Arthur was dead, and everything was terrible.
The campaign world pre-dated his death, otherwise I might not have had the will to flesh it out as much as I did, if you’ll pardon the pun. For the most part, I had taken the words from Jabberwocky and let my imagination run wild. Mome Rath had been the first of the menagerie, invented in the spur of the moment while waiting for a movie to start, and he’d set the stage for all the others: twisted creatures of immense size, usually with some particularly brutal or grotesque aspect to them.
Fel Seed was special. He was evil amplified a thousandfold, and he got meaner and more hardcore the more I thought about him. Campaigns had a way of altering the worlds that I’d put down into notebooks, and for Fel Seed, that meant that he just kept getting built up, mentioned in whispers in taverns, his name wielded to invoke fear and doom. There was a mystique to him, a feeling of deep lore, mostly built up by never saying too much directly about him, never so much as hinting at him having a stat block of any kind.
It might have been nice to think that it was just a matter of circumstances, but The Fel Seed Incident, or something like it, was probably inevitable with the way I’d been going.
“So how is this going to work, mechanically?” asked Reimer. He was the first one there, as he usually was, maybe because he had been instilled with the belief that on time was late, or maybe just so he could get some game business out of the way. I resented it, maybe because he wasn’t my favorite person.
“Does it matter?” I asked.
“I mean, yes, obviously,” said Reimer. “But you’ve been getting sloppy with mechanics, and I wanted to make sure that you weren’t going to, as they say, fuck it up.”
I didn’t reply to him. Instead, I just looked at my notes like there was something worthwhile there, which there manifestly wasn’t. I had a DM screen, something that I’d considered super lame until I’d gotten one for Christmas from Arthur.
“The canonical vorpal blade cuts off a head on a nat 20,” Reimer said, plowing on ahead, as he often did. “Obviously 5E rules are crap, because they mean you can’t use it against something like Fel Seed has been cryptically described as, either because he’s got legendary actions, or because he’s too big, or because he’s legendary, or something, and even if a nat 20 did work on him, sitting around for a bunch of rounds waiting on the perfect roll — I won’t say that it’s not fun, but it’s one of those things that gets really not fun at the tail ends, like if it happens right off the bat, or it takes so many rounds that we outright die.”
“Sure,” I said.
“So?” he asked, insistent. “Mechanically — if you want help with the mechanics?”
“Not really,” I said.
He sighed. “It took us three sessions to get this fucking sword,” said Reimer. “I just want to make sure that everyone has a good time, because lately, you haven’t been —”
But then Tom came in, and apparently Reimer didn’t feel like finishing the discussion in front of him.
“I texted Colin, he’s still coming,” said Tom. “He’s bringing Ana. That’s cool Joon?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Already talked to him about it.”
Colin was on the wrestling team, and apparently something of a prodigy. I’d gone to wrestling matches a few times and struggled to resist the urge to bury myself in my phone, but he’d always won, so good for him, I guess. Wrestling crept into his life a lot, because it seemed like he was always cutting or bulking or lifting weights or doing training. He was the most visibly muscular guy in our high school, more than anyone in any other sport. He was also a huge geek, reading more fantasy than anyone I knew, with a particular affection for dragons. I’d only gone over to his house one time, but his room had a wall of books, a bunch of trophies, medals, and ribbons for wrestling, and a bunch of tacky dragon statues that immediately called to mind the phrase ‘mall ninja shit’.
“This is a terrible introduction to D&D for Ana,” said Reimer. “Terrible introduction for Colin too, mind you, but he’s at least taking to it, and he isn’t quite coming in mid-stream.” This was Colin’s fourth session with us. He’d started right at the beginning of the quest for the vorpal sword.
“We should have five then,” Tom said. “Craig is in, Maddie is out, nothing from Tiff.”
“Thanks for coordinating,” I said. I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing it, not that I was expected to. It had usually been Arthur’s job, except when he was busy.
“Oh, no prob,” he replied. “Tonight is Fel Seed, right?”
“If, after getting this fucking sword, there’s another diversion, I’m going to mutiny,” said Reimer.
“What else is new?” I asked with a sigh.
Tom and Reimer talked about a book series that Tom was reading at Reimer’s insistence, something having to do with superheroes, and I busied myself with my notes, trying to force myself to do some more preparation. I had been giving preparation the cold shoulder lately, but I was good enough at improvising that most of the time it didn’t make all that much of a difference. At least, that was what I told myself.
Colin and Ana came together. Ana was his girlfriend, a fairly quiet girl who I’d never paid all that much attention to. They had been together for a year, and were inseparable in a way that I found obnoxious. I had kind of figured that if Colin was going to play with us, she would eventually join too, because they were never that far apart from each other, and there were lots of displays of affection between the two of them, holding hands, kissing in the hallways, that kind of thing. She was blonde and plain-looking, usually dressed in oversized shirts and baggy pants in a way that was, to my admittedly untrained eye, pretty unfashionable.
Tiff probably would have had a problem with me defining Ana as ‘Colin’s girlfriend’, but that’s what she was to me. Whatever personality she had, it seemed completely subsumed by her relationship with him. I had never talked to her outside of a few group projects and maybe once during a party or something, and she’d never stood out, maybe by choice. It was possible that she had her own rich fantasy life, and that was what she bonded with Colin over, but if so, it was invisible to me.
“Fel Seed tonight boys, right?” asked Colin, smiling as he took his seat. He had brought a case of Mountain Dew and a pack of doughnuts, which was nice, but nice in a kind of desperate way that made me feel sour towards him. This was his fourth session, and maybe there was a part of me that felt like he was drawn to the group because Arthur had died, which I definitely didn’t like. He was close with Tom, and had been invited before, but never shown interest.
Craig showed up late, which I was hopeful would get the random chatter out of everyone’s system, but that hope was dashed against the rocks, and it was another thirty minutes before my attempts to get us moving toward the game got us anywhere. Reimer really wanted to talk about the superhero thing, and Colin had read it, because Colin read everything, which meant a pretty boring conversation for everyone else, even when they tried to pull us in with some worldbuilding tidbits. I was just thankful that Maddie hadn’t been joining us, because I was pretty sure that Colin would have read some of the strange junk from the depths of the internet that she liked to plumb.
“Alright,” Reimer finally said, turning to me like I was the one holding things up. “What do we know about what the vorpal sword actually does, like, is there any way that we can test it?”
“To recap,” I said, glancing at Ana. “Fel Seed is the greatest horror in a land filled with horrors, and by some reckonings, he’s the progenitor of them all.”
“Progenitor?” asked Reimer. “Seriously dude?”
I glared at him. With Arthur gone, Reimer had been taking things less seriously, and whatever I was trying to weave, he would carelessly destroy. We were definitely on the outs, for a few reasons, but he was fucking with the one thing that I looked forward to every week.
“They’re just rumors,” I continued, ignoring him for now. “Fel Seed has his factories of flesh, and while some of the products of those organic madhouses are obvious, some of the factories are so large, their outputs so rarely seen, that people can only guess. Perhaps Fel Seed created the snicker-snacks, perhaps he created the Jubjub bird, or maybe it’s just a way for people to put a name to the ills of the world, to pretend that there really is a single string that can be cut.”
“But the sword cuts the string, right?” asked Tom.
“If you remember when you set out to get the sword,” I said, knowing that they had probably forgotten, “You were told that it was the sword that brought low creatures and men of myth. Supposedly it was the sword that cut through the marvelous creation of Hiawatha’s, killing man and oracular contraption in a single stroke. Supposedly it killed King Hal in a duel the very moment it touched him — not even breaking skin, just grazing the layer of wax that his armor was polished with. And of the Rilchiam, the less said, the better.”
