Game Sessision. Blood of Pangea, The Cave Of Elements

I’m exciting to share my first actual live play of Blood of Pangea with another person. I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for over a year, and I had a great time. It just so happens that my ex-wife and I have become friends again, and I got to play this with the very person who inspired my taste in fantasy role playing games.  If you haven’t played it, I highly recommend it as a versatile, rules-lite system that easy covers low magic fantasy, sci fi, and dark fantasy genres.

I did not run the game rules-as-written. Instead of a narrative, I had her describe five things her character is particularly good at. Inspired by the first draft of my book, she named her character Tana. Which, funny enough, the character was inspired by the first Fighting Fantasy character she played who was also named Tana. So we’ve come full circle, game-wise. (No, we’re not getting back together, but we are friends)

I also used the bestiary “Out Of the Pit” to populate this dungeon. There are some custom monsters, but most come from there. I particularly like this bestiary because it’s mostly descriptions of behavior and habits, and very little in terms of mechanical crunch, and as such the monsters are easy to adapt to any game system.

Here are five noteworthy things about Tana:

1) good at communicating with animals

2) has good aim

3) has good balance

4) grew up in the mountains

5) very creative

Tana’s inventory at game start: backpack, bedroll, 7 rations, hand ax, bow and arrows, lantern, climbing pitons, rope

She also has a six armed monkey named Abu.

After briefly explaining how Luck serves as both hit points and a chance to boost die rolls, we got down into it. A young lad arrives at her village burnt, battered, weather-beaten and half drowned, but with a bag full of gems. He claims to have been to the Cave of the Elements., After surviving monsters, traps, and hazards, found great riches.

So being down on her luck, Tana and Abu set out, and after two days reached the Cave of the Elements.

 

CaveOfElements.jpg

 

Tana examines the ground around the inscribed stone plinth at the main entrance and sees many footprints in the dirt heading in and out along the stone bridge. There are daintier, lighter footprints going to the rope bridge. On either side of both bridges, a chasm of unknown depth (in reality, maybe 15 to 20 feet before hitting a cliff edge) Thinking this was a trick, she considered taking the rope bridge, but thought better of it and decided to just test each step of the bridge before putting her weight on it. Tana lights her lantern.

Given that this would take time, I rolled an encounter. A swarm of bats came up from the depth and began buffeting Tana and Abu with their wings. She rolled to communicate, and succeeded in conveying her non-hostile intent. The swarm began to leave, but she called one back and asked him if he knew what was beyond the bridge. The bat replied there’s a door that’s seldom opened, but there’s a very damp breeze that comes out when it is opened.

Tana crosses the bridge and reaches a swollen, damp oak door. She forces it open (auto-success, I just wanted to warn her this was the water room) and opens onto a damp, drippy cavern with a well and bucket in the middle. There are three other buckets of water. There’s a marsh troll here sharpening mussel shells. This is the Cave of Water.

Tana greets the troll, and I roll a reaction, and got a neutral response, and so let her play it out. She learns that other heroes have come here and tried to hurt the troll, and some got eaten. She offers the troll a ration in exchange for a bucket of water to put out the fiery door to the southwest. He agrees and eats the ration. Now on more favorable terms, she asks about what’s in the fire room to the southwest. He explains that gems spew up from deep vents in the earth, and that they’re guarded by fire creatures.

So Tana pours the water into the doorway and puts out the fire, and enters The Cave of Fire. It’s really hot in the fire room. There are little gems on the floor around the red-orange glowing vents. Every once in a while there’s a puff of vapor and debris flies up, and in that debris are gems.

Tana makes a run to scoop up some gems, trying not to get scalded. She succeeds, and two hell-hounds materialize. They have glowing red eyes and smoky breath. They win initiative, she dodges one, and the other blasts her with fire. She then escapes the room and strikes the doorway with her flint and steel to re-ignite the flames. The magical flames erupts, and the hell hounds do not pass through it. Note that I didn’t even consider that it was possible, but because she thought of it, I decided it made sense that some kind of magical field needed a spark to get the fire going again.

She asks to buy a bucket of water for a gem, and the troll agrees (he would have let her take it for free, but accepts the donation). She quenches her scalded skin and heals one point.

She takes Abu down the east corridor and the air gets progressively drier. She hears shouting and laughter around the corner. Tana sneaks in and finds three dwarfs playing some kind of chess game with animated clay pieces. They bet gems over the game. There’s some bedding here, a cask of ale, and some digging tools. It looks like they’re taking a break from excavating the cave. They don’t notice Tana until she announces her presence.

Startled, but not hostile, they laugh at Tana and say she’s yet another fool out to risk her neck in this place. Come, play some chess. She bets one gem and loses a game (opposed roll).

After this, she is dismayed and moves on. Tana and Abu reach the Cave of Earth, which is dry as a bone, and filled with soft diggable clay. Some little trenches have been dug here and there. There’s a mining cart here amd digging tools. There is also a giant clay oyster, and a giant clay toad, each about three feet high. Tana picks a spot behind the clay toad and she and Abu begin digging.

In comes two wandering giant centipedes. Tana and Abu stay put. Both Centipedes blow their notice rolls and move off to the south.

Tana finds some gems in the clay and pockets them. She then checks out the clay toad, which blinks, and then comes to life. Tana assures the toad she’s not hostile, and begins asking questions about the place. The toad can’t answer much. He came out of the oven just a month ago. Someone made him. He likes to eat bugs. Thinking of the danger posed by the giant centipedes, she sends him south in pursuit of the nasty critters.

There’s a banging and crunching ruckus, and then silence. Tana then turns her attention to the giant oyster. When she approaches, the clay mouth opens wide, revealing a fist sized pearl! She tries talking to the oyster, but it doesn’t respond. Maybe it’s a trap, or maybe it’s just a chest of sorts that opens when you approach.

She tells Abu to snatch the pearl. Abu snaps it up before it can slam shut on his arm.

They then move south to check on the toad. It is crunching away on giant centipede. It’s skin is cracked from battle damage, but slowly heals as it eats the big creatures. It then follows her and Abu to the Cave of Wind.

I drew this whole map on a white board, and put the ledges a lot closer together. There’s a brisk wind blowing out of the darkness, and her lamp light cannot reach the ceiling. I add that there’s several human skeletons in pieces on the floor, as well as a sack and a staff with a crystal knob. Tana puts the monkey in her pack, and then hammers pitons into the wall using her superior balance to get across. There are little crystal eggs on each ledge. They are translucent, but there’s no sign of babies inside. I roll for encounter at each ledge, and when she works her way down to E, six lizard-like clay bats dive down from the ceiling. Three go after her and Abu, and three go after the toad.

Initiative is tied. Tana dives under cliff E (success). Three attack her with a penalty. Two crash into the cliff and shatter to clay dust, and one bites her arm. Three go after the toad. He snags one out of the air with his tongue. Another fumbles and smashes to dust. The third bites the toad. Next round, Tana swipes the bat off her arm with her ax, and it shatters to clay bits. The toad eats the other bat, and then there’s only the brisk wind and no other noise.

Tana gets down to the floor and checks out the loot. In the sack is a potion of blackish liquid that’s unusually light. “Thank you Willy Wonka,” my ex-wife says, and tells me Tana drinks it. She floats up to the very top of the ceiling and sees a hole from which the wind comes and it pushes her about. There’s also nests made of clay straws, and more crystal eggs, only these do have embryos. So Tana doesn’t take them, burps and farts her way down to each ledge, and takes all the other crystal eggs. The potion expires just as she reaches the toad.

Tana debates climbing down for the staff, is puzzled at how to do it, and gives up, figuring 28 gems (counting the crystal eggs) and one giant pearl are plenty of loot. She returns with Abu and the toad to the Cave of Earth. She asks if the toad wants to come, but he’s not much of a talker, and figures he’ll stay here and eat bugs. So she says goodbye and goes to visit the dwarfs.

The dwarfs greet Tana and congratulate her on finding so many gems. Would you like to play another game of chess? Tana agrees and wins the game this time. Then they party for a little bit, and the dwarfs talk about how they made the animated chess pieces with the clay from the Cave of Earth. Mix water with the clay, and cook it in the Cave of Fire, and they come to life.

So Tana gets the idea to make a friend for the toad she left behind, and she and Abu go dig up some clay. She makes a toad and puts it in the mining cart, and pushes it up the corridor to the Cave of Water and uses the water to pack the clay tight and finishes her work.

The Troll warns her that the hell hounds won’t like her trying to get into their lair, and offers to help defeat them for one gem. So she agrees, and Tana, Abu and the Troll each take a bucket of water. The troll douses the magical flame door. The hell hounds can see them now. Tana and Abu each douse the hell hounds with water, and the red glow in their eyes goes out, their breaths hiss with steam, and the two beasts whimper and run to a corner. They then fade away.

Tana pushes the cart over the fiery cracks and leaves it to cook for an hour. They then come back with water and douse the mining cart to cool it, and push it out of the room. By the time they push it back to the Cave of Earth, the new giant clay toad blinks and hops out of the mining cart. Tana tries to explain to the new creature what it is, but it hardly comprehends. It sees the older toad, however, and begins mimicking its movements. In time, she realizes, the newly born toad will learn to live like the other toad.

Satisfied that she had done good deed, and happy with her winnings, Tana and Abu escape and return home.

The final haul is 28 gems and one giant pearl.

I liked how I could tweak the adventure to suit her tastes. My ex-wife does not like prolonged combat scenes, so it’s easy to have just enough enemies to make it interesting, and I made them all one-hit foes with success on 7+. As things went, she only had to fight the bat-lizards in the Cave of Air, and used diplomacy and puzzle solving for the rest of her adversaries. The troll would have taken two or three if she decided to fight him. I’m glad he wasn’t hostile right away, because I think parleying with such a creature early in the game is a lot more entertaining, at least at first. Maybe things go sour and you end up in a fight. If she went down the well and held her breath, she could have swam to a mucky cave where the troll slept and try to pilfer his treasure.

All in all a great time and I’m so glad I finally got to play BOP with someone else.

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Sometimes You Need a Good Fight Scene, and Story Fragment

Before the age of twelve I wrote a lot of short fiction, which were more or less narrations of battle.  As a child, the only conflict I could conceive of was physical conflict.  Over time my tastes and styles evolved, and learning from the many great authors whose books I’ve read, I learned that conflict can take many forms.

Anyone who has ready Stephen King’s novels knows how his books have a couple hundred pages of dramatic build-up as the horrors betrayed become all the more threatening, and then pow, it resolves itself in an exciting, terrifying, bloody mess.

