Beyond the Screen Chapter 4

Beyond the Screen Chapter 4
by Dr. Bender

One day in the fantasy world and all Ressia and her companions want is some hot food and a nice, warm, bed. Fate, however, has other plans.

Warning: This chapter contains a short explaination of the DnD alignment system. May cause drowsiness, irritibility, altered states of consciousness and spontaneous brain matter combustion. Sorry, everyone, but it's important to the storyline, please bare with it.

Beyond the Screen
By Dr. Bender

Chapter 4

The rest of that first journey through the wilds was uneventful. I refrained from skiting when we reached the road and the boys, except for Jason, mumbled an apology. Jason mumbled something about know-it-all bitches instead, which I felt was going to set the general trend of our relationship from that time forward. There’s definitely one thing that the game glosses over: dirt. By the time we emerged from the forest we were covered in mud, grime and sweat. I also discovered the hard way that females really do have a better sense of smell than males, if you ever wonder why girls are so compulsively clean, I’ll tell you I needed a bath just to get away from my own stench.

It wasn’t until we were a ways down the road, with Zenis and Altek up front, that I noticed the mud, dust and grime fading away until I looked like I’d been taking a pleasant evening stroll rather than a gruelling trek through untamed wilderness. A quick mental checklist informed me that this was a property of the Courtesan’s Choker that I wore around my neck, a minor artefact that also combined the powers of a Periapt of Health and a Periapt of Proof Against Poison, the first granting immunity to diseases both natural and magical and the latter fairly self explanatory.

This revelation led me to search my addled and abused mind for more information on my gear as we walked, which proved interesting. For starters, I discovered that Ressia didn’t think of things in game terms, she compared magical abilities to mundane items to describe their effects rather than the numeric system that James was familiar with. For example, Ressia’s memories informed me that her Bracers of Armour gave her protection roughly equal to wearing a suit of chainmail. James translated that into ‘+5 bonus armour class’. I also wore a Ring of Protection that enhanced my protection to the equivalent of a full suit of plate mail, with James noting that I’d still have my dexterity bonus on top of that making me surprisingly hard to hit. The second ring was a simple Ring of Feather Fall, an item that had saved Ressia’s skin more than once. My nice, light, backpack turned out to be a Handy Haversack, a storage item that could hold far more than its physical size could possibly allow (if you know Dr. Who, think Tardis). In addition, I was wearing Boots of Elvenkind that made me much stealthier and, more importantly, would save my feet from the rigours of travel. Ressia’s memory of life on the road before acquiring these boots made me wince.

So it was that we approached The Nymph’s Pool, an Inn that better resembled a small fort than a business establishment, just as the sun began to set. I counted ten guards with crossbows on the walls, with likely another ten inside waiting to take the night shift. Even as we approached I could see that several caravans were already inside, and it was likely that they had their own mercenary protection. I was also willing to bet that the King’s soldiers would have their own waystation inside, affording the landlord considerable protection. Indeed, it would take a small army of Orc marauders to sack the place, or perhaps a single older Dragon.

I watched Altek step up to talk to the gate guard with a small measure of surprise as the man, and it seemed most of the men on guard, were staring at me. I tried to ignore the stares but it didn’t keep me from feeling like a piece of meat being sized up for the cutting block.

“Sir Altek Lanzig,” the paladin introduced himself, “Order of the Golden Rose. My group and I seek food and shelter.”

The guard was a professional and it seemed that Altek’s title curried a measure of respect. They shook hands as the guard asked the formal questions; names, point of origin, destination. Altek did a good job obfuscating our true nature, spinning a tale wherein we’d sprung a teleport trap that landed us nearby and how we were bound for Hallowfel to rest and recuperate. I’ll admit, it sounded a lot better coming from someone reputable considering how crazy it sounded.

I couldn’t help but notice that everyone’s eyes followed me as we passed through the gate. Not us, though we were an unusual bunch, I tested my theory by pausing to adjust my boot as if I’d gotten a stone in it and heads paused with me. I moved on before conflicting emotions from both of my personas could overwhelm me, ignoring the slight glow of pride that welled up in my heart.

Inside the high wooden walls was a grubby establishment common to frontier outposts. The rooves were tiled and tarred to prevent fire attacks from burning the whole place down. A main two story building sat at the far end from the gate, flanked on the right by the barracks and the stables on the left. As we walked toward the main doors, an off duty guard gave me a wolf whistle on the way past. A mischievous urge suddenly took hold of me and, smiling, I waited until he was taking a swig from the tankard in his hand before flipping my golden hair as I glanced in his direction. He was still coughing and spluttering as we entered the tavern, one of his companions thumping him on the back.

“By the Seven Heavens, Ressia,” Altek scolded.

Grinning impishly, I shrugged. “I don’t know why I did that but it felt good.”

