3 Clever Cugel Campaign Ideas

Not too long ago I expressed my ambivalence regarding Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever stories. The guy is a heel, and as such he’s not always fun to follow for me. Still, the tales are demonstrative of Vance’s cleverness, if not always that of their titular protagonist.

I already suggested this, but it’s worth expanding upon: for those DMs and GMs and writers out there, much can be gleaned!

There are indeed ransomware-inspiring ratmen to be found in Vance’s Dying Earth, as well as an enchanted, slumbering giant ever-ready to destroy the town at its feet should the villagers slacken their vigilance. Those are but two examples. Here are three more you might want to filch for your game or else draw inspiration from in some form or other:

1. Gems are boring

Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, zzzzzzzzzzz. It’s fun to loot precious stones from baddies, that’s true. But when your players are just picking’em up and basically auto-selling them in the first city they come to, eventually the jewels cease to sparkle.

Why not spice things up, then? At one point, Cugel briefly joins the employ of a small company that sends divers into a slime pit to retrieve the scales of a godly denizen of the Overworld. These scales, depending on the body region they originated from and their condition, are worth hefty sums to a wizard who is buying them up as artifacts. You may not need the weird slime-diving or vague origin story of said scales. They don’t even need to be scales (though they can be fun as they may be shiny and colorful and can vary greatly in value) – you may use ivory or monster bones, rare crafting materials like ironwood or mithril (which is overdone but people recognize what it is), or some other artifacts or uncommon goods.

 

2. Do the Worm

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Another job Cugel takes up at one point is that of “worminger” for a vessel upon which he wishes to procure passage. What is a worminger? Well, this ship is carried forth by great sea worms. They must be carefully tended to and managed by wormingers, who clean them, feed them, bait them, and steer them among other things. Maybe the winds have died in your campaign world, or maybe you just want a cool boat that’s towed by worms or some other giant aquatic creatures.

 

3. Geas some palms

One popular way to coerce players or NPCs into undertaking quests or tasks they normally wouldn’t is by means of a geas. This is basically a high level charm spell that forces the target to do or not do something.

But how about spicing that up a little bit and building a little character or adding some roleplaying options (besides a boring wisdom saving throw) into the equation?

In Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel is burdened with an alien parasite named Firx. Basically, Firx’s job is to make sure Cugel does the job he was sent out to do. There are times when the creature suspects Cugel is shirking his assignment or dawdling. When this happens, the little beast flexes its barbs, which are wrapped around Cugel’s guts. At these times, the protagonist either has to give in to Firx’s wishes in order to stop the pain, or else convince it that he’s pursuing the best (or only) course of action available.

And so I’ve come to find this – that even if you don’t like Cugel and don’t particularly find his stories fun, there’s still a lot to draw from them and a lot of good ideas and quality storytelling to appreciate.

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-Bushi

bushi

3 Clever Cugel Campaign Ideas

PC Koshinbun – Anime, Appendix N, and Strong Women

Cirsova reviews Cute Knight

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Cute Knight, for PC, looks to be a quirky anime-style RPG with a number of tried and proven mechanics (e.g. dating sim style stat and money balancing activities). Alex shares his thoughts after three play-throughs, and though this particular one won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it does sound worth a look.

Getting to know the Man(ly)

In what looks to be a multi-part series, Oghma tells of how he became acquainted with the works of  Manly Wade Wellman – a great blend of personal anecdote and appreciation for another great writer we’d do well to check out. “Silver John” – what a cool-sounding character!

Sizzling hot princess, beef

In honor of Women’s Day, Jon M. decided to highlight one of SFF’s most underappreciated (and hottest) strong women – Dejah Thoris. *Trigger warning: this post contains a delicious steak sandwich recipe. You may not want to read if you’re hungry and have no steak on hand.

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Get a’writing (via Seagull Rising)!

Indie publishing seems to have really taken off, especially among the Pulp Revolution crowd. But outlets like Cirsova can only fit so much. What’s an aspiring short fiction writer to do? Well, there are other outlets out there. Jon shared one recently – StoryHack Action & Adventure is currently accepting submissions, and it’s worth checking out if you’ve got something you can send in by April 1st!

