Thursday, January 31, 2013

On the Screaming Waste

"A grim land, also known as the Howling Waste by some, based on its Kizak name.  It is so-called for the sound of its winds passing over the land.  While more fertile than the neighboring Weeping Waste or the Blasted Heath, the Waste is ill-suited for farming.  The Kizaks--who are generally numbered among the Erls--are herdsman and raiders, who claim descent from a spirit they call the Great Wolf.  In the past, they were often the dominant force in the Lands of Night, extracting tribute from other states--but those days are long gone.  The Black, Red and White Hordes now range their territories, and pursue the occasional feud while selling their services as mercenaries...

"House Cthonique's bonds with the Kizaks and the Waste are long--it was here that Mushussu ultimately fled after the Conquest, and here where the Cthoniques kept up their struggle.  Cthonique overlordship came afterwards, as the hetmans sought protection from House Maganza and the Shadow Woods, eager to solve the age-old problem of Kizak banditry..."


--Nisrioch Cthonique, On the Lands of Night

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On the Accursed Marsh

The lands known as the Accursed Marsh ,by Milesian tradition, are combination of swampland, river delta, and warm ocean coast.  The Marsh has few cities and most of these are quite small.  Even more than the Plains of Dread, it is a land of farmers, with quite a few fishermen as well.  They are, on the whole, a taciturn folk, slow to change.  Perhaps this is because, having so often been the targets of the aggression of their neighbors, they try to cling to what they know is theirs--customs, traditions, and above all their ruler, the Badb...

There were more Witch-Queens, once, but now, only the Badb remains.  The lines of the Medb and the Scathach were broken after a decline into irrelevance, while the Rhiannon is only a figure of legend, but House du Lac remains. Still, the Badb was always seen as the greatest of them, the first and foremost practitioner of the Old Magic.  It may seem odd that a figure so powerful could rule such a weak land, but that ever was the Marsh's problem--the might of the Badb was purely personal.  She ruled a land with few soldiers and little organization, gathering homage, not taxes from her subjects. 

The time of Lord Shaddad would see the line of the Badb close to eliminated, first by family strife, and then by the ambitions of the conquerer.  But House du Lac would, against all odds, survive, and rule once again over the realm of Sea and Sky.  For perhaps that is why the Badb remains where all others have vanished--she and hers are like the land they rule.  Harder, sturdier then one might think, ruled by an eternal desire to stay themselves...

--Nisrioch Cthonique, On the Lands of Night

Saturday, January 26, 2013

On The Shadow Woods

The largest of the Domains, the Shadow Woods are also one of the oldest.  The House of Maganza have the second-longest reign of their realm among the Nine, with only the Badb having held power longer.  The Ebony Throne is ancient and wealthy, though its power over its dominions has never been as certain as the Maganzas would like.  Indeed, it can honestly be said that the Shadow Woods are less one domain than many domains under the often nominal rule of a single Dark Lord.  The story of the Ebony Throne is one of family conflict, with civil war and pretenders a constant presence.  More than one branch of the Maganzas had to flee to other realms when the latest round of infighting turned against them...

The diverse nature of the Ebony Thrones' holdings means that they have some of the most powerful lesser Dark Lords serving under them.  The Lords of the Crossing and the Lords of the Coast each rule realms only slightly smaller than the Stone or Ironfangs.  Each has frequently maintained their own independent policies, against the wishes of the Maganzas...

The Shadow Woods proper is the most southernly part of the Maganza's holdings, and is the native home of the Goblins, the most industrious of the Folk of Night.  The Merchants' Emporium, an association of Guilds, is largely their creation, and remains based in the Alts as a result...  This is another largely independent power with which the Ebony Throne must deal.

--Nisrioch Cthonique, On the Lands of Night

Thursday, January 24, 2013

On the Plains of Dread

"One of the largest of the Nine Great Domains, the Plains of Dread are also the most recent one to arise as a unified state.  Prior to the Cthoniques' raising of Castle Terribel, the Plains were divided into countless petty states, with trading leagues of small villages in the north, and tiny principalities in the south ruled by powerful magnates.  Political division, plentiful crops and easy terrain made the Plains a ripe target for Kizak Hordes, raiding parties from the Fangs, expansionist ambitions of both the Kings of the South and the Shadow Woods, as well as popular target for Milesian crusades.  This would culminate in the Plains conquest by King Sutekh of the South, followed by their conquest by Holy Emperor Ambrosius Alcidius.

