Saturday, July 31, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 30

Elaine sighed. Mansemat, Nisrioch and her mother were in a detailed discussion over who got to do the Benediction at tonight’s feast. Exactly the sort of ceremonial minutiae that dominated Nightland religious practice. Sometimes she was almost glad that Shaddad had destroyed the local religious Colleges. Though she really shouldn’t be. Especially considering HOW he’d done that.

“Look, Nissy, no one is arguing that you’re the eldest,” said Mansemat. “But I am still Dark Lord of Castle Terribel, Her master in matters temporal and spiritual!”

“Ahh,” said Nisrioch. “But I am a Master of both Deep and Deeper Mysteries, AND an Initiate in the Deepest Mysteries to boot. And that is aside from the mystical position of a first son!”

Viviane coughed, and raised her hand. “Ahem! The Badb! Mistress of All Witchery! Queen of the Old Magic!”

“Which is very high ranking, Viv,” said Nisrioch. “But has no traditional place in Castle Terribel protocol.” Viviane arched one thin eyebrow. Nisrioch crossed his arms. “You can glare at me all you want, Viv. It won’t change the facts.”

Viv raised the other eyebrow. Mansemat frowned at his elder brother. “I believe that what my darling wife is trying to tell you in her own inimitable manner, Nisrioch, is that regardless of protocol and tradition, she’s now a vital part of Castle Terribel.” Viviane smiled at her husband, who smiled back at her, then turned towards Nisrioch again. “That said--I should do it.”

Viviane gave an exasperated snarl. “Oh, come on, Manny!”

Mansemat shrugged. “I worship and adore you, nightshade petals, but this is ritual we’re talking about. I really don’t want to muck about with it.”

Elaine glanced back at the Ashurana airship, which, presently, could not land fast enough for her. “Hey, something’s happening,” she noted.

The trio turned to look up. “Ahh, yes,” said Nisrioch. “Belberith has decided to make a dramatic entrance.” He gestured to the row of winged figures descending from the airship. “And--no herald either. Interesting.”

Morgaine snorted. “Oh, classic Belberith. Remind everyone that he’s so sure of himself, he doesn’t NEED to keep safe. And, lo--we all look upon the great man with wonder and awe.” She shook her head.

Jean glanced at Nisrioch. “So--nice to finally meet ‘her’…”

Nisrioch blinked and glanced at his apprentice. “Pardon?”

“Your mystery woman!” said Jean. “The one that’s got you out of joint! The Ogre! Whatsername!”

Nisrioch blinked again. “You mean--Idun? The skald!”

Jean nodded, with a smile. “Yep! That’s her!” She shook her head. “What did you do to her?”

Nisrioch fidgeted. “Ahh. That is--an interesting story. But she’s NOT the woman you’re thinking of--”

Nisrioch’s explanation stopped as Belberith flew directly overhead, the sound of his immense wings “House Cthonique!” the Dev shouted. “I, Belberith Ashurana, Dark Lord of the Mountains of Sorrow, Sovereign of the Dev, the Ashurana of Qaf, Supreme Duke of the South, and Presidium of the Shadow Council, have come at your request! Do you grant House Ashurana your peace?”

Mansemat nodded. “We do, sir!”

The Dev landed neatly in front of the Cthoniques, and elegantly bowed. “Then know I accept it!“ declared Belberith ringingly. And Elaine got her first clear look at Belberith Ashurana.

He was much older than Mansemat--in his late fifties at least--but despite that he was tall and muscular, a slight paunch and a receding, grey hairline the only real concessions his years had gotten from him. His horns were long and curled like those of a ram, while his grey beard was lengthy and immaculately groomed. His clothing was rich, but in a subtle manner, from his fine fur-mantled shirt of purple silk, to his gleaming, knee-high black leather boots. He regarded the Cthoniques with a distracted air, as the other Devs landed behind him, bowing in turn.

A female Dev in a yellow dress stepped to Belberith’s side and bowed. “I, the Lady Alcina Ashurana, Dark Lord of the Vale of Woe, the Ashurana of Albracca, and Geat of the South, also accept!” she declared. Her face, Elaine decided, was rather severe, with a pointed chin, and thin lips pressed in a frown, while her horns were long and thin. As she stood straight, Alcina clapped her hands together. “Well, that’s done. Now, let’s see Her Precious Grace.”

Malina stepped forward nervously, while Belberith gave his daughter a slightly reproachful glance. “Hello, Auntie Alse!” chirped the young Dev. She glanced over to Belberith and bowed nervously. “Grandpa.”

“Hello, dear” said Belberith, nodded mildly, while Alcina dove forward.

“Aggh! Auntie Alse!” protested a squirming Malina as Alcina inspected her horns.

“Oh, hush, Mal,” said Alcina. “This is for your own good. Now--spread your wings.” Malina pouted slightly and unfolded them. Alcina ran her hands over them, and then gave a slight smile and nod. “Very nice!” She glanced at the Cthoniques. “Her wings are growing just as they should!”

Viviane frowned. “We could have told you that.”

Alcina nodded, standing up. “Ah, yes. Because you all have such great experience with having wings.” She coughed. “Please pardon me, Mistress du Lac. I care very deeply for my niece, and I want to make sure that when I see her, she enjoys some of the attentions she requires that the… present situation has denied to her.” She tussled Malina’s head. “I just want Malina to be--all right.”

Malina smiled and fluttered her wings. “I’m fine, Auntie Alse! And I’m a real good flyer!” She leapt up into the air, wings flapping frantically. She remained airborne for almost half a minute, then fell on the ground with a yelp. She sniffled, and then began to bawl. “It n-never WORKS when I want it to!”

Alcina knelt and wrapped her arms around her niece. “Oh, you silly, precious little poppet!” declared the Dev fondly, stroking Malina’s hair. “Not even Ahrimanes himself could have managed to get himself aloft that way!” She pulled away. “Our wings and our magic can only do so much, dear. We must let the wind do the rest. And thus--it helps to start from a high place.” Alcina spread her wings. “If I may demonstrate…” And then suddenly she vanished, reappearing high above in the sky. Diving forward gracefully, she twirled in the air, then circled down, coming to a landing before the Cthoniques.

“See?” Alcina stated, smiling at her niece. And as a laughing Malina rushed forward and gave her aunt a hug, it occurred to Elaine that the older Dev didn’t look so--severe now. Though that changed when Belberith coughed.

“Are we--quite done with this?” asked the elder Dark Lord quietly.

“Of course, father,” stated Alcina, gently stepping away from Malina. “Why ever should we risk a prolonged display of affection?” She watched Malina step back into the crowd with something akin to regret.

Belberith turned back towards Mansemat. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am afraid these old bones don’t handle travel as well as they used to.” He gave a half bow. “I shall retire to my chamber for a brief rest, then rejoin you at the feast.” He gestured towards Alcina. “I shall leave all arrangements for House Ashurana in my daughter’s capable hands, for the time being.”

Mansemat nodded. “Naturally, sir.” A hostess stepped forward. “Young Miss Ops here shall show you to your chambers. In the Basilisk Wing.”

Belberith nodded politely as the young Erl woman took his hands. “That sounds delightful. Adieu.”

As he walked out of sight, Nisrioch stepped forward, and took Alcina’s hand. “Alcina.” He raised it to his lips and kissed it.

Alcina regarded her fellow Dark Lord with a cynical smile. “Nisrioch. You look well.”

“And you look--exquisite,” replied Nisrioch, lowering the hand. “As always.”

Alcina nodded subtly, her smile becoming almost taunting. “I know.” She gestured behind her. “I don’t believe I’ve introduced you to Medoro.” A handsome young male Dev, his brown hair hanging neatly to his shoulders, stepped behind Alcina, looking for all the world like he’d rather be somewhere else at the moment. Alcina placed a fond hand on Medoro’s shoulder. “He’s my personal assistant.”

Nisrioch stared at young Medoro, with just the faintest twitching in his right eyelid. “Ahh.” He offered his hand. “A pleasure to meet you.” Nisrioch glanced at Alcina. “So--what exactly do his duties entail?”

“Absolutely nothing,” replied Alcina gleefully. “And he does it well.”

Nisrioch released Medoro’s trembling hand, frowning severely. “I seem to recall, dearest Alse, that I was quite good at… ‘absolutely nothing’.”

“Why, Nisrioch!” declared Alcina with a chuckle. “An honest appraisal of yourself!” She patted him on the cheek. “There’s hope for you after all, sweetness.”

Nisrioch choked a snarl and then laughed. “Ahh, how you thwart me, my lovely one. But--I forgive you. It’s part of your--allure.” He turned to Medoro and shook his heads. “Oh, the tales I could tell you, my lad! They’d curl your hair!”

Alcina covered Medoro’s ears. “Despoiling my poor innocent darling’s ears with filth, precious?” She shook her head. “For shame. For shame! What is House Cthonique coming to? Is all gallantry dead?”

“Slain at your pretty hands, my perfect delight,” declared Nisrioch. He grabbed her hand and held to his chest. “If you wish, Madame, you may check for a heartbeat.”

Mansemat stepped forward with a slight cough. “Perhaps it would be best if Lady Alcina would come with Viviane and myself to take care of House Ashurana’s--arrangements.” He smiled mildly, but forcibly. “Now.”

Alcina pulled away from Nisrioch. “I believe that would be best.” She glanced at Viviane, who was being tugged to Mansemat’s side by Malina, and frowned slightly. “I almost forgot to congratulate you, my dear Badb. Marital and romantic happiness with a Cthonique.” She glared at Nisrioch. “I’d come to believe it was a fairy tale.” She clapped her hands together. “Come now, Medoro.” The young Dev gulped and followed the retreating group of Dark Lords.

