Sunday, May 2, 2021

Reviewing the Beatles Solo Albums in Order - part 9

I was maybe the only 17 year old in 1988 who was agog when Travelling Wilburys Vol. 1 came out. I didn't know who Jeff Lynn was and I wasn't a Tom Petty fan yet, but I George Harrison was hot off of Cloud Nine's success. I didn't know Bob Dylan had been making lackluster records all this time; I thought he had gone into retirement after 1969 and was just re-emerging now. And while my parents never owned Roy Orbison albums, I knew his work and loved it from the oldies radio station (104.3 FM, back in the days when it was still good; it plays garbage today). To me, this band was like the gods of Olympus coming down to revisit humanity. 

With that preamble, you might be surprised to find how much of the album I considered filler, even then. "Rattled" and "Not Alone Anymore" are good, but more like Roy songs with the rest just backing him. "Last Night" and "Heading for the Light" are pretty good. "Handle Me with Care" is a good group song. "Congratulations," "Margarita," "Dirty World," and "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" are junk, each worse than the one before them. But making up for those last four in spades is "End of the Line," a simply fantastic song and easily one of my all-time favorite songs that would wind up on a top 10 list if I had a "top 10 favorite songs ever" list.

Next up is Starr Struck: Best of Ringo Starr vol. 2, the first album in this project that I can't find anyone has re-compiled on Youtube. I've listened to the songs in the correct order and find this review of his 1976-1983 material enjoyable enough, but now I want to know what a Best of Ringo album would be like if I compiled it the way I just compiled a Best of Paul album in part 8. Is one song in every eight of Ringo's a winner? Let's see...nope, I can't do it. I'd have to include at least one song from Ringo the 4th and I cannot, in good conscience, put any of those on a best of album.

Right! Moving on to Paul's Flower in the Dirt album. This was off my Radar when I was 18...well, mostly off my Radar. I remember hearing that Paul was coming out with a new album he made with Elvis Costello, but I ignored it because I thought Elvis Costello was a silly name. Hey, I was 18! Though, I must have heard "My Brave Face" around that time. I really love it now! "This One" is a great song too -- and I mean, these two are really groundbreaking stuff, "My Brave Face" (despite its sometimes silly, self-effacing lyrics) for its structural complexity and "This One" for its unexpected characteristics (not stopping after the first verse repeats and its Hindu influences). Paul wasn't just a star going through the motions; he was an artist still determined to find new things to do. After those two, the album quickly descends. "Put It There" is a pretty good song. "Motor of Love" is a terrible name for a song, but is somehow more satisfying than it should be. "That Day Is Done" is one of those songs that seems so close to being good, but didn't quite get there. Everything else is filler. I'm going to deliberately avoid sharing any videos for this album as they all seem unusually culturally insensitive by today's standards, ranging from the villainous Japanese man in "My Brave Face" to the cultural appropriation of "This One" to a particularly bad video for "Où est le Soleil?" (and how did this song ever warrant a single?), where Paul and his friends seem to be mocking traditional African folk dancing.

Ringo retreated to safer territory with Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band, performing early Beatles songs of his and only a few solo songs. This 1990 album was a concert album. Not having it, I opted for watching a concert video of the All-Starr Band performing. I'm not sure of the year, but what I saw came from sometime during the early years. It was fun seeing Ringo interacting with Levon Helm or Clarence Clemons. I would love to have seen one of these concerts, but just listening to it, it seems a disjointed best of album mixed from all different performers and styles. The concert I watched is here -

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Reviewing the Solo Beatles Albums in Order - part 8

Live in New York City is a live album of John and Yoko performing, thankfully concentrating on John and leaving out some Yoko songs from the concert, including that "Prison" song which I unfortunately heard because I watched the video rather than limiting myself to the record tracks (ugh, I had that stuck in my head like an "ear worm" after listening to it again, though!). It's essentially a best of album, but there is one new cover -- "Hound Dog" -- that makes you wish the Beatles had not been so respectful of the "king" and recorded more Elvis covers. But then Yoko starts screeching over it and -- sigh, even if she had made dog noises it would have made more sense than her screeching. 

Press to Play was a Paul album that had completely escaped my notice all this time. It's not going to become one of my favorites; there are no real winners on this album, but there are certainly good ones here. I really like the bluesy rock of "Stranglehold," even if I'm normally not a fan of horns on rock n' roll songs (this is extra rare because I'm so often not impressed with the first songs on Beatles solo albums). I love it while I'm listening to it, but unfortunately it's not a catchy tune; 10 minutes later, I can't remember the tune anymore, and I've listened to it several times now. I know it's been awhile since Paul's done a medley and maybe thought he was due, "Good Time Coming/Feel the Sun" really a medley, or just talking leading into the next song? Speaking of talking, I really like the chorus on "Talk More Talk," but the rest of it is pretty weak and longer than it deserves to be -- I also don't like all the actual talking in it, even though I get that is the point of the song.   "Footprints" is easy listening, maybe too easy. I like the instruments on it, but the effect of the song is calming as Muzak. "Only Love Remains" starts similar, but kicks it up a notch mid-song, becoming catchier, and has a simple but more obvious message.  "Press" has an '80s dance song vibe similar to "Say Say Say," but full of playful references to physical contact. I do not get why Oklahoma gets two mentions in the song, unless Paul was just lazily filling beats. Not my favorite song on the album, but the music video was nice. The same lazy beat-filling happens on "Pretty Little Head," where there's really no lyrical reason for the "Ursa Major, Ursa Minor" refrain; the song isn't even about constellations -- though it sounds like it would be a better song if it was. "Angry" starts out promising -- ooo, we haven't had a real rocker from Paul in awhile! But then it doesn't really go anywhere...sort of like being angry doesn't really get you anywhere...could that have been intentional?

"Spies Like Us" isn't actually on that album, but it sometimes gets lumped in with it. I haven't heard it in a long time. I remembered liking it, and the movie, way back then, but it doesn't hold up now, sounding like it's trying too hard to be "Live and Let Die." So I'm going to share "Stranglehold" with you, in the hopes that maybe this time I'll remember the tune 10 minutes later!

Menlove Avenue is a real treat I didn't know existed; a sort of 'John Lennon Anthology' with all previously unreleased material. By an interesting coincidence, just the day before I had heard "Rock and Roll People" on the Sirius XM Beatles Channel and wondered, where did this come from? Right here. "Here We Go Again" and "Rock and Roll People" are both good rockers, but the covers of "Angel Baby" and "To Know Her Is to Love Her" are just amazing (and the version of the latter is even better on Beatles Anthology vol. 1; it's a shame it was not on an album for so long!) -- and make me wish his earlier album, Rock n' Roll, had been a double album to include more of this magic. Side B is not as magical; it's all variants of tunes from the Walls and Bridges album. All good stuff, but somehow John's own music just isn't as satisfying as when he's belting out classics; it seems to be done with more love for songs he grew up with than for his own material. Here's my favorite version of "To Know Her Is to Love Her" -

And now, this is where I came in. I grew up with the Beatles music from before I was born, not the solo albums they were putting out at the time -- until George's Cloud Nine. It was the creative music video for "Got My Mind Set on You" that sucked me in; I still remember the pizza place in Batavia I was at with my dad and sister when I saw this on the television there, and suddenly I couldn't ignore the solo Beatles anymore. I asked for a copy of the cassette tape version for Christmas. I now understand that Jeff Lynne was instrumental in helping George get his groove back, his love for the music. "Cloud Nine" is a good song like we hadn't had from him in awhile. "When We Was Fab" is a great song. The rest of the songs are filler -- but all good filler. And here's that video that so wowed me when I was 16 -- Still such a rocker. Ooo, I didn't know this was a cover song until writing this!

