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Midara: Requiem [High Fantasy Necromancer fun]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by TanaNari, Jan 15, 2019.

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  1. Tortoise

    Tortoise Getting sticky.

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    Cuts off here - another case of missing text.

    Needs closing quote.

     
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  2. Valor

    Valor Versed in the lewd.

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    Why did Calenda suddenly get killed off? Wasn't their plan to keep her prisoner indefinetively?
     
  3. Mr. Tebbs

    Mr. Tebbs Know what you're doing yet?

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    I think the plan was to have the brand kill her then have Ell reanimate her with her mind intact?
     
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  4. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 37
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    "Stop! Stop right now!" A voice cut through the song, the voice of an angry, hateful creature wounded by life and poisoned by death. The song continued in spite of the insistence.

    Suggested Listening

    The young redhead stood combat ready, facing down her much older and larger opponent. An opponent who was unconcerned while she was soaked in the sweat of her exertion. She ducked under a kick, stepped far enough back to avoid the other, and even managed to block a punch. She was not prepared when the punch turned to a grip on her forearm.

    She hit the ground before her brain realized her elbow was dislocated. She grit her teeth, knowing full well that screaming would be met with worse scorn and more violence, but the tears welled up in her eyes nonetheless. The pain relented with a burst of soothing, healing energy.

    "Again!" Her mother shouted at her.

    With fatigue cleared by magic, she forced herself to stand, but the mental exhaustion was getting to her. She only blocked a single punch, before the next came under her guard and caught her in the solar plexus. She dropped, gasping and unable to breathe.

    She heard her mother walking away. "At this rate, you'll never be good enough. Clean yourself up, we have a visit with Duchess Esmera this afternoon."

    The girl tried to shout at her mother, to scream that she'd surpassed her older siblings, and how unfair it was to expect a child to fight an adult. An argument that would be met with more scorn, asking her if she'd make the same complaints when facing a Chimera or Dragon. All she accomplished was gasping and crying on the cold ground.

    "You don't understand! You'll ruin everything!" The song marched on, ever changing, adapting to what was needed as it was needed.

    Suggested Listening

    "I think the undead are powered by resentment," Elruin said.

    "Resentment?" She hated to admit it, but her knowledge of theology and thaumaturgy were both limited. Given the pettiness she saw between factions of scholars, priests, and nobles, the fact that they all greed without hesitation that the undead could not be allowed to persist was proof enough of the necessity of destroying them.

    "Or something like it," Elruin said. "Life is fueled by creation, by emotion. Death is fueled by negation, the loss of all emotion, death brings peace. Undeath is something between. Negation dimmed their emotions upon death, but couldn't destroy them. They persist by stoking what passion they still have."

    "How does Scratch fit into that theory?" The ghost's nature called much of her beliefs into question.

    "Scratch is the same, but he... resents his own resentment, if that makes sense." Elruin frowned, considering her explanation. Then she remembered one of Kasa's books that she borrowed. "It's like being in love, backwards."

    Cali smiled at the little girl sitting across from her. "What do you know about being in love? Whose legs do I have to threaten to break?"

    Elruin didn't answer, because there was nothing to answer with. She didn't know if she experienced love or resentment as others did. "It's possible to love someone who's terrible, and bad, and does awful things. But it's still love, even if you hate it."

    Cali's smile vanished. That girl cut too deep, sometimes, yet never realized it. "That's what you think the undead are?"

    "A dark reflection of the living," Elruin said. "We hope for the future, they hate the past. We create, they consume. We seek safety for ourselves and others, they seek destruction of the same. We have love, they have resentment. Scratch knows that about himself, and hates it, that's what gives him control of his nature."

    "I made an oath," a soft voice answered. The voice of merciful death. "I will fulfill it."

    Suggested Listening

    "I don't know what they're talking about, you're a great fighter." A quick tug on her arm brought Cali to her feet, face to face with the somewhat taller green haired girl. "You got a hit on me. Half my instructors can't accomplish that anymore."

    "Maybe you should fight my mother," Cali muttered. She rubbed her knuckles, where she hit Juna's chest and might have broken her own hand.

    "That third-tier socialite? Sure, and after I get done with her, maybe I'd fight something with a bit less fragile, like a sparrow's egg." Juna stopped for a moment. "Sorry, I know she's your mother, but you didn't get your strength from her side of the bloodline."

    "I hit you, but I still haven't touched her." She bit her tongue on arguing further. She wasn't sure how to stand up to the older, stronger, more confident, more important, and more confident girl. Besides, it was nice hearing someone talk about her mother this way.

    "Because your'e fighting her on her terms, instead of making her fight you on yours. You're a water mage. The whole strength of your aspect is overwhelming a target with unpredictable forceful attacks, which is why you do better fooling around with me than you do fighting seriously against her."

    Some part of her still suspected Juna was lying to make her feel better. "Easier said than done."

    "I'll show you everything I know about getting kicked around by someone who can hit you three times before you know where the blows are coming from."

    The song remained, the memories changed.

    Cold, unforgiving metal held Calenda. She'd forgotten how uncomfortable metal could be, thanks to her natural toughness. "For the last time, I refuse to marry you! I don't care what threats you try. I promise, my mother did worse than you would be able to stomach!" She hoped she was telling the truth, but knew she was lying.

    "I'm trying to save your life, Calenda!" Lord Garit's face still bore the marks of bruises from his clash with Lord Claron. Three of his teeth, by Calenda's count, were now missing. Once he got access to a healer that would all be undone, but for now he looked much less pretty than usual. "I know you have your problems with how Juna and I run... ran... the city, but I thought we were friends. I thought I'd earned some level of respect."

    Calenda had to admit, she liked him a little better this way. Hurt, frustrated, angry, it reminded her of their childhood together. If he acted like that more often, maybe she'd find the idea of marrying him to be less intolerable. "I surrendered with everyone else, why am I singled out?"

    "That Oathbond you hid from us, that's why." Garit said. "And because of your connection to Elruin."

    "Leave her out of this!" Cali strained against the metal, absurd as the thought was that she'd be a threat to Garit even with his current wounds.

    "I wish I could." Garit sounded sincere, but Calenda had seen him fake a lot of things before. "King Claron demands the girl be brought to him, to be sacrificed to Lord Enge at the mouth of the Holy Caldera. He intends to lead the ceremony himself."

    "But that's insane! Enge doesn't demand sacrifices! And if he did, it'd be through the church, not some lunatic!"

    "All I know is it's impossible to learn what Enge desires. The prayers are being ignored. Everything is in chaos. But I'm here to help you, and to help her if at all possible."

    "Says the traitor."

    "Says the man willing to sacrifice everything, even his own dignity, to protect his people!" Garit paused for a moment, to collect himself. "No, I won't let you bait me into another argument. I am no longer the child you remember. I was able to convince King Claron to let you live, if you marry me. The marriage oaths will be used to enhance and rework your current Oathbond. Then King Claron will use me to make you extract Elruin from her current position."

    "On one hand, torture and death, on the other hand betraying the only member of my family I like even if she is adopted, then serving as an incubator for your spawn? Seems like an easy decision to me. Go choke to death on Claron's cock."

    "You think I want you so bad that I'd rape you? Sorry, Calenda, I've got more self respect than that. You have my oath that I will never touch you unless you ask me to. And then beg my forgiveness for these insults."

    Calenda hesitated for a moment. In her attempts to upset Garit, she let herself be blinded. "You have a different plan, don't you?"

    "I need you to get Elruin out of the city," he said. "Preferably alive and not in King Claron's hands. Pull that off, without anyone realizing it was my goal all along, and I'll consider saving your life to be fair compensation."

    Cali's eyes narrowed. "What's your angle."

    "Same angle it's always been: to protect my people." Garit shook his head. "You know this. You've always known it. For reasons nobody's been able to explain, scrying magic has been disrupted throughout the kingdom, perhaps the entire empire. We thought it was something to do with the Ghosts of Sorvel, but now I'm not so certain. They're as blind as we are."

    "Which means if Claron's as obsessed with Elruin as he seems..." It galled her to admit it, but Garit was a smart man. If only he wasn't such a cold, manipulative bastard.

    "He is, he's not a good enough liar to fake it," Garit insisted. "But I won't tell you any more of my plans, for obvious reasons."

    "Or," Cali added. "You're saying all this to trick me into luring Elruin into an ambush."

    "I can't prove otherwise, and wouldn't if I could. You'll just have to be better than my hypothetical ambush plot, won't you?"

    The tone softened, pulled at another string of thought, another fragment of self.

    Suggested Listening

    "You're going to ask me to die, aren't you?" Calenda stared up at the ceiling. "Then take it the next step beyond, into something I've spent my entire life hating."

    "It's the one way I know to break away the chains around you." Elruin squeezed Mister Squishybones, reminding herself of all the kindness Cali had shown her over the last few months. A kindness which she would defy death itself in order to return. "To end your suffering, and return your freedom."

    "Sounds like something a priestess of Yeris would say." Something of a 'sister' deity to Ecross, Calenda knew the basic tenants of the borderline suicide cult. "If you were offering me a way to die, it would even make sense. Instead you're trying to bring me back as a broken half-person like Scratch. How is that better than slavery?"

    "It doesn't need to be half," Elruin insisted. "I've been studying how the undead work. I was hoping I could convince people to let me keep my dollies. I know now that nobody will ever allow me to, but I can chain your mind to your body, as long as I do it before you die. Then, you'll be in control of yourself when you come back. It's just like how resurrection spells work, but without the healing magic."

    "If it was that easy, everyone would be doing it."

    "It won't work on everyone," Elruin admitted. "It takes strong will, anger, resentment. In that, it's no different than 'natural' undead, but I can accelerate and amplify the process. And it does mean you'll need to stick close to me, the way Scratch does. The taint can't be cleansed for the same reason you can't cleanse life from a body without killing it. But I'll be able to suppress it. You'll remain you for as long as I live, longer if we can find another necromancer to pass off responsibility to in the future."

    The twinge of compulsion pushed her forward. "And... will this improve the chances of convincing you to meet Enge directly?" She'd given up on the possibility of Elruin willingly sacrificing herself.

    "I refuse to answer that," Elruin said. "If you don't know whether it will help or hurt, then you're free to make your own choice, rather than being forced into it by the compulsion of the magic. And, once that compulsion is broken, I promise to exorcise you if you prefer death to undeath. As soon as we get outside of the peace aura, because I can't hurt you here no matter what I try."

    "If you used the compulsion against me, I would have refused," Cali said. "But I will hold you to the oath of letting me die when I want. Or I'll find a way to kill you, then myself."

    "Scratch can break my control whenever he wants," Elruin said. "You'll be able to do the same."

    Suggested Listening

    Resentment. Anger. Hatred of the past. These are the things which allow the dead to defy death. Focus on the hate. Focus on the song.

    "Defend yourself!" Her mother shouted.

    Calenda responded as normal, taking a stance and putting her arms up for the onslaught her mother would deliver. A kick, ducked under, another she ducked forward, putting herself closer to her mother's reach.

    Mother jabbed, in a somewhat off position due to being too close to her opponent for proper use of reach and power. After dealing with Juna's aggressive, powerful style, she could see why her friend had such disrespect for the older forge mage's talents.

    Driven by knowing she landed fair hits on Juna, she pressed her position and sacrificed defense for offense. A single blow to the skull was nothing compared to the beating she received from fighting defensively, and it put her in range to punch forward into her mother's stomach. Another punch, and a third. Flashes of energy screamed that she was inflicting real blows against a foe unprepared for such a self-destructive strategy.

    She felt the flow of magic clashing against magic, then her eyes widened. She now understood the sensation of magic flowing over her skin. More, she understood what those sensations meant.

    Mother drew together her power, a tornado of fire began forming to drive Cali's assault back.

    High on the thrill of victory after years of struggle, Calenda kept pressing her advantage, drew her own magic together, and struck the epicenter of flowing magic, ripping it apart with her fingers.

    A ball of fire, pain, and screams erupted around them, burning away their skin and flesh. A week later, she would awaken to learn she was the only survivor of her overconfidence. True, her mother was brought back later at significant expense to the family, but it would mark the last time they ever spoke to one another.

    Calenda's eyes snapped open, burning with tears she could no longer shed.

    "Cali!" Elruin held her, crying enough for the both of them. "I'm so sorry, I never knew!"

    Her new muscles moved well, perhaps better than her old. Her new skin could feel the warmth of Elruin's touch, and she could still smell the sour scent that came from not having access to bathing water. It was less intense than it might have been for someone else, perhaps the girl's age and death magic kept her aroma to a minimum. All her senses were different, better, and some part of her was eager to learn what that meant in the future.

    "That's fine, Ell," she put her arm around the girl's back. "I never told anyone." Later she would ask what this building was that they were in, and who the girl watching from the corner was, but for now it was nice to be alive again, or some twisted corruption of the concept. A small price to pay for her freedom.


    =====

    More info about Calenda's past. One of the things about improving resonance between people is it tends to come with delving deep into their respective emotional issues. Believe it or not, a good chunk of it was inspired by Septerra Core- a game that was not all that good, but had many, many really great ideas... some of which, I suspect Ar Tonelico also took inspiration from.

    Also some real insight into what it is that makes Elruin a legitimate rarity instead of merely unusual in the setting.

    I commissioned cover art for my story, from an amazing talented artist who turned this disaster into something amazing. It either is or will soon be on the front page of all places I'm putting this story.

    So, yeah, check her stuff out. Commission art. Shower her with the praise she so rightly deserves.
     
  5. Tortoise

    Tortoise Getting sticky.

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  6. TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Me word good? :(
     
  7. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 38
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Suggested Listening

    Calenda brushed her hand over the stained stone pillar, taking countless years of dust and dirt with her. Her sense of touch was sharper as well, or perhaps it was the same and the difference was a lack of distractions. Without the throb of a heartbeat in her ears, or the pressure of blood flowing through her veins, the whole world felt and sounded different. "What is this place?"

    "A better question is: how do we keep the things down here from eating all of you?" Scratch said. With his current eight-limbed monster body, he was having quite the time scaling the ceiling. It wasn't quite the same mobility as not having a body to slow him down, but it was something. "Or, specifically, how do you keep them from eating Elruin?"

    "I can protect us, they don't like fighting."

    "One of them, in a tight corridor, doesn't like fighting." Scratch moved three of his borrowed hands to display to the girls. "These are the claws of a predator, the eyes of a predator, and the jaws of a predator. Out in the open, they'll overwhelm you. Together, we might be able to fight three at a time, but there's hundreds of these things in this place."

    "Here, these can help," Elruin opened her sack of sarite crystals. "Lemia, this one will help protect you." She handed her nature shard to the girl, who could benefit from its boosting of strength and endurance. "Cali, have this shard. It shouldn't hurt you, since you're not alive."

    "That's sweet of you, Ell, but..." Elruin pressed the crystal into Calenda's hands. "... I can use sarite?" She looked at the black crystal, oozing darkness and death between her fingers. "How can I use sarite? That's supposed to be impossible for the undead."

    "You're not like the dollies," Elruin said. "I used my magic to shield you from the damage caused by death, sort of how Scratch shields his energy from being detected. You should even retain use of your magic. The tricky part is going to be finding ways to keep you healthy, since you can no longer recover from injury or exhaustion. The vampire shard should help." It was as good a description of the shard's power as anything she could imagine. "I tried to make sure you still liked hugs, too. You do, right?"

    Cali smiled at her strange little necromancer. "From you? Anytime. Scratch tries it, and I'm going straight to the nearest exorcist now that I'm no longer bound by his accursed oathbinding magic." The threat was empty, the sentiment was not.

    Lemia couldn't help but take interest in the theory. "Then you can just, what, transform anyone you want? That can't be right, if immortality was that easy everyone would have it."

    "No, it has to be someone like Cali, who could come back on her own." Elruin kept silent about the nature of person it required to defy death, knowing Cali probably didn't want her to tell anyone those secrets. It did beg the question of what cruel history drove Scratch to remain. "Not everyone can do that. All I did was manipulate the process to stop it from driving her insane. And I have to stay connected to her, same as Scratch, to keep them protected in the long run."

    "And I'm betting it won't last long past the death of the necromancer we're bonded to," Cali finished. "Forbidden magic requiring a rare bloodline that at best adds another few decades to your life and turns everyone against you? Wouldn't surprise me if some people use it, but it could never be common."

    "Maybe we can find someone to take over for me, some day." Elruin would have to ask Scratch how rare people like her were, because she was convinced most necromancers couldn't do what she was doing. Life energy, including that which kept her alive, could not synchronize with death energy like her, same as air could not synchronize with earth, or fire with water. They should cancel, not merge, and the attempt should have killed her. "But first, I have another shard for you. It may not be as strong as your old shards, but it will help you see in the dark."

    Now that she knew she could, Cali accepted the shard and dipped into the familiar energies of earth magic. It was a good shard, too, with power to bolster her strength and it could have boosted her toughness, too, if her own defensive power wasn't greater than the shard's. Her new sense echoed out through the caverns, the buried maze that was once a thriving metropolis.

    "Scratch, I need you to go through that tunnel." Calenda still hadn't decided what she thought of her new lease on un-life, but she was a Scout, regardless of what some pompous conquerer with delusions of godhood did to her title, and she had a mission. "You'll find one of those hand monsters, it's alone. Carry this," she carved a slab of flesh from the side of the mork. It was dead, it didn't need tissue. "Try to look wounded, retreat back this way when it pursues you."

    "You know what these things are?" Lemia asked.

    "I've heard a few stories," Cali answered. "Nothing to suggest they were anywhere near this common, however. They're solitary hunters, cannibals. It'll go for Scratch, then we'll set up an ambush. If we pick them off one at a time, we can kill a path to the outside. And if it destroys your body, you can jump to the next one."

    "First of all, Sis, I don't work for you. I work for Elruin." Scratch took the time to peek out of his host body. "Second, and this is important, I have limits. Jumping bodies is hard, and all that necromantic residue left behind needs cleaning, which takes time we don't have and power Elruin can't afford to spend. Oh, right, and she'll be singing out here with all these things that hunt by sense of hearing. Or do we abandon tainted flesh here, with monsters you just said are cannibals?"

    Calenda adapted to the new information in a metaphorical eyeblink. "Fine, plan remains the same but we're less cavalier about it. I'll hide here, beneath this overhang. You can stick the mork in that corner, it should blend in. We have no heartbeat, I don't think they'll take notice of us except as carrion. Ell, you and Lemia stay back, near where the path branches again. The two of you can hide behind Scratch, let the dead do the fighting while you do the magic."

    "I can see why Ell wanted to bring you with so bad," Lemia said. "Don't worry, I'll stay out of your way."

    The plan worked well, with the limping and 'wounded' grabber-corpse moving through the tunnel path. Soon, the other approached, at first curious; the troupe could not know, but dragging meat near another's nest was courtship behavior for this species. It never would have worked out, however, since Scratch's host was in too sickly a condition to draw attraction from a mate. In addition, both of them were female.

    A rival near her nest was unacceptable. A wounded rival with food near her nest was an opportunity. The grabber gave chase the moment her new prey began to run, never stopping to question all the things wrong with this scenario. For all its power, it resembled a crocodile in intelligence and temperament.

    She was surprised when two live-foods stood in the tunnel. She had never seen such a bounty in one place before. She was confused when the rival stopped, twisting herself in the cavern to a combat position. She was startled the two dead-foods she smelled moved behind her. She was afraid and enraged when the larger dead-food bit her leg as if she was a food-thing.

    She kicked out, gripped the dead-food by its throat as was instinct. The spine snapped, but the jaw remained clenched as strong as ever. She didn't understand, for this had always stopped food from struggling before.

    The living food hummed, then it felt pain and numbness. The other live-food did the same. Then the rival attacked, instead of trying to claim a food and run away. Why did the rival help the food? This was her last thought before the final food jumped on her back, then she knew nothing but pain, fear, and darkness before the pain vanished, along with everything else.

    "That was-" Lemia shouted, before stopping herself. "Sorry, that was incredible!" She did her best shout while whispering. "I was terrified, but the way you handled yourselves, and it dropped so easy I can't believe I was ever afraid..." She braced herself against the wall. "Sorry, dizzy spell. Too much excitement."

    "That and you were burning through mana fast," Cali said. "You need to pace yourself better."

    Lemia looked down. "Sorry."

    "Don't be, you did just fine." Tear them down, then build them back up again. She'd had to do that for enough women over the years, though usually in training rather than the field. "But don't expect it to go like this often. These are nothing more than animals. Tough animals, but animals. Intelligent monsters are the really scary ones. Hey, Scratch, I need to borrow your claws. Cut right here."

    "Back when I was alive, I would have found you absurdly attractive." Scratch used his talons to carve a gash in the dead monster. "I was a moron back then."

    Cali kept her attention on Lemia. "But, this is a learning experience for me, too." She shoved her hand into the guts of the monster, seeking out the crystalized magic within. "First time I've ever been in a fight where I could ignore all the friendly fire. It's tough on the front line when you have to coordinate with your blasters to keep them from hitting you."

    Elruin dipped her fingers in the small bucket of necromantic water she had with her, to siphon off just a little energy. Her energy had to supply both her spells and Lemia's imitation of her spells, so she made certain she was capped at all times.

    They worked their way deeper into the cavern, in order to escape from it somewhere far away from Arila, which sat above them. Three more monsters slain, three more sarite crystals acquired, but they seemed no closer to an escape.

    Suggested Listening

    "Gah!" She looked around at the others, realizing that once again she made too loud a noise when in a tunnel full of monsters that hunted by sound. "Sorry. I just. Look." She pointed to the building which was near them "It's a demon!" The creature was dead, mummified and broken in the street. It had the body of a horse to the neck, then that of a man above.

    Elruin, as all children, knew tales of these horse-demons who would come in the night to take children away to torture for all eternity. She was never too frightened by the stories, for she always had walls to hide behind. Now, the body just made her lonesome for Mister Clackybones.

    "It's a long-dead corpse," Calenda responded. "And not one like me. This is also a good place to rest for the night. The whole building's solid stone. Looks like it was a temple, back when these people used this city."

    Lemia watched the body as they entered the building, as if expecting it to jump up at any moment. Inside, she looked around at the art, numerous statues, all of them demons like the one outside. Several other mummified demon corpses lined the stone floors, some smaller as if they were women, and others smaller still which must have been children, dead in the arms of the adults.

    Above them were dark alcoves that might once have been windows to the sky once. Now they displayed only the rock and dirt between them and the surface.

    Calenda saw it, too. "Hmm, maybe we could use this as a way to the surface? If the steeple tower was anything near as grandiose this interior, it might extend all the way up. Scratch, think you can go up there, see how far to the surface?"

    "I'll think about it in the morning," Scratch said. "Right now, we don't want to be on the surface without our full strength, and our literal lifeline is at her limits."

    It was true, Elruin had exhausted much of her magic on the trek through these winding tunnels that were once streets. "I don't think I can control both dollies while Scratch is searching. I need sleep."

    Lemia held her hand up, increasing the glow of magic she'd been using to see in this cave darkness. "Is that the Ring of Enge?" A large circular band with three smaller circles near the top was the symbol of Enge's church, meant to represent the whole of the Engeval and the three volcanoes that made up his true heart.

    "Looks like it," Cali said. "It even uses the the same colors. A large band of white, made of marble. Two bands of gray granite, and a single band of red sandstone when depicted in a statue. Silver, steel, and a ruby when worn."

    "Why would demons have a temple to Enge? He drove them out, cast them into the sea." Lemia hesitated for a moment. "Or so the legends go."

    Elruin looked at the bodies, then hummed a tune to them. It was ancient, lost to time, but echoes of the past remained in these long-dead corpses. Flashes of fire, cries of agony in a language she did not know. Flesh caught fire, lungs boiled, eyes melted, and those that survived would be suffocated by a poison so powerful that even those protected by magic fell. Here, in this temple, some few survivors hid behind the magic of the priests and prayed for a salvation that did not come. A single tear, the first drop of moisture in this building for centuries, fell from her cheek.

    "They called him Ciron, before they all died."

    "They were known as centaurs, long before Engeval became an empire," Scratch said. "Once, they ruled all of the plains to the north, this valley, and all the way to the jungle."

    "So the demons I thought were myth turned out to be real monsters," Lemia moved to the corner of the room furthest from the corpses. "But that doesn't explain why they worshiped the same god we do."

    "What else would they worship?" Scratch asked. "Centaurs found this valley before humans, but the being you call Enge has been here since before centaurs or humans ever existed on this world. They worshiped Ciron for the same reason you do."

    "But the same symbols? The same color? Did Enge give an order that he have that particular symbol?"

    "Not to my knowledge," Calenda answered. "We've never used any other symbol for Enge."

    "Fine, if you children need a bedtime story that bad." Scratch moved his gangly corpse near the center of the room. "A long, long time ago in a kingdom right beneath your feet, the centaurs ruled. They lived as... the word is 'nomads', which means those who travel with their whole families, and don't settle down in any one place in their life. It's not something you see these days. Anyway, they settled this valley, trading with harpies and mer, who I believe are also extinct. They tried to build cities of their own, but you try working on ladders or weeding crops when your lower half is a horse. So they took slaves. Not your kind of slavery, real slavery."

