Tuesday, 14 September 2021 00:00

Tales from the Dorm - The Questors of Wey-Talleigh

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A Second Generation Whateley Academy Tale

Tales from the Dorms

by

Wasamon

 

The Questors of Wey-Talleigh

 

----Saturday, October 15th

--Erica von Abendritter

Breakfast was served, and it was solid.  The cooking staff at the Crystal Hall did most everything right, as far as their none-too-discerning high school clients were concerned, but the rightest by far was the Saturday morning breakfast.  What the Whateley crew called a typical weekend meal period, most restaurateurs would call a logistical nightmare and a miracle of service.  The pancakes alone, served in stacks the height of a full week's homework, reached volumes where the word 'tonnage' became appropriate.

Erica's own plate had a double stack, and it was not the heaviest one to be seen.  The M3 team table should have buckled under the weight of just one of the trays, either Tanya's or Morgana's, set upon it.  The Crystal Hall did its engineering right, too, so no cafeteria furniture was ever destroyed by accident.  She waved to her teammates as she passed by the stairs, but this morning she had a seat reserved for her elsewhere.

The first-floor tables did not have official claims of territory on them, though there was a general agreement of where one cottage's turf began and another's ended.  It was all rather fluid depending on the meal and the day, but one table along the side never changed occupancy.

"Hey, Erica!"  The greeting was happy, chirpy, and irrefutably that of a morning person.  Chessa Barnes had a sort of bronze color to her hair that lit up like the sunset with the lamps behind her, and the girl's eyebrows were two licks of coppery flame over eyes that were a deep green all the way across.  The finely scaled texture of her skin was not obvious until you got up close.  In front of the girl, a triple stack of pancakes threatened the natural balance of the plastic and steel supports beneath it.

"Take the other end," advised Chessa's nominal twin brother, Pat Barnes.  The two of them shared a surname, an official birthdate, and not much else.  "If we distribute the weight more evenly, there's less chance of structural failure."

"Um, actually..."  and that was the third Barnes, Marcus, now plugging numbers into a handheld devise like a cross between a graphing calculator and a PKE meter.  "It would take a lot more pancakes to do that."

"Like, how many more?" the older brother prompted with a grin.

"Let's see.  To achieve critical mass and implosion to a sheer black hole of batter and maple syrup, it would take... The total capacity of Chessa's stomach.  So, three more trips to the pancake line."

"Guys..."  Chessa probably rolled her eyes, but it was hard to tell when the irises matched the sclera so well.  "I don't eat that much.  There are plenty of kids here who--"

"Who're named Tanya, Morgana, or who have code names that describe just what energies they fart," Erica countered.  "We're in the wrong place to play the normal card."

The girl with the bronze dragon makeover lifted one pancake on the end of her fork.  "No big deal.  This is only my second."

"Tray," her official twin added.

"Jerk."

"Energizer."

"Stick it in your ear, why don't'cha."

"Everything okay in Poe?" Erica whispered sideways to Marcus.  "They seem a little intense this morning."

The boy shrugged.  "More of the same, only more so.  How's your week been since the big to-do?"

"Ugh, I'd say not to ask, but too late for that."  Erica let some pancake-y goodness mellow her mouth and mood before continuing.  "Win one big fight, and everyone starts acting weird.  Detention's been mostly good, though.  The kids in Hawthorne are always supportive to anyone who beats up bullies."

Marcus grinned around his own pancakes.  "Yeah.  Hypergolic in the junior high section is your biggest fan," he said once he'd swallowed.  "If they let him take meals in here, I'm sure he'd be by to say hi."

"Probably," she agreed.  "But yeah, an experience.  Cally had a bit of a turn, but--"

"Oh, where is your better half, anyway?" asked Chessa.

Right there was a rumor that was never going to go away, Erica feared.  Ever since the particulars of Calliope's gender and orientation had been outed to the entire campus, everyone seemed hell-bent to get the two of them together as a couple.  And to be honest, she would not have minded in the slightest if she, Erica, were not as straight as the proverbial arrow.

"They're not dating," Pat reminded.

"Eh, a girl can ship, can't she?"

Pat had to concede that.  "I thought you were shipping Cally with Nina and/or Noelle, though?"

"I am a lady of many and varied ships," Chessa declared loftily.  "But yeah, where is she?  Didn't collapse during the morning whatever, did she?"

"Nah, I let her sleep in a little," Erica told them.  "All that stress, yanno?  She should be by... ah, there she is!  Cally!"  She waved her roommate over to the table.

The Italian songstress was coming off of a full ten hours of sleep, and she was looking the better for it.  Dark hair streaked with gold fell into the sort of bedheaded look that usually cost a few hundred dollars to effect at the hair salon, and gilded eyes were softened by frequent, sleepy blinking.  Instead of the usual espresso, fruit, and pastry, her plate showed that she, too, had fallen to the siren song of pancakes that morning.  With black currant syrup.

"Ah, buon giorno," she said to them as she took her seat.  "Were you already discussing?"

"Waited for you," Chessa assured her.  

"They were having too much fun bickering," Erica confirmed.

"Bicker... ah, never to mind," said Cally with a shake of the head.  "My file, it is in my bag now..."

Erica's file was already on its way out of her own bag, and Chessa added a third to the table shortly.  Three different plastic file covers in as many colors, but the contents of each were broadly the same.  The devil was in the details, as were the dragons and the other D words.

"So, Gazebo said to come by his place around ten-ish," Chessa began.  "Got the spot marked on my pad's navi.  One last looksee to make sure the numbers are square, and then it's game on~~!"  The words ended on a trill that was as happy as it was inhuman.  "Ahem, hehe.  Sorry 'bout that.  The squeaks are new."

"Quite cute," said Cally.  "Did you get approved what you wanted?"

"Yeah!"  Chessa's file opened to show a rough sketch of a lady in fantasy travel robes and a broad-brimmed hat.  "The name's Emi.  Emi Mojit.  She's a... well, yanno, this is my first new character since... um..."  Now the green eyes were downcast and dimmed.  "Since, yanno, I... and then I..."  

The dragon girl's official twin had her in his arms and sogging up his shoulder a heartbeat later.  "It's okay," said Pat.  "Let it out."

Erica and Calliope stayed quiet on the sidelines.  They'd heard the story before, how in another life the old Chess had played a character named Chessa until the day their dad had expressed his disapproval of the role-play by ripping it all to pieces.  Everything between that moment and the one where Chess had become Chessa in truth added up to a long story, one that would have counted as a tragedy were if not for the happy ending.

"Whew.  Thanks, bro."  Chessa sniffled.  "I'll be fine, promise."

"Good."  Pat eyed the character sheet.  "Just don't transform into this one, okay?  You're weird enough as it is."

"Jerk."  Chessa's case of Gross Structural Dystrophy did not extend to her tongue, now stuck out and revealed to be pink and ordinary.  "But yeah, Emi.  She's a lot of what I'd like to be as a person now.  Maybe not quite so blunt, or so ditzy -- racial penalty to wisdom on there, but...  Oh, I wrote out her origin here."

~~Where Emi Came From~~

Once upon a time, there was a farmer and his wife.  They had everything they needed in life except for children, and oh how they wished for them!  But year after year, the farmer's wife failed to conceive.  The farmer loved her dearly, and would not leave her for that, though he was sometimes advised to do just so.  Instead, he prayed in the evenings.

One calm night, a funny little man happened upon their farm.  He was a pilgrim from the distant land of Videsh, and while they thought him strange, still they welcomed him as a guest.  When it was time for him to leave and continue on his journey, he said to them, "Well do I know what you wish for.  This is a place that needs children's laughter to fill it.  Know you that my goddess Hariti, She Who Watches Over Children at Night,  has heard your prayers and shall bless you soon.  Take good care of your first child, and more will surely follow."

And it came to pass that by the end of the year, they were blessed with a baby girl.  But what a child she was!  From the moment she was born, one could see the catlike ears, the tiny claws, and most amazingly a long and sinuous tail upon her body.  The farmer and his wife were shocked, but they heeded the words of the strange little man and loved their little Emi dearly.  More children followed, until Emi was big sister to three little boys and three little girls, and she took good care of them all.

On the eve of her eighteenth birthday, Emi was looking out the window of farmhouse, and a great feeling of need came over her.  It was her purpose, she somehow knew, to go out into the world and be a better big sister for any who needed it.  With that in mind, she told her parents she wished to travel, to find her place in life.  The goddess Hariti, her Big Momma Above, filled her in on the details later.

~~Back at Whateley~~

"That was quite nice," said Calliope.  "You are making me wish that I had written out my character's backstory in more detail.  All that I have is in my head or on this sheet."  She presented the paper for inspection.  

"Petrille gya Adres ng Achar ad Gemmermach?  What a mouthful."  Chessa's nose twitched.  "Is that in any real language or what?"

"I made it up," Cally admitted.  "The pre-name, it is supposed to sound like 'stone' in the Romance languages, and the middle section, it is the parent-names in the style of dwarves in Gazebo's setting.  The surname, it is a job description of the family.  Petrille, child of Adres and Achar, the Gem-Shapers."

"Which one's the mom and which one's the dad?" asked Chessa.

"Neither, in any context?  Ah..."  Cally straightened her paper nervously on the table.  "I, I was wanting to try the different thing this time, and Gazebo's dwarves, they do not recognize the genders the way the humans do, and so neither does Petrille."  A sip of coffee seemed to focus the Italian's thoughts and empower her bardic instincts.  Setting down the cup, she continued, "Well, it begins, as you would say, once upon a time..."

~~The Finding of Petrille~~

Once upon a time not so long ago, barely a blink as the earth would feel it, a pair of dwarvish crafters were departed to the big city to practice their trade.  Through the low-ways they traveled until those ancient paths rose to the surface, and then were they compelled to walk amidst the open air and trees.  This proved new and strange to the pair, but dangerous and amazing as well, for they need worry about the weather.

A sunny day may soon turn to storm, and the two knew not what signs might warn of it.  Caught in the rain, they struggled onward until at last they spied an old wayhouse in the distance.  The building was in poor shape, but it had four walls, a roof, and a door.

Tucked into the frame of that door lay a surprise: a swaddled child only a few weeks of age.  The dwarves looked upon it in dismay, not understanding what they saw, for children were rare and cherished beneath the roots of the mountains.  Who would give up a child so?  Then the infant opened its mouth to cry, and its eyes as well -- eyes that glimmered like the fire agates of Aukhawanaq.

The dwarvish pair, skilled gem-shapers, were awestruck and immediately claimed the infant as their own, bringing it with them to the big city.  There they gave offerings of thanks to the spirits, and especially to Janastra, Watcher of Doorways and Guardian of Gates.  By chance, the local priest of Janasta was in need of a gemmermach to do needed maintenance on the gilded gate of Marqamilion, patron of merchants, and thus their chance adoption led them to many a lucrative contract.

Petrille aged and matured as the dwarves did, studying hard and learning much before the traditional coming of age in the fortieth year.  Young and strong, ze chose to repay the beneficence of Janastra by entering the service of the spirit, until the time that was became the time that is, and ze remains a guardian priestess of all doorways, borders, and edges.

Zer parents are so proud.

~~Back at Whateley~~

There was applause around the table as Cally finished her tale.  "Lotta stuff in your head," Chessa commented.  "Good telling, too.  So Petrille's an... oread?  Is that right?  Okay, this is my first time using Pathfinder as a game foundation, but it's based on 3.5 edition, right?  And oreads are... basically genasi?"

"Exactly genasi," Erica confirmed.  "Paizo took the genasi racial type and split it further into elemental categories, so the oreads are earth elemental people.  An interesting build here," she commented, tapping the character sheet in a few spots.  "Very, um, defensive."

"Grazie.  Gazebo, he helped me to make the details work," Cally admitted.  "I do not know this system as well as I should, and then there are his personal touches on top of it all, but so.  Petrille is, ah, what was the word in English... non-binary.  The deity Janastra stands upon the borders of all things and shows the different faces in the different directions, and so do the Doorkeepers.  The dwarves do not bother themselves with the matters of gender, but instead have the pronouns on the basis of social class and relationships.  By preference, Petrille's pronoun is ytak, but as few people in the world above speak Dwarvish, the subtle nuances, they are lost."

A snicker of appreciation floated over from the other end of the table, where Pat was finishing his pancakes.  "Isn't that the truth," he said.  "One of these days I am going to get someone in the administration to listen to my proposal for neopronouns on campus, and..."

"And then you'll have more material to complain about," Chessa finished for him.  Another snort answered that.  "So Petrille is a ze/zim/zer sort of person.  Gotcha.  What about you, Erica?  Any cool backstory?"

"Um, not really?"  She would blush if she could.  "I was focused more on mechanics and enabling silly stuff than, yanno, justifying it or optimizing it.  Here, Wolpheen the bard-priestess, diva of Zitaori, blending songs and blessings and whatnot."  The important details were on her character sheet in her neatest scribble.

"Aw, no backstory?"  Disappointment shone green in the dragon girl's eyes, much as everything else did.  "But that's the fun part!"

"We could always make one up for her," suggested Cally.

"That we could!  A properly mysterious past..."

"Not too much so, or else we give my roommate the chance to ignore it.  But perhaps something--"

"Tragic!"

"--happy," the Italian finished in the same breath.  "Ah.  Happy and the tragedy?  I do not think that will work."

"Okay, then let's do it tragic and then happy."

"No, that is not what I...  and why are you laughing?" Cally demanded to her blonde BFF.

"Just enjoying the lively debate," Erica told her.  "But remember: she's a bard as well as a devotee to a goddess who likes big, crazy stories.  Would you trust her to tell her own backstory right?"

~~Wolpheen's Many Stories~~

At some point, Wolpheen had joined the musical ministry of Zitaori.  That was one thing about her which everyone could state plainly and without a doubt.  The only thing, in fact.  It wasn't that people hadn't tried to get more details out of her, but the smooth-talking guitarist would need only hum and strum a few bars, a twinkle glinting in her starlit eyes, and then the listener would take whatever was said to be gospel truth.  It was only when those listeners came together to check the details that they realized that none of them agreed on a single word.

So, to the best of their knowledge, the following items were all equally true:

  • Wolpheen had been born into poverty in the slums of al-Washoi.
  • She was the fifth princess of Vitruland.
  • Her mother had been a hamster breeder.
  • Her mother had been a brewster of elderberry beer.
  • Her father was dead.
  • Her father was king.
  • Her father had run off with a trollish trollop.
  • Her father was a trollish trollop, and her mother very confused upon the details.
  • She was the oldest of seven.
  • She was the youngest of fifteen.
  • Her brothers and sisters all loved her.
  • Her brothers and sisters all hated her for being an only child.
  • She was fluent in High Elven, Vulgar Elven, Low Dwarvish, extra-vulgar Dwarvish, and Goblin (which only had a vulgar form).
  • She was conversant in Gigantish, Orcish, Druish, Gnomish, the elemental tongues of Ferran and Lignan, Old High Middling Rare Draconic, and Mythricci rhyming slang.
  • She signed her name with a little musical note over every i that was not actually in her signature.

Eventually people stopped asking, and she was allowed to drown the memories in wine, music, and wild flings of passion like a normal, healthy individual should.  Why anyone would dwell in the past when the future was right ahead and waiting for her to claim it, Wolpheen did not know.

The only greater mystery to her was that none ever asked her why her eyes glittered the way they did.  She had so many good answers going to waste for that one.

~~Back at Whateley~~

Girlish giggles halted the full litany of Wolpheen's strange and varied collection of backgrounds.  Erica marveled at how natural it sounded, given that the three girls in question had between them perhaps a total sum of one year's experience being girlish.  The boys at the table kept their faces of annoyed bemusement firmly in place.

"So she's a mystery wrapped in a conundrum," Erica finally said.

"A riddle folded into a mystery," her roommate opined.

"A weird little message hidden in a fortune cookie of awesome!" said Chessa.

Pat cleared his throat.  "I'd say she's more like the joke wrapper around a piece of cheap bubble gum."

His twin blew him a raspberry.  "Don't be a wet blanket."

"I'm only getting into the spirit here..."

"Why do you not come along?" asked Calliope.  "It is the open game."

The boy from Poe shrugged.  "Not my thing.  And to tell the truth, dice tend to like me too much.  Not from luck or anything, but you can be sure that in a tight spot, where it was all or nothing on a single roll, the sheer coolness of a winning throw..."  Pat's eyes gleamed between shades of green, blue, and hazel.  "It just would not be fair."

"Gotcha.  It takes all kinds.  Like musical aasimars of uncertain celestial ancestry."  She replaced her character sheet in its folder and checked the time on the big clock above the dining area.  "Hey, if we're gonna be at Gazebo's clubhouse on time, we'd better get going."

"All done here!" Chessa announced over a recently evacuated plate of no-more-pancakes.  She then made a rude noise in response to her twin's next comment.

"Shall we say hello to Donut and get the presents for our host?" Calliope suggested.

That was a fine idea, and the three of them left the Crystal Hall a few minutes later with a carryout bag full of Daniel 'Donut' Diggins' special treats.  Having the young man as a boyfriend, even an ex-boyfriend, had its benefits, as the aroma of warm pastries would attest.  If it were not for the herculean quantities of pancakes consumed that morning, the treats would not have survived even to the tunnel entrance, much less through the threaded labyrinth of underground passages that formed Whateley's under-campus.  Their destination lay on the far side of the devisor and gadgeteer general workspace, requiring a long loop around the main block as well as a detour to avoid a suspicious-looking spill in Corridor 2-Alpha.

Soon enough they were at a door, a mundane portal of pressed wood board on a simple frame.  The sign on the front read simply GAZEBO, despite it being two levels underground.

A computer teacher in her, in Eric's old school in Arkansas had tried to get them into an ancient text-based game that had a gazebo in a cave, Erica recalled.  Her eyes slid to the darker corners of the tunnel, looking out for grue.  Her knuckles rapped on the door.

The wooden panel slid away, proving itself to be a façade for the standard door inset that most of the underground used.  The lock clicked, and then this real door also opened to reveal the room within.

Erica blinked.  Maybe they were in the Great Underground Empire, after all.

It was as if they were stepping into a twilit space, a cavern illuminated by magic light above with enough intensity to allow a mossy lawn to grow underfoot.  There was a shoebox shelf by the door with a sign instructing them to shuck their footwear and socks.  The moss was probably just a fancy carpet, but it felt nice between the toes.

There had to have been a ceiling and walls to the room, but some illusion of science fooled the eyes into believing that the vista extended into the distance in truth.  At the center was a white-washed structure, an actual gazebo with a table set for gaming and seating cushions around it.  There were six places at the table, and one was currently occupied.

