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Archive for the month “September, 2015”

Reign of the Lich-King, Chapter 4

It was extremely difficult for a queen to discreetly disappear in the middle of tense negotiations without raising notice or concern, but Jaellin’s staff were very, very good at their jobs.

She knew the source of the message as soon as she saw the layered oilcloths. Centuries of war were not forgotten in months, and every communication from Jarek was still scrutinized, analyzed, disassembled, and reassembled before being allowed out of the artificer’s workshops. However, the fact that they had brought her the rough copies and not a recopied draft of the message spoke to its urgency.

“I didn’t hear an alert this time.” she commented as she unrolled and aligned the thin scrolls.

“There wasn’t one. Brightwing snatched the zombie just inside the wall. You don’t sneak past a rhy-owl the same way twice, your highness.”

“Good to know.” she commented, then stopped, and dragged her eyes back to the start of the note, reading it again carefully, and willing the words to change.

“To Queen Jaellin, Sovereign of Aldis:

According to my calculations, Nycillia should have returned with the citizens whose debts she chose to purchase within the past few days. I have waited until now to send this message, as I assume that without this show of the good faith of my word, this message would be likely ignored.

A ‘little bird’ has informed me that Nobles Ulrun of Westtarth and Meladra of Selvas are passing information to Jarzoni spies in your kingdom. I pass on this information for you to do with as you will, but please remember that Jarzon gaining influence in the court of Aldis benefits neither of us.

Signed and sealed,
Lich-King Jarek, Wizard of the Ninth Circle, Monarch of Kern.

P.S.: In retrospect, slamming the Black Gates in Nycillia’s face in a fit of pique was rather rude of me. Please pass on my apologies.

P.P.S.: In the interest of maintaining open and honest communication between us, I should point out that the aforementioned ‘little bird’ was a metaphor. The information was actually ripped out of the brain of a Jarzoni intelligence agent.”

“Melandra…” the queen breathed. It was damnably plausible. And with half the Jarzoni ambassadors here, negotiating and observing, it would be nigh impossible to investigate, quickly and quietly. But if Jarzon was suborning her nobles while pretending to negeotiate in good faith…

She sighed. “Contact Jorth, and have him contact Shari. Send them to investigate, carefully.”

—-

Jorth lay back in his chair. It had been another long day. He’d had to split up his associates, to ensure that both estates were infiltrated at the same time, so that neither could warn the other. It had been a tense, difficult mission, but those were his specialties. That hadn’t been the worst of it. The worst had been the court case.

It would have been so much cleaner if they’d been Kernish spies (although, true to his word, neither he nor his contacts nor the Aldis Spymasters had found any sign of Kernish spies in the past few months.) Kernish spies were easy; they had all reported back to their dark master with sorcery and fell rituals. You could feel good about rooting them out.

But nobles of Aldis? He’d feared the worst when he’d broken into the sealed and scry-warded chamber beneath Lady Meladra’s bedchamber. And he’d found communications, some of which were very definitely sensitive, but nothing that was hard proof of anything illegal. And now it was going to be a matter for the courts. At least there’d be no chance he’d personally be called to testify-

There was a dismayed cry from Nycillia’s bedchamber, and Jorth was up and grabbing for his sword before he’d finished processing the sound. He sprinted, pivoted around Albus (who had neither weapon nor armor but was running in just the same), grabbed the door handle, pulled, found it locked, stepped back to get room to kick, tensed as Albus stepped forward, laid a hand on the lock, and blew it open with a flare of magic, rushed in, scanned for threats-

Shari was there, blades out and bedclothes off, and Nycillia was sitting upright in their bed, groaning and holding her head in her hands.

“It’s Jarek!” she shouted. “She shouted his name in her sleep and then-

“That bastard son of a darkspawn!” Nycillia said. “I am such a fool! How could I have been so blind!?”

“Albus-”

Albus was already approaching, observing Nycillia for any sign of hostile magic.

“No, my friend.” said Nycillia, looking up. “I am not under attack. No, Jarek is far more subtle than that. Oh, he’s…”

Her voice trailed off and she let out a strangled squeak.

“He told me! He told me what he was doing! He told me and I laughed, and I ignored it! Augh!”

“Nycillia, what happened? Start at the beginning.” Ordinarily using sergeant-voice on Nycillia got you a raised eyebrow at best and toads in your underpants at worst, but now it seemed to focus her.

“The False Life Arcana.” she said, her voice now clipped and precise. “It’s what vampires and ghouls use to mute their auras of undeath, and let them dwell among the living undetected. You see, friends, living creatures give off a kind of energy, in accordance with their health, moods, natural rhythms, all of which I can sense. Undead creatures disturb this energy. I had been working with Jarek for the first week or so and I mentioned that trying to perform natural Arcana with him nearby was…distracting. Of course he knew about this Arcana, so he volunteered to peform it. And I laughed, as I said. He shone like a beacon of false-life, far more distracting than his fell presence had been before. Clearly he was not cut out to perform Arcana related to subtlety and deception. So I worked with him, and before long, he had learned to work the Arcana, and no longer distracted me. And it was not long after that that I noted that at times, I could almost sense perturbations in this false aura, this aura he told me was false, which was named for its falseness…gah! I am a fool.”

“And so I used these signals, and let them guide me. I thought I was sensing an opportunity when I felt Jarek think that he had figured out my stratagem. Of course he had! He was the one who got me thinking about price differentials and how to free the most people in the first place!”

“He tricked you…into freeing the slaves?” asked Albus. “Was there some trap there we did not identify? I examined most of them myself for any sign of curses or hidden magics-”

“Think, Albus! What did Jarek give up in our bargain? What did he lose, and what did he gain?”

“He gained your services to stop the decay of Kern. And he paid…no he didn’t. Yes! You’re right! He forgave a debt he himself claimed!”

“And now look what’s happening.” said Shari. “We’ve already got people wanting to go to Kern and trade with the Lich King.”

“Advertising.” spat Jorth. “Aye. Just like a pea-and-shell game. The confidant to win a few rounds to tempt in the marks, then the marks move in… Nycillia, are you sure?”