Next up is All the Best, yet another "best of" album from Paul. But a lazily made one, as it mostly duplicates the previous "best of" Wings compilation. A side game in this project has been rethinking the "best of" albums. Could I have done better? By this time, there were about 170 post-Beatles Paul songs, not counting variations on the same ones. To pare it down to 20 - no, let's make it 24 songs -- that's 1 song for every 8. What would that album look like? Arranged in chronological order, one song from every eight in a row, they would be:

"Every Night"
"Maybe I'm Amazed"
"Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey"
"The Back Seat of My Car"
"My Love"
"Let Me Roll It"
"Magneto and Titanium Man"
"Call Me Back Again"
"Silly Love Songs"
"Warm and Beautiful"
"With a Little Luck"
"Mull of Kintyre"
"Arrow through Me"
"Daytime Nighttime Suffering"
"Goodnight Tonight"
"Ballroom Dancing"
"Pipes of Peace"
"We All Stand Together"
"Simple As That"
"No More Lonely Nights"

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Company of the White Oak Campaign - Sessions 20 & 21

Coldeven 28, 621 CY
The Town of Hommlet

The Company of the White Oak had just returned to Hommlet yesterday, having spent most of their downtime in the City of Verbobonc, up north. They had arrived early yesterday and did not have to leave right away this morning, affording them their longest look yet at the young town. The Velunese Temples, the Temple of the Heavenly Virtues and the Temple of the Journey, were both well- represented here, with chapels to both located on the same street on the north side of town. Percy already had connections with the Temple of the Heavenly Virtues, thanks to his orphanage work in Verbobonc, which afforded him and Brother Langdon a much-needed look at prayerbooks. Langdon, now a Battle Vicar, was able to prepare his first spell of the second order of miracles by studying their prayerbooks, despite Boccob’s lack of affiliation with their church. Meanwhile, John Grond left a small donation with the Temple of the Journey, so they would bless their trip.

The road east led them into the Gnarley Forest, the first time they had actually stepped foot into the forest after all this time of traveling around it. The road was clear this time, with no highwaymen blocking the way, so they reached Nulb that afternoon. They knew of Nulb’s bad reputation and, fearing they would be spotted by spies of the temple if they spent too long here, they sent Reed Underbough to scout around, looking for a trail that led suspiciously away from the village. In the meanwhile, there was no harm in them standing around looking like mercenaries in such an area like this. Soon, though, Reed returned with news that he had found such a path, heading south, deeper into the forest. They followed it and soon came to a site of ruin.

That the Temple of Elemental Evil was once grand was evident from the pieces of the black basalt cathedral that still remained intact. No piece of plaster seemed to have gone unshaped, nor block of stone without engraving. But these were not beautiful adornments -- every piece of plaster was molded into a hideous face, each block of stone engraved with glyphs or runes of ill omen. Much of the cathedral now was smashed to rubble. Thorny brambles grew up thick around the ruins, and in the ruins, and ravens were everywhere, perched on any high stones, and staring unnaturally at the company as they approached. They moved into the rubble and found, from the smashed pillars, that they were standing in what had once been the nave of the temple. From here, they could tell that the east wing was surprisingly still intact and accessible through the rubble. But first, they carefully circled around outside, wanting a peek through the smashed windows. Reed, on Herv’s shoulders, announced that it was empty -- and there was a door they had missed going into the room he saw.

Returning inside, they climbed through the rubble and found the intact door. It was bashed open by Vask, and led into a long-since looted room, that only had stairs going down in it…

They had come this far. Forming up into mostly familiar ranks, they headed down the stairs. The hirelings Harvard and Herv, having proven themselves to their bosses, were moving up in the ranks, while the new guy Rom was left in the rear to hold the mule reins. At once, they noticed similarities with the Castle Greyhawk dungeons -- the same unnaturally drab greyness of the stone used, and even similarly stale, foul-smelling air. One difference was that corridor ceilings peaked here, rather than flat across. They soon reached a four-way intersection, so they paused and asked Reed to search for tracks.

And he did find some, booted feet coming from the same way they had come, but turning right. Following, they found themselves in a very long corridor, though it jogged over to the right a few times. Ahead, the the passage forked. Reed bent down to check the dust, but sneezed and blew away the evidence. Choosing the side passage, they found a hexagonal, ruined throne room. It seemed deserted, but because they were cautious they noticed bats in the rafters and their guano on the floor. This had not been their home for long, given the uneven quantity of guano on the floor. They found nothing of value, so they returned to the main corridor and continued on.

After awhile, the corridor turned and seemed to double back on itself, but this led to a perpendicular corridor with a promising-looking door in it -- and dim light seen under the door! Reed listened to it and heard two bored men talking about if they were hungry. Bursting in, the Company quickly overpowered the two sentries in the tiny room, all while mocking them about being hungry. They left one alive for interrogation and learned that they were part of a force of bandits who controlled a suite of at least five connected rooms down here. No reinforcements had come from the neighboring room to back them up because they had to constantly patrol around the suite to keep giant spiders away. Their leader, Commander Wilhelm, was in one of those rooms. He led a company of 20-30 men, but was looking to recruit more for launching raids on the Town of Hommlet.

Tying them up, the Company moved on to the next room, and the room after that, finding progressively nicer barracks, but ones emptied of their active patrols. The room after that housed Commander Wilhelm, his lieutenant, and two other men, all standing around a map on a table. The two lesser brigands fell quickly, but Wilhelm and his second-in-command went back to back in the center of the room and put up a ferocious battle, wounding several in the party and seriously wounding Herv. Wilhelm was paralyzed by the thin ray fired by Niv’s headband-wand, but even then the lieutenant fought on alone for two more minutes before finally giving up and surrendering. The map on the table showed the Town of Hommlet and its environs. The leaders sported some decent treasure that was claimed. The next and last of the five connected rooms was a storage room with some nice furniture and little more portable treasure. It also had a concealed door that led into more corridor.

This hidden corridor was twice the width of the previous ones and seemed to double back towards the entrance to the five-room suite. But rather than continue exploring in this direction, the Company decided to go back and deal with getting their prisoners out of the dungeon. The sentry, so helpful in squealing on his bosses, was going to be released into the wild, but the leaders would be taken back to Hommlet to see if there were unclaimed bounties on them.

When they finished funneling back through the suite of rooms, they met one of the patrols -- eight brigands who had been missing earlier. Niv made short work of them with a sleep spell. They also learned that there was an area controlled by goblins to the south. John briefly pushed for trying to find a new route back around the goblin area, but it was decided to backtrack the long but known route that had got them here.

Finally returning to daylight, the Company emerged out of the ruins -- and smack into an encounter with over a dozen giant ravens! Another sleep spell dropped more than half of them out of the sky, and the rest were chased off with missile fire. The way was clear to return to Hommlet!

Session 21

Planting 6, 621 CY. Earthday
The City of Verbobonc
The weather turned cloudier, and it rained that afternoon. How fortunate that they were back in the city by then, spending most of the day indoors. The wizard Scottenkainen was a charitable host, allowing them to stay a few hours at his tower while his servants gathered the treasure from under lock and key they had stashed in his care. Scottenkainen had a lot of small talk about the weather to share, but what everyone wanted to hear about from him was about the vampires.

"The curious thing of your story of these vampires is that they spoke to each other as equals," Scottenkainen related. "Vampires prefer to be solitary hunters, or surround themselves with a pack of vampire spawn they can control. It may show the strength of this 'Adversary' they work for who forces them to work together...or it could be familial bonds manifesting in their afterlife. 

"Verbobonc and Veluna have not been entirely free of vampires over the past 100 years, but they were thought eradicated here by now. Also, there are no legends of two vampires working in tandem here. I did, however, remember this..."

