Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 43

Viviane du Lac, Mansemat Cthonique and Nisrioch stood in the entryway of the Hall of Mortality. Each held a goblet brimming with red wine in their left hands. Mansemat looked at his brother. “You are sure that this is how it’s done?” he said forcefully. “All three of us at once?”

“Positive,” replied Nisrioch with a nod. “It’s all there in the Lesser Book of Rites. The whole matter was elucidated at the end of the War of the Tulips, with the Treaty of Bezerta.” He glanced at Viviane. “Oh, and it appears I owe you an apology. Luned the Bringer of Woe was there as an observer, and she performed the Benediction along with the respective heads of the Red, Yellow, and Orange Tulip Cthonique factions.”

Viviane grinned. “Yes! Score one for my great-great-great…” She blinked. “Exceedingly great-grandma.”

Mansemat sighed. “Let’s get on with this.” The three raised their goblets to the company assembled before them.

“Loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong….” they sang together in perfect unison.

Elaine crossed her arms and shook her head. “I tell you, it’s like we still live in the Century of Threefold Conjunction here sometimes.”

Justinian nodded dimly. Jean snapped her fingers. “I like it. It has nice sound. You could dance to it.” Elaine gave her a credulous look. “If you wanted to,” Jean amended.

Elaine shook her head, and glanced back at her parents and uncle. Viviane was filling her singing with coloratura, while Mansemat was achieving a lower bass than Elaine had ever imagined possible for him. As for Nisrioch, he was doing some strange effect that made it sound as if he was singing two notes at once.

“There you are, Justinian!” said a surprisingly chirpy voice. Elaine turned and saw one of the chambermaids was approaching them.

Justinian bowed. “Eurydice…”

The chambermaid shook her head. “Look--none of that now--I just--wanted to apologize. I--it’s not YOUR fault that YOU KNOW WHO was so holy. I shouldn’t have lost my temper.”

Justinian shook his head. “No, it’s I who owes you an apology. I--am still learning my way in your society. I should realize that certain matters--look very different to you.”

Eurydice smiled broadly. “Well, I don’t deserve that, but--thanks.”

Jean stepped to Justinian’s side. “So, Sigma--who is this…?” she asked, a rather tight grin on her face.

“Ahh. Yes,” said Justinian, looking somewhat flustered. “This is Eurydice.”

Eurydice bowed, an even tighter grin on her face. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss…?”

“Crow,” said Jean. “Jehannine of the River Folk. Called Jean Crow.”

“Ahh, what a novel thing to be called,” declared Eurydice. She chuckled gently. “I’m amazed you’d have the courage to let yourself be named after a filthy scavenger bird.”

Jean threw her head back and laughed. “Oh, there’s all sorts of courage. Like the courage it takes to wear curly hair--in a bun.”

Eurydice touched her hair reflexively. “I-it’s mandated by tradition for Stewards and Chambermaids…”

“Tell yourself that, honey,” noted Jean. “It’ll ease the pain.”

Justinian sighed and stepped between the pair. “Listen, I don’t know why you’re quarrelling like this, but surely…”

“Oh, don’t be so coy, Sigma,” declared Jean, resting a familiar arm on his shoulder. “You know both of us are aiming to be the one who gets you break off that silly vow of chastity.”

Eurydice glared at Jean. “Speak for yourself, you--hussy! I’m a GOOD girl! I’d never--never--do that to Justinian!”

Jean grinned. “Never?” She shrugged. “Well, good. Less competition for me.”

Eurydice sputtered and gulped as she realized exactly what she just said. “That is--if he--well, no--but--I…” She swallowed, and took a deep breath. “You’re an evil woman. And you have a big nose,” she said, before stomping away.

Justinian frowned at Jean. “You are shameless,” he hissed.

“I know,” said Jean, grabbing his arm fondly. “That’s why you love me.”

Justinian pulled it free. “I think I’ll go--check on Morgaine. Nisrioch said she must be kept from the dessert liqueurs at all costs.”

Jean sighed as he walked away. “Damn it. Overplayed my hand.” She glanced at Elaine who was staring in wonder.

“That was just like when Princess Peony and Lady Posy meet for the first time in The Palace of Flowers!” said Elaine with a slight tremble in her voice.

“Umm, what is…?” began Jean.

“Only the greatest novel ever written!” declared Elaine. “It’s about the love triangle between Peony, Posy, and Prince Thistle!” She sniffled. “It’s the most romantic thing ever! Everyone dies at the end of it!”

“...liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiife!” finished up the trio, who then downed their drinks, threw the goblets to the floor, and crushed them under their left feet.

“Yeah,” said Jean, rubbing her temples. “I’ll have to check that one out.”

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 42

Armida regarded Alecto critically. “He SWORE at you?”

“At length, Madame,” said Alecto with a nod of her head. “And then he declined my company.” She sighed. “I apologize for my failure. I’m not worthy to be your student.”

Armida shook her head. “Even the finest hostess cannot save a tower in collapse. And Lord Asterot is just that.” She gave Alecto a pat on the cheek. “Relax my dear. You remain my honored disciple.”

Alecto bowed. “I am honored, Madame.”

Armida chuckled. “No, I am honored to have such a duteous pupil.” She glanced at Tisiphone, whose fingers were dexterously fiddling with her lute’s strings. “How’s the tuning going?”

Tisiphone strummed a string and nodded. “I believe I’ll be ready for the Benediction…” She glanced up. “Someone’s here.”

Armida turned. Viviane du Lac stood in the doorway, staring at the small group of hostesses in surprise. “How…?” The Badb coughed. “Sorry. Guess I’m not exactly living up to my reputation as the font of all old wisdom.” She glanced at Tisiphone and forced on a smile, realizing even as she did it that this was an extremely foolish thing to do. “So the stories are true? About the other senses getting sharper…?”

“No,” replied Tisiphone, tightening the strings. “It’s more that one gets increasingly adept at using the other senses. For example, I hear no better than I did when I could see. I simply--listen more.”

“Oh,” said Viviane. “Well…”

“It was an accident,” declared Tisiphone. “I lost my sight in an accident.”

“I wasn’t going to…” began Viviane.

“No, but it was on your mind,” said the lautist calmly.

Viviane coughed, and looked at Armida. “So--everything is… prepared…?”

Armida bowed. “All is fine. Preparation is the hostess’s watchword.”

“Really?” said Viviane with a frown. “I’d say it was something different, but I’m unusual like that.”

“Your Magnificence,” declared Armida, “if you have something you want to say about my profession, please unburden yourself. It’s better to clear the air than allow things to fester.” She smiled enigmatically. “Believe me, I have heard it all.”

Viviane was silent for a long while, then looked at Armida pointedly. “You’re a prostitute. Dress it up however you want, say that you don’t HAVE to sleep with your clients, talk about the great tradition of the Plains going back--I have no idea how long--but you’re a prostitute. You practice prostitution, and run a house of prostitution, where you train young girls to be prostitutes just like you.” She took a deep breath. “Tell me that it’s honored profession, tell me that you are simply a business woman, a perfectly respectable business woman, that you are helping people. But in the end you can’t hide the dark rotten core of what you do, Miss Armida. No matter how much silk you wear. Or how immaculate your conversation is.”

