A Time of Contemplation – Criteria

As I mentioned last week, I want to critically examine five game systems to try to pick the best fit for my upcoming Dark Wars campaign.  Over the next five weeks I will be examining, in alphabetical order, 13th Age; Adventurer, Conqueror, King; Cypher; Pathfinder; and Runequest. 

Today, however, I wanted to start by establishing my criteria for this series.  I have already cut my system choices back, and I am left with systems that I would love to run.  Some of these systems I have already run game in Ta’nar with.  To me, the Dark Wars will be special.  It will be the first game I am able to prepare a system specifically for Ta’nar.  In some ways, I consider all the games that have come before as alpha and beta testing of the world and its special features.  Before, I have been fleshing out the world, and the flavor, and I paired them up with systems that I could use to get the testing going. 

So I want to make sure that when I start the Dark Wars and lock in to that story for the long haul, that I have prepared the story and system for each other.  After that I will focus on preparing my players for will come.

I will be viewing the systems through the three different lens, world, mechanics, and finally enjoyment.  I need to make sure the world of Ta’nar can be represented within the game system, and that mechanics of the system support the aspects I want to tell the tale of the Dark Wars.  Finally, I want to make sure this is a game that I will enjoy playing in for months or even years.

 

World

How closely does the system match to the high magic, epic fantasy style found in Ta’nar?

 

Mechanics

Does the system have established rules for:

                Ascending to Godhood

                Establishing & Management of Nations

                Customized Deities

                Mass Combat

                Creation of Races

                Creation of Classes

                Simple Monster Creation Rules

                Fast interesting combat

 

Enjoyment

Have I run this game before?

If, so, did my players enjoy it?

Did I enjoy it?

Is the system one that lends itself to mastery?

 

The goal with these posts is not to review the game systems in question.  (Although I will links to the system reviews I have posted on this blog.)  The goal is to view them through the lens of what system will work best for Ta’nar.

I will see you next week for a look at Ta’Nar – 13th Age Edition.

 

PS:  This weekend I will be running games at Starfest in Denver.  If you are headed there, come sit in on a Numenera game or a Dragon Kings game run by setting creator Tim Brown.

 

Echoes of the Prior Worlds

 

Disclaimer: This pdf was graciously given to me for the purposes of review by Ryan Chaddock Games.  All opinions within the review are my own.

In my post All That Glimmers… I gave a shout out to Ryan Chaddock’s Angels & Ashes pdf for Numenera.  My plan at the time was to do a review on that pdf this week.  However, to my surprise, I was contacted by Ryan Chaddock.  Over the course of a couple of emails, he asked if I would like some review copies of his books.  Being the Numenera fan that I am, and always thrilled when my blog nets me copies of things I was going to buy anyway, I agreed as fast I could while maintaining what little dignity I have.

I sat down to read Echoes of the Prior Worlds immediately upon downloading.  I started with Echoes because, to be perfectly honest, it was the one I was least excited about.  With Angels & Ashes the application of nanotech to arcane means immediately grabbed me.  And Celestial Wisdom has divine pantheons filled with data gods, I could hardly wait to dig into that one.  I decided to start with Echoes, blitz through it and get to the material that I wanted to review.

What I found inside the Echoes pdf surprised me.

Echoes of the Prior Worlds

Image

Echoes of the Prior Worlds is a 44 page pdf that is available on Drivethrurpg.com (for $3.00 at the time of this post).  The layout is a simple, clean, two column format.  The font is easy to read on the screen of a computer or a tablet, and is interspersed with artwork composed from stock images that have been manipulated.  The book’s art is not scarce or distracting but serves to break up the flow of the text quite nicely.  The book also contains maps, each of which are of a different style.  The pdf is broken down into three chapters: Seeds & Soil, Brave Souls, and Thirteen Echoes.

So what is Echoes of the Prior Worlds about?  It is a supplement dedicated to exploration.  Numenera is a game about discovery.  Discovering things is what the game rewards players for.  Not for finding gold pieces or for beating up XP piñatas like most games.  Echoes attempts to aid GMs and players in making that shift from ‘slay and pay’ gaming to the discovery model of Numenera.