Quite often  the existential conflict of the characters is merely a backdrop for more subtle, transcendent conflicts of the soul.  In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo bore the One Ring around his neck and felt the daily, hourly temptation to do evil and had to strive to not partake of it.  The physical threats to his life, the Orcs, Boromir’s attempt to take the ring, and the Ring Wraiths themselves, in some ways paled in comparison to the misery he endured by carrying the Ring.

As my writing evolved, I tried to focus more on conflicts of the spirit, of everyday decisions, of hard choices, more-so than bloody conflict.  I also realized that avoiding violence in my stories is as absurd as focusing exclusively on it.  There’s a time and place for everything,  In a fantastical, medieval world filled with hostile creatures and unchecked lust for power, battle is a way of life.

Sometimes, too, you need a good fight scene, just because its exciting.  TV medical dramas use Emergency Room scenes in the same way, because they’re exciting.  If you stripped warfare of pain, suffering, misery, and destruction of life, nature and property, you’d get a pretty exciting game.    Anyone who has played fantasy role playing game knows that a good fight is quite satisfying, and is a good way to introduce the next phase of a story.

I almost finished the story of Artur and the Rhino Men retrieving the cure for the Horn Rot. I now want to focus on Tana, Diana and Troy back on Zootaloot farm.  I needed some kind of conflict with the rat sorcerer and his minions, and figured a raid on the farm was a good way to get that going.  Here you get a taste of Troy’s budding magical powers and Tana’s inclination to sleep in the barn.

I present to you, in rough draft form, the raid on the hen house:

Tana awoke on a pile of straw, snuggled next Borussa, who snored contentedly. The air smelled of animal dander and dried grasses. Twilight crept into the barn through the windows and illuminated the silhouettes of the barn animals. Some rabbits slept atop hay bales in one corner, and a donkey in another. The goats were awake, and a baby goat, hearing Tana awaken, approached her and began nibbling her cheek.

“Good morning, Thistle!” she whispered, and kissed the baby goat. “Maah-Maah!” bayed the goat.

“You’ll wake everyone up, Thistle,” came another goat’s voice.

Borussa suddenly stopped snoring, and jolted awake with a snort. “Who….who is making that racket so early in the morning?”

Tana sat up and pat Borussa’s hairy back. She whispered, “Go back to sleep.”

Knowing it was nearly dawn, Tana got up, and ushered the baby goat outside with its family, and gave them all kisses atop their heads. “Good morning Blackberry. Good morning Locust. Good morning Rose. Good morning Cactus,” and so on, with all the goats named for prickly trees and shrubs.

Tana then set about her pre-breakfast chores. The cows were nearby, so she decided to milk them first, and hustled the pails of fresh milk to the kitchen. After placing the pails, Tana listened. The house creaked, and from her brother’s room she could hear a snore. Tana frowned, and her stomach grumbled. Breakfast would be late if Troy didn’t get the cook stove running soon. She remembered how her brother would be leaving soon for the wizard’s academy, and she would have to take over his chores.

As Tana left the kitchen, she pulled the anxiety out of her ear, and threw it away. It was a little trick she learned–a game really–were one pretends to pull uncomfortable thoughts out ones head and throw them away. Usually this worked, as long as she had something else to think about. She needed to get eggs, and she was hungry.

In the slowly brightening sky, Tana went to the garden and picked a ripe cucumber to sate her hunger on the way to the chicken house. It was sweet and crunchy. As she skipped along, eating her cucumber, the birds began their morning song, and she knew it wouldn’t be long before the rooster woke everyone else up.

Suddenly there was a commotion from the chicken house, and dozens of chickens began squawking at once. Tana quickened her pace, and she arrived to a scene that confused her. A parade armored rats, walking on their hind legs like humans, each carried an egg down a ramp and deposited their cargo in little wooden wagons. Groundhogs were harnessed to the wagons. There was a mess of bloodied feathers on one of the ramps leading into the house, and a severed chicken foot. There were chicken squawks and rat screeches coming from within.

This all confused Tana at first, and then coming to grips with the situation, called out, “Hey! Hey! Those are my eggs!” She picked up a stone and threw a stone at the army of rats, knocking one of them head over heels. There was a cry of “Human!” and some of the rats, with military discipline, drew their bows and began loading quill arrows. Not wanting to get shot, Tana bolted for the main door of the chicken house, and little arrows thudded into the wooden siding.

Inside she saw a chaotic melee of chickens and rats all fighting with each other, and the chickens were getting the worst of it. Other rats snatched eggs and hustled down the ramp. Tana was overwhelmed, and screamed in anger and desperation. She waded into the din and began kicking rats where she could find them. Rats hacked at her ankles with their tiny swords, and she was forced to retreat up a ladder to the upper loft.

Then the main door crashed open there stood Troy naked, and in one hand in his hand he held a great, eerie glowing globe that pulsed in intensity from a firefly spark to a hundred candles. All the animals stopped, startled by the sudden change in lighting, for an instant and gazed at him.

Tana peered over the edge of her hiding place, “Troy?” she whispered.

“Close your eyes, Tana.” He hurled this globe of light into the middle of the chicken house, and it exploded into bright, yellow-white brilliance of the noon day sun. All the animals screeched and squawked, for they were all blinded. Troy then went among the confused animals and smashed rats with the bird poop shovel. Rats and chickens alike panicked and charged randomly, and one rat scrambled up the ladder to where Tana hid, and feeling the flesh of her feet, bit her toe. Startled, she kicked the blind, armored rat of the ledge, where he met the backswing of Troy’s shovel.

The battle ended almost as fast as it began. It looked like a madman’s slaughter house. There were dead rats and live and dead chickens all over the house. Diana came through the door in a hurry, Frostbane glowing red hot in her hand. “Troy! Where’s Tana!”

“Mama!” called Tana, who swung her injured feet over the edge to the ladder. She winced at putting weight on her feet as she tried to climb down. Diana willed the sword cold, sheathed it, and went to fetch Tana into her arms.

Adrenaline fading, Tana broke into tears. “Mama I tried to stop them. There were too many.” She gazed over her mother’s shoulders at the dead and wounded chickens, and remembered all their names.

A gruff squeal came from outside the chicken house, and Tana and Troy understood Borussa calling out. “Is all they’ve got? Hah! More like rat fleas than rats!”

Troy stayed in the chicken house to tend to the wounded, and Diana carried Tana out. The sun had just peaked over the edge of the horizon, and the first rays hit the tree tops. Dead armored rats were scattered about, the little wooden wagons tipped over, and eggs were smashed. Several barn cats busied themselves eating canned rat. Borussa had several quills in his hide, and his face was caked with gore. He poked a dead groundhog with his tusks, turning the body over. He heard footsteps approaching and looked up. “Mother, Tana. Tana! You foolish girl,” he squealed. “Oh look at your poor ankle.”

“Mama put me down please.”

“Yes put her down at look at this ground hog.” Diana did not understand, but Tana translated for her.

Diana gentle set her daughter down, and crouched with Borussa. “What’s so special about this groundhog?”

“No blood.. And her flesh is cold. This hog was dead before I broke her neck.” Tana reached over and touched the dead animal, and was startled to find it was cold. She didn’t understand, but her mother did.

Diana’s breath caught in her throat. Undead. She couldn’t find the words.

“And the rats?” asked Daiana.

“A lively bunch. Warm and gooey.”

Diana stood and contemplated this. First there’s rats hunting like humans in the woods, and then they came to steal eggs from the farms, again like humans: armor and weapons, wagons with undead beasts of burden. They would be back.

Troy carried all the chickens out into the grass and set them down next to Tana, who gently pet the injured and softly spoke reassuring things to them. The unharmed chickens, their temporary blindness having passed, quickly shook off the morning’s commotion (as animals do when danger passes), and joined the cats in eating dead rats, savoring the eye balls and the brain matter. “How long since we had rat for breakfast?” asked one. “Spring, I think,” said another. “They taste like moles, did you notice that?” “Aye, only the eyeballs are a bit more tart.” “I can’t tell the difference to be honest.”

With the rising of the sun came a breeze and the bluing of the sky, and fresh air blew the sadness away, and things didn’t seem so grim. The humans set about tending to the wounded. Borussa stoically endured the yanking out of quills, but Tana winced at the three stitches her mother had to sew in her ankle. A couple chickens needed toe amputations, but they bore it with dignity, and then went about their lives as though nothing happened. The cats, having caught the rat archers by surprise, had only a few cuts and bruises, and were in good spirits.

The bad news was the loss of life. Ten hens out of three dozen were dead, and the rooster, too was slain. Most of the eggs were destroyed, but a nest full of fertile ones in the loft were intact, and one of the hens quickly adopted them as her own.

Early in the afternoon, Troy dug a grave for the slain chickens and buried them. They had a funeral, and wept for their lost loved ones. Diana planted a Pear sapling on the grave, as was the custom in her homeland, and called it the Chicken-Fruit tree, so her descendants could know the goodness of her chickens.

Troy, angry at what had transpired that day, skewered many of the dead rats on little sticks, and planted those sticks on the perimeter of the farm as a warning to any more that might come to the farm. Scavenging animals didn’t get the joke, and the flies, the crows, and the foxes all got to nibble on rat, until there was but skin, bones and armor on a stick.

By evening, Troy and Diana managed to clean up most of the filth from inside the chicken house and replace the fouled nests with fresh straw, and Tana an eye out for trouble, but no trouble came, or no trouble that she knew of.

From before dawn until the sunset, several blue jays watched the farm from the forest, or from fruit trees, or atop roofs. They did not tire, for they were not alive. The rat sorcerer sat meditating, eyes closed, in his lair. He could see through the eyes of the unalive birds at Zootaloot farm. He could see through the eyes of the unalive ground hogs. Then came the girl, and the boy magician, and the farm animals, and that wretched woman with the flaming sword. They ruined everything. Well, it wasn’t a total loss. They could become larger, perhaps, and take the farm by force. But then they would need more food, and would attract more attention. Rats are easily dismissed until they’re three or four feet tall.

They would need to establish themselves somewhere out of the way where nobody would find them, at least, until it was too late to do anything about it.

 

 

More Story Fragments – Wrapping Up an Adventure

I’ve been plodding through this Foggy Swamp for weeks, and I finally have almost brought the adventure to a close.  It’s come almost to a close as far as a first draft goes.  I’m sure upon re-reading it, and revising it, I will trim a bit here, and add a bit there.  What I wanted most of was some climactic scene were Artur and the Rhino Men do what is needed to get the cure for the plague afflicting the Rhinos.

In my previous post, Artur and the Rhinos got a mission to retrieve the mate of the Witch’s snake vine, which belongs to the Hunter.  I decided this should not be a long and arduous task.  I also wanted this to somehow impact the relationship between the two rival tribes of frog people.  I wept for the hunter near the end as I wrote it, and you’ll see why.  It’s a bit long, so get a cup of tea or coffee if you want to read it:

The hunter spent the night asleep atop a flat mossy rock not far from the stranger’s camp, his snake vine curled about his legs, or about his neck or arm, as it suited the creature. He awoke to the chirp of birds and the buzz of morning insects, and set about getting ready for his day.

