Campaign Stories: Wiliken 7

With Jean-Baptiste freed and returned to his human form, the five souls needed only to exit the abattoir they’d found themselves in. Wiliken and Jurgen had explained that the entrance was not an option, recounting the ambush that had taken place there at the beginning of the battle. Jurgen added that he sensed the doors were barred by mystic wards outside of the building. Douglas noted that were there any means of shutting off this spell from inside, he and Wiliken would have certainly found it while attempting to override the force field.

As they spoke, the mysterious Jean-Baptiste slowly paced the perimeter of the pit. Though they exchanged many words, Wiliken doubted Jean-Baptiste caught even one, for he appeared to be in a deep concentration. As he walked, his hand slid along the wall.

“Explain your friend,” Wiliken said to Douglas.

“Jean-Baptiste is a druid,” Douglas said. “It is not uncommon for his type to take animal form.”

“So, why didn’t he change back to human and save us all the trouble?” Wiliken asked, growing angry that he’d risked so much for a raving woods walker.

“The collar on his neck contained a powerful enchantment which bound him to camel form.”

“And what is he doing now?”

At that moment, Jean-Baptiste stopped, placing one foot heavily down on the sand. His hand slid forward slightly, stopped, and then pushed on the wall, all as if of its own volition. The earth beneath them groaned and there was the hissing of sand falling.

“Finding a way out,” Jean-Baptiste said, and he pointed to the cage where once he was held.

For you too were once a slave.

The cage had sunk into the earth some, and the hissing came from the sand attempting to fill in the hole. As Wiliken watched, the cage continued to sink. This was when the githzerai realized that he was looking at the elevator they used to transport the pit animals into their sparring arena. He dashed forward and jumped atop the cage, which was now at knee-level, claiming the spot where once he’d thought he could fend off the beasts that converged on their camel friend. This, of course, was before his arrogance nearly killed him.

“Hop on,” Wiliken urged his allies. “Before the fall becomes too treacherous.”

Douglas, Jean-Baptiste, Morgan and Jurgen made haste to join him. As they descended into the darkness together, Wiliken became claustrophobic. He imagined that the sand might just keep falling and cover them all before they could make any effort to free themselves.

“What an inefficient system,” Jurgen complained, also concerned with the ever-falling sand. “If they lose this much sand every time they replace a pit beast, think of the extra effort expended on replenishing the sand when they might simply keep these beasts in holding pens at pit level instead. They’re wasting a fortune.”

“All is vanity,” Jean-Baptiste said before returning to silent contemplation.

“Yes, that’s what I said,” Jurgen retorted.

The service elevator rumbled to a halt, and the adventurers were met by the smell of dander and animal droppings. Morgan lit a torch, and it illuminated a series of cages filled with mangy beasts, many of which had bloodied themselves attacking the metal bars that held them. As Morgan alighted the wall-hanging torches, more details presented themselves to Wiliken’s vision. He saw what looked like broken pieces of pottery.

“What are those?” Wiliken asked Jurgen. He assumed that they were of ritual importance, and to Wiliken’s knowledge Jurgen was often contracted for performing rituals.

“Wards,” Jurgen answered, bending to examine the pieces. “Were I to guess, these objects once pacified the animals, probably so their handlers wouldn’t be wounded while tending to them.”

“We must free them,” Wiliken said, simply.

“They’d kill us all, kill one another, and then starve to death,” Jurgen said. “We must not free them.”

“For you too-” Wiliken started.

“Stop,” Jurgen stopped him. “Just stop saying that. It always gets us into trouble.”

“Douglas can calm the animals,” Wiliken said. “He charmed a boar on the battlefield.”

“Sadly,” Douglas said. “This is beyond me. By the time I trained these animals, we’ll all have either starved or been murdered by whatever reinforcements Valgaman is no doubt summoning.”

Glum, Wiliken began to search his surroundings.

“What are you doing?” Jurgen said, worried.

Wiliken searched out a cupboard where he found piles of meat, mostly rotten, but certainly healthier for these animals than devouring their own flesh. Wiliken gathered an armful of the odorous food and began distributing it to the animals.

“This will at least keep them alive for a little longer,” Wiliken said.

Even as Douglas, Jean-Baptiste and Morgan joined Wiliken in feeding the animals, Jurgen stood, arms crossed, disgusted that his fellow warriors had forgotten their own need to escape, but he said nothing. He might bully one of his allies to share his opinion, but not each of them.

As the tortured growling of the various beasts quieted into ravenous food gobbling, another sound could be heard beyond this room. Muffled though it was, the sound was that of human voices. Wiliken could tell the others heard it as well, for they all stopped in their tracks and looked toward the door at the end of the long corridor.

