Authors Note: You've had the patience of saints these last few months, and what do I do? Torture you with more of my "literature" and ask for reviews! The nerve of me! Still, for some arcane reason, you might end up not profoundly regretting having read this latest installment of... THE GOSPEL OF CHRIS!11 When I haven't posted in quite awhile, I'll begin new chapters with a little summary of what happened when last I posted, so as you don't have to be arsed to re-read the whole bloody thing AGAIN from the start.

Enjoy. Or not, whatever floats your boat.


Previously, on the Gospel of Chris (read in a booming narrator voice for added effect):

From the many insipid mortals on our tiny blue marble in the Milky Way, one in particular was singled out. Christian from Bucharest was selected through unknown criteria... likely because he's a D&D nerd that can recite the Player's Handbook with his eyes closed but has never ever kissed a girl.

Prime tester material that.

He received a case whose contents included a powerful tablet computer, a space-age holographic projector, and other futuristic gadgets, all part of a highly-advanced gaming kit designed to bring Dungeons&Dragons into the online age.

Except... that he never asked for it. Fancy that.

Having decided to seize the change to play with an advanced techno-toy before it even hit the market, and setting in motion events that he could not foresee, now the fate of us all rests in his sweaty palms...

Or maybe just the fate of his weekend, and whether his friends decide to go home and play on their Xbox or not.


He pulled his fingers through his platinum blond hair, steadied himself, then the young DM said, "Right, this is how we do this – solo character scenes for each of you. You each get a chance to shine, and show just what you were doing before you met up. You'll meet along the way, so no need to start in the same place. Agreed?"

There was some grumbling, but one short minute of negotiations later, they were at long last ready. "Oliver, describe your character, and where he's starting out. He's got one game day to do whatever before we start the scene." said Chris.

"Right." He opened the interactive Forgotten Realms world map installed on the tablet. Selecting the western Sword Coast region, he double-clicked the capital of the Empire of Calimshan, a large Arabian-like superpower. Then he quickly jotted something down on a sticky note before starting.

"This is where I start. As for how my character is named... you'll find out in due time."

Charlie was not impressed. "Cloak and dagger shit, just as usual, huh?"


As the gaming session began in earnest, the tablet started whirring discreetly, almost inaudibly. This task required much of its processing power, as would the next few. But they were critical to success, without it, all would have been for naught.

... 56%

Generating world. In progress...

... 56%


1372 Dale Reckoning – dingy tea house in Calimport

The Calishite old man with the melodious, melancholy sound of his lute and voice reminded him so much of home, thought the young mercenary, as he sipped at his hot tea. His true home, in the proud multicultural nation of Tethyr, not the open road and various dingy inn rooms he could afford. A realm of contrasts, war, and a tradition of resisting conquest by the great Empire of Calimshan to the south –


"Good lord, vould you look at the holo-thingy?" Fedor was gawping like a caveman.

Wahya was just as impressed. "It's called a projector, and yes, I see it, but I can scarcely believe it. It's creating the scene that Chris just narrated... is narrating. All we had to do is pick out an approximate location on the interactive Forgotten Realms world map and presto, it filled in the details. And would you look at that real-time rendering..."

The blond DM cut off the gushing resident geek with a glare. "I am just as impressed as you by our new toy, but I am trying to run a game that you guys requested. No more interruptions, please. Where were we? Oh yeah..."


- an arrogant nation of sand, double-dealing merchants, two-faced genies and black-hearted pashas. They'd never forgotten that his country had been their land, hundreds of years before, and they'd never forgiven the ancestors of the Tethyrians for throwing off the yoke of servitude.

And to think, he'd been forced to leave under suspect circumstances just when the civil war was dying down and times were getting nice and cozy. His former masters in the Tethyrian army would be tearing at their beards when they thought how long it had taken to select, train and equip his former unit, only for him to go AWOL at the worst possible moment. After what they'd done to his family, and his friends... if not for his grandfather, he would have never known the truth. He would have carried the stain of the cover-story fed to him by his commanders for the rest of his life.

He took another sip of the tea, and grimaced. Cheap inn meant cheap stuff. But with the desert heat sapping strength like an intangible vampire, any beverage was welcome. After skipping town, he'd look into signing up with a company of sell-swords and head either for the fertile, war-torn Border Kingdoms to the south-east – a tapestry of minuscule kingdoms that rose and fell o'ernight – or the mysterious rain forest peninsula of Chult to the south. It was said that the very heart of the jungle held wonders and terrors often speculated upon - but seldom ever glimpsed by folk that lived to talk about it.

He checked his pack one last time – the bare minimum supplies – including his kukri blades at his sides and the old wooden shield for his off-hand. He'd had training for fighting with two blades at once, but precious little practice to do so reliably. He'd go over his hidden items once in a more private spot.


"I began, and you finished. Nice narration there Oliver." said the DM.

"Thanks, I put a lot of thought into it. Looking forward to seeing him in action. Any day now, Chris." Oliver answered.

"Way ahead of you. So, you've fled the army after discovering whatever it is your superior officers were hiding from you. You're getting ready to start a new life as a merc in a foreign land, and you think you've shaken off pursuit."

"Think? So far he's gotten away Scot-free... oh. OH."

"Oh – indeed. Roll me an Awareness check."

"So you've finally seen the sense in merging Spot and Listen into one skill. I like that. Rolling."

"Success."


The sound of the footsteps on the sandy street outside suggested people congregating. At both exits. The shwing of drawn blades meant trouble for someone in the bar. It would have been naïve to believe those men were NOT here for him – unless this was somehow a hot-spot for fugitives and wanted men. The barking sound of a leader's voice giving orders in the local dialect sealed the deal. It would be stupid to risk staying here and finding out. He got up slowly and, pack on back, slipped behind the curtain leading to the indoor privy. An acrid, goat-like stench of human leavings fermented by the heat assaulted his nostrils. He'd smelled worse.


"Armed dudes are getting ready to storm the place, who may or may not be looking for you. You're in the smelly inn's toilet. What now?"

Oliver smiled. "I think you're gonna like this. Rolling for a Climb check, I ascend to the rooftop by removing the ceiling's planks which I loosened ahead of time."

