Throne Of Cards 80 – Bluffed And Buffed
The secret to being a bard is to understand that unless you’re performing a song or a play, you’re probably not going to be the expert in your party. No, the trick is to pull all those different specialist skills together, and make them work together, the sum far stronger than its components. Ideally, you also want to be fast talking enough to convince everyone that you really did the dishes last night and it’s not your turn tonight, honestly.
Excerpt from ‘Ruminations Of A Master Bard’
“Met before? Athkatla?” Zaerini said, trying to stall for time while deciding how to spin this. Liches. Why does it always have to be liches? And why always this particular lich? True, Nevaziah was in some ways better than the average lich – I can’t believe I’ve met enough liches to be able to compare averages – but his forgetfulness meant that she couldn’t be sure how he’d react if he happened to remember more. Especially if he remembers about the Nether Scroll. Wait, that’s the ticket. I’d better remind him of that one other time and hopefully he’ll forget Eddie and the Nether Scroll entirely. “Why yes, Master!” She gushed. “It is us, your faithful servants Number One and Number Two. You remember, don’t you? The Twisted Rune? How we helped your superiors in that esteemed organization recognize your greatness?”
“How we helped introduce you to a charming undead lady?” Dekaras filled in, having clearly picked up on what she was trying to do. “Where is the Lady Layene by the way?”
Nevazaiah sighed. “She didn’t adjust well to being undead,” He said. “She got obsessed with that silly fire in the Twisted Rune library and kept insisting it wasn’t her fault. As if my faithful servants would ever do such a thing!”
“Right,” Rini said, smiling brightly. “As if we ever would!”
“How preposterous indeed,” Dekaras agreed.
“More to the point, she insulted Ducky,” Nevaziah said with a creaking little sigh. “She called him ‘just a toy’.”
“But,” Sarevok said, “It is just a…ow!”
“A mortal insult!” Rini exclaimed, trying to surreptitiously rub her elbow. She’d tried to hit her brother in the chinks of his armor, but it still hurt. “Such heresy surely wasn’t something our noble Master would let slip.”
“Hmmm….” Nevaziah said, scratching his bald head until a few flakes of dead skin fell off and landed on his shoulders. “What was I saying again? Oh yes, Layene.” He pointed to a small jar standing on a side table. “Ducky wasn’t happy with her, oh no. Not happy at all. You know, I think she might possibly still be alive in a sense, even reduced to dust, but at least she won’t be rude anymore. Are you sure I haven’t met your friends before, my minions? That one wizard hiding in the back looks somehow familiar…”
“Nope!” Rini said. “Absolutely not, he’s just…a random wizard, we needed somebody to deal with the magic shtick while we were absent from our beloved Master, after all.”
“’Magic shtick?!’” Edwin protested. “I…”
“Entirely random and not in any way remotely familiar,” Dekaras said in his firmest voice. “Isn’t that so, boy?”
“Er. Yes, yes of course. I am but a…a humble anonymous spellcaster, of no significance or importance whatsoever.”
“Oh,” Viconia said with a blissful smile on her face. “What I would give for some sort of recording of this moment that I might relive it again and again.”
“Master, if I may ask,” Zaerini said. “What are you doing here? Are you a friend of Sendai?”
“Sendai?” Nevaziah said, a blank look in his glowing red eyes. “Who is Sendai, Number Two?”
“Er…Sendai? The Drow lady who owns this entire giant underground lair thing that we’re standing in right now, the mistress of Drow and drider and probably lots of even worse things. That Sendai.”
“Hmmm…” Nevaziah said, holding his toy duck with its beak to the place where his right ear had once been. “What’s that, Ducky? You don’t say? Hmm…yes, yes. I see. Kill them all? Are you sure? Well then.” The lich huffed and turned towards the wary adventurers once more, but he still didn’t seem inclined to attack. “Why, I never! Ducky tells me I have been most grievously insulted!”
“One should always listen to one’s wise companion,” Minsc agreed. “I have my trusty Boo, and the dead man has his trusty duck, and so we will never be led astray. Would Ducky like to play with Boo? Minsc will tell him not to scratch.”
