Episode 32: 9/18/10
Ashelia Raminas, elf ranger 6/rogue/3
Nineve, human knight/9
Xicar, human cleric/9
Haroldur, human fighter 1/cleric 5/divine knight 3
After we close the portal, we go back to the stinky chlorine room and find 31E has somehow been interfacing with the obelisk. As we approach him he morosely mentions that this chamber would have once housed a reflecting pool, but gesturing to the sludge, it has obviously been contaminated at some point. Still facing the obelisk, he says “This is a Beacon. It is a self-sufficient … recording device.”
31E turns to us, and I swear, if a machine could show emotion, the only one that would describe 31E now would be despair.
“I am forced to face the possibility, however remote, that the Imperium is no more.
I have followed my directives to their termination. Without directives I have no … direction. I am unsure how, or even whether, to proceed.”
His world is obviously shattered. We assure him that he’ll always have a place with us. We also toss in the idea that there is no greater authority than religion, and at least in the Cabal, new directives aren’t hard to come by. At the very least, we convince him to stop being a Melancholy Man-Bot and come with us as we try to find a way out of here.
The smashed doors we found earlier lead to a masonry wall, of fairly recent construction. A large hole has been smashed through it, leaving a litter of rubble along the floor. On the other side of the wall is a storage room. It appears to be little used, but in nothing like the neglect we have seen thus far. Clothing of a staggering variety of shapes, colors and styles litter the room, many of which have been shredded by bestial claws; blood splatters many of the articles. Armor and weapons stand against the far wall, but a cursory examination shows that it would not stand up to simple sparring, much less a life and death struggle. A spreading pool of blood oozes toward us from the other side of the weapon racks.
After a careful examination, we are fairly certain that half a dozen bodies lie in a twisted pile here. They have all been horribly dismembered, in many cases, heads and limbs are dozens of feet away from the rest of the body. It’s pretty obvious the blue slaad I saw when I Sifted the doors did all this, probably right before he attacked us in the chlorine room.
We do a cursory check for valuables, but nothing here seems to actually be worth anything. It’s like everything in this room is a replica of a useful or expensive object.
Leaving the storage room we enter a narrow corridor. Burning torches light the passage and leave sooty stains up the walls. As we proceed, a pudgy man in an ornate and gaudy jacket rounds the corner ahead of us.
There’s no time to hide. To our shock, when he sees us, he shouts, “Finally! Finally, did you get lost? What are you doing down here? The show starts in a few minutes! This way! This way! What kept you? The prince won’t tolerate a delayed performance! Quick, quick, this way!”
We ask what we feel are fairly obvious questions, but the fat man rolls his eyes and mutters something about “method actors”. Eventually we determine that he is the Theater Director Darion Averlander. He insists that we are late, and need to get ready for the performance of L. Frank Baum’s Astonishing Magician of Zor. Protests that we are NOT actors are waived off. Apparently no one is allowed in this area of the palace except the theater troupe, so we must be the troupe. (Mentioning the possibility of arriving in this area via a totally forgotten, long-dormant, extra-dimensional transportation device created by an extinct race of technophiles seems like a bad idea.) Darion Averlander also mentions that if we AREN’T the theater troupe, then he’d have to call the guards, and we’d probably all be hanged. We don’t fancy explaining how we really got here, or how the old theater troupe got slaughtered by slaadi, so we decide that under the circumstances, it’s best to just go along with him.
Darion bustles us backstage and yells “Curtain in five!” before slamming the door and leaving us alone. I use my extensive local knowledge to summon to mind the details of the first act – fortunately, it’s a popular story and everyone is at least vaguely familiar with it. Xicar talks 31E into playing along and not killing anyone. Nineve and Haroldur help with the costumes.
Doria – Nineve
The Mechanical Man – 31E37
The Dog – Dog
Sir Lionheart the Cowardly – Xikar
The Harvester – Haroldur
The Astonishing Magician /The Evil Enchantress – Ashe
The play’s action is narrated from off-stage:
“Our story opens with a young woman, snatched into the air by a dragon and dropped into a strange land, waking to unfamiliar surroundings.”
Nineve/Doria gets dropped from a mechanical crane onto the stage, but fails her reflex save and lands in a heap.
