Friday, April 17, 2015

Fireside Chat with Kovaks

The return of spring is a glorious thing.  Any part of it is worth reveling in.  The soft rain, the first few frogs venturing out to sing, the brave bulbs forcing themselves out.  Even the mud.  
The ride to Chimeron, Griffindor specifically, was really a delight.  What I really enjoyed was time to sit and chat with someone I am very fond of, Kovaks.  She is a hard worker who asks for little in return.  She will give you the shirt from her back, and laugh while she does it.  Here are a few things for you to learn about how she sees the world.  Some of you would do well to learn a new perspective.

Tell me a funny story about your fellow members of Griffindor.
It is so infrequent that we are all in the same place actually questing together, partly because we have such different interests and schedules, and partly because people keep wandering off and getting distracted by shiny objects.Quinn is notorious for this. I kept threatening to put him on a leash on quests so he couldn't wander off, but people started giggling about tying him up, and I had to explain the humor to Lord Tara. It was just awkward all around.

Kovaks, what do you do on a normal, non adventuring day?
 All of my free time in the past year was spent rebuilding Chimeron. Before I was an adventurer, I was trained as a stonemason so I've been using that skillset to rebuild the city, roads, and walls of the nation. Now that's about done, I've been rebuilding my own house.  I make armor and do other odd jobs to pay the bills. When all that's done, I spend my free time reading, writing, and hanging around taverns collecting and sharing stories. Some of this is for work since I'm Chimeron's Court Chronicler, but some is just for my own amusement and relaxation. A cup of tea, a warm fire, and sharing stories until everyone falls asleep in their chair. That's my idea of a perfect evening.

 What is your favorite dish at feasts?
 Chimeron Beef. Eaten off the end of a knife.  (here I chided her about propriety, as I personally prefer to eat with my hands.)
   Look, I have short arms.  I need the knife to get the meat off the plate in the middle of the table.
Besides. If someone tries to take the meat, I'm already armed,
(And this is when I learned a new perspective on Feasting.  If nothing else, Kovaks is incredibly pragmatic.)  

Tell me who you are squired to and in what order. 
I'm squired to Sir Baron Diamond of Banecroft, Knight of the Sable Dragon. I take tasks and direction from all of the knights of the order. 

 Tell the Realms about the tenants of that Order.
Tenets of the order are: Protect the Realms, Serve as an exemplar of honor, Maintain diversity within the order, and Train inexperienced adventurers.

In your mind, what does it mean to be a squire?
For me, being a squire is all about learning. Learning from my knight, learning from other knights, learning what I need to learn, learning about myself and learning from myself; guided self-discovery might be a good way to describe it. I've learned some from the tasks I was given, but also from the tasks I assigned myself. Of course there was also learning from my mistakes. I remember I wrote a whole article about learning from my mistakes as part of my squireship. I think I have a copy of it around here... somewhere.

What types of tasks have you had to tackle?
My first assigned tasks were very academic. I had to read a few books and then write book reports about them. My favorite of these was The Armored Rose by Tobi Beck. A fantastic book for any female fighters or people who work with them. Since then my tasks were more hands-on. I had to learn how to make weapons using different techniques, repair armor. 
The hardest task I completed was being a general for a war tournament. I did it by being general for Team Tara at Queen of Hearts, and I learned that I didn't like it.
I'm much more suited as a senechal or castilian. Recently, as part of a task, I led a group of adventurers against a man who was stealing magical capability from babies, rendering them incapable of ever learning magic in the future. He's now dead, and I checked two tasks of my list: figure out what was going on with the magic in these babies, and destroy a threat to the Realms. 
The task I'm currently working on is to gather a large sum of gold to show. Donations gladly accepted.

You find the magic lamp that gives you one wish.  No demon speaking, no terrible repercussions.  Just a  simple, happy inducing wish.  What is yours?
 Wow. This question's really hard.  Can I give it to someone else?  (No, it is only for you.  You can make a wish benefiting someone else, if you like)
I wish for Darkvale to be returned to Chimeron control with the souls of the innocents that were lost in the war against the Disciple either returned or at eternal peace.

Im not going to take you step by step as I saw Kovaks weigh everything through her head.  One thing I am certain of, though, is that at no point did she consider doing something for herself.  She didn't think about what she could do with a million gold, (unless it was to spend on others).  She didn't think about an object of power to rule the world (but seriously, that sounds hard, and very tiring)  The answers Kovaks gave are all true to herself.  

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Worth Dying For, Part 3 by David Hayden

On came the goblins, carefully picking through the rubble, wary of potential traps, wary of her springing out at them. Through a break in the rubble she watched them; their eyes seemed to glimmer with malice, although she knew it was just the reflected light from her fire.  Forward they crept, cautiously and in a surprisingly tactical fashion, two carrying shields in the front, a third with a spear behind them. She realized they still thought she had a bow to shoot at them, and had learned to give the weapon the respect it was due. But she did not, and that would make her task all that much harder.

