Even Villains Get Backgrounds

I am a half-elf.

Half Sun Elf, to be precise. I’m told it’s a rare combination, but I’ve never been to Aglorand to check and that’s the only half-elf “community” of which I know. The long and short of it is that I have that bronzed skin if I stay out in the sun and my hair, which is on the blond side of sandy, bleaches to a perfect white gold if I put lemon juice in it on those same sunny days.

When I wear a hat that covers my ears, though, I can pass for human. I can pull on a toboggan around Hogswatch Night and go out in the streets of, say, Phlan, and if I’m not wearing my mayoral badge then I can pass as just another human in the huddled and bustling mass.

The Sun Elves, if you’re not familiar with them, are the “high” elves. A few thousand years ago they were the ruling class. I think they still fancy themselves as such, the polar opposite to the cold-blooded Drow: beautiful and benevolent and noble in a way few others can match. I don’t aspire to hold myself out as better than everyone around me, but I will in my most contemplative moments – and only in writing, for saying a thing aloud makes it more real and no one of any intelligence would disagree with me – admit that I do like simply being me a tremendous amount. What I think the Sun Elves don’t realize – or don’t mind, if they do – is that others see them as being just as cruel in their own way as the sky-shunned and deceitful Dark Elves. The Sun Elves will kill you slowly with little smiles, smothering you in gold; at least a Drow’s dirk is quick and its poison may numb you while you bleed.

I wish I could say that it’s for that reason I would go out on those cold nights and simply walk around and giggle to myself at the thought that the market vendors saw me as nothing special, that I did it to understand what it’s like to be common in some quest for greater perspective, some kernel of self-knowledge and a taste of some greater truth, something like, “we all have lives to live, and hopes and dreams, regardless of the shape of our ears,” but in truth I did it to savor the other 364, as they say. To feel unspecial for a short while made feeling special all the time feel, well, special again. I guess I wanted to know how the other half lived , so to speak, and on finding it unremarkable I was glad to get back into my usual role, that of the unusual life of adventuring, of being Mayor, of being a half-elf bard with a unique repertoire of raunchy songs about the Purple Dragon Knights, or Zentil Keep, or whatever else I’d seen on the road.

My mother was the elf in my lineage, and I have always wondered why she gave me such a human name. It’s unusual, to be sure, but she translated our surname from the Elven and gave me a human surname as my common name, and I like to think that she did it to emphasize the two sides of my ancestry. Even though my life has been lived almost entirely among humans, or at least among non-elves, I prefer to imagine that she was striving for a recognized balance, a reminder that even as an unusual name made me a little more unique in the world it also would remind me whence I came, that two cultures were fused within me and that I have more options to draw on than just one racial past, one set of prejudices, one selection of strengths or burden of weaknesses.

In truth, I think she did it because she thought it would make me more normal.

There’s a point to this, but it’s coming later. On to the events of the day.

After Badl’s scrying spell showed us that the half-dragon still lived, and that the Ambassador had set off on foot to pursue us, we agreed to teleport back to the ancient embassy and dispatch the half-dragon before he went back to his masters, whatever weird-ass cabal of dragon worship it is that we’re up against. We took a few moments to prepare, and then with a BAMF! I took us all back to the dome on top of the now-excavated Mulhorandi Embassy. A few Ascendeds were on a nearby ridge of sand, and we broke to assault them before they even knew we were there.

I turned Rock into a Stone Giant, and Badl took flight as an eagle. Nigel clicked his heels and launched into the air, and Adric cast Air Walk on himself and did the same. I started running towards the ridge, pausing a moment to drop a sonic fireball on as many Ascendeds as I could catch in one go.

Reptilian shrieks filled the otherwise silent desert air when my spell went off, and the Ascendeds turned to see us coming at them in a variety of shapes and at a variety of speeds. One tiny kobold tugged the arm of an Ascended and then cried out to their half-dragon commander, “Boss! The giant is back!

Adric and Nigel got sufficiently high enough into the air to see the half-dragon turn towards us, about a hundred feet beyond the other side of the sand dune, and before he could do anything Nigel barred him from magical escape with a Dimensional Anchor spell and Adric summoned mystic chains to bind the half-dragon’s hands in hopes of preventing other spell-casting. I dropped another sonic fireball to try to contain any response by the Ascendeds between us and the half-dragon, Badl rained magical destruction on them from above and Rock merely ran straight through them, charging up to the half-dragon and plunging his sword deep into the villain’s chest.

