Tuesday, August 22, 2017

[Movie Review] Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman (2017)

Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, David Thewlis, Daniel Huston, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Lucy Davis, Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock
Directed by: Patty Jenkins

Wonder Woman is a special film. It’s not the only superhero film being released this year. It’s not the only action film directed by a woman. But it is the only successful big-budget superhero action film based on a popular comic book that both stars and was directed by a woman. As a fan of comic book superheroes and a woman, that set the expectation bar pretty high for me. But Wonder Woman delivered.

There have been some complaints by reviewers that too many comic book films are origin stories, telling the audience how the character gained his powers and chose to become a superhero. Wonder Woman is an origin film, too, but in this case it was the right thing to do. The first portion of the film explains not how Wonder Woman gained her powers or what those powers are, but the culture and family that made her who she is. Princess Diana of Themyscira was raised to be a warrior, even though her mother Queen Hippolyta didn’t want her to be one. Her entire culture is one of warriors. Diana was also raised to have a fairly black-and-white view of right and wrong, and to believe that it is her duty to protect others. This all comes into play when she meets the first man she has ever seen in the flesh, American spy Steve Trevor, and decides that she must go to the world beyond Themyscira to stop the First World War.

I was really pleased that the filmmakers chose to set this in WWI. It was a turning point in warfare, the first time that airplanes, tanks, and long-range artillery were really used in an international war. War had become impersonal. Earlier wars had artillery, but soldiers often still fought hand-to-hand. WWI changed all that, in addition to adding chemical weapons to the horrors of warfare. Wonder Woman touches on that by making one of its villains ‘Doctor Poison’, a scientist engaged in creating gas weapons for Germany. 

Interestingly, this scientist is a woman, which wouldn’t actually have been that strange in the real world, although in real life her contributions would likely have been credited to her male partners. Despite the horrible things Doctor Poison does throughout the film, the story treats her with surprising compassion and empathy instead of making her a cardboard heartless villain. 

As Diana gets to Europe she deals with culture shock, especially rampant sexism, but the film doesn’t spend too much time focusing on that. The point of the film is for Diana to become Wonder Woman, protector of the Earth, and for her to recognize the full extent of her powers. It’s also important for her to recognize that even though people do bad things, that does not always make them bad people. She learns to broaden her world view and to maintain her great compassion and desire for justice in the face of overwhelming odds.

The choice of a relatively unknown actress in the role of Diana is a good one. It sets aside any viewer expectations of that actor, and allows the audience to get to know the character without being burdened by thinking of other parts the actor may have played. It’s also satisfying to me personally that they chose someone who isn’t American, who has a more ‘Mediterranean’ look. I’m sure there are some fans who are annoyed that she didn’t wear blue contact lenses to make her look more like the iconic comic book character, but I personally have always thought it odd that someone from a Mediterranean island would have blue eyes; I’m sure it’s not impossible for people of Mediterranean ancestry to be blue-eyed, but it’s probably uncommon. The production team also didn’t require the actor to become as muscular as a competitive bodybuilder, something that often happens in male-dominated action films and has become an irritating cliché in recent years. Wonder Woman has the power of the ancient Greek gods; she doesn’t need overdeveloped muscles to be powerful. It was also nice to hear a voice that didn’t speak in flat, generic American accent. Wonder Woman may have been created in American comics, but she’s a global hero.

The film also achieves what many reviewers have blamed its predecessors Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice for failing to do: bring humor to the DC Comics cinematic universe. I disagree with the oft-expressed opinion that the other two films are awful; I enjoyed them. But they do have a grimness that I would be glad to see less of in future DC films. Despite being set during a very grim period in world history, Wonder Woman isn’t dark. There are moments of laughter and tenderness, and during the introductory scenes set on Themyscira everything is very bright and sunny and optimistic. It’s important to the character of Wonder Woman that while she faces darkness, she doesn’t lose that optimism and compassion she learned in her homeland.

Wonder Woman includes some incredibly exciting and beautifully imagined action scenes. In fact, I’ll admit that some of them literally brought tears to my eyes with their beauty. A battle scene that takes place on Themyscira wonderfully demonstrates what incredible warriors the Amazons are. And probably the best action scene in the film comes when Wonder Woman decides to take the battle to the enemy after she travels to Europe. It’s a brief scene, but an overhead shot of her using her shield to deflect machine gun fire in No Man’s Land is just awe-inspiring to me.

If I have to find anything to complain about in this movie, it’s the implied budding romance between Diana and Steve Trevor. I don’t want romance in my action movies most of the time, unless it really propels the story, and I think that having them become friends could have been enough to do that. I’m glad that the romantic element didn’t go any further, and that Diana didn’t end up marrying Steve. But I wish that the filmmakers had looked at the fact the Amazons are all women and accepted that women in a situation like that would not be looking for male romantic companionship. I suppose I can accept that Diana might be curious about having a relationship with a man as a new experience. But that plot element points out that our filmmaking industry still has far to go in accepting other kinds of romantic and sexual relationships beyond heterosexual, and other kinds of male-female relationships beyond romance.

Despite that one minor quibble, I give Wonder Woman five stars out of five. I made an effort to go back to a theater to see it a second time, and I have no doubt that in future years it will fall into that category of movies that I will watch whenever they are on television, along with Captain America and Iron Man, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Fifth Element. In my book, residing in that company is high praise indeed.

[Movie Review] Warcraft

Warcraft (2016)

Directed by Duncan Jones
Starring: Travis Fimmel (Anduin Lothar), Dominic Cooper (King Llane Wrynn), Ruth Negga (Lady Taria Wrynn), Tobey Kebbell (Durotan), Ben Schnetzer (Khadgar), Robert Kazinsky (Orgrim Doomhammer), Clancy Brown (Blackhand), Daniel Wu (Gul’dan), Paula Patton (Garona), Ben Foster (Medivh)

Note: I wrote this review over a year ago after I saw the movie in a theater, but I somehow never got around to posting it. I've acquired a copy of the movie and have watched it several times since then.

For those who aren’t aware of this film’s origin, it is based on the hugely popular online multiplayer game World of Warcraft, which has ruled the fantasy MMO field for years. For many people, that’s an immediate negative. There has never been a truly successful and critically accepted adaptation of a video game property. But WoW has a huge world setting with numerous geographic locations, many races, and a lengthy fictional history, which offer more for a filmmaker to work with. In some ways it’s comparable to the Lord of the Rings in scope, though it lacks similar iconic characters. It also has perhaps too many important events to choose from as the main plot conflict – should it be set during this demonic invasion, or that major war with the orcs?

Setting aside whether the production team’s choice of conflict event was wise – I don’t know enough about what happens in the game to make a judgement – I am reviewing this as someone who knows very little about WoW but enjoys high fantasy and wants to see more of it portrayed on-screen. 

Director Duncan Jones, who co-wrote the screenplay, chose an early period in the history of the game world as the setting for his film. The film begins as the game’s long-term antagonists, the orcs, are arriving for the first time on the world of Azeroth. 

Interestingly, the screenwriters chose to make one of the film’s main protagonists one of the orc invaders. After having my primary exposure to cinematic orcs be the two-dimensional innately evil orcs of LOTR, it was refreshing to see an orc portrayed as a three-dimensional individual. The orcs were created by a mixture of motion-capture and CGI rather than prosthetics, because in WoW orcs are much bigger than humans and Jones couldn’t very well cast only 7-foot-tall bodybuilders as his orcs. But the CGI works extremely well. I very quickly forgot that the orcs were digital as the animation was so well done. The same goes for other CGI effects in the film, such as the gryphon mounts, massive cityscapes, and floating buildings. I know they’re not real but they didn’t appear obviously computer-generated. It’s all thanks to Industrial Light & Magic that everything looks so good.

