Posts by ammulder

PrinceCon 39 Theme Teaser #4

PrinceCon 39: Shroud of the World

For once in his life, Sparks was at a loss for words. The three of them had prepared for a fast and stealthy trip through the wasteland. But the last member of their small team…

Sarge made a quick introduction. “The magi have agreed to assist. This is Thoorin…”

“Thoorin Firesong,” the mage supplied sharply. “Call me Firesong.”

Bishop coughed, and his face said everything Sparks felt, but at least the man’s brightly-colored robes matched his name. The massive wooden chest, however, and the elderly donkey it was strapped to…

Finally Sparks found his voice again. “So, Sarge, have you explained the ‘move fast’ and ‘don’t be noticed’ parts of the mission to, uh, Firesong?”

The mage answered directly. “I’m sorry, if I may put it in your terms, these are my swords and armor. Non-negotiable. Now, when do we leave?” He turned away to tighten the straps on the pack animal.

“Looks like they’ve saddled us with two asses,” Bishop muttered under his breath.

* * *

Even thirty yards away, Bishop shuddered as he watched the creature pass. This one was smaller, the bastard offspring of the monsters that had nearly killed him. And it didn’t seem to care that the stomping and crashing through underbrush was alerting everyone within earshot. Maybe it just wanted a fight.

With a quick hand motion, Bishop stopped the rest of the team before they started over the small rise. A few gestures later, they were headed around the side instead.

Bishop watched the creature until it was safely out of sight. It still looked nothing more than a walking hunk of clay, with eyes and ears just molded out of the raw material. It walked stiffly, and carried a large tree branch over its shoulder; an improvised club, or perhaps a walking stick for climbing the steeper hills. The thing seemed to have a purpose, but what that could be here and now was beyond understanding.

He doubled back to the group, to be greeted by an outraged Firesong.

“I don’t know why you’re directing us away from the tomb. I’ve explained three times where it is!”

Bishop sighed. “And I’ve told you — we don’t fight in the wasteland unless we absolutely can’t avoid it.”

“Nonsense — I shall sing the fire and they shall trouble us no more.”

Sparks was just as skeptical: “This fire song, uh, Firesong, could you give us a small demonstration? So we can plan our tactics.”

Firesong hummed defiantly, and snapped his fingers at Sparks. A small flame, perhaps the size of a candle, popped into existence and hovered above his palm.

No longer able to keep a straight face, Sarge burst out laughing. “Boy, he really showed you!”

Bishop grinned. “Okay, Firesong, you win. Let’s go back and fight.”

The mage’s face turned as red as his robe. “Damn you, I can scale it up from there.” With a longer song and much more elaborate gestures, he threw a small streak of flame toward a distant bush. It almost hit, shattering a small rock nearby.

Bishop was actually impressed — Sparks could have shot the rock with ease, but his arrow never would have broken it. “How big can you make it?”

Firesong looked away. “Well, uh, that’s a matter of some debate.” He pointed to his trunk. “I believe I’ve identified all the elements of the gestures, but the proper verse eludes me. The scrolls speak of massive explosions, of fire streaking down from the heavens…” He sighed. “So much of the knowledge is lost…”

“Heck of a thing to lose,” Sparks chipped in.

“Look little man,” the mage retorted, “How’d you like to be stringing a bow taller than you are, not that pint-sized version?” He gestured at Bishop. “And the grunt here would be in full-plate armor, though he might need a war horse to move it.”

Sarge cut in before things got further out of hand. “Enough, enough. Firesong, we’ll take what you can give us, but we’re not going to go looking for trouble. Now let’s get back to the mission.”

* * *

The mage paced impatiently, though Bishop returned soon enough.

“It’s there all right,” he nodded at Firesong, “just like he said. But there’s nothing to see. Just a small room, lots of writing on the walls, and a little shrine with one of his magical fires burning on top. Waste of a trip.”

“The Everflame! It is the tomb of Azazel!” Firesong objected. “Legend holds that he was turned away from the Wall, by the Watch I might add, but never made it back to his fortress. Does it say where the fortress is? Is there a map?”

“No, just a bunch of words.”

“And do these words say anything,” Firesong inquired with scathing sarcasm.

Bishop turned away, visibly trying to restrain himself from throttling anyone. It meant he was facing the wrong way to see Firesong dash away, and only heard Sparks call after him, “Wait you idiot! We sent a scout because we wanted to avoid attention!”