“Reinforcements already?” Morgan whispered.

“Perhaps,” Wiliken said, suddenly curious. “Perhaps not.”

“Wiliken!” Jurgen whispered, but it was too late. Wiliken had already taken hold of a torch and bolted for the exit. The githzerai opened the door with no fear of what stood on the other side. His courage originated in a hunch, a strange thought that wandered into his mind just moments before he heard the voices. Wiliken shoved his torch inside the adjoining room and watched as striped shadows stretched out into an accommodating room. More cages, Wiliken thought. He stepped into the room and swung his torch to his left, revealing behind the bars a pile of children shading their eyes from the firelight.

“It’s all right,” Wiliken shouted.

As Wiliken lit the torches on the wall, he began to feel joy. Unlike the beasts in the previous room, these children could be transported from their confinement with ease once they found a way out. Wiliken began to reflect on the fact that he hadn’t felt the smallest bit of surprise that the room would be full of children. In truth, he’d opened the door expecting exactly this. The mental powers of githzerai manifest through training, and without the help of magic. As a result, one wouldn’t understand these powers as psychic. Certainly, the powers originated in the githzerai psyche, but these powers were never precognitive or clairvoyant. Rather, a well-practiced githzerai could see the world as it is, understand his part in it, and maximize his potency at the things he did. Wiliken felt his stomach turn. If he hadn’t gained second sight, then his chance prediction had been the result of a memory. In that moment, Wiliken unraveled Valgaman the Terrible’s plot and the part he’d hoped Wiliken would play.

“Don’t play at being squeamish,” Jurgen jabbed. “You of all people should be familiar with the signs of a child sacrifice.”

When Wiliken looked at the children once again, he saw blood splattered across the walls, children dismembered, eviscerated, decapitated, intestines leaking out of stomachs, and the vision made him retch. The next moment, the children were there once more, completely intact, heads, intestines and all, but it was they who were revolted. For a moment, Wiliken imagined that the children had just seen the same vision that nearly brought him to his knees, but as the children nearly flattened one another to place a distance between themselves and the githzerai he knew their terror had another cause entirely.

The shouting was chaotic, but after a few moments it was clear that the children were blaming Wiliken for their imprisonment. Allies a short time earlier, Jean-Baptiste and Morgan rushed to restrain the githzerai. Jurgen advanced to assist Wiliken, but Douglas pushed him out of the way, threatening that he’d slit the deva’s throat should he complicate the situation further. Jurgen stepped back, and Douglas took this as a sign that he’d no longer have to fear the sorcerer’s intervention. The human took a knee and interrogated one of the children, using soothing words to calm the boy and bring forth the words that would condemn or free Wiliken. In the din, the archer knew not which words the child spoke.

Douglas stood and looked upon Wiliken. “The child says that a githzerai was their captor, a githzerai who looked much like you.”

Jean-Baptiste and Morgan held Wiliken tighter, imagining that this verdict would prompt him to escape.

“But the one who imprisoned these boys and girls was much younger githzerai,” Douglas continued, and Wiliken was released by the humans. “Do you know the githzerai this child speaks of?”

Though Wiliken could once again move freely, he felt restrained once more by the weight of all the emotions he felt at that moment, shame and guilt the first among his burdens. “I do,” he said. “These children were captured by my son.”

Campaign Stories continues in Wiliken 8.

Campaign Stories: Wiliken 6

“Jean-Baptiste!” Douglas shouted as he rushed to the camel’s rescue. Wiliken expected Jurgen to belittle the human for his antics, but instead the judgment was turned on him.

“You should have stayed home,” Jurgen said, angrily. “You should have sat in your chair at home and welcomed death when Valgaman’s lackeys came to pay you back for insulting him. But now you’ve dragged us all into the situation.”

“Lay your shame elsewhere,” Wiliken said. “I’ve my own shame to attend to.”

“Do you have any-” Jurgen started, but he was soon distracted by their comrades. Douglas and Morgan had pried enough of the damaged cage’s bars away that the animal – that Jean-Baptiste – was now free to roam. Douglas now looked the beast in the eyes and attempted to interrogate him. “If you must talk to the animal,” Jurgen said, now speaking to Douglas. “At least allow me to translate his inevitably sarcastic and derisive replies.”

“Camels, right?” Jurgen said to Wiliken before turning and speaking an incantation in Jean-Baptiste’s direction.

“Well,” Jurgen said after listening to a moment’s worth of camel bleating. “That’s surprising. Your Jean-Baptiste is surprisingly articulate for a camel. He says that you need to remove the collar. He says you must do so carefully.”

“Jean-Baptiste!” Douglas shouted joyously.

