Friday, June 4, 2021

Playing around with Kult's Tarot Rules

I've never played Kult, but someone on Discord (I cannot remember whom) linked to their document about using tarot to build scenarios.

So I did that. Imagine it's for Esoteric Enterprises. It uses Kult's custom tarot deck but with a bit of finagling I was able to make a normal deck of cards work (man i really need to get a good tarot deck)

A forewarning - this got real fuckin' dark when I did it, so I expect others will have similar experiences if they try it out. 

(Wow this one has been delayed)

Individual

  1. Characteristic - Forgetfullness; they are elderly, and their memory is beginning to fail them.
  2. Past - Love; they were a devoted spouse for over forty years.
  3. Ambition - Lust; they have built an idealized image of their beloved in their head, and grief plus the loss of memory has created something new and not altogether healthy.
  4. Weakness - They are violently opposed by the cult.
  5. Strength - They are unflappable, calm, charismatic.

Location

  1. Type - An abandoned orphanage, aligned with dread powers.
  2. Past - Repetition; the drudgery and everyday horror of those who lived here.
  3. Trait - A stairway down, down, down...
  4. Weakness - Old TVs are everywhere; corroded VHS tapes contain mind-numbing subliminals, with overexposure slowly blocking off higher brain functions.
  5. Exceptional Aspect - Gangs of orphans would fight each other for the favor of the staff.

Cult

  1. Power / Ambition - A return to untamed wilderness. Not even that technological civilization is to dismantled, but that higher thought itself must be eliminated.
  2. History - They started as backwoods pilgrims; cast-offs from the meatgrinder of city life and the modern age, looking for some way to escape.
  3. Goal - Pure, thoughtless philosophy; the enlightenment of the zoanthropic man.
  4. Weakness - They have their own enemies in the hall of civic power. No friends of yours, but they have gotten on the scent all the same.
  5. Resource - Cruelty; the orphanage was sponsored by the cult's wealthier members, a testing ground of sorts.

Plot

  1. Power - Scandal; a cult member of some public prominence is revealed, accused of abuses at the orphanage.
  2. Cause - Croudfunding campaign to pay for the victim's legal fees.
  3. Next Move - Wait & see; both the cult and the victim's supporters are waiting for the trial and its verdict before acting. This might still be swept under the rug, or it might still boil over.
  4. Opposition - Those who want to hide the cult's abuses and normalize its existence publicly.
  5. Support - An online community has sprung up to find and support more abuse victims.

Creature

  1. Origin - Torment; formed from the compressed suffering of the orphanage, crawling up out of the darkness of those interminable stairs.
  2. Who Knows? - The first leaks began in the local punk scene - rumors spread by one of the bands, whose lead knows a victim who has not yet come forward. Curious (and often intoxicated) minds have gone out exploring, come back with more rumors.
  3. Drive - To fulfill and spread its purpose; to put the fear of God in people, to perpetuate the cycle that created it.
  4. Weakness - It is hunted, on the run, ragged, desperate. We know not what chases it.
  5. Strength - It changes the environment and people around it, gradually shifting them more and more like the place it called home and the victims it first preyed upon.

Artifact 

  1. Origin - An ancient cipher.
  2. Who looks for it? - A hacker trying to break it.
  3. Danger of use - Susceptibility to law - authorities are aware of this document. There is a watchlist, they will hunt people down.
  4. Primary Power - Fragments, remnants, leftovers; the detrital wisdom of its composer.
  5. Secondary Power - Allure; it drives people to try and solve it.

Compiling The Pieces

The NPC was the founder of the Cult in its early years, but after creating the Cipher (which accelerated the memory loss they would have experienced normally) they fell away from it into obscurity. 

The Cult, as it develops its dogma and spreads its influence, comes into ownership of the Orphanage, which is uses as a testing bed for its experiments into zoanthropy. The abuses by the Cult give rise to the Creature, which escapes into the wild after the Orphanage is abandoned by the Cult.

Some time later, victims of the Orphanage start accusing members of the Cult. The lead-up to the first major trial is currently ongoing. The Creature has been spotted outside of town, wounded (It has been hunted by the NPC, though they do not know precisely why they are so obsessed with killing it). The Cipher has fallen into hands outside the cult and someone you know is working on breaking it, hopefully before the authorities swoop in and make the whole thing disappear.

Well, I think this worked out pretty well.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Delvers'

 

Othman Sahbi

There's a password you have to learn, a taboo that lives in your brain. It slips out of your head and off your tongue like a ball of static. The door at the bottom of the stairwell opens, welcoming you in. You're known by Delver's now, try to make a good first impression.

 

First Impression

The grotty beating heart of the City's occult underworld. The last call before hell, the last homely house, a nest of exposed pipes and graffiti-caked concrete, filled with the haze of demon liquor smoke. It's formed of three tiers, like an inverted ziggurat or a miniature Alighierian hell. The concrete walls are covered in mismatched doors and layers of graffiti. The bar's down at the center of the bottom level, as are the tables. You emerge on the upper ring.

 

These Facts Are Always True:

  • Delvers is (mostly) neutral territory. No feds, no fascists. The Musketeers will handle any disputes that come up.
  • The mismatched doors in the walls and floor of the bottom level lead deeper into the Underworld.
  • Anyone coming up from a successful delve gets first round on the house.
  • Private rooms, item storage, and long-term coffin apartments are available for rent.
  • Basic goods are always available for purchase.
  • Management has the final word. No exceptions.

There are other entries to the Underworld that you know of, but Delvers' is the largest and most stable within reasonable distance - this means that it is very well traveled, so you will be trading secrecy for safety and will lose direct access to more obscure Underworld locales.

Delvers' uses the die drop system by Hex Culture's "Home Again, Home Again". Every time the players visit Delvers', roll  4-6-6-8-10-10-12. If you roll a number higher than the NPCs listed, no one in that category shows up during that visit.

 

When You Arrive, the Place Is... (d10)

  1. Dead empty
  2. A few people
  3. A few people
  4. Ordinary crowd
  5. Ordinary crowd (special event)
  6. Ordinary crowd
  7. Packed
  8. Packed (special event)
  9. Standing room only

 

The Management

The Door is always present. Roll d6 every visit: 1: Baba + Door | 2: Mabel + Door | 3: Baba + Mabel + Door | 4-6: Door only.

  • "Baba Ghanoush" - An older gentleman in a finely-fitted grey suit. Speaks with the sort of quiet, polite directness reserved for mob bosses and the sorts of bishops who have connections on the outside. He is genuinely entertained by the nickname.
  • Mabel - 85 years old and sharp as a freshly-whet knife. Nothing gets past her.
  • The Sealed Door - Dandelion yellow bands of "POLICE LINE: DO NOT CROSS" cover rusting metal. A hand-painted sign is taped below the painted-over glass: "MNGMT."

 

The Three Musketeers

They are not actually musketeers. They have an arrangement, details unknown, with the Management. They keep the order in Delvers'.

  • Athos - You almost don't notice the statue. It's something like a man, heavily stylized, out of proportion. An enormous tafl piece. A heavy brow, prominent nose, big angular beard and mustache. The details, the links in its chain shirt and the calluses on its palms are nearly smoothed away with age. In those rare moments when it moves, it does so in a terrifying blur, crawling on all fours like an infant.
  • Porthos - You can hear a slithering sound under your feet, like someone dragging something heavy and wet against the concrete. A door opens up and a long red arm, the knobbled fingers forming a sock-puppet's mouth, rises like a periscope. Someone, at some point, affixed a pair of googly eyes to this extremity. The other limbs, encased in similar spiny exoskeletal plates, do not bear such amusing adornment.
  • Aramis - A woman in a wheelchair, old enough to have a bit of grey at the temples and a face weathered by time. A colorful blanket covers her legs, and a ball python lies draped over her shoulders. An ancient level-action rifle rests in her lap. She's easy to talk to, will remember your name, always willing to chat about her activism (environmental causes and native land rights) or her three children (all grown, now). There's a red ring on her finger, she turns it with her thumb while talking.

Behind the Bar

Roll 2d6 every time you enter to see who's working. Doubles mean someone called off and there's only the one.

  1. Mjoll - Doesn't talk much. Dark skin. Eyes like honey. Left arm is prosthetic up to the shoulder, left leg up to the knee. Combat veteran. Quick on the draw.
  2. Herschel - A charming man with heavy burn scars, will always have time to chat about his husband and kids.
  3. Lucy - A broad, brawny, friendly woman who has gone a bit soft around the middle. If you didn't know better (and honestly, you probably don't), you would swear most of her family tree are neanderthals.
  4. Duncan - Always has a sort of deer-in-headlights look about him, especially around the stranger guests. Fell into this all by mistake and can't really find a way out.
  5. Red-Hed - Stocky. Wears a big spherical red helmet. Voice modulator.
  6. "Barkeep" - A fat tabby tomcat.