"Ironically, for all the horrors first Sutekh and then the Alcides unleashed on the Plains they also brought a new unity--roads were built, customs were lifted and the Plains were forced to act as a single polity, instead of a patchwork of many little states, all with the goal of creating something their would-be rulers could more easily exploit. For all that one may admire the courage of Marduk, Mushussu and Enkidu Cthonique, it is questionable whether they could have truly succeeded in making the Plains a united kingdom if the tyrannies of Sutekh and the Holy Empire had not given them a framework on which to build...  Even after the raising of Castle Terribel, the Plains of Dread remained starkly divided between the North and the South, divisions that often lead to civil disturbances and foreign invasion..."

--Nisrioch Cthonique, On the Lands of Night

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

On the Origins of the Dark Lords.

"...in fact, the origin of the term itself is wrapped in mystery.  Some say it is based on an old Nightfolk term of respect, translated as 'One Who Stands High in the Eyes of the Lady of Night.'   However, there is little evidence that this term was ever widely used prior to the Imperial Conquest--the closest equivalent is in a marching song of Marduk Cthonique, which refers to him as "He Who She Has Chosen'.   Most likely it is loaned from the Milesians.  This would explain why so many Dark Lords are Kings, Queens, Princes, and Hetmen--the older terms are the remnants of the original titles....

"...Interestingly, there are no Dark Ladies--a woman who holds the title is a 'Dark Lord', same as a man.  This is likely the result of the influence of the Badbs, that fascinating remnant of the ancient days of Witch Queens..."

--Nisrioch Cthonique, On the Lands of Night

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 24

Nisrioch stared wistfully at the elephants lined at the gate. “I never thought I’d be so sad to see these things go,” he noted.

“Merely think of the dung,” said Alcina, smiling quietly.

Nisrioch nodded. “That does it.” He gave a slight shudder. “Oh, it does it with room to spare.”

Alcina chuckled. “I’m an excessive personality.” She gazed at him a moment, and sighed. “So, have my warnings had any effect on you, my love? Or was I speaking to a wall?”

“I will do what I can,” said Nisrioch. “But in this matter…” He shook his head, his many-hued eyes looking strangely dark. “I’ve gone too far, Alse. There’s no way back. Only forward.”

“Is that what you See?” said Alcina, a note of contempt trickling into her tone.

“It is,” replied Nisrioch.

“There are things beyond your Sight, Nisrioch,” she said. “Me for one. My sister for another…”

“And your father is difficult to See,” said Nisrioch with a shrug. “We’ve often spoken of this…”

The Dev shook her head. “I swear, Nisrioch, as clever as you are, you are so often too clever by half.”

A young Erl maid in the livery of House Ashurana approached Alcina nervously. “Everything is ready, miss,” she stated quickly, before turning her eyes briefly on Nisrioch.

“Very good, Antea,” said Alcina with a smile. The girl started to back away. “No, no,” stated Alcina. “Stay here, child.” The Dev turned to Nisrioch, her expression pensive. “You are risking much, dearest. Do you understand me?”

“I have no choice,” said Nisrioch. “So much is at stake here…”

“More than you know, darling, more than you know,” said Alcina. She gestured to Antea, who nervously bit her lip, than stepped forward. “Dear, I’d like you to meet, Antea. She serves me as my principal maid.”

“A ple-pleasure to meet you,” said Antea taking Nisrioch’s hand.

Nisrioch smiled at her. “Likewi--” And then he stopped, as he got his first good look at her face.

“She is our daughter,” said Alcina quietly, “as you have doubtless begun to realize.”

Nisrioch nodded as he stared into Antea’s rainbow-colored eyes. “How…?”

“Come now, my sweetness,” said Alcina, “I shouldn’t have to explain the mechanics of this to you of all people.” She coughed. “I believe certain matters regarding the… coolness that developed between our two fathers is now… more readily apparent to you.” She shut her eyes. “I… will not bore you with the lengths I went to so that she could be in my care. It… is a long tale, I do not have time for.” She nodded at her daughter, who released Nisrioch’s hand, and darted away.

“Why… How could you…?” began Nisrioch.

“You know my father, Nisrioch,” she answered. “And what he is capable of, even to his own blood.” She shook her head. “Perhaps I should say, especially to his own blood.”  Alcina took a deep breath. “I… probably should not have taken this risk, but… I needed to show you what is at stake here. And she has wanted to see her father for… some time.” Alcina stared at him for a moment, then stepped forward and pressed her lips to his. “Be careful, Nisrioch,” she said, breaking off the kiss. “There’s… so much you don’t See. You have to remember that.” She shut her eyes, and then vanished.

When Cei arrived ten minutes later, the Dark Lord of the Screaming Waste still stood there. “Are you all right, sir?”

“Just fine, Cei,” said Nisrioch dully. “I am… absolutely fine.”

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 23

“And so I wait on the more--wait even more--wait for ‘Queenovtasea’,” bellowed the Guards as they drunkenly careened down the hall.

