Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 5

“You a witch?” asked the Prince’s Man at her door in a strange low voice.

Elaine glanced up in surprise. This was the first time one of her guards had spoken to her--had in fact treated her as more than some--object to be watched over. She almost suspected a trick. Still--she decided to chance it. She really needed to talk to someone besides Amfortas.

“No. No. My mother was. But I’m not.”

The guard nodded. “Oh.” There was a pause. “I am.”

Elaine blinked as she realized that the Prince’s Man talking to her was, in fact, a woman. “Really? That’s--I didn’t know you Lightlanders had witches.”

“Oh, yeah,” said the young woman. “I’m one of them.” Elaine was starting to understand why she’d been confused--the guard wore her hood up, bundled rather tightly, and on closer examination had a rather plain face with… what looked like scars of some sort. The guard turned to Elaine. “I’m Gilly. Or that’s what they call me, anyway.”

Elaine nodded. “So… how’d you find out you… were a witch?” she continued.

Gilly pulled down her hood, and pulled a lock of dirty, rust-colored hair. “I’m a redhead. Redheads are witches. Everyone knows that.”

Elaine stared at her for a moment then sighed. “Yeah. I… don’t think that’s… true…”

Gilly frowned. “Sure it is. Back at home, everyone knew I was a witch. They used to throw things at me. And when I had my first blood, they locked me in a hut, and set it on fire.”

“What?” exclaimed Elaine. “Lady’s Love… why…”

“Had to wait until I was a woman grown,” said Gilly flatly. “Can’t kill children.” A strange smile came to her disfigured face. “Didn’t work. Jehuel decided the Seven needed me. So the flames cast me out, after giving me a kiss.” She tapped the scars on her cheek.

Elaine stared at her in horror. “Oh… Merciful Mother Night… I’m… so sorry…”

Gilly shrugged. “It’s okay.”

“No--it isn’t,” said Elaine forcefully. “It’s horrible. People shouldn’t do things like that…” She took a deep breath. “I… the people in your home town were ignorant, and evil, and they didn’t something horrible to you and…” She bit her lip. “Where did this happen…?”

“Didn’t have a name,” said Gilly simply. “Doesn’t need one anymore. I burned it all down. It burned nice.” Gilly smiled at Elaine again. “You’re pretty. I like pretty girls. They also burn nice. ” Elaine shuddered, despite herself. “The Prince is letting me burn you, after all this is over.”

Elaine stared at the guard. “So… that’s what you do now? Burn people for Amfortas?”

Gilly nodded. “All serve the Seven in the manner they are best suited for. Even those whose nature is co… co… corruption.” Gilly smiled again, looking proud of herself for having finished the statement correctly.

Elaine buried her face in her lap. “What is wrong with you people?” she muttered.

“This world is wicked, and debased,” said Gilly. “Darkness has infected it, so that even the Light shines less brightly than it should. We must purify it. In the Holy Flame of the Holy Light.” She began to giggle. “When the Fire burns, the Darkness will be consumed. And we who are infected with Darkness, will burn as well. Burn until we are pure. Pure and light. Burning pure light!” Gilly let out an ecstatic, wordless moan, and then slumped to the floor. Elaine watched as she vanished from her sight, and wondered how much of what she’d just heard Gilly say came from Amfortas. Things were silent for a while.

“Until that day comes,” Gilly whispered suddenly, “I burn things for the Prince.”

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 4

Jean Crow sighed as she rested her head on the ship’s railing. Viviane had, at length, been talked out of ‘Operation: Imminent Doom’, then talked out of ‘Operation: Unending Wrath’, then talked out of ‘Operation: Righteous Vengeance’, then finally talked out of ‘Operation: Fiery Cataclysm’. The last one had actually piqued Morgaine’s interest, which had made the discussion… memorable.

“Tired?” asked Mansemat. Jean glanced over to see the Dark Lord standing nearby.

“Yeah,” said Jean with a dull nod. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but your wife is crazy.”

“No,” said Mansemat, walking forward. “My ex-wife is crazy. Viviane is merely passionate.” He reached the railing, and leaned on it. “She hates the wicked and wishes for them to suffer. Especially when they try to harm those she loves.” The Dark Lord shrugged. “I consider that a very understandable emotion.”

“Well when you put it that way, everybody feels like that,” snorted Jean.

Mansemat glanced at her. “I don’t.”

Jean blinked. “W-what?” She stared at Mansemat for a moment. “You don’t… hate bad people…? That’s… odd.”

“Well, just to make it clear, I don’t like them, particularly,” said Mansemat, with the subtlest of smiles. “And I have no problem with thwarting them. That is everyone’s duty. The actions of the wicked, as a rule, fill me with anger. But… I have yet to meet an evil I did not ultimately pity.” He shook his head. “In my life, I have found evil to be the province of sad, lost people, seeking something they never find--small, stunted folk who wish to be larger. They may imagine themselves to be more than that--they may even fool others into think that it is true. But in the end, that is all they are.” He looked out on the water. “Who can help but pity such people?”

Jean stared at him for a second, then turned to the Murkenmere. “And do you pity Amfortas?” she asked.

“I have not met the man,” said Mansemat. “And it may be that he shall be the evil man that proves to be the exception to all that. But I have my doubts.” The Dark Lord frowned. “I have known many wicked people, Jehanine of the River Folk. I suspect that in the end, the great difference between Amfortas and most of them is that he happens to have been born a prince. A fact that has allowed him to avoid justice for a very, very long time.”

Jean nodded to herself. “I find myself hoping you’re right, for some strange reason.” She smiled. “I’m kind of surprised you’re telling me all this, though.”

Mansemat turned to her. “Well, I consider you practically family. And if you can’t annoy your family with lengthy philosophical talks, who can you?”

Jean blinked. “Family? You… I really… rank that high.”

Mansemat turned away sheepishly. “Nisrioch’s not the only one with a soft spot for strays.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen Morgaine’s zombie kitten collection,” noted Jean.

“Not what I meant,” said Mansemat.

“Yeah, I know,” agreed Jean. “I was just attempting levity.”

Mansemat nodded “Ahh.” The pair watched the water silently for a while.

“I really am touched by that,” said Jean suddenly. “It… means a lot to me.”

“Thank you,” said Mansemat. “It means a lot to me that it means a lot to you.”

Jean nodded. “We should probably shut up now. Because we both kinda suck at this ‘talking about our feelings crap’, don’t we?”

Mansemat nodded. “If you say so.”

The pair watched the water flow by.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 3

“So… how’s Sigma?” asked Palamedes Woodash casually, as he walked down the hallway.

“Squire Sigma is much improved,” replied Balthazar Subtle. “Though I fear a full recovery may elude our Milesian friend in the immediate future.” The Goblin chirurgeon glanced at the Erl. “Well, my Milesian friend at least…”

Palamedes shook his head. “I like Sigma just fine.” He cleared his throat. “It is all part of my ongoing effort to be ‘the better man’.”