“Now, where was I?” Jurgen returned to Wiliken. “Ah, yes. Do you have any idea how many party guests died so you could rescue a camel?”

Wiliken held out his bow and pointed out the inscription. “For you too were once a slave,” he translated.

“I most certainly was not,” Jurgen replied. Wiliken was not sure what irritated him more, the fact that Jurgen was willfully missing his point or that Jurgen was distracted by the humans once again. They handled the camel’s collar with great concern, as if it might have some terrible curse on it.

“What?” Jurgen shouted. “Here, let me-”

But Douglas had unclasped the jeweled collar, and as he did the camel transformed into a hide-covered man of the wild, into Jean-Baptiste, friend of Douglas.

“Turn him back,” Jurgen said. “I need someone to carry my spell books.”

“I’ll never be your beast of burden,” Jean-Baptiste said, solemnly.

Now that Wiliken’s concern for the camel seemed justified, the githzerai saw a strange demeanor come over Jurgen. He supposed this mean that Jurgen was embarrassed for giving Wiliken such a hard time, and Wiliken’s irritation was turned suddenly into entertainment.

“I’m pleased you did not die,” Jurgen admitted.

“Thank you.”

“But I am somewhat disappointed,” Jurgen continued, not allowing his sensitivity to linger too long in Wiliken’s memory. “I have a ritual that allows me to turn a recently dead subject into a vampire, and I have been itching to use it.”

“No more transforming us into monsters,” Morgan commanded. Jurgen was unable to come up with a sarcastic retort for his intimidating dragonborn ally.

Campaign Stories continues in Wiliken 7.

Campaign Stories: Wiliken 5

When Wiliken awoke he saw that Jurgen had left him, but in his place was a badly injured Douglas, hard at work keeping the githzerai from dying. Wiliken cursed the fact that he was still on the battlefield. He’d hoped to awaken in his bed, with his wife at his side, having been spirited away by his allies, but here he was, still in the sand pit, fighting for his life.

The shadow on his face told Wiliken that the healer had at least gotten him to cover, but when the shadow moved this way and that, Wiliken realized that it was one of the boars, perhaps even the one who mowed him down earlier, who stood before them.

Startled, Wiliken jumped back from Douglas’s healing salve and drew an arrow.

“No!” Douglas shouted, and he clutched his side in agony. It appeared that Douglas was in worse shape than even the githzerai, and yet he didn’t use his potions on himself. “I’ve charmed the beast. She’ll defend us from harm until we’re back on our feet, but not if you kill her first.”

With Douglas’s medical assistance, Wiliken was back in action in no time. He scanned for the reptile who had nearly killed him and found the creature, or rather its remains, splattered on the pillar it’d used to hide behind. Nearby he saw Morgan going toe-to-toe with another of the boars, doing his best to keep it from attacking the deva who’d once turned him into a monster. Jurgen pored over a dusty tome, frantically flipping its pages, likely looking for a transport spell of some sort.

The gargantuan sand leviathan known by those who have witnessed it in nature as a dire bulette continued to circle the caged camel at the center of the room. Though it remained unconcerned with the battle, it nearly killed Wiliken all the same. The vision of its huge form swimming effortlessly through sand distracted Wiliken just long enough that the third boar got the best of him. Tusks lowered, the boar charged, but just before it made contact, Douglas’s charmed boar came at it from the side. The two beasts, likely children of the same litter, battled to the death, or rather to the deaths, as the victor collapsed from mortal wounds just moments after killing its brother.

Wiliken noticed Douglas limping toward the dire bulette. Rather than attempt to stop him, however, the githzerai readied an arrow. Douglas was merely continuing the battle plan they’d devised. Though they’d both nearly died, the goal hadn’t changed – the camel was still in need of saving.

Wiliken readied himself for the fight of his life. What he experienced, however, was not nearly so climactic. It seems that Jurgen must have found his place in his spell book, because Wiliken saw the mage’s familiar ambling cloud shoot past him toward the sand behemoth. Upon impact, the dire bulette simply stopped.

“Did you kill it?” Wiliken asked, not ready to put down his bow just yet.

“No. I simply made it helpless,” Jurgen answered. “It is a condition far kinder than death, though I must admit that the kindness only applies if the beast’s nostrils are above ground at the time of impact.”


“Yes, it is dead.”

Campaign Stories continues in Wiliken 6.