“Ducky says ‘possibly later’,” Nevaziah said. “Now, where were we?”
“With Sendai?” Imoen said.
I don’t know if I want to kill him or just curl up in a fetal position and cry myself to sleep.
“Sendai.” She said in a slightly tight voice. “Drow lady. Underground lair. Monsters. Remember?”
“Do excuse Number Two, Master,” Dekaras smoothly interjected. “She is as yet unaccustomed to properly anticipating and circumnavigating her Master’s little flights of fancy. These things take practice, after all.”
Nevaziah nodded. “The young people these days…so impatient. As I was saying, this ‘Sendai’ invited me here some time ago. She had taken an interest in my past research into applied transformative arcana, particularly the papers I once published on one rather interesting Nether Scroll.” He gave a dry little chuckle. “Some fool of a wizard stole that from me some time back. Oh, what I would give to know what hilarious misadventures befell him without the proper directions on how to use it.”
“Hilarious,” Edwin said between clenched teeth. “Ha. Ha. See how my sides are splitting? (Is there a spell for splitting liches? Further studies are clearly required.)”
“So, Sendai wanted to pick your brains on magic?” Imoen said. “What is she like?”
“I wouldn’t know!” Nevaziah huffed. “She invited me here two months ago, set me up in this laboratory, but she has apparently been ‘too busy’ to see me yet. The rudeness of it! I would have left long ago, if only…well, if only…”
“If only I could remember where the door was.”
Rini turned around. True, the door to Nevaziah’s laboratory fit so neatly into the wall that it nearly was invisible. Perhaps it made sense, as much as anything ever made sense around Nevaziah.
“Your faithful servants would be very happy to help, Master,” She offered. “Only…”
“Only what? Speak up, Number Two.”
“Only, Sendai seems to have a problem with us. She’s been trying to kill us, dear Master.”
“It is envy, of course,” Dekaras said. “Her own servants are clearly inferior, and so she has seen fit to attempt to deprive you of yours. A small army of Drow and umberhulks await a brief distance from this place.” He paused in seeming thought. “Why, could it be…no, assuredly she would not stoop so low.”
“How low?” Nevaziah asked, his eyes glowing ever brighter.
“It merely occurs to me, Master, that it is a passing strange coincidence that this reckless attempt upon your own servants’ humble lives should take place just as we were about to reach you at long last.”
“Oooh!” Rini filled in, her eyes wide. “She tried to keep us from our Master! I bet she even set that door up to be tricky on purpose, didn’t she?”
Viconia nodded. “It does seem the sort of thing Sendai might do. A mighty lich as a guardian of her domain? Just as effective as a dragon and without the food bill.”
Nevaziah slowly stood. It was a delicate process, involving stiff ligaments and joints, scattering flakes of skin, and little heaps of dust scattering from the folds of his robe. Even so, the steady red glow deep within the dark eye sockets, and the grinding of ancient teeth made her feel just a tiny bit uneasy. I hope we didn’t poke him too hard.
“Sendai,” Nevaziah hissed. “Has been using me…and DUCKY? For GUARD DOGS?”
“At long last, a connection is made,” Edwin scoffed. “Any longer, and we all might have ended up looking like mummified prunes. Why, I do believe…”
“…that a ‘humble anonymous spellcaster’ should consider his next words carefully as he addresses our Master Nevaziah, scholar of the Nether Scroll. Yes? Yes.” Rini looked her lover straight in the eyes until he eventually gave a brief cough and cleared his throat.
“Ah. Yes. Anonymous. Quite.”
Nevaziah nodded. “This will not do. Ducky says you speak true, my servants. Sendai has wasted my time and menaced my servants. I shall repay her in kind. Come along, my trusted minions! I wish you to keep score.”
“Score?” Imoen asked.
“Of which spell you enjoy best, of course.” Nevaziah rubbed his hands, and then had to stoop down to pick his left pinky finger up from the floor. “Sendai took an interest in my research, did she? Open the door, my servants. It’s time for her to pay attention to my lecture.”
