Friday, January 15, 2021

Reviewing the Beatles Solo Albums - Part 4

It's probably high time I included a disclaimer in this series of posts: I am not writing academically about the albums after doing appropriate research, but recording my observations after listening to them. Occasionally I will look something up after the fact, but this is my purpose here.

We're At the Speed of Sound by Wings, or is the title Wings at the Speed of Sound? The album cover is ambiguous there. In some ways this is the first true Wings album, yet in other ways it isn't...but we'll get to that shortly.

While there is undeniably filler on this album, there are also strong songs like "Let 'em In," "She's My Baby," "Beware My Love," "Silly Love Songs," and "Warm and Beautiful," of which I think "She's My Baby" is the weakest and "Silly Love Songs" is tops. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wh15LOppcWQ

Also -- and here's what makes this such a Wings album -- Paul steps away from the lead microphone three times to let his teammates shine. Including Linda! Though never known for her singing voice, like the old days with Ringo, Paul has crafted a fun song that's not too challenging to sing in "Cook of the House." None of these songs are particularly good, but they are all at least okay, and fulfill a promise Paul had made to them when Wild Life was originally going to be a double album with lead vocal by the others on it. 

Now, there is no other reason Paul would have needed to do this. Remember, until the Beatles, it was not normal for a band to have more than one lead singer! The Beatles had so much star potential that George Martin wisely agreed to let them perform on their early albums as they did on stage, as a true ensemble, and in the process changed the group dynamics of bands for all time. Paul didn't have to go this route; he is, after all, the undeniable star of the band. But did he feel nostalgic, perhaps, for how the Beatles worked...?

Also, let me bring up "Beware My Love" again -- again, not the best song on the album, but certainly unusual; unusual, for Paul, the syrupy romantic, to sing a song about love being dangerous. It could be a gentler sequel to "Live and Let Die," perhaps, or it could be an intentional effort to write something more like his old partners John or George. In John's case, love literally was dangerous, since he was a violent man, while George often sang of love as an overpowering, uncontrollable force. So, while "at the Speed of Sound" suggests rapid movement, perhaps it is backwards, towards his past with the Beatles...?

I am not surprised that Ringo's Rotogravure didn't do well at the time and is largely unknown today. It is an album without any theme or identity, like a Best of album made up of new and less worthy material. Ringo ranges on it from classic rocker to country (of course) to Mexican Mariachi to experimental (the only way I can think to describe "Spooky Weirdness", which just sounds like someone accidentally left a mic running while everyone was taking a break).

"Hey Baby" is a cover that I think is better than the original, but other than that....Anyone who makes it through the rather dull A side will be rewarded by two minor gems on side B. "I'll Still Love You" -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMB08K93H6g -- is the best song on the album (I see, later, that George wrote this!) and I enjoyed "Cookin' (in the Kitchen of Love)" (though, I suspect I find this unduly amusing because it reminds me of "Bushes of Love", the Bad Lip Reading song; and this was a John-penned song!). 

Also worth a listen is this recording of George trying to get "I'll Still Love You" to work on his own - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDmVoVPrtRg

George's Thirty Three and 1/3 was a step back in the right direction after the frivolous Extra Texture. We're still not back to him making great albums, but we're almost there because George is taking the music seriously again. "See Yourself" and "Crackerbox Palace" -- are  good songs, and "Dear One," "It's What You Value," and "True Love" are all close to good songs, maybe just one re-write away (Ha, after the fact, I looked this up and found that "True Love" is a cover! Well, I wish he'd done more with it, then). "This Song" is, on first listen, awfully similar to "Northern Song," but the context behind it is the ridiculous court case where George was found guilty of the nonexistent crime of unintentional plagiarism. It seems, whenever George is frustrated by something, you're going to get a bitter song out of it like "Taxman," "Northern Song," or "This Song." 

Did I say he was taking his music more seriously? The video for "Crackerbox Palace" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Ac34Khe-fc -- seems to put the lie to that, and yet George is just having fun (and inspired by his new Monty Python friends; watch carefully and you'll see Eric Idle cameo in the video, as well as Batman!) -- but I should have said he was putting more effort into the songs again.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Company of the White Oak - Session 13

(Previously known by the overly-long name Back-to-Basics Original Dungeons & Dragons Greyhawk Campaign)

Sunsebb 21, 620 CY
City of Greyhawk

There was a tall thin sign of a tall thin elf with blue skin in a hooded cloak that hung outside the Blue Elf Tavern, the sign’s paint as faded and peeling as the paint on the tavern itself. It was not surprising; these were the slums of the Old City, a seemingly unusual place for someone as foppish and gentlemanly as Cuthbrid the Fair appears to be to frequent, and yet he did -- John Grond had personally observed him coming and going there last night, a final act of surveillance before confronting the man.

John Grond, Brother Langdon, and Vask had spent the last few days rounding up who they could to help rescue the missing members of their company, Siliceous Slagg, Haruspex Niv, Jolith Rhygar, and his hench-elf Trebor. They found Grandma Erin, who had been away from the group for three weeks, and Tuko "Lumpy" Burrstone, who had been away for seven. They had no leads, but a strong suspect; Cuthbrid had been behind the attack on the Chapel of Boccob and had the resources, and possibly the grudge, to capture their friends.

Rather than openly attack Cuthbrid in the street, John and Langdon confronted him at his table in the tavern, with Erin and Lumpy watching the front door and their new hireling Oslo (the man rescued from the Moat Caves a week earlier) guarding the kitchen entrance.

Rather than fight or flee, Cuthbrid wanted to talk to them. “Well, you’ve finally shown some backbone."

"Them's fighting words!" John said threateningly.

"Lower your fists...your friends should appreciate your effort," Cuthbrid said cooly. "I will help you - and rest assured, I am your only chance of you getting your friends back safely. But we should not discuss this out in the open.” The three men agreed to continue in a private room at the back of the tavern.

While John and Langdon went into the tavern's private room, Lumpy and Erin sat at a nearby table. In a grumbling voice the dwarf said, "Now is the hardest part of talking business, the waiting." Getting the attention of a serving person, he ordered a few tankards of ale.

Meanwhile, inside the private room, Cuthbrid continued. “Your victory at the Chapel of Boccob embarrassed our organization, but you won that fight fair and square, and Cuthbrid the Fair respects all things fair. Unfortunately for you, our leader, a man known only as Black Cobra, wants to make an example of your company, so your captured friends are set to be executed three nights from now at a large ceremony. Fortunately for you, that does not sit well with me. Again unfortunately for you, your friends are held in the sewers and no one can enter the sewers without a magic key. Again fortunately for you,” and here Cuthbrid performed a flourish of his hands, a little sleight of hand, and produced a key. “I have a spare. I will even, as one final favor to you, show you the sewer entrance closest to their cells. But you are on your own from there, and I consider that more than generous to square things with you..."