“Doria awakes with a shock, catching her breath and wondering what had happened. Dog puts his cold little nose into her face and whines dismally.”
Somehow Nineve and I manage to make Dog do this.
“The girl gives a cry of amazement and looks about her, her eyes growing bigger and bigger at the wonderful sights.”
Nineve hams it up and does a great job of looking confused and astonished. Given the last few weeks, it’s hardly a stretch.
“The dragon had set her down very gently—for a dragon—in the midst of a country of marvelous beauty. While she stands looking eagerly at the strange and beautiful sights, she notices coming toward her a group of the queerest people she has ever seen. They are not as big as she; but neither are they very small. In fact, they seem about as tall as a well-grown child, although they are, so far as looks go, many years older.”
“When these people draw near to where Doria is standing, they pause and whisper among themselves, as if afraid to come farther. Among them is a tall fellow in robes, he approaches and greets Doria, introducing himself as the King of the Pygmies.”
At this point, a bunch of halflings in wild costumes crowd onto the stage, along with a human with really bad fake elf ears.
“Doria explains her plight and need to return home; the robed fellow directs her to the Astonishing Magician in the Sapphire City of Zor, who is said to have the power to grant a person’s fondest wish, if he decides you are worthy.”
“Doria sets off, and on the way, meets a Harvester (Haroldur), tirelessly toiling in his field. They discuss her search for the Astonishing Magician of Zor, and the Harvester decides to join her, as he too has a wish he would like fulfilled.”
Haroldur takes this opportunity to proselytize, and it comes off awkwardly despite his obvious flair for the dramatic.
“The pair continues, and stumbles upon a Mechanical Man, tirelessly felling trees near the path. The pair tell the Mechanical Man of their journey, and he decides to join them, as he also has a wish he would like fulfilled.”
31E somehow manages to convey this through a truly impressive interpretive dance.
“The trio travels on, but find their way blocked by Sir Lionheart, who guards the path. Sir Lionheart turns out to be quite cowardly, and the trio frightens him quite badly. In sympathy, they tell him of their journey, and he decides to join them, as indeed he has a wish he would like fulfilled.”
Xikar really should’ve been an actor. Oozing charm from every pore, his grand gestures, facial contortions, and impressive vocal range totally steal the scene.
“Suddenly, in a flash of fire, the Evil Enchantress appears, and threatens the travelers with a horrible fate if they continue their search for the Astonishing Magician of Zor, and then vanishes as suddenly.”
Of all people in the crowd, I somehow lock eyes with Marten. The wickedly bemused grin on his face unnerves me a bit, and I fumble my menacing entrance. Fortunately, I manage to pull off the scene with some impressive acrobatic stunts on my exit.
The curtain falls on Act I, and we have a few minutes backstage to prepare for Act II. We find a copy of the script and frantically try to familiarize ourselves with the next part of the play. Suddenly, we’re back on stage.
From off-stage, the narration resumes:
“The foursome arrives at the gates of the Sapphire City of Zor, but the Gate Keeper demands to know their purpose before granting them admittance to the Palace of the Sapphire City.”
They plead their case, and in the end, Xicar seals the deal. The Gate Keeper lets them in.
“There are many people in the Palace—men, women, and children—walking about, and these are all dressed in blue clothes and have bluish skins. They look at Doria and her strangely assorted company with wondering eyes, and the children all run away and hide behind their mothers when they see the travelers; but no one speaks to them.
The Guardian of the Gates leads them through the Palace until they come to a great throne room, exactly in the middle of the palace, which is the Throne Room of Zor, the Astonishing Magician.”
“In the middle of the room is a big throne of blue stone. It is shaped like a chair and sparkles with gems, as does everything else. In the center of the chair floats an enormous head, without a body to support it or any arms or legs whatever. There is no hair upon this head, but it has eyes and a nose and mouth, and is much bigger than the head of the biggest giant.”
“The booming voice of Zor demands to know why the travelers seek an audience.”
The onstage props are pretty good, but verbal intimidation has never been my strong suit. I draw on all the haughtiness of my people, but through the voice apparatus the best I can manage is meek defiance. To my dismay, there is snickering in the crowd. To make matters worse, as soon as Dog hears the distortion in the voice apparatus, he startles. For an instant, I’m afraid he’ll run off stage, but Nineve and I manage to keep him where he’s supposed to be. In the end, all his growling and hackle-raising at the fake magician head really works for the performance.
