One for the Burning Zeppelin

Thursday, February 19, 2009 - 4:17 PM

Dedicated to Mark Simmons, inspired by a closing comment. Do what you want with this, Mark.

“Will you please stop that,” sighed Etienne.

“She agreed to it,” replied Charlotte, shuffling her cards.

Etienne glared at her. Rather, he glared at the gently lithe woman with thick, lustrous black hair who spoke with Charlotte's inflection and someone else's voice. A small, hesitant trio of candles lit the room and put flickers of fire into the woman's eyes, which did not match the wide innocence they were trying to convey.

Besides, Etienne could see Charlotte in those eyes, and he knew perfectly well Charlotte wasn't innocent.

“It's not right,” he said firmly, with more resolve than he preferred to feel.

“Etienne, she agreed. I have permission. Emily has always wanted you, anyway. She won't find your touch repulsive.”

Not knowing whether to sit or stand, Etienne leaned on the sill instead, frowning to himself. Emily did look quite a bit like Charlotte had looked, and watching Emily move and speak with Charlotte's unspoken language stirred him more than he expected. It had been a year since Charlotte's death, and death hadn't resolved anything.

He watched as the hands danced over the cards with Charlotte's deft motions, laying out a cross of archetypes. “I admit the temptation,” said Etienne, folding his arms. “But you know I can't accept that.”

“It was meant to be, Etienne. You are getting what I know you wished for. She looks so much like me, doesn't she? And she did agree...”

“Meant to be? Charlotte, don't start.”

“Being dead makes one a fatalist,” replied Charlotte, chuckling as Charlotte would, but it sounded alien coming from Emily's throat. “Besides, doesn't your faith proclaim all things happen for a reason? Isn't that why you chose the path you did?”

Frowning slightly, Etienne nodded. Searching for greater purpose, he'd accepted the bonds of immortality, sustained by the blood of mankind. He'd tired of wading through the useless, dying excuses that everyone else followed until their death. When he was offered a chance for something more, he accepted hungrily, and his life became a teetering balance of atonement and redemption. Without virtue, he would become a monster. But with the strength of the monster, he could serve virtue far better than he could as a normal human.

“Yes,” he said. “But I chose that because you died. You weren't there anymore.”

“And I couldn't leave you be,” she smiled. “But it took me a while to find you again. Aren't you happy I did?”

“I don't know what to think, Charlotte. I really don't.”

She tilted her head to one side, keeping the smile on him. “Then just feel.”

He smiled despite himself, and for a moment, it was easy to see Emily as Charlotte. “For you, yes. I have kept that with me, Charlotte. But this... I'm sorry, I can't get past the fact that isn't you.”

“You got past the part where you suck human blood to survive. Why is this so hard?”

Etienne couldn't help but laugh at her wry tone. “That's different. I drink from the enemy, Charlotte. I don't take from the innocent.”

“But they never offer, do they?”

He spat a quick reply, anger born from indecision. “And just how did you get so calm about this, anyway?”

“Etienne,” she said softly, pausing in her laying down the cards. “You never died, not really. I did. I wish I had the words to explain how that changes perspective, but no living language can express it properly. Just... consider this... even after that, even after all that, I am here because of you. For you.”

He watched Emily's face, uncannily mimicking Charlotte's own expressions, and finally sat down at the small table. His heart felt like it was remembering how to beat again, warmed by the mournful yearning in the dark eyes across from him.

“Emily watches over you during the day, Etienne,” whispered Charlotte. “Let her do this for you, too. Let us both do this for you.”

“Stay, then,” he said after a moment. “I... am going to pray, about this. But stay, at least. As a spirit, even if not in Emily.”

Smiling with open, softly growing delight, she held up the last card, showing the warm panorama of the Sun. “The Sun, which is something you fear now... but the card shows that your choice was the good one. Dead or not, Etienne, we haven't finished being happy with each other.”


The Other Side, 4

Wednesday, February 11, 2009 - 6:37 PM

Another installment of the bad guys. Incidentally, if you have an interest in some of the thoughts and portraitures that lurk behind the scenes of the writing process (as well as some fine authorship), you should take a look at the Burning Zeppelin Experience. There's some great thought-provoking observations there.