Project Karamazov

Project Karamazov

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov in 1880, when the art of recording and replaying sounds as they passed through the air was still an exciting and new concept. With recordings by Simon Vance, Frederick Davidson, and Tim Pigott-Smith, among many others in the current Dostoyevsky library, the advent of the audiobook – or “book on tape,” as we called it in the grand old days of analog – made it seem as if there had never been a novel that could not be listened to via speaker or ear bud. In the years since Dostoyevsky’s final novel, Karamazov has entered the public domain, which resulted in perhaps the most democratic audiobook of all time, the free version as read by volunteers worldwide and distributed by Librivox.

I can think of only two frontiers that could make an audio recording of The Brothers Karamazov exciting and new again. The first involves recording Dostoyevsky himself as he verbalizes his magnum opus “the way it was meant to be heard,” (as with so many studies – historical Jesus, historical Socrates, etc., we’d seek to hear the true utterances of the master himself and in this case we’d be utterly ashamed to admit that none of us know enough Russian to even value this reading) and the second involves getting a large number of public figures to record, one sentence at a time, the entire work from beginning to end. The first idea is on hold until I clear my time machine with the Oppenheimer Board of Ethics in science which, like my time machine, doesn’t exist yet. The second idea is #ProjectKaramazov.

I could go on about how important Dostoyevsky is to the art of literature, how influential he’s been to the writers who have followed him, or how The Brothers Karamazov is his finest work. I could cite the conversation from LOST where John Locke (Terry O’Quinn) and Ben Linus (Michael Emerson) discuss how Hemingway never felt like he could excel as a writer in a world where the artifacts of Dostoyevsky’s existence still remained. In reality, my motives are entirely selfish – Dostoyevsky is my favorite author and The Brothers Karamazov is my favorite book. If you’re a F. Scott Fitzgerald fan feel free to tweet daily about #ProjectTenderIsTheNight. For me it has to be #ProjectKaramazov.

How does Project Karamazov work? I, myself, or another member of #TeamKaramazov, make contact with a public figure – I use the term public figure very loosely to mean someone who is known, or should be known, on at least a nationwide basis, if not worldwide – and request a reading of one sentence from The Brothers Karamazov. As the public person prepares a recording, I prepare a bio to accompany the public figure’s performance of the sentence. Once I receive the recording, I publish the audio file and details about its reader for public consumption, and then the process begins anew.

Regarding the time frame of this project, I do not delude myself into thinking that #ProjectKaramazov will be completed within my lifetime. Just as there must be a variety of public figures to read the work, there must be a variety of “true believers” behind the scenes of #TeamKaramazov to make sure the project keeps going. Though readers will be recording passages from my favorite novel, this is ultimately not my project, at least not mine alone; it is a community collaboration where we will discuss literature, charity – certainly those focused on literacy and education – and what it means to create, to have your voice heard in a public forum. #ProjectKaramazov is all these things, but it is also simply one recitation of one story written long ago.

If you have any questions or comments about #ProjectKaramazov, this is a good place to share them.

How-to Recording Guide
Russian Name Pronunciation Guide

Campaign Stories: Wiliken 4

“Remind me to exercise caution before calling you old,” Jurgen said.

Wiliken had been hot, both in terms of accuracy and in terms of anger. He felt strong and he felt proud, proud enough that he shouldn’t have to lower himself to retrieving his own arrows. But the only remaining party guests were his co-worker Jurgen, the dragonborn Morgan, and a mysterious noble named Douglas, whose electric strike mowed down the enemies, and each had pulled his weight enough in battle to be exempt from arrow duty.

The man named Douglas was a curiosity to Wiliken. The githzerai had learned the measure of many men, but he was having difficulty figuring out who or what this human truly was at his core. His dress suggested that Douglas was a wealthy supporter of Valgaman the Terrible, but he was highly concerned with the caged camel, which was now surrounded by hideous beasts, and such concern was not common in Valgaman’s circle. His hair, still scruffy in places, his wild eyes, and the fact that he’d attempted to disrupt the party before Wiliken had his chance, these things suggested that the man who stood before him was some sort of adventurer or soldier of fortune. But that couldn’t be entirely true. His speech was that of one highly born. To Wiliken, Douglas was an onion – you peel away one layer and you’re left with yet another.

To stack one curiosity on another, both Douglas and Morgan had clearly made their way into Valgaman’s party only through disguise and deception. Wiliken understood from this fact that these two each had their own agenda, something they wished to carry out at this event, and until Wiliken uncovered these agendas he would have to keep a close eye on these fellow warriors.

Wiliken shifted his focus to his surroundings as he filled his quiver. Any askew floorboard or out-of-place trinket might be the key to lowering the force field. In the end it was the mysterious man Douglas who found the switch. He had knocked on the stage supporting Valgaman’s throne until he’d found a hollow spot.

