing on it. At first you think they’re runes, but as you get closer you see they are scrawled signatures.

“Do you have an inkwell and quill? If not, I’m sure I can find one.”

Session 140: Duneshaker

“And now, it is time for the main event,” the same goblin barker you remember from earlier in the week screams into his brass megaphone. “It is a special day, everyone. Though a newcomer to our rings, the Skewer Rat has clearly become a favorite. Earlier this week, she singlehandedly defeated a giant many times her size without even breaking a sweat! And she is not alone this time! The Skewer Rat has brought friends, including a veteran of the Coliseum: The Black Bear! And she brings newcomers! Archer, Scarface, and Goldeneyes!” The crowd roars all around you like a physical thing, pounding you from all sides.

“And our Skewer Rat will need the support, because we have a beast unlike anything seen in this ring for one hundred years! After destroying two villages in southern Katapesh, the Aspis Consortium has captured and delivered a legendary behemoth to our midst. Be afraid, because it is time to unleash… the DUNESHAKER!”

Musclebound men and women who are clearly slaves have chains attached to the giant metal grate in the center of the gladiator ring. They strain and pull, digging their feet into the sandy floor. With the sounds of the crowd raining down, the grate slides to the side.

Just then, robed figures all around the perimeter of the stands raise their arms and begin chanting. Sabine sees clearly what they are doing. A dozen or more mages are casting Wall of Force to encircle the perimeter, where the coliseum walls end and the stands begin, protecting the crowd.

When the grate is fully pulled aside the slaves run, sprinting to an open door that closes behind them with a heavy boom. The audience grows silent, holding their collective breath.

You all hear the rattle of something enormous, and true to its name the ground shakes and a giant insect begins pulling itself from the hole. It looks like this.

“Place your bets, place your bets! The heroes against the mythical Duneshaker! It is the thing of legends, ladies and gentlemen! Who will prevail?”

Session 141: Challenging Sand Claws

“Welcome back to the Grand Coliseum in majestic Katapesh, City of Trade. Listen to that crowd roar! What do you think of our feature match so far, Statler?”

“Thanks Waldorf. It’s been a bit one-sided, if I’m honest. The Street Rat has brought a mighty force with her into the ring, two spellcasters, an archer, and of course the mighty Black Bear. It seems the legendary Duneshaker we were promised is overmatched.”

“Yes, the entire group seems to be levitating, keeping the Duneshaker from knocking them down with its very movement. How did they know to cast that spell from the very start?”

“It’s a mystery, Waldorf. And their ability to attack it from distance while the Black Bear and Skewer Rat engage it in melee is making short work of the beast.”

“Yes yes. And spells to enlarge the Skewer Rat and Sarenrae cleric to match the Duneshaker’s reach, Statler, and even more spellcasting to the entire group to make them attack almost faster than we can track! It seems we’ll all be going home early tonight.”

“On one hand, it’s the most impressive gladiator team we’ve seen in memory. Surely the city will be talking about them tomorrow.”

“Yes yes, but on the other hand, we’re denied any drama, Statler!”

“Well, the Duneshaker has blinded the cleric and injured the immensely popular Black Bear. Perhaps there’s drama left, eh Waldorf?”

“Perhaps, Statler, but I think this may be over before it’s even begun.”

“We shall see.”

“I suppose we shall. Now look!”

Session 142: The Ibis Fountain

Obedience Fletcher watches from his perch atop a marketplace roof, the noontime sun pressing onto his neck and shoulders. Under the brim of his hat, his red eyes watch the four figures below, at the edge of the market square.

Two Zephyr Guards, the city’s police force, are talking to merchants, buyers, and passerbys. Their bright attire–purple, turquoise, and blue robes and headscarves–make them easy to pick out of the crowd, as do the heavy crossbows slung across their backs and curved scimitars hanging from their belt sashes.

One of the Zephyr Guard, a dark-skinned, human woman, holds a parchment with some sort of face on it, and she’s pointing bystanders to it and asking questions. Everyone is shaking their heads and edging away.

Perhaps it is the other two figures causing the crowd’s unease. Nearly ten feet tall, their bodies are made entirely of what looks like burnished brass. Bright azure light leaks from every joint and crack, visible even in the bright noontime sun. They move stiffly, clearly automaton constructs rather than living beings.

Obe has heard whispered rumors of the aluum, the construct guards used by the elusive Pactmasters to guard their palace. Aluum are animated in part by a trapped soul within their breastplate. Yet rumors also talk about the spiritbound aluum, the elite entities used to quell riots or assassinate enemies of the state. These aluum have dozens of souls trapped within them, usually criminals whom the Pactmasters wish to deny accessing the Great Beyond. Obe’s gut tells him that, without a doubt, he is viewing two spiritbound aluum entering the square.

His eyes flick to the Ibis Fountain. Jethro and Margaret are there, also watching the figures with wariness. Sabine, it seems, has disappeared.

Obe looks back at the aluum, studying them. Suddenly both pairs of eyes flash blue brightly. Then, in unison, the two aluum turn to the Zephyr Guard. Each raises a fist faster than Obe would have thought possible and crushes it into the guard, and each human crumbles to the ground, stunned.

Someone in the square screams and the marketplace square erupts in pandemonium.

Session 143: Making Plans

Someone at the lead of what is becoming a mob, bolder than the others, turns to Jethro. “You and your companions have saved many lives today, priest. Though you are clearly not from Katapesh, you speak for Sarenrae. Who is responsible for this madness?”

Session 144: Toilday Morning

The groups wakes in darkness, hours before dawn.

It is only Sabine Sterling that had a dreamless night, arriving only two hours ago from her conversations with The Seer, Jumpy the halfling necromancer, and the artificer Dariyadel.

Margaret Arodeni, of course, has experienced a night plagued by her patron, vague whispers of victory and power in absolute darkness while bees spiraled over her naked body, submerged below the neck.

Glennhal Grandyr has dreamed of himself as a giant, rainbow-colored owl, carrying the camel Duneshadow in his claws as he soars over the nighttime desert.

Jethro Vermillion has woken from an uncomfortable dream of sex with a golden-masked, elf-eared woman in white robes.

And finally, Obedience Fletcher has dreamed of hunting red-feathered, flightless birds with his bow alongside the gnome Samineh, both riding stags with huge antlers and leather armor.

Session 145: Versus Sand Claws

Sabine Sterling glimpses Uri Zandivar deep within the Red Pyramid, scribbling furiously, and then her eyes snap open. It is not the face of Sabine we see, but instead a middle-aged human woman, three scars running horizontally, one above her eye and two below. For a moment that no one sees, the disguise flickers as Sabine recovers from her spell. She blinks and rediscovers her surroundings.

Everywhere, the Grand Coliseum crowd roars like a dragon. She fights the urge to cap her hands over her ears it is so loud. To her immediate right, two men are screaming Sand Claws’ name, clearly drunk and jostling Sabine. To her left is a young boy with a wicker Skewer Rat doll clutched in his small fist. His mother is trying to speak to him, but the crowd swallows her words. He stares, wide eyed and lost in the moment, down below.

Sabine follows his gaze. There are his companions, Margaret with her sword drawn and shield raised, Owl with his bowstring pulled tight to his cheek, and Jethro, whose eyes shine golden even in daylight. The three look impossibly small on the arena floor, surrounded by the cacophonous arena.  

Sand Claws looks swift and deadly, flanked by two giants whose only similarity is the third eye on each forehead, nestled between twin horns. What were these creatures? Sabine’s analytical mind begins to search the tomes she’s read to identify them.

Yet her concentration is broken by the sudden eruption of noise. Impossibly, the crowd becomes even more deafening as the combatants swing into action.