The film presents four main POV characters: Durotan, chief of the Frostwolf Clan, an orc who doesn’t agree that they should be invading Azeroth; Anduin Lothar, human military commander of the Stormwind Kingdom on Azeroth; Khadgar, a young mage who discovers that there’s more to the invasion than just massive orcs appearing out of nowhere; and Garona, a half-orc slave torn between the world of her birth and the opportunities presented by this new world. As I mentioned above, the animation of the orcs was so convincingly done that Durotan is completely believable as a living character, and he’s presented well as a protagonist that the audience can empathize with. Khadgar is also an engaging character, though the script or the editing left some unanswered questions about him that I would really have liked to see answered onscreen. Garona, too, is interesting enough that I wanted to see more of her, and is given a decent development arc. But Anduin Lothar didn’t really appeal to me as a character and I wish that he had been handled differently. I have the feeling that much of his development arc, along with some of Khadgar’s backstory, ended up on the cutting room floor.

Now to the things that I really liked about this movie, in addition to the quality CGI: 
There’s magic. Lots of magic. I’m a great fan of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in both its cinematic and literary forms, but it just doesn’t have enough magic to satisfy me. Warcraft has my kind of magic. There are three magic-using characters who are integral to the story: Khadgar, Guardian Medivh, and the orc leader Gul’dan. The story does some very nice things with the magic that appeal to me as a long-time player of Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy roleplaying games. Khadgar casts lots of spells. He has to speak some words and sometimes make arcane markings or gestures. The results are always accompanied by digital lighting effects that say ‘This is magic!’ to me, though I suppose to an extent I’m influenced by everything I’ve seen in video games, which are usually the places where the magic is most fun. In addition to big showy spells, and some smaller spells, Warcraft also features an enormous clay golem, which just warms my little D&D-player heart to no end. 

The setting also offers different types of magic – Khadgar and Medivh wield the same variety from the same source and training, while Gul’dan’s magic comes from a different source and doesn’t seem to require any verbal or somatic components. Gul’dan’s magic is evil, because it draws on the life force of other unwilling creatures to fuel it. This is amply demonstrated in one scene: while Gul’dan talks with another orc, an emaciated human prisoner sits beside the orc leader, and periodically Gul’dan draws life energy from his captive with a casual gesture, like a smoker taking a puff from a cigarette. I found that very effectively done, and it did a good job of emphasizing why his magic was evil and how scary he was. The way he keeps sucking out the man’s life, not because he needs the energy for anything but just because he can, makes him seem like an addict.

In addition to the magic, the Warcraft setting has numerous other races/species besides humans (though I'm glad they decided not to use the anthropomorphic pandas in this movie). Near the beginning of the film we see some of the Draenei, a species from the game world that resemble tall blue satyrs. They aren’t onscreen for long, but at least they are shown. There are also elves and dwarves, those staples of magical fantasy worlds. Like the Draenei, the elves and dwarves don’t get much screen time, but at least the audience is reminded that they exist and are important to the world in which the story is set. In addition, the filmmakers went to a great deal of effort to make them look like all of the abundantly available artwork showing how elves and dwarves look in WoW. If you’re going to make a movie set in a game world, the least you can do is keep the visuals consistent with the game world, and Warcraft does that quite successfully. 

Not only are the non-human characters made to look distinct from each other, as close to their game appearance as the filmmakers could make them, and not at all like people just wearing silly prosthetics – even the armor and weapons look those seen in the game. WoW, like many console and online fantasy games these days, hands out some pretty ridiculous armor and weapons to the characters: swords as tall as a man with foot-wide blades, plate armor covered in spikes and flanges and protruding shoulder guards, or armor that protects without actually covering any vital organs. Maybe the production crew should have gone for a more realistic look for the equipment, but if you’re going to make the movie look like the game come to life, why not go all the way? So what if King Llane rides into battle in shiny gold armor covered with embossing that would easily catch a sword, wearing a crown on his head and carrying a shield that would be too heavy to lift. He looks really cool doing it. And he rides into battle astride a gryphon that looks like you could actually go up to it and stroke its huge feathery wings. Perhaps the only place where the cool visuals factor weakened for me a bit is in one scene early in the film in which we see an orc throw a horse at some Stormwind soldiers, but a few minutes later an orc mounts a horse and rides away. Ridiculously impractical weapons I can handle, but non-magical, conditionally-variable physics annoys me.

I mentioned before that there are some things I was less than satisfied with in this movie. The character of Anduin Lothar is the main one. I just didn’t have any interest in his part of the story. He either needed more time spent on his character, or that character should have been made secondary so more time could be devoted to one of the others, like Khadgar or Garona. Clancy Brown didn’t get enough screen time, either, though I’ll admit that’s just a personal complaint because I’ve been a fan if his for decades. A fair amount of the interactions between Anduin, King Llane, and Guardian Medivh implied that they used to hang out together, perhaps as adventurers before they all acquired such important positions. I would have liked to see that story, one describing those characters before they all became so boring. Medivh does get a couple of good scenes that hint at something more to him, but Llane doesn't have much personality. And it may be that Anduin Lothar is so uninspiring to me because I just don't think Travis Fimmel is a very good actor. But everyone else was quite good, considering that half the cast weren't actually visible onscreen.

But probably the most disappointing thing about this movie for me is that other people didn’t go see it. Which means that Hollywood  - and audiences – will continue to think that movies based on video game properties are terrible, and the big studios may be unwilling to fund more Warcraft movies. I liked it enough that I’d go to see more. I don’t really care about seeing more of Anduin’s story, but I want to know what happens to Garona and Khadgar. The film ends with a teaser for a possible sequel, which would presumably focus on the fate of Durotan’s infant son. I’d probably watch that, too, if anyone ever gets to make it. Let’s hope that perhaps the high box office figures from China will encourage the studio to proceed. I want to see more of those elves. In the meantime I'll keep re-watching Warcraft and enjoying the parts of it that I really like.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

[Star Wars] Guardians of Peace, Episode 2: "From the Shadows"

Episode 2: From The Shadows

The galactic civil war is over. Despite continuing tensions, a tenuous peace exists between the EMPIRE and the NEW REPUBLIC.

The Jedi Knight Taanar Ryl and her team have gone to survey the lost planet of Ilum. Landing on its ravaged surface they discover that pirates had attacked a group of Imperial Knights. After finding a survivor, they infiltrated a derelict orbital station in hopes of rescuing more pirate captives…. 

Flashback: Taanar Ryl stood before Jedi Master Neranye Rep. Master Neri held something out to her, a small object that would fit in the palm of a hand. "Take this." 

Taanar reached for the object. As she did so she recognized that she had seen it before. It was a star-shaped pendant, which Neri had told her she had acquired at Point Nadir before the two of them met. It was a kind of Force talisman, but Neri had never discovered its true purpose. "I want you to have it. Perhaps you'll be able to discover what use it has," said Neri. Taanar folded her fingers around it. "I hope I'll be able to," she replied.

One month had passed since the Fortune of Greepo visited the former Jedi temple on Ilum. Their prisoner from the pirate group had been handed over to the New Republic authorities. He had claimed his name was Ferbarton Skywalker, though he denied any relationship to the Imperial family. He had been sentenced to hard labor in a Republic prison camp.

The Fortune of Greepo emerged from hyperspace at RESH-9376, otherwise known as Point Nadir. Initially the port authorities refused the ship permission to land, until her crew mentioned they had come to visit their friend Dexter Vex. 

After some initial friendly chat between Taanar and Dexter, she asked him about the Shadow Wing pirates. He couldn't offer much more information about the pirates than what they already knew: the Shadow Wing had been a relatively minor gang until recently, when they had suddenly acquired better ships and weapons. But Dexter's sources couldn't say who was supplying them. 

During their visit the Fortune's crew found that Slash Buzzburn was still drawing crowds to Point Nadir, which was a source of excitement for young Ren Secura. Taanar agreed to allow time for her young charges to enjoy a performance. While the quartet were on their way to the venue, they were accosted by two large blue aliens who threatened them on behalf of the Hutt crime syndicate. When the twins failed to be intimidated, one of the thugs shoved Den. Ren then slipped surreptitiously around behind the hired muscle. The brewing altercation was interrupted when their droid R2-FE 'Effie' contacted them to notify them they had received a transmission. Ren managed to trick the two thugs into thinking that one of them had provoked the other, and the Fortune team left them in the street shoving each other as the headed back to their ship.