In the distance, the Wound was a gaping mouth, a canyon that broke the spotted and poisonous verdant landscape with impossible size and depth. To one side, the hunched plateau of Beauty's Rest sat on the Wound's edge, spilling a mottled gray slope into the depths like a waterfall made into bones. Over this, Leoric could see a growing whirlwind of harpies, sweeping up from the Rest and spiraling out over the depths of the Wound.

“Seers cannot see into the Wound,” said Leoric to Avar, who stood quietly nearby. “It rots their vision. But there are other eyes, and we must be sure to blind them.”

“Yes, my lord,” replied Avar, hands resting on the top of his ever-present axe.

That was Avar, thought Leoric as he watched the aerial vortex of harpies. Succinct and to the point. There were never any excuses nor explanations, no sign of the need to explain himself.
“Do you have everything you need, Avar?”

“Yes, my lord,” came the steady reply again.

“Is there any news?”

“Julian returned from the Manticore yesterday. Lakhesis calls on her haruspex to take omens before she agrees to an alliance. Omphale brings news that she has many new hatchlings. The cult of the Obedient has finally arrived at the main camp, with a message from Fidelity to Lady Isabeau. Tancred's work goes quickly, and most of his things have been distributed already. Also, the palimpsests at the Citadel have begun to wake, and Lady Isabeau will be negotiating with them soon.”

“Have any other Disciples shown interest?”

Avar shook his head slightly. “No, my lord.”

Leoric folded his arms, looking back at the younger man. Avar was broad-shouldered, with the easy, powerful build of a man comfortable with hard labor. A sullen, dark-eyed face was shadowed over by a long fringe of black hair, today half-heartedly tied back in a small knot. Mismatched armor blanketed Avar's solid body in a haphazard quilt of metal, chain and thick leather. Every piece was marked with the ruin of its previous owner, but each piece was meticulously cleaned; it was Avar's habit to wear his trophies in this way.

He liked Avar, all the more because Avar was frequently underestimated. Avar didn't brag, nor did he seek recognition. Many assumed he was just a pawn for Leoric, but the truth was Avar was very clever and wise, and capable of surprising subtlety. Certainly his sheer will should have been respected, but very few could even comprehend the terrible agony Avar bore every moment. Few even noticed the precise diction and control of his speech, which hinted at the ceaseless gnawing Avar endured.

No, they only saw Avar the Oathbreaker, Horse-Killer, the Hammer of Kerosh.

“Be sure Julian is properly rested. I will need his mind sharp for questions later,” mentioned Leoric, looking back at the growing tornado of harpies over the Wound. “Tell Lady Isabeau I will return to the Citadel later, and tell her to promise the palimpsests whatever is necessary. Also tell Tancred that no, he may not run off to hunt the 'blasphemers'.”

“The Obedient, my lord?”

“They are there to die for Fidelity, so train them up for the front line.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Leoric saw the huge funnel of harpies darken, the taper thinning and the top widening. He pointed. “Avar, have you ever seen this before?”

“No, my lord.”

“Once a year they do this. All of the harpies go there to praise their ultimate father, Beauty's teacher...”

Avar began to speak, but Leoric put up a hand to silence him. Only a moment later, a single wailing note began in the depths of the Wound, which swiftly washed upward through the cyclone of harpies as each harpy added her voice. The layers of wordless song clashed and spun in liquid cacophony for a few moments, and then the entire whirling flock harmonized in a single, heart-squeezing voice. The song was mournful, triumphant and longing all at once, rising and falling as it echoed throughout the valley.

Leoric could have listened to this song for hours, immune though he was to the heady enchantment of a harpy's voice. It was a confirmation to him, a reminder of what he fought for and what he had made himself. This was why they were Beauty's children. Whatever bitter cruelties harpies may have visited on themselves and others, this was the truth in them.

It was an hour before the harpies began to break their massive cyclone apart, separating into flocks and heading to respective roosts.

Leoric sighed, turning towards Avar, whose expression had not changed.

“You may go,” said Leoric quietly, and Avar curtly walked away.

