Monday, March 28, 2016

Batman: Arkham Knight, Let's Play #1 - Scarecrow

UPDATE: While the video has been updated, none of the commentary below (from 2016) has! Please consider this a re-post!

In case you missed it, last week marked the Internet premiere of a very special project for me: a series of Let's Play videos chronicling the story mode of Batman: Arkham Knight! I know the game itself came out more than nine months ago (the same amount of time between the events of Arkham City and Arkham Knight), and it's taken me this long to post because this is no ordinary Let's Play. Rather than just hit start and accompany my gameplay footage with awkward, unrehearsed commentary, I played through the whole game (twice, in fact), and then structured the resulting footage into the form of a 15 episode TV miniseries. What you see below is the first episode of this endeavor:

As I explain in the video, I divide each episode (roughly) into the traditional three-act structure that you normally see in half-hour television programs, with the first act of this first episode almost entirely devoted to personally produced content, most of which is derived from the game itself. In a rare glimpse behind the TV curtain, I've posted the story grid for Episode 1: The Scarecrow, so you can see definitively how I divided up the individual scenes. My plan is for these blog posts to act as a sort of Director's (Producer's/Editor's?) Commentary, giving you some insight into the production process and the choices I made in crafting this, my proudest creative accomplishment yet.

The first scene, Joker's Cremation, is pretty self-explanatory, it's the opening cinematic sequence, presented exactly how you see when first starting the game, but if you haven't played the first two games in the series, you might be a little confused as to how Batman's greatest foe ended up dead in a furnace. For some backstory, here's an excerpt of an audio recording you unlock during the game:

Two years ago I uncovered Joker’s plot to unleash a genetically enhanced army on Gotham. The drug he used to modify his henchmen was called Titan.
Before I could stop him, Joker ingested a massive dose of the Titan formula and mutated into a gigantic abomination. I managed to defeat him, but his overdose had devastating side-effects.
Joker was dying and he needed a cure. To ensure my cooperation he infected my blood with his own, leaving me no choice but to help him.

To finish the story, Batman worked with Mr. Freeze to develop a cure, which saved Batman's life, but it was unfortunately too late for his arch-nemesis. That was nine months ago, according to Commissioner Gordon, whose dialogue starts the game. Fun fact: these shots of Gordon standing next to the Bat Signal are not part of the game; they come from a promotional trailer that I found online and spliced in, just so we know who's talking. I'll admit that when I first played through the game, I thought these opening lines were spoken by the random police officer you take control of later in the game.

But in between the opening cinematic and the first official start of the gameplay, I added several scenes worth of backstory into my Let's Play, all but one adapted from the Gotham City Stories that you unlock during the game. I wrote a bit about my proposed structure before I started editing this project, and while a lot of the scene order has changed, the main takeaway was that I suggested an ideal cast of actors to play the parts in a live-action version of this game, which I will re-post and expand upon here.

The first scene, Fallout (not the popular game series of the same name), features Commissioner Gordon as a witness in the parole hearing of the Riddler, aka Edward Nygma. I still think Bryan Cranston should reprise the role of Jim Gordon, which he voiced in the Batman: Year One animated film (even if he is a little young for the role as presented in the game), but I'd like to make one change from my previously-propsed casting. Not that David Tennant wouldn't make a great angry, brooding Riddler, but given how dark most of the subject matter is in this game, I think this role would be better utilized as more comic relief. Thus, I would like to revise my ideal casting choice to James Urbaniak, voice of Dr. Venture on "The Venture Bros." No one does a better emotionally troubled super-genius while still keeping things light.

The next scene is the only one in this series that I wrote and produced all by myself: it's a commercial for a Wayne Enterprises-backed charity called "Hire-A-Henchman." (I published a rough version of this segment as a sneak peek to these videos several months ago - so when you see Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne in those Batman v. Superman themed airline commercials, just know that I had the idea first!) Because I think it makes sense to introduce the gaudy, public persona of Bruce Wayne (ideally played by arguably the greatest living actor Daniel Day-Lewis) before we see him as Batman. Also, this concept makes sense in the story: what better way to deal with all the thugs left unemployed with the shuttering of Arkham City?

