Saturday, May 29, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 3

Armida was not, by the standards of the Erls, a stunning beauty. Her skin was dusky instead of milky white, her hair was a pale brown, instead of a dark black, and instead of the slender frame delicate frame poets raved on, she was what her admirers tended to call ‘nubile’, attributes which suggested a less than noble birth. And then there were her eyes. They were mismatched, one a dull blue, the other a murky green. This made looking into them rather disconcerting, with one of her paramours stating that one tended to be left with an unreasonable impression that you were staring at two women at once.

Said paramour was presently entering her social house. “Armida!” proclaimed Nisrioch Cthonique, spreading his hands. “My divinity! You are as exquisite a sight as ever.”

Armida smiled and idly fanned herself. Those classical Erl beauties could go to hell, as far as she was concerned. She’d rather be her striking self, and leave a strong impression on people, then be another interchangeable frail-formed, raven-haired beauty. “Lord Nisrioch! How delightful! Shall I have Meg, or Tissy bring you a drink?” she said, rising from her chair. Besides--aside from being perfect exemplars of a supposed ideal of beauty, what could those women boast of? Armida was widely admired as the wittiest conversationalist in Marsilion’s Folly, a brilliant player of cards and Esches, and the owner and presiding lady of the finest social house on the Plains of Dread. These might not be the greatest accomplishments in the world--but she considered them to have some worth.

Nisrioch placed a hand on her shoulder as he neared her. “Believe me, my dear, the delight is all mine!” He sighed. “Sadly, this is a trip for business, not pleasure.”

Armida glanced at the two individuals following the Dark Lord in, a young woman with a crow perched on her shoulders who was taking in the house’s lavish décor with a gaping mouth, and a Milesian who was glancing furtively around as if he expected to be ambushed. “Ahh! One of those visits.”

She glanced at the Milesian. “Well, my young friend, as I must assume this is for your benefit, allow me to explain our rules. This is a social house. Our women are here to provide you with company and conversation. Anything beyond that is at their discretion. If you feel they are obligated to give you more than this, I strongly recommend you leave here before we have any unpleasantness. If there is any unpleasantness, it will warrant your immediate eviction from our premises. If that unpleasantness involves violence, you will be dragged to the magistrates, and get to enjoy a night in Stonehall Gaol.”

Armida smiled at the young man, whose mouth was opening and closing in fast succession. “I hope I have been perfectly clear. Now then, what are you looking for in company? Megarea is our most talented lutist, while Tisiphone is our most talented singer, and Alecto is the most delightful company.”

Nisrioch finally broke his silence with a chuckle. “I--fear there’s been a misunderstanding. My fault entirely, of course.” He gestured at the woman. “My apprentice, Jean Crow, and her familiar Hoppedance. And Squire Justinian Sigma, of the Sacristans, who…” He blinked. “Hmm. How would you describe your position, Sigma?”

Justinian was rubbing his temples. “One of constant humiliation.”

Armida raised an eyebrow. “My goodness. You are branching out, Nisrioch.”

Justinian blinked, thought her remark over, and then started in horror. “No! No! I--I didn’t mean that! I’m--an odd jobs boy--no wait, I’m a dogsbody--no--no--I’m…”

“Relax--Sigma, was it?“ Armida shook her head. “It was a joke on my part.” She linked an arm over Nisrioch’s. “I know from personal experience His Excellency’s tendencies, and they do not head in that direction.” She smiled at Nisrioch, and then regarded Justinian quizzically. “Though I do find your extremely… flustered reaction--interesting.” She shrugged. “Ah, well. It’s probably nothing.” She turned owards Nisrioch again. “Now, then--that business you mentioned…”

Nisrioch nodded, as the pair turned and walked away. “Of course. I think you’ll find it is quite the fascinating task…”

Justinian watched them head away, sputtering. Finally, he turned towards Jean, who was rather desperately trying to suppress her laughter. “Not a single word,” he said quietly.

Jean nodded swiftly. “Shit-for-brains!” cawed Hoppedance.

Jean burst out into loud guffaws. “You were included in that!” declared Justinian, pointing at the crow.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 2

Marcolf de Montefalcone was Three Links from the Necklace’s Pendant.

That meant he dealt with the man who dealt with the man who got his orders from the men who ran the Necklace. And this marked him as a man of consequence in the Necklace. A man of far more consequence than Porone Belltower, who had been at Five Links, but had recently been provisionally promoted up a Link to Four because the Link between them had been killed--not as a result of his work with the Necklace, but as a result of his habit of skipping out of tavern bills.

Marcolf had hated working with that man. He didn’t like working with Porone either, honestly--he was a greedy, grasping man, a fat merchant with black market associates, whose involvement with the Necklace was based more on monetary concerns than any loyalty to the cause. But, he reminded himself, sacrifices had to be made. If he ever forgot why, he could simply think of his mother’s face going cold and dead, shortly after the True Folk got their hands on her.

Right now, Porone sat in a corner booth of The Laughing Pilgrim, a small café that lay across the way from Armida’s, the most opulent social house of Marsilion’s Folly. He was sipping a cup of coffee, and reading the Castle Terribel Regional Shipping Report. Marcolf stood by the display counter, apparently debating his choice of scones. Porone folded the Report once--twice--three times, and set it down before him. Marcolf picked up a blueberry scone and gave the waitress five silver marks, then turned, apparently noticed Porone, and waved. Porone waved back. Marcolf went to sit down at the booth “Ahh. Porone. Good to see you again.” He set down his scone and coffee. “The weather’s been lovely,” he noted.

“Yes. Remarkably clear,” said Porone, glancing around idly.

Marcolf nodded, and broke a chunk off his scone. “I spoke with the Second Link. Opal’s plan is in operation.”

Porone nodded. “I thought it might be.” He took a sip of his coffee. “So--you’ll be needing--the materials, then…”

Marcolf dipped his piece of scone. “Oh, yes.” He nibbled it idly. “As soon as possible.”

“That may be difficult.” Porone set down his cup. “These are not easy things to acquire. Especially in large quantities. And on short notice.”

“Are you saying you can’t do it?” snapped Marcolf. “Because if such things are beyond your power, it begs the question why you should be allowed to remain with the Necklace.”

Porone frowned slightly. “That was uncalled for, Friend Marcolf,” he said. Marcolf nodded at Porone’s offended glance. Both of them knew that people not allowed to remain with the Necklace were not allowed to remain alive as a general rule. Porone picked up his copy of the Report. “I said that it would be difficult. Not impossible.” He coughed slightly. “There may be some additional expense.”

“Ahh. I should have seen that one coming, Friend Porone,” said Marcolf acidly.

“Not all of us can live off of a family fortune, even if it is a greatly depleted one,” said Porone, regarding Marcolf levelly. “And I am a business man with a legitimate business to run. And investors, partners and… associates to explain things to. Accounts must be balanced. Relationships must be maintained. Certain expenditures must appear sensible to an onlooker if they are checked, as they almost certainly will be. None of which would be possible if I simply gave you whatever you desired.” He shrugged. “I know you believe that I am in this for the payment, but trust me--I could cut you from my clientele and it would not cost me a penny ,” he noted. “In point of fact--it would be greatly to my advantage, as I am giving the Necklace a considerable discount for my services. And yet--I sought you out. I remain. I assist.” He leaned forward. “Just because one was not born a Magnate, it does not mean one cannot sympathize with their plight, Friend Marcolf.”

Marcolf flinched and turned away. “I do not need your--sympathy, Friend Porone. Only your services.” He sighed. “And there are no Magnates. Haven’t you heard? The Cthoniques disbanded the class. Only a sad echo is left, in the form of rootless folk like myself, chasing a memory.”

Porone shook his head. “There are times, Friend Marcolf, that I question my sanity in aligning myself with a revolutionary movement.” He smiled bitterly. “I find that they are increasingly common after a lengthy chat with you.”

Marcolf raised an eyebrow. “You are only provisionally a Fourth Link, Friend Porone. My thoughts on you are part of what determines if that ‘provisionally’ becomes a ‘permanently’.”

Porone smiled to himself. “I am willing to take that risk, Friend Marcolf.” There was a clatter of wheels on the street. Porone turned his head. “Ah, my. Speak of the demon.” Marcolf followed his associate’s gaze. A large black carriage with the Cthonique arms had pulled up besides Armida’s. A young man who looked to be a Milesian had exited, followed by a young woman who raised her arm as she exited, a crow flying nearby lighting upon it. And then the familiar form of an extremely tall, white-haired Erl clad in grey robes covered in red symbols appeared on the street. He gave a slightly distracted wave to the passerby.

