Thursday, February 4, 2016

Questions about Class: the Magus


Once again, a warm welcome to you, readers! We are creeping up on Valentine’s Day, and magic is in the air. Things are getting hot enough to melt the snow away. To clarify, the heat is pouring from our presses and the magic you feel is emanating from an exciting double-bill of products. Of course, I’m referring to the upcoming releases of Into the Breach - the Magus: 2nd Wave and Tides of War – Magus/x: Multi-classing Feats for Magi.

So, to get us warmed up for these fun and powerful books, we have fellow Pincushioneer Dylan Brooks to give us a little more insight on the Magus class.

DM: First off, thanks a lot for taking the time to let us pick your brain.

DB: You’re welcome! The magus is one of my favorite classes, and I’ve got a lot of content in the upcoming Into the Breach – The Magus: 2nd Wave book. I’m happy to chat about it.

DM: Please, tell us a little about yourself and your contributions to Flying Pincushion.

DB: I’ve been a gamer for longer than I care to think about, ever since the old Gold Box computer games back in the 90s. I’ve been playing and running games since then, in a wide variety of systems over the years. My mainstays these days are Pathfinder and Savage Worlds.

I started with Flying Pincushion when Frank invited me to join based on some stuff I posted on the Paizo forums, where I go by SteelDraco. I’ve also been in Wayfinder several times. Personally, I live in the Great White North of Anchorage, Alaska with my girlfriend and several pets, and work in IT.

DM: So, what exactly is the big draw of the Magus class; what makes a player say “I want to play a Magus”?

DB: Because they want to be awesome, of course! All of my favorite characters have had some mixture of fighting ability and magic – I find I don’t really like playing characters who can do only one thing, and I like having lots of tactical options and choices I can make, especially if I can be clever with how I use powers. Magi are great at that. Is this the right round to buff yourself, blast fire all over your opponents, or hit one target for a pile of damage? How about using a spell in a clever way, or take control of the battlefield? The right magus can do all of that.

DM: From a roleplaying standpoint, how easy (or difficult) is it to integrate Magi into a campaign as a PCs, or even NPCs?

DB: I don’t find it’s difficult at all from the RP side. Magi can fit well into any setting where arcane magic has been around for a while, and that includes most Pathfinder settings. The magus is someone who’s perfected a blend of magic and combat ability; the magus fits anywhere that a wizard does.

You run into trouble if magic is still new or mysterious. A magus doesn’t fit as well in something like Conan, where magic isn’t well understood and is mistrusted. That kind of a lower-magic setting tends to stick closer to the “squishy wizard” tropes, and so the magus doesn’t fit as well there.

In setting, I expect elves are the most magus-oriented of the common races. Elves almost always have a strong magical tradition in Pathfinder, and are usually good with a blade as well. The magus fits that archetype perfectly – just look at the Elf from the old D&D arcade game and you can see how far back the magus goes.

One thing that I’ve found difficult is that there aren’t established traditions for how you expect a magus to look and act in settings, unlike both warrior-types and wizards. You know what a fighter’s training yard or wizard academy should look like, and there are examples of that sort of organization all across the hobby. There’s no similar idea of a magus school, so the GM has to add that sort of thing to his setting. That can take some effort, but I think it’s really cool when the GM takes the time to add that level of detail. For example, in one game I was playing, the GM and I worked out two opposing schools of orcish magi. Since orcs thought of the traditional wizard as a weakling, the magus became the most important arcane caster to them, and there were several different lodges of them – the Lodge of the Burning Blade focused on fire magic, while the Dead Brothers preferred necromancy. Those two traditions made their way into ItB: Magus 2nd Wave as the elemental champion and ebon blade archetypes, respectively.

DM: From a technical standpoint, do you feel there is any “wrong” way to optimize a Magus?

DB: Well, the magus class as it stands makes a lot of decisions for you. You can’t typically fight with a two-handed weapon or a shield unless you’re using an archetype because of how spell combat works. You need to use a melee weapon to use spellstrike, so you can’t normally use a bow or a thrown weapon as your primary fighting style. So that means mostly you’ll be using a one-handed melee weapon.

