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Fantasy Round 22.4: Small Favor and Turncoat

2014/01/22 Leave a comment

As the Dresden Files books (and plots) get thicker, I’ll be covering fewer of them in each post.  For this one, it’s Small Favor and Turncoat.

As always, spoilers follow…

The staff shows up, but once again, the hat is AWOL in the actual novel.

The sword shows up, but Dresden’s not the one using it.  And once again, the hat is AWOL in the actual novel.

***

Spooky Island Time

This is another case of a minor reference becoming a more significant plot point as time goes on, revealed in Small Favor.  The island is eventually named Demonreach by Dresden.  Just how appropriate the name is isn’t fully revealed until later in the series, but we do learn early on that it’s a genius loci, a kind of sentient location.  Dresden makes friends with it, and uses its help to put the hurt on a group of serious nasties.  One interesting capability this gives him is an automatic sense of everything that’s on the island, so long as he is also on the island.  This is impressively useful (for things like spotting various bad guys chasing after him or setting up an ambush), but has reasonable limitations.  For instance, it’s not always straightforward for him to identify a human he doesn’t know, since Demonreach also doesn’t know who they are.

Of course, this is another case where the Masquerade that hides the supernatural from prying eyes is a bit strained.  We have a whole island out in Lake Michigan which is essentially unplottable in the Harry Potter sense, where it’s impossible to put it on a map… or find it with a satellite.  Plus, all records of the island have been destroyed in order to prevent people from repeating the bad idea of trying to live there.  And, for bonus points, most normal mortals just steer around the place without even realizing it’s there, because it’s spooky.  Or something.  Which is good, because otherwise they’d get shipwrecked on the rocks and shallows near the island.

This is… kind of impressive.  And I’m still not sure how you’d actually fool the satellites that Google Maps uses.  It takes a lot for there to be a lost island in this day and age – especially in a body of water as well-traveled and instrumented as Lake Michigan.

A Donut With Sprinkles

I love these.

Both the donuts and the characters that instigate them.  Throughout Small Favor, Dresden is hounded by a group of fairies called Gruffs.  That’s right, like the billy goats gruff.  Dresden fights off one (or a few), and then they send in their older and tougher siblings.

The Eldest Gruff?  Is dangerous in the wizened little old man sense.  Dresden knows that he’s not going to be able to take this guy, and that this gruff has probably found him via a pin given to him by the Summer Queen.  The pin grants him the ability to claim a favor from the Summer Court, but it also lets them track him down.

Once the Eldest Gruff shows up, he very politely states his intentions and his regret at having to kill Dresden.  In turn, Dresden politely requests that the Eldest Gruff fetch him a cake donut, with icing and sprinkles.  The Gruff protests slightly at the difficulty of this request, and how it will delay his current task, but eventually gives in.

And thus, Dresden avoids a fight.  This is nicely done — an excellent example of Chekhov’s gun, where a relatively minor detail ends up being important later, and in this case, used to very good effect.  This is excellent.  That, and I love a clever character.  (And the scene where Thomas is trying to figure out where the donut came from… priceless.)

Character Development

Donald Morgan.

Oh, the character development.  Turncoat has a lot of it.  Morgan is one of the most notable ones.

This guy is… well, a jerk.  Dresden uses stronger language.  Morgan is the Javert-like character who appears in the very first book, hounding Dresden.  Dresden was recently convicted of using black magic but out on parole.  Morgan was (and is) convinced that Dresden will eventually slip up and use black, forbidden magic.  And hopes to then end Dresden’s parole by chopping off his head.

Morgan is a classic Well-Intentioned Extremist.  He follows the laws of magic, strictly enforces them, and expects others to do the same.  He has no patience or mercy for those who violate them, or who threaten the White Council.  And he hates Dresden for “getting away with it.”

In Turncoat, he gets some poetic comeuppance — he is falsely accused of murdering another member of the White Council.  He flees, after protesting his innocence… to the one man he knows will be sympathetic to his plight.

Dresden.

It’s a terrible pity that Morgan ends up dead after all is said and done.  I would have liked to have seen what happened to him, after he realized the dangers of his extremely rigid values system and unwavering loyalty, and that Dresden wasn’t as much of a danger to the White Council as he thought.  The character of Morgan actually makes an important point — people are complicated.  Good and bad are mixed together.  Reality itself is generally not black and white.  Even people who seem to be complete monsters may love their pets or help little old ladies cross the street.  Even people who seem entirely virtuous may fudge their taxes, kick a dog, or yell at their kids.  Few people think of themselves as the “bad guy” in their own stories, and this is often overlooked in stories about epic battles — the bad guys are often pure evil.  Morgan?  Morgan thought he was the heroic good guy.  Even when what he did to Dresden was abusive at best.  His character is good, but I think we see the best of him in this book.

