Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 15

Elaine clung tightly to the chair as it galloped down the darkened halls, shooting a nervous glance at her little sister. Malina had shut her eyes when her chair swerved down a corner at a breakneck speed, and hadn’t bothered to open them again, while her mouth had pressed itself into a nervous-looking thin line. Elaine gave a sympathetic whimper as her chair veered dangerously close to a wall. It figured. Things had been going reasonably well for the last few hours.

After Falerina’s little fit, Elaine had been afraid that she would do something unpleasant to them. But instead, she’d decided to ignore them apparently, leaving she and Malina to their own devices. Admittedly, she’d also forgotten to feed them, but as Malina had managed to get the knack of a simple sustenance charm, that hadn’t been such a terrible ordeal. Even if the ‘food’ Malina conjured into existence had the taste and texture of mud--well, at least it was nutritious mud, and, as opposed to Falerina’s little feasts, you didn’t have to worry about whether or not there was something nasty in it. She and Malina had even tried to come up with a workable escape plan, though she had to admit leaving a windowless, warded room with a door that opened only by the mystical command of the person who was keeping you there was a tall order. Especially when you factored in that if you did manage it, you’d still have to get out of the fortress. And then get back to Castle Terribel. From wherever the hell it was they were.

Yeah, she had to admit, ‘stay here, humor the madwoman, and wait for Mom and Mansemat to come--possibly with the entire Cthonique Guard at their back’ wasn’t much fun, but it was the best of several bad options. Elaine glanced ahead, and then ducked as her chair ventured near a rather low-hanging shelf. Both of the chairs seemed to be going faster, almost like horses in the final leg of a race. They rushed into the center of what appeared to be a rather battered amphitheatre. Falerina sat in the back row, a pleased smile on her face. She stood up and smiled as the chairs finally stopped. “Hello, my darling,” she said, her red eyes focused--or as focused as they ever got--on Malina. “I have such wonderful things planned for you.”

With a sudden pop she was by her daughter’s side, immediately running her hand through Malina’s hair. “I’m sorry for losing my temper. Elaine was being such a silly, it got me out of sorts.” She smiled broadly at her daughter, who made a valiant effort to smile broadly back.

“Well, that’s okay, Mommy Mom,” said Malina eagerly. “It’s like--like you always say. Mommy’s don’t have to ‘splain themselves to children. They--they can do whatever they like.” She gave a nervous little gulp and looked at Falerina hopefully.

Falerina laughed joyously, and twiddled with her daughter’s horns. “That’s right, my poppet! Completely and utterly right! Mommies do whatever they feel like. Because their babies belong to them, and they have to do whatever they say!” She leaned forward and kissed Malina on the forehead. Elaine was starting to wonder why she was here, as Falerina was ignoring her--but then she figured that was probably the point. “Now, aren’t you lucky to have a mommy who only wants to do fun things?”

“Oh, yes,” said Malina with a miserable shiver. “Very, very lucky.”

Falerina backed away, and clapped her hands together. “Oh, you are such a wonderful, beautiful daughter. And so you get a treat! CLOWNS! Yes, I’ve made clowns for you! CLOWNS!” And then--Falerina’s ‘clowns’ entered.

The vampires hovered into the room, their grotesque faces smeared with makeup, their hideous maws caked in red. They hooted and cackled and screamed and yelled, with Babbler spouting its usual nonsense. “Rush yellow fine carp! Down trail marbles cackle!” The creatures soared in close to Malina, circling around her, and occasionally darting towards her. Malina stared at them, terrified, and whimpered weakly.

Falerina danced around nearby, oblivious to her daughter. “Clowns! Clowns! Clowns! Clowns! Hurray!” she shouted in what she obviously thought was joy, but what sounded a lot more like a lunatic’s ranting. Elaine watched the scene, and felt the bile growing in her stomach.

“Stop it!” she shouted. “You’re scaring her! Can’t--can’t you see that?”

And suddenly, there was silence. The vampires all retreated, as Falerina turned her attention to Elaine. “What did you say to me?”

Elaine gulped. “I… It… I…”

Falerina gently took Elaine’s hand, and caressed it. “Elaine--you can tell me what you said. I want you to.”

“She’s terrified,” blurted out Elaine. “Malina is. You say you’re doing this for her, but all you’re doing is making her miserable.”

Falerina listened and nodded. “I see.” She seemed to consider this for a moment. “Elaine?” Elaine nodded slowly. “Don’t tell me how to treat my daughter,” snapped Falerina, as she yanked back on Elaine’s hand. Elaine screamed in pain as Falerina began to twist her arm. “She is mine! You are mine! I do what I want! Is that clear?” She twisted a little more as Elaine howled. “ANSWER ME, YOU LITTLE…”

“Don’t--don’t hurt her, Mommy,” whimpered Malina. She started to sob. “I--she’s just trying to help me…”

Falerina glared at her daughter, while yanking Elaine up from her seat. “You think I’m hurting her? YOU--THINK--I’M--HURTING--HER?” She threw Elaine on the ground, and raised her hand, beginning to rub her ring with her thumb. “This… this… is… hurting… her…” Falerina began to lick her lips, as the first sparks of scarlet light appeared from the ring.

Malina stood from her chair and dove at her mother. “Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!” she shouted, flapping her wings, and pulling on Falerina’s skirt.

“Malina--get--off of me! Off!” snapped Falerina. Tearing herself free of her daughter, she leaned towards Malina and gave her a vicious slap. “DO WHAT YOUR MOTHER TELLS YOU!” she screamed. Malina fell backwards, stumbling to the ground. Falerina took several deep breaths, watching Malina sob to herself, then glared at Elaine. “I hope you’re happy with yourself. You made me hit my daughter.”

Elaine stared at Falerina in amazement and fear, and tried to think of some response. “Sorry,” she croaked weakly.

“Not like you’re going to be,” said Falerina. “You think I was hurting you earlier?” She shook her head, a vicious smile appearing on her face. “I can hurt you worse than you can imagine. Without even touching you.” She giggled to herself, and began to suck the crook of her thumb. “And I’m going to. You naughty little girl.”

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 14

“This has been an utter waste of time!” seethed Viviane as they walked down the corridors of Mount Qaf. She turned to Mansemat. “I can’t believe that he actually let us come here so that he could tell us that he had no idea where Falerina is, and he isn’t going to help us at all!”

“I can,” said Mansemat. “It’s Belberith. Being unhelpful is a specialty.” He sighs. “It’s unpleasant, but better than his other specialty, being opportunistically treacherous.”

Viviane’s eyes went wide. “Why is he holder of the Presidium again?”

“He was elected over Nisrioch,” said Mansemat grimly. “By one vote.”

“Figures.” Viviane sighed. “You know I think he’s reveling in this. In that quiet, nasty way he has. His granddaughter’s been kidnapped by his lunatic daughter, and he’s enjoying it.”

“‘Reveling’ is a bit strong,” said Mansemat as they stepped into the Outer Keep. “I personally think he concern for Malina is being outweighed by his desire to see me come to ill fortune, and so he is quietly celebrating. Which is a lot like ‘reveling’, but less strong.”

Viviane nodded. “Right. Right. That is a better description of the horrible jackass.”

“Done dealing with Belberith, I see?” noted Jerzy, standing to his feet.

The pair nodded. “And it was as satisfying as always,” replied Mansemat.

“Yes, I noted the scowls,” said Jerzy. “Well, let’s be off, then. Gryphons are saddled.” He glanced around the keep, frowning anxiously. “You know, I heard about this place for years. I have to state--actually seeing it--is less than delightful.” Viviane nodded in agreement.

“Perthonally, I think you’re being rather foolish and rash,” came a familiar voice. Orrill stepped into view. The trio stared at the crocodile-headed sorcerer in surprise. “I find Mount Qaf hath many charming featureth. But then I am a man of rather odd tathteth.”

“I can vouch for that,” muttered Mansemat, glaring at the wizard. “What brings you out of your hole, Orrill?”

“Mmm?” replied Orrill with a shrug. “Those are rather--harsh wordth for a man who uthed to be a loyal thervitor of your houthe.”