The carnage that followed was…instructive to say the least. Zaerini and her friends followed some distance behind the irate lich as he tottered along on creaking legs, yellow duck lovingly tucked under his left arm. His right arm was kept quite, quite busy. Drow and umberhulks alike were withered, disintegrated, exploded, burnt, frozen, stomped, flattened, entombed and in the memorable case of one warrior, turned entirely inside-out while still alive. The resulting bubbling, heaving mess of broken limbs and scattered organs twitched on the ground for a few moments before it mercifully expired. Rini winced and pressed a hand firmly against her mouth. She’d seen her fair share of carnage, had even done some of it herself, but there were limits. Edwin’s hand reached for her and she gratefully took it, squeezing hard. She focused on the wizard’s face as she walked past, not on the…thing on the ground. It helped, a little bit.
And now they were stood at yet another massive door, set straight into a sheer cliffside and presumably leading further into Sendai’s lair. Nevaziah nodded, holding his duck up against his ear again. “What’s that you say, Ducky? It’s polite to knock? Oh yes, of course. Let’s knock.” The lich raised his hand again, there was yet another fierce surge of magic that made Rini’s spine tingle, and the door crumbled into a pile of dust. “Knock knock!” Nevaziah cheerfully said. “Now say, ‘who’s there?’.”
“Who…who’s there?” A trembling voice spoke from inside the door.
“Nevaziah! Now say ‘Nevaziah who?’
“Nevah say I didn’t WARN YOU!” The lich cackled, hurling his duck inside the room. Rini couldn’t quite see what happened next, but there were screams of horror, one of which suddenly dwindled away into nothing, as if that person had just been sucked into a very deep, dark hole. Finally, there was silence. Nevaziah nodded and walked inside the room, with the adventurers following at a cautious distance. The room was fairly large, and entirely round. It seemed to be an entry hall of sorts, with three doors leading off in different directions. About a dozen or so Drow were cowering with their backs pressed to the walls, staring in horror at the small, yellow duck sitting motionless in the middle of the floor. What they had just seen or experienced she couldn’t even begin to guess, but she did notice that the duck’s beak almost seemed to be smirking. That wasn’t what worried her the most though. What worried her was the enormous beholder floating in front of the middle one of the three doors, a bored look in its multitude of eyes.
“Oh, hey,” The beholder said. “Huh, long time no see. At least I think we’ve met before, but you people really all look alike don’t you?”
“We did,” Rini said, choosing her words carefully. “At least I think we did, if you’re the Spectator beholder who once got stuck with guarding an empty chest back in a Sahuagin city.”
“Part of that adventure I missed?” Imoen whispered.
“Gotcha. Gosh, sometimes I wish we’d kept a reference book of all the past villains just in case one of them pops up again.”
“Hey, I’m not a villain!” The Spectator protested. “True, Sendai summoned me here to guard this door, and true, I’ll have to kill you if you try to go through it without defeating me, but it’s nothing personal.”
“This is really most inconvenient,” Nevaziah complained. “Sendai really has it in for my minions, doesn’t she?”
The Spectator shrugged its eyetalks. “Seems that way. Of course, nobody tells me anything. Oh nooo, it’s all ‘Guard this!’ or ‘Defend that!’”
The lich nodded. “And attempting to destroy my minions is just rude. It’s so difficult to find good ones, these days. Of course, she is envious, and she thinks her minions are better.” A worrying glint once more shone in those hollow sockets. “Ducky has the most splendid idea! The term ‘defeating’ you is malleable and need not imply combat on your part. After all, you and I have both been insulted by Sendai and shouldn’t fight. Instead, I will pit one of my minions against one of yours in a duel to the death, and we see who wins. Further, a geas will ensure the loser’s other minions die as well. Do we have a deal?”
“Ha! Deal!” The Spectator exclaimed. “Sounds fun.”
“Now, wait just a minute!” Rini protested. “You can’t make us do this!”