A scrabbling sound behind her drew her attention away from the tunnel. She turned and was startled to see a goblin halfway through the vine-covered window. It took just three strides to cross the room, her spear extended. Her prey noticed her just moments before her blade plunged deep into its arm. The goblin squealed in pain, ineffectively flailing about with its dagger while trying to retreat. She stabbed a second time and was poised for a third when she heard a triumphant cry from the front of the room and turned to see the goblin shieldmen stepping over the joist that was to have been her choke point. They had used the one climbing through the window as bait, although it seemed unlikely the injured creature was aware of that role given how that encounter had unfolded.  She had not expected that level of cunning from such low creatures and swore at her own arrogance for thinking so.

Their elation was short-lived, however, as their movement brought them in contact with several ropes that Niobe had tied across the opening and dulled with mud. Ropes that were anchored to the joist on one end, and the now cold remains of their eager comrade on the other. It had taken a great deal of effort to hoist the body onto the set of spikes she had driven in above the opening, and she bore more than fair amount of pain in the process. But it was totally worth every bit of suffering as the momentum of the two lead goblins brought the corpse down on top of them.

Niobe sprang into action as the pair went down in a heap, screeching in terror of the unknown assailant. The confused look on the face of the spearmen behind them quickly turned to dismay as she caught the now blazing log with the toe of her boot and launched it into the creature’s face. It dropped the spear to try and catch the flaming mass hurtling towards its face, and howled as the flesh was seared from its hands when it did. Niobe stabbed the creature in the throat.

She had no time to see if her thrust had been fatal as there were two enraged goblins at her feet. Their half-hearted sword swings posed little threat as their main focus was getting out from under their comrade’s corpse. She slashed and cut, delivering minor wounds, but quickly found her senses overwhelmed.

Behind her, the goblins she had stabbed before was back at the window, struggling to get through with murder it its eyes.

Above her, the sharp edge of an axe bit into the sagging wood as one of the monsters tried to hack its way in from above.

In front of her, the burnt goblin fell over dead, his face twisted in a combination of agony and confusion. But behind it came the last two goblins, including one that was clearly the leader. It wore a shirt of rough armor, mismatched pieces of metal attached in all manner of ways. On its head rested a dented helm, a scratched shield was strapped to one arm. Of all the weapons the entire motley troop of goblins had carried, its polished longsword was the only one a trained soldier would have been willing to wield.  In another place, the garish combination would have been comical. But here, now, there was nothing remotely amusing about it.
One of the shieldbearers had worked itself free and stood with a growl. She kicked it in the face and felt the satisfying crunch of cartilage giving beneath her boot. The creature yelped in pain, fell backward, and landed on some of her makeshift caltrops, and yelped again. She slashed at the other shieldman, any semblance of finesse or technique lost in the melee, desperate to slay it before the remaining goblins arrived.

The longsword sliced through the air, sundering her bow just below the blade she had tied on. And the one advantage of reach she had was gone.

She stepped back, her eyes frantically searching for a weapon, a way out, anything.

At the window, the frustrated goblin shouted threats in its foul tongue as it hacked at the stiff vines that kept it from climbing through.

On the roof, the would-be lumberjack hewed merrily away, with more vigor than any goblin had ever put toward a task that could be considered work, apparently oblivious to the impact to itself that success in cutting a hole would have, so eager was it to reach her.

Niobe drew her remaining knife, put her back against the wall, and prepared to sell her life as dearly as she could.

The shieldman whose face she had ruined with the flurry from her spear earlier circled unsteadily to her left around the pillar, the one obstacle which remained between Niobe and the goblins. The leader with his bright sword and the other unscathed goblin who wielded a pair of curved daggers moved to the right. Behind them, the second shieldman with the broken nose and two arrowheads embedded in its back finally managed to stand upright.

Above her, the ax-wielding maniac had widened a hole enough to stick its head in and snarl at her before returning to the task with vigor.

The window goblin was still being outsmarted by vines and furious for it.

The armored goblin with the bright sword pointed to her wound leg and spoke in its guttural tongue. She didn’t know the specific meaning of the words, having refused to learn the foul language out of deference to her father, but she understood enough to infer its meaning, and replied with some choice orcish curses her husband had taught her. It clearly understood her reply and with an angry growl, advanced.

The moment froze around her, and in her mind’s eye, she was back at home, a young girl wrapped deep in a blanket to ward off the brisk night wind, her father’s melodious voice echoing from the next room as he sang her to sleep.

And there, amidst the certainty of pain and death, with a child’s lullaby echoing in her ears, Niobe
found tranquility.

Just as suddenly, she was back in the ruins, surrounded by enemies eager to rend her flesh.