“Dead though, right?” asked Tom.
“There are fates worse than death,” I replied. “And deaths so final they’re hard to speak of.”
“Question,” said Colin. “How does a sword deliver fates worse than death?”
“Probably lots of ways,” said Reimer. “Juniper can be very creative, when it comes to killing.” Reimer had lately made a habit of bringing a backup character to every game, the better to be able to keep on playing when he died. “Okay,” he said. “Joon, because the stakes are high, I’m going to grab a random civilian and attack them with the sword to see what its true power is.”
“Er,” said Tom. “You could just grab a random bandit instead.”
“Sure, sure,” said Reimer. “So, I wander around until I find a bandit, which you said there were plenty of, and I cut him down with the vorpal sword.”
“Do you remember, from last week, when the matriarch said that the vorpal sword was not lightly drawn?” I asked. “Do you remember reading through the scroll and seeing that it said the sword was so powerful that the mere act of unsheathing it put the wielder at risk?”
“I do,” replied Reimer. “But on the other hand, I don’t think that we can go into this battle without a plan, and we can’t have a plan unless we know how the sword physically functions, so if killing a rando bandit — a randit, if you will — means that we have a better chance of success, I’m willing to take that risk.”
Craig snorted. “I’ll be watching from a safe distance.”
“Why is the wizard using the sword at all?” asked Tom. “Shouldn’t it be someone who can fight?”
“It’s in-character,” Reimer argued. “And it’s just a bandit. Obviously on the day of, someone else will use it.”
“I grab the sword from Trentwhistle,” said Colin. “‘Wizard, a sword seems awkward in your hands, and should the worst happen, I fear you would not survive. We’ll need your intellect, going forward, but if I am maimed, there are comparable fighters you might find. Your life is too valuable; if there is risk, let me take it.’” Colin did voices, though only a little bit, in part because he wasn’t actually that far off from being a big, brawny fighter.
“Fine, I don’t contest having the vorpal sword taken from me,” said Reimer.
“Because you’d have lost the roll,” said Craig.
“Never go against a wizard when death is on the line,” muttered Reimer, but he was clearly enjoying himself.
“Gorn takes the sword, and, after a day of asking around the small village, finds a bandit camp,” I said. “They’re no match for him, and he slays all but the last one of them in the usual manner, whipping around like a whirling dervish, his normal sword constantly soaked in blood. Finally he approaches the last man, who is bleeding from the forehead but otherwise fine. It’s only then that he draws the vorpal blade.”
“What does it look like?” asked Colin.
“It’s a double-sided blade, perfectly reflective, but it reflects nothing but death. If you stare at the reflection, you can see a putrefied version of your own flesh, hanging off your bones, the grass behind you dead and brown, the birds resting on the ground, just carcasses, and the sun red and swollen in the sky. There’s a faint blue blur along the edge of the blade, as though it’s projecting a field of sharpness. The most notable thing though, once it’s drawn, is that the world seems to slow down to a tenth its speed. You’re slowed down too, with only your mind and eyes able to move normally, and it takes a few seconds — call it a round — to get your bearings and adjust to how slowly your body responds to your command. Once you’ve adjusted, you realize that your heart is beating at the same speed it normally was, blood moving at incredible speed through your body.”
“I tamp down my discomfort,” said Colin. “Then I raise the sword and bring it down on the bandit.”
“The moment your sword touches his skin, the world seems to stop, only your eyes able to move. You can feel the vorpal sword sucking at your life force, like a leech attached to your very soul,” I said. “You’re locked in now, in this timeless moment, while you decide how much of your life force to give up to the attack.”
“None though, right?” asked Reimer.
“It should be pretty obvious that’s not an acceptable answer,” I replied.
“What does ‘life force’ mean though, hit points?” he asked.
“You’re not even there, Reimer,” I said, keeping my focus on Colin.
“Then the minimum, I guess,” said Colin. “Wait, I can do better. Gorn gives as little of himself as possible, trying his best to resist the pull of the blade.”
“You sense the blade tasting the offer, in this moment of frozen time,” I replied. “Then you sense its contempt at the task you’ve set before it, this blade which has seen the death of so many beings of importance and strength. It takes twice as much as was offered. Roll 2d10.”
There was something that I didn’t like about Colin. Maybe it was that it seemed like he was taking Arthur’s spot, in more ways than one. For Colin, the game was like the books he spent so much of his time on, and doing the characters was an extension of the kind of fantasy life he’d been privately living in his head. On the surface, it was the same kind of energy that Arthur brought, a commitment to character that I might have found admirable in other circumstances. At the time, I wasn’t being nearly so introspective, I just knew that he was annoying me.
“Seven,” he said, looking at the dice.
“You lose that from your max hit points, permanently,” I replied. “It cannot be restored, not even by a wish or miracle.” I saw Reimer frown, but he held his objection. “Time starts back up as the life force leaves you, and you see the bandit sliced apart, not just at the point where the edge of the blade made contact with him, but at every single joint in his body. He falls apart, head falling off his neck, vertebrae disconnected, the knuckles of his fingers making a staccato sound as they hit the ground one after the other. He lays on the ground, completely dismembered. You get the sense that something more has happened to him, some metaphysical dismembering, but it’s beyond your ken.”
I was ready for Reimer to complain that this didn’t actually tell them anything. 2d10 hit points permanently lost didn’t translate into some concrete amount of damage, at least so far as the party was concerned, nor did it give much data about what impact it might have on Fel Seed. Reimer stayed silent though, maybe because Colin took the lead.
“I sheathe the vorpal blade, slowly and gingerly,” he said. “Then I return to the others, weakened but exuberant, because Fel Seed isn’t prepared for what we’re bringing him.”
“When we get the report from Gorn,” said Reimer, thinking about it for a bit, “Personally, I’m cautiously optimistic, but when the time comes, it seems like someone will probably have to make a heroic sacrifice, maybe more than one someone.” He glanced at me. “Juniper, are there ways of boosting hit points in this setting?”
“Yes, probably,” I said. “I haven’t looked at character sheets that much. The sword takes from your maximum though.”
“But we could bring people along and have them wield the sword?” asked Reimer.
“If you’re craven, yes,” I said.
“Not craven, no,” replied Reimer. “Just trying to be smart about it, given that Fel Seed is the worst of the worst, and we need to kill him one way or another, at virtually any cost. If that means getting mercenaries involved, then so be it.”
“No mercenary in his right mind would go up against Fel Seed,” I replied. I was feeling annoyed with Reimer, which was typical. Colin had at least been getting into it, but Reimer was fucking it up, taking something that had a glimmer of the heroic and steering away from it, toward the cold utilitarian bastard route. It was the kind of thing that Arthur was usually good about curbing.
Tom was looking at the ceiling, thinking. “What about people who believe in the greater good?” he asked.
“That’s the five of you,” I said. “Everyone else you’ve met — going through the list, anyone you would try either believes that you’re going on a fool’s errand, or can’t help you in any way. People are looking out for themselves, trying to grind out a living in this miserable world, not daring to dream bigger. The rare person who still dares to dream,” I realized that I’d just said the same thing twice and stumbled forward, “of killing something like Fel Seed — well, I guess you do find one, which is Ellnor, Ana’s character. Ana, are you fine with stumbling across Colin? Maybe you were captured by these random bandits? Or a bandit yourself that’s prepared to argue your case against the certainty of his mindless slaughter?”