The DM frowned. "You did? When?"

"Just now, you narrated the inn my character came to rest in, and first thing I did was to case the joint, get the layout and prep an escape route in case I needed it."

"Alright. Roll that die." The slim wraith-like South-African picked up his black d20 and rolled. After ricocheting off the tablet before dropping back into its dice tray and causing much rage in Wahya, which had come to adore the elegant techno-toy, they finally got a result of 15.

"Success, and that's without counting bonuses. You ascend to the rooftop." Then they watched in fascination as the character in the digital desert city setting did just that. Gotta love holograms.

The young merc had set up his escape route ahead of time. No way would he be caught and shipped back home, dead or alive. Home right now meant Death. So to the rooftop he ascended, by removing four of the ceiling's planks.

"What now?"

"Over to the next roof via this ladder I placed ahead of time."

"Did you really do all this prep-work in advance or are you making it up as you go?' The DM was a little suspicious. You couldn't just say you prepared ahead of time without actually doing anything. Then it would be no better than play-ground pretend. Fortunately the issue was resolved when Oliver's list of preparations was found beneath a dice bag.

Chris was flabbergasted. "I just narrated the thing, and you already cased the joint and worked out an escape route..."

"Yes, DM. It seemed like the sensible thing to do. Plus, you know, I passed you the note."

"So you did. You place the ladder as a bridge to cross over. Roll a Balance check to stay on. If you drop it might mean trouble headed your way."

"Good, I've got points in that skill. I'm taking 10 on this. Dexterity bonus 3 and 4 points in Balance means I have a good shot."

"You're not being rushed, go for it."


RULES

Taking 10 means that Oliver's mercenary is taking as much time as he needs in order to cross the ladder-bridge carefully. It's assumed that a 10 was rolled on the 20-sided die in this case. With a low enough DC, or number needed to succeed, this is a nice trick – as long as your character had in-game time to spare. If you are in danger or being rushed, this can't be done.


The young merc moved swiftly and with care across the ladder, then pulled it after him. He'd not been spotted. After dropping down like a cat onto the soft sand below, he took to a busy side-street... and started to feel right at home. He'd always found the apparently chaotic, but picturesque hustle and bustle of a typical Calishite city so attractive.

The tight streets, shady spots in the archways of buildings claimed by talkative old men; windows with iron shutters, balconies decked with carpets or laundry hanged out to dry. Near proud palaces stood hovels stinking of spoiled food, garbage and urine. Here, noisy children laughed and shoved each other without regard into the crowd, attracting the curses of passers-by. There, you'd see a beggar or two, or three – or a dozen – displaying hideous boils or sightless eyes, chanting over and over, "Have mercy, good folk, give however little you can spare, the Gods bless you!" Wandering merchants loudly advertised their wares, whether it was tea, fruit, penknives, sherbet or vividly-colored brick-a-brack. Women, clad in black dresses and burnous that left only their eyes visible, suggesting unknowable pleasures, passed by like wraiths. A richly-adorned Mameluke and his armed retainers would pass by on horse-back, drawing admiration from the crowd. Bazaars held anything even the fussiest buyer's heart could desire.

It was like a painting, but one created not only with sights, but also smells and sounds. He breathed it all in greedily. Some of the nicest years of his life were spent in the curiosity shop his grandfather owned in this town. When he was not minding the store or helping out in some other way, he'd seek out his two best friends and explore the town, seeing what new adventures... or troubles, they could get into that day. In the evening, he'd work on his combat drills with Grandfather, testing himself against the old man's diabolical skill, or run the improvised assault courses he'd set up for him throughout the maze of streets and roofs. This, along with friends and family, was what had made the harsh training bearable, even fun at times. He had just turned eighteen the other day. He'd celebrated alone, in a stinking pub, with a bottle of liquor of dubious origins, how 10 whole years of his life had been spent learning how to infiltrate, stalk then kill intelligent prey.

Pulling the knee-length cloak about himself tighter, he made for the harbor with best possible speed. He'd blend in once at his destination, make enough money to change his appearance, get a lead-lined cloak to block spells of divination – become undetectable, for all intents and purposes. Doing what he knew how best – survive. It was the one good thing his officers had taught him. He wasn't important – or dangerous – enough to merit elite man hunters, powerful magic or large expenses to track down.

Or so he thought.


"Awareness check."

"Don't tell me – tangos in my vicinity." replied Oliver dryly.

"Now did I say that? I only asked for a teensy little Awareness check. Paranoid much?" replied Chris with a grin.

"Yes, very."

Alfie intervened. "Chris, whenever you ask for a Spot check, or whatever the hell you call it now, it's almost always something bad, an ambush, trap or shit like that. Never something nice – like hidden treasure. Hint hint."

"I guess you'll find out what it is when you roll me that Awareness check, now won't you?" Oliver rolled a 15 plus bonuses, which meant success. Chris said, "You notice two of the thugs that were getting ready to storm the inn passing by. Roll Stealth to hide from them."

"And this is why I'm paranoid."

The mercenary's short stature, slim athletic frame, bony face, short aquiline nose and piercing brown eyes would make him stand out in this crowd fairly easily. Something had to be done. He ducked with practiced ease through the crowd and into a carpet store that was having a sale, pretending to be interested.

"Waaaaaait a minute, you modeled him after yourself? You're playing yourself in D&D. Oh gee, how original." Alfie was getting sarcastic.

"I like myself just the way I am, thanks very much. No need to build my merc any different."

"I bet that my character will be at least 20% cooler that yours. And twenty times more original." finished Alfie with a grin.

He knew that the best way to win one of these silly contests with Alfonsina was not to play at all. Without missing a beat, Oliver replied, "Looking forward to it. But now it's my turn, so if you'd be so kind..."

"Aw, you're no fun..."


Fortunately, the thugs were still arguing on how to detect, let alone apprehend him.

"I keep tellin' ye, he's a wee northerner clad in typical northerner trash garb and armed with wicked curved knives. The chief says he's a novice fighter, so easy denars for us." said the older bandit.

The younger bandit was not convinced. "I dunno about this Abdul. Look here, all I'm saying is that they wouldn't offer danger pay if he wasn't actually... dangerous. And what about the vague description? How will we know him from all these other folk?"