Marcolf suppressed a snarl. “Nisrioch Cthonique. Of course. That--degenerate bastard freak of nature…”

Porone chuckled. “Such hatred, Friend Marcolf. He’s only the Lord of the Howling Wastes…”

Marcolf turned to glare at Porone. “Who do you think set loose the True Folk? Who do you think conceived the Liar’s Edict?” He pounded the table. “I tell you, Friend Porone, Mansemat Cthonique may be the Cthonique of Castle Terribel in name, but it’s the Bastard of Hell that truly rules…”

Porone gave Marcolf a nervous glance. “You’ve upset your drink, Friend Marcolf.”

Marcolf blinked, righted his cup, and then scooted out of the way of the drizzle of coffee traveling towards him. “Ahh--you wouldn’t happen to have a handkerchief, Friend Porone…?”

“Of course,” declared Porone, producing a thin scrap of silk. Marcolf took it gratefully and began dabbing at the spill. “Now, then, Friend Marcolf--I am well aware that Lord Nisrioch has played a rather--deleterious part in the present political situation on the Plains of Dread. But I remind myself that--ultimately--he is just a man, and in the end, merely a part of the problems we face. And thus--I keep my head.”

Marcolf stared at Porone for a moment, then nodded. “Point well taken, Friend Porone. Point well taken.”

Porone raised his cup. “To the true Dark Lord of the Plains.”

Marcolf raised his in answer. “We are faithful.” He glanced down at his scone. “Is it just me--or is this batch drier than the usual?”

Porone sighed. “Isilda is trying a new recipe. I’m not quite sure it works.”

Marcolf gave a grim nod. Life was full of changes. And most of them, in his mind, were for the worse.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 1

The black carriage rolled down the Great Stone Way towards Marsilion’s Folly, its iron-clad wheels clattering against the cobblestones.

“It’s a fascinating place,” declared the Dark Lord Nisrioch Cthonique. “One of the largest cities in the Lands of Night.” He shrugged casually, as he leaned out the carriage window. “Nothing to compare with your Free Cities, of course. Or so I’ve heard.”

Justinian Sigma stared at the polished stone walls they were approaching, their towers standing tall and proud. “I--wouldn’t sell this place short, sir.” Not for the first time, it occurred to him that if the Forces of Light had actually penetrated a little further than the outskirts of the Plains of Dread and the Accursed Marsh over the last few centuries, they might have formed a somewhat different opinion of the capabilities of the Nightfolk. Something slightly more complimentary than ‘a horrid rabble, fit for no greater labor than to die at the command of their vile masters’, perhaps.

Just perhaps.

Jean yawned. “So--who was Marsilion, and how was this his folly?” Nisrioch and Justinian turned towards the young apprentice sorceress. “What? I know you’re dying to tell us,” she said, glancing at Nisrioch. “So I’m giving you an opening.”

“Why thank you, apprentice!” declared Nisrioch brightly. “You are already the best apprentice I ever had.” He tittered cheerfully. “Ahh, where to begin. Well--as you have probably already gathered, House Maganza and House Cthonique have an ancient and enduring feud. One of those things where everything’s almost patched up, there’s talk of marriages and alliances, and then somebody insults someone at a party, that someone gets his friends together, and they beat the stuffing out that somebody, that somebody gets his friends together, and they kill that someone, that someone’s relatives hire a band of mercenaries to raze a few villages, that somebody’s relatives hire assassins to kill that someone’s relatives, the survivors gather together to plot an elaborate vengeance, and the next thing you know, some lunatic’s forcing some poor souls to eat their own children in meat pies, and some poor fool winds up bound to a corpse and buried alive.”

Jean and Justinian stared at him in discomfort. “Is there a point to all that?” asked Jean.

“Context, my dear! Context! I’m setting the stage!” explained Nisrioch. “Now, Marsilion Maganza was a survivor of a particularly nasty round of that, and had vowed that he would see House Cthonique extinguished, trunk, root, and branch. That normally would not have mattered much, but as result of all that bloodletting, he was fourth in line to the Ebony Throne. He rather quickly set out to move himself forward in that matter, and succeeded in doing so by making the men in front of him die in rather horrible ways.” The Dark Lord shuddered slightly. “Anyway--having done that, after a brief go at enjoying being the new King of the Goblins, punctuated by killing enemies he’d made, relatives who could conceivably be threats, and people who looked at him funny, Marsilion set out with the largest army ever assembled in the Lands of Night--at that time--to make his dream a reality. Said army punched a straight line to Castle Terribel, and then began a siege, confident that they would see the destruction of House Cthonique in a year’s time.”

“So--how’d they fail?” said Jean cheerfully. “After all, they obviously did. You’re still here, and we’re approaching ‘Marsilion’s Folly’, not--I don’t know--‘Marsilion’s Kickass Victory‘.”

Nisrioch chuckled. “I’m getting to that part.” He leaned out the carriage window, glancing at the city. “This is where they set up camp. They were here for six years.” He shook his head. “Six years. Marsilion replaced tents with buildings, wooden walls with stone ones. Had a bathhouse built. A theatre so he could enjoy the occasional play. And still, the siege dragged on.” Nisrioch ducked back into the carriage. “Well, six years will dent even the most--enthusiastic of soldiers. Death and desertion whittled down that large army, faster than Marsilion could impress new ones. Back in the Shadow Woods, it turned out that Marsilion had been a great deal less effective in wiping out his enemies than he’d imagined--in fact, he almost seemed, for some strange reason, to have created new ones, among them his own brothers. And then there was the matter that in the fourth year, Lord Choas, the actual Cthonique of Castle Terribel at the time, escaped, made it to the Screaming Waste, and raised an army there. Well, by the time the sixth year rolled around, Marsilion was no longer receiving troops or food, and suddenly facing a Cthonique with a sizable squad of Kizaks at his back.”

Justinian winced. “I think I know how this one ends. How’d the battle go?”

“It didn’t,” said Nisrioch. “Marsilion fell off his horse before it even really started. His own men hacked him to death, and then ran for the hills.” The Dark Lord shrugged. “Well, Lord Choas wasn’t going to let such a lovely bit of construction go to waste, so instead of demolishing the camp--he used it as a settlement. Encouraged people to live here. Story goes quite a few of Marsilion’s old troops wound up living here as subjects of House Cthonique.”

Jean stared at Nisrioch. “So--let me get this straight--the end result of Lord Marsilion’s ‘wipe out House Cthonique’ plan was he wound up dead, and you guys got a really good city?”

“Pretty much,” replied Nisrioch with a nod.

“Ahh.” Jean shook her head. “Yeah, I’m definitely seeing the ‘folly’ part now.” She looked at Nisrioch. “So--what happened with--well, his brothers?”

“In a stunning, yet strangely predictable change of loyalties, they declared they would avenge their brother’s death, and set out with a large army to attack Choas. However, they fell to quarreling on the way, and wound up fighting a battle against each other. The winner of that was killed by Choas shortly thereafter, and House Maganza spent the next three decades fighting itself to see who’d be the next King of the Goblins.” He sighed. “The one good point to having House Maganza as your enemies--one often has to wait in line for them to settle their grudges with you. They quarrel with everyone, including themselves. Mind you, all the Houses of Night make internecine behavior a habit, but with House Maganza it’s more or less a way of life…”

The carriage rolled past the walls, through a sizable set of gates. Nisrioch nodded. “Ahh, yes. These are the New Walls. As distinguished from the Old Walls and the Original Walls.” He shrugged. “The city has grown some. And then grown some more.”

Justinian looked out his window. If one ignored the fact that the people here were mostly Erls, with a smattering of Ogres and Goblins, one could imagine you were passing through a large city of the Lands of Light. A very clean city of the Lands of Light, which didn’t stink like death.

Justinian realized he was getting rather fond of the Nightfolk’s internal plumbing and waste disposal systems. They made a great deal of sense.

On a crowded street corner, a man wearing a large cylindrical hat was standing on a box, and giving a speech. “--To you--can we really afford another five years of Cap corruption? Of Cap greed? Of Cap malfeasance?”

“No!“ The crowd began to shout. “Of course not!” “Throw the bums out!”

The man smiled. “You know the answer! No! A thousand times no! That is why, good people, I ask you to vote Hat in the upcoming elections for Ealderman!” The crowd began to clap at this--only for a large tomato to strike the speaker.

A group of burly individuals in a nearby alleyway wearing small caps began to boo. “Shut yer mouth!” “Go bugger yerself, ya Hat-wearing ponce!” “Yer not takin’ my liquor, bastard!”