“Here!” Douglas had shouted, and he pried the compartment open. Douglas wore the clothing of one who had servants to do this sort of work, and yet his hands found the grooves in the wood with expert ease and cracked open the hidden chamber like an expert thief.

Wiliken and the others gathered behind Douglas.

“Perhaps we should scout for traps before Wiliken-” Jurgen said, but before he could finish, Wiliken had flipped the switch within the hidden compartment. “And there he goes again.”

The pressure in the room spiked as a blue dome appeared above the pit. Moments later, it flickered out, and the charge from the field pulled upon their bodies, forcing them over the banister and into the pit.

Down here, Wiliken could feel the rumble as the submerged beast circled. He recognized that gargantuan creature that swam through the sand as if it were water as a dire bulette. He’d seen whole squadrons of experienced warriors fall to a single bulette in the wild. Equally dangerous were three large boars whose tusks shimmered as if aflame.

“I say we fight a straight line to the cage,” Wiliken said to Douglas. “Once there, I’ll cover you from atop the camel’s prison while you work at freeing the animal.”

Douglas nodded, and the two rushed into the fray of battle. Jurgen shouted after Wiliken, “Good work. We’ll end up killing all these beasts just to save one camel. Are all githzerai ignorant of the study of mathematics?”

The archer’s first shot struck a boar on its thickly ridged back. The beast had been goring the cage with his tusks, but when the arrow struck he turned and charged his assailants. Douglas was able to react quickly enough to dive out of the way, but the boar struck Wiliken head on, driving him back into Jurgen and knocking them both prone.

Before they could arise, a jolt of electricity surged through the two combatants, knocking them back down, followed by another and another. Wiliken wondered if Douglas had turned on them, using the same lightning that ended the golem battle on Wiliken and Jurgen. He certainly had his suspicions about any man who disguised his true self. But both Douglas and Morgan were busy dodging deadly boar tusks while trying in vain to make quick strikes against the mad creatures. The static charges were coming from a pair of reptiles, basilisks by the looks of them, though Wiliken admitted he could be wrong. They stood to either side of the pit, each taking cover behind massive pillars and only popping their heads out to discharge deadly bolts of lightning against their foes.

Wiliken found that it was no use trying to get up. The twin reptiles kept them thoroughly pinned. Instead, Wiliken drew and fired while still laying on his side. He fired at the reptile to his left between crippling jolts, nock, fire, – BZZZZT – and was able to remain in the battle just long enough to kill one of the two beasts, but before he could turn on the second a final excruciating bolt hit him and everything went black.

Campaign Stories continues in Wiliken 5.

Campaign Stories: Wiliken 3

Jurgen grabbed Wiliken by the shoulders and attempted to rush him toward the exit. Wiliken fought back, shouting about the camel. This time it was Wiliken’s impracticality that saved them. The guests who had attempted to exit had found the doors locked, and yet the guests continued to pour toward the exits, pinning layer upon layer of noble against the solid doors. Wiliken watched as the stone pillars that lined the room began to shake, shedding dust onto Valgaman’s exotic floor coverings and revealing a series of large golems, several of which hacked their way through the cornered prey as if the nobles were served to them on a platter.

The slaughter that followed was Wiliken’s fault.

Despite Jurgen’s curses, all of which were aimed at the githzerai, Wiliken set aside his guilt momentarily and allowed his years of training to kick in. The muscles remember, he thought. He nocked and fired, nocked and fired, nocked and fired, and the oaken bow True Shot earned its name once again. He made quick work of the approaching foes as the massive bulks stomped slowly toward the pair of survivors, never giving an inch of ground. This afforded Jurgen the chance to withdraw an implement from his satchel – Wiliken recognized the crystal orb as Jurgen much touted Skull of Pelagius – and just when the githzerai thought his ally had lost his nerve for battle a snake of grey-green smoke meandered out from the skull. Instead of striking at a golem, the arcane energy collided with perhaps the only remaining noble.

Wiliken understood that that magic that issued forth from Jurgen was only animated in the sense that it was a command given physical qualities and mobility – one wouldn’t have to be trained in arcana to understand this fact – but as the vapor trail first contacted the human, it seemed as if it were confused. Jurgen’s spell struck about a hand’s length from the man’s chest, and what happened then surprised even the deva himself: two images, that of a man, and that of a much larger dragonborn fought, each representation advancing and withdrawing on the same space until finally there was only the one giant warrior. As if the act of shedding his magical disguise weren’t disturbing enough, the combatant began to writhe with obvious pain as boils began to sprout from underneath his scaly flesh.

“What have you done?” Wiliken screamed at Jurgen, appalled.

“I’ve evened the odds,” Jurgen said.