“I am.” she said. “I wondered, briefly, at the time…but I was very busy, and had very little sleep, and was seeing so much misery, and he was so damnably indifferent, so arrogant, so young and full of himself…I wanted to beat him. And he knew, and offered me a chance to. And so I put such thoughts out of my mind. It wasn’t until now that I managed to put them back together.”

Albus nodded. “And I am very glad that you did. This is…comforting, I suppose.”

“Comforting?” shouted Shari. “He tricked-”

“He did not lie. He did not deceive. The twists and turns of his methods still lead to the path he has claimed. He wants to trade with Aldis. And I am comforted to know that if he has enough cunning and wit to best Nycillia, then it is likely that he will be able to hold off Jarzon’s incursions, and not resort to whatever lies in his dark vaults.”

Now it was Jorth’s turn to hold his head. “Right, this diplomacy and economics is beyond me, mostly. But here’s what I do know. One: this diplomatic quagmire with the nobles and Jarzon is a distraction. The more we stay here, the more we’re going to get mired in it. Two: As for the Lich King’s lovely advertisment for his fair dealings…well, that ship’s sailed. We’ve got some people out and more incoming, and we have no way of stopping ’em, not while merchants smell a profit. And so this leads me to three: whatever Jarek’s up to, it’s going to be in Kern. And Aldis is going to need eyes on the ground there. And Nycillia…Jarek did invite you back, did he not?”

“That he did.” Nycillia smiled grimly. “And promised to pay very close attention to the details of any further contracts…augh. A dozen times! He had to have told me a dozen times, and I ignored them all! By the Gods, for all I know, he told me knowing that I’d figure it out later and come marching back in!”

“She’s right.” said Shari. “He’ll be expecting Nycillia to return.”

“Then that’s all the more reason for us to join her. Because, my friends, ancient lich-king economancer or no, there’s no stratagem that can trick all of us for long, not if we’re alert and working together. So, friends, who’s up for earning a quick fortune in brave new Kern?”

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Reign of the Lich-King, Chapter 3

It had been a bitch of a march, Jorth considered. Even with Nycillia’s magics, Shari’s scouting for villages, and Albus half-killing himself to repurpose the carts to carry additional passengers, it had been hard. Not enough soldiers, fights, arguments, people running off in the night, the discovery that one of the refugees was an imposter who had murdered a friend and hoped to take his place…

And then there was the old man, nearly blind, who got around with the aid of two young Night Folk girls, who he described as his daughters, with a milky-eyed glare that brooked no argument. Most of the rest of the refugees had observed the soldiers saluting Jorth and decided it was healthiest to avoid anything that might attract his attention, but the old man either hadn’t seen, or didn’t care.

“Forgive,” he had said, “but my Aldean is not so good, but I must know. They say in Aldis there are schools. Yes, schools. Schools like…” the old man paused, searching his limited vocabulary. “Like factory-water, or bad soil.”

Jorth had harrumphed, and prepared to explain that the schools of Aldis, while perhaps not as good as the private tutoring the children of nobles and aspiring nobles received, was still perfectly adequate, when one of the girls had chimed in in Kernish.

“Yes! Free. There are schools that are free? That do not need pay?”

Jorth swallowed his words, and the lump in his throat. “Free. Free for all.”

The old man broke into a gap-toothed smile. “Good! My daughters, they will learn all the King wants. And more. Very smart girls, very smart.”

Jorth considered how to reply to that. Did he not know that Aldis currently was ruled by a queen or was he referring to Jarek?

“They can learn whatever they choose.” he ventured eventually.

“They do choose.” said the old man. “Lady Nycillia, she come to Kern, with great knowledge, great power, and trade it to King for freedom for others. Now, my daughters have freedom, and they choose to go to Aldis, to learn from free schools, good things, useful things, and trade in turn, free others as they have been freed. This they choose.”

“This they choose!” chimed in one of the girls.

Jorth swallowed again. It was nice, in the middle of this bitch of a march, to be reminded why he had gotten into the heroing business in the first place.

—-

And now it was over. Albus’s contacts had come through and a makeshift camp had been established. The soon-to-be new citizens of Aldis were being cared for by professionals. As such, it was not surprising when the quiet message arrived telling him to arrive at a particular tent, at a particular time, discreetly, after contacting his companions.

He hadn’t expected Queen Jaellin to be there, nor for her to be surrounded by her spymasters. She waved off his and Albus’s bows and Nycillia’s curtsy.

“Nycillia,” said the queen, “I need information. You, right now, are the foremost expert on King Jarek. I need to know what you know of his power, and his intentions.”

Nycillia was silent for a long moment. “Your highness, I do not know if Jarek can do as much damage as he claims. But I do know that he can move mountains with a wave of his hand. And I believe that if he is thwarted and not slain, he would take the field against Aldis himself, knowing it would mean his capture and destruction. But if he is not thwarted?”

She took a breath. She had apparently considered this carefully. “He is evil. He is callous, even by the standards of walking corpses. But he wants something from us, which he cannot achieve by force alone. And more than that, he is prideful. He has suffered a blow to his pride, and to respond with mere violence or treachery would not prove him the cleverer, only the more brutal. And while he does not shrink at brutality, nor does he glory in it.”

“Do you believe he can be trusted?”

“No, your highness.” said Nycillia, as a brief, joyless smile quirked her lips. “He told me so himself. If he ever found a way to gain true immortality, or even preserve his own wretched unlife a little longer, and it would require him to betray his sworn word and all he held to be right and honorable, he would do so in an instant. He is not trustworthy. But he is…predicable. He will not break his word if he sees profit in keeping it.”

“So be it, then.” said the queen, with a sigh of her own. “Send the response to the Jarzoni ambassador. We will not be joining them in their war. And as for you, my capable and honored agents, I am sending you back to the Capital for the time being. The political situation is going to soon be very complex, and I will need your aid once more.”

[WIR, What Hath Gone Before] Arrow’s Fall

RPG.net link here.