Armida regarded her for a moment. “Is this the part where I sputter impotently, or launch into some hastily conceived rationalization?”

Viviane blinked. “Ummm--that would make me happy, but I suspect that you won’t…”

“Very good guess, Your Magnificence,” said Armida. “I did not gain my reputation as an ‘immaculate’ conversationalist by stepping neatly into my opponent’s traps.” She shrugged. “Besides, there’s little to argue in what you say. I have never claimed my profession to be anything than what it is--the trade practiced by many desperate individuals at street corners, cleaned up and civilized. In a better world, it would not exist.” She looked Viviane in the eye. “But this is not a better world, Your Magnificence. And whatever my profession is at its heart, I can’t help but feel that the cleaning and civilizing makes it less evil than it could be.”

Viviane looked away. “Am I supposed to feel vaguely guilty?”

Armida nodded. “That is the idea, yes.” She looked at Viviane sympathetically. “I always thought that the Badb was more--adept at this area.”

Viviane winced. “I--sort of didn’t get the--training part…”

“And now it is my turn to feel apologetic,” said Armida. “I am sorry. What happened to your mother was a tragedy.”

“What happened to this land was a tragedy,” said Viviane. She smiled. “But--we’re getting past it.”

Armida nodded. “I suppose we are. Piece by piece.”

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 41

Sacripant glanced at The Triumph of Night, and shook his head. Enkidu had had it easy. Emperor Aurelian--may he forever be sundered from the Mother’s mercy--may have been the holiest emperor the Light Lands ever vomited forth, but he hadn’t been hard to find. “This is like looking for a leech in the tall weeds,” he muttered to no one in particular.

Grizzel, Hagen and Quiet all turned to stare at him. “It’s--a Marsh saying,” he said quietly. “Leeches--blend in.”

Hagen nodded. “Ahh! Like ‘button in pebbles!” the Ogre declared.

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” said Sacripant quietly.

Grizzel sighed. “Breus is having the Keepers search every room, hidey hole and secret place. That is their specialty, and you can be sure the Old Man is doing it. Looking over crowds is ours. And a crowd is the natural place to hide among in a situation like this. So--oh, no.”

Sacripant glanced at his Serjeant. “What…?” Greedigutt gestured over at several Mamelukes heading towards them. “Those guys? What…”

“You never see Mameluke throw weight around,” said Hagen. “Is like watching mountain cat play with chamois.”

The muscular Goblins reached the Guards, chuckling to themselves. One paused and pulled on his uniform’s golden sash, causing it to sparkle in the lamplight. “My goodness! Is this the famous Grizzel Greedigutt, the ‘Cut-sleeve Corporal’?” The two Mamelukes behind him snickered.

Sacripant clenched his fist and saw that Hagen and Quiet were both stepping forward. Grizzel raised his hand, and motioned them all back. “I’ve been called that,” said Grizzel calmly. “But I’m Serjeant-at-Arms for the Guards now.”

“Oooh,” said the head Mameluke with a simper. “Don’t you feel precious? Don’t you feel absolutely divine?” The other two Goblins chuckled to themselves.

“Not particularly,” said Grizzel, his voice absolutely level. “Now, move along.”

“That sounds like a threat,” said the head Mameluke grinning. “And I find that amusing. Coming from a man like you.” He leaned forward.

Grizzel regarded him without even flinching. “Not a threat. An order. Move along.”

“Or what?” said the Mameluke. “You and your trained pack of pansies will make me?”

Grizzel frowned, and then whistled. Quiet, Hagen and Sacripant moved as one. Sacripant quickly tackled one of the Mamelukes, knocking him to the floor, while Hagen simply grabbed another, lifting him up into the air. Quiet took care of the leader, throwing him off balance with a kick, then grabbing his arm, and twisting it behind him.

Grizzel watched the Mamelukes for a moment, then nodded. “More or less, yes.”

“What is this?” said a rasping voice. Sacripant turned to see Pinabel Maganza striding towards them.

Grizzel saluted the scarred Erl. “Sir. These purported ‘Mamelukes’ ignored a direct order to move along. As this is a high security affair, I became suspicious, and had my men detain them so they could be questioned.”

Pinabel glanced at his men. “Is this true, Bede?”

The head Mameluke gulped. “No! That is--not quite! That is--” He looked away. “More or less.”

Pinabel nodded, and then turned to Grizzel. “You are to be commended for having such a fine, disciplined fighting unit at your command.” He shook his head. “And I am to be dishonored for having such a poor, unruly one at mine.” He glanced at them. “For future reference, when the Blackcloaks ask you to move along, you move along.”

The Guards stepped away from the battered Mamelukes, who picked themselves off the ground, dusted themselves off, and in one case, recovered their toppled fez. They shot one last glare at the Guards, and scurried away.

Grizzel looked at Pinabel. “I am sorry for this trouble, sir.”

Pinabel gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “Forget it. The Mamelukes need to learn that wearing the fez doesn’t make you a warrior.” He sighed and shook his head. “Honestly, I was against bringing them here, but Asterot…” He shut his eye, and then turned away. “Let us just all agree to act as if this didn’t happen.” Grizzel nodded as the Maganza moved off.

“I’m amazed you kept your temper during all that,” said Sacripant.

Grizzel shrugged. “A man who wants to feel superior to me over that isn’t worth a wooden mark. The thing that bothered me is when he insulted all of you.” The Goblin shook his head. “Only man who gets to insult my lads is me.”

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 40

“Stop fidgeting, sir,” declared Breus as he straightened Mansemat’s cravat. “If you’d please.”

“Sorry,” said Mansemat, with a sigh. He glanced at himself in the mirror and shook his head. “I do not believe I am already changing my clothes…”

“Custom dictates such things in a Grand Occasion,” said Breus, nodding with satisfaction.

“I suppose it does,” Mansemat noted sadly. He looked at Breus worriedly. “I do hope I’m--measuring up.”

Breus regarded the Dark Lord of Castle Terribel fondly. “Sir--do you remember what I’d always tell you, when you were a lad, and worried that you weren’t up to snuff?”

Mansemat smiled. “You said I’d grow to be the Cthonique I should.” He paused for a moment “Have I, Breus? Become the man you thought I’d be?”

Breus stared at his master a moment. “Sir--I’d say you have, but I’d be lying.” Mansemat’s eyes spread wide as Breus began to grin. “You’re a far, far better man than ever I dreamed you’d be.”

Mansemat looked at his Chief Steward for a moment, and then embraced him. Breus gave the younger man a fond pat on the shoulder. “Now, now, Your Magnificence. Now, now…”

Mansemat stepped away. “Sorry. Bit overwhelmed in the moment.” He coughed. “You understand?”

Breus gave a nod. “Of course, sir. And the Southerner?”

Mansemat’s face looked grim. “Tell me, Breus, do you believe that Mr. Subtle is correct? That this is an assassination attempt in the waiting?”

“Sounds likely, sir,” said the Steward, shaking his head. “A foolish move, I’d say, attacking the Cthoniques on their home ground. The Castle protects her own.”

“She didn’t protect Great-Grandfather Ailil, did she? Or Iblis for that matter,” noted Mansemat.

“Iblis was a traitor who tried to be King, instead of Dark Lord,” said Breus. “As for Ailil--there’s a reason Nerghal killed him with his own two hands instead of leaving it to his hired knives. The Castle gets confused when Cthonique fights Cthonique.”

