“Rise up you dead, slain of the Hydra…”

•24/04/2011 • Leave a Comment

My father recorded Jason and the Argonauts (1963) off tv (VHS ftw) for me when I was about five or six. I must have watched it a hundred times or more, until the tape stretched and eventually split. That was a sad, sad day.

It’s been the better part of two decades since I watched it last, but I can still remember so much in vivid detail: the prophecy of the man with one sandal, the court of Olympus, the friendship of Hercules and Hylas, the bronze statue, the harpies, the Clashing Rocks, the treachery of Acastus, the Hydra, but most of all… the skeletons.

Ray Harryhausen’s animation was years ahead of its time, undisputably the best there ever was… until Jurassic Park came along thirty years later.

I heard the phrase “nostalgia boner” earlier today. It perfectly describes how I’m feeling right now, watching clips of it on YouTube. My mission for the month of May is to find a copy of Jason and the Argonauts, even if it means sailing to the other side of the world.

And for added awesome, the opening theme.

The unusual suspects – the characters of Planescape: Torment

•23/04/2011 • Leave a Comment

Planescape: Torment is hands down my favourite game of all time. It could also be my favourite novel of all time (if you’ve played it, you’ll know what I mean). I picked it up – reluctantly, I’ll admit – while I was waiting for Icewind Dale to be released. It was meant to be nothing more than a time-killer, but it turned out to be the most important game I have ever played. It may seem strange to talk about a computer game in such terms, but Planescape: Torment is nothing short of an artistic fuckin’ masterpiece that has to be experienced to be understood. From the setting, to the dialogue, to the plot, it’s damn near flawless. It cannot be matched. 

Like in any good narrative, it’s the game’s characters that stand out. The most memorable cast of madmen and misfits I have ever encountered. In fitting with the game’s central themes (and title), each character is at the centre of their own tragedy. Fascinating and complex. Loathsome or lovable.

If you’ve never played Planescape: Torment, go and do so right now – you won’t regret it. If you have, then here’s a trip down amnesia lane.

The Nameless One

“LOST ONE… IMMORTAL ONE… INCARNATION’S END… MAN OF A THOUSAND DEATHS… THE ONE DOOMED TO LIFE… RESTLESS ONE… ONE OF MANY… THE ONE WHOM LIFE HOLDS PRISONER… THE BRINGER OF SHADOWS… THE WOUNDED ONE… MISERY-BRINGER… YEMETH…”

– Tomb inscription

Protagonist and all round badass, the Nameless One is immortal, having lived countless lives over thousands of years. His myriad scars and tattoos tell the tale of his many torments. 

Long ago, the Nameless One committed a crime so terrible than even a lifetime of selfless good would not save him from his punishment. Needing more time, he sought out the night hag Ravel Puzzlewell and challenged her with the riddle of making him immortal. She succeeded, but the ritual was flawed: with each death, the Nameless One would lose his memories.

Since then, his various incarnations have seen him become a powerful sorcerer, a raving paranoid lunatic, a calculating genius sociopath, and much else besides. The player joins him in his final incarnation, during which he at last manages to piece together his past and confronts his lost mortality.

Mortimer "Morte" Rictusgrin

  “Nothing’s worse than being honest all the time.”

– Morte. Like Latin… for Death

Morte is your typical floating skull with eyeballs, and has a rather sharp tongue – impressive, considering his lack thereof. He’s the first character the Nameless One encounters and becomes the party’s much-needed comic relief. He has a huge soft spot for the ladies, living or dead.

When he was alive, Morte was a less than honest individual whose lies damned him to the Pillar of Skulls and caused one of the Nameless One’s many deaths. A different incarnation of the Nameless One later rescued him from the pillar, and Morte has been his guilt-ridden companion ever since, though he happily maintains his skewed relationship with the truth.

May or may not have been the skull of Vecna.

Dak'kon

“When a mind does not *know* itself, it is flawed. When a mind is flawed, the man is flawed. When a man is flawed, that which he touches is flawed. It is said that what a flawed man sees, his hands make broken.”

– Dak’kon, telling you what he *knows*

A worn and withered zerth warrior of the githzerai, Dak’kon is grave, humourless, and honourable to a fault. He is the last bearer of a karach blade, a weapon that can be shaped by the wielder’s thoughts and emotions. Dak’kon’s motivations for joining the Nameless One are initially unclear. That changes.

Dak’kon’s torment is a mind divided. He once came to doubt the teachings of Zerthimon and his doubt caused the death of Shra’kt’lor, a great city of the githzerai on the chaos plane of Limbo. The Nameless One came to Dak’kon as he was drowning in chaos matter and offered him the means of his salvation, in exchange for an oath of servitude. Dak’kon has been little more than a slave ever since, forced to share the path of the Nameless One across numerous incarnations; only death can break the chains.

*Knows* a lot about *knowing*.

Annah-of-the-Shadows

 “I think yeh walk with chains, but yeh don’t know it yet. So I… feel for yeh, but I’m afraid for yeh… an’ that’s killing me, it is. I donnae want yeh tae come tae harm, but I donnae know what tae do tae stop it!”

– Annah (in Sheena Easton’s natural Scottish accent)

Annah is a hot-tempered tiefling fighter/thief. A potential love interest for the Nameless One, though kissing her literally makes her blood boil.  

Still a youngster, Annah has little backstory compared to the other main NPCs, but still manages to hold her own as a character. All we know of her history is that she was born and raised in Sigil’s rough Hive district by the heartless corpse collector Pharod. Her torment is her doomed love for the Nameless One, which leads her from one nightmare to the next.

Has a tail.

Fall-From-Grace

 “A lady must have her secrets.”

– Fall-From-Grace

Grace is of two conflicting natures. On one side, she is a succubus of the Abyss, a species that use their feminine charms to lure mortals unto corruption and death. On the other, she is chaste and noble and kind. A more subtle love interest for the Nameless One, a romance that is always on the verge but never fully explored.