* * *

The other three arrived to find Firesong gazing reverently at the walls. “The old tongue! The lost verse is here, I can tell! Just give me a moment…”

Naturally that was the moment the wasteland interrupted. Four people shambled out of the woods opposite the small mausoleum, except maybe ‘people’ was overly generous. Their clothes looked familiar but remained only in tatters, their eyes were completely blank, and the stench of rotting flesh arrived just after they did. They unlimbered makeshift weapons — a rusty axe, a miner’s pick, a sword broken off halfway, and a big stick.

The squad exchanged a silent glance, then sprang into action. Sparks whipped his bow off his back, arrow in hand. Sarge took up position to protect the door, with Firesong inside. Bishop charged the new arrivals like he had something to prove. Moments later, they crashed together.

Bishop knocked huge chunks out of the one with the axe, though it seemed to absorb the punishment without much of a reaction. The other three lumbered on toward the tomb. Sparks took careful aim and shot one right through the eye, though it just carried on with the shaft of an arrow sticking out from its face.

With an eye on the attackers, Sarge called back into the tomb. “We could use some of that Fire Song out here. Right now would be good.”

“A moment, a moment, I’m so close…” came the distracted reply.

Sparks figured if the head didn’t work, he’d try for the heart. The first surprise came when his arrow bounced right off the creature’s chest. It looked down stupidly, at least as shocked as Sparks was, and pulled something small out of the remains of its front pocket.

The second surprise was that Sparks didn’t need to see it to know what it was. A small mirror. Kenny stopped to shave at the oddest times, and left the mirror in his pocket so it would always be handy. There was almost a click in his head as Sparks recognized his friend from the lost patrol. Or what was left of him. The creature looked back toward the tomb and raised a hand. Sparks froze.

The third surprise was the cold hand on his shoulder that spun him around before he could react. Sparks had a moment to wonder how something so awkward had snuck up behind them, and then one of the makeshift weapons smashed into his head.

* * *

Bishop crippled his foe with a crushing blow that shattered its leg. He turned back toward the rest, in time to see three of the creatures close in on Sarge while two more leaned down to finish off Sparks. Bishop broke into a run, though there was no chance he’d reach them in time to stop the inevitable.

At that moment, a harsh voice rang out from the tomb. A massive ball of flame streaked out the door, exploding in the middle of the fight. The force of it knocked Sarge over. It all but blew the creatures apart. Bishop slowed to a halt, awestruck, while greasy nuggets of hot flesh rained down on him.

Then Firesong stepped out, face seared and eyebrows burned to a crisp.

Before anyone could say a word, he broke into an enormous grin. “Now can we look for some trouble?”

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PrinceCon 39 Theme Teaser #3

PrinceCon 39: Shroud of the World

One of the sentries poked his head into the command tent. “Major Quinn for you, sir.”

Garret nodded. As soon as Quinn stepped in, he could tell it was bad news.

“Sir.”

Garret grimaced at the formality from his best friend.

“Southern patrol is an hour late checking in, sir.”

“That’s the third one?” There had been no sign at all of the first two that went missing.

“Yes sir. And…” his voice trailed off.

“Speak, Quinn!”

“The men are scared. Krebb keeps passing by, ‘just by chance,’ talking about how at least the valley had a wall, at least we knew our patrol routes, we never lost two patrols in a month let alone a day. If I hadn’t checked in on the Northern patrol when they mustered, I get the feeling there might not have been a Northern patrol.”

“Good thing you did, then.” Quinn always had his finger on the pulse of the men.

Before they could continue, the sounds of a commotion came from outside the tent, and the sentry poked back in.

“Lieutenant Sparks, sir, and–”

Sparks’ voice came in, excitable as ever. “Bishop! Survivor from the south patrol!”

Garret and Quinn exchanged glances. “Bring him in.”

Bishop staggered in, supported by Sparks on one side and Doc on the other. He was covered in layers of crusted-on blood and mud, making him look inches thicker than normal.

Unsurprisingly, Sparks launched right in: “So we were just talking about whether to send another patrol on the southern route or keep them closer, I mean would you rather know what happened even at the risk of losing more men or would you do better just to guard the flank and whatever’s farther out there can just stay out there, and Jimmy was saying how we should–”

“Lieutenant Sparks.” Quinn’s voice cut right through, bringing the monologue to a halt.