Session 146: The Wish and the Bees

The crowd emits a collective gasp as the gray-skinned giant steps out of the shadows and swings her bladed instrument into Jethro Vermillion.

From across the arena floor, Margaret Arodeni spins to see Jethro’s enormous, glowing form crumple to the sand. He falls to lay next to Owl, who looks like a discarded puppet amidst the giants surrounding him.

“Ha!” Sand Claws whoops. “You are alone now, Skewer Rat.”

In her platemail, shining in the sun, Margaret sees the shadow yai sneer over Jethro’s body. She sees the huge, fur-covered bowman pull back his bowstring even as his summoned mantis clicks its mandibles. Sand Claws clashes her twin kukri together, spinning and dancing in for the attack.

Session 147: New Faces

We see Jethro standing over Margaret’s corpse, hands raised as he projects the last words of his eulogy. Sand Claws’ bee-swarmed body lies off to one side. The cleric looks fatigued and bloodstained.

From the arena floor we pan up, slow motion, to a small, young Kellish woman with long black hair, wearing a simple white chemise, embroidered with a red triangle. She sits still, her hands clenched, eyes wide. Everyone’s faces around her are white and terrified, clinging to every word from the Sarenrae cleric below. The young woman’s body trembles, her own face ashen.

We fade out.

We fade in on Glennhal Grandyr, the man known as Owl. He stands on the bloody sand of the arena floor, seemingly oblivious to everything going on around him. His weapons, buckler, and pieces of armor lay at his feet as he carefully, almost reverently, unfastens the remnants of his armor. Eventually he stands in only the sweat-stained, green cloth beneath. His large, yellow eyes scan the items arrayed around his now-bare feet.

He looks up to the blue sky, a dome above the Grand Coliseum, his face inscrutable.  

Behind him, in the distance, we see Hajir, the Black Bear, sprinting towards Margaret’s body with a parade of gladiators behind him, tears streaking his cheeks.

Our scene shifts back to the Kellish woman, still shaken, standing from her seat in the arena.

Now she is exiting the front gates. She passes a knot of people yelling and arguing, everyone angry. One voice rises above the others.

“No! We are not honoring any bets placed on the match! There was no winner. No winner! Take your money and go! No bets honored today! Take it up with the Pactmasters if you must! Out! Get out!”

The woman passes Owl outside the Coliseum, still standing only in his shift. Jethro has a hand on his shoulder and is talking fervently with him. Sabine stands nearby in her scarfaced disguise, lips pressed tight and eyes haunted. Owl gently removes the cleric’s hand, shakes his head, and turns his back on his companions. He leaves the pair at the front gates of the arena, walking in the same direction as the young woman. Jethro is yelling something we cannot hear as the sound warbles confusedly in our shot.

Our scene shifts again back to the woman, now wandering through the streets of Katapesh. She is blank-faced as a street vendor speaks to her but the sound of our image is still distorted.

Finally the vendor’s voice cuts through. “Do you want the red thread? Which red?”

The woman blinks, suddenly aware of her surroundings. “The burgundy. Sorry, I lost myself for a moment.”

The vendor replies, “That’s alright lady. You look like you need a rest.”

“Yes, a nap… the mending can wait.”

Our scene fades back on a now empty Grand Coliseum. Only Sand Claws’ body remains, untouched where it fell. From the hips up it is an unrecognizable mass of raw flesh. Several dozen bees and wasps still cling to the meat and a cloud of the insects buzzes overhead in a cloud.

Our camera zeroes in on one buzzing wasp as it pulls away from the swarm. The wasp flies up and over the arena walls, off into the fading sunset over the city.

The scene shifts to Jethro, Sabine, and Obe standing in an alleyway. Obedience Fletcher, stone-faced, listens while his two companions explain the events of the afternoon. The sky beyond the alleyway is a deep orange and red. The camera zeroes in on the red…

As the camera pulls back, we see our young Kellish woman in a red nightgown in a small dwelling filled with cloth, thread, and various sewing implements. She lays her head down, eyes wide. She drinks a concoction, and slowly drifts off just as the sunlight fades from a nearby window.

Black.

In the blackness, we hear a buzzing sound.

We’re now above the city, a close-up view of a wasp flying. In the distance, the Red Pyramid.

The wasp flies closer, approaching a small, sand-colored building near the pyramid. It zips through a window left ajar, and our camera follows it. Inside we see the small seamstress lying asleep in her red nightgown, beneath a light sheet. The wasp flies up to her pillow, lands, and walks up to her face. It pauses for a moment, before climbing inside the woman’s nose.

A long moment passes.

The woman stirs.

Her body suddenly bucks, her back arches.

She screams. “No!”

Her body begins shaking as though being thrown about from the inside out.

“No!” She screams in desperation.

Then from her mouth comes another voice. Beautiful. Ancient. Otherworldly.

“Quiet my dear Sahba. Let mamma take over.”

“No!”

Her body buckles, we hear joints crack and pop. Simultaneous voices emerge from her mouth. Screams of pain. Laughter. Cackling laughter.

Session 148: A Deadly Poison

Jethro is ushered by Aldane’s personal physician, a halfling named Doctor Remie, to the guildmaster’s bedroom. The room reeks of the pungent sweat of illness, and Jethro finds the obese guildmaster laying in soaked sheets, his face shining wetly. He is panting.

“Who is there? Is that my raptor?”

“He keeps asking for this raptor,” Dr. Remie says. “Do you know what that might be about?”

“He is confused,” she explains. “And seems to be having waking nightmares, something about fires and dangerous beasts.” And then Aldane begins screaming.

Session 149: The Golden Serpent

Down by the southern dock district is the Scorpion’s Sting, a surprisingly easy-to-find base of operations for Hahcuss Hrann. Whereas the poisoner storefronts are part of the Nightstalls, and thus inherently difficult to find, the guild headquarters is well known. It is a testament to how much poison and drugs are a part of everyday life in Katapesh.

The Scorpion’s Sting is a large tent whose sides are embroidered with stylized scorpions. Inside, the tables that line its interior walls are covered in jars, bowls, bottles, vials, and pouches of powders, pastes, soluble tablets, liquids, and dust. Some of them are vile smelling, others pleasantly fragrant, while still others are completely odorless.

There, working with several assistants, is Hahcuss Hrann. At the guild gathering he wore somewhat fine clothes, but now he is decked out in soiled workclothes and leather gloves, wearing protective goggles.

“Ah! So you survived the night after all! Good. I have been working on your mysterious poison. Only one breakthrough yet, but progress. Any new symptoms or insights, my young man?”

Session 150: The Council of Guilds

[not technically the intro, but the end of the session]

Uri stands. He is tall, handsome, imposing… easily the most impressive human you’ve seen in your life, his presence rivaling that of even the dragon Veshumirix.

“Honored Pactmasters,” he nods his head. “To my guildmaster friends and colleagues. These are grievous accusations.

“Yet I would ask that you consider the source of these accusations. They are a band of bloodthirsty mercenaries, sent from another continent, with no respect for Katapesh laws. Let us examine them closely.

“Their spellcaster has murdered a Dean of the College of Dimensional Studies for seemingly no reason and with no connection to the Scarlet Triad. When found, she should be executed immediately by the laws of the city.

“Their champion of Iomedae spoke of virtue and honor. Yet when bested in fair combat in the Grand Coliseum by the Gladiator Guild’s guildmaster Sand Claws, the creature vomited a torrent of demonic bees to consume her. Thousands witnessed it.

“I have in my possession a seemingly endless list of murders in several countries. Scarlet Triad agents slaughtered en masse. Property destroyed. Government officials coerced. And the common threads are a priest of Sarenrae and a mysterious genteel goblin assassin.