“That’s fine, I guess,” she said, pretty much the first words out of her mouth. I wasn’t hopeful that she would stick with the group, but then again, I didn’t really want her to stick with the group. Ideally, she’d have just left and gone back to whatever bland hole she’d crawled out of.
“Ellnor, the only thing that saves you from being killed by Gorn as he descends on the bandits is the fact that you’re in shackles,” I said. “It’s not clear what the bandits were going to do with you, but the best guess is that they were going to sell you into slavery, maybe to one of the corrupt Grand Houses that hasn’t yet fallen to the horrors. How you got captured, or whatever, can be up to you.”
She gave me an unsure look. The last thing I really wanted to be doing with this session was shepherding someone through their first time playing a game like this, and Reimer had been right, this was probably a horrible introduction to D&D.
“I break her shackles with my bare hands,” said Colin. “I can do that, right?”
“Roll for me,” I said. “Add your strength modifier.”
He rolled. “Thirty-six total,” he said.
“That can’t be right,” I replied.
“Strength mod, not score,” said Reimer, without even looking at Colin’s character sheet. He had helped both of them make characters.
“Oh, then, uh, twenty-one,” he said.
“Still more than enough to break the poor iron that these bandits had,” I said. “Ellnor, you’re free. Hopefully after Gorn explains what he was doing out here and his ultimate mission, you demonstrate that you have skills of your own and want to come along?”
“I can shoot a bow,” she said, looking down at her sheet. “And Fel Seed is a bad guy?”
“He’s the bad guy,” said Tom.
“Eh,” said Reimer. “With how long we’ve been in this campaign, better to think about him as the season finale, if it’s like a British season.”
“They say ‘series’ there,” said Craig.
“Well that’s just confusing,” said Tom.
Reimer scowled at Craig. “Did you think I didn’t know that they call a season a series?” he asked.
“Eh, fuck off,” said Craig, not bothering to continue the conversation any further.
“Ellnor, did you want to tell us a bit about your character?” I asked. “Tragic backstory, connections to others, passions, hobbies, things like that?” I had meant to send her a text earlier in the week, but never got around to it. It was really the kind of thing that Colin and Reimer should have helped her with.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I’ve got a dog?”
“Sure,” I said, wishing that she would give me something, anything, that I could work with. I was betting that she had a dog at home, though I knew very little about her. “But like, a personal vendetta against Fel Seed?”
“I guess,” she said. “He killed my father?”
“That’s statistically likely,” said Reimer. “Fel Seed has killed a lot of people.”
“He’s also statistically likely to have raped your mother,” said Craig. I saw Ana wince at that, but maybe I was just imagining it, and I made an effort to move on.
“Do we want to do introductions with the rest of the group?” I asked, hoping that the answer was yes so that I could sit back and zone out for a bit as they talked amongst themselves about character stuff. I had done very little prep for the session, and one of the ways to pad time was to have in-character conversations. It wasn’t just padding, because sometimes that was the meat and potatoes, but Ana was, frankly, sapping my will to live.
The introductions did, in fact, take quite a bit of time. The story of acquiring the vorpal sword was told in full, as well as a few mentions of people who were now dead, whether they were players, enemies, or unfortunate NPCs. It was a common phenomenon in D&D games for a mission originally undertaken by a small group of people to be completed by a completely different group of people, and while we weren’t quite there yet, we were on our way.
“So, are we ready to set off to Fel Seed’s zone?” I asked, when it seemed like the conversation might threaten to turn towards something that wasn’t D&D. After so many years, my sense for the natural breaks in conversation was fairly finely honed.
“He’s basically asking if we’re ready to die,” said Reimer.
“Ready and willing,” said Tom, putting on his exaggerated ‘I’m a cool guy’ voice, which he only ever did when he was clowning around. Tom knew how uncool he was, and joked about it, which I had lately been finding extremely annoying.
“Gorn isn’t ready to die,” said Colin. He smiled at us. “But he is very ready to kill.”
“Any other preparations you want to make before you go?” I asked. “Provisions you need to buy, spells you want to learn, anything like that? You have a 20% discount from Madame Eich, if you want to spend the time going a few days west.”
There was some consulting of character sheets, which eventually led to some murmurs that everyone was fine.
“You set off toward Fel Seed then,” I said. “You take the Marrow Road, once the most important trade route across the Twelve Kingdoms, but now long decimated, with many of the towns fortified against refugees, outlaws, bandits, and monsters, unwilling to help strangers, unwilling to engage in trade, if they still function as towns at all.” This was the first thing that I had actually planned for the session, and we were getting to it an hour and a half after we’d started.
“How do they eat then?” asked Reimer.
It annoyed me that he was asking now, given that this had all been mentioned before, but either he was asking for the benefit of Ana and Colin, or he had just forgotten. “Poorly,” I said. “The fields are going fallow, the farmers working only under armed guard, and the people are starving. Of late, people have taken to eating the misbegotten creations that they find invading their lands, consuming whatever escapes from Fel Seed’s domain, or is deliberately sent out by him. No one wants to, but it’s the only reliable source of food given how unproductive the fields are. It’s not without complications.”
“Create food and water?” asked Reimer.
I was getting pissed off, because this was exactly the kind of thing he always asked about. The truth was, this was the kind of setting that would really benefit from removing that kind of spell, but I hadn’t done it upfront because I didn’t want the hassle, and hadn’t been looking at character sheets, so I had no idea whether anyone was using it. Sometimes I hated D&D for all the unwanted baggage it brought in.
“There aren’t enough clerics and there aren’t enough wizards,” I said. “The nobles are fed, but keeping everyone else fed just can’t happen given the limited resources available. And every commoner that is fed, every sick child given clean water, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from the effort to keep the nobility safe and secure.”
That was a reversal of a famous Eisenhower quote about how the war effort steals from the needy, but no one seemed to get it. Arthur would have: it was one of his favorite pieces of rhetoric. Tiff probably would have gotten it too, but she had stopped coming, and I didn’t blame her for that.
I cleared my throat a bit, when it became clear that Reimer wasn’t going to try to chase us down the rabbit hole of justifying a whole world on the basis of 5E D&D mechanics, which we’d done more than once, calculating and recalculating, justifying and litigating.
“The clearest sign that you’re transitioning into Fel Seed’s dominion are the plants, which vanish entirely over the course of a few miles of the Marrow Road,” I said. “They’re replaced by their own fleshy variants. The grass is replaced by hair sticking up from the ground, the vines become veins, the trees turn into large bony towers with flaps of skin instead of leaves. If you squint, you might be able to mistake it for a natural scene.”
“I look for eyes,” said Colin.
“Make a roll,” I said. “Perception.”
“Twenty-one,” he said.
I nodded. “You see them dangling from a nearby tree, like small fruits, and as you look closer, you can see them other places too, peeking out from a bush, from birds that are barely visible in the distance, and just once, poking up from the road that you’re walking on, half-hidden by a cobble.”
“Well, fuck,” said Craig.
“The question is how many encounters we have to fight until we actually get to him,” said Reimer. “Joon, are you sure there’s no teleportation circle anywhere in his realm?”
“I’m a thousand percent sure,” I said. “Still want to try your gambit of trying for an astral explosion and randomly getting dumped next to him?”
“Nope,” he replied.
“Wait, are we on horses?” asked Tom.
“A horse would buck and flee if you tried to take it into this place,” I said. “They know better.”
“I have phantom steeds,” said Reimer. “As a ritual.”
“Have we always had those?” asked Tom.
