Part VI

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

19.

Orren had crossed half the distance to the tent before Berek noticed his companion had left. He saw him throw back the drape covering the entrance and disappear inside. A moment later a naked, hairless man with sunken grey-white skin came hurtling head first from out of the tent. He grunted as he hit the floor. He rolled onto his back and Berek could see blood dripping from his mouth. He raised his hands to shield his face in anticipation of further attack from the assailant.

Orren’s eyes blazed with fury. His pike was still slung at his side, but his shield was covered with spotted blood from where it had been driven against the face of the cave-dweller.

“Orren! This is the demon? Surely this shriveled man is not the one we have feared all this time, the one that has consumed my people’s innocence.” Berek shouted, trying to calm the rage burning inside the shieldbearer. It was a moment before Orren gained his composure and looked up at Berek.

“This is not the demon, but neither is it a man.” Orren replied. He then looked down at the man lying before him. “You know not what I saw in the tent, things no man should see.”

The being on the ground began to laugh, deep choking cackles that gargled blood.

“If you did not wish to see then why did you come you fools? What did you think happened to the ones left as gifts for my master? I am simply the servant. I deliver the parts that he requires, the rest…”

Before he could finish Orren slammed the base of his shield against the man’s chest, knocking the wind from him. The grotesque man spit out a mouthful of blood and looked up again, laughing.

“What can I say? A man must eat.”

Orren drew his pike and in one swift movement drove the blade through the neck of the monster that lay before him. Berek stood staring at the bloody scene, then fell to his knees. He looked around at the cave. This was a tomb. The sins of his people laid bare before him like some hellish monument, his sins.

Orren turned and faced the frozen lake and spoke. “There will be time for mourning later. We must finish the task at hand.I need your help with this body.”

Berek stood. “What are we to do with it?”

“We’re going to fish.”

20.

The two men picked up the naked corpse, one holding the head and the other the feet, and carried it over to the shore of the subterranean lake. The body had already begun to decompose. Foul powers had kept it alive, had prevented its aging during its unnatural existence. They were needed no more. They swung the body like a sack of grain and launched into onto the icy surface of the water. It landed with a sickening thud, but did not break the ice.

“Now what?” Berek said, dipping his hands into the icy water to wash the stink of the corpse away.

“Now we prepare.” Orren removed his shield from his back and held it out. “Take this. When it arrives you must protect me until the rite is completed.”

Berek hesitated, “Why don’t we just stab it to death? That usually works.”

“It will not work…not for this. You must trust me. Please, take the shield.”

Berek reached out and took the shield. He was startled at the lightness of it. It became like a natural extension of his arm. There was no struggle in his grip, swinging it around in different defensive positions was effortless. Berek was not one to use shields but this…this was different. There was power here.

“Ready yourself. It is time” Orren said, pointing his pike out across the frozen lake. A great shadow began to grow beneath the ice. It was larger than any beast Berek had ever seen, larger even than the great horned beasts from the scorching plains of the southlands. Orren walked down a few steps from the edge of the water and drove the end of his extended pike into the rocks until it stood on its own. Then he knelt behind it. Berek looked at him for a moment and then turned to the coming shadow. He drew his blade and held up the shield. Then he laughed.

“We’re gonna die.”

21.

The ice cracked beneath the rotting corpse and two black tendrils the size of tree trunks broke through. Each tendril was covered in a sheen of glowing mucus. The black appendages arced and bobbed around the corpse like a snake about to strike,  then they shot down and coiled around the body pulling it beneath the surface.

All was silent for a moment, then a great roar rang out from below the ice shaking the walls of the cave. The tendrils shot back to the surface still holding the now dismembered corpse. They arced back before hurtling the pieces in Berek’s direction. He was able to dodge the flying torso at the last moment but was not prepared for the second volley. A pair of legs struck him in the side and sent him bowling over.  He landed on his back not far from where Orren still knelt.

“I guess it doesn’t like the taste of old rotting man.” He called over to Orren. It hurt when he spoke, probably due to a broken rib, or two, or three. Orren gave no response. Berek winced and got back on his feet. He looked down at his companion, lips moving and eyes closed, hands clasping his pike driven into the ground.

Another roar erupted from the lake and the whole surface heaved upward. The ice broke into massive chunks and splashed down around the gigantic shape rising from the waters. It was matter without form, an ever shifting mass of congealed night. On the surface of the shapeless behemoth were thousands of small human eyes. They were different colors and shapes, each one blinking independently.