“They have not only killed Sand Claws. Aldane Zulran lies dead. The honorable Imperial Union of Breeders is not even present today as a result. They say I killed him. Yet who has been staying at his compound? The pattern here is obvious.

“It is clear this band of mercenaries wishes to do me and my organization harm. They have grievances. Yet when they entered the city of Katapesh, did they seek an audience with me? No. All saw their archer in the Grand Coliseum fire an arrow into the crowd at me, a clear assassination attempt.

“By the gods, look at them!” He points to the Spirit of Vengeance and Ogrin. “These are not forces of justice. They are monsters and murderers. They are agents of chaos and death.

“I have operated within Katapesh for decades now. Lawfully. I have provided protection and goods to support the guilds and commerce. I have profited and used those profits to strengthen the city. Never have I acted against the Pactmasters or their laws. Meanwhile, this band of monsters has done nothing but spit in the Pactmasters’ eyes. It cannot stand. Not only am I innocent of these claims, but I recommend these creatures be banished from our fair city immediately. Let the reign of chaos and murder end. Let the will of Abadar reign. Thank you.”

There is a moment of silence as everyone looks around the room.

It is Alager Jermell, head of the Farmers’ Union, who clears his throat and stands.

“You have NOT provided protection, Uri. The Farmers’ Union begged you for help when our caravans were ravaged outside the city. You did nothing. These outsiders risked their lives to end the threat that you ignored.

Hajir stands. “Sand Claws was a Scarlet Triad plant. She threatened to destroy the gladiators guild and no one loved her. The Skewer Rat will always be a hero within the ranks of the gladiators for killing her within the arena. The Skewer Rat was noble and pure.”

Hahcuss Hran stands as Alager sits. “They did not kill Aldane. It was a hired poisoner, the same poisoner that looked to kill the priest there. I did the diagnosis myself.”

Exavisu stands. “You operate within Katapesh laws and seek to protect us? To strength the guilds? How dare you, sir. My enslavement and auction reveal your lies!”

Huena Ilvos stands. “Hm. Evidence has come to light that perhaps the elven sorcerer did not in fact kill Dean Behfar. If the Scarlet Triad seeks to impugn the lawfulness of these outsiders, I would not include the incident at the College of Dimensional Studies. I have instructed the Zephyr Guard as such.”

Jelek Jaziman is whispering fiercely into Uri’s ear. Uri is watching the proceedings with a grim frown. Eventually he pushes Jelek away and silences him with a gesture.

Eventually, the Pactbroker Hashim ibn Sayyid stands and raises his hands for silence.

“The motion has been made. Should the Pactmasters formally censure the Scarlet Triad? Doing so will result in fines and the revocation of special protections. It is time to vote. Because of the severity of this motion, the Pactmasters require two-thirds majority, or eight votes of yes.”

Exavisu leans over to you, “This is unusual. I am less confident than I just was.”

“Uri Zandivar has made a counter-motion. If the current motion fails, we will consider the motion of banishing Jethro Vermillion and his colleagues.

“The Imperial Order of Breeders, not present, will abstain.”

“The Jewelers’ Guild votes yes.” Exavisu Kerndallion

“That is one vote in favor.”

“The Fleshmonger Federation votes no.” Sehtba al-Izora

“That is one vote in favor. One against.”

“The League Of Peshmongers abstains.” Treman “Spikeface” Ulkulratu

“The Carpenter’s Guild abstains.” Torbin Dooly

Alager Jermell makes a disgusted sound. “The Farmers’ Union votes yes.”

“That is two votes in favor. One against.”

“The Fraternal Order Of The Anvil votes yes.” Pardu Zelver

“That is three votes in favor. One against.”

“Um. Yes. The Gladiators’ Guild, uh, votes yes.” Hajir

“That is four votes in favor. One against.”

“The Order Of Alchemists And Potion Makers abstains.” Okztrok

“The Poison Makers’ Guild votes yes.” Hahcuss Hran.

“That is five votes in favor. One against.”

“The Guild Of Bakers And Butchers votes yes.” Stral looks fearfully at the Spirit of Vengeance.

“That is six votes in favor. One against.”

“The League Of Upright Barristers votes yes.” Huena Ilvos

“That is seven votes in favor. One against.”

All eyes swing to Sedrani Vashnarstill. For a moment she seems to savor the attention, the corner of her mouth twitching up. She looks at Obedience Fletcher with those unreadable, dead eyes as she speaks.

“The Guild Of Street Sweepers And Dung Carters votes yes.”

The Pactbroker looks back at the Pactmaster in attendance, who nods once.

“It is done. The motion passes. The Scarlet Triad is hereby censured. All special protections and boons extended to the Scarlet Triad are rescinded. The organization may still operate within the city, but attacks against them are against private citizens only.”

There is a brief time of pandemonium as everyone in the council hall begin talking at once. Exavisu, Alager, and others are calling for the Scarlet Triad to be held accountable for their failings and crimes. Jelek, several people in the gallery including the large Aspis Consortium representative, are yelling about injustice.

Uri Zandivar stands. “May I speak, Pactbroker?”

The Pactbroker calls for order and raises his hands. He holds this pose and, over the course of about a minute, everyone calms down and grows quiet. The Pactbroker nods to Uri.

Uri has a light sheen of sweat but is otherwise poised and confident. A small sneer crosses his face as he speaks.

“To say I am disappointed by today’s vote is an understatement. You all have been deceived by lawless bandits, erasing decades of support and services from the Scarlet Triad. The moral hypocrisy of many guildmasters here, peddling their own sinister wares, is difficult to stomach.

“So I am announcing the Scarlet Triad’s departure from the city of Katapesh, effective immediately. We will seek more enlightened and welcoming allies elsewhere.

“It will take us several days to move from the Red Pyramid, and with these murderous outlaws hunting us I fear for my and my organizations’ safety. In addition, I fear for the safety of my guests within the Red Pyramid, including Pactmaster Tsandarkon, who began staying with us two days’ hence.”

The Pactmaster in the back stands abruptly. Uri’s eyes do not leave the Pactmaster.

“I am sure everyone wishes us all the utmost safety in this transition given our decades of service to the city. Let us all get through our departure without incident or… bloodshed.”

Several guildmasters stand, outraged, and begin advancing on Uri and the Pactmaster in the back claps once. Everyone falls silent.

The Pactbroker looks back and then stands. “The Pactmasters command that no one intervene in the Scarlet Triad’s exit of the city for three days. Uri Zandivar has three days to leave the city and return all guests unharmed. It is law.”

Uri nods once and heads for the exit in a rush, Jelek Jaziman at his heels.

Chaos again erupts in the Council chamber.

“This meeting is adjourned!” The Pactbroker yells into the noise.

The Pactbroker makes a beeline for Jethro. “Gather your companions and follow me, please.”

He brings you to a back room, spacious but not lavish. There is the Pactmaster from the Council meeting and another, with the same robes but in a different color.

“You are in the presence of Pactmasters Angruul and Morvithus. The honor that they bestow upon–”

“There is no need for that, Hashim” one of the Pactmasters says. Its voice is otherworldly, synthesized, and non-binary.

“We have always known that Uri Zandivar was a snake, but his imprisonment of our colleague is an unexpected gambit. We learned of his disappearance just before the Council meeting and had suspicions but no proof. Now that we know the situation, we wish to enlist your aid. I believe our goals are in accord.

“The city is under order to leave the Scarlet Triad alone. We must stand back and give Uri his chance at escape. But you, as he so forcefully argued, are outsiders with a grudge against him.