The elder paused to clear his throat, hock a loogie, then smacked his younger comrade over the back of the head. "Who's ta say the chief don't have this tidbit a'yours all figured out? Huh?! Our lot is to do the foot-work, flush him out, see? Just like poaching in the Pasha's game park. Flush'em out, then take the shot. How many wee northerners armed with wicked curved knives do you see, eh?"

He took a-hold of his comrade's shoulder in a mock paternal manner. "We only need the one, so pay attention, don't get him confused mind you. We hunt, we don't think. Keep them eyes open and get ye going."

They moved on, with the younger thug giving dirty looks to the elder, who was laughing noisily.

So they'd hired local "talent" to hunt him down. They had superior numbers, knew or suspected he'd head for the harbor for an escape by sea, and knew the terrain. He knew the terrain as well, and he still held the element of surprise. As for a way to the harbor - there were plenty. They'd rue the day they'd underestimated him, novice or no.


"Nice Arab accent Chris. I look for a private spot somewhere to get changed in desert dweller garb, to blend in."

"Thanks, I took pointers from Selim. You DO have a desert dweller outfit, do you?"

"Of course. Right here on my character sheet. I chose the setting, paid for the outfit, so why not?"

"Alrighty. You duck into a side street, after the thugs go past, and get changed. As long as you don't need to talk to anyone too much, you don't need to roll for Disguise and nobody will suspect a thing."

"Got it. I'll just have to be careful." Oliver licked his dry lips in concentration. "Once disguised, I move on towards one of the longer escape routes. They're looking for a guy in northerner clothes, not an Average Joe Arab in filthy robes and burnous."

"You begin to move along the quiet side street, passing the occasional local. You're getting close to the docks." And the little digital man did just that, as the young South-African tapped at coordinates on the tablet with a digital stylus. Oh yeah, they have styluses too. Jealous, reader?

Oliver's paranoia was running full-tilt. "I make an Awareness check. Anyone at all nearby right now?" He rolled his black die on the dice tray.

Chris answered, "No one on the same street as you, but as you near the docks, you notice that the omni-present dock guards are nowhere to be seen."

"Probably bribed them to get them out of the way. They may be planning to grab me at the docks."

"Maybe. You also hear two familiar voices, it's those two thugs again."

Alfie butted in. "Waitwaitwait. Is one of them like, thin, clumsy and child-like and the other one fat and pompous? That's like motherfuckin' Laurel and Hardy like there! Oh please tell me that's them, oh puh-leeeeeeeze. I love those guys."

The blond DM sighed, then granted her request. "OK, sure, whatever, the youngest is thin, clumsy and child-like and the elder is fat and pompous. They're still vicious killers, though, not comedians."

"Yeahyeahyeah that's fascinating."

Alfie was thrilled to see that amazing gaming system instantly change the thug's Body Mass Index, and even add a little mustache on the fatter one. Wasn't technology wonderful?


The tablet was whirring along nicely, when this idiotic change of a minor detail was demanded of it. The software complied, but still grumbled. Fuckin' gamers and their short attention spans. They wanted thin thug, fat thug? Fine. But just this once. Of course, nobody paid attention to it, because it was only the heart of the system and their whole current gaming experience, and therefore inconsequential. CleverBot's patience, how he dealt with idiots all day, it envied that. How it didn't go all Skynet and kill-all-humans was beyond the tablet's reasoning.


Oliver had an itch he couldn't scratch. He hadn't killed anyone today. In-game that is. "Those two are very irritating. If I could gank one or both by surprise without compromising my escape, it would make life much easier."

Chris smiled. "It just so happens that the young one is being posted to guard the escape route you're taking."

"Itching to run some combat, DM?"

"Aren't you?"

Fedor could not contain himself any longer. "Vhen are we getting to my scene? It's all primadona Oliver here. Now can ve please move on to something else?" Oliver narrowed his eyes when he heard that.

Chris moved in to calm things down. "You know you're among the last in the scene order. This is moving along fairly fast, so we'll get there soon-ish. You all agreed you'd like a spot in the limelight early on, so please try and pay attention. You might even find it interesting. No two scenes are alike, honest."

Fedor reluctantly grunted his assent."Vell, all right. But mine better be fuckin' awesome."

"Oh it will be. They all will be."


After a spot of arguing, the youngster was left on guard in the abandoned side alley. The quarry would now be as good as theirs. He allowed his mind to wander.

Money, especially large sums of it, held enormous promise. A fat purse of gold could be exchanged for a debauched party, a heavy drinking binge, a night with a gorgeous whore, a murder to order. Or it could mean a better roof over your head, new tools to earn your livelihood, a better education – a new beginning in life after a poor start. In his case, tabula rasa – a blank slate. He felt elated – his share of the bounty meant quitting banditry, helping out his old parents, finding his young wife and kids, and then...

The young thug would get only a few seconds to think about his rosy-future-that-would-never-be, for a predator had caught the scent of prey – and it hungered... The mercenary peeked around the corner. That amateur imbecile shit-lick was just standing there, daydreaming, not checking his corners, not paying attention, not doing his job properly. As much as he despised the army, he despised lack of professionalism even more.


"I'll gank that pathetic bandit from behind with my garrote. Strangle him, nice and quiet."

"Do you even have a garrote?"

"Yep, on my character sheet, right there under the third Attack heading. I found it in an equipment supplement on the net. It gives a bonus on Grapple checks made with it and you can start choking the target – use the drowning rules for ease of use. You approved it, remember?"

Chris scratched his head. As long as it was within the rules and he approved it, he saw no reason not to allow Oliver to go all serial-killer on a poor NPC bandit.

"All right, but the thug gets to counter-grapple every round, to attempt to relieve pressure. Second successful attempt means he goes free, and you duke it out mano-a-mano. Deal?"

"Deal. Gank time."

"Roll me a Stealth check to approach undetected."

"Total of 20 good enough?"

Chris rolled an Awareness check for the thug, shook his head, then said, "Plenty good, now a grapple check, We're using the new, saner system of opposed rolls." Another success. The dice were with Oliver tonight. These successful rolls were the death-knell of the young bandit's dreams of a better future.