Subtle chuckled. “That’s admirably mature of you, Woodash.”

“Why thank you,” said Palamedes. He turned to Subtle suddenly, eyes full of hope. “Do you think Eurydice will notice that?”

“Let me put it this way, Woodash,” said Balthazar, grinning. “Sigma’s extraordinary good looks have not been harmed a pennyworth by his ordeal.”

Palamedes frowned bitterly. “Should have expected that from you. My old man was right. Never ask a Goblin for relationship advice.”

Subtle rolled his eyes. “Thank you for demonstrating to this poor soul that a centuries-old prejudice still exists among you Erls.” He sighed. “Frankly I’ve never understood your distaste for the ‘cut-sleeve’ persuasion…”

“I don’t have any ‘distaste’ for it,” snapped Palamedes. “I just find it weird, all right?”

“And what is so odd about it?” asked Subtle. “Does the idea of people looking to each other for deep companionship strike you as so very odd? Do you not understand that love between… comrades may satisfy certain needs that the affection that exists between a man and his wife may not?”


Palamedes shut his eyes. “I’m--just not going to respond to any of that. All right?”

The chirurgeon sighed. “I am simply trying to broaden your horizons, dear boy,” he declared.

“Right, right,” muttered Palamedes. “That’s one way of putting it…”

“You two lovebirds done fighting?” asked Sacripant, leaning against a nearby wall.

Palamedes twirled himself around, and waved his fist irately. “We are not--I am not--you… you…” He took a deep breath. “I hate you guys, you know that?”

“We only mock you, Woodash, because we love you,” said Sacripant. “Well, and because you’re an easy target.”

“Right, right,” mumbled Palamedes. “Every loves to take a shot at the fat guy.” He pointed at Sacripant. “If Hagen were still here, you wouldn’t DARE do this to me!”

Sacripant stared at the chubby Erl in puzzlement, as he stepped before him and Balthazar. “Hagen would be joining in. He loved ribbing you. Remember?” He shook his head. “Anyway--Grizzel’s having a Guard meeting. Wants us all there.”

Palamedes sighed. “Fine. Fine.” He fell behind Sacripant as the Marsh Erl started to lead them to the Serjeant-at-Arms. “Let’s see what new indignity is planned for me…”

“Nobody plans these things, Woodash,” explained Sacripant. “You just hand us the opportunities, and we take them.”

Subtle nodded. “Succinctly put, Fenswater.”

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 2

Jean Crow glanced around the little room and once more felt the vague sense of amazement that she was here. Jean had always possessed an at times painful awareness of being somewhat on the outside of things for much of her life, an awareness that had only grown more acute since coming to live at Castle Terribel. True, Nisrioch was training her for some reason, and frequently implying it was something significant--but in the end, Jean knew she was one of the more minor figures at the castle. And now--here she was, part of the inner circle, for this occasion at least. It was kind of exciting, having the Cthoniques and the Badb listen to you.

“…a small fleet watching the river,” she explained. “I was able to get past them--but they’ll probably be on watch now.”

Viviane nodded. “Right.” She stood up. “Okay--I’ve got a plan. Now--I go to the fleet, summon up a storm, maybe have a few waves wreck any ships I can’t take down with the winds, follow it up with a few explosions to take down the gate…” She idly scratched her chin. “And then we play it by ear.”

Jean stared at the Badb for a moment. “Yeah,” she eventually coughed out. “That’s… not very subtle, is it.”

“It’s very subtle,“ asserted Viviane with a frown. “The lookouts won’t know what’s happening. Because they’ll all be dead.”

Jean blinked, and then turned to the Cthoniques. “Is she… always like this?”

The Cthoniques nodded as one. “We’ve learned to see it as a lovable foible,” explained Nisrioch.

Viviane crossed her arms. “I like simple plans. That solve things simply. And make people who’ve gotten the idea they can mess with me unget that idea.” Her eyes narrowed. “If as a side-effect, they are no longer able to get any ideas at all--well, that’s their problem. Should have worried about that before picking a fight with the Badb.” She raised a hand, and called a flame from a nearby candle. It danced around her fingers. “I wield the might of the land, and at my bidding it explodes forth, in an explosive display of exploding, explosive might!” The flame gathered in her palm and briefly flared up.

Morgaine coughed. “Yeah. Trust me, Viv--speaking as a woman who loves explosions as the next girl, you do seem… a bit fond of them at times.”

“Hey! It’s a simple fact--explosions solve problems!” noted Viviane emphatically, waving an admonishing finger. “If through some miracle an explosion appears to fail to do this, a second larger explosion will remedy this cosmic oversight.” She glared at Nisrioch and Morgaine who were idly looking away, then turned to her husband. “Manny--tell your crazy family they are being crazy…”

Mansemat began to rub his temples. “That… may be difficult, nightshade petals…”

Viviane crossed her arms. “Who backed you up on the gryphon run?”

“You did, dearest one,” said Mansemat, looking guiltily away.

“That’s right,” said Viviane, with a nod. “I did. And that is why I would appreciate your support for Operation: Imminent Doom.”

“It has a name now?” said Morgaine.

“Yes,” said Viviane. “And it is a good name.”

Nisrioch nodded. “No arguments there. Very catchy. And it simply rolls off the tongue.”

“It was meant to,” said Viviane.

Jean coughed. “Yeah… well… I feel I must oppose… Operation: Imminent Doom. On the ground of it being… rather… kill-heavy…”

Viviane wheeled on the young sorceress. “That shows it’s effective!” Her eyes narrowed in what Jean had come to call ‘the du Lac glare’. “Can you come up with a better plan?”

Jean gulped. This was not really how she’d imagined meetings of the Cthoniques going.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Play of Light and Shadow--Part 1

Jeronim de Oriflamme was the Count of Joyeuse. This was a great and honorable position that had been held by his father, his grandfather, and his great-great-grandfather before him. (His great-grandfather would have been one, had he not managed to die before his father through the agency of a drunken fall down a stairway.) It did not mean that he ruled Joyeuse, as that was capital of the great kingdom of Leonais, and thus under the rule of the House of Pescheour. But his ancestors had ruled it in the past, after the fall of the Alcides Emperors, and because of that, when the Great Council of Leonais met, Count Jeronim called it to order. “Hail, Peers of Leonais!” he declared, as he stood in the center of the Copper Hall, holding the Oaken Staff of the Council.

“Hail to you, Count of Joyeuse!” replied the Peers, in rather poor unison. As he looked out on the crowd of faces, Jeronim realized that Eustace de Calx, Duke of Tranchera was taking a light nap, as usual. The Count sighed, then continued with opening.

“We meet here under the Holy Light of the Seven to see that the laws and edicts of Leonais are upheld, and that its king reigns with justice, with duty and with love,” Jeronim stated. “Peers--do you accept this duty, the highest in the land?”