The stitches on his foot were holding up well, but he needed a spear. Checking the flotsam about him, he found thick, long branch only slightly rotted, and began whittling it with his knife. The snake vine coiled about his neck, and it rubbed its head affectionately on his cheek and ear while he work. The soft leaves tickled.

It wasn’t long before the man hacked a fine point and removed all the rough edges on the shaft. It wasn’t the best spear he could make, but it would do. He kissed his vine on the head and placed it gently back in his carrying basket. Then he gathered his gear and set out in search of the strangers. If the poison didn’t kill them, certainly he’d be able to finish them all off with ease.

His mental map was flawless, and he returned to the little island and found the lamp still hanging there, no longer lit. Maybe he struck every one of them, and needed only collect the dead meat? He cautiously explored a great circle around the camp, looking for bottle flies and other insects that go after the dead. There were moths and mosquitoes, but nothing else. And no bodies. He then found a heavy set of tracks, two obviously of the great creatures, and the faint prints of a frog, and staggering, dragging footprints of the man.

The hunter limbered up, stretching his legs and arms, ready for a fight, and in a slight crouch pursued the tracks almost silently, needing no magical fog to conceal his footfalls. He reached a small stream, and after a bit of searching, found their tracks on the other side, this time just the big things. Maybe the Frog parted ways with the big things. Maybe the man died, and they carried him.

He cautiously stalked forward, following the tracks, when suddenly something felt off. His skin felt cool, as though the smothering blanket of the fog had suddenly lifted. He looked up, and there some thirty yards ahead of him were his prey, all four! How did the fog clear away? There was an elm tree between himself and the prey, so it didn’t seem like they saw him.

He crouched down, spear ready, and watched the frog skip quickly along the mire. The human carefully but quickly chose the drier parts and hopped from place to place. The rhinos proceeded forward with great sucking sounds of their great feet sinking in the mud and drawing out again. The human turned to the rhinos, and said “Can you make any more noise?!”

Oak gave a dismissive wave. “If you want stealth, hire some sneaky little dwarfs or some cat people!”

The hunter knew banter to be banter, but didn’t understand the words. The four prey moved along, looking to the left and the right. The fog seemed to close in behind them as they moved forward. Once the fog began to close about the hunter, he stood up, readied his spear, and began to follow their fresh prints.

* * *

Acorn felt dismayed. If anything, Artur’s magic globe would make it harder to find this hunter because it gave their position away. As he squished and splooshed through mud and water, he got to thinking maybe they were spotted already.

“Artur! If this hunter could shoot you in the dead of night in this heavy fog, surely he can find us in the daytime with that globe of yours.”

Artur balanced atop a stone that rocked back and forth in a stream. “You think we should wait for him?”

“Yes! Yes! Wait, shout, cry, fart, carry on, and dodge the next spear.”

At this Slip protested. “No, no! The green frogs will find us!”

As Acorn prepared his bagpipes, he said, “Well so be it. I’m tired of sneaking through this fog, getting stuck in the mud. Bring on the green frogs. Bring on the hunter.” He patted his great spear that stood end in the mud. “I’m ready.” He patted the ax on his belt. “I’m ready.” He patted the sword on the other side of his belt. “I’ m ready.” And lastly he drew his finger to the tip of his horn, “I’m ready!”

His father nodded, and looked to Artur.

Artur didn’t like the situation. Wide in the open, no cover, and fog for their enemies to hide in. It was tactically the worst place for them to be, which means it might be the only way to get the hunter to come out. “Fine. Let’s stand back to back, so we can see him when he comes.” Artur squish and splurted his way through mud and stood with his companions, the globe in one hand, and his sword in the other.

Acorn began to play his pipes, a rhino lullaby that began slowly and gently and then bled into one of many aggressive battle hymns that echoed to the very edges of the forest. Daytime nappers awoke with a start, and frogs green and black halted their days activities to listen to the peculiar noise from the alien instrument thinking it was some horrid creature trumpeting in their swamp. They grabbed their weapons and began to track the sound.

The hunter halted mid-step and the tune reminded him of a faint memory from his childhood. He had forgotten his childhood along with his language, until now. He found himself humming to the song, and a few words of verse slipped from his lips: “…and we’ve come to fight, and put the orc heads on a pike…” When the music stopped, his memory lapsed again, and he forgot his words, and he regained his focus on the hunt.

When Acorn finished the song, he said, “Let’s see if the Witch’s fog can block that.”

“Well done, son,” Oak said.

“It was one of mother’s favorites.”

Slip pulled his fingers out of his earholes and opened his eyes, glad the noise had stopped.

Artur scanned the foggy perimeter, and asked “Do you know ‘Rock Grubs Taste Like Chicken?’”

The younger rhino shook his head. “Never heard of it.”

Feeling inspired by the Rhino’s bagpiping, he began to sing:

When you’re in dungeons dark and deep

And you run out of things to eat

Try a rock grub

because they taste just like chicken

There’s vibrations behind sandstone

and you’re stuck there all alone

start to dig and you will find

a meal that’s truly fine

A rock grub

and it tastes just like chicken

All four began to laugh at the absurd song, and suddenly a dart came out of the fog and struck Acorn’s bagpipes. The four turned to whence the dart came. Acorn pulled the dart from the bag, cursing, and tossed it to the ground. “It will take me a day’s work to patch that!”

Another dart whizzed by Acorn’s ear, and he called “Shields!” and with military discipline both he and his father unslung their shields and readied their great spears, ready to fight the foe in the fog. Artur and Slip crouched behind the armored Rhinos, and several more darts thudded lightly into their shields.

Artur said, “Taunt him. Shout. Make him think you’re pinned down. I’m going to flank him.” With that, Artur handed the magic globe to Oak, and set off to his left, keeping trees between himself and the estimated position of his enemy, and the Rhinos cried out, “Oh Dad he got me!” “No son! Hang in there!”

Slip silently slid off to the right, he too hoping to circle around behind the hunter. He climbed a tree, and leaped from branch to branch, and sometimes swinging on thick ropes of lichen.

The fog was disorienting, but Artur quietly picked his way hopping from stone to log to piles of wet bark, until he saw a glint of light from the hunter’s helm. The hairy man crouched behind a rotted log at the edge of the fogless region, a woven basket on his back, and he blew dart after dart from a pipe. On his back was a woven basket.

There was a sudden crack of a branch above the hunter, and both he and Artur glanced up, and Slip the frog came tumbling down, luckily grabbing one last branch. He dangled some ten feet above the hunter, who instantly reached for his spear, ready to impale the frog man. Artur charged, and just before the hunter could thrust his spear, Artur cried out and startled the man, who tried to bring his spear about to meet the new threat.

He was too slow. Artur hacked the tip of the spear and then threw his shoulder into the hunter, to tumbled back over the log. He regained his footing before Artur, and Artur kicked one leg out from beneath him, and his enemy stumbled into a tree. A strap on his basket snapped, and it dangled from one shoulder. Artur closed with him, but the learn hunter grappled Artur’s sword arm with a strength that belied his lean physique. Slip regained his sense and dropped down, drawing his dagger but not sure how to help. Each time he approached, the two grappling men almost trampled him.

Then heavy squishy mud sounds announced the approach of the Rhinos, and the two great shielded warriors bellowed a war cry and crashed through the bush. They, too, almost trampled Slip, who managed to scurry up a skinny birch tree in the nick of time. Seeing the grappling of the two men, Artur’s disciplined combat training versus the primal instincts of the hunter, they dropped their shields and spears and quickly wrestled the feral man to the ground and Oak put a knee to his chest.

The man howled, and scratched and bit, but Oak shrugged it off. He dug a finger into a nerve in the man’s shoulder, and the man screamed for a few seconds, and then whimpered like a dog when Oak eased up. “Good boy!” he said mockingly, and roughly patted the man on head.

While Oak kept the hunter pinned to the muddy ground, Artur took an interest in the basket that had fallen off in the struggle. He peek inside the lid, and saw a thick, thorny vine wiggle about, and a hiss came from it’s flowery head. “This must be it.” He carefully lifted the creature from the basket, studying it’s leaves. The creature clicked repeatedly, surveying its surroundings. The hunter saw him handling the vine and howled in protest.

“Nuh…nuh…….No!”

Oak dug a finger into the hunter’s shoulder again, and the hunter was quiet, but tears began to run down his eyes. His eyes followed Artur as he handled the snake vine.

Suddenly there were deep throaty shouts on all sides. On one side of a semi-circle there were dozens of armed black frogs, and on the other side, dozens of armed green frogs, and they all were shouting at once.

“The horrible noise came from here!”

“I see one of your people with these monsters!”

“Is this some kind of plot to run us out?!”

“Why is one of yours with these creatures!” shouted a green as he pointed at Slip. “You’re in league with the hunter and these beasts!”

“No, no!” shouted Slip, both of his hands up, emphasizing his not wanting to fight. “You don’t understand!” But amid all the shouting, most of the Green frogs could not hear him.

“Impossible! They’re fighting the hunter!”

“It’s a trick! A trick of the witch!”

“Kill the greens!”

“Kill the blacks and their monsters!”

All the frogs became more agitated, and began making slow, half-steps toward the other side. They wanted to fight, but were not ready to commit. Acorn whirled from one direction to the next as the mass of frogs closed about them, not sure where the first volley of spears would come from. Slip continued shouting to his people and the greens to wait. Oak, aware of the threat from the frogs, was more concerned about keeping the Hunter subdued, and kept one knee to hairy man’s chest. All the while Artur, overwhelmed by the multitude of threats, put the snake in the basket and slung the strap over his shoulder.

The hunter howled at this, and in vain reached one hand toward the basket. It was an unearthly, grief stricken, haunted howl. “NooOOOOOoo!” Oak, surprised, leaped off the pinned man, and the frogs suddenly ceased their shouting and threatening.

All watched the wailing hunter now, who, bruised and battered, scrabbled through the mud and swamp grasses on all fours and reached up for the basket, continuously wailing. A grief stricken love transcended the witch’s curse on his tongue and memory. “Don’t take my baby.”

Artur pulled away, as one might from a leper, but couldn’t bring himself to strike the hunter. “Please? Please!” The hunter got up and stumbled forward, reaching for Artur and the basket. Artur, with reluctance, struck him with the hilt of his sword, and the man fell head over heels, weeping, sniffling, blood running from his nose. And he scrabbled forward again, half rising, “Puh—Please!”