In Which Talia Spends A Good Third Of The Book Faffing About Over The Retconned Love Interest’s Feelings Despite Being Hugely Telepathic, Among Other Telepaths, and Having Both Her And Him Regularly Mind-Scanned By QHATs; In Which Orthallen Rises and Falls, To Be Replaced With A Villain We Won’t Accidentally Sympathize With More Than The Super-Magical Fated-To-Always-Win Protagonist Team; In Which We See An Interesting If Uncomfortable Chapter In Which Choices In Previous Books Pay Off And Talia Suffers The Standard Heroine Romantic Fantasy Intermediate Act Fate, In Which The Book Carefully Reminds Us That Civil Wars In Magical Dictatorships Always Split Into Good Rebels Who Are On Our Side And Bad Loyalists What Murder And Rape All Day Long; In Which Talia, After Three Books, Finally Appears To Grow Up, Get Out Of Her Head A Bit, And Maybe Even Approach A Happily Ever After.

This is both the strongest and the weakest of the Arrows books. The macro-level plotting is the strongest; both the hero and villain factions are always working some angle and trying to do something, there’s a clear set of acts with their own narrative arcs in the book, and Talia the Ur-Sue finally starts to wonder about some of her actions, and by the end of the book, seems keen to pursue a relationship with Dirk that looks a lot more genuine then the nonsense about true love and soulbonds we got earlier.

On the minus side was basically everyone else, however. Talia’s “Wait, I’m not sure that, in the heat of outraged anger, blatantly abusing my position as super-telepath and then shouting at Elspeth was the morally-righteous thing to do there.” was followed immediately by every character in her vicinity stopping and taking time out to reassure her that yes, she was totally in the right. And while we got Orthallen at his twistiest and most cunning yet, we also had to replace him with Ancar, and we converted the mysterious old nurse Hulda, master infiltrator and manipulator, with just another random sorceress. And since the books pretty consistently make good flatly more powerful than evil, making her explicable, and replacing Orthallen with a straightforwardly evil mage-king, is just setting them up for defeat when the Forces of Good muster sufficient force.

And I do like the epilogue sequence, as I said. Talia’s recovering but not recovered from her ordeal, there is a war to fight that will be long and hard (even if we know how it will end from trope-power), and so we wind down the action of the trilogy, while leaving open more stories to come.

This trilogy was, for all its rough spots and the necessity of inferring things the author put in but didn’t intend to, an excellent introduction to the Valdemar books. I genuinely enjoyed reading it. This turned out to be a good thing, because I had the Vows books right after.

Life Intervenes.

Been helping some friends of mine with an extended move-and-change-of-life-circumstances, so I’ve had less time than usual to write. Hopefully, I’ll get up either more fiction or another Valdemar retrospective by this weekend.

Reign of the Lich-King, Chapter 2

Jorth caught the blow on his shield. It was a good blow, solidly delivered to impart the maximum energy straight through to his arm. It also tied up his opponent’s sword for a crucial moment, and in that moment, he counterattacked-

-And his opponent stepped inside his guard, delivering a vicious head-butt to Jorth’s own helmet-

-Only for Jorth to move forward in turn, hooking his foot expertly behind his opponent’s and delivering a full-body shove-

His opponent went tumbling. Jorth was delighed.

“Well done, Albus!”

“Not well enough.” the scholar-turned-warrior grumbled, picking himself up.

“Hey, you didn’t embarrass yourself that badly.” called one of the neary Queensguard seeing to a wagon.

“Yeah. For a raw recruit, that wasn’t terrible at all!”

“And since you two louts have the breath to comment, you can see to the next set of wagons as well.” Jorth shot back cheerfully. He had missed this. When he had left the Guard and joined the Knights of the Blue Rose, he had left behind friends and occasional lovers, but more than that, he had left the camaraderie of the corps, it’s rituals, it’s duties, it’s frequent inanities and inanities. Of course, there was plenty of that infiltrating cults and tracking gone-to-ground darkspawn with a small team of Adepts and experts, but it was different.

Albus stood, getting back into a guard position. The soldiers had been right. Albus’s brief brush with Jarek had lead him to re-examine his life, and eventually to leave the Guild and take up a new career, where he could do more good. And as the Guard was starved for soldiers with any kind of magical expertise, and artificing in particular, he’d been snapped right up. He’d be promoted fast, Jorth knew, and wanted to make sure that he’d get expertise befitting his rank. Happily, Albus seemed just as dedicated on getting that expertise himself.

But more than that, being able to resume his role as Liutenant Jorth, managing a complex, far-reaching op on the borders of Aldis and training a subordinate, had let him hold his old identity fast. And that was necessary, because if he let himself slip, if he let himself remember his role as Sir Jorth, he’d start thinking of Nycillia, of the last three months of preparation…

He sighed, swearing under his breath. Nycillia would return in two week’s time or she wouldn’t. She’d have fallen victim to some dark sorcery of Jarek’s or she wouldn’t. She’d be leading a train of a hundred refugees or she wouldn’t. She’d have tricked the lich-king into standing under a waterfall she could freeze and would be fleeing with his purloined evil crown-phylactery or she wouldn’t.

Two weeks. I’ve done ten. I can do two more. Besides, he knew the best way to make the time to an upcoming deadline fly by. Where, Jorth considered, haven’t I spent enough time in preparation…

– – – –

It was two weeks later. There was a high, almost hysteric note in his troop’s jokes. Jorth kept his own reactions as calm and level as he could. It was hard. When the dark armies of Kern had poured forth into Aldis before, this was where they had entered. Things were different now. The great siege crystons which had studded the wall had been removed; either as a gesture of peace, or (more likely) to reinforce the border Kern shared with Jarzon. There had been strange noises on the other side of the great wall for some time now, but before the armistice, it would have been sheerest stupidity to camp out this close to the Gate, and so Jorth had no idea what Kern was supposed to sound like.

The gates opened. It was disconcerting, disorienting even. Watching those gigantic gates, set into a mountain tunnel, suddenly swing inwards silently, confused the perspective, until seconds later, a thunderous crash rolled out over the formation, showing just how far away the giant gates had been, and large they truly were.