There was silence for a moment afterwards. Finally, Jean glanced at Nisrioch. “I thought Mansemat and her sister were the ones who were married.”

Morgaine snorted. “Oh, you got it right. You really should have been there for the ceremony.” She looked at her brother. “Isn’t that right, Nissy?”

Nisrioch nervously twiddled his fingers. “Look, Alcina and I can’t blamed for that. It was a lovely ceremony, and we were both simply overcome with emotion. Also, we both apologized to the Abbe. And the Sisters. Once they stopped crying.”

“Uh huh,” said Morgaine with a dull nod. “So should we remember to knock before opening any broom closets for the duration of THIS Occasion?”

Nisrioch turned angrily towards his sister. “Now see here! That’s unfair! It was a PANTRY!” The others stared at him quietly. He glanced away. “Well, it was.”

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 29

“Heh! Did you see her try to get in front of me?”

Armida smiled gently at Ull Regni, Son of Thunor, Dark Lord of the Iron Fangs, and Konig Muspeilheim, who was presently lounging on an exceedingly comfortable-looking couch. “Who do you mean, Your Prominence?”

The Ogre laughed, sitting up in merriment. “Who do I mean? Her Eminence, of course! Who else could I mean? Skadi Utgardi!”

“Ah. I see.” Armida considered things for a moment. “I must say, I did not see things that way.”

“HA!” Ull leaned to the side and slapped his herald, Idun Bragi, on the shoulder. “Clever this one! Very diplomatic!” He shook his head. “I’m starting to understand this ‘hostess’ thing you Plainsfolk go for. Very charming!”

Idun glared daggers at the female Erl from her chair near the Scarlet Chamber’s largest window. “Charming. Yes. That’s one word for it.” The skald frowned some more, then very pointedly looked away, casting her eyes on the approaching Ashurana airship.

Armida bowed at the Ogres from her seat. “You are both too kind. Especially Your Prominence.” Truth be told, she was enjoying the Muspeilun’s company, even if his manners bordered somewhere between ridiculous and atrocious. The man was kind and good-natured, and that overcame a great deal in Armida’s books. Idun was proving a more difficult prospect, but Armida was fairly sure she could get the skald on her side. No one had ever accused Armida of being unable to make friends.

Ull chuckled to himself, still in the middle of some delightful reverie. “Skadi Utgardi! What a virago! The most objectionable Utgardi in decades. Possibly centuries. Perhaps of all time.” He shook his head, and idly scratched one of his bright-red muttonchops. “She’s my sworn enemy, you know.”

Armida nodded. “I’d heard that was true of all Utgardis and Regnis.”

Ull nodded. “It’s especially true of us! We’ve each got proper sworn oaths to bring each other to the utmost misery and woe before we end our lives! Witnesses and everything!”

Armida, despite her years of training, arched an eyebrow. “You will allow me to say--that seems excessive.”

Ull laughed. “Excessive to you, maybe! All you Flatlanders don’t get how we live up in the Fangs.” He shook his head. “There’s the murder of kin involved! My father did for her father and her brother, and Skadi did for him.”

Armida nodded. She had more than an inkling what the proper response was. “My goodness! That sounds like quite the fascinating tale!”

“It is!” declared Ull, his tone cheerful, but his eyes strangely--driven. “I’ll share it with you. So you know how it is.” He cracked his knuckles. “It all started when Lord Shaddad decided to meddle up in the Fangs. He wanted to make sure my family didn’t head down while he was putting the Wood and the Marsh under his heel. A full-fledged war between the Stone and Ironfangs seemed like the best way to do it--and it worked, damn the oily bastard. Lord Thiafli--Skadi’s father--was a bitter old fool, and he jumped at the first offer Castle Terribel gave him. A few thousand marks, and Shaddad Cthonique bought himself a war in the Fangs.” Ull Regni tapped his fingers idly on the table that lay nearby. “Always thought he bought it a bit cheap, really. Considering what it got him. Which was probably the idea.” He sat there, silent for a moment, then smiled and continued.

“Well, it all started off very well for old Thiafli. He won the first few battles, captured my older brothers and put them to death by burning.” He looked at Armida pointedly. “It was an insult, you see. Muspeilun like to say that we’re the Folk of Fire, but he wanted to show us that in the end, we burn like everyone else.” The Dark Lord shrugged. “There was something personal about it, too. Thiafli married late, had himself only one son. Father’d had three by that point, and he liked to rub Thiafli’s nose in it. Made sure there were always plenty of skalds singing about old rams not siring any lambs and the like in the Fangs. All very amusing. Until it wasn’t.” The Muspeilun shrugged again, a rather troubled frown on his face. “Now, Thiafli started out with good fortune, but he didn’t invest it well, so it ran out quick,” Ull gave a quick shake of his head. “Father managed an incredible surprise attack on him, wiped out his main forces, caught him and Thyrm--that was his son.”

Armida smiled. “I’d always heard that Lord Thunor was a great warrior.”

Ull’s frowned briefly, only to force his face into a smile. “War was my father’s pleasure and his delight. I sometimes think that if things had gone only a little differently, it would be Lord Thunor we’d talk of, instead of Lord Shaddad.” He coughed. “Well, Father was facing a quandary. He wanted to kill Thiafli and Thyrm--but he had to make their deaths more--novel than those of my brothers’. A terrible pickle, that.”

The Ogre stood up and went to the window. “He figured something out. Oh, yes. Can’t fault my father with a lack of creativity. It was winter. He took Thiafli and Thyrm out to Lake Glassglimmer, dressed in fine robes--so they’d look their best, he said--and he cut a hole in the ice. And then--he explained that as Thiafli had given his sons to fire. he was going to give Thiafli and his son to ice. And he dipped them in.” The forced levity had drained completely out of Ull’s voice by this point, to be replaced by something else, something quiet and wounded. “I was there, you see. Father--I was his heir now, and he wanted me to--not be such a poltroon, was how he put it. Had to get used to the bastards dying. I was going to be seeing plenty more from now on. Well, Thyrm, he screamed going down, he screamed in the water, and he screamed when they took him out and tied him to the post. But Thiafli--he tried to stay calm. Until they dipped him in. Then he started to yell, and scream, and thrash about…” Ull bit his lip and glanced at Armida. “The water gets cold in the winter up in the Fangs. So cold it burns. And Thiafli and Thrym were in all those fancy clothes, all silk and samite, thin stuff that holds water… It--froze around them. He left them tied to posts on the castle wall. In frozen clothing. Eventually, they stopped screaming. But--they were still a long time dying.”

Ull frowned to himself. “Afterwards, we sent the bodies back to the Stonefangs. Father--deemed it proper. But we had to change the clothes--the stuff they’d died in was ruined. Only--it didn’t come off right. They had to--peel it off. And it took bits of--them with it…” And then, suddenly, it happened. Ull stopped talking and pitched forward, his hands clutching his knees. He began to breath in and out very quickly. Armida left her chair and began to head to his side, only for the Dark Lord to wave her back. Eventually, he stood up again, smiling once more.

“My apologies. Nerves. Happens--every now and then.” Ull shook his head. “Well, the Jotuns didn’t stand for getting their king and heir back in that condition, and Shaddad had just managed to cement his control of the Shadow Wood, so… they came after us, the Frost Jarls, with Skadi at their head. Father caught a few arrows at Jormangdr Peak, and that was that.” He smiled gently. “She just left his body where it lay. Said Thunor Regni had been more dog than man in life, and that the dogs were welcome to him now. Well, I had to swear revenge for that. Custom and my Jarlthing demanded it! So I did. And she swore revenge on me. And that’s how it stands.”

Armida regarded the Muspeilun for a moment with her mismatched eyes. “It sounds like you have--very deep feelings on this matter.”

“Oh, yes,” said Ull with a cheery nod. “The woman’s a virago! A positive termagant! Skadi Utgardi! The bane of my existence!”

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 28

Eurydice le Fidèle glanced out the window, and nodded, There it was, another airship, this one showing colors of silver and purple. The Ashuranas had arrived. The Grand Occasion was progressing quickly.

Eurydice frowned, and scrubbed the windowsill a bit harder. Like any good Plainsfolk, she couldn’t quite approve of the Ashuranas. Oh, they weren’t sworn foes of the Cthoniques, like the Maganzas or the Regnis--in fact, they’d been allies of the House more often than not over the years. But it was always a cold friendship, and the Ashuranas had never hesitated to put the knife in when it suited them. Most recently during the Rising. And that did it. An unreliable friend who’d betray you whenever they felt it was to their advantage was a great deal worse than an enemy who could be prevailed to work with you when it was important.

And there was something else. The Regnis and the Cthoniques had an old feud--but they both saw eye to eye on the general idea of how things were to be run. The Maganzas didn’t--but centuries of butting heads with the Goblin Trade Guilds and Town Things had taught them there were some things one had to accept. But the Ashuranas were southerners, and Devs to boot. They had their own way of running things, and it was considerably loftier and less pleasant than most of the other Great Houses. That had been demonstrated by their many visits with the Cthoniques over the years. And of course--Lady Falerina. Among others.

Eurydice nodded to herself. Definitely not the proper sort of Dark Lords. Not that the proper sort of steward would ever say anything about that. At least, to their face. That was what class meant.

Echidnae Bluebell leaned over her friend’s shoulders. “Ooooh! The Ashuranas!” She clapped her hands together. “Isn’t this exciting, Eurydice?”