“With joy and honor,” recited the Peers. Jeronim blinked. Was Augustus Gwynedd glaring at him as he recited that? It was hard to tell. Whatever the case, the gaunt old Duke of Hauteclaire did not seem to be a happy man. Jeronim suspected the recent death of his cousin was to blame for that--Amante Gwynedd may have gone into the Holy Orders, but the Gwynedds were not a family that forgot their own, even if they had technically given up the name…

Jeronim shook his head. He could speculate on matters later. He had important business at hand. “Then let us receive the king,” he proclaimed grandly.

Prince Amfortas rose from his seat beside the empty throne, flanked by six of his Prince‘s Men. “Good King Pelleas is kept from us--I stand as his shadow,” he said calmly. Jeronim nodded. Nothing unusual there. Pelleas hadn’t been to a Council meeting since collapsing during the middle of one ten years ago.

“Then by the grace of the Holy Seven, I call this meeting to order,” announced Jeronim, striking his staff against the floor seven times. On the fifth strike, Lucien de Cortana stood up angrily, his usually pale face red with anger.

“Damn it, Amfortas,” the Duke of Cortana spat out. “What’s the meaning of this? What are the Stylites doing in Joyeuse?”

Amfortas regarded the Duke calmly. “It is customary to wait for the seventh strike to begin the meeting,” he said.

“It is also customary that the Orders of the Concordat stay in the Concordat!” spat out Lucien, shifting uncomfortably. The Duke of Cortana was the youngest man there, and was seldom at ease when the Great Council met. Even now, filled with anger, he looked around the room nervously, hoping for some validation.

He quickly received it. “Cortana’s right,” stated Augustus Gwynedd. “Even if his blood is running a tad hot.” He glanced de Calx, who was still napping. “As is only natural for any true son of Leonais. This is the gravest defiance of the Edicts committed by the Throne in centuries.”

Amfortas smiled. “Defiance? Every action I have taken has been in accordance with our great state’s laws.” He calmly raised his hand and gestured at the Duke of Hauteclaire. “I will remind that gentleman that he himself was among those that granted me full right of command in the present crisis…”

“That right has NEVER included the ability to bring in the Holy Orders into Leonais on a WHIM!” spat out Lucien.

“Especially not the Stylites,” added Augustus, folding his hands.

“Now let us be fair,” said Blamor de Ganis, Duke of Almace, scratching his balding scalp. “We did grant our permission for the Eremites to come into Joyeuse. If the present situation runs in defiance of the Edicts, we do bear some responsibility for it.”

“Thank you, Almace,” said Amfortas, smiling pleasantly. “Now, I freely admit my summons to the Knights of the Tower has been rather hasty.” His handsome features stiffened, as concern stole on his face. “It has had to be. Peers of Leonais, I--I come here to ask you to acknowledge the propriety of my actions, which have been prompted by… dire emergency.” He shut his eyes, and took a deep breath. “All of you have doubtless heard rumors of how Joyeuse came under attack by agents of the Night.” Amfortas’ eyes opened, regarding the Peers earnestly. “It is my sad duty to state those rumors are true. Servants of the Dark Lord Mansemat Cthonique have entered our land, on what I believe to have been a mission to probe our defenses.” He shook his head. “Alas, they found them too easy to get around. While we succeeded in capturing one, most escaped our grasp, after several weeks of subversive activity. The recent spate of dockside riots are among their handiwork.” Amfortas gave a gentle, sad sigh. “There have been… other incidents. I will not bore you with the full details of our failure--it would prove a disheartening account of our weakness.” An excited murmur was running through the chamber. “And I fear I have worse news--this act was but the brushing of a finger. The Cthoniques mean to follow it up with a true assault, likely lead by the Dark Lord himself. Facing such a crisis, I had little choice but to bring in the Stylites.” He looked away from the Peers. “I hope my actions may be forgiven.”

Jeronim glanced around the room, which seemed to have been brought close to a panic by the Prince’s revelations. Even de Calx had awoken, and now appeared to be asking his neighbor, Ilinot de Balsarda, what was going on. The Count of Joyeuse brought the Staff down on the floor several times to quiet this talk. When it subsided, he glanced at Amfortas. “If what you are saying is true, then this is a grave matter,” began Jeronim. “Especially when we consider the Easter King’s recent aggression…”

“There is evidence our two problems are linked,” noted Amfortas simply. “Ilarion Skarvsky appears to be acting in concert with the Lords of Night.”

This brought more excited murmurs from the Peers. “Impossible!” snapped Augustus Gwynedd. “Not even Skarvsky would stoop so low as to hold congress with Mansemat Cthonique!”

Amfortas looked at the Duke of Hauteclaire gravely. “Even I would agree with you, Augustus--but as incredible as it seems, we’ve caught messengers going to and fro the pair.” The Prince shrugged. “Perhaps we should not be so surprised. Ilarion Skarvsky claimed his throne over the body of his predecessor--a man who trusted him with his life. That is something he and Mansemat have in common if my sources are correct--though in the Dark Lord’s case that predecessor was not only his liege, but his blood relation as well…”

Blamor de Ganis blinked. “Are you saying that Lord Shaddad was killed by…?”

“His own son,” said Amfortas with a nod. “A shocking and horrible crime, gentlemen, and one that is unimaginable to we good folk of Light.” The Prince strode to the center of the room, and stood erect. “But such are the ways of the Night, Peers of Leonais, and that is why we must fight them as long as the Seven give us strength.” He crossed his arms. “And that brings me to the second reason I have called you all here.” He looked around the room. “I ask your permission to unseal the greatest weapon against Douma Dalkiel our land possesses. I must bear Clarent, the Sword of Light.”

The entire room froze in silent shock. Jeronim looked around, and saw that the Duke of Tranchera had fallen asleep again.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Enfolded in the Dragon's Wings--Part 18

Mansemat watched the moon rippling on the water. “He never healed,” said Mansemat suddenly. “He never let himself. And so his wounds didn’t scar--they festered. Until all that was inside of him was rotten…”

Viviane blinked. “What… was that about?”

Mansemat blinked and shook his head. “Oh, those deep thoughts you mentioned earlier. I suppose I have them after all.”

“And they are so deep they are impenetrable,” said Viviane.

“Just about my father,” said Mansemat.

Viviane nodded. “Ahh.”

“I think even he knew what a ruin he was, by the end of it,” he continued. “But perhaps I’m only telling this to comfort myself… To hope that there was something in him that could be touched. Even redeemed…”

Viviane looked at her husband again. “Do I have to remind you that you’re not him again? Because I REALLY think I covered that…”

“No, no,” said Mansemat with a sad chuckle. “I know. In the end, we made our choices. And his were the wrong ones. While mine were… less wrong, I suppose. I can’t say they were the right ones. Well, most of them, anyway.” He sighed. “If there’s one thing Lord Shaddad taught me, is that it’s easy to be a villain. And it’s hard--maybe even impossible--to be a hero.” Mansemat shrugged. “That’s why you have to keep trying.”