With peace in her heart, Niobe charged at the goblins, a most unexpected course of action and one that made her foes hesitate in a moment of confusion. That moment was all she needed as she sprang to the side at the last second, lashing out with her knee, driving it into a startled goblin’s temple. The creature dropped like a stone, as Niobe landed hard beside its corpse.

The remaining goblins quickly recovered and moved to block her escape, mistaking her actions as an attempt to flee.

Above, another board splintered under the axe-wielding assault of the goblin on the roof.

An unintelligible sound that could have been either a sign of progress or admission of defeat came from the window.

The concept of self-sacrifice is simply incomprehensible to goblinkind – it is one of the reasons they will always be a lesser race. Pulling a mate in front of you to block a hail of arrows? That sort of sacrificing comes as second nature to them. But the idea of risking injury or death solely for the benefit of others, that is so foreign a course of action that it may as well be some ancient form of magic.

Thus the completely baffled expression that the remaining goblins wore as Niobe unleashed a thunderous kick not at another of their number, but at the stout wooden column was understandable. A second kick did nothing to alleviate their confusion, but the resounding crack that followed did.

Looks of bewilderment turned to horror and then panic as their instinct for self-preservation overrode any sense of tactics and what little common sense they may have had. Two of the goblins surged forward to stop Niobe, who was shaking off the waves of agony her efforts had made course through her leg. 

Unfortunately for them, their two companions had decided that flight offered a better chance of survival, and the lot of them went down in a tangle of flailing limbs as the two groups, both intent on their individual goals, collided violently.

Niobe drew a deep breath, perhaps the deepest she ever had, although the clarity of certain annihilation tends to magnify everything one experiences. It isn’t that a mortal’s life actually “flashes” before their eyes on that final threshold – the synapses that hold individual memories are constantly firing. It’s just that we are usually too busy or distracted to notice. But in that moment, as Death’s embrace envelopes us, we are granted the priceless gift of focus, and those things that truly matter stand out from all of the static of mundane thoughts.

Niobe’s last thoughts were of her father, and a thousand memories they had shared. Of every hope realized and every nightmare vanquished. Of every rise and setting of the sun she had been blessed to witness. 

And of her daughter, from her first stirrings in the womb to her wailing declaration to the world that she had arrived. To every smile that had passed between them, every embrace shared, every tear wiped away, every night tucked in a blanket of pleasant dreams with elfsong lulling her to sleep.

And these memories brought her peace and joy, and that peace and joy blocked out the pain long enough for Niobe to drive her foot through the pillar with one final thrust.

The goblins, along with time itself, froze in that brief instant when the weakened wood gave way to her boot. Splinters of oak hung in the air. Sound ceased, as if the very waves that carried noise had witnessed her last act and were struck dumb in awe.

Above her, the rusted axe of a determined goblin was in mid-swing, its wielder blissfully oblivious to what had just happened below and enraptured how much more gleefully destructive the axe was when used against dead wood.

At the window, the frustrated goblin looked up with triumph in its eyes as it tore finally free of the vine on which its belt had been caught.

And on the floor in front of her, four goblins clutched at each other, not in some expression of solidarity in the face of a common horrible fate or even pure, simple terror, but in an effort to push their kin aside to try and save their own miserable lives.

Then the ruined inn, along with their entire world, came crashing down.

Belts of the Eternal Flame - One Last Thing

Who Are the Knights of the Eternal Flame?

 By Mike "Sir Panther" Palumbo

The KoEF recently adopted a mission statement:

An organization comprised of Knights that believe in the continued betterment of the Realms community, and recognizing individuals that embody this.

But who are these knights and what does this mean? The Knights of the Eternal Flame is an OOC/IC order started when the creator of the realms identified some outstanding role models who helped him create the game world we play in. It has withstood the rise and fall of empires, the ebb and flow of the ever-changing rule systems, and the secession and subsequent reunification with the Knight of the Realms.

If the EHC is about the rules of the realms, the KoEF is about its soul. The KoEF was founded to be a collection of role models. Every other realms organization falls in line with its commonalities. Event Holders are game masters. Nations are about a shtick, style, or philosophy. Guilds are about a school of practice. Only the KoEF collect the best of them all and puts them in the same room despite their differences. Hell, it celebrates their differences. Nowhere else in the realms is there a more diverse and varied group of leaders, with a simple common goal: Be the best role-model.

Keeping true to our one tenet, to thine own self be true, we've amassed people who bring their A-game to the realms in ways that are hard to quantify. We have people who are outstanding at certain character types, bringing richness and style to our game world. We have knights who have been groundbreakers in female combat and weapon making, serving as role-models for all women in our game. There are great questers and great fighters; people who throw events, and people who take whatever time they have and devote it to marshalling and NPCing. We have people who revolutionized our quality of fighting and elevated the tournament structure such that old retired fighters want to come and compete again. And we have people here who have brought mentoring and recruiting to a level we haven't seen since the days of Queen Meg. And when we recognize these people, and award them this belt, newer players see that and they know: this is the path. It's not a clear one, it never has been, but it's clear to us when we see it in them. It's about bringing your best to the table.