(Japanese) picture of a good “strong female” character

Over at SupervisiveSF, Anthony looks at Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky and concludes that Sheeta is a much more attractive and effective strong female character than many in contemporary storytelling. As he points out, a well-done woman character can be brave, competent, and feminine. Humility is an attractive virtue, not a weakness, and a good woman should be complementary to a man, not overtly usurp his role or compete with him. Double thumbs up for the Rey-bashing.

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Comparing Heinlein

I must confess I haven’t read either of these books, but HP does a commendable job looking at two Young Adult SF stories – one very recent, and one over half a century old. The bottom line seems to be that while there are many imitators, it’s hard to match Heinlein at his best. Lest you think that’s all there is to HP’s review, though:

“Have Space Suit—Will Travel and Martians Abroad couldn’t be more different.  The former is emphatically blue SF and the latter is emphatically pink SF.  They aren’t even in the same sub-genre.”

Princess Monomoke – BEST MOVIE EVER

I must confess I was a little skeptical at first; I’m a fan of Princess Mononoke, but it might not even be in my top 10 animated film picks. Still, Malcolm makes a great argument for the depth and supervisiveness that many viewers may miss. Game of Thrones grayness but hopeful instead of nihilistic? That’s actually some pretty potent stuff.

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Some…different…monsters

There’s a great post over at Tribality with twenty ghosts and spirits from various cultures that don’t get much play (literally). Some time ago Jeffro noted an observation by game designer James Raggi:  “Because monsters should be unnatural and hopefully a little terrifying, using stock examples goes against the purpose of using monsters to begin with.”

So why not spice up your game with some more obscure or unique demons and specters? Of course we’re most likely all familiar with the banshee, but personally I had never heard of most of these.

Potentially great inspiration for writers, too!

Getting fired up by Anderson

Poul Anderson is another awesome old SFF writer that I had never heard of before diving into the pulp scene. It’s great to see him getting some play! Jon Del Arroz recently read Fire Time, and shares his impressions.

Castalia House sweeps the scene

It’s hard to cover everything, so I don’t even try! Be sure to check out Jeffro’s latest sensor sweep over at the Castalia House blog for some more noteworthy articles. There may be one or two overlaps, so feel free to read those particular posts twice!

The Kaiju

Also if you’ve been following Kaiju’s sword and sorcery tale, be sure to check out his latest installment. Plenty of action and gore in this one!

-Bushi

bushi

PC Koshinbun – Anime, Appendix N, and Strong Women

The Overworld and the Undertale

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As I make my way through the Dying Earth stories, Jack Vance remains one of my newly discovered favorite authors. And yet, I didn’t enjoy Eyes of the Overworld overmuch, and I find Cugel’s Saga thus far to be the same. Still, there are multiple layers to this.

First off, why am I not a big fan of Vance’s Cugel stories? Jesse (in a separate conversation) puts it nicely:

Cugel is a dick. And not one of those guys who’s a dick but then actually has a heart of gold, a ‘la Han Solo. For example, in one incident, Cugel is interacting with some clam-men (yes, they’re dudes who live in clams). They play a trick on Cugel by “gifting” a shirt made of water, which holds together initially, and then…falls apart and drenches him. He retaliates by killing one of the clam guys, who places a curse upon Cugel with his dying breath.

Cugel also abandons smoking hot babes to servitude and death, and murders (or arranges accidents) for various wayfarers he encounters when he can profit by doing so. And he is remorseless for all of these misdeeds.

Now admittedly there is some good fun in some of this. It’s satisfying to see Cugel outsmart even bigger heels than himself. But it does get tiresome to follow the adventures of a d-bag. He often gets some form of comeuppance, but I’d be happy to see him finally bite the dust. Vance’s first Dying Earth book contained several interesting and heroic (or at least sympathetic) characters. I’d have preferred to read more about them. Cugel is all well and good for a few tales, but two novels all about him just feels excessive.

Why do I keep trudging through, then? Well, why did I make myself read the entire Hitchhiker’s Guide series? Maybe I’m an idiot.

