Paper and Dice

Gaming from an author's point of view, and fiction from a gamer's point of view.

When in Doubt

Wednesday, December 9, 2009 - 10:28 AM

Chas the Bull, publican of the Blue Shadow inn, folded his hamhock arms and leaned back against the racks of liquor with a grin. The two men in front of him continued the debate.

“And after they destroyed Hope, they came marching out from the crypt entrance, and challenged that bastard Beckhardt right there,” said the thin man with great intensity. His thin face was bright-eyed with the story, and his gloved hands danced like swallows in front of him. From his golden complexion, dark hair, and pointed features he was a Purayu.

The other man, elbows on the bar and brooding over a tankard, was heavy in the shoulders and brows, with a good many fighting scars on his forearms. He shook his head slowly. “That's not what I heard. I heard that, when the sky cleared, Beckhardt's army found them crawling up out of the grave dirt. And then Beckhardt threw down his sword.”

“That makes no sense,” interjected the Purayu. “Why would he do that? And if they were buried in grave dirt, how did they fight Hope?”

“If I knew the answer, I'd be working for Lady Angharad and not hiring out to protect you,” came the bleak reply.

This made the Purayu scoff. He was polite about it; it was just a sudden arch of the eyebrows and a faint sneer. Chas' grin widened slightly, but he straightened up to remind the two that he was there. Egos got touchy in a place like the Blue Shadow. It was a place where old veteran adventurers would come to trade stories about their glory days, and discuss how hard it had been to retire from The Life. A lot of adventurers came through there to meet the famous and prove their own place, and some of them got pretty terse about it.

Of course, Chas had built the Blue Shadow in Last Chance, which was a town that wouldn't even exist except for the notorious Tower of Folly. The Tower loomed about two miles out of town, and Last Chance started as a cluster of merchants waiting to capitalize on the steady stream of desperate treasure hunters and foolhardy glory seekers who attempted to brave the Tower. Now it was a town of its own, populated by the sons of merchants and the adventurers who confronted the absurd lethality of the Tower and decided to retire.

Even though very little of interest had come out of the Tower in recent years, it had become a kind of pilgrimage for people who dealt in sudden death and heroic violence. They would come to Last Chance, spend a lot of money to celebrate or bolster their courage, and then go to wander the now-emptied entry halls of the Tower. The brave (or stupid) went much further, and most of them didn't come out again.

“Lady Angharad has to have actors and bards run around to protect her reputation,” continued the Purayu. “The common man is my herald. Everyone knows that I won the Rout of Dardanti. I was in Pesh for the Ogre War, and I even fought a gavarrhan in the wasteland of the Dohoroz. Hope was some kind of washed out healer turned bad, from what I hear. Not so impressive.”

“Maybe so,” said the brooding man. “But her people killed Martel.”

The counter got quiet for a moment. Hope was something abstract, a shadow from a legend up north where the Leandrites sang of holy war and danced in their courtly tapestries. But Martel was real to many of them. Many had lost friends, lovers, parents, children to Martel. Even dead, Martel's reputation loomed in their minds.

“If they did,” said the Purayu politely, “They must have gotten lucky. Or Martel wasn't as dangerous as all that.”

Chas laughed, and some of the grizzled, jade-eyed people drinking alone at the bar smiled. Chas rarely laughed, but when he did, it was to put someone in their place.

“You never fought Martel,” announced Chas to the Purayu man, who looked unimpressed. Chas poured himself some mead, looking down at the Purayu with his small, sharp eyes. “But I did, and if it wasn't for my companions, I'd be dead right now.”

Even if anyone doubted Chas, it was bad form to dispute the reputation of the man serving you drink, but the Purayu's hesitation was enough for Chas to push on. “We went against Martel, six of us. We were four when we escaped him, and we might have been less but Martel let us go. Who can say why? The Gorecrow liked to mock his foes.” Chas took a deep pull from his mug. “Lady Angharad went for him with only her three companions, and the fight burned down part of Arn. So, even if I had no grudge for Martel, I tell you that I'd respect her and hers for finally bringing the monster down.”

There was a murmur of assent from many of the older adventurers, and then someone lifted their tankard.

“Death of Martel,” he intoned in a somber voice.

“May the slain be content at last,” intoned another.

“Death of Martel,” filled the Blue Shadow, and then silence as most of the occupants drank.

Chas, mug emptied, looked down at the Purayu again. “Heading into the Tower?”

“...yes, of course. I've six companions, and this worthy here.”

The brooding man lifted his drink slightly in acknowledgment. “Slayer's Brotherhood, second class.”

Chas bumped the man's tankard with his mug for acknowledgment, and then nodded at the Purayu. “Good luck. I do have a question, though... you said you'd fought the gavarrhan. Well, I never have, but I have a couple of friends who did, and they told stories that made me lose my hair. So, did you win?”

The Purayu man blinked, started to say something, and then stopped.


Oh My Goodness

Saturday, October 17, 2009 - 9:55 PM

Sometimes you blink and the time whistles by like a bullet. By the time you figure out where the bullet came from, you have to dodge the next bullet. Now I've got some cover.
Just a couple of odd notes: First, given all the time I'm spending at a college these days, I'd like to mention that my experience of the average men's bathroom puts considerable doubt into our reproductive method. Seriously, the accuracy is Lacking. I'm amazed our population is as high as it is. I've heard tell that women's bathrooms are worse, but I have my doubts.
Second, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is lodged in my brainstem. This means I have Kurtz, in stereo, 24/7. The horror!
What follows is a kind of warm-up for a game session that I am working on. Yes, it is postmodern, surreal and fragmented. But I like tossing things like this out for players.

"The Lady is indisposed. Come back another time."

From a cobwebbed balcony, he watches the gray dancers below as they gust back and forth over the dance circle. They laugh and smile and touch with eyes, but they are silent, and their music is a succession of thin, strange memories that tangle the air like the clinging gossamer that blankets everything in the place. He watches them, forever apart, and he keeps no opinion. They are different from what was, and so is he; even his oath is finished, a trail of blood-stained shards leading back to a day when the court shone with art and beauty and he bent the knee to a great lady. And yet, he remains.
He must keep them safe. The Mother of Terror nests above, and must be watched over. Even in a place where forever can be measured, things must be done in the proper time, and time must be dealt with properly.
But caught in the timeless, he is alone, more than he has ever been. Once, it was his way. Now he has little choice. There is only one other court in the Manor now, and he will not go there.

"All I wish is to be free, but I keep my promise."

She must always run.
Her companions would help, but they fear him even more than she does. She cannot go back to her home, because it is full of memories that kill. She cannot go back to her brethren, because they are locked to a court where death cannot exist and a monster lords over them with his pain. So, proud as she has been, she must run, because he is always searching. The sky is her enemy; the black birds will show him the trail. The trees do not talk to him, but he moves through them as easily as the wind. Once, the gate was open, but now she must race back and forth, because of the day when the second palace burned and the humans died and the Manor drifted into slumber.
She cannot go back, and she cannot leave, because she will not abandon her beloved friend. One day she may know whether she can be let go, but until then she must escape his attention. He is all unfeeling animal fury and hunger and anticipation, and she knows that running makes him chase her, but she is too afraid to stay still.
One day she may know, and then perhaps her promise will no longer be needed.

"Dreams? There are no dreams here. Everything is real."

Three, they watch the thing move slowly through a forest so gnarled and twisted that it is difficult to tell one tree from the next. The thing is equally awkward; all stilts and scarecrow, it moves like a crippled insect. But the three look next to the drifting lights that follow it, and the dark one nods.
"Something else comes," she whispers, and the other two pay attention; one swiftly, one slowly.
"For blood and wealth," says the hard-eyed one, and she smiles like an opened razor.
"Dancing, and then love, and then sleep," murmurs the third as if remembering.
"Foolish," bites the second. "One does not come here for joy."
"There is no joy in you," retorts the third, but her eyes are sleepy, and she strokes her clothing.
"What good is joy," snaps the second again, the sneer implicit. Her fists are clenched. "Joy is transient. It cannot last."
"Ah," sighs the third, touching her lips. "No matter how cold, your joy is enough. I have seen that."
The second cannot rebuke the third, because both fall silent at the whisper.
"Oh, the threads of the old shadow are coming, the old shadow unraveled and rewoven. The old shadow who left us before we were bound here. Come, sisters; we must sing."

