Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 29

Elaine wished she could shut her eyes.

If she could have, she wouldn’t have seen Falerina raising a dagger to plunge into her chest, all while chanting in some--strange language that sounded like the Dark Tongue mixed with throat clearings. But they wouldn’t--Demon’s Breath seemed to stop even that from happening. Actually, her eyes were tearing up quite a bit, which was another reason to want them to shut. But watching Falerina get ready to kill her was the big one.

They were in a large domed room, the roof of which was covered in astrological symbols. An elaborate circle had been painted on the floor--Elaine was pretty sure that was Falerina’s work. And a crude altar had been placed in the center of it, on which Elaine was now resting.

Honestly, it was damn near a cliché. Elaine was almost offended about that as she was about--well, the murder.

As Falerina finished another lengthy exclamation of incomprehensible syllables, Elaine realized that it was going to happen. She was going to die now, at the hand of this lunatic, who imagined that doing this was going to grant her every ill-considered dream of vengeance her demented brain had ever conceived. Her mother--or even Mansemat--wasn’t going to come blazing in, like a squad of cataphracts in some old saga. This was it. A useless, pathetic death was all she rated, in the grand scheme of things.

Falerina finished another line, then paused and smiled. “I just want you to realize,” she said sweetly, “this is nothing personal. I just need you to die for my master plan, is all.” She began to fiddle with Elaine’s hair. “If anyone could do it, why, I’d just pick up some--oh, random person off the street. But the spell is very specific, and you’re what I need. Understand?” The Dev waited for an answer, then clicked her tongue in frustration. “It is so--irritating talking to someone who refuses to make conversation. I hope you realize that, young lady.” She raised the knife again, and prepared to plunge it into Elaine’s chest.

Suddenly, there was a popping noise, and Falerina began to scream. “Get off of me! Off! OFF!”

Elaine had an idea what was happening, but not being able to move her head, she couldn’t be sure. But then she heard a shrill yell from Falerina, and a small hand touched her. “Hello, sis,” said Malina quietly. “Give me a moment, and I’ll get the bad stuff out of you.”

Elaine felt something warm engulf her--and then she could move again. She took a deep breath and turned to look at her sister, who smiled nervously at her. “Thanks,” she said softly.

“Don’t mention it,” chirped Malina.

Elaine unsteadily lifted herself from the slab, she’d been placed on, and looked in the corner, where Falerina was yelling incoherently, and rubbing her eyes. “‘Member how I said she’s been letting things just--stop,” whispered Malina. “Well, that let me follow her ‘round, all hidden, and then--I apported in to save you, ‘cause she didn’t set up any wards here.” The young Dev smiled and gave a satisfied little nod. “An’ I used the blinding hex Mommy Viv taught me on her. And it worked really good!”

“Malina!” yelled Falerina, trying to clear her eyes. She took a deep breath, and then she spoke again with her usual cloying sweetness. “Malina, my pet, I--I think there’s been some misunderstanding. You--you seem to have hurt me, your darling, dear mother.”

“You were trying to murderer Elaine!” shouted back Malina, before grabbing her sister by the wrist, and tugging her away.

The thin silver wand appeared in Falerina’s hand, pointed in her rough estimation of where Malina was. “I have to, my precious daughter,” said Falerina, in a sing-song voice. “If I kill her, I can cast a spell, and that will let me hurt all the bad people who kept us apart, and we can play, and dance, and sing, whenever we want.”

“Elaine’s my sister! I love her! I don’t want her dead!” said Malina defiantly.

Falerina’s hand pointed the wand in their direction. “But she has to die, darling. So that we can stay together.”

Malina frowned. “I don’t want to stay with you. You’re a bad mommy, and a worser person, and I hate you.”

Falerina’s face began to tremble. “You... WHAT?” A scarlet blast emerged from the wand, and scorched the wall near the pair. “You listen--young lady, this little petty hex you’ve cast will clear, and when it does, I will GUT your fake ‘sister’ in front of your eyes, and then--then---” She hissed. “Then you and I are going to have Words!”

Elaine gulped. “Don’t worry,” whispered Malina. “Daddy and Mommy Viv are coming.”

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 28

“It’s really--remarkable,” said Viviane quietly, as the castle came into view. “How Nissy can just--thoughtspeak a map.”

“Well, he is a genius in the arts arcane,” noted Mansemat. “With a highly disciplined mind, hard as that can be to believe at times.”

“To my mind,” said Jerzy, “the really amazing thing is how he can do it without that annoying hissing sound in the background.”

Mansemat nodded. “He always said they were different--levels of thought. And that he--separates them better than most.”

The Kizak pointed down below. A small, broken down keep lay below, its masonry crumbling. “I believe we’re here,” he said. “The Fortress of the Blighted Hope.”

Viviane stared intently down at. “I’m not…” Her breath caught. “She’s there! Elaine is--down below. And… she’s in trouble.”

“Are you sure?” asked Mansemat quietly.

“Do you tell the Badb she doesn’t know her own blood?” snapped Viviane. “My little girl is in that fortress, and that lunatic is going to do something to her!”

Mansemat nodded. “Right. Well then, let’s stop it.”

Viviane raised her pestle and sent her mortar screaming towards the fortress as quickly as she could. The wind whistled past her ears as she approached. “Viv!” shouted Mansemat, forcing his gryphon to keep up with her. “Be careful! We don’t know what kind of defenses Falerina has…!”

“I’m the Badb,” said Viviane. “I can handle anything she throws at me!”

“That’s really not--” began Mansemat. But at that point he was cut short by a crackling burst of crimson energy that slammed into Viviane’s mortar. It began to careen wildly, hurtling towards the ground.

Viviane raised her pestle, seeking to get the mortar under control, and guided it into shaky landing some distance from the fortress. She took a deep breath, and left it. Mansemat landed nearby. “Okay, you had a point,” noted Viviane, “but if you didn’t notice, I was right. In the end that was just--a petty protection charm. And if that’s the best Falerina can do then…” Viviane realized that her husband was staring behind her, his expression seeming rather nervous. “What…?”

Mansemat pointed behind her. She turned, and saw it. A horde of clicking, cackling vampires was descending from the fortress’s walls.

Viviane watched in muted horror for a moment, then turned back to Mansemat. “Okay. If we survive this, what kind of… apologetic gesture do you want?” She looked back at the vampires. “Because I’m thinking a big one is in order.”

Mansemat nodded, his hand going to Murgleys’ hilt. “I--can’t think of anything immediately. Perhaps--after the--battle, I will.”

“Right,” said Viviane. “That sounds reasonable.”

Jerzy touched down on Swiftclaw. “Are you two all right?” he asked. “I…” He turned towards the vampires, and whistled. “My goodness. That’s a lot of vampires.”

Viviane and Mansemat nodded. “Yep,” agreed Viviane.

“A veritable swarm,” noted Mansemat.

Jerzy drew his bow. “Well, this promises to be interesting, at the very least.” He notched an arrow. “So--whatever happens let’s try to make their numbers a bit smaller.”

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 27

The vampires had come for her some time after Malina had left. Elaine wasn’t sure exactly how long. Her sense of time had been thrown out of whack by the Quiet Corner and Falerina’s odd habits, and Elaine was worried that it might take a month in a room full of very accurate clocks to get it working again.

She was more worried, however, about Babbler and Giggler, who arrived in the Quiet Corner, and rather awkwardly picked her up in their strange, boneless arms, spewing nonsense and cackling the entire time. At first, she was worried that they may have decided to have a snack, but when they lifted her from the pit, and began ushering her down the halls, she knew what was happening.

Falerina wanted to talk.

