In Part 1 of Keet’s Corner (here) we talked about how Keet mechanically affects the game and why we were so excited to bring him to the Red Dragon Inn. This week, we’re going to be diving head-first into all of the thematic design elements for this character. Welcome to Keet’s Corner Part 2: Look and Feel.
One of the guiding principles for every RDI character is that their deck needs to tell a story. We have three opportunities to tell players about the character they are playing:
The Card Titles: We try our best to have characters tell their own story. That’s why most of the card titles are quotes. We want players to know how their character talks and engages the rest of the party. Arguably, our most successful use of card titles is shown off with Gog, who doesn’t use many pronouns and yells a lot. Many newcomers sit down with us for a demo of RDI 2 and immediately start acting like Gog, shouting out their card titles and referring to themselves as “Gog” rather than “I” or “me”. This ends up drawing laughs from everyone at the table, and is just a great deal of fun.
The Art: Perhaps the most important storytelling opportunity we have is with the art. This is our chance to really show off the character’s body language and facial expressions, and is a great chance to include a visual gag. We have had a lot of success here in the past – for example, the one-two punch of title and artwork in Gerki’s “Where’d the little guy go?”
The artwork becomes even more important when we use a phrase or plain text for a card title. In these instances, we can still pull off a funny thing to say like Pooky’s “Nasty big pointy teeth” card. However, other times the title ends up being pretty vanilla, like Wrench’s “Noble sacrifice”. In these situations, we really need to push the visual gag, as we did for Pooky, or tell a lot of story, like how Wrench cowers while one of his gizmos acts heroically.
The Effects: Occasionally we’ve used the effects box to inject some extra flavor into the game. Usually, we use the mechanics of the effect to continue the story from the picture or title. Other times, we explicitly provide a bit of italicized flavor text. We drop flavor text on many Drink Cards, as well as most of the “Everyone Pay Me” cards. But sometimes it pops up in other places, like Wizgille’s Gear Deck. We are always striving to pair the mechanical effect of a card with its flavor – for instance, Joran’s “I know there’s Gold in here somewhere…” card is a perfect example of the effect playing off the visual and title.
To really bring Keet to life, we needed to figure out how he talked. Was he curt and distracted or a little bit of an insulting sour puss? Talking with Ben and going over his card effects, we figured that Keet needed to be a fair bit excitable (he’s REALLY into his artifacts) but also a good deal sarcastic (being somewhat of a rogue). It also felt appropriate to sneak in a couple of references to his primary inspiration, Indiana Jones.
With those design choices in mind, we ended up with Keet getting some rather clever card titles like:
- “Throw you the idol? All right, you asked for it!”
- “A toast to lightly-guarded loot!”
- “This whip isn’t just for show!”
- “Eureka! This must be…”
It was extremely important to get a specific reaction out of players when they saw Keet for the first time. He needed to be a pulp-fiction archaeologist adventurer, reminiscent of Indiana Jones, and we worked with our artist Erin Wong to push him more and more in that direction. In the end, we are extremely happy with how this ruggedly handsome goblin (can goblins be ruggedly handsome?) turned out.
As we moved from conceptualization to specific card art, we wanted to inject more humor into him. If we went with a simple, calm badass we wouldn’t be able to get as many laughs or give players a real character to act out. So a major part of Keet’s development went into figuring out how much of the time he really is as cool as he thinks he is, and when he isn’t. In the end, Keet turned out to be pretty energetic and emotive. His cards take you through the quiet and off-putting lows of a dedicated, meticulous researcher on up to the exhilarating highs of someone enthusiastically dedicated to his sharing his work. With a bit of sarcastic attitude mixed in, Keet came out with a great personality to fit with his exaggerated facial features and role in the party.
Another thing that’s been popping up in the artwork of our more recent characters has been the cameo. As the number of adventurers that make up the guild known simply as “The Party” grew, it made more and more sense to show off how they interacted with one another. Part of our look and feel overview usually includes a little bit about who a new character hangs out with, which other characters are their friends, and who maybe rubs them the wrong way. Often enough, we come up with little histories for our characters along with the design process. Lizwick was an obvious compatriot for Keet, as both characters have a clear interest in strange and magical objects.
We have a lot of Keet’s artwork uploaded to our Facebook Page. You can check it out in Keet’s Facebook Album.
Keet’s artifacts needed to be a collection of amazing and useless objects. Some of them were easy to come up with, such as a helmet that may or may not be Dimli’s Great-Grandfather’s (how many great-grandfathers does this dwarf have?), while others were a bit trickier. Fortunately, this deck, like many side-decks, was an excellent opportunity to inject more humor into the game. Like the rest of Keet’s art, you can check out some of these brilliant artifacts in Keet’s Facebook Album.
That just about wraps it up for Keet! Look for him to come out next year as a brand new RDI: Allies product. If you are eager to try Keet before he hits store shelves in mid-to-late 2016, you can earn a copy for yourself through our SlugCrew Program. Run demos to teach RDI to new players at your local stores or game conventions and Keet can be yours!
SlugFest Games is excited to announce all the cool stuff that will be going on at Gen Con this year. We’ll be hosting demos of our games at Booth #1749 this year, and will have all sorts of new swag for sale. So come by, sit down for a demo, and enjoy the con!
We are pleased to announce that the stars have aligned and all three of 2015’s new Allies will be available for purchase on-site. That’s right! Halden, Zariah and Wrench will all be available in limited quantities at the show this year. Don’t miss out on your chance to get them early, as they won’t be hitting store shelves until November.
Each ally is a single-character expansion for The Red Dragon Inn, and requires a base set to play. You can find out more each of these ally’s new mechanics at the blog posts listed below:
Campaign Coins will be bringing us the first batch of metal coins and markers! These full-sized coins will give your RDI game plenty of heft and a lovely tactile feel. The coins and markers are beautifully sculpted and work with all our sets and boards. We’ll have 5-player and 1-player starter sets available as well as coin booster packs if you really want to feel the jingle of gold and platinum in your stash.
The coin sets include:
5 Player Starter Set
- 30 Gold Coins
- 6 Platinum Coins
- 5 Fortitude Markers
- 5 Alcohol Content Markers
- 1 RDI Velvet Bag!
1 Player Starter Set
- 6 Gold Coins
- 1 Platinum Coin
- 1 Fortitude Marker
- 1 Alcohol Content Marker
RDI Coin Booster
- 10 Gold Coins
- 2 Platinum Coins
RDI character buttons are back, featuring seven new characters! Grab one for your favorite character, or pick up all of them!
We are also excited to release an RDI full-party poster! The cover for RDI5 turned out fantastic, and we’ll have a limited quantity of posters depicting the cover image available at the show.
You can check out a shot of the poster on our Facebook Page here.
The Red Dragon Inn 5 introduces 4 brand new characters to the game and provides long-time fans with something they’ve been drooling after: a place to store everything! The RDI5 comes in a massive, expanded box with storage space for every character, drink, mechanic and event deck released so far with room to grow. Included are replacement boards in glorious full color for each of the RDI characters, as well as newly-designed gold tokens. All of that and a heaping helping of additional storage solutions (deck dividers, baggies and more!) to top it all off!
Unfortunately, without the aid of a time machine we will not have RDI5 available for purchase at the show. However, you will have the opportunity to pre-order your copy on at our booth!
Don’t miss out on this chance, because this will be the last chance for folks who missed out on the Kickstarter to guarantee that they get the Promo Pack.
You can learn more about The Red Dragon Inn 5 on its Product Page.
It’s time for the return of the annual RDI Doppelganger Tournament Event Code: CGM1571153! Can you prove that you are the real hero against a table of your doppelgangers, and then go on to drink the rest of The Party under the table? Sign up and find out!
The Doppelganger Tournament is an event unique to RDI. Each player will be assigned a random character from the cast of our beloved heroes, whom they will represent in a massive elimination tournament. The twist is that the first round of the tournament will have you facing off against 3 look-a-likes! How will you determine which of the four Fionas is the real Fiona? Why, by seeing who can party the hardest!
There are only a handful of tickets left and you don’t want to miss out on the chance to win some absolutely fantastic prizes!
With the announcement of Keet as the Season 3 Major Reward (see the post here), we thought it would be fun to show you guys a bit of his design process. So, welcome to Part 1 of Keet’s Corner: Designing an Adventurer!
You can also check out the original designer Ben’s own blog for more of his perspective on Keet’s design process:
While most characters start the game with 10 gold, Keet instead gets 10 random artifact cards, which count as his gold. Each artifact has the potential to have an awesome ability, many of them beneficial but a handful of them dangerous! The tricky bit is that nobody, not even Keet, knows what those objects do at the beginning of the game.
