Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 22
Stories
Love, Cayce
by Marie Brennan
Exodus Tides
by Aliette de Bodard
Exiles of Eden
by Brad R. Torgersen
The Long Way Home
by G. Norman Lippert
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
The Bus Stop
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Love, Cayce
    by Marie Brennan

Love, Cayce
Artwork by Dean Spencer

Dear Mom and Dad,

The good news is, nobody's dead anymore.

Maggie says I shouldn't tell you that up front, because you'll freak out over knowing somebody died. I say that if I don't tell you up front, you'll freak out when I get to the bit where the temple roof fell in, because you won't know we're all alive now. It's better this way, right?

(Starting with this also lets me say: Dad, despite what it's going to sound like, it wasn't Bjartald's fault. So please don't go charging off to Stoneheart Hall, because Helga will only drop you off the Bridge of Granthun Tol again, and then you'll have to bribe the under-gnomes to let you out, and I know Mom's still ticked about the promises you made last time.)

With that out of the way, let me tell you what your only daughter has been up to since she left home, and why she hasn't been writing letters like she promised.

I admit, I wasn't real optimistic when I walked out of the Rose and Crown. Just because you and Helga and Liraiel and Martin were great friends back in your adventuring days doesn't mean your kids will get along, too. Hell, I honestly thought it was the setup for some bard's tragic ballad, and the only question was which of us would go evil and betray the others. Urgoth or Shariel was my guess, depending on who's writing the ballad. (Not me, of course. I would never dream of going evil. Except, possibly, after three straight weeks of listening to Urgoth and Bjartald snore in harmony.)

And that send-off party in the Rose and Crown almost convinced me to climb out a window and run off on my own. Yeah, it's great that you guys were big heroes once upon a time, with friends everywhere from Okwengu to the northern tundra, but you know, I've listened to the stories my brothers tell. Being the kid of the adventurers who killed Irix Fellshadow isn't all it's cracked up to be. For one thing, you and your old pals have enemies in all those places, too, and for another -- does the word "pressure" mean anything to you? And my luck, I get old enough to strike out on my own just when Shariel and Bjartald do, too, and then Martin shows up out of nowhere for the first time in years with a not-entirely-human son in tow, so now it isn't just me, it's a whole pack of us, and gee, wouldn't it be great if you kids all adventured together? Just like in the old days!

If I sound bitter, it's because I was. I can hear Mom now: "You should have told us, sweetie!" Yes, I should have. Only the Unblinking Eye knows how different things would have been if I had. But what's done is done; I decided to let you go ahead and relive your glory days through me, and for that alone, everything that's happened since is at least partly my fault.

But don't worry -- I don't blame myself for all of it. There's more than enough finger-pointing to go around.

So off we go, out the tavern door, with everybody cheering us on, one more merry band of wet-behind-the-ears kids off to save the world. We felt like idiots. The instant we got out of sight, Urgoth clammed up (didn't say a word again for three days), Bjartald started complaining that we'd given him more than his fair share of the baggage just because he's a dwarf, and Shariel, to shut Bjartald up and cover for Urgoth's uncomfortable silence, started lecturing us all on the ancient kingdomthat ruled the Heartlands four thousand years ago. Off to a great start, we were.

That night we had our first argument, about where to go. Bjartald was full of advice from Helga, and Shariel had these delusions of going after the ghost of Tel Korass -- you know, that undead necromancer you guys never got around to dealing with? Urgoth just sat there and stared at the fire, which meant it was up to me to play umpire between "But Mutter says" and "I'm sure we won't have the slightest difficulty." The only thing we agreed on was that we weren't going within ten miles of that corrupt village priest you all were dropping anvil-sized hints about. The only thing more embarrassing than being sent off with an adventuring party your parents put together for you is accepting Baby's First Quest from them, too.

Thank the gods of all our races for Shadyvale, the town we came to a couple of days later, and the bandits that were attacking its caravans. That was something we could manage. Which we did -- and then Bjartald, who may or may not have felt he had anything to prove after some comments I may or may not have made about him being a whiner, volunteered to open up the treasure chest because he figured he could deal with whatever trap was on it (where "deal with" translates to "take it in the face"). But those bandits were vindictive bastards; they'd rigged the chest to a booby-trap on the whole hut, and Shariel ended up with a broken arm and a concussion. So much for protecting the wizard, eh?

