Saturday, December 29, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 15

Elaine stood there, in the courtyard, panting furiously. She glanced at the practice sword lying on the ground where she’d thrown it, and then at her stepfather.

“How many times is it?” she asked. “So far?”

Mansemat shrugged. “I really haven’t been keeping count…” he noted.

“I have,” chimed in Morgaine. “Eighty-three.”

“I thought the second-to-last time was particularly good,” added Nerghal. “Where he turned his back, and still managed to get the drop on her.”

“I preferred the one right before it, where he did it left-handed,” noted Morgaine.

Elaine took one more deep breath, than glanced at the practice sword again. “All right,” she said at last, “what am I doing wrong?”

Mansemat smiled at her. “Do you really want to know?”

“Well, it’s become blindingly obvious to me that my brilliant plan of just outdrawing you somehow isn’t working,” noted Elaine, as she picked the sword up again. “So, I figure… the point of all this is to get it through my thick head that all of this is more complicated than ‘pull out sword, stick it in something’.” She gazed at Mansemat suspiciously, replacing the practice sword in its sheath. “Am I right?”

The Dark Lord nodded. “Exactly. So… what are you doing wrong? Well… quite a few things.” He coughed. “Let’s see… where to begin?” He stroked his chin for a second, then nodded. “You’re trying too hard to be fast. It’s making you lose speed.”

Elaine blinked. “What?”

“Try drawing it again,” said Mansemat. Elaine shrugged to herself, and prepared to draw. “There,” he said. “Why is your arm so far from the hilt?”

“Well… you see…” Elaine stared at it for a moment, and then shook her head. “Okay, I did not realize I was doing that.”

“You’re trying to make your arm move faster,” explained Mansemat. “The problem is, you want the sword to move faster. ‘Never waste a movement’--one of the cardinal rules of the Seventeen-Style School.”

“You know, I have to ask--why ‘Seventeen-Style’?” asked Elaine.

“True mastery does not come with the mastery of a single way, but the mastery of many ways,” explained Mansemat.

“Or to put it another way, my brother is a sucker for EVERY ‘ancient fighting’ technique he ever came across,” noted Morgaine.

“Untrue!” stated Mansemat. “The Seventeen Styles were chosen after rigorous selection on my part. Each is distinct enough to instill a different perspective, and yet shares enough in common that one may move between them at will. Further, in the mastery of the Seventeen Styles, one realizes fundamentals on the very nature of fighting that lead one into the Secret Style that is produced by…”

Elaine stared at her aunt. “You’ve put up with this for years, haven’t you?”

Morgaine nodded. “Oh, yeah.”

“She gives as good as she gets, mind you,” added Nerghal, idly scratching his chin.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 14

“Master the water!” shouted Viviane cheerfully, as she sent another massive spray of it at her sister. “Master the water!”

“Arrgh! Please stop!” shouted Jean, futilely raising a hand to her face to shield herself from the wave.

“You don’t seem to be mastering the water, my Nemain,” noted Viviane.

Jean coughed, and spat out some fluid. “I’ve figured this out,” she muttered. “This is the new damn version of chasing me while making the spooky face.”

“It is not,” said Viviane. Jean glared at her. Viviane cleared her throat, and turned away. “Well, all right, maybe a little. But it’s also an important part of being the Badb.” She shrugged. “You should be able to deflect my attack. Or something.” She smiled. “I mean, look at what you did in Joyeuse with the birds. That was impressive. Just… apply it to water.”

“Look, Viv, I may not know much about witchery, but I do know this,” said Jean. “Animals and elements take different approaches.” She spread her hands. “Animals, you have to fool into doing what you want by convincing them it’s something they want. The elements…” She sighed. “Look, I’m new at this, but I’m getting this feeling of overwhelming power, and it’s demanding I overpower it before it does what I want it to, and I’m not sure I can, and…” Jean stopped as she realized her sister was staring at her quizzically. “Umm, what? Am I… screwing up somehow?”

Viviane shook her head. “No, no, I just… really haven’t had much of a chance to talk about these things since… well, in a long time.” She scratched idly at her chin. “I mean, there are the other witches in the Marsh, but they… well, they sort of worship me. Makes talking… shop difficult…” She shrugged. “I mean--I never really did much of the animal commanding stuff… but when I did, I tended to just--well, tell them to do what I wanted. Your way…” She shook her head. “It’s just not how I do things.”

Jean blinked in surprise. “But--well, I know what you’re talking about, but--there’s no way you could control a large flock of birds that way. You’d have to direct the actions of every single bird, and…”

“Probably why I’ve never managed to do anything like that,” said Viviane. She shook her head. “You might have noticed this, Jean, or you might not have, but I’m really not a very subtle person.”

Jean Crow stared at her sister for a moment. “Yes. I’ve noticed,” she stated at long last. She coughed. “So… should we get back to training?”

Viviane frowned. “Well--you’ve actually made me kind of guilty about splashing you repeatedly with water. So… if you’d like to… take a break for the day…”

“No, no,” said Jean. “I’ve got an idea.”

Viviane nodded. “Right. Right. Well, then my Nemain,” she said, a grin appearing on her face, “the time has come for you to… Master the water!”

To Viviane’s surprise, Jean made no attempt to dodge the wave, or cover her face this time. She merely stood there, staring at the water intently as it rushed at her. It struck her easily--but then Jean started to… dissolve. Before Viviane’s eyes, her sister turned into a school of little fish that swam in the wave, leaving her clothes behind in a pile on the ground. As Viviane watched, the fish swam towards her, as if the water she was conjuring was a stream. And then, before she realized what was happening, they leapt from the stream onto her, wriggling down her gown. Viviane yelped and began to contort as the slimy little things crept over her, until she lost her balance and fell in the stream.

Viviane sputtered and shook her head in a futile effort to get it dry. She heard the sound of someone rising out of the water behind her. “And that is how the Nemain Jehannine du Lac masters the water,” said her sister.

Viviane glanced over her shoulder. “You’re naked,” she stated.

Jean shifted from standing proudly to crouching and looking for something to hide behind. “Ummm… right. Could you… my clothes…?”

Viviane nodded and stood up. “Right.” As she walked towards them, she stopped for a second. “Uhh… Jean… which of the fish were you… exactly?”

“All of them,” answered Jean. “Why do you…?” She paused and gulped. “Ahh. Right.”

“Right,” said Viviane with a nod. “We are never speaking of this again,” she noted as she tossed her sister her clothes. “Understood?”

Jean nodded, as she grabbed the clothes. “Does it count though?”

“Yeah, I really don’t want to see what you’d come up with if I kept at it,” said Viviane.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 13

“A masterpiece,” said the darksome lady before Justinian. “A thing of beauty and balance. That was what I wrought with this world.”

“The fish were especially nice,” said Ophis.

“Quiet, you,” snapped Douma Dalkiel. “I am being portentous.”

“Sure that’s the right word?” whispered Ophis.

“Positive,” she said.

“Because I can think of another word that sounds somewhat similar,” noted Ophis. “It even begins with a ‘p’.”

Douma Dalkiel stood rigid before Justinian “I created my servant to act as a… conscience and foil, if you will. Sometimes I think the creature takes a rather… perverse pleasure in it.”

“I am only acting as I made,” responded Ophis. “With honor and justice…”

“Oh, for goodness sakes, stop pretending I don’t know EXACTLY what word you were talking about,” snapped Douma Dalkiel. “And allow me to state, you’re one to talk.” She began to speak in a very high-pitched voice. “‘My wings enfold worlds, my scales are the size of stars, and the distance from the end of my tail…’,” she recited.

“All of that is true,” noted Ophis calmly.

“Still doesn’t stop it from being very stuck up,” said Douma Dalkiel.

Justinian watched the pair bicker. “Are you… always this…” He groped for a word. “Comical?” he managed at last.

“Yes,” said Douma Dalkiel. “And also ‘no’.”

“You see us in a form you comprehend,” said Ophis, “and you hear those aspects of our speech which will you will understand, and which will put you at ease.”

“For we are great, and beyond your full understanding,” explained Douma Dalkiel.

“So… how am I… seeing you now?” he asked, curious.

Douma Dalkiel leaned forward. “Your mind has been placed in readiness by your suffering, your fast, and your prayers…”

“Indeed, most of this is occurring in your mind--an argument could be made that we are not really here at all, save in the most metaphysical of senses,” stated Ophis.

Douma Dalkiel turned to her servant again. “Oh, you just had to go spoil things didn’t you? Now he’s going to wonder if this is all a hallucination or a dream…”

“Well, to an extent it is, my lady,” noted Ophis.

“So… wait, this ISN’T happening?” asked Justinian, puzzled.

“Yes, it is,” said Douma Dalkiel. “In every way that counts, it is.” She glanced at Ophis. “Are we agreed on that?”

Ophis nodded. “Oh, most definitely.”

Douma Dalkiel turned back towards Justinian. “Good.” She cleared her throat. “A masterpiece of balance,” she noted. “And now look at it. A mess. Like every other thing I’ve created.”

“Hey!” declared Ophis.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 12

Justinian knelt before the altar of Jehuel, and repeated his prayers. As he’d started at the Red Lord of Fire earlier tonight, this meant he’d completed his first circle of the altars.

Just six more to go.

Sometimes, Justinian felt the Faith’s obsession with septenaries was just a tad annoying. These rather irritated thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the door to the shrine opening. He considered telling Eurydice that he still wasn’t going to eat anything she brought him, but decided against it. After all, that would be rude.

“Oooh, what is this?” came an unfamiliar voice--a woman’s, melodious and strangely deep.

And it wasn’t her, Justinian mentally added, so it would have been extremely embarrassing if he had.

“I believe it is a Milesian,” said another voice--male, Justinian thought, though it was hard to be certain.

“A Milesian! In a Pallasian shrine!” said the woman. “How delightful!” Justinian allowed himself a peek to his side, revealing a glimpse of a tall woman in a black dress.

“Indeed,” said her companion. “A most rare sight, even in these days.” Justinian’s sight of--him?--her?--he still wasn’t sure--suggested someone in a green robe. Or possibly dress.

The woman drew to his side. “May we ask who you are, Milesian?”

Justinian shut his eyes. “Justinian Sigma, late of the Sacristans. Born Ivanushka Fydorovitch on the Breakers.”

“Fine names, both very fine names,” said the woman. “Are they not, my love?”

“Adequate, by my reckoning,” said her companion. It seemed to Justinian the voice was deeper now, though he wasn’t sure. “I’m more interested in the bearer. What do you mean, late of the Sacristans?”

Justinian took a deep breath. “What I said. I have left my Order. I am presently performing the Rite of Severance to acknowledge this.”

“My goodness,” said the woman. “That does seem… final. What brings this on?”

“I do not feel at ease in my former order,” answered Justinian. “My loyalty to it is withered and dead. If I continued to serve, it would be an uneasy mockery--worse, I would dishonor those to who my true loyalty lies.” He shrugged. “And so I have left it.”

“That sounds admirable,” declared the woman. “Admirable and true.”