“You were no such thing, Orrill,” snapped the Dark Lord. “You were my father’s attack dog, and you weren’t particularly loyal to him.”

“Thethe inthultth wound me,” said the sorcerer softly. “They almotht make me forget that I have come here to athitht you.” He raised a hand, strange violet sparks flying off it. “Indeed, they cauthe me to remember that thith ith not Cathtle Terribel. Which meanth the only thing thtaying my hand ith my own good judgment.”

Viviane raised her pestle menacingly. “I hope that good judgment is reminding you that you’d have to deal with me if you moved against him.”

Orrill produced a hiss that Viviane realized was a laugh. “Ahh, thuch a feithty one.” He looked at the Badb pointedly. “Your mother wath like that. At firtht.”

Viviane began to draw the wind to her pestle. “Don’t--don’t you dare mention…”

Mansemat raised his hand. “Don’t let him get to you. That’s what he wants.” He frowned. “All right. You mention assistance. What is it?”

“Thome of my bookth are mithing. Rather dangerous oneth,” said Orrill, lowering his hand. “I thuthpect that Falerina’th agentth took them.”

Jerzy stared at the wizard skeptically. “Falerina has… agents? Here?”

“Oh, if one ith willing to pay money, one can get all thortth of thingth,” noted the sorcerer. “And Falerina hath a rather… uncanny knack for attracting the loyalty of unthtable individuals.” He shook his head. “Thethe are dangerouth bookth, Dark Lordth. A thkilled individual could do a great deal of… damage with them. A powerful fool could do more. Thomeone who ith both at onthe…” He shuddered. “Well, it ith an unpleathant prothpect.”

“And that’s your ‘athithtanthe’?” asked Viviane harshly. “Notifying us that Falerina stole some of your nasty little books?”

“The bookth thtolen thuggetht that Falerina ith going to try and uthe a leyline for a thummoning thpell,” continued Orrill calmly. “In that cathe, she will probably be in thome abandoned fortreth on the Old Line.”

“Ahh,” said Jerzy. “So, we merely have to narrow it down from an area a mere few hundred thousand miles in size. Wonderful.”

“I never thaid it would be much help,” replied Orrill. “Only thome.” He glanced at Mansemat. “Bethideth, ithn’t Nithrioch taking--thertain thepth to--narrow it further?”

Mansemat shut his eyes, as the Crocodile hissed again. Finally, he spoke. “Why are you helping us like this?”

Orrill shrugged. “Unlike Lord Belberith, I hold no illusionth about Falerina. Belberith make think hith daughter ith an embarathment, but he conthiderth her your problem. I however, feel that her ambitionth are--broader than thith, and a danger to anyone. She ith one who would crack the world open to get what she imagineth she wantth. And then be thurprithed when thingth went badly.” He turned and began to walk away, then suddenly paused and glanced back at Mansemat. “Funny really. She alwayth wath my favorite thtudent.”

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 13

“How is it?” asked Atlante Fenix, regarding his visitors hopefully.

Nisrioch put down his tea, and smiled at his old teacher. “Exquisite as always, Abbé . You remain the master of the art.”

Fenix gave a laugh. “Master? Hardly. And if I am--well, I have heard you are making great strides towards unseating me in that area, Nisrioch.”

The Dark Lord shook his head. “I remain the fumbling apprentice, aping your motions while striving towards the impossible standard you set.” He picked up his cup and took another sip, shutting his eyes and smiling. “Once again--exquisite.”

Jean nodded. “It is very good.” She drank the piping hot drink, and glanced around the refectory. It was strange, but aside from the chanting, she didn’t feel like she was in a religious building at all--merely a pleasant quiet place to rest on a journey. Which, as Nisrioch told it, was the major idea of the Serene Monastery. The religious philosophy of the Night Folk was hard to grasp at times, but as far as she could tell, this place was created to worship quiet and rest. And that was a philosophy she could get behind.

Especially her aching legs and sore rear. They were urging her to stay here as long as possible. Possibly even convert. Suddenly her eyes lighted on a young monk staring at her intently while his hands made deft motions with a brush on a piece of paper. To her mind, that warranted investigation.

As she tried to figure out how to go about that, Atlante and Nisrioch continued to exchange pleasantries. “Ahh, Nisrioch, must you always flatter me?” said the old Dev. “I am a passable tea server for a man who has become the Abbé of the Serene Monastery. But a master? Hardly.” He shook his head. “Merely an enthusiast.”

Nisrioch looked at his old teacher fondly. “Modesty, when taken to excess, ceases to be a virtue, Atlante.”

Atlante chuckled. “You are the last person I ever expect to be lectured on virtue by.” The old Dev shook his head. “Still, if it is that controversial--I accept your praise, and shall pretend that I am, as you say, the undisputed master of tea, even if in my heart of hearts, I do dispute it.” Nisrioch seemed about to say something when Fenix raised his hand. “And now I consider that discussion closed, and entreat you to demonstrate the art of which you are the undisputed master…” He clapped his hands together, and two monks--a Dev and a Goblin--came in holding a rather battered looking harp.

Nisrioch’s eyes went wide. “Is that…?”

“Your old harp, yes,” said Atlante gently. He shut his eyes. “Now, if you could--”

“Ah HA!” shouted Jean, tearing the sheet of paper out of the monk’s hand. She lifted up and nodded. As she’d thought, it was a drawing of her. A horribly accurate drawing of her. “What the hell is this about, asshole?” she declared, shoving the paper in the poor Erl’s face.

He gulped nervously, backing away. “I--it’s--” He winced. “Visitors to the Serene Monastery are sketched. So they’ll be remembered.” The monk looked at her hopefully. “Is it a good likeness, miss?”

Jean blinked, and then glanced at the others. “Umm… sorry…”

Nisrioch glanced up, from tuning the harp. “You must forgive her,” he noted. “She has a bit of a temper.”

“Go bugger yerself!” cawed Hoppedance from up in the rafters.

“And a very rude bird for a pet,” continued Nisrioch. He strummed the strings idly. “Ahh, there we go.” And he began to play.

As the Abbe began to rhythmically tap along with the playing, the young monk glanced at Jean. “W-would your ladyship perhaps like to see the picture hall?”

Jean gave a nod. “Sure. Sounds lovely.” She glanced away as the monk rose from his seat. “And--I’m not ‘your ladyship’. I’m Jean Crow.”

“Brother Albrecht,” said the monk, with a bow. He walked out of the refractory, and gestured for her to follow. Jean followed him, the sound of Nisrioch’s magnificent playing receding as she did so.

“Nice name,” said Jean. “Sounds important.”

“It’s an old family name,” said Albrecht. “And--I suppose it is--outside the Monastery. But here--it is just a name.” He opened a black door, with a heavy iron handle. “The Gallery of Faces.” Jean stepped through the door, and stared around in shock.

“Wow,” she said, taking in the sight of all the pictures. “You know--this place is--pretty old, isn’t it?”

Albrecht nodded. “Extremely. One of the oldest monasteries of the Lands of Night.”

Jean looked at a picture showing a rather desperate looking Goblin of indeterminate gender in ragged clothing. “Heh. You know there are a lot of pictures here--but--fewer than you’d think.”

“We didn’t always make pictures of our--visitors,” said Albrecht. “And--well, very few come here. Most--are people like myself, who come join the Monastery of Serenity, and--leave life behind. They don’t get drawings. That is the right of those who come to--see the Queen of Fear.” He bit his lip. “And they are a rare breed.”

Jean bit her lip. “How--how many come back?”

Albrecht looked at Jean seriously. “Not many. Nisrioch is one of them.” He winced. “And he keeps returning, daring the peak again--and again.” He headed to a corner of the room. “Here are his portraits. Well, his and Lord Shaddad’s.”

Jean rushed towards it. In truth, the chance of seeing an image of Lord Shaddad was even more exciting than seeing Nisrioch. There were none in Castle Terribel--no statues, no paintings, no engravings. It occurred to her that this was probably by the Cthoniques’ design--the siblings’ ill will towards the man was no secret. But then, he’d probably earned it. And then--she saw it. It was just Lord Shaddad by himself, but--she knew it was him, for a very simple reason.