Born in the Abyss, Grace was sold into slavery by her own mother, and to the Baatezu no less, the ancient blood rivals of her people. She later escaped by challenging her masters to a game of improvisation. When she is first encountered by the Nameless One, Grace is a high-ranking member of the Society of Sensation and is the proprietress of the Brothel of Slaking Intellectual Lusts, where sagacity is worth more than sex. She joins the Nameless One in order to experience more of the multiverse.

Disliked by Annah, adored by Morte.

Nordom

  “Identification of self was compromised by doubtings + mullings + analysis.”

– Nordom expressing his insecurities

Nordom is something a hidden character that I missed on my first couple of playthroughs. He is found randomly in the Rubikon dungeon construct. Nordom is a modron construct from the clockwork realm of Mechanus – the plane of perfect law – that has gradually come to question his makers and his purpose, thus going rogue.   

He may seem a bit out of place in the party at first due to his amiable nature and various quirks, but his torments are no less severe – he just has trouble expressing himself.

Voiced by Homer Simpson.

Ignus

 “When the Planessss burnnnn and all life is but torchesss, then Ignusss ssshall at lassst… be at peace.”

– Good old sane, rational Ignus

Having Ignus in your party is a bit like having a viper in your bed – one wrong move and its bad news. Nevertheless, he is a powerful wizard and a valuable – if somewhat erratic – ally. He joins you after you douse the worst of his flames with the Decanter of Endless Water, though he remains forever alight as he floats around beside you.

Ignus was taught the Art by a previous incarnation of the Nameless One, who tortured and abused his young supplicant. Later, Ignus went on to open a portal to the elemental plane of fire in the heart of Sigil in an attempt to set the entire multiverse ablaze, but he was thwarted by an alliance of hedge wizards and witches. His body became a conduit to the plane of fire, though it was not enough to kill him.

Ignus wishes to BURN!

Vhailor

 “Know this: There is nothing on all the Planes that can stay the hand of justice when it is brought against them. It may unmake armies. It may sunder the thrones of gods. Know that for all who betray justice, I am their fate. And fate carries an executioner’s axe.”

– Vhailor’s job description 

Vhailor is another party member whose continued loyalty is dependent on a very careful choice of words. He belongs to the Mercykiller faction, a group that seeks the death of all compassion. He’s about as much fun as you might expect.

He once pursued the Nameless One across the planes (the same incarnation that freed Morte from the Pillar of Skulls), but was ultimately outwitted and trapped beneath the prison city of Curst. Over the long years, his flesh decayed to dust until only his armour remained. Justice sustained him, however, and his armour has become the vessel for his vengeful soul. He does not know that he is dead.

He can tell whether you’ve been naughty or nice.

Non-party characters coming soon eventually…

Icewind Dale fanfic, part 2

•22/04/2011 • Leave a Comment
 
i.
 

Hrothgar trudged across Easthaven, his burly frame bent against the swirling wind. The snow was up to his knees and before long his legs and back were aching from the effort.

Perhaps you are a fool, he told himself. A damned old fool. Most men his age spent their days telling tales to their grandchildren by the fireside, not organising a dangerous trek over mountains. But then Hrothgar had never thought of himself as most men. Adventure was closer to him than any friends or family he had ever known. Five decades of sword-swinging and dungeon crawling and here I am rushing off on the next grand quest. The notion was tinged with a bit of self-reproach. What are you trying to prove?

He arrived at the emporium, marched up creaky wooden steps and entered. The store was dimly lit by scented candles. The air was filled with a pungent stench that made Hrothgar’s nose itch. Rows upon rows of shelves ran the length of the floor, sparsely stacked with all manner of trinkets, weapons, and foodstuffs.

Snow melting in his beard and trickling beneath his furs, Hrothgar navigated the maze of shelves and made his way to the back of the store. “Pomab?” he called. There was no reply. He tried again. Nothing. He sighed. “I don’t have time for your games, merchant! Show yourself!”

A man appeared from behind a shelf, gaunt, dressed in flowing orange robes decorated with silver tracery. His skin was dusky and his features sharp. “Ah, I see your typical barbarian charm has not failed you.” The accent was heavy and difficult to understand.

“I have neither the time nor the patience to deal with your heckling today, Pomab.”

“Nor the intelligence, I’m sure,” the merchant added.

Hrothgar ignored the bait. He reached into his cloak and produced a piece of parchment, thrusting it into Pomab’s hands. “I have need of these supplies.”

Pomab scanned the list with dark, narrowed eyes. “The handwriting looks like a goblin’s scrawl, but I believe I have most of these items in stock. The caravan from Caer Dineval is running late, but I can accomodate the bulk of your request. No doubt these are for your little hike. Oh how I wish I could join your filthy band of would-be heroes.”

“The mountains are no place for a cold-blooded snake like you, Calishite.”

This seemed to amuse Pomab immensely and his face cracked into a crooked grin. “You’d be surprised what you may find in the mountains, northerner. Cold-blooded or otherwise.”

They worked out the final details of the trade with barely restrained animosity. As always, Hrothgar felt soiled when leaving the emporium. Pomab was a menace, but a necessary one. Despite his spiteful nature, the foreigner’s prices were fair and his wares were varied and of good quality. Nevertheless, Hrothgar would much prefer the storekeep return to Calimshan and a local run the business. Pomab possessed a hunger that Hrothgar had seen before in other men; ruthless men. The darker side of ambition.

The old veteran returned to his house, a two-storey cabin that was positively lavish by the standards of Easthaven. Someone was waiting on his porch, a slim, stooped figure wrapped in a threadbare cloak. The visitor stood as Hrothgar approached and drew back his hood to reveal a familiar face.

“Jhonen,” Hrothgar said warmly, grinning and throwing his arms wide to embrace the youngster.

Jhonen returned the greeting. “I hope I’ve not caught you at a bad time,” he said. “I know you have many preparations to make.”

“Not at all, boy. Come inside away from the cold.” Hrothgar led him inside and took his cloak. “Can I get you anything? Some Cormyran brandy to warm your belly?”

Jhonen declined. They settled by the hearth, where Hrothgar quickly stoked a fire to life. The living room was filled with exotic items from across Faerun and Jhonen’s seemed uneasy around some of Hrothgar’s trophies, even after a hundred visits. Jhonen made every effort to avoid glancing at the head mounted above the fireplace. The gorgon’s lifeless red eyes glared down at the two men as they spoke.

