#2181

Tal’reth doesn’t sleep that night. He rarely does the night before battle; his dreams are always troubled on these eves, especially if the situation involves children. And these two half-elf siblings are children still, even if they have seen enough horror to age them beyond their years. As he sits up in the small cabin’s main room, sharpening his sword and checking his gear, the tabaxi reviews the conversation he had with the older sister Peri. Since taking up work with Graymalkin he’s met dozens of children with stories like hers – loved ones lost to war or pointless brutality, homes destroyed by greed, futures endangered by people with too much corrupted power. That these two teenagers bear the burden of protecting their god’s holy land against an empire set out to destroy “false” religions just means their cause is that much closer to his heart. In the end, though, they’re kids who have just lost their father and have nowhere else to turn. Of course he’s going to help in any way he can.

Assuming everything goes just fine, Gray won’t take issue with a slight detour in the greater plan; he knows full well where Tal’reth’s priorities and loyalties lay, after all. The others, however… well, Tal’reth suspects his companions won’t be happy when they wake in the morning to find out he’s agreed not only to destroy the crownsguard watchtower nearby, but also to help get the siblings to their remaining family. If they refuse to take part, though, that’s fine. The warlock and ranger can continue down the road and he’ll catch up with them once he’s confident Peri and her brother are safe. He refuses to entertain any alternatives while the memory of their father’s butchered body weighs so heavily on his mind. What if the crownsguard decide the poor dead man’s children are next? Surely it’s the will of the gods that Tal’reth found the teens first, before someone more malicious did. Certainly they would have received no help from his party members if he wasn’t there. If he won’t protect these kids, who will?

Movement at the edge of his vision catches Tal’reth’s attention and he whips his head up, right hand dropping the whetstone and gripping the hilt of his sword. But it’s just shadows moving, or maybe the candlelight playing tricks on his eyes, or he’s just more tired than he thought. Yes, that must be it; he hasn’t slept all night, save for a brief catnap before Peri and her brother appeared in their camp. Half-convinced, Tal’reth returns to his work once more – though he shifts slightly so the dark corners of the room aren’t visible at all as he focuses on the sword’s keen blade. If the shadows in one corner seem to move independently of the fire’s dancing glow, he would rather not see.

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#2179

I saw the light fade from the sky
On the wind I heard a sigh
As the snowflakes cover my fallen brothers
I will say this last goodbye

She yields to nostalgia and allows herself to walk the island’s overgrown paths one last time. Though it has not truly been that long since she left, everything feels smaller to her. Were these lintels so low before? Were these steps, these windows, these honeycombed rooms and secret passages so tiny? She can almost imagine her childhood self running through the woods and along the beaches, playing chasing games or hide-and-seek, yet she was never actually young in this place. She thinks, Perhaps time does this to any location we once called home, even if only temporarily. Surely she has not grown, nor has the island shrunk, and yet she feels a giant who must step carefully so as not to harm everything around her.

Night is now falling
So ends this day
The road is now calling
And I must away

Despite the familiarity, the years have not been kind to the island’s settlement. Sapling trees burst up between the paving stones; vines climb along walls and wrap themselves around every available surface. Wind and rain have torn away roof shingles, left great puddles of standing water, and sent great branches crashing down. The once beautiful murals are faded from sun and storm, now nothing more than old graffiti. Even her own handiwork, the years of destruction wrought on the land with magic and cannon, is softened beneath layers of green growth. Nature is slowly reclaiming this place now there are no lost ones to bless its halls or bolster its protections with their love. It is truly abandoned.

Many places I have been
Many sorrows I have seen
But I don’t regret
Nor will I forget
All who took that road with me

She knows the others must assume she’s forgotten them, locking away her memories of the time she spent here in her quest for revenge. She has not. She remembers them all; names and faces, quirks and foibles, kindnesses and cruelties. She remembers those who left and those who stayed and those who fell out of reach completely. She remembers those who fought against her and those who never bothered to take up arms at all, who chose instead to stand for nothing. No matter where she goes next, no matter how many years pass, she will not forget a single one of them. She loved them all, once, and still may. They were her sisters and brothers, after all.

