Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Matter of the Matchsticks--Part 2

Mansemat Cthonique was starting at the two men before him, and trying to make sense of the madness.

“Now then,” he said mildly, “Mr... Goldleaf. Mr. Holdfast. Explain this to me again. You wish me to chastise Mayor Latheawl, because…”

Brontin Goldleaf scowled. “Custom, Your Magnificence! He’s goin’ against the norms!”

Mansemat stared at the old Erl for a moment. Then he looked at the fires blazing in the distance. Nisrioch, Morgaine and Viviane stood there, moving in unison as they wove spells to put the fires out, as a volunteer brigade were doing what they could with buckets. After a while, Mansemat turned back to his interlocutors.

“Could you explain this to me again?” he asked politely. “I fear I am somewhat… lost.”

Tancred Holdfast shifted nervously. “Well, Dark Lord, this is how it stands,” he began. “See, here in the Folly, we have fire brigades. Civically minded collections of men dedicated to the safety of our city, who fight fires when they happen. Naturally, this is expensive work, an’ so we go ‘round collecting donations from the local businesses an’ the like that we protect.” He smiled at Mansemat. “All very reasonable, as I’m sure you’ll agree.”

Mansemat frowned slightly. “There’s a certain… logic to it.”

“Right. Well--each brigade has its own territory. Now, we, the Honorable Sons of Marduk, have responsibility for everything from Melians Street to Amber Street, while the Sworn Warriors of Choas--that‘s his lot--” Here Tancred gestured at Goldleaf--“Got everything from Amber to Fivegroat Row. And therein lies the problem.”

Mansemat stared at the pair. “Gentlemen--all of Cheapside is ablaze. From Melians to Fivegroat and beyond.”

Brontin and Tancred looked at each other. Naturally, like all citizens of the Folly, they loved and revered their Dark Lord, and assumed that he understood how things stood. And yet, His Magnificence was… frowning. As if he didn’t understand. And that was oddly frightening.

Brontin stepped forward first, and gestured angrily at Tancred. “It’s him and his bunch’s fault, Dark Lord! They kept trying to put out fires in our territory!”

“It started on Amber Street!” shouted Tancred. “That makes it our job! It’s right in the charter!”

“Bugger your charter!” declared Brontin, rolling up his sleeves.

Tancred raised his fists. “Bugger you!”

“Gentlemen,” said Mansemat softly. “There is… no need to go on in this vein. I think I… understand how it stands now.” He took a deep breath. “So, you were… disputing this matter, and Mayor Latheawl…”

Tancred shook his head. “You wouldn’t believe it, Your Magnificence! First, he comes with a bunch a Hand volunteers. Then he orders us--ORDERS US--to stop figh--disputin’, and put out the fire.” The old Erl snarled. “I tell you, Dark Lord, these Hands don’t understand how the Folly runs!”

Mansemat looked away. “They aren’t alone in that.” He started to walk away.

“So, you’ll take care of matters?” asked Brontin as he left.

“Consider it… under advisement,” muttered Mansemat going to join his family.
By the time he reached them, they’d already quelled much of the fire, and were working to get what remained under control. “Everything all right?” Mansemat asked.

Viviane nodded, drawing her hands back. “Help would always be appreciated though,” she said.

“Mmm.” Mansemat drew Murgleys, then glanced at Nisrioch. “Oh, Nissy. I’m thinking of giving Mayor Latheawl a medal of some sort. Can you think of any that would be appropriate?”

Nisrioch thought it over. “Well, it would depend on what you wanted to commend him on. Civic service, loyal duty…”

“I’m starting to think--survival in war,” drawled Mansemat, as he raised the Sword of Night and then brought it down with a swift chop.

“Mother Night’s Holy Lotus then,” said Nisrioch.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Matter of the Matchsticks--Part 1

Menadarb Brighthand woke suddenly from his sleep. He blinked several times. For some reason, his waking felt… off. He glanced around the room. It seemed fine, but still--something was just…jarring him. He looked to his side. Miss Rhea was still there, looking a bit disheveled, but still quite attractive in the light.

The light. That was it. There was something wrong with the light. Menadarb bit his lip and tried to figure out what. Then it hit him. It was… flickering. Sunlight didn’t do that. He should know. He awoke to sunlight streaming through his window every morning…

Morning. Yes, what time was it? Meadarb turned to look at the clock. The hands were pointing to four hours and twenty-five minutes. Nighttime. Or early morning, he supposed. So… how was it there was enough light coming through his window to wake him up? Even if it was a flickering, somewhat off kind of light…

Menadarb sat up suddenly, and rushed to the window. It was as he suspected. A good portion of Marsilion’s Folly was on fire. Menadarb stood there, watching it in disbelief.

“Darby?” yawned Rhea, sitting up. “What…?” She gasped, and then rushed to Menadarb’s side. “It… it’s burning!”

“Yes, it is,” said Menadarb dully. “Seems to be… located in Cheapside. For the most part.” Menadarb turned and headed to his closet. As usual, his outfit for the day hung on the door.

“Cheapside,” said Rhea, trying to jog her memory. “Isn’t that where your family has those matchstick factories?”

“Yes,” answered Mendarb, putting on his pants. “That’s where everybody has their matchstick factories.”

Rhea turned to look at Menadarb. “What… Why are you getting dressed?”

“Thought I’d go down to… the fire,” said Menadarb.

“And do what?” asked Rhea, crossing her arms.

Menadarb was silent for a moment, then shrugged. “Something,” he said in a quiet voice.

“That doesn’t sound particularly well-considered,” said Rhea. “Fire is hot. It burns people.” She coughed politely. “People like yourself.”

“Yes. I know, but…” Menadarb bit his lip nervously. “I just feel like I have to do something.”

Rhea nodded. “Right.” She began to slip into her gown. “I’m coming with you then.” Menadarb looked at her for a second, but the young hostess silenced him with a frown. “I know this city a lot better than you do, Darby. For example--how would you get to Cheapside from here?”

Menadarb tried to answer that, then realized he couldn’t. He had no idea how to. Cheapside was something of an abstraction to him--it existed, his father’s factories were there, and it was one of the less opulent areas of the Folly--not as bad as the Mumbltey Pegs, but a bit worse than Trolltown. He gave a quick nod of ascent and then headed to the door. And then he stopped.

“What’s wrong?” said Rhea, heading to join him at the door.