Mind Magic Comes Back For Another Round

Oh, man.  I don’t usually sympathize with Morgan’s extremism, but this is one place where I come close.

Mind magic is fricking scary.  Morgan’s reaction to Molly’s slight poking around people’s brains is extreme, but poking around people’s brains without their consent is a violation of the laws of magic.

Why was she doing it?  Because she suspected somebody else had already been mucking with other people’s brains.  She finds Dresden seems to be okay, but… otherwise, she was right.  Notably, Captain Luccio, the head of the Wardens and Dresden’s current love interest, has been mind-whammied.  Plus a bunch of the other younger Wardens, and some subtle manipulating of the Senior Council… yes, it’s that bad.  And this was done primarily by a single wizard, taking advantage of all the mind magic he can use to lay low a very large number of wizards with a single code phrase.  Smart bad guys make the plot interesting.

It also gets worse, since Luccio was only interested in Dresden due to the mental manipulation.  (The bad guy wanted to keep an eye on Dresden, since he didn’t often get within mind-magic-manipulation range of the bad wizard in question.)  That gets… understandably awkward.  She’s essentially suffered physical date rape by proxy, or something to that effect.  She doesn’t blame Dresden for it, since he thought she was willing; and he doesn’t blame her, since it wasn’t her fault, either, but they’re both significantly traumatized.

That exploration of mind magic I was considering?  Well, this is a taste of how ugly it can get.

Choose Your Own Adventure 120: Hiding In Plain Sight

2014/01/18 4 comments

The previous post in this series is here.

Your choice from last time was to take a quick nap, and then investigate the palace complex.

Part 120

“You’ve been even less talkative than usual, and I can see the circles under your eyes.  Hero or not, I’m going to be sending you back to the barracks the moment we get back to the palace complex.”

You stifle a yawn.  “I won’t object.”  The rest of your task is going to be trickier — you need to make sure that you can get past the usual security measures at the palace, which involves checking for illusion spells.  You’ll get past a cursory check, but not a deeper one.

Fortunately for you, it’s not hard to dodge the lieutenant.  He’s excited about this success, especially given that he is quite, quite sure that “Severel Mazurek” is dead.  You make some vague implications about how much of the credit should go to him and his plan, and he seems satisfied.  At the palace, he explains the urgency of his errand, shows off “Mazurek’s” dead body, and the guards at the gate perform only a cursory search.  Your illusions are not uncovered.

Shortly thereafter, you take your leave of your deceived compatriots, who are happily carting away the dead corpse.  Most likely to ensure it is not booby-trapped before displaying it to the Emperor.  The idea is uncomfortable, but you are used to such uncomfortable ideas.

The early morning palace bustle has only just begun, and given your illusory uniform, no one bothers you on your way to the barracks.  You manage to bluster your way past the guard, explaining that you just helped capture Mazurek and you’re exhausted.  In his excitement, he lets you by without actually making you give the password.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that, inside the barracks, you eventually trip one of the long-duration spells which removes illusions.  At least you manage to find Eggard’s bunk before anyone notices you, and then lock the door behind you.  Hopefully his bunkmates won’t be back for the hour you give yourself for rest.  To be sure, you set one of the small alarm devices popular in the Black Hand barracks to awaken you after that time.

***

An hour was not enough sleep, but it will need to do.  You don’t know for sure how long it will be until the mages examining the body of “Mazurek” realize that the reason their attempts to detect enchanted traps are going awry because the body is under an illusion.  You would rather not be stabbed in your sleep.

Getting back out of the barracks is easier than it was to get in.  It is still morning, and the bulk of its occupants are clearly elsewhere.  Rather than attempt to reconstruct your previous disguise, you wrap yourself in several layers of invisibility.  Anyone looking carefully may still spot you, but at least the illusion can’t be trivially stripped away.  Underneath the invisibility, you have altered your facial features and borrowed one of Eggard’s uniforms.  It doesn’t quite fit right, but if you are not invisible, you may be easily taken for one of the Emperor’s Black Hands.  You also borrowed a couple of rank-pins, to ensure the fear and deference of others if you need it.

As you once received, before all of this.  The irony amuses and saddens you.

You manage to sneak past the guard, who can surely see through your invisibility, and around a corner.  You wait, until you hear someone else entering the barracks, using this week’s password — “mortality”.  Then you drop the illusion, for now, though you can draw it back up around yourself at a moment’s notice.

You make your way across the well-tended grounds.  Here, is a man sweeping up the leaves that have fallen from one of the more ancient trees.  There, a cook waving a ladle is chivvying several younger servants who are carrying numerous large dishes from one side-entrance to another.  The barracks is a bit separate from the palace proper, that sprawling building which shows the styles and preferences of Emperors of centuries past, each blending into the next.  Emperor Dleshan Kaev has yet to make his mark on the place.

