Posts tagged with "roleplaying game" - Faerye Net 2011-03-24T15:33:47+00:00 Felicity Shoulders A little ambition is a dangerous thing 2011-03-24T15:33:47+00:00 2011-03-24T16:35:00+00:00 <center><img src="" width="236" height="500" alt="8-year-old gaming sketch" /></a><br /> <em>A drawing I did of an Exalted character c. 2003. &#8220;Good enough&#8221; for what?</em></center> <p>I&#8217;ve never thought much of myself as an artist. All right, that&#8217;s a lie: as a child, I thought I was pretty awesome. But I was also pretty sure I would someday find a magic sword in a stone, so take my cherished beliefs with all the salt you like. And even then, I could tell that I didn&#8217;t have an overpowering natural gift: it took a lot of work for me to get a drawing up to second-place snuff, when the first-place kid tossed his off in no time. I admit, this may have discouraged me. While my mom, herself dissuaded from trying at art at a young age, forbade me to say I was &#8220;bad at drawing&#8221;, I decided to be cheerfully &#8220;mediocre at drawing&#8221; or at best &#8220;okay at drawing&#8221;.</p> <p>In my adult life, I mostly use the &#8220;okay&#8221; drawing skills I nursed through Drawing classes and Scientific Illustration activity to draw my <a href="" target="links">roleplaying game</a> characters. (It&#8217;s okay, if you were on this website you would have worked out that I&#8217;m a giant dork eventually.) My spotty skills are enough, usually, to falter out a much-corrected portrait of my character that satisfies me. The clothes are usually just right. Often I am pleased with the face. The pose is almost always awkward.</p> <p>I made the dreadful mistake of showing these things to my friend <a href="" target="links">Lee Moyer</a>. Lee is an immensely talented and prolific professional artist and illustrator. Very professional. I can&#8217;t remember why I committed the mad act of showing him my sketchbook, but probably because we were going to <a href="" target="links">Ambercon</a> together, and he would inevitably see me scribbling at some point. Might as well preemptively show him the whole ugly mess, I must have thought.</p> <p>Well, he didn&#8217;t cry out in horror, and to my knowledge he didn&#8217;t lose sanity points. Instead, he did the next-worst thing: he encouraged me. He told me that with more discipline, I could draw well. He told me that with better tools, I could draw more quickly. Somehow I&#8217;d managed to get my innate ambition and perfectionism to overlook this one area, but now it has noticed art again, and all may well be lost. Because if I <em>can</em> do well at something, then of course I had jolly well better. All these years, I&#8217;ve been trying to make the individual drawing better without working on my overall skills, without spending time preparing, working things out, or getting references. The end results may have been within my bounds of satisfaction, but they could have been much better much faster if I&#8217;d been willing to work on my drawing as a whole and give the activity a little more time.</p> <p>Now that I am ambitious about drawing again, it&#8217;s hard to believe I managed not to be for so long. I try to imagine someone with just an ounce of talent telling me, &#8220;It&#8217;s okay, I don&#8217;t need to get better at writing: I only use it for my <span class="caps">RPG</span> character journals.&#8221; Why wouldn&#8217;t you get better at something if you could? Why do something if it&#8217;s not worth practicing? What was I thinking?</p> <p>And what am I in for now? (One thing&#8217;s almost certain: you will be seeing a lot more &#8220;cross-training&#8221; posts about the similarities between writing and visual art.)</p> Ambercon Northwest FAQ 2010-11-09T18:02:43+00:00 2010-11-09T18:18:42+00:00 <p>In my new vein of <a href="" target="links">attempts at unusual con reports</a>, here is a report on what I&#8217;ve been doing since last Thursday (since I&#8217;ve not been blogging, or even reading twitter, or responding to many emails&#8230;) I was at <a href="" target="links">Ambercon Northwest</a>, a gaming convention dedicated to the worlds of <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780380809066'>Roger Zelazny&#8217;s Amber</a> and the <a href="" target="links">Amber Diceless Roleplaying System</a>. It is held at McMenamin&#8217;s <a href="" target="links">Edgefield</a> and it is <em>awesome</em>. Only read ahead if you care at all about Amber and/or gaming.</p> <h1>Questions most often asked of me at my first Ambercon Northwest</h1> <p><em>Questions not asked: I can&#8217;t recall fielding any questions about my hair, which is unusual. Even at World Fantasy I got questions about my hair, and out in the workaday world, it&#8217;s almost daily.)</em></p> <p><strong>Aren&#8217;t you a little young for Amber? How&#8217;d you get into this?