“Perhaps you should try to attract a bit less attention,” Vanad murmured, pretending to cough into his fist. I wondered what had gotten into him at first until I noticed the room. You know that scene in just about every western where the hero walks into the bar and everyone stops what they were doing and stares? It wasn’t as bad as that, not dead silence, but when thirty or so people are staring at you for the first time it feels like the world is grinding to a halt. Of course, what was a first time for James was old hat to Ressia, her instincts rising to the fore.

“Get a table and order some food,” I muttered, “I’ll be with you all in a bit.”

Altek frowned. “Don’t do anything stupid.”

I grinned impishly as I walked away, deftly weaving through the crowd with a not-too reassuring wave of my hand. I caught a glare of envy from one of the serving girls as I stepped past, an older human woman in her thirties who’s wrinkles were already starting to etch her face. Some sort of sixth sense warned me of an impending goosing by a particularly bold drunk, enabling me to slap his hand sharply yet casually before he ever got close much to the delight of the snickering crowd. The barman looked a little nervous by the time I was leaning against the counter, waiting for service. I waited for all of a few seconds.

“What’ll it be, miss?” He asked, forcing himself to stare at the tankard he was wiping dry rather than at me.

“Wine,” I informed him, though James wasn’t a drinker, Ressia was a connoisseur, “and permission to play.”

He glanced at me, surprised. “I doubt I can afford you.”

“Consider this one on the house,” I quipped with a smile.

He chuckled. “Be my guest.”

I retrieved my lute from the depths of my Handy Haversack as I made my way to the fireplace, pulling an empty chair away from a table to give me a place to rest. I dropped a few of my things on the floor nearby where I could keep an eye on them and pulled my hair over one shoulder to keep it out of the way as I sat, crossing my legs by reflex. I’d never played before but the lute felt comfortable in my hands and my body was tingling with excitement. Ressia loved performing and was in her natural element on the stage, playing an audience with all eyes on her. So I played, strumming the lute with practiced ease as I raised my voice in song.

I proceeded to bring the house down. I sang ballads and odes to love and joy from the far corners of the world, raising spirits to dizzying heights. Then, when the mood was right, I brought them down with sweet lullabies and elvish laments. Finally I exalted them once more, leaving the stage to a chorus of cheers and stomping feet. I didn’t have to ask for a room, the bartender threw me a key without a word and ordered food sent to my room. Finally sipping some wine, I gave my companions a wink before ascending the stairs, enjoying the stunned looks on their faces.

I was high as a kite, physically aroused from the performance. The room was nice, cosy and clean and I took some delight in kicking off my boots and throwing myself onto the soft mattress without spilling a drop of my wine. Stretching, I unbuckled my corset and discarded it on the floor, breathing a sigh of relief. It wasn't long before I was disturbed by a timid knock on the door but I could smell the aroma of roasted beef, freshly baked vegetables and gravy through the door. My stomach didn't have to girgle to remind me it was empty but it did so anyway and I found myself giggling as I opened the door.

The serving girl I found outside was young, pretty and blushed cutely as she stood there holding the tray of food. Her blush deepened as I took her burden from her with a grateful smile and placed it on the small table across from the bed.

“Um, can I ask you a question?” She asked, gingerly stepping through the door.

I bit back several sarcastic replies, figuring she was too young to appreciate them. “Sure,” I replied, taking a small bite out of a sweet potato and savouring it for a few moments.

“Where did you learn to… sing like that?” She asked hesitantly.

The question brought over eighty years of memories to the fore of my brain, which might have provoked me into hysterics except that the memories were generally pleasant. I remembered wandering from town to town with my parents, watching the stars with my mother under the night sky, practicing various arts every night as a little half-elf girl. By the time I was twenty, I had a reputation as a child actor that carried with me into a long puberty. Such was the way of Half-Elf physiology, caught between the short span of Humans and the virtual immortality of the Elves. I’d lit my mother’s funeral pyre at the age of forty; she’d died of old age. Never the same, Father had returned to the land of the elves to ease his grief while I chose to continue wandering as before, with no place amongst my Father’s kind. It was with world-weary eyes that I looked at the young girl before answering. “Decades of practice and a patient father. Would you like to sit for a while?”

She positively bubbled with enthusiasm, closing the door and taking up the chair opposite, carefully arranging her skirt. “I’d love to! I’ve got the rest of the night off now; it’s so good to finally get off my feet.”

Having worked taverns before, and even less reputable establishments for one reason or another, I could sympathize. I finished off the wine in my glass and retrieved the new bottle from the tray, already uncorked, and poured myself a new glass. Lifting the goblet to my nose, I savoured the bouquet.

You’ve probably been able to surmise that Ressia is a consummate actor. It was her skill that enabled me to act naturally as I casually put down the goblet and smiled, picking up the empty goblet that had come with the rest of the meal so that I could fill the glass. “Sorry, where are my manners,” I apologized, still smiling, “you really should try some of this, it’s exquisite.”

My suspicions were confirmed by the drop of sweat that trickled down her forehead; she was a good actress but not good enough. My eyes wandered to her hands, which were folded on the table, noting the calluses that come from weapons practice and the barest hint of the stains that come from practicing herbal alchemy. “Um, no, that’s all right,” she refused, even as I poured, “daddy doesn’t let me drink wine yet.”