“What brings you to my humble abode then, boy?” asked Hrothgar.

Jhonen shifted uneasily. “I… I would like to join your expedition.”

Hrothgar reclined into his chair and appraised the lad. Soft and sickly like his mother, he thought, but perhaps there is something of his father in him after all. “It is not my place to turn away volunteers,” said Hrothgar, “but I would like to know why you have made this choice.”

“Because I am afraid.”

Hrothgar raised one bushy grey eyebrow in question.

“All my life I have been afraid,” Jhonen continued. “And now I am alone. I have lost all those I cared for and I am still afraid.” His voice caught and he struggled to find the right words. “I am tired of being afraid,” he said at last. “I wake each morning feeling empty and drained, like I am only half a man. My dreams…” he trailed off, then picked up a new thought. “If I stay in Easthaven any longer I risk madness, or worse.”

“It will be a difficult journey,” said Hrothgar. “And I cannot promise you my protection once we are in the Spine of the World.”

“Nor would I ask for it. Not this time. They say my father was a brave man.”

Hrothgar nodded. “Rhanen was a hero of Icewind Dale, like his father and grandfather before him.”

Lapsing into a long silence, Jhonen considered those words before saying, “Then I will honour his memory as best I can. I hope to fear no longer.”

Hrothgar leaned forward and fixed Jhonen with a penetrating stare. “Fair enough, boy, fair enough. But are you seeking to run from your fears or to conquer them?”

Jhonen did not answer.     

ii.

Daurun unwrapped the paladin’s package with trembling hands. His heart was racing with excitement.

Two small ingots of pure mithral, together no larger than a scroll case.

He lifted them, feeling their weight and examining them for imperfections. There were none. Daurun caught his reflection smiling in the metal’s mirror-like surface. For the first time in years, he felt close to home.

Too long.

He put the mithral down, reverently, and pulled the other wrapped bundle from his pack, the contents of which he spilled carelessly onto his work table. A broken sword, shattered into several pieces. It was an admirable enough weapon, Daurun noted, but the blade had become brittle in the frozen north and had inevitably split. The hilt and crossguard were ornate, carved in the likeness of a gold dragon in flight.

The dwarf stroked his beard, thinking.

Working mithral and bonding it to inferior metal would be difficult with his limited tools and humble forge. But not impossible. Not to him.

He laid out his hammers and tongs, donned a thick leather apron and set a fire in the forge. He fanned the flames until they were roaring and white hot, then placed the mithral bars at their heart. The fire reacted to the metal’s presence, drawing itself in to envelop the bars so that they vanished from sight. Daurun waited patiently, staring into the fire as if hypnotised, tongues of flame singing his black beard. His mind wandered, travelling back through the years to his homeland and all the secrets of the forge he had once known. His lips started to move. He intoned ancient words of power and enchantment, slowly at first, but he quickly gained momentum as his memory stirred. He removed the mithral from the forge and it yielded its shape beneath his hammer. He worked until his muscles screamed and his fingers bled.

As he reforged the metal, so too was something inside him made whole again. Each fall of the hammer chipped away at the apathy that had crippled him for so long. Each bright spark of steel on steel was reflected in his soul as a forgotten vigour was rekindled. It was the same vigour that had led him north so many years ago, Daurun realised with a mixture of excitement and dread.

Too long.

By dawn, he was finished.

iii.

The paladin hoisted the sword into a defensive stance, then took a few practice swings, feeling its balance as it cut through the crisp morning air. “Good as new,” Artain said.

“Better than new,” Daurun corrected.

True enough. The weapon felt lighter in Artain’s grip, though it had lost nothing of its size or shape. The blade rippled and reflected the sun with each stroke like the crystal waters of Lac Dinneshere behind him. A near invisible pattern of runes had been carved along the sword’s edge. “What are these symbols?”

“An ancient prayer to Clangeddin Silverbeard,” said Daurun proudly. “An ally of Torm. The runes will lend your blows added strength in battle.”

“Thank you.” Artain said, though he felt they were inadequate words. He reached for the pouch hanging from his belt. “Your payment. As we agreed, two hund-“

The dwarf held up one stubby-fingered hand. “No payment necessary,” he said.

Artain was uncertain. Thinking it might be a strange jest, he drew his money bag anyway. “I insist.”

Daurun’s heavy brows furrowed. “You insult me. I have made a gift of my skills. There is no price for such a thing.”

“But why? I don’t understand.”

The dwarf’s hard stare softened for a brief moment. “To repay you in kind, lad. For bringing me a piece of home.” He turned to leave, paused, then said over his shoulder, “You can show your gratitude when we reach the Spine of the World by putting that blade to good use.”

“We?” Artain saw an excited gleam in the dwarf’s grey eyes and could not help but smile.

“Aye,” said Daurun. He left.

The paladin was alone now on the banks of the lake, brandishing his reforged sword. He wondered if he would truly need it on the road to Kuldahar. This is the Year of the Cold Soul, the elf’s words drifted through his mind. Nature holds her breath. He glanced south at the Spine of the World mountains, vast clouds heaped over their jagged peaks, black and silent. He had come to Icewind Dale to spread the light of Torm, but that light seemed very faint in this harsh, rugged land.

Ill omens all.

iv.

The sermon was short and powerful, though few had come to hear it. The weather was fierce this evening, and many had wisely decided to stay at home. Everard was in a foul mood over it.

“Lip service,” he had grumbled earlier. “Their faith is challenged by poor weather.”

Accalia ignored his rant. Everard was in a constant state of anger lately and there was little to be done about it.

When the half-dozen worshipers and the low-level initiates had departed, Accalia was left alone with him in the main hall, standing beneath the stone image of their god: giant and resplendant in his armour. Everard struggled down from the crude pulpit, slowed by his lame left leg, and limped over to Accalia, his face stern and haggard. She took a deep breath. This, she knew, was to be the final confrontation.

“Jerrod’s Stone,” was all Everard said. The words echoed about the empty hall. Accalia’s gaze found the skein of pulsing yellow runes at the statue’s feet. They warded the entrance to the temple’s catacombs and kept the precious artifact therein safe.