From here, we follow Bruce Wayne to a couple of scenes with his allies of the older generation: Lucius Fox (played by Reg E. Cathey) and Alfred (Sir Anthony Hopkins). Not only do both of these actors have the sonorous voices that any super hero would love to have pumping through his in-cowl communication system, but Cathey has the perfect blend of smarmy and sincere that he displayed in his role of a political advisor on The Wire, and for Sir Tony's qualifications, I submit this picture as evidence.

After these backstory scenes, we launch back into the gameplay cinematic, where we catch the first glimpse of the Jonathan Noble-voiced Scarecrow, a role I would like to see him reprise on the live action stage. I then quickly interrupt this cutscene with the "Father to Son" trailer, which I think this fits perfectly here, because if we're introduced to Bruce Wayne first, it only makes sense that we see his cinematic transformation into Batman. Plus, it's a great reveal of the Batmobile.

The in-game reveal of the Batmobile follows a brief homage to the music of Batman: The Animated Series, but since I previewed this sequence in my sneak peek of this project, I won't say anything more about it here, except that I'm still in awe of how perfectly the music and the action sync up. We then drive the Batmobile to Scarecrow's safehouse, in which he is holding captive Pamela Isley, aka Poison Ivy, the role of which I would love to see played by Lena Headey from Game of Thrones.

It's at this point in the narrative that I add another homemade cinematic sequence, showing the meeting between supervillains that set the events of this game in motion. You can unlock the audio for this meeting in the game, but I think I enhanced it a fair bit by adding shots of the 3D character models from the showcase, concept art stills, and promotional material, if I do say so myself.

I was able to provide such a compelling finale for the episode thanks to the New Story Plus option, which allowed me to start the game with several Batmobile upgrades that first-time players would have to earn throughout the game. But trust me, there will be plenty of Batmobile Battle Mode shenanigans in the episodes to come, so you'll see why I try to make these encounters as short as possible, whenever possible.

So there you have it, some verbose commentary to go with the first of 15 episodes of the Batman: Arkham Knight story mode. Tune in to the RyskMonger42 YouTube Channel for new episodes every week and more fun stuff!

Batman Baseball Pic

Because sometimes it's fantasy baseball season and you need a picture in the right format to act as your team's logo. Also because my social media advisor (i.e. me) has been throwing around the idea of retiring the Hunter_S_Batman identity in order to consolidate my social media presence under the RyskMonger42 banner. So here's an image of Hunter S. Batman in his minor league days from MLB 14: The Show to commemorate his exploits!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Magic Creature Types Analysis

Magic: The Gathering is a game made for humans by humans... except of course for the nefarious Gleemax. This fact is true of most (if not all) table top games, but it's especially relevant to this discussion of the types of creatures that exist in the Magic universe. Because Magic is also a game of creatures, which players summon to fight for them: of the seven card types in the game, creatures are by far the most numerous, with more than 8,000 creature cards in the official Magic database. (Enchantments are the next most common type, and their total barely cracks 2,000.) And, as might be expected in a game played primarily by humans, the relative majority of all creatures in the game are of the Human subtype.

In addition to being a game of humans and creatures, Magic is also game of colors, since most cards in the game are identified with one of the five colors of mana: White, blUe, Black, Red, Green. So the next logical question when talking about humans in Magic is how they are broken down across the color wheel. To answer this question, I'm turning to some research I did after the release of the Magic 2015 expansion. The last core set of its kind, M15 was actually released in mid-2014, so while the numbers won't be exactly accurate, the general trends should still hold true. To exhibit these trends, here is a list of the top 40 creature types in Magic, color coded to reflect the most common color among each creature type:

Just reading down the first three columns should give you a pretty good idea of the kind of fantasy world in which Magic takes place and the kinds of creatures that occupy this world. The next step is to give you a quick overview of each color's most common creature type, but first I want to explain why each color has two columns devoted to it. This is to distinguish the total number of creatures that have a particular color in their mana cost (which could be just one out of multiple colors) from the creatures that contain ONLY that color in their mana cost. So for example, there are 676 total white-aligned human creatures, 581 of which are mono-white, and 95 of which are multicolored with white being just one of its elements. A small distinction perhaps, but it may become important later.