That's what KoEF is.

So whether a knight recently earned their belt and looks forward to a future of great contributions, or they earned it years ago with great contributions that brought us to this moment, their impact has forever changed the realms for the better. The flame is carried and passed on, and burns eternally bright.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Worth Dying For, Part 2 by David Hayden

Niobe was struggling back down the slope when she spotted it. In the distance, wrapped in twilight shadows, stood the ruin she had passed just a few hours before. Like most who felt at home it the wild, she disliked the confinement which most structures offered. She found none of the comfort that many creatures did in fortifications; they seemed as much a cage for those who sought protection as a deterrent to those from whom the protection was needed.
But the light was fading, a fitting backdrop for her current circumstance, and the ruins likely offered her the greatest chance to dispatch as many of the goblins as she could. And so she headed toward it.
Judging by the undecipherable sign that hung loosely from a broken pole, the ruined building must have been an inn back when the now overgrown track that ran beside it was still used. The entire roof had collapsed onto the second floor, much of which has subsequently collapsed onto the first, but the center of the inn still stood. The place was dank and foreboding, cave-like without Nature’s comforting touch. No animal denned here - the parts that hadn’t collapsed seemed as if any moment they might, and the forest creatures instinctively understood the danger.

She circled the building with a critical eye. There were but two entrances; a vine-covered window, and a narrow gap between two fallen timbers that led to what little open space remained inside. Niobe peered into the darkness and couldn’t help but think that it most resembled a tomb. She chuckled at the thought, the irony not lost on her.

A cry from the hill behind her interrupted her assessment. Spying the goblin that stood on the crest, and knowing by its not unexpectedly unsubtle manner that it had seen her too, she turned and crawled into the gloom.

Niobe twisted through the tangle of boards fallen from the ceiling and general debris. She noted the holes in the floor, most likely leading to a root cellar or storage below. Lighter than she and unarmored as well, the goblins were even less likely to break through the rotted wood. If only she had more time, fashioning a deadly pitfall would have been an easy task. But time was not a resource she could not claim. Nor was a working bow.

She climbed over a collapsed joist, taller than the length of her dagger.  Though far from spacious, there was space beyond. A massive pillar, as wide and deep as the joist, loomed before her, the pocket around the post accounting for most of the interior that remained passable. The worms and the wet had both weakened it though, and it bowed under the weight of the rafters and the debris they held.

The window she had spotted from the outside was just beyond the clearing around the pillar, across a pile of rubble laced with sinister weeds.  With a warrior’s eye she surveyed every aspect of the interior, looking for any advantage she could find. The hooting that announced that at least some of her tormentors had arrived did not distract her – they would be hesitant to enter, given her previous traps that had claimed several of their kin, and the fact that they did not know the condition of her bow. No, she had a bit more time before the creatures worked up the courage to come in after her. Time she would use wisely. Content that she had gleaned every potential advantage her environment might offer, Niobe set to work.

She drew a long knife and cut the string quickly, before she could change her mind. She lashed the knife to the end of the bow, her nimble fingers threading the strands quickly. Testing the makeshift spear, she found it wanting, but she also knew she did not have the resources to make a proper weapon or the luxury to be a perfectionist. She drew forth her last bandage and considered it, acknowledging that there was little chance she would have the opportunity to use it as intended, to heal. Her jaw set with sober purpose as she tied the linen tight around the bowstring, hoping the extra support would be enough. The weapon was crude, even by the measure of goblins, but it gave her the advantage of reach, which combined with the narrow confines of the ruins she now occupied, would help even the odds a little.

That done she made her way to the massive joist, and quickly cleared the rubble from the floor directly behind it. Drawing her half-dozen remaining arrows, she snapped the shafts just below the heads, wincing, in actual pain as she broke each one. Steeling herself again, she embedded each arrow head into the rotting boards and refuse behind her. Much inferior to those cast from steel by talented blacksmiths, her coarse attempts at caltrops would have to do.
She tested her escape route; stepping gingerly for she knew that although the floor looked mostly solid, dry rot and burrowing insects might have eaten it from within. There were a few spots where the wood gave way, but there seemed to be solid ground beneath in what had likely been the inn’s center. She stomped a few places to weaken them further – even without a room below to fall into as there was at the entrance, an oblivious enemy might snap an ankle or impale themselves on the jagged wood.

She memorized the route that would take her to the window, and the slim chance it offered her of every leaving this crypt of her own making. Each step would need to be exact to avoid the snares and obstacles she had arranged in the hopes the goblins continued to be blind in their fury. With nothing more to do, she lowered herself down behind the joist to wait.