And there, in the tunnel…

There was a wall of refugees, all running desperately for the morning light. “Plan alpha! Go!” a voice shouted. It took Jorth a moment to recognize it as his. Many drills and many more mental rehearsals had paid off; his soldiers were now moving to meet the refugees with carts obviously laden with food and supplies (and, beneath them, shackles and restraints, and beneath them, weapons, if the refugees gave any sign of being magical monsters or darkspawn).

Twenty, forty, sixty… Jorth counted off in broad estimates the refugees ran. It wasn’t really an attack (at least, he really hoped it wasn’t), but old habits died-

Something was wrong. There were too many refugees. There were far too many refugees. Many of the ones after the first rush had been stumbling, or supporting ill or injured, or children, so he had lost his accurate tally, but there had been well over two hundred. One twenty into twelve thousand is a hundred. I know that dead bastard didn’t give us those numbers by accident…

And there, at the very back of the crowd, walking with the very slowest refugees, were Jarek and Nycillia.

“AH. PUNCTUAL AS EVER, JORTH.” It was Jarek’s dead voice, amplified a hundred-fold, and as it rang out over the well-cleared plain, refugees stopped, or scattered. It sounded a lot less cheerful than Jorth had remembered.

“AS FOR YOU, YOUR DEBTS HAVE BEEN PAID, YOUR OBLIGATIONS FULFILLED. YOU OF COURSE REMAIN CITIZENS, SO IF ANY OF YOU WISH TO RETURN-”

Nycillia spoke up then, although at over a thousand feet away, Jorth had no idea what she might have said.

“YES, WELL, IN YOUR CASE, I WILL CONSIDER A SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT. A DIFFERENT, MORE FORMALLY NEGOTIATED SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT.”

Nycillia spoke again.

“I AM NOT MY PREDECESSOR.” Jarek’s voice was icy. “I WILL NOT ALLOW MYSELF TO BE CRIPPLED BY HUBRIS. I SHOULD BE THANKING YOU, REALLY. IN FACT, I SHALL.”

There was a horribly amplified rattle as Jarek took a deep breath.

“THANK YOU, NYCILLIA, FOR DEMONSTRATING TO ME A FACET OF CONTRACT NEGOTIATIONS I HAD NOT PREVIOUSLY CONSIDERED.”

Nycillia spoke one more time, and then Jarek turned, stalked back into the tunnel, and gestured, and the Black Gates slammed shut, with a thunderous crack far louder than Jarek’s amplified voice, and enough force to stagger Nycillia and knock to the ground the frailest, slowest wave of refugees.

“Double-time!” Jorth shouted, once he had recovered himself. It was with less-than-military discipline that he advanced, offering only cursory glances and aid to the still-fleeing Kernish refugees…

It was Nycillia. She was exhausted, he could see as he approached, but barely able to stand herself, she was still stooping over to help up the fallen refugees closest to her. As he approached, she looked up, and spared him a glance, and a smile, but an elderly refugee’s cry for help drew her gaze back immediately. And that was the Nycillia he knew.

– – – –

It was a day later, and Jorth felt how Nycillia had looked. She had attempted to pass on various bits of information while both falling asleep on her feet and being carefully inspected by Albus for any sign of magical influence, or any hint that she was an impostor. Once Albus had pronounced her clean and genuine, Jorth had ordered her immediately to sleep, and had spent the rest of the day cataloging, organizing, and figuring out how to extend supplies meant for a hundred refugees to feed and clothe 437. There had been fights, panic, one knot of a dozen refugees who had attempted to flee before they could be examined by Albus and who had to be restrained, and Shari had shown up in the middle of the night demanding to see Nycillia immediately, but now, it seemed like it was time to move out.

He ran through the checklist, not bothering to stifle a yawn, and stopped only when he heard a giggle behind him. Nycillia and Shari lounged behind him, Nycillia looking much recovered and Shari looking much relaxed.

“Out of bed at last, Ny?”

“I have slept quite adequately, thank you. But you, my friend…” she replied.

“I’ll sleep on the march. Old soldier’s trick.” Jorth replied, drawing another chuckle.

“Ah, I missed this. No one bullshits quite like you do, Jorth.” she said, yawning and stretching herself.

Jorth’s gaze dropped for a moment before he pulled it back up. He caught Shari doing a similar head-nod to track the languorous movement of Nycillia’s torso, and shot her a quick, conspiratorial grin. “Also an old soldier’s trick.” he said.

Nycillia’s face grew grave. “Jarek…he does not. He went to great lengths to convince me that he does not. I don’t know if he is doing all this to conceal some great lie, some grand strategem, or if he genuinely believes everything he says about trust and decision theory and so forth. But I will say this; he gave me no cause to doubt that he wants to repair Kern, and make it rich. As for his ancient horrors…”

She sighed, stretching again. “To be honest, I feel I know less than we did three months ago. He showed me some of the vaults, and even reviewed some of the magical principles for his so-called ‘world-ending Arcana’. And nothing was provably false. But nothing was proven true, either. Always with an excuse. This vault was sealed by his predecessor and he lacks the capacity to open it without breaking it. That vault contains a plague so virulent it is transmitted merely by understanding how it works, and so can’t even be explained. The other spell could move mountains, but requires a power source far beyond all the shas in Kern. But I do know this, my friends; whether or not he has the power he claims…if he has only the power he has shown, if he moves against Aldis, only the Hart could stop him before he slew tens of thousands.”

“Right. So, definitely dangerous, maybe honest…not the best at math, from what I’ve seen…” said Jorth, gesturing at the refugees.

Nycillia burst out laughing. “Ah, yes. My friends, you know how it is often said that those of the Shadow always bear the seeds of its downfall within them? Well, it seems to have been true in this case. You see, I laid a trap for Jarek in my contract. The term was for three months. I began a number of projects that would just barely fail to finish by that time period, but which would require the services of a Nature Adept to complete. Jarek, while pretending not to notice this, requested that I train up some apprentices, to help speed along the more routine Healings and Purifications.”

She sighed again. “So much lead. You have no idea…by the gods, I had no idea you could get that much lead into an ecosystem… But I digress. So I chose apprentices, and I trained them. And at the appointed date, Jarek smugly informed me that he did not wish to renegotiate for my services, that he had found replacements for me. And that was when I told him that I had chosen my apprentices entirely from the population of refugees whose debt I had paid.”

