Saturday, April 28, 2012

Enfolded in the Dragon's Wings--Part 9

Grizzel Greedigutt sipped his beer, and sighed. “Is there any alcohol that isn’t flat?” he said.

Serjeant Cambyses Littlecape chuckled. “After two weeks of running through the Heath?” The old Erl shook his head. “You should feel lucky we have any, period.”

“That is debatable,” said Grizzel. He poured his mug out onto the ground. “For example, I happen to find drinking flat beer worse than drinking no beer at all.” He stared at the puddle before him sadly. “Did you ever see it getting this bad?”

Cambyses sighed and shook his head. “No, I did not. I mean--even that murderous bastard Nerghal managed to keep at least HALF the Plains on his side up until the very end. Shaddad has lost… well, everything but us. And sometimes…” He waved his hand.

“You wonder why you’re staying,” said Grizzel quietly.

“I didn’t say that,” said the old Erl pointedly.

“Of course not,” noted Grizzel. “And I didn’t agree with the sentiment. Indeed, if any Sworn asks, we will both fight for House Cthonique until our last breath.”

“Naturally,” said Cambyses with a nod. He glanced towards the entrance of the tent, and blinked. “Ahh… yes. How long have you been here?”

Nouronihar cheerfully skipped into the room. “A while.” She looked at the two Guardsmen hopefully. “May I have some candy?”

Grizzel reached into his pouch and gave her a sweetmeat. His superior looked at him in amusement. “If you feed it, it will never leave,” Cambyses declared.

“Leave her alone, Cambyses,” said Grizzel, rubbing the Ghoul’s greenish hair. “She’s a good girl.” He smiled at her. “Pleasant night, dear?”

Nouronihar nodded. “Father says that soon the Monker shall be revealed,” she chirped pleasantly. “And that’s very nice, because we’ve been waiting such a long time for that to happen.”

Grizzel raised an eyebrow. “How… long?”

“Oh… five centuries, at least,” said Nouronihar. “Maybe more. Ever since Hali made the prophecy.”

Cambyses sighed and shook his head. “Ghouls,” he declared, in amused exasperation.

Nouronihar frowned at that, and put her hands on her hips. “Hmph. You stupid Erls should pay attention to us. If we didn’t know what was happening, we would have just let your stinky old Dark Lord die out here, instead of helping him. But we do know, so we are.”

Grizzel stared at the little Ghoul for a moment. “You probably shouldn’t mention that too often” said the Goblin, eventually. “Certain people might take offense.”

Nouronihar smiled. “Oh, I can keep quiet. I’m very good at being quiet when I have to be.” And then the young Ghoul bounded off.

Grizzel watched her leave, then turned to Cambyses. “Well that was interesting…”

The old Erl shrugged. “Perhaps. Mostly it just confirmed what we both knew--folk need very odd reasons to sign up with House Cthonique these days.”

“Or the boundless, faultless loyalty we possess,” added Grizzel smiling slightly.

“Of course,” said Cambyses, “that goes without saying.”

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Enfolded in the Dragon's Wings--Part 8

Lord Shaddad regarded the circle suspiciously. “Are you certain this will work?”

Curselain nodded. “Even the greatest spirits have their limits.” He looked up at the Dark Lord. “I believe you’ve managed to keep the Queen of Fear at bay with a far cruder circle in her place of power.” Curselain glanced down at his work. “This is a more… sophisticated measure.”

“I can see that,” said Shaddad, glancing at the intricately drawn symbols that edged the circle. “I simply have had experiences that… make me wary of grand claims in sorcery.”

Curselain stood up and looked over his work. “Orrill was always prone to make… promises in areas where most would acknowledge doubt…” He sighed. “Always a problem when one is working in highly theoretical matters.” Cureslain smiled at his master. “But this is all practiced and proven magic, Dark Lord. Why the cambion Arazial the Black was held in such a…”

“Spare me a history lesson, Curselain,” said Shaddad wearily. He turned away. “I merely wanted an… assurance.” The Dark Lord began to walk away. “I… thank you for your efforts.” Shaddad Cthonique glanced up at the sky, and shook his head. He hoped this worked. He had come so… SO close over the last two decades--and then it had all started to pass through his hands like sand, leaving here asking how…

“Thou wert a fool,” came a low voice. “Great strength was given to thee, but thou spent it as if ‘twere without measure, and now it is gone.”

Shaddad turned to the voice’s source, knowing what he would see even as he heard it. And sure enough, there she was… the Queen of Fear, in all her terrible glory. “Zamial,” he said, smiling at the tall white-haired demon. “Oddly enough, you were just mentioned to me…”

Zamial smiled, baring her fangs, and placed one claw tenderly under his chin. “I know. That is what has drawn me here.” She chuckled darkly. “Well, that and mine own whims, which as thou knowest, drive me in so many ways.”

Shaddad looked at her startling, shifting eyes, so like their son’s. “I was rather under the impression that I would only be seeing you at… the traditional place, from now on.”

“I have decided to make an exception to mine ban, this one time,” said Zamial, pacing around the Erl. “Thou art, after all, a most amusing man. And this is a most amusing place. How could I resist?”

Shaddad chuckled. “Indeed. And this has nothing to do with… our son, now does it?”

Zamial scowled. “Bah. Nisrioch has cruelly refused his mother’s affection, and so now he walks his own path. No, dearest Shaddad, I have come solely for thou.” She licked her lips. “I come offering thee a gift, my gallant.”

“I’ve been told the Queen of Fear never offers gifts,” said Shaddad quietly.

“And who told thee that lie?” said Zamial gleefully. “For it does make me most wroth.”

Shaddad raised an eyebrow. “You did, Zamial. When we first met.”

The demon threw her head back and laughed. “Ahh, Lord Shaddad. As I have said--thou art a most amusing man.” She grinned at him again. “Well, then--see how thou makest the Queen of Fear forget herself? I--who never offers gifts--offer thee a gift.” She stepped forward and placed her massive hands on his shoulders. “Come away with me. Come away from all the failure that has surrounded thee of late. I shall bear thee to a place where thou may start anew, a world fresh and bright, begging to be conquered.”

Lord Shaddad turned and regarded the demon for a long moment. “And would I be fresh and bright, Zamial? For I fear I have grown old, since we last saw each other.”

The Queen of Fear frowned. “Some things… lie beyond even my powers.”