From the boils, which were visible even beneath the party guest’s battle raiment, sprouted fiendish legs, and while the dragonborn was now revealed as nearly the same size as his golem opponents, far less defenseless than he’d seemed as a small human scrapper, he disposed of his adversaries much more quickly.

Wiliken frowned as boils continued to erupt across the dragonborn and knot together into dense disgusting muscles.

“Don’t worry, it’s reversible,” Jurgen said. “I think…”

Turning from the horrorshow Jurgen had enacted, Wiliken continued to press his attack. Enemies that had crumbled before him had begun to reform, pebbles spinning and coalescing into their original form, and Wiliken felt his first moment of fear. The githzerai had begun to wonder if the golems would best Wiliken, Jurgen and Jurgen’s abomination, when a blast of lightning sizzled through the air and connected all of the stone-hewn enemies with a lattice of sparking energy. The golems froze in place before exploding, pulverized by one deadly strike.

When the dust settled, Wiliken saw a figure before him. It was the same man who had rushed the force field prior to the battle.

“Anyone need saving?” he asked.

Wiliken was struck by how many arrows he saw throughout the room. Perhaps more amazing was the fact that each of these arrows had cut down a stone warrior before they were all put down for good. Wiliken’s brain told him that he should collapse, but his body felt strong, virile even. He felt a rush normally reserved for wine or woman, and though he needed to gather his arrows, he badly wanted more battle.

Campaign Stories continues in Wiliken 4.

Campaign Stories: Wiliken 2

Wiliken had told the guards that he’d brought his bow because he’d heard word of upstarts in this side of town and he’d just as soon not die at their hands. He’d mentioned something about how the youth no longer respect their elders, something expected, but the truth was that he mistrusted his host, Valgaman, now the self-aggrandizing Valgaman the Terrible, even less than street thieves.

“I’ll be happy to check the bow with you at the door,” Wiliken said. He’d been uncharacteristically long-winded in his explanation and he feared he’d roused the suspicions of the heavily armored guards. He’d expected to be seized, but instead he was laughed at.

“Valgaman trusts his guests,” said the guard to his left. Rather, he trusts his own ego, thought Wiliken.

“And, after all, that bow might come in handy during tonight’s entertainment,” said the guard to his right.

Wiliken hoped the event would start soon, not so he could witness the Menagerie of Death, but so the event might end soon as well. He enjoyed the company of his wife far more than that of a bunch of thugs and buffoons calling themselves nobles, and least of all Valgaman, yet it was Valgaman who first approached Wiliken. The gnome was dressed in a black robe with a skull on the front. If Wiliken was not mistaken in his estimations, this was the costume of a petty gang of criminals with aspirations at prominence called the Boneheart Clan. Valgaman was making some sort of power play, and Wiliken doubted he’d much enjoy the consequences.

A series of guests passed between Wiliken and Valgaman, and the githzerai used the opportunity to lose the attention of the host. He did not stop until he’d reached a table laden with piping hot appetizers and strange glass decanters of drink. It was here that Wiliken bumped into the sullen deva Jurgen. If he had to pass his time with anyone, he supposed Jurgen was as good of a conversation partner as anyone.

“Fancy seeing you here,” Jurgen said.

“The gnome,” Wiliken said. “He’s up to something.”

“Well, of course,” Jurgen said. “Do you think a Menagerie of Death just comes together of its own volition?”

Perhaps Jurgen’s voice was the trigger – after all, he was the last being Wiliken had encountered before the invitation incident – but a panic came over Wiliken far worse than any social anxiety he might feel over being forced to attend this party. He felt suddenly nauseous and fought to keep from giving outward sign of his inner turmoil. Instead, Wiliken focused on Jurgen’s voice, used it as an anchor.

“I had been meaning to ask you,” Jurgen said. “When the golden city fell -”

“I don’t want to talk about that,” Wiliken interrupted. The panic grew in him like a child, and like any life form it felt as if it were forming intention and will. Wiliken gave into this strange sensation and turned around. Though the room he’d entered had been on the ground floor, there was a broad balcony circling a central pit which appeared to be full of sand, and in the center of the pit was a rickety cage occupied by the camel that he’d seen day after day since receiving the invitation to this event, each time he closed his eyes.

Wiliken was no longer bothered by the fact that he’d envisioned this camel. Many people have brief images of things before seeing them, probably little slivers of the infinite number of images one sees while asleep. It was not the fact that his eyes had predicted this scene that made boiled his githzerai blood, nor that strange sense of foreboding that beat the war drum of his heart – DOOM, DOOM, DOOM, DOOM – but the fact that the quivering camel was locked inside a cage, and all for the sport of an arrogant gnome and his social climbing friends.

For you too were once a slave.