Sticking with White-aligned Humans (notice I've steered clear of saying "white humans" to avoid confusion with the caucasian ethnicity), I do not find it surprising that the majority of human creatures in the game are associated with white mana. White is the color of order and law, and any human who plays Magic has to have at least somewhat of an orderly mind: not only to learn and remember all the rules, but also to construct an effective deck, and to keep track of all the complicated twists and turns that happen while playing an actual game.

The most common type among blue creatures is not a race (as in "the human race"), but rather a class, which is a term in the popular role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons to describe an adventurer's chosen occupation. The prototypical blue class is Wizard, which makes sense because the discipline and knowledge required for casting spells are very blue attributes. Now it was kind of a tautology when I said that Magic was a game made by humans for humans, but it's also a game made by wizards (quite literally by the Hasbro subsidiary Wizards of the Coast, which also publishes D&D) and arguably made FOR wizards. I know that Magic players technically take on the role of Planeswalker, powerful mages that can travel between the many worlds of the Magic multiverse, but I mean come on, the main thing you do in the game is cast spells, which is the most wizardy thing possible.

Race and Class are terms used in DnD, but Magic uses the term Tribes to describe creature types that work well in a deck together. The reason for that is to account for creatures such as Black's most common type, the Zombie. Being a zombie is something that happens to a creature and has nothing to do with race and class - it's neither an innate characteristic of that creature nor something that creature chooses to do. However "Tribal Zombies" is a perfectly legit Magic term to describe a deck made out of mostly creatures of the Zombie type. Which, if you follow the metagame, is a good strategy to become familiar with, since the next Magic expansion set takes place in the gothic horror themed plane of Innistrad.

Moving around the color wheel to Red, we find the other color that has humans as its most common creature type. (Humans are the second-most common type in the other three colors.) But since we've already talked enough about humans, let's move on to Red's second most common creature type, and also skip ahead so we can compare it directly to Green's most common: Goblins and Elves, respectively. Both of these races show up in the "Big 3" touchstones of the fantasy genre, in my opinion: Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, and the computer game EverQuest, with the difference that Elves are most commonly aligned with Good (i.e. you can play as Elves) and Goblins are usually Evil (i.e. you usually fight against them). They're also similar, at least in the world of Magic, in that they work well together, and they're much better in numbers. In fact, the first Magic product that provided two themed Decks specifically designed to Duel against each other was called Duel Decks: Elves vs. Goblins.

Now that we know the top creature type of each color, let's go a little more in-depth. We've seen the races most associated with Red and Green, but the other three colors get into the racial game as well. The Blue race of choice is Merfolk, which are sort of like a cross between Disney's The Little Mermaid and the Sahuagin from D&D. It's a little bit of a stretch to call Vampires Black's top race, because some mythologies see vampirism as an affliction rather than a genetic characteristic, but I think it mostly works the latter way in Magic. The most numerous non-human White race is Cat, but only some of the cards of that type represent the anthropomorphic Leonin (akin to EverQuest's Vah Shir), as opposed to lions or tigers etc. White also has the most Kithkin, which are Magic's version of Halflings or Hobbits, and most Magic Dwarves are Red.

W NOTE: Spirits are basically
Magic's version of ghosts.
We've talked about how the Wizard class from Dungeons and Dragons is well represented in Magic, but in fact many of D&D's 12 classes make appearances on Magic card types. Starting at the top of the color wheel, we see that White boasts a good amount of Clerics, which are the prototypical healer class in both games, in that they both excel at preventing damage and regaining lost life (or hit points). White also has the most creatures with the subtype Knight (which can be roughly equated to Paladins in D&D) and Monk, making it the most Dungeon-y color.