Eurydice frowned to herself, and wondered exactly where her dear childhood friend Echidnae had become--the improper sort of steward. “Dust that shelf,” she said calmly, pointing to a rather high set in the corner of the room.

Echidnae frowned. “Ohhhh! I’m going to have to get the ladder!”

Six years ago, decided Eurydice. During Echidnae’s brief, but passionate entanglement with Gereint Birdwhistle. “Then you get the ladder,” said Eurydice. “This chamber shall be completely dusted.”

Echidnae sniffed and turned away. “You’re turning into your father--you realize that?”

“I consider that an honor,” replied Eurydice loftily. She clapped her hands together. “Now--the ladder!”

Echidnae was about to head out, when Palamedes Woodash popped in. “Ahh! Eurydice! Echidnae!” the chubby Guardsman declared. He took a deep breath, and rubbed his hands together nervously. “Urgent business. If you please,” he declared, a hint of desperation in her voice.

Eurydice frowned at him. It was times like this she wondered why she’d accepted his troth in the first place. Still--that was over now. And his fault too. “We don’t please,” she said. “Tell us anyway.”

Palamedes nodded. “Ahh. Yes. Well--have either of you seen an Erl. A man. About my height. Much--less substantial. Dark hair.”

Eurydice raised an eyebrow. “That’s--nearly half of the Castle staff, Palamedes.”

Palamedes gulped and looked away nervously. “I--I suppose you’re right.” Suddenly, his face brightened. “He’s a southerner. And--and--he was wearing a hat.”

Eurydice sighed. “Aren’t you supposed to--watch things in the Guard?”

Palamedes gulped. “Y-yes. I--I’m working on it.”

Echidnae looked at Palamedes in interest. “What did he do?”

“He--delivered some wine--look, Mr. Subtle can explain it best,” stammered Palamedes.

Antigone Gorice popped in the doorway. “The Eastern Wing is fini--” She glanced at Palamedes, then turned to Eurydice. “What does he want?”

Eurydice shrugged. “Apparently he’s looking for someone who looks like him. Only thinner. And a southerner. For reasons Balthazar Subtle can explain.”

“It’s complicated!” Palamedes wailed at Antigone. He turned to Eurydice again, rubbing his temples. “Maybe--if I could see the Old--your father…”

Eurydice sighed. “I’ll take you right to him.”

Antigone grinned. “Mind if I tag along? This seems strangely fascinating.”

Eurydice smiled. “I could use some intelligent company.” She glanced at Echidnae. “Go get the ladder.” As she headed out of the room, with Palamedes and Antigone on her heels, she suddenly realized what had made her accept his troth.

Pity. That had been it. It occurred to her that this hadn’t necessarily been the wisest thing to base a prospective marriage on, and that it really was for the best that they hadn’t gone through with it. Though the betrothal’s horrible, hideous ending was still completely his fault, and she would hate him for as long as he lived for putting her through that ordeal.

This seemed perfectly fair and equitable to her.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 27

Balthazar Subtle glanced around the kitchen. “A very pleasant set-up you have here,” he declared, rubbing one gloved finger on a shelf.

Calchas Woodash nodded. “We try to keep it cozy.” His brother Persante nodded emphatically as he stirred his pot.

Subtle began to rub his fingers together, staring at them intently. “Very, very decent of you,” he drawled. “So--then--you did as I instructed?”

“Mmm-hmm,” replied Calchas. “We’re looking through the barrows, sir. But so far, it--it’s just wine.”

Subtle nodded. “I see. Well, never hurts to be properly prepared. I’ve been told an ounce of it’s worth a pound of cure. A wise investment proportionally,” he declared with a laugh.

Calchas glanced at Persante and shook his head. “I suppose you’re right, sir,” he said pleasantly. “Now--why did you have us…?”

“He made me suspicious,” replied Subtle. “He was too quick to anger, and then too quick to calm down again. He went out of his way to stress--oh, to emphasize--that he was merely a harmless carter, bringing wine to this cheerful gathering. He very much wanted me to like him. And he’s a southerner, and there’ve been--a few incidents down there recently.” He shrugged. “So, nothing definite, but enough to catch my--admittedly formidable interest.”

Calchas blinked in surprise. “Incidents down south?”

“A Shire Reeve was killed. A Mayor was nearly killed. Someone tried to rob a town treasury, and hung themselves when they were caught.” The Goblin shook his head. “It’s the old Magnate country. A few folk still bear grudges.”

Persante snorted, glancing up from his soup. “Don’t recall them bein’ forced to betray House Cthonique, an’ start settin’ up land slavery again…”

“People tend to glorify the past, which is easy to do, as it is no longer around to correct our impressions of it,” said Subtle. He smiled. “I speak from experience--my parents were members of the Free Legion, back in the day.”

Calchas smiled. “Ahh, but that was against old Lord Shaddad.”

“True, but my entire my childhood I heard how everything was going to be better once the Maganzas were back on the Ebony Throne,” said Subtle, picking up a bottle on the shelf, and examining it. “You can imagine my extraordinary disappointment when that happened, and things progressed in the manner they did.” He replaced the bottle on the shelf. “Well, I wound up relocating to White Pines. Which speaks volumes. Now--where’s our friend?”

“Enjoying a cup of cider in the storeroom,” said Calchas. “We’re trying to keep him from catching on. Just like you said.”

Subtle nodded. “Very good. Time--for a chat.” Calchas nodded and took the chirurgeon there. Subtle blinked once on arrival. “This--is the wrong man.”

Calchas stared at Subtle in surprise. “But--this is him. The carter who brought the Cremonian Red.”

Subtle sighed. “Well, then, either Mister Marcolf can change shapes, or he has somehow pulled a runner on us.” He glanced at the old Goblin sitting there, happily guzzling his cup of cider, and forced on a smile. “Hello, old-timer.” The old Goblin glanced up and smiled blandly. “I was wondering if you could tell me about the man who was originally driving that cart…”

The Goblin lifted his mug, pointed to it, and mumbled, “Imbgiuboibagbiuabg.” Then nodded proudly. Subtle shut his eyes and sighed. This was going to be… problematic.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 26

Elaine watched as the Ogres moved forward, in two distinct lines. There was strange, stately grace to their march, the two groups moving as one, but never touching. At the head of the Regnis stood a tall male Muspeilun, beardless but with a thick mustache and large coppery muttonchops, wearing a heavy woolen shirt, leather jerkins, and a great golden torque around his neck. At the head of the Utgardis stood a tall female Jotun with a surprisingly delicate and finely-formed face who wrapped herself in an immense fur cloak, her pale hair in two great braids. Ull and Skadi, Elaine gathered. As opposed to most of their followers, the pair kept shooting each other hostile glances, following which, they would begin to move a bit faster. Eventually, they stood before the Cthoniques, each giving them a great bow. “We thank you for your hospitality,” they declared.

Mansemat nodded. “And I you for your presence.”

“Hello, Skadi,” said Morgaine, grinning like a lovestruck teen.

Skadi rolled her eyes and grimaced. “Hello, Lady Morgaine,” she muttered.

Morgaine giggled. “You look great.”

Skadi suppressed a shudder and then stiffened. “And--you look--like you,” she said through clenched teeth.

Morgaine giggled again, and looked away. “Oh, Skadi!”

Skadi took a deep breath, and looked at Mansemat. “Ahh. Yes. I think--I will--go to my room. If you don’t mind, Manny. Your Magnificence. Whatever.” She gulped. “Please let me go.”

Mansemat nodded. “Of course, Your Eminence. Whenever you wish.”

Ull clicked his tongue. “Not much for pressure, ehh, Your Eminence?” he said, with a chuckle.

Skadi frowned as she turned from the group. “Allow me to say, Your Prominence, with the greatest respect possible, go stuff yourself,” she spat out, moving quickly away.

Ull cupped a hand to his mouth. “I CHOOSE not to make that into a diplomatic incident!”

“And I CHOOSE not to punch out your teeth, you sooty bastard!” Skadi shot back.

Both Fangs’ assemblies glanced at each uncomfortably, each quietly asking if this was going to be the time when this amazing interval of peace finally broke down. Ull bit his lip, and glanced at Nisrioch. “Would I be in my rights to say ‘You can try, you icy bitch?’”

Nisrioch shook his head. “Not really, no.” He smiled. “The proper thing to do with a foolish and meaningless provocation is ‘ignore it’.”

Ull nodded, clearly trying to absorb this concept, and glanced around idly. “You know--this is quite nice.”

“We tend to think so,” said Mansemat.

Ull smiled. “Makes me wish I’d gotten to see it like this the last time I was here.” He coughed. “That’s a joke by the way. I didn’t mean--well, you know.” He glanced away. “Not really, anyway.” He turned to Viviane, with a slightly bashful look of explanation and spread his hands . “The last time I was here was the Rising. With my troops.” He put his arms behind him. “We were invading.” He looked at his feet. “Hello, Viviane. Congratulations on the marriage.” He smiled shyly.

“Hello, Ull,” said Viviane. “It’s been a while.”

Ull looked up. “Too long, really.” He looked over the crowd. “Hmm. So--which one’s the sprout?”

Elaine hesitantly raised her hand. “I’m guessing that’s me.” She coughed. “Elaine du Lac. The… Estimable Grace of the Western Marches.”

“Ahh. How many pigs have you gotten so far?” said Ull with an absent nod.

Mansemat snapped his fingers. “Knew it came with livestock!” Viviane and Elaine both looked at him reproachfully. He looked away. “Well--it’s good to know these things,” he said apologetically. “I mean--pigs are very useful.” Elaine rolled her eyes, and gave an exasperated sigh.