She was standing in a dark room lit with sputtering braziers. A heavy silver goblet lay on a table before her, filled with some greenish liquid. The Dev nodded as her vampires dropped Elaine before her. “Ah, my sweet,” she said, gesturing towards the goblet. “Care for a drink?”

Elaine shook her head quickly. “No. Thank you.”

Falerina smiled sweetly. “Your choice.” She picked up the goblet, and gulped it down. When she was finished, she gestured for Babbler and Giggler to leave, the strange creatures following her direction almost instantly.

“Maim small the usher,” muttered Babbler as it loped away.

“Now, Elaine, my dear,” said Falerina, setting down the goblet, “I know we’ve had our difficulties over these past few days, but I just wish to tell you--” She sniffed and stood up. “I forgive you. I know it must be difficult, adjusting to your new home. So all the little ways you’ve been--acting up--are forgiven.” She smiled in that nasty manner she had, and looked at Elaine expectedly, while sucking on the crook of her thumb.

“Ahh. Great,” said Elaine. Falerina leaned forward, her expression going from merely eager to downright hungry. Elaine gulped, despite herself. “Mommy.”

Falerina nodded. “That’s right. That’s right.” She unfurled her wings, and began to pace around Elaine. “Oh, this is so sweet, and so wonderful. It almost makes me wish I didn’t have to do what comes next.”

Elaine blinked, and began to rub her temples. She had developed a bit of a headache, and Falerina’s latest statement wasn’t helping it. “What… comes… next?” she croaked.

“Killing you, my precious,” replied Falerina, dancing towards Elaine. “I’m going to have to end your life.” She began to fiddle with Elaine’s earlobes. “Don’t worry. You. Won’t. Feel. A. Thing.” Elaine gulped and tried to will herself to run--but found she couldn’t. Falerina giggled. “The Demon’s Breath is kicking in, I see.” She placed her head on Elaine’s shoulder, and whispered. “It’s in the brazier. A very powerful mystical poison that instills paralysis. The potion I drank--that was distilled bezoar. A very potent antidote.” She tickled Elaine’s neck. “Of course, it all works much better if you offer people a way out, and--they don’t take it. And you didn’t!” She began to suck on the crook of her thumb. “Mmm--not very wise on magical matters, are you?” She clicked her tongue. “Of course, I was told that you were--something of a wash, as a Nemain goes.” She grinned. “Really--I’m doing your mother a favor. Uncluttering the line of succession. You’d think she’d be thankful.” She shook her head, and raised a scolding finger. “But some people. I tell you, if she and Manny weren’t rushing here after you, I wouldn’t have to kill you now. I could wait--oh, three, or five days. Better astrological alignment then. But no.” The Dev sighed. “They don’t care how inconvenient it is for me. Some people.”

“W-why?” asked Elaine, her mouth struggling to form the word.

Falerina spun away from her. “Oh, very important reasons.” She wandered towards a corner with a small bookcase, and began to run her fingers over the books. “I’m a very good sorceress, you know. I know things. And things know me.” She pulled out a stack of papers, glancing them over with triumphant red eyes. “She’s a lie, you know. Mother Night. A stupid story, just like the Milesians and their Seven. The truth is the old gods, the nameless gods, the gods of hunger, pain and fear.” She glanced at Elaine. “They talk to me, you realize?”

Elaine tried to nod, and managed a blink.

Falerina grinned back at her. “Yes, they talk to me, and lead me to their old lore. Like these priceless manuscripts.” She began to stalk towards Elaine. “I found them, and they told me how to do it. Of course, I had to get other books to figure out how to do it just right--but these were the key. I will summon the old gods with your death, and they shall owe me favors.” She smiled savagely. “And I shall use them to kill all the people who were mean to me. Like Mansemat. And the rest of the Cthoniques. And your mother. And my father. And my stupid sister. And everyone in Bridge Perilous. And Marsilion’s Folly. And Albracca. And Mount Qaf. And--any place else I can think of.” She held the papers up to Elaine’s face. “And these paper’s will let me do it! Understand?” She stared at Elaine for a moment, waiting for a response. “DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?”

Elaine would have shuddered, if she could have. Falerina had apparently forgotten that she was paralyzed. And seemed quite angry about it. In fact, she was rubbing her ring quite--enthusiastically. “Answer me, you little beast, or…” And then the Dev stopped, and giggled. “Oh, mustn’t lose my temper. I need you whole. Have to kill you in the right place.” She clapped her hands. “Babbler! Giggler! Take her down below!”

As the vampires rushed back into the room, Elaine was filled with a sudden despair. It was bad enough being killed by a lunatic so she could satisfy her thousand petty grudges. But there was one more thing--Elaine rather doubted Falerina’s spell would work.

Unless ancient manuscripts had regularly been written with wax crayon.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 26

“One finds one must make a choice, in the end,” said Nisrioch. “One world or the other. A fiery world of pain and joy, or a glittering world of unfeeling ice. And I--I chose the world of fire. The mortal world.” He took a deep breath. “Are--are we there yet?”

Jean nodded. “Almost. It’s just coming into view.” Nisrioch had been babbling semi-coherently for the last few miles. Some of it had been fascinating stuff, really, but the combination of nerves, and trying to concentrate on getting down Mount Karana meant that Jean really hadn’t absorbed much of it.

Except that you shouldn’t play foldol in Albracca unless you had a very heavy purse, and were quite sure of your skill. They played for keeps there, Nisrioch insisted, though he didn’t quite explain how he had discovered that fact.

“Ahh. Good. So--I will arrive in the monastery--rest for a while--and then notify Manny and Viv where to find my nieces,” muttered the Dark Lord. He nodded to himself. “Yes. Yes. That will be capital. Excellent. Marvelous.” He blinked, and then shuddered.

“Are you all right?” asked Jean after a moment.

“Yes,” said Nisrioch brightly. He then stopped and shook his head. “No.” He took a deep breath, and shook his head. “Every time--it gets worse.” He stared at her a second, with his strange rainbow-colored eyes, and for the first time, Jean wondered just what he saw with them. Finally, he looked away. “But--what can one do? Family is family, after all. Especially--mothers.”

“Wouldn’t know about that,” said Jean quietly. “Now come on. We’ll be there in a minute.”

Several monks were waiting just outside the gate when they arrived, Albrecht most prominent. “Are--are you all right?” he asked, as the pair tottered into view. “I--we have hot chocolate…”

“That sounds lovely,” said Jean quickly. “Give some to Nisrioch. And whatever else you have to--perk him up. Zamial--really went after him this time.”

Albrecht stared at Jean in surprise, and seemed about to say something when Abbé Fenix arrived. “He’s returned, then?” The old Dev took a long look at Nisrioch, and then glanced at his subordinates. “Get him inside. Quickly.” He looked at Jean in concern, then looked away. “And How long did she--have a hold of him?”

Jean bit her lip. “N-not long. A few minutes, maybe.”

Fenix nodded. “You must not think of her as--a physical being. Zamial takes on a façade of flesh when it suits her purposes, but it is only--a tool for her. And thus--her touch may do many strange things.” He began to move inside, gesturing for Jean to follow. At first, Atlante was silent, but then he began to speak. “He came many years ago, from the north, driven here by his uncle’s knives, until he had no place left to stand. He’d already tried to get the Hordes to rally to him, but--they would not come to the aid of a penniless, landless young Cthonique. He came to Mount Karana, driven by what he thought was courage, and what I saw as desperation, mixed with folly. But he was a young man, and I--I was already an old man then. He went up to the peak. He did not come down the day after. And I thought that Zamial had claimed him, much as she does most of the others who come.” He shook his head. “Would that she had.” He took a deep breath, and shook his head. “And yet--for all the evil he did--the world would be a grimmer place without Lord Shaddad’s children.”