Viviane smiled and rested her head on his shoulder. “You really are a good man, you know that?”

Mansemat shook his head. “No, I don’t. All I know is that I try.”

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Enfolded in the Dragon's Wings--Part 17

Mansemat watched the sparkling bolt streak towards him, and readied his blade. With one swift chop, his father’s spell was destroyed.

Shaddad stared in disbelieving horror. “No. No. No. This… no.” He gulped, the tears streaming down his face. “I… this will not end here. No. I am too great to die like this!” Shaddad’s sword was shaking in his hand. “I… Anibal and Amilcar died, but I lived. I lived! I LIVED! I LIVED, AND I WILL NOT DIE NOW, I WILL NOT DIE EVER, I WILL LIVE!” He took a deep breath and charged at his son. Mansemat easily side-stepped him.

“I am better than you!” shouted Shaddad, as he prepared another wild swing. “Stronger! I--I gave up all the weak things you believed in. I gave up justice. And honor. And pity. And love. And… that made me strong!” He stared at Mansemat, his expression tormented, as Mansemat continued to effortlessly dodge his undisciplined attacks. “Do you understand me, boy? Do you? You--you have to be strong if you want to live. And I am strong.” Mansemat struck his father’s hand with Murgleys’ pommel. Shaddad’s blade fell to the ground, dropped from nerveless fingers. Shaddad stared at it for a second, then collapsed to the ground himself. “So strong. So very strong. Not weak. Not weak at all. No. Strong. Not weak.”

Mansemat stared at the man he’d feared for all his life, as he lay on the ground crying. Shaddad sniffled, then gave his son a bitter smile. “Ha! You--you can’t finish me, can you? Can’t kill your old man!” He gulped, then laughed again. “I knew you were weak! I could do it.” He glanced down at the ground. “Not that I had to. Lord Nerghal did that for me. Killed my father. Killed my grandfather. Killed my brothers. They died right in front of me. Amilcar and Anibal. Amilcar fell. Anibal rushed back to get him. I kept going. Because I was strong.” He blinked several times. “Oh, Lady, WHY?” he whined. “Why did you do this to me? WHY?” He buried his face in the ground. “I just didn’t want to die…”

Mansemat turned away, a strange mixture of disgust and pity making the ruin of Lord Shaddad simply too… humiliating to watch. He listened to his father’s sobbing… and then suddenly it stopped. “MANSEMAT--LOOK OUT!” came a shout, even as he was beginning to turn. He saw him clearly, as he pivoted. His father had drawn a knife and was trying to stab him, his face a mask of hatred, rage, and self-pity. And then Shaddad’s hand jerked back, even as Mansemat slashed at him with Murgleys. As Mansemat watched a reddish wound blossomed in his father’s stomach, and then Shaddad fell once again to the ground. Mansemat turned to try and see who had warned him, even as he told himself that what he thought was impossible…

His sister stood there, unsteadily. She looked at him a moment, and smiled. “I… I thought he killed me, but… I guess he…” Mansemat looked at her chest, and bit his lip nervously. Morgaine followed his gaze, and then blinked. “Oh.” She stared at the strange gaping hole, empty and black that lay where her heart had been. “Oh.”

Lord Shaddad looked up at his children and sobbed to himself. “No fair,” he whined. “No… fair!” And so Lord Shaddad died as he had lived, railing against how unpleasant the universe was being to him.

When Nisrioch found them, the siblings debated what to do with his body. They decided to leave it where it lay.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Enfolded in the Dragon's Wings--Part 16

Shaddad Cthonique laughed as his son rushed at him. “I guess that fall has scattered your wits, Mansemat--well, what little you had.” He raised one of the massive swords he now held. “Do you honestly imagine that even with the Sword of Night you stand a chance against--?” Shaddad’s enlarged face blinked in surprise as Mansemat ducked under his strike, then rolled away as the blade struck the ground. The Dark Lord gave a scornful snort. “Ahh, yes. Your old Sword Dance nonsense. Yet another example of your foolishness. All you are doing is prolonging the inevitable. Your chivalrous masters, with all their precious writings--folly! Folly from the top to the bottom!” He glared angrily, trying to find his son. “They would never have stood a chance against me! Just as you won’t! Courage--honor--justice--these are nothing but lies, boy. Victory goes ever to the most ruthless, the most powerful. And I have always made sure that that was me!”

Mansemat pressed himself against the wall, waiting for his chance. “Don’t imagine the Sword will save you,” continued his father. “All you are doing is bringing it to me! It is not for a poltroon like you! It is for a man like me!” Shaddad laughed again, though to Mansemat’s ears it sounded very close to a sob. “A man who knows power! How to get it--how to use it! A man who lets nothing stop him! Nothing, boy! Your sister lies dead at my hand, Mansemat! Do you imagine I will spare you? I am not made that way! I have forsaken pity! Mercy! All soft things! I am hard! Hard as steel! Because only steel survives! Softness--softness dies! It always dies!”

Mansemat took a deep breath, and then ran at Shaddad again. The Dark Lord turned and smiled, slashing at his son with an oversized blade. Mansemat again swiftly dodged, only to face a second blow from Shaddad’s other sword. “Too slow!” shouted Shaddad triumphantly, as the blade dove closer to his son’s form. Mansemat stood for a moment, and then raised Murgleys to parry the blow.

To the Dark Lord’s surprise, his gigantic blade shattered as if it were glass. Shaddad blinked, then attacked with his second blade, only for Mansemat to shatter that one as well. “Impossible!” he muttered, as Mansemat leapt up to his head.

He severed it in one blow, and then landed on the ground. Mansemat raised Murgleys to his face, regarding it in wonder, and then looked at the titanic form that his father had transformed into, which was already falling apart.

Which is why he was able to avoid Lord Shaddad’s attack as the Dark Lord leapt out of the crumbling heap with his blade drawn. “Did I not tell you I am a man who lets NOTHING STOP HIM?!” shrieked Shaddad.

Mansemat frowned. “You are running out of tricks, father,” he said quietly. “You killed my sister. Face justice!”

“There is no justice!” yelled Shaddad. Mansemat realized his father was weeping “There is just I! I am all that matters! Me!” He blinked. “I have done so much--sacrificed so much--and I will not let myself be beaten by a weak little boy!” He lowered his sword, and then raised his left hand. “Let’s see if you and your precious justice can handle this!” He chopped his hand forward, sending a wave of raw arcane power at his son.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Enfolded in the Dragon's Wings--Part 15

Mansemat Cthonique rushed through the dark tunnels, a vague sensation pulling him forward. He had to hurry, he knew. His father was planning something horrible, and it was up to him to stop him. Morgaine was in trouble. She was counting on him. He had to save her.

