Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Siege of the White Mountain, Vol. 3: Due to the Dead

Lord Osric de Ross rode down the bare path in the dark of night, his cloak wrapped tight around him, and his eyes nervously darting around. Men had mocked Osric's nerves for as long as he could remember, but he did not think they would find it mockworthy on a night such as this, cold as cold, with darkness all around, made strangely worse by the light of a full moon. The trees were bare now, in late Brumaire, and the shadows they cast were terrifying things, branches turned to skeletal hands and looming beasts.

And Lord Osric knew that there would be men in these woods--Free City rebels, and worse Nightfolk, who could see in this dim light, and track a man in it. That would be enough to fill any man's heart with fear.

A man carrying the news he carried for Prince Amfortas, a man who had seen what he had seen--well, for such a man, dread was not only natural, but healthy.

They had gone forth to aid the besiegers of Montalban. Instead, they had been set upon by the forces of the Cthoniques--and their allies. The Mongranes, Dark Lords of the Crossing, the Red, Black, and White Hordes of the Kizaks, and worst of all, the armies of the very Free Cities who were the supposed allies of Leonais. A betrayal, a bitter, bitter betrayal...

There'd been a brief parley, and then the next day, the two forces had met in battle, and...

The army that his master, Prince Astolfo de Rabicano lead was green, and outnumbered as it was. But facing a Kizak charge... First the barbarians came out you, howling and screaming, loosing arrows as they came--and then they turned before striking the line. Three times, they'd done this, as the line of pikemen grew ever smaller, their nerves more frayed. The fourth time, they'd kept charging, and the line, which was already seeing holes appear, simply broke--and as they broke, the huzzars of the Crossing had poured through the gaps. Osric had been with his cousin Sir Garrad le Breuse when it did, both of the riding horseback to try and encourage the pikeman to hold the line. Garrad had taken his horse to spur to try and push back the Nightfolk, only to take a huzzar's lance through the throat. Osric had also taken his horse to spur--in the opposite direction.

Not the boldest of acts, but the day was as good as lost, Osric repeated to himself as he repeated for quite a few days. Best to focus on survival, on their being an army to serve the Lands of Light. And that was what he was doing, going back to Prince Amfortas to tell him his kinsman was now holed up with what remained of his army at Goldenrush, in dire need of support.

Osric shook his head. The siege of Montalban was as good as lost now, with this Cthonique army roving about the Free Cities. The forces of Leonais would need to reinforce the loyal cities of Agrismont and Monteriano and their environs, in preparation of this new phase of the war. Osric smiled to himself, as the walls of the Chateau de Nestor came into view...

Until he saw the Eremites hanging from the gate, their faces already gone black and bloated. For a moment, he thought the Nightfolk must have captured the palace--but he saw the arms of the Prince-Regent still hung there. Traitors, like as not, thought Lord Osric, after taking a deep breath. He took another deep breath, and continued to the palace.

"Hold and declare yourself," said the man in the Prince's livery standing watch.

"Osric de Ross, Lord of the Redwater and Fire Lake," answered Osric, "and sworn liegeman to Uton Rabicano, Duke of Monteriano."

The Prince's man nodded, and got to work opening the gate. "Very well then,"

Osric stared at the bodies a moment, then glanced at the man. "What did these Eremites do, that they have been hanged?"

"Brought the Prince ill news," replied the Prince's man casually.

"Ah," said Osric, with a nervous nod.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Siege of the White Mountain, Vol. 3: Due to the Dead--Part 2

The snow struck Pierre's hands like cold pins, the feel on his skin so intense, it was like being scalded. It had started as rain, earlier in the evening, but become snow after an hour, all as a cold wind blew, and the puddles and the mud froze.

I am being scourged. Scourged for my sin, and my wickedness. In hell. This is hell. He grabbed his shoulders and shivered, sending a longing glance at his now doused campfire. The rains had killed it early in the evening, and all the wood was too damp to burn now. It vaguely occured to Pierre that in the forever-ago in those days before he left Joyeuse to be a soldier for the Prince, when he had merely been a potboy in his father's tavern, his father had known many ingenious ways to keep wood dry for just these sort of circumstances.

It made him wished he could recall one. Even one.

"Here's one," came a muffled voice. Pierre looked up weakly, to see the terrifying form of a Flagellant, looming over him. An arm reached out towards him. He struggled to back away, but lacked the energy "Come on lad," said the Flagellant, taking him by the arm. "Come with me. I'll take you some place warm."

Pierre felt himself lifted gently to his feet, and heard a low whistle from beside him. "Got him just in time, I reckon," came another voice. "A bit longer, another body to bury..." Another arm wrapped around him. "Come on, lad. Come with us. Come and we'll get you warm."

Pierre turned and saw his second bearer was another Flagellant. "N-no lash," he whimpered.

"No," stated the first, "no lash at all. Brother Georges has ordered us to get as many of you to someplace warm as we can. And as that is a damned sensible order, that is what we are doing..."

Pierre blinked. He hadn't been warm for so long, that the very concept seemed an impossible dream to him. "Now, sir," stated the second Flagellant, chatting merrily, "as we get you to the nice warm tent we have prepared, Brother Fist and myself will amuse you with countless witty ancedotes, for we are highly amusing fellows. Are we not, Brother Fist?"

"Indeed we are, Brother Knot," declared Brother Fist in a booming voice. "Why, this reminds me of a time back in Joyeuse, whilst walking down Poorpenny lane, I came upon a man standing there starkers. 'Good brother Flagellant,' quoth he, "good brother, I have been robbed.' 'Indeed,' says I. 'I can see that, for they have left not a stitch of clothing upon you.' And then he looks down, and he says, 'Oh, Gods, they took those too.'"