Her innocent airhead act was good but she wasn’t fooling a fooler. Fortunately, I didn’t need her to be willing to accept the goblet and drink from it. One of the less powerful Bard spells in my repertoire, called Beguiling Gift, could force her to accept the goblet and drink if she didn’t have the will to resist me. All I needed to do was expend a little more effort and I could cast it without the usual incantations by using the art known as Metamagic to the initiated. It made the low-level spell expend as much energy as a higher level one but being able to cast spells secretly was a boon. I cast the spell as I offered the goblet to her, looking into her eyes.

She blinked and, for a moment, I thought the spell had failed. Then she took the goblet from me and drained it in one gulp. The sequence of emotions that played across her face was darkly comical. At first she looked shocked at what she’d done, eyes wide in alarm. Then the magic of what she’d put in the wine took hold and her expression went slack. Then she stared at me and the dumbfounded look gave way to the deepest, purest, abiding love and admiration the likes of which most people would never know (unless they also possessed a Philtre of Love, quite a nasty potion that acts quite like it sounds). What I wasn’t expecting was the sudden upwell of desperation and terror as she grabbed my hand.

“I’m sorry! I’m so, so sorry, my love!” She begged my forgiveness desperately and I must admit the total change in her attitude creeped me out (not that I felt sorry for her, since she’d tried to do the same to me). “We have to get out of here now! They’re coming!”

She stood up abruptly and went to peek out the window, leaving me half-standing over my meal. “Who’s coming?” I demanded. “What’s going on here?”

“Quiet, they might be listening,” she said, looking around outside for a moment before returning to wrap her arms around me. Ressia remembered similar moments, some platonic and some more intimate, with other girls and somehow I felt comfortable returning the gesture. “I’m sorry. My name is Kendra,” she introduced herself, talking at a rapid pace; “I’m an initiate in the Circle of Fallen Leaves. The Grand Druid sent us to capture you and the others; the Gods of Nature spoke to him, he knows who you really are! Please, you have to run away with me before they get here, we don’t have much time…”

The same impish urge that compelled me to flirt with the men as we walked into camp made me silence Kendra with my lips. She responded with some enthusiasm and was meek as a lamb when we finally parted. “It’ll be ok,” I told her gently, “now tell me, what are we facing here?”

She drew in breath to speak but never got a word out. It’s hard to describe the terrible sounds that came next, or the screams that accompanied it.

I didn’t want to look out the window to see how deep in the shit we were. A Grand Druid is among the most powerful spellcasters on a planet, able to call the forces of nature to war if he so chose. Communing with his deity wasn’t quite the same as calling up a close relative for a chat but the effect was much the same, if said relative had the power to see into the future and alter reality at whim. I didn’t doubt that we weren’t fooling the gods and I knew that destroying a small fort in the middle of the wilds was child’s play to a Grand Druid. As I looked out the window, I prayed that we were unimportant enough that he’d delegated the work.

A lower-level woman would have crapped her pants at what she saw outside. Even so, I certainly had severe reservations. The initial sound of splintering wood had been the emergence of a Bullette from under the north wall. Resembling an enormous burrowing armadillo with large, sharp, teeth, Bullettes are also known by the name ‘Land Shark’, their primary method of hunting much like the aquatic predator they were nicknamed after; only on land, of course. By the time I peered out the window, it was already snacking on several guards with more lying buried under the rubble.

The Bullette would have been bad enough if several Treants. If you’ve seen Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, you know what a Treant is, they’re identical to the Ents from that movie; huge, walking, talking, trees that can tear apart houses and stomp grown men underfoot. The caravan guards had already formed up around their wagons on the south side, shooting flaming arrows into Treant’s foliage. Unfortunately for them, the flames weren’t catching and I made the intuitive leap that the Treants had been warded magically from their greatest weakness. That meant that the druid in charge of the attack was still out there somewhere in reserve, which wasn’t good at all.

I was considering the best way to escape when Altek decided to charge out of the tavern right at the Bullette, his glowing sword held aloft as he yelled a battle cry that would have curdled the blood of an intelligent enemy. And with that, all hopes of escape were dashed. The Bullette answered Altek’s roar with it’s own, more impressive, version before leaping to the attack. The paladin hadn’t really expected the thing to fight back, sliding to a halt before the thing pounced, desperately blocking it’s foot-long burrowing claws that would serve just as well eviscerating plate mail as it would boulders with his magical sword and dancing backward to avoid the giant snapping jaws that could swallow him whole. His return strikes didn’t do much more than scratch the beast’s carapace, a testament to the legendary toughness of the Bullette’s hide. Fortunately, the Treants were too busy crushing buildings and guards to deal with Altek.

It wasn’t until I heard the crash of limbs striking the south wall that I remembered an important little fact. Treants in DnD can animate any and all regular trees within one hundred and eighty feet of itself. Combine that with the fact that we were surrounded by forest and the need to escape with all haste hit me like a dump truck. Consider the idea of an entire forest picking itself up to try and kill you… terrifying isn’t it?

