Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 3

Sacripant watched Quiet preparing her swords and knives. This was a great deal more involved than he had thought it would be--Quiet owned quite a few of each, it appeared. She also seemed to have an elaborate and shifting system for rating each, which involved picking them up, examining them carefully, and occasionally doing a practice swing with them. And she did all of this without making sound.

It was rather nerve-wracking, actually.

Finally, Sacripant cleared his throat. “Are you going to tell me what this is about?”

The Ghoul turned to him, and shrugged. “I’m getting ready.” And then she went back to her knives.

Sacripant considered that answer, decided he didn’t like it, and then decided to share this information. “Damn it, Quiet, I can tell there’s more to this.” She turned towards him again, her deep blue eyes looking at him challengingly. He stared right back. “All I know is that Morgaine mentioned Vathek, and you got--even more shut inside yourself than usual. Which is a damned lot, already.” Sacripant bit his lip and continued. “Look, I--well, after--what’s happened between us…” He shifted awkwardly and glanced away. “Well, I’d like some idea of what’s going on.”

Quiet looked at him for a moment, then smiled enigmatically. “What’s my name? My real name.”

Sacripant scratched his head awkwardly. “How should I know? You’ve never told me.”

The Ghoul placed a hand on her chin and shook her head. “You’d think now that we’re lovers, you’d want to know that.”

“Of course I do,” said Sacripant.

“Nouronihar,” said Quiet.

Sacripant nodded. “That’s a… nice name.” He looked away. “Now--the point of all this…”

“You can’t be bothered to ask my name, and yet you feel that I have an obligation to tell you something that I consider rather private,” noted Quiet, twirling a knife in her hand. She nodded to herself in satisfaction, and put in her belt.

“Because I knew you’d tell me your name when you felt like it,” said Sacripant. “But this--I don’t know, and it scares me because I think it’s important.”

Quiet frowned to herself, then sighed. “Vathek is a man I very much wish to see dead. For reasons I’d rather not get into.” She forced a smile on her face. “Happy?”

“No,” said Sacripant, “but I am a little glad that you told me something.” He coughed. “So--Vathek… isn’t he that crazy Ghoul religious leader?”

“No, he’s that crazy Ghoul who thinks he’s a religious leader,” muttered Quiet in annoyance. “There’s a difference.”

“Okay, okay,” said Sacripant hurriedly. “But is he the same one who lead that uprising four years ago in the Heath?”

“Yep,” said Quiet, strapping on the two swords she’d chosen.

“That have something to do with you wanting to kill him?” he asked.

Quiet fixed him with an annoyed glance, as she put on her veil. “Oh yeah.”

Sacripant glanced away. “Okay, that was my last question on the subject.” He glanced away. “I haven’t completely ruined our--thing have I?”

Quiet gave a dismissive wave. “For most guys, I’d be saying ‘yep’, but in this case the sex has been fantastic, so you’re getting a pass. This time.”

It occurred to Sacripant that now he was absolutely certain he was going to one of the hells, the prospect didn’t scare him so much. Especially as he found what he’d done to get there--amazingly pleasant.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 2

Justinian knocked gently on the door to Morgaine’s workshop. “It’s Squire Sigma, Your Excellency.”

“Yeah, yeah, come in,” came the Dark Lord’s distracted voice after a moment. “The door’s unlocked. Never really have a problem with people wanting to come in, really.”

Justinian opened the door slowly, and walked in, glancing around the room nervously. The workshop was full of diagrams, models and quite a few embarrassing woodcuts. Justinian attempted to avert his eyes from the latter, but it proved difficult--they were liberally festooned on the walls, often next to fascinating sketches of various mystical devices that Justinian could almost understand. Finally, he decided to focus on finding Morgaine. She was buried in a back corner, holding a glowing glass sphere. Several dozen more of the things lay on a rack, though they all seemed slightly dimmer than the one she held in her hands.

“Absolutely not,” declared Morgaine. “Three days. That’s all I’m offering.” She frowned severely to some unheard answer--at least from Justinian’s point of view. “Look, I don’t have to ask. I just--prefer loyal service to force. So--come on. Three days of looking for Deidre. That’s all I can offer.” She nodded. “Okay. Glad we could come to an arrangement.” She looked up at Justinian and smiled. “Go on. Ask. I know you’re dying to.”

“What is that?” asked the Sacristan quietly.

Morgaine grinned and raised the sphere. “Ghost trap. It holds ghosts.” She waved the sphere. “This is my Great Uncle Nerghal!” She tapped the sphere. “Say ‘hi’ to the Milesian, Nerghal!” The sphere throbbed brightly, and Justinian thought he heard an unpleasant hiss.

“Are you--sure that’s wise?” he asked.

“Ehh, he can’t get out. My extremely potent power holds him there,” noted the diminutive Dark Lord with a shrug.

Justinian nodded. “Well--that’s--nice.” He looked around. “So--you enslave--ghosts? To--do your bidding?”

Morgaine gave a dismissive wave. “Enslave’s a bit strong. I mostly just bargain with them. That’s what necromancy means, after all. Speaking with the dead. A few of the nastier ones, like Nerghal here, need restraints. Most though--they like working for me. Like Eloise.” She whistled, and suddenly Justinian saw a woman drenched in blood appeared. “Wave to the nice gentleman, Eloise.” The spectre grinned and waved.

