Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 4

Elaine looked out the window, and sighed. It was still raining. Looking out the window was proving to be the only form of entertainment she had in here. True, the only thing she could see in it was the courtyard she’d spatter in if she tried to escape through it--but it was still something that wasn’t her cell. Hell, it could even be cheerful when it was sunny.

But when it wasn’t, it was pretty damn bleak. She watched the rain land on those hard cobblestones, and listened to it fall. That steady pit-pat was interrupted by a creaking noise. She glanced back to see Amfortas entering through the door. “Your Highness,” she said, curling her lip.

“I do hope I haven’t kept you waiting,” said the Prince cheerfully. He gestured to a tray of food in his right hand. “I suppose I could have left that to a guardsman--but really, I feel you deserve better.” He lay the food on the small table before her, his blue eyes watching her intently.

“Yeah, thanks for the courtesy,” said Elaine bitterly. She stared at the food--it appeared to be gruel--and pointedly made no move to eat it.

Amfortas smiled at her, and picked up a spoonful of the gruel, and swallowed it. He raised an eyebrow and dropped the spoon back into the bowl. “You must eat,” said Amfortas. “I don’t want you to starve.”

“Cuts down on the torture,” muttered Elaine as she picked up the spoon.

“Exactly,” replied Amfortas good-naturedly. “Oh, starving is a form of torture, but it tends to simply… use people up. And that defeats my purpose. I want you to understand and… accept what is happening to you.” He smiled at her fondly. “I want you to beg for it, really.”

Elaine dropped her spoon. “Anyone ever tell you how sick you are?”

Amfortas continued to smile at her, completely unfazed. “Child, do you think I care about your opinion on such matters?” He leaned forward, though his voice remained horribly calm. “I am a Prince of the Line Pescheour, a servant of the Holy Light. I know that all I do and feel and think is right. I have always known this, for as long as I have been aware.” His blue eyes regarded her pointedly. “Do you understand me?”

Elaine nodded, and shifted her hand towards the tray. She’d just realized that someone had left a fork on the tray, and was slowly, slowly bringing her hands toward it.

Amfortas nodded. “I must confess I am surprised by your swift recognition of this fact. Most of your sort show surprise and disbelief when I reveal this to them.” He sighed wistfully. “A few even swear.”

Elaine wrapped her fingers around the fork and started to raise it only for Amfortas’ hand to come slamming down on hers. “Why, Elaine,” said the Prince cheerfully. “Were you planning something untoward?” He chuckled. “Drop the fork, Elaine. And ask yourself, the next time the opportunity comes if I am so great a fool as to not note what pieces of silverware are given to my guests.”

Elaine kept her hand wrapped around the fork. “Even if you had managed to stab me with it,” noted Amfortas, “there are guards outside who would come at my cry, and would, I fear, make a swift end of you.” The cold blue eyes narrowed. “Those same guards would not come at your cry I fear. Not even if I broke every bone in your hand. Or every bone in your body. Or did other things to you.” That cheerful smile widened. “Things I will leave to your young imagination. Now drop the fork, my dear.”

Elaine dropped the fork. “Very good, Elaine. You are starting to understand how things lie.” The Prince leaned forward, and to her surprise kissed her on the forehead. “This is an important first step in our little journey together,” he whispered in her ear. And then he moved away, the fork in his hand.

He rose from his seat, and started towards the door. “I’ll return shortly for the food,” said the Prince. “So do try and finish it before then.”

Elaine shuddered quietly as he left. And then she started to eat her food.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 3

Justinian awoke to pain, and hands on his forehead.

“He’s waking up!” came a familiar voice. Justinian opened his aching eyes to see his sister, Theodora Theta, standing over him.

“Hello, Tatanya,” he said, using her old name. He turned his head somewhat, and saw his younger sister, Julia Upsilon, standing in the corner. “Ivana,” he added with a slight nod, and then immediately wished he hadn’t.

“I was going to bludgeon you unconscious when I saw you,” Theodora said. “For betraying us, and those sweet girls. But then I saw you, and saw that someone had already done it. So that plan’s done.”

Justinian gulped. “How… bad…?”

“Do you remember when Ivan Ivanovitch quarreled with Ivan Petrovitch over Oink’s litter?” said Julia.

“That bad?” said Justinian.

“Worse, actually,” noted Theodora. She took a deep breath. “Ivanushka, who did this to you…?”

“The Prince’s Men did some of it,” he said. “But the Prince did most of it.”

His sisters gasped. “Prince Amfortas,” muttered Theodora. “But… that’s impossible.”

Julia nodded. “The Prince is so good, and so holy, and so righteous, and so handsome.”

Justinian slumped down. “Well, he may be all these things, but I’ve discovered that Amfortas’ goodness, holiness, and righteousness have a quality that make them hard to tell from unmitigated evil to a simple soul such as myself.”

Theodora frowned, and crossed her arms. “That sounds a bit…”

Justinian raised his left hand, and felt his fingers throb. “His Men did this to me. He watched while they did so.”

Theodora gasped, and took his hand. “Oh, Ivanushka! You poor poor…”

“I need no pity,” said Justininian quietly. “This has been the price of my own foolishness. ‘For the righteous, the price of folly is shame, a coin no man takes pride in.’ I’ve earned my humiliation.”

Julia stepped towards him and placed a hand lightly on his shoulder. “That may be so, but we’re going to pity you anyway. You’re our family, Ivanushka. And blood counts.”

Justinian shut his eyes and murmured a vague assent.

“So,” said Theodora quietly, “what do you plan to do now?”

“Lie here,” answered Justinian lowly. “Lie here and await the justice of the truest man I know.”

“And who is that?” asked Theodora.

“Mansemat Cthonique,” answered Justinian.

Julia and Theodora glanced at each other again. “Check his forehead again,” suggested Julia. “Maybe he’s feverish.”