Julian 'Gazebo' Smith had the easy good looks of a mid-tier Exemplar, average for Whateley and exceptional for anywhere else.  Even the best looks on the planet could not have hidden the guy's inherent nerdiness, however.  It was impossible to miss the wizard's hat and robes, under which a t-shirt stated, "Will Run Games For Pizza."  At the moment, he was sorting dice.

"Hey, ladies," the game master said.  "I know you've got your own, but if you ever need extra..."

"Then we're in the right place," Erica confirmed.  Her own set of plastic polyhedrons, blue with gold flecks, were soon on the table.  Cally's honey-gold dice joined them, then Chessa's powder blue ones.  Their character sheets were laid out on the tabletop for final inspection.

"Good, good," said Gazebo.  "All clear on the variant gestalt rules?"

As clear as they could be, for something partially homebrewed as an option between two different systems.  Erica had tried variant multi-classing in a previous life's game, where certain class abilities were sacrificed to allow a second character class to be added in a limited fashion.  It had not been satisfying, as it nerfed the base class and doled out benefits from the second like molasses on a spoon.

Gestalt multi-classing, she had never tried.  Since it amounted to taking two levels for every one actually gained, getting the best of both classes in the process, it had seemed too overpowered for any of the adventure paths she'd done in the past.  Gazebo's preferred solution was to split the difference and have each of them declare a primary class as well as an adjunct class.  Then, over the course of many emails, they'd horse-traded class skill components tit-for-tat until they had a sort of hybrid class that was certainly not legal for tournament play, but not quite as OP as a well-done gestalt.

But in the end, he'd left most of the numbers, the point-buy for stats and the purchase of equipment, to them.  This was why he was giving each character sheet a scan now.  "Good... good... hm, Chessa, are you sure about this skill value?"

"Check the traits list," the dragon girl told him.  

"Hm?  Oh, there it is.  Not to worry, then.  Ladies, I dub you all clear for gaming.  Any questions?"

"Yeah..."  Erica waved a hand around to encompass the scenery.  "What's all this?"

"Can't do a game without the proper atmosphere, can we?"  Gazebo chuckled to himself.  "I'm quite proud of the image projectors.  They fake distance so well.  Before I got them perfected, I could only manage a general room design.  Last year, this was all a pizza parlor, if you'd believe."

"Complete with pepperoni?"  Chessa had a hungry look that should have been impossible after that morning's breakfast.

"Alas not.  We used to have a special arrangement with Pizza Nut in town, a drop-off of sorts, but after Boris and Alexei retired, the new management weren't so happy about delivery drivers occasionally returning to the shop traumatized.  So it goes."

She was amazed that the game master could say all that with a straight face.  Whateley really did make a person jaded.  "You created this system, then?" she asked.  "You're a gadgeteer?"

"O forse uno mago..." murmured her roommate.

"While I can't say I speak Italian, I've got four semesters of Latin down, so I can guess," Gazebo said with a grin below his hat.  "The answer is, of course, yes to both."

"Um, how's that work?"

"You know how it is.  Smart kid, smarter mutation, cleared most of his high school requirements over the summer.  Pretty common for the tech track, and most would double down on the science courses."  The grin widened.  "But, said I, this is a school with a frickin' Magic Studies Department.  You better believe I was signing up for every Intro to Thaumaturgy course they could offer for Muggles, and lo, by the end of sophomore year I was adding WIZ-1 to my MID ratings.  Score!" he crowed.

"You rock, dude," said Chessa.  "I'm trying to get Myra to sign off on me taking some Magic for Muggles classes, but I gotta wait till next year."

"Tough but worth it," Gazebo assured her.  A waterfall of tinkling bells interrupted his next few words.  "Ah, the proximity alert.  The rest of the adventuring party approaches."

"Ah, who is it?" asked Cally.  The Italian's eyes flitted nervously as she shrank down between Erica and Chessa.

"First one's an old friend.  Not to worry; he's cool.  Well, for a sophomore.  The other's a freshman he's brought in for a few sessions already.  Could be that you know him better than I."

That was true, as Erica realized with a sinking stomach when the two young men entered the Gazebo of Gaming.  The older boy was ruggedly handsome in a natural way, sans exemplar traits, but the younger wasn't quite to the same level yet.  He was scrawny and gawky, with large, parabolic ears lightly furred and fuzzy on either side of spiky black hair.

Erica bit back the words, "Damnit, Saumer," before they could clear her voicebox.  She could only pray that he hadn't heard them anyway.

"Oh, hey Erica!" the boy said.  "Guten morgen.  You, um, remember me, right?  German language lab?"

"How could I forget?"  She rolled her eyes in a hopefully convincing manner.  "Guten morgen, Hiram."

Saumer hated his first name, she knew, and it pained her to see him flinch at it, but the less she did to remind him of his old friend and classmate Eric Schroeder, the better.

"Hello, ladies," said the older student with Saumer.  "Jacob Parelli, code name Epulotic.  Good fight last weekend."

"Thanks," said Erica dryly.  "It was almost worth the detention detail."

"Yeah, I heard.  Hawthorne, right?  Bet you could tell some stories."

She and her roommate shared the same, tense look and shivered.  "No," they said in unison.

"Okay, Jacob.  Saumer," said their host.  "Why don't we introduce your characters?"

"Right on, my man."  Jacob had his own sheet out and on the table.  "Here's my dude, Calburi the knight on a mission from god.  He's not sure which one as yet, but he's a cavalier who's slowly developing paladin powers.  Just to make things interesting," he chuckled.

~~The Tale of Calburi~~

For as long as he could remember, Calburi Varkassti had been fascinated with tales of knightly deeds and noble adventures.  As a child he would act out his favorites, driving the housecats to panic in the process.  His mother dangled the dream before him whenever she needed him to be on his best behavior, or any other time as well.  "Brave knights eat their vegetables," she would say, and so he would.  "They train by doing the household chores," she would tell him, and suddenly he did not mind at all the quotidien toil of the family homestead.

As the third son of an inordinately healthy family of twelve, Calburi had no stake in the inheritance, and it held no interest for him.  At the age of twelve, he became the squire to a local nobleman who was down on his luck and could not afford better.  The farmer's son worked trebly hard to catch up to the level of his fellow squires, any of whom had been born to the shield and lance.  He worked hard, trained hard, until there was talk of him being a made man, a shoe-in for knighthood the next time the local order of knights convened.

One summer day, they did.  And he was not.  Of his supposed friends in the order, not a one brought his name forward for knight candidacy.  Though every other squire of his rank was promoted, Calburi remained where he was.

Not for long, however.  A realization had grown slowly within him over the years, that justice was not with the sword, not with the knightly oaths, but with the heart and the will.  If he were to do as he dreamed, to go forth and help all those in need, then he would fain do it himself.  The newfound sense of justice burned in his chest, a fire whose warmth flowed outward to lend succor to the ones in pain.  At other times, that force of justice limned his sword in the light of righteousness, driving back the darkness.

Far from home did he travel, to lands that knew not of his order, nor cared about the station of his birth.  The people called him Sir Calburi and he did not correct them their error.  Never knighted, still would he be the beacon of virtue and justice for all.

~~Back at Whateley~~

"A non-deific paladin?"  Erica read the notes one more time, then dredged up her memory of the 5e text on alternatives within that most holy of warrior classes.  She didn't know the Pathfinder rules, but they weren't likely to be so different.  "Like, you draw power from your faith in an ideal?"

"Exactly."  Jacob had his dice in neat rows according to size, with the colors alternating between green and red.  "He's not exactly the biggest fan of organized religion, funny enough.  Being from outside the kingdom, he's got a different perspective on the local theo-political situation, and decided that he's better off with the direct approach to helping folks out.  He lacks some of the god-specific bits of being a paladin, but he's got all the strategic planning skill of a cavalier, so expect to do some teamwork in combat."

"Roger that!" said Chessa.  

Gazebo had his digital notebook open and was typing furiously throughout their discussion, but he spared a moment to look up and say, "Not as many benefits as having a patron deity, of course.  One of the trade-offs here.  I keep tempting him with potential Road to Damascus moments.  Never a bite, though."

"I'm sure he's the hottest prize amongst the pantheon."  Erica rolled her eyes.  "What about you, Hiram?" she asked once they were done with the sophomore's character sheet.  "What do you normally play... let me guess, a paladin?"

That was indeed the case, as his ears revealed when they shot up in surprise.  It had not been a guess, in truth, but rather old memories and experience of a life she'd never again have.  None of that echoed in her voice, she hoped.

"Yes, actually," said the freshman boy.  "But not today.  Inspired by... well, egged on by Jacob, I went with something a little more out there.  Get myself out of the comfort zone, yanno?"

~~The Story of Kanä~~

There is a sea out there, one among many, where the winds blow and the thunder rolls, but the storms never seem to leave.  It bears many names, terrible names such as the Mouth of Madness, the Devourer of Ships, the Devil's Delta, or the Sea of Shambles.  But for the strange folk known as the krüt, it is home.

Not much is known about the krüt, for they keep to themselves in the best of times.  In the worst of times, visitors to their isles often find themselves the centerpiece of a lovely dinner festival from which they might only return as second helpings.  The krüt are believed to be Men, though they be shorter than most.  Their bodies are bundles of wiry muscle, and their eyes show no white around the edges, but rather a bloody red.  Only a few outsiders manage trade with them, and of those, most are better known as vicious pirates themselves.

For reasons that he cannot recall -- and does not think matter anymore -- Kanä was left adrift in a small reed boat as a child, floating into the tempestuous waters of the Shambles with the expectation that he would not survive.  A pirate vessel, itself off course due to those same threatening storms, pulled him out of the water.  Most of the crew was fine with throwing him back in once they saw the reds of his eyes, but the oddest of the bunch, a Sarloo known as the Handyman from the far shores of Owakani, took a shine to the kid and adopted him as a son and student.

The Handyman, Fijä, was a very odd sort of monk, a drunken master of tavern combat who solemnly believed himself to be one of the Lucky Thousand, one of those monkeys whose names were erased from the ledgers of the Lord of Death at the same time as the great Monkey King Son Gukon removed His own, and that he would be reincarnated eternally to do as he pleased, in honor of his god.  In the child Kanä, Fijä saw a kindred soul, and the old Sarloo monkey-man became convinced that the krüt child was another of the Lucky Thousand, currently slumming it as a different species.

And so Kanä found a father who brought him along from ship to ship, and finally to the far shores of Owakani to learn the Sarloo way of living, loving, and fighting.  He mastered the flow and the forms, the strikes and the stances, and found within himself a weird strength born of his own heritage.  Water he could command in small amounts, though never enough to attack with it directly.  Rather, he could swirl and swish the water inside a man, causing feelings of upset to his advantage.

The far shores of Owakani shall ever remain in his heart, but the winds of the Shambles remain in his blood, and Kanä loves nothing better than to travel and see the world.  Always shall he return to his father's home in the town of Shüri, but only when he has tales to amuse the old Sarloo.

~~Back at Whateley~~

Well, that was different.  Erica was not sure what she would have picked as a good character class for Eric Schroeder's best friend.  A bard, perhaps.  Saumer was always the audiophile.  Maybe a song-based sorcerer.  A general-use barbarian would not have surprised her too much, since everyone had a time or two where they just wanted to eat apples and smash heads, only they were out of apples.

A monk with a blood-bending subtype of hydrokinesis and a drinking problem was well outside her expectations.

"Gotta keep things interesting, right?" Saumer said with a lopsided grin.  His left ear had flopped down to match the expression.  "So, um, yeah.  Kanä came into port a month ago, started a fight in the wrong bar, and was in jail when his ship left without him.  Jacob's hero was looking for some help with a pond troll infestation and got him released on a community service bond.  That was two Sundays back," he added.  "Gazebo ran a one-shot for us."

"Would've invited you then," said the game master to the ladies, "only it sounded like you were a bit preoccupied that day."

A collective wince passed through the three girls.  'Preoccupied' did not even begin to cover it.  "Yeah, and last week would've been..."  Erica held her hand out flat and wobbled it a little.  "Well, you were there, Hiram."

"Loved the announcer stuff!" Chessa told him.  "You and your friends did a great job."

"I was there, too," Jacob huffed.

"Really?"

"On the sidelines with the other healers," the sophomore informed them.  "I manifest healing bandages.  Your purple friend needed a fair amount of patching up."

"Lavender."  The correction was near to automatic at this point, as were the giggles.  "So your guys know each other?" Erica continued.  "Good.  Our ladies, um..."

"They're all in the same ladies' circle," Chessa supplied.

"Yeah... that?"  She tried to keep the question mark out of her voice, but did not succeed.  

"Yanno," the dragon girl continued.  "Lots of clerics and priests and whatnot in this area, but not many our relative ages.  So our respective temple elders, mentors, or divine patrons encouraged us to reach out and meet new people.  Every fifth-day is ladies' night at the Temple of Bibesia and Edesia!  Or wherever else we happen to be.  We can drink and complain about our mothers superior and make mildly blasphemous statements where no one cares, and just let off steam, yanno?"

Jacob had the short notes from Gazebo for each character, and his eyebrows remained high on his forehead as his eyes scrolled down.  "A bard crossed with a cleric... sings all her spells, keeps a hymnal as a spellbook?  An oread cleric-slash-warpriest... That's a hybrid of a hybrid!  And... what is this archetype?" he asked in an aside to Gazebo.  His finger poked one line from the description of Cally's stony protagonist.  "Never seen this one before."

"Oh, that?  I'm play-testing some stuff for a friend at Paizo.  That one's from a book that should be out next year.  Interesting, huh?"

"It can't use Channel Energy.  And the warpriest side can only do it with a shield up.  That's... about half the reason to have a cleric, gone!"

"We do have more than two clerics," Chessa reminded him.

"Right.  Your lady, who is a... witch-cleric hybrid."  Jacob's face was now stuck firmly in the confused position.  "A tiefling witch-child worshipping a reformed rakshasa?"

"Yup.  Hariti, demi-goddess of children and childbirth, otherwise known as Big Mama Above," Chessa confirmed.  "Well, metaphysically speaking, at least.  Hey, bunny boy's monk thinks he's a reincarnated monkey.  Can we accept that we're all a little weird and get on with it?  My dice need to roll!"

"Yes, let's."  Gazebo tapped the screen of his smartpad, and then the tabletop shimmered and rippled as the map of a city and its environs appeared.  "Welcome to Teuthenbard," he announced.  "The Nail of the North-East, holding down its corner of the kingdom against unwelcome visitors.  Occasionally against welcome ones, too.  It's a predominantly human settlement in a region notorious for incursions of corrupted things, and they don't see a lot of exotic races about.  Anyway, Calburi and Kanä are at the East Gate, headed into town after their adventure against the pond troll."

The boys placed marker chips on the table to represent their characters.  No one was surprised when miniature models of those characters appeared upon them, or that the markers then moved across the table on their own.

"And over at the West Gate, Wolpheen and Petrille are heading into town for a ladies' night after a long circuit around the region on temple business."  Erica and Cally placed their own markers quickly.

"What about me?" asked Chessa.  "Doing it like we discussed?"

"Yup."  One last marker was set in the burg's central plaza.  "As your characters enter town, there's signs of excitement coming from the big market square.  A festival or something, though none of you know what it might be."

"Can I roll for local knowledge?"  Erica waited for the nod of approval from Gazebo and then sent the gold-flecked blue d20 rolling from her fingers to land with the 20-side up.  A general cheer rose from around the table.

"No crits on skills checks," the game master reminded.  "Still a good roll, one that tells you precisely... nothing.  No local festivals this time of year, no religious events, saints days, or even an important noble's birthday.  There's just no good explanation for what you're hearing, so..."

"What about a bad explanation?" asked Erica.

"Bad as in hard to understand, or bad as in..."  The question ended on an unsettling chuckle.

She took her roommate by the hand and together they moved their markers closer in.  "Nothing good, which means something bad.  Gotcha.  But where's Chessa, er, Emi in all of this?"

~~Emi Mojit's Not So Good Day~~

Normally, she enjoyed a good party, Emi did.  All the laughter and merriment and candles on cakes.  In the evenings they might roast sausages and corn over the coals of the bonfire.  Always a fun time, it was.  Or should be.  At the moment, the tiefling regretted having the best seat as the guest of honor for the event.

This was mainly because the seat in question was set atop a large pile of wood, and she was tied to it in a firmly not-fun way.

In her lap, little Bronson whimpered.  Her familiar resembled nothing more than an average lapdog, big eared and only a tad bug-eyed, but he had bravely faced the mob instead of running like she'd asked.  They'd tied him up with shoestring and left him on her lap as the bonfire's construction continued.  He would not speak, not in front of anyone but her alone, but he could bark at passersby.

"So, um, I guess that's a No for a second date?" she joked nervously as Miles went by.  The man would not even look her in the face.  "Yeah, too bad.  Um, I had a really nice time while it lasted?"

And oh, Big Mama Above, it had been good.  Just the memory of the first kiss sent a thrill to the end of her tail.  The appendage twitched behind her chair.  Normally she kept it hidden beneath her professional robes, but the folks with the ropes had insisted it be out and proud.  Maybe the sight of it made them feel better.

Not her, of course.  Her buttocks were falling asleep on the wooden seat.

"I don't suppose the condemned could get a farewell kiss?" she inquired.  Her best puppy-dog eyes witnessed Miles flinch.

The local elder moved between them, and if ever there were a face to kill the mood...  Elder Hugot's face drooped in four different places, like the man had weights tied strategically to his cheeks and lips, and another pair for the ears.  The man was dressed all in black, because of course he was.  Emi was convinced that the self-righteous were allergic to anything colorful.  The shallow, broad-brimmed cap kept the sun off his peeling nose.

"Have you no shame, harlot?" demanded the elder.

"It's midwife, actually, and... no, I suppose I don't."  She spoke as truthfully as she could.  "Hard to hold onto that feeling -- shame, yanno -- when your business is all about seeing folks naked and screaming."

"You would seduce the innocent!"

"No one who kisses like that could ever be completely innocent."  Her tail twitched again.  "And really, it was a mutual sort of seduction, right down to the smallclothes."

She was not one for vengeance, really, but if that cutie Miles dropped dead of embarrassment right that moment, then she would be happy in spite of the flames to come.

"We do not suffer the presence of the Corrupt in this city!" Elder Hugot declared.

"It's all good.  I'm not a big fan of them either..."  But the man was not listening to her.  His speech had shifted towards the gathered crowd, many of whom did not look so certain about the goings-on.  Several of them were clients of Emi's, or family thereof, but she did not grudge them any for not speaking up when the elder was in a mood to burn people.

Behind her back, her claws were almost through with teasing the knots apart, and her wrists were not nearly as secured as the devil-hunter thought.  If the old man kept talking, holding off the lighting of the bonfire just long enough...