“We ask that you raid the Red Pyramid. Now. Before their defenses are set. Do whatever damage you wish to the Scarlet Triad. Destroy it utterly if you wish. Kill Uri Zandivar if you wish. But recover Pactmaster Tsandarkon unharmed. Do this, and there will be no repercussions of your actions from the city and you will be well rewarded for your service.”

Second Pathfinder Web Fiction Up!

Back in September, I had the great fortune to write a piece of fiction for my current favorite game, Pathfinder 2nd Edition. The piece received good reader feedback, so I crossed my fingers that I’d be asked to write more.

Then, mid-January, Paizo reached out and said they had another writing opportunity, but it was a fast, 11-day turnaround. Was I interested?

To me, the only possible answer to this question–regardless of circumstance–is “HECK YES!” Not only is writing fantasy fiction for my favorite game tons of fun, I want to establish myself as a reliable, solid writer who is part of Paizo’s regular line-up.

So Mark Moreland at Paizo sent me the image that would be the basis for the story, along with a PDF of the upcoming sourcebook that the story was meant to promote. The image was amazing, and Mark had several notes–The beastkin looks too much like a werewolf. The lady in back shouldn’t be a zombie, but a “fetchling” (a descendant of the Shadow Plane). Don’t make the piece from the adventurer’s viewpoint. It should probably be a comedy bit, based on a mistaken belief that these helpers were monsters. Good luck. Have fun.

The art is very clearly Halloween-y, so I leaned into those themes hard in the story. Something I thought of after submitting it to Mark was that the Tricksters should have been a band of halflings, making them even more like trick-or-treaters. Anyway, I’m happy with the result, hope Paizo is too, and fingers crossed this is a path to even more Pathfinder writing.

Here is the story and art: https://paizo.com/community/blog/v5748dyo6shkl?Tales-Of-Lost-Omens-Clues-In-The-Moonlight

Official Flash Fiction for Paizo!

My last several entries have been intros to my tabletop role-playing sessions. It’s a game I’ve been playing for a year now, Pathfinder 2nd Edition (basically a different–and in my opinion better–version of Dungeons & Dragons). Not just playing, actually. I’ve been the “Game Master,” which means I am the one guiding the players through our mutual story, controlling the actions of everyone in the world except each player’s character.

In the Summer, a representative from Paizo, the company that makes Pathfinder, asked on Twitter if anyone would be interested in writing fiction for them. He was immediately flooded with responses, including mine.

Imagine my surprise when Mark Moreland, the Brand Director for Paizo, sent me an email a few weeks later. Mark was a fan of some web fiction I’d written a loooong time ago, and asked if I would be willing to write for them. I think my exact response was “HECK YES!”

On Wednesday of this week, my first story for Paizo went up on their site.

Fingers crossed there’s more to come!

Zundar and the Booker

[Author’s note: I got the flu and then started working on the novel again, so there’s less to post here. But I am starting a new Pathfinder 2nd Edition game in which I get to play instead of GM and wrote up this sketch of my character.]

Giovani sat hunched over an Osirian scroll when the little bell at the front of his bookstore tinkled happily. The old man groaned, then painfully straightened, his back and joints popping. One day he would get a real chair instead of this damned, unbalanced stool he’d been using for decades.   

His gnarled finger, black from ink, pushed Giovani’s spectacles up his bulbous nose. The eyeglasses were round and thick, and made his eyes seem impossibly large on his face. Giovani glanced to the doorway with those owl eyes, blinked, and squeaked in alarm.

The thing that had pushed itself into his little bookstore was enormous — almost seven feet tall at first guess, with broad shoulders and elongated arms that hung almost to its knees. It had to crouch to avoid bumping its head on the ceiling, which made it seem even larger amidst the cramped shelves. Its skin was a ruddy, cerulean blue and hairless, with a bald head that was wide and pointy-eared. If it had been half its height it would have looked like a blue-skinned goblin. But at this size… 

“Hobgoblin!” Giovani blurted, his voice cracking. 

The thing grunted, seeming to notice the old bookstore proprietor for the first time. Crouching, it shuffled towards Giovani, clearly taking care not to knock over shelves as it approached. 

Giovani expected to be hit by the stench of the creature. But, though its scent was undeniably strong, he was surprised to find the hulking brute smelled something like a fresh Spring breeze. Giovani blinked again behind his eyeglasses and licked his lips nervously.

“I say. Um, quite unusual. May I– may I help you?” The old man’s voice squeaked out the end of the sentence. 

The hobgoblin grunted, looking around the bookstore with its menacing, all-white eyes. Giovani swallowed and his brow began to sweat.

“You the booker?” it asked, a voice low and growling.

“The– the what?” Giovani’s eyes blinked several times, lashes fluttering behind the spectacles.

“This,” the hobgoblin waved a hand the size of Giovani’s torso absently. “Bookstore, yeah? You the booker? You know books?”

“Yes, well,” he cleared his throat. “This is indeed Giovani’s Rare Books and I am its proprietor, Giovani.”

The creature stared hard at him. 

Giovani’s voice quivered. “Yes, okay. I’m the–”

“Booker?” 

“If you say so, yes. I know books. Is there something I can help you with?”

“Dunno. Think so, yeah? See, I had a dream.”

“Dream?” Giovani asked, confused.

“Dream,” the hobgoblin nodded. “First time ever. Hopin’ you can tell me about it.”

“By the gods, man. Why would I be able to–”

The creature pounded one meaty fist into his other hand. “Gods! Knew a booker could help. Gods is what I need to know!”

“Please don’t hit me!” Giovani threw up his hands in defense and the crooked stool overbalanced. The old man fell backwards with a clunk, worn shoes flailing in the air.

“Hit you? Why would–” He looked down at his hands, one fist still wrapped in another. “Oh. Sorry. Scared you, huh?”

The creature shuffled around the small desk and loomed over the fallen Giovani, picking him up like a doll and standing him up. The puffs of white hair on either side of the bookseller’s head stood out crazily.

“Unhand me! I’m fine! Please, get off!” the old man grumped, pushing those giant hands away.

Giovani regarded the hobgoblin, who looked almost comically apologetic. It backed up a step and bumped into a bookshelf. The shelf swayed but stayed upright as the creature steadied it carefully. 

“Sorry, sorry.” That scent of Spring breeze rose up again pleasantly from its blue skin, filling the room. 

The old man sighed. 

“Most unusual, most unusual. Apologies. Perhaps I have misjudged you, my large friend. Please, let’s start again. From the beginning this time. What is your name?”

It was the hobgoblin’s turn to blink. He stared at Giovani for two heartbeats and finally rumbled, “Zundar.”

Giovani waved his small hand as the creature tried to reach past him. “No, no leave the stool please. The cursed thing can barely stand on its own anyway. You and I can just talk here.”

The hobgoblin settled back into place, looking huge and out of place in the bookstore. 

“Where are you from, Zundar?”

Zundar grunted. “Here. Cheliax. I, uh… made chains. For the Hellknights.”

“In the dungeons?” Giovani’s wild eyebrows rose. 

Zundar grunted ascent.

“Well, that’s honest labor, I suppose.” Giovani tried not to let his distaste for the Hellknights or their barbaric prisons show on his face. “How long have you been doing that?”

Zundar shrugged a massive shoulder. “Always. Born in the dungeons. Just saw the sky yesterday.”

“My goodness!” Giovani squeaked again. “Just yesterday! For the first time? How? Why?”

A lopsided grin touched the too-wide mouth on Zundar’s too-wide head. “Some guy talkin’ about it. Never seen it. Thought I should.”

Giovani was suddenly entranced. He smiled. “And what did you think of your first view of the sky, Zundar?”

“Pretty,” the hobgoblin said. His grin vanished. “But then… dreamed.”