Sunsebb 21, 620 CY
In a cell, somewhere

The cell shared by Siliceous Slagg, Jolith Rhygar, Haruspex Niv, and the strange creature called Lara Darro was small, what would be a tight fit if not for one of them being a dwarf and another even smaller. Lara was, by her own admission, “not from around here,” and none of them had seen her like before. Her skin was dark around her eyes like a natural domino mask (or perhaps achieved with tattooing). Unlike most hobbits who were chubby, she was proportional to a slender human, only one 3' tall. The only thing stunted about her were her fingers, all short and fat. And most unusual, she had a tail - a prehensile tail that ended in a ball of fur.

Their captors had been thorough. Everyone was stripped down to their undergarments, full quilted gambesons in the case of Siliceous and Jolith, less in the case of Haruspex and Lara, though no one was topless or barelegged. They were searched for hidden weapons and even their boots were taken. Siliceous had a rock for a weapon. Jolith and Haruspex had their spells.

Dinner arrived. By torchlight from the hallway, they could see the four jailors, the one bringing in the food on a tray, the spearman defending the first jailor, and the two with cudgels for back-up outside. What they needed was a distraction so no one would notice Haruspex casting his spell. Jolith and Siliceous began loudly insulting each other. The first jailor told them to shut up. The second jailor noticed Siliceous trying to inch towards the door and ordered him back. That was all the distraction Haruspex needed; they dropped all four men with a Sleep spell. One had a keyring -- Trebor could be freed from across the hall! They stripped leather armor from two of the jailors so Jolith and Trebor could don it, and split the three weapons between them, with Lara sounding confident she could defend herself if she needed to. But -- where next? Where was the way out? There was a door at the end of the hall in one direction, a side passage just before that door, and in the other direction was a long dark hallway.

The sleeping guards were moved gently into the first cell and locked in, except for one of them, his arms lashed with a belt, and all weapons poised on him as he was woken up.

"You made a mistake messing with us," Haruspex warned. "None of us have compunctions against killing you."

"I'm only a paid jailor!" the man protested. He sang; the dark hallway (south) was the most direct route out, but required crossing a wide gap filled with sewage. The safer route was the longer one, through the arena in the other direction (north). The arena was not safe, as it was patrolled by guards. No one liked the sound of this arena, but wading through sewage did not sound good either. Then the man suggested another option. "In my room are many of your belongings!" His room was through the door at the north end of the hallway.

It was too tempting to pass up. Jolith and Trebor pulled the coifs on their armor as tight around their faces as they could. They untied their prisoner, made him walk with him at spearpoint, but attempted to make it look like they were all three guards together escorting Siliceous and Lara between them. It was a smart deception to make, for the guard room was still occupied -- by five more guards! In chainmail! With shields and maces! The company was outnumbered and faced better equipped opponents. But Siliceous bravely charged in, his cudgel swinging wildly!

Sunsebb 21, 620 CY
City of Greyhawk

John and Langdon hemmed and hawed a bit, but when Cuthbrid let them know it was a limited time offer they accepted the magic key and his offer to lead them to the closest sewer grate to the prisoners.

"I could use some fresh air," Cuthbrid quipped. He fetched his bodyguard and had him accompany him, as John and Langdon assembled the rest of the company and went for a long stroll. It was crisp air, wintry, though it was not yet officially winter.

The way south led through the Garden Gate that led out of the Old City. The guards at the gate warmed their hands over a burning fire in a brazier, but they were still attentive to their duty of blocking the gate.

"Best not to tell them about the key and the sewers," Cuthbrid had warned the company quietly.

"What are you doing out this late, on a night like this, and so armed?" the guards asked, though there was no reason to be suspicious of arms and armor in a free city with so many mercenaries in it. The guards made it clear they had many delays in mind, even inspecting their gear, unless someone bribed them. John and Langdon started producing gold and handed them six orbs, explaining that they were escorting an important dignitary. They not only got the guards to allow them to pass, but got them to bow as they passed!

"I should have you escort me places more often," Cuthbrid said, impressed.

A 15-minute walk later, they were once more in Clerkberg. They entered the grounds of Grey College and were warned to behave themselves by a passing patrol of campus security. Cuthbrid led them to the large sewer grate behind the School of Music building. It was just like the grate they had seen under the Chapel of Boccob; it was without hinges, but could not be opened or lifted -- until Langdon stepped close with the magic key, and then it could be lifted easily. Cuthbrid wished them luck, and left with his bodyguard.

Oslo, already frustrated that he hadn't killed anyone while guarding the backdoor of the tavern, was told that he would remain behind and guard the sewer grate while the rest of them went below. John and Langdon continued to take the lead, with Vask in the middle, and Erin and Lumpy taking up the rear, while Erin held the torch they would see by.

"I was right," Landon stated quietly, but smugly, on their way down. "I said he hadn't kidnapped our friends, and he hadn't. He just knew who did…"

The smell of raw sewage assailed their nostrils long before they ever saw it. Below the grate were stairs that led down to a 20' wide west-northeast tunnel, dry on this side, but with a stream of sewage flowing slowly on the other side. Which way to go?

Sunsebb 21, 620 CY
In the sewers already

"You did not go five minutes without betraying us!" Jolith admonished their captive jailor, and he nodded to Trebor to run the man through with the spear. The spear bit deep and felled the jailor, while Siliceous got in a lucky crotch shot that doubled over one of the guards, and a follow-up shot to the face laid him out flat!  

But after that initial round of surprise attacks the tide began to turn against the party. The guardsmen, once on their guard, were difficult to hit. Siliceous and Jolith were taking glancing blows. Trebor was subdued by two mace blows. Lara proved to have retractable, talon-like claws in all her fingers and toes. She leapt on one of the guards attacking Siliceous, but she was only able to scratch his face once. Haruspex held back, reserving his remaining spell in reserve as long as he could.

Once two of the guardsmen were seriously hurt, the four of them tried to flee the room, but Haruspex swung a torch in their faces and blocked the exit. Backed into a corner, the men threw down their weapons and surrendered.

There was a very brief dispute over whether to heal Trebor, since they only had one healing spell to use for anyone and Trebor was only stunned for an indeterminate length of time. But Jolith felt they could not afford to wait and see how long he would be insensate, so the spell was cast. Trebor leapt to his feet, ready to fight anew.