Nope.  Here came the torches.  "Don't suppose Big Mama sent us a spell to ignore flames?" she whispered to Bronson.  Her familiar only whined.  "Yeah, I thought not.  Okay, on my command--"

"What's all this?"  Oh, now there was a welcome voice!  The mellifluous alto of Wolpheen, diva of Zitaori, cracked like a whip and slashed like a saber, cutting through the din of the crowd and commanding attention.  The song-priestess strutted across the plaza like a crusading peacock, her performance robes brightly hued in all the ways which Elder Hugot's were not.  Despite not topping five feet in height, even with the thickest-soled boots, everyone saw her as the bigger.  It was possible that the ostrich feathers in her hat had something to do with it.

Behind the diva, the grey-clad Petrille seemed to shrink into her friend's shadow, despite being taller by a foot.  Zer eyes stayed down, but zer hands made the furtive gestures of quiet magic.  Only Emi caught that detail, as all other witnesses were focused on Wolpheen.

The diva had a guitar in hand.  Whence it came, doubtless none could say.  Emi had tried in the past to figure out how her friend did it, but there was always that subtle blur in reality, where one moment the guitar was not there and the next moment it was, as if handed over by an obliging helper as the audience looked the other way.  At most, she once thought she'd seen a hand out of the corner of her eye, but it was gone before she could focus.

The strum of the strings filled the space behind Wolpheen's words: "Really, now.  What's she done to deserve this?  Poor thing, I know she's an awful flirt, but that's why she needs the practice.  You'll never find a kinder soul than Emi Mojit, mark my words, so let's put down those torches and talk this through and maybe you'll find that you're overreacting, hm?"

The speech droned on, lyrical and sweet, soothing and soporific.  In a crowd running on nerves and the rush of righteousness, the steady stream of even tones filled the ambience with a pleasant coolness of mood.

Behind Emi's back, the ropes finally fell away.  She kept up the pretence of bondage, however.  Good as her friend Wolpheen was, the odds were still against the diva and her calming tricks.

"Meddle not in the affairs of faith, simple songbird!" yelled Elder Hugot.

"As a priestess of Zitaori, faith is kind of my thing," the diva retorted.

"And as a leader of this community," the black-clad man declared, "and as an inquisitor of the Order of the Hammer, it is my duty to remove the Corrupted before they do harm to my people."  Seeing as none of his people were moving, Hugot took a torch of his own and brought it to the woodpile.  "This one was born of the fires of hell, whence now she must return!"

~~Back at Whateley~~

The inquisitor's die was deep purple with swirls of blue.  The number 18 shone in a coppery hue at the top.  Gazebo had the man's details up, but dismissed them just as quickly.  "Yeah, that's enough for him to ignore your song's effect, Erica, even before the natural plus-5 Will save from his class levels and another plus-5 from feats and traits.  Dude just does not feel the groove."

The center of the table had realigned itself to present the mis-en-scène.  The bonfire in the center was soon to be lit, with Emi still atop it.  There was the crowd, led by Elder Hugot.  Wolpheen and her companion stood a little farther off.

Erica nudged her regular companion in life.  "What's Petrille gonna do?"

Calliope's response was short and succinct.  "Her spell is ready, and she will hold action until it is needed."

"And you guys?" Erica asked to the other side of the gaming table.  "Far be it from me to imply anything, but I think Chessa's itching for a damsel in distress rescue."

"Oh, could we?"  The all-green field of the dragon girl's eyes glittered with enthusiasm.  "I mean, yeah, Emi's a strong, determined lady who could probably save herself from this predicament, but that doesn't mean she wouldn't appreciate a strong, handsome guy coming to her aid..."  Coppery eyelashes fluttered at Jacob.

For a moment, Erica feared that the sophomore had failed his saving throw versus the obvious.  As it was, Jacob only succeeded on the bonus count.  "Oh!  Yeah, ahem, Calburi doesn't know what's going on when he walks into the plaza, but if he sees a young lady in danger, he'll surely save the day."

"My hero!" Chessa exclaimed happily.

~~Here Comes Calburi~~

Teuthenbard, the Nail of the North-East.  Calburi had passed through many a time in his adventures, and he had to say that the town lived up to its moniker.  Simple, straightforward, practical.  The streets hardly curved, driving straight from the east gate to the market square.  Some shrewd merchants, there.  Like the nail, they were always on point.

At his side, his man Kanä padded barefoot on the cobbles.  The swarthy sailor wrinkled his nose.  "Smoke on the breeze," the man said.  "Not a cooking fire.  Too much oil, like they wanna get it started right quick.  That way."  One bandaged finger pointed to the marketplace, where a structure of wood and sticks stood.

Like the nail, stubborn and unbending, standardized, and always seeing the hammer as the most practical solution to all life's little foibles, such as those who stood out the wrong way.  Calburi's oaths said nothing about swearing or cussing, and with a minor blasphemy on his lips he ran straight for the square.  The scene was about as he had feared: one zealot, one maiden on a pyre, two friends about to come to blows.

"We stoke the flames to purify the steel!" proclaimed the zealot in the black robes.  Hugot, of the town's council of elders.  Calburi had only met the man in passing, never desiring a second chance to talk.  "May the divine bellows blow away the impurities and burn the corrupt to ash!"  With those words, the flames grew threefold.

"Um, Wolpheen?" called the victim from the top.  "Getting a little warm up here..."

The shorter of the two friends approached the pyre, only to flinch as the heat pushed back.  "Gonna need a moment, Emi!" she yelled back.  "Can you do anything up there?"

"Not yet!"

Some days seemed made to demonstrate a paladin's duty.  "Kanä, if you could distract the elder?  No major harm or other mayhem, please.  He is an important fellow in these parts."

The sailor rolled his eyes, showing the reds clearly.  Kanä took a swig from his hip flask that sent him bending backwards halfway to the ground, like a green willow branch, and the force of the rebound launched him across the yards between him and the elder in the black robes.  The tackle caught Hugot from the side, knocking him to the ground in a tumble of dirty laundry.  Arms locked around the elder's body, and Kanä took advantage of thick fingers and elongated toes to tickle the man mercilessly.

"I think I've got it!" came the shout from above.  The old chair at the peak of the rickety pyre shook and floated free of the rest, levitating a few feet away before a loud crack sounded.  "Uh-oh..."

A leap, a bound, and Calburi was in a position to catch the young lady as she fell.  His smile never wavered as his arms sagged and his back protested the sudden weight.  Not that she was heavy --the lady seemed to be mostly floofy robes and long hair pulled back into a queue, but as they said, the fall added ten pounds.  In her arms was a big-eyed lapdog with almost no nose to speak of.  It yipped and licked his face.

"Fools!  Heretics!  Blasphemers!" shouted the elder as he strove to get back to his feet.  "The bellows must blow, the fires must burn, the hammer must fall!"  A muffled curse turned physical, punching Kanä in the chest with the force of the word and throwing the sailor to the cobbles a yard away.  Hugot dusted himself off and then glared at the townsfolk who were still ostensibly on his side in this matter.  "Well?  What are you fools waiting for?"

The assembled men all stared at their own feet as they shuffled.  "Um, well... er..." came the general chorus.

"What is it?" demanded the elder.  "Surely you do not sympathize with this corrupted soul?"

"She's a great midwife," came one response, half-whispered but still audible.

"Wonderful with the kids..."

"Did my mother-in-law's rheumatism right well.."

"The priestesses vouch for her..."

"Sir Calburi's there to rescue her, and he's never been wrong..."

That brought a smile to the knight's lips.  Never had he claimed the honorable title of Sir, yet all assumed it to be his anyway.  It was a sign that he was doing things right.

"Sir Calburi, huh?" said the lady in his arms.  "If the brave and noble knight would set me down?"

"Oh, pardon.  Of course."  The lady slid from his arms to alight upon the market cobbles.  She quickly adjusted her robes, giving him only the briefest glimpse of a slender tail with a tuft of hair at the tip.  He said not a word, even as the lady's sheepish grin communicated her embarrassment.

"Thank you for all your kind mumblings," she said to the crowd.  "I really appreciate it.  But I guess it's time for me to move on to another town, after all.  No offense, but it's kind of creepy how this old fart keeps wanting to strip me naked and nail me to something."

Calburi bit his lip to keep the chuckle withheld.  Did the woman even realize how that had sounded?  Perhaps now, as she maintained an open, innocent face even as the crowd snickered and the elder turned a particular shade of beetroot in the face.

"Harlot!" shouted Hugot.  "Never would I countenance such an act!  It is the fire for you.  Bellows, blow!"  At his command, the pyre flared.  "Flames, rise and do your holy work!"  The elder grabbed at the mass of red and orange without care for the heat, drawing forth a smoldering beam with his bare hands.  "Into the heart of hell do I stab!"  And the beam was a javelin to be thrown.

Calburi's body knew the knightly thing to do, even before his head.  Feet leapt into action and his chest was placed squarely between the fiery lance and its target.  The breath caught in his throat, and --

Before his eyes, a wall of silver-grey light arose, cool and pure.  The inquisitor's lance burst upon its face, shattering to cinders.  A pile of ash upon the cobbles was all that attested to the assault.  In the background, Calburi saw that the other friend, the tall one in the grey robes, had a hand raised in a gesture of mystic intent.

"I think perhaps we should all be going?" suggested Calburi.  "I am not certain whether any of us shall return.  I had thought better of you, Elder Hugot."

"Yeah, really," said the lady.  "Um, sorry all, but I won't be making my last rounds.  Anyone taking a medicine, keep on taking it until it's through or else it won't do its best and, um, I hope to see you again someday."  Turning hard enough to send her robes to bouncing, the lady skipped across the short space between herself and Calburi to give him a peck on the cheek.  "And thank you, Sir Calburi.  I hope to see you again sooner than that."

The lady's friends waited for her to join them, and then the trio of priestesses made a quick exit.  Calburi kept himself near the elder as they did, but his eyes never left the lady.

"She is Corrupted..." Hugot continued to mutter to himself.  "She bears the marks of darkness upon her flesh."

"But not her soul," Calburi told the man.  "Ah, could someone please escort the elder home?  I fear he has exhausted himself."

Indeed, the old man was looking worn down and ill, more than a moment of action and excitement could account for.  Hugot's breathing was ragged, his steps a little uncertain as a young man walked him away.  It was enough to make the crowd look worried.

Calburi's man Kanä grinned from ear to ear, which was never a reassuring sight.  The sailor never filed his teeth; they simply grew out that way.   "I told you not to harm him," the knight said in a whisper as they walked off.

"Who's hurt?"  Kanä's shrug matched his grin.  "Just... wobbled him up a bit.  Not much at all.  If I really done him a nasty, he wouldn't be walking so soon.  Maybe not ever, if he deserves it."

It was enough to make a saint sigh.  "Thank you for keeping it discreet, at least.  The last thing we need is for him to consign you to the witch-fires as well."

"Eh, if he does then he does.  It won't work, but that's his problem.  C'mon, Cal.  You owe me a drink."

"Do I, now?"

"You always do.  So ahoy the public house!"

~~Back at Whateley~~

there was a sort of magic to the way the table display shifted and moved their characters according to the decisions of the players.  It wasn't the movement of pieces on a battle grid -- or at least, not just.  The projected models interacted with each other in a natural manner, following whatever prompts they were given and then acting them out to a degree of success dictated by the dice rolls.  Idle characters would shuffle in place or appear to strike up conversations with their neighbors.

No, not a sort of magic, Erica decided.  Their game master had put the effort into learning actual magic for a reason, and she was certainly looking at a result.  So she could marvel at how it displayed the tickle torture of Kanä the sailor or Sir Calburi's fortunate catch, taking it for the miracle that it was.

"Nice trick with the blood-bending," Chessa said to Saumer.  "Didn't know you could sneak something like that."

"You can if you have ki powers and a deal with the game master," the freshman boy replied.  "Blurring the lines between the two abilities and all.  Traded away some of the flashier Kineticist stuff to get it, but I was really gunning for the subtle applications here.  Speaking of which..."  The boy turned to Erica.  "How about you?  That was, what, Channel Energy blended with Fascinating Performance?"

"More or less..."  At the controls to her tongue, a fight was on between the urges to talk nerd shop or to shut the hell up before Saumer got suspicious.  Nerd-talk won.  "Sacrifice a little functionality on one side, gain some on the other.  Great for crowd control, though.  And..."  The quip sprang forth without enough thought behind it.  "You can't spell 'aasimar' without ASMR, right?"

A whoop of laughter shook Saumer's ears.  "Hah!  That's right!  Yanno, I've made that joke a few times, myself.  Great minds think alike, huh?"

Great minds, maybe.  Erica's mind was currently blaring alarm klaxons.  How-oh-how could she have forgotten where she had first heard the joke around which she'd built Wolpheen, aasimar diva of Zitaori?  She chuckled nervously.  "Ah... I guess so, Hiram.  Um, so what're we doing next?"

The board shifted and melted into another scene, this time indoors.  The layout and decor were as recognizable as they were traditional.  "Since one half of the group is out on a ladies' night," Gazebo declared, "and one-fifth of the group is actively looking to get drunk, I figured we should start the real adventure in a tavern."

Jacob hid his grin behind one hand.  "Who are we to argue with tradition, then?"

"Exactly."

~~How All Good Adventures Begin~~

It was not their first choice of drinking establishment.  Wolpheen bade her eyes skip the small details of hygiene and cleanliness, but still that left a great deal to willfully fail to ignore.  Sadly, their intended spot for the evening had had an excellent view of the marketplace, and the three of them had quietly agreed that it was best not to linger.

And so, this place.  The sign out front had a proud rooster crowing atop the horns of a pair of young, ungelded oxen.  The Cock and Bulls, the proprietor had named it.  Wolpheen was in no mood to inquire further when she retrieved their tankards of ale.  On the way back to the table she murmured a hymn of purification over them, to be on the safe side.  The spell would not affect the alcohol content, she knew from experience.  It did nothing for the taste, either.

"Here we are, the best the house has to offer," she announced to her friends.  "Such as it is.  Emi, could you charm it into something tastier?  Um, if you can.  I saw they smashed your little statue to bits..."

"Yes, that was a shame," said the midwife witch.  "I thought it a good likeness of Big Mama Above.  But it served its purpose.  I don't know what I'd have done if they realized it was not the divine focus of my magic."  Emi hugged her familiar, who licked her chin in return.  A tiny charm, a miniature pomegranate in bronze, dangled from the lapdog's collar.  A moment later it was unclipped and in Emi's hand as she quickly mumbled a witchy hex over their drinks.  A sweet smell rose up to greet the nose as tankards were raised.

Unsurprisingly, the taste of fruit met Wolpheen's palate with a gentle splash.  Pomegranates and honey with a hint of rosemary.  It was far better than how the ale had tasted three minutes ago.

"So, Emi," Petrille said as ze sipped at zer drink.  "What happened?"

"What, today?"  A neatly gloved hand waved dismissively.  "Nothing.  It was nothing."

A sigh broke Wolpheen's breath.  "You should be more careful about picking boyfriends," she said.  "This is, what, the third time you've gotten yourself in trouble?"

"First time with the Hammer Inquisition," Petrille noted.

"Nobody ever expects them."  Emi sighed into her drink.  "He was a great kisser, though.  And we had tons to talk about, and he had, like, half a dozen siblings, too, and he always wanted kids, and it seemed like it was all coming together so well, and..."

The diva had to snip it off at the fifth consecutive conjunction.  "Emi, I love you.  We love you."  A nod to Petrille.  ""But girl, you need to exercise more common sense.  Your beau, er... whatsisname..."

"Miles."

"Yeah, Miles is the elder's nephew, for crying out loud!  The allegorical apple does not fall far from the tree, dearie.  How did you think he was going to react?"

"Well... I..."  Emi's blush could only be blamed in part on the alcohol.  "I hadn't figured out how to tell him, but I tried!  And, um, um... it seemed easier just to keep kissing and have him in a good mood for me to show him..."

Petrille clicked zer tongue in a dwarvish sign of disagreement.  "Not your best of plans, Emi."

"Well, yeah, I can see that now."  The midwife took another swig to hide her face.  "I just... just thought if I was upfront and honest..."

"The local inquisition is not the biggest proponent of honesty," Wolpheen told her.  "They tend not to trust it.  Smart move when dealing with the Corrupt, but awful when you're simply suspicious.  Now, shall we, ah..."  Her words trailed off as she noticed how her friend Emi was craning her neck to look around and over the diva's head.

That was the direction of the tavern door.  Wolpheen turned just enough to see the entrance out of the corner of her eye.  Two familiar faces had come in and now headed to the bar.  Emi's face had a noticeable and familiar wobble to it as her eyes followed the men across the room.

"Down, girl," the diva commanded.

"But he's so nice..." murmured Emi.  "And he's got those strong arms..."

"He is also a paladin," said Petrille.  "And they do not take well to the Corrupt, either.  Which you are not," ze hastened to add, "but they obviously know not the subtle differences."

"Well, he got a good look at my tail earlier," said Emi.  "And he didn't say anything then."

"Are you sure he saw?" said Wolpheen.  

"It was kind of hard to miss, being attached to these nice, wide childbearing hips of mine," Emi stated with pride.  "And I know he was checking my ass out at least once."

"Er, why?"  There was puzzlement in the oread's agate eyes.

"Who wouldn't?"  Emi's giggle was slightly drunk.  "I'm pretty sure he likes girls, at least.  Hm... I should go say hi..."

Both friends stuck arms out to keep her in her seat.  "Not now, Emi," Petrille told her.  "We are still having our night of the ladies."

"Oh, fine."  Emi huffed, but settled back into her chair.  Her eyes did not leave the bar.  "I'll let him make the first move."

~~A Round on the House~~

The paper in Calburi's hand was not enchanted.  It did not burn in any literal sense.  Still, it felt overly warm in the metaphorical sense.  A day, a time, a place, in shaky handwriting.  No name, but no mistaking the sender.  "This had better be good," he muttered.

"Is what you get," slurred Kanä from the next seat over.  A tankard was already half-empty in his hand.  A second was fully empty on the counter.  "Letting the folk stick the requests to a board for you to check.  Stupid idea, meq.  Stupid all 'round."

He'd been proud of that idea.  A simple board on the wall near his lodgings, where people could make simple requests for help and assistance.  More often than not, by the time he even saw a new posting, another member of the community had already stepped in to finish it.  Those bare planks had done more to bring the neighborhood together than anything else he had ever accomplished.

Unfortunately, there were times when real work found its way onto the board.  He resigned himself to nursing his ale for the evening until the request-maker showed up.

Kanä had no such limitation on his behavior.  The sailor was now starting on his third ale.  "C'mon, meq.  You gotta enjoy the life you given!  Is like King Son-son-sonny says..."

And there was the fact that his companion had a zeal for his patron god equal only to his tolerance for alcohol.  "What does he say?" Calburi provided after a few seconds of expectant silence.