Mansemat nodded to himself, then turned at the sound an opening door. “How do I look?” declared Viviane, modeling her dress--a blue gown with an elaborate lace brocade.

Mansemat stepped forward and took her by the waist. “Beautiful,” said Mansemat simply. “I’m a lucky man.”

“Despite having to deal with every other Lord of Darkness for the next few days?” asked Viviane.

“Yes, despite all that,” replied Mansemat with a grin.

“Well, good,” said Viviane. “I have something significantly more minor to discuss with you.” She looked away, frowning slightly. “It’s Elaine. She’s being difficult.”

Mansemat squinted. “How difficult?”

Viviane sighed. “Very difficult.” She walked away, gesturing for him to follow. “Come with me. It’s a doozy.”

Mansemat followed after his wife. “While we’re heading away--how do I look?”

“Very nice,” said Viviane. “Like a proper Dark Lord.”

Mansemat raised an eyebrow. “But--an approachable Dark Lord? Correct? A Dark Lord that a random Night Folk might say to themselves, gazing upon him--‘well, the Cthoniques might have been ruling the Plains of Dread for time out of mind, but Mansemat is a bloke I wouldn’t mind sharing a drink with?’”

Viviane looked at her husband. “Don’t ever say bloke again, Manny. Please?”

Mansemat sighed. “I’ll try.”

Viviane opened the door to the women’s dressing room. “Here it is. And don’t worry. Everybody’s decent.”

Jean Crow sighed and gestured at Elaine. “Relatively. Relatively.” She calmly returned Viviane’s scolding gaze. “What? Someone had to say it.”

“Bu--” began Hoppedance, then realized that Viviane was there and flew up to a niche near the ceiling.

Mansemat continued to look at Elaine. “I do not see what the issue is here.”

“She’s in a SUIT!” declared Viviane. “And she won’t change.”

“I like it!” said Elaine, pulling the lapels of her jacket. “And she’s right. I won’t!”

Mansemat nodded. “Understood.” He turned away. There was a moment of awkward silence.

Viviane started forward and lightly tugged on his arm. “Umm--that’s it? She’s wearing a suit.”

“And she looks lovely in it,” said Mansemat He glanced at Elaine. “I mean it. That’s a very smart look for you.”

Elaine blinked in surprise, and glanced away. “Umm, thanks.”

“But--suit,” said Viviane quietly.

Mansemat placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Viviane--Elaine is at the age where she can be trusted to make some decisions for herself. If she really wants to wear a suit--well, then fine.” He shrugged. “Honestly, it’s positively restrained compared to Morgaine’s latest outfit. I thought I saw--scales…” He sighed and shook his head.

Viviane looked at the floor. “I know--it’s just…” She bit her lip. “I never got to make a proper Debut. I wanted Elaine to.”

“And she will,” said Mansemat. “She’ll just be wearing a suit.”

Viviane sniffled, and rested her head on Mansemat’s shoulder. “They grow up so fast on you!”

“You know, I am right HERE,” muttered Elaine.

“How do you think I feel?” asked Jean. “I’m not even related to you people.”

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 39

Ull Regni notched another arrow. “So then,” he said calmly, “four continuous shots, in the bull’s-eye. Correct?”

The Agri Khan nodded grimly. “That sounds about right.” His eyes were narrowed, appraising his opponent keenly.

The Muspeilun gave a mild nod of his own, and then readied his shot. With a speed amazing in such a large frame, he fired it, then followed with another shot, then another. And then another. And then one more.

The Kizak stared at the target. All five arrows lay neatly in its center. “Five shots,” said Ull cheerfully. Agri Khan nodded. A gentle wave of clapping came from the side.

“Brilliant performance, Your Prominence,” said Armida, sitting among the small audience that had gathered there.

Ull gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “Piffle! I’m an amateur! A mere enthusiast!”

Agri Khan glared at the Ogre, as he prepared his own shot. “I can see the… enthusiasm.” He fired.

“Archery, Regni?” came a hard female voice. Skadi Utgardi stood surrounded by her jarls, staring at Ull with a touch of contempt. “I never thought I’d see a Son of Flame bend a bow. That’s more an Ettin weapon.”

“Well, this Son of Flame does what he damn pleases,” declared Ull confidently. “You should give it a try some time.”

Skadi drew herself up, as the jarls all shook their heads in muted disgust. “In the Stonefangs, we have dignity.”

“Six shots,” declared the Kizak.

Jean Crow nodded. “It’s true. I counted.”

Ull rubbed his chin in concern, and raised a hand in the air, waving his fingers idly. “Six shots,” he said.

“There you are, Jean!” said Elaine as she walked into the garden. She looked around the crowd of Kizaks, Muspeilun, Jotun, Ettin, and assorted onlookers, her expression growing puzzled. “What’s…?”

“Agri Khan and the Dark Lord of Ironfangs are having an archery contest,” said Jean. “They’re good. It’s actually pretty neat.”

Elaine nodded. “Mmm. Marfisa would like this.” Jean stared at her. “The Mongrane girl. She’s nice.” She coughed. “Anyway, Nisrioch needs some help. He’s got the whole benediction thing sorted out, which means the dinner will start soon.”

Jean sighed. “Fine.” She rose, stretched and glanced at Armida. “Could you please tell me how this ends?”

Armida nodded. “Of course, Jean.”

Skadi laughed. “Why wait? I’ll tell you how it will end--I’ll win the contest.”

Ull turned to look at her after finishing his shots. “How do you propose to do that? You’re not even competing.” He looked at Agri Khan. “Seven.”

The Kizak readied his bow. “I have to admit, Your Eminence, he has a point. After all, I thought a bow was an Ettin weapon.”

Skadi strode forward. “Oh, I won’t use a bow.” She reached into her cloak, and produced a heavy battleaxe. With a shout, she threw it at the target. The axe hit with a resounding thump and spilt the target in two. The Jotun clapped her hands together. “There.” She looked at Jean. “Victory.”

As Skadi walked away, Ull glanced at the others. “You know--technically that was not a victory at all.”

Jean blinked. “You’re actually willing to dispute that point with her?”

“Oh, yes,” said Ull with a nod. “Can’t give an inch on these things. Do that, and who knows where it would end?”

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 38

“Oh, Darksome--Lady!” said Marfisa, grinning broadly. She nudged Ruggier with her elbow. “Look at this!”

Ruggier Mongrane glanced up from his writing to glance at the page his sister was pointing out. “Ahh, yes,” he said as he turned back to his work. “Very nice.”

Marfisa pouted. “You barely looked at it!” She turned to Elaine, showing her the illustration. “Isn’t this great?”

Elaine looked at the drawing. “It’s--a big sword.”

“A REALLY big sword!” said Marfisa, nodding eagerly. “And look!” She tapped the picture. “See the hilt? It’s got a mace on it! So if you can’t cut a man, you can bash his brains in!” She smiled. “And there’s a hook on the end of the mace! For peeling armor off! So you can give a man a coup de grace!” She bit her lip, and glanced at her brother. “I want one! Get me one just like it!”

Ruggier sighed, and glanced at his sister again. “You already have too many weapons, ‘Fisa…”

“I’m your Marshal!” said Marfisa. “How can I have too many weapons?”

