Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 3

Elaine du Lac awoke in a bedroom that was too pink and too frilly. Indeed the sight of so much pink and frilly caused her sit up with alarm, and take in her surroundings.

Oh, it was pink. And very frilly. In fact staring at it, Elaine couldn’t help but feel that somewhere, some city was suffering an acute lace shortage because of this room. And then--there were the pictures. Pictures of horribly cute animals staring out from the frame with great, big eyes were plastered everywhere. The effect went so far in the direction of ridiculous as to end up in the realm of strangely horrifying.

Elaine heard a giggle. “Hurray! Sis is up! Yay!” Turning, she saw Malina standing nearby, clapping her little hands together. “Oh, isn’t this amazing, sis? Mommy Mom is so neat! This is such a great room! It’s wonderful! It makes me want to do the most funnest thing I can think of!” Malina nodded and smiled so furiously as she said all this that Elaine started to wonder if her stepsister was in her right senses. “Oh, I know!” declared the young Dev eagerly. “Let’s play hide’n’seek!” She clapped her hands together. “It’ll be great and fun and wonderful!” And with that she dove under the bed.

That was odd behavior, even by Malina’s rather unusual standards. Elaine took a deep breath, and headed towards the bed. “Malina, I don’t know if I want to…” She peeked under the bed, and was quickly reminded of the fact that her stepsister was surprisingly strong, especially for a young girl of seven, when Malina grabbed her by the shirt and dragged her under.

Malina glanced at her sister urgently. “Mommy Mom is watching us,” she hissed.

Elaine blinked. “Wha…?” And suddenly, it occurred to her. “The… pictures…”

“Those things are part of it,” said her stepsister with a nod. “I’m working a spell so we can talk and she can’t hear. But it doesn’t work so goodly.” Malina bit her lip nervously. “Sis… Mommy Mom--she’s--not right. Uncle Nissy says that she’s messed up in the head, and that she can’t… enjoy things the way people should. So she tries to pretend that she does and it makes her even more unhappy, and that makes her nasty.” Malina began to tap her fingers nervously on the floor. “We have to keep her from getting mad. And that’s tough. So just--try to always agree with her. Even when what she says isn’t true. Or the exact upsit of what she said before. And always tell her how wondererful she is. And how much fun this all is. Even though she’s awful, and this isn’t going to be fun. At all.”

Elaine found herself somewhat--startled at how serious her stepsister looked. This wasn’t the Malina she was used to, she realized--the happy little Dev without a care in the world. Largely because she had a care now and it was probably a worse one than Elaine had had for--quite some time. “ So--if we do all this--she won’t get mad?”

Malina frowned anxiously. “No. She always gets mad in the end. But if act like this, it--holds it off.” She gulped. “Sometimes.”

“Oh.” Elaine nodded. “Well. I’ll try.” She shut her eyes. “I--I’m sorry your birthday was ruined. And that--that we didn’t get to eat the cake.”

Malina looked at her stepsister--and then hugged her. “Don’t--don’t worry, Elaine. You--you’re a big girl, and you shouldn’t worry. Daddy and Mommy Viv will come for us. You’ll see.”

Elaine hugged Malina back. “I--I know. And… thanks, Malina. For--all this.”

Malina looked away. “We should head up. Mommy Mom is probably getting spicious.” And with that she crawled out from under the bed. “Wow! You win, Elaine! You are the best hide’n’seeker EVER!”

Elaine followed her out, and smiled broadly at the pictures, which now struck her as even more nerve-wracking then before. “No, you are!” she declared. “You just let me win!”

“Did not!” said Malina, turning her head to the wall. “Anyway, your turn to hide.”

Elaine nodded, and looked around for some place to hide. Knowing Falerina was… watching somehow, made it surprisingly urgent.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 2

Eurydice le Fidè le was staring over the snowy battlements when Justinian Sigma found her, her expression wan and pensive. “Eurydice,” he said with a bow.

“Oh--Justinian,” she said, turning to him and giving a deeper bow. “I--I’m sorry. I didn’t notice you were there. I--I was thinking of--other things.” She stood up straight, and adjusted her shawl.

Justinian looked away. “You mean--like the men you… had to deal with…?”

“Among other things,” said Eurydice, with a sigh, and a shrug, as she turned to look over the battlements of Castle Terribel once again.

Justinian joined her in staring out over the battlements. “They--were the first time, I imagine, that…”

Eurydice nodded--then frowned. “Well, up close,” she corrected. Justinian blinked in surprise. “During the Rising my father let me pull the lever of the catapults,” Eurydice explained. A nostalgic smile came over her face. “It was rather… fun actually. The Guard would put the stones on, I’d pull the lever, and they’d go sailing in the air, and smash down into the encampments.” Suddenly, her eyes went wide. “Oh, my. I did--quite a lot of those actually.” She placed a hand on her chin, and began to tap a finger. “Hmmm… if we assume--say--ten people a stone on average…” And then she started to work the figures out silently in her head, biting her lip on occasion.

Justinian gulped. “I hope you aren’t--feeling guilty, or…”

Eurydice shook her head. “Not… really. It’s simply that… one rarely considers one’s effect on the world at large.” She glanced at Justinian. “Do you understand…? Based on your… personal experiences? Being a--squire and all that?”

“Less than you’d imagine,” said Justinian. He gave a slightly ironic laugh. “I’m afraid the Sacristans are one of the more--sedentary of the Orders Militant, these days. My squiring has largely consisted of getting drinks for ranking Sacristans.” He shrugged. “And quite a bit of standing around and staring at things.” He coughed, and shook his head. “No, that thing was… the first…” He ceased to talk, and joined Eurydice in staring out over the battlements.

This occupation was interrupted by a loud cry of “Well, well, well!” Justinian winced. There was only one person in Castle Terribel capable of those tones that mixed bellowing with shrillness. He turned his gaze to regard the by now familiar figure of Morgaine Cthonique. “Justinian Sigma! As I do not live, and fail to breathe!” She grinned at him. “Enjoying some time with your sweetie, eh?”

Eurydice’s eyes went wide. “I’m not--we’re not!” She crossed her arms, and bowed. “I’m a good girl, Your Excellency!” She straightened, adjusted her shawl once again, then gulped. “I--there are rooms to turn out!” And then she darted away.

Justinian watched her leave, then glared at Morgaine. “I’m amazed that you can keep such--high spirits when your beloved nieces have been kidnapped.”

“Because I know we will get them back soon,” said Morgaine, smiling sweetly. “And because if I don’t keep my spirits high, I will start to scream.” She turned away. “Once again--congrats for the vampire-kill. That was good work.”

Justinian sighed, and wrapped his cloak around him. “Well, thank you, I guess.” He shut his eyes. “I always thought they were animated corpses. That drank blood.”

Morgaine frowned severely. “You know--we undead face that kind of nonsense all the time. I’ll have you know I have no need for sustenance whatsoever, eat simply for the pleasure of it, and enjoy the same food as everybody else.” She gave a furious nod. “I tell you--one day, the undead will overcome the prejudice we face, and say ‘Life does not stop at death!’” She blinked, and bit her lip rather worriedly. “Except when it does, of course. I mean--obviously it would have to.”

Justinian kept quiet. It occurred to him that for all her talk of ‘we’, Morgaine was the only being of her nature that he’d ever met. Except for a few animals she’d reanimated, which rarely lasted very long--and really, they didn’t seem to be that like her when you got down to it.

