In digging through my BattleTech archives I came across this gem – when we were told that ‘Mechs and vehicles were to be Unseen. The day the music died for us as authors was June 5, 1995 when we got a cryptic letter explaining to us that we were not supposed to use these BattleMechs (and oddly enough the Galleon light tank) as images or in scenes that might appear on the cover of books.
You have to bear in mind, back then, we had no idea what the artwork was going to be for books until it just showed up one day on a cover flat. So using these ‘Mechs for key characters simply became a no-no for us. That didn’t mean we couldn’t use these ‘Mechs, but not where they might end up on the cover.
Personally I thought that was more of FASA’s problem than it was our problem. I remember calling Donna just to clarify. She wouldn’t tell me much other than it was the result of a lawsuit and the letter pretty much told me everything.
I was bummed, and a little pissed off. Yes, we wrote about characters to tell our stories – but the BattleMechs were characters in the universe too. Jamie Wolf piloted an Archer. It was as iconic as the USS Enterprise was to Star Trek. Having these classic images simply denied to us for main characters just felt like restrictions we didn’t need or desire. Freaking censorship…
Believe me, I would have preferred the Archer Christifori pilot a Warhammer – but that was denied. I knew he would have to be on the cover.
You can see that they also gave us an alternate list of ‘Mechs we could use, most of which I have ignored over the years. A Flea – seriously? You can see my notes (scribbled) on the Archer. Really, an Apollo? No way, Bombardier was the way to go. I felt it was best to just follow my gut rather than their recommendations. Treat this as, “Blaine does not follow orders well.”
I thought you fans out there might like to see this little tid bit. While it offers nothing new or universe changing, it is interesting.
I’ve told this story before at Gen Con years ago and in my old blog, but I have updated it a little bit. This is the story of the original first story of the BattleTech book set, Twilight of the Clans. For people who write novels in a shared universe, or writers in general, this is a story to help you see some of the thought process that went into a big event in the BattleTech universe.
When this idea was first floated up, Sam Lewis told me, “We’re going to take the fight to the Clans and wrap this phase of the universe.” I have to admit, I was excited. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the Clans, but I felt like we were stagnated with the stories. Back then, the novels/fiction drove the sourcebooks and products, and without good stories, we were stuck. A truce, in the BattleTech universe, was akin to death from a novel perspective.
Back in those days fiction drove the universe. The last few years it has been sourcebooks that have done that, albeit with some fiction provided. Novels drove the story. We didn’t have carte blanche to do what we wanted. Fiction had to fit in an established framework. Game product was tied to novel releases so that fans could read the story, then fight the battles. That continued on into the Dark Ages. I won’t go there right now because the mere mention of it still sets off some readers out there. I DO have opinions as to what went wrong…but I will hold those for another blog.
The whole Twilight series was going to take us out for 4-5 years of stories and products. We didn’t start with an end-state other than this was going to be a huge set-back for the Clans at the time, allowing us to focus more on Inner Sphere non-Clan fiction. The intent was to lay the foundation for the Fed Com civil war. When the victors came home, surprise!
Prior to the Gen Con BattleTech summit (which were always fun), we were given preliminary assignments. Somehow I got the first book of the set, kind of the sacrificial lamb role. My job was to, “pave the way for the Inner Sphere to get to the Clan homeworlds.” Bill Keith was to follow me with a two book set about the attack. Mike was to tie the bow on the entire affair with the defeat of the Clans. At this point, we weren’t sure what that looked like just yet.
The BattleTech summits were really just meals with the authors where we could brainstorm ideas, talk about the next year’s products etc. I always got a chuckle watching the serving staff bring us our food while we talked about how we could kill Melissa Steiner-Davion. The staff must have thought we were crazy – but then again, it was Milwaukee and Gen Con…they probably just ignored us.
(Sidebar: My suggestion was to kill Melissa by having someone push her down a flight of stairs on Christmas Eve. “Why Christmas Eve?” someone asked. “I don’t know, it just sounds kind of cool.” Clearly that got rejected.)
When it was my turn, I presented my concept to kick us off. The original plan I came up with was to hijack a Clan warship and take the information of the route to the homeworlds from their navcomputer. That was what I drafted at least. It was no more than three paragraphs at this stage. There was a ground battle at a spaceport (you had to have some ‘Mech combat after all) then the team would make their way to the ship in orbit, seize her in a furious shipboard battle against Elementals – and the route to the Clan homeworlds would belong to the Inner Sphere. I called it Exodus Road, the route back along Kerensky’s exodus route. More importantly, I got to play with a warship which was something I always wanted for Christmas but never got.
There were flaws with the idea in terms of a novel. One was that it was going to lack cool ‘Mech battles which were the mainstay of the novels at the time. That made everyone, including me, a little nervous. At the same time it would get us onto a warship which opened up some cool possibilities.
To execute this book I had to map the Clan homeworlds (an honor I might add) and map out the planet that Bill would be attacking. The map I drew up was originally was for Strana Mechty. My thinking (and Bill’s at the time) was that we would be hitting that planet for the main assault. It was very cool, getting to not only draw up the map but name all of the Clan homeworlds (with the exception of the Pentagon worlds which we named in the Wolf Clan Sourcebook and Strana Mechty which Mike named.)
Bill came up with a great idea for the attack – one he shared with me and I was allowed to contribute to (albeit in a minor way). The Inner Sphere fleet would jump on Strana Mechty. Their target, the Clan’s central genetic repository which was a massive pyramid. The premise he floated was that the Clans kept all of their genetic material in one secure location, never really fearing an external attack.
The assault would come in several parts. One DEST team was going to seize Kerensky’s flagship (which held his coffin) orbiting the world and use it to augment the planetary bombardment. This was my little contribution to all of this – I loved the idea of using the McKenna’s Pride to bombard the Clans. The rest of the forces would drop on the pyramid and take it. Holding their precious genes they would force the Clans to submit. Sure it was blackmail, but it would work…I was sure of it.
But we all know that the Clans would come in – with everything they had, having been caught flat-footed. The battle would be horrific. In the end the Inner Sphere would beat the clans (thanks to the bidding system) but the losses would spell the end of the Gray Death Legion (Bill told me that Gray would simply walk off into the jungles, horrified at the level of war he was forced to unleash). Holding the Clan genes as a bartering chip, they would force the Clans into eventual submission. “You come at us and your gene pool gets microwaved.”
Bill and I both thought it was awesome. And to this day, I still think so. I think Bill wanted to have Gray come full circle – he would have recovered the Star League memory core, and seen it used to horrific ends.
Anyway, back at the summit – we bounced the ideas off the other writers. Sam Lewis and others were concerned about my thought of simply stealing the map of the Exodus Road from a warship. As I remember it, “Blaine, the Clans wouldn’t be that stupid.” (Notice that he didn’t say they weren’t stupid in general – just not that stupid.) I preferred to think of it as arrogance on their part, but ultimately Sam said, “Let’s make it a traitor to the Clans that betrays them.” Thus the concept of Trent was born in a Hyatt restaurant in Milwaukee. I remember thinking, “oh boy (sarcasm) a traitor as the lead character in a book. Yeah, people will bond with that guy – NOT.” You don’t see a lot of people wanting to read about Benedict Arnold. There are no Benedict Arnold tee-shirts that kids on campus are wearing.
We were talking a complete rewrite of my proposal, which was frustrating but okay. That’s how things go if you write in a shared universe. It made Trent a real challenge as a character, which stretched me as a writer. How do you take a traitor and make him someone that everyone would be secretly cheering for? I personally like to think I rose to the occasion.
Mike Stackpole, (if I remember correctly) suggested that we didn’t have to go after all of the Clans, we needed to wipe out one of them. There was some discussion about which one we should target too – a fairly active debate. Ultimately the Smoke Jaguars were chosen as the sacrificial lambs of the Clans. So, my map of Strana Mechty was changed, albeit slightly, to become Huntress – the new target of the assault.
I thought that the Hindu and Indian cultures had gotten short changed in BattleTech, so I consulted with a co-worker who helped me with the naming of the Huntress cities and features. I guess I was being diverse before diversity was a thing. For a long time it was the only mapped out Clan homeworld.