Before there were githzerai or githyanki, there was a race of beings in the world next to this called the illithid. Wiliken couldn’t remember these times any better than his grandfather might have – these truths were the content of stories passed down generation after generation by Wiliken’s people. But before Wiliken had ever heard of these tentacle-faced monsters referred to as illithid, he’d heard the older children refer to them as “mind flayers” because they ravaged the psyches of the creatures they imprisoned, all the creatures of the land, including the ancient ancestors of the githzerai. The inscription on his bow may as well have been tattooed on his body. “For you too were once a slave” meant that Wiliken descended from a race who were familiar with life inside a cage.

Wiliken was aware that the small talk had died down and that Valgaman the Terrible had begun a speech, but his heart spoke louder than the gnome, for Wiliken saw a ripple beneath the sand, no doubt a predator abused and coaxed into ripping apart the imprisoned camel. Wiliken had to act now, to jump over the balcony and free the animal, or at least to put a body between the beast and certain death.

Wiliken stepped forward but was stopped from rushing the banister by a hand on his shoulder, Jurgen’s, and the words, “Restrain yourself, my friend – you’ll get killed,” also Jurgen’s.

Jurgen often seemed like he was only looking after his own best interests, but his pragmatism was an endearing quality. Their lives would be on the line, certainly, but the more sobering thought Wiliken faced was the likelihood that his own family would be targeted. Githzerai valued their self-control more than anything and humans – the race Wiliken had been raised as – valued their families. Both of these tendencies shamed Wiliken for making such a harsh decision.

“Across the lobby,” Jurgen whispered. Wiliken followed Jurgen’s gaze across the circular balcony where a guest lurked in the shadows, our of view from the other guests who had faced the opposite direction in order to listen to Valgaman speak. It appeared that this guest had the same intention as Wiliken, to jump the rail and enter the pit, but just as soon as he was airborne his forward momentum stopped abruptly and he fell to the ground. A dull blue light revealed a matrix of squares in the place where the guest had hit. Valgaman had erected a force field of some sort across the pit.

The guest across the room had tested the shield in relative obscurity. Had Wiliken done the same he would have fallen mere yards from Valgaman with all eyes upon him. Wiliken had certainly dodged an arrow, but only with the help of Jurgen’s wise counsel.

Acting the party guest, Wiliken scanned the room. He was looking for a power source or control panel, perhaps a talisman or a group of mages concentrating on the center of the room. Any of these might be a means of dropping the force field, but none were present to Wiliken’s keen archer’s eyes. Valgaman must have installed a secret panel of some sort. This would be more difficult a situation than Wiliken had thought.

Wiliken’s concentration was broken by the loud din of a cheering audience. Around him nobles raised glasses or clapped.

“What is this about?” Wiliken asked Jurgen. “I wasn’t listening.”

“Valgaman announced the sacrifice of your camel,” Jurgen said.

It seemed that the camel would die and there was nothing Wiliken could do. Wiliken saw his vision once again, but this time the camel burned into his eyes was superimposed over the actual camel’s image and the juxtaposition spoke to the githzerai. It said, “You must prevent the slaughter that is to come.”

For you too were once a slave.

Wiliken was shown that flesh could not penetrate this force field, but during his years he’d seen many similar walls breached by some object or other. He didn’t have any enchanted items on him, but he was aware that iron had certain properties that allow it to overcome magic, and he had several iron-headed arrows. One such arrow could collapse an arcane force field, and if not, the same arrow could split the head of the party’s host.

The githzerai quickly drew his bow and, shouting a battle cry in deep speech, nocked and fired an arrow at the force shield. The arrow snapped on impact, but before it hit the ground, Wiliken had wheeled to his left and fired once again, this time at Valgaman the Terrible. As the arrow passed through the gnome, his image flickered and disappeared. Wiliken’s aim was true. Unfortunately, his target was false. The Valgaman who had hosted the party was a hologram.

For a moment, nobody spoke or moved, but then the booming voice of Valgaman returned. Voice divorced from body, Valgaman’s words sounded like those of an angry god:

“You’ve made a dire mistake.”

Campaign Stories continues in Wiliken 3.

Campaign Stories: Wiliken 1

The githzerai sat at his desk and stared into the shifting void before him. Back when he fought more wars than he signed scrolls, he might suspect an enchantment. He’d focus his iron mind and clarity would rush in like stream water over a flesh wound. Since he’d taken a desk job nearly forty years ago, however, he’d experienced this very feeling periodically. Its source was neither talisman nor potion; the githzerai had simply been sleeping poorly.

