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Iris [1/3]

Part 1 <-- You are here.
Part 2
Part 3

Iris

The first person to ever tell me the theory was Iris. It was nighttime in 2015, and we were lying on an old mattress on the roof of a four-storey apartment building in a university town in southern Ontario. A party was going on downstairs to which we’d both been invited and from whose monotony we’d helped each other escape through an ordinary white door that said “No entrance”. It was summer. I remember the heat waves and the radiating warmth of the asphalt. Our semester was over and we had started existing until the next one started in the way all students exist when they don’t spend their months off at home or touring Europe. I could feel the bass thumping from below. I could see the infinite stars in the cloudless sky. The sound seemed so disconnected from the image. Iris and I weren’t dating, we were just friends, but she leaned toward me on the mattress that night until I could feel her breathing on my neck, and, with my eyes pointed spaceward, she began: “What if…”
Back then it was pure speculation, a wild fantasy inspired by the THC from the joint we were passing back and forth and uninhibited by the beer we’d already drunk. There was nothing scientific or even philosophical about Iris’ telling of it. The theory was a flight of imagination influenced by her name and personalized by the genetic defect of her eyes, which her doctors had said would render her blind by fifty. Even thirty-five seemed far away. It’s heartbreaking now to know that Iris never did live to experience her blindness—her own genetic fate interrupted by the genetic fate of the world—but that night, imagination, the quality Einstein called more important than knowledge, lit up both our brains in synapses of neon as we shared our joint, sucking it into glowing nothingness, Iris paranoid that she’d wake up one morning in eternal darkness despite the doctors’ assurances that her blindness would occur gradually, and me fearing that I would never find love, never share my life with anyone, but soothed at least by Iris’ words and her impossible ideas because Einstein was right, and imagination is magical enough to cure anything.

2025, Pre-

I graduated with a degree in one field, found a low paying job in another, got married, worked my way to slightly better pay, wanted to have a child, bought a Beagle named Pillow as a temporary substitute, lived in an apartment overlooking a green garbage bin that was always full of beer cans and pizza boxes, and held my wife, crying, when we found out that we couldn’t have children. Somewhere along the way my parents died and Kurt Schwaller, a physicist from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, proved a grand theory of everything that rather than being based on the vibrations of strings, was based on a property of particles called viscous time force. I never understood the details. To me they lacked imagination. The overriding point, the experts on television told us, was that given enough data and computing power we could now predict the outcome of anything. The effect was that no one wanted to study theoretical physics and everyone wanted to make breakthroughs in data collection systems and biological hardware. Hackers created a version of Linux that ran from DNA. Western Digital released the first working holographic storage drive. The NSA, FSB, BND and other agencies rushed to put their suddenly valuable mass of unprocessed raw spy data to prognostic use. A Chinese bookmaker known only by the nick ##!! wrote a piece of Python code that could predict the outcomes of hockey games. Within a month, the NHL and KHL were scrambling to come up with ways of saving their leagues by making them more unpredictable. They introduced elements of chance: power plays without penalties, a tilting ice surface, fluctuating rules that sometimes allowed for icings and offsides and sometimes not, and, finally, a pre-game lottery by which the names of the players on both teams were put into a pot and randomly drawn into two squads. Given enough variables, the strategy did thwart the code, but the inherent unfairness of the innovations alienated the players, the draft made owners question why they were paying the salaries of superstars who played against them half of the time, and the fans simply stopped paying attention to a league full of teams for which their already dwindling loyalty had bottomed out. Besides, the code was basic. ##!! had room to expand. The KHL folded first, followed by the NHL, and then the other sports leagues, preemptively. They didn’t bother to wait until their own codes were broken. I remember seeing an interview with ##!! while this was still front page news. The reporter, a perpetually smiling big-breasted blonde with blindingly white teeth, asked him if he thought that hockey could be rescued by the creation of roving blue lines that would continually alter the relative sizes of both offensive zones and the neutral zone. ##!! answered that he didn’t know what a blue line was because he’d never watched a hockey game in his life. His voice was cold, objective, and there was something terrifyingly inhuman about the idea that a person with no knowledge of a subject could nevertheless understand it so completely. Content had become a mere input of form.