Justinian was starting to sympathize with the sputtering speaker, when several burly men wearing the same sort of hat emerged from the crowd, and began to move menacingly towards the men in caps. A few individuals on both sides were starting to take out very large sticks when the carriage turned a corner, and the scene vanished from sight.

“What was that all about?” Justinian asked Nisrioch.

The Dark Lord sighed. “Ahh, yes. Almost forgot that Brumaire had rolled around again.” He shrugged. “It’s an election year, so the Caps and the Hats are going at it again. Just another part of Marsilion’s Folly vibrant social life.”

Jean blinked. “An… election… year?”

“Yes,” replied Nisrioch. “They’re electing Ealdermen. To the City Thing.” Seeing their blank looks of incomprehension, he coughed. “It’s a body of honored individuals selected by their fellows who make up the city government.”

Justinian snapped his fingers. “So THAT’S what she meant by a THING!” He gave a slight laugh, and then realized that Jean was looking at him with a rather amused expression. Justinian considered for a second, came to a sudden realization, and then stared at his fellow passengers pleadingly. “The conversation was in no way close to the ones your degenerate minds are doubtless conjuring up.”

Nisrioch and Jean shook their heads. “It’s really not worth the trouble, is it?” noted Jean to her mentor.

“Honestly, I find it sad,” declared Nisrioch.

“So--the Caps. The Hats,” continued Jean. “Explain.”

“They are two opposing factions who dominate the local elections,” said Nisrioch. “Aside from the choice of headgear, the major difference is the Caps are our dear friends who believe in supporting local industry and moving Marsilion’s Folly into the future, while the Hats are our dear friends who believe in improving the public morals, and preserving Marsilion’s Folly’s glorious heritage.”

Justinian narrowed his eyes. “Why do you call both factions ‘your dear friends’?”

“They both insist they are dear, dear friends of House Cthonique,” said Nisrioch, spreading his hands. “It’d be cruel to deny such well-wishers. And it is pleasant to know we have so many good friends.” He leaned out the window. “Now! Next stop, Armida’s!” He grinned. “Oh, I love this city so!”

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Terrible Secret of Castle Terribel--Part 18

Justinian sat under the tree, and looked up into its branches. Little, wrinkled green fruit hung from them. Limes, he believed they were called.

It was quite a lovely tree, actually. It was amazing that it was growing--well, indoors.

“Have to give him credit!” declared Nisrioch. “He’s really brought the old place back up to snuff.”

“This--this really is AMAZING!” declared Jean. She looked around. “You have--gardens indoors?”

“Greenhouses, yes,” replied Nisrioch. “Of course, this one had fallen into disrepair after…”

“LADY’S LOVE!” declared Morgaine as she walked through the doorway. “He… he fixed it!” A joyful, slightly pained smile came over her face. “This--this place hasn’t--since Mom…” She sniffled, and wiped her eyes. “Sorry. The pollen. Allergies, you know.”

Viviane looked at her. “You have allergies?”

Morgaine narrowed her eyes. “Tempting my undead wrath?”

“Of course not, Morgaine,” said Viviane with a fond shake of her head. She looked around the greenhouse. “This IS lovely.”

“I was RIGHT, wasn’t I, Mommy Viv?” chirped Malina cheerfully. Viviane ruffled her hair fondly.

“Yes, you were, dear.” Viviane shut her eyes, and took a deep breath. “It’s wonderful.”

“It was going to be your birthday present,” said a quiet voice. Viviane turned.

“Mansemat! You did all this for…”

Mansemat shrugged as he walked into the greenhouse. “Oh, not just for you.” He looked around at the greenery. “This place has been a shambles since--well, Mother died. I think I wanted to say--that we’ve recovered. That there’s a family living in Castle Terribel again.” He glanced at Viviane and smiled. “Of course you are the love of my life, and the motivating force for those sentiments, so in a sense--I did do it all because of you.”

Viviane smiled at him and shook her head. “Why did I marry you again? I know it wasn’t for the exceedingly awkward compliments…”

Mansemat scratched his chin. “My desperate sincerity, perhaps?” He looked at her pointedly. “You know that I mean what I say. Because there is no other reason to say these things.” Viviane hugged him.

“It’s a lovely garden, Manny. Thank you.” And then she kissed him.

As the pair stepped out of their embrace, Mansemat glanced around. “So--may I ask who let the cat out of the bag?”

Elaine glanced up from her book. “Hey, don’t look at me! I knew it would be something silly.” She looked away awkwardly. “It is a neat garden though.”

“I’m afraid I’m responsible,” said Justinian, standing up. “My… interest was… piqued by your… earlier actions…”

“He thought there was an army of com strucks in here!” declared Malina happily. “But he couldn’t open the door--so I ordered him to!”

Nisrioch glanced at Justinian. “Ah ha! I see someone has found his first loophole!” The Dark Lord tittered. “Oh, I knew you'd be fun!”

Mansemat shook his head. “Well, Squire Sigma, I’m afraid you discovered the terrible secret of Castle Terribel--real Dark Lords simply don’t measure up to the ones of story and song.” He spread his hands. “My apologies for having interests besides spreading terror and death.”

Justinian bowed. “I--am sorry, Your Magnificence. My actions were presumptuous in extremis, and there is nothing I can do to make up for them. Any punishment you would devise would be appropriate.”

“I’ll have them ready the boiling oil then,” said Mansemat. Justinian blinked. “Only kidding, Squire Sigma. In the end, all your actions have resulted in is my spending a pleasant afternoon with my family. I hardly think that warrants any punishment at all.”

Viviane stared at Sigma, her hand resting on her hip. “Though for future reference, I’d like you to note that certain orders are most definitely against the wishes of this member of House Cthonique. If you understand me”

Justinian gulped. “Of course, milady. I… that is, I’ll…” He glanced off to the side. “I’ll go stand behind that tree. On the far side of the garden.”

Viviane nodded. “That sounds lovely.” She watched as the Sacristan scurried off. Mansemat took her arm.

“You know--this place does have a ninepin court. Which is gloriously and perfectly level,” he noted.

“Ahh. So there’ll be no excuses when I kick your ass,” said Viviane.

Mansemat frowned. “Don’t be so sure. I’ve been practicing. And there are always more excuses.”

Nisrioch coughed. “You know, Manny, I hate to be the bearer of bad news on this merry little gathering--but--well, I got a message from Lord Asterot. The Palace of Shadows was damaged in the recent flooding. We can’t hold the next Council meeting there.”

“What?” said Mansemat, frowning. “But where else can the Nine meet? I mean, we do have some important things to discuss this time…”

Nisrioch smiled. “Believe it or not, there was a fairly unanimous agreement.” He spread his hands. “The rest of the Nine would like to meet--here.”

“In Castle Terribel?” Mansemat stared at his brother in shock. “Castle Terribel is supposed to pay host to the retinues of five more Dark Lords?”

“Manny--consider it!” said Nisrioch beseechingly. “It took us three years to get the Nine to even consider sitting down together and talking. And now--they trust us enough that they WANT to meet at our house.” He shook his head. “Don’t you see? This has never happened before. It’s the sort of preeminence that generations of Cthoniques strived for.” A gentle smile came to Nisrioch’s face. “And in the end--we didn’t win it with blood and violence. We won it with kindness and reason. We’ve proved--without a doubt--that our way is better.”

Mansemat stared at his brother, smiling fondly. “Damn it, Nissy, there you go playing on my ego again.” He shook his head. “All right. Go call up those objectionable bastards, and tell them they can come to Castle Terribel, and complain bitterly about everything we do. Somehow--I’m looking forward to it.”

Nisrioch patted his brother on the shoulder. “I knew you’d see it that way. I already agreed.”

Mansemat nodded. “I rather suspected that.” He sighed. “Well, let’s enjoy one pleasant afternoon before the entire castle is turned inside out in preparation for being turned further inside out.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Viviane. “Ooooh! It’ll be Elaine’s Coming Out! She can wear a pretty dress!”

“Not happening, Mom,” said Elaine without even glancing up from her book.

“Ha! Just you wait!” declared Viviane. “I will see you in a pretty dress!”

“Can I wear a pretty dress, Mommy Viv?” asked Malina.

“Of course you can,” said Viviane. “It’ll be a great Occasion. We’ll ALL be wearing pretty dresses.” She paused. “Except for the men.”

Elaine looked up. “What about Nisrioch?”

“This is a robe,” declared Nisrioch, pulling on his clothing. “The difference is it’s looser around the waist.”