“What of it?”

“It is a warning. A warning against the folly of needless sacrifice.” Everard’s face was grave.

“We have spoken of this before. I’m going Everard. It is my choice.”

“Then let us speak of it one last time before you go. I have cast the spells and read the omens.” An expression of fear played across his blunt features so quickly Accalia almost missed it. “I tried to convince myself otherwise, but the truth can no longer be denied.”

“The truth of what?”

“The truth of what awaits you in the Spine of the World.”

“Wha-?”

“Allow me a few words more, Accalia,” Everard interrupted sharply. “Are you so eager to rush off to Kuldahar to avenge the death of this one man?”

“His murder was an affront to Tempus,” she said.

“True, but your desire to run off and seek battle is an even greater affront.”

Shocked, Accalia was on the verge of screaming at Everard, but the maimed priest raised a silencing hand and she gritted her teeth instead.

“There is no victory in sacrifice,” he continued, his voice taking on a measured tone as if he were delivering another sermon. “Jerrod believed he would find deliverance in martyrdom, that in giving his life he was serving Tempus’ will. His sacrifice cost him his soul.”

Accalia knew the story well. Jerrod was a shaman of the Uthgardt barbarians, who had led his people to battle against the invader Arakon. In his defeat, Arakon had ripped open a portal to the Lower Planes and the legions of hell had spilled forth onto the battlefield. As his people were slaughtered around him, Jerrod glimpsed an avatar of Tempus watching from a distant ridge. Taking it as a sign, the shaman charged the portal alone, his blood and mortal soul fusing it shut. Everard preached that Tempus’ appearance was a portent of victory for the Uthgardt and that Jerrod’s sacrifice was a vain attempt at glory-mongering. Accalia was not so sure. 

“I don’t understand,” she said at last. “Why do you preach this to me now?”

“Because I fear for your soul.” Everard’s face looked older than ever, grey and tired.

Accalia asked, “What awaits me in the Spine of the World, Everard?”

“Only death.”

A short eternity went by.

“Then that is my fate.”

v.

Jhonen stamped his feet and breathed into his gloves, desperate to keep the chill at bay. His grey woolen cloak was poor protection, but it was all he had. As a lowly dockhand at Easthaven’s tiny port, he earned barely enough copper to keep himself fed let alone warm.

There was a buzz of activity around him as final preparations were made for the expedition. Men, shouting and joking about the adventure to come, were loading bundles of firewood and blankets onto the two small carts that had been commandeered for the trek. Each was to be drawn by a pair of stout, shaggy-haired oxen. Hrothgar was barking instructions, helping where he could.  The old man looked every bit the hero this morning, dressed in scaled leather armour lined with fine white rabbit fur; a two-handed sword that was taller than Jhonen was strapped across his back.

Jhonen’s hand went to his own weapon, the bent and rusted blade he had found last month by the lakeshore. It was tucked into his belt and hidden beneath his cloak. He felt very foolish. My father was the hero, not me. Jhonen wanted to return to his shack, crawl into bed and hope no one noticed his cowardice. But then the horror of his dreams reared up in his mind – the pale serpent gliding through clouds as black as night, its jaws wide as it fell from the sky – and he found himself rooted to the spot. Too afraid to go, too afraid to stay. Jhonen felt trapped and doomed and helpless.

His thoughts were broken by Hrothgar’s booming voice. “Come here, boy!”

Jhonen went.

“You tie a better knot than most,” Hrothgar said. “Make sure everything is secured to this cart.” He tossed Jhonen a roll of hemp rope and trudged off to oversee the loading of the second cart.

Jhonen removed his gloves and set to work. He double checked every knot, tugging and tightening until his hands were raw. When Hrothgar returned, he gave only a single nod of satisfaction, but it was more than enough to lift Jhonen’s spirits.

By now, just about the entire village had turned up to see the expedition off. All told, there were three score volunteers, fully half of Easthaven’s able bodies. Most of them Jhonen knew; local fishermen and craftsmen not unlike himself. He recognised the cleric Accalia, wearing vestments of red-dyed fur, and the dwarf they all called Dour, who had a workman’s hammer hanging from his belt and a crudely made helm tucked under his arm. There were some strangers too, Jhonen noted. A halfling woman moved cheerfully through the crowds, chatting to everyone and no one, and a tall broad-shouldered man with the look of a southerner helped with the preparations. The latter wore simple cotton clothes and only a dark blue cape around his shoulders for protection, yet he seemed unaffected by the cold as he hoisted a heavy-looking bundle onto the second cart. A sword with an extravagantly crafted hilt and crossguard was sheathed at his side and Jhonen was unhappily reminded of the blade from his dreams. 

A short while later, everything appeared to be in order. Hrothgar climbed one of the carts’ luggage piles so that everyone could see him.

“Six days ago, a messenger came to us from Kuldahar, begging for our aid.” he shouted. “Sadly, the journey cost him his life and he left us with many questions. I intend to find the answers. It makes me proud that so many brave men and women will join me in this. In Icewind Dale we do not abandon our neighbours. We stand together or we fall together. Kuldahar is not alone.”

A few cheered. Most didn’t.

The cleric Accalia stepped forward, her blond hair and pale skin almost white in the morning sunlight. “We call upon Tempus to bless us,” she said and several of those gathered fell to their knees. “May he lend us strength in hardship, and victory in battle. Vitar. Mor’tis. Kayalah.” Victory. Death. Glory.

A strange choice of prayer, Jhonen thought, though he was admittedly unfamiliar with the Tempuran faith. He worshiped Lathander, the god of his mother and father. Stranger still was Everard’s absence from the crowd. Jhonen reasoned that a senior priest should be present to exalt such an undertaking, not a subordinate. He grew anxious thinking about what that might mean.

The moment had come and the volunteers said their final goodbyes to friends and family. There were few tears; the people of Ten Towns were harder than that. Having no family and no true friends, Jhonen said a quick farewell to Apsel the scrimshander who had been his father’s friend. He merely waved to any others he knew. He wondered if he would ever see Easthaven again. He wondered if he even cared.