And you have yet to make yours.  You stride confidently towards the side-entrance typically used by the guards.  Confidence is the key; who dares to stop a woman in uniform who is clearly acting on important business?  You go through the entrance unhindered, save by the murmuring of the password.

“Welcome back, Commander Beleyaev,” the young guard says.  She’s not one of the Black Hands, but only a junior member of the palace guard, quietly doing her duty.  The pike she holds in one hand is suitably menacing, but her small friendly smile is not.

You smile slightly yourself, and nod.  There was only one commander you could be sure of impersonating… and fortunately, it seems that Karet is not yet back in Alederick.  “Any interesting news?”

“You mean, other than the big fuss this morning about Severel Mazurek being caught?”

You nod sharply.  “I’ve heard a bit about that already.  Any other interesting captures lately?”

“I’m sure you have heard about that one.  Heh.”  She absently flicks a small bit of dirt off her light armor.  “What I’m sure you haven’t heard is that one of the mages at the Academy has been arrested.  I think they’re holding him here.  Seems kind of sad, really, since he seemed like a nice enough fellow.  Not ranting and raving, or threatening, or pleading, or anything.  He just quietly protested that this was a bad idea.  Not the usual reaction, since most folks who end up here don’t come out with their heads still attached to their necks.”

“Some people are calmer than others, and take the consequences with better grace,” you reply.  That certainly sounds like Lehhev to you.

“I suppose so.”

Out of the corner of your eye, you see several guards in black uniforms running from the palace to the barracks, raising a small uproar.

Uh-oh.

The Choices

Option 123:  Stick to the plan.  Head into the palace, and then around to the lower dungeon level where Lehhev is most likely being kept.  And watch for unfriendly people.

Option 124:  Time for a new plan.  Lehhev probably isn’t scheduled for immediate execution, but the Emperor needs to be stopped before somebody catches on to you.  Time to confront him, now.

Option 125:  No plan like the old plan, but perhaps you should go see what the ruckus is all about… and confound their investigation, to buy yourself more time.

Choose Your Own Adventure 119: Blood Spilled

2014/01/08 4 comments

The previous post in this series is here.

From last time, your choice was to go ahead and kill “Severel Mazurek,” your prisoner, and then try to sneak in to the palace to learn more things.

Part 119

You know that the most recent orders were that you were wanted — dead, not alive.  Alive would be inconvenient.

So, with one of the knives you took from your prisoner, you end him.  The illusion you placed on him reacts appropriately, and the blood is certainly real enough.  You feel a small pang of guilt.  After all, he likely only thought he was doing his duty.  As you are.  As you were…

With the ease of long practice, you shove that thought aside.  You glance at the other guards.  “Can I get a hand with this?”

They appear entirely nonplussed at your actions.  The lieutenant gestures for a couple of his subordinates to pick up the body, and gestures for you to come along with them.

You walk out of the inn as a group, with the older woman tending the front counter staring at you the whole time.  ”Who’s going to pay the tab for that room?”  Then she pauses, and adds, “Is that a dead body?”

The lieutenant hangs back, saying something conciliatory, along with an apology for the mess, before handing her a few large coins, courtesy of the Emperor, with a request to not spread word of the events here too widely.

“For this?  It’s been a very quiet, boring morning.”  You still hear her mutter loudly, “There’d better not be bloodstains.”

You leave, and follow the others into a nearby alley, where a cart and horses stand waiting.  This was the ride the group used to go through town so rapidly, along with a couple of additional horses to round out their numbers and, most likely, to prevent any crowd from gathering.  Once the body is dumped into the back of the cart, the lieutenant gestures for you to join him, and a third party takes up the reins.

“So, Eggard,” the lieutenant says thoughtfully.

Only at the last moment do you remember to respond to your victim’s name.

“Mm?”

“You’ve been even less talkative than usual, and I can see the circles under your eyes.  Hero or not, I’m going to be sending you back to the barracks the moment we get back to the palace complex.”

Hero, hm?  That could be manipulated to your own ends…

The Choices

Option 120: It sounds like Eggard is affiliated with the palace barracks for the Black Hands.  You know the place.  It’s reasonable to take a nap first, and then sneak around and investigate, in order to try to rescue Lehhev.

Option 121: As above, but prioritize finding a way to take down the Emperor.  Preferably by finding out exactly what he’s trying to do and exposing it.

Option 122: Time to take a direct approach.  Protest (gently) that if the Emperor wishes to speak with you immediately, you can hold up for a little while longer yet.  And then take the opportunity to take him out.