“But--yeah,” said the Dark Lord, changing the subject. “Vampires aren’t undead. Just a nasty monster from one of the Old Worlds. They lurk around small settlements, imitate voices, grab people who fall for their tricks.” She frowned. “Don’t think they even understand what words really mean, either…”

“The… Old Worlds?” said Justinian.

Morgaine nodded. “Supposedly, Mother Night practiced quite a bit before She created this world. The result was that this world was nice, and good, and everything a world should be. Unfortunately, things from the Old Worlds snuck in, and caused all kinds of trouble.”

“More--creatures like that?” the Milesian asked, despite himself.

“Oh, not just like that,” said Morgaine. “There’s a lot of variety. You guys supposedly came from an Old World, though that arrangement was more formal.”

Justinian blinked. “What?”

“Well, come on,” replied Morgaine with a snicker. “You have to admit you people don’t quite fit in here. For a start, you’re a finger short.” She shook her head. “No--supposedly, you guys mucked up whatever world you came from and wound up begging Mother Night for help. And She took pity on you, and let you live here. And you guys proceeded to muck things up here, just like you did in your world.”

“And you believe this… nonsense?” muttered the Sacristan with a frown.

Morgaine gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “Me? Not really, no. But lots of people do. In fact, I’m pretty sure Eurydice would tell you she did if you asked her…” She looked at Justinian eagerly. “Hey, I heard that she and Jean Crow got into a fight over you. Was there… slapping? And… hair-pulling?”

Justinian turned, and silently walked away. “Hey, come on!” said Morgaine, rushing after him. “My interest is purely scholarly!”

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 1

Nisrioch Cthonique walked down the stairs from his laboratory, his expression grim. “It was as I expected. Falerina is a true child of Ahrimanes, and it shows. The divinations all failed.”

Viviane bit her lip. “So… we have no idea where they are.”

Nisrioch shook his head. “Not… really, no.” He glanced down at the floor, his rainbow-hued eyes seeming strangely dim. “I… they’re not dead. Not even she could hide that.” He sighed. “I… I am sorry.”

Mansemat looked at his brother sympathetically. “You did what you could, Nissy.”

A frown came over Nisrioch’s normally cheerful face. “No. I did some of what I could.” He nodded to himself, and then looked at Mansemat and Viviane levelly. “I must go to Mount Karana.”

Mansemat blinked. “You… you have to be joking, Nisrioch. After what happened last time…”

“That was an… aberration,” said Nisrioch firmly. “I… made… a simple error in my circle…” He took a deep breath. “It will not happen again.” He stared at Mansemat. “Do you expect me to leave my nieces in the hands of that… madwoman?”

Mansemat simply stared back at his brother. At which point Morgaine stomped into the room, followed by Jean Crow and Jerzy bin Yan. “Okay, just got done talking with the Maganzas’ people,” announced Morgaine. “They started out by giving me the runaround, but once I got Despi involved, she twisted a few arms, and…” She looked around at the others. “Okay--what is going on here? I feel like I just walked into an icehouse.”

“Nissy has decided to visit Zamial,” declared Mansemat, turning away.

Morgaine’s eyes bulged from her head. “Wha…? The Queen of Fear? AGAIN?” She looked at her brother. “Are you a glutton for punishment?” She shook her head. “No, strike that--are completely FREAKING INSANE?”

“Only slightly,” said Nisrioch with a slight smile. “You know that.”

“Who’s… Zamial?” asked Jean quietly.

Morgaine snorted. “A Demon. Lives on Mount Karana. Answers questions about the past, the present and the future. Assuming she doesn’t kill you. Or mess you up beyond all belief. Most people call her the Queen of Fear, and give her a wide berth. A few fools try to take her up on the question thing though.” She gestured at Nisrioch. “Like my idiot brother here. It usually doesn’t go to well.”

“I’ve always gotten what I wanted,” said Nisrioch. “And if you follow the rules, you should be fine. Even demons have their limits.”

“First off the rules are pretty damn intricate, with all sorts of little ways to screw up,” noted Morgaine. “Second--for you, Nisrioch, I think the Queen of Fear would make an exception. Or do her damnedest to try.” She leaned forward on her tiptoes, looking at her elder brother significantly. “She has been waiting to take a bite out of you for years now, Nissy. Last time, she almost did.”

Nisrioch took a deep breath. “Morgaine--I know this is no light matter, but…” He shook his head. “Elaine and Malina need my help. I have to do this.”

Morgaine looked away. “Damn it, I hate it when you’re right about shit like this. Largely because it means we are in a remarkably bad place.”

“In the shithouse! In the shithouse!” cawed Hoppedance.

Jean glanced away. “I did not teach him that one.”

Viviane looked at Morgaine. “So--what was it you were saying about the Maganzas?”

“They can’t help us much,” said Morgaine. “Turns out they really thought they had her. But it was that little traitor Antigone imitating her with a glamour.” She frowned. “Plus I suspect Asterot has been leaning on them not to check things too closely. Payback for ruining his last little scheme to screw us over.”

Viviane nodded. “Hmmm. You think she and he might be… involved?”

There was silence for a moment. “Ewwww!” said Morgaine, breaking the silence. “And people say I’m the sick one!” She shook her head. “Viv--that is just--too much crazybad in one relationship to think about.” She shuddered.

“It was… just a thought,” said Viviane apologetically.

“Yeah, a sick one,” said Morgaine, shaking her head.

Mansemat looked at Jerzy. “So--what about the… surviving prisoner?” There was a collective wince at that comment. What had happened to most of the mercenaries not killed in the initial assault had been surprisingly unpleasant.

“Mr. Sweetsleep knows very little,” answered the Kizak quietly. “Honestly, I think he’s genuinely surprised that Falerina paid everyone in Fiery Marks. Didn’t think they knew enough to be worth killing.”

Mansemat shrugged. “Knowing Falerina, it might have been pure spite.” He shook his head. “Or perhaps, simply her doing what she figured was the proper course of action in…this sort of thing. Who knows?” He turned to his brother. “So you--are going to her, I take it? No matter what we say?”

Nisrioch nodded. “That’s right.”

“Very well,” said Mansemat, his expression grave. “As for me, I shall take a saner, yet perhaps less productive route--I shall visit Mount Qaf, and ask Belberith if he knows anything.” Viviane coughed. “With my wife accompanying me.”

Jerzy stepped forward. “And I will also accompany you.” Mansemat and Viviane turned to look at him. “Malina is my godchild. And I am Agri Khan.”

“Well, things seem to be settling nicely,” noted Nisrioch.

“Bugger the bitch!” cawed Hoppedance.

Jean glanced around apologetically. “I didn’t teach him that one either.”

Viviane smiled at the crow. “It doesn’t matter. I think the bird speaks for all of us.”

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Birthday Girl--Part 15

“I… always thought she was… a bit of joke,” said Viviane nervously, as she and Mansemat rushed forward. “A… slightly crazy, slightly spoiled twit who kept trying to kill you in really stupid ways.”

Mansemat glanced at his wife quietly, and then sighed. “You’re not far from the truth. But… well, we laugh about Falerina now, because that’s what you do with someone like her, after they’re gone, and you don’t have to worry about them. But at the time--” He winced. “She was terrifying. A woman, capable of doing anything she felt like, no matter how horrible it might be…” He shook his head.

Vivian put her hand on his shoulder. “Well, I’m here now, Manny. And there is no way she can handle both of us at once.” She frowned. “Not after ruining Malina’s birthday.”

“Distant release albino bell!” came a low, hooting voice. It was followed by a peal of crazy laughter, and then a flapping of wings.