    "Real slavery?" Calenda thought their version was bad enough, she could only imagine what Scratch was speaking of if it got worse.

    "Chattel slavery. The kind where the slaves aren't considered people," Scratch said. "Centaurs kidnapped children, force them to serve as labor their whole lives, forced them to breed to create more slaves. Tortured and mutilated the old to scare the young into working harder. Used them to... satisfy their baser desires, so to speak. Whatever stories you may have heard about your demons, I promise the real thing was worse than your legends."

    "And then what happened?" Lemia asked.

    "Couldn't say for certain." Scratch began walking his slave back to the entrance of the cathedral. "If I had to guess, they began losing numbers to the monsters, until they were weak enough that their former slaves could rise up and overthrow them. Then I imagine those people, your distant ancestors, began to erase all record of the centaurs. Gave credit for their buildings to the dwarves, or claimed it for themselves. Which is fair, they did most of the work."

    "Then came the question of the god the centaurs worshiped. A god they would have to worship as well, if they wanted to remain in this nice, safe, valley. Don't ask me where they got the name 'Enge' from. The rest, you can probably figure out on your own. Then they all died horribly ever after, but not before firing out enough crotch-spawn to create everyone you know, the end. Now go to bed."

    Elruin looked at the bodies, trying to imagine how the echoes she saw from her magic, and the dead mothers trying to shield their children, matched with Scratch's claims of torture and treating other people as nothing but animals. She fell asleep unable to find an answer.

    =====

    In many ways, the "scholar" path is objectively suboptimal (weaker combat stats and less power to work with)... but it is the path which unlocks build-a-minion fastest. Or second fastest, technically speaking.

    In the game, there will be a "stealth" minigame at this point, where you attempt to guide Elruin and company out of the monster maze, due to the Grabbers being a pain in the behind to fight at this point, especially once they start wearing down the characters' magic supply. The earth shard of last chapter provides a reason for having a "3D map" of the terrain. Beyond just Elruin's lifesense.

    The ambush/lure mechanics will be something of a reflection of the game "Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines" that I loved as a kid. My main problem was how dumb the AI in that game could be. Solution: make the enemy a creature that's not particularly intelligent.

    I intend the game version to also involve Elruin using Voice of the Dead to pick up clues, secrets, and treasures from centaur corpses strewn about in the maze.


    Speaking of minigames... I anticipate the mix-and-match sarite mechanics to see a lot of play, and exploitation for the optimizers. It'll be interesting to balance a system that relies almost exclusively on procedurally generated equipment that will be fair and challenging to a wide variety of gamer styles. Probably drive the speed-runners batty, however. But here's a peak under the mechanical hood for those of you not playing along over at DWW:

    Elruin capacity 0/7
    Calenda capacity 2/8
    Lemia capacity 0/3

    (E) 1 Air: Movement+, Bolstered senses +, Agility +
    (E) 1 Air: Evasion ++, Aim +
    (L) 1 Mind: Alertness +, recovery +
    (L) 1 Nature: Strength +, Durability ++
    (L) 1 Water: immune to water poison or disease, can cleanse poison or disease from water

    (E) 2 Shadow: Stealth +, Magic Hide ++
    2 Air: Olfactory ++, Nightvision +, Air magic efficiency +

    (E) 3 Air: Agility ++, Evasion +, Movement ++, Dust Storm 1
    3 Lightning: Agility ++, Aim ++, Evasion +, Lighting Bolt 2

    (C) 3 Ice: Vit - (curse, doesn't impact Elruin or the undead), Mana Drain - - (curse, does impact Elruin), Energy Vampirism Lvl 2, Agility ++, Stealth +, Strength ++, Mein +, Perc ++
    (C) 3 Earth: Vit ++, Echolocation sense, Armor L2 (won't stack w/Ell or Cali who have Earth armor already), Str ++
     
  8. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 39
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Morning, such as it was in this cave, came with numerous aches for Elruin. She sat up, gave Mister Squishybones a hug for being such a good pillow, then set to work putting her bedroll back into the pack. She spotted Calenda, standing at the altar

    "Oww," Lemia muttered, having woken up by Elruin moving. "I discovered the downside of a shard that lets you pull all-nighters without getting tired. Do it too long, and your body forgets how to sleep for real."

    "Will you be okay?" Elruin got to her feet, still holding her doll. Nearby, the zombified mork also began to stir. She wrinkled her nose at the smell. Soon Scratch's doll would begin to rot as well.

    "I'm fine, nothing a warm bath won't fix. Not that we'll be getting one of those any time soon." Lemia began packing up her supplies as well.

    Elruin left Lemia to her work, and approached Cali. "Are you okay?"

    "Huh?" Cali looked away from the temple. "Is it morning, already? At least I had too much on my mind to get bored."

    "Maybe." Elruin didn't know what time of day it was, considering they were underground. "But we're awake, now. Are you feeling better?" She gave Cali a hug, noting the coolness of her skin. She was in better condition than the dollies, and Elruin would put lots of time and effort into making certain she remained that way. She didn't want her big sister to become nothing more than a skeleton.

    "I'm fine, still getting used to." Cali used one hand to gesture across her whole body, the other to hold Elruin. "Everything. The good news is, I don't think I'll be asking you to exorcise me the moment we get to safety. The bad news is that means I'll have to grow accustomed to never sleeping, and healing myself through parasitism."

    "The better news, Sis, is that you'll have plenty of acceptable targets," Scratch said from his minion. "Now that our mistress is awake, we should get moving. Speaking of, you can hold my ride while I'm scouting the surface, right?"

    Elruin considered the strain, then decided she could maintain the monster. "I believe so." She sang to the corpse, unwrapping it from Scratch, so that now it belonged to her. "I've got it." She would have to consider whether it was smarter to keep Scratch as a ghost, or have him pilot dollies, in the future.

    "What are you doing?" Calenda said. It took Elruin a moment to realize she was talking to Lemia. "Are you looting corpses in a church?"

    Lemia was currently standing over one of the centaurs that Elruin guessed was once a woman, holding a long chain. "What? Not like they have any use for this stuff. Besides, have you seen the quality of this jewelry, and how different is to our designs? If I can get a decent outfit, I could claim I'm foreign royalty and people would believe it. Or if not royalty, then at least a traveling foreign merchant."

    "That's not the problem!" Cali insisted. "This is a church of Enge, and his worshipers."

    "Yeah, well, go tell that to the inquisitors," Lemia said. She moved on to another ashen, mummified body. "We've got two abominations and a girl that apparently Enge Itself has demanded sacrificed. Looting church corpses is the least objectionable thing we've done since yesterday. Then there's these slaver-demons. I'd be having a real crisis of faith right now if I cared about Enge or the church in the first place. As I see it, they and theirs have done nothing for me, so I owe them nothing."

    Elruin found herself agreeing with Lemia. "Sorry, Cali, but I don't think Enge is on our side. And if he is, he'd want us to do whatever we could to succeed."

    "Just... fine," Cali muttered. "If you need me, I'll be outside getting some fresh air." She stopped at the entrance to the church. "Leave the holy symbols behind. If not in the name of decency, then pragmatism. They look too much like ours, would attract the wrong sorts of attention."

    Elruin watched Cali go.

    "She'll be fine," Lemia said. "What matters right now is survival, and she knows that."

    Elruin sighed, then began to sing, reaching out with her Voice of the Dead magic, she spoke to the echoes of what were once ghosts, or fragments of memories, or whatever it was that she was tapping into with her magic. "There's a cellar that way, it's where they kept donations."

    "Think they've got any wine? If it's been down here the last thousand years or so, it'll have to be the best booze on the planet." Regardless of answer, Lemia was happier with the idea of taking directly from the coffers, than poking her gloves around in the ashen remains of these mummies."

    Elruin let them to the side passage, then took point while allowing Lemia to generate light behind them. The passage was a sloped ramp, rather than stairs. A portion of that floor had a large, living tree root which stuck through it, then back into the ground. It felt magical, and familiar. "That explains why there are still corpses down here," she said more to herself than anything as she ducked under the root.

    "I don't get it, what's a root have to do with anything?"

    "It's one of Lyra's," she said. "When she created that giant tree, she had to take the material from somewhere. I'm sure there were pockets of caves down here before, but she's the one who turned it into a labyrinth of tunnels."

    "If that's the case, I'd hate to see what happens next rainy season," Lemia said. "The whole countryside will be nothing more than sinkholes."

    Elruin considered that possibility. "I don't know, I think Lyra's too smart for that."

    "Either way, we'll be long gone by then." Lemia stopped, her eyes widening as she looked into the abandoned cellar. There were armfuls of coins that looked like they must have been stacked neat in the corner, but had fallen over in what must have been the same cataclysm that buried the city underground, and a tapestry that held shimmering threads of blue, green and gold.

    "Is that a map?" Elruin asked. The shape of the empire maps matched, even the rivers were in the same place.

    "If it is, it's the most magnificent map I've ever seen." Lemia stepped closer to the wall hanging. "Magical cleaning, magical repair, still working after all these centuries. I think this is the swamp, and these are the plains, and that means these brown dots would be cities, and these are roads. They had so many, even the Senol desert is covered in cities."

    "They're like stars in the sky," Elruin agreed. "We have to take it with us."

    "Yes, we do," Lemia agreed. "There's more historical knowledge here than in half the library's books combined. Look, if this is true, the Lenal Islands are bigger than Engeval, and there's even an end to the supposedly endless Senol desert." She was already starting to take the tapestry off the wall. "Even if you didn't have monsters and oceans in the way, it could take a year to walk from one end of this map to the other."

    Elruin started helping Lemia lower and roll up the map, which was the bulk of their work. Without extra bags, they couldn't carry much more than some pocketfuls of gold coins, so they left behind the less valuable silver and billon. Without tools, it would be struggle enough to take the map up to the surface with them.

    They returned to the top floor, the rug-sized map carried between them.

    "We found a map of the whole world!" Elruin declared when she returned to the surface level. "We have to show it to the library."

    "It's not the whole world," Lemia corrected. "But I wouldn't be surprised to learn it's at half of the world. I'm sure we can find a library somewhere to preserve it. Better than leaving it here to rot when the protective magic finally wears thin."

    "I guess that's not too sacrilegious." Calenda uncrossed her arms. "If we can restore lost knowledge, I'm sure Enge will forgive us."

    Scratch, too, had returned from his adventure before them. "So, we can get through here. It'll take a bit of work, and I'll need to take my puppet back for a few to do the digging. Gonna have to abandon the mork, though. No way to get it out unless we wanna spend another day wandering around down here looking for a bigger hole."

    "Then we exorcise the mork and head up," Calenda said. "We're operating on a time limit before there's nowhere left to run from Claron. I, for one, don't want to spend the rest of Ell's life hiding in these tunnels. We will run out of food sooner rather than later."

    Elruin didn't like the sound of that, either. "Alright, I'll exorcise the mork. Will the hand monster fit through the tunnel?"

    "Yeah, these things are made for contorting their way through tight places." Scratch took his reclaimed puppet up into the church tower, and soon there was the sound of earth and stone collapsing to the floor, then down the stairs.

    Suggested Listening

    Soon they, sans one now-regular-dead mork, were pushing things into the tunnel for Scratch to pull to the surface. At the end, they climbed up the cramped tunnel with Calenda taking up the rear.

    They were dirty, sweaty, and the sun was well into the sky before they found themselves on the surface. At least Elruin's training outfit was still in one piece, requiring only a thorough scrubbing to be presentable again.

    "Now we need to determine where to go." Calenda used a combination of her sarite and natural magic to scale one of the trees. "We're west of Arila, which means a direct march to Engewal takes us right back into Claron's territory, so that's out. So's west, that takes us into the mountains the wrong way. We could go north, that takes us into Dwarven territory. There, we can hire messengers that won't be traced back to us. Problem is, it means days of marching in open wilderness, without any farmsteads to take refuge. Or south, where I'm most familiar, but also the places Claron's most likely to conquer next if he hasn't already."

    "I'm guessing trying to go straight through to Engewal is a bad plan," Lemia said.

    "It's... an option. The fastest option, but the one with the most risk. We'll have to kill people, some bandits, some soldiers who may be doing nothing more than their jobs, if we take that path. Also, the chance of running face first into Claron or his elite forces."

    "Speaking of strong, did one of you do something to me?" Lemia looked at the rest of the group. "Climbing up that hole was more exercise than I've ever done in my life, but I don't feel that tired."

    "Oh, that's an interesting one," Scratch said. "Let me ask a question: what do you think happens to life energy, when a monster or powerful mage dies?"

    "Some of the energy becomes sarite, the rest dissipates into the environment, unless something stops it form doing so. Or so everything I've been taught claims, and all my magical training confirms. You're going to have to come up with a lot of evidence to convince me otherwise." Lemia watched the ghost, daring him to throw yet another of her once-held truths in to question.

    "Don't worry, Spook, that part's all true." Scratch loved the smug satisfaction of messing with the woman. "But it's more complex than that. Some of that energy doesn't break down, it remains 'solid' for a time. It can become the spark that creates undeath, but it can also seek out new living hosts. The closest animal, usually that means whatever killed it. Those monsters you helped kill had a decent amount of power that's now yours."

    "Mine?" Lemia couldn't deny that she felt far stronger than she had yesterday. "What about the rest of you?"

    "Well, I get nothing, consequence of what I am," Scratch said. "Elruin picked up some, too, but at her strength, she'd need to kill a couple dozen of those things to notice the difference. You're weaker, so it's more obvious. That's why the wilderness grows ever more dangerous. Kill or be killed is all that nature knows, so as the beasts hunt each other, they gain strength, they breed, every cycle a little stronger than the last."

    Calenda asked the next question. "Wait, how come I've never heard about any of this before?"

    "Oh, I don't know, why wouldn't the rulers of the world want it known that all someone has to do to become powerful is slit their throats while they sleep? Why wouldn't the churches want to broadcast the knowledge that you can become a god, just by murdering a city or two? If any of them realized the truth, they'd never breathe it to another living soul. Besides, there's diminishing returns. After a certain point of power, you'd have to hunt things like Lyra and Claron to get any stronger. Doesn't save you from the reaper in the end, anyway. Life of war, godly power, then die of old age like everyone else."

    "That makes more sense than I care to admit. But it doesn't change our immediate situation." Calenda looked to the east, in the general direction of Arila. "For now, we must find a way to warn Engewal and stop Claron."

    =====

    Yes, indeed, gaining stat ugrades by killing monsters is a canon phenomena in Midara.

    Something tells me Cali was lying about getting fresh air. Probably the fact that they're in underground tunnels full of stale air. Yeah, that must be it.

    I know almost nothing about alcohol, but I'm aware that the whole aging wine thing is more myth than reality (it's a little true, sometimes). Lemia, on the other hand, has even less clue than I do.
     
    Last edited: Mar 3, 2019
  9. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 40
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    They took their time to redistribute their sarite, with Lemia trading out her lesser nature shard for a much more powerful nature element from one of the slain grabbers. She took a breath, adapting to the new senses and power granted. Minor scrapes and bruises vanished on her skin began to fade, as if days of healing passed in mere minutes. "I don't think I need to sleep at all, with these shards," she said.

    While they were sorting through equipment, Elruin thought about the problems ahead. As much as she wanted a warm place to sleep, she didn't want to put more people in danger like they were when at her cousins' farm. "I think we go to the dwarves. It's safer than taking my dollies near people, and you can keep watch in the night."

    "It's probably the safest route," Cali agreed. "If not for us, then for the rest of the empire."

    The quartet set off, each taking advantage of their respective sensory magic while the grabber followed behind. It would have made an excellent scout with its speed and prowess, but now it was starting to look dead in addition to smelling it. Besides, even if it did encounter something, it wouldn't be able to communicate this fact to Elruin. So instead it took the role of the rear guard.

    "Hey, we haven't talked much," Lemia said as she approached Cali. "I wanted to say sorry about earlier. The whole crisis of faith thing, I mean. I get it, I was where you are once, years ago."

    "Since you have a pulse, I'm going to guess you're talking about something else." Calenda kept her eyes forward, surveying the landscape with her magic.

    "I made a few, let's say, career choices when I was younger." Lemia, too, kept her eyes forward. These were bitter memories she was dredging up. "The churches were less than thrilled by my decision. Ecross and Enge, worst of all. Didn't stop the people who condemned me during the day to visit me during the night, coin in hand."

    "I see." It wasn't quite the same, but the woman had been cast out of society, just as she had. "I misjudged you."

    "No, you probably got me figured out," Lemia said. "I'm not a good person. Not 'Scratch' bad, but I prioritize what's good for me, first. At the same time, I'm not so far gone that I can't recognize love when I see it. That little girl back there adores you, and you love her, too. Enough to defy logic, self-interest, society, and Divine Law as we know it. I admit, I'm a little jealous."

    "That so?" Cali smirked to prevent her deeper emotions from showing. "Well, I'm sure if you ask, she'd give you 'the treatment' and you can be just like me."

    "Not that jealous." Lemia dropped the other subject; she'd made the point she wanted to make. "Maybe in a few years when things start to sag, but for now I'm content with what I've got. But, I know my life's not as safe as it once was. I think I'd rather cheat death Ell's way than with resurrection magic. I've heard stories, none of them good."

    Cali thought back to Crela's fainting spells, emotional outbursts, and inability to eat red meat without getting ill even weeks after recovery. "Some have it worse than others, but I don't think anyone's ever walked away hours after revival." Crela wasn't even one of the worst examples; many turned around and killed themselves after being resurrected.

    "I'll take your version, then," Lemia said. "But I wasn't just here to make casual conversation. We need to talk about disguises, especially your scent."

    Cali gave an involuntary sniff, testing the air for anything that might come off her. "I don't smell bad, do I?"

    "Better than I do, that's the problem."

    "Ugh, I feel like a rookie." Given what they'd been doing the last couple days, Lemia and even Elruin were becoming a little unpleasant, while she smelled of dry dirt and the metallic scent of monster-blood spatters. It was a notable scent, but not a living scent.

    "So I was thinking, time for some cosmetic changes to go with everything else." Lemia extracted a metal box from her pack. "And I've got everything we need right here. There was a time when I imagined working cosmetics, but the poor couldn't afford them and the rich didn't want me."

    "What are you thinking?"

    "Well, first, your hair. That red screams 'noble blood'." Lemia brushed her fingers through Cali's hair. "We can't afford that attention. Then there's your skin. You are too beautiful, better to have you look like someone who's less beautiful and is trying to look prettier, than to have someone who's got such natural beauty that she doesn't need tricks to look better."

    "That's an awful lot of attention paid to what I look like." Cali smirked. "Am I going to have to put up with propositions for you, now?"

    "Tried it, not my thing." Lemia pulled a vial of black ink from her pouch. "This should get you about the same shade of black as Elruin. Really sell that 'foreigner' illusion, if we get the chance."

    Elruin's hair color was exotic, that was certain. "Wouldn't that stand out more?"

    "Thought of that, but her magic will cook this stuff away." Lemia began dragging her fingers through Cali's hair, spreading the dye in long, uneven streaks. Magic took care of the rest, spreading the chemical from tip to follicle evenly. There was a time, just weeks ago, when this would have tired her. "But If Claron's got his people looking for everyone with black hair, he'll be burning a lot of manpower. It's a popular and cheap dye for the less wealthy girl looking for a husband. See it all the time, even in girls as young as Elruin."

    Calenda tried not to think too hard about those implications. "And so you're painting me in colors that will invite men to approach me?"

    "I don't think dwarves find human women attractive." Lemia had met a few over the years, not one of which had shown any interest in the 'entertainment' those in per profession offered. "Their courtship seems tied to scent, they've got a crazy sense of smell, I was never brave enough to ask the particulars. If we ever return to Arila, welcome to the poor side of town. Don't worry, it won't be nearly as bad for you as for the girls doing pink or purple."

    "Then we need to worry about scent all the more," Cali said.

    "I've got some lye and chamomile, to perfume and lighten your skin. This stuff burns like hell, but it lasts until your skin dies and gets replaced. It won't trick people into thinking you smell normal, but."

    "It will explain why I don't," Cali concluded. "Can't say I like making people think I'm so desperate for attention that I have to paint myself, but it's better than being hunted down and burned to ash for being an abomination against all that is holy."

    "That was my thought." Lemia dipped her finger in the lye, then another in the chamomile extract, then drew her fingers along Calenda's neck, dipping down along her chest, then up behind her ears. She frowned at the soft patches of orange amidst the black, then pushed the inking spell a little harder to cover that remnant as well.

    Cali grit her teeth, fighting down the pain which arose from the chemicals spreading across her skin. "Are you sure you're not hitting on me?" Humor, the last refuge of those who need anything else to think about.

    Lemia continued tracking Cali's neck, then as much of her back as she could reach."No offense, but this has confirmed I definitely do not. Even if I wanted a woman to warm my bed I'd like her to have warmth. Touching you feels unpleasant, in ways that have nothing to do with your sex. You feel like you're made of wax instead of flesh. I've got no way to hide that."

    "I need new armor and some gloves, anyway." Now that it wasn't an option, Cali took a moment to regret how she'd avoided intimacy through her life. "Won't have to worry about getting undressed often, without those pesky distractions, like sleep, and toilets, and monthly visitors."

    "Ugh, maybe I will take Ell up on the chance to convert."

    "Never mind, we got more immediate bloodshed to worry about." Cali stopped walking until Elruin caught up. While she hesitated, she felt outward with her botanical magic, tracing the damage done to the trees as men climbed them, and the sensation of those hiding in the underbrush. It wasn't a perfect map, but it was a hard one to hide from. "This is what a real bandit ambush looks like. Ell, I count eight men and three horses, you?"

    "Also eight men," she said after a moment. "Two in the trees, four together on the path, two hiding in the bushes."

    "That's what an ambush looks like." In matters such as this, Cali was the expert. "Enough men up front to intimidate, nobody pretending to be a woman to lower anyone's guard. Anyone who looks dangerous comes through, they'll claim they're just hunters looking for deer. Wouldn't be surprised if they do hunt, while waiting for more valuable game."

    "Do we go around?" Lemia asked.

    They're weaker than us, and bad men that try to hurt innocent people." Elruin said. "We should tell them they have stop."

    "As if that would work," Lemia muttered. She'd never met any bandits, or at least none that had told her what they were, but she knew some dangerous people and couldn't imagine they would ever quit. A life of crime was far too lucrative, for those willing to take the risks.

    Cali smiled her first genuine smile since her death. "It's so devious, I love it."

    "Huh?"

    "Scratch, take the monster, go around behind and get ready to scale the trees to take the archers. A good bow can get through Ell's defenses, maybe mine. With everyone focused on us, you'll be poised to strike before they realize there's a threat. Lemia, you've got the camouflage, stay hidden, get close, and use Elruin's death magic to snipe. Since we're all immune to that sort of magic, it doesn't matter if you hit us."

    "And what will you be doing?" Scratch sounded less than impressed.

    "Exactly what Elruin suggested. We walk straight to the center of the ambush and tell them not to be bad men."

    Suggested Listening

    Soon, they were in position, with Scratch and his puppet near one tree, while Elruin and Calenda walked down the path until they found the men. These four did well to hide their lack of surprise or suspicion as the pair approached. "Who goes there?" One of them held a long skinning dagger that would work just fine as a weapon.

    "Just me and my sister," Cali said. She tried not to laugh at how absurd the situation was. "We are heading north, to dwarven lands." She kept her head down, pretending the necessary politeness for conversation between men and women. No questions, no requests, simple statements of fact in as few words as possible. Normally, she despised it.

    "The dwarves are many days travel from here." The man in charge took a cautious step forward, to avoid startling the women until the trap was closed. "I'm afraid I can't imagine what would drive anyone to travel so far in such dangerous terrain, without the safety of a caravan."

    Cali walked forward as well, keeping the timid but clueless act for as long as possible. "Acheria is in danger. A terrible warlord conquered Arila, and killed hundreds. I fled with my sister, but his men are all over the countryside. I fear the dwarven lands are the only safe place remaining."

    She didn't know whether stories of Arila's conquest were becoming known yet, but the story would explain their dirty appearance and lack of protectors. Half of the risk these bandits sought to avoid was stumbling across some dragonslayers out looking for a fight rather than an easy victim. Thus this conversation, which would remain innocent until the moment they felt confident they were dealing with helpless targets. In this situation, their lack of armor and limited weapons helped push the illusion.

    "I'm afraid we've been hunting the woods for some time, so we hadn't heard." Now was the time when the awkward barrier between sexes became annoying. He wanted to ask questions, but such was impossible without causing insult.

    "It was recent, just days ago," Cali said. Another meek step closer, Elruin right behind her playing the role of a proper child who did not interrupt while adults were speaking. "He's taking all the nobles' wealth and having them butchered or worse." She was glad her new body didn't show emotion easily, or she might have cringed as she finished her line. "I feared for me and my sister's purity."