The Ascended started to scatter, as Adric summoned shards of divine magic and another sonic fireball went off among them. One tried to scape into the air, but Badl wreathed him in magical ice and he hung there, trapped, until his corpse fell from the sky. Adric, not content to sit by and do damage from afar, charged in and held the attention of the Ascended spellcasters and passed along some divine judgement of the up close and personal sort.

Nigel homed in on the half-dragon, hovering nearby, and sunk more wounds into his flesh with his ferocious magic, and as Rock struck again and again, his swords a flurry of movement, the half-dragon gave off a burst of flame – Nigel taking the brunt of its effects – and then sank to the ground in a heap. As he did so, another of his contingency spells went off and, chained and surrounded by a magical barrier against teleportation as he was, he was further encased in a magical barrier that prevented us from getting to his unconscious form and finishing the job.

And really, it was over that fast. Nigel dispelled the protective bubble that sprang up around the half-dragon, and began to examine him for any further wards or magical devices. We stripped him of any armor or items that were magical in nature, then Nigel began an intensive examination of the man-dragon himself.

“I see two further auras,” Nigel said. “One is enchantment, one is transmutation. I’m out of Dispel Magics for the day. Whitten?”

I always have spells to burn. That’s just how it works for me. I studied the auras and then targeted them carefully, letting my subconscious do whatever arcane calculus is Nigel’s stock in trade. With a flick of a finger, the transmutation was gone; with another, the enchantment effect.

“He’s clean,” Nigel declared, and we bound the half-dragon and the one Ascended who was still alive, dusted ourselves off, healed Nigel’s wounds and then teleported back to the cave to begin deciding what to do with the prisoners after interrogating them. Upon our arrival we updated Katarina on our successful adventure and Adric sent a magical message to Mytheria asking him if he’d like to help us interrogate the half-dragon. Rock asked that I read the prisoners’ minds as they were interrogated, and so I set up shop behind the Ascended as he roused from unconsciousness. I reached out with my mind to open his to me, and heard words:

They are holding me prisoner and will probably torture me. Can you send help?

“Kill him, or knock him out, or something! Quick! He’s telepathically communicating with someone!” I blurted this out immediately, and the others were quick to end his life. With that, I focused my thoughts on the half-dragon, and this time I was surprised that there was no telepathic communication going on.

“Who are you? Where am I?” he asked, but his voice was… well, it wasn’t evil, per se. The others looked at me to know what he was thinking – how many ways was he imaging our slow death at this moment? – and his thoughts were nothing but the purest reflections of his words. He wondered where he was, and who we were.

He sounded confused.

Over the rest of our conversation, during which he spoke freely and openly and his thoughts showed no hint of lies or other duplicity, he told us that thirty years ago he had been locked up in a jail down south for the crime of having red skin and a dragon’s scales. Alec – yes, Alec, the one we’ve sought for what seems so long, that guise of Muad Tir’thalos we escorted around The Stormcloud’s Tomb and whose dragon we slew only a few days ago – had sprung the half-dragon from said jail and asked a favor of him in return: to go to an abandoned temple deep in the jungles of Chult and steal something.

The half-dragon didn’t say what, and when asked he replied he’d rather not say. His thoughts were plain, though: the unhatched eggs of a gold dragon. He’d done it, he said, because he was desperate, an outcast, on the run from authorities or lynchmobs or cultural norms in too many places to name and Alec seemed like his only out. After he’d stolen the egg, he met up with Alec again and Alec made him magically subservient against the half-dragon’s will. He’d spent every day since – thirty long years – in service to Alec in the efforts of the cult of the Mother. The cult, he said, were the Ascendeds and a couple of dragons. Mal’thalus – the one that “plays the Mother’s heartbeat” – is in direct operational control of the Ascendeds, but the half-dragon didn’t report to Mal’thalus. He reported directly to Alec, who would appear briefly every few months, give the half-dragon orders, and then disappear again. He had no special mental links with Alec, however, or the other Ascendeds – who could, he said, communicate telepathically with one another at will. It was that which I’d heard in the Ascended prisoner we’d killed just before he awoke.

“So are you still in thrall to Alec?” Badl asked.

“No,” the half-dragon said. I was reading his mind. I knew that he meant it. The enchantment effect I’d dispeled back in the desert was probably that effect.

We had freed the half-dragon from slavery.

“What’s your name?” Adric asked.

“Philip,” the half-dragon said.

