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"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."


Lost, child? Don't be afraid. You can navigate by using the side bar to the right, under the picture of that curious fellow. Read about what has been written, and what is being written, by looking over the Blog Archive or "Things Lurking in the Dark." Be sure to check out the novella, "Unquiet Slumbers," posted in its entirety.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

PROGENY, PART THREE

In the ninth grade, I beat the undefeated Chess Club president by sacrificing my queen and checkmating him with my rooks.  I will never forget the look on his face.  Tall and reedy, Don was one of those nerdy boys who disguised their fear and alienation under a liberal layer of arrogance and superiority.  Chess was his wheelhouse.  Now it looked like he was going to cry.  "I never saw you coming," he said, lowering his eyes.

After that, the name stuck.  By the end of the year everyone was calling me it, even kids outside the club who had no idea what it meant or why they were calling me it.  I wasn't Damien Draegonne any more.  I was simply 'Rook.'

I was vaguely aware a 'rook' was also some kind of bird, but this was in the days before Google when if you wanted to know something you actually had to put some effort into it.  It never seemed that important.  But I got the answer a few years later, anyway.  My girlfriend was doing some fieldwork on the Akwesasne reservation in upstate New York one summer, and I drove up to visit her.  She introduced me to and old man she described as a 'shaman,' and sharing a meal one night we got to talking about totem animals.  "You are watched by Rabbit," he told her, before stopping and looking very hard at me.  "And you...you will be a Crow."

"Will be?"

The old man stared again, with the kind of look you saw in the eyes of the deeply stoned or people looking right through you.  "Will be.  They haven't come for you yet."

I remember deciding the old man probably was stoned and went on with the meal.  That evening though, my girlfriend brought it up again.  "That was weird, right?  The Crow thing?"

"Spirit guides in general seem pretty weird to me."  I said, brushing the conversation aside and attempting to nuzzle her neck.  I didn't want to discuss Iroquois spirituality.  I'd made the six hour drive for sex.

"I mean, because I introduced you as 'Damien.'"

"Mmmm," I murmured, trying to unbutton her blouse.  "Well that is my name."

"But everybody calls you Rook, and he didn't know that."

I realized, as thousands of generations of men before me had, that I wasn't going to get what I wanted until I let her say what was on her mind.  So I stopped pawing at her and sat up straight with my best "I am here to listen to you" face.  "And?"

"Well a rook is a kind of crow," she said, looking at me like it should have been obvious.  "Or a raven."

"Huh," I said, still thinking about undressing her.  "That's interesting."

They haven't come for you yet.

To this day I cannot tell you how we travelled from the Progeny's castle to the Tenebrati lair.  From my point of view, we just suddenly were "there."  I have no memory of the journey, and at the time had no idea if I was even in the same nation or hemisphere.  I have since learned the effect the Progeny can have on the minds of the Quick; We can lure one of you away from the herd and feed, returning you with no memory of the event.  It's not hypnosis so much as pushing you down gently into a dream state, just as easily as shoving the head of a child below the water line of a bath.  Individual Progeny develop individual powers, but this forced dreaming seems universal.

Perhaps the same applied there.  Maybe I made the entire journey in that thick mental haze, or maybe Athena actually possessed to power of teleportation from one place to the next.  All I knew then was that one moment I had been standing with her in the library at the Progeny castle, and the next I was blinking and dizzy, the world coming into focus around me, somewhere else.

And as my head cleared, I became aware of a semi-circle of figures gathered in front of me.

"Everyone," Athena announced to the room.  She had not raised her voice but a stillness fell over them all nonetheless.  "This is Damien. He is seeking to join us."

She began a round of introductions.  Again, there is a surreal haze over my memory--perhaps the Progeny affect on the Quick--and my impressions of the evening are blurry at best.  I remember the amber firelight flickering over the ancient stone walls, the intricate pattern of the carpet on the floor.  I remember the whisper of fabric as the Progeny moved through the room.  But their faces, and any details about them, are veiled.

I remember Alexa was there, with her young Get.  I remember Marcus, immaculately dressed in a tailored suit.  Others came and went it seemed, appearing and disappearing in the fog around my perception like ghosts.  They moved around me, pale shadows with glittering eyes and soothing voices, and in my memories they chatted with me amiably, as if I were an equal.

Though they questioned me extensively, I was also able to learn something of them.  Some of it I knew already from Harot.  I knew that the Progeny were bound by an elaborate web of traditions and customs, stretching back through time.  I knew they divided themselves first into Bloodlines, which might be compared to "nationality" or "ethnicity" among the Quick.  Within  these Bloodlines ran smaller sub-divisions, known as Clans, just as human nations have local regions.  If a Bloodline were, say, the United States, a Clan might be New England, the Pacific Northwest, or the Deep South.  The difference of course is that Bloodlines and Clans were not bound by geography.

"We are the Raven's Claw," Athena told me, a note of pride in her strong voice.  I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, the shaman's words echoed in the back of my brain.  You will be a crow.  They haven't come for you yet.  I was to be a Crow.  The Rook.  A Raven.  I had never believed in destiny before, but my path seemed to have led inevitably to these beings.  "Our Bloodline spans many Clans, and even includes some among the Quick and the Others."  The Others, I would come to learn, referred to supernatural beings other than the Progeny.

"We tend to be less autocratic than many Bloodlines," Marcus smiled from across the room.  His words buzzed like Novocain in my head.

"In some the Get are bound tightly to their Sires, in a strict chain of command." Athena agreed.  "We value independence here...which gives us a reputation of being intensely political.  For we do not always agree, and can be passionate in our disagreements."  The others in the room nodded at this as if thinking upon some incident I wasn't privy to.

"You are fortunate you happened upon Athena," Marcus added.  "Our Bloodline is not as contemptuous of the Quick as some may be."

I realized even as they spoke to me they were discussing business among themselves in those eerie, inaudible voices.  The air hummed with it around me, even if I couldn't make out the words.  Now and again they glanced my way, and I felt certain they were sizing me up, examining me in ways I couldn't comprehend.

"Rook is a scholar," Athena informed them.  "A writer.  I think perhaps he might like to help me with the archives."

I found myself agreeing, partly because I had come this far and was desperate for acceptance, and partly because the dizzy, narcotic influence they had on me made me want to say "yes" to everything they said.  If Athena had told me it was a good idea to take a steak knife and carve off my face, under their influence, I would have to struggle not to refuse.