To these memories I will hold
With your blessing I will go
To turn at last to paths that lead home
And though where the road then takes me
I cannot tell
We came all this way
But now comes the day
To bid you farewell

After she has walked the length and breadth of the island she returns to the shore and gazes one last time upon the lighthouse. It was first a beacon of hope for her, then a target for her sorrow and rage. And now? Now it is merely a symbol of the past, both the good and the bad. She can neither hate it nor love it, so instead she releases it. She releases the island and its light from her idyllic memories. From her extinguished anger. From her heart that beats for a new future. Let this place return to the cosmos from which it was formed now that its purpose has been fulfilled. There are no paths which lead here now, only away. And that is as it should be, she thinks.

I bid you all a very fond farewell

#2112

It’s just her, in the end. It has always been just her.

Mage paces the Jolly Roger’s decks in silence save for the brush of wind through the rigging and waves against wood. No voices, no footsteps, no sounds of human habitation. She forgets how long it’s been since Tanim and Daren disappeared. Weeks? Months? Even longer? She wasn’t surprised to find them gone, of course; they were never truly loyal, only temporarily entertained by her quest enough to play along for a while. She has no real need for their power now anyway, but she does miss what passed for companionship with them.

As she walks, Mage runs a hand over the rail of the ship. The Jolly Roger has been her home and power base for twelve years; its timbers are drenched in her blood and magic, her anger and obsession and desperation. It is the closest thing to a home she has had in a millennium and the thought of leaving it behind would fill her with terror if she wasn’t so terribly tired. Yet to do what she plans, she cannot bring it with her. The ship must return to its grave at the bottom of the sea, this time to slumber eternally as it deserves.

If only she could be rid of the hook so easily. But one thing at a time.

Completing a final circuit of the deck, Mage returns to the quarterdeck and lays her hand upon the helm. For her final act as captain she dismantles the magic layered throughout the ship, spells of protection and speed, firing power and stealth. The last to go is the oldest spell, that with which she raised the ship from the seabed and set it to her purpose. Beneath her boots the wood groans and begins to decay and above her the sails split. “Well,” Mage gives the helm a pat and allows herself one sentimental sigh. “Thank you, ship. You did well. Now rest.”

And with that she steps off its decks for the last time.

~ * ~

Ali hadn’t even bothered putting on her armor. Standing at the beachfront at four in the morning, watching the tide come in, she sensed that Mage was coming. Walking out from the waves, a shadow clad in night and mirrors, her nemesis came ashore.

Mage can see the exhaustion on Ali’s face. “I’m not here to fight,” she confesses, “I just wanna talk.”

#2067

She is steel wrapped in silk, head held high as she stands before a jury of closed minds and bitter hearts. Her own father reads out the charges (“witchcraft”, “sorcery”, “necromancy”, even “treason and rebellion” thrown in for good measure) and though he never meets her gaze she keeps her hard eyes locked on his face. Blessings last longer than curses and so she blesses him silently; blesses him with long memory, with long life, and with much time in which to remember her. Not just black hair and red lips, white skin and emerald eyes, but the carelessness of her laughter, the swiftness of her mind, the grace and surety of her every movement. No matter how many thousands of years pass, he will remember every aspect of the daughter he cast out – and he will remember this moment clearest of all.

She, for her part, already seeks to forget it all. Even as the court moves through the formalities of her punishment she is already discarding useless memories: the marble halls where she danced through the night (“exile”, her father declares), the silver trees and water sweet as wine (“may never return, nor seek to contact”), all the people who claimed to love her until she began seeking real knowledge (“surrender your name and your past”). Only when the king holds out one hand and demands, “Your ring,” does she turn her attention outwards again. The guards shift as if preparing themselves for battle but she does not fight; she merely lifts one pale hand, removes from it the little silver ring she has worn for two millennia, and drops it into her father’s waiting palm. Her eyes sweep over the assembly and her upper lip curls in disgust.