“Uh, Sir. Sirs.”

The injured man still hadn’t acknowledged them.

Garret stood. “Bishop?” Wild eyes shot up, locking on his face. “Bishop, what happened out there?”

A grating voice emerged, like nothing Garret had heard before. “General.” A pause, then Bishop pulled himself upright. The simple motion tossed Sparks and Doc aside as if they were puppets. Suddenly Garret realized he wasn’t covered in anything. It was his skin, thick black and marbled with red, craggy in a way skin simply wasn’t. His eyes were sinking toward madness, but while gravelly, his voice was steady.

“We were attacked, sir. First by dogs, I guess they were dogs. Wild dogs, with three tails, spikes on their heads, legs with bones and muscles but no skin. Rabid, completely mad. We lost Leonard, Bradley was hurt bad. Patched him up and carried on. When we got to the foothills was when we really got hit.”

Quinn asked the question they were all waiting for. “By what?”

“Creatures, some kind of rock, maybe clay. There were four of them, ten feet tall, looked like you or me,” he said without a trace of irony, “but made from the mountains themselves. Arrows, swords, it all bounced right off. Jordi’s hammer did some damage, but they crushed him quick enough. Didn’t even need anything except their fists.”

“So how did you…?”

“They left me for dead. I was dead. Only–” he gestured toward himself. “I grew back.” Garret heard the disgust in his voice. “Just like them. Halfway, anyway. Now I don’t know what I am.”

Quinn fielded this one too. “You’re a Watchman. Like you were this morning.” Almost involuntarily, Bishop straightened again.

“Until you go mad,” Garret added. The wild eyes locked on him again. “Don’t do it. We need every man. Hold on to it.”

“Sir.” That gritty voice.

“Dismissed.” Bishop ducked out of the tent automatically, with Doc in tow. Sparks started to move, but an imperceptible shake of Quinn’s head held him in place.

Quinn waited a moment, then spoke in a low tone. “Keep an eye on him, Sparks. Make sure he bunks with the Watch, but give him some space. We can’t lose him, we can’t let the civilians hang him out to dry, but if he goes mad…” The implication went unsaid.

Sparks gulped, but didn’t balk. “Sir.”

“Dismissed.”

And then it was just the two of them.

“Sir, dogs or mountains or whatever, we can’t keep sending patrols into this.”

“No, you’re right. Keep the patrols in close, no more exploring, just guard the flanks. We’re going to need a few crack teams, but they’re only going to matter if the rest of us survive.”

“Teams, sir?

“Men we can trust, men who will get the job done, men who will make it back here.”

“Why don’t we just guard the flanks all the way to Sitriph?”

“Teams. To find Sitriph.”

Find it, sir?”

“Quinn, who do you think I am? We’re chasing a legend, here. We’d all have died in that valley if we sat down and prayed, and Sitriph got us moving. But grandfathers tell stories about the gates of Sitriph. It’s not like I have a map.”

“Garret…” For once, the honorific was forgotten.

“We’ll find it, Quinn. If it’s there, we’ll find it.”

“Crack teams.”

“Pick your best. If Bishop makes it the night, he should go — he obviously has what it takes. Talk to the Magi, quietly. They’ll support us on this. The Priesthood too — we need every advantage. It’ll take at least five teams, and I want your recommendations by morning.”

“Sir.”

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PrinceCon 39 Theme Teaser #2

PrinceCon 39: Shroud of the World

“Watch Commander Garret, please come in.”

Finally. He’d been cooling his heels outside the Council chambers for nearly an hour, while the mountains burned and their idyllic valley crumbled. The dawning day had unveiled a billowing white cloud, approaching along the ground and suggesting their problems were far from over.

Garret let himself be ushered into the room, where there was a chair at a small empty table, facing the entire council. Looking up at them no less. He didn’t spare it another glance.

Councillor Krebb cleared his throat. “Have a seat, commander.”

Garret clasped his hands behind his back and took a breath. “I prefer to stand.”

Another councillor spoke up, apparently trying to defuse the tension. “This isn’t an ambush, Commander. We’re simply trying to establish the best course for our community.”

“While it burns.” Garret winced as soon as he heard himself, but he wouldn’t take the words back.

Krebb cleared his throat again. “Commander, please summarize the conditions outside the Wall for us.”