Throughout the game, Keet’s cards will let him “identify” (reveal) the various artifacts he has collected on the table in front of him. However, players who steal or win his artifacts will also immediately reveal them. So, players like Gerki or Fleck, who make a living off taking gold from their friends, will have multiple opportunities to try and steal a favorable artifact.
This has the wonderful bonus of making gold and gambling even more important than they were before. As soon as Keet is at the table, there’s the potential to earn fancy new Action or Sometimes Cards by winning his artifacts in a round of gambling. Furthermore, one of the best ways for Keet to protect his goods is to win a gambling round himself, so he can have a buffer of a few actual gold pieces to protect his artifacts from pay or steal effects.
When Keet showed up for the 2014 Character Design Contest, he really sparked our imaginations. The character had a very novel mechanic of replacing his gold with artifact cards that have abilities. This completely changed the dynamic of the game in a surprisingly unobtrusive way! He also strongly fit the theme of the “friendly” monster, one that has come up in the tavern over the years. With a clear idea of his personality and an exciting, clever new mechanic, he ended up being chosen as the contest winner.
Another ringing endorsement for the character was how simply he integrated with the game. Typically, characters with new mechanics are not suitable for players new to RDI. We don’t feel that’s the case with Keet. His new mechanic helps convince players to play with their artifacts and jealously guard them for themselves – the “my precious” factor. Meanwhile his deck works to support exactly this style of game play. He gives the player a ton of ownership, and that makes players old and new immediately engage with the game.
So Keet was a character with tons of flavor, a mechanic that would excite veterans and a theme that is easy for newcomers to engage with. How could we deny this little tomb raider!?
When we getting into serious playtesting mode, we run something called “The Gauntlet”. The Gauntlet is a long series of games where the new character is matched up against every other character in a series of one-on-one games. In the late stages of development, each new version of that character runs “The Gauntlet” again, and frequently characters will be put through it many many times. After a character is deemed worthy (i.e. gets about a 50/50 win rate against the entire cast) they are generally sent out to some hand-picked uberfans for further playtesting. Typically this is the shot where those characters see new eyes for the first time, and it’s our chance to “fun-test” the character. As a result, each character gets tons of hands-on play in-house and then even more externally before they see print.
On the surface, Keet was doing everything we needed him to do to be a good character concept both mechanically and thematically. The problem was that he was just kinda bland and couldn’t actually win a game! When we put him through The Gauntlet he would be revealing plenty of artifacts, but would end up just getting drunk under the table or beaten down (or mauled, in Erin’s case). So he definitely needed a tune-up.
The original version of Keet was quite narrowly focused, with most of his cards only interacting with his own artifacts or gold. Players would spend the majority of their time simply playing cards to flip over artifacts, rather than hitting their friends, gambling or dealing out drinks. Basically, he wasn’t getting to enjoy himself at the party! As a result, his opponent needed only to just keep serving him drinks and punching him in the nose to win.
To solve this problem, we turned back to the first 8 (the cast of RDI 1 and 2) and drew some inspiration. We needed to make Keet more of a traditional RDI character so he could hold his ground against them. The current and most successful version of the artifact hunter now plays along with the party and pulls a fair win chance against the cast of heroes.
Some of Keet’s new mechanics, while intuitive, were challenging to support with rules. These little corner cases were the challenges we faced while polishing the final version of Keet.
Hidden Information: One of the mechanics we played around with early on with Keet was allowing him to peek at artifacts without revealing them. This gave him a lot more power as he could ante bad artifacts when he was going to lose a round of gambling or give them away to pay effects before they could affect him. The problem was that there was no convenient way to mark which ones Keet had peeked at and which ones were still unknown to him. The worse part was that players could accidentally cheat by looking at an artifact that they thought they had already looked at, and that’s a real feel-bad for everyone at the table.
We ended up dropping the mechanic, but reimplementing it in a variety of other forms. For instance, Keet always peeks at an unknown artifact before anteing it in a round of gambling. This, in turn, lets him bluff a bit by changing how he plays based on what the artifact is. His “hit back” card also allows him to peek at a card before he decides to keep it or give it to another player. By allowing Keet to peek only right before he would reveal an artifact, we mitigated the information overload, while still letting Keet have fun by handing out surprises to the other players.
Specific Gold: Before Keet, individual gold coin tokens didn’t matter. If someone stole a coin from you, you just gave them whatever. With the advent of artifacts, and how they can willingly (or otherwise) trade hands, we needed specific rules support for which gold is taken by “pay” effects. We played around with it both ways, and found that the victim choosing which gold is given is more fun.
Keet has a variety of nasty artifacts, however; ones that cause no end of pain and suffering for their owners. We knew we wanted Keet to have the ability to drop off these negative artifacts on a poor adventurer, but we also wanted to make sure Keet had some ways to get back the positive ones that get stolen. Thus we created a unique problem for ourselves: If an opponent had both a positive and a negative artifact, how do we let Keet steal the one he wants if we’ve rules that the victim picks?
We solved the problem in a couple of Keet’s cards. His “Let me take a closer look at that.” card lets him specifically steal the artifact of his choice, following the golden rule of gaming where the text on the card can overrule the text in the rules. We also gave him a Sometimes card that lets him take a artifact that a player just spent. This lets him cherry-pick the best artifacts that get stolen from him, and even, in the rare circumstance, take back a negative artifact to use again.
Throughout the refining process, we have had the novel experience of running mechanics, thematic elements, and just about everything regarding Keet to a person outside of the company. Ben (the winner of the Design Contest and originator of Keet) has been included in nearly all communications and major design choices with the character. We wanted to make sure we stayed true to his original vision, while also guiding it to a very polished final product. It has been an exciting experience for all of us, and is one we hope to revisit with the Honorable Mention characters when/if we get around to implementing them in the game.
Keet is going to be one of the most exciting Allies to hit the Red Dragon Inn. If you are eager to try Keet before he hits store shelves in mid-to-late 2016, you can earn a copy for yourself through our SlugCrew Program. Run demos to teach RDI to new players at your local stores or game conventions and Keet can be yours!
Check back with us next week when we launch into Part 2 of Keet Corner: Look and Feel.
Zariah, Halden and Wrench are the three new allies being released this year. Over the last few weeks we’ve enjoyed introducing you to Zariah and Halden, but now it’s our little kobold’s turn to shine. Get ready to flip Red Dragon Inn up on its head!
Wrench is a squirrelly little guy that you wouldn’t expect to be much of an adventurer. He lacks the brawn to fight it out as well as any talent to “magic” his way out of a sticky situation. However, this little fellow makes up for all that with clever ingenuity.
Wrench, like many kobolds, has been engineering traps all his life. Unlike most of his kin, though, many of his traps integrate a surprising amount of of gnomish gadgetry, due, in part, to his subscription to Gnomish Inventors’ Quarterly.
Many of Wrench’s Action Cards are “Gizmos”, a new type of card that persists turn after turn. Gizmo cards are pretty obvious due to the fortitude track along their side. Gizmos come in two flavors:
Passive: Passive Gizmos are usually defensive, shielding Wrench from Fortitude loss or Alcohol Content gain.
What makes Wrench a fun character to play, and a frightening one to behold, is playing out Gizmo after Gizmo, and stacking up a massive army of clockwork contraptions ready and willing to do your bidding!
So how do you deal with a run-away Wrench? You smash his contraptions! Each of his Gizmos have a fortitude track that ticks down once during each of Wrench’s Action Phases.However, other players can help those tracks tick down a bit faster by directing their Fortitude loss effects at them! Whenever you could cause Fortitude loss to a player, you may direct that effect at a Gizmo instead.
Each time one of Wrench’s Gizmos meets with a grisly, violent end, Wrench suffers Collateral Damage that he cannot avoid. Wrench’s worst nightmare is when Pooky goes on a rampage and he’s got a table full of one-Fortitude Gizmos!
Last week we talked about the new mechanics that Zariah the Summoner brings to the game. Now it’s Halden the Unhinged’s turn to show off his own brand of mystical mayhem!
Halden is a freaky fellow who communes with the dead and carries out their last wishes. He is sometimes a solo adventurer, but when the party needs an interpreter for the departed (recent or otherwise), there’s none better. It’s also fortunate that he arms himself with powerful Totemic Magic that helps him deal with his foes in a variety of interesting ways. Halden can overwhelm his opponents like a millstone grinding wheat or can hold off and finally swing for the fences with one titanic blow!
Halden will literally dominate the board with his 18 different Totems!