"Redemption, like sin, is a human word, for human ideas. We tried to understand them, and it ruined us."

They watch over him. He stands, mid-step, his hair fanning out as if the wind around him had suddenly turned to ice, and the light that filters down through the glorious dome breaks around him through the uneven, pinkish crystal he resides within. They are small, dwarfed by the opalescence of the memorial tomb around him, and the place makes them restless, makes them feel alien and left out, just like his beauty does. They have accepted as much as they can, but they can do nothing for him. There is only the exorbitant tomb, full of the pale pinnacles of song from a hundred gold and diamond birds, full of sculpture so smooth that it seems grown, full of engravings so delicate and precise that the walls are a book. And yet, all this is not enough for him, and they fester at the inadequacy.
They want to belong.

"If you lose, I can go. If I lose, you can go. Simple."

Sometimes the ache and the longing was overwhelming. It was impossible to count how many deaths occurred here, nor how many times his companions changed. Others would come. Some went around him, dodged his wary eyes, and were snared. Others met him and he threw himself against them, a tornado of frustration and will. There was no point in warning them; nothing would come of it, save more blood among the flowers or another statue in the hall.
It had been too long, he thought, but he remembered fearing the dana aelf and their ways, and he remembered years of howling exultation, of steel and sweat and heat and breath. Sometimes the writing almost spoke to him, as if it could give him all that time back again, but everything else was nothing more than the hollow sounds of the great hall and the compelling oath, the silent and invisible goad that prickled over his heart like brambles.
He loved so much that he had no choice, and he no longer dreamt. He had heard that no one dreamt here, but then, he was more part of the hall than a human being now.
Watching the woods, he tapped a finger on his weapon, and waited for destiny to arrive.

"I cannot reconcile the fact of my son."

There is a mirror. He spends time staring at himself in the mirror, and it shivers like a pool of blood when his eyes touch it. Others do this too, when his eyes touch them. He is aware, but he is indifferent.
He picks up a crystal goblet, practically invisible but for its shape.
This, he thinks, is nothing but a collection of wounds that have not yet happened.
As if to punctuate this thought, he lets the goblet fall from his hand to shatter into jagged, beautiful points, scattered across a polished floor.
He studies this casual act of ruin for a long moment, and then realizes that there has been a lull in the singing. Turning slowly, looking past the bower of long-thorned white roses, he sees the crescent of shapes made ghostly by a waxing moon.
They attend me because they crave me, he thinks, not because they wish to.
Their singing resumes, another of the old songs (which he loves, though the songs have grown as pale as the space between them and the moon), and he turns away again to face the mirror.
What must I do, he thinks, and in a fit of sudden rage, he points at the shattered goblet.
"I wish for my court to dance."

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Greater of Two Evils, Reprise

Monday, August 31, 2009 - 10:09 PM

Having posted a little something to show the high end of the good guy perspective in Caradoc, I thought I might drop this one down to show one end of the bad guy perspective... though the Kingmakers aren't as nasty as some.

Closing the heavy cover of the Book of Lies, Lord Endelcar took his seat at the wide, mirror-polished black table. There were nine seats; the one at the head of the table was empty.

“This Convocation has begun,” he announced after a sip of wine. “We have had time to consider our courses of action, given what information we have brought to each other. There are a few decisions we must now resolve.”

“Indeed,” said the Advocate in his mellifluous voice. The voice did not match the seamed, scarred and craggy face it slid out of, nor did it match his hard eyes, which were like black stones. “And I for one am anxious to begin our work in earnest this year.”

“Our work is always earnest,” replied the Pander smoothly, narrow chin resting on the slender knuckles of one hand. Her smile made her rebuke an gift, and the Advocate merely nodded in acceptance.

“Don't mince words,” said the Reeve, eyes sliding like razors over the Pander's bare shoulders.

“Indeed not,” broke in Lord Endelcar. “We have a good many choices to deliberate over, and the sooner we bring our counsel to the Monarch, the better. Shall we begin?”

As he began to lead them down the list, he silently admitted that he too shared the Advocate's feelings. With a Monarch in the council at last, Lord Endelcar felt like a young man again. The bleak coals of his hard-won wisdom were afire with the subtle knowledge that now, just as the Advocate said, their work could truly proceed.

As they voted to collapse the economy of the port city Dardantus, he considered that all of the other Kingmakers were feeling the same elation in some way, even if they did not openly show it. The Manciple's debaucheries last night had been extreme, even for her. Even the normally austere and reserved Sacristan had exhibited more pomp and circumstance than usual when they'd met earlier in the evening. Indeed, the decision to have the Convocation at the mercenary pleasure-city of Arn was just as much a chance to celebrate as it was a safe place for them to meet.

“Do we remove Caradoc Manzoran?”

“He is troublesome, but he does not directly oppose us,” murmured the Pander, two fingers on her cheek in thought. “He cannot reach us readily, he knows it.. and neither can we remove him easily.”

“Further, he provides a hub of political and financial influence that is useful to us in the long term,” added the Voltigeur as he regarded his wineglass.

“The council therefore says no.”

Marking yet another decision voted upon, Lord Endelcar saw the differences in this Convocation. They were all ready to push, to drive forward and see bounds of progress instead of the small, careful steps they were prone to. All of them were people of great influence and power, and none of them ever made foolish mistakes. But now, they felt aggressive.

Changes are coming, though Lord Endelcar with satisfaction.

The questions moved on, and the Kingmakers chose.

“The Canon of Doctrine in Yhelm is proving problematic. Do we bring another church investigation forward to distract her?”

The wild-eyed Imprecator sneers at the Sacristan's conservative opinion. The Sacristan is unmoved by the Imprecator's scorn, and his deadly quiet voice continues to levelly defend his view against the precise arguments of the Advocate.

“Betrani trade embargoes against the Purayu islands continue. Do we break them?”

The Pander sways the Advocate again with nothing but a glance, and the Reeve notices. He folds his deadly hands in envy, perhaps. The Pander smiles warmly at the Advocate for everyone else's benefit.

“The House of the Sun has taken a passive stance on their border conflicts with Jashapur; is it in our best interests to foment conflict between them again?”

Laughing with a mouth that is not even his, the Voltigeur comments about the Manciple's expensive tastes. She watches him with pale eyes, and wonders things he might be able to imagine. The Sacristan folds his arms, shuts his brooding eyes and considers.

Finally, as he finished tallying the last vote, Lord Endelcar looked at the empty chair where Tristan would be seated, and then panned his gaze around at the other Kingmakers.

“Lastly... as you know, Prince Beckhardt Naseran Winthelgrim informally abdicated to Lady Angharad, and yet rather than formally abdicate, he has sent a huge tribute to the ones who slew Hope and preserved his province. We know that he shows no signs of relinquishing, and we know that Lady Angharad feels that the province should be hers. So... who shall we have as ruler there?”

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Thinking Epic

Tuesday, August 18, 2009 - 9:23 PM

Caradoc is a man my dnd group loves to hate, and hates to respect. Given that they are just touching the edges of his level of influence and priority, I thought I might post a little something from his point of view.

When people talked about heroes, they were talking about any one of those rare individuals who refused to be daunted. When people talked about the Archmage, they meant Caradoc. Dour chin resting on one knuckle, he peered at the world map in the war room. It was a mural, created in conjunction with an accomplished seer.

“Show me the armies,” he said, and tiny blots of ink pooled on the map.

“The House of the Sun is massing again,” said Lord Irmin.

“They only do that to remind Jashapur who has the larger army. But they won't move. Pharaoh is too cautious for an assault.” Caradoc scanned the map like a hawk, and then turned to the small group of sages, generals and scholars standing around the council table. “Someone's building an army in the south of Sarrgim. Find out who.”

“Yes, sir,” said one of the soldiers. He saluted briskly, and left immediately.

“Otherwise, looks like business as usual, except for whoever is hiding.” Caradoc dismissed the map blots with a wave, and focused his attention on his lieutenants. “Any other word from Ollamh?”
“Nothing new, sir,” said the broad-shouldered man with the embroidered sepia Academy robe. “They still have eyes on Avissar, looking for residual magic.”