Yes, I know what you've always said. Helga wasn't the only parent full of advice. And contrary to family legend, I do sometimes listen to what you say. So I hereby admit it: you were right, and we need a thief to deal with traps. That's Maggie, who I mentioned before. The most cleverest of halflings, and beautiful, too, with eyes like autumn honey -- so she tells me to write, anyway. (She's leaning over my shoulder right now.) Maggie, aka Margarethadel Mapleweather, was the one who guided us to the bandit camp, and after the hut collapsed we offered her a job with us -- even if she did fall over laughing when she saw Bjartald's beard was burnt half off.

(Don't worry; it's grown back. But do me a favor and don't tell Shariel's mother about the concussion.)

But you know, not all of your advice is good! "Goblins," you always said, "goblins are good pickings for young adventurers just starting out." After all, that's how you did it, back in your day. Unfortunately for us, the goblins are tired of being picked on by baby adventurers. The survivors of that raid you did on the Snaggletooth tribe? They've started a coalition among the goblins of the Heartlands, recruiting help from other monsters. Which we didn't find out until we went after a nice easy village about two days west of Shadyvale and ended up in the Dragontrap.

And that's where things started to go wrong.

Uh-oh -- the caravan's about to leave. If I don't post this now, you'll never get it; there isn't exactly regular mail service in the Wayyir Desert. Yes, I'm in Wayyir. Yes, I know Dad once got his skin peeled off here, and I remember your warnings never to come within a hundred leagues of the place. No time to explain now. I'll write again later, if I can.

Love,

Cayce

Dear Mom and Dad,

Thank you for the care package -- even if its arrival made Abu ibn Jaqsa completely panic, because if you could find us (or probably Liraiel -- you totally went to her with my last letter, didn't you, even though I asked you not to), then he thought it meant his shield against scrying had failed in the night. Since we're paying him to keep us hidden through Wayyir, I suppose I'm glad he panicked; better than him being asleep on the job, right? I explained about the amulet you had that crazy gnome implant in my hip, but he isn't convinced. (I'm still not sure I am, either. Every so often I think I feel it twitching.)

But the healing potions are very much appreciated, as well as the gold. You forgot, though, to include instructions for how to use the petrified dragons' ears, or even what they're for. Are they food? Bjartald keeps insisting they're food. And did Helga really not clip some of his hair before he left, in case of serious death? I can believe it of Martin, but not Helga Hammerhard.

Speaking of Martin -- I think I did a very bad job, at that send-off party in the Heartlands, of hiding how uncertain I was about Urgoth coming with us. I want to say it had less to do with what Urgoth looks like, and more to do with Martin appearing out of nowhere with him just a few months earlier; as dubious as I was about adventuring with Bjartald and Shariel, at least I'd been to their birthday parties as a kid. Then again, I might just be fooling myself. It's hard to trust a stranger, but it doesn't get any easier when he has green skin and tusks. Even if they're little tusks.

Well, please convey my apologies to Martin. Urgoth has saved my sorry ass more times than I can count, and it was wrong of me to imagine he might one day turn on us. (But I take back nothing I said about Shariel. Oeu bless her pointy little ears, but if any of us are going to go evil, it'll be her, just out of sheer bloody curiosity.) Maybe if Urgoth's mother had raised him among her people, there'd be a problem, but as it stands he's really more human than orc. And you know, orcs aren't entirely bad -- for one thing, they've got better hygiene than dwarves. So if you can reassure Martin (subtly!) that his son's a good adventurer, please do. I know Urgoth worries about it.

Anyway, I've clipped hair from him and Bjartald both, though I'm not sure when I'll be able to send the vials back; Abu ibn Jaqsa insists that teleporting them to you will mean our enemies can find us, though I'm not sure I follow his logic. Then again, what do I know about magic? I'm also enclosing some hair from Maggie -- I'd feel pretty rude if you guys resurrected us, but left her dead, just because her parents aren't old adventuring buddies of yours.

