The Three “Political Compass” Tests

I’ve done these compass tests before, but here’s how I test on each of the three versions: the Political Compass, the Political Coordinates, and the Sapply Values version. I test similarly on all of them: moderate libertarian slightly to the right of center. Note however that the Sapply Test has the usual left-right and libertarian-authoritarian scales, but also an additional scale for conservatism-progressivism, which is helpful because it separates social views (on the right bar) from governmental power views (the vertical axis).

So according to Sapply, I’m a “liberal” on two scales — libertarian as regards governmental power (vertical axis), and progressive as regards human rights and social views (the right-hand bar). I lean “conservative” on the horizontal scale — right as regards fiscal/economic issues (horizontal axis). And yes, that seems about correct for me.

I paste below my answers to each of the three tests.

 

The Political Compass (I’m purple)

Page 1: How you see the country and the world

1. If economic globalisation is inevitable, it should primarily serve humanity rather than the interests of trans-national corporations. Strongly disagree — and this is an absurdly phrased question. Transnational corporations have been strongly helpful to humanity, and in many cases more helpful than top-down government schemes.

2. I’d always support my country, whether it was right or wrong. Strongly disagree.

3. No one chooses their country of birth, so it’s foolish to be proud of it. Agree.

4. Our race has many superior qualities, compared with other races. Strongly disagree. Science shows that race is an illusion.

5. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Disagree.

6. Military action that defies international law is sometimes justified. Agree — not often, but sometimes. International law is dictated by countries with conflicting priorities. It may well be in the interest of a nation to engage in a defensive war, regardless of what other nations say about it.

7. There is now a worrying fusion of information and entertainment. Disagree.

Page 2: Economy

1. People are ultimately divided more by class than by nationality. Strongly disagree. World War I and other examples prove this is to be nonsense.

2. Controlling inflation is more important than controlling unemployment. Strongly agree. Controlling the root causes of unemployment, like inflation, is what makes an economy healthy. Creating jobs is a band-aid solution that doesn’t address the illness.

3. Because corporations cannot be trusted to voluntarily protect the environment, they require regulation. Strongly agree. Businesses need some regulation, such as when it comes to the environment.

4. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is a fundamentally good idea. Strongly disagree.

5. The freer the market, the freer the people. Strongly agree.

6. It’s a sad reflection on our society that something as basic as drinking water is now a bottled, branded consumer product. Agree.

7. Land shouldn’t be a commodity to be bought and sold. Strongly disagree.

8. It is regrettable that many personal fortunes are made by people who simply manipulate money and contribute nothing to their society. Disagree, and this is a crazy question, for assuming that investors and such are contributing nothing to society.

9. Protectionism is sometimes necessary in trade. Disagree. Tariffs are always a bad idea.

10. The only social responsibility of a company should be to deliver a profit to its shareholders. Agree.

11. The rich are too highly taxed. Disagree.

12. Those with the ability to pay should have access to higher standards of medical care. Disagree.

12. Governments should penalize businesses that mislead the public. Agree.

13. A genuine free market requires restrictions on the ability of predator multinationals to create monopolies. Disagree. Monopolies are almost impossible to establish (unless the government sponsors them).

Page 3: Social Values

1. Abortion, when the woman’s life is not threatened, should always be illegal. Strongly disagree.

2. All authority should be questioned. Agree.

3. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Strongly disagree.

4. Taxpayers should not be expected to prop up any theatres or museums that cannot survive on a commercial basis. Strongly disagree.

5. Schools should not make classroom attendance compulsory. Agree. I’m not wild about homeschooling, but it should be an option.

6. All people have their rights, but it is better for all of us that different sorts of people should keep to their own kind. Strongly disagree.

7. Good parents sometimes have to spank their children. Disagree.

8. It’s natural for children to keep some secrets from their parents. Strongly agree.

9. Possessing marijuana for personal use should not be a criminal offence. Strongly agree.

10. The prime function of schooling should be to equip the future generation to find jobs. Agree.

11. People with serious inheritable disabilities should not be allowed to reproduce. Strongly disagree.

12. The most important thing for children to learn is to accept discipline. Disagree.

13. There are no savage and civilised peoples (cultures); there are only different cultures. Strongly disagree, and a poorly phrased question to make one feel bad about answering honestly. The statement should read, “There are no savage and civilized cultures [not peoples]; there are only different cultures.” Which is disagreeable in the extreme. There are certainly cultures which are more savage than others, and to say they’re just “different” perverts the message of multicuturalism.

14. Those who are able to work, and refuse the opportunity, should not expect society’s support. Strongly agree.

15. When you are troubled, it’s better not to think about it, but to keep busy with more cheerful things. Agree.

16. First-generation immigrants can never be fully integrated within their new country. Disagree. With few exceptions (like Muslims in certain areas), integration is a realistic goal.

17. What’s good for the most successful corporations is always, ultimately, good for all of us. Disagree.

18. No broadcasting institution, however independent its content, should receive public funding. Disagree.

Page 4: How you see wider society

1. Our civil liberties are being excessively curbed in the name of counter-terrorism. Agree.

2. A significant advantage of a one-party state is that it avoids all the arguments that delay progress in a democratic political system. Strongly disagree.

3. Although the electronic age makes official surveillance easier, only wrongdoers need to be worried. Strongly disagree.

4. The death penalty should be an option for the most serious crimes. Agree.

5. In a civilised society, one must always have people above to be obeyed and people below to be commanded. Strongly disagree.

6. Abstract art that doesn’t represent anything shouldn’t be considered art at all. Strongly disagree.

7. In criminal justice, punishment should be more important than rehabilitation. Sort of agree. It’s true that rehabilitation is generally a farce, but criminal justice should be less about punishment and more about safety. Keeping society safe from criminals is what is most important of all in criminal justice.

8. It is a waste of time to try to rehabilitate some criminals. Strongly agree.

9. The businessperson and the manufacturer are more important than the writer and the artist. Strongly disagree.

10. Mothers may have careers, but their first duty is to be homemakers. Strongly disagree.

11. Multinational companies are unethically exploiting the plant genetic resources of developing countries. Disagree.

12. Making peace with the establishment is an important aspect of maturity. Disagree.

Page 5: Religion

1. Astrology accurately explains many things. Strongly disagree.

2. You cannot be moral without being religious. Strongly disagree.

3. Charity is better than social security as a means of helping the genuinely disadvantaged. Sort of agree, though I support both.

4. Some people are naturally unlucky. Agree.

5. It is important that my child’s school instills religious values. Strongly disagree.

Page 6: Sex

1. Sex outside marriage is usually immoral. Strongly disagree.

2. A same sex couple in a stable, loving relationship should not be excluded from the possibility of child adoption. Strongly agree.

3. Pornography, depicting consenting adults, should be legal for the adult population. Strongly agree.

4. What goes on in a private bedroom between consenting adults is no business of the state. Strongly agree.

5. No one can feel naturally homosexual. Strongly disagree.

6. These days openness about sex has gone too far. Disagree.

 

The Political Coordinates Test (I’m yellow)

1. Taxpayer money should not be spent on arts or sports. Strongly disagree.

2. Some countries and civilizations are natural enemies. Agree.

3. Overall, the minimum wage does more harm than good. Agree.

4. Import tariffs on foreign products are a good way to protect jobs in my country. Strongly disagree.

5. Western civilization has benefited more from Christianity than from the ideas of Ancient Greece. Disagree.

6. Immigration to my country should be minimized and strictly controlled. Strongly disagree.

7. Prostitution should be legal. Strongly agree.

8. A strong military is a better foreign policy tool than a strong diplomacy. Strongly disagree.

9. Free trade is better for third-world countries than developmental aid. Strongly agree.

10. There is at heart a conflict between the interest of business and the interest of society. Neutral. (Equally true or false, depending on circumstances.)

11. Homosexual couples should have all the same rights as heterosexual ones, including the right to adopt. Strongly agree.

12. It is legitimate for nations to privilege their own religion over others. Disagree.

13. Marijuana should be legal. Strongly agree.

14. A country should never go to war without the support of the international community. Disagree.

15. People who turn down a job should not be eligible for unemployment benefits from the government. Agree.

16. The government should set a cap on the wages of bankers and CEOs. Disagree.

17. Medically assisted suicide should be legal. Strongly agree.

18. Speculation on the stock exchange is less desirable than other kinds of economic activity. Neutral.

19. Surveillance and counter-terrorism programs have gone too far. Agree.

20. It almost never ends well when the government gets involved in business. Agree.

21. Capital punishment should be an option in some cases. Agree.

22. There are too many wasteful government programs. Neutral. (Many good ones, many bad ones.)

23. Rehabilitating criminals is more important than punishing them. Disagree.

24. Monarchy and aristocratic titles should be abolished. Strongly agree.

25. The government should provide healthcare to its citizens free of charge. Agree. (Though it’s a complex issue. I believe it should provide free health insurance for catastrophic health coverage and then have people pay for other healthcare.)

26. Overall, security leaks like those perpetrated by Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks do more harm than good. Strongly disagree.

27. Overall, labor unions do more harm than good. Disagree.

28. The market is generally better at allocating resources than the government. Neutral. (Depending on the issue, both the market and the government have their place and strengths in allocating resources.)

29. The government should redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Disagree.

30. If people want to drive without a seat belt, that should be their decision. Agree.

31. Government spending with the aim of creating jobs is generally a good idea. Disagree. (Fighting inflation and other root-cause solutions are better.)

32. If an immigrant wants to fly the flag of his home country on my country’s soil, that’s okay with me. Agree. (By “okay with me”, I mean that I’m okay with it legally. It’s what the First Amendment guarantees.)

33. Equality is more important than economic growth. Strongly agree.

34. Some peoples and religions are generally more trouble than others. Neutral. (Disagree about peoples, but strongly agree about religions; some religions oppose the values of a free and humane society more than others.)

35. My country should give more foreign and developmental aid to third-world countries. Disagree.

36. We need to increase taxes on industry out of concern for the climate. Agree.

 

The Sapply Test (I’m yellow in the graph, and green on the sidebar)

1. Freedom of business is the best practical way a society can prosper. Agree.

2. Charity is a better way of helping those in need than social welfare. Neutral. (They’re both helpful and have their place.)

3. Wages are always fair, as employers know best what a worker’s labour is worth. Disagree.

4. It is “human nature” to be greedy. Strongly agree.

5. “Exploitation” is an outdated term, as the struggles of 1800s capitalism doesn’t exist anymore. Disagree.

6. Communism is an ideal that can never work in practice. Strongly agree.

7. Taxation of the wealthy is a bad idea, society would be better off without it. Disagree.

8. The harder you work, the more you progress up the social ladder. Disagree.

9. Organisations and corporations cannot be trusted and need regulating by the government. Agree. To an extent anyway. I favor government regulation of business to protect the environment, human health, and worker safety, but NOT for trying to mandate economic equality (other than perhaps taxing the rich more), as that runs contrary to the whole point of the capitalist system.

10. A government that provides for everyone is an inherently good idea. Disagree.

11. The current welfare system should be expanded to further combat inequality. Strongly disagree.

12. Land should not be a commodity to be bought and sold. Strongly disagree.

13. All industry and the bank should be nationalised. Strongly disagree.

14. Class is the primary division of society. Strongly disagree.

15. Economic inequality is too high in the world. Strongly agree.

16. Sometimes it is right that the government may spy on its citizens to combat extremists and terrorists. Strongly disagree.

17. Authority figures, if morally correct, are a good thing for society. Strongly disagree.

18. Strength is necessary for any government to succeed. Neutral.

19. Only the government can fairly and effectively regulate organisations. Agree.

20. Society requires structure and bureaucracy in order to function. Agree.

21. Mandatory IDs should be used to ensure public safety. Strongly disagree.

22. In times of crisis, safety becomes more important than civil liberties. Disagree. I don’t strongly disagree, because there are cases where safety trumps liberty (like mask-wearing during Covid). But too often throughout history, “situations of crisis”, especially during wartime, have been used as a poor excuse to infringe on free speech and other liberties.

23. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Strongly disagree.

24. The government should be less involved in the day to day life of its citizens. Agree.

25. Without democracy, a society is nothing. Strongly agree.

26. Jury nullification should be legal. Agree.

27. The smaller the government, the freer the people. Agree.

28. The government should, at most, provide emergency services and law enforcement. Disagree.

29. The police was not made to protect the people, but to uphold the status-quo by force. Strongly disagree.

30. State schools are a bad idea because our state shouldn’t be influencing our children. Disagree.

31. Two consenting individuals should be able to do whatever they want with each other, even if it makes me uncomfortable. Strongly agree.

32. An individual’s body is their own property, and they should be able to do anything they desire to it. Strongly agree.

33. A person should be able to worship whomever or whatever they want. Agree.

34. Nudism is perfectly natural. Agree.

35. Animals deserve certain universal rights. Agree.

36. Gender is a social construct, not a natural state of affairs. Disagree.

37. Laws based on cultural values, rather than ethical ones, aren’t justice. Strongly agree.

38. Autonomy of body extends even to minors, the mentally ill, and serious criminals. Agree.

39. Homosexuality is against my values. Strongly disagree.

40. Transgender individuals should not be able to adopt children. Strongly disagree.

41. Drugs are harmful and should be banned. Strongly disagree.

42. The death penalty should exist for certain crimes. Agree.

43. Victimless crimes should still be punished. Disagree. The goal of a civilized society should be to do away with punitive punishments for victimless crimes.

44. One cannot be moral without religion. Strongly disagree.

45. Parents should hold absolute power over their children, as they are older and more experienced. Disagree.

46. Multiculturalism is bad. Disagree, though this depends on one’s understanding of multiculturalism. “Multiculturalism” according to the woke left is most certainly bad, but generally speaking, a pluralistic society with a plurality of ideas is to be celebrated.

Screen Violence: Chvrches’ Most Retributive Album, and Surprisingly Their Best

This is a record that decidedly speaks to the bullied and beaten down, but without the condescending sense of pandering that usually attends pop-star exhortations to embrace your special-ness, or whatever. Mayberry sounds like she’s been through the ringer, but is still ready to hand you a baseball bat and take on the assholes. (AV Club)

Lauren Mayberry has put up with a lot in her musical career – misogyny, rape and death threats, toxic expectations, you name it. But, as her duet with Robert Smith of The Cure suggests, she doesn’t let the shitheads grind her down. Screen Violence is a comeback album, after what many consider to be Chvrches’ weakest (Love is Dead), and I concur with those who call it the band’s best album to date. Though I have a hard time beating up on Love is Dead — it does, after all, contain the best Chvrches song and still does — there’s no denying a lot of its tracks pander to mainstream pop. Why the band brought in outside producers to help on that album I don’t know. They’ve always had the mojo to stick to themselves, and in Screen Violence they not only reattain that independent confidence, they go one better than what they’ve ever done before. There’s not a single song on this album that I skip over when listening to it, and I can’t say that about any of the other three.

If you have nostalgia for the old horror films of John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, this album will be a special bonus. The band members are horror fans, and Mayberry evidently saw metaphors in women being stalked and slaughtered as she was writing songs for Screen Violence. The metaphors aren’t always subtle, for example, in the track “Final Girl”, where Mayberry alludes to the single girl who makes it to the end of the horror film:

In the final cut
In the final scene
There’s a final girl
And you know that she should be screaming

There’s a haunting aesthetic to the album, as Mayberry sings about loneliness and fear in a world full of assholes. Usually I’m left cold when bands get too retributive in their music, because that usually comes at the expense of good music. The politics overtake the art. If you’re U2 or Tracy Chapman, you can get away with it, but they’re exceptions. When Taylor Swift tried it, Reputation ended up a shitty album — and that’s usually the ordained result. But Screen Violence is another exception. For all its pissed-off overtones and social commentary, it’s actually a very mature album. But don’t take my word for it, listen to the entire thing. Here are youtube links to all the tracks, and my descriptions of what I think they’re essentially about.

1. Asking for a Friend – about personal regrets, lying and cheating, and penitence, but rising from the ash determined to do better

2. He Said She Said – a diatribe against gaslighting and the toxic standards placed on women; the album’s best track — which is impressive since it’s also the album’s angriest

3. California — freedom in failure; knowing when to give up because something isn’t working; in the context of California, it may seem like a dream state, but you might get mired there and die poor because you were a careerist ambitious person

4. Violent Delights — drowning in panic and paralysis; how the world takes its toll on you; Mayberry’s anonymous rape and death threats are in the background of this track

5. How Not to Drown — about not letting assholes grind you down, sung with Robert Smith; you can imagine The Cure writing a song like this

6. Final Girl — about perseverance and resisting pressures women face in the music business, while feeling powerless to change those pressures

7. Good Girls — writing off heroes who turn out to be assholes, and moving on; making peace with the way the world works

8. Lullabies — the nightmare of media culture; the link between real human suffering and our obscene consumption of that suffering in the news

9. Nightmares — the challenge of forgiveness; this track seems self-accusatory, given the retributive nature of the album

10. Better If You Don’t — the most uplifting song on the album, offering some hope

The D&D Editions Ranked

Most rankings of the D&D editions tend to focus on rules. My rankings weigh everything — the rules (players’ handbooks, DMs guides, monster manuals, etc.), the adventures (modules, gazetteers, campaign settings), the artwork, and the general mindset and culture of D&D gaming throughout these eras.

1. First edition (1e). 1974-1989. Of course it’s the best, and I include all the old-school versions — OD&D, AD&D, and even Basic D&D — when I talk about 1e. I used the AD&D rule books but celebrated the Basic and Advanced modules and gazetteers impartially; the excellence of those modules remains unsurpassed. This was D&D’s golden age (until 1983, at least), and the artwork alone was a clear indicator of something special. The rules were just enough because too many rules just got in the way. Haters of 1e complain that some of the rules were crude or nonsensical, and that’s true, but it didn’t matter, we just ignored those. (Is there honestly anyone who used alignment languages? I don’t remember even discussing the concept with the people I played with, it seemed taken for granted they were bizarre and silly.) Most of the rules worked fine, and they provided the framework, while adventure modules were the focus of the real excitement – pulp fantasy sandboxes left for open-ended play, in which players made autonomous decisions and DMs trained themselves for the unexpected. The focus was more on player skill than character skill, and it made the game hard, yes, but rewarding because of it; you had to really earn your experience points. Beating a dungeon or surviving a wilderness was a cause for rejoicing. The looming threat of death at any moment is what kept players on their toes.

2. Third edition (3e/3.5e). 2000-2003/2003-2008. For all its unconscionable sins of complexity, I have to doff my cap to Wizards of the Coast: they reignited my interest in D&D (it happened on a fateful day in 2005) after 14 years of not playing a single game. The 3e period wasn’t a new golden age, by any means, but it was a gilded age that reminded us why we loved D&D to begin with. The new spell system in some ways surpassed 1e: clerics and druids now had 8th and 9th level spells, and all spell casters had more to choose from. (I still use these spells in my grognard gaming scenarios.) 3e brought a darkness back into the game that we hadn’t seen since the ’70s and early ’80s, before D&D became so sissified. (I still use, for example, The Book of Vile Darkness (2002), which presents spells and devices for masochism, sadism, torture, disease, necrophilia, and demonology.) It was the most customizable of all the editions, with loads of options; you could play almost any race of any creature. But that was a two-edged sword, because with so many options — and with hundreds of skills and feats to choose from — running a character, let alone creating one, became way too complex. Combat wasn’t fluid anymore. And in the wake of 3.5, the ocean of rule books that came out was insane. But here’s the upshot: I pronounce 3e a success, because it drew me back to a hobby I thought I’d never pick up again. It snowballed into something overly complex and mechanical, but even that turned out for the better, because it pushed me back even further — to 1e itself, and made me realize that D&D didn’t need any upgrades. I fell in love with classic D&D all over again. That might have never happened if not for 3e. And as I said, there are elements of 3e that I continue to use in my 1e campaigns.

3. Second edition (2e). 1989-1999. Believe me, I wanted to rank it lower. This was the dark age of D&D, when modules were pure railroads, and the game had become sanitized in pandering to religious loons. The fundies claimed that D&D promoted devil worship, and so demons and devils were removed from the game, not to reappear until 3e. Some claim that the rules improved on 1e, but on whole I think they were actually more regressive. “THAC0”, for example, still drives me nuts when I see it. But there’s no denying 2e had the best settings of all the eras: the savage desert world of Athas, the gothic horror-land of Ravenloft, and other places far more inspiring than the artificial worlds of Greyhawk and Krynn. The problem is that the modules for these terrific worlds were shitty and as railroady as Dragonlance ever was. Also, these great settings were a source of divisiveness, as players latched on to one and wouldn’t touch any other. I played my last D&D game in 1991 (until 2005), mostly because I had graduated from college and suddenly didn’t have time for gaming anymore. But I was also very cognizant of how the game was deteriorating; I was losing considerable interest in it in any case.

4. Fifth edition (5e). 2014-today. Lighter on rules (take that, 3e), and less combat-focused so you can actually do some role-playing (take that, 4e), 5e emerged as the most mainstreamed edition to date, and it’s no surprise it has gained wide appeal. But this is at the expense of dumbing the game’s ass down to the umpteenth degree. 5e is ridiculously easy. You get a million hit points instead of ten, you get to roll two d20s when attacking or saving (and take the better of the die rolls), and if you do reach 0 hit points, you probably still don’t need to worry about dying. You can make death-saving throws until the cows come home, and roll hit dice during rest-stops in the middle of a dungeon. Seriously. 5e doesn’t feel remotely perilous, and for me that’s an epic fail. The adventures themselves are forgettable, the best ones being the 1e classics translated over. Worst about 5e is the tone, as it takes a high-fantasy approach that’s designed for a generation steeped in action superhero films — worlds away from the gritty (and deadly) pulp fantasy roots of D&D. On top of all that, Wizards of the Coast has been recently succumbing to woke pressures, in the same way TSR pandered to Christian fundies. Now, instead of erasing demons and devils, we have the erasure of “evil races” like orcs and drow, who have been “so terribly maligned” and should be portrayed as good, neutral, and evil as members of the human race. Newsflash to wokes: the idea that fantasy creatures like orcs and drow are evil isn’t racist, and pretending that it’s racist does nothing whatsoever to fight inequality in our world. All it does is rob the game of compelling ideas. (And if the wokes had half the sense God gave geese they would realize that ideas of evil bad-ass matriarchs encourage female empowerment if anything.)

5. 4th edition (4e). 2008-2014. The most short-lived and shit-stained. I’m sure there’s a school of thought that thinks it’s just swell, but it has no credibility in my eyes. 4e is just a tabletop MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online game), in other words, a combat video game made for the table. You need miniatures, dice, and a table map — and next to no role-playing skills. It’s combat, combat, and more combat. In overreaction to 3e and 3.5e, all the complexity was chopped away so that everything had a bland generic feel too it. D&D was completely and ridiculously overhauled to favor tactical warfare over story. It was also — not to put too fine a line on it — a cash grab for miniatures. The differences between character classes were blurred to the point of absurdity; spells and abilities were replaced with powers. Why? So that everyone could feel equally powerful in combat; a fighter as much as a wizard. That may align with 21st century feelings for egalitarianism, but it’s stupid and unrealistic. At the lower levels, fighters should be more powerful than (and protective of) wizards, while at the higher levels, wizards should be the ultra-powerful ones. Then there was the one-size-fits-all “unification of worlds” theme — the eradication of various worlds and outer planes that made the D&D multiverse so fascinating and compelling. Enough said. I don’t even consider 4e to be a role-playing game. It’s a battle simulator without soul.

The Lost City (Epilogue): Fading

It may be an epilogue but it’s my favorite part. I knew I had to get it right, or there was no point in writing the novel. To get the boys back to Hawkins and provide a segue into season 1, after all they experienced in the Lost City, without it feeling like a cheat. I think it works and has the right emotional payoff.

                                             The Lost City — Epilogue:

                                     Fading

 

He knew before he raised his head that he was as a kid again. He’d been so long and tall that his truncation was obvious – an emasculation felt in every bone. Without thinking, he reached for his sword, but of course that security was gone; discarded in a room now demolished.

The air was warm as he opened his eyes. He was on his stomach, his head resting on a soft floor: fabrics of orange, green, and brown. The rug by his gaming table.

For a long moment he lay still, fearing to get up and look at his surroundings. He was terrified that everything he’d been through was a dream – or that his friends might try to persuade him of that. He needed reassurance it had all been real: the pyramid; Demetrius; the mushroom gardens; Jilanka; the desert; Areesha; the invasion; the feeding…

“Holy shit,” said someone standing over him.

He levered his arms under him, pushed himself to his knees, and stood. And at that moment Mike Wheeler realized how much he’d missed home.

It hit him hard, seeing his basement and all the familiars – the gaming table, couch, wall posters, the stairs going up to the kitchen. Then his friends: Lucas, who was already on his feet; Dustin who was slowly getting up; and Will, who was still on the floor. Lucas was the one who had spoken. He was doing a slow 360, taking in the room they had played in so often.

“We made it, guys,” said Dustin. “Jesus, we really made it back.”

“And we’re kids again,” said Lucas. “How do we go back to being kids?”