“Ah, good. Yes, now we’ve come to it. Please, tell me about this dream. Was it of the sky?”

Zundar grunted, thinking. “A lion, yeah? Lightning in the hair around its head. Body a long snake. Lots of legs. Swam through the clouds. Talked to me. A lot. Said he was an old god.”

“Lion with a snake’s body,” Giovani was muttering to himself, tapping an ink-stained finger to his lip. “An old god, you say? Yes, well. Unusual. That sounds like Ranginori.”

“RANGINORI!” Zundar bellowed, and Giovani almost jumped out of his wrinkled skin. The hobgoblin seemed to notice the reaction and said, “Sorry, sorry. Not gonna hit you. That’s what he said his name was. Ranginori.”

“He… You say he spoke to you? In your dream?”

Zundar nodded his oversized head.

“And what did he tell you?”

The hobgoblin grunted. “Lotta things. Break all the chains. So I did. Broke all the chains. Let a bunch of people go. Right thing to do, yeah? People shouldn’t oughta be chained.”

Giovani blinked again in rapid succession. “I see. Zundar, when was this that you broke people’s chains in the dungeon?”

“This morning. Before I came here.”

The bookstore was silent for several heartbeats.

“And,” Giovani licked his lips, voice cracking again. “How many people did you free?”

Another shrug of an enormous shoulder. “Dunno. All of ‘em.”

Giovani swallowed. “I say, Zundar. That’s quite an extraordinary tale. Did the Hellknights try to stop you?”

“Yeah.”

“And what happened?”

Zundar shrugged.

“I see. Well, I believe I may be able to help you after all. Perhaps you can sit and make yourself comfortable on the floor there while I go close up the shop and find a book or two?”

“Okay,” the hobgoblin said in his monstrous growl. “Hey, uh… You’ll read ‘em, though, yeah? Don’t read.”

Giovani blinked. “Of course. Yes. I can do that.”

The lopsided grin returned. “Okay. Thanks, booker.”

 

AoA 03: We Remember

[author’s note: With any Age of Ashes posts, check out this blurb for some background. I should also say that if you happen to be a Pathfinder 2 player and interested in the campaign, proceed with caution because there are spoilers in these cut scenes! This was Jethro’s third haunting vision so far.]

 

Jethro Vermillion found himself standing at the edge of a makeshift graveyard. Clouds stirred peacefully overhead. Crows called out, unseen, from distant trees. The high walls of Citadel Altaerein loomed in the background, casting into shadow the plot of land with its simple stone grave markers.

He stroked his beard thoughtfully, frowning at the figure standing within the graveyard.

Alak Stagram was as Jethro had last seen him, his once-handsome face now half-peeled of its skin, skull leering beneath. His matte plate armor, once pristine, was now scratched and dented from claws and weapons. The undead armiger, one eye plucked from its socket, attempted to smile. At least Jethro thought it was a smile, though the horrifying, blood-slicked visage was the stuff of nightmares.

“Jethro, yes?” Alak’s voice was surprisingly the same as in life, rich and dripping with highbrow disdain. “I’m afraid I never learned your family name.”

Jethro tried to answer but found himself unable to speak. His frown deepened.

“Skeleton got your tongue, perhaps? Well, no matter. I suspect this,” he waved a ravaged hand into the air, “conversation will be as brief as our acquaintance. Tell me, were you ever able to find my family’s signet ring?”

Jethro nodded.

“Was it within the back vault? Perhaps in a drawer with a false bottom?”

He nodded again.

The skeletal warrior sighed and slumped his shoulders. “Yes, after searching the first level I suspected my mother would hide it there. She spoke of that room, sometimes, and that drawer. For all their love of order, the Hellknights do love their secrets. Perhaps the apple does not fall far from Asmodeus’ tree, eh? In any case, do bury the ring with my remains, if you please. I literally died for that thing.”

Alak straightened and fixed Jethro with his remaining eye. “It seems I was somewhat of a fool for not accompanying you into the citadel vaults, a mistake for which I cannot atone. My impatience got the better of me. Alas. Alas.”

The soil to Alak’s right began to stir, and a frog-like hand pushed its way from below. The hand searched for purchase. Alak followed Jethro’s glance.

“Aha. As promised, our conversation will be brief. In a matter of days, priest of Sarenrae, the bodies have piled up beneath you and your merry band.”

Jethro’s eyes widened as multiple corpses now pulled themselves free of their graves. There were frog-like boggards and monkey-like charau-ka, and a small legion of skeletons with their glowing purple eyes. Behind Alak, a furry arm of a bugbear began pulling its owner from the soil, a dirt-caked dagger clutched in her hand.

“I would caution you, priest. Your merry band is running headlong towards an apocalypse, an event that could scar the world. And when it happens, when that Age of Ashes, as it were, is upon you…”

Many corpses had pulled themselves free, still bearing their mortal wounds. Slashes from swords and magical burns marred the creatures. Some seemed to have holes the size of goblin fists through their throats and chests. They assembled behind Alak silently, dead eyes fixed on Jethro. With each moment that passed, more bodies filled out the ranks of the graveyard.

“…well, when that times comes…” Alak shrugged, opening his hands wide. “We remember.”

White lightning crackled overhead, and Jethro saw that what was once an overcast sky had become the angry threat of a storm. Colors flashed in the clouds: red, green, and blue.

The wet, black soil surged up and around Alak and his surrounding zombies, violently pushing them high into the air. The rumble of the erupting earth echoed in thunder overhead.

And then, towering over Jethro, was the form of an enormous creature, like a worm or snake made from the graveyard soil. Dotting its length were the bodies of the dead, with Alak Stagram at what would be the creature’s forehead, the armiger’s arm, shoulder and mangled head visible. The graveyard worm loomed over twenty feet high, swaying and dripping both soil and ichor at Jethro’s feet.

“WE REMEMBER!” announced all the heads in the creature, human and boggard and monkey and skeleton and bugbear as one. The voices then screamed wordlessly in defiance and anger, the sound like the roar of a dragon, as the worm-like creature opened its maw and struck down at Jethro.

 

 

Tangled in sweat-soaked sheets, Jethro Vermillion screamed into the morning darkness, the dragon’s roar still echoing in his ears.

Where’s your writing? What’s this fantasy shit? I thought you liked superheroes? — an author’s note

For the last year+, I’ve been in a weekly writer’s group in Oakland, CA working on a post-apocalyptic superhero novel. Thus my (limited) writing energy has gone into a story I’m not yet ready to share.

But in the past several months, I’ve also begun a journey as a Game Master (GM) of a Pathfinder Second Edition game with five wonderful friends: Marcus, Owen, Jared, Dylan, and Ryan. Part of being a GM of a tabletop roleplaying game is doing a fair amount of writing, and that writing is something I’m happy to share here.

We are playing through the Age of Ashes adventure path, starting with Book 1: Hellknight Hill. The general plotline of the first book is that a group of adventurers unexpectedly save the the town of Breachill’s residents from an arsonist fire. Investigating the fire leads them to the abandoned Citadel Altaerein (known by the locals as “Hellknight Hill”) a mile outside of town, and thus headlong a much deeper series of events that may threaten the world of Golarion itself. Pretty classic high fantasy stuff, and we are loving both the adventure path and this new edition of Pathfinder.

The leader of the adventuring party is Marcus’ character Jethro Vermillion (played by a bearded Jared Leto …we cast all of our characters), a cleric of the goddess Sarenrae. Poor Jethro was born in Breachill, but was plagued by haunting visions that drove him as a teenager out of town and eventually into the faith of his goddess. As he’s returned to his home town the visions have returned. These visions are thus far the main source of writing I’ve been able to do for the adventure, adding in “cut scenes” for the group that foreshadow the possible doom they’re approaching.