“The conditions are, there aren’t burning mountains falling on our heads. The conditions are, everyone who leaves returns alive!”

“Commander! I realize you have suffered a… Personal… tragedy. But your community needs you. You are the senior surviving officer of the Watch.” Garret sucked in a breath at that — the cataclysm must have ravaged their ranks. Yesterday there were three men between Garret and General Yorke.

Krebb carried on. “This council needs your wisdom, not your wit. Now I understand you lost a patrol shortly before the… Incident.”

“That’s a damn euphemism!” Two of them, actually. His wife and child dead, and it was just an Incident? He shook himself back to the present. “We did ‘lose’ a patrol. I shot Lieutenant Braham myself.”

There were two sharp gasps from the council table, but Krebb knew the score. “Explain, Commander.”

“You know as well as I do. We send our patrols into the wasteland. If we’re lucky, they return. If we’re not lucky, the wasteland poisons them, and then they return.”

Krebb let the others take it from there. “But surely… surely they can be healed?”

“Braham had a third eye on his forehead. His sergeant wasn’t carrying his weapon, because his tentacles couldn’t get a grip. Their scout ran back on all fours. Once they’ve been shrouded, there’s no going back.”

“But they’re still our people!”

“You’d like to think that. But I’ve looked them in the eye — nothing but madness.” Garret paused a moment, wondering whether to continue. The councillors were shaking their heads, so he pressed on. “Once we took a man back in. Doc said if the priests couldn’t heal him, we’d amputate. They gave it their best.”

“The next morning, that soldier ate his dog. Once they’re shrouded they’re gone, and you’d best believe it.”

The councillors recoiled from his words, babbling among themselves so fast he couldn’t keep up. Garret saw the slightest trace of a smile cross Krebb’s face, and suddenly he knew why he had been summoned.

“Listen. All of you. Listen.” His parade-ground voice cut through the squabbling. “It doesn’t matter to you. You’ll never have to face it. Yes, the wasteland preys on men. Individual men. Most of our patrols are safe, because they stay in a group. We train them not to split up. A man might last hours. A patrol can last days. When we leave this valley, we’ll be in such a large pack, it’ll take months before you feel the effect.”

Krebb cut this line of discussion short. “Thank you Commander, that will be all.” He made some kind of gesture with his finger, and the doors opened behind Garret.

“Do you hear me? You’ll be safe! It’ll only be us–”

“Thank you Commander, that will be all!” It turned out Krebb had a commanding voice too. Garret felt hands on his arms as the Council Guard reached him.

“–the Watch, dying for you as usual.”

* * *

Garret left the council chamber in despair. The stars — gone, the mountains — demolished, and now a chalky cloud advancing toward the valley, stretching from dirt to sky. If they stayed much longer, there would be a footsoldier commanding the Watch, and then nobody at all.

The moment he walked out of the building, Claire tore away from the rest and launched into his arms, just like the good old days. Her wide eyes gazed into his, expectantly. “Are we going, daddy?”

He looked up, searching for the words. How do you tell your daughter that you’re all going to die?

That’s when he noticed the crowd. It must have been more than half of the survivors. Also looking at him expectantly, waiting for an answer, waiting for someone to lead.  Krebb had made a critical error.

“General?” Magistrate Zed had survived, and nobody corrected him this time.

Garret boosted his parade-ground void to the max. “Friends. Last night, our world shattered. Today, we look to the future.” An explosion of rock in the background punctuated his words. “What was our refuge once, today holds nothing but ruin. I will not stay in this valley to die. Don’t you accept that fate either.” They were hanging on his every word, but they needed more. He grasped for something to offer… and then he had it.

“But we’re not just going to flee. Yes, we leave our old lives behind — that choice is made for us. Now is the time to find our new lives. Pack what you can, bring your friends, bring your families. At midday, we depart from the Wall. The Watch will protect you, as it always has. Long enough to find our new home. Long enough to reach Sitriph.”

At the name of the legendary Stronghold of the West, the crowd exploded in support and applause. Council be damned, they would survive this after all.

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PrinceCon 39 Theme Teaser #1

PrinceCon 39: Shroud of the World

“Evening, General.”

Garret just scowled as he climbed past Magistrate Zed on the first terrace. He wasn’t sure whether he was scowling at the double-shift he was just coming off, the man in a position of some authority who still couldn’t tell a Watch Commander from a General, or the foothills of Mount Sheld that were the price for his view. His scowl lasted as he climbed past five more terraces, and only softened when he reached his door. Home.