“Will,” said Mike, moving to help him stand. “Are you okay?”

Will stumbled a bit as he rose. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Look at me,” said Mike, holding the sides of Will’s face. Two normal hazel-colored eyes stared back at him. Thank the gods. He hugged Will fiercely, relieved for his friend’s liberation.

“Your hand looks fine too,” said Will, when they disengaged.

“Yeah, dude,” said Mike, holding up his right hand and waving it around. “Like it was never there.” But it made me invincible. He felt a pang of loss. They had reclaimed themselves, but at the expense of miracles that wouldn’t come again.

“We need out of these clothes,” said Lucas.

Mike only then registered that they had on Cynidicean attire. They were way too small for these adult clothes, except for Will. They were barefoot too, having thrown aside their cumbersome war boots (and Will his bedroom slippers).

“We need to save these clothes forever,” said Dustin. “They’re our only souvenirs of the Lost City.”

“Yeah,” said Mike absently. And they were something else: the assurance he craved. The proof that what they had lived through was real and not a dream.

“I’ll get some clothes from my room you guys can borrow,” said Mike. “For you too, Will. Your mom would freak out if you came home dressed like that.”

“Will, what made you do it?” asked Lucas.

“Huh?” said Will.

“The Temple of Zargon,” said Lucas. “You demolished that fucking thing.”

“It was a nightmare getting you out of that wreck,” said Dustin. “All the Magi who had levitate and telekinesis spells were putting in overtime.”

“Oh, you guys,” said Will, suddenly looking sick. “You’d never believe… the things I saw in that temple…”

“Hey!” said Mike, catching him. “Are you okay?”

Will looked pale and not okay.

“You need the bathroom?” asked Mike. “Come on.” He walked Will over to the basement bathroom. Will went inside without shutting the door, fell to his knees and was promptly sick.

He saw too much, thought Mike. Not just in that temple, but everywhere in the world, with that Eye. A child’s mind couldn’t take so much evil and trauma. Probably no one could, really.

Will threw up a second time and then came out, looking a little better. He rejoined them and sat down at the gaming table. “I’m okay. But I don’t want to talk about anything I saw in that temple.”

“It’s okay, Will,” said Lucas. “We have some idea. Kanadius told us about Zargonite sacrifice. I’m glad I never saw what they did in those rites.”

“I killed so many people,” said Will, putting his face in his hands.

“Whoa, Byers,” said Dustin. “You killed nasty people. The temple priests and warriors? They deserved to die. The zoombies on the island? Seriously. And Auriga? Don’t shed a tear.”

“There were innocent slaves and captives in the temple,” said Will.

“Jesus, Will,” said Dustin.

“You couldn’t even help yourself,” said Mike. “You had to be triggered. None of us had any idea how to trigger you.”

“It was my mom,” said Will.

“What?” asked Mike.

“When I saw threats to a mother, I think that’s what set me off,” said Will. “Not the first time. On the isle, it was just the shock over the Eye surgery. But Auriga told me he did something really bad to his mother. And in the temple I saw a mother and her kid… ” He shuddered.

“Will, you have no idea how much I hated having to hold you down for that Eye transplant,” said Lucas.

Mike felt sick remembering that. For a moment he relived his fury with Lucas. Then he remembered his shame over killing Lucas.

“Listen carefully, Will,” said Dustin. “You were never a bad person.”

“Yeah, I was the bad person,” said Mike. He looked at Lucas, hating himself all over.

Lucas shook his head. “You were cursed, Mike, just like Will.”

But I remember wanting to strike you down, not just feeling compelled to. I remember choosing you over Coval, as my fifth kill. I remember despising your pity, hating you and envying you. How much could be absolved and forgiven on account of a curse?

“Maybe,” said Mike. “But I think I failed you.”

“Don’t talk to me about failure,” said Lucas. “I was king and I failed my people a hundred percent. They all died. They’re dying now, in that other world.”

“Cut yourself some slack,” said Dustin. “It was a fucking earthquake, Lucas. In an underground. Fucking Hazor.”

“Which was my fault,” said Will. “Hazor did that because I -”

“Stop already!” said Lucas. “Maybe we’re all just a mess.”

“Lucas, you would have made a great king,” said Mike, meaning it completely. “You and Pandora… I would have followed you both forever. You and she could have made Cynidicea great again.”

“Agreed,” said Dustin. “But forgive me, I can’t for the life of me imagine you sharing a bed with that woman.”

Lucas looked thoughtful. “We did. Or the floor anyway.”

“What?” Dustin and Mike said at the same time.

“That night,” said Lucas. “After our crowning in the temple of Gorm. Dustin, you and Demetrius had already gone back down to the city. And Mike, you and Jilanka were in your room. The Brothers and the Maidens decided that Pandora and I should – you know – for good luck against the invasion the next day. They forced us into the shrine of Madarua and barred us inside. And said we could come out only after we ‘sealed our marriage’.”

“That’s hysterical,” said Dustin.

“The only time I got laid,” said Lucas. “The day of my crowning.”

“More times than I did,” said Dustin. “Demetrius tried for me. He asked Shira one night if she wanted to. He was going to let me drive during sex, but Shira told him to fuck off.”

“You’ll get there some day, dude,” said Lucas.

Dustin looked at Mike. “We won’t talk about all the filthy times you got laid.”

Mike was conflicted thinking about Jilanka. He missed her already, missed what they did in bed, and yet he didn’t feel those desires now that he was a kid again. He wanted to feel them. And then didn’t; feelings like that would only torment him, now that she was gone forever and probably dead.

“I need to get home, guys,” said Will. “My mom is going to kill me. I wasn’t supposed to come here today.”

“None of us should have come here today,” said Dustin. “And I am going to kill that fucking clerk at Rotten Gargoyle.”

Lucas looked alarmed. “I don’t know about that, Dustin. I think we should steer clear of that store, until we know that guy is gone. I mean, who the fuck is he to have a scroll like that?”

“Wait here, Will,” said Mike. “I’ll get some clothes for all of us. We all need to see our families again. But I don’t have four pairs of sneakers.”

Mike raced up the stairs and checked around the house before going to his room. He knew everyone would still be gone; his parents were out with baby Holly, and Nancy was over Barbara Holland’s. He couldn’t wait to see them all again.

A half hour later, the boys looked like Americans from the ’80s, courtesy of Mike Wheeler’s wardrobe. They went outside and rode their bikes home barefoot.

 

That night Mike was in his room, leafing through his comics. It had been forever since he read a comic book, but frankly they weren’t doing much for him. The stories seemed silly and overblown, with the superheroes winning too easily. Reality was a cruel teacher. Mike knew the costs of being a hero. And the devastating consequences of failure.

He heard the front door bang open downstairs and immediately forgot about the X-Men. Nancy was home. Mike’s heart raced as he heard her come up the stairs. He leaped from his bed and rushed out to meet her. She was at her bedroom door when he cried her name and flew into her arms, hugging her desperately.

“Michael, what the hell?”

He kept hugging her, his head against her chest. It felt so good to be home.

She finally pried him loose and looked at him, alarmed. “Michael, what’s wrong? What happened?”

He almost laughed at the question. “Nothing,” he said, turning around and going back to his room.

Dumbfounded, his sister followed him down the hall. She stood inside his doorway, looking at him as if he’d grown two heads. “Are you feeling okay?”

“I’m fine,” said Mike, getting back on the bed, and opening another comic. Spiderman. More silliness. Will was the true Spider Child.

“I’m not leaving until you tell me what that was all about,” said Nancy.

“It’s nothing, Nancy. I was just happy to see you.”

“To see me? We see each other every day.”

“I missed you today,” he said honestly. “Is it okay to miss my sister once in a while?”

She stared at him for a long time, then threw up her hands and left.

He knew she was going downstairs to tell their mother. And his mother would report that Mike had done the same thing to her hours ago, and she was just as mystified. They’d worry and they’d obsess. Let them. They’d get over it. He had more to get over than curious displays of affection.

A lot more, as it turned out.

 

The four boys didn’t see each other again until four days later. It was Friday, August 5, and the heat hadn’t let up. Mike missed the desert climate. The village of Suqatra had been scorching but at least dry. Indiana humidity was brutal.

Usually they saw each other every day, or every other, during summer vacation, but they’d needed time alone. To be with their families, and to process the fact that they weren’t adults anymore – or in Will’s case, a godlike seer – and that they were back in a world where they couldn’t solve problems by killing people. Their thinking had become medieval, and it clashed with the personas they had rewound to.

Mike’s basement was the eternal haven. There they could solve the world’s problems and their own. At the gaming table, no subject was too daunting or out of bounds. And on that Friday they did an oral tally of the pros and cons of this world and that. This world had flushing toilets, movies, bikes, games, cars, and all sorts of good food – donuts and pizzas especially. That world had magic, swords, spells, monsters, gods, and the stuff of epic legends. In the end it was a draw. Only Will came down squarely on the pros of this world. He had suffered too much in Cynidicea.

But they were all glad to be back. They rode their bikes that afternoon in the miserable heat, savoring the paths they’d always taken. They went to Sattler Quarry and imagined the Isle of Death out there, with zoombies waiting for Lucas to summon. Then they went to the movies to escape the heat. Two films caught their eyes: a fantasy called Krull and a new release called Risky Business. Normally Krull would have been the no-brainer, but they had lived and breathed fantasy for too long. They needed a dramatic change.

They loved Risky Business. Mike thought of Jilanka as he watched Tom Cruise fuck that gorgeous blonde through the night. The others thought it was the most racy sex they’d ever seen, but for Mike it was nothing. He and Jilanka had put to shame every whore in the multiverse. And yet, as he watched Cruise and the blonde go at it on the stairs, he felt an emptiness where fire used to be. The sex show was more amusing than arousing; Mike didn’t get aroused anymore. He felt like he had been erased in some way.

When the film ended, they left for home on their bikes, promising to see each other soon.

 

They saw each other next on the following Monday afternoon, one week after their return from the Lost City. As they ate cheese and crackers, and talked more about their re-acclimation into modern America, Mike noticed an alarming development: they were forgetting some of their experiences in Cynidicea. And not just details, but whoppers.

Mike couldn’t recall if it was the Maidens who had rooms on the second and third tiers of the pyramid, or if it was the Brothers. He remembered having his own special room with Jilanka on the third, but couldn’t remember where the rest of his sisters lived and slept.

“Sisters?” said Lucas. “You were never a Maiden, stupid. You were a Brother. And it was the Brothers who had rooms on both tiers. Their barracks was on Tier 2 and their temple was on Tier 3. The Maidens and the Magi had their barracks and temples on Tier 3.”

“Lucas, I was a Maiden,” said Mike.

Lucas looked at him uncertainly then laughed. “You fucked a Maiden, and I married one. You and I were Brothers, Mike. Don’t be silly.”

“We started out together as Brothers,” said Mike. “But later I… joined the Maidens.” He avoided saying, I betrayed the Brothers by stealing the Hand and giving it to Pandora. How could Lucas forget this?

“Yeah, Lucas,” said Dustin, making shapes with his cheese. “Mike joined the ladies. And Will got sick and I had to take care of him down in the city.”

“Sick?” asked Will.

“Yeah,” said Dustin. “You got a nasty disease. Remember, you could hardly talk? You ate mushrooms and got poisoning from them. I think.”

“No,” said Will. “The Eye triggered me. And” – he struggled to think – “I caused an accident in my room. And you took me out of the pyramid.”

“That was earlier,” said Dustin. “Your accident in the room. Man, I forgot about that. You really destroyed that room, Byers. But that accident snapped you out of it – whatever daze you were in at the time. That’s when you became the head librarian. For the Magi.”

“He became the Chief Mage, you idiot,” said Lucas, glad to be the one to rub someone else’s nose in a piss-poor memory. “Not a librarian.”

“Oh,” said Dustin. “Yeah. Christ, how could I forget?”

We’re all forgetting, thought Mike, suddenly scared. We’re forgetting what happened, because the spell was supposed to rewind us back to our original points, as if nothing happened. It did that to our bodies… but our minds are only slowly catching up.

He didn’t share that thought with the others. He was too sacred they were true. They couldn’t be true.

I don’t want to forget.

 

Over the next few days, Mike did his best to keep his memories sharp but found that was difficult. The harder he tried, the more he lost. It made him panic. What he and his friends had shared in the Lost City was sacred; miraculous. Terrible and tragic, yes, but precious too. They were life-defining experiences outside the reach of most people. Yet it was all starting to feel like a fleeting dream. The more he chased thoughts of what he was forgetting, the more they skipped over the horizon.

By the weekend – nearly two weeks after their departure and return – the events of the Lost City had become so fragmented they seemed almost unreal. The miracles were leaving him, and Mike found that to be far more terrifying than any of the horrors he faced in Cynidicea. Was this the same as dying? To lose things of great value and be unable to prevent their passing? To have those things fade in front of you, just out of reach as you grasped in vain?

That night he called Lucas on his walkie-talkie.

“Yeah, Mike. Over.”

“Lucas, I was thinking. About that day you were crowned in the Lost City.” When you hugged me and forgave me. “Do you think you would have made me your knight? Over.”

“What are you talking about, Mike? Over.”

“I mean… if things had worked out there. Would you have made me a knight, like, your special guard? Over.”

“You mean in our game?” asked Lucas. “Over.”

“No,” said Mike, feeling frantic. “It was real. Don’t you remember? I… I killed you, Lucas, and then you came back, and we charged the hordes of those Muslims, or whoever they were. Over.” Mike was in tears and trying to be quiet about it.

There was silence at Lucas’s end.

“Lucas? Don’t you remember?” Say you remember. “Over.”

“Mike, I… I have to go. Over and out.”

“No, Lucas, don’t hang up!”

But the talkie was already dead.

Mike threw himself onto the bed and buried his face in his pillow, crying harder than ever before in his life.

 

The next day he lost more memories, and before breakfast he sat down and wrote what he could remember. He wrote names down too, but some of them looked wrong, and it was a struggle to put faces to any of them.

That night his obsessed mind dreamt it all: Queen Zenobia and Lucas dying as a child. The ghost who ripped away years of their lives. The bird-man who molested Will, and then died at the hand of Mike’s rage. Magic mushrooms, and the wild sex that Mike’s body was no longer equipped for. The Isle of Death. The Eye, the Hand, and the misery that followed their uses. His murder of Lucas. The jihad. Life in the desert, with a sweet girl whose sister had been raped and executed. His return to the city. Lucas’s crowning. The Yshian invasion. Zargon, his Whelps, and the horrible Feed. The earthquake… and everyone dying…

Mike woke up screaming. He screamed for a long time, and then began crying – the deep cry of adult hurt. His mother flew into his room and clutched him to her, terrified, asking him what on earth was wrong. Nancy, roused from sleep, stood in his doorway, biting her fingers. She had never seen Mike like this.

His mother gave him a sleeping pill, and stayed in his bed holding him until he drifted off.

 

Two days after that, on Wednesday, August 17, Mike stood looking into his bottom clothes drawer. It was the drawer he used for costumes, mostly Halloween outfits, and it was in this drawer he had placed his Cynidicean clothes over two weeks ago.

He looked at the clothes for a long time. They drew memories, but only barely. He’d lost so much of the Lost City that he’d become convinced it was all a dream, that he’d confused with their D&D campaign. The clothes removed all doubt: those eight months had been real.

But it meant nothing if that time couldn’t be remembered.

It has to be done.

Mike removed the clothes from his drawer and folded them neatly into a plastic garbage bag. He was calm, Stoic even, as he tied up the bag and brought it outside to the trash. It was time to stop fighting and let go of the memories. They were almost all gone anyway.

It was for the better, he told himself as he walked back into the house. He was a child of twelve, not a drug-popping warrior who betrayed his vows, murdered his friends, and shagged a girlfriend sixty ways to Sunday. Experiences like that would come later, as he grew older in this world. When they did, he hoped that his experiences in the Lost City would inform him on a subconscious level, so that where he failed before, he might do right a second time.

But he would stop looking back. It was time to look forward and live as Demetrius had urged them to live, and reclaim the magic of childhood – not the magic of spells and curses, but of innocence that opened kids to raw possibilities.

He went inside and closed the front door, and with it the final page of his life in the Lost City.

 

That weekend, on Saturday morning, an excited Mike Wheeler came thundering down the stairs to answer the front doorbell.

“Move it, Nancy!” he yelled, pushing her aside and opening the door.

“Jesus, Mike!” She had been reaching to open it herself.

The trio was on his doorstep, all smiles. They’d parked their bikes in the driveway and brought their packs of D&D material. Dustin had a box of donuts too, from the local bakery.

“Did you get lemons?” asked Mike, letting them all in.

” ‘Did I get lemons?’, he asks,” said Dustin, throwing down his pack in the foyer, and flipping open the box lid for all to see. “Here we have lemon donuts – three – jelly donuts – three – chocolate glazed – three – honey-dipped – three – and French crullers – four. That’s sixteen donuts, four for each of us.”

“You guys are going to be sick,” said Nancy, looking at them from the living room archway.

“You’re sick,” said Mike.

“I love these crullers,” said Will, taking one right away.

“Jesus, help yourself, Will,” said Dustin.

“So will I,” said Lucas, snagging a jelly and biting into it. “Mm. These are good.”

Mike took a lemon.

Dustin turned to the living room. “Do you want one, Nancy? I can do with three.”

Nancy rolled her eyes and walked off.

“Come on, guys,” said Mike, his mouth full of lemon gel. “Downstairs. I have something to show you.” He picked up Dustin’s pack for him and led them all downstairs to the basement.

At the gaming table, the dungeon master screens were up and the dice were out. Mike was ready to punish them.

“This better be a good module,” said Dustin, putting the donuts on the table and sitting down. There were cold Cokes that Mike had brought down, and he passed one to everyone. “We haven’t had a good game in over a month.”

“Yeah, not since the Lost City,” said Will, sitting as usual across from Mike, and facing the staircase. “This summer went by way too fast.”

“Tell me about it,” said Lucas, taking his place across from Dustin, with his back to the lounge area and the TV. He opened his can of Coke. “The last three weeks have been a fog. We hardly saw each other at all.”

“It was too hot,” said Mike. Since yesterday, the highs had been down to the low 80s, and the infernal humidity was gone.

“So what do we have?” asked Dustin.

From behind the dungeon-master screen, Mike produced the module, showing them the cover: The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun.

They peered at it, eager.

“What is that thing?” muttered Lucas.

That “thing” on the module cover resembled a unisex featureless humanoid surrounded by writhing snakes of various colors – black, purple, green, and yellow. It was deeply unsettling.

“Wow, that’s creepy,” said Will, all excited.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” said Mike. “It’s going to be a weird adventure. But before we start, I’ve got even better news. I’m designing my own module.”

“Gods help us,” said Dustin.

“It’s going to be a killer,” promised Mike. “And this is what you have to look forward to.” He opened the Monster Manual to the “D” section, turned to a page, and slapped the book down on the table. He pointed to an awful looking creature.

They leaned over to look.

“The Demogorgon?” asked Will.

“Jesus,” said Dustin, reading the description under the creature. “We’re in deep shit.”

“That thing is a nightmare,” said Lucas.

“Just you guys wait,” said Mike. “I started mapping out the dungeon last night. It’s going to be a campaign that will take at least ten hours to play.”

“When will it be ready?” asked Lucas.

“Not for a while,” said Mike. “I’m putting a lot of thought in it. Maybe in a couple months. I’ll try to have it done by Halloween.”

“Ten hours,” said Dustin. “It took us almost that long to play the Lost City.”

“Yeah,” said Mike. He felt a sadness, for some reason, when Dustin said that. “But the Demogorgon will smoke the Lost City.”

“Well, cheers to the Demogorgon,” said Lucas, raising his Coke. “And Mike’s killer module.”

“To the Demogorgon!” they all shouted, clicking their cans.

Mike smiled, relishing life – friendship, D&D, donuts, and all that was good and fun. If there was more to it than that, he didn’t care to know. The dice rolled and the quest took off. He put his friends in a bad place, and they had to enact bizarre rituals to escape. They hollered, protested, threw the dice, and laughed.

It was a great, great game.

 

THE END

(Previous Chapter: Feed Me)

The Lost City: Feed Me

This sixteen-chapter novel is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series and the Lost City D&D module. I do not profit from it. It’s a story set prior to the events of the television seasons, before the boys met Eleven. If I learn that the Duffer Brothers or Wizards of the Coast do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if either of them order a cease-and-desist, I will pull the story down.

                                       The Lost City — Chapter Sixteen:

                                     Feed Me

 

The attack began at dawn. It was dawn in the Lost City when the ceiling lamps swelled in sudden brightness, regardless of what the sun was doing on the surface. The lamps were huge orbs that radiated magic light for twelve hours, then dimmed to a bare glow for the same duration to let it be night. They were fastened to the ceiling by clamps – gods only knew how the first Zargonites had gotten them up there – hundreds of them, spaced at the right intervals to give the undercity the light it needed in all the right places.

Crouched behind ruined buildings by the lake bridges, Mike wondered about the upkeep of those lamps. The Zargonites were no longer in power and wouldn’t be replacing orbs that ran out of magic or needed recharging. Another problem for Lucas and Pandora to think about. They’d put the Magi to work on it.

Next to him, Jilanka swore. The invaders were entering the city. Being quiet but not terribly cautious, as they had no clue what was waiting for them. A thousand of them, supposedly. Will had said about 300 of the jihadists were being supplied by Sayid al-Naji from the town of Sulba. The caliph had also ordered the Emir of Makistan to send 700 jihadists from Parsa, since Cynidicea was technically in Makistan, though close on the border. So a thousand total, and no reason to question Will’s judgment. Still, Mike wished the poor kid wasn’t zoned out. Sometimes his visions changed, and his original prediction was two weeks old. An updated report would have made everyone feel better.

“Get ready to smash these fuckers,” said Mike, waiting for Lucas’s signal.

“You want to keep score?” asked Jilanka. She had told Mike she’d thought of taking a berserker mushroom, but in the end chose to respect her king and queen’s prohibition against drugs. Besides, she had nothing but contempt for the Yshians. To rely on drug-rage would be an admission that she couldn’t kick their asses straight up. She was high enough – on confidence. And confident enough to want to keep score against her boyfriend who wielded the Hand. Mike thought of Gimli and Legolas at Helm’s Deep.

He also thought of Aragorn taking the Paths of the Dead. Behind Mike and his Maidens stretched a horde of 340 zoombies. Over on the other side of the lake, Lucas and Pandora commanded the Gormish warriors with another 340. Each side was supplemented by Magi from the Usamigarans. Between the 680 zoombies and the sixty warriors and mages from the old cults, the Lost City was defended by 740 against the thousand invaders. Lucas believed it would suffice. Mike wasn’t so sure. It all came down to the strike force of these zoombies. He knew their savagery, but worried about their discipline and obedience. So far, though, they seemed to be obeying Lucas’s commands to a tee. Even on this side of the lake, by proxy, under Mike’s command.

At first Mike had resisted command of the south side, and told Pandora the night before:

“You should be leading the southern attack,” he’d said. “You’re the queen.”

“As your queen, I delegate command as I please,” said Pandora, her eyes blazing. “Do you agree?”

“Of course,” said Mike. “I mean, yes, your Grace. I just think you’re better for morale than I am.”

“Nonsense,” said Pandora. “You wield the Hand of Gaius. Your near invincibility will ignite morale more effectively than any crown. What good is the Hand if it’s not put to visible use? You’re perfectly suitable to lead the Maidens.”

“Yes, your Grace.”

“If you want to second-guess me, you can use that Hand to scrub the latrines.”

“Yes, your Grace.”

“And it’s better that I command the Brothers anyway. Some of them have a weed up their ass about taking orders from a woman. Lucas and I agreed they need to get used to obeying their queen – right away.”

Inspired by this wisdom, Mike had chosen Jilanka to share command of the southern force. He’d signal when to charge the invaders, but let her manage everything up to that point. Lucas and Pandora were right. Share the rule.

The zoombies started growling. They could smell the invaders three hundred feet away. Mike looked back and silenced them with a downward slash of his hand.

Edgy little fuckers.

Only hours ago, Lucas had summoned this undead army and led it across the lake. It was like something out of both the Bible and The Return of the King. Demetrius had prayed a control water spell to part the waters of the lake. Lucas had walked down to the Island of Death, entered the remains of Vark’s Ring, and summoned every zoombie that his crown would channel. It might have been a thousand – a perfect match for the invading army – but because Will had slain over three hundred zoombies during their quest, it left less that could be summoned at any given time. Lucas was able to summon 680 of them. The zoombies had materialized, fawning over Lucas like dogs snapping for prey. They followed him back through the parted waters. Citizens came to watch – in varying degrees of alarm, nonchalance, or laughter. With acid you could hardly predict.

The results would be predictable enough if the drug heads didn’t steer clear of the west side. Priests from all the strongholds were organizing efforts to keep citizens safe in their homes.

Come on, Lucas. What are you waiting for? The northern forces were supposed to signal to Mike when the king was ready to charge. Mike could see jihadists pouring in the northern entrance, and he cursed Lucas again. They had to act soon. They couldn’t stay hidden in this light, and couldn’t afford to lose the element of surprise.