Abbé Fenix paused and glanced over at Nisrioch, as they reached the refectory, . The old Dev seemed so frail, in the lantern light, with wrinkled face, greying hair, and brittle-looking horns. “He came back down a year later, dressed in the finest clothes, with cases of jewels--and a child. A child that he left here, while he--raised an army, and took a throne.” He shook his head. “One thing one must allow Lord Shaddad--there was little he would not do for power. Even though he rarely considered the cost. To be touched by the Queen of Fear… is no small thing.”

Jean nodded quietly. “Will--will he…?”

The old Dev smiled. “Your master shall live. A demon’s blood flows in his veins, he is a Cthonique, and a master sorcerer to boot. These are no small things.” Atlante sighed as he sat down. “We shall let him warm up, give him some chocolate, and in a few moments, all will be well.” He looked at Jean pointedly. “In the long run, you are the one I worry about the most.” A young monk approached holding a mirror, and handed it to the Abbé . “I assume she--brushed you,” he noted, raising the mirror to Jean’s face. “And I assume you thought it was--a harmless accident.”

As Hoppedance cawed out “Crazy bitch!”, Jean stared at the strange circular markings on her forehead, which looked for all the world like some strange eye, and recalled the Queen of Fear’s words.

Know that the eye of Zamial is upon thee.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 25

Sacripant had been putting snow in the frying pan--looking for clean, white snow without leaves, sticks, or mysterious yellow coloration--when he heard the screams. He dropped the frying pan, grabbed his spear, and hurried back to the lean-to. The scene waiting for him when he got there was something out of a nightmare. Sigma lay sprawled on the ground, while Haethcyn had Quiet in his grasp, with one hand rather menacingly around the Ghoul’s throat. Quiet’s veil and headdress lay nearby on the ground, and Sacripant was rather surprised to see the Ghoul’s face.

“Stay back,” said Haethcyn softly. “I don’t need a weapon to kill your friend here.”

“Do what you have to,” snapped Quiet. “Don’t worry about me. It’s my own damn fault. Got cocky. Fell for his tricks like a damned fool.” Despite the calm words, nervousness was playing on the Ghoul’s blue-skinned face. H--no, the face had suggested the truth, and the voice had confirmed it--She took a deep breath, and shut her eyes, as if waiting for something.

Haethcyn chuckled. “Have to admit, your lady friend has spunk,” he said. “But I think you’re starting to realize just what I am. And how outmatched you are.”

Sacripant stared the older Erl in the face, shifting to the side. “You’re--a Thanatos, aren’t you?”

“‘Fraid so,” said Haethcyn. “The Lady gives us all special gifts. She gave me the power to kill with my hands. And I’ve picked up a few other--tricks along the way. Now, stop moving. Or I make your friend very dead. Followed by you.”

Sacripant stopped moving. “So--I guess I was right, eh?”

“Pretty much,” replied Haethcyn calmly.

“Still underestimated you,” noted Sacripant, squinting at Haethcyn intently. “Which is why we find ourselves in this present--predicament.”

Haethcyn squinted back at him. “I go to great lengths to be underestimated. If I didn’t all that money I spend on counter-divinations would be wasted.”

“Don’t let him boast,” hissed Quiet. “It’s what his kind live on!”

Haethcyn frowned. “My kind?” he said with a snort. “I’m a man, same as any other. I can kill easier than most--but that’s about it.” He shrugged slightly. “Truth be told, I’ve little love for it, but one can’t help one’s nature. And sometimes--it comes in handy.” His face darkened. “Other times, it’s less handy. Now--put down the spear, and we can settle this--rationally.”

“If you’re so--rational--how come you wound up working for Falerina?” said Sacripant, making no motion to put down--or even lower--his spear.

“Pretty much the same reason I’m trying to get away,” said Haethcyn. “I drink. I shouldn’t--but sometimes--I wind up doing it anyway.” He bit his lip. “Usually, all that happens is--I get drunk. But sometimes--my dander gets up. And I get into fights. And when that happens--” He shook his head. “Look, I’m wanted in quite a few places for the results.”

Sacripant nodded. “I can imagine.”

“No, you can’t,” said Haethcyn. “I’m not talking about one or two drunks dead. That stuff--people forget. I’m talking about small massacres. A man like me--even two sheets to the wind--versus a bunch of farmers in similar condition? Do you realize how that goes? And what happens when they try to catch me? A lot of people are looking for me for the results of those fights, so they can make me dead. It takes lots and lots of money to make sure they can’t find me. And getting caught--that makes sure they will.” He looked at Sacripant intently. “So--that’s why I need you to put down your spear. I’ll just--take the mule, ride off, and you’ll never see me again.”

Sacripant leveled his spear at the older Erl. “Because we’ll be dead.” The Marsh Erl shook his head. “Don’t think I’m a fool, Mr. Sweetsleep. Alive, me, Quiet, and the Milesian--we’re people who can raise an alarm, and help track you down. Dead--we’re just a few more bodies on your conscience.” He smiled grimly. “And I suspect you’re at the point--where it’s really all just book-keeping.”

Haethcyn stared at Sacripant. “You’re a fisherman, Nixie. You said it yourself. They can slap a black cloak on you--but your still just a Marsh Erl, from a small rundown village, who was raised to be a fisherman. You are completely out of your depth here, and if you try to play the hero, you will make sure that you and yours all die.”

Sacripant nodded slowly. “Maybe. Like you say, I’m just a hick Nixie, trained to fish like most of my rundown little town.” And then he hefted his spear. “Thing is--in Valse, we fish with spears.” And he let it fly.

Sacripant watched the spear fly straight and true, and he thought about that night during the Summer Festival two years ago. He’d won the Cup of Coral for Marksmanship, the Cup of Pearl for Swimming, and the Golden Medal for the Greatest Catch, putting him at the peak of Valse’s fishermen, and thus, at the peak of Valse. It was the fulfillment of the dreams of generations of Fenswaters--and all Sacripant could think of was how small and pathetic it all seemed. And then, then a black-cloaked Goblin he would come to know very well approached him, and asked what a talented lad like him was doing in a backwater like Valse…

Sacripant wondered if he’d made the right choice, joining the Guard. But if felt kind of foolish to be seized with regrets now. Even if it was preferable to thinking about the man he’d just killed. But he was going to have to, he suspected. Sending a spear to a man’s face and making his brains splatter on the ground was the sort of thing that wound up occupying your attention, no matter how much you tried not to.

Quiet stared at Haethcyn’s body, and then looked at Sacripant. “I--thank--do you…?”

Sacripant flashed what he hoped was a warm, reassuring smile. “I’ll be fine. Go check on Justinian.” Quiet nodded and headed over to the fallen Milesian, pausing briefly to retrieve her veil and headdress. Sacripant headed back out into the cold, and took a deep breath.

And then he threw up on the snow.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 24

Quiet raised the canteen, and turned it upside down.

“Out of water already, eh?” noted Sacripant. Quiet merely raised an eyebrow. The Marsh Erl gulped slightly and rose. “I’ll go get some snow to melt for you.” The Ghoul nodded as Sacripant left the lean-to with a frying pan, picking up his spear as he left.

Haethcyn smirked at Quiet. “You have him well-trained.” The masked Ghoul glanced at the older Erl for a moment, then took out his knife and began to sharpen it.

Haethycn glanced at Justinian. “Is the Ghoul always like this?”

“Sometimes he’s more pleasant,” replied Justinian. “Others--less.”

“Is he now?” said Haethcyn with a chuckle. He looked at the Ghoul again. “You must run out of a lot of knives that way. Wear them right down to nothing.” Quiet stared at the Erl fixedly with his blue eyes and then raised his knife, and gave it a chiding shake. Haethcyn glanced away. “Fine--be like that.”