"I think I will keep him," she told the others, and there were murmurs of agreement.

I was given quarters in which to stay, as the Clan made plans for my Embrace.  I cannot tell you how many days or weeks I was there.  At night, the dreaming effect of the Progeny was strong, making my thoughts slow and thick.  During the day, my head cleared, but I felt strangely lethargic.  I spent most of my time pouring over books that Alexa had given me, the laws and customs of the Raven's Claw, the those that bound the Progeny entire.  Food was brought to me at regular intervals, but I had less and less appetite as the days passed.  I was losing weight.  My skin had turned pale and them clammy.  Dark circles appeared under my eyes.

Are they feeding on me?  I felt a thrill of horror.  If they were, I had no memory of it.  Still, I was showing all the signs of increased blood loss, even if I could find no tell-tale bite marks on my skin.

When Athena returned to visit me, I was very weak.  My supper sat uneaten on a try beside the bed.  "Are you ready to join us, Damien?"

I nodded, and told her yes.

"You understand what this means, I hope?  There will be no turning back."

"I understand.  And I am ready."  I was ready, I felt it in my bones...but if I wasn't?  I wondered what then.  I was in their lair, and it was clear they had been draining me.  They had opened up their secrets to me.  Yes, I had come if my own free will, but I felt certain if I had a last minute change of heart I would simply disappear, never to be seen or heard from again.

"Dress is formal," she replied with a nod.  "I will send for you."

It was a struggle to dress.  Standing, I felt dizzy and weak, and my heart pounded irregularly in my chest.  I put on a suit left for me and knotted the tie, realizing with a curiously detached feeling that my life was about to come to an end.  Not the end the doctors had condemned me to; but something altogether more alien.  My breath would stop.  My heart would cease to beat.  But I would live, after a fashion.  I would be some entirely different order of being.

And I would feed on blood.

The horror came to me then, the same limb-seizing terror that gripped me on my way to First Communion.  I am the resurrection and the life.  He that believeth in me, though he were dead, shall live.

A raven landed on the windowsill and cocked its head at me.  And I knew with perfectly clarity my entire existence had led to this.

O death where is thy sting?  O grave where is thy victory?

The ones who came for me, I felt certain, were human.  What had the books called them?  Familiars.  That was it.  It was a pair of them, a young man and woman, both pale and dressed in black.  I had read that the Progeny often kept human servants, or Familiars, around for protection and for food.  Some did it hoping they too could someday be elevated into the Progeny's ranks, others found a sort of submissive sexual thrill in being vampirized.  These two, brother and sister by the look of them, took me gently by the arms and escorted me, slowly, into the hall and down the grand stairs.  I was glad to have them.  My knees were weak from blood loss and my head was swimming.


The room they led me to was some sort of chapel.  The girl swung open the heavy wooden doors while the boy helped me keep standing.  Lit by flickering candlelight, the smell of incense heavy in the air, a low chant poured out of the room.  As the boy escorted me in, a saw a dozen or more shadows around me, turning their glittering eyes towards me in unison.  Male and female, of all nationalities and ethnicities, they had the same air of hunger about them.  They moved aside, silently, as the pair led me towards a black altar on the far side of the chamber.

Athena was there, in a black evening gown.  She stood directly before the altar, Alexa not far away.  The pair of Familiars left me standing in front of her, my back to the assembly.  It took all my strength to remain on my feet.

"You understand what must be done here," she said.  It was not a question.  I nodded both to demonstrate I understood, and that I was giving my consent.  "You must be drained of blood to the point of death," she continued, nodding at Alexa.  "I have asked Alexa to prepare you in this regard, and she had been draining you over the last few nights.  She must now finish the task."

This is my blood that establishes the covenant...

For the first time my nerve faltered, and I stumbled back towards the altar.  Alexa seized me by the wrist.  Athena stared at me hard, and summoning what remained of my courage, I nodded.  Immediately Alexa rolled up my sleeve, exposing the wrist.  With a soft, wet, popping sound her canines unsheathed, dagger-like fangs elongating.  With the speed and natural instinct if a cobra she struck, a flash of pain surging up my arm as the bite landed.  This was followed by the strangely sensuous thrill of her lips and tongue working against the wound, sucking sounds filling the air.

Athena has assumed the position of a high priestess at the altar, reciting a litany.  To be honest, I cannot clearly recall to this day what was said.  I was at that moment literally dying; the words she spoke and the chant repeated by the assembled Progeny was drown out in the roar that filled my ears, and the writhing blackness filling my head.

I think I fell.  There was a sensation of falling, of my body becoming weightless.  In the distance a drum was beating, but the rhythm was irregular and slow.  I became aware of strong arms snatching me, arms as hard and cold as marble.  They were the only things keeping me from falling any further, a plunge I knew then led downwards into Death.

Drink of me.  Drink of me and live forever.

(I am not worthy...but only say the word and my soul shall be healed)

I became aware then of sucking at something, something black and cold...or so it seemed to me at the time.  I realized with a start it was Athena.  She was giving some of her blood to me.  "Decem," I heard her say somewhere above me, "he needs more.  Let him drink of you."

A male stepped forward, and opened his own wrist for me.  After swallowing the blood of my Sire, I fastened hungrily onto him.

The hunger of a newborn, someone said, and the rest of the room was laughing.

I could compare it to many things, but none would be accurate.  I could tell you it felt like sex after a long dry spell.  I could tell you it felt like gulping down water on a hot summer day.  I could tell you it was like feasting after days without food.  Perhaps the closest analogy was scoring a fix after trying to go cold turkey.  All I can say is that I have never needed anything as badly as I needed the blood oozing from his wrist, and never been as hungry for anything.  I was lost in the need.

But they pulled me away and I began to feel the poison working inside me. I fell to my knees and then face-down on the floor.  Numbing cold was spreading through my body, and my senses were dimmed by it.  My pulse became erratic and sputtered to a halt.  My lungs couldn't get any air.  Ice cold and paralyzed, the blood of the Progeny ran through me, changing ever cell.  The darkness took me, a dreamless sleep as near death as anything I have ever known.

Monday, October 27, 2014

PROGENY, Part 2

The is Part Two of my serialisation of an online role-playing game.  Take a look at Part One if you haven't already.  Second Life users who wish to view this location, go here.  Everyone else, just read on and enjoy.

