“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.