So, that letter you put into the care package was pretty fascinating: Shariel's trying to figure out how you got it to telepathically scream certain parts only into my head, and Maggie wants to know where Mom learned to swear like that. Is this any example to set for your impressionable daughter? I appreciate that you guys actually kept your promise not to scry on me once I left home (and, more impressively, seem to have made Liraiel keep it, too), but I'm beginning to think I never should have sent that letter. It's done bad things to your peace of mind. There are things you need to know, though, and since there isn't a lot to do while riding across the Wayyir except sleep -- the dust-fiends are mostly nocturnal, so I'm up all night defending the camp -- I might as well fill you in.

(YES, Mom, I'm getting enough rest. Is nagging like that something they teach in every seminary? Because it's like you shrank two feet and grew a beard, every time Bjartald opens his mouth.)

So we were going after that goblin village, right? Well, they lured us straight in, and we didn't see the magic circle until we were standing in it. A beginner mistake, I know, and one that blew up in our faces rather spectacularly. Some robed creature starts chanting -- I have no idea what he was; not a goblin, that's for sure -- and next thing we know we're halfway across the world and halfway up a mountain. Dad, you'd be proud of me; I took a look around at the vegetation and figured out we must be in the Dragontrap before the first dragon showed up to eat us.

For the record: your stories do not do that place justice. Maggie almost fell off the ledge we appeared on, and I think she would have had another birthday before she hit the ground. It's kind of gorgeous, really, with all the granite slabs and snowmelt waterfalls. Pity you can't take the time to appreciate it when you're trying desperately to stay alive.

It was around then that I figured out Shariel's historical lectures are actually a calming mechanism that kicks in when she's nervous. No sane creature of any humanoid race would respond to "Oh shit, we're in the Dragontrap" with a perky declaration that the wizards who constructed the trap-spells achieved it by fusing the imperative art-speech of the ancient Rowhaurangan enchanters with the conjurational whatever of the whoevers. Not unless she's trying to keep herself from screaming. But screaming turned out to be kind of inevitable before she got more than twenty words in, because, well, DRAGON.

As much as I'd like to tell you we bravely whacked off its scaly, horned, fanged, fire-breathing head, the truth is we ran like scared little bunny rabbits. Which doesn't work real well on a surface that's more vertical than horizontal: we promptly fell off the ledge. But hey, there are advantages to thousand-foot-drops; they give you time to think! And also to spellcast. Shariel's calming mechanism must work, or else the screaming settled her down, because she managed first to float our fall, then to make us invisible, and with the winds tearing around in the valleys no dragon was going to be able to track us by scent. Of course, floating as we were, the winds also scattered us to hell and gone, and getting back together when you're all invisible and trying not to be found by dragons is a cute trick.

But we managed it, and then we started running again (this time on flatter ground), and kept running until we were past the boundary of the trap-spells. Funny how fast even a halfling and a dwarf can run with dragons nipping at their heels -- okay, Bjartald just tried to knock me off my camel for writing that, and I think Maggie's going to knife me in my sleep. Maybe it will appease them if I also say that it's amazing how far an elf -- no, on second thought, I don't want to find out what other spells Shariel has up her sleeves, so I'll just stop while I'm, er, behind.

(Urgoth was great, though. And I'm not just saying that because his sword's as big as I am.)

Insert a lot of gloating here about how good I am, getting us out of the Dragontrap without a map or any of the magic weapons you guys didn't give us because we should, and I quote, "have the fun of winning treasure for yourselves." I'd write the gloating out myself, since my ego could use some balm against the bruises it's taken, but we've lost most of our baggage along the road and Abu ibn Jaqsa's stingy with his paper, so I'm trying to keep this short. Also, it would be embarrassing to write all that, then admit at the end that although I got us out of the mountains, I didn't realize how far south we were.

Yeah. We, er, missed Bhuvak, and crossed over into Lunggar instead.

On the bright side, the slavers apparently never saw a halfling before, and thought Maggie was some kind of mutant breed of beardless dwarf. Which she was quick enough to take advantage of, at least for herself; she got the royal treatment, by captivity standards, all the way to Phrasom. (Did you know that's the capital of Lunggar? I didn't. And why didn't I? Because Dad, when giving me geography

lessons, pointed at the map and said "That's Lunggar, but trust me, hon, you don't ever want to go there," and moved on to places he considered suitable for his daughter to adventure in. Sorry to break it to you, Dad, but I appear to be on a Grand Tour of everywhere you never wanted me to go, and it would be nice if I knew something about the places I'm being teleported and chased and flown and dragged and shadowstepped to.)