“You seem to think we should like you for some strange reason,” noted Justinian. “It isn’t helping our attitudes.”

“Well, I think of myself as a likable fellow,” said Haethcyn with a shrug. “Maybe in a bad profession--but essentially a nice guy.” He glanced at the fire, and nodded. “Fire’s getting low.”
Quiet quickly threw a couple more sticks on it, then stared at it fixedly. To Justinian’s surprise, the fire reared up. Haethcyn chuckled at the Milesian’s alarm. “I know. Every damn story about Nightfolk magic is running through your head right now. Well--tricks like that aren’t that powerful. Or even particularly rare. Really--a step below hedge magic.” Haethcyn shook his head. “Most villages have one or two people with a pinch of fire magic in them. Or other tricks.”

Justinian sighed. “Like what?”

“Oh, simple stuff,” said Haethcyn. “Like this.” And suddenly, a man who’d he’d known had been securely bound was unbound, and darting towards him, hand outstretched. Justinian’s hand went towards his sword, but then Haethcyn--touched him on the forehead. And Justinian screamed and slumped to the ground as a brief flash of overwhelming pain went through him. The Sacristan lay there weakly, trying to make himself move, with little success.

As he watched, the old Erl turned, and kicked the fire at Quiet, who was already starting to stand. The Ghoul managed to dodge the sparks and ash, but as he did so, Haethcyn jumped forward and grabbed him by the wrists. Quiet gave a sudden, surprisingly high-pitched scream, and dropped his sword and knife. Pulling back, he broke free from Haethcyn’s grip, only to take a strike in the face from the old Erl. As the Ghoul went limp, his veil falling off, Haethcyn grabbed him by the shoulders, and glanced at Justinian.

“None of what I just did, is half as impressive as it looks,” he noted. He looked back on Quiet, and nodded to himself. “Bit of advice--you need to work on your walk. Bit of a tell to a professional.”

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 23

“So what brings thee to thy mother this time, dearest Nisrioch?” asked Zamial softly. Her rainbow-hued eyed flickered with an eerie light. “Perhaps, it is the War, yes? It is creeping closer, child of my heart.” The demon leaned closer, a smile on her face. The owls that had heralded her coming were now perched on a nearby tree, their eyes fixed on their mistress. “Closer, and closer, like a beast of prey, ready to pounce. Hesitate for an instant, and it will be on thee, feasting on all thou hast striven for…”

“Not the War, mother, as we both know,” answered Nisrioch calmly. Jean noticed the wound on his hand was already mostly healed. Discovering just who Nisrioch’s mother was answered many questions, but raised just as many more. But asking them would have to wait until after this little reunion. “I am here as regards the matter of my nieces.”

Zamial snorted, and reared back. “That? A paltry thing--merely a family concern, at best.” Her eyes lit up in hungry eagerness. “The War--now that concerns the fate of nations, and peoples! Ask me of it Nisrioch! Ask me of it now, for I am eager to tell!” She shook her head. “This chance will not come again, my son. Indeed, my Sight shows me thou shalt not return to this peak for a goodly time, on all the roads of wyrd.”

“My nieces, mother,” said Nisrioch quietly. He tapped his foot. “As you, say, the War is large--large enough that I, with the small measure of your Sight I possess, may see its outlines and plan accordingly. But my nieces are small, even if great things may come of them later. They escape my Sight, and thus I turn to you.”

The demon shook her horned head ruefully. “Ahh, Nisrioch, Must thou force me to dwell on this? ‘Tis dull--‘tis dull, ‘tis deadly dull. That petty little woman, and her petty little plans! And she wastes such effort and power upon them!” Zamial clicked her tongue. “I swear, she is one, if given the fire that burns in the clouds, would use it to scald the feet of her enemies, and think herself clever for doing so.” She spread her hands. “There is no joy in watching her. In success, she is mean and terrible at once--in failure, she is merely pathetic. And thou ask thy mother to dwell on such matters?”

“I’m afraid I do,” said Nisrioch. “My nieces. Where are they? Precisely.”

Zamial stared at her son for a moment, and then sighed. “Ahh, Nisrioch, what has happened to us? We used to have such fun together! But now--thou art always formal, and cold to me.” She leaned forward, and raised one clawed hand. “It vexes me. Vexes me most awful.”

“What has happened?” said Nisrioch. “I’ve grown older. You have remained changeless, as is your nature. That is what has happened. Now--answer my question. Where are my nieces?”

Zamial backed away and regarded her son quietly. “I’ve Seen something most interesting of late. That little creation of thine--the Council of Shadows?” The demon rubbed her chin speculatively. “Thou has put so much effort into that. In truth, it is like a child to thee.” She smiled at him. “Thou will destroy it, Nisrioch. It will die by thy hands. It lies before you, on all the paths you walk.”

As Jean watched, Nisrioch frowned, stiffened, and stared balefully at Zamial. “Answer my question, mother. Where are my nieces? That is all I wish to know, and that is what you will tell me!”

Zamial shook her head. “Cruel, cruel Nisrioch! To blight thy mother’s heart!” And then suddenly, those multi-colored eyes were on Jean. “Listen well, crowling, to a lesson I learnt to late--children are an iota of joy mixed with a dollop of woe!”

Jean took a deep breath. “My name is Jean Crow. Not ‘crowling’.”

Zamial merely laughed at that. “Another lesson, crowling. When the Queen of Fear names a thing, she names it correctly, for nothing has a proper name until I give it one.” She regarded Jean with just a hint of menace. Two owls flew by her, hooting ominously “Does thou knowst who I am, crowling? That shadow in the darkness, thy father used to say was nothing? That scraping at the side of the barge? ‘Twas I, crowling. ‘Twas I.”

Jean stared a moment, then crossed her arms. “Just answer the question!”

“Such insistence from the pair of you,” said Zamial, with a click of her tongue. She turned back to Nisrioch. “It reminds me of thy father.” She sighed wistfully. “So kind and courteous on that first visit. Willing--to bargain. He asked what I would require of him to give him what he sought--and I answered ‘a son’. And so thou wast conceived, child of my fancy.” The demon shook her head. “But afterwards--always rude, always demanding, and never--never trusting me, as he had before.”

“One wonders why,” said Nisrioch quietly. “Now--answer my question… My…”

“Thy nieces are held by Falerina Ashurana at the Fortress of the Blighted Hope, part of what is called the Old Line by most Nightfolk,” said the demon. “It lies…”

Nisrioch raised his hand. “I know where it lies, mother.” He bowed. “I thank you for your courtesy.”

Zamial looked at her son, her expression seeming vaguely disappointed to Jean. “So thou art leaving me?”

“I must,” said Nisrioch. “Our dealings are concluded, and I need to send Mansemat and Viviane the information I’ve learned. Again--my thanks.”

“Can we not--talk some more, Nisrioch?” asked Zamial hopefully. “Thou art here--so seldom, these days. Time meant little to me, before, but I find that thy absence--pains me.”

Nisrioch raised one white eyebrow. “If I could trust you, mother, perhaps we could--but you are you. And I have great need to speak with Mansemat.” He began to chant underneath his breath.
Zamial sighed and shook her head. And that’s when Jean saw it. One of the owls had rested near the circle, and beat its wings until a small gap in the circle lay there. “Nisrioch--it’s a--!” she began to shout.

But then the demon had swiftly shoved her arm forward, through the gap, and wrapped her hand around Nisrioch’s throat. She had to make her arm very thin to do this, Jean saw, and it still seemed to--smoke and blur strangely. “No! No! Thou shalt stay here! Here! I shall have and hold thee, son of my heart, son of my fancy, son of my desire!”