Meanwhile, the prisoners were questioned. Was the way now clear through the arena? Maybe not, there was still a patrol of six men in the area. Why so many guards? They were hired to clear out any ghouls in this area of the sewers, in preparation for a big ceremony in the arena in three nights. What monsters were kept for fighting in the arena? White apes (Haruspex wondered if his Charm spell would work on them…). Were they kept down the tunnel to the south? They were in a big cave to the west.

The first prisoner had been honest about some of their equipment being here. Actually, most of it was.

The prisoners were marched south to the cells and locked into one of them. The arena still didn't seem like the safest way to go, so they went south to check out that route. They found a new door that led west, and the passage turned southeast before hitting a spot where a trench of sewage-filled water flowed from under one side wall and out under the opposite wall, blocking the passage. The trench was 8' wide - an almost impossible jump -- and Jolith tested the depth with Trebor's new spear and found it 4' deep. They were trapped again! Worse, the light of a lantern was approaching them from the other side…

Sunsebb 21, 620 CY
Now also in the sewers

The company stopped and listened. Langdon and Vask both thought they heard the distant sound of ...steel scraping on stone? It came from the northeast passage, and so they went that way. After a few zigs and zags, it came to a room where the trench of sewage on their right bent in front of them and hugged the left hand side of the room, before disappearing under the far wall. Allowing them to cross the trench was a simple, rail-less stone bridge that Lumpy called as looking safe to cross. But what really stood out in the room was a massive pair of double doors in the right hand wall, standing 12' tall. They were made entirely of steel, banded vertically in steel, with hinges on this side, but no handles for pulling them open. Each door had a narrow shuttered window at 6' high. The door on the left also had a round glass window above the slot. It was a thick glaze, no doubt meant more for letting light through than allowing visibility.

"So they can see our light…" Lumpy observed.

There was a tall, narrow side passage on either side of these doors, both of which turned away from the doors, but the doors were what held everyone's attention. There was much talk of knocking on them, but John was ready to let himself in; he started working on the gap between the doors with an iron spike, trying to wedge them apart. A task that became much easier when Langdon produced a crowbar from his heavy pack and loaned it out.    

From the circular window suddenly lanced a bright beam of light, the brightest non-sunlight light any of them had ever seen. It shown like a ray from the window, and the glass window could swivel in its mounting to cast the ray of light all over the room. Erin hustled towards the doors and leaned into them, wanting to stay out of the beam.

The closer of the two shuttered windows slid open. A fair-skinned man looked down on them, then shouted at them in an unknown, guttural tongue.  "Wenn Sie hier nichts zu suchen haben, gehen Sie weg!” And then shut the window.

They wanted in those doors now more than ever. Vask lent his prodigious strength to leveraging the crowbar with John, and finally the door gave and opened for them.

Inside was a room with no back wall, only stairs leading down into a much larger cavern. There were three people in this room, or rather on this large landing, all clad in identical grey uniforms with buttoned coats, round helmets, pouch-lined belts held by leather suspenders, and wrapped legs over their boots and below their knees. One of them was talking in their strange tongue and pointing to the other two, who held strange weapons that looked like crossbows, but had a black metal pipe on the front end of them.

John, sensing they were dangerous, lunged at the unarmed one, planning to take him prisoner, but the armed men were faster. One raised his bowless crossbow and pulled the trigger. There was the sudden roar of thunder, a flash of light, the pipe belched out a plume of smoke, and…

Sunsebb 21, 620 CY
Nearby in the sewers

The self-freed prisoners backed up into the shadows and watched the lantern light approach. It spilled light on a large intersection past the sewage trench that ran north, east, and southwest (if the directions the guards had given were valid). The light was crossing through the intersection when it paused, for they all heard a noise that sounded like thunder. But thunder below ground? The lantern-wielder hastened his pace and soon disappeared down the southwest passage.

Desiring to learn what had happened, the company became more convinced they needed to cross this trench. Haruspex was ready to risk swimming through the sewage when Siliceous reminded them there was a table back in the guardroom. It was not long enough to lay across the trench, but if one person stood on one end as the other end was projected over the trench, it could serve as a diving board for them to jump very easily off of to the other side.

Upon returning to the guardroom, they chanced to spy one of the patrol groups they had been warned about standing at the guardroom door. Through the open door they had clearly seen the signs of battle, and then spied the escaped prisoners approaching. Rather than stay and fight, though, they turned and fled down the side passage that led to the arena.

"No doubt for reinforcements," Jolith said. "We must hurry."

Siliceous was short, but heavy enough to balance the table as each of them crossed over it safely. When it was Siliceous' turn, he pushed the table into the water and deftly hopped over it ot the other side, with no more than a splatter of sewage on his bare feet (his boots were still missing!) to show for it.

Now, which way had the boom of thunder come from? The echoing down here was intense and confused the senses. Was the lantern-wielder moving towards it or away from it? Some thought the sound came from the north, but others from the southwest. When Trebor said he would go wherever Jolith led, that broke the tie and they followed the lantern southwest.

Sunsebb 21, 620 CY
Nearby in the sewers

If the booming pipe had been a weapon it was a poor one, as John was unhurt, but he was shaken by the loud noise and was least useful in the combat that followed. Vask and Langdon charged one of the bowless crossbow-wielders. Lumpy threw his axes at the other one. Erin attacked the unarmed one with his mace, but he reached for a short all-metal bent rod in a small scabbard at his side and pointed at her. Erin smote her opponent down before he could produce any noise, light, or smoke from his little weapon. There was another eruption of all three from the longer weapons though, and this time Vask was hit by something. As before, the missile was too small or too fast to be seen, but it punctured a hole through the front of his armor, his body, and the back of his armor. He was seriously wounded, but kept fighting. Lumpy and Vask both seriously injured the two soldiers before them, but the soldiers managed to turn and run down the stairs after dropping their weapons.

The five adventurers moved to the top of the stairs and looked down into what looked like a courtyard, but set in an enormous cavern over 200' on a side. They could see how far it went because of iron braziers holding fires scattered all over the cavern. Just 60' ahead of the bottom of the stairs was a stone platform with some kind of machine on top with a large pipe sticking out of it, the whole apparatus so large that it had ladders on it for the people operating it to use. Lined up in a half circle behind the platform were three oddly-shaped metal shacks with large black crosses painted on them, and a fourth of these shacks was in the near corner. There were five more normal-looking but still metal shacks further back, with three larger buildings of metal and wood (mostly wood) behind those. Well over a dozen more men in the same grey uniforms and helmets were loitering about the 'courtyard,' but were rallying around the two injured soldiers who escaped the battle at the top of the stairs.