“Forgot my cap,” said Menadarb, picking up the headgear. Rhea gave him a reproachful look. “What?” asked Menadarb, eyes widening in credulity. “You can’t expect me to go capless! People might think I’m heading over to the Hats!” Rhea crossed his arms. “You think I’m joking but I’m not! Look at Kaylet Goodsoil. First, he stopped wearing his cap. The next thing you know, he was wearing a hat, denouncing liquor, and throwing rocks at Fellowship Halls!” Menadarb placed his cap over head. “A man has to show his loyalties, now more than ever.”

Rhea gave a deep sigh, and looked away. “What was that about?” asked Menadarb as he joined her side.

“Sometimes I wonder if this job pays enough,” she replied.

Menadarb fidgeted bashfully. “Would… an emerald necklace, perhaps… make up for it?” he asked.

To his surprise, Rhea winced, then walked out of the bedchamber with a motion for him to follow. Menadarb did so, while trying to figure out exactly what he’d done wrong.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 27

Palamedes walked into the tiny little temple holding the urn.

It was amazing actually, how such a large man could become… such a small thing. All that remained of Hagen Greatthews could be carried in Palamedes’ hands.

He kept walking through the temple. Small groups of Trolls were kneeling in prayer, whispering things in their strange tongue. Well, strange to Palamedes. He had no doubt it made sense to them. Eurydice had once told him that originally all Nightfolk had spoken a language like the Trolls. He’d tried to imagine what that was like, formulating thoughts in such a different tongue but he just couldn’t.

Palamedes took a deep breath. Everyone else was doing their part in the aftermath of Tolometto. The Kizaks had head home with Agrican and a load of Ghoulish prisoners, Morgaine had been carrying a mysterious package that she’d given to Quiet to drop off… somewhere, Justinian was looking after Their Graces--he’d seen him serving Malina as a horse when he left--so that just left Palamedes, here to deliver the body of his friend to his people.

He blinked, as an old Ogre with a shaved head quietly stepped in front of him, and smiled gently. It occurred to Palamedes that he must be the… Gothi, that was what Hagen always called it. He raised the urn. “Ahh. Yes. I… This is about… Hagen. Hagen Greatthews. The Cthonique Guard.” Palamedes coughed. “He… he told me he was going to sacrifice a goat, and… go to Kitvekh, and… he died, and… well, I’ve brought you these ashes so… so he can at least go to Kitvekh…”

The old Ogre continued to smile at him. Palamedes wondered if he even spoke the Common Tongue. Few of the other Ogres in the Watch seemed to--or maybe they did, but didn’t care to. Had anything he’d said made any sense to the man? And then the Ogre took the urn, and nodded. “To Kitvekh,” he said, his voice thickly accented.

Palamedes nodded in agreement. And then, as the Gothi moved off with the urn, singing a strange sad song in Trollish, the Erl knelt and wept.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 26

“Have to admit,” said Gregory, as he walked down the steps, “it’s always interesting, meeting someone else from Across the River living here.” He laughed as he looked at the Sacristan. “I tell you, sometimes I swear this place collects all the stray odd bits of the Lightlands, and gives them a home.”

Squire Sigma didn’t seem to appreciate this comparison. “I have to admit nothing,” he noted calmly. “Now, please let us be off, sir.”

Gregory sighed. “Have you no kind words for a fellow Milesian?”

Justinian winced at that. “Human. We are humans, sir.”

“True,” said Gregory. “But so are the Nightfolk. People are people, I’ve found. No matter what side of the River they’re on. Or the number of fingers they have.”

The Sacristan didn’t answer that--merely pursed his lips, and walked on to the little cluster of people at the village green. “Did you see me, Dinadin?” said an older Erl to another. “I’ve still got it.”

“Never said you didn’t, Mador,” muttered Dinadin with an indulgent grin. “Never said you didn’t.”

Gregory and Justinian moved on by, passing the old Kizak, the Goblin Serjeant, and the Shire Reeve, all placidly smoking pipes, to reach Morgaine, Menelaus and Braddock. Eirene was standing next to the new Captain, resolving a question that had been on Gregory’s mind--the witch was coming with them.

“…keep your weapons. If you get out of here as quickly as possible,” said Morgaine. “House Cthonique isn’t very fond of armies on our lands we don’t control. And as I think we’ve just demonstrated--we are very good at acting on this lack of fondness.”

Braddock nodded. “Oh, we definitely understand that now.” He coughed. “Now--if I could… just have one… request…” The Dark Lord raised one thin, dark eyebrow. “The Skull, Your Excellency. I’d… like to see it.”

Morgaine narrowed her eyes. “If you think I’ll let my guard down now…”

Braddock shook his head. “I… it’s not anything like that. I’ve buried quite a few friends here. I’d like to see… what it was all about.”

Morgaine glanced at Menelaus, who gave a quiet nod. “Fine. Come with us.” As Fairwind and the Dark Lord turned, Braddock gestured for Gregory to follow him. Gregory fell into step behind the group, with Justinian, and two Cthonique Guards--the Ghoul and the tall Marsh Erl--following him.

Menelaus lead them back to his house, and then down to the wine cellar. Gregory blinked in surprise. “What… it was here…?”

Menelaus shifted a wine barrel, and pulled some of its staves aside. “I find being too clever in where you hide things makes them easier to find. So, I made a little hiding place in a spot that people would look in first, then ignore because they’d already looked there.” He pulled out the Skull. “Here it is.”

Braddock shook his head. “So, that’s it? A… skull? No jewels. No gold. Just old bone…”

Suddenly the Ghoul spoke. “That is the skull of Pallas.” Gregory realized that this Ghoul was in fact a woman. “He who saw that Light and Dark are wed, and brought the true faith to my people.” She performed the Obeisant Gesticulation. “It is more valuable than any precious stones, or rare metals.” With that, she knelt before it.

Morgaine nodded. “Il’Mok puts it best. Vathek was being all--metaphorical on you. It’s something of habit with folks in Irem. If he’d gotten his hands on this--well, there are plenty of Ghouls who’d have risen for Vathek in that situation who are presently lying low, and declaring what loyal subjects they are.”

Braddock laughed. “Still--all that for bones.” He turned around. “Well--thank you for that. I don’t know if it made anything better… but…” He laughed once more, than sighed. “Well, if you ever need to hire a few blades…”

“House Cthonique, as a rule, does not hire mercenary bands,” replied Morgaine. “Still--I’ll keep you on the short list…”

Braddock, Eirene and Gregory filed out of the wine cellar, shaking their heads. “What do you think they’ll do with it?” asked the witch.