Merchants (d4)

  1. Hoshino - Cheery fellow, always has sunglasses and a cigarette. Burn scars on his hands. Always shows up with his overhauled vending machines ready to dispense anything from tampons to bullets. Sells ammunition and basic supplies at a discount, as well as specialist goods (ie, non-weapons tagged "expensive")
  2. Papa Clink - Wide-waisted, barrel-chested, booming of voice. Bullet casings braided into a bushy black beard that obscures most of his face. Sells weapons at a discount
  3. Bri, Cartographer - They always seems to be wearing too much clothing for the weather. Eyes alone can be seen between hat and scarf. Sells maps of underworld nodes. Buys survey data of new areas.
  4. Pillbox - Naturally jittery and scatterbrained. Been sober for 15 years now. Has a sort of neon-goth thing going on, but it's mostly for advertisement. Sells 1d6 different drugs every time they visit. Buys any drugs they're not selling.


Specialists 1 (d6)

  1. Pen & Tam - Friendly couple from the surface who pop down every so often for a drink. Don't have any special powers, but Pen knows all about rare and magical books and how to get in touch with Book Club, and Tam can identify magical items.
  2. Julian Tull, cryptozoologist - Has a sort of Steve Irwin energy, if Steve Irwin was significantly worse at his job and was on social media too much. Pays for tips, more for photos and video, and even more for live specimens.
  3. The Apostate - A renegade from the Pure World Armory. Clean-shaven, tall, muscular, like a marble statue or propaganda poster come to life. Has devoted himself to the Gun Gods of An-Hehm. Deliberate and slow in his speech to make up for his uncertainty in social situations. Has access to special Armory weapons and armor as well as specialist ammunition.
  4. Mamadou the Mask Salesman - He always puts you in mind of a spider, and you can't shake the idea. Sells magical masks. Will offer 4-6 different masks every time he visits.

 

Specialists 2 (d6)

  1. Fisk - A "procurement specialist" for "human resources". Wears smoked glasses. Constantly eating sunflower seeds, spitting the shells into a mason jar he keeps at his table. The pacing of his speech is off; syllables are drawn out or cut short with no pattern or reason.
  2. Karina - Fruit merchant. Lazy eye, heterochromatic, intensely focused on something else beyond the walls of the room. Sells alien wares from far down below.
  3. Thimble Slim - A small, thin, pimply man with a tattered graphic tee ten years out of relevance and a terrible comb-over. No one likes him, and no one can seem to get rid of him. A fence for stolen goods and drugs.  
  4. Satchel Buck - A short, portly man who wears bright, poorly matched clothing. Proprietor of an Underworld speed dating service called the Lonely Souls Club, whose virtues he will detail at length to anyone showing even slight curiosity.

 

Doctors (d8)

  1. Tokamak - A bald man with an enormous white walrus mustache. His tweed coat is frayed at the collar and wrists. He has a pet, something he calls a "dream-eater". Something akin to a cross between a hyena and a small bear. It too is bald, though it does not have a mustache. A man of science, strange as those sciences may be, and very well educated in them. Not actually a doctor
  2. Melliferous Synapse, Fleshcrafter Novice - Offers grafting services. Human parts, animal parts, monster parts, so long as it's mostly fresh. They look radically different every time they appear, and are more easily identified
  3. Stitches - A pale, lanky teenage girl, limp cigarette dangling from her lip. Apathetic and emotionally inscrutable. Immensely skilled, but doesn't care much for aesthetics - you'll live, but you won't be winning any pageants.
  4. Nanoa - An elderly sage of the cult of Lu. Skin painted with delicate whorls of white, blue, green, gold. Knows of cult safehouses within the Underground, and may induct new members.

 

Occultists (d10)

  1. Anbara, Book Club Witch - Cultist of Aza-Thoth and professional pornographer. Will offer to trade a grimoire from her collection for one of yours, or maybe even gift you a new book. Knows the way to the Stygian Library.
  2. Mr. Deveroux - A pallid man in a yellowing and sweat-stained seersucker suit. Flies, cicadas, cockroaches all seem attracted to him. His face doesn't work right - all his expressions seem to be on a delay from what he's actually saying. Will teach you the infernal arts, given the right payment in souls.
  3. Amelia, Necromancer - Five feet tall on the dot, enormous glasses, enormous smile, and a propensity for dissection knives. She is a proper priestess of the dead, though she only breaks out her schema habit for special occasions. Offers Speak With Dead, funeral services, minor exorcisms, and the occasional zombification.
  4. The Blackthorns - A trio of witches - grandmother, mother, daughter. The latter two are dead, the first jumps her soul between their bodies. Folks don't like talking about it. She's a good person, though, worse people to go to for help than Maggie Blackthorn. Offers minor enchantments, spell identification, potions and tinctures, and advice.

 

Strangers (d12)

Strangers will not appear in Delvers' without first being encountered in the Underworld. Some of them can serve as replacement PCs.

  1. Ayo - Enormous red-skinned woman with black hair and horns. Loves eating, boozing, fighting and fucking.Always has some demon liqour on hand, always looking for something new to eat or fight.
  2. Cruel Tai - A positively mummified-looking man, hooked up to life support. The kind of person that everyone wants to hurry up and die, but who outright refuses to go. He has a chest with seven locks on it, each of a different material. The keys are long lost, down below. Each one will unlock a different gift. Bring him a key and an offering, and he will let you open a lock.
  3. "Alice" - A young woman with white hair and dark circles around pale grey eyes that always seem to be looking through and past you. Wears a dark blue shawl stitched with silver sigils. There is a thick, knotted scar in a ring around her neck. She smells strongly of potent magics
  4. FRIEND Terminal - A converted arcade cabinet. The old branding has been painted over with "FRIENDs in High PlaceS". Stick a quarter in and a smiley face will blip on the screen, and maybe offer you a job.
  5. Mr. Tamam - A weathered man in a long duster jacket. Enormous brown sideburns, arms tattooed with gemmatria. Postmaster of the underground. His services are reliable and affordable. He may call upon you to make a delivery.
  6. Dogmeat - Lanky woman wearing a rubber rottweiler mask. Long, tangled, dirty blonde hair. Torn jeans. Black t-shirt with the save point symbol from Silent Hill 3. Blood-stained baseball bat always within reach. Connections with Lighthouse.
  7. Doubtless-You-See-the-Connections - A der0 that can manage to interact with the greater world with a reasonable chance of success. Looks like an emaciated suffocation-blue macrocephalic infant. Encyclopedic knowledge of thousands of conspiracies, real and imagined, and a mostly reliable guide in the Underworld. 
  8. Jon Tatterdemalion - A handsome man in a beautiful, travel-worm cloak. If given a magical item, he will exchange it for another or teach the giver a spell. He is guileful, haughty, gossipy, terribly intelligent, easy to flatter and difficult to fool. He seeks to find Irem the City of Pillars deep in the Underworld, and to avoid his ex-wife.
  9. The Lamplighter - A militant cultist of Lantern Boy, utterly devoted to destroying the Lamplighters' enemies and tracking down their missing messiah. Scarily single-minded.
  10. The Titan - A huge glass tank filled with murky yellow clouds. Two attendants in spacesuits, visors down, are present at all times, and will speak on its behalf. It is content to observe, but if you were to gain its interested attention it might teach you secrets of
  11. Apotheamniot - A creature like long-lost austrolopithicus; its head replaced with a bubble of amniotic fluid and the embryo of a failed apotheosis.
  12. The Man in the Hot, Dark Room - A new door has appeared. Your presence has been specifically requested.


Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Don't You know The Devil Wears a Suit and Tie?

 

Cosimo Galluzzi

**

Saw him drivin' down the 61 in early July

White as a cotton field and sharp as a knife

I heard him howlin' as he passed me by

**

Exhausted from the river crossing and her battle with the whiskered serpent, Lu climbed up the bank and made camp there at the joining of two game trails. One ran along the embankment, the other westward into the deep summer forest. There were two large and weather-smoothed boulders there, and one of them had been worn so to form an overhang where she might be protected from rain or prying eyes. There Lu dug a fire pit, and set to cooking the fish she had gathered from the river (before being interrupted by the serpent).

As twilight settled on the land, she heard a disturbance in the brush, the movement of a large creature approaching. She rose into a crouch and grabbed her spear, and watched the figure of a man of her own people, emerge into the clear space where the two paths met, right at the edge of the firelight.

His skin was dark like Lu's, and his beard was black and bushy. He wore fine hides, richly dyed and masterfully stitched, that bore no dirt of travel and a wide hat of reeds sat atop his head. His eyes flickered like embers and his left foot appeared burnt, with blood and pus oozing from the cracked and blackened skin.