U NOTE: Illusion is a school of Magic in D&D.
B NOTE: Horror is the only creature type that's also a film genre.
Blue doesn't have a whole heck of a lot of creature types that correlate with D&D classes: the only one in its top ten is Rogue, which it technically shares with Black, since there are more overall Blue Rogues (including multicolored, or Gold, cards), but more Mono-Black ones. Black also leads in creatures of the Assassin type, which is a special type of Rogue in D&D Fifth Edition. Black also has a good amount of Warriors, Shamans, Clerics, and Knights, but since these classes are covered in other colors (and one of them isn't even in the newest version of D&D), I'll leave them out here. Suffice it to say that Black shares elements with many other colors, but that versatility usually comes with an extra cost.

R NOTE: Dragons are one half of D&D.
Red has the lead in Warrior creatures, which share the most with the Fighter class - willing to be on the front lines in combat, dealing a lot of damage with little regard for their own well-being. There are some elements of the fighter class represented in the Soldier creature type, which is predictably best represented by White mana, because you need a strong sense of order to work as part of a team on the battlefield. But this is not a perfect correlation because not all professional soldiers have what it takes to be an adventuring Fighter. Red also predictably has the lead in Berserkers and Barbarians, each of which could be combined under the Barbarian in D&D, a class which is fueled by pure rage.

G NOTE: Beast is a good way to
describe most of Green's creatures.
The true D&D class that's most represented by Green creatures is Druid, and it's important to note the differences across the two formats. Magic Druids usually help you find lands or create mana, whereas D&D Druids are known as shapechangers, a feature usually reserved for Shamans in Magic (which are no longer a class in the new version of D&D). Needless to say then, Druids are extremely useful in Magic, since mana is the resource that all decks need to cast their spells. There are actually more Green Warriors than there are Druids, but we've already talked about them because there are more Red Warriors than Green ones. While there are no Ranger creature types in Magic, there are several cards with Ranger in the name: these cards are mostly green and they range in types from Scout and Archer to Soldier and Warrior. There are only three cards in all of Magic with Bard in the name: they are all Green, two of them are Rogues, and one is strangely enough a Shaman.

So that's (hopefully) all the information you could ever want about creature types in Magic: The Gathering. If you're hungry for more info, you can check out the official Gatherer database, but I actually prefer the lower-key But there's also a world of Magic that's totally separate from the mechanics on the cards themselves, which is explored in the art, flavor text, and fan fiction that appears weekly on the official Magic site (if you know where to look. It is a confusing site). And remember, just keep telling yourself that it's totally cool to be a nerd.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

All-NRI Teams 2016

Spring Training games started in earnest this week, and as such we get to see a special class of baseball players who only exist in the weeks directly preceding Opening Day: the non-roster invitee. The typical NRI's are free agents who didn't land Major League contracts in the offseason, but who were deemed promising enough to compete for a spot on the big league roster in Spring Training. You also see a fair amount of hot prospects and organizational minor league depth in big league camp every year, but I'm focusing on players with big league experience for my purpose here - creating rosters from the top NRI's in each league.

So without further ado, let's jump right into the depth charts. Here are the top National League Non Roster Invitees, as determined by my painstaking research and carefully crafted opinions.

J.P. Arencibia put on a power display last year with the Rays and he has a pretty good shot to crack a weak Phillies roster, even though there are two right handed hitting catchers in front of him on the depth chart. Backup Ryan Lavarnway has spent time at first, which means he can also back up Kyle Blanks, who was lucky enough to latch on with the Giants in an even-numbered year. Elian Herrera scored the most fantasy points of all NL NRI infielders last year, and his versatility will allow him to man second base while Will Middlebrooks takes third - the position he has a good chance to win with the Brewers' big club this year. The best choices for shortstop are two top-ten prospects with no MLB experience, but if neither J.P. Crawford (5) nor Dansby Swanson (8) are ready to start the year, defensive whiz Brendan Ryan or super utility type Adam Rosales can fill in.