“You’re butchering the lyrics,” said Justinian. “And the melody. And… actually, let’s just settle on you’re butchering the song, and leave it at that.”

Palamedes sniffled. “And after we bought you drinks!”

“You didn’t buy me drinks,” noted Justinian quietly. “I bought you drinks. A fact I now deeply regret.”

The chubby Erl turned towards Justinian, eyes bleary, expression mildly puzzled. “That’s right. You did buy us drinks.” He sniffled. “You’re such a good friend!”

“Yes, yes, I certainly am,” added Justinian hurriedly. He did not want Palamedes to start crying again. The last time had been distressing enough. Add to that what sounded like an approaching crowd, and… yes, the situation was going to get even more awkward.

“So, how was your night’s revels, Sigma?” asked Maximilian Rho.

Justinian winced as he turned towards his former superior. “Ahh. Preceptor.” He gave a slight bow. “They’ve gone… they were… I’d have invited you, but… I rather thought you’d be busy… and…”

“He probably didn’t want to buy you all drinks,” said Sacripant. “Because he had a hard enough time paying for ours.”

Justinian glared at the Marsh Erl. “I see drunkenness doesn’t impair your ability to be blunt.”

“Apparently not,” said Sacripant. “I’m lucky like that.”

“Yes,” said Justinian, frowning to himself. “You are extremely fortunate in that regard.”

Maximilian smiled. “Well, as luck would have it you were right. We’ve been busy getting ready for the move to Ulverrun.” Edward Delta and Arcadius Pi both nodded. Constans Mu stepped forward, and gave Justinian an epic pat on the shoulder.

“Sigma, you dog,” he bellowed, “you take care of yourself. Don’t die, do you hear me? DO NOT DIE!” Constans sniffled, and suddenly burst out bawling. “Damn it, I’ll miss you, you Easter-born bastard!” He hugged Justinian. “Take care! Don’t die!” Palamedes began to cry himself, and joined in the hug.

“That’s right! Don’t you die, Justinian! Don’t YOU DIE!” he sniffled.

“Would you all keep quiet?” asked Eurydice stomping in with a surprising amount of majesty. “You are causing a DISTURBANCE! And that--” She blinked. “Oh. Sigma.” She coughed. “Hello.”

Justinian took this opportunity to pull free of Mu and Palamedes. “Eurydice. I am… sorry.”

“Oh, no, no,” said Eurydice. “You… you aren’t responsible for…” Her eyes narrowed on Palamedes. “Other people’s lack of manners.”

“Well, I did provide the liquor,” he muttered.

Eurydice glanced away. “Well, just… try to make sure they all get back to their places in… one piece.” She looked at him. “So… you’re no longer a Sacristan.”

“Correct,” said Justinian. “I am released from my vows, and now am merely a humble member of the Cthonique Guard.”

Eurydice peered at him intently. “Including the… one of ‘perpetual chastity’?”

Justinian paled slightly. “Umm… yes. That one too.”

Eurydice nodded. “Ahh.” The pair stared at each other for a moment. Eurydice took a deep breath and took Justinian’s hand. “Congratulations on your joining the Guard,” she said, giving him a firm handshake.

“Thank you,” replied Justinian, squeezing her hand with equal firmness. The pair nodded at each other, than releasing each other’s hands, turned away.

Arcadius, Sacripant, and Quiet all snickered. “That was… just sad,” noted Arcadius.

“I thought it was sweet,” said the Preceptor.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 22

Mansemat regarded the flowers before him with the exacting gaze of an expert, as he carefully arranged the lilies, baby’s breath and tulips. Pausing, he made a satisfied nod.

“Hard at work, eh?” said Viviane, walking in behind him.

“In a manner of speaking,” said Mansemat with a yawn. He glanced over at his wife. “And you?”

“Just lounging around,” answered Viviane sitting down by him. She looked up at the sky. “It’s a lounging kind of day.”

Mansemat glanced up. “How can you tell?”

Viviane scratched her head. “It’s… an ambience thing. You just know.”

“I never can,” noted Mansemat with a shrug.

“Maybe it’s an innate skill for some people,” said Viviane. “Or maybe you don’t can’t because you don’t lounge?”

“What do you mean?” said Mansemat. “I lounge as well as anyone.”

“Manny, you spend your spare time doing things,” said Viviane. “That’s not lounging. And now you’re making me explain the concept of a lounging day.”

“I am not,” replied Mansemat, his voice raising in irritation. “I’m having you explain how you can ascertain that this is--I’m not helping my case, am I?” Viviane shook her head. “Very well, nightshade petals. I accept your judgment. You’ve married a non-lounger.”

She sniffled. “If only I’d known! If only!” Viviane chuckled lightly. “Anyway--I appreciate what you’re doing for Elaine. Aside from the practical elements… I think she enjoys feeling like she belongs here.”