“Some left with me, but most turned around and renegotiated their continued service to Jarek in exchange for…well, offers and demands differed, but you can see the result. And a few of the people, about a dozen or so, are people who had skills of their own, and who had managed to pay off their debts independently, and wished to leave Kern and become citizens of Aldis. I am sorry, my friend, I could not send word ahead, but as you saw, once my strategem was revealed, Jarek became…petulant.”

“The power of an archmage in the hands of a youth.” mused Shari. “That doesn’t sound stable at all.”

“No, it doesn’t.” said Nycillia. “But, for the moment, it is not my problem. And now, after having spent the last few months working great Arcana trying to keep up with a wizard who doesn’t sleep, I am going to relax. I am going to enjoy relaxing. In fact, I think I’m going back to bed.”

“I thought you said you had enough sleep for a bit.” said Shari.

Nycillia stood, and took Shari’s and Jorth’s hands in her own.

“Who said anything about sleeping?”

It was probably best to push off the start of the march for a little bit, anyways.

A quick note on history.

Remember when basketball was stereotypically Jewish?

Probably not, for most of my readership, but for a quite a while, this was very much a thing. Why? Well, when you live in the inner city and don’t have a lot of money for equipment, a sport that requires one ball, two hoops, and very little real estate attracts a lot of attention, and for quite a long period in history, “poor” and “inner-city” accurately described a great deal of the Jewish population in America. (Consider, if you will, the origin of the term ‘ghetto’.)

Then, as now, ethnic minorities who excelled in sports attracted all manner of hilarious explanations of their performance. In the words of Paul Gallico, prominent sports writer of the 1930s:

“…the reason that basketball appeals to Hebrews is that the game places a premium on an alert scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart-aleckness.”

On one hand, it’s a pretty clear way to put the various just-so stories we hear today in context. On the other…it’s odd how durable certain narratives are, isn’t it?I mean, we’ve been accused of being greedy, treacherous, liars, schemers, fraudsters, lechers, poisoners, cannibals, job-stealers, interest-chargers, messiahs-killers, conspirators, and tyrants, but in the vast swathe of historical anti-Semitism spanning centuries and continents, I don’t know that anyone’s accused us of being dumb.

Compare and Contrast: Lackey and Kratman

It’s really interesting to reminisce about reading Mercedes Lackey’s early books while reading some Tom Kratman on the side. One of the things I find most so is the large amounts of genuine thematic similarity in their works. One would not expect much in common in the invented worlds of one of the early voices of feminist fantasy and genre-definers of romantic fantasy, and a mil sci-fi author who describes his previous state of residence as “The People’s Republic of Massachusetts.”

And yet, there they are. Herald Talia and Legate Carrera would, I feel, get along splendidly if they were to meet. Both were anointed as virtuous by significant others; Talia by her Companion, and Carrera by his wife. Both had high social status and power thrust upon them as a result of this approval; neither actually question if an ethereal undead horse-spirit / realized doomed Platonic ideal of housewife are actually ensured to be perfect judges of character. Both run into quite a lot of extras who appear to take time out of their actual lives to serve as a temporary prop in their narratives, and both distort the orbit of their romantic partner’s arcs like a black hole in an asteroid belt. Oh, and they both torture people. (Bad, evil, deserving people, of course.) And both use a layer of indirection; Talia uses her horse-given psychic powers, so there’s no blood or screaming, and Carrera just orders it and has it done by his subordinates, so there’s no blood on his actual hands. And in both of their stories, their enemies turn into blatantly evil caricatures, and who hit the exact same notes of greed, tyranny, and sexual sadism to prove their card-carrying membership in the League of Acceptable Targets.

And I think this means something. Specifically, I think that both A Desert Called Peace and Arrow’s Flight are basically works of untrammeled id, spooling out from their author’s minds, unconcerned with self-censorship or self-justification, in Lackey’s case because she hadn’t yet learned to imagine that her characters might be anything less than pure and perfect, and Kratman because he gives no fucks. And, at their core, people tend to want pretty similar things. It is nice to have power, to have status, to have the winding paths of romance always unwind in your favor. And, although it is not as often spoken of these days, it is nice to have a hated enemy, dangerous enough to gain status from destroying but not enough to actually really defeat you, for you to loathe, and to purge, and to be recognized as strong and just for doing so. Hell, I want that. I also, however, recognize that this is one of those things that you don’t really get in the world, because people and the groups they form are complex.

This is one of the reasons I game, for instance. You can get that kind of enemy from orcs or necrons or pulp Nazis. But I can’t take a story seriously that tries to push actual humans, with actual human variation and actual human motivations, into that kind of box. They’ll disappoint you. They might show some actual nuance, and you’ll decide “Huh, that Schindler guy is kind of making me rethink my ‘gut all Nazis without exception.’ policy.”

And even if they don’t, you might find that actual enemies might move from despised to terrifying as they start claiming victory after victory, egregiously disrespecting their narrative role of obstacles to be overcome to make you look good.

And worst of all, they can be defeated, and lay before you, broken but not humbled, and then people who don’t know how the story is supposed to go will look down on you for hating them.

I certainly don’t dislike this style of writing. I read books in it, and I play games that operate under id-gratification-style on occasion. But it’s a sometimes food for me, and often, one of the best parts about it is when you stop, reactivate the critical thinking part of your brain, and ask “Wait, is there any reason why the teenage telepath with the reality-bending horse spirit might have people act out-of-character around her, in service to a story that flatters her?” or “Wait, what would actually happen if America tried to quash ISIS by playing more-atrocity-than-thou?” Just like you explore better in a known area by starting with getting lost and finding yourself, so too can you explore nuances of character and motivation by turning off the part of you that says “I deserve…” and listening only to “I want.”

And the great thing is that Mercedes Lackey apparently did this. She made one further attempt to have her cake and eat it too, by mixing the id-writing with obvious ipso-facto justifications, then apparently look at what she had wrought, said “Wait, actually, this is horrifying.”, and started writing the Vanyel books to set the record straight on what protagonism actually meant to her. And there there were still the odd misstep…but we will get there in time.