He thought he saw a light up ahead. That would be his father. Mansemat strained forward, running with all his strength. He entered a massive chamber, with a great vaulted ceiling. Shaddad stood at the far end, before an altar, on which he’d laid Morgaine, a knife in his hands. “Lord--Lord Shaddad Cthonique,” gasped Mansemat, trying to remember the words. “I judge and condemn you… By the power of House Cthonique, I judge and condemn you for… betraying the duties of our house, as given to us by Sacred, Unholy Mother Night. I… I cast you out of our House… I strip you of position… of rank and position…”

Shaddad turned, and chuckled to himself. “Mansemat? Is that you?” His father threw his head back and laughed. “My goodness. Trying to be Lord Apsu now, are we?” Shaddad snorted, as he cleaned his knife. “Pathetic as usual. Though I will admit, I am somewhat surprised you survived. Still that was likely luck more than anything else…” He glanced at his son. “Well? Don’t you have any more grand heroic statements to utter? You’ve gone silent all at…” Shaddad peered closely for a second and then turned to Morgaine. “Oh, yes. I see that has gotten your attention.”

Morgaine’s eyes were wide, empty and dead. A large hole had been crudely cut in her chest, while her heart was placed beside her. “I imagine you are upset about this,” said Shaddad calmly. “I will not say I am happy about it--but it had to be done. For the good of House Cthonique.”

Mansemat gulped, then drew Murgleys. “Lord Shaddad Cthonique, by the power of House Cthonique I judge and condemn you for betraying the duties of our House, as given to us by Sacred, Unholy Mother Night,” he said quietly. “I cast you out of our House, I strip you of rank and position. Depart from our halls. You are no longer welcome there. You are a Dark Lord no longer.”

Shaddad shook his head. “More of this folly, Mansemat? Do you honestly imagine that this time will end any differently from the hundred other times you’ve tried to defy me? You, laid low on the ground before me, begging for mercy…”

“Depart from our halls. You are no longer welcome there. You are a Dark Lord no longer!” shouted Mansemat.

“Trying to be a hero, son?” sneered Shaddad, as he stepped forward. “You really are a child, you know that? Those warriors of chivalry you talk about are nothing but foppish princes, mercenaries, and the occasional bandit with pretensions. They are a sad dream, for those unable to face reality. And I… I am the reality.”

“You are a Dark Lord no longer!” hissed Mansemat.

“Oh, Mansemat,” sighed Shaddad. “You little fool. Here I am trying to avoid killing you, and you will not let me. Very well then…” He sheathed his knife, and then brought his hand to his sword. “I will make this swi…” Shaddad blinked. “Where did you… get that sword, Mansemat?”

Mansemat raised his blade. “I… This be Murgleys, the Sword of Night. I draw it in the name of justice, and of right.”

Shaddad chuckled. “You always had the Dragon’s own luck, boy. Imagine you, of all people, finding what I was looking for.” He shook his head. “Put it down, Mansemat. It will not help you.”

Mansemat took a deep breath. “I am the Dragon’s champion, the Dragon’s choice. I am enfolded in the Dragon’s wings. Where I am, the Dragon is. Lord Shaddad--FACE JUSTICE!”

Lord Shaddad stared at him for a moment, then stepped back. “Ahh. I see. You’re going to be… difficult. Very well.” His hand went to his shirt, and then drew out a strange medallion. “I can solve difficulties. And when they are solved, I will take the blade from your corpse.” He began to chant, a thick black smoke emerging from the amulet, engulfing his form. It rose up into a massive black pillar, and then blew away. Lord Shaddad was now a good twenty ells tall, and wielded two immense blades. A cruel smile came to his now gigantic face. “Still wish to be a hero, boy?”

Mansemat raised Murgleys, and charged at him.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Enfolded in the Dragon's Wings--Part 14

Nisrioch was kneeling in the center of the circle when the de Gaheviez brothers arrived, his eyes shut tight, and his hands laid flat on the ground.

“What’s a matter with him?” asked Eudropin, as he approached.

Dodinas shrugged. “I think his nerves have finally cracked. He stopped struggling an hour ago. Since then, he’s been rolled up there, muttering to himself.”

Estramin laughed. “Perhaps he’s calling Mommy for help.”

Curselain turned and glared at the red-headed sorcerer. “Do NOT SAY THAT!” He looked around nervously. “If the Queen of Fear were to come to her son’s aide, all of our efforts would be no more than a grim joke.”

“But… surely so far from Mount Karana…” said Perard.

“So far from Mount Karana, with one she holds such a bond as Nisrioch, there is very little Zamial could not do,” muttered Curselain. He took a deep breath. “Maintain the circle. I cannot emphasize how important it is for us that he not go free.” Curselain regarded the half-demon for a moment. “It would NOT go well for us if that were to occur.”

Dodinas spat, as the de Gaheviez brothers took up their positions. “In that case--why are we even bothering to leave this freak alive?” He glared at Nisrioch. “We still owe him for spoiling our fun with Blanchemains…”

Perard nodded. “Among other things.”

“Lord Shaddad remains a sentimental man, in many ways,” noted Curselain. “And while the Queen of Fear is not so close to her son as she once was… well, there’s no knowing what an actual attempt on his life might result in.” He shook his head. “No. Once Shaddad has had his apotheosis, we will transfer Nisrioch to a more permanent prison. Until then…”

And then Nisrioch stood up, hands outstretched. “My labor is complete.” He regarded the Sworn contemptuously. “Release me, and surrender. This is your last chance.”

The five sorcerers stared at him a moment in amazement. And then they began to laugh. “I think you’ve forgotten where you are, lad,” snorted Estramin.

Nisrioch nodded. “Very well.” And then strange translucent beams began to shoot from his fingertips, striking at the barrier that contained him. As the Sworn watch, the mystic walls began to waver and fade.

“What… that’s…” Curselain gulped. “Estramin, Eudropin, you are fresh. Tighten the circle.” The de Gaheviez brothers nodded, and stepped forward and began to chant. And then, suddenly two large wavering lashes emerged from the circle, and wrapped around the brothers. Estramin and Eudropin began to scream and smoke, as strange symbols began to appear on their flesh.

“You were warned,” said Nisrioch quietly, as he stepped from the circle. Estramin gave a shriek, as a light seemed to consume him from the inside out. Eudropin watched his brother die, and then, continuing a lifelong habit, followed his example. Nisrioch stared at the smoldering corpses dispassionately, his rainbow-colored eyes reflecting the strange flames. “Does anyone else wish to try my patience?” he stated.

“No. Impossible! You…” Curselain sputtered desperately, as he raised mystic defenses as quickly as he could. Finally, he gulped. “Arazial the Black…,” he finished weakly.

“Arazial the Black was the child of a minor river demon,” said Nisrioch. “He was also a bully and a fool who knew nothing of the Art, and merely used the simplest of his talents to further his ends. I am the child of Zamial, the Queen of Fear, and am also one of the greatest sorcerers of my generation. Perhaps, any generation.” He smiled. “Your little circle… inconvenienced me, yes. But in doing this, you have all placed me inside your power. And I have taken this opportunity to master your magic.” Nisrioch raised an eyebrow. “All that you can call up is at my command.”