By 2025, mainstream interest in the theory of everything faded, not because the theory was wrong but because it was too right and too abstract and now there weren’t any young theoretical physicists to help explain it using cute graphics on YouTube. We consumed what we understood and passively accepted the fallout while going on with our daily lives. The people who did understand made money, but for the rest of us the consequences were less than their potential, because even with enough time, memory and microprocessors the most we could know was the what and the when, not the why. For the governments and corporations pouring taxes and tax-free earnings into complex models of world domination, that didn’t matter. They weren’t interested in cause. They were in the business of exploiting certainty to gain power. As long as they could predict lightning, they were satisfied. If they could make it, all the better. Away from the cutting edge, however, like ants or ancients, what we craved to know was where the lightning came from, what it meant, and on that issue the theory was silent. As Kurt Schwaller put it in a speech to the United Nations, “All I’ve given you is a tool—a microscope to magnify the minutes, so to speak—with which to investigate in perfect detail the entirety of our interrelations. But the investigations still have to made, ladies and gentlemen. Have a hay stack, look for the needle. Know there might not be one.”
In January, my wife and I began a fertility treatment for which we’d been saving for years. It was undoubtedly the reason we became so emotionally involved in the media attention around Aiko, the lovely, black-haired and fashionable Crown Princess of Japan, who along with her husband was going through the same ordeal that we were. For a few months, it seemed as if the whole world sat on the edges of its seat, wishing for this beautiful royal couple to conceive. And we sat on two, our own and one somewhere in an exotic Japan updated by the royal Twitter feed. It strikes me now that royalty has always fascinated the proles, a feeling that historically went in tandem with hatred, respect or awe, but it was the Japanese who held our attentions the longest and the most genuinely in the twenty-first century, when equality had more or less rendered a hereditary ruling class obsolete. The British declared themselves post-Christian in 2014 and post-Royal in 2021, the European Court of Justice ruled all other European royals invalid in 2022, and the Muslim monarchs pompously degraded themselves one-by-one into their own exiles and executions. Only the Japanese line survived, adapting to the times by refusing to take itself seriously on anything but the most superficial level. They dressed nicely, acted politely and observed a social protocol that we admired without wanting to follow it ourselves. Before he died, my father had often marvelled that the Second World War began with Japan being led by an emperor god, and ended with the American occupation forcing him to renounce his divinity. The Japanese god had died because MacArthur willed it and Hirohito spoke it. Godhood was like plaque. If your mother told you to brush your teeth, off it went, provided you used the right flavour of Colgate. Kings had once ruled by divine right. By 2025, the Crown Princess of Japan ruled our hearts merely by popular approval. She was our special friend, with whom we were all on intimate and imaginary terms. Indeed, on the day she died—on the day they all died—Princess Aiko’s was the most friended account on Facebook.
That’s why March 27, 2025, was such a joyous occasion for us. In hindsight, it’s utterly sick to associate the date with happiness of any kind, but history must always be understood in context, and the context of the announcement was a wirelessly connected world whose collective hopes came suddenly true to the jingle of a breaking news story on the BBC. I was in the kitchen sauteing onions when I heard it. Cutting them had made me cry and my eyes were still red. Then the announcer’s voice broke as he was setting up his intro, and in a video clip that was subsequently rebroadcast, downloaded and parodied close to a billion times in the one hundred thirty-two days that followed, he said: “The Crown Princess of Japan is pregnant!”
I ran to the living room and hugged my wife, who’d fallen to her knees in front of the wall-mounted monitor. Pillow was doing laps on and off the sofa. The BBC cut away from the announcer’s joyful face to a live feed from Japan. As I held my wife, her body felt warm and full of life. The top of her jeans cut into her waist. Her tears wetted the top of my shirt sleeve. Both of our phones started to buzz—emails and Twitter notifications streaming in. On the monitor, Aiko and her husband, both of their angular faces larger than life in 110” 1080p, waved to the crowd in Tokyo and the billions watching around the world. They spoke in Japanese and a woman on the BBC translated, but we hardly needed to know her exact words to understand the emotions. If them, why not also us? I knew my wife was having the same thought. We, too, could have a family. Then I smelled burning oil and the pungency of onions and I remembered my sauteing. I gently removed my arms from around my wife’s shoulders and ran back to the kitchen, still listening to Aiko’s voice and its polite English echo, and my hands must have been shaking, or else my whole body was shaking, because after I had turned down the heat I reached for the handle of the frying pan, knocked the pan off the stove top instead, and burned myself while stupidly trying to catch it before it fell, clattering, to the floor. The burned onions splattered. I’d cracked one of the kitchen tiles. My hand turned pale and I felt a numbness before my skin started to overflow with the warmth of pain. Without turning off the broadcast, my wife shooed me downstairs to the garage where we kept our car and drove me to the hospital.