Shaddad nodded. “I rather thought so.” He shut his eyes. “Then I must refuse, Zamial. For I have many tasks before me, in this world, and I fear my time to accomplish them is growing short. House Cthonique must be made secure, and only I may do it.” He bowed. “But I thank you for your offer.”

Zamial nodded. “Then this is goodbye, Dark Lord. We twain shall never meet again in this world, nor in any other.”

Shaddad sighed. “Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better for both of us if we’d never met at all.”

“Thou art not alone in that,” whispered Zamial.

Shaddad looked at the demon once more. “Why did you help me?”

Zamial stepped forward and caressed his face. Shaddad shut his eyes, and enjoyed the sensation, one that would have made most men shriek in terror. “Thou didst desire… so much. It fascinated me. I wanted to understand why.”

“And did you?” asked Shaddad. “When it was all done?”

Zamial shook her antlered head. “Didst thou?” she whispered. And then she was gone.

Lord Shaddad blinked and looked around. It was as if the Queen of Fear had never been there--if she truly had been. He sighed, and continued on his way, quite alone.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Enfolded in the Dragon's Wings--Part 7

“I don’t care what you say, Nissy--that was sad,” muttered Morgaine as she walked beside her brother.

“I’m not denying it,” said Nisrioch. “The… ‘great’ Shaddad Cthonique--reduced to chasing after legends…” He shrugged. “About the only person who doesn’t see how pathetic it all is would be Father. And frankly, I’m not sure his apparent confidence isn’t a massive bluff on his part…”

“I know what you mean,” said Morgaine with a sigh. “Much as I hate Dad’s guts, he’s not THAT stupid. He HAS to be aware how bad off he is…”

Nisrioch nodded. “Still--recall that he began his conquests in similar straits--alone, hunted by Nerghal and his servants, the only surviving son of Lord Bersha. And look at what came of that…”

“Well, yeah, but only because he got help from your… Zamial,” noted Morgaine.

“And do you think that is a thing that comes just for the asking?” said Nisrioch. “Never forget this about our father--he is a man of amazing will, who stops at nothing to achieve his ends.” He shook his head. “There is a greatness to the man, for all the vicious pettiness. He leaves a changed world behind him.”

“Yeah, and it’s mostly for the worse,” spat out Morgaine. She snarled. “I mean what’s he done? Spent years killing people--so he can kill MORE people.” The young Erl shook her head. “I know there’s some endgame, where he stops killing people--at least, in the numbers he was hitting until things went south--but so far I haven’t seen it.” She looked at Nisrioch. “I mean--it’s not something I mention a lot, but the world probably would have been better off if Nerghal had stayed Dark Lord. And he’s such a bastard, that he didn’t even let death stop his being an asshole.”

Nisrioch smiled. “You’re still angry with our great uncle, aren’t you?”

“Damn right I am,” said Morgaine with a snort. “I don’t like being manipulated.” She glanced nervously around the camp. “Are you sure…?”

“The soul cage holds,” said Nisrioch. “Nerghal rests this very moment at my laboratory. I’ll show you when this is finished. I’ll even let you taunt him, if you so desire.”

“Thanks, Nissy.” Morgaine stopped for a moment, and then took Nisrioch’s hand. “You’re a great big brother. Really.”

Nisrioch smiled at his sister. “Thank you.”

“And if you tell anyone I said that, I will kill you,” she noted.

“Naturally.” agreed Nisrioch, nodding. He glanced ahead. “What is that…?”

Morgaine looked at the gathering of Ghouls in front of her tent and clenched her teeth. “Oh, not AGAIN!” This particular band were playing flutes and beating drums as someone sang. She turned to her brother. “They’ve been showing up and doing Ghoulish things as some sort of… homage. Manny keeps encouraging them. Thinks it’s all fascinating.”

“Well, it is!” said Nisrioch. He gestured at the celebrating Ghouls. “Behold them. The unconquered folk of Night! The Empire may have conquered the Erls, the Goblins, the Ogres--even the Devs--but the Ghouls held out in the dark corners of the Heath and Waste, and in the dark ruins of Irem…” He cupped a hand to his ear. “Listen! You hear one of the few languages descended from the old Dark Tongue. Ghoulish!” He scratched his hair idly. “Hmm. A Mikhelite hymn, I believe.”

The pair had reached the entrance of the tent. Mansemat sat there, smiling. He turned to his siblings as they approached.

“Nissy! Morgaine! You have to listen to them! They’re fantastic!” At the center of the Ghouls, a small group lead by Nouronihar were singing and dancing.

“Yeah. Great,” muttered Morgaine. She rolled her eyes. “I’d probably enjoy it better if I knew what it meant.”

“Let me see…” Nisrioch tapped his chin. “Roughly translated, it goes… ‘there’s a man of starlight, awaiting us in the heavens’.” He paused for a moment, trying to get the words just right. “‘He wishes to be one with us, but he is beyond our comprehension. There’s a man of starlight, awaiting us in the heavens--he bids us to respect creation, for he knows that it is righteous. He tells us--let the children be free. Let the children be happy. Let all the children celebrate’.” He coughed. “Well, more or less, anyway.”

Morgaine nodded. “And the bit right now?”

“Is meaningless,” said Nisrioch.

“Lalalalalalala,” sang Nouronihar and her fellows, as the sun slowly set.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Enfolded in the Dragon's Wings--Part 6

“So, any idea what bit of stupidity brings us here now?”

Nisrioch glanced down at his sister. Morgaine stood there, arms crossed, and face bitter. “Hmmm. Some,” he noted after awhile. “But only some.” He glanced around. “Where’s Manny?”

“His Excellency is busying himself with learning as much Ghoulish custom as he can,” said Morgaine. “You’d almost think this was a tour, instead of a retreat.”

“Actually, I’d admire his ability to find things to keep his mind busy,” noted Nisrioch. “Indeed, I think some people could do well to imitate it.”

“Yeah, well, up yours,” said Morgaine looking away. “Can I help it I’d rather be back at Castle Terribel helping people I like not die, instead of on a demented road trip looking for the Mad King’s lost treasure?“ She scowled and shook her head. “Whatever the hell that is. I’m still not too clear on that.”

“Well, I think we’re about to discover if father is,” noted Nisrioch, gesturing ahead towards the plain. Lord Shaddad stood proudly before the blackened obelisk. “Let us prepare for his doubtless edifying speech.”