It seemed like the goblins argued for hours, although she suspected her sense of time had gone awry some time ago.  Finally the shouting stopped, and their voices dropped to whispers. Whispers she could still clearly hear, but their failed efforts to be unheard were enough indication of what was to come. Recognizing the intimate nature the immediate future held for her, Niobe noiselessly slid her remaining knife from its sheath. The spear would not be of use yet.

Moments trickled by, but she kept still and listened. Her patience was soon rewarded with the scrap of a booted foot against a stone. Despite having put more effort into moving stealthily than it had ever put into doing anything in its short, miserable life before, the “volunteer” scout might have been wearing spurs given the racket it made. Her hunter’s senses understood where her quarry was, and where its next step, and the one after that, would be. And soon, the creature put one hand on the joist, and, oblivious to her presence below, climbed over.

Niobe was on it with a snarl, her long knife slicing into and across its stomach as it raised its hands in a startled effort to defend itself. Warm entrails tumbled over her hand, and she fought back a wave of revulsion as she stepped back. The goblin dropped its sword and clutched its stomach with both hands, as though it could somehow pull the gaping wound shut, looked at her with utter disbelief, and fell to its knees, whimpering as its blood drenched the soil. Niobe drove her blade through the back of its neck, severing the vertebrae just to make sure it was dead. She had seen more than a few warriors dragged down by foes they had thought slain, and was determined no such mistake would be her undoing.

A short distance back towards the entrance stood a second goblin, horror etched across its face at the slaughter it had just witnessed. It turned and fled, shrieking in fear, before she could reach down for her spear.  

Niobe felt some small measure of satisfaction, but was well aware the respite was likely to be brief. She ducked out of site and crawled to the other side of the tunnel, crouching in wait amidst the collapsed timbers.
Through the cracks in the ceiling she could tell the light had retreated from the sky. She was not particularly surprised that the remaining goblins had waiting for darkness to settle before returning to the ruins. At least one clambered about on what served as the roof, pulling at loose boards, trying to find a way in. She thought the little bastard might bring the whole building down on her at any moment, and in thinking that realized, wryly, that would certainly remove any threat of them torturing Moonwind’s location from her. Still, she decided she would much rather avoid such a fate if possible. With her makeshift spear in hand, she moved stealthily beneath the goblin, and when she spotted the shape of a boot through one of the small holes in the ceiling, she stabbed it. The sharp blade cut through the thick leather sole with ease and the goblin wailed before hopping away. The loud crash that followed made her wonder if it had fallen off the roof entirely. Perhaps it had broken its neck in the fall. The thought warmed her.

She realized that she was shivering. The mild autumn day had given way to the evening’s chill, and she had neither a cloak nor mantle to keep her warm. Outside, the goblins waited. She could hear them squabbling and moving about. None of them were brave enough to be the first to venture in, but eventually they would work up the nerve and come in as a wave. Such was the strength of the optimism driven by their lack of intellect – as long as they had an enemy outnumbered, each one expected that it would be some other goblin that died horribly.

She shuddered again, quietly cursing her lack of a cloak to ward off the cold. The thought struck a chord – there was no reason she needed to freeze while they marshaled their courage. She knew they saw much better in the darkness than she did, even with her father’s elven blood. A fire would give her warmth, and possibly another weapon, and the ruins around her held the damp enough that there was no concern about them catching.

The arrow shafts in her quiver had been carefully crafted by her own skilled hands. They deserved a better fate than to become kindling, but what one deserved and what fate delivered did not always agree. She broke them further, to give the flames an easier purchase, and then pulled out her tinderbox. A few minutes later she has a small, smoky fire, hardly ideal for the brisk autumn evening, but it was something. The light it cast was feeble but gave her a chance to look around for other potential fuel.

The fire had a much greater effect on the goblins than she had anticipated. Just a short while after she had managed to build it to a respectable flame, she could hear them arguing again, their grunts and curses more heated than before.  The prospect of sitting miserably in the cold while she warmed herself was clearly too much for them to bear. They would come soon.
She stood, stretched away the stiffness that being still had brought, and checked her surroundings again, to ensure everything was as it should be. The pain in her leg had turned into a deep, dull throb. She had not bothered to tear off more of her shirt to replace the dressing, which had turned ruddy brown hours ago as the older blood had dried. She knew such poor hygiene was an invitation to infection, but couldn’t get past her more pressing concerns to care. From the entrance to the tunnel to her new lair, the cacophony of goblins trying to be quiet assaulted her ears. She threw the driest piece of timber she had found and saved for this moment on the fire, and the flames responded. Moving to the alcove beside the tunnel entrance, she readied her spear.

Where are they now?- Jeff "Hibiki" Madison-Sweeney

Jeff “Hibiki” Madison-Sweeney was involved in realms between1995-2006. He was the Governor of Yoma (the chief rice producer of the Borderlands), at the time that the Borderlands was part of the Empire.

