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!

AoA 09: Session Intros: 55-60

[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 56: Nolly’s Last Stand

One of Nolly Peltry’s eyes has swollen shut. Her muscles on the left side of her body spasm, almost dropping her to one knee. She tightens the grip on her trusty hoe and braces herself as the huge golem before her–a monstrosity made of wood with a floating brain in green liquid for a head–pulls back its hand to strike her. The golem’s fingers each end in syringes as long as Nolly’s forearm. She’s been stabbed… twice? Three times? She’s lost track. But Nolly isn’t sure she’ll withstand another hit.  

Then she sees movement behind the construct. It’s Coxsackie, that crazy goblin. Except there are four of him, shimmering and dancing in a pattern that makes her already pounding head swim. He’s humming a madman’s hum, bringing his mace overhand like he’s chopping firewood.

For a surreal instant, Nolly’s good eye darts from those five syringes, pulled back and ready to impale her, to Coxsackie’s multitude of faces. All images of the goblin wink at her, and then brings down the mace.

There is a thundering boom, and the sound like several barroom chairs breaking at once. Electricity explodes on and around the golem. Nolly turns her head away from the sharp, bright light, then staggers. When she regains her footing, she looks up to see the images of the goblin dancing a little jig. What’s left of the construct is a heap of cracked wood and spilled chemicals. The thing’s brain floats impotently in a vat now cracked and leaking across the floor.

“I don’t know how you got past that barrier back there but thank the gods you did. Wasn’t sure if I was going to last much longer, truth be told. Well met, Coxsackie. We might get these people… to freedom…”

Her voice falters and her gaze wanders to the back of the room. Figures begin fanning out from the staircase.

“…after… all.” Nolly sighs. “Well, bloody Hell. Look alive, my friend. Our fight isn’t done yet.”

Session 57: Boblin the Goblin

The springtime weather is not glorious today. High, wispy clouds cover most of the sky, making the sun a bright blur. Midday, the temperatures have climbed to not requiring a coat, but still recommending long sleeves. It is one of those Spring days struggling to break free from the gloom of Winter.

Yet and still, a group of carousers have decided to take tea at an outdoor patio. They are surrounded by the silver-streaked, white marble of Kintargo, across a cobblestone road from the once-great Alabaster Academy, and they are alone in choosing to dine outdoors.

They are an odd bunch–a couple of humans, a halfling, and a dwarf, all boisterously loud, sitting in a circle around a blue-skinned goblin. Their clothes are garish colors, pushing past the limits of fashion. Ears, lips, and noses are pierced with abandon. They sip tea, pretending to be posh, interrupted by loud, crude humor. Which is to say that the members of the group are young and insecure and full of life. The various people passing on the streets of Kintargo give them annoyed looks and a wide berth.

“I say,” one of the humans, a teen with half her head shaved and a chain linking her nose ring to her ear, says in an affected accent. “I do believe we’ve made that woman there uncomfortable. See how she looks at her toes while crossing the street away from us.” She sips her tea with a pinkie finger outstretched from her cup.

“Indubitably,” the young halfling man tries to say seriously, then the group bursts into laughter.

“Don’t want to join us for lunch, lady? We’re too good for you anyway!” the dwarf bellows, and the group laughs again.

Once the prim, middle-aged woman has hurriedly disappeared around a corner, the teen asks the goblin, “Whaddaya wanna do after tea, Boblin?”

The blue-skinned goblin has not been partaking in the obnoxious banter of the group around him. He only smiles lazily at their jokes, watching passerbys casually and seemingly without interest. He is taking up two chairs in the outdoor patio, one for his body and another for his outstretched feet. Unlike the rest, the goblin’s artfully-placed piercings make him look daring. His clothes–a bloused white shirt with three-quarter flared sleeves with tight, navy pants–are right in line with Kintargan trends.

Before the goblin can answer, a seagull makes a dive for the table. (I picture this as the same seagull Pit gave drugs to the day before) The young group gasps as it lands, clutches a hunk of cheese in its beak, and takes flight.

“Bloody bird!”

“Should kill that thing!”

“That was my piece of cheese!”

Amidst the fervor, the goblin merely arches an eyebrow, seemingly amused by both the bird and the consternation it’s caused.

The dwarf grabs for one of the daggers used to slice the meat and cheese that lay scattered on the round, outdoor table. “I swear, if any other bird tries that bloody nonsense I’m gonna–”

“Look!” the teenage human gasps.

All eyes turn, following the seagull’s flight.

“What? My cheese?”

“No,” the girl points with excitement. “Look at the tower!”

Past the seagull is one of several towers at Alabaster Academy. A tall, round structure of silver-streaked marble with skinny stained-glass windows dotting its length.

Four figures are climbing the tower like ants. From this distance it looks like two goblins, a halfling, and a human warrior in armor. Two other figures fly past them without even touching the tower, a human glowing with warm light and some smaller creature they can’t see clearly.

“Is that–? Amazing!”

“What do you think of that, Boblin?”

The blue-skinned goblin stands, suddenly and gracefully, squinting at the tower like the rest of his group. An eager, genuine smile touches his lips.

“I think,” Boblin the Goblin says, his fashionable attire blurs and begins to change. “You should hand me my mask and cloak.”

Session 58: Purging Kintargo

Jethro, Pit, Robin, and Coxsackie are ushered through the heavy gates into an imposing stone castle. Whereas the rest of Kintargo is silver-streaked white marble and gentle spires, Castle Kintargo is a reminder that imperial Cheliax once ruled Ravounel with an iron fist. Its towers are still beautiful and striking, but the thick, tan walls are clearly more functional than aesthetic. In fact, as you wander through you can’t help but see the discolored patches on the stone where devils and gargoyles have been pried from the façade since the city proclaimed its freedom. As of today, in this new nation, no new decorations have yet taken their place.

City Watch members are swarming over the castle grounds, and all pause to regard you as you pass. Some grip cudgels or saps, frowning and narrowing their eyes. Many bring their heads close to whisper to one another. A sparse few simply watch appraisingly and with curiosity. But make no mistake: All eyes are on you within Castle Kintargo.

The young member of the Watch who leads you through the grounds is a skinny, bird-boned young woman with short-cropped black hair. Without commentary she nods to guardsmen at doors and gates as they open before you and shut behind you. There’s clear sweat on most of the doormen’s faces. The tension seems to grow as you go deeper into the castle.

Thus far, you’ve experienced Kintargo as a burgeoning city of hope and energy. It feels like something new and untamed. But here, in this heavy fortress surrounded by mistrusting soldiers, you are aware that it is also a city ravaged by war and uncertainty. The indignation of Cheliax rule still hangs in the air.

Finally, you come to two large, double doors flanked by well-armed guards. As you approach, they nod to your young escort and, as one, pull open the doors.

“Go on in,” the young guard says, voice surprisingly steady. “He’s waiting for you.”

The room you enter is large, square, and spartan. Whatever wall decorations were once here have been pulled down, replaced by only a couple of modest maps of the city. Two windows at the far end look out onto the inner courtyard, letting in the late-day sun. There is a bookshelf, a work desk, and a large, heavy rectangular table. Several sheafs of paper lay across the table’s surface. Your eyes take in all of these details briefly before focusing on the two figures in the room.

Obedience Fletcher sits at the table, looking impossibly small in the high-backed chair next to the enormous table. He looks none the worse for wear, but his expression is difficult to read as you enter.