“Yeah, sure, why not,” muttered Morgaine, rolling her eyes. She took one glance at her father, and blinked. “Unholy Darkness! How much dye is he using these days? The glare from his hair is getting blinding…”

The Dark Lord cleared his throat. “Loyal partisans! You who have stayed with House Cthonique in its bleakest hour! All has looked lost--and yet, as we all know, even the brightest day shall eventually fade into the cool comfort of night! Your faith--your loyalty--are to be rewarded! BEHOLD--SUTEKH’S FINGER!” He gestured back at the obelisk.

“Does he think we haven’t seen it?” whispered Morgaine. “We’ve been here for three days!”

“All of you have heard of this, but few know its significance,” declared Lord Shaddad, amber eyes feverish. “It was here that King Sutekh fled, centuries ago, with the Sword of Night, a gift from the Darksome Lady to Her favored children. With it, that remarkable man attempted to summon the Dragon.” The Dark Lord paused dramatically. “He failed, and fled further south. But he did not take the Sword with him. That he lost in the summoning.” Shaddad smiled. “It is STILL here! That great weapon of Darkness is here, and we shall reclaim it! And with it in hands, we shall restore our fortunes!” He laughed. “We stand at the beginning of a grand new epoch! The destiny foretold to Marduk Cthonique shall be achieved! You have witnessed its first step!”

Morgaine glanced at her elder brother. “Tell me, did dad just reference Marduk Cthonique and King Sutekh in the same speech?” She raised an eyebrow. “Favorably, I mean.”

Nisrioch nodded. “Yes. Yes, he did.”

“Uh huh. Despite the fact that they were… enemies?” said Morgaine blankly. “And one of the guys Sutekh was fleeing from was… Marduk Cthonique?”

“That is correct,” said Nisrioch.

Morgaine managed a dull nod. “Yeah. Yeah. I thought so.” She coughed. “You think our revered ancestor ever saw his family coming to this? Fleeing into the Blasted Heath, under the leadership of a man who admires the one Dark Lord that is as loathed in the Lands of Night as he is in the Lands of Light?”

“One would hope not,” noted Nisrioch. “After all, Marduk had a hard enough life without something like that happening to him.” He glanced back to Sutekh’s Finger, where Lord Shaddad was busily explaining how once he had the Blade of Night, all the people who had betrayed House Cthonique were going to be very, very sorry that they had chosen to do that, followed by those who had merely chosen to defy House Cthonique.

“Do you think this has any chance of working?” said Morgaine.

Nisrioch considered it. “Well, the Sword probably is here. And even if it turned out to be powerless, the prestige involved with recovering it would doubtless bring back a few allies that have drifted into neutrality. And as it almost certainly IS a mystically potent item… well, who knows what Lord Shaddad could use it for?”

“Yeah, but on the other hand, there’s the fact that everyone hates him now,” said Morgaine.

Nisrioch nodded. “True. But it’s not like they were ever fond of him. And look at all he accomplished despite that.”

Morgaine glared at her brother. “You are just trying to make me unhappy aren’t you?” She shook her head. “I mean, here I’ve been cheering myself up with the knowledge that my father’s general assholishness has finally caught up with him, and you keep suggesting he can still recover from all this.”

“Just thought you should prepare for the worse,” noted Nisrioch.

“Oh, gee, thanks,” muttered Morgaine.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Enfolded in the Dragon's Wings--Part 5

Lord Shaddad Cthonique smiled and folded his hands before his face. “Excellent, Curselain.”

Nisrioch watched as the emaciated Sworn bowed. “I am pleased Your Magnificence finds it so,” Curselain stated in a theatrical whisper. Nisrioch had to suppress a giggle. It was--like everything about Curselain--just a tad too much. If the Six Sworn had weakest link, it was him. In many respects, Curselain was little more than a skilled hedge wizard, with a rather broad education in folklore. And now--in the slow eclipse of his father’s power, Curselain had crawled ahead of his fellows to become the unofficial head of the Six Sworn.

Of course, thought Nisrioch, that was more properly the Five Sworn now, which simply didn’t have the same ring. One had to give Orrill credit--he may have been a malevolent mad man, but he was at least bright enough to jump off a sinking ship while there was still time to do so. Though, regarding the remaining members it was rather questionable if there was any place left for them to jump to. Men such as Dodinas le Savage, with his necklace of gruesome fetishes, or the bitter and hunchbacked Perard Malcreature, had turned to his father in the first place because they had no one left to go to. And now, that last refuge was falling.

“Nisrioch!” snapped Shaddad.

“Mmmm?” murmured Nisrioch, turning his rainbow eyes on the Dark Lord of the Plains of Dread.

“I asked you a question,” muttered Shaddad bleakly.

“Ahh. Sorry, Your Magnificence,” declared Nisrioch brightly. “I was musing.”

Shaddad frowned peevishly and ran a hand through his long, black hair. “On what, may I ask?”

Nisrioch watched as his father’s hand took on a slightly blackish hue. “Walnut pie, for some strange reason.” He smacked his lips. “Ahh. Now there was treat. Of course, why I would be thinking of it is a mystery even to my…”

Lord Shaddad, who smelled of walnuts quite frequently these days for reasons he was exceptionally embarrassed about, glared at his son. “Let us cut this… musing short. My question. How stand my designs in the realm of fate?”

“Oh, that,” said Nisrioch with an annoyed sigh. “The same as before, Dark Lord. I see House Cthonique reborn from its ashes once again. But only vaguely.”

“That is all the help you can give?” asked Perard pointedly.

Nisrioch shrugged. “Separated from my equipment, yes. I lack the means here to cast a proper horoscope, and must rely purely on my Sight. And in affairs such as this, it tends to be rather… selective in what it reveals.”

“Ahh, of course,” the hunchback said with a scowl. “How often have we heard that refrain.” He glared at Nisrioch for a moment, then gestured at the younger Erl furiously. “I don’t know who you imagine you’re fooling, half-breed, but I am not among them! You have long abandoned His Magnificence’s glorious cause! You seek to undermine it!”

Nisrioch yawned. “Really now, Malcreature. I freely admit I am less fond of the Dark Lord’s plans of universal conquest than I used to be, but--undermining them? Why should I bother?”

Dodinas spat on the ground. “You wretch,” he muttered. He lifted something out of a pouch, a withered twisted thing that looked vaguely like a man. “You deserve the venom of the mandrake, whelp…”

Nisrioch stood up and raised his hand, small sparks leaping from his fingertips. “Oh, please, little hex master, try your powers against mine,” he said, smiling. “I’m most curious to see how it goes.”