“I enjoy her feeling that as well,” said Mansemat. “For a start, it makes her less moody, which is good for everyone.” He smiled. “And how is Jean taking her lessons?”

“Like a fish to water,” muttered Viviane.

Mansemat turned to her. “What did THAT mean?”

“What it sounded like,” answered Viviane casually.

“Well, it sounded like some sort of bitter joke,” said Mansemat. “Only one I couldn’t quite understand, because…”

Viviane raised her hand. “Let’s not waste time talking about it,” she said. “Jehannine’s doing fine. She’s a natural.” She glanced at the flowers. “So… what does it mean?”

“Does it have to mean something?” said Mansemat. “Can’t it simply be?”

“But you told me once…,” began Viviane.

“I know,” he said. “But sometimes, it’s enough just to… enjoy the art.” He took a deep breath. “And the little moments. And… things of that nature. I guess.”

Viviane chuckled. “The metaphor just flew away from you at the last minute, didn’t it?”

Mansemat nodded. “Yes. Yes it did.”

Viviane shook her head. “You’re just one of those guys who… you know… are lousy at the whole… analogy… thing…” Mansemat grinned at her. She frowned. “Don’t say a word. Not. A. Word.” Viviane sighed. “At times like this, I’m kind of surprised the Milesians are scared of us. Then I remember I can kill with dirt, and all’s right with the world.”

“You are lovely when you are being terrifying,” said Mansemat.

“Thank you, dear,” said Viviane. She leaned over, and kissed him on the cheek. “I know it, but it’s always nice to hear.”

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 21

Mansemat peered at Justinian intently. “Justinian Sigma--you ask a weighty thing of me.”

Justinian nodded. “I know it, Your Magnificence.”

“The motto of House Cthonique is ‘In Her Service’,” he said. “When the Cthonique of Castle Terribel sits in judgment, it is proclaimed that the People’s Lord is the People’s Slave, and I hold to this rule.” He rested his hands on Justinian’s shoulders. “Do you truly wish to serve the servant?”

“I…” Justinian took a deep breath, and kneeled before the Dark Lord of the Plains. “I pledge you my sword, sir. As well, as the man who wields it, useless as he may be.”

Mansemat smiled slightly. “I will be the judge of that, Sigma.” He handed Justinian a coin. “Very well. I welcome you into my service.” He glanced over to his side. “Serjeant?”

Grizzel Greedigutt stepped forward, and placed a black cloak on Justinian’s shoulders. “Welcome to the Guard, lad.”

Justinian glanced around. “Is… this it?”

Mansemat blinked. “What do you mean?”

“Am I… in the Guard now?” asked the Milesian.

The Erl gave a nod. “Oh, yes. You are a Guardsman, sworn to my service, and the service of Castle Terribel.”

“I… just thought it’d be more… involved,” said Justinian, looking ever so slightly disappointed.

“Oh, no,” answered Mansemat, shaking his head. “This actually one of the simpler activities. I or my delegate ask you if you want to join, hand you the shilling, and the cloak, and you’re on the Guard.”

“Actually more involved then when Lord Shaddad did it,” noted Grizzel. “He liked to recruits to be drunk.” He shook his head. “Exceedingly drunk. To the point it was actually surprisin’ if they could answer the question. We tended to accept grunts as a valid response. And we usually had to stick the shilling in their pockets before we loaded them in the cart…”

Justinian stood to his feet. “Well… thank you for giving me this chance to redeem myself…”

“Everyone needs to redeem themselves, Sigma,” answered the Dark Lord quietly. “That’s why it’s best for us all help redeem each other.”

Justinian nodded and walked out of the small chamber. He was greeted by the sound of applause.

“You look good in black,” said Palamedes.

“Everyone looks good in black,” noted Sacripant.

“And Justinian looks good in anything,” said Quiet. Sacripant glanced at her. She gave him a slight grin.

Justinian managed a bow. “Well, I’m glad I meet with your approval.”

Palamedes walked towards and gave a hearty slap to the Milesian’s back. “I’m mostly just happy there’s a new new guy. I’m moving up in the world!”

“Yes, one miniscule step at a time,” said Quiet.

“Hey, don’t be too hard on him,” said Sacripant. “I hear there’s a whole bunch of new recruits coming. So soon there’ll be a whole bunch of people greener than Palamedes.”

Justinian smiled. “And so we move forward in the world, paths ending, paths beginning, and so forth.” He clapped his hands together. “Come on. I’ll buy you all drinks.”

A hearty cheer rose up from his fellow Guards. “You know one of us should be buying YOU a drink,” noted Sacripant.

“Yes, but I don’t drink, so it’d be a waste of money,” answered Justinian.