Across from him is a dark-skinned, older human man in full platemail. Even without the armor it’s clear that he is heavily muscled despite his age (played by a Idris Elba, because I’m giving him another chance). Heavy shadows beneath his eyes suggest that this is not a man who sleeps well or often. But his eyes are clear, and intelligent, and hard.

“Come in, please. My name is Vors Eivensor. I’m the Captain of the City Watch here in Kintargo, which means I am responsible for the defense of this city and its inhabitants.”

As you come in, the heavy doors BOOM! behind you and echo across the stone walls.

Vors picks up some of the paper, squints at them, and sighs. “In the past two days, I have seventeen murdered citizens at Kite Hill by what witnesses say was a devil that appeared out of thin air. Witnesses also report of a group of armed people matching your description who defeated the devil.”  

He picks up another sheet. “At Sunset Imports, based on an anonymous tip, we found the establishment heavily damaged, with a dead human male whom we could not identify as a known resident of the city. The owner of the establishment is missing, but we found eleven Sunset Imports dock workers, starved, drugged, and beaten at the Alabaster Academy today. The ones who are coherent are at least able to express that they have been kidnapped and tortured.”

He sighs again, heavily, and reaches for another sheet. “Speaking of the Alabaster Academy, in the same abandoned tower where we found the dockworkers, we also found nine dead bodies. Several of these were also unidentified as residents, but two were apparently teachers at the school. The living teacher said she had been manacled to a bed with her dead colleagues, but otherwise has been incoherent and it’s been frankly impossible to understand her story.

“We also identified Corra Dianthe, a beloved halfling of the city who’s known as a kite enthusiast on Kite Hill, running a small kite stand there. Both Corra and the unidentified corpses appeared to be armed and killed with battle, along with the remains of multiple golems.”

“My City Watch members say that there were reports of figures that match your description climbing the outside of the tower, along with flashes of magic and signs of combat. They organized a group of five Watchmen to enter the tower midday today. We found their corpses on the third floor of the tower. The Watchmen guarding the tower’s entrance say a group of four armed humans and an armed halfling assaulted them, leaving two more dead. The group escaped about five minutes before members of your group also attempted to leave the tower. Mr. Fletcher here allowed himself to be lawfully arrested, while the rest of you…” His face hardens here. “Did not. We’ll come back to this matter in a moment.”

He reaches over to another sheet of paper. “Your other goblin friend here exited the tower with five halflings. These were Laria Longroad, owner of the Long Roads Coffeehouse, and four employees of said establishment. We have their full statements. We have also since investigated the coffeehouse, where we found ten MORE corpses. Several of these appear to be residents of Kintargo. Three others match the dress of the corpse at Sunset Imports and the unidentified bodies at the Alabaster Academy. There were two other bodies,” he sighs and a vein throbs in his forehead. “One with the head of a tiger and other with the head of a fox.

“Witnesses of nearby establishments said that a City Watch member and someone who matches the description of your human friend here,” he nods to Robin, “discouraged anyone from entering the establishment. I’ve since taken roll call of City Watch members of the area of the Long Roads Coffeehouse yesterday and none of them claim to have been there. There was also some confusing reports of two people flying and fighting in mid-air.

“Laria and her employees, however, insist that you freed them at the Academy and had not met you before then. She did not know if you had or had not been to her coffeehouse since she was captured and insists that you were opponents of her captors and not responsible for any wrongdoing.”

Vors sets the parchment aside and folds his heavily calloused hands together. He tries to meet each of your eyes. “Rumors are raging across the city. Most seem to think Nidal has something to do with the massacres happening. Some others think it’s some secret slaver organization, which is what Mr. Fletcher here insists. Boblin, a local, well I suppose he would describe himself as a celebrity, exited the tower with you all and is claiming he’s already solved the problems and that there is no need to worry. From experience, I trust Boblin’s word not at all.

“By my count, that is forty-four known corpses in less than two days, many of them unarmed Kintargo citizens. We have not seen anything like this since Barzillai Thrune’s bloody rule, and I don’t need to tell you that those are days we’d like to put behind us.

“Based on all of these reports, I’ve come to a few conclusions. The first is that there is something insidious, murderous, and disturbing in the Silver City that must be expunged immediately. The second is that you have something to do with it, though you seem to be opposed to whatever’s going on. That is the only reason you’re not sitting in a jail cell right now, though your vigilante tactics are leading to death and destruction everywhere, and I am fairly sure that with a bit more evidence we will have enough to convict and imprison you all. And finally, I’ve concluded that I have no bloody idea how to make sense of this or whether to trust you at all.”

Vors’ voice nearly shakes with rage. “So. Talk. What is happening in my city?”

Session 59: Last Days in Kintargo

Gelb Freeland is a skinny man with a long neck and a beak-like nose, making him look somewhat like a human stork. He has a habit of swallowing constantly, which makes his Adams apple bob distractingly. Indeed, the only aspect of his character more distracting than the constant swallowing is that Gelb’s watery eyes blink, ceaselessly and almost violently. He is, everyone agrees, a naturally nervous fellow, prone to seeing the most dire of consequences in every moment.

Right now, he is wringing his hands and pacing. His Adams apple dances and eyes flutter as he watches the front door of his tavern, the Bearded Hollow.

“Do you… I say. Do you think everything will be all right in there?” he asks the City Watchman next to him. She is a tall human with a jagged, puckered scar from forehead to cheek.

“Well, they’re capable warriors.”

A window from the second floor shatters and something heavy hits the ground, out of sight. It is now easier to hear swords clashing. The Watch officer looks to her companion, nods, and the two go to investigate.

“Oh dear,” Gelb swallows.

The windows to the street illuminate briefly as lightning crackles within the second floor of the inn. Moments later the windows glow with fiery light and someone screams.

“Oh dear. Dear, dear, dear…” Gelb Freeland swallows again, blinking in distress.

Session 60: Welcome to Summershade Granite Quarry

We begin the final chapter of Tomorrow Must Burn with a montage of scenes. We see a close-up of Canton Jhaltero’s face as he says, “If there are truly slavers, giants, and whatever is haunting the quarry, it seems the five of you are doomed.”

The scene changes and Jhaltero is spreading maps out across a large dining table in his manor, with you all arrayed around him. We zero in on the map and Canton’s finger traces the path from Whiterock to the Summershade Granite Quarry. The journey looks to be about 70 miles along small trails used by stonecutters. It is a very remote location, sitting in the shadow of a place called Summershade Mountain.

We next see a crude map that shows the quarry as a large square cut into the foothills ground. The camera pans around at your frowning faces as you ask questions. It is clear neither the map nor Canton’s explanation are overly useful. He knows his own operations less than you’d like, and it’s something you’ll need to see for yourselves.

The scene fades to dinner, then to drinks, as Canton hosts you for the evening. He seems pleased to have guests, and we see him giving you a tour of his manor before showing you to your rooms.

Now we see the early morning light peeking through a window, where Jethro Vermillion is praying. Pit sits on a bed next to the cleric, unblinking and looking impassively out at the window as the modest town of Whiterock begins its day.

Now we see Robin Sterling going through sword forms outside in the morning, working up a sweat. We see Obedience Fletcher doing calisthenics, then dressing carefully and meticulously.

Finally, the camera pans to Coxsackie, snoring and still asleep as daylight plays across his face. He is having a conversation with someone in sleep, smiling and talking animatedly.