Jeff Francoeur might not be a lock to make the Braves roster out of Spring Training after returning to his original club, but he had by far the best 2015 season of any outfielder in this group. Shane Victorino has had a very good career, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him land with another team before the end of Spring Training - his minors deal with the Cubs was finalized just moments before the club re-signed center fielder Dexter Fowler. He could form a left field platoon with lefties Matt Joyce and/or Shane Peterson, the latter of which could also platoon with Jason Bourgeois in center. That leaves Justin Maxwell and Skip Schumaker as bench platoon options, although obviously not all 7 of them can make this hypothetical club.

On paper, it looks like Jhoulys Chacin is the most likely NRI pitcher to make an MLB roster out of Spring Training: he's the only NRI pitcher ranked within the top 600 by (as of the start of Spring Training last Sunday) who also reached the majors in 2015. Chacin actually pitched very well for Cleveland last year, which led to the Braves picking him up to try and fill one of the two to three wide open spots in their rotation (along with another member of this list, Kyle Kendrick). Brandon Morrow gets a spot on this list because of his stellar five starts with San Diego last year (which caused the Padres to re-sign him to a minors deal), even though he missed most of the season due to shoulder problems and then hasn't been able to rehab most of the winter because of illness. Similarly, Brandon Beachy is back with the Dodgers after another injury-ravaged season, but he'll get a chance to compete for a rotation spot in a similarly injury-ravaged Dodgers rotation.

Bronson Arroyo is the only veteran on this list who didn't pitch at all in 2015, but his situation last year was so strange (his contract was traded twice despite the fact that he was never ready to pitch) and his comeback attempt this winter has been so public, that you can't help but root for him to make it back to the majors. Julio Urias and Lucas Giolito make the list because they're the #3 and #4 ranked prospects in the majors, respectively.

The three NL NRI relievers with the most recent closer experience are Casey Janssen, who finished games for the Blue Jays from 2012-14, Ernesto Frieri, the Angels' closer in parts of the same three year span, and Edward Mujica, who served as the Cardinals' closer in 2013. Andrew Bailey and Jim Henderson have closed in the past, but neither of them spent significant time in the majors last year. There is no shortage of solid middle relievers to bridge the gap to the ninth inning, such as Alexi Ogando, Blaine Boyer, Jean Machi, and Carlos Torres. And for lefty specialists, the NL has Alex Torres (no relation), Manny Parra, and James Russell to choose from - Chris Narveson and Chris Capuano are also lefties, but they profile as more long relief/swingman types.

Michael McKenry's 2015 offensive stats might have been inflated due to Coors Field, but he's still a quality receiver who if nothing else can serve as a platoon mate for switch hitting Carlos Corporan. Ike Davis began last year as Oakland's starting first baseman and he's still got some potential in his bat, despite a tough road to 1B/DH at bats in his new home of Texas. If he needs a platoon partner against lefties, one need look no further than Korean import Dae-Ho Lee, who will hope to play that same role with the Mariners this year. Or even Casey McGehee, who was signed by Detroit presumably to light a fire under Nick Castellanos. But the crown jewel of this year's NRI class is Jimmy Rollins, who was all but handed the White Sox's starting shortstop job, even despite his minor league deal. This means that Clint Barmes and Josh Rutledge will have to battle it out for the second base position.

Travis Snider and Will Venable have real shots to start the season in the big leagues due to injuries (to Jarrod Dyson on the Royals) and suspensions (to Abraham Almonte on the Indians) to the projected starters, so they are pretty much locks for this team. Domonic Brown was once a top prospect with the Phillies and if the Blue Jays don't end up trading for Jay Bruce, he could be in line for some playing time in left field this year. Each of these left handed hitting outfielders also have a nice platoon partner to work with: Shane Robinson, Drew Stubbs, and Allen Craig, respectively.

