25 July 2021

Elemental Powers: Earth

I like elemental powers. They have a strong theme, inbuilt factions and intuitive interactions. However, all too often they are boiled down to shoot fire, shoot ice, superstrength and flight/telekinesis. Not bad powers on their own, but why should every hydromancer shoot ice? That shouldn't even be the primary use of water manipulation!

I think powers should be diverse and distinct. When you have three hydromancers where one controls water, one ice and one steam, they are already more interesting thanks to their unique styles. Specialized, limited powers are more fun that all-encompassing ones, especially when those are still used only to shoot ice in the end.

Anyway, rant over, have some earth powers. The rest are hopefully coming soon.
 

From Naruto.


d50 Earth Powers

All geomancers have a great sense of direction, as if their understanding of the earth energy flows granted them an intuitive knack for geography.

  1. Slowly levitate unworked earth-based materials within eyesight.
  2. Move metals with concentration. Choose one metal that you have much better control over.
  3. Create elemental-like constructs from an earth-based material (sand, stone, metal, clay, ...; choose one).
  4. Create stationary tentacle-minions that can grapple or throw rocks at your enemies.
  5. Animate statues with a touch.
  6. Call a huge magma golem. It takes a while to arrive, clawing its way up from deep within the earth.
  7. Grow blades of glass from anywhere on your body at will.
  8. Grow metallic scales when attacked. The more brutal the assault, the stronger the scales.
  9. Surround yourself with a small sandstorm, blinding and harming your foes. Also works with glass shards.
  10. Transform into sand. You may fire sandblasts and heal by absorbing sand. However, you lose control of any wet sand and may only turn back if all your sand is dry and together.
  11. Transform into living metal and even reshape your form at will, but you move as if in slow motion.
  12. Transform into night-invulnerable but immobile diamond form. Prone to suddenly form-lock you when spammed.
  13. Surf on sand, faster than a car can go.
  14. Touch two pieces of metal to fuse them.
  15. Call an earthquake. Normally, this shakes the room and creates small cracks or fissures. However, you may meditate for hours to bring about a city-wide earthquake.
  16. Stomp the ground to crack-open a deep rift. Also works when you kick a wall.
  17. Sense tremors of the earth within a city block. Footsteps require deep concentration to hear.
  18. Understanding of geomantic energies allows you to build structures imbued with preternatural hardness and beauty.
  19. By raising menhirs and dolmens at certain places, you can alter the flow of geomantic energies and bring great fertility to a region, or make it barren.
  20. Feng shui mastery allows you to make any structure into a confounding labyrinth. People will get lost even in a two-room apartment. Stops working when the structure is damaged.
  21. Tend to a feng shui garden. If you die, get buried there and not a single stone is amiss, you come back to life. You also don't age and need to eat or sleep in your garden.
  22. Raise or lower ground, creating pillars and pits. Cooldown depends on how big the change is.
  23. Conjure crystal spikes shooting up from the ground.
  24. Grow a crystal shell around yourself or anyone you touch.
  25. Discorporate and meld with the ground to possess a small area, moving the earth within as you wish. You may not move beyond the area without releasing your control, though.
  26. Fall unconscious and possess a new body formed of earth-based materials. You cannot go too far from your real body.
  27. Sink your arm into the ground to grow a gigantic stone arm from somewhere you can see.
  28. Petrification/fossilization/crystallization through touch.
  29. Tunnel through soil and unworked stone at a walking pace, closing the tunel behind you.
  30. Shape an earth-based material (sand, stone, glass, clay, ...; choose one) into weapons and armour, imbuing them with increased strength.
  31. Construct a rough "mecha" around yourself from boulders and rocks.
  32. Breathe out massive clouds of dust.
  33. Projectile vomit asphalt.
  34. Spit big globs of magma.
  35. Absorb soil to grow in size and power, shed it to return to human form.
  36. Absorb metal to fill in injuries and replace missing body parts. Your metal prosthetics work normally, yet keep their hardness. You may even slowly reshape them.
  37. Minor geokinesis allows you to pick up and throw boulders with ease.
  38. Transmute soil into morass and sand to quicksand. The change is much slower for bigger areas. You can walk on such terrains with ease.
  39. Transmute metals (though only about 10 cm3 per day before you start feeling faint) and knead them like clay.
  40. Transmute earth to sharp but fragile crystal.
  41. Rearrange earth on a large scale. Rough walls and structures take hours, new hills and cave systems take days.
  42. Your strength and durability is greatly increased as long as you have skin contact with natural earth (no worked stone or metal).
  43. With a touch, start an explosive growth in bones - but only dead bones, or more specifically calcium. Can be delayed.
  44. Induce rapid erosion with a touch, turning stone to sand and soil to dust.
  45. Annihilate metal with a touch.
  46. Explosively shatter any glass or crystal with a glance.
  47. Touch an object to make it either repel or attract metal for a short while.
  48. Raise the gravity in an area no more than 5 m across severalfold.
  49. You have gemstone eyes that cannot be harmed, unbreakable metal bones, or perfect porcelain teeth. Pretty minor as far as powers go.
  50. Your skin is cold and marble-like, your wounds crack rather than bleed. You feel no pain and mundane damage is non-lethal for you.