Berek gaped in horror at the madness before him, the existence of which was more than his mind could comprehend. It bore no resemblance to anything in this dimension for it was an affront to creation, a demoniacal mockery of all that is good and true. His grasp on reality begin to slip; then he looked down and saw the shield. He felt the cold steel of his blade in his hand, remembered the one waiting for him.

There are worse fates than death. It was the cowardice of my forefathers that allowed this curse…this plague. If my life is the price for defiance of that horror…then so be it.

Berek ran to the shore slamming his sword against his shield. He stood with his arms outstretched at the water’s edge and let forth a primal howl of fury. All of the beast’s thousand eyes focused on the challenger, and then it lurched toward the shore.

 

-Kaiju

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Adventure Time is “new pulp”

I haven’t written about Adventure Time yet, have I? Dang. At first I was tempted to say “Adventure Time is pulp,” but of course that doesn’t adhere to the real, literal definition of the term.

Despite the admirable and vigorous impetus possessed by some yeomen of the nascent Pulp Revolution (that is, the collective of writers, bloggers, readers, critics, fans, et al. who have rediscovered the old greats of the original pulp stories, and now strive to bring about a revival of sorts or else an inspired new era of science fiction/fantasy), I personally do not believe in trying to redefine that which already has a very rigid and clear meaning. As Cirsova and John Smith (above) point out, “pulp” is quite actually a type of story published in a pulp magazine between 1896 and somewhere abouts in the 1950s. As Rawle (above) also pointed out, we must not redefine pulp  as “stuff we like.” That’s like saying “I love hard science fiction, ergo any scifi stories I like are hard science fiction.”

But as I was saying, Adventure Time is not pulp. It is quite pulpy, though. Whatever we’re calling that which evokes the spirit and ethos of the old pulp stories and seems to draw inspiration from the old greats – that’s what Adventure Time is. “New pulp?” Whatever.

Interestingly, this is another thing of classification “stuff that Kaiju got me into.” Before being reluctantly persuaded to watch, Adventure Time looked like a goofy kid’s show to me. Perhaps worse and quite evidently unfairly, it made me think of Hot Topic and Cat Dog.

 

Even upon my first viewing, I wasn’t initially sold. Kaiju and I were hanging out, and he says “Hey let’s watch Adventure Time.”

I was skeptical.

“Dude, shut up, you’ll like it.”

I yielded, skeptically, as is my wont.

The first episode was about a kingdom of candy people with a bubblegum princess. Ugh. But wait, then there were zombies. And though Jake the Dog was a little off-putting at first (John DiMaggio at that point was Bender the Robot in my mind), I quickly grew to like him. I mean a loyal, brave, shape-shifting mutant dog creature? That’s ok in my book. And Finn the Human was pretty cool too. Yes, he has a weird hat. But he also wields swords and sees it as his mission to defend the weak, defeat evil, and essentially just be a badass hero. Yes!

As I watched more episodes on my own time, the world of Ooo began to unfurl. And it was massive. This is a land filled with monsters, mad wizards, all manner of strange mutants and weird creatures, talking animals, aliens, robots, dungeons and magic.

Despite the easy fun of most episodes, the cartoon’s presentation and style are complex and layered. The animation is inspired by the old Max Fleischer cartoons and Felix the Cat. Inspirations for the story and the world itself are varied and impressive. Creator Pendleton Ward has described the show as a dark comedy, because he loves the feeling of being happy and scared at the same time. He works to combine a bleak kind of humor with beautiful “Miyazaki”-style moments (he’s cited My Neighbor Totoro as an inspiration for this type of beauty).

Executive producer Fred Seibert has named Dungeons and Dragons and video games as inspirations, and that shows. There are characters and settings and situations that now strike me as weird, almost Vancian imaginings.

 

Although (like a lot of anime) there are some less satisfying “filler” episodes scattered about, Adventure Time does a masterful job developing its characters and advancing its general story while at the same time capturing the spirit of serialized adventure. Some of the funnest episodes are those in which Finn and Jake just fight monsters and/or explore dungeons. “Dungeon Train” was a great episode for this, as was “The Enchiridion!