Each turn Halden will reveal a Totem card. He can accelerate this pace by playing specific cards from his deck. Each Totem is ineffective on its own, but once he amasses enough of them, they can combine their power into a Totem Combo!
This massive Totem Combo can hit up to two different players for 1 Fortitude Loss, another player for 1 Alcohol Content Gain, yet another player to pay you 1 Gold and even summons a new Totem to get you started on the next combo! Share the pain across the heroes or dump it all on one, the totemic power is yours!
Unlike most characters, Halden can do two things during his Action Phase: he can play an Action Card like normal as well as use a Totem Combo! Halden may play his Totem Combo either before or after his Action Card, giving him the flexibility to improve his hand before acting, or fish for totems before comboing. This is important, because Totems only work in specific ways, and they come in three varieties!
To create a Totem Combo, Halden chooses any or all of the Totems he has revealed and lays them out left to right. As long as a Totem is followed by a Totem that matches the resource type, it activates. If Halden holds off, he can activate Totem Combos with a dozen or more components!
Each Totem that activates in the Combo can have its own target, or be piled all on the same player. But watch out! A player only needs to play a single Ignore card to avoid the entire Combo!
Lastly, with no Totem to its right, the final Totem in a chain always fizzles and does nothing. So, do you wait to maximize the output of your combos with as many cards as possible, and risk your opponent ignoring them all, or do you burn up your Totems in short two or three card chains to get through their defenses? The choice is yours!
With new printing proofs in hand (check out the update on Kickstarter) we figured it was time to spoil the mechanics behind the new heroes coming out this year. So without further ado, let’s take a look at Zariah the Summoner and her three companions Scrappy, Bandit and Amber!
Zariah the Summoner is a generalist, capable of doing many things well without the laser focus of other characters. She usually won’t be swinging for Cormac-size damage or stealing all of your gold like Gerki does. Instead, she’ll play it safe, making plays that suit the situation at hand. The wrinkle, however (and it’s a BIG wrinkle) is that many of her cards summon her friends Scrappy the Lion, Bandit the Ferret and Amber the Alemental.
After a card with one of the above symbols resolves, Zariah gets to summon the corresponding buddy to the table. Now, Scrappy, Bandit and Amber aren’t too impressive on their own, but when you get all three of them to the table, they team up and form the mighty Chimera!
The Chimera opens up a whole world of options for Zariah. Off the bat, Chimera can be spent as an Action card that causes 3 Fortitude Loss, but that’s the least of its potential. Many of Zariah’s cards have a “Chimera:” effect. “Chimera:” effects can only be played if you spend your Chimera. Each effect is either an incredibly powerful buff (like dealing 4 Fortitude Loss) or something completely unique (like making a player drink the worst of two drinks!). The Chimera and its power-ups on Zariah’s cards give her the edge to focus her Action cards or avoid the worst the party can dish out.
Summoning the Chimera quickly and frequently will be the key to victory as Zariah. You will find yourself focusing on sculpting your hand, hunting for the cards that summon the last piece of the puzzle, while hoarding the best “Chimera:” effects!
Back in February we announced the Winner of the RDI Design Contest: Keet the Goblin Archaeologist designed by Ben Iverach-Brereton. We are excited to announce that Keet will now be next season’s Major Reward for SlugCrew!
To continue the wild success of the Major Reward, we have another Ally coming your way! Keet the Goblin Archaeologist and his collection of rare and wondrous artifacts will completely change how you approach your Gold game at the tavern. With Keet’s gold replaced by a stack of powerful relics, players will be fighting everyone at the table to try and get their hands on one. Just be careful you don’t get one that is cursed!
Our new goblin is currently in early art production, illustrated by our new staff artist Erin Wong, and will hopefully start shipping out to SlugCrew around August.
The Minor Reward for for next season will be a new set of drinks themed after Red Dragon Inn characters from our previous sets. Most of these drinks have been illustrated by Erin Wong and they look absolutely amazing! Expect to see these drinks to start shipping in July.
These fabulous rewards are offered as a thank you to the hard work of our Slug Crew members. This international demo team has been responsible for bringing the RDI fun to stores and conventions near you for more than 8 years! If you are interested in joining the ranks and sharing your love for RDI, you can sign up on the SlugCrew Homepage.
One of the best ways to get your build up your event hours is to run Organized Play events at your friendly local game store! Check out the Organized Play Homepage for more info on how you can start running these events now!
Editor’s Note: we are stoked once again to welcome guest author Geoff Bottone, a founding member of SlugFest Games and one of The Red Dragon Inn’s original designers!
While en route to the Red Dragon Inn, Fleck decided that he liked Gerki very much. Admittedly, part of that was due to Gerki’s constant and effusive praise—it was difficult not to have fond feelings for someone who kept telling you how great you were. In addition to this, Gerki also won him over by nicking a coin pouch off of a Greyport guardsman, using some of the coin in the pouch to purchase apples for himself and Fleck, and then hurling one of those apples with incredible accuracy at a foul-mouthed teenager who was bullying a pair of smaller kids.
Gerki flashing his complement of knives when the bully swung around to yell at him only sealed the deal.
“You’re going to love adventuring with us,” said Gerki. “Zot takes us into the Undercity all the time, and there’s all kinds of crazy stuff down there. Traps, monsters, treasure. You name it, it’s got it.”
They were at the steps of the inn now. Gerki started the ascent to the door, but Fleck held back.
“Before we go inside,” said Fleck, “I have a proposition for you.”
It wasn’t so much a proposition as it was a matter of presentation—there was no sense in one arriving for an audition if one couldn’t make a dazzling first impression, after all. Fleck took a moment to explain things to Gerki before sending him inside and taking up a position by the door. He tuned his lute and listened with half an ear as Gerki talked him up to his future employer. The halfling was a natural at it. Fleck wondered if he had done a stint in a circus or as a seller of miracle cures before trying his hand at adventuring.
“Without further ado,” said Gerki, his high-pitched voice rising to a crescendo, “may I present, for the first time anywhere, the newest adventurer in our merry party. Fleck. The. Bard!”
Fleck swept into the common room, strumming a tarantella on his lute and smiling to the patrons. Those that had heard the song before started clapping along, hooting and whistling as he processed down the main aisle to Gerki’s table. An olive-skinned serving girl, her silky black hair sadly imprisoned by a kerchief, stared at him as he walked by, the drink tray on her shoulder forgotten.
He favored her with a wink and a smile and moved on.
Gerki stood in front of a table at which sat two women and a man. The women could not be more unalike from one another. One was a human dressed in heavy armor, her fiery hair raggedly cut with a blunt knife and tied up in a strange nest to keep it out of her face. She hammered her mailed fist on the table in time with his song. The other was elven, poised and elegant, her long, blue hair serving as perfect counterpoint to her long, blue dress. She bore an emblem of the Goddess around her neck, but her holy orders did not prevent her from throwing Fleck a sly smirk as he approached the table.
Fleck smiled even wider and turned his attention to the man. He was old, grey-bearded, dressed in a metal skullcap and sumptuous, velvet robes. He was absent-mindedly petting a white rabbit while he stared unblinking at Fleck. If possible, both the rabbit and the man bore identical expressions of disbelief and disdain.
Fleck brought his song to a satisfying conclusion and slapped the strings to quiet them, drawing appreciative cheers from the crowd. The armored woman whooped and slammed her fist even more energetically on the table, causing the various cups and glasses to bounce. She seemed not to notice when the old man and the rabbit both shot her dirty looks.
“Thank you all,” said Fleck, bowing most gracefully before turning his attention to the old man. “It is a pleasure to be here. I only hope that my not inconsiderable skills and enthusiasm will serve me as well as a dungeon delver as they do as one of Greyport’s premiere street performers.”
The old man clutched the side of his head and winced.
“What is this?” he moaned. “Is this some kind of a joke, Gerki? Are you trying to be funny?”
Fleck’s face was a perfect, smiling mask, but inside he thought, says the old man who brings his pet rabbit wherever he goes.
The rabbit looked directly at him and….grinned?
Fleck stopped smiling.
“Everybody,” said Gerki, gesturing up at him. “This is Fleck. Fleck, this is Deirdre, Fiona, Zot, and Zot’s familiar, Pooky.”
“Lovely to meet you all,” said Fleck, taking a seat.
“So,” said Deirdre, taking a sip from her tall glass of elven wine, “you want to go crawling around in the Undercity?”
“I do,” said Fleck, nodding vigorously. “Very much.”