Sacripant shook his head. “You can take the Milesian out of the Holy Order…”

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 20

Elaine took a deep breath, placed her hand on the sword hilt, and drew, counting under her breath the entire time.

Twenty-five. She sighed, replaced it in its scabbard, and started again. “Mansemat keeping your nose to the grindstone, eh?”

Elaine glanced over at Jean. “Actually, I am.” She frowned, and drew again. “I’ve been held prisoner by not one, but TWO bloodthirsty maniacs. Seeing as three would not be a charm, and I happen to now have a magic sword, I’m taking steps to make sure that the experience doesn’t repeat itself.”

Jean watched as Elaine drew the blade yet again. “How many times are you going to do that?”

“Till I can do it in under ten,” replied Elaine.

Jean watched her for a while, counting along. “He’s… not just winding you up, is he? Like when Nisrioch had me trying to stop handkerchiefs with my mind?”

“I’ve seen him do it in five,” said Elaine. She looked at the wooden practice sword. “And then slash through a metal rod.”

Jean shrugged. “Well, yeah, he’s got the Sword of Night…”

“No, I meant with one of these,” noted Elaine softly. Jean stared at her in shock. “He’s really, really good. I mean--better than I thought he was, which was already… pretty good.” She replaced the sword in its hilt. “So how’s your practice going?”

“Pretty good,” answered Jean. “Viv wanted me to practice being a tree. So I practiced for awhile, then I convinced her I was another tree and left. I figure that will keep her busy for awhile.”

“How long?” asked Elaine.

“Jehannine du Lac!” shouted the Badb. It occurred to Elaine that her mother’s voice was another fine example of what made Viviane Viviane. Usually it was soft and pleasant, but it could become an angry bellow capable of cracking walls when she lost her temper. Which was not the time to get scared. The time to get scared was when her voice got cold and sharp like a steel blade. That was when her mother worked her magic and turned enemies into corpses.

Viviane landed on her feet before the pair, pestle raised. “So,” she declared theatrically, “you thought it was funny to leave your dear, long-lost elder sister by herself, chatting with a tree, did you?”

Jean gulped. “A little bit.”

Viviane strode forward. “You snake! You fiend! You rogue!” Suddenly she was hugging Jean. “The Grand Coven are going to love you!”

Jean glanced at Elaine, who sighed. “It’s sort of the governing body of witches in the Marsh. Used to be the governing body OF the Marsh, but that… really didn’t work so well.”

“It’s a nice little social gathering now,” said Viviane. Elaine made a quiet snort, that elicited a raised eyebrow from her mother. “Anyway, I’ve told them all about you, and they just can’t wait to meet you and verify you as the Nemain.”

Jean blinked. “I have to be verified?”

“No, but it will help,” explained Viviane. “Otherwise, if something happened, a bunch of the more… traditional witches would have to challenge you and… it would get unpleasant. They’re lovely women, for the most part, but…” Elaine snorted again. Viviane turned to her. “You don’t have to… what are you doing?”

“Sword drill,” said Elaine. “The easiest, most basic sword drill imaginable. So basic it’s barely a sword drill at all.”

Viviane nodded. “Well, I’m glad you’ve found another hobby.” A slightly ironic smile showed up on her face. “Even if it is a tad…”

Elaine’s eyes shifted into a glare. “A tad what, Mother?”

Viviane stepped back slightly, and glanced away. “Nothing, dear. Nothing.”

“She is definitely your daughter,” whispered Jean.

“The glare’s been in the family since the beginning,” said Viviane. “It isn’t magic. It just… is.”

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 19

Sacripant Fenswater watched the Sacr--the ex-Sacristan emerge from the Chapel. “So… that does it, eh?” he asked Justinian.

Sigma nodded as he started down the hall. “I am now officially released from my vows, and am no longer a member of the Holy Order of the Sacristy of Saint Julian.”

The Marsh Erl kept in step with the Milesian. “So… what now?” he asked Justinian.

“First, I get a meal,” answered Justinian. “Then, I sleep.”

Sacripant rolled his eyes. “You’re not for long term plans, are you?”

“I’m not very good at them,” he replied. “So I’m trying to break the habit.” He bit his lip. “For example, for years, I thought I would live the rest of my life a Sacristan. And now… that is not the case.”

“And I once thought I’d live my life my fisherman, and never leave Valse.” Sacripant shrugged. “Life’s tricky, Sigma. That’s what makes it life. True certainty is found only in death.”

Justinian blinked. “Once again, you are prove surprisingly profound.”

“It’s a habit of mine,” said Sacripant. They walked on a ways in silence. “That friend of yours… Mu… cannot play foldol worth a damn.”

“Squire Constans Mu is not my friend,” answered Justinian tiredly. “Just an… ex-Brother, I suppose.”