The message proved to be from the New Republic Ministry of Justice, informing them of a pirate attack on the mining and agricultural world of Anobis. The attack had been so recent that the site was still in flames. The Fortune headed immediately for Anobis to investigate.

No sooner had the team begun to examine the remains of the attack than the twins spotted a human woman they had seen at the sites of two prior pirate raids. Ren stealthily followed her when she left, but lost the trail. Den then encountered the red-haired woman, who introduced herself as Magna Inscoe, an enforcement officer for the Imperial Ministry of Justice, a holdover from the earlier Republic that had maintained a good reputation despite the previous excesses of the Empire under Palpatine. 

Magna met with the rest of the Fortune team, and they discussed how the pirates never seemed to leave anyone behind in their attacks. They appeared to be adept at looking after the members of their gang, which led Magna to fear that they might try to break 'Ferb' out of prison. Taanar agreed to a cooperation and sharing of information with the Imperial officer and shared comms details with her so they could contact each other. She sensed that Magna was hiding something, but didn't press the officer about it.

After parting from Magna, the Fortune team sent a message to Ord Mantell to warn about the possibility of a prison break. Attempts to contact the prison received no response. The team members assumed the worst and headed for the Reclamation Center where Ferb was serving his sentence.

On their arrival, the prison commander was uncooperative and refused to allow them to see the prisoner. Ren tried to pressure him into relenting, but had no success. Taanar decided they should contact both the Republic Ministry of Justice and the Jedi Order to get official permission to see Ferb. While they awaited a reply, they kept an eye on the prison. 

Finally the necessary permission was granted, but when they asked to see Ferb they were told he had escaped on the same day they arrived. A prison transport had been attacked by two well-armed thugs, a Rodian and a Besalisk, whose identities were known. The Rodian was Sneef Grimm, and the Besalisk's name was Sazsno. After learning about these two the team spoke with local security representatives, who told them where to find people who might be able to help them locate Sneef and Sazsno.

At a location called Clem's they learned that the two often frequented a bar called Bucket of Blood. At Bucket of Blood they were met with lies, denying that the duo ever came there or had even been heard of by anyone present. But Nema spotted one of their targets ducking out - it was the Rodian, Sneef. On following him they found Sazsno there too, wielding four blasters in his four arms. He immediately fired on Ren. Taanar used the Force to deprive him of one blaster. He aimed a blaster bolt at her, which she was able to deflect but not back at him. Nema then disarmed another of his weapons. Sneef ran for a speeder parked at the other end of the street. To prevent him from escaping, Taanar lifted the speeder onto the roof of a nearby building and turned it upside-down. Ren charged the Besalisk, stabbing him with his vibroknife, while his brother fired his blaster at the four-armed creature. Sneef then bolted toward a bantha that was waiting not far from where the speeder had originally been parked. Taanar used her Force skill to stun him before he could commandeer the bantha as his escape method, and Nema secured him while Den and Ren finally took down Sazsno.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

[Pathfinder] Wrath of the Righteous, part 21: Keeper's Canyon

In the aftermath of the battle at Vilareth Ford, the queen's paladins refused to bury the remains of the dead tieflings, declaring them unworthy of burial. Jiro objected, saying that if the bodies were left unburied they might rise as evil spirits. Runa offered to say a prayer over them to set their souls to rest, to which the paladins grudgingly agreed and gathered all the corpses in one place to make that possible. Searching the bodies and the fortified camp at the ford garnered the Crusader army very little, only a few rations, a small amount o gold, and a few healing potions.

The Crusaders set up their own encampment by the ford and remained overnight so that everyone could recuperate from their injuries and Aron and Sosiel could recover from their plunge into the river. Sosiel reported that he had heard a voice in his head telling him to jump in the water.

On the previous night Asami had been unable to concentrate enough to scribe any spells in her spellbook or write any new scrolls, but this night she was able to copy the scroll she had purchased into her book. She also talked to Aravashnial about what spells he might have access to that he was willing to share with her.

The journey to the canyon was expected to take another day. As the Crusaders proceeded west the land they passed through grew ever more barren and desolate, which took a toll on the army's morale. The army camped again the following evening a half day's travel from the entrance to Keeper's Canyon. While walking through the camp that evening Zosta and Asami happened to observe that the paladins were grumbling about something, though neither of the women could discern what precisely they were complaining about. They mentioned this to Runa and Irabeth. Irabeth then called on the leaders of the five squadrons to come to the command tent so they could be questioned about the state of the men. Only one of the squad leaders, Loughlin, mentioned having noticed any discontent among his men, though he dismissed it as the ordinary complaints of soldiers on the march. When Irabeth dismissed the other leaders, she asked Loughlin and another man named Tomas to remain behind. Jiro and Asami had been present up to this point, but when the other squad leaders were dismissed they departed. Runa and Zosta remained to find out what Irabeth wanted to discuss with Loughlin and Tomas.

Irabeth gave Tomas a brief, peremptory recommendation and then let him leave, which led Runa to realize that Irabeth had only asked him to stay so Loughlin wouldn't feel singled out. Irabeth, Runa, and Zosta then questioned him. Before reporting the grumbling to Irabeth, Zosta had taken a closer look at the paladins and thought that she had identified the man who was responsible, a man named Arles Jhestander who served in Loughlin's squadron. Loughlin admitted that he had heard most of the complaints coming from Arles, who seemed always to be predicting failure and telling the other men that they could never win. Once this was revealed, Irabeth sent him to bring Arles back to the command tent. While Loughlin was gone, Runa quickly donned her priestly vestments so she could act in the role of the small army's chaplain.

Arles proved to be a seasoned Crusader, one who had served in many battles. The group in the command tent met him seated so that he wouldn't feel he was being interrogated or punished. When first questioned about his complaints he tried to pass them off as nothing of concern, but as the others chatted  with him further, Loughlin suddenly asked him, "When did you lose your faith?"

Arles initially refused to admit that he had lost faith in Iomedae, but Runa was able to gently draw him out until he confessed that Loughlin was correct. Runa and Zosta both gave him encouragement, Zosta telling him that he could still follow his calling to fight the demons even without his special relationship to Iomedae, and Runa offering whatever help she could give as a priestess to finding his way back to his faith. When he left the command tent his mood seemed improved.

Early the next morning Anevia and the other scouts went ahead to see what awaited the army in Keeper's Canyon. Runa put on her vestments and performed a service in the name of Iomedae to encourage the paladins, and both she and Zosta thought that Arles Jhestander received it well.

Jiro, meanwhile, had awakened to discover that his trousers had been shortened during the night, and someone or something had left a bowl of soured milk in place of his usual offering to the kami. Before Runa's service, he sat down to adjust the hem of his pants.

When the scouts returned to report, Anevia told her companions that they had seen a number of familiar lesser demons ahead, though she couldn't recall what sort of demons they were. After she described them as vaguely porcine, the others realized that she referred to dretches, which they had encountered together while making their way through the caverns beneath Kenabres. There was also another force of tieflings. It was decided that the paladins would deal with the tieflings while the army's leaders went forward to face the dretches.

After separating from the paladins, the six companions, along with Aron, Sosiel, and Nurah, approached the ruins of the town that had once stood in the canyon and observed half a dozen dretches partially hidden among the remains. Asami recalled that dretches could create clouds of poisonous gas, which she and her friends had found very difficult to overcome during their previous encounter with such lesser demons. Fortunately dretches could only do this once each day. She also knew that they were resistance to harm from acid, cold, or fire, and they were not especially vulnerable to any kind of harm. Prepared to combat the gas, she began to summon a small air elemental to aid her friends.

At the same time, Jiro initiated an aura surrounding himself that would give his companions the ability to ignore the poisonous cloud, but only if they remained very close to him. While Asami continued casting her spell, Runa summoned the power of Iomedae to blind one of the dretches and wound two others. Another dretch surrounded the group with its cloud of gas, but it didn't affect them due to Jiro's aura. It did, however, mean that the dretches couldn't see the group of people within the cloud, nor could the Crusaders see their enemies.