The Progeny Castle (click to enlarge)

My clearest memory of First Communion was fear. There are other memories, but they are dusty and muted, like photographs you find years after the fact under the sofa or lost in the bottoms of drawers.  I remember, for example, wearing one of my cousin Mikey's hand-me-down suits, and my mother fussing over what seemed like forever over my hair.  I remember my grandmother crying without having any clear idea why she was doing it.   There are other memories too, my family and all their friends gathered around watching me, the vague sense that in some fundamental way I was about to change, but the fear--the knot tightening my guts with each step closer to the communion rail--is the unforgettable part.  It colors my entire perception of the event.

Mikey was to blame.  We weren't allowed to watch horror movies, both our mothers forbade it, but Mikey got a steady supply of VHS tapes from a friend at school.  We had been watching Night of the Living Dead a few weeks before, and the first time one of the zombies sank his teeth into one of the living, Mikey turned an gave me a serious stare.  "That's what it's like, you know.  When you take Communion.  It's flesh and blood in your mouth and you gotta swallow it all without gagging."

"Nah-ah," I protested.  "It's just some stupid cracker and some wine."

Mikey pretended to be shocked.  "You better not let Father Frank hear you say that, or you're going straight to Hell."

I tried for weeks to put it out of my head, pretty sure Mikey was just trying to freak me out...but it was too late.  The seed was planted.  What was I going to be eating that day?  They kept telling me in Catechism class it really was going to be flesh and blood...but was it?  Really?  Or was this like Santa Claus, a lie parents felt the need to tell.  Trying to get used to the idea, I put a raw piece of steak in my mouth when my mother wasn't looking and almost threw up.  I couldn't imagine being forced to do this every Sunday for the rest of my life. Was this the price for salvation?  For being an adult?  When the day finally came, and it was time to kneel at the rail, I was so weirded out I was trembling in horror.

But...it was just wine and a cracker after all.

I shared this once with my girlfriend in grad school, an anthropology major with a sharp wit and a dusting of freckles across her nose.  We were in bed and she was critiquing Catholicism again--she was an atheist, and my that stage in my life I pretty much was as well--going on about the inherent misogyny of the Church.  For some reason that Communion memory came to mind and I shared it with her.

"Well, you know where it really comes from," she said in a matter-of-fact tone that didn't sound like a question at all.  "It goes right back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors when food was scarce.  Whatever fed you was your God...it gave life to the tribe.  People prayed to the animals they killed and ate, thanking them for their sacrifice, for the gift of life.  They cooked and ate the flesh together, one tribe joined by sharing the animal's body and blood.  Thousands of years later, right through a staring of dead and resurrecting agriculture gods like Osiris and Dionysus, you arrive at Jesus...people eating their God together and forming a community from the act.  There's no great mystery to it at all.  It's an old story."

No great mystery at all.

Standing there in that darkened chapel, the terror of First Communion gripped me again...far worse than before.  This time there was no question of what was being consumed, no chance it was simply bread and wine.  Heart pounding, I fought the urge to run, adrenaline singing in my veins.  All around me, emerging from the shadows, the assembly stood pale-skinned and dressed to the nines, watching me with hungry and feverish eyes.  I took a few steps backwards, towards the black altar, but the dark-haired one called Alexa seized my by the wrist and held me in place.  Her fingers might have been made of steel.  I wasn't going anywhere.

Like that day in Church twenty-five years before, the congregation was gathered there to welcome me to the community, the Church I was to join through shared flesh and blood.

I am getting ahead of myself, however.

Harot's information had led me across the Atlantic, you see, a journey I ended up taking by ship.  I had little money left, and certainly not enough for airfare.  My credit cards were all maxed out and my bank account completely depleted; I was fleeing the country with an army of bills behind me.  See, I chasing death.  Like Ethan Hawke at the end of Gattaca I wasn't saving anything for the swim back.  So I found passage on a ship scrubbing toilets.  Shortly after that I did manual labor in a fishing village on the coast of...

No.  Wait.  I can't say that.  There are oaths that bind me now.  I cannot reveal to you the location of the castle, the name of the desolate village beneath it, the country that it lay in.  The Progeny flourish only in their secrecy, in the fact that the Quick neither know nor would believe they exist.  The tiger has his stripes.  The lion has the tawny color of the savannah.  It is the nature of the predator to conceal himself from his prey.  For this reason, you, gentle reader, will have to forgive my sins of omission.  I will not be telling you any of the names of those I meet in my travels, and none of the locations.  I will share with you all that I have seen and experienced but it must by necessity be censored.  It wouldn't do at all to completely draw back the veil of night.

All you need know at this stage of my narrative is that it took many months to reach my destination, and the last stretch of the journey was the most difficult of all.  Where the castle lay there were no real roads to speak of, and nothing for many kilometers around.  None of the locals dared go near the place, and was ringed by long abandoned villages.  Unlike Jonathan Harker, I couldn't depend on anyone sending a carriage to collect me.  I was no invited guest, but an intruder.  So I spent the very last of what I had on a motorbike that had seen its best days back during the Second World War, and what I hoped would be enough petrol to get me where I was going.  I had no food left, no money, and no signal for my phone.  All I had was some water and a hand drawn map several centuries out of date.  For all I knew the castle wasn't even there any longer.

But what choice did I have?

I set out in early morning, the bike jerking and rattling over muddy trails through tangled woods, and stony paths through twisting mountain valleys.  I followed for a good length of time what I believed to be the remains of an ancient Roman road.  By noon I feared I was hopelessly lost, and a new terror began to grow inside of me.  Harot had assured me that within the castle itself I could find a sort of "sanctuary."  Centuries of agreement between rival clans (we will get to that presently) ensured a sort of demilitarized zone there...a place of safety even for the Quick.  Outside the castle, however, I was fair game.  If I did not make it by nightfall, I might end up prey dumped at the side of the road.

Time was of the essence.

Racing the sun, I found signs that I was on the right trail...a curiously shaped outcropping of rock, a pair of twin hills, a line of brooding cliffs.  As the sun arched his way towards the horizon, and the mountains turned bruised purple, I felt a shock of relief at glimpsing the spires and battlements of the fortress rising above the trees.  With a mixture of longing and dread I drove the bike forward, right through the open front gate and across the courtyard.  The silence, when I killed the engine, was deafening.  My eyes ran over the darkening walls, the black and lifeless windows, and I left the motorcycle behind, climbing the wide sweep of crumbling stairs for the door.