The Flagellants burst out into laughter at that, and Pierre joined in. "Amusing, no?" said Brother Knot.

"It is, it is," said Pierre.

Brother Fist nodded, as they made another turn. "There's a good lad," he noted kindly, and then warmth began to flood back into Pierre's limbs. "We found another one!" he bellowed.

Another Flagellant approached holding a steaming cup of something that smelled good. "Can he hold a cup?"

"Can you, son?" asked Brother Fist. Pierre reached out and made a fumbling attempt to grab the cup that failed.

"We'll take care of him," said the other Flagellant, taking him by the shoulder. "You two warm up, and then..."

"We know, we know," said Brother Knot with a sigh. "Back to work."

The other Flagellant began to guide Pierre to the center of the tent. "Now, lad, we're going to get some broth in you, and let you warm yourself, all right...?"

Thank you, Seven, oh, thank you, thank you, thought Pierre, as he was placed next to a small fire, amongst a large crowd of men as miserable as himself.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Siege of the White Mountain, Vol. 3: Due to the Dead--Part 1

Justinian Sigma stood on the white walls of Montalban, watching the snow fall, and shivered. He was cold, cold in a way that a man born on the Breakers was supposed not to be cold. I've been south too long, he thought. I'd forgotten the cold. Holding his hands to his mouth, he took a couple of deep breaths.

"That's how you lose fingers," said Quiet, as she walked towards him.

"What would you know about cold?" said Justinian, glancing at her. "You're from a desert."

"Ever been to the Heath?" asked the Ghoul. "It's stinking hot in the day, freezing cold at night. We spend most of our time figuring out how to deal with the weather."

Justinian stared at her. "Why do you people even live there?"

Quiet shrugged. "Why do your people live in those shit islands? They're home." She scratched slightly. "And, there are religious reasons. Our Prophets tell us we are to wait there, until we have done the task appointed to us by Mother Night and the Holy Light." She glanced at him. "Anyway--you don't want to do that. It may warm you briefly, but your breathe will freeze on your fingers." She shook her head, ruefully. "And then, you will be screwed."

"Where's Sacripant?" asked Justinian.

"Inside, bitching about the cold," said Quiet. "Marsh Erl, remember? The Accursed Marsh may be wet, but it's warm. Especially around the coast." She glanced at the camp of their enemies lying before them, and sighed. "Is it a bad sign that I find looking at the people besieging depressing? And not in 'oh, no, we're gonna die' way, but in a 'damn, those poor idiots are doomed' way."

Justinian leaned forward and stared at the fires burning down below. It seemed to him there were fewer every night, though whether it was from the men who had needed them needing them no longer, or simply not having the wood to burn them, he could not say. "How you think it is for me? Remember, I knew some of those men as friends, once upon a time."

Quiet gave him a pat on the back. "They made their choice. Remember, you have more loyal brothers fighting beside us. Hells, they've helped toss out the Eremites across the Free Cities."

Justinian nodded. "I do remember that. And I remember that I serve with new brothers, who are dear to me, and whose cause I hold my own." He glanced at her. "Well, brothers, and one sister."

Quiet chuckled. "I'm not the only woman in the Cthonique Guard, Sigma. There are a few more."

"Really?" asked Justinian, puzzled. "Who?"

"You'll have to figure it out yourself," said the Ghoul.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 33

"Creopan break the chains! Creopan break the chains!" chanted the crowd. Prince Gandin mocked straining against the flowers wrapped around him, while a young woman danced around, twirling a baton.

"A local saint, you say?" asked Nisrioch.

"Oh, yes," said the lady Belecane. "The Synod still doesn't recognize Creopan. They've even tried to supress the Festival on occasion, but--the Graharzes will not hear of this. It's founding dates back to Aethelstan the Great, who was saved by Sutekh the Wicked by the saint, who then lead him to Montfort."

Gandin stood up, and snapped the chain of flowers. The crowd cheered, and the woman with a baton stepped forward, and kissed the boy on the forehead. Gandin accepted the kiss as best he could, a feat that involved fidgeting and glancing around nervously.

"In another four years, he's going to be looking forward to that part," said Morgaine. She chuckled. "I know I would."

"So," said Nisrioch, "will you acknowledge there might just be a connection here? Between Creopan and Marduk Cthonique?"

"What is the badass founder of our line doing as some Milesian saint, ehh?" said Morgaine. "No, Nissy this is all just some random weird festival, with a few weird almost-parallels that you're getting all excited about. I mean--it's not even a similar name! Hells, what does 'Creopan' even mean?"

Nisrioch crossed his arms and mused. "Old Milesian, I believe," he said. "Or a dialect. I believe it's... 'Creeping one', or 'creeper'. Something like that."

Morgaine shook her head. "See? What's that got to do with Marduk? He was a giant of the man! With a mighty stride! He rode a monoceros! Ever see those things, Nissy? They're huge! HUUUUUGE!"

Nisrioch watched as the crowd lifted young Gandin onto their shoulders, chanting "Chains be broken, chains be broken," the woman with a baton leading the way. "Well, you'll at least agree there are interesting coincidences. The chains, the breaking, King Sutekh, the woman with a stick at the..."

"Oh, do not try and tell me that baton-twirler is a stand-in for Ursula of the Staff!" grumbled Morgaine. "It'd be an insult. The woman was as beautiful as the evening star, and as fierce as a winter storm. To be remembered by a girl spinning a stick around is an insult to her memory." She turned to her elder brother. "Face it, Nissy. This is your strange fondness for ancient folkways leading you down some weird path because it amuses you."

"I must admit, I am having flashbacks to the fox festival of Goupil," said Nisrioch with a sigh. He shrugged. "What can I say? I love ancient folkways."