When Asami's air elemental appeared, it arrived in between where the dretches stood and where the Crusaders were hidden within the cloud. It immediately attacked one of the dretches, but failed to harm it. With the cloud in the way, no one could see that this elemental strangely appeared to be made of wood.

Jiro told his companions, "Stay close to me," and everyone stepped forward, moving slowly so that Nurah and the heavily-armored members of the group would not be left behind. Nurah had begun to sing an inspiring song that made them all feel more courageous. Jiro heard the sound of someone speaking the words of a spell, and spied another creature beyond the dretches. Asami's summoned elemental suddenly fled farther into the canyon. Asami then paused for a moment to cast another spell, this time creating a whirling sphere of wind that she thrust at the spellcaster. She was unable to tell if the enemy mage was harmed by the sphere's attack.At the same moment, Zosta suddenly abandoned the fight and ran back toward where the paladins faced the tieflings.

Nurah began to flicker from place to place, having cast a spell on herself that would make her difficult to attack. Runa then sent out another blinding light, depriving two more dretches temporarily of sight. Jiro's tetsubo of force appeared to attack the enemy spellcaster, which Jiro identified as an incubus. Sosiel moved beside Aron to cast a spell of protection against evil creatures on him.

The incubus backed away from Asami's sphere of wind and began making spellcasting gestures. Two of the dretches charged Asami, one managing to bite her though not seriously. Asami had begin to call the sphere toward her to combat the dretches, but then she noticed that several dretches were standing in a line between her and the incubus. She summoned a bolt of lightning from her wooden sword and sent it through the demons toward the incubus. All three of the dretches in its path exploded when struck by the bolt but the incubus appeared unharmed.

One of the dretches that Runa had blinded lost its footing and fell on its back, flailing its legs in the air like an overturned tortoise. Aron and Runa each slew a dretch, Runa lending Aron one of Iomedae's blessings that gave him strength. Jiro directed his floating tetsubo to strike at the incubus again.

The incubus flew toward the group, slashing at Runa with his sword as it passed. Jiro granted Runa another attack so that she could strike back at the creature. It then landed beside Asami. He stabbed at her three times, inflicting two vicious wounds on her left arm and opening up the big vein in her right leg. She fainted immediately from blood loss. One of the dretches that was close by moved forward to bite at her prone form but despite her state the bite didn't connect. Sosiel and Runa attacked the dretches and Runa slew the one that was trying to bite Asami. Jiro's tetsubo hit the incubus twice.

Sosiel moved to Asami's side and cast a spell to heal some of her injuries. A dretch attacked her again, directed by the incubus. Runa also summoned healing magic to treat Asami. Jiro swung his morningstar into the incubus' chest leaving a noticeable wound. The incubus glared at him, hen looked at Asami, who had recovered consciousness. "I'll see you again," he said, just before teleporting away.

Three dretches remained, still attacking the Crusaders as they had been commanded by the incubus. Asami moved her sphere to send the nearest one tumbling a short distance away. Zosta suddenly returned and charged the dretch, slaying it with a single well-placed kick. When the spell that compelled her to leave wore off, she had turned around and headed immediately back to join her friends.

Aron and Runa killed the last two dretches, one of them the dretch that had been blinded and fallen over. It had recovered in time to die on a blade. When all the foes were dispatched or gone, the Crusaders turned away from the ruins and went to rejoin the paladins.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

[Pathfinder] Wrath of the Righteous, part 20: Crusaders of Kenabres

With the party of Crusaders ready to retrieve the Sword of Valor, they set out for Drezen with their company of 100 of the Queen's loyal paladins, their comrades from their adventure beneath Kenabres, and the three experts Queen Galfrey had assigned to assist them. They had been told to expect the journey to take a minimum of four and a half days. The Queen sent a runner to them before they left with a message advising them of the best route to follow: first to Vala's Gift, once the source of much of Kenabres' produce; then to Vilareth Ford and follow the West Sellen River to Drezen.

The Crusaders were soon reminded just how close Drezen lay to the Worldwound. The land grew barren and desolate as they headed away from Kenabres on their first day of travel. Asami and Jiro keenly felt the lack of green growing things. The fields and orchards that had once supplied Kenabres with food were scorched. Anevia and the other scouts returned to report that Vala's Gift had been destroyed by the fleeing demon army. The Crusaders of Kenabres found the small town a smoldering ruin. Despite its state, Horgus Gwerm recommended that they search the town for any supplies they could use, a suggestions some of the paladins found objectionable as they opposed taking anything from the dead. But they were persuaded to find the bodies of the dead and dig a mass grave to bury them. Burying the dead and searching the ruins took up much of the following day, and left Asami so weary that she had no strength to copy a new spell she had purchased before the departure from Kenabres.

While they were encamped at Vala's Gift, the young cleric Sosiel revealed an interest in landscape painting, though there was little enough of interest to paint in the desolate waste surrounding the destroyed village. Though Jiro sensed that Sosiel was as disheartened by the absence of plant life as Jiro himself, the young priest remained upbeat.

On the third day the small army set forth again toward Vilareth Ford. While they rode, Nurah told them tales of the hero for whom the ford was named. When Anevia returned from scouting the ford, she reported that the Crusader force that had guarded the ford had been overtaken by demonic forces and the fortified camp was now held by approximately 200 tieflings. The leadership of the Crusader army quickly gathered to plan an assault on the ford. It was decided that the paladins would split into two groups led by Irabeth to draw out the defenders, and while they fought the heroes would enter the fortified encampment to face whatever defenders remained.

Their plan worked and most of the tiefling defenders moved across the river to attack the paladins. With the population of the camp depleted, Asami and her comrades headed to the bridge over the river. But before they could approach it, two balls of fire hurtled out of he camp to engulf them in flames. Kirara managed to avoid the flames, but Asami was burned. She felt some of the burns heal almost immediately as Jiro's link to everyone absorbed some of the hurt they had suffered. Then they were peppered by crossbow bolts. Zosta charged across the bridge and disappeared beyond the rude fortification walls to attack an unseen tiefling. Sosiel strode across the bridge, and a moment later Aron jogged past him to take up a position in front of him, perhaps validating Jiro's belief that the two men were in a relationship. Runa and Jiro also went forward to the bridge, but Asami and Aegronius remained on the opposite bank along with Nurah.

Asami cast a spell to create a wall of wind in front of the camp, hoping to block the defenders' crossbow bolts, but a few moments after she cast it someone or something from inside the camp dispelled her magic. Runa crossed over the bridge and called on the blessings of Iomedae to grant those closest to her a sudden burst of speed, though this did not reach to where Asami stood.  All of her comrades but Aegronius had entered the camp by this point and she could no longer see them. She had few spells in her arsenal that she could cast from such a distance, and none that would harm her enemies without being able to see them. She murmured to Kirara, "We must get closer," and sprinted across the bridge past Sosiel and Aron, who had stopped at the midpoint of the river. On reaching the other side she took cover behind a corner of the low wall around the camp and peered around the corner to see Runa and Jiro battling several tieflings and a small being that resembled a bipedal goat with flaming hooves. The occupants of the ford were not only tieflings.

From behind her Asami heard a splash and Aron cried out, "Sosiel!" She turned to look over her shoulder and saw that Sosiel had jumped or fallen into the river. A clearly panicked Aron threw down his sword and dove into the water fully armored. At that point Asami turned her attention back to what was happening to her friends. Jiro had summoned a weapon of force in the form of a katana to attack one of his opponents. Zosta had been burned by one of the goat-demons, which had boiling blood. Jiro shouted at the small demon, "The Fifth Crusade has come to reclaim this place!" The demon slashed at him with its fiery sword, then kicked him with a flaming hoof. His katana vanished as Asami's wall of wind had done.

Zosta struck down two tieflings, but two more took up flanking positions around her. Then Runa slew one of the tieflings facing her, causing the goat-demon to take a step back and vomit forth a quantity of burning hot blood! Asami drew out one of her wands and sent three missiles of force at the goat-creature.