"He says, no time like the present, cuz no other time you got!  The past?  Pft, gone.  The future?  Hah, not here yet.  Bot now, now, now!  We gotta do it now...  Hm, that dreq be looking at me funny."  The sailor glared at a nearby table.

"You do happen to be drunk and disorderly."

"Not yet to the second, and not 'nuff to the first!"

Even with his gaze pointed in the other direction, Calburi could not mistake the moment his contact slid into the seat next to him.  "Wonderful timing, Kelso," he said out of the corner of his mouth. 

"Your trained monkey makes it easy to pass unnoticed."  This new man at the bar kept his cloak on, and his hat as well.  The tavern keeper gave him a stink-eye for it, but held his tongue.  To anyone familiar with the aleman, this was a significant item of note.  Kelso Rond, fourth on the council of Teuthenbard, was a man who finished his business and then lingered not a second more.  Often, the recipient of his business lingered forever more.

"What brings you here this evening?" Calburi continued.  "Nothing to do with that farce at the marketplace, I hope."

The councilor grimaced into his beer.

"Hey, Cal!  That guy is looking at me funny again!"

"You weren't making funny faces at him, were you?" the knight replied with a sigh.

"Maybe?"

"Shall we make this quick, ere he starts a fight?" suggested Kelso.  "Yes, Hugot's actions were an embarrassment, and no, they are not why I am here tonight.  Wei-Talleigh Keep?"

"Never heard of it."

"You wouldn't.  Abandoned a hundred years ago and collapsed into itself for half as long.  No one's even thought to live there in generations."  Kelso paused to sip at his drink.  "Someone saw smoke over yonder last week."

"So you've got squatters," Calburi said.  "That is hardly a paladin's business.  You send us out there, we're more likely to side with them."

"Green smoke."  Two words added context and changed everything.  Calburi nodded, and the man continued: "Of course, we cannot say who or what exactly has taken residence, but the signs bode no good.  We need you and your... ah, man, to investigate for us.  At the same time, we recognize that you may require assistance, so I add a stipend to cover any hiring you deem necessary.  And..."  The councilor's eyes turned to one table in the back, where a trio of ladies chatted.  "If you could get a particular person out of town for a week or so, while Hugot calms down, it would be further appreciated."

"Of course it would."  And with that, the conversation was done.  Kelso finished his ale and left without a single copper left on the tavern counter.  The aleman wouldn't voice a word of complaint, either.  Calburi did not bother to bid the man farewell, as such words would be wasted on the councilor.

If Kanä had noted any part of their exchange, the sailor did not show it.  Instead he quaffed his sixth or seventh ale as he related to an equally drunken audience the benefits of following the great Monkey King, Son Gukon of Sarloo: "His Majesty loves those who love life!" Kanä proclaimed.  If anything, the man's diction was improved by the drink.  "He bids us be true to ourselves, and if our selves are awesome, then all the better we discover that through Him!  Well do I recall His credo, the words to honor Him..."

That was Calburi's cue to vacate his spot in favor of someplace safer.  With a few quick steps he arrived at the ladies' table with a sheepish grin and a tankard in hand.  "Do forgive me the intrusion," he said, "only things are about to get animated back that-a-way."

"Wine and women!" shouted Kanä from the bar.  "Or if you're prefer, beer and babes!  These are but two things out of many to savor in this life, this blessed existence which His Majesty has wrought, and thus I honor them as they should be!"  The sailor drained his tankard to the dregs.  "Hwah!  O Great Monkey King, O Mighty Son Gukon! forever shall I work and woo, drink and make merry, fight and flirt, in the knowledge that this life is a gift!  I hope you're watching, Your Majesty, and that you are entertained.  Now... Hey, Sonny-son-son!  Watch this!"

A man seated at the nearest table, the one whom Kanä had suspected of looking at him funny, truly had no hint of what was about to happen.  One second, some weirdo was making drunken speeches, and the next, that weirdo's fist was in his face.  The punch sent the man out of his seat and across the card game he and his mates had been enjoying.  From that, the night's brawl commenced.

From the relative safety of the ladies' table, Calburi groaned.  "Every night, I swear..."

"He is enthusiastic."  That comment was from the tall one, the stone-faced one with the eyes of agate, whom he presumed was female from the company they kept.  He recognized the robes and insignia of the Doorkeepers of Janastra, a group that took ambiguity to the heights of religious devotion.  The androgyny was as much a hallmark of their order as the stylized mask of their holy sign.

"Never a better man in a fight," he affirmed.  "So the fight tends to follow him around.  Leave him to his fun.  So, Miss... Emi?  How are you holding up?"

"Fine and dandy."  The midwife had her hair pulled back that evening, and the way her ears twitched was impossible to miss.  "Sad to be leaving town, of course, but that's how it goes sometimes."

"I wouldn't pack it all up just yet," he told her.  "The rest of the council is none too happy with Hugot, I've heard.  Give them a week or two, and he shouldn't be a problem."

The musical one snorted.  "If she can avoid him for a week."

"Well..."  Calburi leaned back in his chair, then flinched as it creaked and threatened to break.  "Ah, that is another thing.  I have been asked to check out a possible problem to the west of here, perhaps a monster den, and I could use some help.  If the lady would deign to lay her healing hands elsewhere, for a change?"

The way Emi Mojit perked and lit up, one might think she worshipped a solar deity.  "Oh! I'd love to lay some hands... ah.  Ahem.  I'd love to think about it, ha-ha.  I'm afraid I don't have much experience adventuring.  All that blood and gore..."

"Says the woman who helped birth a calf the day before yesterday," her musical friend retorted.

"That is true, but, ah." The midwife sighed.  "It would be good to get out of town, and I would not mind the company... if the company did not mind me?" she asked hopefully.

"I try to judge by actions and character, rather than accident of birth," he assured her.

"Oh, my birth was no accident," said Emi.  "But thank you."  A blush was barely visible in the half-lit tavern.

"I shall be going as well," said the Doorkeeper.  "I mean no offense, but I do not wish my friend to hare off alone with a man whom she hardly knows."

Calburi nodded.  "Understandable.  And you, songstress?"

There was a gleam to the diva's eyes that was not wholly attributable to the lantern's light.  "Fine, let us make it an outing, then."  She raised her tankard.  "A toast, then.  To adventure."

"To adventure," they echoed.  The words were barely audible against the noise of the brawl behind them, but in the thick of it all, the sailor Kanä would have joined in if he had heard.

~~Back at Whateley~~

Beneath the surface of the table display, simultaneously less than a millimeter deep and more than an inch below, Kanä's icon stood at the center of a storm of activity, rendered as comical clouds of dust out of which random fists and feet jutted.  Well above the fray, in the real world, everyone could appreciate the humor in this most typical of bar events.

Chessa was the first to laugh.  "I've had worse 'you all meet in a tavern' experiences.  We all did meet before the tavern, of course, but..."

"Where to next?" said Erica.  

"And do we, ah, need to adjust our equipments?" Calliope inquired.  "We did set our things to paper, but if there are the specific informations to be known, perhaps a change is a good idea?"

"If you could all roll for intel-gathering?  Basic d20 plus... either Wisdom or Charisma bonus, whichever is better.  And that's..."  The game master tallied them as they rolled.  "15, 20, 19, 8 for Chessa, 14...  With bonuses, that'd be 18, 22, flat 19 for Saumer, 11 for the charismatic midwife, and 17 for the erstwhile paladin.  From all that, you learn the following:"

A text box appeared on the tabletop, formating itself into an image of ink on parchment.  The first few details were basic, simple, mostly details of distance and time.  Below that came a bit of the keep's history as a foundational estate in the region, one whose lords had once ruled the entire valley around Teuthenbard, until...

"Hold on a moment," said Jacob as the scroll rolled on to the section on local legends.  "There was a... a peasant revolt of some sort?"

"That's what it says."  Erica tapped the image and found that she could enlarge it by pulling the edges with her fingers.  "Rumors of atrocities, peasants disappearing in the night, hideous noises..."

Chessa finished the reading for her.  "And when the mob got there, the main hall was bare.  Empty, cleaned out.  So they set fire to it and the other buildings nearby.  Not quite the story your guy was told," she said to Jacob.

"It wouldn't be a Gazebo game if the quest-giver did not have some ulterior motive, or if half the intel resources didn't contradict each other," said the sophomore.  "But Calburi's stocking up on the holy water and religious icons, just in case."

"Thought he was non-theistic?" said Erica.  "Would he even believe in the icons?"

"It doesn't matter what exactly he believes," said Jacob.  "What's important is that the undead we meet believe."  The young man was scribbling down his shopping list.  "And I hate to be the guy who tries to use a crucifix to ward off a Jewish vampire when with a little forethought I could have a Shield of David on hand as well."

"That cannot be argued."  Calliope perused her own list.  "I shall be purchasing more supplies and a donkey to carry them."

Gazebo clapped his hands.  "Right, then!  Everyone, make your choices, and then we'll see if we can't clear the first real encounter before lunch break."

"Will we at least arrive at the keep before a fight starts?" asked Jacob.  "Only, I remember that one adventure -- Journey to the Shrine of Zeno, wasn't it? -- where we never actually made it to the destination."

"Less crunch, more fluff," the game master promised.  "This is the story group, not the murderhobos."

Erica winced at the word.  She had never been a fan of the kill-them-all school of gaming.  It was true that most encounters turned out that way, but half the fun lay in figuring out how to get what you wanted without wholesale slaughter.  Not all the folks Eric had played with back in the old days had gotten that.

Saumer had.  Still did, to judge by how his ears were twitching.  The freshman boy rolled a d20 between his fingers.  "How long a trip to this place?" he asked.

"About three days."

"Alright.  Kanä spends the first day nursing a hangover.  Second and third, he's either bugging Petrille to see how ze reacts or trying to teach Wolpheen dirty rhymes in Sarloogo."

"Nothing with Emi?" asked Chessa.

"Nah, he's not gonna get in Cal's way there," came the reply.  "You two have fun."

That got a chuckle from the game master and two of the three girls.  Chessa turned a sort of orange under her scales.  Jacob looked up from his finalized list of supplies and blinked in confusion.  "Um, did I miss a joke?"

"Maybe, dude," Saumer told him.  "But you'll get it eventually."

"So, um," stammered the dragon girl.  "We get there.  Like, right now, no problems, easy-peasy lemon-squeezy stroll through the woods.  What do we see?"

The peculiar waveform of Gazebo's mouth suggested a barely suppressed tease at their expense.  His words kept to the program, however.  "The ruins of Wei-Talleigh Keep appear on and around a large hill in the forest.  The road is overgrown but still passable, and it leads up to a stone wall that runs around the hill, disappearing into the distance in either direction.  It's a tall barrier, but treated poorly by the passage of time.  Still, it's obviously easier to pass through the front gate, even with all the rubble that partly blocks the way.  Beyond, you can see the shape of buildings.  Two are fairly close to the gate.  The rest are farther up or around the hill.  You can't be too sure of the exact number, but from what you can see, nothing is in good repair."

"Signs of life?" asked Jacob.  "Anything to say that the place is inhabited."

"Nothing jumps out and shouts Boo! at you," said the game master.  "Nothing to be seen, either.  But then again, you're still on the outside looking in."

"Petrille shall inspect the arch," Calliope declared.  "Either it is blessed by zer deity, or it needs to be, and so it shall."

"Anyone else?" asked Gazebo.  A series of noncommittal shrugs formed the reply.  "Alrighty then.  Get your dice ready, Miss Calliope.  Let's see what we can do."

~~Watcher at the Gate~~

Where one door opened, another would close.  Such were the wise words of the Order, as told to the uninitiated.  Amongst themselves, the Doorkeepers spoke more frankly: Some doors should remain shut.  Looking at the broken arch of the keep's front gate, PEtrille had to wonder if this were not one such door.  Even in pieces, its capstone fallen to the earth, still this spot firmly and without question divided the world in twain: that which was inside, and that which was not.  Though iron bars may rust away, the presence of the gate did not.

Petrille stood before it and waited.  The others had been warned that this might take some time, for stone was never an element to be rushed, nor were the guardians it might shelter.  "Spirit of the Gate!" ze said in the slow language of earth.  Each syllable took three breaths to complete.  "Your purpose is what?  Your presence is why?  Your essence is where?"

Halfway through the second question, ze heard the footsteps of the sailor monk padding impatiently.  By the end of the third question, he'd done a dozen cartwheels and sat back down.  The others seemed to handle the wait better.  Wolpheen strummed and hummed while Calburi and Emi chatted some more.  The midwife's little dog dozed in the carry-sash she wore over her shoulder. Still Petrille stood waiting, never a shift in zer posture.  Only stone could outlast stone.

When the reply came, it was as a rumbling through the feet, a deep sound to shake the world: "I am.  This Gate is.  Passage there is not.  Cross not.  Boundaries be."  This took perhaps a third of an hour to communicate, measured by the angle of the sun, all through which Kanä's pacing grew more strident.

"Ah, this is stupid!" came the sound of a man's patience snapping.  "Lookit!  Merely a pile 'a stones!  I can climb it in my sleep."  Kanä paused to stretch his toes and then scampered to the top of the pile of rock in the middle of the passageway.  "See?  Nothing to it.  Let's go!"

Petrille's sigh was more a shudder to match the tremors of earthen protests beneath zer feet.  A stone may be slow to move, but once it got to rolling, it soon crushed all.  

"Whup, whup, whup!" cried the sailor as the rubble shifted beneath his toes.  Eyes went wide to show the reds all around.  "At least something's happening!" he shouted.

"But what?" demanded Calburi.  The knight's sword was already drawn.

"I was in the midst of negotiations."  Ze did not mention how that had been going.  "Your man interrupted.  Prepare."

"For what--"  The answer to Wolpheen's question was fast apparent.  The pile of rubble rose up, shifting and pulling together until it formed the shape of an enormous hand with its wrist in the dirt and digits stretched high.  Kanä now clung to the tip of the middle finger with a surprised look on his face.

"Kwi!" he shouted.  "Don't see this just any day!"

~~Back at Whateley~~

Erica was not sure she had ever seen a creature such as the one now animated on the table display.  Or rather, she might have, but never in this shape.  "So it's ... what?  An elemental?  A golem?"  There were some important distinctions to be made here, of the sort that could drastically alter a team's tactics.  "Or are giants in the habit of leaving body parts in random places?"

A nod from the game master to Calliope: "Ask her character.  Petrille should know if ze rolls a decent number."

"Ah, si."  A honey-gold d20 clattered.  "It is... 13?  Plus my skill ranks, in... Knowledge of Planes, perhaps?  Oh!" cried the Italian songbird as a digital parchment unfurled upon the table display before her.  "It is... it is not exactly a golem, but neither is it a true elemental.  It is a Spirit of Impasse, summoned and set to ensure that none pass, in or out.  And... ah, per affermere l'ovvio... Um, it is obviously angered."

"Thanks, Hiram," drawled Erica.

"Not like negotiations were getting anywhere," the boy replied with the same tone.

"Roll for initiative," came the commandment, and five dice rolled.  Saumer's monk got an 18, followed by a 17 for Petrille, a 10 for Emi, a 9 for Calburi, and a 7 for Erica's own Wolpheen.  Finally, Gazebo made his own roll for the monster, coming up 16 to a chorus of groans.  "Need some quick action for Petrille and Kanä," Gazebo told them.  "Immediate reactions to the guardian's appearance, something like that.  Everyone else is considered to be caught flatfooted until their turn comes up this round."

"Ze will activate the magic on zer bracers and, ah, brace for attack," said Cally.  

Saumer's ears twitched in thought.  "Okay, so Kanä's not actually hydrokinetic, right?  Not in the big, splashy sense like Vic from my floor in Twain."

"You traded that out for the edgy blood-bending."

"Yeah.  But blood-bending's still waterbending, only on tiny amounts inside.  So... How's thing got moving parts?  Any moisture in the joints?"

"None."

"Dangit.  Worth a shot."  Ears drooped.  "Guess Kanä's hanging on for dear life right now."

~~Kanä Is Given the Finger~~

There were days when he missed the open waters, the rocking and swaying of a three-masted vessel on the waves.  Right at the top he would be, laughing as both sea and sail did their damnedest to make him fall.

The ride on the tip of the giant middle finger made him miss those days.

"Yi-yi-yi!" he shouted.  As the stone fist fell forward Kanä launched himself into the air, to land with a duck-and-roll upon the dirt.  His hand and arm acted as a spring to flip him back to his feet before anything else could react.

Anyone but the Doorkeeper, that was.  Whether lord or lady, Kanä still could not say, but either way, that one had balls of solid rock.  Petrille stood before the fist with a glimmer-glammer on the wrists like no magicky thing Kanä had ever seen.  Planks of light formed over the arms, and when Petrille brought them together, it was like a huge, golden door slammed shut in front of the fist.

It knocked.  Once, twice, three times, and each one harder, but the Doorkeeper stood firm.  Only the slow scrape of boots backward into the dirt betrayed the true force of each blow.

"Yah!"  The fuzzy-eared Emi shouted and aimed a finger.  A tiny rainbow shot forth to tickle the surface of the fist.  "Oh, horse-nuts.  I was hoping that would do more."  The witchy-witch flinched as the pounding continued.

"If someone would hurry," Petrille said calmly.  "I am not sure how long I can hold this."

"Singer!" called his friend the knight.  "Have you anything with a good bass rumble?"

"Have I?" yelled Wolpheen.  "Have I? ... I'm not really sure, to be honest.  Just a second."  The world wobbled for that second and Kanä thought he saw a hand reach from beyond the corner of his eye to pass the diva a new instrument.  A horn, simple in style and made from a single conch shell.  When she blew it, the horn produced a low note fit to shake the pebbles off the fist.  Otherwise, nothing happened.  The fist rested on the stump of its wrist, then pivoted to face the diva.

Petrille moved to bar the way once more, but zer steps dragged.

"Oy, Miss Witchy," said Kanä.  "You do the old water trick?"

"Water trick?"  She did not turn her head, but she did glance at him funny out of the corner of her eye.

"Yeah, yeah.  The water trick.  All the holy rollers know it.  Yanno, pray for rain and stuff?"  His thumb jerked at the giant fist.  "Need this sucker get all washed up, huh?"

The lady's doggy yipped from her sling pouch, and she nodded.  With three witchy words, she pointed up to the air over the big fist.  The air shivered and curdled into a tiny cloud.  Hand still raised, the lady's wrist tilted sharply as her finger fell.  And so did the rainwater.  A miniature shower swabbed the thing clean, with the little waterfalls coming down off each crack and crevice.  The fist was really just a big pile of rock, so there were lots of cracks, and by drips and drabs the water would seep in.

"Hey, Cal!" he shouted.  "Gonna give it a go.  You help!"