 

Also from Naruto.

15 June 2021

Regional Trouble

Maybe your PCs have been all around the neighbourhood and it's time to spice things up a little. Or maybe you're looking for a way to seed your world with brewing conflicts and problems to be solved.

Either roll on the table when needed, or drop a bunch of d20s on your world map. Where they landed, that trouble starts brewing. Or it might not come about just yet, but there are omens and portents aplenty.
 

From here.
 

d20 Natural Disasters and Man-Made Messes

  1. Drought: Start tracking water skins, as in a desert. If not resolved soon, will lead to famine. Water levels might be so low that river trade is crippled. Can the PCs persuade a local god or a coven of witches to bring back rain?
  2. Famine: Might be caused by drought, locust swarms, blight... Cost of food soars, taverns are closed. Bandits everywhere, but they want your rations, not gold. Services and goods can be cheaply bought with a meal, but not with money. Have you heard that you can buy food cheaply and in bulk just over this dangerous (d4) forest/desert/swamp/mountain range? We shall reward you handsomely if you can bring back enough for the town.
  3. Flood/Tsunami: Water everywhere, houses and crops are ruined, survivors are gathering in tent towns up on hills. A boat is a must, aquatic monsters are now a common encounter. A local wizard tower or fortress might be compromised; an ideal time for a heist!
  4. Sinkhole: A megadungeon or a part of the Underdark has partially caved in. Lots of unusual riches are suddenly up for grabs, but also lots of unsettling threats are set free.
  5. Earthquake: Houses collapse and ground breaks up. Might result in a sinkhole or a flood. On the plus side, whatever was the most secure, most impregnable building in town is now sporting large cracks in its walls and many of its guards have been injured or killed. What was it guarding?
  6. Wildfire: How did it start? Can the PCs evacuate the town in time, or divert the fire? And where will all the druids and witches and trolls go when their home is reduced to ashes?
  7. Volcanic eruption: Thankfully you were far enough to avoid the blast of overheated ash, but there is something wrong with this eruption. It's (d4) a greater demon starting to break free of its prison after a thousand years/an army of fire elementals there to take our forests because their nation is starving/an ascension of a lesser volcanic goddess, she has so much more planned now that she can/a female dragon in labour, her newly laid and extremely valuable eggs will now be safely resting somewhere deep in the volcanic caves.
  8. Tornado/Hurricane: This one is probably better as an imminent threat. Can you get to safety before the wind drops a hut on your head or sweeps you away to Kansas? Afterwards, many structures will need to be rebuilt. Maybe the PCs can lend a hand and leave their touch on the town?
  9. Blizzard: The winter this year is colder and darker and longer than any other you remember. Wild animals are starving and coming closer and closer to the town. The roads are nearly impassable, who will brave the blizzard to bring food and medicine?
  10. Meteor: Whatever the most imposing or important structure nearby was, it has been hit by a shooting star. Some people say it's the star-gods coming for their chosen, some that it's an invasion. Others just see a huge chunk of starmetal up for grabs.
  11. Plague: Bring out your dead! Make it some really weird, magical disease, as that would probably be more fun to play than 2020: The Campaign.
  12. Terrorist attacks: Someone is blowing stuff up, or releasing wights in the streets, or laced the water supplies with potions. People are afraid. Martial law might have been declared. Is a cult involved? Or mind control? Lots of opportunities for investigating or bodyguarding.
  13. Witch hunt: The Church is out for blood and any magic-user might be at risk. People are disappearing in the middle of the night and the stakes are already built. Black market in magic blooms. Wizards will offer their services cheaply or for free, if you can just hide them. What triggered this, anyway? And how to stop it before the resident archmage notices and goes to war against the Church?
  14. War: There's always a war on. Except now, it has reached right here. If the PCs are in a town, it is now under siege and they cannot leave. There might be a forceful draft, a spy scare, or a supply shortage that could be solved by someone sneaking out through the old tunnels. If the PCs are out of town, the villages are looted or burned, enemy forces patrol the roads, and if they don't shoot you on sight, they would pay handsomely for information about city defenses.
  15. Crusade/Jihad: Equally likely to be two different religions or two factions of the same religion, but the other side is clearly heretical. Otherwise treat this as a combination of a war and a witch hunt against clerics. Are the PCs religious?
  16. Coup d'état: The king's twin brother has emerged with a claim to the throne! Or the ancient elven conspiracy has finally decided it's time they start ruling over the lesser races in the open! In any case, powerful factions are moving against each other and they need allies. Old allegiances are doubted and new ones sworn. There's a great opportunity to quickly rise to wealth and power, if you can pick the right side.
  17. Civil unrest: The hoi polloi have had enough of the upper classes. There are mobs and looting in the streets. Nobles and the rich are either driven out of town, or outright lynched. Maybe you can use all this chaos as a distraction for your misdeeds. Maybe you can be richly rewarded for helping a noble protect their property, and/or escape with their life. Maybe you can find a way to stir this up into a full-on revolution, because why not?
  18. Criminality: The Thief Guild has collapsed; or the most powerful crime lord is old or dead; or there is a new player in town who wants in on the illicit trades and is ready to spill blood over it. One way or another, this is going to be a big old mess.
  19. Monsters: The monsters are coming out of the dark woods and deep caves, towards the town. The military is overextended, the roads are unsafe and the villagers scared. Lots of monster-hunting and escort contracts. But why have the monsters left their cosy lairs? Are they running away from something worse?
  20. Roll on the Weird Troubles table below.