“I find it hard to believe, “ noted the Duke quietly. “And yet, you manage it somehow.”

“I do NOT,” said Marfisa, wrinkling her nose.

“Even Roddy thinks you have too many, ‘Fisa,” said Ruggier quietly.

Marfisa sighed. “Okay. Fine. I’ll get rid of the triple-headed flail. Okay?”

Ruggier smiled pleasantly at his sister. “For a start.”

“Oh!” Marfisa crossed her arms, and leaned back in her chair. “You are impossible!” She shook her head. “I don’t complain about your collections do I?”

“Only constantly,” said Ruggier calmly, jotting something down.

Marfisa shook her head, and looked at Elaine. “He does this all the time.”

Elaine nodded. “I can tell.”

Marfisa coughed. “Roddy’s our… he’s the Serjeant of Our Guard. The Ogre. Very nice. He… after… We…” She looked away. “He’s very dear to us.”

Elaine looked at the nervous Marshal sympathetically. “Ahh. That clears things up.” She looked over at Ruggier’s writings. “What are you working on?”

Ruggier paused and glanced up at her. “If you must know, Miss du Lac, a book of strategy.”

Marfisa nodded enthusiastically. “My brother is a military genius.”

“But--there hasn’t been a war in--years,” said Elaine. She frowned. “At least--not a big one.”

“Very true,” noted Ruggier. “And I have not taken direct part in any of the limited military engagements we’ve had.” He shrugged his slender shoulders. “It is a purely theoretical work. Simply--a hobby of mine.”

“Don’t laugh,” said Marfisa. “It’s MUCH better than his other hobby.” Elaine looked at her expectantly. “Musical instruments. He collects them. Loads of them.” She bit her lip. “Ever see a glass harmonium? We have two. Glass harmoniums.”

Elaine was puzzling her way to a reply to this when Nisrioch entered the library, shaking his head. “--had over FIVE HUNDRED YEARS to clarify things!” he muttered. He set a hefty tome on a nearby table and sighed. “I despair of my lineage. Despair I say! DESPAIR!”

“Hi, Nissy,” said Elaine quietly.

“Hello, Elaine,” said Nisrioch. “Oh, and you’ve made friends!” He smiled and nodded at Ruggier and Marfisa. “Duke Mongrane, Marshal Mongrane, a pleasure to see you enjoying our hospitality. I hope the Library is to your liking.”

Ruggier bowed. “A treasure for all the Lands of Night, Your Excellency.”

Marfisa gulped and raised her book. “I… It’s real…” She looked away. “I like the pictures.”

Nisrioch nodded as he headed towards a section of shelves. “I’m very glad it’s to your liking. I apologize for my outburst. But after pouring through the Great Book of Rites, I’ve discovered that the information I require is in the Lesser Book of Rites. It is somewhat discouraging.” He picked up a slightly less hefty tome than the one he’d placed on the table and sighed. “I do wish my ancestors had realized the importance of indexing.”

Elaine nodded, and gestured at Ruggier. “He’s writing a book of military strategy. As a hobby.”

Nisrioch turned and regarded the young nobleman for a moment, his rainbow-colored eyes sparkling with a strange mixture of amusement, and sadness. “Well, I suppose we all must do something. Though you must forgive me if I feel it my duty to deny you chances to practice your talent.”

Ruggier shut his eyes and laughed. “Oh, naturally, Your Excellency. If my studies have taught me anything, it is that the true master of war must be a lover of peace, or he will breed only horror.” He nodded to himself. “We learn to excel at war, so that we may accomplish our ends quickly, and make our opponents wary of attacking us.”

Nisrioch sighed. “A noble sentiment, young Duke Mongrane. And one that would work, save for one, simple flaw.” He opened his book. “Some people are lunatics.”

There was silence for a moment. “Oooooh!” said Marfisa. “Look, Ruggier! This one’s got FIVE blades! And they’re serrated!”

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 37

Justinian Sigma made his way through the darkened hall. Nisrioch had him running odd tasks in preparation for the evening’s dinner ball, which the Dark Lord swore would be ‘a scintillating event that will dominate the Nightlands’ society for years to come’.

These days, Justinian was realizing he found dealing with a Dark Lord who said things like this infinitely more terrifying then one who devoured the soul of his enemies. Especially when he followed them up with statements like ‘drapes mustn’t clash with tablecloths’.

“Careful! Careful!” shouted a woman. Justinian pressed himself against a wall as two chambermaids holding a massive portrait filed by him.

“Would you like some help with that?” he asked, figuring that conveying Nisrioch’s orders regarding napkin folding could safely wait.

“Thank you, it’d be app--Oh! Justinian!” Eurydice smiled nervously at the Milesian. “Nice to see you!” She blinked. “I--thank you!”

Justinian nodded at the blushing Erl, as he got a grip on the portrait. “It’s--nothing.”

“Nothing!” spat out Echidnae Bluebell. “Lady’s Love, this thing weighs almost as much as Old Lord Assur!”

Eurydice glared at her subordinate. “You’re on thin ice, Echidnae! And beneath the ice--there’s soap scum duty.” Echidnae blanched and then concentrated on keeping the portrait from falling. Eurydice turned and smiled at Justinian again. “Once more I appreciate your help.”

Justinian gave a nervous nod. “And once again--it’s--really--nothing.” He gave a sympathetic glance to Echidnae, who blushed and looked away.

“Don’t be so modest,” said Eurydice, her narrowing eyes lighting once again on Echidnae.

The Sacristan decided a change in subject was in order. “So--where are we taking this?”

“The entry gallery of the Hall of Mortality,” Eurydice replied cheerfully. “His Excellency wanted a celebration of great Cthoniques of the past.”

Justinian glanced at the picture. It was the portrait of a smiling elderly Erl seated on a throne, flanked by numerous smiling younger Erls, and with several cheerful Erl children on his lap. A great black banner hung behind him--‘PAX CTHONIQUE, PAX NOX’, it read, in golden letters. “Who’s…?” began Justinian.

“Lord Choas the Wise!” chirped Eurydice. “One of the very greatest Cthoniques of Castle Terribel! He commissioned this family sitting on his sixtieth birthday!”

Justinian nodded quietly. “I’ve--heard of him.” He stared at this portrait of a kindly family patriarch for a moment. “He’s not what I imagined. I thought he’d be more… fearsome. What with the wars.”

Eurydice smiled. “Choas fought a lot of battles, but he never liked them. He always said that he was happy that he got all his wars over when he was young, so he could enjoy his old age.” She rose her hand. “All right--here we are!” The massive painting was attached to the wall with relative swiftness. Eurydice looked it over and nod. “That should do it!” She sighed. “Now, let’s hope that His Excellency doesn’t have any more last minute ideas…”

Justinian looked over the hall. “Then you don’t want to hear about the nap--” he began, only to stop as he saw the statue. “Oh, my…”

Eurydice glanced at him and smiled. “I know what you’re thinking, and yes--that’s the original!” She crossed her arms. “Aiax the Elder’s Triumph of Night.”

Justinian nodded dully. He’d seen this scene represented before, albeit from a different point of view. “Enkidu Cthonique, and the Holy Emperor Aurelian?” he asked gently. To his surprise, Eurydice and Echidnae both hissed. He blinked. “What?”