“Well, you’re going to think this is silly…”
“…but I’ve been telling all the stories and sagas for years and for once—just for once—I thought that I’d like to try living the adventure instead of merely reciting it in the public square. It seems like you people lead quite the interesting lives.”
“We do!” said Fiona, bringing her fist down in a rattling thump on the tabletop. “Adventuring is the best!”
“That’s what I had hoped,” said Fleck. “As luck would have it, your friend Gerki and I were talking after my latest performance…”
“And I thought he would be a good fit,” said Gerki. “Besides, he’s Fleck. The. Bard.”
“Well,” said Zot, rubbing Pooky’s head with his knuckles, “I’ve never heard of you. Do you have any qualifications?”
“Sure,” said Fleck, leaning back in his chair. “I graduated top of my class from Bard College.”
“What do they teach you in Bard College?” said Fiona.
“All kinds of things. Music, dance, etiquette, theater, history, art appreciation…”
“None of which are even remotely useful in the Undercity,” said Zot, rolling his eyes.
Fleck shrugged. “Maybe not, but I’m also pretty good with a sword, I know bardic magic, I’m fluent in three languages, passable in two more, and I can read both ancient and modern Drackist, if you give me plenty of time and something for the headache afterwards.”
Deirdre leaned in toward Zot. “There are quite a few Drackist inscriptions in the Undercity, Zot.”
Zot removed his hand from Pooky so that he could better drum his fingertips on the table. Pooky did not look amused with the change.
“It appears that I am outnumbered three…” Zot paused as Pooky flicked an ear, “…four to one.”
“It would,” said Deirdre, her expression radiant.
“Then I suppose I will bow to the weight of the majority and permit the bard to join us as a provisional member. You will be expected to behave in a perfectly professional manner when you are with us, and you will only be entitled to a lesser share of any treasure that we happen to find until we decide that you are worthy to be a full partner.”
“I happily agree to all of your terms,” said Fleck. “When do we get started?”
Gerki clapped Fleck on the shoulder. “Welcome to the party!”
Zot sighed, extracted a folded piece of parchment from somewhere within his voluminous robes, and spread it out on the table. When Pooky didn’t move to better accommodate the parchment, Zot shifted several of the half-empty drinks around to make more room.
“As you know, the Collegium has asked us to retrieve the Tome of Hirun from the depths of the Undercity…”
The stone chamber had become an abattoir, the stench of blood, decay, and death mingling with the acrid smoke of Fiona’s torch and the pervasive stink from the Greyport sewers that reached them even here. The bloated, dismembered corpse of the hideous beast lay in a heap on the floor and twitched—not from its own death spasms, but from the monstrous entity that rooted around in its insides.
Pooky burst out of the beast’s stomach, dripping red gore.
“Aw, Pooky,” said Fiona, sheathing her sword. “Give me a chance to get a few hits in next time, would you?”
Fleck thought he was going to be ill, but Zot’s snide look settled his stomach far better than any medicine. He mopped the sweat off his brow and set his face in what he hoped was a firm expression.
Pooky shook off his fur, spraying blood everywhere. Somehow, his coat was clean and white after he had finished. Fleck tried to figure out how that was possible while he wiped down the front of his lute.
“How are you holding up?” said Zot.
“I’m…managing,” said Fleck. He studied the room. “So is this the lair of the guardian beast you had told us about?”
“I think so. If that’s the case, the Tome of Hirun must be nearby.”
“And we have three doors to choose from,” said Fiona, gesturing to the far end of the room with her torch.
“The hirunians love grouping things into threes,” said Deirdre, folding her hands into the sleeves of her blood-spattered robe. “They were a numerically-obsessed people.”
“Well, their numbering system was in base three,” said Fleck, idly strumming his lute. “I think it’s because they had three fingers on each hand.”
Zot arched a bushy eyebrow. “That’s right.”
Fleck flashed him a winning smile. “Bard College.”
Gerki had picked his way over the ruins of the guardian beast and was now studying the three doors. “If this is anything like the rest of the hirunian stuff we’ve encountered, I’m guessing that only one of these doors leads to the Tome. The rest are going to do something unpleasant the moment we open them.”
“Thoughts?” said Zot.
Gerki took several long, flexible metal tools out of one of his bags. “I’ll see if I can find anything out with these, but I bet that this door with the demon carving on it and this other one with the screaming thing are probably the bad ones.”
“I will pray to the Goddess for the grace to deliver you from poison or dismemberment, should they befall you,” said Deirdre, clasping her hands before her.
“Gee, thanks,” said Gerki as he fastened two of the tools together.
Fleck, who had been studying the doors from afar, said, “I think this may not be the best course of action.”
“Why?” said Zot.
“Well, I know a bit about hirunian legendry. The demon is Zzral, Master of the Thousand Enchanted Blades.”
Fiona’s eyes got very wide and she made a little squeaking noise.
“That’s only twenty-seven blades in base ten,” said Zot. His expression was no longer readable, but it seemed less hostile than before.
“Still,” said Fiona.
“And the screaming thing is Llarz of the Ten Thousand Endless Torments.”
Gerki backed away from the door slightly. “So the middle door with the smiling lady thing is the one we want, right?”
“Well, maybe,” said Fleck, “but maybe not. That’s Alrza the Huckster. She was a lesser mercantile goddess of the hirun, but she also presided over a cult of tricksters and thieves.”
“Hang on. Are you saying that all of the doors might be traps?” said Gerki.
Fleck shrugged. “That would be my guess.”
“Oh, come on,” said Fiona, as Gerki began walking a circuit of the room. “That’s not fair! How are we supposed to get to the book if every door is trapped?”
“There may be a concealed door,” said Deirdre.
“That’s fine, I guess,” said Fiona. “But how…”
“Found it!” said Gerki. He pressed a hidden catch and a section of the blood-smeared wall rotated into a low-ceilinged tunnel. “Those hirunians were tricky bastards. I’m starting to like them.”
The secret tunnel brought them to a chamber that was lit from above by some strange trick of eldritch sorcery. The Tome of Hirun, its brass pages stored betwixt marble covers, sat ensconced upon a pillar of basalt.
A three-headed beast of truly massive proportions stood hunched before the pillar. It fixed its six glowing eyes upon them and let out a three-toned roar that sent up an unpleasant resonance in Fleck’s bones.
“Zot,” said Deirdre, as the holy symbol clutched in her hand began to shine with a blue light, “I’m beginning to think that that last creature wasn’t the guardian beast.”
“No,” said Zot.
“Yes!” shouted Fiona.
“Do we have a plan?” said Fleck.
The creature advanced on them, its footfall a thundering crash.
Zot took in the entire room in a glance and seemed to engage in a momentary, wordless communication with Pooky, who leaped down from the wizard’s shoulder.
“We’ll fight it the same way we fought the Iron Colossus.”
The others gave nods of assent. Gerki drew a pair of knives from his belt. Deirdre began to pray.
“What do I do?” said Fleck. “I wasn’t there when you fought the Iron Colossus.”
“I know,” said Zot. The tip of his staff began to glow with arcane fire. “That’s why you’re staying here. This will be a dangerous battle, and it’s no place for…”
“Chaaaarge!” shouted Fiona as she ran to meet the creature. Pooky scampered off after her, followed by the others.
“Stay there!” Zot called over his shoulder before directing all of his attention to summoning his magic.
“But…” said Fleck.
He wanted to follow them in anyway, but it had been hammered into him at Bard College that such actions were frowned upon. A soloist might be able to play what they liked, but an ensemble had to play together or the entire group suffered for it. He didn’t know the rhythm of this particular piece of music that the others had performed before, and he knew he would only hinder them if he tried to take center stage against Zot’s orders.
Fleck watched from the doorway as the party closed with the monster. Fiona and Pooky charged straight at it while Gerki swung around to the left, presumably to set up an attack from behind. Deirdre and Zot kept their distance, hurling magical energy up at the creature. Beneath their combined magical assault, the creature staggered and threw back its heads. It was truly an epic scene. Watching them, Fleck could feel the stanzas forming in his head.
And then the creature breathed, exhaling three concentrated jets of purplish gas. Fleck removed his hat and shoved it over his nose and mouth well before the expanding cloud was able to reach him. As he breathed through fabric tainted with his sweat and hair pomade, he realized that the others had not had such a luxury.
The adventurers had collapsed into the cloud’s embrace and were now hunched and sobbing on the floor of the massive chamber. Even Pooky, who Fleck was no longer entirely sure was really a rabbit, had not been able to escape the effects of the gas. He lay sprawled on his back, his fuzzy legs feebly kicking at the air.
“My magic,” sobbed Zot. “It’s gone!”