I didn’t bother putting anything on other than my boots and sword, shoving everything else into my haversack (including the spiked bottle of wine that I plugged, the bartender having the sense to leave the cork on the tray with it) before leaping out of the window with Kendra hot on my heels. As serendipity would have it, I slid down the thatch roof to the ground, landing just as Celton and Vanad burst through the front doors, the wizard immediately turning to blast whatever was chasing them with a bolt of lightning that made the little hairs all over my body stand on end and filled the area with the stink of ozone and charred wood.

“Weretigers!” Celton reported, eyes bulging and red in the face from his ordeal. “Hiding in the crowd!”

I cursed but I had to admire the elegantly evil nature of the ambush as a long time DM. It was the sort of thing I’d have done to my PCs. My admiration turned to horror, however, when I heard the screams from inside and the horrible, wet, sounds that accompanied them. Vanad had a front row seat and, I can tell you, he was pale and the look of terror in his eyes. In that light, I don’t blame him for what he did, casting Wall of Ice across the doors and windows, sealing everyone inside with the weretigers. It was a hard choice but it probably saved our lives.

Calton grabbed my shoulders, the battle raging around us, and looked at me, pleading with his eyes. “Ressia… I don’t know what to do! What do we do?!?”

Now that our backs were covered, what to do wasn’t my problem. There’s an old saying on Earth that holds true to adventuring: know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em and know when the run like hell. Armies of Treants aren’t the sort of thing you can fight without a portable apocalypse in your pocket, so running was our only option. My real problem was that we had a paladin in our party who would be dead set on facing said army armed with nothing but a fancy iron toothpick and indomitable, yet perfectly futile, faith.

Some of the guards and merchants who’d escaped the inn had already gotten the right idea and were running for the gates. Once the Treants were done with the barracks and stables, Altek was toast. The Bullette was wounded but so was Altek, blood dripping from rents in his plate mail where the beast had scored some good hits with its claws.

“Vanad,” I ordered, pointing at the Bullette, “roast that sucker!”

I admit, I was trusting Vanad’s judgement not to roast Altek along with it but my faith in my companion’s grace under fire was rewarded. He gave me one nod before casting another lightning bolt from his fingertips, the crackling energy peeling away the monster’s hide, charring and burning the flesh beneath. It screeched a high-pitched note of pain as it disintegrated into ash and cinders. I felt the backwash of the blast and I can tell you, I never wanted to be hit by one of those spells. I’ll admit, though, that I was faintly envious of the firepower, Bards don’t have access to combat magic of that magnitude.

All that didn’t matter at the time, however, I was running for Altek before the spell was even completed, quickly casting a healing incantation so that it was ready when I slapped the paladin on the shoulder. The magic did its work, the bleeding stopped immediately. “Daniel,” I shouted over the din, using his former name to grab his attention, “we’re surrounded, outnumbered and outgunned. We are leaving, soldier, NOW.”

I held my breath for a moment, hoping that he’d be smart. I really didn’t want to have to use a charm to get him to do what I wanted. He looked at the Treants on both sides and the front of the inn covered in Vanad’s wall of ice. The guards and those patrons that had escaped were already fleeing for the open gates, it was only a matter of time before the rest either routed or were crushed. I saw regret in his eyes the moment he made the decision. “You’re right. Where’s Zenis?”

I had forgotten about our caustic rogue, I swear! You really thought I was trying to leave him behind on purpose, didn’t you? Nobody was questioning Kendra’s presence, notice; I think they figured she was following us because we were her best bet for survival.

“He scarpered after you ran out the door,” Celton reported with some bitterness, “we haven’t seen him since.”

“Come on, run now, think later,” I advised, leading by example as I sprinted as fast as my legs could carry me. The others did the same without question, Altek running slower at first but quickly catching up to me, with Kendra and Celton equal third and Vanad puffing along behind.

It was every man and woman for themselves. I saw one of the caravan guards slit his master’s throat to steal a horse, only to see the man snatched from his saddle by a giant branch, the horse bolting past us and through the gates, riderless. Others made good their escape. I didn’t see anyone who looked like kitchen staff and hoped they had a secure bolt hole to hide in. Hiding wasn’t an option for us, unfortunately, the Treants and whoever was behind them wouldn’t stop until we were dead. Pardon my selfishness but I wasn’t about to martyr myself.

Relief washed over us collectively as we passed through the gate but we weren’t foolish enough to stop running or even slow down, turning south on the trade road. I knew I was running on adrenaline, my belly aching from lack of food and my muscles burning. Altek moved like a machine, even outpacing me despite my head start, but the rest of us were pushing ourselves. Even so, we pushed ourselves until Vanad fell on his face, his legs giving out. We all ground to a halt, puffing, while Celton went to render aid to Vanad.

“Think we lost them?” Altek asked, getting his breath back first.

“Hope so,” I answered between breaths.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, milady,” a new voice said from the shadows of the forest, “but I’ve been waiting for you to wear yourselves out for quite some time.”