Spellstrike strongly encourages high-crit weapons, like your rapiers and scimitars. The Dervish Dance feat means that a vast number of Pathfinder magi are followers of a certain deity – while this is a powerful option, I don’t think it’s that interesting. I like a rapier or bastard sword more for my magi, though the one I’m currently playing is actually an arcanist/magus who uses a battle axe and switches all his magic to cold spells. Certainly not optimized, but I had a miniature I wanted to use for him and he’s a lot of fun.

One of the things I love about Pathfinder is that there’s a way to build just about any idea you want and make them contribute, so it’s more than possible to play the shield-magus, or the archer-magus with the right archetype. That means it’s hard to say any particular way is “wrong”

– just different preferences.

DM: Magus arcana help provide the players with a wide variety of ways to make their Magus unique. What is your favorite Magus arcana?

DB: That’s a tough call, and it varies considerably between the magi I’ve played. Accurate Strike is really good, especially with my high-Strength, Power Attacking half-orc magus who could tear through just about anything. Arcane Dealer makes the magus into a very cool and flavorful version of Gambit from Marvel Comics. The one I’m most excited to try out right now is Flamboyant Arcana, which lets you combine the mechanics of the magus and the swashbuckler.

DM: Did you ever feel intimidated by the idea of playing a Magus before actually trying it?

DB: Not at all. I read Ultimate Magic and within a few weeks I asked my regular GM if I could switch characters (from an elven ranger/wizard/arcane archer to a half-orc magus). I really liked playing that magus until the campaign ended, at 15th level. We had to hash out how a few things worked (like switching the grip on your weapon from one-handed to two-handed, and how many attacks you get when you spellstrike) but I very much enjoyed it.

Most of the early issues I experienced have been clarified now, by the way. Switching your grip on a weapon is a free action, and spellstrike means you can get two attacks (the free touch attack you get from casting a touch spell can be made with your weapon via spellstrike, and then you get the normal weapon attack).

DM: You’re trying to sell someone on the idea of trying a Magus, but they seem reluctant. What do you tell them?

DB: I would say that the magus can be made to do just about any “magical warrior” concept you might want to play. Do you want to be the big, hulking warrior with a few tricks up his sleeve? You can do that. How about the swift, clever elf with a quick blade and magic to hop all around the battlefield? You can do that. The dwarven runemaster, infusing his weapons and armor with powerful magic to beat his foes into submission? Yup, got you covered there too. If your character concept includes both kicking ass and casting spells, the magus is the class for you.

DM: What do you feel is, bar-none, the most useful class feature of the Magus?

DB: That’s tough. It’s either spell recall or spell combat. Spell recall gets you more spells, which is huge. Spell combat is probably the most efficient action economy boost in the game, as it lets you make a full attack and also cast just about any spell you want. Most other action economy boosts in the game like that are limited use (like Fervor from the warpriest) or are severely limited in what they apply to how how easy they are to get (like Pounce, which is usually really tough to get). A magus can spell combat with every spell they cast in the day, and honestly they have a pretty good reason to do so.

DM: If there was one thing you could change about the Magus class, what would it be?

DB: I would probably expand the weapon properties you could add to your weapon with the arcane pool ability. There are a lot of very useful non-core weapon abilities that could be added to the list. I’d also consider some kind of protection from dispel magic built into the class, as right now they’re very vulnerable to anyone who can dispel their buffs.

DM: Well, thank you, Dylan, for taking the time to chat!

DB: You’re very welcome, David! I encourage everybody to check out the magus and play one if they haven’t yet!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Buying Game, or "How I Learned to Love the Market Again"


The shopping trip, it happens in every TTRPG, whether it is a tiny town's general store, all the way up to high end magic shops in metropolitan cities, players are guaranteed to frequent such places.

But, you ask, how do I avoid the eye rolls and groans that come with extended trips of this type?  Let us be honest, sometimes those "short" shopping trips turn into full session pace breakers.  

