Saturday, December 31, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 42

The Grand Master eyed the small stairway in the alleyway suspiciously.  It lead to a basement chamber with a sloped doorway that  had the suspicious portion of the Grand Master's mind already noting all the ways it could be used as the place for an ambush, or a trap.  He had reached into the forties when he decided that this would require some special planning.

He walked across the street to the small cluster of men standing there.  "Right.  I will require one of you to go into this safehouse first."  He gestured to Camber.  "You."

Camber gulped.  "But... I did what you asked."  The Grand Master raised an eyebrow.  Camber glanced away.  "Well, more or less."  He looked at his fellows and gestured to a younger member. "We should send the prentice! It's what we keep them around for!  Send the new guy!"

The prentice frowned.  "Hey, I may be new, but I'm not a screw-up!"

"Exactly!" said Camber.  "You've never had the chance to screw-up!  I say we give it to you!"  He placed an arm on the young man's shoulder and tried to shove him forward.  "May the Holy Light be with you!  Great succcess!"

The Grand Master frowned.  "Camber.  Go over there.  Now."

Camber gave a miserable frown.  "I... it's not right!  I'm a member in good standing, sir!"

"Then act in such a way that you keep it," said the Grand Master steelily.

Camber gulped, then turned turned and crossed the street, tottering on his peg leg.  When he reached the stairway, he turned to regard his fellows for a moment.  They stared back at him icily.  With one last shudder, Camber made his way down the stairway.  The Knife-Grinders watched him vanish from sight.  For a moment, all was still.  Then there was a loud clattering crash.

"It's all right! It's all right!  I just tripped!" came Camber's voice.

"Please tell me we're killing him when this is finished," said the prentice.

"Oh, absolutely," agreed the Grand Master.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 41

Nathan fidgeted awkwardly.  "So... When I went home... three of my fellows were there, and..."

Sacripant yawned.  "Let me guess.  These killings... there's something that goes to the very top, isn't there?  The Council of Old Guys, or whatever you call it?"

"Ancients, and how did...?" began Nathan.

"Oh, at a certain point, you start picking up on patterns, and figuring that the easiest answers are right," said the Erl.  "Quite a few high-ranking Talossians have died recently in odd 'suicides'.  Which suggests that whatever the hell all this is, it goes straight to the top.  And that's what I've noticed about all you Talossans... you really believe in your rag-tag system.  When your Guilds say 'jump', you all say 'how high?'."

"So, what made you sure something was going on?" asked Nathan.

"I've been given the runaround on a simple inquiry on a man's death," said Sacripant.  "Once the assassins showed up, I started figuring that folks around here really, really didn't want me finding it."  He spread his hands.  "After that, it wasn't too much effort to figure that there was a lot of trouble going on, and that it was all connected."

Nathan stared for a moment, and then looked away.  "So why are you telling me all this?  I'm a Talossan after all.  I do what my Guild says."

"First, of all, I like you," said Sacripant.  "But the other reason--I've gotten to know you.  You're a decent man.  I'm betting you love your Guild, yes, but you love it for bigger reasons.  I'm betting that when they gather you all together, and you say that oath, or motto, or whatever it is..."

"An oath," muttered Nathan.  "It... we say it at formal meetings, on hoy days..."

"Right, well, I'm certain you tear up, with memories of your old man, and all the honor and traditions of you Lamplighters, that he taught you, and all the times he hefted you up on his shoulders so you could see... oh, whatever fancy thing you Lamplighters do..." continued Sacripant.

"He never did anything like that," said Nathan defensively.  "He just always made sure we'd be at the front of the Mummer's Parade on..."  He stared at the Erl desperately.  "How do you know all this?"

"People are people all over, Nathan," said the Erl with a shrug.  "You think fisherman in Valse don't do things like that?  Only thing we live for."  Sacripant smiled at him.  "So, you want to help me get our friend out of here, and start the next bit of planning to deal with this trouble, or not?"

Nathan was silent for a moment, and then managed a rough nod.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 40

Sacripant sat there, sharpening his knife, whistling to himself. 

"You really seem to enjoy that," noted Lamorac, watching with interest.

"Not really," said Sacripant.  "Sort of picked up the habit from my fiancee."  He turned the blade over near the candle.  "Clears my head."

"Your... fiancee sharpens knives?" muttered Lamorac.

"My fiancee uses knives," replied Sacripant.  "If I spook you, she'd flat out terrify you."

Lamorac nodded.  "Well... you have interesting taste in women, apparently."  He smiled broadly.  "Hope the marriage goes well."

Sacripant slipped the knife back into its sheath.  "Well, thank you.  There a lady friend waiting for you?"

"Sort of," said Lamorac.  "Arranged marriage.  Knife-Sharpener family thing."  He managed a shrug.  "The families have fights, you see.  So it's good to have marriages to tie up the bloodlines to keep things from getting... well, too heated.  I've got someone I'll be tied to when we're both old enough."  He smiled awkwardly.  "She's quite nice.  Apparently.  I've never met her."

Sacripant shook his head.  "You guys seem to get more pathetic the more I learn about you."

"Hey!" muttered Lamorac resentfully.  "That's not nice."

"I'm the man who will keep you alive if your buddies try to kill you," said Sacripant.  "Which they appear to be considering.  Don't take it the wrong way Lamorac, but you aren't dealing with one of your normal cases where they try to bring you home alive."

"You don't know that for sure," said Lamorac.  "I'm a Guild member!  I've paid my dues!  My family have members for five generations!  We've got a window in the local chapel!  They can't forget that!"

Sacripant nodded.  "Sure.  Sure.  You're probably right."  A very precise knock came on the door.  "Come in Nathan."  The Lamplighter entered hesitantly.  "You remembered the knock.  Good.  I'd have hated to kill you by mistake."

Nathan flinched at that.  "Right."  He sighed.  "I... we have to talk."

"Well, that sounds ominous," noted Lamorac.








Saturday, December 24, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 39

"...So, you see where we stand on this?" said Grunewald, still giving that warm, grandfatherly smile. 

Nathan managed a dull nod.

Morell leaned forward.  "We have a duty to the Council, Nathan.  A sacred duty, as Lamplighters..."

Grunewald raised his hand.  "He understands, Morell." 

The younger man turned away, frowning.  "I was simply... clarifying things."

Ulrich chuckled to himself.  "Well, don't clarify things too harshly.  We are all brothers of the Guild, after all."  He glanced at Nathan. "Isn't that true, Nathan?"

Nathan stared ahead a moment, and then nodded again. "Yes.  Yes, I suppose it is."

Grunewald glanced at his fellows, standing to his feet.  "See?  I told you all that Nathan would be all right.  A reasonable man.  Very sensible.  And from a good Lamplighter family.  One that goes back for generations."

Ulrich nodded.  "Very true," he said, slapping Nathan lightly on the shoulder.  Nathan flinched slightly at that.

Morell grimaced and joined the other two in leaving Nathan's house.  "I hope so.  I sincerely do."  He gave Nathan a sharp glance, and exited.

Nathan sat there for a while in silence.  Monica set a glass of wine before him.  "How is Sacripant?" she asked.

"That man could fight his way out of the Seventy Hells," replied Nathan quietly.

"Well, that's good," said Monica with a smile.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 38

The old man regarded the mask before him distastefully.  "My goodness, this is a heathenish thing, is it not?"

"It is traditional, Your Holiness," replied the servant, assisting the old man into the robe.  "All Ancients wear masks based on their role in the chamber."

"I see, yes," said the old man with a sigh. "Well, we mustn't disappoint tradition.  Still it is an odd custom, no?"

"I have never thought of it, sir," said the servant.

The old man gave a smile, and nodded.  "That will change in the future.  A great new era will start in Talossa soon. A great and holy era, where this city makes things right again."

The servant nodded, as he finished adjusting the robe.  "As you say, Your Holiness." He stepped back to regard the old man.  "I must ask.. how... how did you endure imprisonment?"

"Oh, it was not great matter," said the old man.  "I was kept in the Tower, with my books, visitors, and good food."  He gave a fond laugh.  "Indeed, I even reached the agreement with the Concordat there.  Those who serve Holy Light must not be afraid to suffer, for the Seven shall see their servants through hardship, and indeed, make them walk surer for that."  He smiled at the man for a moment.  "Tell me, when were you last shriven?"

"It has been awhile, Metropolitan," said the servant.

"Then, come, kneel before me," said the old man, smiling gently, "and I shall strip you of your sins before the Seven and the Holy Light."

"I... thank you, Your Holiness," muttered the young man.

"There is no need to thank me for doing my duty," replied the Metropolitan cheerfully.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 37

Nathan walked towards his front door, trying to figure out an explanation for Monica.  "My dear, I am sorry I have taken so long," he stated.  "Mister Fenswater and myself were looking into the matter of a mysterious death, and we were attacked, and he captured one of our attackers..." 

He paused and looked around.  Still no one.  Turning back around, he considered an alternate approach.

"Oh, just showing the Erl around town.  You know Nightfolk.  Or... you've heard about them.  All curious, and... things."  He coughed.  "And where is Sacripant?  Well, he... met an old friend.  Yes.  An old friend.  And they are.. talking."  Nathan nodded, then gave a sigh.  "This is much too late in life for me to start lying in detail."  He stared at the door to his house, and then shut his eyes, opened it and entered. 

"Monica, I..."  The sound of plates on the table hit his ears, and he opened his eyes to see Grunewald, Ulrich and Morell all seated there as his wife served them dinner.  "Brothers of the Lamp," he said forcing a smile on his face.  "A pleasure to see you all here."

"We came when you did not go on your appointed rounds this night," said Ulrich softly.

"Yes, there were... some difficulties," muttered Nathan.

"Where's the Erl?" asked Morrell, glancing around the room as if he expected to see Fenswater hidden in a nook somewhere.

"Somewhere else," said Nathan, feeling a growing unease.

"Is he now?" said Grunewald.  He cleared his throat.  "We have much to talk to you about, Nathan."  He smiled cheerfully.  "Please, take a seat." 

"I... "  Nathan nodded, and did as his elder suggested. 