“Please, gentlemen,” whispered Curselain, “let us remember we are all on the same side…”

“You mean like the Crocodile was?” said Perard, loping to Dodinas’ side. “He Swore the Oath--and yet he broke it easily enough. What has the Queen of Fear’s get sworn to? Nothing! And his insolence has only grown worse of late…”

“ENOUGH!” shouted Shaddad, standing up. He glanced at the de Gaheviez brothers, who quickly stepped between Nisrioch and their fellow Sworn. “Curselain has the right of it. Now is not the time to fight each other.” He took a deep breath. “This meeting is over. You are all dismissed.” He glanced at his son. “Save for Nisrioch. He stays.” As Estramin and Eudropin herded their fellows out, Shaddad regarded his son severely. “Lady’s Love, Nisrioch, are you trying to provoke them?”

“Not particularly,” said Nisrioch. “I just don’t care if I do. There’s a subtle difference.”

Shaddad seemed about to reply to that, but then simply frowned. After several long minutes, he spoke. “And you have no news for me on this plan?”

“Save that I half suspect that the reason my readings have been so doubtful of late is that you’ve been working to block all divinations on what you’re planning, that is correct,” said Nisrioch. He raised an eyebrow. “And I must add that suspicion does nothing to make my already mounting doubts in this plan’s wisdom recede.”

Shaddad looked up into his son’s eyes for a moment, then turned away. “I am a man running out of options, Nisrioch. House Cthonique must be saved. That is my duty.”

“You say ‘House Cthonique’,” noted Nisrioch. “But you mean, ‘Lord Shaddad’.”

“They are one and the same,” said the Dark Lord.

Nisrioch sighed and shook his head. “Only you, father, would utter such solipsistic nonsense and think it wise.” He left the tent, his father’s bright amber eyes staring daggers in his back.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Enfolded in the Dragon's Wings--Part 4

Morgaine stared at the long obelisk in the center of the blasted plain. “So… that’s Sutekh’s Finger, eh?” she said to the Goblin at her side.

“Your father seems to think so,” replaced Serjeant’s Legate Grizzel Greedigutt quietly.

The Cthonique of the Silent Tomb rolled her eyes. “Please. My father’s become one of those delusional old men who spend their time looking for the Prince of Dead Leaves’ treasure.” She sighed. “Except for the… you know--‘having his own army’ thing.” She glanced over at the camp. “Well… ‘remnants of his own army’ is probably more accurate. At the moment.” She looked at Grizzel sympathetically. “Sorry about probably leading you to your doom. If it makes you feel better, we’ll probably be the next ones to go.”

The Goblin chuckled. “It’s all right, Your Excellency. Knew what I was getting into when I took the coin.”

Morgaine shook her head. “Well, if that’s the case, why’d you take it?”

“Wanted to see the world,” said Greedigutt. “Besides, it’s not like my choices in the Shadow Woods were much better.”

“Yeah, they were,” said Morgaine. “Because if you had taken them, you wouldn’t be in the middle of nowhere, working for the bundle of evil-crazy that is my father on his mystic quest to somehow find something that can save his worthless life.”

Grizzel coughed. “Are you sure that it’s wise…”

“Eehh, don’t worry,” said Morgaine with a wave. “This desolate wasteland we’re in is all mine! Every boulder, and weird scraggly bush. And the Ghouls just love me!” She turned to a young Ghoul girl passing by. “Hey--Nouronihar! Who’s the Geat of Irem?”

The Ghoul turned and smiled at her. “You are, oh Illustrious One! And may I compliment you on how wonderfully shiny your hair is?”

“You most certainly may,” declared Morgaine with a nod. “Is she making rude faces at us while our backs are turned?” she asked Grizzel as they walked away.

The Goblin made a surreptitious glance over his shoulder. “Yep.”

Morgaine snickered to herself. “I like that kid. She’s got moxy!” She looked up ahead. “Hey, what’s that by our tent?”

Grizzel narrowed his eyes. “I would say an awful lot of Ghouls, Your Excellency!”

“Yeah. Yeah,” agreed Morgaine. “Crap, I hope this isn’t another goat…” She walked towards the group of white-clad Ghouls who were busily twirling in front of her tent. “Very, very nice,” she declared. “The Geat of Irem is of course, honored beyond all measure, and… Manny?” Morgaine blinked at her brother. “What are you doing dressed up like a Ghoul?”

“It’s a gift from the tribe,” explained Mansemat cheerfully. “Traditional Ghoulish garb! And they’ve been showing me traditional Ghoulish rites.” The Ghouls all nodded enthusiastically. “It’s wonderful! I think I can incorporate some of this into my Fifteen-Style…”

Morgaine began to rub her temples. “Yeah. That’s great, bro.” She smiled at the Ghouls. “Do you mind if I remove my illustrious presence from your immediate view so I may commune with my younger brother.”

The Ghouls looked among themselves then shrugged. “Okay with us,” said one.

“Thanks,” said Morgaine with a smile. She then dragged Mansemat away from the group. “What the Lady’s Name were you thinking?” she began to mutter as soon as she felt they were out of earshot.

“Hey! Morgaine!” yelped Mansemat, trying to pull free from his sister’s surprisingly powerful grip. “Please let go…”

“Answer the question!” hissed his sister.

“I just wanted to learn about the Heath,” said Mansemat. “If we’re going to rule here, we should know how people live here.”

Morgaine raised an eyebrow. “Well, leaving aside the fact that I’m going to rule here, not you--do you really want to set dad off?”

Mansemat looked away. “Like he’s even been paying attention to us.”

Morgaine sighed. “Yeah, I know, he’s been off on that crazy little treasure hunt, but still--he’s been really temperamental of late. I mean--he nearly had them kill Perard yesterday. And last week, he was Dad’s favorite Sworn.”

“I thought you said he wouldn’t dare try anything,” said Mansemat. “Because YOU would sic the Ghouls on him?”

Morgaine looked around, worriedly. “I’m… starting to think the Ghouls have their own agenda in all this. And I have no idea what it is. And besides… Dad just hates me. He despises you, and wouldn’t need much prompting to really… go at you. You know that?”

Mansemat’s left hand reached almost reflexively for his right arm. Morgaine winced. Four years later and that horrible day was still fresh in their minds, an especially nasty memory in two young lifetimes filled with bad ones already. “Fine.” Mansemat sighed and stared at the ground. “I guess you're right.”