“Yes, it’s THAT MAN,” spat out Eurydice.

Echidnae nodded. “We don’t use his name if we can help it,” she whispered.

Justinian regarded the statue. This was not the death of Aurelian he knew. Aurelian was sprawled on the ground, yes, and Enkidu had drove his spear into his stomach--but these were not the men he’d seen on so many murals. Enkidu was the most dramatic of course--neither a faceless figure clad in baroque armor, nor a mad and savage monster with a look of cruelty and bloodlust. This was a fairly ordinary-looking Erl, clad in simple leather armor, his expression grim, determined, and sad. But Aurelian was different too--no saintly ascetic, stoically prepared for death--no, this was a rather plump, sullen-looking man, screaming in horror and desperately raising an arm to try and ward off the fatal blow. “Why don’t you--use his name?” Justinian asked quietly.

“He was holy,” said Eurydice through clenched teeth.

“The holiest Emperor of them all!” said Echidnae emphatically. “Like what he did to the Shadow Woods.” She shook her head. “That was so--holy!”

“Or the Accursed Marsh,” said Eurydice. “Utter--holiness!” She hissed again.

Justinian gulped. “They’d--they’d res--it wasn’t--he didn’t…” He looked away, feeling subtly miserable. “He thought he was doing the right thing.”

“We know what ‘holy’ means, Justinian,” said Eurydice pointedly. “Do you?”

Justinian watched the two women move away, and then looked at the statue. “On this side of the river, I’m not sure I do,” he said quietly.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 36

Jean watched as Agri Khan readied another arrow. “You really enjoy that, don’t you?”

The Kizak shrugged. “‘Enjoy’ is a bit strong. It helps clear my head.” He loosed the arrow, nodding to himself as it cleanly hit the target. He turned to regard the young sorceress. “Anyway--it beats sitting around, doing nothing.”

Jean hugged her knees and sighed. “Touché.” She shuddered slightly. “So--any idea what’s going to happen at this--thing?”

“Council,” said Agri Khan. “A Thing has elected members.” He lowered his bow, and stroked his chin. “Well--usually. The Jarlthings are by appointment. Sort of.”

Jean shut her eyes tight. “I think we misunderstood each other. But just answer the question.”

Jerzy sighed. “What always happens when any sizable number of Dark Lords are brought together. Everyone will quarrel, though they’ll try to do it in the politest manner they can. Except for the Utgardi and the Regni, and that’s only with each other. Great matters will be discussed, debated, and ultimately deferred, if it’s at all possible. And Nisrioch and Alcina will find a nice, quiet corner, and strip it of those two adjectives as brutally and obscenely as they can. And believe me that is a great deal.” The Kizak shuddered to himself, then strung another arrow.

“Yeah, I kinda gathered that,” said Jean, shaking her head. “It’s kind of hard to believe that Nisrioch has it in him.”

The Kizak snorted. “With Nisrioch, don’t let appearances fool you. There’s more of his father in him--and his mother too, for that matter--then he likes to let on.” He fired his bow. “Very--driven and focused, underneath it all. He has dreams and he will see them fulfilled.” The arrow hit the target with a thud. “Except, perhaps for Alcina.”

Jean chuckled. “It sounds to me like those dreams are very fulfilled.”

Jerzy turned to her, frowning. “Don’t be so glib, Miss Crow. This matter is a great heartache for both of them, however much they make light of it. Nisrioch and Alcina thought they were going to be married once.”

“Oh.” Jean coughed politely. “Sorry.” She glanced at the Kizak lord curiously. “How?”

Jerzy regarded the young woman for a moment, then sighed. “Well, it’s an old scandal, and I’ve no doubt you’ll hear it eventually.” He shrugged. “Everyone knew for years that Shaddad and Belberith had an old arrangement to marry Shaddad’s son to Belberith’s daughter. When Belberith arrived with Alcina and Falerina in tow, most people thought a wedding was in the wings.” A mournful frown came over Agri Khan’s face. “Especially Nisrioch and Alcina who were amazed to discover that they got along splendidly. Perhaps a little too splendidly, but then again, they were young, and engaged to be married. Or, so they thought. And then the announcement was made.” He shut his eyes, and was silent for a moment. “Mansemat was betrothed to marry Falerina at some later date. Seeing as he was eight and she was five, this came as something of a surprise to people. Especially Nisrioch and Alcina, who immediately bolted, determined to elope.” He drew another arrow. “They made it all the way to Marsilion’s Folly. Where they were caught in flagrante delicto.”

Agri Khan fired his shot. Jean stared at him, expectantly for a while. “So then what?”

“What do you expect? The visit came to an abrupt end, Nisrioch and Alcina were separated, and House Cthonique and House Ashurana both went around on tiptoes regarding each other for awhile.” He shook his head. “As for Nisrioch, he moped around Castle Terribel, wrote some poetry of questionable virtue, and was on the whole, very poor company for a while.”

“How do you know all this?” asked Jean.

“I was living here at the time,” said Jerzy. “Lord Shaddad had asked the Khans to each give him one of their sons to raise. The stated idea was we were to learn the ways of the Plains, and thus be able to serve as ambassadors between the two cultures.” He sighed. “Of course, our fathers thought they knew the truth. Hostages. And so they sent their spare sons, and cheerfully prepared to forget about us. And that’s where Shaddad got them. The real plan was to liquidate them the moment they got insolent, then ride into town with the new Khan, who’d been carefully trained to do what Lord Shaddad told them.”

Jean whistled despite herself. “That’s--actually--kinda clever.”

“In theory,” noted Agri Khan. “In reality, like so many of his plots, it ran into the brick wall that was Lord Shaddad. If he’d ever gotten the chance to put the plan into practice, we were planning on going to our respective Hordes, screaming bloody murder, forming an alliance, and the bringing the combined might of the Kizaks down on his smug head.”

Jean nodded. “That’s--really clever.”

“Thank you,” said Jerzy, smiling. “Of course we never got a chance to put into practice either. Wound up stuck here during the Rising, helping Breus hold off the Ashuranas, the Maganzas, and the Regnis.” He turned to Jean, who was staring at him in bewilderment. “That one’s--another long story.”

“Having a bit of target practice, Agrican?” said a deep, booming voice.

Jerzy sighed. “Yes, Your Prominence. Just one of those amusing Kizak customs. You know we Waste Erls with our barbaric habits.”

“Oh, nonsense, nonsense,” said Ull Regni as he ambled into view. The Muspeilun slapped his thigh. “Can’t be worse than the bleeding Jotuns and they’re our kin.” He regarded the target for a moment. “Truth be told, I do a little archery myself. A hobby, you know.” The Ogre flexed one mighty arm. “Keep me limber, and so forth.”

Agri Khan gave a dull nod. “Of course. I can see how that would be important.”

Ull clapped his hands together. “Say, perhaps I can take a shot! As a little joke, perhaps!”

Jerzy gestured to a corner. “There’s a bow over there.”

Ull nodded cheerfully. “Oh, excellent! This will be fun!” He strolled over to the bow, picked it up, stringed it, and then gave it a few tugs, getting a feel for it. The Kizak watched him with only the mildest of interest. Ull walked back, readied the bow, and took a shot.