All watched this scene silently, and Artur this time struck the wild man with his fist, and he tumbled over. Artur pitied the poor creature, and he was surprised to find his cheeks wet with his own tears.

“Please..” Exhausted, the wild man lay sprawled in the mud, whimpering.

All the frogs forgot their hostility and marveled at this Terror of the Foggy Swamp reduced to a whimpering, pathetic state. This man who had killed and eaten so many both of their peoples, now begged for some creature in the basket as a mother or father for their children.

Artur looked at Oak, who watched him intently. He knew what the Rhino man was thinking, even without his gift. Would Artur return the snake vine to the grief-stricken hunter, or to the witch to get the cure for the Horn Rot? Artur thought of how he might beg for the life of his pigs, or his donkeys, or his horse, or his own human children, and saw the same in the hunter who now wanted his child back. Artur knew he should have no pity for this man who stalked them through the swamp and tried to kill him and his friends three times, but he did.

True to his word, and knowing that life was filled with hard choices, Artur made his decision. In the eerie silence broken only by the snuffles and whimpers of the defeated hunter, Artur said to his companions, “Let’s go to the witch.”

Oak, appreciating the loyalty of his friend, considered the fallen hunter. “We can’t leave him here to get killed. Not like this.”

Acorn protested, “We don’t owe him anything, father! He tried to kill us. He’s a murderer of frog people.”

One of the Greens shouted, “If you don’t do it, we will.”

A Black replied, “Hear, hear! That’s one thing a Black can agree with a Green on.”

Slip scratched his chin, and considered the situation. Killing the hunter together would united the two tribes, at least for the day. But if the hunter escaped, they might unite for a week, or a month, and who knows, maybe they might come to some equitable arrangement on the hunting and fishing rights of the two tribes. “Slip has an idea!”

One of the blacks chided him, “Not another one of Slip’s dumb ideas! Catch fish with a string and a hook, Slip said once!” Frogs on both sides chuckled at this.

“Dry meat to make it last longer!” laughed another.

“Yuck, who eats dry meat?!”

“Slip does!”

There was more mocking laughter. Slip, distressed, shouted above the din.

“No! Listen!” insisted Slip. “Let’s let the hunter go, and we’ll hunt him together. Let him live in fear every day as we have. Let him check over his shoulder every other second. If we catch him, then we’ll kill and eat him. Slip will kill him, and use his meat on hooks to catch fish!” There was some murmuring, and hemming and hawing among the two tribes of frogs, and the leaders of both tribes looked to each other and nodded.

At this Acorn grabbed the whimpering hunter by the hair on his head and pulled him up. He picked up the metal helm that fell off the man’s head, and put it in the defeated man’s hands. The hunter looked up at Acorn, who put a hand to his chest and shoved him in a direction away from both tribes of frogs. “Go!”

Artur began walking off in the opposite direction, into the fog. The hunter looked longingly after the man and the basket slung over his shoulder. Acorn shoved him again. “Go!”

Slip drew his dagger, and pointed it threateningly at the hunter. He joined Acorn in pushing the man away. “Go, now!”

A green hurled a spear that struck the mud just a foot away from the hunter. “Go Hunter!” Artur was out of sight now, and the hunter focused on the threat at hand. Green frogs and black shouted threats and shook their weapons. “Go! Go!”

The hunter turned and stumbled over a rock. Another spear landed in moss to his left. The hunter picked himself up. A thrown stone stung his back. A mudball struck his ear. Overtaken with an acute fear for his life, the hunter bolted off into the fog. There were great “hurrahs!” from the frogs. The Greens began to sing a hunting chant to stoke their courage for the hunt. The blacks did the same, and a few from each side noticed that the words were different, but the tunes were similar. Oak touched palms to Slip, and said “We’ll meet again, my friend.” Slip then hurried off to join in the song of his people. Oak and Acorn followed in Artur’s footsteps to find the witch and retrieve the cure. As they went out of sight of the frogs, Oak and Acorn could hear a great hunting cry from both tribes as they sent forth to stalk and slay the hunter.

Story Fragment: Poison Darts and Witches

As I wrote the witch into the story, I first thought she would just be a quick in-and-out minor character.  However, I felt like exploring and contrasting the righteousness of Artur with the mysterious, morally ambiguous worldview of the witch.  I also wanted to go into how the hunter and the witch have affection for this snake vine creature.

I also decided, when I revise the story, that Slip will refer to himself in the third person, not unlike dull witted servants in fantasy literature, and not unlike Smeagol from Lord of the Rings. In Slip’s case it will be the linguistic curiosity of his people.

Here is the story fragment:

The hunter paced himself, and with the single minded focus of a feral hunter he carefully counted out the distance in his head as he pushed through the fog and the darkness of night. Before long he saw the diffused light of the raised lantern. Here he stopped, and felt around for some tall reeds or swamp grasses. Finding a cluster of reeds, he slowly eased his basket into them, and turned hit attention to the lamp. Why would these people leave their lamp up in such an obvious place? Other humans had come through in the past, and always took their lamps and torches with them. There was something odd about this. He eased his way forward, slowly, just his head above the water, and saw the bloodied hand print on the birch tree. That was no print from someone stumbling after holding a wound. He could tell it was deliberate, as though he had slit a rabbit’s throat and left it for a fox to find.

The prey fancied itself the hunter.

Slowly, he retreated a few feet into the darkness and drew out his blowpipe, some darts, and the Keckle bladder. With the skill of a veteran hunter, he set the pipe between his teeth, and dipped a dart into the bladder. He than slid the dart into the pipe, and rocked it back until it slid back close to his lips. Taking advantage of the sound stopping quality of the fog, he then proceeded to blow dart after dart into the foggy region surrounding lamp. After about a dozen darts, he eased back to the reeds, took his snake-in-a-basket, and quietly swam his way back to the boulder he came from.

* * *

Artur, Oak, Acorn and Slip crouched silently in the fog where they could see the haze of the lamp. Each was hidden from the others, but knew about where the others were hidden. As soon as a figure walked into the lamplight, they would charge.

An hour passed at least, and nothing happened save for wet feet, wet bottoms, and mosquito bites. The Rhinos shrugged off the mosquitoes thanks to their tough leathery skin. Slip covered himself with mud to keep them away, but Artur steeled himself for a time, until he too figured he could roll in the mud. As he stood up, something else bit him in the arm. It felt like a hornet’s sting.

Slapping is right arm, he felt a tiny dart with feathers, and inadvertently drove the dart deeper. Realizing his peril, he estimated the angle of approach, yanked out the dart, and began to stumble in search of his attacker. The site of the wound rapidly began to swell, burn and itch terribly. Before long he tripped on the cluster of reeds where the basket was previously stashed, and fell headlong, choking on muddy water. Artur coughed and sputtered, and spun about, trying to get his bearings.

He began to feel feverish, and in a moment uncharacteristic of such a great warrior, began to panic and spun about, desperate to get his bearings in the foggy black of night.

Suddenly a hoarse voice spoke from behind, it was Slip. “Artur!”

Artur spun about, almost decapitating the frog with his sword, but thankfully he swung too high.

“It’s Slip! Don’t kill Slip, Artur!”

“Oh Slip. I’m dying,” gasped Artur. “ He shot me with some dart. I don’t know where I am. I…”

“You not going to die. Come. Take my hand.”

Artur felt for the frog’s hand, and upon finding the suction cupped fingers, let Slip take him back to the island where Oak and Acorn waited. He stumbled forward onto the wet mossy island and passed out.

* * *

The first thing Artur noticed, upon awakening, was the buzz of insects. He blinked his eyes a few times, and he saw above him, in the awning in front of a mossy, moldy wooden hut, were two great hornet’s nests buzzing with activity. He almost jumped up in panic, but a sudden splitting headache put him back down on the hard planked porch of the hut.

There was a familiar laughter of Rhinos and the Frog behind him, and he craned his neck back to see his three companions lounging on the porch. They looked quite content. Then he braced himself on his elbows and rose slowly, looking about. To his right a curtain of hanging lichen covered a doorway, and a faint smoke or incense wafted out through the tendrils. Above him, great white hornets darted away and returned to the two nests, but none of the insects disturbed him or his companions. All around the hut, but a few yards out, was a thick gray fog that seemed to glow in the diffused daylight.

“Good morning sleepyhead!” said Oak. “Or afternoon more likely.”

Artur flipped over, and now realized he had a poultice of stinky herbs wrapped around his arm where the dart had pierced him. The smell made his nose wrinkle. He pulled his attention away from his wound and finally sat up. “This is the witches hut, I presume.”

Slip hopped over Artur and crouched next to him. “It is! Lucky for you we found her. She waits inside.”

Artur turned to the thick tendrils of lichen hanging over the doorway. “Waits inside for what?”

Oak said, “She’s preparing the cure. But we have to pay her.”

Artur felt his coin purse. “I don’t have much money on me.”

“Oh she doesn’t want money. She won’t say yet what she wants. She seems friendly enough.

At this, the heavy curtain parted and a short, fat young-looking woman with dark brown hair twisted into dreadlocks came out. She wore a patchwork dress and leaned on a gnarled stick a head taller than she was. She had a great smile of large gapped teeth that gave her an ogreish appearance. A pretty ogre, if ogres could be pretty. “Feeling better Artur? Oh good. That husband of mine can be quite a nuisance.”

Artur’s eyebrows went up at this. “Your..your husband? What is your name?”

“Yes my husband, well ex-husband to be precise. As for my name, they call me Joy.”

Acorn chuckled softly. “And they’re all terrified of a pretty witch named Joy?”

The witch’s eyes shot directly toward Acorn, which was enough, but she pointed with her free hand for dramatic effect, and then two swarms of hornets whipped from the hanging nests and began to buzz around the Rhino’s head. He ducked and rolled off the porch, splashing in the muddy water, and the swarms gave way and then returned to their respective nests.

There was a mix of nervous and sincere laughter. Artur was genuinely amused, but it took all Slip could to save face and be polite around this witch his and the rival tribe feared so greatly.

A muddy Acorn poked his head above the edge of the porch, and seeing it safe, dragged himself back up. Half covered in mud and bits of woody debris, he bowed to the witch and said “I stand corrected, Joy.”

The witch beamed at this, and flicked back her dreadlocks. “Shall we get down to the business of this cure you seek?” Joy began to turn toward the curtain of lichen, as to go back into the hut. She stopped when Oak spoke.

“Indeed Madam,” said Oak, rising. “If you would be so kind. But what payment would you take?”

The witch turned to him, “Oh a trifle really. I want my snake vine back. My husband, my ex husband, took it.”

“Snake… vine?” asked Artur.

“Yes, think of it as a thorny snake, only it’s a plant. He’s a plant. I have its mate, so to speak, in my hut. They only flower once every thirty years and this year is the year. I can only delay flowering for only so long.”