“My goodness,” declared Ull, looking at her very closely. “She really doesn’t look at all like you, Viv.” Elaine winced, and suppressed an urge to kick him in the shins. Which probably would have done nothing more than amuse the Muspeilun.

Viviane frowned. “No. But she’s the spitting image of her grandmother. My mother. Elaine of the White Hands. Who she’s named after.” Elaine nodded. Grandma Elaine Blanchebras was a mystery to her, a name and part of the past that her mother did NOT talk about.

Ull nodded awkwardly. “Ahh. Yes. That happens quite a bit. One of my hunting dogs looks exactly like his grandfather, you know.” He gulped. “Not that your daughter resembles a dog in any way. Or that you do. Because you don’t. At all.” There was a lengthy silence. “Perhaps I should go to my quarters.”

Nisrioch clapped his hands. “A capital idea. I’ll have your hostess take you there.” Armida emerged from behind the Cthoniques, and bowed. Nisrioch gestured at her. “You are left in the legendary hands of Madame Armida herself.” Idun, who’d been quietly retreating back to the Ironfang crowd, suddenly turned around, her face livid.

Ull looked over the hostess appreciatively. “Oh. Very nice. Always been meaning to enjoy your famous Plains hospitality, but--well, never got around to it.” He glanced at Idun. “Yes, Head Skald?”

Idun seemed about to say something, then stopped. “Nothing, Your Prominence. Just tired from the trip.”

Ull nodded. “Right! Let’s be off then.” Armida gracefully took his arm, and lead the Dark Lord away.

As the small horde of Ogres and Erls moved off, Elaine looked at the rest of House Cthonique. “Are all these meetings going to be like this? Starting off impressive, and then getting all--awkward.”

“Well, remember, we only started holding these meetings two years ago,” noted Nisrioch. “You can’t--”

“Yes,” said Morgaine. “Especially as there’s only one contingent left.” She frowned. “And it’s the Ashuranas.”

“Who?” asked Jean.

“My ex-wife’s family,” said Mansemat. “Among other things…”

Viviane glanced off to the side. “Umm--Manny--I think the Stonefang Jarlthing has gotten into the flowerbeds around the elms,” she said, pointing after the Jotuns, who’d gathered around the trees, and were now busily nodding among themselves.

Mansemat groaned. “Lady’s Love, I just planted those…” He turned to the others. “Just give me a moment. I’ll--sort this out.” And with that, the Dark Lord of Castle Terribel went off.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 25

The Ogres stepped out of the airships in two lines. One line was lead by tall Ogres with bluish skin and light blond hair--the other was lead by Ogres with black skin and bright red hair. They were followed by a mixture of Ogres of the more typical brownish skin, and Erls. Most were trying their hardest to ignore the others, but every now and then a member of one line would glare at the other.

“Ahh, glad to see the two Fangs have reached an arrangement,” said Mansemat watching the two lines with a frown. “Even if it is faintly ridiculous.”

Viviane winced. “Oh, Darksome Lady--don’t let them fall out of step.”

The two groups stopped a respectful distance before the Cthoniques, each sending out a single herald towards them. The heralds carefully made their way forwards, making sure to keep themselves in unison.

Morgaine nodded. “So far, so good.”

Jean glanced at them. “So--who’s who?”

“Jotuns and Muspeiluns,” said Nisrioch, gesturing at the lines. “The Giants of Ice, and the Giants of Fire. Bound in an ancient and ceaseless rivalry that--oh, Lady’s Love.” A hand went to his face.

Mansemat blinked. “Is that--Idun?” he asked, quietly pointing at the Ironfang herald, a tall female Ogre with sable skin and long red hair, wearing a rich orange gown and a rather severe frown.

“That, or she has a twin,” noted Morgaine. She looked at Nisrioch. “Hey, isn’t Armida going to be taking care of the Regni assembly?”

“Yes,” hissed Nisrioch through a forced smile. “You may have a laugh at my expense shortly hereafter.” He glanced at the Stonefang herald, an older male Jotun whose beard reached down to his waist. “Ah. It’s Jarl Egil,” he noted. “So--not everything is a surprise…”

The heralds stepped before Mansemat and knelt. “Both Dark Lords of the Fangs ask the peace of Castle Terribel, Your Magnificence!” they declared at once.

“It is granted, Masters of the Fangs!” said Mansemat. “Arise, and enjoy the hospitality of my halls!”

The pair nodded and stood up, and glanced behind them. “It is done! The Cthoniques give us the peace!”

The two groups raised their hands as one. “And we accept it!” they shouted, and began to make their way towards them. Nisrioch glanced at Idun.

“Well--Idun,” he stated with just a hint of nervousness. “You’re looking well. How have you been?”

“All right, I suppose,” the Ogre replied. “I’ve been thinking of you a great deal.”

Nisrioch smiled hopefully. “Oh, really?”

Idun nodded, and crossed her muscular arms. “Yes. Being attacked by wild animals, or crushed by falling rocks, or--well, my favorite way to think of you is on fire.” She smiled. “It cheers me up whenever I feel depressed.”

Nisrioch gulped, then laughed. “And that’s what I always loved about you, dear--your ever present good cheer, and ability to find something to laugh at.” She frowned and stared at him angrily. “You really do look well. I hope you realize that.” She continued to stare at him angrily. “Very, very well.” She continued to glare at him. “I mean it. I’d be going in for a hug if it wouldn’t be a severe break of protocol.” She raised an eyebrow. Nisrioch gave a disappointed sigh. “And if I didn’t recall your vow to break me like a twig if you ever caught a hold of me.” He bit his lip. “I assume that still holds.” She nodded. “Ahh. Very good. It’s good to be clear on these matters.”

Elaine glanced at her stepfather. “Another… mistress?” she whispered.

“Oh, yes,” muttered Mansemat. “Now--let’s all do our best to ignore this, and pretend it’s not happening.”

Elaine glanced at Nisrioch and bit her lip. "But it's so hard!"

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 24

Palamedes Woodash coughed as he reached the kitchens, the smoke from the ovens choking his throat. He never did like the stuff.

Which--considering who he was, was damnably awkward. “Ahem,” he announced. “Message for the Keepers of the Kitchens!” Many faces turned towards him as he said this. Including one he was hoping to avoid.

“Well, well,” declared Persante Woodash. “If it ain’t me fancy son, who decided he was too good for the kitchens!” He snorted. “Come to show off yer smart black cloak again!”

Palamedes gulped. “Hello, da’,” he muttered quietly. “I--it’s Guard business.”

Persante shook his head, and pointed. “Look at him! Pledged to marry the High Steward’s daughter--a true le Fidèle! And he threw it all away--for a black cloak!”

Palamedes’ uncle Calchas clicked his tongue. “Leave off, Pers!” he declared, stepping forward to take the message. “The Guard needs smart lads like Pal in it. No shame in it.”

“Woodashes serve in the kitchens,” said Persante. “It’s always been so. No need to change things.”

Calchas glanced at his younger brother. “Don’t you have a soufflé that needs tending?” As Persante moved away, grumbling, Calchas turned towards his nephew. “Sorry about that.”

Palamedes turned away. “I don’t mind.” He shook his head. “These days, I half think I deserve it. I‘ve really made a fool of myself. Spoiled things with Eurydice, on--” And then he had coughing fit.

Calchas waited for it to end. “Do you need a drink?”

Palamedes shook his head. “No. It’s the smoke. Never could stand the stuff, and--well, I haven’t been down here in a while.”

Calchas nodded. “I can understand that.” He looked his nephew in the eye. “Look--as regards Eurydice--well, you thought things might be going a bit too fast. An’ she showed you they were when she returned your troth.” The Head Cook shrugged. “Better to find it out before a marriage than after. As for your joining the Guard--” He chuckled. “Pal, I love you--but you’re no cook. There’s no shame in not being a cook. And there’s no shame in being a soldier instead of a cook. Understand?”

Palamedes gave an unsteady nod. “Sure, Uncle Cal. Sure.”

Calchas patted his nephew on the shoulder. “That’s a brave lad. Now, go back to Subtle, and tell him it’s taken care of. All right?”

Palamedes sighed. “Of course, sir.”

Calchas smiled. “Hmm, that didn’t sound too enthusiastic. Well, I know the cure for that.” He clapped his hands together. “”Who’s in the mood for molasses cookies?”

Palamedes rolled his eyes. “I’m not a boy, anymore, Uncle Cal. You can’t solve everything with…”

“They’re fresh,” said Calchas. “Right out of the oven.”

Palamedes blinked. “Umm. Well, I really should get go…”

Calchas leaned forward. “And some nice HOT cocoa on the side!”

Palamedes gulped. “Ah.” He glanced around the room. “Is there--a chair here?”

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 23

“It’s nothing, really,” said Sacripant, as he and Quiet walked back from Asterot Maganza’s rooms. The King of the Goblins was presently engaged in what sounded like an epic retching fit. Even though it would probably cause a succession crisis and a diplomatic panic, Sacripant was quietly hoping the bastard choked to death on his own sick.

Quiet gave his fellow Guardsman a worried look. “Look,” replied Sacripant, eventually, “it’s just a word. Something folk like him call folk like us.” He spread a webbed hand. “You--you just learn to deal with it, if you’re a Marsh Erl.” He shook his head. “Ah, hell, now I’m whining. To a Ghoul, no less.” Quiet’s blue eyes narrowed. “No--no,” stated Sacripant. “I’m just trying to say--you have it tougher than I do. I really have no right to complain.”