The hair was different--black, and smooth, instead of white and unruly. The eyes were a sharp blue, instead of all the colors of the rainbow, and he was just a head shorter. But aside from that, Lord Shaddad was the spitting image of his bastard son.

Jean leaned in closer. Lord Shaddad’s clothing in the picture was ragged, but you still got the impression of--power. He stared defiantly at the world, daring it to do its worst. It was rather unsettling, actually, seeing such a cold, harsh expression on a face that she knew as habitually kind and pleasant.

Jean moved on to the next picture. Lord Shaddad again, only now his clothing was amazingly--opulently rich. He had a baby with him, Jean saw. A baby with white hair. Lord Shaddad was still defiant, but now--there was satisfaction in his face as well. Even smugness.

The next picture. Lord Shaddad again, now a bit older, lines of grey appearing in his black hair. A very young Nisrioch, clad in the garb of the monastery, stood by his side. The boy’s expression was grave and serious--indeed young Nisrioch looked like a rather sober individual. Lord Shaddad seemed more defiant, more arrogant, more cruel.

The next few pictures were the same. Lord Shaddad continued to get older, his expression continuing to get more and more unpleasant. Nisrioch aged into young manhood. At first, he looked as straight and serious as ever--and then joy appeared on his face. But it quickly vanished in the next picture. And soon Jean was staring at pictures of a young man who hated his father, and a father who earned that hatred. As for Shaddad, a certain haunted air appeared in his face, followed by an increasing amount of desperation. And then he vanished. The next few pictures showed Nisrioch and Morgaine, neither of whom, Jean noted, changed very much in them.

“He grew up here, right?” said Jean.

“For the first six years of his life,” said Albrecht. “While his father fought Lord Nerghal.” The monk smiled. “Abbe Fenix says he became an Acolyte at four.” He shook his head. “A remarkable man. This monastery is blessed by the Darksome Lady to have helped mould him.”

“Mmm. I think we’re all blessed it was you guys and not his dad,” Jean noted with a nod.

Albrecht laughed. “You know--he said the same thing once.”

Jean winced. “Damn it, he’s rubbing off on me.” She looked at Albrecht curiously. “Say can I see…”

Albrecht produced his sketch and handed it to her. Jean stared for a moment, and then sighed. “Damn it, it is big,” she said, tapping her nose woefully.

“I think it looks aristocratic,” said Albrecht.

“Yeah. That’s a code word for ‘ugly’,” said Jean as she handed back the sketch.

Albrecht smiled. “Not for me,” he said with a bow.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 12

Justinian was packing his bag when Eurydice found him. “I hear you’re--heading out,” the chambermaid said, her eyes grave.

The Sacristan nodded and turned to her. “Indeed,” he said, with a bow. “I am…” He blinked at the scene before him. Three very young Erl girls possessed of the same pug nose and curly hair as Eurydice, albeit dressed quite a bit more casually, stood by her side staring at him in wonder. Justinian stared back at them a moment, then glanced at Eurydice questioningly.

“My sisters,” said the Erl with a nod. “I’m looking after them today. Aglaia, Euphrosyne, Thalia--this is Squire Justinian Sigma.” The trio nodded gravely. Justinian felt somewhat abashed, and exceedingly awkward. This was, of course, how he’d come to normally feel around Eurydice, but in this case the awkwardness felt more acute.

“An honor to meet you,” he said with a bow. One of the trio giggled cheerfully, while the other two merely stared.

“Did you really try to kill Lord Nisrioch?” asked one in shocked astonishment.

Justinian winced. “It--was a misunderstanding.”

“So you did!” gasped his young inquisitor.

“Agalia!” said Eurydice in exasperation. She looked at Justinian. “I am sorry.” She bit her lip. “I… I’d have come by myself, but--my father’s always busy, and my mother--sometimes she’s just--tired…”

Justinian shut his eyes. “It’s all right.”

Eurydice glanced away. “I… if you say so.” She took a deep breath. “Do you--have any idea how long you’ll be gone?” Justinian shook his head. “I see.” Eurydice produced what looked rather like a highly decorated scarf, and tied it around Justinian’s left arm. “For luck,” she said firmly.

Justinian stared at the thing, touched, and fairly certain that this was a violation of his vows. “You don’t need to do this. I--I’ll be fine.”

Eurydice merely looked at him for a moment, and then turned away. “It will make me feel better, knowing you’re wearing that.”

As the young chambermaid walked away, her sisters scurried after her. “Eurydice’s got a new beau!” taunted the one who’d giggled earlier.

“Quiet, Thalia!” snapped her sister. Justinian watched them go as he finished up his packing, then headed down to the Great Gate. It was windy out, and surprisingly cold. It almost reminded him of growing up in the Breakers, where winters were generally spent huddling in your hut with your family for warmth. Almost, but not quite. He had to admit, the Plains of Dread had a terrifically mild climate.

Quiet and Sacripant were standing at the gate, watching over the bound Haethcyn. The Guards threw Justinian rather irritated looks. “Took you long enough,” said Sacripant.

Justinian shrugged. “Eurydice came by. She wanted to say goodbye. Sort of.”

Sacripant smiled, as Quiet put his hands on his hips and shook his head derisively. “Damn it, Sigma! What is it you got, and do they sell it in bottles?” laughed the Marsh Erl.

Justinian frowned. “I’ll have you know that I am--”

“Sworn to perpetual chastity,” declared Sacripant. “Yeah, we know. Jean does a killer impression of you saying that.” Quiet nodded in eager agreement.

“What…?” said Justinian, blinking. “When--when do you guys…?”

“She plays foldol with us, every now and then,” said Sacripant. He chuckled to himself. “She’s a decent player, though she bluffs too often.” He glanced at Quiet. “Owes you--how many silver marks?” The Ghoul held up two hands. “Yeah, that’s right. Eleven.” The Marsh Erl turned to regard Justinian. “What? Are you surprised she has a social life besides you and Her Estimable Grace?”

“Hey, guys,” said Palamedes, as he ambled into view with a mule in tow. “They needed someone to bring Hiram here to you, and as I figured it was the last time I’d be seeing you for a while, I volunteered…” His eyes went wide when they lighted on Justinian. The Milesian wondered why--and then realized that he was staring at his arm. As Justinian shifted awkwardly, Palamedes turned to his fellow Guards. “Going to be lonely without you guys…”

Sacripant gave the plump Erl a companionable pat on the arm. “Ehh, you’ve still got Hagen.”

“Not till after this festival is done,” said Palamedes. “He’s in the Trollish Section of the Folly, chanting in Ogre, and occasionally sacrificing goats.”

“What’s it about?” asked Justinian.

Palamedes turned to him and shrugged. “Near as I can tell, they apologize to the Lady and their ancestors for not facing impossible odds, and overthrowing the Jotuns and Muspeiluns in the Fangs. And then they thank them for allowing them to be defeated and exiled, so they could show how incredibly faithful they are.”

Justinian nodded dully. “Ahh.”

“Yeah,” agreed Palamedes. “They’re a funny people.” He took Justinian’s hand and shook it firmly. “You take care now, you hear?” He looked at the Sacristan pointedly. “There are a lot of people here who would care if something were to happen to you.”

Justinian blinked, and then nodded. “I… thank you…”

“Don’t mention it,” said the Erl, walking away. “You’re a braver man than I am, I suspect.”

Justinian frowned as Sacripant burst into laughter, while Quiet mimed it. He glanced at Haethcyn. “You’re being quiet.”

Haethcyn shrugged. “Learned the hard way over a lot of hard years that sometimes, it’s better to keep your mouth shut, and see what you can see.”

The Milesian stared at the scraggly old Erl. “And what do you see?”

Haethcyn smiled despite himself. “Oh, quite a bit. You all talk more than you should, including the one who pretends he doesn’t say anything.”