Dunno about Kratman. If I come across an incident of him appearing to give a fuck in any future writings of his I choose to consume, I’ll let you know.

Reign of the Lich-King, Chapter 1

This one’s written in the Blue Rose campaign setting. It’s very D&D-like, but with its own romantic fantasy flavor. I like it, but as you can see below, I probably shouldn’t be allowed to run a campaign in it.

——

The zombie bird flew mechanically, each wingbeat exactly like the last, each providing just enough lift to keep the bird aloft. It flew at extremely high altitude, high enough that it would have suffocated had it not been quite dead already. As it was, it would arrive at its destination bearing its message quite dry and preserved, which suited the sender of the message quite well indeed.

Onward the bird flew. As a zombie, it had no real mind, just a formless, amorphous set of instincts related almost entirely to slaying the living. It retained enough motor function to move, however. Not enough to recognize its destination. But if someone very clever and very patient were to calculate the distance between two points on a map and translate that into a precise number of wing-beats, then give the zombie bird something it could recognize…

The bird flew high over the wall of the capital, far above the pair of rhy-owls who were keeping watch that night. Flew, until it reached a set number of wing-beats…then dove, pulling only at the last moment.

That drew alarms, and noise, but the zombie bird was heedless of this. It was aware, in a vague, empty sense, of the living things around it, and felt, in a vague, empty way, a desire to claw at them, to peck their eyes, to make them dead things like itself, but its orders constrained it. It remained, hovering, as humans surrounded it. Then one of the rhy-owls picked out its pale plumage against the great enlaid seal of Hart in front of the Royal Palace, and dove, and the bird’s vague, empty malice ended shortly thereafter.

——

One of the things Queen Jaellin, Sovereign of Aldis, had learned early in her reign was that it took surprisingly little disturbance to rouse the monarch from her bed. At least this incident, whatever it meant, had happened so late at night some extremely dedicated early risers would call it morning. She listened with half an ear to the chatter of her advisers. They all knew that they had the basest speculation now, and that it would be wisest to simply sit and wait for the Artificer’s Guild to examine the scroll attached to the messenger bird’s leg, but that didn’t stop any of her advisers from twittering back and forth.

“-draw a straight line back from its path to Kern, clearly it’s a message-”
“-what does a the plumage mean? Why a pigeon? Why an albino? We should have burnt it, it might be carrying a plague-”
“-just a glimpse of it, but I was certain there was magic on the parchment, I just hope the artificers are careful. Jarek’s evil magics know no-”
The doors to the meeting room crashed open. The night-shift duty artificer and duty artificer assistant stood, then bowed clumsily. It looked like they had ran all the way from their secure workshop to this meeting room.

“Your highness…” began the senior artificer, drawing his breath in slightly more measured gasps than his assistance. “The scroll was enchanted with basic preservation Arcana only. It was a message. A message to you, your highness.”

“What did the message say?” Queen Jaellin asked. If the message was meant to be confidential, it was long past that point now. The senior artificer took another steadying breath, then pulled out the scroll in question.

“I do hereby offer a provisional armistice and preliminary trade agreement to the nation of Aldis, and wish to meet with Queen Jaellin or her duly appointed representatives at Sylvan Ford, 30 miles southeast of the Black Gate, in three week’s time, under the noonday sun, that we may bring lasting peace and prosperity to both Kern and Aldis.

Signed and sealed,
Lich-King Jarek, Wizard of the Ninth Circle, Monarch of Kern.”

——

“This is a trap. This can’t not be a trap.” said Shari.

“But what kind of a trap is it?” asked Jorth. “We have escape routes straight into the woods, and with Nycillia here, not even werebeasts can catch us there.”

“For all we know, he’s simply developed some new kind of magical horror and plans to obliterate this area in its entirety.” said Albus, shivering. Field work was definitely not agreeing with him so far.

“Have faith, my friend.” said Nycillia. “Whatever the Lich-King has done, he has done without bringing the taint of undeath here. Of that, at least, I am certain.”

“The lich-king has many mortal allies.” mused Jorth. “But if they came early, we’ve seen neither foul hide nor stinking hair of…ah! There! On the river!”

A lone figure walked up the river, as easily as though it were a garden path, illuminated by the rising sun. Silently, the Queen’s Own watched. Clearly the figure was a mage of some sort. But who was it?

As the figure came closer, Shari breathed out, Nycillia pursed her lips, and Albus let out a quiet cry.

“There!” moaned Albus. “It’s him! It’s-”

“-not the Lich King. I’ve seen him before.” said Shari. “Look at him. The robe’s wrong, the face has flesh on it-”

“-whoever he is, he is undead, and very powerful. And making no effort to conceal himself.” said Nycillia.

“The crown!” whispered Albus. “I can feel it from here! That is Jarek’s crown!”

The man idly hopped from the river to dry land, looked up at the sun, then pulled a book from the sleeve of his black robe, and began to read. From this distance, it could clearly be seen that the man was undead. But freshly so, apparently. And although the black robe he wore looked nothing like the ancient, decaying finery Jarek was known to prefer, he wore a simple black robe. However, the gold crown of the monarch of Kern, studded with priceless black shas stones (or a very skillful replica) sat atop the dead man’s brow.

“Well.” said Jorth. “No sense in waiting.” He gave his fellows a quick once-over. Shari was sneering slightly, and her hands were playing about her sword-hilts; she clearly thought this was a trick, and was waiting for the trap to spring shut so she could stab it back open. Nycillia was frowning, but could be relied on to act instantly if whoever that was out there tried any sorcerous arcana. And Albus…

“Come on, man.” he said, hauling Albus back upright. “If that is the crown of Jarek and Jarek’s not wearing it, doesn’t that make you a little curious?”

He had chosen the right lever. Albus stood, and steadied himself.

“Greetings!” called Jorth.

“Oh, good!” called the dead man. Jorth suppressed a shudder. He’d heard vampires talk, and they you could barely tell from the living. But the dead man’s voice was a harsh croak. “You’re here early. I, Jarek the Lich-King-”

“You’re not Jarek.” called Shari.