 

 
d6 Weird Troubles

  1. Behemoth: It is huge. It is coming from the (d4) sea/mountains/wilderness/underground. It is not openly hostile yet, but its path will lead it directly through the town in just a few days.
  2. Necromantic outbreak: Corpses rise mere minutes after death. Ghosts appear even in daylight. The graveyards are crawling with all kinds of things that should be dead. Is there a metaphysical imbalance to be righted? Is someone doing it intentionally? Does this herald something else?
  3. Eternal night: The Sun has set one day and then didn't rise in the morning. Mass hysteria. Doomsday cults get an influx of members. Is this a localized event?
  4. Thaumic fallout: It's raining random animals, houses are gaining extra rooms and body horror is ubiquitous. If there was no overt magical incident, then (d4) the ley lines are going haywire/there is a covert wizarding war/the government is experimenting on us/something is coming.
  5. Alchemical spill: A massive amount of toxic and mutagenic waste has leaked into the environment. Clean water is at premium. The sewers are crawling with mutant crocodiles and worse. There's noxious fog and acid rain. The public at large wants some answers. Who is responsible?
  6. Portal: A massive rift to another dimension has opened. If it's full of hostiles and dangers, that's bad. If not, that's still bad, because now everybody will call dibs on the new land and resources. Things will be busy around here.

12 June 2021

Potioncraft

I'm still here, real life has just been a bit demanding lately. Now that I do have some time again, I've started reading the Dresden Files and immediately, there's a game-able idea in there. The potion-making in the books would make a nice ad hoc alchemy system for player-made potions.

 

If you follow traditional mage-craft, then potions are made with seven ingredients and an alchemical base. If you follow the new trends in magical research, then potions are made of eight parts. Now that this academical debate that changes nothing is out of the way, the following ingredients are needed:

  • Five to engage the five senses.
  • One for the mind.
  • One for the spirit.
  • A liquid base to bind them all together.

You also need a cauldron.

The ingredients do not need to be expensive or magical of themselves. They form a symbolic medium that is then filled with magic through the ritualistic alchemical process, influenced by the alchemist's intentions. Except for the alchemical base, they also need not be physical. If you wish to add moonlight, for example, you can brew outside on a clear night, or when you need a child's first cry, get yourself a woman in labour.

Therefore, there are no set recipes for potions. Each part should symbolize the required outcome, but things with similar symbolism are interchangeable. The players should think about the effect they want their potion to accomplish, and then justify the ingredients they are using to the GM. If the ingredients make a lot of sense/are funny or clever/are expensive or rare, the potion will be more potent.

Brewing a potion always takes several hours* of stirring the cauldron, keeping the fire properly lit and mumbling arcane phrases from old books. It's a ritual, the alchemist cannot just let it bubble and go do something else. Afterwards, no matter the ingredients used, everything will have melted and mixed together into a smooth potion. The potion will also be safe to drink, no matter the ingredients used.

Potions do not have a long shelf life, they go bad after a day and a night. Brewing permanently potent potions takes a month, expensive ingredients, an alchemical lab built over a ley line, and in general should be left to the NPCs.