"Your wife makes a lovely meal," said Grunewald still smiling.  "You should be very proud of her."

"I am," replied Nathan, smiling at his wife.  Monica gave him a concerned look that somehow made that niggling feeling return, only even worse.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 36

"Have to say, you two do a quality job holding me captive," said Lamorac cheerfully, as he glanced around the room of the new safe house.  "No harsh words, no awful resentment, and you know just how to tie a guy up."  He awkwardly swiveled his head around to take a look at his captors.  "Really, this is terrific."

"Glad you like it," said Sacripant, as he escorted Nathan from the chamber.  "Now, if you give us a moment..."

"Sure thing!" said Lamorac.  "I'm not going anywhere!"

Sacripant nodded at him, then shut the door.  "So what's that about?" asked Nathan.  "And why can't you share it in front of laughing boy in there?"

"Second question first," said Sacripant.  "One of my bosses is a cheerful guy, slightly absent-minded.  Makes you think that's all that's going on his head is odd fancies.  It isn't.  As for the first--something that Lamorac said makes me think that he either killed that Erl that you found or was there when it happened."

Nathan frowned.  "What was it?"

"Nothing to specific," replied Sacripant.  "Just an odd misstatement.  I would have mentioned it earlier, but you were all 'we got a move now'."

"And you couldn't have mentioned it while we were eating?" asked the Lamplighter.

"What is looking more and more like a dangerous conspiracy is not light dinner conversation," snapped Sacripant.  "Anyway, tough talking with those noodles in your mouth."  He sighed.  "The entire reason I'm here is I was supposed to look into the man's death."

"Who was he?" asked Nathan. "What ranked them sending you here?"

"He was a member of... well, think of it as the capital of the Plains' version of your Council of Ancients," said Sacripant.  "Here on personal business.  The Mayor wants it looked into, and the Cthoniques like to keep the Mayor of the Folly happy."

Nathan nodded. "So.. this guy was the Mayor's friend?"

"No, actually a political enemy, but..."  Sacripant waved his hand.  "Well, let's just say the Folly's council members stick together on things like this, and leave it at that.

"Odd-sounding place," noted Nathan.

"You would say that," muttered Sacripant.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 35

The question came from the shadows. "Is it clear?"

Nathan gave a nod.  The Erl and the prisoner emerged from the alleyway, and moved quickly down the street.  "Don't even think about running for it," said Sacripant quietly.  "Or I will make you a dead man."

Lamorac gave a pained shrug.  "Well, even if you don't, the Guild likely will, so, I'll go along."

Nathan nodded as the man as walked by him.  "Good to see you being so reasonable."

"I keep telling you people," said Lamorac, "I've been through this before.  The Guild likes it when people behave in a manner that suggests calm and discipline, because that shows they can be trusted.  Panic and fuss--well, that suggests they can't be trusted it, and causes trouble.  And trouble is something we must avoid."

"Aside from killing people," noted Sacripant.

"Well, that's just our job," answered Lamorac.  "If we're doing it well, then it's no trouble for us."  He smiled.  "Think about it."

"Less talking, more moving," said Nathan.  "The next safe house is only a few ells away."

"You know, I'm getting a good tour of these places," said Lamorac. 

"Is there a point to that?" asked Nathan.

"Well, you might want to kill me when this is done," noted Lamorac.  "It's what I would do."

"Yes, but you're a hired killer," said Sacripant.

"Very true," agreed Lamorac.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 34

Sacripant glanced at the door.  "So, you're back.  Got the noodles?"

Nathan nodded as he set the satchel on the small table.  "And the crepe. But we have to move soon.  There's a killer trailing me.  Probably more than one.  I put the fear into him, but I suspect the Guild's put more in him."

"Does he have a peg leg?" asked the prisoner.

"He does," replied Nathan.

"That's Camber, my partner," said the prisoner with a smile.  "He's probably coming to kill me.  I'd appreciate you stopping him."

Sacripant nodded.  "Right.  We'll try that."  He glanced at the Nathan.  "We have enough time to eat our noodles?"

"Most likely," said Nathan.

"Can I please have my crepe?" asked the prisoner.  "I mean, you did make me pay for it..."

"Right, right," said Sacripant, fishing it out.  "Here you go..." He sighed.  "All right, I need something to call you other than 'guy'."

"Lamorac," said the prisoner.  "It's a family name.  My grandfather, actually.  Nice guy.  Bit of character.  Once killed a man with a broom handle."  He gave a fond chuckle.  "Ahh, man, those were the days.  When you killed a guy, you had to say something witty, or it didn't count."

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 33

Nathan walked through the streets, food in the satchel he'd gotten at the crepe place.  He hoped he was keeping things in order.  He'd hate having the noodles spill over the crepe, but then, he was in a hurry.  He glanced over his shoulder and suppressed a curse.  He was almost certain the man was following him.  A short man, with a peg leg.  That struck him as worrisome.

Turning down a side street, he paused at it, set down his food, and then stood flat against the wall. He pulled the life-preserver he carried with him.  The heavy weight of the cudgel felt comforting in his hand.  The heavy clump of the man's footsteps, complete with the tap of the peg leg, echoed in the air. 

"Sir," came a wheedling voice, "sir, I was wondering if you could give me some..."

Nathan lashed out with the club.  The interloper gave a yelp, a dagger in his hand clattering to the ground as he blocked the hit with his arm.   "I... Directions!" the man screamed, wobbling unsteadily.

"Why are you following me?" asked Nathan.

"Directions!" said the man.  "Directions!" He turned and began to move quickly.  "My mistake!  A thousand pardons!  Be... be on my way!"

Nathan stared as the man raced away, or more exactly did so as best he could on a peg leg.  After a moment, he picked up his food and hurried on his way.  He kept looking behind him, every so often.

Somehow that didn't calm him.  But then, perhaps that was the point of doing that, when you got down to it.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 32

"Yeah, it's not a great job, really," said the prisoner.  "But you know, it pays... okayish, so it is what it is."

"I knew a guy who had something like it across the river," said Sacripant with a nod.  "So, I understand."

"Really?" said the prisoner, intrigued.  "Well, that makes sense. I mean, it's a service everybody needs, at times."

"That's one way of looking at it," said Sacripant.

The prisoner coughed and looked around the room.  "So... what happened to...?" he began.

"I killed him," answered Sacripant.

"Ahh."  The prisoner nodded to himself.  "Yes, I should have expected that.  You are an impressively lethal-seeming fellow."

Sacripant chuckled. "You should see my fiancee."

"You're engaged?" said the prisoner.  "Well, congratulations!  Assuming you survive all this, happy times at your wedding!  And if not consolation to your lady."

"Thank you for your kindness," said Sacripant.  He looked at the door again.  "He better come back with the food soon."

"Oh, I know!  I'm starving," said the prisoner. "Man, every time I meet one of your Nightfolk, I wind up..."

"What was that?" said Sacripant, turning suddenly.

"I wind up hungry every time I meet a Nightfolk," said the prisoner.  "Just weird, really."

"And when was the last time you met one of us?" asked Sacripant.  "After all, we aren't exactly common here."

The prisoner blinked.  "Ahh.  Could you forget I said that, perhaps?"  He smiled hopefully.  "Please?"

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 31

Alice stirred the pot and threw in a dash of pepper.  Good noodles took proper seasoning, and if Alice did anything well, it was make good noodles.  And it showed--she was making good money these days, especially with the price of pepper coming down.

"Hey, Alice," came a familiar voice.  "Two bowls of noodles."

Alice smiled to herself, and turned to see her old friend standing there.  "Why, Nathan.  A delight as always.  How's Monica?  And the children?"

"Good as gold," said Nathan distractedly.  "And how about little Mortimer?"

"Oh, happy as a lark," said Alice, ladling out the noodles.  "So... two bowls.  Big appetite."

Nathan looked around unhappily. "Yes," he said flatly.  "Very."

"Have you heard about the scuffle outside the Sextons?" she said.  "People said somebody tried to kill someone else."

"That... seems vague," noted Nathan. 

Alice glanced up and down the street and leaned towards the Lamplighter confidentially.  "Well, I hear it was one of the Guild of Seamstresses against one of the other Guild of Seamstresses."

Nathan nodded.  "Ahh.  Yes."

"But I also hear it might have been the one of the Gatekeepers against one of the Gamblers," she continued.

"Well, that also seems probable," noted Nathan.

"But the best part is, they say that an Erl took part in the fight!" said Alice cheerily.

Nathan nodded.  "I'd... like the bowls now, if you don't mind."

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 30

"So you can tell us nothing?" said Sacripant, rolling his eyes.

"You say that like it surprises you," noted Nathan.  He gestured to the prisoner, who continued to grin broadly.  "I mean... look at him."

"I know," said the Erl, wincing.  "But you hope that something stuck in there."

The prisoner blinked.  "Hey, that sounds like you're insulting me.  For something that is not my fault.  The Guild works to minimize risk for its clients.  We do not get contacted by those who hire us--they contact our bosses, who contact their people, who contact us.  Layers upon layers.  Like a cake."  He smiled.  "Hey, you don't happen to have..."

"We have no food whatsoever," stated Nathan.

"Ohh."  The prisoner looked at his feet, disappointed.  "I see.  Maybe... maybe you could go get some food?  Maybe?"

Nathan and Sacripant stared at each other for a moment.  Finally, the Lamplighter sighed.  "You want some more noodles?" he asked.

"Yeah, those things are great," said Sacripant.

"I'm... more in the mood for a crepe," said the prisoner.  "Don't know why.  Just am."  He grinned at Nathan.  "You know, that stall in the Blue Plaza makes the best..."

"You want those, you're paying for them," said Nathan.

"Sure, sure," said the prisoner.  "I've got the money in my coin purse.  If you'll untie me..."

The pair simply stared at them.  The prisoner looked back.  "So... no, then?"  They continued to stare.  "Just for a moment?"  He smiled.  "I'll let you tie me up again, lickety-split. I promise!"

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 29

The short man with a pegleg took a deep breath as he leaned against the wall.   "Did the best I could," he repeated to himself.  "Damned good that I didn't get myself caught like that fool."  He nodded fervently, then glanced around.  After a long moment, he took a relieved breath.