“In a silly sort of way,” noted her companion. Justinian decided he’d been wrong--the voice was fairly high actually, and only an echo must have made it sound so deep before.

“Oh, hush,” muttered the woman. “Come Justinian Sigma, turn and face me. I would look on the face of one who is true even in the ending of his vows.” Justinian remained motionless. “Please…?” added the woman. “I would… be honored to view your face.”

Justinian took a deep breath and turned. And then froze. The woman wore an elaborate ebony mask, one Justinian had often seen in Mystery plays--a mask of a smiling woman’s face with bright scarlet lips, it’s expression slightly sinister. Her companion wore another mask--one that looked like a serpent, its fangs bared.

“Do you know me, Squire Sigma?” asked the woman.

“Douma Dalkiel,” he whispered. He glanced at the other. “And Ophis.”

Ophis nodded. “So you call us.”

Justinian shut his eyes. “Is this… have you come…?”

“Now, now, young Sigma,” said Douma Dalkiel. “Surely you know that on those occasions of which you are thinking of, I never speak. I merely look into the eyes of those I visit, and the soul flies free.” Justinian found himself staring into her face, realizing that the black orbs he was looking at… were eyes. “You and I must share words, Justinian.”

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 11

“More are trickling in from Leonais, sir.” Sir Edward Delta glanced at the Preceptor. “They’re saying Amfortas has declared war on the Order. All of our property has been seized and given to the Eremites and the Prince’s Men. He’s even had you burned in effigy.”

“Did he now?” said Maximilian Rho, chuckling to himself.

“I don’t find that funny, sir,” said Edward, quietly.

“You lack my bloody rarified sense of humor, Sir Edward,” replied Rho. “So… how stand the situation in the Free Cities?”

“Not good, sir,” answered Edward. “Our chapterhouses there were always nominally the territory of Leonais. So when Amfortas’ orders went out…” He shook his head. “A few of them were allowed to flee quietly by friendly Lords and Councils. Others… Preceptor Eusebeius Alpha held off a siege for a week in Talossa. His was one of the more fortunate Chapterhouses.”

“Old fool,” whispered Rho. “Didn’t I tell him to fly?” He sighed gently. “And what sort of masters are the Eremites proving?”

“Much the same sort as in Joyeuse,” said Edward. He pulled up a small letter. “According to this report, the Lady of Monleone dares not leave the Chateau Beacurs, and Duke Agrivain’s soldiers will not let the Eremites into the Duke’s areas of the city.” He shrugged. “There are similar reports throughout the Free Cities. The Eremites rule with heavy hands.”

Maximilian nodded. “And what… of Ilarion Skarvsky?”

Edward frowned. “The Easter King remains an enigma,” he said. “His soldiers remain in Precieuse, at the ready--but they do not move. Rumor has it he is massing troops on the Almatian border--or that he has raising his fleet in Trinovant. Or both. Or neither.” Maximilian nodded grimly. Edward peered at him for a moment. “And what do you think, Preceptor?”

“Ilarion Skarvsky is a bastard of a villain, plain and simple,” said Rho with a shrug. “A man of brutal action and overweening ambition. He acts to ensure the security and ascendance of Ilarion Skarvsky, and he doesn’t particularly care what he has to do to get that. If you’d asked me half a year ago, I’d have called the greatest wretch in the Lands of Light. Two months ago, the same, but with gnawing doubt in my heart…”

Edward looked Maximilian. “Odd isn’t it? The Easter King attacking just when Amfortas needed him.”

“What are you saying?” asked Rho.

“Nothing,” said Delta. “Just… noting an oddity. Amfortas needs a crisis--and the Easter King refuses to accept the Holy Synod’s choice of a Metropolitan. The crisis plays out and plays out--and then, when it seems to have run its course, the Easter King invades Precieuse. And once again, the Prince of Leonais plays the hero, the good king, the defender of the faith.” Edward’s frown. “I wonder, if the Princess Elaine hadn’t come, would the Easter King have done something else?”

Maximilian folded his hands before him. “You’re not the first to think such things, Sir Delta,” he stated. “Damn me, if I haven’t wondered myself. But we don’t know. And one thing I am sure of--if there’s any such arrangement, it’s a thing of convenience, that both Amfortas and Skarvsky are willing to break at a moment’s notice.”

“Why’s that?” asked Edward.

The Preceptor’s gaze grew distant and grim. “Because as I said, Ilarion is a creature of brutal ambition,” he noted. “But Prince Amfortas--Amfortas is a thing of mad malevolence. Oh, he is cunning, when he wishes to be, full of clever plots to advance his dreams--but those dreams are mad. Skarvsky fights to advance himself--Amfortas fights to see things bleed. There can be no common cause between those two, in the end. Indeed, there can be no common cause between Amfortas and anyone, in the end.”

Edward smiled. “I find that… strangely comforting.”

“I damn well wish I did,” said Preceptor Rho.

There was a knock on the door. Without even waiting for a response, Constans Mu opened it, and looked around the room, a rather nervous expression on his face. “Preceptor. Sir Delta. I need a loan. To win back my winnings, see…”

Maximilian and Edward glanced at each other, and sighed.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 10

Viviane ran her hand through the water of the brook. “Ahh, very nice,” she stated. She turned to her sister. “There’s power in flowing water, you know.”

Jean nodded. “I’ve seen it kill men, so, yes, I do.”

Viviane coughed. “Oh. Right. Sorry. I… forgot.” She looked at Jean intently. “What was he like? Gautier…?”

“Dad…?” said Jean idly. She caught herself. “Well… actually, he wasn’t… really my father at all, was he?”

“I wouldn’t go that far…” began Viviane.

“Did you know him?” asked Jean. “My… real father…?”

“Amaury Maganza,” said Viviane. “We met, quite a few times. Nice guy. Died fighting against Shaddad in the Shadow Woods.”

Jean’s nose crinkled in disgust. “Ewww,” she said. “I’ve got Maganza in me?”

“One of the cadet branches,” said Viviane with a shrug. “Actually, I think Amaury was the last of that one. So you might have property coming to you…”

“Yeah, yeah, but still… Maganza.” Jean shuddered. She glanced up. “Umm… I know this is personal, but… who was your father?”

Viviane shrugged. “Some Milesian Count named Ulfius. At least, that was what Mom always said. Never did find out who that was, exactly.” She shook her head. “Mom… tended to keep secrets. It was… her way.” She peered at Jean. “So… Gautier…?”

“Oh, right,” said Jean. She frowned slightly. “He was… wonderful, really. Knew the Murkenmere like the back of his hand. Taught me every trick he knew--though I’m afraid I didn’t pick most of them up.” She sighed. “How… do you suppose he and Mom knew each other?”

Viviane shrugged. “Mom knew a lot of people. I mean--she was the Badb--and the Nemain for years before that, and before that she was… well, before that she traveled a lot.” She chuckled. “Really, I always thought she liked that part of her life the best. She never wanted to be the Badb. She loved… freedom, more than anything.” Viviane shut her eyes, and took a deep breath.

“Am I… stirring things up you’d… rather not have… stirred up…?” Jean asked.

Viviane opened her eyes. “Yeah, but… it’s a healing thing. Mom… and I had issues that… well, I was only starting to understand when… she went and died on me.” She bit her lip. “Like I said… she never wanted to be the Badb. Or the Nemain. Or grow up. And then her sisters tore the family apart. And she was all that was left. All that stood between Lord Shaddad and the Marsh. That man ruined many lives, and cut many stories short. There are things I will never say to my mother, until we meet again by the Bright Crystal Sea, where the souls of all our line are gathered, save those who fell into the Devouring Flames…”

Suddenly, Jean stepped forward, and wrapped her arms around her sister’s waist. “It’s all right, Viv. It’s… all right,” she muttered.

Viviane smiled and stroked Jean’s hair gently. “No. It just… is. And… I’ve… moved on.”

Jean nodded, and stepped back. “Right.” She looked around for a moment. “Something tells me I’m going to really, REALLY have to study up on the whole Nightfolk religion thing. I mean--our family gets its own, personal afterlife? That is just… damn neat.”

“Have to say, I’ve got mixed feelings about it,” noted Viviane. “A lot of our family… I really wouldn’t want to spend to much time with. I mean… Angrboda, Armed With Sorrow used to wear the skins of those she’d slain. And Luned, Bringer of Woe…” Viviane shuddered. “Yeah. Fun to read about. Don’t know if I’d like to actually spend time with her.” She stepped back. “So… shall we begin?”

“Ordeal by water,” said Jean, glancing at the stream. “Well… it doesn’t look like it’ll be that bad.”

Viviane began to snicker.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 9

“Okay,” said Constans Mu, “I think I have this now.” He put another handful of chits on the table before him. “I raise you. Five… whatever it is you Nightfolk use.”

“Marks,” said Palamedes from the side.

“Marks. Right,” agreed Constans, nodding fervently. He stared across the table at Quiet.

The Ghoul looked at her hand for a moment, then placed five more chits down. She stared at Constans, her blue eyes wide and baleful. Then she placed five more chits.

Constans looked at her, then looked at his hand. “You’re just tryin’ to get into me head. Well, it won’t work.”

“Because there’s nothing there to get at,” noted Arcadius Pi.

“Quiet, Squire,” said Constans. “An’ prepare to be amazed at me skill.”

“If you had any, I would be,” noted Arcadius.

“Oh, all right,” snapped Constans. “Everyone gain up on honest Squire Mu.”

“Is he honest?” asked Palamedes.

“Of course not,” said Arcadius Pi. “Why else do you think he says he is?”

The Erl nodded. “Ehh, about what I expected.”

Constans turned to glare at Quiet, as he put five more chits down. Then placed another six down. “So… is it true you Ghouls eat people?”

“Only people they like,” said Sacripant Fenswater. “You don’t want to know what they do to people they don’t like.” He smiled at the Ghoul. “Isn’t that right, Quiet?”

The Ghoul nodded, as she placed her chits down.

“Oh, enough of this,” snapped Palamedes. He began to pound his hands on the table. “Foldol, foldol, foldol…” Sacripant and Arcadius joined him in his chant.

“Fine, fine,” said Constans, putting down his cards. Everyone looked at the, then turned to him.

“That is what you were betting on?” said Arcadius quietly. “A Hierophant?”

“There are other cards there!” said Constans. “Good cards.”

“But… no matches or sequences,” said Palamedes. “You’re betting on a Hierophant.”

“And some other cards,” muttered Constans dully.

Sacripant shook his head. “It’s almost a shame to take your money…”

Quiet looked around the table nervously and put down her cards. The group’s chatter turned to stunned silence.

“A Knight?” said Palamedes. “That’s… it?”

“Is it my fault he’s too stupid to bluff?” muttered Quiet. “Usually I do the glare thing, and people fold before the first draw.”

Constans looked around the group. “So… I won?” He hooted, and began raking in the chits.

“Too stupid to bluff,” said Arcadius sadly, shaking his head.

“Stupid like a fox,” declared Constans.

Palamedes blinked. “Is that how you Milesians say that…?”