Zosta ran across to another section of the camp nearby where several more tieflings and another of the small demons stood. All of them had set aside their crossbows for short swords. Zosta raced past three tieflings and vaulted over the wall to knock one of the demons to the ground and stamp on it. Two tieflings moved to surround Asami. Another of the goat-like demons spat blood on Asami, burning her again, though it was less harmful to her than it would have been had Sosiel not channeled Shelyn's healing power before he fell into the river.

Jiro had been sorely wounded by this point. Recognizing this, Runa granted him the ability to move more quickly than normal so that he could get away from his foes. Asami ignored the two tieflings threatening her while she cast a spell. One of her opponents struck her, but the injury did not prevent her from completing the spell. Thorns blossomed from her flesh. She punched the tiefling facing her and the thorns grew into into long vine tendrils that wrapped themselves around him. The entangled tieflings stepped back and Asami saw the telltale sign of magic behind him, which caused him to lose his footing and topple to the ground. She struck the second tiefling as well but the vines failed to entangle him.

While this was taking place, Aegronius had moved onto the bridge to go to the aid of Aron and Sosiel. Bohgong had also appeared and was somehow able to walk across the surface of the water to Aron. Aron had managed to catch hold of Sosiel before the current could carry him away, but as soon as he did so he began to clutch at his throat as though choking and lost his grip on Sosiel. With help from both Aegronius and Bohgong, Aron and an unconscious Sosiel were brought safely to shore on the far side of the river.

One of the goat-demons teleported away from Zosta, and a tiefling fled from her. Another tiefling joined the one attacking Asami. Jiro summoned another weapon, this time a tetsubo, and killed one of them. The tiefling who had been wrapped in vines and had fallen pulled the vines off and got to his feet, at which point Asami struck him again, this time hard enough to take his life. His comrade fled upon witnessing this, but as he began to run he suddenly burst into uncontrollable laughter and was unable to continue moving. Asami punched him and he joined his mate in death.

When Asami looked around for another enemy to attack, she saw that all of the tieflings and demons had fallen but for the demon that had teleported away. Runa had recognized that these were brimorak demons. One of the brimoraks had vanished after being slain, indicating that it had been summoned magically, perhaps by another brimorak. But it had left behind its small longsword. They found 100 gold pieces and several healing potions among the tieflings.

Irabeth soon arrived to report that he paladins had done well against the rest of the tieflings. She and Nurah then went in search of survivors of the demonic attack on the ford, finding a dozen wounded soldiers and their captain, Kamilo Dann. Because all of the soldiers were wounded, Captain Dann deemed it better for them to head for Kenabres rather than accompany the Crusaders to Drezen. She also reported that she and he other soldiers had overheard their captors talking about a larger force at Keeper's Canyon, which lay between the ford and Drezen. This led the Crusaders of Kenabres to realize that the brimorak who had teleported away would likely report them to its masters at the canyon. They would have to be prepared for a more difficult fight once they reached Keeper's Canyon. But at least everyone had survived this fight, and Sosiel would recover once one of his own restorative scrolls was used to heal him.

Next: part 21, Keeper's Canyon

Monday, July 3, 2017

[Pathfinder] Wrath of the Righteous, part 19: A Royal Request

As Queen Galfrey’s arrival in Kenabres neared, the group of heroes who had destroyed the Wardstone fragment did what they could to prepare for an audience with royalty. This was something with which none of them were familiar. Jiro had been in the presence of people of high social status before, but that had been in his native land, and he realized that social customs were different in Mendev. To learn more about how one should behave on meeting a Queen, he sought out Horgus Gwerm, the nobleman he and his friends had escorted out of the underground realm after the demonic assault on Kenabres.

He found that the nobleman, who had abandoned his manor after the armsman Garvin transformed into a demon and attacked him, had taken up residence in a local inn and was in the process of hiring servants. To Jiro it seemed that most of the people present waiting to be interviewed weren’t well suited to be servants and were only there because they were seeking any kind of employment. When Jiro explained to Gwerm’s secretary who he was, he was immediately invited to meet personally with the nobleman and Gwerm cancelled the interviews for the rest of the day. Gwerm told Jiro that Queen Galfrey was a warrior Queen who preferred to lead her troops into battle rather than wait for her generals to send reports to her. As such she would not be impressed by elaborate courtly apparel or manners. Jiro understood that the traditional methods of showing respect to superiors that he knew, such as kneeling and bowing deeply, would probably be offensive to the Queen. He thanked Gwerm for his advice and for the much-needed supplies he had sent to Defender’s Heart a few days earlier, and then made his way back to Defender’s Heart.

Zosta had meanwhile spent the day with her family, celebrating the memories of those who had fallen in battle. In their culture this type of celebration led to drinking and brawling. But to her surprise, when she woke the next day her bruises had vanished. She was then called to meet with her parents and Cennami. Cennami informed her that she believed Zosta had more to accomplish with her comrades and that it was all part of her destiny. Zosta had been eager to go back home when the mission to destroy the Wardstone fragment was completed, but now she accepted that she had more to do and that she would likely be away for some time. After talking with her parents and the priestess, it occurred to Zosta that perhaps the reason her parents and Cennami were so effective in battle was that they had acquired divine blessings similar to the ones she had received from Iomedae. As she was about to leave their tent, she heard a chuckle from outside and the sound of heavy footsteps departing and she realized that Rhino had probably been eavesdropping on their conversation.

Asami learned that her familiar Kirara had also experienced the same vision of the Ancient of the World Tree that Asami had seen, but the little white cat lacked the intellect to do more than be awed and a little frightened by what she had witnessed. After their talk, Asami spent some time learning new spells from the spellbook that had mysteriously appeared on her bed two days earlier. She also discovered that the wand she had been missing had reappeared, depleted of a few charges.

Later Quednys informed the group that the Queen had given them the choice of where to meet with her as a courtesy. Jiro initially suggested his garden, but after some discussion it was decided that the best place to meet a Queen would be to take Runa’s recommendation and see her in the chapel of Iomedae’s temple.

Queen Galfrey arrived the following day with an army of seasoned veterans of the Crusades. They camped just outside the northern wall of the city, but groups of soldiers began to enter the city to assist with rebuilding from the rubble. The five companions were told they would be given an audience with the Queen in the afternoon, after she met with the remaining city leaders and with Cennami and Zosta’s parents.

Zosta had bathed and put on some new clothes her parents had given her, but found it a challenge to make sure she kept herself clean and presentable while waiting to be summoned into the Queen’s presence. Asami and Jiro had both been fortunate to find a shop that carried some imported items from Tian-Xia and had acquired some new clothing of the style they were accustomed to wearing. Runa’s original gilded armor had been repaired and she wore it because it had the symbol of Iomedae on the breastplate. Darra had even managed to persuade a reluctant Aegronius to bathe and tidy himself up for the royal audience.

When at last they were summoned to the temple, they saw a crowd departing, including Horgus Gwerm and Aravashnial. The Queen had brought a scroll that had been used to restore the elven wizard’s sight, much to Asami’s relief. As they entered the chapel, they saw that Irabeth was with the Queen and that she appeared less fatigued than on the day before.

Asami had heard various rumors about Galfrey on the previous day: that she had ruled Mendev for over a century, that she was immortal, that she had met Iomedae personally, that she received prophetic visions from Iomedae, and even that she was keeping the Worldwound open to prolong the Crusades. Asami assumed that all of the rumors were the sort of gossip that humans were especially prone to repeating and gave them little credence. She did note that the Queen appeared youthful and attractive by human standards, but her hair was silvery gray, which usually indicated advanced age among humans.

A row of chairs had been set up in front of the altar, and Queen Galfrey invited them to sit while she spoke to them. She began by mentioning that there were some people who blamed the group for destroying the Wardstones, an opinion she clearly thought foolish, and she then added that the five companions would be their replacement, a statement that took them all by surprise! While they pondered what she meant, the Queen went on to ask them to tell her their story from the time that the demons attacked the city through the destruction of the Wardstone, as she wanted to hear the tale from them personally.