"Camber," said the silky voice.  "I notice your partner isn't with you."

Camber gulped.  "Ahh.  Yes.  Regrettable, but... you know the risks..."  His eyes darted around, trying to pry out the speaker's location. 

"The risks for all of us," said the Grand Master, stepping out of the dark.  "He might have been captured."

Camber gulped.  "He knows nothing of value," he said.

The Grand Master raised an eyebrow. "A member of our guild in good-standing knows nothing of value?" he noted, playing idly with a a long thin knife that he was suddenly holding, to Camber's surprise and worry.

"Well, nothing he would tell," snapped Camber nervously.  "He... is a member of good standing.  Not some novice.  He would never reveal a true secret of our order."

The Grand Master stepped forward, and leaned towards Camber's ear.  "For your sake, you had better be sure of that."  He backed away.  "And I am giving you a chance.  But only one, Camber. Only one."  He turned away.  "And only for a while.  If you are not certain by tomorrow evening that he will not talk... well, then I'll first make certain you don't.  Is this clear?"

Camber nodded, then realized that the Grand Master couldn't see him, or... probably couldn't.  "Perfectly, sir," he noted, his hand going to his jacket.

"Good," said the Grand Master.  "Now, move your hand away from that knife, or I will shorten your chances immediately."

Camber pulled his hand back, staring at the Grand Master in wonder.  "How...?"

"There's a reason I outrank you," he said, as he vanished into the dark.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 28

"So, comfortable chair?" asked Sacripant. 

"Very," said the tall man.  "The ropes are comfortable too!  I'd give you a thumb's up, but you know, my arms are tied.  Also very well!"  He flashed a cheery smile.  "Oh, and great job on binding my wound.  This is really just a top notch hostage experience."

Nathan blinked.  "You have much experience with that?"

"Both as a hostage and a hostage taker!" said the tall man cheerily.  "The second is generally the better deal, but you know, the first is less stressful, I find."

Sacripant glanced at the man in dull wonder.  "How's that?"

"Everything is out of your hands," answered the tall man.  "Life, death, all of it--not your concern.  Oh, you can worry about it, but it won't do any good.  So, best thing to do is sit back, and enjoy the ride.  After all, they probably won't kill you, and if they do, well, not much you can do about it."

There was silence for awhile.  "You have an odd view of life for a professional killer," said the Marsh Erl at last.

"It keeps me going, in a very difficult profession," replied the tall man.  "And really, isn't that all any of us can ask for?"

The pair stared at him for a moment.  Sacripant sighed and turned to Nathan.  "So, you sure this is a secure place?"

"Old Lamplighter safehouse," said Nathan.

The Erl seemed surprise.  "You guys need them?"

"If you haven't noticed, this is a dangerous city," replied Nathan with a shrug.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Pages From the Cthonique Library: Paper With Strange Writing In Red Ink On It

An odd curio, believed to date back from before the Holy Empire, a bit of paper written in a strange tongue, in red ink.  This would imply it was important, whatever it was, though it must be noted it is not in any known dialect of the Dark Tongue.  Some suspect a hoax, though records do suggest great age in this case.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Pages From the Cthonique Library: A Very Large Shell, Possibly from an Oyster.

A very large shell, brought as a gift by the White Horde of Kizaks, who acquired it from a group of Shadow Woods merchants, who claim to have gotten it from an island far to the East.  Efforts to locate this isle, both through magic and non-mystical means have failed.  The shell remains unidentified, though it appears to be from an exceptionally large oyster.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Pages From the Cthonique Library: The Bottomless Glass of Lord Assur

A drinking cup with no bottom that Lord Assur was fond of handing out as a prank, frequently while allowing the victim to believe that it was a magically enchanted cup that never ran out of liquor.

Discovering it was not was frequently quite unpleasant for the victim.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Pages From the Cthonique Library: Badge of the Order of the Fern

Symbolic badge given to members of the Order of the Fern, an honorary brotherhood founded by Lord Assur to promote his ideals.  It was disbanded a hundred years later, after causing numerous drunken incidents.  Some involving livestock.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Pages From the Cthonique Library: Silent Brother Whistle

A brass whistle used as a simple form of communication by the Silent Brothers of Saint Aloysius, an anchoritic order who take a vow of silence, amongst others.  The most common use is to notify  Brothers living in an abbey of the time for labor, for rest, and for silent contemplation of the Lady's will.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Pages From the Cthonique Library: The Dice of Lubric

A pair of dice, reportedly the former possession of a demon, won by the Dark Lord Assur from it in a game of chance.  Those who hold them are said to feel a chill, and hear a little voice in their ear asking them if they wish to play a quick game.

It is advisable not to answer.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Pages From the Cthonique Library: The Lace of Zenobia.

A great quantity of lace, the property of Zenobia Cthonique, eldest sister of Lord Grendel.  Immensely fond of it, she wore dresses bedecked by it, the materials gathered from the farthest reaches.  Most of it is gone, frequently used as scraps and like by the staff. 

There is still an incredible amount left.  She was a deeply troubled woman.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Pages from the Cthonique Library: The Hammer And The Rose

A popular song of a hammer that rules a land with force, that starts a war with a rose bush.  The war lasts and lasts, despite the hammer claiming it will be over soon, until the hand that holds the hammer drops it, and the hammer rusts into nothing.

The rose bush covers the remains of the hammer.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Pages From the Cthonique Library: The Necklace of Diarmid

A simple necklace of polished stones, reported to allow the bearer to win the love of whoever they desire if that person sees them while they wear it.  Said love is less affection and more a mad obsession.  The necklace has lead to murder, to madness and to disaster.  Or so the stories say.

It is kept very securely locked.

POSTSCRIPT:

Apologies for the break in the story, but you can see why.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 27

Sacripant moved through the rainy street with an eerie grace, eyes glittering in the shadows.  As Nathan watched him, so fast and sure-footed in this murk, it struck him this was how the Nightfolk had fought off the Holy Empire and caused so much trouble in the Lands of Light.  The Lamplighter gave a slight shudder--and then remembered that without the Erl's talents, he would be dead.

He took a deep breath, and followed Sacripant across the street.  "What's.." he began.

Sacripant raised a hand to silence him.  "Careful. I'm not sure I hit him.  Or her.  You have female assassins in Talossa?"

"Probably," said Nathan hesitatingly.  "I really don't know.  I don't talk to the Guild."

"There's..."  The Marsh Erl sighed.  "Of course there's a Guild of killers, or some such thing."

"Guild of Knife-sharpeners," answered Nathan.  "At least, that's what I hear."

"Right," said Sacripant.  "Should have expected something like that."  He coughed.  "All right.  Whoever is there, I'm giving you a chance to surrender.  Before I really unleash the pain.  And the possible killing.  Which I'm very good at.  Any answer?"

There was silence for a moment.  "That... that sounds very reasonable," came a quavering voice.  "Especially avoiding the killing.  Yes, yes, I think that is very appealing to me right now."

"Well, just come out," said Sacripant, "and..."

"Ahhh.... yes, sadly, when I fell from the pain of your horribly accurate knife-throw, I think I sprained my leg," the voice said awkwardly.  "And with my arm still less than usable, I don't think I can get up."

"Your answer does not encourage trust," said Sacripant.  "Especially when you recall that you tried to kill me."

"Actually, that was my associate.  Who has fled," said the voice.  "Now, please, please just come and assist me.  By Guild law, I've just signed my death warrant by agreeing to this."

"So why did you?" asked Sacripant.

"Because in a very short period of time, you've managed to scare me more," came the answer.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 26

The short man with the peg leg clicked his tongue and readied another bolt. "I told you we would need another crossbow ready!"

"I thought you could get it in one shot," said the tall man. 

"For heavens sake, there are two of them.  Even if I shot one, there'd still be the other to deal with," noted the man with the peg leg.

"Well, I thought I'd get the other one when you took out the first one," answered the tall man.  "You know.  When he was all... distracted."

"With what?" said the man with the peg-leg.  "There's no other crossbow, thanks to you!"

"With this!" said the tall man, drawing a knife.

The short man blinked.  "So, your plan was to kill whoever I didn't kill with a knife." 

The tall man nodded.

"Were you going to... walk up to him, or... what?"  muttered the short man with the peg leg, casting another glance across the street, and noting that it was even harder to spot the two men he was trying to kill.

"Well, I was thinking I could throw it," said the tall man.

The short man considered things for a moment.  "Do you have any idea how hard that is?" he asked at last.

The tall man shrugged. "Ahh, you hear about it all the time.  How difficult can it really be?"

"Extremely difficult," replied the short man.

"Sure," said the tall man with a snort.

A knife, thrown from across the street, buried itself in his shoulder.  He gave a yelp and fell to the ground, writhing in pain. The short man with a peg leg watched him for a moment, leveled his crossbow, and then threw it away and began to hobble away.   "Bugger this," he muttered, as he  ducked down a back alley.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 25


"So," said Sacripant as they reached the surface, "it's clear what we do now."

"Yes," said Nathan.  "Go home.  And eat.  Then sleep."

Sacripant stared at the man.  "That's it?  A member of the damned Ancients, who so far as I can tell are the people who run this crazy city..."

Nathan nodded. "You've got it.  More or less.  There are complications, and..."

The Erl raised his hand.  "I get it.  I get it.  Anyway, he's dead, and you're not going to check into it?"

Nathan sighed.  "You're going to insist we look into it, aren't you?"

"I've got a job to do," said Sacripant.  "Same as you, I suppose.  The Cthoniques sent me here to figure out what was going on.  And I think I'm on to something.  So I'm going to keep looking."

"That's not how we do things in Talossa," said Nathan.

Sacripant rolled his eyes.  "I've noticed."

"Well, it doesn't seem to be penetrating," hissed Nathan.  "There are rules here.  Some written, others... just understood.  And the greatest is 'mind your own business'/"

Sacripant nodded.  "Right."  He looked out over the rain-filled streets.  "What's that oath of yours?  That gets you Lamplighters out in the streets at night to make sure the lanterns are lit?"

Nathan looked away.  "I'm not allowed to divulge it to outsiders," he said.