The wide entrance hall had the air of a marketplace, with vendor's stalls tucked away in the shadowy corners.  As I crossed the stone floor, each step echoing in the vaulted chamber, I wondered what sort of commerce the Un-dead engaged in.  Shadowy doorways led away from this great main room, but there was one from which a flickering candlelight spilled.  Summoning all of my courage, I forced myself forward, towards it.  Like the moth to the flame, I felt I might be flitting towards my own destruction.

It was a library, and an immense one at that.  For a bookworm like me it was fairly close to my vision of Paradise.  But I couldn't even look at the books...I barely noticed they were there.  Instead my attention was fixed on the two figures standing in the room.

She might have been carved from ivory.  Wearing the most outlandish costume I had ever seen--a massive white Victorian nightmare of silk and lace that could equally have been a bridal or burial gown--she seemed oblivious to my existence.  Though physically larger than she, the man she was with seemed somehow smaller, despite all the sinister black leather he wore.  Neither of them acknowledged me, speaking to each other it seemed in humming, buzzing voices.  I had the impression they were speaking so quickly I couldn't decipher the words.

I watched them awhile, until I was absolutely certain.  The way they moved, the glitter in their eyes, the flat, dead expressions...  These were not human beings.  They were like marble animated with a bit of life, Pygmalion half-finished with his work.  They were human shaped...but there was nothing human about them at all.  I was in a tank now with a pair of sharks.

Swallowing, I drew closer, clearing my throat.  "Forgive me.  I don't mean to intrude."

There was nothing to show they had even heard me, and they continued  their conversation in the eerie, whispering voices that seemed to pass over the range of my hearing.  I wondered if this "speech" of theirs was like the sonar of bats.  I took a few steps closer and tried again.

The buzzing stopped, and my heart seemed to as well.  The woman turned her bone white face towards mine, and I immediately felt dizzy looking into her black eyes.  Looking into them was like breathing anaesthesia.  "What have we here?"

"A...pilgrim, my Lady," I replied carefully.  I have come a very long way to find you."

There was no trace of emotion, or comprehension, on that porcelain face.  Perhaps the creature wearing it was so old she had forgotten how to move her facial muscles.  "Oh?  And why is that?"

"I have come..." my throat dried here and I had to clear it "...looking for what you already possess."

"Oh I see," she breathed, and there was a tinkling sound very nearly like laughter.  "Another seeker.  Well.  This is not the way it works.  One of us comes seeking you, and if we like what we see, you might be elevated.  Never the other way around, I am afraid."

Without a further word she went back to her buzzing conversation, and I stood there on the carpet for long moments wondering what to do next.  It was clear I had been dismissed...but there was no going back.  It would be better to die there than try to return home empty-handed.  Besides, all my bridges had been burned.

I cannot tell you when, or how, the third figure entered the room.  She was, it seems, 'just there.'  From the way she looked at me, that quizzical, studying expression, it was clear she had heard my request.  I wondered if she had been there all along and by some strange power I had been unable to see her.

She was not the kind of woman you would miss walking into a room though.  Compared to the other two--who seemed dressed specifically for a Goth convention or Halloween ball--this woman was dressed simply, casually.  She could easily have passed by you on the fashion high street of a busy town without a stare.  All the same she was striking, with high cheekbones and luxurious blonde hair.  There was something fierce, like a lioness, in her face, but without the inhuman coldness I found in the other woman's.  As they continued their buzzing inhuman speech, she looked straight at me and spoke, but I wondered if anyone other than I could hear it.

"Tell me why you wish to join us."

I began to speak, fumbling for an answer that didn't include Harot.  I told her I had spent my life studying her kind--not entirely a lie--and that I had discovered writings of this place (also technically true).  I told her I felt I had accomplished all I could as a mortal, and felt this was the only way for me to go forward.  I rambled on about all sorts of things, trying to convince her without giving anything away.  And all the while she watched and listened, and I had the distinct feeling the words she heard were not the weak excuses tumbling from my lips but the genuine ones inside my head.  She was reading me like a book.  I never mentioned my death sentence, the ticking time bomb in my head, and she didn't mention it either. But somehow I sensed she knew.

As I spoke, and she sifted through the contents of my head, the black clad male vanished, leaving the white queen listening to us.  After a few moments she said something to the blonde woman in that high, humming voice, and the blonde woman shook her head.  "I will place this one under my protection," she told the white queen.  "He can come with me back to the hall of my Clan."

The white queen nodded, perhaps a flicker of amusement on her pale features.  Then she faded like a ghost.

"I am Athena," the blonde woman told me.  "I am the leader of the Clan Tenebrati. If you value your life in this place, stick close."  Then, unexpectedly, she smiled.  "Not all the Progeny are the same, Damien.  Some bloodlines run les human than others.  Come.  Let me introduce you to some of the Clan."

I nodded, and leaving my old life behind followed.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

PROGENY, Part One

For several years now, I have been roleplaying various characters in the online world of "Second Life."  I've played a Dark Elf in a fantasy game and a Time Lord in a "Doctor Who" inspired one.  One kind of game that is fairly popular, but I never got into, is the "vampire role-play."  The main reason for this is the best known game system in Second Life, "Bloodlines," just isn't my cup of tea (vampires ascend by turning other people into vampires and collecting souls...in other words, convincing new players to purchase the required HUD and recruiting them into the game).  I was always bit bothered by the fact that you need to send someone a "bite request" before feeding on them.  It's polite, but not terribly vampire-like.  Recently I heard of another system, one that did sound much more my speed, and after some thought I decided to jump in.  

What follows, gentle reader, is a serialised account of my Progeny role-play.  Since it is horror, and more in line with the tone and theme of this blog, between other writing projects I will be sharing the on going story here.  The reader does not need to be a Second Life user to enjoy the tale, I hope!  Please note; neither the name "Progeny" nor "Lachiel" are my creations.  To find out about them, go here.  Also, I will be fictionalising certain elements (such as names) of the game to protect the identities of the players and their avatars. 

Without further ado, allow me to introduce the latest version of Damien Draegonne, our protagonist.



Click me to enlarge



It begins with me, face down on a marble floor, struggling to get to my knees.  It’s pointless, of course.  I can feel the poison burning through me.  It is pumping through my veins with the same stinging cold you feel scorching your lungs on a bitter midwinter day.  I can feel my skin cooling, my muscles shaking.  I can feel my pulse begin to stagger, to sputter, and abruptly come to a stop.  I try to tell myself I was dead anyway.  It was just a matter of time.  As the dark rushes in on me, that is cold consolation.