Actually, there’s still a lot to appreciate in the Cugel books, even without really liking the protagonist. Vance’s writing style and technique remain masterful throughout, and I love reading through his descriptions and dialogues. I haven’t learned so many new words in ages! Furthermore, the Dying Earth itself remains a fascinating setting, full of wondrous and memorable characters, artifacts, and situations.

For any DMs out there, these books are just overflowing with ideas ripe for the plucking. How about Magnatz, for example? A small town sits beside a mountain range and a lake. Long ago, a wizard cast an enchantment to protect the town from the terrible giant Magnatz : so long as a Watchman is posted to look out for the return of monster, the town will be safe. The townspeople don’t realize, but Magnatz is actually asleep at the bottom of the lake. You can probably guess what happens after Cugel (thinking he is being Clever) accepts the role of Watchman.

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This is just one interesting situation of many. And so I’ll keep reading. But I’m looking forward to being done with Cugel.

In other news, I was able to breeze through Undertale pretty quickly the past ~week. In case you aren’t familiar with this one:

The creator is a big Earthbound fan, and it shows. The music, graphics, and tone of the game are largely reminiscent of the SNES SMAAAASH-hit. It may not look it, but Undertale is able to adeptly hit alternatingly silly, serious, and creepy notes and that really makes nailing it down a challenge. On the surface I suppose I’d call it an RPG, but many of the traditional RPG elements are stripped away or turned on their heads. I don’t want to give away too much here, as I think the discovery involved in this one is a big part of the fun, but I got through it without gaining any EXP or LVLs. Also there are a lot of dogs, if you’re into that.

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The bottom line is that Steam and the opening up of the indie game market has been a tremendous boon for gamers. If you’ve got any interest, I highly recommend Undertale.

-Bushi

bushi

 

The Overworld and the Undertale

Java(Script) and Twine

Has it been over a week since I posted anything? Geez. Well, last week I was suffering some food poisoning (though I did manage to get my Castalia House piece up!), and together with wedding planning, something had to give. I beg your indulgence!

Before my bout, I’d decided to take another shot at something I’ve only thus far barely even touched upon – programming. Because I need another project I don’t have time for. Over the years I’ve picked up bits and pieces of almost inconsequential coding experience – a smattering of HTML at computer camp as a kid, a pinch of Visual Basic in high school, a couple dozen chapters of Learn Python the Hard Way.

It’s always been a dream of mine to make a video game, though I’ve never had the fire required to give up my other hobbies in pursuit of that goal. There have been RPG Maker attempts that were quickly aborted after scope got too out-of-hand and frustration grew.

Not too long ago, I told a software developer friend of mine that I’ve been thinking of trying once more to learn a programming language. One of my issues in the past was that I never really had a solid goal, or concrete projects to keep me interested. I got bored with writing Python scripts that merely asked users for their favorite color or spit out the cube of 9. Perhaps if I were to go into this with the goal of writing some very simple games or programs?

Anyway, my friend listened to me babble about my situation and asked me if I’d heard of Twine, which he suggested might be a good starting point for me if I just wanted to make a game. Simply explained, Twine is an open-source tool that seems best-purposed for creating text-based “non-linear” stories and games.

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It publishes to HTML files, so it’s fairly easy to quickly create something and share it. Though Twine does have its own syntax, it also supports HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. You can use conditionals and variables and media files, too. So depending on how deep you want to go, it seems there’s a lot you can do with it.

So far I’ve created two very simple “games” that I was planning to design as smaller elements of a larger game I’d like to make. One is a variation of the game Nim. The other is a riddle game.

I did encounter some frustration with the limits of the native Twine syntax and had to do a lot of debugging, which prompted me to explore JavaScript. I think knowing JS would give me a lot more flexibility in my coding.

I’m not quite sure if or when I’ll proceed with my Twine project, but I would like to continue studying JavaScript. Even if my game is still far off, the coding knowledge and experience can only help me as an IT guy. If I do pump out anything fun, though, I’ll have to host it somewhere and share it with y’all.

