Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 30

Jean sat in the back of the skiff, resting. The little boat was floating down the Murkenmere quite freely now, and she was tired. She’d done all she could do--more than even she thought she could do. Now, she could only hope that her message had reached the Cthoniques.

“I can stand watch you know,” said Julia quietly.

Jean blinked. “Umm… That’s nice, but really…”

“You’ve been up for this entire time,” said Julia. “And probably for hours before that. As the Seven say, ‘It is the duty of all to lighten the burden of their fellows’.”

Jean looked at the young nun for a moment, then slumped down. “Sure. Thanks.”

Julia stepped up towards the front of the skiff. “So--what am I looking for?”

“Some sign of the Cthoniques,” said Jean.

Julia raised an eyebrow. “And--what would that look like?”

Jean shut her eyes. “You’ll know it when you see it.”

Julia bit her lip. “So--I am looking for something, and the best description you can give me is that I’ll know it when I see it?”

“Hey,” said Jean with a shrug, “you’re the one who talked about sharing burdens.”

“The Seven talked about it through Blessed Saint Julian,” said Julia. “I merely try to live by their edicts.”

Jean merely nodded. There was a long silence. “I don’t get it, you know,” said Jean suddenly. “How the same damn church can produce you, and your sister, and yes, even Justinian, and then produce the freaking Eremites.”

“The Seven are many, and many are the ways to serve them,” answered Julia. “Some choose to serve them in ways that I suspect the Seven don’t appreciate. But that is their choice. In the end, all shall be revealed in the Holy Light.”

Jean shut her eyes. “I really wouldn’t talk like that too much when make it over to the other side of the River. It’s really not very popular over there.”

“It’s not very popular on the other side of the Murkenmere either,” said Julia. “Mercy, love and compassion are a hard path to heaven. Brutally slaughtering Nightfolk is easy.” She shrugged. “Or at least, it’s supposed to be. We had a few veterans in the hostel who suggested you don’t all conveniently line up to get killed when you fight with us.” She paused for a moment. “That thing? That I was supposed to know when I saw?”

“Yes?” said Jean, rising slightly.

Julia pointed ahead in the water. “Is that it?” A mammoth barge floated in the water, its deck teeming with people. A flag flew from its mast, depicting a young woman shattering a chain.

Jean readied her oar. “It most certainly is.” The little boat began to speed toward the larger one. “Hoy!” shouted Jean. “Hoy! Cthoniques! Cthoniques!”

A small head clad a large pointy helmet appeared. “Jean? Holy shit! It’s you!” Morgaine Cthonique smiled broadly. “This is almost worth the twenty marks I now owe Nissy!” She ducked back briefly, then suddenly leaned forward again. “Wait right there. We’ll get you up here in a jiffy!”

Julia looked at Jean as Morgaine vanished from view again. “Who was…?”

“Morgaine Cthonique,” said Jean. “You’ll like her. Eventually. Now, come on, help me get everyone else up.” Julia nodded, and began to shake her siblings awake. Jean lightly tossled Malina. “Time to get up, Princess…”

“Mmm not sleepy,” drawled Malina. “Mmm just fine…” She yawned, blinked, and looked around. “Oh, wow!” She pointed to the barge. “Her Ladyship! That’s Her Ladyship!” She leaned towards Jean. “Uncle Nissy named it.”

Jean winced. “Yeah. I can tell.”

“Yay! We’re safe!” said Malina, clapping her hands. “I’ll go say ‘hi’ to them!” She blinked then vanished with a pop.

“I wonder how the rest of us are getting on board,” muttered Julia.

At that moment, a pair of long hooked sticks appeared from the sides of the barge. “All right, everybody!” came a voice that Jean recognized as Serjeant Greedigutt’s. “Heave! Ho!” Jean watched in quiet alarm as the sticks landed in the water with a splash. The white-haired head of Nisrioch Cthonique appeared.

“Hello, apprentice!” he said, smiling. “Knew you’d make it!”

Jean found herself torn beneath conflicting impulses to smile and frown at the wizard. She finally settled on a sigh. “Could you save the conversation until we’re onboard?”

“Of course,” answered Nisrioch with a thumb’s up. “Though I must recommend you hold on tightly to the side of your little boat.” Jean’s hands began to clench on the wood. “But don’t get too worried,” he noted. “We are experts at this.”

At that moment, the little skiff was lifted up swiftly into the air. To Jean’s surprise, it was resting on the deck of the barge a moment later. Jean looked around at the small crowd of people there--Serjeant Greedigutt, and a few other members of the Cthonique Guards, Nisrioch, and to the side, Morgaine, who was busily hugging Malina.

“Look at you!” said Morgaine cheerily. “It won’t be long until I’m looking up at you, kid!”

Julia Upsilon stared at the pair. “So… CUTE!” she yelled, and dove in, embracing the pair. “They’re like little dolls!” she said to her sister.

Justinian Sigma rose unsteadily and coughed. “You… might want to stop that.”

Morgaine beamed at the Sacristan. “Oh, trust me, she can do this as long as she wants.”

“Elaine!” yelled Viviane as she rushed up. Mansemat Cthonique followed her. “I… where’s Elaine? Where?”

Jean took a deep breath and walked towards the Badb. “Elaine… chose to stay behind.”

