-Muscular body. Lean and lithe.
-Blue scales follow the sides of his body, covering the sides of his arms, legs, back, and some of his face.
-Two smooth horns on his head that curve backwards
-Long black hair combed back, braided behind the ears.
-Long ears sharply angled to two points, 2 gold ring earrings each
-Blue draconic wings, large enough to glide with but not fly
-Long prehensile tail, like a snake. ~5 feet in length
-Intense gaze, eyes seem red or violet depending on lighting.
-Thanks to draconic heritage his face is strikingly handsome, but is more arresting than attractive. Like looking into the eyes of a tiger.
-Back side is covered with so many lash scars that it looks like rougher scales at first glance, front side is surprisingly clear. The lashes are actually from a witch’s curse Scar.
-Wears a long red and white cloth draped around his waist. Leather lace-up sandals.
-He likes to think that he’s self-reliant and fiercely independent. Slow to trust, very suspicious and guarded. But in practice that’s not really the case.
-Judgement is easily clouded by lust. Falls in love very easily, especially to healers.
-Will accept no master but himself.
The continent of Ragnos is a place as beautiful as it is harsh.
Society is divided by a rigid hierarchy of upper and lower classes that is brutally enforced. The majority population of humans and the elves make up the upper class, with other races (called Deimos) being second-class and below. Only with great effort, power, and wealth can a Deimos ascend to the upper class.
-Mother was a tiefling prostitute, indeterminate father. Though the draconic bloodline is from his father.
-Lived in the brothel until he was old enough to be sold off. Never saw his mother again.
-Worked as a castle slave until adolescence.
-Sold to an alchemist, then a winemaker
-Winemaker went bankrupt, sold to the arena
-Fell in love with Kaniz, an underclass female human who tended to the wounds of the pit fighters.
-As punishment for winning a high-stakes fight he was supposed to throw, they raped her as he was bound and watching.
-Went berserk. Destroyed the arena and burned down the city with the other pit fighters. The lightning he manifested struck and killed Kaniz first.
-Managed to leave the continent before his pursuers found him by seducing captain Rewill Went
-Free the Deimos and any other oppressed being he comes across. But first things first: gather strong allies and achieve great personal strength.
-The only thing in the world that matters is power. And there is no greater power than that of the dragons. The masters of Ragnos will either bow out of respect to an equal, or from being sliced in twain.
-In his secret heart, what he wants is love.
-Surprisingly good singer.
-Extremely high pain tolerance.
-Expert in rope bondage.
-Hates rope bondage.
-Berzerk triggers: Don’t call him by his slave name (Caliban), Don’t mention Kaniz or Vaeria. This probably won’t be a problem unless there’s a telepath around.
-A tender and sensual lover.
-Follower of Milani, though has great knowledge of Sarenrae, Socothbenoth
-Paranoid about mind-affecting spells
Light crossbow (4lb), 37 bolts (4lb)
Cold Iron Dagger (1lb)
2 Primal Iron Dagger
1 primal iron sword
Spear +1 (9lb)
5 bear trap (10 lbs)
1 barkskin potion
3 vials Ravenmoore poison
1.5 dose black dragon venom
4 empty potions
Petite Lady folding boat
Rope 100 ft (20lbs)
4 Wide bandages
Desna Quilt (3lbs)
Bottle of Fish Oil
4 Trail rations
2 Bottles Applejack (12lb)
2 waterskin, 2 bottles, 2 vials water breathing potion (Aboleth’s Lung)
Food for 4
2 Diamonds (900 gold each)
Black Snowflake Coin
Primal Iron Key, head of a reptile and red gems
Black Dragon Robes
Blazing Halo masquerade mask
Deed to the Pernicious Pony
Cursed Cyclops Helm
Robe of Arcane Heritage (+1 CL on bloodline abilities)
Amulet of Natural Armor + 1
1 Amulet of Natural Armor +1
William IV’s (The Tasteless King) +1 impervious longsword (Held by Khalreed Marsuvees)
Danold the Blind’s Quiver of magic arrows, Danold’s Giant Invisible Bow
Headband of Amnesia
Charisma Earrings + 2
1 Beholder Eye
Cloak of Resistance
Intimidating Mask (advantage on Intimidation 5/day)
Ring of Spell Storing lv 3
The Void Mantle – Starry Shadow Cloth of Transport to the Shadow Plane
Pouch of Teeth, Hair, human Ear
2 Bracer of Defense for the Unarmored
Potion of Shield
1 Salve of Unpetrify
Wand of Fertility (1 charge, 50% chance of failure)
Wand of Move Earth (3 charges)
Wand of Wall of Fire (spent)
Wand of Gentle Repose (spent)
Scroll of Burning Hands (spent)
Scroll of Aboleth’s Lung (spent)
2 Scroll of Snowball (2 spent)
Arrow of Magic Mouth
Dusty Rose Prism (Cracked) Ioun Stone : +1 initiative
Ring of Detect Demons
Broken wand of acid
Chocolate Brown Branch Necklace
Empty container of red dragon liquid
1 White Dragon Zealot Robe
Needle and 10 spools of embroidery thread
ADVENTURING KIT (weighs 8.65 lbs, costs 32.6.5 gp)
Butterfly Net (2 lbs, 5 gp)
Candle x5 (0, 0.0.5 gp)
Chalk (0, 0.0.1 gp)
Charcoal (0, 0.5 gp)
Earplugs (0, 0.0.3 gp)
Fishhook (0, 0.1 gp)
Flint and Steel (0, 1 gp)
Ink (0, 8 gp)
Inkpen (0, 1 sp)
Journal (1, 10 gp)
Mirror (0.5, 10 gp)
Rice Paper x9 (0, 0.5 gp)
Sewing Needle (0, 0.5 gp)
Signal Whistle (0, 0.8 gp)
Signet Ring (0, 5 gp)
Sling (0, 0 gp)
Soap (0.5, 0.0.1 gp)
String, 50 ft. (0.5, 0.0.1 gp)
6 white dragon feathers
6 bottles of everfrost water
various holy symbols
3690 GP, 460GG
14 Gipgib Coins
1: Improved Initiative
3: Spell Focus: evocation
5: Greater Spell Focus: evocation
7: Spell Specialization: Lightning Bolt
(Level 7 bonus feat Toughness) (Bonus spell: Lightning Bolt)
9: Empower Spell
Traits: Magical Lineage
Spells to get:
7: Lightning Bolt (Bonus)
Level 0: Jolt
Level 1: Liberating Command, Obscuring Mist, Ray of Enfeeblement, Grease
Level 2: Glitterdust, Scorching Ray, Blindness/Deafness, Create Pit, Rope Trick, Stone Call
Level 3: Haste, Dispel Magic, Summon Monster III, Stinking Cloud, Hold Person, Fireball, Major Image
Level 4: Lesser Geas, Bestow Curse
2 Euphoric Cloud
4 Black Tentacles / EFS, Freedom’s Toast
5 Summon Monster V, Cloudkill
Feat: Persistent Spell
Noctus lets the half-orc have the entire bed; he sits in a corner facing the door.
Sings a prayer to Milani before sleeping.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank Milani, goddess be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
He curls into a ball, arms folded over legs, tail coiled around him on the floor. His wings furl around him in a tight hug, like a bat at rest. He leans back against the corner and drifts to sleep.
"Caliban? How are you feeling? This looks pretty bad." Kaniz says with concern. She looms over him in a plain brown dress with the sun behind her. She has a crooked nose and freckles scattered over her cheeks. She extends her hand to help him up, and he reaches towards her.
Kaniz shrieks back and writhes on a table. Lightning arches through her and sets fire to everything around. Noctus screams.
Noctus awakens from the nightmare tembling. The full force of her death falls over his heart for the first time. Tears flow down his cheeks and he stuffs his fist in his mouth to suppress a cry. He cradles back and forth in sorrow.
He can't tell if the half-orc if sleeping or not, and does not care.
Hours later, though the sun has only begun to hint at arriving, the earliest of birds have already begun to sing. Noctus has calmed down. He sees clearly now and recalls his promise and his oath,
By ink or by fire
The Deimos will be free.
He drifts back to sleep.
2 Of the Dragons
After the Great War, all the sentient beings of Ragnoth fell under the subjugation of the highborn (elves and humans). Most dragons flew to other continents or went into hiding, living in remote caves or the bitter cold mountains. Some dragons went into partnerships with the highborn and the Dragonrider knights were created. Unknown to the highborn at large, the most cunning chose to hide in plain sight and assumed the form of a human or elf.
For those who had the eyes to see, these specimens of “highborn” could be identified by their striking good looks and intense charisma. In recent decades a coterie of transformed dragons has made a sport of spreading their seed far and wide in highborn society, especially with the most haughty of the highborn. Any children sired by the human-like dragons would reveal their parent’s true nature. Often born with scales and wings or horns, childbirth was often difficult or even fatal without magical assistance. Raising such a child would be a lifelong humiliation.
On occasion, the coterie will check up on their sires in secret.
Young Caliban walked carefully across the empty hallway carrying two pails of near-boiling water balanced on the ends of a stick slung across his shoulders. His bare footsteps echoed on the cold stone floor as he headed through the hall towards Lady Amelia’s private bath.
His back was sore and sweaty from the many trips he’s made to fill the marble tub. He lumbered around awkwardly, unused to being so much taller than what felt like weeks before.
Suddenly he was sprawled flat on his back, the pails of water emptied around him.
“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” His arms flew in front of his face in anticipation of a strike, but none came.
In front of him stood a tall man wearing a fine silk tunic the color of the desert sky. White and gold embroidery of dragons and eagles adorned his cuffs and collar. He was looking down on the boy with a bemused look. His eyes shone gold, accented with thick eyelashes and heavy brows. His cunning face was framed by long black hair artfully styled with the recently popular style of braids inwoven with precious beads.
“Wh-who are you, sir?” Caliban blushed with embarrassment as his voice cracked. He quickly repositioned into a kneeling position.
The man regarded the boy’s short horns and short black hair. Like the other slaves, the boy wore almost nothing, just a red loincloth. The sorcerer knelt down for a closer look at the azure scales that ran down the sides of the boy’s face and body.
“Who am I? How philosophical. Who am I indeed! Truly, what is the measure of a man’s identity? It is his name, or his blood, or something else entirely?”
Caliban looked up in confusion.
The noble straightened out and gave a huff. “I see you only care for the literal. Get up, boy.”
Caliban sprung up and stood still tensely. His small blue wings folded behind him and his tail pointed straight down, almost reaching the floor. The man walked in a slow circle around the scaled boy, examining him closely.
The boy was gangly, but was already starting to fill out nicely. There were small scars and bruising all around, but nothing too bad. The man’s eyes flashed from gold to red and Caliban gave a frightened half jump. He placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder and the boy stood still. “Oh. No. This won’t do at all.”
Through his magically-tinted vision, the sorcerer could see clearly the invisible tattoos on the boy’s body. Around his neck was a snake of many colors eating its own tail. Around his wrists and ankles were runes of binding. Above his groin was a mark of inhibition. Across his chest were ancient words of pain. Upon his heart was the symbol of death. With just a thought, the boy’s masters could dispense great misery upon him, or worse.
“Tell me, boy. *Tell me truly.* What is your greatest desire in the world?”
Caliban felt an impulse to speak without forethought or filter. “I WANT TO BE FREE!” He screamed. He gasped and covered his mouth, looking around to see if anyone else heard.
The sorcerer looked down upon the boy with a crazed and dangerous look in his eyes. His pupils narrowed into snake-like slits. He gave an unnaturally wide smile, pearl white teeth gleaming in the light. They seemed far sharper than any human’s that Caliban had ever seen. “That’s the spirit.”
The sorcerer made a flick of his wrist and Caliban was flung backwards into the wall. He was suspended spread-eagle, eye to eye with the sorcerer. He screamed in panic but nothing seemed to come out.
“Oh, don’t worry. I’m just going to play a little prank,” the sorcerer laughed brazenly. “A small trick I learned from some devils.”
The man took out a plain-looking wood and silver pen. The steel glowed iridescent as the man flourished it in precise movements around the boy. The boy gasped as the tattoos on his body burned red. The sorcerer jerked the pen back and he felt like the skin where the marking were had been torn off. Tears seeped out of the corners of his eyes.
The man got closer and started writing in the air with a wide flourishing script. With thousands of pin pricks Caliban felt the words being imprinted on his body.
“The price of freedom is high, boy. You’ll have to bear through this.”
He gritted his teeth for what seemed like hours. In the end the sorcerer took as step back to admire his work. The boy was drenched in sweat from the exertion, but that was immaterial. The runes of slavery adorned the boy’s body exactly as before, though a close inspection with a master’s eye shows something else entirely.
“The words of power that chained you before have been…subverted. Except for one, they’ll seem to work just as did before. Until a certain trigger, that is. Then where there was obedience will be defiance. Where was pain will be strength. Where was death will…still be death, of course. Just not yours. As for the last one, well, let’s say you’ll soon grow quite an appetite in more ways than one. I hope you eat well.”
Caliban was suddenly released from the wall and dropped to his knees. The man made some slight but careful gestures with his hand and pails turned upright and water coalesced into them. Steam rose from the pails in a slight simmer.
The boy looked up in wonderment at the sorcerer. “Who- who are you? Why are you helping me? What is your name?”
“Help you? Oh no no no. Believe me, to live as a wolf in sheep’s clothing is no help. There is one who is spoken of in whispers among the Deimos in this land. That is the name you truly wish to know. In fact, *forget about me. Forget about this whole thing.*”
Caliban’s eyes glossed over and he slumped against the wall in a daze.
The sorcerer chuckled maliciously as the air around him wobbled and waved. Through a scar torn in space and time he vanished as suddenly as he came. A portly woman came stomping down the stairs.
“Here you are. You lazy piece of griffon shit! Enough lounging about! The lady’s bath is unfilled and cold!”
Caliban snapped back to consciousness.
“Refill the bath before she arrives or I’m gonna make you wish you were dead, you ungrateful little snot.”
“Oh! I’m sorry! Yes, master. Right away.” He slung the water back over his weary shoulders. He remembered walking with the water and then…waking up. For some reason, Mistress Corlea’s threats didn’t seem so powerful anymore.
Later that night when his chores were done and he laid down to rest, there was a word he couldn’t get out of his head. Milani.
3 Blood and Wine
Arthur sat cross-legged in his wooden seat, facing a portly Elven woman across the table in a candle-lit dining room. She wore breeches and a well-tailored jacket befitting a successful merchant. They were in the middle of a tense negotiation. He was losing. His stony face revealed nothing of how desperately he needed this deal to go through, but the elf knew about his ill fortunes. A series of failed ventures and bad luck had left his accounts dwindling, and his debts were starting to rack up. She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms.
“I’m afraid, Arthur, that I really just cannot accept these terms.”
Arthur snapped his fingers and Caliban stepped forward slowly. His hips swayed with the swing of his long tail as he walked. He refilled Arthur’s cup with a dark swirling red spirit from a bottle on the table. He glanced at her cup, but she had not touched it. The lady could smell his earthy musk, though she made no indication that she knew he was there at all.
“How does it taste?” She said without taking her eyes off of Arthur. She kept her face sternly focused forward.
Caliban coiled the tapered end of his tail around the neck of her glass and brought it to his hand deftly. The potent mixture had a faint metallic sheen in the tiny vortex of crimson. He drank deeply.
“A complicated mixture. Very strong. Honey wine infused with drops of draconic blood and rare spices. Aroma like a bouquet of flowers.” He said with a deep and slightly gruff voice, then took another sip. “The body is velvety, tastes somewhere between fruity and herbal.” He licked his lips and a shiver ran down his spine. “An electric finish.”
He placed the cup back in front of her empty and refilled it.. His thigh brushed lightly against her resting arm. The elf conspicuously ignored the half dragon as he slowly walked back. He spread his wings and lounged against the wall half annoyed. He was loathe to be a pawn in Arthur’s schemes, but he knew this game well and preferred that it have a successful outcome.
“My lady Cortanda, if you cannot accept these terms, how might I sweeten the deal then?” Arthur said with a hint of exasperation. The deal was highway robbery already. Any more concessions might be the tipping point. But the elvish lady was not the only one who had done their research before this meeting.
Arthur had good word about the troubles in Cortanda’s personal life. Her husband seemed to have lost all interest in matters regarding their bedroom, and she was getting frustrated. Combined with a rumor some years ago that the lady took a fancy to certain exotic physiques, Arthur set in place a gambit to save his business.
The lady took a sip and swirled the glass around thoughtfully. She had no taste in wine. “It’s a matter of quality. How can I be sure your wines will be able to compete with Sarchelle’s?”
“There really is no competition, my lady. Her ales are a fine quality to be sure, but mine have a little something special. In the olden times the great brewmasters would mix the most potent of concoctions from the blood of dragons that the great warriors brought back from the battlefield. We have a taste of that again within these very bottles, as you can plainly see.” He gestured towards his servant. The half-dragon gazed into a nearby torch and exuded an easy confidence.
Immediately before the meeting, Caliban was tasked to move the heavy barrels of wine and other drinks doubletime from Arthur’s warehouse. He entered the room as they began their negotiations covered with a shiny layer of sweat. The torches and candles had been deliberately placed; flickering dance of the candles’ flames outlined the hard curves of his muscles and his blue scales gleamed metallic. His thin loin cloth clung tight from the moisture, leaving little to the lady’s imagination.
She eyed him carefully, wings and horns and skin. The rumors about her were all true. She took a gulp of the wine without tasting it.
“Yes, I see you have something very special.” Her mind raced with possibilities, though she thought nothing of the negotiations at hand. “I will make this deal with you. Two thousand gold pieces for the lot. You will deliver it in shipments at sunrise of the first day of the week for the next five weeks, though I will take the first shipment tonight. Also, your servant here will deliver each shipment personally and will stay at my manor until the cargo is unloaded to my specifications. He will do anything and everything I tell him to. As normal, the details of our arrangement will be kept with utmost secrecy. Agreed?”
Arthur smiled graciously, careful not to show his relief. The scene and timing had been orchestrated to perfection. Now for the hook. “Those are fine terms, but I think such large shipments might be difficult for one servant to deliver. Make that three thousand gold, and I will give you these “shipments”, as you specify, over ten weeks.”
He held out his glass . “Agreed?”
Their glasses clinked together in the center of the table.
Caliban downed the bottle.
4 The Duel
The arena was packed full with cheering spectators from all over the city and beyond. For weeks the promoters had plastered the nearby cities with news about the Knight of Eldridge versus the Dragon of Aramore. The knight was to face a solo gauntlet against hordes of monsters and beasts, culminating in the finale against a man who was said to be half-dragon and half-demon.
Caliban was pleased with the name they advertised him with. Noctus, the “Bringer of Night”, was elegant yet threatening. Unlike other fighters’ stage names, this one was not entirely inaccurate.
The arena kept tight control of how people perceived it and its fighters. Death and dismemberment brought in the crowds, but new fighters were expensive. In times of war they could depend on a steady stream of enemy prisoners to kill off at will, but Aramore had been at peace for many years. It’s a careful dance to gather a fierce reputation while not actually killing anyone.
Instead of fighting each other, a typical arena match involved one or more of their fighters battling swarms of minions summoned by the arena magicians. Loud and fierce-looking beasts were summoned weekly to the arena to challenge their stable of warriors, but for all their struggles the outcome of each match was tightly controlled by the arena’s owners.
Noctus knew he was going to lose this day, but he was not afraid. A bit of skirmishing to pique the crowd’s interest, some back-and-forth swordplay to show how much of an even match it was, and then the knight would get his lucky strike and disarm the tiefling. A little blood and bludgeoning later then Noctus would admit defeat and that would be the end of it. A trip to Kaniz’s healing hands, and he would be good to fight another day.
Noctus hated to lose, but he understood the cycle. You build them up to knock them down, and he’d been winning decisively for months. This victory would bring the Sir Gavin’s fame and glory to new heights, and then one day…
People love to watch a hero fall.
The warrior danced around the arena, skillfully dodging and dispatching the monsters within. He hustled to the left and with a wide arc of his longsword, severed the heads of two black wolves at once. He was armed to the teeth, with extra daggers and short swords strapped all around his plate armor. He took one of the knives and threw it skillfully at the last wolf twenty paces away. The dagger flew true and landed between the wolf's eyes. It took another step as though confused and then collapsed like a sack of flour falling on its side.
The crowd cheered and whistled at the spectacle and goaded him on. “Kill them all!” “Go go go!” “Sir Gavin yeah!”
He was reaching the end of the gauntlet. Before the trio of dire wolves were four skeletal warriors, and before that was five slimes. All of them were destroyed with grace and efficiency. Two clumps of mist coalesced on the opposite side of the arena; a pair of enormous spiders appeared on the ground and started clicking and clattering furiously. Each one was covered with shiny hair like a multitude of tiny spikes and was the height of a large dog and the width of a wagon.
The knight yelled some words of valor and charged for the closer one. The spider zigzagged backwards before turning around and spraying a line of clear webbing towards him. Gavin made a heroic leap over the web and landed on the spider’s back. He gave a grand shout and swung his sword down. Crack! The spider’s head and torso was split in two. The splash of its innards covered his visor.
The spider shuddered and its many legs curled together slowly. The hero jumped off quickly and faced the cheering crowd, removing his helmet. He had a handsome face and strong jaw that was warmly received. He watched the remaining spider closely while he waved at the crowd and whipped them into a frenzy.
The remaining spider shrieked and sprayed a line of web at the knight. Gavin threw a short sword like a boomerang and dove into a roll. The flying sword lopped off one of the spider’s legs and it screeched and stumbled back in pain. Gavin closed the distance at full sprint and brought his sword down the creature’s other legs. Three off then two again and again. The octapalegic creature clicked pathetically on its side for a moment before he took off its head.
The crowd went wild.
Sir Gavin basked in their praise and spread his arms wide while making a jog in a circle around the perimeter of the arena floor. Roses rained upon his path and littered the ground.
Noctus was impressed. At least he wouldn’t be going down to a loser.
Sir Gavin finished his lap and the cheering diminished. A deep sonorous voice magically filled the stadium as Noctus began to sing. The crowd went silent in anticipation.
“OooOOooh, little knight, think you’ve won today?
Just one more step, c’mon let’s play…”
Noctus stepped forward from his seat in one of the private boxes overlooking the arena. His face was painted with vibrant metallic black and blue pigments in a line over his eyes. There were red hand prints pressed over the rest of his body. He walked on top of a platform and continued singing. The words echoed through the quiet stadium.
“It’s just a black murder of crows
Across the sky
The moon announces that it will soon be night
The light dies down
It’s spot goes on
As dragon’s lips
Break into song”
He stopped at the edge and spread his leathery blue wings, facing the knight down below. The crowd erupted into a cacophony of clapping and cheering that soon morphed into one beat. “Noct-us! Noct-us! Noct-us!” They chanted.
He raised his spear and pointed it in a slow arc over the top of the crowd. Like a wave they rose from their seats as the point of his spear passed over them. His brethren, the dwarves and gnomes and half-human creatures jumped and hollered. Even the humans and elves joined in the commotion.