That’s about it for now; I started playing Undertale the other day, which I’ve heard is a pretty fast one to get through. Excellent game so far. I’m trudging through Eyes of the Overworld, which pains me to say, for I love Jack Vance. But Cugel is just such a d-bag. I’ve got the first Lensman book on the side, and I’m hoping to get to Larry Niven’s Neutron Star and ERB’s At the Earth’s Core before long.

Ah, if only there were more time!

-Bushi

bushi

Java(Script) and Twine

My Reaction to GOP’s Health Care Reform Proposal (UPDATED)

  • by Gitabushi

Bottom Line Up Front: It isn’t good. But it isn’t as bad as many people are saying. Reforming health care is harder than anyone is admitting.

So is the GOP Congress saying this is the final version of their health care goals? Or is it a transitory law to tide over until final law?

Because while I do, of course, want more market-based reforms, not sure we can get there in one single jump.

There is so much wrong with our current health care system.  It really is just Pre-Paid Health Maintenance Plans. This separates price from cost, which makes things more expensive. Moreover, it punishes those who are cautious with their health, and reward those who are reckless and consume more health care.  Imagine how much it would cost if vehicle fuel were sold under and “insurance” plan where you paid a monthly fee and could use as much as you wanted.  The person who commutes 5 miles a day in a Mazda Miata would be subsidizing the person who drives a Hummer 90 miles every day, takes long trips every weekend, and is a leadfoot.

So the first order of business is to wean the nation away from the current Pre-Paid Health Maintenance plans referred to as “insurance.”  But that’s only the beginning. We need:

  • insurance to pretty much be only catastrophic.
  • retail clinics where RNs triage for need to be seen by PA, who then triages for need for specialist. Basic check an illness isn’t serious for out-of-pocket money.
  • hospitals and doctors to publish prices and full fees for all treatment.
  • a system to allow people to be guinea pigs for new treatments *if they want*, i.e., the rich and the terminal, w/o lawsuit threat.
  • a total reform pharma laws so there aren’t perverse incentives in development, especially patent rules.
  • effort to get bulk of medical care shifted to out-of-pocket, to reduce paperwork overhead, increase competition, and increase choice.
  • plan resolve exploitation of “free” medical care to illegal aliens. At the very least, that means new, robust collection laws. Could also mean ensuring all illegal aliens leave. Can’t reform healthcare w/o it.
  • A cap to end-of-life costs. The tricky part is if you heal the problem, it won’t be the end of life. But when people pay for insurance (even catastrophic), they don’t want to be told a cost restriction prevented them (or their loved one) from getting treatment. We need to get people used to the idea that there is a reasonable amount that others will be willing/able to pay to save a life, but beyond that, the costs should be borne by the family and friends that love them most. Because as in most things in life, there are few easy choices, and with each choice comes drawbacks and other unpleasant consequences.  Part of being an adult is deciding which unpleasant consequence is the easiest for you to accept.

It takes time to get massive, cumbersome health care system to shift to the free market-based solutions. This can’t be done in just a few weeks.  Particularly since there are powerful lobbies that want to prevent market based-solutions from taking away their golden parachutes.

Even worse, the public itself is a huge part of the problem.  We are never going to improve health care until we get people to grasp Medicaid doesn’t improve health outcomes. Of course, this also needs to be understood by people who have enough money to never be on Medicare. We need everyone to understand that just having medical coverage is not health. Health insurance is an illusionary security blanket that people want, and will give up rights and money to the government to get it. That illusion is part of what is making it so politically difficult to repeal Obamacare & reform healthcare system.

Imagine they repealed Obamacare completely yesterday.  The first thing that would happen is the news organizations would be screaming about all the people who are no longer covered. They would be doing their best to stir up panic.  Repealing Obamacare wholesale would push most of the population to consider (and perhaps embrace) Single Payer, just to have that illusion of security.  It would be a political disaster.

The most likely outcome is Democrats would take back Congress in 2018. I do not have confidence that President Trump would veto Single Payer with such an obvious mandate; he doesn’t have any history of commitment to free market principles, and pretty clearly seems to want to be remembered as a President that served his people. Giving them Single Payer when they seem to want it would satisfy his ego.