“Juniper never pressed us on travel arrangements,” said Reimer. “There’s some rules stuff that makes them less good than normal horses, if you have someone to just give you normal horses, and if you can just treat the horses like motorcycles that don’t need to be taken care of, don’t need to graze, et cetera.”
“Fine, up on the phantom steeds you go,” I replied.
“Takes fifty-five minutes,” said Reimer. “And then I have to keep re-casting the spell, but you can do that mounted.”
“Sure, sure,” I replied, not caring in the slightest. “You all continue down the Marrow Road, with the realm of flesh all around you, riding the unearthly steeds and staying on your guard. It’s just before sunset when you see the first city of Fel Seed’s domain —”
“Which is how big?” asked Colin.
“Eh,” I said. “Sizeable, you’ll be traveling for days. Let’s say, about the size of Kansas.”
“Wait, before we get to the city, I send my familiar ahead to scout,” said Reimer.
“Okay,” I replied. I’d been going to tell them anyway. “You see a city that’s almost what it once was, not terribly big by modern standards, ten thousand, perhaps, with a small stone fort sitting in the middle and merchants and churches around that. The stone wall is broken in several places, no longer serving any defensive purpose. Sitting on top of the stone wall at various intervals are fleshly creatures, each at least nine feet tall, each of a slightly different composition. All of them watch your familiar as it flies overhead. You see similar creatures roaming the streets, some of them tethered to the surroundings by what look like veins as thick as a forearm, others sleek-looking, like someone stripped the skin off a dog, leaving only raw muscle behind. You see humans too, but only women, most of them that you can spot standing at doorways or looking out windows, and one who catches your eye is holding something swaddled in her arms, a lump of misshapen flesh with too many eyes.”
“I need to use the bathroom,” said Ana. She got up before we could even tell her where it was.
“Is she okay?” asked Tom.
Colin hesitated. “Yeah.”
“We can wait,” I said. “You can talk strategy, if you want to, or ask some questions.”
“So,” said Reimer. “Define ‘too many eyes’. Are we talking three instead of two, or like, covered in eyes?”
“Covered in eyes,” I said. “Picture a baby whose limbs have grown in at random, and whose oversized head had the nose and mouth removed to make more room for the eyes.”
“She’s just a normal woman?” asked Tom.
“A human woman, yes,” I said. “As are most of the women that Reimer sees. This was human land, before Fel Seed came along. Sprinkled in among them are a few elven women, gnomish women, some other typical species.”
“Wait,” said Reimer. “If the entire landscape around us has been changed by him, and that’s true for hundreds of miles, then why the fuck is he using these women as incubators?”
“For fun,” I said. “For sport. He could grow whatever creatures he wanted without them, and he did when he was getting settled. This is just his way of keeping himself entertained. It probably goes without saying that these women can’t leave.”
While I was speaking, Colin’s phone had let out a little chirp. When he looked at it, his face was frozen for just a bit.
“Joon, can I talk to you in private for a bit?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. “We can take five.”
My heart was beating faster. This seemed like exactly the kind of thing that I didn’t want to have to deal with, some kind of social encounter that I just wasn’t built for. I was hoping that I was wrong, and he just had some kind of plan that he didn’t want to share with the group, but I hadn’t missed that Ana had taken her phone with her when she’d gone into the bathroom.
“What’s up?” I asked, once we were out in the hallway and had closed the door.
“Ana’s just,” Colin started. “I guess feeling a little bit uneasy about all the implied sexual violence?”
“Ah,” I said. I could feel my face getting flushed. “I mean, I’m trying not to be explicit.”
“That’s not really helping,” he said. “I mean, the implication is there, it’s, uh, not even really veiled, Fel Seed is kidnapping and then raping all these women, and — you can get why she’s upset?”
“Yeah,” I said. Why the fuck did you bring her along? I didn’t ask, but the thought was definitely going through my head. Fel Seed had been telegraphed about as hard as a boss encounter could be, and no, it wasn’t strictly necessary that Fel Seed was doing terrible things with these women, but to leave it out — well, it would change the texture of the whole adventure. That was what I told myself, anyway.
Colin looked down at his phone, and I couldn’t see what was on the screen, but my guess was that he was re-reading the text he’d gotten from her. “Can we like, cool it a little bit?” he asked.
I tried to think of a diplomatic way of saying ‘No, fuck off’, but nothing came to mind. “Sure,” I said. “I mean, I can try. It’s kind of — I mean, I’ll improvise, no problem.” I felt the weight of that settle uncomfortably on me, easy words that I didn’t know if I could follow through on.
It was kind of a central conceit. You couldn’t say that Fel Seed’s cruelty and depravity knew no bounds and then say, ‘oh, well except in this way, if it makes you uncomfortable’. It all would have rankled less if it had been for someone else, someone I had liked or at least known, but it was for Ana, who didn’t seem to give a shit about the game, and was only there to spend more time with her boyfriend.
We went back into the room, and I sat down, trying to think about what I could do. I was still feeling flushed and anxious.
“So,” said Reimer. “The question is, do we actually have any reason to go into this town? Fel Seed isn’t there, right?”
“It’ll add some time if you want to go around,” I said. “That’s it.”
“Well,” said Tom. “That’s kind of what we were talking about, because there are people to rescue in there.”
“We can’t just leave these people here,” said Colin, jumping straight in, even though he’d missed what they were talking about.
Ana slipped back into the room, so quiet that I might not have noticed her. She wasn’t looking at me, just at what was in front of her.
“Obviously we can leave them,” said Reimer. “They’re living terrible lives, and have been for years at this point, and even if we had the firepower to kill everything, which we don’t, that doesn’t affect the root of the problem, which is Fel Seed.”
“It’s just set dressing,” said Craig. “Juniper just wants to show us how big and bad Fel Seed is, again.”
“They’re still people,” said Colin, ignoring that. “Unless you’re saying that we come back for them?”
“Sure, we could,” said Reimer. “I don’t suppose Juniper will tell us what happens to all the bone trees and hair grass and horrible monsters with footlong dongers once we take the vorpal blade to Fel Seed’s throat? Like, will they all die, or all go berserk?”
“You have no way of knowing,” I replied. “Are you doing anything with the city or not?”
“No,” said Reimer. “Unless we think there’s some loot in it for us?”
“No loot, no,” I said.
“We’re heroes though,” said Colin, furrowing his brow.
“Oh sweet summer child,” replied Craig.
“I just need to know what you’re doing,” I said.
Reimer turned to Colin. “Fel Seed is watching us, yes? The best case scenario right now is that he knows where we are and is letting us be, waiting to see whether or not we try anything. I don’t know if he’s planning on a pivot to tourism or what, but that's the absolute best case. More likely, he’s marshalling forces, erecting — and I do mean erecting — an unassailable position in the metropolis of flesh.”
“City of a Thousand Brides,” I said.
“Really?” asked Reimer. “Metropolis of Flesh has a better ring to it. Plus a thousand seems low.”
“Well maybe when you inevitably get captured, Fel Seed will put you on a Naming Committee,” I said. “Of course, your nervous system will be made into a blanket that gets a flogging at the top of every hour, so I’m not sure how much use you’ll be coming up with clever and evocative names.”
“Yeah, most likely I end up naming everything ‘Agh, ow, stop!’” replied Reimer, grinning at me. He turned back to Colin. “Point being, we’ve been moving through Fel Seed’s land of horrors relatively unimpeded, and I want to keep it that way, if for some reason he thinks that we’re not here to cause trouble. You want to wait to trip the alarms when you’re close enough to strike him down.”