On an out of character level he mentions that he, “Co-ran 3 "Festival of Yoma" events, and survived the weather for all three (there was a legendary storm for at least one year of it), He adds, “I'd like to thank the whole event that huddled in the apartment attached to Andy's and left me out in the cold to freeze without inviting me inside while the ground was covered in frost for Yoma 2. I'm still not bitter.”

He also ran the "Race War" event, which got boycotted by about 3/4 of the eventing public (it was slated to pit humans vs. elves vs. any other races that showed up and was boycotted due to in character protests against racism.

Other things he wanted to share include, “I'd like to apologize to Bebin for hitting on her without knowing she had an assassination bounty on her by the Empire and she didn't know I was part of The Empire. I'd like to thank Folkstone for running my first event, "Death Bunnies II" for forging my character into the running screaming coward I was always known for.”
He currently lives in South Hadley Falls, Massachusetts and is single, childless, and dating with no luck (let me know if you’d like his contact information ;)) He works as a Comcast, Cable Technical Repair (“no I can't lower your bill, no I don't deal with internet”) and his out of character interests are Anime, conventions, miniature gaming, cosplay, comics, Chinese high school AU Dramatizations of “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, role play games, Tumblr.... and general geekiness.
He says it is unlikely that he’ll be back to visit. “The game went from a fun to having to be a huge part of your life in order to play; not willing to let it consume me that much to be effective when there are other things I can get equal enjoyment from.”
In closing he said, “To all those nameless people who I did not know that I assassinated because of some minor or imagined slight, I am not sorry. To Goju, I hope one day you forgive us, and when you drink Blackberry Brandy you think of that night with fondness. To The Borderlands and The Empire, I'm sorry I let you all down”.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Worth Dying For, Part 1

Worth Dying For
David Hayden
Niobe sprinted through the autumn wood with a grace that would have turned all but the most agile woodland creatures the color of pine with envy. Not far behind her were a dozen furious goblins, incensed at both the ranger’s tricks and how she continued to elude them. She deftly avoided the rotted stumps, gnarled roots and briars that made the footing so treacherous. It was not by accident that she had chosen this path, and her cunning was rewarded by successive shrieks of pain and frustration as her pursuers kept confirming her expectation that they were neither as nimble nor as adept as she in navigating the deep woods.

Normally the howls of frustrated goblins would have been reason enough for at least some grim satisfaction given how much she despised the creatures; but not now, not today. Not when her purpose was so critical, not when those howls so close. Not given the agony blazing through her calves and the pain that lanced through her wounded shoulder every time she fired her bow. These goblins had shown a tenacity she had not seen before from such creatures, as if they were on a mission.
Which they happened to be, but goblins and determination were not words she would have normally associated. Regardless of the potential gain, the creatures tended to be thoroughly lazy and self-serving, well-skilled at avoiding anything that even hinted at the potential of hard work. But determined they were. She had killed or incapacitated more than half their numbers, a full dozen at through the long day. Yet they showed no sign of giving up their dogged, if clumsy, pursuit as the shadows grew long in the waning daylight.
Convinced she knew where their true quarry was, they had chased her with a fanatical intensity that had frankly surprised her. But that alone was of little concern - indeed her entire purpose in the series of ambushes she had executed on the wretched band, the traps and pitfalls she had led them into time and time again, had been to get them to chase her, that she might lead them away from her vulnerable friend. And, she had to admit with a mix of satisfaction and trepidation; her efforts had certainly worked, perhaps too well.

A crude arrow fletched with crow feathers clattered off a tree to her left.  The noise was as sharp a reminder as the burning wound in her shoulder that even with their abysmal aim and primitive weapons, the goblins were still dangerous.

Niobe ducked around the next tree, drawing and releasing an arrow in one fluid motion. One of the goblins was torn from its feet and thrown through the air, the green and red fletching the only part of her arrow that was still visible. She was off and running before the corpse hit the ground, but still heard the embedded arrow snap underneath the dead goblin's weight. Cursing inwardly she drew another arrow from her quiver, her nimble fingers confirming what she already knew – she had just eight arrows left, and at least eleven goblins, howling mad and still after her. Her and the knowledge of where Moonwind and her child were resting safely. Knowledge they would no doubt try to wrest from her with cruel knives and flame, with their natural if twisted inclination for inflicting pain.
Driven by purpose, Niobe ran on.
She passed the foreboding remains of a building in full stride. It stood out starkly against the rest of the wood, despite the forest’s effort to reclaim it. She noted its location, both as a landmark to help keep her bearings and as another potential trap to lure the goblins into. The dull burning in her thighs had turned sharp and blood flowed freely from the wound on her shoulder. She paused to catch her breath, eyes flickering across the tree line for any sign of an enemy. She could hear them well-enough – that was one blessing at least, they were too stupid or undisciplined to keep quiet. But by their noise she could tell they were having trouble deciphering the latest mystery of a trail she had left for them.
Satisfied that there was no immediate danger, she dropped to one knee, placed her bow on the ground, and reached into a pouch on her belt. She drew forth linen bandage, soaked in a heady paste of herbs and strong wine, and tied it tightly around her shoulder with strong teeth and deft fingers. Thin but deep, the wound would likely continue to bleed as she continued to use the arm, but the bandage should help stem the flow at least. There was nothing else that could be done.
Her injury attended to, she picked up her bow and began to run again, away from the path she’d previously taken, long loping strides covering ground while conserving energy. Perhaps if she moved quickly enough, she could outflank her pursuers.
Sprinting in a straight line, a tactic she had explicitly avoided throughout the chase, she soon found herself on more solid ground. A quick survey of the landscape revealed a rocky slope ahead, which she suspected would give her an excellent view of the woods below. The woods the goblins were advancing through.
Niobe ran as fast as she had all day, eager to seize the opportunity, eager to try and balance the odds more to her favor.