(Just kidding about the shadowstepping. So far, anyway.)

So where was I? Phrasom. I'm not sure what happened with Maggie while we were in the slaver pens; we all got crammed into one big cage, and she went somewhere else. But Bjartald found a Gorevyish priest who spoke enough Heartlander to tell us more than we wanted to know about the slavers' plans for us: they were going to whack off Shariel's fingers and cut out her tongue, then sell her as a pleasure-toy, ship Bjartald off to die in a mine, and send me and Urgoth to their gladiatorial arenas. Apparently there's a big market for female gladiators. They didn't think I'd last long, and I wasn't sure whether to be terrified or offended.

Those plans ended up being useful to us, though. They weren't going to mutilate Shariel until a buyer showed interest (because maybe somebody would want to buy an intact wizard, for the excitement of keeping her from killing him? I don't even know), and the mine overseers only come once a month, so those two were safe for the moment. Urgoth and I, not so much, but when they moved us into a different pen with the other would-be gladiators, I found myself truly grateful, for the first time, that you guys really do have friends everywhere. This old guy in the pen (not a gladiator himself, but a trainer) turned out to be Ba Xiue -- you know, the Lunggarian mercenary you guys helped escape the geas put on him by his employer? Somehow he recognized Martin in Urgoth's face (don't ask me how), and once all the "hey, how's your father doing, oh I'm sorry to hear his orcish romance didn't work out" formalities were done with, Ba Xiue helped us get a message to Maggie.

Whereupon we proved to the slavers that sticking all the would-be gladiators into one pen is a really bad idea, even if you don't give them weapons. Where there's a will, there's a way to kill people.

After Maggie picked the lock on the pen and Urgoth led the Charge of the Pissed-Off Prisoners, we were pretty close to home free -- for values of "home" that put us on the wrong side of the continent from the actual holder of that title. Sure, some of the guards got away, and sure, they put the entire standing army of Phrasom into the streets, but Ba Xiue's apparently been itching to lead a rebellion, so we let him get on with that, and got out while we could. Aside from the weird tentacled beastie some conjurer sent after our party, we had a relatively easy time escaping Lunggar.

Once we were in Bhuvak, we started looking for a boat to take us to someplace we'd rather be. Which was pretty much anyplace other than Lunggar or the Dragontrap, at that point. But, well, you know pirates, and I don't mean Cousin Eddie, either. And according to Shariel, the storm that caught us while we were fleeing the pirates wasn't normal, it was some kind of magic thing -- I didn't understand her explanation, but it has something to do with a wizard casting a dimensional spell under the wrong conditions during a storm? Judging by what it did to us, it's the same thing you guys ran into when you were on vacation in Asterrhion. Thanks to your stories, I knew enough to keep me and the others from being ripped into bite-sized pieces -- though not all of the sailors were so lucky. Of course, the downside to the stories is that I also knew enough to dread what would happen after that. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, or at least better than the alternative.

Dammit, Abu etc won't give me more paper. Sorry for tiny scribble. Will mail this on other side of desert. More later.

Mostly in one piece,

Cayce

Dear Mom and Dad,

Sorry about that gnomish amulet; you must have had kittens when you realized it wasn't working anymore, and it's been a while since my last letter. No need to worry, though; I'm out of Wayyir and into a civilized land, with both mail service and an abundant supply of paper, and while the royal bodyguards did cut the amulet out of my hip, they brought a priest to heal me afterward. We're not only being well taken care of, we're being pampered, and let me tell you, it is so very nice after everything we've been through. Contrary to what you told me during those less-than-adequate geography lessons, Dad, Ahuatepec is not actually a bad place.

It's changed since you chased Fellshadow's mist-assassin here. They tell me there was a palace coup about ten years ago, and the priests don't run the show anymore. The new queen is very nice, and they get so few visitors from outside that we're being treated as if we were royal ambassadors. It's kind of like being on vacation, except for the hummingbird-sized mosquitoes.