Bill’s thinking of the pyramid genetic repository seemed sound to me but there was a lot of debate that the Clans wouldn’t keep their genes in one place. There was some logic in that – but we were talking the Clans. Logic alone didn’t work with these folks. Bill pointed out that going after one Clan didn’t make sense. The Clans would clamor for a chance to wipe out the Inner Sphere task force even if we did take out one Clan. Holding their genetic material as hostage seemed to be good way to blunt all of the Clans pouncing on the Inner Spherers. Politics, it was decided, would leave the Smoke Jaguars isolated and forced to fight alone. Politics had always been a big part of BattleTech, so we could make it work. I prefer the sword over the words though.
Dealing with the Nova Cats had to be addressed too since they shared an invasion corridor. I always felt like we missed an opportunity to do more fighting with them. Instead they changed sides, more or less, backing the Star League. I would have enjoyed a whole novel dedicated to fighting the Cats much more. Yes, it was all true to the nature of their clan, blah, blah, blah. I would have liked more fighting.
Bill’s invasion obviously had to dramatically change as a result of all of this. Bill never complained to me but I think he was pretty disappointed. He had really mapped things out pretty well. It is hard sometimes to work in a shared universe. Bear in mind I was still trying to figure out how I could make a Smoke Jaguar turn traitor. Bill ended up taking a pass on doing the novels. The Gray Death Legion didn’t die on Strana Mechty – it clung on for several more years.
After the meeting Bryan drew up a detailed proposal for the entire series (which I have and will be releasing in future blogs) which we were supposed to follow. Stress “supposed.” Some changes (some major) were made, all for the better. Once you get writing books you sometimes come up with better ideas.
Some things originally proposed did get reused, though in different ways. I loved what we came up with about stealing General Kerensky’s flagship (McKenna’s Pride) and using it to bomb the planet. So, when I did Betrayal of Ideals (the infamous Wolverine saga) I leveraged the scene and finally got it into print. That little scene is a private tribute to Bill Keith. Bill would have done it better, but I thought his idea deserved seeing a day in print.
I have always wondered how things would have played out if we had gone with Bill’s invasion plan. The end results would have been the same. Bill had planned some space battles, but the final novels had a lot more of that. The Eridani Light Horse got more fiction play rather than the Gray Death Legion.
I liked the final product of the Twilight Series with one minor exception, how Trent was dealt with. Mike and I sent some emails back and forth about the scene. He argued strongly that Victor would never fully like or trust Trent. I felt that made Victor a little two dimensional. It also seemed to be callous and disingenuous to Trent who we set up in the first novel. Trent was a man of honor just like Victor. In the end, Trent’s demise seemed somehow inappropriate. What do I know, I just created the character. I am pleased to say I have found a way to come to peace with Trent and you will all get a chance to enjoy it soon!
Welcome to the novelization of my current D&D campaign, told through the perspective of the characters. Parts 1-19 charted the first part of the campaign, part 20 began the next phase of the saga: Tempora. For me, it lets me do a little creative writing between more serious projects. Links to the previous posts are at the bottom of this one. Enjoy!
When I got my first look at the White Vale it was intimidating. A plateau rose in the distance but the sheer rock faces leading up to it formed a canyon of sorts that narrowed on both sides to a point in the center. The stone faces were draped with thick vines, centuries old, many long dead but still clinging to the rocks. The canyon walls were vertical climbs of over 200 heads height. My experience was that such vines were dangerous to climb. Rot often led to a plunge to death. Thoughts of working our way north of the vale and lowering into it were dashed.
For many stone-throws of distance the vale opened up, littered with bleached bones, some streaked with rust from armor. There were several large mounds of bones out there, no doubt from massive creatures that had died there. What had killed them?
The floor of the vale was covered with a cobblestone as far as the eye could see. Most were light gray, but some stood out, a dark pink granite, almost red in color. Weeds poked up between the gaps in the stones and snaked through the twisted array of bones. This was a place of death. It lacked the aroma of death, but it was clear from the carnage that this place was where countless lives had been lost; dwarven and other.
I glanced over at the paladin Arius and he crossed himself at the sight of the vale. My new companion, the warlock Althalus, muttered something that only his ears and his patrons could hear. He was a quirky fellow, always brooding. He surveyed the long open field of bones and stones as if he were more curious than afraid. For me, the words of Ichabod still rang in my ears.
The others tied their horses and we moved down cautiously to the edge of the vale. I could not discern any trail through the shattered marrow. As we lined up along the very edge of the vale, it was Arius that said, “We should enter – all of us.” If we were to face danger, better to do it together.
We took a cautious step in. Nothing happened. Perhaps, this is not going to be so bad after all. I remember thinking that – for a few moments. I used my ability to check for the presence of undead. If there was ever a place where this could be useful, it is before an endless field of bones. “Wait, let me check for the presence of the undead.”
“You probably should have done that before we stepped in,” the paladin said under his breath, just loud enough for me to hear.
I followed the procedures correctly, but I could not see any one undead. Instead it was as if the entire vale lit up in my mind as being undead. That was impossible…wasn’t it?
“Well?” Althalus asked.
“Everything is undead,” I said. “The whole vale.”
“Well, I feel suddenly calm,” the warlock replied with one of his twisted grins that made me wonder if he was joking, or deadly serious.
“And we have no idea where we are going,” Arius said. “Those red stones weave a trail in to the middle of this canyon. I guess that is where we should head.” It was as good as an idea as any the rest of us had.
We moved carefully into the vale, every now and then you hear the crack of bone shards under our boots. We weren’t stepping on the red stones, but following their general path. At around forty heads in Theren held up his hand. “There’s a shuffling of the bones over there,” he pointed to his right. He was right, we could see them twitching, moving on their own.
We paused, staring at theme for a long moment, wondering what was making them twitch. Suddenly the bones seemed to move, rising up in skeletal form. Bits of armor buried on the vale floor snapped to them, clinging as if they belonged there. Skeleton fighters! Both of the skeletal warriors held rusted swords in their hands. One, missing a jawbone, seemed to survey our party slowly, right to left.
Then they broke into a charge.
While focused on these undead abominations, we heard more clatter of bones shuffling behind us. Theren fired his bow but missed the skeletons entirely. Althalus spun to see the threat behind us. “More are forming to our rear!” Three more skeletons formed from the debris of the vale floor.
Arius the paladin held out his hands and uttered a chant at the ones approaching from our rear. One of the new attackers stopped dead in his tracks, but the others seemed to smile a toothless grin and charge at Arius.
Althalus held out his hand and an emerald beam of magic burst forward, but missed the charging skeletal warriors. He hit a number of bones on the ground, sending them flailing about the cobblestones. Where those bones landed in the distance, and they seemed almost magnetic, as if they were attracting more bones to them. We didn’t have time to focus on them though, we were under assault.
Bor, the burley fighter, swung his hammer Skullringer at one of those that closed on Theren, shattering it into hundreds of bits and pieces. Parts flew some 50 head distance. The skull rolled right to the edge of the vale.
I pulled my staff and swung it at the closest one to me but caught the air, not the bones. I almost lost my balance from the swing. Dimitrious moved to protect Athalus, putting himself between the warlock and the skeletons.
I swung again and this time hit the rib cage of one of the creatures, shattering ribs and bits of scale armor that clung to the bones. It turned on me and plowed its rusty sword into my shoulder, digging deep.
One skeletons swung at Arius but did nothing more than shatter the tip of his rust-splotched sword on the paladin’s armor with a high pitched, “ting,” sound ringing in the air.
The monk caught the blade of one of the attackers, downing him instantly. A spray of blood hit the warlock he was protecting. “No! Dimitrious!” wailed Athalus. He unleashed a blast of his magic on the attacker, shattering the skeleton into bits and pieces. The monk regained his feet, his blue robe showing a wet crimson smear from the sword cut.
Arius swung his sword into the skeleton that had tried to kill him, his blade cutting through its right arm and rib cage, turning it from an attacker to a flying pile of bones and armor.
Theren swung his staff into one of the skeletons hitting it, but only shattering its shoulder blade.
The bones in the distance seemed to draw from one of the larger piles, slowly it was growing in size and shape. Closer to us, the skeleton that Arius has frozen into place, seemed to shake free from the paladin’s spell, and charged at him.
I swung my staff at him and missed, the air whistling as my weapon passed through it. Arius swung at him and caught only air as well as the skeleton seemed almost charmed to our assault. Theren caught him with his staff, catching him on the skull and shatter it. The bones collapsed like a puppet whose strings were severed.
Athalus turned to the large pile of assembling bones and cast a spell on it. The air shimmered yellow and a boiling smoke cloud formed, filled with swinging daggers of energy. Then the cloud seemed to flicker, then dissipated. Athalus stood with his mouth agape for a moment. “That can’t be good.” Theren moved his hands, clearly casting some sort of spell, though I could not see what it was.