Artur slowly shook his head. “I don’t see why I should get involved in your post marital conflicts.”

The witch took a few steps forward, and Artur noticed her furry toes. She pointed with her free hand at the two Rhinos. “You should if you want to help your friends.”

The two Rhinos looked at Artur expectantly. At this point Oak was willing to curse Artur’s name and go find this snake vine himself, if he had to. He didn’t want to. Acorn, not knowing Artur as Oak did, merely hoped Artur would continue to help them. Hunting in this swamp, in this fog, they would need all the help they could get.

Artur was not intimidated by the witch, but stepped to the side rather than away, and circled her slowly, so she knew it. She in turn was no fool, and turned about, not intimidated by the great muscled warrior. Artur stopped next to his Rhino friends. “It’s not the custom of my people to meddle in others domestic affairs. If not for my friends, I’d say you need to find this snake vine on your own. Nevertheless, I’ll get it back for you if you have the cure for what ails them.”

“I do.” said the witch. “Give me the snake vine, and I’ll give you the cure.” She smiled, and deep inside this bothered Artur. He never exacted a price for helping people, and the witch’s willingness to use the Rhino people as leverage to get her pet back rubbed him the wrong way.

In this moment, the witch could see Artur was troubled. From a pocket in her cloak, the witch pulled out a polished, orange marble stone. Immediately, the fog around the hut dissolved to thin air. “Hold this stone, Artur, and the fog will give way. Put it away, and nature will reassert itself.” She put the stone back in her pocket, and fog began to rise from the marsh about them. She gave it to Artur, and he put it in a belt pouch.

“Very well, Witch…Joy. You’ll get your snake vine.”

He turned to his companions, “Are you ready to go?”

“Not Slip!” said the black frog. “Slip did his part! He wants no part of chasing hunters or witches. But…” he walked over to Oak, his feet flapping on the wooden porch. “Oak is a black frog now. If Oak wants Slip to help, Slip will go.”

Oak looked down at the little person who honored him with membership in his tribe. An extra hand in dealing with this hunter would be welcome, but the dart that struck down Artur could strike the frog down a well. More importantly, his own people needed the witch’s medicine.

“Slip, if you will help us find the hunter, the three of us will deal with him, and you can go.”

Slip rubbed his chin with his four fingered hand, and he rocked back and forth on his webbed feet. His own people were terrified of this hunter and the witch, and it took a lot for him to overcome this learned fear. “Alright. Slip will find this hunter. Get out your pretty stone.” With this, he hopped off the porch with a splat onto the wet mud.

The three warriors on the porch each looked at one another, and descended the steps to the marsh below. Artur asked Oak which way they came from, and drawing out the stone, set about retracing their steps through the swamp. As they proceeded forward, the fog about them dissolved so they could see for some thirty yards in all directions. If they did not find the hunter, the hunter would find them.

* * *

As the fog began to reform, Joy went back through the curtain of lichen into the dim, candle-lit hut. Embers smouldered in the fireplace. The petite ogress put wood into the fireplace and blew it to life, and then hung her iron cauldron over it. She left it to simmer and surveyed her inventory. It was a typical witches hut, with shelves filled with jars and pots of ingredients, crystals, charms, knick knacks and paddy whacks. There were even bones for dogs, but no dogs had come by in years, the witch noted sadly. She needed some fresh dog tongues for spells to enhance taste, and some dog noses for spells to enhance smell.

Setting aside the distraction of dog parts, she refocused herself. Ah yes, what she needed was in the the drawer under her desk. She pulled out a heavy black, glass globe from the little writing desk and sat on the bearskin in the middle of the hut. She felt the smooth, oily fur of the bearskin, and briefly remembered when her husband-to-be brought it to her as an engagement present. She remembered how he had self-sewn stitches in his left shoulder, still healing, and festering, from the beast whose skin he claimed. She accepted his gift and healed his festering wound, and the two married soon thereafter.

Distractions again. This business with the Rhinos had disturbed her tranquility. She cleared her mind and focused on the glass globe, reaching out beyond time and space and then coming back, observing the world in the abstract: The red haired Horsemen of the north as Centaurs; the dwarfs as animated pickaxes, chopping away at stone; Artur’s people as anthropomorphic pigs. There were rats among the pigs with meat cleavers. How odd. She looked to the lands of the Cat people, and the lands of the Rhinos, and saw rats with needles. She looked to the desert lands of the Snake men, and there were rats there, shaking hands with them. And then there was a rat looking at her. “Who are you,” it said without speaking. It was not an anthropomorphic rat. There were no rat-men as far as the old witch knew.

“Who are you?” it said again. This was not abstract, but a real rat asking a real question. There was something amiss with this. The witch pulled out of her trance and put the glass globe away in its drawer. If there was a rat playing with sorcery, then that would explain the rats in the images she saw. It must have a seeing stone of its own, or perhaps some other means of surveying time and space that intersected with hers.

The pot began to simmer on the fire, so Joy went to her storage racks and added a little of this and a little of that. The last ingredient she added was ground rhino horn. That ex husband of hers had slain a rhino warrior so long ago. Its eyes, brain, heart and liver proved useful, and finally the horn was serving a purpose. They didn’t need to know this, though.

 

 

Bogging down in story details

In my story a celtic warrior, two rhino men, and a frog man are making their way through a dense, foggy swamp to find a witch.  This witch is said to have the cure to the horn rot afflicting the rhino people.  They’re stalked by a human hunter who mysteriously knows no words, and had a pet snake vine.

I’ve been slogging through this swamp for a few weeks now.  Albeit, due to events in my life, I haven’t been able to write much.  If I were reading it, I’d be saying “get to the point already!  Four warriors can take the hunter that’s stalking them!  Kill him and get to the witch already.”

I’m getting impatient.  The witch wants some sort of payment, I’m not sure what.  The wild man is related to the witch somehow.  Meanwhile there’s the feud between the two tribes of Frog Men in the swamp.  It’s a big mix of conflicts, and I think I’m getting bogged down.

I’m not sure what to do about it.  Perhaps resolve the mission to fetch the cure, reveal something noteworthy about the hunter and the witch (maybe they’re brother and sister, or were once married), and then get the heroes out.

Here’s what I wrote this week:

Acorn quietly hummed to himself to fill the void of silence imposed by the Witch’s fog. Moisture condensed on his leathery skin. He felt uncomfortably wet and clammy. Oak and Artur slept nearby, rolled up in their cloaks. They too were wet, but luckily were not aware of it in their slumber. Slip lay splayed out on the moss, quite content by the look of him. Acorn could stand hot jungles, and days after days of rain on the plains or the jungle. There at least, the rain made him feel clean and refreshed. The fog and moisture were like a smothering blanket, and it was difficult to think of anything else.

Suddenly there was a wet sucking sound that broke the monotony. Acorn perked up, ready as always with a javelin. He strained his ears, but there was naught but the faint trickle of stream. Surely that sounded like a foot in the mud. After a few minutes, a small beetle landed on his nose, and then its hind end lit up electrically. Carefully, he brought a thick finger to his nose, and lifted the firefly off. He marveled at the glowing insect, wondering how it got to be here. In all places a firefly could be, it was in a place where light stops after a few yards. Perhaps it was lost as well. He held the little bug aloft at arms length, and flicked his finger to send the creature on its way.

Just as the creature began to fly, a spear came from the dark fog and nicked the end of Acorn’s finger and slammed into the nearby birch. Acorn cried out in alarm. Oak and Artur flipped their cloaks away, their hands already on their weapons. Slip opened his eyes, to see the spear stuck in the tree above him.

“What is it?” asked Artur.

“The Hunter,” muttered the sleepy Slip.

Acorn pointed in the direction of the blunt end of the spear, “It came from over there.” He yanked the spear out of the tree. It had a stone spear tip, but was well made.

Oak now had risen, and shuffled about in a crouch, straining his ears. “What Hunter, Slip?”

Before Slip could speak, Artur interjected, “I heard the birds sing about a hunter when we got here.”

“Yes, yes,” said slip, who now rolled to a crouch. “A man hunter. He eats anything. It’s said the witch took his voice and his wits, so he wanders here.”

Oak replied, “He must be close. Else he couldn’t see or hear us to throw that spear.”

Acorn, looking a little embarrassed, said “He saw the firefly.”

“The what?” asked Artur, caught off guard.

“The firefly. It glowed.”

“Okay,” said Artur. “Fan out toward where the spear came from. Go ten paces, then come back.”

And so they fanned out, covering about a third of a circle around their camp, and squished, plopped and hopped into the fog. Each lost sight and sound of the others after only a few steps. Each step, though it took only a fraction of a second, felt like hours, with each of the heroes anticipating a sudden spear in the dark.

Finding nothing but mud and mosquitoes, the four arrive back at the camp about the same time. A quick glance in the lamplight and each knew the other found nothing. Artur gestured to the next third of the circle, and each of them took position and set out into the dark again. There was a splash as Oak went waist deep into the stream, and a gentle plop as Slip dived in. The other two squished and plopped their way through the mud.

Slip could feel an unnatural current in the water, as though someone nearby was quickly swimming away. He quickly dived under, thrusting his knife toward the disturbance. Surfacing, he swamp back toward the camp, and saw the other three standing in the lamplight.

“Any luck Slip?” asked Oak.

“Someone swimming. It could have been a turtle, or a big fish.”

“Which way?”

“Who knows in this fog. Ahh, that way,” said the frog man, making his best guess.

Artur calculated in his head as best as he could, and leaped into the dark fog again, his sword at the ready. He sloshed into the stream, waist deep, shoulder deep, thrusting his sword as best he could here and there ahead of him. Swords were not the best weapons for water combat, and he wished then he had one of the Rhino’s spears. After several thrusts, his sword clinked against a stone. And then he clinked again. Then there was silence.

Dismayed, he turned around, and tried to find his way back to the camp. It wasn’t long before he saw the dim glow of the lamp diffusing through the fog.

Slip anxiously bounced in place, “Shall we try the other way?”

“Yes,” said Artur. “But I think our attacker is gone.”

And so they fanned out and explored the last third of the circle around their camp, and as expected there was naught but bugs, mud, lichen and wet grasses. Artur realized as they did this that their tracks would be all over around the camp, leading to and fro. They would have to leave if they didn’t want to be attacked again. Unless…Yes, there was a plan in his mind. He noted it and then returned to the camp.

The four were anxious about their hidden foe. Acorn, in a moment belying the cool patience he aspired to, grunted “I’ll skewer that bastard with his own spear!” This took Oak by surprise, and he grinned briefly, happy to see a trace of his foul temper in his own son.