The simply answer is, make shopping more exciting, and weave the store into the plot, or give the store a plot of its own.  This is exactly what The Flying Pincushion Games new product line "Mystical Marketplaces" looks to do.  It is all too easy for GM's (I have done this myself) to hand wave shops and buying to a mechanical and book keeping level, which is not all that fun for anyone involved.  

Mystical Marketplaces addresses this problem by providing vividly detailed shops and locations, run by interesting and three dimensional proprietors with their own stories and motivations. Add that to quests and task that are shop specific, and an easy to use barter and patronage system, and we go from a bland "get it done and over with" shopping trip to a multifaceted adventure opportunity that also happens to have the option to purchase gear, some of which is unique to the shop.  All of this adds up to a deeper immersion into the game world for the players, less work and more adventure hooks for GM's, and a more memorable game session for everyone involved.

Look for the first installment of Mystical Marketplaces, "The Brass Drake" to be up for sale from such well known RPG store sites as DriveThruRPG, Paizo.com, and PFSRD20.com in the near future.  Best of all, "The Brass Drake" is only the first of what will be a sizable catalog of unique, flavorful, time saving, and fun stores and shops for your PC's to explore.  Oh, and at a very reasonable price too!

Cheers!

Jeff Harris
The Flying Pincushin Games Co-Owner 
 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Happy New Fear, errr, Year!


Grrr Arrrgg.  Brains!  Happy New Year from all the staff of The Flying Pincushion!  Grrarr!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Krampus Bless Us, Everyone!


Don't forget kids, Krampus knows what you did this year, and he checks social media, you have been warned!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Questions about Class: the NPC classes


Welcome back readers! It is nearly Christmas, yet there is no snow here in the NE United States. But there are presents, a new Questions about Class for you to unwrap, this time focusing on the NPC classes. As you may (or may not) know, Flying Pincushion Games is about to release its next book, Into the Breach: the Forgotten Classes.  So we thought it was a good time that I, Jeff Harris, sit down with fellow Pincushioneer David McCrae to talk about the NPC classes.

JH: First of all, I would like to thank you for taking the time to sit down and answer my questions!


DM: It’s no problem at all. I’m very enthusiastic about being involved here at Flying Pincushion. I kind of want to get my hands into everything.


JH: Can you give the readers a little about yourself and your role at The Flying Pincushion?


DM: Well, I’m kind of upstart here thus far. And even though I didn’t get here early enough to get my hands into ItB: The Forgotten Classes, I’ve had a blast coming up with content for upcoming Into the Breach books! I’m just your average-joe gamer with a mind stuffed full of ideas that are begging to be released to the masses.


JH: So what exactly is the point of the NPC classes as you see it, are they just background and filler, or is there untapped potential in them?


DM: It’s funny that you ask, because I’m actually designing a “Young character” campaign. And per the rules concerning young characters in Pathfinder RPG: Ultimate Campaign, young characters MUST be NPC classes. So in a way, I was already tapping into the hidden potential of NPC classes. As the author of two novels, I can say with confidence that every character in important. PC or NPC, they wouldn’t be in there if it were not relevant.


JH: Why do you think that the NPC classes are so rarely used by players, and have you ever used one or more of the NPC classes as a player yourself?


DM: NPC classes just don’t have the power that PC classes have. With little to no class abilities, and low choice of weapon proficiencies, only 1 spellcasting class with a very limited spell list, and, well…the commoner, it’s no surprise they are just simply unappealing to the players that want to fireball stuff or roll as many damage dice as possible.


JH: Could you see the NPC classes being used in “low magic” and/or “gritty” campaigns as the default class options for players instead of the Core and Base classes?  And if so, how well do you think the NPC classes would fare?


DM: I’ll shuffle back to my previous statement about the “Young Character” campaign. It starts off gritty and low-magic as you say. But there are bountiful opportunities to challenge and surprise your PCs. I grin just picturing my PCs having to get by on their skills alone; having to start from nothing and build themselves through true experience into hero-dom.