Seeds & Soil

The first section of the book is a selection of GM intrusions and story seeds for GMs.  GM intrusions are major part of the game economy of Numenera and coming up with fresh and unique one can be challenging.  There is only so many times you can have ‘x’ happen to a player (whether that is their powers go crazy, their weapon breaks, they slip and fall, ect.) before it breaks the game’s flow.  ‘Oh look, Nick licked the wall again and got poisoned’ Come on!  The players are competent heroes.  GM intrusions are there to make the story interesting, and repetition is not interesting.  Echoes gives GMs seventeen intrusions to add into their arsenal.  Some of them are fairly generic things, like: broken bones, slippery surfaces, even crying out when they shouldn’t.  Others are weird things that enhance the strangeness of a Numenera session or could be used as a key point to a whole adventure.

Echoes also gives eight story seeds.  Each seed is an elevator pitch for an adventure or even a campaign.  They are weird, and revolve around exploration or discovery (as you would expect in a supplement dedicated to this ideal.)  The writers do a great job of tying the seeds into the Ninth World.  We are given seeds around the isolationistic nature of the Beyond, Steadfast politics, broken hounds, and how advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Chapter two is a chapter for players.  Two new descriptors and three new foci are introduced.  The descriptors are Grizzled and Intrepid.  I liked how they represent two polar opposite choices for adventurous characters.  Intrepid characters are wide-eyed explores, who leap to discover what is over the next hill, while the grizzled characters have survived what they found over the last hill and although scarred, still head back out into the world.  The mechanics are well in line with the flavor.  The inabilities on both descriptors not only are very appropriate, but are very creative in how they affect game play.

Echoes introduces the foci: Catalogues the Past, Maps the World, and Scales the Impossible.  (One of my players wants to play Numenera again right now so he can use Scales the Impossible).  Like the descriptors, the foci are all about discovery.  Catalogues the Past is for the scholarly minded characters who are want to get out into the world and rediscover what was lost.  Maps the World is self-explanatory, but does give some unique tier abilities that enable characters to really make the most of being a pathfinder.  And Scales the Impossible represents some people’s burning desire to climb a mountain just because it is there.

Thirteen Echoes

The final chapter contains 13 adventures for GMs to use.  They are bare bone stories.  But each one provides a solid skeleton that you can run as is for a quick session or flesh out into a longer adventure.  One thing that I really like is how each adventure (aside from the last one) is two pages: one of notes and one containing a map.  This is on purpose so that you can print the adventure out on 1 double-sided page.  Each adventure is set up with seven objective points and all revolve around discovery.

I don’t like giving out spoilers for adventures.  So I will not be going into detail on any of the adventures.  Each adventure has a different feel and flavor to it.  There are delves into ancient complexes, treacherous mountain climbs, Lovecraft-esque non-Euclidian monsters, and even a Ravenloft-style abduction adventure.  The final adventure is three pages (including the map) but is a grand save the world from a cult who is try to awaken its sleeping god.  So the fact that it runs longer is ok with me.

One thing I noticed is the difficultly of these scenarios.  Ignoring the final one (which specifically is for upper tier characters) the rest of the scenarios have some tough encounters with severe consequences.  Most are not related to combat encounters either.  The mechanical focus of the adventures, and therefore the risk and reward to the players, stays pointed directly towards discovery.

Conclusion

For the price of $3, I would have been happy walking away with any two of the chapters of this book.  With all three I am thrilled.  Echoes of the Prior Worlds is chock full of great ideas and mechanics.  I am grateful that Ryan sent me this pdf.  As I said, this was the book I was least interested in looking at, and I ended up surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  Echoes of the Prior Worlds is a fantastic supplement for Numenera and a great introduction to Ryan Chaddock Games.  Having just read Angels & Ashes and started my way through Celestial Wisdom (reviews forthcoming), I have to say that Echoes might be more accessible and applicable for most Numenera players and GMs than the others.  While great, A&A and CE both focus on bringing a narrow aspect of fantasy into the Ninth World.  Echoes is a much broader work, and will inspire and aid any GM in walking the path of Discovery XP.

A Time of Contemplation – Introduction

I am starting off a new series of articles here on Origins of a Dark God.  My goal is to start planning my next Ta’nar game.  The current ones are going strong, and have some great frameworks already set up.  But the next game has me concerned for a couple of reasons. 

First of all, I am starting my Masters in the fall.  In light of this, I am going to begin wrapping up my weekly games in September.  The goal is to have the Outlands game and the current Ta’nar games (in person and online) end no later than December of this year.  I am making the mental preparations to shift into a player mode for the next two years. 