Soon she was crouched behind the ridge, with a clear vision of the hollow below. A group of five of the goblins was spread out searching for her amongst the tangled brush. She could hear several others arguing a few hundred feet back.
She sighted the goblin that was the in the middle of the hollow; it was still well within the range of her powerful bow and dropping that one would cause sufficient confusion about where she was to let her sneak away again. A devious grin crossed her lips as she sought to calm her breathing for the shot.
Hot waves of agony shot through Niobe as a crude arrow sliced through her leg, just above the knee. She released the bowstring in surprise and her arrow flew wide of the mark, forever lost amongst the brambles. She tried to stand, stumbling and off balance, startled and in pain, to face the unexpected threat.
A squat goblin, its foul features even more distorted by the proud grin its jagged yellow teeth formed, was just twenty feet from her. It pulled another arrow from a ragged quiver, concentrating to try and fit it onto the bow. Even distracted by the pain and balancing on one leg, Niobe didn’t need anywhere near that much time to string a single arrow. She drew one from her quiver, strung it, and let fly in one fluid motion. She felt some satisfaction as the missile pierced through her attacker’s shoulder, pinning the shocked goblin to the tree. It pulled weakly at the protruding shaft, its strength gone as black blood poured from the wound. Niobe notched another arrow and tried to regain her focus.

Around a tree to Niobe’s left charged a second goblin with a patchwork shield and a jagged spear extended to impale her. She was unsure of whether the screech it issued forth was supposed to be a challenge or a cry of triumph at locating her – goblins were just noisy creatures and their noises were all blurring together for her. Niobe waited until it was just a few strides away before she exploded into action. She batted the spear’s tip up and dropped to her knees, drawing forth one of her long knives as she went. The surprised goblin pitched over her suddenly low form.
The collision of its head against the dense forest floor stunned the creature, and a quick slash of Niobe's knife ended its life.
Still kneeling, she slashed at the hem of her tunic, quickly cutting a strip of the linen to bandage her wound. She tied it as tight as she could without cutting off the circulation, but knew it would continue to bleed. It was too deep, and she did not have the time to properly treat it. Just nine goblins remained, but from the angry cries she heard from the woods below, she did not doubt they would continue to chase her, and the blood trail she was going to leave would make hiding her trail any easier.
With no other options, Niobe forced herself to stand. She tried to limp away, but the injured leg betrayed her after just a few steps. Anguish washed over her and she collapsed to one knee. A burning cold pierced her stomach, not another arrow, but rather the loss of hope, as tangible as if it had spilled out of her wound and joined with the lifeblood running down her leg. She climbed over the great trunk of a fallen tree, gasping in pain, for air that would not come. Despair engulfed her – she had failed.
In that instant she almost did. Distracted by her grief, she did not react to the snapping twig to her right with the speed of the seasoned warrior she was. Niobe barely managed to bring her bow up between herself and the rusty blade swung by the goblin that bore down on her. There was a sickening crunch, and though the ebonwood held, she knew the bow was ruined. Her bow. Her father's before her. The bow that had been wielded by one of her blood for fully ninety years. And now, because of a moment's lapse in discipline, it would never shoot again.  
  Rage drove Niobe's swing. Rage augmented by purpose and years of training, but mostly blind, furious rage. The heavy limb struck the goblin's forearm, and it shrieked in pain. Bones gave way to the dense wood and the crude sword dropped to the ground as the creature dropped to its knees clutching the shattered limb arm. The shrieking ceased as Niobe's return swing caught the stunned goblin underneath its jaw, the force of the blow lifting it bodily from the ground. The goblin fell, twisting awkwardly, and lay still amongst the leaves.
A second goblin charged her from the left, a rusted ax brandished above its head. Niobe dropped to one knee and thrust the end of her bow hard into its gut. The creature stumbled backward, falling, arm flailing as it sought a hold but found none. Niobe was upon it, snarling, before it even hit the ground. Her long knife hissed from its sheath and slashed across the goblin's throat in one swift, primal stroke. A look of confusion crossed the creature’s face for the briefest of moments before the light fled from its eyes.
With the immediate threat removed, the reality of the situation dawned on her. Deprived of her deadliest weapon, she had little chance against the more than half-dozen foes that remained.