Justinian blinked. “That--at the birthday party…”

“Eloise works security here,” noted Morgaine. “And she likes it. It beats just--haunting the halls where she was murdered.” Morgaine shook her head. “That’s the thing with ghosts. They tend to outlast whatever it was that made them stick around here. Eloise was killed three centuries ago by her lover. She was kind of hoping to see her death avenged, but it didn’t happen. By the time I found her, she was just--hanging around.” Morgaine sighed. “She appreciates having--a purpose. Most of them do, really.”

Justinian glanced at her. “How many of these--individuals do you have--working for you?”

Morgaine grinned at him. “A lot more than you’d think.” She looked away. “So--you ready?”

The Sacristan looked away. “I was hoping to get more of a chance to recover from the entire ‘Sweetsleep’ matter…”

“Well, I was hoping not to get killed by Father when I was sixteen,” noted Morgaine. “Hope is a bitch, and she always disappoints you in the end.”

“I really shouldn’t bother complaining to you, should I?” said Justinian.

“Nope,” agreed Morgaine. “I’m a hideously unsympathetic person.” She laughed. “Anyway--you say you’re all about protecting the innocent. This is going to be just that. In a big way.”

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 1

Mayor Menelaus Fairwind walked down Tolometto’s Grand Street, which also happened to be its only street. A few folk from the larger demesnes in the South found that quite amusing, but Menelaus had always thought they were being unduly harsh. It may have been Tolometto’s only street, but it was undeniably a grand one, flanked with beautiful spreading chestnut trees, and various, undeniably lovely buildings. Yes, to Menelaus’ mind, Grand Street embodied Tolometto. It was small, but it was grand, even if it wasn’t perfect, and there was no place he would rather be.

Even under the present circumstances.

A booming voice broke through his thoughts. “Mr. Mayor! A pleasant morning to you!” Menelaus glanced up to see Diogenes Dragoman, the town crier, walking towards him. The large Erl shrugged. “Well--pleasant as it can be with--you know…”

Menelaus nodded. “Hmm. Indeed.” He looked up at the sky. “Lovely weather, for Nivose. Feels almost like Ventose.”

Diogenes gave a nod of his own. “Indeed. Indeed. Unseasonably warm. Not that I’m complaining.” He looked awkwardly away. “Least about that.”

“Quite,” said Menelaus.

“Hello, neighbors,” said a female voice. Medea Fairmeasure, the town apothecary, walked towards them, shaking her head. “Strange weather, eh?”

“We were just talking about it,” said Diogenes. “I’ve never seen the like.”

Menelaus stroked his chin. “Mmmm. We’ve had a few early thaws like this in my memory. Like--Oh-Eighty-Six.” The pair looked at him. “Twenty-third year of ol’ Lord Ailil. Got even warmer.”

Medea frowned. “Was that the year Nerghal--” and here she paused to spit. “--killed him?”

“No. Four years earlier,” said Menelaus. “Got so warm the seeds started growing early. Then there was a cold snap.” He shook his head. “A bad year, that.”

Diogenes nodded. “Sounds it.” He looked away. “And--how was the weather when Nerghal did him in?”

“Utterly normal,” said Menelaus. “And we had a good harvest that year.”

“Hmmm,” said Diogenes, shaking his head. “Guess it doesn’t mean much.”

“Who can tell?” noted Medea with a shrug. “We’re none of us the Blessed Unholy Lady. Only Mother Night knows why She sends what She sends.” She followed this statement up with the Obeisant Gesticulation.

“Very true. Very true,” said Menelaus absently. “Still--I’m enjoying this weather while I can. Which is why I’m out for a walk.”

“Likewise,” said Diogenes.

“Same story myself,” said Medea. There was a great deal of nodding, and finally, the apothecary coughed. “Have they found what they’re looking for yet?”

Menelaus shook his head. “No.” The three Erls paused in their conversation as a group of Milesian mercenaries passed by. Menelaus waved at them. “Morning, gentlemen. Just talking about the weather.”

The Milesians simply glared at them.

Menelaus sighed. “You know I could tolerate the military occupation. But it’s the rudeness that really gets to me.”

The pair nodded. “Is…?” asked Medea with a hopeful expression on her face.

“Any day now,” replied Menelaus confidently.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 39

Jean watched the gryphon and the pestle soaring ahead in the distance and shook her head. “What do you suppose they’re talking about?”

“Oh, typical talk between a married couple, I suppose,” replied Nisrioch, starting to peddle the gyrocarriage-athon just a bit more fervently. “Who are Dark Lords.”

“Ahh.“ Jean nodded, and idly stroked Hoppedance’s head. The crow had decided to take a nap on the gyrocarriage-athon, and given the favor she owed him, Jean wasn’t going to argue about that. She looked at Nisrioch. “So--Falerina’s--plan…”

Nisrioch glanced back at his student. “Yes?”

“Would it have--worked?” said Jean.

“Elaine didn’t give me enough details to be sure of anything,” said Nisrioch. “Not that I blame her. In fact, I’m rather thankful that she told me what she did…”

“You’re not answering me, Nisrioch,” noted Jean tersely.