“Probably hide it somewhere else,” said Braddock quietly. “The way I hear it, matters in Irem are still pretty tangled.”

“Mr. Gregory!” came a child’s voice. Gregory turned and saw Kassandra standing there, smiling at him. She stepped forward eagerly. “I want to say goodbye.”

Braddock chuckled to himself. “I’ll leave you to your lady friend, Lieutenant,” he said, before he and Eirene walked off.

“Grandpa says you were very brave,” said Kassandra, looking up Gregory with adoring eyes.

Gregory looked away. “He’s flattering me. I did what had to be done. That’s all.”

The young Erl nodded, clearly not believing what Gregory said. “Are you married?” she asked.

Gregory shook his head. “No. No. But I do have a fiancĂ©e. Gwen Laodegan.”

Kassandra’s eyes went wide. “Oh.” She looked away. “She’s very lucky.”

Gregory swallowed and then forced himself to nod, even as his hand went to the miniature that was no longer there. “Some might say that.” He wondered to himself what Gwen was doing now, after so many years. It had been madness, he knew, for the two of them to plight their troth. The sons of public house owners don’t marry the daughters of earls. And they most certainly don’t get away with killing the son of said earl, even if said son ambushes them in the road with half a dozen friends to ‘teach the uppity commoner a lesson’.

Gregory’s eyes were watering, he realized. He was starting to think he’d never be free of that moment, the moment he looked down and saw Lafallen’s body lying on the ground, the sword that did it still in Gregory’s hand and still dripping blood.

“Said your goodbyes, Lieutenant,” asked Mosca when Gregory joined the remaining Shrikes at the village limits.

“More or less, Master of Horse,” answered Gregory as he got on his steed.

Braddock turned and looked at his men. “I’m saying this now, because I’m probably not going to get a chance to say it later. I know this wasn’t one of our more profitable endeavors--in fact, it was pretty much a disaster. But we’ll survive. Because that’s what the Shrikes do. We go through all the blood and killing, and we come out on the other side. Usually, we’re battered. But we’re still here.” The men nodded, and Braddock nodded back. “Well, let’s go then.” And with that, the Scarlet Shrikes rode off.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 25

Morgaine snapped her fingers under Cyrus de Sang’s face. “Wake up, sir.”

Cyrus’ eyes snapped open. He glanced around fervently. He was sitting in a dark cell, with Morgaine Cthonique standing before him. For a moment, his hand went to his sword, but then he saw he was unarmed.

Morgaine sighed. “Wouldn’t have worked anyway. Don’t you know the stories? I’m Morgaine Sans Coeur, the Monker, the One Who Is Dead And Cannot Die.”

Cyrus stared at her. “So why take my weapons?”

“Getting stabbed isn’t fun,” she replied. “And I’ve already taken as much damage as I care to for a while.” She idly raised a hand. “So, don’t consider overpowering me. I’m much, much stronger than I look. Even by Erl standards.” She yawned slightly. “Tell me, de Sang--how knowledgeable are you about our religion, here in the Lands of Night?” Her amber eyes looked at him intently.

Cyrus found he had to look away. “I know as much as the next Milesian,” he said quietly.

“Well, that’s rather unhelpful,” declared Morgaine. “After all, the ‘next Milesian’ covers so many possibilities. Do you know the story of the Place of Ultimate Darkness?” Cyrus shook his head. “Oh, excellent! That let’s me do something I love--talk.” She smiled. “In our tales, when you die, you go to Mother Night--or the Black Bitch, as I believe you call Her. She meets you in a place--the Place of Ultimate Darkness, where it is only you and Her. And then you have to explain yourself.” Morgaine waved her hand. “Consider this my low-rent equivalent to that.” She scratched her chin. “Well, actually, I suppose old Astyanax paid a pretty penny for this place, but… it’s a long way from the Celestial Realms.”

Cyrus stared at the Dark Lord with increasing trepidation. “What… do you mean?”

Morgaine looked around the cell. “My brothers are merciful men, you know. And I respect that. No--I admire that. It takes great strength to know when to forgive. And truly, the world is often hard, often muddled. Men do wickedness, out of folly, out of love, out of necessity. But ultimately, I--I am not merciful. I am just. And while I try to follow the example of my brothers, some times, I find myself in the presence of such unrelieved wickedness that I must create a little justice.” Her face grew grave. “This is such a time.”

“So what are you going to do?” spat out Cyrus. “What’s your justice, witch?”

“I’m a sorceress,” noted Morgaine. “Not a witch. And to answer your question--you’re going to face a little test. If you pass--then you leave here, and no one--not even I--will touch you. Otherwise… well, I think you’ll figure it out.” She chanted quickly, then smiled. “Come on in, folks.” Cyrus heard the shuffling from the side of the room. He reflexively turned his head to see what was making it, and then wished he hadn’t.

They shambled into view--a small crowd, of mostly women and children. All showed their death wounds, many of which were horrific and savage--heads bashed in, stomachs ripped open, eyes gashed out. Cyrus gulped frantically. “I… it--how…?” He turned to Morgaine, in fear. “Stop it! Stop it!”

Morgaine shook her head. “Nope. That’s not how it works, de Sang. If you want to get out of here, you have to convince these people to let you out.” She shrugged. “Do that, and you’re free to go.”

Cyrus whimpered, then bit his lip frantically. “I… it was just… orders… The Flamens… I… I didn’t have a choice.” He stared at Morgaine pleadingly. “Please!”

“Not me, de Sang,” said Morgaine as she walked from the cell. “Them.” And then she shut the door behind her.

Nerghal was waiting for her on the outside. “Don’t give me that look,” she said icily.

The ghost sighed. “This isn’t… disapproval, exactly, grandniece. It’s just… this brings back old memories.” He shook her head. “We’re definitely family, my dear.”

“Yeah, love you too,” she said. Morgaine looked away. The pair stood there for a long while in silence. “Thanks for the help. You really… made things easier.”

“Honestly, it’s nice just to be useful,” replied Nerghal dismissively.

“Yeah. Yeah.” Morgaine nodded to herself. “Here’s the deal. You can stay out of the trap for your term of service--provided you don’t try any funny stuff. Do that, and back in you go. How’s that sound?”

“More than fair.” Nerghal frowned. “I think… he’s starting to scream.”

“Ahh. I was expecting that.” Morgaine raised an imperious hand. “Let’s just--enjoy the moment, shall we?” And Morgaine shut her eyes and listened to the sound of the scales of justice being ever so slightly corrected.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 24

Palamedes and Justinian walked back towards the village green in silence for awhile. Finally, Palamedes broke it.