Second, I am cutting back on my RPG purchasing.  I am trying to keep my purchases to five games lines (which may sound like a lot, but compared to where I have been, this is a gutting).  I will continue to support Adventurer, Conqueror, King; Runequest; Cypher; 13th Age; and Legend of the Five Rings.  With isolated books from Pathfinder that peek my interest for idea mining.  The L5R books are for love of the world and the physical books.  They are gorgeous and I just love reading them.  The other ones, however, are systems that I want to actively be running when I have time.  But the problem is all five are games I want to be using at the table. I need to narrow this down to begin my prep.

Finally, I finally feel I have generated major momentum with Ta’nar.  Players are now starting to see reoccurring themes and NPCs between the games, and are becoming steeped in the world’s lore.  I want to keep that going and when the Dark Wars finally begin (the next major series of story arcs for Ta’nar) I want to be ready.  And by ready, I mean player handbooks for everyone.  Similar to one I did for Anima, I want it to have setting information, rules references and a character creation guide all with art.  It will be spiral bound and ready for the 4-5 players that will dive back into Ta’nar. 

So how does this all cycle back to a series of articles?  Well, I am going to start blogging my preparation process on Mondays, as I prepare for the first Dark War.  There might be minor interruptions, but I foresee this series lasting months.  I am going to start by examining the systems in my wheelhouse [ACKS, RQ6, 13th Age, Cypher, and Pathfinder] over the next couple of weeks.  I am going to be looking at the critically for how they would fit with Ta’nar, and my current set of players.  Hopefully by June, I will have narrowed down the system for the next big Ta’nar game.

And hopefully, the insane process I call my prep work will be interesting and beneficial.

Rulings at the Table

I was going to review Ryan Chaddock’s Angels & Ashes, but one of my players pointed out that I might have been showing too much love to Monte Cook Games.  I deny that anyone can show too much love for Numenera, but decided to throw up a piece of GM advice I have been discussing with one of my players this week.  The core of the question is: Is it better to rule right or rule quick at the table?

I understand that most of us are playing RPGs using a ruleset that provides some framework for the world.  (Some might respond by raising the storytelling games flag, but that is a rant for a different soapbox).  Part of the unspoken agreement between players and GM that they will use the rules to facilitate their game.  To me, this means that players are responsible for the general rules knowledge that affect their characters, and that they will make the effort to continue to learn the rules over the course of the game.  The GMs responsibility it to present the rules as accurately as possible, and to cleave to that framework to craft a story that allows the players can interact the rules of the game.  There are also times where the GM should, for the sake of the table enjoyment, fudge or break these rules.  This is also a topic for a different time, as I could write a series of articles on story vs. mechanics. 

However, back on topic, most games have far too many rules for any one mind to absorb completely at one time.  There are many situational rules that just don’t come up often enough for players or the GM to remember with clarity.  In those situations, where the game clearly has rules for the situation but no one can remember, you have a number of options.  You can stop to look it up, you can have your players look it up, or your can rule and revisit after the game.

For me, what option I use at the table is based on a number of factors.  At the start of a campaign, I will stop to look up rules, as we are all learning the system.  The story and gameplay is secondary to a good foundational knowledge of the rules.  Anima, Mage and Burning Wheel were played like this for close to two months of play, as their complicated systems require a significant level of system mastery.

However, once we are in the groove of the game, it is all about speed and focus.  My groups tend to only play for two and a half to three hours.  So every minute I spend delving for rules is time that the group is not playing. If it is something that only affects one player at the table, and the rest of the group can continue playing in the meantime, that player can look up and when it comes back around to their turn, they can show me the rule. 

For most things however, I try to rule at the table and then go back afterwards to the book.  Most games have a certain internal consistency that you can infer rulings from.  Take the d20 system.  Bonuses of +2 to d20 rolls, and DC increases of 5 are rampant throughout the system.  So it is easy to apply a +/- 2 to a roll or increase/decrease the DC in increments of 5, and still be compliant with the rule set.  Anima had modifiers that were in groupings of 10% and 20%, and Burning Wheel give bonus dice or increased obstacles. 

However, after the fact, I find it is important for the GM to go and look at the actual rules for situation.  During my post game wrap up that I do after sessions, while filling out my consequence list, I look at the rulings I made at the table.  Or I have Nick or Calvin look, or find that Nick or Calvin have already looked the rule up and IM’d me.  (Seriously, you need a Calvin or a Nick in your game.)  At the start of the next session, I will review the actual rule with my players.  This puts the rule in their mental wheelhouse to help remember next time.  Also it gives us some non-game time to discuss the rule, and if we need to change it.