It formed before us – a massive creature, ancient and evil. Its skull alone was massive, reformed from bits of bones. Torn gray leather wings hinged on bones emerged and seemed to spread. A dragon! Not just any dragon, but a Bone Dragon – skeletal and malevolent as if it were alive. Bits of dragon scale clung to its ribs, while others were missing and left huge gaps. Two massive horns rose from its massive skull. It loomed large as the final bones re-assembled it before us. Its teeth gleamed like two dozen daggers, any one of which could rip one of us apart. Ichabod was right. The White Vale was filled with death…maybe our own.
The last skeleton warrior drove its sword deep into Arius, finding a gap in his armor. The paladin moaned in agony from the hit. An invisible force, no doubt from Theren’s magical machinations, shattered the last skeletal warrior, raining bits on the injured paladin. I had been raised to be wary of magic users, but here, in battle, I found myself shedding that belief.
“I don’t like it,” Athalus said, looking at the Bone Dragon. The beast’s bones rattled as its tail swept behind it. “This is going to be bad,” he added flatly.
Bor didn’t hesitate – he charged straight at it first, Skullringer reeled back for what should have been a devastating blow. The ancient warhammer came down completely missing the dragon, clanging hard on the cobblestones.
Althalus backed up nearly thirty heads and fired his magic energy bolts at the creature, shooting upward into the gray sky. Theren shifted and waved his hands before him. Around the creature a snarl of spikes on vines appeared. If it were to move at all the massive thorns would rip at it, tearing at its bones and wings. Such a move had killed the goblins before, I was hopeful that it would do the same with this creature.
It batted its massive wings, kicking up a cloud of dust, bones, and debris from the floor of the White Vale. As it rose and moved forward, the vines did their work, but were simply no match for the massive creature. It opened its massive maw of a mouth and seemed to glare at us with its dark holes where its eyes were. I told myself it was just a skeleton of a dragon, its days of breathing fire or whatever had long passed. It was dead after all.
I was wrong.
From the massive mouth came a stream of bone shards, each like a deadly dagger, sprayed out at us in a cone of death and destruction. Dimitrious, and Theren sprang into action, lessoning the amount of spray that ripped into them where Bor had been spared the attack completely. I felt my legs and chest feel as if they had been doused in burning oil from the hits and looking down I saw bits of bones sticking out of my left thigh. I pulled them free, then my vision tunneled. I dropped to my knees and everything went black. It was dying…I knew it. Is this how my life was to end…on some forgotten field of bones?
I suddenly felt better. I opened my eyes and saw the sky above me, but somehow I had been saved somehow from almost certain death. I didn’t question it..
I wasn’t sure if it was a dream until I heard, “I don’t like this,” from Althalus. I saw him as I got my footing and he looked as if he were soaked in his own blood.
Dimitrious seemed to shake off the damage as well, getting back to his feet as I did. Whatever had saved my death had done the same to the monk. No doubt magic from our paladin. We had been badly injured, but were alive. Bor switched to a throwing axe and chucked it high above him into the dragon, embedding it into one of the massive shins of the skeletal dragon, but doing no real damage.
Emerald green energy shot from the outstretched arms of our warlock into the creature – but only hit him for a little damage, pushing the creature back a few feet, enough for the thorny vines to injure him again.
The Bone Dragon moved forward in flight, then landing with a thud that shook the ground we stood up. Bor was now behind it and I saw him smile – thinking he had gotten the upper hand on the creature. That smile fell as the creature’s massive tail swung at him, hitting him hard. Bor grabbed his other axe and buried it hard into his leg, clearly hurting the beast.
I was only ten heads away from the beast and it loomed over me, towering three times my height. This was the wrong place to be…that much was for sure.
I toyed with the thought of mounting the creature, but common sense took hold of me. Instead I fell back, shifting to my longbow. My arrow hit one of the ribs of the creature and snapped from the force of the impact – doing no damage to the massive skeleton.
Bor chucked his axe and went back to Skullringer as his weapon of choice. He swung with every bit of his strength, but missed the Bone Dragon entirely. We had all been hoping that the mighty warhammer might shatter the creature, but he had missed entirely.
As I side-stepped for a better angle, I saw Theren start to become, well, blurry, as if he were changing. He dropped to all fours and hair sprung out, his size grew. A heartbeat later I saw where the druid had once been stood a large direwolf. I had seen them during my ranges in the forest, always at a safe distance. This one was massive, ominous, and ferocious. It reminded me just how little I knew about my new comrades in arms.
The direwolf lunged at the Bone Dragon, tearing its forearm, gouging the bones with its teeth. If the dragon felt pain, we didn’t see it. Instead it swiped its tail at Bor again, hitting him hard, sending him flying back. I swear I heard his ribs break under the impact. Blood oozed from the corners of his mouth as he drifted to momentary unconsciousness. Arius gestured towards him, possibly summoning the spirit of God to help our fallen fighter. Whatever he did, Bor stirred awake, shaking his head, wiping the blood on his sleeve, and making his way to his feet.
The Bone Dragon pressed on against the direwolf with one of its massive claws, tearing into the flesh of the wolf. Theren-wolf winced from the savaging, but squatted on its haunches and looked even angrier.
Althalus looked as if he were casting a spell, but if he did, its effects were unknown to us. The Bone Dragon unleashed an agonizing wail that made my skin crawl. It should have been impossible, it had no body, so the wail came from the netherworld that had spawned it.
I fired my longbow again, missing the massive creature. Our silent monk friend shifted to its rear, swinging but doing no damage. The Bone Dragon swept his massive table. Bor ducked it but it hit Arius hard, leaving his limp form unconscious.
The druid-direwolf bit deep into the left leg of the beast, once more ripping into the bone. I could see the bits of marrow in the froth around its mouth. The skeletal beast responded with a sweep of its claw, tearing a nasty wound across Theren’s hide.
Althalus fired his magical burst – hitting the creature in its midriff region and searing some of the bones of the massive rib cage. I saw that the paladin was growing pale, so I sprinted to his aide, putting pressure on his wounds. Blood oozed between my fingers as I tried to keep him alive.
The warlock unleashed another eldritch blast – the bright green energy hitting the right leg of the Bone Dragon and burning through in one spot. The massive skeleton reeled under the assault, showing a rare moment of injury to us. Me…I was focused on that tail whipping near my head and trying to stop Arius’s horrible blood loss. Bor joined me and was able to wrap a bandage on the paladin’s arm wound enough to hold him somewhat stable.
The tail whip-snapped in the air above me, nearly knocking my hat off – hitting Bor and sending him flying unconscious into the field of bones. Before any of us could react, the claw of the Bone Dragon swiped at the direwolf-druid and knocked hard, rolling in the bone shards. His form flickered for a moment and we saw Therein the human take shape.
The druid did what he could for Bor as the monk sprung into action, hitting the right leg of the creature so hard I saw fragments of bone fly from the hit. I tried to strike the creature with an arrow but it had no visible effect. What could stop this beast?
The tail snapped like a whip, hitting Bor again, knocking him senseless and limp, rolling in the bones of the vale. I wondered if we were going to survive this as my heart pounded in my ears. Ichabod’s warnings to us about the vale haunted me at this moment. Theren muttered a word of healing, enough for Arius to climb to his knees, then his feet. The druid then struck with his staff. The sound of the crack was deafening.
For a moment the Bone Dragon wavered. Then it was as if everything that held the bones together suddenly disappeared. It collapsed down onto itself, forming a massive pile of parts and shards. Some of the bones twitched, as a creature might that had been just killed. For a long moment we stared at the pile, unsure what had just happened. Did we really defeat it? Then we all cheered, all in unison. Yes! Victory was ours!
An eerie silence smothered the White Vale. I set my eyes on the dragon’s skull, still oddly intact amidst the pile of bones and dragon scale. I had heard Althalus talking about some skull he had at one point that was worth a fortune. I knew that many magic users would pay a hefty price for any part of a dragon. The skull had to be worth a lot. I walked over to it and realized that it was massive, too big for me to carry alone. “I want the skull.”
“Too big,” the warlock said. “Trust me. If you want a souvenir pick something smaller.”
I took out a dagger and pried loose one of big teeth and stuck it in my pocket. That had to be worth something. The story alone that went with it would get me drinks in any tavern. It gave me a lot of satisfaction.