Sacripant didn’t seem to like that comment. “Yeah. Yeah. Get on the mule.”

Haethcyn sighed as he awkwardly attempted to seat himself on the animal. “I really need to learn to follow my own advice,” he said quietly, then glanced at the group, and raised his bound hands. “Could I get some help?” Quiet darted forward and lifted him, perhaps a bit more brusquely than he should have. And with that--they were off.

The Great Gate opened with its usual creak, and they were outside, the Great Stone Way before them, with Marsilion’s Folly a ways off in the distance. Justinian stared at the city, with its snow-covered towers, and chimneys giving off strangely cheerful looking smoke. It was so--inviting at the moment. Even if he knew it was full of Nightfolk who raised their glasses regularly to Douma Dalkiel and triumph over the forces of Light in the Great War, when it came. But he wasn’t going there now, even if he wished he was. As the group made their way forward, with Sacripant already asking Haethcyn for directions, Justinian found his hand going to the scarf on his arm, and touching it for reassurance.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 11

Belberith Ashurana sipped his drink from his snifter. A smile slowly spread over his granite-like face. “Ahh, nothing like a good bit of Albraccan brandy on a cold day,” he declared with a hint of enjoyment. “Warms one up.” He glanced across the table at Viviane and Mansemat. “Don’t you agree?”

Viviane frowned deeply. Personally, she doubted Belberith would warm up if you stuck him in a blazing bonfire, though at moments like this she was willing to attempt the experiment. “Cut the crap, Lord Ashurana,” she snarled. “We aren’t here to chit-chat about your choice of a nightcap.”

Belberith took another sip. “Mmm. That’s a pity.” He regarded his drink with an inquisitive eye. “An understanding of fine spirits grants one an understanding of the world.” He raised the glass to the light. “Consider this brandy. It begins as nothing more than grapes. Those grapes are crushed, their juice fermented, aged, then distilled, until at last--it is more than wine--it is brandy.” The Dev smiled blandly. “And even then the results of this exacting process vary in refinement, taste, and quality. Only a rare few can be called truly fine brandy.” He sipped his snifter again.

Viviane bit her lip. She had a definite sense that she’d just been put down. Mansemat tapped the table impatiently. “I’m afraid my wife was absolutely correct, Belberith,” he stated firmly, “however bluntly she may have put it in your--delicate, refined ears. Our daughters are in danger. One is your granddaughter. We do not have time for this--sort of conversation. We need to know if you have any ideas about Falerina’s whereabouts.”

Belberith stared at them for a moment, and then sighed. “Sadly, I do not.” He shook his head. “I wish I did. As you say, Malina is my granddaughter. But Falerina--is one I no longer deal with. I know none of her affairs. Nor do I generally wish to.”

Viviane blinked. “But--she’s your daughter.”

The Dev shook his head. “No. She was once. But she failed me. And now--she is nothing.” He glanced over to a large portrait of a male Dev on a throne, being devoured by serpents which seemed to grow out of his flesh. A crowd of Devs, Ogres, and Erls were staring at this unfortunate individual with a very understandable alarm. “As my father used to say, to be an Ashurana exacts a weighty price. And that price must be paid in every action one takes. I tried to make Falerina understand this. She refused to. And so, as she would not pay one price, she paid another.” Viviane stared at him incredulously. Belberith merely stared blankly back at her, and gestured to the painting. “A remarkable work that. ‘Zahhak Ashurana On His Throne’.” He raised an eyebrow. “You know the story of course?” His bland smile returned. “Being the Badb, I would expect nothing less.”

Viviane smiled sweetly at him. “And I take a great deal of pride in defying expectations.”

Mansemat let loose a hearty chuckle, which he turned into a cough when Belberith’s eyes fell on him. “Well, then, if I may have the honor of furthering your education,” declared Lord Ashurana after a moment’s uneasy silence. He took one last sip of brandy, then rang a small bell. “Zahhak Ashurna was the son of Aktvan Ashurana, the grandson of great Ahrimanes himself.” A servant arrived, a young Erl, who quickly refilled his snifter. Belberith took another sip, smiled and nodded. The servant bowed, and quickly scurried from the room. “However, the wisdom and grandeur that had passed so readily to Aktvan from Ahrimanes did not transfer to Zahhak. He was cunning, yes, but foolish, greedy, and dangerous. Deciding that his father had ruled too long, he conspired to murder him, and then took the throne. And then things went very wrong for Zahhak. For one night, he awoke, and found a serpent fastened to his flesh, and it would not be dislodged. Taking it as a sign, he had his confederates killed. Another appeared. And another. He declared they feasted upon him, and caused him horrific agony--but he would not die. He called upon witches, sorcerers and doctors, searching for a cure to his affliction. One suggested that the blood of children might cure him if he bathed in it--he ordered a child slaughtered a day and did so. While this did in fact temporarily cause the agony to cease, the serpents grew more numerous, and his pain more intense.” Belberith looked into his glass. “At last, his cousins killed him. As they did so, the serpents vanished. They say Zahhak thanked his assailants for getting rid of them…”

Viviane stared at the Dev, puzzling her way through the tale. She had to admit, it was--fascinating, in a way. “So--what--caused the serpents?”

Belberith shrugged. “A guilty conscience and a mad mind,” he said casually. “There were no serpents. Zahhak simply--thought there were. And was a good enough sorcerer to make other people think so as well.” He shook his head. “It took us centuries to recover from his… folly. And the whole affair instilled--a certain amount of discipline in the family.”

And suddenly, Viviane thought she caught his drift. “And that’s why Falerina is--no longer family, isn’t it? She didn’t--take to discipline.”

Belberith gave a noncommittal nod. “Exactly. As I said--I attempted to give her the necessary direction. She--proved most uncooperative. Steps were taken. And taken again. But with little result.” He glanced at Mansemat. “Her actions during her marriage to you were--the last straw. She had gone from simply being--willful, to being an active embarrassment.” He sipped his brandy again. “Unfortunate, of course. But--one does what one must.”

“Ahh, thir!” came a familiar voice. Orrill strolled into the den, his bearing cheerful and eager. The crocodile-headed sorcerer wore a rather workman-like garb with an apron stained with a dark reddish-brown material. “Motht encouraging rethultth from the latetht batch!” He saw Mansemat and Viviane standing there, and stopped. “Oh. Thorry. Didn’t know you had company.”

“Well, now you do,” declared Belberith with a yawn.

Orrill bowed, and began to back out of the room. “Tomorrow then, Your Thumpremathy. I assure you, you will find it motht edifying.”

Belberith watched him leave, with a look of vague distaste, and then rubbed his temples. He glanced back at his guests. “My apologies. I shall have to retire soon. Two snifters is more than enough for me these days, I’m afraid. I’m not as young as I used to be, and need a bit of rest after it.” He gave another yawn, and then vanished with an audible pop.

Viviane and Mansemat glanced at each other, and saw that each was wishing that they were someplace else at this moment.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 10

“Keep pedaling, apprentice,” declared Nisrioch. “We’re almost there!”

“Hate… you…” panted Jean. “Hate you… so much…”

“Bugger the bastard!” agreed Hoppedance.

“And we’ve arrived!” said Nisrioch cheerily, raising his left hand from the steering mechanism. “Behold! The Serene Monastery at the foot of Mount Karena!”

Jean took a deep breath, and looked in the direction Nisrioch was pointing. And there it was, though the increasing darkness made it hard to make out.. A small, but rather forbidding looking mountain, and before it, a large building with a green-tiled roof, raised pillars, and three statues before it. Jean was becoming familiar enough with Mother Night to recognize her as the largest, seated as usual on an oversized flower on the back of a dragon, but the other two were a mystery to her. As the gyrocarriage-athon began to lower, Jean heard the sound of many voices singing in harmony.

“What is that sound?” she asked Nisrioch.

The Dark Lord’s multi-colored eyes glinted strangely “Vespers. In the Dark Tongue. This is one of the oldest religious colleges in the Nightlands. They keep to the old ways here.” And then he began to quietly sing along himself, in that strange, beautiful language that Jean couldn’t understand. Jean began to nod along, when Nisrioch glanced back at her. “Oh, yes--we’ll be landing soon, so--brace yourself.”