    At least she could take comfort in the knowledge that Elruin was the only one who'd hear those words.

    "Dark news, indeed." Now that he was looking, the bandit could tell that beneath the dirt, the two girls were wearing expensive garments, though not opulent ones. They weren't the best of prizes, but the clothes would fetch something and the older woman would at least serve to bolster morale. Besides, he did want to hear this news about an invading warlord. He motioned them inward, to the camp. "I'm sure you're hungry, and have much more news to share. We can spare some of our venison if you tell us everything."

    A bit of breach from social protocol, the offer. The final test. A dragonslayer would have too much pride to accept at the cost of adhering to the demands even if it was only for information, but desperate, hungry refugees would be willing to suffer far worse humiliations for food and safety. "I wouldn't want to impose on you."

    "Nonsense, a deer has far too much meat for us to eat before it goes bad. I must insist you keep up your strength, for your sister's sake."

    So many lies rolled into one that Cali had trouble counting all of them, and another command. This one more blatant. "You're right." She brought a hand up, to touch her stomach, then put both over her chest. "Thank you for your hospitality."

    "I'm glad you feel that way." He smiled the smile of a man getting everything he wanted from a woman. He stepped closer to Calenda, and pointed his knife at her chest. "Now, do everything I say and I promise you and your sister will walk away alive."

    Cali didn't even need her magic to spot that lie. "First, my little sister wants to say something to you."

    "And what is that?"

    "You're bad men." Elruin stood up tall, and looked the bandit in the eye. Her glare was wasn't too intimidating, until her purple eyes turned solid black. "You tried to hurt my sister." She gestured at the bandit, using her death magic to make him sorry.

    He took a step back, even blocked the attack. As strong as he was, his arms were numbed rather than completely disabled.

    An arrow streaked from the trees, catching one of the other men in the torso a moment later. Scratch's contribution to the war effort.

    Calenda acted next, by kicking up a cloud of mist around them. She felt the whistle of the other arrow, from the other archer, which she blocked with her hand, rather than taking the risk of dodging and it hitting Elruin. The arrow stuck, but didn't manage to penetrate more than an inch before her hardened, dead flesh stopped it.

    Soon, a scream came from that tree, no doubt the result of Elruin's "dollie".

    Elruin walked forward, able to see fine with her lifesight as she picked off a fleeing bandit, leaving Cali to deal with the leader. He might even have been a difficulty fight, if he wasn't half-crippled by Elruin's surprise attack. He was skilled, remarkably so, and even managed to drive her back with a series of wild, chaotic swings from his knife.

    I don't know if I'd have been able to keep my arms working that well after taking Elruin's attack. Still, speed and power were both on Cali's side, and she had the benefit of ranged options. She gripped a rock, chucked it hard at the man's head. He tried to block, suggesting some sort of combat magic, but his arms were too slow and his head rocked back.

    To her surprise, he still remained standing. He ducked away, covering his head with his arms in time for his armor to stop an arrow from the sky. Cali rushed in, punching low while dodging swings. He blocked her, then had to dodge an arrow from Scratch's new host.

    This was the definition of frustration, but in a way it was exhilarating to face an opponent that could hold up under these circumstances. Pity, he could have made a fine Guard if he'd had any human decency. She got in close, and much to her surprise took a hard blow when he stepped in and kneed her in the stomach. At least two of her ribs had to have been broken, and the force sent her flying back.

    She landed on her feet, surprised for a moment before she remembered that she didn't need to breathe, her heart didn't beat, so as long as her torso was in one piece she would be able to function fine.

    A stream of necromantic energy shot past her, going wide. It never had a chance to hit him, and he didn't try to evade. The second bolt came closer, forced him to step aside.

    Cali charged forward, got another couple jabs in before getting kicked back again. Worse, she was beginning to tire herself. Her body could withstand punishment that should be fatal, but it did so by drawing on her magical reserves. Didn't Elruin estimate this guy was weaker than us?

    "Block this, you son o-" A cracking thud ended Scratch's battlecry, as his puppet- body landed atop their mutual foe. He did block in time, for what little it mattered against a man slamming into him from a forty foot fall. The puppet had to have died on impact, but was still able to grip the leader, grappling him long enough for Elruin to get a second death-bolt on him, then a third.

    Cali joined, gripping the man's legs in an attempt to hold him still while Elruin's magic finished the job.

    Soon he stopped struggling, and Cali could hear his heart cease.

    "Well, that one took a beating," Scratch muttered.

    Cali bid the fog to clear, leaving them to look at the damage they'd inflicted.

    "Let me go!" One living prisoner, held in the grip of three monster-hands while the thing scaled down the tree. "Enge Protects! I'm sorry, please, let me go, I swear I'll go straight! I have a family!"

    "No can do," Scratch climbed out of his dead host-body. "You know too much to be allowed to live. Which must be a novel experience for you. Your choices are quick and painless with her, or slow and horrible with me."

    "Me?" Cali looked at him. "Why me?"

    "Because you're both feet and half that perfect ass in the grave," Scratch answered. "If you don't get healed now, we'll be carrying you the rest of the way to the dwarves."

    "You can't!" Held the way he was, he could do nothing more than scream for help. "You're monsters! Demons!"

    "That's right," Scratch retorted. "We're monsters. What's your excuse?"

    Elruin walked up to them, her eyes focused on Cali's injuries. "He's right. I think I might be able to repair you, but it will take time and power."

    "Which we don't have."

    "Please! I'll do anything! We have money! I'll show you where our stash is, where we keep all our- mmph!"

    Calenda's hand had snapped out, latching on to the bandit's mouth. She wasn't much for having a crisis of conscience, and if she was, she wasn't going to waste it on this waste of humanity who helped murder and possibly rape any number of people who deserved to exist. With a dip into her vampiric shard, she stole strength from his body like taking a deep breath.

    The sensation of her body mending itself, bone stitching back together, and lungs reinflating, was indescribable, but amongst the most decadent experiences of her life. "No need, Ell. Your strength is more important than a bandit's life."


    =====

    Lemia, crushing all your sapphic necrophilia shipping dreams.

    Could you imagine how the early fights would have gone, with Elruin at this point? Dark Mistress of Dollies and Death.

    Banditry is dangerous work in a world where people other than the PC are capable of shrugging off hits from ranged weapons fire. Half the game is testing your marks to make sure they can't casually rip your arms out of their sockets before provoking them. Not everyone has Elruin's lifesight, almost nobody has her natural skill with it.

    In the game, there will also be significant morality changes for just killing people unprovoked. You don't know they're not hunters... at least, until they try to rob you. In which case, maybe they're still hunters, but they asked for a necromantic lobotomy, and Elruin's there to deliver.

    Notice: I probably won't be able to do a chapter tomorrow. I'll try, but I can't promise much one way or the other.
     
  10. Tortoise

    Tortoise Getting sticky.

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    quote

     
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  11. TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Either you're really good at this, or I really suck at it.
     
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  12. Threadmarks: Midara Elemental Polyhedron
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Because I'm an extra-special snowflake who isn't content with a two dimensional magic structure, mine has a whole third dimension. Since I lack any programming skills at all, you'll have to visualize rather than me building a cute little program to do it for you. But, hey, if someone wants to volunteer to build a graphical version, that'd be awesome.

    =====

    Picture a pyramid, then take an identical pyramid, turn it upside down, and stick them together. Or, for those geeks out there, just picture a D8.

    Four of the points are the "traditional" elements of Earth, Water, Fire and Air, let's say they occupy the "ground level" of the pyramids. Now, imagine the top point of the pyramid is the elemental force of Creation, while the bottom point is the elemental force of Negation.

    For a total of six elements, what are known as the Prime Aspects. Is this starting to sound a little like Age of Wonders, yet? No surprise there.

    Now picture a line between each element and its neighbors. Each of those lines is one of the Border Aspects, sharing elements with its "parent" Aspects, but also possessing its own unique properties. There is a total of twelve Border Aspects, for 18 overall aspects.

    It also forms a total of 3 "rings", each with a total of 8 aspects within. I'll be explaining the aspects using those rings, for what I hope is easier visualization.


    FUNDAMENTAL: Thaumaturge, Enchanter

    Fundamental isn't considered an aspect, it's the energy that all things have natural access to. A "neutral" magic, as it were. Fundamental magic covers building complex magical structures (including potions and magic items), detecting the flow of magical energy, and identifying the nature of spells and constructs that are being used. Thaumaturges also develop talents to tear down and destroy other enchantments, or reprogram them to suit other purposes. On the battlefield, thaumaturges are often deployed to "counterspell spam" enemy mages.

    Fundamental magic is exceedingly complicated compared to most mage styles, since it works with deeper forces rather than the more abundant and easily manipulated forces of Aspect magic. As such, few other than devoted scholars pursue the art.

    Career options: dispelling curses, inflicting curses, crafting potions, constructing magical devices, reshaping sarite shards, and teaching other mages to better harness their abilities.

    Master Fundamental mages are often called Archmages or Artificers.


    ELEMENTAL RING:

    The traditional four elements form the elemental ring, which share in common the nature of directly altering the physical materials of the universe. They do not create nor destroy, they merely manipulate or alter what is already there.

    The elemental ring goes as follows: Earth - Plant - Water - Mist - Air - Desert - Fire - Forge - Earth


    EARTH: (Geomancer, Terramancer)

    Earth mages work with rock, soil, and minerals. In terms of resilience, they are second to none, though they lack ranged offensive options. Most of their magic works slowly, reshaping the environment around them and establishing battlefield control.

    While considered too slow to be effective in direct combat, Terramancers have their place as walking siege weapons, Given time, they can devastate enemy defenses, bringing down even the toughest fortifications with their ability to manipulate the ground. In addition, they make excellent frontline warriors with their superhuman durability and strength magics.

    Career options: Construction, demolition, infrastructure planning, finding rare minerals, and maintenance.

    Opposite: Air


    PLANT: (Botanical Mage, Mud Mage, Shaman)

    Shamans mostly work with plantlife. Their main tricks revolve around reshaping the living environment to their needs, not unlike geomancers, but they can work their magic faster than any geomancer of equivalent skill. Some will also work with mud and quicksand, when the opportunity arises. In addition, plants have any number of useful properties, which shamans often have magic to identify and exploit.

    On the battlefield, they have most of the durability of a geomancer, but more maneuverability options and the ability to hamper the movement of their opponents, making them frustrating foes.

    Career Options: nonmagical poultices, pain relievers, and poisons, farming, floral arrangements.

    Opposite: Desert


    WATER: (Aquamancer)

    Aquamancers are infamous for their ability to change to circumstances and surprise their enemies. Adaptive, swift, and deceptively lethal, they excel at evading and confounding enemies before coming in for the kill against an exhausted and disoriented foe. They make effective assassins, but still are rather lacking in ranged offensive options. Unlike the geomancer and shaman, aquamancers can usually use their battlefield control magic. In non-combat situations, their adaptability lets them adjust to situations as needed, and most can summon or cleanse water so that it's safe to drink, or breathe underwater.

    Some Aquamancers focus their power on the small scale, crafting some illusions and cosmetic alterations of bodies. Some rare water mages are talented shapeshifters.

    Career Options: summon rain, or reduce the power of floods, clean poisons, provide drinking water, plastic surgeon.

    Opposite: Fire


    MIST: (Atmokinetic, Illusionist)

    Sometimes called illusion or storm mages, they combine the confounding power of the water mage with the swift ever-mutable nature of air magic. Storm magic tends to have less forceful but wider scale magic than their water counterparts, and focus mainly on the deceptive and illusory options that their more offensively oriented counterparts lack the finesse to accomplish. Very little an Atmokinetic does has any permanency, but their range in both distance and versatility is not to be underestimated.

    Career Options: illusionists, entertainers, assassins, full army support

    Opposite: Forge


    AIR: (Aeromancer)

    Aeromancers are infamous for having the longest range, and least directly powerful, magic. Air mages tend to be fragile, relying on agility to keep themselves alive while they kick up windstorms to blind their foes and prevent ranged attacks. Particularly strong air mages can generate hurricane force winds, able to ruin an enemy force with their power. Many air mages can use their magic to hear from great distances or send magical messages on the breeze.

    Career Options: Messenger, Spy, Scout

    Opposite: Earth


    DESERT:

    Also known as dust mages, sand mages, lightning mages, and dessication mages, the desert mage has many options to combine the speed and range of air magic with the destructive power of the fire mage. The desert mage is infamous for indiscriminate harm they can inflict not just upon their foes, but upon every living thing near that foe. Even lightning, one of their most focused abilities, has a bad habit of missing or hitting multiple targets that may not be what the mage intended. As such, they are often disparagingly referred to as "collateral damage" mages.

    Career Options: Climate control for libraries, killing people in horrific ways

    Opposite: Plant


    FIRE MAGE: (Pyromancer)

    Pyromancers are perhaps the most vulnerable of all mages. Lacking the durability of the Earth mage, the adaptability of the water mage, or the speed of the air mage, the pyromancer's magic is almost completely offensive in nature. Their spells are fast, controllable, and have a solid range, giving the pyromancer freedom to focus on raw, destructive, potential. Their main vulnerabilities are their lack of defenses and sensory magic, making them exceedingly vulnerable to water mages. They can also use their magic to inspire passion and confidence, though those talents are more common amongst the neighboring 'blood' and 'madness' aspects.

    Career Options: If it burns, we can kill it... also great way to warm your house.

    Opposite: Mist


    FORGE MAGE: (Volcanist)

    Often considered the ultimate war mages, a forge mage specializes in concentrating raw power and defensive ability into pinpoint accurate death. While possessing less resiliency than a pure earth mage, or the ranged offensive power of the fire mage, the volcanist has devastating front line combat ability, and often favors use of heavy weapons and armor to augment their combative style. Their lack of mobility tends to hinder them in combat, however.

    Career Options: Everything you want from a main battle tank


    SPIRITUAL RING:

    The spirit ring, sometimes known as the cycle of life and the metamorphic ring, are the Aspects which guide the nature of life and death. These aspects are about life, death, rebirth, and the fundamental truth that nothing remains forever.

    The elemental ring goes as follows: Creation - Peace - Water - Ice - Negation - Madness - Fire - Blood - Creation


    CREATION: (Manifester)

    Sometimes mistakenly called Life magic, Creation is a much more fundamental concept than life and death. It is the binding force that allows existence to exist, and maintains the dynamic nature of the universe. While all forms of magic manipulate or alter matter and energy in some way, Creation magic is the magic that brings things into being in the first place.

    Manifesters build from nothing, creating energy and even matter without any discernible source. Strong manifesters can create weapons, armor, forcefields, and even golems from pure magic, assembled into ever more complex forms. Many believe that creation-aspect gods can manifest spirits and even living things using their power, and that it was from this that all live originated. Creation mages also have a natural tendency to develop precognitive abilities, and are the only bloodline which can use Resurrection magic.

    Career Options: Even weak manifesters can find eager employers amongst other mages who benefit from having a natural font of magical energy nearby. Strong manifesters are necessary to power certain magical constructs without resorting to such tactics as human sacrifice.


    PEACE: (Healer, Peace Mage)

    Combining the infusion of power abilities of Creation with the metamorphic nature of water, healers represent peace, tranquility, and a soul at rest. They possess a strong sense of self, and while amongst the least effective warriors of any path of magic, they are amongst the most valuable to the soldiers who survive the battle. Their ability to cleanse mental wounds as well as physical make them indispensable. If forced into combat, they can often calm the enemy and convince them to lay down their arms.

    Opposite: Madness


    WATER (See above)


    ICE: (Frost mage, Hypothermia mage)

    Ice is the aspect of the slow but steady loss of strength, the entropy of running out of strength. Ice mages represent the spiritual decay brought on by age, and are known for using pneumonia, darkness, lethargy, weakness, and frostbite to bring down their enemies. Some ice mages also learn to exploit the defensive and offensive options available in the form of using actual ice, but the majority prefer to rely upon their more subtle powers.

    Career Options: Assassins, saboteurs, battlefield debuffs galore

    Opposite: Blood


    NEGATION: (Necromancer, Exorcist)

    As with Creation, Negation goes far deeper than mere death. It is also wrongly interpreted as destruction magic. All magic can be destructive, but destruction does not cause a thing to cease to exist, merely changes its state. When a forest burns, trees cease to be trees, but they still exist as ash and smoke. When water freezes or evaporates, it changes form, but it still fundamentally exists. Negation magic is the true end of existence, leaving nothing behind. They are the only source of true, complete, death.

    Necromancers deal with death and that which lingers after death. Much life pyromancers, necromancers have few if any defensive abilities, but they do tend to possess a natural talent for detecting energy. While all but helpless against Creation mages, a Negation mage has a natural advantage against all other forms of magic.

    Career Options: Killing monsters, killing people, killing infectious diseases, killing the dead, killing the undead, killing magic, killing basically everything else


    MADNESS: (Scourge, Hate Mage)

    The scourge strips the sense of peace and tranquility from their victims, leaving only anger and if pushed far enough, violent insanity. Their magic inspires paranoia, rage, antisocial behavior, and obsessive fervor. It can be used to inspire armies before battle, or to drive foes to slaughter their own comrades in fits of jealousy and resentment.

    Career Options: Not great as spies, per se, but damn can they mess with an opponent battle plan.

    Opposite: Peace


    FIRE: See Above


    BLOOD: (Sanguimancer, Passion Mage, "Love" Mage)

    Cousin of the hate mage, the passion mage inspires great bursts of confidence and focus. On the battlefield, they can drive soldiers to superhuman prowess, and off the battlefield, they are loved for their ability to liven any party. Some blood mages can also temporarily take control of another's magic, but that technique is a closely guarded secret.

    Career Options: Anything booze can do, you can do better.

    Opposite: Ice


    MATERIAL RING:


    The material band is one of the physical properties and reality. Material forces tend not to be static, dealing with hard reality and absolute truths with no concern for those who live within their system.

    The elemental ring goes as follows: Creation - Mind - Air - Miama - Negation - Time - Earth - Nature - Creation.


    CREATION: See above


    MIND: (Inquisitor, Esper, Truth mage)

    Mind mages are ones who manipulate the thought process and knowledge of others. They do not possess illusions or mind clouding abilities, but most have little or no trouble seeing through the illusions of others. Many are prone to supernatural bursts of inspiration and knowledge that comes seemingly from nowhere, a trait inherited from their creation aspect neighbor. They are highly resistant to mind altering magics.

    Career Opportunities: Best Truthsayers, reading minds, being inhumanly intelligent

    Opposite: Time


    AIR: See Above


    MIASMA: (Poison mage, Miasma mage, Plague mage)

    Plague mages combine air's natural blanketing features with Negation's theft of life, making them terrifying on the battlefield for much the same reasons as desert mages. Their brand of offense is poison of the air, slowly killing all within every time they take a breath. Asphyxiation, hallucinations, and stealth magic define this bloodline.

    Career Path: Nothing friendly, I assure you.

    Opposite: Nature


    NEGATION: See Above


    TIME: (Chronomancer)

    Also known as 'erosion magic', time mages play with perhaps the most self-destructive of all magical forces, the inexorable power of time to grind all things to dust. In time, mountains fall to sand and even the gods face their demise.

    Time mages couple the patient resilience of Earth with the cold inevitability of Negation. Time mages can pull information from the past, inflict fragility upon objects, animals, and people, and strip away strength and knowledge with their magic. More than any other Negation related path, Time excels at inflicting damage upon nonliving targets.

    For those willing to take risks and sacrifice everything for the cause, time mages can accelerate someone, allowing them to get minutes of activity or years of healing done in mere seconds, at the expense of exhaustion and possibly death by heart attack.

    Career Options: Remarkable talent for forgeries, investigating lost secrets, making sure secrets stay lost, and frustrating mind mages

    Opposite: Mind (Time makes fools of us all, you know)


    EARTH: See Above


    NATURE: (Ecomancer)

    Nature magic mostly deals with the animals of the wild and the power of the physical body. Strength, stability, and the laws of kill or be killed define this path of improvement of life by constant warfare. Nature mages sometimes control animals, but most prefer to take the traits of animals upon themselves, granting themselves the power of beasts rather than lowering themselves to enslaving others.

    Nature mages also have some access to healing magic, though they're much better at healing themselves than others.

    Career Options: backup healer, deadly warrior, friend of animals

    Opposite: Miasma


    =====


    A/N- and there you go, all eighteen elemental aspects, with a generic idea of their abilities and position on the magical D8.

    ... I swear, it'll be a whole hell of a lot cooler in video game mode with visuals...
     
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  13. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 41
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Suggested Listening

    Elruin sang to the dead, spoke to them, forced them to speak back. Flashes of knowledge, families left behind. Calenda's prey spoke the truth, he had a young wife Lemia's age along with with twins that were just learning to walk. He had also not been lying about the 'stash', though he left out the series of traps and the small army which guarded it.

    "We'll have to fight lots of people to get their treasure," she said. She left out the family; Cali would be sad if she knew. "They're all bad men, with prisoners."

    Calenda hesitated for a moment, then pulled a small sarite crystal off the dead man. "Too much risk, too much time wasted on a small handful when the entire empire is at stake. We'll come back later to deal with this group."

    "They'll move their camp by then," Lemia said. "These guys didn't last this long by being sloppy."

    "I know, but there'll be some clues left behind." Calenda pulled a coin pouch off the body next.

    "I believe that is where we come in." "Oh, yes, we would help so much."

    "Morks!" Cali jumped back from the body, and took a combat stance. "Everyone, stand back to back. Elruin, blanket the area!"

    "No need." "We're not here to fight." "Not you." "We watched." "You smell of blood. "And death." "And power." "You would slaughter us to the last." "Our pups would starve." "We make you an offer." "Then leave in peace."

    "Watched?" Cali glanced around through the forest, but saw nothing. "They have a wind mage, scrying from outside our range." Scrying magic may have been disrupted in the region, but it hadn't been eliminated. Close range and targeting a known location was the simplest scrying spell.

    "Smart and powerful." "Yes, we are wise to avoid fighting." "You would be wise to accept our offer." "We track your prey for you." "Leave trail for you." "We cannot slay them." "You can." "Take their treasures." "We need them not." "Leave their bodies." "You need them not." "You get your gold." "We get our feast."

    "On one hand, I love the idea of creating more carnage." Scratch began climbing into the bandit leader, whose entire essence had been hollowed out by the constant barrage of death magic to the point that even if someone wanted to revive him, it would have been impossible. "On the other hand, morks will turn on us the moment they think they can kill us."

    "Alas, our reputation precedes us." "It is true, most of our kind cannot be trusted." "Tis our lot in life." "But we are not fools." "To fight you costs everything." "To aid you costs nothing." "To aid us costs nothing." "Or do you plan to drag all their corpses home with you?"

    "As ghoulish as the offer is, it's a good trade," Cali admitted.

    Scratch's new body sat up. "We might be planning to take one or two of the corpses."

    "We see." "But surely not all of them." "To drive them from the forest is still a boon." "They steal our prey." "No respect for our homes." "They would hunt us if they could." "Take what you need." "Leave us the rest."

    "They're bad men. They hurt innocent people," Elruin said. "I know Claron's more important, but I want to stop them, too."

    "If you want." Cali put her hand on Elruin's shoulder. "I can't promise we'll return soon, but we accept your offer."

    "I knew you were wise." "Ours was a good bargain" "You win." "We win." "They lose." "We shall claw the trees." "Point you toward them." "The marks shall last all season." "But do not tarry too long." "We cannot know what the future holds."

    "Is that a good idea?" Lemia had never encountered morks before, and had little to go on other than rumor. They were not flattering rumors. "Can they be trusted?"

    "No further than I can throw them," Cali said. "But I can throw one pretty far if I have to. They're cowards who think with their stomachs, and we're much too dangerous for them to risk for two edible women. Even if we don't leave a trail of bodies behind for them, this is a win-win since the bandit presence has to be driving away their usual prey. I've made worse bargains with worse people, before."

    "You flatter me." Scratch held out his hand, offering two shimmering crystals to Cali. "Here, I can't use them."

    "Thanks. Start stripping the bodies, especially the sarite. The weapons and armor aren't worth the effort to carry. And keep the conversation to a minimum for a minute, I need to hide us." Cali took the time to focus on some of her more difficult spells, but soon the trees began to shimmer and sing as her magic infused them. "Whew, that took a lot more out of me than I'm accustomed to."

    The song was more than metaphor or Elruin's Requiem. Every leaf in the forest shook, brushed against the others, cumulating with the others in a cacophony that made it hard for them to hear one another, and extended into the ether to disrupt magic.

    "Not the most subtle spell, but we won't have to worry about spying morks now." Calenda took a moment to steady herself, took a deep breath out of habit rather than utility. She was now adapting to the downside of no longer experiencing exhaustion; she could no longer rely upon her body to tell her when she was reaching her limits. Objectively, if she tried to go this long without food, water, or sleep, then took a beating like she'd taken in this fight, she might have died from exhaustion. Being an abomination made her more resilient, but it didn't make her unstoppable.