She says, “You may have my name; I neither need it nor want it. But yours you should cling to as long as possible, for by the time I return to this place it will be naught but ash and all your names lost to the wastes of time.” With a final glance to her father she adds, “You will weep to be so alone.” And with that she turns away from the court, walking out with the composure of a queen and nothing but the silk dress she wears to call her own, and she is no longer ———. She is nameless, homeless, kinless. She is nothing and no one.

She reaches the edge of her father’s lands by nightfall. Beyond the immortally green elvenwood the earth slumbers in winter’s deep grip. Any other traveler would shiver, turn away or beg shelter somewhere, but not her. In the shriek of the wind she hears welcome, wanderer… and in the distant cry of ravens we have been waiting for you… and she is not afraid. She will never be afraid again.

#2059

Dhashi stared down at the tea the proprietress of the roadside tavern had set in front of her; while she wasn’t normally a suspicious person, and firmly believed in consuming whatever your host shares with you, even she was doubtful of the tea’s contents. She sipped it to be polite, though, covering the reflexive grimace at its bitterness with her tried and true smile. As she pretended to wait for the tea to cool she glanced around the tavern. This far from any established towns the tavern’s patrons were the usual mix of drifters, desperate travelers, and bandits slyly tracking anyone who might carry gold. In her bright pink traveling dress, complete with matching hair bow, the aasimar girl definitely stood out – but not as much as the goliath who had already put away half of the tavern’s ale.

Dhashi saw the inevitable collision too late to call out a warning. The goliath, leaving his seat to order another ale at the bar, bumped into a blind fire jenasi who was making her way from the bar to a table, a mug in one hand and her walking staff in the other. It wasn’t a particularly dramatic collision; neither fell down and only a few drops of ale splashed from the mug. All might have been forgiven if the goliath, not even bothering to glance back at the jenasi, had not muttered, “Watch where you’re going,” under his breath as he passed by. “Excuse me?” Despite the cloth covering her sightless eyes, the jenasi seemed quite capable of taking care of herself. Setting down her mug on the nearest table, she turned to face the goliath with her head held high. “What did you say?”

“You heard me, lady,” the goliath rumbled, his attention focused on his new drink. The jenasi snorted. “I think you’re the one who ought to watch where he’s walking, you bloody oaf.” This definitely got his attention. The goliath turned, glaring down at her. “You got a lot of attitude for someone who can’t even see.” The jenasi grinned and held one arm out toward the door. “Want to test that theory outside this charming establishment?”

“Yeah, sure, I’ve got two minutes,” The goliath downed the rest of his ale in one giant gulp. As if not to be outdone, the jenasi finished her own drink in a long swallow, then tossed down her mug and headed for the door. As the two disappeared into the yard beyond the wind carried in her smug reply, “I doubt you’ll be feeling so confident when I’ve shoved those axes so far up your anus that you can pick your disgusting teeth with them.”

“Um, is anybody going to…” Dhashi glanced around the room, expecting someone to step in and deescalate the situation, but none of the patrons seemed to have even noticed the exchange. She frowned in moral disappointment. “No? Okay… guess it’s up to me.” She took a deep breath to steady her nerves and followed the ruffians outside. “I hope you’re going easy on me,” the jenasi was laughing as she dodged one of the goliath’s hand axes, “or this is just depressing!” The two seemed evenly matched, speed versus strength, and if Dhashi had paused to assess the situation she might have suspected they were both enjoying themselves. She didn’t, however, because fighting isn’t the proper way to solve a disagreement and she felt honor-bound to bring things to a peaceful conclusion.

“Excuse me-” Dhashi tried to get their attention but her voice barely carried above the sounds of the scuffle and their casual banter. “Excuse me, sir, miss-” She stepped closer, one hand raised in a half-wave. “Excuse– HEY EXCUSE ME!” This time they heard her; every animal within a two mile radius did. The jenasi, her hearing unfortunately quite acute, staggered at the sound. “Am I experiencing an auditory hallucination,” she asked her opponent, “or is there a chipmunk yelling at us?” The goliath shook his head and eyed the tiny girl. “No,” he grunted, “just some kid wearing about ten pounds of ribbons.”