Nevaziah gently patted her on the arm, and she had to resist a strong urge to pull away from that bony touch. “Now, don’t you worry, Number Two. As you said yourselves, you are clearly the superior minions, so you will easily win.”
“Ducky says ‘make it bloody’. Off you go, Number Two, I think you need the practice. Try to make it entertaining, would you?”
“Geas is all sorted!” The Spectator chirped.
“Ducky wants to give a kiss for good luck!” The beaming lich held the yellow duck up towards her mouth, and she gave its orange beak a small peck. I hope Eddie doesn’t get jealous. I hope I don’t die. I hope I don’t get us all killed.
“Here’s my champion, go whenever you’re ready,” The Spectator said, and a particularly muscular Drow warrior stepped forward. He walked with the fluid grace of a trained duelist, as relaxed as if he was simply taking a stroll. His adamantine armour had a shimmering blue-black sheen to it, and he grinned confidently as he drew two curved swords. They looked sharp enough to cut air or slice sound.
“Guys?” Zaerini whispered out of the corner of her mouth. “This doesn’t look good. I mean, I’ve had some practice, but I’m hardly a swordmaster.”
“Then don’t try to be,” Viconia said. “Beat him in your own way.”
“The Slayer, you mean?” She swallowed hard. “Sure. If that’s what it takes to keep us all alive, then…”
“No!” Edwin protested, his fingers clutching her shoulder. “I know what that does to you. One of these days, you may not be able to get back to normal.”
“Better that than all of you dying. I don’t think I’ve got a choice, none of my usual tricks are…” Then she paused. None of my tricks. But maybe… “I’m going to try something,” She said. “If it doesn’t work, it’s Slayer or nothing. Sorry in advance, I wouldn’t do this if I had a choice, promise it won’t last long.” Thanks for the lesson, Illasera. Guess you were good for something.
Just as when she had been cornered by the Bhaalspawn huntress, she reached out, both with her hands and with something else, ethereal filaments of the Bhaalpower, searching for what she thought would help her most. Magic clearly wouldn’t be the best option, given her opponent’s innate resistance. She needed close combat skills, combat skills surpassing her own, and so she latched onto Sarevok and Dekaras and gasped as her mind was instantly flooded in a heady rush. Skill, yes, knowledge too. Better still, she could tell that she was stronger and faster than normal, much as when she had mirrored Illasera. Vaguely, she was aware of the two men staggering backwards in sudden shock, and she knew she’d have to apologize later. No time right now, though. Must take advantage of this before it wears off. Let’s make this bastard hurt.
She wasted no time on taunts or speeches. Instead she launched herself at the Drow warrior with a burst of speed that took the man by surprise. She could see him raising his swords as she skidded across the slippery floor, sliding but keeping her balance. He was preparing to face her head-on, that much was obvious. Sucks to be him. Just as she was nearly upon him, she crouched low instead, and she went under his swords, between his legs and came out behind him. As he grunted in surprise, she leapt to her feet again in a single motion, grasped the back of his neck and then pirouetted onto one leg and sideways so that she could plant a foot firmly in his back. The armor kept his right kidney from turning into mush, but the blow was still enough to drive him onto his belly on the floor, sprawled like a frog. Need an opening, quick. And there it was, small enough, but from this angle it was enough of a chink in his armor that one could drive a sword into it just so. The man shrieked as the sword impaled him, but it wasn’t enough. She raised the sword again, and the writhing body rose with it, still impaled. Adrenaline coursed through her body, and she felt so impossibly strong she couldn’t quite hold back a giggle. Warm blood was streaming across her hands and her arms, and still she held firm, until the impaled man stopped struggling and slid limply off her sword.
“Ugh…” Zaerini said, trying her best not to gag as the borrowed power faded away and her suddenly watery legs deposited her onto the corpse of her fallen opponent. Every single muscle in her body seemed to be screaming and howling in protest, it even hurt to breathe, and her head was spinning. “How’s that…for entertaining?” She asked Nevaziah. Then the walls twisted into a spinning kaleidoscope of blurry shapes and she promptly fainted.