“Each of the quartet then, in turn, explains just what it is that they seek from the Astonishing Magician.”
Xicar and Nineve are turning into full-blown thespians. They eloquently state their cases in heart-wrenching monologues. 31E’s acting is pretty mechanical (har-har), but it works for his character. Haroldur once again manages to turn his part into a pitch for Wee Jas, requesting that the Astonishing Magician spread the word of the Ruby Lady’s ultimate power throughout the Kingdom of Zor. As devout servants of Wee Jas, even we are rolling our eyes at his heavy-handedness. There are a few groans from the audience. This has to stop.
“Satisfied, the booming voice of Zor tells the travelers that he will grant their wishes if they return with the hat of the Evil Enchantress. Dismayed, the travelers leave the Sapphire City to find the Evil Enchantress.”
With Act II behind us, we’ve finally reached the halfway point. As far as I’m concerned, it can’t end soon enough. For elves, art appreciation is innate. I know what good acting looks like, which makes my mediocre performance all the more cringe-worthy. To make matters worse, with my superior elven senses, I’m forced to see and hear everyone in the crowd: watching us, scrutinizing us, judging us. It’s very unsettling. Xicar and Nineve seem to be having the time of their lives, however. We have just enough time to argue with Haroldur about the proselytizing. He’s very stubborn, but we manage to convince him to tone it down a bit because he’s turning people off. Wee Jas or no, it’s within the Prince’s power to execute bad actors. We haven’t survived this long to be sent to Ocanthus for poor dramatic interpretation of a popular children’s story.
We barely have time to get to our places before the curtain goes up for Act III:
“Soon the Sapphire City is far behind, as the travelers near the Yellow Castle of
the Evil Enchantress. Suddenly the gates of the Yellow Castle burst open and a horde of the Enchantress’s slaves, lead by her Champion, rush to defeat the travelers.”
The human with the fake elf ears and the throngs of halflings from earlier have been transformed into the Enchantress’s army. The heroes duck behind a rock, hiding them from the army but in full view of the audience, and pantomime a plan.
“As Doria and the Harvester sneak past, Sir Lionheart and the Mechanical Man face the
Champion and his slaves in a fierce battle!”
Fake fighting is different than real fighting. Xicar fumbles at first, but quickly picks up on how it’s done, thanks to the “bad guy” actors. However, he’s not the one I was worried about. 31E was cutting a swath through the swarm of halflings; his fluid, efficient motions spoke of cold, lethal accuracy. For a moment, I thought he was actually killing the halflings! Then, I noticed he was missing them by the narrowest of margins, as only a machine could have done. I breathed a sigh of relief, and the sound alerted me to the fact that I wasn’t the only one who had been fooled: The audience held their breath, gaping at the Nimblewright’s beautiful and deadly display. There is a stunned silence for a moment after the last of the Enchantress’s minions fall, and then the crowd erupts into applause! After a few moments, the cheers die down and the Narrator continues.
“While the battle rages at the gates, Doria and the Harvester sneak into the Evil
Enchantress’s castle to face the villain. The Enchantress threatens them with her
wicked might, promising them a horrible demise, as the valiant pair and their loyal hound defend themselves.”
We spar back and forth, enjoying the chance to blow off a little steam. We involve Haroldur enough to sell the scene, but the real fight is between me and Nineve. Using the entire stage, we go all-out, her massive defense and hefty blows against my acrobatic mobility and blindingly-fast flurries. We revel so much in this friendly brawl that we momentarily forget that I’m supposed to be an evil old enchantress, not an elven warrior, and Nineve is a dainty young heroine and not an imposing knight. Fortunately, the Narrator snaps us back to reality:
[nervous throat-clearing] “Just as all seems lost, Doria’s faithful hound leaps upon the Evil Enchantress, giving the heroes their chance to defeat her!”
Dog has been following us the whole time, jumping around us in excited circles. We use this to our advantage and manage to get him to “attack” me. He jumps up and knocks me over, and I roll around encouraging him to play-growl at me as I pretend to try to fight him off. We somehow get him to keep the face-licking to a minimum.