Seconds later, from across the lake, came the dancing lights signal from one of the Magi.

Mike motioned to everyone behind him and led the charge. He ran over one of the lake bridges as Jilanka bounded over the other. The other Maidens and the zoombies rushed behind them both. Ahead of them at the southern entrance, the Yshians were appraising the interior of the Lost City. Then they saw the defenders and cried in alarm, drawing their cruel-looking scimitars.

No need for silence anymore. Holding his sword high, Mike screamed as he ran straight at the them: “Kill these fucking desert freaks!”

The Yshians screamed back: “Panna-jois!!!”

Mike knew what panna-jois (pronounced “panna-zhwah”) meant from his months of living in Yshia. It was a holy litany: kill the infidels.

Infidel me, assholes.

With twenty Maidens and over three hundred zoombies, Mike Wheeler smashed into the horde of some five hundred invaders. His sword was everywhere at once, inside the gut of one Yshian, through the neck of another, chopping off the arm of a third. His right hand was a blur, his sword blade impossible to get a fix on. He sliced a fourth one down, and then plowed deeper into the horde.

“Panna-jois!!!”

The shriek came from behind, and a scimitar lodged itself halfway into his neck. Mike felt the odd sensation of being wounded fatally without blood or pain or loss of momentum. The wound closed and his neck healed in seconds, as he spun to face his attacker. The Yshian gaped, unable to believe his eyes, and raised his scimitar for another swing. The Hand of Gaius gave the man his own medicine: Mike’s sword buried itself halfway into his neck – and then went all the way through, sending the head rolling.

The furious cries of the Yshians were drowned by shrieks from the undead. The zoombies tore the invaders apart limb from limb; for every zoombie that was killed, two jihadists went down. The undead were feral; one and half times as fast as a human being, and twice as savage as a devout jihadist. They feasted from their kills as they leaped on the next invader.

“Panna-jois!!!”

Mike was exhilarated by blood lust, imagining Malik’s face on every screaming jihadist he cut down; the murderer of his own sister, for the crime of being raped. How Areesh could live with Malik and call what he did honorable. Mike killed and killed, took wounds that healed, and realized that he had thrown himself so deeply into the enemy that he could barely see his own army anymore. He caught sight of a Maiden being run through by a jihadist. He saw a zoombie turning an Yshian into raw hamburger. A blade came out of nowhere and went into his stomach – his reward for stopping to stare. Furious, Mike grabbed the blade with his hand, tore it out of him, turned, and disemboweled the Yshian with his own scimitar.

“Paaaanna-joooois!!!”

Mike swore. That was a voice he recognized, and it wasn’t far. He was pushing in closer to the western wall. Then he saw the figure. It was Omar, the mullah from Sulba, who had interrogated him at the Jalal home. The cleric was frothing at the mouth – in a towering fury that the tables had been turned on his invasion so quickly.

Mike roared, slashing his way forward. He was going to kill Omar with his bare hands. Two jihadists attacked him, and his leg took a slice before he felled them. Then the mullah was right before him. His eyes locked on Mike and widened in shock. Mike laughed. Omar knew nothing of Will and the Eye; he obviously thought Mike was the reason the city was so well prepared. Good. Glad you think that.

With both hands he threw his sword at an Yshian coming straight at him. It spun in the air and smacked the jihadist’s head with the pommel. The man cursed and kept coming. Mike ignored him and lunged at Omar, seizing the mullah by the arms. Omar screamed. Calculating, Mike spun the mullah around at the moment his attacker brought down the scimitar that would have cut open Mike’s back. Instead it bisected Omar’s face, from his forehead down to his chin. For good measure, Mike bear-hugged the mullah’s neck, heaved, and snapped it. He dropped the corpse at his attacker’s feet.

The jihadist yelled in fury at what he’d been made to do, and raised his weapon on Mike – and then his head went sailing as a sword took it off. Mike saw Esranet standing before him. She was the deadliest swordswoman aside from Pandora, and judging from the blood she was covered with, she had evidently killed as many Yshians as Mike. He looked around and saw other Maidens nearby, and zoombies pouncing on jihadists. Unbelievably, there were few invaders left standing.

“That was too easy,” said Esranet.

Mike looked at her, smiling. “Zoombies. They put us to shame.”

She made a face. “Your Hand put us to shame. You should kill yourself.” She walked off scowling, and casually stabbed an Yshian lying on the ground, half-dead.

Even in victory that bitch is foul.

And then it was over. Five hundred Yshians lay slain around the southern entrance. The invaders had killed about half that many zoombies. Between eighty and ninety of the undead remained, feasting now on Yshian corpses. Eight of the twenty Maidens had been killed: three from the pyramid temple, five from the Madaruan stronghold.

It was a better victory than anyone had dared hope for – assuming that things had gone just as well on the north side.

Mike looked over and saw that Lucas’s forces were killing off the last Yshians. There was no surrender. Per the commands of The Raysh, every jihadist went down dying, in order to obtain the highest reward in the afterlife. Their attempt to bring the Dream of the Desert Garden to Cynidicea had massively failed. But there were plenty more Yshians out there, and Mike was sure they would come in stronger numbers. The jihad went on. Always. Those who denied the Prophet had to be slaughtered.

We’ll be ready for them. Between Will’s Eye, my Hand, and Lucas’s crown, we can defend this city.

But that self-assurance rang hollow. What if the Caliph sent ten thousand jihadists next time?

“How many?”

He turned and saw Jilanka, bathed in gore. “What?”

“I killed five. You?”

“I don’t know,” said Mike. “Thirteen, maybe fourteen.” Including that filthy mullah. Burn in Hell, Omar.

She laughed. “That Hand is handy. Let’s go see our king and queen.”

Mike looked up at the north end, where zoombies were satisfying their appetites. Mike thrilled to the savaging of the invaders’ corpses. He spotted Lucas and Pandora amidst the carnage, talking to the surviving Brothers. “Yeah, let’s go.”

“Maidens!” called Jilanka. “To our king and qu -”

She was interrupted as screams pierced the air, high and shrill. They came from all the way over on the east side of the city – the hub of the population.

Mike swore, fearing they had been fooled by a decoy army. Had another jihadist army come down the pyramid? But no, that was impossible. The pyramid entrance was too well defended, and the pyramid itself a death trap on all tiers for the uninitiated.

Then he saw what was over there, and his day turned black.

No. 

“Madarua,” breathed Jilanka, unbelieving.

You can’t be serious.

It towered high in the air, at least thirty-five feet. Its head was reptilian, with a horn that curved upward above its single eye. Mike knew it all from the gaming module. The mouth dripped saliva around razor-sharp teeth. It had six “arm” tentacles, three on each side of its torso, ending in razor-sharp talons. It moved by slithering forward, on six “leg” tentacles. He could see the arm tentacles lashing the air like whips, seizing people on the streets, raising them high in the air – and then shoving them into the maw, to be swallowed in a slurping gulp.

Zargon. He’d been loosed.

“A Centennial Feed,” said Jilanka. “We’re fucked, Mike.”

So this was Hazor’s revenge. In return for his temple and priests being wiped out, he was unleashing a Feed right on top of an Yshian invasion. Demetrius had once told him that the high priest had a magic device that could release Zargon from his lair – a teleportation device that worked only once a century.

Feed me. Will hadn’t been asking for food. He had seen the future and channeled the beast’s hunger.

The Centennial Feed was the most sacred tradition to the Zargonites, the most appalling one to the old cults, and the most feared one by the Cynidicean population. It was an apocalyptic threat because of what came from Zargon’s mouth. His saliva was an acidic slime that reproduced death on the spot. Anyone spat on by Zargon, or bitten by his teeth, collapsed into a puddle of ooze that began transforming into a Whelp of Zargon: a mindless Cthulhu-like amoeba that spread the same disease with its bite. There was no shortage of victims, because they were acid heads. They feared phantoms, not their own Deity; many embraced death or transformation. Those who ran and hid weren’t necessarily safe: Zargon’s tentacles reached through doors and windows.

A Centennial Feed lasted for three whole days.

“Fucked,” repeated Jilanka.

“Not if I can help it,” he said. He rallied his team. “Maidens! To the main avenue!” He barked a command at the zoombies, who broke off from their own feed. They readied to follow Mike, still bound by his proxy command until Lucas released them.

As they raced back over the bridges to the east side, Mike looked left and saw Lucas and Pandora’s group doing the same. They were closer to Zargon than he was. The creature was on the main avenue between the strongholds of Gorm and Usamigaras. In front of the communal dormitories, where he could do plenty of damage.

More screams tore the air.

They reached the main avenue between the Usamigaran and Madaruan strongholds and turned left. On their immediate left, the Zargonite temple lay devastated; a mountain of rubble, courtesy of Will. Down the street about three hundred feet, the Devourer was terrorizing the population. Masked Cynidiceans dashed about everywhere, whooping in ecstasy. Others knelt in the street, praying – some to the monstrosity before them, others to gods that never existed. A few recited elaborate scripts, using the main avenue as a theater stage. Others had sex with the nearest person. The beast was indiscriminate: he made them all his feed.

“Mike!” Jilanka and the Maidens had stopped.

“What?” he said, stopping, out of breath.

“We’re not going down there,” she said. “You can’t kill Zargon – not even with the benefit of the Hand. He’s a god.”

God, my ass. “He’s a cretinous monster.” But the more he thought about it, he knew she was right. Whatever his precise nature, Zargon couldn’t be killed. In D&D terms he had a whopping 342 hit points. And that blasted horn: if you did somehow manage to miraculously kill him, he would simply regenerate and return to life. The only way to permanently kill Zargon was to remove his horn and destroy it in the lava pit on the west side of the city. Zargon was effectively a god; practically invincible.

Unless Will could kill him.

Mike looked at the Usamigaran stronghold on their right. Will was in Demetrius’s chamber, still catatonic. Demetrius had returned to the stronghold after parting the lake’s waters for Lucas. Do I try? Mike had no idea how to trigger Will.

There was a sudden furor down the road. Shrieks of rabid animals. Lucas’s zoombies. Scores of them were assaulting Zargon, giving the acid heads a temporary reprieve. Behind him, Mike’s zoombies howled, craving a target. He barked a command, sending them to join the attack on Zargon, and to leave any people alone. They poured down the street in fury.

“Oh, that was a shitty idea,” said Jilanka.

“What do you mean?” asked Mike.

Jilanka began answering, but was cut off by a cry from one of the Maidens:

“Our king and queen!”

Lucas and Pandora were running down the street towards them. They had emerged from a back street onto the main avenue just slightly ahead. They were alone without the Brothers.

“What do we do?” asked Mike, when they arrived. “It’s a Centennial Feed!”

“We retreat to the strongholds,” said Pandora, in a tone allowing for no debate. “And take any citizens who wish to come. Most of them won’t.”

That’s where they had probably sent the Brothers: to the stronghold of Gorm.

Lucas nodded, catching his breath. “Get inside and stay away from windows. Our strongholds are defended with outer walls, but take nothing for granted. It’s going to be three days of Hell, especially for the Zargonite citizens.” He looked down the street. “That thing is fucking huge.”

The chaos down there got worse. There were weird moaning sounds – like people drowning in mud.

“Shit,” said Jilanka.

“What’s happening?” asked Lucas.

“Not to criticize you, Your Grace,” said Jilanka. “But all those zoombies? They’re not doing any good, and they’re being bitten. In a few hours they’ll be Whelps of the Devourer.”

Pandora swore. “I’d forgotten about the Whelp legend.”

“And they’re undead,” said Jilanka. “Try to imagine a zoombie Whelp. We’re going to see plenty of them.”

Mike cursed himself. There were nearly two hundred zoombies attacking Zargon. He was beating them off like flies and either killing them – strangling them with his tentacles swallowing them whole – or spitting on them, and letting them collapse into a puddle of ooze. It must have been the pools of ooze making the weird moaning sounds; they were beginning the hideous transformation process. They’d be Whelps in a few hours.

“Great gods,” said Lucas.

More citizens were arriving to play or pray in the street. Mike couldn’t believe it. It was too surreal. Zargon roared, still smacking down the zoombies. His tentacles lashed everywhere. He killed, devoured, and transformed by his whim. And the people played hopscotch under his nose. Took off their clothes and danced. Sang songs, prayed prayers, and masturbated to ecstatic climaxes.

They were all about to become the next feed – to die or be made into Whelps.

“Let’s get inside,” said Pandora. “Maidens, into your stronghold! I’ll be joining you there.”

The Maidens obeyed their queen and left for the Madaruan fortress. Except Mike. Jilanka looked back at him, and Pandora frowned.

“Your Grace,” said Mike, addressing Pandora. “Would it be okay with you if I join the Usamigarans? Will is there, and he doesn’t say much except my name. Maybe I can reach him. And if I can reach him, maybe he can kill Zargon.”

“Maybe he can also bring this city down around our ears,” said Pandora.

“Maybe,” admitted Lucas. “But I think it’s worth a try. To slay this beast once and for all.”

Pandora hesitated and then nodded. “Very well.”

“I’ll use backstreets to get to the Brothers’ stronghold,” said Lucas to his queen. “Between me, you, and Raen, the three strongholds will be in good hands.”

Mike walked up to Jilanka. “I’ll see you in three days.”

“Good luck with Will,” she said, and then left with Pandora.

Lucas looked at Mike before leaving. “We kicked their asses.”

“What?” said Mike.

“The Yshians,” said Lucas. “That was good work.”

“For all the good,” said Mike.

“All we need to do is wait out this Feed,” said Lucas. “Or if Will can be reached…” He left it hanging.

Mike nodded. “I’ll try. See you in three.”

Lucas left, and Mike walked over to the Usamigaran stronghold. He hailed the gatekeeper, who recognized him and threw open the double doors. Mike went inside, glad to get away from the slaughterfest.

 

It was three days of unremitting hell. Zargon left not a street uncovered – as long as he could fit down it. The east side of the city was his stomping ground, but he went everywhere, sniffing all corners. He moved by sliding; reaching out with his leg tentacles to pull himself forward. As he went, he left slime and body parts behind him.

The only place he avoided was the west side. Somehow he knew the lava pit could be the end of him. But many of his Whelps were drawn over there, especially the zoombie Whelps. They’d been feasting on Yshian corpses when they had to break off at Lucas and Mike’s commands. Now they finished their feast in a new form – as slaves of the Devourer.

The Whelps were insidious because, unlike their Master, they could hide in shadows. By the second day, the streets had been cleansed of all rhapsody. Those who saw Zargon as cause for celebration had been devoured or Whelped. Everyone else hunkered in their dorms and boarded up the windows. They came out for air, when the Devourer was hunting somewhere else, because they needed food. They plundered abandoned shops and raced back home. But some of them strayed. They were still acid heads after all. And the Whelps were waiting to pounce, in alleys and around corners.

And then there were kids. Mike was on top of the outer wall of the Usamigaran fortress when he heard two of them screaming not far below. A Whelp was assaulting them. It looked like Zargon was up in the area of the mushroom gardens; far away for the moment. Mike raced down and out the front gate of the stronghold, ignoring the advice of the gatekeeper that he stay inside. It was probably sound advice. He had the Hand, but he doubted that Gaius’s enchantments made him immune to being Whelped. The Hand protected against damage, not transformation.

Outside the gate he saw the kids right away: a boy maybe eight and a girl maybe ten. An amoeba-like mass with four tentacles was lashing at them, its jaw slavering. It had the kids cornered against the wall of a building. Mike yelled and drew his sword, glad that it was magical. He doubted that normal weapons would harm a Whelp. When the kids saw him racing to their rescue, they made a dash for it. That was a mistake. The Whelp was ignoring Mike, fixated on the kids. One of its tentacles snapped the air and snagged the girl like a lasso. She screamed and Mike swore, running harder. The Whelp pulled the girl close, opened its jaw wide, and spat. Brown slime drenched the girl and took effect at once. She shook as if with a fever of a hundred and ten – and then collapsed into a pool of ooze, right as Mike reached her. The boy wailed. Mike slashed the Whelp with his sword. The creature moaned and backed off in surprise, not used to being hurt. Mike grabbed the boy and picked him up with his free arm, and then ran back to the stronghold right away. He got the kid safely inside, and had him sent to the communal hall. The boy kept crying for his dead sister. Gods knew who or where his parents were, if they were still alive. Slaughter and transformation were everywhere.

But at least the goblins are safe. Halle-fucking-lujah. The goblins lived in cliffs on the west side of the lake, and their caves were accessible only by ladders and handholds cut into the rock. Zargon and his Whelps didn’t bother trying. Living inside cliffs had its benefit during a Feed.

Through it all, Will remained a stone. Mike tended to him, brought him his meals, and tried coaxing him into more awareness. He would croak Mike’s name occasionally, but nothing more, not even his previous mantra.

” ‘Feed me’,” said Mike. “I had no idea what you meant.” Just tell me it ends okay. Tell me we can pick up the pieces and get this kingdom off its ass and back in the running.

And then Will did look at him. His Eye bulged with a bad promise. “Back.”

Mike sat up straight. Had Will just read his mind? Was he saying yes, that the kingdom could get back on track, like in the days of yore? But then why did Will look like demons were standing in front of him?

The answer came on the third day, in the late afternoon. Mike was on wall patrol when suddenly a concussion shook the air. It sounded like an earthquake, rumbling the city’s ceiling hundreds of feet above. Mike looked up and around. Zargon was over by the ruined buildings where Mike had waited to ambush the Yshians. It didn’t look he was doing anything to cause this.

A sharper convulsion came. Mike swore as huge chunks of rock came crashing down on buildings and into the streets. One struck the wall he was standing only a few feet away.

He raced down into the courtyard where he saw a guard. Mike asked him if the city had ever had earthquakes before.

“Earthquakes?” the guard said. “Are you insane? Someone is doing this to us!”

Mike thought of going to see Raen, but he needed answers, not counsel. He left the stronghold through the gate and went out into the main avenue. Not a soul was anywhere to be seen, but plenty of rock that used to be the ceiling. Mike looked up. Most of the ceiling was still there – but it wouldn’t be for long, if this went on.

The next concussion reverberated like an indoor thunderclap. More ruin came down. A piece of rock smashed Mike’s head; if not for the Hand he’d have been out cold or dead. When the dust settled, he heard laughter off to his left. He peered through the dust and walked towards the sound. The laughter grew louder. Then the dust cleared, and his bowels almost burst. Less than a hundred feet ahead he saw Hazor. He had seen the high priest twice before at a distance, when he was down in the city on errands, and from about the same distance he was now. The High Priest of Zargon was standing on top of the building to the catacombs, shrieking laughter. His arms were spread wide in the air, welcoming the apocalyptic onslaught.

The crazy son of a bitch had prayed an earthquake spell. In an underground.

“Hazor!” yelled Mike, running toward the catacombs building.

Another convulsion ripped overhead. To his left, a boulder smashed the wall of the Madaruan stronghold, tearing a curtain of it off. Around him, rock fell everywhere. Hazor roared approval.

He’s committing suicide. And taking every goddamn Cynidicean with him.

Mike reached the building and looked up. “Cancel that prayer, Hazor! What the fuck is wrong with you?” Mike had no idea if the prayer could even be cancelled.

The priest looked down on him, his eyes lit in ecstasy. “Yeeeeessss! All prayers cancelled! All of them! The Devourer heeds them not!” He shrieked more laughter, as the ceiling took another dump.

“Hazor!” Mike screamed, dodging rock. “You’re going to kill us all!”

“Yeeeeessss!” laughed the priest. “All and everyone! The Devourer claims the world!”

Mike knew he was being stupid trying to talk Hazor down. This was what the high priest wanted. How did one negate an earthquake spell? It couldn’t be done. You’d need a wish spell or some equivalent miracle.

He turned and ran back to the Usamigaran stronghold. He had no idea what to do. There was nothing to do. The roof was about to bury everything.

When he reached the front gate, he heard a cry from the northern end of the road. He looked and saw someone running towards him. The figure shouted his name.

Mike’s heart leaped. “Lucas!” He waved his hand high.

The next tremor brought down so much rock and dirt that Mike thought it was the end. But the ceiling hadn’t collapsed yet. He yelled at Lucas to hurry. The King of Cynidicea dodged death in every direction, and finally met Mike at the gate. They took cover under the overhang.

“What made you come out in this shit?” demanded Mike.

“I got a flare from Demetrius,” said Lucas. That meant a sending prayer: a telepathic message. “He told me to come here right away, and to risk my life if necessary. What the hell does he want?”

“Fucked if I know,” said Mike.

“What are you doing out?”

He told Lucas about Hazor. Lucas couldn’t believe what he was hearing. As Mike finished, Lucas swore and pointed.

Mike turned and and looked. “Holy shit,” he said.

Zargon was at the catacombs building, looking down at his highest servant. The servant who had visited him weekly in the pyramid. The only human being allowed on that bottom tier. The only one with the privilege of feeding Zargon, whether weekly or centennially.

Who now had the privilege of being the feed.

Zargon swiped Hazor into the air, snapping the high priest back and forth. Rock rained down, some of it on Zargon’s head. The creature was unfazed. He toyed with Hazor some more, and then used his talons to rip the priest open. Hazor was still screaming in ecstasy as his disemboweled body was chewed to pieces by the beast he’d served his whole life.

It made no difference. The earthquake couldn’t be stopped.

The ceiling tremors became more constant as Mike and Lucas rushed through the gate, across the courtyard, into Demetrius’s chamber. The priest was waiting for them and Will was in his chair. Will’s Eye stared monstrously at them as they entered.

“Thank the gods,” said Demetrius, looking at Lucas. He turned to Mike: “Where the hell were you?”

“I went outside,” said Mike. “Hazor caused the earthquake. And Zargon just ate him.”

“I figured it was Hazor,” said the priest. “Good riddance. Not that it matters.”

“Demetrius, why did you bring me here?” demanded Lucas. “The people of this city need me to do something. I’m their king.”

“Your people don’t stand a chance,” said Demetrius. “I’m sorry, Lucas. This city is coming down and nothing can stop it. And Zargon has fed on the population like never before – there wouldn’t be much of a kingdom left to rule anyway.”

“I don’t accept that!” shouted Lucas.

“Why did you want us here, Demetrius?” asked Mike.

The priest looked at Will and then at them both. “To send you all home. All four of you. You three and Dustin. And to say good-bye. It’s time for me to let myself die, as I should have on that first day you all came here. After I killed my brother.”

“Whoa, slow down,” said Lucas. “We’ve been through this already. There’s no future for us in our world.”

“Lucas, look around you,” said Demetrius. “As of now, there’s no future for you in this world.”

Another convulsion tore through the city. More rock came down. Through the window of the room came faint but horrible screams. Homes were being destroyed. People were dying.

“Demetrius,” said Mike, “you just told me a few days ago that the ‘Black Passage’ spell doesn’t work in the reverse direction. You said that you tried to send Will home and the spell failed.” This was during Mike’s exile in Yshia, shortly after he killed Lucas.

“I lied,” said the priest.

“Obviously I never heard about this,” said Lucas.

“Listen to me,” said Demetrius. “I was selfish. I love Dustin and sharing his body with him, and it made it easy for me, since he likes me too. I love all of you. I didn’t want to see any of you go. You were aliens and offering this city a fresh hope, even with all the setbacks. And then the Brothers asked me to resurrect Lucas, and then, of all things, Lucas restored the monarchy. But it’s all for naught. This city is gone.”

“No,” said Mike. He knew he was in denial but didn’t care. “I mean, there’s always recovery after a Centennial Feed. It happens every century.”

“There’s never been an earthquake,” said Demetrius. “Never a high priest so insane and bent on revenge that he wants to self-destruct. The city is caving in. Most people will die, and those who don’t will wish they had – with Zargon and his Whelps on the loose.”

“I’ll take my chances,” said Lucas. “If these people are going to die, then I can die with them. I’m their king, Demetrius.”

“Ditto,” said Mike. “These people are my own. Besides, I can’t go back to Hawkins ten years older and with this Hand. I’d be a freak. They’d put me in a lab.”

“No,” said Demetrius. “When I said I lied, I was lying about a lot.”

“What do you mean?” asked Lucas.

“I told Will that the ‘Black Passage’ spell didn’t work in reverse after trying to send him home. But the reason it didn’t work is because I wasn’t reading it properly. In order to get back to your original world, the spell has to be read in reverse – you have to read the spell backwards. I knew this, but like I said, I didn’t want any of you to go.”

“So?” asked Mike.

“I lied about more than that,” said Demetrius. “I mean, I’d been keeping crucial information from you all along. When you read the spell in reverse, it sends you back in reverse. Your bodies reverse, biologically, to the state they were in when you left, and they arrive at the exact point in time you left.”

“Are you fucking serious?” said Mike.

“That’s a shitty thing to keep from us, Demetrius,” said Lucas.

“I know,” said the priest. “And I won’t blame you to hate me for it. I was selfish. I wanted to keep living, and I wanted you all, as Dustin’s friends, to stay here too. There’s no point in any of that now. I can send you back, leave Dustin’s body, and you’ll return home as twelve-year olds. Will won’t have the Eye and Mike won’t have the Hand. And no one will have missed you.”