"Wait, what?"

Silly Cal, so slow on his feet today.  All that flirting had him distracted.  The sailor knew the feeling, if not lately.

Best to start this right, though.  Raising his flask in salute, Kanä knocked back a swig that bent him backwards like a willow branch.  The liquor seared its way down his throat to warm his chest and belly, and that heat he could direct through his legs to make them springy, and through his arms to make them clingy.  When he snapped back from the drink, it was in an explosion of movement that took him around the stalemate between Doorkeeper and the Keeper of the Door, bouncing and bounding and throwing his best punch into the soggiest spot he could find upon the back of the fist.

His special power over water, it was not much.  Not like the great water-singers of the ocean kingdoms.  But what he had, he made work.  His fist hit the damp spot with the heat of the spirits behind it, and some of that heat went straight through the damp to jiggle and wiggle all the little puddles stuck between the stones.  When he hit a person with this trick, it often made them sick for hours.  The stone fist froze in place as rough, grindy noises happened inside.  One finger moved up in a twitch, jerky and rusty like an old Sarloo's joints.

Kanä punched it again, just to see what would happen.  This time, the jiggle and the wiggle of water was not so strong, but the tip fell off the twitchy finger.  It almost crushed his toes.

"Run around!" Calburi shouted to everyone.  "While it's locked up!"

The sailor was never one to flee from a fight, but on his pride as a Sarloo by adoption, he also knew when to cut and run while the opportunity was there.  He grabbed Wolpheen by the arm, pulling her past the stone fist and through the arch even as Cal did the same with Emi.  Petrille followed through, always with the door shut upon the stone knocker.

Once they were all past the gate, its guardian spirit collapsed into a pile of rubble once more.

~~Back at Whateley~~

"So... thats it?" asked Saumer.  "We make it past the guardian and it stops caring?"

"I do not think that it stops," said Cally.  It is only that we are no longer things to be kept out.  We are inside, and it is only concerned now with our exit."

"Would you like to step back through and test it?" Erica asked the boy.

Ears drooped.  "Ah, no.  Not really.  We're where we need to be, so it's all good."

The display shifted to a wider view of the hillside.  Paved pathways showed as thick lines, while trees and undrgrowth popped into focus.  In the weird, false three-dimensional depth of the flat screen, the nearest buildings loomed at the icons of their characters.  Nothing seemed ready to jump out of the woodwork and gnaw on them, at least.

"Before we go any further," said Gazebo.  "I think we need to make a pit stop.  This apartment's got a toilet and washlet, if you need it.  Door's hidden behind the fake bushes over there.  If we're all okay, then the convenience store's two corridors down.  Looking at the time... yeah, we might as well grab lunch now and nosh as we go."

"Sounds like a plan."  Jacob was up and stretching.  "Gimme a moment to, hah, visit the bushes."

Chessa's eyes were hard to read sometimes.  The uniform color did not show how her vision tracked to follow people or things.  On the other hand, the way she craned her head around to watch Jacob walk off left little doubt of what she was looking at.  "Okay," she whispered to Erica and Cally.  "Quick palaver.  What do you think of our knight in shining tinfoil here?"

"He... seems nice?" ventured the blonde.  

"Not my type, but he is not bad," Calliope confirmed.  "Ah, why?"

"Chessa is crushing on him," Erica informed her roommate.

"Cosa?  I thought they were doing only the role-play of flirting?"

The dragon girl's scales had that hint of orange blush under them again.  "Yeah, well, like you said, he seems nice and we obviously have things in common here, and..."

"Sorry to eavesdrop, but..." said Saumer.  He blushed all the way to his drooping ears as the three of them turned to glare.  "Really!  I can't help it with these ears.  But Jacob, he's a stand-up guy.  Always helping people over in Twain, patching us up when things get heated.  And he seems to be enjoying the banter today.  So..."  The freshman's mouth clamped shut as a loud flush sounded from the direction of the bushes.

"Should I?" whispered Chessa.  "Does he have anyone right now?"

Saumer shrugged and shook his head in ignorance.

"Dangit."  A low trill of frustration escaped the girl's throat before she could catch it.  "Oh well, it wouldn't be the first time I dived head-first.  Hey, Jacob!" she called in a louder voice.  Hopping over to where the sophomore now emerged from the bushes, Chessa bent low and angled her head so she was looking straight up at his face.  They were not actually that different in height, only her posture made the disparity seem greater.  "Quick question for you?"

"Um, yes?"  The young man blinked down at her.  "What is it?"

"Got a girlfriend?"

"What?  No, I... I don't.  Why?"

"Got a boyfriend?"

"Um... no?"

"Would you ever be interested in having one of either?"

Consternation knit its way across the boy's forehead.  "I... guess so?"

Chessa bounced her way to her full height and shook his hand.  "Thank you for taking our survey this afternoon!  Your response is very important to us and we may be asking follow-up questions in the future.  Like right now."  Chessa hooked an elbow around his and steered him towards the door.  "Would you happen to know where that convenience store is?  You do?  Then could you show me..."  The conversation continued out the door and into the corridors of Under-Whateley.

The rest of the table stared as the two exited.  "Okay," said Saumer.  "Either that girl rolled really high on Wisdom, or really low, but I can't say which."

"Really," Erica agreed.  "So, should we follow them?"

"To get lunch," said her roommate.

"Yeah, that too."

She'd never been to the store tucked into one corner of the tech track's underground bloc of corridors and apartments.  Someone might have mentioned it in passing -- probably Laura, Vicky, or maybe Twitch -- but Erica was never down here enough to feel like checking it out.  The maze of corridors did not encourage her to explore, either.  Gazebo led the way and they followed, thankful for the local guide.

At one point her roommate gasped, just a tiny breath that only she noticed.  They were passing through a particular intersection of corridors.  It looked all the same to Erica, but the pained look on Cally's face told her exactly where they must be now.  She'd heard plenty about that incident, that meeting between Calliope and the bastard who'd tormented her a few weeks ago, and she would probably hear more this evening.  For now, she took her roommate's hand and gave it a little squeeze as they hurried on through.

The convenience store had a long glass wall along its front, the better to display its wares.  The front shelves included a magazine rack, a shelf full of candy bars, and a broad selection of screwdrivers, socket wrenches, and other minor tools that took up more space than the other two sections combined.  Chessa and Jacob were further in, near the drinks machine and the heating rack full of wrapped Nukemburgers.

"Yeah, avoid this one," the boy was saying of one of the drink valves.  "Tastes alright, but you won't sleep for a day after a cupful of the stuff.  The cashier has a waiver you have to sign before she'll let you turn on the spigot, even."

"Wow, for real?"  Chessa eyed it warily.  "So what would you recommend?"

Gazebo walked past them to reach a large, boxy machine in the corner.  "Try the Cryo-Cola," he told them.  "Fun stuff.  This might be the only one outside of Japan."

Erica looked over from where she and Calliope were considering burger flavors.  "What's special about it?"

"Well, the machine chills the cola down to a supercooled state," the gadgeteer explained.  "So once you put the coins in..." -plink plink- "... and get your drink, you give it a few good taps to activate the carbonation, crack the cap, and... voilà!"

She'd expected fizz, possibly even a small geyser of foam.  Instead, there was a burst of white mist followed by frost forming around the lip of the bottle.  It subsided into a thick slush inside the bottle.  "Great on hot days in the labs," said Gazebo as he took a swig.  "It thaws out fast enough that you don't run out of liquid, but slow enough that you can enjoy it for a while."

In the end they cleared out the entire selection of Nukemburgers, plus chips, cups of dip, a selection of rare MostestTM snack cake flavors, and six varieties of soda.  Gazebo bought a bottle of Cryo-Cola for each of them to enjoy on the way back.

It was like drinking a slushee through a tube, only more refreshing.  She would have to get one with her cousin Penny when the family came by for Parents Day.

No sooner had the thought arrived than various German profanities followed between her ears.  Of all the worries she'd had about dropping accidental hints around Saumer, she'd completely forgotten that he knew her grandparents.  They'd had sleepovers, back in the old days.  Oma had made strudel.  Opa had helped them with German homework.  Oh scheisse... And that was not even counting Uncle Adolf.  Her grandfather's brother had met Saumer just once, for only a few minutes while the boy was reeling from a Nazi psionic attack, as happened all too frequently in her new, messed-up life.  Even with all that, Erica did not doubt that Saumer would recognize Adolf Stein.  Her uncle had that effect on people.

What to do, what to do... The panicked litany ran through her brain all the way back to the Gazebo of Gaming.  She slurped down her Cryo-Cola in silence as the gears of her brain finally got it together and she could calm down.  There was nothing she could do now, she told herself.  Nothing she should do now, beyond playing her game and not tipping Saumer off any more than she already had by accident.  That evening she could ring up Uncle Adolf and ask for advice.  He always knew what to do.

Back at the gazebo, the game master set a short-legged folding table for the snacks.  They settled down to a meal of Nukemburgers as they considered the map on the table display.  The outline of an old road led up to the front building, with a statue out front.  There was something familiar about it, and Erica was not the only one to spot it.

"Dude, if we go around the hill a ways and enter the first building on the right, would we find my bedroom on the third floor?" asked Jacob.  "Wei-Talleigh, hah."

"Seriously."  Chessa eyed the known portion of the map.  "There's the statue of Old Man Whateley, all dressed up!  How much of this is just our campus?"

"Enough to seem familiar," Gazebo told them.  "And lull you into a false sense of security for when it's suddenly not the same at all.  Assume at your own peril."  With that said, he continued with a bite of his burger.  "Let's get this party started."

~~Scent of Wonder~~

So this was adventure.  Lots of walking and talking, occasional running and screaming.  Emi was not that impressed.  The big fist had been something, true, but she'd seen more frantic activity during the calving season on the local farms.  Even a completely normal, un-Corrupted birth was a bloody, messy, noisy matter.  Looking around now, she could only confirm her initial impression: there wasn't much of anything here.  Just the path underfoot, the big wall behind, and the hulk of a ruin to the front.

And one handsome gentleman right beside her.  There was that, at least.  He had taken her by the hand to lead her through the open gate and had yet to let go.  It warmed her insides.

"Look, a statue," said Sir Calburi.  He pointed with his free hand up the way to where once had been a coachman's circle in front of the building.  In the center of the circle was the stone figure of a man, much weathered and stained by the elements.  Atop its head was a hat made of green twigs, carefully bent and shaped, and upon its shoulders was a coat of leaves.

"Somebody dwells here," said Wolpheen.  "Those decorations can't be more than a day old.  The squatters?"

"I don't know who else it could be," said the knight.  "Let's see if we can't find them and have a peaceful chat, see who they really are."

"How they got around the guardian," added Petrille.

"That, too."  Sir Calburi shaded his eyes as he peered around.  "The building appears abandoned, but there are others around the hill.  Kanä, do you see any signs of life?"

"Not a tickle, trick, or tease," the sailor reported.  "No people, no birds, no beasts."

From her satchel-sash, Bronson stuck his head out to yip at Kanä.

"Okay, one beast.  Is the widdle-piddle puppy happy?"

Her familiar huffed his approval, then settled back into his snug little hammock beneath her left arm.  With a whimper and a sniffle he wriggled his nose and sneezed.  Emi patted his head as she herself gazed over the area.  

The only thing to stand out was the clothing on the statue, so she examined it more closely.  Crude, already falling apart... the hat and cloak could not have been placed any earlier than this morning, and more likely noonish.  She had seen the like many times over the years.  Why, her own little brothers and sisters--

The thought struck her, and over their shared link it echoed down to Bronson.  The lapdog gave a yip of encouragement and sniffed loudly.

"I think I can track them," she announced to her friends.  "The ones who decorated the statue, at least."

"Is the puppy a hunting hound, now?"  Kanä chuckled to himself.

"No, but I've never lost a game of hide and seek in my life," said Emi.  She shut her eyes, flared her nostrils, and willed the scents to flow in.  Mostly it was the normal sort of smells, the flowers and mud and grass.  Her nose was as good as a normal person's when it came to most things.  She and her siblings had tested it well enough in the past.  But there was always that one scent...

There.  Emi turned blindly to the right, her nose pointing the way like a compass needle for her to follow.  The faint odor of milk, sweetly sour from the breath of an infant.  Age did not seem to matter; all children smelled the same this way, from newborns to nearly teens.  Their actual smell may vary from sweaty to dirty to the visceral pong of an eleven-year-old boy who hated to wash up, but the part of them that was childhood, that part had a scent all its own.  She would thank Big Mama Above later in the evening for gracing Her earthly daughter with the nose to smell it.

Her eyes were open now, though only so she could mind her footing.  Her nose led the way.  It ignored the big building for now.  The scent was there, too, but thinner and not as recent.  Instead she walked around the corner, to where a crumbling wall bled bricks upon the ground.  Someone had stacked those bricks like building blocks, and recently.  The scent told her it had been less than an hour.

"There," she said, pointing to a nearby bush.  The mass of foliage stood straight against an intact section of the wall, and it hid behind it a small cellar door.  "There is someone in there.  Or someones.  At least one child."

"You're sure?" said Sir Calburi.

"Always, when it comes to children."  She wiped her nose.  "Gift of the goddess.  Comes in handy when you're chasing little ones around all day.  So, shall we knock?"

"Let me," said Wolpheen.  The diva slipped behind the bush and rapped sharply on the cellar door.  The taps formed a basic rhythm for her words to ride: "Come out, come out, whoever you be, we've got a question or two, or three.  Who are you, sirs?  Mesdames?  Young ones?  Please come and join us in the sun to enjoy a chat.  What say you to that?"  Rhyme finished, they awaited a response.

The door clattered and squeaked as it slowly opened outwards.  A head poked through, flat-faced and bare, with only the lightest fuzz poking upward from between two large, high-placed ears.  A snubbed nose was many shades darker than the rest of the face, and the eyes held white circle surrounded by black.

From the corner of her eye she could see Calburi's hand going to his sword.  She was in front of him with arms outstretched before he had the chance to draw.  "No.  Nuh-uh.  This is not the time for weapons."

"But!"  The knight protested and gestured to the three bodies now crawling out of the cellar door.  "They are goblins."

"They are children," she hissed back.  "So keep your sword in there."  Emi pivoted and, in a different, louder voice she said, "Hey there, kiddos!  What'cha doing in a place like this?"

"Infesting it," muttered the knight.

"Be.  Quiet."  Her hiss held the keen edge of a stiletto.

Over by the door, Wolpheen ignored their little spat entirely.  With a calm, steady cadence she continued to talk at the goblin whelps despite the lack of any sign that the young ones understood.  They did not seem hostile, at least, and their ears twitched with interest.  Now and again they peeked around her to see the growing argument between grown-ups.  Every time they saw the knight reach for his blade, they flinched back.

"We are here to investigate squatters, to check for possible signs of corruption," the knight continued, "and like it or not, goblins are the most readily corruptible folk in these lands.  So we either deal with them now, when they are vulnerable, or later when they are invincible.  It is an awful thing, but it is necessary to safeguard our home."

"Teuthenbard?"  The mere name of that hateful burg made her grimace.  "The town neither of us is from, the place that would just as soon treat me the same as you suggest we treat these children?  Children."  The word carried the weight of the world on its second iteration.  "And do not get me started on which folk corrupt most easily.  Just how many 'half-human' folk exist, hm?  I'm sure Elder Hugot would love to extend the meaning of Corrupted over all of them.  Almost all of us here right now," she added.  "Well, I swear to you by Big Mama Above that if you so much as squint at one of these little kiddos the wrong way, then I will turn you into a frog and serve you up for lunch!  Forget stories of princesses making kissy faces; you go ribbit and then croak!"

Her hackles had risen, the hair on her shoulders growing out so it could stand on end.  Were she nude right then, her outline would have been even more spectacular, but as it was the reaction hardly showed through the fabric of her cloak.  And for once, she was not in the slightest interested in showing it all to Sir Calburi.  The only thing the knight was about to see bared were her claws.

~~Back at Whateley~~

It was a tense scene around the table.  Both Jacob and Chessa were on their feet, their seats pushed backwards with such force that both had fallen over backwards.  A low note blew through the reinforced arch of Chessa's nose, and it was not a sound to bode anyone well.  Erica would be worried for the sophomore even if she did not know that the dragon girl could sneeze lightning bolts.

"Stand down."  The trill lowered to a growl.

"I have a duty.  Er, Sir Calburi does," Jacob said back at her.  "And they're friendly now, but what happens when their parents arrive?"

"They'll be happy that we did not commit genocide on their kids!" Chessa shouted.  "And beyond that, you do realize you're talking about committing an act that is anathem to my goddess, before my very eyes.  So what the heck are we supposed to do, huh?  You feel duty-bound to one thing, and I'm literally sworn to the opposite.  Do we fight it out, right here and right now, or..."  Chessa tilted her head to the right.  "Gazebo, dude, lay something on us."

"Er, what?"

"Seriously," the dragon girl told the game master.  "Does not matter what, but have something crash in before our knight and witch romance falls to pieces.  Just, something."

Their host tapped on spot on the table and a long list appeared on digital parchment.  Beside each item was a numerical value.  "Rolling the random encounter table now," he announced.  "It's a homebrew mess and God only knows what you'll get, but just remember: you asked for this."

"Bring it," said Chessa and Jacob together.

~~Bringing It~~

There were times when Petrille wished the world would shut its maw for a few blessed moments and be quiet.  Such moments of vain desire were frequent with current company.  Wolpheen was constitutionally unable to stay silent for more than a few minutes at a time, and was now attempting to communicate with a small gang of goblin whelps.  Either there was a difference of dialect or the diva's supposed linguistic ability was overrated.

The twitter-pated pair were arguing rather than flirting for once.  Ze had heard enough to know which side ze stood, if it came to aught.  Let them be noisy elsewhere for now.

The little sailor-man, he was quiet.  His body was still, with the poise of a man expecting trouble.  His attention was not on the goblins, nor on his knightly comrade.  

Petrille paid attention to silence of this sort.  Rather than ask of the matter, ze turned a wary eye to the trees which sprang from nearby soil.  Skinny and tall, they grew close together and raised leafy crests skyward.  It was difficult to see into them, but up above, the leaves shook their warning signals.  Something moved unseen therein.

Zer arms still ached from the Calling of the Door, that spell of defense peculiar to her order, but once more ze allowed the divine power to enter her arms in readiness.  The question now was, would this unseen beast be large, or small?

The answer arrived with a rustle and a squeal that was bigger than the creature that gave it, as the low foliage at the edge of the growth shook, and out scrambled a small piggish thing.  It grunted and squeaked, showing its striped flanks as it swerved around them and into the arms of one of the goblins.  A gob-boar piglet.  Ze had heard of the beasts, but never that their spawn could be so cute.  The divine force of zer bracers softened and readied for release, to be left unused for the rest of the day, when ze realized that Kanä had not moved.  He still stared at the greenery.  At the tops, which now shook all the more fiercely.