“Well, this must be the replacement me,” came a voice like honey dripped on broken glass. Looking up, Viviane found herself looking at a strangely youthful female Dev, hovering with her wings, and licking at the crook of her thumb as she regarded Mansemat and Viviane. “She’s not as pretty as I am, you know that Manny?” She smiled at Mansemat. “You look very nice, by the way. Very nice. Makes me want to take you, strap you to a chair, and then hit you with things until you look the way you really are.” The smile had turned into a feral snarl. A pair of vampires glided to her side, and hovered in her wake. “Not nice. Not nice at all.”

Mansemat nodded, as he carefully drew his blade. “Well… thanks for the compliment, Fal.”

Viviane raised her pestle, and gathered a gust of wind at the end. “Listen, you evil bitch,” she announced. “You do not get to threaten me and mine after coming here with a Lady-damned bunch of hired thugs intent on--I don’t know what the hell…”

Falerina clicked her tongue. “Well, well, well. Someone’s got a naughtymouth.” She shook her head. “To think, you’ve been raising my daughter.” She arched an eyebrow. “And you don’t want to do that.” She yawned. “Use that on me, I mean.”

Viviane unleashed a blast of wind. “Yeah, I do.”

The blast sped up to Falerina, only to break on a strange crimson shield that appeared before her. Falerina shook her head. “No you don’t,” she said, raising a necklace that hung over throat. “Because next time, I won’t try to stop your spell.”

Viviane and Mansemat stared at the necklace in shock. “It… it’s some sort of trick…” sputtered Viviane.

Falerina stroked the crystal in which a miniaturized Elaine was sitting in utter terror. “Wave at your old mommy, Elaine,” she said idly. As Elaine saw her mother and began to pound impotently at the side of her prison, Falerina shifted to the crystal that held Malina, who simply sat there looking forlorn. “I really came here for my little dear, but then I saw your girl, and I figured, well, you were trying to steal my daughter, so I was going to steal yours.” The Dev gave a casual shrug. “It’s only fair, after all.”

Viviane cupped a hand to her mouth. “Elaine--Malina--do not worry--I--I’ll do--something! Somehow…”

Mansemat stared at Falerina sadly. “Falerina--stop this--madness now, and…”

“Shut up,” snapped Falerina. “Both of you.” She lighted on a balcony and stared at the pair confidently. “Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to leave. With Malina and Elaine. And I’ll be their new mommy. And I’ll be so good at it, they won’t even remember you, or want to go back, because I am so much fun.” She licked her lips. “It’ll be just super.” She began to suck the crook of her thumb again.

“Listen to me, you insane bitch,” snarled Viviane. “You do NOT want to do that, because it makes me mad! And that is a pretty damn unpleasant thing!”

Falerina calmly shook her head, as the vampires landed on her shoulders. “There’s that naughtymouth again.” A crimson glow began to engulf her. “And--I don’t care what it makes you.” She waved her hand as she and the vampires began to grow indistinct. “Buh-bye! It’s been so much fun!”

“Horse silent right!” babbled one vampire, while the other cackled madly. And then, they were all gone.

Nisrioch rushed into the courtyard, panting. “Manny--Viv--the mercenaries--dying--they’ve been paid in the Fiery Mark!” He leaned forward, and tried to catch his breath. “Agri Khan told--I… I came as soon as I heard… Where?” He looked around desperately.

Mansemat gulped. “It’s--it’s too late, Nissy. Falerina’s gone. And she’s stolen my daughters.”
“Oh, Manny,” said Nisrioch, before clasping his brother in a fierce hug.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Birthday Girl--Part 14

Jerzy glanced over his shoulder, as Mansemat and Viviane followed fast behind.

“Slow down, damn it,” snapped the Badb.

“I am a Kizak,” he stated. “No, I am Agri Khan! I am fast as the wind!”

Viviane rolled her eyes. “Yeah. Yeah. Do you actually believe that spiel?”

At that moment, two thuggish looking Erls made their way around the corner, stared at the trio in surprise, and then drew their knives. Jerzy rushed forward with a howl, kicking one in the stomach with such force that he hit the wall, then quickly grasped the other and gave his neck a swift twist. “Believe it? I live it!” he declared, as the body hit the ground.

Viviane gave an exasperated sigh, then raised with her pestle, gathering flames from nearby candlesticks, which she then directed at a Goblin around the corner who seemed to feel he was positioning himself for an ambush.

Mansemat frowned at the pair. “You know--you two don’t have to be so--messy...”

Viviane raised an eyebrow. “I do not take kindly to those who attack me and mine. It’s a Badb thing.” She placed her hands on her hips. “I mean--I know you have the whole ‘chivalrous warrior’ code, but with us it’s always been--‘Mess with the Badb--Badb messes you up’.”

“Actually, I was thinking more--of--well, getting information,” said Mansemat, with a shake of his head. “I mean--I’d like to know just who’s doing this to us…”

“Oh.” Viviane bit her lip, and nodded. “Sorry.”

Jerzy gestured to the man on the ground. “This one’s alive. Writhing in agony, and likely to piss blood in the foreseeable future--but alive.”

Mansemat shut his eyes, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Yes. Well, Jerzy. That… isn’t quite what I was talking about…” Suddenly, the Dark Lord of the Plains of Dread straightened, and drew his sword. Even as he did so, a young Erl wielding two blades leapt down at him from above. There was a brief clash of metal on metal as the sword and dagger clashed with the Blade of Night, followed by a slight tearing sound, after which the young Erl was rolling away to the side, bleeding from his wounded stomach, as Mansemat cleaned Murgleys.

Viviane stared at the young man expiring on the ground. “Umm… What was that?”

“Cruel Disciple,” said Mansemat, replacing Murgleys in its sheath. “Twin Blades of Deceit style, I believe. Especially nasty customers.”

“Those lunatics are still around?” said Viviane.

Mansemat glanced down at his assailant’s body. “A few of them. With a tendency to get fewer.”

“Heh. I remember when we had to clear out that nest of them Belberith hired to cause trouble at Lamek’s Needle,” declared Jerzy. He then paused, sniffing the air. Drawing his kukri, he rushed forward to a tapestry, and yanked it back, revealing a scruffy-looking Erl in late middle-age. He threw up his hands as Jerzy stepped forward and pressed the kukri’s blade to the man’s throat. “Talk,” declared the Kizak laconically.

“I… I’m Haethcyn Sweetsleep, sir,” sputtered the Erl nervously. “I… the lady… she hired us to…”

Mansemat glanced towards him. “The lady, you say…?”

Haethcyn nodded. “A… Dev, Your Magnificence. She… she seemed to be very… important…”

Jerzy nodded. “I can imagine.” He looked over at Mansemat, while making sure to keep his knife at Haethcyn’s throat. “Well, now we know who’s behind this…”

Mansemat frowned. “Falerina…”

Viviane gulped staring at her husband in shock. “But--she’s in exile…” She looked away. “And it’s… it’s her daughter’s birthday…”

Mansemat took a deep breath as he stepped away towards a stairway. “I think you are about to discover that Falerina… doesn’t allow matters such as that to… muddle her thinking…” As he passed by the Cruel Disciple again, the assassin reared up and threw a knife at the Dark Lord. Mansemat, with blinding speed and dismissive casualness, drew his sword and deflected the dart. It struck the Cruel Disciple in the shoulder. The young Erl screamed in pain, and then fell back to the ground, foaming at the mouth. “Jerzy--you take Mr. Sweetsleep to someplace secure. I believe Viviane and I need to speak to my ex-wife.”