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 2

Archon Septimus Seraphim stood in his chamber, reading the report. Brothers Ambrose and Jerome Erelim watched him with shared misgiving. The Archon’s lips were moving, and his eyebrows were raising, and his nostrils were flaring, a trio of signs that always meant terror for the poor unfortunates who witnessed them. The young Eremites wished to leave--but doing so would have been a direct violation of their vows, something which would have gotten the Archon even madder. And so they stood there, watching his lips move, his eyebrows raise, and his nostrils flare.

After a moment, Septimus looked up at the young men, frowning. “So. This is the grand result of your efforts. A riot on the docks, and the one River Trader left in Joyeuse vanishing without a trace.” He leaned forward. “Are you happy with yourselves?”

Ambrose and Jerome glanced at each other nervously.

The Archon leaned forward snarling. “Answer me you FOOLS!”

“No, Archon, of course not,” they shot out simultaneously. Ambrose stiffened. “For the righteous, the price of folly is shame, a coin no man takes pride in,” he recited.

To the young Eremite’s discomfort the Archon’s frown did not lessen. “So you see that this was folly. Good.” He leaned forward. “Why?”

Ambrose began to sputter, trying desperately to come up with an answer. Jerome decided to assist his friend. “It was folly, Archon, for in so doing we did not follow your orders.” He took a deep breath. “In Ambrose’s defense, he was merely attempting to discipline a whore, who he‘d warned about plying her trade earlier.”

Archon Septimus leaned back, crossing his arms. “In other times, that could be admirable,” noted the Archon bluntly. “But these are not those times. This River Trader woman--Jean Crow--is who we seek, and she is a far greater threat to our souls than a mere whore. May I remind you that she is a servant of the Cthoniques? An unnatural sorceress whose unholy magicks have been witnessed by your Brothers?”

Jerome and Ambrose both squirmed uncomfortably. The Archon took a deep breath, and his flaring nostrils flared even more. “And may I also remind you that our hold on this city is… far from absolute.” He leaned towards Ambrose. “We are here by the Prince’s sufferance, and while Amfortas is a man of holy temperament--a dedicated servant of the Light--he is still a man of this world, and must live by its laws. Joyeuse is a trade city. Throngs of foreigners crowd its streets, coming and going as they please. We have not cowed them, as we have the regular inhabitants these last few months--they respond poorly to our promptings, especially if they feel they can flout them with impunity. The Old Lords of the City keep to their manses and villas at the moment, but they are not men to be trifled with. They are cowed--but less than we would like.” The Archon’s eyes narrowed, and his terrible expressive eyebrows lowered. “If they see the foreigners rising against us, they will take heart and demand our dismissal from this city. If that were to happen, the Prince would be forced to demand we leave.” As he said this, Septimus drew his face up directly in front of Ambrose’s. “And if he found himself forced to do this--after counting on our assistance so very much--the Prince would become upset. As would I. And he would wish to demonstrate that displeasure. As would I.”

Ambrose gulped to himself. The Archon turned away. “Go now, and remember what we have spoken about. Keep your mind on the River Trader, and if you must discipline whores, do so in a manner that does not draw too much attention.” The Eremites bowed, and left the chamber swiftly, thankful to have gotten off with a warning. The Archon’s temper was justifiably famous in their Order, and Eremites knew that he more often called Brothers to his chambers to chasten them then to reward them.

Still, he was a great man, Archon Septimus Seraphim. He had earned the name ‘Seraphim’ at the age of twenty-five, the youngest to do so in generation. There were six other Archons in the Eremites--and a Grandmaster besides, old Floris Metatron back in Caracosse. But all knew that Septimus was the important one, and all respected him and feared him.

But none liked him. Not that the Archon particularly cared.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 1

The old man lay in his bed, wishing he could go to sleep, or, failing that, fully wake up. But instead, he remained in the groggy in-between state he’d been in for the last two hours or so. He briefly considered calling for some assistance, but even in his present state he realized that this would just bring his keepers, with more of that terrible medicine.

He gave a mild groan and glanced up at the ceiling.

To his immense surprise, it appeared to stare back at him.

For a moment, he wondered if he had taken a dose of medicine and simply forgotten it. Or perhaps if he hadn’t taken one for longer than he remembered, and was starting to… suffer a few side-effects. But on closer examination, it appeared that there were eyes located on the ceiling. Thankfully, they belonged to a person--a young girl who was perched on the ceiling nervously, staring at him.

It occurred to the old man that was rather unusual. As was the fact that the eyes were red. Still, he was fairly certain he could solve this with a certain amount of effort. “Little girl,” he asked, “why are you on the ceiling?”

“Eep,” muttered the little girl.

“Little girl,” said the old man in as kindly a voice as he could manage, “you are not in trouble. I simply wish to know why it is you are on my ceiling.”

The little girl bit her lip nervously. “I… my sister told me to go somewhere safe, but I wounded up here, and I wasn’t sure it was safe, and I didn’t want you to see me, and I thoughted you were dead for a moment, until you started breathing all wheezy, and…” She gave him a shy smile. “Can I come down, please? This is really umcomfortable.”

“Of course, child,” said the old man. He watched with dull surprise as the child unfolded a pair of batlike wings and glided down beside him. A Dev. That was odd, but then, this was on the whole a fairly unusual situation, so the old man decided to simply go with things. “Is that more comfortable?”

The child nodded cheerfully. “Oh, yes.” She bit her lip again. “So… is this place safe? Or are there more Ery mites?”

The old man blinked. “Eremites? Here?” He frowned, and glanced around the room. His old bedroom, back in Joyeuse. He was afraid for a moment that they might have moved him to someplace else, and he had simply forgotten, but no--he was still here, thank goodness. He regarded the little Dev seriously. “Did you come here from the Concordat, or…?”

The child shook her head. “No. Joy Juice,” she replied.

The old man blinked once again. “There are… Eremites here in Joyeuse? But that… that is… ridiculous. It goes against all the Edicts of Leonais.”

“They’re still here, though,” said the child.

“I don’t doubt you,” said the old man with a sigh. “It simply… shocks me every now and then when I learn how bad things are getting.”