    She squeezed her fingers around the crystals, sampling them one after another. "Oh, these shards are nice." One water, the other plant, both ideal for wilderness survival and combat. "I'm keeping the one that grants combat skills and hides my magic from detection. It's best on a front-liner like me, anyway. Hmm. Lemia, you should have this one. I think it'll help with your alchemy, and it will also help us avoid monsters."

    "Uh, sure," Lemia accepted the shard. "Oh, I see what you mean. While we're here, there's a thunder-bloom by that tree. How do I know that? I've never seen thunder-bloom that hadn't been ground into powder already."

    "Botanical magic's funny like that, you'll get used to it," Cali said. "Ell, do you think that hand-monster can pull a cart? The bandits have one hidden up ahead."

    "Yes." She didn't see why not. A quick bark of music that was only possible thanks to her resonance with Calenda and the monster responded to her orders. She could imagine that other mages with this type of spell could stop her from giving orders to her dollies. Nearby, the dessicated corpse started to climb to its feet as well.

    "I think, maybe, the essence drain magic leaves a little of your essence behind." Elruin stared at the newly minted walking corpse. With concentration, she looked deep within it, seeking out the seed of undeath that she'd awoken when she sang. "We need to be careful about how you use that magic."

    Cali looked at the results of her actions. She hated to imagine what might have happened if the morks ate a tainted corpse. The things were bad enough when they were alive. "Nevermind the monster, I have a better idea."

    She found the cart, and the two beasts which pulled it. She wrinkled her nose. "Ugh, mules." A mean thought that they couldn't possibly smell any worse dead crossed her mind. Focusing all her remaining power into upper body strength, she grabbed both animals by their throats and began the parasitic theft of their life force. Being animals, they didn't replenish her magical reserves much, but they had what it took to mend her back to physical peak.

    It would be enough for now, and in the worst case scenario they were collecting a fair amount of sarite she could use to recover magic. She looked in the back of the cart, finding a great deal of raw animal meat, some fresh hides, and some cooked and salted meat in a barrel.

    "Well, that'll make the damn coyotes happy." She began to slide the raw flesh out of the cart, in part because it'd slow them down, and in part because she knew how nasty this would get over the next few days of travel.

    Elruin came to help as well, scouring the blood from the back of the cart and forcing the mules to climb to their feet. "I can't control any more dollies," she told Cali as they worked. "Not unless I drop control of others, or stop shielding you."

    Entek na. "That's fine, we should limit the number anyway." Life, such as it was, could only get worse for her if she had to continue leaving a string of corpses behind for Elruin to clean up after.

    Suggested Listening

    For all her bravado in the church earlier, Lemia hesitated to pick at the bodies for sarite, or to empty their pouches. The weapons were easier, if only because they were nearby rather than

    "Don't tell me you suddenly got squeamish around corpses, Spook. You were diggin' through those centaurs like a fatty who smelled bacon." The former leader of the bandits, now Scratch's new host, smirked at her, then returned to dragging two bodies to the nearby pile. "And I saw you pawing the un-scout earlier. She ain't into you. More's the pity."

    "Hey, I can handle long-dead demons, and Calenda is..." Lemia shuddered as Elruin's new 'dolly', the man Calenda had stripped of life, walked by. Chunks of skin and flesh sloughed off like caked mud and dried leaves. "I'm having the world's longest hot bath when this is over. Three weeks, minimum."

    "Sounds nice," Scratch said. "Been forever since I took possession of a bath."

    Lemia almost complained that Scratch never stopped, but that would have encouraged him further. "So, while you're feeling talkative, what is the story with Calenda? The real story."

    "Couldn't tell ya, Spook. On one hand, I know she's not into women. On the other hand, she literally chose to die, rather than marry a handsome, wealthy, and powerful man. You'll have to ask her."

    "She has no idea what she is, but you do." Lemia hesitated for a moment. "No. You don't know, either, do you?"

    "I play my cards close to my chest, Spook. You ain't gonna trick me into revealing anything."

    "You already have. I know your tell!" Lemia laughed, though it wouldn't carry far through the rustling leaves. "You were terrified of Ell bringing Cali back. Cali was halfway between death and what she is now, Elruin was... well, Elruin's just oblivious in general... but there's something going on here and you don't know what it is, do you?"

    "My secrets are mine, not yours," Scratch said. "Maybe I'll share some of them with Elruin, but not you."

    Now Lemia was certain; Scratch didn't joke about important stuff. He'd been avoiding Cali for a while, and even now wasn't as enthusiastic as he had been in the short time she'd known him before. "Then I'll tell you what I know. First of all, Cali's not undead."

    "Then what is she, if you're such an expert?"

    "Not a clue. I had my hands and magic all over her, her body is definitely dead, the same as all the rest of these corpses. And it's undead, loaded with the same taint you are. But her mind and soul didn't experience the same ravages as her body. She's intact, she's alive whatever the status of her body. And everything I know about death, revival, and undeath screams that this should be impossible."

    The more she spoke, the quieter Scratch got. "I'm sure you know the little secret those with resurrection magic don't like to talk about... they don't bring the soul back. What they do is pull together the remnants of life force that haven't been consumed, then they use their magic to fill in the gaps, like mortar and bricks to make a wall. That's why resurrections are so messy. What comes back is not the same being that went in. Same face, same memories, similar enough personality that friends and family can fool themselves into believing the trauma is to blame for the inconsistencies, but not the same."

    "Sounds like a bigger abomination than they call me."

    "I'd love to see you standing next to someone who's been revived, to compare how similar you actually are, but that's not important right now. What Elruin did was something different, neither revival nor enslavement, something that kept the soul in one piece. I can't explain it, and neither can you."

    "Can not, will not, impossible for the outside observer to tell the difference."

    "But I know better because I watched how you panicked when Ell told us what she had planned. I thought it was suspicious then, and now I know why. You thought Cali was going to come back an abomination."

    "So?" Scratch stuck his head out of the chest of his puppet. "I've created four abominations in the time I've been working with Elruin, thousands more over the course of my existence. Other than what are admittedly the nicest legs I've ever seen on a dead woman, Calenda's no different than the rest. Unless if, as you say, her soul's still in one piece."

    "True." She had no counter-argument that it wouldn't matter to Scratch what happened to Cali. Then she started to smile as the last piece fell into place. "But Cali was never your concern, except maybe as a curiosity. It's Elruin you were worried about!"

    "Shoulda possessed you when I had the chance." Scratch muttered. "Fine, you win. Creating undead, true undead, not whatever it is that Cali happens to be, leaves spiritual marks on the soul. It's pretty much the same taint that is the undead, eventually drives the necromancer to the same madness that normal undead experience. An undead soul in a living body, the opposite of Calenda. Do I need to explain to you how bad that would be for Elruin?"

    "Which is as good as admitting you have no idea what she did to make Cali," Lemia said. "Other than that it avoided this taint. My only remaining question is what makes you care so much about the status of Elruin's soul? I don't think you need soul to continue this con you're running on death."

    "Who said it's death I'm trying to con?" Scratch returned to dragging bodies. He'd be keeping a close eye on her, she was much too dangerous.

    Fine, keep your secrets for now. Lemia returned to scavenging the corpses. She'd be keeping a close eye on him, he was much too dangerous.


    =====

    Voice of the Dead... it'll be fun using that spell in the game.

    Not all random encounters in the game will automatically end in violence, especially as the whole "reputation: power" climbs. Sooner or later, enemies will just surrender or run. Or offer bribes. Bribes are fun. And there are other mechanics to dissuade indiscriminate slaughter.

    This isn't the only path where morks convince Elruin to help kill bandits. Really, morks just like it when someone else kills things so they don't have to.

    And, yes, one of the big problems with your undead party members and minions will be that there is nothing to tell you if they're healthy or injured, or what those injuries are, unless they're outright missing limbs. In essence, Elruin has to check manually. Also... no mana recovery. Which is not a problem for the mindless shock troops, but Calenda is a mage.

    Also- Cali's wrong. Mules do, indeed, smell worse dead. I know it's hard to believe, but it's true. Though death does significantly improve their personalities.


    Oh, and players: I went easy on you by having Elruin cleanse the taint left behind. This time. In the game... you forget to do that and you'll start leaving pockets of undeath outbreaks behind. That... is not a good path.
     
  14. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 42
    TanaNari

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    While Lemia and Scratch had their conversation, Elruin was busy with preparing the cart. They had space enough for the map and the weapons, and even enough for Elruin to set up the cots for her and Lemia, so the now-dead mules need not ever stop traveling while the humans rested. It also made it a lot easier to use the hand-monster as a guard.

    "Cali?" Elruin looked up at her older sister who now shared her hair and skin color. It was fun, imagining she might grow up to look like the woman. "How do you feel, now that you're..."

    "A walking cadaver?" Cali was never one to beat around the bush, and she wasn't going to let death change that. "Better than expected. I thought it'd be annoying, disgusting, an inconvenience I took on to get away from worse, but it's not bad. I've already come to think it's less gross than being alive. But I find it may be less gross than being alive. I don't get hungry, so I don't eat and don't need to use the toilet."

    "So, you're not upset?" Elruin inched closer. "You don't wish you alive still?"

    "As long as I have my freedom, I'm content," she said. "That said, we're going to need to find a way to restore my magic. I'm tougher than I was, but everything's drawing off the same source."

    Elruin frowned. "But you have the vampire shared, it should replace your energy."

    "Maybe you hadn't noticed, but I'm a spellcaster and most of the things we've fought aren't," Cali said. "They don't have enough energy to replace what I burn."

    "Oh." In hindsight, it seemed obvious that a mage like Cali who relied on heavy physical magic would consume energy fast, and most monsters weren't magical enough to provide a lot of power back. She wrapped her arms around Cali.

    Cali rested a hand on her back. "That's sweet, but I don't know if hugs are- woah!"

    Elruin kicked up her black lightning, normally reserved for melting the hands of anyone dumb enough to grab her, and began to sink that energy into Cali's flesh and bones. She made certain to be careful while she entwined their energies and reinforced all of Calenda's magic-driven motor structures. She smiled up at her elder sister. "Better?"

    "That was quite the hug."

    "I'll be happy to hug you whenever you want," Elruin said. She didn't put any more energy into it; she would need to take time to recover, herself, first.

    "I'll have to take you up on that." Cali let herself relax, now that exhaustion had faded into a dull and mild fatigue. "Now, let's get back on the road. The more time we waste, the more people die."

    Suggested Listening

    "Ell! Wake up!"

    Elruin's eyes came open, with Lemia laying right next to her on her face, almost invisible in the dense night fog. Elruin squeezed Squishybones just a little tighter.

    "It's goblins!" Lemia remained low in the cart, trying to hide herself as best she could. She'd put together what she could of an illusion using her ornate sword as a basis, but all it accomplished was making them harder to notice. True invisibility was a much, much more difficult feat.

    Elruin had never seen goblins before, but they had a reputation for abducting and eating children. Then, it seemed that every story ended with children abducted and eaten. It struck Elruin that there weren't enough children to feed all the monsters of the stories, so either they ate something else, or they all starved to death long ago.

    She remained on her back, but began to look through the fog. The trees swarmed with flickers of life, not unlike those of the squirrels, but larger and more vibrant. These monsters were intelligent, that she was certain of. They also didn't seem to have much trouble jumping from tree to tree in spite of it being night and Cali's fog hanging heavy in the air. "How do we fight them?"

    "I don't know, Cali said they use swarm tactics, and she always ran from them. They rely heavily on their toxic skin and... uh... bodily fluids. She wants the undead to take point, to draw their fire while we keep pushing for the edge of the forest."

    It made sense to make the dead, who could not be poisoned, take point. Elruin began to sing to her new archer guard, ordering it to stand point and fire upon the monsters of the trees. Then she continued singing, pouring necromantic energy into the cloud of fog. Goblins could see through natural blackness and Cali's fog, but perhaps her supernatural darkness would do what they did not. It wouldn't hurt, at any rate. Elruin kept pushing, infusing the area with death magic that would choke the life from those who pursued them.

    One goblin dropped, a victim of her dolly's inhuman aim. In spite of the fairy tales, they weren't very tough. The hand-monster took to the trees, chasing goblins who were its equal in its arboreal agility, but inferior in offense and defense. It grabbed them and threw them at the ground with enough power that they burst like watermelons upon collision.

    Meanwhile, Calenda dropped another with a rock, since she'd used up all the knives she'd taken off the bandits. They weren't good knives, anyway. It rolled to its feet, then crawled away to nurse its wounds. In her opinion, the worst thing abouts goblins of all types were their ability to heal from any injury short of death, including lost limbs. Or perhaps the worst thing was that they bred so fast that if any survived, they'd be back to full numbers this time next year.

    Scratch walked ahead, since he didn't care about his body at all. The goblins pelted him with balls of muck containing copious amounts of their toxins, but all it served was to make the dead man stink of something not unlike a dead skunk that was set on fire. Scratch fingered his chain armor, which was beginning to corrode due to the chemicals.

    "Fall back! And watch beneath your feet!" He shouted to the rest of them. "They've got hobgoblins!" Still, Scratch kept his puppet standing, evading what attacks he could while serving as a decoy. Sooner or later, this corpse was going to be overcome to the point that his power couldn't keep it moving, but that was true of everything he possessed. For now, what mattered was getting Elruin to safety.

    The name meant nothing to Elruin, who knew little about monsters, but Lemia was a little better read. "Ell, make the mules run. As fast as you can."

    "But, Cali, Scratch, and my dollies..."

    "Cali can outrun the cart, Scratch will catch up, and we can find you some new dollies! If those things reach us, we're both dead!"

    Elruin hated abandoning her dollies, but she knew Lemia was right. She changed her song, amplified it, and did what she could to strengthen the mules as they began running as best they could while still dragging the cart along. She saw the things moving underground, so she changed the nature of her song to go around the ambush.

    Too late to avoid all of the trap, the ground caved beneath the cart and broke one wheel. For almost anyone else, it would have meant the end of their fleeing, but Elruin maintained her song. No living mule would have willingly dragged a cart up such an unstable hill, but her dollies obeyed without hesitation.

    Their ambush failed, several leprous-white lanky bipedal things emerged from the muck to give chase. Elruin blasted one with a death-bolt, but it didn't seem to do much more than slow the pursuer for a few seconds as the glowing fire of life energy overwhelmed her death magic.

    Calenda came out of the woods, flying feet first into one of the monsters, slamming it to the ground, then jumping forward to catch up to the rest of the group. She remained on foot, next to the damaged cart, but threw another rock which beaned one of the goblins to little effect.

    "Where's Scratch?" Elruin shouted.

    "Dunno, lost track about three body-swaps ago!" Calenda stumbled, then by sheer force of will made her unliving body to get back up and move. "If you've got any crazy tricks, now's the time to use them!"

    If death magic wasn't working, then she didn't expect her fear magic to be much better. Perhaps her decay magic, but that ran the risk of destroying the damaged cart. She did have one other option, however. Elruin changed her song, exciting the passions and anger of one of the lead goblins.

    "What are you doing?" Lemia asked. Then she recognized the nature of the magic. "Oh, that is brilliant." She joined in, using her magic to mirror Elruin's.

    Twin exposure to her anger-inflicting magic was enough to drive the goblins into screeching at one another. If the troupe could speak goblin, they would have learned that one was blaming another for their ambush failing, and the other made a remark about the former's cowardice. Soon, that pair was reduced to violence, while tempers were magically stressed with the others until they, too, succumbed to infighting.

    Unable to speak their language, all Elruin and Lemia learned was that goblins could continue clawing at each other long after they had sustained what should have been lethal amounts of blood loss from opened arteries.

    Soon they broke into open terrain, the sort of clearing that could only be found near civilization in Engeval where painstaking effort was taken to prevent the trees from encroaching upon city walls. The goblins, having given up on trying to kill Scratch's puppet, remained in the trees, unwilling to step into the open plains where they lost almost all of their range and maneuverability advantages.

    Rushing toward Elruin and Lemia from the other direction was a pack of white dogs, their fur glowing in the night, with another set of inhuman but intelligent beings on their backs. They weren't goblins, or anything else she'd ever seen before, but the way they guided their hounds was well organized, a team that had trained to fight in formation.

    "Entek!" Cali muttered. "Ell, exorcise the mules now!"

    Elruin obeyed, singing her song as she stripped, purified, and consumed the necromantic power of the mules. It didn't restore much of her energy, but it was better than nothing. Their bodies collapsed into piles, leaving the cart still and listing to one side.

    The split into two sets well before reaching the cart, circling around on both sides, then going forward to the edge of the forest. The white-cloaked figured on top threw something at the trees, which began to erupt into blooms of flame, and goblins dropping to the forest floor. The rest began to flee into the forest.

    Suggested Listening

    "Don't worry, they can be trusted," Cali said. "The Hounds are mainly followers of Klaro, true believers in the concepts of order and righteousness. Also many, many Truthsayers, so be very careful."

    One of the canines, and its rider, approached. "Hail, tra'lers." Elruin realized the rider was shorter than she was, moments before she pulled her white hood back to reveal a face more akin to that of a rabbit or squirrel than a person, with soft yellow fur covering much of her forehead and muzzle. "You speak wi' Moira and Tua."

    The canine dipped its head, as if a bow.

    "Hail, Ghost Hound." Calenda forced herself to stand straight, then pulled her Ecrosian icon from her vest. "I am Esra na Ecross. We desperately need your aid."

    "Priestess?" The yellow-furred woman gestured, drawing the rest of the pack closer. "Come, let us o'er shelter." While there was no interfaith requirement of supporting the priests of other religions, let alone ones of different cities and species, she needed to know what drove a small group of humans so far through such dangerous wilderness. Promising shelter was a small price for that knowledge.

    Cali's strength failed and she collapsed like the corpse her body was.

    Moments after, the short blonde was at her side. "She's cold!" Soon, she began to draw on healing energy.

    "Stop! You'll kill her!" Elruin shouted. She drew together some of her own magic, to try to shield Cali from harm. Healing magic worked by mending and infusing with energy, but it would untie the 'knots' that made up the puppet-strings which let Calenda's body move. Several of the Ghost Hounds pointed weapons at the pair, interpreting the drawing of magic as a possible attack.

    "She's a necromancer," Lemia said. If she let Elruin say anything more, it might lead to Cali being discovered, and all of them executed. Thinking fast, she began to build a case that would trip a Truthsayer or raise suspicions. "And a famous healer in her own right. If she says healing is dangerous, I believe it." All true statements, none of which were in any way related to one another, but still true.

    Necromantic healers were an oddity, but not unheard of. "Why would healing kill her?"

    Elruin hesitated, sputtered over her words. "Because it will hurt her inside, like poison."

    "Please forgive her," Lemia said. "She is a child, and a wild talent. Up until a few months ago she never had a day of formal training with her magic, so it stands to reason she doesn't know how to explain specifics. I think what she describes sounds like mana poisoning. Esra did the hardest fighting to get us away from the goblins." Once again, all true statements that were unrelated.

    Many poisoning wasn't an unreasonable explanation, either. "Please, listen to them," Cali mumbled. "I appreciate your concern, but let me rest for now. They can explain the threat."

    Tua drew back, uncertain about the condition Esra was in, especially the coolness of her skin, but she was unfamiliar with humans and what was and was not healthy for them. Perhaps they were like dwarves, but the opposite, and felt unhealthily cool to silmid rather than unhealthily hot.

    "Right," Lemia said. "I'll explain on the way, but the basic details is that some powerful madman claiming to be Enge's Chosen is going around conquering half the cities of Engeval. We're trying to get a warning to the capital, but had to go north to avoid him and his armies. We were trying to escape to dwarven lands, in the hope that they could deliver the message we can't. Looks like we failed."

    The guards and their dogs glanced amongst themselves. "You did not, these are dwar'en lands, but our stone-brothers stay in 'eir tunnels. Silmid abo', stone-brothers below."

    "Good, please let us deliver our warnings to your leaders." The sun was just now beginning to come over the horizon, and Lemia was ready for the day to be over. "Hey, Rin, help Esra to her feet." If Calenda wanted to use pseudonyms, then she'd trust they all needed one. "We'll have to abandon the cart for now, but there's nothing of value in it."

    The glowing dog tilted her head at the words, then made a small, soft, growl. "Nothing?" Tua asked.

    "Uh, I mean, nothing valuable enough to delay our warning. But the, uh, tapestry is important as well." Now she knew they were using Truthsaying magic. Slipping on one harmless lie was worth it to test the waters. "It's a historical artifact. I know not its value in coin, but to scholars, even amateur ones like myself, it is a priceless relic. Everything else is survival tools, I trust they won't be needed under your hospitality.

    "And Mister Squishybones!" Meanwhile, Elruin helped pull Cali to her feet, while doing her best to check on her elder sister with her senses. She'd survive, in fact she could regenerate to full if she just remained still for a few weeks while feeding on ambient death energies, but for now she was one or two more spells away from destroying herself.

    Lemia smiled as Elruin unknowingly helped her test the limits of the canine Truthsayer. "Of course, I'd hate to forget Rin's stuffed toy, which is extra priceless."

    The dog nodded her head. "I understand." Tua smiled. "I ha'e children o' my own. Dena, Uren, show special care to the tapestry and toy. See what you can do about 'e cart and supplies, but 'ey're not a priority. I'll take our re'ugees to Sonhome."

    Now Lemia knew the dog was more than just a Truthsayer, she was smart enough to discern nuance in statements. That meant she could understand their language, and was at least as intelligent as most humans. "So, what was that stuff you used on the goblins? I know it wasn't magic, so nonmagical alchemy? I apologize if it is some sort of secret tool."

    "We call it 'enom'ire," Tua said. "It's a harmless powder 'at will con'ert to hot 'lame when exposed to certain chemicals. Like on goblin skin. It requires some special ore dwar'es dig up, can't say where else to 'ind it."

    "If there's no special secret, maybe I can get some before we go. But first, please tell me you have hot baths in Sonhome."

    "We ha'e hotsprings."

    Later, Lemia would deny that she whimpered in joy, but Elruin and Cali knew better.

    =====

    Another almost 3k chapter.

    Goblins in this game range from hilariously trivial to absolutely the most terrifying things depending upon your equipment. Notably- they use acid, poison, ranged attacks, use both tree and subterranean ambushes, and any injury that's not a one-shot is at best a temporary distraction. Including Elruin's death-bolts at this level.

    But they are mostly one-hit kills, so as long as you have even a modest set of ranged weapons they will drop like flies. The question is how many status ailments they'll inflict in the process. They have lots of them.

    On the plus side, most of them don't work well on the dead. On the minus side, Elruin's not dead. Wait... that don't sound right...
     
    Last edited: Mar 4, 2019
  15. Threadmarks: Chapter 2 Episode 43
    TanaNari

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    It was slow going, helping Cali limp across the plains, to a city Elruin was beginning to worry wasn't there. Then she started to recognize the wall of trees they approached was not a forest, but in fact an actual wall made of living trees that had been grown close together so that they fused into a single continuous lifeform.

    It was, in her opinion, a far superior defense than the walls which protected Arila, in that it was more than capable of blinding her magic. Every branch sang with complex and well-crafted magic that was of powerful but unknown function. She came to the fast conclusion that the magic of the tree-wall would have repelled Claron's attempts to take this city, if he used the same tactics he used in Arila.

    "Attempting to take our measure?" Tua asked?

    "No." Elruin rethought her words when the white dog growled at her. "Not in a bad way. I was studying how beautiful the magic was. I don't think Claron would dare to invade here."

    "Is 'at so? I'll tell you what I tell all 'oreigners," Tua said. "We don't know how good our walls are. No'ing's e'er reached 'em be'ore."

    That piqued Elruin's interest, so she opened herself up to the magic, to the songs which resounded and confounded. "You have a Lyra? A stronger... no, the songs are... you have two Lyras?"

    "Lyra's the name of the dryad in Arila," Lemia explained. "You might know her better as 'the Granddaughter of Enge', or perhaps 'Daughter of Tythes'. She's powerful, made a magic tree like the one that is your walls, but not nearly as big."

    "Ah, you must mean our Sisters, Cleda and Melana," Tua said. "You must be quite skilled to sense 'em so well, 'rom out here. Did you say you had only one Sister in your home?"

    "Lyra's the only one we know about," Lemia said. "I've never heard of there being another."

    "Such unspeakable loneliness she must endure," Tua muttered. She spent the rest of the walk in silent contemplation and prayer, until they reached the gates of the great tree fortress that was her home. "Welcome to Sonhome."

    They passed freely through the opening, without a single guard to stop them, but Elruin could see the magic dancing through the roots of the city. If they were to turn upon these people, every inch of the soil was a trap ready to spring. Either they would be impaled upon spikes of wooden death, or they would be ensnared and stripped of vital energy while waiting for whatever punishment the city saw fit to deliver.

    Tua began speaking to other silmid in their native language, which Elruin didn't understand. She returned to the much less comfortable human tongue moments after a pair of silmid approached. "'Ey'll take your companion to a ground nest to reco'er."