Viviane turned to the young sorceress, and glared at her. “What?”

“I… during the escape the Prince’s Men came after us,” said Jean quietly. “Elaine--said they wanted her, and… distracted them… I…”

Viviane stared at Jean, her expression devastated. “She… what?” The Badb gulped. “The… Prince’s Men? Amfortas’ men? That… MONSTER has Elaine…” Jean tried to say something, but in the end, could only nod. Viviane’s face tightened, as she tried to hold back the tears. “No. No. No…”

“I… we’ll get her back,” said Jean. “I promise you that…”

Viviane glared at her. “Are you trying to make me FEEL BETTER?” She took a deep breath, exhaling through her nostrils. “Do you KNOW what that… THING is capable of? DO YOU? And now… now he has Elaine!” Viviane grabbed Jean by the shoulders. “Amfortas is Elaine’s father!” she hissed.

Jean blinked. “He… what? But… that’s…” She gulped nervously. “How?”

Viviane shut her eyes. “How do you think?” she said lowly.

Jean stood there for a moment. “Unholy Darkness…” she muttered, eventually.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 29

Maximilian Rho entered the nave of the Immaculate Light Cathedral with a feeling of trepidation. The Eremites and the Prince’s Men had converted the venerable old chapel into an impromptu headquarters. And as the Preceptor watched the men in purple and white direct the knights of the Hermitage in their tasks, it became very clear to him who was in charge.

Maximilian shook his head. How had it come to this? The Eremites--sworn protectors of the Concordat and servants of the Church, policing Leonais, and obeying the orders of its Prince? These were things that both the Grand Council of Leonais and the Collegium of the Concordat had agreed should never, ever occur--things that a horde of rules and edicts had been written to prevent. And yet, somehow, Amfortas had gotten them all laid aside. Oh, it had not happened all at once. No, the Prince had done it piece by piece, step by step, so gradually, so subtly, that only now, now when it was complete, could his design be seen.

“Are you all right, Preceptor?” asked Arcadius, lightly shaking his shoulder.

Maxmilian coughed and stirred himself. “Mmmph. Merely considering things. A habit we old men get into.”

Constans Mu nodded lightly. “Better one than fouling the air.” He shook his head. “Me uncle Jacopone…”

“That’s enough, Squire,” said the Preceptor mildly.

“Preceptor!” said Sylvester Mu, with Edward Delta following him. “We were wondering where you were. Did you find anything?”

“Nothing of interest,” said Maximilian.

Arcadius and Constans nodded. “This night’s been so misty and dark, it’d be ease itself for them to slip out, unnoticed.” Which was, Maximilian noted with a certain level of admiration, all true.

“Blasted waste of time, if you ask me,” Constans snarled.

Sylvester looked away nervously, while Edward began to gesture behind them. “Preceptor!” came a loud voice. “It is so good of you to join us!”

Maximilian turned to regard Archon Septimus. He had heard of the Eremite’s humiliation, and had expected him to keep a low profile, but here he was, completely unabashed. He was flanked by two Prince’s Men--a tall man with graying hair, and a short youth, whose cloak’s hood was pulled up . “Archon Seraphim,” said Maximilian with a bow of his head. “It is good to see you are in fine health.”

The Archon frowned. “I take what the Seven give me,” he replied grimly. “Fair or foul. Let Their Will be done.”

“An estimable and pious attitude,” said the older Prince’s Man. He sighed. “Still, I, poor sinner that I am, cannot help but wonder what they aim at when they send us so much foul news, and so little fair. All but one of the prisoners escaped back to the Lands of Night.”

The Preceptor blinked. “One?”

“The Badb’s daughter,” said the Prince’s Man. “My lads Jernis and Razalic caught her.” He chuckled. “They are good at that.” He offered Maximilian his hand. “Serjeant-at-arms Lanval Equitan, at your service.”

Maximilian took his hand warily. “A… pleasure, Serjeant.” He heard of a Lanval Equitan, years ago. That man was the head of family of armigers up around Almace who rather regularly went bandit. Lanval had done just that, and had done it a very bloody, very noticeable way.

Not for the first time, Maxmilian Rho found himself wondering about the men Prince Amfortas chose to wear his colors.

“I want a firestick, Serjeant,” said the younger Prince’s Man. Maximilian blinked in surprise--partially at the hitherto silent figure speaking, and partially at the fact that this Prince’s Man was apparently a young woman. It was hard to tell, from a casual appraisal--her face bore several disfiguring scars that tended to attract one's notice.

Lanval turned, and handed her several brightly tipped pieces of wood. “Here you go, Gilly.” The girl smiled briefly, then rushed back to a corner. Lanval turned back to Maximilian and the Archon. “She’s something of a mascot for the Prince’s Men,” he said, smiling. “We came upon her in a bit of misfortune, and adopted her. She’s stayed with us ever since.”

“Fire…sticks?” asked Arcadius Pi, quietly.

“Weird little things, we find on smugglers,” said Lanval. “We think the Nightfolk make them. They start fires quickly. Gilly likes to see them burn.” Maximilian glanced over towards her and saw she was apparently lighting the little things, staring at them intently.

“Articles of the Night are tainted…” said the Archon with just a touch of severity.

