Monday, July 20, 2015

Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Ltd. 1995) [COMICS]

Twenty years ago, long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, only comic book fans knew who Nick Fury and SHIELD were: even David Hasselhoff hadn't yet donned the eyepatch!  There's been a lot of attempts to give Fury and his supposedly super-secret spy organization a comic series, and most of them haven't been very successful.  In 1995, Marvel tried with a four-issue limited series titled Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D.  Let us peruse . . .

Just look at that cover to Issue # 1--can you tell we're in the Image Comics influenced mid-1990s?  Fury looks like freakin' Cable with ginormously broad shoulders and a huge rifle.  Compare that to the classic Jim Steranko Nick Fury from a couple of decades previous.

It looks like our buddy Nick has been hitting those steroids hard.  On to the story.  We start in media res, with a good rooftop action scene: Fury tries to recover a computer microchip from some bad guys, but there's an explosion and one of them escapes with it.  The scene shifts to a party attended by Tony Stark, and we learn that the microchip was originally stolen from Stark Industries.  Fury is at the party keeping tabs on one Karl Kraus, CEO of Kraus Techmatrix, someone suspected of involvement with the theft.  Apparently there's  been a rash of similar hi-tech thefts, and Fury and SHIELD are on the case.  Nick's joined by his occasionally-psychopathic son, Scorpio.  From what I can tell, a previous story in another comic had established that Scorpio had taken over the presidency of a country called Carpasia.  Here, we find that Scorpio had given up that job because of Snickers-related corruption.  Yes, I am not joking, and no I cannot explain it.  Anyway, Nick and Scorpio intervene at a break-in at another hi-tech firm called Polydyne when they're trapped by robots.  Cliffhanger!  Verdict:  fairly average story, hate the artwork.  There is a funny scene where, due to budget cutbacks, Fury is forced to give up his daily cigar if he wants to keep his health insurance with SHIELD.

In Issue # 2, we find out that Karl Kraus is a head honcho with Hydra!  He's got a girlfriend named Kitty Drake, but in a good twist, it turns out that Drake is the actual thief.  Comic books and soap operas are close cousins, because a long time ago Kitty Drake was actually Kraus' first wife, only he doesn't know that the two women are the same person! (there was a name change, some weight loss, and plastic surgery involved)  Kraus got his position with Hydra by stealing it from Kitty Drake's father, and she's out for revenge.  So she's seduced one of Kraus' tech-geniuses, a guy named Simon Mycroft, to help her build a micro-neutron bomb.  Fury and Scorpio, who had no trouble escaping those robots from last issue, get help from Iron Man to track the bomb.  We then end up with a three-way battle between the good guys, Kitty Drake, and a very mad Karl Kraus.  Kitty says she'll detonate the bomb unless Kraus turns over his Hydra holdings to her.  Cliffhanger!  I actually like the Kitty Drake character and back story, even if one must swallow a heaping helping of disbelief.

Issue # 3 starts with a very pretty splash page of a top-down view of the restaurant showing rainfall splashing on the glass with Kraus and Kitty having their stand-off inside.  Credit where it's due.  Kitty gives Kraus 24 hours to give her what she wants, or she'll sets off the bomb.  Fury and Kraus make a deal to work together to find Kitty using Hydra technology.  A car-chase jet-pack shoot-out action chain eventuates, and it's pretty good.  Kitty tries to set off the bomb, but Kraus has a jammer and shoots her.  He deactivates the bomb but then pulls a gun on Fury!  But Kitty is still alive and shoots Kraus!  Both the bad guys die, and Fury lives to tell the tale.

And now for something completely different.  Issue # 4 is evidence that this was originally planned as an on-going series before being recast as a limited one.  The story does not have anything in particular to do with the Kraus/Kitty storyline.  Instead, Fury & Son walk through the old neighborhood, as Fury reminisces about how dangerous it has become since he and his brother Jake were little kids.  A good scene, and a part of Fury's backstory rarely seen.  Soon, however, Fury and Scorpio find themselves caught in the middle of a gang war involving hi-tech weapons.  Investigating, the pair find a lead to a secret government operation named "Future First": an old SHIELD agent named Spanier has gone rogue and teamed up with a former Soviet mutant-hunter named Firefox.  Although Fury and Scorpio get captured and caged, Firefox plays around too much with Scorpio's cosmic key doohickey and accidentally blasts the cage door open!  The good guys then make short work of the bad guys, and the final panel shows Nick getting to have his cigar after all.

To sum up: the 1990s were a terrible time for superhero comics.  But that being said, Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. was slightly better than some.