“It’s tough to be sure,” said the sorcerer. “The matter rests on what exactly she was trying to summon, and whether it even existed. And I see three possibilities there…” He shook his head. “First--Elaine is correct, and Falerina is simply delusional. In that case, she’s performing an elaborate summoning for a thing that does not exist. Which will open up a crack that isn’t properly warded, which might mean…” He hissed slightly. “No. Best not to think on that.” He took a deep breath. “Second possibility--in her madness, Falerina was open to things from the… Outside, who were… essentially what she believed them to be. In that case, the summoning will work, but as she is working from the instructions of what she’s summoning, the bindings might prove…” He shuddered again. “Again, not something to think on.”

Jean gulped despite herself. “And the third possibility?”

Nisrioch frowned. “Magic--is a funny thing. It is possible that the thing she wished to summon might be a delusion on her part. But one so powerful that Falerina had given it a sort of life. A living vortex of her hatred and spite. And in that case, it would do what she thought it would, and…” He sighed and shook his head. “Honestly, all the possibilities are unpleasant enough to make me glad she failed.”

Jean nodded. “So am I. Especially with the ‘killing Elaine’ part.”

“Crazy bitch!” cawed Hoppedance, briefly waking up, before going back to sleep.

Jean patted the bird on the head, and then rubbed the strange markings Zamial had left on her forehead. The thing had stopped itching a few hours ago, but it still was--unsettling, knowing it was there. “So--when should we be back at the Castle?”

“Oh, three days,” said Nisrioch. He shut his eyes. “In fact, I’ll just send Morgaine a little missive. After all, she should know that we’ve come out all right.” He shut his eyes. “Hello, sister!” He smiled as he listened to her reply. “Well, I am sorry for butting in on you, but I have good news. It’s finished. We’re coming home. So…” And suddenly, the smile vanished. “Oh, dear. Should we--oh, you have the situation in hand. Well--good. I guess we’ll be waiting for you back at the Castle. Good fortune, and--call us if you need us.”

Jean blinked. “What was that?”

“Vathek has escaped from Irem,” replied Nisrioch.

Jean nodded. “Ahh. And what does that mean?”

“Trouble,” answered the Dark Lord.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 38

“Look at them,” noted Mansemat, glancing at the slumbering forms of Malina and Elaine, which leaned on Viviane. “Like little angels.”

“Yep,” said Viviane, steering her pestle. “Little, sleeping, drooling angels.”

Mansemat smiled at his wife and chuckled, as he pulled on Bloodwing’s reins. “You are so mean.”

“I know,” said Viviane, smiling back. “It’s one of the things you love about me.”

Mansemat thought it over and nodded. “I have to admit, you are one of the few people I know that manages a nice sort of mean.”

“And you know I don’t mean it,” said Viviane. “I’d--do a lot for these girls.” Mansemat merely nodded. Viviane bit her lip. “I didn’t--kill her, if you’re wondering.”

“I was--somewhat curious about that fact, yes,” noted Mansemat.

Viviane looked ahead, somewhat grim. “If this were two years ago--she’d be dead. I--you know the shit I went through, Manny. It made me hard in these matters. If you messed with me and mine, I killed you. That’s how Badbs had been handling matters for centuries, and everything that happened to me didn’t make me want to break with tradition.” She shook her head. “But--I don’t know. Maybe not having to fight is making me not want to. And maybe it’s knowing you. But somehow--when I had her--at my mercy, I just--wondered what I was doing. And I couldn’t go through with it. She was just--so pathetic.”

“I know what you mean,” said Mansemat. He looked at her. “I’m proud of you, you know.”

“I’m not,” said Viviane with a snort. “She’s just going to do something else awful.”

“That’s on her,” said Mansemat. He sighed. “I’m not going to pretend I’m some sort of--innocent in these matters. I’ve done more than my share of killing. Most of them were people who got what was coming to them. The rest were in situations where it was me or them. And if there’s one thing all that death has taught me, it’s when you have your opponent at your mercy--when the only thing that’s keeping them alive is your choice--if there’s a little voice telling you not to do it, you listen to that little voice.”

The pair flew through the air in silence for a moment. “He did deserve it, Manny. We both know that,” Viviane said at last.

“I know,” said Mansemat sadly. “But he was my father.”

Viviane looked at him in concern. “When we get back home, I’m giving you such a hug…”

Mansemat smiled at her. “Likewise, nightshade petals. Likewise.”

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 37

Sacripant made his way down the Thistle Hall to Quiet’s apartment. Unlike most of the Guard, who had to double up in their quarters, the Ghoul had her own room. It occurred to Sacripant that should have been a giveaway about the whole ‘Quiet being a girl’ thing, but then--he’d always chalked it up to the whole ‘Quiet being a Ghoul’ thing. Just like the veil, and heavy concealing garments. And the never going to the bathroom.

Actually, the more Sacripant thought about it, he’d let an awful lot of things pass on the grounds that--well, Ghouls. Which was probably neither wise, nor enlightened behavior on his part, but in his defense, Quiet had clearly been counting on that sort of reaction when she cooked this scheme up. For whatever strange reason she had.