“True, very true,” said Lanval, eyes looking dolefully at the heavens. “But who of us is without sin and fault?”

Lanval Equitan had been an Archdeacon of the Faith, Maxmilian remembered. He’d used his position to do things like give his relatives sanctuary after committing bloody murders at his behest. And other--less savory things.

The Archon nodded fitfully and turned away. The Eremites in the cathedral had begun to gather around him. Septimus regarded them for a moment, and then spoke. “Brothers in the faith, we have had a great setback. And yet we must remain strong, and trust in the Holy Light of the Seven.” He took a deep breath. “In times like this, let us follow the example of our predecessors, and lift our voices in Their praise.” The Archon shut his eyes, and began to sing. “Known only to Them--Are the great hidden secrets.” To Maximilian’s surprise, Septimus Seraphim had a lovely singing voice. His fellow Eremites joined in the song. “I’ll fear not the Darkness, when my flame shall dim. I know not what the future holds--But I know who holds the future. It’s a secret known only to Them!”

Maximilian glanced over at Gilly. She had lit another ‘firestick’ and was now watching it with eager hunger, rocking back and forth on her knees energetically.

“In this world of fear and doubt--on my knees I ask the question,” sang the Archon, “why a lonely, heavy burden I must bear? Then They tell me in my prayer, it’s because I am trustworthy--They give me strength--far more than my share!” He looked at Maximilian significantly.

Maximilian nodded quietly and took a deep breath. “Known only to Them--Are the great hidden secrets.” The other Sacristans nodded and joined in. “I’ll fear not the Darkness, when my flame shall dim. I know not what the future holds--But I know who holds the future. It’s a secret known only to Them!”

Maximilian watched Lanval and his little friend as he sang. Gilly had no eyes for anything beside her little fires, while the serjeant only smiled.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 28

The little skiff floated out into the Murkenmere.

“See?” said Jean confidently. “All that worrying, and we’re home, safe and… oh, damn.”

A rather impressive array of small ships was lined up out there before them, their night lanterns shining on the water.

Justinian leaned up from the bottom of the boat. “I heard a swear word, and then silence. And you all look rather… displeased. So are we doomed, after all?”

Jean raised her hand. “No, no. I was expecting something like this. It’s just… a bit bigger than I thought it would be. But nothing I can’t handle.” She glanced at the others. “Any of you can handle this skiff? I mean--you are--fishers, right…?

Justinian groaned “That’s not comforting, Jean.”

“No, no, I just need someone to steer for a moment…” noted Jean, waving her hand. “So anyone…?”

Theodora stood up. “I’m the one you want. Ivana left very young, and Ivanushka… well, he’s in really no shape for it. And honestly Ivan was really the one Father was training.”

Jean blinked as she handed Theodora the oar. “Your family seems to be very fond of that name.”

“It was Grandfather’s name,” said Theodora. “And life on the Breakers is hard--if you a name to pass on, you hand it out as much as you can.” She sighed, as she began to steer the skiff. “It’s just that we proved to be a fairly--hardy brood, so--well, there were a lot of nicknames.”

Jean nodded, and walked to the prow of the boat. She spread her arms and simply stood there. For a while, all was silent, except for the sound of water splashing and the occasional caw of a gull. At last, Julia coughed. “What are you doing?”

“Magic,” answered Jean. She stared ahead fixedly for a moment. “Huh. That’s odd. Never thought I’d see HIM here…”

“Who’s ‘him’?” asked Julia looking around.

“That guy in purple and white over there on the largest ship,” said Jean. “You see him?”

“Kind of…” noted Julia, squinting.

“That’s Guigemar the Bottomfeeder,” Jean declared. “Used to be a River Trader, until he was thrown out of the Society.”

Justinian blinked. “You can… stop being a River Trader?”

“Pretty much,” said Jean. “We look after each other, to a certain extent. However, if you cross certain lines, we stop. And if the lines are bad enough, we start trying to get you killed.” She frowned. “In Guigemar’s case, it consisted in kidnapping children to sell into slavery. On both sides of the river.”

Julia nodded. “Ahh. Hence the nickname.”

“That’s part of the reason,” said Jean. “The other is… well, let’s just say he used to sample his own wares on occasion before selling them, and leave it at that.”

Julia’s eyes went wide. She placed her arms around Malina’s shoulders. “Maybe you should--sit lower…”

“But then I won’t see whatever cool thing Jean’s going to do!” complained Malina.

Theodora gulped. “Umm, the ships are… coming closer…”

“Relax,” said Jean. “Hey, Justinian, remember how I always had the knack for dealing with birds?”

Justinian nodded. “So you always claimed. Why?”

Jean waved her hands. And suddenly, swarms of gulls were flying at the decks of the ships, attacking their crews. The sorceress smiled. “I’ve been practicing.” She turned to Theodora. “Okay, you can give me back the oar. I can take it from here.”

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 27

“What was all that about?” asked Jean Crow, as they ran down the old stone stairs.

“I don’t know,” said Justinian. “The Preceptor is… an odd man at times.” He looked at Jean. “I’m hoping it was guilt.” Having said that, he paused and leaned against the wall. “Please tell me we’re close to wherever it is we’re going. I think whatever Malina did to me is wearing off.”