Scottenkainen produced a book, a popular work called The Travels of Lord Robilar. "Have you read it?" he asked everyone. "It is thought to contain many fanciful tales, but I suspect that Lord Robilar really did many of the things this book records. It includes a chapter about the crypts under Castle Greyhawk and..." he turns to a bookmarked page and reads: "a band of four full-strength vampires controlled this level. I slew one, and then another, but those other two found no more courage than life in their blood after that and avoided me at all costs....I wonder,” Scottenkainen mused as he closed the book, "if those vampires were ever caught and killed; the book doesn't say."

“Interesting! Very interesting indeed,” John Grond said. 

Vask nodded; he thinks he got all that. “What about this?”

“Your battle axe…?” Scottenkainen asks. 

“It’s magical. What can it do?”

Scottenkainen had a servant take the axe. “I can examine it overnight. I should be able to identify its properties. Is there anything else?” he asked, noticing the look on Vask’s face.

“Yes…if you were to get anymore information about Prospero, or the vampires…”

“Yes, I will send you a message by avian messenger if I learn anything important.”
Soon, the Company found available lodging enough for everyone at the Red Dona Inn, in the Business Quarter. It would be their last night in Verbobonc, but no one felt like celebrating; everyone was eager to get back to Greyhawk.

Planting 7, 621 CY. Freeday
The City of Verbobonc

Vask learned there were no extra enchantments on his axe [Battle Axe +1] and said his good-byes to Scottenkainen. Those who had accompanied him joined the others in the Foreign Quarter, spread out on either side of the Velverdyva River, searching for Captain Sigurd. They wanted to hire The Dragon’s Bane to transport them back to the Town of Maraven. But there was a hitch -

As they found out from some reputable-seeming businessmen that afternoon, Sigurd and his longship and crew had left just that morning to take other passengers downstream. Not interested in spending a lot more time looking for a replacement, John called out to a Rhenee bargeman by the docks. “Who has the best and fastest barge on the river?”

The man pointed to the man next to him. “That would be my barge,” said the second man. The second man was Captain Rodar. The transaction was brief; for 40 gold, half now and half later, they would take the entire Company down to Maraven on the lake. 

There was someone else there on the docks that day looking to get to the City of Greyhawk, Brother Ulrich the Maimed. He wanted a ride and he needed his transportation cheap. John heard this and suggested Ulrich ride with them, so long as he chipped in seven gold. 

It was half of all the money Ulrich had left in the world, but he needed to spend it. His vision had told him he was needed at Castle Greyhawk, and he had to find out why.

“When do you wish to leave?” Rodar, asked.

“Tomorrow morning.” 

Planting 8, 621 CY. Starday
Velverdyva River

To ensure their loyalty, John showed up with grog for the rowers before they disembarked. 

The Velverdyva River left Verbobonc, flowing downhill to the northeast, away from the Kron Hills and into the broad valleys west of the Gnarley Forest. They sailed past the Village of Eglath at midday. 

As they traveled, each member of the Company reflected on what had brought them to this point. 

John Grond had been a hired grunt, willing to sell out anyone for a gold piece. Now he was a leader of men -- no longer a hireling, but employing his own hirelings! -- loyal to the company that either had never noticed his Ogrish descent, or simply didn’t care.

Langdon had been told by those fools in Hommlet that this was a time of testing, arranged by the gods, but Langdon knew this was Boccob’s mysterious plan and all would be revealed to him in time. He had been made a vicar from a lowly acolyte in mere months and would return to Greyhawk a senior cleric of his church.

None of this was Percy’s concerns. Percy’s priorities were orphanages, like the one he grew up in, before the church took him in and made him one of their own. That, and looking good while doing it, of course.

Vask did not think of himself as a smart man, so he was loyal to men who were, like the Wizard Prospero, and would remain so until the day Prospero finally released him from his service. But now he had divided loyalties, to a Company so generous they had entrusted all their magic weapons to him.

Reed Underbough was usually overlooked by everyone -- literally, given his small size. It served his purposes to remain so, but he liked how the Company valued his skills. How would they all react if they knew of the side jobs he did…the bad things he did to get in good with the thieves’ guild? But then he looked up at Herv, his hulking bodyguard, and felt a little safer.

Rom Riverbluff was appropriately named, he had in fact grown up on a bluff along the Velverdyva River and knew the river like the back of his hand. Not that the Company had asked him to serve as a guide, or tried to hire a guide. Sometimes Rom had the sneaking suspicion he was the smartest person in the room…but he was also on the bottom rung of the ladder in this Company. Maybe he should keep more observations to himself until he had climbed it higher.
In the afternoon the river passed the port town of Oakham, a medium-sized town with impressive fortifications facing the forest. There was a bit of river traffic congestion here that they had to wait through. Captain Rodar had “caravaned” here with a second barge that needed to be dropped off. From here, everyone continued on the larger, longer barge. 

Soon they were making good time again, reaching the Village of Thaymouth that evening before twilight. Thaymouth was a small village of maybe 100 people, most of them not even living on the river, but centered around Tays’ Run, a short distance upriver. They had a waystation situated closer to the river, intentionally well clear of the village, and here the Company and the Rhenee planned to enjoy the grog they’d been holding back from all day. 

One of the Rhenee noticed something. “The village…there are no people. No animals. No lights….”

It was true. The Company volunteered to go explore and find out what was happening, or had happened, and Brother Ulrich came along (minus Haruspex Niv, who was feeling under the weather, and his charmed hireling Gregory, who stayed with him). They lit torches and a lantern to help see, though it was not completely dark out yet either. Their first clue was at the first house they came to. It was a small mottle and daub hovel. Its windows had curtains instead of glass. But it was conspicuously missing a window. The wall there had been bashed in by something heavy, maybe multiple blows from a mace. Inside, they found a dead dog, killed by a blow to the head. 

There were tracks all around, some barefoot, some in shoes, from people of all ages and sizes. They moved deeper into the village, looking for people and only finding tracks. People had been herded from east to west across the village, gathering in the middle. Other buildings were damaged and, at each broken wall or door, there were bare footprints. 

Twenty minutes since leaving the barge, while still trying to figure out where the figures herded across the village headed next, someone spotted a silhouetted figure standing between them and the barge. It was an emaciated, naked figure -- but not actually in silhouette, it was a pitch black figure. Vicar Langdon sensed it was something supernatural, held forth his cross and called on Boccob to turn it away, but the figure did nothing. Percy, eager to show the strength of his church, stepped up to try the same, and this time the figure took a step towards them instead. 

Saraband sighted another one, a little further away to the southwest. 

John, Harvard, Reed, and Vask tried missile weapons, including Vask’s enchanted javelin, but their weapons just glanced off of them. 

The bargemen could see something was going on, but not what. The Company could see the bargemen arming themselves in the distance, but they were not heading out to help. Even though the Company had the creatures outnumbered ten to two, they were beginning to feel outnumbered and called for a retreat to the barges.    

Langdon, Percy, Rom, and Ulrich all made it back to the barge, but the rest were cut off by the black figures and tried to fight it out. That made three who made it back to the barge rally and come back (Ulrich stayed behind to keep the bargemen from fleeing the scene with their transportation), only to join a full retreat. Vask’s battle axe had taken off one of their hands, but it was the only harm anyone had done to them; they were immune to non-magical weapons. Herv had been knocked down and seriously injured, but managed to crawl away to join the others, and John fled with a light wound from being throttled. From the barge, Percy threw flaming oil that illuminated one of them, but the black figures had not been even moderately damaged the whole time.

There was another hamlet two hours’ journey downstream, but that would not be fast movement; the Company had to gather at the fore of the barge and light the way with their torches and lanterns, to make sure they did not crash into the shore or something in the river. Finally, they spotted the lonely pier at the next village. There was no dock warden, which worried Ulrich, but there were lights in the village and it seemed they had not suffered a similar attack (Ulrich wanted to warn them about it, but the homes in the village were sealed up tight for the night). The Company kept watches while camping on the shore, while the bargemen kept their watches on the barge.