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Terrible Secret of Castle Terribel--Part 17

Elaine sat on the wall, trying to read the Huon’s poems.

“Accursed days, you steal it from me,
Like a robber waiting by the lane,
The chance my beloved’s darling face to see.
Oh, why must I feel this sharp, stabbing pain?”


Elaine sighed. Somehow, ‘The Sonnet of Despair at Parting’ wasn’t doing it for her right now. She glanced at Morgaine, still engrossed in her reading. “Good book?”

Morgaine nodded. “Yep. The courtesans just… persuaded Lady Bountiful not to go through with her wedding.”

Elaine frowned. “Gee. Wonder how.” She shook her head. “Do you have anything there that isn’t filthy?”

Morgaine placed a hand under her chin. “Hmmmm.” She pulled out a slim volume. “I have The Nunnery of Vice. That’s only a little filthy.” Elaine stared at her. “I’m serious. The sex scenes are there to spice up the philosophical discussions. Abbe Pinador was largely interested in pushing his theory that a lot of women would be happier if men weren’t around.” She smiled. “He’s my hero.” Morgaine glanced at her niece. “Why the interest in my reading material?”

Elaine shook her head. “I think I need a break from Huon Sans Espoir. I love his work, but--after three hours--the poems are starting to blend into each other.”

Morgaine nodded. “Yeah--I know what you mean. Huon wrote about one thing, and he did it well--which means he’s best in small doses.”

“You like Huon Sans Espoir?” asked Elaine. Morgaine frowned at her. “I--urr--that wasn’t meant as an insult, it’s just--I wouldn’t imagine he was your--thing…”

“Right,” Morgaine sighed. “Because what personal significance could poems of deep unrequited love, and rejected suits have for me?” She shook her head. “I’m really drawing a complete blank there. No idea. None at all.”

“Sorry…” squeaked Elaine. She coughed. “Ummm--what was it like?”

Morgaine stared at her. “What was what like?”

Elaine glanced away. “Finding out you were a… you know.”

Morgaine’s face took on a rather grim expression. “Can I assume you mean--‘finding out I was a tribade‘?” She looked down at her book. “I didn’t ‘find out’. I always knew what I was.”

“Oh.” Elaine gulped. “S…”

“If you say ‘sorry’ again, I will shove this book down your throat,” said Morgaine. She turned and looked Elaine in the eye. “I’m used to personal… nay, downright rude queries on the subject of my sexual preferences from those who discover them. Frankly, the questions themselves have ceased to offend me. What does offend me is the so-often timid and falsely-apologetic tone in which they are asked. As if the asker somehow thinks that this sanctimonious air will render the extremely personal questions being asked--less personal.” She smiled. “It does not. If you’re going to sin, sin boldly, that‘s my motto.”

Elaine frowned, and leaned forward. “You know--you don’t have to get on your high horse for every single thing I say. I was interested in what it was like growing up so--different, when so much was expected of you, and you just--bit my head off. Like a person can’t be interested on a personal level. Like I only want to gawk at the freak. And that’s not true, Morgaine. ”

Morgaine blinked. “Damn.” She shook her head. “You keep mouthing off to me like that we might start actually getting along.”

“There you two are,” came a familiar voice. The pair looked up to see Viviane smiling down at them, Malina hanging on her hand. “We’ve been looking for you.” The young Dev looked at the pair beseechingly.

“Come on! You have to see it!” she declared. “It’s AMAZING! Uncle Nissy, and Mister Siggy, and Miss Jeanie are there already!”

Elaine looked at her stepsister. “What is… it?”

Malina’s face grew very serious. “That’s a secret.”

Elaine and Morgaine looked at Viviane. “Don’t ask me,” she said with a shrug. “That’s all she’ll tell me.”

Malina began to tug on her stepmother’s arm. “Come on! Come on! Let’s go!”

“Let’s give Elaine and Auntie Morgaine time to join us,” said Viviane with an affectionate laugh.

“Yeah,” said Morgaine, gradually righting herself. “I have to admit--you’ve got my interest piqued.”

Elaine rubbed her legs. “I hate it when they go asleep on you.”

Morgaine stretched her arms. “Oh, yeah. That is so annoying.” She frowned at Viviane. “What are you grinning about?”

“It’s--nothing,” she replied, with a dismissive wave of the hand. “I’m just--happy to see you two getting along.” She lowered her eyes. “It’s--cute.”

Morgaine scowled. “Yeah. We’re adorable. Got it.” She pointed at her sister-in-law. “Do not force me to unleash a horde of reanimated slugs on you. Just on the principle.”

Viviane eyes widened. “Okay. I take it back. You’re the antithesis of cute. You, Morgaine, are where cute goes to die.”

“Damn straight,” said Morgaine. “Now, bring on the--mystery--thing.”

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Terrible Secret of Castle Terribel--Part 16

Jean glanced at Nisrioch as they walked down the hall. “So--that was magic?”

Nisrioch nodded. “Indubitably.”

Jean stared at him. “You standing with--that hat on your head talking to yourself? That was magic?”

“Yes,” he replied. “And I only appeared to be talking to myself. I was in fact talking to someone hundred of miles away. Several someones, actually.” He grinned. “I keep telling everyone--this is the way of the future. Thoughtspeak--over unfathomable distances--whenever we so desire! But no one listens. Or they listen, nod politely, and move swiftly away at the soonest possible opportunity.” The Dark Lord sighed. “Sometimes I think that I should abandon the whole--hat motif, but then I ask myself--what more convenient portable form could such a thing take that wasn’t a hat, and I realize my misgivings are mere silliness.”

Jean nodded. “Right. Right. Uh huh.”

Nisrioch glanced at her. “You’re considering moving swiftly away, aren’t you?”

“At the soonest possible opportunity,” replied Jean.

“Bugger the bastards!” declared Hoppedance emphatically. “Shit-for-brains!”

Nisrioch looked at the crow. “Why thank you. I’m glad to see someone has at last grasped the scope of my vision.”

Jean rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Yeah, and he’s a crow.”

“A magical crow,” pointed out Nisrioch.

“He’s still a crow!” shouted Jean. “He EATS rotting things! I know! I feed them to him!”

Nisrioch grinned. “That’s really no way to be talking about your familiar, Miss Crow.”

“I am going to hate being your apprentice, aren’t I?” snarled Jean.

Nisrioch leaned his head forward in thought. “I hope not, but I must confess, it takes a steep learning curve to appreciate the wisdom that flows from me like a gentle river, dampening one’s feet with illumination, so that enlightenment gradually enters the body. Like a cold.”

Jean rubbed her temples. “Oh, yeah. It’s going to be great. I can tell.”

“That’s the spirit!” declared Nisrioch, slapping her cheerfully on the back. “Keen anticipation for the adventure ahead!”

Jean was trying to think of something to say to that, when much to her relief, something happened that made the whole discussion moot. “Uncle Nissy! Uncle Nissy!” came the cheerful voice of Malina, rushing towards them, soon followed by the cheerful form of Malina rushing towards them. She leapt up at her uncle, using her wings to give herself a boost. “It’s--oh--it’s--it’s…”

Nisrioch smiled fondly at his niece. “What is it, Flibbertigibbet?”

Malina stared at him wonder. “You HAVE to see! Everyone has to see! It’s--it’s--SO COOL!”

Jean watched the young girl rush away. “Are we--following her?”

Nisrioch glanced at his apprentice. “But of course, Miss Crow. My niece says she’s found something cool.” The Dark Lord rushed off after her. “Come! To ADVENTURE!”

Jean groaned. It had taken roughly ten minutes for being magical to become mostly a source of new annoyances.

And in the time since then, the new annoyances had insisted on multiplying.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Terrible Secret of Castle Terribel--Part 15

Justinian stood outside the doorway. The doorway he’d seen the Dark Lord Mansemat Cthonique come out of. Holding a bag. And swearing up and down that there was nothing of importance in the room he’d just left.

Justinian was torn. He was, as a member of the Order of the Sacristy of Saint Julian, sworn to fulfill the mission asked of him by Prince Amfortas, and try to gather information on what the Dark Lord was planning. He was also bound by the geas Nisrioch Cthonique had placed on him to not act against the wishes of the Cthoniques, or suffer what sounded like a painful and lingering death.

This was something of a dilemma, and Justinian was not sure he could find a way out of it. For example--he needed to find out what was in the room to fulfill his duty to the Order. But doing so would set off the geasi, and make sure that he would not fulfill his duty. He sighed. Perhaps--the Seven would send him an answer.

“HIIIIII!” shouted Malina appearing at his side. “Whatchya doing, Mister Siggy?”