Sacripant nodded. “Well, whatever the case, he is… beyond bad. He’s so awful, it’s terrifying to play against him, because he has no idea whether he’s winning or losing.”

“Ahh.” Justinian coughed. “I’m guessing he mostly loses.”

“Mostly, but not invariably,” said Sacripant.

“How much…?” began Justinian.

“More than I want to admit,” answered Sacripant.

Justinian chuckled quietly, then turned to the Marsh Erl. “I saw Her, last night.”

Sacripant frowned and scratched his head. “That’s… fairly vague, Justinian…”

“The Lady,” said Justinian Sigma. “Douma Dalkiel. Mother Night. She came to me, with Op… the Dragon, and gave me a vision.”

Sacripant nodded. “That’s nice.”

Justinian stared at him in shock. “Ni… Nice! I’ve seen your deity, and it’s only ‘nice’.”

“I had a cousin who used to see Her all the time,” answered Sacripant softly. “He took an oar to the head as a child. It made him… interesting company. Swore She was big on horsemint.”

“This… this was real!” snapped Justinian.

“You sure?” asked Sacripant. “She give you any… sign or token?”

“Umm… not exactly,” answered Justinian.

Sacripant stretched lightly and yawned. “Okay, now I’d admit that doesn’t disprove you’re seeing her. So, what did she tell you?”

“Well, that the war is starting, and that a very old evil is behind Prince Amfortas,” said Justinian.

“Astonishing,” said Sacripant. “Mother Night, the All-Seeing Lady--told you what all of us already know. You’ve made me a believer.”

“You knew about the very old evil?” asked Justinian, puzzled.

“Well, those Stylite guys were using very evil magic, and you say they’ve been at it a while,” replied the Guardsman. “So, yes, very old evil.”

“No, no!” said Justinian. “Something older! Eviler!”

“What?” asked Sacripant.

Justinian shook his head in frustration. “She didn’t say. Apparently, She couldn’t.”

“That was remarkably unhelpful of Her,” said the Marsh Erl. “I suggest you take Her to task for that one.”

“I know what I saw,” said Justinian. He blinked. “Or… experienced. Or… something.”

“Yes, while you were fasting and recovering from injuries, at the same time.” Sacripant smiled. “Look, I’ll help you get the message to the Cthoniques. But realize… it’s… a bit much.” He chuckled. “Still, I guess Eurydice will enjoy knowing you’ve converted. Makes the wedding cheaper…”

“Oh, shut up,” said Justinian, turning a bright red.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 18

Nisrioch and Alcina clinked their glasses against each other as they gazed over Bridge Perilous from the balcony of the Governor’s Palace.

“You know, I have to give you Ashuranas credit,” said Nisrioch, as he watched the waters of the Skadh sparkle in the moonlight, “you can certainly build a lovely city.”

Alcina snorted, and pointed into the distance. “All we built is the bridge,” she said, gesturing to the massive stone structure that gave the city its name. “The city sort of accrued around it.” The Dev shook her head. “The family’s never really cared for it. Too close to your Plains, with all their dreadful ‘freedom’, and the like. Tended to give the populace ideas.” She frowned. “No, we never cared too much for Bridge Perilous. Frankly, I think that’s why Father fobbed it off on poor, mad Fal…”

Nisrioch blinked, and coughed lightly. “You know, dearest, I was… simply trying to pay you a compliment.”

Alcina nodded, and lightly caressed his hand. “I know, love, I know. But… bad times.” She stared at him, poignantly, her red eyes slightly damp. “Oh, Nissy, why’d you have to start a bloody war? Why? It’s upset everything.”

“The War was coming, Alse,” said Nisrioch quietly. “All I could do was make sure it started on favorable terms.”

“These are your ideas of favorable terms?” snapped Alcina. “My Father and Asterot Maganza are sending messages back and forth, Nisrioch. They are preparing to destroy you. And… oh, yes… my father is the head of your precious Council of Shadows… your tool to keep all of us united in the face of the very aggression you now face--because you voted for him.”

Nisrioch shrugged. “We’ve talked about this, Alse. The entire point of giving Belberith the Presidium was so that…”

“‘He could alienate the rest of the Council,’” snapped the Dev. “I know. I know. And it sounded marvelously clever at the time, but now…” She shook her head. “I’m worried, Nisrioch. And I don’t like having everyone think that I’m the reason he’s in power.”

“The dagger that is unseen…,” recited Nisrioch.

“The role is proving less delightful than I thought it would when we started this,” said Alcina. She looked at him intently. “What do you See?”

“Nothing much,” he replied. “I don’t think Asterot or your father will do much at the moment. I think they hope to simply… wait in the background for us to stumble.” He glanced at her. “I… you mentioned Falerina…?”