"Yeah, you're a weird guy, bro," said Morgaine. "Who likes things like folkways, and architecture, and weather formations, and legal codes, and I am not even going to get into all the disturbing stuff you and Alcina are into..." She shuddered. "I tell you, the fact you two apparently reproduced is vaguely terrifying..."

"Love you too, sis," said Nisrioch, tossling her hair.

"Yeah, yeah, you are lucky you've got years and height on me," muttered Morgaine. She shook her head then chuckled. "Man, what kind of weird name is 'Aethelstan', anyway?"

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 32

"So you'll be leaving us?" said Marduk quietly, as they stood there on the arch of Great Gate of White Pine.

Aethelstan nodded. "The Hardheels have reformed, and mean to retake the Abbey of the Divine Mother Eternally Victorious. And so, I am gathering a new Revered Band to help them."

"Well, you are the Graharz," noted Ursula.

"Until I die, and another brother takes the title," said Aethelstan.

"You have more brothers than Aedwyn?" asked Marduk, surprised.

"I..." Aethelstan gave a quiet, sad laugh. "I've many more brothers, living and dead. Aedwyn and I... well, we were brothers, yes, but not by the same mother, nor even the same father..."

Ursula blinked. "What are you...?" She shook her head. "Were you adopted, or... something, or...?"

"You were not blood related, then?" asked Marduk.

"Well, our parents were cousins, which made us... some sort of blood relation," muttered Aethelstan, trying to puzzle it out, before giving a rather pronounced shake of his head. "It doesn't matter. The important thing is--by the laws of the Revered Band, he who stands with the Graharz in blood and battle is his brother. So, yes, Aedwyn and I were brothers." He clapped a hand on Marduk's shoulder. "As are you." He turned to Ursula. "And you would be my sister."

Ursula glanced away. "I am not going to shake your hand, or clap your back, or anything like that."

"Well, I will," said Marduk, grasping Aethelstan's hand. "Good luck to you."

"And you," answered Aethelstan.

"Oh, I will not need it,"said Marduk. He turned and glanced off into the horizon. "You see--Mother Night... spoke to me. At the Cthonique Mines. She took me by the hands and showed me my fate, if I would but take it."

"And what was that?" asked Ursula.

"I will fight many battles," said Marduk, in a half-whisper. "Against the wicked, and the corrupt, and the powerful. And I will win, until the last, and even then, my line will go on. She showed me my descendants, a great and illustrious line stretching down through the years, battling in Her name, to shatter chains and defeat the wicked. Oh, not all will do so--there will be cruel and bad folk among them, as in any family that grows large enough... but when the need is there, and the moments of truth come, they will hold true to me, my blood. Hold true, and do what must be done."

Aethelstan nodded. "Well, rest assured, my descendants will be there to help them. Generations will pass, but I will make sure that the line of the Graharz remembers the man who saved it."

"I know," said Marduk, with a nod. Aethelstan chuckled, gave a bow, and headed away.

Ursula watched him leave, then glanced at her lover. "You know, that all sounds very, very grand..."

Marduk glanced at her. "And...?"

She shut her eyes, hand going almost reflexively to her missing nose. "Marduk--you're a Lord now, a man of renown, and I..."

"Am the same woman I pledged my troth to in the mines of Cthonique." He took her scarred face in his misshapen hands. "My fortune has not changed my heart, beloved. Has it changed the heart I love?"

Ursula smiled, and shook her head, and then leaned down to kiss him, and for a moment, the Dark Lord of White Pine and his lady were as fair as any who had loved.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 31

Barrant Burr listened to the hearty tap-tap of hammers on steel, and smiled to himself. This was a sound he'd worried he'd never listen to again--the sound of a proper smithy, worked by free men, not slaves. And not merely a smithy, but a grand smithy, and not merely a grand smithy, but a grand smithy he'd never imagined he would see again, the grand smithy of White Pine.

To think the Darksome Lady's will has brought me here, he thought, a tear in his eye, as the young smiths under his direction worked to turn chains and shackles into swords. 'They have given us steel, and we shall give it back to them,' Marduk had said, and Barrant was working hard at that. Dark Lord Marduk now--the Thing of White Pine had chosen him to serve as the city's Protector and Shield. And I doubt they could find a better.

"Preparing for the next battle?" came a familiar voice. Barrant turned to see Eleazar standing there, clad now in the garb of a monk.

"His Magnificence has made his wishes known," replied Barrant, repeating the style that the Lordship of White Pine brought with it. He chuckled deeply. "And I fully stand behind them."

"A remarkable man," said Eleazar, nodding. "To think--that I should see such a sight. The lowliest of men--in birth, in form, in circumstance--raised to such heights by the Lady's hand..."

"She has been our deliverance, through him," replied Barrant, nodding quietly. He regarded his friend. "And you? Returning to the vow?"

"I hope to," answered Eleazar. "The Brothers have called me--our abbey lies vacant in the retreat of Sutekh's forces, save for some bandits. I am... hiring some assistance to help us with them, and then... I shall once again by a Barefooted Brother."

Barrant laughed. "Well, say a prayer for me then, when you return to your hall." He looked at the young monk hopefully. "And should the contemplative life no longer serve--well, there's always a need for one to work the bellows."

"And should swords and shields ever pall," answered Eleazar, "well, we need men to shoe horses, and make ploughshares at the abbey."