Simon Harrow did not kill me.  My life ended halfway around the world from him, taken by a woman.  All the same, I never would have died if not for him.  His shadow falls over my entire life.

Everyone called him “the Old Man.”  I never saw it written down, but you could hear the capital “O” and “M” whenever someone whispered it.  He was “the Old Man” when I was in grade school, he was “the Old Man” when my mother was in grade school.  No one in living memory could recall a time when he wasn’t “the Old Man.”  Of course, that isn’t entirely true.  The old timers who always hung around the front porch of the General Store, arguing politics and baseball and agreeing how no one under fifty was worth a piss these days, seemed to recall that “the Old Man” when they were in grade school was the current “Old Man’s” father.  Some remembered their fathers talking about yet another “Old Man” before that.  The point is, there had always been an “Old Man” up in Harrow House, and there always would be.  We all just accepted it as surely as the leaves turning red in the autumn and the creek flooding in the spring.

The money made it easier to accept.  Money has a funny way of making nearly anything acceptable.  You see, the Old Man was generous.  When I was in the seventh grade, and the flood that year was worse than the village had seen in decades, the Old Man opened his pocketbook and helped people rebuild.  It was the Old Man who financed the new fire house.  It was the Old Man who kept the local library in books.  And, of course, there was the Scholarship.  Every year, without fail, the student who graduated with the highest GPA received the same letter.  The Old Man offered them a free ride, paying every cent of their way through the college of their choice.  In the face of this kind of generosity, it was so easy to turn a blind eye towards the Old Man’s eccentricities.  Sure…no one had ever actually seen him.  The recluse never left the crumbling walls of Harrow House.  And yes, maybe it was odd that he clearly was as rich as Midas but let that mansion rot around him.  The place looked like any haunted house you’d ever dreamed about.  But it’s never a good idea to ask too many questions about the golden goose.

And then it came my turn.  As proud as I was to be the valedictorian of my class, what really mattered is that I would be able to go to university now.  The day that cream-coloured envelop appeared in the mailbox, with my name and address scrawled across it in handwriting that looked like an ink-drenched spider had written it by crawling over the paper, was the greatest moment of my life.  Years of dread, of wondering if my struggling waitress of a mom and I could manage to finance college on our own, ended in a single instant.  The Old Man was going to take care of me.

Young Master Damien;

For the first, allow me to extend my congratulations.  Long have I watched your progress, the obstacles and struggles that led to this, your triumph.  It is no small thing, my child.  Indeed, it’s value is twofold.  For you have learned that no better weapon than Knowledge exists in this fallen world, and also, you have learned ‘Victori Spoila,’ to the Victor goes the Spoils.  You would do well to engrave this deeply in the stone of your being.  There is seldom any consideration for coming in second.

I read the rest over and over again, never once stopping to ask myself what was meant by him watching my progress.  Watching how?  Watching why?  I should have asked, but again, the money blinded me.

The Old Man was true to his word.  he financed my undergraduate career, and then paid for my Master’s.  I was halfway to my Doctorate, also at his expense, when I did, at last, begin to question.  

It began quite innocently, really.  I was working towards a PhD in History, and one of the assignments we were given in a seminar on local history was to research the roots of our own communities.  Always an enthusiastic scholar, and always wanting to be the best, I dug very deep.  Much of what I found was unremarkable.  The first settlers were the Dutch, in the days when New York was still New Amsterdam.  Then came the Palatine Germans who laboured in camps along the Hudson to work off their passage.  The Scots-Irish came after that.  But in 1715, I came across a curiosity.  An extremely wealthy gentleman from the Lorraine region of France appeared and bought up vast tracts of land.  His name was “S. Harot.”  I remember staring at the document for a long moment.  “Harot,” which in French would sound exactly like “Harrow.”  was this, then, the distant ancestor of my own patron?

The assignment suddenly became less interesting to me, as I veered off course in pursuit of this new trail.  It occurred to me how little I knew of the man who sponsored me, how little anyone seemed to know.  Surely it couldn’t hurt to see where the path led me?

And so, off and on, this became my project for the next ten years.  I received my PhD, delivered a well-received dissertation, and landed a teaching assignment at a university in the sleepy Massachusetts town of Arkham.  My life had begun, and the direction of it had taken me far from humble roots.  But this, of course, is the thing about roots.  No matter how tall your grow, they are always there, holding you down in the earth.

In the winter of my thirtieth year, two things happened that changed everything.  I had been for some time suffering migraines, intense headaches that brought with them debilitating pain.  When I finally surrendered and checked myself into the university hospital, the diagnosis was not an encouraging one.  I suffered, it seemed, from a genetic flaw…a severe one.  There was a complex of vital arteries deep in my brain badly flawed.  There was a very high probability that one of these days—at any given moment—the walls of one of these vessels would collapse and I would either survive paralysed or brain dead, or expire immediately.  

I was living under a death sentence.

This had a great affect upon me.  My drinking, for one, increased.  I began a long string of one-night stands at first with women, and later, with men.  Sometimes both.  I broke a long standing rule of never having sexual relations with my students…even fucking one face down on the desk of my office.  My tastes became darker, more morbid…as did my thoughts.  I became increasingly obsessed with the death.  Friends I had known for years began to drift away as the transformation in me deepened, and who could blame them?  Told death was coming, I was rushing to meet it.

The self-destruction spiral met it’s apex at a dinner at the Dean’s house, when I was discovered in his upstairs bathroom between dinner and desert getting a blow job from his eighteen-year-old son. 

It didn’t matter.  Nothing did.  I left the university with a grin on my face.  I had no idea how I was going to support myself, but didn’t feel much concerned by that either.  Instead, as my finances dwindled, I poured myself into my research.  I wanted a puzzle, I needed a puzzle, to draw me out of myself.  So I chased the name “Harot” back and forth through history.    

The etymology was interesting.  It seemed to originate in Lorraine, and most agreed it was derived from a word meaning “to cry out,” “to scream.”  Others thought it came from a Spanish bird of prey used in the south of France, the “harrotte.”  More interesting, though, were the “Harots” of “Harrow House.”  I found records of the masters of Harrow House—Sebastien, Sinclair, Simon, often with juniors and ‘the second’ or ‘the third’ after the name—but nothing about wives or daughters.  It crossed my mind that “the Old Man” really was an old man…three hundred years old, at least.  Then I laughed at myself and finished another bottle of cheap scotch.