The Toronto streets were raucous. Horns honked. J-pop blared. In the commotion we nearly hit a pedestrian, a middle-aged white woman pushing a baby carriage, who’d cut across Lake Shore without looking both ways. She had appeared suddenly from behind a parked transport—and my wife instinctively jerked the car from the left lane to the right, scraping our side mirror against the truck but saving two lives. The woman barely noticed. She disappeared into a crowd of Asian kids on the other side of street who were dancing to electronica and waving half a dozen Japanese flags, one of which was the Rising Sun Flag, the military flag of Imperial Japan. Clutching my wrist in the hope it would dull the pain in my hand, I wondered how many of them knew about the suffering Japanese soldiers had inflicted on countless Chinese in the name of that flag. To the right, Lake Ontario shone and sparkled in the late afternoon light. A passenger jet took off from Toronto Island Airport and climbed into the sky.
In the hospital waiting room, I sat next to a woman who was reading a movie magazine with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s face on the cover. The Cannes film festival was coming up. My wife checked me in at the reception desk. The woman beside me put down her magazine and told me that she was there with her son, as if needing to justify her presence. I affirmed by nodding. He’d hurt his leg playing soccer for a local Armenian junior boys team, she went on. I said I’d hurt myself frying onions and that I was here with my wife. She said my wife was pretty and asked if I liked movies. Without meaning to do it, I tried to guess her age—unsuccessfully—and proceeded to imagine having doggy style sex with her. She had dark eyes that barely blinked and plump thighs. When I started to feel guilty, I answered her question: sometimes I watched movies at home, but I hadn’t been to a theatre in a decade. When my wife sat down, I let the two of them talk about the woman’s son. I was having trouble concentrating. I took my phone out of my pocket and read all the new emails about the royal conception, then stared at the seconds hand going slowly around its digital clock face on my home screen, wondering why we so often emulated the limitations of analogue machines on devices that were no longer bound by them. I switched my clock type to a digital readout. Now the seconds no longer rotated but flickered away. They called my name over the crackling intercom and a nurse led me to one of the empty rooms. “How about that baby,” he said while we walked. I didn’t see his face, only the shaved back of his head. “The things they can do these days, even for infertile couples.”
I waited for over thirty minutes for a doctor. When one came in, she inspected my hand for less than ten seconds before telling me that I was fine and hinting that I shouldn’t have wasted her time by coming to the emergency room. She had high cheek bones, thin lips and bony wrists. Her tablet had a faux clipboard wallpaper. Maybe I had only misinterpreted her tone. “How about that baby,” I said.
“It’s not a baby yet,” she answered.
This time her tone was impossible to misinterpret. I was only repeating what the nurse had said, I told myself. But I didn’t say that to her. Instead, I imagined her coming home at night to an empty apartment, furnished possibly in a minimalistic Japanese or Swedish style, brewing a cup of black coffee and settling into an armchair to re-read a Simone de Beauvoir novel. I was about to imagine having sex with her when I caught hold of myself and wondered what was up with me today.
When I got back to the waiting room, my wife was no longer there—but the Armenian woman was. She pointed down the hall and told me a room number. She said that sometime after I left, my wife had gotten a cramp and started to vomit all over the floor. Someone was still mopping up. The other people in the waiting room, which was filling up, gave me tactfully dirty looks, either because I was with the vomiter or because I’d shirked my responsible by being away during the vomiting. Irrationally, I wiped my own mouth and fled down the hall.
Inside the numbered room, my wife was sitting hunched over on an observation bed, slowly kicking her feet back and forth. “Are you OK?” I asked.
“Come here,” she said.
I did, and sat beside her on the bed. I repeated my question. She still smelled a little of vomit, but she looked up at me like the world’s luckiest puppy, her eyes big and glassy, and said, “Norman, I’m pregnant.”
That’s all she could say—
That’s all either of us could say for a while.
We just sat there on the examination bed like a pair of best friends on a swing set after dark, dangling our feet and taking turns pulling each other closer. “Are you sure?” I finally asked. My voice was hoarse. I sounded like a frog.