My personal goal when I run a game is rules mastery and a great story.  My style of running a session is focused on keeping the story moving, and the players engaged for the time we are at the table.  Sometimes these two things conflict.  But after 21 years of GMing, I have become comfortable with my choice in how I deal with rulings at the table.

 

 

Dark Places of the Internet

Welcome to Monday everyone.  My last couple of weeks have been wracked with travel, and I am grateful to be sitting in front of my PC once again. 

I thought that for today, both as a shout out and a recovery post, I would share a couple of places  that I used on the road to get my gaming fix.  These are the crème de la crème for me, chocked full of gaming goodness.

Blogs

Githyanki DiasporaJudd, ½ of the infamous Sons of Kryos, maintains a great blog.  The Diaspora contains great posts on Burning Wheel and other gaming insights.  While I morn on a weekly basis that the Sons are no more, Githyanki helps salve that wound.

Podcast

GM Intrusions Run by Lex Starwalker, GM Intrusions is a fantastic Numenera podcast.  He posts once a week, and has had some great interviews in addition to providing some fantastic segments.  If you are a fan of Numenera and the Cypher system, you owe it to yourself to give it a listen.

THACO’s Hammer This is my goto podcast.  While I love AD&D 2nd edition, I am currently not playing or running it, but it doesn’t matter when it comes to the Hammer.  DM Glen and DM Brian (and Fullon and Corey when they are on) are a lot of fun to listen to.  The podcast’s quality, use as an idea resource, and nostalgia factor is off the charts.

 

There you are!  While you come here for RPG content, I go there for mine.  See you Thursday.

All That Glimmers…

As you may know, for I say it so often here on the blog, I am in love with the Cypher system.  Monte Cook Games has created a fantastic game that with every reading eclipses my desire to play anything else.  Currently the system is ‘limited’ to the Numenera line, but soon the Strange will be added into the mix.  I am looking at doing more reviews of the Cypher system products (like the Devil’s Spine, or the upcoming Character Options book) as well as third party Cypher products (like Ryan Chaddock’s Angels & Ashes pdf (which you should run out and get sight unseen right now!!)) in the months to come.

Monte Cook Games does a great job with their core books and adventures, but they also put out monthly (or near monthly) pdf supplements known as Glimmers.  These Glimmers, which are a reference to a strange visual or data phenomenon in the Ninth World, are short pdfs which cover specific topics for your gaming pleasure.  From interviews I have listened to, it seems that the Glimmer line is Monte Cook Games’ way to react immediately to what their fans want.  Instead of putting together a book that won’t get into player’s hands for months, they can ‘patch’ the game with Glimmers.  Note: I use the term patch here for a quick download of information.  This is not a reference to these pdfs being ‘fixes’ to the game.  They are clearly expansions.

So far we have seen Glimmers that run a gamut of topics.  A new adventure.  How to add Lovecraftian horror within the Ninth World.  Two pdfs on new cyphers, oddities, and artifacts.  Love and sex in the Ninth World.  And currently making your game weirder.  This weird pdf is the focus of this review.

Injecting the Weird

Image

Injecting the Weird is a 22 page Glimmer that is available on Drivethrurpg.com (for $4.99 at the time of this post).  The layout in Injecting the Weird, and this holds true for all the Glimmers, is comparable to the physical products that Monte Cook Games produces.  Some of the art, in my opinion, doesn’t mess as well with the art from the main product line, but I can only assume this is due nature of the Glimmer release schedule.

The focus of this Glimmer is Numenera’s weird factor and how to capitalize on it.  It begins with a short explanation of ‘weird’ in the Ninth World and why that is important.  For me the weird factor is what makes Numenera stand out.  It is not science fiction.  It is not fantasy.  There is no modern or gaming corollary.  The core rulebook gives some great advice on how to GM the weird, like how to do shift your vocabulary to prevent the players from drawing inferences to the familiar.  This Glimmer goes deeper into the how and why of the weird.

For me, the section that changed how ended up reviewing this product was the Random Weirdness section.  It precedes the bulk of this pdf, which is the random table section.  At first glance, I was really disappointed in this.  I will be honest; I didn’t read the product description too deeply before I bought this pdf, but from what I remember, I did not get the impression that I was investing in a bunch of tables.  The other Glimmers have been $2.99 and were 10-18 solid pages of information.  Injecting the Weird was $2.00 more and while it was almost double the length of most previous Glimemrs, 14 of the 22 pages are random tables. It was off putting because I was expecting far more substantive writing, and got, well 14 pages of tables.  However, on my re-read before writing this article, the section I mentioned above clicked for me.  It changed my perception of the seeming randomness of this pdf.