I seem to be the only person who's not sure what to do with my vacation, either. Urgoth's trying to eat his body weight at least once a day -- which is not as much as you might think; we've been on short rations for way too long now, and I don't blame him for making up the difference while he can. Bjartald is alternating between sleeping and sampling the local corn beer with a couple of fellow priests. Shariel, who appears to have misunderstood the concept of "relaxation," is attempting to pack five years' worth of magical education into her head, courtesy of this smoking young sorceress who's figured out that arcana's the quickest route to Shariel's affections -- if she can get her to put the books down for ten minutes. Maggie . . . best not to talk about how Maggie's been keeping herself amused.

Hopefully this convinces you that, despite me being in Ahuatepec, I'm not in dire peril, at least not at the moment. With that out of the way, then, let me get back to the dimensional storm.

I can't remember where you guys ended up after Asterrhion, but it seems that for once we were luckier than you. Call the residents of Dibirvedne barbarians if you like -- which they are; raw reindeer meat, ugh -- but their shamans know all about dealing with astral creatures. They were a bit surprised when we showed up out of nowhere, but it only took them about three days to figure out how to reverse the storm's effects and convert our bodies back into something physical. (Though Bjartald complains that he still doesn't feel entirely solid.) We therefore got to skip the stage where everyone goes batshit crazy -- except maybe Maggie, but really, with her, who can tell?

I won't bother writing up what happened after that, since Jass presumably passed along a summary after we showed up at his thieves' guild in Les Leyasulas. (The ice giant was pretty cool, though. Even if it was kind of a piddling giant, compared to the one you killed outside Irix Fellshadow's glacier-citadel.) Jass did give me the requested earful from you two about the lack of letters -- but hey, how was I supposed to know Shariel's messages home were expurgated to the point of uselessness? I thought Liraiel was telling you everything. (Don't listen to a word Jass said about what we went on during our visit, though. I ask you, who's the bigger idiot: the supposedly responsible elder brother who left the watch commander in the town square wearing nothing but a few parrot feathers and impersonating a chicken, or his sister who is totally not at fault for some random were-rat thief falling in love with her?)

Anyway, in Les Leyasulas we decided it was time to start acting like grown-up adventurers. You and Helga and Martin and Liraiel gave us epic tomes full of advice on how to start our adventuring careers, but we were kind of past our bandit-and-goblin days. And we were tired of being flung all over the map for no reason other than a frantic attempt not to die. (Though I finally understand your favorite proverb, Dad, about how real rangers don't bother with maps. It isn't because we have flawless direction sense; it's because you never end up where you planned to go.) We wanted a mission, and found what sounded like a good one: some kind of warlord troubling the dwarves in the Cwrelyn Isles. It was a chance to save something other than our own hides for once, so off we went.

Remember back in my first letter, when I told you the whole people-dying thing wasn't Bjartald's fault? Please keep that in mind through the next bit.

When we got to the islands, we came across a name I think will be familiar to you. Does Saskarezoen ring a bell? Yeah. Whatever you guys did to banish him after you killed Fellshadow, it didn't stick, and he's found a new follower. Or should I say, lots of followers. About two thousand when we landed on Cwrele Syg, and more by now. Which, if we were smart, would have meant we ran the other way, even if we had to walk on water to do it. But Bjartald rescued this dwarf-girl right after we got there, and she begged him to rescue her father, who'd been kidnapped by Saskarezoen's chief minion -- that warlord Jass told us about -- who was trying to use him to force all the dwarves to convert. They didn't like the idea of worshipping a demon (can't imagine why), so we ended up in the middle of a war, and those are hard to walk away from. Especially since you didn't raise me to let my friends go splat the first time they do something dumb -- or the second time, or the seventeenth.