So we can’t just throw 10s of millions of citizens into a free market system. That would be a political disaster that would most likely lead to Single Payer.

What if we go back to the previous system?

Was anyone happy with the previous system?  It was still a Pre-Paid Health Maintenance system. We still had spiraling costs because price and cost were not obviously linked. Democrats would demagogue the crap out of it.  It seems like it would end up in the same place as no plan at all: Democrats take Congress, and we get Single Payer.

So I’m okay with some incremental changes for now, or a transition plan. But yeah: I’m not happy at all if this is their final plan.

The Good Points:

Right now, I think there is no personal mandate. The mandate is to insurance companies to provide to anyone. They had to keep a penalty in so that people wouldn’t wait until sick before buying insurance (which destroys the benefit of risk pools). But the penalty is from the insurance company for letting your insurance lapse, not from the federal government for not buying insurance.  That’s slightly better.

Still, I agree with Ben Shapiro’s conclusion: “you’ve actually created a gradual cementing of key elements of Obamacare.”  They just made Obamacare into GOPCare. But how do we *get* to market-based health care system with *real* reform w/o losing Congress and getting Single Payer?

My best suggestion is to spend the next three years in preparation: write legislation that encourages Retail Clinics.  Pass Tort Reform.  Deport enough illegal aliens that the rest self-deport, lowering the stress to the ER system and the cost to the hospital system.  Pass laws requiring hospitals to post prices, so competition can begin.  Then right after the 2020, then drop the big law that gets rid of any health insurance except catastrophic, caps heroic efforts, establishes tax-free health savings accounts, and pushes all the previous preparatory market-based reforms to 11.

Then sit back and demagogue to the hilt all the successes and improved health & cost outcomes.  This is one area the GOP always fails: they seem to not have a plan to sidestep the Democrats’ ally in the mainstream news media industry.  Trump has shown them how to use social media to get directly to the people; the GOP Congress needs to spend the next three years before they drop the big Reform Law preparing their PR blitz.

One other thing: Perhaps grandfather in anyone over 50?  It is easier to wean the young from government health care, since they are mostly healthy, by and large.

Side Note:

I had little confidence in Ryan since the Omnibus last year. I had little confidence in him. He’s like meh to accidentally good. And yet, he’s *still* better than Boehner, and Boehner was *still* better than Pelosi.

I think this stinky turd of a reform bill is more due to the House than the Senate.  So we need to focus on finding ways to express our displeasure to the House. The best way is to get them out of office.  But we need to primary them with strong GOP candidates. NOT give Congress to the Democrats.

Final thought:

I maybe skipped over too many steps. What I’m trying to do is figure out how to make free market solution politically viable.  I don’t see how to get there from here, right now. And I’m willing to give the GOP more time to prep the battlespace to make it easier to pass a successful (and thus, lasting) free market solution to our health care system.

 

My Reaction to GOP’s Health Care Reform Proposal (UPDATED)

Trying to Write Part 4

Part I, Part II, Part III

11.

Nothing but mud and bones grew in the garden. It was an open air courtyard in the center of the keep surrounded by sheer stone walls, un-interrupted by windows or design of any kind. Single door was the only way in or out.  Crows swollen from feasting on corpses left to rot peered down from the their perches at the tops of the walls at their next meal chained to the lone wooden pillar in the garden. He yet breathed with head hung low dripping from the cold rain that beat against his body, mouth speaking words that only he could hear:

Weave and Spin

Hammer and Forge

My life your work

Crafted and shaped

Instrument of your hand

To live is to serve

Until upon your Mountain

I am born again

He finished his prayer and hung silently listening to the rhythm of the rain dancing on stone in the dark. The door to his prison opened and man stepped through, lantern in hand. He wore the armor of the guards, dual short swords hung at his sides. Orren raised his head to greet his new visitor.

“You must be the flayer. I’d tell you not to waste your time, that I have no knowledge that could aid you, but I doubt you’d listen. I imagine with a name like the flayer you probably enjoy your work too much to be dissuaded.”

“Keep quiet” he replied. “I am no flayer. That degenerate fetishizes his knives too much to be caught dead with them in the rain. I have come simply to ask you a question.”