Without fanfare, the oxen lurched into motion, keeping to the shores of Lac Dinneshere for a time before heading out onto the windswept tundra of the day.

A bit sloppy in parts, but the basic elements of the story I had hoped to tell are all there. If I hadn’t given up at this point, I would have gone back and expanded Pomab’s role and patched up the dialogue between Accalia and Everard. But I did give up, so that’s that.

Dawn be damned

•17/04/2011 • Leave a Comment

“The day dawned cold and bright over the north.”

“The dawn was stained black as the city continued to burn.”

“The day dawned cold and grey.”

A pattern emerges. This will not serve.

Icewind Dale fanfic, part 1

•17/04/2011 • 1 Comment

The previous post reminded me of something I wrote a few years back. It was my deluded hope at the time to write a definitive novel based on Icewind Dale, one that wouldn’t suck half so much as the novelisations based on Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment. Whatever my intentions were at the time, however, my efforts ultimately amounted to nothing more than a little bit of fan fiction left dead in the water. I enjoyed writing it though, so I guess that counts for something.

i.

Eleasis, 1281 DR

The day dawned cold and bright over the north. The sun climbed into a clear blue sky, its light shimmering across the frozen plains and turning the waters of Lac Dinneshere to liquid flame. It was as pleasant a morning as anyone in Icewind Dale could hope for so late in the year.

Jhonen of Easthaven stood on the lake’s shore, gazing out across the waters and pondering the coming winter even as he enjoyed the sun’s feeble warmth. He had risen early, roused from his sleep by troubling dreams, dreams that had plagued him for nearly a tenday. The dreams played out in his mind again and again, becoming no clearer in their meaning:

A woman of soul-staggering beauty, voice raised in mournful song… a jewelled sword forged of black steel… and a white-winged serpent descending from a storm…

As he thought of the woman, Jhonen’s heart ached with both longing and fear. Her face was vivid in his memory: skin as pale as snow with hair and eyes the colour of the sea. She was otherworldly. Her song was equally enchanting. Jhonen didn’t understand the words, but its tone spoke of great loss and unending sadness. He shivered beneath his cloak and turned to leave.

His eyes caught a glimpse of something metallic buried in the muddy shore. Curious, Jhonen knelt and cleared away some of the muck and frost to get a better look. A sword’s hilt revealed itself. An image of the sword from his dreams swept through his thoughts, filling him with dread. Closer inspection calmed him; this weapon was nowhere near as magnificent. Its grip and pommel were unadorned and partially warped, its four-foot blade sheathed in rust. To judge from its apparent age, Jhonen guessed that it was an heirloom from the early days of Ten Towns, probably having belonged to one of the frontiersmen who settled the region through battle and bloodshed. He drew the sword from the mud and rinsed it off in the shallows. He gave it a few half-hearted swings. It was heavy and clumsy in his unskilled hands. Jhonen was tempted to cast the sword back into Lac Dinneshere and allow it to remain lost for another hundred years. Instead, he tucked it into his belt to take home, not really sure what he intended to do with it.

As he made his way back to Easthaven, a sudden gust of wind blew off the lake and for a moment he was certain he could hear singing.

ii.

Eleint, 1281 DR

Accalia had done all she could to save him. All that was left to do was to wait for him to die. She had never felt so helpless.

His wounds ran deeper than flesh and bone. A venom of such virulence it defied even magical healing was eating him away from within. It was a cruel end, without honour. This man would never know the peace of Warrior’s Rest.

“Shadows!” The man had been babbling since they found him sprawled on the temple steps the previous night. His words were a dry rattle. “The cold draws near… the tree fades… soon…”

Accalia dabbed at the poor man’s head with a damp cloth and tried to calm him with prayer. It would not be long now.

Outside the infirmary, two voices were raised in heated discussion.

“What you’re proposing is a fool’s errand, Hrothgar! Soon it will be winter and Easthaven can ill afford the loss of her militia.”

True, Accalia thought. Come winter, the barbarian tribes were as likely to raid the village as they were to trade with it. The volunteer soldiers saved many lives each year.

The second man, Hrothgar, was less agitated when he spoke, but his voice was deeper and more commanding. “And Kuldahar can ill afford our disregard. Listen, Everard, I cannot speak for the townsfolk, but I for one cannot stand by while our neighbours are in danger.”

Also true. All the settlers of the north relied on each other for survival. If neighbour abandoned neighbour, all would be lost. 

Potential danger,” Brother Everard stressed. “We know nothing of this man. Only that he carries the seal of the Archdruid.”

“And that he is about to die, despite your efforts.”

There was a short break in their argument.

When they resumed, Accalia tried to ignore them, focusing on her patient. His breathing came in short, shallow gasps.

“Please,” he said. He turned to look at Accalia and she saw fear and madness in his eyes. “I tried to fight. To be brave. But there were too many. I ran. Left the others” He reached for her hand. Tears rolled down his pale cheeks. “I’ve never been in a fight before. I was so afraid. I tried to be brave, but… gods forgive me… there were too many.” His grip tightened. “There is a shadow in the mountains and it gathers evil to it. Such evil! Soon it will be ready to make war on its enemy.” He was hysterical now. “A great war! A blood feud! None of us will survive! We will be swept away by tides of darkness! All hail Yx…”

The man convulsed violently, blood frothing from his mouth. His last words were a gargled mess.

Then he was still.

Accalia had seen death many times. She had seen the aftermath of battles. She had seen strong men die from their injuries, slowly and painfully. But they had been warriors, men who had chosen to meet their destiny with sword and shield. This youth had likely been a farmer or an apprentice of some sort, not a soldier. Tempus taught that war was a force of nature, an undeniable fact of life. However, he cautioned against reckless warmongering, preying upon those who could not properly defend themselves. In so many ways, those responsible for this man’s death had committed blasphemy in the eyes of her god.

Sympathy for the man was quickly replaced by hatred for his killers.

When Everard and Hrothgar entered the room, Accalia was still grasping the man’s hand, a prayer of vengeance on her lips.

Eventually, she stood. 

“When do we leave?”  

iii.

Daurun hated everything about Icewind Dale.