“Fine,” said Colin, with a glance at Ana. “The world forces us to make these choices because the world itself is cruel and unfair. If every innocent could be saved, we would do it, but we are not so blessed.”
“On you go then, skirting around the edge of the village, through eerie charnel woods that are casually littered with the bones of unknown people,” I said. “Maybe left there from the massacre when Fel Seed took over this place, or maybe the remains of his creations that he’s decided don’t make the grade, it’s difficult to say.”
“He sometimes fucks up his creations?” asked Reimer.
I thought about that for a moment. “It would be more proper to say that he uses stochastic processes in making his creations. The, uh,” I glanced at Ana. “Part of the secondary purpose of the incubation processes he uses is that it’s a way of randomizing. He’s a tinker.”
“Stochastic?” asked Reimer. “Jesus Juniper, are you trying to wring as much use as possible from your thesaurus?”
“It was one of Arthur’s favorite words,” I said, staring him down. I didn’t invoke Arthur’s name lightly, and it felt dangerous and unfamiliar on my tongue. Reimer sat back a bit and waved his hand, dismissing that. “Look, you get through the woods and back on the Marrow Road, having decided not to engage with the town. It happens twice more that you see a place like that, one a fair bit smaller and without walls, the other larger, built to ford a river that runs brown. Both times you have the same conversations, but the calculus is always the same, and the conversations become rote.” I took a drink of water, waiting to see whether anyone would challenge that account. “And then you crest a hill along a path that seems to be cobbled with enormous teeth, only to find it splayed out in front of you, the City of a Thousand Brides.”
“Er, ‘bride’ seems like the wrong word,” said Colin.
“Fel Seed seems to think of himself as a god, and it’s possible that he is,” I said. “The marriages are consecrated by him.” I shrugged. “You might compare it to arranged marriages, or forced marriages, similar to what still goes on in other parts of the world. Etymology is difficult even in the best of times though, and the origin of the name isn’t one that anyone knows.”
“I want to roll for it,” said Reimer.
“Of course you do,” I said, rolling my eyes. “History, then.”
“Twenty-six,” he replied.
“You have no clue,” I said. “It’s not like the etymology was recorded in a book somewhere, or like there are libraries where you can find bundles of periodicals, if it even came from a periodical. Sometimes information is just lost, even if you did get a twenty-six. At best, you’ve heard a few contradictory rumors.”
“You do remember that part of your job as a DM is to say yes, right?” asked Reimer.
“I’m saying that you don’t know,” I replied. “No amount of research is going to let you know. Unless you beseech a god of knowledge, or travel through time, you’re never learning the origin of the name.”
“Fine, Religion check to see if I know the god of knowledge,” said Reimer.
“You don’t need a check, because it’s in the worldbuilding doc,” I said. “Go read it there, it doesn’t matter, moving on.” I was feeling flushed, not just because I was annoyed, but because I had no idea what the name of the god was. Probably something from The Hunting of the Snark.
“Can you give us the lay of the land?” asked Colin. “What does the city look like?”
I looked down at my notes, which didn’t have all that much. I had always saved descriptions for the last minute. “It’s a mockery of a city,” I said. “Where a city has central roads that branch out into neighborhoods and districts, this city is shot through with roads seemingly at random, with none of the planning or naturalistic design of a real city. There seems to be no thought given to logistics or aesthetics, to praxis of any kind. The buildings aren’t made of stone or wood, of course, instead favoring different variations on flesh, struts of bone, insulation with sheets of fat, walls held together with strips of flesh or occasionally hair. A real city clusters larger buildings at its center, but here there’s nothing like that, with large and small buildings next to each other at random, veritable skyscrapers next to small huts that look like oversized blisters. Through the city, and visible from your vantage point, the sole concession to practicality is a river running through the middle, one which goes in a murky brown and comes out as a stream of offal, shit, piss, blood, pus, and more than a few bodies, all of which drains into a vast nearby lake created from the sludge the city produces. From what you’ve heard of Fel Seed’s power, this all must be entirely by choice. His power is so vast and fine-tuned that he could have made this into a paradise.”
“And we have no idea why he didn’t?” asked Colin.
“He’s evil,” I said. “He made the city ugly and disordered because he wanted to inflict that on people. The river of excrement running through the city is there because it suits him. The one exception to all this ugly, disorganized mess is the citadel at the center, not the biggest building, but the only one that’s clean.”
“The question is at what point he’s going to try to stop us,” said Reimer. “Assuming that he’s going to try at all.”
“Probably when we produce the vorpal blade in his throne room,” said Craig. “Seems like there’s a lot of city between us and him right now? Like, we would probably die if we had to fight all of them?”
“It’s hard to know,” I said. “There are people moving through the city, some of them in cages made of bone, others monsters of flesh or fleshly fluid. What purpose each serves is unclear.”
“We should rescue the women,” said Colin. “They’ll be able to tell us more.”
“The time has come for us to be proper heroes, eh?” asked Reimer.
“I feel like we haven’t been proper heroes at all this campaign,” said Tom, sounding slightly sad.
“You said cages,” said Colin, turning to me. “Any close to the outskirts? Preferably without armed guards?”
“You spot one,” I said. “A cage of bone trundling along an outer road, transporting three women from one place to another, moving along not on wheels, but legs that seem to be mostly sinew. Walking alongside it are two creatures, one tall and lanky with knife-like claws that drag along the road, the other more portly, mostly made of belly, with a huge mouth and fat lips.”
Combat followed. It was pretty rote. The larger one was revealed to spring across the battlefield, doing swiping attacks with his claws as he bounded from place to place, while the portly one swallowed people whole. Tom nearly died, Reimer was knocked unconscious and then brought back, Ana suffered a serious wound and then got healed, and at the end of it, both of Fel Seed’s monsters were killed. It took a little bit more than an hour.
“But why even have guards?” asked Reimer. “I mean, this is his city, he’s all-powerful, why have guards, or police, or anything like that? According to you, the only reason we didn’t immediately die on entering his domain is that we have poison and disease immunity?”
“You think so, anyway,” I said. “He’s got complete control of all things biological, which means that he can create hyper-targeted diseases and poisons, then use various mechanisms to saturate the air with them. You’ve been breathing in spores and particulates since you entered his domain.”
“So the guards?” asked Colin.
“He likes hurting people, I think,” said Tom, frowning at me a bit. “The guards aren’t to make sure that no one escapes, or to kill people like us, —”
“There’s no one like us,” said Craig.
“It’s kind of like, uh, just a show of power?” asked Tom. “Like North Korea doing a military parade.”
“It’s poisoning someone with polonium,” said Craig, smiling a bit.
Reimer sighed. “You do not, under any circumstances, have to hand it to Vladimir Putin.”
“Is there a way to free the women?” asked Colin. “Break the bones? Are they bound?”
“Right,” I said. I was pretty clearly off my game, since that was the kind of thing that should have been described before the fighting started, or maybe even worked into the fight itself. “The cage is made of twisted bone, and is the first thing you’ve seen that’s almost a little bit pretty. It’s a pure white, looking like the bones of a cancer patient, —”
“Uh, what?” asked Tom, raising his hand a bit. “‘Bones of a cancer patient’?”
“Well,” I said. “I’d need to google a picture, but metastatic bone cancer makes the bones a bit furry, or with petals, or spikes, that kind of thing. So here, it’s not smooth bone in all places, it’s like lace where it’s between the major support structures. The women are hooked in there, by twisted strips of bone.”
“I start freeing them,” said Colin. “Can you describe them?”