“Yes.” She kicked the heel of my shoe with the rubber toe of hers. “We’re going to have a baby.”
It was beautiful. The most wonderful moment of my life. I remembered the day we met and our little marriage ceremony. I thought about being a father, and felt positively terrified, and about being a better husband, and felt absolutely determined, and as I kissed my wife there in the little hospital room with its sterile green walls, I imagined making love to her. I kept imagining it as we drove back to the apartment through partying Toronto streets. “Not since the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup!” the radio announcer proclaimed—before I turned him off. I also turned off my phone and my wife’s phone. No more buzzing. In the underground parking lot, I leaned over and licked her soft neck. I pushed her through the open apartment door and straight into the living room, onto the sofa, and wished I could be the cushions beneath her thighs and the air invading her lungs. Pillow barked a greeting and wagged her tail. The monitor on the wall showed talking heads and fertility experts. I unbuttoned my wife’s blouse. She unbuckled my belt. The picture on the monitor dissolved to a close-up of Aiko’s smiling face. My wife and I took turns sliding off each other’s jeans. I kissed her bare stomach. She ran her hands through my hair. I dimmed the lights. We made love.
When we were done it was starry nighttime. My wife bandaged my hand. We turned off the television. The silence was refreshing because people on television too often talk like they’re trying to push you off a ledge. My wife excused me from the duty of making supper because of my ineptness with the frying pan, and handed me a leash instead. I hooked it up to Pillow’s collar and took her outside. While she peed, I gazed up at the sky and identified the Big Dipper. It and the Little Dipper were the only constellations I could identify without using a smartphone app. After Pillow finished, we ducked into a nook and I peed, too. The March sky was amazingly clear of smog. My urine splashed on the concrete and I felt embarrassingly primal. I breathed in, shook out the last drops and zipped up.
In the apartment, we ate grilled portabella mushrooms topped with parmesan and parsley and drank brown rice tea. My wife had changed into fresh clothes. I had changed into fresh skin. Every time she said “mom” and “dad”, the words discharged trickles of electricity up and down my peripheral nervous system. We were happy; we were going to have a baby. The whole world was happy; the Crown Princess of Japan of was going to have a baby. The sounds of drunken urban celebrations drifted in through our bedroom window all night like fog, and we barely slept.

2025, Post-

Gold is precious because it’s rare. Now close your eyes and imagine that the next time you open them, everything in your world will be golden: your kitchen table, the bananas you bought on the way home from work yesterday, your bottle of shampoo, even your teeth. Now blink. You’re not alone. The market’s flooded. Gold isn’t rare anymore. It’s everywhere. Which means that it’s worth about as much as its weight in mud, because there’s nothing intrinsically good about gold. Can you write on your gold table? It scratches. Surely you can’t eat your golden fruit. Your shampoo’s not a liquid anymore, so your hair’s already starting to get greasy. And if you do find something to eat that’s not made of metal, how long will those gold teeth last before you grind them into finely polished nubs?
For two days the Earth glittered.
For two days we lived in a daze of perfection.
And then, on March 29, a researcher working with lab mice at Stanford University noticed something odd. All of his female mice were pregnant. He contacted several of his colleagues who were also working with mice, rats, and monkeys. All their female animals were pregnant, too. Some of the colleagues had wives and girlfriends. They took innocent-seeming trips to their local pharmacies and bought up all the available pregnancy tests. At home, women took test after test and all of them showed positive. By midnight, the researchers had drafted a joint letter and sent copies of it to the major newspapers in their countries. On the morning of March 30, the news hit.
When I checked my Twitter feed after breakfast, #impregtoo was already trending. Throughout the day, Reddit lit up with increasingly bizarre accounts of pregnancies that physically couldn’t be but, apparently, were. Post-menopausal women, celibate women, prepubescent girls, women who’d had their uteruses removed only to discover that their reproductive systems had spontaneously regenerated like the severed tales of lizards. Existing early stage pregnancies aborted themselves and re-fertilized, like a system rebooting. Later term pregnancies developed Matryoshka-like pregnancies nested within pregnancies. After a while, I stopped reading, choosing to spend time with my wife instead. As night fell, we reclined on the sofa, her head on my chest, Pillow curled up in our tangle of feet, the television off, and the streets of Toronto eerily quiet save for the intermittent blaring of far off sirens, as any lingering doubts about the reality of the situation melted away like the brief, late season snow that floated gently down from the sky, blackening the streets.