“The Goddess has abandoned me!” shrieked Deirdre. “We’re lost!”
“My weapons! They’re rusting to nothing!” cried Fiona.
“It’s eating me!” screamed Gerki, even though the creature was nowhere near him.
The creature strode forward, lifted up one of its massive feet, and began to bring it down upon Fiona and Pooky. Fleck knew that there was no time to lose. He sucked as much air as he could into his lungs and stepped into the chamber, letting his hat fall by the wayside. He struck the first notes of the Mente Libertá in G Major, a bardic spell well-suited to purging malignant mental effects. He hoped that his technique and magical prowess would be enough to negate the evil influence of the hirunian gas.
The creature’s foot paused a short distance above the prone warrior and rabbit. The three heads turned, their six, baleful eyes fixed on Fleck. The foot pivoted and came down, not on Fiona and Pooky, but on the open floor between Fleck and the creature. It advanced another step toward Fleck, and another.
Fleck knew that he could not run, not if he wanted to help his new companions. Even though his knees shook, even though his fingertips fumbled a note, even though the purple tendrils of the maddening gas tickled his nose and stung his eyes, Fleck played on.
The warm chords of his music echoed around the lost chamber of the hirun, until even the creature itself was transfixed by it. It halted its advance a perilously short distance away, cocked its three heads on its thick necks, and listened. Heartened, Fleck continued his performance, trying to ignore his throbbing skull and his aching ribs. He was sure his face was at least as purple as the gas.
The others left off their screaming and came back to themselves, clutching at their heads and moaning.
“What’s happening?” asked Zot.
Fleck use the last of his air to speak four short words. “Mind control gas. Counterspell?”
“Ah, I see,” said Zot. He spoke a quick incantation and summoned up a clean, cold wind from nowhere. It whistled through the chamber, dispersing the gas.
Fleck gulped the chilly air into his lungs and collapsed to one knee, his fingers jangling on the strings of his lute. Spots darted in front of his eyes.
“Now!” shouted Zot. “Before it breathes again!”
Gerki struck from the shadows, his blades biting deep into one of the creature’s ankles. It let out a cry of anguish that Fleck was sure would bring the roof down. The creature crashed down on one knee, mirroring Fleck, its bloodied ankle unable to support its own weight.
With a wild battle cry, Fiona rushed at the creature, using her momentum to vault up onto the creature’s knee. She lashed out from her elevated perch, bringing her sword down in a double-handed strike that all but severed the creature’s arm at the shoulder. It raised its other arm to sweep Fiona down onto the floor, but its taloned fingers never reached her, scratching uselessly on a sphere of blue light summoned forth by Deirdre.
In that instant, Pooky scurried up the body of the creature, his claws finding purchase in the folds of the creature’s rubbery skin. The creature roared at Pooky, and the rabbit took that moment to leap bodily at the central head’s eyes.
The creature raised its voices in an echoing shriek and toppled backward, crashing heavily to the floor. Fiona rode it down, walked along the creature’s heaving chest, and chopped downward with her bloodied sword three times.
Apart from Pooky’s determined chewing, there was silence.
Fleck looked up and saw Zot standing over him, offering his ring-bedecked hand. “We would surely have perished here today were it not for you.”
Fleck gratefully took the outstretched hand and struggled to his feet. “Thank you, Zot, though I’d ascribe our success to both your skilled leadership and the generous blessings of Lady Luck.”
“You’re too kind.” For the first time, Zot smiled. “In any event, I think you’ve more than proven yourself, Fleck. If this whole experience hasn’t put you off of adventuring, you’re free to join us on delves whenever you like. In fact, I think that you’ve more than earned a full cut of the treasure.”
Pooky, red and slick from blood, hopped over to them. He came right up to Fleck and began nuzzling his boots and multicolored leggings, smearing them with gore. Fleck must have made a face, because Zot waggled his bushy eyebrows and made a warding gesture with his hand.
“That’s just his way of welcoming you to the party,” said Zot. “It also means that he likes you.”
“Is that good?”
Zot scratched his beard. “It’s certainly better than the alternative.”
Editor’s Note: we are stoked once again to welcome guest author Geoff Bottone, a founding member of SlugFest Games and one of The Red Dragon Inn’s original designers!
Even though it was still early morning, the sun’s bright rays had already cooked the dew off of the grass. There was not much in the way of cover out in the mountains, and Eve suspected that it would be roasting well before noon. She was glad that she wasn’t able to feel the heat.
She continued up the winding road, along steep cliffs and past mountain fields pockmarked with craters. She rounded a bend in the road and found the way forward blocked by the ruin of a horse cart, shattered beneath the weight of a massive boulder.
After checking the immediate area to make sure that no one was looking, she stepped past the wreckage and continued onward. Had anyone been observing her, she would have gone to much greater lengths to make getting over or around the cart look convincingly difficult—there was no need to reveal her full capabilities to any potential enemies, after all—but she was also a firm believer in not wasting time when she didn’t have to.
She reached the gates, or what was left of them, of the small mountain town a short time later. Large cracks zigzagged across the town’s defensive walls, and wreckage from the shattered battlements littered the ground outside.
A wary guard, dressed in livery of brown and sky blue, peered down at Eve from atop a gatehouse that had been hastily repaired with ropes and rough-cut timbers.
With a quick, nearly invisible gesture of her hand, Eve cast a minor glamour that increased both the volume and resonance of her voice. “The one who’s going to solve your little problem.”
The guard rested his hands on the parapet and leaned over. “There have been many before you who have made such a boast. The ones that are still alive are recovering in our infirmary.”
Eve shrugged. “I could just go home, if you like.”
She watched the guard drum his mailed fingertips on the wood and stones. His shoulders sagged. “If you think you can help us then, by all means, you are welcome here. Be warned that the Beast is more formidable than you think.”
“We’ll see,” said Eve.
“You can find the infirmary off of the main square. The adventurers there will have the most current information on the Beast and its whereabouts.” Then the guard called down to someone stationed below. “Open the gate.”
One of the doors creaked open on twisted hinges. Eve was careful not to brush up against its splintered body as she stepped inside.
It only made sense for Eve to find out what she was really up against. The Greyport heralds, from whom she heard of the Beast originally, hadn’t been too clear on all of the particulars. She waited patiently outside the infirmary until a busy alchemist, carrying a satchel filled to bursting with herbs, came walking out. Eve deftly stepped around the alchemist and slipped through the door as it closed.
The main room was filled with beds, and those beds were filled with adventurers. A few of them rested quietly, playing games or reading. Others lay swaddled in bandages, lost in sleep brought by herbs or powerful soporific magics. One or two, who were not quite as sedated as the rest, groaned quietly in their sleep.
One of the groaners was an elderly man, his grey beard poking out of a thick wrapping of bandages that encircled his head. A small, white rabbit lay sleeping on his chest. From the neatly folded robes and assortment of jewelry stacked on the table beside the bed, Eve guessed that the man was some kind of wizard. A quick, Truesight-enhanced glance at the rabbit revealed to Eve that it was the wizard’s familiar, and also that she desperately needed to turn her Truesight off.
She was glad that no one could see her shivering.
“You look awful healthy,” said a grumbling voice. “You must be new.”
The voice belonged to a dwarf. His right arm was in a sling and he limped about the floor with the help of a thick cane.
“I am,” said Eve. “I’m here to solve the Beast problem.”
“What?” said the dwarf, eyeing her up and down. “You? Alone?”
Eve clicked her tongue. “Yes.”
“If I may say, lass,” said the dwarf, “ya don’t look at all properly outfitted to go tanglin’ with the likes of the Beast.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“What d’ya think it means? There’s a savage beasty out ravaging the countryside and you look like you’re dressed up for the spring harvest dance.”
“What I’m wearing should be of absolutely no concern to you. Besides, I’m a wizard. I’m carrying everything that I’m going to need to fight your Beast,” Eve tapped a gloved finger to her temple, “Right. In. Here.”
The dwarf hobbled over to an empty cot and sat down heavily on the corner. “Maybe, lass, but I gotta warn ya that whatever magic you’ve got up there may not be enough.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
“I don’t know that yer in any position to judge,” said the dwarf. “You’ve got no idea what’s been happenin’ here. This beasty is the worst thing I’ve ever encountered. A dozen of us went out to fight it, only to have it knock us around like ninepins. It shattered steel plate and enchanted weapons with its teeth. I saw it hurl boulders as easily as if it were a child skippin’ stones.”