“Is that Shari! It is!” called the man. His rictus grin turned up. “I knew that cave-in wouldn’t be the end of you! That was a very daring raid, by the way. I suppose I can say that now, since we’re going to be on the same side-”

“Pardon me for asking, but you…don’t look much like the Jarek we know. Nor are you acting like him.”

“Ah, then who’s crown am I wearing?” asked the dead man. “I see you brought an artificer! Well, you’re welcome to examine the crown, as well as myself, but I’d strongly advise you to refrain from touching either with anything organic, including bare skin…”

Albus scrutinized the crown. “That crown…well, it’s an ancient magical artifact far beyond my ken. It could be a replica. But it’s a replica someone spent hundreds of thousands on, at least.”

“I can explain, of course.” said the dead man. “I had been planning on it. I’d actually wanted to offer you some food and drink about now, because this is a slightly long explanation, but I figured you wouldn’t accept it. Also, I couldn’t find any on short notice. In any case, I am, as you surmise, not the Lich-King you know me to be. Neither was the last Jarek.”

“The last Jarek?” asked Shari.

“Yes. It’s ironic, isn’t it? The first Jarek Lich-King won his kingdom by betraying his master, back in the days of the Sorceror-Kings of old. Disrupted his magical rituals, tore his soul apart, claimed his kingdom, and made of his new crown a phylactery.”

Jorth couldn’t help but let out a grunt. Now he was with Shari. This had to be a lie. Because if it wasn’t, then Jarek – or whoever this was – had just confirmed the one weakness of the undying lich-king, and there it was in front of him…

“But it turns out that betraying a sorceror-king is a chancy thing. The Dark Arising didn’t take, whether due to a death-curse from his master, a mistake in the ritual, or just bad luck. Jarek, Lich-King, discovered that in an attempt to gain eternal life, he’d doomed himself. He’d have a few decades at most as a lich, then the crown would consume him.”

“So he worked to stave it off, of course. He beggared his kingdom, looking for a way. Of course, he needed to keep up appearances. He spent even more on keeping his kingdom in line, on keeping you and the Jarzoni crusaders out. Eventually, he even brought in apprentices, to contribute their living blood and magic to stave off his own decay. He knew damn well that they’d betray him eventually, so he kept them under the strongest magical compulsions he could devise. It wasn’t enough, of course.”

“So that was you?”

“Oh, not at all! I’m at least King Jarek the Eighth. And I know for a fact at least one of them was a queen. All of us apprentices who figured we’d walk in the path of our dark master, and only when the crown had hollowed him out did we snatch it up, never guessing or speculating why we had succeeded when so many others had failed…and there we were. There I was, a few months ago, in fact.”

“So, Jarek is a title?” asked Albus.

“Well, that and my predecessor flensed my name and a good portion of my identity from me before accepting me as his apprentice.” said the dead man casually. “So, Jarek is as good a name as any for me, now.”

“How do you remember me, then?” asked Shari.

“One of the Jareks experimented with using Mind Shaping to recreate his memories directly in his apprentices, as a supplement. And as a measure of security, I imagine. I mean, from one point of view, my predecessor isn’t really gone at all. I remember far more of his unlife than my own life.”

Shari shuddered. “I guess we’re both victims of him, then. And…if you really did kill him…”

“Technically the crown did. I just assisted.”

“Right, then. Your highness.” Jorth gave a little bow. “So, you want peace with Aldis?”

“Yes. You see, although my memories, my personality, are altered, essentially lost, I have something that no Jarek before me ever had. I have learned economics. I was prepared to adopt the robe, shrivel my flesh, make my appearance identical to the old Jarek so that none would suspect. But first, I had to be sure. So I ran the numbers, then ran them again, and came to an inescapable conclusion. Kern is dying.”

“Kern’s been dying for a long time.” retorted Shari.

“Yes. And unless something is done within a few decades at most, Kern will be rendered unlivable. The ancient places of power that I require to stave off the crown’s hunger will be rendered inaccessible to me. I will die, and there will be no apprentice after me to take up the crown. From one perspective, the long war between Kern and the world will be over.”

“Of course, from another perspective, it would be as though the Shadow Wars had begun anew. I do not have the resources to conquer Aldis, but I can raze it. I have, locked away in vaults, flesh-shaped horrors such as the world has never seen. I have ancient engines of destruction dating back to the Empire of Thorns, kept hidden because they would ruin the delicate patterns of nodes I need to harvest to remain alive. I have toxins and plagues which I will scatter hither and yon. And if I am conquered, or boxed in and left to rot, I will lay waste to this world, and go to oblivion with the cold comfort of spite, if nothing else.”

Jarek looked back and forth to the Queen’s Own, smiling his rictus grin again. “Oh dear. Did I give the wrong impression earlier, with my politeness and my tale of sympathetic woe? Please understand that I am deeply, unforgivably evil. I pledged myself to the side of Shadow long before I found myself in Kern.”

“Right. You’re evil.” said Jorth. “So what do you want, then?”

“Peace and prosperity, as I said in my letter. I cannot rip the power I need from the soil of Kern, and my capacity for statistical literacy is stopping me from calling forth more apprentices, to replace me as so many before me have been replaced. So I intend to transform Kern from a blighted wasteland of misery and oppression into a mercantile powerhouse, and then I will simply buy what I require to survive. I, as long as I manage my kingdom well and fairly, will endure, and my kingdom will thrive. And Aldis will profit greatly thereby. Right now, all I ask for is peace. Have your queen withdraw her spies and cease her raids. You will of course noticed that I have offered you the same courtesy.”

“Jarek. Your highness.” said Nycillia. “Tell me, how many in Kern would you classify as Master Adepts of nature?”

“None. Why do you ask?” replied Jarek.

“How much, then, would the services for one such as this be? For, oh, say, three month’s service, cleansing poison from the land, sweeping the metal dust from the waters and the air…”

“Let us say I’d pay…oh, ten thousand gold for such a service.” said Jarek. “In fact, in deference to the fact that I’m in a very un-lich-king-like hurry, let’s say that we bargained, you raised me to twelve thousand, and move on.”