During the night, on second watch, Langdon and Saraband noticed the bargemen were all awake and having a suspicious meeting. Nothing came of it, but Langdon alerted the following shift. 

Planting 9, 621 CY. Sunday
Velverdyva River 

Following the river north, they reached the Port Town of Stalmaer, home to about 3,000 people, at the confluence of the Att and Velverdyva Rivers. “Only the nearness of the Gnarley Forest, just a few miles away now, keeps this town from growing larger. And if not for the Greenjerkin Rangers, there probably wouldn’t be this many people willing to live here,” Rom said, volunteering more information than he had the whole trip.  

The Rhenee wanted to sail past, but the Company insisted on stopping. There had been a new complication late last night when the clerics tried to heal John and Herv; the spells didn’t work. Perhaps someone in Stalmaer could help them.  

Stalmaer, still being on this side of the Velunese border, had a chapel dedicated to the Temple of the Heavenly Virtues, of which Brother Ulrich was an acolyte, plus Percy’s Common Church of Greyhawk shared deities with their church, so they felt they had good standing when they went inside and asked to see a priest. 

Brother Henricus agreed to meet with them at once, based on their frightening story of what had happened in Thaymouth. He shared Langdon’s and Percy’s belief that what they had encountered was some form of undead, but it was beyond his training and he left them in the chapel while he went to the nearby home of a superior. 

In less than an hour he returned with Anencletus Laevinus, canon of the church. Anencletus recognized the description -- these were mummies! And John and Herv could not be healed because they were cursed now with mummy rot. A spell could undo this and, by the grace of his gods, Anencletus had been prepared by them and given the ability to perform this miracle twice today! It would just require 300 gold, for each miracle. Ulrich begged for charity, but Anencletus quoted chapter and verse from the holy texts, that “no man may receive healing or curing without sacrifice, either by coin or use of arms in the church’s service, and charity is in this case to disrespect the gods who grant thee thy holy powers.”*

(*”By use of arms” is commonly interpreted as allowing lone clerics to administer healing or curing to any comrades-in-arms they have.)

And so the Company pooled their resources so both John and Herv could be alleviated of this mummy rot (which was looking particularly bad on Herv already). It took, and both men could be healed again, as Langdon and Percy soon proved. 

Anencletus asked if the Company would be willing to go back and try to find out what had happened to the villagers, or if any were left alive, but …nope, not going back there!

Poorer for this side trek, the Company wearily returned to the barges, but found the bargemen in much better spirits -- and with spirits! They wanted to repay their passengers for the grog John had provided and had gone out and bought some of their own. John and Harvard drank up, but everyone else recalled Langdon’s warning of their strange behavior in the night and refused the offer. 

Leaving Stalmaer, they floated downriver into the Gnarley Forest. The bargemen were observed looking increasingly nervously at each other before only John and Harvard both fell asleep, drugged. There was no choice for them now, they were going to have to fight the rest of the Company.

Or at least they thought they would. Saraband dropped a sleep spell on the barge that was so potent that it rendered almost everyone present asleep, except for three members of the Company vs. one remaining bargeman. And that fight took almost no time to wrap up. Rodar and half the crew were tied up and left that way, while the other half was released and told they would be forced to deliver themselves to the next town for justice. 

Justice that would take until…

Planting 11, 621 CY. Godsday
The Town of Caltaran

By now, the Company and their captured barge had spent a two nights at lonely riverside hostels and inns inside the forest, but had now emerged and once more found themselves in the Domain of Dyvers. Having already passed Westguard Fortress (itself attached to no neighboring community, as Eastguard Fortress was), their next destination was Caltaran, a small town of about 1,700 people. The Company alerted the dock wardens to the situation with their prisoners and the wardens summoned the town guard. The town guard were pretty racist and had no love for the Rhenee, so they were more than happy to take the Company at their word and arrest the bargemen. They confiscated the barge and its cargo (the Company had already looked into the cargo and found it was mostly valuable-looking furs. There were probably not smuggling furs, as openly as they were transporting the barrels the furs were stored in, but it could have been stolen merchandise. Not wanting to get too tangled up in the legalities there, John, Vask, and Reed had removed about 40 gold pieces’ worth of furs to sell for the Company’s benefit.)

To compensate the Company, the town guard arranged transport on a cog heading to Dyvers that was leaving that same day. Now the Company was traveling in style -- on a boat with a below deck!

Planting 13, 621 CY. Earthday
The Town of Maraven

Once again skipping over the City of Dyvers, the Company disembarked from their cog in the town on the eastern end of Dyvers’ Domain. Before leaving town, they ran into Peter, Haruspex Niv’s original hireling! Peter was apologetic for having fled like a coward, even when faced with the overwhelming might of a troll. He asked to be taken back into Niv’s service…provided he would not be asked to fight anything as menacing as a troll again.

Planting 14, 621 CY. Freeday
The Western Road

Having forded the Silver Stream and passed the side road that led south to Gawkes Mere, the Company continued to follow the easternmost edge of the Gnarley Forest, coming around to the area where they once had a strange, near-encounter with unseen strangers at a nearby campfire. It was noon when they passed that spot this time -- and they were ambushed by unseen slingers! Several members of the Company were lightly injured. The attack was coming from the north side of the road, from behind low cover. Nothing that could block a sleep spell! While Saraband cast, most of the rest of the Company charged off the road and found two strange new creatures standing over six sleeping ones. The creatures looked like brown bears [I had mistakenly called them small bears at the time, but that was not true], but with small gourd-like heads. As they prepared for battle their heads grew larger, with big toothy mouths and big facial features and lots of fur. The two tried to defend themselves with hand axes, but they did not last long as outnumbered as they were. As they died, their heads assumed their original forms. The last of them, who took three hits before going down, his head still looked like a gourd, but one that animated into a crude face and spoke: “You are powerful, but more are coming.” 

Searching the area afterwards, the Company found a trail leading south…


Monday, March 29, 2021

Reviewing the Beatles Solo Albums in Order - part 7

Gone Troppo must have seemed like George's swan song in 1982, to people unaware of how his musical career would rebound at the end of the '80s. It's not terrible; it's not Extra Texture. There are no great songs here, but "That's the Way It Goes" is pleasantly memorable, "I Really Love You" feels like an unearthed classic from the 1950s (it's not, but it's close -- I read later this is a cover of a 1961 song), "Gone Troppo" is far catchier than it has any business being, and "Dream Away" and "Circles" are both pretty good -- the latter apparently being yet another one of those tunes he had pitched to the Beatles that John and Paul shot down --

I was really into comic books and this "new" thing called Dungeons & Dragons when Ringo's Old Wave album came out -- not that I would likely have encountered the album if 12-year old me was looking for it, as Ringo was apparently having some crazy trouble finding a record company that didn't think he was washed up at the time and Old Wave had terrible distribution. I like it; "In My Car" is a very Paul-like song, "Hopeless" has the negativity of an early John song, "Alibi" sounds like country but in a good way. "She's about a Mover" is a cover that starts out really strong, but gets lost in its Dixieland middle. "Picture Show Life" feels like something Tom Petty would later put on Full Moon Fever. "As Far As We Can Go" is strangely drums-less, in both versions -- I read later that the version on the album had its backing track entirely redone by The Eagles' Joe Walsh, and I think it was a mistake; I much prefer it with strings --

I'm more familiar with Paul's next album, Pipes of Peace, than any of the other albums I've sampled lately, but even this one I've never heard all the way through. "Pipes of Peace" is a good song. I do not like "Say Say Say" because of Michael Jackson. These songs I already knew. "The Other Me" was a surprise, sounding very much like the sort of reflective songs Paul has done on his most recent albums. "Keep Under Cover" is not a bad song, but is more of a movie soundtrack-type song, foreshadowing the upcoming "Spies Like Us." I honestly can't decide if I like "The Man" -- there are things I like and dislike about it. "Sweetest Little Show" is one of those almost-good songs that maybe just needed a little more work on it. "Average Person" is an eccentric, more-upbeat sequel to "Eleanor Rigby" thematically, while sounding more like "Rock Show." Two bonus songs not found on the original album need mention here -- one is "We All Stand Together," the song written for the animated Rupert short that I saw aired on Nickelodeon way back then, and "Simple As That," which is a great song with a unique sound and could have been my favorite song on this album, but was released on a charity album instead -- Nice of Paul to give the best away to charity! 