</strong><br /> At the first meeting of my critique group, <a href="" target="links">Dave Goldman</a> prefaced a comparison to Amber with &#8220;This would only occur to someone of my generation&#8221;, and I had to show him the margin note where I&#8217;d written the same thing. I think I&#8217;m an honorary member of the sci-fi-reading class of 1971, since the way I read science fiction as a child and even as a teen was to go to my father and ask for a book. Sometimes I even held my hands out in a ritual gesture, waiting to receive the next Science Fiction Book Club hardback. This is why I&#8217;m Generation X/Y (cusp!) and my childhood SF favorites were by Asimov, Simak, and Zelazny.</p> <p><strong>How did you find out about Ambercon?</strong><br /> The fabulous <a href="" target="links">Lee Moyer</a>, illustrator extraordinaire, posted his latest <a href="" target="links">Tarot-inspired T-shirt design</a> for Ambercon Northwest on Facebook. I was immediately mad to know more. Amber? Con? <span class="caps">NORTHWEST</span>? (As it happened, Lee ended up coming to <span class="caps">ACNW</span> for the first time this year himself, after years of designing their shirts, and we saved the universe together at least once.)</p> <p><strong>You&#8217;re from Portland?</strong><br /> Oh yes.</p> <p><strong>How did you not know Ambercon existed then?</strong><br /> I DON&#8217;T <span class="caps">KNOW</span>. I&#8217;m starting work on a theory of geek insularity, though, thankee very much!</p> <p><strong>Which was your favorite game?</strong><br /> <em>(Look of slack-jawed indecision)</em><br /> I think next year I&#8217;ll do even more Amber games. There are non-Amber games that Amberish people would enjoy &#8212; mostly using the system or diceless &#8212; and those were fab as well, but there&#8217;s something about Amber. Still, I didn&#8217;t regret signing up for a one, even the one I found out afterwards was a <span class="caps">LARP</span> (my first.) That one, trying for a <em>Princess Bride</em> feel, was <strong>hilarious</strong>.</p> <p><strong>Are you enjoying your first Ambercon?</strong><br /> Ambercon was a busy, fabulous, full four days of top-notch gaming. I can see why people cross continents and oceans to get to it. I want to come next year, and run games, and stay at Edgefield so I don&#8217;t have to drive home every night, and come the next year, and help the organizers out&#8230;I&#8217;m sort of in love. May all roads <em>always</em> lead to Amber!</p> Coincidental magic 2010-10-08T16:03:22+00:00 2010-10-08T16:05:18+00:00 <p>I&#8217;ve been thinking recently of the roleplaying game <a href="" target="links"><em>Mage: The Ascension</em></a> (don&#8217;t run, non-gamers!) This game and its fellow supernatural-hidden-under-our-world games were big in the 90&#8217;s (hmm&#8230;do RPGs telegraph bestselling novel genres of the next decade?), and Mage was one of my favorites. The premise was basically that the world runs on consensual reality, and magic is only impossible because most humans have been deeply convinced it is. If a strong-willed magic worker manages to do something obviously &#8220;impossible&#8221; (like turn a vampire into a lawnchair) in front of non-supernatural witnesses, the universe smacks the mage down with the force of humankind&#8217;s collective disbelief. The only dodge is to make the magic seem vaguely plausible &#8212; &#8220;coincidental&#8221;, as the game puts it.</p> <p>Why have I been thinking about this? Because I think the internet is upping our collective weirdness tolerance. I personally have seen zombies, and even had them flail against my car (I think they were mad I was laughing instead of frightened.) and the same day witnessed a band of semi-armored zombie-hunters stalking around 11th and Burnside. Improv Anywhere creates <a href="" target="links">temporal folds</a> that only Mages with advanced Time skills could match, not to mention <a href="" target="links">freezing 200 people</a> in a train station.</p> <p>All I&#8217;m saying here is that thanks to the internet, the collective belief of the people is a little more stretchy. Next time you think you might have to turn bullets into butterflies or punch through stone, have a friend bring a videocamera. When you next find yourself fighting zombies in Pioneer Courthouse Square or disassembling the Man&#8217;s robotic minions in full view of a schoolbus, yell &#8220;<strong><span class="caps">FLASHMOB</span></strong>&#8221; first! If people still seem genuinely freaked out, try doing a little bit of the Thriller dance. That should change any bystander from organ of the collective banality and stodginess of the universe to an embarrassed giggler ready to recount this &#8220;weird event&#8221; to their co-workers.</p> <p>Go out there and be magic, people! It&#8217;s totally coincidental.</p> Anybody's roleplaying game need a creepy house full of rats? 2008-08-02T10:11:58+00:00 2008-08-02T10:19:29+00:00 <p>Because the real world <a href="" target="links">has one for you</a>.</p> <p><em>shudder</em></p> <p>Via <a href="" target="links">boingboing</a>.