It struck the center of the target.

Jerzy and Jean stared in disbelief, as Ull chuckled. “My, my. A lucky hit! A very lucky hit!” The Ogre looked at the Erl “Say--Agrican--you wouldn’t be in the mood for a little--contest, would you?”

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 35

Sacripant glanced over the crowd in the Hall of Forgotten Memory. “Well, I’m seeing a lot of your people,” he noted to Hagen. “But no Erls…”

“They are not my people,” said Hagen, with a severe frown. “They are Ettin. I am Troll.”

“Oh, Lady’s Love, Hagen,” groaned Sacripant. “When you told me about the Jotun and Muspeilun, I was--well, it sounded silly, but then I saw them, and I saw that they really were a different sort of Ogre. But these--these guys look just like you…”

Hagen frowned at his friend. “Well, they are not like me. I am Troll. They are Ettin.” He shook his head. “In many ways, that is bigger difference than that of Muspeilun and Jotun.”

“But how?” asked Sacripant, shaking his head. “I don’t really see it.”

“I must confess, in appearance it is little things,” said Hagen, a slight smile on his face. He pointed at one of the Ogres in the livery of House Utgardi. “See his hair? It is long with braid, not cut short, like mine. Look at the beard on his face, which stretches down to his chest, and has ribbon tied in it. See my clean-shaven face. See the bracelet on his left arm. See the ring on my right hand. See a hundred other little differences.” Hagen shook his head. “And it all boils down to this--I am free. He is bondsman. He is of Jotunheim--I am of Kitvekh.”

Sacripant blinked. “Didn’t Kitvekh--well, isn’t it that city that--sunk?”

“The physical Kitvekh sunk. The spiritual city remains eternal and unshakeable, so long as we keep Kitvekh in our hearts,” declared Hagen. “Listen to me, Sacripant. When the Darksome Lady made the Ogre races, she shaped the Muspeilun from fire in heart of mountains, the Jotun from ice on top of mountains, and my people from very stones of mountains. We were supposed to stand together as equals--but the Folk of Flame and the Folk of Frost each claimed kingship. And so the Fangs were split. And so my people were split also. Between those who would accept bondage, and those who never would. My folk. The Trolls. We left their mighty halls, and made a city where we would be free. They sunk it. So we left the Fangs.”

Sacripant was silent for awhile, turning his attention back on the crowd of Utgardi retainers. Still no sign of the mysterious southerner. He saw Quiet across the room, who glanced at him, then shrugged and shook his head. He glanced back at Hagen. “Still that was--a long time ago. You can’t--seriously think it’s worth--well, disinheriting these people.”

Hagen raised one bushy eyebrow. “What would you do if I called you very holy?” Sacripant recoiled in disgust. The Ogre raised a hand to calm him. “I am not calling you this--but supposed I did?”

Sacripant snorted, the shock still evident on his face. “I’d hit you. And you’d deserve it!

Hagen nodded. “And why is ‘holy’ so bad a word? The Milesians like it.”

“Yeah, they like it so much they keep trying to ram it down our throats,” said Sacripant. “I’m from the Marsh, remember? We’re usually first in line for the ramming.”

“Ahh, yes, the Empire,” said Hagen. “But--that was--centuries ago, was it not?”

“Like that makes a difference!” snapped Sacripant. “You can’t forget something like that!” He turned away. “Besides, it’s not like they just--stopped when the Empire fell. I mean, when the Lightlanders followed Shaddad back over…” The Marsh Erl blinked, then glanced at the smiling Ogre. “Okay--you’re good. You know that?”

Hagen shrugged. “Mother always hoped I’d be Gothi, but I am not quite made for the religious life.”

Sacripant chuckled. “That’s an understatement.”

“Country folk,” said Hagen shaking his head.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 34

Elaine nestled comfortably in the stacks, and let out a contented sigh. She was free of her dress, and free of standing around and having people bow at her. At least, until dinner. Elaine carefully slid Sceaf Saxnot’s Account of the Campaigns Against King Hunding of Jotunheim off the shelf, hoping to enjoy the next couple hours of peace, reading about Saxnot and his band of thegns merrily slaughtering their way across the Fangs. She cheerfully flipped through the pages, until the voice broke her reverie.

“Are you--is this--are you mocking me?”

Elaine glanced up. Marfisa Monglave stood there, a stack of books in her arms, staring at Elaine with a mixture of anger and bafflement. “Umm--what?” asked Elaine.

“I don’t have any choice about dressing like this!” snapped Marfisa, gesturing to her suit. “Did you know that? Did it ever occur to you before you decided to start on this little joke? Did it?”

“Well--no,” said Elaine calmly. “Because I’m not making a joke. I like dressing like this.”

“Oh.” Marfisa glanced away, nervously. “I--see. Sorry.” She looked down at her feet. “I--I--have to deal with a lot of cr--unpleasantness. At times. It’s--not nice.”

Elaine nodded. “I can understand that.” She forced a smile.

Marfisa gulped. “Umm--yes--I…” She tilted her head to look at Elaine’s book. “Is that Saxnot’s Hunding Campaigns?” She blinked and looked away. “It--it’s for--Ruggier wanted to take a look at it. If you don’t mind.”

“Oh. Sure.” Elaine quietly handed her the book, marveling that there was someone in the Nightlands’ High Nobility more awkward then herself. “Do you--need any help finding anything else?”

Marfisa glanced around miserably. “Umm. No. No. Not--no.” She coughed. “That’s too say… we’ve… umm…” She looked at Elaine and smiled desperately. “My brother’s waiting for me. He--he’d know. If he wanted anything else. I mean.” She glanced away again. “Do--do you want to meet him? Maybe?”

Elaine smiled as warmly as she could. “Sure. I’d love to. It sounds--nice.”

Marfisa gave a feverish nod. “Yes! Yes! Nice! Yes!” She bit her lip. “Nice--nice is good!” Marfisa offered Elaine her hand. “I’ll take you right to him! Immediately!” As soon as Elaine took the hand, Marfisa began to eagerly tug on it, leading her to a small table in the corner. Ruggier sat there flipping through a book, his cane leaning next to him.

“You won’t believe it, ‘Fisa!” he said quietly. “They have a COMPLETE edition of Geryon’s Techniques and Tactics!” The frail-looking Erl glanced up, and blinked. “Ah. Your Estimable Grace!” He nodded stiffly.

Elaine coughed. “It’s just--‘Elaine’, when I’m not being forced to stand around and smile at people.”

Ruggier nodded again. “I will remember that.” He pressed a slender hand to his chest. “You must call me ‘Ruggier’.”

“And I’m Marfisa!” declared his sister. She frowned, and glanced away. “I mean--you should call me Marfisa. Not that I thought that you--didn’t know my name. It’s not like--I don’t think you’re stupid or something--that never… Ummm--sorry. Shouldn’t have…” She set her stack of books on the table before Ruggier. “I got the books you wanted, Ruggier.”

Ruggier smiled fondly at his sister. “Thank you, ‘Fisa.” He looked at the books, and nodded to himself for a while, then frowned. “Oh, dear. This is Unashapatim’s epitome of Amraphel’s Easter Wars.”

Marfisa winced. “Sorry, brother. I--sorry.”