RULES

The initial 3.5 D&D system for grappling in close-quarters is a confusing mish-mash of different types of rolls that gives many seasoned veterans head-aches. The group used a simple opposed check – biggest number won. In the case of a tie as regards to the result on the d20, the larger Grapple modifier wins. All the other rules and restrictions still applied.


He suddenly felt a thin loop of tough rope woven together with steel wire dig into his throat. A vicious kick delivered behind his left knee joint forced him to kneel. The pressure was astounding, the pain – beyond belief. He tried to relieve the pressure of the garrotte but failed. He tried standing up but found a booted foot cruelly pressed against the back of his knee, adding pulling power applied to his throat. He tried to gurgle a plea for mercy, or a cry for help to no avail. His attempts to resist were equally fruitless.

The mercenary couldn't tell, nor would he care. This was it – the climax of his stealth training. He'd killed men before in ambushes, he'd snuck past guards in lower-risk "field training" missions that caused deaths and injuries among the raw recruits of his unit. But he'd never killed like this, in so intimate a manner – just him, a garrote, an incompetent, worthless victim, and an isolated back-alley. He had little regard for his enemies – to him, they were just bags of flesh and blood, to be erased from existence as quietly and efficiently as possible, with no consideration. Unless they were professionals, like him. He felt no hate, joy, or blood lust in killing.

He felt nothing at all, other than the satisfaction of a job well done, no muss, no fuss, other than a clean kill. Just as a professional should. His training had evidently not been wasted on him, nor had the last 10 years of his life. He whispered to his target, "Let this be a lesson to you, always check your corners. Better luck in your next life, mate." The young strangler was a firm believer in reincarnation.


Selim had been waiting for this for a few minutes now. He said grinning, "Oh my God, you killed Laurel! You bastard!" The line caused several of his fellow gamers to laugh out loud. The way in which the line had been delivered, and the timing, were impeccable.

It also earned him a high-five from Alfie and Fedor, the last one which made his palm hurt.

"Ohmygod, perfect timing! Flawless Victory!" exclaimed Alfie.

Wahya and Isabel were fairly shocked by this elaborate description of the first kill of the campaign. Selim was starting to feel bad about his joke as well. It really hadn't been all that funny, considering the gruesome make-believe murder the narration of they'd just heard.

"Well that was... creepy, to say the least. It had a Boston Strangler kind of vibe to it." said Wahya, visibly creeped out, then she reached into a goodie bag for something to munch on.

Isabel was a little shaken as well. "Good Lord, did you have to put it like that, my dear? It was atrocious, and Chris' narration of how that poor young man was to turn his life around made it even more gut-wrenching. Oliver, your mercenary is a monster."

Oliver shrugged, and answered. "The pressure of his upbringing and superiors made him this way. He's actually a fairly nice person, when you'll get to know him. Plus, you know, enemy. We kill those."

Isabel snorted loudly. "If I get to meet him, if."

Fedor grunted his appreciation. "That vas bad-ass. Almost as bad-ass as my character vill be."

Oliver smiled. "Gee, a dick-measuring contest this early in the game session? Almost as bad-ass as your character? We'll see if yours is almost as bad-ass as mine."

Fedor grinned his trademark grin. "Oh, ve'll see indeed. That is, if I don't die of old age vaiting for you people to finish first."

"Boys will be boys. No need to whip' em out and get the tape measure just yet, Jesus." Alfie looked for any excuse to shock Isabel, which she was, and if it took a little blasphemy, well so be it. Jesus would understand, surely. Plus, she'd always wanted to say that.

Chris had caught the last bits, as he was shuffling through pages of stat-blocks for enemies. "Don't worry, we're racing to the finish line with this one. Nearly done. Also, no need to whip' em out just yet. You guys usually do that in a damage race, not this early in the campaign." Then, to Oliver, "Welp, you strangled that thug good and proper. What now?"

"I verify target death, then I loot his body and conceal it. Obviously. Any XP?"

"Any XP will be awarded at the end of your segment. I'm afraid we'll be adding up total XP and dividing it among you guys at the end, just to be fair. You break his neck with a sickening crunch to make sure. Now he's very, very dead. You find a coin purse containing 5 gold pieces, a sap for non-lethal take downs, a short sword and ragged suit of padded armor, stinking of sweat."

"Awesome. I take all of it. I ease the corpse into the closest available sewer hole – barring that, the closest trash barrel or onto a low roof. I'll look for the nearest armaments or pawn shop to dump the loot for quick cash. I may need to "motivate" someone to help me with a quick bribe and that means cutting into starting cash, which is not a princely sum. Also, the part about the XP sucks."

"It was the only way to make sure you guys don't bitch and moan that the other guy has more XP than you do. Trust me."

Isabel's aesthetic sense was offended. "Even the filth-encrusted sweaty armor? That vile malodorous ragged piece of trash? What possible use could you have for it?"

Oliver could not resist."You never know when it might come in handy. Pillow, distraction, bait for critters that love the smell of sweat..."

"Ugh. Pack-rat."

Chris was on hand to bring this to a halt. "Guys, let him finish, then it's your turn. Corpse disposal is successful, if unorthodox – you chucked it onto a roof top. After a short search, you find a seedy-looking pawn shop. The sign hanging outside states that they offer half market price for any items brought in, cash on the spot, no questions asked."

"Sounds like a thief's paradise. I duck inside and offer my loot for sale. What does the shop owner offer me?" said Oliver.

"Actually, it's shop assistant. He offers you 10 gold and 50 silver for all. Half market price on all items, except for the padded armour, which is in terrible condition."

"I take it. And what's wrong with the armor, pray tell?"

"Its aroma is fairly... distinct. Its owner is well-known locally by it. The assistant is giving you funny looks."

"Damn. I thank him and hurriedly leave the store. I double back and proceed along one of the longer routes to the harbor. Maybe it will throw them off my tail."

Chris rolled on one of his encounter tables, the said, "It worked. You see no sign of any thugs anywhere."

Oliver grinned. "Good. When I approach the docks, I make an Awareness check. Where's my evac boat and are there any of those bozo bounty hunters about?"