"Clever Lu of the Forest," he greeted her in a deep and pleasant voice. His teeth were stained black by betel leaves.

"You know my name, but I do not recall having given it to you."

"The spirits are chatty, and your deeds have spread far and wide. May I sit?"

"Upon the other side, stranger. And give me your name, since you have already had the pleasure of discovering mine."

The man laughed, and made a sound akin to a large stone dragged over bones.

"[Untranslatable], that is my name. But you may call me whatever you please." He sat across from Lu and the fire pit separated them.

"I'll see that I do, old man."

"Ah, that will do. It is a fitting name."

"Take what you will of my catch." Lu motioned to the remaining fish. "I have eaten my fill for tonight."

The old man smiled his black smile and took a fish, devouring it swiftly.

"Ah, a fish for an old man and all is well." He tossed the stick on which it was cooked into the flames. "I have heard, Lu of the Forest, that you seek to steal Hō-ō's crown of fire."

This she had not wished to hear, for she had kept secret the purposes of her journey to the west.

"And from whom did you hear this?"

"From a merry band of nymphs, with whom you shared a great deal of palm wine half a moon ago."

Oh. Oh.  

But Lu would not let this shake her, and kept her countenance still.

"They spoke truly - I shall steal into the very center of his court and swipe it from his brow, leaving neither sight nor smell behind."

"I praise your ambition, but are you certain that your cleverness might carry you through to success? If word has reached me, then word will reach Hō-ō's agents in time. Perhaps it will just be one of many such paranoid fancies as grip him these days and he'll pay it no mind, moving on to his next rumor come the morning. Perhaps the messenger will be waylaid and never reach the court. If none of that comes to pass, if he should learn of your little plot and recognizes it as a threat, if that happens..."

The wood of the fire shifted, sending up sparks.

"Then you're just fucked."

Lu said nothing, for she could not refute the old man. While her bull-head pride resisted and roiled within her, she still could not deny that she had been loose with her words among the nymphs, and that once gossip reached their ears it would spread faster than even she could run.

"I wish that it weren't so," the old man said when he saw that Lu would remain silent. "What of Tubalkhan Flint-Knapper? I had heard that he traveled with you.

"He has gone south to meet with the mouldywarps for a time. We plan on reuniting further along."

"Ah, good. Good."

The old man then took a small, smooth stone from the ground, held it up to his lips, and breathed upon it. Then he tossed it into the fire.

"I have given to that stone a hidden word of power. It is a weapon that will destroy Hō-ō utterly and all his court. Not even their bones will remain. It will bind the iron star Chicxulub that rides now above the dome of the sky to your hand and will. He shall have no defense against it, and in a single stroke it shall safeguard your people against his wrath. The crown will be yours.

"When the fire dies away and the last embers cool, what I have spoken to the stone shall be forgotten, and never again be found on or under the earth."

Lu had not expected this, and asked only:

"What then, do I owe you in return for this?"

"Nothing at all, clever Lu. I am a giver of gifts, I ask for nothing in exchange than they be used to their fullest. It brings me joy, to see what people do with what I give them. Take it, and may your people live happy and unafraid of dragons' wrath."

Lu narrowed her eyes.

"Who are you, old man? What manner of spirit are you?"

Again the old man smiled.

"I am [the shadow in the amygdala] just an old, old man."

The old man snapped his fingers, and at once a great plume of smoke billowed from the fire, stinging Lu's eyes and biting her throat. When her vision cleared and coughing ceased, the old man was gone.

The stone remained where it sat in the fire pit.

Lu sat by the fire in contemplation for a time. She was deeply troubled by the old man's words, and shamed by the thought that her own idle actions might endanger her whole quest. She longed for Tubalkhan's presence, but his counsel was many miles away and would bring no comfort to her doubts this night.

And so the night passed, in intervals standing, sitting, and pacing about like a stalking cat. Lu fed the fire as it burned low as her mind turned sleepless gyres. She did not trust the old man, whatever manner of man or spirit he was. But she had found no lies in his words (for Lu was a bullshitter and a tale-teller, and skill recognizes skill). Out of distrust of the old man or her own pride, she would have at any other time let the fire go out and covered the pit with dirt. But with her great error brought to light, and the danger that followed behind, she kept the fire fed in increasing desperation and shame.

Should Hō-ō prepare himself, and her cleverness be not enough, she could not resist him. He might end her in a breath or a lazy snap of the jaws. And in retribution he would likely go out among her people and make greater demands of sacrifice. Should Lu fail, many more than she would die through her failure. Any who survived would curse her name forever.

The night watches passed in agony.

In the grey mist before morning, when only dim coals remained among the ash and charred wood, she plucked up the stone and held it to her ear. In a fading whisper, it spilled its secret and spoke no more forever.

She kept the stone in her pouch for the rest of her journey, secret from even Tubalkhan. She had chosen in the end to learn its hidden word and unuse it - to rely on clever plans and cunning work and nimble hands as she always had, to better master those arts so that she might humble Hō-ō without resorting to the word that might kill him. (For without his crown, the great king of dragons would be no mightier than old Pan-Pongo)

Of course, her cleverness failed her in the end. Discovered and with death inescapable, she drew Chicxulub down from above the sky and smote Hō-ō and all his court, bringing to the world demon-haunted Winter with her great act of violence.

It was this act, and the long years of starvation and cold to follow, and the horror of the Daemonomachy to come, that led to some among the Ancestors to leave the fires of Lu's camp and go out into the world alone, and with them they had fear-gifted whispers of the Red Law.

Lu would never see the old man again, and spoke not of him to anyone, but during the tribulations to come and the peaceful spring to follow she would imagine him in the distance, laughing.

 



Saturday, May 29, 2021

Lord of the Rings Reread Post


 

Anato Finnstark

I first read Lord of the Rings in...seventh grade? The summer between seventh and eight grade, I think. I can't recall if this was before or after I had seen the movies. Possibly before? I had already read the Hobbit by this point, accompanied by the surprisingly good video game which I found for 5 bucks on the clearance rack at T.J. Maxx, and if I had a dime for every meaningful computer game of early-adolescence found on said rack I would have 20 cents. Not a lot, but it's weird that it happened twice.)

This is a long way of saying that it has been a very long time since I have properly read Lord of the Rings. I know I tried a reread a few (read: probably 6 or 7) years ago and ended up stalled around Midgewater. My Hobbit re-read in the impossible halcyon days of 2018 was quite enjoyable, and I have finally decided to follow it up.

Preamble finally over.

As with my prior Avatar rewatch post, there's not going to be much overarching organization, just topics according to the rhythm of my own thoughts, many of which are noncontinuous since they deal with themes that stretch across the books.

Fellowship of the Ring

**

Folks don't give Tolkien enough credit for how funny he can be, when he wants. Everyone knows the birthday party, of course, but special notice needs to go to Gandalf responding to Saruman's shimmering rainbow robes with "I liked the white ones better." This is repeated in every other  interaction they havem to my delight. Saruman is dunked on at every chance, by everyone, and it is great.

**

The picaresque adventure-types we would expect in The Hobbit (talking foxes, barrow mounds, Bombadil and the like) are attributed to Bilbo as the in-universe author, which I agree with. Unfortunately, as I came to find out later, Frodo is significantly less entertaining. It's a rocky tonal and pacing start when compared to what is to come after.

**

The defining idea throughout this re-read is that Middle-Earth is empty. It's in the tail spiral of complete population collapse.  Some people will say that there's plenty of stuff we don't see just offscreen, and I'm sympathetic to that, but I don't believe it. There are too many times where it is explicitly said that there is nothing there - Anfalas is prime coastline and there's no one living there, the lands between Isengard and the Shire are empty. There are major rivers that have no human habitation on them at all, and any cities that might once have been there have fallen into ruin.

It's thematically appropriate, and it low-key bugs me.

The Shire and Bree feel like they are not only from a different setting, but a completely different universe, inexplicably severed from their surroundings with how developed they are. They'd be less out of place if Eriador was still functioning, but it isn't and so

Eriador has never recovered from the collapse of Arnor and the plague, all right...but the entire point of the Shire is that it's safe and out of the way, right? So, naturally, people are going to migrate there.

Sauron is only able to get as far as he does because he is almost entirely unopposed. He's so weak without the Ring that he needs a plague, the departure of the elves, the complete collapse of every kingdom in Eriador, the loss of multiple Gondorian city states and the downfall of major dwarven strongholds in order to even begin to start his offensive.

**

Tolkien did not understand history. He was very good at landscapes and languages, but he hadn't a clue about history.