Mike was poleaxed. “But -”

Another concussion: a storm of rock pulverized the stronghold. The floor and walls shook. People in the fortress were screaming now.

“No arguments, please,” said Demetrius. “It makes no sense for any of you to die, when you have your original lives to live for. Your families to go back to. Please. Come here.”

Demetrius embraced them then, and drew them close to Will. He took out the scroll and prepared to read. Mike looked at Will, then at Lucas. They nodded to each other.

“Take off your armor and weapons,” said the priest. “Your boots too. The less weight, the less likely the spell will malfunction.” They hurriedly did as he instructed, throwing their boots and metal aside.

And as Demetrius began the incantation, Mike wept. For the Lost City he’d come to love; for Jilanka; his Maiden sisters; for everyone who was about to die. But also positively, for the life he was returning to. Home. I’m going home. We’re going home…

The spell read backwards sounded like a prayer from the Grim Reaper. The words were thick as syrup. They clung to the body and worked it over, sent it spiraling back to a long forgotten point. Mike felt himself breaking apart, then coming together, and falling apart again. Oh God, what’s happening? He was still in Will’s room in the stronghold, but also in the Black Passage, straddling two worlds. Breaking down and reassembling. His mind ballooned as it shrank; his body a contradiction. Terrible amounts of time seemed to pass in the space of no time at all, and as he finally came together for good, he heard the spell end.

And then Demetrius’s fading voice, as he let Dustin go and himself die: Remember me kindly, boys, if you’ve the grace for it. I love you all.

Mike cried, unable to say good-bye. As he and his friends disappeared, the roof of the Lost City came down entirely, as final as the end of an age. Heavier than sorrow, greater than loss. Nothing would revive Cynidicea; few would remember it.

Mike would remember it though. Or so he thought, as the blackness swept him away.

 

Last up, the Epilogue: Fading

(Previous Chapter: Everything Unholy)

The Lost City Reincarnated: Comparisons with my Novel

Only recently was I made aware of a special series of reincarnated D&D modules. These are more than just 1e classics with a 5e make-over, which I generally have no use for. What Original Adventures Reincarnated does is reproduce the 1e versions exactly, followed by a hugely expanded 5e version that retains the old-school vibe. There are more maps and new encounter areas, written for 5e, yes, but with a distinctly 1e tone. There are also essays written by grognards who reflect on why these classics have such enduring value. (James Maliszewski has articles in all the ones I’ve acquired.) I can hardly imagine a greater homage.

So far the following modules have been brought back: The Keep on the Borderlands (2018), The Isle of Dread (2018), Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (2019), The Lost City (2020), and Castle Amber (2020). Next month will come The Temple of Elemental Evil (2021). My wish list is for Vault of the Drow and Dwellers of the Forbidden City, as they would be perfect to flesh out with this kind of expansive detail.

But I’m here to talk about The Lost City. Readers know how I feel about the original and I hardly need to repeat that praise here. Others have read my novel of the Lost City, and I’m pleased at how well it’s been received. But if I’d only known of the reincarnated module when writing that novel! This product is simply a dream come true, leaving not a stone uncovered in the Cynidicean underworld. Everything, and I mean everything — the temple of Zargon, the strongholds of the old gods (Gorm, Usamigaras, and Madarua), the goblin caves by the lake, the mushroom gardens beneath the catacombs, the Island of Death, the volcanic Eye of Zargon, and more — is done justice, and provides material to keep a campaign going for months if not years, depending on how often you play at the table.

To start with the goblin caves, they’re more impressive than anything I imagined, and populated with more than just goblins. The goblins inhabit the first two levels, under a king and a snake-handling shaman (whose altar-room is best avoided at all costs). The militant hobgoblins rule the third level under an efficient warlord. The fourth level has many domains: a hill giant cave, a troll cave, two ogre lairs, and a thoul lair (seven of them ruled by a nasty necromage). Honestly, these caves are more inspired than even the Caves of Chaos, and you could get as much rewarding adventure from them as the B2 classic. Some of the encounter areas depend on 3D visuals, as they span more than one level simultaneously. The cavern entrances are on a sheer cliff face, and the four levels are accessed by climbing poles, zip lines, and rope bridges — all of which can easily kill you if you’re not a proficient climber or scaler, like the goblins are.

The lower catacombs contain some of the most dangerous places in the Lost City (aside from the temple of Zargon and Zargon’s lair in the pyramid), with nasty surprises spread across five immense caverns. The most significant one is the mushroom farm, cultivated by myconids in thrall to a mind flayer. This is where the module writers place the mass production of hallucinogenics, the drugs that ensure the Cynidiceans will be kept enthralled in a dream-like state so the Zargonites can easily control them. In my novel I didn’t do anything with the catacombs; I had most of the drugs grown in the public mushroom fields (at Area A, below, as opposed to under Area G; click map to enlarge):

However, I left unanswered the question of where the powerful priestly mushrooms (used exclusively by the Zargonite priests) were grown, and so the shroom farms under the catacombs could have served my purposes in any case. (For clarity, in my novel I put most of the drug-shrooms in the public gardens at A, under heavy guard: hallucinogenic, sedative, amphetamine, poison, and medicine. I suggested that the priestly shrooms might be grown in the catacombs, but left it a mystery. In the reincarnated module, none of the mushrooms in the public gardens are drugs and they aren’t guarded; all the drug-shrooms are under the catacombs.)

Moving to the Isle of Death, I wasn’t surprised to see its size inflated. In the classic module it had a puny diameter of 60 feet. In my novel I stretched it to a liberal 80 feet. The reincarnated module gives it 120 feet. So obviously I wasn’t the only one who thought the original was way too small. I have since amended my 80 feet to 120, following the reincarnation, and the dimensions of the stone ring accordingly, so that my characters aren’t crammed onto that hellish rock like sardines in a can.

As for the temple of Zargon, my version is a close cousin of the one in the reincarnation. It’s the largest building in the city, obviously the most notorious and where all the power resides. Here’s how it looks (click to enlarge):

If you reworked the entry hall as below, and then add a fourth floor (in my novel, I call the 2nd-4th floor tower “Zargon’s Rise”), then it’s pretty close to what I imagine (click to enlarge):

Also, I staffed the temple with more warriors. In the module there are 37 priests/cultists, and only 16 warriors (for a total of 53 staff). In my novel I have 25 priests and 60 warriors (36 Cynidiceans and 24 hobgoblins) (for a total of 85 staff). It’s simply unrealistic that the Zargonites wouldn’t have a lot of manpower at the ready, to maintain control and keep the old cults from rising up in revolution.

Finally, let’s consider the strongholds of the old cults, whose deities I adore impartially: Gorm, war god of thunderstorms, justice, and law; Madarua, war goddess of birth, death, and the seasons; Usamigaras, the cherub-hobbit deity of magic, thievery, and chaos. These cults are what make the Lost City so fun and ripe for identity politicking. In my novel, Mike and Lucas begin as proud Brothers of Gorm, but Mike ends up betraying the Brothers for the Madaruans — becoming the first male Maiden in centuries — when disillusioned by Gormish doctrine. Will and Dustin have little use for either, preferring the libertarian practices of the Magi. But all the cults have their problems, they can barely co-exist with each other, and they seem to give fuck-all about opposing the Zargonites when they have themselves to snipe at over petty resentments. Kanadius, Pandora, and Auriga are the stars of the Lost City, or at least of the pyramid; it would have been nice to see more cult leaders teased out in the underground strongholds. The layout designs are fine, but I imagine the inhabitants a bit differently, on two key points.

First, I imagine citizens living in these strongholds, safe behind the walls and under the protection of the cult they elect to follow instead of Zargon. And I imagine less warriors (for Gorm and Madarua) and mages (for Usamigaras), for the same reason I inflated the number of warriors for the Zargonite temple. If the old cults have too much of a fighting or wizard force, it becomes harder to explain why they don’t suspend their feuds and rise up against the Zargonites.

Second, I imagine priests running the strongholds. In the module, the strongholds are led by the same warriors or mage who lead the temple cults: Kanadius, Pandora, and Auriga. So apparently these three divide their time equally between the temples far up in the pyramid and the strongholds in the underground. I don’t buy that. I keep Kanadius, Pandora, and Auriga based in the pyramid, and they only occasionally visit the underground. The strongholds are instead run by priests. In my novel, the Gormish high priest is Zoran, the Madaruan high priestess is Fiana; and the Usamigaran high priest is Raen.

Here’s exactly how our differences break down:

Reincarnated module

Stronghold of Gorm – 29 (all warriors)
Stronghold of Madarua – 37 (all warriors)
Stronghold of Usamigaras – 25 (all magi)

But a total warrior/wizard force of 91 is a bit much, especially with a Zargonite temple force of 53. There’s no way the old cults would have remained submissive to the oppressive Zargonites (for centuries) with numbers like these.

My novel

Stronghold of Gorm – 49 (4 priests, 10 warriors, 26 adult citizens, 9 youths)
Stronghold of Madarua – 36 (2 priestesses, 11 warriors, 17 adult citizens, 6 youths)
Stronghold of Usamigaras – 25 (3 priests, 5 mages, 13 adult citizens, 4 youths)

This gives a total warrior/wizard/priestly force of 35, which is much more realistic. It’s enough to hold their own, but clearly not enough for an effective rebellion, against (my) Zargonite temple force of 85, in addition to the reserves they can summon. (Interesting that the total number of inhabitants I came up with for the strongholds is either the same as the module’s or very close, though I did have a bit more for Gorm, factoring in his popularity and seniority in the pantheon.)

The layouts of these compounds work pretty well for my purposes. I didn’t write any scenes that take place inside the strongholds of Gorm or Madarua, but I did for the stronghold of Usamigaras. This is the reincarnated module layout (click to enlarge):

 

M1. Double-door gate. Opens on a command word known to the Magi.

M2. Walls patrolled by 4 Magi on rotating shifts.

M3. Living quarters for the Magi. 6 mages in each (24 total).

M4. Archive. Massive library.

M5. Office. Card catalog to search the archive library.

M6. Study cubicles. Six of them, for private research.

M7. Living quarters for the Chief Mage, Auriga.

M8. Lower level testing ground for the Magi.

As stated above, I imagine only 5 mages, not 24, and in place of the chief mage Auriga (who stays up in the pyramid temple) I have the high priest Raen, who is assisted by two other clerics. And I also imagine citizens living here — Cynidiceans who bravely refuse to worship Zargon. Here’s my reworking of the map (click to enlarge):

 

M1. Double-door gate. Opens on a command word known to the Magi.

M2. Walls patrolled by 2 Magi on rotating shifts.

M3. Living quarters for the Magi. 1 priest in the upper left, 1 priest in the upper right, 2 mages in the lower left, 3 mages in the lower right (7 total).

M4. Archive. Massive library.

M5. Office. Card catalog to search the archive library.

M6. Study cubicles. Six of them, for private research.

M7. Living quarters for the high priest Raen.

M8. Lower level testing ground for the Magi.

M9. These new areas I add are the communal living quarters for citizens who have openly rejected Zargon and worship Usamigaras: 6 adults and 2 youths in one, 7 adults and 2 youths in another (17 total).

M10. Not sure why the module doesn’t have a mess hall; it does for the other two strongholds. Probably an oversight. This is where I put the mess — with tables, benches, and a cooking hearth.

You get the idea. The other two strongholds can be just as easily modified to accommodate what I imagined for them.

Verdict

I can’t stress enough how wonderful these reincarnated classics are, and the Lost City in particular. Part of me wishes I’d known of it before I wrote my novel, but the other part (the stronger, I think) is glad I was only afterwards made aware of it. It might have stifled my imagination, and I really like what I came up with, especially for the old-cult strongholds. I also like my idea of the drugs being cultivated in the open fields (though under heavy guard), rather than secretly in the catacombs, except for the especially powerful shrooms.

 

Appendix: The Population of the Lost City

According to both the original and reincarnated modules, there are about 1000 adult Cynidiceans in the Lost City. That would mean about probably 200 youths (under age 16). Here’s how the demographics break down in the module, followed by what I came up with in my novel. In each case, about 1200 Cynidiceans and 400 humanoids.

In the reincarnated module

In the Underground City

Throughout the City – 1038 (838 adult citizens, c. 200 youths)
Temple of Zargon – 53 (37 priests/cultists, 16 hobgoblins)

Stronghold of Gorm – 29 (all warriors)
Stronghold of Madarua – 37 (all warriors)
Stronghold of Usamigaras – 25 (all magi)

In the Goblin Cliffs – 260 (of which 122 of them – 61 goblin and 61 hobgoblin warriors – are at the emergency call of the Zargonites), broken down as follows:

— 182 goblins (king, queen, shaman, 61 warriors, 118 non-warriors)
— 62 hobgoblins (1 warlord, 61 warriors)
— 16 “giants” (1 hill giant, 6 ogres, 8 thouls, 1 troll)

At the Catacombs – 164 hobgoblins (30 at the entrance, 134 in the depths), plus other creatures (darklings, myconids, etc.) (This force of hobgoblins is also used to patrol the main streets of the city)

In the Pyramid

Temple of Gorm – 11 (1 Grand Master, 10 warriors)
Temple of Madarua – 10 (1 Champion, 9 warriors)
Temple of Usamigaras – 13 (1 Chief Mage, 12 mages)

In my novel (for the Census of Cynidicea taken in the year 1052 AC).

In the Underground City

Throughout the City – 996 (809 adult citizens, 187 youths)
Temple of Zargon – 85 (25 priests, 36 warriors, 24 hobgoblins)

Stronghold of Gorm – 49 (4 priests, 10 warriors, 26 adult citizens, 9 youths)
Stronghold of Madarua – 36 (2 priestesses, 11 warriors, 17 adult citizens, 6 youths)
Stronghold of Usamigaras – 25 (3 priests/priestesses, 5 mages, 13 adult citizens, 4 youths)

In the Goblin Cliffs – 300 (estimated; about 120 goblin and hobgoblin warriors at the emergency call of the Zargonites)

At the Catacombs – 100 (estimated; mostly hobgoblins who guard the area and patrol the main streets of the city)

In the Pyramid

Temple of Gorm – 11 (1 Grand Master, 10 warriors)
Temple of Madarua – 10 (1 Champion, 9 warriors)
Temple of Usamigaras – 12 (1 Chief Mage, 11 mages)

Middle-Earth Modules Ranked (Campaign Sized)

Now for the big guns. Here I rank all campaign sized Middle-Earth modules, and I include a citadel (Dol Guldur) and two cities (Minas Tirith and Minas Ithil) that have the same level of detail. That makes 26 modules total.

(1) Lorien and the Halls of the Elven Smiths. 5+ stars. Terry Amthor, 1986. This module is a Bible for all things elven, and has a joint focus on both sides of Khazad-dum: the Golden Wood and the Jewel Halls. The latter makes this module unique in devoting heavy space to a Second Age setting, and I remember breathing the antiquity as a DM; Eregion felt like the equivalent of New Testament times. Honestly, who could pass up the opportunity to visit Ost-in-Edhil during the forging of the Rings of Power? These were the days of the Noldor’s last realm, when magic was still unbridled, dwarves were good company, and when Sauron himself, in the benevolent guise of Annatar, “the Lord of Gifts”, walked among the firstborn and guided their labors. In these pages, Noldor culture is wonderfully detailed, the personalities of legendary figures like Celebrimbor brought so convincingly to life, and the magic items to be found in the Jewel Halls make TSR artifacts look like baby toys. As if these riches weren’t embarrassing enough, on the eastern side of the mountains lies the most precious domain out of any fantasy, and where Galadriel wields the power of her elven ring to enshroud it. The centerfold color map of Ost-in-Edhil rules the module, and many of its buildings are laid out. In the hands of a good DM, Annatar can be exploited to maximal effect in the elven city — fomenting discord and factionalism among the smiths, like an incarnation of Baal mingling among the twelve apostles. What can I say? Lorien the module is as unassailable as the Golden Wood itself.

(2) Dol Guldur. 5+ stars. David Woolpy, 1995. This is the 220-page monster that completely revamped Sauron’s abode from Southern Mirkwood (see #5 below), doubling the size, quadrupling the detail — all of which was fine to begin with, but who complained? Most of these remakes in the ’90s were uninspired, but with Dol Guldur ICE not only surpassed an excellent original, it landed the mixed equivalent of TSR’s Return to the Tomb of Horrors and Queen of the Demonweb Pits, pitting intruders against fears unfathomable, and the maia demigod who sat in its bowels. It’s one of those once-in-a-blue-moon modules you read and feel utterly sorry for the players in advance, while also laughing your ass off at their foreordained misery. I cringe to think how my characters would have fared in this version; they barely escaped with their lives as it is in Southern Mirkwood’s. The reworked design is on a staggering scale: we are now to understand that the original layout in Southern Mirkwood applies only to the period of 1100-1258 (though it was clear at the time that it was meant for the entire post-1100 period), for between 1258-1382 Dol Guldur is hugely expanded. Instead of eight levels, Dol Guldur now boasts a whopping sixteen: three precipices (the upper halls), seven levels (the middle halls), five strata (the lower halls), and the hidden Necromancer’s Hall. Radiating out from the seventh level, furthermore, is the Web, a vast network of orc warrens and warg dens extending for miles. It all adds up to over 520 rooms keyed with incredible detail, about 1200 rooms total, and none of that includes anything in the Web. It’s the most insane place in all of Middle-Earth to venture into, but then role-players are a pretty insane lot.

(3) The Court of Ardor. 5 stars. Terry Amthor, 1983. More than any other ICE module, The Court of Ardor had a profound impact on my imagination. I lived southern Middle-Earth in my daily fantasies, riding the Mumakani elephants, taking in the republic of Korlan, and having passionate love affairs with elves as evil as drow. One thing was clear to me at the time: this sort of thing would never be repeated. The gazeteer displays regions as rich as anything Tolkien developed — savage Mumakan, democratic Korononde, imperial Tanturak, reckless Hathor, aloof Taaliraan. All of which would be more than enough, but this entire sandbox is used as a platform for a quest, where the stakes are as high as in The Lord of the Rings. A group of evil Noldor have been trying to destroy the sun and moon since the First Age, and now, in TA 1703, are ready to enact a ritual that will do just that; a group of PCs must band together and prevent the ritual, and also ensure that the ringleader of this evil court, Lady Ardana, is killed by the son Morgoth fathered on her. The mission to save Middle-Earth — to keep the sun and moon alive, to destroy the gems of unlight, to procure the death of an elven lady who will keep resurrecting the same diabolical plot as long as she goes on living — is the module’s focus. The Court members are colorful NPCs, two of them actual demons, and I like the recurring theme of repentant male twins versus their evil sisters: Ardana’s children, and also the two Featurs, the female member of the Court, and her brother whom most believe dead, but is working against the Court from behind shadows, perhaps even with the PCs. An an absolute first-rate module.

(4) Mount Gundabad. 5 stars. Carl Willner, 1989. It’s the best orc dungeon ever designed, in or outside of Middle-Earth, and what a piece of cover art: I had a nightmare as a teen walking into Mount Gundabad’s hellish maw. The orc capital screams aggression, with its triple-peaked structure punching the sky up to 13,000 feet, and its interior sheltering almost 13,000 goblins — a bigger population than Fornost’s. The seething factionalism within Gundabad provides players with striking opportunities to mess with orcish politics. I’m a long time fan of modules that do this, like TSR’s Lost City, where it’s practically inevitable that characters will sympathize with (or even join) one of the Cynidicean cults who are at each others’ throats. The Free Peoples might have legitimate reason to help the Warlord of the Cloven Spire, for example, who seeks greater independence from Angmar and would thus undercut the power of the Witch-King. Alternatively, evil characters allied with Sauron could have fun throwing in their lot with the Warlord of the Twisted Spire, who not only favors stronger ties to Angmar and open war on the Dunedain, but gives new meaning to sadism. (I sure as hell wouldn’t trust him regardless of my allegiances. Some of the rooms in the Twisted Spire make my stomach hurt.) Self-serving neutral types might opt for the safest course and just back the current Goblin-King reigning from the Great Spire, since the odds are with him and he can offer richest rewards. None of this political intrigue is essential to a Gundabad campaign, by any means, but it does offer excitement beyond hack-and-slash dungeon crawls which in this case invite almost certain death to all but most experienced characters. The folks at ICE went over and above the call of duty with Mount Gundabad, and I count it a gem.

(5) Southern Mirkwood. 5 stars. Susan Hitchcock, 1983. Even if the staggering version of Dol Guldur (see #2 above) makes the earlier version in this module look like a turd, it’s actually still an excellent dungeon; Sauron’s abode is compelling in either case. And while many lament that ICE never got around to designing the the Barad-dur, if I had to choose, I’d pick the Hill of Sorcery over the Dark Tower any day. Mirkwood forest is far more insidious than Mordor’s wastelands, noxiously alive as I think of it, and it’s also under Sauron’s power throughout the entire Third Age. Adventures involving the Hill of Sorcery can thus be set in any time (after 1100), while Barad-dur isn’t even rebuilt until 2951. Not only that, the atmosphere of Dol Guldur is one of mystery: the Dark Lord hasn’t declared himself yet. Southern Mirkwood is worth having even if you have the Dol Guldur revision in any case, because this is a standard regional gazetteer; there’s more to the southern Mirkwood area than the Necromancer. The Eothraim of Rhovanion are found here (the module is geared, like many, for the 1640 period), long before they acquired the territory of Rohan, in the towns of Burh Widu and Burh Ailgra. Their Easterling foes are also given treatment, tribal Asdriags and Sagaths with fierce customs. Then there is Radagast the Brown, who is far from the senile fool most believe, indeed a force of salvation keeping the Necromancer’s influence at bay with druidical powers. Point counterpoint is the presence of the One Ring which has blighted the Gladden Fields over the centuries, banishing the river spirits that once existed, turning mud to quicksand, and killing enough morale to cause emigrations out of the area. The Necromancer rightfully steals the show, but the module is faithful to its overall region.

(6) The Northern Waste. 5 stars. Randy Maxwell, 1997. It sounds deceptively barren, but don’t be fooledthis region could be described as an “aftermath of Morgoth”. It’s given fascinating history involving demons haunting mountain peaks, sled-horde invasions led by Hoarmaruth the Ringwraith, dragons ready to pounce where you least expect, and Morgoth’s Well itself into which only fools or the most experienced players descend. There are pockets of hope here and there: in the Vale of Evermist, Noldor mystics work the will of Yavanna to heal a wounded land, and at the north pole stands a snow-elf (Nandor) paradise, of all things, kept warm by a shard of one of the lamps from the First Age. Amidst all this, the Lossoth do their best to eke out a living and hold off the terrors of the Urdic invasions. I’d always loved the Lossoth and found their treatment in Rangers of the North (see #10 below) disappointingly brief, so was glad to get their full story here. There’s some tasty cultural background on display, for instance in the war customs of Hoarmaruth’s minions; they don’t even believe in taking slaves and just throw all their captives (men, women, elders, and children) into bear pits for awful entertainment. Then there’s more insidious evil, like the Witch-King’s blight, extended on sorcerous winds from Angmar and turning Lossoth shamans into undead thralls. The cultures of these snowmen, icemen, and sea-hunters (the three Lossoth peoples) are worked over in great detail, and I’m particularly fond of the song-duels they use in place of violence to keep blood feuds under control: scurrilous insults prized as a high form of art. Noteworthy is that this was the last Middle-Earth campaign module published by ICE. Shortly after, on September 19, 1997, the company declared a moratorium on Middle-Earth products, and in 1999 lost their license completely. They went out kicking ass with The Northern Waste.

(7) Gorgoroth. 4 ½ stars. Anders Blixt, Coleman Charlton, John Crowdis, Peter Fenlon, Jessica Ney, & Keith Robley, 1990. No, it doesn’t have the Barad-dur, but it presents enough of Mordor’s interior to provide months of campaigning. The highlight is the city of Ostigurth, that radiates a deathly ambience that surpasses even Minas Morgul’s; a place where mannish captains hold forth at expansive banquets, while just down the road hundreds of corpses roast on public pyres. The city teems with life by thriving on death and offers loads of creative opportunities. Complete bios and histories of the Nine Nazgul are supplied, and this is a major selling point, as it showcases some of ICE’s finest scholarship. I always wanted the stories behind these mannish kings, and the 15-page treatment serves as a virtual seminar on the subject. It made me want to see modules set in far-flung places like Waw, Dir, and Chey, where the Ringwraiths carved out kingdoms of brutal terror. Another prize feature is Mount Doom, Sauron’s forging complex, which is more than I expected, and unreachable to all but the most resourceful players. Many more sites are mapped out: the Barad-wath tower overlooking Nurn, occupied (from 1640-2000) by Ren, the Eighth (and craziest) of the Nine; the Isenmouthe gate complementing the Black, held (from 1652-2000) by Indur, the Fourth (and most megalomaniacal) Nazgul; Minas Durlith, the only fortress of Mordor to withstand the assault of the Last Alliance. And there are dozens more NPCs besides the Nazgul: the Mouth, old players from Angmar and Dol Guldur, and new ones just as bad. The module was written by everyone under the sun (six authors), and so the results feel a bit patchwork, but it’s all top quality.