Jean took a few more steps. “We’re there.” She gestured around the massive room. “Ta-da! Welcome to one of Joyeuse’s storm drains!”

Julia Upsilon glanced around. “That’s… considerably less thrilling than you think it is.”

“Ah HA!” declared Jean. “You may think so. But does your thinking so persist in the face of…” She ran down to the water. “This skiff!”

“Ooooh!” said Julia. Malina clapped. Jean smiled and silently thanked the River Ox for revealing he had an extra one stowed away here.

Theodora scratched her head. “Well--it’s nice to have a boat, I guess, but still how will it get us out of here?”

Jean crossed her arms. “Because these storm drains all empty into the Murkenmere,” she replied. “We just follow it out, and then we’re home free. We River Peddlers have been using this trick for decades.”

Justinian looked at her pointedly. “And no one’s… gotten wise to it?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that, but we just move ships around, use different locations, every now and then, sometimes avoid a city for a few years…” Jean blinked. “Hey, I know what you’re suggesting. Trust me, I have things covered. We’ll be fine. Now get on the boat.” She leaned forward. “I mean it. You look like you’re about to keel over.”

Justinian sighed and let his sister help him onboard. Jean brought up her pole. “Is everybody ready?” There was a quick series of nods. “Good. Then hold on tight. The water in these babies tends to move pretty quick.” She pushed off.

The little skiff began to rush forward. “So,” said Justinian quietly, “this… plan of yours. For if they have made the rather reasonable assumption that you might try something like this….”

“Hey!” said Jean. “You’re perking up. I was a bit worried, but damn it, the old Justinian’s still in there! In a few weeks, you’ll be back to telling me more shit I don’t need to hear!”

“Yes, thank you for such a… rosy view of my recovery,” said Justinian. “But to return to our topic of discussion--what is this plan of yours?”

“I’m not telling you,” answered Jean cheerily. “That way you’ll be absolutely floored when I reveal its utter awesomeness to you. In fact, considering your present position, you’ll probably wind up in the center of the earth. It’s that awesome. And the flooring will be that absolute.”

Justinian groaned quietly. “You really have been spending too much time with Nisrioch, you know that?”

“Think of it this way,” said Jean. “If I hadn’t, I’d be dead right now. And thus, by extension you’d be dead right now. So, really, you should be happy about all that.”

Justinian thought if over, and shut his eyes. “Frankly, I’m too tired to argue right now.”

“That’s a first,” said Jean. “At least from my experience.”

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 26

“Damn it,” muttered Constans Mu. “Have we been down this blasted street before?”

Arcadius Pi rolled his eyes. “You know, Constans, if you visited more of Joyeuse than the Silk Quarter, you’d probably actually know your way around.”

The burly Sacristan crossed his arms. “Well, you tell me where we are then, eh?”

Arcadius looked around. “Western Spice Market. Right where it meets the Teamster’s Quarter and St. Ambrogius.”

Constans blinked, impressed despite himself. “How can you tell…?”

Arcadius pointed to a steeple in the distance. “That’s St. Ambrogius’ Chapel in the distance. You can recognize it by the roof. Rounded, like an Eastern church.” He shrugged. “Joyeuse is a city of churches. Know your churches, and you know the city.”

“I’ll be damned,” said Constans.

“That’s pretty blasted likely,” noted Preceptor Maximilian, as he joined the pair. “At the rate you are piling on the sins, it’ll take a Pilgrimage to every Holy Site in the Lands of Light to get clear. Possibly two times each.”

Arcadius smiled at his fellow Sacristan. “Well, you have said you wanted to travel.”

The Preceptor frowned. “Enough witticisms. Anything to report?”

“It’s cold out,” answered Constans.

Maximilian stared at him. “That’s ignoring the first part of what I said,” he noted.

“It’s been quiet,” said Arcadius. “Frankly, sir, I believe the escapees have already made their way out of the city. If they aren’t, they’re in some safe location we don’t know about. Whichever it is, I doubt we’ll see them again.”

At that moment, a small group of people stumbled into view. Arcadius blinked and then realized that Justinian was among them. As the fugitives stared at them in shock, Arcadius glanced at the Preceptor for some sign of what to do.

The Preceptor did nothing. Arcadius looked at the fugitives again. They all looked tired, dirty and desperate. One, he noted was a small child. He looked back at the Preceptor. Still nothing. He looked back at the fugitives, who were busily moving away.

Once they were gone, the Preceptor looked at the two Squires. “Gentlemen, I think we can all agree that we saw nothing of interest.”

The pair nodded. Maximilian Rho was not a man you disagreed with on these matters.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 25

Elaine darted down the winding streets, as fast as she could, hoping to prolong her capture as long as possible. They were counting on her--her friends and her little sister. She couldn’t let them down.

The next alley she turned to was a dead end.

Elaine cursed quietly to herself. She’d somewhat underestimated how cruel the streets of Joyeuse could be to those who didn’t know their way around them.

The footsteps approached from behind. “Well, well,” came a familiar voice, wheedling voice. “Lookee what we found, Razalic.” Elaine winced. Of course it would be them. She turned and saw them--the thin, little ugly Prince’s Man, and his stocky, big, ugly partner. “His Highness will be thrilled,” said the little man. “Don’t you think so?”