We all froze, staring into the shadow from where the voice had come. The brushes parted by themselves; moving to make the being’s passage easier as it emerged into the moonlight. It was a tiger, long, sleek and large, about the size of a horse. As it stalked forward, however, it changed, shrinking even as it rose up onto two legs, fur shifting into hair and clothing. In moments, an older human man stood before us in well worn travelling robes, barefoot. I estimated that he was about fifty years old, steel grey streaks in his chestnut brown hair.

“Father,” Kendra gasped, looking scared and guilty before gaining some determination. She stepped in front of me, blocking his line of sight. “Please, father, don’t hurt her!”

“Ressia?” Altek asked, giving me an accusatory look.

“I’ll explain later,” I answered, keeping my eyes on the druid.

“Bravo, Bard,” the old man said, miming applause, “it seems you’ve foiled the plot in mind for you. Ressia is it? Allow me to introduce myself; I’m Lornel Gallo, a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Charmed,” I muttered sarcastically, “almost.”

“Witty,” he complimented without smiling. “As much as I’d love trading barbs with you, however, I have an offer for you that might speed up proceedings. Run away with my daughter and leave these others behind. I promise not to chase your for, oh, a week should do it.”

Kendra practically threw herself at me, begging with her whole body. “Please, Ressia, I don’t want either of you to die. Run away with me, we can escape to where he’ll never find us.”

My stalwart companions were staring daggers at me. I rolled my eyes. “Come on, he’s sooooo lying,” I sighed, glaring at Lornel. “He’s buying time for his allies to finish up turning The Nymph’s Pool into kindling and track us down.”

Celton frowned. “But why us? We never hurt anyone!”

“They know who we really are,” I answered. “I don’t know why it makes a difference to the Circle, though. What’s a few more people in the world to you?”

Lornel scowled, shaking his head. “You have no idea what you’ve done, the balance of nature has been broken, history and events were re-written to integrate you into our universe. You don’t belong here, so we require your death before you doom the world we have sworn to protect. The gods have shown the Great Druid the future cast in iron and fire and blood. You are the heralds of our doom and I regret that your death is necessary.”

Looking at him, I found Lornel to be the most frightening person I’d ever met. His eyes didn’t burn with fanaticism or hate yet at the same time he didn’t have regret in his heart. He didn’t care if we were good or evil; indeed he didn’t care if he was good or evil himself. We were just on his ‘to do’ list. Milk, eggs, sugar, kill adventurers, pick up kids from school…

I realized my mistake a moment too late. Vanad wasn’t about to wait for the Treants and Weretigers to catch up to us to have a showdown and he probably thought Lornal was ignoring him. He started casting as soon as he got his wind back. Unfortunately, Lornal wasn’t stupid enough to forget the wizard. Celton shrieked when a Dire Tiger, this one not a druid using shapeshifting magic, pounced from the bushes behind them, landing both front paws on Vanads back and crushing the frail man into the ground. One bite of its fearsome jaws eviscerated the wizard as it raked with its hind legs, tearing him apart in a shower of blood and gore.

A lot of things happened at once in the next few seconds. Celton was screaming, covered in blood as he scrambled away from a tiger the size of a truck. Altek was shouting another battle cry as he charged the beast, taking a paladin’s natural immunity to fear to new heights of stupidity. Lornel watched me with some amusement as I reached for my sword, hindered by Kendra who was trying to drag me away, imploring me to run.

So it was that I was watching Lornel’s face as a nice, solid, foot of sharpened steel burst through his chest. His wry smile faded as he looked down in confusion at the blade that had pierced his heart, wondering how the hell that had gotten there a moment before he died. The blade disappeared the way it had come and the druid fell forward, revealing Zenis standing behind him holding his now bloody short sword, the rogue’s form blending in with the shadows.

“FATHER!” Kendra screamed, falling to her knees and weeping in despair. I didn’t have time to comfort her, however, as Altek slashed the dire tiger’s eye, provoking the beast into a roar that shook my bones before it lunged at the paladin, knocking him down. A quick mental checklist told me that I only had one damaging spell in my repertoire, so I cast it. Taking a deep breath, I screamed.

It wasn’t a normal scream, of course. It was a scream with enough sonic energy behind it that the tiger’s fur disintegrated where the cone of effect touched it. The skin beneath was rent into a bloody pulp even as its eardrums burst. Unfortunately, Celton has just wiped his face clean when tiger blood sprayed over him. Blind in one eye, deaf and grievously wounded, the tiger wailed before turning tail and running back into the forest at full speed.

“Sorry I’m late babe,” Zenis drawled, “miss me?”

Considering that the rogue had just saved our collective asses, I bit back the nasty comment that came to mind and settled on a more sarcastic tone. “Congratulations, you’re just in time to help retrieve Vanad’s stuff.”

The elf paled when he looked at the bloody smear that used to be our friend and, for once, was at a loss for words.