Quiet looked at Sacripant for a moment, then placed a hand on his shoulder. The Ghoul shook his head in good-natured sympathy. Sacripant smiled and then laughed. “Damn it, Quiet, you know just what to say.” The sound of talking and heavy footsteps came down the hall. The pair turned. The fat form of Malagise Chiarmonte waddled into view, his mother walking behind him.

“You’re lost, Mal,” stated Lanfusa, her withered face pressed in a contemptuous scowl.

“I am not, Mumsy,” said the Duke Chiarmonte quietly, his jowls quivering with barely suppressed indignation . “I know exactly where I am--Castle Terribel.” He nodded. “I must confess, the specifics are escaping me--but I have a firm grasp on the general!”

“Well, isn’t that a comfort?” snapped Lanfusa.

Malagise pouted, and noticing the Guards, turned towards them. “Pardon me--are we heading the right way to reach the Hall of Exquisite Horror?” He smiled. “There was a girl that was supposed to show us the way, but Mumsy wouldn’t stand for it.”

Sacripant and Quiet nodded. “Just keep going this way, and turn left at the first intersection,” said Sacripant.

Malagise smiled and nodded eagerly. “Ahh! Yes. Very good!” He turned to Lanfusa. “See Mumsy! I do know where I’m going.”

Lanfusa snorted at her son. “Pure luck! I‘m willing to wager on it!”

“Oh, Mumsy! You--” Malagise snarled and turned away from his mother. Glancing at Sacripant, he blinked. “Ahh. You’re that--Marsh Erl who assisted--His Imperious Munificence, aren’t you?”

Sacripant frowned. “That’s right.”

Malagise bit his lips nervously, and coughed. “Listen, I--Lord Asterot is--a deeply troubled man, and--well, don’t take what he says seriously.” He forced a smile. “He simply needs to get the spite out, you know. I don’t think he even means half of what he says. Or at least--not very much.”

“Yeah.” Sacripant gave a frustrated nod. “I think I caught that.”

“I thought you did!” declared Malagise with a delighted chuckle. “You strike me as a very clever fellow! I even said so to Mumsy!” He turned to Lanfusa. “Didn’t I, Mumsy? Tell you how clever the Marsh Erl seemed?”

Lanfusa groaned. “How should I know, Mal? You say so much witless prattle, I just ignore it most of the time!”

Malagise gave his mother another resentful glare. “Well, I DID say it!” he declared forcefully. He turned to Sacripant and grinned. “I said to her ‘Why, look at that young Marsh Erl! He’s a credit to his people’!”

Sacripant forced a smile. “Right. Almost like a Highborn.”

“Exactly,” said Malagise with an emphatic nod. “I’ve always thought, there’s nothing wrong with you Marshers that a little time with--the right sort of Erl couldn’t cure.”

Sacripant shook his head. “Gosh, Your Honor. I’m--touched.”

Malagise turned away, looking quite pleased with himself. “I know--I know. But while I may be a Duke--I keep my heart open to the plight of the less fortunate!” Lanfusa gave a sharp laugh. Malagise frowned, and then took a deep breath. “Well then! Mumsy and I had best be on our way! Must get to our quarters!” He offered Sacripant two fingers to shake. “Best of luck, boy!”

Sacripant took them with a weak smile. “You… honor me, sir.”

Malagise smiled. “Think nothing of it, my lad! Pleased to be of service!” He pulled his hand back, and walked away, his mother fast on his heels.

“Well, you just made a perfect fool of yourself!” snapped Lanfusa as soon as they were out of sight. “Going on and on to that damned Nixie about what an open-minded man you are!”

“Mumsy!” shouted Malagise, apparently ignorant of the fact that the Guards were still in earshot. “You know it’s important to encourage the poor, simple creatures!”

Sacripant sighed and shook his head. “Assholes,” hissed a sharp voice next to him. Sacripant turned in surprise.

“Did--did you just talk?” he asked Quiet. Quiet shrugged. Sacripant narrowed his eyes.

“You just talked,” he noted. Quiet turned, and began to walk away. Sacripant started to follow him.

“Look--I don’t care if you prefer not to, but--well, Hagen and I have a bet going on whether you’re mute, or are operating on some weird oath of silence--thing,” the Marsh Erl noted. Quiet turned and stared at him. Sacripant shifted on his feet. “I--my money’s on vow of silence.” Quiet threw his head back and began to walk away again. Sacripant cupped his hand to his mouth. “I’ll split the money with you!”

Quiet kept on walking.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 22

Elaine took a deep breath as Asterot Maganza walked--or rather tottered--away. “Thank the Lady that’s over,” she said.

“It’s over for now,” said Jean, wrinkling her nose up in disgust. “He’s staying here, remember?”

Elaine groaned. “It’s no fair. How did someone like him wind up a King?”

“The same way anyone does, Elaine,” noted Morgaine. “Having the right sort of parents, and no one with even an arguably better claim to the Ebony Throne standing around.”

Elaine nodded. “Why did he--flirt with you?”

“Because he’s a shit who likes people to feel shitty,” said Morgaine flatly. “Also--there was a marriage offer floating around during the Conquest. Though nothing ever came of it. Thank goodness.” She shook her head. “I have enough problems in my life. Existence. Whatever. Anyway, Asterot likes to drag it out, and make a production of it. Just so things can be awkward. Because the only way he can be happy is to make everyone else as miserable as he is.”

“Asterot, however--problematic his person--is a Dark Lord, one the Nine High Lords of All Night,” said Mansemat. “We owe him some respect for this, even if it is--qualified.”

“Manny?” said Viviane quietly.

“Yes, nightshade petals?” asked Mansemat, turning towards his wife.

“Your hand is still tight around Murgleys’ hilt,” she noted.

Mansemat glanced down, his eyes widening. “Ah, yes. Conditioning,” he stated mildly, releasing the sword. “One simply becomes--used to taking certain actions.”

Elaine glanced away. “So… ‘Her Estimable Grace of the Western Marches’?”

Malina grinned at her sister. “I’m ‘Her Precious Grace of the Bridge Perry Less’,” she said with a nod.

“That’s ‘Perilous’, Malina. ‘Bridge Perilous’.” Mansemat turned towards Elaine and shrugged. “I thought you might like a title, so you didn’t feel--shown up before our guests, and what with your choice of device…”

“Oh,” said Elaine. “Umm, thanks.”

Mansemat gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “Please. All I did was sign a paper. It’s practically an honorific. Though--I think you get a yearly tribute of livestock with it…” There was a mild cough. Mansemat turned to find himself looking at Ruggier Mongrane, leaning uncomfortably nearby on his cane.

“Your Magnificence,” he said, with a polite nod of his head. “I simply wish to compliment you on your--patience with my liege.” Ruggier looked away. “His Imperious Munificence is a difficult man, at times.”

“I thank you for the praise,” said Mansemat, bowing his head, “But it is undeserved. Lord Asterot is--unwell at the moment. Everyone knows to be tolerant with the ill. I was merely practicing common courtesy.”

“I would say you practice it to an uncommon extent,” noted Ruggier. He looked away. “This is… the first time I have ever been to Castle Terribel. The first time a Mongrane has been to Castle Terribel in--decades.” He glanced at Mansemat again. “It seems--quite lovely.”

“I hope you enjoy yourself here, Duke Mongrane,” said Mansemat.

Ruggier nodded again. “Skadi and Ull are arguing over who has precedence. So--it might be a while before House Utgardi and House Regni are introduced.”

Mansemat sighed. “I thought that was settled.”

Ruggier shrugged. “Apparently, they feel Castle Terribel warrants different protocol than the Palace of Shadows. And neither of them wishes to give an inch on what that protocol is.” He bowed. “A pleasant day to you, Your Magnificence.” He looked at the others. “And to all who follow you.” He moved away as briskly as he could, expertly keeping his weight off his lame foot.

Viviane glanced at Mansemat. “What--what happened to…?” she whispered

“He was born like that,” said Mansemat. “A club foot.” Ruggier reached his sister, Marfisa, who took his shoulder, and helped him along, their Ogre bodyguard looking at the pair solicitously. “He--manages it quite well, I think.”

Elaine nodded. “How come his sister gets to wear a suit?”

“She’s legally male,” replied Morgaine with a snort. “Ruggier can’t lead Tremisona’s troops into battle. So she does it for him as Grand Marshall of the City. But, Tremisona has laws. Only a man can be Grand Marshall. So--she’s listed as a man. For legal purposes. And men don‘t wear dresses.”

Jean blinked. “That’s--pretty damn odd, I’d say.”

“And you’d be right,” said Morgaine. “But that’s the Shadow Wood for you. Why be reasonable when you have custom to fall back on?”

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 21

Justinian watched as the troop of Goblins marched out from the airship, clad in rich uniforms of green and gold, topped by dark blue fezzes. He nodded. Nisrioch had mentioned them to him last night in preparation. These were the Mamelukes, House Maganza’s elite troops. Nisrioch had told him, with evident distaste, that they were the personal property of Lord Asterot, pledged at birth to live and die at his command. Strangely enough, they reminded Justinian of the Janissaries kept by the Easter King. An odd bit of home in the Lands of Night--and one he could do with out, in truth.

“Why couldn’t it be smoked herring?” he muttered under his breath.

Nisrioch glanced at him. “What was that?”