Tears flowed freely as she stood, more out of anger and grief than the pain. There were seven goblins left. Seven were too many. Normally Moonwind would have crushed such vermin without a second though. But still weak from the birthing, such a feat was beyond her. It had fallen to Niobe to drive the foul creatures off, or lead them away. The outcome of their cruel hunt was in her hands, and her weakness had doomed a dear friend. She staggered away, adrenaline coursing through her veins once again, barely aware of the moss beneath her boots or the branches that scratched her face, the pain locked in a far corner of her mind.
A short while later Niobe ducked behind a cluster of oaks, listening for the sounds of pursuit. The angry back-and-forth seemed distant enough that she dared to peek out from behind the tree to confirm no foe was stealthily approaching. As she should have been doing all along.  Convinced that she had bought herself a brief respite by doubling back across a shallow stream, she tore open her healer’s kit to deal with the fresh wound on her leg.
There was no time to be delicate about it, so she just cut off the drenched bandage and tore the blood-soaked leg of her breeches off just below the wound. Mercifully, the sharp edge of the goblin’s arrowhead had just grazed her; she shuddered at the thought of the difference the width of a finger would have made. The cut was still deep though, too deep to just bind it. Blood trickled from the wound with each beat of her heart.

She pulled a small leather pouch from her kit, opened it, and poured the fine powder within onto the wound. Pain struck her like an angry bull, her senses reeling from the self-inflicted trauma. There really was no way to properly prepare oneself for the shock of the chitosan salts; the more grievous the wound, the stronger the reaction would be. She clenched her eyes shut against it, the inside of her lids intensely bright as her brain translated the sharp, stabbing waves of pain into colors.  

The pain ebbed slowly. How long it took before she was able to open her eyes, she was unsure. Instinctively, for her mind was still reduced to operating on the most primal level, she took a thick bandage from her bag and began to wrap the wound. The wound which, angry and crusted with dried blood, no longer wept in time with her pulse.  It would still bleed, but not as greatly as before.

As the pain diminished and the adrenaline flowed through her, Niobe shook off the hazy sensation. She had no time to go into shock. She stood, tentatively, and was relieved to find she could at least put weight on her leg again. Knowing that every moment she was not moving brought her enemies closer, she hobbled off.

It wasn’t long before she heard the goblins shouting again. She had managed to move fairly quickly given her injury, and was using the terrain to frustrate their tracking efforts, but it was only a matter of time until they inevitably caught her. She tried to increase the pace at which she hobbled, but only managed a short distance before the limitations of her injury became clear. She paused a moment to consider her very limited options.

Her hand fell to the pendant at her neck, as it often did of its own accord when she was troubled.  A simple bit of horn, it was one of her most treasured possessions, a gift from the friend she now struggled to protect. Many precious memories were associated with that pendant and that friend, the most cherished of which was the memory of her own daughter’s birth. Her eyes grew damp at the thought of her only child, that it was very likely she would never see her again. She bit down on her lip, focusing on the discomfort to keep her mind from plummeting into the depths of emotions that dwelled within.  
She breathed deeply, taking in all of the smells of the forest that gave her so much joy to simply walk in. Her eyes closed gently as she basked in the glory of the crisp autumn air, the scent of the fir and spruce, and the rough smell of the earth.  Her eyes opened, cleared of sorrow, and she took in the sights of the wood as well.
One who was unfamiliar with the wilds would not likely have found the beauty in this place that Niobe did. This was no picturesque glade where moonlight reflected off a crystal clear murmuring brook, or a pristine mountain vale with a breathtaking view. The image of this random part of the forest in which she had happened to stop would never grace a castle wall in the form of a tapestry; it was simply too raw for the average mortal to appreciate.

There was an oak, old and sickly, with splintered limbs amongst the stand of hearty birch. It was a question of how long and not whether the wind would bring it down and the worms would turn it to rot. The once mighty tree would one day be returned to the soil from which it sprouted.

And there further to her left, lay the remnants of the trunk of another tree, massive but decayed beyond recognition as any particular species. But even there amongst the eroded remains, there was life. Not just surviving despite a foundation devoid of life, but propagated by it. Along the entire length, mushrooms and moss flourished. The roots of plants, and indeed the tiniest of trees, had bored their way into the carcass of soft wood.  Niobe felt the presence of life all around her. She was acutely aware of the perspective she had been granted. And she understood the path that lay before her.
Despair had descended on her like a wolf spying what seemed like a vulnerable fawn, had been confronted by the great host of strength within her, and had decided to move on to less challenging prey. This one would be nothing but trouble.

Using her ruined bow for support, she limped off with grim determination to find a place to make her final stand.She did not have to travel far before she found it.