Damn it, he was at her door. He was hoping to suddenly--be okay with this by the time he reached it, and that hadn’t happened. Still--standing here like an idiot wouldn’t make his situation any better. Sacripant took a deep breath, and knocked on the door.

There was no answer. Remembering who he was dealing with, he coughed, and said. “It’s me. Sacripant.” Still no answer. He coughed again. “All by myself. I’d just--like to talk--about--things.”

The door opened. Quiet stared at the Marsh Erl for a second, then gestured for him to come in. He did so, while moving in an extremely awkward manner that made certain he wouldn’t touch her. An action he realized he used to do quite frequently. Oh, crap. There was his mother, in his head, glaring at him. He was going to one of the Hells. Either the one where they froze you in ice, or the one where they cut you into pieces over and over again.

Sacripant’s train of thought was interrupted by a cough. “I believe you mentioned talking,” noted Quiet, removing her veil.

Sacripant glanced away. “Ahh. Yes. Well. Ummm. Yes…”

The Ghoul smiled slightly at him, revealing the delicate tips of her small, surprisingly unthreatening fangs, then turned away as she removed her headdress, revealing a head of sea-green hair done up in a long braid. “I don’t believe this qualifies,” she noted, hanging the headdress on a bedpost.

“I--just--wanted to say I’m sorry,” he blurted out. Quiet turned to him, fixing him with her blue eyes. “I--really shouldn’t have--lost it, like I did…”

Quiet chuckled. “You were just trying to do right, by Grizzel,” she noted. “I respect that.”

“Yeah, but I should have tried to do right by you,” said Sacripant. “I mean--you’re the best friend I have in the Guard--the best friend I’ve ever had, period, when you get down to it, and you being a woman really doesn’t change that, and I should have…” He was going to continue in that vein, when the Ghoul grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him in for a kiss.

When it was over, Quiet pulled back and smiled at him. “Only thing about you that really annoys me, Fenswater. Sometimes, you don’t know when to shut up.”

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 36

Falerina lay on the floor for a long while after Viviane left her, sobbing, and groaning weakly. Every now and then, she’d make an attempt to rise, only to collapse back on the floor.

Eventually a pair of things that looked like little men in greatcoats fluttered into the room, and made their way towards her. Falerina glanced up at them. “Oh--B-Babbler. G-Giggler. H--how did the battle go?”

Babbler leaned towards the bleeding woman, its demeanor strangely menacing. “Crash heart the frog!” it declared, as Giggler chuckled.

Falerina nodded to herself. “That bad, eh?” And then her hand darted out and gripped the creature. Babbler began to make a strange, pained whirring noise, as its form was engulfed in a sparkling crimson glow. The vampire’s flesh began to go grey and ashy, and eventually crumble apart. As Babbler’s dust struck the floor, Falerina stood up, and regarded Giggler.

“Well, that was nice of him,” she noted. “I needed something to help me get back on my feet.” She began to dab at her dirtied face, while unfurling her wings and giving them a few practice flaps. “As good as new!” Falerina declared brightly, her red eyes filled with glee. She clapped her hands together joyfully. “Ha! I fooled her! She thinks I’m sorry! She thinks I’m scared of her! Ha! Well, let her think that! I’ll get my revenge yet! Won’t I, Babbler?” She waited for a response, then shrugged and glanced at Giggler. “Well, what do you think, Giggler?”

Giggler chuckled. Falerina nodded. “Exactly. My ultimate triumph is inevitable! I have plans. More plans! Bigger plans! Better plans! The old nameless ones shall be summoned to do my bidding! All who have wronged me shall suffer.” Her smile turned into a ferocious snarl. “Especially that hag! And Manny! I’ll--kill them slowly. In front of each other. With rats!” She looked at Giggler. “Won’t I, Giggler?”

Giggler chuckled again. “That’s right! I will!” announced Falerina, her hand going to her neck. “They think I’m harmless now. They think I’m all alone, with no one to help me. But I have friends.” She drew out a necklace made of many bronze links, intricately fastened together. At its center was a small pendant, tipped by a fire opal. Falerina kissed it gently, and looked at Giggler again. “Lots and lots of friends. Who listen to what I say.” She began to suck on the knuckle of her thumb. “Well--let’s get going, Giggler. We have things to do.” The vampire chuckled in reply.

There was a flash of crimson light, and then the Dev and the vampire were gone.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 35

Justinian found his hand going to the scarf on his shoulder as the walls of Castle Terribel came into view.

“Well--here we are,” said Sacripant quietly. “With nothing to show from this expedition but a body buried at a crossroads.”

“Still don’t know why you bothered,” spat out Quiet.

Sacripant looked at the Ghoul. “Because he would have left our bodies there to rot,” he said after a while. Quiet gave an exasperated sigh, and shook her head.

“I--I am sorry about all this,” began Justinian. He winced quietly. “I really--really messed up here…”

“Sweetsleep took on Quiet and came out on top,” said Sacripant. “By my count, you did as well against that bastard as could be expected.”

Justinian looked away. “Except that we wouldn’t even have been out there if I hadn’t swallowed his bait,” he noted.

“You were just looking for some way to help Their Graces,” said the Marsh Erl. “I’d have done the same thing.” He rubbed his chin. “Well--okay, I’d probably have insisted they send someone else out. Which means you actually are better than I am. Because you sent yourself to the chopping block.”