Jean whimpered, stopped peddling, and drew her legs up to her chest while Hoppedance flew off. In the several days she’d been flying in Nisrioch’s contraption, she’d had ample time to discover that comfortable landings were one of the wrinkles he hadn’t figured out yet. In fact, Jean had been left debating whether her legs or her ass had been left sorer by this expedition. It was proving to be a fairly involved deliberation, which had not reached a satisfying conclusion when the gyrocarriage-athon landed with a thump. She gave a yelp, while Hoppedance fluttered back to her side.

“Stupid bitch!” cawed the crow.

Jean eyed her familiar resentfully as she unsteadily rose. “Yeah. Guess who’s not going to be getting any good rotten dead things for a while?” Hoppedance merely flew off again, his caws resembling laughter. Jean growled to herself and rubbed her aching backside. She considered her earlier question answered to her satisfaction. At least--to a certain sort of her satisfaction. “Little asshole,” she muttered with a shake of her head as she strolled to Nisrioch’s side. The Dark Lord coughed. Jean glanced up and saw a trio of men clad--to her immense surprise--in the same sort of grey, embroidered robe that Nisrioch always wore. Two were Erls, but the third was an elderly Dev, his hair gone snowy white, his horns long and rather brittle looking.

The only reason Jean didn’t slap her forehead was because she was fairly certain that would only add to her embarrassment. She glanced at Nisrioch, hoping to follow his lead. He quickly fell to one knee, and touched his forehead, his mouth, and his heart with his left hand in quick succession. “Abbè,” he declared, his voice oddly serious. “I didn’t realize you would come to greet me.”

The Dev smiled indulgently. “ You remain my favorite student, Nisrioch. When I hear you are coming--I make time for these things.” The old man placed a wrinkled hand on the Erl’s shoulder. “Welcome back, Nisrioch. It is good to see you.”

Nisrioch placed his hand on the Dev’s and gave it a firm squeeze. “And you as well, Master.” He gestured to Jean. “My new apprentice, Jehannine of the River Folk, called ‘Jean Crow’. Jean--my master, the Abbè Atlante Fenix.”

Jean nodded. “I… it’s--an honor, sir.”

Atlante laughed. “Likewise.” He smiled at Nisrioch. “I must say, she’s better behaved than your last apprentice.”

Nisrioch gave a shrug as he stood to his feet. “Morgaine did not set the bar extremely high. But then--what can one do about family?”

Atlante gave an appreciative chuckle, and then looked at his former student seriously. “So--you mean to make for the peak tonight, I believe?”

“The situation is severe, so yes,” answered Nisrioch with a nod.

The old man turned with a worried grumble. “Well, it’s early for it, so come in and warm up before your attempt. We’ve prepared the Refectory for you.” Nisrioch fell behind Atlante, and Jean followed his lead.

“You--studied here?” she whispered to him.

“Indeed,” said Nisrioch with a smile. “Actually--technically I’m a priest.” Jean stared at him in disbelief. Nisrioch laughed. “Well, I did say ‘technically’.”

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 9

It occurred to Elaine that she was losing track of time.

It really wasn’t surprising. Since Falerina took her and Malina to--wherever it was they were right now--they hadn’t seen the outside for--however long it had been. The only way they had to measure time passing was in Falerina’s actions, and these seemed to follow no regular--or even comprehensible--schedule. Elaine knew for a fact that at least one occasion, they’d had two ‘breakfasts’ in a row. Sometimes, she wondered if this wasn’t all an effort by the Dev to crack their minds--other times, she wondered if Falerina simply was incapable of keeping track of such things. Elaine knew the Ashurana was mad--but just how much was a question that defied ready answer. There seemed to be an anxious frenzy to the woman’s actions that hinted at some sort of design, even as all efforts at understanding what that design might be failed.

Take her present course of action--gleefully dancing around as she lead the sisters through a corridor, her pet vampires gibbering around her. “Oh, it shall be ever so much fun,” declared Falerina. She joyously clapped her hands together. “You will love it, my darlings, simply love it!”

“Frog basket the teller,” hooted Babbler, fluttering over his mistress’s head, as Giggler chortled.

Falerina laughed at the vampires. “Oh, you sillies. Don’t give anything away!” She began to idly suck on the crook of her thumb, and hum to herself. Off-key.

Elaine bit her lip to suppress a scream--she was not used to Falerina’s ‘pets’ and her strange manners and she doubted she ever would be--and pulled on her dress. Falerina had produced a wardrobe for her--a few days ago, she figured, which would have been a good thing, as Elaine‘s clothing had gotten fairly--nasty by that point. Except for one thing--the clothing Falerina had brought along with her. It was all awful stuff, more frilly and lacy than something Elaine would have worn in those far-off childhood days when she’d actually liked dresses. And the damn thing itched like hell. Apparently, velvet may have been luxurious, but it wasn’t as comfortable as good old Marsh cotton.

Not that Elaine planned on protesting it. A quick look at Malina, desperately trying to smile whenever she thought her mother was looking in her general direction put that sort of thinking to a stop very quickly. Elaine was going to keep her mouth shut. Her sister was counting on her.

“And here we are, my sweets!” proclaimed Falerina grandly, gesturing to a great metal door. She opened it with a flourish, and went through it with a twirl. “Oh, it is so great and wondrous, your precious little hearts will fail you!” Elaine glanced at Malina and then, with trepidation, followed Falerina through the door.

Elaine winced as her eyes adjusted to the light, her hand flying upwards to provide a bit of shade. She was outside. On a balcony. Of what appeared to be a rather ruined castle. In the middle of nowhere. With… quite a few vampires hanging to its side. Chattering to each other in that disturbing way they had.

“Yes, outside, my little beloveds!” shouted Falerina with a clap of her hands. “Isn’t this grand of me? You may play and scamper and enjoy yourself--outside!” Suddenly a long, thin silver wand was in her hand. She gave it a wave, and an hourglass appeared before her. “At least until the sands run out of the glass,” she said, her voice all loving sweetness. She focused her red eyes on Elaine. “And no making a break for it,” said Falerina. She licked her lips. “That would be naughty.” She began once again to suck on the crook of her thumb.

Elaine nodded weakly. “Of course not. I’d never think of it.”

Falerina leaned forward, moving her hand away from her mouth. “Mommy,” she said with sudden force.

“What…?” said Elaine with a blink.

“You forgot to call me ‘Mommy’,” said Falerina, that hateful little smirk appearing on her face.

Elaine nodded. “Right.” She gulped. “I’m… sorry. Mommy.”

And suddenly that hateful little smirk was a hateful little frown, and one of Falerina’s hands was grabbing her face. Not--harshly. Softly--even caressingly. And yet with the implicit threat that the Dev might tighten her grip if Elaine didn’t make the proper response. “Say it like you mean it!” hissed Falerina.

Elaine tried to do that--but she couldn’t. The words refused to come out. Oh, Darksome Lady help me, she thought. Come on, voice! Say it! Say what this damned lunatic wants to hear! And say it with as much sincerity as you can muster! But the words still wouldn’t come.

“Sis is sorry, Mommy” said Malina nervously. “She--she’s just so awfully, awfully surprised, by how--how wonderful you’re being that she couldn’t--couldn’t think of what--what to say…”

As Elaine watched, Falerina cocked her head to listen to her daughter’s comments. And then she--convulsed. The hand jerked back from Elaine’s face, and went to Falerina’s. “Malina,” said Falerina sweetly, as she massaged her temples and unfurled her wings. “Are you lying to me?”

“Of course not, Mommy Mom,” said Malina hopefully. “I… I love you.”

Falerina stared at her daughter, biting her lip, and breathing anxiously, while her wings twitched. And then she screamed. “Liar! LIAR! LIAR!” She leaned forward and pointed an accusing finger at Malina. “You little BEAST! Do you think I’m a fool? Do you think you’re smarter than me? Do you? DO YOU?” Malina closed her eyes and began to silently cry. Falerina stood up, took a deep breath, and then turned to Elaine. “This is YOUR fault!” she shrieked. “You want my daughter to hate me! Don’t you? ADMIT IT!”