The dwarf gestured at the old man and his rabbit. “Ya say you got magic? Well so did we. That’s Zot. He’s a wizard from the Collegium, and his spells didn’t do a thing to the Beast. All they did was bounce right off its stony hide, and…”
Zot stirred, roused by the rising volume of the dwarf’s voice. He cracked open one blackened eye and fixed Eve with a bleary stare.
“Dimli,” said Zot, his voice a croak. “Who are you talking to?”
“This nice young lass.” Dimli pointed at Eve with his cane. Eve took a half-step back, ensuring that she was well out of range of the tip. “I didn’t catch her name.”
“I didn’t throw it,” she said. “I’m Eve.”
“Eve,” said Dimli. “Anyways, I’m trying to talk her out of goin’ to fight the beasty.”
Zot squinted, and Eve felt the weight of his gaze upon her. She noted the subtle probe of a sub-vocalized spell and allowed it, meeting Zot’s eyes. The rabbit poked up its head and wiggled one ear, as if in acknowledgement. It seemed to smile, which was very unnerving.
“Well,” said Zot, resting his head back on his pillow, “I think that she will have a unique approach to the problem of the Beast.”
Dimli made a small sputtering noise. “Ya know full well that magic cannot touch the Beast.”
“My magic can’t,” said Zot. The apple in his throat bobbed as he swallowed. “How’s your leg, Dimli?”
“Hurts a bit, but I can get around if I need to.”
“Good. Do you think you’d be able to take Eve up to the place where we last fought the Beast?”
The dwarf’s thick, bristly brows knitted together. He shot her a very suspicious glance out of the corner of his eye. “Aye,” he said.
“Excellent,” said Zot, his voice already tinged with sleep. “Do so as soon as you are able. I think you will find Eve to be simply filled to the brim with surprises.”
He began to snore. Eve regarded Dimli for a long moment. If his gaze was any flintier, she could have struck sparks.
“You heard the man,” said Eve at last.
Dimli snorted. “Fine, fine. I just gotta grab my boots.”
Eve tried to be patient as she followed Dimli along the ridge of the mountains. She kept telling herself that she had no idea where to start looking for the Beast, and that she couldn’t very well waste her energies searching the area in the hopes that she would stumble upon it randomly. Doing that would just leave her exhausted and defenseless when the time came for her to fight it.
That said, Dimli moved with an almost agonizing slowness. She almost screamed when he called yet another halt atop the latest of the identical, lichen-covered peaks. Eve came up beside him and the sight of Dimli sweating profusely and breathing hard made her feel terrible about being so impatient. Not everyone could move as effortlessly across the mountains as she could.
“How are you doing?” she asked.
“Not great,” said the dwarf, mopping his face with a handkerchief. “Even without my armor, hoofin’ it along these hills on a bad leg is pretty tiresome. I don’t suppose ye’d have a bit of magic that might help me out?”
She lowered her head. “I’m not that kind of wizard.”
Dimli tucked the soggy handkerchief back into his soggy tunic. “What sort of wizard are you, anyway?”
“The kind of wizard that can make you feel so good that you’re liable to start running at full speed and not stop until your leg is permanently injured or your heart explodes.”
Dimli shifted his weight on his cane and frowned up at her. “What the hell kinda wizard is that?”
“I’m an illusionist.”
“Oh.” Dimli blew out a long breath that caused the hairs of his moustache to flutter. “I suppose it’s why ya don’t look nearly as tired as ya should.”
“Thank you,” said Eve, “and I do have more than just the one at my disposal. I suppose we’ll see how useful they are once we find the Beast.”
“Aye. Anyway, the last place we tried to fight the Beast was in a high valley right near…”
A low, sustained roar shuddered across the mountaintops.
“There!” said Dimli, limping off in the direction of the sound.
Eve took a quick mental inventory of her spells and followed after him.
The Beast was larger than Eve was expecting—a four-legged monstrosity that seemed to be made up of the living stone of the mountains itself. Moss and lichen clung to its rocky hide. Its joints drizzled powdery dust as it dug into the rock with claws that gleamed like diamonds. It foraged in a hollow between two peaks a short distance away from a sheer drop. The area around the Beast was littered with broken bodies and the remnants of clothing, armor strapping, and leather packs.
As Eve watched, it dug up a jagged stone bright with filaments of ore and popped it into its mouth. The grinding of its powerful jaws dwarfed all other sounds.
“That’s…impressive,” said Eve, her voice low.
“Yeah.” Dimli leaned on his cane. “Now ya can see why we’re having so much trouble fighting the thing.”
“I can,” she said.
The Beast swallowed noisily and resumed digging, its claws tearing deep grooves in the stone.
“Well, all right,” said Dimli. “It’s your show now.”
“It is.” She nodded, flexing her fingers. “Let’s try the basics.”
She made a few brisk mystical gestures in the air in front of her, weaving an aura of illusion around both herself and Dimli. When that was done, she extended her right hand and pointed. A sharp, snapping sound echoed off the valley walls.
The Beast reared back and swung its massive head around, scanning the mountainside with two sets of brightly glowing eyes. Dimli limped in front of Eve as the creature searched for them, brandishing his cane. Eve was very glad that the dwarf didn’t brush up against her or try to grab onto her.
“You can relax,” she said. “I veiled us first. It cannot see or hear us.”
“Oh, good,” said Dimli, though he did not lower his cane.
The Beast lifted its head and sniffed. The sound the air made as it vanished into its cavernous nostrils was like the first angry gust of a summer storm. It fixed its four eyes roughly in Eve and Dimli’s direction and began to stalk purposefully toward them, hoisting it’s hindquarters up in the air as if it were a big cat.
“Get back,” said Dimli. “It smells us, lass.”
“It smells you,” said Eve, raising her hands in a preparatory gesture. “Now, try not to distract me.”
She made the requisite signs and incantations, fixing the finished image of the illusion firmly in her mind. She felt the old, familiar rush of power as it came surging up from her abdomen. It tingled as it traveled down her arms to her fingertips before leaping out into the world.
A man in brilliantly gleaming armor appeared from thin air, dangerously close to the edge of the cliff. He whacked his shining sword against the polished surface of his shield. The gonging note resounded across the mountains, causing the Beast to wheel around.
“Come on, beasty!” the illusory man shouted with Dimli’s voice. “Come on and get me! I’m delicious and filling!”
“Take the bait,” said Eve under her breath.
But the Beast sniffed the air and retreated from her illusion.
“Why isn’t it going for it?” said Dimli. “That’s a feast of metal right there.”
Eve had already begun the gestures to modify her spell. “It sees the metal, but it can’t smell it. It knows something’s wrong.”
“Retreating’s starting to look better and better, lass. C’mon, we’ll tell the others what you’ve found out and figure out a new…”
“No,” said Eve. “I’ve still got a few tricks left. Here’s the next one.”
A stone paw tipped with diamond claws reached up from below to grasp the lip of the cliff. The illusory man turned around, threw down his shield and sword, and let out a shriek of terror as another Beast, identical to the first, pulled itself into view. The second Beast snapped at the illusory man with its powerful jaws, leaving behind only a pair of illusory boots and a shower of illusory blood.
The second Beast lifted itself all the way into the valley, swallowed, and squared off against the first Beast.
“Tell me that’s you,” said Dimli.
“It is,” said Eve. She raised both her hands and the second Beast reared up on its hind legs, letting out a savage bellow that shook the mountains.
The real Beast responded with an equally impressive roar. Acidic saliva dripped from its mouth to scar the stone beneath it. It pawed at the ground, getting ready to charge. Eve made the second Beast copy its movements precisely, which only seemed to agitate it further.
The first Beast sprang, mouth open, claws splayed. It struck the second Beast with all the force of its momentum and weight. The second Beast vanished upon impact, leaving behind only a few sparks drifting through the empty air. The first Beast continued its trajectory unchecked, flailing its massive paws as its roar of challenge quickly transitioning into a yelp of panic. It vanished over the side of the cliff, striking the rocks at the base with a thunderous crash.
“You think it’s dead?” said Dimli.
“Cliffs will kill pretty much anything,” said Eve.
They went to look, just in case. Eve wrinkled her nose at the sight that greeted her eyes.
“I don’t think it’s comin’ back from that, lass,” said Dimli, a note of admiration in his voice.
“No,” she said.
“I think you’ve more than earned the reward money,” said Dimli.
Dimli grinned. “Listen, I dunno how ye feel about workin’ in groups but…”
Eve raised her hand. “I’m sorry. Can you hold that thought for just a moment?”
The wench shifted the weight of the tray on her shoulder and knocked again. She was willing to be patient, especially since the room’s occupant had paid both well and in advance, but she had other customers and chores downstairs that she needed to attend to.