“And watching the insane Prince, no doubt,” murmured a sardonic, greying general.

Caradoc gave the old man a pointed look. “We don't know if Beckhardt is actually insane. He's a good player; don't assume. Right, we've...”

The door opened, and Piers half stepped in. He was Caradoc's new chamberlain; young and efficient, mousy but with an exorbitant tailoring bill. “Apologies, my lord...”

“Someone here to see me?”

“Yes, my lord, and very insistent on it,” replied Piers. “The Balebane Company.”

There was a faint wash of bemusement in the room.

“Very well, we're about done here anyway,” Caradoc announced. “You all know what you should be working on. I want reports on the cult of the Eye and the whereabouts of that rogue binder by tomorrow.” He walked over to his desk, paused as people began to file out. “Lord Irmin, you're attending the masquerade in Purayu?”

“Yes, sir, received the invitation two weeks ago. Should I change my schedule?”

“No, just a reminder; I expect a new Dolnan spy there. Keep an eye out.”

Lord Irmin nodded, and left. Piers hovered by the door, patient, until Caradoc motioned for him to bring the visitors up.

At one time, Caradoc had wandered the world, gathering wealth and power and righting wrongs along the way. He'd been a fiercely moral man, firmly convinced that there were no reasons but greed or sloth to justify squandering one's talents. His morals had gotten worn down a bit as the years passed, and now he had far too many enemies to be an adventurer. He had nothing to prove, and no need for glory; people like the Balebane Company could have it all.

“Balebane Company, my lord,” announced Piers, opening the door again to admit four hard-eyed men and women.

Caradoc studied the four. They'd made an effort to come properly dressed; all wore finery appropriate to meeting the Archmage, though one looked ill at ease in it. He also knew he was not what they expected. Many magicians were scholars foremost, and used to easy living. Caradoc loved easy living, but he would never be soft; he was tall, trim and muscular. Though his hair was white and his face weathered, he was strong and fit. He also made it a point to dress well.

“I have a meeting in ten minutes,” he said. “What business do you have with me?”

“I am Caedwallon,” said one of the four, a lean and tough looking man with long black hair and a distinctly aquiline profile. “I'm the ...”

“I know who you are,” said Caradoc, studying the man without expression. Strong decision maker, but heavy insecurities. Obsessed with making a mark on the world. Lots of personal charisma, probably prone to self-indulgence. “And I know your group's reputation. What business do you have with me?”

The interruption stung a bit, but he saw that at least half the group was flattered he knew them. Of course I know you, thought Caradoc. I know all of the local independent contractors.

“We come to offer our aid to you,” said Caedwallon with a faint hint of irritation.

“Very well,” said Caradoc. He walked around his desk, shuffled through his papers just to make an impression and found a list he'd known the location of from the start. “There's a mine south and east of here, at the border of Maev province. It's an abandoned silver mine, and the local governor will give you any maps you need...this document here...” Caradoc signed and sealed an envelope. “... will see to that. Go to the mine. If there are green-robed fanatics there, find out what they are doing and come back here. Yes, they will likely be dangerous. You can do further investigations when you get there. Be wary of infiltrators in the town, but you can be sure of the governor.”

He handed the envelope to Caedwallon, who accepted it with a puzzled look.

“Ah... what is this about,” ventured the younger man.

Fixing Caedwallon with a falcon-like stare, Caradoc folded his arms. “If you want to aid me, I've just told you how. Off you go. If you need compensation, talk to my chamberlain. I assume you are competent. Any further questions you have are ones you can answer yourself.”

He could tell they wanted to ask anyway, but they eventually filed out. Caradoc shrugged, and started sorting through reports he'd received earlier in the day. There is never any shortage of would-be heroes, he thought. When Balebane Company goes and kills the local necromancer or the resident brute or saves some noble scion from being kidnapped, stories get told. Songs are sung. Everyone knows, and the Company gets to celebrate being heroes. When I do my work right, no one ever knows they were threatened or saved.

Peering critically at a report from the far north, he frowned.

And there is just never enough time, he thought. I'm overdue for a little celebration.

“Piers,” he called. “Send word to... Lady Aeronwyn, I'll be back in Yhelm to meet with the Academy next week.”

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009 - 10:18 AM

A little something for the old Kult group...

Dreaming came easier to Gideon than it once had, but there were still the unpleasant locked doors in his mind. They cramped his dreams, and sometimes an ugly smear of vision would creep out from under them to violently stain his sleep. Slapping paint across his new work, Gideon considered that he did the same thing to his canvases on a regular basis.

Pausing to sit down and stare at his canvas, Gideon picked up his green tea and had a sip. He was working on a portrait commission, something that trickled down from his obnoxious but effective agent, and it had a pleasant Francis Bacon-esque flavor. Knitting his brows together, considering his next steps, he was pleased with the progress so far, but this was not really what he wanted to paint.

Lara preferred it, certainly.

He knew she wouldn't outright forbid him to paint anything. She knew the bleeding could make him dizzy, but it would stop after a while, and it didn't actually open any wounds. So, she was patient, far more patient than he could ever be with himself, and she helped with the bandages.
The look at the corner of her eyes, though, made him uncomfortable. I don't understand why you do this to yourself, she was silently saying. I don't understand why you have to paint this.

Gideon got up again, a mote of frustration insisting on movement. It rankled at him sometimes that Lara was still bothered by the stigmata he suffered; after all they had been through, he thought she'd be a little more accepting. Stalking into the open kitchen, he poured himself more tea from the little clay pot that Lara's mentor Tomo had gifted them with.

“Please remember, even though she does not show it as you do, that Lara also has been deeply affected,” Tomo had told him, serene but quietly concerned. “Kenichiro is a poisoned bodhisattva, and she has been caught in his delusions. It will be very hard for you both; patience will save you.”

Patience had never been a virtue of Gideon's, but stubbornness was. Just as Lara struggled with Gideon's carefully controlled rage and obsession with painting that which made him literally bleed, he had to helplessly watch her wrestle with a wildly teetering pessimism and aggression. She never talked about all that happened with her when she was lost in Kenichiro's madness, but he expected that she couldn't remember a lot of it.

It was irrational, but he envied her about that sometimes.

Skirting his work area, Gideon went to the window and looked down at the city streets below. Rain was creeping down the glass, distorting the gray view, and he tried to let it distract him. Now that he'd begun, his mind was already spinning back towards a dream that brought blood out from his palms and his brow, a dream that he'd been unable to escape or purge.

A pueblo village, utterly empty. A sky with a merciless sun edging around dreadful storm clouds, and the young mestizo woman with her wild eyes and proud chin and long, long black hair tickling at her ankles. She has a rosary around her neck, she wears a pretty linen dress Gideon finds well suited for gathering flowers or sitting next to a slow cool river on a hot day. But there is no peace or mercy in her eyes, and her lips part to a crowd-scream of a voice, a woman's voice that breaks like thunder.


And then he must watch as her body is scourged, beaten, broken, violated, torn by a hundred silent, invisible assailants.

She stands there, and her eyes defy him. They promise him. They squeeze his heart until he has to wake up.

Lara knows better than to try and console him with words after waking from such a dream. She lets him know that she is all right, that he is with her, that he is not locked in a hot box in the Mexican village of a fanatical madwoman. She does that with a touch, and she is understanding of it.

But one day, he tried to paint the dream, and it was very difficult for him. Worse, it was difficult for her to look at it, even unfinished.

It is only fair, he thought bitterly. I don't like to think about Kenichiro either.

Sighing, he turned briskly away from the window and sat back down in front of the portraiture. Picking up his brush again, he started swiftly painting, locking away thoughts for another time. Mind set, Gideon knew he loved Lara, but he wished deeply that for once in his life, the past would leave him alone.

Part of him wondered if his painting would be as good, though.


Epilogue from the Other Side

Saturday, August 8, 2009 - 1:35 PM

Still here. Wedding, two receptions on two sides of the country, a stint in Paris (ah, Paris), and a road trip as well as various bureaucratic ordeals have kept me very busy. In my last game session for DnD, the players came to the end of the Big Plot Arc, and became very famous people indeed. This got me thinking about gaming epilogues, of course, and I decided to show something from The Other Side.
Sometimes a victory is a two-edged sword.