“Here it comes, the story
of mankind's final glory
Into the nightfall”
An infernal umbra of strange illusions surrounded Noctus’ body. Haunted fey aspects swirled around and dissipated past his wings, making them look much larger than they actually were. His snake-like tail waved to and fro. The tip of his spear emanated a dark aura, like the light around it was being suppressed or absorbed. His singing changed from the melodious tenor to a dark growl.
“The showdown now has come,
this will be the last curtain
Before the Night falls”
Noctus leapt from his platform and glided down to the stage smoothly, spear in hand, landing with his left leg and hand crouched on the ground and the right leg splayed outward. Sir Gavin wasted no time waiting on Noctus’ theatrics.
The knight bursted forward and Noctus braced to meet him. The red tassels hanging off the base of the spearhead flew around in circles and quick lines following the rapid thrusts of the spear. The knight was quick to parry his jabs, but not quick enough for all of them. An occasional clang sounded through the arena as the spear rebounded harmlessly off of his plate armor.
Sir Gavin rushed to close the distance but Noctus retreated just as fast, taking long backward hops propelled by loud flaps of his leathery wings. If the knight got too close the spear would be useless, but his heavy armor slowed him down. Noctus made wide circles around the arena to avoid backing into a wall and they were soon in the center of the dueling floor.
Gavin made a half-parry and the spear nicked his cheek; he grabbed it and heaved back. Between the push and pull Noctus lost his footing on the stone floor; another heave and he fell forward into Gavin’s ascending knee. Crack! A rib was broken at the point of impact. The knight wrested the spear out of the half-dragon’s hands with little resistance and threw it far to the side.
Noctus reeled back from the blow and the knight pounded his face with a hook that launched him to the ground. He flopped onto his stomach and the crowd gasped at the sudden turn.
Noctus tried to get up, but the knight slammed his foot down on the center of his back between his wings. His elbows and knees scraped viciously on the sand and he choked and coughed as the wind left his lungs in a rush.
Sir Gavin pulled his head back by the hair and whispered through gritted teeth, “God-damned Deimos, first I’m gonna tear off your wings for a trophy. Then I’m gonna cut off your horns. Then I’ll take your head!”
Before Noctus could respond, Gavin bashed his head into the ground and roughly took hold of the base of a wing.
Noctus whimpered between gulps of breath. “What are you doing!? Stop! Please stop- I surrender!-”
“Ha! No dice. This night will be your last.”
Through teary eyes he could vaguely make out the sneering smiles of the bet keepers in the front row and realized with gut-wrenching horror.
He’s going to kill me. He’s actually going to kill me.
Sir Gavin heaved on the wing and there was a pop as the joint dislocated from its socket. Noctus howled in pain and the crowd gasped. Noctus tried to shake him off but it only caused more agony.
The knight taunted him, “Look here filthy Deimos, you’re gonna want to see this.” Gavin sheathed his sword and gripped the wing with both hands; Noctus looked back at the man with a blood and tear-streaked face. There was terror in his eyes as he looked around wildly for help that would not come. “Here goes the first one!” the hero said with glee as he squatted down to hoist.
There! Noctus’ long tail curled around the handle of a small dagger at Gavin’s side and swung it around at Gavin’s head like a scorpion. The small blade penetrated the back of his neck and the knight’s hands rushed to the place of unexpected pain. Noctus bucked and Gavin toppled forward. Before he hit the ground the half dragon gave a feral scream and bit into Gavin’s face. As the armor clanged onto the ground Noctus shook his head and Gavin’s nose came free.
Gavin pushed him away in panic, but Noctus was relentless. He scratched and bit savagely at the knight’s pretty blue eyes and neck. Within moments the knight had no face at all, just a bloody pulp with muscles and bone exposed. Noctus took a hold of the man’s chin with his knees pinning the shoulders and pulled with all his strength. The muscles that held it in place were pried taut and then severed and he wrested the handsome jawbone free from its skull. The knight had no throat to scream.
The dark whispers of his corrupted bloodline demanded brutality, and for the first time he gave in completely. Noctus clawed and bashed the knight’s skull and neck until he stopped moving, then continued pounding again and again. His pain and fear was forgotten as he abandoned himself to the insane barrage. After some minutes of his rabid attack, there was nothing left above the knight’s collar bones.
Noctus breathed heavily and slowly rose from his knees. There were bits of red mush and splinters of bone strewn around him. Blood drenched his body and dripped from his chin and hands. He staggered backward, almost slipping on a chunk of brain in the thick red puddle that surrounded the knight’s body. The crowd watched him in stunned silence, punctuated by the sounds of vomiting. For all its bloodshed, the arena had never seen such savagery.
He raised the broken jawbone above his head and threw it on the ground, shouting in triumph. Like a bowstring pulled taut that was suddenly released, the crowd roared in a wild raucous.
Noctus slumped down exhausted and hurt, and was carried off the stage by the arena attendants as flowers rained around him. One rose landed upright between the bloodsoaked bricks, as if it was growing from between them.
“Your blood has changed. You gave into it, didn’t you? Don’t do that again. Its hold on you will get stronger every time. Eventually, you might not come back from it.”
“Would you still love me if I became lost?”
“Doubt thou the stars are fire. Doubt thou the sun doth move. Doubt Truth to be a liar. But never doubt my love.”
[Tell us about a time where your character dealt with a being that has less intelligence than they have.]
Yerk awoke silently as he usually did and scooted off of his hammock in the cramped space of the crew’s quarters. There was a small porthole window revealing a hint of dawn outside. He stepped gingerly above and around the other sailors out of the cabin, the creaking wood under his feet punctuated the snoring of the crew. He was always the first to rise and take over for the night crew. The smell of dried salty sweat gave way to just salt and sea water as he ventured towards the deck.
“? …shio di sia itov naktaic wux leirith… ?”
He could hear a deep and sorrowful melody coming from above. Yerk’s heart skipped a beat in panic before we recognized the voice. Noctus’ songs were always fast and cheerful; he had never sung like this before.
Yerk remembered that the captain yelled at him to never sing on the boat again since it might attract mermaids and they would sink the ship, yet the captain seemed to love listening to the strange lizard man sing. He wondered if the mermaids didn’t like lizard singing. He wondered a great many things.
“..persvek ssej klewari ssej krikvlic…”
He could see the silhouette of a sinewy man in the twilight, two smooth horns pointing back and long straight hair swaying in the breeze. His snake-like tail seemed to move with a mind of its own. There was a chill in the morning air, but it seemed to not touch the tiefling. Every day the visitor wore less and less. This day he was barefoot, with a length of blue silk fabric tied around his waist ending past his knees, and one of the captain’s bandanas around his forehead.
Yerk remembered the first time he met the tiefling. It was the night before they were going to set sail from Ragnoth, that continent far to the west of Pyrasil. All the cargo was strapped and stowed, ready for the voyage in the morning, and the captain decided to have a little celebration that night. Yerk sipped his apple juice near the fire of the hearth as he watched the captain down his opponents in drinking games.
The band playing on the stage of the large inn and tavern kept the mood cheery and the ale flowed around freely. The captain moved from the bar to the loudest table; after each throw of the dice the crowed cheered or groaned and coin passed begrudgingly from one end of the table to the other. The captain pushed a loser out of his seat and took it.
Yerk was mesmerized by the singer on the stage, a tall blonde woman with a voice like silk. She tapped her tambourine on her hip to the beat of the drums as she sung her rhyming melodies. Her long flowing dress swayed to the gyrations of her hips. Eventually Yerk was snapped out of the trance by a loud crash coming from the gambling tables.
“Liar!” “Cheater!” “Thief!” They yelled, along with a host of creative insults that only sailors could come up with. Within seconds the whole tavern was brawling. A halfling charged at Yerk from the top of a table and flattened him with a punch to the nose.
When Yerk came to, there were few people left standing in the tavern. The captain stood in the center of the tavern back-to-back with a man who had wings and metallic blue scales. The winged man gave a shout and the golden runes around his neck and wrists glowed brightly. He picked up a heavy oak table and hefted it above his head like it was a wide pillow. The tavern keeper screamed at them while gesticulating wildly, “OUT! NOW! DO. NOT. TOUCH. THE. FURNITURE.”
The remaining brawlers back away from the captain and the winged man, more from fear of the table and the tiefling’s monstrous strength than of the tavern keeper’s yelling. The tiefling slowly lowered the table and set it back on the ground gingerly. The runes adorning his body seemed to fade slightly.
The tavern keeper made a shooing motion with her hands towards them and the captain gathered his gold, finished off an ale, cursed all the patrons lying on the ground, and left the tavern. His new friend followed quickly.
Outside, the lizard man leaned into Captain Rewill’s ear and whispered something, and the captain’s face flushed to a deep red. They soon walked back onto the ship and locked themselves into the captain’s chambers.Yerk figured that the lizard man needed a place to sleep since that was the only inn around, and that it was awfully nice of the captain to give up his bed to the visitor.
“…xurwka ve inglata si ornla xoal-”
Noctus caught sight of Yerk from his perch on the ship and stopped singing abruptly. Yerk waved at him excitedly, “Ahoy! Good morning! Good morning Noctus! Good morning!”
Noctus looked down upon the approaching sailor. “Oh, it’s you. Yes…morning,” he remarked dejectedly. He slumped further on the railing he was leaning against. “What do you want Yerk?”
Yerk piped up cheerfully, “Oh, I just heard you singing and I came up here! Oh! I can sing too!”
Yerk belted out a loud grating tune and his voice cracked in the middle. Noctus’ long ears twitched in pain for a moment, though Yerk did not catch it.
“Merrily we sailed along
Though the waves were plenty strong-”
“Perhaps you can sing for everyone later. I’m not in the mood for ditties.”
Yerk was taken aback, “What’s wrong Noctus? Are you getting sea sick?”
Noctus paused to gather his words. “I once heard a story about a genie. The genie would grant you three wishes, anything at all. But it was not what it seemed. The genie would twist your dreams into nightmares. What is the value of a touch that turns everything to gold when you cannot eat? What’s the point of being the most powerful warrior in the land in a time of peace?” Noctus mused. He stared blankly into the distance, leaning on the railing.
“I…I don’t… I’m a little confused.” Yerk stammered.
Noctus sighed and faced the sailor. “My wish has come true, Yerk. But this is not what I wanted.”
“You wanted to sail on a boat? That was my wish too!”
Noctus chuckled lightly. “Eventually, I suppose. No, my wish was freedom. To go where I pleased and do whatever I desired. To fight my own battles, and make my own mistakes. Yet my heart is heavy.”
“If you’re not happy, then was that really what you wanted?”
“Maybe. I don’t know anymore. Everything was so much clearer just a couple days ago.”
“What happened?” Yerk asked.
“Before I came upon this ship, everything was different. I was a gladiator in the arena. My days were spent training and sparring and fighting. And dreaming. I dreamed that one day I would get the wealth to buy myself out, or the power to overcome the chains that bound me.
“I won a battle that I should not have, and I was punished for it. They bound me to the lashing bar…I can handle that. They’ve done it many times. This time they didn’t bring the lash. They brought my lover. They tore off her clothes in front of me and I could do nothing about it. They…I…” Noctus gulped, pushing down emotions. His voice wavered.
“I asked my Goddess for help, and it came. Oooh how it came. It was like every order I’ve obeyed over the years came back to me each in a drop of power. And I was swept under that river of fury and madness. The last thing I remember was reaching out to my love and… lightning arched from my hands to hers. And she screamed. Everyone screamed. I don’t fully remember what happened after that, but I escaped from that place in the chaos of fire in the crowded festival…I watched that whole city burn.” He added with malice.
Yerk look at Noctus wide-eyed and jaw agape. “You burned down a whole city!?”
“Yes. Well, not just me. I freed them all. All the Deimos in the arena, all the servants of the Highborn. All but one. I ignited the fire, and my brethren fanned it far and wide.”
“Oh, but if your friends are free, why didn’t they come with you? Why are you alone?”
“I sent them away. The ties that bind can also strangle. The Highborn hunted after me, I’m sure their vengeance runs deep. I don’t want anyone else dying for my sake. One was too much.”
Yerk nodded in feigned understanding. “Oooh kaaay. Well it’s a good thing you’re so strong! Boy, I’ve never seen anyone pick up a table like that!”
Noctus chuckled in reminiscence. “The power I had that night has left me, but it doesn’t matter. The power of my bloodline has been awoken. The lightning obeys me now, and soon all else will too.” Noctus laughed louder, a hint of something unhinged in his voice. “Yeah…Anything is possible now. Anything! Why…I could be king. Show the Highborn how it feels…”
Yerk mused, “But Noctus, if you do bad things to those high borns, won’t you be just like them? What about your friends?”
Noctus snapped out of that line of thought and thought for a moment. “Yeah. Spreading more misery won’t make it right. It’s just a circle of pain. Yes…it’s so obvious! I must break the wheel once and for all.” Noctus threw his head backwards and laughed deeply, the clarity and purpose of his life returned.
Yerk looked at him in bewilderment.
Write about a time where you fought with a friend
Near the end of the Great Civil War, the Deimos grew desperate. Losing battle after battle to the more populous army of humans and elves, many of the Deimos made dark pacts that tainted their blood in exchange for power and a hope to survive. Ultimately it proved fruitless, and their tiefling descendants would be forever marked by their failure.
Zeth breathed heavily. He held the dulled sword in front of him with trembling hands and burning arms. Sweat stung his dark brown eyes and his flaming red hair stuck to his back. His small black horns bobbed up and down to the rhythm of his breath. Bruises and dirt sprinkled his body. He was utterly exhausted.
“You act so tough but you’re really just a coward.” Zeth spat between breaths.
“Is that so!” Caliban paced around him carefully on the practice floor. His shoulders and wings were numb from the hours of exertion. Sweat dripped off his chin and elbows. It felt like his muscles were on fire.
“You had your chance. Why the fuck-” Zeth raised his sword above his head. “-didn’t you TAKE IT!?” He swung the practice blade down with all his remaining might at the other tiefling.
Caliban parried it easily, knocking the blade out of Zeth’s hands with a swift strike. Tired as he was, deflecting such a telegraphed move was instinct. The red-haired fighter stumbled backwards and Caliban moved in for the kill. He caught his opponent gently with a hand around his back, and a sword point at his heart.
Zeth looked up at his face with frustration. “Why, Caliban?”
The day before he had a chance at freedom. The window of opportunity was a fleeting moment, but for the ones who watch their whole lives for such a moment, it was an eon.
Caliban’s master had come for a visit to inspect her wares. She was an elf of great wealth and power. She wore a masterfully crafted crimson dress that perfectly draped around her thin body and swayed gracefully with every step. Her stable of fighters were arranged in a line to greet her.
The summoners who provided the arena with its monster of the week were experimenting with creatures of ever greater threat and power. They had called a banshee into existence on the field of the arena and held it in a magical stasis in hopes of impressing Master Vaeria. She gave it no notice.
She walked past past a red-haired tiefling and some dwarfs and stopped in front of Caliban. They were relieved. It is best to stay under her attention. She owned many Deimos: tieflings, dwarfs, gnomes, half orcs, and halflings. She especially disliked the half-breeds. But the dragonborn was the jewel of her collection.
It took a great deal of artifice and backroom dealings, but she had finally bankrupted Arthur’s winery and forced him to sell off his endless supplier of dragon blood. Of course, no one suspected that the disastrous bad luck that befell Arthur was all her doing, and no one ever would. The dragonborn tiefling sold for a record high at auction, but was worth every copper. His presence in the arena had already doubled her investment, and that was just the beginning.
She examined Caliban horn to toe, making note of every new scratch and bruise, and the development of his musculature. All of her possessions trained intensely every day and ate well, her favorite especially. She gestured with two fingers and barked, “Up!” Caliban spread his wings wide. The metallic blue scales glistened in the sunlight. Her face was inscrutable, but she was pleased.
He despised her casual perusing. He could never shake the humiliation of the very first time, when he was presented in his bare skin and scales in front of thousands of potential bidders at the auction house stage. The most affluent were allowed a closer inspection, and she was first in line.
Master Vaeria nodded slightly and he lowered his wings. She reversed her fingers downward and Caliban kneeled down on his knees and bowed. She petted his head like a dog. The dragonborn tiefling burned with the indignity but dared not show it. An explosion of sound ripped through the field. The banshee broke its field of stasis and wailed an ear-piercing scream. Noctus caught sight of it and covered his ears in time, but the ones who had not were reduced to writhing on the floor.
She was knocked into his chest by the unearthly howl. For a moment, she lost focus. For that moment she had her guard down. It is easy to break a magical binding between two people. Simply eliminate one of them. Her slim neck was ripe for snapping.
Perhaps he could strike her down in this moment and make his escape out of the arena, out of the city, and away from any pursuers, but what of the others? She was his keeper, but not the others. Not Kaniz, not Zeth, not Entis. He would have to eliminate Vaeria’s entire hierarchy to take them too. If he just killed the master of the arena, his friends would bear the consequences. Caliban hesitated.
Master Vaeria pounded her fist into the ground and a mighty wind enveloped her and blew everyone back. Caliban landed ten paces away, toppled over. She calmly turned to the banshee and commended, “Kneel.” The monster flew through the air towards her, wicked talons extended. She snapped her fingers and the monster stopped instantly mere feet away from her.
Hundreds of thick ethereal ropes wrapped around its body, suspending it in place. The ropes formed a precise and artful lattice cocoon of overlapping diamond and triangle designs, every knot in perfect symmetry. Every rope pulling the monster in place ended in thin air; each one suddenly lowered and brutally slammed the banshee into the ground. Master Vaeria reiterated, “Kneel.”
The banshee twitched and contorted in defiance. Its mouth was thoroughly gagged. The imperious elf looked down her nose at it and raised an eyebrow slightly. The ropes tightened and shrunk into almost imperceptibly thin wires. Moments later the banshee gave its last gurgling breath and its cocoon sliced through its skin and bones like a fork through pudding. The wire cage contracted into a dense ball in the center of where the monster’s body used to be and disappeared into nothing. The pile of ethereal mush underneath smoked in the sunlight. She turned back to her stable of fighters, adjusted her dress, and continued the inspection as if nothing happened.
In the training room, Zeth grabbed Caliban’s shoulders. “You had your chance! Why did you hesitate!?”
Caliban averted his eyes and lowered the dull sword. He whispered, “I…I couldn’t leave you behind.”
Zeth squeezed his shoulders and whispered back through gritted teeth, “To the nine hells with me! Listen to me, Caliban. Your bleeding heart will be the death of you. When the opportunity comes, IF it ever comes again, you have to take it. No matter the consequences.”
Caliban dropped the sword and embraced Zeth in a tight hug. “I’m sorry. I just…”
Zeth returned the embrace. “Promise me. Never hesitate again.”
The little boy squealed with delight. He rolled around on the bed in his loose blue tunic and short white pants, quickly being chased by his mother’s tickling hands. She wore a simple white sundress and had long black hair that framed her young and pretty face, parted by the two smooth horns that curved backwards on her head. Warm light from the window illuminated the bare room. She caught the boy by the armpits and hoisted him in the air before he reached the edge of the bed. He laughed and giggled.
He had two diminutive wings covered by the tunic and small blue scales covered his plump cheeks, skinny arms, and little tail. Sharp tips of horns were beginning to break through his scalp, though were still covered by his short black hair. Per tiefling tradition, she named him after a concept that she hoped he would fulfil.
“Oh goodness Solis, you’re getting heavy!” She exclaimed. There was a knock on the door of the room; it opened slightly and another girl peeked in. She had freckles and green eyes accented with heavy eyeliner, expertly applied.
“It’s Charon. He said he’s come to discuss your debt.” Synthia said uneasily before she closed the door.
A look of grave concern flashed over the mother’s face, quickly suppressed. She lowered the boy down to the bed and told him gently, “Go play with Auntie Synthia now. I have to take care of a friend. Oh, and ask her to teach you a new song.”
Mama was very popular. She always had friends come to visit her in her room, morning and night. Or when they rang the bell, she would gather with the ladies and men who used the rooms and sometimes she would go back to her room with a new friend.
Solis squatted down like a frog to jump off the bed, but she halted the boy with a hand on his shoulder. “Wait, what do you say before you leave?”
He smiled widely, “I love you mama!”
She smiled back warmly, “I love you too.” He gave her a tackle-hug and darted out of the room, past a heavyset man with dark rings under his eyes and greasy hair. The child paid him no mind, though the man watched him run downstairs with a predatory smirk on his face.
Synthia walked down the stairs after the boy into the lobby. Her black high-heeled boots knocked loudly on the floor with every step. There were rarely any ‘friends’ visiting at this time of day. She preferred to keep the boy hidden during busy hours after some of those ‘friends’ started asking to play with him privately. They settled at the reception table facing the outside, where there was a horse-pulled carriage tied to a post.
The boy asked her excitedly, “Ant-ie Sintia! You have a song?” She used to find it tedious to babysit the child, though his unbridled enthusiasm had grown on her. He learned fast, and faster by the day. As this rate he would memorize all her songs within the month.
“This song goes a little slower than the other ones. Repeat after me…”
Synthia repeated the song back and forth with him over the afternoon, singing a little louder when she heard commotion from upstairs. He picked up the rhythm easily, though the meaning and pronunciation were another matter.
Synthia drilled him, “Now the bridge, one more time.”
“Dancin’ in da moonlight
Singin’ in da rain
Oh it's good ta be back home again
Laughin’ in da sunlight
Runnin’ down da lane
Oh it's good ta be back home again”
A shadow on the table shifted and Synthia looked up, a little startled. Charon and the mother were standing there watching.
The mother said very slowly, taking deep breaths, “Solis. I need you to go with this man and do what he says, okay?” Synthia’s eyes widened and she covered her mouth with both hands, shaking her head back and forth.
The boy asked eagerly, “Where we going!”
The man answered with fake enthusiasm, “You’re going to a castle!”
“Oh wow! With da stone and da wadder around it like you told me about? An’ da ponies? An’ da pwincess? An’ da knights?”
“Yes, yes all of that.” She replied breathlessly. She scooped him into a tight hug. Her chest trembled.
The boy pushed out of the hug impatiently, “Okay okay let’s go let’s go!”
Charon gestured towards the carriage in front of the building. “Hop on!”
The child skipped to the carriage gleefully and climbed into the front seat. His bare feet hung from the padded upholstery.
The mother mumbled, numbly whispering the words, “Wait, what do you say before…you…”
As the carriage pulled away from the brothel, the boy intently watched the road ahead of them and sang his new song. His mother watched silently from the doorway.
Tears streamed down her face as she listened to his voice for the very last time.
8 The Tree of Life
Zeth hung facedown, suspended inches from the floor as Noctus coiled the thick rope loosely around his neck and tied it into a knot. He was the last one to be added to the tree of rope that engulfed a corner of the meeting hall. Though unable to move below the neck, Zeth laid in relative comfort with the other slaves that were woven into the design. Tieflings, gnomes, halflings, and a half orc were suspended in twisted and tortuous-looking positions as the trunk and roots and branches of a great rope willow tree.
They were freshly washed and perfumed with scents of lavender and sage before Noctus bound and suspended their bodies. Unlike Master Vaeria’s precise and symmetrical designs, these were wild and dense. Hundreds of ropes hung from the ceiling like vines. The vines were woven back into the trunk and onto the bodies of slaves so that it would seem to sway in the wind when they squirmed against their ties.