Sigma shook his head. “Nothing.” A man was walking out into view, a tall Erl with a military bearing. His dress was a somewhat modified version of the Mamelukes’, with a dark black sash trailing from his right shoulder to his left hip, hung with medals and ornaments, with a sabre that didn’t look completely ornamental near the hip. But all this was nothing to his face. His head was shaved bare, with a bejeweled patch over his right eye--and the ruined mass of scars visible on that side made it clear why. A portion of the skin on his cheek was simply gone, revealing bone. The man seemed to take in the assembled folk of Castle Terribel with a scowl. “Is that--King Asterot?” asked Justinian.

Nisrioch shook his head. “No. That’s Pinabel Maganza. Of the Maganzas of Castle Cruel. A rather long-established cadet branch of the family. Pinabel is Asterot’s High Bailiff and Castellan. A very important man in the Shadow Wood.”

Pinabel strode forward, until he stood before Mansemat. He drew his sabre, and motioned to the Mamelukes, who drew theirs. Then Pinabel planted his blade in the ground, and knelt before the Dark Lord of Castle Terribel. “Your Magnificence,” said Pinabel, his voice a croaking, whispery rasp. “The swords of His Imperious Munificence Asterot Maganza, Master of the Ebony Throne, Dark Lord of Altaripa and Altafoglia, Supreme Dark Lord of the Shadow Woods, and King of the Goblins pledge to keep your peace while we are under your roof, if your peace you give.”

Mansemat nodded. “Then arise, sir, for it is given.”

Pinabel stood up, and sheathed his sabre, followed by the Mamelukes. “The peace of Castle Terribel has been granted, oh Lords Paramount of the Shadow Woods. Emerge, free of fear.”

Nisrioch blinked. “Oh, my. Asterot’s bringing a bigger entourage than I thought he would.”

“Eh?” muttered Justinian.

“The Lords Paramount are--well, the Ebony Throne’s underlings, I suppose you could say.” Nisrioch shrugged. “They haven’t bothered with Shadow Council meetings so far.”

An extremely plump, short Erl man clad in rich scarlet and green clothing and a fur wrap emerged from the airship, followed by a much taller, white-haired male Erl, dressed in black, a short, very old woman in a fancy gown, wearing an elaborate black wig beneath which a few strands of white hair peeked out, and a handful of Goblins. Justinian blinked. “Is that--?”

“No,” replied Nisrioch, as the three Erls and their entourage took a bow. “That’s Malagise Chiaramonte. The fellow in black is his bastard brother, Aldigier, and the old woman is his mother Lanfusa. An old family, the Chiaramontes, albeit somewhat diminished. They hold a lot of power in the eastern sections of the Shadow Woods.”

Another pair emerged from the airship. A slender young man carrying a cane, and walking with a distinct limp, and a young woman with short black hair, carrying a sword at her side. Both were clad in purple and orange tunics and pantaloons. Leading their entourage was a tall Ogre, a massive sword strapped to his back.

“Ruggier and Marfisa Mongrane,” explained Nisrioch. “Twins, believe it or not. Their power lies in the west of the Shadow Woods. Much closer to us, then the Chiaramontes.” He frowned, as the pair managed a rather stiff bow. “So of course my father killed their parents, ensuring us a happy, loving relationship with our neighbors.”

Three more Erls exited the airship, a fierce looking man with heavy muttonchops in late middle-age, a youth cast much in the same image, and finally a balding man with a squint. All wore the green and gold of Maganza with a silver oak leaf badge over their hearts. They were followed by a young woman in a green dress, wearing a golden tiara. “Those are Malagriff Maganza, his son Malachel, and his brother, Bilet. Of the Belfior Maganzas. More cousins. Though a bit closer than poor old Pinabel. The lady is Asterot’s sister, Fiordespina.” The quartet bowed, and took their place at the side, across from the Mongranes. Another Erl exited the airship. “That’s Asterot,” said Nisrioch.

He was tall and slender, and looked to be of an age with Nisrioch. His hair was long and black, and hung in a braid down his shoulders; his face was handsome, dignified and reserved. He wore a great green and gold cape, a heavy golden crown, and clothing so covered in precious stones Justinian felt he was looking at a fortune greater than the Treasury of any Free City at that very moment. As he looked, the Sacristan was filled with a feeling that this man was as, they said, a King.

And then Asterot ruined the impression by moving. His first step was an unsteady lurch that tilted him towards the right, followed by another lurch to the left--an apparent effort to correct his course. He tottered uneasily, and stood still for a moment. Once he decided he was balanced, he took another step forward. Unfortunately, he’d misjudged himself, and slipped forward. There was an almost unanimous wince among the onlookers, with Pinabel stepping towards Asterot to help him. The Dark Lord motioned for him to keep his distance and slowly righted himself, while making sure that the crown had not slipped. “Heh!” he declared, in a voice that was just a touch too loud. “Well, that was close.” He looked Mansemat in the eye, a slightly cruel grin on his face. “Almost fell on my ass! You’d have gotten on a kick out of that, wouldn’t you, Mansemat?”

Mansemat regarded Asterot calmly. “Believe me, Your Imperious Munificence, the thought of you coming to harm brings me no joy. Especially at this place, and at this time.”

Asterot snorted. “Well, isn’t that so very kind of you, Mansemat? So very kind. So very thoughtful.” He looked around at the assembled crowd. “He’s a peach, isn’t he, the Dark Lord of Castle Terribel?” He glanced at Mansemat again, the hostility almost naked on his face. “A peach, I tell you!” He turned to regard Viviane. “And the new wife! The Badb! Houses Cthonique and du Lac, bound by matrimony!” He shook his head. “It took me by surprise! Didn’t it, Pinabel?” He glanced at his cousin. “Didn’t it?”

Pinabel looked away awkwardly. “I believe so, Your Imperious Munificence. If my memory serves me correctly.”

“Oh, it always does, Pinabel,” said Asterot. He gestured at his cousin. “The man’s a marvel! Never has to write anything down! The fortune I save on paper thanks to him is--well, a fortune!” He laughed again, and regarded Viviane. “So, what about you, Madame du Lac? Did you shock yourself as well as me?”

Viviane’s face tightened. “I felt some surprise, perhaps,” she said, staring at Lord Asterot coldly. “But only some. And no regrets. Love comes where it comes. In the end, one should simply be happy to find it.”

Asterot nodded sarcastically. “I’ve always gotten by paying for it myself,” he said, with a sneer. He snickered. “Oh, well. I envy you two. I really do. It’s sweet.” He glanced at Morgaine. “Ahh, hello, dear. Are you pining for me?”

Morgaine frowned. “Well, I do have desires involving you. But they all involve you being struck by heavy objects. Some times repeatedly.”

Asterot put his head back, and laughed. “Ah, Morgaine! Still the same!” He grinned at her. “You’d be the perfect woman for me if you weren’t dead. And a sexual degenerate to boot. Such a pity.” He pitched forward, and turned towards Elaine. “Mmmm, who’s this tasty morsel?” Elaine stiffened, glaring at the Dark Lord.

Viviane and Mansemat both stepped towards Elaine, flanking Asterot. “This is my daughter, Elaine du Lac,” Viviane stated, her tone having just the smallest traces of point in it.

“Her Estimable Grace of the Western Marches,” noted Mansemat, looking at Asterot forcibly.

Asterot nodded. “Nice. Very nice.” He glanced at Jean. “This one’s nice too.” He shook his head. “A pity they’re both Round Ears, mind you. Otherwise…” He cackled. “Ah, but I best behave myself. I am a guest, after all.” He glanced at Malina who shivered, and then forced on a smile. “Oh, yes! The--little one. Your mother says ‘hello’.” Malina nodded. The Dark Lord’s eyes narrowed. “Well, don’t you have anything to say to her? Are you mute? ARE YOU?”

Jerzy stepped behind the young Dev. “Darksome Lady, Asterot--she’s a child. Leave her be.”

Asterot nodded at the Kizak. “I see the Cthoniques are giving their dogs a place at the table. How very touching.” He turned towards Nisrioch. “Ahh, His Freakishness, the Dark Lord of the Howling Waste! How are you Nisrioch?”

“Oh, just dandy,” said Nisrioch cheerfully. “I must say it’s good to see you in such high spirits, Asterot.” He gestured to Justinian. “May I present my servant, Justinian Sigma…”

Justinian forced a bow. “It is an honor, Goblin King…”

Asterot’s eyes narrowed. “What did you call me? What? ‘Goblin King’? ‘GOBLIN KING’?” He lunged forward and, in one impossibly swift motion, grabbed Justinian by the neck, effortlessly lifting him from the ground. “Do I look like a GOBLIN to you, Milesian? Do I?” He shook Sigma. “What’s the matter? Does the question confuse you?”

“No--no, sir,” sputtered Justinian. “Y-you don’t.”

“That’s right!” shrieked Asterot. “I don’t! Because I’m not!”

“Release him, Asterot,” said Nisrioch with quiet force. “He meant no harm.”

Asterot glared at Nisrioch. “I will release him when I am finished instructing him, Halfbreed! And not a second sooner! Am I making myself clear?” He looked again at Justinian. “I am the King of the Goblins, Milesian! The ERL King of the Goblins!” He dropped Justinian roughly on the ground. “Do not forget this. I do not wish to have to feed a Cthonqiue servant their own tongue.” He stepped away and looked at the horrified crowd. “I feel I must retire. This late unpleasantness has unsettled me. So I will retire to my chambers, where I shall shortly piss, shit, and then very likely vomit. Good day to you all!” He turned to Mansemat. “Where exactly am I staying?”

“You have guest quarters in the Hall of Doom,” said Mansemat quietly. “I shall have some Guards escort you there.” He raised his hand, and Quiet and Sacripant stepped forward.