“Oh,” said the child. “Sorry.”

The old man shook his head. “Don’t be. I’m more angry not to know these things than I am to learn them, Miss…”

“Malina,” said the child cheerfully.

“I’m…” began the old man, only to be interrupted by a knocking on the door.

“Sire,” said a loud voice. “Are you all right?” There was a pause. “You… we hear you talking…”

“All is well,” said the old man, turning towards the door. “I am simply singing to myself.” He coughed. “I awoke, and a song was on my lips.”

There was silence on the other side for a moment. “Do you… need your medicine, Your Highness?”

“Oh, no,” said the old man. “I am fine. I should be getting back to sleep in a little while.”

“Very well then, sire,” came the voice.

The old man and Malina both waited a moment before beginning to speak again. “Are you a king?” said the Dev in a hushed voice.

“So they tell me,” said the old man, bitterly. “I have begun to have my doubts.” He cleared his throat. “Pelleas, the fourth of my name, son of Seisyll, by right of blood and grace of the Seven King of Leonais.” He smiled at Malina. “But you may simply call me Pelleas.”

“Okay,” said Malina with a nod.

“Now,” continued Pelleas, “as to your safety here, child--you are as safe as I can make you.” He sighed. “Sadly, I do not know if that is much.”

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Joyous Occasion--Part 18

The Eremites were patrolling down by the docks.

Jean Crow watched them go past in pairs and threes, and tried very hard not to think of what she’d last eaten.

Largely because bad as it was to remember eating something rotten, it was even worse remembering eating something rotten and liking it.

Jean glanced at her hands. They were normal, human hands, perfectly normal, six fingers all intact, the same hands that she’d had for all her life. They were NOT claws. And she did not have wings. Or feathers. Or a beak.

Jean touched her largish nose and sighed. Okay, not a real beak, anyway.

She turned her attention to the Eremites. They were trying to look intimidating and watchful. But Jean was familiar with that look, and knew that it really meant that these men were bored, and had no real idea what they were looking for. She made her way onto the docks, making sure to stick with the crowd to avoid notice. She made her way through the sailors, slowly, surely…

“Hey--YOU!” bellowed an Eremite. Jean almost made the mistake of turning around, when the Eremite qualified his yell. “Blondie!” A tall blonde woman standing nearby turned to look at the man. “What did I tell you of practicing your whoring here?” shouted the Eremite.

“I… I’m not…” began the blonde woman.

The Eremite pulled a club from his belt. “Oh, this will be a pleasure…”

“Oy--leave her alone,” said a rather burly sailor with a Tintagelian accent.

“Who dares defy my authority?” shouted the Eremite, even as his partner started motioning for him to shut his mouth. As the Tintagelian stepped forward, flexing one muscular arm, his fellows stepped behind him.

Jean rushed away, thanking the stupidity of that Eremite, and the occasional flashes of chivalry that possess sailors. At least--she liked to think of it as chivalry.

Jean slipped her way through the docks to the little section at the very end, set aside for River Traders, and tried to ignore the cries of the gulls. Soon, she’d be there, find some help, and then…

It was virtually deserted, with only a single boat there. Jean nodded to herself. Figured. That was what could be said about most of her fellows--they were sensible. With Joyeuse gone mad, the best thing to do would be to get out of town until it went sane again. Jean rubbed her eyes--she thought the odor of the place was getting to her--and tried to come up with another plan now that the only one she’d had was collapsing into nothing. “Ho, ho, little Crow,” came a quiet voice behind her.

Jean turned in surprise. “River Ox!” she said, smiling.

The large man smiled back at her. “The King of the Docks,” he said cheerfully. “Surprised to see you here.” The River Ox shook his head. “The City of Joy is not very joyful at the moment.” He shrugged, an act that his massive shoulders made an epic undertaking. “Not that it ever has been too kind to our folk, but… well--I assume you’ve sampled its newly won charms.”

Jean nodded. “Oh, yeah.” She shuddered.

“So,” said the River Ox, “what’s kept the Crow out of sight for almost a year?”

Jean sighed. “A story much too detailed to tell you. Listen, River Ox--I need you to get a message to some people on the other side of the river.” She smiled at him. “You’re up for that, right?”

River Ox’s eyes spread in surprise. “I’m up for anything, Crow--you know that. Especially for the child of the Uncrowned King, may the water bless his soul.” He looked at her seriously. “But--are you sure you don’t want me to get you out of Joyeuse?”

Jean shook her head. “Not yet. I have business here.” She took a deep breath. “You ready for that message?”

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Joyous Occasion--Part 17

Elaine walked down the hallway, lead by a small group of Eremites. Jernis and Razalic had vanished after handing her over to the grim, brown-clad Holy Knights. Elaine had no idea where they’d gone, or what they were doing--what’s more, she rather had the idea that she didn’t want to know. Her guards didn’t speak to her, and in fact, avoided looking at her as much as they could.

Elaine found that both vaguely insulting, and quietly terrifying. Coming to this building--she wasn’t quite sure what it was--she’d been accompanied by Theodora and Julia, but they’d been tugged away in a different direction upon entering it. Now the only company she had were these silent, grim, threatening men, men who seemed to feel that laughter, and cheerfulness, and humanity were things for weaker, lesser folk.

At last, the Eremites escorted to a small cell, and brought her inside.

A tall man dressed in a purple and gold cloak stood there, glancing out the barred window. As the Eremites walked out of the room, he turned to regard her. He was a handsome man, with brown hair that reached to his shoulders, and a refined, handsome face. The expression on the face was kindly, and pleasant--unless you looked at his eyes. His eyes were pale blue chips of ice, and their gaze was cold and clear, with not a bit of warmth. “Your… Worshipful Grace, I believe is the correct form of address?” said the man, his voice calm and cheerful.

“Estimable Grace,” said Elaine brusquely.

“I see,” replied the man. He smiled at her. “As for myself, I am generally called ‘Your Highness’.”