“I know I am,” said Morgaine. “Face it, kid--you’re lucky to have me around to look after you.”

“You and Nisrioch,” corrected Mansemat.

“Hey, Nisrioch’s a given,” said Morgaine. “I’m an uncertain quantity. Remember that, bro!”

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Enfolded in the Dragon's Wings--Part 3

“Is… is this really advisable, sir?” asked Breus quietly. “After all, the young master is only twelve, and a very small lad…”

Shaddad paused in the middle of his practice swing, and glared at the Chief Steward. “Tell me, Breus le Fidéle, who is the Cthonique of Castle Terribel?”

Breus bowed his head. “You are, Dark Lord.”

Shaddad nodded. “And you--you are the Fidéle, are you not?”

“Yes, Your Magnificence,” said Breus with a long exhale of breath.

Shaddad smiled. “Well, then, I think this discussion is finished.” He turned his gaze upon Mansemat. “This shall be fought with live steel, Mansemat. Do you have a real sword?”

Mansemat turned to regard his fellows in desperation. To the increase of his already sizable discomfort, Breus and all three Kizaks sat there with looks of sad resigned horror. Morgaine was the sole exception. As Mansemat looked into his twin’s amber eyes, he saw they were lit with excitement and… hope. And somehow--somehow that gave him strength. He turned back to his father, and took a deep breath. “No, sir. Not with me.”

Shaddad nodded and glanced at Estramin de Gaheviez. “Give the boy your sword, Estramin.” The Dark Lord snickered ever so slightly. “Best make this a fair fight.”

Estramin nodded, and strode to the boy. With a swift motion, he drew his blade then stabbed it into the earth before him. Mansemat nodded impassively. “Thank you, sir.” Estramin shook his head, smirking, and walked back to the Dark Lord’s side. Mansemat stepped forward, and drew the blade from the ground. As he raised it, the blade nearly slipped from his hands.

“I think that’s a bit too much sword for him, brother!” laughed Eudrophin. “The boy’s only ‘danced’ with sticks till now.” Mansemat frowned bitterly. In point of fact, his wooden practice swords were made heavier than real ones, to better prepare him for wielding those.

It occurred to Mansemat, as he glanced at his grinning father, that he didn’t want Shaddad to know this, for some strange reason. “Are you ready, lad?” Mansemat nodded, and raised his sword over his head. “Then we--BEGIN!” shouted Shaddad, as he rushed forward and stabbed at his son.

Mansemat adroitly dodged the blow. With a snarl, Shaddad moved back and slashed again. Mansemat swiftly circled under the blade. Stillness is the key to motion, he repeated to himself. No wasted movement, no wasted blow. Conserve your force until the moment of perfect opportunity…

Shaddad pulled back his sword for another blow. Mansemat swayed, and waited for it. His father snarled, and swung. Mansemat twirled aside from the blow, and lightly tapped his father’s stomach with his sword. Shaddad stared at his son in shock, as Mansemat managed a slight smile, his bright green eyes triumphant.

And then he felt something heavy slam into his belly. As Mansemat struck the ground, his sword falling from his hands, he realized it was his father’s boot. “You… miserable… runt!” barked Shaddad, kicking Mansemat again. “Thought you had the fight won, didn’t you?” His father was smiling again, Mansemat realized. “Well, lad, this is the first lesson in fighting--the only lesson worth learning…” Shaddad brought his blade to Mansemat’s throat. “It’s over when your foe lies before you--either dead, or begging for mercy…” Mansemat gulped as the cold steel tickled his skin, and prayed silently--desperately--to Mother Night, that his father NOT decide to cut his throat.

At that moment, there was a sudden shout, and Shaddad fell to the side. “You can’t have him, you can’t have him, I won’t let you HAVE HIM,” screamed Morgaine, as she walked forward, her hands clenched into fists. Shaddad was already righting himself. He shook his head as the de Gaheviez began to move to his side.

“No, no,” said the Dark Lord. “It appears I have more lessons to give to willful children.” He regarded Morgaine calmly. “You are quite powerful, my dear daughter. However--so am I.” Shaddad raised his hand, and gestured at his daughter. “I also possess something you lack--finesse.” Morgaine’s eyes went wide as she floated off the ground. “Which is why I’ve been able to block your crude attacks, while making one of my own.” Morgaine began to gasp as if her breathing was being constricted. “Now, don’t you see, child, how much more--effective this is? I am using far less magic than you were, and yet I am getting a far greater effect.”

Mansemat glanced to the side. His sword was just within reach. If he could just… move a little, and grab it he could do--something. What exactly he wasn’t really sure. Just that…

A foot slammed into his stomach. Mansemat tried to scream but couldn’t--he simply didn’t have the breath. “Ahh, like a dog returning to his vomit, ehhh, Mansemat?” Shaddad pressed his foot into his son’s form even more. “Thought I was distracted, didn’t you?” His father began to idly swing the blade over Mansemat’s head. “Don’t you know your father at all, son? I do not get distracted.” Mansemat winced as the blade came ever closer to him, a slight breeze passing through his hair as it parted the air. “Not.” Swish. “A.” Swish. “Jot.” Swish…

“Lady’s Name, sir!” shouted Breus. “They’re children!”

“Who is the Cthonique of Castle Terribel?” asked Shaddad, glaring at his Steward. “Who is le Fidéle?” He turned to regard Morgaine, still struggling futilely in midair. “Yes, they are children. Willful, bad children, who do not do as they are told, and who bring shame to their father…”

And then there came a sound like thunder. “Salutations, all!” proclaimed Nisrioch Cthonique, as he floated down into the courtyard. “My apologies for my extreme tardiness! I had horoscopes to cast!” His rainbow-colored eyes focused on his father. “My goodness,” said Nisrioch, his right hand raising slightly. “What have you been up to, Lord Shaddad?”

Estramin and Eudropin quickly flanked Shaddad. The Dark Lord stared at his eldest son for a long, uncomfortable minute. “Teaching lessons to those who need them,” Shaddad stated at last.

“And we must all trust your judgment on that, must we?” said Nisrioch, raising one white eyebrow. “Still--I think you’ve… taught everyone here exactly what they need to know. Don’t you?”