That was all the company needed to see. They gathered up all three of the strange weapons and high-tailed it back through the steel doors and shut them tight. They stood there, leaning into the metal valves, unsure how to even describe to each other what they had all just seen, when they noticed what looked like lantern light coming from a side passage in what had been the far side of the room when they first came in. Also, there were now bats in the air, fluttering about. Where had those come from? There had not been bats in here before.

The lantern appeared at the entrance, held by an unarmored man in normal clothes. Accompanying him were three men in platemail armor, each with a different weapon, one with a bow. They identified the company as intruders and moved to attack. Now, these people the company understood!

The archer's first shot missed as the company charged. Grandma Erin tried to fire one of the 'boomsticks,' but it did absolutely nothing when she pulled the trigger as the man had done earlier. Lumpy's retrieved throwing axe buried itself in the unarmored man. John, Langdon, and Vask met the charge of the other two men in armor, sword and spear and mace against sword and morningstar.

And that was when Siliceous, Haruspex, Jolith, Trebor, and Lara appeared, behind the patrol of four! All but Haruspex charged the enemy and struck at their backsides, concentrating on the armored foes, while Lumpy took down the other one with a second hit from an axe.

Lara saw the weapon Erin held in her hands and gasped. "Those weapons should not be on this world!"

Haruspex, still nearby but unengaged in battle, heard that first. "Does that mean...you're from another world…?"

"I didn't say that!" Lara said quickly, defensively.

And then something else happened. Two of the bats were growing, twisting in shape, color, and appearance, until they appeared to be two men, as pale as corpses, contrasting sharply with the stained black leather armor they both wore. Bats that could become men -- Vampires?

Before anyone could react, the vampires launched into attacks -- on the remaining three strangers, besieged on both sides by the two halves of the Company of the White Oak.

"This way!" John roared, and he led an immediate retreat from the battlefield, as the three men futilely tried to defend themselves from the vampires. They left the scene of carnage, and the mysterious steel doors, behind them. They followed the zigs and zags of the long sewer tunnel, coming finally back to the stairs out. Two bats were following behind them, their leather wings beating furiously! The Company raced up the stairs, to starlight, to safety, to live and fight another day! The steel grate was slammed back into place before the bats could reach it and were left below, just one more unexplained mystery in the sewers...  


Reviewing the Beatles Solo Albums - part 3

Hard to believe that, by the end of '74, George Harrison seemed so out of ideas that he could come up with so little for his Dark Horse album. Leading with an instrumental and two filler songs? "Maya Love" sounds pretty good. "Bye Bye Love" seems like an odd cover, but maybe it just sounds so weird to hear an Everly Brothers song without harmonizing on it. "Ding Dong Ding Dong" is a paper-thin confection, but if you ignore how there's almost nothing to it, the tune is rather catchy. And then, of course, "Dark Horse" is pretty good and the raison d'etre for the album. I prefer this bonus track/earlier version - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqL2PEwq9qM.... Harrison seems to make a habit of layering too much onto his songs, when they sound best with the simplest of arrangements.

I've been looking forward to listening to this one again! I don't own it, but I've grooved to John Lennon's Rock n' Roll album more than once, borrowing it from my library. This is always going to be my favorite Lennon solo album -- no Lennon the Artiste or Lennon the Social Critic or Lennon, Yoko's Stooge in sight -- this is just a guy who loves rock n' roll music, singing rock n' roll music, and you can hear that love in every tune. The only missteps are slowing down "Do You Want to Dance" and "Bony Maronie," which turn out not as good as the originals. Conversely, "Sweet Little Sixteen" is much improved by mixing in the sound of "Little Egypt" by the Coasters. But the one I'm going to share is "Just Because" -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQkouyTSKlg... -- which John can't resist waxing nostalgically on before he starts belting it out.

After Ram and Band on the Run, it would be hard for anyone's album to measure up, so it's no surprise that Venus and Mars doesn't quite measure up. But there are no bad songs! The "Venus and Mars" intro and reprise are now becoming familiar features of Beatles and solo Beatles albums, but the reprise comes almost in the middle, defying expectations. "Rock Show" is fun, but more satisfying are the gentle "Love In Song," the retro "You Gave Me the Answer" (Paul was so good at retro), and another rocker, "Letting Go." "Medicine Jar" is the weakest song, and that's only because it's so average. "Spirits of Ancient Egypt" is so goofy that it shouldn't work, but Paul sings it with such earnestness that you can't help but like it. Of all the songs on it, "Call Me Back" is the song I sing most often out loud, it's so amazing that Paul can take anxiety about a phone call, something we can all relate to, and turn it into something so epic. But, of course, I can't not mention "Magneto and Titanium Man!" Paul's tribute to the Marvel Comics work of Jack Kirby is marred only by the fact that Jack Kirby didn't have anything to do with the Titanium Man. And those two villains never worked together, ever. And the crime they're pulling off is just silly. But it's good clean comic book fun! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wq9z7D8HKZo&list=PLrv5a_5drVgT6kEK-hHQYs-UaE9LyM7F-&index=5

So far in my listening project, I've heard two masterpiece albums from Ringo, three from Paul, and one from John and George each, so it got to be pretty difficult getting through George's Extra Texture. I normally write these based on my own impressions without doing any additional reading first, but I did happen to see the comments section on "You" and how some people loved it for its simplicity. And it's true that I did say George was better when he went for sublime without too much over-layering...but there is a line he's crossed here that seems to veer into sheer laziness. I can't even recommend "Tired of Midnight Blue," probably the least bad song on the album, enough to bother linking you to it. Hoping things pick up again soon...

It doesn't seem quite fair to compare "Best of" albums to regular albums, so all I'm going to say about John Lennon's Shaved Fish and Ringo Starr's Blast from Your Past is that they are full of great songs, and Shaved Fish is a terrible name.


Monday, January 4, 2021

Back-to-Basics Original Dungeons & Dragons Greyhawk Campaign - sessions 11 & 12

Ready’reat 28, 620 CY

Haruspex Niv, Siliceous Slagg, John Grond, Brother Langdon, Jolith Rhygar, and his hireling Trebor had all decided to stay in the City of Greyhawk and see what they could do to help at the “Cursed Tower,” the still-under-construction chapel of Boccob that had been delayed by many accidents, including the recent death of the laborer Greybill. If they were expecting a deserted tower they were much mistaken; it was bustling with activity, with a small security force outside, laborers on the scaffolding and going in and out of the chapel, and over a dozen clergy standing around, seemingly supervising.