Elaine arched an eyebrow as she tried to recall a name. “Pelleas…?”

“That is my father,” said the man. “King Pelleas, fourth of his name, of the Line Pescheour. I am Prince Amfortas, Regent of Leonais.” Amfortas’ smile grew ever so slightly. “Among other things.”

Elaine frowned and glanced away. “So--is there a reason for this… meet and greet? Aside from allowing us to both get our titles right?”

Amfortas laughed pleasantly. “Well, you are a noteworthy individual. I don’t believe I’ve met many Nightland princesses.” He gave a mild shrug. “It will be interesting to see how you handle your execution.”

Elaine blinked. “What?”

Amfortas smiled benevolently at her. “Your execution, my dear. You cannot be allowed to live, of course.” He began to tap at his chin. “You will receive the Scoundrel’s Death, of course. We will break your limbs, and then disembowel you. Possibly blind you first.” Amfortas’ voice as he said all this was calm, conversational, and indeed, downright pleasant. The Prince idly played with one of his locks. “Some say that’s a kindness, as it prevents a person from seeing what’s being done to them. Others say that it heightens the agony, as the person suffers while being unable to rely on their most important sense to understand it all.” He sighed. “I have tried to sort the matter out, but I’m afraid I have a dearth of intelligible reports to help me do it. Ah, well.”

Elaine was trying to keep her breathing steady, while Amfortas discussed torture and mutilation as if it was the weather. “But.. but… why?” she whimpered.

Amfortas regarded her with an expression of warmth and compassion--though his eyes remained cold. “Because you are of the Darkness and I am of the Light, child. It is my duty as a servant of the Holy Seven to destroy you, for you are corruption and anathema.” Amfortas stepped towards her, smiling gently. “Do not worry--it will not come soon. First, I will show you pain, humiliation and suffering. And then I will kill you.” And now the Prince was leaning over her. “It is for your own good,” he noted pleasantly.

“I… you… this is…” Elaine looked away. “Please don’t.”

Amfortas gave a fond laugh and shook his head. “Oh, I know you do not see that now--but you will. I have done this before after all, and all have thanked me for it, in the end. Many even begged me to kill them, when I was finished.” He placed a hand on her shoulder. Elaine flinched and pulled away. To her surprise, the Prince made no move to grab her. He simply regarded her kindly. “I do hope you are one of them.” With that, the Prince moved towards the doorway.

Elaine stared at him. “What if I’m not?” she blurted out.

Amfortas looked back at her, with his kind face, and his cold, cruel eyes. “Well, we will see, won’t we?” he replied cheerfully, then left the cell.

As soon as he was gone, Elaine fell to the ground, and did her best not to be sick. She tried to remember that this wasn't the first time she'd had her life threatened by a murderous lunatic. Or even the second. This failed to be much comfort. In fact, Elaine even made a mental note that she would have to do something to make sure this situation didn't reoccur.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Joyous Occasion--Part 16

Justinian lay on the floor of his cell, and tried to avoid thinking about any of the countless wounds that had been inflicted on him, both physically, and spiritually. This was far more difficult then he’d ever imagined it would be. In his mind, he’d always imagined that if something horrible like this happened to him, he would stand strong and true. That hadn’t happened, and now he was lying here, doing his best to avoid thinking of his left hand.

Damn it. He’d thought of it.

As Justinian was whimpering in pain, he thought he heard footsteps approaching. They stopped right before his cell door. “I didn’t think he’d take things… so far,” came the Preceptor’s voice.

Justinian glanced up. The Preceptor was there at the door, looking at him almost apologetically. The young Sacristan suppressed an urge to swear at his superior. “That’s not much comfort,” he muttered lowly.

The Preceptor ignored his comment. “They’ve caught your sisters. And the Nightfolk Princess.” He glanced away. “But Ms. Crow made it away. Apparently. I guess you might consider that a… small comfort.”

Justinian lay back. “Not really.” He gulped. “I… how…”

“None of them have been harmed,” said Preceptor Rho. “Though your sisters managed to crack quite a few Eremite skulls.” Despite himself, the man chuckled. “Damn it, I wish I could have seen that.”

“So do I,” said Justinian weakly. His bruises were acting up again, much to his displeasure. “Now--please go. If the idea is to make me feel better, you’re failing miserably.”

Rho looked abashed at that. “Lad--you have to understand--the Prince is a great man, but--the source of his greatness--his dedication to… to the Light and the Seven--it makes him terrible at times…”

“That is one way to put it,” muttered Justinian. He took a deep painful breath. “I wasn’t supposed to come back, was I? That little fool’s errand you sent me on--I was supposed to die in the Lands of Night.”

The Preceptor looked away, almost ashamed. “Amfortas’ plan was… you’d go over the River, the Cthoniques would capture you, and use it as an excuse to start a war.” Justinian started laughing. Rho looked at him. “What…?”

“You’ve actually… managed to cheer me up,” said Justinian, smiling slightly. “Give me some hope. You and Amfortas just don’t… understand the Cthoniques. You think you do--but you don’t. They’re… good people. And you… aren’t.” Justinian gave one last laugh. “And that… that is the key to everything… That gives… me hope, and that… gives me something to hope for. For their victory and your fall…”

The Preceptor frowned. “I think the Prince was right, Sigma. You are bloody well damned.”

Justinian shut his eyes. “That… is… definitely… true…”

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Joyous Occasion--Part 15

Elaine watched in horror as the hatchet smashed through the door.

“So--are you ready to admit this was a horrible idea?” muttered Jean Crow.

“Shut up, Jean,” said Elaine quietly.

Jean sighed as another hatchet blow sent splinters scattering into the room. “Yeah, you’re right. Not the time to gloat.”

Malina awoke, with a yawn. “Hey,” she protested. “What’s going…” Her question ceased as another hatchet blow shattered the door. “Eep!”

Elaine took a deep breath. “Malina… I want you to listen to me. You need to go as far away as you can.”