The people. The weather. The ale.

Especially the ale.

The dwarf sat alone in the crowded tavern, a half-empty flagon of Grisella’s best before him. He glowered at the other patrons, brows furrowed and mouth twitching. He listened to pieces of their murmured conversations.

“… Worst weather in decades…”

“… Monsters seen in the pass…”

“… A messenger from Kuldahar…”

“… Hrothgar’s looking for volunteers…”

Daurun scoffed. Gossip. The same every year. Except maybe that last one. The dwarf decided not to ask, however. It was someone else’s problem. 

His was a familiar face in Easthaven, but the locals took care to avoid him when they could. Daurun had come north eleven years prior with a small fortune. He had followed rumours of the dale’s untapped resources and it had been his hope to mine the slopes of Kelvin’s Kairn for ore. His wealth dwindled as he scoured the mountain. He found nothing. Trapped in the north, Daurun was forced to settle in Easthaven and now made a humble living as a metalworker, making and repairing simple tools. For someone who had made their fortune as a master smith, Daurun found his fate torturous. He had once longed go home, but his grand failure had long since eroded all purpose from his life.

He took a reluctant sip from his flagon, grimacing as he always did. He wiped foam from his beard and heaved a sigh of resignation.

“Local ale’s not that bad, surely?”

Daurun was not used to being approached and his surprise must have shown.

“I didn’t mean to startle you, friend.” The accent was thick.

The dwarf looked up to see a stranger towering above him. The man was not of Ten Towns, that much was obvious. His dark features reminded Daurun of men from the far south, and his silken clothes were ill-suited for the cold north. A medallion hung at his throat engraved with a gauntleted hand, palm forward. It was the symbol of Torm, a god almost unheard of in Icewind Dale.

“Not startled so much as bothered, friend,” Daurun said, his scowl reasserting itself.

The stranger seemed unperturbed. He even smiled, teeth straight and white beneath his bushy moustache. Something about that smile put Daurun at ease. The dwarf decided he didn’t like this man at all.

“I am Artain Serlance, knight and paladin of the Most Noble Order of the Radiant Heart.”

“Impressive.” Sarcasm.

Artain pressed on, ” Just call me Art. Might I ask your name?”

Daurun sighed again before growling a reply. “Round here I’m known as Dour. And right now I’m lord of the Most Sincere Order of Can’t Be Arsed.”

At this, Artain’s smile faltered. The big man pulled up a chair and sat down opposite Daurun. “I had thought a son of Clan Stoneheart would be a bit more courteous in his manner.”

Sudden anger mingled with shock, leaving Daurun in a stunned silence. “How?” was all he managed.

“Your ring. I’ve seen its markings before. In Mithral Hall.”

Memories of his home flooded Daurun’s thoughts as he ran his fingers over the ring’s etched runes. Beautiful, sparkling Mithral Hall, its tunnels filled with the clamour of metal and the heat of a thousand forges. Renewed regret for having ever left on his failed venture stabbed through him. He took further measure of Artain. Humans were rarely permitted to enter Mithral Hall. Only important ambassadors and recognised heroes were welcome, but even they were restricted to the upper caverns. To have glimpsed the sigils and learned the name of Stoneheart, Artain must have visited the deep delves, a great honour bestowed upon only the worthiest of allies. Earning such trust from a dwarf was no easy task.

A hundred questions fought for attention in Daurun’s mind, but all he asked was, “What do you want?”

The paladin’s eyes seemed to glow in the tavern’s dim light. “I have need of your skills.”

“You need a bucket fixed?”

“Not quite,” Artain said. “My weapon, it seems, was not made to withstand the cold. My journey north has left my sword a little the worse-for-wear. I can compensate you well for your time.”

Daurun was almost tempted, but, “Quality metal is hard to come by. I do not have the resources to help you.”

“I can supply my own material.”

“Aye? And what material would that be?”

“A little something from Mithral Hall.”

No. It couldn’t be.  

Artain stood. “You can find me at the Snowdrift Inn.” He left.

Daurun downed the last of his ale, grimaced, and ordered another.

iv.

Stepping into the Snowdrift Inn was like stepping into a lover’s embrace: it warmed the heart as well as the body. A fire roared in the hearth, bathing the common room in soothing shades of orange and yellow. The smell of roasted meat and spiced vegetables wafted from the kitchen. There was a storm gathering as night fell, and Artain breathed easy knowing that he would ride it out in comfort.

Quimby, the red-faced and always jovial innkeeper, poked his head out from the kitchen to see who had arrived. “Ho there!” he cried, grinning. “If’n it ain’t another of my favourite guests! Dinner’ll be out soon, don’t you worry. Lamb and ‘taters, best in Easthaven, don’t you worry! Sit, sit. Make yourself at home.”

Artain returned the smile and nodded. Quimby ducked back into the kitchen, surprisingly quick for his ample size.

Crossing the room towards the hearth, Artain almost missed the figure reclining in one of the worn leather armchairs. It was the Snowdrift’s only other patron and the paladin shuddered as he passed, but otherwise ignored the elf whose melancholy was a tangible thing. The elf stared blankly into the fire, his face solemn and pale, long fingers pressed tightly against his temples, completely still.

Artain pulled off his boots and set them against the hearthstone to dry. The melting snow formed a little puddle on the floor, sparkling in the firelight. It made Artain think of the myriad pools and fountains of the temple district in Athkatla, where he had grown up in the service of Torm and eventually earned his knighthood. Those days were far gone. He had left Amn ten years ago to spread the word of the Radiant Heart, bringing hope to the hopeless and defending the helpless. He had never looked back, never thought twice about his choices. Mostly.

It was not his faith in the gods that sometimes faltered, but rather his faith in men. Justice was an elusive force across Faerun, often forgotten and rarely fair. Men seemed all too willing to deny its existence. In wretched Westgate, they mocked his god even as unjust laws mocked their very humanity. Artain had left the crowded cities of the Inner Sea, the ruined kingdoms of the Western Heartlands, bustling Waterdeep and fledgling Silverymoon. And so it was that a knight of Torm came to Icewind Dale, and despaired, for Tempus and old superstitions had already claimed the dalesfolk.