“Celton,” Altek said, suddenly looking away from the wizard’s corpse, “you can cast Raise Dead, right?”

Celton, however, was busy trying to wipe the blood off of himself, to no avail. I left Altek to deal with our cleric while I picked Kendra up off the ground and hugged her. She was the enemy, even though I’d charmed her, but she had just seen her father die and I had enough sympathy for that.

Then something weird happened to Lornel’s corpse. At first I thought it was just muscle spasms or death throes but they started to get more violent. Zenis, Kendra jumped when a ghostly image in the form of an owl burst from his back, pausing a moment to spread its wings before shooting into the night sky.

“What the FUCK!” Zenis shouted, stumbling back from the druid’s corpse.

“Some sort of contingent reincarnation spell,” I surmised, drawing again on Ressia’s knowledge of our new world, “we haven’t seen the last of him after all.”

We didn’t have time to tarry and it took some tough love to break Celton out of his stupor. That’s code for Zenis slapping him so hard he came close to breaking the cleric’s jaw. We got him pulled together, healed up and washed the worst of the blood off his face so that his brain could reboot and reformat into something resembling normalcy. Then we went about the grizzly process of gathering Vanad’s body and possessions. Fortunately, Zenis could carry the wizard’s backpack without any problems but Altek got the unenviable duty of carrying a sack filled with bloody meat.

Funny how the game glosses over little details like that, huh? I can’t remember how many times a character of mine has scraped a companion’s remains into some sort of container so we could cart their asses back to get resurrected but I’d never considered how gross the process actually was. We would have gotten Celton to cast the spell right then and there but the cleric wasn’t in a fit mental state for spellcasting. Believe me, Raise Dead isn’t the sort of spell you want to flub.

Once the cleanup was done, we started walking. We were too exhausted to run anymore, so we had to pray that the Treants and Weretigers would wait for their leader to finish his reincarnation, which would take a few days as the spell built a new body for him safe under the earth. As we walked, I comforted Kendra while interrogating her about the Circle of Falling Leaves.

To understand where the Druids fit into DnD’s cosmology, you have to understand the alignment system. I’ve delayed this talk for as long as I can because it takes some explaining. In the game, a character’s alignment represents their general moral outlook on the world as well as they types of gods, philosophies and planes that their views align with. It’s not a hard and fast classification, it doesn’t delve into specifics and it doesn’t mean that someone with that alignment will never act out of accordance to its alignment. In general, however, a being will follow its principles.

There are five axes of alignment: Good, Evil, Lawful, Chaotic and Neutral. Combine any two of these and you get an alignment, but only Neutral can be combined with itself. The nine alignments are therefore: Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, Neutral Good, Lawful Neutral, True Neutral, Chaotic Neutral, Neutral Evil, Lawful Evil, Chaotic Evil.

Read that a few times if you like until you get a handle on it before moving on.

Lawful Good beings in general believe that order is right. They believe in truth, justice and working together for a better tomorrow. Paladins like Altek are required to be Lawful Good, being the DnD equivalent of Superman. If you want a darker side to Lawful Good, however, I’d point to Dirty Harry. Harry believes in the law and doing the right thing but that doesn’t stop him from doing bad things to bad people. Cultural bias back on Earth has DnD’s official line being that Lawful Good is the ‘best good’. I can tell you from personal experience, however, that being Lawful Good doesn’t prevent you from being a dick.

Chaotic Good beings are interested in doing the right thing, being happy and helping people as well. It just happens that they don’t give a fuck about the law. The classic Chaotic Good hero is Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. The flip side to Chaotic Good is the vigilante that quite happily murders criminals rather than bringing them to trial.

Neutral Good is a little more nebulous, like most neutral alignments. Law and order doesn’t matter to a Neutral Good person like it matters to Lawful and Chaotic Good beings, they see both attitudes as having a time and a place. What matters to them is doing good. The classic Neutral Good character is a philanthropist, giving freely of themselves without asking for anything in return, even going so far as to offering redemption to evil creatures heedless of their own safety.

Lawful Neutral creatures follow the rules without question. A good example would be Judge Dredd, applying the law dispassionately and dispensing justice without conscience. Emotions and feelings don’t have a place in their hearts, the rules are there to be followed and they must be followed so that order may flourish.

Being True Neutral means different things to different people. You might just not give a crap about anything and just want to live your life without ever considering your morality. You might believe in striving to balance your karma, walking the tightrope of good, evil, law and chaos. You may take the position that ideals are for chumps and extend your empathy only to certain people. You may even believe, like the core Druidic philosophy states, that you should integrate yourself into the natural world and nurture the planet by whatever means necessary.

Players often make the mistake that Chaotic Neutral is a license to act like an idiot. Sure, the alignment does include the hopelessly delusional lunatics who hold detailed conversations with walls but most members of the alignment simple value their own freedom without the hang-ups of needing to either help or hurt others with that freedom. Consider the jester that points out the flaws of others but never does anything personally to correct them or the hermit that lives out in the woods and just wants to be left alone. Or even the wandering bard that has no time for a society that rejects them and continually travels so that familiarity cannot breed true contempt.