Malina winced. “I… I don’t… I’m sure…” She gulped. “It helps if I can think of a place to go.”

“A place that’s safe. And as far away as possible,” said Jean forcibly.

“We really can’t argue about this, Malina,” said Elaine. “You have to do this.”

Malina looked at her stepsister for a moment, then nodded. “Okay.” She smiled nervously. “Be safe, sis.”

Elaine smiled at the little Dev, and then hugged her. “I’m sorry about this, Malina. This was a really stupid idea.” She sniffled. “I love you, okay?”

Malina nodded. “I love you too, Sis.” Then she shut her eyes, and vanished with a little pop.

Jean turned to the door, where Theodora and Julia were already readying their staves. “Well, that got done just in time,” she said, as Hoppedance flew to her wrist.

“Shut up, Jean,” muttered Elaine.

“Sarcasm is how I cope,” replied Jean. “You’ve learnt that by now.” The door stove in at last, and several Eremites burst in. Theodora and Julia struck at them, managing to hold them back. Jean grabbed Elaine’s hand. “All right--there’s a back way here for those who have to make… a hasty exit…” She tugged her friend along, taking Elaine down a twisting little hallway. The pair ran as fast as they could down its winding paths.

“How much… longer?” panted Elaine.

Jean smiled. “We’re almost…” And then they were outside, in small, dirty alleyway.

Unfortunately, the alleyway had a small group of Eremites and a pair of men in purple and white uniforms. One of them, a slender, balding man with grey hair smirked at the pair, showing rotten teeth. “Well, Razalic, what do ye say to this? A couple of pretty little birds came flying out the back way of the Shepherdesses’ Grove.” He chuckled, a dull, rattling sound. “Thought we were fools , I reckon.”

Razalic, a stout, formidable looking man with black hair crossed his arms. “Surrender yourselves into the custody of the Prince’s Men and the Eremites or face the consequences.”

Jean raised her hand. “Well, that sounds…” And then Hoppedance was flying at the large man’s face, pecking viciously and cawing ‘Bugger you bastard! Bugger you bastard!”

“Run!” shouted Jean at Elaine. Elaine started to do so, turning to look back her friend. “I’ll be right with you,” said Jean comfortingly.

Razalic, with one swift motion grabbed the crow in one hairy, oversized hand. And then he squeezed.

“HOPPEDANCE!” shrieked Jean--and then she let loose an awful yell. Elaine looked back just in time to see a blinding flash of light which forced her to cover her eyes. The air was filled with the cawing of many crows. That was when she felt the cold steel press against her neck.

“Now, my little sweet thing, old Jernis, he has instructions to avoid hurting ye,” said the ugly little man. “So why don’t you be… nice?”

Elaine shuddered and felt something fall on her head. It slipped off and she saw it was a crow’s feather. She glanced and saw that they were falling from the sky like a black rain.

“Been a very odd job, ain’t it Razalic?” asked Jernis. Razalic grunted, and shrugged.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Joyous Occasion--Part 14

Jean glanced across the little table at Julia Upsilon. “So--what was Justinian like growing up?”

“Ivanushka was…” Julia sighed. “He was a very serious little boy. Really, always in the shadow of Big Ivan. Our older brother. When the famine came…” Her face grew serious. “People always used to say my father was lucky. ‘So many children, growing like weeds’ they said. And Papa--he had pet names for all of us, and rustle our hair. But then… then the famine came, and suddenly, our meals got smaller and then… one day, Papa called the three of us together, and told us that… he couldn’t keep us anymore.” Julia smiled a small, sad smile. “Ivanushka held my hand all the way to the Monastery.”

Jean stared at her. “Wow. And I thought my childhood was bad.”

“Oh, it wasn’t so bad,” laughed Julia. “The Brothers gave us food, and sent us here, where we all wound learning things like how to read, and doing jobs that didn’t involve gutting fish.”

“There’s a guy in Castle Terribel you should meet,” said Jean.

“I’m sworn to perpetual…” began Julia.

“Chastity, yeah, yeah, I know the drill,” noted Jean. “Trust me--it wouldn’t be like that. This guy’s seeing someone.”

Julia made a little pout. “Well, then what’s the point?”

“Ivana!” said Theodora chidingly. She glanced at Jean apologetically. “I am sorry for my sister’s… forwardness.”

“I’m not,” said Jean.

Theodora was about to answer when she turned. “Men are coming,” she declared.

Jean blinked, and listened. Sure enough the sounds of boots tramping down the street made it to her ears. Theodora darted over to the corner, and picked up a pair of rather formidable looking staves. She handed one to Julia. “We sometimes must deal with… overwrought visitors,” stated Julia simply.

There came a pounding on the door. “Open the door!” came a harsh, hideously familiar voice.

“Give us a moment,” said Julia, stepping out into the main part of the hostel. She made her way to the door. “We are but humble Sisters of Mercy, doing our duty on this…”

“I know who you are!” snarled the voice. “You have two girls in there, who came there. Bring them to us!”

Julia slapped down the bar on the door. “This is a place of Holy Sanctuary,” she proclaimed. “All are safe here, and none may be forced from it! We cannot do as you ask, even if such folk as you say were here!”

“Listen you fool, I am Archon Septimus Seraphim of the Holy Order of the Hermitage!” shouted the voice. “Give them to us!”

“The Laws of the Seven are the Laws of the Seven,” said Julia, readying her staff. “We cannot bend them for an Archdeacon. We could not bend them for the Flamens Dialis.”

There was silence for a moment. “Listen to me--these folk are… of the Night. You owe them no such duty.”

Theodora glanced at Jean. “Wake the sisters,” she whispered.

“The Laws of the Seven are the Laws of the Seven,” intoned Julia.

Archon Septimus was quiet again for a moment. “Very well. Let what occurs here be on your heads. Men--ready the hatchets.”