“Excuse me,” Dhashi approached them now that the dust had settled, hands on her hips and wearing her best Disappointed face, “why are you fighting?” The opponents looked at each other, then shrugged and answered simultaneously, “Why not?”

“Why n–” Dhashi huffed. “Because you shouldn’t, that’s why! What if you hurt each other? Or cause damage to public property?” Now her finger was out, pointing and jabbing for the full lecture experience. “Can’t you just settle your argument using feeling words to communicate your emotions in a non-accusatory manner and come to a mutually beneficial solution?”

“Do you have emotions?” the goliath muttered to the jenasi. “‘Cause I don’t have emotions.” She shook her head. “Nope. Can’t say that I do.”

“Of course you do!” Dhashi let out an exasperated sigh. “Come on, we’ll all sit down with a cup of milk and discuss things rationally.” She reached out and grabbed their hands – or at least in the case of the goliath, a finger. He tried to yank his hand back but couldn’t seem to break the aasimar’s enthusiastic grip. “I…” He tried again without success. She simply wouldn’t budge. “I can’t pull my hand away.” On the other side the jenasi tried as well. “Neither can I; how is she this strong?”

“Oh,” Dhashi grinned as she dragged then back toward the tavern, “and my name is Dhashimri but you can call me Dhashi! It’s so nice to meet you, I know we’re going to be great friends!”

#2058

On Character Development, or: It’s (Apparently) Okay to Kill Assholes

I did a bad thing, folks… See, our DM and I contrived to have my current DnD character, Dhashi the bubbly magical girl of just sixteen years, die during the party’s quest to save the world from an evil god. She’s going to come back at some point, I promise! … but in the meantime, the other PCs are mourning her loss pretty hard and my wife (who plays one of them) will barely talk to me. All of this is technically fine – our DM loves torturing us and I love killing my characters, so we were both super stoked to launch this surprise on our friends. Over a 24-hour DnD slumber party extravaganza Dhashi died, her party members scrambled to resurrect her, and instead they got a totally different person (my psychopathic character Mage) back in her body. My wife was PIIIIIIISSED and it was great fun. 100% would do again.

But.

Here’s what’s weird. I, like… feel bad? For Dhashi? True, it was absolutely evil of me to contrive to have the other PCs slowly come to love Dhashi and think of her as a daughter before we killed her, but that’s not what I feel bad about (sorry, guys). I… feel bad that I killed Dhashi. I feel bad that I’m making her suffer, that she has to watch from the underworld while her friends try to complete the quest without her. I feel bad that when she’s finally resurrected she’ll be at least a little messed up and never again her unfailingly positive self who believes in the essential good of every living thing. I feel bad that she’s going to forever after be burdened with the ability to predict the deaths of anyone she meets.

Admittedly, I don’t feel bad enough to retcon any of this – but the feeling is still there and I don’t know what to do with it. I never feel guilty about killing my characters. Never. I love killing my characters. Tanim and Daren have died so many times that I literally couldn’t count them all. Even Mage dies from time to time. It’s just what I do. I love causing pain. So why do I feel so sad about Dhashi? She was just supposed to be the silly magical girl character I used to irritate my friends’ characters for a single DnD campaign, not an entirely new character fleshed out with a backstory, complex experiences, and an uncertain future. That wasn’t the deal! She’s a cliche, a paper doll, she shouldn’t have the ability to give me such FEELS. But here we are.

I think what this partly comes down to is the fact that Dhashi is pure good. There isn’t a mean, selfish, vain, jealous, angry, or lazy bone in her body. She is the epitome of Lawful Good and always does whatever is in her power to help those in need. My other characters? Not so much. My other characters are assholes. Tanim is an asshole; Daren is an asshole; Mage is an asshole. I write assholes, and I guess on some level I feel like that makes it okay to kill them or otherwise cause them to suffer horribly. Not that they necessarily deserve every bad thing that happens to them, of course. They just… deserve it more than Dhashi does.