“And what might that be?”

“Was it truth you spoke in the great hall? Have you power to vanquish the one that dwells beneath the mountains?” the man said.

“The power is not my own, but I am it’s conduit. Darkness flees at the name of my master. With who am I speaking?” Orren replied, confusion in his voice. Then he recognized the man as one of that stood guard upon dais of the master’s throne

“Does it matter who comes to free you?” The man said as he pulled a set of keys from his cloak. A moment later Orren was loose.

Orren rubbed his wrists and stood. “I suppose it does not, but should we die this night I’d like to know the name of the man for whom I will advocate at the gates of my Lord’s feasting hall.”

The man handed Orren one of the swords that hung at his side and spoke:

“Much blood will be shed this night, may it not be our own. My name is Berek. Follow me”

12.

Berek extinguished his lantern as soon as they entered the corridor that led to the garden and they raced along the damp stone, extinguishing every torch they passed that lit their way.

“I sent the guard on duty away on an important task, an important task that does not exist. He will realize my deception soon and alarms will be raised. We have little time.”

Berek navigated the labyrinth that made up the halls of keep without hesitation. Even had Orren freed himself of his bonds he would have been hopelessly trapped here in the winding hallways, a structure designed to confuse and disorient. They came to an abrupt halt by the a large wooden door flanked on either side by torches. Berek extinguished both of them, then he knocked.

“‘Berek, captain of Lord Zathen’s guard requires entrance. Official orders.” He shouted.

There was a rustling from within, the sliding of a deadbolt, and the door swung open. Orren stood in the shadows to the side of the doorway, sword in hand.

“Who is in charge here?” Berek barked, surveying the room before him. Swords and battle axes hung on walls next to shields and mail, they were nothing if not well armed. Three men sat at a round table playing cards, faces full of shock at seeing their captain unexpectedly.

“I…I am” said one of the men as he jumped up from his seat, spilling ale on the cards laid out on the table. “Forgive me, I did not know that you were coming.”

Berek frowned. “We will discuss playing cards on duty at another time. I’ve come to retrieve the armor and weapons confiscated from the prisoner. Our Lord wishes to study them.”

The guard squinted. “I was commanded not to release these arms to anyone, not unless the Master himself comes down here to retrieve them.”

“I catch you neglectful of your duty and now you are also calling me a liar? Perhaps you would like to see the flayer when he is done with our visitor?” Berek said moving his hand to the hilt of his sword.

“I mean no offense captain, but he will have my head without his direct order. My head is much more useful attached to my body.”

“That’s not what your wife told me” one of the men from the table interjected, causing the other guards to roar with drunken laughter. The head of the guard made an obscene gesture and threw his mug of ale at the offender, then turned back to Berek.

“I will go myself up to the throne and verify the orders. You can wait here with the other guards.” he smiled and started for the door. Before he could take two steps Berek drew his sword and removed head from shoulders in one swift movement. There was a moment of calm as the headless body crumpled to the floor. The blood streaked faces of the remaining two card players stared at their captain in disbelief, the head of the third player rolled with an almost comical wobble to their feet.

“Should have just given me what I came for.” Berek sighed.

Shock turned to rage on the faces of the living guards and swords were drawn. Berek was surrounded for a brief moment before Orren appeared in the doorway and ran his sword straight through the chest of the unfortunate fellow at the door. He kicked the now limp body off of his blade. It was now an even fight but not a fair one for drink had slowed the movements of the remaining guards. A few clashes of steel, screams of agony, and the fight was finished.

Berek walked over to the headless body and searched through the pockets. A moment later he produced a ring of keys and tossed them to Orren. He pointed to a chest in the back corner of the room.

“Put on your armor. More will be here soon and they aren’t likely to be drunk, just angry.”

13.

With armor donned and weapons in hand, Orren and Berek stepped out once more into the dark corridor. Berek had traded his short sword for a large double bladed axe. “We might have to hack our way out of here, this will help” he had said with a grin. Orren’s travelling bag was also recovered. His runic stones were all accounted for, but the flask was emptied of its contents. He would have to find a fresh water source when they escaped this wretched place.

