tagSci-Fi & FantasyScales like Stars Pt. 04

Scales like Stars Pt. 04


"What's he doing with those papers, concubine?"

Julia popped some popcorn into her mouth and tried to control the nerves gnawing at her gut. She and Merton had met, years before, on Darknest. Darknest, despite sounding like a place where you'd spend bitcoins to buy child porn and assassins, was actually just a World of Warcraft fansite. Well, fan slash porn site. Mostly porn. Yes, they had both been there for night elf titties. But even then, even before she had fallen for him, she had realized just how good Merton was at game-mastering.

But he'd never had stakes like this.

She looked at Princess Relix - and noticed that Relix didn't look bored or disaffected.

She looked worried. As worried as the pit of Julia's tummy.

So, Julia swallowed her first responses and instead set the popcorn carton down. She wiped her palm along her sleeve, then pointed. "See that?" she asked. "That's the GM screen. Basically, it has a lot of rules written on it, to make it easier to run the game without cracking the book open constantly. It also lets him hide his dice."

"So, he could simply change the results?" Julia asked.

"No," Julia shook her head and waggled her finger. "That's against the spirit of Hackmaster. The dice fall where they lay. No, no, no. It's so he can...well..."

Merton picked up a handfull of dice and dropped them. They rattled, clacked, clicked. The Baron's shoulders twitched ever so slightly and his eyes narrowed. "What was that?" he asked, his voice picked up by a throat mic and transmitted through the speakers in the ampitheater.

Merton's grin was laid back. Casual.

"We'll have to see, won't we?" he asked. "Now, that observation check?"

"I failed," the Baron said.

"But the number he rolled was so high!" Relix whispered to Julia. Julia chuckled, whispering back.

"Observation is a skill check. Those require you to roll underneath your skill level, which is reflected as a percentage chance to succeed. The good Baron only has a twenty two percent in observation. That's one of the hard parts of the art of the Hack: Characters start with tanko garbage levels of skills."

"I regularly walked into walls when I was a young level 1 college student," Carlos piped in.

Then each hushed as Merton adjusted his collar, took a deep breath, and started to narrate.


"It is a glorious day in the lands of Barsara. The jungle studded peninsula has seen a break in the seasonally rains, and the ferocity of the last blow has left the air feeling swept clear of all but the fresh smells of the wildlife and the salt smell of the sea breeze. The ship you, Reikstand, stand upon is a simple barque named the Kip. You have, for the past three days, been steadily sea sick as the barque made its slow, plodding way across the Aludian Ocean. Crumpled in your one surviving hand is a parchment that arrived at your home. The parchment that brought you here, so far, so fast...a parchment from your-" Merton paused. "Grandfather, uh..."

Julia tensed in the upper seats. Her hands clenched and she whispered. "Come on..."

"What's wrong?" Relix's voice was hushed.

"He's drawing a blank on a name!" Julia looked at the Princess. "That can totally ruin the flow of a scene."

"Galsgad," Merton said.

"Galsgad?" The Baron rumbled. "What did he send, that has brought mighty Reikstand so far from his home."

"He says that his, ah, lumber mill has been beset by monsters, brigands and raiders," Merton said, moving quickly once more. "His guards have been unable to keep them away, and his people are dying. But more, he states that one of the monsters that was slain - perchance, by a lucky arrow - was bearing more than the expected amount of treasure. Since you have recently gained your vestments and desperately need both funds and converts...you have set off. And now you arrive, in the city of..." His eyes flicked down. "Varneer."

"I see," the Baron said. He leaned forward, then slammed a clenched fist into the table. The screen jumped dramatically. "Tell me of this city!"

"Well, it's a city," Merton said - classic GM buying for time. Relix's tail lashed. "It's a city on the bay, with a harbor and large number of white washed adobe houses. The bustle of pedestrians is clear."

"Very good," the Baron said. "Once the ship comes within ten meters of the dock, I will leap from ship to the docking peir."

"That will be a minus ten strength check," Merton said.

"He's using the wrong kind of dice!" Relix whispered to Julia. Julia snickered, quietly.

"Stat checks use 20 sided dice, not two 10 sided dice. Or, as we in the biz call em, d20s and d10s. Or, well, more accurately, using two ten sided dice is using a d100. But having a single die with a hundred faces is a bit hard." Plastic rattled and the Baron grunted in quite affirmation.