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Joyous Occasion--Part 13

For the second time in his life, Justinian Sigma found himself in the Chapterhouse’s Rectory, looking at the Preceptor and Prince Amfortas. He genuflected to the Prince, who sat at his ease, regarding a map, though his blue eyes peaked at the young Sacristan before him. The Preceptor leaned over Amfortas’ shoulder, regarding Justinian with surprise--and, perhaps to Justinian’s imagination, regret.

“Your Highness--,” began Justinian.

“Squire Sigma,” said Amfortas, with a casual raising of his hand, “this is not the time for such formalities.” He smiled. “I am overjoyed to see you return. Please take a seat.”

Justinian glanced at Preceptor Rho, who nodded for the young man to obey. Justinian sat down in a small chair towards the side of the table. The Preceptor eyed him for a moment, nervously. “So… how did it go?”

Justinian took a deep breath. “I have gotten… very close the Cthoniques, sir.” He shut his eyes. “In fact, they have taken me into their service. I have been in Castle Terribel for these last seven months.”

The Preceptor’s eyes bulged outward in profound shock, while Amfortas rose subtly from his seat. “Indeed,” said the Prince gently. “Well done, Squire Sigma.”

Justinian raised his hand. “I… be sparing in your praise of me, sirs. In truth, I’ve made a rather poor show as your agent. Much of what I’ve accomplished has been through the… charity of the Cthoniques.”

The Preceptor snorted at that. “I wouldn’t think the bloody Cthoniques as having much charity…”

“And in so thinking, you’d do them wrong,” said Justinian. He sighed. “But… there are strings attached. There… I will attempt to tell you what I can, but… they have put limits on what I can safely reveal…”

“In that case, you’d have better not come,” rumbled the Preceptor. “Be about as damn good.”

Amfortas shot the Preceptor the mildest of forbidding looks. “He’s attempting to do his duty, Maximilian. We must respect that.” He turned to the young Squire. “How goes the Cthoniques’ preparations for war?”

“They go…” Justinian shook his head. “Your Highness, they are not preparing any assault on the Lands of Light. Not truly. They may pay lip service to the Great War, but in truth, all the Cthoniques want is to rule their lands in peace. They are well-prepared for any attack we might make--but they have no plans to attack us.”

The Prince was out of his chair now, and walking to Justinian’s side. “So you suspect?” he asked.

“So I know,” said Justinian. “I… Your Highness, you sent me there in preparation for a war you saw coming, and now one you did not is at your door. All of which makes what I am about to tell you more important.” He nodded to himself. “I recommend, my liege, that you make peace with the Cthoniques.”

Amfortas nodded to himself, his long, light brown hair shifting slightly as he did so. “And you seriously believe this is a wise course of action? Peace with the Folk of Night?” The Prince began to walk towards the seated Squire.

Justinian glanced away. “Sire, I know that this sounds strange to you--indeed, it was strange to me at first--but… these people are not your enemies by anything more than custom. They bear you no ill will, and quite a few feel an ending to this… unending hostility would be wise.” The figure of Nisrioch Cthonique, with his shifting, rainbow eyes, his shock of white hair, his bad puns, and his endless cups of tea appeared to Justinian. “And… these are good people, sire. They care for their land, and their subjects, and they are kind when they can be.” Justinian thought of Mansemat Cthonique, preparing to serve in Court. “Oh, they are in error, and have wandered from the Light of the Seven--but I feel they sense its reflection, and that they can be won back to it.” Somehow, Eurydice was appearing in his mind, but he took a deep breath and returned to the subject at hand. “It would be a triumph for you, my Prince, in every way. ‘Great is the King who triumphs in the name of the Seven, greater still is he who spreads Their Holy Word, and greatest of all is he who does so in the ways of peace’,” Justinian recited.

Amfortas had reached Justinian by this time, and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I see. You truly believe this,” he said, his voice soothing and gentle. Suddenly the hand on his shoulder tightened its grip. Before Justinian even realized what was happening, Amfortas had slammed the young Sacristan’s head into the desk. The next thing Justinian knew he was falling to the ground. As he hit the floor, he realized the Prince must have kicked out his chair.

“I thank you for your honesty, and your forthrightness,” said Amfortas, smiling a gentle, compassionate smile. And then his foot lashed out, kicking Justinian very precisely in the stomach. “They have confirmed what I believed the moment I heard of your return.” The Prince’s tone was calm and kind as he spoke, as if he was merely having a pleasant conversation. He leaned down, and placed a hand on the side of Justinian’s head. “You have been tainted by the Night,” declared Amfortas, still smiling, still serene. He moved his hand back and slapped Justinian, then stood up again. “It has entered into you, corrupting you, leading you away from the Light.” Amfortas kicked the young Squire two more times after he said this, then smiled once again. “But relax, my poor, poor young friend. You will be free of this awful pollution, though I fear it will have to be loosed from you through blood and suffering.” Another kick, this one to Justinian’s knee. Justinian gave a wordless shriek.

“Damn it, Amfortas, you’ll kill the boy!” shouted the Preceptor. Justinian made an effort to see the man, and realized that Rho was doing his best to avoid looking at him.

Amfortas gave a cheerful, pleasant laugh. “Oh, Maximilian. Trust me when I tell you that I know precisely how far a person may be bent before they are utterly broken.” He looked down at Justinian, still smiling, his face warm and compassionate. “Now then, Sigma--when you… somehow… arrived in this city, there were two girls seen with you. One is--I believe that River Trader ‘Jean Crow’ you left with. Who is the other?”

Justinian took a long gasp, as he tried to recover, and then slowly, defiantly shook his head. Amfortas nodded. “Ahhh. I see. Very well.” He turned to the door. “Jernis! Razalic!” The two Prince’s Men who’d been standing guard outside the room entered. Amfortas gestured to Justinian’s prostrate form. “I am in need of your services.”

“We live to serve, Your Highness,” said the stocky one in a deep voice. He moved towards Justinian and quickly held him in place with two massive, black-haired arms.