The curtain falls and we regroup for Act IV. That last act went really well, and we know it. Soon, we’ll be finished with this nonsense. Time slows to a crawl as we wait for Act IV to begin.
“The heroes, triumphant, return to the throne room of the Astonishing Magician of
Zor, to present the hat of the Evil Enchantress and claim their rewards. The floating head of the Astonishing Magician greets the heroes and congratulates them on
I’m a little more familiar with the voice apparatus now, so I manage to embarrass myself slightly less. Since I’m offstage, I shrug to myself. It’s passable, at least.
“Each of the travelers steps forward to claim their reward and thank the Astonishing
Eloquence all around! Well, except for 31E, but it works. Everyone makes a great show and I only have to give Dog a stern look once to keep him from running over to me. We wrap up the scene. To my incredible relief, the curtain falls, signaling the end of the play.
Then, we hear something I certainly didn’t expect – thunderous applause! The stage manager and other actors bustle us out and back a couple of times for curtain calls, some actually crying with pride at the standing ovation. I’m too dumbstruck to do anything but bow stiffly, but Haroldur, Nineve and Xicar look gratified, bashful, and triumphant, in that order. Dog’s vigorous tail-wagging spreads up the better part of his body.
As we’re gathering our stuff backstage to leave, the Theater Director bursts in, beaming and hugging everyone. The play was a smashing success, and we have been invited to be the Prince’s guests at his Gala Ball & Feast. He hands each of us a formal, engraved invitation, and suggests we change out of our costumes and not keep the Prince waiting. Then he exits stage left.
We look at each other. We’re wearing torn, bloodstained clothes and battered armor. We’re all covered in a mix of blood, dirt and about a dozen other things none of us wants to name. I can’t remember the last time I had a real bath. We don’t have time to solve any of these problems properly, but declining the invitation is not an option.
Nineve gives us a quick rundown of what is expected, namely, no magic, no weapons, bring a gift, and be on your best behavior. She gives me a brief description of appropriate attire, and I quickly rummage through the costumes and props backstage until I find suitable outfits for everyone.
We clean up as best we can and change hastily as we make last-minute decisions about what we have on our person which we can reasonably give to a prince. This is a little dicey since we left the Cabal loaded for bear, and in the intervening time we haven’t exactly been shopping for knick-knacks. We decide to leave 31E behind with Dog and the strange canister – making excuses for him will be easier than trying to explain why he came to the Gala “in costume”. At last, we’re ready.
An armored guard leads us down a richly appointed corridor. Heavy carpets muffle our steps, and exquisite tapestries hang along the walls. The illuminated panels usually found in Imperium structures are missing, replaced with bright lanterns burning perfumed oils. The guard escorts us to a brightly lit and opulent ballroom. The ballroom is full of guests milling about in small groups, talking quietly. Several guests carry wrapped packages cradled under their arms.
During the gift giving the servants flutter about with wine and trays of lightly roasted almond biscuits of exquisite taste. At least, that’s what Xicar says as he gingerly grabs a biscuit from almost every passing tray!
A noble comes up to the group and strikes up a conversation about the play. Nineve and Xicar chat with him, but don’t seem to gain much ground.
After a few minutes the Crown Prince arrives amid great fanfare, with his Jester alongside. The Jester blows on a battered flute to attract everyone’s attention, but it is a needless move, as all eyes are focused on the Prince. The Jester clears his throat, and speaks in a surprisingly strong and deep voice: "My lords, ladies, and other honored guests! Prince Mariss bids you welcome!” The strange little man looks around, leers at some of the guests, and continues, “You may now present your gifts to honor the Prince!” and then steps back, gesturing toward a low table as the other guests reach into folds in cloaks and pockets.
We get in line to present our gifts to the Prince. It seems presentation is just as important as the object presented, and I get a little nervous as our turn approaches. Haroldur goes first, presenting a red Adura crystal he’s had at the bottom of his pack for I don’t know how long. It’s pretty and exotic enough to spark interest; his eloquent pitch makes it seem even more mysterious and practically invaluable. I’m next. I apologize for my ignorance of human customs (this always seems to work), and explain that among my people, a fine weapon is a sacred gift. With a reverence for my blades which comes naturally, I present him with Aernin and Earthdu, the pair of swords I retired when I took up Icosiel’s arms. Fortunately for me, Prince Mariss knows a good blade when he sees one, and I sense with relief that my gift is well-received.