Yesterday, Julian was inconsolable. He had wept blood, thrashed as if he wanted to destroy his own body against any surface he could find, and howled until his voice failed. Avar had to restrain him, binding the smaller man.

Today, Julian sagged with despair. There was no spark left in him, and he followed Avar meekly. Silent, Julian would not or could not speak, and Avar did not press him. There had been fits before, frothing and gnashing, but Julian had never been so broken. Avar did not rely on conversation, but as the two of them through thick, dank woods to the Manticore, he felt alone. Julian usually sang quietly or offered occasional words, but he walked silently, withdrawn.

Leoric had sent word that morning for them to come to the Manticore. Ever since their failed journey to the Alyach, finding it impassable, Leoric had stayed in the north of the Wound while the rest had gone back to attend to the growing army and preparing for the onslaught against the Green Veil knights.

But yesterday, Fidelity suddenly withdrew, leaving his cult confused and dismayed. Julian and the other Wormkeepers all became howling wrecks. Something had changed, and Avar expected that Leoric would have an answer.

When he crested the dead trees of the Manticore, he emerged to see Leoric standing at the edge of the Manticore's 'head', the slight overhang that looked down at the Wound. Nearby, Tancred stood, leaning heavily on a gnarled club, and a scabrous ghoul of large size crouched next to Leoric.

Isabeau, wearing her ghoul, Avar thought. As he and Julian moved to join the three, Leoric turned slightly.

“I am glad we didn't lose Julian. Many of the Wormkeepers died yesterday.”

“Yes,” said Avar. “And Fidelity left. What has happened?”

“The impossible,” said Tancred bleakly, but Leoric's glance killed anything else Tancred might have said.

Instead, Leoric pointed north, and Avar could see a whirlwind of harpies, this time swirling over the constant thick smog of the deep Wound.

He furrowed his brow. “I thought they did that once a year.”

“Watch,” said Leoric. “What has happened was not what we ever expected, but I have seen the runes, and I understand now. The harpies are waiting, just as we are.”

Avar decided not to ask, and as he expected, part of the answer occurred shortly. A great shadow crossed over them, sweeping a horrible sour odor through the wind, and he looked up to see a tremendous harpy, a giant around which a vast cloud of flies buzzed. Other harpies followed in her wake, and he could feel the uncomfortable tickling at the back of his mind that indicated she was a Disciple.

“Beauty,” murmured Tancred with awe.

The giant harpy glided and dipped through the air, joining the huge vortex of her countless children, and then her devastating voice echoed through the Wound. It swept up the voices of her children, building a storm of angry wordless song that built steadily.

A sharp scuffing sound pulled Avar's attention away, and he glanced back at Julian, who had crumpled himself into a little weeping ball. Isabeau's ghoul also glanced at Julian, and took a slight step towards him.

“Oh no,” murmured Julian. “No, no. No.”

The steady tide of the harpy song built and then broke into a frightful harmonic screaming, equal parts anguish and rage and triumph. Avar felt, rather than saw, creatures fleeing from the Wound. Somehow he knew that even the most diseased and corrupted animals were running away. Tancred shifted uncomfortably, and for the first time Avar saw fear on his weathered face.

This time the question would not be restrained. “What is happening,” he said softly.

“Watch. Watch for the stirring of His corpse,” said Leoric.

Like dust billowing out from the collapse of a cave, the smog at the deepest end of the Wound suddenly burgeoned out, a foul greasy thunderhead of thick vapor. It rolled over the edges of the Wound, seeped in and around the trees and boiled over the hills. The brunt of it spilled through the deep canyon of the Wound, obscuring even the shallow areas with ochre-green smog. Avar saw a good many harpies plummet from the sky, dead.

There was a moment of profound silence, and then the earth groaned. A tremor went through the ground, a jolt of anguish.

“The Alyach is open,” said Leoric with satisfaction. “The Disciples all gathered at the Tree, because Hope was slain. Hope is dead.”

Avar tilted his head, and was not at all surprised that even the ghoul looked discomfited.

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Dreams of Corant 2

Saturday, May 30, 2009 - 5:27 PM

The concluding vision of Corant's past.

You sit and comb out your hair. It is almost to your ankles these days, long and luxuriant and glossy, and it is one of the pleasures of your life. You enjoy running fingers through it, combing it out, feeling the weight of it swing back and forth. Usually, you'd pin it up later and take a long walk.

But today will be different.

Only an hour ago, Tobin had an argument with you. This wasn't surprising, because you two often argued. It was always about small things, small things that you didn't even notice but he always did. These little considerations of comment or glance or word just weren't very important to you, but for him, every little thing forgotten was something to carry as a grudge.

For a while, you just ignored it. Tobin is kind enough, but he could never understand you, or what you know, and you were too busy dreaming. The secrets in you twine around your belly and make you warm at night, and the mysteries you ponder are ones that Tobin would never be able to grasp with his weak-fingered mind. You did love that he tried so hard to please you, as if he were apologizing for the marriage, but you didn't love him. So you were both lonely in your own way, and that was just how it was. You knew he suspected a lover, but he would never know the truth. You tried to be kind, but after a while, his touch was something you tolerated.

He called you cold, so you were. He wept, so you comforted him. You were still a woman, however apart you felt, and so you tried to be good, but Tobin's resentment stained any chance of friendship. So you resented the distance too, and consoled yourself with trying to understand the credo your teacher had left.

But lately it had been harder. There had been no children from Tobin's impassioned fumbling, and he really wanted children. You knew it was your duty, but you were thankful there weren't any.

Tobin was a good man, yes, but the thought of bearing his children bothered you.

You were a little bothered about something else too. Did your teacher make sure there would be no children?

It made you worry about your sister, too, because the things you shared with her seemed to weigh heavy on her. They were difficult for her to bear, perhaps. She could not explain the dull ache in her eyes, and that makes you sad. You thought Lun would join you in understanding, but she couldn't understand.

Despite it all, you love your sister, even though she also makes you feel alone. At least you know she loves you back.

But now, combing your hair out, you have to make a decision.

Tobin got angry. He'd grabbed hold of you when you tried to turn away, and he'd never laid a hand on you before, not like this. You finally you decided to tell him what you thought. All the words you'd kept to yourself about him being insecure and weak and controlling and foolish and stupid; you dusted the edges off and you were ready to send them flying, however insincere some of them were except in anger.

But with the first whisper of breath through your lips, a thread slipped from you, a tugging that you felt slip out of your heart like a needle coming out of your skin, and it went through him
Blood covered the wall, and he died, just like that.

You stood there, numb with fear but suddenly elated.

This is what your teacher had meant about communication.

That is when you started to really understand what hid in the credo.

Tobin, you tell yourself, was a good man.

You are sorry for this, you tell yourself. You are sorry, but the hollow in your stomach makes you understand that this one accidental event has killed the Corant who played along the river bank, the pretty Corant who danced in the circle at the coming of spring, and the Corant who was the pride of her parents. You can't stay here anymore.

I am sorry, you tell yourself through Tobin's memory. I am sorry I could not be a good wife to you, and I am sorry that you died. I did not mean to kill you, but I cannot weep for you, because my love is not for you.

With a sigh, you look at yourself in the mirror, studying your proud beauty, and your long dark hair flowing around you like a waterfall at night. Then you take up the sharp knife, and you hack it short. You will leave the hair behind with Tobin's staring body, and you and your sister will leave.

But first, you will wash. You feel dirty.

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Dreams of Corant

Thursday, May 28, 2009 - 12:10 PM

More dream-experiences of Corant's life that Mearowyn got to enjoy after being horribly hurt by Corant's form of expression.


He told you, from the beginning, that you could not share what you knew.

“I trust you,” he said, the first night. “Keep what I tell you safe, and keep me safe.”

Each dark of the moon, you'd go out and meet him, and all night, he'd speak to you in his low, rich voice, telling you tales and poetry older than the White Tower at Kaylan. Sometimes he'd even show you dreams made real, sifting out of the shadows that always boiled around him. He wasn't like other teachers at all; he'd ask about your thoughts, and you lived for the moments when you surprised him with an observation or a comment. It would make him smile, and he might even touch your hand, stealing your breath away.

It was too much joy to bear, and when Lun got curious, you told her. She didn't believe you, so you told her to come with you, to hide and wait.