Justinian turned and bowed to the young Cthonique. “Mistress Malina. I am merely--contemplating things. And what have you been doing on this fine day?”

Malina smiled at the Sacristan, and fiddled nervously with her horns. “Well, first I went with Auntie Morgaine, and she gave me a magic lesson until she said I was giving her headache, and so then I played hopscotch on the Forbidden Way of Dread, and then I went with Mommy Viv to Marsilion’s Folly to help her practice witchery.”

“Practice--witchery,” said Justinian slowly, staring at the Dev.

“Yes,” said Malina with a nod, her wings spreading slightly. “First, she blessed the crops, and then she blessed the wells, and then she blessed the beer, and then she helped a man with a toothache, and then she helped some children with fevers, and then she looked at the baby in a woman’s belly, and said it was fine, and then she straightened up a man’s leg that had gotten busted up.” She smiled eagerly, her red eyes wide. “I helped with the busted leg man!”

Justinian nodded. “Well--glad to see you and your stepmother had a good time--curing the sick and the lame.”

“Yes,” replied Malina, nodding again. “Mommy Viv is so COOL.” She looked at Justinian, seriously. “Why are you looking at the door, Mister Siggy?”

“Sigma,” said Justinian. “And I’m looking at the door because your father was in there earlier, though I have no idea what he was doing in there.”

Malina stared at the door in interest. “Oh. Do you think--there might be candy in there?”

Justinian blinked. “I--perhaps, milady. Or perhaps it is--say, some unholy army of constructs he’s working on his spare time to do his bidding.”

Malina’s eyes widened. “Wow. That would be cool. Almost as cool as the room being full of candy.” She looked at Justinian pointedly. “Why don’t you look in the room?”

Justinian took a deep breath. “Milady--the geasi your uncle placed me under compels me to never knowingly and willingly disobey the wishes of House Cthonique. Thus I cannot open the door.”

Malina nodded, seriously. “I’m part of House Cthonique.”

Justinian nodded. “Yes, you are.”

Malina looked at the door. “Open this. So we can look inside. I command it. And stuff.” She looked at him seriously. “It is--my wish.”

Justinian blinked. It appeared he’d found a loophole. “Very well, milady.” Justinian opened the door. Malina looked inside.

“Wow!” she declared. Justinian glanced inside.

What he saw was a total surprise.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Terrible Secret of Castle Terribel--Part 14

Elaine rushed down the hallways of Castle Terribel, clutching the book of Huon’s poems to her chest, and trying not to cry. Life, it occurred to her, was very unfair indeed, a fact Huon Sans Espoir had often stressed in his works.

This was made even more perfectly clear to Elaine when she ran into Morgaine Cthonique, causing the Dark Lord to fall to the ground, and drop her books.

“S-sorry!” said Elaine nervously, watching the diminutive Cthonique rub her aching behind . “I--it--I didn’t--see you…” She offered her hand. “Here.”

“Thank you,” declared Morgaine, taking it, and quickly pulling herself to her feet. She glanced around at her books, and clicked her tongue. “Oh, great.”

“I’ll help!” declared Elaine, kneeling to pick up books.

Morgaine watched her with dull surprise, before joining her. “Thank you again.”

“Really--it’s no problem,” muttered Elaine, handing Morgaine a book. “This is all--my fault.” She bit her lip, and picked up another book. “N--never really saw you as a reader.”

Morgaine nodded. “Oh, yeah. Big on the whole literacy thing.”

Elaine nodded. “I can see that.” She glanced at the title of the book she held. “The Garden of Feminine Delights. That sounds interesting,” she noted, flipping it open.

“Yeah, Elaine, you really shouldn’t…” said Morgaine, wincing.

Elaine took one look at the elaborate woodcut on the page the book opened on, blanched, shut the book, and nervously shoved it towards Morgaine. Morgaine gingerly picked it up.

The pair gathered books together in silence for awhile. Elaine throwing nervous glances at Morgaine the entire while. Finally, Morgaine turned on her. “Let me make something clear--while the present incident was NOT the ideal way for you to learn about--me--THIS is who I am, and if you don’t like it, tough. I can’t change who I am, and I wouldn’t if I could. Not for my father, and certainly not for you.” Morgaine’s narrowed her amber eyes. “He was a hell of a lot scarier.”

Elaine took a deep breath as she rose. “I--look, it’s not that--big an issue. I--was just a bit--startled--is all.” She winced. “Especially by all the… details.”

Morgaine stood up, dusting off her knees. “Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it,” she replied. “And no, that isn’t an offer. Aside from the family and age issues--you’re not my type.” She smiled, a distant gleam in her eye. “I like ‘em curvy.” Elaine gave a dull nod. Morgaine stared at her for a moment, then sighed. “Okay, something’s up. On a normal day, this would warrant a full freak-out from you. What gives?”

Elaine shut her eyes. “It’s--it’s nothing. Jean--Nisrioch did a little test. She’s a sorceress.”

Morgaine wrinkled her nose. “You’re kidding me!” She shook her head, and chuckled. “Nissy, you magnificent bastard…” She glanced at Elaine, now staring glumly at the floor. “Ohhh. This is less ‘Jean is a sorceress’, and more ‘You are NOT a sorceress’.”

“DAMN it, it’s not fair!” shouted Elaine. “I’d didn’t ask to be this--FREAK! I’m the daughter of the Badb! Magic should flow through my veins.” She sobbed. “Instead I’m just this--useless--OWWW!” She rubbed her backside. “What just…?”

“I used my powers to give you a swift kick in the backside,” drawled Morgaine. “Maybe not the most constructive of actions, but after four months of treading on eggshells and putting up with this weepy bullshit, I’ve run out of patience.” She looked Elaine in the eye. “You’re not useless because you don’t have any magic. Now quit whining about it before you change that.”

Elaine frowned. “It’s easy for you to say stuff like that. You’re one of the most powerful sorceresses in the Lands of Night! You have no idea what I’m going through.”

Morgaine took a deep breath and shook her head. “Oh, Darksome Lady, give me strength!” She glanced at Elaine. “You are really aiming for another kick, aren’t you? I mean--don’t you know that Mansemat and I are twins?”

Elaine blinked. “Umm--I--might have heard about that…” She gave a nervous frown. “It’s sort of easy to forget…”

“Yeah, because he’s his actual age, while I’m stuck at sweet sixteen forever and ever,” muttered Morgaine darkly. “Thanks, Dad. Bastard could have waited for me to get my last growth spurt in… Then I wouldn’t need to wear platform shoes at state functions…” She shut her eyes. “I’m getting off track. You do know about twins, don’t you?”

“Know what about--twins?” asked Elaine, curious despite herself.

“That sounds like a ‘no’,” said Morgaine. “In twin births of mystical lineages, one child gets all the magic, making it twice as powerful.” She looked at Elaine. “That was me. The other gets zip. That was Mansemat. So--yeah, I do have an idea what you’re going through. I grew up watching my brother being on the receiving end of it. And let me tell you--Shaddad was not thrilled to have a legal heir with no magic. Or a daughter with too much magic. Who’d had the temerity to be born first, complicating all sorts of legal issues. And when Dad wasn‘t happy--he made sure other people weren’t happy. In all sorts of--amusing ways.”

Elaine gulped. “Ummm--sorry, Morgaine. I had no… idea…”

Morgaine gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “Ehh, you’re a kid,” she said. “Being a self-absorbed moron comes with the territory.” She regarded Elaine seriously. “Just try to remember--you’ve got a lot of people around you who love the hell out of you, you whiny jackass.”

Elaine stared at her for a moment. “You are really, REALLY bad at being concerned. Do you know that?”

Morgaine laughed. “I’m an undead tribade. That makes it real hard to find paramours--at least--suitable ones--and that leads to all sorts of frustration.” She shrugged. “I cope as best I can.”

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Terrible Secret of Castle Terribel--Part 13

Justinian had been hoping that eventually the Nightfolk would stop singing, and he could finish his prayers in silence.

That had not happened. Instead, more and more had arrived in the chapel, joining in what appeared to be a rather exuberant celebration of their horrific evil god. Presently that meant more singing of their strange hymns.

‘Facing sharp sword or harsh flame
We shall still praise Thy name
Omnipotent Lady, Our Unholy Mother!
Though our bodies may ache,
Our souls won't forsake
Thy service for the will of another!
As we march for the cause of Night,
Keep us always in Thine Sight,
So we may keep to the ways of Right!’