“No,” said Arcadius. “It isn’t.”

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 8

Nisrioch stood at the gate watching the elephants pour in. They were, thankfully, smallish elephants--however, they had howdahs on top, filled with people. Most were playing instruments--trumpets, flutes, mandolins, and the occasional tambourine.

“Three elephants,” he muttered to himself. “No, four….” He turned to Cei. “Does she expect us to take care of these things?”

“Why are you asking me that, Your Excellency?” said Cei. “You know she does.”

“Yes, yes I do.” Nisrioch frowned, and shook his head. “This is going to be a difficult one, isn’t it…?”

Cei coughed. “A fifth one, sir. It has a dancing girl on it,” he muttered.

Nisrioch glanced up at the Dev acrobatically cavorting on top of the elephant, dressed in a flowing gown of purple silk, lined with sparkling cloth-of-silver . “That is not a dancing girl. That is a dancing Dark Lord.” He gave a slight bow. “Alcina.”

Alcina Ashurana, Dark Lord of Albracca unfurled her wings and leapt off the elephant. “Nisrioch. I’m somewhat amazed you recognized me,” she said, as she glided down.

“What can I say,” answered Nisrioch. “I’m well-acquainted with you, my dear.”

“Flattery, Nisrioch, will get you… well, somewhere,” answered Alcina, raising a long-fingered hand to the tall Erl’s lips. A soft jangle accompanied her motion. “Don’t mind the bells. Ettarde swears they complete the ensemble.”

Nisrioch paused from planting kisses on her fingers. “And she is…?”

“My new arbiter,” answered Alcina with a yawn. “Frankly, I have my doubts about the girl.” She clicked her tongue. “Really, I’m so cross with Psyche for going off and getting married, leaving me here dependent on the services of lesser individuals.”

“Well, perhaps, I can soothe the fury that is gathering in your breast, Alse,” said Nisrioch with a slight smile.

“Mmmm, perhaps,” said Alcina, affectionately petting his face. “And what of you, Nisrioch? Have you any fury gathering in your breast, dearest?”

Nisrioch took her hand, and clenched it fiercely. “In my breast, and in every portion of my anatomy, from my head, down to my toes,” he answered.

Alcina pulled away. “I see.” The tip of one of her wings idly tickled his nose as she moved back. “Well, then it seems we must work together to kill this tumult that afflicts us.” She peered at him through the lids of her eyes, just the slightest of red flashes visible. “I suspect it will take many… little deaths to kill it all.”

“And is that what brings you here to Bridge Perilous?” asked Nisrioch. “Small amounts of death and tumult?”

“More or less,” answered Alcina. “Officially, it’s about trade. Unofficially--well, you Cthoniques have just made the Lands of Night so… very interesting. Father is worried.”

Nisrioch peered at her intently. “And you, Alse?”

“As I told you, Nisrioch,” said Alcina, walking away, “I’m in tumult.”

Nisrioch watched her leave. “Excuse me, sir,” coughed Cei. “But… the elephants?”

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 7

Elaine eagerly entered the Grand Courtyard. “Okay, I brought Caladbolg. So we can get started, or…”

Mansemat raised his hand gently. “Well, you can start by placing the Sword of Light to the side. This is practice, so we’ll be using a practice sword.”

Elaine blinked. “Ummm… okay…” She set her sword by the rack of practice blades As she picked one up, her hands shook lightly. “Damn thing’s heavy…”

“Helps you get used to wielding them,” answered Mansemat, twirling his effortlessly in the air.

Elaine gave a sour frown. “Right. So… what are we practicing? Slashing? Slicing? Stabbing?” Her eyes became very hopeful indeed. “Or maybe that thing where you cut the guy in front of you, then hit the guy behind you? Hmm? Maybe?”

“That one will have to wait,” said Mansemat, replacing the wooden sword in its place by his side. “It’s a fairly advanced technique, after all.” He stepped forward smiling. “No, we are starting on the basis of the Seventeen-Style School--drawing your weapon.”

Elaine stared at him in silence for a moment. “You’re kidding,” she declared at last.

Mansemat gave a shake of his head. “No I am not. Ten of the seventeen styles that make up the Seventeen-Style School rest on the quickness of the draw.”

“What about the other seven?” asked Elaine.

“One is unarmed fighting, two are with dirks, another two are with staves and clubs,” listed off Mansemat, “and the remaining two are endurance fighting styles for when you are caught in a protracted battle.”

Elaine blinked. “Wow. You’ve really spent a long time on this, haven’t you?”

“The Seventeen-Style School is one of my life’s works,” replied Mansemat. “So, yes.”

She sighed. “Fine. Let’s practice our sword-drawing techniques.” Her hand went to the practice blade’s hilt. “Now I draw…”

Before she even finished the sentence, Mansemat’s blade was pointing at her face.

“What just happened?” Elaine asked at length.

“I just slit you open from gut to gullet,” answered Mansemat.

“Well, that doesn’t count!” announced Elaine. “I wasn’t ready!”

Mansemat coughed, as he returned the wooden blade to its sheath. “Well, Elaine, the horrible truth about battles, they tend not to allow do-overs. People kill you, and then you are dead. Occasionally you then move onto undeath, but that tends to be rare.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Isn’t that right, Morgaine?”

The undead Cthonique scratched her hair. “Ehh, there are a whole lot of technical areas that are beyond you, and which you probably wouldn’t understand if I tried to explain them. But yeah, it’s not that frequent.”

Elaine looked at her with wide eyes. “Morgaine, you were watching all that…?”

Morgaine spread her hands. “I go where humiliation can be found. I’m not that particular about the specifics. Hells, I even laugh at myself.” She shut her eyes and chuckled. “By the Lady, I’m such a goof.”

Elaine gritted her teeth, and turned. “Okay. Fine. Let’s try again. This time--I’m ready.”

“You sure about that?” asked Mansemat.

Elaine nodded.

He raised an eyebrow. “Positive?”

“Yes!” she hissed.

He smiled. “Very well--begin!” Elaine drew her blade as quickly as she could--and found herself staring at Mansemat’s again.

“Very good!” said Mansemat. “You were actually drawing it when I killed you this time.”

Elaine glanced at her sword. “What do you mean ‘drawing it’? It’s out!”

“Only because we aren’t doing this for real,” explained Mansemat. “If this were an actual to the death contest, your hand would have fallen from your hilt, mid-draw, and you’d be staring at your insides now, asking yourself ‘Didn’t those things used to be inside me?’ And you’d be right.”

“Right.” Elaine shut her eyes. “So… another try?”

“As many as you ask for,” answered Mansemat.

Morgaine chuckled. “Ahh, man. I wish Nissy were here for this. It’s going to be great!”

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 6

“Now,” explained Pelleas, “we fold it… thusly…” He elegantly folded the paper, into the shape of tiny boat, and set it in the pond.

Malina clapped. “Oh, wow, King Pelican! That is so neat!” She looked at him intently. “Can all Millysans make boats out of paper? Or only kings?”

“It is,” declared Pelleas grandly “an art which any may practice, king or commoner, child of Light or child of Night.” He patted Malina’s head fondly. “Why I used to do it with my cousins when our fathers…” He stopped, and sighed. “Ahh, me. I’ve gotten old.”

“Yes, you have,” said Malina with a nod. “But you’re a neat old guy. And not a creepy one, like Grampa Belberith.” Her little red eyes narrowed. “Who is spooky, and mean-frowns all the time.”

Pelleas smiled. “Why thank you, child. I enjoy your company as well.” The pair turned to watch the little boat float in the pond.

“Awww,” groaned Malina as it began to falter then sink. “It’s drownening.”

“The glory of a paper boat is its impermanence,” said Pelleas. “Why, Sesyll and I used to wager whose would go under first on those golden afternoons.” His face grew grave. “A rather morbid sport on reflection. He usually won. Except, it appears, the time it mattered most.” Malina regarded the exiled King of Leonais worriedly. “It’s all right, my dear. Just… a grown up matter.”

“Ohhh,” said Malina with a nod. “Mommy Viv has promised to talk me ‘bout those when…” She bit her lip in concentration, then shook her head. “Well, she said something ‘bout flowers. Don’t know what that means, really.” She scratched her head and fiddled idly with her horns.

Pelleas coughed. “Yes, well… this is… a different sort of… grown up matters. For older grown ups whose time is growing short.”

“Oh, you’re thinking about death!” said Malina cheerily. “I do that all the time.” Pelleas turned towards her. The young Dev shrugged. “Well, I do. Mommy Mom was always telling me how I could fall into a pit, or get eaten by lions, or get stabbeded, or choked, or crushed, or all sorts of things. And that was something she was right ‘bout!” She smiled at Pelleas. “That’s why I member it so well.”

Pelleas nodded. “She sounds like… an… interesting woman.”

“You’re just saying that ‘cause you think I don’t realize she’s awful,” replied Malina. “ ‘Cept I do.” Her eyes narrowed. “She’s like your son, only he’s gooder at pretendin’ to be normal.” Malina shook her head. “Mommy Mom isn’t good at that at all.” She turned to Pelleas and smiled at him. “Could you make ‘nother boat? Please?”

Pelleas picked up another sheet of paper, and began to fold it. “Certainly, certainly…”

“…go through ordeal by water,” came Jean’s voice, in what appeared to be a question.

“It’s tradition!” answered Viviane. “We’re the Badb! Ours are the sea and the sky! And also rivers,” she explained, as she entered the garden, her sister in tow. “And lakes. And… oh, what are those ones, that are like rivers, only not as long…?

“Streams?” suggested Jean. “Inlets? Estuaries?”

Viviane snapped her fingers. “Right, one of those. Anyway, mastery of the water is…” She paused as she saw Malina and Pelleas sitting by the pond.

“Hey, Mommy Viv!” said Malina with a wave. “King Pelican is showing how to make paper boats!”

Viviane nodded, her eyes remaining on Pelleas the entire time. “Right.” She turned to Jean. “Come on. I think there’s another pond on the grounds. Or just outside them. Something like that.”

Jean had just enough time to wave before Viviane tugged her away.

Pelleas sighed to himself. “Awww!” said Malina. “This one’s drownening already!”

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 5

Eurydice sat down on a bench in the hall, and set her basket of hot cross buns beside her. After a moment, she let loose a great sigh, and helped herself to one of the buns.

“Ivanushka still fasting?” asked Julia Upsilon, sidling up next to her, and helping herself to a bun.

“Yes, Squire Sigma is doing that,” she replied.

“These are good,” said Julia, her mouth full. “Sort of like a mince pie. Only… not as pie-ey.”

Eurydice de Fidele shifted from looking at the young nun to glaring at her. It had little effect. “Aren’t you worried about your brother?”

“Some,” replied Julia, helping herself to another bun. “But I figure it’s something he has to work out on his own.”

Eurydice crossed her arms. “What kind of sister could…”

“My kind,” answered Julia with a yawn. She picked up another bun. “Can I have the recipe? These are very good.”

“I don’t know it,” said Eurydice, turning away.