Nineve presents an intricately carved adamantine bracer. Because of her noble upbringing, these social gestures seem to come naturally to her, and she pulls it off with aplomb. Xicar steps up with a twinkle in his eye. He’s in showman mode. With a flourish, he produces a metallic belt we found in the Nexxus. As he recounts in very vague terms it’s mysterious but undoubtedly ancient provenance, he holds it up for inspection, allowing it to jingle faintly. By the time he hands it over, half the nobles in the room are craning their necks to get a better look at this “priceless artifact of a bygone era”… I have to hand it to him, he really knows how to play to a crowd!
We mill about for the remainder of the gift-giving. After the presentation of gifts, the Jester leads the guests to the coat room, and out of the ballroom and onto a long snow-covered balcony, overlooking the great city below. The prince is standing at the far end of the lawn, holding a skull carved from dark, exotic wood, and set with glittering gems. At his feet are numerous differently-colored balls.
The Jester blows on his whistle again, “And now my friends, a brief game as the ballroom is prepared for dinner! The prince shall throw his glittering treasure (whom I call Jack) to the far end of the garden. The rest of you shall toss one of these polished orbs. The thrower who comes the closest to Jack shall be declared the winner, and gets to take him home!”
The Prince makes his throw, and the skull lands near the far end of the garden, about 50 feet away. Each guest that wishes to participate selects a colored ball, and makes their throw, Marten does not participate, actually, he seems to have been avoiding us all evening. During the sport, servants pass around gingerbread men without heads. Xicar mentions a few times that these are also very good. The evening grows late as the game ends, and the sun sinks behind the horizon.
As we’re waiting for our turn to throw, an impromptu round of boasting begins among the nobles. Haroldur, Nineve and Xicar join in, but an old fellow with a large mustache wins hands-down with his outlandish bravado.
The boasting circle breaks up and a pair of handsome (for humans) young nobles approach Nineve and me. We have an engaging and well-informed discussion of the intricacies of criminal justice in Caledon, and the men seem impressed by our understanding of the legal code. At last, it’s our turn to throw.
The distance, and the ball’s awkward balance make it quite difficult to throw accurately. Nevertheless, we all give it a go. Nineve and I get pretty close, along with a handful of other guests. When the measuring sticks come out, it’s determined that Nineve is the winner! She gets to keep the gemmed skull as her prize, and everyone seems very impressed with her.
The evening grows late as the game ends, and the sun sinks behind the horizon. We are ushered back inside.
The grand ballroom has been transformed in our brief absence. A tremendous table of polished wood now dominates the room, and portraits and landscapes of great quality have been hung along the walls. The Jester bids the guests to be seated. Each setting bears a name on a card, and a dazzling array of cutlery, including ten different spoons.
Haroldur and Xicar look thoughtful for a moment, as if trying to remember the proper etiquette. It appears they do. Thanks to her upbringing, Nineve just instinctively knows what each bizarrely-shaped utensil is for. I have no idea. Fortunately, I am able to fake it convincingly by closely observing the people around me.
The Jester makes a jab about Xicar’s poor roll during the Bowling for Heads, but he comes back with such a witty retort that the rest of the room chuckles at the Jester.
As the guests are seated, the servants pass roasted bird glazed in honey and spices amongst the guests. The Jester clambers upon the great table, and tells an amusing tale about a dryad whose tree is unknowingly transplanted into a bitter noble’s garden, and of the delightfully ironic fate she devises for the man. When the tale is done, the Jester bows and takes his seat, at which point the Prince invites any other guests to tell a tale if they wish.
None of the guests do, but Nineve and Haroldur each share an anecdote that is even more engaging than the Jester’s tale. Again, everyone seems very impressed.
For the second course, the servants bring each guest a small and delicately sugared almond pie filled with minced meats, along with vegetables and wine. While the guests are dining, the Jester once again clambers onto the table and plays a jaunty tune on his battered flute. When he finishes, the Prince invites any of the other guests to share a song if they like.