Jean acted swiftly. Hoppedance flew forward, and pushed more salt on the gap, while Jean pulled a last handful from the bag, and threw at Zamial’s hand. The demon screamed in agony. The arm released Nisrioch and then slashed at Jean, lightly grazing her forehead before simply--dissolving away. Nisrioch slumped to the ground catching his breath. “Oh, cruel! Cruel! So cruel!” screamed the demon. “To come between a mother and her son.”

Jean noted the arm had already grown back. “You were going to kill him,” she said, trying to calm herself.

“Only the mortal parts of him, crowling,” muttered Zamial. The demon glanced away. “He is--my son. Much of him is thy perishable clay, yes, but his essence--that is like mine, imperishable. Once, it burned bright as a bonfire, but he has grow wedded to thy world, and now the clay masks it. I--I must free him of it, so that he can be as he ought to be.” She sobbed. “He suffers! And he shall suffer more! He is my son! I must spare him of it!”

“I--am sorry, mother,” said Nisrioch, his voice something of a croak as he massaged his neck. “But this is not your choice to make.” He shook his head. “I have chosen--the world of mortals. And to that choice, I will be true.”

“Oh, foolish son, foolish, foolish!” wailed Zamial. “Thou art thy father’s child.” She gave an ironic snort. “Aye, and thy mother’s too. Oh, foolish Zamial. For all my Sight, I could not See this. It is such pain, such suffering, to have a part of oneself, free, and wandering, and doing what it will. But--I had to know--what a child would be like. And now that I do, all I can do is regret and worry.”

“Everybody--pays a price eventually, Queen of Fear,” muttered Jean, rubbing her forehead. “I guess demons are included in that saying.”

Zamial snorted. “Thou art--wiser than thou appears, crowling. Know that the eye of Zamial is on thee--and that is a great honor.” She shut her eyes. “Enow. I go now, back to the happy shadows. Go now as well, Nisrioch, and see to the safety of thy kin, if thou will not look to thy own. I’d wish thee good fortune, but ‘twould be a lie, for thou knowst the road thou hast chosen.”

“May Unholy Mother Night make our next meeting happier,” whispered Nisrioch. Zamial only laughed at that, and then--began to weep. And then she was gone, like a candle that had been blown out. The fire Nisrioch had built was now nothing but ashes. Nisrioch stared at it, and then turned to Jean. “Let us go,” he said. “The way back--is always swift and easy. And that is good, for there is a weariness on me as heavy as the world.”

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 22

Elaine had been sitting in the dark for a long time when the light appeared, engaged in the very strenuous task of remembering every book she’d ever read. She hoped doing this would distract her from the fact that she was in a deep pit, in total darkness, and that she couldn’t make a noise. It wasn’t quite working. She had to give Falerina credit--this was an awful punishment, and Falerina had done a good job of making it as awful as possible. If you did this to a person long enough, Elaine had no doubt their mind would crack.

And that made her wonder how many times this happened to Falerina when she was a child. And that made her decide to go back to thinking about the books. And as she debated whether she had read The Tapestry of History, or merely planned to--a light appeared. Elaine winced from the sudden brightness, and prepared for more insane gloating on Falerina’s part. But instead came a small familiar voice, speaking in half a whisper. “Are you okay, sis?”

Elaine glanced up and saw Malina up above her, holding a bit of ghost light in her hands. She found herself grinning like a fool, and tried to answer her sister, but then she remembered that she couldn’t speak. Malina watched Elaine for a moment, then nodded to herself, and unfurled her wings. She fluttered down the pit, and frowned to herself, then began to mutter something. After a moment, she smiled at her sister again. “There! That should do it!” Malina bit her lip. “The Quiet Corner?”

Elaine nodded. “Yeah. How…?”

“Mommy Mom ‘splained it to me once,” said Malina quietly. “She was going to put me in it, but Daddy found out and they had Words. So I didn’t have to go, and instead Mommy Mom was sent over to Bridge Perry Less.” The young Dev began to fiddle nervously with her horns. “And then Mommy Mom tried to kill Daddy with a bear.”

Elaine glanced away. “Yeah, I heard about that one…”

“Daddy was very nice ‘bout it,” said Malina. “He let the bear go free, to live in the woods! Because it hadn’t had any choice in the matter!”

Despite herself, Elaine chuckled. That sounded very much like Mansemat. She took a deep breath. “So how…?”

“Mommy Mom isn’t paying as much tenshun to me as she was earlier,” said Malina. “I don’t think I could get away, if I tried--but I can sneak ‘round now. So--I decided to check on you.” She looked around nervously. “She’s letting all sorts of things just--fall apart. I think she’s--planning something. Extra-nasty.” Malina looked at her sister plaintively. “Elaine--I just--” And then she hugged her sister, and began to cry. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Elaine began to stroke Malina’s hair. “Sorry? But…”

“Y-you shouldn’t be here,” sobbed Malina. “I-if you hadn’t been looking out for me--you wouldn’t, and Mommy--Mommy Mom wouldn’t be…”

“It’s not your fault,” said Elaine. “She--everything she does isn’t your fault, Malina. It’s hers.”

Malina rested her head on Elaine’s sleeve. “Once, when I was littler, she--we were playing a game, and she began tossing me up. It was fun, at first, but then--it got scary, and I started asking her to stop, and she wouldn’t, and she just--laughed, and started tossing me higher, and higher, and I started--to cry, and scream, and--she just kept laughing--and then--Daddy came, and stopped her, and she--she started yelling at him for--” The young Dev shut her eyes. “For spoiling her having fun with her daughter.” She looked at Elaine anxiously. “Sometimes--she’s my mommy, and I don’t ever want to be like her, ever, and…”

“You won’t be,” said Elaine. “You’re good, and kind, and brave. Like your father.”

Malina nodded, though Elaine couldn’t help noting a lack of assurance. “He’s--coming soon, isn’t he?” asked Malina.

“Yes,,” said Elaine. “With my mother, and all the help they can get, and they will tear down this place, and get us out of here.”

“Oh, that will be nice,” muttered Malina with a nervous giggle.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 21

There were a circle of white stones at the top of Mount Karana. Jean half expected them to be stained with blood, but no--they were simply plain, unremarkable white stones, spread out in a circle about three ells wide. Nisrioch glanced them over, and nodded in satisfaction. “Well--here we are,” he noted quietly. He turned to Jean. “Now--you recall that bag of salt…” Jean nervously nodded. “Pour it in a circle, using the stones as your guide. Make sure there are no breaks or gaps in the circle.” He raised the bundle of sticks. “I have a fire to build.”

Jean open the bag, and almost began to pour, but paused. “Inside, or outside the stones?”

Nisrioch was already setting down the sticks with experienced hands. “Inside’s safest.” He frowned, his eyes focusing on his work. “Circles bar demons, as they represent natural cycles, which demons are outside of. Salt is the essence of the earth, and thus also opposed. Combined, they form a powerful barrier.”

Jean paused in her careful pouring, and glanced around. “I notice Zamial’s leaving us alone.”

“Part of the rules,” Nisrioch replied. “She can try to trick people into leaving the path up the mountain, but she can’t do anything to them at the top, until they summon her. After that--they’re fair game.” He chuckled grimly, then created a spark in his hands, and began the fire. “Thank goodness you can use magic to create the fire,” he noted. “Otherwise, we’d be here all night.”

“I’m finished,” said Jean. “Though there’s some salt left in the bag…”

“Leave it. It’ll come in handy if there are any--complications.” He made sure the blaze wasn’t going to go out suddenly, then walked into the circle. He glanced at and smiled crookedly. “So--ready for those wonders I mentioned?”

“Right now, I just want to find out where Elaine is, and go home,” answered Jean.

He glanced at Hoppedance. “What about you? Any obscenities to add?”