“Thanks,” said the Sacristan, frowning. “That was--spirit-lifting.”

The Marsh Erl shook his head. “I don’t know why I bother with you sometimes.”

Justinian stared at Sacripant. “What does that mean?”

“Well, I keep trying to be nice to you, and include you in things--make you feel like you’re part of the group--and you just always cut me down, and act like you can’t be bothered,” noted the Marsh Erl.

“Look,” said Justinian with a sigh, “I’m sorry if I come off that way. If it makes you feel better I hold you in a good amount of respect, especially since you just saved my life.”

“I’d rather not dwell on that,” said Sacripant quietly.

“And I respect that,” noted the Milesian. Quiet gave a mordant chuckle. Justinian turned. “What’s so funny?”

“You two,” she said. “It’s cute.”

Sacripant shook his head. “Not much danger of you turning into a chatterbox now that you’re willing to talk, eh?”

“Nope,” said the Ghoul.

The Marsh Erl nodded. “Going to clam right back up once we’re back in the Castle?”

“Yup,” she said positively.

“I can see the whole ‘not talking’ thing was never a big sacrifice on your part,” muttered Sacripant bitterly.

“Not really,” Quiet agreed. She glanced at the pair, blue eyes narrowing. “Now--can you guess what I want?”

“For us not to blab about this,” said Sacripant.

Quiet nodded.

“I see no reason to talk about this,” said Justinian after a moment.

The Ghoul looked at him pointedly. “Swear by the Seven.”

Justinian looked back at her in surprise, then lifted a hand heavenward. “By Sun and Moon, Wind and Thunder, Earth and Water, and the Fire that Burns--I swear I will reveal your secret to none.”

Quiet nodded. “May the Holy Light witness it,” she said, then glanced at Sacripant. “Well?”

The Marsh Erl shook his head. “I’m sorry, Quiet, but--I’m in the Guard. I promised them my loyal service. I have to tell Grizzel and the Dark Lords this. It’s my job.”

The Ghoul’s eyes lifted in a strangely amused fashion, and Sacripant got the impression she was smiling under her veil. “Oh. I see then.” And for the rest of the way to the castle gates, she was silent.

To Sacripant’s surprise, Grizzel was waiting for them at the gates when they reached them. “Heh,” said the old Goblin. “Her Excellency said you’d be here today.” He shook his head appreciatively. “Have to hand it to her--she’s about as good as she says she is in these matters.” The Serjeant-at-arms looked at the group quizzically. “And… Mr. Sweetsleep?”

“Dead,” said Sacripant. “Just a getaway attempt. Like we thought.”

“Ahh,” said Grizzel, with a nod. “Well--at least you tried.” He shrugged. “So that’s it then?”

Sacripant took a deep breath. “There--is another thing. Something I… discovered when…”

“He knows I’m a girl now,” said Quiet.

Grizzel nodded. “Oh. That.” He shrugged. “Almost thought it was something important.”

Sacripant and Justinian stared at the serjeant in shock. “Wha--? You knew?” muttered Sacripant.

The Goblin gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “I and a few others.” He grinned at them. “Did you think I wouldn’t know? She’s one of me lads! I keep track of these things. Only way I can look out for you young fools.”

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 34

Elaine glanced down the darkened hallway, as her mother came into view. “Malina--wanted to go on further, but I--wasn’t sure you were going to make it,” she said quietly, as Viviane walked towards them.

Viviane straightened her disheveled clothing and laughed. “Elaine,” she said, touching her daughter gently on the head, “I know it can be hard for you to accept it at times, but remember I’m not just your mother. I’m also essentially the living embodiment of badass.”

Malina clapped her hands. “Yes! Badass!”

“Malina,” said Viviane, rubbing her forehead. “Pretend I never said that. And that you don’t know that word. Especially in front of your father. If you could please?”

Malina gave a nervous little nod. “Right.” Viviane looked at her stepdaughter, then at Elaine, and then hugged them both.

“I am so happy to see you girls again,” she said quietly. “Now let’s get out of here.” She sniffed. “The air smells off.” They walked out in silence for a long time.

Finally, Elaine spoke. “So--how’s--Mansemat…?”

“He and Jerzy were fighting a horde of vampires when I last saw them,” said Viviane. Elaine at looked at her mother for a moment. “What?” asked Viviane.

“Never mind,” said Elaine quietly. She looked away. “I hope he’s okay,” she said after a moment.

“He’ll be fine,” said Viviane forcefully. “He’s--faced worse odds, and come out on top.” And with that, they were outside. The ground was littered with vampire corpses. Mansemat was resting beneath a dead tree, Murgleys placed on his lap. What looked to be a large dog lay next to him, panting fitfully. “See?” said Viviane. “Fine.”

Elaine merely nodded, as Malina clapped enthusiastically. “Yay! Daddy’s okay!” She shut her eyes, and vanished in a pop, reappearing at Mansemat’s side.

Viviane looked at her daughter. “So--should we go join her, or do you want to talk about…?”

“No,” said Elaine. “I want to get this--place out of my head. As fast as possible.” Viviane nodded and the pair made their way over to Mansemat, carefully stepping over the vampire corpses. Mansemat was idly stroking Malina’s hair, and glanced up as they approached.