Gondor had been without a king for 969 years, and Numenor had been gone for a full 3141 by the time Aragorn returns, and let me tell you that is literally, and not figuratively, the equivalent of some rando showing up in London, tomorrow, proclaiming that he's the king of England because he's a descendant of Edward the Confessor, and then trying to reclaim the glory of Mycenaean Greece.

It's one of those cases (as so often happens in fantasy), where not providing hard numbers would have eliminated the problem entirely. Gondor hasn't had a king in A Long While. The Numenorians collapsed a Long Long Time Ago. Let the reader fill in gaps and make it work in a way that's appropriate to them. The Hobbit avoided this problem, and the depopulation one too, by just not concretely saying anything about it - you can fill in the gaps with Eriador as it was in the Hobbit.

With the numbers included, it becomes this weird land of "nothing ever changes". Which is weird because the day-to-day timekeeping stuff is fascinating and part of the really fun logistics side of the quest.

**

The way Gandalf talks about the Wise and the White Council says to me that there are WAY more than 5 wizards, and I'm disappointed that this is not actually the case.

**

People will (rightfully) use orcs as the entry point into talking about Tolkien's issues with race. But,  Orcs don't actually appear until Moria and we hardly get to see them up close until Two Towers, so before we even get to that we have to deal with the yikes description of a southerner in Bree.

During the Council of Elrond, Boromir describes the Numenoreans as having "mingled with the blood of lesser men." 

This line is repeated from that point on through the rest of the books.

John. John. The Numenoreans were so fucked up that Eru Illuvatar Themself said "fuck this island in particular" and dropped them to the bottom of the ocean. That's their cultural legacy. Pissing off God literally more than Morgoth and a couple colonial states that should by this point have hardly any shared cultural traits or values with Numenor at all. 

Not to mention that, spoilers, blood is NOT supposed to come out of there.

This, I think, is honestly worse that the orcs. The orc situation is bad, mind you, but the orcs have the advantage of their underlying deal, as it were (that is "this is what being crushed under the military-industrial complex will do to people") being rock fucking solid. More to follow, there.

**

The approach to Rivendell, despite Frodo's injury, is remarkably low-tension.

**

I was none too fond of the elves as a kid, and I am happy to report that in this one particular case, young me was spot on the money. The elves of Middle-Earth are awful. They sit in their cloisters singing the same old songs about the Good Old Days and not only do they not help, they actively make things worse by delaying the Fellowship - between Rivendell and Lothlorien they waste a full 3 months. Granted this can all be swung as recovery time, and I can accept that, but I'd accept it more if it wasn't elves.

**

The border of Lothlorien is fifteen miles from Moria, and the jackasses offered no aid whatsoever for its reclamation, nor the Battle for Dimrill Dale, despite the fact that a secure cross mountain highway directly benefits them. They just sat there and let Durin and his people die.

**

Yeah Gimli, you tell those elves to go to hell. Racist bastards.

**

My favorite part of the books on this re-read is this: from Rivendell onwards, every step of the quest is the result of a reasoned choice. Characters discuss their options and figure out their course of action according to what they know and what's changed in their circumstances. The opposition reacts, and the plans change. There is a consistent thoughtfulness here that most fantasy lacks. It's a game of logistics.

What do we do with the ring? Well, we can't destroy it. We can't use it. There aren't any surviving dragons that could destroy it. We can't take it into the West because we're liable to be cut off before we get there. We could throw it in the ocean, but there are things down there. Can't give it to Bombadil because he'll lose it.

But then they try crossing the mountains in January so...points for trying.

**

Actually on that note, the way they talk and from the landscape we see, it appears that Middle-Earth has generally snowless winters. 

**

I do very much like how it is explicit from the forming of the Fellowship that the others are not bound to Frodo's task except by their own will. They all have their own things to do. Again, the logistics side comes into play.

** 

Of all the Tolkienisms that have been stolen and copied over the years, the one I can't fault anyone for stealing are the Nazgul. They're a great tool. High potential, low development - very glad we ended up with the 10 That Were Taken, eventually.

** 

I did not remember Beren and Luthien getting thrown in here, that's neat. Honestly I didn't remember most or all of the Silmarillion stuff that gets bandied about.

**

Barrow-downs are a spooky interlude but I am not a fan, the pacing is whack. Would have worked better in The Hobbit. Bree feels like it's definitely from another book. 

** 

A strong part of Tolkien's worldbuilding is that he is very good at describing landscapes and very good at factoring in travel times. None of his imitators learned this lesson, so now we are stuck with the modern fantasy mileau and that's another rant

** 

Book Saruman is a techbro. He has none of the stateliness we associate with the character through Lee's performance, he's just raw "we've tried nothing and we're all out of ideas" and "what if we dIsRuPt ThE mArKeT?", and "nooooooooooooooo! it is YOU who are victimizing ME! How dare you confront me with the fact that my uruk-hai have laid waste to the townships of rohan! Help! Help! I'm being oppressed!"

He's Bezos/Zuckerberg/Musk/Dorsey, except as a wizard. Gandalf constantly dunking on him is a treat.

** 

The elven monopoly on lembas bread was the major contributing factor to the delayed recovery of the human population of Eriador and the Wilderlands in the wake of the Great Plague, thus paving the way for the return of Sauron. In this essay I will...

**

There's a mention, in the orc search party out of Moria, of something with a bent back, hands near the ground, beastlike but definitely not an animal, and I never want to learn what this creepypasta-ass monster actually is. It's too good, I refuse to let it be ruined. (Note: It's Gollum. But for a moment I didn't realize that and it was the coolest thing.

** 

Overall... this is definitely the weakest of the three, especially the non-Moria parts post Rivendell. It's weird how the part that the book is named after is both so short and the most boring of it all.

**

Other notes

  • Orcs aren't even encountered until <100 pages from the end.
  • I think the Bridge scene is better in the film, even though my opinion on Jackson's trilogy has cooled over time significantly.
  • Trolls have scaly green hide and no toes.
  • Saruman's rainbow robe. We were ROBBED!
  • The Nazgul can speak in full sentences, I find this weird.
  • Shire is bizarrely the most settled non-gondor territory. I do not buy that the Rangers were able to do so much for it, or at least, i don't like that they were able to do so much without being integrated into the society around the shire. Give me a struggling but still extant Eriador, I mean to say.
  • Sam's is a major third wheel in Fellowship, which is weird when we are so used to him as he is later.


Two Towers

Wow, Fellowship jumps right into Two Towers - the ball is rolling right out of the gate. This gets kept up for the next two books

**

If Tolkien had just stayed with "Orcs are elves who are cops" the fantasy genre would have a lot fewer issues than it does. Honestly, it's not even a hard fix. Orcs already act monstrous, they don't actually need to look it. Melkor and Sauron likely tried making orcs more beautiful than elves as an ego trip, and failed, so we would feasibly get some uncanny valley type deal.  

The primary physical differences would be the result of the malnutrition, industrial pollution, and repeated physical trauma the define life in Mordor. Orcs & elves should be very clearly related in visual adaptations. The elves from Hellboy II would be a good starting point.

Or...

Okay so orcs are described as having dark skin and epicanthic folds.

Orcs are elves + fascism.

Fascism does not cause dark skin and epicanthic folds

ERGO elves also have dark skin and epicanthic folds.

**

I am going to blame Gygax much more than Tolkien for the modern state of affairs vis a vis orcs.

**   

Sauron was slick and competent in Numenor, and now he's real sloppy. Who is to say that Sauron is even conscious at this point? (Note - later developments in the books vis a vis tactics seem to indicate yes, but intelligence can exist without awareness) Without the Ring he might very well just be a mindless automated function, the azathoth of Barad-Dur. A decaying security AI in the grips of rampancy, mindlessly maximizing paperclips except the paperclips are orcs. Which is horrifying.

**

Treebeard remains the best. "I must cool myself and think; for it is easier to shout STOP! than to do it." Out here dispensing the truth.

I imagined him a lot less tree-like than the movies did, this time around. Closer to how the trolls are imagined (which makes sense) - big, stout, big bush of hair like moss, brown skin thick like an elephant's - but not actually a tree.

**

The entwives introduced agriculture to humanity. This is a very small and passed-over detail, despite being easy top five for "things that are important" in the entire setting. 

**

What if the population collapse is because the soil quality of Middle Earth is super-poor? Before the sinking of Beleriand most of the inner continent would have been high steppe, tundra or desert, what with all the mountains casting rain shadows (double or even triple in some areas!) Without the entwives to assist, its no wonder that no one lives here - the only fertile areas are on the Gondorian coast and western Eriador. The elves are useless because they have no agriculture knowhow - Treebeard mentions that they aren't particularly enthusiastic about growing things. Lack of entwives = doom

**

Tolkien doggedly refuses to give us an adequate description of the Nazgul's flying mounts, and I don't find it to be particularly evocative or inspiring - if I took away what I recognize them as in the movies, they were just a shadowy black cloud until the very end, but not the cool or menacing kind.