I knew from the beginning that Dhashi would learn some harsh lessons during the campaign; anyone as naive, hopeful, and trusting as her would, especially in a world where survival of the fittest seems the only law. She needs to learn those lessons, though, to face the ugly truth in her world, just like every anime magical girl must face the darkness of her own. I just didn’t realize that by having a character who was so good, so innocent, so ready to save the world despite all its sorrow and brutality, it would hurt like fuck to watch her learn those lessons the hard way. She’ll come out stronger for it, because that’s what magical girls do, but she won’t come out the same.

And I feel BAD about that.
Wtf.

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#2018

Characters, Alter Egos, Or Unknowable Nameless Gods?

When someone asks me what I write about, I usually say something like, I have a couple characters I write about and then nothing more. At least, that’s how I answer if I want to sound like a not-crazy person. But if I want to be truthful, I have to say something more like:

I thought I had three characters I wrote about, but it turns out two of them are probably incredibly ancient gods (or ghosts? or angels? or something even older than the very concept of either?) and the other one is an alter ego who has somehow taken on way more agency than I thought possible and may sometimes be used as a mask by dark somethings I am too afraid to face.

Let’s take a closer look at that second one. See, when I was a wee eighth grader I simultaneously discovered Lord of the Rings and DeviantArt. Being obsessed with elves, I made my DA screenname “Darkelvenmage” and quickly developed the moniker into a character who was everything I wanted to be. The Darkelvenmage was tall and willowy, pale as snow with long hair as dark as ravens’ wings, eyes as green as emeralds, and sharp features that highlighted her royalty and mystery. She wore all black and rarely spoke, but heaven help you if you pissed her off; she was heir to ancient magic, a skilled warrior, and had nothing to lose. She had been stripped of her home and her name (hence the brilliant title “dark elven mage”) and therefore wandered the world alone, neither a force of good nor evil. For my chubby, geeky thirteen year old self, Mage became a mask I could put on when I needed to feel like a badass, an alter ego who was always calm and logical, who never let her emotions get the better of her or made a fool of herself. I carried her with me through high school like a sword held between myself and all the bad things I encountered, standing just a little taller and smiling just a little more coldly. She made me feel fierce and untouchable.

In college I had a falling out with a group of online friends I’d made in high school, friends who knew me best through Mage and the story I’d given her to fit into their fantasy world. Feeling hurt and vengeful, I decided to rebel and Mage became the ally turned enemy intent on destroying the world the “good guys” had built. I loved the shock it caused, the drama, and the sudden understanding that nothing bound me to act in a particular way. Why not be the villain? Wasn’t that more fun anyway? Certainly playing Mage as the Big Bad brought me a selfish kind of joy, a way to enact a little revenge for my slighted self. Eventually, of course, some of those friends and I parted ways for good, and others of us reconciled and grew closer. But Mage stayed the villain, one with flair, dark humor, and just a dash of madness. This version of her is different from the silent, haughty one of my high school years, yet they are both true to her form. She is still my alter ego, my champion, the mask I wear on days when I wake up feeling too small and scared.

Sometimes, though, it’s like I look at Mage in my mind’s eye and… it’s not her. Something else watches out her eyes. Something that is not me, nor anything I placed there. Sometimes she feels like I’m not the one in control, like she’s not an alter anything anymore. I feel Lovecraftian presences squirming beneath her skin and taste sour names like Charybdis, Morrigan, Kali at the back of my mouth. I wonder sometimes if I have crafted Mage too well, if I am not the only one who can wear her mask. She is still a character in the strictest sense – I write her story, she does not tell me what to write (as Tanim and Daren do) – but there are times when I meet her eyes and it’s not the better, cooler version of myself staring back. I don’t know what it is, but it feels timeless and very powerful.

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This sketch of Mage is by my bestest frienemy – check out her patreon for more!