AoA 08: Session Intros: 46-54

[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 46: Cypress Point Continues

The second drake, a blur of ashen red, gray, and yellow, roars as it arcs overhead. Suddenly a blast of fire, the second in as many heartbeats, rocks the town street. Scarlet Triad corpses burn and scatter. Helgi, the dwarven thug, screams briefly before falling backwards into the dirt, body smoking next to that of her beloved boar Beauty.

As the chaos clears, you see that Jethro Vermillion lies dying, his robes blackened by fire.

And from atop the town’s smokehouse, booming laughter echoes across the empty streets.

“Ha! You are formidable, I admit, even if you are not man enough to face me in hand-to-hand combat! But no match for my pets, eh? Ha!

“With your healer down this fight is over. Surrender! Better life as a slave then no life at all. So you stand down, yes?”

Session 47: Genie’s Smile

Vavienne angrily closed one nostril with her thumb and blew snot upon the wooden planks of the dock.

“Purple skinned, cocky fuckwad,” she muttered. “Not your fucking handmaiden you fuck.”

Vavienne paused and looked back the towering, dark sides of their ship, the Genie’s Smile. Its gunwales were too high to see anything up on deck, which was part of its design.

It also meant that Bullbutcher couldn’t see her. She raised her middle finger where she imagined he was sitting and then hocked up something juicy to spit.

A voice echoed in her head and made her jump. She swallowed the ball of phlegm.

“Do hurry,” Bullbutcher growled. “Tell One-Eye we’ve overstayed our welcome and to finish his fun. We should shove off.”

“Shove off, you piece of in’uman fucking garbage,” Vavienne said, but with her voice lowered, just in case. “I’ll tell One-Eye, a’ight. I’ll tell him you’re a sadistic fuck what gets completely out of control when he’s not around. Makin’ the rest of our bloody lives miserable.”

She rubbed one hand up the side of her shaved head, where the demon had cuffed her. It was still bruised, tender.

One of the blood boars approached her on the dock, snorting.

“Piss off, piggy. Ugly fucking animal. Stay here. I gotta go get ‘e boss.”

Still muttering, she stomped with a purpose down the wooden planks, towards the makeshift barricade they’d assembled after getting most of the cargo onboard. Crates, an overturned fishing boat, and lobster cages stacked at the end of the dock. Vavienne made for the only place she could squeeze through. She was determined to find One-Eye, to get back to Kintargo, and to put this whole fucking voyage behind her.

Session 48: The Boathouse

Jethro Vermillion is lying on a stone bed beneath an enormous, marble willow tree. Stars wink and glint overhead, like diamonds on black cloth. A slight wind stirs, fluttering his hair. He is both relaxed and uneasy, a paradox that does not bother him on this night and yet bothers him greatly.

As he shifts his focus dreamily from the night to the tree, he sees that what he first thought were leaves are actually pale butterflies, their wings stirring slightly in the breeze.

A butterfly detaches from a limb and begins dancing in the air, down, down towards his face. Jethro can see the pattern of small stars on its wings, lovely and terrifying. More butterflies detach, and then more, and in moments Jethro’s vision is filled with a cloud of butterflies descending upon him.

The butterflies coalesce into a young, robed elf maiden, beautiful and filled with innocence. She looks at you kindly and rests a hand upon your chest.

“You are fortunate your gods are with you, young priest, otherwise you might have succumbed to the cursed stone. Beware the dreamstone with the star, which has been corrupted by hags. Carry with you the dreamstone with the butterfly and I will always watch over your sleep. Be well, now. Rest.”

A great, metallic dragon soars overhead, and as it passes the night sky turns into the brilliant light of dawn.

Jethro awakes, feeling refreshed.

Session 49: The Road to Kintargo

“May your gods watch over you, Heroes of Cypress Point,” Xerelilah trumpets, her voice clear and strong in the morning air. Villagers all around her cheer. Two young women awkwardly jostle each other, both crying and attempting to catch Robin’s eye with their frantic waves. Children laugh and run alongside the wagon, waving and calling after Coxsackie and Pit.

At the front of the wagon on the buckboard, largely oblivious to the surrounding commotion, Jethro and Obedience sit next to one another in silence. The cleric looks more refreshed than normal, the shadowed circles beneath his eyes faded. Those eyes fix on the horizon over the ocean, deep in thought.

Obe’s red eyes, meanwhile, stare straight ahead. He clicks his tongue reflexively and snaps the reigns, guiding the two mares and wagon down the ramshackle road.

The two companions have known one another half a year and shared a lifetime of adventure in that span. Yet right now, at this moment, on the road to Kintargo, they seem almost strangers.

At the back of the wagon, essentially a simple wooden box open to the sky, Coxsackie cackles and flexes to the fading crowd, standing with one foot resting on the wagon’s side. Robin smiles and tells the out-of-breath, scrabbling children to return to their parents and to be well.

And Pit, the mushroom leshy, sits calmly, eyes trained on the newest member of the group, Halleka Shadeborn. The man has piercing, unnaturally green eyes and slightly pointed ears, suggesting some distant ancestry other than human. He clutches both hands tightly in his lap, staring stiff-backed at the road ahead, seemingly willing the horses to hurry.

As the wagon turns a corner, Cypress Point disappears from view. The six of you are on a coastal road in Ravounel, clouds scattered across a clear blue sky. For a moment, the only sounds are the ocean breeze, the clop-clop-clop of horses’ hooves, and the rhythmic creak of wagon wheels beneath you.

Session 51: Kite Hill

For a moment, he was ignored and left alone. Hundy Vosht looked down at his hands, resting limply in his lap. They were caked in blood and grime, his fingernails almost black. What skin he could see was raw, his knuckles swollen like knobs on a willow branch. All in all, he could not deny that his hands looked like the hands of a tortured prisoner.

And yet, they were again hands. The human cleric–had he learned their names? The last couple of days were shadowed ghosts in his mind. Hundy shook his head, focused again on his hands. The human cleric had quickly and masterfully healed him.

He flexed his swollen fingers, all ten at once experimentally. It hurt, but they responded. Earlier that morning–or had it been at night? How would he know? Hundy squeezed his eyes shut. Earlier, he had glanced over at his manacled wrists and not recognized the misshapen lumps of flesh as anything belonging to a body. He shuddered at the memory of those melted wads of wax where his hands should have been. Soon afterwards he’d broken, telling the demon and the human brute everything he knew about the Bellflower Network.

The Bellflower Network! The name made Hundy’s head snap up and eyes open. The cleric was healing his companions, working with murmured words and practiced, confident movements. His nameless saviors were a strange bunch — two humans, two goblins, and a walking, talking fungus the likes of which Hundy had never seen. And yet formidable. The corpses of his torturers and chunks of inanimate stone all around him attested to their skill.

Could this group undo his misdeeds? Might they save the Bellflower Network where Hundy had doomed them? For a moment hope fluttered deeply within his chest like a butterfly.

The halfling’s eyes roamed the cavernous warehouse, with its broken containers. Bolts of brightly-colored silk lay across bloodstains.

Within the silence of the warehouse, the hope in Hundy’s chest died. No. Capable or not, these newfound heroes were too late. Hundy’s doom could not be undone. He choked down a sob, his eyes falling back to the blood caked onto his aching hands.

Session 52: Long Roads Coffeehouse

The two figures rise from the bloodstained coffeehouse floor.