They can apparently cover ~600 miles in less than 6 hours and this feels weird.

**

I was honestly bored with the arrival in Edoras up through Helm's Deep. I feel like Wormtongue's presence turns the initial sequence in Edoras into a farce and nothing would be lost if Theoden's hostility was just ordinary stress, grief, and despair.

We're thrown into the tail end of a completely different story, and since we never knew Grima before his corruption, it makes Theoden look like an idiot. I tuned out throughout this section.

And then they let him go...

Like I can understand the whole emphasis on mercy and not jumping to violence but you found an enemy spy in your camp and you are going to send him back? I know he kills Saruman in the end but that is a stretch too far for me. Gollum being key to destroying the Ring I can buy, but the same deal a second time with a much less interesting character is a bit much.

**

The Battle of Helm's Deep, thought, is the first part of the series that I really don't like. I can and will gripe about elves but this bit is actually poorly written, I feel - muddied, confusing, and baffling of pace.

**

"Was Gandalf's choice to leave Saruman alive moral?" is certainly a conundrum. Certainly it's within character, but it does raise the question of "what if your mercy now creates more suffering later?"

** 

I love the horrific descriptions of the areas just outside the Black Gate. That scene also mentions the "maggot-folk" or "maggot men" of Mordor, which I am choosing to interpret literally.

** 

Sam finally gets to steal the show, it's damn time.

**

I can never figure out the positioning and environment of the conversation of the two orcs at the very end. Like, how is Sam able to hear them when there's stone wall between them and they're moving away from him?

I do like that convo, though, of the orcs going "yeah once the war's over let's bail with some of the lads and live the highwayman life" 

**

Sneaking suspicion that JRRT did not like spiders. Very subtle, blink and you'll miss it.

**

I keep thinking about how Shadow of War featured sexy lady Shelob and I am beginning to think that no one at Monolith ever actually read the actual Cirith Ungol sequence. Not that humanform Shelob would be impossible, but the sexiness quotient of a true-to-character interpretation would be a relatively niche appeal and they were too huge of cowards to actually do it. 

 

Return of the King

Let us never forget that Eowyn's first lines of dialogue are telling Aragorn that he's full of shit and being 110% right.

**

The army of the dead does feel pretty conveniantly placed, here. But the first 2/3rds of the book is lightning fast anyway. No rest, everyone is on the march.

**

No one ever talks about Ioreth and that's a damn shame - she's a return to the Hobbitish small town humor of the beginning of the book So everyone just went and forgot how the denoument of return of the king features a chatty old lady providing color commentary on the situation to her cousin from out of town. I demand justice for Ioreth in all future adaptations

**

I find it worth note how we've had the theme of pity as a positive thing since very near the beginning - Gandalf espousing it early and often and Frodo picking it up later - but the narrative is also willing to let that be challenged and willing to let characters 

Eowyn explicitly does not want your pity. She holds that ground against Aragorn, the literal walking Christ-the-Redeeming-King metaphor, and the narrative does not contrive to undermine her. She's bitter - she had to watch her uncle fall into reclusive paranoia while her homeland was nearly destroyed by orcs incursions, only to then be brushed aside when she comes forward and volunteers herself to fight - and her bitterness is not waved away as foolishness. (how many authors would fail here, turn her just into the overly-emotional woman? Too many, I feel)

And she only gets let go of that bitter death-wish when she meets Faramir who is willing to meet her where she is, as an equal and not talk down to her.

I appreciate her character (Faramir too) even more now, I think. 

No one ever talks about those scenes, and that's twice a shame.

**

I imagine statues of Sauron in his prime, beautiful and arrayed in magnificent garb, half-destroyed by the roadsides of Mordor. One of many reminders that he is trying to make for himself a paradise, but breaks everything he touches.

**

Much of the Frodo and Sam scenes in the latter two books are just them walking, with few notable encounters. I actually really like this - you're at the very end - what else is there to say?

I also think splitting their quest away from the battle (instead of the more modern interlaced POV chapters) works way better then that alternative. Again, it makes it feel like the world is filled with events and actors all of their own rather than a puppet show.

 **

The scene with Ghan-Buri-Ghan is one that I'll be spending a lot of time unpacking - because it admits, straight up, that Rohan / Gondor are guilty of horrific acts against the indigenous peoples of ME. The narrative admits it, but doesn't internalize it.

Internalizing it would, of course, obliterate Aragorn's plot, and honestly I don't see much of a loss there. The Houses of Healing go hard on the Christ-King symbology, despite the fact that christ-king symbology is, to put it bluntly, a cavalcade of horrors visited on the world

**

Denethor's despair comes back to the phrase "the West has failed" - and he's not wrong. Gondor and Rohan are invasive, colonial powers dying a slow death because they were a bunch of bastards.

Could Sauron have risen again, if Gondor and Harad were allies? If the Dunlanders were able to settle properly in Eriador and rebuild? Tolkien generally supports the motif of "friendships across cultural boundaries = good, insularity = bad" through the book, but it's hamstrung by Numenor and its imperialist legacy painted as worthwhile

Maybe Aragorn could be an imposter - there is no heir to Isildur, but he's taken it upon himself to mantle that position to undo much of the damage. Maybe make him a dunlander, or druadain, or of mixed parentage.

** 

Honestly, I don't think it would be very hard for Sauron to get the Easterlings, Haradrim, Khandish on his side. Just point vaguely westward and say: "The Valar abandoned you, the elves never gave a shit about you, and their lapdogs the Gondorians have been fucking you over for centuries."

**

Scene where Beregond is showing Pippin around Minas Tirith is very good, gives us a ground-floor look at the defense of the city.

**

Orc soldiers have ID numbers. I feel this is important to note.

**

Giving Sauron a physical appearence in the films was an enormous mistake. He works as a Presence, full stop.

**

The Scouring of the Shire is absolutely vital for this series and everyone who says elsewise is wrong. There can be no going there without coming back again, and you need to be able to see the changes that have been wrought both on the characters and on their home.

**

I like how the orcs had a sort of affectionate name for Saruman. It feels appropriate from them, even: the closest they can get to expressing fondness is just "old man". You can imagine certain veterans in the ranks also called sharku, simply for surviving so long.

**

Sam and Rosie end up having 13 children. Just a fun bit of trivia.

**

Honestly, I like Adunaic much more than any of the elvish languages, despite appearing nowhere in the actual books. I wish there was more material.

A Brief Aside on the Movies

Watched a couple scenes during reread, specifically Helm's Deep and Pelennor Fields. I think they are aging poorly, both through oversaturation and through what they are as films. (Howard Shore's soundtrack is technically good, but I find that it doesn't thematically fit with lotR very well at all (too much brass, definitely too much reliance of leitmotif), and I'd take an Austin Wintory LotR soundtrack over Shore's any day of the week.

Thankfully we have Banner Saga, which is the only piece of media that I feel actually gets LotR on a meaningful emotional level. Some of the songs on that ost track 1:1 to moments in LotR.

Final Thoughts

Remember kids, the true meaning of Lord of the Rings is:

"Cops are bad and funded by fascists, go get your mates together and do a direct action, then go plant a tree. Several trees, in fact. This is really important. Fascists bad and pathetic, trees good and cool."

Goofs aside, this reread has made it very clear that, for all the copying that Tolkien has gotten over the years, very, very few people have actually figured out, or even bothered to recognize, the emotional and moral core of the series. Anything pulling from D&D is starting on the wrong foot to begin with, and you can just watch the stumbling away from what is good and beautiful in his works to focus on the least important, and often weakest, aspects of it.

Because the end of the day it's got jack all to do with elves and dwarves and halflings and orcs and wizards and kings and giant eagles and so on and so forth. All of this material is great and fine and good in its place, but it overlooks and ignores, potentially intentionally, what lies underneath - that fascism will make monsters of us all and be the death of everything if we do not fight it, that we must care for the trees, that no one is immune to the self-destructive lure of power, that industrial war is a machine of endless horrors, that if we are to survive at all there must be solidarity across cultural and social lines.

But then nerds get involved and it's all "wow cool worldbuilding" (only works because of the themes) or "but it's so morally black and white" (it's about fascism and ecological devastation of course it's fucking black and white) and that's how we end up with Brandon Sanderikson Grrimartin.

Can't ever trust nerds not to miss the point.

Regardless!

I greatly enjoyed my time returning to the series, and there is likely a great deal of stuff that didn't make it here out of lack of space or energy. Leave what I missed in the comments below, I still have much to say.