On March 30, the World Health Organization issued a communique confirming that based on the available data it was reasonable to assume that all female mammals were pregnant. No cause was identified. It urged any woman who was not pregnant to step forward immediately. Otherwise, the communique offered no guidance. It indicated merely that the organization was already working with governments around the world to prepare for a massive influx of human population in approximately nine months’ time. Most places, including Toronto, reacted with stunned panic. Non-essential workplaces and schools were decried closed. People were urged to stay indoors. Hospitals prepared for possible complications. A few supermarkets ran out of canned food and there were several bank runs, but nothing happened that the existing systems couldn’t handle. Populations kept their nerve. Highway and air traffic increased slightly as people rushed to be with their friends, families and gynaecologists. We spent the entire day in our apartment and let Pillow pee in the tub. Except for the conspiracy theorists, who believed that the Earth was being cosmically pollinated by aliens, most of us weren’t scared to go outside, but we were scared of the unknown, and we preferred to process that fear in the comfort of our own dens.
The New York Times ran a front page editorial arguing for an evaluation of the situation using Kurt Schwaller’s theory of everything. In conjunction with The Washington Post, The Guardian and The Wikipedia Foundation, a website was set up asking users for technical help, monetary donations and the sharing of any surplus computing power.
The project quickly ran into problems. To accurately predict anything, the theory of everything needed sufficient data, and, on April 2, cryptome.org published a series of leaked emails between the French Minister of Health and a high-ranking member of World Health Organization that proved the latter’s communique had been disingenuous at best. Externally, the World Health Organization had concluded that all female mammals were pregnant. That remained true. However, it had failed to admit an even more baffling development: the wombs of all female mammals had inexplicably become impenetrable to all rays and materials that had so far been tried against them. For all intents and purposes, there was no way to see inside the womb, or to destroy it. The only way to revert the body to its natural form, to terminate the pregnancy, was to kill the woman—an experiment that, according to the high-ranking member of the World Health Organization, the French government had helped conduct on unwilling women in Mali. Both parties issued repeated denials until a video surfaced showing the murders. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. They spun their denials into arguments about the necessity of sacrificing lives for the greater good.
Reminded once again of the deception inherent in politics, many turned to religion, but the mainstream religions were hesitant to react. They offered few opinions and no answers. The fringe religions split into two camps. Some leaders welcomed this development, the greatest of all known miracles, while others denounced the same as a universal and unnatural punishment for our collective sins of hedonism, egoism and pride. The most successful of all was the Tribe of Akna, a vaguely mystical Maya revival cult that sprang up seemingly overnight and was led by a Guatemalan freelance programmer named Salvador Abaroa. Although it originated in Mexico City, the Tribe spread as quickly across the world as the computer viruses that Abaroa was notorious for creating. On the Tribe’s homepage, Abaroa could be seen striking an antique brass gong and saying in Spanish-tinged English, “Like energy, life is never destroyed. Every one of us plays an integral part of the cosmic ecosystem. Every man, woman and virus.” Elsewhere on the website, you could buy self-published theological textbooks, listen to scratchy recordings of speeches by Alan Watts and read about the hypothesis that Maya thought was deeply connected to Buddhism because the Mayans had crossed the Pacific Ocean and colonized Asia.
But despite the apparent international cooperation happening at the highest levels, the first week of April was an atomizing period for the so-called people on the ground. We hunkered down. Most personal communication was digital. My wife and I exchanged emails with her parents and sister, but we met no one face-to-face, not even on Skype. We neither invited our neighbours to dinner nor were invited by them, despite how easy it was to walk down the hall and knock. I read far more than I wrote, and even when I did write, responding to a blog post or news story, I found it easier to relate to strangers than to the people I knew. My wife said I had a high tolerance for solitude. “Who do you know in the city?” she asked. Although we’d been living here together for three years, she still considered Toronto mine. She was the stranger, I was the native. I said that I knew a few people from work. She told me to call one of them I’d never called before. I did, and the next day’s sky was cloudless and sunny and there were five of us in the apartment: my wife and I, my friend Bakshi and his wife Jacinda, and their daughter, Greta. Greta drank apple juice while the rest of us drank wine, and all five of us gorged ourselves on freshly baked peach cobbler, laughing at silly faces and cracking immature jokes. It hardly registered for me that the majority of the room was unstoppably pregnant, but wasn’t that the point: to forget—if only for a few hours? Instead of watching the BBC, we streamed BDRips of Hayao Miyazaki movies from The Pirate Bay. Porco Rosso ruled the skies, castles flew, a Catbus arrived at its magical stop. Then Bakshi’s phone rang, and he excused himself from the table to take the call. When he returned, his face was grey. “What’s the matter?” Jacinda asked him. He was still holding the phone to his ear. “It’s Kurt Schwaller,” he said. “They just found his body. They think he killed himself.”