Bonus link: the Rupert cartoon!

Anyone who's been following these posts knows what I think of Yoko Ono, but I'll say this for her -- she probably would have made more money releasing Milk and Honey right after John's death, but she waited a respectful four years before releasing this posthumous album (although it's possible she simply thought it would have more nostalgia value later). Like Double Fantasy, it is marred with Yoko songs as every other piece on the album, almost all of which is garbage, though "Let Me Count the Ways" is the most normal among them. This album's best track is, of course, "Nobody Told Me" -- -- though "I'm Stepping Out" is a pretty good dance song too. 

Give My Regards to Broad Street was a difficult thing to review. Do I treat it as a movie and rewatch the movie? Is only the soundtrack important? What about incidental music on the soundtrack, or do I just focus on the songs? And then, do I focus on just the three new songs, or treat this as a best of album? Because it's kind of all of the above. "No More Lonely Nights" is definitely the highlight here, being the best new song, and there's really no surprise there. The Beatles covers are tricky. On one hand, it's always fun listening to variants on the old standards, but a true fan is always going to say the original Beatles songs are better, and someone who's not a true fan may feel that the orchestral arrangements try to give the songs a gravitas they don't warrant. Me, I'm a sucker for strings and I really like the string arrangement on "For No One" -- and I love the original. It may also be worth noting that the starting words to "Here There and Everywhere" are different, perhaps changing the meaning of the song. The extended version of "Eleanor Rigby," combined with "Eleanor's Dream," is nice, though "Dream," at nine minutes, might need to be that long for the movie, but feels long for the soundtrack. "Good Night Princess," an instrumental, feels like it came straight from a 1930s film.


Company of the White Oak - sessions 18 & 19

Readying 25, 621 CY
City of Greyhawk

The Company of the White Oak spent most of their time between the City of Greyhawk, the Castle of Greyhawk, and sometimes the Village of Hawfair Green in between, but today they were in a tavern in the Town of Barge End, the semi-autonomous suburb on the west side of the city, lower than the plateau on which the city sat, lying between the city and the Selintan River. Haruspex Niv, Brother Langdon, Percy, Vask, and Reed Underbough had delayed their latest expedition to the castle and gathered here in this tavern’s back room for a special conference to discuss the horrible attacks on their partners, culminating in a second vicious assault that nearly claimed the life of Grandma Erin. 

It was Brother Langdon who had bribed a merchant into giving them their first good lead, that the description Erin had given them of her glassy-eyed assailants reminded the merchant of the bear-wards working at The Bear-Baiters Pit here in Barge End. Reed had asked the New Thieves Guild to look into this and they had confirmed it. Lastly, they knew The Pit was open today and was having two shows, at the sixth and ninth hours of the day. It was too close to noon for the first show, so they delayed until the second. Unsure how much of the operation was legitimate and how much was just a cover for something more sinister -- they had a show to see.     

They paid two silvers each for admittance, sat in the stands with about 40 others, and Vask and Reed bet on the upcoming match of bear vs. dogs. It was a grueling blood sport that excited Reed’s new hireling, Herv, and made Haruspex Niv look away. Bear-baiting and gambling were not illegal in Barge End so the Company had no excuse for getting violent yet. They left as a group to go fetch Langdon (he had not felt comfortable being seen at so lowly an establishment as a customer) from the tavern and returned as the last of the customers were filing out of the arena. They bribed the guard at the door for information and learned that the bear-wards no longer listened to their boss, Baldwin, and only answered to their guest of the past two weeks, a man named Cuth-something or other. 

The Company knew it had to be Cuthbrid the Fair, their nemesis. They bribed the guard more to admit them into the kitchen where Cuthbrid had been spending most of his time, drinking up all their whiskey. The kitchen was, in fact, the next room over. Being cautious, the Company talked about sending Herv and Saraband in first, since Cuthbrid knew everyone else, but ultimately decided this was not fair to the new hirelings in case Cuthbrid turned immediately violent. Reed listened at the door and only heard one person inside. 

It was decided instead that Haruspex Niv would open the door, doff his cap, and reveal the coiled wand of paralyzation he wore on his head underneath it. When he opened the door, Cuthbrid was sitting at the kitchen table, but his sword and shield were at hand. Unsurprised, Cuthbrid managed to resist being paralyzed and prepared himself for battle as Vask, Langdon, Herv, and Reed came into the tiny kitchen, filling in the rest of the available room to fight. Cuthbrid was kept on the defensive for almost all of two minutes, only hurting Vask once, minimally, before being backstabbed by Reed as the hobbit leapt off the table at his throat -- and brought Cuthbrid low. 

Meanwhile, the door to the north in the curving corridor opened and the bear-wards came to investigate. Haruspex paralyzed the first one out, freezing him like a statue, but more were ready to emerge and fight. 

Also meanwhile, the west door they had entered by opened and the guard they bribed opened it, having betrayed them by fetching Baldwin. Baldwin, it turned out, was a magic-user and he cast Sleep at the party. Percy and Saraband in the corridor, Vask and Herv in the kitchen, and the bear-wards at the north door, were all put to sleep. But Niv followed up with his own Sleep spell and soon their only remaining opponents were slumbering peacefully. 

By now, Langdon was curing Cuthbrid so he would be spared to face justice, and the rest of the Company was being woken up. Baldwin was tied and gagged, and everyone else was stripped of armor and tied up in their own clothes. 

Cuthbrid felt he was being fair to the end, and that the fair thing to do would be to confess to his scheme. He had been kicked out of the Black Cobra’s covert thieves guild, the Iron Workers Guild, for “losing” his magic key to the sewers when he had actually loaned it to the Company of the White Oak. He had sought revenge, first with an ambush on the way to Castle Greyhawk that had failed miserably, and finally by hiring someone to charm the bear-wards here to obey him. The bear-wards would not only give him a new base of operations, but provide muscle for robbing members of the Company, one at a time, whenever they were alone and vulnerable, and this was how both Erin and Lumpy had wound up being robbed in recent months. Their mistake was robbing Grandma Erin twice, which had brought the swift retribution of the Company in almost full force. Cuthbrid only got in one parting threat of a cryptic nature -- saying that “the bugbears have returned” and will come after the Company next. 

As for Baldwin, once un-gagged, he denied knowing anything about all this, and Cuthbrid did not refute his denial. It was decided to let Baldwin and the others go free and, to make sure they were not making new enemies, take nothing from them (other than some of the bribe money still on that door guard, which Reed had already lifted off him). They did take Cuthbrid, and kept anything of his that might be magical and explain his fantastic leaping ability, and a chest of Cuthbrid’s that was hidden in the larder and contained most of the gold stolen from Erin and Lumpy. Then they dragged him out of town and back up to the city, to the nearest Greyhawk watch station. The watch members recognized Cuthbrid, said they had a few warrants out on him, and after hearing the Company make their case, the watch station captain said he would recommend Cuthbrid be put to death for his crimes. 