The second thing to emerge was not so cute.  It could be described as the antithesis of that word.  Humanoid as a child's doodle of a man, its legs were twice the length of its trunk, and its arms stretched almost to the ground.  No neck rose from its shoulders; rather, the bulbous head sank down into the chest, with only a ragged pair of bat ears staying high.  The thing opened its mouth, and the jaw extended almost to its belly button.

The Calling of the Door came naturally, swiftly, slamming shut in the face of evil before a blow could fall.  The cries of the goblin whelps hardened zer resolve, and the golden door stood all the more fastly for it.

"Oh, you think you're so scary, huh?"  Emi did not sound her usual happy self, nor did the midwife look it as she ran forward and past Petrille.  Her face grimaced and stretched, distorting until it seemed to pull away from her head entirely, rising and blooming into a vision of horrific vagueness that called for the victim's mind to supply details.  No god, man, or mouse could know what the monster saw in that terrifying visage, but Petrille was glad that it was not aimed at zerself.

As for the creature, it stopped dead in its tracks, its gaping maw slack and its sunken face confused.

"Tai-gä-appä-kattü!"  With the battle cry on his lips, Kanä rushed forward, coming in low and rising fist-first into the jawline.  The hideous mouth slammed shut with a spray of fractured teeth, but that did not stop the monster's arm from plucking the sailor from the ground and dangling him in the air.  "Ahoy!  Lemme down, lemme down!" yelled Kanä.  "Ain't done smacking you upside the face!"

"Kanä!"  Their knightly ally raced in, sword slashing at knobby knees.  The blade bounced; the joints must have been little more than sinew and bone, and hard as a rock.  The clang of metal echoed Calburi's loud swearing, and overhead the screeches of the monster grew larger.

The monster did, too.

~~Back at Whateley~~

Everyone stared at the images on display.  The table had laid out the little battleground perfectly, from the trio of goblin kids huddled by the cellar door to the tall, gangly abomination against all that was good and holy.  Said abomination had just grown by about ten percent.  "Something triggered that," muttered Erica.

"Most likely yes."  The answer was noncommittal from the one person in the room who definitely would know.  "But rolling active Perception right now will cost a main action."

Hers, he meant.  Wolpheen was the only character to not take an action yet.  Erica rolled her d20 between her thumb and forefinger as she considered.  There were several spells at her disposal that might be able to damage this thing, but without any guarantee that they would.  A good roll now would at least tell her more about their options.  "Okay," she said as she released the clunky polyhedron.  It landed, rattled, rolled, and ended with an 8 on top.  "Glad I maxed out the skill levels for Perception now."

"It does happen to be the most useful skill in the game," Gazebo agreed.  "And let's be honest, you've got a plus-18 to it, so anything higher than a natural 1 failure would work."

"So what does she notice?  Ah..."  Erica scanned the text box as it unfurled on the table before her.  "That's interesting.  What to do with this..."

~~Getting It~~

Every goblin clan had its own version of the language, which made conversation a pain.  Vocally, at least.  Other, more subtle methods had their use as well.  It required no knowledge of goblin speech to notice the ear flicks and slung posture, all the little signs of nerves and worry.  The whelps were scared and desperate enough that they would trust the diva on the strength of her song alone, but their ears pricked and their hair stood as the argument between Emi and Calburi heated up.  The angry words would mean nothing, but the tone meant everything.  Wolpheen had to croon twice as fast just to keep up.

Then their little pet gob-boar had run over, and she'd thought things were ready to be peaceful.  Then the thing chasing the gob-boar piglet crashed in, and she observed all the signs of the whelps' panic.  Terror lived plainly on their faces, and it rooted their feet in place.  Wolpheen stayed back and did her best to assure them that things were all right, but a fat lot of good that did when their knight couldn't even hack a monster off at the knees.

The clang of metal on the knobby joint sent a shiver through the kiddos.  They huddled together, whimpering even more as the monster grew.  Not knowing what else to do, Wolpheen sat with them and watched as her friends continued to do battle.  

Petrille had her shields up in the usual 'closing of the door', serving as cover for Emi as the witch readied her hexes.  Calburi continued to hack and slash at the abomination, striking often but never biting deep.  Up high in the thing's grasp, Kanä swung around, swiveling in a fluid motion that allowed him to lay a hand on one spindly wrist.  There was no blow, no strike, only a howl from the creature as it let the sailor go.  A five-fingered bruise remained on the wrist.

It could take damage.  It could feel pain.  It just could not be stopped.  With each palpable hit, the monster would shriek and shout, and the goblin whelps around her would whimper and shrink down to hide behind the bricks and rubble.  And the abomination would grow larger...

A diva's greatest assets were inspiration and intuition, and though they might take their own sweet time about it, eventually the two would rattle around in her brain, bumping together for a result that was greater than the sum of its parts.  Her guitar.  She needed it, and that need took the form of a hand to pass the instrument to her from wherever she had last left it.  Her fingers strummed carefully, lovingly, raising soft notes to buoy her song.  

The words may have been Goblingua, of one dialect or another.  Or perhaps they were not.  The meaning was not so important as the sound.  The comfortable and quiet tones that filled the background of reality and made everything seem softer, safer.  Her gift ensured that the whelps' attention was caught, and her soothing croon did the rest.  Small bodies relaxed; ears drooped.  They forgot about the terrors and, while they did not quite fall asleep, the land of nod was not far off.

She kept at the murmuring even as her ears remained pricked and attentive to the fight behind her.  The sounds of battle at first seemed to swell as her friends turned the tide upon the abomination, and then it all settled into a confused silence.  Emi and Petrille were the first to join her where she sat.  The midwife even sang along in nonce rhyme.  The menfolk came a few measures later.

"It is gone."  No question, that.  Wolpheen said it only to confirm that she had been paying attention.

"Yes..."  The knight did not sound too enthused by that.  "It... it shrank into itself, as if it were moving away in some strange direction and then it..."

"Faded away," Emi finished for him.  "Wolpheen, what did you do?"

"I'm not sure, to be frank."  Her shrug did not interrupt the flow of her strumming.  "I don't know what that thing was, either.  Only that it seemed to be keyed to these little ones.  To their fear.  So I dealt with it.  You saw what happened next, better than I."  She was getting it, she thought.

The knight picked up on it as well.  "Dreamborn Corruption.  Fearborn, rather.  I've heard the tales, but never of one so large."

"Ugh!"  Emi slapped her forehead.  "A bogeyman.  An oversized fear-eater.  Of course!  Why didn't I think of that?  The number of times I've had to exorcise a linen closet..."

"It was rather powerful," noted Petrille.  "And I have never known one to be so connected to an individual or group."  Ze nodded to the whelps, who now curled up against Emi with happy, toothy grins.  "This is not normal.  Where are their parents?"

"I'm afraid to ask."  Wolpheen brought the meandering tune to its conclusion and observed the somnolent goblings.  "They live faster than men, mature sooner, but not that much sooner.  These kiddos couldn't be more than six, seven years old?  «Oy, kids,»" she continued in Goblingua.  She almost had the accent right.  "«Whatcha-gotcha being here-o?»"  Her slow strumming never faltered.

The whelps mumbled and muttered as they snuggled all around a happy Emi.  It took the diva a few minutes to piece the bits together.  "They've been here perhaps three days," she reported.  "Big men dragged them from their den and put them in a sack.  Lots of bumping, lots of shouting, and then they landed on the ground and didn't move a while.  When they finally tore through the burlap, they found themselves here.  Ah..."  She listened some more.  "There are fruit trees over yonder that still bear fruit, and they could catch the occasional varmint, so they're not starving.  Sometimes things show up to chase them, and they hide down in that cellar."

Kanä pried the door open and stuck his head into the underground.  "Not much down here," he reported.  "Dirt, dirt, dirt -- oh, potato!"  He held his prize up with pride.  "Ah, but not much else.  It looks all fallen in.  No room at all."

The midwife stroked wispy goblin hair with one gloved hand.  "We should keep them," she declared.  "They're all lone out here, and so cute!"

"They're goblins," Cal warned.  "They will grow up, sooner rather than later."

"Oh, I'm sure they'll be just as cute, only in a different way.  But I am not going to abandon them here!"  She stamped her foot for emphasis, and the footfall pounded with greater gravity than her shoe size would normally imply.  "Big Mama Above would be so, so... so disappointed in me if I did that."  Nearby, snuggling with the gob-boar piglet, her lapdog yipped in agreement.

The knight was much farther off, leaning against a crumbling brick wall.  "How are we to get them past the thing at the gate?  Or get ourselves past?"

"Not to mention those supplies still in our saddlebags," added Petrille.

~~Back at Whateley~~

A moment of silence made its circuit of the table, carried in the echo of an innocent question in a light Italian accent.  Though no one asked, Gazebo obligingly zoomed out the field map of the known area until the icons of their horses and donkey were visible.

On the other side of the great stone wall and its guardian.  They had not properly thought things through.

Erica's next words could have peeled paper in Bavaria.  No knowledge of German -- High, Low, or absolutely vulgar -- was necessary to understand the gist.

"Ooh, does your mother know you say that?" teased Saumer, who of them all might have had an inkling of what had actually spilled from her lips.

"If you paid attention," she drawled back, "my mother and I are not speaking to each other.  Something about her currently cosplaying a Fourth Reich supervillain, to top a long and sorry list.  But as for my Oma, she would give me one of her usual frowns, shake her head, and not much else because she taught me that particular word."  And long would her grandmother regret that.  "But yeah, we forgot about the horses.  What do we do now?"

"I vote we pull out," said Chessa.  "Find a way around the guardian, get the animals, rest and regroup at a distance.  There is something majorly wrong with this place.  Plus, Emi's kind of obliged to get the little gobbers to safety."

Jacob groaned.  "A baby-sitting mission, really?"

"Hey, you knew what kind of lady Emi is, but you invited her along anyway, boy-o.  It's all part of the lovably cute package."  Chessa's shrug turned into a stretch that pushed her t-shirt collar off the shoulder.  The dragon girl preferred a bandeau around her chest rather than a regular bra, and the lack of shoulder straps gave a different impression than she would prefer, to judge by how quickly she pulled the collar back into shape.

With an embarrassed giggle and a wink at Jacob, Chessa hopped to her feet.  "Powder break for me.  Washlet door was right behind the decorative bushes, right?  Be back in a few, so don't start without me."

"And a burger break for myself," Gazebo announced.  He unwrapped a Nukemburger and had a big bite.  "Ah, that's the stuff.  You all go ahead.  Plot and plan or whatever."

While Erica and Calliope discussed with Saumer, the sophomore at the table stayed quiet, leaning forward over the table as he fiddled with his dice.  "Um, guys?" he finally said.

"Guy, singular.  And girls."  Saumer wasn't looking their way, so he missed the look on the Italian's face.  Erica did see, and she squeezed her roommate's hand in solidarity.

"Oh!  Er, sorry.  Back home, we just sorta use 'guys' for everyone..."  Jacob trailed off into a mumble and it took a moment to find his way back.  "Anyway, um... Is... Do you think Chessa is... flirting with me?"

The clue-by-four had finally connected.  Would wonders never cease.  Jacob was looking bruised in the brain.  "No need to think," Erica told him.  "She is so definitely flirting with you."

"It is quite the obvious," Cally confirmed.

"Oh."  The sophomore fell back in his seat.  "I never can tell, to be honest.  It just sort of..."  With one hand, he mimed the passage of wind over his head.  "Whoosh.  Right, Gazebo?"

The game master wiped the sauce off his chin with a paper towel.  "I remember Shauna Navarre and Kenneth Gray vying for your attention last year," he said.  "I probably should've stepped in before the fights started.  Thought the three of you had a secret love triangle going on, to be honest."

"And I thought our dorm drama was bad..." said Erica.

"No, no," said Gazebo.  "From what little I've heard, yours has been worse."

"...thanks for confirming the crit, there."

"Just another free service that I provide," the game master said.  "And really, Jacob, I was gonna mention something after the game, to see if you were aware."

"Thanks, dude."  Jacob sighed.  "Why me?"

"Um, you're handsome, single, and share a hobby?" Saumer ventured.  "I mean, I've got the romantic history of a frog in a pond, but even I can see why she's been making dewy eyes at you all session."

"She has?"

Okay, this would be ridiculous if the sophomore didn't seem so sincere about not getting it.  "I have to ask," said Erica.  "Since Chessa's my friend and all, but does she have any chance here?  You don't really seem to be the type for romance."

"I, I honestly don't know."  The look on Jacob's face was a thing she could sympathize with.  Heaven knew that she herself had had enough trouble coming to grips with her own sexual orientation of straight now-female after a puberty spent as straight young male.  "Never been much of a romantic person, yanno?" Jacob continued.  I mean, I'm sometimes, like, interested?  But it's always... I dunno, theoretical.  Someday a girlfriend, someday a relationship, but maybe not now?"

He lightly smacked one hand over his face and groaned again.  "What am I going to do?"

"I dunno, ask her out to lunch sometime?" said Erica.  "Get to know her better?  I mean, you're obviously not totally averse to the idea, just..."

"I think the word you want is 'asexual'."  It was a heck of a way to announce a return from the powder room, but Chessa handled it with grace.  "Or maybe it's aromantic?  One of the two?  maybe both?  Eh, whatever.  It's a thing.  Pat's got the literature if you want to read up on it."

The rest of the table had shied away in surprise at the dragon girl's sudden appearance, only to settle back nervously.  "Ah, is that so...?" said Jacob.  "I'm... well..."

"And I guess I should mention I'm technically asexual -- or ace, if that sounds better, yanno? -- but for different reasons," Chessa continued.  She wasn't looking at anyone as she spoke, unless her dice were somehow sapient.  "Not that I don't think about it sometime, but it's all theoretical.  I'm not, like, equipped properly."

Below the edge of the table, Erica's hand met Calliope's.  She did her best not to crush her roommate's hand from nerves, but the Italian did a good job of crushing back.  What was the dragon girl on about? she wondered, and she knew Cally was thinking the same.  Some of the possibilities were worse than others.

"So, in the interest of over-sharing," Chessa continued.  "I was born without proper girl-parts.  It's a thing; it happens.  There's this big scientific word for it that I hate to remember.  But the thing is, my BIT's working to fix all that.  It's already done the big stuff on the outside, so now I'm a teenage version of a half-dragonborn fighter with high dexterity and charisma -- if I so say so myself! -- but eventually it'll all take and I'll be a real girl all the way through.  That's gonna take a while, so until then I'm fine with someone who isn't interested in the physical side of a relationship, but I still want some romance, goshdarnit!"

A deer in the headlights had nothing on Jacob.  "Well, I..." he began.  "I'm, I guess I'm flattered, but I don't know..."

One finely-scaled hand raised to cut him off.  "Here's my proposal.  You, me, picnic lunch tomorrow.  Make it a date in the quad or wherever.  I bring some of Pat's literature along, we peruse to our satisfaction and decide where we're both at, what we both want, and how much of it overlaps.  Then we can discuss and decide other stuff.  Sound good?"

"Yeah... yeah."  Jacob squared his shoulders and nodded.  "Let's try that.  No one's really talked about it before."

"Great!"  A trill sounded through Chessa's nose as she clapped happily.  "So... shall we get back to the game?"

"That depends," said Gazebo.  "Anyone else need to get something off their chest?"

"I have a crush on Erica."  For a wonder, Saumer's mouth outpaced his ears.  Said appendages immediately curled up and drooped down.  "Um, I mean, who wouldn't, right?  You're awesome and pretty and the best tutor in German Lab and oh God why did I have to open my mouth..."

"Calm down, Saumer," she commanded.  It was her best Uncle Adolf imitation, and it worked.

The freshman sat stock-straight, with even his ears pointing to the ceiling.  "Yeah, um, sorry.  Dunno what came over me, ha-ha..."  The ears twitched with each stammered syllable.  "Just, um, I now it's been a crazy semester, and, um..."

"I've had my fill of romantic problems for the year," she confirmed.  "But it's flattering to hear you, um, say that.  But seriously, you do not want to get involved with the insanity that is my life.  Too many Nazi villains, for one."

"Heh, yeah, I feel you there.  I once got KO'ed by a couple of guys like that last June..."

Oh, scheisse. Erica's brain scrambled to find a different topic to replace any thought of the time a pair of her idiot fascist cousins took down a Boy Scout troop, including Saumer, to kidnap one Eric Schroeder.  To her eternal relief, the table display came to life and shifted the map perspective.  The images gained some depth as holograms rose to outlive the buildings.  While they appeared to be in the same relative positions as the cottages and halls of the Academy, the ruins of Wey-Talleigh Keep were built to a much smaller scale.  The level of detail was fine enough that she could pick out the individual bricks as they crumbled.

"Back to business," she said.  "How do we get back out past the guardian?  Any ideas?"

"Perhaps we repeat the trick with the water?" suggested Calliope.  "Make it unable to move and then run past?"

Erica considered.  "That might work, but on the other hand the guardian might take keeping stuff in a lot more seriously than keeping it out.  I'd rather we bypassed it completely."

"Over the wall it is, then," said Saumer.  "My guy's got some mad climbing skills, so let's put them to use."  The boy directed Kanä's icon over to the wall, a few yards away from the gate.  "Here goes nothing."

~~Another Brick in the Wall~~

This wall, it was not much to look at.  It was missing bricks, and its mortar was crumbling.  The fact that it was three, almost four yards high was no matter.  Kanä had climbed far taller things in his life, often in the middle of storms.  But today, the sun was shining overhead and the earth was staying put.  With a flex of the fingers and of the toes, the sailor sought out a good handhold and began his climb.

After a few breaths, he looked back over his shoulder to see he was halfway up the face of the wall.  It was a fair distance, though not as fast as he'd like.  He took a deep breath in and put some effort into the next part.  His controlled scramble moved him from handhold to handhold as soon as they were found.  Only a bird could have made the ascent faster.  Up and up and up he went, one grip after another, the occasional brick falling away. 

He hummed a tune to keep the time, an old Sarloo tavern song with as many verses as the singer could add on before the snake wine put them under the table.  To the best of his knowledge, the current record was twenty-three verses, and by coincidence that was the exact number Kanä reached when it occurred to him that the climb should've been a three-verse job.  He looked back over his shoulder.

The world was exactly where he'd left it, about halfway down the wall from his current position.  The top of the wall was no closer.  His arms and legs were convinced they had just scaled the black cliffs of Koolozäka in far-off Owanaki, which was a great deal taller than this wall.  With a shrug of resignation, the sailor let go.

He flipped and spun in mid-air, to make a perfect landing on a patch of soft dirt two yards from the base of the wall.  "A fun climb, but not a useful one," he reported.