“One an elf, short-haired and glassy-eyed, not responding to you, nor responsive to the battle as it was happening, one a gnome, looking angry, spent most of her time calling for help, and the third a human woman, looking withdrawn,” I said. I glanced at my sheet of random names for people, hoping that I wouldn’t be asked, because it never mattered, and was one more thing for me to remember.
“And do I free them then?” asked Colin.
“With a few swings of your sword, you do,” I said. “The elf sits down where she is, not moving or saying anything, while the gnome grabs a shard of bone from the ground, wielding it as a makeshift weapon, though not against you. After a brief pause, the human woman does the same.”
“Do you have names?” asked Colin, doing his voice.
“No response from the elf,” I said. “The gnome says her name is Merria. And the human woman, pausing for a moment before responding, drives her shard of bone straight into her own neck, wrenching it to the side to open as wide of a wound as she can.”
I waited for Craig to make the obvious joke, which was that this sure was a weird name, but he just looked a little uncomfortable.
“As she falls, the clothing slips to the side, revealing that she was pregnant,” I continued.
Ana got up and left the room, not even saying anything.
“She okay?” asked Tom.
“One sec,” said Colin, getting up and going after her.
“Is she okay?” Tom asked again, this time directing the question at us.
“Ana, or the girl?” I asked.
“Wait,” said Reimer. “I should be able to stop the woman from killing herself, right? Like, let’s say for the sake of argument that you can do a coup de grace on yourself, which doesn’t exist in this edition.”
“Massive damage,” I said.
“Well how much fucking damage can a shard of bone do in the hands of a level 1 commoner?” asked Riemer. “How much hp did she have?”
“I don’t want to argue this,” I said, leaning back slightly. I wondered whether Ana or Colin would return. I was feeling drained, not just from the session, but in my life as a whole.
I had been thinking of ending things. It was at the back of my brain, a little thought that didn’t seem like it would ever go away, the easy way out. I hadn’t made plans, but I had thought about what my plans would be, if I ever decided on that option.
Colin came back in, grabbed Ana’s stuff, then left again. I noticed that he’d left his own stuff, and briefly wondered whether or not he intended to stay for the rest of the session. I didn’t have to wonder for long, because he came back and sat down.
“Okay,” he said. The muscles of his jaw were clenched, and he was sitting forward in the chair with his elbows on the table, showing the tension in his arms. “Sorry about that,” he said, but his voice was tight. “Let’s get on with it.”
“Is Ana okay?” asked Tom.
“No,” said Colin. “She’s going home.”
“You don’t need to stay,” said Tom. “We can table this until —” he glanced at me. “We maybe try again later.”
“It’s important to me to see this through,” said Colin, staring me down. I found myself very aware of how easy it would be for him to kill me with his bare hands. Even failing that extreme, I wasn’t a fighter, and he was a prodigy at the closest thing to sanctioned fighting our school had.
A brief moment of fantasy went through my head. I imagined Colin fighting me, things coming to blows, and me somehow winning by being totally ready to go nuts. Colin was a wrestler, but there were rules in wrestling, and I would be able to do all of the things that were normally prohibited, like pulling hair, biting, going for the eyes or groin … it was the kind of fantasy that I could completely recognize as a juvenile one, but it still had an allure to it that was hard to resist. In reality, Colin could probably punch me once in the face, and I would be weeping on the floor through broken teeth.
“Alright,” I said. “What are you doing?”
“We go to Fel Seed’s palace,” said Colin, giving a brief glance at the others. “The women have to be left to their own devices. There wasn’t even a point in saving them from the cages.”
“What are we doing with Ana’s character?” asked Tom.
“I can play her,” said Colin, taking up her sheet and adding it to his own. He looked at me. “We’re going to the palace, right?”
“Right,” I said. In the face of his visible anger, it was hard for me not to be angry. “You walk down the streets of the City of a Thousand Brides, weapons drawn, on full alert. You see more monsters as you go, but they stay back, not making a move toward you. You see more women, sometimes at the windows, other times at doorways, but they’re under guard in some cases, or have been made immobile in others. The whole place smells of flesh and blood, and you cross the Putrid River on a bridge made of ligaments that sways on your passing.” I waited for someone to object, to say that it wasn’t something their character did, but if you waited for explicit instructions on every single thing, the game would grind to a halt. There was supposed to have been an encounter on the ligament bridge, but I didn’t have the stomach for it. “There are no guards at the palace, and the doors are standing wide for you. The insides are fully furnished, with none of the obvious aesthetic that’s outside. You see lanterns hanging from chains, red carpets, tapestries, brickwork, all the hallmarks of the most advanced civilizations you have knowledge of, including the ones that have now fallen.”
A lot of that I had written out ahead of time, or at least written out in my head while falling asleep. I was thankful for that, because it was easy to get back into the flow of things and try to forget. I was already sure that I was going to feel bad about what had happened with Ana for at least a day or two, even if she never should have sat down at the table with us.
“Let me guess,” said Reimer. “All of the stuff we see, everything that we look at, on closer inspection is just some horrible biological thing, right?”
I hesitated for a moment, then nodded, because that was a good idea. “It’s clear now that when people said that Fel Seed had a complete control of biology, they weren’t exaggerating. The lanterns are lit by bioluminescence, the carpets are some kind of cillia, the bricks are keratin, dentin, bone, or something like that, and the places where it looks like wood are some kind of dried or hardened skin that’s been patterned to have a grain.”
“I thought wood was biological?” asked Tom.
“Yeah, but that’s not terrifying enough,” said Craig.
“We go through the palace,” said Colin.
“Armed and ready for anything,” said Reimer.
“You pass through two halls of monsters,” I said. “The first seems to be a museum, with the monsters standing, posed, on pedestals, not fossilized, not statues, just creatures that he made and wanted to display. They’re living out their lives there, unmoving.”
“We continue on,” said Reimer, circling his fingers in the air.
“You come to the throne room,” I said, skipping ahead. “You might have expected guards, but it’s just Fel Seed, sitting on an elaborate throne. He’s —” I hesitated, because what I had planned was a step too far, something that I’d thought up and had been haunting my imagination. I had nothing else though, no other directions to go in. There was too much on my mind to spin something else up. “There’s a woman in front of him, fellating him, but once you enter, he grabs a sword leaning up against the throne and decapitates her with a single stroke.”
“Jesus, Juniper,” said Craig, rolling his eyes.
“Fireball,” said Reimer.
“I wanted to talk to him,” said Colin.
“Roll for initiative,” I said.
“Wait, what could you possibly get from talking to a guy like that?” asked Reimer.
“Answers,” Colin replied.
“Well,” said Reimer. “We certainly don’t have the element of surprise, and we’re not tactically set up, so I guess if you want, I’ll hold off on shooting fireballs. If you get within range of the area of effect, I’m not to blame for what happens.”
Colin stared at me. He’d lost none of his intensity, and while for me it might have started to settle back into a normal session (or what passed for normal in these times), for him it still seemed to be about something else.
“I want to know why he does all this perverted shit,” said Colin. “I want to know what he gets from it.”
“You’re asking him, in those terms?” I asked.
“Sure,” he replied.
“Fel Seed gives you a bored sigh,” I replied. “‘Pleasure, mortal. It’s the reason that every single person does every single thing they do, whether they’re willing to admit it or not.’ He removes the head that’s still nestled in his crotch and tosses it aside, then rises from the throne, standing nine feet tall. ‘I killed that woman because I wanted to see the look on your face.’”
“But the monsters,” said Colin. “The river of shit and blood that runs through this place?”