The most important thing to remember as the GM for such a campaign is to give the players JUST enough challenge to keep them engaged. Make sure not to coddle your PCs just because they can’t rage or deal sneak attack damage. Also, make use of those innocuous little Beastiary entries known as animals. Skunks, porcupines, and other woodland creatures could be just as challenging to NPC classes as most CR 2 or 3 monsters would be to low-level PC classes.

I’m still working out the story kinks, of course. But an NPC class campaign is totally possible, and it could be a new and wonderful experience for your players.


JH: As we all know, the NPC classes have very little (often nothing) in the way of special class features.  Do you think this lack of unique abilities allows the other (PC) classes to better shine, or does it just render the NPC classes unable to challenge PC’s as foes the GM can draw upon?


DM: Although NPC classes lack unique abilities, I believe a party of NPC class characters can shine if the players themselves know what they are doing. With enough study into the rules of skills and combat, four 1st level NPC class characters can easily overtake one or even two 2nd level PC class characters. Things like Aid Another actions, Combat Maneuvers, Total Defense, Alchemical splash weapons, and clever use of feats (ESPECIALLY Teamwork feats) can make for an extremely effective team of NPC class characters. The most important thing is for the PCs to work together even moreso than they would if they were using PC classes.


JH: The adept, she has wizard and cleric abilities and spell casting mixed, is this a good thing, does it make sense to you?


DM:  It does. The adept, as I envision her, is feeling out what kind of spellcaster she wants to be. In order to do this, she needs to study and delve into arcane and divine arts to see what works for her.


JH: The expert, at least on the surface seems, despite a lack of special class features, to be extremely flexible because you may choose your class skills.  Do you think this is a good idea, would choosing class skills if other classes could do so, be a good thing as well?


DM: For PC classes, no. Being able to choose your class skills as a PC class could allow far too many of those classes to go bananas. For the Expert, however, his ability to choose his class skills is, in essence, his “class ability”. A clever player can choose 10 class skills that are NOT on the class skill list for the PC class he would want to play later, and keep his level in Expert when he DOES take that class. This way, he’s playing his PC class with 10 extra class skills.


JH: Warriors, are they even viable as a combat class in your opinion?  Given the many hot button discussions about the power level of the fighter, is the warrior just a somewhat sadder fighter without bonus feats, doomed to cannon fodder status and gate guard duty?


DM: That is completely up to the player controlling the warrior. Does the player want to focus more on what the class has as opposed to what it doesn’t have? Seriously, for an NPC class, a d10 hit die, full BAB, and full weapon and armor proficiencies is a combination that’s nothing to sneeze at. True, it’s a little lackluster without the bonus feats or bravery, but teamwork (as I described earlier) will help win the day for warriors.


JH: The commoner, arguably mechanically at least, the absolute least powerful class in the game.  Does this seem fair to you?  Does scaling the common folk so far below even the other NPC classes make sense?


DM: I like to view the commoner just as advertised. A commoner doesn’t want to fight, delve into magic, steal, summon, or anything else like that. A commoner has work, family, and lifestyle that is comfortable to himself. They just want to be the hero of their own life and the people around them. The lure of riches and fame doesn’t have the same pull with the commoner, so the effort to achieve such extravagant success and prestige isn’t there.


JH: The Aristocrat, from a straight mechanical perspective, likely it is one of, if not the best, NPC class of the bunch.  Do you think their class features are balanced given the scope of abilities that the rest of the NPC classes gain, or are they the “special golden child” of the bunch?


DM: No doubt, the aristocrat stands out. Its wide array of class skills and full weapon and armor proficiencies make it an NPC class that a GM would want to take seriously. In planning the young character campaign, I’ve had all of my players at least once state they would want to be an aristocrat. And even though it’s not as effective in combat from an attack and damage perspective, there are certainly ways for creative team players to make her work once initiatives are rolled.


JH: If you had complete freedom to change the NPC classes, would you, and what are a few of the major changes you would make?

DM: As written, the NPC classes are fair and appropriate to their namesakes. Maybe I would swap out two of the aristocrat’s class skills for Acrobatics. For the commoner, 1 Knowledge skill of the player’s choice. Simple little changes, but nothing crazy-drastic.