“He’s lying,” snarled Dodinas. “He has to be. It’s too incredible…” He shook his head, and then grabbed several of the fetishes that lay on his belt. “You’ve mastered my magic? Then master the death that rots, the death that blinds, and the death that gnaws!”

Perard Malcreature leapt beside Dodinas, raising a wand. “Aye! And my curses as well! Your blood shall boil, your breath shall be agony, your skin shall--YAARRGH!” As Curselain watched Perard fell to the ground, writhing in agony. His skin appeared to be shriveling away, and the flesh beneath was… bubbling. Dodinas would probably have been screaming as well, if his jaw hadn’t fallen off, as well as other… pieces of him. Curselain thought he saw… things… emerging from Dodinas’ body. But he didn’t particularly care to make a closer inspection.

Nisrioch crossed his arms, and waited for the pair to die. “And what about you, Curselain? Do you have any… amusing little murder hexes you wish to hurl at me?”

Curselain shook his head. “Ah, well, I am not so foolish as Dodinas and Perard. I know truth when I hear it. Any spell I hurled at you, I’d suffer myself.” He chuckled nervously. “No, no. I shall merely content myself to ward myself…”

“And in so doing, you merely give me the means to kill you,” said Nisrioch. “I say a word, and those protections you’ve given yourself will become the sword I wield against you.”

Curselain blinked. “Ahh. Yes. Very true.” He looked away from the half-demon. “I… recall mention of… surrender…”

“That has passed,” answered Nisrioch. He raised a hand. “Tell me, Curselain, do you also recall that… affair with the Badb?” He gestured at Dodinas’ body--or rather, what remained of it. “The one our late friend so recently mentioned.”

“Ahh. That.” Curselain gulped. “Really, sir, shouldn’t we simply… forget that matter?” He smiled nervously Nisrioch. “Perhaps?”

Nisrioch frowned and clenched his fist. “I wish I could,” he said quietly, as he watched the sorcerer’s body hit the ground.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Enfolded in the Dragon's Wings--Part 13

Mansemat awoke in absolute darkness. His body ached all over. He rose unsteadily, trying to make out some detail of where he was. Memories of the fight bombarded his mind as he did so. He wondered how long he had been unconscious. And what exactly his father was going to do Morgaine.

And that was when he realized he heard something breathing. Something… large.

Mansemat fell to his knees, looking desperately for his sword, which he sincerely hoped had dropped down with him. Eventually, his hands found a hilt, which he swiftly picked up. As he stood to his feet, he heard something stirring in the distance. He held the sword out in front of him, and prayed that whatever was out there was as blind as he was in this total darkness.

And then a massive eye opened before him, bathing the entire cavern in a dull red glow. Mansemat stood, riveted in horror.

MORTAL THING, came a strange, booming voice. I SEE YOU HERE IN MY PRESENCE. WHO ARE YOU?

“M-Mansemat Cthonique,” replied Mansemat, his voice shaking.

CTHONIQUE, said the voice. I HAVE HEARD THAT NAME BEFORE... CTHON--OH, YES. THE LITTLE DARK LORDS, IN THE LANDS OF NIGHT. There came a rumbling sound that Mansemat realized was laughing. WHICH ONE ARE YOU?

“Dark Lord of the Screaming Waste,” whispered Mansemat.

AHH. YES. SON OF THE DARK LORD OF THE PLAINS OF DREAD. The tone of the great booming voice was almost jovial. FRIGHTENING IS IT NOT? ALL THIS DARKNESS? EVEN YOU CHILDREN OF NIGHT REQUIRE SOME LITTLE LIGHT TO MAKE YOUR WAY… Mansemat frowned and steadied the sword in his hand. WILL YOU NOT ANSWER ME, MORTAL? ARE YOU FRIGHTENED?

Mansemat bit his lip. “Yes,” he whispered.

The eye seemed to focus on him. THEN WHY DON’T YOU RUN?

Mansemat gulped and then took a deep breath to calm himself. “Please,” he said. “My sister is… I think she is in danger, and I have to go help her.”

I SEE… The eye narrowed. YOU ARE VERY BRAVE.

“No,” said Mansemat. “No, I’m not.”

YES, YOU ARE. The eye moved back, and to Mansemat’s surprise, another opened. They stared at him for a while. DO YOU KNOW ME, MANSEMAT CTHONIQUE?

Mansemat nodded. The idea had been growing in the back of his head, ever since this conversation began, and by now, he was certain. “You… you’re the Dragon.”

CORRECT. The voice chuckled again, and the eyes moved back. Mansemat found himself staring at a vast, serpentine face. YOU LOOK UPON A REFLECTION OF MY POWER, MANSEMAT CTHONIQUE. MY TRUE FORM WOULD DESTROY YOU, FOR IT IS LARGE BEYOND YOUR MORTAL COMPREHENSION. MY WINGS ENFOLD WORLDS, MY SCALES ARE THE SIZE OF STARS, AND THE DISTANCE FROM THE TIP OF MY TAIL TO THE END OF MY SNOUT ENCOMPASSES INFINITY.

Mansemat nodded. “I see. You’re… very large.”

The Dragon laughed once again. MY APOLOGIES IF I SEEM… BOASTFUL. DO YOU KNOW WHY I AM HERE?

“Umm… well… King Sutekh tried to summon you with the Sword of Night, so…” said Mansemat.

INCORRECT, said the Dragon. KING SUTEKH WAS A FOOL. I CANNOT BE SUMMONED, NOR CAN I BE BOUND. MY POWER BALANCES THE MYRIAD WORLDS. NO MORTAL MAY COMMAND ME, FOR I AM THE PENULTIMATE POWER THAT COMPELS. THERE IS ONLY ONE GREATER THAN I…

“Mother Night,” whispered Mansemat, performing the Obeisant Gesticulation.

SO YOU CALL IT, said the Dragon. THAT IS THE ONLY MASTER I ACKNOWLEDGE. YOUR KING SUTEKH KNEW NOT WHAT HE WAS CALLING. AND HE IS NOT WHY I AM HERE. I AM HERE MANSEMAT CTHONIQUE, FOR YOU…

“What?” said Mansemat.

KING SUTEKH WAS A FOOL, BUT MUCH RUIN HE CAUSED, WHICH STILL SCARS THIS WORLD YOU CALL HOME. YOUR FATHER IS ANOTHER SUCH MAN, WHO VAINLY BELIEVES HE MAY BECOME GOD. AND I SEE MORE FOLLOWING HIM. The Dragon took a deep breath. IT GIVES ME NO PLEASURE TO WATCH THEIR ACTIONS, BUT LITTLE MAY I DO TO STOP THEM, FOR MY POWER IS TOO GREAT FOR YOUR WORLD, AND WOULD BLAST AND RUIN IT, WERE I TO WALK DIRECTLY UPON IT. I MUST ACT THROUGH AGENTS, AND THROUGH THEM, MAKE JUSTICE. WOULD YOU SERVE ME?