“‘It’s about power,’” I said. “‘The power to hurt people, to make them feel fear and revulsion. The river is there so that it will loom large in the mind. I drown people in that river, and there is a satisfaction in knowing that they’ve spent months or years thinking about that fate.’”
“And why haven’t you killed us?” asked Colin.
“Fel Seed looks you over. ‘It’s been too long since someone has made any serious attempt on my life’, he replies, ‘I thought I might enjoy watching the hope drain from your eyes. I thought I would like to see the life leave your body as I strangled you, one by one.’”
“Oh, are we doing Big Talk?” asked Craig. He leaned forward in his chair and looked at me. “I tell Fel Seed that when I’m done with him, his bones will be scattered to the four winds, his blood salted, his throat pissed in, uh, …”
“Personally, I’ll fart in his general direction,” said Tom. “But I’ll do it privately and not make a big show of it.”
“Fel Seed won’t just be killed,” said Colin. “He’ll be erased from history and memory, the evidence of his life ground away by directed randomness until it’s lost to even our own minds. There won’t be a scrap of him left.”
“Nice,” said Reimer. “Now we roll for initiative?”
“Sure,” I said.
I added them into the turn tracker that I had set up, then put Fel Seed before any of them. After that, I drew out positions on the battle mat, then let them put down whatever they had for minifigures.
“Fel Seed goes first,” I said. “He reaches out toward Ellnor, standing in the middle of you all, and his fingers split in two, then in four, until the tips of them are barely visible. They shoot out from his hand faster than the speed of sound, and before you can do a damned thing about it, he’s got her tied down in ropes of flesh next to him. Reimer, you’re next.”
“We don’t get reactions?” asked Reimer.
“No,” I said. “It happens too fast, and unless I missed some horrible exploit you’ve got, you can’t react at the speed of sound.”
“Not yet, no,” said Reimer. “But mechanically I can react to lasers, and, eh, nevermind.”
“What happens to her?” asked Colin.
“To Ellnor?” I asked. I stared at her minifig. “She’s going to get added to his collection.”
“Fuck off,” he said, sitting back in his chair a bit. “Why are you such a fucking asshole?”
“You understand that it’s a game, right?” I asked. “It’s not real.”
“It’s your fucking job to make it feel real,” said Colin. “You’re doing everything that you can to bring some sense of realism, or at least emotion to this. The emotions that you choose are calculated to piss people off, or just make them unhappy.”
I wanted someone to step in, and tell him that wasn’t true, but all I got from the rest of the group was silence. “This is because of Ana?” I asked. “You never should have brought her. You understood what Fel Seed was like, and you fucking brought her anyway, because she can’t spend half an hour without you. I’m not going to turn on a dime for you, and I’m certainly not going to do it for her.”
“I wasn’t asking you to turn on a dime,” he said. “I just wanted you to maybe have a bit less rape in the whole thing.”
“It’s the City of a Thousand Brides!” I yelled. “Every single fucking thing that I’ve said about this place has let you know what it’s like! If your dumb cunt of a girlfriend —”
Colin stood up from his chair and for a moment I thought he was going to knock me out. Maybe that was going through his mind as well. Instead, without another word, he gathered his things and left. The character sheets stayed where they were.
“Was it something I said?” I asked. No one found it funny.
Tom looked uncomfortable. “Colin is a friend.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I just — maybe if it were some other campaign, but this is the one we’re in the middle of, and —”
“It’s never stopped you before,” said Reimer. “You drop campaigns more often than you wash a pair of jeans.”
“Oh, so it’s time to gang up on me?” I asked. “Fuck you.”
“He’s a friend,” said Tom. “Maybe not a friend of yours, but he’s a friend of mine. And Ana — I don’t know the full story, and I wouldn’t tell it if I did, but I’m pretty sure something bad happened to her. The kind of bad thing that you never want to tell people about? Which might be why she wanted you to shy away from, you know, that kind of thing?”
That felt like a punch to the gut. “I don’t want to litigate this,” I said. “Reimer, it’s your turn.”
“You still want to keep playing, after all that?” asked Reimer.
“He’s committed,” said Craig, nodding. “Or he should be committed, not sure which.”
“I need to send a text to Colin,” said Tom. “But I’m last in turn order, so, I guess if we’re still playing …”
“We are,” I said.
“Fine,” said Reimer. “Then I blast the fucker with a fireball, sculpting it around Ellnor, just in case she’s not completely fucked by whatever he’s doing.” He reached across the table and grabbed both character sheets that had been left sitting there. “I’ll play these. Colin was the one with the vorpal sword.”
We went through the numbers of combat, saving throws for half damage, a load of dice for the fireball, and some mumbling from me about how quickly Fel Seed recovered from the blast of fire.
“I move as far away as possible, then yell at Gorn to draw the blade,” said Reimer. “And then it should be his turn.” He looked down at Colin’s character sheet.
“Okay,” I said.
“Gorn draws the vorpal sword,” said Reimer. “He charges toward Fel Seed, screaming at the top of his lungs, then puts absolutely all of his life force into the hit, draining himself down to a raisin in the process. Wait, revise that, all but the last scrap of life.” He rolled the dice out where everyone could see it, and it came up a natural 20.
“That hits,” I said.
“And he flies apart into pieces?” asked Reimer. “Every joint disconnected from every other joint?”
“Fel Seed looks down at it, lodged halfway through his arm,” I said. “Then he looks at Gorn, and a slow smile spreads across his face. ‘The vorpal blade would never hurt its master.’”
Reimer groaned. “Come the fuck on,” he said. “We spent fucking ages getting that stupid sword, the effect was at least a little cool, and now this?”
“Maybe we should stop for the night,” said Tom, who was checking his phone way too often for my tastes.
“We’ve barely started,” said Craig. “And if Juniper wants to kill us, it shouldn’t take us that long. Just give Fel Seed a bunch of turns in a row, make every attack insta-kill, easy as that. His turn, right?”
“Tom goes last in the turn order,” I said. There was another chirp from Tom’s phone, and he glanced at it for a moment, biting his lower lip, before looking back at me.
“Uh,” said Tom. “How injured does he look?”
“Pristine,” I said. “Flawlessly clear skin, not even any soot on him.”
“I … try to talk to him?” asked Tom.
“In the middle of combat?” I asked.
“I yell?” asked Tom.
“You yell to be heard over the sounds of swords and fireballs,” I replied. “What do you yell?”
“I yell out that maybe we can make a deal,” said Tom. “Maybe we can show him that it’s better not to hurt people.”
Reimer actually laughed at that. “That’s your plan?”
“I get a 12 on Persuasion,” said Tom, giving me a worried but hopeful look.
I stared at Tom for a moment. “On his turn, Fel Seed grabs the vorpal sword from Gorn’s feeble hands, then leaps through the air, moving thirty feet in a flash, and goes for a killing blow against Featherton.” I rolled a die behind my screen and ignored the result. “The full power of the vorpal blade rips through you, and your skin slides from your muscles, your muscles slide from your bones, and perfect cuts are made at every intersection of your body. You fall to the ground as a pile of disorganized meat.”
“Oof,” said Tom. He looked down at his character sheet for a moment, then back up at me. “Not even a chance for a farewell speech?”
“No,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. He picked up his character sheet and ripped it in two. “Should I bother making a new character?”
“No,” I said. “Craig is right, we’ll be done soon.”