(8) Dunland and the Southern Misty Mountains. 4 ½ stars. Randell Doty, 1987. This one is a package of surprises. Half the module covers the region as advertised, while the other half features sites more interesting: a community of libertarian elves, a mutant dragon’s lair, and Isildur’s unmarked grave. It’s a case of the extras overshadowing the main feature, which turns out to be not a bad thing in this case. And if Dunland is overshadowed, it’s still done justice: the fifteen clans are described as they stand around the Great Plague period, each with unique character and cross-referenced as to how friendly they are with the others. Six call themselves the Daen Iontis (the “dispossessed” or “betrayed”) to show their displeasure with the way their ancestors trusted the Dunedain; their goal is to retake the ancient homeland and drive the Gondorians back into the sea. Two take the name of their ancestors, the Daen Coentis (the “skilled people”), and look to that heritage as a goal to re-attain. The other seven remain more neutral. But never mind that, it’s the elves of Amon Lind who steal the show: a small group of Noldor who left Eregion in the Second Age to continue their controversial projects without interference. Their hanging fortress in the Misty Mountains is a wonder, with transparent floors overlooking air, and walls containing pipes that play songs inducing a variety of spell effects — sleep, fear, holding, calm, or stun. They have (yes) air boats made with the rare metal Mithrarian which negates the effect of gravity. There are also questionable breeding experiments — human and elvish subjects merged with mammals like snow leopards and lynxes. While these elves aren’t really evil, they are certainly laws unto themselves, and their obsessions off-kilter, and there is rarely any disciplinary action taken on grounds of individual freedom. Dunland contains wonders I simply could never have expected out of a module devoted to a small region of primitives. I love it to pieces.

(9) The Lost Realm of Cardolan. 4 stars. Jeff McKeage, 1987. Cardolan is wild territory. On the one hand it exudes a sombre dignity, with sites steeped in more nobility than even Arthedain: the river/port cities of Tharbad and Lond Daer founded in the early Second Age, the burial grounds of the Barrow Downs going back to the First. On the other, its politics and landscape are so chaotic, and the princes such laws unto themselves that the king had effectively little control. It was more a smorgasbord of seven hirdoms (principalities) than an actual kingdom throughout 861-1409, that when it fell the princes hardly noticed and just carried on as usual, until forced to pack it in around 1700 and migrate to Arthedain or Gondor. The module is geared for the time of 1642 (soon after the Great Plague and the invasion of the Witch-King’s wights into the Barrow Downs), long after the fall of the monarchy, but with a little tweaking could, interestingly, be applied to the Times of Trouble (1235-1258), during the kingdom when civil war reigned and the royal compound at Thalion changed hands no less than eighteen times. Colorful personalities are detailed, with stats and bios provided for seven princes, best of all the usurping warlord Ardagor, a half-elf/half-troll abomination who hates orcs even more pathologically than men. The historical timeline is well fleshed out and does justice to a very complex nation. In my opinion, Cardolan is twice as tragic (though far less sympathetic) than Arthedain, being a victim of her own obduracies as much as outside influences like Angmar, and this is seen particularly in the fall from its peak of prosperity in the 1100’s from which it never recovered. It’s really one autonomy within another, with barons often barely heeding their hirs anymore than the hirs ever did their kings. Cardolan is a wild frontier with every castle for itself. A perfect sandbox.

(10) Rangers of the North. 4 ½ stars. John Ruemmler, 1985. The first Middle-Earth module I acquired will always hold a special place in my heart, though the cover is admittedly appalling, looking more like a magazine ad, perhaps because that’s exactly what it was, used on the back of Dragon in the ’80s to push ICE’s products. It gets highest marks for its treatment of the most tragic yet uplifting nation of men in Middle-Earth: Arthedain, chief among the three sister kingdoms of Arnor. And yet the module actually covers the entire history of the Dunedain starting in Numenor, to the founding of the two realms in exile, to the 2000-year lifespan of the northern one. The contrast with the south is captured perfectly: “As Gondor habitually reached for the sword and shield, Arnor looked to the stars and relied heavily on wizardry, lamenting each bloody encounter in song and verse.” As one built an empire, the other fragmented and died, but the latter was truly noble, in my view, and of course ultimately produced Aragorn who would reestablish both realms. There’s something incredibly haunting about Arthedain which taps into Tolkien’s “long defeat” theme — that evil can’t be defeated; any time it appears to be, it’s just a temporary holding action — and the module stirs tragic emotions in this regard. The specter of Angmar is always in the background, the crushing blow of 1975 waiting in the wings. Gandalf’s stats are provided here, along with the details of Narya, the elven ring of fire he acquired from Cirdan, a real selling point of the module. The unique features of the three northern palantiri are also described, and there’s even a Fourth-Age scenario premised on the recovery of the two lost seeing stones near the ice-bay of Arvedui’s shipwreck.

(11) Riders of Rohan. 4 ½ stars. Christian Gehman & Peter Fenlon, 1985. There’s resonant culture here. The Rohirrim are the closest to the Anglo-Saxons or even Norse in Tolkien’s world, courageous yet hopeless, “riding to ruin” to embrace that Ragnarok-like annihilation of all that is good. The long defeat runs in their blood, and in this sense they share more in common with the seers and rangers of Arthedain than most would think possible. But where the northern Dunedain are resigned to it, the horse-lords seem to thrive on it. It’s as if their history of repeated migrations and awful-odds warfare forged a culture of exultant fatalism. This module captures the mindset perfectly, as it chronicles the history of the horse-lords in their three stages: the Eothraim years of 1-1856 (Southern Rhovanion), the Eotheod era of 1856-2510 (the Anduin valley), and the Rohirric time of 2510+ (Rohan). This makes the module exceptionally easy to use anytime in the Third Age. Players can throw themselves into the Wainrider Wars, go against the Balchoth Confederacy, or bare their teeth against the Long Winter after the slaying of Wulf. It’s comprehensive in the way more ICE modules should have been; I’ll never understand the heavy reliance on a 1640 default setting. The mapwork is pretty good, notably Helm’s Deep, which is more fine-tuned than Aglarond in the Isengard module (see #21 below). The capital-towns of Framsburg and Edoras are presented for the Eotheod and Rohirric years (Buhr Widu for the Eothraim period was covered in Southern Mirkwood), and Druadan Forest is also showcased with a Wose village and circle of standing stones.

(12) Empire of the Witch-King. 4 ½ stars. Graham Staplehurst & Heike Kubasch, 1989. By rights this one should be up with Gorgoroth in the top ten, but it’s a bit crude and underdeveloped, especially considering that it’s a remake of the first Angmar module published in ’82. In fact, for me it should rank higher than the Mordor module; I was always more infatuated with Arnor than Gondor in my gaming days, my campaigns more Angmar-centric than Mordor-focused. And there’s something about Carn Dum that still grips me relentlessly. Angmar is a natural vacuum of life and all things joyful, whereas Mordor had to be fashioned that way. In such a landscape I can easily see a tribe like the Uruk-lugat taking root and thriving: gruesome even by orc standards, in thrall to the rejuvenated and beating heart of a vampire slain back in the First Age, and walking a thin line by holding their shaman in higher reverence than the Witch-King. As for the mannish priesthood, its practices are less about blood sacrifice and more about subtle brainwashing, but are just as chilling. And the assassin cult under command of the Angulion is a nice touch, rather reminiscent of the Amida Tong from ninja folklore in our world. Special orc communities are also given attention, including the bloodthirsty Uruk-lugat mentioned already, and the brutally efficient Uruk-kosh. It all adds up to a hellish landscape that only a Nazgul could hope to keep under control, and even that imperfectly. Again, the mapwork has a rather crude aesthetic, and the rooms of Carn Dum could have been juiced up more in this remake… but it’s an excellent product nonetheless, and I still shiver when I think of orcs who worship that pulsating heart, and man-priests who suck the life out of their students with litanies of hate.

(13) The Shire. 4 ½ stars. Wesley Frank, 1995. This insanely huge tome clocks in at 276 pages, but then I suppose Tolkien’s brainchildren deserve no less. And here they are, the hobbits, modern English peasants in a medieval feudal world. The Shire fleshes out the anachronisms: the use of surnames, reflecting common property rights instead of noble; the dislike of politics, and love of meals and festivals around hard labor; and the disdain of artistic imagination and scholarly endeavors, for which Bilbo Baggins, of course, was derided as a crank. This is all superbly integrated into the Shire’s geography, sandwiched in between Arthedain and Cardolan: “Hobbits have an open, cheerful nature that attracts them to Cardolani traditions — and most Shire-folk have ancestors born in that country — but their need for a safer life draws them to the stricter laws and stability of Arthedain.” And while not taken seriously by other races, something about their inherent innocence taps into dreams shared by the Siragale elves, Arthedain philosophers, and a wizard like Gandalf, since all of these know distant pasts when people lived in relative peace and without fear. Famous hobbits from different eras are detailed in the module, and there is a fabulous section on fireworks, a dozen different kinds. Most enjoyable are the layouts of famous hobbit holes: Bag End, Tookbank, and Brandy Hall. Bag End is even larger than I would have guessed, though Bilbo sealed off a number of rooms after inheriting the place from Bungo and Belladonna in 2934. The elvish glade of Woodhall (where Frodo enjoyed a respite with Gildor) is a special treat, with its magical wards and specially woven thickets keeping it safely concealed. Also detailed are typical elvish tree villages.

(14) The Grey Mountains. 4 stars. Craig Paget, Karen McCullough, & Joseph McCullough, 1992. These mountains are the playground of Morgoth’s drakes, and as such they’re an endless source of adventure for fools, the mega-experienced, or vengeful dwarves wanting to take back what’s theirs and retire fifty times over. I suppose you could say that dungeons and dragons are what the module is literally about, though if we’re magnanimous, “dungeons and dwarves” is more respectful of rightful claims. The dragons of Middle-Earth are twice as lethal as those of classic D&D, and fall into six breeds which I prefer over the rainbow kinds (yes, Dragonlance, I’m looking at you): cold-drakes, fire-drakes, ice-drakes, cave-drakes, marsh-drakes, and rain-drakes; and there are winged variations of the cold- and fire-, able to create local hurricanes just by stirring the air as they fly. The module provides stats and bios for 28 of them, including really nasty brutes like Scatha, Smaug, Ando-anca, Itangast, Throkmaw, and Uruial. And if this menagerie isn’t enough, there are also ice orcs, of all things, terrorizing the northern range with a priest-cult more terrifying than its military. Then there are the dwarves. The module can’t seem to decide whether it’s situated in the year 1640 or 2589, but of course it’s only during later times (2210-2589) that dwarves lived here until crushed by the cold-drake Ando-anca and forced to return to Erebor. There’s a real feeling of suspense conveyed by the Norr-dum setting and the splintered society under Dain I, as its about to replicate the tragedy of Durin VI in its final hours. And while the Balrog horror is far more epic than that of Ando-anca, The Grey Mountains is a surprisingly better module than Moria.

(15) Greater Harad. 4 stars. William Wilson, 1990. Greater Harad; the Seven Cities of the Sirayn; the intellectual hub and breadbasket of southern Middle-Earth. It’s a fantastic sandbox for setting adventures outside the familiar regions developed by Tolkien, with even more potential than the other regions of Harad. Near Harad may boast the naval port of Umbar, and Far Harad has the dazzling trade center of Bozisha-Dar, but Greater Harad eclipses them both with the size of its population, the extent of its lands, and the rigors of its history. Dynasties have risen and fallen as kings attempted to control this strip of earth. The culture is surpassed only by the elves and Numenoreans, to our world resembling somewhat of a cross between the Umayyad dynasty of Spain and imperial China (while the geography evokes northern Africa and the Middle-East). It’s a sophisticated but grim land where the proverb “one may have peace or freedom but not both” is proven time and again. The eastern port city of Tul Harar is the only place where citizens are truly free, a melting pot governed by a Gathering of Speakers; the other six cities are each ruled by a dictatorial Tarb, and at intervals throughout Harad’s history, the Tarb of Tul Isra actually rules all the cities (except Tul Harar). By far the most compelling city (to me) is the one in ruins after TA 1457, and displayed on the module’s cover: Charnesra, built from marble and sandstone, brought down by treacherous ambition, and now a base for underground cults launching suicidal sting operations across the land. Greater Harad is a great area for DMs and players to set up shop for many sessions of campaigning.

(16) Havens of Gondor. 4 stars. Carl Willner, 1987. This one takes the trophy for Gondor. Not the mightier Sea-Lords boasting the glory of Pelargir, nor the capital Minas Tirith which rightfully holds pride of place; not even the esoterically haunting Minas Ithil. Havens tops them all, and even its cover is a slam dunk. I can hardly think of an image (Amroth’s tragedy) more saturated in haunting loss: how the cliff-city of Lond Ernil became Dol Amroth. The module made me fall in love with the Belfalas region, as it was a segment of Tolkien’s world I knew so little about. ICE does a good job delineating its elvish heritage, relative independence, and strange aloofness from the dirtier politics of Gondor’s other provinces. After immersing myself in Havens, I wanted to walk the cliff-heights of Dol Amroth, sail the white ships, and visit the elves of Edhellond. I was intrigued by the half-elven blood of Dol Amroth’s princes (from TA 2004 onwards), and by Galadriel’s influences resonating from the Second Age. These weren’t the Grey Havens, granted, but they did feel surpassing in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. The Seaward Tower on the city’s western cliff is singled out for special treatment, and I like how Galadriel built it to commemorate the Last Alliance, infusing it with the power of Nenya “so that none but the Valar can bring it down”. The elf-haven of Edhellond is fairly presented, split in two parts, one above on a hill exposed to tasty sea breezes, the other below in a hidden harbor where its magic swan ships are kept. To this day I still have fantasies of growing old by the Belfalas coastline, frequenting the Lost Elf tavern, mixing with men and elves, and staring out to sea where that immortal king drowned searching his lost love.

(17) Sea-Lords of Gondor. 4 stars. John Morin, 1987. At the risk of sounding like a Castamir sympathizer, Sea-Lords defines the character of a nation better than any other Gondor module. There’s even a part of me that thinks the Dunedain would have been better off if the south had won, though that’s a matter of very ugly debate, and I personally wouldn’t support someone like Castamir anyway. Yet there’s no denying the Golden Age under Gondor’s four ship-kings, and the benefits to a southern capital with a naval focus remains an open question. Sea-Lords of Gondor has the wisdom not to answer it. In keeping with the spirit of all these modules, it simply presents the facts for DMs and players to mold however they wish. The era of the ship-kings (840-1149) saw Pelargir functioning as the nation’s capital in all but name, the home of the royal fleet, and a colonial ambition that ushered in success and peace never again enjoyed by men in the Third Age. What killed Gondor’s prosperity was the shift from a seaward focus to a landward one, especially by the 1300s, coupled with a morally enlightened thinking favoring allies over colonial subjects. Minalcar was a good man, but a highly questionable king in sending his son to wed a Northman princess; from that point, racist fears of a polluted line were all it took to cement the more substantive charge that the royal court at Osgiliath was failing its mandate. As for the mapwork, the City of the Faithful is the main feature, and if the contest between it and Minas Anor were determined by ICE’s mapwork, I’d pronounce Pelargir the capital at once. It’s built on a triangular plan at the junction of the Sirith and Anduin, the Sea-Lords’ Tower claiming the center on an isle where the Lord of Lebennin (often the Prince of Gondor) resides. Then there is Minas Daldor which guards the mouth of the Anduin, ruled by an insane bard believing himself to be a god. To the northwest of Pelargir is a haunted tor infested with semi-aquatic rodents, and the lost treasure of rebels who fought against Castamir during the civil war. It all conveys a feeling that the sea-lord province somehow wears on you after a while, that pride and ambition yield rebellion and madness… and perhaps, in the end, that’s the answer to our original question.

(18) Moria. 3 ½ stars. Peter Fenlon, 1984. Moria scores points for its versatile setting: it can be used in any age with few adjustments. It provides a thorough treatment of Durin’s folk, from their blasphemous creation under Aule down to the Fourth Age, and many things you’d think to ask about their customs, religion, military structure, and women. Yet it somehow never feels like ICE’s heart is in the project. On the other hand, it was a module I remember having very high expectations for, and I probably just never got over the letdown. It’s certainly not bad; it just could have been a lot more. That the dwarven rings of power aren’t detailed is an astounding criminal omission — Durin’s, at the very least, demands the same meticulous attention given to the elven and Nazgul rings in other modules. But kudos to the flexible setting. Khazad-dum was founded in the misty days of the first, absorbed the tribes of Belegost and Nogrod in the second (the Golden Age of trade with the elves of Eregion), and hit by demonic calamity in the late third. The Balrog period naturally offers the most in terms of dramatic conflict, and the module commendably extends beyond the usual 1640 focus to describe orc tribes (the “fire-ruler” and “slaver” groups), trolls, cave worms, and water-drakes that fill Moria’s halls in its time of darkness. It also does well in depicting dwarven technology, such as the elevators, fire wagons, and water wheels that make the mountain kingdom go round. The mapwork is a mixed bag, on the one hand, being comprehensive and showing all seven levels and seven deeps, and detailing important areas in the key. The problem is that this is done almost exclusively on route maps, with very few rooms zoomed in with standard dungeon layouts. This should be a module to brandish with enthusiasm; for all its diligence, regretfully, it comes up a bit short.

(19) Minas Ithil. 3 ½ stars. Mark Rabuck, 1991. This product is a blatant case of false advertisement, so much that I almost wrote a scathing letter to ICE when I bought it. Its cover broadcasts a winged Nazgul, promising the horrors of the 2002-3018 period, and just because it’s not called Minas Morgul doesn’t mean the unwary can’t be fooled. City modules are large (not to mention expensive), and there’s no reason why both the Ithil and Morgul periods wouldn’t both be covered — in the same way that Isengard accommodated both Gondor’s and Saruman’s occupation of Orthanc, and that Moria included the Balrog horror. Packaged in plastic back in the day, there was no way to skim through and see you were getting shafted. Everyone wanted Minas Morgul. As with my frustrations about Minas Anor (see “Minas Tirith” below at #20), there’s only so much detail required out of a “friendly” city for gaming purposes, and to pass up the opportunity of mining every nook and cranny at the Tower of Black Sorcery borders on incompetence. We thus end up with the curious embarrassment of one city module that falsely advertises with its title (“Minas Tirith”) and this one which criminally misleads with its cover — an implicit acknowledgment on ICE’s part that its choice of the 1640 period was less than wise. That said, I came to appreciate Minas Ithil once I got over my fury. It is an interesting city, and the building layouts are vast and precise, though as with Minas Anor, it feels like so much effort being expended on so little. The Tower of the Moon is obviously essential, as is the Queen’s Palace, and the University, and the arena for popular entertainment, and few other noteworthies, but most of this is just stuff DMs don’t need drawn out. I’m probably in the minority in preferring the architecture of this city over Minas Anor’s famous hill which grows out of the back rock; Minas Ithil’s main road winds up and around in complete circles, yielding seven “levels” in effect, but blurring together more seamlessly.

(20) Minas Tirith. 3 ½ stars. Graham Staplehurst, 1988. Once again, I need to discuss the cover, which is a splendid Angus McBride piece, but falsely pitched. The module isn’t set during the War of the Ring, nor at any time when the city was called Minas Tirith. Like most ICE modules, it follows the aftermath of the Great Plague, and thus when it was Minas Anor, and which is in fact what it’s referred to throughout the text. Admittedly this ends up not mattering much, since the city doesn’t change drastically throughout the Third Age. The stewards take over in 2050, the White Tower of Ecthelion is aggrandized in 2698, the White Tree dies in 2852… But it’s still a cheap trick, and foreshadows the outrageous stunt pulled in Minas Ithil which I ranted about above. But for what it does, it does well: the four-page color insert displays the city’s seven tiers, while the other side features a color map of the surrounding provinces of Anorien, Ithilien, and Lebennin. Within the module’s pages are all sorts of buildings laid out in unprecedented detail, though I remain underwhelmed by it all. The only places that really grab me are the libraries on the fifth level, the houses of healing and halls of the dead on the sixth, and of course the royal bastions on the seventh. You have to give Minas Tirith high marks for all the layout work, but despite its colossal ambitions — it’s 160 pages and the only hardcover module I ever acquired for any RPG — it’s something I could live without if I had to.

(21) Isengard and Northern Gondor. 3 stars. Christian Gehman, 1983. Isengard is an odd duck, certainly the most disjointed of the ICE modules. It divides its focus between the Kin-Strife and the period of Saruman’s residence at Orthanc, and whilst the latter is obviously essential, the choice of the year 1442 is bizarre. I personally find the political intrigue during Eldacar’s rebellion fascinating, but it’s a wasted esoteric exercise to delve into it here, and in fact, there is no reason why the entire module couldn’t have been set in the time of the Rohirrim — Isengard and the Riders of Rohan would have made a perfect unified product instead of being spread over two. I do have fond memories tied up in Isengard as a player, but it’s really lightweight and doesn’t take its mandate seriously. The rich cultural matrices of most campaign treatments are absent; in their place stand fragmented adventure scenarios. The only true selling point is Orthanc tower, which is impressively designed. The tower’s exterior is displayed on a four page color insert, along with all ten levels of the tower, and some rooms can be easily modified to accommodate either a pre- or post-Saruman setting. I.e. The guard rooms on the bottom levels can be for Gondorian soldiers or Uruk-hai. The rest of the module provides layouts for cities and fortresses in Calenardhon, long before it became Rohan: the fortress of Aglarond (later the Hornburg, or Helm’s deep), the cities of Calmirie (later Aldburg) and Ondirith (later Stowburg), and the Glittering Caves. None of which has any relation to Orthanc when it matters most, which makes Isengard, ultimately, a garbled edifice. Then too, the layout of Aglarond remains essentially the same as Helm’s Deep in Riders of Rohan, but less fine-tuned, confirming that the two modules should have been done as one.

(22) Far Harad: The Scorched Land. 2 ½ stars. Charles Crutchfield, 1988. A disappointing effort for a region with so much potential. It could have easily been the MERP campaign equivalent of TSR’s Oriental Adventures, standing on the vision of a distant alien culture with harsh codes of honor and shame. But none of this is fleshed out significantly beyond the impact of religious myths. There is the sun god Vatra, not warmly received by Harad’s people, who scorched the lands into desert. This was in fury over his wife, the moon goddess Ladnoca, who had turned against him for slaying her father. She is the common object of worship, and the coastal capital of Bozisha-Dar is named after her (“Gift of the Goddess”), despite its cosmopolitan outlook which pits it against the tent-city of Tresti leagues away. Aside from this dynamic, there isn’t much meat on the backbone of Far Harad; almost nothing about the desert nomads outside urban areas. The city of Bozisha-Dar contains some intrigue; the Council of Regents has been ruling stably there for the first half of the Third Age (the time period is 1640), and will continue doing so until the savage Sun-Lord dynasty takes control (2194-3019). I can think of many TSR classics I’d use in Far Harad — The Lost City, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, and certainly Tomb of Horrors, to name a few. There’s something about deserts that lend to pulpy D&D scenarious; I also approve the catalog of native wilderness creatures: sand devils, ghoul-like lesinas, sand drakes, and best of all, the Razarac (“Destroyer”) which is basically a desert Balrog. But all in all, Far Harad sits like an unfinished product; either the author lost interest, or he just didn’t know what to do with it.

(23) Ents of Fangorn. 2 ½ stars. Randell Doty, 1987. This was a module that couldn’t possibly live up to expectations. The best part is the cover which represents a cherished scene from The Two Towers. John Howe’s Treebeard is better, but Angus McBride’s is still very good, and what he’s serving up actually points to the next best thing about the module, a full description of the ent draughts. The third feature I like is the biographical information sketched out for the elders (Treebeard, Skinbark, and Leaflock) as well as demographical; we learn that there are about 150 ents in Fangorn (around the time of 1640), allowing some 160 square miles of forest area per ent, though there are many more of the wildly hostile Huorns. And that pretty much exhausts my accolades for Ents of Fangorn. The problem is that less than half the module actually deals with the ents. This wouldn’t be such a liability if the product had been called Fangorn and the Borderlands or Fangorn and the Caverns of Pain, and if those other parts were at least good. After hobbits, ents are the best thing about Middle-Earth, and if you’re going to sideline them, you’d best have damn good supplements. The supplements here are a Gondorian town and orc cavern, each about as memorable as the shit I took yesterday. For the positives, the egalitarian nature of the ents is well portrayed: their structure founded on a premise of mutual respect without a hierarchy of leaders, though elders like Treebeard are looked to as chief advisers; any ent can call a moot to discuss any topic. The draughts are fantastic, and their side-effects on non-ents completely worked out. For more negatives, the mapwork contains little about Fangorn Forest, which is a crying shame.