“But I thought you were a cook,” asked Julia, scarfing down her latest bun.

“No,” answered Eurydice. “I direct the cooks. And the maids. And pretty much everyone else in the castle. It’s a family thing.”

Julia’s face screwed up in puzzlement. “Your family are all as bossy as you?” she asked, picking up another bun.

“We’re all stewards!” hissed Eurydice. “Every Fidele has been a steward for centuries! It’s our job! Running Castle Terribel!”

Julia’s expression remained puzzled, even as she continued to chew her bun. “I thought that was the Dark Lord’s job?”

“No, only for the important things,” said Eurydice. “We run the other things.”

“The unimportant things,” said Julia, with a nod.

“The day-to-day things,” muttered Eurydice, burying her face in her hands. “The little things that keep the Castle functioning, but the Dark Lord can’t be bothered with all the time himself.”

“Or herself,” added Julia, helping herself to another bun.

“No, himself! The Dark Lord of the Plains is agnatic!” shouted Eurydice.

“Ahh, boys only then.” Julia nodded. “That’s nice to know. But to return to you--so you handle all the little things, but you don’t do all the little things. Correct?”

“Pretty much,” said Eurydice, as the young nun stood up. “Why are you asking?”

“Oh, trying to place you,” said Julia, walking away. “I was hoping that my brother would have a good cook, but still--someone who looks after people is what he needs.” She smiled at Eurydice. “Tell whoever baked those they were delicious.”

Eurydice watched Julia walk away in bafflement. Glancing at her basket, she saw that it was now empty.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 4

Nisrioch looked over the account books on the desk before him, nodding fitfully. “Very well done, Cei.”

The Dev bowed. “I live to serve, Your Excellency.”

“Oh, please,” stated Nisrioch, pouring himself a cup of tea. “That would be a very dull life. I’d say you live to make me aware of how incredibly useful you are.”

“If that is how His Excellency wishes to put it,” answered Cei, “who am I to argue?” He shrugged, causing his wings to flutter slightly.

Nisrioch sighed as he added a bit of lemon juice to his tea. “My niece’s seneschal.” He sipped, and gave a nod. “So--no problems from Kaf?”

“No--extraordinary problems,” said Cei.

Nisrioch turned to the seneschal, his rainbow-hued eyes sparkling strangely. “Define ‘extraordinary’,” he stated.

Cei raised a hand and began counting things off. “Lord Belberith has not sent any assassins to kill our tax collectors, nor has he sponsored bandits to disrupt our trade for nearly two years now. His ambassador spies on us, but has not attempted any destructive acts of espionage--secret leagues, hidden bonds, or the like--there have been no explo--”

“Understood, understood,” noted Nisrioch, massaging his temples. “So he’s simply being his usual unpleasant self.” He shivered. “Marvelous. Simply marvelous. The wolf is at the door, and the fox is at the shed. Hurrah for the Plains of Dread.” He frowned. “By the Lady, I thought I’d be more prepared for this. I have the Sight, I should be--but time and time again the future proves more powerful than my imagining of it…” The peal of a horn rang throughout the chamber. Nisrioch’s eyes went wide. “Is that… the Oliphant?”

Cei coughed. “I could tell you otherwise, sir, but I would be lying.”

Nisrioch took a deep breath. “Well, at least it’s only a minor emissary…” A second peal rang out. “Major emissary. A major emissary may be important but it’s not a…” A third peal of the Oliphant was heard. “State visit,” muttered Nisrioch. “It’s a state visit. That’s why I didn’t See this.” He stood up and looked to the heavens. “Oh, Alse, Alse, why do you wound me so?”

“Well, sir, I would say…” began Cei.

“I was speaking rhetorically,” declared Nisrioch. He bit his lip and glanced around. “Cei, go make the Albraccans… welcome. And inform them I am indisposed for the nonce. Possibly two nonces. Maybe even three. I make no guarantees.”

Cei bowed. “Very well, sir. With your permission, I shall make the number of nonces--indefinite.”

“Very good, very good,” declared Nisrioch. “Yes, exceptionally wise.” His fingers began to idly tap the table. “And… have the servants get me some ginger water.”

Cei nodded and left the room. When he was gone, Nisrioch sat back down, and stared at he papers before him glumly for a long while. Eventually, he picked up his tea, and took another sip. He set the cup down, and fiddled idly with the papers. He opened a drawer, and produced a small mirror, and regarded himself in it, from a variety of angles. He then returned it to the drawer, and ran his hands through his hair. Then he picked up his tea again, and stared at it for a moment.

Finally, he drank it down in a single gulp.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 3

Elaine nibbled at her Albraccan gooseberries, and glanced across the table at Mansemat.

“So…” she began nervously.

Mansemat looked up from his breakfast. “Mmm…?” he muttered, swallowing a mouthful of oatmeal.

Elaine glanced away and began to fiddle nervously with her fingers. “You mentioned… training.” She looked up hopefully. “Sword training…”

Mansemat blinked. “Hmm. I believe I did.” He stroked his chin for a moment, then looked again at his stepdaughter. “Are you certain you’re up to it?”

Elaine nodded.

“Absolutely positive?” said Mansemat, raising an admonishing finger. “Because I warn you, I am a hard taskmaster.”

Elaine stared at him for a moment, then burst out laughing.

Mansemat crossed his arms. “What?”

“Well… Dad… you’re… a marshmallow…” explained Elaine. “Not… even remotely a taskmaster.”

The Dark Lord straightened. “You might be surprised. I know I go out of my way to be affable and unassuming, but underneath it all, I am as steel.”

“If steel spent its time making flower arrangements,” said Morgaine.

Mansemat turned. “Where did you come from?” he asked his sister.

She gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “Out and about. Doing things. You know me. Some are as the busy bee, others as the butterfly.” She glanced at the fruit spread before them, and started to help herself. “I see we’ve received our latest shipment from Albracca. Excellent. Excellent.” She clapped her hands together. “Oh, thank you, Nissy, for this meal.”

“Flower arranging?” asked Elaine.

“It is an ancient manly art,” declared Mansemat forcefully. “Practiced by men. Men of exceedingly manliness.” Elaine continued to stare at him. He glanced at Morgaine. “Why do you, of all people, give me grief for this? Why?”

“I’m your big sister, Manny,” replied Morgaine. “It’s practically my job.”

“Will I have to…?” began Elaine.

“It is recommended that chivalrous warriors have some hobby that does not involve killing things,” noted Mansemat. “So they appreciate the value of life, instead of simply seeing it as a thing to be snuffed out.” He shut his eyes. “It doesn’t have to be flower arranging…”

“Right, it can be poetry,” said Morgaine, chuckling lightly. “ Or vase-painting. Or minatures. Or…” Morgaine’s eyes lit up. “Oooh, remember that summer you tried to learn to play the flute?”

Mansemat stared at his sister for a moment then stood up. “I’ll be out in the Grand Courtyard,” he declared. He glanced at Elaine. “If you wish to begin your training, please join me.” And with that he stalked out.

Morgaine glanced at her niece. “Sadly he is crap at all of those things I mentioned,” she explained. “Well, except for the flower arranging. That he’s okay at.”

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 2

“Feel the sun on your face--and breathe out,” repeated Viviane du Lac.

Jean Crow did so, and then glanced at her elder sister. “So… how does this help me… be a witch again?”

“It helps you feel,” answered Viviane confidently.

Jean glanced over the Castle’s battlement, then back at Viviane. “Okay, that… really didn’t answer anything. What does feeling have to do with… witch… witchiness?”

“The word you’re looking for is witchery,” said Viviane. “And the answer to your question is everything.” Viviane raised her left hand to the heavens, and idly waved it. Gradually, the air around it began to ripple and swirl. “This isn’t like Nisrioch or Morgaine’s sorcery, where you figure out the rules and then work to exploit the loopholes--this is the OLD MAGIC! The Badb is a figure of authority---SHE does not ask favors of the forces of the universe--SHE MAKES DEMANDS!” With a sudden thrust of her arm, Viviane sent a gust of wind rushing forward.

Jean blinked. “Whoa… That…”

“Was the merest sampling of my awesome might!” declared Viviane in a booming voice. “For I am the Badb, and mine are the ways of power and TERROR!” She threw her head back and laughed, her eyes glowing an unearthly red, while deep shadows surrounded her face.

Jean gulped and then stared at her for a moment. “You… used to do that when we were kids, didn’t you?”

Viviane blinked, as her appearance went back to normal. “Ummm… what… do you mean?”

“The… spooky face thing,” said Jean. “You used to do that. And chase me around.”

Viviane frowned. “You liked it,” she declared.

“No,” said Jean, shaking her head. “No, I didn’t.”

“Well, I liked it,” said Viviane. She crossed her arms. “I mean--come on, Jean. I was twelve. And Mom tended to unload you on me. Constantly.” She shrugged. “I didn’t usually mind, but sometimes… well, you know. Twelve.”

Jean took a deep breath. “Yes, well, aside from revealing the source of my childhood nightmares, how is all this going to help me figure out how to be the Nemain?”

“You don’t need to figure anything out, Jean,” explained Viviane. “You are the Nemain. All you have to do is… do.”

Jean shut her eyes. “Right. Right. So… are you telling me I just spent half a year learning from Nisrioch, and none of it is any good to me?”

Viviane thought it over, then nodded. “Yeah. Pretty much.”

Jean let out a frustrated sob, and buried her face in her hands. “And I finally had that damned trick with the glowing sphere down…”

“Hey,” said Viviane. “Language.”

Jean peaked up at her sister. “Viviane, you swear like a sailor at the least provocation.”

“Yes, but I’m not you,” said Viviane. “You being my beloved, long-lost little sister. Am I being damned clear?”

Jean stared at her for a second and sighed. “Oh, go get bent.”

Viviane let loose a snort. “Care to back up that tough talk?”

It occurred to Jean, as Viviane rolled up her sleeves, that she might be in trouble.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 1

Justinian Sigma knelt in the Chapel of the Seven in Shadow, and continued his prayers. “Radiant Uriel, pardon this sinner for his weakness. Sublime Annael, forgive this wretch for his failures. Mighty Ramiel, excuse…” A polite cough interrupted his prayer.

“I thought you might like these hot cross buns,” said Eurydice, dropping a basket by his side.

Justinian glanced at her, and sighed. “Eurydice, I must ask, with the greatest possible respect, what part of a fast don’t you understand?”

Eurydice frowned, and stepped before him. “The why part. You’re still recovering from what that… monster did to you. And so you are starving yourself in a chapel, reciting prayers and…”

“Eurydice, I don’t question your need to do the… hand thing every time someone mentions Mother Night, do I?” asked Justinian.

“Of course not,” declared Eurydice, touching her hand to her forehead, mouth and heart in quick sequence. “The Obeisant Gesticulation is simply a reminder of our service to Our Unholy Mother in Darkness in deed, thought, word, and feeling.” She shrugged. “It’s not something… silly like this.”