(As an aside, each player has either written or is writing a cut scene for their character, which I’m inserting into our sessions at strategic times. This blog is for my writing only, so I won’t include their prose. Suffice it say, though, it’s been a truly wonderful experience of collaborative storytelling.)

I’m now on the FOURTH version of my fledgling novel, and each version has been significantly better than the last. My hope is that eventually I’ll have a finished manuscript to share. Until then, enjoy the random superhero short story here.

And, at least for now, please enjoy the prose I’ve been inserting into our weekly Pathfinder game.

Meet the Judges: Andromeda Stacey

Andromeda Stacey, twice People Magazine’s Most Beautiful Person in the World, evaluated her face in the mirror.

“You are stunning,” said the man to her right.

Andromeda almost pointed out the many flaws. For starters, those three damned freckles, too-large pores on her nose, the shadows under both eyes, how one nostril was slightly larger than the other, and the faint remnants of a pimple near her lower lip. But she never said such things out loud.

Instead, she quirked one corner of her mouth into a smile and said simply, “Thank you, Peter.”

Peter Moore had aged well, thanks in large part to unending wealth and power as a studio executive producer. He possessed a strong jaw and clear green eyes, the kind of looks that melted young Hollywood aspirants into spread-legged piles of drool. Peter could easily have been a rugged forty years old or a fit sixty. Only the deep smile lines around his eyes revealed more sixty than forty. His shaved head glowed in the bright lights surrounding the mirror.

“Listen,” he said in his deep baritone, straightening his tie in the reflection, “I know you’ve caught a lot of flak for being part of this show, but I hope it’s falling on deaf ears. You’re the perfect third judge for Alpha Squad. The audience is going to tune in because of you.”

The other person in the room, her make-up artist Barbie, was applying concealer below Andromeda’s eyes. The shadows there disappeared as she brushed out the concealer with practiced, quick strokes. Soon the other obvious flaws would be obscured. Goodbye until tonight, freckles.

“Thank you, Peter,” she said, almost without moving.

“Don’t move,” Barbie scolded.

“Good luck today,” Peter said, smiling his brightest at her in the mirror and winking. “Knock ‘em dead, and don’t take any shit from either of them, you hear?”

Andromeda quirked her lip again. After a second or so, the smile faded.

“Right then. See you on set, gorgeous.” He turned and walked out of her dressing room, the door closing behind.

“Asshole,” muttered Barbie.

“Peter? He’s not so bad.”

“Don’t move. If you say so. All he did for five minutes was talk about your looks and then ended by putting you in your place. You’re better than him.”

Andromeda put her hand up, signaling Barbie to stop with the brush.

“Put me in my place?” she asked, quirking an eyebrow.

Barbie was built like a twelve-year-old boy, all skinny limbs and sharp angles. Her pink hair was short and spiked out from her head artfully. Today she wore a simple tank top, showing off tattoos that covered every inch of skin below her chin. The most dramatic ink was the Asian-looking tiger crawling from shoulder to elbow, but Barbie’s body was a mosaic of fantastical animals, obscure symbols, and cartoon characters.

“I shouldn’t have said anything. Sorry,” Barbie said, not sounding sorry in the least.

“No, please. What did you mean?”

“It’s just…” Barbie sighed loudly. “I mean, ‘third judge’? Like the other two are obvious and you’re the tag-along? And that follows a reminder that some people don’t even want you on the show. It just felt like tearing you down more than building you up, is all. Saying people will tune in because of you is just telling you that you’re hot, like you’re only there as eye candy. This sexist industry gets to me sometimes is all.”

Andromeda settled back into the chair, signaling it was time to resume. Barbie started expertly applying highlighter along the top of her cheekbones in silence.

In a couple of minutes, Andromeda spoke. “I don’t even hear those things anymore, to be honest. And let’s not kid ourselves. I’m only on this show as eye candy.”

Barbie snorted. “No. You’re not.”

“How so?”

“If you were here as eye candy, you’d be the host. You’re a judge. You’re here for your opinions.”

“And as eye candy.”

“Okay, sure. But it’s your words that are going to shape this show, not the luscious lips saying them. I get really tired of people treating you like you don’t have a brain, and I’ve been working with you long enough to know you do too. Your looks get you in the door, but you are smarter than anyone at the studio and both of those judges combined.”

“Hm,” Andromeda said noncommittally.

Several minutes later, Barbie was using a fluffy blending brush across her eyelids when Andromeda spoke again.

“It’s ironic,” she said, “that the person hired to enhance my looks is saying this.”

She heard Barbie snort again. “The fact that you see that irony only proves my point.”

Nearly an hour later, both women stared in the mirror, evaluating her face critically. Clay, her hair stylist, had artfully piled Andromeda’s blond hair atop her head, with spiral locks curling down each side to frame her face. That face was now smooth, perfectly symmetrical, and, Andromeda silently admitted to herself, flawless. Cheeks shone. Lips naturally pouted. Her eyes looked back from the mirror large and sensual. Purple eyeshadow glittered, ready to match the miniskirt dress that hung behind her. She had become an airbrushed photograph come to life.

“I think we’ve got it,” Barbie said.

“Yes,” Andromeda said, “Me too. The Trojan Horse is built.”

Barbie blinked, startled. Then her face broke into a huge smile.

“God yes. That’s what I’m talking about. Go get ‘em.”

Meet the Judges: Hudson

The door to the Blue Cat bar crashed open, a panting, skinny white kid silhouetted in the door frame. He wore hipster slacks, a button-up shirt with a too-big collar, and those thick-rimmed glasses that made nerds seem cool. In a glance, Hudson decided the guy was a complete waste of a life. He turned his back on the kid and returned to his Dos Equis.

A few seconds later, the kid was breathing heavily behind him. Hudson frowned.

“Mr. Hudson, sir?”

Dammit. Fanboy.

He sighed and looked at Sylvette, the bartender. She was a pretty thirty-something black girl with a halter top and a sweet afro. Hudson liked Sylvette, which is why he always came back to the Blue Cat whenever he was in LA. She saw his expression and winked, leaning back against the counter to watch the show.

Slowly. Dramatically. Hudson slid off the barstool. Stood up. Turned around.

The kid stepped back involuntarily, just like Hudson intended.

Hudson was about six-and-a-half feet tall. Right now he was wearing a white tank-top, fully displaying his physique. Oh, and his oily jet-black skin, patterned with yellow like a salamander. Seeing Hudson on TV and in person were different experiences, he’d found. He looked down on the kid with pupil-less, white eyes. The punk hipster swallowed audibly.

“Something I can do for you, man?” Hudson rumbled.

“Ah. It’s just, well…” he stammered.

“Yeah? I’m sort of busy here, as you can see. So get to it.”

“Mr. Hudson, sir…”

Hudson grunted. “Shit, man. That’s not my name.”

The kid faltered. “Um, what?”

“My name is Deshawn Andrews, so you can call me Mr. Andrews. Or you can call me Hudson. My fucking last name sure as fuck isn’t Hudson, though. That’s my Guardian name.”

“Oh. Right. Okay.” He was sweating and seemed to gather himself. “Mr. Andrews, sir. I’m from the studio.”

Hudson crossed his massive arms over his massive chest.

“And?”

The kid almost wet himself. It took him a couple of tries to find his voice. “And you’re supposed to be on set now, sir.”

Hudson paused, frowning. He turned back to the bartender.

“Sylvette? What day is it?”

She smiled a bright white smile, framed by those luscious chocolate lips. She had a big gap between her two front teeth. Damn fine woman.

“It’s Monday, honey.”

Hudson grunted, “Damn.” He turned back to the kid, who took another step back.