Barrant laughed, and clasped the Erl's hand in friendship.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 30

They met there, in the Hall of Truth in White Pine, the great men of the Northern League; Cilydd Cyleddon of Bitterleaves, Sinoch Seithfed of the Shining City, and Drwst Iron-Fist, and Digon Alar of the Towers, and Drudwas Tryffin of the Bells, and Teregud Iaen and Sulien Iaen, and Bradwen Iaen, and Moren Iaen, and Siawn Iaen, all of Caer Dathal, and Iustig Caw, and Edmyg Caw, and Angawdd Caw, and Gofan Caw, and Celyn Caw and Conyn Caw, and Mabsant Caw, and Gwyngad Caw, and Meilyg Caw, all of Caer Nefenyr Nine-teeth, and Gwystl Nwython and Rhun Nwython, and Llwydeu Nywthon, and young Gwydre Nywthon, all of Pen Blathaon, and Isgofan the Generous of the Hall of the Hundred Warriors, and Rheidwyn Beli, Lord of the Dev of the North, and Ysbaddaden One-Eye, Prince of the Trolls. They met in that place that the harsh hordes of the Undying One had denied them for many years, now won for them again, and as they met, the crowd outside chanted one word, and they chanted it again, and again.

"Marduk!" was the word.

And the great men of the Northern League felt an unease in their breasts, an unease that tickled at them, and gnawed at them, and set at them, and would not go away. And at long last, one of them spoke.

"So, what is to be done about this Army of Cthonique, and its hunchbacked leader?" asked Sinoch Seithfed.

"Done?" said Ysbaddaden, his voice astounded. "Lords, I beg astonishment. We sit in this hall thanks to their work, surrounded by their men, and you speak of doing something to them, as if we hold that power, and should want to if we did." The Troll shook his head. "Astonishing. Most astonishing."

Iustig Caw spat, and then he spoke, and as he spoke, his grim-faced kinsmen all nodded. "You speak all that as if it were a point of pride, One-Eye. That we, the great men of the North should be made the prisoners of a bunch of slaves."

"There are no slaves in the North, Lord Caw," said Isgofan the Generous softly.

"You know what I meant!" snapped Iustig. "Lady’s name, that Dirmyg and Cynwal should have seen this day! Our line, serving the whims of servants!"

"It is better than seeing them enslaved by the Undying One," said Gwystl Nwython, who was kin to the Caws, as the others of the fair line of Nwython all nodded, though his words were unsteady, and their nods were half-hearted.

Iustig raised a dark eyebrow at that, as if to say he did not believe it.

Teregud Iaen stood to his feet. "Friends--comrades--kinsmen--we speak, and we speak and we accomplish nothing, for what do we speak of--an army we know little of, save that it has swept away the Southerners as if they were chafe, and a leader we know less of, save that he’s hunchbacked. Let us speak to the one who has seen them as they cut down their foe." He turned to another, sitting at the table. "Cilydd Cyleddon. What say you of this army, and the man who leads it?"

And Cilydd Cyleddon shut his eyes, and thought back to the terrible morning he had had to face the Lord Pompeius, and of the sudden appearance of the Army of Cthonique, and he said, "I know little of them, but this I know in my breast--the Darksome Lady is at their backs, and guides the spear of their leader, and they are people it would do well to befriend."

Teregud nodded. "You speak clear wisdom, Archon of Bitterleaves. Let us join our cause to the Army of Cthonique, so that our liberties may endure."

"Hear, hear!" shouted the company, and then many left the Hall, and went forth into White Pine, and found Marduk as he sat upon his great horse with flowers upon his head, allowing the small child who’d placed them there to ride upon it with him, and they bowed to him, and paid obeisance. But the Caws did not leave, nor did the Nwythons, nor did the Iaens, nor did Sinoch Seithfed, nor did Digon Alar.

"Far kinsman," snapped Iustig, for the Caws and the Iaens had wed members to each other, long ago, "what meant you by that nonsense."

"Why merely this," said Teregud. "This Marduk of Cthonique is well-favored by fortune for the moment, and has won some piddling battles, and given our cause a chance. So--let us use him for the nonce." He shrugged. "And then, when his good fortune passes, and his army falls, and his name is no longer on the people’s tongue, let us discard him." He gave a laugh. "Come now, Lord Caw! You are not frighted of a slave, who is a hunchback at that! The history of our great lines are long, Caw and Nwython, Iaen and Seithfed, and forget not Alar. This Marduk of Cthonique--he is a single page in our chronicles, that men will pass over briefly, as they read of our deeds. He will win us some victories, then he will fall, and be forgotten, and our lines will return to their rightful seats, and all will be as it was."

So spoke that man, in words he imagined would be recorded, as he spoke to men few remember.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 29

On the porch of his manse Serapis Anhurtides, Prince of the Marches, sat watching his cattle as the drovers herded them past, all while Bes Sekhmetides regaled him with tales of woe.

"...really don't know what else I can do," muttered Bes, fanning himself desperately, glancing at his pet gryphon, which was quite joyously munching on a bone. "It feels as though I am carrying the whole of the state on my shoulders, and no one is acknowledging it. As bad as the situation was months ago, when I mentioned it in court, it's gotten worse now. Entire towns have vanished, Serapis! It's either the Ghouls or the drought, or both put together, but my riders go through a land, and find the towns that used to be there deserted, the buildings falling apart--if they are even still standing. Refugees flood the cities that remain, but food grows scarcer... And the elephants... Oh, Serapis, we find their corpses by the hundreds..."

The Prince of the Marches glanced at his guest, a cynical smile on his face. "Well, that takes care of your food problems then."

"No, they're so rotted that even a gryphon won't tou--" Lord Bes blinked. "Oh. You were joking, weren't you?" He coughed. "Because you see, I've actually considered it. That's how bad things have gotten." The little Southern noble sighed. "And these other rumors... oh, Serapis, they're terrifying. The greatest slave revolt yet, they say. Plantations on fire for miles. An army they say, moves through the region, unloosing death and havoc in its wake..."

"Rumors," said Serapis with a shrug. "Who has not heard such madness. I've been claimed slain a dozen times, over the years. And yet here I stand. Pay them no heed, these wild imaginings--that is my advice."