(24) Umbar: Haven of the Corsairs. 2 ½ stars. Brenda Spielman, 1982. If I were grading these modules purely on the basis of aesthetic, Umbar would go down worst. The cover art is primitive, the inner work crudely presented, and the writing lazy; there are even entire paragraphs copied verbatim in different sections. I realize this was ICE’s first stab at Middle-Earth — it was the very first module — but you’d think results would have been better for it. By the time of the module’s setting (TA 1607), the fallen Numenoreans have absorbed the Corsairs, and ICE does a good job avoiding political caricatures, particularly in the oligarchy of six, the Captains of the Havens who rule. I was half-expecting the module to portray the Corsair state as a tyranny of Castamir-monarchs, but it goes a wiser and more complex route. Bitter memory of the Kin-Strife is precisely what keeps an even balance of power in Umbar. The Captains are largely decent, if driven by various passions — one obsessing a lost wife, another a bon vivant, a female captain with royal ambitions, an effective crusader against dark worship — and certainly not evil in any Angmarian sense. Yet for all this, there’s something subterranean about Umbar. There’s bad religion; slavery; a dangerous wizard’s guild; amoral merchant families; nobles who would sell their own mother for a greater good; all as if Numenor’s legacy has become genetic to the city itself. Aside from the four-page color detachable of the city (one side) and the region around it (the other), the cartography of Umbar is crude as hell. The six tower holds of the Captains are laid out, as well as their castles outside the city — all very hard on the eye. The Lair of the Dark Worship is also scrawled up, and offers some classic adventure beneath sea caves.

(25) Shadow in the South. 2 stars. Chris Stone & Peter Fenlon, 1988. The problem with this one is that it doesn’t feel like Middle-Earth, and from me that’s significant; I’m anything but a Tolkien purist. But I want to at least feel the spirirt of Tolkien. For all the dramatic creativity displayed in frontiers like The Northern Waste and The Court of Ardor, and even the Harad modules, that strong Tolkien feel is always present. In Shadow in the South, the resonance collapses. I won’t deny I had fun going through it as a player, and even now I can see why: there are evil temples, vile tombs, and enchanted mazes to keep the boldest PCs occupied for many gaming sessions. But the land is fleshed out so artificially that it feels like Greyhawk — as if someone thew a bunch of hastily concocted cultures at the map and let them fall where they may. There’s also a certain laziness in vision by this point. The peninsula is called The Dominions of the Seven, ruled by lords of Numenorean descent who do their best to keep the shadow of the Storm King at bay. The number “seven” has been obsessed in these southern modules to the point of irritation: Far Harad ruled by a Council of Seven Regents; Greater Harad the Land of the Seven Cities; and now this. It only underscores how ICE is operating outside the geographical canon in a rather cheap way. The “shadow” over this peninsula comes in the form of evil minions operating everywhere, some openly, others from under rocks, most at cross-purposes with each other: the Army of the Southern Dragon, under command of the Nazgul Storm King; the Cult of the Dark Overlord, led by four liches; the Priesthood of the Black Hand, preaching openly for Sauron; the Slayers, a coalition of assassins; and the Cult of the Real Fire, holding Aluva (Eru) and Malkora (Melkor) in equal reverance, evangelizing every corner of the Dominions with obnoxious dualistic fervor.

(26) Northern Mirkwood. 1 star. John Ruemmler, 1983. This travesty of a module is written in a sophomoric and exclamatory style, nothing at all like the other ICE modules. “The lowly flea, mass murderer of Mirkwood? Impossible! No, it’s true.” Or: “Perhaps no creatures in Middle-Earth have tingled so many spines and inspired so many ‘Yechs!’ of disgust as the Giant Spiders of Mirkwod.” Still worse: “Enough of gruesome, loathsome, evil creatures! Consider the mighty monarchs of the woods, the Great Bears.” There is also plain incompetence, even silliness, as found, for instance, in this unbelievable description of orcs: “If they accidentally hack off a fellow orc’s limb, the injured orc is likely to say, ‘Hey, that’s okay! I have another!'” Does anyone remember those April Fool parodies in the ’80s issues of Dragon? That’s what I thought Northern Mirkwood was on first reading. Unfortunately, the entire module is as bad as the prose, for it doesn’t offer much beyond a bare-bones geographical sketch of the region and superficial overviews of the cultures of the wood-elves, dwarves, and the men of Long Lake. There is some useful background here, but not much; it’s very possibly the worst Tolkien accessory ICE ever published. The mapwork continues in offenses. First and worst are the Halls of the Elven-King, which are more like TSR’s Caves of Chaos, and what’s amusing is that the author seems acutely aware of how poorly he represented Thranduil’s home: “After reading this one might think that these halls are cold and damp, having perhaps visited natural caves; but this is not true.” But declarations of this sort mean nothing, for indeed these caverns do no justice to what the elven structure should look like; on top of this, the rooms are given almost no detail whatsoever in the key. It’s no surprise that ICE would later completely redo The Elven-King’s Halls in a fortress module (see here, where I rank it at #8 with a 4-star rating). The Lonely Mountain isn’t much better. Like Moria it’s portrayed with unsatisfying route maps (only the Chamber of Thror is given a proper layout), but Moria at least detailed the room contents.

 

Also see my rankings of the adventure sized modules.

Middle-Earth Modules Ranked (Adventure Sized)

The teaser for amazon’s Middle-Earth series got me revisiting my collection of ICE modules, and a huge collection that is. Most of them are the campaign sized, but I have some of the smaller adventure and fortress modules too. Of the sixteen adventures published by ICE, I acquired the first eight, and of the four fortresses, I acquired three. After around ’87-’88, I gave up buying these smaller modules and focused on the campaign-sized and city/citadel series only. Here’s the entire catalog of adventure and fortress modules; I don’t own the ones in italics.

All of ICE’s Adventure Sized Modules:

Bree and the Barrow Downs, 1984
Daglorlad and the Dead Marshes, 1984
Hillmen of the Trollshaws, 1984
The Tower of Cirith Ungol and Shelob’s Lair, 1984
Erech and the Paths of the Dead, 1985
Goblin Gate and Eagles’ Eyrie, 1985
Thieves of Tharbad, 1985
Rivendell, 1987

Brigands of Mirkwood, 1987
Mouths of the Entwash, 1988
Dark Mage of Rhudaur, 1989
Forest of Tears, 1989
Warlords of the Desert, 1989
Rogues of the Borderlands, 1990
Ghost Warriors, 1990
River Running, 1992

All of ICE’s Fortress Modules:

Weathertop, 1987
The Tower of the Teeth, 1988
The Halls of the Elven-King, 1988

Calendhad: A Beacon of Gondor, 1990

My ranking will exclude the titles in italics, making a total of 11 modules for consideration. (In the next post, I’ll rank all 26 campaign sized modules, since I own every one.) Interesting that with the single exception of Dagorlad and the Dead Marshes, my ranking follows the publication dates almost to a tee. The earlier the better: the 1984 publications (except Dagorlad) make my top 3, the 1985 publications come next, and then Rivendell almost last. Ditto with the fortress modules. Weathertop is best, and so on. Here they are. I did retrospectives for these modules years ago, and gave them two ratings, for history/culture and for maps/layouts, but not an overall rating in an actual ranking.

(1) Bree and the Barrow Downs. 5 stars. Heike Kubasch, 1984. There’s something primal about Bree and the Barrow-Downs, and not just because it was ICE’s first adventure-sized module. It sets a haunting stage: a crossroads village where men and hobbits co-exist, surrounded by ongoing tensions — bandits on the roads and evil tombs off them. This breathes classic D&D in a way few modules get at so simply and it’s aged tremendously well. In my view it holds the near equivalent status of TSR’s Village of Hommlet and Keep on the Borderlands, though it’s not necessarily tailored for low-level characters. The Barrow Downs would slay beginners in an instant. But the power of the wights goes beyond killing people who just happen to be stupid (or ignorant) enough to not stay away: “The wights are symbols that point to the waning of the Dunedain of the North since the coming of Angmar; men now lack the strength to keep their ancient graves free of unclean spirits.” This is a recent phenomenon: only in 1638 were the wights sent from Angmar to animate Arnor’s dead kings and princes and make the tombs their home for the rest of the Third Age. The module is set in the year 1700, making the undead presence a fresh wound, and thus primarily a killer of morale. Graphic brutality is fun — and rituals by which the wights carry victims into the barrows and deck them with jewels in preparation for ugly sacrifice are described here — but tone is just as important in RPGs, and Bree gets the tone perfect. The mapwork includes arial views for the villages of Bree, Staddle, Archet, and Combe; and there are interior layouts for 24 barrows — First-Age barrows, the royal barrows of Arnor’s kings (from 1-861), and the barrows of Cardolan’s kings and princes (861-1409). There are plenty of artifacts, magic items unheard of, jewels, and antiquated coin in these tombs, but stealing them without being killed or vilely cursed is the real trick.

(2) Hillmen of the Trollshaws. 5 stars. Jeff McKeage, 1984. One of this module’s major strengths is its flexibility. It’s suitable for almost anytime before the fall of Arthedain and dissolution of Angmar, whether during Rhudaur’s inclusion in Arnor (1-861), its independence as a sister kingdom to Arthedain and Cardolan (861-1349), its subservience as a puppet state of Angmar (1349-1410), or its complete dominance under Angmar (1410-1975). Rhudaur changed a great deal throughout these periods, and the module is designed to show its growth and decline, particularly at the capital of Cameth Brin, which is a horror show unto itself. The other strength is the cultural resonance. The primitive culture of the Hillmen contrasts sharply with their Dunedain overlords, notable for its rejection of both the Valar and Black Religion of Sauron in favor of ancestor worship, with a particular reverence for ghosts. Of which there are plenty to be found: the Ta-Fa-Lisch (dwarven ghosts) haunt Cameth Brin in the early days before the Dunedain take control. The layout of Cameth Brin (“The Twisted Hill”) dominates the product, and even its early structure is provided for those who wish to get involved with ghosts working in cahoots with Hillmen. After the Dunedain expansion of 166-339, it becomes Rhudaur’s capital, though no less ominous, with halls of enchanted darkness, surprising traps, and a generally schizophrenic feel that betrays haunted roots underneath an advanced Dunedain architecture, which in turn becomes usurped by Hillmen much later after the Great Plague. The barracks settlement of Tanoth Brin below the hill is also detailed, as well as the nearby town of Talugdaeri. Then there’s an exemplary troll lair for those desiring adventure outside of Cameth Brin. Add to all of this the color map of central Rhudaur, and the end result is pretty much what’s needed for a solid Rhudaur campaign any time pre-1975.

(3) The Tower of Cirith Ungol and Shelob’s Lair. 4 ½ stars. Carl Willner, 1984. Perhaps the most striking thing about this module is its advocacy of restraint in deploying the great spider: “Shelob does not attack everyone venturing into her lair, for if she did, no sane and fresh beings would come. She exacts her ghastly toll on perhaps a quarter of those merely passing through.” Sometimes the best approach is messing with PCs’ minds and allowing them to loot unscathed. For one, they won’t believe their luck and be constantly on guard against the worst; two, it pays off in future encounters when they do let their guard down. Shelob’s lair pays dividends even when her majesty stays off-stage: there are hatcheries swarming with young spiderlings, refuse pits more nauseating than a Siberian toilet, and larders where live prey are suspended upside down from the ceiling. Half of these victims are just as well destined for spider feed (the orcs and trolls), and all are 80% likely to be awake, accentuating the horror of the place. It’s one of those rare dungeons where a tense monstrous presence is felt at all times, however real or imagined. Anyone sauntering into Shelob’s Pit itself, however, is in for the reality of pure hell. It’s a 500-foot diameter cavity ringed by a narrow ledge, which her majesty will do her utmost to knock intruders off, and send them bouncing down a quarter-of-a-mile slope to the center of the floor. Where lies “a mass of bones, possessions, rotting flesh and filth so vile as to stagger the imagination and send anyone with a constitution less than 90 [15 in D&D] into a fit of violent retching”. The rest of the architecture delivers as it should: the Tower of Cirith Ungol with its eleven levels, and two orc dens in the Morgai Vale. The tower is held by Gondor in the module’s time frame (1640), and unlike the city module Minas Ithil, on which such a period was criminally wasted, here it’s ideal. It’s classic Keep on the Borderlands, in fact, with the lone bastion of Cirith Ungol raising a precarious fist against enemy incursions from Mordor.

(4) Goblin-Gate and Eagles’ Eyrie. 4 ½ stars. Carl Willner, 1985. The best old-school D&D modules managed to pack a lot in short space, and Goblin-Gate reminds me of that effortless economy. First, there’s the mountain city of the orcs, spanning close to forty miles; second the Northmen town of Maethelburg east of the mountain range; third the sky citadel of the eagles; and last a giant’s isle in a massive lake to the north of the High Pass. All of this in a 40-page module. True, the eagles’ lair doesn’t have much to it, and is described in a single paragraph, but aside from this point, the module delivers mightily. Goblin-Gate is essentially Mount Gundabad in miniature (see #4 in my ranking of the campaign modules), with a quarter of the population (around 3000 orcs) but the same infra-structure. The Great Goblin is as nasty as the northern Ashdurbuk, has a pair of warlords on hand just as treacherous and a priest whose sacrificial knife is just as busy. The warlords command gates instead of spires: the Wolf Gate, the Back Door, and (after the dwarf war of 2793-99) the concealed Front Porch that would ensnare Bilbo and the dwarves. Goblin-town itself is classic D&D nastiness, a network of caverns and twisting passages ending in wild feasting halls, torture chambers, and (again like Gundabad) a gladitorial arena where slaves and captives battle hideous creatures for their lives. The wild card of Goblin-Gate is of course Gollum (during the 2470-2944 period), an invisible predator who hates orcs as much as the Free Peoples, and he can be put to extraordinarily good use. “Lone intruders are 90% likely to be ambushed by surprise, but there is only a 20% that Gollum will attack a hobbit outright.” To run Goblin-Gate without at least one hobbit PC is a wasted opportunity; DMs can get plenty of mileage replicating the bickering and backbiting dynamics out of The Two Towers, let alone The Hobbit.

(5) Weathertop. 4 ½ stars. Peter Fenlon, 1987. This was the first in the short-lived fortress series, whose stated intent was “to provide DMs with extremely detailed overviews of individual towers, castles, citadels, and other fortifications of particular note”. It’s also the best, though that’s probably my love for all things Arnor talking. What can be said about Weathertop? It was everything: the realm’s greatest stronghold, home of the High Seer and chief palantir, and strategically situated on holy ground — all, of course, tragically gone after the Witch-King’s army demolished it in 1409. There’s potent history here, and the rocks are full of it. The module even traces back to the sacred times of the First Age when the hill was an astrological holy site for the Edain, though the treatment is understandably brief; the focus of the fortress series is on architecture rather than history. For the Third Age, the tower garrisons and civilian populations are detailed for all relevant periods, in particular the military forces supplied by each of the sister kingdoms (Arthedain, Cardolan, and Rhudaur) when Arnor split in 861, and possession of the hill was hotly contested. The layout of Weathertop is breathtaking, I believe the most thorough treatment of any stronghold put out by ICE with the exception of Dol Guldur. The critical part is of course the tower, and all rooms on all fourteen levels are fully detailed and even given artistic representations so you can tell just at a glance the function and contents of each room. In addition to guard halls and guest chambers are the armories, libraries, alchemical hall, sage’s hall, warden’s chambers, king’s chambers (for when he visits), and the seer’s chambers which contain the holiest of holies, the Hall of the Stone. The outer defenses are covered just as diligently: the lower and upper gates, the prison tower, bastions and watches, stables and smithies. It’s rare to see this level of detail in any gaming product.

(6) Erech and the Paths of the Dead. 4 ½ stars. Ruth Sochard, 1985. The Paths are among the most terrifying places in Middle-Earth, and with this module a DM could mine that terror effectively. In some ways I like MERP’s classification of the undead more than TSR’s; this product outlines the hierarchy: ghouls at the bottom, dumb corpses able to inflict disease but not drain energy; skeletons next, much more fearsome than the TSR breed, able to energy-drain, and cause fear and stun; then ghosts, devoid of physical bodies but intelligent and able to drain energy, sometimes even unconsciously; and finally, wraiths or wights, the worst energy-drainers, often spell-users, and able to mesmerize or dominate their prey by force of will. All of these can be found in the paths, especially ghosts, but that’s not all. There are also the weird pukel-creatures that lie dormant and animate in the presence of the living: stone men, rock lizards, granite spiders, stalactite birds, and even “living lightning”. This horror show is the product of oath-breaking, an act which carries devastating consequences in Tolkien’s world, as bad as a high-level D&D curse. The treachery dates to the end of the Second Age, when Gondor’s primitives (the Daen Coentis) refused to honor the Dunedain and march against Sauron, and the effects were instant: ore veins dried up, livestock died, harvests shrunk, artisans forgot their skills, and women became barren. People who died suddenly walked the tombs of the primitive nobles, tormented by local confinement. The paths thus sweat a despair that feels intrinsic to the place, something self-inflicted, unlike the invaded Barrow-Downs. It doesn’t come to together in the same flawless way of Bree and the Barrow Downs, but it’s one hell of an undead module just the same.

(7) The Teeth of Mordor. 4 ½ stars. Terry Amthor, 1988. Planting a Nazgul at the Black Gate was a shrewd move on ICE’s part, and makes The Teeth of Mordor as forbidding as Carn Dum and Dol Guldur. I got creative by investing the Teeth with a “split-personality”, as if Carchost and Narchost were a fossilized Demogorgon whose two heads strive to dominate and kill each other. On the western end, Carchost the “Fang-Fortress” has the obscene interrogation chambers and perverted chapel run by an ancient priest. But the astrologer captain Krusnak steals the show (in my fantasy), as he schemes to bring down Dwar whom he worships but envies. He wants nothing less than to become the Third of the Nine, and one out of four evenings actually believes he is the Dog-lord. He plots to obtain the ring of power he believes Dwar has in his possession (clueless that Sauron keeps the Nazgul rings during the Third Age while the One is lost). I made him recklessly unstable, though one of Sauron’s most efficient inquisitors, and his derangement contagious; at night the tower’s soldiers go on mindless rampages, terrorizing the wastelands at the back of Dwar’s hounds — joined, every fourth evening, by the “Dog-lord” himself. Meanwhile, over at the eastern leg, the real Dog-lord, for his part, tolerates this insanity, while storing up wrath to rend his astrologer limb from limb. Narchost the “Fire-Tower” mirrors the structure of Carchost, but has its own “personality” given by ICE, and which I revved up to the nth degree. The volcanic fissure makes Dwar’s audience hall a harrowing encounter area: a throne set in front of the crack, on a stepped platform of black glass, with access to the platform via a narrow bridge arching over liquid rock, and everything in the room obscured by smoking black-red shadows. The Teeth of Mordor is a fond memory for all the weird energy I put into it; it was roaring fun to get so much mileage out of my favorite Nazgul — “both” of them, for that matter.

(8) The Halls of the Elven-King. 4 stars. Tom Loback, 1988. This fortress module atones for the astounding display of incompetence in Northern Mirkwood (see #26 in my ranking of the campaign modules), and basically pretends that it’s the first stab at Thranduil’s halls. In a sense it is. The previous scribbled-up version isn’t remotely close to what could be thought of as the seat of Silvan royalty. By comparison this product belongs in the Louvre. The only thing that grates on my nerves is the first-person narrative style used in the map key, told from the point of view of a Dale merchant who visited the elves. It’s a nice try at something different, but memoirs are distractive to a DM who just needs the facts. In any case, Thranduil’s abode is now grounded imperatively in the memory of Thingol: “Both housed great halls built under large hills on the banks of a river. Both halls had limited access over the river by a single stone bridge. The borders east and west were protected by rivers, and both were situated in a deep forest.” Because it’s a fortress module (like Weathertop and The Teeth of Mordor), it benefits immensely from the mega-zoom shots of key rooms with detailed drawings. Every anvil, work bench, forge and barrel can be seen in the foundry, every tree pillar in the throne hall, every table and fire pit in the feast hall, and more. The two-page center displays an impressive 3D look at the halls through the outside hills, doing everything possible to bring to life ancient Sindarin architecture now fused with the primitive Silvan. The halls are given four levels (against Northern Mirkwood’s pitiful single one), a ground, an upper, and two below. Put simply, these are the Elven-King’s Halls as they should have been done in the first place.

(9) Thieves of Tharbad. 4 stars. Lisa Evans, Walter Hunt, Evan Jamieson, Richard Meyer, & Robert Traynor, 1985. The city of Tharbad is the “eighth principality of Cardolan”, steeped in nobility, but saturated in corruption; nominally ruled by the Cardolani king (861-1409) or Gondorian Canotar (1414-2052), but effectively a free city; a riverport that survived almost to the end of the Third Age (2912), long after the rest of Cardolan ceased to exist (c. 1700). It’s the closest thing to Lankhmar that exists in Tolkien’s world: a decadent overcrowded melting pot so unlike the grand cities like Annuminas, Minas Anor, and Minas Ithil. It’s fittingly set in the year 1410, during the chaotic aftermath of the Second Northern War, offering scenarios of extortion rings, food smugglers, and all levels of sordid thievery. The two-page color coded map of Tharbad is essentially the entire module, with certain buildings and sites laid out in more detail. The Gwathlo River divides the city into three parts: the north and south banks, and the island bridging them. The north side is dominated by guilds like the glassblowers, lampmakers, gravediggers, and singers, while the south boasts more educated talents such as scholars, healers, alchemists, and shipwrights. The center island, meanwhile, is the heart of the city, with King’s Row closest to the center, including the mayor’s office and townhouses of the seven hirs (princes) of Cardolan, as well as luxury shops and homes of the richest merchants; this area segues into the commoner’s quarter where the city is actually run by servants and artisans; finally, at the far eastern end is Middle-Earth’s version of Lankhmar, the poorest quarter of the entire city, a decaying labyrinth of streets swarming with thieves, whores, and drug-dealers.

(10) Rivendell. 3 stars. Terry Amthor, 1987. Only in Middle-Earth can you get an entire module out of an inn without it feeling like a cheat, but even here I’m pushing it. Rivendell may be where great decisions are made and Elrond wields the mightiest elven ring, but this module isn’t the masterpiece it deserves to be. Yet I can’t think of a way it could have possibly been done as outstanding as the Lorien module. Unlike the ethereal Golden Wood or the transcendent Grey Havens, Rivendell is rooted in a simplicity so pure it’s almost banal. It makes me regret even more that ICE never got around to the Grey Havens module it promised in the ’90s. I would have much preferred Mithlond over Imladris, and to see Angus McBride wrestle with more ineffable visions in his cover art. In any case, the vale surrounding Rivendell is a pocket paradise, as it functions according to Elrond’s command of the ring. Vilya can control weather and cause hallucinatory terrain, as well as heal, exorcise, and restore, and then also create air gusts and cause tornadoes; plus some generic bonuses common to all the elven rings. The surrounding culture of Rhudaur is briefly covered, and the module works perfectly in tandem with Hillmen of the Trollshaws; there are suggested adventures involving spying for Elrond in the region. It’s also perched on the doorstep of Goblin-Gate for any who want to depart hobbit-wise into the Misty Mountains. As neither an open colony like the Grey Havens, nor a secluded realm like Lorien, Rivendell is hidden yet accessible, but on a small scale to make just finding it a major task, and this is probably the kind of scenario I’d run, with enemies hot on the PCs’ heels a la “Flight to the Ford”.

(11) Dagorlad and the Dead Marshes. 2 stars. Ruth Sochard, 1984. This module isn’t half as good as its undead cousins, Bree and the Barrow Downs and Erech and the Paths of the Dead. By rights it should have been a smash. The marshes outside Mordor are plagued by a variety of scares: corpse candles, casualty-remains of the Last Alliance, covered with illusions to appear whole, lurking in the water, beckoning awfully; corpse lanterns, larger and more lethal versions of the corpse candles; and swamp stars, the hypnotic lights which lure victims to quicksand pits and other bog-snares. These fascinations, regretfully, are given fleeting coverage in favor of hugely dull sites. Where the towns of Bree and Sarn Erech integrated perfectly with their looming horrors, Caras Gwindor feels contrived, and the Dead Marshes just don’t scare us enough to care. I wanted suffocating underwater networks, and got Tol Malbor instead: the bandit hideout in the middle of the marshes — the “Isle of the Golden Fist” — its design is as fine as it goes, but it feels extraneous. And the bandits aren’t as juicy as they let on, having authority issues and baggage common to most outlaws, nothing more. Even from above Dagorlad fails. At the very least I was expecting to see the safeways taken by Gollum guiding Frodo and Sam, but they aren’t to be found. There is a Gondorian fortress protecting a nearby town, a marsh settlement, and a burial mound infested with ghouls — tacked on as an epilogue, of all things, when this sort of thing should have been commanding center stage.

 

Also see my rankings of the campaign sized modules.

The Lost City: Everything Unholy

This sixteen-chapter novel is a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series and the Lost City D&D module. I do not profit from it. It’s a story set prior to the events of the television seasons, before the boys met Eleven. If I learn that the Duffer Brothers or Wizards of the Coast do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if either of them order a cease-and-desist, I will pull the story down.