Saturday, July 18, 2015

Hell Frozen Over: Chapter 19 [BUFFY]

CHAPTER NINETEEN: FOUR YEARS AGO

Angel slowly pushed his head out from under the desk and looked around—the science lab was empty. He rolled completely out and stood up, brushing dust and “ash” from his clothing. He walked briskly over to one of the counters along the wall and cleared a place on it for him to stand. The science lab was set lower than the rest of the building, meaning the only ventilation came from long but narrow windows set near the ceiling—students in the lab could view only the feet of other students standing outside on the lawn. Extending to his full height, he pushed one of the windows opened and hoped he could squeeze through. He had heard gunfire just outside the room in the hallway, and knew the vampire-hunters must be close.

He was pleasantly surprised Giles’ plan had worked so well. It seemed like such a cheap ruse, but the librarian had made it run without a hitch—pretending to attack Giles, Giles melodramatically scrambling for a weapon, Angel falling to the ground with a scream. “Ash” and “blood” were created from simple ingredients in the chemistry cabinets of the lab. The hardest part was the end—lying silently under the desk as Michael approached, and then rolling towards the door when he came around to the far side of the desk, and then back under the desk when he and Giles turned to leave. If the hunter had caught him then, it would have all been over. But the terrible illumination provided by the emergency lighting made the difference.

Angel pulled himself towards the window but paused midway up, listening to the gunshots again. Just what are they shooting at? he wondered. They wouldn’t attack one of their own, and with me “dead,” what is left? He thought for a second, standing on the counter. Giles! How could I have forgotten—vampires were after him too. I was thinking so much of myself that . . .

He jumped down from the counter and lurched towards the doorway, seeing that Giles and Michael were in the hallway, face down on the ground just a few yards away. Wooden bullets flew all around them. It took Angel a moment to realize Giles was not being aimed at—at least not yet. Instead, the high-tech vampire-hunters were shooting at another group of vampires on the opposite end of the hallway. Angel recognized them instantly as Spike groupies and hoped that their master really had died in the collapse of the church. They had torn off locker doors to use as shields and darted from doorway to doorway to avoid the shots.

Giles was safe now, but the two groups of vampires were rapidly advancing on each other, and would meetjust about where he and Michael were laying. I’ve got to help him. But if Michael sees me, he’ll keep coming after me and we won’ t fool him twice.

Angel didn’t hesitate to make a decision—Giles was worth the risk. Angel tried to find a lull in the gunfire and then rushed out into the hallway, the pain in his leg still bothering him. The shooting started again just as he reached the pair.

“Come on, get up!” he shouted to Giles. He crouched low to the ground as the projectiles continued to fly. When the Watcher did as instructed, the pair awkwardly ran while trying to stay low to the ground and reached the doorway. Angel pushed Giles through and turned back. Angel had been grazed in the shoulder, but it wasn’t a serious wound.

But now that the vampire-hunters knew he was there, a second such stunt could be deadly. Michael was still laying on the ground, with his hands around his head—apparently his exoskeleton increased strength, but did not provide any protection against projectile weapons. I can just leave him—we’re free and clear now, Angel thought. He tried to kill me. But . . . he is an innocent—even if hopelessly confused. Still . . .

Angel shook his head from side to side and rushed back out into the hallway. This soul is really going to get me into trouble someday, he thought. He dove towards where Michael was laying. Out of the corner of his eye Angel saw one of Spike’s vampires disintegrate from a well-aimed shot. They weren’t stupid though—they had sent some of their number around the school to flank the vampire-hunters, who would be in for quite a surprise as the others distracted them.

He shouted Michael’s name twice, but the figure didn’t respond. Angel noticed his eyes were closed. Is he dead? No, he’ s breathing. Must be in shock or something. Angel crawled over to Michael, grabbed his wrists, and began dragging him back towards the science lab door. We need a miracle, Angel thought, as a bullet whizzed just inches from his ear.

It came in the form of a thick cloud of smoke that filled the hallway, making it impossible to aim accurately. “Angel, this way!” he heard Giles shout. Angel continued pulling in the direction of Giles’ voice until suddenly Michael’s hands grabbed hold of the vampire’s wrists as well, and began pulling in the opposite direction.

“Let me go!” the human growled. “I won’t let you . . . do to me . . . what you did to them!” With a powerful jerk, Michael pulled Angel off of his feet and slammed him into the wall.

Angel hit hard with a thud before scrambling to his feet. The smoke was rapidly starting to clear, and he could see the other vampire-hunters taking aim at him. He looked around desperately for Michael, only to see the door to the basement swing shut behind him. He wanted to go after him, to explain, but there just wasn’t time. Asa fusillade of wooden bullets screamed through the air, Angel dove into the science lab doorway and Giles slammed it shut.

“I tried,” Angel said simply. “Where’d that come from?” He pointed to a few tendrils of smoke emerging from underneath the door.

“A rather simple concoction really,” Giles said, “mainly water and a little sod—“

“Never mind,” Angel interrupted. “We need to get out of here. That door won’t hold them if they decide to come through.”