Things start going south with Neutral Evil. Neutral Evil builds selfishness into a philosophy. There are two ways to glorify yourself above others: climbing over the bodies of your enemies and beating everyone else into submission. An example of a Neutral Evil action would be starting a war so you could sell arms to both sides or murdering someone for their shoes.

Your average corrupt noble stereotype is Lawful Evil. Think Darth Vader and you’ve got the right idea here. The law is a tool for power and personal aggrandizement. Forcing others to obey is their drug of choice, domination and submission the truest expression of human relationships, the strong are right to overpower the weak. Beings with this philosophy are dangerous because they’re organized and can work together towards goals. Betrayal is integral to the philosophy but no alpha worth his salt in a Lawful Evil organization will fall prey to such plots easily. After all, they got to where they are through betrayal and a strong survival instinct.

Finally, Chaotic Evil: mad, bad and dangerous to know. If you’ve watched The Dark Knight and seen Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker, you’ve seen the face of Chaotic Evil with a sense of humour. Inflicting pain on others is their greatest delight, watching the world burn a wet dream. Lone serial killers are the most common Chaotic Evil dangers, though such beings do work together, just not well. Most commonly, groups of Chaotic Evil creatures form around a strong leader that can keep them in line through brutality and fear alone. Lawful Evil groups love their rules and strictures and pay lip service to hierarchy; Chaotic Evil groups have no rule but obey or die.

Each alignment has their own plane of reality and their own mystical representatives that inhabit those planes on the Great Wheel. It needs to be reiterated that the alignments aren’t hard and fast rules of behaviour. Lawful Good creatures stray from the right path in their adherence to rules or from hubris. Chaotic Evil creatures may love and laugh like anyone else. It’s just that they’re as likely to do it over your corpse.

Back to the Druids, however, they fit in the neutral area of the alignment chart. The core druidic philosophy is one of integrating yourself into the natural world. They concern themselves with preserving and promoting mother nature in all her forms, though they may disagree with each other individually as to how to go about it. Some see cities as inimical to their philosophy while others see nature’s hand in the ecosystem of human hives. The Circle of Falling Leaves, as Kendra explained to me, is a militant order of Druids that excise dangers to the natural order like cutting cancer from a human body. She was apologetic when she explained that she had thought of me as a disease to be cured rather than a person.

I admit that what she told me combined with what I knew of Druidic lore from both Ressia’s memories and my old life as James scared me. Imagine a group of people with magical powers to manipulate nature, shapeshift into animals almost at will and conjure natural disasters. Imagine that this group could turn a forest into an army of giants and recruit every beast on the face of the planet into their service. Imagine that they were highly organized and driven, believing implacably in the rightness of their cause. Imagine that they had no need for money, being able to live off the land and happy to eschew the trappings of civilization. Now imagine that they wanted you dead.

Not a pleasant feeling.

We didn’t stop walking until Zenis was about to fall over the next day. Grey elves are more dextrous and intelligent at the expense of physical strength and endurance, so it wasn’t a surprise when he called uncle before anyone else. In a way we were lucky that Vanad was dead, his constitution was worse than Zenis’ so we were able to put more space between us and the enemy.

Altek gave me a meaningful look as we rested in the shade by the side of the road that I interpreted as ‘we need to talk’. I agreed, so I bade Kendra to sleep and snuck away from her while she was under.

“What did you do to that girl?” Altek asked, accusation in his voice.

I sighed and rolled my eyes. “Nothing she didn’t try to do to me first. She brought me a meal that included a bottle of wine spiked with a Philtre of Love. Her father was trying the time tested and mother approved divide and conquer strategy, he just didn’t count on me being able to detect it. I used a minor spell to make her drink it instead.”

I didn’t mention that I had no idea what was in the wine until she drank it. You have to be careful with these little details when managing paladins, they’re touchy but luckily most aren’t too bright.

“And now she’s in love with you. Were you planning on breaking the spell?” He asked like a patient teacher that feels a paternal need to rebuke you for evils you haven’t done yet.

“Of course I was,” I said truthfully, my tone letting him know that I was disgusted that he thought I’d just leaver her like that, “it’s just a matter of when will be the best time to do it.”

He misconstrued what I meant, of course, and glared at me angrily. “Now would be the best time I think.”

“Are you really thinking on that score or are you acting hastily because you want to blame someone?” I asked calmly. “Let’s consider. Say I break the spell, what do we do with her?”

“You’re right,” he admitted. Bless his heart, I could see the gears working in his head as he mulled it over. “We should take her back for trial,” he finally decided, “she conspired to murder a whole bunch of people including us and tried to subject you to mind control. I don’t blame you for acting in self defence but she should answer for her crimes.”

“And for all we know, she’s high enough level to wild shape,” I countered, “think they build prisons that can hold a mouse or a cat around here?”

“The Order of the Golden Rose has cells to hold magical prisoners,” he informed me, “if we can get to a chapter house, I can have her incarcerated.”