They raced through the endless inky black, extinguishing all light as they passed. Darkness swallowed their path, there was no going back. Noises that no human could, or should, make could be heard behind some of the barred doors as they passed, they pressed on. Neither man spoke a word. Then Berek stopped suddenly. He remained silent for a moment then turned and spoke:

“Ahead is an entranceway to the keep. I thought it known only to myself and the master. Someone else has opened the door. I thought we had more time.”

Orren grinned. “The time for skulking in the shadows has ended it seems. Let us go to meet our fates beneath the light of the stars, the eyes of our ancestors.” Orren walked past Berek and out into the night. Berek hesitated for a moment in the black hall. He muttered to himself as he drew his sword and followed the foreigner out into the night, “At least it stopped raining.”

14.

They came out to a stretch of flat ground flanked by tall trees.  Across the clearing directly in the path of Orren and Berek stood was tall tussock grass swaying in the night breeze. Beyond that were the mountains. They were free.   

“Let’s go before we are seen” Berek said. The began their way across the clearing when Orren stopped. He reached down to the pouch that hung at his side a flipped open the flap. The four stones were aglow, pulsating slowly, blue light emanating from the bag.

“We are not alone.” Orren said with grim look upon his face.

“Indeed we are not. There in the grass.” Berek pointed the tip of his sword at the swaying tallgrass. A lone figure stood where the blade pointed, dressed in a long shredded shawl like that of a beggar. It stepped into the moonlight that illuminated the clearing and threw off the shawl. Orren’s grip tightening around his pike and he felt his jaw clench.

“Rather we’d have run into the entire barracks than him.” Berek said, spitting. Orren believed him.

Before them stood a man grinning madly wearing naught but a small cloth to cover his loins. He was lean and pale, almost sickly looking if not for the tight muscles that rippled beneath his skin, or at least what once was skin. His body was covered from head to toe in ancient script from the infernal language; words from the deepest of frozen hells, spoken only by the many tongued abominations that dwell there. Dark prophecies, blasphemies, horrific tales from the abyss had been carved into his flesh. His skin was but a monstrous scar, a walking testament of primeval malice.

In his hand was a dagger, a black blade attached to a gnarled wood handle. Orren could see it clearly in the moonlight, but no light reflected off of it. The blade was alive. He could feel its presence, and it could sense him.

“She was promised blood, she was.” The scarred man hissed. “I get to keep the skin but she takes the blood, your blood” He pointed at Orren. “Don’t put up too much of a fight and maybe we’ll kill you quick. Maybe. She always gets what she wants. It’s been too long since I’ve had to hunt my own prey.” He grinned, mouth full of teeth filed into razor-like points.

15.

“The blade…” Orren said. “I have seen its like before. It is not of man.”

“I’ve seen it before too, and I’d prefer to not be skinned by it. We have the advantage. Hurry before he calls for aid!” Berek shouted as he advanced quickly towards the scarred man.

Berek moved like a charging bull, an avalanche of steel and fury. He swung his blade at his foe but cut only the air. His opponent was quick, quicker than any human should be. His movements were almost arachnid in nature; limbs outstretched and dashing angularly from one point to the next. Before Berek could turn the abomination was behind him, a moment later and the stygian blade was brought across the armored shoulder before it. Metal and flesh split open like the seam of grainsack had been cut. Blood appeared for a moment…and then stopped. The wound was immediately blackened, as though a searing heat had cauterized it.

The ghoul jumped back a few steps before his now kneeling victim and held out the dagger. Not a trace of blood or flesh could be seen on it.

“Ohhhhh she likes you. Lots of fight. We will enjoy draining the life from you one cut at a time.”

He began to step forward with blade outstretched when the hook of Orren’s pike caught him from behind, hooking his right side. Orren pulled with all his strength, spinning the antagonist around to face him. A sound like metal scraping stone could be heard. The flayer glared at Orren, then reached down and unhooked the pike from his side. No mark from the blow could be seen. Any other man would have lost his innards from the force with which Orren had struck.