Viviane stared at the swiftly-expiring Erl. “You were expecting that, weren’t you?”

Mansemat nodded. “Twin Blades of Deceit-style always carries three blades, the third one being a poisoned knife for emergencies.” He shrugged. “The problem with assassin cults is they tend to ritualize their tricks. It rather--dulls the effectiveness.”

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Birthday Girl--Part 13

Elaine took a deep breath in relief as the door shut. “Okay. Got here with nothing bad happening. Hurray for us.”

“Hurray!” said Malina.

Elaine winced. “Yeah. It’s really a… quieter sort of hurray, Malina.”

“Oh. Sorry,” said Malina looking down at the ground nervously.

“It’s… really nothing to be sorry about,” said Elaine, rubbing her nose. She turned to Radomil. “Thanks for the help.”

The Kizak bowed. “For your Graces, anything!” he declared grandly--and then paused, sniffing the air. He snarled slightly, and drew his kukri. “Get… into a corner,” he stated, moving to the door. Elaine took Malina’s hand and dragged her back, keeping an eye on Radomil. There was the sound of indistinct talking, then… a giggle, and then the door began to open.

The Kizak gave a growl and swung his knife as something began to enter the room. The thing leapt away from the strike, and then… unfurled, hovering for a moment in the air. Elaine gulped. A vampire. She’d heard of these things, but never thought she’d see one. Radomil readied his kukri for another swing, and gave a howl--and that was when the second vampire leapt at him. “Fern robin sea slow!” it declared, wrapping its arms around him. Radomil snarled and broke free, stumbling away from the creature. He turned, and then suddenly screamed in agony, veins of blood red light coursing through him. As he fell to the ground, a female Dev entered the room, rubbing a ring perched on her first middle finger with her thumb. She watched the Kizak writhe in pain with a satisfied expression on her face, and then looked up at the room. “Hey, Malina!” she declared, beaming and unfurling her wings. “It’s MOMMY!”

Elaine turned to her stepsister in amazement. As she watched, Malina managed to turn an expression of horror into something approximating a happy face. “Mommy Mom. You came for my birthday.” The young Dev bit her lip. “I thoughted you were eggs isled.” She gulped despite herself. “Someplace far, far, very far away from here.”

Falerina Ashurana gave a merry laugh. “Oh, Malina! You’re my baby!” She kneeled before her daughter, her fingers tapping irregularly at the floor. “They could put you in a tower a million miles away from me, and I would come to you, and find you, and take you back.” She smiled warmly, her eyes fixing on Malina like a cat on a mouse. “Because I’m your mommy, and you belong to me.”

Malina smiled back at her and nodded. “Well, that’s… nice….”

Falerina turned to Elaine, as if realizing for the first time that she was in the room. “Who’s this?” It occurred to Elaine that there was something strangely--unfocused about Falerina’s red eyes, as if they looked at the world but didn’t quite see it somehow.

“This is Elaine,” said Malina, grabbing Elaine’s hand almost protectively. “My… my big sister.” Malina tilted her chin up. “She’s nice.”

“Ahh. The Badb’s daughter!” Falerina smiled at Elaine in a manner so odd that Elaine was uncertain if she was supposed to be comforted or intimidated. “Well, I’m glad you’ve been nice to my darling little Malina,” declared the Dev, her voice a mixture of sugar and arsenic.

Elaine found herself wondering if this was what a rabbit felt like when the hawk swooped in for the kill. It was strange really--in many ways, Falerina just looked like an older version of Malina, with larger horns, and a more pointed chin, but somehow--you looked at her, and she seemed off, like some predatory animal in the body of a person. It wasn’t just the big things like--well, seeing her torture Radomil. Every little thing she did, she did slightly wrong. Like… the way she seemed to be waiting for an answer now, strangely intent. “Oh, it’s no big deal,” Elaine said at last. “I mean, she’s very sweet, and I’m fond of sweet things, and so we get along very well…”

Falerina seemed to go over that response in her mind for a moment, then clapped in joy. “Oh, good! We’re all going to be such good friends!” She looked at her daughter again. “Look, Malina! I brought pets! Much nicer pets than Daddy’s stupid, stinky gryphons!” She gestured at the vampires, then frowned. “Babbler! Giggler! Stop eating that Kizak! You don’t where his blood’s been!”

The creatures detached their suckers from the downed Kizak. “Midnight the tower honk!” chattered Babbler.

Falerina’s eerie grin returned to her face. “Aren’t they neat? I found them, and tamed them and they do what I say!” She frowned slightly. “Except for that stupid Shrieker. Wandered off, like an idiot. Had to get a bite to eat.” She shook her head. “Oooh, it’s so annoying. Serves him right getting killed.” She stomped her foot, and then smiled again. “But Babbler and Giggler are good and loyal! Aren’t they the neatest pets? Aren’t they? The neatest? The very neatest?”

Malina nodded. “They are… neat.” She glanced at Elaine. “Right, Sis?”

Elaine decided to follow her stepsister’s lead. “Yes. Very. Neat. Very neat.”

Falerina licked her lips. “That’s right!” She suddenly shut her eyes and squealed. “Oh, you are both so wonderful!” She placed a familiar hand on Elaine’s shoulder. “I didn’t think I’d like you Elaine, when I first heard about you, but now I’ve met you and you are just so precious and darling!” She twiddled with Elaine’s ear. “So I’m going to take you with me, so that you and me and Malina can laugh, and play, and have loads and loads of fun.”

“Oh.” Elaine tried not to scream. It was proving harder than she thought. Especially as Falerina’s hand began to tickle the back of her neck. “That’s… super…”

“I know,” said Falerina, idly sucking the crook of her thumb. “That’s why I’m going to do it.”

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Birthday Girl--Part 12

Jean and Justinian hurried down the hallway. “I feel like such a poltroon.”

“That’s because you are,” said Jean. “Keep moving, damn it.”

“Shit-for-brains! Shit-for-brains!” cawed Hoppedance.

Justinian sighed. This wasn’t fair. He was a Sacristan--more or less--a holy warrior, sworn to the Seven and the Holy Light, charged to protect the weak and the helpless. And while the argument could be made that he was doing just that by avoiding danger, it struck him as a piece of cowardly sophistry. He was supposed to be running to danger, not away from it…

That was when the scream interrupted his thoughts. A woman’s scream. Coming from down the hall. Justinian turned. “Did you hear that?”

Jean gulped. “Yes. It made me want to move in the opposite direction. Very quickly.” She looked at Justinian hopefully. “Did--it instill such a desire in you, perhaps?” Justinian didn’t answer, instead rushing down the hall towards the scream. “Yeah. Thought so,” said Jean with a sigh.

Hoppedance flew off after Justinian. “Bugger the bastard!” Jean took a deep breath, and followed.

Justinian rushed forward heedlessly, his hand going to his sword. Turning around the corner, he saw it. Eurydice standing there, as two rather scruffy men approached her. “Well, look what I’ve found Gordubac,” said one, a Goblin scratching a thin, strangely greasy looking beard with one hand, while his other swished a sap idly. “A pretty little bird.”

“Very pretty, Porrex,” said the other, an Erl with rheumy eyes, who was busily drawing a knife. “Very pretty indeed…”

Justinian stepped forward, but that was all he did. In swift blur of action, Eurydice first kicked Gordubac so hard in the groin that Justinian gave a sympathetic wince despite feeling the man deserved it. As the knife feel out his hands while he writhed in agony, she darted forwards, picked it up, and turned to face Porrex. The Goblin snarled and charged at her, only to have her sidestep him, and then slit his throat. Gordubac’s eyes went wide, and he drew another knife from his boot. As he dashed ahead to slash at her, Eurydice turned and swiftly stabbed him. As her two assailants lay dying before her, the young chambermaid straightened her sleeves.