Justinian shook his head as Quiet went into another organ solo. He never imagined he would WANT the Nightfolk to be sacrificing children. It would make things--easier to manage. He sighed, lit a candle to Sofiel, and began another prayer. “Ummm--Mister Sigma. Sir? I hope we’re not bothering you. It‘s just--we were cleaning here, and--it seemed all--dead, so we thought--well, maybe a quick sanctification…” came a familiar voice.

Justinian glanced over his shoulder and gave a nod. “Miss Eurydice. Good day.”

The Erl blushed a rather pretty pink. “Oh, don’t call me that, sir. I’m not a ‘miss’.” She glanced away. “Stewards and chambermaids serve. It’s our function. We don‘t need honorifics for that.”

Justinian glanced at his feet. “I’m--simply trying to be polite.”

Eurydice nodded. “I know that, sir, but--you wouldn’t be. You’d be saying that I’m something I’m not, and that’s an insult.” She blinked and looked away. “At least, by my measure. Sir.”

Justinian regarded her for a moment. “And it doesn’t bother you? Being a servant?”

Eurydice shrugged. “There’s honor in service, sir. We do for the Cthoniques, as they do for us. And so all prosper, in the Lady’s Sight.”

Justinian nodded as he went to Tamiel’s altar. “But they’re the ones living in the castle…”

“We all live Castle Terribel,” said Eurydice, frowning severely. “Well--some of the staff lives in Marsilion’s Folly, but that‘s practically the same as living in Castle Terribel!” She shrugged. “And--I hear you Milesians have Kings, and Lords, and stuff.”

“Well, certainly, but--”

Eurydice glanced around nervously. “And that some of them keep--bondsmen! And--land-slaves!”

Justinian stared at her in astonishment. “La--? You mean--serfs?” He shook his head. “Serfs aren’t…” He coughed. “Well, they aren’t exactly…” He glanced away. “Well, who does Lord Cthonique have farm his lands?”

Now it was Eurydice’s turn to stare in astonishment. “Lord Cthonique doesn’t own land that way!” she declared in tones similar to those used on a slow child. “He owns the land’s justice!”

Justinian was silent for a moment. “I’m not sure I understand you. How do you own… justice?”

Eurydice shook her head in wonder. “His Magnificence makes the laws on the Plains of Dread. He makes sure that they are followed. He makes sure that they are fair and equitable. That is how he owns justice.”

“And what if he decided the law let him have… land-slaves, and own land in the farming sense?” asked Justinian with an ironic smile on his face.

“Then he would cease to own the land’s justice,” replied Eurydice simply. “How could he keep what he chose to throw away?” She stared at him. “Do Milesians--let a Lord who decides justice means such things--stay a Lord?”

Justinian suddenly felt--ashamed, for some reason. “All of our lords would say that justice means exactly that. That there are masters, and… servants.”

“Uggh. Really?” Eurydice shuddered. “That sounds very… Maganza.” She blinked and smiled. “Oh! Do you have Things? To keep the Lords from getting too awful?” She took him by the arm. “You must have Things! Even the Maganzas have to deal with Things! You do have Things, don‘t you?”

Justinian sighed, and lit a candle to Anael. “I see I have--much to learn of your ways.” He glanced at her. “For example, I have no idea what you mean by ‘Things’.”

Eurydice looked down. “Umm. Sorry.”

Justinian went to Uriel’s altar. “It’s all right.” He lit a candle. Then considered and lit another one. And then lit one more, just to be on the safe side.

Eurydice gave him another smile. “You know--I--could help you--figure out--our ways. If you wanted.” She batted her eyelashes. Or more exactly, made a daring attempt at this.

“Ahh, yes. Well,” began Justinian nervously. “You know… I’m sworn to an ideal of perpetual chastity.”

Eurydice stared at him. “How--perpetual?”

“Perpetually perpetual,” replied Justinian. “There really isn’t a lot of--range in the concept.”

Eurydice nodded. “I… see.” She blinked then gasped. “I--umm--that is--I--I hope you didn’t think--I’m a good girl, sir!”

“Ummm--right!” Justinian laughed nervously. “I don’t. It never--I was--just making conversation.”

“Right!” declared Eurydice, nodding enthusiastically. “Neither of us was…” She coughed. “Well--you know. Saying anything… you know.”

Justinian nodded. “Of course.” He coughed and glanced away. “I should probably go now.”

“That would be wise, yes,” declared Eurydice.

Justinian turned to leave, and then glanced back at the chambermaid. “Why is… Palamedes glaring at me?”

“He’s my ex-fiancé,” she replied.

“Ahh.”

“I--really wouldn’t worry too much,” she said. “I mean, he has nothing to be angry about. And I think you could take him. If he did get angry. Which he has no reason to do.”

“Of course.” Justinian took a deep breath, and left the chapel as quickly as possible. Oh, yes. Things would have been so much simpler if the Nightfolk were all baby-slaughtering monsters. In all sorts of ways.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Terrible Secret of Castle Terribel--Part 12

“I apologize for the clutter,” noted Nisrioch. He smiled at Jean and Elaine. “I know it’s awfully inconsiderate of me, and I try to keep it under control, but--inspiration strikes, I act, and then am left wondering where to put the damn thing.”

Jean stared. “What--are those?”

“That’s my--well, I call it my wall of hats.” replied Nisrioch.

Jean managed a dull nod. “Those are--all hats?”

Nisrioch shrugged. “A man is known by the quality of his haberdashery.” He picked up a large broad-brimmed hat covered in strange studs. “This one glows in the dark. So you can find it at night!” He threw it back, and picked up another, which had a large brazier on top of it. “This one makes toast.”

Jean blinked. “Why would you…”

Nisrioch spread his hands. “When do you not need toast?” He shrugged. “I can never think of a time when toast doesn’t make things better. And with this hat, you’ll always have it ready at hand. Truly, you’ll be the toast of the town.” The Dark Lord burst out laughing. “Do you get it? ‘Toast’ as in ‘toasted bread’--and ‘toast’ as in ‘libation’!” Nisrioch shook his head. “Oh, Nisrioch--does your wit ever end?”

“Does it ever start?” muttered Jean under her breath.

Nisrioch glanced at her. “What was that?”

“What?” replied Jean innocently.

Nisrioch shrugged. “I thought I heard you say something.”

Jean shook her head. “Nope.”

“Are you sure?” asked Nisrioch, quirking a pale white eyebrow.

“I--might have--made a little noise,” said Jean, shifting uncomfortably. “While I was--stretching.”

Nisrioch nodded. “Stretching.”

Jean nodded back at him. “Stretching. It--it’s been a long walk.”

Nisrioch continued to nod. “Yes, it certainly has.” He pulled another hat off the wall. “This hat holds other hats. So you can change your hat whenever you want!” He pulled another hat out of it. “See?”

Elaine looked around the room, nervously. “Is there any sorcery here that… doesn’t involve hats?”

Nisrioch stroked his chin. “Quite a bit actually. But they don’t work well as clothing.” He bit his lip. “Except for the panteogalleass. And, unless precautions are taken, that can permanently cripple the wearer.” The two girls stared at him blankly. Nisrioch glanced around awkwardly. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” They continued to stare blankly. Nisrioch turned around. “Let me show you my astrolabe.”

The pair followed after him, walking past walls and benches filled with sputtering vials, strange tools, and in one particularly strange case, what appeared to be the preserved body of a leviathan. Nisrioch finally reached a black door, which he unlocked. He stepped inside and gestured for them to follow. They did so, and then simply stood there for a while.

“Wow,” said Jean, finally staring at the ceiling. A massive set of interlocking rings stood there, moving in perfect unison.

“Let’s me do my horoscopes when it’s cloudy,” said Nisrioch casually, putting on a pair of leather gloves. “Among other things.”

“How does all this run?” asked Elaine.

“With this,” said Nisrioch, taking a small black stone out of a small chest that lay on a nearby table. “Quintessence. Solidified Aether! The very font of magic!” He tossed the stone at Jean. “Catch!”

Jean reflexively grabbed the stone. “Hey! Watch it, you lunatic!”

“Bastard mother-raper!” cawed Hoppedance. Jean stared at the stone, which was lighting up with a purple flame.

“Is--is it supposed to do that?” she asked.

“Oh, yes,” said Nisrioch, taking off the gloves. “Assuming you’re a sorceress. Which you clearly are.”

Jean blinked. “Wha--what? I--I’m a river trader. And--not that good a river trader, actually.”

“Give the stone to Elaine,” said Nisrioch.

“Why…?” sputtered Jean.