"A closed border," said the Doorkeeper.  "Someone went through great trouble to erect such a barrier.  I fear the only egress is the same way we entered."

Upon the dirt, Sir Calburi had drawn a crude map of the area with a stick.  One of the goblin whelps, a snub-nosed female with orange eyes, watched the knight scratch the lines.  Then, grabbing a stick of her own, she added a few more.  "Gi-hic! Gi-hic!" she cried.

"Translation, Wolpheen?"

"She's just excited," reported the diva.  "Gobbos have a pretty good sense of maps and geometry.  Even figures into their religion, so I've heard."

"I've never heard that," said the knight.

"You wouldn't have."  The diva crouched by the little goblin and made a few new noises.  Kanä was not ready to call them words just yet.  "Let's see if she can fix your map here for you."

The little goblin thumbed her nose absent-mindedly, then got to work.  Scritch-scritch-scratch went the stick in the first, and a picture of the keep slowly presented itself.  The map was detailed in the way childhood art often was, with wobbly lines and extra bits in the spaces.  There were perhaps a dozen buildings marked, mostly small ones.  A large circle stood for the biggest, with many wavy lines and a frowny face drawn around.  Off to one side, an orchard of fruit trees appeared as looping squiggles.  The outer wall encircled it all.

"Good job!" said Kanä as the goblin whelp finished up.  "Ah... what is her name?" he asked Wolpheen.

"I'm not sure that she has one yet," the diva admitted.  "Goblins don't tend to have real names until they're older."

He snorted.  "That will not do.  You know, in Sarloogo we call the maps tizü, earth-drawings.  That's as good as anything.  Okay?" he said to the whelp.  "I am Kanä.  Kanä!"  He thumped his chest.  "I call you Tizü.  Tizü!"  He put a finger to her snub nose and beeped it playfully.  "Tizü, Tizü, Tizü.  Got it?  Good."

Little Tizü giggled and grinned, showing teeth almost as sharp as his own.  The sailor had a hunch they would get along fine.

~~Back at Whateley~~

The wall was a no-go.  The expanded map gave no clues.  And it was even odds they would not get through the front gate a second time.  Their supplies were all on the other side.  This was not, as Uncle Adolf would put it, an optimal situation.  Even less so for some.

Jacob was reviewing his character sheet to see how many of his knight's class abilities were linked to his steed.  The answer being "too many."  It was something cavaliers were renowned for, a part of their very etymology.  "How could I be so stupid..."  He seemed to be regretting certain life choices now.

"It happens," she said.  "At least Gazebo isn't actively trying to relieve us of our skill items... right?"  She eyed the game master.  So far, the junior had been pretty chill, without the shenanigans that some GMs liked to pull out their asses.  From a previous life she could recall one jerk in particular who'd lived to destroy spellbooks, kill familiars, and force paladins into no-win situations that inevitably led to them forsaking their vows just to survive.  A player forgetting to bring their horse along?  Pretty normal in the grand scheme.

"Do not paladins have a way to call their steeds?" asked Calliope.

"Not at my effective paladin level," Jacob explained.  "Due to the nature of his vocation, he's lagging on the more obviously divine stuff.  Could Petrille open a magic gate?"

"Certo che si, if ze were to gain five levels in the next five minutes."

At his end of the table, Gazebo was nonchalantly  reading an old print magazine with a bikini barbarian on the cover.  "Does anyone else want to say something?" he asked.

"Would anything work?" replied Erica.

"Maybe!" Chessa shouted over the word as it came from the game master.  "Jinx!  You may not talk until our horses and donkey are returned to us!"  Her grin was as wide as Gazebo's frown was deep.  "Hey, it's worth a shot."

The game master made a dramatic shrug, lips pursed and mute.  Without a word, he touch-typed upon an inset keyboard that none of them could see clearly, and then the scene in the table display shifted.  A series of icons paraded through the gate in the wall: six of them, led by Petrille's stolid little pack donkey.  They arrived at the coachman's circle and began munching on the grass.

Gazebo made a bow with an extra flourish of the hands, then pointed to his mouth.

"Oh!  Un-jinx!" said Chessa.

"Thanks."  The game master's tone was mordant.  "Before anybody asks, no, the guardian did not react to non-sapient animals passing into the keep.  If you would like to test the reverse?"

"Not today," said Jacob.  "I'm not sure what we could afford to sacrifice in the probable event that the guardian won't let them out.  Not the horses, for certain, and not the donkey."

"Not my pupper!" yelled Chessa.  "And, um, I don't think it'd be a good idea to kill the kiddos' piggy."

"Bad for the morale, at least," agreed Calliope.  "But perhaps we shall find something disposable later on?"

Erica still had her eyes on the display.  She traced along the nearest section of wall with one finger.  "Or we could watch and wait.  Birds are bound to fly past eventually.  Or bats.  Or..."  A thought occurred to her, and it was not a pleasant one.  "Okay.  Wait a sec.  How much wildlife have we seen in here?"

Saumer answered: "Remarkably little.  Like, Gazebo's descriptions of the scenes mention how quiet it all is, no animal noises, et cetera.  Want the playback?"

"I trust your memory, Hiram," she said before the boy could engage his peculiar ability to replay any sound he'd ever heard, whatsoever, at any volume and with high fidelity.  It undoubtedly served him well in German class, but they didn't need it here.  "So.  This place is based on Whateley..."

"Superficially," Gazebo clarified.

"...and our real-life Whateley's a messed-up piece of real estate as it is.  Stick that through a filter of D&D, or Pathfinder, or Das Schwarze Auge, or... or... I don't know, Blue Rose?  I can't imagine a single system or setting where this school isn't ground zero for all things weird, bizarre, and/or unspeakable."

Gazebo's self-satisfied smirk said all the words left unspoken.  The game master's only vocal response was, "Did you pull toilet duty at Hawthorne?"

"No.  Comment."  Erica wiped a hand flat down her face as she tried to blot the memory.  "What was I saying...  ah!  Okay, we're stuck here, we know it's only going to get weirder, and we've got dependents.  First order of business?"  She looked expectantly at Jacob.

The sophomore was more on the ball with this.  "Establish a base, somewhere in the ruins.  Secure access to water and food... those fruit trees the goblins mentioned.  We should head that way."

It was a good idea.  It was probably the best idea if not the only one worth trying, which was why no doubt existed in Erica's mind that it was exactly what Gazebo wanted them to do.  But, aside from being That Player, the one who refused to cooperate and dragged everything down, she wasn't sure how she could mess with the game master in return.  Unless... her eyes went to her list of available spells, skills, and assorted tricks.  "I'm going to... Wolpheen will take the lead as we approach the orchard," she announced.  "With her guitar out and strumming as she goes..."

~~The Great Singalong~~

The world may turn upon a single chord.  That was what Wolpheen's mother had taught her daughter, in those few short years they'd had together.  In truth, it might have been the one thing the diva truly remembered of her mum.  Those words, spoken in a voice of crystal upon ruby lips, and that sacred chord that calmed the world with its sweet clarity.  Wolpheen found a way to weave it into most every song she performed, and it had amazed her that no one else ever seemed to notice.  First as a child prodigy, then as an apprentice bard, and finally upon entering the service of Zitaori -- her life's experiences seemed a composition dedicated to giving her a better kenning of that one gift from her mother.  A chord played upon the heart, not the strings, that went well with anything she sang.

"Down by the bay, where the watermelons grow..."

No matter how ridiculous.  It had been Emi who'd taught her this one, as well as the thirty-five rhyming verses to reference every possible animal a farming family might know.  The midwife's brothers and sisters were bar none the greatest compendium of children's nonce music that Wolpheen had ever found.

"...Have you ever met an otter, gargling soda water, down by the bay!" went the end of verse nine.  The goblings, who could not have understood a word of it all, still laughed and clapped their hands as Emi sang her heart out.  Petrille led zer horse and donkey along in a stony silence that could have meant anything, but the diva knew the Doorkeeper well enough to tell when ze was holding in laughter.

Their sailor friend had no such forbearance, and while he couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, he could still pat his gelding on the neck in time with the rhythm.  Kanä also proved adept at following Emi and Wolpheen's lyrical stylings a half-beat behind, fast enough to fake knowing the actual words.  A handy skill to have, in her opinion.

Only their knightly companion kept up a dour front.  "This is supposed to be an expedition," he complained.  "Into dangerous and unknown territory?  Not some... some schoolyard excursion with a picnic lunch!"

"Ooh, do we have a basket?" asked Emi.

"No!"  But even Sir Calburi could not stop himself from nodding along to the song as they went.  Even the horses seemed to trot in time.

Really, that was the most amazing thing about her mother's sacred chord: that no matter who or what heard it, even unwittingly, still felt the urge to sing along.  This included pretty much anything that might be hiding in the bushes nearby, as a series of feral hoots broke out into a rough chorus as they finished verse twelve: "...Did you see a pollywog, taring all agog, down by the bay!"

Wolpheen laughed as the flock of critters fell from the branches in surprise at their own musical outburst.  The sacred chord really did work on anything.  Even the corrupted creatures that nested in the dark corners of the world.  She had seen the like before, elsewhere in the realm.  Somewhat like monkeys, with their arms and legs.  Somewhat like squirrels, with their ears and tails.  Somewhat like murderous razor-beaked terror birds, with their faces, feathers, and general attitude towards anything that looked even remotely edible.  Their usual tactic was to wait quietly until the unsuspecting morsels passed too close, then shriek said morsels' ears off.  Followed shortly by the heads, necks, and giblets.

That did not happen here because the little monsters were too busy rolling on the grass and hooting out the chorus to Emi's silly song.  They did not stop even as Petrille stepped over and began whalloping them over the head with zer 'door knocker' -- what others might call a long-handled maul hammer.  The hapless varmints struggled to stand for as long as Wolpheen kept her guitar strumming.

Between the three of them, the Doorkeeper, the knight, and the sailor finished off the troop of featherheads so quickly that it hardly seemed fair.

~~Back at Whateley~~

At his end of the table, Gazebo generally held the air of a game master who'd seen it all, even in the face of something new.  Even so, annoyance and amusement could crack the jaded façade, as they did now.  The junior sat there with his fist and elbow propping up his face as the antics on the board played out.

"You know I record the play-by-play for these games?" he said.  "Anyone mind if I send a highlights reel to my dude at Paizo?  No personal details or out-of-game stuff, except for a note when or if something directly impacts the game.  They love to analyze stuff like this."

"I guess that's okay?" said Erica.  She saw Jacob already nodding, as if this was a perfectly normal thing.  "Is it really so interesting?"

"Well, yeah."  Gazebo's hand swept over the table in a wizard's wave, and the previous scene replayed at 2x speed.  "I run stuff for baselines -- my little brother's group online, occasionally some of the guys in Security -- and for mutants, and my dude knows that much.  Nothing about the school, of course, only that I've got a broad array of players and player types for them to crunch through.  And Whateley kids really do play differently.

"Cosa?"  Calliope examined the replay in progress.  "It is normal, no?  We have the situations, we deal with the situations, using what tricks we know.  Simple?"

"I can't say how you used to play," said Gazebo, "but I'm willing to bet that your approach to it has changed since your mutation, even if you haven't realized.  My brother's group?  Nice kids, really into it, but their focus is on the prize more than the race, if that makes sense?  They tear through those online guides for different classes to get the perfect build that can take on anything.  Nine times out of ten I can predict exactly how their character sheet is going to read based on the current point-buy.  The Security guys are a bit better about it, but they're still focused on optimization.  Effective, efficient, generic."

Chessa giggled.  "Three words which do not describe us right now.  I think half of my hexes were listed as either orange or red in one of those guides.  Thanks for giving me the chance to use Child Scent, by the way."

"Thank you for thinking to use it to track someone," replied Gazebo.  "But that's kind of my point.  I know there are exceptions on all sides, but the Whateley kids I run stuff for, they pick a power concept and do everything they can contrive to make it work -- and I'm usually nice enough to help them with optional systems, splatbooks, and the Elephant In The Room abridgements to rules and requirements.  And then I watch them take these ridiculous builds with highly specific powersets and absolutely murder my adventures.  Like now."  With a flick of a finger he halted the replay.  "Pre-emptively ambushing an ambush with a bardic performance.  Granted, I kind of set myself up for that when I okayed that ASMR stuff, but you're the one though to do it.  A whole different play philosophy from regular kids of close to your age, from being so used to powers, power-sets, and how they work in real fights.  Last weekend wasn't your first, was it?" he said to Erica.

"Ah, no.  There, um, may have been an incident in Berlin a few weeks back, and of course New York -- not the big thing! -- and some random crap over the summer..."  She let out a long sigh.  "I can hardly remember a time when my life was normal."

"Amen to that, sister."  Chessa reached over for a fist bump.  

There was a soft huff as Jacob slumped into his seat.  "Now I feel like I'm letting you down," he said.  "Playing a pretty straight cavalier with aspirations for every session this semester."

"I guess we could have him and Kanä kiss..."  Chessa's suggestion dissolved into a hysterical trill.  "A joke, a joke!  It's bad enough I've been forcing Emi on him so much today."

"Um, I really haven't minded..."

Saumer gave the sophomore a friendly thump on the shoulder.  "Don't worry.  Cal will grow into his own, eventually."

"Yeah, he's friends with our lot, so how normal could he be?" Chessa teased.

~~Quiet and Stable~~

A knight was supposed to be in control at all times, even when he was not in command.  A paladin, even more so.  That was the lesson drilled into Calburi's head over the years, starting from the grand romances of heroes past and reinforced by old Sir Wisterthwait's object examples to a young squire.  No matter the situation, a knight had to be in control -- of himself if nothing else.

Some quests did their best to try this ideal, to force it through the gantlet of life and prove it till it broke.  No matter how difficult the situation, Calburi had always come through.

So why was this particular adventure any different?  Why did he feel so adrift, so lacking in control?

The answer to his rhetorical questions skipped happily ahead of him, hand in hand with two as-yet-nameless goblin whelps.  Emi had done something to her skirts so that her leonine tail stood proudly in her wake, and the tufted appendage only drew his attention to the sway of her hips as she danced along.  

He could understand how the greatest threat to a knight-hero in the romances of yore could in fact be the romance.  Fey sorceresses and haughty princesses had drawn his attention as a child, but in the here and now as a grown man, Calburi could appreciate an open, honest, hardworking woman.

And well the woman knew it.  Emi occasionally sneaked a glance back his direction to confirm that he was still looking, then winked playfully.  Only one of them was truly in control of the situation, and they both knew who.

Calburi patted the neck of his horse, a handsome mare named Perdita whom he'd bought direct from a farm a year before.  The dapple mare was strong and stocky as a good cart-horse should be, and she bore his weight in armor without fuss.  His hand on her mane was as calming to himself as to the steed, and the calm seemed to spread to the other animals in their little herd.  The ladies' own mares were calm, placid things, while Kanä's gelding was the only horse that had ever accepted the sailor on its back.  Mainly because they shared a temperament: the gelding, affectionately called Bäqä by its rider, was otherwise a fraught mess of nerves that preferred solving problems with teeth and hooves.  Calburi was still unsure how the unlikely pair had not gone about murdering each other.

And then the donkey.  Petrille had dubbed it Gankhi, or stony-head in Common Dwarvish.  It was apparently a compliment.  At the moment, Gankhi led the way, straining forward on the tether connecting him to the Doorkeeper's riding mare.  Inquisitive brays announced that there was something to be found ahead, likely edible.

What did the hardheaded little thing see?  With all the trees and undergrowth around, it was not apparent at first, but then it all clicked in Calburi's head and he realized that they must have found the old keep's stables.  They just happened to look like a hillock from this side.  Walking the horses around, the knight and his companions could see that the other side of the hillock was hollowed out, with old wooden pillars holding up the roof and the remains of a fence defining the open area before it.  To the side stood a stone hut, better tended than any structure they'd seen thus far.

The reason for that now ran straight to them.

"O Great and Bounteous Epontia!  You have come!"  A man as old and decrepit as that should not have been able to move so swiftly.  A hermit by his clothes, his hair, and his body odor, the old man stopped in front of Calburi and squinted.  "No, no, not you..."  The mumbling came over mostly toothless gums.  "Ah, yes!"  Now the hermit bowed deeply to Perdita.  "O Blessed of Epontia, be welcome here."

His mare, to her credit, did not rear or balk at the sight and smell of the stranger, only turning her head to get a better look.  A gentle nose pat was deemed acceptable tribute.

"Who are you?" asked Calburi.

"Eh, what?"  For a moment, the knight thought the old man replied to him, but instead the hermit bent his ear closer to Perdita's nose.  "He's yours, you say?  No accounting for taste.  Oh no, O Blessed One, I wasn't about to cast aspersions on your choice."  The few remaining teeth in that old mouth clicked with amusement.  "No, no, I'm sure he's a fine one.  And a good herd you've got yourself here as well.  Could use a proper stallion --- ah-ah!  My apologies."

Kanä's own gelding had stretched his neck over to nip the man on the shoulder.  The horse called Bäqä continued to bare his teeth until Perdita whinnied loudly.

Calburi rubbed the sides of his head.  Nothing made sense anymore.  "Would you please tell him to introduce himself?" he finally said to Perdita, more in desperation than expectation.  His mare whinnied again.

"What's that?  Oh, if you insist..."  The hermit's eyes rolled in their sockets as he forced his attention away from the important folk to deal with the annoying two-legged ones.  "Hi.  How ya doing.  Thanks for escorting the Blessed One here.  Good b'ye, all."

Perdita nudged the old man firmly with her nose.

"Oh, alright!  The name's Marquus, priest of Epontia.  These are Her stables; I just watch over them, keeping them in proper order till the Blessed One arrives.  Which she has.  Thank you, you're welcome, run along now."  With quick and furtive gestures, he shooed the knight and his companions aside so that the horses and donkey could pass the stile into the stable's outer enclosure.  When Calburi tried to follow, he found his steps ended at the rickety old gate.

"Another barrier," said Petrille to none in particular.  "A divine sanction."

"Gotta keep the Blessed One safe," declared Marquus.  "Can't do that if just anyone can barge in after her.    Not safe at all, that."

"Those are our horses," said Calburi in his best knightly tone of authority.  It was time to take control of the situation again.

"Nuh-uh.  Got it backwardly, sonny.  She ain't yours; you're hers.  And honestly?"  One gogged eye looked him up and down.  "Really don't get why.  Bet you ain't never said a proper prayer to Epontia in your life."

"I do not even know who that is!" growled the knight.

The old man's face drooped till it was longer than his beard.  "Say it ain't so!  Who do the horsemen and outriders pray to, then?  Not that froo-froo shepherdess Bohl-Pepina, is it?"

"Um, I don't know her either," Calburi admitted.  "I'm not actually from this side of the continent."