"I bet you I can guess the jist of it," said Sacripant.  "And that part of is keeping your fellows here safe."

Nathan was silent for a moment.  "That's an... interesting guess," he said at last.

Sacripant seemed about to say something, when he stopped, and tackled Nathan to the ground.

The crossbow bolt struck the wall behind them.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 24

"So, he was well-dressed," said Sacripant quietly.

"Indeed," said the Sexton.  "Those were silks we took from his body.  With gold brocade,  no less."

"So, a rich man," noted the Erl.

"Most likely," agreed the Sexton.

Sacripant crossed his arms. "Seems odd he'd kill himself," he noted. 

"The wealthy do so more often than you'd imagine," replied the Sexton.  "They are not quite the rest of us, after all, and are prone to pressures we cannot imagine."

"Sometimes I think I'd like to give it a try," noted Sacripant.

"Hmmm," muttered the Sexton.  "Regardless of your feelings, what I say is true.  I have seen suicides from numerous leading citizens of Talossa over the years.  Especially recently."

"Is that so?" replied Sacripant, an eyebrow perking up. 

The Sexton glanced over the room, then turned back to the Erl. "Obviously I cannot go into too much detail, but... well, consider this fellow.  While we never identified him...  he bore a serpent ring."  The man looked at the Erl significantly.

Sacripant glanced at Nathan.  "What does that mean?"

Nathan looked away.  "Serpent rings are given to Ancients so they may... use them to get out of certain difficulties."

Sacripant nodded to himself.  "Huh.  Imagine that."  He coughed.  "So... how many other serpent rings have shown up?"

Nathan blinked.  "What are you doing?"

"Checking things," answered the Erl.  "That's what the Cthonique pay me to do."

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 23

"And then what?" asked the short man with the peg-leg, as he and his companion stood beneath an awning out of the pouring rain.

"She left," answered his companion, a tall man with a red scarf and two golden teeth.

The man with the peg-leg glared at him.  "That's it?  You bore me out of my head with that tale for the last hour, and there's no real ending, just an abrupt halt?"

The tall man shrugged.  "Just trying to pass the time, really," he noted.  "You know how these things run."

"Of course, I do," muttered the man with the peg-leg.  "But that doesn't mean I need you wasting my time."

"It's not wasting your time, it's keeping boredom at bay as we wait for these two to come out," answered the tall man.  He stared at the Sexton Hall, and shuddered.  "I hate this part of town.  So many dead people under your feet."

"That's the same all over," replied the man with the peg-leg.

"I pretty sure the Sexton Hall has more corpses than some random section of Talossa," said the tall man.

"Ha!  That's what you think!" said the man with the peg-leg.  "Bodies only wind up with the Sextons if people find them.  If they don't, they stay where they lie.  Throw in family tombs, and you may  be certain, there are bodies all over the city that you don't know about."

"If you say so," said the tall man.

"I most certainly do," said the man with the peg-leg.  "So... where should we hide the Erl this time?"

"A better place than last time," answered the tall man.

"Well, obviously!" snapped the man with the peg-leg.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 22

The Hall of Sextons was largely underground, something that did not make it comfortable to visit during a rainstorm.  Nathan's boots were already soaked, and he feared his socks would soon be as well.  Sacripant on the other hand seemed to be enjoying it, splashing through puddles with a cheerful nonchalance.

He was less charmed by all the skulls and bones, which produced shudders and winces.  "So," the Erl said to the Sexton, "you still haven't identified the body...?"

"Many bodies came that night," said the Sexton.  "Talossa produces corpses like a beehive produces honey."

"The bees do that, not the hive," muttered Sacripant.

"I think you will find they are linked," replied the Sexton.  "This city has more death in it than many, you will find, friend Nightlander.  It drips at time.  People die young, of things that you would not think them to.  Just last week, a tramp drank lantern oil to try and fill his stomach.  He emptied it instead--but was next to a fire, when he did.  An ugly death.  Very ugly."

"It sounds it," replied the Erl.  "And then there was my countryman, a few weeks ago."

"Indeed," agreed the Sexton.  "A strange death, that one.  A murder, but the why of it..."  He sighed.  "Quite baffling."  He turned towards a door, and drew a key from the ring kept on his belt.  "Here we are," he said.  "The Recieiving Chamber."

"You'd think it'd be closer to the surface," muttered Sacripant.

"And you'd be wrong," said the Sexton, as he opened the door.  "We have chosen the location for many reasons.  Security, among them."  He shook his head.  "You would not believe the times that people have attempted to steal bodies..."  He coughed.  "The third slab on the left."

Sacripant and Nathan nodded as they followed his instructions to the body.  They stared at the slab for a moment after reaching it.  "So... steal bodies?" noted Nathan, eyes still on the empty slab.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 21

The roof in the Hall of the Ancients leaked quite badly in heavy rainstorms, something that the Ancients had complained about on numerous occasions, resulting in numerous efforts to repair this flaw that had, to date, invariably failed.  And so the Ancients met there in the rain, and did their best to ignore the water. 

While wearing masks and robes, which somehow made it all worse.

"So, the matter is ended then," spoke the Master of the Yellow.

"Indeed," said the Keeper of the Green, who then glanced up after a stray drop struck his hood, only to get another drop in his mask.

"Excellent," said the Knight of the Red, moving back and forth nervously to avoid drops.  "I propose we henceforth never speak of this matter."

"Here here!" came the voices.

"The motion carries!" said the Master of the Yellow.  "Now, we never speak of it."

"Speak of what?" asked the Wearer of the Violet.

"You know," hissed the Master of the Yellow.

"I was showing that it was out of my head," replied the Wearer of the Violet.

"Ahhh, yes," said the Master of Yellow.  "Very good.  And that will be the last we speak of the subject."

"Oh, dear," said the Judge of Last Hours.  "I just realized my wife and I were supposed to dine with him tonight."  He sighed.  "Whatever will I tell Beatrice?"

The entire hall turned and motioned for him to be quiet. 

"Oh, oh, right," he muttered embarassedly.  "Just... forget I said that."  A large drop of water landed on his hood and then traveled slowly down its front, then began to run down his mask, all while he stood there awkwardly.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 20

The rain came down in torrents.  The streets were filled with water--the street, the gutters, and the floors of the poorer houses.  The sky was grey and dreary, the wind was cold and clammy and the day was a quiet sort of awful

Nathan and Sacripant glanced out the window.  "You still want to go out in this?" muttered Nathan.

The Erl nodded.  "I'm from the fens," said Sacripant.  "We call this a good autumn, back in Valse."

The Lamplighter stared at him for a moment.  "Everytime you mention this 'Valse', I grow a little more fearful of the place."

"That's the idea," replied Sacripant, as he headed for the door. "There's a reason I left my hometown as if it were on fire.  I mean, aside from my being a pig-headed young man."

Nathan glanced at him.  "Don't you want... better boots?"

"Told you, I'm a Marsh Erl," said Sacripant.  "I don't mind this at all." He stepped outside.  "Yep.  Feels good!  Cool and wet!  Just like home!"

Nathan watched him for a moment and then sighed as he stood up.  "Monica!" he shouted.  "I'll be..."  His wife approached him with his stormy weather boots.  Nathan stared at her for a moment.  "How did you...?"

"I've been married to you for a long time," she answered.  "Put the boots on."

Nathan did so and then got into his great coat.  Sacripant smiled at him as he stepped out.  "Heh.  Knew you'd come."

"Yes, yes, you and my wife," muttered Nathan.  "Now come on.  I'll show you to the damn Sextons."

"Yeah, Monica's a great lady," said Sacripant.  "She kind of reminds of my fiancee."

"You have a fiancee?" said Nathan.

Sacripant nodded.  "Yep.  You'd like her.  I mean, once she no longer scared you.  Which would be your immediate response."

Nathan nodded.  "Definitely sounds like Monica."

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 19

The two men were seated in a back booth, a game of backgammon between them.  One wore a bright yellow hat--the other was bare-headed, his hair a tangled brown mop.

"So... I believe you are down a backgammon?" said the man with the yellow hat.

"A gammon only," said his companion.  "Do not try to take advantage of me."

"I could make the same complaint," replied the man with the yellow hat.  "Only a gammon you insist?"

"Pointedly," replied the other man.

The man with the yellow hat nodded.  "Shall we double the stakes?  It would allow you to recoup your losses."

"Too rich for my blood," said the other man, glancing around the room.

The man with the yellow hat dangled the doubling cube before the man's face temptingly "Are you certain?" he asked.

"Positive," replied the other man.

The man with the yellow hat nodded, and then stood up.  "I fear I have forgotten my purse.  Give me a moment, and I will go get it."

The other man nodded.  "Of course."  He signaled for a drink.  As always it was brought promptly, and was excellent.  At times like this, the man had to wonder what they thought of the pair of them.  Most likely, nothing, as the help here was quite professional.

Still, he did have to wonder if they noticed that the pair of them had never actually played a game of backgammon in all their years meeting here. 

He actually wondered if the man with the yellow hat was any good at it.  It'd be interesting to see.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 18

It was late, when the pair arrived back at Nathan's house.  Monica turned as the Erl and her husband entered the door.  "Come on!" said the Erl.  "You can't tell me you're not suspicious!"

"I can tell you anything I please," replied Nathan. 

"Yes, but you can't mean..."  Sacripant saw Monica standing there, and gave an awkward cough.  "Umm... sorry if we were making too much noise..."

"I was already up," said Monica, folding the linen.  "How was the night, Nathan?"

"Ugly," muttered Nathan, sitting down before the fire.  "A man leapt from the Tower."

"With his skull already bashed in," said Sacripant.

"Sir Fenswater," began Nathan, his voice testy.

"Just call me Sacripant," said the Erl.  "No need to be formal. Anyway, I'm no 'sir'."

"Sacripant, do not talk about that sort of thing in fron tof my wife," finished the Lamplighter.

"Sorry," muttered Sacripant, turning away.  "I just find it all... suspicious."

Nathan sighed.  "If you want, we can go check with the Sextons tomorrow.  If it would ease your mind."