Justinian could only stare. However, Jean, who’d arrived shortly after him, could do a little more. “You… you killed them…” she muttered in a mix of awe and terror.

Eurydice turned, as if seeing the pair for the first time, then shut her eyes. “We protect the house. To be a le Fidèle--means to protect the house.”

“I heard you scream,” said Justinian quietly.

Eurydice’s eyes snapped open, a puzzled expression on her face. “I… I don’t recall screaming. Father always said it’s a waste of breath when there’s trouble…”

And that’s when it landed before Justinian. For a moment, he thought he was looking at a very short, ugly man in a greatcoat. And then he got a closer look, and wished very much that he hadn’t.

When he’d been a young boy with a different name living on the Breakers, one day, his father had caught a lamprey. Justinian still remembered the grotesque creature. The… thing he was looking at was rather like one, with dead black eyes, and strange jawless mouth. What he’d thought was a greatcoat were apparently… crude wings. Justinian found it horrifying, but strangely… fascinating, staring at it. The creature stared back at him, stretching out one thin limb. As it did so, it let loose a sound like a woman’s scream…

The knife struck the creature in the eye. Justinian blinked and snapped to attention, while Hoppedance flew forward, pecking at the thing. It moved around in a revoltingly… fluid fashion, striking futilely at the crow. Justinian drew his sword, and struck off one of the creature’s limbs. It recoiled slightly, giving off another shriek, but showing very little ill effect.

“The heart!” yelled Eurydice. “Aim for the heart!”

Justinian nodded, and thrust forward, striking the thing in the center of its spindly chest. The blade entered with startling ease, a gush of blood oozing out as it sank in. Justinian swiftly pulled it out, as the thing desperately thrashed about, screaming weakly, and then collapsed on the ground. He stared at the strange corpse, and then at Eurydice and Jean.

And that was when Morgaine entered, dragging four men effortlessly behind her. “Hey!” she announced cheerfully. “You won’t believe these assholes! They actually thought they could take me!” Morgaine gave an amused shake of her head. Nisrioch stepped into view, and cleared his throat. “And Nisrioch,” she added, with a roll of her eyes. She looked at her elder brother reproachfully. “Happy now?”

Nisrioch nodded. “Oh, yes.” He chuckled. “Ah, the look on their faces when we gave them a chance to surrender…”

Morgaine laughed. “Yeah! And that twerp going on about having us surrounded, and outnumbered three to one…” She shook her head in pleasant amazement. “Ahh, good times. Anyway, I’m figured we can stick ‘em somewhere, and--whoa!” Morgaine finally noticed the creature’s body, dropped her captives on the ground, and then looked up at the group. “Who got the vampire?”

Jean pointed at Justinian. Morgaine gave him a thumbs up. “Well, score one for the Milesian!” She stepped forward, stood on her tiptoes and slapped him on the shoulder. “Didn’t know you had it in ya!”

Justinian gave a nod, and tried to ignore the sick feeling in the stomach.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Birthday Girl--Part 11

Jerzy bin Yan sat watching the staff serve the cake. The two Woodash brothers carried it on a tray between them, walking as carefully as possible. Calchas was watching Persante with concern. From what he’d heard, Persante had been drinking a bit more than usual--which Jerzy knew to be quite a sizable amount.

He suddenly felt a sharp nudge in his ribs. Glancing down, he saw Morgaine, grinning manically. “Five layers,” she said, licking her lips. “Five layers, Jerzy. Five layers of sugary, sweet, sugary, delicious, sugary, yummy, sugary goodness.” She gave a delighted whimper. “This is one of those times I’m so happy I’m dead, you know that? All the fun, and no guilt!”

“You have my envy,” said Jerzy.

“As well I should,” said Morgaine. She clapped her hands together. “Oh, I love cake, and cake loves me, we’re as happy as we can be…” she sang quietly.

Jerzy turned to regard the cake again. He had to admit--it did look tasty. The cooks were cutting it expertly, and he thought he saw--yes--chocolate…

And that was when the grizzly spectre of a woman drenched in blood rose from the floor. “Intruders! Intruders! Intruders!” she shrieked.

“Oh, son of a--!” snapped Morgaine. “Now? When there’s cake?”

Everyone was looking around the room in panic. Mansemat glanced around, strangely majestic. “Calm everyone. Whoever it is, they’ve made the mistake of attacking us on our home ground.” He turned to his stepdaughter. “Elaine… if you would take Malina to her room…?”

To Jerzy’s surprise, Elaine simply nodded and took her stepsister’s hand. “Come on, Malina,” she said firmly. “Let’s go…”

Jerzy rose from his seat. “I’ll send one of my men with you.” He clapped his hands together. “Radomil.”

The young Kizak stepped forward and bowed. “It will be done, oh Agri Khan.” He quickly darted to the pair’s side as they left the hall.

Mansemat nodded, as the Guard organized around him. “All right, let’s move. Small groups, to cover more ground quickly. I suspect we’re looking at professionals. The fact that they were able to get into the Castle means we’re dealing with dangerous people.”

“You think it’s that… ‘Necklace’ group,” said Viviane positively.

“They are at the top of a rather short list,” replied Mansemat with a nod. “But we’ll only know after we deal with this. Hopefully.” He coughed. “Not that we’ll lose, mind you, but we might not find out…”

Jerzy coughed. “I believe we understood that, Manny.” He placed his hand on the Dark Lord’s shoulder. “I’ll come with you, Your Magnificence.”

Mansemat smiled at his former foster brother. “I consider it an honor, Agrican.”

Nisrioch raised his hand. “Morgaine and myself will go to the east wing.” He stroked his chin. “Unless you think that’s concentrating your forces a bit much…”

Mansemat shook his head. “It sounds fine, Nisrioch.”

Nisrioch nodded, and looked at his sister. “You ready, Morgaine?”

Morgaine stared ahead grimly. “I was expecting cake. They are dead men. Possibly several times over. I can do that, after all.”

Mansemat watched them leave, then turned to Grizzel. “Right--Serjeant--I’ll leave the Guard to you.” His gaze shifted to Jean Crow and Justinian Sigma. “Now--if you two…”

“Stay out of things?” said Jean.

Mansemat nodded. “Exactly.” He headed towards the north door. “Let’s--greet our visitors.”

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Birthday Girl--Part 10

“So--what do you think?” said the woman glancing around the tunnel. “Cozy, isn’t it?”

Haethcyn glanced around at the damp, nitre-coated walls, and decided he’d have chosen another word for it. Such as ‘awful’. He looked back at the rest of the toughs his employer had hired, mostly to make sure that none of them were getting the idea that he enjoyed being chosen as her ‘friend’. Much to his relief, however, they appeared to have focused on disliking Sparafucile, who was walking behind them and whistling jauntily.

That and being intimidated by the ‘pets’. “It’s interesting, your ladyship.” he said finally.

“Mmm,” she noted with a nod. “Lord Assur built this, you know.”

Haethcyn nodded. “The… fat one, wasn’t he?”

The woman smiled. “That’s right.” She looked over her shoulder. “Everything all right there, Sparafucile?”

The Cruel Disciple nodded eagerly. “I’m preparing to slay the Black Dragon of the Plains. Everything is magnificent.”