And so you wait, near the river, in the darkness, and you keep waiting, but he is not there. Your hands start to get numb, and you don't want to sit down. The time passes by like water slowly freezing solid, and you know you've started shuffling fitfully, but you can't help it. When Lun finally gets tired of the 'game' and leaves, you stay, hoping, pleading inside, please, please I won't do this again, just come back, please, I'm sorry.

It is late when he comes out, and suddenly you feel like a stupid little girl, thinking that you could fool him. He stands there and looks at you, unreadable like he usually is, and your shiver isn't just from the cold.

“I'm so sorry,” you say, barely, but he hears you.

“Corant,” he says, making paradise out of your name. “I trusted you.”

And that's when you can't help it, and burst into tears. This only makes it worse. You feel stupid and ugly when you cry, and you wanted everything to be perfect.

“It's all right,” he says, then, and you look at him. He does not say it like your parents do when you do something wrong. And then suddenly he's there and his arms and his shadows and his cloak all wrap around you like snow gone warm, and you start crying again as his perfect hand brushes against your hair, but now it is because you've always wanted him to do this and why why why did it have to be because you did something wrong?

“It's all right,” he whispers, steam from a warm teapot. “When you know enough, you can teach Lun and share with her. Until then, this was just a game. You can tell her that. Go home now, and I will be waiting for you next time.”

And then he's gone again, with only a memory of his cloud of darkness around you, and the faint, burning-wood smell he left behind.


Your parents want you to marry, but what do you care? Tobin is a good enough man, sweet, even, but you don't really notice him. You are too full of your stories and studies, and everyone wonders at your knowledge and skill these days. Eighteen now, and strong, and beautiful.

Over the years, you've made a little place for yourself where you meet your teacher, a camp site across the river. No one ever finds it; you know it has something to do with Him, but that's all you need to know.

He keeps it safe for you.

So, you sit and comb out your long, dark hair, wrapped in the blanket you wove last month to wait for him. A small fire burns nearby. It reminds you of him, the fire. It isn't that he is warm, but he makes you feel secure. He is strong, and his power can destroy, but it purifies; fire makes all things clean again, burns away impurities.

It also reminds you of him because of the baths, the long, scorching hot baths you take to wipe away all the sweat and dust of a long day. Resting there, lazy and immersed, it is easy to think of him as warm, enveloping. He's never held you like he did the one night, but he's touched you.

Your hands remember every moment of it.

And then, he arrives, the fire going eerie and blue for a moment, and you look up from braiding your hair. He emerges like a shadow lengthening, and there is the blazing white affection for you in his luminous eyes.

“Corant,” he says, like he always does, and you smile and get up to curtsy as he taught you. And then you both sit, and there are lessons. Lately it has been more and more about the power in experience, and the profound understanding that can change one's outlook or health or even the soul. He discusses quietly how pieces of disparate knowledge can be joined by a single thought, and this is often how magic works; the creation of a complete pattern where all the power can flow cleanly. And then he shocks you.

“You are ready,” he says softly, and the fire stutters. “Your thoughts and your will are trained, and waiting for wisdom that will grant you great power.” One of his dark, wrapped hands extends and gives you a folded piece of vellum.

“This is a credo for you. Live by it. Learn to understand it. Comprehend the secrets in the words. Finish the pattern, Corant, and then I will come back to you.”

Then your heart stops. “You are leaving,” you say. You've long since been able to speak with him openly. “Why are you leaving me?”

“Because the student must learn on their own. You can teach Lun what you know, now. Take her with you. There are so many keys to understanding this, and you sometimes you must travel to find them. I will only hinder your learning if I stay.”

But I love you, you want to say, and yet your tongue refuses. It isn't the right time. Instead, your mouth opens, and some resigned part of you says, “How long must I wait?”

“Until you have lived the credo, Corant. When you complete that pattern, I will come to you, and we will be together again. I know you will succeed in this.”

You take the paper, not looking, and you nod fiercely to belay the tears. “I will, I promise.”

Then he stands up, and offers a hand, which you take, readily, and then he pulls you in, easy as the wind nudges a leaf, and before you know it, your head is tilting up and your lips part and he kisses you, he drains the breath out of you with his cool mouth and threads of fire slip through your muscles and knot in your stomach. You know you make a sound, but you don't remember it, and then he's gone again, gone into the darkness where you know you can't follow.

But one day you will. You hold the paper in one hand and you swear one day you will.

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A Few Brief Words

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 - 8:21 AM

Between class, wedding planning and miscellaneous intrusions of that thing called life, my brain has been a little short on words lately. This isn't to say the brain is short on ideas, of course; it cranks out concepts and characters and potential plots at alarming speed. This makes me frustration incarnate at times; it is like having a crowd of new people crammed in my skull, all clamoring for development, recognition and a voice. Above all they want that voice.

They want to live long enough to make their name mean something.

Sometimes I think that this is one reason I am a gamer. Gaming is like a quick solution to the mob of unborn characters. Need a new face in the game setting? Easy. The demand for expression is met, however briefly, and my players get to see yet another uncannily human NPC. Or uncannily inhuman, I guess.

Given all the travel and mess in the next few weeks, I imagine updates here might be a bit thin. So, for the next few posts, I'm going to share a few things I've already written rather than my usual practice of writing direct-to-blog. For starters, I'm going to post some material that is connected to my previous mention of the Shepherds, and specifically referring to an NPC who had a tremendous impact on my DnD group, both in and out of character. In fact, I think Corant had the greatest impact on the party out of any NPC.

Corant was an introduction to the Shepherds. She was an example of someone who had been seeded with a fragment of knowledge, and was transformed by letting it grow through her. By the time the players met her, she was horrific, but she'd started as a normal, intelligent young woman. Corant killed by communicating, and one of the party got dropped by her 'conversation'. As a result, that party member was stained by what Corant had known and experienced, and later had these vision/dreams, reliving small moments of Corant's life.

This was certainly one reason Corant affected my group so much, but I believe there was something more to it. The evil of the Shepherds, when expressed through others, comes out as a lonely, desperate creature. It is a despairing, empty kind of evil, a gnawing and mournful thing. This has the effect of generating sympathy as much as loathing or hatred, and this is one reason why the work of the Shepherds is so dangerous. As a patron of the group once said, 'The Shepherds never force anyone to do anything. They only offer.'

Corant accepted that offer, and here is the first part of that story.


To the north, there are the Nightsigh mountains, and you've always loved watching them, the fog that broke over their toothy crowns every evening. You imagined them as giant emperors and empresses, long ago turned to stone by their mighty patience, facing away from the bleak and terrible land everyone knows lays beyond them. The elves would come and tell tales, but never tales of what was beyond the Nightsigh. 'Sad and horrible,' they said, but nothing more.

But you would walk along the river, with the sun at your back, and warmth in your step. Swift runner, sharp-eyed, you could outwit and outrun most of the boys, and today, it makes you smile to think of them wanting to chase you. Lun was always so jealous of you, and you thought it was funny. You've always been the pretty one, with your long, dark hair and bright eyes, and besides, you're oldest, so that means you get courted first. You have just reached your fifteenth year, so it will start soon!

But mother also says ladies don't play about like you do, and you do it anyway, running down to the river to fish or watch the birds or climb trees. Sometimes your hair gets tangled up or you come home dirty, but mother always forgives you because you sing so beautifully, and you know all the old poems and your calligraphy is perfect. Today, it is catching salamanders, ankle-deep in the wide, muttering river, dreaming about the future. You've always wanted a horse, but home is too rocky and uneven for real riding. Tara's son said so; he'd been south, to Wevnir, and open ground. Perhaps when you do get married, there will be horses... but you won't be like other ladies. You'll ride where you wish, forever!

That's when you notice that someone is watching you from the other side of the river, and you look up, startled, because no one lives there.

That is when you see him


standing there in the shadows, with shadows boiling around him and a streak of darkness held in his


hands like a shepherd's crook, and he looks at you with blazing white eyes, the most dreadful and beautiful thing you have ever dreamed of, and suddenly you don't want your hair to be so tangled and your hands are all muddy and your feet dirty, and he just looks at you and then he smiles and your heart flutters like a butterfly you caught in between your hands once. And then it flies free, because he speaks to you, in a voice just like the fog breaking over the Nightsigh.