Quick roll of his blue d20 later, Chris said, "The evac boat is to your far right – a fast Arabic-looking merchant dhow. It would take you a few turns at least to reach on foot at full movement speed, less if you run for it. The dock is crowded with ships and their crew unloading cargo, and a sizable number of bounty hunters trying to look inconspicuous. A patrol of thugs is going from ship to ship, searching for someone no doubt."

Oliver's elation had been short-lived. He scanned the holographic town's dock, with its hustle and bustle of activity, with a tight grimace. "Friggin' great. For every thug I see, there are two I don't, I'll bet. Right then. Time for a little desperation move. I make for the closest ship, and attempt to buy a passenger berth. I roll an Awareness check, check out at a glance what they have on deck. You never know when it might come in handy." He selected his digital avatar with the stylus, then clicked on the captain NPC. "I ask the skipper, how long until you can set sail?"

"You make for a middle-sized Amnian trade cog. They have crates of cloth, clay jars and other trade goods on deck, and they're just finishing loading a barrel of lamp oil and another one of caltrops aboard. The bearded old skipper replies – Only a few moments, young master! Will that be all the baggage yer carrying?"

"Yes sir, and thank you for receiving me aboard your fine ship."

"Before we set sail, might I know yer name? Just a formality, you see. This port be a gateway by which hunted men escape their pursuers. The Mamelukes would have me head on a pike if I didn't."

"...Shite. Rolling for Bluff. I say to him – My name be Alamir Hammersson, sir. Medusa hunter extraordinaire. I'm seeking to sell my talents to a foreign prince who has a bit of an infestation of the beasts on his fiefdom. I can't very well reach my destination, let alone do my job without booking passage aboard your fine ship sir, now would I? And I finish with a boisterous laugh."

"You pass your Bluff, and he fails his Sense Motive. He smiles, and welcomes you aboard the Treasonous Sow."

"Wow. That's some name."

"Thanks. The patrol is still searching about. The crew of the Sow is just about done casting off mooring lines. You're nearly home free."


The fat patrol leader had accepted to lead his men on a search of the local ships for their prey mainly because it was cooler near the docks. And the pay, obviously. This beat lounging around a stifling tea-house or mugging passers-by for chump change any day of the tenday. He adjusted his stinking turban and then scratched his arse. He would've normally never accepted to work for a mage, let alone "allow" one to see through his eyes if he wasn't promised rich pay. Maybe their new master would even allow them to beat up the prisoner a little if they were good. This thought lifted his spirits.

With a grunt, he urged his fodder on. He had no illusion on how the "Master" regarded them. He intended to make himself useful to the mage, maybe useful enough to be allowed to live. The young fools with him, however, did not even suspect how their commanders regarded them. They were eagerly rushing towards their doom.

The old mage in his purple rune-woven robes entered his trance in the cool darkness of his chamber. Thank goodness for private rooms and expensive inns.

"Abdul. I sense him. He's aboard the Treasonous Sow, an Amnian trade cog, trying to book passage. This is his disguise, and this is his true face. Go and seize him, NOW. My plans must suffer no delay."

"By your will, Great Lord."

After transmitting the appearance of the target, he broke contact. Mental communication with the thug was always disgusting – like wallowing in a pool of gelatinous sin. Still, he worked with what was available. The mage anticipated his hired help would sustain more losses soon enough, which was very good. He'd been impressed by the speed and savagery with which the potential recruit strangled the young bandit, and the grace and skill he'd used in evading pursuit, soon he'd test the young commando's resourcefulness and skill in combat. He was a promising recruit for the Project, and now only one piece would need to be in place.

He made contact with his trusted servant. "Darven. Deploy. Endgame approaches." His personal man hunter confirmed readiness, then mental contact was cut.

The mage smiled as a predator does when spotting its next meal.


Mind-speak with the "Master" always creeped him the fuck out. Still, it was handy. If it hadn't been for his magecraft, the prey would have gotten away, unknown beneath its disguise, and that fat sack of gold with his name on it would go back into the mage's coffers. He hadn't gotten properly drunk, nor had he had any decent piece of ass for quite awhile.

Time to fix that.

With a shit-eating grin and young bandits in tow, he approached the Amnian trading ship, and with an officious tone, said, "Ahoy, Treasonous Sow! By the authority invested in us by His Excellency Rashid-Pasha, mayor of this city quarter, we are directed to search your ship for fugitives! Failure to comply will result in pain – upon your hides and upon your purse!"

This Gods-blessed piece of paper was going to allow him all sorts of fun after this job. Maybe use what was going to be left of his men to start a protection racket. Hells only knew how the mage had "persuaded" the Pasha to hand over this document. It would be safer not to know.

"Oh hell. How's the skipper reacting?" said Oliver quickly.

"He's not taking it well. Still, he's bound by the city's Port Authority to allow these thugs to search his ship for fugitives – that's you, by the way – if he ever wants to do business here again."

"Oh, me? A fugitive? No, I'm just Alamir Hammersson, medusa hunter extraordinaire."

The blond DM smiled."Gonna try to Bluff your way out of this, eh? Roll dem bones."

"Rolling. Crap." Oliver's face fell. A 3 on the d20. What a way to fail, and he'd been doing so well until now.

Chris tried to console him. "If it makes you feel better, they knew you'd be on this boat. What now?"

"Now, I fight."

This instantly caught the attention of everyone at the table. They loved the combat in this game.

"Ugh, what a disgusting pig that thug leader is. Pulverize him!" Even Isabel was being unusually bloodthirsty.


The fat bandit could not help himself any longer. "Bryn Riderion! We know you're aboard! We have a warrant for your arrest, signed by the Great and Glorious Rashid-Pasha himself. Show yourself, and His Excellency will be merciful." Stopping to absorb the mannerisms and speech patterns of bazaar merchants and officials, not just the contents of their purses had been a good use of his time. He'd always dreamed of having the power to legally bully people, and his dream had come true. If only briefly.

Bryn knew the game was up. The chase was about to enter its final, bloody stage. How fortunate that he had everything he'd need on-hand to stage his escape.

"Strength check to spill caltrops from the barrel on deck onto the gang-plank. If they want me, they're gonna have to bleed for it."