One rumour, however, now kept Artain in Easthaven a little longer than he had planned. The villagers spoke often of Kuldahar since news of Hrothgar’s expedition started circulating about town. They spoke of a great tree, and the Archdruid, and… a temple of Ilmater, fiercest ally of Torm and Tyr; together they formed the Triad. Artain intended to visit the temple and pay his respects, perhaps even establish a shrine to the Loyal Fury if he was granted permission. To this end he had volunteered for the expedition, and commissioned the services of a dwarf to mend his broken sword.

“This is the Year of the Cold Soul.” The voice was a flat monotone, devoid of emotion.

Artain turned to regard the dark-haired elf, half-lost in shadow. The paladin said nothing, feeling suddenly ill at ease.

“The weather is wrong,” the elf continued without expression. “A silence has fallen over the Spine of the World. Nature holds her breath. This is the Year of the Cold Soul. Ill omens all.” Grey eyes flickered up and made contact with Artain’s own. Then, to the paladin’s surprise, the elf laughed. “Corellon forgive me, I’m beginning to sound like my cousin! Not every storm is an angry god’s wrath. Not every monster serves a master. Forgive me my grim demeanour. I am Erevain Blacksheaf.” He stood and offered his hand in greeting.

“I am Artain Serlance, knight and palad-“

“I know what you are,” Erevain said tersely, glancing at Artain’s amulet.

The paladin shrugged. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, friend. Just call me Art.”

Erevain’s narrow face was stern once more, his eyes suddenly resolute. “You intend to join Hrothgar’s expedition.” It was not a question.

Artain answered anyway. “I do, yes.”

The elf looked lost in his own thoughts and said nothing for a long moment. Then, “It is a doomed venture.”

 “How so?”

Grey eyes caught the firelight and flashed gold. “Because some storms truly are an angry god’s wrath.”

Artain reached out with his sixth sense, reading the elf’s heart. Erevain was not evil, but had a great knowledge and understanding of evil. It had left its mark.

“This is the Year of the Cold Soul, and it will take brave souls to conquer it. I wish you all the best, paladin. We will not meet again.” He left without another word, leaving Artain alone to ponder.

The next morning, Erevain was gone.

Later in the day, Artain was visited by a grumpy dwarf with a bad hangover.

I had to tweak it slightly to make it bearable. My greatest shame – the dwarf speaking phonetically… like a dwarf. “Aye, yer lucky ye dunnae hav’ tae see that.”

“They say that history is the greatest of all teachers…”

•16/04/2011 • Leave a Comment

Icewind Dale is another member of my oft-mentioned Holy Quintet of gaming (and it gave me the banner for this blog blarg).I was more excited for this game to be released here in South Africa than any other before or since. I was 14, had just played Baldur’s Gate, and was enamoured with all things Forgotten Realms, particularly the Icewind Dale Trilogy by R.A. Salvatore. If you scroll down a bit, you’ll see my appreciation for Mr. Salvatore and his writings has viciously declined. My appreciation for this game has not.

Heavy on combat, frugal with dialogue (at least compared to Baldur’s Gate II and Planescape: Torment), Icewind Dale nevertheless tells an epic story, with memorable locations, encounters, and characters. 

I felt nostalgic after rewatching the game’s opening cinematic. Stark and simple, an amazing score and the voice talent of David Ogden Stiers bring tension and gravitas to a visually unremarkable introduction. Here it is: 

EDIT: And here’s the ending cinematic. Equally brilliant. Equally badass. It’s a tweeeest!

Another false start

•08/04/2011 • Leave a Comment

I wrote this about three years ago. It was the prologue for one of my many failed attempts at writing a novel. I was reading Steven Erikson at the time, and I think it shows.

 The dawn was stained black as the city continued to burn. Vast columns of heaving smoke billowed skyward, filling the world with ash for as far as the eye could see. The sky roiled like storm-struck waters, lit crimson by the rising sun. A cold wind blew off the snow-capped peaks of the north, but the air still burned with unleashed sorcery, white fire dancing silently above the devastated landscape.

Harsh light bathed the ruined city and the fields beyond with each flickering burst of magic, revealing the countless horrors veiled in darkness below. Shadows capered briefly in the wake of each bolt, gathering beneath the piled dead and toppled buildings, mocking the dawn with their persistence.

Handfuls of survivors emerged from their shattered homes, surveying the destruction with wide terrified eyes. They wandered streets choked with the dead, calling out for help and loved ones until their throats were raw. They heard only echoes in reply. Crippling despair descended. Many crawled back into hiding to await death. The rest continued their hopeless roaming.

The entire city had collapsed on its foundations, bursting open sewers and catacombs, filling the streets with murky foul-smelling water and the bones of the ancient dead. The western districts, those overlooking the Lake of Tears, had fallen into a vast underground cavern, leaving a gaping chasm into which the lake now poured its steaming waters. No building had escaped unscathed. Countless were still wreathed in flame. Others were nothing more than piles of scorched rock – burial mounds for those trapped underneath. At the heart of the city, where the great citadel of the Ameryllen had been, was a yawning crater surrounded by empty blasted earth for half a league in every direction. Everything within that radius had been obliterated at the moment of tragedy, becoming less than air.

Beyond the crumbling walls and sprawled across the northern plains, the Vengir dead were a charred and mangled carpet over the blighted ground. Grey flesh parted to show white bone, bodies twisted in their moments of final agony. The power of Ameryl had swept aside the invading army like a tidal wave, a flood of searing light consuming all in its path as it rushed towards the towering god at the enemy’s centre.

Lythis, the City of Miracles, had been destroyed overnight. A million lives extinguished in a heartbeat. Now calm had descended. And the land held its breath in anticipation of further torment.

* * * * *

“What have we done?”

The wizard was curled up against a fallen pillar of marble, his blood-streaked arms wrapped around his frail body in a tight embrace. His lowered face was hidden behind a curtain of damp hair. He rocked back and forth, saying the words over and over again. “What have we done? What have we done? What have we done!

The phrase became a chant, the man’s voice cracking with grief. White robes gone red hung in tatters from his hunched frame. Wracked by violent shivers, he did not notice the other wizard approach.