Ruggier waved his hand dismissively. “My fault. Should have been more specific.”

Elaine frowned. “What’s wrong with Unashapatim? He has a lovely style!”

Ruggier glanced at her. “True, but he has a rather different emphasis than what I’m looking for.” He cradled his chin in his hands. “For Unashapatim, it’s enough to mention that a battle as happened, so that he can move on to what he considers the meat of the matter--Amraphel Maganza carving a swathe through the Fangs and the Easter Kingdom. Whereas I am looking to understand the battles themselves. Which is why I need Mattafol.”

Elaine crossed her arms. “Why not just read Amraphel?”

The Erl stared at her in astonishment. “You have a copy here?”

“We have two copies here,” said Elaine. “The Kvasir edition is illustrated.” She pointed towards a shelf. “Second level, four divisions in.”

Ruggier smiled, and stood up, keeping his hands on the table. “Well, thank you, Elaine. I’ll go get it.” He deftly grabbed his cane and made his way towards the shelf.

Marfisa watched him go with trepidation on her face. “I wish he wouldn’t do that,” she whispered.

“He seems to be doing fine,” said Elaine.

“It’s not just his--limp,” said Marfisa quietly. “My brother--isn’t very--he can’t overstrain himself. Not that he’d ever admit it.” She sighed. “Sometimes, he seems to think he can--will his bad health away.” She looked at Elaine apologetically. “I--I’m sorry. I know how--pathetic we must seem to you.”

Elaine sat down at the table. “I’m the Badb’s magicless daughter. Trust me--I’m in no position to look down on you.” Marfisa nodded and picked up a book. Elaine glanced at the title “Koschei’s Compendium of Notable Weapons?”

Marfisa blanched. “I--that’s to say--it--I like..” she squeaked and sputtered, before finally, hanging her head. “It’s good reading,” she whispered. “Especially the drawings.”

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 33

Marcolf awoke in the small chamber, damp with sweat. He’d been dreaming the old dream again.

He was back at Montfalcone, fleeing the Citadel as Chateau Montfalcone burned behind him. He was running, as fast as he could, his sword in his hand. His mother ran behind him, calling for him to slow down, but he ran on, as the howls and hoots of the True Folk came closer. And then he looked over his shoulder, and saw it.

The True Folk had caught his mother and bore her down on the ground. Not so proud now, they crowed triumphantly, as one of the men stabbed her repeatedly with a spear. She screamed in horror as they did it to her, and then she called his name, as her face went cold and dead.

Marcolf gulped and then he turned, and held his sword before him. The True Folk looked at him for a moment, and then they laughed and rushed at him. He waved his blade impotently but they simply swarmed over him and then their axes and their spears penetrated his flesh and he died.

He had the dream for years now, ever since the Rising. It hadn’t actually been like that, of course. His mother had been killed, but it had been by a cleaver not a spear. And she hadn’t been running. No, Erminia de Montfalcone nee de Dyfed had died with a crossbow in her hand, after spending three hours taking potshots at the True Folk, determined to die as a Magnate should, letting the rabble know they were facing a noblewoman. Of course, the True Folk had simply waited for her to run low on bolts, then had a slinger knock her down when she tried to leave her secure location. But in principle, it’d been a valiant stand.

There had been a sword. One his mother had strapped to his side herself. But he’d been ten and it’d been heavy, and he’d dropped it when he ran. He still remembered that disappointment on her face. Her beloved boy, her little sprite--a coward. A weakling who ran from danger.

Marcolf gulped and shook his head. He’d been a child then. A foolish, weak child. And now he was a man. Now he knew what he was fighting for. Fighting against men who killed women, rose up against their masters, destroyed the natural order. Fighting against the degenerate pretenders who let them think they had a right to do that. He glanced at his barrels, and tapped them fondly. These were gong to let him do just that. Fight.

He turned to the small plate of cheese his ally had given him, and picked up a piece. He’d have to get back to work soon. Everything would have to be ready for tomorrow. He’d make sure of that. It was his duty.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 32

“Auntie Alse is so cool!” said Malina, grinning broadly. She glanced at Elaine. “Did you know she rules over the biggerest city in the Land of Night? Did you?”

Elaine rolled her eyes. “Yes, Malina. I did.” She looked at her stepsister. “Though technically, the Ancients rule over Albracca. Alcina is just their appointed Justiciar.”

Malina tilted her head up. “Ha! That’s what they think! They try to tell Auntie Alse what to do sometimes, but unless it’s a good idea, she does what she wants.” She grinned. “Nobody tells her what to do!” The child frowned. “Except for Grandpa. But he’s scary. I mean--even Mommy Mom is scared of him. And even he can only make Auntie Alse do what he wants some of the time!” Malina nodded. “Yep! Auntie Alse is cool!”

Morgaine frowned. “And what about your OTHER aunt? The one who gives you presents all the time? And holds incredible necromantic might?”

“You’re cool too, Auntie Morgaine!” said Malina reassuringly. “But Auntie Alse is cooler! For example--she doesn’t care if anybody thinks she’s cool!”

Morgaine stared at her niece for a while, and then groaned. “Bested by a six year old. My undead dignity lies in tatters.”

“I’m almost SEVEN!” said Malina.

Nisrioch nodded to himself. “Understood, Manny. And we’ll--what?” He sighed and shook his head. “Just like Belberith. No, I’m not mad. Not even remotely shocked.” He opened his eyes and glanced at his sister. “Orrill’s serving as head of the Ashurana Retainers for this visit.”

Morgaine turned towards Nisrioch in surprise. “What? The Crocodile? Here?” She shook her head. “Damn it, that scumbag has a lot of nerve!”

Nisrioch shrugged at his sister. “It was shame and restraint Orrill lacked back in the old days, not courage. Things apparently haven’t changed.”

Justinian Sigma glanced at the two Dark Lords. “May I ask who this Orrill is?”

Morgaine glanced at the young Sacristan as the small group headed towards the Ashurana airship. So far as Justinian could gather, Malina had to be on hand because some of the House Ashurana Retainers owed her some level of homage, while Morgaine and Nisrioch were there to add some heft to the assembly. And he and Jean were there because Nisrioch wanted them to be. “The last remaining member of the Six Sworn--Dad’s personal bodyguard of sorcerous creeps.” Morgaine scowled. “Nasty customers.” She shook her head. “He pretty much--collected anybody with an excess of talent and an outstanding crime. The idea was, they’d be desperate enough to take the job on his terms--which were pretty steep, as you can imagine--and willing to do anything. The reality was they just spent as much time as they could feathering their own nests and indulging in their--hobbies.” The undead Cthonique shuddered. “Like I said, nasty customers. Orrill slipped his leash during the Rising and signed up with the Belberith. Which is why he’s still around.”

“What happened to the rest of them?” asked Jean, stroking Hoppedance’s head.

“I did,” said Nisrioch with a chuckle.

Morgaine laughed. “Ahh, man. Never thought I’d miss those days. Say what you will, we never had to be nice to these assholes, back then.”

Nisrioch nodded. “I do sometimes miss the clarity of when everyone unpleasant was trying to kill us. It really side-stepped all those bothersome moral quandaries, very neatly.”

Jean glanced at the descending group of Erls and Ogres. “So--which one is Orrill?”