JH: What is, if there is one, the new NPC class that you would add to the current list, and do you think there will ever be changes to the NPC class list in the future?


DM: I was thinking of making shopkeeper an actual NPC class. ¾ BAB, good Reflex save, Skill Focus in Craft or Profession of the player’s choice as a bonus feat. Proficient with the tools he uses in the shop as improvised weapons. Obvious class skills like Appraise, Perception, Bluff, Sense Motive. I’d love to see it done, and I think it would add some flavor to shops and towns.


JH: What are the three main points you would make if you were trying to convince a player at your table to try playing an NPC class for the first time in a home game, and would you adjust your GMing/play style to accommodate that player and their less powerful character if they agreed to take that plunge?


DM: Simply listed:
1.       It’s new!
2.       It will challenge your skills as a player.
3.       It will be relevant to the plot of the campaign.
The reason for #3, it would be no different than saying, “My campaign is humans only!” or “All venerable characters”. But the reason you would do this as a GM (I’m hoping) would be because those stipulations are relevant to the story you want to tell.
Sorry to keep drawing on my campaign as an example, but it’s relevant for my player PCs to have their 1st level in commoner, and their 2nd level in any other NPC class they wish. Couple this with the ability score penalties the young characters suffer, and you pretty much have a whole new gaming experience. All of my players love the idea, and they can’t wait to actually get started.
Also, yes, I do have to adjust my GMing. This campaign has taken a lot of planning. Designing encounters with CR ½ and ¼ woodland creatures; puzzles and interactions that will require teamwork and skills to overcome. It has been a great time creating out-of-the-norm scenarios for my players. I suggest to all the GMs out there, if you want to do this, scale your hard-mode back a bit. You’re out to create a whole new experience for your players. Give them time to learn this new ground. You should carefully adjust to your players instead of the other way around, just this once.


JH: Finally, I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to have this chat, David!


DM: Any time! And I look forward to creating more fun for the players!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Behind Every Cover, there is a Story


The following short story was written by our own resident cover artist, Anthony Butler, whose fine art graces the cover of all of our Into the Breach series books.  The piece above is the Inquisitor cover, and its featured character is Reigbar, a tiefling inquisitor.  I hope everyone enjoys this fine bit of fiction, as IMO it is every bit as awesome as the art that inspired it.  A huge thanks to Anthony for simply being "the man with the plan."

Jeff Harris
Flying Pincushion Co-owner

Carnival

Carnival time in the city of masks, they’d told him, that was when one sought secrets.

When the people donned masks to hide their faces, and the wine flowed freely and the music filled the streets, cautious folk grew prone to sharing, and loose lips spilled truth, inasmuch as they knew it. What people thought they knew, that was more valuable than what they actually knew. Stories started somewhere, after all. It was just a matter of following each vein back to the source of the corruption that had tainted it.

Someone in this city had chafed under the high temple’s rule, and was now spreading heresy and lies in the guise of the good works of Sarenrae. Riegbar’s sacred duty was to hunt them down, to purify the corrupted words that he’d heard so many of the clergy spreading from their pulpits. The common folk were weak, and the sermons seductive, corrupting the sacred songs, twisting a word here, a phrase there. Wickedness and sin, invited in, because someone had made them welcome. He’d see the clergy burn, if needs must. Infection must be burnt to prevent it from spreading and returning.

But before the corruption could be cleansed, Riegbar needed answers, needed stories, names and tales of deeds. The carnival was in full swing now, the red moon high and large in the sky, every the street flooded with song and revelry and torchlight, crowds brightly-costumed in jewel-toned silks and elaborate masks, when they could afford them, though more often the silks were cheaply dyed cotton and the masks simple papier-mache. He’d settled for somewhere in between with his disguise, trading in the tattered burlap pilgrim’s cloak for black cotton printed with gold, a popular choice as the black dye was less likely to betray its poor quality. The masks were decent ones, but the selling point had been the large, elaborate ram’s horns, under which he could conceal his own.

Suitably masked and cloaked, with two additional masks hidden under his cape should he need a disguise, Riebgar slipped down from the tiny room he’d rented and threaded his way into the crowd, another mask in a sea of frozen faces.