    "I'd feel more comfortable if Rin stays with Esra," Lemia said. "Don't worry, I can tell you everything of importance she knows about the invaders. She's a good mage, I trust nobody to care for Esra better, but she's not well equipped to explain political or military matters."

    "As you wish, but we might speak wi' 'em later," Tua said. "While you're here, you are 'ree to visit the city, but please stick to the 'isitors' section. And don't be too upset by the behavior o' our people, you'll 'ind our culture is... more permissi'e... 'an yours. And keep out o' our bough nests and 'e dwar'en tunnels, 'ey are not sa'e 'or you humans. And don't let Rin out on her own. Our people are beyond reproach, but we cannot speak for all 'isitors."

    Once through the great wooden archway, they found themselves on a stone path just wide enough to allow two wagons to pass side by side, and a large trader's pavilion to service and store such things. It was the only artificial stone feature in the entirety of the city that Elruin could see. The rest of the city was covered in wild grasses, with networks of tree branches above where the silmid would leap from branch to branch not unlike Cali, or squirrels.

    Elruin could understand why they didn't want humans up there.

    Suggested Listening

    Hours later, Lemia finally stumbled into their small 'nest'. "Ugh." She looked around. "Uh, do they really expect three people to stay in here together?" The survival tent she'd brought had more space in it than the alcove they called a nest.

    Cali shrugged from her corner. "From what I understand, silmid fit seven or eight into nests like this one. Up to twice as many if some are children. So, how'd the interrogation go?" She traced a line from her nose to her jaw, the Engeval cultural gesture to be careful what was spoken of.

    "Don't remind me." Lemia sighed. "So, they know know I'm Mila. They know the story about Lord Claron, and that we snuck out with Lyra's help. They seem to have a lot of respect for their dryads, I think it extends to ours, too. Had to tell them that we killed our way through a bandit ambush and stole their cart. Got hairy there for a minute, but necessities of war and all. Also, they said something about caravans saying bandits are humans who act like goblins? I said that was a fair description. What is it with silmid and dwarves hating goblins? It runs deep, like us with the centaur-demons."

    "Religious, you mean. Because it is." Cali shifted to a new position, not because she was uncomfortable, but because she had to remind herself to move now that she no longer experienced comfort or discomfort. "The stories vary, but silmid claim that they were the first mammals created by the gods. It's in their name- silm means fur, id means beginning. Their religion teaches that they were to be inheritors of the world, taking over from the reptiles like goblins and dragons who ruled before the age of the mammal, but the reptiles rebelled against the natural order, thus cursing themselves and the world. Naturally, the curse is whatever vice the silmid storyteller holds as the most evil."

    "If silmid were first, what are humans, dwarves, elves, and ferin?"

    "Well, the dwarves are silmid," Cali said. "That's not speculation, we know dwarves are silmid that became their own bloodline, much like elves descend from human bloodlines. Humans, according to the silmid, were created to serve as warriors and drive out the reptiles who refused to die. Until we forgot our purpose and turned upon ourselves in a civil war that is destined to last forever, which is why silmid want so little to do with us and our wars, they believe them nothing more than the prelude to the next war. Then the ferin were created last, warriors perfected from the lessons learned by humanity's inadequacy."

    "Well, ain't that lovely? Anything in there that might be true?"

    "We've found dragon remains so ancient that the bone transmuted to stone, which lends credence to the belief that those were the eldest of all species as the silmid claim. Otherwise, the ferin and reptilian religions teach more or less the same story. The difference is that the reptiles claim us mammals to be usurpers who stole their rightful place as the caretakers of the world, and that the world will remain chaotic, flawed, and filled with injustice until every last one of us are exterminated."

    "Well, that explains their willingness to keep chasing us even after we killed so many while retreating," Lemia said. "Their whole belief system teaches our deaths are more valuable than their lives."

    "About the sum of it," Cali said. "But back to more immediate problems, we were at the part where you told them about the bandits."

    "Right, then I told them that Elruin used her necromancy to drive the mules to the point that they died of exhaustion. I don't know how it worked, I'm not a necromancer. They asked me a bunch of questions about magic, then dwarven elders at the meeting declared that they would use their stone magic to send warning to all the major cities of Engeval. I tried to talk them into giving additional help, but..."

    "But dwarves are infamously isolationist, and silmid are pacifists to a fault," Cali finished. "Frankly, I'm amazed you were able to talk them into sending messages in the initial meeting. I expected at least three days of begging while I spent every night digging through religious texts to find arguments supporting even that much involvement."

    "Yeah, about that. They spent half the time I was there asking about scrying, and suspicious magical activity. I told them Arila was having problems with scrying, too, and tried to imply Claron was responsible. They didn't buy it. So I switched to arguing that at least he was prepared to exploit it, which implies he somehow knew it was coming ahead of time. Still don't know if they agree, but they're getting desperate for answers and want any clues Engeval has to offer. They didn't tell me much, but the goblin population around here's going nuts and they don't know why."

    Calenda looked up. "You did good work, but linking Claron to the erratic events was a mistake. If they think Claron has answers, they may contact him directly to ask what he knows, and who knows how that will play out? They don't care who rules the human kingdoms, so long as they stay out of dwarven territory."

    "Merat!" Lemia looked down. "All that hard work wasted!"

    "No, we can salvage this," Cali said. "Dwarves are slow to act, but when they do, it's decisively. It might take weeks before they're ready to contact Claron, but they will message Engewal and the other cities by the end of the day. And they will stay neutral, which means they won't hand us over to Claron no matter how he insists."

    "And he was afraid to fight one Lyra," Elruin added. "Imagine how scary two would be!"

    "I guess it all depends on how desperate he is, but I think we're safe. He wasn't willing to fight Lyra, so I don't think he'll come after Sonhome, and he can't absolutely cannot lay siege to a city as well-defended as this one. Speaking of, Rin and I should avoid the dryads. I don't think they'd be fond of me anymore."

    Everyone looked unhappy, which made Elruin unhappy. "We should go play in the hotsprings!"

    Cali laughed, an odd, silent chuckle since she didn't have the air in her lungs to do a real laugh. She took the breath she needed to speak. "Know what? That sounds like a great idea. Nothing we can do until we all get our strength back, anyway."

    "Unanimous vote, then," Lemia said.

    Once they climbed out of their nest, Lemia looked at the nearby silmid that was their effective guide for now. "Can you please tell us where the hot springs are?"

    "Ataways," the guard pointed toward where hills began to form. "Along the ri'er, impossible to miss."

    "We thank you," Lemia held her hands over her chest. Elruin and Lemia did the same as they passed.

    Once they got deeper into silmid territory, they realized that Tua was not exaggerating about the differences in culture. The first thing they noticed was that silmid did not wear clothing. Once away from the wall, with guards who wore armor, silmid seemed content to walk around in nothing more than a belt to hold coin purses, and the occasional necklace or bracelet for jewelry.

    They were saved from appearance of indecency by the fact that they held few notable human characteristics. Their hind limbs were shorter than humans of their height, while their forelimbs were longer, and they had no breasts or external genitalia. Coupled with their thick but short layer of fur, they might have been mistaken for human children wearing fuzzy, tight-fitting clothes with decorative animal ears. They may have been compared to giant, tailless, meerkats, if any of them had seen a meerkat before.

    If that wasn't enough, they had no sense of privacy. While hugs weren't unheard of for humans, the twelve-silmid cuddle pile taking place one of the patches of grass would have been called indecent. None of them were copulating, they were merely hugging and grooming one another, but it was uncomfortable for the women who had lived their lives in a different society where such actions, were they ever to occur, would never happen in public.

    "Silmid like to hug a lot," Elruin observed.

    Cali put an arm around the girl's shoulder. "They do, but let's leave them alone. They've clearly got enough members."

    Several other such groups, none quite so large, were lounging along the trails as the hill grew steeper and the lazy river split apart into numerous fast-running brooks. Further still, and Lemia began feeling the soreness of their climb up the scenic but steep hill.

    Near the top, they found a silmid of white fur with stripes of black who grunted and pointed to different paths while speaking in gruff, uncertain words. "Males, 'emales, laundry, toilets. I no good speaking."

    Calenda made the gratitude gesture, followed by the others. "Thank you."

    "As I walk," the silmid answered back.

    "She looked different," Lemia said as they moved along toward the women's side of the springs. "Like, pointier?"

    "I think that one was a male," Cali said. "It's hard to spot, but males are a little wider, with more protruding muzzles and more pronounced claws. They're burrowers, while females live in the trees when they aren't in their mates' nest."

    "Mates?"

    "Yes, mates, and that's all I'm going to explain." Cali gave Elruin's shoulder a meaningful pat. "Keep in mind that silmid aren't like us, on a level deeper than any you imagine between rich and poor or the virtuous and the evil. Those all share the trait of being human, while the silmid do not. Whatever you think of their religious claims that humans were built for war by the gods, it is true that we have a lot of violent tendencies that they lack. Greed and jealousy being two of the big ones. On the other hand, they are indecisive and unambitious, some might say lazy, so it's hard to call them 'better' than us, but they are different."

    "I'll keep that in mind."

    In the bath, they found a number of silmid near the edges of the water, seeming unwilling to move deep into the water. Instead, they stayed near the shallow edges, and scrubbed one another's fur in the steaming chemical-scented waters. Most stopped to gawk at the human trio as they began to strip for their baths.

    With the eyes of the other bathers on them the whole time, there wasn't much the three could speak of except small talk, but after they had been through, an excuse to be quiet and relax in the simple luxury of warm water was just what they needed.


    =====


    Claron's list of places to not fuck with: anywhere with more than one Lyra.

    Lyra has numerous half-sisters. This is not a widely known fact amongst the humans.

    Enge is not literally their grandparent... however, the (volcanic) Enge mountains are responsible for the hotsprings and rain basin that forms the rivers that are collectively known as Tythes, whose spirit(s) is/are (gods... so far above mortals that the concepts of singular and plural no longer apply) the parents of these powerful Nymphs. So, in a way...

    Sonhome is not-so-subtly based off of a fort I created in Dwarf Fortress. Took a great deal of work, but I kept clearing trees and building walls until I had a protective wall made mostly of fruit trees that were pretty much the only source of food I needed for the entire fort. ... The game may or may not be terribly balanced...

    And the silmid are borderline eusocial animals. Similar in many ways to mole rats, meerkats, and the like. Though, really, I base them mainly off of prairie dogs in terms of behavior. Dwarves resemble the Giant Pangolin, without the tail.

    ... The recent lack of running water in my house may have colored my opinion of the value of a warm bath...

    This chapter again got away from me, another 2500+ words and basically only half done.
     
    Last edited: Mar 5, 2019
  16. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 44
    TanaNari

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    Once clean, the trio took the time to clean their clothes as well. Cali had it worse than Elruin and Lemia, since she couldn't avoid the close quarters fighting that saw blood and other fluid splatter on her clothes. In addition, she was the only one of the three who had normal clothing rather than the magically reinforced clothes that was required for training magic, and it showed after the week they'd been on the road.

    "We'll need to do some shopping," Lemia said. "That is, if you're okay that most of our money is in the form of stolen gold and coins I doubt they accept here."

    Cali held up the tattered remains of her shoes, victims of the hobgoblin attack. "I suppose if there was ever a time to learn to enjoy going barefoot. Pity that would be far too suspicious."

    "You're welcome," Lemia said with a smile.

    "I don't need shoes to drop-kick you."

    "Don't fight." Elruin did her best to look commanding in her damp clothes. It worked as well as one might expect of a grumpy cat. Then she touched her stomach. "Umm, can we get something to eat, now?"

    "Huh, somehow I completely forgot about food," Lemia said. "I haven't eaten since last night." She gave her stomach a pat with both hands. "On the plus side, this has been the best diet plan of my life. Well, goodbye flat tummy, hello feast. Think they'll let me have a whole hog?"

    "Good luck finding a hog." Cali began walking down the path. "Silmid are insectivores and herbivores. The only meat you're gonna find here is dog food for the ghost hounds. If I recall, they farm rats."

    "Couple more days and I might consider it." Lemia spotted a lone silmid on the path, heading toward the baths. "Do you know where we can get food?"

    The presumable female, if the flat snout and small hands were an indication, only stood up to Elruin's shoulder. She cocked her head to the side and looked up at them with wide eyes. "Ek?"

    "Umm," Cali stepped forward. "Ahtuhk?"

    "Atuk." The silmid repeated with better annunciation. She glanced around, then pointed at the ground. "Atuk." Then she returned to walking up the path, wondering why foreigners were always so weird.

    "... They eat the grass, don't they?"

    "Grass, tree leaves, fruit, berries, bark and wood when they want something to chew on," Cali ran down the list of options. "Their teeth never stop growing, so they'll chew just about anything. Look, there's an apple tree up ahead. Best meal you're gonna find here. On the other hand, they have some of the best dried rations, which we need to stock up on."

    "Guess that'll do."

    Soon, they'd returned to their nest, where Elruin curled up with Mister Squishybones and went straight to sleep nuzzled against Cali. After the girl child was unconscious, Cali extracted herself and scooted out of the hole to take a seat outside.

    "Was the cramped hole in the wall not spacious enough for you and your little sister?" Lemia didn't stop looking up into the soft glow of the leaves of the silmid tree home.

    "I've had worse," Cali said. "But I slept like the dead all morning and into the afternoon."

    "Hah." Lemia stretched her arms, then rolled to her feet. "This new strength thing is weird, but I'm not complaining. Say, wanna go check out the silmid night life? I need to find an alchemist."

    "No, one of us needs to stay here. Go ahead and have fun." She waved Lemia off. "But, uh, keep an eye on your pouch. Silmid are notorious kleptomaniacs. I don't think they see anything wrong with it, they steal trinkets the way human kids play with swords and dolls. Normal kids, at any rate."

    "Implying that Rin is normal."

    By the time Elruin awoke, it was to the sour tang of acid in the air. Cali and Lemia both sat around the tiny campfire, where Lemia generated a burst of flame every so often to warm the kettle.

    "What are you doing?" Aside from the bursts of flame, there was no magic involved in the alchemy that she could sense.

    "Took all night, but I found a place that sells venomfire powder, and I got a weapon I can use." She patted the bracer on her arm. "Silmid design, adjusted for humans. With this baby, I can crack a man's skull with a rock from twenty yards. Or use alchemy pellets. The silmid know their alchemy, half their library is full of alchemy books."

    "A library?" Elruin's face lit up and she gazed at Cali. "Can we go, please?"

    "Sorry, I've got a date with a bunch of silmid leaders to explain what I know about Claron's activities," Cali said. "I doubt it will make much difference, but I can give more information on the scrying blocks, maybe we'll stumble across some clue. And maybe they'll stop eavesdropping once they know everything we know." She raised her voice for the last sentence.

    "I'll take Rin to the library when I'm done," Lemia said. "When this mess is over, I might drop out of the College and move here to live in their library. Silmid alchemy couples mineral and herbal properties in ways I never imagined possible, let alone seen before. I don't think our teachers know half the stuff they do."

    "Have fun studying while I talk to all the most important people of the city."

    "Thank you!" Elruin gave Cali a hug, and a once-over with her senses to make sure all of her work remained functional. "I'm going to read all the books!"

    "Have fun trying not to gouge your eyes out from boredom."

    Helping Lemia with alchemy didn't require much other than to hand her older friend the right powders at the right time. She had no intrinsic talent for non-magical alchemy, but if Lemia believed it would let her do the same trick that let the silmids set goblins on fire, she approved. Goblins were mean and because of them she had to kill more of her dollies.

    Soon they found themselves at what the silmid considered their library, a stout building near the center of the city. The silmid at the entrance gawked at them, but nobody stopped them from entering. "We're here for the human section," she told the scholar at the desk.

    Said scholar, who understood not a word of what Lemia said other than 'human', pointed at a small side corner. Meanwhile, the silmid of the library were busy climbing up the walls to reach other sections of books intended for them. Stairs and ladders were things that happened to other species.

    Suggested Listening

    "I started on this corner," Lemia said. "You go to the other side, and we'll work our way to the middle. Let me know what you find." They stepped around a silmid boy who stared at them from the entrance.

    So the pair spent their time in the library, hunting down books that offered the best alchemical bang for their buck. It was approaching midday when Lemia came across alchemy that might interest Elruin. "Hey, Rin, I think I have something for Esra."

    Elruin all but jumped at the possibility. "What is it?"

    "Well, check this out, they have something here for treating leather, an alternate form of mageleather, but I don't think it was initially designed for that purpose. It looks an awful lot like it was made for funeral rights. If you look here, they're using it to harden the hide against both physical and magical forces, but it could also be used to fortify an entire body down to the bone."

    It wasn't too far removed from being usable on living tissue, but life energy would build up within the bindings until it cooked the subject inside out.

    The two sat down, reading over the alchemical processes that were meant to fuse fresh dead tissue with magical reactants, in order to protect the recipients from harm in the afterlife. Where the silmid found this book, neither could guess, but it would have been burned along with the author, if it were penned within any human city.

    "No," Elruin said after they got about halfway through the book. "They're good ideas, but they're too blatant. They amplify and refine, which is great, but it's too visible. Besides, it's dangerous."

    Lemia agreed, it would be almost impossible to hide Cali if they infused her flesh with these forms of alchemy, and there was no telling what effect it would have on the trickery used to protect her mind, but Elruin missed the obvious. "We don't use it on her, we use it on her clothes. It's still a good leather treatment technique." However, she wasn't the only member of their group which was undead. "And maybe on dolls?"

    Elruin's eyes widened at the prospect. It would take time to craft the alchemical paste, longer still to find the proper ingredients, but given time she could coat any of her dollies with the substance, making them stronger and tougher than before by a significant amount. She would have to be extra-careful about which dollies to treat, however, because they would be expensive and stand out to magical senses.

    "It's perfect," Elruin whispered. "We need to find some untreated leather right now."

    "I know where we can start looking." Lemia set the book down next to some of her own paper and ink. "But first, we need this." She began the necessary vocalizations, then started to trace patterns of the spell that all scholars would learn with time. Tiny drops of ink lifted from its phial, then jumped to the blank paper, a perfect copy on white of the yellowed parchment containing such a brilliant spell.

    She flipped through the book, finding methods to work runes that reminded her of the sarite protections build into walls of cities, powered by sapping energy from the very magic trying to bring down the walls. It was inferior to sarite defenses in some ways, but in a siege it beat anything she'd seen before.

    Soon, she'd moved on to golem-crafting techniques, then into weapons techniques. It seemed like the whole book was built around using Negation magic as a replacement for Creation magic all wrapped in rituals exalting and worshiping the dead. Dozens of pages of notes, rituals, and techniques using knowledge that would turn magic society on its head. The trick would be to avoid getting her own head removed for possessing it.

    She rolled it up with the other useful recipes she'd found, half a dozen methods to improve alchemy using what were not uncommon reagents in the wilderness, if one knew where to look. The mineral recipes were less useful, but she knew there'd be scholars back in Arila who'd clamor for the privilege of learning these new methods.

    With a final glance back at the library, she swore to herself she'd return some day to all the glorious knowledge this place held.

    Moments after they left, a silmid boy stood from where he sat next to the two human girls. Then he took a certain text from the shelves. A book which did not belong here, which did not belong anywhere, save for this brief moment to deliver information a certain young necromancer needed to survive her coming trials.

    It had served its purpose, and so it returned to the aether from whence it came, along with the boy.

    [placeholder suggested listening] (Seriously- I need something here and can't find anything fitting)

    Meanwhile, Lemia and Elruin made their way to the shop where Lemia picked up her new weapon. It looked different in the day, now that dwarves had stocked the place.

    Inside, Elruin came face to face with her first dwarves. Taller than the silmid, they were almost to Elruin's height, but so broad that their arms were thicker than her waist and hung down well past their knees. Each was coated in thick, silver, shield-shaped scales that covered their entire bodies, with longer and looser-hanging metal draped on all sides around their neck like a chain armor coif.

    They seemed mostly to be moving stone out of the tunnels, along with various metalcrafts along a back wall. Signs in their language let Lemia and Elruin read the basics of what metal equipment and treasures could be purchased here, including all sorts of armor and weapons sized for men and women, with promises of custom designs for a modest fee.

    A bulkier than usual dwarf walked over to them, using both fore and hind limbs. Unlike all the other dwarves in the building, he had scales of solid gold. "Do not be upset, but your hair? 'at is how humans display 'ey are 'emale, correct? I can get my wi'e, to put you at ease?"

    "That would be appreciated," Lemia said.

    The dwarf twisted his head further than a human could without breaking his neck, and literally barked toward the back. Soon, another dwarf that looked just like all the others came waddling into the room.

    "Ah, human traders," she said. She kept her mouth closed as best she could, for long experience had taught her that humans did not appreciate the broad, toothy display of the dwarven mouth. "Tell me, what do you seek to trade? Or perhaps you seek more weapons?" She had also perfected the art of avoiding the sounds it was difficult for dwarven mouths to produce. It was difficult, but if she did not, some other dwarf would, such was the nature of competitive markets.

    Lemia took the time to look sheepish. "Well, that is complicated. You see, we're alchemists who were studying some silmid techniques and we came across some interesting ideas. We were hoping to buy untreated leather. As well as natron and saltpeter, if you have any. Oh, and some ilmenite powder, that's for the venomfire I'm making."

    Lemia hoped the mention of venomfire would get her a better deal; as much as these people hated goblins, they might be happy to learn outsiders were going to help remove a few from the forests.

    "We can provide all you seek, except leather." She shrugged, a calculated gesture to look more human. Like most calculated gestures, it was ineffectual. "You see, we do not eat meat. We use spider silk."

    Lemia thought about it for a moment. "Would spider silk work?"

    Elruin shook her head; when it came to necromancy, she was the expert. "It must be from living animal tissue. Silk and fur aren't close enough." She chose not to mention that flesh was the ideal substance, that of sapient beings more than anything.

    "Perhaps, spider shell? No charge." It was odd, but she'd come to expect oddity in dealing with humans. "Is not good quality, garbage, but you need experiment, so you do not need quality?"

    "It should work," Elruin said.

    "Better than going into the wilderness to hunt for supplies," Lemia said. "I'd rather we know it works, before risking our lives out there."

    "Yes, and what quantities do you require?"

    "Not much, for now," Lemia fished into her pocket for two of the coins taken from the centaur temple. "I hope these are acceptable."

    The dwarf woman accepted a coin, then licked it. "I need to consult my husband." She barked at where the gold dwarf was speaking to another human, a man who looked to be part of a mercenary or merchant band. There wasn't much difference between the two, when on the road.

    Soon, he waddled back over to the group, barking quick sounds at his wife while she barked back. He took the coin from his wife. "Odd coin." He stuck his tongue out, licking it as she had. "Centaur gold, you 'ound 'is in ruins, no?"

    Lemia was taken aback that the dwarves knew of centaurs, but all of her books knew them only as 'demons'. She then thought about lying, but decided against deception on the cusp of a business deal with what might be the only merchants who could speak their language. "I hope you don't expect me to tell you where the ruins are located."

    "No, you are welcome to them," the dwarf said. "Many centaur relics in your lands, more than any one could explore. Centaurs use almost pure gold, not but a small amount o' copper."

    "So they're worth something to you." Lemia liked it when she had something others wanted, made life much easier.

    "Yes, say, 'e equal o' twel' o' your billon coins?"

    "Fourteen."

    "Deal, but only i' you promise to remember my generosity next you return to our establishment."

    "Oh, I swear I shall," Lemia said. She wondered just how much she got ripped off, but now was not the time to start arguing. The supplies would be expensive enough as is, and later she'd need to find a trustworthy appraiser.

    "And is 'ere more you may desire, while here?"

    "Uh, I have a question, please?" Elruin put her hands together, in request.

    The dwarf regarded the child-human, as tall as he was though laughably skinny. It took him a moment to realize she wasn't going to say any more. "And your question is?"

    "Why are you gold?"

    The golden dwarf began to laugh, a deep, echoing sound that drew attention from all nearby people.

    "Rin!" Lemia hissed. "I'm sorry, that was rude of her."

    "Rude?" The woman-dwarf scoffed. "E'reyone asks him about his color. Some days, I'd almost suspect he hires people to come in, but I'm the one who tracks our spending"

    "Pay her no mind," the dwarf said. "It is a simple, but important, story. See, dwarves eat metal." He held up the coin that came from Lemia, then tossed it in his mouth. "Stone, too, but metal is most important. Our bodies are natural 'orges, we absorb it and it grows out as our scales." He slapped his arm, eliciting a mighty metallic echo. A dwarven handprint was left in his shoulder plates. "I, a goldsmith, turn gold ore and alloy into pure gold. It is a prestigious position 'or our most success'ul."

    "That... is quite the ability," Lemia admitted. "Hey, Rin, do you think a dwarf... uh... scale? Might work instead of the spider?" She had no desire to pay for a gold scale, but it looked like there were plenty of dwarves with iron or copper scales to draw from.

    Elruin looked through her vision, then shook her head. "No, it's too much like hair, it won't work."

    "Worth asking." If the spider shell worked, it wouldn't matter. "So, while we're here, let's see about your other supplies."