Proceed to Part 2
submitted by normancrane to cryosleep

Barbarians and Princesses and Artificers, Oh My!

So, tonight I ran my first Pathfinder game after waaaaaaaaaaaaaay too long out of the driver's seat. (I'd add a few more 'a's there but you get the idea).
[Note: this is all over Skype.]
Still, I think it went okay. Took some interesting turns and had a chat afterward that looks like entirely altering the direction of the game, but hey, all's fair while everyone's still having fun, right?
Dramatis Personae
Princess: Well, not quite a princess. She's the illegitimate daughter of an elven king, so close enough. Hugely into RP over combat, so worth keeping. Recipient of a homebrew class I worked out, based fairly closely on her expressed preferences in the character she was playing in a game that collapsed due to no fault of anyone in particular. The class is one I called 'Culinomancer'; literally a caster whose power was expressed through food. She basically prepared food so divine it could (depending on the situation) remove negative conditions, cure wounds or even remove curses (she can't do that last bit yet). Light on combat, heavy on cooking and healing. (And yes, she loves to play support characters).
Barbarian: Yeah, actually a barbarian (human). Ex-slave pit fighter, devoted to Princess ever since she fed him food that made all the other slop he'd ever been fed taste like crap, and hella scary in a fight. Has the Elemental Kin archetype, and is trying to be a better person (good rping right there).
Artificer: Three feet six inches tall (warforged), looks kind of like a steampunk version of C-3PO's and R2D2's love child. Backstory has it that he was an artificer whose mind ended up in a Warforged's body, but he doesn't remember how or why). [I know how and why]. He's just started out in the game, so I'm giving him the chance to build/acquire gear.

Story Beats
Story beat 1: Princess and Barbarian were travelling along the road, along with Princess' two elven bodyguards, Caerwyn and Ellowyn. In this game, illegitimate daughters of elven royalty were trained as diplomats and travelled from place to place as envoys, learning about the world and acting as ambassadors, before being married off to one nobleman or another when the time was right. In this instance, she'd talked her dad (who was wrapped around her little finger) into letting her taking a vacay on her own. She'd met Barbarian and bonded a little with him (he was fresh out of being a slave, so he was still learning how to do civilisation, such as not punching people who made fun of his slave brand when he was drunk).
They're resting for the night along the road, when Artificer showed up. He was just walking, looking for the next town (the dwarven archaeologists who found his storage 'tomb' and accidentally woke him up from stasis were justifiably freaked out, so they gave him some money and any gear he wanted, and pointed him down the road, then went the other way).
A bit of RP ensues, whereafter he's invited to sit by the fire. Princess notes that he has unusual inscriptions on his metallic hide that she can't even begin to decipher, which is damned odd, given that she's got Linguistics and INT 20. She speaks more languages than the rest of the party combined (and that includes the elf bodyguards) and this is one she can't even begin to translate.
(OOC, the Princess asks me if this is important or just a throwaway aspect, and I tell her it might come up sometime, but it's not a plot point right now.)
About then, I decide to spring the first encounter; basically, a 'dip the toe' simple scuffle with some nasties. Ten goblins sneak up on the party, and the only warning is that the elf guards spot them on their last rush in toward the fire. Half the goblins shoot with shortbows in the surprise round, aiming for the bodyguards and the Barbarian (going for the tough targets first). Shots hit, d4 damage gets dealt, combat ensues.
Note that I was fully cognizant that they're gonna wale nine shades of goblin crap out of the attackers. The idea is to see how they shake down in a fight. Welp, I found out.
Barbarian is fourth level, and has STR 18; when he rages, he goes to +9 to hit, vs AC 16 gobbos. His base damage is so horrendous that hit=kill. No need to even roll. He gets three gobbos on him. It isn't nearly enough.
Caerwyn, Elf bodyguard #1, is a sword & board level 4 Warrior (not Fighter) whose shield is still on the ground. He's holding his own, but if he was alone against all ten, they probably would've murdered him. He gets two.