Artur set about retrieving the lamp, and with a bit of rope, hung it from the birch tree about head high. “Everyone back off and we’ll watch and see if he comes back for his spear. Acorn, give me that.” He took his knife out and cut his scarred hand, and smeared some blood on the lamp’s handle then put a bloody print on the other trunk of the tree. He rubbed some on the tip of the spear, and then the squeezed a little more out on a rock heading away from the camp, and then retreated into the fog, crouching in the mud. He quickly bandaged his hand with a handkerchief, and for once was glad he had little sensation in his right hand. The others backed off as well, quietly, anxiously, waiting for the hunter.

* * *

The hunter floated his basket ahead of him as he swamp blindly in the stream. His right ankle ached from a slash wound. It was all he could do to escape the counter attack. His mental map put him thirty or forty yards southeast of his previous position. There was a slimy boulder in the stream here, and he grabbed ahold and pushed his basket up. He pulled himself up, feeling the moss, lichen, and snails. He flicked the snails away so he could get a good handhold, and pulled himself up.

His ankle was screaming at him, but his first thought was the snake vine in his basket. He opened it up, and felt the thorny creature inside. It twitched and it rubbed it’s pod shaped head on his hand with affection. This pleased the hunter, and he closed the basket and felt his ankle. The gash would need stitches. He fumbled in his soaked waist pouch for some sinew and thread, and then heard a loud -tink- that vibrated his perch. He froze, straining his ears. There was another -tink-, the churning of water, and he heard a great sigh, as though someone were disappointed. There was the slight sound of water being churned which lead away from the boulder.

The hunter mentally triangulated his previous position, his current position, and the direction of whoever it was that tinked the boulder. Yes it was one of the prey out looking for him. He made a mental note of how to get back to the prey’s encampment, and tended to his ankle. The bone needle bit into his skin, but the pain paled in comparison to the hot searing pain of the gash from the frog’s knife. Allowing the pain to focus his mind, and by touch alone, he wove the strand of dried sinew through the open wound until he closed it up. It only needed three stitches. He had a tiny pouch with a nugget of pine pitch. This he sucked on for several minute to warm it mashing it with his tongue, and then worked it over the stitches.

He waited an hour for his wound to seal up, and then checked his gear: lacking a spear he would need to rely on his knife and his blow darts. He felt over the reed pipe and blew into it to check it for air leaks. He then eased back into the water, floating his vine-in-a-basket ahead of him, in pursuit of his prize.

More Story Fragment: Borussa the Pig

Here we watch Borussa the pig go after the rats that shot up the farm cats with quill arrows….

 

Borussa reclined in the shade of a willow, watching Diana, Troy and Tana carrying the four cats. They had bolted off in a hurry without explanation, and it puzzled him that the cats were not walking back on their own.

Borussa was an unusual pig, with a degree of sentience far beyond the average swine. He traveled far over the years, and fought in battles alongside his father Artur. He helped raise Tana as if she were his own child. In seeing this unusual scene, he got to his feet and trotted after the three humans as they returned to the house.

The three humans stopped at a table outside the house and began extracting small arrows from the flesh of the cats, who howled and screamed despite Tana and Troy’s best efforts to calm them. It took a bit of time, but eventually they got the arrows out and left the cats to lick their own wounds. Borussa listened to the humans talking, and understood Tana and Troy the best: little rats with swords and bows. Little rats that fight like humans. Little rats hunting.

The hunting was of no interest to him. All meat eaters hunted.  He himself  killed a rabbits for supper if the opportunity presented itself.  But he never heard of small rats with human weapons. It seemed…off.  So Borussa made as though to head for the pig pond, and then when out of sight turned and headed for the woodlot.

The sun was setting now, and the air was thick with evening bugs, and dew began to form on the the grasses that had been in the shade for a few hours. The hawk weed and dandelions began to close their flowers. The pleasant odor of bark and damp wood wafted down from the woodlot onto the edge of the pasture. Birds sang their good-nights and traded tales of the day.

There’s a big pig in the wood

up to no good

no mushroom is safe

from the pig’s ravenous face

Borussa entered the woodlot, and put his porcine senses to good use. Nose to the ground, he scanned back and forth and he explored the forest: ants, beetles, moss, deer poop, fern, mushrooms. Oh! Mushrooms! Well there was just a few, so he ate them, but didn’t forget his mission. Nose down, he got scent of cat blood, and he expanded his search, and found plentiful rat poop and urine. Rats, are easy to track by their excrement, as they drop it everywhere they go. The fact that the rats marched in columns made their trail easy to follow.

Borussa snuffled and followed, occasionally perking up to observe his surroundings. Most creatures knew to steer clear of a huge boar, and so there was naught but the occasional tweet or chitter of the birds as they settled down for the evening.

Borussa came upon a porcupine digging grubs from a rotten log. Porcupines are one of the few that do not fear pigs, and paid him little mind. Borussa decided to chat up the porcupine.

“Hail Prickly Pig!” he said.

The porcupine turned, and Borussa could a great bald patch on the creature’s hind flank. She replied, “What do you want, oh boar? Can’t you see I’m busy?”

Borussa ignored the second question. “I’m tracking some rats, perhaps you’ve seen them.”

The porcupine shuddered, and she replied, “Oh do not talk about them. They gave me such a horrible time,” and continued eating her grubs.

“Do tell.”

“I’d rather not talk about it. It’s useless to dwell on the past.” And it was true, since animals tend not to ponder old hurts, but learn from them and move on, and continue living in the present. Miss Porcupine was enjoying her meal, and enjoying the fact that most creatures preferred not to fight with her.

Borussa went to the other end of the log and began digging at it with his tusks. A fat grub plopped to the leafy floor, and he slurped it up. “They shot up some farm cats with quills. Those cats are my friends. Did you give them yours?”

This disrupted the porcupine’s peace of mind, and she dropped a grub, which began to wiggle and try to escape. “No! No! I…oh it was horrible. They came on me, and there was a sorcerer among them. He chanted some words and suddenly I couldn’t move! I could hardly breathe. And then the rats yanked out my quills, and left me for dead. ‘Thank you! We’ll be back!’ they said.”

“Thank you Prickly Pig. I leave you in peace.”

Borussa nodded, and continued snuffling after the rat trail. There was too much for him to fully comprehend. There was evil afoot, he was sure of that much. He pushed on through ferns, low bushes, tufts of grass, until he came to a rocky patch covered with thicket creeper and poison ivy. Lucky for Borussa, he had no allergy, but made a note to bathe when he got home. He began to push through, when suddenly there was a high pitched screech ahead, and something pin pricked his left shoulder. Perking up, he could see a rat on a bit of rock pulling back his bow. He wasted no time, and lunged forward, skewering the rat with his tusk.

There was another screech to his right, and he heard little feet darting away. Borussa pursued, and under a great boulder was a large hole big enough for maybe a raccoon. There were three rats here, and they too were firing arrows at him. He shrugged off the hits, and bore down on them. Two retreated down their hole, but he killed the third. Quickly now, he began shoving dirt out of the hole with his tusks, and then with his trotter, and did his damnedest to get at the second and third rat, who by now had retreated down the tunnel.

Borussa figured he found their lair, or a lair at least. He lacked the means to get down and investigate. He could fill in the hole, but they, like squirrels and chipmunks, probably had multiple entrances. The hole reeked of rat urine and feces. Perhaps it would cover up his own scent. He rolled himself around the hole in it as best he could, and then retreated back into the ferns and shrubs a way. He found himself a comfortable spot in the leaves, and crouched down and waited.

It was at least an hour before any rats came out of the hole. They spoke to one another alternately in rat squeeks and elvish. Borussa was not fluent in elvish, so he could not discern the whole conversation. He heard something about “Huge boar in the woods! Fix the entrance. Ack Snitch and Pip are dead!” Then came another voice, less rat like, and more human like, and it spoke only in elvish “Imbecilles! Hold your bowels and swine won’t find you. Now go see if it’s gone.”

“I ain’t a-going after that beast!”

There was a flash through the bushes, and the smell of ozone and burning fur, and a simultaneous squeak of pain, but Borussa didn’t know what happened. “Perhaps I should kill you all, and your dead bodies will serve me better!”

“No master! I go!”

Borussa heard tiny feet scuttle off. A few minutes later, the rat came his way, walking on its hind legs, clinking in armor and sniffing about. It was tempting to just grab the wretched thing, but Borussa stayed still, and the rat passed by and continued until it was out of earshot.

Borussa waited a few minutes more, and then slowly crept back the way he came, retracing the patch of the rat droppings until he reached the rotten log. The porcupine was gone. Here Boroussa snuffled for grubs, and after eating a bit, he made his way back to the pasture land and then to the barn. Tana was there pouring buckets of water in the pig trough.

“Where’d you go, Borussa? You almost missed supper!”

“I was walking about.”

The little bald girl put down her bucket and skipped over him. She almost hugged him, but he pulled back abruptly. “I need a bath. I got into some poison ivy.” It was hard to disguise his being disturbed at the events of the evening. The little girl sensed something was wrong, but figured it was just the poison ivy.

“I’ll race you to the pond!” she shouted gleefully, and began to tear off away from the barn toward the pond. Borussa followed, and let her win the race. He splashed into the cool water and rolled about in the shallows, letting the mud cleanse his skin. He then waded into the deeper parts. Tana took off her dress and jumped in and swam to her friend. Together they played in the pond in the light of the two moons. Human and beast alike let go of the day’s stresses and lived in the moment.

Race-as-Class in Fantasy RPGs

Race-as-class is an old school concept from the early days of the hobby. Creatures such as Elves, Dwarfs and Halflings were assumed to be very similar in inclination and abilities due to being somewhat insular, distinct minorities in a world populated by humans. Also, these fictional creatures from folklore represent archetypes of the human psyche, natural or paranormal phenomena, and as such lend themselves to simple stereotypes (though there was nothing to stop the player from role playing them in a non-traditional way). They were mostly variations on the Fighter class, but with some added abilities.

For example,In Basic D&D, the Dwarf advances as a fighter, but with superior saving throws and the ability to analyze stone construction and find traps. They were limited in how many levels they could advance, and as such a human Fighter would eventually overtake a Dwarf’s advantages, provided the human survived long enough to do it.

The Halflings were limited fighters. While having superior saving throws and advantages on missile attacks, as well as the ability to hide in wilderness, they also could not advance to a high level, and their weapon choices were severely restricted. They are very fun to role play due to the childlike nature of Halflings in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and their love of food, drink, and pipes of tobacco.

Th Elf was essentially the hybrid fighter and wizard. In the early era of D&D, the Elf would either advance as a warrior or a wizard, depending on what he chose to do that day. Later versions allowed them to do both simultaneously, but were required to earn a lot more experience to go up levels.