Shaddad frowned for a moment, then nodded. “My point has been made,” he said, pulling his hand back. Morgaine fell to the ground, and began to hyperventilate. Shaddad turned back to Nisrioch, and seemed about to say something, when Morgaine raised herself off the ground and gave a shout. The de Gaheviez brothers were thrown to the ground, while Shaddad continued to stand serenely. “Hmm. It appears I was mistaken,” said the Dark Lord, flicking his wrist. Morgaine fell back again, the visible imprint of a hand on her face. Shaddad gave a sad shake of his head, and then brought his sword down to Mansemat’s right arm. Then, with one quick motion, he sliced down it, leaving a bleeding gash along its length. Mansemat began to shriek. “There now, Morgaine,” said Shaddad quietly. “Do you see what you made me do?”

He stepped back from his son, and began to casually clean his blade. “Ahh, well. Enough of these distractions.” He looked at the de Gaheviez brothers, who were lifting themselves off the ground, and dusting themselves off. “We have an invasion to plan.” A small smile came on the Dark Lord’s face. “The Great War begins very soon. And also, ends.”

“Indeed, sir,” said Estramin. He fell in behind Shaddad, as the Dark Lord left the Courtyard. “I meant to mention this, before our… distraction. Orrill has sent word from the Marsh. The Badb continues to cause trouble…”

“The Badb’s daughter, you mean,” said Shaddad as he walked into the Hall of Sorrow. “Elaine Blanchemains was the last Badb. Viviane du Lac is nothing but a gnat of a pretender, who shall be swatted at our leisure. The age of Witch Queens is over, gentlemen…”

Morgaine rushed to her brother. “I’m sorry--I’m sorry--I’m sorry--I’m sorry,” she muttered, embracing his head, and kissing his forehead. Breus and Nisrioch looked the fallen young Erl over.

“What do you think?” said Nisrioch.

“Looks worse than it is,” muttered Breus. “I’ll rush over to the Folly and get Maude Lynne. You do what you can…”

The young Kizaks sat nearby, eyes still wide with horror. “My father once kicked a man to death,” said Enryk bin Jerzy. “This was worse.”

“Thank you for sharing that,” said Nisrioch with a sigh.

Breus came with the witch, as he’d said he would, and she took care of the wound. Sleep came late that night for Mansemat, and with it strange dreams. In one, he was in a library, and a man handed him a book. In it, he saw that Shaddad Cthonique’s was a footnote in history, noted most of all for being the father of the great Mansemat Cthonique. That was all of the dream he recalled when he woke up--save for a bit where he was being chased by a large group of wheels, who wished to turn him into cheese, for some strange reason--and it left him feeling awkward, and a little ashamed.

In a week, his wound had healed, though it left a scar. As soon as it had, he began to practice his Sword Dance again.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Enfolded in the Dragon's Wings--Part 2

Mansemat repeated the movements, trying his best to make them smooth and flowing. He’d practiced until his arms had been worn and tired, endeavoring to make it perfect. And now--now after those countless hours, he was demonstrating what he’d learned.

Breus le Fidéle clapped his hands. “Very good, young master. Very good.” He glanced at his young charges. Jerzy bin Yan, Enryk bin Jerzy, and Ostrorog bin Konstancy all began to join the Steward in his applause.

Enryk nodded. “His Excellency was most graceful.”

“Like a leaf upon the howling winds of the Waste,” said Jerzy.

Morgaine gave a dull nod. “Yes. It was very… twirly.”

The Head Steward frowned at the Cthonique of the Silent Tomb. “Morgaine…”

“What?” said Morgaine, spreading her hands. “It was!”

Mansemat placed the sword down. “It was a sword dance. They are supposed to be twirling. And also graceful. And also the perfect embodiment of chivalrous warfare.”

Morgaine glanced at the older Erl. “Well, I watched. Now can I go? Please?”

“Young mistress,” said Breus, “your brother practiced for quite some time on these things. Wouldn’t you feel bad if after you spent a great deal of time learning to do something your brother didn’t wish to watch?”

Morgaine gave that question a moment’s thought. “Not really,” she said. “Most of the stuff I know how to do, I wouldn’t want him to see anyway.” A slightly wicked grin passed on the young Erl’s features. “Hoo hoo. Some of it I don’t want ANYONE seeing.”

Breus gave the gentle sigh that was so often the only appropriate response to Morgaine. He turned to regard Mansemat. “It is VERY good, young master. I’ve no doubt Lord Nisrioch will be most delighted at your progress. Look at how you’ve improved.”

Mansemat smiled eagerly at this comment. “I practice every day!” he stated emphatically. “Just like the book…” And then he heard the voice, and the little color that Mansemat’s face had drained away.

“…as many boats as we can gather. And if the Lady loved Riverfolk complain--handle them,” muttered Lord Shaddad emphatically to Estramin and Eudrophin.

“Of course, Lord,” said Estramin, with a polite bow of his head.

“And understand,” continued Shaddad, “when I say ‘handled’ I mean it in the most vigorous fashion possible. Those scum should not…” The Dark Lord of the Plains of Dread blinked as he regarded his heir, standing in the middle of the Small Courtyard holding a wooden practice sword while the High Steward and a handful of children watched. “Mansemat, what in blazes are you doing?” asked Shaddad.

Mansemat gulped. “I… it’s a Sword Dance, sir. Father. Sir. Sir Father. Your Magnificence, Sir Father.”

Shaddad regarded his son for a moment. And then he began to chuckle. “A Sword… Dance?” he said laughing. Behind him, the brothers de Gaheviez were both smirking. “You don’t dance with swords, Mansemat. You fight with them.”

“Th-that is what a Sword Dance is for,” said Mansemat. “Training to be a warrior of ch-chivalry…”

Shaddad regarded his son for a moment, and then something dreadful happened.

Lord Shaddad smiled. “Very well, then. Let us see how you are progressing.” The Dark Lord drew his sword. “Now, my son, we shall do battle.”

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Enfolded in the Dragon's Wings--Part 1

Mansemat Cthonique watched the waves lap the sides of the boat. He frowned to himself. Men often wrote of the ‘black waters of the Murkenmere’, but in truth, the water was more a dismal dark brown. Nisrioch said it had something to do with trees. Whatever caused it, the phenomenon was not exactly comforting to the eyes. You looked at it, and you thought of dead things, hidden below the surface, ready to rise to the surface at a moment's notice...

“Thinking deep thoughts?” said Viviane, quietly, a smile on her face.

“Thinking, at the very least,” replied Mansemat, with a sigh.

“I’m sorry about that scene with Nisrioch…” she began.