“It appears that our, ah, guest is mobile again,” Giles said.

“We did what we could. He’s on his own now.” Angel walked over to the counter and lifted himself up to the window.

“Come on,” he said, bracing himself on the ground and reaching his arms through the window. He was strong enough that he could pull Giles up easily.

Sirens began wailed in the distance as they reached the parking lot. I was wondering if they would ever show up, Giles thought. One would think that with everything that happens at Sunnydale High, they would build a police station across the street.

They walked wordlessly until they reached Giles’ beat-up Citroen. Across the parking lot, they saw a handful of the vampire-hunters jump into a waiting black car, while a small army of Spike’s gang made their way to a manhole cover, ripped it out of the ground, and jumped down.

“I still don’t understand what that was all about,” Angel stated. His clothing was rumpled and dirty, but he still held his head high.

“Death . . . can make people do strange things,” Giles observed. “Pray that we never have to face the tragic loss of a loved one as Michael did.”

“You think he’ll come back?”

“Most certainly. But not for a while. And perhaps then we’ll be prepared.”

***

Buffy’s eyes were wide and she was scared—very scared. The motorcycle almost flew down the mountain road, as Castillo took turns at breakneck speed and did not slow down, no matter how much ice was on the pavement. She swore he was a maniac, but somehow, every time it looked like they were going to crash, he kept the bike on its wheels and continued going even faster. What’s he have to worry about—vampires can’t die from car crashes, Buffy realized angrily. 

As soon as he finally started slowing down, Buffy tensed to make a jump for it, but Castillo kept an arm tightly around her shoulders. He finally pulled over near the guardrail on a section of a narrow, one-lane road. He removed his jacket and draped it over the handlebars. The mountain continued to loom up above them, while only the guardrail stood between them and an almost six-hundred foot drop to a rocky slope below.

“Now, was that not exhilarating?” Castillo asked, keeping a firm grip on Buffy and walking over to the guardrail. He smiled broadly and was clearly in a good mood. “It is one of the few worthwhile inventions of this century. The wind in your hair, the –“

“Bugs in your teeth?” Buffy interjected.

“Ah, yes. Uncooperative to the end—an admirable quality. However, it is just you and me now—let us dispense with the formality, shall we? Now, as I was saying, the brooding vampire characters in your silly American novels are just that—fiction. Who would ever yearn to be ‘human,’ when one has an eternity to sample all of life’s pleasures with none of the pains?”

“You know, right about now, I so do not care,” Buffy said.

“Well.” He turned her around so she was leaning against the guardrail and had to look at the rocks below. “This is more cinematic, don’t you agree? A cold windy, winter’s night—the moon casting the slightest hint of shadow as the stars flicker—an isolated mountain road—a cliff awaiting. Indeed, did you know that this was how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle portrayed his great hero, Sherlock Holmes, perishing in mortal combat with his arch-enemy, Moriarty?”

He sighed and turned her around so her back was to the guardrail. “I regret that you do not appreciate it. But, you are no Holmes and I am no Moriarty,” he said, almost wistfully. “Still, I must apologize. I was hoping that I would have something very memorable or witty to say to you to memorialize your last moments, but I fear that I cannot think of anything. The simple fact is that you are about to experience a very long fall onto some very hard rocks. Good-bye Ms. Summers—it was not as I had hoped, but still a pleasure.”

He leaned over almost nonchalantly to push her over the guardrail. Buffy reacted instantly and twisted the chain from her handcuffs around his left wrist and tugged hard—she thought she hard something snap. Castillo cried out in pain and slammed into her, knocking Buffy over the railing. The handcuffs were still twisted around Castillo’s wrist, however, and Castillo was jerked off of his feet and tipped over the railing as well. He managed to grab one of the metal supports of the guardrail with his one free hand, though he felt he was being torn in two.

Buffy’s legs dangled in the air—there was no way her feet could reach anything to get a grip on. She heldon tight with both hands as Castillo tried to shake her off, and then she dodged frantically as he kicked at her. She caught a glimpse of the cliffside below and had difficulty drawing her eyes away—it was so far down! There was no way she could try to climb—if she dared untwist the chain, he was strong enough to shake her off easily.

She pulled her legs up and back and began to swing, slowly at first, and then faster, like a pendulum. Castillo’s face contorted into a picture of agony as he was torn between holding on to the guardrail with one hand and Buffy with the other. The bitch is trying to wrench my arm from its socket! “Stop it, girl--you’re going to kill us both!” he exclaimed, the first time Buffy had ever seen him sweat.

She continued swinging faster and faster and then, when she reached the highest part of her arc, she suddenly relaxed her grip, untwisting the handcuff chains. Before Castillo could even realize what was happening, her momentum had lifted her up in the air, and with a mid-air tumble worthy of an Olympic gymnast, she had landed on top of the guardrail itself. She stepped down onto the road and then turned to face the vampire, who was still holding onto the guardrail and swinging slightly.