Drinking a stale potion is a VERY BAD IDEA. Drinking a potion while still under the influence of another is slightly less bad idea.

d6 Oops! I Drank a Stale Potion

  1. Vomit for d4 minutes.
  2. Gain a horrific mutation, or one based on the potion's effect. Equal chances.
  3. Drop to 0 hp and Save vs poison.
  4. The potion has a random effect instead.
  5. Nothing happens, at first. The potion's effect will kick in at the worst possible time in the next 24 hours.
  6. You didn't get to drinking the potion. As soon as you uncorked the bottle, it started to boil and overflow. Everyone nearby has to Save or get scalded.


d6 Oops! I Drank Multiple Potions

  1. Save or immediately vomit for d4 rounds. On success, vomit only after the effects wear off. The potions work normally, though.
  2. Gain a mutation for d6 hours. Save afterwards, or it's permanent.
  3. One of the potion's effect is inverted.
  4. One of the potion's power is increased hundredfold, dangerously so.
  5. The potions' effects combine in an inconvenient manner and quadruple in duration.
  6. The potions' effects suddenly stop. No potions will work for you for d6 days.

 

 

Here are several example recipes from the Dresden Files:

Escape Potion
BaseEnergy drink
SightFlickering of shadows
SoundRunning
SmellMotor oil
TouchBird feathers
TasteCoffee beans
MindBus ticket
SpiritBroken chain

Love Lust Potion
BaseTequila
SightCandlelight
SoundAroused sigh
SmellPerfume
TouchLace
TasteDark chocolate
MindDiamond**
SpiritLove letter

Stimulant Potion
BaseCoffee
SightSunshine at dawn
SoundCock's crow
SmellFresh soap
TouchWash cloth
TasteDoughnut***
MindA to-do list
SpiritCheerful music

Inconspicuousness Potion
BaseWater
SightClear plastic
SoundLight wind
SmellDeodorant
TouchWhite cotton
TasteLettuce leaf
MindBlank paper
SpiritElevator music
  
A potion can be made only with water,
meat, vegetables and spices.
From Charmed.

  
*) One watch, just like foraging for food or setting up a camp would take. The time doesn't change if you're making more than one dose, you just need a bigger cauldron and more of the ingredients.

**) Though apparently enough cash also works.

***) If you like something else for breakfast, you would use that instead.

13 April 2021

Fever-Dreaming in Marlinko, part 6

This is a game of Finders Keepers set in the city of Marlinko. The dramatis personae are:

  • Atiin Brigantia, a brilliant but lazy lunatic
  • Edward "the Wild" Bleestocles, a leper disowned by his wealthy family
  • Jacobin "Jackass" Valentin, a soulless bastard
  • Tadzio, an estranged son of a powerful mage
  • Victory Alder, a young vampire

 

From here.

prior | next


Atiin's apartment, afternoon
Eventually, everyone gets back to the flat - except for Tadzio and Edward, who spent the whole day here in a deep discussion about changing their names that led to nothing, because they were mainly just drinking away their problems and chucking empty bottles out of the window. With everyone present and all new developments shared, the gang now has secured a way to escape Jarek's wrath for at least a while and turn some profit at the same time.

Only Ed is still grumbling: "Sure, just gonna rub swamp water in my diseased flesh holes, surely that will help with my condition."

There's just one tiny problem - they don't have the money for the supplies that Atiin ordered. After some deliberation, they decide to finally have a proper look on the troublesome trophies still hidden in a sack under a bed, in case they could be somehow inconspicuously sold.
 

All drawings by Oddrick.


An abstract granite sculpture labelled from six years ago. Nothing special, really.
 


A horseshoe with the crest of the House Kladivo in bas-relief and a massive ruby embedded in a nicely crafted case. The ruby turns out to be quite easy to detach from the case.
 

 

A humble cup that could have belonged to a carpenter. Looks cheap, but has a certain aura of je ne sais quoi around it.

Also a strange amphora made of unknown material, apparently sealed shut with wax.
 

 

A heavy golden samovar with inlaid jade stones. Probably a relic from the north-eastern lands plagued with rival barbarian tribes. Likewise sealed shut, but the wax is old and crumbling. Would probably net a nice sum, but way too recognizable to be sold.
 


An obsidian sculpture of a mighty steed, one of its legs broken off. It has an inscription in Old Pahr on its belly, and luckily Atiin can read it: "I shall hold the world's shadow's reins."


A main de gloire seemingly making the V sign; there are two candle wicks sprouting out of those fingertips. The hand is obviously mummified and firmly planted on battered clay in a bowl of bronze. The tripod that supports it is made of some polished stone.

Victory goes to close the shutters and draw the curtains, then lights the wicks on the hand.

"What are you doing?" Tadz asks.

"I've heard these kinda hands only light the way for the one who holds them. Can y'all see the light?" she asks from the darkest corner of the room.

And the hand indeed doesn't shine for anyone but her, yet furthermore the rest of the trophies glisten with strangely coloured auras under the touch of the hand of glory's light, as does Jack's rapier, Atiin's knife and even Vic herself.

"These are odd trophies to be sure," Atiin mutters.
 