* * *

Two hours later, and Riegbar had yet to find a satisfactory clue. Either the wine wasn’t flowing as freely as he’d have thought, or else everyone in the crowd was far better at holding their liquor and their counsel than he’d prefer. He’d already had to change his mask once, when one masked woman became just a touch too curious about his purpose; he recognized her voice and build from a sermon, she was one of the clergy. Certainly, someone had followed him through a few streets, though he’d lost his pursuant. There was no sense in pursuing that lead, she’d have grown suspicious now, perhaps even have alerted a few others. Riegbar cursed himself, dragging one claw across his palm as a chastisement for his foolishness. If he’d been more careful, perhaps. Plied her with more wine first. But he’d been desperate, after a fruitless search, and grown hasty.

Surely, someone knew. He whispered prayers now, begging for some divine intervention, something to guide him, to direct his search so that he might do the work needed to purify the flock.

Overhead, a hawk cried out. Its call was unusually melodious.

Around him, the crowd shifted; once joyous and unrestrained, singing bawdy songs and laughing, now, there were whispers.

Riegbar inserted himself into a nearby cluster to eavesdrop; one speaker, a half-orc by her build, he guessed, speaking in the strange accent of the city, was trying to persuade her companion not to visit...a fortuneteller?

“It’s not worth it,” the half-orc hissed, clutching her companion’s wrist tightly, her greyish hand dwarfing the dainty wrist; elven blood, perhaps, the movements were correct.

“But they say that la strega buona knows everything,

“And that she exacts a dear price for her knowledge, Christina! Ezio isn’t worth it, he’s vile!” The half-orc grew angrier. “I shan’t follow you! If you intend to go into that alley, you go alone! ” she insisted, stamping her foot down. “It is madness!”

“I don’t care! I must know!” Wrenching her wrist from the half-orc’s grip, the elf took off into the crowd, her pastel cloak vibrant against the richer tones favoured by the others.

Stupida!” The half-orc wailed, throwing up her hands. “She’ll regret this!” She kept looking over to her companion, wavering in her vow not to follow.

“Beg pardon,” Riegbar saw his chance now, and swooped in. “I couldn’t help overhear, perhaps I could retrieve your friend for you?”

He’d follow the elf to the fortuneteller and convince her to turn back, and then interrogate this woman. The bluster of prices and ominous threats was just a selling tool, advertising to enhance her mystique. Riegbar had encountered this type before, common rogues with an ear for gossip and a flair for the dramatic. He’d have her information by the end of the night, and perhaps this would be the answer to his prayers.

With the half-orc lady’s babbled blessings still ringing in his ears, Riegbar set out in pursuit, putting on a valiant show of struggling against the crowd for her sakes, at least until he was out of sight. The elf, it seemed, faced even more of a challenge than he did, for Riegbar was soon within a few paces of her. From here, he could see her ears; too long and fine to be a half-elf, pureblooded, then. Surprising that she’d had the strength to break the half-orc woman’s grip, but then perhaps the half-orc had not wished to hurt her, and so had held back.

Quite suddenly, someone bumped into Riegbar, spinning him about and knocking him to the ground. He fought to pull himself back to his feet, ignoring the protests of his assailant, who quickly faded into the masses. There, he saw a hand, gloved in silk beautifully embroidered with a pattern of figs, reaching out to offer him aid, which he gladly accepted. His rescuer spoke to him, but he ignored it; over her shoulder, through the figs branches which adorned her mask, Riegbar could see the elf he sought. With mumbled thanks to the woman, he pushed past her, diving into the crowd again. She’d worn an almost absurd amount of perfume, he could smell it even though the mask covered his face, rosemary blended with something cooler, sweeter, like the salve used to tend to burns. It invaded his nostrils, though not the scent was not unwelcome; certainly, it was preferable to sour wine and too many bodies packed together under stifling cloaks.

The elf had turned, down a side street so small that had she not been wearing such a brightly coloured cloak, Riegbar would have never seen her. Riegbar did the shoving now, desperate not to lose her in the alleyway, ducking underneath a lazy fist swung at him by a man wearing a wolf’s mask and a scarlet cloak, until he reached the archway.