Nisrioch smiled. “Please do so.” Jean scowled and handed the glimmering rock to her. Elaine hesitantly took it. As it did so, glow weakened, and finally died. Nisrioch nodded. “Quintessence is--something of a conductor of mystical force. Thus making it a very good way of detecting those with magical talent.” He gestured at Elaine, who was staring bleakly at the now inert rock. “For those without the Gift, such as Elaine, it is simply a stone. For those like you or I--it is a conduit for our power.”

Jean rubbed her temples. “I don’t have any power! I’m just an ordin--”

“Explain your familiar then,” declared Nisrioch, pointing at Hoppedance.

Jean stared at the crow. “He--he’s not a familiar! He’s just a trained crow--”

“Who understands human speech, and is capable of intelligently commenting on conversations,” noted Nisrioch. “With an admittedly limited vocabulary.”

“Go bugger yerself,” cawed Hoppedance.

“Case in point,” noted Nisrioch.

“That… I…” Jean looked away. “I just--trained him. Very well.”

“How?” asked Nisrioch. “How did you teach to talk? How did you teach him to do what you want?”

Jean frowned, and bit her lip. “I--told him what I wanted to do, and--he learned how to do it.”

Nisrioch nodded. “When I was a very young boy, I discovered that I could predict with stunning accuracy the fall of dice--the first stirrings of my Sight, the power which connects me to the very will of Heaven and Earth. I didn't study how to do this--I simply--did it.” He shrugged. “My sister Morgaine could levitate a table by the time she was eight. Because she wanted to.” He looked at Jean, his rainbow eyes focused on her. “The first stirrings of the Gift are not matters of knowing. They are matters of doing.” He turned away. “I wish to take you on as an apprentice. You have no objections?”

Jean glared at him. “You--you KNEW this, didn’t you? Back in Ulverrun. That’s WHY you wanted me as your little--magically-bound slave.”

“Servant,” said Nisrioch quietly. “And I--suspected back in Ulverrun. Which gave me another reason, among many others, to spare your life and take you into my service.”

Jean sputtered. “You--you…” She turned to Elaine. “Can you belie--?” And then she stopped. Elaine was staring at her with naked resentment. “Elaine--what…?” And then Elaine tossed the stone to the ground and ran out of the room. Jean watched her go, wondering what was wrong--and then it all hit her. “Nisrioch--I’m going to assume you know the answer to this question, what with being a magical genius and all around know-it-all. The daughters of Badbs are supposed to be really powerful sorceresses, aren’t they?”

The Dark Lord nodded. “The bloodline overflows with mystical power, as a general rule, yes. And mystical power is a prerequisite for the position.”

“Ahh,” said Jean. “So that’s why Elaine isn’t the Nemain.” She stared at Nisrioch. “And knowing all this--you brought her here to witness a girl you--dragged in off the street be revealed as A SORCERESS?”

“Yes,” drawled Nisrioch. “Miss Jean--I think you are starting to realize that behind my endless whimsy there are greater plans and designs. I do not, as a general rule, do things without reason and forethought.”

Jean shook her head and placed her hands on her hips. “So explain the wall of hats then?”

“Well, it’s not like I don’t also have hobbies,” replied Nisrioch. Jean stared at him blankly for awhile. Nisrioch smiled at her. “Oh! And speaking of the wall of hats--could you get the transpathogram?”

Jean blinked. “The…?”

“It’s the hat with all the glass globes on it,” replied Nisrioch. “I need to send some messages.”

Jean nodded. “Ahh.” She nodded again. “I’ll go get it.”

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Terrible Secret of Castle Terribel--Part 11

They were singing at the Chapel as Justinian walked through the heavy oaken doors. For about a minute, it seemed to him he was in the Lands of Light once again. Each of the Sacred Seven had their alcove and their altar, painted each in their proper colors--gold and silver, blue and purple, green, orange and red. Candles blazed before each of them, and everything sparkled.

And then he saw the large altar at the head of the Chapel. A large statue of a serene-looking woman wearing a crown, mounted upon a large dragon, and bearing a child in her arms stood there. And as he took that in, he began to absorb the song they sang.

“--And who shall have a flowery throne? Darksome Lady, show me the way! Oh, brothers, let’s go down----let’s go down--come on down--oh, brothers, down to the river to pray! As I went down to the river to pray…”

Justinian frowned to himself. Was there a limit to how much--blasphemy he would have to endure here? He turned towards Nisrioch, chatting with Jean and Elaine.

“--Actual work of Diomedes le Desirous,” he was saying, pointing at a stained glass window as Justinian approached. “You can see it in the vivid colors…”

“Dark Lord,” said Justinian through clenched teeth. “You neglected to mention that this is a Mikhelite chapel!”

Nisrioch nodded. “Indeed. Pallasian Mikhelites to be exact.” He shrugged. “What did you expect? Mikhelites are the only followers of the Seven and the Holy Light who live in the Lands of Night. My thrice-great grandfather built this chapel for the use of those whom House Cthonique happened to employ, Lord Enil being a tolerant, broad-minded man. His son Eregal was--less tolerant. Eregal’s son Melchizedek was tolerant, but not particularly interested in gaining the favor of a rather disliked minority. His son Tidal--” Nisrioch shut his eyes, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I’m sorry. I do tend to ramble on the family history. Suffice it to say--this chapel did not lead to the great age of acceptance the Mikhelites envisioned. Not for a while anyway.”

Justinian took a deep breath. “A most instructive look at this building’s history, Lord Nisrioch. Now--do you expect me to make my offerings here?”

“Oh, come on, Sigma!” snapped Jean. “Do you think they have an extra, more appropriate chapel tucked away somewhere? This is as good as it’s going to get, and you have to admit, it’s better than you expected.”

“‘The Seven are Sun and Moon, Wind and Storm, Earth, Wave and Fire,’” recited Nisrioch, “‘but They are also Justice, Faith, Courage, and Love. Where Good is, They are.’” He smiled gently. “Whatever theological differences I might have with him, I have to admit, your Julian had a way with words.” Nisrioch placed a hand on Justinian’s shoulder. “Those things are here. Good is here. And thus--by your count, the Seven are also here.”

Justinian glanced around the room, his eyes falling on those stained glass windows Nisrioch had been pointing out earlier. They showed a strange and blasphemous creation tale. Doumah Dalkiel rested on a dragon, holding a shining child to her breast. The words “The Holy Light She Bore For Us,” were written below. On the next, Dalkiel and the child--Mikhel apparently--were crafting a man of gold and a woman of silver--Uriel and Anael, he realized. “The Sun And Moon She Made For Us,” were written below. The next one showed the pair making two men. Justinian recognized Orifiel and Ramiel immediately by their respective wings and thunderbolt. “She Causes The Wind To Blow And The Storms To Rage For Us,” it said below. The next one showed Tamiel rising from the waves, and Sofiel rising from the ground at Dalkiel’s beckoning. “She Made The Great Waters, And The Good Earth For Us,” declared the window. The next window showed fiery Jehuel bowing before Dalkiel. “The Mighty Fire She Brought To Us.” The final window, placed behind the altar showed the Seven gathered around Dalkiel in adoration, Mikhel on her lap. The dragon circled around them, enfolding them all. Written above and below the figure were the words, “From Her All Things Come, To Her All Things Go. Praise And Adore Her With Great Rejoicing, Lady Of All Darkness, Queen Of Sacred Night, Mother To Creation.”

Justinian shut his eyes. “I--must pray and give offering.” He wandered over to the Jehuel’s altar, and prepared.

A short, slightly chubby Erl in the dress of a Guardsman approached Nisrioch. “Your Excellency,” he said with a bow.

“Ahh, Palamedes Woodash,” declared Nisrioch, bowing in return. “Excellent to see you. How’s old Persante doing?”

“Very well, Dark Lord,” replied Palamedes, handing Nisrioch a letter. Nisrioch peeled it open, read it, and stared for a moment. Finally he coughed, and turned.

“So--how about our next stop is my mystical laboratory?” he said with a smile. “I have a little business there it seems.”

Elaine blinked. “Umm--sure. That sounds--fun.”

Jean sighed. “As long as it doesn’t turn out like the… special collection.” She shuddered slightly. Hoppedance seemed to consider cawing--and then stopped. Jean looked at Justinian. “Umm--are you--coming with us?”

Justinian looked at her, from his place before Ramiel’s altar. “I’ll--stay here. For a while, at least.”

Jean gave him a sympathetic nod. “See you then.”