"Which reminds me, Tadz, have you seen this?" Victory says as she snuffs out the hand, taking out the Tiger Pit flyer she got from old Slinky. "I know how you like tiger wrestling and there's a special event tomorrow. I guess you shouldn't show yourself to Jarek right now, but we still have the extra clothes and false moustaches, if you'd like to go and watch."

"You know, I've been itching to go to the Pit, but I'm afraid I'll not be able to steer clear from the arena once I'm there. And yes," he smiles, "this is me admitting I might have a problem."
 

***

The South Market, late afternoon
The streets are crowded with people waving little banners with their district's symbol as Victory and Jackass make their way to the South Market again, this time to sell the big ruby and thus get enough money to pay for their already ordered supplies. It's a high time they take care of this business, as all the shops will be closing early tonight and in an hour or two, watchmen will be clearing the streets for the Race.

They find and enter The Němec Certified Jewelers' Society, ran by an elderly couple that seems equal parts cute and annoying. They take their precious time doing anything one can imagine - from greeting the customers to doing math. And there's always a rambling about events past thrown in for good measure, story upon story upon story and no point to them at all. They find Jack and Vic a beautiful couple, and they wish them a bountiful and happy life in lawful wedlock under the Sun Lord's merciful gaze.

They offer five hundred gold for the gem.

"Oh, we were hoping for something closer to eight hundred, isn't that right, honey?" Victory leans into Jackass. "You see, we found this cosy place, very close to the Západ Street, actually, and it would be simply wonderful for kids, I mean, fingers crossed that we should be so blessed by our Lord as soon as possible, but unfortunately it is rather pricey for us right now, plus the cost of a crib and nappies and all the extra clothing, however small and cute it is, I mean, you can surely imagine. It's the only reason we're even considering selling this, I mean, I'm sure my grandmother would approve, may the Lord rest her soul, as it is for the well-being of her grandchildren, after all."
 
The shopkeepers enters this state of silently conferring for a while, doing nothing more than stare at each other and make faces. The old lady makes several pleading faces, then a really impressive threat face. The old man has a shorter repertoire; all his faces are "but honeeeyy" faces.

"Eight hundred is more than fair," the old lady finally says.

Her husband sighs, puts on his best fake smile and start to count the coins. Slowly.

"It is quite impressive stone, after all," the lady continues. "Where did your grandmother get it, if you don't mind me asking, honey?"

"Oh, I don't know much about it, unfortunately. My grandma once told me it was a gift from my grandpa. He used to be a sailor and brought it back from his travels, from somewhere far south, I think."

"Aww. And what would be your family name, dear?"

"Al...nus. Well, it used to be," Vic smiles at Jack again.

"Such a lovely name, darling!" Jack exudes. "It's one of the things that lured me in," he tells the shopkeepers. "That, and her charming smile..."

They both start going through their respective mental files, looking for a respectable Alnus lineage. They're old and slow, and before they are finished, Vic and Jack take their money and bid the old couple a respectful fair-well.

While Jackass hurries to meet with Ed and continue on his duelling date with Kytel, Vic wanders the streets and eventually finds herself back at the Drunken Troll Inn.

The gate to the Tomb of the Town Gods remains open on just a slit, as no one since Fong'orr the barbarian had the guts to tamper with it. In the meantime, people have left a small altar made of religious trinkets in front of it. Maybe a way of wishing Fong'orr luck? Or rather mourning him?

More importantly, Victory finds Steelpike in the tavern proper, drinking by himself. She joins him at the table.

"Good evening, Mr. Steelpike. How do you do? Before you jump to any conclusions, there is no need for concern on your part. I am here only to ask a single question, and then I will be gone again.

Due to new developments that I'm not at liberty to discuss with you, my superiors have become interested in the whereabouts of the gentleman calling himself 'Xoxx'. As you're a known acquaintance of his, I would like to know if you have any information about his current residence here in Marlinko, or where would the League be able to find him? Your cooperation would be deeply appreciated by the League."

He avoids looking at her altogether, picking his nails. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he mutters.

"Ah, that is quite unfortunate. As I said, I am here only to ask a single question, and then I will be gone. We merely wish to find him." And she keeps sitting, smiling at Steelpike all the time.

After a while, he lowers his voice, puts both hands on the table: "Why? Why would you wish to do such a stupid thing?"

"In my line of work, Mr. Steelpike, I find it's not a good idea to ask why. I am told to do something, I do it. And if you help me, I can personally guarantee you that there will be no mention of your name anywhere, plus I will make doubly sure that nobody from us troubles you again."

She leans closer to him and lower her voice, too. "And just between you and me, if you can tell me why did my superiors take a sudden interest in that guy, I will be in your debt. I haven't seen someone... blue like him before and now I'm supposed to go looking for him all over Marlinko!"