“Go bugger yerself,” said the crow quietly.

Nisrioch nodded, and checked his pocket watch. “I suspect I’m about to. Metaphorically speaking.” He pulled the slips of paper he’d gotten from Atlante from his sleeve. “Fire of ash and yew, the hour of midnight--now all that remains is to shed some blood and cast the spells.”

Jean blinked as he produced a knife. “Ummm… blood?”

“Relax,” said Nisrioch drawing the blade against his palm. “It’s not a sacrifice, so much as a show of commitment. And my blood is--best-suited for this task.” Jean’s eyes went wide as Nisrioch’s blood welled forth. Erls had the same blood as anyone else, she’d always found. But Nisrioch was apparently the exception. His blood was white, with strange flashes of color in it. He placed his hand on the papers, allowing the strange ichor to stain them, then raised one on high. He glanced at Jean. “I must burn all seven spells. This will grow progressively harder as I go on. If something should happen--you must help me--finish the job.”

Jean gulped and nodded in agreement.

“Excellent,” said Nisrioch. “Now--we begin.” He began to chant in the strange tones of the Dark Tongue. After a while, he raised one of the slips of paper towards the heavens. “I cast the first spell!” he declared, and threw it onto the fire.

It seemed to Jean that sky suddenly grew dark, so that the fire provided the only light on the mountaintop. Nisrioch swallowed, and threw the next slip on the fire. “I cast the second spell!”

A group of owls fluttered into view, and began to fly around the circle, hooting quietly. Hoppedance began to stroke at Jean’s hair nervously with his beak. Nisrioch took a deep breath, and threw another a slip on the fire. “I cast the third spell!”

Suddenly a great gust of wind began to blow. The owls began to fly in crazed manner, while lightning flashed, and thunder bellowed--and yet it did not rain. Nisrioch threw the next slip of paper with great effort. “I cast the fourth spell!”

There was a crack of whip, and Jean saw the shape of a great black carriage rushing towards them, its fiery wheels sparking all around. As it neared, it dissolved into mist, the wheels passing them by. Nisrioch bit his lip, and threw the next slip. “I cast the fifth spell!”

The wind grew fiercer, the thunder and lightning more prevalent, and the owls drew nearer. And then--they began to sing, joined by a thousand spectral voices. “The Queen of Fear shall soon appear! She’s near, she’s near, she near, she’s here!” There was another lightning strike, and it seemed to Jean that she could see--a face forming itself out of the scenery...

Nisrioch threw the next slip with an air of desperation. “I cast the SIXTH SPELL!” he shouted, and then it all went completely mad. The wind tore the seventh slip from his hands, and the owls thrust themselves in his way so he couldn’t recover it. Nisrioch looked at Jean in desperation. She nodded, and let Hoppedance fly. The crow darted forward and snatched the slip, casting it to the flames.

“I CAST THE SEVENTH SPELL!” shouted Jean, as her familiar settled back on her shoulder. Lightning struck the fire, causing it to burst upwards. As it did so, it took a vaguely human shape, and then it formed itself into Zamial.

She was tall--impossibly, grotesquely tall--and she had the horns of a stag. Her feet were cloven hooves. And as she pulled a long lock of disheveled white hair out of her face, Jean saw that her eyes were rainbow-hued, refracting the light in a strange manner. “Nisrioch,” said the demon, revealing her sharp fangs, “my darling boy.” Zamial smiled and shook her head fondly. “Thou hast been most negligent in thy visits of late…”

Nisrioch glanced away. “Hello, mother. It has been awhile, hasn’t it?”

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 20

Jean walked fixedly up the path, keeping her eyes ahead, focused on Nisrioch. Hoppedance was perched on her shoulder, keeping very quiet and not leaving her side.

This was less than comforting. Especially as her normally bold familiar appeared to be shivering. And the trees weren’t helping, the way their branches were swaying towards her, like arms reaching out to grab her….

“So--what does Zamial do to people who leave the path?” she asked.

“Nobody knows,” said Nisrioch in surprisingly subdued tones. “Those less well-acquainted with her assume she kills them. I--knowing her quite well--suspect it is--something less pleasant.” He bit his lip nervously. “Essentially, she--takes them somewhere and--plays with them. She--does not quite understand mortals. She is not a malicious creature, at heart. Nor is she a kind one. Like all demons, she exists only for herself, incapable of feeling sympathy for others. How can she? Her kind is immortal, changeless--needing nothing, including the good will of their fellows. Mortals are nothing more than bright sparks that flare up briefly, and then are gone. How can she feel anything for them, beyond a vague curiosity?”

Jean nodded along with Nisrioch’s odd lecture. And then she saw it. A golden gleam, just off the path. There they were--more coins than she’d ever seen in a life spent plying the river…

Jean tapped Nisrioch on the shoulder, and gestured towards the coins. “Is… that her?”

Nisrioch glanced at them and nodded. “She tried fear. Now she’s trying greed.” He shrugged. “It’s a game to her. Seeing what mortals will act for. Trying to--understand them.”

Jean frowned. “I notice she’s not aiming anything at you.”

“Because she understands me quite well,” said Nisrioch quietly.

Jean was about to say something when a man’s voice called out. “Oi, Jehannine!” She turned, and then she saw him, standing just off the road. He was a rumpled man in rumpled clothing, with greying hair and a ready, easy smile. She’d loved that smile. Everyone who knew Gautier of the Riverfolk, called ’the Uncrowned King of the River’ by his fellows, loved his smile, even if they thought the man attached to it was less admirable. He stood there, smiling at her, beckoning.

Jean felt her throat catch. It occurred to her that this was how she wanted to think of her father--smiling, happy, a man radiating confidence and charm. Not the way she last saw him alive, screaming in terror as he went under the water that last time. Or the body they’d dragged out, battered, soaked and bloody…

“Jehannine,” said Gautier. “Such a joy to see you girl. Why don’t you give your father a hug?”

“Y-you’re not my father,” said Jean, stepping behind Nisrioch. “You’re some--trick by the demon who lives here. My father--is dead.”

“That’s a sharp tone to take with your ol' pa,” noted Gautier in that warm, loving tone of voice he’d used when he thought she was in a bad mood. He shrugged. “Well, there’s one thing you got right--I am dead. This--this is paradise, my dear. The Great Retreat, where all the good folk who ply the River are gathered. You remember how I used to tell you about that one, Jean. That place where it always sunny, and they fiddle the good dances, forever without end.” Jean closed her eyes and nodded. “Heh. That’s a good girl. Now--come with me. Your mother’s here, you know. I… I think it’s about time you should meet her.”

Jean choked back a sob, and kept her eyes shut. “You’re not my father. You’re a trick. And I’m not leaving the path.”

“Suit yourself then,” said Gautier, his voice growing faint as he retreated into the forest. “You always do…”

Jean waited until he was gone, and then burst into tears. Nisrioch placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. She looked at him, resentfully. “You said she wasn’t cruel.”

“Not by intention,” said Nisrioch quietly. “But the results are--often the same.” He looked ahead. “Just a bit further.”

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 19

“Do you have everything?” asked Nisrioch, as Jean joined him at the gate.

Jean raised her foot. “Sturdy, yet comfortable shoes, a heavy cloak, and a bag of salt.” She sighed to herself. “I have to admit, the last one makes no sense to me.” She glanced at the bundle of sticks underneath his arm. He’d spent the last hour or so gathering them beneath the trees outside the monastery.

“Ahh, watch and see!” said the Dark Lord with a confident smile. It occurred to Jean that underneath his usual good spirits, Nisrioch seemed--nervous, almost as if he was putting on a good face. And that was strangely--terrifying. “You are about to see wonders, my dear!”

“What--kind of wonders?” asked Jean hesitantly.