“There you are,” he said quietly.

“Yep,” agreed Viviane. “Here I am.” She glanced around. “Where’s Jerzy…?” Mansemat gestured to the beast by his side--a wolf, on closer examination. “Oh.” She glanced over the battlefield. “So--how tough was it?”

“Worse than the Battle of Deire, but not as bad as Bezerte,” he said with a shrug.

“Did you get Babbler?” asked Elaine.

“Is he the one who--said nonsense?” asked Mansemat, arching an eyebrow. Elaine nodded. He shrugged. “Not sure. I hope so. He seemed especially unpleasant, even by vampire standards.”

“Yeah, that’s Babbler to a ‘t’,” said Elaine.

Mansemat looked at his stepdaughter intently. “Are--you all right?”

“I’m--fine,” said Elaine.

“Sis was so brave,” said Malina. “She stood up to Mommy Mom, when she was extra-horrible to me, and that made me stand up to her when she was extra-horrible to Elaine!”

Elaine visibly winced. “I--you didn’t need my help, Malina. You’re plenty brave all by yourself.”

Viviane looked upwards. “Hey--is that--Nisrioch?” She gestured towards a swaying white shape that gradually revealed itself to be the gyrocarriage-athon. Nisrioch glanced down at the crowd.

“Salutations!” he bellowed. “Am I too late to be of assistance in this epic struggle?”

“I’m afraid so,” shouted back Viviane.

Nisrioch snapped his fingers, and glanced back at Jean. “I told you to peddle faster.”

“Hate you, hate you, hate you,” muttered Jean.

Mansemat stood up. “Let’s go home, everyone.”

Jerzy stood up. “Sounds like a plan.”

Elaine blinked. “How--? You were a--and now…”

“Kizak secret,” said the Agri Khan, scratching himself idly.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Elaine. “I just thought there’d be more--production to--the whole ‘shape-changing’ thing.”

“The gryphons are over there,” said Mansemat as he stood up. The group headed towards them, Malina holding her stepmother’s hand. Mansemat stepped beside Elaine. “You know--if you ever want to talk about this…”

Elaine shook her head. “Why do people keep asking me that?”

“Because we care,” he answered simply. He looked at her for a moment. “You know--she’s right, Elaine,” he said, gesturing at Malina. “You are very brave.”

Elaine looked away. “No I’m not.”

Mansemat smiled at her. “Yes, you are.”

And somehow, hearing that from him meant something to her.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 33

Viviane stared at her pestle, laying on the floor. Then she stared at Falerina, readying her wand.

And then she began to laugh.

Falerina looked at her in disbelief. “W-What’s so funny?” she asked. “I’ve--I’ve just disarmed you. Y-you’re helpless.”

Viviane shook her head. “I’m sorry. It’s just--you think I’m like you.” She raised a hand. “That I need--toys to use my power.” Flames from the torches nearby gathered in her hand. “You named me, little hexmonger. Do you not know me?” She lashed out with the flames. Falerina’s protections managed to block it, but several more necklaces struck the ground. “I am the Badb. The Queen of Old Magic. The pestle is a focus--nothing more. The source of my magic is me.”

Falerina gulped as the Badb raised her hand, and unleashed a mighty blast of wind. “I am the fury of the storm, the roar of thunder, the strike of lightning!” Viviane shouted, as Falerina was knocked off her feet, her wand landing on the ground nearby and shattering. “I am the crackle of a wild flame! The rumbling of the earth!” She struck her fist on the ground, which began to tremble and shake, tossing Falerina to and fro. “I am the pounding of the waves, grinding the shore to dust!” She gestured at Falerina, and the Dev was thrown against the wall, the tiny handful of protections she had left flying into tatters. “I am the Badb, great and terrible in my anger, a force of destruction and devastation. And I am pissed with you.”

Viviane strode forward like an executioner, standing majestically over her fallen foe. She gestured and her pestle flew to her hand. She gathered another blade of wind, and leveled it at Falerina. “Well? Don’t you have any more clever remarks?”

Falerina looked up at Viviane, her lip trembling. “I--I’m s-sorry!” she sobbed. “I-uh-I didn’t mean it! P-please duh-don’t--hurt me anymore!” She sniffled, and Viviane saw that the Dev’s face was covered in streams of tears, snot and blood. Her nails were torn, and one of her wings looked like it was broken. She reached a bleeding hand out to Viviane pleadingly. “I-I’ll be g-good. I p-promise!” Viviane stared at her for a moment, then looked away, her expression showing a slight trace of nausea. The windy blade dispersed.

Falerina blinked in surprise, and then smiled. She threw herself on the ground before Viviane and began kissing the earth at her feet. “Oh! Oh! T-thank you! Thank you! Thank you so very--”

“Shut up,” said Viviane quietly. Falerina looked up again, staring at Viviane in stunned surprise. “Here is how it stands, Falerina. I’ll leave this place, and let you keep your--miserable excuse for a life.” Viviane raised her pestle menacingly. “But don’t imagine for a second that I have a scrap of forgiveness for what you did and what you tried to do. Not a scrap.” She clenched her teeth. “I hope I never see you again, and if you’re smart, you’ll try to make that hope a reality.” A grim smile touched Viviane’s face. “But somehow--I don’t think you’re smart, Falerina. Somehow, I think you’ll try the same stupid things all over again. Or more exactly the same sort of stupid thing, with a new set of bells and whistles on it to make you think that this time it’ll work.”