"If Jiří wants to locate Xoxx, then someone must tell him that he is out of his depth. But I suppose that that someone is not gonna be you, miss."

Steelpike sips from his cup, takes a deep breath.

"Listen to me. I don't know where he is. He doesn't tell me anything, except when he wants to meet. But now that the..." he hesitates, his heartbeat speeds up. "Fuck it. Now that the map is once more in their possession, I don't think he'll feel the need to ever contact me again."

"Who's they? And that's not the League asking, that's just me, as I would love to know who or what was I sent after and Jiří most definitely won't tell me."

Steelpike is shaking. He finishes his drink in one gulp.

"Eld," he says. "They're called the Eld. I-I think they have their fingers in a lot of pies. I didn't know that when I set out to find their turf, you know. I didn't even know it was their turf to begin with. You'd think most of the traces of their presence in the Weird point to a long-gone people. I thought so at first. I'm sure Fraža still thinks so. He wouldn't want to mess with the sites on that map otherwise."

"Oh. I can't say I have ever heard that name."

"Count your blessings, then. And if you ever get dragged into a trip to the Misty Isles, you get the fuck out. You just go the opposite direction and don't look back. You hear me?"

"Thank you," she stands up and goes to leave, even as he drops a few coppers on the table for his drink and rushes upstairs.
 

***

The Yare Domesman district, evening
Jack and Edward get to Kytel's abode just as the Sun is about to set. It is a nice house with a well-kept garden at the front. Lavender and geraniums, mostly.

Kytel welcomes them inside. He seems worried.

"So," he says, "I've been reading about the matter of duelling, and it seems I've been going about it all wrong!"

He blushes. He's still holding that little book, 'The Art of Properly Duelling'. There are several pieces of cloth marking consecutive sections.

"To begin with, I must apologize to you, my friend, for I am at fault. I should have never proposed to you that we duelled like that, that is to say, out of the blue. That was the most ungentlemanly thing I could have done to someone who has been only decent since we first met, truly." He clutches Jack's shoulder in sincere contrition.

"According to this book, one should only challenge another man to a duel if he believes himself to have been wronged in one way or another. It must be something justifiable according to the rules of morality and/or accepted customs. Never, ever something to indulge for money or personal profit." And a tear runs down his cheek.

Jackass shakes his head. "Ah well. I was afraid you might go and better yourself morally. Still, it's okay - I don't think any less of you. You'll have to make it up to me by buying me dinner some time, that's all!"

Kytel is both embarrassed and grateful. So much so that he insists that Ed and Jack must stay for dinner now, at this very opportunity. That's when they're introduced to Kytel's Auntie Mimi, a nice stocky lady in her sixties. She entertains them with brandy and stories about Kezmarok as Kytel excuses himself for a while - he's the designated cook for the evening.

The dinner is delicious, the presentation exquisite. Both hosts make sure that Jack and Ed are having a great time - Auntie Mimi can be so much more entertaining after a few glasses of Němetzian wine. Her alcohol-fuelled trashy sense of humour seems to bother Kytel at first, but he eventually eases into it. Wine certainly helps.

At one point, the discussion turns to the duel that Kytel has called off about three hours ago. Auntie Mimi finds it ridiculous that her nephew has given up on that, especially as duelling - or at least the idea of duelling - is so obviously his passion. Kytel takes his time to explain that duelling is something to be considered if and only if one of the parties involved can legitimately claim to have been wronged or offended by the other part.

"But wouldn't you say," Mimi asks Jackass, following some rumination, "that you have been wronged by my nephew? After all, he enticed you to duel him - Cold Hell, he even got you to spend money on a weapon! - only to withdraw his challenge without consulting with you first."

She also adds this look that is at once kind and mischievous. There's even a wink there at the end that Kytel doesn't seem to notice.

"Why, you are correct good madame! Kytel, 'tis I who challenge YOU to a duel!" Jack exclaims gleefully.

Kytel is silent at first. It takes a second to sink into his inebriated mind. The realization coincides with him bursting out in tears. He reaches out to Jack, gives him a long hug. There's a lot of "I will forever be in your debt!" and other such gentlemanly statements.

Auntie Mimi discreetly wipes her tears with a handkerchief, declares: "Now, enough of this nonsense! Let us celebrate!" Out of nowhere, she produces a zither and begins playing a cheerful folk song.

The rest of the night is spent singing and dancing and drinking and generally just partying. Ed tries to teach Mimi how to dance this Kezmaroki forlana-like dance. Later on, when everyone's feet are already rather sore from all the dancing, Kytel decides to open a bottle of Marlankh Gold - a strong beverage, the speciality of only a few brewers in the Yare Domesman district. The group raises a toast to... something. No one can really remember to what.