The elf was gone.

Riegbar began to run down the alley, searching for some hint of her trace. There were no side streets, yet she’d vanished, as if by magic. As he turned a corner, he caught a glimpse of a pale pink cloak, and beyond it light; too dim to be torches, a lantern, perhaps. Maybe this was the fortuneteller he sought out, and perhaps the elf had just inexplicably decided to run to her.

Too late to send her back to her friend before she met the fortuneteller, it seemed, but maybe he could discourage her from speaking to the charlatan, dramatically rip off his mask to reveal his horns and fiery, slit-pupiled eyes, terrify her into fleeing --

“You are a determined one, aren’t you?”

The woman who spoke was not the elf; her voice, it was richer, deeper, and strangest of all, familiar. Riegbar had heard that voice, or one which sounded much like it. He’d found his way into some sort of cul-de-sac, lit by a dozen or so lanterns, their shades decorated with cut paper. Strange figures danced in the candlelight, reaching down to caress the circle of chairs, the silks draped over every surface. Someone had taken some care in transforming what should have been a filthy back alley into something else, luxurious and sinister. There were braziers too, taking the chill off of the cool night, filling the air with the scent of sage.

“I’d thought you’d lost my friend for a moment, back there,” The woman, the fortuneteller he sought, Riegbar supposed, reclined across a bench, draped in black velvet so deep and rich it put his own cloak to shame. She too wore a mask, a simple female face, painted in red and gold, and adorned with gold braid and a spray of crimson feathers. Her mask was porcelain, however, not the cheap papier-mache that Riegbar and most of the revellers wore.

She extended a hand to him; her skin was dark, and when Riegbar reluctantly took it, he found the skin to be soft, though her grip was firm. “Sadly, she doesn’t believe in mercy. If one is meant to find me, Christina believes, they will find their way to me.” Her eyes, a rich mahogany brown, twinkled from beneath the mask, and as Riegbar settled himself into a seat opposite her, he realized where he’d heard that voice before.

“You should be dead, you know,” Riegbar said. “Mind if I take this damned thing off?” he added, already reaching up to the mask.

Vanozza di Anima, who, by her sister’s accounts, had perished ten years past, reached out to stop him. “Not yet. For now, it is safer if your face is hidden,” she said, her voice soft, but in a tone which would accept no argument. “Consider it...the price of admission.”

“Is that why you wear that, then?”

Vanozza laughed. “No, caro ragazzo, I wear this because it would not do for the face of a woman who, as you said, should be dead, to be seen in this city. Especially on the night of the carnival, when passions run high.” She beckoned upwards; the same strangely musical cry rang out, and a hawk dove down, landing on the back of Vanozza’s divan. Like her, the bird wore a mask, though Riegbar could not see how it was attached.

“I don’t recall Miranda saying that her sister was a sorceress,” Riegbar said, which was broadly true, because while Miranda had told him her story, how she’d survived the attack on her family home and fled the city, she’d mentioned little else, save that her parents and her two sisters had perished. "Or alive."

“That is because we look after each other, in our own ways, and because I am not a sorceress, Inquisitor.” It was disconcerting, seeing Vanozza’s eyes smiling while the face of the mask remained frozen in its beatific half-smile.

“A wizard, then? Certainly no druidess, not somewhere so removed from nature.” That she knew who he was, that was alarming, he’d been cautious with his identity. Even the drunken priestess no doubt thought he was merely a spy.

Laughing, Vanozza shook her head as she reached out for the hawk’s porcelain beak with one finger, which the bird playfully nipped at before consenting to be stroked. “Ah, caro Inquisitor,” she said at last. “I am a witch. La strega buona, they have come to call me here, because that is what we do in this city. We call the unknown and terrible kind and good, in the hope that it might pass us over. La bella giustizia. Il mare tipo. La strega buona. I am feared, and yet, I am sought out. Love charms, cures, curses, all those things which, I imagine, you would see me burnt for?”