Avar's soul might be too scarred to feel beauty now, thought Leoric, but mine is not, and I have chained myself to open eyes. The horrors of the Wound are nothing new, and nothing different. Leoric's understanding began when his father hung from the gallows for doing what was right. That understanding was complete the day he stood before the gore-covered madness of Hope's Tree, where corpses hung like fruit and the air was thick with the breath of the dying.

Mankind did not deserve the blessings of earth, for he did nothing but waste them. Mankind did not deserve the compassion of society, for he is opportunistic and greedy. Mankind did not deserve mercy, nor love, nor faith; he praises each of these only at his convenience. Mankind clamors for healing, for peace and for truth, but stamps on sacrifice and destroys those who would offer a kind hand.

The End would be the truth mankind needed. It would flow out from the Wound and blast the hypocrisy of the world away. Yes, thousands would suffer and die, but all would suffer and die equally. In the end, there would be peace.

All that I had, you took, he thought. All that I gave, you squandered. When I come forth, you will cry out and call this vengeance, and yes, I do hate you. I hate all of you.

But one day you will realize that what I have given you is justice.

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The Other Side, 3

Monday, February 9, 2009 - 8:46 PM

This little bit fell out while I was writing the other day. Though it isn't explicit, there are some really seriously unpleasant implications here. Sensitive people may suffer a bad case of hives if they read this, so some readers may want to skip it.

Through the eyes of her ghoul, Isabeau's body seemed smaller than she remembered it.

Isabeau was a small, sleek woman, with pleasantly round shoulders and a tiny waist. Her hands were dainty and ink-stained, with carefully trimmed nails. Soulless, her head lolled to one side as if asleep, pale hair scattering over her small, heavy lidded eyes which rested under a sad tilt of eyebrows. A rather long and sharp nose drew the eye towards her neat, impertinent lips.

Crouching over her own body, Isabeau spent some time admiring the lines of her throat, and let the ghoul's long, sinewy hands hover over it. The very notion that she could murder her own flesh and blood and survive it made her shiver. Isabeau's vices were few, but she reveled in them; they were towering, horrible things.

Some part of Isabeau understood that she'd been a little girl once, but any flicker of recollection was swiftly crushed underfoot. Sometimes during one of her rare moments of sleep, she would wake suddenly with her heart hammering in her chest, remembering some vision of strong, warm arms and tea in winter and a great hall where she'd wondered at tapestries of unicorns and griffons.

But in her indulgences, she assured herself that here was a woman who could never have been innocent. No one who had been innocent could have possibly conceived, much less done, what she did to herself.

Or what she'd done to other people.

She made her ghoul lean forward to kiss her body's neck softly, moving a hand to palm one of her small breasts. Pressing, feeling the firm, liquid weight of it, she then withdrew her hand and imagined her body sighing gently.

Of course, her body was soulless, and therefore did nothing.

In part from annoyance at her body's passivity, she dragged the ghoul's nails down her body's thigh, leaving several angry red scratches. This would be something to inspire her later, she thought, and then noticed one of the nails had dug deeply enough to bring flecks of blood to the surface, like drops of red dew.

The ghoul's nose was sharp; the scent of the fresh blood was distinct and sweet, and Isabeau involuntarily made the ghoul's lips curl in a toothy smile. She dipped the head down to lap briefly at the scratch, sighing to herself as the small shocks of blood rolled her senses in warm velvet for a moment. The ghoul's body was always starved, and even such a delicate taste was liquid bliss to it.

It did remind her that it had been nearly a day since she'd left her body. Her body would be hungry, too.

Moving the ghoul to her wardrobe, she fetched some clothing, and then returned to begin dressing her body. The sensation was muted by the ghoul's dead flesh, but it still pleased her to let the taloned fingers linger on her hips and waist and stomach, tracing over the little unfeeling hollows and paths there. She slipped each article of clothing as if they were caresses and restraints both, giddy in her power over herself, and when the robes and scarves were finally all in place, she withdrew her soul from the ghoul and back into herself.

It was like being cold for hours and then slipping into a comfortably warm bath. She had to sit for a moment, overwhelmed by the vast sensation of her breath moving in and out of her chest, and by the slow steady drumbeat that kept her lifetime for her. The understated stinging of the scratches on her thigh increased her sense of warmth, and she smiled gently at the prickle of them.