When they had finished telling the tale of their adventures, the Queen informed them her scouts had reported that Aponavicius, the fiend who held the captured city of Drezen, had taken most of her forces away from that city, leaving an opening for a force of Crusaders to enter Drezen and reclaim the enchanted banner known as the Sword of Valor. As Quednys had predicted, Queen Galfrey wanted them to lead that force. The goal was not to retake the city, as she couldn’t spare enough troops to do that. Demons were massing all along the Worldwound and she expected most of her army would be required to defend against them in the South. She wanted the five young heroes to recover the banner and replace it in the location it had originally occupied, which would restore its magical protections to the city and the Queen hoped that would make it easier for her army to reclaim the city later on.

The five friends were prepared to enter Drezen and seek the Sword of Valor, but they all felt uncomfortable being asked to lead soldiers. None of them had any experience in leadership. They admitted this to the Queen. She reassured them by telling them that the force they would be leading would be made up of 100 seasoned warriors capable of commanding themselves, all of them devoted to Iomedae, and along with the soldiers she would send three specialists who would provide them with details about Drezen, maps, and other forms of assistance.

When this conversation was concluded, the Queen asked them to stand. She then approached them and one by one touched them on the shoulders with her sword blade, dubbing them Knights of the Fifth Crusade. When the knighting ceremony was over she presented them each with a circular medallion featuring two gray eyes on a blue background encircled by a lightning bolt. These medallions were magical and would grant them special abilities once each day, as well as continuous protection against effects designed to cause confusion or madness. 

Kirara had become bored and wandered off to explore the nooks of the chapel while the Queen spoke, but Asami had observed that Bohgong remained with Jiro and even stood erect beside him during the knighting. For a moment she thought the Queen might knight the monkey as well, but she only looked at him for a moment.

The royal audience then concluded, and the comrades followed Queen Galfrey to the army camp outside the city to meet the three specialists who would accompany them to Drezen. These three were introduced as Sosiel Vaenic, a human priest of Shelyn; Aron Kir, a human expert in battlefield tactics and finding and disabling traps; and Nurah Dendiwhar, a halfling bard expert in the region and very knowledgeable about Drezen. They also met the group of warriors who would be sent with them, all of them well armed and armored humans equipped with divine magic. The Queen then left them. Just then Jiro noticed that Bohgong was missing. Runa caught a glimpse of Queen Galfrey bending over and appearing to shake hands with something that looked like a white monkey, but when she blinked the monkey disappeared.

When they were on their own again, the companions engaged in a deep discussion of who should be designated the commander of the soldiers. In the end it was decided that as a warrior priestess Runa was best suited to that role, though she was uncomfortable with taking that part and doubted her ability. The others encouraged her to remember what Iomedae had told her in her vision: she needed to trust herself more. She then decided to seek out Irabeth and ask if the paladin would be willing to accompany them and give her advice, as reports held that Staunton Vhane was last seen in Drezen and Runa knew that Irabeth would be eager to confront the betrayer.

Runa found Irabeth with Anevia, who also volunteered to come along as neither of them wanted to be parted from the other. Runa remained with them overnight. Zosta returned to spend a last night with her family, and to her surprise Darra asked to accompany her and at one point while sparring so impressed Rhino with an attack that the demon couldn’t stop laughing for a long while. Asami went to see Aravashnial again and learned that he intended to go along to Drezen whether he was invited or not. Asami couldn’t deny that she was pleased by this. She was glad to be able to spend more time with him now that he was able to see again, and his knowledge as a spellbreaker would no doubt be invaluable to their cause.

In the middle of the night Runa was awakened by something sitting on her chest. She opened her eyes to find Bohgong looming over her. Earlier she had asked Jiro if he could help her speak to the monkey, but every time she had tried to approach the monkey during the past two days he had run away. Runa presented Bohgong with a packet of tobacco blend from Tian-Xia that she had purchased in the same shop where Asami and Jiro had acquired their new clothes. She then thanked him for all the help he had provided. The white monkey inhaled deeply of the tobacco, looked surprised, said, “You’re a good kid,” and ran off leaving a startled Runa with confirmation that as she had suspected, he could speak.

Jiro spent the night in the army encampment, where he asked the soldiers’ assistance in learning to set up his newly-acquired tent. He also volunteered to assist with cooking the evening meal, which proved to be very pleasing to the men. The next morning he encountered the arrival of Aravashnial astride a magically-summoned mount, and told him that the plan was for them to leave on the following day once they had all acquired some additional supplies that Kimroth had suggested they might need.

That morning Runa asked the head priest of the temple of Iomedae to permit her to perform the service that day, and he agreed. Irabeth and Anevia arrived at the camp, Irabeth looking much healthier. The newly-knighted companions went out to purchase horses for the journey to Drezen. Aravashnial went back inside the city for more supplies, and reappeared accompanied by Horgus Gwerm, who had decided that he wanted to lend his skills to the effort to reclaim Drezen. It seemed that all of the group that had found their way out of the subterranean caverns beneath Kenabres would be joining forces again in the quest to retake Drezen.

Next: part 20, Crusaders of Kenabres

Sunday, July 2, 2017

[Star Wars] Guardians of Peace, Episode 1: Ten Years Later

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

The galactic civil war is over. Despite continuing tensions, a tenuous peace exists between the EMPIRE and the NEW REPUBLIC.

A band of non-aligned sectors provides a buffer zone between the two galactic powers. Gangs of pirates, slavers, warlords, and other criminal organizations have taken to this neutral area to avoid Imperial and Republic attention.

The Jedi Order and the Antarian Rangers watch the neutral zone. Small in number, they have an outsized role in providing justice and security. Patrol squadrons and teams of Jedi maintain order and serve as the guardians of peace….

As the freighter Fortune of Greepo approached the icy planet Ilum, it passed a derelict Imperial cargo transfer station. The Fortune's comm system picked up an automated message repeating from the station, its words distorted with age and lack of maintenance. Co-pilot Denpoji Secura became a little excited by the message and started to check into it further, until his twin brother Renpoji reminded him that their mission wasn't to investigate the station. As Ren piloted the Fortune into Ilum's atmosphere, the ship began to experience some turbulence. The two Jedi passengers, Taanar Ryl and her padawan Nema Secura, held on tightly against the bouncing and shaking of the freighter. 

As Taanar clung to the arms of her seat, her thoughts went back to her meeting a few weeks earlier with her master, Niranye Repp, head of the New Jedi Order. That had been the day that Master Neri asked Taanar to take Nema as her first padawan, as well as to take on Nema's two cousins as her Antarian Ranger escort. Though the family relationship between the three young Twi'leks was cause for caution, Taanar agreed to try the twins out and see how they worked with their cousin. 

Then Neri handed her a data disk, explaining that it contained information about the location of the planet Ilum, which had been lost after the purge of the Jedi during the Clone Wars. Ilum was the source of the crystals that powered lightsabers, but the Empire had taken control of it and mined it for crystals to power the Death Star's planet-killer weapon. Neri asked Taanar to take the three Twi'leks and seek out Ilum to find out if there were any crystals left. The Jedi Order now numbered nearly 200 souls, and they would need more crystals for all the padawans to construct their own lightsabers soon.

While Taanar was thinking about this, Nema recalled being told by Jedi Master Kanan Jarrus that she would become Master Taanar Ryl's padawan, and that her cousins would be assigned as their Antarian Rangers. Master Kanan reminded her not to let her attachments blind her to the Force, and to let the Force guide her in her actions. Her twin cousins remembered standing before the leaders of the Ranger, Dash Creel and Lowarra, where they were told of their new assignment with Taanar and Nema, and introduced to R2-EF, the astromech droid nicknamed 'Effie' issued to them to take care of their ship, the Fortune of Greepo. As they left their audience with Dash and Lowarra, they thought they heard the mighty Wookiee warrior chuckling.

Below the Fortune, the four travelers could see signs of massive destruction left by the Imperial mining project. They headed for an island that appeared to have been left relatively intact. As the ship approached an area large enough to permit a landing, they observed that the planet's surface appeared cold and stormy. Ren brought them in for a rough landing that did some minor damage to their freighter, but Taanar told him, "Any landing that you and your ship survive is a good landing."