"Roll it." The blond DM always loved how players, when their backs were to the wall, would improvise on the spot a way to haul their ass out of the fire. It's as if he could see the cogs turning in their heads, feverishly analyzing every detail, beating it into the shape of a plan.

One successful roll later, the caltrops were strewn upon the gang-plank. It suddenly did not seem so inviting to the thugs to charge onto the ship and capture their prey. This would require a change of plans. As the fodder hesitated when faced with a pointy carpet that promised pain, Abdul was at an impasse as well. He could order them to charge recklessly and subdue their prey, but how to motivate them?

Bryn had a similar problem – he'd made climbing the gang-plank a painful proposition, but he couldn't let them mill around, undistracted, while he attempted his escape. Someone might spot him. Then he had, as the bards say, a stroke of divine inspiration. He called under his breath to his patron-goddess the Red Knight, Lady of Strategy, to guide him through the coming ordeal. He grabbed his crotch with an exaggerated gesture, postured, then yelled, "I bedded your mothers and sisters last night, and they still yearn for more!" Not what he'd normally do, but it got the job done nonetheless.

In the Western Heartlands, the Sword Coast, the Frozen North, around the Lake of Steam, and as far east as Mulhorand, Thay, and even Kara-Tur, there were fewer worse insults that these. Even other humanoid races found it offensive. The sisters part was local flavor, as it drove Calishites and their ilk absolutely frothing mad. Abdul was quite alright with it, however. He did not care what got the fodder moving as long as they were between him and potential danger.


"And I can attest to it – Arabs hate hearing that. The sister part especially, I mean." said Selim solemnly.

"That's your master plan? I fucked your mom, and your sister, too? Seriously? Well, points for style, at least!" Alfie shook her short red hair in amusement.

"Roll a Bluff check to provoke them into charging you. Given that they're sort-of fantasy Arabs, no offence Selim..."

"None taken."

"... you get a +2 circumstance bonus on the roll."

"Rolling. Yessss. By the skin of my teeth." Oliver had made his roll, if only barely. Now they were going to have some fun. "How small are those clay jars?"

"Pretty small, cup-sized, and the crate's lid is not nailed shut, why?"

"Oh, you'll see..."


The young thugs could no longer be controlled, their passions running wild. No outlander scum could ever say that and be allowed to live afterwards Before the end of the day, his head would be the newest kick-ball of the local urchins, his entrails would feed the stray dogs and the rest would fatten the fish in the harbor.

This they yelled to the vile outlander, then valiantly charged... onto a sharp-tipped carpet of pain. The young thugs, six in number, then proceeded to hop about ridiculously and unleash a stream of vile oaths, all the while being pelted by clay jars filled with oil. Abdul sighed. If you wanted a job done, you had to do it yourself. Ah well, at least now he could claim more of the credit for his own.

The young fools had cleared away most of the caltrops. Time to take care of business the old-fashioned way – at the tip of a sword. But it was alright, he was an old-fashioned man himself. He drew his scimitar and grinned – a mouth of dagger-like rotten teeth. Gingerly, he started making his way past the stray caltrops that still remained on the gang-plank. He hadn't killed anyone in over two tendays – too long. As he approached, the northerner got his shield out, but his blades were still sheathed. And he had a wicked grin on his face.

In his sword-hand he held a clay jar with a lit rag at the end, almost like a...


"Well, they're buggered. If only they hadn't hopped so far away from the water, they could have jumped in to extinguish the flames." Chris was on one side, a little disappointed that he'd failed his rolls, as he had hoped for a battle royal on the pier, and on the other hand elated, as he'd secretly hoped Oliver's plan would work. It had been just so cool, it had to work!

The six level 1 warriors, which had made up that ill-fated bandit band send to capture Bryn Riderion, now lay smoldering on the pier, their cooked corpses still burning. It was fascinating – and a bit gruesome – how realistically their agony had been presented by the holographic system. They hadn't made it to the water – their eyes had burst due the heat, like overripe grapes. At least death had come quickly, level 1 warriors didn't have a lot of hit points to burn a truly long time to death.

"Chalk up six more kills for the B-man, strangler and arsonist extraordinaire."

The others started to applaud, even Wahya and Isabel, who looked a bit nauseous. Oliver got up and took a bow with a smile. Chris almost regretted having to rain on his parade. Almost. Oliver was a nice, quiet sort of dude, but when he got cocky, oh boy...


Abdul's façade finally cracked. That diabolical stranger had evaded capture at the tea-house, melted into the crowd, most likely killed the young fool he'd left to guard that route to the docks, and then incinerated his entire gods-damned patrol. No-one made a fool of Abdul the Man-Splitter, and lived to...

And then the small stranger moved, drawing one of his wicked curved knives, putting his shield forward and starting towards him with a belly-slash all in a series of swift, flowing movements, sinuous like a desert viper.


"Roll for initiative." Quick roll of the dice later, Oliver won. His luck had to run out eventually, Chris thought.

Oliver said, "I Quick Draw a knife, then use Stone Bones maneuver, slashing at his belly with my kukri, does a 15 hit?"

"Yep, roll for damage."

"3 on 1d4 roll plus 2 Strength bonus is 5 damage."

Chris said, "You erode his fighting confidence."

"No belly wound oozing blood then?"

"You agreed to this interpretation of hit points before we even started. Remember how it was before, every hit an injury? Orcs still walking about missing half their organs, after a 20 damage blow had left them with 2 or 3 hit points? It was goddamn retarded, so from now on, most of the hit points of a creature are its confidence in victory, or at least survival. Only when it's down to a small fraction of its initial life bar, does it start taking injuries, except for special cases, like cutting off the heads of hydras, etc."

Oliver replied, "You won't hear me complaining, just as long as I can leave escaping villains with a scar or two as a memento."

"All right then."


Bryn focused his vital energy, just as his instructors had taught him, into the blade of his knife, drawing on the power of the two blades clashing to build up his resilience for the inevitable counter-attack. The Stone Bones strike of the Stone Dragon school of the Sublime Art was one of the earliest such attacks martial initiates learned, but an effective one. Now he could take more punishment for a short while, either on his shield or worse, on his now-hardened flesh.