</p> My mailbox has size classes! 2005-10-04T10:21:20+00:00 2010-02-01T15:38:11+00:00 <p>In Outlook 2003, when you sort by size of message, it gives little category headers. &#8216;Tiny&#8217;, &#8216;Small&#8217;, &#8216;Medium&#8217;, &#8216;Large&#8217;, &#8216;Huge&#8217;&#8230; Thanks to the wonders of the Intarweb, I don&#8217;t have to check my <em>Dungeons &amp; Dragons Player&#8217;s Handbook</em>&#8230;those are <span class="caps">EXACTLY</span> the progression of size classes which appear in D&amp;D, between Diminutive and Gargantuan. Suddenly getting e-mail at work is way more fun. Messages with Word Docs attached are like goblins! And when I deal with someone&#8217;s gigantic, photo-laden PowerPoint presentation and delete the file when I&#8217;m done? I&#8217;m slayin&#8217; giants.</p><p>Aww yeah.</p> The Branch that Beareth Not, Part VI 2004-03-23T15:38:48+00:00 2010-12-18T15:51:36+00:00 <p><em><a href="">&larr; Part V</a></em></p> <p>&#8220;Marina,&#8221; Anthea sobbed. This whole day had been a phantasmagoria, something she could scarcely follow, let alone believe in &#8212; but here, suddenly, was something, someone, real and familiar. She wept softly, and cupped the ghost&#8217;s cold, watery hands in hers. &#8220;Is this real, then? Are we both here, and lost?&#8221;</p><p>&#8220;Yes, my friend,&#8221; breathed Marina in a whisper. &#8220;When the Mask took Thorns, he built this place, this palace. He needed servants&#8230;&#8221; The pale shadow raised her head, and Anthea saw a trailing noose wrapped around a ragged neck. &#8220;He likes us to wear our scars,&#8221; Marina smiled ruefully.</p> <p>&#8220;Marina! How can you smile? You must&#8230;fight! Or escape!&#8221;</p> <p>Marina laughed like a breeze over wine bottles. &#8220;I cannot, he binds me somehow. And it is not so bad, to fetch and carry, and be a parlormaid in a dead man&#8217;s palace. Others have not been so fortunate. And you, for you there is still time!&#8221;</p><p>&#8220;Is that what he has planned for me? To be your ghostly fellow here?&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;Oh, no!&#8221; said Marina, her milky eyes wide. &#8220;They said you are special, that you are to be like the Dancer,&#8221; she said, looking around uncomfortably at the word, and rising to a normal girl&#8217;s height in the air. &#8220;Come. They will come for you within the hour, but there is still time. Order me to show you the way, and I think my bindings will let me help you for a while. But we must hurry!&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;There must be a way for you to be released,&#8221; said Anthea, but at Marina&#8217;s impatient urging, she sighed and said, &#8220;I order you to show me the way out of the palace.&#8221; The living girl rose and followed the other from the dark room.</p> <p>How lost she would have been without her ghostly guide! The palace corridors, dim and opulent, seemed to spread and blossom in endless, never-changing profusion. Marina opened each door for her, so she did not have to touch the wood, ill-omened ghost ash that it was. At last Marina made her pause, and passed her own head through an ornate door.</p> <p>&#8220;The great hall,&#8221; she explained in a whisper. &#8220;It&#8217;s clear for the moment.&#8221; With an effort, the little ghost materialized and pushed the door open. Outside it, the well-remembered hall stood empty, giving even its silence a hint of echo. With a <em>frisson</em> of renewed fear, Anthea gathered the spreading skirts of her scarlet gown and trotted along the softly glowing marble, the sound of her steps making a flurry of fleeing footfalls cascade around the room. Marina glided alongside, the great doors growing ever closer ahead.</p> <p>Suddenly, Anthea stopped, and the chorus of pattering feet rolled into silence. She stood staring at the one metal door among all the carved wooden doors in the hall. It stood slightly ajar. Marina appeared at her shoulder. &#8220;Anthea!&#8221; she whispered, &#8220;do come!&#8221; But Anthea was walking slowly towards the door. &#8220;Anthea! I cannot take you there! It is forbidden!&#8221; Anthea&#8217;s hand was on the handle, and the door swung silently inwards. &#8220;Anthea! I cannot guide you there!&#8221; Marina whispered desperately.</p> <p>&#8220;I hear singing,&#8221; Anthea murmured, and took a step into the dark.</p> The Branch That Beareth Not, Part V 2004-02-23T18:41:41+00:00 2010-12-18T15:50:01+00:00 <p><em><a href="">&larr;Part IV</a></em></p> <p>At the base of the great stair, one of the dessicated guards held up a hand to halt the Dancer, and they spoke in a tongue strange to Anthea. The Dancer turned and smiled ruefully. &#8220;You shall have to wait to meet the Mask of Winters, Anthea. He is entertaining an embassy from a mortal city, and will be closeted with them for several hours.