The random tables are there not there just for randomness sake.  They are there to create connections between things that you might never have thought of, or that shouldn’t go together.  And where that randomness intersects your game, you get weird.  Inside this Glimmer we find tables for: weird things about ancient structures, weird things going on inside the structure, weird things out in the wild, weird creatures, weird things about places, weird NPCs, and weirdness for devices.  The entries on these tables, when used to spice up your game, are very strange and some are very evocative. 

Wrapping up this Glimmer, we find three new weird character options.  The Weird Descriptor, and the Masters Insects and Sees Beyond foci.  Each one brings its own level of strangeness to the game, and allows players to build characters that thrive on the weird setting that is the Ninth World.  New options for Cypher characters are always a good thing.  We also find sprinkled among the side bars of this Glimmer ideas, creatures, three cyphers, two oddities, and a new artifact.

Conclusion

After a disappointing first read through, and a weirdly satisfying second read through, I am torn on a final concluding recommendation.  The foci and the descriptors are fantastic, as are the main article portion.  At $5, you are getting a lot of table entries as well, which if used as the Random Weirdness section suggests serves as a perfect realization of this Glimmers title.  Injecting the Weird is a weird Glimmer.  I hope that this review interrupts it for you, and helps you understand a bit more what you will be getting.

 

Content: 3.5/5 – With the majority of the pdf being random tables, the content could be very hit or miss depending on your GMing style.

System: 5/5 – What system is there here is spot on. The new numenera, descriptors and foci are great.

Aesthetic: 4/5 – The pdf’s layout is consistent with the Numenera.  Some of the art pieces just feel a little out of sync with the style of the Numenera books. 

 

 

Prologue – Part 6 of 6

“He stirs,” Terranox lifted his head, blue eyes piercing the newly renewed darkness, his tortured features lit from below by the still-cooling magma, which cast the features of his face into sharp contrast. “Deep beneath the island of Yalith, Zenhir stirs.” The Shessstorath paused before her leap, weight falling back to the floor in shock.  The involuntary widening of her eyes revealed that she understood the importance of this knowledge.  The dragon’s rage was suddenly cut off as her mind attempted to process the true meaning of his words.  But in the vacuum of her thoughts they made no sense, as if they were a riddle that necessitated discovery.  Silence reigned.  When it was broken, the light of the lava was gone, cooled to a craggy crust surrounding Terranox.

 

“No. That is impossible.  He is bound!” Shessstorath denied the possibility.  Her tone of incredulity would have been comical coming from a creature the size of the black dragon, had the visceral terror that laced it not been so infectious.  The tyranny of the Dragon Emperor’s rule had not been limited to the mortal races, but had bound all dragon kind as well.  Terranox shook his head slowly, his own soul not wanting to give voice to the truth.  But the weight of the need gripped him and the words slipped past lips pale with tension.

 

“Zenhir is dead, this is true.  But his soul is too mighty, his will too complete, to ever allow mere death to end his lust for dominion.  Did you truly think mortal sorcery could forever bind him?  It was a fool’s hope, one that I ignorantly embraced.”  His words were then only for himself, eyes averting to the mangled floor.  “I believed that one betrayal would suffice.” He then found his voice and returned his gaze to Shessstorath.  “The fact that he stirs merely an Age later means the mortal labors, while impressive, were woefully insufficient.”  Terranox again ceased talking to her directly, whispering softly to himself. “I had hoped for more.  But an Age is too short a time.  He stirs.”  Terranox could not keep nihilistic resignation from seeping into that statement.  Shessstorath’s head slowly rose up as if gauging the night sky could be wide enough to hide her forever.  Her onyx studded hide rippled as the muscles underneath bunched and flexed like a cornered animal. 

 

“So this is why you have called out?  To collect the remainder of our kind for him?  So that when your master rises again you may present your race as a peace offering, our necks bent ready for the binding?”  The fear that gripped her voice wrenched empathy for his rival from Terranox.  In another place or time, he would have reveled in Shessstorath’s emotional torment.  But here and now, he shared it.  In another low whisper, so low that his dead former master surely could not hear it, Terranox whispered.