"Easy for you to say, here," replied Bes. "In this quiet place, far from the war, and far from the damn troubles, and far from court..." The Lord Sekhmetides shuddered. "I swear to you, that place grows more... uncanny with each passing year..."

Serapis nodded. "That I will agree with." He turned his head as a little set of footsteps tottered around the corner. A small child with great blue eyes stared at him, plaintively.

"Da-da! Nuut being mean!" she pleaded.

"Well, why don't you sit here, Ma'at," said the Prince of the Marches, "and you can tell daddy all about it, and he'll make it all better."

His youngest daughter gave an eager nod and then darted up onto her father's great chair, resting her head against his side. "Well," she began, "we's was playing, but she took all the dolls and she wouldn't give them back, not even when I usked, and I usked real hard da-da, but she wouldn't, she just wouldn't, and then she threw one at me..."

Ma'at Anhurtides' tale of childhood injustice was ended by the approach of a man on a horse, his clothing ragged, his expression desperate. "Prince... Serap... is..." he gasped as approached the manse, staring at Bes.

The more casually dressed Prince of the Marches stood up. "I am the man you seek."

The man turned in surprise. "I... it's a catastrophe, Your Highness. The Shining Horde of Pompeius are dead! All dead! Slaughtered at Brightcobbles!"

Serapis blinked. "You... you can't be serious..." He glanced around desperately. "How is that even possible? The League didn't have the forces..."

"The Army of Cthonique!" said the man, quietly. "They destroyed them! To a man! Cut through them like they were just... wheat! Golden wheat!" He shuddered.

"The.. what are you talking about?" snapped Serapis.

"The slave revolt I was mentioning," muttered Bes. "The one you insisted I was exaggerating."

Serapis gave his cousin a chiding glance. "They have wiped out a the Shining Horde?"

"Oh, more than that, sir," muttered the messenger. "They have liberated White Pine... They... the eight cities which defected from the Northern League after Bitterleaves have rejoined it. So have fifteen of the original members of the League of Prosperity... five of the members of the White Pine Confederation... And... I mentioned White Pine..." Serapis felt his mouth tightening. "I--you must return to the battlefield, oh Prince! Do your duty to your nation! The King of Kings has need of you!"

"Da-da? Why are your eyes going watery?" asked Ma'at.

"No reason, darling," he said quietly.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 28

The Army of Cthonique stood on the hill of Esseig, before the town of Brightcobbles. On the field ahead of them loomed the army that King Sutekh had sent forth to take this town, all shining in its fine armor. Beyond the army lay the forces of the Northern League, and then Brightcobbles itself. And beyond that…

Beyond that lay destiny.

Aethelstan rode up to his side. "The slingers are in place, sir."

Marduk nodded. "And they’ll begin when the horn is blown?" he asked, raising the great oliphant that the army had found in a Magnate’s manse as they carved a path north.

Aethelstan smiled. "They will, sir." He gulped quietly. "Sir… may I say… I’ve followed many a war leader, serving in the Revered Band, but you are the first I am truly prou…"

Marduk shook his misshapen head. "Do not flatter me, Graharz…"

"I don’t," replied Aethelstan. "And… after this… this battle won’t be like all the ones so far, against whatever pathetic forces the local magnate can throw together against us. This one will be… I may not get…"

Marduk brought a hand to his fellow’s shoulder. "Yes, you will." Aethelstan’s face lightened at his words, and Marduk realizes that the others might need similar words now. And so he urged Monoceros forward, and stood before his army.

It was a larger army than the one he had started with, this Army of Cthonique. Some members came from the Wastes, others the West, others the Shadow Woods, others the Crossing, others the Coast, others still the Fangs and yet others from across the River. Some had were warriors of old, who’d been taken fighting against Sutekh--others had been men and women of peace, until the King of Kings’ empire had taken them, and stripped them of all they had known and loved--and still others had been born slaves, as he had been, and never known freedom until the Army of Cthonique had come. But all knew one thing now--that here lay the last bastion of liberty in the Lands of Night, which the Undying One wished to see destroyed, which they must save in its hour of need.

And now--now he must make them believe they could do this.

He rode out before them. "Army of Cthonique!" he shouted. "Before you is the sword-arm of the empire that held you in chains! Before you are men who would see you and yours in chains, for endless generations! Before you are those who would have seen you under the ground!" He took a deep breath, and raised his spear menacingly at that glittering force. "Well, I say the time has come to put them there instead!"

A great cheer came from the crowd. Ursula stepped forward and raised her spear. "Marduk!" she called. Others joined her, starting with a group of scarred and branded Milesians. "Marduk! Marduk! Cthonique! Marduk!"

Marduk began to lead Monoceros back to the line. "When I give the first blow, that army before us will shake. Then I shall give the second blow, and our horsemen shall make it tremble, and then the third blow, and our spears and swords shall make it fall!"

The cheers became inarticulate again, and Marduk, watching the army before him, could feel the uncertainty radiating off those fine-looking soldiers of the South. This was not how ragged foes were supposed to act when facing such magnificence. Marduk raised his horn, and blew. And that fine-looking army began to shake, as soldiers fell, and the fine straight line of their shields became ever more ragged.

Marduk raised his horn and blew again, then charged forward, an army at his back, and a smile on his face.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 27

Cilydd Cyleddon stared out at the soldiers assembled on the field before him, in their glittering golden armor, and shields of silver polished so fine that they could be used as mirrors, and swore. It was a bad thing to be beaten, a worse thing to be beaten fighting against the forces of King Sutekh, the Undying One, but it was the worst thing of all to be beaten by Lord Pompeius, whose personal army was called the "Shining Horde" and was more famous for its ever-so-fancy uniforms than its skill. Aside from the shame of being defeated by such a foppish, ridiculous thing, there was the simple… contempt it revealed.