She was just about to holler that she was leaving the tray outside the door when the bolt slid back.
“Sorry,” said the woman on the other side. “I heard you, but I was in the middle of something.”
The woman was on the short side, freckle-faced, with piercing grey eyes and messy light brown hair. She wore a faded peasant dress and scuffed, flat shoes. The wench had overheard the barman referring to the woman as a sorcerer, or something like that, but to all appearances she looked like someone who worked at the Red Dragon Inn instead of someone who frequented it.
Then the wench saw the staff. It was a huge, ornate thing, topped with a glowing crystal and set up in some kind of holder so that it could stand upright. The woman had used chalk to draw a complicated circle around the staff on the floorboards. She waved the wench away from it, pointing to the table by the window.
“If you wouldn’t mind putting it over there, I’d appreciate it,” said the woman as she fumbled around in her apron.
The wench knew it was probably better not to ask, but she couldn’t help herself. “What is all this?”
“Unfortunately, I don’t have time to go into all the details right now,” said the woman. “The short version is that I am controlling an illusion I created of myself that I sent up into the mountains earlier today. One of the villages up there was having a problem with a Beast and…”
“Oh,” said the wench, as she arranged the trays of food and jug of wine on the table, “I heard the heralds singing about that yesterday.”
“Yes, exactly,” said the woman. “Anyway, I thought I’d go up there and take care of it.”
The wench tucked her empty tray under her arm. “And did you?”
The woman held out a small handful of coins, which the wench took with a grateful nod.
“Congratulations,” said the wench.
“Thank you.” The woman cast a sidelong glance at the freestanding staff. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I still have a few things that I need to finish up…”
“Oh, of course,” said the wench, showing herself out. “I hope you enjoy your lunch.”
“I’m sure I will.” The woman was no longer looking at her, instead gazing deeply into the glowing crystal atop the staff.
The wench paused, her hand on the door.
“I’m sorry,” she said, speaking quickly, “but I’m curious. Do you go on all of your adventures this way? Because it seems to me like that’s the smart way to do it.”
The woman snickered.
“No,” she said. “I only do this for the easy ones.”
Editor’s Note: we are stoked once again to welcome guest author Geoff Bottone, a founding member of SlugFest Games and one of The Red Dragon Inn’s original designers!
Serena refused to retreat. Paladins of Korash never retreated.
She swung the pommel of her holy sword into one of the bandit’s jaws. He let out a very satisfying gurgle—Korash forgive her—and went down in a heap. That still left seven of them, and even taking into account all of her training, the strength of her faith, and the fact that they were just puny humans, they had her well and truly outmatched.
One of the bandits drove the point home, both figuratively and literally, with an expert thrust of her knife. Serena’s armor plates, and the mail beneath them, prevented it from being a lethal thrust, but it still hurt. She recoiled, baring her tusks and letting out a roar of agony that rang off of the rocks of the canyon. The bandits retreated from her a half-step, and that gave Serena the moment she needed.
Perhaps, she thought, as she fled back the way that she had come, this was what the Lord Marshall meant when she talked about ‘strategic withdrawal.’
She sheathed her brightly-glowing sword and devoted all of her energy to scrambling up the steep canyon pathway. Her wound continued to bleed and, by the time she had reached the top, its pain was so great that she was reduced to crawling along on all fours.
To her very great surprise, the bandits did not follow her, though their mocking catcalls, along with the occasional low moan, echoed off of the rocks behind her. The blood rushed to Serena’s cheeks at the sound, and she was sure that her green skin was now a flushed and vivid brown. Grumbling with shame and gasping with the pain of her wound, she pulled herself to the top of the canyon and behind the shelter of a dusty boulder.
Serena took a deep breath and whispered out a prayer to Korash. The pain in her side ebbed and the blood flow slowed to a stop.
Her new armor was bloody and dusty, scuffed in places where she had dragged it along the rocks. Her sword was still well-honed, though she was far enough from the bandits that it no longer glowed. The scroll case that Baroness Tyia had entrusted into her keeping remained safely tucked into her belt.
She thanked Korash that she still had it. This was her first mission as a paladin aspirant and, if she had lost it or let it fall into the wrong hands, the career that she had been working her whole life towards would be over almost before it had begun.
Serena consulted the sky. There were still a number of hours of daylight left, which meant that she still had some time to reach the neighboring lands of Baroness Janessa, inconveniently located on the opposite side of the canyon. The sheer number of bandits made the direct route all but impossible, and Serena saw no bridges or other ways across. Going around the long way would be safest, but as Baroness Tyia had repeatedly told her, all would be lost if her message was not delivered by sundown.
There had to be some way through. Sneak through the bandit camp? No, with her size and armor, she probably wouldn’t be able to manage it. Use guerilla tactics to pick them off one at a time? Tempting, but extremely dishonorable. What, then?
Serena wasn’t sure, so she did what she did best whenever the way ahead seemed unsure. She prayed.
A few minutes after she began her prayers, the bandit down in the canyon finally stopped moaning.
Something huge and heavy crashed through the nearby trees. Serena wrapped up her prayers as quickly as she could without being rude. She arose and drew her sword as whatever it was drew nearer to the tree line and the lip of the canyon, snapping branches and stomping through underbrush. Serena had little knowledge of forest lore, having spent the majority of her life studying in the temple and wasn’t sure what it could possibly be. A moose, maybe?
No. Not a moose.
Serena was used to being the tallest person in the room, but the humanoid that shoved his way out of the forest was at least a head-and-a-half bigger than she was and a good deal wider. His face was rough and had a greenish cast, sporting curved, yellow tusks larger than hers. He wore mismatched armor covered in chains and spikes and was armed with a stout cudgel that looked for all the world like someone had pulled a half-burned log out of a fireplace and driven nails into it.
“Hello!” he said, raising a hand in greeting.
Serena glanced down at her sword. It wasn’t glowing.
“Well met,” she said, sliding her sword back into its sheath. “I am Serena.”
“Gog,” said the huge thing, his smile widening.
“Your name is Gog?” said Serena, not quite understanding.
He nodded vigorously. Then he looked over Serena, much more closely this time, and the grin disappeared from his face. “You all right?”
She looked down at the now rusty stain on her side. “Yes. It was just a scratch and it’s all healed now.”
Gog’s toothy smile returned. “Good, good!”
“I should warn you,” said Serena, gesturing to the path that led down into the canyon, “you may risk receiving scratches of your own, or worse, if you plan to travel that way.”
Gog shook his head vigorously, whipping his long, ropy, braided hair every which way. “Gog not go that way. Gog go along canyon to high road. Gog take high road to Blue Creek. Blue Creek home village.”
“Oh,” said Serena. “Visiting family?”
“Yes! Gog finish first adventure! Gog take share of treasure home to give to Father. Well, not magic ring that Gog find. Ring cursed. Ring turn Gog into ficus for…” Gog paused to count on his fingers. “Three days.”
“My condolences,” said Serena.
“It all right,” said Gog. “Zot fix Gog. He even let Gog keep pot. Zot nice wizard.”
Unsure of how to respond, Serena chose to nod politely.
“What about Serena,” said Gog. “You have sword and armor. You also adventurer?”
“Sort of,” said Serena. “I’m a paladin of Korash. I am on a holy quest.”
“Oh!” said Gog. “Is that why you get stabbed?”
“Yes,” said Serena, “you see…”
Gog placed his massive hands on his belly and let out a low, rumbling chuckle. “Gog make funny!”
Gog chuckled again. “Holy mean religious and it mean full of holes. That why it funny!”
“That is…rather funny,” said Serena.
“Then why you not laugh?”
“My apologies, my friend. I’m just a little distracted,” said Serena. “I need to get this scroll across that canyon by the time the sun sets, otherwise I will fail my mission and dire peril will befall the baroness. I’m just not sure how I’m going to get past the bandits down there and…”
Gog’s smile vanished. His eyes narrowed. “Bandits?”
“Bandits,” said Gog, “like thieves?”
Gog cracked his knuckles. “Gog not like thieves.”
In that moment, Serena wondered if perhaps Korash, who had been remarkably silent this day, had answered her prayers after all.
“Gog,” she said, feeling her own smile spread across her face. “I wonder if you would mind assisting me with something…”
The last of the bandits hurled through the air in a flailing mass of arms and legs. He crashed into one of the camp’s makeshift tents, smashing it into a flattened mess of shattered poles and moth-eaten fabric. Serena waded through the wreckage after him, slamming her knees down on his chest and forcing her blade up underneath his chin.
“I pray that Korash has taught you a lesson today,” said Serena.