    =====


    Something about Elruin trying to be intimidating amuses me. When it works it amuses me even more.

    Squirrels are thieving bastards. They also have a habit of hiding "treasures" in places, then coming back later to dig them back up.

    Midaran dwarves are perhaps my favorite creations of the setting. Except the magic system and ecology, for it is from them that all else stems.

    Drop the tail, and this is a good idea of what they look like

    Also... the stuff Lemia ordered are real chemicals with real properties... you may even be able to guess the nature of what all these alchemical trickeries are if you do a little research.

    And why do I keep doing this to myself with these 3k+ chapters? *Weeps*
     
  17. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 45
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Elruin was hard at work over the alchemy pot when Calenda returned, so much so that she failed to notice her elder sister had arrived until Lemia spoke.

    "How'd your interrogation, I mean interview, go?" Lemia wasn't paying too close attention to Cali, being far more concerned with the chemical paste they had made for the purposes of bolstering the undead. Try as she might, she couldn't comprehend why anyone would develop such magic, but it existed and they were going to use it as best they could.

    "I spent the whole time remembering one time I was having dinner with... acquaintances... and one of them expressed a concern that I'd get myself killed outside the walls." Cali slumped down next to their nest-hole. "I can't remember my exact words, but I said something about being immortal because dying requires too much paperwork. Proving once again that the universe is a joke, and I'm the punchline."

    "Well, the universe better stop right now," Elruins said with a huff. She continued working, for now was the proof of concept. She dipped the spider chitin into the white paste, which blackened with necromantic energies as she hummed her necromantic song, converting the complexities of alchemy and weaponized magic into a structured, patterned magic.

    Through Calenda's sense, it felt as it had when she was controlled by Scratch, for those brief moments she could. Echoes of death, and things deeper still, rippled outward like waves crashing against Elruin's. Each new pulse outward, pushed back until it was held like a pond in the space of a mud puddle.

    Lemia's eyes saw something quite different, as the formula of Elruin's math twisted, folded folded inward, and 'solved' itself one step at a time until it was locked into the simplest possible expression. She had seen such work, done better, as part of her enchantment courses, but it was interesting to watch Elruin fumble around with the basics and using raw power to compensate where she lacked finesse.

    Soon, she held up the shimmering black tar-soaked shell. Black electricity danced from it to her skin, seeking a place to discharge itself and finding Elruin's skin contained more power than it did. "This is my gift!"

    "Oh." Cali reached out, as if to pick up a dead mouse offered to her by a cat. She'd never owned a cat, in fact the closest thing she'd ever had to a pet was Lyra, whose idea of a gift was turning her house into an indoor jungle. "Woah!" Once she had grip on the strip of material, the energy pulsed outward into the lower, shallower 'pool' that was Calenda's energy pool. Once in the larger pool of a human woman, it wasn't quite the significant power that it appeared to be when concentrated into a strip of tissue, but it did serve to restore some of her limited power before the remnants of chitin crumpled to the ground as black dust.

    Elruin sighed in disappointment. "I thought it would last longer."

    Lemia put a comforting hand on the girl's shoulder. "That's what test runs are for. We knew what we were creating was just the 'potion' phase, and with what we learned we can move on to enchantment."

    Cali blinked. "Are you telling me you could turn that into an enchantment?"

    "Uh huh," Elruin smiled up in pride at her elder sister. "I can do it with any of my spells."

    "Don't get too excited," Lemia said. "There is a significant gap between the power you got there, and what enchantment can do. What you experienced there was, for all intents and purposes, the same as you'd get from a potion. The permanent version might generate that much energy every six hours, and that's if we do everything perfect and have quality attuned sarite to work with. But without a lab, a trained enchanter, and the perfect set of supplies, you'll be lucky to one that can restore that much every twelve to fourteen hours."

    What Lemia left out is that no other enchanter could do the work they were doing. It normally took a creation mage to set the groundwork of permanent magic items, or so her scholastic experience had taught her. That negation magic could accomplish the same in its own odd way was nothing she had ever considered before. To her, negation was always a means to eliminate other magic, not add more.

    "At this point, I'll take it. Good work, little sister." Cali rested her hand on Elruin's head. "So, what do we need for the permanent version?"

    "A lot of things, but Lemia can explain better than me." Elruin was barely at the point of producing potions that didn't explode or decay in mere minutes, let along long-term enchantment work.

    "To leave Sonhome, for starters," Lemia said. "We need fresh untreated leather of the highest quality possible. Which we can turn into... I suppose you could call it Necromantic Mageleather. We'll want a supply of sarite to grind for dust, the closer to pure negation we can make the powder, the better."

    "But I thought there was no such thing as pure negation sarite?"

    "So you see our dilemma," Lemia said. "The best we can hope for is 'close'. Scourge aspect would probably be the ideal, not that I know where you'd find shards like that. But once we pull together all those supplies, it should take no more than a day or two to craft a basic magic armor for you. The best part is, if you're near full strength, the bleedoff could even be used to hurt whatever you hit. I was thinking spiked gloves."

    "Not a weapon, or boots?" Cali considered herself much better with her feet than her hands, and thrown knives were her preferred backup option.

    "You want as much surface contact as possible, and the ability to take them off fast. This sort of thing will be visible to mages who know how to look, and once they start looking-"

    "Hush!" Cali hissed, then focused her eyes on the shadow in the distance.

    "Hey, outsiders," a dwarf shouted from the clearing. He, or she as the case might be, began the slow bipedal gait toward them. It was a show of respect, shouting from a distance before approaching. "My name's Ketak, heard some rumors about you. I'm here to o'er my blade to your cause. And since it matters to you humans, I am a 'emale."

    Knowing she was a woman did matter, social norms being what they were. Now Calenda crossed her arms, ready to tell her to get lost without feeling awkward in the process. "Ours, specifically?"

    "Anyone going out to bash goblin skulls is a cause I can get behind," the dwarf said. "And i' you wanna get on 'e good side o' our leaders, the easiest way is to haul back a mountain o' goblin corpses."

    Cali kept her eyes locked on the dwarf's, unwilling to look at Lemia or Elruin for fear they might react to the idea of corpse piles. "We haven't decided we want Sonhome's help, save sending the message they already sent. It's possible we're about to double back into human territory, or march further north, straight into the Enge mountains. We have a number of concerns."

    "Like your hidden stash of centaur gold? It ain't quite goblin hunting, but it's a close second i' I get a share."

    "One thing I love about dwarves, they don't waste time," Cali said. "We're not going treasure hunting, not any time soon, and we're going to be dealing with human concerns, not dwarven interests."

    "So long as 'ese lead-scaled cowards remain hidden here, I 'ear no'ing will be dwar'en business. No matter how many o' our sons and daughters die out there, we hide. Sooner or later, some'ing's gonna come 'at our walls cannot save us 'rom. Sonhome will die as Helmar and Leteka died be'ore 'em. I' I'm to die, I'd ra'er bring an army the size o' 'e mountains wi' me. I' I can 'ind no reliable allies in Sonhome, then I seek them wi' humans. Take me to one o' your cities, and I'll do 'e rest."

    "I'll keep that in mind," Lemia said.

    "I can see you need to talk to your people. I' you make a decision, come 'ind me at 'e trading 'orges. I'll be 'eir, i' nobody else has taken my o'er by 'en." Ketak turned and began her lumbering back to wherever it was in the city that she called home.

    "So, in my expert opinion, she's either greedy, insane, or a spy," Lemia said once she felt they were outside hearing range even for a dwarf. "And I seem to recall you saying something about dwarves not being known for such things."

    "There are exceptions to every rule," Cali said. "But a spy- even a dwarven spy- would at least have given us a better lie."

    "Or she read up on Ecrosian literature," Lemia countered. "That speech was right up there with your 'die on my feet' line."

    "I detected no deception from her. So she believes herself enough to beat a Truthsayer."

    "You're not a mind mage!" Lemia stepped closer to Cali, not that she had any hope of intimidating the undead warrior who was two inches and at least fifty pounds heavier than her, all of it muscle. "I may not have that skill, but I know that if you're not reading minds, you're reading magic flow in the body. Does that work on things that aren't at least close to human? Besides, even if she's sincere, how long does that last when she meets Scratch?"

    "We can deal with that later," Calenda said. "But I think it's clear we're not going to see eye to eye on this. We should see what Rin thinks."

    "Did... did you just hand a tie-breaking vote to a twelve year old?"

    Cali gave perhaps the smuggest smile that any of them had ever witnessed in their lives.


    =====

    You heard it here first, folds. Elruin's threatening to stop the universe. Clearly she is the most vile villain this side of Saturday morning cartoons.

    "Lead-scale" is a dire insult for dwarves. Because lead is a heavy, soft metal, it is viewed as undesirable to process it as they do other metals. It represents laziness and weakness to a species that values hard work and strength above all else. Even other base metals- like tin or nickel- have value in the sense that they're the first metals a child-dwarf uses to work their skills. They may be viewed as 'childhood' minerals, but childhood is not bad.

    And I am having real trouble keeping enough active voters to get timely votes for this story, so if you wanna join in on the fun of controlling how these characters (well, mostly just Elruin) go through the story...

    https://www.digitalwildwest.org/threads/midara-requiem.330/

    Go here and you can start guiding the story in some semblance of the video game it was intended to be in the first place.
     
    Last edited: Mar 7, 2019
  18. Mr. Tebbs

    Mr. Tebbs Know what you're doing yet?

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    I would.... but I'm on 4 boards as is. I do enjoy lurking on this thread but I'm not creative when it comes to freeform quests
     
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  19. TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Fair enough.

    Well, seeing as I've been going on "autopilot" for the last four votes... all you have to do at this moment is be literally better than nothing...
     
  20. Mr. Tebbs

    Mr. Tebbs Know what you're doing yet?

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    I mean, you say that... but i played ultima online and mastered mining using only hotkeys, no macros
     
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  21. TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    ... I stand corrected...
     
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  22. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 46
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Suggested Listening

    Elruin gave it some thought. "I think we should take her with us. She's strong and we need lots of help to stop Claron." How the dwarf could accomplish such a goal was anyone's guess, but Elruin couldn't imagine how any of them could stop him either.

    "It means hiding Scratch, but I struggle to consider that a downside," Cali said.

    "Fine, I guess I'm outvoted, but for the record I think if Scratch was here, he'd be on my side, with a number of counter-arguments."

    "Trust me, I know." Calenda took a seat next to the nest. "So we'll get our shopping done tomorrow. If we want to stick around here for a while, we could earn money and goodwill by clearing out the forests. If we want to take the morks up on their offer, we need our cart repaired, new animals to drag it, food, I could use new armor, and maybe some of that acid-protection sarite if we can find any."

    "Can we sell our bandit weapons? It might help."

    "Well, dwarves are always eager to buy scrap metal," Cali said. "I never knew why until today. But truth be told, we're better off keeping them. We can't afford weapons of high enough quality to replace what we've already got, and as fast as we cycle through Rin's toys, equipment is better than some small handful of billon."

    "Or for experiments," Lemia added. "But she's right, we need tools a lot more than money right now. Especially if we're going to be in the wilderness which doesn't care how rich you are, unless you used those riches to hire a personal army."

    "But we'll finish our preparations tomorrow," Cali said. "For now, Rin needs her sleep. Right now, she represents more than half this team's magic power. If she's not in fighting form, we're all in trouble."

    As Elruin slept, who older guardians did their work in private. Lemia, studying the notes on necrotempered leather while working on the rote process of crafting more venomfire. The thought occurred to her that if she got hold of some goblin toxins, she could make a truly terrifying bomb.

    Meanwhile Cali spent her time going through her martial arts routines, learning to adapt for the differences between her living and dead bodies. A core aspect of her entire style was understanding and awareness of her body at all times, which was hard to accomplish with her new unliving form. She'd been lucky thus far that they were fighting creatures, rather than intelligent foes, because any skilled fighter would spot her hesitation and exploit her mistakes.

    Morning came, and with it a hug from Elruin to Calenda and the energy restoration she suspected she'd have to rely upon for quite some time. She bristled under the knowledge that she was so dependent upon Elruin, but it wasn't as bad as being under Garit's thumb, or worse yet Claron. Here, at least the dependency was mutual, as the poor child had little chance of surviving on her own.

    Once back in the trading camp, it didn't take long for Ketak to find them. "So, does 'is mean you want to work toge'er, now?"

    Calenda gave a nod, then took the role of team leader as nobody else seemed to want the role. "We've talked it over, and just need to make a few things clear. First, you'll have to bring your own equipment. You can buy out of your own share of treasure we find. Most of which will be in the form of sarite. We can loan some of ours, but it will be a loan. This includes food."

    "Deal." Ketak didn't hesitate, she was confident her equipment was better than theirs, anyway. "But not i' you're going on the ocean. Dwar'es don't do well in boats. We part ways in the port, deal?"

    Calenda hesitated to reveal too much of their future plans. "Deal."

    "And second, we need you to synchronize with Rin," Cali said. "You are revealed, right?"

    "I am. What's 'is about synchronizing?"

    "It's a special technique that accelerates magic attunement between people," Cali said. "What's important about it is that Rin's death magic can hurt allies as much as enemies, so if we can establish some resonance, it makes everyone's life a great deal easier."

    "Ah, is 'at what you call it?" Ketak looked at the little necromancer for a moment. "I should tell you, we dwar'es call 'at a marriage. I didn't 'ink humans had 'at type of magic."

    "My team has... an unorthodox historian," Calenda said. "And more than one thaumaturgical scholar. I'm afraid we only use the magic for utilitarian value, not your cultural beliefs. I suppose we can waive the synchronization."

    "I didn't say I wouldn't do it," she said. "It's a magic ritual, it means no'ing wi'out vows and duty, aside making us stronger. I wanted to see i' you knew, is all."

    "We'll need to purchase the last of our supplies first, then we can do the ritual somewhere private," Cali said. "It's easier to perform when you don't have to worry about interruptions."

    "Acceptable," Ketak said. "I'll come wi' you, keep 'em 'rom gouging 'eir prices."

    As it turned out, they hadn't gouged their prices, not that Cali had expected they would. They burned through much of their supplies, providing a suit of chain armor for Cali, getting their cart fixed and some animals to pull it, and some other basic equipment such as several days of food which they might need on the road. The only unusual treasures they found were some sarite.

    One, a powerful Forge shard that could hone a warrior to deadly accuracy, and another offered powerful regeneration and an aura of deadly poison that afflicted everything the wielder touched, including herself. That one went straight to Calenda's hands, since she was immune to the poison. It turned out she was also immune to the regenerative effect, but it was better than nothing.

    Suggested Listening

    Elruin sang of her abandonment, of her lost home, left to die in the wilderness.

    The soft echoes of Ketak's scales changed the nature of the song, their shared pain.

    "Oh, Mother, you worry too much. These are some of the safest tunnels we have." The young man, Tetark, did not speak in either language Elruin knew, but she understood him nonetheless. He was a handsome, strong stone-brother, or so his mother thought when she 'sang' of him. He was a good man, with freshly minted scales of steel ready to face the world and all its horrors.

    "But they're fresh tunnels," Ketak insisted. There was nothing she could do to dissuade her son, for unlike the human society, dwarves did not grant any special authority of parents over their adult offspring, and it would be inappropriate to use clan authority.

    "That they are, but we are well prepared." Tetark gave his hammer a not-subtle pat.

    Ketak rested her hand on her son's shoulder, felt the furnace within him as it is within all dwarves. "We all are, but promise not to rush to your death."

    "I promise, Mother."

    It would be the last moment they shared heat.

    Elruin sang, she sang of Calenda and her rescue, being taken to the safety of Arila, of being granted a new family.

    Suggested Listening

    Ketak rejected her song, the first Elruin had ever experienced such a thing. Ketak refused to accept Elruin's story. Her song of loss climbed in intensity, evolved into the song of the death for her sons, her daughters, and her home. The echoes of hope and mourning alike burned away, leaving nothing behind but hatred.

    "We have to run!" Her coward of a husband pulled her arm. "They're coming up the tunnels! If we stay here, we're going to die."

    "Then we die fighting!" She yanked her arm free, leaving long gashes in soft silver plating. "Send out the orders! Gather our warriors at the third banquet hall, use it as the choke point! Their only advantage is numbers, take that from them!"

    She rushed for the hall, herself. She would avenge her children, no matter the price.

    She never had the chance. There were hobgoblins in the halls well ahead of the choke-point, and they ambushed her on the path. Their acid-infused skin against her fire-infused claws. They fell screaming, their regeneration struggling against the cauterization of flesh. She screamed as well, for their toxic fluids took their toll, melting her claws and burning her fingers.

    Individually, they were no match for a warrior like her, but there were no individuals amongst the goblins. They were a mindless hoard, a swarm of ants, with no care to the numbers that had to die so long as the swarm triumphed.

    Still she fought, as the venom on her skin soaked inward, replacing the burning fire of her blood with the burning poison of theirs.

    Then, the rumble-snap as someone enacted the final solution. The caves began to collapse inward, the stone dropping layer by layer. Some cowards had chosen to sacrifice the life of Helmar itself, rather than risk their own.

    The stone fell atop them, crushing the goblins and Ketak with them. She survived, though it took her over a week to dig her way to the surface with her wounded claws.

    So she sang, of the power of hatred to push people to succeed where they otherwise could not.

    Elruin, unable to push for a more serene accord, changed her voice, sang of the struggles at her cousins' farm, and the bandits who were not bandits but sought to kill the babies. She sang of her fear and uncertainty while fighting them alongside Cali, of killing them one after another so that other, innocent, lives would not have to fight. Changed a song of a past worth killing over into a future worth killing for.

    Ketak adjusted her song, sang of justice and defense, not far removed from her prior song of revenge.

    It was an imperfect synchronization, for there were many differences between Ketak and Elruin. One was a dispassionate human child, the other an obsessed dwarf mother, but both could find common ground that there were terrible people who did not deserve to live. Even if Ketak would feel rather offended by the implication that goblins were people.

    Elruin trembled, fighting down the stomach-churning emotions of being buried alive with the toxic remains of the goblins. The song could not be continued, not now, perhaps not ever, but it had served its purposes.

    Ketak nodded, as dwarven mouths were not made to smile as humans. "We ha'e an understanding."

    Elruin understood many things, now. She understood what fanaticism looked like. She understood that of everyone she'd ever met, Ketak would make the most terrifying of undead monsters. She understood that this woman would drive a species to extinction if given the opportunity. It took a great deal to rattle the little necromancer, but that sort of fervor was more than adequate.

    "We have an understanding."

    Soon, they left the safety of the walls through a gate that only barred them in so much as to warn them. "There are a lot of goblins in the woods," the hooded silmid warned. "Are you certain your team can handle them?"

    "E'en our protectors speak in terror o' goblins," Ketak muttered. "Sonhome is lost, it simply does not know it yet."

    Calenda began to regret inviting the dwarven woman along, but they desperately needed the physical power she represented if they wanted to accomplish anything of merit. "I assure you, we are well equipped for the woods."

    They left the safety of the tree, then walked across the empty plains to the threat that was the forest. Elruin began to play her violin before she reached the edge of the forest, sending out the sounds that would tell Scratch they were returning to him.

    "Announcing yoursel' to the entire wilderness?" Ketak said. "Can't say I was planning to start 'is soon, but perhaps it'll be better with 'e city so close. Let 'em see us 'ight, and maybe 'ey'll stop cowering behind 'e walls."

    "I think she was announcing herself to me." A tall, bulky goblin stepped out from the tree line. He oozed black ichor from dozens of wounds that would have proven fatal twenty times over on a human.

    "Troll!" Ketak stepped forward, ready to rush the larger breed of goblinoid. Her scales shook as she drew upon her native flame magic. Trolls were tough, champions of the goblin tribes, but no goblin did well against fire. "Stay behind me!"

    "Relax, I'm on the good guys' side." The threat of destruction meant little to Scratch. "For a certain definition of good."

    "You're not dead enough to be a 'good' goblin."

    Scratch stuck his actual head out from the chest of the troll. "I'm willing to take that bet."

    "Wh-what are you?" Ketak stepped to the side, then turned to look at the two mages and warrior that she now realized were allied with this creature. She was surrounded, but if they wanted to ambush her, they wouldn't have given her this warning.

    "I am many, many things," Scratch said. "Undead abomination, centuries-old ghost, and aficionado of all the best sins. Narcissism is my personal favorite. For now, I am the thing that's been out here killing goblins to stave off boredom. Except this one, I've done everything I can think of to kill it but it refuses to die, so instead it persists in an agony that no merciful being would inflict upon any living thing. Call me Scratch."

    Ketak hesitated while considering the circumstances. She had been taught her whole life that the abominations were the worst monsters of the world, and yet this was the first she'd met. It was a monster, and it seemed not to care if she knew it was a monster, but it was out here doing good work. "I'm Ketak. I hope you don't expect me to shake your hand."

    "I can think of a better use for your hand," Scratch said. "Goblins don't die easy, and I've been trying to find ways to kill trolls while leaving a corpse, and it's not working. Come along, I'll show you. All of you."

    "Why are you killing goblins?"

    "They tried to hurt Elruin, and that's all the reason I need. Please, interpret that as a threat." Scratch slowed for a moment, then made his puppet hold his hand out to Calenda. "Here, some goblin sarite for you. Didn't find much, and I'm pretty sure at least one's dangerous for unshielded mortals. Better than nothing, I guess. But more important, I have replacement dolls."

    Scratch led them to a rocky pit not but a mile away from the clearing. In the spring, it would have been flooded with water. In the summer, it was a dry rock-covered gully. Now, it was an abattoir of goblin flesh. Dozens of the small ones, each impaled by the throat on sticks wedged into the rocks. Some larger ones who looked to have died asphyxiating on each others' arms, and in the center another troll like Scratch currently used.

    It was impaled by a dozen spears holding its arms and legs in the ground, and at least a ton of rock sat atop its chest. Several crows pecked at its face, even as it tried to bite them, for though the rest of its head was held immobile by wooden spikes, the jaw was free to move.

    Lemia backed away, then turned and threw up on the rocks, while Calenda, Ketak and even Elruin looked on in shock at the massacre before them. Necromantic energy danced across the killing field, a small bonfire of taint that still failed to overcome the natural regenerative abilities of the troll. Several of the pinned goblins, however, had died some time ago, and were now struggling to escape their imprisonment.

    "Like I told you, these things don't die easy." Scratch said over Lemia's retching in the background. "I had to get creative."

    =====

    Apologies for not updating yesterday. Migraines. They suck.

    I like the thought of really embracing the "forge element" concept for dwarves in particular. They, more than any race, really epitomize the element's concept. I liked dwarves as a concept long before Dwarf Fortress became a thing, because they're just a fun idea, which explains why I love DF so much.

    Also. I missed Scratch. Love his character.

    Ketak's elements are Forge>Fire> (with time, the potential for either scourge or blood, depending on player choices... scourge is the default, however...)

    Speaking of, I'm chewing over making some of these synchronize-flashbacks controllable by the player. Selecting specific fragments of Elruin's memories leading to different outcomes (all viable outcomes, but altering the starting stats, magic, and even personality of the other party members to a small extent)... but the game's going to be complicated enough as is...
     
    Last edited: Mar 9, 2019
  23. Threadmarks: The World Dies in the Light
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Suggested Listening

    Elruin sang to the fermenting pool of torture and death. Scratch's taint pulsed through flesh that refused to let itself cease, so Elruin sped the process with her Requiem and Rot of Ages. With time and effort, her power squashed their regenerative power and allowed death to claim them. One after another, their struggles ceased and they joined Elruin's control, even if that control was limited to four of the dozens of dead.

    When she had taken as many as she dared, she began to break down the remaining energies. Nothing good could come of leaving the taint to spread and grow, unless she wanted to replace the goblin threat with an undead one.

    The remaining members of the team considered the situation in their own way. Until now, Elruin's collection of the dead had consisted of incidental undead, born of circumstance rather than deliberate cultivation. This was different, and nobody other than Scratch was quite certain how they felt.

    Ketak had never seen anything like this in any form, but she told herself the victims were worse, so it did not count. Calenda accepted it as a necessity of war, she'd made her peace with worse crimes. Lemia reminded herself that they were desperate and in need of any advantage they could get, especially in such hostile terrain.

    Scratch relaxed as the girl walked the desired path without knowing there was a path to walk. "And now you have what passes for your army back, what do we do with it?" In time, her control would grow to such that she could take the entire slaughter pit and a hundred times more, but it would be a long time before they reached that stage.

    "We can clear some more goblins for now," Elruin said. Perhaps motivated by her recent synchronization with Ketak. "They should be close." She began to sing again, this time she spoke to the remnants of the dead, forced them to reveal their last thoughts. It took some effort, but she could follow their trails, track their path through the woods. "They have a nest nearby."

    "You 'ound it 'at easy?" Ketak asked. "How?"

    "It's a necromancer thing," Lemia said. "A little like the synchronizing magic you did with Ell, but only a little. I suppose you can think of it like they're already synchronized, since they're dead and she's a necromancer."