Wolpheen had her thinking look on.  "To be fair, I don't think many of the locals would know anymore, either, except maybe as a reference in a nursery rhyme.  The old plantation estates all collapsed generations ago, and their pantheon of farm deities as well.  I only recognize those names as historical notes in one of my hymnals.  Nowadays, I think the cult of Tarbajjian is more current with the mounted infantry in the capital."

"That bloody-minded lummox!" cried Marquus.  "What does a war god know of proper horse care, huh?  It's pretty ponies to order around, far as he's concerned."

Calburi was not about to argue with that.  His own experiences with Tarbajjian's mortal recruiters had left a bad taste, and he'd say as much if his mind weren't on other things.  "Ah, Perdita?" he called.  "Would you let me in?"

His mare snorted and trotted over to the stile.  She nuzzled his hand and, when he had a grip on her harness, she pulled him into the enclosure.  His feet were leaden as they were led to the horseyard, unable to move until they'd cleared the threshold completely.

"Well, there's hope for you yet," said the hermit.

~~Back at Whateley~~

"So this is the deity of the week, huh?"  Jacob scratched at the stubble of his cheek, inexpertly shaved down that morning by the look of it.  "Knew it was coming somehow, and you still manage to surprise me."

"You've turned down every major divine player in the region already," said Gazebo.  "Every one that would be interested in you, at least."

"This is a regular thing, huh?"  Erica looked over the notes her latest Knowledge: Religion check had provided.  No real surprise, but their host was the type to document cultural shifts and defunct pantheons in his worldbuilding.

"Gazebo's of the idea that a free agent paladin is a tempting sight to any divine beings in the area," Jacob said, wavering between an ex- and a com- on his -plaining.  "So every session he's been in so far, some god or goddess has sent followers to try and recruit him.  Two sessions back, we even had competing bids."

"And you turned them both down," said Gazebo.  "Even when it pissed off the clergy."

The sophomore's smug grin hinted that the reaction of the holy rollers might have been more a pro than a con.  "Tell me more about this one," he said.  "Erica?"

Oh, right.  It was her turn to participate in the lore and world-building.  "Ahem.  Epontia, goddess of horses, mistress of the high fields of heaven, and chronic non-joiner in the petty squabbles of the divine.  Hey, that's what it says!" she protested as Jacob gave her a funny look.  "She's, like, True Neutral, goes her own way, and really only cares about horses.  Domains are Freedom, Resolve, Animals, and... Family?"

"Ooh, that's Emi's primary domain!" said Chessa.  "Maybe this goddess would get along with Big Mama Above."

"I guess so."  Erica read the last page.  "And... this guy Marquus is likely the last human cleric of Epontia.  The rest are horses blessed with intelligence.  Like your loyal steed," she told Jacob.

"How does that even... wait."  The sophomore pinched the bridge of his nose as he thought.  "Two sessions back, Gazebo.  Chase scene.  Mystery roll, and we suddenly have a second chance to move farther along.  Any connection?"

"Maaaaaaaaaybe?"

"Come on, dude!  How long were you planning this?"

"Planning?"  Gazebo chortled.  "I just kept an option available.  And I do think it fits your guy well.  No hierarchy, no messy theological arguments spilling out upon the mortal realm, just a guy who loves horses out doing good deeds.  Everyone okay with ending the session with some Calburi-centric plot stuff?"

"Fine by me," said Saumer.  

"We can cheer you on!"  Chessa clapped.  "Um, if he wants to, at least."

"You know what?  Sure."  Jacob rubbed the heel of one hand around his right eye.  "Why not.  He can be the anarcho-paladin of horses or whatever.  Let's tell this Marquus dude that Cal is interested in learning more about this Epontia and see what happens."

"What happens," Gazebo began, "is that the hermit starts babbling excitedly and it takes a few minutes to calm him down.  He takes Cal by the hand and leads him to the edge of the overgrown orchard, where  a path is visible..."

~~A Different Hue of Horseman~~

Civilization's touch could still be seen in the grove before him.  An orchard by design had a goodly amount of space between the trees.  Calburi's own family had tended a modest stand of apple and plum trees, and he possessed fond memories of stealing into the night for a late snack.  What fruit these trees now bore, he could not say.  Many were overgrown to a degree that would hamper production, their leaves blocking the flowers and stunting the young fruit.  Between the original plants, lesser bushes and shrubs had sprouted, interlopers rising up to claim rain and sun from the old lords of the orchard.

In the slant of the afternoon's light, the shadows turned long and weird, so that a touch of the wild fell upon this formerly cultivated space.  

"It ain't a greenwood," said the hermit.  "But then again, Epontia ain't as wild as some of Her divine sisters.  There's a sacred space of Hers in there.  Go find it, find Her.  See what happens."

There was a lot left unsaid there, and Calburi could not guess what.  Behind him, from the stables, he heard Perdita whinny.  He'd neglected her so far this adventure, and for that he was sorry.  Squaring his shoulders, he put one foot upon the path, and then the other.  Perdita had never led him off course, and he would trust her now.

Three steps to where the path met the underbrush.  Ten steps through to the trees.  Twenty steps in, and Calburi turned his head to see that there was nothing behind him but more trees and brush.  No hint of a path trailed from his heels, and it soon vanished ahead of him as well, leaving him to push through the undergrowth and low-hanging branches.  The foliage overhead allowed the sunlight to trickle down, but only as a diffuse, green-tinted ghost of day.  He could not tell what direction he stumbled, only that it was deeper into a feral woods that should already have come to its other end.

If he had not already seen more of how Wey-Talleigh Keep distorted the space within it, he would have been amazed.  As it was, he could only trust in Epontia to lead him through.

Perhaps that was the point.

Calburi stopped.  Tilting his head back, he closed his eyes and focused on opening his ears, to listen as well as hear.  There was wind in the upper branches, singing of the coming night.  There was the shuffle and snuffle of small creatures that inhabited this reclaimed patch of wilderness.  There was his own breathing, grown steadily slower as he relaxed.

Ahead of him, the whinny of horses.  Calburi kept his eyes half-lidded, open just enough to avoid the trees, but otherwise he followed his ears.  The tread of boots crunched through the tougher shrubbery, and only when his footfalls quieted did he open his eyes completely.

A vale had appeared in the midst of the wood, too large by far to fit within his mental map of the keep.  The grass grew thick and soft, with tuffets of long-stemmed plants growing hither and thither.  It would be good grazing for any ruminant, but especially for equines.

At the center, upon a raised hill of stones and dirt, there stood a statue: the figure of a woman and a horse resting, the animal in repose upon the earth with its head in her lap.  Its marble surface glowed in the afternoon light, accentuating the few spots where paint still colored its features.  The woman's hair had once been roan, he could see, as had the horse.  The eyes were painted a deep black, obvious as the statue raised its head to stare at him in the face.

"What man enters this place on foot?"  The demand came not as words, though he understood them as such.  The statue did not speak; it simply asserted, and the reality in his mind compensated.  "Speak, mortal, and fast."

"My, my name is Calburi Varkassti," he stammered.  "I, I come in humility to, to meet the goddess Epontia and pay my respects."

"Do you?"  With an ethereal fluidity that ached the eyes to perceive, the arm of the statue rose to point an accusative finger his way.  "By your name now I ken ye, Calburi son of Varkas, the man who would play a knight, the holy warrior without vocation, the façade of a perfect and selfless hero, following orders blindly and damning himself and his companions alike."

"Wait, what do you--"

"And now here you are, standing before me on your own two feet as if you have the right.  Hrnfrffl..."  The snort from the statue was distinctly inhuman.  "Nothing good ever came to me on two legs.  To have four was always so much the better."

With the same unworldly fluidity of motion, the marble statue rose from its repose, and its profile shifted as it did.  The distinction between horse and maiden vanished, merged, melded until what towered above him was the effigy of a warhorse, tall and proud, with the figure of a warrior woman sprung from where the neck should be.  The lines of the body flowed naturally between the unnatural pairing of its parts.  Black-painted eyes continued to stare from its womanly face, with its graven hair drawn back and its nose arched high as the goddess looked down upon him.  The next statement from Epontia came not in words, but rather in the sound of a bowstring being draw by delicately carved fingers.

The first stone arrow found root where Calburi's feet had just vacated.  A second and a third followed shortly.  The shafts punctuated his track through the grass, never hitting but never missing their mark.  The goddess could kill him where he stood.  Of that, Calburi had not a doubt.  That she did not was of small comfort.

Her heavy hooves struck the ground in a slow pace, following along with his flight without bothering to chase.  How long until she tired of this game, he knew not, but if it were not a game, but a test...

Calburi stopped and faced the woods, turning his back boldly upon the goddess and crying, "Perdita!  I beg forgiveness for aught I have done to treat you poorly.  Only, please come to me in my time of need!"

The mare had been waiting for this.  She had to have been.  Her immediate appearance through the trees had no other explanation.  Bursting from the greenwood with a powerful whinny, his trusted steed still wore her saddle and gear, but no bridle.  His hands caught the pommel as she passed, and his feet the stirrups.  She greeted him as he sat upon her back, and his hands threaded through her mane for an appreciative scritch.

Without reins or bridle, Calburi could not tell Perdita where to go.  The mare did not require direction, turning of her own accord to face the centaurine statue of the goddess.  The arrows and bow had disappeared, to be replaced with a lance and target shield.

A joust.  He had not participated in such a competition since he'd left his old order behind, and would much rather not do one now.  Perdita wasn't trained for the sport, and there was such a risk of injury to horse and rider alike.  

The mare faced off against the goddess without a prompt from himself.  She snorted and dug a hoof into the dirt.  Challenge understood and accepted, she seemed to say.

And himself without a lance.  Calburi sighed as he placed a hand over his heart and focused on the feelings he associated with his personal vocation.  Never had he followed a single deity, nor had he any interest in one ere now.  His power found its source in the desire to do good deeds and help others, and now it welled up from the depths of his soul to take form.  A length of glimmering iridescence shaped itself into a lance nearly three yards in length, with a handle and grip to fit his hand.  It wavered and flickered with his own thoughts and doubts, but with gritted teeth he willed it steady.  A shield likewise appeared on his arm.

He saluted Epontia.  The statuesque figure did not return the gesture, only lowering its lance and beginning the charge.  Perdita did not wait for the spurs, but raced forward to meet her maker head-on.

The lance of the goddess glanced off his shield of faith, passing without harm to him but shattering the defensive magic into motes of light.  Likewise, when Calburi's lance of righteousness struck Epontia's shield straightly, it burst into a thousand tiny shards that did nothing more than scratch the surface of the marble.

Horse and centauress passed, slowed, came to a halt.  "You have so little faith in yourself?" came the question without words.

"So little and yet so much," he replied.  "It is a faithless world, in spite of the gods themselves.  Too often have I seen the true faces of holy men, heard their vain words and platitudes.  True faith comes from within, and it matters not the intensity, only that it is."

"Your companions might disagree on some points."

"They are better folk than I," said Calburi.  "And more innocent.  They can afford to be.  But I... the only thing I trust more than myself is Perdita."

His mare snorted her appreciation, and he scratched her neck tenderly.

"What of your young filly, the daughter of the night?"

He blew a long sigh out his cheeks.  "I would rather leave my romantic life out of the conversation right now."

"Fair enough."  With heavy footfalls Epontia approached, but the hands of marble bore no weapons now.  "O man who fears his faith, what would you do?"

"What I have always striven to do," he replied.  "To help, to rescue, to stand against the darkness..."  The words sounded hollow in his ears.  "Ah... perhaps to care and to tend.  I do not know anymore."

A stone hand caressed his face.  It was warm from the light of day.  "Let your friends guide you.  The family, the herd will ever ken more than the lone stallion.  You are a man of the horse, Calburi son of Varkas, and if I am to accept you into my service, then the horse shall be your way of life.  Can you accept that?"

"Yes," he gasped.  The word fought through a fall of tears.

"This mare shall be your guide.  Learn and live.  Be my steward upon the earth."  The statue returned to its hillock and lay down.  Its outline blurred and flickered in the growing shadows of dusk until it was again a maiden cradling a horse's head in her lap.  "Go and be free."

He saluted Her again.  The statue waved farewell.

Perdita turned and walked them out of the woods.  The trip out was not nearly so long as the trip in.  The fey presence of the goddess had released the orchard from its embrace, and gone was its influence the moment they stepped fully away from Epontia's vale.  Calburi could see through the trees to the old stables, where the others waited.

"My lad, my lad!" cried the old hermit.  "You done it, verily you did!  Knew you were the right one, eh what! ... Never doubted you for a moment," Marquus added quietly in Perdita's ear.  "Even if he does look like a pomped-up soldier boy."

Calburi rolled his eyes but accepted what compliments might come his way, even obliquely.  "So it's alright to use the stables, then?" he asked.

"Alright?  Alright!?  Why, lad..."  Marquus grabbed the knight's hand and shook it.  "The place is yours, now!  Been waiting so long for a young'un such as yourself to pass it on to.  So long..."  The old man wheezed and trembled as an extended sigh rumbled from his chest.  Grubby fingers pulled an amulet from behind his beard, a bronze figure of a horse in motion, and pressed it into Calburi's palm.  The odd wheeze grew in strength as the hermit collapsed into his ragged clothes, saying one last "So long..." as he disappeared beneath them.

Calburi dismounted and plucked carefully at the pile of rags now lying in the dirt.  There was nothing at all beneath them.  "So long, old man," he replied.  "May you run forever in Her fields."  The words seemed right, felt appropriate as they appeared upon his lips, but he did not know how they got there.

Perdita whinnied her agreement.

Looking to his companions, their animals, and the old stables of Wey-Talleigh Keep, Calburi saw there was much to do.

~~Back at Whateley~~

"And that's our time for today," Gazebo announced.  "Wish we could play longer, but the school regs on group, team, or club activities specify time limits, and in particular prohibit twenty-hour D&D sessions."

Erica snickered.  "You made it into the rulebooks, huh?"

"I wish.  No, that line dates back to the 80s.  One of these days I'm gonna get the administration to cough up the details so I can meet the reason for the rule in person."  Gazebo's fingers danced over his inset keyboard.  "Anyway, it's a good place to stop.  You all have a sense of what this place is like, and you even have a base of operations, but there's so much left to explore.  Another day."

A one-ear salute flicked over Saumer's head.  "Aye-aye, cap'n."

A moment of silence honored their dice, those stalwart little warriors of chance and fate, as they were shuffled back into bags and boxes.  Clear files full of character data joined them in the packing.

Upon the table display, a recap of the session now scrolled down digital parchment.  Some program of the game master's own device had logged every action taken, while on another scroll a stenographer's quill wrote down all the words spoken in character.

Chessa was giggling over the script of the scene they'd just concluded, where Gazebo had allowed her to play the part of Epontia, goddess of horses, based on a few quick notes and important points.  "I don't really talk like this, do I?" the dragon girl asked.

"I did install a filter," Gazebo admitted.  "To pretty it up and remove excessive hemming and hawing.  No one at this table is given to dropping f-bombs, but if you did, the program would convert them to fantasy trope cussing as well."

"Neat-o."  The girl giggled as she read on.  "Sorry for teasing Cal about his love life, Jacob.  Not really appropriate, seeing as I've got a vested interest there."

"Don't worry about it," said Jacob.  "It worked out well."

"And, um, sorry for putting you on the spot like that, earlier."

The sophomore's shrug was broad and forgiving.  "It's all good.  And, um, to tell the truth, I'm kind of enjoying it... between our characters."

"Of course, of course."  Chessa shouldered her bag.  "Well, I'm off!  Gotta meet the fam for a Halloween planning meeting and gossip hour."

"Headed to...?" Jacob began.

"Poe Cottage.  Fifty percent less crazy than you think."

"Most days," Erica teased.

"You wound me, really you do.  Like Dickinson is any better."

Jacob had his stuff packed as well, with the strap of his duffle bag crossed over his chest.  "If you don't mind some company, I'm walking that way."

It was a bold-faced lie, obvious to anyone who knew the campus and the relative positions of Poe and Twain Cottages, but they let it pass.  Little lies were the grease that kept the world turning, as Opa would say.  Chessa was not quite hanging off the sophomore's arm as they left, if only because she had promised to keep her hands off for now.  A precise distance was set between them, all the more intimate for how well the two observed it as they left the room.

"Che strana coppia," Calliope mumbled in her own tongue.

"Whatever you say," Saumer commented.  The freshman had packed up his stuff in reflective silence and was ready to go as well.  "I can find my own way out, no worries.  And, um, Erica?  About what I said before?"

"Already forgotten."  She mimed the action of a fictional memory-wiping devise in front of her face and blinked in exaggerated confusion.  "But, seriously, my life is a mess and I'm not just talking about the dorm drama.  I could always do with another friend, though."  Her hand was out, and the boy shook it without hesitation.  "See you in German Lab?" she asked.

"Definitely.  Auf wiedersehen."  With a wag of an ear, the boy was gone.

Their host watched it all with the eye of a man taking notes for future story threads.  "So what is up between the two of you?" he asked.

"Only what you've seen today," she replied.

"Right."  The word rolled almost as well as the junior's eyeballs in their sockets.  "I think he might actually believe that, but you don't."

Ice gripped her heart for a second, and she thanked heaven that her face did not, could not, show anything to the world than the usual milk-pale complexion.  She let the chill seep through her vocal cords: "It is none of your business."

"Fine, fine," said the game master.  "Only... don't let it into the game, if you could?  We're here to forget the real world drama for a while."

With a curt nod she agreed, and then she and her roommate were out of there before any more uncomfortable questions could be asked.  Calliope kept to her side much as Chessa had to Jacob, if for different reasons.  Erica only wished they could be the same ones.

"Did you have a good time?" she inquired.  "You were kind of quiet for a lot of it."

"Ah, si..."  The Italian's smile was a waning crescent under the corridor lights.  "I needed this, I think.  To be... to be doing the things with a group, with friends and new peoples both.  Even, even boys."  There was a pained burr to her voice that left more ice down Erica's spine.  "Si...  I shall, I will try to be more outgoing, but..."  Calliope leaned against her roommate's shoulder as they walked along.  "First I shall work on the going-out."

"I'll be there with you."

"Grazie.  Being out, being here, helps.  You help.  The game, it helps.  Even to see the drama from someone else..."  Calliope's giggles were lyrical as they floated along.  "I shall have much to discuss with Dr. Shu when next I see him."

Erica had an arm around Cally, giving her a good sidelong squeeze.  "Best friends forever?"

"Certo che si."

Read 11403 times Last modified on Tuesday, 14 September 2021 00:29

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jneko
2 years ago
this was a lot of fun to read. I may steal the horse/animal companion secretly being a cleric.
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Cildan
2 years ago
I loved this, I may steal some parts from this for my own d&d character.
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