“It is a matter of faith, Eurydice,” said Justinian. “Just like what I’m doing right now.” He nodded at the mural of the Darksome Lady on the wall. “You wouldn’t feel right with your god if you didn’t do it. And I would not feel right with mine if I didn’t do this.”

“Yes, but the Darksome Lady exists,” said Eurydice. “Even you Mileisans acknowledge that. You just think She’s some sort of demon, for some strange reason.”

Justinian raised an eyebrow. “Are you telling me the Seven don’t exist?”

Eurydice shifted her feet nervously. “Ummm… they might, but… they might not…” She looked at Justinian positively. “But that’s beside the point. The point is--EVERYBODY agrees Mother Night is real.” She frowned. “Well okay, except for the Orahatian Mikhelites. But those guys are weird.”

Justinian sighed. “I’m not trying to dispute the existence of Douma Dalkiel with you, Eurydice. I’m just trying to explain why I’m doing this.”

“Well, you’re doing a bad job,” said Eurydice with a nod.

“Just take the rolls away,” said Justinian, shutting his eyes.

“They’re not rolls, they’re hot cross buns!” shouted Eurydice. “You have to eat them now! While they’re hot! Otherwise, they’re not very good.”

“Well, I won’t,” replied Justinian. “So… just take them away.”

Eurydice stared at him for a moment, then turned away. “You are the most frustrating man I’ve ever known. And remember, I know a lot of people. I was even engaged to Palamedes Woodash.”

Justinian stared back at her. “Palamedes Woodash is the mildest, most unassuming man I know.”

“Oh, that’s what he gets people to think,” noted Eurydice, wrinkling her nose. “By being all quiet, and apologizing all the time. But then, then, just when you think you have him figured out, he goes and has an opinion on you.” She shook her head. “It is so, so very annoying.”

Justinian shut his eyes. “I’m not having the hot cross buns, Eurydice,” he said calmly.

Eurydice took a deep breath and picked up her basket. “Maybe if I leave one here…”

“No, Eurydice,” stated Justinian.

“Fine!” she snapped, storming towards the chapel doors. “Starve to death! See if I care when they drag your emaciated corpse from this chapel!” She paused a moment. “Unless the thought of me bawling my eyes out at the sight of your dead body would make you rethink things. Then I will care, very much!”

“I appreciate the kind thoughts,” said Justinian, quietly.

Eurydice grumbled something under her breath, and left the Chapel.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

And the Mountain Cried 'Too High, Too High'--Part 30

“Isn’t this great, Palepole?” announced Faileuba. “Ponies! We’ve got ponies! Real, live ponies!”

Gwydd frowned. “Yeah. Wonderful. I am filled with a gentle sense of delight.”

Faileuba stuck her tongue out at him. “Hmmph. Princess Sugar-Wonderful-Sparkling-Joy and I are ignoring your negativity.” She leaned forward and began to rub her face in the pony’s mane. “Isn’t that right, Princess?”

Gwydd stared in horror. “Do you have any idea where that pony has been?”

“A wonderful land filled with rainbows and enchantment?” suggested Faileuba.

The Goblin sighed. “Sure. Right. Enchantment.” He turned to Meliadus. “Tell me you realize how crazy and disgusting she’s acting?”

“I’m sorry,” replied Meliadus, “but King-Awesome-Incredible-Awesomeness and I are in agreement with Fai. Ponies are great.”

Gwydd raised a hand and began to massage the bridge of his nose. “How have you to gotten on so long in the real world?”

“By beating up lots of people,” said Faileuba.

“Chivalrously!” added Meliadus.

“Of course!” noted Faileuba with a nod.

Gwydd nodded sadly. “Right.” He pulled out the little silver necklace from his pocket and looked at it again.

“Memento from an old flame?” asked Faileuba.

“No,” said Gwydd. “It was Chult’s.”

“Wow, you do move fast,” she declared.

“Your various insults over aristocratic Goblin custom no longer disturb me,” declared Gwydd calmly.

“Awww,” said Faileuba, pouting, “you’re no fun anymore.”

“It seemed to have some sort of symbolic meaning for him,” continued the Goblin. “Tied to whoever gave him the money to hire the Disciples. And it hit me that we’ve been seeing a lot of these lately. Like the leader of those bandits, operating near Altaripa. Or that bunch of smugglers, in Belfior. Or…”

There was a large explosion. “Oooh! Fireworks!” said Faileuba enthusiastically.

Gwydd sighed and glanced at the Murkenmere, flowing in the distance, with bright lights appearing with every bang. “Actually, I think those are rockets,” he said.

“What’s the difference?” yawned Meliadus.

“Rockets mean war,” replied the Goblin.

Faileuba shrugged. “They’re still pretty.”

Meliadus looked at the explosions, and nodded. “Yeah, whatever this is, we’ll probably hear what’s going on at the next stop. So why worry now? Let’s move, while we still have money in our pockets, and a chance at a good job. For we are young, dashing chivalrous warriors!”

“I second that,” declared Faileuba, raising her hand.

“And I third it,” added Meliadus.

“You can’t third it, you firsted it!” explained Faileuba.

“Hey, I can third, and even fourth it if I so desire,” he replied.

As the two Erls rode cheerfully away, chatting all the while, Gwydd sighed. He felt like he’d been on the verge of something, but his partners had once again put a stop to it. “What a life,” he muttered. He watched the rockets exploding on the Murkenmere, and wondered once again what was going on. “And the mountain cried ‘Too high, too high, that endless expanse they call the sky, I reach but it is greater than I, the sky it is too high,” he sang softly to himself, as he continued on his way.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

And the Mountain Cried, 'Too High, Too High'--Part 29

Idun watched Brandomarte Vanir and Fiordelisa Aesir kiss the axe, and sighed.

“This entire job has been one giant waste of time,” she muttered to herself, shaking her head. She’d come here, expecting to play a small, but significant part in ending an age-old feud. Instead, she’d discovered herself to be superfluous to the matter--a bit part in the political theater the Margrave and the Count-Palatine used to keep their more bellicose relatives and followers satisfied. And really, what could she expect? The Dark Lords of the Fangs had left the Southern Lords to their own devices for centuries now--the Counts-Palatine had officially been allies to Lords of the Stonefangs, not subjects. And despite this tradition of benign neglect, they apparently thought that the Southerners were helpless without them--could not live without them--needed the Fangs to tell them what to do.

“What do we rule?” asked Idun quietly. “Other than a handful of fortresses in the mountains, I mean?”

Idun heard a little cough. “Ummm… Skald Bragi?” She turned to see Nan Walsing standing there, looking rather nervous. “Are… you… what are you talking a…?”

“Just muttering to myself,” said Idun. “I do that a lot.” Nan managed a rather nervous nod. “So… what brings you here?” Nan looked at her feet in a rather nervous manner. Idun turned to the door. “You know, I do have places to go. Things to do. Recitations to deliver. And so forth. So I’ll just head on my way…”

“Thanks for… all you did,” blurted out Nan. “With my father, and the discussions, and the Gibelings and…”

Idun turned to regard the Ettin. “I did jackshit, Miss Walsing.” She shook her head. “Old Bragi is probably shaking his head in disgust in the Halls of Ancestors. He once stopped a war with an epic.” Nan stared at her. “It was a real good epic,” explained Idun.

Nan nodded. “Right.” Her eyes turned to the wedding, and then shut. “Umm… well… still… thanks… for…”

Idun noticed the tears appearing in the corner of Nan’s eyes. “Oh. Well--you’re welcome.” She looked at the wedding, and nodded to herself. “You know… through a set of circumstances that I will not detail, I am in need of an apprentice after letting my last one go.” She shrugged. “It’s not a well-paying job, but you travel a lot--see all sorts of things…”

“Are you--are you… offering me a job?” asked Nan, staring at the skald in disbelief.

“Yep,” said Idun. She looked the Walsing in the eye. “I find one of the best ways to put sorrow behind me is to put some distance between me and it. One reason I became a skald. Aside from the whole family matter…”

Nan bit her lip. “Is there… is there something I have to do…?”

“Yes. Pack your bags, and get ready.” Idun shrugged. “Not a whole lot of ritual involved in taking apprentices. Becoming a proper skald’s the complicated thing.”

“Ummm. Wow. Thank you.” A slight, brittle smile had come to the Ettin’s face. “I--I go… do that…” She turned to leave, then paused. “I… is this because… you feel… that thing between you and…”

Idun raised a hand. “Remember that apprentice I mentioned? The one I no longer have? Well, I will mention that his severance involved a tendency to ask questions I didn’t want to answer.” She smiled. “Am I understood?”

Nan nodded. “I’ll go get… packed…”

Idun watched the young Ettin scurry away, and shook her head. “I am such a sucker for a sob story,” she muttered. She turned to the wedding and took a deep breath.

“Skald Bragi!” boomed Dolistone as she marched forward. “So good of you to…”

Idun frowned. “I’d like to make this brief, understood? Because--and don’t take this the wrong way--I would sort of like a break from having to listen to the sound of your voice, Count.” Manodante started to say something. “You too, Margrave.” She looked at Brandomarte and Fiordelisa. “So… keeping it brief. Be good to each other.” She leaned forward. “Understand me? Be very good to each other.”

The pair looked at her, slightly confused. “We… will be,” said Fiordelisa.

Idun turned to leave. “Yeah. I hope so. I really do. With all my heart.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

And the Mountain Cried 'Too High, Too High'--Part 28

“So, you feeling better?” asked Faileuba.

Meliadus yawned, and then sat up in his cot. He glanced around several times. “Well, I no longer feel an urge to vomit when I try to look around the room.”

Faileuba slapped him companionably on the shoulder. “Baby steps. Baby steps.” She flashed him a grin. “Well, good thing that your creepy old friend is dead, right?” Meliadus remained silent. “I mean--it’s not like we’re going to see him again, right?” Meliadus frowned. Faileuba coughed. “Right?”

“Right,” said Meliadus suddenly. “He is almost certainly dead.”

Faileuba sighed. “You’re a terrible liar, Meliadus, you know that?” She shook her head. “So… I’m not even going to ask where you got the hellpowder, because that’s just you being… well, you…”

“Thank you,” said Meliadus cheerfully. “I’m glad you’ve noticed my propensity for explosive devices of all sorts.”

“Not meant as a compliment,” muttered Faileuba. She bit her lip. “I--ever tell you about my father?”

“I wasn’t even sure you had one,” he noted, shaking his head.

Faileuba squinted at him. “Well--then how did you think…?”

“I’ve also assumed you grew in a patch of poison ivy,” explained Meliadus. Faileuba squint turned into an offended stare. “It was admittedly, a rough guess.”

“He was a Thanatos, like me,” said Faileuba. “And he used his vast and incredible power to be… a butcher. He killed the village’s cattle and pigs and the occasional sheep, and once, I believe a goat, quick and clean.” She shrugged. “He thought that if he did that, people would like him. And he was wrong. They… grudgingly tolerated him, they let him marry and have a kid, but they were just waiting for him to screw up. One day, a kid vanished, and they surrounded him, and strung him up, and he let them, even though he could have sent the bastards scurrying with his eyes closed.” Faileuba frowned. “I guess he figured that he was proving something by not fighting back. They found the kid the next day. Alive and fine. She’d wandered off in the forest, eating berries, and lost track of the time.”