There was another round of combat. I was feeling shitty about a lot of things, and mad at them for seeming to take Colin’s side. No hits could possibly land against Fel Seed, not when I could set his AC arbitrarily high. He wasn’t a creature from one of the books, he was something that I made, so no one could call me out on it. I don’t know why I was even worried about that, given how far off the rails we were.
“Fel Seed flings the vorpal sword, spinning it like a scythe,” I said. I rolled more useless dice. “It hits Killiam and Rost, killing them instantly. His hand was still attached to the handle of the blade though, and it drags the sword back to him.”
“Welp,” said Craig. “Good game, if I’m being polite.”
“Wait,” replied Reimer. “Gorn is still technically alive with a single hit point. Technically he’s not dead, he just dies from a papercut. Technically that shouldn’t affect his ability to do combat.”
“Why even drag this out?” asked Craig, rolling his eyes.
“If Juniper wants to ruin a session, that’s on him,” said Reimer, nodding at me. “But I’m going to play the game how I want to play it, and that means taking every advantage I can get, not just giving up because I know that I’m going to lose. And besides, if Juniper’s going to fudge in some bullshit to make us lose, then he’s perfectly capable of fudging in some bullshit to give us a chance at winning.” He looked at me. “So, Gorn summons up what strength he has left, bellows out a defiant battle cry, then rushes at Fel Seed with his axe and aims for the vulnerable core that all supremely powerful beings have.”
“Make your roll,” I said.
Reimer rolled, out in the open. “Nat twenty,” he said, leaning back in his chair. It was the second one he’d gotten in combat.
“That’s double damage,” I said. “But the axe bounces uselessly off Fel Seed’s chest. Fel Seed reaches forward, crushes his C2 vertebrae with one hand, and tosses Gorn down to the floor so that Gorn can watch Ellnor be raped.” I pointed at Tom. “There, Tom, you can tell Colin that’s how we ended things.”
“Fucking Christ, Joon,” said Reimer, rolling his eyes. “There’s really no need to be so dramatic.”
“Well, I’m done here,” I said, getting up from the table. I hesitated. There was a ‘sorry’ on my lips. Tanking the session, and the whole campaign with it, was something that I regretted as soon as it was done. What little satisfaction I’d gotten from it had evaporated immediately.
“I have bad news,” said Tom, looking down at his phone. “It looks like Colin might not want to play with us anymore.”
Reimer and Craig laughed, and I chuckled a little. It broke the tension, and for at least a little bit, there was catharsis.
When it was all over though, I felt a knot in my stomach, and typed up apologies to various people that I never ended up sending.
“Thank you for sharing,” said Amaryllis, once I’d finished. I was sitting with her and the others in one of our larger rooms, everyone gathered together for story time, including twelve-year-old Pallida, Solace, and yes, Bethel.
“I assume there’s nothing actionable in there?” I asked.
“No, nothing,” she said. “Though given that we’ve talked about Fel Seed so much, I would be surprised if the more personal side of things had actually revealed anything.”
“So it’s bullshit, right?” I asked, looking around at the group. “I don’t actually know his weakness. He doesn’t have weaknesses, that’s the whole point. There’s nothing you can do against him.”
“We’re not trying to do anything against him,” said Grak. “We just need to go past him.”
“Easier said than done,” replied Raven. “The entrance point is below the palace, and it’s been very hard to get any information on if there’s any method of getting down there.”
“Overwhelming force might work,” said Bethel. It was the first thing she’d said. She was still presenting as meek and humbled, which I found faintly annoying.
“Let’s say that we end up having to fight Fel Seed,” said Amaryllis. “Based on what Juniper recounted, what we’ve heard from him before, and what we know from other accounts, what is the best approach?”
“Why don’t you just tell us?” asked Pallida. “It’s pretty clear you’ve got all the answers.”
“I want to hear opinions,” said Amaryllis. “Obviously I’ve already come to my own conclusions.”
“We invent a weakness,” said Grak. “Then we hope that the Dungeon Master is in a good mood.”
“I really don’t think that hitting his weak point for massive damage is going to fly,” I said.
“I can give him an argument,” said Valencia. “I’ll just argue him into not killing us. Easy, and also peasy.”
“We would be at the mercy of the Dungeon Master,” said Raven. “Given that Fel Seed has created a living hell that’s continued unimpeded for nearly five hundred years, I don’t think mercy is on the menu.”
“Just as a note, in case anyone is thinking about it,” said Amaryllis. “I’ve been searching for the vorpal blade for subjective years, and have come up with nothing, and Raven has had no luck either. I’ve put in a bounty with the goblins but gotten nothing back from them, and the last option for information is the Infinite Library, who we’re not on good terms with. That said, it’s Fel Seed’s sword to begin with, so finding it, if it exists, doesn’t seem like it would help us.”
“I have an embarrassing question,” said Grak.
“Go ahead,” I said.
“What is canonical?” he asked. “Your notes, or the world as it appeared in the games?”
“So far as we can tell, it’s a mixture,” said Amaryllis. “There exist features that were only in worlds that never had campaigns, but there are also characters and entads that were created either by or with the players.” She gestured in Raven’s direction.
“Why do we think that Fel Seed is the game version?” asked Grak. “Why would he not be as on the page?”
“Does it matter?” I asked.
“How did you plan for him to be beaten?” asked Grak.
“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t.”
“The vorpal sword was always going to fail?” asked Grak.
“It was never going to be the full answer,” I said. “Can you imagine hyping up a villain for a whole campaign only for them to die in a single hit from a magical sword? I mean … maybe it would have weakened him enough, but … I didn’t plan for that, no. I planned for him to be a terrible, unbeatable monster, the kind you only think you can beat because he’s only shown a fraction of his full power.”
“The players were always meant to die,” said Raven.
“Yeah,” I said. “Kind of.”
“So what’s the queen’s solution?” asked Pallida, looking at Amaryllis. “What does her majesty intend to do?”
“Diplomacy,” said Amaryllis. “Done at as long a range as possible, mediated by Valencia. People have tried it before, but they didn’t have Valencia’s abilities, nor were they the chosen ones of the One True God.”
“That loses us the element of surprise,” I said. “Besides, no way you could ever negotiate something with him. He would betray you.”
“Betrayal isn’t what he’s known for,” said Amaryllis. “But if you insist, then we can attempt complete radio silence.”
“No,” I said. “Go ahead. He’ll know we’re there the instant we enter into his territory, and he’s always ready to attack with fifty different kinds of insane countermeasures. That’s from reading about attempts on his zone, but it was true when I thought him up too.”
“Good,” said Amaryllis. “Conditional on that, we’re planning to go tomorrow.”
“Great!” shouted little Pallida. “I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m ready to get raped to death.”
“We’re going to need to age her up,” I said, pointing at Pallida. “Another five years or so, at a minimum.”
“Oh fuck you,” she said. “And in another five years I’ll be too much of a pussy to go with you.”
“I’m not going,” said Solace. “I would also encourage you to do whatever you can to keep the locus from going with you.”
“No one controls the locus,” I said. “Even if I pleaded, I think she would still come, if only to keep us safe. And with her domain expanding, she’s got a lot more power, which isn’t necessarily going to help us, but … if the gods consider her to be essentially a god, then that’s enough of a chance that I wouldn’t want to try very hard to dissuade her from joining us.”
“Does anyone else want to bow out?” asked Amaryllis. “There will be no judgement or argument. Whatever your utility to the party, we’ll find some way to make up for it.”
There was silence all around.
“I do wish you the best,” said Solace. “The locus should be able to return to Poran if things go poorly. I’ll be waiting and ready.”
With that the meeting broke, and it began to set in that this was really going to happen.