He hadn’t slept well for weeks, not since his father-in-law had given him that oaken bow. The wood was beautiful and strong. He’d taken the bow home and placed it above the mantle in his parlor. Looking upon it, he’d felt that his house, which had always been more of his wife’s creation, had finally made a place for him. The comfort stayed only shortly. By night he saw disturbing visions, looters streaming through his house, picking it clean, fire in the streets. Each night he’d close his eyes and live a different life, this time an official marched to the gallows by a screaming mob, the next a child cowering under his bed as warriors did terrible things to his screaming mother in the next room.

He’d told himself over and over again, “It’s not the bow that haunts me. It is merely the shadows of my past wearing the skins of my daytime acquaintances.” Just the same, he’d moved the bow to a prominent position behind his desk at work. The dreams lessened in intensity, but never abated.

The githzerai had no purpose for the bow – he no longer hunted, the thirst for battle had left him with age, and he had far finer military-grade weapons hidden throughout his house for use in the event of a break-in – but he couldn’t bring himself to dispose of it. On the day that Sazeran presented the bow to him, the githzerai had said, “Thank you for our generous gift, Saz.”

At first Sazeran had frowned. He said, “You misunderstand me, my son. I do not give to you something that belongs to me. I return to you that which has always been yours. I believe when we first met, you called this bow True Shot, no?”

Try though he might, he simply could not recall those early days. This created a strain in their relationship because Sazeran himself was quite fond of those days. Though his memory no longer served him regarding these things, the name of this oaken bow had never left him. “True Shot, yes.”

Though the githzerai had nearly no connection to his early experiences, the outline of his past had been recounted to him so many times that he’d become a good student of his own personal history. He had been the sole survivor of a githzerai war party that had come to this plane in order to assault an Iuzian platoon desecrating a forest with their arcane energies. Though he was only ten years of age at the time, he’d wielded the most powerful bow on the battlefield, a boy wielding a man’s weapon. When he became Sazeran’s ward, all things githzerai left him, his tribal battle gear, his memories of his family, and that great oaken bow; the githzerai had learned to live as a human. He’d enjoyed great success and prestige and taken Sazeran’s daughter Iseley as his wife. He’d become a legend by the age of twenty and retired to a simple life shortly thereafter.

“I must make a confession,” Sazeran had said. “I kept True Shot from you because I did not trust you. It shames me to say it, but it is true. You were a fierce warrior, and I feared that one day you’d find me among your enemies. To return this bow is by no means expiation. No. But I do it no less. You are my son and heir and this is your bow.”

The githzerai could no more rid himself of this bow than strike Sazeran dead with an arrow fired from its string. The old man was dying after all, and such heartbreak as that would be hard enough to endure in good health. Sazeran himself admitted that his end was near. He’d said, “I could commission another arcane ritual to keep me around another ten years or so, but to what end? Even now I’m little more than a walking corpse.”

He looked at the oaken bow, the source of his morning haze, and when the knock came upon his office door, he jumped. The mustachioed face of his workmate Jurgen appeared through the opening door. He felt an all-too-human surprise at the deva’s otherworldly blue tinted flesh. His judgment might have been considered ordinary among his peers, but not to the githzerai, who also claimed an otherworldly origin.

“Good morning, Wiliken,” Jurgen said. “You are still going by that name, yes? Perhaps I should call you the githzerai formerly known as -”

“What’s on your mind, Jurgen?”

Jurgen smiled. “Will I be seeing you at Valgaman’s party?”

“Party? What party?”

“Valgaman the Terrible,” Jurgen said. “He’s throwing some sort of sporting event. You should have received an invitation in your inbox.”

“Inbox?” The githzerai scanned his desk and saw a scroll that had previously escaped his notice. He held the scroll up. “I’ll let you know.”

“I’ve asked around. They say that Valgaman is… connected. Not attending might be hazardous to your well-being, to put it bluntly.”

“Consider me well advised.”

Jurgen must have read the disdain in the githzerai’s voice because he exited without further discussion. This gave the githzerai the opportunity to read Valgaman’s invitation. He’d scanned only the first line – “You are cordially invited to Valgaman the Terrible’s Menagerie of Death” – before he was struck with a stabbing headache which left him crumpled upon his desk in a feverish sweat. It took him no short amount of time to recover, and even afterwards he was left with a strange sense of urgency and the absurd negative of some sort of caged pack animal – a camel – across his field of vision.

The githzerai drafted a quick letter confirming he would be in attendance before going home and spending the remains of the day in bed. Prior to leaving the office he gave the oaken bow an accusatory look. An inscription on the side of the bow stared back at him, a phrase in rellanic that he didn’t have to read so much as his blood sang it:

For you too were once a slave.

Campaign Stories continues in Wiliken 2