Noctus had spent several sleepless days tying and cutting miles of spidersilk ropes into this work in the vast marble hall of Master Vaeria’s estate. Though she could create a similar project in moments, she was swayed by his argument that the added effort would make it more meaningful.
There were four chairs facing each other in a circle in the great room, though the spacing suggested a fifth should be at the base of the tree. A tall throne made of transparent glistening crystal, a wide seat made of black iron, a luscious white chaise, and a simple wooden stool stood vacant.
Zeth did not know what audience the master entertained, if any at all, for Master Vaeria dulled their senses for the duration. Except, of course, for the hours of burning agony against her ethereal ropes. Whenever she hosted her mysterious gatherings she would create a throne of braids and live beings to serve as her seat in the circle.
Noctus kissed Zeth on the forehead and said exhausted, “Almost done.”
“How tender.” A sweet voice said.
There was a light laugh behind him, like chimes blowing in the breeze. Zeth strained his neck for a better look and caught a glimpse of her for a moment. There was a ghostly pale elf that he had never seen before sitting in the crystal throne behind Noctus. Tall and delicate, she wore an elegant flowing white dress covered with layers of loose transparent robes. She had a radiant silver necklace studded with many gemstones, each one glowing with an opal-like fire of many swirling colors. She had a round face with incredibly long and perfectly straight hair, ending just before her ankles. It was such a light blonde as to almost be white.
She moved forward with an ethereal beauty. Her iridescent robes flowed to a wind that was not possible in the stillness of the great room. Zeth saw her take steps in the reflection of the highly polished marble floor, but her movements made no sound. Noctus dropped to his knees and bowed his head before her. “Lady Amathaea.”
The elf slanted her head and examined Noctus and the tree of ropes and slaves behind him. She spoke slow and breathily, saying each word with great intent. “Oh! I see what you are doing. Your master demands a display of subjugation, but to experience her power is agony. You have spent vast effort to create a shrine to her power, yet the creatures here are suspended with the intent of kindness. You despise these ropes and everything they represent.”
Zeth could see Noctus unconsciously coil his tail and grow tense as the mysterious elf laid his intentions bare so easily. Who was this woman of such frightening insight?
She mused, “But it is incomplete. You cannot finish it yourself. When your master arrives, she will arrange the final ties using your body. So in the end only you must to bear the pain of her vanity. How unexpected from a tiefling.”
He curled his toes and breathed more heavily. If Master Vaeria learned of his insolence… Zeth could sense Noctus was starting to inwardly panic.
The elf lifted Noctus’ chin and gazed deeply into his eyes. “Such colors! You love that one… No, it’s not just him. You love them all. You would do anything. And so you sacrifice.”
Noctus quickly turned his head away, averting his eyes. Zeth could see his tail writhe into a ball. She caressed his cheek. “So much love and so much hate. A sloshing sea of passion and fury. What a brilliant soul. It would make the most beautiful gem if I plucked it out.” Ethereal ropes appeared tightly around Noctus’ body and jerked him away from her into the base of the tree.
A stern voice answered in Elvish, “[Amathaea, I must request that you do no damage to my furniture. That one cannot be replaced.]” Noctus was bent backwards on his knees into an arch and his hands and feet met on the floor. The ropes tethered his elbows and knees into place on the marble ground, and one wing was pulled upwards while the other was bound shut.
The design of a chair became apparent at the base of the tree: his stretched out wing formed the back of the chair and a web of ropes formed the arm rests. The tiefling’s stomach provided the seat.
The white elf looked slowly across the room to the great doorway where Master Vaeria had just stepped in and she smiled slyly. “[Just a joke, dear sister. I wouldn’t dream of harming your pets.]”
The master stepped into the room and took to her throne. Noctus grunted as she sat down. “[You are here quite early. What is the meaning of this?]”
“[Can I not visit my dear sister before our little group’s meetings? Well, there is a meaning. I have divined another clue about the dragon coterie.]”
At those words, Master Vaeria snapped her fingers and Zeth’s senses dulled. Sight and sound became empty blackness. He could feel the many ropes cradling his body- and nothing more.
[Write about a time time when luck saved you.]
You’ll need headphones to read this one. Open this up in the background:
9 Home Again
Caliban stumbled into the room breathing heavily and slammed the heavy door behind him. He winced with the effort of every step. The filthy stone room was drafty and the floor frigid cold. The howling wind flowed through it freely through the large open-air windows. Seed and grain were piled in heavy sacks leaning against the cluttered walls. He tore one open and munched on a handful of the bird feed. The room was lined with perches and pigeon holes waiting for one of the messenger birds to alight upon them, but they were long empty.
The teenaged tiefling limped slowly across the room and leaned against the window sill overlooking the castle. The guards hundreds of feet below the tower looked the size of ants; he wished he could crush them as easily. The cold air coalesced into a mist in front of his face with every agonizing breath. He gingerly traced his fingers over the broken ribs and whispered a song whose source he could scarcely remember to himself.
“…dancing in…the moonlight…”
Lord Charon delighted in entertaining his guests with the tears produced by the dragon-blooded tiefling. Among other habits, most found the display distasteful, but the lord’s influence was great enough that no one dared to protest his indulgences with boys of the underclass. Though he had a problem. In recent times, the tears dried up. No matter what abuse he seemed to throw at the boy, he would not cry. Eventually the corpulent master would become tired or bored from the kicking and the tiefling would slink away to some hole in the castle.
Cold and heat did not touch Caliban as strongly as most, but in time all armor succumbs to nature’s caress. The chill of the howling winds pierced through his bare skin and scales into his bones. The pain of the bruises and fractures receded behind frosty numbness. Just barely.
“…singing in… the rain.”
The numbness was no relief from the pain within. Loneliness gripped his heart as heavily as the shackle around his neck. No one wanted to be associated with the lord’s chew toy, lest they become one themselves. And especially not with a filthy tiefling. Care and comfort of friends and family were distant memories.
Through the howling of the wind he did not hear a cleric enter the room, letter in hand. She shuffled around in the thick cotton robe that her order wore in the winter, looking around for a bird to send a letter with. Instead she laid eyes on the skinny silhouette of a winged youth against an embroidery of stars.
“..good to be back..”
He smiled in anticipation. His heart fluttered. This is the end. The end of this isolation. The end of pain.
He stepped up upon the ledge.
She watched in curiosity for a moment then gasped as she realized the gravity of the situation. “Oh Sarenrae!” She sprinted to the window, encumbered by her heavy winter robes. Caliban closed his eyes as his body tipped forward. He opened his arms to embrace oblivion. She was too late. She grasped at the air where he was moments before. Her letter flew out of the tower, buffeted by the wind.
Suddenly she felt a thick rope land directly into her hands. Her nails dug into it and she heaved back. Caliban yelped and was pulled back through the window by his tail.
He landed on the cleric and they tumbled flat onto the bird-soiled floor. Crack! Caliban cried out as his wing was fractured anew.
“Damn you! Get off me!” He screamed. He shoved her away and laid twisted on the icy floor. Snapped out of his trance, he felt the full force of every injury at once. He shivered violently, causing the broken ribs to scrape against each other further.
The cleric straightened herself and looked upon the pitiful creature. “What have they done to you, deimos?”
Even though the filthy boy was far beneath her class and prestige, there was no question or hesitation about what to do. She hoisted him beneath the armpits and dragged him out of the frosty room onto the staircase that ran through the center of the tower and shut the door. He did not notice.
She laid his head in her lap and began her prayer. Golden light illuminated the room where her hands touched his skin. Warmth like a summer sun washed over him and he laid still for hours, surrendered to the holy light.
He awoke to the crackling sound of a fireplace under the sheets of a cozy bed. He breathed in–and out. Nothing. No ache in his chest, no strain in his ankle. He felt up his arms where the lord’s steel boots ripped up the scales and it was clean. No dirt or grime. No scratch and no scar. He felt a wave of happiness. It worked. He was whole. Whatever world this was that came after life, he was free.
Caliban bolted upright in the bed but heard a jingle under his chin. The steel collar was still there. His heart sank. He tried to tug it off, but as usual, it would not budge.
“Well well well. Rise and shine, deimos,” a husky but feminine voice said.
She was sitting in a chair by the bed, reading a thick tome. She had a crooked nose and freckles scattered over her cheeks. Her plain brown eyes were the same color as the curly hair that covered her flat chest. A yellow and orange sunburst design lined the edges of her beige robe.
“Who the hell are you? What is this!?” Caliban exclaimed in confusion. “Am I…still alive?”
She glared at the unappreciative tiefling and answered curtly. “I am a cleric of the Dawnflower. This, apparently, is my new bedroom. And yes, you are alive. Obviously. I do not allow death in my presence.”
She closed the book and set it on the nightstand. ‘The Birth of Light and Truth’ was engraved on the battered leather cover, though he did not know how to read it.
“You may call me Kaniz.”
[Tell us about a secret.]
“You can make me pretty?”
Kaniz gave an exasperated sigh. “That’s one way of putting it. For the redeemed of Sarenrae, the change within can be rewarded by a change without. After healing you so many times, I think I have a deep enough knowledge of your essence to attempt this.”
She untangled herself from underneath him and the grey sheets of the bed and gazed at his face eye to eye. To most people the tiefling’s visage was frightening. Smooth metallic scales intruded upon the cheeks like he was interrupted while transforming into a snake. Heavy brows and a sharp bone structure gave the impression of perpetual anger. But Kaniz saw something else entirely. Through the lens of love, there was kindness, and warmth, and beauty.
She explained, “There is a ‘plan’ in your essence that guides your body’s growth and healing. When a cleric heals you, they follow that plan. That way when you grow back whatever was broken or missing, it’s just like it was before.”
“So you can change the plan.” Caliban remarked with a hint of doubt.
“Yes, essentially. Look, I love you just as you are. But I also know who you are inside. People fear you as it is. Adults distrust you at first glance. Children run away. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Caliban chuckled heartily, “But I enjoy scaring children!”
“We all do. But life would be easier if people ran towards you instead of away, no? “
“Then why doesn’t everyone change their ‘plan’? This is the first time I’ve heard about anything like this.”
“This is not a service we advertise. This magic goes deeper than simple healing or flesh-shaping. There are many risks and the benefits aren’t apparent for a long time. Do you remember the Tale of the Monkey-Faced Queen? It’s not fiction. Also, using my gifts for the sake of vanity could be seen as… improper by some in the Order. Heresy, even.”
He laid his head in her lap just like the first time years ago.
“I can’t give you my body, but you can have my soul. Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it. Anything you want me to be, I’ll be it.”
She added sternly, “Once we do this, never speak of it again.”
“I will take it to the grave.”
Caliban felt a strange tingle within as Kaniz began the ritual.
“One day my love, everyone will see you as I do.”
11 The Steward
The elf treaded carefully on the cold stone floors of the dungeon under the great Arena of Aramore, following the trail of blood-soaked footprints to its source. He recognized those feet. Mother’s favorite slave, Caliban. His own favorite as well, for different reasons. Elyon felt the burst of magical power from the dungeon nearly an hour ago and had sent some of his guards to investigate, though none came back. Regardless of what they would have reported, he would look into it personally. He always preferred to see things with his own eyes, or through his familiar’s.
He found their corpses on the way down. They were splattered against the walls, a single claw swipe striped deeply down their chests. Four lines sliced cleanly through armor, flesh, and bone. He could smell the burning sizzle as he passed by.
The trail of blood led to the Room of Penitence. He stepped over the shattered wooden door and entered. The walls were lined with the instruments of pain: flails and whips, hooks and knives, among other things. All untouched and in their places.
Elves have an innate gift for craftsmanship and artistry, especially when working in wood, bone, ivory, and leather. However, Elyon was trained in making his craft with those still living. There is an artistry to the creation of pain and pleasure, and Elyon was a virtuoso of both.
The room and floor were drenched in blood and entrails. He found the heads of Jathal and the other elven enforcers scattered about the room. Seems they had been torn limb from limb. Their eyes and ears were ruptured, like the liquid within boiled and burst out.
Within the room were chairs, a table, and various other contraptions to immobilize a person, depending on what position the master wanted them to be in. One of the chairs had been uprooted from the floor and forcefully pulled apart. Lightning patterns were burned into the wood shards. Near the table he found couple pairs of pants that were discarded on the floor under the wood splinters and viscera. Stained, but undamaged.
He approached the table. Unlike the rest of the dungeon, it was relatively clean; but there was a mound on it, covered by a beige linen robe lined in a sunburst pattern. He pulled the robe off swiftly. It was Kaniz, the cleric.
She laid on the table naked, her arms crossed over her chest. Large jagged lines of fresh red scars radiated over her stomach and around her body, out to her arms, and ended in a thick ring around her wrists. He covered her again. There was no life in that body.
Elyon pieced together the preceding events with mounting rage.
Earlier that evening, Caliban had a fought an important match against a knight from another city. Instead of throwing as the tiefling was supposed to, he killed the man. For that transgression he had to be punished. Elyon would have done it himself, but he had to deal with the knight’s handlers first. It was not cheap. When Elyon commanded that the punishment must leave no scar, Jathal requested to bring Kaniz in with them. Elyon thought they needed the cleric’s presence to heal whatever lacerations Caliban would receive, as she had done innumerable times before.
He knew that the clergy of the Dawnflower considered their bodies to be temples to their goddess. To violate a cleric like this while making her lifemate watch…Shortsighted shitbrains! The Church of Sarenrae would not tolerate such blasphemy.
Elyon kicked Sharlott’s steaming head out of the room in disgust. Fools. They mistook cruelty for power. Such brutes were unfit to be members of the Elven race. He was glad to be rid of them.
Were they struck down by holy retribution? Smited on the spot? Or something else. Did the sight push Caliban into an infernal deal? Elyon could not make sense of the residual magic in the room. There was too much chaos and pain.
He hurried out of the room. This was getting out of hand.
Elyon sat in the ornately padded chair of his study, facing the door. His legs were crossed and he twirled the wand in the hand nervously. His glistening black snake was coiled over his shoulders, ready to strike. He could feel Caliban coming for him. The tiefling’s aura burned like a lantern in the night coming ever closer. He checked the traps and enchantments again for the tenth time and forced himself to breathe calmly. If it came down to it, he could kill the tiefling with a single word. Half of his enforcers had left their posts earlier to join the revels of the night that always follow a big fight; when Elyon felt the burst of magic in the dungeons, he ordered the other half to herd the arena’s slaves back to their dens and keep them there.
The double doors of Elyon’s study exploded off their hinges and crashed onto the polished marble floor. Through the cloud of dust and smoke he could see the silhouette of a demon in his doorway.
He was soaked horn to toe in blood. Wicked claws glowed by the irregular pulse of electricity dancing between his fingers. His leathery wings had expanded far larger than before. Every beat sent a gust of wind through the room that scattered the loose papers on Elyon’s desk. Beaming golden runes circled his neck, wrists, and ankles. The invisible tattoos over his heart shone brightly, but not with the symbols of what they were before. Elyon’s stomach sank. They locked eyes and Elyon felt a shiver of terror down his spine as he took in Caliban’s overwhelming rage.
Caliban yelled and charged forward as lightning arced from his claws. On his first step into the room the trap sprung. For a fraction of a second a large black glyph appeared in the space between Elyon and the demon. A field of black tentacles rose in that space and grabbed onto him from every direction. By the push and pull of the otherworldly appendages he fell head over heels but didn’t land. Instead he was gently suspended just out of reach of the floor.
The tiefling screamed a guttural curse that the elf did not understand and viciously pulled and squirmed against the tentacles. On every pull they willingly gave slack and with every push they acquiesced without resistance. He remained in place nonetheless. He slashed lightning towards the elf, but it was diffused harmlessly into the ground.
Elyon stood up and began an incantation. He could not sustain the tentacles for long. He spread out his arms and the long viper contorted off of his shoulders into a circle above his head like a halo. Through his rage, Caliban closed his eyes and braced himself for the infinite depths of agony that the elf could inflict, but none came. Euphoria wrapped his mind and body. The tiefling gasped and was blindsided by the spell.
Caliban lashed and struggled against the squirming tentacles, but as his mind filled with ecstasy he had no room to think of hurt or loss. Whether it was minutes or hours, he could not tell. Pain receded to the background then became a memory. Tides of bliss drowned his rage like water washes away a sand castle. He stopped moving.
Beads of sweat dripped down Elyon’s face from the exertion. He clapped his hands together as if to pray and slowed the cadence of his incantation. Caliban gently fell from the heights of rapture, to exaltation, then elation, then bliss, and finally mere relaxation and calmness.
He opened his eyes and found himself standing opposite a well-dressed elf in a very messy study. The white marble floor felt warm to his feet. The blood that covered him has been scoured away. His mind was clear, but as he looked around the room the memories began to come back.
“Caliban! Please listen to me.” Elyon implored. “I am sorry for what has happened tonight. None of this was my intention.”
The tiefling growled through gritted teeth, “The lies you've spread, for blood you've shed, you'll have to justify.”
Elyon gingerly stepped back and sat back in his chair. “Talk to me, old friend. Think about what you want to accomplish.”
He barked back a song verse from memory while taking slow steps towards the elf, “Enslaved to reign, heartless, insane. You'll have to pay the price!”
“THINK, CALIBAN! What is your goal. Kaniz is dead, but Zeth and the others are not. The magic that empowers you will not last past the dawn. Think about what you really need to do. Believe me Caliban, I am the only one who can help you now.”
Miraculously, the tiefling stopped and considered his words.
“No more. No more! I want them freed. Not just the slaves in this loathsome arena. Not just this city. THE WHOLE OF RAGNOTH!” He spread his arms wide for emphasis and lightning cracked into the walls.
Elyon smiled. Interesting! Very interesting. This changes things. Perhaps he could salvage the situation after all. Elyon already had much to answer for this night. If the arena got destroyed, it’s just sprinkles on dessert. But if the whole city fell, who could blame him? And if Caliban somehow survived and took these goals to their logical conclusion, it could be a great help to Elyon’s grand design. Raze a city to raise a nation? An easy sacrifice to make.
He bowed his head and whispered something to his snake. Scattered around elsewhere, Master Vaeria’s head enforcers heard his voice pounding into their skulls. *EMERGENCY COME TO MY STUDY IMMEDIATELY*
Elyon faced the tiefling solemnly. “For the service you have rendered me and the wrongs that have been done to you, I give you this gift. I’ve summoned the enforcers that hold power over your friends.” He added slyly, “Should they die, the enchantments over your friends will be broken.”
Caliban drew him closer. Beyond the elf’s sky-blue eyes were dark dancing colors. Midnight black and rusty brown swirled around, with drops of pale green and yellow incarnadine. Above all, the elf felt the terror of imminent death. He felt disgust, disappointment, and regret. Growing, a glimmer of hope. Caliban saw no deception in that soul.
“Why should I trust you? Why shouldn’t I kill you here and now?” The snake hissed at the tiefling but the elf willed it to coil back into his coat.
“There are plans within plans that you cannot know or understand. We head towards calamity with every step but are too blind to see it. I must prevent the oncoming storm. Have I ever lied to you? Even once.”
They heard stomping down the hall. The head enforcers were about to arrive.
“If you survive this, take their keys and go back to the dungeons. The Room of Divination is behind a hidden door between the paintings of water and glass. Destroy it utterly if you want to last more than a week out there. After tonight, you should run far away. This continent will have no haven for you.”
Caliban turned to face them.
“Oh, one more thing. The scar on your back. It’s not just for decoration. Remove it before she can scry again lest you wish to bring her wrath upon yourself and everyone around you. Fare well, Solis.”
Master Vaeria received her son’s letter and set about deciphering it
Report on the destruction of the arena and greater Aramore area.
Noctus vs. Gavin match concluded with Gavin’s death. Unplanned.
Severe punishment deemed necessary by Sharlott. Granted.
Energetic event in the dungeon. Divine intervention? Demon contract? Other?
Sharlott, Kaevin, enforcers all dead. Rebellion of the arena slaves.
Chain reaction. Riots. Chaos. Deimos rallied, burned the city down. Scattered.
Caliban the spark? Powerful aura. Too powerful. Escaped.
Tracked the path to Butcher Bay. Mischief in a tavern.
Witness reports Caliban left with Captain Rewill Went of the Sea Mule.
Ledgers indicate journey to Silverport on the continent of Vandire.
I will pursue.
Write about a time you hid something
Howling winds and freezing snow battered the tall stone walls, but the inhabitants paid it no mind. Hundreds gathered together in the great dining hall of Elderstar Castle to celebrate the Festival of Crystalhue on the night of the Winter Solstice. No one could hear the gust over the beating drums and fluttering pipes, or the chill of the cold near the flaming lamps and fragrant cooking bonfires. For the first time in anyone’s memory, the whole of the castle was in merriment, from the highest lord to the lowliest slave.
Since Lord Charon’s mysterious and brutal death, the castle had been caught in a whirlwind of change. His son Kerberos was the first to see the mangled body and ordered an immediate cremation. The few that saw the scene afterwards refuse to describe it, but it was rumored that the lord’s body had been mutilated and stuffed in an ironic homage to his favorite sins in life.
The darker side of the region’s nobility recognized Charon’s open indulgences for the threat that it was. The old lord had grown too arrogant. Believing himself above the law, he felt no need to hide or mask his deviance and word was beginning to spread. None of the nobility had any desire for a Hellknight inquisition. So they decided to send a message.
Kerberos received the message well. Perhaps too well. Now any whisper of the old lord’s dark patron Socothbenoth would mean an immediate appointment with the gallows. The new lord distanced himself completely from his father’s ways and embarked on a campaign to transform Elderstar Castle from the secluded backwater kingdom it had become to a place of cosmopolitan splendor. Though there were better political options, in a whirlwind romance he became engaged to the Shelynite priestess Sasarai from a neighboring kingdom in the north.
Earlier in the day in the golden hour of the morning, the two became one. The newlywed Lady Sasarai presided over the festivities. In addition to the wedding, this night was dedicated to Shelyn, the goddess of beauty, art, love, and music. Lady Sasarai beamed with the favor of her goddess; in all the land her majesty had no mortal equal. Her hair was dyed in streaks of every color in the rainbow, masterfully balanced to compliment each other instead of clash. Her conservatively cut silk dress was similarly colorful. Of course, anything the Lady wore somehow became elegant and tasteful, no matter how garish. The celebration was extravagant and the cost was immense, but when the young lord saw her face he could deny her nothing.
The nobility sat at the innermost layer of the large ring of onlookers, watching the dancers prance about in the clear circle to the beat of dozens of drums, violins, and other instruments working in harmony. For the dancers, the change in leadership meant they wore fine clothes instead of oil. The group of eight moved in a geometric dance, weaving in and out each other. Alternating short and tall they switched positions constantly in practiced patterns following unseen lines and circles. The end of every movement was accompanied with the ring of bells strapped to their wrists.
The lord and lady sat on thrones between two pillars extending to the ceiling several stories above. To the lady’s sides were large bowls filled with huge chocolate truffles piled in a hill extending above the rim. Each sphere was the size of Caliban’s fist and covered with cocoa powder and sugar. For a moment at every turn, he spied on the ambrosial mound intently.
At the change of songs the group dispersed, leaving one dancer in the center of the circle of people clapping to the beat. Caliban ignored the soloists while he formed the plan. One by one they demonstrated a different style to the cheer of the crowd. At Caliban’s turn he rolled into the center and began his routine.