“She has remade me in her image. I am darkness incarnate. You can no more strike me down than you can the shadows that haunt your dreams. And you do dream don’t you? I’ve seen them. We’ve seen them.” He said ,curling his lips into a sneer. Then he charged, swinging his dagger. Orren was able to lift his shield in time and the black blade bounced off the woven strands, staggering its wielder. The flayer regained his footing and stared at the armored man across from him. His eyes narrowed and the grin he wore until now was no more. Uncertainty was now in his eyes, uncertainty and rage.

Orren slowly advanced. With shield raised he absorbed blow after blow from the demon blade, pushing that tattooed man back further and further. Orren left no opening for him, corralling him with pike and shield, always at his front. The flayer cursed and spit like a feral cat, blows harmlessly bouncing off the holy shield, ever retreating. They were now almost to where Berek kneeled. He was conscious, but his face was covered in sweat and pain. His eyes met Orren’s for a moment, and then he smiled. Berek grabbed his sword and lunged towards the legs of the assailant. At first glance it appeared to Orren that Berek had missed, the blade entering the space between the torturer’s legs. Then he jutted the handle of the blade forward, disrupting the cursed man’s balance.

Orren saw his opening and lept forward, bowling the flayer over onto his back. He landed atop the foe and pinned the evil weapon beneath the shield. The demon’s free hand raked across Orren’s face. Blood poured down and stung his eyes, yet he remained firm in his positioning. With his pike Orren slashed at the flailing limb, but he could only fend off strikes. No lasting damage could be done to anywhere the text of damnation was written. Berek saw the struggle and crawled over to aid. He managed to pin the other hand of the ghoul and for a moment all was quiet. Then the flayer began to laugh, a cackle straight from the bowels of the demon serpent itself.

“You going to hold me here forever? Why don’t you tell me a story while we wait? HMMM? Tell me of your family foreigner. How are they doing? Would you like me to tell you?” The flayer howled with evil glee, teeth glinting in the moonlight.

Teeth….teeth. There is no writing on the teeth.

Orren lifted his pike and with the butt of the handle began to slam it on the open jaw of  his captive. Teeth splintered and broke beneath the onslaught, howls of laughter turned to howls of pain and the sound of gargled blood. Then Orren reached down into the pouch at his side and pulled out one of the stones, still pulsating with light, and shoved it into the bloody maw of the flayer. The flayer began to choke and tried to spit, but orren held his mouth shut with his knee and his nostrils closed with his mailed fist. He swallowed and the stone was gone.

The flayer’s eyes opened wide and his face became twisted with agony. He opened his mouth and coughed up smoke and black tar like substance.

“We should probably get clear” Orren said to Berek. He stood up quickly and dragged his companion away . As soon as they released the hands of their captive he sprang to his feet, both hands raised to his throat, dagger lying in the grass beside him.

“WHAT DID YOU PUT IN ME?!? WHAT DID YOU DO!?” he screamed through coughs of smoke. “GET IT OUT!”

He shrieked in pain and began to claw at his stomach to no avail. Then he saw the dagger in the grass. He picked it up and plunged it into his abdomen up to the hilt, then dragged it clean across the width of his body. Black liquid poured out as he shoved a hand inside the gaping wound. He dug through his bowels as Orren and Berek looked on in horror, and then produced the small stone, still glowing.

“I’ve got it…I’ve…got it.” He said in a voice barely above a whisper. He looked at the two men before him and smiled, then crumpled to the ground.

Berek and Orren sat in silence for a moment staring at the carnage before them. The words carved into the flesh of the now dead man began fade before their eyes, and then disappeared. The black knife was gone.

“Did you know that making him eat that rock would do…that?” Berek asked, still staring at the corpse in front of him.

Orren shook his head “No…but…I knew he wouldn’t like it very much.” He walked over to the dead man and pried the stone from his crooked fingers. He wiped some black gunk off of it in the grass and placed it back in his pouch. They were no longer glowing.

“We should go. Can you walk?” Orren looked at Berek.

Berek stood slowly, wincing in pain. Then he smiled, “I’ve had worse.”

Trying to Write Part 4