She laughed. “He is such an eager little worker!” She regarded Haethcyn again, thumb perched on her lower lip. “Anyway--Assur built this to visit--lady friends in the Folly.”

“And the Cthoniques--haven’t done anything about it?” quizzed Haethcyn, despite himself. He knew his job was to nod and agree with her when she felt like chatting, but sometimes, he had to actually respond to what she said.

Fortunately, this was one of the times when she didn’t mind, and was probably looking for him to ask a question. “Oh, they bricked it up, decades ago!” she said cheerily. “Not that it matters!”

“Thorn, school the bucket, wheelbarrow!” said Babbler. Shrieker screamed in approval.

“Why not, Your Ladyship?” he asked as the brick wall came into view, largely to keep his mind off the pets.

The woman drew a wand from her sleeve. Raising it, a strange ochre-colored light burst from the tip and flew to the wall. In a brief flash, strange runes appeared on it, only to vanish in an explosion of light. The wall collapsed in on itself, the bricks raining on the tunnel floor.

“That’s why,” she said with a nod. “Forward, gentlemen. History awaits.”

“Wag red fish!” declared Babbler, as Giggler snickered.

The woman nodded. “That’s right.” She glanced at the men. “Now--you’ve all taken my coin.”

The group nodded as one. Almost all of them put their hands in their pockets. Haethcyn sighed. He always made certain his payment was in a safe location, other than on his body. But then--he didn’t really feel that this was the most professional group. More--desperate. Like that pair Gordubac and Porrex, in the corner. Rapers, he’d heard, on the run from the headsman of a little village called Gorice. He and Sparafucile were probably the only real professionals in the group--and really, they each had their own little quirks, didn’t they?

The woman nodded, while fiddling with a large medallion dangling from her neck. “Your mission--disrupt things as I retrieve--the target! Following which, we will fall back, and regroup at the agreed meeting place, where those who survive will receive their further reward!” She gave a salute. “Good fortune.” And then she vanished in a blaze of scarlet light, her ‘pets’ disappearing with her.

Haethcyn winced. The pep talk did not make him--hopeful. The vanishing--did not to an even greater extent.

Sparafucile turned to the crowd. “You heard the lady. Some of you have been given maps to vulnerable areas. We strike those to create confusion, so that our employer can retrieve what she came for. I will try to surprise and kill Lord Mansemat.” The men nodded. It occurred to Haethcyn that many were now wondering if they’d made the wisest choice in their employment.

Sparafucile wasn’t one of them. “So that’s how it stands. Disperse into your groups, and make hell,” declared the Cruel Disciple with a nod. As the men broke away in small clusters, he turned to “Ahhh, Haethcyn!” said Sparafucile cheerfully. “This is the life, eh? Making history!”

Haethcyn considered what to say to that. Finally, he simply nodded. It seemed like… the best measure.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Birthday Girl--Part 9

Haethcyn Sweetsleep watched Sparafucile practicing with his blades. “A swing of my right, and a thrust of my left,” the young Erl stated positively, with a demonstration of what he meant, “and Lord Mansemat Cthonique will be finished.”

The older Erl nodded, chewing his toothpick thoughtfully. “Well,” he noted quietly, “if he just stands there, then yes. But I hear that bit is fiendishly difficult.”

Sparafucile glared at Haethcyn while sheathing his blades. “I am a Cruel Disciple. To me it is simplicity itself.” He stepped forward, closing the gap between him and the old Erl. “And I would not talk this way in my presence, if I were you.”

Haethcyn stared calmly back at him. “Of course you wouldn’t. You’d be me.” He smiled at Sparafucile. It occurred to him that this might not be the wisest course of action to take, but Haethcyn had gotten old in a profession that saw very few members over forty years. From where he stood, if the Darksome Lady decided to collect him--well, She’d given him a very generous extension on what was owed. And insulting Sparafucile was worth it.

Sparafucile turned away, frowning bitterly. “You’re not worth offending our employer by killing,” he said. Haethcyn nodded. One thing you couldn’t deny about the Cruel Disciples--they were professionals. They’d started out as one of the more esoteric religious colleges but went rogue when their hierophant decided that the best way to show appreciation of the Darksome Lady was to send people back to her. The group had nearly died out in the resulting persecution, but then the next hierophant decided that there was nothing wrong with making money while you’ll were doing that, which caused some people to decide that they might have some redeeming qualities. These days the cult mostly holed up in little fortresses in the Fangs and the Mountains of Sorrow, training constantly, and sending out their members when hired, for fees that were more than generous.

The older Erl spat out his toothpick. He’d only worked a few jobs where a Cruel Disciple had been brought in. They hadn’t gone well. That sort of job meant an employer who had money to burn, and that sort of employer was dangerous. Tended to get all sorts of funny ideas, and think the people working for them were objects to be disposed of as needed. And this… lunatic was definitely shaping up to fit the profile. This was one of the jobs where Haethcyn wondered why he took it.

The answer was he direly needed the money, of course. But he still asked himself, every now and then. Especially since spending his time in an old, rather dilapidated house in Marsilion’s Folly playing nursemaid to a group of amateurish hired thugs was not really his idea of a good time.

“Blue the toad stretching spoon wind!” came a strange lilting voice. Haethcyn shuddered despite himself. Especially as it was quickly joined by the sound of a woman shrieking, and a strange giggle. The Erls turned towards the doorway. Their employer had come. And she’d brought her… pets with her. “Roll ice maggot heart,” said the one which spoke.

The woman gave an affectionate pat to its head. “Hush, Babbler,” she said quietly, before turning to “Gentlemen, it’s time.”

Sparafucile gave a sweeping bow. “Excellent, madame! Excellent! Shall I go get the others?”

“Of course. It’s good to see someone as eager as myself,” she said with a nod, a thin smile on her attractive face. She began to idly suck the crook of her thumb. Suddenly, there was another scream. She laughed. “Well, aside from Shrieker. He’s a greedy one.” As Haethcyn stared at her, it occurred to him that in this dim light she looked as if she were surrounded by short men in great cloaks. With slightly deformed heads, and a tendency to slouch.

“So am I,” said Sparafucile, as he walked towards the doorway. “So am I.”

The woman watched him leave, then glanced at Haethcyn. “So--what do you think of him, Mr. Sweetsleep?”

Haethcyn shrugged. “A Cruel Disciple, ladyship. He’ll do what he’s been hired to, or die trying.” He shut his eyes. Somehow, his employer had decided that she and he were great friends, and kept chatting with him. Usually about the job. Sometimes about whatever she was thinking about at the moment.

That could pretty unnerving at times.

“Mmmm,” she said with a nod. “He’s eager. I like that.” She smiled at him. “And you…?”

“I’m more likely to avoid the dying part,” he said calmly.

She laughed at that--and was joined by her third pet. “Ahh. That’s what I like about you, Mr. Sweetsleep. You’re funny.” She pointed towards one of the creatures at her side. “Giggler likes it too.”

“I… appreciate that, ladyship,” Haethcyn said warily, keeping an eye on Giggler and ‘his’ companions. Personally, he rather doubted that Giggler gave a damn, or even really understood speech for that matter. But now was not the time to say that.

“Well,” said the woman, clapping her hands together, “enough idle chit-chat. Time to visit Castle Terribel.”

“Day pepper wing tower grasshopper,” said Babbler.

“Quite,” agreed the woman, beginning to suck the crook of her thumb again.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Birthday Girl--Part 8

“Blest be the young mistress on this day--in the Lady’s love, let her stay,” sang the choir of Nightfolk standing before the great table. Breus directed their performance the slightest of smiles on his stern face as he kept time. Jean found herself tapping her foot as she listened.