 

“No.”  Shessstorath’s head snapped down to take in the elven shape that blotted the floor.  Her eyes still held her fear like water in an overflowing vessel.  Terranox stared at the large head that could swallow him in a single motion.  “No, I mean to see that he never rises, or if he does that he is opposed by those who can stop him.  A conclave of dragons to oppose the rising of the Tiam Emperor.  And for that,” Terranox swallowed tentatively, apprehension filling his chest, “I need you.”  It galled him to say that, his pride irrevocably wounded at the voicing of his need.  But the truth of the matter remained; he needed allies, and Shessstorath was all that he had.

 

That no power emanated from the Elf was plain enough for Shessstorath to see.  The level of trust he had mustered stunned her.  His presentation of vulnerability gave credence to his claim, despite her wish that it was untrue.  Eyes narrowing, she dropped her sinuous neck down and slid her head along tortured stone till the breath from her snout ruffled the fringes of his robe and kicked up embers from the floor.  “If you speak sooth, we have retread familiar ruts.  We are afflicted by the inertia of our previous experiences like any other base creatures.  We have both made mistakes tonight and I fear they will not be the last ones.” The wedge shaped head lifted and ocher eyes regarded the elf.  “There are too few of us left for blood to be spilt over ancient feuds.  You have called, and I have answered, at great cost to myself.  I will endeavor to restrain my… responses till I have heard you out.”  She stretched with a roll of her shoulders, as if not entirely comfortable in her natural form.  Terranox understood those restrained movements as if they were a reflection of his own.  His appearance, along with her involuntary reaction, drove a point home.  Even here, even now, millennia after the Great Domination and the purge that followed, the memory of draconic terror still gripped the world of Ta’nar by the throat.  Dragons were still daemons of myth and legend, even though one of his kind had not been sighted by mortal eyes in seven hundred years.  And dragons, for all their power, remained hidden out of fear of mortal reprisal:  whether cloaked in the flesh of lesser creatures, as Terranox and Shessstorath had been, or by hiding away in some secret respite deep in the dragonsleep, waiting for a time when the world would be safer.  With great difficulty, he swallowed down the bitter rivalry he shared with Shessstorath for the greater good of his race.  It was true that he had called a conclave of the elder dragons, but the fact that any, let alone Shessstorath, had answered the call to gather was beyond his expectations. None of their kind knew how many dragons were left in the world or where they were.  There was no easy way to contact even the few dragons that were known to Terranox, so he had resorted to the only secure method he had at his disposal, the dragonsleep.  The call to gather a new Tiam had threaded subtly through the shared dream space that all dragons shared.  And after a year of intense effort, only Shessstorath had responded.  Secretly, Terranox found he was grateful for her presence, the cunning and power that made her such a fine rival provided him a sliver of hope that his desired future would come to pass.  The looming threat provided much impetus to cast aside their rivalry, but he was not so naive to believe that she would not attempt to twist any outcome to favor herself.  And to leave him crippled.  He would be wary, but trusted in his own cunning and accepted the risk.  The future of his race must be secured.  Her voice called out to him in the dark.

 

“What you propose will be a tightrope stretched over a river of lava.  Stray but a bit to one side or the other, and this conclave of yours will be incinerated: by Zenhir’s fury, mortal retribution, or by the wrath of the rest of our kind.  I can only assume you have a means of navigating this path and avoiding the hazards?”  Shessstorath could hardly keep the anxiety out of her voice.  The return of Zenhir was a doom that hung over the remnant of the draconic race, indeed all of Ta’nar, and Terranox proposed to meet this burgeoning threat head on.  It would require manipulation and planning on an immortal scale.  Impossible for either of them aloneand possibly out of reach for the whole of dragon kind.  The chains that bound them all to Zenhir were fell and irresistible.  She had no doubt that they lingered beneath the surface of her soul, even after centuries of dormancy.