                                         The Lost City — Chapter Fifteen:

                             Everything Unholy

 

Legba was blowing hard when they reached the broken wall. It was just as Mike had left it, a beaten reminder of ancient glory. But he’d left in the blinding heat of day. This was the desert night, under a full moon and biting cold.

He’d punished the horse to get here, doing it in three days, having no idea when the jihadists would arrive. Hopefully Will had seen them and everyone was forearmed. But Mike knew that Will’s prescience was up for grabs. Will could see everything, theoretically, but it didn’t all come automatically. Omniscience was too much in that way for the human mind. Sometimes he had to focus to See, and that meant knowing what he was looking for to begin with.

The broken wall was broken as ever as he cantered up to it, bypassing the hidden entrances. They were tunnels into the ground, a quarter mile outside the wall. Two of them, spaced about three hundred feet apart. Built to function more as emergency exits than entrances, in case something happened to the pyramid. Mike wanted to stop and be sure they were hidden and locked down, but he wasn’t about to chance it for fear of Yshian spies.

Legba carried him through the ruins and up to the pyramid. The statues of Gorm, Usamigaras, and Pandora loomed larger as he got closer. He suddenly couldn’t wait to get inside. Knowing that welcome would be in short supply.

The horse was on the verge of collapse when Mike let him stop. He hated what he had to do next. There was no place for Legba in the Lost City, and it was impossible to get a horse down the statue ladders anyway. He swung off the horse and reached up to pet its nose. For four months Legba had been his best friend. His previous ruffian owners had abused him. Mike’s eyes filled with tears and he hugged Legba for the last time. The horse snorted, exhausted and thirsty. Mike stepped back a few steps and drew his sword. Good-bye old friend. With two hands he swung the blade. Legba’s headless body fell on the sand. In the moonlight the blood ran black.

I killed my best friend when I left, and did it again when I returned. Heads off in a stroke. He sheathed his sword and looked up at the gods. He saw what they were thinking. He didn’t deserve any friends.

He climbed the pyramid steps to the top, bypassing the door into Tier 1 which was a death trap. At the top he looked out over the land, scrutinizing for invaders. It was quiet as Sheol, but he couldn’t see far in the night. I beat them, he thought, confident it was true. I beat those bloodthirsty killers. But by how many days?

The holy trinity seemed somehow alive as Mike walked under them. He realized how badly he missed it here. For months he’d suffered through diatribes against god-worship, bigotries against infidels, and non-stop venom from Areesha’s brother. It had been worth it for her, but he saw clearly now that Yshia could have never been home to him. It was a land of virulent hate and suffocating oppression.

He knelt before Madarua and mumbled an orison from the Circle, praying that Pandora wouldn’t take his balls for running off. When he finished, he stood and opened the secret panel on Madarua’s leg that led into the hollowed cylinder, and descended the ladder to Tier 2.

Darkness covered him in his downward climb, and he cursed, pausing to take a torch from his pack and light it. He wanted his magic sword back – or another magic sword – that made fueled light unnecessary. He’d come prepared when he left Suqatra, buying a couple of torches in the village the morning of his departure.

He reached bottom in the statue machinery room, and took the door that led to the stairwell going down to Tier 3. It also led to the room he had shared with Lucas, if he were to ignore the stairwell and continue down the corridor.

Which of course is what he did.

At the door of his old room, he put his ear to it, trying to determine if the chamber was occupied. This was Brotherhood territory, and while Mike didn’t fear for his safety – he wore the Hand of Gaius – he didn’t want to intrude or cause offense. He had betrayed his Brothers and cut them deep. They’d never forgive him and that was just. Hearing nothing, he pried the door open. It was dark inside, like the hallway, but someone could have been sleeping. He thrust his torch inside the room and saw no one. He went inside.

The Brothers had left the room unoccupied. The two beds he and Lucas had used were still there, but the sheets and pillows were gone. There was the table and two chairs, and also their treasure chest. He guessed it was empty. He put his torch in a wall clamp and sat on his old bed. Reached down and opened the chest. Empty indeed.

Mike…

He looked up, startled. “Lucas?” He looked around the room. There’s no one, you fool. He wanted his friend back so badly he was hearing him.

It was too much then. Mike broke down and cried. Hard, harder than he’d ever cried, emptying himself of months of suppressed hurt and self-loathing. He remembered Lucas, the nights in this room when they’d stayed up late talking and laughing, instead of getting the sleep their bodies craved. Their childhood in Hawkins, back when anything seemed possible, and they were prepared to take on the world together. Mike had believed friendship was pure, and nothing could shatter that sacred bond. Lucas…

He cried as he felt what it really meant to suffer. It went on for a long time. Eventually he quieted, and when he did he froze; someone else was in the room. To his right, by the door to the Brothers’ treasury. He turned slowly, and saw him. His would-be executioner: Kanadius. The old warrior looked harsh enough to swallow nails.

Mike wiped his eyes. He didn’t get up from the bed, though it would have been appropriate; he didn’t think he had the strength to stand in front of Kanadius. He waited for the Grand Master to speak.

“You hurt for what you did.”

Mike nodded.

Kanadius was unmoved. “It’s good that you suffer. Did you just arrive? From the desert?”

“Yes,” said Mike.

“You’ve not seen Pandora?”

Mike shook his head.

“Are you still sworn to Madarua?”

“Yes.”

Kanadius nodded. “Then go downstairs to your Maidens. Get out of here. Don’t ever let me see you in our rooms or temple again.”

“If you want to kill me, I won’t stop you this time,” said Mike. He meant it.

“No. I’m letting you go because I’m bound to. And because it would probably take a hundred swords to kill you anyway.”

“Kanadius, I have to tell you something. I have to warn you -”

The old warrior cut him off. “We know. The Yshians are coming. They’ll be here in five days.”

“Will?” asked Mike, relieved.

Kanadius nodded. “And thanks to you, those bastards know of the secret entrances.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I had no idea -”

“And thanks to Will, we’re all going to die,” said Kanadius. “Both of you have brought destruction on Cynidicea.”

“What?” Mike felt ice in his blood. “What do you mean? What did Will do?”

“Ask Pandora,” said the Grand Master. “I don’t have the stomach – or the time for you – to talk about it.

“Okay, fine.” Mike stood up. “But, can I… I know I have no right to ask this. But, did you keep my sword when I dropped it? Can I have it back? Or did you give it to a Brother?”

Kanadius looked disgusted. “If you think any Brother would wield the sword that cut down Gorm’s Chosen, then you’re a fool as much as a traitor. But yes, I have it. It’s stored in the treasury, and I’d like it out of my keeping. Wait here.” He turned and walked into the room he came from.

Mike felt like a slug as he waited. He hated himself more than he could bear.

The Grand Master returned with Mike’s enchanted sword and gave it to him. As soon as Mike grabbed the hilt, the blade filled the room with its clear light. He went over to the wall and put out the torch.

“For all the good that blade will do you,” said Kanadius. “Thanks to you and Will – the Hand and the Eye. In fairness, I bear some of the blame. I accepted the risks of Gaius’s gifts. Gorm will judge me accordingly.”

Mike had to say one more thing: “You didn’t let Demetrius resurrect him.” Already knowing this without being told. “Why not, if Will and I are such trash in your eyes? If things are so bad, don’t you want Lucas back?”

“It doesn’t work that way, Mike. You don’t get off that easy. Your friend’s death is something you’ll have to live with.”

“I’m not thinking of myself! I’m trying to understand you! You believe that Lucas was Gorm’s Chosen, even though he was resurrected. The lightning tattoo appeared on him during the initiation rite. Why wouldn’t you want your chosen prophet resurrected again?”

“I don’t owe you an explanation!” Kanadius shouted.

“Okay!” said Mike. “I’m not challenging you. I’m just trying to understand. Do all the Brothers not want Lucas back?”

“We miss Lucas,” said Kanadius. “But bringing him back isn’t for us to decide. Just because Gorm used Lucas to reveal his will doesn’t mean that resurrection is suddenly a good thing – and it’s certainly not to be exploited for self-serving reasons. I believe that Lucas fulfilled his role. His time on this earth is over.”

“How?” asked Mike. “What role did he fulfill?”

“He sacrificed himself for a fellow Brother by letting his best friend kill him,” said Kanadius trenchantly. “That’s as exemplary as a prophet can be.”

“I guess the others agree with you,” said Mike, stung. “Have any new Brothers joined to take the place of those I killed?”

“They don’t all agree, actually,” said the Grand Master. “Our ‘fanatics’, as you once called them, have urged that we allow Demetrius to resurrect Lucas. Especially now that Will has destroyed any hope for us.”

Mike had no idea what Will had done, but the fact that Azariah and Moser were pushing for Lucas’s resurrection surprised him. Then again, maybe not. The fanatics had believed that Lucas was Gorm come again. They despised resurrection more than the other Brothers, but they also believed Lucas was a god, and thus not bound by the taboos against resurrection.

“We have two new Brothers since you left,” the Grand Master continued. “Roose and Garoman passed their initiation rites.” Mike remembered the two young men from the stronghold. “Don’t come anywhere near them, or the rest of us. Now for the last time, get out.”

Mike bowed to Kanadius to show respect, and then left. He went down the corridor and took the stairwell to Tier 3, wondering what the hell Will had done. Three guesses, genius. He was triggered and killed people; he killed people and destroyed things; he killed lots of people and brought down buildings. He sprinted down the stairs and the hall to the revolving passage, and pressed the button next to the door.

Another wave of nostalgia hit with the grinding of the turntable. Mike forced back tears. He had used this passage so often, like people from his home world used elevators in the big cities. The passage rumbled and stopped as it aligned with the southern door. Mike opened it.

He stopped as soon as he stepped inside. Someone was opening the door aligned with the northern corridor. His heart raced. Please don’t let it be a Brother. Relief flooded him when he saw it was a Maiden. Then panic took hold when he saw who it was. Their eyes locked.

“Mike?”

She hasn’t changed. Still wandering everywhere. She used this passage more than all the Maidens – and Brothers and Magi – combined.

It was four months and he still hadn’t come to terms with his feelings for Jilanka. She’d sent Lucas after him, all but knowing what Mike would be forced to do. He hated her; loved her; wanted to kill her, but needed that other thing they’d done so often.

Not a word as he stalked towards her. She met him in the middle, and they attacked each other hungrily, kissing and clawing and until the clothes were off. They had their unholy way right on the floor of the passage, mindless for brutality – unfazed in the least as to who might happen by. If it was the end of the world, honestly, who cared what anyone thought?

 

“What’s it like out there?”

Their old routine: she held him and stroked his hair, using questions to subtly accuse. His guard was always down after sex. But now there was Sauce. The wolf had bounded around the room yipping during their love-play. He had remembered Mike and was jubilant over his return.

“Awful,” said Mike drowsily. He was exhausted from the three-day ride and their two-part bang. First on the floor of the passage, then again here in their old bed. Without drugs; he didn’t need them after four months of abstinence. “You’d hate it.”

“Yet you stayed out there. For months.” Massaging his temples. “Couldn’t have been that bad.”

Oh, it was. And this is paradise. Mike hadn’t slept in a real bed or had sex while staying at the Jalals. A floor mattress was his bed; Areesha his platonic doll.

He drifted, but Jilanka wouldn’t let him sleep. “You belonged here. With us.” She squeezed the back of his neck hard. “With me. In this room.”

“Ow,” he said. This room had been theirs for four days, after his grisly induction into the Maidens. He’d been given a Hand, and she’d been given a choke pear up the cunt. Nothing like the week before – their insane fuck-fests in the abandoned temple close by – but they had become more intimate here, in more tender moments. Pandora had cruelly humbled them both.

“Did she expel me?” he asked.

“Pandora?” said Jilanka. “No, of course not. When she met with the cult leaders – it was like, nine days ago – Will said that you hadn’t renounced the Maidens.”

“Will’s right.” Christ, that kid sees everything. He shrugged off his weariness and sat up next to her. Sauce left his spot on the floor and leaped up on the bed to lie at their feet.

“He misses you,” said Jilanka. The wolf had bonded with Jilanka, and she’d let him have the room to himself during Mike’s hiatus. She had taken care of him, fed him, and taken him down on her trips to the city. More than Auriga had ever done for him. But he’d gotten lonely without anyone living in the room.

“You need to tell me everything,’ said Mike. “How is everyone preparing for the invasion, and what the fuck did Will do to make things worse?”

She explained to him the deal. The tentative pact with the Zargonites, contingent on Will’s behavior as their honored guest. That was two nights ago. Apparently things went fine – right up to the final hour of the ceremonies, at midnight, when Zargon’s Rise exploded like a bomb. Then the rest of the temple began to blow apart. In the end, the Temple of Zargon was a pile of rubble.

The Usamigaran priests and Magi had rushed across the street. Their stronghold was across from the Zargonites, and the explosion had sounded like the apocalypse. Demetrius, Raen, and Shira worked with their five Magi, and between levitate and telekinesis spells, managed to liberate Will from burial under twenty feet of rock. They took him into the Usamigaran stronghold. He was near catatonic, in the same way he’d been after decimating the Isle of Death. He didn’t respond to anyone and didn’t say a thing.

“Except one thing,” said Jilanka. “Your name.”

“Me?” asked Mike.

“Once in a while he’d croak, ‘Mike’, according to Demetrius.”

“Who explained all this to Pandora,” said Mike.

“Pandora met with all the cult leaders the next day, and Demetrius told them everything he knew. And then Pandora summoned us to give us the bad news.”

Mike swore. “The Zargonites won’t help us anymore. Obviously.”

“Most of them are dead, anyway,” said Jilanka. “The Usamigarans saw the temple survivors retreat into the catacombs – which if you ask me is pretty stupid, even for Zargonites. Demetrius says less than a quarter of the temple force survived. Maybe five or six priests and about twenty warriors. Hazor was one of them though.”

“Piece of shit,” said Mike. “He had to be the one who triggered Will.”

“I don’t know,” said Jilanka. “If that were true, wouldn’t Hazor be among the dead?”

“Maybe,” said Mike. “I don’t know. Will keeps asking for me?”

“Yeah. You need to go see him. He’s still down in the stronghold. Demetrius is taking care of him, I guess. Or Dustin. Or both.”

Now Mike saw what Kanadius had meant by the the Hand and the Eye being responsible for the Yshian victory. Because of the Hand’s curse, Mike had killed his Brothers, including Lucas, which caused Mike to flee into the outside world, where he revealed the Lost City’s existence. Because of the Eye’s curse, Will had destroyed the Temple of Zargon, killing their alliance with the Zargonites – their only chance against the Yshians.

“Well, then what’s the plan?” asked Mike.

“There is no plan,” said Jilanka. “We wait, defend ourselves as we must, and then die as we must. There’s nowhere we can run. You know that. Will explained it to the cult leaders: the surface world is an Yshian hell. Their ‘Dream of the Desert Garden’. It’s coming for us.

“And you accept this?” said Mike, feeling helpless. Of course she accepts it. What choice is there?

“We can’t arm the people and give them berserker drugs. They don’t respect the old cults, and most of the mushroom supplies were stored in the temple. A lot of the drugs are gone now.”

“Do you think the gods are laughing at us?” asked Mike. “We went to get the Eye and Hand in order to bring down the Zargonites and their drugs.” Well, not the drugs necessarily. The Usamigarans had no problems with mushrooms, if they were taken willingly by adults, and Mike and Jilanka had thought the drug war waged by their fellow Brothers and Maidens was stupid. “Now that we’ve succeeded bringing down the Zargonites, it turns out that’s exactly what’s going to kill us.” There’s no end to Gaius’s curse.

“I think Gaius is the one who is laughing at us, somewhere,” said Jilanka, as if reading his mind. She leaned over and kissed him. “Mike, we need to make the most of the next five days. I’m not scared of dying. I’m scared of dying alone. I’m glad you came back. Can you… forgive me for Lucas?”

No. But I can’t forgive myself either. He hugged her. “This room is ours for the next five days. And to hell with anyone who tries saying otherwise.” I’m a wretch like you. We deserve each other.

“Pandora told me to leave it untouched, in case you came back,” she said. “She won’t object.”

Mike sighed. “I know I need to see her, and the rest of my sisters. I was coming down to do that. But I’m so tired. It’s late. First thing tomorrow?”

“They’ll wonder where I am,” said Jilanka. “Go to sleep. I’ll tell Pandora you’re back and we’ll see her in the morning.”

Mike was already asleep.

 

Pandora ripped his face the next day, but not half as bad as he’d expected. He was still counted a Maiden. For what it was worth. Madarua’s Champion could afford to be gracious. They were all going to die or be enslaved in four days.

Mike spent the morning with his sisters, who accepted his return in varying degrees of indifference. They too had resigned themselves to the inevitable outcome of the invasion. Like their Champion, they were going down fighting, with praises on their lips to the goddess. Mike was proud to be among them.

In the afternoon, he went down to the city to see Will. The Eye Child was being cared for by Dustin/Demetrius in the Usamigaran stronghold. It was a repeat of Auriga’s babysitting after the quest to the Isle. Will was – on the outside, at least – a near vegetable. When he started to shake, he was fed his painkiller mushrooms. Once in a while he’d stand up to walk around his room, or go to the latrine, but his legs didn’t cooperate well.

Mike sat by his chair and held his hand, trying to stir any discussion. Will croaked his name a few times, but nothing else. Until Mike got up to leave. It was evening by then, and Will suddenly reached out and seized Mike’s arm. For the first time he looked directly at Mike, his Eye bulging with intensity.

Surprised, Mike sat back down. “Yeah? What is it?”

“Feed me,” croaked Will. He sounded like a dying parrot.

“Uh, okay, yeah. I’ll get something from the kitchen.”

But when he came back with a tray of light supper – soup, bread and a bit of manyan – Will ignored most of it, except for a few spoonfuls of soup. He repeated himself, looking intently at Mike: “Feed me.”

“I don’t understand. You want something else?”

Will shook his head. “Feed me.”

Mike sighed, clueless.

He stayed with Will a while longer and then returned to the pyramid. Sauce and Jilanka were waiting. He tumbled with the former, in a playful wrestle, and then got in bed to tumble with the latter. All the while he couldn’t stop thinking of Will. He’d been trying to tell Mike something but didn’t have the voice for it.

Feed me.

 

The next two days were an exercise in non-preparation. The clerics of the old gods invited to shelter as many citizens in their strongholds as they could accommodate, but most of the people didn’t care. They were acid heads. News of war made them laugh, and cry, and prance in the streets. Masks and costumes were all the refuge required.

The Temple Magi had joined the other Magi down in the stronghold. They belonged with their chief, even if he was catatonic. The Temple Maidens and Brothers remained in the pyramid, with Pandora and Kanadius presiding over rites heralding an apocalypse on par with Ragnarok. This was the first time the Lost City had suffered an invasion since the Goblin War of the fourth century. The Zargonites had subjected the goblins and made them their bitches, giving them the cliff caves above the lake. Thanks to Will, there would be no Zargonite salvation this time. Hazor and his remnant flock apparently had no intention of fighting the Yshians. They had fled the catacombs to the pyramid, and taken over the Rooms of Judgment on Tier 9. Right above the tier of their hideous god.

The day before the Yshians were due, Dustin came looking for Mike. It was early afternoon, and Mike was in his room resting. Jilanka was down in the city, trying to enjoy the last day of her life. She needed her space and to walk the streets alone. Mike answered the door. Dustin stood there looking pale; he was sweating like a pig.

“What happened to you?” asked Mike.

“Never mind,” said Dustin. “You need to come with me, right now.”

“Demetrius?”

“No, Dustin. You need to come with me, Mike.”

“Why? Where?”

“You’ll see.”

“Is it Will? Is he -”

“Mike!” yelled Dustin. “You need to come right now.” He turned and left the room without waiting.

Mike swore and hurried to catch up. He followed Dustin to the revolving passage. Inside Dustin pressed the button that began rotating their end of the hall to the southeast door: the Temple of Gorm.

“Hey!” shouted Mike. “I’m not going there!”

“Uh yeah, actually Mike, you are,” said Dustin.

“I’m banned from there, you idiot! What’s wrong with you?”

“You’re not banned anymore,” said Dustin.

The passage stopped, locking in place at the door he’d fled so long ago. Cries for his death had trailed him to the desert surface. There was no way he was going down that hall. “Dustin, what’s going -”

Dustin told him to shut up. Mike followed him, fingering the hilt of his sword. Kanadius wants another swing at my neck, and he’s finally worked his nut up. It’s the end of everything, so why not?

When they reached the temple door, he froze at what he saw. Nausea smacked his gut, and he drew his sword reflexively.

“It’s okay,” said Dustin. “Put it away.”

It was not okay. There was a head hanging on the wall next to the door. Nailed into the wall with a long iron spike. Kanadius’s head.

Mike looked at Dustin. “What the fuck?”

“The fanatics rebelled,” said Dustin.

Mike’s nausea turned to disgust. “They’re in charge now?” That would mean Azariah was the new Grand Master.

“Not exactly,” said Dustin, throwing open the door. “Go on in.”

Mike steeled himself for anything as he strode into the temple, but he was not, absolutely not, prepared for the person waiting for him inside. He cried out when he saw him and stopped dead in his tracks.

Oh God.

Lucas Sinclair looked healthy and radiant as ever. He wore the garb he’d always worn as a Brother of Gorm, including the chainmail armor he must have been buried in. His head was firmly attached, with no signs or scars of Mike’s brutal handiwork. His magic sword was strapped to his side. And there was something new: he wore a crown.

Lucas!

Mike stood looking at his friend, not daring to approach any further. Dustin stayed by the door. Flanking both sides of Lucas in front of the altar were the remaining Brothers, all seven of them: Azariah, Moser, Druis, Coval, Kryazen, and two that Mike didn’t recognize. Their swords were drawn and their eyes rained judgment.

“Lucas,” Mike began, his eyes spilling tears. “I’m sorry…” I’d do anything to take it back… “I’m sorry!” He put his face in his hands and cried then, as he had cried in their room four nights ago – the rattling cry of self-loathing and unendurable shame.

He sobbed and sobbed until his hands were being gently pried away. He looked up. Through waterfalls he made out Lucas, saying things that weren’t right. Forgiving Mike as he didn’t deserve. Embracing him, announcing the badness between them past. Mike clung to his friend, unable to accept the absolution. They stood like that until he finally did.

“I don’t understand,” said Mike, wiping his eyes. “You… Kanadius…?” What’s that crown you’re wearing? And why did it look familiar?

“I’ll explain everything,” said Lucas. He turned to the Brothers. “Give us the room. I have a lot to say to Mike in private. And Dustin.”

Azariah protested: “Your Grace! Are you sure about that?” The Brothers looked uneasy with leaving Lucas alone.

“Yes, I’m sure,” said Lucas. “I’ll be fine. Thank you all – for everything you’ve done.”

The Brothers sheathed their swords, bowed low, and left the temple in single file.

Mike’s mind was reeling. Your Grace?

Dustin closed the door when they left and joined Mike and Lucas. “Well, friends. Here we are. The priest who won’t die, the maiden who can’t die, and the king who keeps dying.”

“What does that make Will?” asked Lucas.

“Oh, he’s the kid who may as well be dying,” said Dustin.

Mike was too stunned for humor. “The Brothers made you king, Lucas? What do the other cults say about that?”

“The Usamigarans are giving me their support,” said Lucas. “It’s your tribe I’m worried about, Mike. In a few minutes we may get some fireworks on that front.”

“I’m lost,” said Mike.

“Dustin,” said Lucas.

Dustin told the story. Lucas’s grave had been kept secret in the Brotherhood, so that the body couldn’t be stolen and resurrected. Kanadius firmly believed that Lucas had fulfilled his role as the Chosen. Other Brothers, led by fanatics Azariah and Moser, began to take a different point of view – that while resurrection was indeed an abomination, Lucas, as the incarnation of Gorm, wasn’t bound by the taboo. Now, with the Zargonite alliance in shambles, they needed their deity back. The Lost City was about to fall. Kanadius wouldn’t budge. Last night four Brothers revolted: Azariah, Moser, Krayzen (a former militant), and Roose (one of the newbies). They killed Kanadius, dug up Lucas’s grave, and this morning summoned Demetrius to their temple to resurrect Lucas.

“Demetrius didn’t need to be asked twice,” said Dustin. “I was telling him to do it. I mean, I always hated Azariah and Moser – and Hyme, before you killed him, Mike – but I wanted Lucas back.”

“Everyone’s a fanatic now,” said Lucas. “Not just the four who rebelled. All seven of them. And I’m sure as hell not in a position to judge.”

“What made them think you can save the city?” asked Mike.

Lucas laughed. “Nothing but stupid blind faith.”

“Or not so stupid,” said Dustin. “Lucas may not be Gorm, but he does have a special role cut out for him. Even if the Brothers understood jack shit about it.”

“Which is?” asked Mike.

“When Demetrius raised me,” said Lucas, “I sat up on that altar with another sign. Another tattoo.” He held up his left palm. There was an imprint of a black crown, looking exactly like the one he was wearing.

“I’ve seen that crown before,” said Mike.

“It was Queen Zenobia’s,” said Dustin. “When I vaporized that bitch, it fell to the floor in the crypt. Remember, Mike, you warned us not to touch it.”