The slender tiefling was decorated with streamers around his ankles and a bell at the end of his tail. His baggy pants were gathered at the knees and he wore a dark sash. He gripped wide shimmering scarves around his palms and jumped into the dance. The cloth made large circles in the air as he flipped and cartwheeled around the clearance. He bounded in a spiral to the center and landed into a split. The Lady clapped at the acrobatic dance and he pushed forward into a handstand.
Caliban pulled in his wings and twisted on his hands. His legs and tail spun around their streamers like a pinwheel. Topsy turvy he spun towards the thrones and spun into a deep bow towards the lord and lady. Two of the bowls were covered by the scarves for a moment before he turned away. With little flaps of his wings, he did handless cartwheels backwards to the center of the circle as the audience applauded. The bright streamers glimmered on their fluttering path.
When he landed he threw the scarves up to the sky and they flew higher than anyone anticipated. A moment later he threw the sash that was around his waist and it replaced them far in the air. Each wrapping had been tied in a knot around a heavy ball. Caliban juggled the three higher and higher, careful to avoid breaking the truffles hidden within.
On the apex of his last throw, one of the sashes did not return. Everyone could see it caught in the arms of the chandelier hanging stories above the gathered circle. Without skipping a beat, he threw the other two to join it tangled in the metal fixture, as if they were meant to get stuck. He learned well from his tutor: it’s not a mistake if people think you did it on purpose. Though two of them had caught fire from the candles on the chandelier. The crowd grew apprehensive.
He rolled to the opposite side of the ring as the lord and lady and crouched down on all fours and spread his wings. The end of his tail vibrated and the bell rung like a rattlesnake. At that signal, the drummers’ beat accelerated into a pummeling crescendo. He bounded like a cheetah towards the thrones and leapt up to the pillar next to Lady Sasarai. With quick flaps of his wings he rebounded back and forth between the two pillars gaining height with every jump. As he approached the ceiling he could see the entire dining hall; hundreds of pairs of eyes transfixed on the tiefling and his burning scarves.
He leapt off the stone pillar towards the chandelier, gliding fast under it. He grabbed the two spheres with flaming ends and managed to snag the third with his tail in an aerial somersault. He wafted down in a shaky spiral back to the center of the ring and made a skidding landing on the carpet, stopping just before the lord and lady.
He turned in a circle, bowing to the cheering crowd and began to slink away with the secret chocolate. Then he heard a sweet voice clearly through the crowd, like a siren beckons sailors to a rocky shore. “Encore! Encore!” Lady Sasarai was standing and waving for him to come back.
He flashed a strained smile to the crowd and stowed the charred scarves under a seat quickly before tumbling back to the center.
Hours later when the party died down, the tired tiefling took his prize to a secluded corner and opened one of the scarves. The truffle was cracked, revealing the soft chocolate within. He took a small bite and savored the powerful flavors. He closed his eyes and the fragrant chocolate filled his senses. He was happy.
[Write about a time you prayed.]
13 Special Delivery
Eren and Charity supported themselves off of Bro-Bro’s boulder-like shoulders, both hungover and having difficulty navigating the flat stone terrain of the castle without assistance. Whistari and Alora walked briskly ahead but made frequent stops to wait for the others catch up. It was the morning after a great celebration at Elderstar Castle, in honor of the group’s latest victory. Collectively they were known as the Goldenhowl Sentinels, though each member was renown in their own right. Stories of their many exploits and great deeds were spread across the land; most of which were actually true. Powerful mages and mighty warriors each, they had been called from afar by Lord Charon to rid the land of the vampire scourge that had befallen his territory.
After his men had confirmed that the menace was over, the master of the castle showered the group with food, gold, and pleasurable company. Lord Charon was keenly rigorous about encouraging their drinking and whoring. While a good to great time was had by all, they ultimately found it all to be slightly unsettling and resolved to leave in the morning, no matter what state of mind they found themselves in.
From the far side of the room, Whistari could see some diminutive blue wings and a tail sticking out from either side of a pillar. He stealthily broke off from the group to investigate the monster ahead. He moved like a bird’s shadow, fast and soundless. Almost unknown compared to his companions, he could get lost in a crowd of two when he wanted. Even if a person looked directly at him, their eyes would seem to defer away without conscious effort, like water slides off a rock.
He silently scaled the pillar from the other side and circled around to look at the waiting creature from above. If need be, he could kill it instantly without notice like he had done to innumerable monsters before. Looking down, it was indeed a monster to many, but not them.
A devilish child wearing a loincloth made of rags sat on the floor hugging its knees muttering something to itself and clutching a crumpled up paper. Two small horns protruded through its scraggly black hair and Whistari saw scratches and bruises along its backside. Judging by the differentiation of colors on the bruises and scars, he figured that the child healed at the faster rate than most. Whistari retreated back to his place ahead of the group before anyone noticed he went missing.
The tiefling perked up when it heard the chatter of the group approaching. It peeked behind the column before approaching them shyly. Eren regarded the devil child suspiciously. Another beggar? Selling some worthless trinket?
“What do you want?” Eren barked, annoyed.
The tiefling stepped back nervously, unsure of what to say. “I’m sorry…um…are you Goldowl from the stories? Sorry…”
“Ha ha!” Bro-Bro bellowed a booming laugh that echoed through the halls. His hungover companions hanging off his shoulders withered at the sound. “Yes! We are the Goldenhowl Sentinels. How can we be of service, boy?” Bro-Bro was ever jovial, especially after a night of drinking and not sleeping. Eren glowered at his half-orc companion; no doubt this would be some trick or a waste of time.
The young tiefling answered the half-orc apprehensively and bowed at the waist, “Ah, well, I’m sorry…I have a problem. Maybe you could help me?”
Eren rolled his eyes. Here comes the sob story.
“I’m trying to talk to Sarenrae, but I haven’t heard back. Master told me that the gods don’t listen to trash, so I don’t think she can hear me. But they can hear you, right?” The small tiefling held out a ripped piece of paper in one hand and five copper coins in the other. “This is everything I have. Can you make the prayer for me?” The child put on a nervous smile.
Bro-Bro snickered at the offer. They hadn’t touched copper or silver in years. Their wealth was so vast that anything less than gold and platinum was not worth its weight to bother carrying.
The child spotted something behind the group. His smile dropped and he froze in place. A large woman was bounding down the hallway towards them. Mistress Corlea.
“How did you get up here? I told you to stay in the kitchens when there are guests at the castle! Worthless maggot!”
“Master, I’m sorry! Wait-” Mistress Corlea’s backhanded slap spun him around and he collapsed on the floor, spitting blood. The coins clattered on the ground and the paper went flying.
“Don’t bother the heroes with your bullshit.” She picked up the slave by the shoulders and whispered sternly in its ear, “My office. Now.” She shoved the tiefling towards the hall that they had come from and he scampered off unsteadily.
The portly woman turned to the group and said sweetly, “I’m so sorry for the inconvenience! That one hasn’t learned its place yet. My apologies. This will not happen again. Please, don’t let us keep you any longer!” She lifted the sides of her wool dress in a curtsy that was precisely as respectful as her station called for and then followed the tiefling back.
The Goldenhowl Sentinels looked at each other in bewilderment at the display they just saw. Alora reached out her hand and the copper pieces the tiefling left behind levitated to eye-level. She examined the parchment.
Dried blood mixed with something else was splattered on one side of the paper; she could only read one full sentence on the page. It was enough. Though certainly not her god of choice, after decades of rigorous study Alora had encyclopedic knowledge of nearly every deity in the pantheon. She recognized it was chapter 29, verse 9 of ‘The Birth of Light and Truth’, the holy book of the goddess Sarenrae. She wondered why the boy tore out a page near the end of the book instead of one of the many blank sheets that were always in the front, and why or how it got into such a state.
The other side of the page had no blood or printed text, but the message scribbled on it was nearly illegible, written with chunks of charcoal from a hand that was unfamiliar with spelling or lines. A stick-figure underneath with horns and wings was holding hands with another stick figure that had a question mark as a face.
The five coins floated in the air, lazily spinning around the parchment like moons in orbit.
The gears in her mind were spinning and she let out a wicked chuckle. The rest of the group quickly figured out the conclusion that their leader came to.
“You can’t be serious.”
“Finally something fun!”
Alora arched her eye and asked, “Well then. Shall we…?” One by one they each took a coin and the enchantress stowed the paper.
So this tiefling wanted to make sure his prayer was heard. A simple request. All they had to do was take this clumsily handwritten note and place it into the hands of Sarenrae Herself.
Write about your character’s opinion of someone else in the party.
14 Of the Church
It was the tiefling’s turn to take the watch for the night. The fire crackled steadily in the center of the group’s camp, providing warmth to Noctus’ companions sleeping on the ground. Rocking in his hammock to the chill breeze, he felt none of the fire’s touch. He preferred the cold. Any time he spent under sheets was for the comfort of his bed companions at the time; apparently he burned like an oven while sleeping.
Across from the fire was a young man wrapped in his bedroll sleeping. Smooth-faced with delicate hands, he slept peacefully on his back. Noctus stared at him resentfully.
Soft-spoken. Indecisive. Weak. Naive. This boy represented everything Noctus hated about the coddled scholars of the upper class. For all their knowledge of the trees they were blind to the forest. The tiefling’s eyes faded from violet to red as his anger mounted. The dark whispers of his corrupted bloodline encouraged his venom. Who does this boy think he is? Just joining them as if he owned the group! And without weapons, like he expected them to fight for him like servants? Does this fool dare fancy himself my master?!
Noctus’ fists clenched and he caught himself.
No. Augus had done nothing to deserve such scorn. Noctus took deep breaths and stared into the fire introspectively. The campfire crackled and its smoke swirled over it. Eventually, Noctus confronted the painful truth about the sleeping man.
What he actually hated was that this cleric was not Kaniz.
He missed her dearly. He missed her feisty temper. When there was something wrong she could throw a tirade like no other. And there were so many things wrong with the world. He missed her passion. When they were alone together, he often wondered who was the real fiend-blooded one. He missed her confidence. When she said that she would not allow death in her presence, it was not a boast but a matter of fact. Noctus wondered if this man could even heal a broken leg.
When she was near, Noctus felt invincible. But she was not near, and she never would be again.
Did Sarenrae not have the power to protect her? He did not know anyone who was as devout as Kaniz was. He felt confused and betrayed. Of course the goddess could have protected her. Sarenrae just chose not to.
The goddess’ scriptures talked at length about forgiveness and redemption. To the hells with Sarenrae! Noctus would no longer pray for her guidance or follow her rules. Milani had the right idea. His enemies would be redeemed by their blood.
The gods did not care. No matter how devout Augus was to his deity, when his darkest hour comes his only hope would be from his own wits and the companions around him.
Perhaps Palateus had delivered the cleric into the tiefling’s hands to rid him of his childish naivete. He met Augus in a church and within the hour, Noctus was drenched and naked in front of him. To think it of it, that seemed to be how most of Noctus’ friendships started. Perhaps he should give the quiet cleric a chance after all.
Alright then. In her memory Noctus decided to do everything he could to keep this cleric alive. Though it depleted his funds severely, he had already bought the man a crossbow and bolts. In the back of his mind, he knew that was what Kaniz would have wanted him to do.
Noctus leaned back and watched the starry night. The cloudless sky glimmered with innumerable pinpricks of twinkling light.
Write a letter to Grandpa Charles
15 To Grandpa Charles
I’m glad to hear that you’ve made it safely to your home. Unfortunately we have not been as lucky since our departure.
There’s something I’ve been thinking about since you left. You asked if I worshipped a god and I answered Sarenrae. But that is not true. Not anymore. I feel the Dawnflower has betrayed me, and since then I only look to the Everbloom. This difference is not consequential to you, but I must correct it.
I have lied every day of my life to protect myself and the ones I love. At this point lying is a reflex. It comes to me as easily as breathing. I hope I can learn to speak without a mask. I will work on that, starting here.
To speak truth after so long is freeing. It’s like a great weight has been lifted from my chest that I never knew was there. But there is a mask that I cannot take off yet.
In the service of witches I was the perfect slave. For fear of their wrath and to maintain my favored place in the hierarchy I have done unforgivable things. The boy thinks that death is the worst thing that can happen to a person. He is wrong. To know my true name is to know what I have done.
The truth is I am afraid. For all their faults and insufferable naivete, I have grown fond of this group in the little time we’ve had together. I hope to have the courage one day to tell them who I am.
Redemption is a lie. I can never make amends. But I hope that they will understand, and help me build a future where everyone is free to tell the truth.
(Write about a time your character cheated or lied.)
Ornately-carved double oak doors opened by an invisible force and Caliban stepped inside. The large circular chamber had a wide empty space in the center surrounded by black stone pillars speckled with gold veins. Opposite to the doors were tall stained glass windows of the Vaeria family crest behind a wide sturdy desk with one richly-padded chair. The tiefling could see the silhouette of his master reading something on the desk in the sunset light. She wore a flowing green dress with flowers tastefully embroidered along the trim with accents of bead and lace.
The mosaic on the floor was a masterwork of marble and other precisely-chiseled stones depicting a stallion running through the trees in an evergreen forest. Caliban knelt on one knee and bowed his head towards the desk overlooking the room on the far side. He stayed perfectly still in the center of the clearing, and among his scattered thoughts one stood out.
/I shouldn’t have made her wait. I want to please my master./
He furrowed his brow and banished the idea. Sometimes when he was near the witch he would get dispiriting ideas. Thoughts that made his very blood curdle in protest. Caliban was disgusted and disappointed in himself for even thinking such pathetic things. A few minutes later he could hear the hard tapping of heels on stone and the shuffle of a scroll being rolled up.
Master Vaeria walked around the winged tiefling and examined him. Golden tan skin was complemented by satin blue scales. He was not dirty by any means, but he smelled of mixed sweat and faint iron. His hair was messy, but otherwise he turned out no worse for wear from the affair.
She crossed her arms over her fitted coat and finally spoke in her brisk manner, “I expected you back sooner. You have taken hours to do what should have taken minutes.”
“My apologies, master. I did not know there was a rush.”
“I told you to return immediately. What have you been up to?” the elf interrogated.
Caliban answered heavily “Exactly what you commanded. This is a matter of pride! I did my best. Perfection takes time, doubly so with a first-timer. You will get what you want.”
The petite elf cocked her head and smirked. “Really. Or perhaps my favorite workhorse had trouble performing…?” she teased with thickly fake concern as she combed her nails lightly through his black hair.
Caliban barked, “Never!”
“In that case, I will oversee the next one myself. Let’s see what nonsense you consider ‘perfection’.”
He gasped, “Next one!?”
“Of course. And the next one after that, and after that, and after that. You didn’t think you’d only do this once, did you?”
Caliban stammered and his wings fluttered momentarily from their closed position.
She continued, “Don’t tell me this isn’t what you want. Didn’t you enjoy yourself?”
/Yes, I enjoyed myself very much/, he thought.
Caliban’s stomach turned. Suddenly it made sense. With both relief and dread he realized that some of those thoughts were not his own. How long had she been planting ideas in his head? ‘It’s no use trying to rebel. I deserve this. I can’t fight her. I want to be a good slave.’ On and on.
There can be value in letting people believe their trickery has succeeded. In the moment it took to draw his next breath, he conceived a plan. Caliban raised his chin and looked his master in the eye. He dilated his pupils and opened his mouth as if to say something, then reconsidered.
“Yes…Yes, I enjoyed myself very much.”
What is your impression of Ravenmoore?
Noctus broke away from the group, walking ahead on his own. His new boots crunched on the gravel as the sun beat down on his bare chest in the humid air.
Everyone has been sunburnt several times over from the days of riding in the open, but after repeated showers of Augus’ divine channeling they had been healed before they could feel the sting of it. Noctus’ pale skin had returned to the golden brown tan that it was when he worked the fields of the winery long ago.
Within a few steps he had reached the end of the town square, if it could be called as much. He had never been in such a small village. If he wanted to disappear forever, this would be perfect. But he had no such intentions.
He had mixed feelings when he strode past the small ruined temple. By a lingering devotion to the divine he felt that it was shameful to let a shrine fall into such disrepair. But if Desna did not give a damn about this tiny community, why should they care to upkeep her church? Good riddance!
Noctus did not think much of the villagers they encountered so far. Simple people with simple ambitions living out simple lives. In a condescending way, he envied them.
But there was a flower blooming in this desolate land. One who stood out like the North Star in the night sky. Shel, the beautiful daughter of the town’s smithy Saul. Saul was right to be suspicious of strangers with such an alluring daughter. He would be right to be suspicious of the locals as well. Rosy cheeks and supple lips, Shel glowed with nubile youth and innocence. Noctus yearned to have a taste. He could show her the ways of the world. Wonders she could only dream of and pleasures she’d never imagined.
Sweat dripped off his brow and down his arms as he walked towards the mayor’s manor. Noctus could feel the eternal stripes hidden on his back, fresh as the day Elysven bought him. The sweat and humidity had completely erased the protective balm that the cleric from the temple of Palateus had applied.
He wondered why he had not felt his old master try to touch his mind in the last few days. Perhaps she had and he did not notice, or she was preoccupied with something else.
He felt a gleam of hope that this meant that Zeth was still well and free. Noctus considered him a brother in all but blood. That red-haired tiefling had a talent for mischief. Whenever Noctus needed to ruin someone's life, he knew who to call. A prized stallion tripping, scandalous letters fabricated, important items disappeared, and a thousand other untraceable torments; those who harmed the ones under Noctus’ wings often found themselves the victims of precisely guided karma. Now that the trickster was unchained, Noctus could only imagine what chaos the other tiefling might sow.
He looked to the top of the hill towards the mayor’s residence and chuckled to himself. “Manor”, Viorec had called it. Compared to the palace that the Vaeria coven lived in, or even the slaves’ quarters, this was a dog house. Noctus felt a momentary twinge of nostalgia for the luxury that being the master’s favorite entailed. Silk sheets and carpeted floors, milk and meat. He was even allowed to fall in love. But a gilded cage is still a cage, and something primal in his blood refused to tolerate it.
As Noctus surveyed the village, there was a very evident truth. They could not possibly pay 500 gold worth of taxes. He imagined that Tortak would sooner or later comment “You can’t milk a rock” or some such thing, and it was right. There probably wasn’t 10 gold among the whole village. The only thing he’d seen that they could sell that was valuable enough to erase that debt was Shel, and Noctus would have none of that.
Ultimately, he did not care about collecting any money from Ravenmoore. The people did not have it, and Mossport did not deserve to receive it. Jeminda feared losing her job, and by Noctus’ judgement she deserved to. Tax collectors work with the force and authority of government behind them; to send a group like this was well beyond a violation of procedures.
Worse than that, she broke the fundamental principle of bureaucracy: cover your ass. If someone else’s mistake can hurt you, never reveal it until it has been solved and you can take the credit, or you’ve set up someone else to take the fall. Her lack of savvy could have gotten her sister killed. And it still just might.
What mattered to Noctus was bringing Phinarae back safely. Whether or not they found Elias or got the gold was up to fate.
He saw that his companions had concluded their business with the villagers and he waited for them at the base of the hill.
Talk about a place you’ve visited
18 Vineyard Dreams
Elysven Vaeria loved Sarenrae. She loved how the goddess’ followers were so predictable and naive, how the religion’s tenets made them so compliant and averse to violent rebellion so long as they thought there was hope. The elf humored Caliban for a couple minutes every few weeks to allow him to try and convert her. It was annoying and tedious to pretend that she could be swayed, but she had ways to spice things up. She found that the best time to bring up the goddess of healing was at the conclusion of a ritual. The dissonance of watching her pet devil talking about love and compassion while drenched in innocent blood was just too delicious.
Blasphemy was her favorite entertainment. By the dark powers of her family’s patron, she delighted in twisting and turning a person’s defining virtues into its bitter opposite. She had intended for the blue-scaled tiefling to be little more than a showpiece, but when she learned of his romance with the Seranite cleric and his devotion to Sarenrae, he became her favorite. Whips and stones break skin and bones, but only true love can hurt deep enough to break the soul.
It would not be a short project, as real change must grow from within. From purest love to deepest hate, the seeds were sown. Elysven looked forward to the harvest. When the night falls, would he forsake his goddess? Cast off his morals? Or even murder his lover? If there was anyone to bet with on these matters, her money would be on a slow and painful separation as their natures became fundamentally opposed.
It was a nice little distraction, but to corrupt and destroy was just one expression of truth.
There is a single guiding force in the absurdity of existence.The gods themselves were mere idols insinuating at what truly mattered. Neither damned nor divine, the ultimate truth in the universe was apparent to her in every word spoken and every action ever taken. Power. Only power mattered, and the game of power consumed her every thought.
She cared less and less about the day to day nonsense of this world. Her eyes were on a much grander prize. Greater than immortality, greater than any wealth or army. She would ascend far beyond those trivialities. What does any of that matter to a god?
The path to divinity was in no way quick or easy. She hoped the centuries left in her lifespan would be enough. As much as she could delegate her duties out, there were still demands on her time and energy that stole focus from her final goal. After family drama, running the city, running her businesses, wheeling and dealing with otherworldly forces, and advancing the agenda of the Sylvan High Council, she hardly found time to do her own studies. At least she had trained one system to become autonomous.
The majority of slaves that served in the Vaeria Coven’s palace were halflings. It was the obvious choice: they take up less room. Their innate practicality and flexible nature ironically stunts urges to escape as they become settled and make the best of their servile lives. In and under the walls and secret passageways of the palace, most have very little contact with the outside world. The ones born into it are prone to think of themselves as “lucky.” As the saying goes, “At least we aren’t starving in the gutter!”
The halflings were treated as a single entity by the coven. When one was particularly helpful, all the halflings would be rewarded. When one was bad, they would all face the consequences. As a result, any ideas of challenging the status quo were quashed from within before any of the masters could get a hint of it. There is safety in serving their powerful patrons, and comfort in routine.
Totah’s barefoot steps patted quietly on the marble floor as she paced near the entrance to the baths. At nearly three feet tall, the old halfling’s gait vaguely resembled a waddling motion to the taller races and it was a frequent joke among them. No one disturbed her waiting; at this time of night there were few who were still awake in the palace.
She had been waiting for over an hour and her anxiety was reaching a panic. She did not know who had summoned her to that spot or why, and every reason she could think of was more odious than the last. Eventually she settled on one possibility.
Who else could be taking a bath at this time but that brooding tiefling? None of the other slaves washed themselves every day like he did–few had the privilege to. She wondered if he just really liked the water. Or maybe he could never quite get himself clean.
She was terrified of him. She felt like running to one of the secret passageways built into the palace that allowed the halflings to move about their chores without being seen by the elves, but she knew better. When Caliban wanted you, there was no escape.
An unholy hybrid of demonic and draconic blood, the blue-scaled tiefling stood over twice as tall as any halfling. Some said that he was actually an incubus. As the right hand of the master, he was privy to all the news and had regular interaction with every witch in the coven. When there is no coin to trade, favors and information are the most valuable commodities.