“Sounds right, Jernis,” said Razalic, dully, his black eyes staring at Elaine menacingly. “Sounds right indeed.”

Jernis smiled at the girl, revealing his rotten teeth. “Please come peaceable like, miss. His Highness doesn’t want you harmed if he can help it.” He gestured at his partner. “And though I’m a gentle soul at heart, ol’ Raz here--well, he’d kill even a sweet little bird like you fast as skinning a hare, if his dander was up.” Jernis raised an eyebrow significantly. “I seen him do it.”

Razalic gave an appreciative nod at that.

Elaine considered trying to make another run at that. But she didn’t. Maybe it was all that time spent with Amfortas. Maybe all those months earlier, with Falerina. But Elaine found she’d developed a sense for when cruel, wicked people were in earnest. And these two most definitely were in earnest.

As well as being cruel and wicked.

She took a deep breath and walked towards them. “Very reasonable of you,” said Jernis. He began to laugh. “An’ don’t try giving us the angry uncle like you gave the Archon. Razalic don’t appreciate that.” He glanced at the larger man. “What did you do to that barmaid back in Cazlona that did that to you? I keep forgetting.”

“Broke her legs,” said Razalic. “To start with.”

Jernis clicked his tongue. “I was thinking you made her eat her own teeth.”

“Nah,” answered Razalic. “That was the one in Balsarda. Who shortchanged us.”

“Ahh, yes,” said Jernis. “I remember now.” He shook his head. “The time it does fly away from us, eh?” He placed a hand on Elaine’s shoulder. “I’ll escort you back, Miss, if you don’t mind?” He grinned at her. “Razalic’s better at it when folk’re struggling--but I think you’ll stay peaceable, won’t you?” Elaine bit her lip, and walked along. Jernis laughed. “A merry chase you’ve lead us on, Miss. A very merry chase.”

Elaine glared at him. “You’re a dead man. I hope you know that.”

Jernis chuckled. “Now, Miss, why do you have to be so cruel to old Jernis, when we were getting along so fine?” he asked.

“Just stating a fact,” answered Elaine levelly. “I’m the Badb’s daughter. My stepfather is the greatest Dark Lord in all the Lands of Night. They’ll come here. And they will tear this place down around them. And scum like you will be destroyed in their wake.” She looked the little man in the eye. “So once again--Jernis--you’re both dead men.”

Jernis simply nodded and glanced at his partner. “Show her your neck, Razalic.” The big man nodded, and pulled down his collar. A nasty profusion of scars circled around his throat. “He had that when we met in Tranchera. Botched hanging. They’d gotten him for killing his brother. I’d been running with Padrig’s Wolves. I was waiting for me drop. Razalic was going after me.” Jernis’ voice had lost that wheedling note it often had. “He’d already gone the week before me, but it hadn’t taken. So they’d let him heal, and they prepared to do it proper. We had many a long talk, him an’ me, on the experience. Thought it’d be best to be forearmed.” The little man’s eyes had taken on a rather glazed look. “Won’t tell you how we got outta that one. Long, unpleasant story. But we got out a it. An’ worse scrapes since.” He looked at Elaine once again. “What I’m trying to say, miss, is Razalic an’ me--we been dead before. We been dead a whole lotta times. We’re used to it.”

Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 24

Jean Crow watched as her friend disappeared into the fog. As Elaine du Lac vanished from sight, she felt an urge to call her back, to tell her that she would come up with something that would save them all. But the truth was lurking in her mind, no matter how she wanted to cast it away--she was out of her depths, and lucky to have gotten this far. As Elaine had spoken her plan, Jean had watched as no alternative had come to her, no way to get them out of this mess.

Justinian stirred beside her. “We should move soon,” he muttered.

“Not yet,” answered Jean, listening to the sound of footsteps moving away. “We don’t want to run into them as soon as we get out of here…”

Justinian seemed about to say something--but he kept silent, and simply gave a nod. It occurred to Jean that whatever happened to him must have been worse than she imagined. The Sacristan would not have accepted all this so… meekly, in the past. In fact, she rather expected he wouldn’t continue to do so, if they got out of this alive. And that she wasn’t going to like any conversations she had with him for quite some time, after that.

But Jean could live with that. The alternative was undoubtedly worse.

She wondered what Viviane would do to her when she got back. Something memorable, she imagined. For all her pleasantness in day-to-day affairs, the Badb lived up to the reputation of her predecessors when she was riled.

Not that she’d expected Viviane to be pleased with her, but she’d expected to be coming back with both her daughters, instead of just one. This situation would be… unpleasant.

Best not to think about that. She had things to do.

The sound of footsteps was finally receding into the distance. “Right. We move now,” declared Jean. She waved her hand and the party followed her into the night.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 23

Elaine moved as quickly as she could down the street, keeping her eyes on Jean, the entire time. “Are we almost there?” she gasped out.

“Soon!” replied Jean angrily. “Just keep…” And suddenly, she froze, her eyes wide in terror. Elaine turned to look at whatever it was that had frightened Jean, and saw it--a small group of men in purple and white, moving steadily down the road.

“Prince’s Men,” muttered Justinian in quiet dread.

“Everyone move!” shouted Jean. “Back, back, BACK!” The group fell back, Jean staring desperately behind them. Elaine noticed that the fog seemed to be thickening around them.