“When were we supposed to start?”

“Um,” the kid checked his phone. “It’s eleven AM, so we don’t start shooting for a couple of hours yet. But you were due at nine for make-up, wardrobe, and prep.”

“Shit, man. A couple of hours?” Hudson eased his bulk back onto the barstool and turned back around. He took a long swallow of his beer.

It took the kid almost a full minute. Hudson didn’t move. Sylvette didn’t either, though her smile became bigger the longer the silence stretched on. Finally, the kid cleared his throat.

“Mr. Hud– Mr. Andrews, sir?”

Hudson took another swallow. Sylvette shook her head, still smiling.

“Mr. Andrews?”

“What, man?” He still didn’t move. The kid appeared in his peripheral vision.

“Um, we have to go, sir. I’ve got a car outside.”

“Nah.”

“Um, what?”

“You deaf? I said no. I’m enjoying a beer with this fine woman in a mercifully empty bar. Go away, kid. I’ll be there before they start shooting.”

“But… The studio wants you there for…”

“I don’t need that other shit. They get me when I get there. Thanks for letting me know.”

“But…”

“Fuck off.”

More silence. Sylvette couldn’t help it and bust up laughing. She had a sexy laugh, that Sylvette. Hudson thought he would ask her out one of these days.

“I’m, um, I’m going to call the studio,” the kid said uncertainly. “I really think they want you there now.”

“Cool. Do that. Outside.”

Another few seconds of awkward silence, then footsteps and the Blue Cat’s door opened and closed.

“You really filming something today?” Sylvette asked, cocking her head to the side. Big hoop earrings flopped around when she did that, which Hudson thought was sexy.

“Yeah. Apparently.”

“Commercial?”

“Nah. Television show called Alpha Squad.”

Sylvette’s whole face lit up like fireworks. “Oh! I heard about that! That’s the reality show for a new Guardians group! You going to be in it?”

Hudson shrugged. “I’m one of the judges. Then they want me to lead the group after the show, I guess.”

“That’s so sweet! That show’s going to be epic.”

“Hope so.”

“So why you giving that studio guy such a hard time, then?”

“Punk kid annoys me. I’m not taking orders from him. Besides,” he opened his arms out wide and smiled. “Like I said, I’m enjoying a drink with a fine woman. Nothing should interrupt that.”

Sylvette laughed and shook her head. Those hoop earrings jangled around.

“You ever going to ask me out, honey? I’d say yes.”

Hudson kept smiling. “Someday.”

The door opened again, letting in daylight for a second before shutting. The kid all but ran over to his side again. He was holding his phone out like passing an Olympic torch.

“They want you there now, sir. Mr. Moore wants to talk to you. He’s on the phone. Here,” the kid waved the phone around. He looked terrified and sweaty. Good.

Hudson sighed and took the phone in his enormous hand.

“Hey Peter,” Hudson said. “Yeah? Yeah.” Pause. “Okay. I know, I know. I lost track of time, man.” Pause. “No, it’s cool. I’ll come over now.” Pause. “Annoys the fuck out of me, actually. Where’d you get him from?” Hudson listened, then laughed. “Okay, yeah. I won’t kill him until after I get there. Thanks, man.”

Hudson tossed the phone back to the kid. He fumbled it and it clattered to the floor. Fucking useless.

“Sylvette, my dear, my chariot awaits. Thanks for opening up for me.”

“Anytime, honey.”

He reached into his back pocket for his money clip, unrolled a Benjamin and laid it on the table.

“Don’t forget what I said,” Sylvette said, taking the bill and smiling her fine, gap-toothed smile.

“Someday,” he said.

“Well, you got my number.”

“I do. Alright,” Hudson turned to the kid, who had recovered his phone and was looking appropriately uncomfortable. Hudson was going to make this ride hell for the punk, just to fuck with him. “Let’s go then.”

“Okay, great. Great! My name is–”

“Don’t care.”

He could still hear Sylvette’s sexy laugh as they left the Blue Cat behind.

Meet the Judges: Christina Ng

Christina Ng sat in her expensive office chair, staring at a framed photo on her desk. A clock over the closed door ticked seconds ominously in the otherwise silent room.

It was a sizable office, but spartan. Various marketing and business bestsellers lined a modest bookcase mounted on one wall. On the opposite wall hung a framed document–AlphaTech’s first approved letter of funding as a new start-up in Silicon Valley. A tasteful white orchid, to match a tasteful white throw rug. A few modern chairs in which to sit, also white. Occasionally, someone at AlphaTech would ask her about adding some character to her office, and Christina would point out the wall of windows overlooking the San Francisco Bay Bridge behind her. To her, the view was the only aesthetic needed.

The photo showed a younger Christina at her MBA graduation from Stanford University. In it, she wore a red robe and cap, hugging a classmate with eyes shut and smile wide. She could remember that day so well, perhaps the happiest day of her life. Graduating was an accomplishment, but even more a beginning. The day after graduation, Christina began sketching out the business plan that would lead to AlphaTech’s framed funding letter. Staring at the photo brought Christina peace, and hope in troubled times.

Someone knocked on the door twice and then opened it a foot. Samantha Winters, Christina’s executive assistant, stuck her head into the room. She was a young, plump, pale, blotchy, and generally unattractive woman with glasses, and she always had a perpetually startled look on her face. Wicked smart and capable, but easy to underestimate just looking at her.

“Christina?”

Christina blinked from her reverie and looked at Samantha. “Hm?”

“Five-minute warning. Then they’ll escort us to the airport. I’ve got your bags ready.”

“Okay, thanks Sam.”

“Do you need anything?”

“No, thank you.”

Samantha stepped more fully into the room. She was wearing jeans and an unflattering floral top. “You okay?” she asked.

Christina blinked again and smiled with lightly-freckled cheeks. The freckles were the only blemish on her China-doll face.

“I guess. Just sort of thinking about beginnings. It’s a big day, right?”

“Yep. And a fun one. It’s going to be great. Let’s see how you look.”

Christina dutifully stood up and stepped around her desk. White blouse, gray business blazer and matching pencil skirt. She was a small woman–just barely topping five feet tall in her stiletto heels, and petite in every way. Her straight black hair was pulled back in a ponytail and fell to the middle of her back. She smoothed her skirt unnecessarily as her assistant looked her up and down.

Samantha cocked her head. “Beautiful and polished, as always. But…”

“But?” Christina quirked an eyebrow.

“For a Board meeting? Perfect. For today, though, I think the people at the studio are going to spruce you up a bit.”

“Spruce me up? What needs sprucing?”

“Just some color, maybe. A dramatic hat, or a scarf. Something for the audience to talk about.”

Christina smirked. “I’m not exactly aiming for the audience talking about me.”

Her assistant crossed meaty arms and smiled. “Well, maybe I’m wrong.”

“You are, frustratingly, rarely wrong, Ms. Winters.”

A male voice shouted from behind Samantha. “Christina!”

Samantha flicked Christina a look that said, “Want me to get rid of him?” and Christina flicked back a quick shake of her head. It was one of those near-telepathic interchanges both women valued about their partnership.

“And here’s Gareth!” Samantha said, falsely beaming. She stepped aside.

Gareth Graham was a medium-height, skinny Englishmen with perpetually unkempt-yet-stylish hair. He wore a navy-blue suit and a salmon tie, loosened to also look unkempt yet stylish.

“There you are! I’m glad I caught you. Listen, before you kick off this ridiculous enterprise I wanted to try one more time to tell you what a bloody disaster it’s going to be.”

Gareth always had a wild, insistent energy to him. Christina, meanwhile, exuded an aura of serene calm. Their two styles often clashed in AlphaTech’s boardroom. Christina crossed her hands behind her and met Gareth’s panting figure with a half-smile. A moment of silence passed.