“We’re cremating his body, you know,” he stated.

Justinian blinked. “Wha…?”

“Hagen. We’re cremating him,” said Palamedes. “Figure it‘ll make it easier to bring the body back to his people.”

Justinian nodded. “Who are his people?”

Palamedes looked fixedly at the ground. “I’ll just--go down to the temple in Trolltown. I’m sure someone there…” He shrugged, and was silent. Justinian nodded in agreement.

Morgaine was sitting at the green, chatting with an older Erl with muttonchops. The arrows she’d taken in her charge were still buried in her form. “…glad you didn’t kill him, Menelaus,” she noted. “I’ll handle the rest.”

Menelaus smiled. “As you, I am always at Your Excellency’s service.”

Morgaine sighed. “Yeah. And I’m sorry about…”

Menelaus raised his hand. “I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to… my duty, Your Excellency. As I stated--I’m always at your service.”

Morgaine nodded, and looked away. “Heard anything about old Astyanax…?”

“He made it clear when we last met that things were over between us,” replied Menelaus. “And Hylas and the others haven’t seen hide nor hair of him. Nor do they wish to.”

“Yeah, well, I know what it’s like to have an evil bastard for a father,” said Morgaine. Menelaus chuckled, and walked away. Morgaine turned to Justinian. “So--Sigma--walk with me.”

Justinian turned to Palamedes, only for the Erl to cough and walk away. “Of course, Your Excellency,” said Justinian with a bow. Morgaine stood up, and started on her way.

“So--you seem to be getting along better with the others,” she noted.

“I am… learning to deal with life here,” replied Justinian.

Morgaine nodded. “Well, good. We’re--fair employers, Sigma. A man--or woman--who works for us, gets what he’s owed. We reward leal service, and we promote those who show talent.” She looked at him. “Are we out of earshot yet?”

Justinian glanced around. They had in fact strolled well out of Tolometto’s rather limited boundries. “I believe so, Your…”

Morgaine immediately fell to the ground, screaming and writhing. “Oh, Darksome Lady! DARKSOME LADY! IT HURTS! IT HURTS!”

Justinian stared at her. “Your… Excellency…?”

“I… still feel… pain, Sigma,” she hissed. “Taking a shitload of arrows is… not… nice… And I don’t get the nice little option of dying to stop the hurting… I can hold it off… for a while, but in the end--I still feel it.” She took a deep breath. “So… could you help me… pull them out…?”

Justinian nodded, and began to yank the arrows out, noting the strange blackish ichor they were coated with. “Never let it be said that you lack for courage, Your Excellency…”

“I d-don’t…” said Morgaine, with a whimper.

“Still--I suppose you must be… somewhat used to it by now,” said Justinian.

“Heh,” snorted Morgaine. “You just tell yourself that, kid.”

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 23

“Hurry, my faithful!” shouted Vathek as he ran. “This is but a temporary delay! Our inevitable trium…” He stopped, as he saw the people blocking his way. Quiet, Sacripant, Justinian and Palamedes stood there.

“Vathek yn Baurbur,” said Quiet with a shake of the head. “This is how you deal with failure?” She took off her veil and snorted. “I shouldn’t be surprised. This is the man who snuck back into Irem when his revolt ended in crashing failure after all.” She laughed. “Oh, my. I said ‘man’. My mistake. I meant ‘cur’.

Vathek stared at Quiet. “I consider my mission greater than my honor. If I must sacrifice the second to succeed in the first--then so be it.”

Quiet nodded, then spat. “You have no honor to sacrifice, Vathek. Your honor is a streak of piss.” She removed her headdress. “Well? Have you anything to say to that? To all the insults I have heaped upon your pathetic carcass?”

Vathek stared at her for a moment. Then his hand went to his turban. “Nouronihar ys Harut, I challenge thee to a duel.” As he removed the turban, Sacripant was somewhat startled to see that like Quiet, his hair--a bright red, instead of a dark sea-green--was gathered into a lengthy braid. He glanced at his followers. “Form the Ring!”

The Ghouls were already doing that, spreading out into a sizable circle. Quiet gestured for her friends to join them. Once Sacripant and the others had gotten in place, she tossed her swords into the center of the circle. Quiet and Vathek then paced towards each other, until they stood side by side. A female Ghoul began to wordlessly sing. As if a signal had been given, Quiet and Vathek began to run towards the swords. The pair kicked and made grabs for the other’s braid as they ran--finally, Quiet managed to grab Vathek’s and tossed him back several feet. He managed to land on his feet and began running even faster, but it was too late--Quiet had reached the swords, and was picking them up.

Sacripant looked over the circle, and saw a Ghoul drawing a knife, preparing to throw it at Quiet. He darted over to him, and struck him with the blunt end of his spear, then gave the Ghoul a warning wag of his finger. Quiet meanwhile was descending on Vathek, twirling her blades menacingly. Vathek tried to back away, but Quiet was too fast for him. Quiet slashed his left arm as he raised it to ward off the blow, then felled him with a kick to the knees. Vathek gave a scream as he hit the ground, and then Quiet had stepped on his back. She sheathed a sword, and grabbed his braid. “This is for my father,” she said softly, as she sliced the braid off. “And this is for me.” And with that, she twirled the blade, and slit his throat.

Stepping off the corpse, she regarded the crowd, as she cleaned her sword. “By the laws of our people, the traitor and False Prophet has been punished! Got now to the Monker, and beg her mercy!” The Ghouls filed off, as Quiet went to where she’d dropped her veil and headdress.

Sacripant and the others watched as she put them back on. “So…” said Justinian quietly. “He killed your father…?”

“Among other people,” replied Quiet as she managed to get her braid back under her headdress. “He was a very unpleasant person.”

Palamedes raised his hands. “Hey, no argument here.” He nodded. “I don’t consider myself a--urrr, bloodthirsty, but I heartily approve your bloody revenge.” Quiet stared at him, and arched one eyebrow. “Trust me,” declared Palamedes. “I’m being completely sincere.”

Quiet put her veil back on,. “Look--there are still things I need to do here, and I have a feeling you’d rather not see them, so…” Justinian and Palamedes turned away and walked off. Sacripant stayed. “You sure?”

Sacripant nodded. “I figure that staying around for things like this is part of the whole relationship.”

Quiet nodded, and then went to Vathek’s body. Drawing her sword, she slashed at his ankles. Sacripant coughed. “Ummm, why…?”