&#8221; Seeing her charge&#8217;s crestfallen look, she raised a cold finger to gently lift the girl&#8217;s chin. &#8220;Do not be sorrowful. This only means that we shall have time to array you in keeping with your new state, before you see your destined lord.&#8221;</p> <p>Anthea glanced at her blue silk gown, which had seemed very fine indeed when she left&#8230; wherever it was&#8230; and now seemed not only wrinkled, but faded and plain. She nodded and eagerly followed the chiming sylph along the hall. They passed door after door of black ash, and one that broke the symmetry of the hall by echoing the shape of the others in black steel. She passed it without great curiosity, though, and was drawn through one of the ash doors. The halls beyond were vaulted, of pale quartzite, and hung with tapestries of midnight blue in whose darkness shapes could almost be seen. The corridors were very like, one to the other. No furnishings save the tapestries that swayed restlessly without wind, and a series of closed doors at even intervals. They turned from one corridor into another, and passed through a door only to find a hallway exactly like that they had left. At last, they opened a door onto a suite of chambers panelled with black ash and elegantly furnished. The wardrobe and tables appeared to be inset with ivory, and a faint smell of incense sweetened the chilly air.</p> <p>The Dancer picked up a small bell that lay on a console by an ample bowl of fruit, and rang it &#8211; the note had not yet died when the air was full of servants, conjured from the very walls to tend them. They stripped the blue dress from Anthea, and when she shivered in her shift, lit a pale fire with a gesture, and swathed her in a dressing gown. How strange it was to have one&#8217;s servants pass through you like a shiver to grab an ivory brush on a nearby table &#8211; and then to become flesh, or like it, once more to brush the knots from your hair. The fingers of the dead were cold on her scalp, but nimble, and her hair was put up in a grand coiffure in a trice. Other servants touched her arms with oil of myrrh, and others still brought coffers of jewelry, or delicately washed her face. The Dancer stood by, remarked, and smiled, and she and Anthea laughed as girls do.</p> <p>The servants opened the wardrobe, and brought forth robe after robe, each more opulent than the last. Some were masses of black velvet, others layers of white chiffon so thin they looked like cobwebs. Anthea looked at the Dancer imploringly, unable either to make up her mind or to guess what might best please the Mask of Winters.</p> <p>&#8220;In the land of the living,&#8221; the Dancer said, as if remembering, &#8220;did not brides wear red?&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;Oh yes,&#8221; cried Anthea, &#8220;it is our tradition.&#8221; The Dancer nodded to the servants, and they brought out a dress of deepest scarlet silk, high at the throat, with a full, loose skirt. They pulled it up Anthea&#8217;s arms and clasped it down the front, and it fitted perfectly, tailored tight to her shoulders and arms, and spreading at the waist. She fingered it and admired the scrolls of scarlet embroidery disappearing down the skirt. The swooping spirits buttoned soft leather boots to her small feet. The Dancer herself fit earrings of onyx and rings of carved bone onto her friend, and clapped for the servants to bring forward one particular chest, as Anthea reached hungrily for a bunch of grapes in the fruit bowl before her.</p> <p>&#8220;Your dowry,&#8221; she said, and opened the lid with a touch. She lifted out a veil in sheer black, dotted with beads glistening like black eyes. It was marvelously embroidered, and fixed to a beautiful silver comb, which the Dancer worked into Anthea&#8217;s piled black hair. &#8220;Your mother has an artist&#8217;s hands,&#8221; she offered, and stepped back to let Anthea see herself in the great glass.</p> <p>She was beautiful. Her olive skin, in this pale light, was as smooth as ivory, and her eyes glittered with the bewitching velvet of the night sky behind the somber veil. Her lips were as scarlet as the rich dress she wore, and her girlish form seemed for the first time womanly and regal as she stood in the mansion of the dead. She stood and stared at herself, and saw the Bride in Radiant Mourning, eldritch and lovely, a serenade to Death.</p> <p>The grape fell untasted from her fingers, and even as a servant bent to catch at it, she turned away from the mirror and faced the Dancer of the Silent Grotto with terror in her heart.</p> <p>&#8220;Are you all right, my dear?&#8221; said the Deathknight smoothly, and Anthea smiled weakly, searching for words.</p> <p>&#8220;I have travelled long,&#8221; she faltered, &#8220;and I do not remember how long, or whether, I slept on the way. If&#8230; my lord is not at leisure, perhaps I could rest on this couch a while and meet him thus refreshed.