Both are identical–the upper torso of a middle-aged human man, partly encased in ornate, ceremonial armor and partly in ragged and torn vestments. Each carries an elaborate mace, burning with spectral fire and dropping ghostly embers from the weapon’s length. Below the waist, each figure’s form dissolves into shadowy scraps, the fabric waving slowly as if underwater.

Several members recognize the ashen, angry face of the twin ghosts as belonging to Barzillai Thrune, the recent, tyrannical, and quite dead ruler of Ravounel.

As those identical pairs of cruel eyes scan Jethro and his companions, the spirits sneer in unison.

“Who dares disturb Barzilai Thrune unannounced?” they say in Common as one, each voice echoing as if in a much smaller room than the coffeehouse. The spirits blink and look momentarily confused. Their language then switches to Draconic. “And lo, what are these metallic dragons doing within Ravounel where they clearly do not belong? Begone, infidels! You are not welcome in Cheliax.”

Session 53: Lady Docur’s School for Girls

The human woman who climbs down the broken, bloodstained ladder does not look like a member of the Scarlet Triad. Indeed, she is unremarkable in most ways. Tall, but not overly so, with a thin, pinched face, pale skin, and short orange hair. She wears a simple robe of dark blue cloth. Her green eyes widen as she turns to face a grim-faced Robin Sterling and Obedience Fletcher. She glances at their drawn swords, and then to the serious eyes of Jethro Vermillion, standing behind Obe. No one speaks.

The human man who follows her down the ladder is even more unremarkable. Considerably shorter than his companion, his white robe strains against his prodigious belly. A red scarf entwines his neck, more haphazard than fashionable, revealing a somewhat flat, smashed face and balding pate.

Before he is even off the ladder, the woman pulls at the man’s robe. He too glances at Robin, Obe, and Jethro, his eyes then noting Pit through the open door. He sighs loudly even as Cocksackie, disguised as a City Watchman, cackles from the top of the ladder.

“Vikmanther, it appears the jig is up,” the woman says matter-of-factly in quite a different voice and accent than she had used before.

“Indeed it does, Zimora,” the man agrees, his voice and accent also changed.

He tugs his robe once to straighten it as he fully steps from the ladder. “So,” he asks to the crowd of adventurers, “If you don’t mind me asking, what gave us away, then?”

Session 54: To Tanessen Tower’s Top

Arlethi Soumaila arranges the slices of blueberry bread carefully in a fan-like pattern across the plate. Blueberries are out of season in Ravounel, of course, but Lady Docur insisted the school always keep a store on ice. “No one can be unpleasant with the smell of fresh-baked blueberry bread in their nose,” the headmistress often said. A breakfast tea sits steaming in its decanter on a small table, adding to the welcoming aroma in the room.

Two entry bells ring, one after the other. Arlethi winces at the discord of the two sounds together, out of sync. The Visitors bell has been tugged once with assurance. That would be the cleric, Arlethi presumes, the apparent leader of the odd band of adventurers Lady Docur is backing. She remembers him as a young human man, one whose eyes hold the conviction of purpose and confidence. She could immediately see why the others followed him.

The other bell, the Pupils bell, is still ringing, the cord outside tugged like a six-year-old child playing with a new toy. That would be the infuriating, uncouth goblin with the offensive name. Arlethi suppresses a growl deep in her throat and composes her face. Last night Lady Docur had been quite clear on the matter of the goblin: Treat him as an honored guest. Do not let his uncivility rankle.

Arlethi tucks a strand of hair behind one pointed ear and scans the waiting room. She nods, straightens, and walks, gracefully and soundlessly, to the front doors. She opens the Visitors door, and blessedly the Pupils bell ceases ringing.

She greets the five of them in turn as they enter.

“Good morning, cleric of Sarenrae. May this morning’s Dawn greet you with glory.”

“Good morning, honored leshy. I have set aside special refreshments for you on the small side table. Please do let me know if you would prefer something else.”

To the less-onerous goblin, “Good morning, sir. May I take your hat or coat? I see. Well, you’re looking quite handsome today.”

Arlethi fights down the heat that rises to her cheeks as the half-elf warrior enters. “Good morning, sir. Please make yourself comfortable in the waiting room. And let me know if you need anything. Anything at all.”

And finally, “Good morning, honored goblin. May I ask why the Pupils bell this morning?”

“We’re here to LEARN some information. Is the lady here? We’d like to LEARN about a nefarious plot to steal little people and enslave them. We hope the lady can pupilize us.”

Without a hint of sarcasm, Arlethi nods. “Quite clever. Exactly right. Please enjoy the refreshments. Lady Docur will be joining in a moment.”
And with that Arlethi leaves you in the waiting room.

AoA 07: Session Intros 38-45

[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 38: The Cult of Cinders Epilogue

As soon as you’ve entered the fetid swamp water at the fortress’ entrance, you hear the dragon’s bellow. You know that Kyrion is injured near death. Exhausted. Drained. The force of his rage, then, is a surprise. There is some part of you that recoils at the explosive sound–maybe it’s physically flinching, maybe your emotional defenses harden, whatever–there is a lifetime of anger, hurt, and humiliation in Kyrion’s roars as he tears into the fortress with a frenzy.

You make your way across the water. Somewhere below you are the corpses of Sweettooth and of charau-ka butchers. You pull yourself onto that ring of trees to the south, standing on the giant roots, as the destruction of the fortress continues. You are each scorched and weary, leaning against each other and the damp tree trunks as sounds within the structure echo to you across the water. For minutes this goes on, and you all don’t speak, silently bearing witness to the end of the Cinderclaw terror, and the violent rebirth of a dragon.

Eventually, at long last, the roof at the far end of the fortress explodes, and Kyrion soars into daylight. Again, he’s young, and nearly crippled by the damage he’s taken. But it’s a friggin’ red dragon. There is a majesty and awe to him as he spreads his wings. You will never forget that brief moment when Kyrion’s form seems to hang in the air, blotting out the mid-morning sun, as he roars into the jungle sky.

And then, with several flaps of his leathery wings, he’s gone, disappearing over the canopy. The fortress seems to list in the water, and you can hear it slowly but steadily collapsing from within.

Session 39: Back to Breachill

It is mid-morning on Moonday, the 14th of Abadius. Jacques du Tank, sweating heavily in his plate armor, stands near Jethro Vermillion, the cleric’s white glove gripping his staff. On the other side of Jethro is Obedience Fletcher, flexing his hands. Glennhall Granndyr, face stoic and lips pursed, takes in the scene around him with his large, yellow eyes. And Pit of Unbearable Lightness, the mushroom leshy, holding a staff topped with a dragon’s head, soaks in the sounds of their home one last time.

Your motley crew stand in the middle of a ring of stone arches, amidst an open-air temple. You all can still see the soot smears, the charred branches and pit of charcoal that mark the Cinderclaw activity here months ago, but there is new growth too. Plants push out of the earth, attempting to reclaim the site on behalf of the verdant jungle.

Within one arch, its stone carved with phases of the moon and birds, a curtain of gold-and-silver mist churns.

Jacques looks back at the small crowd outside of the ring: Ose Panin and Ose Apsu, the twin leopard leaders. Nketiah with her arm of twisted wooden branches and bone. Jahsi in his multicolored tunic, adorned with gold. Akosa, his normally scowling face softened. Sayir, with the opaque veil covering the top half of his face. And a dozen Ekujae archers. All elven eyes watch the champion of Sarenrae. He nods once at them, then at Jethro, and steps through the mists.