Morgaine chuckled. “Oh, trust me--you’ll know who the Crocodile is. He kind of stands out…”

“Ith thomebody thpeaking of me?” asked a strangely high-pitched voice. Justinian glanced at its source--and simply stared. This had to be Orrill. He was--the best way Justinian could think of it was that Orrill was a completely unremarkable-looking Erl--except for his head, which was that of a crocodile. The strange creature glanced around its surroundings before lighting on the Cthoniques.

“Ahh, Nithrioch! Morgaine!” the sorcerer said. “Tho good to thee you! It hath been thuch a long time!” Justinian realized that the strange sorcerer’s lisp was the result of his bestial head. It almost made him feel sorry for the--man, if he hadn’t managed to project such an oily, supercilious air. And--if he didn’t have the head of a crocodile. That was really unnerving. No denying that. “Fifteen yearth! How the time doeth fly by!” He stepped forward and offered Nisrioch his hand.

Nisrioch rather pointedly ignored it. “Yes, it certainly does,” he noted pleasantly. “Last I recall Father had given you command of his rearguard. Said his life was in your hands, and then retreated to the Blasted Heath.”

Orrill sniffled--a rather amazing feat for someone with the head of a reptile. “Oh, Nithrioch, you wound me! You wound me conthiderably! Do you think I could betray your father? I only thwore loyalty to the Mountainth of Thorrow when I felt there were no other optionth. Lord Shaddad wath preciouth beyond all counting to me! A man of geniuth in world devoured by mediocrity!” He pulled out a handkerchief and began to dab at his eyes. After a second, he leaned forward. “Bethideth, unleth I am theverely mithtaken, you are in no pothition to catht athpertionth.”

“Once you try to murder your kids in mad schemes to gain immortality, normal family relations--cease to apply,” said Morgaine forcefully.

Orrill shook his reptilian head. “Truly, Lord Shaddad would be tho dithappointed to know what prethumptiouth boorth hith children had grown into. I do hope your younger brother ith ath pleathant ath rumor proclaimth him.” And then, with a nod to Malina, the wizard strolled off.

Jean and Justinian watched him leave, fascinated despite themselves. “It’s still a matter of debate in wizardry circles whether he accidentally warped his head in a failed shape-shifting spell, or whether he intentionally grafted the head of a crocodile to his body by mystical means,” said Morgaine. “So is he an idiot who bites off more than he can chew, or a lunatic who twists himself seeking perverse and destructive ends? It’s anybody’s call.”

“Oh, Morgaine,” said Nisiroch good-naturedly. “Can’t he be both?” He shook his head. “Still--this changes things. I did not expect a wizard of his standing coming to Castle Terribel…”

“We’ve got you, me, the Badb, AND the Bearer of the Sword of Night,” said Morgaine. “We can handle it.”

“What am I?” asked Jean. “Chopped liver?”

“More or less,” said Nisrioch. “You’re my exceedingly untrained apprentice. Several of the amateurs here could wipe the floor with you, if they wanted to.”

“Hey, I’ve been practicing!” said Jean. She raised her hands and concentrated. A brightly glowing sphere appeared between them, emitting a low hum. She glanced at Nisrioch. “See?”

Malina clapped and laughed. “Oh, neat! Uncle Nissy’s taught you the Musical Sphere too!” She raised her hands. “I’m really good at that!” She concentrated, producing a brightly glowing sphere that produced a sound like that of a set of fine chimes, then released it, so the small globe revolved around her head. She followed this by producing two more which joined the first, glowing brilliantly and making lovely music.

Jean winced. “Damn it, I suck at this.”

Morgaine nodded. “That is definitely true.”

“Shit-for-brains!” agreed Hoppedance.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Where All Shadows Gather--Part 31

“I don’t like this,” declared Grizzel.

“You think I do?” said Breus. The Head Steward shook his head. “Let’s hope it’s just a gatecrasher, like at His Magnificence’s wedding…”

Balthazar Subtle blinked. “I thought the big happening there was His Excellency performing the Gleeful Waltz with Her Worshipfulness. In a lavatory. Before an audience of the highest religious figures in the Lands of Night,” the chirurgeon noted.

“It was the Abbe of Lady’s Pillars Monastery and a handful of nuns,” said Grizzel. “Also, it was a broom closet.”

Breus sighed. “You’re both wrong. It was a pantry.” He shrugged. “And yes, there were gatecrashers. All there to see the legendary Black Dragon of the Plains, the new Lady of Castle Terribel and what we all thought was going to be the wedding of the century. Well, you know Bridge Perilous. Place is like a sponge. And we had the Ashurana staff running the show, and doing a damned poor job of it.” The High Steward frowned. “Honestly, we should have seen that entire farce as an omen…”

“Let’s stick with the matter at hand,” said Grizzel, turning down the hall. “Where has this bastard got himself hid?” He shook his head. “I tell you, it’s uncanny!”

“And a bit involved for a mere--enthusiast,” noted Balthazar. “Buying a cartload of wine as part of an elaborate ruse to gain entry to the Castle.”

Grizzel glanced at the chirurgeon. “Still pushing your ‘Southern Magnate Partisan’ theory?”

Subtle frowned. “You will admit, it rather neatly provides a motive to our mystery man.”

“Bah!” The Serjeant-at-arms shook his head. “You forget something, Subtle--I fought in the Rising. The Magnates won no love in that. Most of them learned the hard way that the Plainsfolk weren’t willing to die so that they could go on living in their chateaus and feeling superior.”

Subtle glared at his superior. “And I suppose all the reports we’ve been getting--”

“--Are opportunists, troublemakers, and petty bandits looking to mask their crimes in a cause,” said Grizzel. “Lady’s Love, Subtle--we were putting down roving bands of thugs claiming to be ‘True Folk’ for two years after the Rising was finished with. Criminals are always looking for some cheap way to purchase legitimacy in the folks’ eyes.”

Subtle shook his head. “I swear to you, Greedigutt, there’s something behind all this. It’s too--methodical to be random crimes.”

Breus rubbed his chin. “We can speculate on what all this means AFTER we catch him,” the Erl noted. He nodded at Sacripant and Quiet as they approached. “Find anything?”

Quiet shook his head. “No one’s seen anyone odd, High Steward,” said Sacripant.

Grizzel snarled. “Hellfire and damnation! Where’s he hiding?”

Subtle coughed. “I know that no one wishes to consider this, but--the balance of evidence strongly suggests--our enigmatic friend has someone helping him on the inside.”

“That’s a weighty accusation,” said Breus with a frown.

Grizzel sighed. “But probably correct.”

“Maybe Hagen and Palamedes will find something,” offered Sacripant hopefully. The others nodded dully.

“Let’s look on the bright side,” said Subtle. “He can’t hide forever.”

“He doesn’t have to,” said Grizzel. “Just long enough.”

“Serjeant! Serjeant!” cried Palamedes rushing into view as fast as he could. The chubby Guardsman slumped against the wall as soon as he reached them, taking his time to catch his breath. “Big--news, sirs,” he said, panting. They waited for him to finish. “Just checked the kitchens and--some cheese is missing!” The others stared at him for a moment, clearly waiting for some more information. Palamedes blinked, then looked away. “Well, it seemed like big news at the time.”

Sacripant rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Maybe--Hagen has found something.”