Meliadus placed a hand on her shoulder. “I guess he taught you a lot.”

Faileuba glared at him. “Yeah, that stupid sacrifices are stupid. He could have fought those bastards off and lived. He could have made a good name for himself, doing great things. Instead he threw all that away chasing acceptance from a bunch of stupid hicks who would never give it to him.” She shook her head. “I’m not going to die like that, Meliadus. And I’m not letting my friends die like that either. Understand?”

Meliadus nodded, then yawned. “Man, I never knew lying in one spot could be so exhausting.”

“Yeah, well, prepare to forget it--we’re traveling again,” she declared. “We’ve actually been given money, and I think leaving before we outwear our welcome might let us keep it.”

Meliadus fell in behind the shorter Erl as they walked out. “Oh, one thing Fai,” said Meliadus. “That kid who got lost--whatever happened to her?”

“She was beaten up repeatedly by a mysterious assailant,” said Faileuba. “And the little brat deserved it too.”

Meliadus chuckled. “You are so mean.”

“You know it, Holdfast,” declared Faileuba. “You know it.”

Saturday, November 17, 2012

And the Mountain Cried 'Too High, Too High'--Part 27

Baron Chult was sipping his drink, when Gwydd found him. “Ahh! Palepole,” said the old Ettin cheerfully, raising his glass. “Care to join me.”

The Goblin shook his head. “I’m going to have to pass.” He took the seat next to the Baron. “So… I guess you heard the news of how that murder turned out…”

Chult nodded. “Yes, yes.” He sighed. “Quite… odd. And tragic.”

Gwydd stared at the Baron for a moment. “That’s… one way of putting it.” He glanced away. “Hired assassins are… I think… a bit more than odd and tragic. They imply someone doing the hiring. And…” He shook his head, and laughed. “Well, I may not be a Guild of the Sword member anymore--but some things become habits. I see something like that, something that makes me ask questions, and it makes me want to look for answers.”

“I’d say your answers died with Argilius Gibeling,” said Chult. “Slain by the very men he hired to cover their tracks.” He shrugged. “It’s almost… ironic.”

“It would be if he did--but he didn’t,” noted Gwydd. “Argilius was as surprised the Disciples showing up as anyone else. He had no idea that Saxo Walsing was dead, and anyway--Argilius wasn’t the kind of man who hires assassins. He may have been a bloodthirsty, ambitious idiot of a man--but he did his own killing. That’s one thing you can say in his favor.” The Goblin shut his eyes. “No, the kind of man who hires assassins--he’s a man who fears people. A man who holds grudges, but buries them. Even jokes about them. A man who sits in his corner, sneering at the world.” The eyes opened again, regarding the Baron clearly. “You know the sort of man I’m talking about, don’t you, Chult?”

The Baron stared at him, then finished his drink. “You must have been one hell of Guildsman, back when you were a member.”

Gwydd shook his head. “A fair one. But I never really fit in. Working in the Guild, I learned a lot--but not all of it was what I wanted to. I also saw how the law can pervert justice. They tell you it falls on everyone the same--and I suppose if rich men were as apt to sleep in ditches and steal bread as poor ones, it would be a very admirable system. But somehow, the big crimes had a way of getting all murky, especially when money was involved.” The Goblin gave a sad smile. “It rankled me. It really did. And so, being a young idiot who was convinced that greatness was waiting for him, I stopped serving the law, and started serving justice.”

Chult stared at the table. Eventually, he pulled out a small necklace of silver chain and began to play with it idly. “You talk about poor men and rich men. Well, I’m one of the poor ones. We Chults have lost so much in funds--in lives--to this ridiculous feud…”

“And that’s why you have plenty of liquor,” said Gwydd. “As well as being able to hire Cruel Disciples to engineer a bloodbath…”

“The liquor isn’t very good,” said Chult sadly. He stared at his necklace again. “As for the assassins--I had help with them. A little loan from some interested parties.” He gulped. “You have to understand, Palepole--I’m not a bad man. I’m really not. I care for this little patch that the Lady has seen fit to grant to my line. And seeing it torn apart, again and again, by these stupid angry fools who do not care…”

“Shut up, Chult,” said Gwydd, slamming a hand on the table. “I don’t want to hear your useless bullshit rationalizations. You say you got played. And I believe you. You got played because you’re one of those stupid, angry fools who do not care--and you think you aren’t. And the proof is, your way of ‘solving’ your problems is to have more of the killing that you are apparently so bitterly offended by. A lot more.” He took a deep breath. “So what were we supposed to be in your little game? Handy people to attract blame? Or had you figured out that your good friends who floated you a loan didn’t like loose ends?”

“Partially, the second, but also…” Chult began to weep. “A man may make mistakes--terrible, awful mistakes, and he may regret them, and wish to set them right…”

“When those mistakes involve murder, Chult,” said Gwydd, “I think there’s a definite limit to the forgiveness available.”

Chult smiled grimly. “I would not say you’re wrong, sir.” A pained look came to his face. “Oh, my...” He fell to the ground, groaning.

Gwydd rose from his seat. “What… what did you do?”

“Poison,” said Chult. “Water… finally good… for some…” He groaned again, and convulsed, then passed out.

“No,” spat out Gwydd. “No! You don’t get to die like this, taking the easy way out…”

It occurred to Gwydd that if Chult had been still capable of speaking he’d have told the Goblin that he didn’t have a say in this matter.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

And the Mountain Cried 'Too High, Too High,'--Part 26

Meliadus shivered slightly as a cold wind blew on the villa roof. “So what’s this really about, Eliaures?” he asked.

The Cruel Disciple laughed. “I told you. You quit. I don’t appreciate that.”

Meliadus stared at him. “Wait--you… haven’t been looking for me?”

Eliaures shook his head. “Nope. I thought you were dead, Gravegoods, till I saw you in that crowd.” He shrugged. “This has all been one rather odd coincidence.”

Meliadus chuckled. “Well, imagine that.”

“Yes,” Eliaures laughed. “It is rather amusing.”

“So, what’s the job?” asked Meliadus.

“Over,” answered the Cruel Disciple. “Frankly, it was always a rather foolish one. But one goes where She directs.” He shrugged at Meliadus. “Even you.”

“Oh, especially me, Eliaures,” noted Meliadus with a smile. “See, I’ve kind of changed my mind on what it is She wants.”

The Cruel Disciple hissed. “Folly. Heresy. Madness.” Two blades appeared in his hands. “There is no stepping off the path once it is stepped on. We are beasts, you and I.”

“You’re a beast, Venomous,” said Meliadus simply. “I became a man.”

A contemptuous sneer came to Eliaures’ face. “Then die as one,” he declared throwing his knives.

Meliadus ducked beneath them.

“My, my,” said Eliaures. “And I thought you’d gone soft.” Meliadus rushed forwards, to close the distance between them, and struck at the Cruel Disciple. His fist touched only air, though his kick managed to graze Eliaures’ stomach. He felt the blade prick his shoulder.

“So that was your plan?” whispered Eliaures. “Hit me?” He chuckled and shook his head.

“No, not really,” said Meliadus, striking a match on his thumbnail. He opened his jacket, and lit the packet of hellpowder there. “It was more getting you far enough from everybody else--and then close enough to do this.” He quickly grappled the Cruel Disciple by the arm. “It ends now, Venomous.”

Eliaures’ eyes went wide, as he stared at the flickering fuse. “You’re insane.” He smiled. “I love it.”

And that was when the roof beneath them exploded outwards. Meliadus lost his grip on Eliaures. “Holdfast!” shouted Faileuba, as she sailed through the air. She grabbed Meliadus, then saw the burning packet. “Arrgh! Exploding packet of death!” She quickly tore off his jacket and tossed it away. Meliadus saw it flutter down the hole into the villa, where Eliaures, lying on the floor, watched it coming with abstracted amusement. Then it exploded.

“I used up a lot of juice with that leap,” explained Faileuba, as they began to fall towards the ground. “So be prepared for a bumpy landing…” She looked at Meliadus’ shoulder. “You’re bleeding. Do you think he…?”

“Venomous doesn’t use poison,” said Meliadus. “He is poison.”

“Right,” said Faileuba. “We’re getting that checked out.”

“Sure,” answered Meliadus with a nod, as he watched the ground coming closer. “And Fai…?” He took a deep breath. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” said Faileuba, as she shut her eyes, and braced herself for the impact.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

And the Mountain Cried 'Too High, Too High'--Part 25

“I’m must commend you, Gravegoods,” said Eliaures with a chuckle. “You have excelled at hiding in plain sight. Bravo.” He paced around edges of the room. “I am less impressed at your having deserted the Society to become… a freelancer, but still, all serve, eh?”

Meliadus shook his head. “Not the way you’re thinking, Venomous. Not that way at all.”

Eliaures nodded. “Hmmm… I rather thought you’d say something like that.” He raised his hand. “Ban. Baholt.” The apprentices emerged from the shadows knives at the ready. “Here is the apostate. And what is our duty towards the apostate?”

The pair carefully lined themselves to prevent Meliadus from having a clear line of attack on either of them. “The apostate must die.”

“Exactly,” said Eliaures with a smile, throwing two of his darts. Ban and Baholt fell to the ground, dying.

Meliadus blinked. “What…?”

“They were planning to kill me,” explained the Cruel Disciple. He shrugged. “They had some strange notion that I was planning to kill them.”

“Gee, imagine that,” said Meliadus. He regarded Eliaures for a moment. “So… what are you doing with apprentices now?”

Eliaures smiled. “I’m the new Master of Novices,” he explained.

“And Oristges?” asked Meliadus quietly.

“Guess…” answered Eliaures.

Meliadus took a deep breath. “Yeah. I expected as much.”

“Enough talk!” shouted Faileuba. “Whatsyername! Prepare to suffer--FOR JUSTICE!”

Eliaures leapt out of the way as she rushed him, dodging her blow by inches. The Cruel Disciple produced a thin blade and pointed it at her eyes as she moved forward. Faileuba managed to call up enough energy to avoid it, but it was still distracting enough for Eliaures to roll away. “Unwise, Thanatos. Unwise. I’m trying to be civil about this.” He twirled his knife. “Continue this, and I’ll stop.” A slight frown touched his face. “And that would get very unpleasant.”

Meliadus glared at him. “What do you want to be civil about?”

“Our… settling things,” said Eliaures. “You left the Society, Gravegoods. That cannot be allowed to stand.”

“Yeah, well, you’re going to have to be disappointed by that one,” muttered Meliadus.

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” said the Cruel Disciple, drawing another knife.

“Where does he keep getting those things?” whispered Faileuba to Gwydd.

“I think he keeps them in his sleeve,” replied the Goblin.

Faileuba shook her head. “That has to be hard on his shirts.”

“Probably,” agreed Gwydd.

“Please stop the chatter,” said Eliaures, idly raising his knife.