My favorite AT stories are probably the more melancholy ones, though. There are storylines in which Finn deals with being the (presumed) only human left in the world; with seeking out his father; and in dealing with young love and heartbreak. We also get to learn more (often heartbreaking tales) about ancillary characters like the Ice King, who, though on the surface is a crazed, silly, perverted old mage, actually has a sad, moving, noble past. The way this show is able to blend and transition between comedy, beauty, and gut-wrenching poignancy brings to mind Futurama at its best.

the-luck-of-the-fryrish

We are also occasionally treated to glimpses of characters at different times and places, sometimes Ooo beyond the lifetimes of our protagonists. The haunting song of Lemonhope comes to mind:

 

There’s so much to love about Adventure Time that it’s difficult to really do it justice in one simple blog post. But one more admirable element I’d like to note is the way the show glories in heroics. While plot elements can get really dark at times, Finn and Jake never waver or shy away from their roles. Even when things seem hopeless, they fight. And they’re good guys; it’s that simple. As gray and nuanced as our entertainment can be these days, it’s heartening to have a show where the good guys are just good.

So if you like genre bending (I’d probably call it post-apocalyptic scifi fantasy), action and adventure, dark comedy, fun, heroic heroes, and emotionally-layered animation…do yourself a favor and check it out.

adult finn

Oh, and just try to tell me that Ron Perlman as the Lich isn’t the greatest. “You are strong, child. But I am beyond strength.”

 

-Bushi

bushi

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.”

Mobs vs Monsters: Death of a PC Part 2

Earlier this week I wrote a little about player character death in pen and paper gaming, and how it impedes one from becoming the pulp hero master of all. If you are dead, you cannot be Conan.

Branching off a little, Alex of Cirsova and I exchanged a few thoughts on the nature of hero deaths and the primary mortal threats to iconic barbarians and the like.

Alex went on to expand upon his point here.

I agree with him on the danger of groups of enemies. Play enough games (of various types) and you’ll learn that mobs of low-powered foes can pose plenty threat.

What about for the characters in the kinds of stories we often model our own gaming characters after? Well, we find a mix. In the Cirsova post, there is talk of “economy of force.” That is to say, when there’s one big monster, it is usually fighting against multiple adventurers who get more attacks than it does, or do more damage or can take more punishment in aggregate. Thus it’s pretty much outgunned, even if it’s super strong.

Two things about this. First, in the kinds of stories we often read of heroes facing off against terrible horrors and fell beasts, the numbers are usually more even. Or at least they are more likely to be than in a game of D&D. Conan picks up occasional companions, it’s true, and he is a leader of men. But he also operates and fights alone quite often. Thus his eldritch encounters are usually pretty close to 1:1.

Second, I’d argue that game mechanics are limiting. A party of heroes facing off against a giant may have a pretty decent shot in a gaming context, but in a written setting…well, of course that in large part depends on the author. But a “written” giant is unbound by combat rules. D&D and other systems may do a decent job approximating battle mechanics with armor class and hit points and attacks of opportunity, but how likely is a DM-enthralled giant to just step on a PC or PCs and insta-smoosh them (though I’m sure this does happen)? And what are the odds that a party (if there are multiple adventurers) is capable of retaliating in kind?

Of course I haven’t read every fantasy book, nor am I an expert of man on monster combat. But it just seems to me that in such stories, even when in groups, heroes are often forced to rely on more than economy of force and the fairness of turn-based combat. They often need clever plans, strong magic, or favorable circumstances. It’s not to say that they can’t win otherwise, but usually the odds are stacked against the good guys in such cases.

(Warning: some spoilers ahead for Lord of the Rings, The Gods of Mars, various Conan stories, and Three Hearts and Three Lions)

giant-rage

Then again, in some settings, heroes have the advantage. In Dickson’s Dragon and the George, for instance, dragon vs knight is an uneven fight…in favor of the human! Fully armored men, with lance and steed, pose grave risk to dragons, as the protagonist quite painfully learns.

Looking at mobs, Alex is clearly correct. Our own Conan is frequently forced to run when outnumbered and able. In the Lord of the Rings, the party flees from orcs and trolls in Moria, and the mighty Boromir is taken down by an overwhelming pack of Saruman’s orcs. Early in the Gods of Mars, John Carter and his companion Tars Tarkas barely escape from a horde of plant men and great white apes.

So as Alex says, “The difference between your characters who died and Conan could be that Conan knew when to run and you didn’t.” Yes, very true.

Where I do want to diverge a bit is in the estimation of mobs as more of a threat than monsters. To be fair, I don’t think Alex is making this as a blanket claim. His post seems more limited to a gaming context. It’s unfortunate that so many games, through their mechanics, make this distinction important, though.

frank_frazetta_thedestroyer

In the Conan stories, the barbarian runs from unwinnable battles presented by both man and monster. The very last paragraph from “The God in the Bowl”:

At last the movements ceased and Conan looked gingerly behind the screen. Then the full horror of it all rushed over the Cimmerian, and he fled, nor did he slacken his headlong flight until the spires of Numalia faded into the dawn behind him. The thought of Set was like a nightmare, and the children of Set who once ruled the earth and who now sleep in their nighted caverns far below the black pyramids. Behind that gilded screen there had been no human body—only the shimmering, headless coils of a gigantic serpent.