"You take a single bound, leap, sail through the air, then land upon the docks, startling the poor dockmaster. He - a portly human man with a bushy mustache - almost drops his papers as he gapes at your malformed and hideous appearance." Merton coughed, then put on a stuffy, British sounding accent. "Why, I never! You need to pay a fare to enter our fair city, ha-"

"I grab him by the throat," the Baron growled. "And crush it."

Merton raised his eyebrows.

"Oh boy," Julia whispered.

"He can't just kill that man! This isn't real life," Relix hissed, quietly.

"Oh, he can," Trevor said, his voice dry as he crossed his arms over his chest. "Looks like we really do have a socially retarded angel of death on our hands."

"I'm going to need you to roll initiative," Merton said, leaning back in his seat. "And since you're going to go first, I want you to roll your attack check. And since you're going to hit, I want you to roll damage!" He didn't seem perturbed. The Baron's dice fell - and a moment later, the poor dock master's back hit the rough wood of the docks. As he sprawled, Merton cracked his knuckles. "As the man twitches his last - dying slowly on the ground, I-"

"How many experience points?" the baron asked, his voice intent.

"You get XP after combat," Merton said, his voice slipping into an almost drawl. "You hear cries of shock and alarm, and then a woman shrieks: Guards! Guards! And before you know it, five guardsmen wearing chain and bearing swords rush forward. Their armor clinks and clatters, but they draw up short when they see you."

"I crack my knuckles," the Baron said.

"How, exactly?" Merton asked, already rolling some initiative checks.

"By placing my fingers thus," the Baron said, pressing his palm against the edge of the table, then using it to flex his fingers back. The crackling sound of his knuckles were gunshot loud in the room. "Against a nearby post that the ships tie up to."

"...fair enough," Merton said, grinning. "You go first, by the way."

The guards rushed forward. Reikstand met the first blade by catching it in his palm, then smashed his foot into the poor fellow's throat. As that man fell, gurgling and clutching at his neck, Reikstand smashed his forehead into the second - shattering the helmet in a single blow. His elbow then smashed down a third. Merton rolled for morale and clucked his tongue. "The fourth man turns to flee-"

"I chase after!" The Baron said, grinning.

"Ah, wait just a second. You need to roll initiative - this is a new round. The man is spending his whole round running, so you'll need to roll with a pretty serious initiative penalty as you rush forward."

The Baron growled. "I care not!"

His d10s rolled. Two of them came up as tens.

"I go on initiative count..." the Baron paused. "Negative three, three and four."

"Wait, I thought rolling low was good," Relix said, her brow furrowing. "but then the attacks required him to roll high. Now it's good again?"

"For skill checks and stat checks, yes. And for initiative checks - since the round goes tick 0, tick 1, tick 2, and so on," Julia said - but before she could speak, Merton sprang to his feet, pointing at the Baron.

"Thock! Thock! Thock! The sound fills your hears: Heavy crossbows! You barely have time to look away from the arm-lock you've put around the running Guard's head to see that five others have arrived, and these have unslung their crossbows!"

"Betrayal!" The Baron roared back, standing up. "They did not roll initiative."

"That's because readied ranged weapons don't roll for initiative. They go on their ROF tick - for heavy crossbows, that's tick 1 on any round they're readied on, then every other round after that!" He grinned, wickedly. "They-"

"Wait!" The Baron grabbed at his sheets, turning pages over. "I roll catch arrow skill!" His d100 flew, clattering.

"W-What!?" Relix asked. "But he's a priest, isn't he? How can he catch arrows!"

"The Baron's playing a class that follows the God Shona, meaning he can get access to..." Julia's eyes widened. Then her grin became wicked. "Ah. Clever Miles, very clever..."

Four of the crossbow bolts thudded not into the furious, bloody handed Zealot of Shona. Two were smacked from the air by his rapid moving palm, while another sailed into the water behind him. The third thudded into one of the ship-posts that he stood beside. But the fifth whistled out and smashed into his hip. It thudded home.

"You take-" Merton picked up two d4s. He rolled. 4 and 2. He grinned wickedly, then rolled another d4. Another 4. He rolled again and sighed, getting only a 1. But still. He quickly added the damage, factoring in the fact penetration damage dice were reduced by 1, and that the critical hit he had rolled on the crit-table added more damage...he looked up at the Baron, his eyes glittering. "You take ten damage as the bolt buries itself into your leg."