The wine is especially potent, which is probably why Xicar and I decide to each share a song. Xicar sings a sea shanty (where does he come up with this stuff??), and I sing a traditional elven feast song. Neither of us blows anyone away with our hidden musical talent, but we at least manage not to embarrass ourselves.
A noble across from Xikar begins boasting of his amazing accomplishments, much to the amusement of his neighbors. Fortunately Xicar sees right through his claims, and avoids the embarrassment of being strung along by a pompous ass.
As the second course is being cleared away, the Jester decides to pick on Haroldur about his attire. His outfit is the least polished of the four of us, but he is still well-dressed and doesn’t look the least bit out of place. Haroldur brushes off the jab gracefully.
The Jester announces the third course as a recipe of the Prince’s own, delectable bastistirdge for all! The servants bring out steaming plates heaped with a curious dish apparently involving roasted stirge stuffed with ground basilisk steaks. A trio of olives is impaled on each stirge proboscis. A single taste of the dish is enough to realize the entire thing is remarkably foul.
As the course begins we all do our best to cover up our distaste of the dish. Thankfully, the prince also realizes the dish is horrible, and declares the third course finished after only a few bites. The servants quickly clear the failed dish away. I manage to avoid eating any (the smell was enough!), and I don’t think anyone noticed.
The wife of a wealthy nobleman, seated next to Haroldur, begins making awkward advances, as a result of her indulgence in drink. The lady’s husband takes offence, but Haroldur deftly smooths the situation over without insulting either party.
As the fourth course begins, each guest is presented with a crystal bowl. Within shudders a strange purple jelly. The Jester observes that purple worms are infamous for their deadly poison, but there exist recipes for turning that poison into a delightful delicacy. If done correctly, it is delicious, but should the chef make a mistake, the result is deadly. The Jester wonders if any of the guests is brave enough to taste the dish before the prince puts his health at risk for deliciousness. The nobles shift uncomfortably in their seats, but we’re fearless. A little food poisoning never hurt anyone, right? The four of us dig in without hesitation, and the jelly is actually quite tasty and perfectly safe. It is served with a particularly potent iced wine, which I sip nonchalantly as the embarrassed nobles take their first bites of the aspic. They all seem impressed by our bravery; I wonder what kind of lives they must lead if trying new foods qualifies as a brave act!
As desert is being brought out, I look over an notice that Nineve is trashed! While I’m distracted, one of the servants accidentally spills wine into my lap! I chide myself for not dodging it in time, but manage to take the mistake gracefully.
Finally, as the last bowls of purple worm aspic are cleared, the smell of cloves, honey, and cinnamon waft into the ballroom as a troupe of servants enter with a nearly eight-foot-tall cake. The cake itself is shaped like the city of Istivin, but crowned with a figure of the prince atop the tallest tower. Everyone applauds loudly as the cake is levered onto the table, but as they do, the cake begins to fall apart! Large rents appear on the side, and several towers fall onto the table.
The figure of the prince topples and tumbles down the side of the cake in an avalanche of frosting. The sugar prince’s head snaps off, and rolls across the table to land in Xikar’s lap! The Prince glares at him, and it’s obvious that he’ll be offended if Xikar can’t come up with some way to redirect his ire at the symbolism.
The irony causes a few stifled chuckles and giggles, but for the most part the guests do an admirable job covering their amusement. We all do our best to hide our reaction, but the anger in the Prince’s eyes is palpable. Perhaps a little humor could defuse the situation?
Xicar announces that the Prince sure seems to be getting AHEAD these days, as he’s always coming out ON TOP. As he tosses the candy head back towards the prince and the jester (who catches it), he remarks that it is truly generous of the Prince to share with us all a little of his good fortune. He ends his little speech with such a winning smile that even the Prince has to shake his head and chuckle. The Jester actually claps.
With the conclusion of the great feast, the Jester calls for a round of dancing. The servants quickly clear the ballroom, the Jester joins several other musicians as the guests pair off and begin a complex series of steps and turns. With a glance, Haroldur, Xicar and I silently agree to seize this opportunity to make a discreet exit. Nineve is too loaded to protest, so we quietly escort her out of the ballroom and head back to the backstage area to join up with 31E and Dog.