Gareth straightened, and exhaled loudly.

“That is to say,” he said less emphatically, “I’d like a word, if you please.”

Behind him, Samantha smiled. “I’ll leave you, then. The studio folks will be here any minute so make it quick.”

“Thanks Samantha,” Christina said as the door closed. Christina backed up a bit and sat lightly on the edge of her desk, gripping the edge with her hands. “Now then, Gareth, we’ve been through this, and the Board agrees with me. You know that.”

Gareth grimaced. “I know. Of course I know. I’m appealing to you to step back and see the wider picture here, Christina. Everything is coming up roses for AlphaTech, and there’s no need to take away that momentum. This could ruin us.”

“I appreciate your concern.” Gareth started to say something, and she held up a hand, cutting him off. “And I appreciate it’s a risk. Companies take risks, Gareth. My job as CEO is to make these decisions. I made the decisions that brought us to such a rosy P&L, you may recall.”

“Yes, but…”

“And if Alpha Squad is a disaster, well…”

“You’ll be out,” Gareth said violently. “You’ll be done. A laughing stock. This company you built will be taken away from you.”

Christina cocked an eyebrow. “Paving the way for a new, vibrant, visionary CEO, perhaps?”

“Dammit. If I wanted the job and wanted you to fail, I wouldn’t be here pleading with you. I’d let you bloody fall flat on your bloody face.”

“Fair point. So why come?”

“In hopes that on the precipice of this disaster that you’d see reason. Don’t do this. Please. I don’t understand why you’re so driven to make us such a public spectacle. I didn’t think you wanted to be a celebrity.”

“Is that what you think this is about? This is about building a brand, Gareth. AlphaTech’s, not mine. And doing some good while we’re at it.”

Someone knocked on the door.

“Well, I’m off to Los Angeles, it seems. I’m afraid the die is cast, Mr. Graham.”

“Mark my words,” Gareth said, shaking a finger, “this Alpha Squad nonsense will. Not. Work. You may have a meaningless reality TV show career at the end of this, but it will be the end of you leading a global enterprise.”

“I suppose we’ll see,” Christina said gently.

“I suppose we bloody will.”

The door opened, and Samantha stood there with an older, bald white man and several young people with tablet computers held to their chests. Gareth turned on his heel and pushed through them angrily. The group looked on briefly as he stormed towards the elevators, then turned their full, smiling attention to Christina.

“Big day,” the man said in a deep voice, stepping forward and extending his hand. “It’s good to see you again, Christina. You look beautiful.”

“Thank you, Peter.” Christina pulled herself away from her desk and met his grip, her hand comically small in his. “Well, let’s get going.”

As the two of them made their way out of the office one of the young people, a cute girl with sunglasses perched on top of her head turned to one of her young companions.

“I’m thinking we need color,” she said.

“Definitely. We’ll do that in LA. I have some ideas. A yellow scarf, maybe?”

Christina overheard and paused long enough to look at Samantha. Her assistant shrugged.

The group moved to the elevators, leaving the office door open. Only the ominous sound of a clock ticking filled the silence.

Thankful (With Cheese!)

It’s been quite a month! I attended the League of Legends World Championships in Berlin (and brought my son, as a birthday present), which was awesome. I then followed it up with Riot’s first-ever global Talent Summit, gathering all of the Talent professionals at Riot Games from our seventeen global offices into one place. The Summit too was awesome. Since then I’ve been in the year-end buzzsaw, full of compensation reviews, 2016 financial forecasting, and holiday parties galore. Whew.

Speaking of holidays, tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the U.S., and so I’ve been getting in touch with my deep wells of gratitude from this past year. Today’s post might be a tad cheesy, but who am I kidding? I’m sort of a cheesy fellow.

First and foremost, I am incredibly thankful for my wife and two kids. I haven’t always been a terrific husband or father through my working life, but this past year has been a high point on both the husbandly and fatherly front. My job means that I am away from home a lot, but the quality of time we’ve been spending together has been arguably the best ever. We laugh more. We share more deep feelings. We are genuinely sad to part and genuinely giddy to reconnect. I feel interwoven into my kids’ weekly activities and am courting my wife again despite eighteen years of marriage.

What could be causing this quality family time? Well…

…I’m also ridiculously thankful for Riot Games. This past year has been the most fun of my career, which is astonishing in part because I was coming off of two of my least fun years. Read most any of my previous blog posts and you’ll see why 2015 has been so great. Riot’s culture is fantastic. My bosses, Riot’s founders Marc Merrill and Brandon Beck, are two of the best humans I’ve met. I’m challenged at work, and also feel tremendously supported. I’m surrounded by gamer nerds all day every day, and make time to play constantly. If you’re not a passionate consumer of what your company does—if you’re not completely gung ho about your company’s mission—I think it’s worth stepping back and asking why you’re there. I’m sort of bummed that it took my half of my life to figure this obvious truth out, but am really, really happy that I eventually stumbled my way here. I officially love what I do and with whom I’m doing it.

I’m thankful for the Talent team we’ve been building over the past year. We’ve added a cadre of impressive leaders and “T-shaped” folks (meaning professionals who have deep expertise but also a lot of utility) at all levels and across our many sub-disciplines (recruiting, talent development, operations, rewards, etc.). The Summit was in many ways an official kick-off to this team as a team, and I’m excited for what this powerhouse group of folks can accomplish in the coming years. Despite lots of change they’ve continued to stay excited about their work and Riot. And one of the coolest indicators that we’re on the right path is that several times a week now I’m approached by Rioters from other teams wanting to join Talent. Super cool.

I’m thankful for League of Legends, and all of the ways it continues to surprise and delight me as a player. As I’ve mentioned before, League is a game that has brought my family together, and has inspired me to throw a ton of hours into trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to master it. What impresses me is how much the League team takes risks and is willing to change pretty much everything from season to season. It feels like a living, breathing environment. My son Jonah is obsessed with Surrender at 20 updates and League’s developing lore. He also finished the last season ranked Silver 4 in North America. Meanwhile, I’m working on my Diana game after reaching level 5 Champion mastery on Fizz, Brand, and Taric (the next Riot Rumble season kicks off in January, for which I’m thankful too). I’ve played a lot of other games, but League of Legends continues to hold my attention week after week.

I’m thankful for the Golden State Warriors and their record-breaking start to the season after winning the NBA championship last year. I’ve been a Warriors fan since 1998, and let me tell you that the last two seasons feel like nothing short of a miracle. They are such a fun team to watch. Sadly, I’ve also been an Oakland Raiders fan since 1991, which has been a lot more consistently frustrating. Thank you, Warriors.

Finally, I’m thankful for my health. In 2014 I was diagnosed with high blood pressure, which was due to both my stress at work and also unhealthy eating habits. It’s the first time I’ve ever started medication of really any kind. This year I’ve lost some weight, do regular meditation, and generally just feel a lot healthier inside and out. My most recent physical at my doctor’s office was stunning in its turnaround, and sure enough it looks like I’ll soon be coming off the blood pressure medicine. There’s some sort of virtuous cycle happening, where I am loving my job, loving my family, and also feeling better. I can pretty much draw double-ended arrows between all three of those things.

So yeah. Pretty cheesy, as advertised. I’m in a good place. At some point I’m sure to hit a rough patch, and when that happens I’ll write an equally dour and frustrated post. For now, though, everywhere I turn I’m finding a reason for gratitude.

If you’re in the U.S., Happy Thanksgiving. Regardless, here’s hoping you find your own virtuous cycle, full of loved ones, fulfilling work, and healthy habits. Then you too can write with gooey, cheesy goodness!

-jms