Falerina began to shake her head eagerly, clutching her hands together pleadingly. “Oh, no--I’ve--I’ve learned my--”

“I said ‘shut up’!” spat out Viviane forcefully. “And let me finish.” She shut her eyes. “When you do, try to remember this. If you ever threaten my daughters again--yes, my daughters--I will end you, Falerina. Without a second thought.” She leaned forward. “Have I made myself clear?” Falerina nodded. “Good.”

Viviane walked away through the rubble, heading towards stairs out of the chamber. “Thank you!” shouted Falerina. “Thank you for not killing me!”

Viviane continued on her way out of the room, not even looking back.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 32

Viviane watched as Falerina’s hex smashed into hers, the celestial and terrestrial forces of the two spells canceling each other out.

“My, my,” said Falerina, glancing at the ruined metal stick that had been her wand. “What a mess.” The Dev chuckled to herself, rubbing a ring with her thumb. A glowing sphere of crackling red energy appeared in her hand. “I believe this will require… a great deal of effort to clean it up.” She let the sphere fly, only for the stone under Viviane’s feet to open up, allowing the Badb to duck under the blast and vanish from view.

Falerina hissed as the sphere struck the wall, melting much of the stone. “Cheater-pants!” howled the Dev. She began to move forward, drawing out another wand. “You use your little swamp witch tricks all you want, du Lac. I’ll beat you! I’m a true Heir of Ahrimanes, and I call upon the powers of Darkness, and I’m really, really dangerous!”

Viviane emerged from the ground behind her. “Shut up,” she said, as she sent a burst of flame at Falerina. Falerina simply stood there pleasantly, allowing the fiery blast to disperse on the mystic shield that formed around her.

“Is that the best you can do?” asked Falerina, as she let a charred medallion fall to the ground. She flicked her wand. A lash made of some strange, unwholesome-looking yellow substance formed from its end. “Are you just going to keep throwing things at me until I run out of wards?” She giggled. “That’ll take a long time, Miss Sillypants.” She flicked the wand again, and the lash began to arc towards Viviane. “I have a lot.”

Viviane raised her pestle, and formed a blade of wind. “I don’t think you have enough for me. I’m the Badb, remember?” She struck at the lash. The two spells tore into each other, sparks of energy flying off from them. Eventually, the lash exploded. Viviane smiled as Falerina threw down another ruined wand. “And you’ve made me pretty damn mad.”

Falerina clicked her tongue. “There’s the naughtymouth again. Really, I should be mad at you. You stole my daughter from me, with your lies, and your bribes, and your cheap tricks.” She produced another wand, and held it out before her, swaying like a drunkard.

Viviane frowned grimly, her eyes narrowing. “Do you really want to go there, you demented sack of…” She took a deep breath, and raised her pestle. “I know what this--circle is. I’m not in Morgaine’s or Nisrioch’s league when it comes to mystical theory but I know a Left-Handed summoning circle when I see one, and I know what you have to do to fire them up.”

Falerina licked her lips. “Mmmm. Your daughter would have made such a nice sacrifice. I’d kill her, and then what I called up would kill you. And Mansemat. And everyone else I don’t like.”

“Except these things have to be done just right,” said Viviane. “There are spells and preparations that have to be done weeks--even months--in advance. And that means you were working on this before you came to Castle Terribel.”

“I’m a very thorough girl,” chanted Falerina cheerfully, circling around her opponent. “It’s a virtue.”

“So how is it you were always going to kill Elaine, when it was Malina’s room you went for?” asked Viviane. “You didn’t know Elaine was going to be there. Just Malina.” And suddenly, Falerina stopped smiling, and stopped acting like a demented parody of a little girl. She stiffened, and regarded Viviane with cold, dead eyes. “She was your original choice for all this, wasn’t she?” asked Viviane quietly.

“Blood of one’s child given willingly holds great power,” said Falerina in a dull, flat voice. “But blood of the child of an enemy is almost as good--better in some ways, for spells like this.”

Viviane took a deep breath. “You… evil bitch… how dare you…”

Falerina raised her wand. “Don’t tell me how to treat my daughter. She’s mine. And that means I can do what I want with her.”

Viviane raised her pestle once more, forming a new blade of wind. “You deserve what’s coming to you. I just want you to know that.” And then she dived forward, striking at the Dev. Falerina seemed unnerved--until she vanished and reappeared at Viviane’s side.

“Surprise,” whispered Falerina, as she let lose a shimmering blast from her wand, which struck Viviane’s pestle, tearing it from her hands. It landed with a thump a sizable distance away. Falerina watched it hit the ground, red eyes glimmering with delight, as she dropped the ruined wand in her hands and produced a new one. “Now--what was that about--‘what’s coming to me’?” she said, pointing the wand at Viviane.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 31

“Where are you hiding, my sweet?” said Falerina, waving her wand gently in the air. Elaine gulped as it came to rest right at her face--and then moved on. “Your petty spell of concealment won’t last forever,” continued the Dev. “My counterspells will at last tear it to ribbons, and then--then you will be in such a predicament. Why I might--” Falerina smiled, sucking the crook of her thumb. “Well--it’s best not to think about that. And if you do as I ask--you won’t have to…”

Elaine looked at her sister. Malina had her eyes shut intently. And somehow--that was letting her keep Falerina from seeing them. If they kept very quiet, and very still.

