Alchemical Marriage, Prologue

Tuesday, October 21, 2008 - 4:12 PM

The concept and design of the crebath is expounded upon and used here by permission of the creator, Nigel Sade.

Both sides had retreated from the battlefield, leaving both torn bodies and torn earth behind them. Once, a few pleasant groves of trees had decorated the swells and valleys of the field, but only burnt and tattered stumps remained.

It was Wistan's rather poetic impression that such a place always seemed overcast, as if the sun didn't want to look at what had happened. This day bore him out; the sky was lead gray with sheets of cloud, and a light fog was coming down from the highland woods to the east. Though this suited his aesthetics, it did not suit his comfort.

Rain was coming, and he was on watch.

Sitting under a simple lean-to, Wisten kept his eyes on the field, particularly where the tattered remains of the enemy bunker had been. The wind picked up to spite him, cold as it was, and with it came the plaintive sounds of rain hitting the top of his shelter. He sighed to himself, and then focused immediately on a small group of gray-clad figures, drifting across the field. He peered closely at them for a moment, and then looked away.

A few moments later, the dull thud of footsteps announced Dieder. “Oi, Wistan, any .... hey, what's amiss?”

Wistan glanced back at the younger man, staring out at the field, peering at the figures with the wide-brimmed hats and long smocks. “What're they doing out there?”

“Just let it be,” said Wistan. “It's the crebath, is all. Keep an eye out, but nobody's going to be out there when they are.”

Dieder's face went white. “Crebath? Then... Wistan, we can't let...”

“Let it go,” said Wistan. “The dead are dead. By the time we can go out there and get them, they'll be a right mess anyway. If a piece or two are missing, it's not going to matter.”

“It's just not right.” The younger man frowned tightly at the gloom, watching the figures as they moved carefully through the field, occasionally pausing. Two carried a large tarp between them. Another wore something like a chest of drawers on its back.

“War ain't right either,” said Wistan, and then marking the hard look in Dieder's eyes, added a bit more in a stern, smooth tone. “Just give it a rest. They'll be gone soon.”

Dieder subsided, looking away abruptly. “Didn't one take your finger? Bastards, all of them.”

“Not all of them,” replied Wistan, amiably sipping at the hot tea Dieder had brought. “Finest doctors and surgeons you'll ever know. One might even save your life one day.” But yes, he thought, one did take my finger, and he was a bastard to be sure. A polite bastard, yes, but a bastard nonetheless, and all for a ring finger he thought was 'perfect'. 'My apologies, but you have something I need,' he'd said.

“It's true, some of them are bastards,” Wistan amended.

Crouching nearby, scanning the field, Dieder glanced at the older man a moment. “...I heard they make more crebath using corpses.”

Wistan grimaced. “Truth, sometimes. They... most of them... pay well for parts. And even the ones who take, they're polite about it, even while cutting on you. Around here, you'll see them on the field after battle, scavenging.”

“But how... I mean, how do they do it?”

“Nobody knows, lad. Nobody knows. I figure I don't want to.”

Sipping at his tea, feeling his body cling to the warmth, Wistan watched as the figures rolled something up in the tarp, and shortly thereafter shuffled off into the growing darkness.

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Greater of Two Evils, Epilogue

Friday, October 17, 2008 - 2:57 PM

I've had my head underwater for a little while now. This is a bit overdue, but here it is... enjoy.

Drifting unseen over the vast city of Yhelm, Tristan surveyed the spread of lanterns, fires and candles below him. It created a lovely webwork of warm, golden light that made the darkness surrounding it so much richer. Very soon, he would be leaving the city, but he had one final task to attend to before his departure. Then it would be west again, to meet with the Hierophant.

Over the years, Tristan had wrested a fair number of supernatural powers from dark spirits and demons. Not wanting to take them for granted, and preferring to stand on his own merits, Tristan did not use them often. Generally, he brought them to the fore only when needed.

But occasionally he did indulge himself. He could have walked to the north docks, and there was no need for haste, after all. Earlier, standing on the tower balcony with the wind in his hair, Tristan had craved the opportunity to fly, and so he chose to make his way to the north docks through the night air. He could not move as swiftly as Serina, but the speed was enough to suit him and it was in no way tiring.

So, slipping through the air like a pike through water, he drifted, floated and rushed his way over Yhelm, occasionally pausing to let whispers and words reach him. There was no hurry, and though he knew some of his servants would be concerned about his solitary wandering, he was not worried at all.