What first hits Jacques is the change in temperature. The cloying heat and humidity of the jungle is gone, replaced by dry, crisply cold air. The bright light of day is replaced by silent darkness. It feels like stepping into a grave.
For a moment he panics, but as the others push their way through the portal, a sudden light flares. Jethro’s staff now glows with warm, magical illumination, revealing the elegantly carved and spiraling designs of a large circular chamber with a domed ceiling. Six statues of elves all face outward and are arrayed around a dry fountain. Huntergate is to your back. You are in Alseta’s Ring. There was no waystation, no lava tunnel with a vision of Dahak prowling it. With one step, through the mists, you are home, and the portal closes.

Session 40: Eclipse

Renatta Gilroy blinks awake. Drool has run down one side of her face, and her nightcap has fallen over one eye. She flails spastically for a moment, tangled in her thin blanket.

“Wazzat? What? Who’s there?” she sputters into the cold darkness, but no one answers.

For a moment she thinks it must have been a dream, and she pats the hay mattress beneath her to get comfortable. But then she hears a crash, something breaking.

Renatta holds her breath, very still, and listens. She hears a goblin voice, singing. Hadn’t there been a goblin singing, right on her fence, as she fell asleep? She hadn’t thought much of it at the time. Renatta lives in one of the more hardscrabble places in Breachill, and across from a tavern to boot. She had long ago learned to sleep through drunken singing. But if that is indeed the same goblin, he’d moved. The voice seems more distant now, like it’s coming from within the Pickled Ear. But she dismisses that idea as unlikely. The tavern is closed, after all, and Roxie–

Another crash, and a bellow of pain. “What in Desna’s name is going on across the street?”

Renatta reaches for the candle on her nightstand. Well. Hardscrabble or not, she can’t abide with tomfoolery, not on her street. Not at this hour. With a groan, she pulls her feet over onto the cold floor, toes questing for her slippers.


Meanwhile, the interior of the Pickled Ear currently looks nothing like a tavern. Tentacles flail threateningly from the floor in the center of the room, toppling furniture and currently clutching Jethro Vermillion in their black, oily grasp. Beside the cleric is his ever-present bodyguard Jacques du Tank, fighting off two street toughs flanking him with jeers, rapiers, and manacles. The toughs have clearly not yet recognized that the man who called the Redeemers to this trap lies dead across the room.

The tavern’s bar is half smashed, wood splintered across the floor by two hulking, skeletal giants. Coxsackie, the goblin bard, faces both skullbrutes from atop what’s left of the bar, a mace in one hand and a bright red shield in the other. Behind him, Pit the winged mushroom leshy’s hands crackle with magic.

And behind her skeletal minions, the necromancer Voz Lirayne clutches her head in pain, blood trickling from one nostril. Fury fills her black eyes.

Session 41: Preparing for Dreamgate

Tangled in sweat-soaked sheets, Jethro Vermillion screams into the morning darkness, the dragon’s roar still echoing in his ears. It is the first such dream he’s had in months and comes amidst a scant two hours of sleep. His eyes burn with fatigue. His sweat chills him in the wintry darkness, so different from the jungle.

Mr. Fletcher, uncharacteristically, is not at his bedside offering a glass of water. Ah, Jethro realizes. He is instead across town, at the haberdashery.
Wincing, Jethro swings his feet out of bed, and then jumps in surprise. Pit is there, staring up at him from the bedroom floor, the leshy’s eyes illuminated by the moonlight.

“You had a dream,” Pit intones.

“More of a haunted vision, but yes.”

“Tell me, in all its details, and I shall write it down.”

“Alright. It began–”

“No,” Pit says with surprising force. “Tell me in Druidic.”


Across the hallway, Jacques du Tank sleeps with a pillow over his head, an effort to protect himself from the buzzsaw snore of the goblin sprawled on the floor of his room. Coxsackie, murmuring happily between snores, clutches an empty bottle of Roxie’s Finest to his chest.


And, across town, Obedience Fletcher is at the bedside of Winthrop Finney, offering a glass of water as the haberdasher wakes from his own screaming nightmares.

Session 42: Introducing Robin Sterling

The Breachill town council holds a public Call for Heroes once per month to expressly hear petitions from residents who wish the town to hire adventurers on their behalf. At the end of the residents’ address to the council, the council members discuss the petition before voting whether to expend public funds on it. For petitions that are approved, the council then opens the floor to adventurers in attendance of the meeting who wish to tackle the challenge.

Five months ago, the Call for Heroes was interrupted by a fire in the town hall. The adventurers in attendance saved the structure and all forty or so residents who’d come to see the event. The group then proceeded to catch the arsonist, expose the local bookseller as a necromancer, and clean out the nearby Hellknight Hill castle of monsters before settling into it as a home.

The group has become local legend, and rumors fly that they have toppled tyrannical governments all over Golarion, found the secrets of eternal youth, slain armies of giants and dragons rampaging in the Isgeri countryside, hunted cultists in the Mwangi Expanse, crushed the next Goblinblood War before it could begin, and spoken with Desna herself.

Since the Breachill town council has been holding monthly Call for Heroes for decades, a fair number of local traditions have built up around the event. One of those local traditions is to gather mid-morning at the Wizard’s Grace, a popular tavern close to the town hall. The deeds of the Hellknight Hill crew, who some call the Redeemers, has noticeably increased the number of adventurers who show up each month to the Call for Heroes.

Today, on the 7th of Calistril, a dozen outsiders have answered the Call along with a handful of locals inspired by tales of the Redeemers. The Wizards Grace is packed this morning, nearly standing room only. As tradition dictates, they’re eating boar stew and lentils and drinking ale. Toasts have begun, and each toast ends with a floor-shaking cheer from the crowd. There is an electricity to the air, an unseen feeling of anticipation and ambition.

A broad-shouldered man in a cloak stands in the corner, watching the festivities with a mix of amusement and vigilance. A lock of bright red hair has escaped the hood he has pulled up to hide his features. One calloused hand rests casually on the pommel of the sword at his belt.

“A toast to the Redeemers, heroes of Breachill! And may we find more heroes among you today!” the inn’s proprietor, Trinil Uskwood, says with a bright smile. The crowd roars in response, pounding mugs to tables and yelling in approval.

Little do they know that today’s Call for Heroes will be one of the most talked-about moments in Breachill’s long history, rivaling even that day five months ago…


More than a mile away and two hours earlier, Jethro Vermillion is in his room, readying for another day building the chapel in Citadel Altaerein’s courtyard. For two weeks he has done little else but oversee the labor of its construction, working with an almost feverish intensity.

His head snaps up at a knock at his door. Jacques du Tank stands in the doorway and clears his throat to speak.

Session 43: Dreamgate

Everything about this place feels wrong to Jethro Vermillion. It is spoiled milk, a stillborn baby, a profane devil crouched in worship.

This place had clearly once been lovely, built by the elves to honor the goddess Desna, the Tender of Dreams. Mr. Fletcher had said, moments ago, that the soft lighting, the ethereal quality to the air, the lavender smells, and the muted sounds were likely meant to induce sleep for weary travelers. Perhaps, but now it is an abomination.

Take the sculpture in this very room. A willow tree carved of pale, polished marble. Exquisite craftsmanship. Beds at its base. But as he steps nearer the tree groans, tortured. Its limbs do not look like comforting boughs, but rather the grasping hands of a skeleton. The beds at its base are shadowed, making them resemble empty graves.