“I… You…” Mansemat bit his lip, then nodded. “Yes. I will serve.” He shut his eyes. “That is the Cthonique motto. ‘In Her Service’.”

The Dragon made a great, joyful laugh. THEN KNOW I AM WITH YOU, MANSEMAT CTHONIQUE, THAT YOU WALK WITH ME AT YOUR BACK, ENFOLDED IN MY MIGHY WINGS. MY CHILD I NAME YOU, IN WHOM I AM MOST PROUD. WHERE YOU ARE, I AM. It flapped its wings, and Mansemat felt a mighty wind pass over him. NOW, GO FORTH IN MY NAME, AND SERVE ME.

“But… how…?” said Mansemat beseechingly.

YOU HAVE COURAGE AND SKILL, said the Dragon. AND A BLADE WORTHY OF BOTH THESE THINGS. LOOK ON THE SWORD YOU PICKED UP TO FACE ME…

Mansemat glanced down and released he hadn’t picked up his sword after all. The blade before him, kept in a plain black wooden sheath, was one he’d never seen before. He pulled it out, and marveled at the dark black metal. And then the sword spoke to him.

I be Murgleys, the Sword of Night. Draw me in the name of justice and of right.

When Mansemat looked up, the Dragon was gone, but he realized he could suddenly see his way in the tunnels. He sheathed Murgleys, and set out.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Enfolded in the Dragon's Wings--Part 12

Morgaine had been enjoying Dream #47, which involved Hecuba, cream and strawberries, and a very large bath, when she was awoken by hands grabbing her and hoisting her aloft. She tried to shout--or at least curse--at her assailants, but found herself without voice. With that, she to fight her way free, and then to cast a spell--but she was paralyzed, and her magic could do nothing without some physical prompting. As they exited the tent with her, Morgaine saw that her father was standing there.

“Any trouble from her?” asked Lord Shaddad, his face impassive.

“The bitch has been quiet for once,” came a harsh voice that Morgaine recognized as Eudropin de Gaheviez.

Shaddad nodded. “Well, good to see the Demon’s Breath is working as advertised.” He turned. “Let us hurry.”

Morgaine found herself carried to Sutekh’s Finger by the brothers in utter silence, unable to move or speak. As soon as they reached the obelisk, the pair set her down. Shaddad nodded at them. “Go back to the circle, and make sure that Nisrioch is contained.” He frowned. “I do NOT want this matter ruined at the last moment.”

Eudropin and Estramin bowed and walked away. Shaddad turned and regarded Sutekh’s Finger. He walked around it a few times, chanting words in the Dark Tongue. For a moment, Morgaine hoped that her father had simply lost his mind, but then there was a low rumbling, and Finger rose from the ground, revealing a door and stairway. Shaddad smiled. “Just as it was written.” He grabbed Morgaine, and hoisted him over his shoulder, then started down the stairs.

“You know, Morgaine,” he began suddenly, “I want you to realize I don’t enjoy this. I will not deny that you are a grave disappointment to me--a freakish tribade of a girl with too much male humours flowing in her veins, alongside my blood.” He frowned. “Frankly, I am regularly startled that I could spawn something as flawed as you. And your brother as well, for that matter. But there things stand.”

Yeah, hate you too, dad, you vile shit, Morgaine attempted to say, but could not. She contented herself with thinking it as loudly as possible, and hoping that he picked it up.

“Do not imagine that I hate you, Morgaine,” said Shaddad, after apparently doing just that. “Oh, I am less than fond of you--but in the end, you are still my daughter, twisted aberration notwithstanding. However, some times, sacrifices must be made.” He chuckled. “There. Bet you didn’t realize that your old man had a sense of humor.”

Morgaine winced as every dark suspicion she had as to what was going on here was confirmed. Or rather, she would have winced if she could move.

Shaddad sighed. “I never asked for this destiny, Morgaine. I hope you realize that. Annibal and Amilcar were the ones raised to be great men. I was the third son. I was supposed to wind up with a small keep somewhere near the borders, while they did great things. But then Nerghal got ambitious, thanks to that mad wife of his. And so it all fell to me.” He smiled and shook his head. “And look at what I did. And look at what I am going to do. ‘A Cthonique shall offer the heart of his daughter in sacrifice. A Cthonique shall gain the Sword of Night. A Cthonique shall conquer the very realm of Death.’ It all lies before me, Morgaine. Soon, I shall be the undoubtedly greatest member of our great family. I, the third son.” He took a deep breath. “Can any man with blood in his veins not seek out such a fate, when it lies on the road before him?” He nodded to himself. “And that is why I shall do this.”

As she listened to all that, Morgaine wondered just whose benefit it was all for--hers, or her father’s.

Then again, on further reflection, that didn’t really matter that much. When you got down to it, anyway.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Enfolded in the Dragon's Wings--Part 11

Mansemat opened his satchel. Suddenly, there was a stirring from the bedroll across from him.

“Mmm… Hecuba…” murmured Morgaine. “Thasss… nice…” She giggled, turned in her sleep, then shook her head. As Mansemat watched, she blinked, and her eyes opened. “Ummm… Manny? Where did…?” She paused and yawned. “…did Hecuba go?” she said afterwards, blinking several times.

“She… was never here,” said Mansemat quietly.

Morgaine blinked again, then rubbed her eyes. “Crap. Dreaming. And nice dreams too.” She pouted at her brother. “And you had to be a big meanie and end it.”

Mansemat gave her an apologetic look. “Sorry,” he said quietly, as he fastened his sword to his waist.

Morgaine’s eyes narrowed. “You’re doing that… sword thing, again, aren’t you?”

“Have to practice,” said Mansemat simply. “Only way to stay sharp.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” nodded Morgaine. She sighed. “Lady’s Love, the way you practice, it’s like you expect to fight half the Nightlands.”

Mansemat turned towards her. “Do you want me not to practice tonight?” he asked.

Morgaine looked away. “Just don’t let Dad see you,” she noted, her tone slightly exasperated. “You are so lucky to have me for a big sister, you know that?”

“I’m taller than you now,” said Mansemat, smiling slightly.

“Just wait until I get my next growth spurt,” declared Morgaine loftily. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter--I’ll always be the oldest.”

“By half an hour,” noted Mansemat.

Morgaine shut her eyes. “Still counts.”

Mansemat knelt briefly and kissed her on the forehead. “Love you.”

“Love you too, you big idiot,” whispered Morgaine, smiling. Mansemat stood up, and walked out of the tent. He strolled a ways away, then began to practice his Dance.