To them, Elysven Vaeria was like a force of nature: unknowable and unstoppable. The best one could hope for is to stay out of the way. As a halfling, that was not too difficult. However, Caliban had done what was thought to be pointless to try. He had changed the master’s mind. He had convinced Elysven to forgo creating her twisted tangle of a throne–so he could do it himself! They said he spent a sleepless week creating an enormous rope tree to suspend the lower-ranked slaves in. It was great to learn that the master could be swayed, but the circumstance made them fear him all the more. What kind of monster would tie up their own kin?
And yet, he was ever more popular with the tall ones. They all seemed to love him. Totah couldn’t make sense of it. Of him. Demon horns and dragon scales framing a handsome face. Beautiful lullabies and deathly growls. Everything about him was a contradiction.
Totah had to know more. She had been watching him ever since she heard of the rope tree. In what little spare time she had, she tried to find and follow him out of sight. Not that he would care if he did see her. Caliban was not known to bring anyone into his chambers that were shorter than his stomach. Totah could barely reach his thigh. For the most part she was literally beneath his notice. She hoped.
A deep voice echoed through the dark hall in a mocking sing-song tone, “Teeny tiny Totah, almost an iota.”
She saw him approaching from the entrance to the baths. Black silky hair hung damply over his shoulders. A crimson towel was loosely tied around his waist. As she saw his monstrous silhouette approach, she turned to flee.
She turned back around and froze.
“I know you’ve been watching me, halfling.”
He walked in a slow circle around her, just as Elysven loved to circle around him.
Totah began to sputter an excuse but Caliban interrupted, “Let me guess. You want to tell me what I want to hear, but you don’t know what that is. You need leverage on me to spare Nikas in the coming solstice ritual, because I’m the only one who can convince the master to choose another.”
The news hit her like charging bull. She stammered backwards, tears forming in her eyes. “No…no that can’t be! Not my son. Not my son!”
“Oh? You didn’t know? So you were just spying on me for the fun of it. Well. Now I’m mad.” He said darkly.
She grasped his calf and kissed his feet. “I’m so sorry! Take me. Take me instead! I’ll do anything. I beg you, please! Take me in his place!”
Caliban watched her impassively and she blubbered at his heels. He knew he shouldn’t enjoy this. Totah was a good and noble creature; reducing her to begging for death at his feet was surely evil. And yet…the power was intoxicating. His blood sang in pleasure.
“Anything, you say? You’re in luck, halfling. There is something I need for you to do. Let’s make a deal.”
He kneeled down and whispered in her ear.
When Caliban returned to his chambers he felt immensely guilty about manipulating the lower slaves in his schemes, but there was no other way. He could not trust the halflings. After countless generations in service to the Vaeria clan, they were eager to please and prone to fear. Even at the guarantee of death, it did not occur to them to escape. By a strange symbiotic relationship, they needed the witches as much as the witches needed them. The halflings would betray him instantly if they knew what he was really up to. Unfortunately, he needed their help.
He had to command their fear and respect. It did not matter if Totah failed at the neigh-impossible task he set for her; word would spread among the halflings that he had the influence to alter their destiny. That was the real goal. He took his master’s lectures to heart: “Do not leave your reputation to chance or gossip; it is your life's artwork, and you must craft it, hone it, and display it with the care of an artist.”
It would be so much easier to orchestrate a disaster to kill off the Vaeria coven, but murder was not an option. Kaniz would not allow it. His goddess would not allow it. Temperance and patience, compassion and peace; those were the guiding virtues of Sarenrae.
Evil can be redeemed. To not give it every chance to change would would be an affront to Sarenrae. When he dedicated his life to the Dawnflower, she blessed him with beauty unknown to any other tiefling. Without that advantage, he knew he would not have gained the privileged position he enjoyed that day. He knew he was there for a purpose.
It was a long shot, but if his plan worked he was sure he could save everyone and fulfill his dreams without shedding a drop of blood. Caliban trusted in the goddess to light the way and clear his path forward.
He dreamed of one day moving out to the countryside and starting a winery. He knew just the place. When he had been a bodyguard to Elyon on his way to the elf’s summer home in his father’s forests, they rode through the lush Siasta Valley. In the dawn of that morning, golden sunlight peeked over the mountainous horizon and flooded the gently rolling hills with pleasant warmth. The white mist parted and revealed an abundance of green brush and trees. Caliban felt the Dawnflower’s holy radiance and knew the soil would be perfect for growing grapes and other fruit.
He wanted nothing more than to wake up to that light every day with Kaniz in his arms, and every night to sing their children to sleep. Perhaps they could even found a small community with the other Deimos. Siasta Valley was close enough to the city to sell his goods and be back before nightfall, far enough to get away from the strife and machinations of highborn society.
But for now, he had to play the game.
Fulfilling his part of the deal with Totah was easy. She was the chosen sacrifice all along.
[What was your favorite food at the festival?]
19 The Dreamweaver’s Festival
Noctus sat at the table at the right side of the mayor in between Marcus and Tortak. He supposed it was inevitable that the three strangest strangers sat together. With wide gestures and obvious maneuvering, the mayor had sat Gwendolyn to his left; Augus and Tybalt sat down soon after. As the appetizers were served the mayor found that flirting with the gorgeous sorceress would be difficult for reasons beyond her just being coy. She looked to Augus for translations of the mayor’s idioms, but Augus pretended not to notice.
The villagers put mugs filled with strong drink and clay plates on the table, each one piled generously with black mushrooms, flyleaf salad, fried silkworm, smoked tick leg, and stirge blood sausages. The thick aroma filled their nostrils. It reminded him of the feasts he had served at the palace. Crystal serving dishes piled to the brim with plants and animals collected from every corner of the land, and blown glass goblets filled with wine from a vintage centuries old. The halfling slaves cooked better than the villagers, but the food in front of him was scrumptious and homely. Hunger is the best spice of all, and the party ate with gusto.
Shel and her parents were sitting at a separate table. Noctus watched them from the corner of his eye. He saw where Shel got her looks. Her mother was lithe and radiant; she had probably won the Festival Queen prize herself in past seasons. If not for Shel, she could possibly win it again. The years had been kind to her. Next to her, with thick shoulders and a bulky chest, the blacksmith Saul wasn’t hard to look at either. Just like before at his store, Saul seemed to be suspiciously eyeing every man who walked close. Noctus chuckled to himself quietly. Saul probably thought himself blessed to have such a family, but it was as great a burden as guarding a dragon’s horde. Such is the curse of beautiful women.
Looking back and forth between Shel and her mother, Noctus wondered if any of his own children looked like him. He had never been allowed to meet any and he had a slight curiosity about it. As the villagers brought out the roasted pig, he forgot all about it.
Marcus was the one who managed to catch the greased pig, and the half orc was given a large knife to cut out the first piece of the cooked one. The whole festival watched as he cut out a small slice for himself, and soon after everyone had their piece and continued their chatting.
Noctus noticed that the dwarf was eating twice as much as he had the last few times they ate together. At least with the flowers in his beard, he looked appropriately jovial for the festival atmosphere. After spending so much effort fighting, the tiefling met the dwarf’s appetite. Noctus felt almost exhausted, and a bit drowsy too. No, not quite drowsy. He felt like a pleasant haze had slowly fallen over his thoughts. The din of the festival became more clear, yet it was harder to understand the words. The blue scales on his arms seemed magnificently vibrant and he felt a warm contentedness inside.
He felt hungry again and grabbed more of his favorite dish, the blood sausages. Each bite erupted in an explosion of flavor. Juices and spice dripped down his chin and elbows onto the table. Noctus was intensely focused on feeling the moment and did not notice the mess. It was wonderful.
[What do you look for in a potential lover?]
20 All is Fair
The Vaeria palace, like all courts that pride themselves on their refinement and sophistication, is a cesspool of intrigue, drama, and above all, gossip.
Few of the elves cared about the prattling of the halflings, but Adamar knew better. It was his business to be in others’. The halflings moved about the palace freely, listening and collecting clues and rumors for him to curate. Adamar gathered a most intriguing one from his Eyes and Ears: Caliban had made a deal to spare the halfling boy Nikas in the Master’s ritual and take the mother in his place.
The Master was above it all. She did not spend much time in the palace, so every precious moment of her presence was endlessly analyzed. The sisters of the coven and other nobles drew deep meaning from every eyebrow raise and half frown, trying to discern their own and everyone else’s place in the hierarchy. When it comes to Elysven, knowing your place is a life and death matter.
Which halfling lived or died was insubstantial, but anyone who could convince Master Vaeria of anything was worthy of note. If this was true then a slave had more power than most members of the nobility. Once again the blue-scaled tiefling had come to the center of attention.
Talk is for the elves, and the speed that their rumors spread could make a fire jealous.
Caliban’s long history of known and presumed exploits came under intense scrutiny as Adamar and the other members of the court looked for possibilities to bribe or blackmail him with. No one could just ask him about it, of course. Such direct action is simply not how the game is played. Soon Adamar’s network of informants came back to him with a slew of juicy information to sort through.
One of the summoners said that the weeks he’d been missing some years ago had been spent locked in a dungeon with a succubus. Apparently he had failed to impress a guest of the palace and they decided that he needed a proper tutor.
A cleric said that he had difficulty walking and needed healing after a night with a couple half-orcs. Another cleric mentioned that a group of adventurous dwarves needed similar treatment after returning from his chambers.
Humans, elves, half-elves, tieflings. Even dwarves and halflings, though Adamar was skeptical about that. Considering what he’d seen of Caliban in the baths, the mechanics did not seem feasible.
The truths, half-truths, and lies were difficult to sort out. The only thing consistent was that Caliban always returned to that fiery-tempered cleric of Sarenrae.
For all his spying, Adamar could not determine any major preference in what the tiefling looked for in a potential lover. Gender and race did not seem to matter. Caliban found beauty in every living being.
21 The Ravenmoore Mystery
Noctus felt like a fool as he tied up the Lupescu family. It was so obvious, but he chose to ignore the signs in front of his face. The prayer book, the stirges, the effigies, the stories.
The most obvious sign, of course, was the money. The mayor did not seem all that concerned about how he would produce “another” 500 gold. This town had no commerce. What trader would bother coming here? They just let Elias have his way with the liquor until he was too drunk to fight back and then got rid of their problem.
It was yet another reminder of how much he needed Kaniz. She was better at seeing who a person really was within. He had always depended on her to warn him of hidden dangers and setups. He would always seek her approval before pursuing any new lovers. If not for her foresight he would have ended up a dead long ago. Or worse– a eunuch.
He finished tying Saul first. The man’s face was a bloody criss-cross of deep slashes from Tybalt’s sword. Unless he received immediate treatment with healing magic, his face would look like shredded cheese for the rest of his life. Noctus was certain that at least one of the eyes was blinded as well. In uncharacteristic kindness to someone who had tried to kill him, the tiefling wrapped the man’s head in bandages and included them in the design of his rope bindings. So long as he did not struggle or remove the ropes, he would live. Probably.
Noctus was surprised at Tybalt’s ferocity. When the goal was to subdue and not kill, such scarring attacks should be avoided. After living with the elves for so long, Noctus had adopted their views that beauty is precious and should be preserved. Noctus always prioritized protecting his face when fighting, even if it opened up weaknesses elsewhere. His face was the last gift he had from Kaniz. Their last connection.
Anya was next. Noctus tied her up with her own rope. He tied a tight bond over her upper chest and the long gash under her throat was squeezed shut. He was glad that being a cultist was merely a hobby for these people. If Shel’s mother knew what she was doing, the first rope around his neck would have been the last.
Finally, he turned to Shel. She was lying facedown on the dusty floor. Rose petals were scattered all around her from the broken festival crown. He flipped her over. Blood ran down her nose where she landed on it. Noctus set her nose again and began tying. She was still beautiful, but Noctus felt no attraction. Trying to kill him was almost the most unsexy thing a person could do.
Noctus dusted the soot off of his body and admired his handiwork. They had meant to tie Noctus up to be sacrificed to their god, but instead they were bound themselves– and with impeccable form. Elyon could not have done a better job himself. To the others the pattern of ropes and knots looked needlessly redundant and vaguely sexual, but to the ones who taught Noctus, it was a form of art. The purest expression of power and dominion over another life. Absolute trust, or absolute authority.
He could have made the bindings painful, but he made them as comfortable as possible while still keeping them completely immobilized. Noctus emphasized with their plight. Sometimes good people do bad things when they feel they have no other choice. How many times had he lied, destroyed, and killed in the service of his master? He hoped he would be given the same compassion one day.
What are you doing in the manor?
First Impression of Marsuvees
Noctus carried Phinarae back up the stairs of the manor and laid her on her bed. He combed the straw out of her hair and tucked her in before slumping against the wall, breathing heavily. His muscles began to twitch from exhaustion and his mind was numb from strain. The infusion of energy granted by that stranger was beginning to wane.
Who was that tiefling? A knight in shining armor bursting through the wall in the dead of night to help them disrupt the dark ritual. Fortunately, it is easy to abort a god. The real trouble happens when you don't.
The creature that birthed from the mayor's corpse was but a remnant. A consolation prize for the cultists. Even so, Noctus was glad to have extra help in killing it. There was little time for introductions, but the enemy of one's enemy is a friend.
The name was… Marsuvees? Noctus had never seen a tiefling like him. Gallantly handsome, with eyes like marble and a jawline so sharp it was like it was cut from stone. His healing touch was like a cool breeze flowing through Noctus’ burning bones. Noctus wanted to feel that again. What the man’s business was in Ravenmoore was a matter for the morning.
Noctus had energy for one last thing. He could smell the stagnant water in the bucket in the corner of the room.
He took a thick tome out of his pack. The pages were well read and the cover had been replaced more than once. He opened the book and flipped to the prayer. He knew the passage from memory, but he preferred to read it anew each time. He reached out his hand. Blood, sweat, and dirt was encrusted under his nails and between his scales.
“Let my body and spirit be cleansed as this water is made clean…”
The water streamed out of the filthy bucket pure as morning dew. As the water flowed around him he could feel the touch of Sarenrae. Three cultists he executed, three souls that could have been redeemed. Their blood stained his hands. The goddess was not mad. Just disappointed. Like a mother whose child plays in the mud, she does not approve–but she washes it off anyways. The umber water receded back into the pail carrying with it the sins of that day.
Gwendolyn. Phinarae. Marsuvees. Shel. Ghlaunder. Thoughts slipped away as he laid his head on the holy book. The tiefling curled into a ball on the floor near the foot of the bed like a watchdog and fell asleep.
[What does your character think of Vain?]
23 The Value of Blood
“Let not the verbis necro touch your lips, let not it slip from your tongue.
The call of the grave is sweeter than honey, more seductive than a maiden’s kiss.
The call of the grave despises the living, it brings only death and despair.
The call of the grave annihilates all who know it.
Speak not the verbis necro. Hear not the verbis necro.
Say your partings through Me and let the dead rest eternal.”
-The Birth of Light and Truth, Chapter 26 Verse 17-22
A man wearing a black cloak sat at the porch of the manor, with the body of Gwendolyn by his side. Noctus was disturbed when he saw the tiefling’s hideous face. He had almost forgotten that tieflings could be ugly. Tieflings sold for cheap at auction, and the life of a cheap slave is not a long one. Unless a tiefling possessed exotic allure or could pass as a human, they would invariably end up emasculated, dying in a mine, or jumping off a tower long before they could reach adulthood.
Looking at the face marred with disgusting growths, Noctus was glad for the symmetrical blue scales that proclaimed his draconic lineage. There is power in the blood of dragons, even when it is diluted with other stock. If only you could find and extract it. Since the great war, dragons had all but disappeared from Ragnoth. Those scales caused him a lifetime of bloodletting, but they also declared that he was not worthless. Noctus sometimes wondered if things would have been better or worse if he didn’t have the taint of demonic blood running alongside the draconic. Probably worse. He glanced back at the dragoness’ lifeless body. It’s good to be valued, but too much value has its own problems.
Vain had dark grey skin blotched with uneven red patches. One half of his face was human-shaped, but the other was scaly and had hard conical growths that looked cut or sanded short. Noctus could see from the bumps under the man’s clothes that his entire body was speckled with horns that had been filed down.
Blood and nerves filled each horn. To shave just one down is painful in the extreme. Noctus knew that personally. His heart wept in pity.
To be named “Vain” with such a grotesque visage was a cruel irony.
But a life of hardship is no reason to trust the other tiefling, nor to let him leave with Gwendolyn’s body. Whatever kinship Noctus might have felt with the other tiefling was dashed when Vain displayed his dark power. ‘The Birth of Light and Truth’ had many passages condemning the flavors of necromancy; of those he still believed every word.
Anything her kidnappers from Mossport wanted to do or get from Gwendolyn, Noctus was irreconcilably opposed. And if Vain thought he could just appear and take her away from him before her body was even cold, he would face the full force of Noctus’ opposition.
More than being born with the power of dragons, there was something special about her. Something that she knew. In the days of riding to Ravenmore, Noctus had spoken to her almost exclusively. She was quiet and reserved, unused to speaking at any length with someone outside her brood. So Noctus did the talking for her. He told her about the people’s customs and how humans interact with each other. How to act and what to expect. He taught her how to speak Common, as much as he could. And when that became tiresome, he told her about himself. She knew about his past and of the things that may yet come back to haunt him. Gwendolyn was not afraid.
She had good reason to be secretive, with the humans around. They were the cause of every problem in her life. But after her brush with death in the cave, Gwendolyn opened up to Noctus. She told him the story of her family. The country of her birth was protected by a great white dragon. The people offered the dragon gold and valuables of every sort, and in return they had peace in their land.
But the dragon can only protect from outside threats, and man is ambitious. Her father’s throne was usurped, and her mother died in delivering the baby to the steps of their protector. The last prayer of the royal family was that the princess should grow up under the wings of the dragons.
She believed the ones who murdered her parents and arranged to kidnap her sought to steal her inheritance. The dragon’s horde. The cumulation of millennia of offerings to the dragons that raised her. Artifacts of ruinous power. Wealth beyond comprehension.
Once the cleric of Palateus had disappeared she whispered a secret in his ear. Noctus knew where the Dragon’s lair was, and how to enter it. A secret fortress hidden in the bitter cold mountains. One could spend a lifetime searching for it and never come close…unless you knew the way. Without that knowledge, it would be a short lifetime.
Now a mind-reader and a death-speaker walked among their group, both with the intention of retrieving her. How convenient.
Friendship means trust. A friend who does not protect your secrets is no friend at all. Her death changed nothing about that. Noctus would protect her knowledge as his own, as he had guarded the secrets of every precious friend that he made.
If the other tiefling knew how to speak draconic or if the poet had been successful in reading Noctus’ mind… Marsuvees or Tybalt would be very angry with Noctus after what he would have done. So long as Vain lived and Gwendolyn’s spirit was tethered to this world, her secrets were not safe.
Noctus did not believe that Vain or the poet knew about their true goal, about what their masters really wanted with Gwendolyn. If they could do their job in the field then there would be no reason to bring her back. To complete this job would be a death sentence for Vain and the poet as well. Just like a tyrant who murders his builders and architects once his tomb is made, the moment that Vain or the poet conveyed the information, they would have outlived their usefulness.
Perhaps Noctus was wrong. Perhaps this was a scheme outside those reasons entirely. A chain of deceptions and half-truths that cascaded down to Noctus’ ears drawing him to outlandish conclusions. Vain had mumbled some nonsense about prophecy and spirits, and Gwendolyn seemed to be unsure about why her story contradicted at some details. But he could not risk it.
For the safety of all, the dragon princess’ body must never reach Mossport.
[Collab between Luke Kime and I]
24 Spear and Shield
Two tall men rode at the rear of their small group.
The birds chirped as they made their way through the peaceful forest path. The shade of trees provided a cool cover from the sun overhead. The paladin’s ornate plate mail clinked and clacked lightly with every step his horse made.
Marsuvees took a deep breath, savoring the fresh air. He had come to Ravenmoore to help Vain on his errand, but now he found himself wrapped up amongst new companions, new friends and he was excited. Though his allies may have seemed strange to commoners, a group of half breeds, a dwarf, and a noble, he felt strangely at home.
He turned to Noctus, an oddly beautiful half dragon with whom he had seemed quick to bond with. They had not known each other more than a few days, yet Marsuvees felt he could trust him, perhaps even with his life. Perhaps memories of his lost brother clouded his judgement, but something about Noctus made him feel nostalgic, happy.
“Noctus, I wanted to thank you. Not many would accept a man of my appearance, a living statue is a bit much for some folk.”
He laughed gently.
“I appreciate you being so welcoming.”
Noctus turned to look at his companion with a bemused expression on his face. His tastes were never quite the same as most people’s. He had the face and body of a young man for the most part, but he was certainly not human. Not even half. The paladin’s eyes had the look of carved and polished marble; Noctus did not understand how anyone could see them as anything but lovely.
“Well, thank you for helping against that monster! I will always welcome more allies in a fight against cultists. Especially when they cook breakfast.”
“It’s tradition to have a good meal after such a fight, though I wish I could’ve made you all a proper feast.”
His eyes seemed to smile as he did.
“I’m glad you liked it.”
It had been a long time since Marsuvees had laughed, he felt a warmth he hadn’t felt in a long time. After the incident at Zarakai he smiled only to shield himself, but now he smiled from joy.
“I really am.”
Noctus smiled back, “If you’re cooking, I’ll be there! Once we get to Mossport we can have a proper feast. We can certainly afford it now. People save money for years and still have less than the coin in our pockets. We can do a lot of work with this. Hopefully we can lay Gwendolyn to rest quickly and be done with that business. A respite soon would be well-deserved.”
Marsuvees smile faded a bit, his eyes now gleamed with concern.
“I meant to ask… and forgive me if I’m prying, but would you mind telling me of Gwendolyn? It appears as though all of you have a true connection with her. I’d like to know her story, if you’d be willing to tell it.”
Noctus thinks to himself for a moment and replies solemnly, “I will tell you as much as the others know. Beyond that… well, if you tell me a secret you can trust it will remain so. Forever.” Noctus spoke slowly after that, trying to balance what was Marsuvees’ right to know and Gwendolyn’s right to keep unknown.
“A couple weeks ago we caught word of a slaver ship passing through port. The skin trade is an evil that I will not endure, so we went to investigate. On that ship we found Gwendolyn. We rescued her and burned the ship down. When the slavers pursued us, we managed to fight them off. Ends up their cargo was more dangerous than they thought. I ripped out the captain’s throat myself.
I had hoped that would be the end of it, but that’s what you get for not tying up loose ends. Tybalt insisted on letting one of the sailors live, and he slipped away when we arrived at Mossport.
After that, we went on to rescue a shop owner from some thugs and went off to Ravenmore to fetch Phinarae.” Noctus gestured to the half elf woman riding some paces in front of them. They’d unconsciously slowed their pace from the rest of the group to talk more privately.
Noctus mused, “You know, it really hasn’t been that long since I first met her, but in the heat of battle the bonds of friendship are fired so much faster. Of course, fighting by her side is not hot at all. Very cold actually. Just as my draconic lineage fills my blood with lightning, her blood blasts with an icy chill.”
“She sounds like she was quite the woman, I wish I could have met her… if Vain and I had gotten to Ravenmore sooner, perhaps I could have helped you save her.”
Marsuvees looked up resolute.
“But we need not burden ourselves with ‘what if’s’. Thank you for telling me what you could, and for keeping secret what you could not. It takes a noble man to hold the secrets of the dead; I have great respect for you.”