“I have a question,” Buffy said. “Was this dramatic enough for you?”

She aimed carefully and planted a kick at his hand, breaking several fingers. She heard him cry out one last time and then watched his body plummet several hundred feet before crashing into the jagged cliffs below.

***

Xander crashed through the cabin door and shouted “Guys! There’s vampi—“ before realizing he was staring two vampires right in the face. Behind them, in a corner, Willow and Cordelia were sitting handcuffed. “Why does this always happen to me?” he said dryly before sprinting back out the door.

“Follow him!” shouted one of the vampires to his companion. “I’ll watch the prisoners.”

Xander ran out into the snow, knowing a blood-sucker was following close on his heels. He ran around the corner of the cabin trying to think desperately of a plan—one didn’t come to mind, so he kept running around the building and before he knew it, he was back at the front door. He decided to continue running and bounced off the chest of the vampire which had chased him and then doubled-back. He landed on his rump right in front of the doorway. Both vampires advanced on him, licking their fangs.

“Willow!” he shouted. “I need you to think up a plan for me really fast!”

“I’ve got one!” she yelled back instantly, her eyes fixed on the portion of the road she could see through the doorway. Soon everyone could hear the low rumble of an approaching motor. “Keep them occupied while Buffy stakes ‘em!”

“Angel has returned, and soon the party begins,” one of the vampires said to Xander. They were so confident that their leader had returned that they didn’t even turn to look in the direction of the approaching motorcycle. They heard its engine stop and continued smiling at the captives until a leather jacket flew through the air and landed at their feet.

They turned and looked around then and saw that the Slayer was standing in front of them, her hands free and holding broken but sharp tree branches.

“Okay, scumbags,” she said. “I’m tired, so we can do this two ways. You can either a) jump on the bike and ride far, far away, or b) stand there politely while I jam these through your hearts.”

The vampires were shocked—Castillo had never failed before. But after all the warnings they had heard about the Slayer, they were too intimidated to risk fighting her when even their master had failed. They backpedaled slowly and then ran for the bike, taking off down the snowy road in a cloud of smoke. Buffy unlocked her friends’ handcuffs with the key she had found in the jacket.

“I knew you’d come through,” said Willow, hugging Buffy.

Cordelia rubbed her wrists. “Anyone else notice how she always saves the day after my hunk gets gored by the vampires? I think there’s a pattern or something.”

“I’m glad everyone’s okay,” said Xander. “Man, you wouldn’t believe what Amara and I just went through.”

“Amara?” said Buffy. 

“Yeah. You know, the pretty girl I was with all day on the slopes. We waved to you, remember?”

“Xander, I remember seeing you once or twice, but I didn’t think you were with anyone. We waved at you, but I wondered why you were spending so much time alone. I thought maybe you just wanted some time to yourself.”


“But—” Xander looked perplexed and then cold fear hit him in the gut. “Oh no! Not again . . .” he said, rushing out of the cabin.

He jogged over to Amara’s cabin. It was still dark, but Xander tried the door—it was unlocked and opened easily. Inside, the cabin was empty and held no signs it had recently been inhabited. It doesn’t look like its even been used--but I was just here a few hours ago! The rumors about the owner’s dead daughter. I guess it makes sense. The ever-present Xander curse. He sighed and put his hands on his hips, kicking the bed frame desultorily. He walked back slowly to the others’ cabin and resolved not to tell them about it. As much as they tease me about women now, just think what they’d do if they knew I spent the entire day hitting on a ghost.

***

It was early on Sunday afternoon when Cordelia pulled her father’s SUV into the high school lot. They had jumped into the car as soon as they could cram it full of their gear—no one could sleep after the night’s excitement, and no one wanted to explain to the authorities how the lodge burned down and the resort’s caretaker died. Plus, Buffy was worried about Giles—Castillo had mentioned something about eliminating the Slayer and her Watcher.

Giles pulled into the lot from the other direction just as Buffy and the others were getting out. The librarian had intended to spend the day cleaning up his office and was surprised to see his ward had returned so soon.

“Giles!” Buffy called out and ran to him.

“Ah, hello everyone,” he said. “Finished your vacation early, I see. Was . . . there anything wrong?” he said, a worried look on his face.

“Wrong? Us? Of course not,” Buffy said innocently. She knew that if she told him of the vampire attack, he would feel guilty for letting her go and not being there when she was in danger. Fortunately, the others had agreed to keep her secret. “Just boring was all. How about you? Anything pop up here while I was gone?”