    Ketak was many things, but her mastery of magic was almost exclusively offensive in nature. "I suppose i' it works."

    "Cursory exploration only," Calenda insisted. "We cannot fight a whole goblin nest with however many hundreds of the things swarming us."

    Led by Elruin's stolen memories, the quartet and corpse slaves made their way in the general direction of the goblin nest. They were aware that danger could come from any direction, and that.

    Calenda ran her hand along a tree. "I never could figure out how goblin acid will go through metal, clothes, and flesh, but never seems to harm the trees." She whispered; goblins weren't known for having good hearing, but goblins were not the only threat in these woods.

    "Maybe we can study that, some day," Lemia said.

    Soon, they found their target, a hunting band of a dozen jumping from branch to branch in the trees. "There!" Elruin hissed, and pointed in the direction of the creatures. A quick, soft song awoke her goblin dollies, which took to the trees to intercept.

    They moved in, with Katek using her forelimbs to aid her in running, not unlike a gorilla might. Cali took to the trees, while Scratch stayed back with the vulnerable mages.

    A pity, it wasn't enough.

    The first batch of goblins died in a whirl of confusion, pain, and death, but they were not alone. The team could not know this, but goblins do have hearing well into the ultrasonic range which left them close to deaf to common sounds, but allowed them to communicate with one another over great distances. It was a communication method that almost reached the level of rudimentary hive mind.

    When that dozen died, another six dozen heard everything they needed about the numbers, shape, and behaviors of the killers. By the time the party realized what was happening, it was too late. They were surrounded on all sides.

    Calenda and Katek fought valiently against their foes. Katek, possessing true immunity to the most deadly of goblin abilities, tried to make her way into a position that would let her protect the less resilient mages, while Calenda was immune only to the poison, not the acid that began to eat its way through her skin. She was forced to rely upon her vampire shard to keep moving.

    Elruin blanketed the area in darkness, which did little to impair either side, and killed a few. Others burst into flames, the victim of Lemia's alchemical weapons.

    "Fall back! More are coming!" Ketak shouted. As much as she wanted to kill every goblin, she knew the need for choke points and tactics.

    In the end, they weren't overwhelmed, they got unlucky and Elruin was struck by a ball of the sticky, caustic ball of toxicity that was goblinoid waste. For a moment, she was confused. A moment later, she began to scream.

    "Elruin!" Calenda abandoned her fight, leaving Scratch to deal with her foes on his own as she made her way to her wounded sibling.

    Lemia was hit moments later, and then the goblins realized that there were at least two foes that could die easily. Eager to claim at least one life in recompense for all their dead, they converged on the vulnerable.

    Suggested Listening

    Panicked and in indescribable agony, Elruin screamed her song, a necromantic bomb that flowed outward, killing everything in its wake. Lemia and Ketak were spared, virtue of their attunement to the little necromancer. The grass, the trees, and the goblins were consumed by necromantic power and rendered either dead or dying.

    Then, only after witnessing such horrific loss of life, did the goblins choose to retreat.

    Lemia, blinded in one eye by acid, gripped one of her shards as she stripped it of power to counter the chemicals melting her flesh. Another shard was enough to mitigate the worst of the poison.

    Elruin lay gasping on the ground. Her natural resilience fought the worst of the acid, but she had no special defense against poison and nobody on the team had a method to counter it. Gasping for breath, she turned her sight inward to watch her own heartbeat stop.

    I made Cali cry. Then nothing but oblivion.

    EPILOGUE:

    Lord Claron lost the special powers of the Chosen of Enge, but remained devoted to his god and controlled his territory by inertia, reputation, and violence. In two years he was crowned king of all Engeval's kingdoms. Four years later, he would be assassinated. His disastrous economic policies left the kingdoms in ruin, and ultimately accelerated their collapse to the wilderness. A civil war would wrack the land for the next two decades, costing cities and farmsteads to the wilderness. When the dust cleared, the population and territorial control of Engeval had been cut to a tenth of what it had been before Claron's rise to power. It never recovered.

    No longer anchored by Elruin, Calenda's sanity deteriorated in a matter of hours. Retaining just enough of her humanity to take Lemia to safety, she returned to the wilderness and fought her way back to Engeval territory and began a one-woman guerrilla war campaign. Slowly, she lost sight of her reasons, remembering only the goal to kill every last member of Claron's army. Six months after she started her campaign, she was destroyed by a force led by Juna and Garit. They never realized who she was or the significance of the tattered toy horse she carried with her.

    Lemia would survive the conflict, if barely. Scarred for life, she was carried back to Sonhome by Calenda, where she would spend the rest of her life researching necromancy and resurrection magic hoping to replicate what Elruin accomplished with Calenda. A little over three years would go by before she was discovered and executed as a rogue necromancer.

    Driven by her obsession and hate, Ketak continued her campaign against the goblins. She lived longest of the three, nearly a decade of war before she died of drowning when a particularly clever hobgoblin commander flooded their tunnels with a nearby lake. This would not be the end of Ketak's story. She retained her identity, perhaps in part thanks to her connection with Elruin, and became a sapient undead. She then spread her taint to the rest of the dead goblins and eventually the entire lake. Fifty years after the events of Requiem, her tainted lake remains unassailable by any force in the broken empire.

    Scratch moved on. He would find six other necromancers, but none ever quite had the potential of a little girl who died long ago in a fallen empire none of them ever heard of. Then he gave up, as there were no more empires, no cities, no people hiding within those cities, no trueborn necromancers to sing for him. His last flicker of hope died long before Elruin was born, but only a millennium after her death did he relinquish the iron grip on his sanity. She was amongst his last recognizable thoughts.


    =====

    Don't worry, this is NOT the ending. It is one of many, many possible endings in the game. Because if your game doesn't have an awesome game over screen, why are you even making a game?

    Remember when I said goblins were an absolute nightmare to fight without proper defenses, and trivial with them? Yeah... my voters didn't purchase even a single item of defense, then went goblin hunting. This is what a "game over" screen looks like. Because I remember Chrono Trigger and fuck if that wasn't the best game over ever.

    ... I totally missed it on my first playthrough, however. By then I was a vet of RPGs, and Trigger wasn't exactly a difficult game (awesome, yes, but not hard), so I had to wait for over a decade to see "The Future Refused to Change". I think it was the closest anyone has ever gotten to playing the game for the first time, a second time. Still gives me chills, and I pray this chapter even comes close to that experience.

    A different chapter will go up tomorrow (assuming nothing frustrating happens in the meantime... because I wouldn't rule that possibility out...) which will follow a different set of choices from the most current "auto-save". :p
     
  24. Valor

    Valor Versed in the lewd.

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    Super neat ending. Shame you won't pull the Quest over to this site.
     
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  25. TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    If I move the voting anywhere, it'd be to Royal Road. Better formatting, better layout design, less general douchery, and I have ten times the activity over there as I do here.

    The best QQ offers is still at most tied with DWW.
     
    Last edited: Mar 9, 2019
  26. Mr. Tebbs

    Mr. Tebbs Know what you're doing yet?

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    I promise my idea would have been to max crafting until the war found us. I remember leveling in skyrim with non-martial skills and getting trounced by draugr.

    Changed my tune when I ran into krosis at level 10 on my next playthrough and managed to beat him after an hour and around 1000 arrows after I fus'd him off a cliff
     
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  27. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 47
    TanaNari

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    Elruin sang to the fermenting pool of torture and death. Scratch's taint pulsed through flesh that refused to let itself cease, so Elruin sped the process with her Requiem and Rot of Ages. With time and effort, her power squashed their regenerative power and allowed death to claim them. One after another, their struggles ceased and they joined Elruin's control, even if that control was limited to a handful of the dead.

    It was a pity taint was such a destructive thing, as there would have been quite a supply of sarite and alchemical supplies in this pile of corpses were it not for the consumptive energies of undeath. The solution, then, was obvious enough: hunt more goblins later, when they had the time and resources for proper study.

    When she had taken as many as she dared, she began to break down the remaining energies. Nothing good could come of leaving the taint to spread and grow, unless she wanted to replace the goblin threat with an undead one.

    The remaining members of the team considered the situation in their own way. Until now, Elruin's collection of the dead had consisted of incidental undead, born of circumstance rather than deliberate cultivation. This was different, and nobody other than Scratch was quite certain how they felt.

    Ketak had never seen anything like this in any form, but she told herself the victims were worse, so it did not count. Calenda accepted it as a necessity of war, she'd made her peace with worse crimes. Lemia reminded herself that they were desperate and in need of any advantage they could get, especially in such hostile terrain.

    Scratch relaxed as the girl walked the desired path without knowing there was a path to walk. "And now you have what passes for your army back, what do we do with it?" In time, her control would grow to such that she could take the entire slaughter pit and a hundred times more, but it would be a long time before they reached that stage.

    Elruin gave it a thought, then made her choice. "We promised the morks that we would stop the bad men."

    "You made a deal wi' morks?" Ketak sounded about as pleased with that idea as she was with the undead creatures now climbing out of the burial pit.

    "It's a bit more complicated than that," Calenda said. "We found ourselves in a fight with a group of bandits, nothing too difficult, and then a mork pack came along, promised to show us where they had their main camp. Their assumption was that we're motivated by taking the bandits' wealth, and in exchange we... well, we don't bury the dead when leave."

    "I'm not a fan, either, but we got a few secret weapons, in case they're even dumber than expected." Now that Elruin had been so kind as to kill his puppet, Scratch was a lot more relaxed. Controlling a monster like this one while it lived taxed the upper limit of his ability. Dead, it was as silent and compliant as all of the necromancer's dolls.

    "Hmm, can't say I appro'e," Ketak said. "But I suppose morks are better 'an bandits."

    "We've got days of travel before it matters," Calenda said. "Ell, keep your new 'dollies' in the rear guard. Scratch, you, too. Ketak, you take point while I scout ahead. Everyone keep your eyes peeled, I only like ambushes when I'm on the giving side."

    Suggested Listening

    Lemia took another crunchy bite out of her ration bar. "Know what? I think I'm starting to like these things. The nutty flavor takes some adjusting to, but they have good texture and are filling. Compared to the entek slime at the school, this is luxury."

    Elruin smiled and gave a quick nod, unwilling to speak with her mouth full. It was rude enough to speak at what passed for the dinner table, it was unthinkable to have food in your mouth at the time. It appeared Lemia was not raised on such standards of polite behavior.

    "I'm surprised a human would eat our 'ood." Ketak, too, showed no interest in basic politeness. She took another bite out of a small branch once attached to an oak tree. "Most o' you don't look twice be'ore going back to 'e salted meats."

    Lemia took the time to swallow her bite. "Why?" She looked at the remaining piece, took another bite while waiting for Ketak's explanation.

    "Humans don't like 'e same 'ings silmid like. Same as silmid don't like human 'ood. Don't get how you can get hungry knowing what you killed was 'illed with blood and guts and 'e same meat you're 'illed with."

    "Sure, but that's meat, we still like berries and nuts same as you do." Lemia's chewing slowed, then stopped, as she looked down at the mysterious crunchy bits of the ration bar. "These aren't nuts, are they?"

    "Some o' it is. Walnuts, more likely 'an not." Ketak took another bite from her strip of tree. Dwarves could and did eat the same meal as their silmid cousins, but also ate a great deal of tree roots. Ketak in particular liked the crunch of bark and texture of tree fiber.

    As she stared down at her food, Lemia's skin began to match Elruin's pallor. "And the rest of it?"

    "Dunno, but were I to guess?" Ketak considered the possibilities as she chewed. "Meal worms are cheap, 'ind 'em in all sorts o' silmid recipes. Crickets, maybe, but 'at's higher class, maybe tarantulas i' you're a big spender."

    "Meal worms?" Lemia gagged, but held her stomach. "I've been eating meal worms for the last four days? I think I'm gonna be sick."

    "Not here," Elruin said. "Get out of the cart, first." She then returned to chewing on her snack, unconcerned that she was eating bugs. She learned long ago that one couldn't afford to be a picky eater.

    "How can still eat that stuff?"

    Elruin looked at Lemia, and did not speak until she finished with her mouthful. "I can see it's clean," she said. "It has lots less of the bad dust that live in people and make them sick than the meat does."

    Lemia stared at Elruin for a full minute. "Are... are you saying you can see the things that make people sick?"

    "Uh huh. They're all really tiny, smaller than a fleck of dust, but when you get enough of them together I can see them. They can live inside your stomach or blood, and they're all over your skin and food all the time. When you have too many inside you, it can make you sick. Everyone has them." She looked down at herself. "Except me, I don't have any. And Ketak has lots less than you. I think they don't like heat or necromancy, because dead things have the most bad dust, but my dollies have almost none."

    Lemia continued to think. "And what's the places that have the worst bad-dust?"

    Elruin sat and thought, herself. "Uh, poop is extra bad. All... entek..." she hesitated to say the word, as it was a profanity she saw her siblings get in trouble for using before. "And meat when it starts to smell funny. Milk is bad, water can be bad, sometimes, if it's not clear water. My brothers' still, but the heat kills the bad dust so it's safe to drink. For adults, I wasn't allowed."

    "But alcohol can still make you sick."

    "Right, because it has poison in it," Elruin said. "But bad dust is different. It eats your insides and grows like a plant. Like taint, but alive. Cooking kills it, but it floats in the air so it comes back if you leave meat too long."

    "Ell, if you're right about this, we could revolutionize the entire medical field." Lemia's mind couldn't begin to guess how many techniques could be developed to curb disease if it was more than just blood-mold-like things that ate people from the inside. "And you're telling me that this... bug... food... has less of the bad dust than meat?"

    "Kind of?" Elruin squinted at her bar. "I think it has a different kind of bad dust, a kind that can eat bugs, but not people. But the stuff that eats animals also eats people."

    "What about plants, do they have bad dust, too?"

    "Some, but less than bug bad dust."

    "Sounds like the plan is to eat nothing but plants for the rest of my life."

    "Maybe?" Elruin went back to finishing her meal, without much thought as to the nature of disease or revolutionary medical thaumaturgy. She was still hungry, and the meager fill of the ration bars left her yearning for more.

    It wasn't long before Cali returned from her jaunt into the forest, Scratch and his troll puppet not far behind her. "Good news, found the end of the mork trail. Ambiguous news, no sign of the morks. Bad news, these guys are equipped and fortified. They're using an old fortress, has what looks to be the same architectural style as the centaurs. It's not big, compared to our farmsteads, but it is well fortified."

    She knelt in the dirt and began carving a top-down map of the fort. It was an ovular design, with just a single wall and a couple squares inside that represented buildings. As fortifications went, a simple one, but simplicity worked in its favor if it needed to be defended by a small force.

    "We can write off my plan to sneak in and slit all their throats in their sleep," Scratch said. "They got a sarite bubble. Not a strong one, bet we could break it, but they'd know when we started."

    "Only way in is climbing the wall, or going in the front gate," Cali said. "I counted twenty guards on the walls, between the two shifts. For a fort like that, I bet it means a total of forty men are inside at all times."

    "Which means we rush the walls, or set up for a long term siege," Lemia said. "With Elruin's goblins, we could get over a wall fast if we need to."

    "Or go under," Ketak said. "Maybe we can tunnel through, or at least sap a wall."

    "Or wait, ambush the first party they send out," Scratch said. "They don't know they've been discovered, and that fort does not have enough space to feed forty men for long. They hunt or they starve."

    "Which brings its own risks," Cali said. "Much as I love any plan that takes some of them out early, we can't afford to stay here forever. Claron is still active, and the longer he remains in power, the more dangerous he'll become."

    "Can we trick them into opening the gate?" Elruin asked. "If we tunnel close, maybe we can climb out and surprise them, like the hobgoblins tried."

    "Normally, I'd reject that plan outright," Cali said. "They must have life-detecting magic, but lifesight doesn't necessarily mean an ability to detect the undead. If they don't have a necromancer, it's possible they won't see us until it's too late.

    "We could take multiple approaches," Lemia added. "Sap a wall, then while they deal with that we go over the opposite wall. Or have the undead lead a direct assault while we sneak around. If we play to our strengths and hit them from all sides, I think our odds go up."


    =====

    Reload from save Y / N ?

    ~If there's just fuzz where your hamster was ~ It's probably because of tarantulas!~

    Seriously, though, there are cultures in our world that eat meal worms and/or tarantulas. Seems to me that an insectivore species would do the same. Could be wrong. Don't think I am. At the same time, tarantula aren't all that cost effective in terms of ranching- they're slow breeders and growers compared to their potential nutritional value. Meal worms and crickets, however? Yeah... they're cheap as it gets.

    Elruin accidentally discovers germ theory! +nothing noteworthy for the time being!

    Lemia becomes a vegan! -50 to all stats!

    That's a joke. I'm joking.
     
  28. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 48
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    The first attack on the barrier was meant to be the last. Elruin stood at the tree line, drew a slow, steady breath, then extended her arms forward, hands flat against one another like she was preparing a high dive. Everything she could muster into a single black bolt of power, invisible in the night fog that Calenda helped to create.

    Elruin dropped to her knees, exhausted of strength. She didn't bring down the barrier, she didn't need to, all she had to do was weaken it enough.

    .....

    "Here's the most vulnerable spot," Cali said as she pointed on her map in the dirt. "Southeast corner. They don't have enough shielding shards, so the barrier's especially thin at this point. Also just so happens to be furthest from their barracks, so by the time they get men there, we can tunnel under the walls and come up the other side. We sacrifice the element of surprise, but there was never any chance of keeping surprise and getting through the wall. Near the north of the camp is our second best spot. We'll target both. Ell, you'll give the signal."

    Elruin nodded. "I have an idea, too. We'll need as much water as we can get."

    .....

    Elruin dipped her hand into the bucket of crackling black energy, allowing her stored necromantic pool to return to her body. She had no way to know, but what she was doing would have killed most necromancers.

    "Troll! It's a tr-!!" A sickening crunch ended the warning cry. Scratch's troll broke through less than a minute after the barrier was damaged, and punched its hand through the closest guard's faceguard.

    Another soldier appeared in moments, propelled by superhuman speed he severed the troll's forearm with a single swing of his axe, then continued forward and sank into the troll's chest. A true strike which left the troll's heart bisected by steel.

    As resilient as trolls are, even that might not have killed it, but then the attacker gripped the back of the blade for the killing move. "Ignition." One whispered word caused the innards of the troll zombie to erupt into flame.

    In a twist of irony, an undead troll was in many ways weaker than a live one, as its natural regeneration was sacrificed. Against fire, the situation was reversed as the the bolstered toughness and strength of a walking corpse cared not about whether its organs had been reduced to ash. The woman with the ax did everything right to fight a troll. She did everything wrong to fight a zombie.

    A clawed, burning talon lashed out, gripped the woman's hand, and the ax it held, then began to squeeze with enough strength to crush her armor, and then her bones. The other, severed, limb twitched around, grabbed her leg, and began crushing that as well. Metal folded, bone splintered, and blood pooled in the ruined pieces of armor.

    She screamed, kicked out, shattered the troll's leg, and did not see the two goblins come out of the dirt with their spears. Nobody would ever realize it was her own brother's weapon that slid beneath the backplate of her armor and inflicted the wound that would kill her.

    She bought time, however, for a dozen other armed men to arrive at the point of conflict. Armed with spears, the goblins were dangerous, but being undead they lacked the native goblinoid instincts and biology that made the creatures truly terrifying. Intelligence sacrificed for strength and toughness, useful in some situations, but being overrun was not the right circumstance.

    Then they swallowed.

    .....

    "We'll give the goblins some of the spare weapons," Cali said. "I know, goblin bodies would be better suited as archers, but we didn't stock up on bows, and the goblins stopped making toxins when they died. Bit of a blessing in disguise, I bet they'll take the time to get anti-poison magic ready before they go out to fight goblins, only to find there's no poison to fear."

    "Might I suggest something?" Lemia said. "I've been looking into the venomfire and its reactions. The way silmid use it, it explodes into a flammable powder, but if we, say, dropped a pellet in goblin toxins, we could get a pretty nasty explosion."

    "Still facing the same problem of the poison being dried."

    "Not inside their stomachs."

    .....

    The ball of necrotized flame exploded outward from the now-annihilated goblin corpses, capturing a total of nine people in their blast. For half, it was minor burns, for the other half it was enough heat to burn their unshielded eyes or lungs. They fell back, retreating from the explosion as those with healing magic found that their spells struggled against the wounds inflicted.

    The troll, now the sole body remaining of this necrotic cluster, recovered in strength. Its bones forced themselves back into proper shape, and the severed limb pulled back into place, as if held by magnetism. The wounded, the blinded, they were easy prey.

    It ignored the three closest, those dying on the ground from goblin-bone shrapnel which found itself in the open points of their armor.

    "There's more!" A man shouted from another wall. "The goblins are coming this way, too! Dozens of them!"

    A man shouted orders, then began to rush the troll while more men were sent toward the wall. He drove the beast back with a powerful blow of his guisarme, taking care to use the flat of the blade, instead of the edge that ran the risk of getting stuck in the monster.

    A stream of necromantic energy caught him by surprise, numbing his limbs and for a moment blinding him. He shuddered, fell to his knees, then jumped to the side when another stream of power nearly struck him. "Necromancer on the wall!" he shouted at what few able-bodied men remained near him.

    To the north, men began to gather on the wall, looking out into the fog. "Where are the goblins?" One of them demanded of the guard who'd called them.

    "Right there, come closer!" The soldier shouted, pointing down into the fog. "There!"

    The other soldier leaned over to get a better look. "Where? I don't s- aaah!" He screamed as he fell off the wall, and landed face first on the ground below. The twelve foot drop probably wouldn't kill him, which was better than Scratch's new puppet could claim when he was impaled by one of his own friends. Then the wall rumbled beneath them.

    Scratch used his now-dead puppet to laugh. He hadn't had this much fun in centuries.

    .....

    "Once the ambush has started, Scratch will abandon his troll, find some soldier, and lure others onto the north wall, where Ketak, Lemia, and the rest of our goblins will be waiting. Scratch sends a signal, then the wall comes down. I'm sure he'll think of something obvious."

    "Can-do, Sis." Scratch forced his troll to salute, as best it could given anatomical limitations.

    "Let the goblins take lead, they do the fighting and the dying first, we can always get more later. Lemia, you need to spot their champions, then you and Ketak take them down."

    "Where will you be?" Ketak asked.

    "On the other wall, with Elruin." Cali said. "What looks at first to be the distraction will instead be the first wave of our pincer attack."

    .....

    A little girl began to sing.

    On the northern side of the camp, the wall rumbled and collapsed, claiming six more lives. Six more goblins, also already dead, rushed over the collapsed segment and savaged those who by luck or skill survived the falling stone.

    A burst of lighting lashed out, catching all the goblins and several bandits in brain-destroying electrical death. All fell, but the goblins rose again. Without a nervous system, without a brain, only the heat of the lightning had any effect on them. It was not enough.

    Moments later, another lightning bolt shot back over the wall, catching the mage. He was tougher than most lightning mages, but he was still amongst the most fragile castes of magic wielder. He stumbled back, used a windstorm to force the goblins away from him. Then he fell to the ground, gasping for breath as he drew on his sarite to replenish his strength so that he might escape.

    His eyes widened in terror when Ketak walked through his windstorm. Like most dwarves, she stood under four feet tall and weighed over five hundred pounds, it was rare to find a wind that would so much as slow her down. He brought his hand up, to cast another spell. A single swipe from hers left nothing but cauterized stumps where his fingers once sat.

    "Good news, of sorts," she said. "Surrender, and you li'e. Or 'ight and die. Your choice, but i' I were you, I'd choose to die."

    The magic started to collapse around them, as the mage made his choice. He rolled onto his stomach, keeping his head down while the goblins ran around him into the compound seeking more bandits.

    "You're a bra'e man, or a 'oolish one," Ketak muttered. "I suppose 'ere is no di'erence, when it comes to humans."

    On the other side of the fort, the man with the guisarme jumped up to the wall to face the necromancer. "A child?" He smirked. "Or something that's meant to look like a child, at any rate."

    Elruin did not stop singing, for she could not. There were too many dead, too many who would come back soon. The storm of death and taint continued to grow with every passing second, far beyond the pit Scratch had created.

    The man twirled his weapon behind him, striking the second troll, the one that Elruin maintained control over. In that moment of vulnerability, a dagger tainted with goblin venom struck from behind. The man ducked under, which resulted in a troll with a dagger wedged in its forehead. A minor inconvenience at worst for the corpse.

    Now began the real offensive, as Calenda began her all-out offensive with the troll as her flanking partner. He had to face her down, as she had speed and strength to match his own, while treating the troll as a secondary threat. Between the two he had no hope of approaching the child necromancer. They kept moving, both fighting defensively while the troll lost bodypart after bodypart in the clash.

    Soon, it came down to the two of them. He was panting, while Calenda remained in peak form, despite having consumed much of her spare strength. Still, when it came to skill and strength, he had her beat. Were this battle to continue, she would lose.