Amfortis had set up Justinian’s fallen chair, and was now sitting down in it quite comfortably. “Jernis and Razalic were bandits before I took them into my service,” he stated placidly. “They specialized in capturing and torturing merchants into revealing the location of their valuables. When I found them, they were destined for the gallows, but it seemed to me a sin to waste such expertise. And now, in my service, they use their talents for the glory of the Seven.”

“And a great honor it is, sir,” said the thin one, who now held a rather distressingly thin blade in his hands. He smiled at Justinian, as if attempting a bad imitation of the disconcerting pleasantness that came so naturally to Amfortas. The rather unpleasant leer he sported did not help this--nor did his rotten teeth. “Now, sir, just to clear things up, I be Jernis, and he who be holding you be Razalic.” He motioned to his partner, who quickly raised one of Justinian’s hands. Jernis placed his blade just under Justinian’s fingernail.

“Be warned, sir,” said Jernis, fixing Justinian with a concerned look. “This might sting a little.” He smiled again. “A little humor, sir. Helps in… getting to know one another, I find.” And then he began.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Joyous Occasion--Part 12

Justinian knocked upon the door to the Joyeuse Chapterhouse of the Knightly Order of the Sacristy of Saint Julian, then waited for it to open. It occurred to him--not for the first time--that what he was attempting might be folly. And yet, as he reconsidered it, he again was forced to admit that this was the only way he could think of that allowed him to fulfill both his vows to the Cthoniques, and his vows to his people and his gods. And even more than that, he realized he believed in what he was attempting. And sometimes, by the Seven, that was enough.

The door opened. To Justinian’s surprise, he found himself staring at the face of Arcadius Pi, a fellow Squire more noted for his love of sleep than his dedication to the Order. As Justinian watched, Arcadius’ bleary eyes spread in amazement. “Sigma?” he declared, then suppressed a yawn. “But you’re dead!”

Justinian frowned. “Dead?”

Arcadius finally allowed himself that yawn, and followed it with a scratch on his rather bulbous nose. “Well, good as dead, anyway,” he declared. “No one’s quite sure where you were. Constans Mu said you tried to pull a runner, but then drowned in the Murkenmere.”

Justinian gave a bleak smile. “Constans Mu is an imbecile and a bully who hates me.” He stepped inside the Chapterhouse. “So naturally, I’m touched you… give his word such credence.”

Arcadius frowned. “Well I didn’t say I believed him, I just said he said that.” Arcadius scratched his carrot-red hair and yawned again. “I don’t think pulling a runner would ever occur to you.”

“Well, thank you,” said Justinian with a nod.

“Yep,” said Arcadius, as he shut the door. “I even said so to him. ‘Justinian Sigma is incapable of even imagining such an idea’. That’s how I put it.”

As Arcadius gave him that smile that dared the viewer to guess as to whether it was dull or crafty, Justinian wondered if he was perhaps being mocked instead of complimented. He decided to simply let the matter pass. “The Preceptor,” he declared grandly, “will want to see me.”

“He’s in conference with the Prince,” whispered Arcadius, with a nod towards the Rectory

Justinian nodded, not believing his good luck. “Prince Amfortas will also want to see me.” Arcadius’ eyes widened. “Do you imagine I’d joke about this?”

“Not for long,” said Arcadius with a sigh. “Well, come with me. It’s your skin. Mostly.” He turned towards the Rectory and started to walk gingerly down the hall.

Justinian fell in step behind him. “Has the Prince been here long?”

Arcadius glanced at his fellow Squire. “Heard about the whole matter of the Easter King?” he asked. Justinian nodded. Arcadius stuck his hands in the pockets of his cloak, and shook his head. “Well, that’s what brought him here. Came as soon as he got the Eremites from the Concordat. They’ve been running the town, since they came.”

“I’ve seen,” said Justinian, frowning.

Arcadius frowned himself. “Can’t say I’m happy. Or most of the Order,” he whispered. “But the garrison’s been sent to the Keeps to glare at Skarvsky’s Janissaries, and… one takes what help you can get, eh?”

“I don’t know if I term the Eremites’… help,” said Justinian.

“You would if you’d been here for two months with them, and they outnumbered you three to one,” said Arcadius.

Justinian couldn’t think of a reply to that. As they turned down the hallway to the Rectory, he saw two men in purple and white uniforms standing at the door. “Prince’s men,” said Arcadius quietly. He walked towards them, and bowed. “Squire Justinian Sigma, here to speak with Preceptor Maximilian Rho, and His Highness Amfortas Pescheour, Prince of Durendel, Regent of Leonais, Grandmaster of the Knightly Order of the Sacristy of Saint Julian, Supreme Legate of the Holy Synod, and Lord Protector of the Free Cities.”

Both of the men looked rather surprised at that, with one--a thin man, with thin lips, and rather sparse grey hair--looking at Justinian rather oddly. But his companion--a black-haired man who just a tad stout--headed quickly into the Rectory. After a moment, he stepped out again, and silently gestured for Justinian to head into the room.

Justinian did so.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Joyous Occasion--Part 11

Justinian watched as Elaine du Lac and Malina Cthonique fell asleep on the cot. “That was… quite nice of you,” said Justinian. “Giving up your bed for them.”

Theodora shrugged. “It is not the first time,” said the Sister of Mercy. “We have seen many troubled souls enter these halls.”

Jean Crow struck the mattress she was on several times. “Honestly, I don’t think you could find a difference between these things and the floor…”

“You’re welcome to give it a try,” said Julia.

Jean frowned, while Hoppedance managed to glare at the young nun. “I’ll pass.”

Justinian coughed and stood up. “Well, if you’ll allow me…” He began to head out of the chamber.

Jean turned to him. “Where are you going?”

“Well, it would hardly be seeming for me to share a chamber with you ladies,” he stated.

Jean’s eyes narrowed. “Yeah. Sure.” She looked away. “If whatever the hell you are planning hurts these girls, Justinian Sigma, I will kill you.”

The Sacristan blinked. “Jean… why… what…”

“Shit-for-brains” cawed Hoppedance.