His companions, so many new faces, fan out behind him. Mr. Fletcher, his one constancy, with his elven cloak slung over his Sunday suit. Pit, the leshy who is perhaps more ancient even than this tree before them. Coxsackie, whom the locals have begun to call “the Pied Piper of the Pickled Ear,” is already beginning to sing, his goblin voice cutting through the wrongness of this place. And then Robin Sterling, the bird who his dreams named a fellow dragon… the man and his capabilities a mystery.

Jethro’s vision the previous night was unmistakable in its direction. These were to be his companions through Dreamgate. They must be more than capable for this task.

But as the marble tree’s limbs reach out, grasping, it has become clear without a shadow of doubt that he has led them into a living nightmare.

Session 44: The Secrets of Dreamgate / Into Ravounel

Robin Sterling, rusted armor hanging from his muscular frame, has chased the annis hag into the other room. Jethro can’t hear the hag’s final scream in this muted place, but he knows the precise moment when the deed is done. As when clogged ears suddenly clear, Jethro’s apprehension and dread about this cursed place evaporate. He inhales slowly and deeply, not realizing until now how shallow his breath had become.

He holds the air in his lungs, now exhales, scanning the room. The hag Rusty Mae’s body sprawls on the marble floor, matted red hair and blood spread out like a pyre beneath her. Two gold pieces lay incongruously nearby, dropped by Mr. Sterling. A bookshelf, four large chairs, and a cauldron are the room’s only adornments. The exit out of this nightmarish waystation is nothing more than a stone plug, marked by bloody runes and scorched marble.

Of the bone devil, there is no trace. Jethro takes as an ominous sign that his celestial companion has not returned with information from his pursuit of the fiend. The last member of the hags’ coven, a night hag and her nightmare steed, are similarly gone. Jethro’s used to his group utterly purging evil from a place, ensuring it cannot return. He knows too well the price of letting foes like Voz Lirayne escape. Yet there is no denying it… more than half of Dreamgate’s inhabitants have disappeared rather than perished, and that fact does not sit well.

But at least for a moment, peace. Peace and silence.

Session 45: Welcome to Cypress Point

The human man being dragged by chains and shackles does not seem like a criminal. He is painfully thin, his long neck encased in a muzzle-like collar, wearing clothes both simple and practical — long-sleeved shirt, roughspun pants ending mid-shin, and no shoes. The man’s eyes are wide and fearful, and as he tries to see you all, a human woman pulls on the chain, whipping his head away. He grunts in pain.

The woman sneers and squints at the figures rushing along the beach towards them.

“Oy! Ulkin! We got ourselves some company.”

Their group pauses, and the woman and her two human companions draw their rapiers almost in unison.

A dwarf, face scarred and beard tangled, wears battered chainmail. A complex, red symbol of a triangle, circle, and three points is imprinted upon his pauldron. He swings the flail in his hand casually, a motion that seems almost unconscious, as habitual as hooking a thumb in a belt loop.

“Well, it looks like this shitty little town has some bite to it after all. Let them come and take them when they get here. Buttercup!” the dwarf yells.

The large boar, taller than the dwarf, squeals and shakes its head. Blood-red eyes, ashen fur, and unnaturally sharp tusks frame hundreds of pounds of raw muscle, the veins of which can be seen through the boar’s ghastly pale flesh. Blood drips from its tusks and the creature’s spiked nose ring.

“You get the scent of their blood, yeah sweetness? In case they try to run.”
The boar squeals and shakes its head again in response, red flecks pattering the sand.

“Careful. They don’t look like pushovers,” the woman says over her shoulder.

“Good. I’m bored.”

Robin Sterling, out of breath not at all, is the first to arrive.

AoA 06: Mad Magetha’s First Vision

[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. It’s obviously been awhile since my last post of any kind… with the global pandemic, my Saturday writing group evaporated. I’ve done some plotting on my novel and a whole lot of Pathfinder game-mastering–we have gone from weekly in-person games to 3/week video sessions–but not as much prose writing. I miss my Saturday crew 😦 ]

(We fade to black, and when we fade in, typeface along the bottom of the screen says, “Sometime in the past…”)

Magetha Vashnarstill pushed her way through the dense jungle foliage. Her pale skin, hidden beneath a wide-brimmed hat and dark green robes, suggested that she was clearly not a native of the Mwangi Expanse. Yet her movements said otherwise. Sure-footed and confident, the elderly human traversed the difficult terrain with practiced ease. All around her, the jungle chirped and hooted and trumpeted with life.

Magetha paused near the base of a wide ojobo tree, its roots digging into the jungle floor like thick, gnarled fingers. In one hand she held her staff, a polished walking stick of dark wood topped with an uncut, vibrant chunk of amber. With her other she fished into a belt pouch and removed a cloth rag, wiping it across the back of her neck. The heat today was oppressive and inescapable, worse than she could remember in years.

“Or perhaps I’m just old,” she said aloud, and chuckled. Magetha often talked to herself, finding long ago that she was excellent company. The habit had been one of several reasons the locals had dubbed her Mad Magetha, a name she quite liked.

Her pale blue eyes scanned the jungle, and her lips pressed together thoughtfully.

“This is Ekujae land. Leopard Clan, if I’m not mistaken. Quite odd. Now why would I be here?”

Just then a figure unfolded from the limbs of the ojobo overhead, clinging with talons each as long as Magetha’s hands. Green, mottled wings spread wide as the jungle drake’s sinuous neck unwound from its body. The creature’s fanged mouth yawned open, large enough to engulf her head, as it hissed menacingly.

Magetha didn’t flinch. She rapped the creature on the end of its snout with her staff, causing the drake to snap its jaws shut and rear back in surprise.

“Stop that,” Magetha said sternly. “Shoo.”

The drake stared for a moment with its yellow, pupilless eyes. Then, almost sulkily, its wings folded against the scaled, green body and it wound itself back up into the ojobo’s limbs. In moments its shifting mass had disappeared into the canopy above.

Magetha thought furiously, eyes darting as she did so. She was still several days away from taking her monthly hallucinogens, and she couldn’t remember being poisoned recently. The Ekujae were more than a hundred miles from her home, and she hadn’t been traveling. How could she possibly be here? Except…

“Ah!” her weathered, wrinkled face broke into a grin beneath the wide brim of her hat. “It’s a dream then.”

Of course. Then she saw it. The jungle drake had been the closest, but now virtually every tree and bush around her held the menacing, shifting bulk of dragons. Many were jungle drakes, blending into the green mass of vegetation with their snake-like bodies. But what she had originally thought of as bright flowers were now clearly the red eyes of flame drakes. Several wyverns cracked branches above, their poison-tipped tails thrashing. The other, more normal, sounds of the jungle had disappeared, replaced by minor dragons of every color and imagination hissing and growling as they watched her.

“A nightmare of dragons,” Magetha mused. “How original. Even in old age, I didn’t think my mind would grow as simple as this. Alright then. Show me whatever mortal horrors you need to show me so I can awake and be on my way.”

As if in response, the jungle shook with a mighty earthquake, drakes and trees falling away before Magetha. The sound was thunderous, drowning out all thought. She dropped her cloth rag and steadied herself with two hands on her staff, the tip digging into the earth.

The earthquake faded, rumbling to silence. The jungle had gone still as a grave. The old woman briefly scanned her surroundings. To her left and right, drakes still littered the landscape. But they had all stopped moving, their heads and eyes trained on the wide, open expanse now in front of Magetha. She followed their collective gaze.