"Woooo!" Julia called out and Trevor shook his head.

"Fucking Hackmaster."

Down at the table, Reikstand had leaped the distance betwixt him and the crossbowmen. They were running in terror as his palm smashed in faces, his legs devestated genitalia. Then he swung - and his d20 came up with that most dreaded number. A natural 1. As he glowered at it, Relix looked at Julia.

"That means he has made a misstep, does it not?"

"Yup," Julia said, cheerfully as Merton began to roll a 1d1000 - via the simple expedient of rolling three d10s and cobbling together a number in that order. He ended up looking at two hundred and sixty two, and grinned over his GM screen at the Baron.

"Make a dexterity check, oh Baron," he said.

The Baron frowned and rolled. His dice rolled, tumbled, and came up a 19. On any other character, that would have been an utter failure. But thanks to his flaw-tastic origin, he still passed with flying colors. A good thing too, as Merton continued.

"As you smite down yet another cowering guard..." Merton said. "Your fist lashes out and a guard manages to jerk aside at just the right moment. Your knuckles smash into a pillar and, as you had not readied yourself for the blow, a shock of pain shoots up your arm. Roll your own unarmed damage, halve it, then apply it to yourself."

The Baron growled angrily, but dutifully picked up his dice and started rolling. In the end, he took six damage - which brought his health to nearly 3/4ths. But his wounds were already starting to reknit as the guard started to try and rally. Merton rolled their morale and they succeeded.

Merton took a moment to pull out a piece of paper. He scribbled some notes on it, then looked up at the Baron. He rolled his shoulders and continued to speak: "And so, fifty guardsmen march towards the docks. Their faces are grim and determined. The front two rows bristle with pikes, while the rear are filled with crossbowmen and archers."

The Baron...


Reikstand didn't simply stand there, to be impaled. Instead, he simply sprinted away from the enemy. They gave chase - and he led them into the most thickly built up parts of town. There, the Baron demonstrated how he had earned his wings, when he had been but a small hatchling in the Singularity Principalities. Reikstand would spring out and slay an entire party of guards in a single flurry of furious blows, then fade back into alleyways. Wagons that had been left parked beside houses were tipped over, their contents sent spilling down. He would use his levitation ability to reach rooftops without needing to climb or make noise, then drop down to slay with feet and head and hand.

Merton took all of this with a smile, a nod, and a pen scribbling on paper.

On and on it went. The dice rolled - and they came up with nasty results more than once. A lucky pike stab there. A crossbow bolt there. But the intricacies of the Hackmaster system seemed to play all into the Baron's hands: his absurdly high armor class meant each critical hit was reduced to almost total ineffectiveness.

At last, the guard's morale broke, shattered, and they fled, leaving thirty of their number dead or dying in the choked streets of Varneer. Which had been the name of the city, before Reikstand started rumbling about how he was going to rename it Dragontopia. As he spoke, Merton continued to make notes.

"Now!" The Baron laughed, his voice exalting. "Tell me. How many experience points do I get?"

Merton grinned. "Why, my good Baron, you get...nothing!" He sprang to his feet, slamming his palms down onto the table. "You lose! Good day sir!" He grinned. "Reikstand has been reduced to a commoner, with no skills to his name! He is found a day later and impaled on a pike for the world to see! His name is spat upon!" He laughed.

The Baron gaped at him, then roared. "You cheating-"

"And now he plays the trap card," Julia whispered as Merton picked up and slammed down in the center of the table, for all to see, the piece of paper he had been writing on. It was a colorless print out, dominated by a large, granulated circle. Charted on it was a series of dots and lines, creating a line that went from Lawful Neutral - which was marked on the lower left hand side of the circle - almost directly across the circle to Chaotic Evil.

"It's all here, in black and white, clear as crystal!" Merton walked around the table, thrusting his finger at the paper. "You have changed your alignment, Baron. You are a zealot, which means you must remain exactly the same alignment as your god! Furthermore, you have acted completely dishonorably as a lawful neutral character. Fighting unfair, not giving quarter, looting?" He shook his head. "Your honor is dropped to the dishonorable category automatically - along with an automatic level loss - when you change alignment. After computating your other honor losses, you hit negatives. Which means..." He grinned. "Your character suffers that most ignoble of fates..."