“I've been waiting a long time to find you.”

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Elf Rage 2

Tuesday, May 5, 2009 - 3:58 PM

The drow, or dark elves, are a creature straight from the Dungeons and Dragons universe, and they have a long and colorful history despite their monochromatic appearance. They originally started as one of the most frightening opponents in the RPG, portrayed as ancient, decadent and amoral creatures who have a burning hatred and contempt of other races, especially their elven relations. The original descriptions of what the drow were like pointed at a vicious and depraved culture that was nonetheless highly educated and sophisticated. There were hints of the wonderfully inhuman Melniboneans from the Michael Moorcock Elric saga.

When the Forgotten Realms setting came out, things changed. The popularity of Forgotten Realms brought out a very different kind of drow elf, one which I abhor to this day. The fickle decadence was replaced by an adolescent portrait of cut-throat politics and pretentious power struggles. The alien behavior of the drow was lost, and they became like other elves; pointy-eared humans, who in this case had morality issues and an allergy to sunlight. One of the major reasons this version of the drow became popular was the work of R.A. Salvatore, in his portrayal of the rather melancholy renegade drow Drizzt Do'Urden.

What happened?

The drow all suddenly became cloak and dagger caricatures, smirking and swaggering around in arrogant circles. The fragments that Gygax and his contemporaries produced were swept away under this new hierarchy, and the drow lost their identity. The RPG world was suddenly filled with redemptive anti-hero drow, renegades against the oppressive matriarchy of their society.

This is the seat of my Elf Rage. I loathe this version of the drow, and for several reasons. Cheesy moustache twiddling villains rub me the wrong way, no matter what they are, but losing the elegant inhuman ugliness of the original dark elves was just plain inexcusable. I also find it laughable how some people interpret the drow from a metagame standpoint, in particular the fact that they are depicted with black skin. That's black as in ink, not black as in negroid, though some people seem to have made that mistake on occasion.

As it turns out, a good look at early DnD monsters will reveal some bits and pieces of very old mythology. Svart alfar were the dark elves in Nordic/Germanic myth, and these were the direct basis for the drow themselves. Svart, for those who do not already know, is literally 'black'. It's the root for the word 'swarthy', meaning dark-skinned.

So, why not make them ink-skinned? Take your racial theories elsewhere.

Also, the notion that the matriarchal religion of the drow represented some kind of gamer fear of women is patently ridiculous. I point to the simple fact that, originally, the drow had sexual dimorphism: the dice sets for female stats were better than those for males. The women had better innate magical abilities, and they were even physically bigger than the men. This is in keeping with the arachnid theme of their own deity. Now, perhaps gamer fear of women figured into later depictions, but I refuse to believe it was originally part of the drow aesthetic.

Also, some have complained about the notion of a race that is born evil. Well, why not have a race which is literally born evil? This IS fantasy, after all. It brings up some very interesting questions about morality, of course, but I do not happen to believe that the concept of a race born evil makes everything suddenly black and white, particularly if the evil in question is actually just a very different set of operating parameters. A tiger kills the ox to eat. It is a killing animal, born and created for it. If it were intelligent, would it continue to have this killing instinct? Would it need to exercise that instinct regularly? Would that make it evil in the cosmic sense?

When I designed evil elves for my setting, I wanted to avoid a couple of specific factors involved with the drow. First, the drow society is entirely a construct built by their female demon-goddess Lolth. I try and avoid direct divine intervention as much as possible in world building, saving it for specific circumstances. Second, the drow are basically attacking the surface world because of the usual needs for vengeance, conquest, just plain malice, etc. I wanted something more sophisticated than that, something less human and much less short-term.

This post went on for a bit, so I'll cap it off with a little introduction to the next. It's only fair that, having pig-poled the drow, I should show what my own ideas have been about what an evil elf would be. So, consider this.

The elves were born from the alfar's attempts to understand human symbols and concepts. One among them noticed that humans had some strange ideas about decomposition, decay, and fear. The word corruption as an intangible, moral concept did not exist for the alfar. The alfar noticed that the concept was most often associated with cities, and so the one who chose to study the concept built one. All of those who wanted to study these concepts went to the city, and began the process. Later, that city was sealed off, and their leader told the other alfar that isolation was required for a time.

After a great deal of time the other alfar began to wonder what had happened to their comrades, and they went to the city to alleviate their concerns. What they ended up doing was leveling the city and scorching the surrounding land to nothing but rock.

But what they did not know was that some citizens of Uryashar had long since left the city to walk covertly among the other races. It was not enough for them to study by becoming; they had to continue their study by influencing, manipulating and creating events in the lives of others.

In later days, these once-alfar would be called the Shepherds.

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Elf Rage?

Monday, May 4, 2009 - 4:18 PM

Over at the Burning Zeppelin Experience, there's some excellent talk about Elf Rage, which is something I've both seen and been part of.

I'll be clear. I don't hate elves, or even the concept of elves. I do have elves in my DnD game, and I would cheerfully include them in a fantasy novel. But I hate how they are usually portrayed, especially in modern fantasy literature, and particularly in RPGs. My primary reason for this is simple.

Elves are not humans.

I've touched on this topic before, but it bears repeating. One of the biggest problems in fantasy literature (particularly modern fantasy literature) is that non-human races are basically humans with some odd quirk or physical difference. They are often culturally very limited in comparison with humans, usually only with one basic social pattern ('we love nature' is a fine example). Though this makes a certain degree of sense with particularly long-lived races, as a culture might homogenize itself after a very long time, it's still not very likely. The one exception to that might be if the actual psychology of the race is different from the human norm, but we have already pointed out that in most examples, it Isn't. They act and react like humans, they follow basically human lives under a patina of carefully applied theme, and in most cases are even biologically similar to humans.

That said, my own Elf Rage is mitigated by my acceptance that elves are an archetype of their own. Whatever their depiction, the notion of these otherworldly, beautiful and ancient creatures is ever-present. You may call them something other than elves, and perhaps they have horns instead of pointed ears, but they are still in keeping with the elf archetype. Fantasy stories in particular are replete with the Fair Folk, even if only mentioned. People quickly grasp on to that archetype, and it has been present mythologically for ages. It's easily accessible at its heart, even if the peripheries are silly.

So, what do you do to make an elf separate from the aggravating tropes they've been connected with?

That's the hard part. I do with elves what I do with any non-human race. First I decide what fundamental mode of behavior is intrinsically different in them, and then I carom this facet off of the usual survival mechanisms to see how everything changes. Then I start fitting it into the world I'm placing them, and the rest tends to fall together. I should mention that I am a huge psychology/sociology/anthropology geek, so I have a lot of patterns in my head to play with, and a lot of questions I don't even consciously ask anymore. They just answer themselves eventually.
To make my elves accessible, I do keep a few of the standard concepts behind them, but the way I handle them are considerably different from what I've bumped into in my reading.

My own elves are latecomers. Humanity has been around a lot longer than they have, and one of the big keys to the elf world is that they are trying to understand humans and how they fit into the universe. The elven predecessors, the alfar, did not have a shape of their own. They Became whatever they wanted to be, and that was how they understood something. So, in the beginning, they were clouds and mountains and trees, and in all respects they were clouds and mountains and trees, existing as these things in order to know the greater whole. But then they saw that humans gave meaning beyond what was there, and this puzzled and intrigued them. To the alfar, fire was fire. You didn't need to explain it further than that. To a human, fire could meant security, safety, sometimes emotional warmth, passion, volatility or even anger.

The alfar were astounded, and thought that perhaps humans understood the world on a level that the alfar did not. They did not comprehend symbols at first, but they did what they had always done. They became the symbols in order to understand them. Most of the alfar broke into groups in order to study and meditate on these abstract human concepts, and carefully built themselves a new shape in order to learn. This would be the beginning of the elves, and the relation to human concepts is why elves appear somewhat human. As time went on, some alfar found themselves so deeply absorbed into their study that they lost the power to change again, and these were the first elves, grounded forever into the universe as humans were. Elves are still engaged in their attempt to understand humanity, though some have given up on the process. They've been companions to humanity since the beginning, and though neither really understands the other, humans will always find the elves fascinating and the elves are always drawn to humanity.