The half-dragon has a human name. He’s called Philip. What a strange world we live in. His mother, he told us, fell for a drifter who wined her and dined her off her feet and onto her back. A few months later, he was born a freak. They were outcast. His mother tried to find a place for them to live, but it never worked. He turned to petty crime, then just doing whatever he could to get by. When no one wants you in their town square, you take what pay you can get in what inns will take you. He could have named himself Blood-Drinker McBloodBath, or something with a lot of unpronounced syllables the writing of which would drive one mad, but he still called himself Philip. Maybe it sounds dumb, but I felt a tremendous wave of guilt – not pity, because I don’t think Philip is the sort to appreciate pity and might be the sort to take advantage of it. I will readily admit to guilt, however, and here’s why: earlier that morning, when we had discussed what to do with the half-dragon, Nigel had raised the question of why we were going to go kill him. What if he surrendered? Would we rather just take him to a court of law and give him a trial? The conversation had run its expected course in short order: for what would we try him? What court had jurisdiction over “leading a band of evil, unusually tall, winged kobolds in an assault on a foreign embassy to a land that no longer exists?” None of that is what bothers me, though, because the plain fact is that adventuring in the name of good quite often involves murdering the evil and I have long made my peace with what I am willing to do when I truly feel that my life and the fate of the world is at stake. What bothers me is that my response was this:

“I am happy to let the field of battle serve as my courtroom.”

Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have said that. If I did, I would have at least thought about it first. My reaction was quick and total, however: the guy had tried to kill us, and for that he had to die ASAP. OK, fine, but what sticks in my craw is that if it had happened on the streets of, say, Waterdeep, I would have tried to contain the threat and then summon the authorities if for no reason other than to keep my name clean. Out here, in the desert, I was willing to make a snap judgement in a hurry and that judgement was largely based on one thing: that he was half-dragon, and surely that meant he could not possibly be good, or even merely not evil.

I am not worried that I’m a racist, and this isn’t some “oh, he’s just like me, I just turned out lucky” sort of mea culpa crap. What bothers me about this is that I didn’t even consider the option that he would just tell us everything and surrender. I didn’t even consider the possibility that he was magically compelled to do Alec’s bidding. I didn’t even consider a possibility other than killing him outright. I was the first one to take any offensive action out there in the middle of the desert. When everyone else was running or flying to get into position, I cast a sonic fireball on the first things I saw. When the Ascended was in communication with its colleagues, I shouted to kill it. My job is supposed to be to save the world. That’s in the job description most adventurers craft for themselves, but I’m one who’s actually done it a couple of times. I’m not now filled with some sort of self-doubt – I will never lie awake at night and wonder if Cyric would have been willing to sit down and talk things out, I assure you – but I do wonder if this marks some change in my perspective on the world and those I perceive as my enemies. Am I getting older? Am I starting to grow jaded to the ways of the world and the forces that sometimes threaten it?

Am I forgetting to look for the beauty in all things, and starting to focus instead on merely wiping out that which I judge to be deformed?

The answer to that, I think, is no. Adric and Badl have presented Philip with a choice: to choose, with their magical assistance, to renounce his ways and atone for the things he has done. He genuinely regrets much of what he did in Alec’s service, and he is honest enough with us to admit that he does not regret some of what he did because he simply isn’t wired to care all that much. Depending on which path he chooses, he will either wind up working to maintain Badl’s grove – an ironic and I think beautiful path for someone whose paternal heritage is to destroy rather than to nourish – or go to Sess’uadra and work with Berol in the temple of Kelimvor, working to clear more areas of that ruined ancient city. Berol’s city is a place of death, a place where life has not moved forward in thousands of years. In its crumbled center, the dead go to die with dignity and, in that work, Berol has ushered in the demise of some measure of our fear of death and the beyond, taken some of the tinge of betrayal and madness out of death that was brought into it when Cyric was death’s king.

We’ve already used his temple as a dumping ground once this month – we left that captured Drow there to do service rather than return her to certain death at her people’s hands – and I like to think that maybe Sess’uadra could, in time, come to be the place where more than ancient elven dreams and the sick of the modern world go to pass away, that it might become a place where people like Philip can go to let their pasts die and be reborn to a community that knows them only as a helpful and peaceful associate rather than a criminal or an outcast. I like to think that Philip could go there and lay to rest his hatred for those who were cruel to him and his mother, let what evil he has done sink into the ground and be buried by what good works he can do in their place. And maybe, in playing some part in helping that happen, I can let die my own creeping prejudice and cynicism, my own snap judgements made in fear rather than hope.

3 Responses to “Even Villains Get Backgrounds”

  1. Robust McManlyPants on Average Display » PAGP Post says:

    […] Word, my gamer peeps, there is a new post up on Pigs Are Good People, the journal of one of my D&D characters. […]

  2. Whitten says:

    Just a short test.

  3. Whitten says:

    This is a test.

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