“I’m crippling him, so that he has to crawl to the Place of Ultimate Judgment,” declared Quiet seriously.

“Damn,” said Sacripant. “You guys don’t stint on revenge.”

“Our philosophy on it is that like anything else, if you’re going to do it, you shouldn’t do it halfway,” replied Quiet, as she grabbed Vathek’s arm. “Look, if you want to be of some assistance, you could come and help me drag his body someplace awful where scavengers can eat it.”

“Sounds reasonable,” said Sacripant, walking up and taking Vathek’s other arm. They dragged the corpse off for awhile, when Quiet began to weep. “Is this… about your father?”

“In part,” said Quiet. “And part of it is for a little boy who used to catch fireflies with me, and who gave me my first kiss.” She stared at the corpse. “How’d it all go so wrong?”

“My uncle drowned when I was five,” said Sacripant. “He was a great fisherman. One of the greatest our village ever seen. He died on a clear day, and a calm ocean. His boat tipped over, and he hit his head on an oar.” He shook his head. “When I was young I used to think there had to be a message in that--so great a man, killed in so--stupid a fashion. Then I realized--it was just--something that happened.” He sighed. “I don’t know. It’s just--life.”

Quiet nodded, and they went on their way with the body.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 22

Menelaus was sipping a glass of wine when Cyrus de Sang burst through the door. “Fairwind!” shrieked the Milesian. “Where’s the Skull?”

Menelaus finished his drink. “The Skull…? I’ve told you, I have no idea…”

“Don’t lie to me!” shouted Cyrus. “I have been listening to you lie, and lie, and lie for weeks, and I’ve gotten sick of it! You are going to show me where you’re keeping the Skull, or I kill your granddaughter. Understood, old man?”

Menelaus nodded. “I… just let me get my walking stick.” He moved slowly towards the cane.

Cyrus gave a satisfied nod. “Glad to see you’re being sensible.” He growled. “I tell you, if I’d been running things from the start, you wouldn’t have even gotten a message off to the Shire Reeve.”

“Never needed to,” said Menelaus as he picked up the stick. “I send a report to the Shire Reeve every two weeks. When I didn’t--they had the local diviner do a quick query, then got in contact with Castle Terribel.” He shook his head. “We’re--a fairly clever people, de Sang. You see, the Plains have only one obstacle to present to an invader, really. We have no woods to hide in, no mountains or great rivers to impede an army. All we have--is ourselves.” He smiled gently. “The people of the Plains cannot be conquered, sir. We may allow you to trample us under your feet for awhile--but as soon as your balance lessens, we will rise up and defeat you. That has been our story for thousands of years, from the Khans of the Waste and the Kings of the South, to the Holy Emperors and the Dark Lords of Wood and Mountains. And what force can hope to stand against such a people?” He laughed and shook his head. “None, I say.”

Cyrus stared at the old Mayor in astonishment. “I… look here… you…” He drew his sword. “Show me where the Skull is!”

“No,” said the Mayor, readying his walking stick. “Now, sir, drop your sword, or I will make you drop it.”

“You old lunatic,” shouted Cyrus, diving at Menelaus. With a swift twirl, Menelaus brought the walking stick down on his sword hand. As Cyrus’ blade struck the floor, dropped by suddenly nerveless fingers, Menelaus struck him swiftly in the stomach, followed by several blows to the head.

As the dazed Milesian hit the ground, Menelaus stepped forward and pressed the stick into his throat. “Now, do not move, sir.” He shook his head. “You may think yourself impressive, de Sang, but I can tell you that even now, I am five times the soldier you are. I was a warrior of chivalry before you were even born, head of the Southern Muster for a long time, and when the Rising happened, I lead the True Folk here. The ‘Fair Wind’ they used to call me, for my speed, and my justice. And when my father disowned me, I made it my name.” He smiled sadly at Cyrus. “You chose the wrong man to bully, sir. Just as your employer chose the wrong town to threaten.”

“Grandpa?” came a quiet voice. Cassandra entered the room, yawning. “What’s going on?”

“Oh, nothing much, dear,” said Menelaus. “I simply had to stop a bad man.”

“Well that’s good,” said Cassandra, stepping forward. “May I have some cocoa?”

“In a little while, my sweet,” replied Menelaus.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 21

Gregory felt a sinking feeling in his stomach as he listened to Colin’s ultimatum. Or rather, Cyrus’ ultimatum, delivered by Colin. This was a nightmare. He looked at the Erls standing there, hands tied and heads bowed. One was a man he recognized--Diogenes Dragoman, the town guide and crier. A pleasant enough fellow--at least, as anyone could be under the circumstances.

The Mayor’s words pounded in his head. “But you would follow them. If it came to that.” And for the first time, Gregory realized that he couldn’t. Not if he wanted to remain a man. He nodded to himself, and thanked the Seven and the Black Bitch that it was Colin and not Cyrus. “Colin,” he said quietly. “It’s over. Let them go.”

Colin sneered at him. “Always knew you were weak, Gentleman. And now you’ve gone and committed insubordination. And the Captain doesn’t stand for that…” Colin drew his sword, as two fellow former Loyal Friends stepped forward to flank him. Olwen, who’d served the Loyal Friends as an archer, trained an arrow at Gregory. Gregory took a deep breath. He’d known death could be a consequence of his outburst. He just had to be sure that following these orders would be worst. And he was. Very sure indeed.

“Cyrus de Sang is not the Captain,” came a rumbling voice. Gregory saw Bald Bill Braddock standing there, Ancient Evreux and Mosca by his side. “I don’t know how you did things in the Loyal Friends, but in the Scarlet Shrikes, we vote when the Captain dies.” He glanced at Ancient Evreux. “Ancient Evreux--who’s the Captain?”

“Bald Bill Braddock is the Captain,” shouted Ancient Evreux. Mosca joined him as did quite a few others. Gregory smiled despite himself and joined the cry. “Bald Bill Braddock is the Captain!”

Braddock nodded, then glared at Colin. “Release the prisoners, Dupre. That’s an order.”

Colin smiled. “Well, seems we have a disagreement. ‘Cause we’d say ‘Cyrus de Sang is the Captain’.” He gestured to the little knot of ex-Loyal Friends and Ghouls. “And I don’t think we’re few enough to ignore.”

“I see. Then, you’re right. We have a disagreement.” Braddock drew his sword. “Release them. Your final warning.”

Colin snarled--and then suddenly one of the Ghouls screamed. “It is the Monker! She is here! And… moving!”