John Grond split off to go visit a nearby bakery, while Jolith told Trebor to take up a position somewhere he could watch the tower from an unobserved distance. The others went up to talk to the adept, Brother Tybalt, who summoned Brother John from inside. They all knew Brother John from Castle Greyhawk, and he related to them the story of how a wizard and his hirelings had driven the ogres of the castle to the far western towers, but then broke off their assault. The wizard cast a spell that lowered the drawbridge so his hirelings could come and go, and John took this opportunity to leave himself; and this was a week ago. In the course of the conversation, John returned with a loaf of bread. He had also been followed.

An old lady, perhaps 60, but wearing armor and armed, came to meet the party, bearing a box of pastries for them. More importantly, this was Grandma Erin, whom Jake had earlier talked about admitting into the party as his possible replacement, now that his priestly duties were so great. Erin wanted to help out, so she stayed with the outdoors group, watching for trouble, while Haruspex and Langdon went inside to take a tour of the chapel.

Inside, the two of them met Bishop Carolus. Carolus squashed Langdon’s theory that it was a spirit or fairy causing mischief by sharing the secret that notes warning of further “accidents” had been left several times inside the chapel. It seemed more human agents were responsible, perhaps even one disguised as a clergyman. Carolus also shared that he had avoided taking more actions than hiring security because he was waiting for a sign, but last night he had a dream about Brother Langdon that Langdon found only semi-reassuring.

Speaking of clergymen, they were met on the second floor by the two curates of the church, Artemidorus and Ptolemaeus, who felt “Langdon’s friends” were disruptive at best and suspicious at worst. Ptolemaeus also had some noticeable magic about him, as he made no noise when he moved.

Outside, the group followed music to a female bard wearing a man’s flat cap and playing pipes by the tower. She was Stenburch the Bard and they talked to her until another accident happened – a scaffolding plank collapsed when one of its support poles broke. Erin checked the pole and found that it had been partially sawed through sometime earlier. Jolith tended to the broken leg of a man who fell, putting a splint on it, but changed his mind when two other laborers were leading him away. He cast his only healing spell to fix the leg, but then traded the miracle for information. Sure enough, the laborer was harboring some knowledge he’d been hesitant to share. He had not wanted to say anything, but the stonemason Hilge was suspiciously always early and leaving late.

It was decided that Haruspex would charm Hilge so they could all interrogate him. It worked – maybe even too well, as Hilge began to draw attention to himself by how he fawned over Haruspex. Niv drew Hilge away from the tower and, some distance away, they pumped him for information. Sure enough, he was a spy working for the Iron Workers Guild. He had not done any of the sabotage himself, but was there to observe and make sure it happened, as was at least one more laborer (who was not scheduled that day). The Iron Workers Guild were racketeers…

Just then, they noticed a man dressed all in red running away from the tower. He reached the stream just east of the tower, with the security detail in hot pursuit – but then the ‘man in red’ made a 30-foot leap over the stream, leaving the fighting men well behind. The man in red doffed a flat cap – of the same type Stenburch wore earlier – and then fled the scene. Before he was out of range, Niv cast his Charm Person spell, but it failed to affect him.

The party converged outside the tower to find out what had happened. The man in red, representing the Iron Workers Guild, presented a final ultimatum, that the Church of Boccob would need to fire all its workers and hire through the guild instead, or would suffer their worst disaster that night.

Someone else came to meet the party. Vask, a strong but dumb fighting man, was in the employ of the Wizard Prospero, who sent Vask to help protect the party.

There were four hours to darkness. The party used this time splitting up and fetching their heavy armor and adventuring gear (they had worn their traveling leather armor until now). Haruspex bought throwing daggers, since he was out of spells. When they came back at dusk, they talked to Trebor, who had been watching this whole time. Trebor had observed Stenburch leaving, and had talked to four ratcatchers who were looking for unusually large rodents in the area. The party wanted to inspect the cellar level of the chapel, which they had grown suspicious of since hearing it mentioned a few times earlier in the day. Carolus had sent most of the clergy home for their safety and the increased nighttime security was outside, so the party was able to descend from the nave to the cellar uncontested.

The first side room in the cellar contained a grated trapdoor in the floor that seemed to lead into the city's sewers. The grate was not locked, but resisted opening. Barrels were moved onto the grate to keep it from opening. The party spent a lot of time searching around the statue of Boccob in an alcove at the far end of the hallway and that amounted to nothing. When they returned to the upper level, there was a commotion outside. While Siliceous, Langdon, and Erin remained below to watch the grate, the rest of the party went out to investigate.

There was no sign of the security forces, and four men were trying to set the scaffolding on fire with torches. The fighters in the party chased them off, seriously injuring two with missiles, while Trebor took down one with an arrow fired at distance.

At the same time, the grate was being rattled in the cellar. Someone was trying to enter, during the distraction outside. Erin dropped a lit torch through the grate and they could see it was four hobgoblins. The hobgoblins shrieked and fled down a tunnel away from the grate. Erin summoned the people outside back to the cellar. There was talk of taking the hinges off the trapdoor to see if it could be opened then, but by now enough time had passed that it was determined the hobgoblins had too good a lead.

The party returned to the nave, planning to all go outside, when they found that a third wave of attackers had taken the ground floor. A big chaotic melee ensued as nine men with torches and axes attacked the party. Some of them were good fighters, one taking three hits to drop, but they were not too loyal to their cause, and many tried to flee as soon as injured. Several party members were hurt in the fight, but none worse than Vask who was smashed in the face with a torch and went down! The party did win the fight (with Niv finding he was actually pretty good at throwing daggers), and the adepts on the upper floor were roused from their sleep to heal him.


Sunsebb 14, 620 CY

On a freezing cold day, the adventurers Haruspex Niv, Siliceous Slagg, John Grond, Brother Langdon, Jolith Rhygar, and Vask -- now calling themselves the Company of the White Oak – headed once more towards Castle Greyhawk from the nearest village of Hawfair Green. Their last forays had not made them rich and fears that a long winter would cut into their savings too deeply brought them back one more time. However, the castle itself was not their main focus, and turned out to be unavailable anyway (the drawbridge was once more up, no doubt the work of those pesky ogres!). Instead, they planned to descend into the dry moat and try the cave tunnels once more.

The first caves were not only uninhabited now, but the furnishings had been cleared out of them, even when nothing more than crude nests. Soon they reached a cross tunnel that led, to the right, to what had been a small guard room and, to the left, to a large common room cavern. The party had stood there and debated for a bit about which way to go and had just decided to skip checking the guard room when they were attacked by three fresh goblin guards from the rear. Siliceous, the rear guard, held them off while John and Vask turned around and aided him with spears. Niv, from his position in the middle, threw daggers over people's heads at the back rows of the goblins. Meanwhile, five more goblins emerged from the cavern to attack the clerics who were now the rear of the party.