It's a great night.
 

***

The Golden Swine district, night
Atiin goes outside to breathe some fresh air and have a look at the neighbourhood as dusk descends upon Marlinko. In a couple of hours, the Great Race opening ceremony shall begin. All the streets' clotheslines are teeming with the district's banners. Food vendors have their carts rolling to make a profit, the streets are getting ever more clogged with people and the barkers are doing a good job of hyping up the crowds for the upcoming event.

As Atiin squeezes his way through a cheerful crowd setting fire to a two-in-one jokey-and-horse dummy sporting the Sullen Apiarian's colours, he passes by a small clique of ruffians sitting on a rail with their legs wide open and bumps into one of those ruffians' feet.

That's all it takes.

"Oi! Whoss the idear here, you wuss? You kickin' Misha's foot on purpose, are you?"

"You tell 'im, Misha!"

"Bash 'is skull in, Misha!"

Atiin is pretty much boxed in by the crowd and the houses. If he was to choose flight over fight, he would still need to flee through those barbarians. If the ruffians are even associated with the Northern Shirtless Barbarians. Perhaps they just enjoy walking around shirtless. Frankly, at this point it is hard to know for sure. But they surely reek of booze.

Still, Atiin is in no mood for combat and bull-rushes Misha to open an escape path. His shoving technique is actually so effective that it cascades down to the other shirtless ruffians, who fall on top of each other like a line of tattooed, swollen-pecked dominoes.

As he darts away, he can hear them call each other "wanker" and wish all kinds of bloody murder on him. Before they get ready to give chase, though, he turns a corner and hides in the first unlocked door.

It's a soirée.

Also lo and behold, if that isn't Littlest Pavol right there, sweating profusely, with a crumpled piece of paper in his hand, which he reads and re-reads nervously, at the same time fidgeting at every brilliant turn of phrase delivered by the poet that is currently performing at the small stage in the middle of the room, surrounded by a bunch of ladies and dandies who are all trying hard to look unimpressed.

Littlest Pavol is standing by the stage steps, obviously up to perform next. Except he doesn't look ready in the slightest. He chugs deeply from a tankard of... well, something.

After he catches his breath, Atiin goes up to Pavol: "You got this man. Poetry is from the cosmos, you are a highly tuned instrument conveying that to the adoring masses, yadda yadda. You will do fine."

Then he notices that Pavol's precious piece of paper is blank.

"I-I... I can't do this... I don't feel well. Must be something I had earlier! I don't know," he looks at Atiin with big puppy eyes. "Maybe it's okay if I skip this one, right? They would understand. Right?"

"I understand, man."

Pavol smiles, somewhat relieved. "I... I got some hruz left here-" He pats his pockets. "-somewhere. Wanna help me find a cooking pot?"

"Sure bud."

Atiin follows Littlest Pavol to the kitchen, where their presence disturbs all the work, though the staff seems very good at concealing just how pissed they are about that. Not that Pavol would ever notice that. He grabs a pot and a bottle of wine on his way out, telling Atiin to get a couple of cups.

They navigate to this place's little library, which has a fireplace already stocked with wood. Atiin kindles the fire as Pavol takes care of their assorted cookware.

"I'm Pavol, by the way," he says. "People call me Littlest Pavol, since there are too many Little Pavols in Marlinko already. What about you? What should I call you?"

"I'm Atiin."

They fill their cups and have a drink. The wine is surprisingly good.
 
Then Pavol grabs a book from one of his pockets and opens it to reveal a carved-in hollow holding a metal case. Inside the case are two flasks; inside each flask is a snail.

Pavol is quite meticulous about what comes next. He picks one flask, uncorks it, shakes it to drop its content in the cooking pot. He corks the empty flask again, puts it away carefully. He repeats the exact same with the second flask. With a needle, he pricks each snail at one specific spot.

"You don't wanna think of them sizzling still alive in there. That's a recipe for a bad trip. Oh, there's some oil left in this pot. Good."

He hangs the pot on a hook over the fire. When it starts to sizzle, he sprinkles some wine on the snails. A minute or so later, he picks one fried snail and passes it to Atiin.

"You just let it melt beneath your tongue. That's how I do it anyway."

They both indulge and drink some more wine, chatting about nothing.

Half an hour goes by. Attin gets more and more sick in his stomach. He can feel it coming. He rushes to a corner behind a bookcase and hurls it all out.

Once he finally stops retching, Atiin sits by Pavol who is by now sprawled over an ottoman and giggling softly, eyes rolled back into the head and completely lost in his dreamscapes. This is a golden opportunity and Atiin knows that. He just isn't sure what to do with it.