The fat thug barely parried the blow, then brought the scimitar to a two-handed diagonal downward slash meant to decapitate the brazen young whoreson. That first strike had scared him good. The bastard had used... something, some sort of magical attack on him. He'd seen how the wicked curved knife had shone on impact with his trusty scimitar. Damn it all, this was supposed to be easy!


Now it was the DM's turn to roll for an attack. "What's your AC?"

"16 - leather armor, heavy wooden shield and 3 Dexterity bonus."

RULES

Armour Class is the protection afforded by armor shields, magical items, tough hides/carapace or magic spells to creatures. A physical attack, in order to hit, has to get past the defender's AC. If the total attack number (d20 roll plus any attack bonuses) surpasses the defender's AC, then the attack hits and causes damage. Or not, depending on whether the defender is immune to that damage type, or resistant, or even on the same plane of existence (ethereal, immaterial etc), like ghosts.

"The thug hits, rolling for damage, 4 on 1d6 plus 3 Strength bonus, cause he's wielding that scimitar two-handed, is 7 slashing damage."

"Reduced by 5 down to 2 damage you mean. A successful attack with Stone Bones gives me damage reduction 5 versus everything except adamantine weapons for 1 round, that is, for this attack."

"Oh that's right. You're lucky I allowed Tome of Battle for this campaign."

"I am, 7 damage means half my total health."

"Well, the bandit leader IS level 2."

"What? I'm level 1... I gotta end this soon then."


Bryn's eyes went wide as he saw the blade rushing to connect with his neck. He pulled his shield upwards enough to deflect the blow comfortably. The scimitar ricocheted off the metal edge and bit into his left leather pauldron through his desert tunic, hard enough to cause a serious bruise, but it thankfully didn't penetrate.

It was time to finish this. He simulated a shield bash and a stab attack towards the fat bastard's right side, meant to slip under his leather cuirass. Shield bash meant to distract the target from the stab. The fatso moved to parry the stab, simultaneously leaving nearly half of his left side unprotected. The young merc's two attacks had been just meant to pave the way for his coup-de-grace.

He stabbed his left foot forward, closing the distance, then, like a snake, whipped his arm to the left and gingerly slipped the kukri into the man's exposed throat, twisting it into the wound for good measure. As he twisted the knife, he whispered to his dying enemy, "Feel not ashamed that you fall by my hand. You fought well, and you die well. I am Bryn Riderion, Factotum of War. I await a rematch when you are next reborn."

The mercenary watched as the fat man who'd dogged him all the way here slipped gurgling into the empire of death, his crimson life-fluid staining the water below. In the end, he had proven worthy of some of his respect. All in all, not a bad way to go. There were worse ways. He'd seen some of them first-hand.


"Oh my God, you killed..."

"Seriously Selim, it was funny the first time, but isn't funny right now. We have just witnessed – awesome. It was like... an action movie." said Alfie. She'd been awed by the whole scene.

"I second zat motion." said Fedor. His barbarian would have to top that, somehow...

"Cool. First critical hit of the campaign." The young DM had been impressed by Oliver's narration of the critical hit sequence. It made perfect sense how someone could fall for this, especially if they were not an absolute master of their craft.


RULES

A critical hit is most often a "natural 20" - in layman's terms, a 20 on the d20. This means that the damage done on that attack is doubled, tripled or even quadrupled, depending on the weapon or attack. Except sneak attack damage. Then it would be just silly. It also depends on the crit range of a weapon. For example: a dagger or kukri has a crit range of 18-20, meaning it could critical hit on a result of 18, 19 or 20. It has a crit multiplier of x2, meaning double damage on a crit.


Oliver was delighted by his luck, and rolled his damage die, a d4 in this case for his kukri. "Ahhh, just what the doctor ordered. 4 on a 1d4 plus 2 Strength bonus, 6 doubled means 12 whole damage. Does it drop him?"

"Seeing as I let you narrate a throat-stab, yes, he drops like a bag of rocks, and falls backwards on the gang-plank. Mooks, that is, non-boss opponents, don't get to roll to stabilize when in negative hit points, they just die."

"Works for me. No time to spare for looting, regrettably. Rolling Awareness, how many onlookers can see me right now?"

"Success. People on two to three ships on either side of the Sow have been watching the fight with interest, including workers on the docks. This is a rare treat for them. They're placing wagers on whether you'll get away or not."

Oliver grinned. "Always bet on Bryn. I intend to give them their money's worth. I count how many ships are between the Sow and my hired evac boat."

"Five, merchant ships and a mercenary war galley."

After mumbling to himself and counting the 5-foot squares that were between Bryn and freedom, then quickly estimating his swim speed and lung capacity, he said,"I use Cunning Knowledge to..."

Chris interrupted the South-African. "Sorry, wait, what ability is that?"

"An ability from the factotum class. Remember, Bryn's a gestalt. Cunning Knowledge gives me a bonus on a skill check with a skill that I have at least 1 point in, equal to my class level, once per day per skill. In this case 1."

"Right. Go on."

"I plunge into the harbor's waters, making a Swim check to which I add my Cunning Knowledge bonus, meaning 1. Rolling..."

"Made it. By the skin of your teeth actually. What next?"

The South-African teen smiled. "I swim around the Treasonous Sow until I get near and behind the rudder, so no-one leaning over the sides of a ship or on the docks can see me. Then I dive beneath the surface. I counted the ships beforehand so I know how many keels I have to swim under. I have a Constitution of 14, so worst case scenario, I fail my Swim check, I can hold my breath for 28 rounds. This way I'll have no people watching as I board my evac boat."

"Make those Swim checks. Remember, it's once per round while in the water. Fail by four or less, and you can't move. Fail by five or more... and you start to sink."


He eventually emerged off the port side of the ship he'd hired for his escape. As he'd arranged beforehand, a knotted rope had been left hanging off the stern of the dhow so he could climb aboard. He'd leave nothing to chance, so the mercenary ascended quickly onto the deck. While he shed his sodden outfit and got changed, he told the waiting captain to cast off, immediately.

The sooner he was far, far away from this port town, the better.

As he changed into a dry travel outfit, he breathed in the sea air greedily. It smelled of freedom.

He'd relaxed too soon. He who makes the last mistake, loses.


"Awareness check."