The silence was shattered when some of the bones started twitching and Arius suggested a rapid departure from the vale to get our second wind and try and wrap our wounds. We scampered out of the field. Looking back it dawned on me that we had barely entered the vale and had nearly died…and there were other large piles of bones out there that could be just as deadly as the Bone Dragon, or worse. Worse than that, we had only gotten into the field some 50 heads distance…a long ways from the far end where we suspected the entrance to Tempora to be.
It took an hour or so for us to recoup and even then, we were weary from the fight. “So what do we do now?” I asked as all eyes drifted back to the White Vale.
“We are going back to the bones,” Althalus replied. “Maybe we should consider doing something a little different than the last time.” There were a few nods of agreement.
Theren studied the vale carefully. “Let’s think this over. We should sleep on this, keep watch, maybe we can find some alternate approach. We set up a small campfire, though our sleep was fitful that night. This was not the kind of place one found solace near.
A light rain moved in during the early morning, a cold penetrating rain. The vale was just a daunting in the morning. “I think we need to work our way to the far canyon wall where it seems to come to a point.”
Arius stepped forward. “I am going to try and ask God for help. His divine sense may provide me with some sort of path through these bones.” He held out his arm and closed his eyes for a moment. When they opened his eyes, he winced. “There are over 150 skeletons of some sort out there.” That made us all cringe. “There is a pattern of the red stones though. I can barely make it out. It is like a spiderweb of paths, but one does lead to that far wall at the apex.”
“I don’t think there’s a good choice here,” Althalus said.
“There are a lot of gaps between those stones – I mean we would have to jump some pretty far distances,” the paladin said.
“We just jump. It’s not a big deal, right?” the warlock offered.
“You do remember the Bone Dragon, right?” I responded.
“That poem did mention the Blood of the Gods or something like that. It has to be those reddish stones.” Theren said. “I’ll go first. If something goes wrong, I have spells that can help me get out.”
“We’ll watch you and see what happens to you then,” I said.
His pattern was to walk or hop to a stone, pause, look around, make sure that he was not causing any skeletons to rise, then move on with the next steps. At one point he lost his balance and fumbled, but there were no skeletons rising up against him. He used his quarterstaff to steady himself.
“That looks easy, I’ll follow him.” I did pretty well until I was near Theren, then I stumbled, missing the red granite stone. I landed on a bone and dropped. The bones near me suddenly stirred and rose, forming a skeletal warrior looming over me, sword at the ready. I got to my knees to rise and suddenly there was a brilliant blast of magical energy from Althalus at the edge of the vale. The beams severed the skeleton in half, sending the bones flying, some landing on me. I was so startled I lost my footing and stumbled once more. Between Theren and me another skeleton warrior, this one armed with a rusted morning star, assembled and took shape.
The druid swung his quarterstaff, hitting it hard, breaking its spine, sending the upper torso one way, the lower portion the other. I took my time getting up, getting next to Theren.
Bor joined us. The rest of the party followed the same path we had followed. Arius fell, but no skeletons came up as a result. Dimitrious made his leaps perfectly as did Althalus. We formed up now, some sixty feet in the middle of the White Vale. It felt lonely out there, surrounded by a sea of bones…but my new comrades seemed to have my back.
“Do we go to the center, the left or the right?” Althalus asked. We did a quick show of hands and opted for the center.
Our next move was 100 heads distance. I stumbled and the skeleton rose up next to the warlock. He responded with a devastating blow, shattering the remains of the warrior, its sword flailing into the bones and stones. And so it continued on. Sometimes we missed a stone, and a skeleton would assemble itself almost instantly, but they were easily dispatched. My eyes were on the larger piles of bones. That was where a Bone Dragon or some other bone creature might appear. Our attention was focused on them.
It was a slow go as our line of leaping and jumping party made their way across the White Vale. I was confident that we were going to make it when I fell hard. Suddenly, there were a stirring with one of the large bone piles, just as we had seen before.
“Damn,” I cursed.
“We need to get to the wall!” Theren yelled. “I can cast a fog bank spell I have that can give us cover.”
“You might want to lead with that next time,” Arius said flatly.
The fog rolled in a wall some 20 heads high blocking the Bone Dragon’s view of us. Another skeleton warrior appeared in front of Bor and was destroyed by the warlock. Its skull landed in my lap, and I immediately dropped it. From behind the wall of fog, we could hear the bones shuffle more loudly. Looking over at the fog bank, we could see the outline of the tattered wings of the beast stretch out, creaking as they did. A chilling bellow filled the air, piercing the magical fog.
Theren cast another fog bank as the sounds of the dragon stomping on the bones drew closer. Our party made its way to the canyon wall. It was covered with a thick blanket of vines, some thick, many of them long dead. It dawned on me that we were trapped here, with nowhere else to go. If the door to Tempora was not here, we were doomed.
Dimitrious pulled out a torch and his flint and steel, nodding at the wall. “That makes way too much sense,” Althalus said, holding the torch as the monk lit it. Those old vines would burn pretty easily. The warlock was struck by another skeleton that formed up next to him. He pivoted and hit it, not enough to stop the creature, but sending some of its rusted chainmail flying.
The Bone Dragon flapped its wings and the wall of fog billowed out towards us along with a fine dust of bones and debris from the floor of the vale. “Flamous sphereoius,” yelled Theren, and a sphere of flames formed around the dragon. While its wings were singed by the flames of the massive ball of compressed fire.
The monk with the torch lit the vines on fire while we kept our attention on the immediate threat. Bor hacked at the vines, looking for some sign of a door or escape. I felt along the stone face of the wall, trying to find anything that might help us.
Theren moved the flaming sphere to stay on the dragon as it advanced towards us then spun, reaching through the vines. “I found it – I found a door! The door’s here! I found the edge of a hinge or something.”
It was huge, it went up nearly 20 heads height. The vines obscured it and it was thick stone. “Find the edges!” the druid yelled. Arius joined in for the search but his fingers found Bor’s butt rather than the door. “What are you doing?” the burly fighter said glaring at the paladin.
“I missed the wall,” he said embarrassed, turning to the wall and continuing his search. Dimitrious set fire to more of the vines above our heads. Chaos reigned as we were trapped.
The skeletal Bone Dragon lumbered forward within 50 heads of us and opened its toothy maw and breathed. The air filled with bone shards and fragments, unleashed in a torrent, each a potential lethal white dagger. The bone-shard breath shredded armor and flesh that it hit. Althalus managed to cast a spell of some sort, putting an end the spray of bones as the massive beast took damage. My own armor was torn apart, and there were at least a half- dozen bones stabbed into my torso and arms. The sight of all of that blood – my own blood, made me light-headed. I collapsed on the floor of the vale, blood flowing into my right eye. I was sure that I was going to die in that moment. Everything went dark.
My memories of what happened after that were a blur. I heard voices. Something about the door. It felt as if someone tossed my body, like I was rolling, but I can’t be sure. Suddenly I saw light – the torch, laying on the floor next to me. The cold stone made my cheek ache as I came to and pushed my body to a sitting position.
All around me it was dark and the air was stale. “Where are we? What happened?”
Theren leaned in close to my face, pulling one of the bone shards out of my chest and tossing it aside. “We made it inside. We’re in Tempora,” he said in a low voice.
“What about the Bone Dragon?” I said pulling out some of the larger shards. Some hurt more, some less as I did the deed.
“It hit the door and shattered,” Althalus said wearily. He too was pulling fragments of bone out of his left side.
We were in the lost dwarven city. We had made it!
The following are the previous installments. I hope you enjoy the campaign so far. Be sure to follow my blog if you do.
One advantage I have with other BattleTech writers is that I have been around since the original 3025 sourcebook. I also kept as lot of material we were provided as authors. I feel safe in violating my NDA since this material is dated back to the last century. Note: I will be releasing a lot of stuff over the next few months, so I encourage you BattleTech fans to follow my blog…hint, hint…)
This was a little gem I found on the back of the Archer artwork we were sent when we did the sourcebook. It shows the variants of the ‘Mechs (our blessed Unseen) broken down by which house uses which variant. It also outlines the original mercenary units and which ones they use.
I honestly don’t remember if we actually followed this chart, but it is a cool nugget of BattleTech history. You have to remember that back at this time the universe was still in flux in many respects. That, and I don’t take orders well (a character flaw on my part.)