In “The Slithering Shadow” Conan runs from a mob of soldiers, trying to find his woman. He ends up encountering a terrible beast from which there is no escape. He barely survives:

A footstep roused her out of her apathy of horror, to see Conan emerging from the darkness. At the sight she found her voice in a shriek which echoed down the vaulted tunnel. The manhandling the Cimmerian had received was appalling to behold. At every step he dripped blood. His face was skinned and bruised as if he had been beaten with a bludgeon. His lips were pulped, and blood oozed down his face from a wound in his scalp. There were deep gashes in his thighs, calves and forearms, and great bruises showed on his limbs and body from impacts against the stone floor. But his shoulders, back and upper-breast muscles had suffered most. The flesh was bruised, swollen and lacerated, the skin hanging in loose strips, as if he had been lashed with wire whips.

Once again in the Lord of the Rings, Gandalf the Grey fights the terrible Durin’s Bane. While the wizard is able to slay the powerful Balrog, he gets as good as he gives.

gandalfvsbalrog

In Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions, the party’s battle against the troll is a costly one. One of the party members is killed, and my memory is a bit fuzzy but I think the protagonist’s memorable steed, Papillon, may also be lost.

In our favorite stories, there are many dangers, both magical and mundane. A hero can be slain by a large group of foes or by one large foe. Discretion is indeed often the better part of valor, and living to fight another day is usually the best option. Once they’re dead, they don’t get another chance (unless Gandalf).

In game terms, the calculus may differ. When the most important thing is the survival of the party, you may not care about losing a member or two so long as you win the battle. If the dragon fries your fighter, you can just roll up a new one.

Returning to what I was talking about last time, though, I think many (most?) players come into a campaign with personal goals. Sure, sometimes they just want to be part of a cool story. Sometimes they want to amass a huge fortune or delve deeper into the dungeon than anyone before them. Sometimes a player wants to create a memorable hero – the most powerful wizard of the century, or the Conan or Solomon Kane clone (minus being a Puritan, probably), or the next Robin Hood. For those guys, losing their character to the lich king (even if the party wins) may be just as devastating as a TPK at the hands of a mob of bandits.

That’s not to say that a DM or a gaming system has to or even necessarily should consider the hurt feelings of such players. It’s just to say that on an individual basis, a monster may be just as threatening as a mob.

-Bushi

bushi

 

 

Trying to write

My co-bloggers were complaining that I haven’t been writing anything and was just trolling people on Twitter. They were correct.  I was also attempting to write some fiction. I haven’t finished it. What I have so far is below, work in progress. 

She was in the same chair she sat in every night, rocking gently. Her night-black hair flowed down over her slender shoulder, reflecting the light from the candle flickering in the corner. She was beautiful, just as he remembered. A baby lay across her lap sleeping, partially covered by her hair. Her almond eyes were dark and full of mystery, but they radiated love as she looked upon her child. A warm gust from the open window behind her blew her hair across his face and he began to fidget and whimper. She brought him to her breast and began to sing gently:

These words I weave,
For you my love,
A shield so strong
Blessed by the Light

Safe in your dreams
Until morning comes
When you shall awake
And greet the new sun

The infant was quiet now, breathing in rhythm with the rocking of the chair. She lifter her head and saw him. She smiled and opened her mouth to speak.

***
Orren woke with the rising of the sun. He had made camp near a small grouping of trees clumped next to a stream. They were the only trees as far the eye could see in the green ocean that surrounded him. He gently laid down the shield from under which he slept and sat up. No sounds. No signs of life, just his horse, Alna, and the creaking of his armor. And his thoughts. Always his thoughts. Alna was sipping softly from the stream. She looked up briefly, grunted acknowledgement that her master was awake, and went back to drinking.

This was not the first time he had dreamt of them. He doubted it would be the last, no matter how far he went.
Do not let your thoughts linger on that which you cannot control.
Today he would continue his journey in the direction of the rising sun, the same as he had done the day before, and the day before that, his back always to the wall and the massive gates that separated the wildlands from the place of his birth.

The four stones he had placed around his camp remained unmolested in their original locations. The grass beyond the barrier of the stones was trampled and torn. They only came at night. He knelt next to each stone, whispered a short prayer and sprinkled a bit of water onto each from the ornate flask at his side before picking them up. He wrapped them in a cloth and placed them in the small bag that hung at his side.