"Think it would," said the Erl.  He looked at the pair for a moment, then coughed.  "Well... good night.  See you tomorrow."  He gave an awkward wave, and then headed to his room.

Monica watched him go, and then turned to her husband.  "What was that about?"

"I think he doesn't want to crowd us," said Nathan.  "And... oh, whatever they've sent him here on, it isn't going well."

Monica nodded, and folded another bit of linen.  "He's a rather pleasant sort.  For a Nightfolk, I mean."

"Obviously," said Nathan. "But yes.  Yes, he is."

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 17

The young man walked over the bridge, as he had been instructed.  The package slipped easily from his pocket, into the water below, and then it was gone, forgotten and beyond recovery in the water below.  Just like the deed it had done. 

But he mustn't think of that.  Just make his way to the place, give the message, and be on his way home, all this forgotten.

He had not expected it to sound like that.  Not to mention look like that.

He shut his eyes and took a deep breath.  Do not think of it.  Banish it from your mind.  You were merely following orders.  Anyone else would have done what you did, in the circumstances.

Somehow, that wasn't as comforting as he'd thought it would be.

He turned down the street he'd been instructed to.  It was... rather distressingly dark.   But then, it was night.  All streets were dark at night. 

Though streets without lamps were darker than most.

A foot scattered gravel under it.  "Well?" came a gruff voice.

The young man nodded.  He'd been told what to say.  "They're selling salmon in the market," he declared.

There was silence for a moment.  "Good," said the voice, and then the young man felt a sudden stabbing pain in his side.  As he hit the ground he realized that he'd known this was how it would end, that the man who used the hammer was destined to die quietly in a back alley, to a man who used a knife.  And whose face people didn't know, and who took steps to make sure it stayed that way.

He hoped his family got the money.

And then he hoped they didn't, but were instead... left alone.  It felt... safer.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 16

Sacripant stared at the cart receding into the distance.  "So... you have a whole guild of... body... takers?"

"Sextons," answered Nathan.  "And yes."  He scratched his head.  "Well, they're also a religious brotherhood, actually.  The Lay Brothers of Saint Libitinia of the Tomb."

"Ahh, so they're monks," said Sacripant with a nod.

"No, no, it's a lay brotherhood," replied Nathan.  "No priests of monks may join.  We're another, actually.  Though not of a saint.  Uriel of the Blessed Seven himself is our patron.  We have an official prayer to him and everything." 

"But none of you are priests?" asked Sacripant.

"Not a one," replied Nathan.  "Priests cannot be Lamplighters or Sextons, and Sextons and Lamplighters can't be priests.  But Sextons are allowed to preside over funerals.  And take the good clothing from the unclaimed dead as payment."

Sacripant was silent for a moment. "I find this city deeply weird, you know."

Nathan nodded.  "You've said so.  Several times."

"Well, it's just something I feel obligated to repeat," said Sacripant.  He glanced around.  "Another weird thing was that man's head..."

"In what way?" asked Nathan.

"The back was smashed," replied Sacripant.

Nathan shrugged.  "He fell from a great height."

"And landed on his side," said Sacripant quietly.

Nathan glanced at the Erl.  "Is there a reason you're saying this now?"

"I don't trust this city's crowds, and I don't trust its guilds," answered Sacripant.

Nathan considered things.  "But you trust me?"

Sacripant nodded.  "I guess I do."

"Might be foolish," noted Nathan.  "I belong to both of those things."

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 15

They heard the bell ringing in the Lamplighter Hall. "What's that?" asked Grunewald over his drink.

Ulrich shrugged.  "Some sort of trouble.  I'll go check."  He stood up, and made his tottering way out of the hall.

Morrell grunted over his beer.  "You know, they used to know how to ring the bells... quietly."

Grunewald blinked.  "What?"

"You know," said Morrell.  "Not so loudly.   So they didn't disturb people."

"That..."  Grunewald tried to think of the best way to express his contempt.  "The entire point of bells is to disturb people.  That's why you ring bells--to disturb people, so they could be alerted of trouble."

"Yes, but they used to know how to do it without sounding so... awful," said Morrell.  "When I was younger."

"Aye, and I've no doubt you got a pint and a half whenever you ordered a pint," snapped Grunewald.

"As a matter of fact, I did!" replied Morrell lurching unsteadily to his feet.  "And it was always full strength!"  He squinted ferociously at Grunewald.  "Are you calling me a liar, perchance?"

"No, I'm calling you a daft fool," replied Grunewald with a glare.

Morrell stared at him affronted "That is worse!" he said at last, raising a shaky fist.

"That was the point," answered Grunewald, getting to his feet.

"Some poor fool has leapt from the Tower," said Ulrich, reentering.  He stared at his fellows.  "What's this?"

Grunewald and Morrell got back in their seats.  "Nothing," said Morrell.

Ulrich considered this.  "All right then," he said at last, returning to his seat.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 14

The children were the first ones there, when the body fell.  That was how it always happened.  No one knew how it began, or how long it had been like that.  You asked that question, they answered with a shrug.  Always and forever, really, was the answer you'd get.

It may not have been true, but it felt like it.

The children came.  They crept out of the alleyways, and they took everything of value.  They took the rings, they took the necklaces, they took the fancy buttons, and they took the boots.

They always took the boots.  You could always sell boots.  People needed them.

And then they'd scurry off, like mice, or rats, or some other vermin.  And that was the last you saw of them, unless you knew where to look.

And cared to.

They left the body sitting there, though.  Usually because it was in no condition to move too far. 

And besides, they were children.  The bodies were usually too heavy to carry.

So they left them for the Lamplighters.  Not that it was the Lamplighters' job, mind you.

Just another thing that the Lamplighters found themselves dealing with. 

Nathan glanced around the square, as he arrived on the scene, and then looked at the body.

And then he swore softly to himself.

This one was messy.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 13

The pair walked through the streets in silence for a long while, Nathan stopping every now and then to light a lamp that had guttered out.  The Erl watched him doing it, a curious expression on his odd, grey face.  "You're pretty damn good at that," noted Sacripant.

"Been doing it for ten years," answered Nathan.  "Learned it from my father, first.  And plan on teaching it to my son, when he comes of age." 

"That a guild thing?" asked Sacripant, hands in the folds of his cloak.

"Yes," answered Nathan.  He walked on to the next lamp, which had also sputtered out, and touched his wick to his lantern.  "Father to son, master to apprentice.  That is the way of things."

Sacripant nodded, as he walked behind the man. "That's not so different from Valse."  He looked at Nathan pointedly.  "My hometown.  It also has a tower.  Not as big as yours, mind you."  Sacripant glanced around.  "Or as nice.  Honestly, we've let it go to seed.  We used to be a big trading city, but now, we mostly just... fish."

"Nothing wrong with that," said Nathan.  "Sometimes I wish things were quieter in Talossa."

"Well, you don't get much quieter than Valse," replied Sacripant.  "Not much happ..."

He was interrupted by a great deal of screaming coming from the city square.  Nathan sighed and took a deep breath.  "You were just talking about the tower," he muttered, turning towards the square. "Well, we're going to have to check it out now."

Sacripant sighed.  "Somebody jumped from it, didn't they?"

"Most likely," answered Nathan.

"Yeah, that happens in Valse every now and then," said Sacripant.  "Not too often mind you.  Honestly, we still talk about every time it did."  He sighed.  "It's a very boring town, most of the time."

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 12

Willard looked out the window of the Great Tower.  "It truly is an incredible accomplishment, you know."  He glanced at the young man behind him.  "Do you know it took them twenty years to build it?"

"No, sir, I didn't," said the man.

"Oh, it's true," said the Ancient.  "Twenty years.  Brick by brick.  Stone by stone.  They built it.  They knew how to do such things, here in Talossa, in those times.  They understood how to build a thing, slowly, surely, so it would stand for centuries."  A smile touched Willard's face.  "As long as the repairs were kept up, of course."  He turned to glance at the young man.  "That is important you know.  Oh, the money we've spent keeping this pile of stones standing.  It would make your head spin."

"Eyes forward, sir," said the man. 

Willard turned back.  "Of course.  Of course.  Wouldn't want to make it difficult for you."

"I appreciate that," said the young man, lifting the hammer.

"Well, I am glad," said Willard. "It's important that this be done without hard feelings on either side."  He chuckled.  "There's none on mine, after all."

"I... find that hard to believe," said the man, taking a practice stroke with the hammer.

"A chance occurence," said Willard.  "Like being bit by a stray dog."

"That happened to my brother, when I was young," said the man.

"You're still young," noted Willard.

"Well, younger," snapped the man.  "He died."

"That is a pity," said Willard, looking back again.

"Eyes forward!" shouted the young man.  He took a deep breath.  "Sorry.  Shouldn't raise my voice."

"It's all right," said Willard, glancing out the window again.

"You can shut your eyes, if you'd like," said the young man.  "It... it might make things easier."

"No, no," said Willard.  "I am going to meet the Seven with my eyes open, if I can."  He looked down on the ground, so far below, and focused on a small point of light, as he waited for the hammer to fall upon his skull.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 11

The woman was sitting at a bench, eating a grilled sausage when Sacripant and Nathan approached her.  "You... you were the musician..." said Sacripant.

"Hello Nina," said Nathan quietly.

"Lamplighter," answered Nina, going back to her meal.

"I greeted you by  name," Nathan chided.

"Very well," Nina answered with a smirk.  "Nathan the Lamplighter.  Why do you darken my presnece at the moment?"

"I think you stole my friend's purse," answered Nathan, gesturing to Sacripant. 

"I?" said Nina.  "I am a street musician! I play the harp prettily to the applause of the crowd..."

"While your siblings lift purses," replied Nathan.

Nina smirked at that.  "The little dears need to do something."  She glanced at Sacripant.  "Anyway, he's no Lamplighter, so it's no business of yours, I believe."

"He's a guest, under our protection," said Nathan.  "Mine specifically."

"That should have been made clear," said Nina.

"The purse, Nina," snapped Nathan.

With a grumble, the woman produced it and tossed it at the Erl's feet.  "Oh, very well.  Count the coins if you wish--you'll find we didn't spend any of your strange Nightlander money yet. "

Sacripant picked it up and then glanced inside.  "I liked your song!" he said accusingly, as he replaced it on his belt.