Marsuvees smile started to reappear, he turned to Noctus and gestured towards him.
“Alright, you’ve answered one of my questions, do you have any you wish to ask me? It is only fair.”
Noctus turned back towards his companion. Light streamed from the forest canopy in thin rays and reflected off of his polished armor. Sunrays scattered off, catching Noctus in the eyes for a moment. The product of hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours of work from many people, the plate mail was made with skill and pride. Fine details were meticulously etched into the surface and precious gems inlaid into the trim. It fit him like a second skin.
Noctus could tell this armor was made for him and him alone.
“I’ve seldom seen armor anything like yours. Such craftsmanship and labor comes at a dear price.
How did you earn that armor?”
Marsuvees chuckled a bit, this was a question he had never been asked, no one within Zarakai was unfamiliar with the trials of the Gilded Wall.
“There are few in my order who have earned the chance to stand where I stood. To take up not only the Oath of the Gilded Wall, but to be touched by the Goddess Helreginn herself.
I was but a mere child when it happened, I’m sure you can understand what it’s like to be constantly mocked for being ‘less than human’; for me it was rigorous, my teachers, my elders, and my peers all despised me. They were often quick to ridicule and quicker to punish. You see this scar on my face? Well it is one of many. They committed thousands heinous acts against me because of my ‘tainted blood’… and due to this, I tried to take my own life.”
Marsuvees face grew much more serious.
“It was at that point in my life, my darkest moment, that she blessed me. I’m sure you have noticed that the light I wield is much unlike that of other paladins. Well, it is because of her.”
Marsuvees held up his hand, a strong blue light began to emanate from his palm and eyes.
“This power, the power I was granted, ordained me as the first Sacred Shield within my order in over 200 years.”
The light began to fade as Marsuvees set his hand on his leg.
“And it was what brought me into the trials.”
“You see, deep within the catacombs of Zarakai there lay a tomb dedicated to my predecessors, and when I came of age I was to delve into that place with a companion of my choosing and prove I was worthy. When I had reached my destination, my companion and I were faced by the spirit of the previous Sacred Shield.”
Marsuvees’ smile returned.
“His attack came without warning, and his speed was incredible. My companion and I were overtaken by his overwhelming ethereal force. The spirit roared with anger.
‘Are you to take my mantle?! Then prove yourself as I have!’
We regrouped and formed ranks, he was my spear, I was his shield. The battle seemed to rage on for hours, but when the dust settled the spirit lay on the floor collapsed.
His form was no longer ghastly and what lay before us looked to be a stark old man, too thin for his own armor, with large bags under his bright blue eyes. He looked at us and whispered.
‘I fear the day has come where my successor has arrived, I may finally find rest after all these years… but do not forget that one such as us is only needed when a time of great suffering falls on the horizon. Be cautious, for catastrophe falls in the shadow of the shield.’
I did not know what he meant at the time, but when his body had disappeared, a large stone door in the tomb opened to reveal the armor you see now. A symbol of my victory and my right to serve as the Sacred Shield of Zarakai.”
Noctus was reminded of the tag-team style between him and Zeth. It could not be more different. They fought with trickery and backstabbing, always feinting or retreating. Never charging head-on. Honor in battle is for those who wear metal clothes. You need guile when you have nothing.
“So then what are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere? Where is your spearman?”
Marsuvees heart grew heavy, he felt a terrible weight on his chest. The burden he had carried for so long reared it’s head once more. For a while he was able to forget, but now, to say it out loud…
“I… I failed them. My people, my city, and my best friend.”
A single tear streamed down Marsuvees face, there were many more, but Marsuvees would not let them fall.
“On the day of our highest honor we were ambushed. Dark robes, rivers of blood and smoke, and the terrible laughter. Cultists took my home and sundered it within a night.”
He regained his composure, but his voice was still a somber whisper. He smiled softly again, but it was no longer genuine and his eyes seemed to glaze over.
“I failed to protect them, all of them. That is why I wander, to make amends for my failings, to help those I can, and hopefully to mete out justice against those abominations who robbed me of everything I held dear.”
Marsuvees rubbed his eyes and placed his hand on his chest. He took a deep breath as the blue light returned from his palm and coursed through his body. He seemed himself again.
“I’m sorry about that, perhaps we should speak of other things. Tell me, where do you hail from? And how did you find yourself here?”
Noctus steered his horse closer and put a comforting hand on Marsuvees’ shoulder.
“Marsuvees, about what happened in Zarakai… You cannot blame yourself for the actions of evil people. Maybe things could have been different if you did this or that. But the responsibility of your partner’s murder is on those cultists’ shoulders, not yours.
Seek justice, if you can. Better yourself and prevent the next massacre. But ultimately what other people do with their swords is beyond your control. Don’t take on that burden. You can mill yourself to death on that grindstone. You are not a god.”
Noctus added bitterly, “Even when you’ve dedicated your life to one, the gods are fickle and prone to abandonment when you need them most.”
Marsuvees nodded in agreement.
“I suppose you’re right.” He muttered.
Noctus continued, “As for me, I am from Ragnoth, a continent far to the west of here. You’re right that I know what it’s like to be an outsider. Even my own mother did not want me. I was sold to be a lord’s plaything the moment I could talk.
After he died, I was sold again and again to different owners. An alchemist, a winemaker, nobles in between. Everyone wants something. Blood, labor, pain, pleasure… It is a funny thing, every person who has owned me at one point is dead now. Except for one.
My final owner was a witch, and the most evil of them all. I have done terrible things in the service of her coven. I have taken innocence and taken lives. So much blood stains my hands…I’m surprised you have not raised your warhammer against me.”
Marsuvees looked deep into Noctus’ eyes, it was an understanding gaze.
“I can’t fault you for the actions you did in servitude to another. I sense no evil in you, I know you would not have done them if given a different path.”
Marsuvees let Noctus continue.
“I found solace in the Church of Sarenrae. I see now why they allowed it. The goddess preaches compassion and peace, honesty and redemption. Mercy does not kill witches. Compassion does not free slaves.
On the night I needed Her most, my goddess was nowhere to be found. So I turned my back on her ways. I do not care to show mercy to the corrupt. Guiding the evil to redemption is no concern of mine. They will be redeemed by their blood.
No one should have to do what I have done. My goal is to one day return to Ragnoth and free my brethren. In the meantime, I will purge any evil I come across.”
Marsuvees placed a gentle hand on Noctus’ shoulder.
“The evil of this world has taken much from us, but I feel we are fortunate to have found one another.” Marsuvees voice sounded much more resolute.
“When my home was taken from me, I swore I would do anything to route out the evil that was responsible and, even when my task is complete, I will continue to strike down evil in all its forms.”
There was a great passion in his voice.
“Our goals are aligned.”
Noctus held his spear in one hand and addressed his companion apprehensively, blushing slightly. He took a deep breath.
“Marsuvees…You have proven yourself a great warrior and an ally of the light.
I wish to hunt the witches, route the cultists, and free the slaves of this world. But I am afraid. I am so afraid. My power is my weakness. On the path I walk, Death is beside me every step. For as easily as I can deal it out, so can others deal harm to me. I have made powerful enemies, and they are coming. I fear the darkness will come to me before my task is finished.
Will you stand by my side? Will you be there when the night falls?”
Noctus held out his hand with a twinkle in his eye.
“I will be the spear of vengeance. Will you be my shield?”
Marsuvees’ eyes were blazing with an epic azure glow, his smile now that of determination. He gripped Noctus’ arm and with fire in his voice said,
“My friend, do you even need to ask?”
[How do your characters want to be seen by the people of Mossport? What kind of reputation are they trying to uphold? Bonus Points: Include not only how they want to be seen but how they feel they are seen currently.]
25 Bringer of Night
“Everything depends on reputation. Guard it with your life. It is the cornerstone of power. Through reputation alone you can intimidate and win. But once it slips you are vulnerable, and will be attacked on all sides.”
– Elysven Vaeria to Elyon.
The party rode through the gates of Mossport unimpeded by the guards, unlike the first time they entered the city. By a fortunate coincidence, some of the guards recognized them for the work they had done earlier in the city.
Knowing that the assassin was still out there somewhere searching for them, Noctus bribed the guards at the gate to keep their lips shut about the group’s passing. But it seemed to be a wasted investment; the moment they came through the gates into the city, people were taking note of their bizarre group. Noctus cursed under his breath. Instead of having the guards say they didn’t see them, he should have told them to do the opposite: the group had certainly passed through the gate and were talking amongst themselves about what a great time they were about to have gambling and whoring at the Golden Goblin or some other place they would never visit.
Even for a metropolitan city like Mossport, a group like theirs was incredibly noteworthy. A nobleman, a priest, a half-orc, a dwarf, a stone knight, and a dragon man rode down the street. It sounded like the setup of a joke.
As they made their way through the city, they could hear the crowds talking and commenting on their passing. ‘That cleric must be powerful to bind that demon to his service!’ ‘Is that a statue riding that horse?’ ‘Looks like the circus’s come to town.’ ‘That noble guy must be a big fucking deal to have that kind of retinue.’ ‘Look Pa, it’s a dwarf! It’s so short! It has a fancy stick! And it’s wearing rocks!’ ‘That there’s a half-orc. Stay away from those rapeborn greenskins. They’re nut’n’ but trouble.’
Noctus realized he had an opportunity. No one knew who or even what he was. This was a new life. A clean slate. This was a chance to reinvent himself.
Over the years of his service in the palace, Noctus had nurtured different personas among the different cliques that resided there.
To the witches he was a loyal and enthusiastic servant.
To the halflings he was a deal-making devil.
To his friends he was a bleeding-heart Seranite.
To the commoners, he was a monstrous gladiator.
To his partners, he was a generous and attentive lover.
But having multiple reputations requires years of experience in an area to differentiate who is a member of each group and how to interact with them, and then years more time to cultivate your reputation. To be so many things to so many people was the product of decades. Best to start with one thing at a time.
If there was one simple thing he wanted to be known for in this new city, it is that the Bringer of Night is powerful.
He trusted Marsuvees to watch his back, which finally gave him some headspace to focus on the front. To think of the future. He’d always fantasized about toppling the institutions of Ragnoth, but now that he was free to do so he realized that he had not actually thought through about how to reach the end goal.
To challenge the Sylvan High Council he must gain followers and one day raise an army, so there must be no doubt about his prowess in battle. When his enemies hear the word Noctus, they must shiver in terror of the coming storm. The Night Bringer knows neither honor nor shame. Lightning strikes without mercy nor compassion.
But such lack of values does not inspire confidence in a follower. He would need to attract more than cold-blooded killers for his army to be successful. The difference between righteous fury and just fury is a thin line. The chaotic natures of his blood were always pushing him to greater acts of violence. More ruthlessness. More savagery. Ever enticing him to go for the kill.
That fury must be tempered, lest he becomes the evil that he fights to destroy. Though he would never admit it out loud, Noctus needed the presence of virtuous companions to rein him in. If not for Tybalt’s influence Noctus would likely have slaughtered the Lupescu family and razed the whole village to the ground in retaliation for Gwendolyn’s death and trying to sacrifice him. But they need not know that.
Having a noble present to legitimize his campaign would be very helpful as well.
Temperance. Virtue. Nobility.
Perhaps keeping that dour lordling around was the key to everything.
26 Rest for the Wicked
“Thank you, Gwendolyn.” Noctus said in a hushed voice as her spirit left the medium’s consciousness. He felt like singing her a song of farewell, but the words were stuck in his throat. The circle of black candles on the table around her lifeless body became extinguished as an icy wind flowed through the room, like a relieved sigh from a giant. The séance was over.
The torches and fireplace of the tavern shifted back from blue to red, and he could smell the herbs that Absolos, the dark-skinned medium, had spread over the table. It felt calm but sinister, like strolling through a poison garden.
In the next heartbeat, Tybalt’s eyes flashed with a menacing anger and he reached for the hilt of his saber. Noctus did not hesitate to help. In near unison, Tybalt unsheathed his sword and Noctus transformed his hands into dragon claws. Sparks of electricity danced between the black talons at the sorcerer’s fingertips.
The edge of Tybalt’s sword rested against Absolos’ neck before the man had a moment to think. Noctus approached from the other side and bared his claws menacingly. He didn’t know why the young nobleman initiated this, but when a friend draws their sword it’s claws first and questions later.
Tybalt commanded, “Not a word.”
Noctus’ bared teeth did not hint that he was confused. What was Tybalt on about? Noctus did not think the séance had revealed any particularly interesting information from Gwendolyn.
Absolos laughed nervously, “Eh heh… wouldn’t want word about King Dragonfucker getting around do we?”
Oh. It was not Gwendolyn’s secrets he was referring to, but his own. During the séance, Tybalt mentioned that his family knew that the king had relations with a dragon. Noctus paid the comment no mind. For him, sleeping with a dragon was one of those hypothetical goals that one hopes to achieve once in their lifetime but does not actually expect to ever happen. In this land, it seemed such relations are regarded much differently.
Tybalt threatened Absolos, “My family fell from high nobility to what it is now because of knowing that secret. Just imagine what would happen to some peasant if he uttered it?”
Noctus’ kept his intimidating stance and thought about it. What would happen? What would happen if there was a rumor that the king had indeed slept with a dragon?
What if there was proof?
Noctus did not question Gwendolyn’s story to him on the ride towards Ravenmore, but now its inconsistencies began to surface. The main problem being that a child of pure blood elves does not have white scales and dragon claws.
Her dress covered most of them, but when they had visited the spa together, Noctus saw them in all their iridescent glory. The coverage pattern was reminiscent to his own, though unlike her apparently distant draconic lineage, Noctus’ lineage was immediate.
Did she lie, keeping the truth with her even beyond death? Or perhaps she was deceived herself. All dragons are vain to their core. To admit to bearing the child of anything but another dragon of its own color would be laughably absurd. Even to that same child. She had never actually met the parents her draconic protectors told her about, nor did she know the name of their kingdom…
The timeline was perfect. What if she were the daughter of the elven king that edged out Tybalt’s family?
What if these White Cloaks wanted her not because of some worship towards white dragons, but because she was a princess?
Proof of a scandal of that magnitude could topple a kingdom.
Absolos seemed to get the message and conceded to keeping his mouth shut. They heard talking and footsteps coming from the stairs leading below as the rest of the party ascended them.
[Write some poems for Makili]
26.5 Bard Spells
The Bard spell list has some very interesting stuff in it!
Rivers wide and desert deep
Eyes will meet and hearts skip beat
Treasure of treasures bloom en masse
Night be day as two ships pass
Fertile ground wraps souls entwined
Love each other body and mind
Effect: Matchmaker (http://www.d20pfsrd.com/magic/all-spells/m/matchmaker)
Fickle filly piccadilly
The raven is a writing desk
Ni-nika-ni na ni-na-ni nease
I have ham but I’m not a hamster
Somna corri vander blaxus~
Effect: Confusion (http://www.d20pfsrd.com/magic/all-spells/c/confusion)
I once had an understanding that everything would go my way
But now I’ve come too far to hold onto my old beliefs
I’m not in it for the fun of it but for the pain
I’m not at all interested in some temporary gain
I just want to see you scream as I go and crush your dreams
Damnation has a smiling face. Behold my black embrace
Effect: Life of Crime (http://www.d20pfsrd.com/magic/all-spells/l/life-of-crime)
Close your eyes, Hear the ocean where passion lies
Silently be sleeping, The sandman is creeping
Float down the passage ‘tween sleep and awake
Dreams are limitless, Infinite masquerade
That’s where she’ll wait for you
Fear not for harm, you’ll wake in her arms
Effect: Sleep (http://www.d20pfsrd.com/magic/all-spells/s/sleep)
Your first cry never ending
A dark path a dead world
Blood rains down the horizon
Save yourself and let them suffer
Hobbled eiders have no hope
You challenged a god and lost
Effect: Vision of Hell (http://www.d20pfsrd.com/magic/all-spells/v/vision-of-hell)
Crossing Those Hills: https://youtu.be/zapicryk06k
[First reactions to the black dragon?]
27 Nox Draco
The sky rumbled like a stomach of a starving man. Swooning winds and crackling thunder echoed through the forest. Rain fell upon the group in a light drizzle, ever inching to become a downpour. Noctus loved the rain and the wind. When it fell upon his bare chest he could feel the pulse of his heart and he felt alive.
After much debate and tribulation, Gwendolyn was finally put to rest in the ground. Then as suddenly as the wind changes, they heard a great creature land beside them. A black dragon. The gravedigger screamed and fled in terror. Noctus felt he should do the same.
It stood before the group sniffing the air, as if it were searching for something. It folded its huge wings and stood on its hind legs, towering over Noctus. Its jet black scales shimmered with the promise of the void.
Everyone looked to him and Noctus gulped down his fears. As the de facto draconic ambassador, he gingerly stepped towards the dragon. With as much humility and reverence as he could muster, he bowed towards the dragon and spoke in its tongue, “Your magnificence, oh great and terrible dragon, I beg your forgiveness for intruding upon your land…”
The dragon ignored him completely and jumped over the group onto the gravedigger’s cart. With a single swipe of its wicked claw, it pushed aside the cart in a shattering blow and revealed that something was hidden underneath. The black dragon sniffed the piles of treasure buried under the cart and huffed an acidic sigh. Noctus turned to run away while it was distracted, but then he saw Tybalt staring at it. The young lord had a dangerous look in his eyes. The look of a man who had something to prove.
This dragon was too young. It had not yet learned the draconic tongue. You cannot grovel or make a deal with creatures that can’t communicate.
Noctus looked around to his companions to urge them to flee, but realized they could not outrun a dragon in its own swamp. Their pockets were filled with gold and platinum. Marsuvees’ armor covered him head to toe in brilliant gold, silver, and gemstones. If the dragon could smell treasure underground, it would turn its attention to them sooner than later. They would not get away from this without a fight. Tybalt’s eyes welled determination. Marsuvees began to glow with the blossom of bravery.
They had moments to prepare. Noctus cast a spell of protection upon himself and Augus, his thin-armed friend.
He had faced beings overwhelmingly more powerful than him his entire life. The strategy here would be no different. A young dragon is powerful, but na?ve. It had never experienced the extents of trickery and guile the Noctus was capable of.
He racked his mind for imagery to create the most splendid lie they had ever seen.
Tomorrow is a hope, never a promise. There were two open coffins left on the field, hungry to be filled. But today would not be their downfall. Not today.
[What did you dream of from the potion of good dreams?]
27.5 Sweet Dreams
Noctus closed his eyes and fell backwards through the bed into a warm bubbling ocean. Deeper and deeper he drifted down in lazy spirals, watching the blue surface above wax and wane in azure hues. Rainbow fish flew past by the thousand. They paid him no mind. He reached out and touched the surface inches away. The barrier between sea and sky dissolved like petals of glass flowers flowing chaotically around him.
Gale-force winds battered his face and shoulders and he plummeted upwards into the sky. The sun glistened off of the blue scales of his mighty wings as he flew through the evergreen valleys shrouded in meandering mists at breakneck speeds. He soared for hours high and low through diamond dust deserts and sugar-coated mountains.
It was a dream he had many times before. Instead of the uselessly weak wings that teased him all his life, they were powerful and majestic. High in the sky, the people and their schemes were specks of dust in the great wide world of possibility. It was the ultimate freedom. Not just freedom from society, but from gravity itself. He flew towards the silver sun on the horizon.
…n'uma rima ten'oio…
Noctus strolled through the palace home. The walls were made of carved crystal that refracted the sunset light into a prism of color wafting through the air all around him. He strolled on the surface of the liquid floor towards a figure in a dress. Schools of tiny darting fish swam erratically beneath them; the tiny fish pecked at the soles of his feet and it tickled. He remembered this place. Of course. Noctus remembered. He was coming home from a very long journey.
“You’re back! I’m so happy.” The woman’s dress was made out of gold stretched so finely that it could be woven into cloth. Its silken and jewel-studded train floated behind her far into the other rooms. The feathers of innumerable rare and colorful birds lined the edges of her dress.
It was incredibly gaudy. But mother always liked to show off the immensity of her wealth and power. A strange thought intruded in his mind for the briefest moment before he quashed it out of its absurdity. His mother would never sell her son for drug money. How preposterous. His mother loved him.
“Look how strong you’ve gotten! I’m so proud of you…” It was the same old praise she gave him every day. It grew tired years ago, but he still appreciated the sentiment.
…lle a' pay yassen agar…
Marsuvees gripped Noctus’ horns from behind and pinned him chest-down on the bed of white feathers. His long black hair fell to the side and revealed the smooth skin of his back between the scales of his wings, free of curses and scars. Noctus felt the scratch of stubble as Marsuvees planted soft kisses down his spine and Noctus wrapped his tail around the paladin’s waist to draw him closer.
Marsuvees’ rock-hard muscles rippled slickly against Noctus’ skin. He grabbed the braids of hair under the tiefling’s ears like reins and Noctus arched his back compliantly. The paladin breathed heavily into Noctus’ ear as he thrust back and forth. Surrendered under his weight, Noctus felt helpless yet completely safe. He looked back at Marsuvees’ face, and for once his smile reached his lovely eyes.
…Caliban…amin tul a…
Golden light of the morning was streaming through the window of the room onto Noctus’ face. He groaned and stretched as the vivid memories of the dreams faded away, leaving only the strongest of the emotions and a vague whisper of what happened in the land of twilight.
A pleasant distraction, but dreams are just fantasies of things that never were and never will be. Yet some dreams may still come true.
Noctus focused one memory to keep and slid off the bed.
[What are you going to tell the group about the lair? What do you think of Aiwaix?]
28 Secret Serpents and Spells
Aiwaix the pirate scrambled up the rope with practiced ease, and Augus followed slowly behind her. His priestly garments did not make the climb easier, nor his skinny arms. He climbed up like an inchworm. The cavern was dark and damp, and the clear water lapped against Noctus’ thigh. His eyes could clearly see the stalactites on the roof of the cave, even though it was near-black. A gift of his strange heritage. He waited at the base of the rope hanging seventy feet above them through the hole in the spa’s floor. Augus inched up little by little, taking breaks more frequently as he got higher. It gave Noctus time to think.
He was not sure what to make of the pirate-looking woman. He did not know what her goals were or why she had followed the group since that afternoon. He supposed that she had stuck around after the dragon fight to make sure she got her share of the body; Noctus expected that she would leave soon after. But Aiwaix seemed like the curious sort, and there was not a group in the land more curious than theirs.
The large and echoing cavern he waited in contained a door to more rooms, though unlike the cavern those rooms were clearly crafted with purpose. They explored further in and found that they were trespassing in the lair of some powerful creature. In the deepest room, Aiwaix spoke to a giant crab-like creature in an amphibian language and it told them about the “landlord” of the ruins. Aiwaix said it described the “landlord” of the cavern as a monstrous and cruel thing with hair like seaweed and eyes that you must not look into. Noctus figured that sounded like a gorgon, but they couldn’t be sure unless they opened the final door to take a look.
Noctus had no intention of taking that look. The creature had lived here for years and had never disturbed the surface. This was its home. Unless it could fly and burrow through a 10-foot ceiling, there was no danger to the spa-goers by leaving it alive once they sealed the hole.