The flask would be empty soon. He could always make more. He knew the ritual and his faculties had not diminished despite the distance from the Mountain. He carried out the rest of the morning rites as he had every day since his initiation. A few drops of water from the flask were sprinkled upon his thin metallic armor, helm, and telescopic pike. The words were chanted.

He then moved on to his shield. The shield was woven by the cloistered monks of Allar from a thousand strips of metal, each piece inscribed with words from the high language spoken only at the summit of Sorrakam. The shield was given to him on the day of his anointing. It had been made specifically for him; his name spoken during the blessing ritual carried out as each piece was hammered into place. It was irreplaceable, especially now. He placed the shield upon the grass directly in the sunlight, a few drops of water were sprinkled on each side. Orren knelt down beside it and sat in silence for several minutes. The water evaporated in the sun and he stood up. Time to move on.

2.

His food had almost run out when he reached the base of the mountain range at the other edge of the green sea. He had heard stories of what was beyond. Few ever crossed the mountains, let alone the sea. It was outside the jurisdiction of Sorrakam. Alna snorted and shook her head. There was unease about this place and she could sense it. Dark things dwelt here. She eventually obeyed and began carrying her rider up the narrow path that lead through a valley between two of the mountains.

The jagged peaks watched menacingly over him as he passed through their shadows. The air was cold and damp. Sometimes a wind would blow and carry with it the smell of decay. He kept his pike at hand and his shield across his lap as they made their way. This place was death. He could feel it, could taste it in the back of his throat. Blood and acid. It was then that he heard it, faint at first, just a murmur in the wind. He thought it a spectre or other malevolent entity playing with his spiritual senses. He continued on and the sound become louder, and began to take on human characteristics. The noise was coming from against the far western wall of the valley. He turned Alna and began moving swiftly towards it. If it was a human making that noise, they were surely in need of help. If it was something…else, then best he deal with it.

When he had almost reached the valley wall he dismounted from Alna. He unlocked his pike, held his shield close, and approached. After no more than a few steps he came upon the source of the noise. A bundle of cloth was resting on the cold stone of the valley floor, noise emanating from it. The cloth was a fine silk, colored crimson and purple. A few more paces beyond the bundle the mouth of a cave gaped. The cave was darkness; no light seemed to breached its entrance. He knelt down next to the bundle of cloth and unwrapped it. Inside the cloth was an infant, naked, eyes closed, weeping piteously. The babe’s cheeks were red from crying, but did not seem to be otherwise harmed. Alna approached from behind and leaned over the child. She nuzzled the baby gently and snorted. Orren took out his flask and poured a few drops over the infant. The baby continued to cry and flail her hands and feet as infants are wont to do. He secured his pike and shield on Alna’s saddle and gently picked up the child. Upon being picked up her crying ceased. Orren wrapped her in the cloth for warmth. Until he found a suitable place to have the child cared for she was his ward. Oaths must be upheld. He mounted his horse with the little girl in his lap and continued on through the valley.

3.

It was almost a day’s ride out of the valley. He did not stop except to water his horse and feed the child some paste he had made from his provisions. She would not live much longer without proper food and warmth. The valley opened into a great expanse of dense icy fog. Everything was damp and cold, the sun was but a gray saucer outlined in the haze. Night came and went. He rode on. The baby would cry sometimes when a cold wind blew into her wrappings, but she was growing increasingly silent and still. He whispered to her:

“I did not bring you here just to die in this never ending twilight, but if it be our fates then know that you were not uncared for. They will be waiting at the gates for you.”

He had no sooner finished his words when a light cut through the fog. A farmstead was ahead – some kind of livestock farmer. Alna saw the light and immediately rushed forward with new found strength. They reached the gate of the main house on the land and Orren leapt from Alna, babe in arms. She had begun to turn pale. Her breathing was faint. He slammed his fist against the door and yelled out,

“I have with me a child that needs warmth and food! I know not the traditions of this foreign land, but should you provide us aid I will be forever in your debt. Please…!”

Before Orren could continue the door swung open. A woman stood in the door, arrow notched and pointed directly at her visitor’s heart.

“Let me see the child.”

Orren shifted the child’s bundling to show her face. The woman slowly lowered her bow, and then she wept. Tears fell from her eyes and her shoulders shuddered deep sobs.

Orren stood in the lighted doorway, baby in arms, only darkness and death behind him.

“If you wish me to go, I…”

“No. Come inside. Please. Get her out of the cold.”

They entered, and she locked the door behind them.

 

 

-Kaiju