"Then you have good taste," she said, going back to her meal. "Now... off with you."

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 10

"Behold the hour is late!" said the masked man in the doorway.

Willard stared at him for a long moment.  "It is early evening, Aloysius."

Aloysius recoiled at that.  "You are not supposed to recognize me!"

"Yes, but I know your voice anywhere," replied Willard leaning back in his chair.  "Care for a drink?  I have some of that fine Nightland brandy here.  It really is quite excellent."

"A Voice of the Council must not drink on the job!" said Aloysius.

"I'm on the Council," said Willard with a sigh.  "You could consider it an order."

Aloysius peered at him imperiously through the mask's eye-holes.  "There are Ancients, and there are Ancients, Willard.  You are most assuredly not a member of the second group."

"How do you know?" asked Willard.  "They might have invited me to join them?"

Aloysius crossed his arms.  "No levity!  You are called to a secret council by the Voice!  Come immediately."

Willard nodded, stood up and got a bottle from the wall.  He poured himself a small glass.

"I told you I'm not having a drink!" snapped Aloysius.

"Yes, but I am," said Willard.  He gulped it down, smacking his lips.  "Ahhh.  That satisfied."  He turned to regard Aloysius again.  "You sure you won't have one?"

Aloysius stared for a moment, and then entered the room, grumbling all the while.  "Oh, very well.  But a different glass."

"Of course!" said Willard with a nod.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 9

Sacripant glanced back at the doorway.  "Well, that was... odd. Who was the...?"

"He could have you killed with a word, you know," said Nathan flatly, as he walked down the darkened hall.

"What?" Sacripant scurried to the Lamplighter's side.

"Crookleg could have you killed with a word," repeated Nathan. "His people were all around us.  A word, a nod, even a look from him, and you'd be dead."

The Erl blinked.  "You're serious.  Damn.  Who... is he?"

"A Master of the Guild of Beggars and Thieves. He handles security here.  For a hefty fee."  Nathan shook his head.  "Masters of the Guild do not like to be trifled with."

"So... why did you come here if it's so dangerous?" asked Sacripant.

"It isn't dangerous to me," said Nathan.  "Nor to you, if you follow my instructions. The Beggars do not attack the Lamplighters.  It's an arrangement we have.  An old one.  Old as the Great Tower and its bell."

Sacripant blinked.  "How old is that, precisely?"

Nathan considered things.  "I'm not really sure.  The King of Leonais did not rule in Joyeuse then.  That I know for certain."  He paused before a curtain and pulled it back.  Sacripant stared ahead into the darkness, and saw a crowd in a great chamber, eating, drinking, and... so far as he could tell... selling things

"The Thieves Market of Talossa," said Nathan.  "Follow me.  And don't talk to anyone unless I tell you to."

"What if I see the pickpockets who took my stuff?" asked the Erl.

"You especially don't talk to them," answered Nathan.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 8

Crookleg sat before the building, his eyes closed, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders.  A hoot disturbed the old man's apparent rest--his rheumy eyes opened, and glanced out over the desolate square. 

"Who is there?" asked the old beggar quietly.

The Lamplighter approached, the Erl behind him.  "Nathan, of the Guild of the Lamp," he answered.  "I come to call on the old agreements between Lamp and Bowl."

Crookleg snorted.  "Agreements?  Where were the agreements, when Yellow Tom and Suky Tawny were forced from the streets a week ago, mmm?  You Lamplighters grow ever harder on we poor, poor Beggars, and we do you no wrong, no wrong at all..."

Nathan crossed his arms.  "Yellow Tom was probably killing the men that Suky lured to him.  We can accept a certain measure of theft.  Not murder."

"Unproven!" snapped Crookleg.  "Absolutely unproven!  Oh, the cruelty of you brothers of the Lamp!"

"This is not presently under discussion," said Nathan.  "I am here one another matter."

Crookleg glanced at Sacripant.  "You I know.  Him I do not."

"He travels with me," replied Nathan.  "Under my protection."

Crookleg spat and turned away.  "A Nightfolk.  You bring a Nightfolk."

"I do," said Nathan with a nod.  "Now, will you let me in, or will I have to go back to my brothers and tell them the Beggars forget the old laws?"

Crookleg sat there for a moment, and then curled into a ball.  "Oh, very well.  Go in.  Go in.  See if it helps you.  I need my rest."

Nathan gave a formal bow, and then glanced at Sacripant.  After a moment, the Erl bowed as well.  "We thank you, Master Crookleg, for your forbearance."

Crookleg mumbled something inaudible as the pair entered the building.  As they vanished, he appeared once again to sleep.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 7

Nathan watched the Erl gulping down a mouthful of noodles.  "These are good!" declared Sacripant.  He glanced at the Lamplighter.  "I'm kind of surprised at all the stalls and stands and carts for food you have in Talossa...  Closest things to them in the Folly is coffee houses."

"They keep people fed," answered Nathan.  "You feeling better now?"

"Well, full at least," said Sacripant.  He put the bowl to his lips and drank down the broth.  As Nathan watch, the Erl licked around his lips with a rather large, long tongue.  "Very good."  He smiled at Nathan, who turned away awkwardly.

"So," began Nathan, "where exactly were you when you were purse was lifted?"

Sacripant scratched his head.  "Umm, let's see... You know the street with a hippopotamus statue?"

Nathan nodded.  "Water Street?"

"Ahh, thanks," said the Erl.  "I was two streets to the west of that,"

"That would be the Fine Way," answered Nathan.  He sighed.  "Come with me."

"You're saying that a lot, tonight," noted Sacripant as he fell in beside the Lamplighter.

"You've gotten yourself in a bit of a mess," answered Nathan.

"True," agreed Sacripant.  He yawned.  "So... Fine Way?"

Nathan shrugged.  "It used to be a very well-to-do neighborhood."

Sacripant's eyes went wide.  "What happened?"

"The same thing that happened to the rest of Talossa," answered Nathan.  "Time."

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 6

The sun was setting and the evening was beginning as Nathan made his way through the streets, lighting the lamps.  He'd drawn the early shift tonight, something he was grateful for.  It would be good to see Monica in the evening for once...

"Umm, hello!" came a vaguely familiar voice tinged with desperation.  Nathan glanced down the street to his Erl houseguest standing there in a stained cloak, glancing around nervously.  He considered things for a moment, then sighed and walked towards the Nightlander.

"Fenswater," said Nathan flatly.  "What are you doing here?"

"Being lost, hungry and broke," said Sacripant.  "Help me please."

Nathan stared for a second.  "You don't have much pride, do you?"

"Oh, I have plenty," answered the Erl.  "But not a drop of false pride.  You lose that quickly in the Guard." 

"Ahh."  Nathan nodded.  "So... how exactly did you run out of money?  You had plenty last I..."

"Stolen," answered Sacripant.  "By children." Nathan gave another nod at that.  "You don't seem surprised," noted the Erl.

"Most pickpockets are children," replied the Lamplighter with a shrug.  "The Guild  like to start them young."

Sacripant stared.  "The... Guild?  There's a guild of pickpockets in this city...?"

"A guild of thieves," answered Nathan.  "Well... criminals in general really.  Used to be a guild for beggars--still is to a degree--but they realized crime paid better."

"And you don't try to catch them, or anything?" said Sacripant.

"Not my job," said Nathan.  "I just light lamps, and stop random crimes and acts of violence."  He peered at Sacripant for a moment.  "Still..."    He gestured.  "Come on."

"Where are we going?" asked Sacripant, falling behind the Lamplighter.

"To get you a bowl of soup," replied Nathan.  "You said you were hungry."

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 5

Sacripant chomped the bread that hunger at last compelled him to buy at one of the many stalls on the street.  It was surprisingly tasty, though Sacripant found he had to make a concerted effort not to wonder what the ingredients might have been.  The sound of music struck his ears. 

"...And the King did come, saying 'what does ail you my lady? Your eyes they look so dim, your eyes they look so dim'..." sang the pretty young woman playing a small harp.  Sacripant smiled.  That was another thing that was everywhere in Talossa, during the day--musicians.  They played old songs, and were paid by passer-bys.  They all seemed to stay a certain distance from each other, following some strange code that the Marsh Erl didn't even claim to fathom. 

They were, as a rule, quite good at it.  He could understand why people lived here, when he passed them.  A group of cheerful children skipped by Sacripant, jostling him slightly.  He gave a forebearing chuckle.  He had to admit, this wasn't such a bad place on the whole...

He stopped.  His hand had idly gone into his cloak, as he did every so often, and not felt the familiar weight of his coin purse.  He checked again.

It was definitely gone.

Sighing he turned around and headed back down the streets, eyes looking for the children who'd jostled him.

Who he couldn't see now.

Damn it.  This was becoming one of these days.   He nodded.  He would just have to head back to his host's house and...

He then realized that he had no real idea what street he was on, exactly.

Damn it again.  He attempted to tell himself that things could not get worse.

That was when a bird shat upon his cloak.

Damn it yet again.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 4

Willard's eyes darted over the accounts.  Grain was up, the new spice sales were expanding to meet the burgeoning supply, and coin was rolling in.  On the whole, it was proving quite a profitable season, even if the war was going on, and the Nightfolk were here now. 

Possibly because of that.  It was hard to be sure, of course.  One should never jump to conclusions in such matters.  Especially when they were such controversial ones.  An Ancient had to remember that he was a respectable citizen of Talossa.  One of the most respectable, which is why he had been vouchsafed the right to meet in the Chamber, to ask and to direct, instead of being called there, to answer and to obey.

And yet a man had to remember that even an Ancient could find himself brought before the Chamber if he was not careful.  No man was greater than Talossa.  The Ancients' rights were based on their understanding that, and seeking to answer and obey the needs of the city, as they discerned it. 

Which presently meant a Dark Lord was serving as Lord Protector.  Largely because the Dukes and Nobles in the East had insisted on it, but still, everyone could agree that Amfortas had been remarkably bad at it.