“So… what happens now?” she asked.

“I… there’s another way there…,” Jean replied. “We… go that way.”

“And if they’re watching that way?” said Elaine simply.

“I’ll think of something,” muttered Jean, with quiet emphasis.

Elaine shook her head. “You won’t need to. I already have.” She stared at Jean fixedly. “Take Malina, and Sigma, and his sisters to this safe place of yours. I’ll distract the guards.”

Jean stared at her in shock. “Wha… Elaine--this is crazy… they’ll--they’ll kill you…”

“No, they won’t,” replied Elaine. “Like Justinian said, those are Prince’s Men--and Amfortas wants me alive. The rest of you--he probably doesn’t care. And if he gets you he’d probably kill you. Just to hurt me.”

“Yeah--but--what will he do to you if…?” began Jean.

“The same thing he’s been doing,” answered Elaine. “Playing his little game. Wearing me down, inch by inch. He doesn’t just want me dead. Or in pain. He wants me to want those things. Because he is one sick bastard.” A grim smile touched her face. “And he was winning. But if you get out… if I know your out there, making your way to Mom and Mansemat--well, I’ll have something to hold on to.” She took a deep breath. “And that should be all I need.”

Jean stared at her friend. “Elaine--don’t--this is bullshit--you…”

“This is an order,” said Elaine. “You worry about escaping. I’ll give you all the time you need. Got it?” She turned to Malina and gave her a hug. “You take care, sis, okay?”

Malina nodded, trying to hold back tears. “You too.”

She glanced at Theodora and Julia. “And you two--take good care of your brother. He’s a sweet guy, but he really tends to stick his foot in his mouth.”

Julia nodded. “Oh, we know.”

Theodora put a hand on her shoulder. “May the Seven go with you.”

Elaine turned. “Thanks for the thought, but I’m the daughter of the Badb, and a child of Night. The Darksome Lady goes with me.” And she walked out of the alley.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 22

Jean stepped out into the back alley of the Palace of Repentance, and looked around. “Okay, it’s clear.”

The others followed her out. Elaine bit her lip. “So--what’s the plan, Jean?”

Jean started to move carefully down the street. “We’re going to… well, a place my father showed a long time ago. A place where we River Traders keep… ways to get away.” She took a deep breath. “The docks… should be chaos. I made sure of that. They… they all will be busy over there. So we can get away.”

“Didn’t the shouty man say something about getting reimforestmints?” asked Malina.

“Yes,” replied Jean. “He did. Now, please be quiet.”

Malina gave a quick nod. The group moved through the city, increasingly aware of the sounds of boots striking cobblestones, angry shouts, and the occasional scream.

“What did you do?” said Elaine.

“What I had to,” hissed Jean. “This city was on edge. I just--gave it a little push, okay?” She turned to the young Erl, eyes wide. “That’s it! That’s ALL I did!”

“Okay,” said Elaine with a quick nod.

Jean turned towards the others. “Anyone else care to share their feelings about our present situation?” She tapped her foot. “Well, do they?”

Justinian and Theodora both shook their heads. Julia coughed. “My sandals are too tight,” she said. Her siblings stared at her. “What? They are.”

Jean rubbed her temples. “Let’s… just keep moving, okay? I really don’t want to…”

She froze. “What…?” began Elaine. And then she heard it.

A large group of boots on cobblestones were coming very close to them.

Jean took a deep breath. “Keep quiet, and keep close to me,” she said.

And then, she began to run.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 21

Archon Septimus Seraphim stood there, his eyebrows raised, his beaklike nose in the air. “I knew this would happen!” he crowed. “Prince Amfortas thought he was taming you, but I saw the truth. Like any true scion of Darkness, you were simply waiting for your chance to lash out at all that was pure and holy! But His Highness is a man of ideals. He truly feels that an effort must be made to allow you to see the obscenity of your existence. But I know better. Simply kill you and be done with it. Best for all involved.” He glared at Justinian Sigma and his sisters. “Traitors as well.”

Jean raised her hand. “Listen, you ranting maniac…”

“Foolish WITCH!” shouted the Archon. “Do you truly think your vile magic can touch one such as I? A sacred warrior of the Seven, whose life is truly bound by the sacred oaths of my order?” He laughed. “Your darkling powers will prove as feeble to me as your schemes did. Your little plan--to distract us with riots and thus make us reduce the guard… I saw it almost immediately. I am here, and soon, a detachment of Eremites…”

“Wait… you’re here alone…?” muttered Jean.

The Archon ignored her. “…Shall arrive! Your schemes have come to naught!”

“You’re right,” said Elaine. “We give up.”

Septimus blinked. “What?”

“We give up,” continued Elaine, with a shrug. She approached him. “You’ve got us beat. Just…” She bit her lip nervously. “If we surrender now, will you promise to… do like you said, and just… kill us quick? Please…?”

“Child,” said the Archon with a sneer, “that is not for me to say. It is for the Prince, and he is a man terrible in his wrath. Indeed, I do not think I would recommend mercy in thi--AARGHHH!” Septimus Seraphim gave a wordless shriek of pain and collapsed on the floor, sobbing in agony.