“Ahh! A Ghoul and a Nixie!” Asterot noted, looking at the pair. Sacripant stiffened and frowned. “Very broad-minded of you Cthoniques! Very--progressive!” He laughed again, as Quiet put a restraining hand on Sacripant’s shoulder. “Well, lead the way.”

The two Guards turned and began to walk. Asterot moved to follow them, and quickly lost his balance. This time he did fall, his crown toppling from his head, and landing in the dirt of the courtyard. Pinabel stepped forward to assist him, followed by the two Guardsmen, only for Asterot to motion them away. “I don’t need your help, I don’t need your help!” he snapped, as he struggled to his feet. He turned and stared at the crowd. “I’m fine, do you hear me? Just FINE!”

Asterot picked up his crown and began to dust it off. “I’m the damned King of the Goblins, the Dark Lord of the Maganzas, Supreme Dark Lord of the Shadow Wood! That MEANS something! It means I’m not some mixed blood hedge witch squatting with peasants in the marshes, with no idea who my people are, or some upjumped slave family with good fortune and delusions of glory! I’m a MAGANZA! A king, descended from kings, with the blood of kings flowing in my veins!” He turned towards his family and followers, placing the crown back on his head. “YOU ALL OWE ME YOUR ALLEGIANCE! DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME? YOU OWE ME ALL!” Asterot regarded them for a second--and then slumped forward, as if running out of some vital fire. He turned back to the Guard. “Let’s be on our way. I believe--I have befouled myself. With more befouling coming up quickly.” He began to walk quickly, looking at the ground. “Oh, Darksome Lady, my HEAD!”

Justinian watched the King of Goblins recede from view. Nisrioch glanced at Justinian. “Are you all right, Justinian?”

Justinian coughed. “I think so, sir.” He rubbed his neck. “His Imperious Munificence is--significantly stronger than he looks.”

“Mmmm.” Nisrioch knelt and offered the Sacristan his hand. Justinian took it, and stood up with the Dark Lord’s aid. “Asterot Maganza. He has his good points,” noted Nisrioch. “For example--once you know him, you can enjoy the fact he’s not around.”

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 20

Palamedes Woodash looked suspiciously at the carter, in a manner he hoped seemed impressive. “State your business.”

“Delivery for the Castle,” replied the carter.

“I can see that,” snapped Palamedes.

“Then why’d you ask?” queried the carter.

Palamedes blinked, and then glanced back at his superior with just a hint of desperation. “Subtle, could you kindly explain the situation to this fellow?”

With a roll of his eyes, Balthazar Subtle stepped forward from the gatehouse. “What my slightly dense subordinate wishes to convey, sir,” explained the Goblin, “is that we would be remiss--nay, we would be monsters of arrogance--if we merely let you in without any further comment.” He grinned with forced pleasantness. “You say you are bringing in a delivery, and sir, I take you at your word, for you are clearly, an honest man. Sadly, my superiors are not made of such trusting substance as myself. They demand verification, sir,” he declared, with a roll of the rs. He glanced over the wagon’s cargo. “Now, then--what are you delivering?”

The carter frowned. “You’re a mite wordy for a soldier, aren’t you?”

Subtle forced on a bitter smile. “I am the regiment’s chirurgeon, sir. A certain amount of--education, let us say, is necessary for the profession. Especially if one wishes to be Guild-certified, as I am. Balthazar Subtle, Ranking Journeyman, at your service, and Their Magnificences, Their Excellencies, and Their Graces as well.” His eyes narrowed. “Now, answer the question, sir. Your delivery--what is it?”

“Wine, if it pleases your honor,” said the carter. “For the Council meeting.” He made a weak attempt at a smile. “Good Cremonian Red.”

Subtle nodded. “So--you say you are delivering wine to the Shadow Council?”

The carter scowled. “That’s what I just said, yes!”

“No need to lose one’s temper,” purred Subtle. “I merely wish to ascertain if you’re being honest.”

The carter tapped a barrel. “You can take a swig if you like. Prove it’s what I say.”

Subtle smiled, and produced a small cup from his belt. “Why thank you! I think I will. From the barrel to the right of this one. If I may?”

The carter frowned at the Guardsman, but nodded. “Of course, sir. Whatever you say.” He uncorked the barrel, and placed a nozzle on the hole. Subtle placed his cup before the nozzle, and turned its handle. A small trickle of wine flowed out, gradually increasing. When the cup was half full, he stopped the flow, and put it to his lips. He took a slight sip, and then smiled.

“Very nice,” said Subtle. “As you say--good Cremonian Red.” He chuckled. “Very good indeed.”

“May I have some, sir?” said Palamedes diffidently.

“I fear, young Master Woodash, that such wine as this would be wasted on the likes of you,” replied Subtle. Palamedes frowned and glanced away. “Oh, don’t pout. You’re the one who referred this matter to me! Next time, you ask the questions, and you drink the wine!” He shook his head and glanced at the carter. “You appear to be of an age with me, sir. These days I find youth seems to be wasted on the young. Are you of a mind with me?”

The carter smiled. “I--think I am, sir.” He glanced away. “If it’s any comfort to you, they won’t enjoy it that long.”

Subtle laughed. “You seem, sir carter, a man after my own black heart.” He shook his head. “Truly, you are wasted in your present profession…” He blinked. “Oh, my. I don’t believe I caught your name.”

The carter nodded as Palamedes opened the gate for him. “It’s Marcolf, sir.”

“Ahh, Marcolf.” Subtle nodded. “A good, solid Nightland name, appropriately attached to a good, solid Nightland man.” The sturgeon bowed. He waved Marcolf through. “A pleasant day to you, sir Marcolf. And know that Castle Terribel thanks you for your delivery.”

Marcolf smiled quietly as his cart rolled away. “And I very much appreciate that, Mister Subtle.”

As he rolled out of sight, Palamedes glanced at his superior. “He seemed like a nice fellow.”

“A Southerner, I believe,” noted the Goblin. “Very proper people. Very polite.” He shrugged. “A bit old-fashioned to my taste, but on the whole, quite commendable.” He paused, took out a scrap of paper, and jotted something down. “Now, then, Master Woodash, would you be a good lad, and rush this to the kitchens?”

“I’m almost twenty, you know,” said the pudgy Erl with a hint of frustration.

“And that’s very impressive,” replied Subtle. He clapped his hands together. “Now--rush, rush!”

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 19

Elaine fidgeted in her dress. She wanted to take a deep breath, but the corset made that impossible. More proof, to her mind, that dresses were a cruel joke perpetuated upon women for reasons too arcane for her to understand.

The fact that she was standing next to Morgaine, who had no practical need to breathe at all, and could thus wear her elaborate outfits--this one was a lengthy red gown covered with heavy iron chains--with no deep discomfort, only made things worse.

And the fact that this particular dress was a very bright shade of pink made what was happening to her arguably the greatest indignity known to any child of Mother Night, at any time and at any place in the history of the world.

Jean leaned towards her. “You look good!”

“Don’t lie to me,” said Elaine, frowning severely. “I look like an idiot.” She tugged at her gown. “And this color doesn’t suit me. At all.”

“That’s not true,” Jean stated with a shake of her head. “It brings out your eyes!”

Elaine quirked an eyebrow. “My eyes are green.”

Jean nodded. “And that dress makes them look greener!”

“Shit-for-brains!” cawed Hoppedance.

Jean glanced at her familiar. “Hush you.” She smiled at Elaine. “Look, I’m not kidding. You look very pretty right now.”

“Well--thanks,” mumbled Elaine. “Wish I didn’t feel like an idiot in this.”

“Would you two please shut the hell up?” asked Morgaine through clenched teeth. “I’m attempting to look enigmatic and gorgeous.” She looked at the courtyard gate, and smiled. “Soon, my darling Skadi. Soon!”

Jean stared at the undead Dark Lord. “Do I really want to know?”

“Skadi Utgardi is the Dark Lord of the Stonefangs.” Morgaine grinned. “I like her.” She licked her lips. “I like her a lot. And soon she shall succumb to the incomparable majesty that is ME!” She glanced at the others. “Positive attitude. Helps with seduction. Or so I’m told.”

Jean gave a dull nod. “How’s it working out for you so far?”

Morgaine gave it a moment’s thought. “I think I’m wearing her down. Last time we met, she eventually stopped shouting every time I approached her.” She gave an emphatic nod. “Oh, yeah. Almost there.”

“This collar is not working!” hissed Mansemat Cthonique as he walked by, tugging at the great ruffled collar hanging uneasily around his neck, roughly six inches in diameter.

“You look fantastic, little brother,” replied Nisrioch. “All the fashionable folk are wearing them like that.” He pointed at his own collar, which was, if anything, larger than Mansemat’s. “See?”

Mansemat stared at Nisrioch’s collar, then groaned. “That’s it. This is coming off?” He began to frantically claw at the ruff.

Viviane clicked her tongue. “Manny! It took you so long to get it on!”

“An effort that was not wasted, because now I know I will never, ever put the damn thing on again,” replied Mansemat. “Sigma! I need help getting this off!”

Justinian stepped quickly behind the Dark Lord of Castle Terribel. “Of course, sir. And I was wondering if…?”

“Ahh, lovely,” said Mansemat, as the collar slid off. “You were saying, Squire Sigma?”

“Can I take my collar off, sir?” the Sacristan said in quiet urgency. “I’d rather not look like I was being attacked by a giant daisy.”

Mansemat nodded. “You may, Squire. And for future reference, I’m stealing that witticism.”