The four of them bundled up in all-weather cloaks and exited the ship, living it in the care of Effie, who had already gone to make repairs to the damage caused by the landing. It was windy and raining outside. They could hear the metallic pings of rapid cooling coming from the ship's outer hull. Taanar warned them to take care in the cold environment. She searched her feelings for a moment, then said, "This way," and set off for the location where they hoped to find crystals.

It took the small group about two hours of climbing to approach the destination Taanar had sensed. On the way, she noticed that Den's blue skin was becoming more and more gray. Ren realized that his twin had accidentally donned his unfamiliar cloak inside-out and helped him quickly turn it around so that it would provide more warmth. 

At last Taanar told her young companions, "We're here." They stood before a cave opening. When they stepped inside they could see numerous crystals glittering on the walls, ceiling, and floor. Taanar advised them to be cautious, as the presence of the crystals could cause them to experience things that no one else could perceive, and she didn't know if this would affect the twins, who were not Force-sensitive. Taanar and Nema immediately settled down to meditate and seek out crystals, but Taanar quickly realized that the twins were too excited and their emotions were preventing her from achieving a Force trance. Den also looked very chilled. She decided to send them both back to the ship so Den could warm up and his brother could look after him. 

When the twins arrived back at the Fortune, Den had a cup of hot sib and quickly felt better. The brothers thought they would return to the cave, but just as they were about to leave they noticed a message indicator on the ship's console. There was no message, only a carrier signal playing intermittently. Ren began trying to tune in to the signal, but Den called on Effie's help as the droid was much better at that type of activity. Effie was able to locate the source of the signal along the coast of the island about three kilometers from where the Fortune had landed. During their approach to the island Ren had seen that there was no place along that part of the coastline that could accommodate the ship, so the brothers decided to walk to the source of the signal to investigate.Den had Effie record a message for the Jedi in case they returned while the brothers were gone.

As Den and Ren approached the location from which the signal emanated, they heard sounds that resembled some sort of animal growling and gnawing on something. The noises reminded them of the sounds of the ubiquitous wamp rats. A moment later they saw that they were correct; they found a wamp rat gnawing on what appeared to be a humanoid corpse. The rat spotted them and attacked. The twins drew their blasters and Den put a smoking hole through the rat's body, but not before it bit both of them. They also shot a second wamp rat that appeared, and it fled after being injured. 

With the rats gone, the twins could examine the body the first rat had been chewing on. The remains appeared to being wearing some sort of uniform. The signal the ship had picked up was coming from a damaged comm unit on the body. 

After the twins left, Taanar was able to achieve a Force trance. In a little while she felt a crystal calling to her, and she rose to seek it, telling Nema to continue meditating. Finding the crystal took her deeper into the cave, where she located it high up on a wall. She was able to climb up and remove the crystal easily. As she reached out for it, the crystal leaped into her hand. Then she climbed down and headed back to the entrance to rejoin Nema. 

Nema was less successful at achieving a trance. She could faintly hear a crystal, but she couldn't tell where its call came from. Suddenly she heard the sound of a lightsaber being ignited. She opened her eyes to see a young man about her own age, wearing a uniform and wielding a lightsaber with a white blade. He said, "You're here to kill me! You killed my master!" and swung his blade at her but his swing went wide. Nema attempted to use the Force to disarm him but her effort was unsuccessful. She tried talking to him, telling him that she had only just arrived and had no reason to harm him or his master, but he wouldn't listen. He slashed at her again and this time connected with her arm.

As Taanar headed back to the cave entrance, she discovered what appeared to be a recently-occupied campsite. She hurried her steps, arriving just in time to see Nema trying to hold off the young man, whose uniform Taanar recognized as belonging to the Imperial Knights, the Force-user organization established by Imperial Crown Prince Luke Skywalker.
"Lower your sabers," she commanded. Both of them complied immediately. "I knew it!" the youth cried, "You're here to kill me!" He raised his saber again. Taanar reached out with the Force and snatched his lightsaber out of his hand before he could attack again. "We haven't killed anyone. The Jedi are peacekeepers," she replied. "What are you doing here, cadet?" 

Den and Ren realized that the uniform worn by the corpse they had found was that of an Imperial Knight. They decided that they should take the body back to their ship. Ren picked it up and carried it. While they were making their way back to the Fortune, Taanar and Nema learned that the young man's name was Teemo Phalan. He had come to Ilum with his fellow cadet Vima Montari and their master, Commander Drason, but they had been attacked by pirates. Commander Drason had gone out to deal with the pirates while telling Teemo and Vima to remain in hiding in the cave, but after he failed to return Vima had gone to search for him. Teemo had followed her and had seen her captured by the pirates, who had also stolen the Imperial shuttle that had brought them to Ilum. Taanar assured him that she and her companions would do what they could to rescue Vima and led him to their ship.

They arrived at the ship at the same time that the brothers returned with the body, which Teemo identified as that of Commander Drason. It seemed that his lightsaber had been taken by either the pirates or the wamp rats. Once the commander's body had been placed in the ship's cold storage and everyone's injuries had been treated, Taanar recommended they leave their current location in case the pirates returned. Teemo had already explained that he had seen more than a dozen of them and some of them had possessed heavy weapons. The little group of Jedi and Antarian Rangers wouldn't be enough to take on such a force. The Fortune took off from the island and they decided to check the derelict space station in case the pirates were using it as a base of operations.

Effie was able to use the Imperial shuttle's locator beacon to find it on the station. It appeared that the pirates' own ship wasn't present and most of the pirates were away, leaving only a skeleton crew on the station. The party decided that they should try to land secretly in one of the other bays and Ren would sneak into the bay where the shuttle was stored to do some reconnaissance. Den was able to land the Fortune without drawing anyone's attention. Ren then crept into the landing bay that held the Imperial shuttle. He was able to activate some of the station's security cameras and overheard two of the pirates arguing. One of them had apparently fallen asleep on watch, which was what had allowed his twin to land the freighter unnoticed. 

On the Fortune, Nema asked Teemo if he could use the Force to contact Vima, but he told her that he wasn't able to do that. While Ren continued searching the landing bay area, he opened a door that made enough noise to attract the attention of the pirates. The rest of the group hurried into the landing bay, but Teemo stumbled on his way down the ramp, causing more noise. Several pirates rushed out of the shuttle, including two human men and a Klaatoonian. The two humans stayed near the shuttle hatch, while the Klaatoonian ran toward the prow of the ship. One of the pirates fired at Den but missed. The twins returned fire, but the men had taken cover behind a piece of equipment.

Two more pirates ran out of the shuttle. One of them, a female Weequay, leaped on top of the shuttle and Den shot her with his heavy blaster. Ren followed up with a shot and the Weequay fell bonelessly from the top of the shuttle, clearly dead. Den and Nema took cover in a side chamber, where Ren joined them. Teemo ran toward the shuttle, shouting, "Where is she?"

Taanar ran toward the two human men, using the Force to send the first man flying back into his comrade and both of them hit the wall behind them. One of the men fired his blaster at her while he lay on the floor but failed to hit her. Teemo tried unsuccesfully to attack the Klaatoonian. Ren's blaster failed and he had to take a moment to insert a new battery pack. Nema took a chance and ran out of the small side room, firing her blaster at one of the men Taanar had knocked down. Taanar meanwhile used her control of the Force to lift a heavy cargo container that one of the men had taken cover behind, robbing him of his hiding place. She meant to hit the other man with the container, but missed her aim. The man she had tried to target shot her. The man who had been crouching by the container ran to the other side of the shuttle.

Teemo had been fighting the Klatoonian in front of the shuttle, but he collapsed. Nema ran to pull him to safety. Den also dropped after being shot, but his brother shot the man who had shot Den. Taanar ran around to the shuttle hatch, pausing to stun the man who had run to the other side of the ship. Taanar activated her lightsaber and prepared to enter the shuttle to search for Vima, while Nema treated Den's wounds and Ren shot the Klatoonian. 