&#8221;</p> <p>The golden eyes of the Dancer met Anthea&#8217;s, seeking to pierce the dusky veil. Anthea stared back at her, hoping her horror did not reveal itself as she stared at the inhumanly beautiful face. She saw that a dark trickle of blood had crept from behind the soulsteel diadem, and the Deathknight had not wiped it away. Then the eyes blinked, and the Dancer nodded, &#8220;Of course you may rest, dear Anthea. I will return for you in an hour.&#8221; She swept away with a sighing melody. The host of shades dispersed as eerily as they had come, and the light of the lamps faded behind them.</p> <p>Anthea dropped with a gasping breath to the settee, and ripped the veil from her head with such energy that her hair fell back into loose curls around her. She pulled off the bone rings with revulsion, and showered the jewelry to the cold marble floor. She almost cried, but here, in the palace of the damned, her voice choked within her. She must escape, somehow, or be given to the Deathlord like some sacrificial ewe. A letterknife caught her eye on the writing desk, and she caught it up, trying to push down the stiff satin cuffs of her grand dress. But no! What good could come of taking her life in this place? What freedom could await her soul, if, liberated from her body, it battered against the walls of this citadel? How could she play death false by running to it? Death had never been her path, and she let the knife fall to the floor.</p> <p>The doorknob turned, and Anthea threw herself on the settee, her face to the wall. &#8220;The Dancer of the Silent Grotto bid me bring you this draught,&#8221; a hollow female voice echoed in the room, and Anthea heard a tray settle against a table. There was a breath of sound, almost a whisper, as the spectral ladies&#8217; maids had made when they moved around her. Anthea turned her head a bit, to see if the shade was gone, and saw in the half-light the pale shape of a girl, hesitating by her couch.</p> <p>&#8220;It <em>is</em> you,&#8221; the dead girl whispered, and Anthea did cry this time, as if she had driven the letter-knife into her heart.</p> <p>&#8220;Marina!&#8221;</p> <p><em><a href="">Part VI &rarr;</a></em></p> The Branch that Beareth Not, Part IV 2004-02-15T13:28:01+00:00 2010-12-18T15:46:11+00:00 <p><a href=""><em>&larr; Part<br /> <span class="caps">III</span></em></a></p> <p>The great doors, cast in the shapes of bare, intertwining branches, opened before Anthea and her companion, as behind them, the lesser servants of the Deathlord&#8217;s house glided unbidden to unload the carriage. With the unnatural quiet of their work behind her, Anthea stepped over the threshold of the dark palace.</p> <p>The wide corridor was floored with smooth, cold stone, and the walls rose in striated shades of grey and white. From them, graceful arms extended, holding tapers whose wicks burned a cool blue and did not consume the wax below. As the softly chiming form of the Dancer whispered by with Anthea drifting by her side like a captive blossom, the arms slowly moved to better light their way.</p> <p>&#8220;We have been expecting you,&#8221; the Dancer of the Silent Grotto said to her charge. &#8220;My lord Mask of Winters is most pleased at your coming, and will doubtless wish to speak with you immediately.&#8221;</p> <p>Anthea did not respond at first, as they had passed into a great open chamber, where the light of the tapers was augmented by a soft glow from the marble underfoot, casting dark, angular shadows up to the vaulted ceiling. On either side, the walls were marked with intricately carved doors of dark wood, between which, every now and then, a shade moved with a tray or a chest, in Mask of Winters&#8217; livery. They were marked from the living or even the grosser dead by a certain paleness, as if they were traced with watercolors where the world was painted in oil. At the far end of the hall, a wide, torch-lit stair in vertebral white spiraled upwards, flanked by liveried guards.</p> <p>The Dancer saw Anthea&#8217;s abstraction, and smiled, &#8220;Is it not lovely?&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;It is beautiful!&#8221; Anthea breathed. &#8220;Never have I seen such a place. But I am a poor friend,&#8221; she made a rueful moue, &#8220;for I little attended when you spoke just now.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;No matter,&#8221; the Dancer replied, &#8220;I said that my Lord Mask of Winters has awaited your coming, and will wish to speak with you. You are a most fortunate girl.&#8221;</p><p>&#8220;Forgive my ignorance,&#8221; Anthea faltered, for the beauty and richness of her surroundings had quite cowed her, and her new friend was likewise awesome, &#8220;but who is this lord? I have heard&#8230;&#8221; she frowned for a moment, &#8220;I have heard someone speak of him before, I think, but I cannot recall who he may be, nor guess why he has condescended to honor me so much.