The bandit’s eyes rolled in their sockets as he tried to focus on the razor sharp edge of the glowing sword.
“Um,” he said.
“You and your friends will clear out of here and find something productive to do with your lives.”
“Yes,” said the bandit, who seemed to be fighting the urge to nod.
“If I find that you have resumed your thieving ways, I will come after you. When I do, pray that Korash will be merciful, because I will not be.”
“Very…” the bandit swallowed carefully. “Very generous terms. Yes.”
Serena cuffed him on the side of the head, removed her sword, and stood up. A moment later, the bandit rolled out of the wreckage of the tent and, with a hand clasped over his throat, ran off after his cohorts. Gog waved as he departed.
“Thank you for your help,” said Serena, sheathing her sword. “You are a righteous…person…who walks in the light of Korash.”
“Half-ogre,” said Gog, smiling and thumping his chest.
“Ah, that explains it.” Serena shielded her eyes and consulted the sun. “Alas, I must be going. I will need to travel with all speed if I am to reach the baroness’s manse in time.”
“Gog go with Serena,” said Gog.
“I don’t want to keep you from your family.”
“It all right,” said Gog. “Blue Creek not far. Maybe Serena find more bandits or other things on way. Gog not want Serena to fail mission.”
Serena smiled. “Thank you. It’s this way.”
She jogged off across the remnants of the camp to the far side of the canyon. Gog followed after her, easily keeping pace with his loping gait.
They reached Baroness Janessa’s manse just as the sun touched the horizon. The guards on the perimeter wall shouted warnings at their approach, taking aim on them with their bows.
“This happen to Gog a lot,” said Gog, a touch wistfully.
“Me, too,” said Serena.
They exchanged smiles as a heavily-armored man appeared atop the wall overlooking the gatehouse. “Turn back, monsters, or be destroyed.”
Very slowly, Serena reached into her belt and withdrew the scroll case. “I am Serena, aspirant paladin of Korash, and I…”
“What about him?” said one of the archers, gesturing at Gog with her nocked arrow.
“Gog!” shouted Gog. Several of the archers ducked in response.
“He is my traveling companion,” said Serena, failing to keep the irritation from her voice.
After a moment of furtive whispering, the armored man cleared his throat. “That will be more than enough of that, is that understood?”
“Yes, sir,” said the archers, though they continued to hold their bows at the ready.
The armored man leaned over the parapet. “I am sorry for the hostile greetings, lady paladin. I am Kelek, captain of the baroness’s personal guard. What business brings you here?”
That was more like it. “I bear an important missive for Baroness Janessa from Baroness Tyia of Bellhaven.”
This caused quite a stir atop the gate. Serena thought she heard one of the archers say, “she’s sending paladins now?”
Captain Kelek motioned the archers to silence before saying, “you and your companion are both welcome in the baroness’s house. Please do me the courtesy of meeting me in the courtyard. I will be down shortly.”
Serena waited patiently as the portcullis lifted up before proceeding through the gatehouse into the courtyard. Gog followed along after her, smiling broadly up at the archers watching from the parapet.
The captain descended the steps from the wall and hurried over to join them, pausing to bow deeply as he approached. “I hope that you found the roads here to be easy.”
“There were bandits in the canyon that gave us some trouble,” said Serena, “but Gog and I were able to take care of them.”
Gog popped his neck amiably, causing the captain to flinch a little.
“If you should require rest, food, or the attention of a healer,” said the captain, “I would be happy to provide them for…”
Serena shook her head. “My only wish is to fulfill the terms of my most holy quest, bringing honor to my order and grave tidings to the baroness.”
She held out the scroll case to Captain Kelek, who bit his lip and looked down at the paving stones.
“May I present this missive to the baroness,” said Serena, “or do you wish to take it yourself?”
The captain swallowed and took a deep breath before lifting his eyes to Serena’s. “I am sorry that you have been dragged into this, lady paladin. It was bad enough when the baronesses were sending messengers and sellswords through the canyon, but now that they’re sending paladins, well…”
Captain Kelek coughed into his fist. “Do you think you and your companion could move quietly and with some discretion?”
She and Gog shared a glance. “It will be difficult, but I think we can if the need is great.”
Captain Kelek flexed his fingers and took the scroll from Serena’s outstretched hand. “If you will follow along about ten paces behind me and say nothing, I will do you the honor of arranging for a proper explanation.”
They were at one end of a hallway decorated with thick tapestries. Captain Kelek was some distance ahead of them at the far end of the hall, by a finely-carved wooden door. He raised a finger to his lips before tapping the scroll case on one of the panels.
“Enter,” came a voice.
The captain obeyed, leaving the door partially open. Through it, Serena saw a well-appointed suite with many high windows. An older, human woman in a dress of green brocade sat by a game table and sipped wine from a goblet. Serena made out the carved pieces of some game or other standing beside the woman’s elbow.
“My lady,” said the captain as he took a knee. “Baroness Tyia has sent a paladin to deliver her latest missive.”
The baroness looked off to her right, letting the red rays of the setting sun pour across her face.
“Well, she’s certainly waited until the last possible moment,” she said, taking the scroll case from her captain. “After all this waiting, we do hope that this missive proves to be more interesting than the last one.”
As the baroness opened the case and unrolled the scroll, Captain Kelek cleared his throat. “My lady, forgive me. I’m not sure if you heard, but I did say that a paladin brought the baroness’s missive.”
The baroness looked down her nose at the scroll. “Give them the usual fee for their troubles and send them back to Baroness Tyia. We are certain that they should be able to reach her fiefdom by morning light, if they hurry.”
“My lady, I…”
“Ha!” The baroness arose with such speed that the startled captain stood up as well. She turned to face the game board and moved one of the white pieces a few spaces. “Ha! Ha-ha!”
“What she doing?” muttered Gog.
“I don’t know,” said Serena. “But I’m not entirely sure I like it.”
“All this time and that’s the best she could come up with?” The baroness lifted another piece, setting it down in a different position on the board. “Pitiful! We don’t know why we bother. Playing her isn’t even remotely a challenge. She may as well forfeit now, for all the good that this move does her. Captain, inform the scribes that they are to prepare a response for our dear baroness. Tell her that she will lose in two moves. Have the paladin…”
“The paladin” had heard just about enough. Serena pounded down the length of the hallway, the soles of her hobnailed boots ringing out against the tiles. She kicked the door open the rest of the way, sending it against the wall with a satisfying crash. The baroness scurried away from the table as she entered. Serena wondered if her own visage caused the baroness’s retreat, or if Gog, who had to duck down to enter the room behind her, was responsible.
“I am Serena, aspirant paladin of Korash,” roared Serena, her holy sword in her hand. It was not glowing as powerfully as she would have liked, but the aura was nevertheless present.
“Well met,” said the baroness, her voice a squeak. “You have discharged your duty nobly, oh paladin, and we are…”
Serena whacked the game board with the flat of her blade, scattering the pieces. “Silence!”
“All right,” whispered the baroness.
“You and Baroness Tyia have wasted my time. You have wasted the time of your previous messengers. You have put us all into dire peril. You have distracted my friend here from an important trip to visit his family…”
“Gog not mind,” said Gog.
“…all so that you can play this game?!”
“When you put it that way,” said the baroness. “It does seem rather…frivolous.”
“This ends now!”
“Yes.” The baroness gave a birdlike nod. “Of course.”
“I will make a full report to the paladins at my temple. We will be watching you and the Baroness Tyia from now on. If I ever hear of either one of you doing something this wasteful ever again, both of you will lose!”
To punctuate the warning, Serena hurled the game board through the nearest window. The captain covered his head to shield himself from the glass shards, but even though she was at the highest point of her dudgeon, Serena detected the ghost of a smile on his face.
“You are welcome to stay the night,” said Captain Kelek as he escorted them both to the gates.
Serena shook her head. “No. Your offer is generous, but I am certain that the baroness no longer wants me around. I will not stay any place that I am not welcome.”
“Fair enough,” said the captain. “I should also warn you that, when she recovers herself, she will not have kind things to say to your superiors.”
“I am aware of that,” Serena sighed. “I sometimes worry that I am far too prone to violence to be a proper paladin.”
“Gog not think so,” said Gog. “Serena good paladin. Serena help make people better. Baroness need extra help. That why Serena need to yell and throw things. Baroness will remember lesson from Serena.”
She chuckled. “Thank you, Gog. Now do me the honor of allowing me to return your favor and escort you to Blue Creek.”
“That sound fun!” said Gog.
Captain Kelek regarded them with a bemused expression. “Safe journeys.”