“Ny, no!” said Shari. “This is it! He asked for this meeting near a woods because he knew we’d bring you to scout-”

“Shari, I know. But we need information. The Queen needs to know what has changed. And if I do not return in three months precisely, with twelve thousand gold worth of freed Kernish slaves, then she will know exactly how much the word of King Jalek is worth, and how much regard to give his future threats of ancient weapons and sealed horrors.”

“Actually, there aren’t any Kernish slaves. Slavery is incredibly inefficient. Of course, the people of Kern do owe a debt to the state that they must repay before being allowed to emigrate, which is about one twenty gold per head for adults, but depending on whose debts you wish to cancel…”

Nycillia turned, embraced each of her companions. “I will see you soon.” she promised.

“One of us should come with you-” began Jorth.

“Friends, I figure better-than-even odds that this is a trap. And I am counting on you to save me or avenge me, but you can only do this if you are not caught with me. No offense, your highness.”

“None taken.” said Jalek cheerfully. “I can also send letters out on more zombie doves, if you give me a fixed location to drop the mail.” said Jarek. “For a small fee, of course.”

“Zombie doves?”

“Doves and pigeons are basically the same, yes? I distinctly remember learning that. So, as a symbol of peace, I bleached one after reanimating it to send my initial missive.”

“Your highness, I believe you have much to learn about the ways of nature. Shall we go and do so, then?”

“With great delight. I shall hopefully see you all at the Black Gate in three month’s time! And I’ll send a zombie dove to the palace again if anything changes in the mean time.”

And with that, Jerek strode forward with sudden speed, laid a hand on Nycillia’s shoulder, made a brief gesture with his free hand, and suddenly both were gone.

[WIR, What Hath Gone Before] Arrow’s Flight.

RPG.net link here.

In Which Talia Begins Her Career As Special Herald; In Which We Are Reminded That Heralds Are Special and Elspeth is Special and Talia is Extra-Special; In Which Rolan The Bad Decision Horse MIB-Flashy-Thingys An Entire Nation And Goes From Comically Inept to Genuinely Threatening Horse-Sideral-Thing; In Which Talia Meets Starter Boyfriend and LTR Boyfriend; In Which Talia Goes On Patrol; In Which We Learn That Heralds Occasionally Just Forget to Teach People Magic; In Which Talia Messes Up Several Things While Getting Remedial Lessons From Starter Boyfriend; In Which A Third of The Book is Spent With Talia And Starter Boyfriend Trapped In A Damn Hut By Inclement Weather; In Which Future Precognition On The Side of Good Is Confirmed; In Which Talia Finally Comes To Terms With Her Specialness And Uses It To Punish the Wicked With Super Telepathic Powers.

Summary aside, I liked this book. Well, I like it in retrospect. The many good moments stand out, and I can just gloss over that interminable bit in the woods with Kris. We got more Elspeth, which was a good thing, and the book had only just started getting a handle on the idea that we might not just automatically 100% be rooting for Talia. So we got some very morally-questionable actions taken by her skated over entirely (which fits the reading of the Heralds as devoted to Goodness but very capable of falling into the trap of mistaking the Good of the Heralds as Good for everyone.), which is realistic, and works a hell of a lot better than sitting around explaining how bad everyone else is and why Talia was right.

The relationship stuff is crudely done, but brilliantly revealed in subtext; the fact that we never know how much of Kris’s reactions are unscripted romantic and how much are for-Talia’s-own-good benign manipulation helps a lot. We also get a really well-written battle scene with Talia and Kris vs. the reviers.

And while I complain about the pacing here, it fits. This books is mostly about Talia growing up and getting into position for the follow-up, and the titles themselves tell you this; you have to let your arrow fly before it can fall.

On Motivated Reasoning, or Why People Complain About Stupid On the Internet Are Missing The True Threat.

I’ve been exploring a really interestingly varied blogroll these days, as my previous entries might have mentioned. I’m continuing that trend, and I find it surprisingly peaceful. It’s been kind of driving home to me how uncannily similar the voices of extremists, even (in fact, especially) extremists who hate each other and blame each other for everything, end up being.

Why? Because the world, as I have said, is complicated. Most of the topics which drive genuine controversy do so because there are large groups of people who believe things, and most people don’t believe things that are directly contradicted by their day-to-day experiences. And while quite a lot of people misrepresent the import of their day-to-day experiences (assuming that because they don’t suffer from a given ill that obviously no one does, and the people who mention it are just whiners), those experiences are still data. They are happening in the world, and you need to take them into account.

And that’s where we get into motivated reasoning. Extremists, especially extremists dealing on topics with a modicum of nuance, do not want to wrap up their narratives in codicils and addendums. They do not want to say “While on first glance this looks like a shining example of the tyranny Our Group suffers under the hateful oppression of Their Group, if you look at historical trends, this seems to be an isolated incident rather than an worrying trend-indicator, so we should recognize that it happened while keeping an eye on the big picture.” And they do want to say that when it’s an example of Our Group being bad to Their Group, because of said narrative.

So, people find reasons to believe what they want to believe is true. They juggle statistics and studies. They make a few tiny leaps of logic in reporting what those studies say. They resort to emotive metaphors or leaps of rhetoric. Hell, sometimes it just comes down to reporting on one type of incident, and keeping silent on the other type.

People complain about the amount of dumb on the Internet, and there certainly is no shortage of that, either. But you can recognize dumb when you see it. It’s a lot harder to recognize true or mostly-true statements which bias you not from what they say, but from the fact that their speaker chose to say them and not others, on some topics but not others. Dumb is not contagious, or persuasive, or seductive. But motivated reasoning is.

So again, I really recommend putting a few erudite, well-read people who believe violently opposing things (at least some of which you think are terrible) on your blog roll. Because reading the terrible stuff and going “Leap of logic, leap of logic, misreport of study, use of emotive appeal…” builds habits, which make you a whole lot less susceptible to those same tactics when they’re being used to say obviously true things which you obviously agree with.

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