One evening, over even more drinks, I began to ramble about all of this to the one associate I had left.  I wouldn’t go far enough to call Danny Cho an actually “friend.”  He was an assistant librarian at the university I occasionally got drunk or slept with.  To my surprise, though, Cho thought he recognised the name.  He couldn’t tell me from where.  We ended up having sex in the alleyway that night and it was two weeks before I heard from him again.  

The name “Harot” was prominently mentioned in something called “Cultes des Goules,” penned by Francois-Honore Balfour, Comte d’Erlette in 1703.  I asked if Danny could get me in to see it, though it was in the library’s restricted section.  It took some convincing, but he did.

“Cultes des Goules” lived up to its title.  It was an extended treatise on late medieval witch cults that worshipped, and served, the hungry dead.  It spoke of someone or something called “les ProgĂ©niture de Lachiel,” the “Progeny.”  It spoke of tribes or clans of the dead.  “SĂ©bastien Harot” was spoken of as one of these living dead, a vicious, immortal creature dating back to at least the early years of the Black Death.  He was said to be an “Outcast” among his kind, driven from their society.  

I am not sure that anyone can really say where the line between sanity and madness lies, but I think it is probably safe to say that for days and weeks after that I was wavering back and forth across it like a drunk man.  The thoughts growing in my head were mad…I knew that.  But didn’t they also say “there are no atheists in foxholes?”  I was going to die, it could happen at any instant…so what if?  What if there was an immortal creature in my life, a creature that had “watched my progress” and already saved me once?  Could I dare reach out to him, to it, and ask for help again?  Even if that meant becoming something blasphemous myself?

For the first time since the diagnosis it occurred to me that I did not want to die.

Thus began my letters to Harrow House.  I told Harrow (Harot?) everything.  I told him what I was facing.  I told him what I had discovered.  As the weeks and months stretched on and these all went unanswered, I began to plead.  Foolishly, I even threatened to go public with what I had learned.  Like an idiot, I played chicken with a bloodthirsty monster.

And then the letter came, that unmistakable handwriting on the thick, antique paper.  I stared at it for a dozen hours before the courage to open it came to me.


Young Master Damien;

Where last we spoke I offered you my congratulations, let me now convey my utmost disappointment.  Foolish boy.  That you have resorted to threats demonstrates only that you are sprung from your father’s seed.  Not long ago, a lifetime to you and the blink of an eye to me, a young Daniel Draegonne attempted to blackmail me as you have.  The result?  His son, you, grew up fatherless.  Indeed, I would have visited my wrath upon his pregnant wife and unborn child had I not owed a favour to yet another Draegonne, his great-grandfather.  I chose to let the bloodline live.

You have nearly given me cause to regret that mercy.

I said “nearly.”  Your father was a hot-blooded young fool who thought he could extort me into paying a fortune for him to raise his family.  He was a lazy, indolent coward who thought the world was filled with free rides.  I, and I alone, decide who profits and who fails where my shadow falls.  The extent of my charity to your community has only ever been to ensure their silence and compliance.  My contributions to scholarship reflect only my recognition that the strongest deserve more than the rest.

So, the sin of the father is repeated in the son.  Shall the son suffer as his father did?  Perhaps, some evening, were you come to Harrow House I could show you the cell in which your father died, slowly, over the space of two years after his ‘disappearance.’  I bled that one a very long time.  But you are not cut of the same cloth entire.  No.  You are an animal in the throes of death doing anything it possibly can to survive.

This, this I can admire.

I cannot, however, give you what you seek.  There was a time when I could, but that magic was stripped of me when I was driven from my homeland.  Indeed, even if I were able to do what you ask, you would find little welcome in the arms of the Living Dead.  My name is not much loved amongst them, and were you my Get and I your Sire, you would start your path not only in Darkness, but in Exile.

Nay.  I cannot give you this, but I can give you a chance.  

There is a place, an Old World castle from which the Progeny of Lachiel first poured forth to feast upon the living.  You may perhaps still find some of my kind there.  You may plead your case with them.  It may be that they make a supper of you, bleeding you until you are a white and lifeless pile of meat.  Pity is not in our natures, generally speaking.  But some of our Nations are more welcoming than others.  If you are clever, and if you are lucky, you may find the Salvation you seek.

I find that for my part I shall be wishing you success.

And if, by some black Miracle, you enter this Eternal Non Life, perhaps you would see fit to come back to Harrow House some night.  I have been without Get of my own for so long now, and the nights are lonely.

We shall see.  On the paper attached, please find the hints, the clues, the directions you seek.  Go.  Seek them out.  Meet your Death.

I find myself wishing you rise from it.

S. H.


Monday, October 13, 2014

DRACULA RETOLD

It is so easy to reinterpret Dracula because none of the book is admissible in court.  Every word of it is hearsay.

I was eight when I first read Dracula.  I can be specific about that because it was the year Frank Langella played the Count on the silver screen.  My father, as an apology of sorts for a particularly nasty bout of drinking and coming home to throw furniture around, brought me to see it.  In retrospect, he must have been feeling particularly guilty.  We didn't do "father-son" stuff, and when we did, it was usually him trying to get me to throw a football around rather than stay in my room with my horror comics.  Taking me to Dracula was almost sorta kinda like actually condoning my weird tastes.

He devoured books the way the Count went through English virgins. 

Whatever else might be said of my father, he was a reader.  A voracious one.  He devoured books the way the Count went through English virgins.  He also had a gift, and I have been frustrated all my life that I didn't inherit it, for remembering every word he read.  Right down to the page it was on.  So over a burger and fries after the film, he mentioned to me that Dracula was a novel.  A "classic."  Maybe, he suggested, I should read it.  Again, this was mind-blowing.  Dad was always trying to get me to read, but books about Babe Ruth and Sitting Bull.  This was Dracula.  My interest piqued, he then took me to the bookstore to pick up the paperback.

I didn't go for the movie tie-in one, with a blow-dried Langella on the cover looming over a woman clearly in the midst of a massive orgasm (not that at eight I picked that up, mind you).  No...I was intrigued by the one beside it, showing a pale, balding old man with white hair, a mustache, and fangs.  "That's what he really looks like," my father told me.  "The movies all get that wrong."

Those words were magic to me.  It meant that my father had actually read Dracula in the past, something inconceivable to me at that stage of our relationship.  But the wording, what he really looks like, was more magical still.  It meant the Counts in the movies were just actors; the real Dracula was out there somewhere looking like an old man.