Some of them would eventually learn that Tristan never did anything unless he'd considered the risks and found them acceptable. He was careful, and preferred to think five steps ahead in all things. It was always refreshing to find someone else who thought so far ahead; those were the ones he preferred to recruit.

Sweeping silently down over the gloom of the docks, he spotted the isolated guard post he was looking for, and faded back into view as he landed. But when he approached the guard post on foot, he found it empty.

The slightly raspy voice that came from behind him was courteous but cool. “The only reason you are not dead is that you came here openly.”

Tristan smiled. “May I turn to face you?”

“No. Stay as you are, state your business, and then leave the city.”

Nodding, Tristan reached into his sleeve... slowly... and withdrew a folded piece of paper, which he dropped on the ground. “You already know that one of the Practical Ones has come to the city, but you haven't found him yet. That is where he is hiding.”

“Why give it to me?”

Tristan knew what the paladin Keira looked like, and in his mind's eye, he knew that her face would not have changed expression. She understood the need for masks, and he understood that hers would be one he couldn't remove. “He threatens one of my interests. I have the means to locate him, but I am not the law here. So I give him to you.”

“Clever,” came the calm voice, without much inflection. “Is that all?”

A few conversations flowed through Tristan's mind, but he dismissed them. It would be impossible to recruit Keira, as much as he'd love to do so. There was no compromise in her; she understood what he was, and far better than any other paladin in the city. Best to keep it short.
“No, that would be it. May I leave?”

“Seeing as you are here,” Keira said in the same level, slightly rusty tone,“... you have my warning. Never come back to Yhelm. The next time you do, there will be no talking. Now go.”

Pleasantries were also useless, so Tristan simply nodded, and strolled away on foot, back towards the center of the city. He and his entourage would have until morning to leave, and he fully intended to do so. The work in Yhelm was done. After walking briskly a good distance, Tristan faded from view and flitted back into the night air, heading back towards his balcony.

He knew Keira would find the Practical One, but not for him. It was an opportunity, and she understood opportunities. Most paladins, being armored of purpose and mind, would have immediately considered his actions a trap in some way, and utterly refused. But Keira had been an assassin; she knew that even among the wicked, there were laws. She would wonder at his interest, yes, but that was to be expected. But she knew he was not a fool, and that meant his offering was a tribute, a mutual interest and nothing more.

The ones Tristan had an interest in were the same as those Keira called friends, after all.

The Practical Ones were masters of death, subtle or unsubtle. Their prices were very high, their contracts very strict, and any failure of theirs would only be whispered, if at all. If Keira found and killed the assassin, the contract would be over, and the Practical Ones would wash their hands of the matter. If the Practical One killed Keira, Tristan could return to Yhelm sooner than later.

Either way, he had the Reeve to settle the difference, if need be, and the world would never know.

Yes, he thought as the wind whistled past him. Without men like me, there would be no heroes. I wonder how many heroes know how much men like me treasure them.

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Greater of Two Evils, part 5

Friday, October 3, 2008 - 7:26 PM

All three of the men had something in common; they would not look Tristan in the eye.

He sat comfortably in a velvet-lined chair, the ocean-borne wind whistling over the tower balcony and tousling his long, dark hair slightly. His customary colors made him a handsome study painted in blood and night, and at his feet slept his two hoarfoxes, ghostly white and silver in the late evening gloom. Behind him, beyond the low balcony guard, the vast tiered city of Yhelm spread out in a maze of shadows and lantern-light.

“My lord,” one of the three began. Tristan lifted his chin slightly, and the man went quiet.

“You know,” said Tristan, “what comes of excuses. Are you so weak as that? Bring me the truth.”

“Yes, my lord,” said the one again. He paused. “They have many friends among the alfarkinder, and so it is not easy to ask questions.”

“Did you attempt it?”

“, my lord,” came the hesitant reply.

Tristan saw a sideways glance from another, and noted it. Elis wants promotion, and thinks he can get it.

“Good,” said Tristan decisively, and the predicted surprise on their faces was quickly hidden. “Anything else?”

“Yes....yes, my lord.”

Serin, a nervous shadow of a woman, slipped up and gave Tristan a goblet of wine while the man started reciting some tired information. Much of this Tristan already knew, but he enjoyed discovering how thorough his servants were. Or how treacherous, if they choose to leave something out he knew they'd find.