“And we wait until then to break the enchantment? You know, she might be in love with me, Altek, but she’s not stupid. I doubt she’ll let herself be locked up willingly. Of course if we break the enchantment before then we’ll have drag her back, which frankly I don’t think we have the wherewithal.”

“Please don’t tell me you want to execute the girl,” he growled, “I won’t be party to anything like that.”

I shook my head. “No, that’s not an option either. Considering Lornel’s contingent reincarnation, the Circle obviously has no qualms about bringing its members back from the dead.”

“I hate having to leave her like that,” he said, shivering as he contemplated someone doing the same thing to him, “isn’t there a better way?”

“We can’t drag her back, you don’t want to kill her,” I said, ticking off his objections on my fingers, “you don’t want to leave her like this but you won’t consider letting her go. I have one suggestion but you’re not going to like it either.”

“Try me.”

“Another type of enchantment,” I offered, “I think she’s low enough level that a Lesser Geas will work. I’ll order her to follow us to your chapterhouse and hand herself in to custody without a fuss. If she tries to resist the compulsion, she’ll be wracked with unbearable agony until she complies.”

He winced. “That’s… horrible.”

“As horrible as throwing someone in a cell or ordering their execution? Face it, white knight, that’s what’s waiting for her at your chapterhouse, a quick trial followed by a swifter execution. Heck, they might even have to take measures to prevent the druids from reincarnating her.”

“If she repents for her actions and begs for leniency they might communicate her sentence,” he said, doubting the words even as they came out of his mouth.

I sighed, giving up on that line of debate. Never argue philosophy with a paladin, they just get on their high horse and nothing can bring them down to earth again. “Look, a Geas isn’t like the Philtre of Love. Believe me; I don’t like having a mindfucked slave following me around, particularly if we’re visiting a chapterhouse full of twitchy paladins that might not believe my story so readily. Honestly, it’s more like a magical chain that keeps her under control where physical chains can’t.”

“I think there’s something you haven’t considered,” Zenis said, from where he was pretending to sleep close by, opening his eyes.

“What?” Altek prompted him to continue.

“What happens when she gets to the chapterhouse and starts going on about how we’re unholy dimension travellers dooming the land to damnation?”

Altek shrugged. “We’re not dooming anything, I’ve sworn to defend honour and justice and I will do so.”

“And what does honour and justice compel you to do if they discover that she’s right?” Zenis countered. “Not that I think anything of the sort but what if some cleric communes with your god and he says ‘yeah, it might be better to take them out to be on the safe side, for the greater good’?”

I groaned inwardly, not because Zenis was wrong but that he just made the argument a question of faith. The look on Altek’s face confirmed to me that no more progress was going to be made on the subject before he even spoke.

“If my God demands my life then I will happily sacrifice it for the good of all,” Altek rebuked, “and I would feel compelled to encourage you to follow my lead, though I would balk at such measures, the greatest good will be accomplished and I will join my ancestors in Heaven. Now get back to sleep all of you, I’ll keep watch for now.”

I returned to Kendra feeling trepidacious, having caught Zenis’ dark look in Kendra’s direction. I admit, I’d been suspicious of Zenis since his attack on Lornel the night before. Lornel was a powerful, high level, druid. In game terms, Zenis had appeared to use the rogue’s ability to do more damage with a ‘sneak attack’, however that didn’t account for Lornal’s immediate death. Ever really thought about killing someone by stabbing them from behind? It’s not as easy as you’d think. Where do you stab someone? How do you hold the blade? How can you be sure to kill them immediately? Now apply that logic to a magical world where a ring can give you the same protection as a suit of chainmail or a spell can make your skin as hard as stone.

There was a class that could kill anyone with a sneak attack, however, without worrying about armour or damage. A class trained specifically in the art of killing by stealth. A class called ‘Assassin’. The problem? To qualify for membership, you have to be evil in the same way that paladins have to be good. I chewed over this fact in my mind as I rested beside Kendra, my guilt over having enslaved her making me worry if she’d live to see Altek’s chapterhouse.

I considered asking Altek if he’d used his paladin ability to detect evil on us (all paladins have the ability, it’s one of the most frustrating class abilities in the game) but seriously, how do you ask something like that? Hi, Altek, I was just wondering if you’ve been suspicious enough of us that you’ve checked to see if we’re evil? Yeah, like that’s not a one way ticket to an ass kicking from one of a thousand directions. Personally, I didn’t care if Zenis was evil as long as he kept his evil ass out of my face. If it became a problem, I would deal with it one way or the other but I wasn’t about to let him kill Kendra and, honestly, I wasn’t of a mind to hand the girl over to the executioner either.

Sure, she tried to mindrape and murder me but she did so for motives that, I have to admit, were noble from a certain point of view. It also occurred to me that we knew Kendra and Lornel were after us now and if we got rid of them the Circle would just send someone else after us, someone we couldn’t watch out for.

Besides, she was cute.

But that was totally not my main reason for trying to save her.

I swear.

Maybe?



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