I went home with that edition.

In modern terms, the Count is Hannibal Lecter.  He is brilliant, sophisticated, and Old World.  He also happens to be a remorseless killer that eats people.  

Stoker's novel is nothing like any of the film versions.  No, not even Coppola's over-the-top exploration of Catholic guilt or Louis Jourdan's suave Continental seducer come close.  In modern terms, the Count is Hannibal Lecter.  He is brilliant, sophisticated, and Old World.  He also happens to be a remorseless killer that eats people.  Yes, there is sexual tension there, but we all know there was a bit of that between Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster too.  It doesn't make Lecter a Byronic hero, and neither should it make Dracula.  But with the exception of Murnau's Nosferatu, film makers seem obsessed with the sex.  It has gotten so bad that these days vampires even sparkle.  But I digress.

Giving (Dracula) a sympathetic backstory makes as much sense as giving the shark in Jaws one.

The point is, of course, that Stoker was writing about a monster...not a man looking for the reincarnation of his lost love (a part of the Dracula myth stolen from Karloff's The Mummy via Barnabas Collins), not a man who surrenders his humanity in a heroic bid to save his land (as per the plot of the new Dracula Untold).  A monster.  Giving him a sympathetic backstory makes as much sense as giving the shark in Jaws one.

But of course, this is something that plagues horror in general and Dracula in particular.  Uncomfortable with the idea that we get off on the sick little thrill of being afraid, we keep looking for ways to make horror intellectual.  "Dracula," an English teacher once informed me, "was about Anglo-Saxon England's fear of the Eastern European.  A dark and swarthy aristocrat comes and rapes Lucy Westerna, whose name means 'light of the West.'"  Then she sneered when I told her I thought it was about 'a vampire.' 

Dracula lends itself to this sort of thing because Stoker wrote a four-hundred page Rorschach blot.  The master stroke of the novel is that we barely ever see Count Dracula at all.  Again, like the damn shark in Jaws, he only pops up when it is time to feed.  But we feel him.  His presence saturates every page.  And these days, when people keep going on about Gone Girl and the novel's use of the unreliable narrator, it is useful to point out this is exactly what made Dracula work.  The novel is told through diary entries and newspaper clippings, and half the time the narrators are writing about things they don't understand the significance of.  Stoker's book is the equivalent of rounding up witnesses to a crime...each of whom gives a slightly different account.  It is so easy to reinterpret Dracula because none of the book is admissible in court.  Every word of it is hearsay.

What does Dracula look like?  Old?  Young?  Is he clean-shaven or does he have a pointy black beard?  What is he doing in London, really?  Does he kill Lucy or is it that quack Van Helsing, who is a "devout Catholic" despite having no problems desecrating the Host, is a "polymath linguist" who can barely speak English, and gives his patient dozens of transfusions from multiple donors despite not knowing the first fucking thing about blood types?  This is why there have been 170 film versions, countless TV appearances, and hundreds of literary retellings.  Because we don't know any of the answers.  Alongside Jack the Ripper, the Count remains Victorian England's grisliest unsolved mystery.

We don't even know if he is dead.  After painstaking reams of vampire lore are poured on us by Van Helsing, all telling us how difficult Dracula will be to kill and how he needs to be staked in his grave, his head cut off and mouth stuffed with garlic before burning the body...he is dispatched by getting stabbed with a knife.  Maybe.  At sunset his body vanishes into a cloud of dust, and the vampire hunters celebrate.  But Van Helsing told us the vampire can shapeshift at sunset, midnight, or sunrise (not at will as in the movies), and witnesses have already seen the Count turn into motes of dust before.  Has Van Helsing suddenly acquired Alzheimer's and forgotten all his lore?  Have they all?

It is these cracks, these plot holes, that Dracula achieves greatness, because everyone fills them in differently.  It is why we can keep going back to it.  While each retelling seizes a shadow of the story and rides it, the original is a whirlwind of uncertainty.  And nothing scares like the unknown.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

QUOTABLES


THE 13th AGE: A VERY MINI REVIEW




Imagine you took a stack of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons books, a few of the old school TSR "basic" D&D products, and a heap of indie games like FATE and The Burning Wheel and tossed them all in Seth Brundle's teleport pod from The Fly. Once the smoke cleared, and all the DNA was scrambled up together, you would have a copy of The 13th Age sitting there.

I was a very vocal critic of the d20 system when 3rd Edition D&D first reared its ugly head. Mechanically it was just a rehash of Jonathan Tweet's Ars Magica with all the good stuff taken out and a d20 shoved in. D20 was a love letter to the obsessive rules lawyers I have kept from my gaming table for over thirty years, and with the revised version's insistence on moving miniatures around and counting squares it went from bad to worse. Despite this, I knew the game would succeed because A) it had the D&D name and B) they very cleverly made the rules public so that everyone could adopt it and cash in on the D&D name. When the 4th Edition appeared, it became painfully clear to me Hasbro wanted a miniatures battle game instead of an RPG. The system had migrated as far from the spontaneous, free-wheeling fun of the original game as you could possibly get; everything was options from a menu rather than player contribution.

So when I heard that Tweet (the lead designer of 3e) was teaming up with Rob Heinsoo (the lead designer of 4e), I expected more of the same. Instead, I got a new d20 fantasy RPG that was dead sexy.

Let's be clear; this is another Dungeons & Dragons. There are Clerics and Fighters and Barbarians, there are Chromatic Dragons and Owlbears, there are levels and hit points and feats. And Drow. These days you gotta have Drow. And since this is basically a game that takes 4e, strips it down, and runs with it, I am not going to linger too much on the rules except for what The 13th Age brings to the table.

Let's start with the Icons.

The game has a very loosely described setting (the Dragon Empire) populated by 13 loosely defined uber-NPCs known as Icons. Their names read like a Tarot hand; the Elf Queen, the Archmage, the Prince of Shadows, the Lich King, etc. In a sense, these are the Elminsters and the Gandalfs and the Elrics of the setting. But they aren't...they really aren't. First, they are loosely described so that the GM and the players can define them for the kind of world they want to play in. Your Dragon Empire could be Asian and the Archmage could be Quan Li the Emerald Seer. Or it could be faux Roman with the Archmage as Ipsissimus Magnus. It's your world. Second, the Icons exist solely for the purpose showcasing the player characters and giving them adventures to play in. Here's how;

During character creation, PCs get 3 relationship points to assign to the Icons of their choice. They could assign one point to three Icons, or three points to one, or one to one and two to another. They also get to decide if the relationship is Positive, Negative, or Conflicted. Each point represents a d6, and these relationship dice are rolled at various times to see if the players and Icons cross paths somehow (directly, through influence, or minions). A roll of 1-4 means no interaction, a 5 means an advantageous interaction with some complications, and a 6 is a beneficial interaction. Usually these dice are rolled at the start of a session.