He’d finished Style 3--(Fluttering Butterfly)--and was halfway through Style 5--(Triumphant Eagle)--when he noticed a trio of men at the entrance of the tent. One held a burning brazier, and was apparently fanning the smoke from it into the tent, while the other two stood back a ways and watched him do it.

This struck Mansemat as rather--off, and worthy of investigation, so he sheathed his blade. “Who goes there?” he announced loftily, as he approached the tent.

Lord Shaddad and Estramin de Gaheviez both turned to regard him, while Eudropin continued to fan the smoke into the tent. “Mansemat, what by all the Hells are you doing out here?” growled Shaddad.

“Allow me to direct that question at you, father,” Mansemat replied, preparing to draw his sword.

Shaddad raised an eyebrow. “And allow me to deny you an answer.” And then he waved his hand at his son. Mansemat readied himself for the blow. Even so, he found himself going to his knees as Shaddad’s power struck him.

“Hmm. That is fairly impressive, by your standards,” said Shaddad. He yawned. “Of course, that is damning you with faint praise, I must admit…”

“What are you doing, father?” said Mansemat, gritting his teeth.

“What I have to,” answered Shaddad, flicking his wrist. Mansemat was bowled backwards, tumbling on the ground. He finally managed to check himself by plunging his sword into the ground. Shaddad blinked as his son tried to right himself. “My, my. You are a persistent fool, aren’t you?”

“Oh, yes,” gasped Mansemat. “What--are--you--doing?”

Shaddad regarded him for a moment. “Ending this,” he declared. And then he clenched his fist, and drove it down against the ground. Mansemat was battered by a wave of force that caused him to lose grip on his sword, and pushed him further and further back. He felt the earth under him crack and give way, and then suddenly he was rolling into a chasm. He grabbed desperately at the sides to try and keep from falling in.

He failed, and fell down into the darkness.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Enfolded in the Dragon's Wings--Part 10

Nisrioch flipped idly through the pages of Kvasir’s Compendium of Wonders, and sighed. In all honesty, he had been on edge of late, his Sight taunted by things just beyond its perception. The worst part was that there was an obvious explanation for this--the dire straits he was in. And yet, he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something more going on here.

There was a stirring at the entrance of his tent. “Nisrioch,” came his father’s voice. “Come with me.”

Nisrioch considered ignoring the man, but he finally shut the book, and turned towards the entrance. “You have need of me, Dark Lord?”

Shaddad stared calmly at his son. “Would I be here if I did not, Nisrioch?”

Nisrioch took a deep breath and rose. “Very well,” he stated, as he walked towards his father, glaring at him the entire time. “Let us make this brief, if possible.” He frowned. “I suspect neither of us particularly wants to spend much time in each other’s company.”

Shaddad regarded his son for a moment then nodded. “Very well.” The pair headed off.

They walked in silence for a long while. “A lovely night,” Shaddad suddenly announced, breaking it. “I’m surprised you aren’t casting horoscopes.”

“Without my equipment, I’d miss all but the grossest changes,” said Nisrioch. “So there’s really no point in doing it more than once a week.”

Shaddad nodded. “I suppose. A suspicious man would say that you are lying, and that the Sworn have it right--that you have abandoned my cause.”

“And as you are a suspicious man, you say this,” said Nisrioch with a chuckle. He shook his head. “Even if that is true, there’s still the joy of the Art, and curiosity regarding my own fate.” He shut his eyes. “And whatever my opinion of you--we are family.”

Shaddad glanced at his son. “That reminds me,” said Shaddad. “I saw your mother tonight.”

“That does not exactly sound like a forgettable occurrence, Father,” commented Nisrioch.

Shaddad smiled. “It wasn’t. But I have many things on my mind.”

“So how was she?” asked Nisrioch.

“The same as she ever was,” sighed Shaddad. He shook his head. “Time does not wither her, age does not touch her, and the doings of mortals remain nothing more than an amusing pastime, something to pass an idle moment.” He smiled. “Still she came to see me. One last time.”

Nisrioch blinked. “What makes you think this is the last time?”

“Well, for a start, she told me,” laughed Shaddad. “And besides--if this fails--I will most certainly die. If it succeeds, then I shall be her equal--even her better. And whatever her good qualities, your mother does NOT like to be outshone.” He looked at his son. “Tell me, Nisrioch, have you… reconsidered… my old offer?”

“For the last time, father,” said Nisrioch, with a roll of his eyes, “you have an heir. Mansemat is, despite what you may think, a perfectly capable young man. The Things all accept him, as do the Hordes. The same could not be said for me, even if I wanted the position. Which I do not.” He frowned, feeling the bile creep up his throat. Something felt wrong.

Shaddad nodded, as Nisrioch bent over in a sudden wave of nausea. “Yes. Yes. I rather suspected that would be so.” He took a few steps forward and turned to regard his son. “Work the charm,” he declared.

“Demon,” said Estramin de Gaheviez, appearing out of the darkness “we bind thee to this place…”

“Demon,” said Eudropin de Gaheviez, “we hold thee here, by the power of our circle…”

“Demon,” said Dodinas le Savage, “we fix you here, by our skill and might…”

“No… No…” gasped Nisrioch weakly, staring at the now blazing symbols of the circle he had stepped into the middle of. “Father…”

“Demon,” said Perard Malcreature, “we chain you here--by charms old and puissant…”

“Father…” groaned Nisrioch, hand outstretched.

“Demon,” whispered Curselain, “we imprison you here, by the ancient laws…”

“By ash and oak…” said the de Gaheviez brothers.

“By rose and briar…” said Dodinas and Perard.

“FATHER--WHY?” shrieked Nisrioch, falling on the ground in pain.

“By sun and moon,” said Curselain.

“You are bound!” declared the Sworn in unison. Nisrioch screamed and beat futilely at the spectral walls that now surrounded him.

Shaddad watched him try to escape, then nodded. “Why, Nisrioch? Because I have great things planned, and you would get in my way.” He shook his head. “I… All of my children have disappointed me, Nisrioch. I needed an heir--someone to continue my great work. Morgaine and Mansemat were both utterly unsuitable. Only you could have taken up my banner--only you and you refused me.” The Dark Lord’s face grew grim, and his voice became harsh. “And in your defiance, you became as unsuitable as those… misbegotten failures of mine. And so now--as you have all failed me, I am forced to take up this last step myself, and secure the destiny of this House.” He took a deep breath. “Perhaps this is for the best. Perhaps this is simply Mother Night’s way of calling to take what is rightfully mine. But still… betrayal is hard to forgive, and when that BETRAYAL belongs to your own offspring, it is impossible.” Shaddad knelt and looked his son in the eyes. “Believe me--however much pain you are suffering, it is but a FRACTION of what you have caused me.”

Shaddad stood up and turned to the Sworn. “The time is at hand. Estramin--Eudropin… come with me. The rest of you stay here, and keep him bound.” He frowned. “I do not wish my eldest ruining my plans.”