“Claire?” he called. “Anelise?” Claire squealed as she flew in from their terrace like a shot from a longbow. She leapt off a stool with outstretched arms and all the confidence in the world.

“Oof,” he grunted as he caught her, staggering a little under the weight. “You’re getting a little big for that, kiddo.”

“Daddy,” she scolded.

“Sorry. Good altitude, but if you’re going to tackle an ogre,” he pointed at himself to emphasize his advice, “aim for the gut rather than the chest.”

Anelise came in from the back room, holding the baby and smiling at their game. “I don’t think she was trying to tackle the ogre — I think she was just trying to leave her mark!” And it had worked — his surcoat was streaked with fresh dirt.

In a flash, Claire was headed back for the terrace. Grinning happily, and likely off to find the rest of the mud while she could still see anything at all.

Garret’s smile faded quickly as she left. He sat down with a sigh.

Anelise frowned. “Sorry, baby. Bad day on the Wall?”

He glanced toward the terrace reflexively. Their home on the base of Mount Sheld usually afforded a spectacular view, both of Mount Gard across the valley, and the wasteland out over the Wall. It was late, though, and the scenery had faded from sight. He looked down and sighed. “The worst. We lost another patrol.”

“You mean…?”

He looked up sharply. “Exactly.”

She handed him the baby, and began to work at the knots in his shoulders. There was only one thing worse than burying your own men, and that was when you had to kill them first.

“It can’t go on. You tell them it can’t go on! Just stop the patrols!”

Garret snorted. “That’s right, because they’ll listen to a Watch Commander. And the wasteland — it’ll just take care of itself.”

Her hands stopped. He relented. “I’m sorry. It’s just…”

A shriek from outside saved him from trying to find the words. “Daddy! Daddeee! The Stars!”

He shook his head and growled again, his frustration finding another target. “Have those kids been taunting her again? Night of No Stars and all that?”

“Shhh… You sit. I’ll check on her.” Anelise took the baby back, and headed for the terrace. A small rumble shook the ground. Garret just put his head in his hands, back on the Wall in his mind. Taking the shot. His own men. Once the wasteland had a grip, there was nothing else to do.

“Garret?” His head snapped back up as he registered the fear in her voice. “Garret!” Now it was desperation. He ran for the terrace, a hundred thoughts flashing through his mind.

Claire was pointing in awe, Anelise in terror. “Look at the stars…”

Another rumble shook the mountain, bigger this time. And Garret watched the stars — falling from the sky, melting into a stream, the stream pouring into Mount Gard. He took a step back. Anelise took two.

When the first stars hit, the top of Mount Gard exploded into fire, worse than a volcano. Stars flying up, stars flying down, his mind told him unnecessarily. Another rumble, and then the ground bucked, throwing him down. When he looked up, he was facing backward, Mount Sheld barely visible past the terrace above. Another funnel of stars. And another ring of fire. The top of Mount Sheld was already gone.

Analise screamed and ran for the back room, carrying the baby. He reached out for her, but Claire, still on her feet, wrapped him in an iron grip.

“Daddee!”

The ground bucked again, rock struck his temple, the world went red, and then black.

* * *

“Daddy. Daddy!” Garret felt fists pounding his chest. He opened an eye, and his head exploded in pain.

Claire was sitting on his belly, dirty and bleeding, forcing him awake. Another tremor shook them, but gentler this time, only enough to kick up the dust until they coughed.

He tried to clear his head. “We’ve got to get–” but the words died in his mouth. The upper terraces had collapsed, and what used to be his home was only an impenetrable mass of rubble. Half of their own terrace was gone, fallen down into the living space below. In one stroke, his family was shattered.

Claire’s eyes were wide. “Daddy they’re gone.” She stared at him for a beat. “I think we have to go too.”

He stared back in astonishment. “Yeah, kiddo, we have to go.” He cupped her face with his hand for a moment, the only moment he could spare. Then: “Help me up.”

She rolled off to the side, and he began to move. One leg was stuck under a rock, but another tremor knocked it free. Limping, he took her hand. “Out now, away, before the rest falls.”

Backlit by the falling stars and the fires that used to be peaks, they climbed slowly over the side of what used to be a terrace. Then, stripped of their home, their mountains, and their family, they headed for the Wall.

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