There was nothing to stop folks from combining race and class, and many folks did this before official material sanctioned it. Those who read The Hobbit and The Lord Of the Rings wanted to play halfling thieves, and creative referees bolted on the thief class rules (with their unwieldy d100 ability tables) or created their own versions.

Gaming and cultural sensibilities have changed over time, and modern editions of the classic role playing game allow any race-class combination, such as Orc Clerics, Elf Thieves, Halfling Wizards, and so on. Life goes on and tastes evolve, but I still enjoy creating character classes and as such got to thinking: most race-as-class variants, including my own Cat Men, Rhino Men, and goblins, were variations of the fighter. What if someone made a race-as-class variation on the Magician for Pits & Perils?

How does one offer something unique to the Magician class of P&P to make it a viable alternative to the Magician?

For simplicity’s sake, if I wanted to play a non-human Magician, a referee could just make a ruling on it any we could move on without changing anything. There’s nothing to say I can’t play a dwarf magician. Perhaps he was just more bookish than the typical dwarf, and spent more time studying magic and lore and less studying stonework and mechanical devices. Please do not construe the following as a suggestion that you cannot do these things. For those who like tweaks and variants on existing classes, the following is what I have to offer.

What I have is a different kind of magician who has one ongoing spell effect, guaranteed high Intelligence, and an ability to fly. The downside is they take longer to advance and have fewer hitpoints than Human Magicians.

Vulture Men, version 0.1

An ancient hybrid of Vultures and Elves, Vulture men are long lived hybrids with a penchant for scholarship and magic. They were created to be the lore masters that span generations, but also found their own niche as seers, magicians and adventurers. They never forget a verse, and as such make excellent instructors in colleges and schools of all kinds. Being awkward hybrids of humanoid and bird, they are unusually frail compared to humans and elves. They make up for it with their natural talent for magic.

As Class

Vultures have Intelligence, plus anything else they roll. They cannot take Strength or Constitution, but can choose from the other four stats if these are rolled.

They wield only staffs or daggers as weapons, and lack the physique to wear armor.

Vultures have an automatic, ongoing spell of URGE, that allows them to manifest minor cantrip effects without spending Spell Points.

Vultures, if not burdened, can fly for 1d6 rounds, and may slow falls if they have the chance to extend their wings.

Vulture Advancement Table

XP     Level     HP      SP      Title

0           1         4          2      Scribe

300       2        +1        3

600       3        +2       4     Scholar

1,200    4       +3       5

2,400    5      +4        6     Investigator

5,000    6     +5        7

10,000  7    +6        8              Proctor

20,000  8    +7        9

40,000  9   + 8      10          Lore Master

80,000 10    +9     11

Vulture Background 2d6

2 – Trivia Master, re-roll one failed Intelligence save per day

3 – Spiritualist, extensive knowledge of supernatural entities

4 – Anthropologist, extensive knowledge of sentient humanoid species

5 – Zoologist, extensive knowledge of non-sentient species

6 – Astrologer, can navigate as a sailor per the standard P&P rules

7 – Scholar, Broad baseline knowledge on all subjects

8 – Architect, evaluate and design structures of all kinds as a Dwarf per the standard P&P rules

9 – Alchemist, identify potions, make all potions at half cost

10 – Antiquarian, extensive knowledge of magical artifacts

11 – Engineer, design and build complex mechanical devices

12 – Warrior, gain a combat maneuver at level one, and every third level thereafter

At ninth level, a Vulture Man can found a College. It will attract ten vulture men, and twenty humans. Of the vulture men, there will be two scribes, seven scholars, and one magician. Of humans, there will be five footmen, five bowmen, and ten laborers. The college can generated 200gp per month in profits from educating humans enrolled in the school.

HIRELINGS & HENCHMEN

Type       Armor      HP     Weapon                  Notes                Cost

scribe       none         4        dagger     record keeper                   5

scholar     none         6        dagger    specializes in subject      10

magician  none        6        dagger           third level                   15

footman   light         3         spear                 human                      5

bowman  none        3          bow                  human                      5

laborer     none        3   improvised           menial tasks             3

Rules D&D 3.5

Norbert Matausch inspired me to share about the current game of D&D I’m involved in. I was initially apprehensive about joining a game of 3.5, as 3.x is a terribly crunchy game. Look at this character sheet on the Wizard’s of the Coast archive page:

http://archive.wizards.com/dnd/files/PHB_v35_charsheet.zip

Lucky for me, my DM doesn’t care about much of it. We have our stats, we have our skills, but we haven’t had to deal with Touch AC, flatfooted AC, or AC at all. So far we have not used any armor rules. Almost any opposed test (including combat) are opposed D20 rolls. If you can make an argument why your stats or skills apply to the defense, the DM will let you add it. After a hit, roll damage. Most weapons crit on the highest number of the damage die, and the DM will add a special effect. So heavy weapons with a D8, D10 or D12 are great for quickly wearing down a foe, but the halfling with the D4 dagger will crit 25% of the time and cause some kind of meaningful injury informed by the fiction.

Unopposed checks are usually a D20 roll against a 10. If the task is especially difficult, it’s a 15. If it’s a bit easier, it’s a 5. Sometimes it’s a question of just not rolling a natural one, and in such circumstances, it’s funny how many of us roll Nat 1’s on group stealth rolls.

The magic rules are improvised. My Bard has his cantrips he started with, and the wizard and druid have accumulated more spells over time. A Gandalf-esque figure taught the bard a sleep spell he can cast by playing a lullaby on his bagpipes. Most of our party’s problems are solved through clever problem solving, negotiation, and some combat. Seldom does anyone actually use magic. And you know what? It’s fine. The best part is most of the players had never played D&D before, so they don’t know what they’re missing. Ignorance is bliss.

This leads me to my main point: You don’t need complex rules to have a good time playing a fantasy role playing game.  That is all.

However you game, I hope you enjoy it.

Another Story Fragment From First Draft 4/6/2019

I learned while writing today that it’s important to keep notes of the names of things and places.  In this story so far, I haved called the mysterious swamp the witch dwells in “The Misty Swamp” and “The Foggy Swamp.”  In later revisions, I must keep my terminology consistent so as to avoid confusing the reader.

So here’s a snip of Artur and the two Rhino Men meeting the Black Frog men: actual anthropomorphic frogs as opposed to humans of the Frog Clan….

 

Suddenly there was a great splash, and then several more splashes off in the distance.  The three warriors immediately readied their weapons. Artur pulled his bow and peered into the mist.

“Knee-deep!” croaked a throaty voice. To the right and the left and ahead came other similar voices. “Knee-deep!” There was only the faint sound of the churning of water, like small boats. And then the three saw what was coming. Frog heads in the mist, poking out of the water. First just as silhouettes, and then they were black frog heads with green spots, and each had a spear.

The two rhinos leaped from the boulder, trying to find cover behind nearby trees, but Artur still stood, his bow pulled to his cheek, watching the approaching frogs. “Hoy there! Who goes there? We’re searching for the witch! Steady now, or I’ll shoot!”

The frog heads slowed their approach, but did not stop, and slowly ascended as the water became more shallow, until there were six frog men standing knee deep in the pond. They were naked, and not ashamed. From behind a mossy tree Oak called, “Our friend isn’t alone. I can skewer any of you with a javelin.”

And from the other side, flanking Artur, Acorn called out. “And I as well.”

Here the six frogs looked up at Artur atop the boulder, and to the left and the right, having their spears ready. Then one croaked, “They’re not the Greens!”

“Aye they’re not,” said another. “And I don’t fancy eating this one with the bow.”

Artur slowly lowered his bow, and his two companions peeked out from their hiding places. “I’m flattered,” said Artur, “that you don’t want to eat me. I’m Artur, of the Pig clan, of Zootaloot Farm. And I don’t want to eat you either. Let’s say we put our weapons away.”

The frogs hesitated, their spears gripped tightly in their webbed hands, but seemed to stand at ease. One of them, seemingly the leader, handed his spear to a companion, and bowed. “I’m Snark, of the Blacks.”

At this, Artur slung his bow, and returned the bow. “I’m honored, Snark. We did not mean to tresspass, if this is your land. We seek a witch. Perhaps you know her?”

“The Witch,” croaked Snark. “Oh yes.” And the two spoke, and all the while the armed frogs and the rhinos eyed each other nervously. After a few minutes, it was a agreed they would share a meal, and before long the frogs, and the rhinos, and the human sat on the boulder and on raised patches on the edge of the pond. The frogs speared small fish, which they ate raw. Artur politely ate a piece of slimy mud fish, but preferred his own rations. He had eaten with many creatures over the years, and had developed the stomach for foul foods, though he did not like them. The Rhinos ate lichen and some of their own provisions, as well as some puffball mushrooms offered by the frogs, who in turn tried cabbage, but found it not to their liking.

It turned out that there were two tribes of frog men in this country, and they feuded over territory. The Greens, preferring the drier land, and the Blacks, who preferred the ponds and swamps. Both fished and hunted the lands. At some time in the past, a Black killed a Green, or maybe it was a Green killed a Black, and the two tribes feuded ever since. Upon hearing this, Artur remembered tales of the Elvish Empire, where they tried to force all the tribes of men together under one system of law and custom, and they ended up fighting one another and resenting the elves. That resentment leading to the final defeat of the elves and the return of the men to their ancestral homelands. But where would frog men go, if they were to resettle? They both claimed the land here.

“One challenge at a time,” Artur thought to himself. “Find the witch. Find the cure for the Rhinos. The tribes of frog men would still be here.”

The witch was only a few miles distant, but for flat footed creatures like Rhinos and humans, it would be a difficult journey. It was agreed that one of the frogs, Slip, a juvenile with a bright orange eyes and a small dagger tied at his hip, would escort them to the witch, assuming her hut hadn’t moved. It was in a peaty mire of thick black gum trees, but never seemed to be in the same place on any given day, or so he said.

So the agile frog man leaped from stone to stone, or swam, or clung to trees with sticky finger and foot pads, while Artur and the Rhinos carefully and slowly picked their way through the bogs and ponds of the Misty Swamp. Slip quickly became impatient, sometimes hissing to the three warriors “Come now. How do you survive where you come from? Hop, stick, jump, swim!”

After about a couple anxious hours of picking careful footholds and enduring Slip’s incessant taunting, Oak misstepped and plopped waist deep in murky pond water. “On the open grasslands of my native country, I could outdistance a horse and certainly a frog! Come to my country, and I’ll teach you the meaning of speed!”