He no longer cares about us, this ‘King of Kings’, thought Cilydd. We are dead to him, we of the Northern League, and he amuses himself by playing with our corpses.

Cilydd gritted his teeth. Moaning about the army he was facing would not save his men, nor the town they defended, nor the cause they served. He needed a stratagem, a ploy, some wily plan to defeat his foes. Surely he, the victor of the Battle of Skadh, the Champion of the Towers, could come up with something.

His mind remained as empty as a hole, blank of any ideas, and indeed, of any hope.

I will speak to the men. I will speak to them, and tell them that… that we shall pull through somehow. Or perhaps--perhaps I will simply stress the importance of noble service. And a valiant death. Perhaps that will be enough, he thought, realizing that of course it wouldn’t be. A hand tugged on his sleeve. Cilydd turned, to find himself looking at a moon-faced lad, with eyes of shining amber. "Yes, boy?" said the old man quietly.

"Rhonabwy," said the young man.

"Did I ask for your name?" snapped Cilydd.

The boy looked away nervously. "Sorry, sir. But… up on the hill. Over there. There’s… some of the men saw… movement…"

Cilydd found himself suppressing another swear, as he followed the boy’s hand. They were there, all right--more troops. Reinforcements? We’re outnumbered enough as it is. Does Sutekh need to bludgeon us even more…? And then he got a good look at the soldiers up there… and his puzzlement grew.

They were the strangest, most ragged soldiers he had every seen. Many were armored, but some were not--most carried swords and spears, but some had picks, slings, and even sticks. And the people… he saw Erls of the Plains, and Erls of the Marshes, and Goblins, and Ogres of all three breeds, and Milesians, and a smattering of Ghouls and Kizaks. Who are these people? he wondered, as he caught sight of this army’s banner--a simple stark image of chain being broken.

"What… what is happening, sir?" asked Rhonabwy nervously.

"I do not know," muttered Cilydd, as he felt a faint, possibly illusory glimmer of hope spring forth from deep within him.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 26

Barrant adjusted the boot. "There you go, sir. How does it feel?"

Marduk took a few practice steps. "I… this is… amazing…"

The Goblin shook his head. "You’re hardly the only man with a clubfoot, sir. Truth is, you’ve got better legs than most I’ve made these for…" He looked at Marduk. "Now… you’ll want to get used to it, so try not to overstrain yourself with it."

"Understood," said Marduk with a slight nod. Aethelstan and Eleazar entered, arms filled with scrolls. "Have you found them?"

The former monk nodded and set one of the scrolls on the table. "Maps. Plenty of maps."

Aethelstan shook his head. "I tell you--Nycetus was… well, I don’t know WHAT he was doing. But there’s enough weapons to arm the entire damn Army of Cthonique several times over, food, saddles…"

"Speaking of which, I should get to work on your arms," said Barrant.

Marduk rubbed a misshapen shoulder. "I suspect I’m something of a challenge…"

"I enjoy challenges," answered the Goblin with a smile.

"Well," said Eleazar, pointing to a spot on the map, "we now have an idea just about where we are…"

"Where is the Murkenmere?" asked Marduk. Eleazar nodded, and moved his finger in a straight line. Marduk raised an eyebrow. "That long, squiggly black line?" He clicked his tongue. "I thought it would be… more impressive…"

"It’s bigger in person," said Aethelstan.

Ursula walked into the chamber, whistling a tune. "Marduk, folk are starting to wonder if we’re going to move soon. Most figure it won’t be too long before someone realizes things have gone funny here, and send an army to take care of things."

"Three days," said Marduk, eyes glancing over the map. "We’ll need that to gather the supplies…" He nodded to himself, quietly.

"So where are we going?" said Aethelstan. "The Shadow Woods? The Fangs?"

"Where Eleazar pointed," replied Marduk. "North. To the Murkenmere."

There was a rather stunned silence to this. Aethelstan broke it with a cough. "Marduk… there… the only thing there is the Northern League, who… Sutekh is destroying them…"

"Then they’ll want an army," said Marduk quietly.

Ursula looked at him seriously. "You’ll have to move this people through… miles and miles of Magnate territory, Marduk."

"Exactly," said Marduk. "You came to this place from those lands, Ursula. Plantation after plantation, filled with field hands, working with the lash at their backs." Marduk nodded. "Well, this army exists to break chains, and to break the hands of those who hold the lash. The Magnates have watered their fields with the blood of their slaves for generations. It is long past time that their own is used."

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 25

The barred gate of the innermost section of the keep that lay before the Cthonique Mines burst open after several hours of battering by the former slaves, who were already starting to refer to themselves as the Army of Cthonique. Marduk limped in, glancing around the hall.

"He is in here, somewhere," he said, as his comrades followed him in. "Be on guard." He gestured towards a hallway to his left with his spear, its point still red with blood. "You five go this way. I will take five more this way, and the rest shall remain here to cut off any hope of exit…" He frowned. "And again, be careful. This place is riddled with passages…" A loud shout interrupted him.

Ursula came, dragging Striker with her. "Found pretty-boy here slinking around the halls," she said, with a contemptuous snicker.

Marduk nodded. "Ahh. Well, this may simplify things." He pointed his spear at the handsome Erl. "Where is Nycetus?"

"I… why are you… I am on your side," said Striker nervously, glancing around in desperation. "You… you all know this…"

Aethelstan crossed his arms. "Is that so? And how was it that all those people you were helping to plot their escape all were hanged, but you scaped free?"

Striker began to fidget at that. "I… Who knows… I… You don’t think…"

"Considering that they took my brother, but not me, which is exactly what we expected to happen if you proved informer… yes. Yes, I do," said Aethelstan.