Tuesday, May 25, 2021

What's in the Creepy Castle of the Terribly Tall Vampire Lady?

 

Jeanpanzie

 Had to be done. Someone had to do it, and I am someone, so I have to do it.

The Creepy Castle is located...

  1. On top of a jagged, snow-covered cliff.
  2. On a island in the middle of a mist-veiled lake.
  3. In the center of an equally-creepy rural town.
  4. In blight-stricken farmland.
  5. In the middle of an old-growth forest.
  6. Isolated on the moors.
  7. On a barren island off the coast.
  8. Paranoia-inducingly bucolic countryside
  9. Down in the low country, out on the bayou.
  10. In the noble's district of the decaying capitol.

The Terribly Tall Vampire Lady is also...

  1. Emaciated.
  2. Rather wide.
  3. Made of living marble.
  4. Very hairy, with a weird bat nose.
  5. Scabby and leprous.
  6. Disconcertingly, uncannily perfect.
  7. Vaguely reminiscent of a famous actress
  8. Very nearly mummified.
  9. Obsessed with the sun: shades & veils galore.
  10. Not a believer in conforming to gender or genre stereotypes.

She lives there with...

  1. No one. She can carry this shindig by herself.
  2. Equally-large spouse.
  3. Normal-sized spouse.
  4. Even taller parent.
  5. Good for nothing laze-about son.
  6. Three ambitious, bloodthirsty daughters.
  7. Vampiric ward.
  8. Enormous chimerical fleshbeast not entirely unlike a dog.
  9. Roll d8, twice.
  10. Roll d8, 3 times.

And is said to...

  1. Impale dissidents and put their heads on the battlements.
  2. Cook people into enormous pies.
  3. Break out into spontaneous musical numbers.
  4. Constantly scribble down in a journal to augment her failing memory.
  5. Still have a few flickers of humanity left (ha ha, good luck)
  6. Be working on a philosopher's stone.
  7. Have plans to usurp Dracula.
  8. Be a master of all manner of weird sciences.
  9. Be a disciple of the Old Ones.
  10. Be on the run from the Executioners and their wheel.

By terrified peasants who... 

  1. Are looking for an outsider to serve as a deniable asset.
  2. Have started a cult to appease her, complete with giant effigies.
  3. Are trying to spin the town as a tourist spot for the bourgeois. 
  4. Do their best to ignore the horror.
  5. Are disconcertingly gung-ho about the whole situation.
  6. Are orchestrating an elaborate Truman Show ruse.
  7. Are engaged in a losing guerilla warfare against her.
  8. Really liked the previous vampire a lot better,
  9. Are more of a nuisance than anything, and taste awful.
  10. All have bigger problems to deal with.

Her lieutenant is...

  1. None, she runs everything by herself.
  2. A family member (see table 3) 
  3. Her many, many cats.
  4. Ex-vampire hunter, broken to her will.
  5. Herself, wearing a cunning [citation needed] disguise.
  6. A minor vampire from a foreign court.
  7. A immaculately dressed and perfectly-timed butler.
  8. One of the experiments from the lab.
  9. Cowardly, very sweaty, mayor of the town. Seersucker suit.
  10. Local wizard who is just that, he wears a pointed hat.

And her rival is...

  1. Pair of mysterious government agents in black.
  2. Overly-ambitious hunter in well over their head.
  3. The previous inhabitant of the Creepy Castle.
  4. A former disciple, attempting to usurp her.
  5. Archpriestess of the cult of the spider goddess.
  6. A corpse-eater preying on her flock.
  7. A skyship full of clowns.
  8. A different, equally large vampire lady.
  9. Some chucklehead who keeps stumbling into these situations.
  10. Entirely imaginary.

It is said that her weakness is...

  1. Consecrated relics of an obscure pagan religion.
  2. Classic decap + stake + burn it all. All three steps required.
  3. Destruction of the vessel in which she keeps her heart.
  4. A virulent strain of unique, poisonous mold.
  5. Powdered angel bones.
  6. Fire from the core of the Earth.
  7. Encasing her parts in lead so they cannot regenerate.
  8. Terminal vampirocancer.
  9. A debt, with interest, to the devil (Scholomance tuition fees)
  10. Chocolate

But you must first survive the...

  1. Overly-elaborate death traps (the result of boredom)
  2. The flooded, corpse-choked dungeons.
  3. The blood-crusted automatons stalking the halls.
  4. The combination slaughterhouse-exsanguinatory.
  5. Aforementioned skyship full of clowns.
  6. Gargoyle-infested battlements.
  7. Labyrinthine halls swarming with bloated ticks.
  8. Private military contractors raiding the castle at the same time as you.
  9. Roll d8 twice
  10. Roll d8 thrice


Friday, May 21, 2021

Pen & Tam

Peter Violini


(My depthless gratitude goes to Peter for bringing these two chuckleheads to life. They are perfect in every way.)

(Additional gratitude, also depthless, goes to Nick Whelan, Mike Kennedy, Isaak and many others, who helped me tremendously in actually getting this thing to use the good words)

 

*I*

The world is green, out here in the hill country. 

There are groves here that have never known the bite of an axe. Rocks that remember the coming and going of the Ice. Hills and ridges and ripples in the earth that are the bones of mountains that were once a sea. Folk-stones raised by peoples unnamed stand sun-dappled vigils in their mossy cloaks. The rusting carapaces of the last few war machines of the Bull's dread army are reclaimed by root and rain. The shining blue-brown ribbon of the Mora winds patiently towards its eventual marriage with the Pono and the distant coast.

To the north...

The Dayrmonts. Beyond them, the North Country. Tin Jacobstown. Wend. Urukhá. The lands of the Wudu-Wasa and the Dhorch'maeh. The Whale-Road. The domain of Orca. The Uttermost North where the sea is ever-frozen.

To the south...

The folds of the land flatten out, sloping away into the forests and plains and swamps and city-states of the Low Country. Far away, on a bleak and poisoned stretch of coast, the dark mills of Dis vomit smoke into the sky without ceasing.

To the east...

Rivershead. The Tower Unto Heaven. The idaltu ruins. The uppermost fingers of the Arivienne. The Attercanths. Lilu-Yoya. Onwards to the plains of the Eostremont.

To the west... 

The Mora meets the Pona at Bensael, and flows on towards Redgate and the sea.

 

 *II*

It is a cool summer evening in Olen. The sun sinks slow in the west, and the gibbous moon is already risen - a silver near-circle in a field of blue, decks in rusty splatter and dusky mare. The shadows take forms more true to themselves, long and sharp and dark against the honeyed light

Olen is not much different from the other riverside towns. A touch bigger than most of the others, perhaps. There’s a mine, dug out with aid from the mouldywarps. Terraced farmland and windmills on the hillside. A post office. An abbey of the Sisters of the Sable Maid and a church of the gods of man. The clock on town hall is two minutes fast and has been for as long as anyone can remember. The train comes in four times a day - twice from Bensael to Rivershead, and twice the other way.

On Riverfront Street there's a shop named Willow and Wick Books. The sign in the window reads "USED AND RARE BOOKS: BUY SELL TRADE", and in smaller print below: "Ask about Mr. Wick's Bag of Books!"

The place had been a house before it was a bookstore, meaning that it is a narrow labyrinth of shelves packed between walls and angles that weren’t necessarily built to hold them. This makes it seem far bigger than it actually is, as if one could wander off, turn a corner and just keep going forever into the maze of hidden nooks and impossible aisles.

It is a little island of peace, where the air smells of old books and all is well.

Deep in the back, between the shelves for witchcraft and earth science, there is a little cupboard on the wall, and a little altar on the table below it, wreathed with flowers and paper talismans. This is the shrine of Mr. Wick, the shop’s resident brownie and one half of its namesake. The other half comes from the enormous willow tree out front. Folk are certain that a dryad lives in it, and though no one can ever recall seeing her they tied a braided rope around the trunk and bow when they pass by, just in case she’s there.

(The Bag of Books is just a little gimmick of the shop's - share what you're interested in, and Mr. Wick will pick out a paper bag of books for you.  He's a very keen curator, you're unlikely to go away disappointed.)

 

*III*

It's 7 o’clock. Closing time at Willow and Wick. The new arrivals are sorted, the account book balanced, the cash box locked away. Pot Luck the fat grey tomcat is still sleeping in his sun beam on the front desk. The shrine keeper scratches him behind the ears before vanishing back into the stacks for her final task.

The evening visit to Mr. Wick’s cupboard always feels like it is far longer than the few rooms it was in reality. Time was stretched out, sounds soaked up, thoughts and distractions carefully brushed aside until there was only the now, and the here.

She crosses the threshold. There is no noise or flash light or any other outward sign of the crossing, save the feeling of presence within a sacred space.