Well, damn it, the tune was catchy. Hoppedance was bobbing along with it, though he never really required much in the way of an excuse to ‘dance’. “Enjoying yourselves?” said a quiet voice at her ear.

Jean turned to find herself looking at Viviane du Lac. She gulped. “Ahhh. Yes.” She looked away. “Look, if its about what happened between me and Miss… Eurydice, it was all a…”

Viviane sighed. “…Great big misunderstanding?” She shook her head. “I’m guessing you’re--rather used to saying things like that.”

Jean glanced away. “Yeah. Yeah.” She sighed. “Usually doesn’t work to well, I freely admit.” She looked at Viviane piteously. “I blame it all on the death of my mother at an early age, which…”

Viviane frowned. “…Left you without guidance.” The frown deepened, until suddenly Jean was on the receiving end of what she’d come to know as ‘Viviane du Lac’s Gaze of Doom’. “You do realize my mother died when I was… very young, correct?”

“Umm--sorry,” gulped Jean. She forced a smile. “Well--that one’s true though you know. So--it’s something we have in common…”

“Don’t pick fights with Eurydice le Fidelè,” declared Viviane levelly. “Especially as she can kick your ass. Quite possibly blindfolded, if what I hear is true.”

Jean buried her head in her arms with a groan. “I know. I suck okay? Is that what you want to hear? I’m a shitty fighter, and a shitty sorceress, and… well, I wasn’t that good a river trader, okay?”

Viviane stared at her for a second then smiled despite herself. “You’re good, you know that? I mean--I know you’re trying to con me--but I’m falling for it anyway.”

Jean peaked at her through the crook of her elbows. “Helps when you use a dash of the truth. I really am shit in a fight. Hence the broken nose. And--well, the magic lessons aren’t going very well. At all.”

“Give it time,” said Viviane with a shrug. “You’ve got magic. It will show you what needs to be done.”

“Yeah, that’s what Nisrioch says. The smug bastard.” Jean glanced over at the singers. “What is Malina doing?”

Viviane glanced over at her stepdaughter, and smiled. “Oh! It’s her birthday alms!” Viviane shrugged. “It’s a Cthonique thing. They hand out marks on their birthdays as a reward for services.”

Jean shook her head, watching the young Cthonique cheerfully giving coins to the choir, occasionally pausing to chat with one. “I still don’t get just what the relationship is between the Cthoniques, the staff, and--well, the whole Plains of Dread is. I mean--I always used to think Mansemat was just--the king of the Plains, but it’s more--complicated…” She looked at Viviane. “Hey--when that Latheawl guy came up, why did they do that whole--exchange of keys thing?”

“It’s symbolic,” said Viviane. “Those are the keys to the Folly’s Grand Hall. They’re just showing how the city recognizes the power of the Cthoniques, and the Cthoniques recognize the ability of the city to handle its own affairs.” She chuckled. “The Cthoniques are big on things like that. Symbolic gestures, and respect for the Things, and so forth. They have to be. The Plains don’t take kindly to kings. Not after having to fight off old Sutekh…”

Grizzel Greedigutt loudly cleared his throat on the floor. “My lads and me came together, and decided to give Her Precious Grace a little demonstration of how dear she is to us!” he declared. He clapped his hands together, and gestured to eastern wall, where Quiet and Sacripant were each holding a large ribbon attached to a large piece of canvas, while Palamedes stood atop Hagen’s shoulders. The Ghoul and Marsh Erl quickly pulled their respective ribbons, revealing a large banner, while Palamedes pulled out a large sign and strategically held it in front of it.

“Happy birthday, Young Mistress!” the Guard all declared.

Malina smiled at them, and then blinked. “Who’s ‘Walina’?” she asked.

Palamedes quickly turned his sign around, making his ‘W’ into an ‘M’, as much of the Guard groaned in frustration, and Hagen Greatthews gave hearty bellows of laughter.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Birthday Girl--Part 7

Justinian watched as Mansemat Cthonique twirled about the snow-covered courtyard, Murgleys in his hands. The Dark Lord of Castle Terribel moved like a man gracefully balancing on a rope, precisely and steadily, his breath coming in regular steamy bursts. He twirled the sword like a baton, his motions with it sure and confident. Finally, Mansemat replaced Murgleys in its wooden scabbard, giving a satisfied nod.

“You really do take this practice seriously, don’t you, sir?” said Justinian quietly.

“Discipline is the key to skill,” said Mansemat with a nod. “The motto of the Seventeen-Style School.” He walked to a corner of the year and picked up a brush and a piece of paper lying there. After a moment’s consideration, he jotted something down--then something else, and then a final something. “Oooh! This is a good one! Listen to this one, Squire Sigma!”

Justinian managed a polite cough. “I do not know if I’m familiar enough with Nightland verse…”

Mansemat gave a dismissive wave. “Oh, nonsense. The self-evident merit should be apparent to anyone.” He coughed and began to read. “Sword drawn quickly--good. Sword never needed to be drawn. Mark of a master.”

Justinian blinked. “It--doesn’t rhyme.”

“Doesn’t need to! It’s an amusement!” said Mansemat with a laugh. “A quick little poem that goes five syllable line, seven syllable line, five syllable line. An ancient Nightland art.”

Justinian thought back, and did a mental count. “Your--second line has--eight syllables, sir.”

Mansemat blinked and looked at the poem. He recited it silently, frowned, and crumpled the paper. “Oh, bugger.” He turned to Justinian hopefully. “Still--you’ll agree that the sentiment was lovely, yes?”

Justinian nodded. “One wonders why…” He began, but then coughed, and turned away.

Mansemat looked at the Sacristan intrigued. “One wonders why what, Squire Sigma?”

Justinian considered things, then plunged ahead. “One wonders why you are raising an army against the Lands of Light, Your Magnificence.”

“Ahh,” said Mansemat with a nod. “That.” He shrugged. “Well, really the Guard’s more about defending the Plains. The--‘conquer and subjugate the Lands of Light in the service of the Great War’ spiel is--well, people expect it. The Ashuranas repeat it, and the last time an army from the Mountains of Sorrow set foot in the Lands of Light was eight hundred years ago--and it was in service to Amirant.” He chuckled to himself. “Oh, everyone here is willing to spread terror and death in the Lands of Light. One of these days. Perhaps after next year’s crops come in. But not at the moment. Every now and then, a Dark Lord like my father comes around and actually dares to cross the Murkenmere--but they‘re the exception, and they generally wind up showing us why it’s a bad idea.”

The Milesian frowned. “Then why--why persist in this--needless display of aggression?” he asked. “My people live in fear of the swords of the Nightfolk coming for them--and now you say, you really have no real plans in that direction. That it’s all a façade!” He shook his head. “Then just tell us that! I’d think you’d find many of us on the other side of the river would be quite receptive to such news.”

Mansemat shut his eyes, and gave a gentle laugh. “Tell me, Justinian--do you like Malina, my darling little Flibbertigibbet?”

“She’s a very sweet, good-natured child,” said Justinian with a firm nod.

“Now, what was that you called her when you first saw her…?” said Mansemat, scratching his chin with his long pale fingers.

Justinian gulped. “I… I was… confused, sir. It… I…” He shut his eyes, and bowed. “I know better now.”