Eventually, he starts to speak: "Listen to my voice. It's Atiin. I'm your best bud, okay? Remember it. Never forget it. You trust me completely, Pavol. You trust me with your life. We're buddies, you and me. You would never doubt me. Remember that. You trust me, you trust me absolutely..." And he drones on and on and on. The dregs of the drug keeps him going non-stop for hours upon hours, whispering about their eternal, unbreakable bond of trust.

When Atiin wakes up in the morning, the fire has completely died out. It's cold in there.

Littlest Pavol is gone.
 

***

Kytel's Abode, morning
Jacobin Valentin comes to on Kytel's couch. He can just barely recall having dreamt of his time at the Merciful Sun Lord's Saintly Orphaned Children's Choir. That is where he first learned that he was nothing but a soulless jackass, when every time he sang, it hurt the Mother Superior's ears. Yes, he was a cursed boy, a bastard through and through.

But today, the dream was different than before. Today, he looked up at the Mother Superior as she raised her cane to strike, and he yelled at her. From the top of his lungs, he let out this string of the worst insults he knew. He persevered at it even as his mouth stiffened and increasingly refused to follow his intent. At a certain point, Jacobin became aware of a slight shift in the scenery: the Mother Superior was somehow also Revoc, the razor-tongued god.

He was not offended by all the cursing, oh no. Indeed, he seemed to be quite pleased by such demonstration of guile and... soulfulness? He held his belly as he laughed, as a father would laugh about something amusing his little child did or said.

As a reward, his razor-bladed tongue whipped Jacobin in the face, shredding the skin and drowning Jacobin's vision in blood. That is when Jackass woke up.

Kytel is already preparing them a hearty breakfast and Auntie Mimi is upstairs, finishing all the morning preparations that women of certain social status seem to require.

Only Edward is unaccounted for.
 

***

The Tomb Plaza, still the previous evening
Victory resupplies her cigarettes at a tobacco stand.

There are many now in the streets, peddlers specializing in all sorts of goods, the majority of them predictably gravitating towards the Town Council Hall, where the opening ceremony of the Great Race is taking place. There are streamers hanging from a multitude of lines criss-crossing the night sky in most streets, and somehow they managed to do the same with that patch of the Tomb Plaza that faces the Council Hall building.

This is by far the largest, most regal building in all of Marlinko. On a work day, it would be teeming with bureaucrats, solicitors, guild representatives and the occasional grandmaster or undercouncilperson scheduled for an appointment or a speech at one of the chambers. Throughout the day there would be a meagre but steady influx of unemployed adventurers stopping by the big board to check for new gigs. Sometimes, a convicted felon would be escorted out of the building after hearing the judge's verdict and straight into one of the four Undercouncil Halls, where they will serve their life sentences as convict-jockeys, training without respite to bring the district that has their custody the next year's Great Race trophy.

This is how it goes during ordinary days - not today, though. Today the jockeys are not treated as convicts, but as heroes. There they are, being cheered left and right as they are led to the scaffolding structure assembled in front of the Hall. Soon, the Head Councilman will speak, then the Chief Undercouncilman for the Golden Swine district will speak. Then the contenders will line up before the public. Then the Head Councilman will extol their bravery, their selflessness. Then he will declare this year's Race open, even though it will not start until dawn. Then there will be music and before long everyone will be even drunker than they already are.

Victory strolls around the Tomb Plaza until she spots a group of rakes joking around near the Tomb. She joins their group and soon they are trying to one-up each other and show off.

"Oh, I'm sure you could beat two of Jarek's tigers with your hands tied behind your back," Vic flutters her eyelashes, "but you know what would be really impressive? I bet you wouldn't put a foot into the Tomb over there! Yeah, where the crazy barbarian broke in. That guy had some guts!"
 
She leans into one of the rakes, then moves towards the door and pulls him with her.

"Come on, pretty boy! Don't tell me you'd be scared of the dark," she giggles.

The bro-dude gulps and looks around. People nearby have now taken notice of what's going on with this little group. A dozen commoners stop what they're doing to watch. The remaining rakes cannot make up their minds about stepping ahead or back, but eventually decide to take several teeny-tiny steps back, hoping that no one will notice the receding line of bro-dudes getting farther and farther away from the Tomb.

The one dragged by Vic, though, throws his cup over his shoulder, hits a random passer-by, and steps ahead of her, not to be humbled by a pretty girl.

He grabs a torch from another bystander.

A few teenagers start to cheer for the two of them. Other people beg of them not to do anything stupid.

All of this gets to the guy, he trembles with every word addressed to him. When he cautiously pushes the door, there must be about forty people gathered around for the unexpected show.

Victory and the rake cross the threshold together. They disappear into the darkness, their torch illuminating just a sorry small circle on the dark floor.

The door closes.

Everyone gasps.

Nothing happens, only the Great Race celebrations continue in the background.

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