She wets her hands with the vial of water and dries them on the hand towel. She takes the saucer from its shelf and places it on top of the altar, then pours in a bit of milk, a dollop of honey, a shot of whiskey. She takes a step back, presses her palms together, bows slowly

“I return this house to your hands, good spirit. Please accept this offering, and keep all beneath your roof safe till morning. I ask this invoking our ancient compact, as it was made between our Mother and your Folk. May it be sustained to the end of our time.”

To this she adds, after a short pause: “Tam’s coming back home today, and I think something’s wrong. Keep an eye out for her, please.”

From somewhere on the shelves, there is a voice like a little breeze rustling at an open page.

“Of course. Have a good night, Pen.”

“Good night, Mr. Wick.” 

She bows again, passes back over the threshold, emerges from the labyrinth, picks up her bag from the desk.

Pot Luck, knowing that it is time to leave, stretches, yawns, and trundles behind her.

 

*IV*

Penepolo Babilinagi locks the front door and tucks the key into her coat pocket. She steps off the porch, gives a bow and a tip of her hat to the Willow, and is off across town to the train station on Old Abbey Road.

(A portrait of the bookseller: a short, plump, friendly-faced woman with skin the color of ash-flecked charcoal and short, curly hair like white gold. She lives in the apartment above Willow and Wick, and measures out her peaceful life in cups of tea and smell of old books. She was not born in a bookstore, but most people would believe it if she had.)

Pot Luck, for his part, curls up on the sun-warmed porch and resumes his nap.

While Pen often takes a walk around town in the evening to stretch her legs, tonight she has business to attend to. A crow had arrived early that morning as she was doing her exercises on the back balcony, bearing a message through the Murder. All it had said was:

Meet me at train station 7:10 PM -Tam

It was the first message from Tam, by crow or by mail, in over two months, and it had been troubling Pen for most of the day. Not for the delay itself - Tam said often enough how busy her job kept her and so a pause in correspondence was nothing unusual. A message so blunt and brief, without so much as a hello, was. Something was wrong, she felt it sure and certain in her heart, and the unknowns bred questions and the shapeless and shadowy answers that flitted through the empty spaces never quite went away.

She had done what she could to keep her hands busy and mind occupied - thankfully, summer brought with it both extra foot traffic and travelers from out of town, and the day passed without additional omen. When darker thoughts did come to the fore, they were met with a chorus of "She'll tell me when she gets here."

But the store is swept out now, the account book is balanced and there's nothing between her and 7:10 at the train station but a sliver of time and a short walk. She hurries on her way.

 

*V*

Tamisin Menadore is already waiting there at the station, leaning up against the brick wall in a beam of sunlight and staring down at her shoes. She doesn't notice when Pen turns the corner onto Old Abbey Road. Pen breaks out into a run. Tam looks up at the approaching sound of sandals slapping against cobblestones and there's just enough time for her to stand up straight before Pen rushes in and sweeps her off her feet and hoists her up off the sidewalk and the air is filled with the peals of her laughter.

"Tam!"

Pen isn't tall enough to get her more than a few inches off the ground, but that's never mattered.

(A portrait of the civil servant: usually, but not always the tallest person in any given room. Thin in the way that's mostly arms and legs and straight lines and gangly angles. Deep brown skin, dark hair done up in box braids. A gap between her front teeth, through which she could whistle like an angry kettle.)

Pen sets her first and best friend back down. Her heart leaps and cries out and overflows and in that moment all is well, and all is as it should be...

"You're here!"

"Ah! Ha. Missed you too."

...and it comes down to land lower than it had been.

The morning's fears return now with confirmation.

The brightness is gone from Tam's eyes, as is the energy from her voice. There is a hollowness to her face, a tired slouch to her stance. She's lost weight since they've last spoken face-to-face, and she’s never had particularly much to spare in the first place. She looks exhausted simply by effort of standing there and smiling. 

That frightens Pen more than any of the fanciful worries that had dogged the back of her mind earlier in the day. Those had been vague and unformed, easier to dismiss - this is concrete. The woman Pen had always known as so full of life that it was hard to keep up is standing here as drained and empty as an old cicada shell.

Questions bubble up - are you okay? what happened? do you need help? - but all that comes out is

"Have you eaten yet?"

Tam rubs at her temple and smiles weakly.

“Not since lunch. Sorry, ah, about the short notice. I lost track of time this morning and was halfway out the door before I remembered to send a crow."

Pen could ask about that later. Food, at least, is a solvable problem.

“Come on then. I’ll fix you dinner." Pen grabbed her friend's briefcase. "Let's get you home and fed and you can tell me all about what you've been up to in the big city."

 

*VI*

The two walk back to Willow and Wick, and Pen dutifully recites all the news and gossip of the last few months. Tam is content just to listen.

Their old classmate Billy Dunn (who was the sort of person that uncharitable folk would call “slow”) had gotten married to a woman from Orlei and was taking over for his father at the woodshop.

Sr. Emma had a stroke just past matins and the doctor wasn’t able to make it in time to help.

A lilu circus had passed through town just last week, raising money for the Unified Worker’s Democratic Party in the upcoming elections in Lilu-Voya.

Gen had gone through the last stage of their transition at the temple of Quisest and announced at the party that they were going to head across the Mare and travel in the west for a while.

Waterseeker celebrated his 109th birthday, which coincided with the announcement of his eighth great-grandchild, to which he said [OH NO NOT ANOTHER ONE].  

Just earlier that day a pair of vacationers from the NSR had stopped in at the shop. They were hiking all the way up past Rivershead to the Tower, to go see the ruins there. They had a skeleton carrying their luggage, and it stood out on the porch the entire time and it nearly gave old Mr. Chennekaw a heart attack when he saw it.

As they turn onto Riverfront Street, they spy the great silhouetted form of Waterseeker wading in the shallows.

"Hey! Oi, Waterseeker! Look who's back!" Pen waves and cries out to the old bull. The elephant turns towards them and lifts his trunk from the water, twisting it to and fro in a series of signs.

[OH NO NOT AGAIN]

"Aw, don't be like that!"

[DO NOT THINK I HAVE FORGOTTEN THE CHILD CRIMES OF TAM-I-SIN]

"I don't even remember what I did!" Tam exclaims.

[I DO | PE-NE-PO-LO IS INNOCENT IN THE MATTER | DRAGGED INTO IT]

"Yeah? Well as soon as I figure out what I did I'll do it again!"

[BY THE HERD OF HERDS AND THE EARTHSONG I SHALL MEET YOU WITH TUSK AND TRUMPET TAM-I-SIN | WE SHALL SETTLE MATTERS]

"Good to see you too, you old bastard."

[IT GLADDENS ME THAT YOU ARE WELL TAM-I-SIN | I SHALL SEE YOU AGAIN ERE YOU LEAVE NO DOUBT]

"Oh, I just remembered," Pen says "There won't be any children's storytime next Tuesday, I'll be at the dentist."

[SO IT SHALL BE | GOOD EVENING TO YOU BOTH]

They leave the elephant to his washing, and Pen's fears are allayed somewhat - Tam is still there, dimmed but not extinguished under whatever ails her. They reach Willow and Wick, and climb up the outside stairs to the apartment above.

Pot Luck, rudely awakened yet again, follows.

 

*VII*

Minced garlic and onions sizzle in a pan of oil. Tam sits by the open window that looks out over the street, watching the breeze rustle the Willow's leaves and the swallows swoop over the river. Pen stands at the counter, her knife rhythmically chopping peppers. Pot Luck is sleeping on the couch.

A recipe for shakshuka: Coat pan in olive oil, cook onions and garlic until soft. Chop peppers, add to pan, cook for a while. Chop tomatoes, mix into pan with spices (salt, pepper, cumin, etc). Cook until most liquid is gone. Make divots in the mix with a spoon, crack an egg into each. Cover dish, cook until yolks are firm. Serve over toast.

The reality of the situation is sinking in and settling down. Whatever change was wrought on her friend, Pen is certain now that it's not the kind that a few good meals and a bit of rest can undo. But, it's all that she can do for now. And it's still nice to have her back home.

Time slips by, without making much notice of itself.

Peppers in the pan, give it a stir, on to chopping tomatoes.

"I've missed being up here," Tam says as the tomatoes go in. 

She hasn't, Pen recalls, visited Olen since Mother's Day last spring. Over a year, now.

"I'm glad you were able to make it. I know work has been keeping you busy."

"Yeah." Tam's focus drifts back out to the river and another moment passes by. "There have been dolphins in the city recently, down by the waterfront. There's this one, he'll just pop his head out of the water at people walking by and go e!e!e!e!e!e!e!e! gimme a kiss, leggie!"