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;All this land is his,&#8221; the Dancer waved her pale, beautiful hand, &#8220;by right of conquest. He is a Deathlord, come with fire and war to release this land from its living torment. His citadel, the undead warbeast Juggernaut, you may have seen betimes. Its pale mass rests outside the walls of Thorns. This,&#8221; and again she spread her hand with a graceful gesture, &#8220;is his other home, a place for retreat and meditation, where the emissaries of living lands can, for a moment, forget his might and see instead his majesty.&#8221;</p> <p>Anthea nodded gravely, &#8220;All this I should have seen, dear friend, but it does not explain why such as I should attract his notice.&#8221;</p> <p>The Dancer&#8217;s smile was piquant. &#8220;My dear, were you not told you were bound for a wedding?&#8221; and with that, she swept on to the staircase, and Anthea followed in a dream of excitement, drawn along by their interwoven arms.</p> <p><em><a href="">Part V &rarr;</a></em></p> The Branch that Beareth Not, Part III 2004-02-13T14:07:46+00:00 2010-12-18T15:44:37+00:00 <p><a href=""><em>&larr; Part II</em></a></p> <p>Anthea fell back onto the dusty cushions of the carriage, disbelief and fear fighting for primacy within her rigid form. <em>What can I do?</em> she finally managed to think. <em>Even if I were free of this carriage and safely away from the ghouls that attend it, then I would be alone and lost in the midst of a Shadowland, whose size and bounds I do not know! And more, at night, when they say that even if you should find the edge of a Shadowland, it gives not on Creation but on the Underworld.</em> &#8220;What do they want with me?&#8221; she whispered, almost sure a spectral head would appear through the dark woodwork to answer her.</p> <p>It might have been a minute or an hour that she had spent tracing circles of confusion, terror and abhorrence in her mind, when she heard a sound without.</p> <p>&#8220;We are almost there, mi-la-dy,&#8221; sang the human footman mockingly, and she started from her misery. The carriage was poorly supplied for a battle, as, indeed, was she. She hefted the lantern and prepared to break it over the head of whatever beast might come to carry her out &#8212; for now, indeed, she feared to be wrenched from the haven of the carriage which had seemed a prison only a few minutes before.</p> <p>The horses&#8217; hooves sounded once again on cold stone, and echoed back and forth in some great space that must, she judged, be a courtyard. The carriage turned, slowed, and halted, and she heard a scrabbling of fingers at the latch without. She raised her lantern high.</p> <p>The door opened, and she saw a smoothly flagged courtyard lit by flickering lamps somewhere beyond her view. The grinning footman&#8217;s mocking smile ducked away before she could be tempted to bring the lantern down upon it, and beyond him she saw, smiling and impassive, a young woman.</p> <p>Or was she young? Her face could have been cut from marble and set on a monument for a mourning muse, but its very smoothness seemed of a type with stone &#8212; not new, but unchanging. Her white-gold hair was coiled behind her head, and long tendrils of it held back from her face by a diadem of dark metal that sat low on her forehead. Her lips, curved into a welcoming smile, were as white as her shining teeth. She wore a wide-skirted, bare-shouldered dress that came to her knees, and was made of hundreds of thin leaves of black soulsteel that chimed and keened when she moved. She moved now, stepping forward and raising a hand for Anthea&#8217;s. &#8220;Good night, and welcome, Anthea di Nassos,&#8221; she said in a soft, low voice.</p> <p>&#8220;Stay back,&#8221; Anthea barked at the malefic figure, but the pale woman only smiled the wider, and raised her face to better study the girl.</p> <p>&#8220;I am the Dancer of the Silent Grotto,&#8221; she said softly, and stared up at Anthea. She had terrifying eyes, the alien eyes of a tiger or an ebon shadow, and just as golden. They were shining and cold, dilated on pools of utter blackness, and Anthea wanted to cry out, to run, do anything rather than stay within their gaze. &#8220;Let us be friends,&#8221; the soft voice said clearly.</p> <p>Anthea smiled like the sun breaking through clouds, and, putting her olive-skinned hand in the Dancer&#8217;s white one, stepped down from the carriage, eager to see her new home.</p> <p><em><a href="">Part IV &rarr;</em></a></p> The Branch that Beareth Not, Part II 2004-02-11T12:38:33+00:00 2010-12-18T15:40:40+00:00 <p><em><a href="">&larr; Part I</a></em></p> <p>Anthea ran from her room and down the long spiral stairs, praying there was something, anything, she could do to save the vineyards. Her bare feet pattered along the stone floors and came to a sudden halt in the atrium, where her parents stood, smiling at each other over the household shrine.</p> <p>&#8220;Mama! Papa! You are back just in time! Did you not see as you came in, the fields are burning!&#8221; she grabbed a nearby urn, dumped the dried flower arrangement from it, and plunged it into the pool to fill it. Her parents turned to face her, still brimming with smiles as with a secret joy. &#8220;Are you mad?