But we actually had a plan; I swear we did. Maybe the dwarves liked the idea of pitting three hundred of themselves against two thousand crazed demon-worshippers, but I'd prefer not to go out in a blaze of glory when I'm nineteen -- or, more likely, wake up in the temple back home with you two sighing and forking over vast amounts of gold to Father Feordin. It's embarrassing, not to mention painful. Plus my brothers would laugh themselves sick. So we decided to strike a deal with

MOM DAD AMULET RETRIEVED SEND LOCKPICKS OR DIMENSIONAL PORTAL ASAP ALSO HOW DO YOU UNPETRIFY A DWARF

Dear Mom and Dad,

You're lifesavers -- almost as much as if you had resurrected us. From Bjartald's point of view, being turned to stone is as good as being dead, even if it's cheaper to fix. Also, we got out of the dungeon just in time to snatch Shariel away from the queen of Ahuatepec, so you get credit for the assist on that one. We're still not entirely sure if the plan was to sacrifice Shariel or to turn her into a man and then marry her to the queen -- Urgoth thinks they were going to kill her so she could be a vessel for the dead guy the queen wanted to marry, and then turn her body male, but Shariel starts gibbering any time we ask, and really, it doesn't matter, because we're fleeing Ahuatepec just as fast as we can go. But Six Flower, the sorceress helping us flee, promises she'll get this letter to you. Apparently she also sent along my earlier attempt, the one that petered out mid-sentence when the drugs they'd slipped into my corn beer kicked in. I don't know if that got to you before or after me yowling for help -- which Maggie gets the credit for, although where exactly she kept that wind-whisper charm I don't want to know, since the guards stripped us all before throwing us in the dungeon. Either way, the lockpicks and de-petrification ointment were exactly what we needed, so THANK YOU.

That whole "fleeing" thing means I don't have much time to write -- I'm scribbling this while huddled inside a hollow tree, hiding from the seriously giant eagles they have in this part of the world -- so I'll just get to the point. I'm leaving Ahuatepec, and headed to worse places, because of that damned business back in the Cwrelyn Isles. The rest of what happened between there and Wayyir would take too long to tell, so I'm just going to hit the key points:

1) It wasn't Bjartald's fault, it was Helga's, for telling her favorite story so damned often -- the one where she killed the wyvern by hammering out a pillar so the ceiling fell in on it.

2) It's doubly Helga's fault for not giving Bjartald enough architecture lessons for him to know which pillar to hit to kill Saskarezoen, instead of everybody else.

3) You guys, however, get hugs and kisses for telling me to make friends with any wandering monk of Osmaitlik I came across. Having buddies in the order helps a lot when it comes time to resurrect four-fifths of your adventuring party.

4) Get one of your crazy gnome friends to invent a convenient way of hauling around four corpses while trying to contact the Osmaitliks. Also a way to keep them from stinking.

5) I'm trying to invent more key points because I don't want to tell you the last one. Ever since I started writing that first letter I've been looking forward to yelling at you, but now that I finally get my chance I don't want to put the words down on the page. You have to promise me you won't teleport after us, and you won't let Helga do it either, or Liraiel, or Martin, or anybody else, because if you do I won't just be dead, I'll be the kind of dead you don't come back from even if your parents have saved a lock of your hair and enough gold to pay Father Feordin, the kind of dead that doesn't lead to fun stories over beers when you're retired and hanging out with your pals down at the tavern, the kind of dead that even an epic quest to the heavenly dimensions or selling your true name to a forgotten god might not save your daughter from. I mean it. Stay away. We'll fix this on our own.

6) Having said that: YOU DIDN'T KILL IRIX FELLSHADOW DEAD ENOUGH.

Everybody else got flattened to paste in that temple on Cwrele Syg. I? Got my soul stolen. We're heading south from Ahuatepec into Sheshab (which is not quite a completely uninhabited wasteland since Fellshadow came back from the dead, bound Saskarezoen into his service, and made it build a city there for his new followers) because the demon told me to come fetch my soul if I could. Which is obviously a trap. I'm not dumb enough to miss that. But what else can I do? Fellshadow knows who we are, and he definitely remembers how you guys killed him, and if you show up he won't give you a second crack at finishing him off. He'll obliterate my soul and vanish, and then he'll hunt Shariel and Bjartald and Urgoth down one by one and do the same thing to them, and maybe Maggie too just for the fun of it, and I don't want to see who's quicker on the draw, you or him.

It's all okay, though. Yeah, we're walking straight into the bad guy's lair, and yeah, he knows we're coming, and yeah, I'm pretty sure he's a match even for you guys (at least in your mildly paunchy retired state -- don't glare at me, Dad, it's true), which means we don't stand a chance.