The AL NRI rotation has three solid players at the top, but falls off kind of drastically after that. Jeremy Guthrie (24 starts in 2015), Wandy Rodriguez (15), and Roberto Hernandez (11) all spent significant time in the majors last year, but neither have a clear path back to the show in 2016, barring injuries. The only other starters who pitched more than one game in 2015 and scored positive points are Dillon Gee and Sean O'Sullivan (David Huff suffered through a negative points season and Brad Mills only made one appearance). But there are a number of veterans with upside who missed 2015, such as A.J. Griffin, Chien-Ming Wang, and Brad Penny. Jose Berrios is the lone prospect on this list, clocking in at #19 on the top 100, but as his overall rank of 305 suggests, he's practically a lock to crack the Twins rotation this year.

Quality right handed depth is also an issue for the AL NRI bullpen, which has former closers David Aardsma, Joba Chamberlain, and Bobby Parnell, although two of that trio barely pitched in 2015. The most accomplished reliever of the group is Joel Peralta who, along with Ross Ohlendorf, are the only two non-starters to average more than 10 points per game in 2015. However this team is actually not short on left handed relievers, as Cesar Ramos and Brian Duensing enjoyed moderate success last year, with Fernando Abad and Joe Thatcher primed for bounceback years. Former starters Tom Gorzelanny and Dana Eveland (also left handed) are candidates for the long relief spot.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Dungeons and Dragons: Tonio in the Temple of Shar

Tonio Mancuso,
Human Cleric/Rogue
"I suggest you all close your eyes and hold your breath."

That's the advice Jaycie Hart gave before finishing up a teleportation circle that would bring all six of the members of her adventuring party - and their guest - far away from this accursed dungeon.  Tonio Mancuso had tried to oblige, being one to generally follow orders, as long as they didn't directly contradict his well-being. But at some point during his seemingly interminable extra dimensional journey, something unexpected happened to Tonio: he got a plan. 

With an admittedly well below average intellect, logically formulating a strategy wasn't Tonio's strongpoint, but he did have a tremendously insightful mind. This particular insight came too late, as was the case with too many of Tonio's brainstorms. It was the solution to a little dungeoneering riddle, as it were: Tonio had wanted to release some dangerous demons that were being held captive in the hostile dungeon that he and his friends inhabited, hoping that they would wreak havoc on their evil captors, but if he opened their cages, the demons would most certainly have attack his friends first. It was a real head-scratcher...

A little explanation: Tonio and his five companions had just finished subduing the lesser noblemen and pesky guards protecting the inner sanctum of the temple of Shar, the evil goddess of death and loss, and they had their main antagonist entrapped in TWO different kinds of magical restraints. But just as our heroes were about to interrogate the powerful mind mage named Grayson Bailey about his master plans, he somehow teleported away. It was only a matter of time before he would return to the material plane and alert the rest of his forces to their presence. And the party still had the matter of the werewolf to deal with.

Felix Mancuso,
Human Fighter
You see, locked in a cell in this inner sanctum (several rooms away from the aforementioned demons' cells) was the feral hybrid form of one of this group's former allies, Isabella Cooper. Bella, as she liked to be called, had been trained by the grizzled, one-eyed elf named Cathan Evenwind, who had taken her defeat and capture the hardest out of anyone. As soon as their enemy had vanished, the group turned their attention to Bella's cell door. 

"Get behind me, brother!" suggested Tonio's brother Felix Mancuso. "I can try to wrestle down Se├▒orita Cooper in case she attacks."

"Good idea, brother!" agreed Tonio as he racked his brain to remember the correct spell to prepare in this situation. Felix puffed out his armored chest and bravely awaited whatever might come through that door. Tonio admired his tougher brother, as strong and fearless as Tonio was quick and level-headed, and more logical to boot.