&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;Of course not, my dear. We are merely happy,&#8221; said her father.</p> <p>&#8220;Happy?&#8221; she cried in disbelief, frozen to the tiles in her confusion. &#8220;Our fields are burning!&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;The fields are nothing,&#8221; her mother said dreamily, &#8220;a beacon we have lit to light our lord&#8217;s way and greet his coming.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;You&#8230;lit?&#8221; she stared at their sooty faces, and murmured, &#8220;You <em>are</em> mad, both of you!&#8221; she rushed for the door, clutching the urn of water and shaking away a sob. She clumsily pushed at the wood and emerged into a maelstrom of smoke and wind.</p> <p>On either side of the long road that wound up to the villa, the flames leapt, reaching across it occasionally as if the infernos were courting, exchanging caresses. The night sky was light with flame, and it was with horror that Anthea saw that her little nightmare could not be the whole. She turned in dread towards Thorns, and saw smoke and flame playing among the houses. Beyond Thorns, like a storm cloud billowing up out of nothing over the gulf, there was a great pale mass moving and shifting like a gargantuan maggot. Around it, in the dim flickering light, a host of smaller figures ranged, a tide of ants flowing around the walls of the city.</p> <p>Anthea stared at the wrack of all she had known, the vines already beyond her feeble help, the city where she had laughed and danced foundering in the maw of destruction. There was a resounding crash back in the house, and she came to herself, dropping the useless urn and running for the atrium. She shut the great doors with a shudder, as if they could keep the horror out, and turned to see her parents standing over the rubble of their household shrine. Her mother was uncorking a venerable old bottle of wine, and her father drawing a knife.</p> <p>&#8220;What are you doing? Papa! Mama! Grandpa made that wine, you said we were saving it! <span class="caps">PAPA</span>!&#8221; she cried, as her father made a long cut in his own forearm and poured his blood on the ruined altar. Her mother poured the rich wine to mix with the blood, and they murmured lowly. Anthea&#8217;s confusion and fear roiled and turned, and gave way to a stronger passion; rage. She seized the bottle from her mother&#8217;s hands and shoved her against the wall. &#8220;Tell me! What are you doing?&#8221;</p> <p>Her mother&#8217;s eyes seemed to focus, her lips stopped mouthing words, and smiled instead. &#8220;A new life has come, my dear, the life beyond life. Our lord Mask of Winters has answered our prayers and come to Thorns. The glorious death has come to walk the lands of the living and spread its beauty over Creation.&#8221;</p> <p>Anthea stepped back, staring at her mother. &#8220;You joined a death cult.&#8221;</p> <p>Her mother nodded eagerly, &#8220;We came back not just to light this pyre of celebration, but to share our joy with you. The Deathlords have come, my dear! The squalid struggles of past life can subside into the quiet serenity of death.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;No,&#8221; Anthea whispered.</p> <p>Her father spoke for the first time, his brows drawn together over his once-sparkling eyes. &#8220;Mind your mother,&#8221; he growled.</p> <p>&#8220;No!&#8221; she shouted, &#8220;what were we made for, if death is better than the life we were given? Why do you turn from what you are,&#8221; she thrust a hand at the ruined altar and its spreading libation, &#8220;and offer your life to the grave, where it does not belong?&#8221;</p> <p>Her mother shook her head sadly, but her father glowered. &#8220;That&#8217;s enough out of you, young lady. Haven&#8217;t we always taken care of you? Don&#8217;t you know that we shall only do what is best for you? We are older and wiser, and you shall follow the course we have set. Come down with us to Thorns, and we will celebrate the coming of our lord.&#8221;</p> <p>Anthea spit at the feet of her father and ran up the stairs. As she slumped against the bureau she had pushed before the door, she felt dizzy with disbelief at her own rebellion. But, she told her pounding heart and swirling head, she was right, and they were wrong. Whatever had led them to this dark path, it was wrong, and she would not blindly follow. She slowly drank off the last of her grandfather&#8217;s wine and set the bottle on the window sill, where it caught and bent the light of the burning fields and the sack of Thorns.</p><hr /> <p>It had been a week since her door had last opened. She ate sparingly of the little grape vines, caught foul, sooty water with her bedside cup, and kneeled, still and prayerful, hoarding her strength. Her parents came and went, pleaded and threatened, and got no reply. <em>For all I said I would not follow their path,</em> she thought wryly, <em>I will go to &#8216;glorious&#8217; death soon enough.