Mansemat looked at him sadly, and nodded. “I’ve no doubt you do, Squire Sigma. But--you are only one man. And on the other side of the Murkenmere, there are millions like you, except in that all important respect. They do not know better now.” His face grew grave. “Tell me, Sacristan, am I to lay down my weapons and trust the lives of my daughters, and indeed every child living in my demesne--perhaps even in the whole of the Lands of Night--to the imagined goodwill of your fellow Milesians?”

Justinian winced. “I… sir… it…” He took a deep breath. “Sir, perhaps--a token of goodwill might…”

Mansemat sighed. “I do not love war, Justinian. To me, there’s joy in watching a man grow old, a smile on his face, his grandchildren on his knees, and none in watching him expire in the dirt, his entrails hanging out, his grandchildren never to be born. But--sometimes, to let many men grow old, some must expire in the dirt. I am Dark Lord of the Plains of Dread. It is my duty to my people to see that when those times come, as many of our men get to grow old as they can, and if that requires far more of their men expiring in the dirt than I like… well, that is my service, and my burden.” His mouth became a thin line. “And it is one I accept fully. I will do all things in my power to see my daughters grow up safe and unmolested, with every advantage I can rightly give them--all things I can do and remain a righteous man, a warrior of chivalry. I do not think this should diminish me in your sight. But that is only my opinion.”

The Dark Lord turned away at this. He seemed to Justinian very sad, and yet proud at the same time. He laughed fondly, and shook his head. “Ahh, but now you think you’ve offended me. And you haven’t. My brother… he’s fond of saying the same thing, you know. ‘Build bridges’. ’Make friends’. ‘Let the past be the past’.” Mansemat nodded. “He’s a rare soul, Nisrioch. With grand ideas. I admire him. But I am not him. For me to do as he suggests--well, I’d need very firm ground to stand on.”

Justinian really had no idea what to say to that, which made it a strangely cheering when Elaine and Morgaine arrived. “Hey, bro!” said the undead Dark Lord. “You finally done with your little sword ritual--thingy?”

Mansemat sighed. “It’s a drill, Morgaine. And yes.”

Morgaine nodded. “Ahh, good. It’s almost time for the luncheon.”

“Oh. I’ll just tell Viviane I’m on my way,” he noted, bringing his fingers to his forehead.

Elaine frowned. “You know, I kinda wonder how you do that without any magic,” she said sharply, her eyes on Morgaine for some reason Justinian didn’t get.

“Murgleys handles the magic of it for me,” Mansemat replied, patting the sword fondly. “Oh, before I became Bearer of the Sword of Night, I couldn’t do thoughtspeak to save my life.” He laughed. “Ahh, I still remember when I first discovered Murgleys let me do that. Why, I used to send messages to Nisrioch and Morgaine--oh, all the time, just because I could.” He glanced at his twin sister. “Remember, sis?”

Morgaine twitched slightly. “Oh, yeah. Very well.” She gritted her teeth, and shuddered, despite herself.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Birthday Girl--Part 6

Morgaine nodded to herself. “An awesome achievement, of awesome awesomeness,” she announced to no one in particular.

Elaine came into the room holding a letter. “Hey, Morgaine. Parcel just came in from the Emporium. You just got a letter from Fiordes…” She stared ahead in shock. “What is that?”

Morgaine turned to her niece, grinning. “Ahh, yes! I see you have just been struck by the incredibly and indisputably magnificent sight that is my Giant Bronze Head!” She gave the device an affectionate pat.

Elaine stared at it for a while. The… Giant Bronze Head was essentially what Morgaine had named it. But that really couldn’t get across the… incredible wrongness of the thing’s--dimensions. It looked like someone had designed a carnival mask, and been so proud of it they’d blown it up to a thousand times its original size. And--had it bronzed. It seemed to… glower at Elaine, with a menacing--smile? Frown? Sneer? Its eyes were--crossed, and its nose was an off-centered beak. She gulped and forced herself to nod. “Ahh. So--why did you build--it?”

Morgaine clapped her hands together. “Isn’t obvious? This is my birthday gift to Malina! A Giant Bronze Head! All to herself!”

Elaine stared and nodded. “Yeah. Lucky girl.”

Jean Crow strolled in. “Hey, Elaine, what’s taking--whoa!” She took in the Giant Bronze Head, her mouth hanging open. “What in the name of every damned god in this world, and any other damn ones there happen to be is that--thing?”

“Malina’s birthday present from Morgaine,” said Elaine. “It’s a Giant Bronze Head.”

Jean blinked. “Well--the name’s appropriate. That’s it though.” She shook her head. “What the hell are you thinking, Morgaine? Give your young niece nightmares for a year?”

Morgaine gave the young sorceress an offended look, and placed her hands on her hips. “Hey! This--is the acme of the pinnacle of apexitude! You only fail to appreciate its untold levels of amazingness because you suck.”

“No, Morgaine,” said Jean. “The Giant Bronze Head sucks. At least--as a present for Malina.” She shrugged. “I’ve--no doubt it’s--pretty good by the standards of--Giant Bronze Heads. Whatever the hell they are.”

Morgaine snorted. “Oh, like you could do better.”

Jean reached a hand into her sleeve, and produced a tiny, undeniably cute looking toy spider. “Behold, Simon Spider. I figure he’s the perfect blend of Malina’s love of toys and Malina’s love of spiders and bugs. And he squeaks.” She squeezed down on it, producing a cheerful little peep.

Morgaine stared at Jean bleakly, then turned away. “Oh, what do you know? This rocks! It answers questions! Watch!” She glanced at the Giant Bronze Head and clapped her hands together. “Oh, Giant Bronze Head, won’t Malina like you?”

The Head’s eyes began to roll as it produced an awful screeching, clattering sound, as of a large number of improperly fitted together gears were working against each other. Morgaine coughed and glanced at her inquisitors. “It--takes it a while to--really get going…”

Elaine nodded, and pressed Fiordespina’s letter into Morgaine’s hands. “Yeah. Take this. I can just feel the perversion oozing out of it onto my hands.”

“Pfft. Wimp,” noted Morgaine, opening the letter up, and scanning its contents. “You are simply incapable of understanding the bond Despi and I share with one…” Her eyes popped out of her skull, and her grip on the letter tightened, while a happy little squeal escaped Morgaine’s lips. “Ohhh! What a woman…!” She blinked and looked at Elaine again. “Ummm--what was I talking about again?”

“The… bond between you and Lady Fiordespina Maganza,” said Elaine.

“Yes, yes, that’s an excellent idea,” said Morgaine, her attention fixing again on the letter.

“Hey, you two, the Horrible Bronze Head is about to do something,” declared Jean.

“WHEN THE--HOUSE OF--THE GILDED ARCHER--CROSSES THE RADIANT BEAM,” intoned the Head in a voice like nails drawn across slate, “DOOM SHALL BEFALL--THE HOLDER OF THE NAILS!”

Jean nodded. “Right. So--how did that answer your question?”

“It--was symbolic,” said Morgaine nervously.

Jean and Elaine both glanced at each other, and nodded. “Ahh,” said Elaine.

“TIME IS, TIME WAS, TIME PAST,” declared the Head, the top of which then exploded.

Morgaine nodded, as a spray of broken gears fell at her feet. “Okay--some design flaws, I admit.” She glanced at Jean and coughed. “You--wouldn’t happen to have…”

Jean drew another stuffed animal from her sleeve. “Behold, William Worm!” she noted, dropping it into Morgaine’s hands. “That’ll be three silver marks.”

Morgaine nodded. “Right, right--how about we count that as paid in return for my not animating the dead mice you feed that bird of yours?”

Jean frowned. “You drive a tough bargain.”