“No you’re not,” said Mansemat.

Viviane chuckled. “No, I’m not.” She shook her head. “I know he’s your brother, Manny, but finding out that he was using our kids as--pieces in that damned Esches game he plays with the whole word…”

“He means well,” said Mansemat quietly. “But… sometimes he needs to be reminded that people are not playthings…” He shut his eyes. “And in this case… with all the history that you…” Mansemat shook his head. “No. With all the horror you experienced…”

Viviane looked at her husband for a moment, then stepped towards him and rested her head on his shoulder. “I survived my hell, Manny. Just like you survived yours. And we found each other. And built something beautiful together.”

Mansemat began to idly stroke with Viviane’s hair. “I know. I know. But I also know that… the horror… never completely stops. There are always… scars. And memories.” He looked at the river again. “Fifteen years later… another Cthonique crosses the river.”

Viviane placed a hand on her husband’s right arm, and massaged it gently. “You’re not him. Not in the least.” Mansemat turned to look at her. “Scars and memories are just that, Manny,” she said calmly.

Mansemat nodded dully. “They tell me they even fade sometimes.” He sighed. “I sincerely hope that’s true.”

Saturday, April 7, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 33

“So how are you enjoying your new quarters, my dear?” asked Amfortas, his tone its usual cloying politeness.

Elaine glanced up from the small stool at which she was seated in what she hoped was an attitude of measured defiance. To her surprise, rather than bringing her back to the Palace of Repentance, she’d been brought to a large tower in a rather grander palace--one that actually seemed to be a palace. But there were still bars on the window, even if the view was significantly nicer. And that was the important thing.

“Stop it,” she said calmly. “I’m not playing your game any more.”

She regarded Amfortas for a moment, hoping to find some trace of annoyance on the man. There wasn’t any. Not that she was surprised. Underneath it all, Amfortas seemed to lack any emotions save a vague desire to see others suffer. As everything he felt was just an illusion, why should he waste time pretending weaknesses he didn’t have? He might talk about his cause and the Light, but if she’d gotten away, he’d have doubtless been just as satisfied in torturing another fly.

“My game?” said Amfortas, smiling at her. “And what is that, may I ask?”

“Breaking me, bit by bit,” said Elaine. “It won’t work anymore. I’ve figured out the trick, Amfortas. You want me thinking you hold all the cards. That I am simply waiting at your mercy. But I know that isn’t true. My family is out there, ‘Your Highness’. They are coming for me, and they will tear you and your little band of sanctimonious lunatics apart. And there is nothing you can do about it.”

Amfortas raised an eyebrow, while fiddling idly with a stray lock. “I could kill you.”

“But you won’t,” said Elaine. “Because that’s your weakness, Amfortas. You just have to have everything your way. You want me to be another pathetic, crawling thing that’s been twisted into worshiping you and your vicious majesty. And that’s not going to happen.” She leaned forward. “The game is over. You lost.”

Amfortas regarded her for a moment. And then he began to laugh. Elaine frowned in disgust. Amfortas’ laugh was just like the rest of him--a very fine imitation of what others did, with a very cold heart. “Ahh, youth,” he said at last. “You really imagine this is all about you.”

Elaine simply stared at him. “I told you I’m done…”

Amfortas gave a dismissive wave. “Yes, yes, I know…” He cocked his head at her for a moment, and then he swiftly darted forward. Suddenly, the Prince-Regent was holding her head in his hands. “You have the most bewitching eyes, do you realize that?”

Elaine gulped. All at once, Amfortas was frightening again. She sputtered and try to think of a reply. As she did so, Amfortas’ thumbs trailed over her cheeks, till they rested under her eyes.

“It’s almost a crime that you should have eyes so pretty,” declared Amfortas pleasantly, his thumbs tickling her eyelids. “I really will have to do something about them, later. But not now. Now, I need you to keep them. So you can see what I am going to show you.” And with that, the Prince stepped back, releasing her from his grip, and gestured to the window behind her.

Elaine turned and looked at the courtyard below. A group of men stood at attention there, clad in dark cloaks, with hoods and helmets that disguised their faces. One bore a staff with a pendant that depicted a large stone tower. “Those are the Stylites,” said Amfortas. “The Holy Knights of the Tower, trained in how to fight Darkness with its own weapons. They have been in waiting in secret outside Joyeuse, for my signal. Tonight I gave it. And they came.”

Elaine stared at the men, who stood ramrod straight without the least sign of tiring. “But why would you do…?”

“Come now, my dear,” said Amfortas, smiling gently. “Surely you see it now? Why were you held in the Palace of Repentance--where we keep common criminals? Why were your guards no more than a smattering of squires from the Eremites and the Sacristans? Why did we trust that the daughter of the Badb could be held without spells and without charms?” Amfortas’ smile broadened. “You were meant to escape, child. Meant to go back and tell the Dark Lords how open--how weak--our defenses were. All to bait the trap.” Elaine was speechless. Amfortas raised a hand, his expression kind. “Don’t imagine you’ve ruined all my plans by not escaping, of course. I did hope that we could keep you in our clutches, after all. To make your mother and her husband--properly motivated.” He stepped forward and patted her affectionately on the cheek. “And of course, you did so, by letting us capture you. Very, very generous of you. You have my thanks.”

“And what if I hadn’t escaped?” Elaine asked quietly.

Amfortas shrugged. “Then I would have killed you, eventually. And your friends. And the world would be short one Nightborn obscenity and several traitors. And my plans would continue.” He shook his head. “I always have more plans child.” He stepped back towards the door. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must prepare for your family, who, as you have said, are going to be here soon. Adieu.”

Elaine watched him step out of the room, the iron door cracking open ever so slightly behind him, and then slamming shut once he was through. She turned to look out the window again. It dawned on her that she had imagined things were ending. And yet if what even half of what Amfortas said was true--they were only starting.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 32

Palamedes fiddled idly with the rope in his hands. “It’s nothing, really.” He raised the recently tied cord to Sacripant’s more experienced eyes. “Is this right?”

The Marsh Erl frowned. “If you want it to fly apart, then yes. Otherwise, no.”

Palamedes nodded. “Ahh.” He looked around, his expression distracted.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” asked Sacripant.

“I’m…” Palamedes took a deep breath, and sighed. “Listen, if I tell you what’s bothering me, do you promise not to talk about it?”

“I promise Quiet won’t talk about it,” replied Sacripant, who gestured to the Ghoul. She gave a quick, short nod.