</em></p> <p>&#8220;Anthea, my sweet,&#8221; crooned her mother at the door. &#8220;I need to talk to you.&#8221; she waited. &#8220;Anthea, perhaps we were wrong to try to force you to follow our lord. Faith must come from the heart, as ours does.&#8221; Anthea opened her eyes and stared curiously at the door. &#8220;I know, though you hid it, that you were not over-happy with our plans to arrange a marriage for you. But now that we are at even greater odds, perhaps you shall reconsider?&#8221; </p><p>Anthea&#8217;s heart leapt. Though she was willing to die rather than follow her parents&#8217; new twisted whims, some life, somewhere, would be better than starving here. She stood carefully and leaned against the wall near the door. She cleared her throat and opened her dry lips. &#8220;Away from here?&#8221; she asked shakily.</p><p>&#8220;Away from here,&#8221; her mother agreed. &#8220;We received a formal offer just today from a lord whose lands lie to the East. Will you come down and look, at least?&#8221;</p> <p>With difficulty, Anthea pushed the bureau out of the way, and was relieved to find her mother standing patiently, almost sheepishly without. Her mother supported her on her way downstairs, and gave her a good meal as they pored over the exquisitely calligraphed marriage contract. Anthea barely recognized the name, but it sounded familiar. Doubtless she had danced with him. He was only five and twenty, and his lands were extensive, and, it seemed, far away. She signed with a rising feeling of hope, and went back to her room to pack her things, her denuded grape vines in their pots, her best clothes. The bridegroom, her mother told her, was aware of all the upset in the lands around Thorns, and wished for haste. A carriage would arrive that very week.</p> <p>Anthea and her parents held to a wary truce. She kept to her room so that she would not see their rites, or the shambling servants that brought messages up the dusty road from Thorns. It seemed like a month had passed when the promised carriage finally pulled into the courtyard and the horses stood stamping under her window. Her father stood back, giving a few gruff words of approval and even of gratitude, while her mother cried and carried on. Her trunks were put up behind the grand, old-fashioned carriage, and her mother, with another shower of proud sobs, laid a locked chest atop them.</p> <p>&#8220;Your dowry,&#8221; she smiled through her handkerchief. Anthea smiled back politely, anxious to be away from these people who wore the faces, the dress, and even the manners of her parents, but who had prayed for the destruction and death of their city.</p> <p>She mounted into the carriage without a backward glance, seating herself on the green velvet cushions and arranging the cornflower silk of her best dress. The dark-clad footman secured the trunks and inquired, &#8220;Shall I close the shutters, milady? There is a great deal of blowin&#8217; ash on the roads.&#8221; She nodded, and he bowed and shut the door and the wooden shutters, so that she felt she was inside a slotted lantern with the wick unlit, the afternoon sunlight filtering in in strange patterns and lines. She lit the small lantern hanging within, and opened a book.</p><p>When she awoke, it was from a dream of cities, the sound of cobblestones still ringing in her ears. Of course they wouldn&#8217;t have gone through any cities, and she bent her ears to reassure herself that the sound had been imagined. Indeed, the sound of the horses&#8217; hooves was an odd, soft thud, and the carriage rocked along softly, rather than shaking over paving stones. It did rock uncommonly much, though. Occasionally it lurched &#8211; perhaps just such a lurch had awakened her &#8211; and there was no light outside. How long had she slept? </p><p>She fumbled with the latch of the shutter in the door, and stared out into incomprehensible darkness. Pulling the lantern from its ring, she leaned out into the night, and saw, stretching away on all sides, a fetid, grey expanse of foothills marked here and there with sharp, dark crags. The road flowed along the lowest ground, a pallid ooze that looked horribly like formless flesh, soft and spongy under the horses&#8217; feet. On either side, black, spiky shrubs grew from half-buried somethings or someones that writhed in pain as the roots struck deep into their flesh. A weak glow rose from the unwholesome ground, and among the cruel plants and thin, grey stems of grass, small shapes flittered like the pale ghosts on her eyes at waking. The sky was black and starless. As she gaped, a horseman flanking the carriage spurred forward. She saw his lipless smile open as if to speak, and threw herself back into the carriage, slamming the shutter to. She was in a Shadowland, riding into the heart of decay and death.</p> <p><em><a href="">Part <span class="caps">III</span> &rarr;</a></em></p>