Welcome to the novelization of my current D&D campaign, told through the perspective of the characters. Parts 1-19 charted the first part of the campaign, part 20 began the next phase of the saga: Tempora. For me, it lets me do a little creative writing between more serious projects. Links to the previous posts are at the bottom of this one. Enjoy!
I took my holy vows at the Sept of the Silver Blade before our departure. I had wanted my friends to join me, but bringing a druid and a warlock into such a sacred place would have somehow tainted the sacred ritual. The interior of the sept was magnificent, with low hanging brass lanterns intricately decorated, and the stonework some of the best I have ever seen. How could such a place of pristine goodness and sanctity be poised at the edge of a chasm where we had cast the darkest of our enemies? That was a dichotomy for greater minds to ponder.
Our journey north in search of the missing legion of brother paladins had been ponderous. The slow rising road brought a chill and thinning of the air. There were many pieces to this puzzle that we didn’t know including how to find the entrance to Tempora…if indeed that was where the wayward legion had been lured.
The goblins that Theren’s spell had just slain wore the armor (albeit poorly) of the very knights we were seeking. That did not bode well. Paladins would have never surrendered their armor to such loathsome creatures.
“I wish we hadn’t killed them both. One would have made a good pet…like a puppy,” Althalus said wryly.
“You are welcome to keep one now,” I replied.
“They are quite dead,” the warlock retorted.
“I know,” was all I said in response offering him a thin smile. That ended our banter on the matter.
We went a little ways further up the road and encamped in a small copse of pines which sheltered us from the night winds. The morn brought a low mist which clung to our clothing. We marched on and my eyes were drawn to a small three-fingers length of chainmail along the cobblestones. It was not rusted so it was an indication that we were possibly on the trail of the missing paladins from the Gash. “We are on the right trail,” I said as we passed it around.
As we marched uphill the woods alongside the long abandoned road grew thicker. The climb was steeper and the mountains crew closer with each clop of the horse’s hooves hitting the stone. It was after sunpeak that our new comrade, the ranger known as Brandon, motioned for us to halt. He fell back to the rest of our party. “I saw something run across the trail up ahead, hiding in the bushes.”
“How far up?” I queried.
“Around 80 or 90 feet from where I was at point,” the ranger replied.
I drew my sword without even thinking about it. “I say we move forward. Let us see what it was that the ranger saw.”
It wasn’t long before Brandon saw a man scurry back from his cover, diving behind another bush that took it even further from us. “Do you think we should check this out?”
“I am not in favor of pursuing things that take us off this trail,” I countered. There had been stories of such diversions aimed at luring good-hearted into ambushes.
Theren disagreed. “I don’t want whoever it is to shadow us and show up later, when we least expect it.”
We advanced slowly, stopping to see the footprints of whoever the man was. They were boot prints, the ranger assured us of that, though even I could see that much from my saddle.
“I say we ride on. Whoever this is, they are striving to steer clear of us. I will watch over my shoulder should he double-back on us,” I said. Clearly Althalus felt differently, I could see that in the furrows on his brow.
A few hours passed and we saw no immediate sign of pursuit. We set up our camp off of the road as we had on the night previously. A light drizzle began to fall and with the chill in the air, made for a stiff sleep. I had just gotten off to sleep when Theren called, “Halt,” which was enough to stir me to my feet. I saw Dimitrious spring to his feet, staff at the ready along with Brandon. Bor and Althalus apparently were still slumbering.
“Something is moving over there,” Theren said, pointing to the south of our camp. We all looked at each other, then back to Theren.
“Who goes there?” the druid called into the darkness.
A voice rose from behind a bush. “I mean no harm. I am just hungry.”
“Who goes there?” the druid repeated.
“My name is Icabod,” the voice said feebly.
Althalus, apparently just awakened moved to my side and chuckled. “Ichabod?” Apparently he saw something funny in the name of the man.
“Step out where we can see you,” Theren called. “We won’t harm you.” That was yet to be seen, but I appreciated the hint of honor in the druid.
The man stepped out, his plate armor caked with mud but still bearing the marks of the paladins from the Gash. “I—I am hungry,” he said. There was a look of fear in his face. “I just want some food, then I need to head back…away from this place.”
“Back?” Theren asked.
“Wherever you are going you are heading the wrong direction,” Ichabod replied.
“What are you doing out here?” I challenged, eyeing the longsword hanging in the scabbard at his side.
“I was part of a doomed expedition,” he said with a cough. “You have got to turn around.”
“Are you with the First Shield?” Brandon asked.
“You don’t want to go north. If you go north you will die.”
“You didn’t answer him,” I countered. “Were you with the First Shield?”
“I was,” he said with a low sign, his voice trailing off. To me, it sounded ominous. He lifted his head. “Who are you to be marching to your deaths?”
We didn’t respond quickly and Ichabod continued. “The advice I give you will save your lives. Turn around and head to the lowlands.”
I cleared my throat. “We are on a mission to go north to find the rest of the missing legion who have become captured. We are going to liberate them.”
Althalus stepped forward. “What happened to the others?”
Ichabod bowed his head slightly. “They were slaughtered. And you will be too.” He was clearly exhausted, I could see that in my fellow paladin’s face.
Althalus did a quick gesture with his hands, no doubt summoning some of his magic against the man. “What happened to the men you were with?”
“They were slaughtered. Those that weren’t killed…they were taken away.” Ichabod paused for a moment then pleaded with us. “You have got to turn around.” At the same time he began to walk towards us, no doubt under the influence of Althalus’s magic. As he reached us, he continued his plea, “You have got to go back to the south. You’ll all be dead soon – all of you.”
“So what happened?” the warlock pressed impatiently.
“Give the man some food,” Brandon said. Ichabod scarfed down the rations ravenously, thanking us between bites. The smell that rose from him spoke of a man that reeked of sweat and despair.
“You are most gracious,” he said with the last bite of jerky. “The way north is filled with black death, shame, and horror.”
“Where did you come from?” I pressed. “Was it Tempora?” our ranger added his questions as well.
“The Vale of White. That was where I was attacked. I alone was the one that escaped.”
“We need more detail than that,” Althalus said firmly.
Ichabod nodded. “We found what had escaped the Gash in the White Vale. I have always been told that it was a graveyard of goblins and dwarves that had been lost for many years. Then we saw a giant black rider, almost skeletal, on a black warhorse. We followed it into the vale at a full charge, our banner flying, swords shimmering. It was trapped there, surrounded by the mountains. We had them. In that moment…we had them.” His voice rose for a moment in memory.
“But it was a trap! The dead rose up around us like a sea. Brave knights who could turn the undead were not able to, it was as if god was no longer hearing our prayers or cries for help. I was hit on the head and stumbled…I…I do not know what happened for many minutes as my ears rang with the cries of my comrades. I came too with one of those abominations astride my chest, ready to impale me. I cut it in half and somehow got to my feet. Sir Kendrick called to me, said to go. I should not have listened to him, that is not the way of a paladin. I was afraid, as if I were a child, and in that fear I fell back, out of the bloodbath of the vale.
“I saw First Shield take his men and our standard to a narrow defile at the west end of the vale, but that was the last I saw of him. There was a bright light, like a bonfire, rising out of that pass. Whatever he saw there, it…it had to have killed them. If it didn’t – he certainly never emerged. It was all a trap – and we fell for it. Only then did I see it. The others that did–they did not survive. My brothers…they fought, as did I, but to no avail. I hear their screams now at night even now.
“I am not sure why I was spared. It was as if the dead wanted me to live, to tell others what happened. I ran…that I am not proud of. For three days and nights I ran south, my head still filled with their lamentations and cries. I passed out during a thunderstorm – I slept for I don’t know how many days.
“My cowardice saved me. My shame was all I had left. I had failed my order. I should have charged in and died with the others. I can no longer pray. I was there – god stopped answering us in that Vale. There is no way he would respond to me, a fallen holy knight. I am not worth to bend the knee in his name.
“I keep asking myself why they went there…how did they know of that place? Whatever came out of the Gash knew of the location of the Vale and possibly the way into Tempora. We saw no sign of the citadel, but it is said to have been hidden for centuries. It knew somehow, where it was going and planned our deaths.
“I should be killed for what I did…fleeing like a common coward. Better I face death than the shame of my brothers at the Fang. It would have been different if I had our standard, if that had survived. We lost our legion and the banner that held us together and blessed our order.” For a moment, the broken paladin cried, tears soaking his brown beard.
Brandon spoke up. “Would you not seize the opportunity to redeem yourself?”