In the days that followed, the Company identified three magic items that Cuthbrid wore or carried -- magic Boots of Springing, that were given to Reed to wear (his first boots ever, which magically shrank to fit his feet); a magic javelin (Vask is hanging onto that, for now); and a magic Potion of Healing (paying to identify it came out of the recovered money, the rest all going to Erin). They had left contact information with the authorities, and were all invited to watch Cuthbrid’s execution -- death by hanging -- performed in Barge End.  

Moonday, Coldeven 3, 621 CY

The Free City of Greyhawk

The Green Dragon Inn

"What's this?" John Grond asked, taking the piece of parchment from the stranger.

"My letter of introduction," Rom Riverbluff said. 

Reading from the parchment, John said out loud, "It's from Grandma Erin…"

He read it outloud, for most of the Company of the White Oak was assembled around him and eager to hear from the adept who had become like a mother figure to the assembled adventurers. 

"Thank you for taking care of the thieves, I was worried they would possibly attack one of my family members next. I'm recovering well, and with spring coming a lot has to get done on the farm. I will have to miss out on this adventure to help my family, but after this we should be set for the spring crop, and will have added some new animals to the farm. I'll do my best to meet you wherever you end up. In the meanwhile, I'm sending this friend of the family to take my place and help you out. His name is Rom Riverbluff." 

Rom noticed all eyes upon him. "I'm a veteran of Greyhawk's standing army," Rom explained. "I can fight, and shoot a bow."

No one asked him to prove it. "What do we do now?" is all Haruspex Niv asked.

"Now -- we fetch Brother Langdon," John answered.

Godsday, Coldeven 4, 621 CY

Castle Greyhawk

The Chapel of Boccob

Brother Langdon was confused to see his companions already. "I thought we were not delving into the dungeon again for another week?"

"The castle dungeons can wait," Vask said. "We need to be ready for when those vampires come back, and my master, Prospero, is our best chance at that." 

"How many days until we leave?" Langdon asked.


Brother Langdon looked from face to face at his reassembled companions. "What is this nonsense? You know I've been tasked with watching the chapel this whole past week. I haven't had time to prepare for an expedition elsewhere."

"I'm not thrilled either," Percy said. "If I run out of grooming supplies, where will I find them on the road? But if we are going to get to Veluna and back before those vampires return, we should leave sooner rather than later."

Langdon sighed, knowing Vask had been asking to track down Prospero for a while, and now he had the whole rest of the company on board with this plan... "I suppose I can buy rations from some village on the way…"

Rom spoke up next. Being an old farm hand before his military service, he knew the countryside best. "You can find what you need in the village of Hawfair Green, sir, because we need to go back the way we came…"

Waterday, Coldeven 5, 621 CY

Near Domain of Greyhawk

Menhir Road

Once Brother Langdon and his hireling Saraband had fresh rations from Hawfair Green, they followed the road back towards the Free City of Greyhawk, but bypassed it entirely, making their way quickly through the nearer suburb of Barge End until they reached the south side of Greyhawk. Here they began following the River Road as it followed the Selintan down towards Woolly Bay. 

After passing a fork in the road heading to the Village of Three Mile Mill, they followed the road for another league until they reached Zagyg's Bridge. It was a route seldom traveled because the old bridge was heavily enchanted and tended to prank unwary travelers trying to use it. But to not use it meant another half-day going south to Ford Keep and crossing the river there. 

John Grond volunteered to take the bridge first, along with his hireling Harvard. 

"Be wary of trolls," Langdon joked.

Not only did nothing bad happen to them, but John found an old gold piece sitting at the far end of the bridge. Seeing it as a sign of good luck, he picked it up. Haruspex Niv crossed the bridge next with his charmed hireling, Gregory. and nothing happened for him. Brother Langdon crossed next with Saraband and they found a heaping plate of stewed meat, a bowl of grapes, and a cup of wine waiting for them. Langdon and Saraband ate and drank everything and found them delicious. The same thing happened when Reed Underbough crossed with his hulking hireling Herv. Nothing prankish happened when anyone crossed.

It seemed they were meant to go this way. The old overgrown road on the far side plowed straight west through a rolling plain full of tall grass, low scrub, and thick brambles. Still the same morning, they came to a fork where the trail met the Great River Road, coming from  Ford Keep to the southeast and heading northwest in the direction they wanted to go. There was an unnamed village here they passed without stopping. 

Mid-afternoon, the road spanned a stream with a short, low bridge. By now, weary from walking, no one made a troll joke.

Before nightfall, they reached an unnamed hamlet with a side trail to the west. The broken signpost lying in the grass read "Harrowstone." The Company ignored the side trail, but the hamlet seemed a safe place to spend the night. There was a common house for travelers to sleep in that was already occupied by five pilgrims, heading to Greyhawk to pay their respect at the shrine of some minor deities even Langdon and Percy were not familiar with. The pilgrims reported their luck on the road, having encountered nothing dangerous since the Town of Malaven. Indeed, they had the good blessing of having seen a pegasus! The pilgrims gave up the common house for the company, since the company had 11 members and the house was too crowded for 16.

Assembled in the cozy confines, most of the company choked down their hardtack while Brother Langdon and Saraband ate fresh fruit in front of them. There was plenty of water from the cart they had brought, that was outside where the mules were tethered. Inside, Harvard tried to entertain with traditional folk songs from Blackmoor he had learned, but his singing voice was terrible. Gregory, his eyes still not fully adjusted to sunlight after years in the dungeon, complained of a splitting headache that Harvard was worsening. John, to make peace, suggested to his hireling that wine made his singing better.

Being cautious travelers, they kept six two-hour watches through the long night, but there was no trouble. Percy alone was the final watch, from the seventh to the ninth hours of the day, and the extra task fell to him of feeding the mules, making sure everyone ate and then was packed for the next day's leg of the journey. 

Earthday, Coldeven 6, 621 CY

Far Domain of Greyhawk

Great Western Road

That morning, the Company found the thirteenth milestone along the road missing and, past that point, the road was less well-maintained. It also started turning due west again. 

It was at this point that they observed something large and white flying towards them. As it drew closer, they could see it was something small and white flying around and behind something large and white, and as they drew closer still they could see it was a pegasus mare and foal. And as they drew even closer still, they could see the foal had a saddle on its back, and something in the saddle. And as they swooped low, just 50' overhead, everyone could make out it was a hobbit-sized person. He (or she? It was hard to say, as obscured by heavy clothes as the hobbit was) called out to them, then came around and swooped past once more.

Which was exciting news to Reed Underbough. He was looking for a certain hobbit and thought he might find her on the road...but could this be her? He stayed there and stared, long past when the rest of the company started to move on, after deciding the hobbit and pegasi were no danger to them. But soon they were all moving on, so focused were they on their goal.

Late morning, they passed another unnamed hamlet They then passed a second side trail, this time heading south. The Gnarley Forest also was looming much closer now, just two miles away. It looks like it used to be closer but had been intentionally cut back, and the field was full of tree stumps to prove it.

Two more unnamed hamlets come and went, their occupants better armed each time than the last and less and less welcoming to armed strangers. And always the Gnarley Forest was at their left flank. It drew closer and closer to the road, with fewer stumps between them and it.

The cart brought them convenience -- it carried all their heavy armor, the freshwater barrel kept them hydrated throughout the long march, and the back of the cart was used frequently to sit and rest one's feet -- but it also slowed them down. The mules were uneven in their speed and it made judging how long it would take to get from location to location difficult, so that they mistimed things that night and ran out of daylight before reaching the next hamlet. This would be their first time camping outdoors, ever, as a full company. Watches remained the same as the previous night. Each watch heard weird noises coming from the forest all through the night, but nothing emerged to trouble them.