“Look--Venomous,” said Meliadus “If you want to get done with this, I suggest we move some place more… spacey.”

Eliaures nodded, and moved to the window. “I will see you on the roof then. Or you will see quite a few corpses in this little village. As many as I can make.” And then he leapt through the shattered windowpane.

Faileuba glanced at Meliadus. “You’re… not going to do what crazy assassin guy says, right?” She smiled hopefully.

Meliadus sighed and headed to the window. “I’m a warrior of chivalry, Fai.” He followed Eliaures out.

“Man,” groaned Faileuba. “I knew he was going to say something like that.”

“So why’d you ask?” noted Gwydd.

Faileuba shut her eyes. “Because I was hoping he wouldn’t.”

Saturday, November 10, 2012

And the Mountain Cried 'Too High, Too High'--Part 24

Faileuba rolled her eyes as Argilius stabbed at her. “Oh, please,” she muttered, blocking the dagger with her hand. The blade shattered.

Argilius stared at it a moment. “How…? How…?”

“Like you said,” drawled Faileuba. “I’m a Thanatos.” She glared at him. “And a Warrior of Chivalry, here to make you face justice for your numerous crimes. Like killing the old guy.”

“What?” Argilius blinked. “What are you talking about…?”

“Well, having him killed,” said Faileuba. “Same thing.” Argilius continued to stare at her. “Sa… Sasho Vault Thing.” She scratched her head. “Or Sassafras Wallting, or…”

“Saxo Walsing,” said Gwydd with a sigh.

Faileuba nodded. “Yeah, that might be it.” She raised a finger. “Maybe.”

Argilius continued to stare at her.

“We just let the fun happen,” explained Meliadus.

“Oh, like you’re ‘Mr. Name Guy’” spat out Faileuba. She stuck her tongue out at him. Meliadus replied by screwing up his eyes and puffing out his cheeks.

Argilius began to chuckle in a strange, dead way. “I… This… I…” He shut his eyes. “My life cannot get any worse.”

The blade pierced him through his chest. He stared at the dripping wound for a moment, then tottered over, and died.

“I didn’t do it!” shouted Faileuba. She glared at Meliadus.

“What?” said Meliadus.

“Hey, you’re ‘Assassin Guy’, I’m ‘Deadly Magic Hands Girl’” she protested. “That is the dichotomy of our relationship, and so it shall remain.”  She bit her lip.  “Well, okay, occasionally, you’re also ‘Explosion Guy’, but the broad outline is what I just said.”

“Well, I didn’t do this one,” said Meliadus.

Faileuba rolled her eyes and snorted. “Yeah, yeah, heard that one before.”

“Ahh,” said a calm voice, “but this time he is telling the truth.” The tall, pale Erl stepped out of a corner. “Hello, Gerholt Gravegoods. Long time, no see.”

Meliadus frowned. “Not my name anymore, Venomous. Not my name.”

Faileuba blinked then glanced at Gwydd. “Okay, now I’m confused. Isn’t that the ribbon salesman?”

Thursday, November 8, 2012

And the Mountain Cried 'Too High, Too High'--Part 23

“Are they just going to do stand around out there talking?” Argilius muttered to himself. He turned and glared at his captives. “I don’t think your fathers value your lives very much.”

Brandomarte sighed. “You think we’re surprised about that?”

The Ettin didn’t appear to listen to his reply. “If they’re going to break through, they’ll need at least twenty trained warriors. Not a bunch of old men, and women..” Argilius scowled and shook his head. “It’s madness. What sort of fool do they think I am? What sort of weak…” He blinked, and glanced out the window again. “Wha…?”

“What’s going on?” said Fiordelisa.

“Keep your mouth shut,” snapped Argilius. He peered through the window again. “Where did they…?”

At that moment a large Ogre slammed through a different window. As everyone stared at the fallen figure, a short Erlish woman jumped through the gaping hole that had previously been a window, and gave a triumphant laugh. “Ah ha!” she proclaimed. “Thegn Argilius Walsing! Prepare to face justice in the name of CHIVALRY!”

Argilius stared at her, then began to chuckle. “Oh, you have to be kidding me…”

The Erl cracked her knuckles. “Nope. We flipped for it, and I won. Which means I get to kick your ass.”

“Of course it does,” said Argilius. He stepped forward, raising his heavy fist. “I’ll save questions for what happened to the rest of my men for after my beating you into a pulp.” He swung at the woman, who swiftly side-stepped his blow. Snarling he struck at her again. Once again she twirled out of the way.

“Man, you suck at this,” said the Erl.

“Just have to hit you once,” muttered the Ettin.

“You sure about that?” she asked, dodging his blow once again. She lashed out with a kick that struck him in the stomach.

Argilius snarled. “Positive,” he muttered, steadying himself.

“Oooh,” laughed the woman. “You’re a tough one!” She dodged his next clumsy blow. “That’s great. I’ve been hoping for a tough fight.”

As they fought, another Erl--a lanky man--slipped through the window. He motioned for Brandomarte and Fiordelisa to stay quiet, then helped a Goblin through. The pair darted towards the imprisoned Mountain Erls, and began to cut away at their bonds.

“I will gut you!” shouted Argilius, as the woman dodged him yet again.

“Of course you will,” she noted with a nod. “Of course you will.”

“You stupid bitch,” he snarled, charging forward. “Do you think this is a game? Do…?” Argilius struck the wall, as she once again nimbly danced away from him. But as the Ettin righted himself, he turned and saw the others preparing to make their way out. Argilius frowned, and let out a bitter chuckle. “A trick. Of course. I should have known.” His gaze turned to Fiordelisa. “Well, you I can hit…”

“Eyes on me, jerk!” yelled his opponent, punching him in the jaw, her fist bathed in an eerie blue glow. Argilius gave a grunt of pain, and turned towards her. “Thanatos…” he spat out. “That explains a lot…”

The woman gave a confident roll of her head. “Trust me, I’ve barely been using my gifts. You just suck that much.” She chuckled. “You’re a tough bastard, Argilius--but not much else.”

Argilius glared at her, and drew his dagger. “Just keeping saying shit like that. Go on.” And then he lunged at her.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

And the Mountain Cried 'Too High, Too High'--Part 22

Ban stared at the crowd before the Gibeling villa. “This is not what was planned,” he said at last.

Eliaures glanced at his student with something akin to contempt. “Adapt then. Adapt.”

The young assassin turned to his master nervously. “Sir--my apologies--but--the situation…” He frowned. “We were supposed to be controlling this situation, gradually escalating things. Instead the situation has completely escaped our grasp.” He took a deep breath. “I… have always understood in a case such as this, it is best to back away.”

Eliaures smiled at him, then turned to Baholt. “And what do you think?”

Baholt gave a slight bow. “I defer to your judgment, master.”

“Excellent,” said, Eliaures with a nod. “And my judgment says we stay.” He turned again to Ban. “I appreciate your… concern--but remember who is the master here. As your friend does.” He walked away. “Keep your eye on them. I have preparations to complete.”

Ban waited for his master to move away, then glared at Baholt. “What are you doing? How can you…?”

“Save your life?” said Baholt. “I know. How foolish of me.” He frowned slightly. “Master Venomous has some… mad little obsession he’s following. Given his past history, I’d say it’s wise to let him follow it.”

“And what will happen to us?” snapped Ban.

“We’ll be rewarded for stopping mad Eliaures when he wandered off mission,” answered Baholt. “Surely you see, this is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for. He’s distracted, so we can pull it off, and he’s giving us a valid excuse so the Hierophants won’t punish us afterwards.” He shrugged. “They might even reward us.”

Ban looked at him suspiciously. “I still don’t like it. It feels off. Dangerous, in a way that’s… worse than most of our missions.”

“Which is why we have to move now,” said Baholt. “We aren’t going to get another chance.” He placed a comforting hand on Ban’s shoulder. “When it’s all over, it will be just another job. We’ll probably joke about it.”

Ban doubted that. He turned to the crowd again, and watched it idly. “Huh. That’s odd.”

“What?” asked Baholt.

Ban squinted as he gazed at the group. “There are people missing. Two or… no, it’s three. Three people who were standing there seem to be gone.”

Baholt nodded. “You’re right. That’s… odd.” He shook his head. “I suspect things are wrapping up.” He nodded quietly. “I can’t wait to get out of this town.”

“That makes two of us,” said Ban.

“I’d say that’s placing it low,” noted Baholt. “Everyone here wants to be somewhere else.”

Saturday, November 3, 2012

And the Mountain Cried 'Too High, Too High'--Part 21

Idun sighed. “So… he’s holed up in his little villa, there are… about half a dozen Gibelings in front of it, and he’s got two hostages.” She turned to glare at the little gathering of Aesir and Vanir that had assembled there. “I hope you all are proud of yourselves.” She focused her glare on Manodante and Dolistone. “Especially you two. Your meaningless quarrels have quite possibly killed your own children.”

“Ridiculous!” said Dolistone.

“Absurd,” noted Manodante.

“Why, if they’d only eloped in White Pine like we thought they would, everything would have been solved by now!” added Dolistone.

There was a stunned silence for a moment.

“Wait…” said Leodilla, quietly. “You… know that those two are involved…”

“Of course!” said Manodante.

“We aren’t idiots!” said Dolistone.

Manodante spread his hands. “Frankly we’ve been hoping for something like this to happen. Let us kill the feud in a way that doesn’t involve killing each other.”

“Ha! Good one, Mano!” chuckled Dolistone.

“Yes, Stoney,” said Manodante. “Rather thought it was clever myself.”

Dolistone glanced at Leodilla. “Frankly, we were hoping you would solve things by falling for my nephew Folderico, but no such luck.”

Leodilla stared at her father in shock. “But you forbade me to even look at the man!”

“Of course,” said Manodante. “That was to make him MORE appealing. Forbidden fruit and all that.” He sighed and gave a mournful shrug. “Too late now, of course. Still, a man can dream. A man can dream.”

“Oh, now you’re just being ridiculous,” shouted Leodilla. “And why are you two acting like friends? You hate each other!”

“What… Me hate old Stoney? Never!” said Manodante.

“Yes, I suppose the secret is out,” noted Dolistone. “Truth is your father and I have been best pals for years.” He patted Manodante on the shoulder. “Ever since old Mano saved me life.”

“Only after you saved mine!” added Manodante. “See, back Stoney and I were a pair of young heirs, we kept the feud up in the traditional manner, hurling insults, questioning the honor of our respective mothers…”

“The usual stuff,” said Dolistone.

“And one day, we did it in the company of a few cousins,” continued Manodante. “It was all in good fun, but the cousins…” The old Erl’s face grew pale. “They took it a bit too far. Suddenly, I’m staring at an arrow heading right at me--when Stoney pushes me out of the way.” He shook his head. “Took it in the back.”

“And then your father,” said Dolistone, “he picks me up, puts me on his horse, and he takes me to the best chirurgeon he can.” He sniffled. “Great man. Great man.”

Idun cleared her throat. “So--why do you two fight all the time if you’re secretly best friends?”