“Ah, no. No, nothing ‘popped up,’ as you say. A very quiet weekend, actually,” Giles said, removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes. He worried about Buffy’s emotional state enough as it was, and if she found out that a small army of vampires had come to town and that Angel was almost killed, she would blame herself—she might never relax again. Fortunately, Angel had agreed to keep his secret. “I’m, ah, sorry your vacation did not turn out as you hoped,” he said.

“It happens,” said Buffy with a shrug. “You know, sometimes Sunnydale isn’t really as bad as it seems.” This is my place, she thought. It may be a literal hell hole, but it’ s where I belong. And maybe that’ s not so bad after all. “Anyway,” she said, smiling, “I’m glad to be back.”

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Mynock Squadron Recap # 3 [RPG]

[4.6.6 ABY]

The recruits emerge from the flight sims and soon learn that the leaderboard has been updated. Stavros is amused to find that he is in first place despite doing poorly in the dog-fighting scenario, Slaprat is saddened by seeing his name in last place, and Torgo is belligerent after dropping all the way to a tie for sixth.

Lt. Tuvolo orders the recruits to take a long run before curfew, and a handful of the recruits take the opportunity to discuss recent events away from prying eyes. Kero, Stavros, Waric, and Keth discuss potential suspects in the recent sabotage, and decide on a course of investigation. Using the secure comlink, Kero informs Major Dei of the group's plans and receives a data-file containing a list of base personnel.

That night, back in the barracks, Kero gets yelled at by Lt. Tuvolo for trying to read the file on her datapad after lights out. The datapad is confiscated, but Keth manages to slip it out of Tuvolo's pocket and return it. Waric and Stavros each sneak out of the barracks. Waric tries to get into the main administration building but is rebuffed by a suspicious guard. Stavros follows Tuvolo to a field north of the base and sees strange preparations underway before returning to bed.

[4.6.7 ABY]

In the early morning hours, the fatigued recruits are awakened by klaxon--Lt. Tuvolo has a surprise in store for them: "The Gauntlet". The recruits are taken to a large, fenced off field that contains a handful of weapons scattered about (all set to stun), mysterious crates, and a large stun-laser turret in the center. The recruits, who have a choice of where to start based on current ranking, are told that the only rules are to stay within the perimeter and don't kill anyone; last one standing wins.

When the competition starts, a furious combination of melee and hunt-the-womprat ensues. Waric initially seizes control of the turret, but is driven off by Torgo. The Rodian and his sister team up and take out a few contestants, but neither is trained to use such a heavy weapon and miss as much as they hit. Keth grabs a blaster pistol, circles along the northern part of the perimeter, and ends up in hand-to-hand combat with the Ewok Gatara; he manages to defeat her and take her quarterstaff. Stavros finds a blaster rifle that only has a couple of shots' worth of power left; he strategically hides behind a rock and formulates a plan. Kero manages to wrest a blaster as well, and she soon joins Stavros at the southern end of the field. The two decide to enlist Keth, Waric, and the hapless Slaprat in a bid to remove their toughest competition. With teamwork and good shooting, the group manage to take out Torgo and his sister.

While the fight is going on, Waric begins to act oddly, shrieking strange, high-pitched gibberish. He sets the laser turret to explode its built-up stun energy, and the wave catches himself, Keth, and Stavros (annoying the latter), but they all remain conscious. In the spirit of the competition, he then attacks Kero, but she stuns him into blissful sleep. Later, when he wakes up, Waric remembers little of his strange behavior.

Slaprat having earlier agreed to be stunned to guarantee a fifth place finish (a high for him), there are soon only three combatants left: Keth, Kero, and Stavros. The three agree to end the competition by simultaneously stunning themselves using a charge rigged by Keth. Lt. Tuvolo is annoyed at this outcome, but Kero defends their actions, saying it demonstrates the best virtues of a fighting unit. The two Rodians, seeing what they perceive as the others ganging up against them, shoot angry glares at the trio.

Having made it through the final test of their ground combat abilities, the recruits are ordered back to their bunks to gather a last hour or two of shut-eye before reveille.

-------------------------------------
Director's Commentary (July 11, 2015)

I was quite candid then and now that this session was a total rip-off of The Hunger Games--but it was too good of an idea to pass up!  It's rare that PCs get a chance to out-think and out-fight each other, and it's great fun as a director to set up the game board and see where the pieces fall.  It might've been even more fun if the PCs had incentive to really go after each other instead of tying, but I respect the teamwork solution.  If I had been more clever before the session, I should have had some of the NPCs team up and try to take out the PCs instead of having each NPC play it straight.