It was the very pincer move the company had feared and, initially, it looked like it might prove deadly for them. Vask was struck a critical hit and went down, while Brother Langdon was seriously injured after several hits. These goblins, perhaps their elite fighters, fought smart and teamed up on the same opponents instead of spreading their numbers out. But the party soon turned the tide, struck down all the goblins save two, who fled back into the large cavern. John pursued them into the near-darkness of the cavern and found that Jolith’s guess as to what happened to all the furnishings turned out to be prophetic – the goblins had constructed a long barrier, up to 4’ high, crossing the entire 30’ width of the cavern. The goblins scrambled over it and escaped, for the moment, while the company dealt with their wounded. Jolith had called on Delleb to heal Vask and Vask was immediately restored to full health. Langdon had called on Boccob to heal himself and the Uncaring One had still left Langdon moderately hurt...and a little resentful.

A strategy was quickly devised for dealing with the barrier -- three flasks of oil were poured out on top of the wall, and then the band stepped back and waited. When they heard sounds in the dark on the far side of the room, they lobbed sling stones into the darkness, with only Langdon getting lucky enough to strike anything. Then the goblins made their charge -- all 10 of them. The company were themselves exposed to some sling shots, but the goblins were not effective with them. The company held their ground until the goblins were right up to the barrier - then Jolith tossed his lit torch onto it.

FWOOSH! Three goblins standing right up against the barrier with their spears caught on fire and burned to death. Spears and sling stones rained down on the fleeing goblins until only a few were left to escape.

Which left the company with a problem. They had set a huge fire that now blocked their pursuit of the goblins, and the wall of smoke it was throwing off meant they couldn't even watch to see if the goblins were coming back. The party backtracked to a side passage they had passed charging into the chamber and found a second small side cave, this one was apparently a lavatory for the more civilized goblins.

Since it was going to be maybe 20 minutes until the fire died down enough that the company could knock over the remaining barricade safely, the company decided to leave this area and explore elsewhere. Way back at the entrance was a left side passage they always ignored, but this time they planned to take it. They returned to their hirelings first to make sure they were okay, and they were. Trebor and Haldor had heard rocks falling out in the moat earlier, but saw nothing.

Circling carefully around the pit blocking the left side passage, the company found themselves in a new cave full of garbage and waste -- the lavatory for the less civilized goblins, perhaps, and judging by the size of the mounds the less civilized ones were more numerous, or these had been left behind by the ogres that had inhabited these caves sometime in the past.

But this was not the time for solving such mysteries -- for the room was inhabited by nearly a score of huge rats! Niv judged it was time to finally break out his Sleep spell and half the rats fell asleep. The remaining half seemed hesitant to advance and some of them fell to sling stones. The remainder fled either behind or into mounds of garbage. Rather than waste time dealing with them in order to search the room for buried treasure, the hirelings were brought in and given spears to do the dirty deed with.

A small tunnel to the north led to a sunlit cave with unusual occupants. Bats hung from stalactites on the ceiling, while below them, caked in guano, were two orcs, a hobgoblin, and a hairy, half-naked man. All four were bound to the walls by lengths of chain attached to manacles at their left wrists and ankles, the chains feeding through a loop spiked into the wall behind them. Jolith came in and fed the prisoners, then suggested a strategy of using an iron spike to pry the loop out of the wall (but it was given to John to accomplish, for Jolith had not the strength for it).

The man was freed. He said his name was Oslo and that he had been exploring the moat with an adventuring party, but being tortured in this cave made remembering anything else hard. Oslo did have many small, fresh wounds on him. Oslo was sent one room back for the hirelings to watch over. Then the company had to decide what to do with the other prisoners. Rather than free or kill them, they were just left where they were, struggling impotently against their chains.

There was a door in the north wall of the cave; Oslo had said that other monsters lurked behind that door that were not his goblin captors. From his description, it was clear they were about to deal with gnolls again. They advanced down a long tunnel and came to a gnoll lair with three of them arguing. The company had surprise, but their true advantage was in the gnolls only having long pole weapons; once the fighters closed into melee with shorter, faster weapons, the gnolls did not have a chance.

The gnolls seemed to be the jailors, given they were carrying keys, but they had only 9 gold pieces between them. The goblins had been poor too, with the company only collecting a few dozen silver pieces from them so far. Down to only one spell, the company knew they would be cutting this expedition short soon, but wanted to see where the east tunnel from the prisoner cave led. This took them to a four way intersection of tunnels. Turning south, they came to a new large chamber that served as the goblins' kitchen. Nine goblins toiled at cooking over cauldrons, or working the large, crude crane that moved the cauldrons over a giant fire pit. Again, the company had the advantage of surprise, as the goblins were unprepared for combat. And again, the goblins fell easily to the better-prepared company. Also again, the goblins had little treasure.

When they returned to their hirelings, though, the hirelings proudly showed off a silver, gem-studded necklace they had found in a mound of poop!


Reviewing the Beatles Solo Albums in Order - part 2

 There is a lot more to like about Sometime in New York City than I expected. With titles like "Woman Is the N----- of the World" I expected these songs to be embarrassingly bad, and there's clearly reasons why many of these don't get a lot of radio play. But quite a few of them are solid rockers. "Woman Is..." is meant to offend, but then asks you to think about why that offends you and, while I don't agree with the proposition that women have it worse than blacks, it was worth considering. "New York City" is very good -- very Chuck Berry -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlwuwEx2zLA... - and "Attica State" sounds pretty good.

Yoko Ono's presence on the album is as obnoxious as ever, with her screechy banshee wail ruining "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "The Luck of the Irish," and "Angela." But then Yoko sings "Sisters, O Sisters" solo and it actually sounds decent. Is she *intentionally* screechy and obnoxious? That's just doubly frustrating. Triply frustrating because the album ends with "We're All Water," more banshee-wail garbage, but clocking in at seven minutes??

Many of the songs sound better without paying attention to the words. I suspect Yoko forced this topical-ness on John; he certainly doesn't seem to have any deep thoughts on "John Sinclair," filling space with repetition, while "Attica State" sounds more like something to dance to than protest to.

 

So much of Red Rose Speedway is so utterly forgettable that I had no impression of the songs even after having just listened to them. The big song on the album is, of course, "My Love," and it's a beautiful song, a sort of sequel to "Maybe I'm Amazed" and of course about Linda. But if you're a Paul fan, you already knew "My Love" was great. So I'm going to recommend you give a fresh listen to the second best song, "Country Dreamer" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oj0tMnYMzY4... - a charming little sing-along (third place would be "Little Lamb Dragonfly," one of those songs that just missed greatness that was maybe one more rewrite away).