What does this mean? Think of Bilbo in The Hobbit. He starts off with a relationship with Gandalf (aka the Archmage). This relationship exists solely to get Bilbo into adventure. Gandalf isn't there to steal the scenes and be the hero, he's there to make Bilbo the hero. Likewise, Frodo starts off with a relationship with Gandalf (the Archmage), Aragorn (the Emperor), and Sauron (the Lich King) and they all exist solely to propel him through his epic quest. The Icons are plot engines that connect the characters to the world and the story. They tell the GM what kinds of stories they want to play based on the Icons they pick. Do players ally with the Priestess and against the Crusader? The campaign might be a conflict between the gods of light and dark. Do they ally with the High Druid and against the Lich King? A sage of life versus death. With the Emperor and against the Orc Lord? Civilization versus barbarism. The Icons help the players define their tale.

Second, on top of picking a race and a class and all the d20 standards, PCs pick a One Unique Thing. This is something that makes the character special. It can be anything, but if it is a power it has to be something interesting and non-combative. It can even be something that changes the setting. "The stars sing to me and sometimes whisper the future," is an example of an appropriate power. "I have a clockwork heart forged by dwarves," is an interesting feature that may be explored down the road. "I am the last of the Dark Elves" is one that changes the entire setting. This is another way that character creation makes the world the players'.

A final way character creation empowers players is the abandonment of skills from a list in favor of Backgrounds. Players don't put points in Athletics or Stealth or History, but create backgrounds they can assign points to. A Fighter with "Emperor's Elite Guard +3" would be able to use that bonus for a range of things, from etiquette to area knowledge of the capital city. A Rogue with "Iron Sea Pirate +5" knows how to sail, but also uses his bonus in dealing with other buccaneers. The players create and name these backgrounds, and again shape the world. Did we know the Emperor had an elite guard? Now we do. Were pirates common on the Iron Sea before? They are now.

This flexibility runs throughout the entire game. The setting is left vague, waiting to be filled in. The races and classes have mechanical functions but are again left open to be fleshed out. There are Clerics, but we know nothing about the gods. There are Dark Elves and Wood Elves and High Elves, but we don't know what separated the races (or in a strange twist, why they still all bow before the Elf Queen). All this waits for you to decide.

I don't want to get into classes too much, but I should point out that every effort has been made to step back away from 4e, where every class was essentially the same, with at-will, once per battle, and once daily powers. Elements of this remain, but now playing a Barbarian is a very different experience from playing a Wizard. Every class has feats, but they also have unique features and mechanical differences that set them apart. I mention the Barbarian and the Wizard specifically because they are at opposite ends of the complexity spectrum. Barbarians have talents that enhance their ability to do and take damage, Wizards have spells and cantrips that cover a wide range of possibilities, and these are flexible enough that they can be tinkered with or altered on the fly. Play a Wizard if you want a wide range of choices in combat and like improvisation. Play a Barbarian if you just want to hit things. Each and every class has a unique "thing" or two, a clear rejection of 4e's design philosophy.

Combat is also retooled. The grid is gone and minis are optional. It's a role playing game again, not Warhammer Fantasy Battle. You are now engaged or far away, intercepting, in front, or behind, the way D&D used to be. There are still 4e elements, like being "staggered" (bloodied) at half your hit points and having "recoveries" (healing surges), but battle is faster and more fluid. In part this is because player's do more damage; weapon damage now scales up (a d8 weapon does 3d8 damage in the hands of a 3rd level character and 8d8 in the hands of an 8th level). But the real cause for joy is the escalation die.

The escalation die is a d6. It is set on the table during the second round of combat, showing a "1." That one is added to all the attack rolls of the players (only the most powerful and lethal monsters, like dragons, receive a bonus from it). Each round it goes up by one, so that in round seven forward players receive +6 to attack rolls. This does all sorts of things. For example, casters who opened up early with the big guns like "fireball" in older d20 games might now play for time to get the bonus. Second, the way monsters are now weighted they start with the advantage at the start of the battle, and the heroes slowly rise to the challenge. There are all sorts of powers--on both sides--that old get activated by certain numbers on the escalation die. It adds a dramatic arc to the game.

Speaking of monsters, there have been innovations there too. The game now includes mooks, a bit like 4e minions. Basically the mook version of a monster is now a swarm of five. For example, a Dire Wolf has 80 hit points; the mook version is a pack of five Dire Wolfs with a combined total of 80 hit points. Every sixteen points of damage kills one off. Another innovation for the GM is that special monster attacks are "triggered" by the attack roll, rather than being chosen. Take the Chimera, for example. The Chimera has a fang, claw, and horn attack that does a certain amount of damage, but on an attack roll of 14-15 the target is also dazed by a head butt from the goat head; on a 16-17 extra ongoing damage is inflicted (bleeding) by the lion's raking claws; on an 18-20 it gets an additional fiery breath attack from the dragon head. GMs don't have to chose tactics, and the monsters play themselves.

A final point to be made is how The 13th Age handles experience. Experience is a potent tool because it motivates player behavior like nothing else. In D&D variants were most XP comes from treasure, players will practically crawl over each other's bodies for a gold piece. In versions were most experience comes from killing things, player characters will pick any fight they can. Numenera, Monte Cook's latest RPG, rewards XP for discovering relics of lost worlds, making exploration the focus of the game. The 13th Age has a novel approach as well; it doesn't offer experience. There are no experience points in the game. Players level up automatically after completing stories, or reaching a dramatic pause in an ongoing tale. 

This is very much in keeping with the spirit of the game. Players are free to pursue their own agendas and stories without having to focus on killing things or grabbing treasure. A character can do these things, but a PC can be a Cleric or Monk with a vow of poverty or even pacifism if he or she wishes and still level up. 

So in closing, if you had asked me awhile back what I would think of about a game designed by Heinsoo and Tweet, "sexy" would not have been my response.

But hot damn it is now.