The Gauntlet test took up pretty much the whole session, and it was a bit tricky as a director to run so many NPCs and still try to keep a reasonable pace.  Placing the stun cannon turret in the center of the field worked really well, as it was powerful enough to give the contestants something to fight over but inaccurate enough to not necessarily be worth it.  Of the NPCs, the Rodian hypermale (Torgo) and the comical Slaprat had the best developed personalities, which is ironic considering what happens in the Leaderboard.  More on that next session.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Realms Toowoomba Session # 53 [RPG]

[30 Kythorn 1372 continued]

Inside Terrigo Multivar's house, Ralkin asks if anyone would like to join him for an evening walk. All present refuse, however, as Fargrim is quite drunk, Myst is busy trying to discern the properties of magic items, and Mellia and Dolcetto have their noses constantly in books. Undeterred, Ralkin heads to the riverside on his own and begins searching for the telltale signs of a kenku collective. A few hours' searching leads him to an ancient, abandoned warehouse full of scurrying rats. Several kenku are waiting on a high catwalk, and their chattering reveals that they were hoping Ralkin would find his way to them. The leader of the group, a kenku elder named Talrin Blackfeather, explains that Ralkin is just in time to participate in a holy ritual to Quorlinn: they plan to steal something completely worthless in the most spectacular way possible!

Elder Blackfeather then explains a complicated plan involving luring the driver of a specific cartload of hay onto the Moonbridge, stalling the cart and blocking both ends so that only the cart is present, uncoupling the cart's horses so that the driver chases after them and off the bridge, then deactivating the magical structure so that the cart and hay will fall onto the waiting nets of a boat waiting below! The hardest part of the plan, he explains, is stealing the necessary ward token to deactivate the Moonbridge. The kenku have identified High Mage Taern Hornblade as their best chance, and know that he lives in the High Palace and plans to give a speech to incoming students at the Lady's College the next day. Ralkin volunteers for this crucial task, only to be mocked by a kenku emerging from the shadows: his old nemesis, Karin Whitefeather! She tells the others that Ralkin will fail utterly, but he remains determined to try.

[1 Flamerule 1372]

The day begins with the adventurers focussed on getting ready for a planned journey to Thay. Dolcetto and Myst spend a few hours magickally delving into the functions of the items obtained from T'Klack's complex, while Mellia works on transcribing into her spellbook a spell that conjures a phantom mount. Fargrim sorts through his equipment and decides to lighten his load by asking Multivar if he wants the sword obtained from the half-orc Iskenvar that seems to burn everyone who touches it. Multivar isn't interested either, but offers to dispose of it the way he disposes of all of his trash: by throwing it through the mirror-portal. Dolcetto overhears the exchange, however, and offers to hold on to it herself.

Daisy spends the morning drawing pictures for everyone, and after receiving her share of the party's treasure heads into the birch tree forest of Silverwood with Binky to say goodbye to Syd and Garry. She has no luck finding them, but coincidentally Syd has decided to scry on Daisy's location and recognizes the area of the forest where she is walking. The adventurers and their animal companions are reunited. Syd explains that he still hasn't decided whether to journey with Daisy back to Startop Mountain to seek adventure or to journey with the others through the mirror-portal to rescue Cain in Thay. He says he promised to give a decision to the others by sundown tomorrow evening. The two camp at a sheltered spot in Silverwood, having never found danger within its borders.

Back at Multivar's house, Mellia magickally sends a message to Hestia to check on Gideon's status. The old crone reports that Gideon should recover eventually and keeps saying "Darkhold" over and over. Myst, seeing Mellia look concerned, posits she is thinking about Cain and asks her to describe what the cleric is like. Mellia replies that Cain was loyal and helpful, and that it's her own fault he was kidnapped. She tries to draw a picture to show Myst what Cain looked like, but her artwork isn't much better than Daisy's! Using the description and picture, Myst later tries to scry on Cain's whereabout, but the spell fails. Mellia asks Multivar if he knows anything about "Darkhold", and the old wizard gives a confusing answer about it being a castle maybe occupied by Zhentarim. Mellia sends Fargrim to the Vault of Sages for an answer, but the dwarf is told in no uncertain terms that the topic can be found only in the forbidden section of the library.

That afternoon, Ralkin walks to the Lady's College and hears High Mage Hornblade give a speech that terrifies the incoming pupils. Hornblade, a stern, older man with white hair and bushy eyebrows, leaves before Ralkin can approach him. Ralkin then visits one of Silverymoon's many open-air markets and sizes up a likely mark. He finds a farmer chatting with saddlemaker and, with perfect timing, distracts the farmer and makes off with his coin purse. Next, the kenku journeys to the High Palace, a soaring, many-spired castle of thick stone clad in white marble. He examines the structure carefully, noting the patrols of the High Guard in their distinctive silvered armor while formulating a plan. He returns to Multivar's house and persuades Mellia to come out with him later that night because he needs her help in winning a "race against his kin."