Elaine gulped, and looked away. Her eyes lighted on the hourglass, whose sands, she noticed, were moving with remarkable speed. “After all I do for you--after I try to be a mother to you! A mother! You do this! You traitor!” Falerina sobbed. She stamped her foot on the balcony. “Well, that’s it! Go back inside! Both of you! Fun time is over! OVER! See if I ever let you outside again! Ever!”

As Malina and Elaine hurried back inside, Falerina’s voice followed them. “You are horrible daughters! Horrible! Just HORRIBLE!”

Giggler laughed, while Babbler declared ‘Fang color the wake!”

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 8

Morgaine was chatting with Serjeant Greedigutt when Justinian Sigma came into see her.

“--Envy you Goblins, really,” she said, adding more and more sugar to her tea. She gave an admiring laugh and shook her head. “I mean--you practically revere it! For you--it‘s custom!”

Grizzel gave a dismissive snort. “Don’t let the writings of a few vocal--enthusiasts mislead you, Your Excellency. Oh, we tolerate it more than you Erls, but only in certain--parameters.” His eyes narrowed sadly. “Step outside of them, and--you’re in for hell.”

Justinian decided they didn’t quite realize he was there, and so coughed politely. The pair glanced over at him. Morgaine quirked an eyebrow, and sipped her tea. “You know, Sigma, you could have just said ‘I’m here’. That bugs me a lot less than this sort of passive-aggressive crap.”

“My apologies, Your Excellency,” said Justinian with a bow. “I was unaware good manners offended you.”

Morgaine nodded. “Well, now you know.” She gulped down the rest of her tea, then looked

Justinian in the eye. “So--you believe Mr. Sweetsleep’s story?”

Justinian stroked his chin meditatively. “That’s--a rather strong way of putting it. It’s more that I don’t--immediately disbelieve him. He may be trying some sort of trick. He may not be.”

Morgaine began to spoon out the sugary remnants at the bottom of her cup. “It is awfully convenient that he remembers this now, isn’t it?”

“Perhaps,” said Justinian with a shrug. “Perhaps not. He was apparently always rather skeptical of Falerina’s supposed plan to reunite at the ‘third crossroads’. The… incident of the Fiery Marks seems to have pushed the whole matter from his mind. Even now he doubts we’ll find anything of value. And he’s probably right.”

Morgaine swallowed the last bits of sugar. “So--basically, you’re asking me to follow your instincts on this matter, even though I find it extremely suspicious, and even though you fully acknowledge that it will probably wind up being a waste of time.” Her amber eyes narrowed on Justinian. “May I ask why I should do all this?”

“Because your nieces are as dear to you as they are to me,” said Justinian. “And like me, you feel a duty to all you can for them.”

Morgaine stared at him for a moment. “Damn--you can put forward an effective argument when you really want to, can’t you?” She looked at Grizzel. “Send them in.” The Goblin nodded, and headed out of the room. “Okay--I accept--but with some conditions--and a warning. First the warning. Haethcyn is dangerous. Very dangerous. Part of it is doubtless his line of work, but--well, I have--ways of knowing things, and they suggest that he’s--a bit more trouble than you’d think.”

Justinian found himself intrigued despite himself. “What--sort of ways?”

“Ways I’m not getting into,” Morgaine said, shutting her eyes and rubbing her forehead. “Trust me, you’re better off not knowing. It’d scare your little Milesian mind.”

Justinian was thinking of a good reply to that, when Grizzel returned with Sacripant and Quiet. The pair bowed to Morgaine. “Your Excellency,” said Sacripant.

Morgaine clapped her hands together. “Ahh, excellent. Fenswater. Il’Mok. You’ll be accompanying Squire Sigma and our captive to an as yet unknown location. Take plenty of supplies. And dress warm. It’s Nivosè .”

Sacripant’s eyes went wide. “Any reason we’re getting this job?”

“It needs to be done, and I trust you,” said Morgaine casually. “Especially Il’Mok, who I strongly suspect will wind up babysitting the pair of you.” She smiled sweetly at the Marsh Erl. “Now come on! Don’t you want to make the Queen of the Netherworld happy?”

Sacripant shuddered and then managed a nod. As Morgaine poured herself another cup of tea, Quiet placed a reassuring hand his shoulder.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 7

Viviane steered her mortar through the sharp Nivosè winds of the Mountains of Sorrow. It occurred to Viviane this was the farthest south she’d ever been, and that the stories were true--the weather was harsher down this way. She glanced at Mansemat and Jerzy, both of whom guided their gryphons through the cold winds with practiced ease. They’d been flying for two days now--even if air travel was faster than land, the distance was considerable, and gryphons did need to rest every now and then. But now--now they were here. At one of the handful of mountains in the Mountains of Sorrow that warranted the name. Mount Qaf. The Ashuranas’ base for centuries.

Viviane shuddered as she stared the palace the family had built there. Mount Qaf--the palace, not the mountain proper--was not a pleasant sight. Its walls were covered with images designed to intimidate and impose, the largest being a massive statue of Ahrimanes Ashurana, holding a sword in one hand, and severed head in the other. It occurred to her that neither the Cthoniques nor the du Lacs usually went for such grotesque displays of power in their architecture. Chateau du Lac and Castle Terribel were intimidating to look at yes, but mostly because of their size and strength--and while they both boasted some macabre imagery in places, it was all far subtler than this proclamation to the world ‘We are incredible bastards, and we want people to know this fact.’ It wasn’t that either her or Mansemat’s families were particularly nice--Lord Shaddad had been an exceptionally nasty Dark Lord of the Plains of Dread, but he was far from alone in this respect, and Viviane could recall quite a few Badbs who’d built their reputation on extreme--unpleasantness. It was more that the Cthoniques and the du Lacs had taste. When you were powerful and terrifying, you didn’t advertise that fact too loudly. It made people start to doubt if you lived up to your reputation.

Strangely enough, much as she quietly loathed the man, the sculpture didn’t scream ‘Belberith’ to Viviane’s mind. The present-day Heir of Ahrimanes was an asshole, but an asshole who understood the value of understatement. However, having inherited the damn thing, Viviane could see him having an army of servants maintaining it, probably at great expense, and with expected high standards of job performance.

The cheering image of Belberith yelling at a poor servant for improper maintenance of the left big toe was dispelled from Viviane’s mind by a frantic signal from her husband. “Wha--?” she yelled over the wind. Mansemat merely gestured ahead. Viviane turned back to Mount Qaf, and peered closely. She saw it then--a small battalion of Devs, flying towards them.

“Didn’t you notify Belberith we were coming?” asked Viviane.

Mansemat nodded. “I--I’ll try thougtspeaking him now,” he said, his hand going to Murgleys. Looking over at Jerzy, Viviane noted that the Kizak was already taken out his bow, and was readying an arrow. Viviane nodded to herself, and raised her pestle. The Marsh and the Waste
both hand long histories with the Ashuranas--long, unpleasant histories involving raids, invasions, massacres, and the occasional quickly-broken promise to never repeat such actions. It had not bred a great deal of love and respect on either side.

“…Is that so?” muttered Mansemat, eyes closed, and teeth clenched. “Well--how--thoughtful of you.” He opened his eyes and glanced at his wife. “He insists this is an… honor guard.”

Jerzy gave a cynical laugh. “How nice.”

Mansemat nodded. “Oh, yes. That’s Belberith for you. The soul of charity.” The patrol of Devs had come closer, their great wings flapping. Their leader was a hard-faced man with a greying beard, whose horns were filigreed with gold, and who wore silver-brocaded sash. A thin, rather unpleasant-looking scar ran down one cheek. “Trufaldin,” said Mansemat warily, staring at the man.