“I have no idea where my dear sister is,” answered Alcina with a sigh. “And I have been looking for her. She may not believe it, but I do care for her. Someone has to.” She shook her head. “I think she’s chasing another mad dream of hers. Lady help the poor fool.”

“She wants to kill you, Alse,” said Nisrioch.

“I know, but she’s not very good at it,” said the Dev. “Frankly I’m not completely sure she understands what killing me would mean. She’s always been so… troubled. I thought the Shadow Woods would help, but instead Asterot just let the poison… gather around her and she…” Alcina shook her head. “Ahh, Nisrioch. Our first real conversation in months, and what do we speak of? Family and business.”

“I seemed to recall we were sharing quite a few words that had to do with neither, just a few minutes ago,” noted Nisrioch, gesturing back to their chambers.

“That was not ‘conversation’, Nisrioch,” said Alcina. “And it’s beside the point. We don’t get very much time together, darling. And sometimes I fear we waste it. We are bound together, you and I, despite all that is happened, and all the pain we cause one another…”

Nisrioch raised an eyebrow. “Despite all the pain we cause one another?”

Alcina snickered, and raised a hand to stroke his face. “Oh, you naughty boy. You should be punished.”

“Oh, yes,” answered Nisrioch with a nod. “Severely.”

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 17

Justinian stared at the vast landscape before him. “Behold,” stated Douma Dalkiel, “the vastness of my creation, son of Fyodor. From trickling brooks to mighty oceans, from mountains high to the depths of the earth, from the great elephants to the tiny insects, all here is mine.”

“Though bits of it were plagiarized,” muttered Ophis. “For example, those elephants…”

The Darksome Lady glared at her subordinate. “Oh, like I’m THE only one who ripped off elephants! The things are neat! And I’ll have you know my gryphons are…” She glanced at Justinian. “Ummm… I think the Milesian is freaking out.”

Ophis turned and stated at the ex-Sacristan, who was kneeling on the strange platform that they had created to viewand hyperventilating. “I suspect it’s the feeling of being suspended in the void of space, my lady.”

Douma Dalkiel nodded. “Of course. I KNEW there was a reason that I usually leave this direct visitation thing to you. I always forget SOMETHING about how their minds work during it…” She strode over to Justinian and placed a calming hand on his shoulder. “Be not afraid, son of Fyodor. Nothing can hurt you here, save your own fears.”

Justinian took a deep breath, and tried to calm himself. “Instead,” continued Douma Dalkiel, “consider this glorious creation of mine, and ask yourself--is it not a thing worth fighting for?”

Justinian gulped and stared for a moment, then nodded.

Mother Night gave a nod. “Then carry this warning in your heart, Justinian Sigma--the fight that comes is graver than you think. Graver than any think.” She stiffened slightly. “Save, perhaps, the son of Zamial, and he Sees things but dimly…” She turned her black eyes to the world and gestured. Suddenly, the Lands of Light came closer, until they seemed to float above Joyeuse. “A canker rots your land from within, destroying all health and ripeness.”

“Amfortas,” muttered Justinian.

Douma Dalkiel shook her head. “No, son of Fyodor. Your Prince is a symptom of the wrongness, and a speeder of corruption--he is not their source. If there had not been others to help him, Amfortas would have been little more than a brutal footnote in the history of Leonais. The Prince’s evil is great--but it is the sordid evil of humanity, its greatness coming because it is that of a man born to great estate. Such evil, awful as it may seem, is a passing threat, for on its own, it will not threaten the things eternal. No, for that, it must be directed, by one with knowledge.”

Justinian turned to look at the Darksome Lady. “The Stylites,” he said. “The Knights of the Tower have… done something terrible, haven’t they?”

Douma Dalkiel turned to the world, and gestured. Suddenly, they hovered over the Concordat, and Justinian could make out the image of a tall white tower. She nodded at the Milesian. “Among… others. I can tell you very little, son of Fyodor. Merely to be careful. Old evils are be wakened.”

“That’s… that’s all you can tell me?” snapped Justinian. “Amfortas’ plans… the Stylites’… all you can do is mutter vague warnings?”

The Darksome Lady stared at him. “I created this world, Justinian Sigma, but that does not mean I am free to do with it as I would. If I or Ophis were to act with the fullness of our power, we would blight and batter it, and that we do not want. Nor is my will the only one to consider in its running.” She seemed to regard the tower balefully. “Our foes are watchful, and vigilant. If I told all to you, they would swiftly know. And then… then even I would fear.”

Justinian shut his eyes. “I… Unholy One, I… apologize for this evil my people have wrought on your world… I… You… We…” Tears, he realized, were rolling down his cheeks. “We have made our own ruin,” he suddenly whispered. “And I now wonder if we can be saved.”