But don't worry. We Have a Plan.

Totally not going to die,

Cayce

Dear Mom and Dad,

Greetings from sunny Shadyvale! By now you'll have heard whatever mangled version of the story Shariel gave her mother via the mirror-chat they had, so let me clear up a few things. To begin with: yes, the Plan did in fact involve dressing Urgoth in drag.

No, this wasn't Maggie's idea of a joke. Urgoth swears blind it's some incredibly sacred orcish tradition; you'll have to get independent confirmation of that. It got him past Fellshadow's sentries, though, because they were looking for a big guy trying his best to look human, not an orc woman come to join the Wacky Cult o' Demon-Worshipping Fun. As for the eagle, that was my idea, even if Shariel's the one who seduced Six Flower into teaching her the spell for controlling them. But I am not to be blamed for the whole "death from above" part of the Plan, and whatever Bjartald claims, him breaking his fall on the weird sculpture in the courtyard was pure blind luck. We didn't even know until later it was the framework for a spell Fellshadow was perfecting, that let him drain souls to fuel his own power. I hear Liraiel aged a century when Shariel told her that: apparently one of the first things they teach you in Wizarding 101 is never to dispel a major enchantment by smashing it with a free-falling dwarf.

Which is a warning I generally endorse. Having a score of shrieking souls suddenly whizzing around the courtyard, playing slalom with random bolts of arcane lightning, isn't a situation most sane people want to be in. But chaos is a great way to level the playing field, and it took us from "almost certain doom" to "fifty-fifty chance whether you live or die," and we won the coin toss. Urgoth had found the statue Fellshadow bound Saskarezoen to, and I managed to knock it down a staircase (even if I did dislocate my shoulder in the process), which according to Wizarding 102 is the recommended way of freeing a demon. Then it was all up to Maggie and her incredibly fast-talking silver tongue. (You always make getting a demon to drag its master off to hell sound as easy as picking off goblin villages, but -- well, okay, given our experience with goblin villages, maybe the two are comparable, just not in the way I thought.)

And yes, we got my soul back. Fellshadow had been waiting on feeding it to his spell-machine until I got there: the benefit of having a sadistic enemy. Though I must say, his taste in jewelry was atrocious. The ring he stuck my soul in is one of the tackiest things I've seen in my life.

So we're back in Shadyvale now, enjoying a well-earned rest while Maggie tells a version of our adventures that bears only a passing resemblance to the truth. Did you know she single-handedly slew a slate dragon back in our brief mountain interlude? Or that she's now personal friends with the Premier Satrap of Lunggar? I sure didn't.

But the vacation won't last long. For one thing, we need to find a priest who can get my soul out of this travesty of a ring and back into my body. For another, it turns out that you have to be a lot closer friends with the monks of Osmaitlik than I am to get four resurrections for free, so we're in debt up to our eyeballs, and sadly, there wasn't much loot to be had in Sheshab. In fact, we've seen a terrible lack of shiny things in general, and those few we've had, we've mostly spent and/or lost. Were you always this poor when you were adventuring? I'm beginning to suspect you retired after Fellshadow because you had pots of money to your name, and wanted to quit before some resurrection fee or dimensional fluctuation or pocket-picking leprechaun made it all vanish again.

(I don't suppose you could spare a bit out of one of those pots of money to pay off the monks? No, I can hear Mom now: "If you're enough of a Mighty Adventurer to go to Lunggar even after your father told you not to, you're mighty enough to pay your own bills." I guess I'd better start calculating the hoard-to-effort ratio of the nearest dragon.)

But mainly we need to start preparing for a little trip. You see, Saskarezoen had a price for prying the ring off Fellshadow's finger before dragging him down to hell. Prior to our attack on the fortress, it seems the demon formed a bit of an attachment to Sexy Lady Urgoth.

He's engaged to be married at the end of the year, and we're all in the wedding party.

So we're off to hell in a little bit, where we'll have to figure out some way to jilt a demon without getting ourselves killed. It's possible Fellshadow's soul will be there, too, and that bastard isn't dead enough for my peace of mind.

Wish me luck. I'll send you Fellshadow's head when we're done -- or wedding pictures, depending on how things go.

Still miffed about the ugly ring,

Cayce


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