Alphonse Sapperstein III,
Half-Elf Bard
"Now, Jaycie, you have means to restrain that thing when it comes out of there, right?" queried the charming half elf Alphonse Sapperstein III, the self-proclaimed mouthpiece of the party - which is a polite way of saying he was absolutely useless in this particular situation.

"Don't worry," Jaycie responded with a flip of her hair. "I'm an abjurer, remember?"

"So Gentlemen, and lady, to clarify the plan," ventured Thelios Melekor, the fearsome horned Tiefling, in his signature guttural growl. "We slay this mongrel cur and then be on our way?"

"We will do NOTHING of the sort," decreed Cathan, his one good eye fixed monomaniacally on the cell door, behind which a fearsome snarling could be heard. "If there's any chance Bella is still in there, in that thing's head... I have to try and save her."

"Come now, Cathan," scolded Thelios. "Surely there's nothing left of what was once your friend than a bag of fur and rage. It's best we put the beast out of its misery."

"Not before I've looked into her eyes!" bellowed Cathan, as he threw open the door.

The hinges creaked.

The snarling fell silent.

But just for a moment.

In a blinding flash, a gray whirl of claws and teeth came hurtling out of the cell. Jaycie at once fired off one of her signature spells. But the verbal components of Otiluke's Resilient Sphere fell on deaf ears, as Bella deftly dodged away from the magic.

Cathan Evenwind, Elf Arcane Trickster

But then Cathan was there, at the opening of the cell, grappling with his former pupil.

"Cathan!" cried Jaycie. "Don't get bit!"

"Bella!" the elf shouted. "Bella, can you hear me? Are you in there?" If there was indeed a pang of recognition in her clouded eyes, it was not enough to soothe her savage mood.

"That's enough!" fumed Thelios. "I'm going to hit that thing with an Eldritch Blast if it comes any closer!" The Tiefling raised up his hand and began muttering.

"Will everyone please CALM THEIR EMOTIONS!?" shouted a triumphant Tonio, having remembered just the spell. Sometimes his insights came at exactly the right time.

Bella's nose twitched, her eyes blinked, her limbs relaxed in Cathan's grip somewhat, and she didn't seem to want to bite anyone's head off anymore. She also didn't seem to have much awareness of her situation except that she wanted to be free of that cell and continued to struggle against her former mentor.

"She'll only be soothed for a minute, amigos," Tonio explained. "I suggest someone come up with a plan!"

"Alright, I'll bring her with me," Cathan ventured. He pulled a length of rope from his pack and made it fast to a belt around Bella's waist, which still held the dual crossbows she once used while in human form. "I'll take her back to the cottage. None of you need accompany me, this is my burden."

Thelios Melekor, Tiefling Warlock
"EXCUSE ME!?" bellowed Thelios. "Your plan is to take a werewolf out onto the streets of Minos... on a leash... on a Monday morning... and bring it back to OUR house!?!? That is absolutely, one hundred percent not happening!"

"Well do you have a better idea!?" cried Cathan, almost in tears. "I will not just leave her!"

"You mean, leave her again?" taunted Thelios.

"Thirty seconds!" shouted a panicked Tonio. "So you should ándale too, brother. We might need you here."

"Understood, brother!" Felix and Alphonse were taking this opportunity to investigate the inner sanctum: they had already uncovered several valuable items and a relic that they had been seeking, which belonged to the temple of Tymora, Shar's rival deity. Felix was just now attempting to roll up a giant tapestry that covered up a hidden cache.

Jaycie Hart, Human Abjurer
"I can get us out of here," offered Jaycie, producing a shimmery pink liquid from her purse. "But Bella needs to drink this. And then she needs to look at you."

"What is it?" asked Cathan, in a daze.

"It contains the power of love..." declared Jaycie in a mystical tone. "It's our only chance to keep her from attacking us. Then you need to make sure nothing bothers me for a minute."