Sitting up, she waved the ghoul away. "I have no further need of you; return in two hours unless I call you again."

The ghoul slouched in the bow she'd forced it to learn, and then scuttled off like a feeble imitation of Isabeau's huge spiders, who watched without expression from the ceiling. The spiders had also been subjected to her spiritual possession, but she knew they were not conscious of it. It was no different to them than their normal compulsion to obey her. They simply didn't have enough sense of identity to distinguish whether it was her mind or theirs that made their bodies move. In that, it was less satisfying to her to inhabit them instead of someone aware and unable to stop her.

The spiders were useful in many ways, though. She used their silk and venom for her work, and they made excellent steeds for her. Under her direction, they were capable of unswerving, precise tasks as well.

Whispering gently, she beckoned the smallest of them down. Bodkin was about the same size as Isabeau, with a flat red-black coloration that traced rich maroon threads at the joints and over the impassive mask of Bodkin's features. The lengthy fangs she'd named Bodkin for were also maroon, but the spider's eyes were like little globes of polished obsidian. She stroked the hard carapace, murmuring in the sibilant, breathing language that laid patterns into the spider, fondly preening the fangs, and then sent Bodkin out with a short 'tch' sound. Settling herself at her massive half-wheel shaped desk, she busied herself with the works she'd been asked to review, immersing her mind in arcane riddles and tainted words until Bodkin's return.

The spider herded a young, wild-eyed man into the large chamber. The man wore the green and white smocks of an acolyte, and his hands were gloved; chances were good he was working in alchemy before Bodkin brought him up.

"Hello there," said Isabeau pleasantly, delicately setting her book down. The young man bowed immediately. He knew perfectly well who Isabeau was. She didn't recognize him, of course; he was just a new acolyte.

"Do you know why you were brought here?" she asked as she examined him. He seemed sturdy enough, if a bit thin.

"No, my lady," came a hesitant reply.

"Have no worry," smiled Isabeau. "I did not bring you here to berate you for anything."

Bodkin struck at that moment, burying venomous fangs into the young man's leg. The result was nearly immediate, and the young man crumpled from pain before his body began to seize up. With a signal from Isabeau, two of the spiders descended on the victim, lifting him up to Isabeau's stone table.

Isabeau stood, moving to the table and opening a slim metal case to expose her pristine dissection tools.

"I do apologize," she said to the wide-eyed frozen face of the young man. "But I'm starved, and as much as I'd prefer you to marinate for a day or two, I'm just going to start in right now."

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The Other Side 2

Monday, February 2, 2009 - 4:14 PM

When Leoric returned, he carried a swollen, battered head with him. It dangled from one hand, lanky hair falling around the grossly distorted face like damp weeds. Behind him was the humbled figure of Merin, Leoric's constant companion, head bowed and feet light. Merin carried Leoric's weeping-face helm, with its mane of woman's hair, and cradled Leoric's terrible weapon, the Arm of Ruin, close to the chest.

Leoric was a very tall man with a thin, dour face. Though his face was wry and keen in expression, his narrow eyes were cold with the sort of hate that has grown lazy and immutable over time, staving off madness and smothering redemption. Some thought his hate had prematurely turned his hair white, but it was merely a hereditary quirk of his family line.

Avar watched Leoric's approach from a distance, seated on a mossy stone that had once been part of a small settlement. He leaned his shoulder against the long haft of his axe, folding his broad hands around it, and glanced over at the hunched, feral shape of the ghoul that slouched nearby. It glanced back at him with bright eyes, lips pulling back uncomfortably from the long, sharp teeth in an attempt to smile.

“Julian comes with him,” said Isabeau's voice, strained through the cage of the ghoul's vocal chords.

Darting his eyes back towards the path, Avar spotted three large shadows dropping down from the sky, drifting through the trees to light near Leoric. It was a harpy harridan, with two of her lesser brethren carrying Julian between them. He watched as the two smaller harpies flapped up again in a small cloud of leaves and feathers, while the harridan walked with Leoric, showing the oddly graceful swaying gait that harpies had on land. Julian was herded along by the crook of one great wing.

Isabeau, in the ghoul's body, loped a few steps forward to peer closer. “Omphale, of Beauty's Rest,” she said.