Nisrioch sighed. “I am a lone warrior in the field of sartorial excellence.”

Malina darted towards Elaine. “Hey, Sis! You look beautiful!” She glanced at Jean. “And so do you, Jean! Like princesses!”

Jean laughed, and patted the youngest Cthonique’s head. “Why, thanks Mal…”

Morgaine frowned. “What about me?”

“You look kind of--spooky, Auntie,” said Malina with a polite nod. She smiled broadly. “Am I pretty?”

“Yep, as a picture,” said Morgaine with a weary sigh.

“Ahh, Your Magnificences,” said Armida walking into view, her hostesses following behind her. She curtseyed as they approached. “I merely wish to assure you that my household will do its best to put your guests at ease.”

Tisiphone nodded. “We hope that we do you honor, Lords.”

“Of course you do,” Viviane replied with forced cheerfulness. “I’m certain you can see that every time you glance in a mirror.”

Tisiphone smiled politely. “I--wish I could say that was true, milady. But sadly, I cannot.”

Viviane frowned. “What are you talking about? You’re…”

Alecto coughed. “Tisiphone is blind, Your Magnificence.”

“Oh.” Viviane glanced away. “Umm. Sorry about that. I…”

“Nothing needs to be said, oh mighty Badb,” replied Armida. “We live to make occasions brighter, not to make them difficult.” She stepped back and bowed, the hostesses following her example, then retreated from the Dark Lords.

Viviane glanced at her husband. “I--did not come off well in that, did I?”

Mansemat paused in handing his collar to Nisrioch. “May I politely decline to answer that?”

Viviane nodded. “Yes, I think that’s a very good idea.”

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 18

“Are you sure it’s enough?” said Marcolf de Montfalcone, looking the wagon over suspicoiusly. “Five barrels?”

Porone stared at him. “You’ve never seen it in action, have you, Friend Marcolf?” He leaned forward. “When they need to clear a mineshaft, they put in one barrel of hellpowder. Two, if it’s an especially big job. Five barrels--if you place them right--could turn most of the Folly into rubble.”

Marcolf gave an impressed nod. “I see. Very good.” He handed Porone a small bag of marks. “Your agreed upon fee.”

Porone took the bag graciously. “Of course, you’ll need some man to set the stuff off.” He looked at Marcolf pointedly. “And that’s not going to be an easy task.”

“I’m aware of this, Friend Porone,” said Marcolf calmly. “It has… been taken care of.”

Porone stared at him for a moment, then nodded. “I see.” He stepped forward, and clapped Marcolf on the shoulder. “Lady’s Love be with you, Friend Marcolf.”

Marcolf smiled. “Lady’s Love be with all of us, Friend Porone.” He glanced away. “I--after the Council--whatever happens--I…” He pulled out an envelope. “There’s an old man I need you to give this to, at the Gentleman’s Last Resort. In the Mumblety Pegs.”

Porone glanced at the envelope and then nodded. “Then he’ll get it.” He smiled at Marcolf. “A relative of yours, Friend Marcolf?”

“A distant cousin, yes,” said Marcolf. “I--bring some money for him, if you could. For--tea.”

Porone nodded as he stepped away. “Many men find themselves drinking a great deal of tea these days,” he noted. “I’ll make sure he can still get his.” He stepped out of the stable, into the street. Marcolf waited several minutes, then left himself, burying his hands in his pockets as he stepped out into the street.

Heading up Catapult Hill, Marcolf glanced over his shoulder. There it was. Castle Terribel--looming in the distance, dark, mighty, seemingly eternal. He scowled. The worst thing is that it wasn’t even that old. Eniku Cthonique had had the original palace built after his victory over the Empire, and his descendents had added to it ceaselessly. Montfalcone was easily twice as old as the damned place.

Or it had been, until the True Folk had taken it down, stone by stone. Marcolf had watched them do it. They’d been laughing and cheering the whole time. He scowled. The Cthoniques were going to pay for that indignity.

There was a crowd marching as he turned down the Street of Cherries. “Hands hold the power!” they shouted. “Power to the Hands!” He shook his head, and scowled. Over the last several days, since these “Hands” demonstrations had begun, they’d gotten gradually bigger and more elaborate. It wasn’t the first time the city had seen foolishness of this sort, but the Vigils weren’t doing much to stop it this time. Largely because it was an election year, and the Vigils were Hats in the employ of a Cap Thing.

Marcolf sighed as he entered the Gentleman’s Last Resort. Astyanax was right. This was a terrible city. After the Necklace won, the place was going to need a military governor. Marcolf personally hoped it got the most brutal one imaginable.

He knocked on Astyanax’s door, and waited for the old man’s murmured assent. Astyanax was pouring over a book when Marcolf entered. “Hello, General. It’s me. Marcolf de Montfalcone. I’ve come to inform you that I’ve purchased the materials. Force Majeur will go into operation shortly.”

Astyanax glanced up and gave Marcolf a toothless grin. “Why, Friend Marcolf! This is excellent news.” A dirty hand darted out and grabbed a grimy cup. “Would you like some tea?”

Marcolf raised a hand and shook his head. “Later, perhaps.”

Astyanax nodded. “Very well,” he said, placing the cup down. “May I ask who’ve you’ve chosen to handle Force Majeur?”

“Yes. I shall handle it myself, General,” said Marcolf with a bow.

Astyanax’s eyes widened in shock. “You--what, Friend Marcolf?”

Marcolf looked away. “Friend Porone will arrive here some time in the near future. I am making him Provisional Third Link to replace me. I think you will find him to be a supremely capable man, despite his--more objectionable qualities.” He nodded. “I… I can think of no one more willing and more able to do this than I.” He bit his lip. “My only regret is that I can only do it once.”

Astyanax regarded Marcolf with a mournful smile, his eyes wet. “You brave, brave boy,” he declared. “You truly stand, Magnate de Montfalcone, for the honor and the glory that made us great, once. And, Lady willing, shall make us great again.” He leaned forward. “Would you like some tea now?”

Marcolf sighed and shook his head. “No, General. But thank you for the offer.”

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 17

“Ooooh! Try the turquoise comb! I bet it looks great!” said Jean.

Elaine frowned, as she sat before the vanity’s large mirror. “You’ve already shoved me into your stupid dress,” she seethed. “Isn’t that enough?”

“Nope,” said Viviane. “We have to make you look like a real lady.” She smiled at Jean. “You’re right! That comb would be perfect!” She picked it up and weaved it into her daughter’s hair.

“OWWWW!” cried Elaine. “Damn it, those things pinch!”

“Language, young lady,” said Viviane, adjusting the comb. She smiled. “Ooooh! You look so--CUTE!” She pinched Elaine’s cheek fondly.

“Moooom!” groaned Elaine, visibly wilting.

Jean clapped her hands together. “You know what I’m thinking? Hair pins!”

Viviane giggled. “Oh, that’s good!” She went to the side of the vanity, and pulled out a small box. “I got these from the Emporium! They’re all the rage in Albracca!”

Jean squealed in excitement. “I have no idea what that means but it sounds good!”

Elaine glared at them. “Would you two stop treating me like some sort of living doll?” She leaned towards Jean. “Especially you. Mom I understand, because she’s--well, my mom--but you--you were a river trader! You can’t find this sort of thing interesting!”

“Oh, yes, I can!” said Jean. “Just because I was raised on the river didn’t mean that I didn’t care about these things. I used to play dress-up with my doll all the time.” She shrugged. “Okay, so technically it was more of a stick than a doll, and the dresses were just scraps of cloth I picked up at fairs, but still!” She sniffled. “That was a great stick. I still miss it some times.”

Elaine sighed and rested her head on the vanity. “Put the damn pins in.”

“Again--language, young lady,” said Viviane, as she fiddled with Elaine’s hair. “We should probably smooth this down…”

Jean looked the hair over critically. “Hmmm… you know, maybe we could braid it…”

“Oh, that would work!” said Viviane.

“Hey, any of you guys seen my golden tiara?” said Morgaine, leaning out from behind a changing screen.

Elaine picked up an elaborate crown showing a dragon devouring its own tail, and turned towards her aunt. “Is this it?”

Morgaine shook her head. “No, that’s the bronze. The gold one is in the shape of a giant spider on a…” Morgaine blinked as she realized that Elaine was staring at her in shock. Glancing down at her naked chest, the Dark Lord sighed. “Oh, right.” She sighed. “Well, now you know. Auntie wears falsies.”

Elaine, Jean and Viviane all stared at the gaping hole in the center of Morgaine’s chest. “How…?” began Jean.

Morgaine gave a grim chuckle. “Well, I am ‘Morgaine Sans Coeur’ after all.” She shrugged. “It’s not just a cool nickname. Dad literally cut my heart out when he offed me.” A cynical scowl stole over Morgaine’s face. “Didn’t do a very good job of it, mind you. I used to have the prettiest bosom. Ruined now. And the money I’m forced to spend on specially tailored tops…”

Elaine forced herself to look away. “Why did…?”

“Prophecy,” said Morgaine. “ ‘A Cthonique shall offer the heart of his daughter in sacrifice. A Cthonique shall gain the Sword of Night. A Cthonique shall conquer the very realm of Death.’ ” She shook her head. “All true, but Dad didn’t consider the fact that it might not all be the same Cthonique.”

Jean stared at the wound. “Why is it an inky black hole that swallows light?”

“Good question,” said Morgaine. “I have no idea.”

“Can I--touch it?” asked Jean, leaning forward, fingers outstretched.

“It really wouldn’t be advisable,” said Morgaine, frowning. “Trust me on that one.”