The peculiar creature, clinging to a birch tree, peered at the struggling Rhino as he sloshed his way to a drier tussock of mud and grass. He snickered at the Rhino’s comment. The Rhinoman pulled a fat leech off his arm, and angrily flung it as hard as he could at the Frog, whose tongue flicked out and snagged it in midair. “Thank you, good Rhino!” He then pulled a fat wood boring grub from the tree he clung too, sniffed it, and returned the shot. The gooey thing bounced off the Rhino’s nose, and disappeared into the mud. “Use your tongue!” he said.

Frustrated, Oak shook a fist at the frog in the tree. “If you don’t stop using yours, I’ll pit it to that tree with a javelin!”

Acorn and Artur, amused by the exchanged, broke out laughing. Confused, and momentarily insulted, Oak whirled about, slipped on some mud, and fell back into the pond. This was too much for Artur and Acorn, who laughed even harder, and ease the grief of their friend, they jumped into the pond as well, deliberately splashing Oak, who now began to laugh as well. The frog leaped from his tree, grabbed another branch and swung himself into the pond as well. The four played and splashed one another for a while. Slip dived under the water, popping up beside Acorn, or Oak, or Artur, and sprayed them with mouthfuls of water. They in turn tried to lay hold of him, but he was too fast and too slippery.

After a brief while, Oak figured out the Frog’s pattern, and grabbed him by the leg, lifing him upside down. Triumphant, he bellowed a victory cry and hurled the frog sprawling some five yards where he belly flopped with a great splash. The creature emerged, sputtering and giggling, and raised his webbed hands in mock surrender. “Alright, alright!”

“Damn right, alright!” said Oak, hand on his hips, feeling quite proud of himself.

“No dry land creature, not the Hunter, not the Witch, has ever caught Slip. But the great warrior Oak did! I will call you Sticky, because you caught Slip!” The frog man smiled, but having never seen a frogman smile, the Rhinos and Artur could not tell it was. Oak frowned at this, even as Slip smiled, and Acorn said to his father, “I think you won him over, Father.”

The frog swam closer, and stood, offering his right webbed hand, palm out. “Slip is honored to call Oak a fellow Black Frog.” Oak hesitated, and then held his massive three fingered hand to the suction cupped, four fingered hand of the smaller Frog. His heart tingled at this gesture, for while humans, and dwarfs, and elves tended to show a kind and sincere deference to the Rhinos, most of the hybrid species expected others to prove themselves with some great feat. And here this creature who mocked and taunted him, and them played with him, was satisfied to call him a brother. “I would be honored to be considered a Black Frog. Thank you friend.”

Artur stood, dripping, watching this exchange, and his heart tingled as well, because the two creatures were part beast, he could feel what they felt, at least the part of their animal nature. It always touched him when creatures unlikely to be friends would become friends. He had seen a rooster and a hound sleep together, and a rabbit who would ride on a horse all day. He wondered if it was common humanity the two creatures shared was the bond that grew here, or something special to beasts that only friends could appreciate. Perhaps it was a bit of both.

Acorn was not surprised that his father had made another friend. Oak was a legendary figure among his people, and among humans, dwarfs and elves. He aspired to be as brave, and as kind, and as skilled a warrior as his father, but not quite as quick to get angry. He had his father’s temper, but aspired to his mother’s more mellow temperament without losing his edge as a warrior.

After this touching moment the four continued their journey through the bogs and mists, though at a slower pace, and Slip was patient with them. The heat of the day slowly came in and the fog dissipated slightly, but not much. The sunlight filtered through the treetops and the fog to make a bright haze that disoriented Artur and the Rhinos. To Slip’s delight but the others’ dismay, there were biting insects, but also moths, dragonflies, stoneflies, wood roaches, and stink bugs. For the first time since entering the swamp, Artur saw a mammalian creature. It resembled a groundhog with thick claws, oily fur and a long snout. Thre creature clung to a birch tree, sniffling about and nibbling small insects. It made a wheezy sound as it sniffed about. Artur could sense it was content, and didn’t pay much mind to the party. In fact it felt quite confident nothing would molest it.

“I’ve never seen such a creature. What is it, Slip?” asked Artur.

“We call it a Keckle. It’s tasty, but its piss causes a nasty rash. Not worth hunting, I say. Too much work to clean it.”

Artur marveled at the creature, now understanding its sense of security. “Good luck to it,” he said, and began to walk on. The four continued through the marsh. The beast went on nibbling at beetles and ants, thinking to itself “What an odd group. A frog, a man and two things I’ve never seen. Oh boy, a stink bug!” As it went to crunch down on it’s next meal, a great spear skewered it to the tree, and it knew nothing more.

Silently, a heavily tattooed, bare footed, hairy man in a loin cloth and a wide brimmed helm tiptoed from the thick lichen where he had hidden to the skewered beast and yanked out his spear. He leaned his spear against the tree, drew a knife and a bit of string, and quickly but carefully dressed the carcass. He tied off the bladder, saving its toxic urine, and stashed in a hip pouch. The carcass he placed in a sack. He would not eat frog today, nor man flesh, but the Keckle would do, assuming he had name for for all of the above. He had not spoken in thirty years, and had forgotten the words.

A snip of the first draft: Trouble with Rats

I’m posting this snip from my first draft in order to build my courage and confidence in writing first drafts and not being ashamed of their condition.

In this bit, Artur the bald celtic warrior who can talk to animals has left the farm with two Rhino Men in search of a cure to a wasting disease afflicting the Rhino villages.  He leaves behind his wife Diana and his children.  It is here I begin to flesh out the character Diana and how she fits in (and doesn’t fit in) to the story.    I hint at the age of seventeen beng the Age of the First Adventure, but presently do not describe it.  Also, I introduce the major villains of the novel…

Diana stood with her daughter Tana and watched her husband and the two Rhinos for about half an hour until they were out of sight over edge of a distant hill. She always hated when her husband left for adventures. Despite his being a great warrior, there was always a chance he would not return. Among all the tribes of men, adventuring took its toll. It was not uncommon to have six or seven children, but losing two or three to the hazards of adventure was also not uncommon.

The hazards of adventure. Diana’s hand went to her belly, remembering the orc arrow from so many years ago. Tana was only an infant then. A precious little bald butterball. Now the precious six year old girl next to her began to fidget, and Diana ran her fingertips over the girl’s smooth head. “This is my only child,” she thought to herself.

The sons of Artur had joyfully embraced Diana as a second mother after she married Artur. Anyone who could wield the Frostbane, they said, was worthy of being part of the family. But they were teens then, and now all had established their own farms and trades, except the youngest, Troy, who would be seventeen this year. The age of the First Adventure. She turned away from observing the unoccupied horizon to look for Troy, who had set to work at hitching a cart to a donkey. The bald young man talked frankly with the beast, and the creature seemed to enjoy the companionship.

All Artur’s children had the Gift, and as such Diana always felt a little like an outsider. The animals were friendly enough when treated properly, but this psychic intimacy shared be her adopted family and her real daughter was something she would never understand.

Abruptly, Diana realized she was spiraling down a sad road, and shook herself out of it. She had a family who loved her, and despite being from the Frog clan, she was respected among the Pigs as a warrior and The Mrs Zootaloot of Zootaloot Farm. Wielder of the Frostbane. Singer to the Bees.

She joined her son and daughter on their trip out to the garden. The beans were fat and needed to be picked. The three sang happily as they worked, plucking green, yellow and purple pods and plunking them in the baskets. Sometimes the Donkey would hee-haw along with Tana and Troy, or grunt to the rhythm of the song. After filling their baskets and loading them in the cart, the three headed back to the farmhouse to process them.

They spent the better part of the afternoon laying out the pods so they could dry properly, nibbling fresh beans as they worked. They rotated the previous crop of dried beans from the racks worked at shelling the pods. Like much farm work it was tedious, but not difficult.

They finished their work before sunset, and Diana sheathed Frostbane and took her daughter for a walk in nearby woodlot. Cicadas were buzzing in the evening heat, and dragonflies flitted about catching insects. Some birds were singing their bedtime songs. Tana understood them to be tales of the events of the day:

Worms at sunrise

Bugs at noon

Berries at supper

oh what a boon!

A man on an adventure

three more in the field

rats in the treetops

oh what a deal!

Rats?

Yes I see them there!

Carrying spears and swords

taking babies

Where?

There!

And there was a ruckus halfway up a pine tree. A blue jay screeching and cawing. Tana pulled her mother’s tunic, “Mama there’s trouble up there. Rats stealing babies!”

“Don’t be silly.”

“I’m not. Look Mama!”

And Diana stepped back until she could see what her daughter pointed at. And indeed there were five or six rats in the tree, a most bizarre sight in itself, but they had little weapons and were stabbing at the blue jays who flitted about trying to protect their babies. This was unnatural, even for a world where bizarre creatures and events were known to occur.

“Tana get your brother,” Diana said, and drew her sword. She felt silly, for how could she climb thirty feet up a tree and hack at bizarre rats with a sword? She drew her sword by instinct. It was a useful instinct on most occasions, but not this one.

Tana took off across the pasture land shouting for her brother, leaving her mother watching the rats. A bluejay fell, bouncing off branches and thumping dead at Diana’s feet, with little tiny arrows sticking in its belly. She didn’t know what else to do, so she began shouting.

“Hey there! Rats! You stop that! Ho! Hey!”

Just then a tiny needle of an arrow pricked her shoulder. The rats above squeaked and chattered in their own language. “Get lost bitch!”

More tiny arrows zinged down around Diana, and she retreated behind a pine.

The volley of arrows stopped, and before long the rats descended the tree carrying dead birds. Diana could see now that there were more than five or six, but rather a few dozen. Some had tiny metal helms, and little swords, and tiny bows with tinier arrows. By this time Troy was on his way at a sprint carrying his sister and four of the farm cats trotted at his side. Now the rats were forming a marching column, carrying their prizes, and not having a shield Diana could only watch for fear of their arrows. She took the frostbane and held it to a thick fallen branch until it began to smolder and then it lit afire, and she hurled it into the column or rats, crushing one and scattering the rest.

Startled, the column began to spread and draw their little bows. They showed a discipline only seen in trained warriors. Now Troy had arrived with the cats and his sister, and the rats all cried out “Cats! Cats! Shoot them!” A dozen little darts flitted at the cats, who were not accustomed to rats being able to fight back. After taking many hits that felt like terrible bee stings, they bolted away.

The rats hefted their prizes and fled into the woods. Being shocked seeing such a thing, there was nothing the three people or the four wounded, limping cats could do. Rats weren’t supposed to make weapons, or shoot arrows, or marching in columns, or hunt birds in the trees.

When the rats had gone, the three humans carried their wounded cats back to the farmhouse, and set to tending their wounds. It was difficult to extract the arrows, which were barbed. Examining the arrows, Tana could see they were porcupine quills, and this gave them all the chills. How did rats get porcupine quills? How did they make little helmets and spears and swords? And why had they never heard of these rats before today?