 

“I have no plan as of yet.  What I have are gossamers that need resources and time to solidify into plans.  I needed others to join me, to risk everything in this venture to remain free.  The Wanderer’s war against Thoan has wrecked devastation upon Yalith, and the Rivener’s dark army’s campaign on the main land has cast all of Sentali into chaos.  I believe that it was the clash of these forces that teased Zenhir from his millennia of deep slumber.  Now is the time to begin, while all is fluid, while Zenhir stirs restlessly, but the chains that bind him still hold.  It is my belief that they will hold for some hundred years yet, perhaps even as long as half a millennia.”  Terranox raised one fist to punctuate his point.  “Not since before our rule has the world been this malleable. If we are to prepare for his return we could not ask for a better time.”  His eyes shone with a febrile hope.  “We must begin soon if we mean to oppose him. Are you with me?”  The last query was impassioned, an outpouring of all the raw emotion that had claimed Terranox.  This was it, the summation all of his planning and divinations, the end of his foresight and resources.  It all came down to this moment, this question, and to the acceptance of the offer by an ancient and powerful rival.

 

In response, the dragon’s amber eyes flared with sudden light that flooded the Meet.  Shadows were banished and for a single moment, the light threw the shear walls into stark relief, creating the impression of a razor-fanged maw possessed by some great rock worm that threatened to swallow everything within the Meet’s boundaries.  Inborn magic, pervasive throughout the entire race of dragons, responded to draconic will, and Shessstorath began to change.  Her whole form became as unbound as quicksilver, mass and size no longer any constant.  The black silhouette quickly contracted, bones shortened and changed shape, claws retracted, and organs shifted or disappeared altogether.  Skin replaced scales, yet retained their dark hue.  Shessstorath’s profile tapered and then expanded up, shifting from the long sinuous shape of a dragon to humanoid shape standing upright.  Clothing blossomed out from some extra-natural space, stored perfectly preserved till need pulled it back into being.  Time so swift as to defy the definition of its passage past, and where there once was the majestic shape of the terrible dragon Shessstorath, there now stood a handsome human female.  Too stern to be called beautiful, Shessstorath’s warm black skin and wide almond eyes marked her for a Derthanii, a people who lived west of Shadow’s Reach.  Her hair was cut short, in the fashion of the people, and like most Derthanii women, she was thick with muscles and armed for battle.   The raven-haired woman wore chainmail, dull from use but meticulously cared for, over well-worn black leathers.  Iron vambraces, worked with copper filigree, covered hands that rested on a thick weapons belt.  A pair of plain daggers were held there in simple leather sheathes, as were two notched throwing irons.  Over her left shoulder, the two-handed hilt of a greatsword extended past her collarbone next to a bundle of javelins in a quiver against her back.  White teeth showed through pulled back plumb colored lips.

 

“It seems I am not the only one who has changed,” mused Terranox, who now could look slightly down, as opposed to having to strain upward to make eye contact with his rival. Accomplice, he corrected himself mentally.

 

Shessstorath nodded, “Much has happened, to both of us.  It seems we have much to discuss before we start to broach your plan.  Hear me, Terranox.  We will never be friends; too much lies between us.  And the weight of our history compels me to believe that you will attempt to shape this plan for your gain, as I will for mine.”  She paused, considering with the long lived eyes of an immortal dragon their as yet unknowable venture.  “But perhaps, in time, we will be able to see each other as allies.”  She rested comfortably in her mortal form.  Her hands touched lightly on her weapons belt, the weight there a silent reassurance.  Her legs had assumed a fighter’s stance without thought, presenting her profile to Terranox.  The whole of her posture conveyed the easy violence of a trained human warrior.  It appeared that they had both been spending far too much time in the forms of mortals.   Terranox wondered if this is why only one of his kind had answered his call.   How long could anyone remain behind a mask, especially one as perfect as a dragon could craft, before losing one’s self completely in the lie?  How long before the masquerade became reality, and the dragons faded entirely from the fabric of Ta’nar, apathetically condemning themselves to oblivion.  Much more depended on this new alliance than he initially thought.  Perhaps in working to save their race from a tyrant, they might stumble upon a way to save it from themselves.  But if this venture failed, its consequences would be a problem neither one of them would have to worry about.

 

“Do you have a place in mind for this grand experiment to begin?  From what I have heard there is no place on Sentali that the war has not touched.  The north is in chaos from the fall of the Half-Elves; in the south, the lands of Allair were devastated by the Wraith King.  The High Elves currently lay the foundation for their destruction with daemon binding, and the so called Perversions of Reach have left their city just as chaotic as any other place on the continent.  With the collapse of the Pathihn Empire, the other continents are likely to be in similar straits.  Such is the nature of the turning of an Age.  And we cannot go to Ruin.” The mysterious sub-continent still repulsed any draconic incursion; whatever magics the Isphan left to guard their lands remained just as deadly to dragons as it had at the end of the Third Age.  She turned away to inspect the Meet, studying the walls and floors with her amber eyes.  “Perhaps here?”   Her voice was musing, testing her volume against the walls to see if they would still hold after the previous violence that had been unleashed.