Avar simply nodded. Omphale was harridan over one of the biggest harpy flocks in the Wound, and that meant a strong alliance. Harridans were opportunists of the highest order, and if Omphale chose to join with Leoric, other harridans might also join, if for no other reason than to force Omphale to divide her spoils. He'd had little doubt that harpies would join Leoric, but they were bitter and surly creatures, and reluctant to make alliances.

Most humans certainly prefer to stay well away from harpies, Avar thought, if for no other reason but the smell. As Leoric and his companions approached, Avar's nose could already pick up the brassy, rancid sweat-and-sulfur odor surrounding the harridan.

“That means a lot of archers,” said Avar to Isabeau. “Is Tancred still at the mines?”

“Yes,” came the reply. “He is still working in the vats, trying to finish the elixir to revive the giant corpse.”

Avar shrugged slightly, keeping his eyes on Leoric, watching the harpy's constant touching of Julian. If Tancred succeeded, it would be wonderful, but Avar really didn't care so long as Tancred was working and not distracting himself by hunting down druids. "There are times when I think Tancred's ambition fogs his vision."

Isabeau nodded her ghoul's head, and then had the ghoul perform the parody of a curtsey as Leoric came closer.

“My lord Leoric,” Isabeau said.

Leoric gave the ghoul a slight, regal nod. “Lady Isabeau. Master Avar, well met again. How are my soldiers?”

“They could be better,” said Avar blandly. “But they will be. What news, my lord?”

“We have time,” announced Leoric, taking another slow step forward and raising the head he was carrying. “Fidelity sends his regard, and promises aid from his children and their followers. He instructs us to be patient; the omens are good. Hope has returned to the Wound, and her work elsewhere proceeds even though her heart is destroyed. She is tending her Tree now, looking for the words to call our master back to us.”

“May our Grandfather come again soon,” purred Omphale, nuzzling at Julian's hair. Like all harridans, she had wings as well as arms, one of which she'd wrapped around Julian's waist. Her human-like torso tapered into a woman's waist and hips, but her thighs sprouted soot-black feathers and her lower legs crooked like those of a bird. Similar plumage blanketed her upper back, where her wings spread, fringed her forearms and swept back from her lovely human face in thin feathers that flowed like stiff hair. Omphale's figure was rather more lush than most harpies, emphasized by her lack of clothing and the natural harpy posture having a tendency to push the chest forward.

Of course, Omphale was a harpy, and therefore utterly filthy. Remnants of past meals caked her chin, filth stained her leg feathers, and her skin was dusky with grime. Typical of harpies, her strong and beautiful features were deliberately scarred, giving her a permanent cruel sneer and scoring her cheeks deeply, lengthening the look of her face. Vulture talons pierced her ears and patterns of burn marks dotted her shapely torso.

“Your flock will be joining us, then?” rasped Isabeau. “What of the others?”

“Mine, and the flock at Gutcrag,” said Omphale, rubbing a hand over Julian's chest possessively.

“Lakhesis waits for Beauty to wake from her last glut, so the flock at the Manticore will not join you yet. But do keep in mind, Hope is not the only disciple in the Wound, Avar. If Beauty says we stay, then we stay. All of us.”

Leoric nodded without concern. “That is understood quite well, Omphale. I am certain, though, that if the End comes, all of Harrow's children will come forth from the Wound.”

“If the End comes,” smiled Omphale, pressing Julian's head against her breast. Julian complied like an indifferent cat. “And we hope it will. But what is this about Hope's heart being killed?”

Avar told Omphale briefly about recent events, the celebration of the Leandrite people, and what was known of who had done it.

Omphale sneered, eyes vicious. “Heroes have come to the Wound before. They came to kill the Grandfather before. They came with their chants and spells and weapons and virtues, and where are they now? Bones at Beauty's Rest. And we are still here.”

“That is true,” said Avar quietly. “And yet, we could not find the heart. They did, and they destroyed it. This means that Hope can die.”

“It will be about time,” laughed Omphale. “Yet, she was the favored one, in the beginning. So, what is to be done with those five now?”

They all looked at Leoric, who smiled slightly, and told them.

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