“Lord Cthonique,” said the Serjeant-at-Arms of the Ashurana Guard, a slightly patronizing, smug tone to his voice. “I’ve been sent here to escort you, and your wife to His Supremacy.” He glanced at Jerzy. “Agrican will have to stay in the outer keep, I’m afraid. Old Ashurana law. No Kizaks in Mount Qaf proper.”

“Jerzy bin Yan is my friend and foster brother,” began Mansemat, “and I will not see…”

Jerzy raised his hand. “It’s all right, Manny. Not worth the hassle.” He looked at the Dark Lord pointedly. “I’m here for Malina’s sake. Not mine.”

Mansemat nodded, and then turned back to Trufaldin. He stared at the Dev for a long moment, then released his sword. “Well, wouldn’t do to keep him waiting,” he declared.

Trufaldin turned. “Very well. Follow us.”

As they began to follow the Devs, Viviane hovered over to her husband’s side. “Why do I get the impression there’s a history here?”

“Because there is,” said Mansemat. “He lead Belberith’s troops during the Rising. We--crossed swords.”

Viviane nodded. “I suppose you gave him that scar.”

“No, he got that in a duel,” said Mansemat. “That’s--sort of the favored pastime in the Eastern Dev families. Fighting duels to get facial scars.” He bit his lip. “Well, that and smoking opium.”

Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Family Concern--Part Six

“I--I have failed everyone,” muttered the Kizak lying on the bed weakly. “The young Graces--Agri Khan--His Magnificence--His Excellency…”

“Shush now, shush,” said Balthazar Subtle, delicately spooning broth into young Radomil’s mouth. “You tried, sir, tried your hardest and your best. And now I implore you, if you are willing, to try your hardest and your best to live.” The chirurgeon turned to his side. “Bandages,” he declared bluntly.

Justinian Sigma handed the strips of damp cloth to Subtle, who quickly sliced off the old bandages and gave a satisfied nod. As he watched the Goblin tie the new ones on, the Sacristan wondered again just how an acknowledgement that he had some light medical training had resulted in him serving as Balthazar’s nurse. He suspected it was the same reason he’d tended to get duties such as ‘Cleaner of the Chambers’ and ‘Sentinel of the Evening Hours’ back in the Chapter House--and wound up here in the first place, for that matter. Justinian was a man who could be convinced to do dreary tasks rather easily.

“Healing quite nicely, don’t you think?” declared Subtle to his Milesian subordinate as he finished his work. “Vampiric wounds generally risk infection, but our Kizak friend here has dodged that peril--for the moment at least.” He glanced at the Waste Erl, who’d passed out once again, and gave an admiring shake of his head.

“Ahh,” said Justinian in mock learning. “Of course.”

Subtle nodded to himself. “Bed rest, plenty of food, and binding the wounds with a proper solution of vital salts and laudanums should do the trick.” He glanced at Justinian. “Thank you for the assistance, Master Sigma. It was of great aid.” The Goblin snorted. “I tell you, the things they expect you to do yourself around here… I keep telling them I need a proper assistant, but no one listens…”

“Of course not,” noted Justinian, taking off the large leather gloves that Subtle insisted he wear, and not particularly listening to the chirurgeon.

Subtle nodded. “That’s right. But--one does--what one must. For what other choice does one have?”

“How very true,” said Justinian, heading for the door.

The door disappointed him severely by opening of its own accord. “Hey! It’s the vampire killer!” said Sacripant, holding a large tray. “Just the man we wanted to see!” Quiet gave an eager nod.

Justinian winced. “You don’t have to call me that, Fenswater…” He looked away. “It--really wasn’t much. I’m sure you’ve done more.”

“I keep telling everyone,” said Sacripant, “I’m just a fisherman.” He gestured at the Ghoul. “Now Quiet here--he’s really something. Simultaneously took down a man with each hand, then kicked the guy who was trying to sneak up on him with his back turned.” Quiet made a modest bow, the eyebrows of his veiled face quirking up in pleased exasperation.

Sacripant stepped forward. “Anyway, we’re supposed to get this meal to the prisoner, but… well, Hagen’s got a foldol game tonight. And there’s some Troll religious festival starting tomorrow, which means it’s going to be a big one. He can’t gamble while it’s going on, so he likes to do it big just before--get it out of his system.”

Justinian suddenly realized how all this tied together. “And you want me to deliver it for you?”

The pair bowed. “If you’d be so kind,” said Sacripant.

Justinian took the tray with a sigh. “Any reason you immediately thought of me?”

Sacripant shrugged. “It… seems like… your sort of thing…?” He and Quiet both looked at Justinian hopefully.

Justinian stared at the pair for a moment, then sighed. “Give me the damn tray.” Moments later, he was making his way to the Chambers of Seclusion, Castle Terribel’s most accessible dungeons. As Nisrioch told it, the Cthonique passion for making dungeons was matched by a passion for unmaking them, which seemed to largely consist of blocking them off, if they’d been made remote enough to safely forget, or turning them into something else if they weren’t. Which was why one encountered such phenomenon in Castle Terribel as a tennis room called the Corridor of Suffering, and a cheerful den known as the Dwelling of Ultimate Woe. The Chambers of Seclusion were one of the few that had remained dungeons, being fairly utilitarian in their design so that no Cthonique had ever been offended enough by their existence to simply have them dismantled and just out of the way enough so that no one could think of anything better to use them for.

Of course, that last bit meant it was quite a walk from the Hall of Supplication, which put Justinian out of sorts by the time he got there, a fact Haethcyn Sweetsleep commented on. “Why the long face?”

“Here’s your food,” said Justinian brusquely, shoving the tray through the slot.

The mercenary eyed him resentfully as he took his food. “Why didn’t you answer my question?”

“I don’t talk to hired killers,” replied Justinian, heading for the door.

“No reason to get snippy,” said Haethyn, starting his meal. “Just trying to--talk. It gets lonely here.” He shrugged. “Anyway--I could ask what a Sacristan is doing working for the Cthoniques, but I won’t. I suspect it’s a story just as ridiculous as mine.”

Justinian turned despite himself. “You--know about the Order of the Sacristy of Saint Julian?”

The grey-haired Erl chuckled. “Old Haethcyn’s traveled some, and he’s met quite a few interesting people, as incredible as that might seem.” He sighed. “I’ve had a bad run of it these last few years. Made me willing to take jobs I’d normally never touch. Like this little… idiocy.” He chuckled. “And if I’d known she would follow it up by trying to kill us all, well--I wouldn’t be here right now. Money or no.” Haethyn shook his head. “Third crossroad, my ass.”

“What was that?” said Justinian, as he had the sudden realization something important had fallen into his lap.

“We were supposed to head to ‘the third crossroad’ on the Great Stone Way after this was done, and receive further instruction and payment,” said Haethcyn. “Nonsense of course. Truth be told, I had a suspicion that she wasn’t expecting a whole lot of company after this. The Fiery Mark business just confirmed it.”

Justinian stared at him. “And you--know where this third crossroad is?”

Haethcyn nodded. “She showed it to us. Made a big production out of it.” He raised an eyebrow. “Why do you ask?”

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 5

Falerina nibbled her pastry. “So--enjoying yourselves, my little preciouses?” She glanced at Elaine and Malina, while her fingers tapped on the table in that irregular manner she had that was so nerve-wracking.

Elaine and Malina both nodded, and looked at their chairs suspiciously. Fifteen minutes ago, these items of furniture had rushed into their room, chased them around it, and on catching them, delivered into this room, a large, sumptuously decorated banquet hall where Falerina had a sizable breakfast prepared. Since then, they’d acted as chairs should, but the sisters were on guard for any relapse, expecting that it was probably simply a matter of time.

“Mmmm,” murmured Falerina with a nod. There was an awkward interval of silence, and then Falerina spread her hands. “Children, it is so delightful to see you! I’ve missed you so! Your father--” She sniffled. “He’s such a cruel man, keeping you from me. It makes me so mad!” She slapped her hands against the table so hard, it shook. “He should be punished! Punished severely! He should be--cut open, and pincer ants should be put inside him to eat him up.” She gave a satisfied nod and looked at Malina and Elaine for agreement. The pair forced on smiles. “Yes,” declared Falerina. “That’s exactly what should happen to him.”