"Talk," said Marduk, brusquely. "Talk and we’ll keep it short, though Lady knows you deserve it long…"

Striker stared at the spear for a moment, then shut his eyes and began to struggle in earnest to get free. "You can’t do this to me! You can’t! I’m not one of you! I’ve the blood of Magnates in me! You can’t do this to me!"

Marduk sighed. "Lord Nycetus left you out here. For all the good blood in you."

Striker’s lip trembled, and he gestured to a passage on the right. "He’s there. In… a small room with a black door."

Marduk nodded, and headed down the passageway. "Keep him under watch. This might still be a trick."

The hallway was a twisting thing, and it was awhile before he reached the black door. But he reached it, and knocked it swiftly open. Nycetus was hurriedly gathering coins and papers as he entered. He stopped as Marduk entered, and regarded him with dull amazement. "So… it is true. You are the leader of this rebellion. You."

"Me," said Marduk, stepping awkwardly forward.

A chuckle emerged from Nycetus’ chubby lips. "My goodness. It is almost comical." He shook his head. "Even grotesque! You! The bold leader of this little rebellion! The baseborn, malformed get of a thousand fathers!" He cackled now.

Marduk strode forward, as best he could, spear raised. "Surrender now, and we will grant you a..."

"Lady's love, I recall your mother," said Nycetus. "A silly creature with a swollen belly, when I found her. The things she did to protect your misbegotten life..." He licked his lips. "Oh, it was a sweet time. I thought it would end when you popped out, misshapen as you are, but no--no she seemed quite determined you should live for some strange reason, and so she continued to ser--"

Nycetus' eyes were closed as he spoke, and so he seemed quite surprised when Marduk stabbed him in the throat. Marduk watched as the fat lord fell to the ground with a thud. When Aethelstan entered, Marduk was watching Nycetus bleed to death on the ground.

"I thought we were going to try and get information out of him first," said Aethelstan.

"That was my plan," agreed Marduk with a nod. "Then he made me remember--he was Nycetus."

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 24

Eight slaves had been taken for plotting to escape. Seven had been taken peaceably and so were only hung, left to tangle from the tall gallows they themselves had had to build. But the Graharz had killed a man, and so he was to be broken by the wheel. So had said the young Cheimarrhus, and so it was being done, in the great courtyard that lay before the mines. Lord Nycetus had ordered the labor stopped, for half a day, so that as many slaves as possible would be there, and learn that simple, dread, inexorable lesson--to dream of freedom meant to seek death, the mines of Cthonique.

Eleazar shuddered to himself, as he watched the guards tie the Milesian to the wheel, as Cheimarrhus watched the spectacle with a horrible, grisly satisfaction. "Tie the bonds tight!" he snapped. "If they bloody and chafe the wrist, well good! That is the point! This is not merely punishment--it is agony! He must suffer--and suffer for he has struck his betters, and killed one!" The Erl nobleman turned and regarded the crowd. "This is to be his fate! Suffering and horrible death! As it will be yours, if you do as he did!"

"Which is get caught," muttered Barrant quietly, hand gripping the hammer he’d brought with him a rather frightening glare.

Eleazar motioned for the smith to be quiet. "I wouldn’t think this is the best time to say such things," he said quietly.

"It’s the best time," replied Barrant. "All eyes are on those poor souls being executed. You and I are just details on the sidelines." The Goblin shook his head. "Affairs such as these focus a mind on murder, I find." He smiled at the former monk. "I bet even you are considering it right now."

Eleazar glanced away, awkward. "My faith in the Lady, strong as it is," he said, "could not keep me from trying to make justice for Her, here on earth. Which is why even as my brothers labor for the Faith even with our abbey seized, I am here. So, friend--I am the wrong measuring stick to judge by."

Cheimarrhus gave the great horse that the hunchback had brought out a lash that made every slave there wince. Especially the hunchback, whose misshapen face seemed to be struggling to hold back tears. The horse began to run in a circle, turning the wheel. The Graharz screamed as his limbs broke, and his sides strained. Cheimarrhus watched with glee, chuckling to himself and occasionally letting the lash fly once again. And then suddenly the horse reared, and when it dropped back to its feet, refused to move.

Cheimarrhus glared at the animal. "Stupid brute!" He brought the lash down again. "Move! Move, Lady damn you!" But the horse did not move, merely sit there, breaths coming hard. Cheimarrhus grumbled to himself, then glanced at the hunchback. "Get this beast to move again, Toad!" he said, gesturing with the whip.

The hunchback nodded grimly, and moved forward shackles clanking. He reached the horse, and began to stroke its sides gently, whispering quietly as he did so. Cheimarrhus watched him impatiently. "Well, hurry, you creeping whoreson. Do as your bidden." The hunchback merely nodded to that, and gave the horse a pat. With a whinny, it began to move.

And lightly cantered away from the wheel, the restraints that kept it there loosed.

Cheimarrhus gave a scream. "You... you crippled wretch! You creeping, miserable worm! I shall lash you, Toad, I shall…"

"That is not my name," said the hunchback as he turned to face Cheimarrhus with a force and a dignity that Eleazar had never imagined the man to possess. He shook his head. "That is not my name."

"Your name is what I choose to call you, you crooked-limbed freak!" howled Cheimarrhus, bringing the lash down on the defiant slave.

"My name is Marduk," he said, as he caught the whip with his bare hand, and then, with one astounding, miraculous wrench, shattered the chains that shackled his wrists. And then with a yank, he pulled Cheimarrhus off-balance, and grabbed him by the shoulders as he tumbled towards him.

"Kill him!" shrieked Cheimarrhus. "Kill him! Kill--" And then his shriek became a wordless wail, as Marduk pulled his arms back and, with a tug, snapped them.