Elsewhere, Markus finishes reforging the magickal link he holds with his familiar and then visits the academy of Blademaster Isobe Noboru. Less than a tenday before, Markus had defeated Noboru's fifth best student but failed in a duel against his fourth-best student, El Capitan. Because the rules of the academy require challenges of the top five duelists to take place in sequence, Markus issues a challenge to the current holder of the fifth rank: a woman clad almost head to toe in a thick robe and named Sister Demuria. The challenge is accepted, and a duel planned for the next day.

In Multivar's kitchen, the assembled adventurers make themselves a meal from the provisions in the wizard's pantry. Mellia reminds everyone of the plan to leave through the mirror-portal tomorrow evening at the stroke of eleven, but Dolcetto says they may need to delay departure to give Syd a chance to arrive and dispose of his share of the treasure, a task that will be difficult because the halfling promised to arrive at sundown and Silverymoon's shops will presumably be closed by then. Mellia insists that the plan should be followed as she wishes no further delays in rescuing Cain, but Dolcetto replies that a commitment has been made to Syd and must be kept. An argument ensues until an angry Dolcetto stands up abruptly and leaves! Myst, Markus, Fargrim, and Ralkin chase after her and try to persuade the loremaster to return. Markus says the dispute is over a misunderstanding, and if Syd doesn't returned in time, they could hide his share of the treasure in Multivar's house for him to collect later. Dolcetto doesn't approve of that idea, but Myst persuades her to return nonetheless.

However, upon returning to the kitchen, another dispute about Syd breaks out between Dolcetto and Mellia! Mellia says there is no way she's going to allow a massive dinosaur to blunder through Thay on a mission that may require subtlety and careful negotiation, but Dolcetto replies that, even without the dinosaur, Syd's proficiency with the divine healing arts may be essential to their task. The two clash further over Dolcetto's idea to speed their journey through the creation of phantom mounts for everyone, a move that Mellia condemns as wasting her most precious defensive magickal energies. Dolcetto gains Myst's agreement to cast the spells instead, but concludes that, if necessary to provide Syd with his share of the treasure, she will stay behind another day and then catch up.

Concerned about a potential splintering of the party, Mellia tries to shore up support. She gets a commitment from Fargrim and Myst to go through the mirror-portal as planned, but Ralkin is noncommital and Markus equivocal. Mellia tries to persuade Markus by reminding him that Cain is one of his best friends and about how his absence seemed to drive the swordsman into a state of extreme denial, but Markus responds that death has changed him and has given him a new perspective on things. After hearing about Bettina having been told of his death, Markus arranges for a note to be left at Wayward House should she ever return. The note reads: "I am not dead. Markus."

Late that evening, Ralkin and Mellia journey down to the docks to "sign up for the race." Mellia is suspicious, and insists that Elder Blackfeather sign a disclaimer absolving her of responsibility for any actions taken by Ralkin. Upon receiving the signed parchment, she agrees to Ralkin's request and casts a spell that allows his hands and feet to stick to walls. She then journeys back to Multivar's house. Earlier, Ralkin had explained in the kenku language to Elder Blackfeather that deception was necessary. He also requests the assistance of a spell-thief to aid him in his venture. Elder Blackfeather agrees, and dispatches a young kenku mage to journey with Ralkin to the streets adjoining the High Palace. There, upon request, the mage casts an invisibility spell on Ralkin and then departs. Whether out of ignorance or malevolence, however, the mage fails to disclose that Silverymoon's mythal prevents such spells from operating normally within the city! As Ralkin approaches the High Palace, his shroud of invisibility slowly fades away.

Although thinking himself invisible, Ralkin still proceeds with his plan cautiously. He darts to the outer wall of the southernmost tower and begins to ascend quickly thanks to Mellia's spell. The kenku is careful to avoid windows and arrow slits, and eventually reaches the upper portion of the tower and a window that very well could lead into the High Mage's quarters. Ralkin decides to test whether the window is locked, but his attempt sets off a fire trap ward! Fortunately, he manages to avoid the gout of flame, but the blast alerts guards somewhere inside and an alarm gong begins to ring. Ralkin hurriedly climbs down to the ground and huddles in a nearby doorway, disguising himself as a vagrant. The hasty disguise is excellent, as a member of the Spellguard looks right at Ralkin and decides to move on!

After waiting for the general alarm to subside, Ralkin decides to try again. This time, however, the upper ramparts of the palace are periodically swept by High Guards with enchanted stones that cast bright light. Ralkin has to carefully time his ascension to avoid being caught in the light, and a second's delay proves costly! The kenku is obviously not invisible, as a guard spots him and lands a well-aimed crossbow bolt in the kenku's shoulder. Ralkin retreats back down the side of the tower and manages to lose any pursuit in the winding streets and glades of Silverymoon.