 

Living in the Material World is a mostly disappointing album. George seems to be working through some stuff in his songs and doesn't seem to be having much fun with it -- then has a little *too* much fun at the end with the giggly "Miss O'Dell." Along the way we get "Give Me Love," which is great, and "Be Here Now," which is very good, but I'm going to highlight the song that has just the right amount of fun -- despite being the blues. "Deep Blue" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R63-DEden4M... - is old-fashioned nostalgia, evoking both "Deep Blue Sea" (spoilers: he records that later too!) and "Old Brown Shoe" (for anyone who thinks he's strayed too far from his Beatles material).

 

I'm seeing a trend here of the boys knowing they've got one good hit on their hands and filling an album in around it. It seems to work for them, sometimes. Mind Games, of course, leads with "Mind Games," which is a great song. Things run a bit downhill after that -- though it picks up with a solid three-in-a-row of "Intuition," "Out the Blue," and "Only People." I'm going to share "Intuition" -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7KI0nVS2BtU... -- Because I don't remember ever hearing this one before.

 

Starting 2021 with _Ringo_ was a delightful start. Although Sentimental Journey had been a commercial success for Ringo, this album is his first truly great album. But, since he tells us himself rather cheekily, he *is* the greatest! Paul and George would later do retrospective songs about their own histories, but Ringo beat them to it with "I'm the Greatest." This album has "Photograph" on it and, as I was saying last night, that song alone would have made this a good album, but we also get "Oh My My," "It Don't Come Easy" (perhaps Ringo's second best song ever, but -- oops, this one's only on the extended re-release!), and the increasingly creepy but still fun "You're Sixteen." And those are just the best known songs! "Sunshine Life for Me" is a delightful return to country music, and perhaps my favorite Ringo country song so far. For a man known as a drummer "Six O'Clock" is surprisingly dependent on the piano, but just shows how Ringo has grown as an artist. "You and Me" -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gw2_li3i4U... -- feels whimsically meta, particularly for a studio album, as it ends like a live performance where the other performers are thanked. I would normally mention "Step Lightly" as a solid song; it's eclipsed by the far stronger songs on this album, though still better than the two weakest songs, "Have You Seen My Baby" and "Devil Woman."

 

I had to skip listening to music for awhile when Megan slept in today, as there was no way I was listening to Band on the Run and not singing along!

Of all the solo albums, this is the one I needed to review the least. This was one of the first solo albums I picked up when I started taking an interest in the Beatles' solo careers back in the '90s (on cassette, of course!). And, while half the album is just kind of 'meh'...

It leads in strong with "Band on the Run," then gets even stronger with "Jet." I can't hear "Jet" -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyRDkSVGZ_4... -- without wanting to listen again and sing along even louder! Then it intentionally slows down, starts side 2 with the excellent "Let Me Roll It," but then builds up again with "Picasso's Last Words" and "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five." Like RAM, the last two songs begin to fracture, with echoes of "Jet" leaking into "Picasso's Last Words," and then "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five" ending inside "Band on the Run," as if the entire album was meant to be played on an endless loop. And so it should!

 

Walls and Bridges was another pleasant treat. Obviously I knew "Whatever Gets You Through the Night," "#9 Dream," and even "Old Dirt Road," being the best-remembered songs from this album with the most radio play -- and I love all three of those. But I liked "Steel and Glass" way more than I thought I would when it started; it seems to be an attempt at something epic and operatic. And "Nobody Loves You" -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLKY2o8XQGM... -- it's like I have a new personal theme song now! Sure, half the album were missteps, but the snippet of "Ya Ya" at the end is a sign of great things to come...

 

Goodnight Vienna wins, hands down, for best solo Beatles album cover ever.

Oh, should I talk more about it? Okay. This is a great follow-up to Ringo. "Goodnight Vienna" and "Oo-Wee" are fun songs, "Husbands and Wives" is meaningful, "Only You" and "Easy for Me" are beautiful covers, and then there's the "No No Song"...

I first heard the "No No Song" a few years ago on the radio and was shocked that this was a real thing. It has the same cheeky, good humored biographical quality of "The Greatest," but concentrates on Ringo's problems with addictions in a way that is candid, humble, and hilarious all at once. Bravo!

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Reviewing the Beatles solo albums in order - part 1

Forced myself to listen to Two Virgins: Side One. What self-indulgent dreck, completely unworthy of a Beatle! Side two was just as bad.

Life with the Lions is possibly even worse. I couldn't last 10 minutes.

I lasted nearly 20 minutes through Harrison's Electronic Sound. The only interesting thing about that album is that some of the effects sound exactly like Atari 2600 games (particularly Combat), from eight years later.

Endured 2 minutes of The Wedding Album. Yikes!

Live Peace in Toronto 1969 was a relief to hear real music again, though I had to try to ignore Yoko's insane caterwauling in the background. How John failed to think she was mocking his singing his beyond me. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-TI-8J27YE... - My favorite treat from Ringo's Sentimental Journey album, which I had never listened to before. Ringo seems to be channeling Nat King Cole here, even though this wasn't a Nat King Cole song.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7_2mDp0EEek... - No surprises on McCartney, the earliest solo album I've ever owned. Though far from perfect, there are seven tracks on this album I either like or like a lot, with the best, not surprisingly, being this number...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vV8xAZnJY6I... - First time listening through Beaucoups of Blues. This was a real challenge, since I am not generally a fan of country music. Would Ringo's love of country rub off on me? Eh...maybe not too much, but it's certainly not a bad album either, with some pleasant tracks. My favorite track isn't on the album, but the B side to the single Beaucoups of Blues -- or at least the first two minutes of "Coochy Coochy." It's a really fun song and more upbeat than anything on the album, but after two minutes it just sort of rambles on into a jam session I didn't need to hear.

After Ringo used his cachet as a Beatle to pursue two dream (for him) albums, John squandered his reputation on the notions of his psycho drug-dealer bride, and Paul phoned in his first album, George produced All Things Must Pass. John, Paul, and Ringo got passes on their early albums because they were Beatles, but even if no one had ever heard of George Harrison before, he should have become a music star based on the strengths of the spiritual "My Sweet Lord," the sweeping epic of "Isn't It a Pity" (thanks to Phil Spector), the wisdom of "What Is Life" (which I love even more paired with the music video), the power of "Let It Down," and the beautiful "All Things Must Pass," which exists in its most sublime form in this proto-version, before Spector butchered this one with too much overdubbing - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ODEhwaU2Uw. It is not a perfect album; someone should have told George that the entire 3rd record was not worthy or just not ready for release.