Ichabod shook his bowed head as the tears continued to fall. “There’s no redemption for me.”
I alone understood him, I too was a holy knight in the service of God. For him to have run was not just breaking his bond with his men, but with his vows as a knight as well. His soul was lost in his eyes, but I saw something more. Such a man need not wallow in his failure. The church forgave those that confessed, and while the sin of cowardice was a taint on any man’s soul, there was a chance for him still. He may yet have a role to play in the affairs of this world. “You can redeem yourself. We need to go to the White Vale. You can lead us there.”
“Go back there?”
“Yes!” I said. “That act can redeem you.”
“I am a coward.”
“This is you rising above your cowardice. It is the first step to redemption. You come with us, lead us to the Vale so we can vanquish the enemy that defeated you.”
Althalus added, “You were following the orders you were given. Nothing more or less in our eyes. You were told the leave.”
Ichabod kept his head bowed. “I am not even worthy to look into your eyes.”
“Is it more shameful to go back to the Gash a coward that did not face his fears…or as a man that led us to fight that evil?” I asked.
Ichabod rose and we saw the red in his eyes. I thought for a moment that Althalus might actually hug him, but he did not. “I will not enter that place with you.”
“We are not asking that,” I replied.
“I will lead you there then,” he said with more resolve than I anticipated.
We took the rest of the slumber that night, uneasy. We ate while Theren and Brandon foraged for food. We kept a low fire, just enough to ward off the night chill.
Ichabod shared with us how they had come to the White Vale. “First Shield Sir Ferrin saw something stirring in the Gash. We went down there, along the winding stair of The Wail – with 15 other holy knights of the order. When we arrived at the landing we were confronted by…I cannot say what it was. Faceless – formless, it was an apparition and as solid as steel and just as cold. It blew past us, along with other ilk that had climbed out of the dark, leaving only four of us alive. We lost it when it headed north, into the foothills of The Horns of Essex towards the Sever Pass – the name of the Vale in the old tongue.
“The First Shield, a righteous man was he, summoned the whole of the legion to pursue. It took us days marching north. There was no trail, the dead do not leave their mark on the land. Even our best rangers struggled to find their course in the rocks. For days we marched, day and some of the night.
“Then we found them at the edge of the Vale. And that is where everything fell asunder…”
Brandon spoke up, “We were told that this was all tied to Sir Viktor Barristen.”
“Does the name Barristen mean anything to you?” Althalus asked.
The mention of his name seemed to make Ichabod’s brow furrow. “Absolutely. He is one of the most heinous men to walk the land – even before the Great War. A fallen paladin with a soul as black a coal.”
“What can you tell us of him?” I asked.
“Once the greatest paladin of the Order of the Holy Scepter, Barristen was considered at one point to be one of the most renowned paladins ever. He fell from grace however when he broke his vows and took a wife. His Order excommunicated him, erasing his name from the holy rolls. Barristen then lost his young bride to a terrible plague, one that he claimed had been set upon her by the Church as retribution.
“He turned to be a fallen knight and black paladin. It is said that he poisoned the members of his own former order, killing them all. Some say he was experimenting to become a Lich or worse.”
“Knowing what I do of the church,” Brandon said, “I cannot say I blame him.” Clearly our new ally had some foul encounters with the church. Althalus gave the ranger a nod.
“The church hunted him down and imprisoned his body in an iron and lead coffin, sealed and hidden. Not dead, his soul was trapped in purgatory for all eternity. He swore he would escape and wreak havoc on the peoples of the world, payment or the sins he perceived against him. He fell a full century prior to the last war and no one knew where his mortal remains were hidden. He is now merely a story to scare children, a story of a knight that fell and became evil. Most paladin orders will not even allow his name to be spoken, other claim he is only a legend, a myth, which may explain why you have not heard of him. Why do you think he is involved in what happened to the legion?”
“Rumor has it that he might be trying to return,” Althalus said.
“He may very well have been part of whatever it was you saw coming out of the Gash,” I added. Bit by bit the story was coming together, though our role in the tale was still not known.
“Where did you get word of this?” the fallen paladin asked.
“A letter that was sent to the Gash,” Althalus said. Brandon pulled out the letter he had delivered and saved passed it to Ichabod to read.
“You are in consort with Lexa Lyoncroft?” he said as he finished, dismayed at the words he head read.
“Well, I am,” Brandon said proudly. Clearly the ranger did not have our experience with her.
“Your acting First Shield sent us out here because of that letter,” the warlock added, cutting off the ranger’s boast.
“There is only death in that Vale,” Ichabod said firmly. “It is a while field. There is the blood of the gods there, the old gods, stones that stand out. It is a sea of bleached bones.”
“The letter mentions that,” Brandon said, taking back the parchment. “I know he has walked the Blood of the Gods and resides deep in Tempora,” he said reading the note he had preserved.
“Of that I cannot speak. But I do know this, to enter the Vale is to invite death.”
Theren rose to his feet standing over the campfire. “You said that you can take us back there to the Vale. That is where we must go.”
Ichabod nodded, bound by his words from the night before. “We are about a day’s walk from the Horns of Essex. Two days north of there is the White Vale.” The druid put out the fire with several kicks of dirt and we packed up. Ichabod and Brandon shared the ranger’s horse and we set out north.
At night fall we came to a flattened hilltop in a foothill of the looming mountains. On either side of the old road was a massive white-gray horn, that rose and arched over the trail ominously. They stood nearly 30 heads in height, looming upward and over the road. They looked as if they were stone, but there were no markings on them to indicate they had been carved. It was hard to fathom what kind of massive monster might have grown them, if they were indeed real horns. Who put them there – for what purpose? Clearly they were important. Perhaps it was the dwarves, marking the entrance to their territory. If so, what had been the origins of these now petrified remains?
We stopped just short of the Horns of Essex and made our camp for the night. That night was the coldest we experienced. For two days we tread towards the north. In the evening of the second day Ichabod raised his hand to motion for us to stop. He turned towards us, a grim expression masking his gaze. “Just over the next rise is the White Vale. I have fulfilled my word to you. The time has come for me to depart.”
“Thank you for your service,” Brandon offered politely.
“I am going to go and accept the penance and justice of my order for my deeds.”
I know how holy orders treat paladins that have fallen from grace. Ichabod faced a grim future. I borrowed a pen and parchment from Althalus. “I will write you a letter to the acting First Shield telling them that you have redeemed yourself.”
“Thank you. I beseech you to turn around while you can. You face death,” he said taking the letter.
“Live long and prosper,” I told him.
Brandon offered him his horse Siegfried and five gold pieces. “Donate it to your church.” With that, Ichabod left.
We advanced carefully forward, the fallen-paladin’s words still ringing in our ears…
The following are the previous installments. I hope you enjoy the campaign so far. Be sure to follow my blog if you do.
Welcome to the novelization of my current D&D campaign, told through the perspective of the characters. Parts 1-19 (below) charted the first part of the campaign, now we begin the next phase, Tempora. For me, it lets me do a little creative writing between more serious projects. Links to the previous posts are at the bottom of this one. Enjoy!
The decision had been made, the die cast…we would go north in search of the missing paladins of the Order of the Fang. I have to admit, the thought that our small party might somehow tread where the paladins failed was daunting, but there was no turning back at this point. The irony of our mission was not lost on me – I was doing something that would aid the church, a church that had hunted and slaughtered my druidkin.
We bedded down for a few days, using this opportunity to rest, mend our armor, and hone our skills. We were no longer the young men that wandered from White Rock months ago. We had battled Amber Elves and had been honored by the Minotaurs, ending their long-standing feud with the realm. The nipple ring I wore was a little hard to get used to, but a small price to pay for the honor it gave me.
The next day Sir Karrick, the acting First Shield, turned to Althalus and told him that had had been approached by one of guards that had come with us. “I was told that you used magic in your confrontation with the Minotaurs.” It was no light charge. The church had been hunting the killing non-cleric magic users for years. Althalus stood mute to the charge at first, then conceded. The lord-paladin was far more gracious than I anticipated. “Very well. You have provided us with a service in bringing these men here. You will not enter our sacred church or desecrate our grounds with your ungodly magic. Violate that, and you will face my justice.” The warlock knew his place and held his tongue.
A few days passed when we heard the alarm from the battlements. A rider was approaching. The guards were not taking any chances with their numbers so low. Crossbows were made taut and bolts put in place. A rider approached the gates and we heard the challenges to him.