Though the Faith was still apparently in the middle of its delusion that a man who had been imprisoning his own father was a great and worthy champion of righteousness.

Which was another problem for the Ancients.  But one an Ancient was expected to avoid talking about.  Or even thinking about for a prolonged time. 

Willard glanced back at his accounts.  Yes, they were good.  Very good.  

And he was tired.  Very tired.

And it was only the beginning of the day.  Swearing quietly to himself, Willard cursed all the sinister plotting that being an Ancient involed him with.  One could repeat the old formulas over and over, but in the end, the same damn problem emerged--you were scheming, and scheming tended to be bad business in the long run, especially when you had no clear payoff for them.

He'd told them that, of course, but they hadn't listened.  They rarely did.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 3

Sacripant stared at the Goblin at the airship station.  "So... no messages for me?"

She glanced at him with such startling suspicion that he had to wonder what was going. "No.  Not at all.  Not for some time."  She leaned forward.  "Don't expect any in the future, either.  At least, not from the Emporium."

Sacripant raised an eyebrow.  "So... I might get one... not from the Emporium?"

"I didn't say that!" she snapped.  "Don't ask any more questions!  I'm not allowed to answer them!"

"Not any?" asked Sacripant.

She fidgeted and turned away.  "Have to tend the shop!  Spice exports!  They're vitally important!  Vitally!"

Sacripant sighed.  "Right.  Right."  He began to walk out the station, and then paused.  "Will they be sending any more...?"

"No questions!" she yelled, rushing outside to board the airship.

Sacripant headed outside and glanced at the tall building, trying to figure out what it had been before it had been the Emporium had purchased it to keep their airships near when they were in the city.  Whatever it was, it was ungodly tall.  But then, so were all the buildings near it, especially the Great Tower.  He wondered what it was about Talossa that made its inhabitants want to make everyone there feel small, and then gave up with a shrug.  It wasn't something unique to Milesians.  There were places in the Lands of Night like that, after all.

"Sausage, sir?" asked a man, pushing a cart with a brazier through the street. 

Sacripant eyed the greasy things suspciously.  "What's in them?"

The man stared at him as if he'd asked him to name an obscure figure from history.  "Meat?" he at last managed.

"I think I'll pass," said Sacripant, moving on.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 2

In the old town, the streets of Talossa were clad in marble.  Not the finest marble now--not for a long time.  It was pitted, and blackened, and covered in graffiti.  But still marble.  The morning mists put a strange sheen to it, when the light struck it, that made it seem strange and dead.

Grunewald shook his head. He was being foolish, but then, he'd been foolish in this manner quite a bit recently. Somehow, it was hard these days to move about Talossa and not feel the best days had passed--passed before he was even born, leaving men like him to live in a withered, battered shell, dreaming of a glory they knew only in stories. 

It was depressing, but you went on.  It was all you could do.

Ulrich and Morrell were waiting for him at the corner.  "So... what's Nathan told you about the Erl?" asked Ulrich.

"Not much," said Grunewald.  "He apparently keeps to himself.  And Nathan..."

"Birds of a feather," said Morrell with a snort.

Grunewald nodded.  "Aye."

"Well, keep asking," said Ulrich.  "The Lamplighters do not need this matter to become more of an embarassment.  It's bad enough as it is."

"I know that," said Grunewald eyes flashing with resentment.

"Did we suggest you didn't?" said Morrell.  "This is a friendly reminder.  We are all one fellowship here.  One brotherhood, with one purpose."

"And serving one city," added Ulrich.

Grunewald nodded.  He didn't like being a spy for his fellows in this matter, but that's what being a Lamplighter meant.  You went on.  It was all you could do.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Light the Lamp So Bright--Part 1

Sacripant Fenswater awoke to the sound of the great bells of Talossa tolling and groaned.  Shutting his eyes, he did his best to try sleep again, but it was hopeless.  Rest escaped him, in the manner of his uncle's little pug dog when Sacripant was on orders to try and clean it.  He would appear to be on the verge of holding it in his hands, only to have it slip away.

He gave a frustrated yawn.  He knew he was tired now--he was getting poetic.  And nostalgic.  But the bell kept ringing, and so Sacripant rose from the too-lumpy mattress and changed into his uniform. 

The ringing finally stopped as he fastened on his cloak. Sacripant scowled.  He blamed being a country boy for not getting how these city dwellers allowed their lives to be ruled by the clanging of bells and the rules of strange fellowships.  In Valse, your parents woke you in the morning, and then you fished. 

Because everybody in Valse had parents, and fished.  It was exciting, but it was regular.

Talossa was different.  The Guilds were everywhere.  The Great Bells rang on their appointed hours, and men and women lived by them.  Sacripant had never seen anything like it.  Not even in the Folly, with its clubs and sworn brotherhoods.  Compared to Talossa, the Folly seemed a simple place. 

He'd been here almost a week, and he still had not seen the Ancients.  Indeed he was still saying in the Lamplighter's home, despite promises that he would be moved to a more private set of rooms, promises that never varied in their pleasantness, in their vagueness, and indeed, in their very language.

"Hello, Mr. Fenswater," said the Lamplighter's wife as he came down the stairs.  "The oatmeal's ready, if you'd like it.   Apples and raisins."

"Thank you, Monica," he said.  He glanced around.  "Where's Nathan?"

"Sleeping," she answered.  "He had a late night."

"How can he sleep through that?" asked Sacripant as he took a seat.

"You're not the first person to ask that," she answered ruefully.  "I think it's a family trait.  Lamplighters, five generations back."  She sighed.  "He warned me it was a strange life, but I was smitten."

"Well, make damn sure he realizes he's a lucky man," noted Sacripant.

"Rest assured, I do," she said with a smirk.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 21

Mansemat smacked his lips and wondered when they'd feel normal again.  He gave himself another mental kick.  He'd known the tea was much too hot, but had gulped it down anyway, and then managed to spill it on his mouth as he jerked the cup away. 

Viviane glanced at him.  "Do you want me to...?"

"I'll be fine," said Mansemat.  "Just fine.  It's really not worth bothering."

"Yeah, well, I don't want you doing that all through the meeting," she said.  "It's really annoying.  And it makes you look kind of like an idiot."

Mansemat considered noting that he never talked about her tapping her fingers on tables during meetings, but realized that was a self-nullifying statement, and said nothing.  Instead, he allowed himself to scowl, something that continued as Mayor Corin Latheawl entered.  As the big bluff face was also scowling, Mansemat immediately tried to put on a more pleasant face.

He disliked making bad situations worse.  It brought back bad memories from his youth.  "Mayor Latheawl," began Mansemat.  "It is good to see..."

The man continued to frown as he took his seat.  "If that is your opinion, it will soon change," he said.  He stared at the Dark Lords flatly. "Marsilion's Folly cannot pay for this war indefinitely, Your Magnificences.  We are forced to refuse your request for an increase on the salt tax." 

Viviane blinked. "Wow.  You don't pull punches."

"That's why I was elected mayor of the Folly.  Twice," replied Latheawl.  "As the Black Caps will tell you, I'm not a man to be trifled with."

"And we will not do this," said Mansemat trying hard to smile.  "We respect you, Mayor, respect you greatly and..."

Corin glanced around.  "Where is Lord Nisrioch?"

"Elsewhere," said Viviane quietly.

Latheawl sighed.  "A pity.  He is well-versed in local matters."

Mansemat considered pointing out that he regularly appeared in his chains of office to discuss just that, but decided against it.   Instead he fidgeted nervously, and glanced at the door, hoping for a knock.

When it came, he had a sinking feeling he shouldn't have made the wish.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 20

Justinian watched the flaming pot rushing through the air, streaks of fire trailing in its wake.  It landed in a small shop with a thatched roof.   As the familiar crackle reached his ears, he turned to the short man by his side.  "Call the buckets!  A fire on the Golden Street!"

The man scowled at him, as he loosened his horn from his belt.  "I can see that!"  He sounded a quick series of notes, which was apparently a sort of code.  Sigma could scarcely credit it, but sure enough the men were appearing in the streets, buckets in hand.

"The Guilds know their business!" said the man with a grim smile.  "If you'd only let us run more than a few streets prior to this, the damned Prince would never have done what he did."

Justinian gave a dull nod.  "Now is not the time to discuss the problems of Joyeuse's government, Valdemar."

"It's always the time," said the Guildmaster.  "There's going to be changes in this city, you can trust me on this."

Justinian considered a reply to this, but decided to focus on the Easterner assault on the walls.  The janissaries were trying another battering ram assault on the gates.  It occurred dimly to him that it was somewhat distressing the differences in Amfortas' army's shamble of a siege compared with Ilarion's disciplined one--but then Joyeuse was not Montalban.  The city was difficult to defend in the best of time--months of strife and jangled nerves had not helped.  And then there were all the nobles who had headed to their home estates once Amfortas' government had toppled.  Not that he could completely blame them--the north was also ablaze, as the Prince's loyalsts raided and looted in his name. 

It doesn't help that we're all fighting for a thousand different causes, in the end.  Amfortas had promised a new age of glory for Leonais--now it looked as if the kingdom might cease to exist after his rule. 

It seemed a fitting epitaph.

"So when are your Nightfolk friends coming again?" asked Valdemar with a scowl, as he watched the battering ram burst into flame.

"They should be here soon," replied Justinian, hoping he was right.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 19

Gulchenrouz glanced out the window of his watchtower, stared for awhile, then turned to his notebook.  "Four hours, fifteen minutes past the rising of the moon.  All is well," the young Erl jotted down.  Then he stared at what he had written, and sighed. 

His work as Officer of the Evening Watch of Bridge Perilous was... well, generally quite dull.  Which, while it left him plenty of time to write poetry was also quite fatal to his inspiration.  For once--just once--he wished something would happen. 

There was a sudden bang down the hall.  Leaping to his feet, Gulchenrouz rushed to the chamber's door, and opened it.

The cleaning woman was recovering the broom she had dropped. Gulchenrouz grumbled to himself and went back into his chamber.  Of course.  He should have expected that.  As he'd noted, nothing ever happened in this city.  A quick look at his clock confirmed it was time for another check.  He glanced out the window, and then went back to his notebook.  "Four hours, twenty minutes past the rising of the moon.  All is well."  He set down his pen, and tried to find some bit of inspiration.