“You’re a lousy liar, Sigma,” said Jean, flopping back in the bed. “Makes me glad I’m not hung up on you anymore. Even if you are cute.” She sighed. “I’m not even going to try and get you to give up whatever dumbass plan you’ve got going, because you’ll just give me some speech about ‘duty’, and ‘honor’, and other bullshit. Just… make sure that they’re safe.”

Justinian stopped a moment, and then leaned towards the young sorceress. He held up his hand, showing the swirling mark. “Remember, I’m bound by the same geas you are.” He placed his hand on his heart. “And the same feelings towards our charges.” He turned and started towards the door. “Anyway, you were NEVER hung up on me.”

“Sure I was,” shouted Jean as he left the chamber. “You just were too dense to notice it.”

Justinian sighed to himself, deciding to let the matter drop. “May I ask where you’re planning on going?” came a low murmur. He glanced over and saw his elder sister standing by the door. Theodora regarded him seriously.

“To do my duty,” he said quietly.

Theodora nodded. “That girl knows you well, Ivanushka,” she stated levelly.

Justinian bit his lip. “Tatanya,” he began, using her old, familiar name.

She raised her hand. “No, let me finish,” she said. “I also know you well, and have known you for many years. I know you are honest, and loyal, a man of the highest qualities, whose mind is fixed on the Light of the Seven, and all that is good and noble. And you are my beloved brother.” She smiled at him gently. “And having said all this--if whatever you are doing encompasses harm to those two young girls in there--who I have known but briefly--who I know also to be of the folk of Night…” She leaned forward. “Then like your Miss Crow, I will kill you.”

Justinian bowed. “Sister, am I not the son of my father? The blood of my mother?”

Theodora leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “You are,” she whispered in his ear. “Never forget that.”

Justinian moved away. “I never have,” he stated, as he headed towards the door. As he reached the streets of Joyeuse, he felt a chill come over him. Glancing up, he saw the thin crescent moon, surrounded by clouds. He pulled his cloak around himself, and headed on his way. He’d walked this route many times before, and so he knew the trip would take him just over an hour. He hoped that the Preceptor was up at the Chapterhouse.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Joyous Occasion--Part 10

“Really, everything started with the Cosmopolite Affair,” explained Theodora.

Julia snorted. “No, really it all started with Ilarion Skarvsky!”

Elaine glanced around nervously. “Who’s Ilarion Skarvsky?” While Justinian’s sisters had handled the whole situation, including the group’s increasingly tortured explanations, with incredible aplomb--more aplomb than the Sacristan usually managed to muster, actually--she was still increasingly aware of how… out of place she was here.

“Ilarion Skarvsky,” began Julia with almost unseemly joy, “is the vilest wretch in the Lands of both Light and Night.”

“He’s the Easter King,” explained Theodora, looking away rather embarrassedly.

“Yes,” agreed Julia. “And the vilest wretch in the…”

Justinian raised his hand. “That’s a matter of opinion,” he noted.

“Right,” said Jean Crow. “You’ve never met Asterot Maganza.”

“No, I have not,” said Julia. “Nor have I met Ilarion Skarvsky. And yet while I have met neither, Ilarion Skarvsky has managed to cause me a great deal of misery and trouble.”

Justinian nodded. “But how did the Cosmopolite Affair lead to Eremites in Joyeuse? When I left it was the same as it had been for the last three years, with the Synod saying it could appoint a Cosmopolite to Bolga, and the Easter King insisting they could not.”

“Ilarion has managed to add a little spice to it,” drawled Julia. “He had everyone convinced he was planning something in the Pillars. Then he got together a small army in Norizia, floated it down the Skadh, and occupied Precieuse.”

Justinian blinked. “But that’s… that’s practically an act of war!”

“That’s what Prince Amfortas said to the Council,” noted Julia. “The Council isn’t so sure. They are muttering about ‘ancient claims’ and ‘traditional dominions’, and so forth.” She shrugged. “He got nothing from them, except a declaration of the Council’s wishes for King Pelleas’ recovery.”

Justinian felt vaguely guilty. It had been months since he lit a candle for Good King Pelleas’ health. “How… how is His Royal Majesty?”

“I hear very well,” declared Theodora. “The baths at Froberge worked miracles, they say.”

Julia coughed. “Leaving aside Good King Pelleas--whose health we all pray for, in light of his epic struggle these last ten years…”

Theodora shook her head. “Julia!”

“…The Council left the Prince hanging,” Julia went on. “He went to the Free Cities, and they hemmed, and hawed, and then said that they really didn’t mind Ilarion Skarvsky having Precieuse. And so finally, he went to the Synod.” She sighed. “They agreed to help--and did so by sending in the Eremites, so the Prince could free men up to attack the Easter King.” She regarded her brother with a raised eyebrow. “The Eremites… have not been making themselves well-loved.”

Justinian nodded. “I can… see that.”

“I always put down the rumors spoken against them to the slurs of the ungodly,” said Theodora, with a shake of her head. “But this… they are as miserable and hard-hearted as everything I have ever heard spoken of them.”

Julia gave her sister an ironic smile. “Let us sing a song of praise to the Seven, my sister,” she noted. “It could have been the Stylites.”

Even Justinian could barely suppress a shudder at the mention of the Knights of the Tower, for all that he told himself that they did what they did to protect all the Lands of Light.

“You know,” said Elaine, “I… I always thought you people were more united. The memory of the Holy Empire and all that.”

“Why, we all remember the Holy Empire,” said Julia. “The Kings of Leonais have always seen themselves as the Emperor’s heirs. The Easter Kings disagree, and think they are. The Kings of Tintagel likewise beg to differ, and the Holy Synod feels that it embodies all the Empire’s spiritual authority.”

Elaine nodded. “Yeah. Yeah. I get it. You people are as messed up as we are.”

“And this is a surprise?” said Jean. “I could have told you that.”

“Bugger the bastards!” cawed Hoppedance.