Saturday, December 29, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elaine blinked. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morgaine nodded. “Oh, yeah.”

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

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 13

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

“The fish were especially nice,” said Ophis.

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

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

“Positive,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ophis nodded. “Oh, most definitely.”

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

“Hey!” declared Ophis.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 12

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

Just six more to go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ophis nodded. “So you call us.”

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

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

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you saying?” asked Rho.

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

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

“Why’s that?” asked Edward.

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

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

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

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

Maximilian and Edward glanced at each other, and sighed.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viviane began to snicker.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 9

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

“Marks,” said Palamedes from the side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is he honest?” asked Palamedes.

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

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

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

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

The Ghoul nodded, as she placed her chits down.

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

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

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

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

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

“And some other cards,” muttered Constans dully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stupid like a fox,” declared Constans.

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

“No,” said Arcadius. “It isn’t.”

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about the other seven?” asked Elaine.

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

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

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

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

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

“What just happened?” Elaine asked at length.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You sure about that?” asked Mansemat.

Elaine nodded.

He raised an eyebrow. “Positive?”

“Yes!” she hissed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

“No--extraordinary problems,” said Cei.

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, sir, I would say…” began Cei.

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

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

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

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

Finally, he drank it down in a single gulp.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 3

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

“So…” she began nervously.

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

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

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

Elaine nodded.

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

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

Mansemat crossed his arms. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Flower arranging?” asked Elaine.

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

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

“Will I have to…?” began Elaine.

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

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

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

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