Jean glanced at Elaine. “Ummm… wow. I had to admit you had me going there.” She shook her head. “That was some knee to the crotch…”

“Mom taught it to me,” said Elaine with a casual shrug. She watched the Archon writhe for a moment, then turned away. “Well, that was fairly empowering…”

Malina clapped. “Yay for sis! She made the shouty guy stop yelling! Yay!”

Jean nodded. “Right. Let’s go. Now.” She tugged Malina along, and headed away, with Elaine following her.

Theodora turned to her brother. “You know, Ivanushka, I think that would be very wise advice…”

Justinian sighed. “I know. I know. It’s just….you know. Knee. In the crotch.”

Julia chuckled. “This is sort of like when Little Dmitri threw the woodblock at Big Dmitri, isn’t it?”

Justinian nodded. “Every man in the village--even small boys--simply… stopped,” he said quietly. Theodora looked at him. He shook his head, and then followed her out.

Julia prepared to follow them, then paused and turned. She looked at Septimus and smiled sweetly. “For my brother,” she said pleasantly.

And then she spat on him.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 20

Elaine felt her muscles tense as the door opened. She took a deep breath. “Look,” she said, “could you just… skip the taunting for the night? I get it. You’re great and powerful, and I’m small and weak, and you’re going to crush me, bit by bit. Are you happy now? Is that what you wanted to hear?”

Jean Crow stared at her friend for a moment. “What the hell have they been doing to you?” she asked.

Elaine stared at her for a moment, and gulped. “I… nothing, really, it’s just…” She stood up and embraced Jean. “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you…”

“Yes, yes, I am awesome,” said Jean simply, patting her friend on the back. She coughed awkwardly. “Now, let’s get the hell out of here. My awesomeness has limits.”

“Right, right, right,” muttered Elaine as they exited the cell. She glanced at Jean. “How…?”

“It’s a long, complicated story that I will explain when we’re the hell out of this place,” Jean replied. “However to sum up… ‘awesome’.” She looked at Elaine in concern. “So… about… what happened…”

“Like I said, nothing really,” said Elaine. She shuddered. “It’s just that Amfortas’ nothing is worse than a lot of people’s something….”

Jean winced. “Yeah. Yeah. I’ve seen his ‘something’, so I have an idea…”

“No, you don’t,” said Elaine. Jean turned as if to say something, then shut her mouth.

The pair turned the corner. “Yay! It’s big sis!” said Malina. “And they haven’t cut her legs off or anything!”

Elaine looked at Justinian, and winced. “Yeah. My legs are… fine.”

“A mistake that will be seen to,” came a harsh voice.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 19

Archon Septimus Seraphim glanced over the reports before him and frowned. Septimus was a firm believer that a steady flow of odd details tended to indicate something. The problem was what. Septimus’ bony fingers tapped idly on the table as he thought.

Sir Ashareus Kerabim entered the room, and bowed. “Archon, I’m pleased to report that we have almost gotten the situation on the docks in order…”

“‘Almost’ is not acceptable,” said Septimus quietly. “Tell me when it is in order. And not a moment sooner.”

“Of course, sir,” began Ashareus. He coughed. “Still--I have brought more reports from those apprehended as you…”

Septimus began to rub his temples. “Yes, well, now I officially unrequest this.” He stared at his aide pointedly. “Do you wish me to summarize the reports? None of the sailors can identify the ringleaders. None of them even saw them. The whole affair is simply a mystery.”

Ashareus nodded. “Sailors are always a sinful, insular lot. Especially those on the river…” he noted.

Septimus shook his head. “No. No, Sir Kerabim, that does not explain this. You expect reports like this in the beginning--but after a while, someone always offers you something more concrete. But not this time. These men truly seem to have no idea what happened here. And then there’s the matter of the girl…”

“A simple case of mistaken identity, I would think,” said Ashareus. “Well, that and young Ambrose’s… overzealousness…”

“But both he and Jerome swear that they heard her singing… that song,” noted Septimus quietly. “One I would expect. Not both. There is plotting here. There is deception. And I must get to the bottom of it.”

“But who would profit from such a thing?” asked Ashareus. “This chaos helps no one.”

Septimus arched one thin eyebrow. “It does not? I would disagree. The Old Lords of Joyeuse are doubtless raising their glasses to those squabbling sailors. And that is only…” Suddenly the Archon’s eyes narrowed. “Sir Kerabim, would you kindly bring me… yesterday’s report from the Palace of Repentance, if you will?”

Ashareus nodded and headed over to the table. “Very well, sir. Still, I do not know why you’d want it. It was completely without in…” The Archon snatched it out of his aide’s hand, and then gritted his teeth.

“Go to the docks, and gather as many Eremites as you can spare,” said Septimus.

“And… send them where, sir?” asked Ashareus.

“To the Palace of Repentance,” replied the Archon. “Darkness has revealed its accursed hand, Sir Kerabim. Now it falls to us to hold in a cage of light.”

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 18

Justinian Sigma idly flexed his hand, then yelped.

“Ivanushka,” said Theodora quietly, while massaging his temples, “must you keep doing that?”

“I just… want to see… if it’s healed,” muttered Justinian.

“Well, the answer is obviously not,” said his elder sister.

Julia leaned her head against the wall, and sighed. “You know if it weren’t for the fact that they were feeding us, I’d swear they’d forgotten about us.”