Sadly, the shuttle proved to be empty. There was no sign of Vima. Taanar revived the man she had stunned to question him. He proved to the one who had piloted the shuttle back to the station from Ilum. He told her that Min, the leader of the pirate gang, had been given a contract to kidnap Force users who came to Ilum and sell them into slavery, though he didn't know who had paid for this. He also said that the pirates' ship, the Wind Shadow, had gone somewhere but he didn't know where, though he expected it to return soon. The ship had taken Vima. Taanar realized that the pirates were part of the Shadow Wing organization, and the Wind Shadow was their flagship. Her group didn't have the resources to combat them, or to rescue Vima from them. 

Though Teemo was disappointed, he accepted that he wouldn't be able to rescue his fellow cadet. He planned to take the shuttle back to Coruscant to report what had happened. The others helped him transfer Commander Drason's remains to the shuttle, and Effie programmed the hyperspace jump coordinates for him. Taanar assured him that they would be investigating the slavery ring further and would share any information they learned with the Imperial Knights. 

As the Fortune of Greepo prepared to jump away from the cargo station, they witnessed the return of the Wind Shadow. The Fortune set course for Ord Mantel to hand over their prisoner, the pilot who had been the only survivor of their encounter with the Shadow Wing. 

Next: Episode 2, "From the Shadows"

Friday, June 30, 2017

[Pathfinder] Wrath of the Righteous, part 18: Many Blessings

Discussing the dream-visions each of the companions had experienced led them all to recall more details. Jiro had recognized the woman he had seen as Kelei, sometimes inaccurately known as the "queen" of the kami. Kelei had even fired arrows from her fiery bow at dream-Jiro. But he shared only with Bohgong that when her arrow passed through him it seemed to have carried away a dark mist, which seemed to relate to a frightening experience he had once had.

Asami had also seen Kelei, but only in the background of her vision. Her attention had been focused on the ancient guardian spirit of the World Tree,

and on the other creature that had briefly appeared to her. It had emerged from the uncountable leaves of the Tree, a creature made of branch and leaf and root but wearing a skull-like mask where a humanoid face would be. This creature had wielded a sword of wood, its blade perforated by whorled shapes.

It had pointed its sword at her, then turned to look back at the Tree and vanished among the leaves. Then two leaves had shimmered and blown from the Tree, transforming into the figures of Asami's parents. They hugged her and silently returned to the Tree, after which a branch stretched out and touched her forehead where the Golden Flame tattoo rested on her brow. Her mind was suffused with knowledge of demons and how to combat them. Then the branch touched her wooden sword, which her dream-self held, and she knew somehow that she could reshape her wooden sword into other forms with her thoughts and even use it as a weapon, something that had been impossible for her in the past. The myriad leaves shivered in a breeze and the vision came to an end.

While she sat with her companions discussing these visions, Zosta looked at her oddly, and Jiro commented that her hair, which normally had a violet undertone, now appeared to be green. Then Zosta asked her if she was turning into a tree, which she found most confusing. Runa then explained that they could all see swirls and lines on her skin, very faint, like the pattern of wood grain. But when Asami looked at her own hand she saw nothing, nor could she perceive the green tone in her hair.

Jiro took Bohgong out into the garden for his daily meditation. Though his friends weren't aware of it, he had a serious conversation with the white monkey, who kept his ability to speak a secret from the others though Runa had overheard him once. Bohgong warned Jiro not to be too pleased about his new abilities, for the stronger he became the more dangerous the world would become. Jiro then experienced a vision from the spirit animal's memory when it was Jiro's ancestor, a mighty warrior. He watched as his uncle destroyed innumerable oni, but when his uncle turned to look back at his comrades, all of them had fallen.

While Jiro was outside and Asami was still contemplating her vsion, a commotion could be heard from the corridor outside their sleeping room, Runa,and Zosta went out to see what was happening. Asami remained in the room. Her friends struggled to get through a crush of people clogging the hallway, until someone exclaimed that "It's a miracle!" Runa asked what was going on, then began trying to push her way through the crowd. She heard someone say that Irabeth might be alive! Runa immediately began to sing a song of praise to Iomedae.

Amid all this chaos, Zosta also overheard that it seemed Darla Darra had experienced a miraculous healing. Runa began to lead a group of people who joined in her song toward the temple of Iomedae, while Zosta went to find Darra. She found Aegronius with her - and to both their amazement Darra's missing leg had been replaced by a "limb" of golden light. Her injured eye was also glowing. Zosta realized that perhaps some of the divine gifts given to Aegronius by Iomedae had also been extended to Darra.

Once the celebration of Irabeth's miraculous resurrection had died down a bit, everyone met in the hall of Defender's Heart for a celebratory breakfast. Spirits were so high that Jiro felt it necessary to remind everyone not to speak of the destruction of the Wardstones in the presence of others. While they were eating they heard the news that the queen of Mendev was on her way to Kenabres and was expected to arrive the following day. They also heard that Irabeth's survival had been due to the sword Radiance that she carried, which had stored her soul and prevented it from being permanently separated from her body. Though she had survived she was very weak, a state that was familiar to Aegronius and Runa.

Their breakfast was interrupted by a second disturbance outside. Then a huge red-skinned, horned demon covered in tattooed runes burst into the hall. The companions were not entirely surprised to see him, but his arrival caused consternation among the other people present. He strode across to their table, bellowing, "Little Sister!" and swept Zosta up in a crushing bear-hug. As Asami observed Rhino she realized that the demon had acquired more tattoos since the last time she had seen him. Rhino then sat down at the table and demanded that they tell him the details of what had happened to them. They carefully avoided mentioning the Wardstones or the demons that had survived. In the course of the conversation Rhino also revealed that he was distantly related to Areelu Vorlesh, which Asami realized meant that among the demons he must be a kind of royalty. Rhino was very impressed at how the group had been able to deal with ten babau.

When the conversation waned, a large crowd of listeners had gathered around the table. Zosta and Rhino then decided to go outside to meet Zosta's parents, who were just arriving at Defender's Heart. Darra went with them, but they found that Zosta's parents were with Qednys and could not be disturbed at that moment. Zosta then watched Darra spar with Rhino, who was eager to test out her skills. When Zosta joined in and was able to trip the demon and stomp on him, giving Darra room to make an attack of her own, Rhino was delighted and burst out in a hearty belly laugh.

A little later the whole group were invited to join Qednys, Kimroth, Cennami, and Zosta's parents in the War Room, where they found a weak Irabeth sitting in a comfortable chair. Qednys confirmed that as they had heard, the Queen was coming to meet the heroes of the defense of Kenabres. Qednys suspected that the Queen would ask them to complete another dangerous mission on behalf of the Crusade: to seek out the Sword of Valor, the banner once wielded by Iomedae herself, which was believed to be held in the fortress of Drezen, which had fallen to the demons. He also revealed that scouts had reported demons were massing all along the Worldwound, preparing for an attack on the cities to the south, including the capital. Irabeth added that rumor held Staunton Vhane, the betrayer, could be found in Drezen. She was determined that he should be dealt with once and for all.

After these topics had been discussed, Qednys told them that he had spent the night examining the Wardstone fragment they had given him. He had determined that by rubbing it on a weapon or suit of armor, it would impart special abilities to them geared toward combating demons and evil creatures from other planes. These benefits would last for only a day, after which the stones would become inert. Qednys offered to return the stone he had been examining, but Jiro immediately responded that it should go to Irabeth.

When the discussion was completed, the members of the group separated. Asami went to find some apparel appropriate for meeting royalty, and afterward made her way to Blackwing to see Aravashniel. He was already aware of what had happened to the Wardstones. To give him further detail of what had taken place, Asami agreed to allow him to cast a spell to share her memories, as this was now the only way for him to truly see anything. Afterward she left him to return to his researches on ways to guard the Worldwound without the Wardstones. She returned to Defender's Heart and sought to purchase a wand containing a spell to protect a person from evil, which she was able to acquire at a discount as it was not fully charged.

While Asami was with Aravashniel, Jiro had arranged to sell some of the items the comrades had acquired from their battles in the Gray Garrison, and he distributed over a thousand gold pieces to each member of the group. Thus equipped with extra funds, new magic items, and in some cases new clothing, they prepared for their royal audience the following day.

Next: Part 19, A Royal Request