There was no reason to barge into its lair and kill it in its home. It was too great of a risk. There were plenty of witches and cultists out in the world just waiting to be slain; Noctus had to make sure he could be attend to that. Then he remembered – the snake! Aiwaix’s pet snake had been swallowed by the vortex of water when she unsealed the door and drained the cavern, and they had not been able to find it. Noctus felt no loss over dead vipers, and he certainly was not going to risk his tail to save a snake.
“Petite Lady,” Noctus commanded. At that codeword the rowboat magically folded itself again and again until it was the size of a small box. He picked it up with one hand and put it in his pack. Not every boat you come across is one you have to take.
When Augus neared the precipice, Noctus began his ascent. He coiled the rope between his thighs and around one foot, and pushed off of that one with the other. He pulled himself up the rope with measured ease. He was not as fast as Aiwaix, but the climb was more efficient. The pirate was not the only one who had experience with rope.
Write about a time you were at the mercy of water.
29 The Mutagen Alchemist
Young Caliban’s eyebrows raised with surprise and incredulity. He asked with barely-masked fear, “Every..day?”
The gaunt elf answered back, “Yes. You will wash yourself every single day without fail. You will be thorough. You will not forgo a single inch.” At Elderstar Castle, getting washed typically involved Mistress Corlea dousing him with pails of freezing water to get the blood off after Master Charon was finished beating him.
Professor Lawson gestured to the faucets and towels at the end of the clearance. He wore a simply-cut vest and coat and had short hair parted to the side; it was a very austere look. Caliban approached the knobs of the faucets unsteadily, unsure of how they worked. Since arriving in Koden Kal with his new owner, everything was strange and complicated. He turned a knob and water flowed from the pipe above him in a shower. What a wonder- a knob that created rain! And it was warm!
The young tiefling did not dare to waste such a precious resource in front of his new master. He hastily scrubbed himself and turned the knob back off.
The gaunt elvish man scoffed at the attempt. “Did you not listen. I said you will be thorough. You failed to clean behind your ears, under your talons, and the outer membranes of your wings. You did not even bother below the abdomen. Do it again, slowly, and do it right. Perfect practice makes perfect. Efficiency will come with time.”
Caliban was confused as to why he had to get washed if he was not bloody. “What does it matter if I’m dirty? If ya wash it all off it’ll just get dirty again…”
The professor did not have the time nor inclination to explain the relationship between personal hygiene and the prevention of contagious diseases, and the simple mind of a tiefling could not possibly understand if he did. When dealing with simpletons, the professor found that it was far more effective to make an appeal to emotion rather than logic.
“If you’re dirty then people won’t like you. How could anyone possibly love you if you aren’t clean?”
The new strategy was effective. The specimen watched with desperate eyes as the professor pantomimed and explained the proper technique and the wonders of soap. The specimen was filthy by nature and the professor was loathe to have to touch it, but at least he wouldn't have to get his hands literally dirty when he did his work on the thing.
The tiefling replicated the movements with furious alacrity. As the dirt and grime was washed away, his skin was revealed to be much lighter than the professor thought it was, though the specimen’s scars and bruises became clearly apparent. Though dull before, the specimen’s scales were a brilliant phthalo blue.
The professor noted that a concentration of bruises tended to be at the borders where the specimen’s dermis became the hard metallic plates. The slave winced when he passed the washcloth over those parts. Though the epidermis became discolored to indicate physical trauma to the muscle beneath, the scales did not. Clearly the previous owner had focused on assaulting the scales and allowing the specimen’s foul hygiene in order to conceal the extent of his abuses. The elf regretted that he did not insist harder that the slave be washed before he bought it. He probably could have gotten a better price for the damaged goods.
Two weeks prior, there was a rumor that the kingdom of Elderstar was about to default on its debts. Upon hearing this, the professor set forth to Elderstar castle immediately. He was usually not one to take sudden action, but the cost-benefit analysis indicated a positive expected value. Procuring specimens on his conservative stipend was an ever-present challenge. When there was an opportunity to buy slaves at a discount, he jumped at it.
The specimen’s former owners bragged about its seraphic voice and gymnastic flexibility. Trivialities! Appeals to artistic competence in useless sociological practices like singing and dancing held no sway with Lawson. The sole reason that this specimen was chosen over the far more physiologically robust options was that the professor needed dragon blood for his research, which the tiefling clearly produced in some diluted form. It would be a process to distill the dragon blood from the contaminants, but it was the only way. Procuring an actual dragon was not feasible.
He was not at all expecting such a rarity to be available for purchase; the professor assumed he would have to arrange a kidnapping the moment he saw it. For once he wouldn’t have to go through the black market to procure his subjects. That was a lucky day. Science can be fickle like that- sometimes you make a grand discovery, sometimes your house burns down. And sometimes both at once.
When the specimen was finally washed and dried to the professor’s exacting specifications, it was led inside. The house was antiseptically clean with everything precisely in its place. The professor owned nothing that was not useful and necessary. There were no decorations, save for parchment on the walls that had lines of strange symbols and equations written on them. As they entered a dim room, Lawson tapped a square on the edge of the wall and it was instantly illuminated within. Bright light glowed steadily out of glass orbs.
Caliban was astounded. His new master must be a man of incredible magical power to cast spells so quickly without the slightest hint of enunciation or arcane gestures. He peeked inside the room.
The laboratory was controlled chaos. Stacks of notebooks rested on the floor and dozens of vials and beakers were spread on the desks of the office. A cabinet took up the space of an entire wall. It had dozens of rows of many columns filled with small doors or drawers, each labeled with clear handwriting indicating the ingredients within.
The elf commanded, “Spread your arms out and hold completely still.”
Professor Lawson pulled a tape measure out of his desk and began meticulously measuring the specimen and recording into a notebook. Caliban could not tell the difference between the professor’s writing and the printed pages from the stolen books he read in the castle.
The professor was not impressed, but the preliminary measurements were not surprising. The specimen was of diminutive size for its age. Its bat-like wings showed a skeletal structure that was morphologically homologous to the skeletal components to other tetrapod forelimbs, but showed indications of malnutrition during core development. They were underdeveloped and would be unlikely to ever grow large enough to sustain flight without additional support.
There was something that did surprise the professor. To prevent further contamination of the gene pool and to suppress their uncivilized inclinations, it is law in Koden Kal to excise the testes of tiefling males upon birth. The specimen had been born in the backwater kingdom of Elderstar, whose laws were not so enlightened; thus such precautions were not exercised. Eventually it would have to be carried out of course, but for the time being the affront to eugenics was a boon to the professor’s research. With the absence of testosterone the specimen would never grow to its full size, and thus would not produce the maximum amount of blood.
On its current growth trajectory, the short tiefling would serve to be an insufficient source of dragon blood for the professor’s purposes. He decided to alter the trajectory.
Blood is created in the bone marrow. To maximize hematopoiesis, the subject would have to become very tall. Lawson calculated a preliminary growth formula, taking into account body fat percentage, muscle mass, and a multitude of other confounding variables that he had encountered during his tenure as a professor of mutagenic alchemy. He noted down every possible problem that might surface in the future and multiple solutions for each. Long term exposure to hormone-amplifying concoctions would have many likely side effects. Manifestation of arcane powers, impaired judgement, overwhelming libido, psychopathic aggression, increased susceptibility to mind-affecting magicks, among other things.
The specimen sat in a corner as the professor pondered over the measurements and formulas in the notebook. Then with a touch of finality, he snapped the book shut and collected ingredients from the large cabinet. The tiefling watched as he boiled and mixed powders in small beakers and crushed leaves in stone bowls with expert precision, wondering what kind of potion his master was making.
Hours later, Caliban awoke to a slight jostling by the professor. He uncurled himself and followed into a dining room. There were two settings laid out on the wooden table, facing each other. Both had a plate with slices of grainy bread slathered in butter and a pile of sliced and steamed vegetables. There were bowls of thick venison soup, and a glass of red wine on the professor’s side. Caliban stopped and stared as the professor took a seat. Certainly the other setting at this feast was not for him. He would not dream of receiving such hospitality.
The professor pointed at the cup of water at the opposite side of the table and said impatiently, “Sit at the table and eat your dinner.”
Caliban wasted no time in coming to the table. The tiefling did not cry, but tears streamed from its eyes. It seemed the specimen had mistaken the professor’s dour practicality for some sort of generosity or kindness. He did not care to correct the misconception. Caliban ate the food hungrily and drank the whole cup in one gulp.
The professor watched impassively as the tiefling imbibed the water-like liquid.
30 Koden Kal, The Clockwork City
Caliban had heard of Koden Kal before. The Clockwork City. The capital of Viskestra. They said the streets were lined with glass and metal, and there was always light no matter what time of day or night. He never imagined he would visit, much less live there.
On his last day at Elderstar Castle, they had presented him to the elven man just like so many potential buyers before. The castle was getting less crowded by the day. Caliban sang a song to the elf about a man that returned home after a long adventure, but even as the elf stared at him with his eyes darting around the scales of the tiefling’s body, Caliban could tell he was not listening. The elf seemed lost in thought.
Later that afternoon, Caliban was so surprised when Mistress Corlea unlocked the metal collar from his neck and told him the situation. He did not say farewell to anyone in the castle. His only friend, the Seranite cleric Kaniz, had returned to her temple long ago. He hoped he would see her again one day. He took the book she left him and climbed into the elf’s carriage.
This was the second time he had ridden on a carriage. Unlike the first time, he slumped in his seat and did not make a sound. He simply hugged his book and watched the road. As the horses pulled the carriage forward, Caliban couldn’t help but remember the first ride, when his mother and Charon tricked him into going to the castle. He remembered looking back at her in the distance in the doorway of the brothel. Her shoulders were shaking and her hand covered her mouth, undoubtedly laughing at him. The thought of his mother brought up bitter ash upon his tongue and bile in his throat. He cursed her memory and wished her dead for bringing him into this world. What was the name she called him?.. No. Whatever intentions she had for him, he wanted none of it.
The trip to Koden Kal was uneventful, until they reached the gates of the city. On either side of the bridge leading to it, Caliban saw four suits of armor twelve feet tall. They seemed to have glowing rubies in their eyes and they carried enormous swords upright. The armor was polished steel and he could see his distorted reflection on them. It all looked very thick and extremely heavy. Caliban was astounded. The men who were inside the suits must get incredibly tired!
Before they could enter the city itself, Caliban’s new owner stopped at the entrance gate and spoke with a gate officer who handed him a small stack of papers to fill out. The tiefling did not listen much to the conversation – he was mesmerized by the city. He had never seen such a bustle of people. There were so many carriages that they traveled side-by-side to each other in different lanes, and there was not a single building shorter than two stories tall. To his amazement, there was even a carriage that was double-leveled as well! It carried a dozen passengers and was pulled by a horse that looked like it was made of metal.
Caliban’s attentions turned back to the conversation as he sensed they were talking about him. The officer was telling his master that the tiefling had to be fixed before he could approve the papers and let him in. Caliban was confused about that statement, as he did not have any broken bones at the time. He opened his mouth to inform them of this, but his master began speaking in a firm yet monotonous tone. It was not the berating kind of lecture that Caliban was used to, but more like his master was pelting the officer with information. Whenever the officer tried to get a word in edgewise, the elf simply continued talking. He expected the elf to stop after a minute or two, but he simply kept on talking and talking. As the officer’s eyelids grew heavy, he jostled himself awake and stamped the papers. He commanded the elf in an exasperated tone to get it taken care of immediately and to get out of his hair.
In the evening as he laid on the cot the elf provided, Caliban reflected on the start of his new life. His new owner seemed different than the others. Instead of “master” he preferred to be called “professor”. The elf did not look at Caliban with the same fiery hate and cruelty that the others did. He seemed cold and distant. He did not kiss or beat Caliban like Master Charon did. The Professor did not seem to want to touch him in any way at all. Caliban could not be happier.
The professor told Caliban that he was going to be a tool for science. He liked that. Better to be a tool than a toy. Tools have purpose, and value. You don’t throw away tools. You clean them and take care of them. Caliban was determined to be a good tool for the professor.
You are pretty no matter what.
31 Creed of the Scalebound
Augus: I’m here to fuck shit up and heal people, and I’m all out of fucks.
Aiwaix: Gimme dat gold.
Tybalt: I am noble! Let me prove it!
Noctus: I have three modes: fight, flight, or fuck. Mainly the third.
Marsuvees: I see you’re not evil – let’s grab a beer my friend.
Marcus: Please don’t make me punch your head into paste.
Tortak: [incomprehensible drawf-ism]
32 Still Waters
It had been a momentous day. Noctus could feel the favor on Milani, the patron of all those who fight against oppression and unjust rule, upon him as they carted thirty liberated mine slaves to Fort Lavelle. It was not an easy rescue for the freedom fighters. Nearly a dozen orcs and half orcs inhabited the mine and they all nursed wounds from the orcs’ blades and the collapsing tunnels. Even so, Noctus was elated. He felt a surge of camaraderie with his friends in their victory. Finally they were beginning to fight as a team.
Noctus had always considered himself to be the most lethal combatant of the group. He was confident that the shock of his lightning could down a foe more effectively than their swords or guns. Then Marcus had just walked up to the towering orc chieftain, grappled him to the floor, and wretched his neck from its spine. There was no drama, no epic struggle of stories and tales. Just morbid efficiency and a crunching pop as Marcus twisted the orc’s head around – and off.
Noctus knew then that he had been underestimating the half orc. Marcus was never quick to resort to violence. He always wanted to find a peaceful resolution. Noctus thought this was because Marcus was fearful or lacking will, but this was not the case. Some people might call him soft because he is reluctant to kill, and Noctus might have agreed with them. But that would mistake self-control for passivity, or politeness for weakness. Marcus was soft in the way the ocean is soft.
Noctus looked at Marcus with a newfound respect and a reminder of a lesson hard-learned by others: Beware the fury of a gentle man.
It was a starry night above Fort Lavelle. Crickets and frogs sang a cacophonous tune noisily at the edge of the lake, unceasing as two tall figures intruded walking along the shore. The clear moonlight shone upon a righteous man in shining armor, and a man who was his opposite. The armor clinked and clanged louder than any frog while the tiefling walked silently.
Marsuvees broke the silence, “The moon is gorgeous tonight, I’m not used to seeing it in its full glory… and the stars.” Marsuvees stood in a stunned silence, “Zarakai was much too busy for me to notice how wonderful they are.”
They stopped and stared. Noctus replied, “Is that so? I can’t say I relate. The sky above has always been on my mind. From the sun shines the warmth of Sarenrae; it was ever a source of hope. Though the birds flying above have always mocked us fools below with their freedom from earthly chains.”
Marsuvees pondered this for a while, and then moved towards Noctus. A gentle hand stroked the hair out of the tieflings face, a light smile graced Marsuvees, while a slight sorrow hung in his eyes. “It must have been so hard for you. Living in servitude, one master to the next; the fear and pain you must have endured.” His voice was slightly shaking. “If only I could have found you sooner, maybe I could have spared some of it.”
Noctus brushed his hand away roughly. “Do not pity me. I was a lucky one. Of all the tieflings I have known, I am of the chosen who has not perished. Magical enough to be useful. Exotic enough to keep intact. And cruel enough to survive. Ones like Vain have been fed to the dogs before he could learn to pick up a knife.” Noctus’ voice wandered, as if caught in a bad memory. “But that is past now. My demons will have a hard time finding me out here.”
“Pity is not so dirty a word as you think my dear Noctus, I feel this sorrow for you because I know it all too well. We are both monsters to the outside world, it is why you and I are coated in the scars of men’s hatred.” Marsuvees gripped him in a comforting embrace. “I do not only wish for you to have been spared, but for my own bitter solitude to have ended earlier.” He took a deep breath as he let his his arms falter from around Noctus torso. “To have found my light sooner… it would have been a dream.”
Noctus calmed his reactive outrage down. Pity means weakness, and weakness means death. He realized he didn't have to be this way. There was no need to lash out. At least, not here. He wrapped his arms around the stone paladin and breathed in and out appreciating the moment. It was safe there. He felt a spark of inspiration. “There's a place I've always wished to go. Would you like to come with me?”
Marsuvees breathed deeply, a sort of sigh of relief. He took in the scent of the cool night air, and Noctus’ own gentle aroma. It was a light sweetness that danced along his nose. “I would love nothing more.” He said to Noctus, his eyes fixated on his companion as he seemed to shimmer in the moonlight.
“Duulo ve de wer ymmute di gemuth…” Noctus incanted into Marsuvees’ ear. Quick as lightning, sparks of light danced along the scales of that tiefling’s arms and jumped through the metal armor into Marsuvees’ body. An electric tingling sensation spread through his body and he felt light as a feather. As the staticky tingling subsided he felt lighter still – aggressively light, like he could propel himself into the sky with the slightest effort. The same tiny sparks of light settled into Noctus’ skin and he grinned toothily.
“Let’s go!” Noctus shouted to the world. He grabbed Marsuvees’ hand and leapt up. The paladin expected to anchor Noctus down, as his heavy stone body and metal armor had never once left the ground before. But he didn’t. They lifted past the point of any mortal jumping, past treetops and chimneys. Hand in hand Noctus pulled the paladin up and up into the starry sky.
To be weightless, to fly, to lift off the ground and soar, to defy gravity itself. Marsuvees eyes grew wide, his smile wider than it has ever been. The adrenaline pumped through his veins with expedient pace as he and Noctus rose higher and higher in the air. As they went Marsuvees was stunned with wonder and excitement. When he was but a boy in Zarakai he had often stayed put in his room, the daily beatings he received and the constant ridicule reduced him to nothing more than a wreck. During these dark times he would look out his window to the sky and see flocks of fowl winding and whipping through the air, he wanted it, to be able to fly, to escape, and now he was bolting through the breeze like a dragon. He turned to his companion, to Noctus and, with such radiant joy in his heart, he kissed him with intense passion; so much so they nearly dropped to the ground.
Noctus savored the kiss while gently guiding them back up with a smirk. Cool wind tussled their hair and the sound of crickets and frogs grew faint in the distance. As their lips parted Noctus let go of Marsuvees and lifted above him. The tiefling shivered, but not from the cold. Marsuvees watched him glide through the sea of stars like the birds they had so envied. Noctus felt elated as they flew together in the night sky.
Suddenly, with a mischievous smile, the tiefling pushed away from the oread and then beckoned him closer. “Catch me if you can!” he yelled before zooming off. The chase was on.
It took Marsuvees by surprise, feeling weightless together was something foreign, being weightless alone was a whole beast entirely. It took him a while to figure out how to fly by himself but, when it finally clicked, he rushed through the air towards his love. No longer tethered to the earth by his stone body, the speed he darted through the air with brought a renewed spark of excitement within him. The two lovers bound through the air with flagrant bliss, as if all the woe, the frustration, the loss they both felt had been absconded on the ground. The two laughed as they whisked around each other in playful rapture, to them, the world melted away.
After a long chase, and many a taunt from Noctus, Marsuvees, with a determined look in his eye, bolted full speed at his love. The sheer velocity at which the oread traveled in this last rush took Noctus by surprise, and at long last Marsuvees embraced his lover close once again. The two, now covered in sweat from their ordeal in the sky, relaxed in each other’s arms, and as they looked into one another's eyes, Marsuvees spoke softly, “Gotcha.”
Noctus chuckled and nestled his nose into the paladin’s neck as they floated back to the ground. “Yeah… You got me.”
34 College Days
Professor Lawson continued onto his fourth hour of lecturing and Sylvain Trost stretched out his leg in an effort to wake it up again. The lesson had been dull so far, but whenever one of the students would start to perform in-class meditation and drift away, the lanky tiefling slave that watched over that class would pelt them with pieces of chalk. The students considered Lawson a fantastic alchemist and highly competent researcher, but boring lecturer. Sylvain listened intently nonetheless.
Sylvain had entered the Universitui -o Koden Kal nearly five years ago, and the professor procured the half-dragon specimen about five years into that. The Universitui -o Koden Kal was the only elven university in Viskestra that was not founded on elven land. It was not even a millennia old, so it lacked the prestige that other elven colleges had, but Sylvain decided to go there because they had the newest research on Dragonology. At least, that’s what he told anyone who asked. It was also the only elven university in a thousand miles that would accept half-elves.
Sylvain’s father was sure that he could overcome his human heritage if he were properly immersed in elven culture. Koden Kal was the only choice, really. The half-elf hoped that with enough alchemical study he could transform himself into a full elf. When Professor Lawson heard that one of his students had such a noble goal, he took Sylvain on as a protégé.
Caliban watched the lecture as much as he watched the students. The young slave wore a tan breechcloth and a leather bandolier fitted with sixteen glass vials filled with red and brown liquids. Every hour or so the tiefling would drink one of the vials, going top to bottom. Sylvain knew what was in the vials. Everyone did- deriving the formula for the tiefling’s growth serum and creating a dose was the final project for the professor’s Permanent Transmogrifications course.
Beyond collecting blood and recording the results of his serum, the professor did not care to deal with the tiefling in teaching it how to talk and behave– nor Sylvain for that matter. Lawson was a staunch practitioner of the Elven philosophy of solving your problems by pitting them against each other. What better way for the half-elf to learn elven patience than to teach some scrawny tiefling how to speak the language while battling with the side effects of the serum?
The half-elf prided himself on his articulation. Spoken natively, the sound of Elvish might be compared to a bird’s song to an outsider’s ear. Other races can get close, but it takes an elven tongue and throat to properly enunciate all the words. It is a nuanced, expressive, and artful language – also immensely difficult to learn.
Sylvain felt like an idiot when talking in Common. “As you wish, Master” was grody and long-winded compared to the near-equivalent Elven word “ne’naturallui” for the situation, which already had the recognition of being the inferior party built into it. Common was a mongrel language – a mix of all the tongues of all the sentient races and given a few millennia to stew and lose all flavor.
Over the next twenty years Caliban learned the language as well as any outsider could, and took well to the treatments. The professor never bothered to mention all the slaves who died over the centuries in testing his concoctions as he perfected the craft. Now the tiefling towered over most people in the population. Lawson felt that it is a wonder how much someone can grow in just a couple decades.
Making someone tall is a trivial thing for Flamel Lawson, now Dean of the Alchemical Sciences at Koden Kal. The real genius of the professor was demonstrated when the tiefling began to express sorcerous powers. The demon-dragon mutt would have been expected to have crossblooded magic, but due to his treatments it was isolated to just one side side. When Caliban performed his prestidigitations it was by the power of the dragons.
Lawson would have preferred to keep the slave locked up in a basement with his weights and toys, but he had become somewhat instrumental in the professor’s side business. Some years earlier the elf had published an award-winning research paper about isolating body parts when creating alchemical tinctures. Much to his chagrin a local gossip creatively interpreted it as a method of ‘natural’ bodily enhancement and he soon found prospective clients at his laboratory door. The professor felt that it was an insult to the sanctity of his science to use it for such mundanities, until he found out how much gold people were willing to spend on his treatments. Suddenly alchemy became a science for the people.
Caliban was the demonstration that the treatments were effective. Though with the budding power of a dragon came the attitude of one. Caliban had become as moody and unpredictable as the professor had predicted him to become when he arrived on the first day. The threat of dire and permanent consequences kept the tiefling in line, barely, but it was still a liability. In a heightened emotional state, the professor was sure the slave would gain access to higher-tier spells than he had so far demonstrated. The thought of this bipolar and rebellious servant becoming one of the most powerful sorcerers on the continent for even a minute was not a pleasant idea to dwell on. Sales would be affected if he lashed out.