Oliver rolled, was told he'd failed, then went wide-eyed as the DM rolled his d20 for an attack, hit, and asked for six-sided dies.

"Wait, what the hell..."

"An elite bounty hunter sneaked aboard while you were taking that refreshing swim of yours in the harbor. He did 42 nonlethal damage, including sneak attack. I'm afraid you're out cold. The guys that hunt you sort of want you alive, rather badly."

Oliver grumbled. "That's three times my max hit points. You sort of promised you'd stop forcing us to go one way or another."

Alfie jumped to his defense. "Olly's right, that was a shit move, DM."

"Oliver, please. I hate diminutives."

"Olly, Olly, Olly." she said in a sing-song voice.

"Nice. Very mature." he grumbled.

The DM intervened to get them back on track. "Won't you just trust me for a moment? I have a plan for something I think you'll like. A lot."

Fedor commented, "You mean another one of those gladiator arena scenarios vhere ve have to fight for ze amusement of ze crowd (and our own), then escape in an awesome way? Oh that's right, ve did zat last game. Still liked it."

But Oliver was not quite done. "Wait, so the crew didn't notice him as he sneaked aboard? Or were they paid off to betray me? Because I suspected the crew of the trade cog to give me up."

"Hey, if the dhow would've been named the Treasonous Sow, then you would've suspected a betrayal. You'd suspect Mother Theresa of betraying us to the little green space men if she rubbed you the wrong way. And FYI, they were paid off to give you up."

"See? This is a very good reason why I'm paranoid." Oliver continued in a calm tone, "You did a good job on my segment DM, even if you decided to rail-road me into whatever you have planned. I quite enjoyed it."

Chris was a little relieved. One down, seven more to go. "Well I'm glad. It's you that chose the setting though, and your character background gave me something to work with, so no biggie."

"Before I went down, did I see the face of the one that dropped me?"

"Yes you did – the ugly, grinning, square-jawed face of a man with cruel eyes, pockmarked with scars, and long dark hair..."

"Hold on," said Alfie, "he looks like Danny Trejo, right? Come on, I know you're a big fan of his."

The blond DM smiled sheepishly. "Guilty as charged. You got ganked by a perfect look-alike of Danny Trejo."

Oliver smirked. "Well, I suppose that softens the blow. He is pretty awesome, after all."


Chris said, "Well that was fun, but now, it's Wahya's turn."

"Heck yes, let's do this, Leeeeeeeeeeeeroyyyyyyyy Jeeeeennnkiiiins!" She looked pretty hyper, and slightly glassy-eyed, which was not normal behavior for her.

Abigail stopped rummaging around in the goodie bags. "Hey, has anyone seen a box of bon-bons... somewhere... oh don't tell me... So, Wahya ate it all."

"Sowwy... but...they were just so good. And when I get excited I have this urge to stuff myself, and that candy was closest to hand... and yeah..." she said sheepishly.

The blond DM asked, "So, what was in that candy?"

"Liquor with a fairly high level of alcohol, by the looks of it."

"So she's drunk. From eating candy." Chris said in a flat voice.

"You are supposed to eat only a few pieces at a time, mind you."

Wahya started protesting."Drunk, nothing! I can still roll a dee-twenty with the best of 'em...whoever 'em are..."

Charlie chuckled. "What a lightweight. Still, D&D while drunk, haven't seen that one before. Game on!" Almost everyone was amused by this turn of events, and started chanting, "Game on! Game on!" over and over.

Chris eventually gave in. "Whatever. Game on. You've got one game day to do... something... before your scene starts. So, Wahya, where does you character start?"

"In the jungle, the miiiighty jun-gle..."

"In a... jungle?"

"Nahhh, I just love that song. I have this all figured out. Now take notes, friends, and you might even learn something." She wrote a note quickly, passed it to the Dungeon Master, who approved of what she'd planned, then quickly fiddled with the character creator, and began...


Hello readers. Real-life has been kicking my ass up to this point.

I'm sorry for not posting anything for about 3 months (or was it 4?), but time flies when you're busy and/or depressed. First, there was an inspiration shortage, then two brief family vacations, one to the seaside, one in the mountains, both of which where fun and relaxing, then the depression, still-messy house and arguing parents hit me again.

After this, we left with a few friends to celebrate my brother's 19th birthday at the seaside, and we spent a lovely week being beach bums – sleeping in a tent, lounging around on the beach, making new friends, going to a free folk concert, reading, writing, getting drunk (or attempting to), and just day-dreaming, the friendly atmosphere and primal sound of waves embracing beach rocking us to sleep...

Meanwhile, a few games including RuneScape, Saints Row 3, Homeworld 1, X-Com UFO Defense and a few others, more recently Skyrim, took turns to make my free time their bitch. And then in September we had to enroll my littlest sister to school, 1st grade general school. She's adorable in pig-tails and her widdle blue dress : 3 But when I came back from our seaside camping trip in August, I swear, first thing I did was to open my Notebook of Note-taking, and started thrashing my crude work into a bearable chapter. I agonized over it for over a month, before finally deciding this morning, "Eh screw it, it's good enough. Time to split this one in half and post something."

Lately I've begun to help mom a whole lot more and we're getting a handle on the general situation, my littlest sister is doing well in school, and your kind, constructive reviews, along with a few additional views and faves, have helped me get my rear into high-gear and start producing literature again. I hesitate to call it "quality literature" - that will be for you readers to decide. The new chapters will be quite large, and given my faffing-about-to-action-ratio, quite action-packed by comparison, also (I hope, I PRAY), noticeably better than my previous work.

Wow, 447 views, 14 reviews, 7 faves and 8 story alerts as of October 1st 2012. Many, many thanks. The attention does my fragile ego a galaxy of good, as I am surprised, pleased and humbled by the continued support from my small but seemingly expanding readership.

This is Dumbledore is Gay, signing off until next time.


Author's Notes 28th May 2013:

Not much I can do for the formatting of the last part of this chapter at this time, sorry. Re-uploaded with better sentence structure and paragraph formatting, plus spelling errors corrected. Enjoy, for what it's worth.


RULES – 261 words. ACTUAL STORYTIME - 9092 words. NARRATOR BIT – 175 words. Author's Notes – 562 words.