Gregory turned and saw it. Morgaine Cthonique was walking towards the battlement, head held high. The Ghouls were all cowering in terror. Colin glared at them. “By the Black Bitch, you poltroons--it’s just a woman! Olwen--fire at her!”

Olwen turned his bow towards Morgaine and loosed his arrow. It flew straight through the air, striking Morgaine clean in the eye. She noiselessly fell to the ground. The Loyal Friends laughed among themselves. “See?” said Colin to the Ghouls. “Witches die same as anyone else when you stick an arrow in them.”

Morgaine stood up, and continued marching towards the barricades. Colin blinked and stared at Olwen. “Fire again!” Olwen gulped, notched a new arrow, and fired. It struck Morgaine in the shoulder. She neither paused, nor seemed to even register it. Olwen turned to Colin in desperation. “Keep firing!” he screamed, then turned to the fleeing Ghouls. “Don’t run you cowards! Don’t…” But it was too late. The Ghouls were already running away, leaving the badly outnumbered Loyal Friends alone.

Gregory sprang on him. Colin barely managed to parry Gregory’s blow. “Damn you, you little traitor!” shouted Colin, preparing his counterattack. “I’m going to split your sk--” Gregory’s lightning-fast thrust caught him under the armpit. Colin screamed in agony, as Gregory stabbed him in the belly, and then in the throat.

Meanwhile, Morgaine had by now reached the barricades, pincushioned with arrows. Behind her, the Guard and the Kizaks were following, a chubby short Erl holding an axe leading the charge. Olwen stared at the battered, bloodied figure in horror, and dropped his bow. He turned to run, only for Ancient Evreux to knock him out with one withered fist. Morgaine waited for Braddock to get the townsfolk clear of the barricade, then picked it up with her own hands, and tossed it away. She glanced at the group. “So--whose job is it to surrender here?”

Braddock stepped forward. “That’d be me, Your Excellency.”

“The giant baby?” said Morgaine in surprise, her eyes--or rather the one eye that didn’t have an arrow sticking in it--going wide. “Okay then. Let’s hear it.”

“We surrender,” said Braddock.

“Very good,” declared Morgaine, slapping her hands together. She glanced at the Guardsman who’d followed her. “Woodash, you go spread the news who’s in charge here now. For those who haven’t got the message.”

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 20

Sacripant and Quiet were staring at the barricades, where Ghouls and Milesians were busily repairing the damage, preparing for the next attack. It was madness, Sacripant thought. All this effort to keep hold of such a small place.

“He wasn’t always this bad,” said Quiet suddenly. “When we were children, he was sweet, and kind. But… then his father died, and he tried to get himself named Amirant, and…” She shook her head. “The worst thing is, we used to talk about… reforming the Tribes. Making Irem--right again. And then, he--it all went bad. It all went so very bad.”

Sacripant looked at her. “None of which is your fault,” he said quietly.

“I know that,” said Quiet with a sob. “But sometimes, my heart doesn’t.”

Sacripant said nothing, but merely held out his hand. Quiet took it. They sat there for a while, until they heard a polite cough.

The pair turned to Justinian. “I… was wondering--if you want to talk about Hagen.”

Sacripant shook his head. “Do you?”

Justinian was silent for a moment, then looked at his feet. “I didn’t know him… that well. But he always struck me as a--soul whose foundation was in joy…” He took a deep breath and shook his head. “I-I’m sorry. I’m not making much sense, from your point of view. Half of this is just--Palamedes is broken up about this… and… I respected the… Ogre.”

“For a scion of darkness,” said Quiet softly.

“For anyone,” snapped Justinian. “I--the Holy Light put you here for some reason. It has to be more than just us killing one another.”

There was silence for a moment. “Well, nice that you think that now,” said Sacripant. Quiet tugged on his sleeve. “Wha…?”

Several villagers were being lead onto the barricades, their hands bound in rope. A thick-set, muscular Milesian oversaw the process, nodding in satisfaction. As soon as the villagers were in place, he turned to the Cthonique forces.

“Morgaine Cthonique! We have considered your offer--now consider ours! If you, your Guards, your Kizaks, and your Muster do not allow us to leave freely, with our client--we will execute these villagers!” The Milesian chuckled. “Well, what have you to say to our offer?”

Justinian, Quiet, and Sacripant stared at the scene before them in shock. “Oh, shit,” muttered Quiet.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 19

The Erl had come to the barricades holding a green branch. Gregory knew what that meant, and allowed the slender fellow through.

“Much obliged,” said the emissary, as they walked towards the Traveler’s Friend.

“Don’t mention it,” replied Gregory. He watched the Erl’s eyes looking over the barricades, and sighed to himself. It was of course an unwritten rule that emissaries do a little spying, but it still worried him. The Shrikes had three men dead, and three times as many wounded. If the Cthonique forces hadn’t known the advantage they had--which to be sure, he rather doubted--they would now.

Colin and Cyrus were standing at the doorway of the inn. When the emissary raised his green branch, they scowled, but let the pair pass, with Cyrus turning and following them in. “Where’s Braddock?” asked Gregory quietly.

“Checking the barricades,” said Cyrus. “Fool insisted on it.” Gregory choked back a response. You didn’t yell at the Lieutenant. No matter what an ass he was.

The Captain was in bad shape when they came in, sweating and coughing. Eirene dabbed his forehead, trying to keep from crying. Gregory realized then that Captain Brand’s death was coming sooner, not later. Of course. It’s not like anything good had come to the Shrikes in this town--merely shame, defeat, and dishonor. His hand reflexively went to the miniature that was no longer there.

After a moment, Brand’s eyes focused on the pair. He gestured for them to speak.

“An emissary, sir,” said Gregory quietly. “From the Cthoniques.”

“Rollo Grassgrown, Shire Reeve of the Southern Expanse,” noted the Erl with a bow. “Her Excellency sent me here to deliver our terms.”

“What… are they?” croaked the Captain.

“If you surrender now, and return Vathek yn Baurbur to our custody, we will allow you to depart from our territory,” stated the Shire Reeve flatly.

The Captain chuckled weakly. “Not… very favorable.”

“Neither is your situation,” said the Shire Reeve.

The Captain shut his eyes, and was silent for a long time. “Tell her… I will consider…” And then he began to cough again. And he didn’t stop, but instead began to writhe on the sheets. Eirene grabbed his hand, and gritted her teeth. Brand seemed to calm down, lying there still, his breaths coming slow and shallow.