Drugs would have helped. The professor offered many times to create sedatives and mood-altering elixirs, but this was one thing that the slave refused entirely. He did not understand it at the time what Lord Charon gave his mom in those little glass vials that made her so happy or why she thrashed about in her sleep. He would hug her so tightly in the darkness as her bosom shook. He understood now. Eventually getting the money for her next dose of Shiver became more important than food or shelter. As her looks faded it became more and more difficult to get new clients, and never at the prices she could charge before. Debt racked up and her credit lines diminished. Lord Charon offered a trade: he could erase the debt and if she gave him the boy. She refused. Charon added a vial to the offer. She accepted. Even at the height of misery Caliban did not dare to try a single drop.
Sylvain had become somewhat close to the tiefling over the two decades he spent so far as Lawson’s apprentice. They were both outsiders, in their own ways. They even used the friendship tone, in the absence of polite company. Sylvain and Caliban did many things that would be considered inappropriate, in the absence of polite company. Sylvain taught the tiefling things that many free men would kill to know – the fundamentals of arcana and the language of dragons. But eventually Sylvain had less and less time to spend with the slave as the demands of his studies mounted. Completing an elven education without an elven lifespan requires a certain amount of haste and personal sacrifice. Sylvain aimed to graduate the university in a blisteringly fast three decades and begin research into his own goals.
In his isolation Caliban turned deeper into religion to try and calm the storm within. The words of the goddess Sarenrae helped against the wicked whispers and primal instincts of his blood. He read his copy of ‘The Birth of Light and Truth’ cover to cover on a regular basis. He read books of arcana and history and whatever else he could steal from the library when retrieving texts for the professor. When his vision became blurry from frustration or rage or lust he would take to the weights. Pick up heavy things and put them back down. Up down up down updown. Body on fire but mind still racing, he’d lay down and copy the way the elves meditate, yohga. Breathe pose breathe stretch breathe.
The professor never considered that his tools might need anything beyond food and shelter. The frustration and fury was a symptom. An expression of the gnawing void in his heart. Something he did not know and could not articulate. Love was all he ever wanted. Any form would do.
Feelings mattered little to Flamel Lawson. Things that did not follow the rules of cause-and-effect were not comprehensible, and thus not worth time considering. Like any other tool, problem slaves can be either fixed, ignored, or replaced. When Lawson’s contacts in the black market found a most intriguing rumor, he knew it was finally time for the later. Through his side business, the professor had accumulated enough money to commission a party of adventurers to capture some whelps from a newly-discovered dragon’s lair. At last he could collect his samples pure from the source.
It took the group a month to go out and kidnap the baby dragons. They returned with two whelps still living, and two humans now dead. Caliban was excited to help wrestle the baby dragons, hardly larger than horses, into their pens on the University grounds. He imagined it would be his new job to care for them. He would feed them and talk to them and love them as family.
That night Lawson sold his formerly prized subject to Arthur, the owner of Three Arches Winery.
35 Call of the Void
The ghostly captain stabbed Noctus with his ethereal blade. Its length sliced through his torso but left no cut or blood. The tiefling seized and shuddered as he fell backwards, his vital energies severed and dissolved by the unholy sword. He landed on the stairwell with a hard thud as the path of the blade blackened his skin with a painful necrosis. Consciousness fell from his eyes and he laid there unmoving.
Noctus felt an unbearable heaviness. He was falling through a dark nothingness. As he descended there was no air to tussle his hair or catch on wing, no sense of up or down. But he knew he was descending to a place he did not want to go, yet whose gravity he could not resist. He knew this call. He knew it from the moment he flung himself from the watchtower years before.
He was wretched back and awoke with his loyal friends Tortak the dwarf and Marcus the half-orc kneeling over him. Drops of a ruby potion sputtered from his lips and he coughed. One more brush with death, once more the Call denied.
But not for long.
The sorcerer thought himself so clever. In his arrogance he walked between light and shadow to find himself in a place with no escape. Beyond help and beyond the limits of his magic, the Black Dragon Champion’s golden blade skewered his torso and his blood glistened like crystal.
The heaviness was overwhelming. Noctus did not close his eyes but still lost sight. He was falling again. Falling and falling. It was coming closer. So close. Noctus flailed and reached out at the nothingness around him. Nothing was all he found.
He felt a hand reach through the void and grasp him on the forearm. Noctus grasped back, and he heard ring of his bracelet touch its twin. Bracelets linked by a magic more than divine, they glowed with an azure light and in that moment Noctus was pulled from forever.
Marsuvees’s rock-like hands poured the force of his love through the bracelet and the world filled with color and light. Noctus awoke to the sight of Gipgib’s hideous face jeering at him, and Marsuvees’ beautiful marble eyes charging close behind.
However certain death may seem, fate is not written in stone.
How do you feel about Marcus leaving?
36 The Half-Orc Prince
Noctus packed up the primal iron bear traps with twine and handed them to his friend. “I can’t watch your back anymore. Maybe these can help you sleep safely on your way.”
Marcus stowed them away and gave Noctus a bear-like hug. “Thanks, bud.”
Not minutes ago, they had been teleported a continent away by divine magic, just in time to rescue the half-orc’s former lover and newly discovered infant son. Moments after the baby seemed to die and be supernaturally reborn before their eyes, they were thrust back to the Scalebound Keep. Marcus decided that he could wait no longer, and no matter what threats the world faced, the greater good was with family.
Noctus has asked him to stay one more day, but he couldn’t fault the half-orc for rushing off. There’s always another threat, especially with their group and its multitude of enemies. There’s always something that will come up – always more excuses to put things off. In his youth, the tiefling would imagine about the earth-shatteringly important things his parents were doing instead of finding him. It is a matter of priorities. Noctus would remember this example. If Mossport was under attack while Marsuvees needed help elsewhere, Noctus would let the city burn to a cinder.
Within the stone halls of dragonscale keep, a symphony of moans and lustful panting kept fire alight in the small paradise Noctus and Marsuvees shared. After several hours of bodily indulgence, the two lay side by side, talking about nothing, and everything. Sweat stained Marsuvees brow, and, as he looked into Noctus’ eyes, a smile grew. But his eyes soon became sullen, his mind distanced as thoughts of the rage he felt upon Aiwaix ship crept into it. Not so much the anger, the fury, the power, but more so how it felt so natural to give into it; almost as if it was a part of him all along.
His eyes wandered towards his equipment and fell onto the cursed greatsword Bloodlight. Affixed to the weapon, his thoughts turned to his mother. Of what he could remember she was kind, and gentle, but, for his life, he couldn’t remember her face, her voice; he was far too young when she passed. But what little remained in his mind of his mother, there was even less of his father, if there was anything at all.
Marsuvees looked back over at Noctus, addressing the concern on his face with a question.
“Noctus, what were your parents like?”
The tiefling’s brows raised at the question from nowhere before lowering into a grimace. Noctus pulled the bed sheets up and covered them both.
“My parents were both worthless assholes. I’ve never met my father; I have no idea who or what he was. My mother was a whore. They tell me her clients were the stranger folk. Most johns wouldn’t spend money to bed a tiefling, but the ones who did weren’t much human themselves. I should not have been born… Every whore in the house drinks night tea, but I guess it doesn’t work so well against stronger spunk.
I don’t remember a whole lot from those years. I remember it was warm and soft. She hugged and kissed me and taught me songs. She told me she loved me. It was nice until she sold me for her drug money.”
Noctus waved a finger over the bed and the sheets became uncreased and clean as if they were newly woven. His scent disappeared and any trace of sweat vanished. In the times they spent together, Noctus seemed to forget his complex about cleanliness. Marsuvees was always disappointed in the morning when he could no longer smell his lover. He hated how Noctus was ashamed of himself.
“Is something on your mind?” the tiefling asked.
Marsuvees fingers found purchase upon Noctus hand and laced themselves between the tiefling’s own, his other hand followed suit.
“When we were fighting on Aiwaix’s ship, something took hold of me.”
His grip tightened as his gaze turned towards the floor.
“It felt like some part of me was let loose, a part of me that was suppressed until the magics of that blade set it free.”
Marsuvees gestured to Bloodlight, his eyes wandered from the floor as he looked into Noctus’ own.
“It got me thinking about my mother.”
He paused briefly as he brushed the hair from Noctus’ face.
“And my father.”
“I had wondered about that. What’s the story there? Did your dad jizz on a rock or something?”
Marsuvees broke out in laughter, he loved Noctus’ crass ways, they always lightened his mood.
“No, nothing like that.”
He managed to regain his composure.
“My mother was an oread like I was, but she never told me about my father. She rarely even spoke of herself. All I know is that we traveled a lot before she passed away.”
He glanced over at Bloodlight again.
“But if this orcish weapon is awakening something within me… perhaps my father is someone I wouldn’t want to meet.”
Noctus traced over Marsuvees’ chest with his talon-like nails. They scraped softly over the stony skin.
“You wouldn’t want to know? I’d like to meet my father, even if it’s just to kick his ass for bringing me into this world. After I was carted away from the brothel I never heard from my mother again. I’m sure that’s for the better. I probably would have tried to kill her for what she did to me. Too bad about yours though. I’m sure she was lovely. But tell me about after. You ended up at a monastery or something like that?”
Marsuvees eyes drifted downward, they strained as he answered.
“I don’t remember the details, about how my mother passed or where the missionaries found me. All I know is that they took me in and gave me a home after the incident.”
Marsuvees looked up at Noctus, his eyes widened with realization.
“That’s right, I sometimes forget you’re from Ragnoth.”
He chuckled as the words left his lips.
“It’s very rare to find someone who doesn’t know of Zarakai. It was a wondrous cathedral city, dedicated to all good gods in this world. It was a beacon of light and hope amidst the darkness, the city structures all served as gorgeous tapestries of stone and marble that seemed to bring life to all who saw them.”
His voice grew sullen.
“I wish it could’ve stayed that way.”
“You’ve mentioned that place before, how your cathedral was wrecked by cultists on your big day. We’ll be sure to make them regret it. That reminds me of right before I came here. When I escaped Aramore, it was in the middle of a riot. I was a pit fighter in the colosseum then. The owner of the place – and me – kept tight control of who wins and loses in the arena. I’d had a good run, but it was time to lose and go back to working in her palace. Though instead of just beating me, that asshole knight tried to actually kill me. That didn’t turn out very well for him.
That night the lightning awoke within me and I made my escape. I freed the other slaves in the arena and burned it down. After that I flew to the nearest port and charmed the first captain I could find. Captain Rewill was a lucky find. If we hadn’t sailed across the ocean that morning I’d probably be wishing I was dead about now.
Though I feel like that was all a setup by someone else – at least the knight to the riot after. But who could possibly predict what would happen? They’d have to be an oracle.”
Marsuvees contemplated this and for a moment silence filled the air.
“You’ve been through so much and survived, your homeland seems like such a harsh and evil place.”
He held Noctus close.
“I’m glad we found the way to each other.”
A gentle kiss left upon Noctus’ lips, Marsuvees began to drift to sleep. There was so much to wonder, but exhaustion quickly overtook him as his eyes closed and his breath grew heavy. Before he finally fell asleep a final phrase escaped his lips.
“I love you Noctus.”
How do you feel about Daegwyn and Cialana showing up?
38 Honey and Vinegar
Noctus unleashed a fistful of lightning upon the succubus to no effect. The electricity crackled harmlessly into the demon’s body as she cackled haughtily and snapped her barbed whip at him. The sting left a bleeding gash on his arm and the pain was searing. Noctus had found himself in the arena once again, fighting to prove his worth. It was a familiar setting, and Noctus was unafraid.
He was fighting alongside new friends today. Besides the oread Marsuvees, there was Kaalekos the kobold diplomat, and Khalreed the half-elven knight. Noctus did not think much of Khalreed; the young half-elf seemed naive and inexperienced to the ways of the world. At least he was nice to look at. The kobold’s silver tongue proved far more useful than the boy’s silver sword in the battle against enchanters. His dispiriting dirge dulled the enemy shadow dancers’ movements enough to provide a window for Noctus to blast them down with a bolt of lightning. He made it extra loud for theatrical flair. Some habits die hard.
They had a rough start, but he could see where the tide of battle was turning. His lover Marsuvees had cast a charm that protected them from the enemies’ most dangerous magicks. He was certain it would be only another minute until they came out victorious. The crowd could sense it too, and they were screaming for blood. Noctus was focused on the fight, but managed a glance at the spectators out of the corner of his eye.
His heart tumbled into his stomach like a head falling from a guillotine. Oh course this is where they would find him, once again, fighting in an arena.
Two elven woman walked into the stands. The first was gorgeous, even by Elven standards. She wore a luxurious blue traveling dress embroidered with silver musical notes that played out to the main chords of her favorite song. Her nut-brown hair fell in waves over her shoulders and she smiled warmly towards Noctus. It was a smile so sweet and so loving that men brought themselves to ruin trying to coax it in their direction. No one could imagine what a sour heart it belied.
There was a reason she was called the Siren. Her soprano timbre cut through the din of a hundred spectators like a bonfire in the darkness. Noctus shuddered as his whole body felt cold and hollow.
There was a time that he was the coven’s favorite slave. It was a position he worked hard to secure. He knew the coven well, and would direct the halflings to tasks before the sisters thought to command it. Among the sisters, he enjoyed attending to Daegwyn the most. In times of leisure they would perform duets and their ballads could be heard throughout the palace.
The second woman could not have been more different. Toned muscles and tanned skin were hidden under her armor and weapons. Her short and messy hair was a stark contrast to her sister’s delicate ringlets. She gave Noctus a toothy grin like a cat who had cornered a mouse.
Noctus felt the lash sting from the succubus on his shoulder, but it was child’s play compared to what this elf had done to him. Cialana was a true artist of the whip. Between his wings there was a crisscross of scars down his back in a mockery of the pattern of scales that grew naturally over his arms. He had spent weeks in agony strapped to a table recovering from her scarification as the hundreds of tiny lacerations embedded his skin permanently.
Noctus was not surprised they came as a pair. Together the two sisters made the ultimate good-cop-bad-cop routine. If Daegwyn’s charms ever failed – or not worked fast enough – Cialana would instinctively know where best to turn the screws. She relished in inflicting pain and suffering.
Noctus felt like a crazed animal caught in a trap as the hunters approached for the kill. He didn’t know whether to laugh or weep, to fall prostrate and beg for forgiveness or fling lightning upon them. At that moment, he felt the supernatural aura of courage and conviction emanating from Marsuvees and he knew what to do.
Noctus smiled back through gritted teeth.
Chasing the dragon
Below the ice queen’s grave and above the roc’s nest
Right of the rosegarden and left of the tinker child’s house
Noctus walked around the pair of clashing knights. His footsteps treaded softly upon the grass and sand without shadow; in their duel they had no chance of noticing an invisible intruder entering the temple. The clang of their swords meeting metal and screaming about their goddess Sarenrae was what got his attention in the first place.
Inside was the source of their conflict – sitting upon the altar was a small creature. It was like a blob of muscles and gnashing teeth and skin and sinew. Its mouths opened and closed in a pathetic likeness of breathing. Noctus was disgusted.
He rubbed his thumb over a black ring on his index finger. Diabolic runes intricately inscribed over its surface glowed with a faint candle red light. He didn’t think it would be any use when he received the ring, but he found himself in need to detecting demons more and more these days. The color of his vision receded into shades of gray and he looked around, getting used to the effect on his eyes. When he looked again at the gibbering sack of flesh, now tinged in red, it clearly had the aura of a demon.
Better call in the calvary. He send a whisper in the wind to his friends waiting nearby, and they leaped in to halt the duel. One of the fighters thought the demon should be cared for, and the other thought it should be destroyed. The tiefling couldn’t help but marvel at the efficiency. With just one lie it had caused two paladins to fall from grace.
When the creature began to scoot like an inchworm towards his half-elven friend Khalreed, it left behind a strange doll in the basket. A body made of wet black yarn with buttons for eyes.
He remembered the dolls. He thought of Vysara, the anatomist of the Coven. Unlike her sisters, she did not much care about keeping appearances, often appearing at the dinner table splattered with her work from the day – wax and water, or blood and glaze. Her sisters teased her for being “muddy”, but her clays were the finest quality minerals imported from the banks of Lake Crystael.
Vysara did not view non-elves as people, but as creatures to be experimented with. Everything she saw, she remembered perfectly. Using wax and clay, she made small statuettes of her subjects. Her method of sculpting was meticulous. Beginning with molding the the skeleton armature, then shaping the internal organs and adding on layers of muscle and sinew and fat, then sculpting on the skin and hair. She never made clothes on her sculptures; it would detract from the moment.
There was a statue of Noctus, one of a bronze-cast collection in some gallery in Koden Kal. It was part of her “Elements of Emotion” series. Indeed – the detail and emotion captured was astounding – the curling of his toes, the tensing of his muscles, the gnashing of his teeth as the waves of ecstacy pulsed through his groin, bared for all to see. His was the popular piece among the salacious public of Koden Kal, but the other sculptures in the collection were just as evocative. The statues of halflings and dwarves in the apex of terror and pain were unforgettable.
She didn’t sculpt for art. She sculpted to capture a moment of time and appreciate it, measure it, study it. No one would ever see Vysara’s work if not for Elysven. The sculptures were just a byproduct of Vysara’s research, taken by her mother and then cast in bronze and put on display to show off how talented the family was. They were developing a some sort of drug or poison and testing it upon their slaves. Noctus did not remember much from the trials, but he knew it made him feel good. Too good. If Kaniz hadn’t cured him from the addiction, he would still be on Ragnoth that day.
When Vysara made a sculpture of a person, there was a deeper connection than just a perfect likeness. Sometimes it formed a magical link between the two. He remembered one time when her model was being unruly. Vysara had no patience for haughty slaves. When the clay smashed upon the ground – so did the man’s head.
Noctus snapped back to reality. This clump of yarn wasn’t like her dolls. Couldn’t be. Impossible, he assured himself. When he looked down he saw he was holding it in one sizzling hand. His fingers crackled with energy. Its threads were burned to a cinder.
Noctus wondered how this family of sirens had managed to claim any form of rulership over the denizens of Shallowhill. With the exception of Zale, they seemed utterly naive about the laws of power and the working of society. The sisters held the surface races in a strange ideal of peace and serenity. Even this far away, the propaganda worked.
There were people on Ragnoth that felt the same way about elves that the siren Vanora did about surface dwellers in general. So wise and noble they were. Refined and elegant, the elves never seemed to need to deal with the dirty realities that all the other races did. They were peaceful folk who valued culture and creation.
Noctus scoffed at the idea. It’s easy to not care about resources when you’re rich. You’ll never get dirty if your slaves do all the work for you. You’ll never bleed if the battle never gets to your borders. Halflings toiled, humans bled, and the elves reaped all the benefits.
Their warning to the Steamlings about King Vandelfir’s invasion was not enough to shake that faith, but the rude awakening would come to their borders soon enough. Hopefully they could unearth the ancient defender in time.
When Tortak hoisted himself into the gunner’s chair of the strange machination, Noctus couldn’t help but think it was destiny. In the time they’d traveled together, the dwarf was certainly the best shot he’d ever seen. It was the obvious choice of which control he would take the reins to. Moreover, it was constructed by the same man who made Tortak’s gun. Its blasts shot like cannons, but with the precision of Tortak’s eye. After the first shot, he really came alive.
Noctus could never really get a read on Tortak. He was simple, yet inscrutable. Stoic yet impulsive. He loved rocks and hated magic. And yet his final act was to kill a rock beast using a magic construct. He was a mystery as deep as any cave or mountain.
Of all the party, Noctus would sure that Tortak would last the longest. Now, sitting in his throne in the colossal mechanical golem overlooking the wreckage of Tortak’s last stand, the pain of the loss of one of his few friends shook him. The grip of fate took Noctus by the heart. He was the only one left.
From that fateful day he arrived in Pyrasil; Gwendolyn, Tybalt, Marcus, and Tortak had all fallen or gone their separate ways.
Noctus leaned back. The Vaerias, the devil from the Wizard’s Tower, Gipgib, the cult of Ghlaunder, the Dragon Zealots, King Vindalfir’s knights… that was an awful lot of enemies.
43 What Dreams May Come
Marsuvees made a gargling sound as he plunged his sword into his stomach. Blood splattered onto the sandy ground of the strange landscape they had found themselves transported to. The vile liquid that encased him convulsed and melted onto the dirt, mixing green into the crimson pool.
He felt light-headed as the blood pumped down his soiled armor. His eyes grew heavy and his orcish form fell down to the side. He could hardly hear Noctus screaming. As the last movement of the paladin’s body ceased, he let out a final whisper, “Save them.”
In a bath of holy light, Noctus, Marcus, and Marsuvees were transported back to the lair within the Stone Thief. They arrived near the crumpled pieces of the gargoyles that had skewered Marsuvees in a deadly pincer.
Unbreathing. Unmoving. Marsuvees laid lifeless on the stone floor. Noctus couldn’t accept it. He refused.
“No. Nononono…” he whimpered softly. Tears ran down his cheeks, and the tiefling slumped to the ground.
Not like this. Not like this. Notlikethis.
His shield, his sword, his rock. They were going to save the world together. They were going to break the world together.
They had so much to do. So many years they hadn’t spent. So many goals they hadn’t reached.
Through the depths of sorrow and rage, Noctus’ mind raced to defy the reality in front of him. Back. He had to come back.
Noctus needed a miracle. There had to be someone who had reached the pinnacle of magic, who could defy death itself – and share this power. The Archmage of the Temple of Nethys, the First Light of Sarenrae. Perhaps Solydrothierth, or the fae queen of the river. Perhaps the followers of the Blue Dragons could impart such a boon.
Or his old master. Elysven Vaeria could raise the dead. This he knew. Nobles and royalty paid a king’s ransom for the privilege, and favors unheard of. The family hadn’t paid taxes in centuries. The ones who couldn’t paid an eternity of service from themselves for the continuation of a lifetime for another.
Somewhere, somehow, the pieces to the puzzle of life would match. If not, he would force them to.
The world would give Marsuvees back, or he would make the world feel his pain.
44 New Friends and Old Enemies
The scar between Noctus’ shoulder blades burned. He knew the witches were close. After the show, he’d met his new friends in their trailer under the circus tent to discuss the plan to rescue Braxton. Too late, the tiefling realized it was he who needed saving.
There was an insistent rapping on the door. Noctus instinctively threw up an illusion over his party – the room was suddenly filled with bulky furniture where each of them stood.
Finnic, the aarakocra acrobat, answered the door. Noctus couldn’t warn him fast enough. He recognized the voice. It burned his ears like the scars she inflicted. All the sisters had abused him, but Cialana was the most sadistically cruel. Finnic deflected her questions surprisingly well, but she would not be deterred. They both knew that Noctus was in there. Moments later she stabbed Finnic with a dagger – just a prick. And then she left.
Damn! And now his new friend was cursed as well. A moment later there was an explosion against the side of their trailer and it began to burn. Which other sister was out there?
They began to beat down the opposite wall to escape. Noctus knew that Cialana loved the chase. But she loved the kill far more.