“That’s because they have,” Justinian whispered. “I’ve told them everything I knew of value. Now the only thing left for me is to be executed. And that’s really… a rather small matter.” He shut his eyes. “I’m sorry for bringing you two into this.”

Theodora smiled gently. “Ivanushka, all you did was bring the Cthonique sisters to us. It was our choice not to give them up to Eremites.”

“And to smash in the heads of a dozen of them,” added Julia.

Theodora rolled her eyes. “Yes, that too.”

“Frankly, I think that was worth being thrown into prison,” noted her sister.

“You are not helping things, Ivana,” said Theodora severely.

Julia glanced at her sister. “I wasn’t trying to.” She gave a long sigh. “Really, you can be the most frustrating…” She was interrupted by a sudden popping noise.

“Hi,” said Malina, with a slight wave. She held up a large iron ring of keys. “I brung this to get you out.”

Julia’s eyes went wide. “Malina! You’re safe!” She dove forward. “And still the most adorable little thing…”

Malina laughed. “I’m glad to see you too, Juya,” She coughed. “Now, we really have to get out of here. And then go get Sis. So, where’s Mr. Siggy?” She glanced at Justinian and blinked. “Oh. Ummm… This might take a moment…”

Justinian stirred weakly on the floor. “Your Precious Grace,” he said quietly. “I thank you for your kindness, but I am in no condition to travel, and frankly, I’d rather if you’d just leave me to…”

Malina touched Justinian. “You’re coming with us,” she said cheerfully, but commandingly. “Can you get up now?”

Justinian started to sit up. “It seems I can…”

“Oh, good!” said Malina clapping her hands. “I’ll get the door.” She shut her eyes, vanished, and then appeared on the other side of the door. As Justinian took a few hesitant steps, he glanced at the young Dev worriedly.

“And do you know where Elaine is?” he asked.

“The second tower,” answered Jean Crow, stepping into sight. She smiled at the Sacristan. “Don’t worry about the guards. They’re down to a skeleton crew here. And I’ve been dealing with what’s left….”

Justinian nodded. “Miss Crow, I take back almost every unpleasant thing I have ever said about you.”

“Only ‘almost’?” asked Jean, raising an eyebrow.

“Well some of them were true,” he noted stepping through the open door.

Julia glanced at her sister. “Does she know that that little… eye thing on her forehead is glowing?” she whispered.

“Do you really want to ask her?” said Theodora pointedly.

Julia thought it over, and shook her head. “No. I don’t.”

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Cage Of Light--Part 17

Preceptor Maximillian Rho stared dully at his dinner. It was a serving of roast mutton, with a side of very fresh, very green peas. On most days, he would have enjoyed such a meal. But this was not most days, and so he simply sat there in the Chapterhouse’s dining hall, looking vaguely miserable.

“…Again?” asked Arcadius Pi, as he entered the chamber.

“They’re smashing things up at the docks right now,” said Sylvester Khi. “The Eremites have headed out to stop--or so they say.” He gave a cynical shrug. “I suspect they’re going to simply smash things on their own.”

“Foreigners,” muttered Constans Mu, darkly. “Bastards never can handle themselves properly.”

Arcadius glanced at him. “Do you mean the sailors, or the Eremites?”

“Both,” said Constans. “The sailors have always caused us trouble, now an’ then. But we knew how to handle ‘em. But the damn Eremites--they’ve gone an’ made ‘em worse. An’ what’s the result? More trouble for us.” He shook his head. “Honestly, we should just build a wall, and keep them all on the other side of it.”

Arcadius chuckled. “I have to admit, Constans you have away with words.” He glanced at Constans pointedly. “Of course, you could almost forget you’re a Corniglian.”

Constans’ eyes narrowed. “No, I was born in Corniglia,” he noted. “I was raised here. So I’m a Joyeuse man, plain an‘ simple.” He looked over at Rho. “What’s up with the old man? He ain’t said nothing. Not even to tell me to shut my damn fool mouth.”

Sylvester frowned. “The fire over at the Sisters of Mercy Chapterhouse has… troubled the Preceptor’s soul.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Constans, with a sympathetic smile. “His bit of stuff right?”

Arcadius rolled his eyes. As he was fond of noting, Constans Mu seemed to have been placed on the world by the Seven to make one glad that one was not him. “The Preceptor and the Mother Superior were dear friends, yes,” he whispered.

Constans gave a low laugh. “I should think so!” He gave a quick shake of his head. “A fine figure of woman, that one! A bit old, but then someone has to keep the old women company, and its best it be the old men, eh?”

Sylvester seemed to be about to try once again to explain the concept of a ‘perpetual vow of chastity’ to Constans when the Preceptor coughed. “Pardon me, gentlemen, but did I hear something about a riot down on the docks?” he asked quietly.

Constans turned. “Oh, yeah. A big one. Worse than the one we had last week.”

The Preceptor stood up. “Then what the bloody hell are you shiftless bastards doing here, eh? Go take care of it!”

The three Squires gulped, saluted and rushed out of the room. Maximilian Rho started to follow them out. As he did so, memories of a young woman with hair as black as ebony, and an enchanted trip to the Concordat kept running through his head. But he knew they would pass in time, fading thanks to his day-to-day duties, and countless compromises.

No matter how much he tried to cling to them.