“It is I, Brandon Windriver a local ranger. I have a message for the First Shield,” a voice rang up to the guards over the gate. We moved out into the courtyard. The Gash was not a place given the visitors.
The gate slowly creaked open and we saw this so-called messenger. He stood almost two elbows tall human, with short dark black hair. He had sapphire blue eyes, more given to a bard than a ranger. He looked safe enough…for the time being.
“What is all of this commotion?” Sir Karrick asked brusquely as the ranger entered the castle grounds.
“I bring a message to the First Shield from a village to the north west of here,” the ranger said, handing out a sealed scroll.
Sir Karrick broke the wax seal and read the message, growling through his graying beard as he did so. He tossed the message down on the ground in frustration. “Damn, damn, damn!” he cursed.
“More good news I see,” Althalus quipped. The First Shield ignored him, which we all thought was lucky on his part. I side-stepped away from the warlock, just in case it came to blows. His sniping words would be the death of us someday, I was sure of that.
The ranger, Brandon, picked up the note while Sir Karrick turned to the rest of us. “We cannot afford to wait for conformation and additional troops from Lord Sklaver. You and you party are to be ready to ride out tomorrow morn.”
“What does the message say stranger?” Arius asked.
Brandon cleared his throat, ignoring that the message was not for his eyes. “To the Acting First Shield, Order of the Fang
“I am sure that you can verify my hand on this letter “old friend.” I am aware of your plight. While some of it amuses me, even I recognize a threat that must be dealt with. The former first shield, Sir Theris Bentblade, refused to heed my warnings. As a result, your brothers and sisters have been captured in Tempora. The doddering old fool refused my offer of advice. As a result, your men are being sacrificed in an unholy manner.
“Viktor Barristen walks the land once more. He seeks to slaughter your men in order to escape purgatory and regain his life once more. It was he that forced the release of demonspawn at the Wail to lure your men into his trap. If he succeeds, there will be nothing to prevent him from releasing what remains in the Gash. I know he has walked the Blood of the Gods and resides deep in Tempora, where your men may yet live.
“I intercepted your message to Karn because the idiots of the Royal Guards would be nothing but fodder in the hands of an evil such as Barristen. This is a matter that only the bravest of souls can dare undertake.
“There is time to save them. For reasons that should be obvious, I did not come in person. You must rescue them or Sir Barristen will return to plunder the souls of mortals for a thousand years.
“Lexa Lyoncroft, Mother Superior and Wielder of Ubanthsblade the Reaver.” He stammered through the script on the page, but the mention of Lexa Lyoncroft made all of us look at each other. “We are finally getting answers to what has been happening,” Althalus said. I agreed.
I turned my attention to the ranger. “How did you come into possession of this letter fair sir?”
“A lady paid me 75 gold pieces to deliver it here.”
“When – where?” Arius pressed.
“My home village, Walden, north and west from here…some ten days ago. She was attractive – wore a green cape, big damned sword.” Brandon replied. I still could picture Lyoncroft. It had been her.
Sir Karrick interceded. “We cannot allow Vicktor Barristen to return. No matter how much Lexa is angered with me, and no matter how much I deserve it, I don’t think she would lie about him.”
“So you think she is telling the truth?” I asked. I wanted to press on who Barristen was, but now was not the time.
“Her version of the truth…yes. I have no doubt that she believes what she wrote. That is her handwriting, I know it well.”
“She came fairly close to here to send the message,” I added. Why risk herself if she was not serious?
“You will need to ride forth in the ‘morrow, try and find their trail to the White Vale. Somewhere beyond the Vale supposedly lay the entrance to Tempora.”
“It seems we are on the road to Tempora,” Arius added, almost musically. He then turned to Brandon Windriver, “What are your plans?”
“I have none. I was paid for my services…paid well I might add.”
“Well,” our paladin continued. “We are heading north to find these errant knights and try and save them…off to Tempora.”
“Interesting…” the ranger replied. “I would be willing to undertake this journey. Finding a lost city interests me.”
Althalus leaned in towards Sir Karrick. “What can you tell us about Tempora Sir Karrick?”
The graying knight grew grim as he spoke. “What is there to say about Tempora that has not been spoken about in taverns across the lands. It was a great dwarven city centuries ago, one of the first great cities. Carved along the walls of a hollow mountain, the city was protected because there were only four ways in – the great underground roads. One, the low road, led from the white vale. The other, well that was the high road in the pass of Kamon. That path has been lost for ages, buried in an avalanche.
“It has been said that its most striking features was the statue of King Effidies above the waterfall of the underground river Samath, just over the Tears of Tempora falls – or just the Tears of Tempora.
“Over two centuries ago something happened. It is said the dwarves dug too deep and awakened a demon that destroyed their city. Others say that evil found a way in, past the defenses on the roads, and corrupted those inside. What is known is that the dwarves fled Tempora amidst tales of death, war and destruction.
“Near the end of the last war, before the purges of the magic users of the world, it is said that a party of them and the church entered there and destroyed the evil that controlled the city. Their tale, the Journey of the Black Tears, is a recited poem, most of which is lost, but offers little more. They claim that the city was in ruins, a massive mound of rubble and death. They traveled deep under Tempora and captured what had led to its downfall – bringing it to the Great Gash and casting it down. There are records of that with the Legion of the Fang, though no details of what it was. Only that it was bound in iron bands and sackcloth covered with ruins of the church – powerful wards to keep the evil in check. Tossed from the Wail, it is said that its howls and moans can still be heard there.
“The only fragment of The Journey of the Black Tears that is often quoted:
“It was in the darkness we gathered to face our fears
A dousing walk, where none tread, ‘neath Samath’s tears
To the royal tombs and temples that rested in the dark and dank.
Where the spiders crawl and the rat nests stank.
Through the stairs to the resting place
Of Arron, King of Kings of the dwarven race.
Where now only the blackest of bats sing their seduction tune
In the barrow depths and the grottos dark swoon.
Into the depths below Tempora’s Tears we went…”
“Unfortunately none know how to reach the entrance, it has been long hidden to mortals. We only know the legend that it at the White Vale. I will see that your horses are provisioned and we can provide you with five days of rations.”
I had heard the poem before, but had never thought of it as possibly providing clues that might save our lives. That night I pondered the words. Everything was hinging on us being able to find the road to the Dwarven city; which seemed to be a stretch. I was happy we had a ranger with us – the trail we were searching for was destined to be old.
As we prepared the next morning, Althalus offered some words of guidance to our new traveling comrade. “I have one book, my grimoire. Don’t look at it, don’t touch it. That’s it – I’m not kidding here.” He had never mentioned the grimoire before, so I assumed he had made it in his spare time at the castle during our respite. That was the thing about our warlock, he did things that made us all a bit uneasy. I had used our rest time to master other spells that might be of use to us, all out of eyeshot of the paladins.
We headed north, Brandon checking for any signs of a road or trail that the wayward band of paladins may have taken. It took him a while, but he soon found a patchwork of old cobble stones marking what had been a road in ages past. To most of us it looked like stony ground at first, but once we stared at it, we could see the individual stones with weeds and grass sprouting between them.
We followed the old trail north. The ground was broken and slowly rose upwards to the hills and mountains in the north. Pines dotted the ground, along with Thornholly brushes and the occasional boulder. Clouds rolled in, deep purple, giving us a bit of a chill during our sleep that night. In the distance, the mountains loomed high. I wondered if we would have to climb them to find this lost city.
We shook off the night cold and set off north, following the old trail that snaked upward in the foothills. The day was uneventful but a few hours before sundown, Brandon noticed some stirring in the brush ahead off the side of the trail. He came back and gave us a word of warning. “There’s some activity up ahead. I’m going to go up and see if I can see what it is.” We agreed, after all, it was his hide at risk, not ours. Arius flanked to the right and Dimitrious followed Althalus.
Brandon came back. “There are two creatures up ahead, hiding. They are talking but I don’t understand what they are saying.”
“If they are up ahead, they are higher than us, the road slopes upwards,” Althalus said. “It gives them the high ground.”
“They are behind a Thornholly bush,” the ranger added. “I couldn’t get a good look at them.”
“Let’s see if we can figure out who they are,” I said firmly. And only kill them if necessary…
We got closer, moving in slowly, then we heard a whiny voice. “Halt…halt!” came back the small voice. “Drop your weapons.” It was far from intimidating.