Most of the guards seemed to be watching in dull shock, but one began to ready his crossbow. And then received a vicious blow from Ursula’s truncheon that sent him sprawling to the ground. "You will not have him, you will not have him, you will not have him," she shouted as she laid men out, her girls following her into battle.

Cheimarrhus had fallen to the ground, his arms limp and useless as Marduk hammered blows on him. "Mercy! Mercy!" squealed the guard.

"You call for mercy," snapped Marduk. His blows fell only harder. "You. Call. For. Mercy!"

"In the Lady’s name," sobbed Cheimarrhus.

Marduk’s face, already a mask of rage, became flushed with indignation. "In Her name!" he growled, and struck Cheimarrhus on the face with a blow that turned into a mass of blood, and bone, and gore.

"You there! Smith!" said Isengrim, approaching Barrant and Eleazar. "I… this…" He gestured to the chaos that was engulfing the courtyard, as the slaves overwhelmed the guards. "This is madness! It must be stopped!" He looked at the smith hopefully. "You--you have not been treated so bad, no? Well, that will be done if this revolt continues. You--you must help us to contain it. You must help…"

Barrant listened for a moment, nodding dully, and turned to regard the Ogre. "Fuck you," he declared, smashing Isengrim with his hammer. Eleazar darted forward and seized the guard’s sword, and quickly plunged it into the Ogre’s throat.

In the courtyard, men had cut down the hanged men, while Marduk had lifted the Graharz from the wheel. "Graharz…" he whispered softly. "Graharz. You are free…" He bit his lip. "We are both free."

The Milesian smiled at the misshapen Nightfolk. "Free. And… do you not see, Marduk… how wonderful… it is to be free…?"

"I do," said Marduk, tears in his eyes. "I do."

The Graharz looked around. "Where… where is my brother…?"

Aethelstan made his way out of the crowd to the pair’s side. "I’m here, Aedmun." He grasped the dying man’s hand.

The Graharz gave a nod. "By blood… and battle and sacred… oath, you… are the Graharz."

"I am the Graharz," answered Aethelstan with a nod.

Aedmun smiled gently. "We will meet again… in the Great Hall… set aside for the Revered Band… my brother…" And then he died.

Ursula rushed towards Marduk. "More guards coming…" she said.

Marduk gently set the Milesians body down. "I… are people arming themselves with what they can seize?"

Ursula nodded.

Marduk smiled, as he shuffled ahead. "Then we will meet them." There was a quiet whinny, as the horse approached. Marduk smiled at it. "Yes, Monoceros. Yes, you will meet them as well…" He walked awkwardly to the horse.

Ursula rushed to his side, and helped him there. "Here…," she said, as she helped him onto the horse.

"Sir!" shouted Barrant, walking forwards. "Take this." He handed Marduk a spear. "A great weapon, on horseback," noted the Goblin. "And easy to use."

Marduk nodded, readying the spear with his left hand, while placing his right gently on Monoceros’ neck. The horse began to move forward at a steady, even trot. His fellows began to cheer as they saw him. "Marduk! Marduk! Marduk!" Marduk smiled, and waited for the shouting to stop.

When it did, he raised his spear menacingly in the air. "Lash the lashers! Kill the killers! Follow me through blood, to freedom!" A great cheer rang out through the air, and the great force of Cthonique charged forward into battle.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Down in the Darkness Deep--Part 23

"Oh, dear," muttered Lord Nycetus, clicking his tongue as he stared at his legate’s dead body. "This is… unpleasant."

Cheimarrhus rolled his eyes. "That is a rather mild way of putting it."

"I am by nature a mild man," said Nycetus. He shook his head in wonder. "With his bare hands you say?" He gave another shake of his head, and another click of his tongue. "Remarkable. Simply remarkable." He quietly regarded Abgar’s body for a bit longer, than glanced at the young nobleman. "You have him in custody, though, don’t you? The… Graharz?"

"Yes," snapped Cheimarrhus, with an angry stamp of his feet. "Your Lordship, this man must be punished most severely. These other plotters are one thing, but this man has…"

"Oh, I quite agree," said the older man. "After all, we can’t have our slaves imagining they can get away with killing us. It would be quite a dangerous idea for them to have in their heads. Plotters must die, but killers--they must die in agony…"

Cheimarrhus gave a surprised nod at this. "I am… pleased to see we are of one mind of this, Your Lordship. If you would… give me leave, I would devise the most grisly punishment imaginable for this Milesian scum."

"A grand and noble offer, young Cheimarrhus," said Nycetus. "You have my leave--nay, my order. Concoct a hideous and torturous death for this murdering slave." He clapped his hands together. "Though do keep it simple. I wish to have this brute executed soon, and thus do not have the time to bring in anything too elaborate."

Cheimarrhus gave a bow, then turned and left the chamber. As soon as he was well out of earshot, Isengrim turned to his employer. "You are following that fool’s advice?" said the Ogre in surprise.

"Even fools can be right on occasion," answered Nycetus. "And if that fool wishes to gather the hatred of every slave in the mines, well, who am I to deny him this privilege?" He shrugged. "I’m not a man to argue when my problems start solving each other."

Isengrim gave an appreciative nod. "Do you wish us to find the brother?"

Nycetus shook his head. "From what I’ve heard, he’s no concern. A finished man, come here to prolong his death, while imagining he is preserving his life." The fat Erl laughed softly. "No, Isengrim, not a concern of ours. He may hold a dream of revenge for a week, or a month, but that is all it will be. And soon, soon the labor of the mines will grind it down again. At worst, he might just try to kill young Cheimarrhus, and then… well, you know what I said about my problems solving each other."

"They often do for you, I notice," noted the Ogre.

"It is a gift," answered Nycetus, smiling broadly.