Freeday, Coldeven 7, 621 CY

Far Domain of Greyhawk

Great Western Road

There was hardly a cloud in the sky this day. This morning the road began to meander a bit through a rolling plain of tall grass, shrub, and the occasional tree -- so that the company was only 50 feet away when they noticed something stretched across the road, which was either a snake over 10' long, or the long thin tail of some much larger creature hiding in the grass! 

The company hung back and waited for it to finish crossing, and eventually it did slither completely into the grass on the north side of the road. Determined to keep their distance even more, the company moved off the road and moved through the tall grass on the far side -- where they were surprised by a second one! They were huge adders, this one 12' long, and it nearly bit Reed, no doubt thinking him a bite-sized morsel. The company wanted to back well out of range, but there was no putting a mule-drawn cart in reverse. Worse, the mules were panicking and threatened to overturn the cart. So the company worked to lure the snake away towards them instead of the mules. This not only worked, but the company was able to keep enough distance between them and the snake to bring their slings to bear -- and the snake was killed two sling stones later. 

Everyone else was ready to move on, but Langdon saw a type of treasure to be had here -- snake meat! As they were skinning the snake, John and Langdon had a debate about what the snakes were doing out here in this still-cold weather. 

Mid-morning, they reached a small village called Greenleaf, with a tavern and hostel. Here they passed their first side trail that led straight to the forest. A sign here pointed that way and read “GAWKES MERE - 11 Miles.”

Ignoring Gawkes Mere, the company did stop and spent some time in the tavern. The tavernkeeper woke his serving lad and put him to work. The tavernkeeper laughed at John when he asked for bread and offered them gruel. The gruel wasn't bad, though, and the ale there was even better. Indeed, it was so good that Reed offered to buy a cask of it and, after a little haggling, he got it for nine gold. John and Harvard were ready to lose a day getting drunk on ale, but the rest of the company remained focused on the journey, so a tipsy John and Harvard kept up with the company as they pressed on later that morning.   

That afternoon they passed through another hamlet, but after that the entire day was spent traveling through wilderness. The Town of Maraven was their next destination and was surely somewhere up ahead, but there was no sign of it when they burnt through the last of their daylight. Although the road had done plenty of zigzagging to this point, Rom was convinced they had so far traveled only 90 miles west of Greyhawk as the crow flies. 

That night, while John and Harvard were on guard duty, and everyone else was just falling asleep, and from the position of the moons it was an hour to midnight, they noticed a fire being lit not far away. Someone had made a campsite just 400 feet from their own in some clearing behind the tall grass! Or some things, as became apparent when they heard the monstrous laughs of the creatures. Somehow, they had either failed to notice the company's campfire or didn't care, but John dimmed the light from the fire just in case. They watched the other campfire, unable to make out the figures around the fire in the dark. When it came time for Langdon and Saraband to take over their shift, they were informed of the mysterious neighbors, but these neighbors got up and left shortly after the shift change, heading due east.

Starday, Coldeven 8, 621 CY

Domain of Dyvers

Great Western Road

There were no further incidents in the night and soon, that morning, the company came face-to-face with Eastguard Fortress, a massive square-shaped castle rivaling The Citadel in Greyhawk City and Castle Greyhawk itself for size. Eastguard, with its two east-facing towers, protected the Town of Maraven from the Gnarley Forest, doubled as a lighthouse for the Nyr Dyv (the Lake of Unknown Depths), and served as a reminder to Greyhawk that this land, from this point west, belonged to the Free City of Dyvers. Eastguard Fortress stood on a low hill overlooking the town and stood over a stream that served like a moat on the town’s east side.  

The small port town was relatively new, less than a hundred years old (with Eastguard Fortress being only 30!), and just over 1,000 people called it home. Although the fortress was imposing, the town itself was surrounded by a wooden palisade, with a walled inner portion of the town where, one would presume, the richer residents dwelt. The walled inner town extended to the far west side, surrounded by a crescent-shaped outer ward on the north (where the docks on the lake were), east, and south sides.

Instead of exploring the town, the company made a beeline for the docks, for the plan was to navigate the rest of the route by river travel. And there were plenty of boats at the piers -- many barges and longships, and a few cogs. The cogs were merchant vessels, but they either did not want additional passengers, had no need for additional mercenary guards, were not heading to Veluna, or were not heading there soon. Which left the longships to try next. 

Captain Sigurd of The Dragon's Bane was more than happy to transport them as far as the City of Verbobonc, if they rented his boat for 85 gold. This was a significant expenditure for the company, considering that everyone had left 90% of their treasure hoarded away back in Greyhawk. Not everyone was trustful of the riverboat captain and his team of two dozen rowers either, so a compromise was reached where the company would pay him half now and half on arrival. 

The Dragon's Bane was 57' long, 10' wide, and 3' deep. Bringing the mules and cart was doable, but required the entire company to huddle up at the fore of the ship to balance the boat. Captain Sigurd took the initial payment somewhere ashore to secure it, foiling Reed's unspoken plan of stealing it back at some point. That afternoon, they cast off, Verbobonc bound!

The lake was not only infamously deep, but huge -- there was no seeing the far side of the lake from where they were. They sailed west, following the south shore. But there was no sleeping on a longship, so they had to stop where there were ports for the night. Captain Sigurd always slept on land, while the crew took turns guarding the ship or sleeping. The mules would be taken off the ship so they could stretch their legs, as would the company, who also posted their own watches through the night. That first night was spent at a small lakeside inn between Maraven and Dyvers.

Sunday, Coldeven 9, 621 CY

Domain of Dyvers

Nyr Dyv

Although they reached the Free City of Dyvers at midday, they had to stop here and rest for the remainder of the day, as every stop they planned to make was measured in days out from Dyvers. 

Moonday, Coldeven 10, 621 CY  

Domain of Dyvers

Nyr Dyv

Moving back out on the lake, they followed it to where it narrowed at its western end. By noon they could see the far north side of the lake. By evening, the north and south shores were only a few miles apart. They camped that night at a small lakeside inn just outside the Town of Caltaran.

Godsday, Coldeven 11, 621 CY

The Westlands

Velverdyva River

Now the crew took down the sails on The Dragon's Bane. The longship was a riverboat now heading upstream, so it was time for the rowers to earn their keep. The 24 rowers rowed in shifts, pushing further upstream, away from the Domain of Dyvers and towards the wilderness. They passed Westguard, the smaller mirror image of Eastguard Fortress, just after noon. The longship docked at a small lakeside inn again, this time by no nearby community.


Waterday, Coldeven 12, 621  

Gnarley Forest

Velverdyva River

Late this day, the ship sailed into the Gnarley Forest. The forest pressed tight against the banks of the river. There was no sign of civilization except when river traffic passed them in the opposite direction. That night, the ship docked at a small riverside hostel, the last land-based structure they would see for two days.

Earthday, Coldeven 13-Freeday, Coldeven 14, 621

Gnarley Forest

Velverdyva River

Again, the ship sailed through thick forest, though the river was always wide enough that the forest canopy did not shade much of the river. The rowers pressed hard, always knowing that there was only so much space on the lonely piers erected along the river's length and they were in trouble if they found no berth. But they were in luck -- that, or it was still too cold for most rivergoers. They would have to share a pier with a barge or two, but that was it for this stretch of lonely river.

Freeday, Coldeven 15, 621


Velverdyva River

The ship finally sailed out of the forest this day, where the Att River merged with the Velverdyva at the port Town of Stalmaer. There were clear plains to the right, but always the forest to the left, either near or at least in sight. The river came around and followed the forest, heading south. All was calm until -

Large shapes crashed out of the forest and took to the air -- dragons! Or at least dragon-like creatures. Two of them flew towards the river. The crew literally hit the deck, trying to hide. But they did not need to; the dragon-like creatures turned north and followed the river in the opposite direction.