Justinian went back to his prayers. Oh, Mighty Ramiel, forgive me my trespasses. Be as Thunder at my back, as Lightning to my enemies

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Terrible Secret of Castle Terribel--Part Ten

“We should be at the Chapel shortly,” declared Nisrioch. “Sadly, Lord Enil had to build it in what was then the outer walls, which has resulted in it being quite a hike from the library.” He glanced around. “Through some rather boring halls I’m afraid. Though I believe Great Uncle Nerghal murdered my grandfather hereabouts.” He glanced at the wall. “Ahh, yes. There’s the indelible bloodstain.” He pointed to a reddish-brown smear. “Been there for… thirty-eight years now. Or so I’m told.”

Jean shuddered slightly, and glanced at Elaine. “Man, that’s creepy.”

“Yeah, well--this place is full of stuff like that,” Elaine noted. “I mean, if you think this is bad, you don’t want to know about the Lost Room.”

Jean blinked. “The--what?”

“The Lost Room,” said Elaine. “Castle Terribel’s been built in fits and starts. Once during a bit of construction, they… lost a room. Sealed it up by mistake, rearranged the hallways, and couldn’t find it again.” She bit her lip. “Unfortunately, there were a few workers still in it…”

“I see someone knows her history,” declared Nisrioch cheerfully.

“Yeah, you Cthoniques sure make a lot of it,” she muttered. “Usually in the most unpleasant ways.”

Nisrioch nodded. “Point well taken.”

There was a long uncomfortable silence. Finally, Jean sidled up to Elaine. “I--was just wondering,” she whispered. About your father…”

“Lord Mansemat is not--” began Elaine.

“No,” said Jean. “that’s not what I meant. The--the Milesian. Who died. You think.”

Elaine’s face grew grave. “Oh. That.” She sighed. “If you want me to tell you the story, I barely know it myself. Mom--doesn’t talk about those times. Though sometimes--she--she cries.” She shook her head. “There was a war going on. Lord Shaddad wanted to--oh, hell, who am I kidding? He conquered the Accursed Marsh. Wiped out most of my family. Dad--I don’t know. I think he was some--villager Mom liked, and…” She bit her lip. “It was a war. People did--they… things happened that wouldn’t happen normally. I think he got killed when Lord Shaddad came back over the Murkenmere. Probably by Shaddad’s people. Maybe by Pelleas’. I don’t know. I don’t think Mom does either. Not that I’ve ever asked.”

Jean nodded. “I--I have an idea what you’re going through. My--I never knew my mother. She--died when I was very young. An accident, I think.”

Elaine turned and regarded the former river trader for a moment. “And--you don’t remember her at all?”

“I have vague memories of a woman who’d rock me in her arms and sing lullabies.” Jean shrugged. “But I don’t even know if that’s her, or just--some friend of Dad’s.” She smiled ironically. “He had a lot of those.”

“Bugger--” began Hoppedance.

Jean glanced at her pet. “You just don’t know how to take a hint, do you?”

Justinian stepped back. “Is everything all right? You two seem rather… doleful.”

Jean glanced at him. “We’re looking at decades old-bloodstains and talking about phantom rooms. Of course we’re doleful.”

Justinian nodded, and looked at Elaine. “So--what do you expect Lord Mansemat was doing in that room?”

Jean glowered at him. “Something that’s none of your business.” She shook her head. “Honestly, you’re much too obvious, you know that?”

“I suppose I am,” he answered with a sigh. “Worrying about a Dark Lord doing something I don’t understand, in a room I know nothing about. I’m funny like that.”

Elaine bit her lip. “I--it’s probably nothing. Mansemat takes the silliest things seriously sometimes.”

Justinian nodded. “I think we’re rather alike in that.”

“We’re here,” announced Nisrioch, pointing to the oaken doors.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Terrible Secret of Castle Terribel--Part Nine

Elaine clutched the book of Huon’s poems to her chest. “--‘And if my sincerity you deny, stab my heart, so that I bleed, groan then die’.” She looked at Jean. “Isn’t that just the essence of love?”

Jean frowned. “It’s the essence of--something.” She glanced at the young girl. “Did he and whoever he wrote that to--get together?”

“Oh, no,” said Elaine, shaking her head. “She married someone else. And he tried to kill himself by walking into the sea. With rocks in his pockets.”

“Yeah, I sort of figured the story would be something like that,” said Jean, with a nod. “So--how’d the suicide attempt go?”

“He lived, but he caught pneumonia, and was an invalid for the next five years.” Elaine sniffed. “He was such a sad, lonely man!”

Jean rolled her eyes. “Yeah. I wonder why.” Jean glanced ahead at Justinian, still walking in a sullen daze, and Nisrioch, chatting cheerfully.

“--Of course, the secret is the pistachios,” Nisrioch explained. “They’re what gives the iced cream such a delightful flavor!”

Justinian nodded dimly. “Ahh.”

Nisrioch glanced around. “Of course, Morgaine prefers peaches. She has a bit of sweet tooth you know. Even for this family.”

Justinian gave another dim nod. “Indeed.”

Jean decided to stay out of what was doubtless a rather involved conversation already. “Hey--you know what the big deal with Lord Shaddad is?” she asked Elaine. “I mean--I know why they hate him in the Lightlands, but you’d think…”

Elaine stared at the former river trader. “Well, I personally hate Shaddad Cthonique because he killed a lot of my relatives before I even got a chance to know them. And had a bounty out on my mother. And probably would have put one on me, if he’d known I’d existed.” She shrugged. “Most people--it’s something similar. Or just the fact that--you know, he was a vile murderous tyrant who tried to conquer all the Lands of Night, resulting in a lot of people getting dead.. Then pissed the Lightlanders off so that they came over and made even more people get dead.”

Jean gave an impressed nod. “Yeah, that sounds like a good way to get on people’s bad side.” She coughed. “So--your--stepfather’s--father tried to kill your mother…”

“Yeah, I know,” said Elaine, shaking her head. “In his defense, Mansemat put an end to the bounty. Before he even MET mom, by the way. A matter of pure principle for him. He was even going to give her back the Marsh, before the whole--you know--”fall passionately in love and get married” thing took it off the--” And then she stopped.

Mansemat Cthonique had stepped out of a large door in front of them, and was now carefully locking it. He was carrying a small canvas bag. “Oh. Hello, Elaine. Miss Jehannine.”

Elaine nodded dully. “Hey.”

Jean bowed. “Hello, sir.” She gave him a nervous smile. “And really--it’s Jean. Or ‘Jehannine’ if you want to get formal.”

“Very well, Jehannine,” noted Mansemat, before turning his attention back to Elaine. “So, I see you’ve finally checked out the palace library.”

Elaine nodded. “Yeah. It was okay.”

“Okay?” Jean guffawed. “You’ve been in ecstasy for the last half-hour.”

Elaine glared at Jean for a moment, then sighed. “Okay, fine. It’s amazing. It’s the most amazing library in the world. Are you happy?”

Mansemat smiled. “I’m pleased that you’re enjoying yourself, yes.”

Elaine glanced at the doorway he’d come out of. “So--what’s in that?”

Mansemat blinked. “Why--nothing. Nothing really. Just--an old room. That I’ve been clearing some stuff out of.” He raised the bag. “See? Stuff.”

Nisrioch had turned around, Justinian trailing behind him. “Why, Mansemat--what are you doing in the--?”

“--In the old room that is completely unimportant?” snapped Mansemat, glaring at his brother. “Why, simply clearing stuff out of it.”

Nisrioch nodded. “Oh, right. That. Well, let’s go on our way. Ignoring the old room that isn’t important at all!” At which point, he broadly winked at his brother.

Mansemat winced. “Yeah. Nicely handled, Nissy.”

Justinian looked at the doorway. “What--is in that room?” he asked quietly.

“Nothing!” declared Mansemat.

“Right. It isn’t unimportant,” declared Nisrioch, who then blinked. “That’s to say, it IS important.” He blinked again. “Unimportant. It is unimportant.” He snapped his fingers. “Knew I could get it.”

Mansemat snorted. “Yes, brother, you are the cunning master of deception.” He gave a frustrated snarl and began to walk away. “I’ll just take all this to the Gallery of Agony.”

“That’s the torture room,” explained Nisrioch.

“That we USE for storage these days!” shouted Mansemat. “When we use it at all!” He began to turn away, then glanced again at Nisrioch. “Say--was it built by our great-great-grandfather or our great-aunt?”

“Lord Eregal had it built. Lady Ninsun added the more--elaborate devices.” Nisrioch shrugged. “She was an… enthusiast.”

Jean nodded. “Interesting… piece of family history.”

Mansemat walked away quickly. “Oh, yes. We have so many--lovably quirky members of the family tree,” he noted acidly.