“Well, first of all,” explained Manodante, “the feud is a grand tradition of the Aesir and Vanir, which we are honor bound to continue. Our lessers expect it of us, as do some of our vassals. Secondly, we both love to argue. Over everything and anything.” He grinned “Frankly that’s probably why the friendship’s lasted like it has. Not many people I can argue about the color of the sky with.” He glanced at Dolistone. “It’s turquoise, you old fool.”

“Aquamarine!,” said Dolistone. “Turquoise is a darker shade you mad old bat!”

“Arrogant toad!” declared Manodante.

“Worthless weasel!” shouted Dolistone.

Idun looked at Leodilla. “And I thought they were annoying as enemies…” Leodilla merely nodded.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

And the Mountain Cried 'Too High, Too High'--Part 20

For many years, if you’d asked Brandomarte about the worst day in his life, he’d have told you it had happened when he was eight. His drunken father had dragged him out of bed in the middle of the night, to ‘sing that song’ in front of a gathering of thegns--Brandomarte had desperately tried to figure out just what ‘that song’ was, even as a sizable group of large hairy men bellowed at him to sing. Eventually, he had panicked and wet himself, to the laughter of the entire group. This horrific event remained etched in the young Vanir’s mind, made worse by Manodante’s habit of bringing it up and chuckling over it.

“Wergild!” shouted Argilius out the window. “Wergild for the Gibelings! The blood of my slain kin screams for vengeance.”

That day had finally been eclipsed. Brandomarte glanced over at Fiordelisa, who he suspected was downgrading her own previous worse day as well.

Argilius waved his fist at the crowd gathering outside. “The Vanir have wronged us! The Aesir have betrayed us! The children of Gibel have been made into fools! The son of the Vanir and the daughter of the Aesir comport themselves in lewdness!” Brandomarte and Fiordelisa blushed at that, especially as they had most definitely not comported themselves in lewdness, even if they had had a certain wish to. “House Gibeling is made to sacrifice its honor to their lust! But we will not brook this! We shall take our rightful place in the Fangs!”

“You’ll never get away with this!” shouted Fiordelisa. “My father…”

“Will be embarrassed by this whole affair,” said Argilius. “Meaning I’ll be able to pressure him to making sure that I get the Chultwater.”

Brandomante blinked. “Wha… that’s your wergild? The Chultwater? That’s it?”

Argilius smiled. “That’s it--this time, Vanir.”

“But it’s worthless,” said Brandomante.

“On its own merits? Oh, yes,” said the Ettin. “A bitter, worthless little stream. But--from the Chultwater, I can pursue claims on the Gedres, the Voorish Vales, the Ogre’s Fingers. Mines--farmland--good trade routes.” He smiled. “And those are most definitely worth it.”

Fiordelisa’s eyes went wide. “So… it’s all a lie. You don’t actually give a damn about all your dead kin.”

“Oh, I do, Madame Aesir,” said Argilius. “I do very much. My family has thrown its lives away for yours for centuries. And now--now you want to end the feud and leave us with nothing but scraps and that list of dead kin.” He bit his lip. “That chafes me, Fiordelisa. That chafes me raw.” He gestured at Brandomarte. “Just like it chafes me to see a child of the Aesir plotting to elope with a Vanir.” He leaned towards Fiordelisa, and glared at her. “But where all you… sophisticated, modern types get it wrong is that you imagine folks like myself are just grunting monsters, incapable of planning.” Arglius chuckled. “Well, my dear--we can plan. And we can have goals and dreams. I dream of the children of Gibel finally wiping out the Walse, the Vanir--and the Aesir, for playing us for fools these past few centuries.” A strange gleam came to the man’s eyes. “I dream of the Gibelings standing in the Fangs, a power equal to the Utgardi and the Regni.”

Fiordelisa snorted. “Why not dream about Kitvekh coming up from the waters? It’s about as likely.”

Argilius raised one massive fist. “I’d keep my mouth shut, girl. If you didn’t want to lose some teeth.”

“Don’t you lay a hand on her,” snarled Brandomarte.

Argilius turned to the bound Vanir, sneering. “Or what?”

Brandomarte took a deep breath, and looked the Ettin in the eye. “Give me time. I’ll think of something.”

Whatever twinge of satisfaction Brandomarte felt vanished when Argilius struck him, sending him sprawling to the floor. “Did you think I wouldn’t do it?”

“Thegn Argilius!” came the voice of Idun Bragi. “You have broken the green branch of peace and insulted both your liege, and his liege, the Dark Lord of the Iron Fangs. I strongly recommend you give this mad scheme up and throw yourself on my mercy.”

Argilius moved away from downed Erl, smiling. “Ahh. Well, someone important is finally listening.”

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"And the Mountain Cried 'Too High, Too High'--Part 19

Idun stared at Saxo Walsing’s dead body. “Damn it,” she muttered. “It had to be you, didn’t it?” She knelt and shut the man’s mouth.

It seemed… undignified, open, and from the little she’d gotten to know the man, that seemed wrong to Idun.

“He… he said his chair had fallen,” said Nan Walsing, with a sniff.

Idun nodded. “That strikes me as the sort of thing he’d say.” She took a deep breath. “In this sort of situation.”

“You’re touching the body!” came a hoarse shout. A rather burly Goblin walked in, glaring at the skald. “I do not believe this.” He shook his head. “Why is it that so many people want to touch freaking corpses? It isn’t pleasant. No one recommends it. But people keep doing it…”

Idun stood up. “Skald Idun Bragi, sworn to the court of the Konig Muspeilhum, Ull of the Ironfangs. And who are you?”

If the Goblin was nonplussed, he didn’t show it. “Gwydd Palepole, Warrior of Chivalry and ex-member of the Guild of the Sword, now in the service of Baron Chult.” He bowed. “My associates and I have been hired to keep the peace around here.”

“Associates…?” asked Idun, raising an eyebrow.

“Heads up, coming through,” said a young female Erl making her way into the room. “The Baron sent me…”

Gwydd gestured to her. “Faileuba Pepperpot. For one.”

The young Erl coughed. “Hi. He bugging you about the body?”

“Delicate pieces of evidence. Thaumaturgical remnants. Things of that nature.” Gwydd crossed his arms. “You know what I mean, Fai.”

Faileuba nodded. “Right. Right. Evidence.” She looked at the body. “Yep. He’s definitely dead.”

Idun gestured to Nan. “This is his a daughter.”

Faileuba coughed. “Oh. Right. Sorry.”

Nan sniffled quietly. “You those chivalrous warriors that broke up the fight?” asked Idun.

“Would we be in trouble if we were?” asked Faileuba, peering at the skald questioningly.

“No,” said Idun.

Faileuba grinned. “Then yes, we most definitely are!” She placed an arm over Gwydd’s shoulder. “The Mighty Three, at your service.”

Nan blinked. “There’s… there’s only two of you…”

“Ehh, no there’s not,” said a tall, lanky Erl strolling into the room. “And by the way--it’s the Tremendous Trio.”

“Is not!” snapped Faileuba. She turned to Nan and Idun. “This is Meliadus Holdfast. The useless one.”

Gwydd sighed. “Look you two, I’m trying to examine the body…”

“Ahh.” Meliadus glanced at Saxo’s corpse. “This is Cruel Disciple work.”

There was an awkward silence. “How…?” began Idun.

Meliadus rolled up his sleeve, revealing the edge of a tattoo. “Used to be one. Picked up a few useful skills back in those days.” He paced around the body. “Death was caused by a stab to the heart. Very skillful. This is the work of a master.”

“You--you’re a Cruel Disciple?” asked Idun.

“Ex-Cruel Disciple,” replied Meliadus casually. “I quit.”

Idun’s eyes went wide. “How?”

Meliadus raised a dismissive hand. “It’s a neat story. I’ll tell it to you some time.”

Faileuba shook her head. “He won’t. He really won’t.”

Gwydd stroked his chin. “So--someone’s hiring assassins…”

A young child entered the room. “Skald Idun! Skald Idun! It’s… Argilius… my brother…”

“Ziliante, has Argilius Gibeling done something to your brother?” asked Idun wearily.

The Vanir nodded. “He’s caught him. And… he’s…”

Idun sighed. “Just take us to them. And fill us in on the way.” She looked at the Goblin. “So--looks like your question was answered.”

Gwydd frowned to himself. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

Saturday, October 27, 2012

And the Mountain Cried 'Too High, Too High'--Part 18

“And the Ogre cried ‘Too high, too high, the mountain towers to the sky,’” sang Gwydd. “Far beyond you or I, the mountain is too high.”

Faileuba groaned. “Would you stop singing? Please?”

“Sorry. It’s just --stuck in my head, at the moment.” Gwydd glanced at her. “It’s an old Goblin folk song. About--”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” said Faileuba with a dismissive wave. “About how women just don’t understand men, and so you shouldn’t expect happiness with a wife, but get yourself a ‘comrade’ to keep you cheerful.”

Gwydd frowned at her. “No! First, off those aren’t folk songs, they’re court songs. Folk songs are sung by everyday Goblins going about their lives. Court songs are sung by wealthy merchant princes bemoaning things like the fact that their cummerbund doesn’t match their vest.” He slapped his fist against his hand. “Second, the point of the song is about how we all envy others based on our false and shallow notions of the ease of their lives! It calls us to remember our shared humanity, in the face of a bleak and unfeeling universe that dwarfs us all.”

Faileuba blinked. “Really? ‘Cause all I heard was a lot of complaining about things being too high.”

Gwydd turned away grimly. “There is no purpose in talking to you. You’re an artistic cretin.”

“I am not, Palepole,” muttered Faileuba, scratching her ear. “I’ve never even been to the Flowery Islands.” She yawned. “Knew one once, though. Nice guy. Bit too fond of those giant headdresses they wear, but…”

“What are you…?” began Gwydd. “What does…? Are you…?” He blinked several times, then let loose an epic groan of frustration. “Why do I even bother responding to you? WHY?”

Faileuba shrugged, while making a little grunt that might have been a rather contracted ‘I don’t know’.

Baron Chult entered the room, smiling gently. “Enjoying yourselves?”

Faileuba raised her glass. “Hey--for a man in the middle of nowhere, you have some top-notch alcohol. So I’m just dandy.”

Chult nodded, looking around the room. “Where’s your third fellow?”

Faileuba shrugged. “Meliadus is like the wind. Only, smaller, Erl-shaped, and more annoying. He’ll turn up when he’s needed. Always does.”

Chult sighed. “Then I’ll be seeing him soon, no doubt. There has been a murder.”

“Oh, man,” said Faileuba, rolling her eyes. “Just when I thought this job would be mostly sitting around drinking, annoying Gwydd, and occasionally beating up some random asshole.”

Gwydd stood up. “In other words, you thought this job would be like a regular day.”

“Yep,” said Faileuba, as she put down her glass. “Only, with me getting paid. Which you will agree, isn’t a very frequent occurrence?”

Gwydd nodded, as he walked out the door. “This is true.”

“Damn right it is,” said Faileuba, following after him.