Douma Dalkiel lightly stroked his hair. “Be of good cheer, Justinian Sigma, Son of Fyodor. Yes, there is much evil in the Lands of Light--but there is much in the Lands of Night as well. And though it does not seem that way to you, much good remains in your people, who still have my love.”

“I… My lady…” Justinian gulped.

The Darksome Lady knelt down and placed a kiss on his forehead. To Justinian’s shock, the lips of the mask felt as if they were real lips, warm and soft on his skin. “All my children are dear to me,” she said. “Even the children of my adoption.” Justinian stared at her. “I know you have been taught to see me as the Queen of Air and Darkness, but the Light is also mine. For is not the sky full of stars, and do you not pray to the moon, my daughter?” To Justinian’s surprise, light began to emanate from her gown, which seemed now to sparkle as the sky on a clear night. “Know, child, that you are always dear to me, and always bear my love and regard.” She stepped back. “The ways of Fate are many, and yet I see your land free of that which blights it now, on many of them. Perhaps, Justinian Sigma, you shall too, if your luck be kind to you.”

“Keep to the ways of justice,” said Ophis, backing away, its form becoming less human. “And always remember you do not suffer this alone. Others walk this path, Milesian. Including the Lady, and myself, Her humble servant…”

And then they were gone, and Justinian was back in the chapel. Indeed, he wasn’t sure he’d ever left it, now, and wondered if he hadn’t dozed off. He noticed the candles he’d set out had all burned out. He lit them again, and after the seventh one, turned to the image of Douma Dalkiel upon the Dragon, with Mikhel on her lap.

He considered it for a moment, and then set two candles before it.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Paths Ending, Paths Beginning--Part 16

Eurydice grumbled to herself as she walked into the foyer of the Chamber of Unending Peril. She’d been in a bad mood, a mood that had not improved when she heard three very familiar voices giggling.

“Thalia--Euphrosyne--Agalia…,” she muttered as she stepped forward, “you’d best be hard at work… scrubbing…” She glanced around the room. Her sisters were, to her utter amazement, hard at work scrubbing. With one additional figure.

Theodora Theta stood there, helping the young sisters le Fidelé at their task, singing a little song as she did so. “He’s a bounder and a cad--in short he is all bad--he’ll ruin you, sure as can be--he’s master of the boat--on the waves it does float--and they call her ‘Queen of the Sea’.”

“Hello, Eurydice,” said Agalia with a cheerful nod. “Miss Theodora’s been helping us. She knows all sorts of neat stories. And songs.”

“The Breakers are pretty dull,” said Theodora. “So we learn to lighten up our days somehow. In between the occasional storm.” She frowned. “I must admit, it is not fun, losing your house.”

“I’d think not,” answered Eurydice. She glanced around at her sisters, then forced on a smile. “Miss Theodora… or do you prefer ‘Sister Theodora’?”

“Either is fine,” she answered nonchalantly, still cheerfully scrubbing the walls.

“Miss Theodora,” continued Eurydice, “while I am thankful for your assistance--”

“Your welcome,” said Theodora cheerfully.

Eurydice winced to herself, and wondered how a man so nobly… straightforward as Justinian could have sisters as twisted and devious as Julia Upsilon and Theodora Theta. Their limitless good cheer alone was enough to make Eurydice suspicious and when it was married to effortless pleasantness, as with Theodora Theta, it grated on every nerve she possessed.

And that was a lot of nerve.

“To continue, Miss Theodora,” explained Eurydice, “my sisters are supposed to be learning how to do their tasks, as I learned how to do mine. If others help them, they will not learn. And that would bring me shame. We le Fidelés, after all, pride ourselves on our service to House Cthonique.”

“And the children of Fyodor Ivanovich pride themselves on their generosity,” said Theodora. She smiled at Eurydice. “Surely the pride of both families may be spared, hmmm?”

Eurydice stared at her for a moment, then looked away. “Fine. Just this once.” She started to move away, then stopped. “Your sister has an incredible appetite, you know that?”

Theodora nodded. “Like a bottomless pit. Don’t ask me where it all goes--I’ve no idea.”

Eurydice nodded to herself, then headed away.

“I’ve never seen anyone make Eurydice leave so quickly, who wasn’t poppa,” said Thalia quietly.

Theodora chuckled. “Remember, child, I had three elder sisters to practice on. One figures things out.” She glanced at Euphrosyne. “Isn’t that right, dear?”

The young Erl bit her lip, and shyly looked away.

Theodora started to whistle to herself, and then began to sing again. “My hand he did take--that fiend, that rake--and swear he’d return to me--And so I wait on the shore--wait forevermore--wait for ‘Queen of the Sea’.”