Riegbar had heard of witches. Certainly, he’d dealt with women who had been accused of such, simply for knowing a little of herbalism, or perhaps showing some trace of sorcerous skill. But never had he actually encountered one whose powers were sourced in whatever unknown entities that deigned to speak to them. “I could be convinced to...look away,” he said at last, through clenched teeth. “I seek a greater corruption.”

“And for that, you would partner with one who, according to your books and your priests, stands against all that you believe in, eh, Inquisitor?” Vanozza’s tone was cruel now. “A lesser evil, allied with for the greater good. I approve of your practicality. Especially as I would much rather not anyone try to set me aflame again. I might not be so lucky this time, you see.” She placed two cups, finely chased silver, though one was slightly marred on its side, on the table, before pouring tea into each one. The liquid was crimson, so dark as to be almost purple. She turned her head back for a moment, listening to a sound Riegbar knew he would never hear. “It is safe to remove our masks now, Inquisitor,” the witch said, at last. “After all, if we are to be allies, after all, we must know each other’s face.”

Gratefully, Riegbar undid the ties holding his goat mask in place; the heat from the braziers made the confines of the papier-mache stifling, and he took the chance to wipe the sweat from his face with the hem of his cloak. Only when he had set his mask down on the table, did Vanozza remove her mask; she was indeed Miranda’s twin, the same full lips and strong cheekbones, the same broad and shapely nose, though the left side of Vanozza’s face was marred by a faded burn scar. Unlike Mirand, who wore her dark hair braided back in tight, severe rows, Vanozza favoured a elaborate style of shining, ropy plaits, woven through with tiny charms that glistened as they caught the candlelight.

“A toast, then, caro Inquisitor.” Vanozza said. “And no, it isn’t poisoned. Test it for yourself. We are, after all, allies in this matter.”

Riegbar circled his finger over the cup, the sides already heated by the scalding liquid, though to his hand it merely felt pleasantly warm, a perk of his fiendish heritage. Neither the orison for the detection of poison or magic yielded any results, so, with a cautious whispered prayer, he took a sip. “Delicious,” Riegbar said, though he had no real basis against which to compare. It certainly tasted good, fruity and sweet, unlike any tea he’d had before, but whether this was an exemplary blend or not, he could care less.

Vanozza in turn sipped delicately from her own cup, a motion that Riegbar had once seen her sister do in exactly the same way. “Now, you have come here chasing the rumours which plague your temples here, have you not?”
“I have. How do you know?”

“An educated guess, caro Inquisitor. Merely an educated guess.” Vanozza took another sip, before setting her cup back down onto its plate. She had chosen the warped cup, he noticed. “As one who comes so infrequently in to the city, I too have seen what you have seen. What is preached from the pulpit changes a little in each telling, too subtle for the faithful to catch.”

“What do you mean, “comes infrequently”?” Riegbar asked; he had assumed that the witch was set up in, if not this alley, then certainly somewhere in the maze of streets and canals.

“It would be imprudent for me to stay here for too long. The di Anima family still has its enemies, even if most believe that family to be long gone.” Vanozza replied. “But also, it would not do for those who seek me to have an easy time of it. Adversity strengthens the soul, after all, one of the few things that we can agree on.”

“Then how am I to find you,” Riegbar asked, “When I have need of you again?”

The witch arched one dark brow. “What’s to say that you will have need of me again?”

Try as he might, Riegbar could not tell if the witch was mocking him, or if her question was sincere, but he’d learned more from someone who stood against everything that he believed in than he had from those who professed to be the most devout. He had to take a leap of faith, and trust that he’d found an unlikely ally in a city being turned to heresy.

Part of him argued that surely, the twin sister of a paladin whose faith even Riegbar could not bring himself to question could not truly be an enemy. But though this woman wore the face of his closest friend, she belonged to another force. Whatever offer she made, it was to serve her own agenda, and that of her otherworldly master. She and Riegbar would use each other, useful tools for a grim task, to be discarded when they were no longer helpful.

“I have need of someone who knows this city. And you have need of someone who knows the church.”

He’d just have to be sure that he survived being discarded.