There was a strange burst of noise from behind him, followed by a stabbing pain in his right side.  He attempted to cry out as his chair was yanked back, and he was tossed to the ground, but no sound came.  The form of his assailant came into view as he lay on the floor, a tall Dev with slightly crooked horns. The man smiled at him, watching him with amused orange eyes.  Gulchenrouz tried to say something but still his voice would not come. 

The man glanced at the clock, and after several minutes, went to the notebook, and began to jot something down.

It occurred to Gulchenrouz that he knew exactly what the man was writing there.

And that gave him an idea for a poem, one that he would never write now. 

He died many minutes later, cursing the world's unfairness.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 18

Suckling Squaretoe gave a convulsive shake as he stood in the great field by the River Skadh. A cold wind was blowing over the assembled Mamelukes.  "I tell you, I wished we could have just taken an airship."

"Shut up, Suckling," hissed Hearn.

"Well, we could," noted the younger Mameluke. 

Hearn gestured ahead, where an Erl on a horse had rode to the top of a hill and had now turned to address them all.  "The old man's talking."

Suckling stared ahead.  "The Seneschal?  Pinabel Maganza isn't old."

Hearn turned to hush him, then saw the Serjeant glaring at him, and kept quiet.  Turning his attention to Pinabel, he watched the one-eyed Erl begin to speak.  It seemed to Hearn that the man looked tired, but then, Pinabel Maganza always looked tired to him.

"Honored servants of House Maganza," said Pinabel, his voice carrying over the evening air.  "We thank you for enduring this grueling march.  Truly, you are the sons of honor, and carved of the same ebony as the throne."

Suckling gave a cheerful nod.  "Heh.  That's nice.  Always did like the Seneschal.  Knows how to make a man feel appreciated, he does."

"And as you have not stinted throught this, I ask that you not stint in the days ahead," continued Pinabel, his customary frown growing deeper.  "For now--now the House of Maganza has great need of you, great need of your loyalty, and your strength.  Do not fail us, sons of honor.  Hold your heads high, in the days ahead!"

Hearn felt troubled by all this, somehow, though he was not sure why.  "Hey, Hearn," hissed Suckling, pointing across the Skadh, "why's the Seneschal telling us this now?  Outside Tremisona?  We're still in the Shadow Woods!"

Hearn realized why he thought something was wrong then, staring at the flag of House Mongrane flying over the city.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Meetings and Conference--Part 17

Sacripant smiled broadly at the woman staring at him from across the table.  "This is... good," he stated.   "Very interesting gruel..."

"It's oatmeal," said Monica with a nod. 

One of the children, a young boy, seated nearby leaned forward.  "How come you're so funny-looking?"

Monica glared at her son.  "Pelle!"

"Well, he is!" said Pelle.  "I mean even for an Erl." A young girl seated next to him nodded.

"You still, shouldn't say that!" snapped his mother.  "And Elise--you shouldn't agree with him!  Apologize, both of you now."

The pair mumbled something that sounded vaguely like apologies.  "It's all right," said Sacripant.  "I've heard worse over across the River."  He shrugged.  "I'm a Marsh Erl.  We live near the water, and by Mother Night's Unholy blessing, we have been shaped to do so effectively."  He pointed to himself.  "I was a great fisherman, before joining the Cthonique Guard."

The girl stared at him wide-eyed.  "Grampa is a fisherman," she whispered.

"Well, that's nice," said Sacripant.  "I'm sure he and I have a lot in co..."

The girl shook her head.  "He doesn't like Erls."  The boy nodded in agreement.

Sacripant coughed and went back to his meal.  "So... oatmeal?"

"Mmm-hmmm," said Monica.  "Nathan swears by it.  Keeps him going every night."

The Guardsman looked to the door.  "He going to be back soon?"

Monica stared blankly ahead.  "Lamplighting is a great responsibility," she said.

"Right, right." Sacripant gave a quick frustrated breath, and then went back to eating the oatmeal.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 16

The three Stylites regarded Prince Amfortas dispassionately.  "Sire, it is time you awake," stated one.

"I am not sleeping," said the man lying on the filthy mattress before them.  "I do not sleep anymore.  My mind will not stop." He coughed.  "It is the Nightfolk.  They are whispering in my ears.  All the time.  The wicked things.  Trying to break my concentration.  Ahh, but they do not know, they do not understand I cannot be broken.  I am the glorious... the glorious..."  He blinked.  "Where is Doctor Praetorious?"

"Elsewhere," said one of the Stylites. 

"I need another..." began Amfortas.

"No," said a Stylite.  "He himself stated he would not give you another dose for some time.  It is he who recommended we deal with you."

"The men are worried," stated another.  "Your lack of appearances are concerning them."

"The men are warriors in our holy cause," murmured Amfortas, turning over.  "They may trust in me from a distance.  My thoughts are with them."  He stirred weakly.  "Where is Doctor...?"

The Stylites glanced awkwardly amongst themselves.  "We just told you he is not here," said one.

"Then go get him," muttered Amfortas, burying himself in his blankets.  After a moment, he gave another turn.  "Flowers with human faces..." The Stylites remained around him.  "Which ones are you?"

"We are Moldwart, Graveworm, and Fingerbone," stated one.

"New ones then," said Amfortas.  "You people come and go so quickly these days.  Makes me wonder why...  The sky... the sky is blue.  And green.  And yellow."

The three Stylites stood there motionless for a while, and then filed out of the room.  "This is most awkward," said Graveworm.

"He seems to be getting steadily worse," said Moldwart.

"Should we send the mad girl in and have her... shave him?" said Fingerbone.  "He needs to be... presentable, and he won't let anyone besides her and the doctor near him these days."

Moldwart nodded.  "This seems like a reasonable approach."

Graveworm sighed.  "I have been here half a year, and he doesn't recognize me."

Fingerbonre regarded his fellow for a second.  "That is disturbingly self-centered, Graveworm."

"You are right," said the Stylite abashed.  "I am becoming flustered.  It is this mission.  I will abase myself before Grandmaster Radience when next we talk."

The trio nodded in unison and filed out the hall.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 15

Mansemat Cthonique stood at the solitary tree that lay in the distance.  He wasn't sure what sort of tree it was, really.  Possibly an oak.  Or perhaps... an ash.  He'd have to ask Viv.  She was good with trees.  For him--well, he knew the general fact that some had needles and others had leaves, but the specifics were he had to acknowledge, rather beyond him.  But Viv would know.  Or Nissy...

He winced.  He'd forgotten for a moment there.  But then it was hard.  For his entire life, Nisrioch had been this familiar presence, always there, or at least, within range.  And now... gone.

Because Mansemat had sent him away.  Because he had to.  Because years and years of plots and plans, and promises that it was all for the greater glory had at last gotten too cloying, too ridiculous to keep up with, no matter how much he loved his brother.  Because you could never know what those strange Demon's eyes saw, could you?  Could never be sure where you measured up in them...

That tree bothered him.  It bothered him on a fundamental level. And he didn't know why.  It just gave him a fundamental sense of dread.

He thought he heard a flutter of wings near him.  He was about to turn to face it, when he heard a voice.  "Ahem...  Give me just a second..." muttered Jean.  "There!"  Mansemat turned to see his sister-in-law standing there.  "You know I'm so glad I figured out how to apport clothes.  Makes shape-shifting so much easier."

"I'm glad to see things are working out so well for you after our latest ordeal," replied Manesmat.

Jean stared at him suspiciously.  "Is that sarcastic?"

"No," said Mansemat, shaking his head.  "Why would you think that?"

"Ehh, maybe it's just all this diplomacy, and other stuff..." muttered Jean.  "I'm starting to distrust everybody, and... you know, we just aren't getting the time to hang out like we used to.  Justinian's out near Joyeuse, handling those damn talks with the damn Easter King, we're here in the Folly looking for the damn Necklace, Nissy is..."

Mansemat coughed and pointed to the tree.  "What is that?"

Jean arched an eyebrow.  "A tree."

"Yes, but what kind?" asked Mansemat.

"Well, I'm not a big tree girl--Viv would be better--but I'd say that's... a birch," said Jean.

Mansemat blinked and stared at it for a long moment.  "Really?"

"Yep," said Jean.  "See the whitish bark?"

Mansemat nodded.  "Ahh.  Well, thank you.  That was bothering me, you see."

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Meetings and Conferences--Part 14

Justinian did his best to look forcefully into the chubby man's eyes.  "So," said the Eastern ambassador, "yet again, after your assurance that meaningful talks could begin today, we are again presented with more delays."  He gave a sigh.  "Such a... pity."

Justinian glanced away.  "Things have happened."

The chubby man gave a little sniff.  "This seems to happen quite freqently."

"Well, yes," said Justinian.  "We live in a shifting world.  Things are constantly happening.  In this case, they mean that I alone am talking with you."

"Indeed," said the man with yet another sigh.  "On my side, the Emperor's court has... given me an indication of the Most Worthy's thoughts on this matter..."

Justinian gave a dull nod.  The Easter King had countless honorifics, all exaggerated, all faintly ridiculous.  "And what were they?"

"That the truce, alas, must end," said the ambassador.  "In a week's time, if the Emperor is not given reason to think otherwise, our troops will besiege Joyeuse."

Justinian did his best not to fall out of his chair.  "That... surely Skarvsky realizes that..."

The man gave a slight smile.  "I would not dare claim to know the mind of the Illustrious Gate.  But... let us consider.  Over and over we suffer delays.  Bothersome delays.  And vague tales of disorder.  And that indicates that the eye of your Dark Lord is turned from this area.  And so the Emperor asks himself, what does he risk by attacking? And he decides, very little."

Justinian took a deep breath.  "Yes, but..."

The man raised one plump little hand. "Indeed, before you object, I am only speculating.  Foolishly!  Foolishly!  For who am I to speak for our great and glorious Emperor.  A flea, a speck, a bit of dirt!"  He gave a shrug.  "And yet, that is who you must deal with for the moment..."

"Of course," said Justinian, rubbing his temples.