Many people believed Tristan's perception was supernatural, that his words carried more than mere sound, but the truth was he simply knew what to say and when, to whom.

Yes, he had supernatural means as well, but he preferred to rely on the mundane.

“That's all, my lord.”

“You two,” Tristan indicated the others. “Go.”

There was a furtive silence, and the two left, shown out timidly by Serin, who then cringed back to Tristan's left to fold her hands and sit very still. In turn, Tristan peered at the leader, who was very nervous.

“Be at ease,” Tristan said, and put his smile in his voice.

The man looked up despite himself, eyes wide, caught himself and tried to look down, but he could not.

“Do you understand why I approved of your choice, regarding the alfarkinder?”

Uncertainty flickered over the man's face, trying to reconcile threat with the pleasant warmth that Tristan was projecting.

“No, my lord.”

“When you figure that out, come back and see me again. Keep your men in line, and watch Arrald and Elis both. They'd like your position.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

“Good. You may go. Also, kill Murdoch.”

“...Of course, my lord. I do your bidding.”

The man bowed deeply, and waited for Tristan's leave to go, which was granted. Serin shut the stone door, avoiding the man's regard, and shivered against the door when it was closed. The shiver turned to a ripple, smoky wings spread from her back and her body redrew itself into long, graceful lines. When she walked back to Tristan, the shadow of the timid, wary Serin was utterly gone.

“Murdoch is valuable,” she said in her true voice, all candles and winter.

Tristan regarded her with idle fondness, and sipped at his wine. “Yes, he is. But his loyalties are conflicted, and his death will push the others to make choices of their own. We need that right now.”

Serin nodded, leaning against the side of his chair and curling one of her wings over him like a blood-spotted canopy. “He's also very popular.”

“I don't like popular men without firm loyalties, Serin... at least, not in this case.” He stood up, accidentally waking the foxes. One tilted its elegant snout up at him, peered sleepily, and then tucked itself back into a large, silvery ball.

Tristan moved to the balcony edge, looking out at the moon rise over the city. “We're almost done here, in any event.”

Serin turned, sweeping her other wing out of his view, and leaned towards him again, resting an elbow on the balcony's rail. She did this with the eerie grace of her kind, as if the tower itself had adjusted slightly to accommodate her movements. “And what of the priest and his friends?”

Tristan nodded, thoughtful. “The priest understands sacrifices. The rest will eventually, or so you said.”

“Yes,” said Serin quietly. “That is what I have seen in them. But they will be your enemies, Tristan.”

“Does that trouble you?”

She tilted her veiled face to one side, watching him with crimson eyes. “It does not. I know you. And yet, they are clever adversaries. Do you not worry that they'll undo what you have built?”

Tristan shook his head slowly. “Right now, we are on the same side, whether they like it or not. Whatever I do, it will be serving them, just as I have done for others. Some succeed, and some fail. That is how it has been since the beginning.”

“They will never accept you as an ally, Tristan.”

“Oh, I know. But I am their ally regardless, even if one day I must kill one of them.” He took one of Serin's hands, feeling the silken warmth there, and gave it a gentle kiss.

“They won't take that well,” she replied wryly, her veil hiding a slight smile.

“Now you are trying to be funny,” Tristan said quietly, smiling despite his admonishment. “But I'm being quite serious. What freedom fighter comes to greatness without oppression, Serin? What man takes up the sword to right wrongs if all he knows are peace and prosperity?” He paused, setting her hand back down. “It doesn't matter whether or not they understand. They'll do what they were meant to do, and the world will benefit from it.”

“And you, Tristan?”

Turning to look out at the city, he thumbed the edge of his ruby signet ring, and for a moment, he was a boy looking out at the poverty of Shanmora. “I? Without men like me, there would be no heroes.”

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Greater of Two Evils, part 4

Thursday, October 2, 2008 - 2:10 PM

For twenty years, Lord Endelcar had sifted gold and silver out of seaborne trade, ranging from the coast of Jaevarrin to the Purayu isles and all the way south to the deserts of Antambil and even the far tropical jungles of the Ixte. Though he had little land of his own, his words were valuable to the merchant guilds in many nations, and his wealth and influence were quietly considerable. But like many men of power, Lord Endelcar could not rest. Even as old as he was, he still captained his own ships on occasion, and was constantly traveling, always seeking something more. As his son would describe him, he was 'grey like iron, not like an old man'.