The alfar themselves are for the most part gone. Those who did not become elves left the world in shame and outrage because of the studies of one of their own, who found the human concept of corruption fascinating, and built a city to explore it. They leveled the city and departed, leaving behind only a handful of their own to watch over their now-lesser children.

I did keep many pieces of the old elf template. As you can see, I kept the Tolkienesque notion that the elves were connected to one of the world's great evils, innocently stumbling into something that consumed them. The elves do live a long time, but their lifespan depends strongly on what philosophy they were born from. Some only live as long as a human does. Also, this translation of elvenkind accounts for the notion that there must be many different kinds of elf, something that I was merely looking for a good way to explain. If humans have so many ethnicities, why not elves, after all?

So, here you have elves which are walking symbols. Unlike humans, elves really are stereotypes, whatever their personal differences in attitude and opinion. Some elves can always be counted on to be vindictive, for example, and some are always passionate and quick-tempered. It is part of what they are. Humans are amazed at the self-confidence and utter certainty of the elves, and elves wonder at the ever-changing nature of humanity with its shifting boundaries and mutable personalities. This isn't to say that elves do not change their behavior; they do. But elves don't have any illusions about who or what they are. Their illusions are in what they want to become.

This is one reason why the elves fell prey to themselves in the city of Uryashar, and why there are some branches of the elven race which are feared and despised to this day. And no, that wouldn't be the drow. But the drow are a topic for another day. Most of my Elf Rage is vested in that very specific subject.

So, do I support Elf Rage? To a degree, yes, it is justifiable. But all stories use archetypes, and elves have become just another archetype.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009 - 1:34 PM

In my campaign setting, there was once a fiercely human empire of great power and influence, where experiments in magic, art and science changed the world on a regular basis. The empire was destroyed, and only those few citizens who were not in the nation at the time were spared. All the rest were slain by the disaster.

A session ago, the player characters found a fellow who once belonged to this empire during its heyday. He was stuck outside of time, due to the influences of a magical amulet, and having freed him, the party made sure to see him safely to a patron of theirs. They were worried about him going mad once he found out his former home was gone, but they also recognized what a rare source of information he would be. Given how things are going, it might be a while before they chat with him again, so I thought I'd present a little piece of his point of view here.

On the map, the wide peninsula extended south from Morugai. Roughly in the middle, the peninsula's center was gnawed hollow by a huge, abnormally perfect circle of ocean. Ambrose could see a few spots there, indicating islands. The mapmaker had drawn a larger circle in red, centering the hollow, and written the rune for 'Forbidden'. Written over the water-filled crater was the word 'Umar'.

To Ambrose, it had only been two weeks ago when he'd walked down the gleaming sapphire cobbles of a wide thoroughfare, where tall trees of crystal and translucent ivory cast violet shadows across the road leading to the Zurunan Palace of Arcane Learning. He'd sat down for a meeting in a vast hall where blue-streaked pale marble had been literally grown into vast caryatids, whose huge arms supported a domed ceiling of perfectly polished silver which would never tarnish. He remembered looking up at the constantly shifting orrery of burning spheres there, hovering and spinning in perfect harmony to cast a shifting, warm light through the hall as a tiny ceramic golem poured rare Deshune frostmountain tea into chalcedony cups. There, he had sampled sliced fruits from places as far as the Ixte jungle and the cold, dripping forests of Shanmora, discussing philosophy and metaphysics with men and women whose educations beggared some of history's great sages. Like the nation of Umar itself, they were makers of history. The world would not stand on their shoulders to greatness; the magicians of Umar would teach the world to fly.

But three hundred years ago, Umar plummeted from the sky and was obliterated. The Zurunan was dust. The arcane explosion of Umar fed upon itself, perpetuating for over a year in a seething beautiful cataclysm, leaving behind a chewed-out crater that the ocean filled. Even after so long, the area was full of agonized cobwebs of magic, wracking time and space as easily as flesh and bone. No one dared approach.

Ambrose had learned that the world now feared Umar. They saw his people as having been arrogant, careless and decadent.

In the quiet of the archmage Caradoc's library, he sat in a simple but comfortable chair, with a small cup of mundane green tea, and shut his eyes against the present. He was very alone.

Yes, he was thankful to Caradoc for being a peer and a friend, however reserved the archmage was.

Yes, he was thankful to those who released him from the effect of his amulet, and thankful to them for their own compassion.

Yes, he was even thankful that he survived, because at least some truth from Umar survived with him, some part of the great dream that hadn't been stained with three hundred years of despise and fear.

Hands folded around his teacup, he sat in silence, inhaling the clean, paper-scented air of the library, and forced his emotions to stillness. Concentration was normally easy for him, bu today it was slippery, tangled in the swelling feeling deep in his chest.

Even though his home was gone, and all of those who he'd known and loved were gone, there was something much greater missing from the world Ambrose found himself in. Looking at the small stack of books he'd consumed in the past couple of days, catching up on the three hundred years he'd lost, he finally understood what it was.

When Umar died, a vision died with it. Ambrose saw the tiny hints, the unspoken gaps in the histories and accounts. He read the whispers behind the words when people decried the works of Umar, and spoke out against the ambitious. They thought it was Umar, but he came to understand their fear was not of Umar or Umaran works. They were afraid of failure, and did not want to see others succeed.

Fear of failure had never been a part of Ambrose's world.

This is something that I can give to the world, he thought. That and I carry with me traditions that were lost or shunned centuries ago... so, in me, Umar does survive. My world does exist, and perhaps humanity may learn to fly again.

Letting the thoughts console him, he sighed, sipped at his tea, and then abruptly smiled. The smile turned into a small, pleased laugh.

He knew of at least four people who did not fear failure, and he sincerely hoped he would see them again.

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Being the Bad Guy

Sunday, April 19, 2009 - 11:47 AM

My last (real) post spurred a considerable dialogue between two commenters. You guys are awesome for having so much to say, and rather than comment directly there, I'll be commenting here.

After letting the brain recover from paperwork burnout, I started back in on 'With Iron' again, and I noticed that I was thinking through more angles than I previously had, particularly regarding the future of the work wherein the heroes start showing up. But I also re-examined the nature of the villain I'm writing about, and the two peers in his future.

I did resolve that these villains will not be misunderstood heroes, though they may start as one. They will not be virtuous or compassionate, by the time they reach the end of their story. They might not be vile, necessarily, and in fact the three I have in mind are generally not as depraved or demented as Leoric's allies in the Other Side. None of the three are insane, for one (though one is a little off in the head, he's still quite rational). But, as Ryan points out, the villain starts somewhere.

Rather than go on and discuss the various reasons why a person might turn to evil, I'm going to share a bit about Tahvo, the so-called protagonist of 'With Iron'. This won't spoil any part of the actual story, but it might provide an idea of how I'm starting this project. Tahvo grows up in a clan-based society with a strong warrior ethic and an underlying animist faith which is more pervasive than pious. Children usually follow a hereditary trade, but if a child shows talent for something, it is possible to apprentice to another family. In essence, it is an open caste system. In Tahvo's case, his family has 'many sagas', and is important. He is popular among his peers, and is unfortunately a bit temperamental. This temper pushes him to commit a faux pas of considerable size, which is forgiven largely because he is still a boy, but the Jarl of his clan decides to apprentice him to the local cursebreaker, Crez. He believes it will teach the boy discipline, and though Crez is feared and often avoided, everyone respects the need for his skills. In Tahvo's heavily animist culture, the presence of a witch doctor is reassuring and necessary. This mixed blessing and penalty satisfies the honor of both families involved in the dispute.

Tahvo does indeed learn discipline, but as he learns, he also begins to hear about the great problem of his people; colonists from overseas have built a couple of forts on the shore, and they don't appear to be particularly friendly. Tahvo's people are debating just what is to be done about it all, and as the story progresses, he comes to realize that the interlopers have begun a divide in his own people. He also comes to understand that the interlopers themselves are not evil; they simply don't understand his people, and are not willing to. Much of Tahvo's conflict comes from making his own decision about how to best serve his people and protect them from not just the threat of the colonists, but from internal strife.