"That's pretty tame for a dolphin."

"It's just the opener, he's got a whole routine. But I bring it up because the one time I happened to see him, the guy he was harassing at the time just stops, takes off his shoe, and beans him right in the snout with it. And then just keeps walking like nothing happened."

"Baseball player?" 

"No one I recognize, if he is. Haven't been able to go to a game in ages."

"We can find some time to go, I'm sure."

"That'd be nice."

Off into quiet again. 

The tomatoes cook, and then the eggs.

 

*VIII*

They eat in silence. Tam stops halfway through her second slice of toast and puts it down.

"Hey..uh..." She flexes her fingers, her eyes dart down to her plate. "I, uh, just got out of the hospital. This morning."

Pen feels her stomach drop as if watching a crack split open in a dam.

"What happened?"

"There was an accident in the storage vaults - wasn't anyone's fault, just an artifact that didn't work the way we thought it did. It broke open one of the vaults, and that set off more of them, which damaged a second vault and..." 

She trails off, taps her finger on the tabletop, breathes in deep. 

Up until recently, Tamisin Menadore wore the badge of the Bensael Civil Service, Wizarding Affairs Department, Archival Division. (City colors of navy, white and gold, with a silver pentagram). She told plenty of stories to Pen about working in the archives and vaults, down where all the wizards' flotsam is stored away, but they were, of course, curated. Details left out, good times emphasized over bad, secrets scrubbed away, descriptions purposefully vague. The wizards in the Old City were not to be treated casually. There is much she's seen that she's never told a living soul, and might never be able to.

"I was down there when it happened, and...I was going to die."

She says it with the certainty of a stone. 'Was going to", not "almost did". Pen reaches across the table and grasps her hand.

"I don't really remember what happened," she keeps going, voice low and soft. "There was a hiss, and then a snap, and I could smell something burning. There was a flashing light and then...all like a dream. I was just watching my body moving on its own from the inside and everything else is just sounds and shapes and colors, everything just flowing past except knowing that I was going to die. Like a dream where you're falling, and the ground rushes up towards you and you know its the end, but I couldn't wake up. Then I was sitting on the grass outside the building, and someone gave me a cup of water and..." she sighs, shoulders slumping. "And then I spent six weeks in residential at Northside."

"Oh, Tam..." The strain from telling this much of the story has her friend in clear agony. "I'm here for you, okay? I'm here."

Tam nods, wordlessly.

"I'll make us some tea, how does that sound?"

"Good, yeah. That's good. Thank you." A weight is lifted, just a bit. Enough for a moment of relief.

 Pen goes and puts the kettle on, and washes out the pan she used for dinner while the water boils.

 

*IX*

They sip at their tea. Quiet returns once more to the little apartment. Tam nibbles at the remains of her dinner, gradually reducing it to crumbs.The world past the window slips into the deep blue of dusk.

"It's getting late," Pen says when the last dregs in their mugs are gone. "Do you have a place to stay for the night? Have you talked to your parents?"

"No, they...I don't talk to them much, anymore."  

Pen wants to shove the words back in her mouth. She was at Goro's funeral, she saw first hand that not all was well.

"I'm sorry."

"It's okay. You couldn't have known." Tam's face hardens, as if forcing bile back down into her stomach. "I was the only fucking one, you know? The only fucking person in my entire fucking family who stood up for him. Everyone else cared more about my mom's fucking family pride more than they ever cared about him."

Goro was the second-youngest of the nine, and the black sheep besides. No doubt that's part of why he and Tam had been close. His death two years ago had been sudden, and his will had instructed that his ashes be interred in his husband's family plot. Fenan Menadore took that as a personal slight, and with Goro safely beyond the reach of her spite, its brunt came to bear on Tam.

"We don't have to talk about it."

"Yeah, yeah...best not to."

"How's Bo been, through all this? Is he helping?" 

A wave of shame(?) washes over Tam's face.

"Bo and I aren't...together anymore."

"What?" Pen had liked Bo, the few times they had met. He didn't seem the kind of man to do this... "Did he-"

"No, no, not like that, it was before the accident it was just...we decided that it wasn't going to work out."

"Oh."

Tam draws in a long, shaking breath.

"I'm not going back. Gave them my letter and my badge while I was on leave. Gave the apartment back to Housing. I can't stay there. Can't keep looking at those fucking towers and dealing with those fucking wizards..." Her voice cracks. "I can't fucking do it anymore."

Her eyes are filled with a desperation and a grief and a terror too great to name.

Pen's heart issues a command: There is nothing more important in all the world at that moment than to hold her close, to hold her and not let go. She rises from her seat, arms outstretched, and Tam goes to her, clings to her as if drowning.

The crack in the dam groans, buckles, breaks, and all contained within pours forth in shuddering sobs and streams of tears. The ancient agony which no words can express is met by soft and gentle murmurs  for which no words are needed.

And Lu said to them: "Forgive me, my children. I have brought you into this world, but I cannot take away its pains. Forgive me, I beg you. I did not wish that it would hurt so much to be human."

All the rest of the world falls away. 

Ragged breaths calm, drumming heart subsides, tears slow their coursing.

"I'll be here. Whatever happens, I'll be here for you. No matter what. You can stay here as long as you need to, okay?" Pen says at last. "Pot Luck can learn to share the couch. We can solve the rest tomorrow."

Tam sniffles, wipes her nose, blinks the tears out of her eyes.


*X*

Later, they sit on the back balcony for a while and talk of small, precious things of no great importance to anyone else in the world. Pen plucks at her banjo, the night insects sing along. The stars have joined the moon in the ink-dark sky above. The conversation fades, then the music. Tam reaches out and takes Pen's hand, and they sit there in quiet together.


*XI*

This is, of course, not the end. There are more adventures to be had: the mysterious Book of Blank Pages, the cross-continent trip to the Hollowhorn, the time they get tangled up with Molly Ironshanks and her hunt for the Man With Cuttlefish Eyes, the great question and its answer. But those parts of the story are only hazy shapes on the distant horizon, obscured by distance.

All I can say with certainty is that there is a happy ending, as happy an ending as it is reasonable to have, and there are a great many happy middles and beginnings before we get there.  

 

*Commentary*

This story, short as it is, took eight years to write. 

It's gone through at least eight drafts, nearly all of them painfully granular revisions of this sequence - written, rewritten, edited, trashed - the same thing over and over in the hope that this time (this time) the words would come out right. Up until maybe the last week, it felt like it would never actually happen. That art up top was commissioned almost a year ago.

Eight years and so many iterations leaves behind a great deal of details on the cutting room floor, even when very little has actually changed ("Pen, who works in a bookshop, gets a surprise visit from her friend Tam" has been there since the beginning). Much of those are because they are bad, and many are irrelevant, but some of them are actually relevant background that just didn't have a spot to be relevant here.

  • Pen's morning exercises are the in-universe equivalent to tai chi (river stances, pending a better replacement name)
  • Mr. Wick is just about eight inches tall, has an immense beard, and uses a pencil for a walking stick.
  • There is indeed a dryad in the Willow. She only appears on very special occasions.
  • Current children's story time: notorious trickster Tally Rabbit (not to be confused with B'rer Rabbit, who is not fictional and liable to show up when invoked) stealing a magical glass eye from a giant and escaping without being eaten. Pen does silly voices for it.
  • Waterseeker is the only elephant in Olen. He serves as weather forecaster, grumpy old man everyone knows, and helps the other grandparents with the care of the town's young children. he is often seen leading a herd of them around for activities.
  • "Waterseeker" is actually a title, more or less the equivalent of calling someone "doc".
  • Full messages via the Murder are formatted like telegrams - end sentences with STOP, etc.
  • The temple of Quisest is the primary provider of transition services in the Hespermont.
  • Pen arrived in Bensael when she was six months old, along with hundreds of other children displaced by the Pelaian civil war. With no parents, known relatives, or documentation (and no real hope of finding any), she was placed in an adoptive home. (Her biological father is still alive, and through a series of small miracles will eventually, some time after this sequence, will find her.) 
  • Bensael is split into Bensael proper and the Old City, which is a walled enclave where the wizards and nobles of the pre-plague years live. They generate a lot of often very dangerous and usually useless magical cruft, which the WAD recovers, stores, and destroys as needed. They're less SCP Foundation and more municipal trash services, honestly.
  • Immediately after scene 10, Tam stumbles over to the couch and is out like a light for a full 16 hours.
  • There is an associated soundtrack for this story - The instrumental versions for parts 2 and 4 of Luv (Sic), and "The Dice Maker" from Disco Elysium.

So yeah. Here, finally, is the story of Pen and Tam. It is a small and precious thing of no great importance to anyone else in the world, but I'm happy with how it turned out.