[2 Flamerule 1372]

The next morning, Mellia notices at breakfast that Ralkin is slightly wounded. The kenku says it was an injury incurred in the race. Dolcetto finishes enchanting Markus' rapier to make it sharper and faster. Along with Fargrim, Dolcetto travels to a huge shop in Silverymoon's Northeast side called the Emporium Arcanum. Inside, they find a well-lit and well-stocked display of enchanted objects of every description, all arrayed under a hovering and rotating banner that says "If you can imagine it, we can provide it." The two receive offers on several magic items in their possession, and a promise that the store will still be open well into the evening if Syd decides to visit.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Buffy Comic Project: "Withdrawal"

Buffy the Vampire Slayer # 46

(Dark Horse, Volume 1, 1998-2003)

Creators:  Tom Fassbender & Jim Pascoe (story), Paul Lee (art)

Setting:  Season Six

T.V. Character Appearances:  Dawn, Buffy, Spike, Anya, Xander, Willow, Tara,

Major Original Characters: Velatti (vampire); Hoop (Bear Demon)

Summary:  Dawn comes home from school, eager to share news, but is disappointed to find the house empty.  Buffy is actually in Spike's lair sharing his bed.  At the Magick Shoppe, Xander and Anya banter about wedding preparations.  Unbeknownst to all of them, a vampire fought previously and thought dead, named Velatti, pulls herself free of a rock slide and decides to get revenge on Buffy.  After witnessing Buffy and Spike talking in the cemetary, Velatti sends a giant bear demon named Hoop to kidnap Dawn.  Later, Velatti spars with Buffy and taunts her about her kidnapped sister.  When Buffy tracks Hoop and Dawn to the Doublemeat Palace, a fight breaks out between the assembled Scoobies and the pair of villains.  Xander kills Hoop with a sword, and just as Velatti is about to humiliate Buffy by revealing her secret liaisons with Spike, he appears and stakes Velatti.  Buffy apologizes to Dawn for not being around more, and thanks Spike for helping to keep their secret.

Review

The vampire Velatti and the bear demon Hoop apparently come from the illustrated prose novel Creatures of Habit.  I have it and read it a long time ago, but my pop culture memory is poor.  Nonetheless, they worked pretty well in the story.  The theme of Dawn's loneliness and Buffy's impetuous relationship with Spike worked really well in the story, and I thought this was one of the best "done in one" tales of the series.  The characterization of the main players, including Willow, Anya, Xander, and a brief cameo from Tara, were also done well.  It's a good story that fits nicely into continuity with disrupting it.

Notes

* This is the first issue of the series to be set squarely in Season Six.

*  I was mentally self-congratulating myself for reaching the 2/3 point of blogging about this series.  Then I realized that my "Buffy Comic Project" started in June of 2010!!  It's fair to say I have to pick up the pace!

* This is the last issue for Fassbender and Pascoe.  Overall, I thought they were pretty strong and better than some that had come before (the letters' page is full of glowing praise about the pair's run).  An announcement is that Scott Lobdell will take over writing duties in the next issue.  My impression of Lobdell from other comics (superhero stuff) is that he was fine but not spectacular.  The editor promises a "radical new direction", so we'll see . . .

*  The artwork continues to remain strong.  For example,


I love this shot of Buffy and Spike grinning at each other after Buffy tells him "I'd kick you, but all the strength has gone out of my legs."

* Velatti has some funny and dirty dialogue.  After realizing that Spike and Buffy are lovers, she walks up to Spike and says "So, tell me, they say Slayer blood is tasty, but what's your opinion on Slayer p--"  "Hey!  That'll be enough of that," he interjects.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Wrath of Ashardalon Adventure # 8: Free the Captives

We really liked the the concept of this adventure: keeping villagers alive while the monsters are trying to kill them!  Although we won it on the first try, the concept made for an exciting end of the mission, as it was touch and go for a while there.  It's just too bad that the first 3/4 of the adventure is the, by now, somewhat boring endeavor of flipping over enough tiles to get the endgame started.  If the players had had to protect the villagers from the very beginning, this would have been far more fun.  My only tip is to pay close attention to what the monsters and villain will do based on how close a hero (or villager) is--there were a few spots where we had the villagers on a safe square, and knew nothing would attack them because we had a hero on an adjoining square to absorb all of the attacks.

Monday, June 29, 2015

First Born [TORCHWOOD]

First Born os one of the three  prequels to Torchwood's Miracle Day season, and I'm sorry to say it is by far the worst of the lot.  The gist is that Rhys and Gwen are on the run with baby Anwen and take to hiding in a remote Welsh village.  The village, of course, has something strange going on: no baby has been born there in decades, and it's monitored by a mysterious government-run "Weather Station."  There's a not-particularly-interesting plot involving aliens, and while the supporting characters are reasonably good, the annoying thing about the novel to me was its structure: incredibly short chapters, told from various points of view, creating a choppy and jarring read.  Best to pass up this one.