Everyone returned to their oars and the rowers went back to gaining on the river. The upcoming Village of Thaymouth brought a welcome sense of normalcy, oblivious to the dragon-like creatures. But the ship did not stop; they had to press on hard to make the Town of Oakham by nightfall. And they did!

Starday, Coldeven 16, 621


The City of Verbobonc

More villages came and went. By late evening, they reached the City of Verbobonc, the first and closest city on the edge of Veluna! 

The City of Verbobonc was a busy river port, with traffic of barges and cogs and even the occasional caravel coming and going most any day. The city had grown up, literally, around the river, with quarters on either side of its banks. The river was spanned by three low bridges with breakaway sections that could be lifted out by cranes if anything taller than a barge wished to sail through (and after paying a toll to the River Warden’s Office). Security was tight along the river, but not sternly so, with the inspections requiring more patience than anything else. The riverfronts were manned by the River Warden’s Dock Guild, but guarded by men-at-arms of both the First Army of the Church and the Viscount’s Standing Army. Visitors had some of the laws explained to them, usually by someone with a crushed hat and a cudgel in his hand (signifying the Order of Saint Cuthbert) including keeping bows unstrung, bladed weapons sheathed or otherwise hidden, not to openly worship an evil deity, and never killing someone of a social class higher than yours.

The Company of the White Oak presented their letters of introduction to the Dock Wardens and were admitted in. 

Verbobonc was a walled city, with a worked granite curtain 15’ high and 8’ thick surrounding it. The north side of the city had three gates leading out and the south end had but one gate. Also, a breach in the north curtain wall had long since been filled in by the Olven Wall -- a tangle of thick forestry said to be more impassable than the real wall. The wall's defenses seemed modest, perhaps even a token effort, which was perhaps not surprising given the city had probably never once been invaded in its history. Engraved over each outer gate to the city – and there were three – was the city’s motto, “Earth and stone, man and gnome.” Inside the city, surrounding the only grassy hill in sight, was a second curtain wall, a solid granite wall the same height and width as the outer one. Up close, this inner wall was revealed to be highly decorative, with bas relief carvings of gnomish warriors all over it and sayings in what was surely the gnomish language carved under them. It was clearly much older than the other wall.

The city's inner wall was occupied by a castle next to a cathedral. Both buildings looked new, or had undergone extensive renovation, to reflect the new gothic style. The castle was the Viscount's castle and the cathedral was known as the Temple of the Heavenly Virtues, and their twin presence here reflected the balance of power between the nobility and the clerical class in Verbobonc. The bells of the cathedral rang, up to three at a time, at every hour on the hour.

The city was tightly packed, its population having outgrown the outer wall and spilled out of it. Easily 24,000 people must have called Verbobonc home, with at least 23,000 more living in the outskirts surrounding it. The streets of the Inner City tended to be narrow and curvy, with the longest being Tarry Road that encircled over half of the city. Tarry Road, Way Down Road, and Hegoaldean Road -- muddy ruts in the best of times -- sported the majority of the larger businesses. Only the Viscount’s Road was cobblestone.

One of the reasons the city had filled up so fast was that so much of it had been set aside for gardens and parks. The city was divided into six quarters, but with no visible borders between them; only residents knew the distinctions between the quarters.

The architecture consisted primarily of timbered row houses; starched white buildings with brown, green, burgundy or navy timbers. Domes, pillars, arches, and sweeping wide stairways were common features.


One uncommon feature was wizards' towers -- the city boasted only one, and this was the home of Scottenkainen, the man who contacted Vask about Prospero's whereabouts. Only, when they finally met Scottenkainen -- a bald-pated, clean-shaven man of 50 years of age, wearing expensive spectacles, dressed in blue robes -- did they learn that they may have come all this way for naught. 

" not here," Scottenkainen explained to the assembled company (hirelings, though, waited outside). "He went to Veluna City, but came back much changed. I fear something may have affected his mind. He was raving, asking me when the Crook of Rao was broken. The Crook of Rao is, of course, the most powerful relic in the world, wielded by the Pope of Veluna. It has never been broken. Prospero muttered that something had either affected his memories, or those of the rest of the world. To find out which, he teleported to the Great Kingdom. The Royal Demesne of Ahlissa. Portum Keep, to use the Augury Mask.

"I tell you this because you are known to me, by name at any rate, Vask, and Prospero would trust you with this information. But also because I am unsure what to do with this information myself. The things Prospero has told me, particularly about Castle Greyhawk, troubles me deeply. You the year 599, the forces of Law had won a great victory. Indeed, one for the ages -- the last portals to the underworld on this hemisphere had been sealed shut. This was supposed to usher in a new golden age for the world in what we measure our seventh century. Yet, it seems that the forces of Chaos have succeeded in reopening some of the portals already, when it was never meant to be possible that they should ever be reopened.

"How many of you have ever heard of the Temple of Elemental Evil? Long ago, Veluna and Faraz had to join forces to stave off the army of Chaos that issued forth from the Temple of Elemental Evil. Many years later, the temple was finally razed. But...I am very worried what would happen if the portal to the underworld were reopened there. Would you go and check? I would be willing to pay 200 gold, to be divided among you, if you would. I would require no proof other than your word, magically verified, of course."

Sunday, Coldeven 17, 621


The Viscount's Road

South of the city was farmland as far as the eye could see, and a well-maintained road, uniformly 20 yards wide, that zigzagged gradually between fields of crops that abutted the road. Copses of fruit-bearing trees could be seen here or there further from the road, but little grew along the route that would offer shade -- or conceal bandits.

At the third milestone, the travelers came to the small Village of Kleinmere, home to about 200 people. Most of the people they saw about were humans, but they also spotted a halfling and a gnome as they proceeded through the unwalled village. They did pass a guard patrol of 12 of the Viscount's soldiers, gathered outside a tavern called The Muddy Well. The soldiers eyed them suspiciously, but did not stop the travelers.

There were some simple shops for travelers – a cobbler, a farrier (horseshoes), and the like. There was also a roadside shrine to Fharlanghn and -- most importantly -- a crossroads. The Viscount's Road continued to the south and a sign continued to point that way towards "Etterboek". A road to the southeast appeared much rougher and overgrown -- still used, but perhaps not tended to in some time. This road's sign read "Penwick".

The Town of Etterboek, they had been told by Scottenkainen, was one such town on their route. They were also looking for the Town of Hommlet, and this second town they reached by late evening. Neither town had been walled, though Hommlet boasted an impressive keep and large chapel. Hommlet was home to some 1,500 people and, luckily, the Inn of the Welcome Wench did not turn them away despite the lateness of the hour. 

Moonday, Coldeven 18, 621


The High Road

The road east out of Hommlet was the High Road, and this led to the Village of Nulb and, from there, the Temple of Elemental Evil's ruins would be reached. But, long before reaching Nulb, the company found their way forward was blocked.  Ten men in chain and ten orcs in chain, commanded by a man in platemail armor, blocked the road.

"This road is closed to you," the commander said. "Turn back."

John was clever, though, and quickly came up with a story that gave their commander pause. "We've come as recruits for the Temple," he said.

"Indeed?" the commander answered. "Well...then let us test your mettle and see if you are worthy. Orcs...test their mettle." And the orcs advanced.

They never really had a chance. John Grond, with his ferocious strength and skill, could skewer two orcs on his spear at once. Two members of the company were hurt -- Saraband seriously so -- but just as the last of the orcs were going down, Haruspex Niv brought his sleeping spells to bear on the commander and his human brigands, which turned the battle first into a rout, and then a complete victory. Many were slain, but the last three men, including the commander, were taken as prisoners. As far as the company was concerned, they did not even need to visit the Temple ruins directly -- this was all the proof they needed.

Two days later, Scottenkainen agreed, and paid them the promised sum.