“The ominous kind, I’m afraid,” noted Nisrioch honestly. “But still--wonders! Your mind shall be broadened! Your horizons expanded! That shall make the mind-chilling horror all--worth it, on some level.”

Jean bit her lip, and looked away. “It better be.”

At that moment, Hoppedance lighted on her shoulder. “In the shithouse! Bugger the bastards!” he cawed.

“You’re not helping,” she groaned, giving the crow an affection scratch. She noticed that Atlante Fenix and Albrecht were approaching, the Abbé holding a group of paper slips in his hands, while the young Erl supported the elderly Dev with one hand and held a torch with the other.

“Master,” said Nisrioch, with a nod, his multi-colored eyes lighting on the papers. “The wards, I presume?”

Atlante nodded as he handed them to his former student. “These should summon the Queen of Fear and bind her to her Compact. But that is always a tricky business. Remember--beware her lies and tricks. Ask only what you wish to know, nothing further, and accept no offer she makes you. And above all--when climbing Mount Karana, stray not from the path.”

“Those rules and scriptures are bound to my heart, Atlante,” said Nisrioch rifling through the wards.

“It was more for your student’s benefit,” said the old Dev, his expression grave. “Though honestly, Nisrioch--if that was true, you would not attempt her so often.” He leaned forward, and rested a withered hand on Nisrioch’s shoulder. “I know the temptation Zamial’s power creates--I know there is much unfinished business between the pair of you--but you cannot keep doing this Nisrioch. She is a demon, and like all her kind, she will have her due.”

Nisrioch took a deep breath. “Perhaps she will, one night. But not tonight.” He shook his head. “Too much rests on this.”

“It--it is for my own sake, I say this, as much as for yours,” replied Atlante. “I am old, Nisrioch. Old and worn out. If you were to perish…” He glanced at Nisrioch worriedly. “That is why I asked you to play tonight. I wish to hear it--one last time before…”

“I will survive this night,” said Nisrioch. “And so will you. You shall hear me play again. More than once.”

Atlante looked at the Dark Lord warily. “Is that a promise, or a prophecy?”

“A little of both, really,” said Nisrioch, and he turned to head toward the gate.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” said Atlante with a sad smile.

“Oh, I gave that up years ago,” chuckled Nisrioch.

Jean sighed, and began to follow him. “Good luck,” said Albrecht.

“Thanks,” said Jean with a sigh. “I’d wish you the same, but honestly, I think there’s only so much to go around, and I need it a lot more than you right now.” The young Erl laughed and waved her goodbye. She straightened her bundle and hurried her step till she was at Nisrioch’s side.

“Glad to see you getting alone with young Nibelung,” said the Dark Lord. “He always struck me as a pleasant sort. A bit of a surprise to see him as Painter, mind you, but he seems to have a talent for it.” He chuckled. “His families were kings, you know. Used to rule Albracca and the Vale of Woe, before the Ashuranas kicked them out.”

“You know--there seem to be an awful lot of people descended from ex-kings in the Lands of Night,” said Jean. The path up Mount Karana loomed ahead. It didn’t look especially steep, she noted, but it did seem rather--ominous looking, what with all the twisted, skeletal-looking trees on the path, and the deep fog. And the fact that somehow, in the dead of winter, the stone path was completely free of snow.

“We Nightfolk are a chaotic group of peoples,” replied Nisrioch. “We squabble a lot, and people and families get rather--undone in the squabbles. Fenix is like that. His family--well, House Fenix weren’t Dark Lords, exactly, but back in the old days, the Dev houses had a sort of revolving leadership. House Fenix got itself ruined trying to bring that back.”

“Damn it,” snapped Jean. “Do we have to do this at night?” She shuddered.

“Those are the rules,” said Nisrioch. He pulled a watch from out of his sleeve. “One can only safely begin up the path in the dark of night, and Zamial can only be safely summoned at midnight.” He coughed. “Well--for a certain value of ‘safe’.”

Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 18

“And here you are,” intoned Falerina, whispering in Elaine’s ear. “In the place where bad girls go.”

“Crush the bang monkey horse!” said Babbler, as Giggler cackled.

Elaine gulped as she looked at the pit. It didn’t seem especially deep, and there didn’t appear to be anything living in it--but all the same, she’d rather not go into it. Not that she had much choice.

“It’s called the ‘Quiet Corner’,” explained Falerina, her tone cloying. “It teaches you to be good, and respectful to your elders.” She placed a hand on Elaine’s shoulder. “Because a good, respectful girl only speaks when spoken to. She brings delight and joy to those around her through her silence, and her tact.” It occurred to Elaine that Falerina seemed to be reciting this by rote. She smiled at Elaine, her expression almost hungry. “Now--go into the Corner.”

Elaine found herself torn into three minds. One mind was sensibly telling her that she should do what Falerina wanted, because, as Malina had told her, and Falerina had so amply demonstrated, this was a person who didn’t require much of an excuse to completely lose it. The second mind was saying that she was going to get punished no matter what, so she might as well show a little spirit and resist. ‘Integrity! Integrity!’ this mind screamed out at the top of its metaphorical voice. The third mind didn’t say anything, but simply whimpered and strongly indicated that it wanted to find a safe place and curl into a ball.

Facing so much internal division, Elaine followed a course of action that partook of all three minds, yet satisfied none of them. She stared blankly at the pit, making the occasional feeble motion towards it, before stopping. Falerina clicked her tongue in impatience. “I see we’ll have to do this the--forceful way.” She produced a thin ebony wand, from her sleeve and pointed it at Elaine. Suddenly, she was engulfed in a strange crimson light. For a moment, she had the horrible sensation of drowning in some viscous liquid--then she found herself at the bottom of “the Quiet Corner”, with Falerina staring triumphantly down at her.

“And there we are,” said Falerina. “Though no thanks to you. Such a slow thing, aren’t you?” She peered fixedly at Elaine, her expression inquisitive. “Do you get that from your mother? Or your father, do you think?” She chuckled to herself. “Oh, I forgot. You don’t know who your father is.” The chuckle became a merry laugh. “That’s House du Lac for you. My father always said you people weren’t really nobles, no matter what you pretended. Said that at least House Cthonique had bred itself up, but all you did was breed yourselves down.” She began to gleefully suck at the knuckle of her thumb. “Stay in the filth, all you get is dirty, that’s what he says.”

Elaine wanted to scream at her. To shout ‘And how has keeping yourself separate from all the filth worked out for you?’ She tried to--but when she opened her mouth sound would not come out. She tried and tried to say something but she simply couldn’t. “The Quiet Corner,” said Falerina sweetly “teaches naughty girls to love silence by forcing them to spend as much time with it as possible.” She shut her eyes, her expression almost blissful. “Yes, silence, blessed, blessed silence, silence, silence so loud that its all you hear, for hours, on end until you learn to love it, or it breaks you and you be good, you be good, you be good!” And then she stopped talking and merely shrieked wordlessly for a long time. When she stopped, Falerina gave a nervous laugh. “My goodness. Don’t know what came over me. I guess I was just lost in a happy memory of times gone by. Now where was I?” She nodded to herself. “Yes. That’s right. You were extra naughty. So you get something extra.” She gestured at a lantern in in the corner. It sputtered out. “Not just silence--but darkness.”

Falerina pointed at another lantern. “Yes, darkness. Darkness so you can’t see anything, not even yourself. And if you can’t see yourself, and you can’t hear yourself, are you even you?” A strange lop-sided grin came over the Dev’s face. “It’s like being nothing.” She chuckled. “But that’s all you are anyway. So it can’t be that bad for you.” As the last lantern sputtered out, a pale blue flame appeared in Falerina’s left hand. “So I don’t get lost,” she said, sucking on her knuckle again. “And so you learn that I carry with me all bright and beautiful things.” She began to leave the chamber, almost--dancing as she did so. “Buh-bye, Elaine. I’ll come back--when I remember to.”