Ellowyn, Elf bodyguard #2, has a longbow and a shortsword (and buckler). She shoots one, gets pitiful damage, then kills it with her shortsword when it gets close. She gets two as well.
Artificer stands forth and proceeds to pummel the last one with his metal fists. He's not great at this, but his AC isn't too bad and he's standing firm.
The last two died on the way in, due to Caerwyn and Barbarian.
The fight goes on for a few rounds. I ask Barbarian if he has Cleave, and he says that he regrets not having it now. Power Attack is kind of overkill in this situation, but eh. The time will come when he needs to hit something really hard. He's murdering gobbos with his greatsword, even taking the time to help out Caerwyn when he gets flanked.
And then the Barbarian pulls his power move. I didn't even see this coming. He uses one of his Rage features to add 1d6 ice damage to his attack, and chooses to use Unarmed Attack to do it, on the last gobbo that's on him.
Rolls a legit nat 20.
So I asked him if he wanted to describe the goblin's demise or could I?
He said, go ahead.
"So, you rear back with your fist clenched. The goblin looks up at you, the expression in his eyes gradually beginning to dawn on the realisation that his life choices currently suck. You summon the cold fury of the ice elemental, as implacable as a glacier, as you swing your fist. The cold radiates from you, turning your skin blue for a second or so before washing down your arm in a frigid wave that splashes off your fist an instant before you strike. It impacts the goblin, freezing him solid in that same instant, then your fist arrives and shatters it like a cheap vase."
Him: "Whooah."
Me: "Okay, do you have Intimidation?"
Him: "One point."
I rolled a die for him. Legit. Nat 20.
"Okay, so the other goblins look at what you just did, including the frost spreading in all directions from where your feet are planted, and bolt screaming for the trees." [They pulled a Withdraw action, so there were no options for Attack of Opportunity]. "You hear them still shrieking for their mothers half a minute after they disappear."
So, a good shakedown fight for the party, gave me a good idea of their capabilities, and one hell of a finishing move. (We counted up the damage he would've done, and it came to 18 points, three times what the gobbo had.)
They didn't have much in the way of gear, but Artificer salvaged their shortswords and set about building flick-out blades to strap to his forearms. I was fine with that.

Story Beat 2: This is where it gets a little dark (in game, not out).
Previous to game start, I had asked the players if they had anything they wanted to be kept sacred, not defiled or screwed with in any way. Princess had asked that she have good relations with the nobles and high officials she'd visited (and probably cooked for) in the region, and I was okay with that. What I didn't account for (and neither did she) was that she feels very strongly IRL about family loyalty. She probably didn't expect it to come up.
So when it was revealed in-game that the Elven Dominions were in a Morlock-Eloi situation, with drow living in underground cities and taking care of certain matters (and helping defend the land) in return for having all male bastard children sent down into the Underdark once they get to a certain age (in this game, there are no male drow) ... she was unhappy.
(Just saying, it's a one way trip).
When she found out that the young elven males had no choice in the matter, and that the propensity of nobles (all the way up to and including the High King) to sleep around and procreate bastards was actually their way of making sure their own legitimate sons weren't snatched by the drow ... she was very unhappy.
So she and the other two helped the distant cousin who had alerted them to this whole mess get out of town and evade the elven guard contingent who had been sent to fetch him back. (Barbarian managed to pull off some amazing rooftop-running rolls for this scene, which everyone was cheering him on for).
And then, after we wrapped up, Princess rang me and asked me about the scenario.
"Can we actually do anything about it, or would I be wasting my time?"
I said, "Sure you can. It won't be easy and it won't be simple, but tell me what you want to do, and I'll work with you on planning your next move."
Which changed her whole attitude about it. She'd been thinking it was a done-and-dusted situation, that she couldn't change no matter what. I assured her that I didn't have anything set in stone, and that I'd run with whatever course of action she wanted to try.
So now, instead of going off on her vaycay, Princess is on her way back to her homeland, in order to do her best to institute lasting societal change. And Barbarian and Artificer are along for the ride.
But first, someone's going to have to make sure that the elven guard contingent (who know that she's in the know about the whole drow thing, which is a HUGE no-no) never makes it home.
Oh, look. We have an excessively violent ex pit fighter who already doesn't like them.
So yeah, having an absolute ball.
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