The John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, thankfully, involves Yoko in name only. It's still not a very good album, but at least John is starting to make an effort again, with Beatles-worthy tracks like "Hold On," "Love," and "Look at Me." Of the three I'm most partial to "Hold On" for the completely random shout-out to Cookie Monster in the middle of it. Pure John. 

Today I did karaoke with the entire RAM album, looking for fresh insights. I did learn that, in "Heart of the Country," he's singing "where the holy people grow" instead of "where the lonely people go." I like my version better.
 
It's such an amazing album. How many artists besides Paul can cobble a song out of a medley as diverse as "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" and make it that epic? The surprisingly touching "Too Many People," the rocking silliness of "Smile Away," the gentle "Heart of the Country," and the Seussian "Monkberry Moon Delight" would make a great album for anyone else, or just business as usual for Paul McCartney, but then "Uncle Albert" starts and business as usual starts to break down. Powerful songs are puncturing through this album, shaking things up and even separating "Ram On" into two parts, as if normal time cannot contain the album any longer. If it had ended with the epic "Long Haired Lady" that would have been a great ending -- but even then it's not over, because "Long Haired Lady" is followed up by a second, even grander epic, the finale of "The Back Seat of My Car," where every young couple's naivety ever is summed up in Paul screaming their mantra "We believe that we can't be wrong!"

John's Imagine album must have been such a relief to his fans. Phew! He really does still got it. There's plenty of familiar songs on here -- everyone knows "Imagine," but "Jealous Guy" and "Oh My Love" get a lot of replay on the radio. Songs I really enjoyed that I don't remember hearing before were "It's So Hard" and "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama."

With Christmas over, it's time to go back to listening to solo Beatles albums in order! Which, unfortunately...takes me to...Wild Life. It's hard to believe Paul followed up the majesty of Ram with this....It's like he was searching for a new sound, couldn't find it, and just gave up and said, "Oh well, I'll just cut an album out of all these takes anyway." I will confess to finding some guilty pleasure in the frothy "Bip Bop" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sh4b_p55e2U..., and "Tomorrow" seems like it's just one more rewrite away from being a good song. But the rest of this album...ugh. Even the one cover song, "Love Is Strange," which should have been a no-brainer tribute to the Everly Brothers, is here transformed into something unpleasant…

The Concert of Bangladesh is a tougher album to judge. As a concert recording, it's not going to have the technical merit of a studio album, and it's only real measures of success are: a) is it a good choice of songs? And b) does it get across how much fun it must have been to be at the concert? I'd have to say it succeeds at both.

I don't mind Indian music. True, I have walked into the occasional gas station or fast food parlor run by Indians enjoying their own cultural music and wondered "Did someone record someone dying?", but in the hands of true masters like the artists George Harrison surrounded himself with, they make a sound quite pleasing even to a strictly West-oriented musical palette.

George Harrison and pals produce some lovely favorites to entertain the patient audience. I don't know who Leon Russell is, but the highlight is a grand medley he seems to have assembled for mid-program.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Back-to-Basics Original Dungeons & Dragons Greyhawk Campaign - Interludes 1 & 2

Interlude 1

In the Barrier Peaks stands the castle of Mordenkainen. Many protective guards and wards protect its walls from those who could even reach it to begin with, as remote as the castle is. But unlike, well, any living thing, we can soar through an upper window on the thirteenth floor, through a study, down a hall, through a larger hall, around another corner, and into one of the private rooms of Mordenkainen himself. He is sitting in a chair while an elf servant trims his beard.

Suddenly, Mordenkainen lurches forward, stumbling out of his chair. He reaches out for something solid to help steady himself. He turns, looks around, and says to the elf maid, "Did you feel that?" in her own tongue.

She did not. Concern knits Mordenkainen's brow. For a full minute he looks at the floor, deep in thought. Finally he decides on a course of action; he walks to the nearest side wall and gives a very special rap of his knuckles upon it, causing a door to appear there. He opens it, and steps through. We follow.

Mordenkainen has stepped into his divination room. He uncovers a crystal ball, touches it, and speaks a command. "Show me Tenser. Allow me to speak with him."

The image of another of Oerth's most famous mage's appears in the ball. He's eating a sandwich.

"Tenser," Mordenkainen says, "I have felt a great disturbance. Something feels amiss to me. Do you not feel it?"

"Is that why my sandwich tastes off?" Tenser asks. "What goes on?"

"That I do not know, though...I have a strange premonition that gives me some inkling...I will get back to you."

Mordenkainen touches the crystal ball again and the image blurs and disappears. He thinks twice before saying what he says next. "Show me the Mad Prophet. Allow me to hear him."

The image of a dimly-lit cell, illuminated by the flickering light of some distant torch, appears in the ball. In the gloom, covered in matted hair almost as thick as fur, is a man. The man cackles with a hoarse, dry voice.

"Who is watching me? Basiliv? Rary? Mordenkainen? It does not matter...you will all come to me in time...and, in time ...will come to see what time will mean in time."

Interlude 2

Ready’reat 1, 620 CY

The ogre lumbered away, but only three more paces across the courtyard before falling forward, its head lolled to the side, and three of Eirenden’s arrows sticking out of its back.

“Don’t let them fall back to their tower!” Eirenden called out. He had another arrow already notched and was sighting his next target of the fleeing ogres.

But Rulf, further back, had just had a gravelly voice whispering in his ear. “Stop!” Rulf shouted. “Everyone, fall back to me! Zig’s orders!”

“Zig isn’t here,” Vincent said, holding his bloodied wound, but still with enough strength left to him to sound defiant.

“He will be,” Rulf argued. “Everyone, form a defensive circle around this spot!”

Rulf backed away into the circle of Eneever Zig’s henchmen forming up as instructed. Even Vincent. He had no love for Rulf, but he was wise to fear disobeying Zig.

Motes of magical energy began to dance in the spot near where Rulf stood. They spun briefly in a vertical oval shape before disappearing in a brief flash of light -- and then Eneever Zig stood in that spot. He wore a black conical hat and black robes that his white beard hung over, and he clutched a wizard’s staff. He could not have looked more the stereotype of a wizard had he consciously tried.

“Well? You found it?” were the first words out of Zig’s mouth.

Rulf seemed to know to what he referred. “Yes. We located the Bottle City. Did you wish to see it right away? We were just dispatching the rest of the ogres in this place.”

“Leave them,” Zig said. “They do not concern me. I would be taken to the Bottle City at once, but I have a new task for after you lead me there. Take the men and secure the main tower of the castle, so I may make use of it upon my return.”

“The main tower is held by a group of elves…” Rulf said.

“I know. You may try convincing them to leave if you wish, but if they resist, kill them. Kill them all.”