“Last coral of the red!” declared Babbler, following her out. Giggler laughed, and that was the last thing Elaine heard for a while.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 17

“Well, there it is,” said Mansemat, gesturing to the battered looking remnant of a fortress. “We’ve reached the Old Line.” He sighed. “Now--we just have to figure out which of several hundred keeps Falerina is at.”

Viviane stared at the ruins blankly. “Always thought it was a wall.”

“Bits of it are,” said Jerzy. “Though my predecessors destroyed a lot of that. Or helped to. But most of it was always--little outposts like this one.” Viviane nodded silently.

Mansemat looked at his wife sympathetically. “You’ve been quiet for--quite some time since we left Mount Qaf, Viv.”

“Just--thinking,” said Viviane. “You know that’s what always happens after I get good and mad. I start thinking about what got me mad. And that usually leads me into all sorts of strange directions.”

Mansemat nodded. “Would you like to--talk about it? Perhaps?”

Viviane looked at the ruins in silence, and then took a deep breath. “Just thought that--Falerina makes--sense to me now.” She shook her head. “Alcina too, though she didn’t wind up--quite as badly mangled.” She chuckled grimly. “Hell--I’m betting that Belberith’s father treated him like shit, like his father before him, creating a long line of miserable bastards over the centuries.” She sighed. “It--doesn’t end, does it?”

“Of course it does,” said Mansemat. “Sometimes. Some people are ruined by that sort of horror. But some people pull through. Turn out decent. Try to--make things right.” He smiled at her. “That’s what I love about you, nightshade petals.”

Viviane smiled back. “Likewise.” She turned her mortar in the air. “Well, I can’t feel them in there, and I’m pretty sure that not even Falerina could hide my own daughter from me at this range, so…” She blinked. “Whoa…”

Mansemat turned. “What--?” Viviane merely pointed. Mansemat followed her hand and saw it. A large dragon, flying majestically overhead, its scaly wings flapping rhythmically. “Oh, my,” said Mansemat, the slightest of smiles on his face. The dragon paused briefly, and sniffed the air--then glanced down in the direction of the three travelers. It seemed to stare at them for a moment, then gave a great snort, and flew on its way.

“That was… spooky,” said Viviane.

Mansemat gave a dismissive wave. “Nothing to worry about. It wouldn’t attack. Especially not me. Dragons have… their own interests, you’ll find.” He chuckled. “Second largest one I’ve ever seen. A good omen.” He shrugged. “Well--let’s get on our way.”

As they flew off, Viviane floated back to Jerzy. “Okay, Agrican, you’re his foster brother. What was that?”

Jerzy sighed. “Near as I can tell--he doesn’t have to worry about dragons. They never attack their own.” Viviane stared at him in surprise. “It’s--by adoption, near as I can figure.”

Viviane shook her head. “I always thought that was just--some sort of nickname.”

“Mmmm, it serves many functions,” said Jerzy. “I think it has something to do with being the Bearer of the Blade of Night, but I’m not sure. Honestly, I still don’t know the whole story. Manny doesn’t talk about it much. You know what he’s like. Very--private, when you get down to it. And modest. I’m not sure which one is coming into play here.”

“Probably both,” said Viviane.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 16

The sun was setting when they reached the first crossroad.

“We take the right route here,” said Haethcyn, gesturing with his tied hands.

“No,” said Sacripant. “We take the right route tomorrow. Right now, we stop and make a camp.” Quiet nodded, and moved to help the bound Erl off the mule. Sacripant turned to Justinian. “This is a Lord’s Highway, so there should be a lean-to up ahead.”

Justinian looked around. “Would that be that--little hut over there?”

The Marsh Erl nodded. “Yep.” He took hold of the mule, as Quiet escorted Haethcyn to the lean-to. The animal paused for a moment, causing Sacripant to tug on the reins.

“Need help?” asked Haethcyn, moving towards the pair.

“No,” said Sacripant. “Especially not from a bound prisoner. Now stay where I can see you.”

“I was only…” began Haethcyn.

“Moving towards me in a way that blocked my line of sight,” said the Marsh Erl. He smiled at Haethcyn. “They teach you these things in the Guard.”

Haethcyn shook his head as he headed towards the lean-to. “Paranoid bastard, ain’t you? I mean--there’s one of me and three of you.”

“You’re a professional killer,” replied Sacripant. “I’m just a fisherman who joined the Guard. So--you’ll excuse my--uneasiness.” He gestured to Quiet. “Really, I think that Quiet’s the only one here who shares your--choice of profession. And I suspect he’s better at it than you are. But I don’t know, and I don’t like having to rely so much on one member.”

Haethcyn crawled into a corner of the lean-to, and huddled there. “So--a fisherman?”

Sacripant took a place near the entryway, and glared at the man. “In Valse. Everyone there is a fisherman, or married to a fisherman. Sometimes both at once.” He shrugged. “It’s a nice town, but not a lot of variety there.”

Justinian nodded as he took a seat. “Sounds like the Breakers. Only more pleasant.” He looked out over the snow-covered scenery. “There, everyone’s a fisherman or married to one, AND they’re freezing most of the time. Wet the rest.”

Sacripant smiled at the Sacristan. “Well--you’re talking to me! Great!” He shrugged. “And that sounds about right. Though I always heard you guys were pirates in the Breakers.”

Justinian laughed and shook his head. “Only the bigger islands, where you have enough people so a boatload of young men can go off seeking fame and fortune and not be missed.” He rubbed his chin fitfully. “Though the folk at Knak do the lantern trick--make the boats think they’re near a lighthouse so they crack up on the reefs, then help themselves to the cargo.” He leaned back. “Nasty folk. They’re cannibals, and they all marry their sisters.”

“Sounds like Reda,” noted Sacripant. He chuckled. “Ever notice that there’s always one place, next to everybody, that everyone swears is full of the most awful, worst-behaved folk possible.”

Justinian nodded. “Makes you wonder who they talk about.” He shook his head. “Probably somebody else.”

“In the Nightlands--probably you guys,” said Sacripant. “Same as you Milesians talk about us.” He gestured to Quiet. “Or the Ghouls. They creep everyone out.” Quiet raised one blue hand and flashed Sacripant a supremely rude gesture. Sacripant rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on, Quiet. Half the things you do, you do to creep people out. Like the not-talking bit.”

Justinian blinked. “He can talk?”

Sacripant laughed. “Yeah! I heard him!” He looked the Ghoul in the face. “Used to think he lost his tongue, or was under some sort of vow. Now--I think he just doesn’t so he can go on impressing people with what a silent, dangerous badass he is.”

Quiet repeated his supremely rude gesture, and followed it with several more. Haethcyn eyed the group with amusement. “Well--this proving rather cozy.”

Sacripant smiled. “Oh, yeah. With good reason.” The Marsh Erl’s eyes narrowed. “See--I think--this is all a wild goose chase. I think you may have gotten some half-assed instructions from Falerina to go somewhere after all this, but I think they were bullshit. And you know they were bullshit. And that the only reason you’re bringing us out here is so that you can try to get away.” Haethcyn stared at him dully, while Sacripant kept on smiling. “Now--that being the case--I’m not going to take this mission too seriously. Just going to sit back, enjoy myself, and wait for you to make your sad little attempt to run. Then take care of that.” He gestured to Quiet, who quickly drew his sword with a flourish. “Or more exactly have Quiet do that. Like I said--I’m just a fisherman who joined the Guard.”

Haethcyn nodded to himself. “Well--glad that everything’s clear.”