Eventually, they stopped.

There was silence for a moment. Then Cyrus turned to the Shire Reeve. “Tell ‘Her Excellency’ we categorically refuse her terms,” he stated. “And tell her that we have terms of our own that we’re going to share with her in a little while. Am I clear?”

The Erl stared at the Lieutenant for a moment, then nodded, and backed out of the room. Cyrus turned to Gregory. “Go tell Braddock that I’m giving orders now,” he stated.

Gregory blinked. “I… sir… there are rules…”

“Screw ‘em. This is an emergency,” said Cyrus, leaving the room. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have things to do.”

Gregory watched him leave. “So, that’s it, eh?” said Eirene bitterly. “Your Captain dies, and the only things that matter are the job, and the power play.”

“I’d be weeping, lady,” muttered Gregory. “Except that I’ve got a hunch that I’m going to have to ration my tears. A lot of people might need them before this is through.”

Saturday, June 4, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 18

Sacripant darted forward, staying on Quiet’s tail. He said a silent prayer to the Darksome Lady, as he rounded the corner. This was his first real battle, and while he liked to think he was doing all right, he still couldn’t shake the feeling he was out of his depth.

He moved quickly down the town’s single large street, trying his best to stay covered, and keep Quiet in his sight. It was a difficult job, made tougher by the need to avoid the Shrikes. But he didn’t have to do it for very long.

Rounding a corner, he saw her. Quiet was fighting with a crowd of Milesians and Ghouls, fending them off as best she could. Wishing he still had a spear, he rushed forward. And that was when a tall, blond Milesian stepped in front of him, slashing at Sacripant with his sword. Sacripant raised his own blade to parry, the two swords clashing against each other. The third time their swords crossed, Sacripant’s blade snapped. He winced, then stepped back, and coiled his cloak around his arm. As he fended off the blonde’s sword blows as best he could with it, he noticed Quiet toppling on the ground. He had just time to register that, when something was wrapping around his legs. Sacripant lost his balance and fell.

Several Ghouls came forward holding their curved blades on the downed Guards. “Leave them,” came a melodic voice. Sacripant saw a pair of feet clad in purple slippers stepping out of the crowd--glancing up, he saw the man they belonged to, a slender Ghoul clad in rich silver robes and golden turban. The Ghoul stepped briskly by Sacripant, and then knelt by Quiet. “I’d know those eyes anywhere,” he declared, deftly removing Quiet’s veil. Quiet stared at him furiously. “Nouronihar,” declared the Ghoul with a chuckle. “It has been too long, beloved.” He began to idly stroke her cheek.

“Bastard,” hissed Quiet. “Bastard. Bastard!” She took a deep breath, then shouted. “Vathek yn Barbour is the bastard of a jackal and a whore!”

The Ghoul sighed. “Really now, beloved--is that any way to talk to your betrothed?”

“Grandfather dissolved the contract,” snapped Quiet. “Just as he cast you out, Vathek!” She glanced at the other Ghouls. “He is nothing! He is not of the line of Prophets! We disown and dishonor him, as the traitor and rebel he is!”

“Grandfather may do what he wishes, as old men who have lived too long often do,” declared Vathek smugly. “He is no longer the Prophet--indeed, he never truly was--and his actions have no legality.”

“And yours do?” muttered Quiet.

Vathek stood up, and gestured at Sacripant. “Who is this then?”

Quiet looked at the ground. “Just--just a fellow Guard member, he’s nobody you…”

“I see,” said Vathek, crossing his arms. He clicked his tongue and shook his head. “Really, Nouronihar. With a Nixie?” He sighed. “Your father would be so disappointed.”

“If he were not dead,” muttered Quiet. “At your hands.”

Vathek gave a dismissive wave. “It was a tragic, of course, and if Grandfather had recognized that I am the true Prophet and rightful Prince, all could have been avoided. He has caused much bloodshed by refusing to step down.” He yawned. “Ah, well. It’s useless talking about this.” He idly raised a hand. “Kill them both.”

Four Ghouls stepped forward, producing long knotted cords from their sleeves. Quiet began to shout something in Ghoulish. And then one of the Ghouls hit the ground with a handaxe buried in his back.

Hagen Greatthews burst on the scene, screaming in Ogre, swinging his great-axe and scattering his opponents. As Sacripant watched him in awe, Palamedes knelt by him, and began cutting his bindings. “Hey, Sacripant,” said the fat Erl. “The, uh… ghost told us you were in trouble…” He turned to take care of Quiet. “So, here we are…” He stood up, sheathed his knife, and slapped his hands on his shins. “So, you… okay?”

Sacripant rose unsteadily, watching Quiet replace her veil. “Been better,” said the Marsh Erl. Quiet nodded in agreement. “You know, everybody here knows you’re a girl, Quiet…”

“It’s my thing,” she said, then drew a knife. She stared at Vathek’s retreating form. “Vathek yn Barbour is the excrement of a worm!” She tossed her blade at him, only for him to catch it nimbly. Quiet nodded.
“Right. Got that out of my system. Let’s go.”

Hagen nodded, holding the crowd off as his fellow Guards retreated. The blonde Milesian rushed the Ogre, only to be felled by punch. “Hagen!” shouted Palamedes. “We REALLY need to get out of here!” Hagen turned and joined them.

They jogged swiftly down the street, reaching the barricades. Quiet and Sacripant leapt over them. Palamedes reached them and stared at them hesitantly--only to be picked up by Hagen, and tossed over. As Sacripant and Quiet helped Palamedes to his feet, Hagen jumped over himself. And with that, they ran back to their lines. The Shrikes and their Ghoul allies were returning to the barricade, recovering from their confusion. A few fired potshots at the retreating Guards, but that stopped when Bolekiz and his Kizaks rushed out and fired their bows.

Sacripant slouched forward and caught his breath. “I never thought I’d be so glad to see you, Hagen,” he noted. Hagen chuckled--then collapsed on the ground.

Palamedes rushed to the Ogre’s side. “Hagen--Hagen--what…,” he said nervously, shaking the Ogre’s massive form. Then he raised a hand to his face. “This… ohh… this is blood…” He bit his lip nervously, and stared at Hagen plaintively. “Hagen--you’re bleeding…”

“They--nicked me,” said Hagen with a chuckle. “In--the leg.”