Our warlock raised his empty hands, which was far more dangerous than any weapon he might hold. “Come on out. Perhaps we can talk. We don’t mean any harm.” That wasn’t quite true, I saw Arius hunker next to me and whisper, “Do you think I can set that holly bush on fire?” I shook my head, but appreciated his thinking.
“No talk – give us your money,” another voice said from the bush. I swear I heard the other one chuckle.
Arius frowned. “No, I don’t think so.” He was speaking more to me than them, but I was sure they could hear him at this range. The paladin rose and called to them. “If you try and take our money, we will have to hurt you.”
“This is our trail – get off of it!” spat back the first voice.
The other voice snickered slightly, this time leaving little doubt in my mind that they were mocking us. “Leave us your stuff and you can go free. Otherwise we will kill you.”
The first voice spoke again, deeper, adding, “We are very powerful!”
“Seriously?” Arius said. “I think they are laughing at us.” He pulled his sword out as if to emphasize his point.
“They sound cute,” Althalus added. “Can I keep one?”
Apparently they could hear us. A spear flew from behind the holly bush, hitting Brandon in the thigh, making the ranger reel in pain. A pair of goblins emerged, over-armored, as if they had recently looted some bodies. The armor was clearly several sizes larger than the goblins. “Stop mocking us, we have many spears and will hurt you!”
I laughed, if only for a moment. Goblins.
One of them spoke to other. “I told them we had many spears,” he whispered loud enough for us to hear. Both chortled for a moment. They then sidestepped back behind the bush.
“I really want one for a pet,” Althalus said.
I grew impatient and the thought of the warlock having a pet goblin was disturbing on many planes of thought. It was bad enough that the mute monk seemed devoted to him. I had mastered a new spell that seemed perfect for this occasion. I closed my eyes and focused on a spot of green light only I could see in my eyelids – the power of the soil and forest. There I saw the thornholly and I tapped it. Vines! I stretched them with my mind, outward from the green spot of light I focused on. Twisting and growing, churning and ensnaring. I opened my eyes and felt the wet palms of my hands reach out before me. The ground where the goblins hid erupted in a burst of vines, hoisting them upward, wrapping around them like snakes.
The goblins tried to move, and that was their undoing. The thorns cut them like a dozen little daggers. The more the struggled and tried to get free, the more oozing green blood splattered on the new growth. They squealed in agony as the vines grew. They died before throwing another spear.
I stopped concentrating on the mound of twisting thorns and it dissipated, dropping their armored bodies to the ground of clanking as their armor hit the stones.
“Well, that was easy,” Althalus said sarcastically.
We inspected the bodies, and saw that their armor was clearly not goblin-made. This was the armor that the paladins wore at the Great Gash. “They must have gotten it from the paladins that we were following.” I pinched my nose to protect it from their stink.
“We will never know,” I added. “Maybe they raided the paladins back at the Gash.”
“That armor is relatively new – no rust. I think this is an indication that we are on the right trail.” The older paladin always sounded so confident. “I think we need to move forward – follow the road north.”
There was a murmur of agreement, though it came through a veil of foreboding. I reminded myself that a legion of paladins had marched this way and disappeared. How could we fare better than a host of armored knights?
We were about to find out…
The following are the previous installments. I hope you enjoy the campaign so far. Be sure to follow my blog if you do.
The folks over at Ares Games are currently running a Kickstarter for Tripods and Triplanes and sent me a review copy. Being a huge fan of their Wings of Glory and Sails of Glory, this was a welcome arrival on my part. I was one of those folks that bought into All Quiet on the Martian Front when it was a Kickstarter as well. WWI mixed with Martians is a good game concept and it is clear Ares has another winner here.
Key proviso here: I received a prototype copy of the game so my comments are based on that, not the final production copy. Guys at Ares, you should feel free to send me the final product (wink wink, nod nod).
The background for this game is simple. In March of 1918 Martian tripods (ala War of the Worlds) land in Alsace. The warring powers sign a truce and start going after these heat-ray-toting war machines. Simplicity is important or you start asking too many questions; like why not go after them with tanks and artillery? Just stick to the premise – Martian tripod walkers against WWI aircraft.
One of my initial concerns about the game system was that it would not be fully compatible with Wings of Glory. Thankfully it is! So I don’t have to run out and buy new decks or new aircraft. The systems mesh perfectly. In other words, you have a whole new reason to buy Wings of Glory airplanes. Now you can use them against the bloody-damned Martian invaders!
If you are on the human side, you’re essentially playing Wings of Glory. There are not any substantive changes to the rules here. You draw three cards for your maneuvers, you move, shoot, move, shoot…you get the idea. Altitude is not much of a factor here since your targets are ground based. If you are not familiar with Wings of Glory, it takes upwards of ten minutes or so to master the game system.
What Ares Games has done though is to introduce a number of new concepts with the Martians that make the gameplay very challenging, for both players. There are four groupings of these changes. First, is the movement of the tripods. The Martian player’s tripods move just like planes in Wings of Glory. There are cards with the movements on them, you move them based on the patterns/lines on the cards. Tripods, however, can stand still, pivot in place, and move backwards. This may not sound that different, but for a seasoned Wings of Glory player, it can change your maneuvers when you get in close to target.
The second group of changes is that the Martians also have action tokens. These are things like fire your heat ray, discharge smoke (in the Standard Game), recharge your batteries, change facing (pivot). These get played in addition to the maneuvers. So there is some planning that needs to take place on the part of the Martians.
The third thing is that the Martian player has to manage power with his tripods. You don’t get to fire or use your shields if you don’t have power tokens. So you need to use your token to recharge your batteries as you go or your tripod becomes a big moving target. It’s easy to do, but if you are pressed in a heated battle (pun intended) you may be hard-pressed to keep the power levels up.
Finally, the fourth new thing is that the tripods can have shields and new weapons. Shields reduce the damage but often may not cover an entire tripod, often leaving the rear exposed. The new weapons are nasty. In the basic game you have the heat ray. The rules about the firing arcs require some careful reading, but what is most important is that the heat ray is devastating in terms of range and damage to biplanes and triplanes. While it is a smaller arc of fire than a machinegun on most Wings of Glory aircraft, it has a long reach that gives the tripods some advantage. Also the heat ray fires through side projectors as well on the tripods I played.
In the Standard Game, the Martians also get smoke projectors. Think of these are clouds that dissolve aircraft and pilots. These clouds remain on the map and make a zone that most pilots will want to avoid. Of course the humans pick up rockets as weapons, which certainly helps against the tripods.
Let me say that if these are the miniatures that will be offered, they rock. The detail on them is fantastic, especially the larger tripods. Ares Games always does a lot of fine detail work in their aircraft for Wings of Glory, and we see that here with the tripods too.
The draft rules I received were okay. You have to read some sections very carefully, such as the Action Tokens and toppling tripods. In playing, I made a few mistakes in movement that resulted in my tripod toppling. Where Wings of Glory tends to be forgiving with mistakes, Tripods and Triplanes is not. If you make a mistake as a Martian (and are caught) you will topple over and take damage.
The ultimate question everyone has is: “How does it play?” I tried a few different scenarios on my own. First, I took up Von Richthofen flying straight in against a Locust tripod. In other words, no real tactics, just fly in guns a-blazing.
It didn’t end well for the Red Baron. He went down in flames as he reached close range to the Locust. That means that tactics are important in the game.
Next I did some maneuvers to see if the outcome was different. Getting around behind the tripod is trickier than you might think because the tripod player can use a change face token to pivot. The tripods are more nimble than you might think. To do real damage, I had to keep the aircraft in close. That was no problem. Between the aircraft and tripod movements, ranges closed fast. The narrow heat ray beam arc helped the Red Baron score a victory, though it was a close match. My summary – tactics count in this game.
I played one round with a medium tripod with the standard rules. Those smoke clouds are nasty…the Martians can place them anywhere at the end of the firing arc and the clouds remain on the map. Flying and Nieuport with rockets really didn’t seem to change the balance of play up as much as I hoped.
The next test run I used a two-seater (an old Wings of Glory plane). Alright, now we are talking. Having two firing arcs on the airplane allowed me to do a fly-by of the tripod, shooting as I passed and hitting the non-shield side with the rear gunner. “Take that Martian scum!” My take on this is your choice of aircraft is very important in the game.
My summation. Ares has another hit on their hands. They have successfully (and artfully) taken an established historical game system and have repurposed it into a science fiction game. I struggle to find another company to successfully pull that off. I recommend you check out their Kickstarter to get in on the fun and carnage.