For the time being.

“You know, Malina,” declared Falerina, “you’re being very selfish. I need to kill Elaine to do all sorts of things, and you’re stopping me. Now is that how a considerate young lady acts? Is it?” Falerina placed her hands on her hips, then shook her head. “Are you doing this for your father? Is that why? Listen--he’ll only disappoint you in the end. That’s what he did to me. I tried and TRIED to make him open up to me, but he never did. I just wanted to put a little--magic in his dull as dishwater life, but he wouldn’t let me, so things got--nasty.” Falerina frowned, as if smelling a bad odor. “I hate it when that happens. It means I have to settle things. Settle them good and proper.” She began to hum to herself, her humming quickly going off-key.

Elaine took a deep breath. Falerina’s running commentary seemed to half be genuine bitterness, and half comments intended to get some sort of emotional reaction from them. It was strange, when you thought about it--how much malice and planning there was in this woman. And all to accomplish--well, nonsense, really. A particularly vicious brand of nonsense--but ultimately, just nonsense.

Falerina off-key humming suddenly turned into off-key singing. “Oh, I’m looking for a little girl who’s being bad,” she crooned. “When I find her, she’s going to be sad! I’ll beat her through and through, ‘til she’s all black and blue, because that’s what you get when you’re bad!”

Suddenly--something ran across Elaine’s hand and she gasped, despite herself. Falerina whirled around, and chuckled. “There you are!” she said brightly. She shook her head. “You sillies. Thinking you could hide from me for that long…” She leveled the wand at them, and began to whistle. “When I can summon things which creep and crawl to do my bidding…” Elaine glanced at Malina apologetically. Well--she’d done it. Gotten them both killed, barring a miracle.

At that moment, the ceiling cracked open, and Viviane du Lac floated gracefully down, placing herself between the girls and Falerina. She leveled her pestle at the Dev, who hissed in displeasure. “Don’t even try it,” Viviane said quietly. The witch and the sorceress stared at each other for a moment in silence. “Malina,” began Viviane eventually, “get your sister out of here. I’ll--handle the rest.”

“Yes,” said Malina, tugging Elaine away. Elaine watched her mother keep herself between them and Falerina as they headed for a small doorway. As they left, there was a great blast. Malina looked at her sister and grinned. “Mommy Viv is so awesome!”

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A Family Concern--Part 30

Jerzy let loose with another arrow, and watched as his shot struck the vampire straight through its spindly, boneless chest. He smiled to himself, then reached for another arrow. That smile quickly turned into a frown. “My quiver’s running low,” he noted. “And the vampires--aren’t.”

Mansemat nodded, and then stabbed another vampire that ventured close through the heart. “This isn’t how they usually act. Vampires are solitary, skulking predators by nature. They prefer their prey to be weak and alone…” He shook his head. “I don’t know what Falerina has done to the beasts to make them swarm like this. And something tells me, I don’t want to.”

Viviane let loose a blast of wind that tore several vampires apart. “I don’t think the idea of all this is to kill us,” she said grimly. “It’s a delaying tactic.” She hissed. “I can feel Elaine’s… panic. She needs help, and these things are keeping me from her.”

Mansemat glanced at the entryway to the keep, then at the vampires, and finally, at his wife. “If you were in there,” he noted, “you could find her, yes?”

Viviane nodded. “Like I can find the back of the wind, and the five directions,” she stated positively.

“Well, that sounds like a yes,” noted Mansemat. “And can you move--very fast?”

“To what extent?” asked Viviane, raising an eyebrow.

“I’m thinking--blindingly fast,” said Mansemat, looking at the entry to the keep once again.

Viviane nodded. “I can do that.”

“Good,” said Mansemat quietly. “When they go for me--head into the keep.” He took a deep breath. “The Dragon is at my back, protecting me with His mighty wings.” And then he sprinted away from Jerzy and Viviane.

“Wha--?” began Viviane. “Manny… wha…?” But then he stopped a sizable distance from them, straightened, and she realized what he was trying to do.

He sheathed Murgleys, and cupped a hand to his mouth. “Oi! Crawlers from the Worlds That Were! You want to feast on the Black Dragon? Then come and get me!”

The creatures turned, regarding with their strange, dead eyes. “Secret kitchen mind snow!” said one in a strange approximation of a human voice, and then they were charging at him. Viviane stared for a moment, but Jerzy tapped her on the arm. “You heard what he said! Go!” He forced a smile on. “He’ll be fine. We both will!”

Viviane took a deep breath, and then took off like a rocket towards the gate. Jerzy watched her slip into the keep, then turned back and looked at Mansemat. The Dark Lord had drawn Murgleys, and was already fending off the vampires, his blade slashing through the gibbering hordes.

Jerzy nodded to himself, and put down his bow. And then, he chose to walk as a wolf.