Sacripant looked over and saw it. A bolt, buried deep in Hagen’s thigh. “Tha--that’s not so bad,” said Palamedes nervously. He looked at Quiet and Sacripant, his eyes pleading. “Right? That’s not that bad…”

Quiet regarded the chubby Erl sadly, while Sacripant looked away. “That can be a killing blow,” said the Marsh Erl. He raised a hand to his mouth. “Somebody--get Subtle! NOW!”

Hagen smiled gently. “Don’t--don’t waste his time. They got me--earlier than you think.” He laughed. “Darksome Lady gave me enough time. Now--She wants to see me.”

“Hagen--Hagen, you can’t die!” sobbed Palamedes. “You have to go to Kitvekh, remember?”

Hagen gulped, and shut his eyes. “I am in Kitvekh, Woodash. I am IN Kitvekh.” He muttered something inaudible that sounded like a request for some water.

Then he died.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Little Town Called Tolometto--Part 17

“I am not pleased,” declared Vathek quietly.

Gregory stared the Ghoul, flanked by his retinue of followers. As happened so often at times like this, the self-proclaimed Prince and Prophet sounded more like a boy sulking than the awe-inspiring figure he imagined himself as. But he was a sulking boy who would kill you if you annoyed him enough, a fact which colored Gregory’s response.

Gregory took a deep breath. “Neither are we, sir.” He stood as straight as he could. “But you will allow, sir, that we were under the impression that the Cthoniques would be distracted…”

Vathek’s hand darted to a necklace of bronze links, and fingered it somewhat nervously. Gregory almost found himself reaching for the miniature that wasn’t there anymore in response. “I have been… unable to contact my allies, of late. Which makes me suspect that things have--not gone well for them.” He shook his head. “And yet all of this is… beside the point.” He leaned forward. “We would most certainly have found the Skull by now if you had been more--aggressive in your search…”

Gregory gritted his teeth. “The Captain does not feel so, sir.” His hand was going to his sword. For the hundredth time he cursed his father for having him take fencing lessons. It’d been a typical action for those successful merchants trying to make sure their sons stood a little taller than them, but if it hadn’t happened, Gregory wouldn’t be in the situation he was in today.

Of course, he’d probably be dead, but he wasn’t always sure that would be such an awful thing.

Vathek had crossed his arms, and was staring at Gregory balefully, dark blue eyes filled with distaste. “And did your captain hire me? Or did I hire your captain?”

Ancient Evreux rushed by rescuing Gregory from having to tell his client to go screw himself. “The Master of Horse needs you at the battlements!” Gregory bowed to Vathek, and hurried to Ancient’s side.

Inwardly he cursed. The Shrikes had prepared so carefully--studying the layout of the town--arriving in Tolometto in all those separate caravans to escape notice--and it had all been wasted. Somehow the townfolk had gotten a message out, one that the Cthoniques had responded to with far, far more speed than had been expected, and now--they were facing this debacle. And now Vathek was getting--ideas. There were few things more dangerous than employers with ideas. Employers with ideas got people killed, then got you killed, and sometimes, if the Seven and the Black Bitch were all feeling suitably just, got themselves killed as well. He glanced at Ancient. “Have you ever been in a worse situation?” he asked.

“A few times,” said Ancient. “I lived through ‘em. Barely. But I did.” The old soldier shook his head. “Never should have took this mission. Though the way I hear it, Asterot practically twisted the Captain’s arm…”

The conversation stopped as they reached the barricades. Braddock was staring out over them. “Glad to see you, Gentleman,” he noted softly. He gestured over the barricade, where several small clusters of Cthonique Guards were gathering. “I think they’re going to try and rush us…”

Gregory nodded. “Vathek is making suggestions.” He frowned. “‘Kill and torture people’ suggestions.”

“Because that worked so well for him when he had his little rebellion,” snapped Braddock, who followed the outburst by spitting in contempt. He shook his head. “Doesn’t the fool realize that folk who are cornered either fold or fight when you put up the pressure?” Bald Ben glanced over at the gathering troops. “And these folk don’t look like the ‘folding’ sort.”

“The Lieutenant’s been making… similar suggestions,” noted Gregory quietly.

“He’s not the Captain,” replied Braddock forcibly.

Gregory nodded. “And if he were?”

Braddock glanced at the younger man. “He wouldn’t be long.” He glanced down. “The plan seems to be hit us in several places at once. I want you to keep the line here. I’m going to keep it elsewhere. Understood?” Gregory nodded. Braddock smiled, and placed a heavy hand on the young soldier’s shoulder. “Good lad.” And then he walked further down the line, Ancient Evreux by his side.

Gregory took a deep breath, and glanced at the men with him. Most of them stared at him dully, except for Mosca, who was smiling cynically. “All right, men,” he began. “You heard what the Master of Horse said. We have to…”

“Attention, mortal fools!” shouted out a voice that was both shrill and bellowing. Gregory glanced over the barricades, wanting to see who had just cut short any hopes of making a speech of his own. The speaker was a diminutive female Erl, clad in dark armor. As Gregory watched, she spread her arms wide. “You have angered Morgaine Sans Coeur, Supreme Mistress of the Netherworld! I grant you this chance to surrender! But if you continue to anger me, then I recommend praying for a swift death, for that is the greatest mercy you can hope for!”

Gregory winced. He’d heard about Morgaine Cthonique. The stories said she was powerful, temperamental, and ever-so-slightly mad--simply put, if you were going to run into a Cthonique in this situation, you didn’t want it to be her.

The Dark Lord stood there, with her hands on her hips. “I see no one is taking me up on my generous offer. Very well!” And with that, she began to dance around. For a moment, Gregory was wondering what he was looking at--and then the Dark Lord gestured at the barricade.

The world exploded into chaos, as the barricade exploded into splinters. Gregory only just managed to avoid landing on his head. Mosca didn’t, and was lying dazed on the ground when Gregory rose. And then the first members of the Cthonique Guard were through the breach--a masked Ghoul who leapt over the wreckage and took down two soldiers coming down, and a tall Marsh Erl who threw a spear at Byron that took him straight in the chest. Gregory watched the man go down, and then the Marsh Erl was on him, sword drawn. They exchanged a few blows when suddenly the Ghoul ran off. “Quiet!” shouted the Marsh Erl, who then beat down Gregory’s sword, and stepped back a ways, and then rushed after the Ghoul.

Gregory took a deep breath, and turned to what remained of his men. “Close the breach! Keep the line! Hurry!” Men scurried to push boards into place, and hold back the stream of Guards and Muster men that were pressing through. Gregory readied his sword for the next attack.

It occurred to him that Ancient Evreux was right. War really was one of the Hells.