Palamedes rolled his eyes. “Yeah. Thanks for the support, guys”

“We won’t go blabbing what you tell us hither and yon, if that’s what you’re afraid of,” said Sacripant. “So--come on. Talk.”

“Well, I can’t help feel responsible for all this,” said Palamedes. “I mean, it was overhearing me that--set Her Estimable Grace… off.”

Sacripant blinked. “You’re… serious… aren’t you?” He glanced at Quiet, who was holding one blue-skinned hand before her veiled face, as if trying to hold back laughter.

Palamedes crossed his arms. “Did she--or did she not--undertake this foolish quest after hearing my hasty words of dismissal?”

“She also undertook it after walking down the stairs,” said Sacripant. “I think you’re… overestimating your effect…”

The Guards’ conversation was ended by approaching footsteps. “…tough to be sure,” said Nisrioch, as he walked out on the deck, following Mansemat, Jean Crow and Morgaine walking beside him. “I’m getting the oddest… snatches… of late…”

Mansemat glanced at his brother. “Such as…?”

Nisrioch exhaled. “As I said--snatches. What they mean remains… opaque…”

“So--is this the rescue squad?” asked Viviane, appearing suddenly, pestle in hand.

“Pretty much,” answered Morgaine with a nod.

Jean coughed. “Ummm… look--I know--I can understand if you’re angry with me…”

Viviane stepped forward and placed her hands on the younger woman’s shoulders. “Relax. I’m not angry with you--not anymore.” She gave Jean a pleasant smile. “You made an awful, terrible, awful mistake--but you’ve been punished for it, and you have tried to fix it. No, my anger is now focused on an appropriate target.”

Mansemat smiled at his wife. “I have to say, Viviane, I find all this a very thoughtful, mature course of…” And then the Dark Lord stopped speaking, as Viviane suddenly pivoted, and gave Nisrioch what looked to be an exquisitely painful knee to the crotch. Mansemat rushed to his wife’s side. “Viviane! What in the Lady’s Name are you…?”

“It’s… all right… Manny…” croaked Nisrioch weakly.

“Who RECRUITED those two, Manny?” asked Viviane. “Who placed them near MY daughter?” She leaned forward, her expression furious. “And who regularly boasts of how he sees the future?” Viviane took a deep breath. “You planned this, Nisrioch Cthonique. Admit it.”

Nisrioch glanced awkwardly at the ship’s deck. Mansemat raised an eyebrow. “Nissy?”

“I’d say ‘planned’ is a rather strong word,” he muttered quietly. “Let us say ‘foresaw this happening’ instead.”

Mansemat crossed his arms. “And said nothing. And… arguably--maneuvered to see that it would happen. Am I right?” Nisrioch shut his rainbow-colored eyes, and said nothing. “Darksome Lady, Nisrioch--why?”

“It’s the War!” spat out Viviane. “And his plan! His precious, precious plan!”

Mansemat raised his hand. “Let him answer.” He looked at his brother pointedly. “Well…?”

Nisrioch was quiet for a long time. “I never meant them any harm,” he said at last. “Unholy Darkness, Manny, I love them as if they were mine. But… I am the child of the Queen of Fear. I See things that effect the lives of millions. And sometimes, I must make… hard choices.”

Mansemat nodded. “I see.” With one rapid motion, he punched Nisrioch in the stomach. As he watched the tall Erl fall upon the ground, he took a deep, disturbed breath. “We’ll give you time to recover before setting out. Viviane and I need time to… calm down, I think.”

As the pair walked off, Jean and Morgaine stared at the prostrate Dark Lord of the Screaming Waste. “You had that coming,” noted Jean after a while.

“Do… you hear me… arguing against that?” muttered Nisrioch.

Morgaine nodded. “Yeah. Yeah. I’m debating kicking you, you know that?”

“I’d prefer it if you didn’t,” he replied. “You wear terrifying shoes, Morgaine.”

Sacripant leaned over to Palamedes. “Try to make it look like you’ve been working, and ignoring the whole thing.”

“Do you honestly think they’ll buy that?” asked Palamedes.

“No, but they’ll be polite enough to pretend to,” answered the Marsh Erl. He glanced at the Ghoul. “Quiet! You too!”

“Can’t… look… away…” she whispered.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Cage of Light--Part 31

Justinian lay in the bed, trying to get to sleep. This task was made difficult by the ceaseless rocking of the boat, and the fact that whatever Malina had done to him was wearing off, and he now hurt in places he was used to ignoring, in the general run of things.

That was, sadly, not an option at the moment.

Justinian turned his head at the creaking of a door. “Hey,” said Jean, poking her head in. “Just wanted to see how you’re doing.”

Justinian shut his eyes. “As well as can be expected,” he said. “Will you be heading out soon?”

Jean nodded. “Yeah. Time is of the essence, and Mansemat thinks if we move quick enough, we’ll hit them before they even know we’re coming.”

“I wish I could come with you, but…” Justinian shrugged.

“Ahh! There you are!” said Nisrioch, sliding into the room. He smiled at the pair. “Just wanted to check on my two protégés.” He looked at Justinian and frowned. “Is that as bad as it looks?”

“Worse, actually,” said Justinian, his eyes opening slightly. He shook his head. “I… have to apologize to you. And Mansemat. And Viviane. And… well, everyone. This is all my fault.” He raised his left hand and looked at the markings. “I’ve definitely failed in the charge you gave me. And frankly, when whatever happens--happens, I’ll welcome it.”

“Sigma!” said Jean, raising a chiding finger. “The geas only would have been broken if you had knowingly and willingly betrayed House Cthonique. Being tortured into revealing information doesn’t count.”

Nisrioch smiled slightly. “An excellent interpretation, Miss Crow. However, it is unnecessary, as I have a simpler one.” He shrugged. “I was lying.”

The pair stared at him in shock. “What?” asked Jean, blinking.

“I never put either of you under a geas,” replied Nisrioch, casually. “Just cast a simple marking spell. And let suggestions do the rest.”

“But… you said we would die if we broke it!” sputtered Jean.

“Well of course,” said Nisrioch. “Just as you’d die if you hadn’t. Everyone dies Jean.” Jean sputtered for a moment, then glared at him. The sorcerer glanced at Justinian, and saw the young man was frowning severely. “I should probably go now, shouldn’t I?”

“As I’m trying to kill you with my mind, I would say yes,” answered Justinian.