Trees had bent or fallen for a hundred yards, revealing an enormous skeleton half buried in the earth. Magetha’s eyes widened. She had never conceived a dragon so large. Its skull alone was fifty feet long, bristling with many wicked, curled horns.

And then the skeleton began to move. Slowly, as if waking from a long stupor, the claws of the thing began digging into the jungle floor. Slowly, slowly the skeletal bulk of the dragon pushed itself up and out of the ground, debris falling from the yellowed bones. Nothing else moved in the jungle, including Magetha herself. All stood transfixed as the mighty dragon rose. As it did so, red, scaly flesh began growing across the bones like rapidly expanding mold.

“Oh no,” Magetha breathed, her eyes like saucers, her pupils fully dilated. “Oh no no no no.”

The enormous dragon was half-flesh now, the corpse of a titan. When it fully freed itself from the jungle, its bulk filling Magetha’s vision and blotting out the sun, the horned head tilted back to the sky. Its massive jaws opened wide. The roar was the sound of a thousand, furious dragons in concert, echoing across the Mwangi and shaking the earth. It was the sound of an angry god.

 

Tangled in sweat-soaked sheets, Mad Magetha screamed into the morning darkness, the dragon’s roar still echoing in her ears.

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 05: The Bloody Blades

[author’s note: With all of these “Age of Ashes” posts, check out this blurb to explain what I’m doing. This is a quick scene showing Yoonla, our goblin bard who took a vow silence when her wife died prior to the campaign. Nehi was an adventurer, while Yoonla stayed at home. Here we see one of Nehi’s adventuring partners sharing the tough news with her, right before the players meet the Bloody Blades, the mercenary group who killed Nehi. It played out really well in game.]

Fade to black.

When we fade in, the scene has no sound.

Yoonla the goblin sat on a chair in her living room. Bowls of all sizes scattered around her, and she kicked them to an unheard beat. She plucked away at her banjo and sang, energetically and with a smile on her face.

She paused and set her banjo aside. Standing, the goblin practically skipped to the front door and threw it open with a shout.

Yoonla’s face transformed from exuberant delight to pleasant confusion as she found a male dwarf in battered armor at her doorstep, ornate axe slung across his back. The dwarf, though clearly a warrior, looked uncomfortable and unsure of himself… he shuffled his feet and looked at the floor instead of Yoonla’s face when he spoke. She stepped aside and let him in.

The two of them sat. Yoonla offered him something and he, still refusing to meet her eyes, shook his head. She reached out and placed a small hand on his, asking a question.

Red-faced, the dwarf began to speak. As he did, Yoonla’s eyes went wide, then filled with tears.

Then she screamed.

Even without sound the scream was primal and raw. The goblin pulled at her ears, kicked her feet against the floor, and rocked back and forth. When her lungs had emptied, she sucked in a ragged breath and screamed again. The dwarf was looking at her now, sorrow in his deeply wrinkled eyes.

Yoonla rolled onto the floor of her living room, curled into a ball, her face a mess of snot and tears as she cried. Her small body shuddered and heaved.

The dwarf gently knelt and gathered Yoonla in his arms, carrying her to the red loveseat in the room. He placed her and pat her shoulder awkwardly.

As he stood to leave, Yoonla’s skinny arm shot out to grab the dwarf’s wrist. Her tear-streaked face looked up imploringly, and even though no words came out, the dwarf knew her question.

“How?”

The dwarf frowned and dug into a pouch at his belt. He pulled out a cloth patch that had been crudely ripped from wherever it was sewn. He unfolded it and showed to Yoonla the image of a red sword.

 

 

The image fills the screen, and then we zoom out, seeing that same image of the emblem reflected in Yoonla’s wide eye here, now. We pan out and around to see the crude, red sword, the image clear on a flapping banner atop the lead watchtower in Guardian’s Way.

 

 

AoA 04: Voz and the Ward

[author’s note: Check this post for background on these fantasy bits. This particular cut scene is my favorite of the campaign so far… detailing a small sidebar in the Age of Ashes adventure path that I couldn’t otherwise find a way to reveal to the players. Voz is one of the two main bad guys in Book 1 of the adventure.]

Voz Lirayne sat in a dark, candlelit room. Her thin, pale hands shook from exhaustion and concentration as carefully, very carefully, she placed a black onyx stone on the wooden table in front of her. Voz’s eyes darted left and right, silently measuring that the onyx sat directly in the center of a circle of lit candles dotting the table’s edge. Satisfied, she turned her attention to the other object on the squat table.

The severed head did not stare back at her, because its eyes were long since gone. Pallid, dry flesh clung to its black-haired skull, lips peeled back from crooked teeth. Even in death, it’s clear that the living man’s nose had been broken countless times and sat above the leering mouth as a twisted lump.

Voz closed her eyes, breathing deeply and centering herself. After long moments, her dark eyes opened and focused on the onyx.

She began to chant in a muttering language, the sounds alien. The candle flames dipped low as they seemingly bowed to the eerie tongue, almost guttering out.

For hours Voz droned on. The chant, if anyone but Voz were there to hear it, harkened to lonely, moonless graveyards and ruined crypts. Her voice gained speed and volume, and as it did the candles’ flames rose in response. The candleflame turned a sickly green.

Finally, with a hoarse shout, Voz threw back her head and opened her arms wide. And, as she did so, the head on the table groaned. Voz smiled tightly, sweat beading her brow. The onyx was gone, a blackened smudge on the table.

“Where–? Where am I? What has happened?” the head croaked in a dry whisper. Yawning eye cavities searched the abandoned storeroom. “What is this place?”

“Silence,” Voz snapped. The head turned slightly to regard her, the stump of spinal cord of its neck twitching against the table. “I have questions, and you will provide me answers, corpse.”

“Corpse. Ah…” the head sighed. “That explains it then. We are in the crypts, it seems. And, yes, I see now, we are in the back storeroom. Ask your questions then, wizard, and leave me be.”

“Who were you in life? A full Hellknight?”

“A Hellknight, yes. Grachius Felix, of the Order of the Nail, stationed at the glorious Citadel Altaerein, in backwater Isger. A land of heathens and disorder needing to be tamed. Indeed, I was the one who–”

“Desist,” Voz snapped. “I don’t care.”

“I see. So you are neither a follower of Asmodeus nor his Law. Then I suppose I am here for some other purpose. Ask your questions, desecrator. Ask.”

Voz absently smoothed a hand over her pale hair, pulled back in a high ponytail, ensuring not a strand was out of place.

“We, you and I, Grachius Felix, are indeed presently within the basement and tombs of your citadel. Yet there is a lower level to this place, yes?”

“Not built by the Order’s hands, but yes. There are elven ruins below. Ah, but I see your ears now, so perhaps that is the connection. Go to them and leave me be, half-elf abomination of a spellcaster, whose parents did not value purity. You do not need me to see the ruins for yourself.”

Annoyance in her voice, Voz asked, “Did the Hellknights here ever decipher their purpose?”

“A temple to your elven gods, long forgotten, we assumed. There must be ghosts there you can pester, necromancer. Why rouse me?”

Voz sniffed. “The way below is blocked, the stairway collapsed.”

“Ah. Alas. The citadel has fallen, then. All things must eventually fall beneath the eternal gaze of Asmodeus, I suppose.”

“Is there another way in?”