“Bad advice,” said Lucas. “We should have ignored you. I sent the Brothers down to retrieve the crown as soon as we saw the tattoo.” He paused. “And I sent Demetrius and Shira to get something else, when the Brothers came back.”

“When they came back, they crowned Lucas King of Cynidicea,” said Dustin.

“With a queen’s crown?” asked Mike.

“The crown is the whole key to my undead/resurrected nature,” said Lucas. “If someone is killed by Zenobia’s touch, and then resurrected, that person can wear her crown and command undead.”

“What?” said Mike. “How do you know that?”

“I just, like, saw it, or understood it, when I put the crown on,” said Lucas. “I know I’m not wrong.”

“How many undead are we talking?”

“Hundreds,” said Lucas. “A whole army. No undead will harm someone who was killed by Zenobia and wears her crown.”

“Both parts are essential,” said Dustin. “That’s why the Isle recognized Lucas as already undead and didn’t turn him into a zoombie. The way it turned the others who went ashore. Because he had died from Zenobia’s touch. But the zoombies didn’t recognize him as one of their own. Because he needed the crown.”

“Now that I have it,” said Lucas, “I can summon every zoombie linked to that Isle and they’ll do as I say. We have an army. To stop the Yshians.”

Mike couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “That’s incredible.” But how many zoombies remained in the nexus world bridged by Vark’s Ring? “Will killed hundreds of those zoombies.” At least three hundred, maybe closer to four.

“There are hundreds more,” said Lucas. “Remember our history lessons? All the ash that was put on that island?”

Mike remembered his studies in the Brotherhood: up until the eighth century AC, the Isle had been used as a dumping ground for the ashes of the dead. Then, in 773 AC, Vark’s Ring became what it was, and anyone who went to the Isle was killed. Something mysterious had happened. Whatever it was, the ash of every corpse had been raised into a zoombie. That was over seven hundred years worth of dead, transformed into undead.

Eat that, you Yshian shits.

If Lucas could summon hordes of zoombies, they had more than a fighting chance. One zoombie was as deadly as any jihadist, if not more so.

“Well, the crown looks pretty unisex anyway,” said Mike.

“That works for another reason too,” said Lucas. “One that should be arriving any moment.”

Dustin went to the door and listened. “Yeah, I think I hear the revolving passage.” He looked at Lucas. “They’re coming.”

“Who’s coming?” asked Mike.

Lucas went to the altar against the far wall and made sure the candles had enough stick left. He looked inside a box sitting on the altar and then returned to the center of the room.

“Lucas, who’s -”

There was commotion outside the temple door. Dustin opened it, looked back at Lucas, and nodded.

Mike tried seeing out into the hallway, but he could only see a few of the Brothers, guarding the doorway.

“Let them all in,” said Lucas.

Dustin opened the door for everyone outside. The Brothers walked back in and assumed their positions in a protective arc in front of Lucas. Mike and Dustin stepped to the side a bit as the newcomers entered. Mike’s bowels turned to liquid. It was Pandora and the Maidens, led by Demetrius’s colleague, the Usamigaran priestess Shira.

For a Maiden to step inside the Temple of Gorm was a capital offense.

Shira joined Dustin and Mike at the side of the room, as Pandora and her Maidens filed in quietly. The air was brutally tense. The Maidens gripped the hilts of their swords, ready to draw for any reason. All of them were present except Jilanka, who was down in the city.

Dustin leaned over to whisper. “Shira already told them about Lucas.”

Mike nodded. I’ll bet she did. Pandora would have never agreed to an audience on Brotherhood soil if Kanadius were in charge.

“Thank you for coming, Pandora,” said Lucas.

Madarua’s Champion looked like the wrath of heaven come down. “I’ll say this to start with. Kanadius looks more handsome out there on the wall than he ever did attached to his body. For that I applaud your Brothers. But I assure you, Grand Master, I am not a feeble old man, and if you try -”

“You will address King Lucas as His Grace!” shouted Azariah.

Swords flashed in the air. Every Maiden had drawn, except Pandora. The Brothers responded in kind. Pandora glared at Azariah contemptuously.

“Brothers, stand down!” Lucas sounded like a king right then, and Mike felt a surge of pride as the Brothers immediately obeyed the man they had crowned. His friend was not only commanding like a monarch, he was being regally diplomatic, by not taking umbrage at his guests who had drawn first.

Lucas looked at Pandora apologetically. “Please forgive Azariah. His loyalty got the better of him. And please feel welcome here. I didn’t invite you here to provoke or entrap you. I have a proposal, which you may accept or reject, with no fear of retaliation either way.”

Pandora frowned, as if not expecting this. She came expecting battle. She hates the Brothers so much she thought they wanted the satisfaction of killing all the Maidens before the invasion killed everyone. She knew nothing about Lucas Sinclair. He didn’t burn bridges, he built them.

“For centuries the three cults have been at each others’ throats,” said Lucas. “Barely tolerating each other, and for no reason other than to serve as a holding action against the Zargonites. If you ask me, that’s a shitty place to be for people who are supposed to get along.”

“There are reasons why we’ve been ‘at each others’ throats’,” said Pandora. “You’ve been in this world long enough to know them, and you’re smart enough not to dismiss them.”

“Of course,” said Lucas. “And I don’t intend to rehash all those reasons. I’m confident in saying that all three cults have their strengths and prejudices – and I’m as guilty of prejudice as any other. Our differences in opinion can’t be changed overnight, and a lot of that difference should probably not be changed. I mean, look: the cults of Gorm, Madarua, and Usamigaras used to get along fine with all their differences. I propose that we reattain that unity in diversity. Shira has told you that I can summon an army of undead from the Isle, and lead them into battle against the Yshian invaders. We have a chance at living another day, and if that happens, it could mean more Yshians coming after us. We can’t go on broken and fragmented. We need the kingdom of Cynidicea back – even if it stays underground. I’m asking you to let me be your king.” He paused. “And I’m asking you, Pandora, to be my queen.”

The Maidens hissed in breath. Mike was taken completely by surprise. The proposal sounded gracious, but it was offensive from the Madaruan point of view.

Pandora’s eyes narrowed. “You have balls, Brother, I’ll give you that. Perhaps a black sac has more juice than a white man’s. But I’ll cut that sac off before you ever make me your bitch.”

“I’m not asking you to be that,” said Lucas. “I’m asking you to reign with me as an equal. That you and I be co-rulers. You having just as much power and authority as me.”

Now it wasn’t only Pandora and her Maidens who were stunned. The Brothers gasped and looked shocked. Clearly Lucas hadn’t told them about this part of the deal.

Mike kept a straight face but inside he was laughing. Lucas was shrewd. By withholding his egalitarian intentions from his own Brothers, he had gained a ton of credibility in Pandora’s eyes. Had they reacted not at all to the generous offer, Pandora would have expected some hidden snare that Lucas and the Brothers were keeping from her. This way, she saw that Lucas was being completely transparent.

Lucas walked to the altar and lifted the box he had checked earlier. He reached inside and produced another crown. All eyes were on him as he carried the crown and stood before Pandora.

“This is King Alexander’s crown,” he said. “Demetrius and Shira got it from Alexander’s crypt, after the Brothers retrieved Zenobia’s. The queen’s crown is mine by necessity. Pandora, will you wear the king’s, and share the rule of Cynidicea with me as an equal?”

Pandora gaped. “You want my answer right now?” she demanded.

“If you need time, then by all means,” said Lucas. “But… time is something we’re rather short on.”

“I don’t need time,” she said curtly. “Indecision makes a lousy leader. You’ll have my answer now.” The temple held its breath. Mike honestly had no idea what she would say.

She faced Lucas squarely. “The histories say that Alexander and Zenobia were co-rulers in practice if not name. There’s precedent there. But let’s hope we do better than they did – and better for Cynidicea. I accept your proposal. And I will hold you to your vow of co-rulership.”

Lucas smiled and the room relaxed; everyone’s relief was palpable. Even the zealots on both sides – Azariah and Moser from the Brothers, Bray and Esranet from the Maidens – looked moved.

Shira came up to stand next to Lucas and Pandora, as the Brothers left Lucas’s side and joined the Maidens in front of him. Everyone in the hall faced their new king and queen. Lucas handed Alexander’s crown to Shira, and the priestess nodded to Pandora. The Champion knelt and Shira placed the crown on her head. As Pandora rose, Shira stepped back to the side and heralded the new monarchs:

“Between the years 766 and 127 before the first Thyatian emperor’s crowning, sixteen monarchs ruled Cynidicea. Now, almost twelve centuries later, the kingdom is come again! Hail Lucas Sinclair of the Brotherhood! May his thunder roar! Hail Pandora Shave of the Maidens! May her footsteps shake the earth!”

Everyone shouted: “Hail, King Lucas! Hail, Queen Pandora!”

“The seventeenth reign will be a co-reign of equals, as Brothers and Maidens work to celebrate their differences, and Magi are allowed their freedoms. Let the reign begin!”

“Hail, King Lucas! Hail, Queen Pandora!”

Mike’s eyes watered. You deserve this, Lucas.

There were no speeches from the king or queen. None were necessary. And as the ceremony ended, Mike stood in awe of Lucas Sinclair who was everything unholy: a commander of the dead, who wasn’t undead and yet was; a king who wore a queen’s crown, promising a redemption that could undermine the cult he’d sworn to uphold. Mike wanted Lucas to himself desperately – after all this time and what he’d done to him – but his friend was already deliberating with his queen, and surrounded by subjects wanting to bend his ear. The price of kingship. He wears it well.

 

Next Chapter: Feed Me

(Previous Chapter: Torn Asunder)

Problems with Castle Amber: The Averoigne Quest

The Averoigne section of Castle Amber has always been the module’s best part (which is saying a lot, since the whole module is excellent), and that remains true in the special revamped version from Goodman Games. If your PCs survive the crazy Amber family, and then make it through the dungeon beneath the castle, they are transported to an alternate medieval France, where they need to find four special items to unlock Stephen Amber’s tomb. The quest takes them east to Sylaire, west to Perigon, north to Vyones, and south to Ximes — all whilst evading the arm of the inquisition. Magic use is illegal, after all, and the church takes seriously its mandate to execute heretics, sorcerers, and people who aren’t human (like elves and dwarves). It’s a classic quest in a brilliantly conceived setting, and one of my all-time favorites.

But there’s a very big “but” coming. Nowadays I find that this section needs a lot of work. As it stands, it’s skimpy on details and lazily contrived. The PCs dash around Averoigne and just happen to show up in places where calamities are happening simultaneously, requiring their heroic intervention. The Colossus is about to destroy the town of Vyones; the otherworldly Beast of Averoigne is terrorizing Perigon; etc. In Clark Ashton Smith’s stories, the catastrophes happen centuries apart: the Colossus in the 13th century, the Beast in the 14th, the Sylaire werewolf in the 15th, etc. But in the module every Averoigne tragedy occurs at the same time (whenever that happens to be; the year and century are unclear) for convenience of game plotting. It would be like going to an alternate United States where the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Columbine shootings, and 9/11 all happen at the same time. Imagine: the PCs arrive in Colorado just as the shootings are about to start; then they travel to Oklahoma an hour before the bomb goes off; next they come to New York City as the terrorist planes are leaving Boston. I’ve never been a stickler for realism in D&D (this is a game, after all), but I sure as hell design plots better than this. Players deserve better, and to not have their intelligence insulted.

Even worse is that mysteries unravel in the blink of an eye. The PCs enter the abbey at Perigon on the night they arrive, and right away the possessed abbot just happens to step into a ray of comet light that reveals he is the Beast. Seriously. The players don’t have to lift a finger to solve the mystery; it just solves itself as they step on stage. Other scenarios are a bit banal, like the killing of the evil werewolf to obtain the Sword of Sylaire from the lady Sephora. In the classic Averoigne story, the werewolf is the victim and Sephora secretly the evil one; that makes things a lot more interesting. Thus in my revision below, Sephora is a seductress/rapist, and she has erotic-based spells that inflame lust and turn men into sex slaves.

Most surprising is the missed opportunity with the potion of time travel (one of the four items needed to break the Amber curse). The module provides no real opportunity to use the potion and do any time traveling, and again the contrast with the source material is striking. In Smith’s story “The Holiness of Azédarac”, the main character travels back in time 700 years, to a period before Christianity became the state religion of France. In my revisions of the module, the PCs likewise go back in time — multiple times, in fact, as each of the four magic items must be retrieved from a different time period: the Sword of Sylaire in 1452 AD, the Ring of Eibon in 1369 AD, the Viper-Circled Mirror in 1286 AD, and the final potion of time travel in 1171 AD.

These dates are all very close (if not identical) to the time periods that Smith used in his tales. So instead of landing in Averoigne during an unspecified time when every worst calamity just happens to be striking the land at once, the PCs purposely go back in time to each of these crisis points, when the magic items were last known to be seen. (They obtain these dates on the scroll in Castle Amber that gives clues about the items.) My modified scenarios follow the source material more faithfully than the module does, and the result is that the four-part quest ends up being more fun and complex, and with a variety of outcomes possible.

I also suggest dungeon layouts that can be used for each place, as the Castle Amber module provides nothing and leaves it to the DM. I also allow for various ways the PCs might deal with the crisis when they arrive, rather than railroad them on the predetermined paths of the module.

The starting point for the PCs is the year 1590 AD (I assign that date as the present time), which they reach by passing through the silver-keyed gate in Castle Amber. From 1590, they must take carefully measured doses of time-travel potions to go back to 1452 (for the Sword of Sylaire), and then 1369 (for the Ring of Eibon), and then 1286 (for the Viper-Circled Mirror), and then 1171 (for a final potion of time travel). As in Smith’s tales, the potions can only take you backward in time, not forward; so this will be the necessary order in retrieving the magic items. As soon as they arrive in 1590, this will all be explained to them by the ancient mage Moriamis, who is waiting for them at the crossroads inn (Area 2 on the map above). Though they have no idea who she is, she knows them quite well, for it’s the fifth time (for her) that they have met. It’s only the first time for them, because they are about to start moving back in time; they will rendez-vous with her at the crossroads inn after each time-jump, where she will be waiting to give them the proper doses of time-travel potions to keep them going backwards, after they obtain the magic item they came for.

Here’s a summary of the five-part adventure. The first part is a prologue, since the quest proper doesn’t start until they get to 1452.

1. The King of France (1590 AD)

The party materializes in Averoigne, near the crossroads inn called the Inn of Jeune Vaillance (the “Inn of Young Bravery”), on a snowy December 25. They have arrived during the final years of the French Wars of Religion (1562-98) as the Protestant Henry IV is doing his damnedest to take his throne. The innkeeper is Honoré Bouchard, a raving Calvinist, but a friendly enough one. He’s a strong supporter of the Huguenots and his king Henry IV. The inn has been a clandestine Protestant establishment since the ultra-conservative Catholic Holy League took over the city of Vyones almost two years ago. Now it is openly Protestant, since last week, when Henry kicked the League out of Averoigne. As the party arrives, there is a raucous Christmas party going on at the inn.

For the past 16 months, the people of Averoigne have been torn between a Protestant heretic claiming the throne, and the inquisitional terrorists of the Catholic League, who are seeking an outside candidate from Spain. Neither option is appealing. The vast majority of Averoignians — indeed most French citizens — want a native French Catholic on the throne, and for the League’s reign of terror to stop.

The party enters the densely-packed Inn of Jeune Vaillance, where Henry IV is staying overnight as a guest, preparing to travel south. He is entertaining other guests, promising that he will lay siege to Paris again, take back the capital, and put an end to the religious wars that have been tearing apart France for decades. When the innkeeper Honoré praises him and says that Henry belongs on his rightful throne, the king laughs and shouts across the room: “I rule with my ass in the saddle and a gun in my fist!” He then pulls out his pistol and shoots a bullet into the ceiling. The patrons cheer and applaud. Even the many Protestant-haters are forgiving on this holiday night, since Henry has just liberated Averoigne from the terrors of the Holy League.

Moriamis walks into the inn and sits down at the PCs’ table. They are meeting her for the first time and have no idea who she is. But she is meeting them for the fifth time, since they are about to travel backwards. She gives them potions of time travel, measured in precise doses to take each of them back to a precise day in 1452 AD, where they must get the Sword of Sylaire.

This first part set in 1590 is a prologue to the quest, but the DM may choose to jazz it up with an assassination attempt on Henry IV, by agents of the Holy League. Or perhaps the League has amassed an army to besiege the inn. After dealing with the League and saving the king’s life (assuming the PCs choose to do that and succeed), the PCs drink their potions and vanish back in time.

2. The Seductress of Sylaire (1452 AD)

They materialize at the same place they left, the crossroads inn, now called the Inn of Grosse Bectance (the “Inn of Large Meals”). It is Midsummer’s Eve, June 24. They meet Moriamis again (for their second time, and her fourth time), and she gives them potions of time travel again, measured just right to take them back to a certain day in 1369 AD, where they must get the Ring of Eibon. Before that, they travel east into the haunted woods to get the Sword of Sylaire.

They come to Sylaire and are hosted by the lady Sephora in her castle that she rules alone. She presents herself as a benign steward of the faerie land of Sylaire. In truth she is a monstrous seductress and rapist, who uses men as sex slaves and kills most of them afterwards. She admits that she owns the Sword of Sylaire, and will give it to the PCs on the condition that they slay “the werewolf of Sylaire”, which she claims is a dangerous beast that has been stalking her domain. It’s a lie; the werewolf of Sylaire is actually not dangerous at all. It’s a man who used to be her lover whom she cursed by turning him into a werewolf. How events unfold depends on the party, but it will probably end on a showdown with Sephora, who will use spells like mass ecstasy or mass lust on the entire group, and from there use other spells like masturbation, lightning bolt, strip, torture, feeblemind, power word castrate, and prismatic spray.

Sephora’s Castle? The module provides no layout for her tower/castle. Use the castle from “Lady of the Mists”, Dungeon Magazine #42. It works well with some tweaking, and provides a solid dungeon area with creative traps and illusions. Sephora might hide the Sword of Sylaire, for instance, in the secret room (Room 15, on the Second Floor) if the PCs refuse to kill her former lover, and if they can’t find that room, they might to have to ascend to the Fifth Floor for a nasty showdown with the lady.

If they obtain the sword and escape Sylaire, they return to the crossroads inn and drink their potions.

3. The Beast of Averoigne (1369 AD)

They materialize again outside the crossroads inn, now called the Inn of Bien-Pensance (the “Inn of the Right-Minded”), on October 28. The innkeeper is a mole for the inquisition, and at the slightest hint of any sorcerous guests (or non-human ones) he will report them by sending a raven to the archbishop of Vyones. They meet Moriamis again (for their third time, and her third time, but from opposite directions), and she gives them potions of time travel again, measured to take them back to a day in 1286 AD, where they must get the Viper-Circled Mirror. Before that, they travel west to the city of Perigon to get the Ring of Eibon.

They come to Perigon on November 1, where citizens look terrorized. For about a month a demonic reptilian beast has been stalking prey by night, killing both people and mammals, both within the city and outside it. The PCs investigate, and the clues lead then to a white magician named Luc le Chaudronnier, one of the very rare mages given dispensation by the church to use magic for the common good. The Beast attacked him and left him wounded and near death. Le Chaudronnier tells the PCs that he saw the Beast emerging from the abbey at sundown, and so that may be where the creature is hiding during daytime. The PCs investigate the abbey, meet the abbot, and begin to take on an intense investigation of the place and all the monks. It turns out the Beast is a demon that is possessing the abbot, who undergoes a transformation into the reptilian creature at sunset, and can never remember anything about being transformed when morning comes. He has no idea he is possessed or that he has killed so many people. Depending on what they do, they may end up killing the Beast (which kills the abbot, but not the demon who simply returns to its real body), exorcising the abbot (which liberates him and banishes the demon from ever possessing him again), banishing the demon (which liberates the abbot temporarily), banishing the demon permanently (if they can find the Ring of Eibon before confronting the Beast, as the ring has that mighty power), or finding where the demon’s real body is resting and destroying it (so that it takes years to respawn itself in the Abyss). There are many possibilities, depending on how shrewd and creative the PCs are.

The Abbey? The module provides no layout for the abbey (in no small part because the adventure is over almost as soon as the PCs walk into it, as the mystery absurdly solves itself before their eyes!). Use the abbey from Master of the Desert Nomads (module X4). The basic layout of the compound works perfectly, though of course it’s real Christian monks who live here, not undead. The demon’s catatonic body can be resting in the catacomb crypts beneath the abbey (at location 1c), as its incorporeal form is possessing the abbot. You can have some fun, by having a handful of renegade monks under the deputy abbot worshiping the demon in a part of the temple area (K8) that’s been converted into a secret shrine protected with illusions.

The next day is All Souls Day (November 2), and the bells toll for a special mass, celebrating Perigon’s liberation. If the PCs have obtained the Ring of Eibon, they return to the crossroads inn and drink their potions.

4. The Colossus of Ylourgne (1286 AD)

They materialize yet again at the crossroads inn, now called the Inn of Haute Esperance (the “Inn of High Hopes”), on April 18, three days before Easter. They meet Moriamis again (for their fourth time, and her second time), and she gives them potions of time travel that will take them back to a particular day in 1171 AD, where they must obtain two potions of time travel from an evil bishop (one for themselves, and one for Moriamis, so that she can analyze it and learn the recipe). Before that, they travel north to the capital of Vyones to get the Viper-Circled Mirror.

They arrive at the capital on April 21, Easter Day, to a scene of utter chaos. Masses of refugees are packed into the city, carrying all their worldly possessions, seeking safety behind the 60-foot high walls. The PCs learn that a hideous giant 80-feet tall is stalking the lands around the Vyones, laying waste to whatever lies in its path. It smashes farmhouses flat with a club made from a huge tree, and it hurls livestock and people to their dooms. This Colossus does not appear to be a living creature, but a scourge of necromancy, created by a black magician to wreak vengeance on the people of Vyones who once banished him from the city. The magician has been waiting for this Easter Day to destroy Vyones, in order to blaspheme Jesus Christ as offensively as possible. He built the Colossus from dozens of corpses that he stole from local graveyards, and he’s quite proud of his grotesque parody of the “resurrection of the dead”. The PCs either volunteer to destroy the Colossus, or they are forced into doing so by the city officials if they try to steal the Viper-Circled Mirror. Either way, they are given the mirror if they succeed in saving the city.

Dungeon Layouts? Unlike the other three parts, this one doesn’t require a dungeon. The map of Vyones is all you need.

If the PCs do get the mirror, they return to the crossroads in and drink their potions.

5. The Bishop of Ximes (1171 AD)

They materialize for their final time at the crossroads inn, now called the Inn of Bonne Jouissance (the “Inn of Good Pleasures”), on January 3. They meet Moriamis for their fifth time, but her first. She has no idea who they are or the things they have already done together in the future. They must persuade her to work with them to defeat Bishop Azedarac of Ximes, and then steal his potions of time travel, so that she can learn the recipe, and create potions for their past selves in the future. Azedarac invented the time travel magic, and this is why the quest “starts” with him (even though the PCs are ending at the start).

They arrive in Ximes on Epiphany (the Twelfth Day of Christmas), and find Azedarac at the cathedral square healing people of disease. The city has been suffering from a plague for three and a half months. The bishop is a controversial figure, believed by many to be a miracle-working saint, by others to be a Satanist who delves in black magic. In fact he serves the Cthulhu entity Yog-Sothoth. His bodyguard is a Hospitaller Knight, a crusader (paladin) who fought in the wars against Egypt (1163-69), and he assists the bishop in his healing miracles. He too is suspect, and rightly so, for he is actually an anti-paladin, born of an incubus (male demon) and a female human. The bishop and his knight are the ones responsible for the plague, and they enjoy playing saviors while most of the citizens suffer and die. The PCs can stop the plague by killing the Hospitaller and destroying his artifact that causes the plague, hidden in the lowest level of the bishop’s castle. The potions of time travel are kept on a high level of the castle, in the bishop’s studio. They can infiltrate the castle in a number of ways, and how things play out depends largely on whether the PCs find the secret way of teleporting inside the castle, or if they have to go to the castle and find some way over the moat and break in.

Ximes? The Bishop’s Castle? There is no map of Ximes in the revamped module, but that’s not a big problem. What’s really needed is a layout for the bishop’s castle, and perfect for this is Ulmade Castle from “The Forgotten Man”, Dungeon Magazine #75. With minimal tweaking, this fortress is ideally suited for an evil bishop of the 12th century. There is a torture tower, a chapel, libraries and a lab, and the bottom levels are the domain of the anti-paladin, who creates undead and wields an evil staff that casts plague over the region of Ximes.

If the PCs obtain the potions, they give one (along with Azedarac’s recipe) to Moriamis to ensure that she will keep making more potions to give to their past selves in her future. The other they take for themselves, and they can finally do as the Castle Amber scroll advises: they hang the Ring of Eibon on the snake’s tail of the Viper-Circled Mirror; they anoint the Sword of Sylaire with the potion; they shatter the mirror with the sword; and they vanish from Averoigne, appearing before Prince Stephen’s tomb.