Of course, he suffered from barbed rumors, creeping up behind him with accusations of dishonorable conduct or fraud or hidden sins. He knew the score; no one liked to see another man succeed beyond the norm. Bitterness and envy would always bring hatred to your doorstep. But Lord Endelcar was secure in his reputation as an honorable, educated, disciplined and generous man. After all, that part was true.

He was also a devil worshiper, but there were no rumors about that.

Resting his rope-worn hands on a marble balustrade, he watched the members and guests file in below him. The grand dome above him was painted with a marvelous depiction of a view from beneath the sea, resplendent with jeweled fish and the prow of a boat, and he found it quite lovely. The pageantry of the Kingmakers was important, and finding a place splendid enough for their grand Convocations was a duty intrinsic to his position.

“Is he here yet?” The voice that reached him was hollow from behind a blank mask. It was the Reeve, who usually came and went unnoticed.

“He is not,” replied Lord Endelcar. He didn't trust the Reeve entirely; no one did. The Reeve was there to do things the other Council members were unwilling to do, or those things which would compromise them. As the Hierophant, Lord Endelcar had bound the current Reeve with dreadful oaths and dark promises, so he knew how secure the Reeve's loyalties were. Even so, the man was just a monster, albeit a carefully controlled one.

The Reeve continued after appraising the gathering below. “Do you truly believe he is what he claims?”

“I saw the proof of it,” said Lord Endelcar shortly. “There's no disputing it. But all will... all must see for themselves tonight. That is why we are having a Convocation.”

The Reeve's flat eyes did not change, but he bowed in the slightly awkward yet congenial way he favored. “Forgive my doubts, grand Hierophant; I'll not dispute you.”

You had better not, thought Lord Endelcar, watching as the orrery of people below him began to establish themselves into the proper orbits. The other Council members were taking their places to either side of him now, greeting one another quietly. Convocations occurred only at great need, so many of the Council had not personally met in quite some time. The eight had ways of keeping in communication, but it was a rare day indeed that all were present.

After tonight, the Council would be nine, and the thought of this happening at long last put both dread and wonder into Lord Endelcar's armored heart.

The Manciple, all in black with a precious metal abacus cradled loosely in one arm, approached and offered him a smile, which he returned. They exchanged polite greetings momentarily, and he could see the questions coming. So he put up a hand to silence her, and indicated the neatly arranged audience below.

“He is there,” said Lord Endelcar, and the other Council members looked as one at Tristan, who was entering the great hall.

With Tristan came silence, and his poise swayed the court as if he were an oncoming storm and they were merely reeds. All in red and black, his flowing desert garments matched the ones worn by his unearthly vizier as well as her wings, all blood and shadows spreading out from her back. She was veiled, and on his arm, escorted like any lady of the court.

On his arm! Not bound, nor subservient; nor clearly the teacher and he the student. But on his arm! Lord Endelcar felt it difficult to breathe for a moment, but he mustered his voice to announce what all present already knew. “The Council recognizes the Monarch.”

As Tristan continued, climbing the stair, Lord Endelcar felt dizzy with the significance of the evening. It had been three generations since there had been a Monarch. Oh, yes, there had been pretenders... and devils were very good at discovering the truth, and very good at punishing liars. Lord Endelcar had craved the title, of course. Who among the Council did not? But to hold one of the Council seats was demanding enough, and by the time they claimed a seat for themselves they were old and wise enough to know the Emperor of Hell would not have accepted their petition. Indeed, He would have crushed them for bringing Him a flawed offering.

Pride, so the Book of Lies said. Pride so pure that it was untainted by arrogance, or fear, or need. Pride that demanded nothing Less, that burned away the flaw of hubris.

And Pride is very young this time, thought Lord Endelcar with a sliver of envy.

Tristan took his place at the balcony, with the vizier standing slightly behind him, and raised the gleaming red signet ring. At the same time, the air around his head scarred and tore, slits of seething crimson light that flared, burning red and white, and describing a barbed crown of letters in a jagged script.

Lord Endelcar began to kneel before he even realized it, but he restrained himself just long enough to be the last to do so. Even so, his grudging pride was swept away entirely by numbing elation as Tristan's voice filled the hall with dark beauty.

“What is Mine?”

The Kingmakers all replied in a humbled murmur, lifting their words up to him like the smoke from a burnt offering.

“The right to Rule.”

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