For a long while, Hollican stared down at the pitiful shape of his friend uncertainly. Knee deep water the colour of rust gurgled between his legs. A knot of corpses floated past, yellowed bones mingled with the recent dead. The air stank of burning meat and hot sewerage. He waded forward and laid a hand upon the shoulder of the cowering man.

“We did what he had to do, Revayn,” he said in answer to the repeated question.

Revayn ceased his sobbing for a moment and looked up, black hair falling away from his face to reveal cheeks smeared with ash and blood. Tears had washed narrow trails through the filth to either side of his hooked nose. Dark eyes filled with incomprehension regarded Hollican. At first, there was no recognition in those eyes and Hollican feared that his peer had gone mad. Then a moan escaped Revayn’s lips and fresh tears rolled down his cheeks. He laid his head against Hollican’s thigh and wept.

“How could we let this happen? How?

The standing wizard had no answer to that. Hollican allowed his gaze to wander from the man at his feet to their surroundings. It was difficult to see much through the drifting clouds of black smoke. His eyes settled on the marble pillar against which Revayn had been huddled. The column had been shaped in the image of a robed figure: hood up, head bowed, arms folded. It was a representation of an Ameryllen mage. Sorcery – the very same magic that the Ameryllen had controlled for five hundred years – had scarred and pitted the carved figure, sending deep rents across its surface and sheering off large sections. The once majestic sculpture was now more in the likeness of a cripple, broken and bent. Hollican did not miss the significance of that transformation.

Revayn had not stopped his raving, his voice growing ever more hysterical. “We did this! This is all our fault!”

Hollican whinced at that. The truth of those words and the shame they conjured hurt him far more than the wounds he had sustained. The sun climbed higher into the ash-blanketed sky, glaring down at the destruction of Lythis like a bloodshot eye. It seemed full of accusation. Hollican stared back as if in defiance, but his guilt was merciless. “We did not mean for this to happen. How could we have known?”

No reply from the east, of course, but the sound of his voice calmed Revayn, and the crouching wizard released his grip on Hollican’s robes and collapsed back against the shattered column.

“We were warned,” Revayn said, his voice suddenly even and sane. “The Nishanei elders warned us.”

Hollican could not deny it. The Nishanei emissaries had met with the Ameryllen and urged against using Ameryl as a weapon, telling of a dormant hunger that lurked within its depths. In their desperation, the wizards dismissed the warning, forging ahead with their plan to strike down the enemy’s god. The Ameryllen knew of days in Ilmyrindar’s history when the False Ones had twisted and perverted Ameryl, using it to conquer and enslave. The time of the Old Kingdoms were centuries gone now, and Ameryl had long since been pacified, cleansed of all taint. Or so it was believed.

As Hollican and the others stood on the walls of Lythis directing the surge of magic at the Vengir god, the power had broken free of their mental grasp. Elation turned to horror as Ameryl writhed like a wounded snake beneath the fingers of their collective will, evading their efforts to reassert control. A wild beast drunk on divine blood, Ameryl had doubled back on itself and attacked those who had harnessed it. The one hundred and thirty-six wizards weaving the ritual within their citadel had barely a moment to acknowledge the sudden reversal before being reduced to nothing by the conflagration that swept through the city.

Ameryl itself had also been shattered.

Hollican could feel the fragmented magic slipping beyond his senses, dimming like the last embers of a dying fire. It left him hopeless and drained. The fire lancing through the smoke clouds above was all that remained, but its fury was alien to him and he took no comfort in it.

Revayn stood. He was a head taller than Hollican, gaunt and stooped. “The blood of millions is on our hands,” he said, wiping the last of his tears away with a bloody sleeve. “Better we had died than suffer this guilt.”

“Better we had died,” Hollican repeated softly.

Revayn reached down and lifted a shard of marble from the water. Its edges were wickedly sharp. “Let us do it then,” he whispered and raised the shard to his throat.

Several heartbeats went by, marble slowly piercing layers of skin and drawing a thin trickle of blood. Revayn’s expression hardened and his muscles tensed in preparation of the final thrust.

“No!”

Hollican wrenched Revayn’s hand away. The taller man resisted briefly, anger flashing across his face, but then his body relaxed and his arm fell to his side. He did not drop the jagged rock. Not yet.

“We must not forget our oaths,” Hollican said. “We are sworn to protect the people of this land. Our vows still stand.”

Revayn looked incredulous. “We have betrayed our promise. The people’s trust has been broken. How can they ever hold faith in us again?”

“Because they do not know.”

Revayn’s eyes widened as realisation sunk in. “Surely you don’t mean -?”

“Our people will need us more than ever. This war against the Vengir has traumatised them. The appearance of a living god has frayed their beliefs. The destruction of Lythis will lead many into despair. We must guide them back to hope. It is our duty.”

“And in order to fulfill this duty, we must deceive?”

Hollican averted his eyes, looking again at the crippled statue. A great, shuddering sigh rushed from his lungs. “Yes.”

“And we remain as we always have?” There was derision in Revayn’s tone.

“I suspect much will change. But there is yet a chance that we might do great good in this world, a chance for us to -“

“Redeem ourselves,” Revayn finished.

“Rebuild,” was the word Hollican chose.

“Ameryl is lost to us.”

“Nevertheless, we will do what we can.”

“So few of us remain.”

“We will do what we can.”

Revayn was quiet for a long time, unmoving. His fingers tightened and relaxed around the makeshift dagger, his expression a war of indecision. “We will do what we can.” The words lacked conviction, but as Revayn said them, he let the sliver of marble fall from his hand. It made a tiny splash as it plunged back into the murky waters where he had found it, sinking quickly beyond sight.

* * * * *

Where the god had fallen, the earth had died.

Surrounded by the seared corpses of its honour guard, the god lay submerged in its own black blood, the air shivering around it. Deep gouges ran the length of its immense form, claw-like wounds inflicted by Ameryl; wounds that were beyond its power to heal. Vast flocks of carrion birds wheeled through the ash overhead, eager to feast on the flesh of man and deity alike, but none approached.

The god lived…