The Baron's nostrils had thinned to slits.

"Becoming. An. En. Pee. Cee." Merton said each letter with pure relish.

The Baron's nostrils flared and smoke poured into the air. "You lying..."

"Baron Bex," Relix said, standing up. "Are you saying that you contest your loss on the field of honor today?"

The Baron's hands clenched. He was literally shaking. Merton stood his ground, as cool as a cucumber. Julia's heart was in her throat as she watched. All she could see was Merton falling to the ground, sans head. The Baron was right there. And he was so incredibly strong. But then the Baron stepped backwards. His voice was stiff as he growled. "I will send these rule books to the finest minds of the FTE dueling commissions and your evidence. This recording will be dissected from top to bottom. If they find a single irregularity, a single evidence of cheating, a single particle of something out of place, I will come and I will nukefuck your pitiful ship into cosmic dust and then rape your bitch of a wife to death in my largest form while she's humanolocked! Do. You. Understand. Me."

"Get the hell of my ship," Merton snarled. "And hand over your egg."

The Baron grabbed the table and flung it upwards. Papers scattered. Dice crashed. Minifigurines clattered across the arena floor. The table itself cartwheeled upwards and smashed into the protection field that surrounded the grand-stand. He turned and stormed out.

As he left, Merton breathed slowly out. "And I thought Trevor got mad about Bespin."

"That's cause it was bullshit!" Trevor shouted.

"I-Is he allowed to threaten you like that?" Merton's Mom asked, her voice horrified as she looked at Relix.

Relix let out a long suffering sigh. "It's a chromatic thing."

"Racist," Julia hissed.


Merton managed to remain standing until the doors to the arena opened and his wife, his girlfriend, his parents and his friends hurried in. Then he collapsed onto his ass, his face going sheeting white as his knees shuddered. His palms shook so hard that he was pretty sure that he was actually drumming on the deck. Relix and Julia knelt to either side of him, their eyes filled with concern. Julia, he wasn't shocked by. But Relix actually took him aback. Then she slapped his head gently.

"If you knew you were going to win, why didn't you make your demands more extravagant? House Castrovel could have killed to have a few trade routes in this arm of the galaxy!"

"Insert trite 1950s standup routine about married life joke number 39,821," Julia muttered in Merton's ear.

"R-Right..." Merton shook his head as he started to stand up. Julia and Relix both helped him. Relix, actually, did most of the lifting. She mashed herself against his side, her arm sliding along the small of his back. Merton was deeply confused until he remembered her mentioning how exothermic humans were. Which was weird, considering how many dragons breathed fucking fire. As he considered that, Trevor shook his head slightly.

"Seriously, Bespin was bullshit," he said.

"You were the one who made a freelance mercenary company on Cloud City three years after the destruction of the first fucking Death Star, dude. What did you expect would happen when the Empire showed up?" Merton groaned.

Trevor smirked slightly. "You...are a fucking killer GM, dude."

"I know, he's great, isn't he?" Julia asked, giggling slightly.

"No, I mean, he keeps killing us," Trevor said, frowning.

"So, what happens now?" Dad asked, butting in. His mustache was at full bristle and he looked at Relix intently. "Will House Thresh back off?"

"Yes," Relix said, sounding amused. "He only lost face and a minor cousin. With the loss of face, he'll have no reason to continue bothering me." She chortled quietly. "After all, if he tries again, then I can simply bring this event up at the next Galactic Gala and ruin his reputation and the reputation of his house before the other Great Houses. And as the Baron and his House rely on their reputation as asskickers to get merc contracts throughout the spinward reaches and the unsettled core..." She chuckled. "We have put paid to that."


Servants picked up the shining black egg. They were slave collared and had restraint implants in their foreheads, and they had been enchanted to only follow the orders of Baron Bex. But despite all of that, Bex and his half-sister, Gimtesh, kept their eyes on the four servants as they gingerly moved their egg onto the cart.

"Well," Gimtes growled. "This is a fuckup."

Bex's hand closed around her throat. He lifted her up and the half-elven girl made a loud gurgling, gagging noise, her feet kicking, her hands going to his wrist, trying to hold herself up. Her stunted half-wings spread and she tried to choke out a word. "S...So...Sorry."

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