    Pity, then, that she was already dead. Elruin sang, and she knew it was time. She allowed herself to falter, to make a minor mistake that resulted in the guisarme wedged deep in her chest.

    She just grabbed hold of the shaft. She wanted to issue a taunt, but the metal had blocked her wind pipe. Instead, she just smiled as a stream of necromantic power struck her from behind, and passed through her into him.

    He didn't have time to look surprised, before he fell dead.

    Calenda pulled the weapon out of her. Still unable to speak, she gave it a couple exploratory swings. She knew what share of the treasure she'd be keeping for herself.

    Elruin continued to sing, chaining the necromantic storm to her will one section at a time. She fed half of it into Calenda, used the power to stitch her Elder Sister back together even as she jumped into the fray of facing the remaining bandits. There was little left as the battle went, but she needed desperately to scrub the necromantic taint before it became a threat to Lemia, Ketak, and the others she knew weren't fighting.

    They soon walked empty streets. Half of Elruin's dollies had been destroyed, as well as Scratch's troll puppet.

    "They have puppies?" Elruin spotted the cage first, thanks to her lifesight. She approached the three slender pups that stood up to her hip. Their large fox-like ears folded down, as they hid in the back of their cage. They whimpered and yipped at one another, hiding away from the necromancer.

    "Wanna bet this is why the morks were so interested in our help," Scratch said. He was still without a puppet, but in truth he preferred to roam free than be stuck in a corpse. "I'd eat my own ass if these ain't their pups."

    "Why would the bad men want mork puppies?" Elruin asked. As frightened as they were, the puppies were adorable. She wanted to give them all hugs.

    "Slaves," Cali said. "It's all sorts of criminal, but if you get them young, morks make for useful guard animals. Far stronger and smarter than any normal dog, they can even serve as war mounts. There's quite a price on the black market for intelligent beasts."

    "Why didn't they tell us?" Elruin inched closer to the cage. "We won't hurt you." The pups pressed further back into the cage.

    "Because then we'd know we had them over the barrel," Scratch said. "We could have negotiated for better terms, perhaps demanded they help fight the bandits with us. By pretending they were only tangentially interested, they got a better deal outta us that they might otherwise."

    Lemia ran out of the larger building. "Cali! Elruin!" She stopped, gasping for breath. "We have a problem. They have captives, some are in bad shape." She gave a pointed look at Scratch. "Ell, you need to stay out here and hide your dollies where nobody will be able to see them. Cali, we need your medical knowledge."

    This was when Cali learned her dead stomach could still feel queasy. "Right, I'm coming. Ell, stay out here, and leave the mork pups alone. They've been traumatized, and we should leave them until their parents arrived."

    Soon, howls began at the walls, followed by excited, desperate yipping from within the cages.

    "Speak of the coyote devil," Scratch said. "I'll handle our employers, don't worry, I speak their language better than you humans do. I'll keep things vague without making any promises, but right now we're not in a good position to double-cross them, so I suggest barter."

    "We'll meet up in ten to discuss our situation. Lemia, could you take stock of the storage barn? I was about to, but..."

    "Sure, you've got the worse job, anyway."

    Some time later, they all returned from their respective tasks. Lemia and Ketak kept close to Calenda, so they could whisper to one another outside of Elruin's hearing. "Physically, they'll recover," she whispered to the pair. "The mental scars, I can't begin to guess. And... I didn't have the heart to tell them, but two of them are pregnant."

    Lemia closed her eyes, then nodded. She'd feared as much, given the condition she'd found them in. "Let's take inventory, then." She spoke loud enough for the other two members of their team to hear. "We got six more donkeys and three more carts, enough food to last for a while, and more than enough leather for our little side project."

    "I lost most of my dollies," Elruin said. "Only two goblins survived. But I got four more dollies to replace them, and Mister Clackybones the Second!"

    "Enough weaponry to outfit a small army," Ketak added. "Twenty bows, spears and arming swords, hundreds of arrows, and basic chain or gambesons enough to fully armor fifty people, and enough coin to pay them all for a month. Though it seems they were paid more in alcohol than coin, there are more barrels in storage than we could hope to haul in just four carts. This was not a small operation. Oh, and one living prisoner, who I buried with our remaining goblin 'dollies'. I trust you want to talk to him."

    "Four men, seven women," Cali delivered the least happy news. "From what I could gather, they're the remaining prisoners from three separate merchant caravans, being kept until they could be sold for ransom." She left out the other reasons. "Also a great deal of sarite. Most interesting is the shielding sarite on the walls. That stuff is hard to come by, and we can use it to hide ourselves while transporting the prisoners."

    "Not back to human lands, though," Scratch said. "They wanna go that direction, they gotta go on their own, because we can't afford to let witnesses survive. Oh, and last but not least, we got three mork pups with their parents eager to get them back. Things will get violent if we say no, and I can't promise they won't get violent if we open the gates."

    =====

    My voters made the entire plan you saw here. It was a good one.

    Coyote pups actually are adorable. Leaner than (most) dog or wolf puppies, and they got giant fox ears. Very hugable.

    Elruin finally gets a new Mister Clackybones. It's been a while. May this one "live" longer than the last.
     
  29. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 49
    TanaNari

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    Calenda felt ambivalent about the combination of lack of fatigue and the desire to express frustration via bodily functions which no longer came natural to her. She made herself sigh, but found it disappointed her. Weeks ago, she would have found some alone time to work out or take a nap, but those no longer offered the reprieve they once did, either.

    "Ell, pile the destroyed zombies and tainted corpses you can't control in the far corner. Then have your controlled dead help take corpses up to the gate. Lemia, would you please go help the captives, use our Silmid cover names, and imply we have more members on our team without actually saying who they are." She smiled as a deliciously evil thought came to mind. "And, while you're at it, mention an Inquisitor. Drop the word 'dominator'."

    "A what?"

    "Mind control mage. Nobody likes to talk about them, but they do exist." Lemia started walking to the gate. "Ell, come with me while your 'dolls' do all the work. Have the goblins grab some bows and meet us at the gate."

    Calenda and Elruin took position atop the wall, with their pair of goblins at the gate and a small group of the dead behind them. Scratch followed, for lack of anything better to do and an interest in playing the role of political foil.

    "There they are." "The leaders." "We made a bargain." "Knew humans couldn't be trusted." "Were we fools?" "So disappointing." Thanks to the power of the sarite barrier, damaged though it was, the morks had to communicate via standard vocalization, rather than the magic they had used before. As such, the seven of them could be seen from above.

    They moved as one, circling around each other and only speaking when their mouths were hidden from view, so they could retain the illusion that all and none were speaking. As tricks went, it was no less disturbing than when they were using the forests to hide themselves, but Elruin took comfort in knowing they were on the safe side of the magical wall.

    Morks chastising her about honesty? "But I recall no agreement one way or the other, when it comes to your puppies." From an objective standpoint, an outside observer would probably take the morks' side in this scenario. They were, after all, seeking to get their children back, while she was an undead abomination made even more horrifying by her ability to circumvent many of the so-called 'absolute facts' about the undead. "That said, we have no interest in keeping your children away from you."

    "Yet you stand there." "On the wall." "With our children." "We hear their cries." "Bandits slain." "We smell the blood."

    "Because we found human captives here as well. We can't open the gates, until we get a promise from you. That said, I think we can make a new deal that benefits us both. But first an oath that so long as you're willing to leave in peace, we'll return your offspring. The rest, is us offering a little more in exchange for an arrangement I think will benefit us both."

    "We're listening." "Speak your plan." "But give us our children." "And the other two." "Right, we heard only three." "Should be five." "Where are they?"

    Cali looked over her shoulder into the camp. "We haven't seen any others. They must have been taken elsewhere." She hesitated to admit they took one alive, but at this point it wasn't much of a secret. "I'll be certain to ask our prisoner about it."

    "Good." "Make him suffer." "Make him scream." "Give him to us alive."

    "They're lying," Scratch whispered in her ear. "They know there's only three pups, they're trying to play on your sympathies."

    "No promises." She had wondered, herself, but her form of Truthsaying didn't work well on anything other than humans. "He knows a great deal that I want to know." More to the point, he knew too much about the strategies used in the assault. Every one of their team earned the death sentence twenty times over this day, especially Elruin. The irony was that at this point she and Scratch would be considered the least guilty of the team, for they were already dead and thus their actions were the necromancer's fault.

    Soon, the gates opened, and two morks came through. Flanked by four armored zombies on either side of the gate, the pair of morks kept looking around in all directions, no doubt sizing up the defenses within the fort. There was no reliable method to determine how powerful beings were by looking at them, even with magical senses, but the piles of dead sent their own message.

    The rushed to the cage, the moment they caught sight of the pups, yipping and growling in their own language, unintelligible to human ears.

    Cali moved to open the cage, but the larger mork turned his head and bit down on the metal bars of the cage. With some effort and twisting, the metal of the cage warped and snapped out of their base, providing space for the pups, already larger than most adult dogs, to go free. Elruin wanted to give the fuzzy creatures hugs, but knew she had to settle for watching.

    Still alert, the pair of morks took to either side of their young, and guided them to the exit. Soon, they walked out, and the undead soldiers marched out behind them, taking position on the other side of the gate alongside the newly minted Mister Clackybones II. Elruin sang her corpses to the nearest patch of forest, well out of sight.

    "Okay, I organized the survivors as best I could," Lemia said. "One of the women was the daughter of a caravan leader, closest thing we've got to someone who knows what they're doing. Ketak's drafted the men, putting them in armor. They don't seem to realize she's a woman, and it'll be easier for all of us if they don't find out. She says none of them are worth a damn in a fight, but as long as they look like soldiers, we'll be fine."

    "It's something," Calenda said. "The morks are happy enough, for now. I'll be doing more negotiations once they've talked to their children, made certain we did nothing to harm them.

    "Still going through with feeding them the corpses?"

    "Don't see what other option we have," Cali said. "We can't take the corpses with us, we barely have carts enough for the living, and no matter what direction we head, it's going to take a week to get this many ordinary people to any form of civilization. More if there are any delays, and with civilians there are always delays."

    "We can get there faster on Mister Clackybones the Second," Elruin said. She knew little or nothing about politics or caravans, but she knew her new warhorse could run much faster than the donkeys and their wagons. "He can outrun anything in the wilderness."

    "Ell, I'm pretty sure that your new 'horsey' is a girl," Lemia said. "I mean, I think it is, I'm not an expert on horses, but it's shorter than a male should be."

    "No, you're right," Cali said. "I saw her when she still had some flesh attached, definitely a female."

    "Okay, we can still take her, right?" Elruin accepted the wisdom of her adult companions without hesitation. "Mister Clackybones says she'll run as fast as she can for me, I bet I can get to Sonhome by nightfall. Then we can bury her when we get close to the city, like I did Mister Clackybones the First."

    Cali smiled at the little girl who failed to understand their point entirely, and decided not to address the idea that the mindless horse could say anything. When it came to Elruin, this wasn't too unusual. "It is true, she can outrun anything I've ever seen. I don't want to risk you out there alone."

    "You can come with me!" Ell said. "Mister Clackybones is strong enough to carry both of us."

    "Ell, before we do that, we all need to take a night to recover," Lemia said. She held up a small bag with a sarite crystal, one too dangerous for any of them to use thanks to the corruption leaking from it. It was a potent shard, to be sure, but its ability to bolster alertness, stealth, and spying magic came at the price of driving the user mad with paranoia. "Do me a huge favor and set up the alchemy equipment. We can use this to make Cali's weapon, and perhaps a gift for Mister Clackybones, too, so we'll need you to charge the water."

    "Okay!" Elruin marched toward their temporary camp.

    "Your adoptive sister is a helpful one, isn't she?"

    "Yeah, she's a good kid." Cali watched Elruin walk away. She worried about the girl who had gone through so much, then imprinted on her so thoroughly. She couldn't imagine the horrors that might have been if someone less disciplined had provided a sense of family to the necromancer, and all the dangers which that entailed. "I worry about her."

    "Don't worry," Lemia said. "We'll stop Claron before he touches her."

    "Right." At the moment, Claron wasn't the danger Cali was worried about. "I'm going to go back to negotiation, maybe get our cart inside before the morks eat our donkeys. Keep an eye on 'Rin' while I'm away."

    "So now I'm a babysitter?" Lemia smirked. "I guess it's an upgrade, since with you gone that means she's your heir, right?"

    Cali made herself chuckle, to entertain the humor. "Not quite. You see, I never got married or had children, which means I had no claim to hand down. Any title she may have been able to claim died with me."

    "Oh, well, then if all of this falls through I still got my hair dresser career on the side. Speaking of, you need a touch-up." Lemia reached out, and touched Cali's black hair. With a single brush of her fingers, the black came off on Lemia's fingers. "When Elruin blasted you, it cooked the dyes. Would have cooked everything else, too."

    "When I get back, then," Cali said. A quick burst of strength took her to the top of the fortress wall, and then she hopped over to the other side. With her new weapon and armor, she felt confident enough that she could escape from the morks while the other undead soldiers helped fight them off. Besides, she could threaten that Elruin would use her magic to render all the food inedible and turn their dead against them. They didn't know the limits of her necromancy.

    "Making friends, I see," Scratch slipped out of his hiding place in the soil.

    "Confirming for myself something I think you've known for some time," Lemia crossed her arms and looked down at the ghostly figure. "I just don't get it."

    "If you're fishing for explanations, I'm afraid I've got none to offer."

    "I meant, I don't get why I'm the one you don't trust," Lemia said. "You met Ketak for less than a full minute, and then you were all too eager to reveal yourself and show off your art project to her. Is it because you think she's hot? Were you a dwarf when you were alive?"

    "If you must know, it's because she's a fanatic," Scratch said. "We all are. We have goals so important that we will sacrifice our lives, and our afterlives, if that's what it takes. I understand Calenda, who chose to die rather than accept slavery no matter how gilded her chains would be. Ketak's revenge, too, I know it, and I know how to harness it. You're the anomaly, because you value nothing higher than your own survival. That makes you the weak link."

    "Which makes them ever-so-easy to manipulate, is what you're implying. We both know that's bullshit, fanatics can't be controlled for long." Lemia kept watching the ghost for some tell, aside that he stopped joking whenever she got close to anything important. "I notice you left one name out when discussing motives."

    "And I shall continue infuriating you with lack of information about me until the day you die."

    "Not you, you've proven your 'fanaticism', not that I consider it a reason to trust you." Lemia turned to follow Elruin's wake. "I was thinking of Elruin. That girl is many things, but fanatic she is not. Which means you don't think her motives matter, for reasons I've yet to decipher."

    "Is that what you're hung up on? Elruin doesn't need the same motivations for me to trust her. She's a necromancer, that's all that I require."

    "I noticed, and one day, I'll figure out why." Scratch was wrong about her, she had goals beyond survival. What she wanted, more than anything in this or any other world, was answers. One day, she would have them. For now, she needed to help the key to those answers build a present for her sister.


    =====

    Any chapter with Scratch is a good chapter.

    Especially the ones where he interacts with Lemia. The pair of them are just plain fun together.
     
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2019
  30. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 50
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Elruin stifled a yawn despite her excitement; she had spent half the night working with Lemia, and only had a few hours of sleep. "These are yours!" She held out the pair of ebon-black gloves, oblivious to the wisps of black mist trying to burn away her life energies.

    "Fingerless gloves?" Calenda lifted the gloves with her fingertips; despite being dead for the last couple weeks, she still had not overcome her aversion to obvious necromantic energy like that which bled off of these. The black smoke worked its way across her arms like ephemeral leeches, but instead of stripping her of strength, they melted into her skin and began a slow restoration of her power. "These seem... a lot stronger than I was expecting."

    "Thank you!" Elruin said with her best smile. "I worked my very hardest on them!"

    "We may have cheated a little," Lemia said. "Or a lot, depending on who you ask. Normal magic equipment has more failsafes to protect from magic than actual magic. Nobody wants a flaming sword that melts the hand of the guy holding it, or a charm that boosts the strength of your enemies as well as yourself, or bleeds magic into the environment because it lacks a reservoir. We included none of those failsafes. You've got an artifact which only exists to slowly generate necromantic energy, with no attempt to control or contain the power. Your body does that for us."

    "Breaking all the rules." Cali slide her fingers into her new gloves, and it felt incredible. Black lightning jumped from her fingertips down her wrist as she balled her hand into a fist. It would take some time to replenish her magic reserves, but her reserves would be replenished. "This can't be legal."

    "You have no idea," Lemia muttered. "If Professor Abrax heard I made a device like that one, she'd petition to delay my execution long enough to retroactively fail me out of every class I've ever taken, then have me pressed with my own books and research papers."

    "You like them, right?" Elruin stepped between the adults and their conversation.

    Cali reached out, and rubbed Elruin's head. Now that the excess magic had been absorbed into her, the gloves took on the dark brown coloration of worked leather hide. "Almost as good as a constant hug from my favorite little sister."

    "You're welcome." Elruin gave Cali a hug anyway, to make everything that much better.

    "I better get back in the gates," Lemia said. "You'll have to get 'Mister' Clackybones' saddle on, yourselves. I sized it, but I can't touch that leather now that it's been enchanted. We should be out in half an hour."

    Cali laughed. "So, see you in an hour?"

    They parted ways, leaving Lemia to the impossible task of herding civilians while Cali and Elruin went through the equally impossible task of weaving leather straps through a skeleton in order to keep a saddle in position on an animal lacking skin and flesh. Only after the saddle was attached did its effect become known, as black ink spread outward around the horse, cloaking the creature in darkness.

    Calenda gave the effect a critical eye. "Hmm, this almost works. Maybe with some effort and more leather, we could disguise it entirely." Where the canopy did best at blocking the sun, the effect was a beast shrouded such that it was impossible to identify as a horse at all, let alone one lacking flesh and blood. Where the sun broke through, darkness failed, leaving yellowed bone clear to the human eye.

    Elruin hummed a couple quick notes, which prompted the skeletal steed to its knees, and thus Elruin took her place on the saddle. "Good girl." The necromancer stroked the bones of its neck, as if imagining the horse had a mane.

    "Honestly, I never had much use for horses," Cali said as she took her place behind Elruin on the saddle. "They never had much use for me, either. Who knew that dying would broaden my outlook on life so much?"

    "Beats the alternative." Scratch walked out of the ground diagonally, as if ascending from a basement. "But I'd wait another century or two before I started singing its praises."

    "I thought the plan was for you to go with Lemia's group."

    "And I changed that plan," Scratch said. "Couple of those captives kept looking in my direction even when they shouldn't be able to see me. I doubt it's anything, but you don't get to retirement age by being by being foolhardy. 'Sides, how could I miss on the joy of watching our young mistress take her first steps into becoming a general, complete with an army at her back? Speaking of, you're about to miss the procession."

    Clackybones rose to its feet, then trotted near the edge of the forest, where the gates were opened and the procession of seven carts left the safety of the walls for their trip to Sonhome.

    Nearby, the morks left the edge of the wilderness and watched the wagons. Shouting and pointing at the giant beasts came from the caravan, only to quiet when each and every mork knelt on their forelimbs and tilted their heads down as if to bow as the procession went by.

    Scratch rubbed his nonexistent hands together. "That'll get 'em talking 'til the day they die and maybe beyond. Gotta say, that 'dominator' lie was absolutely devious, it almost makes this 'saving people' nonsense worth the headache."

    As soon as the wagons disappeared into the forest, the morks rushed the abandoned fortress, intent on claiming their prize of not-quite-fresh human meat, and whatever else they might scavenge.

    "Now for the second dumbest part of the plan," Scratch said. He jumped off his perch on Clackybones' shoulder, then floated through the greatly diminished shielding.

    Elruin sang in earnest, and her army began to move. Seven armored soldiers, stronger than they had been in life and incapable of defying their orders, began to march on the fort's opened gates. They stopped at the entrance, an honor guard for Elruin and Calenda. Four of the skeletons walked off in sets of two, heading for the last remaining sarite crystals on the walls. Meanwhile the largest of the morks, a grizzled and scarred veteran, stood face to face with the procession.

    "Our deal is satisfactory?" He spoke without the echo-trickery his kind so preferred.

    "More than," Cali said. "We will return as we can, but expect this place to attract monsters within hours of our leaving. It will all but certainly attract scouts from the human lands, who may or may not work for a man named Lord Enge, within the week. Make contact, learn what they seek, feel free to lie to them and take whatever bribes they offer. We'll make contact later as we are able, with a plan and greater bribe than theirs."

    "It has been... profitable... working with you." The grizzled mork turned and returned to the rest of his pack, and their feasting upon the piles of dead.

    The zombies returned carrying the four remaining shielding sarite crystals that hid the fortress and its human magical essence from the world. Soon the fortress would be overrun by the denizens of the forest, investigating the magical essence that attracted the real threats to human settlements. Such a small location wouldn't draw in the true monsters like dragons, but even a pair of chimera would be a threat too great for Claron and his people to ignore.

    Knowing what Scratch had informed them of, that the essence of the dead had a habit of 'sticking' to the living, Cali considered the possibility that the monsters sought fragments of human souls to augment their own strength. There weren't many creatures with natural intelligence in the world, and all of them attracted ceaseless hordes of monster assaults. Humans, silmid, and some reptilians used sarite shielding to hide, while goblins used their toxins and prodigious reproductive speed to drive off attackers, but all natural sapient life were at constant war with nature.

    She tensed her fist again, as if to test Scratch's theories. It was true, she felt notably stronger after the battles they'd fought, and she was becoming convinced that it was more than just Elruin's magic that caused it. Elruin was also stronger, and Lemia had progressed from a fragile waif to someone who could be a good soldier with some training.

    "What are you thinking about?" Elruin asked.

    "What Scratch said earlier, about us getting stronger thanks to all the things we've had to kill," Cali said. "I didn't want to admit it at first, but I think it's true."

    Elruin thought for a moment, but couldn't decide why it was so important to Cali. "Why are you sad?"

    Cali looked back at the fortress, and the small army of soldiers which followed in the wispy smoke of Clackybones' wake. "I always knew the world was violent and unforgiving, but I accepted that as the nature of life. Now, I learn that it's more than that, that nature is no different than man, slaughtering one another for power. We live in a world ruled by death."

    Scratch began to cackle with a cruel, bitter laughter.

    "Is something I said funny to you, ghost?" She hadn't expected Scratch to care about her existential crisis, but he could have kept quiet. "I'm having a moment with Elruin, thank you."

    "Nothing funny about it at all," Scratch said. "In fact, I'd say it's the least amusing joke ever spoken by human lips, and that's saying a lot. Some day, I may even let you in on it."

    Suggested Listening

    The days of travel had been long, frustratingly so for the dead army which was forced to stay apart from the humans they protected. It seemed like half the day, every day, was wasted on the biological annoyances of humanity which were little or no trouble for the army of corpses. Elruin, yes, still needed rest and food, but she could sleep in the saddle while Cali carried her, if needed. Still, they kept their distance, made a week of a journey that needed take them only a few days.

    During one of their many needless breaks, Scratch took a rare moment to get serious. "Hey, Dark Queen of Dollies and Death, what are you going to do? Later, after we put Claron on the proper side of the great divide?"

    Elruin didn't so much as hesitate. "Cali and I go back home and live happily ever after, like both of the fairy tales where the children don't get eaten."

    "That's sweet of you, Ell, but I don't have a home anymore," Cali said. "Don't feel sad, though, I like it better this way. Free."

    "Oh," Elruin stopped and put more thought into the question. "Then I want a nice big farm with strong walls that won't fall over in the rain. Where we can live happily ever after, and my dollies can do the work and make lots of crops so we can feed everyone and make money and have a nice house with a big library and Lemia can be there, too, with an alchemy lab and everyone will be happy forever."

    "All of your power, and that's all you want?" Scratch pretended to lean against a tree. "You could be a queen, with time a goddess, and you'd rather be a farm girl?"

    "Uh huh." Elruin laid head down on Cali's lap. "Queens have to deal with nasty people like Claron and do all sorts of boring things. I want a nice farm and all the books to read. And a bed made of stuffed animals."

    Cali rested a hand on the girl's head. "It's a lovely dream, Ell. I'll do everything to make it happen."


    =====

    Elruin, what is best in life?

    To play with dollies. See them risen before you and hear them work in your fields.

    ...

    What?

    Sorry this was so damn late. Today was not kind to this old duck.

    I actually took the time to look up the origins of fingerless gloves, to make sure they weren't too historically strange. Turns out, ancient Greeks had them. That's "historical" enough for my purposes.

    Pressing is a real world torture/execution method. It's pretty damn horrific, like most medieval era executions. Usually involves rocks, but my college experience leads me to believe books would work equally well.

    Mark this chapter in your bookmarks, folks. I have a habit of making stories where a lot of the subtleties will be missed on your first read-through. This chapter more than just about anything else I've ever written will epitomize that practice.

    And I've been both busy and under the weather, so I'm taking tomorrow off as a break and cleanup day. Basically going through, fixing up typos, and doing general maintenance. Plus some crap around the house that needs doing. The odds of you getting a chapter are exceedingly low.
     
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