"Cathan, are you sure this is wise?" asked Thelios. "Are you ready to take on this... responsibility?"

Cathan flashed his companion a sad smile. "She was never not my responsibility," he said, as he uncorked the bottle and used prestidigitation to make its contents smell like day old meat. "Here, girl," Cathan sobbed. "Drink up."

Bella took the last sips of the elixir as Jaycie settled into the back corner of the room and started tracing lines on the floor with Thelios standing guard. Bella glanced down at Cathan, a look of loyalty and serenity falling across her canine features.

"If you don't mind me interrupting this tender moment," ventured Alphonse. "What is it you're doing over there, Jaycie?"

"Teleportation circle," the abjurer responded tersely in between incantations. "I'm bringing us all to the Elven city of Selk. Cathan's got people there who hopefully can help."

Thelios started. "Selk? But our mission is here in Minos!"

"Honey, in case you didn't notice, we just pissed off one of the most powerful people I've ever seen in Minos," huffed Jaycie. "AND he knows who we are, and where we live. So the farther we are from Minos the better." 

"In that case, brother," added Felix, "might it be wise to unlock the demon's cells we passed on the way in, to create some chaos to cover our departure?"

"Good idea, brother!" agreed Tonio. "I'll use my thieves' tools to unlock it and..."

"But don't forget, that door is trapped!" reminded Alphonse, recalling an earlier plot point. "And how will we prevent them from attacking us, or following us to Selk?"

"You'd better figure it out quick," called Jaycie. "We've got about six seconds to all jump through this portal, then it closes forever!"

"Ay, manda huevos! Forget it!" resigned Tonio. Although it would be gratifying to think of their own pet demons terrorizing the followers of this foul death goddess, thought Tonio to himself as he stepped across the threshold.

Then he got it.

Get the bard or the arcane trickster or maybe even the warlock to create a minor illusion of a closed cell door, obscuring the real door as Tonio bypassed the trap and picked the lock. Then right before they teleported away, drop the illusion, and they'd be long gone before the baddies noticed they were free.

It was a rare moment for Tonio. And in the shock of it, he gasped, and opened his eyes.

He saw things he couldn't describe. He felt like he was at once traveling infinitely fast and standing very still. He felt like his mind was beginning to unravel.

He saw his intuitive mind go first, the strongest part of him. He saw it float into the blind eternities. But then to his surprise, he saw something else begin to unravel, and it did not belong to him. It was his brother's staunch presence, his comforting hardiness, and as it joined with the tatters of his mind, it somehow felt like it was fortifying his soul.

Then a voice began to unravel and meld itself with the two other elements, and the voice was that of Alphonse. True it was screaming in abject horror at the experience of long-range teleportation, but the sound of it was strangely comforting all the same.

Then the teleportation itself began to unravel, but not so much the mode of conveyance, but the fact that it had originated from Jaycie's skill and knowledge. Tonio saw what was quite literally the brains of the party become deconstructed and subsequently become one with all the rest.

Thelios was next, and it was his strength that melted away, but not necessarily strength of arms, although the Tiefling wasn't lacking in that regard; rather the strength of his convictions that made him steadfastly pursue any course of action to the end. This strength joined with the others and made them all stronger.

Isabella Cooper, currently a werewolf
The last to go was Cathan's nimble grace, and he was using all of it at the moment to support Bella, the main goal of this quest, as she hurtled through an experience she could not begin to comprehend in her present state. It was because of Cathan that they were headed to Selk, in more ways than one, and he would certainly need all his quickness of limb to navigate the treacherous new terrain of the adventure upon which they were embarking.

But for now, Cathan's dexterity, Thelios's strength, Jaycie's intelligence, Alphonse's charisma, Felix's constitution, and Tonio's wisdom were all disembodied and joined together in a beautiful teleportation-induced hallucination. The younger Mancuso twin felt as though he was just beginning to understand where his group of adventurers fit in the grand scheme of the multiverse...

Then, with a sudden stop, they reached Selk.