 

“No, not here.  Perhaps never here again.”  He spoke with a weight of judgment against this place, but elaborated no further.  “But still I have a place in mind.  It is a small trader’s town, along the Great Trade Road.  Through no simple measures, I made sure it escaped the notice of the Great Powers and their wars.  It is coastal town, nestled against the Great Bay.  Small now, but with the right nudges, it could be something to shape the world.  And it sits on Dwharven ruins, abandoned of course, which the populace has yet to discover.  That is something else we could use to our advantage.” His cheeks tightened and dragged his lips into a grimace.  “Granted, Var have taken over the lower depths.”

 

“And who knows what other powers have taken up residence in the other levels, yes yes, I am familiar with the hazards of the Dark Deep.”  Shessstorath rapidly dismissed the threats that would have to be overcome, for they were but minor stumbles on the path to the threat that would loom in her mind for the next several centuries.  “But do you think we can do it?  Do you really think the mortals are capable of standing against him, even with our help?  The last time it took all the hosts of the heavens to end his dominance.  And more, if he stirs, he does not stir in a living body.”  Her fear once again threaded soft tendrils through her voice, which threatened to overwhelm them both.

 

“I honestly don’t know.  Miracles do happen.”  Tension thrummed in his voice, taught and tight, attempting to stave off the fear of the Tiam Emperor that was bred into their souls.  On an impulse, his right hand crossed the intervening space and gripped her shoulder, as if to reassure Shessstorath that she was not alone.  More likely, if he were honest, it was to reassure himself.  “But isn’t it better to die fighting than to roll over and accept such a dark fate?  Isn’t that the lesson the mortals truly taught us through sword and spell and god?  No matter how tightly fate may try to bind you, you can always chose to fight.  And in fighting, you may find a way past what is fated to a wonder yet unknown.”  She gave no immediate answer to his encouragement but clasped her hand upon his.  Fingers tightened, seeking to both draw and impart strength from that simple contact.  They stood there, in darkness and silence.  Two enemies drawing comfort and solace from the simple presence of one of their kind.  It was a need that they had been denied for so long.  Yes, miracles do happen. And hopefully, she thought, this was the just the first in a long line of miracles.  Shessstorath finally broke the silence.

 

“I do not know if it is within us to resist him, but resist him we shall.  Let us be off.  The destruction of this place now weighs heavily upon my soul.”  With a nod, Terranox agreed.  They had nearly destroyed not only this holy place, but the only chance their people had.  This was not the place for the birth of a new hope.  Heart heavy with burden of purpose, Terranox began a spell.  He recalled in perfect detail the house he had purchased in the small village of Mo’zanbaal, specifically, the basement of that house.  He recalled the smell of saltwater and damp earth, the feel of the dirt floor under his feet, and the rough timbers that supported the underground room.  He heard the sound of footsteps echoing off the stone stairs and walls that gave the room definition.  He saw the warm glow of the globes of myair set into the stone that kept the room bathed in soft light.  And of course, he found the tiny slivers of his soul that he had bound into silver spikes driven home into the substance of the walls.  As this recreation of reality formed within his mind, Terranox forced ambient magic into his hands, and with his will, he braided cables of argent fire.  Twisting them into an archway, he drove the two ends into the pitted stone of the Meet’s floor.  Within the white frame, the room, as he saw it in his head, existed.  The connection was strong and the portal held. 

 

“It is fitting,” Shessstorath said looking at the room that was briefly joined to the Tiam Meet.  “That we start in a more modest place this time.  What we began here,” she gestured to the Meet, “ended in bondage, tyranny and the near death of our race.  Perhaps more noble designs require more humble beginnings.”

 

With that she stepped through the portal, a declarative statement of trust in Terranox’s intents.  He smiled, knowing a dozen ways to have made a more deadly spell appear as this one did.  Perhaps this truly was the beginning of something remarkable.  Looking around at the darkness of the Meet, he spat on the ground. 

 

“We will be ready for you this time, you vicious bastard.  And I will be damned a third time before I let you bind me again.”  Spinning on his heel, Terranox stepped through the portal, which whisked him away from the Meet, crossing untold number of leagues to the small village on the western coast of Sentali, where he would forge a key to free his people.

 

End Prologue