The head of Grachius smiled, running a black tongue across its withered lips. “And there is the question that rouses me from eternal sleep, it seems. Of course. There is always another way in, fool.”

“Where? Tell me.”

“Alas, I must answer your questions, foul deathspeaker, however I might wish otherwise. It is odd, to be compelled in such a way. Quite novel.”

“Tell me!”

“Yes. There is a cave, six miles from the citadel, that leads back and under to the elven ruins. Or there once was. Who can know? My time has passed, and my knowledge with it. So much must have changed, if the mighty Order of the Nail now lies in ruin.”

“Where is this cave?”

Just then a sound like a large WHUMP! echoed from nearby. A purple light washed over the room and beyond, passing through the walls like a wave crashing onto a beach.

“What was that?” Voz gasped, eyes wide.

“Ah. I wondered if it might still be intact. Hoped it would be. The whole thing took rather longer than I expected. I was… stalling, you see. As best I could. I must answer, but it need not be quickly.”

“What was it, slave?” she snarled.

“A necromantic ward,” Grachius leered grotesquely, lips peeled back.

“A what?”

“Ah, not so powerful a wizard, it seems. The Order guards its tombs from necromancy, half-elf abomination. See for yourself, see for yourself.” Grachius chuckled. A purplish glow had begun to form in his otherwise empty eye sockets.

Voz stood, limbs protesting from fatigue and inaction. She smoothed her robes and went to the heavy door behind the still-chuckling head.

It was a long, dark room lined with headstones. As her keen eyes adjusted to the shadows, she heard the scraping of stone on stone. The sound repeated from several places around the room.

Something was opening the Hellknight tombs. Something from within.

Voz hustled back into the storeroom. The head of Grachius continued to chuckle, its eyes now fully aglow with purple light.

“Fight fire with fire, eh necromancer? Even in its demise, the Order is wise. Goodbye, mongrel scum.”

“Where is the cave?” Voz snarled, stuffing materials hastily into her satchel. The sound of heavy stone lids hitting the floor echoed nearby.

“I am free of you now. Savagery must be quelled in the land, home, and mind. Begone!” The head screamed, and as it did so burst into a purple fire. All around the table, the green-flamed candles guttered and died.

Cursing, Voz rushed to her escape tunnel at the back of the storeroom, a raw and jagged hole in the wall. Something wailed despairingly from deep within the tombs, the eerie sound echoing as the thump of something–several somethings, actually–began bumping and shuffling beyond. It sounded as if the entire complex was waking into undeath.

“Necromantic fucking ward,” Voz growled, and vanished into the dirt-walled tunnel.

Well, she thought, willing her stiff legs forward as another distant voice wails, she had what she needed. She was one step closer to unlocking the secrets of Alseta’s Ring.

 

* * *

 

Voz stood with maps arranged across the table. It was daytime, the sounds of Breachill awake drifted faintly into her small shop. Her lips were pursed in concentration as she measured and marked the maps, measured and marked.

“Six miles… six miles…” she muttered. “I’ve got you!”

Voz stood excitedly, checking her work and measuring again to be sure. But she had it. She slammed her hand down on the table in triumph.

Dabbing a quill hastily in an inkwell, she jotted into her notes, “Aha! Entrance to Alseta’s Ring–Guardian’s Way” and laughed into the empty room.

Someone knocked at the front door of the shop and Voz whipped her head around. She narrowed her eyes, annoyed. The tall half-elf stood, deftly and with practiced hands locking the door of her small research room behind her.

Voz took a deep breath and smoothed her robes. Absently, she ran a hand across her head to ensure that her white-blonde hair was in place. The door to her shop opened. Standing there, a motley crew of Jacques du Tank, Yoonla, Obedience Fletcher, and Zonja-ex arrayed behind him, was Jethro Vermillion.

“Pardon me, ma’am,” Jethro said. “May we come in?”

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.

AoA 02: A Dragon’s Warning

[author’s note: Please see this post for some background information on anything tagged “AoA.” This was Jethro’s second haunting vision and was a fun writing experiment. Marcus, Jethro’s player, and I wrote this collaboratively back and forth via Facebook Messenger.]

Jethro Vermillion stepped forward hesitantly, blinking and confused. He took in his surroundings.

The cleric stood at one end of a long tunnel that seemed to be made of hardened lava, long ago scorched and melted. Tiny cracks and fissures lined the walls, within which an orange glow flickered and gave the tunnel a soft, fiery illumination. The air was uncomfortably warm and smelled of smoke.

An archway just behind him glowed with gold and silver mist, and it seemed to Jethro that humanoid figures moved within it. At the far end of the tunnel, perhaps a hundred feet, an identical archway shimmered with mist.

“What manner of place is this?” Jethro asked aloud.

Just then blasts of fire and smoke poured out of the tunnel’s walls. Jethro flinched from the sudden explosion of sound and heat. Within moments, the burning form of a dragon coalesced mid-length of the passageway.

The fiery creature was so large that it had to crouch, its head laying between claws and staring directly at Jethro with burning eyes.

“So…” the dragon croaked, and smoke billowed from its maw. “Here is the newborn of the Dawnflower. You think you are prepared to defeat my followers, newborn? To confront the Eternal Destruction itself?”

“I… I… I am not ready. I know not of what terrible fate you speak. I know not of your followers. You call me newborn of the Dawnflower–I follow the Goddess yes, though I claim no such title. But I know this, foul creature: I am willing. I am willing to play my role to the world’s end, whatever the cost. And if you are that lover of oblivion called Dahak, as I suspect you to be, I know that I will serve my goddess and do all in my power to bring you–and all who name you lord–to the light!”

The dragon squinted, looking irritated. “Light. Bah. I serve no one. Not your goddess. I will bring destruction to all, and you, little one, will help me.”

“I would sooner die a thousand deaths than serve your purpose.” Jethro seemed to lift his head taller, his stammer forgotten as he stood on familiar theological ground. “In the end, we all must serve, beast. But the morning comes each day, and if it is indeed my help you seek, I offer you this: It is never too late to repent. The true destruction you wreak is of your own soul. May you find a true spark of wisdom before your own light is extinguished for good.”

The dragon blinked, clearly surprised. Then a slow chuckle bubbled from its throat, filling the tunnel with smoke that burned Jethro’s eyes. “So young. So naive. Your doom is all but guaranteed. You are nothing. Those with you are nothing. Your dreams and plans merely ash in the wind. Proceed on this path, and each step brings you closer to me.”

After a pause, it asked, “What do you hope to accomplish in Breachill? Beneath Asmodeus’ barren citadel?”

Now it was Jethro who blinked, unsettled by the change in tone. “I know not what purpose this citadel or what lies beneath may serve, only that it is right that I am here, that whatever part I have to play starts here. Know this, breather of hot air: where I find good, and those who serve fires of hope and truth, I will provide succor. And where I find evil, and those who would cast this world into endless darkness, I shall bring the flaming sword of redemption. And while we may be inexperienced, the companions who have found me and I, we will only grow stronger, as we have already, and more prepared to stop you!”

“By all means, then, grow stronger. But you will fail,” the dragon sneered. “You and anyone with you will die, flayed and dragged into the Great Darkness to feed me. And then I will rise, finally free of this prison. Your utter failure will unleash me upon your world.”

It inhaled deeply. “Now… Burn, little dragon hunter. BURN!” and the fiery beast opened its maw wide.

Flames filled the tunnel, washing over Jethro and turning him to ash.

 

 

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