It occurred to Elaine that despite her problems with Mansemat, she would never wish something so egregiously cruel on him, even if he gave her reason to. And that Falerina seemed to be forgetting that Elaine was not in fact her daughter. And that made Elaine wonder what else Falerina might forget. Which was not a comforting train of thought at all.

Falerina leaned towards her, interested. “Elaine, my sweet,” she said, her voice wheedling--even plaintive. “Why are you not touching your food? I’ve had a lovely meal set out for you, and you’re not touching it.”

Elaine gulped then began to serve herself some oatmeal. Malina glanced at her and shook her head. Elaine stopped that, and instead picked up an orange. She peeled it swiftly, and began to eat. Falerina looked at her expectedly. “Yummy,” said Elaine, as she swallowed.

“Oooh! Good!” said Falerina cheerfully, clapping her hands together. “I’m so happy you’re enjoying yourself! Isn’t this the best food you’ve ever had? Isn’t it?” Elaine nodded hurriedly. “And aren’t I the best Mommy ever?” Elaine gave another hurried nod. Falerina’s red eyes focused on her with a horrible intensity. “I didn’t hear you say ‘yes’,” she said in a sing-song voice.

“Yes,” muttered Elaine weakly.

Falerina’s smile grew just a bit sharper. “I’m not sure I heard that,” she said sweetly. “Perhaps--if you could speak a little louder.”

Elaine took a deep breath. She was about to tell Falerina that she wasn’t going to play this--sick little game, when Malina looked at her pointedly, and shook her little head. Elaine shut her eyes. “Yes.”

Falerina picked up another pastry, and started to nibble at it delicately. “Yes, what?” she said. Elaine stared at her incredulously. Falerina simply smiled. “Well, how am I to know what you’re saying yes to? Hmmmm?” She put down her pastry, and began to suck at the crook of her thumb. “You weren’t very clear.”

“Yes,” said Elaine. “You are… the best Mommy ever.”

Falerina nodded, her eyes triumphant. “There. See? That wasn’t so hard now, was it?” She picked up her pastry again. “Next time, I hope you’ll answer without all this silly hesitation.” She nibbled at it again, then looked at Elaine pointedly. “Nobody likes a shilly-shallyer, my sweet. It’s bad manners, and it puts people out of sorts. And you don’t want that--do you?”

Elaine shook her head. “No. No. Of course not,” she said as quickly and forcibly as she could.

Falerina suddenly leaned forward, and placed her hand on Elaine’s. “You’re so lucky to have me for your new mommy. I’m making so much clear to you, aren’t I?”

Elaine bit her lip, then nodded. “Oh, yeah. Like fine crystal.”

“How sweet,” said Falerina, with a pleased little giggle, as she began to suck once more on the crook of her thumb.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 4

Mansemat was stroking the heads of the gryphons affectionately when Viviane and Jerzy joined them. “I’ve brought out Bloodwing, and Swiftclaw.”

Viviane blinked. “What about Molasses?”

“She’s unavailable,” said Mansemat with a sigh. “Health reasons.”

“Ohhhh,” said Viviane worriedly. “I like Molasses! Will--she be all right?”

“She’s whelping,” said Mansemat. “So--probably.” He nodded. “I think I shall name one of her kits Peppermint. Assuming it suits one, of course.”

“Well, that’s nice,” noted Viviane. “We--we can give Peppermint to Malina, maybe. When--all this is over.”

“An excellent idea,” said Mansemat softly. He glanced at Jerzy. “You‘ve been awfully quiet.”

“Sounded like a private conversation,” answered the Kizak. “So I’ve been checking my knives.” He gestured to the various blades that were spread out before him.

“And how are they?” asked the Dark Lord of the Plains of Dread sharply.

“Still checking,” said Jerzy, lifting a kukri up and examining it critically. “Go console your wife.”

Mansemat nodded, and turned back to Viviane. He prepared to say something then realized there was nothing to say, and put his arms around her. Viviane rested her head on his shoulder.

Nisrioch Cthonique entered the courtyard with Jean in tow. The pair held a large elaborate contraption between them, with pedals, seats, and several large propellers. He glanced at Mansemat and Viviane, then turned to Agri Khan. “So--how are the knives?”

Jerzy glanced up and nodded. “Oh, very good.” He looked at the device. “And may I ask what that is?”

“My gyrocarriage-athon!” declared Nisrioch with evident pride. “My apprentice and I shall be taking this marvelous device to the Serene Monastery.”

Jean glared at Nisrioch. “I am still wondering how you roped me into this.”

“Elaine and Malina are in trouble,” he drawled, his rainbow-colored eyes sparkling slightly. “And you are a woman of spirit and decency, much as you like to pretend otherwise.” He shrugged. “There’s also the geas, but I believe that’s a fairly negligible in this case.”

“Go bugger yerself!” cawed Hoppedance, flapping down onto the gyrocarriage-athon.

Jean nodded, and petted the crow. “The bird speaks for me.”

“Not just for you,” announced Morgaine, shaking her head as she walked into the courtyard. Justinian, Breus, Bolekiz, and Serjeant-at-Arms Greedigutt of the Guard followed behind her. She glared at her eldest brother. “You could bring me along instead, you know. Where I could be handy. Instead of hanging around here.”

“This is where you’re needed,” said Nisrioch with a shrug.

Morgaine pouted and turned to Mansemat, who was saddling Bloodwing. “Manny!”

Mansemat sighed and turned to his sister. “Nissy’s right, Morgaine. We need a Cthonique here at the Castle.” Morgaine crossed her arms and stared at her twin incredulously. “If Falerina has any more nasty surprises for us--and as she’s a woman who can never leave well enough alone, she probably does--I want someone on hand here to handle them,” said Mansemat. “You know you’re my strong right hand, sister. The one who I trust to take care of such matters.”

“You mean that?” she said quietly.

“With all my heart,” said Mansemat, putting his hand on his chest.

She nodded. “Well, thanks. So--what’s Nissy?”

“Spine,” said Mansemat. “Supports the whole structure of my rule. Keeps everything connected.”

Morgaine nodded. “Ahh. Viviane?”

“Heart and soul,” said Mansemat. “Keeps the blood flowing, gives me a reason to go on.”

“I see...” Morgaine stroked her chin musingly. “Breus?”

“Left hand,” said Mansemat. “Does many vital tasks, what I use when I can’t use my right.”

“The Guard?” she asked quickly.

“Sword and shield,” he answered.

“You’ve really thought this out!” she declared appreciatively. “I’m impressed!”

Jean glanced at Justinian. “Well--it looks like it might be a while before we see each other again.”

The Sacristan nodded, then shut his eyes. “Ivanushka Fyodorovitch,” he stated.

Jean blinked. “Wha…?”

“You asked me my birth name once,” he said. “It was Ivanushka Fyodorovitch.”

“Oh.” She looked at him hopefully. “Can I call you that?”

“No,” said Justinian, stepping back into the crowd.

“Come on, apprentice!” declared Nisrioch as he boarded the gyrocarriage-athon. “The Serene Monastery awaits!”

“Are you going to peddle that thing all the way there?” asked Jean skeptically.

“No!” he replied grandly. “We are going to peddle it all the way there!”

“I wish you success on your quest, oh, Agri Khan!” said Bolekiz.

Jerzy leapt upon Swiftclaw’s back. “You wish? Ha! I am Agri Khan! I need no wishes! The Red Wolf always finds its prey!”

Bolekiz nodded, as he watched the gryphon take flight. Grizzel leaned towards the older Kizak. “You know, I think I preferred him when he was a nervous little boy who looked at his feet when you talked to him.”

“Time destroys all things of beauty,” replied Bolekiz.

As Bloodwing followed Swiftclaw, Morgaine shouted out, “Silenus Clayjug?”

“Tonsils!” Mansemat shouted back at her. “Don’t know what they’re there for! Assume there’s a purpose though!”

“Damn!” said Morgaine, shaking her head. “Once again, you have thought this thing out!”