So, how does Tahvo become a Bad Guy from here? Telling that -will- spoil the story, but you can easily see that Tahvo's start is very similar to how a hero might emerge. Outside adversaries, the need for a common leader, the proverbial rock-and-hard-place; these things are all present. One place to look at the curious dichotomy of hero/villain in similar circumstances is in the case of Vlad Tepes, who committed horrible atrocities on vast scales, but who is regarded even today as a hero for fighting against the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire. One can easily envision a band of stalwart Muslims setting out to kill the Impaler and allow a lawless land to know enlightenment and peace... and one can just as easily envision a struggling nobleman who is forced to resort to tactics of fear and horror to withstand the invasion of an enemy vastly superior in numbers. Was Vlad a villain? To the Ottomans, most certainly, and his actions generated a great deal of fear and loathing from even other enemies of the Ottomans.

We'll never know precisely what his motivations were for the atrocities, of course. Did he do them because they were his only hope for winning, or did he use his desperate circumstances as an excuse to perform something he'd normally never be able to get away with? This is another thin line between hero and villain. The reasons why someone really does something can help define good or bad. Of course, you can take a simpler tack, too. A friend of mine once put it this way: 'If you have to explain why it isn't evil, it's probably evil'.

'With Iron' is all about explaining why it IS.

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Monday, April 13, 2009 - 10:53 PM

Life has a way of tangling schedules up, and various forces of bureaucracy have kept me from posting for a while... in part. I admit some fault of my own; I've been working heavily on 'With Iron', and most of my creative fire has been channeled into that project, which I intend to finish relatively quickly (probably done with the initial draft in June).

Like many extended writing projects, 'With Iron' has taken some unusual turns. To summarize briefly for those who haven't heard about this, the premise of 'With Iron' is a non-satirical mirror of a very popular fantasy plot: we meet the young person who happens to be the hero of the book or series, and watch the progression from a relatively normal life to savior of the world or whatever else the hero is up to. In 'With Iron', I am showing how the overarching nemesis of a hero is born, starting from the early days of their life.

Of course, there are obvious questions to answer. Why did this person become evil? Are they really evil at all? Why will the hero of the story attempt to fight against them? I cemented a couple of thoughts here, when determining the main character in 'With Iron'. I didn't want the usual anti-hero. This character had to be bad in a way which was indisputable, and he had to be willing to inflict himself on the world at large for some reason. Granted, there must still be some sympathy or the reader may simply not want to read (what I like to call a Thomas Covenant moment). But the character needs to be a proper villain.

As I was working on this, I came across a few other tidbits of fantasy literature that tend to crop up, and I considered addressing them in some way. Very often, the Bad Guy of a fantasy series is absurdly powerful, often far more than the hero and his allies will ever be. They are generally defeated by the devices of some artifact, pointed moral, or just sheer dumb luck/valor. Naturally, the question arose as to why? What makes these people so powerful? How do they get there?

The obvious answer here is that Evil cuts corners, and accumulates as much as it can without regard for consequences, sometimes even to itself. But we've seen enough of that kind of villain, and we certainly see enough of unthinking avarice in day to day life... though I consider also that making a few jabs about that kind of thing is not amiss. Does the villain in 'With Iron' fit the same hubris-filled pattern?

No, he does not. Originally, I wanted him to, but he has defied me already, and this is already forcing me to consider the future of the story in different ways. Without a doubt, this man will become someone that is hated and feared, but now I am uncertain as to how he'll feel about that. Originally, I considered him to be someone who did not think his actions were evil in any way, but as I continued writing, I realized that for a proper capital-V villain, there is one essential component to it all.

One eventually comes to a Decision. This choice may seem to be something small, or it could be over something of great importance. But either way, that choice is the fulcrum which levers the villain fully into the world of being a nemesis, a dark force and an enemy. For the purposes of this story, all three of the villains involved will understand at least in part the consequences of that choice. They will know that, at the end of the day, they are doing things which are selfish or horrible or wrong.

The fun part of the story is revealing the Why. There aren't any blasphemous-minded madmen, ridiculously sadistic assassins, pompous warlords or world-conquering wizards in 'With Iron'. Just like heroes, the villains start as people, too.

And in the case of 'With Iron's main character, it is one very stubborn man.

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The Other Side, 6

Monday, March 30, 2009 - 2:28 PM

Here, we find that the Bad Guys go on quests just like the Good Guys do. Last session of DnD, there were so many bits and pieces foreshadowing the end game it was practically a movie trailer, and the characters are more than ready in their hearts to get the big confrontation done, even if their minds acknowledge their limitations and the need for caution.
Saving even a corner of the world isn't an easy thing.

Meeting in the mossy halls of the Citadel of Tongues, Leoric gathered his lieutenants after Avar had returned from Fidelity's grove. They were alone in the chamber save for Leoric's ever-present servant Merin; even Isabeau had left her spiders behind.

“The work is done,” she announced, seating herself in an ancient wooden chair that made her seem twice as small. “The room is sealed as much as I can make it. Do speak freely, my lord Leoric.”

Leoric nodded slightly in acknowledgment, and then studied his companions. He was aware of the improbable circumstances that had eventually brought them all to this point, and he regarded it not only as a blessing but as a kind of cosmic approval. They were meant to be.
Tancred slouched, Avar sat with shoulders squared and arms folded, Isabeau languished, and Julian leaned heavily on the table. But all of them, even Julian, watched Leoric.

“I know what Hope is doing,” said Leoric in a quiet, inevitable voice, and saw the wary interest in Isabeau and Tancred. Avar didn't even blink, and Julian merely seemed curious. “We are meant as a foil, nothing more.”

“Why,” asked Avar.

“When our attack occurs, all the world will focus on us. Our siege will be a distraction so that Hope may work unimpeded in the south. She truly follows in her master's footsteps; the two-sided threat was always something he enjoyed.”

Tancred sneered. “What of it? Our assault will still be what it is, and we shall overrun the Green Veil, bring the reach of the Grandfather further.”

Shaking his head slightly, Leoric turned his discerning eyes to Tancred. “So it seems, but Hope has lied to us. I'm sure there are other lies. What if we are expected? What if she leaves a trail for others to find us? She's done these things before. If the Leandrites know we are coming, our chances for loss are much greater. Our army is not so mighty as that... not yet.”

Isabeau simply listened, occasionally running a finger up and down her neck, but Avar spoke again. “Then what do you plan?”

“That Hope might betray us is not really a surprise,” Leoric replied reasonably. “The Disciples are not compelled to be our friends. Even in the days when the Grandfather walked among us, they fought with each other. Yet, he bound them all.”
Leoric paused, and looked at Isabeau. “Have the palimpsests awakened?”

Now a spark of curiosity showed in Isabeau's lazy eyes. “Yes, my lord. What do you require?”

He gestured slightly, and Merin cringed forward, stretching out his slender arms to offer Leoric's stone-headed mace, which Leoric took in one hand, resting it on the table. At the touch, the table groaned, and small splinters burst from the area near the twisting metal haft.

“I brought the Arm of Ruin back from the Wound,” Leoric announced. “It was a key to many things, more than a mere weapon. When I went seeking it, I discovered other fragments of history. There are other relics in the Wound, if one can get into the Alyach... and one did, before.” He traced a few of the writhing letters of wormscript on the haft. “His name was Laurent l'Arquen, and he is now the palimpsest who uses the rune 'Sar' as a name.”

“And he will know the proper rites to enter the Alyach, then,” murmured Isabeau. “I will have him give these secrets over to us. But, Leoric, the Alyach is no ally to anyone.”

“That is why we will all go. Combined, we will emerge again, and with the gifts the Grandfather has left for us there, we'll not fail in our work here, no matter what Hope's machinations are. With the relics, even the Disciples will recognize our place. Further, our success will serve the Grandfather, and therefore all Disciples. It will delay our emergence, but I do not think Hope cares. She's waited a long time, and she will wait until the time is perfect. What say you all?”

“Yes,” grinned Tancred. “Yes. To enter the Alyach at last? We may even find the tomb of the Grandfather himself.”

“Pray that we do not,” sighed Julian. “I have seen it in my dreams, and it would be the end of us. Yet, I will follow you, Leoric. I have no choice.”

Avar gave Julian a strange, searching look. It passed swiftly, and he answered Leoric with a short deferential nod. “I will go.”

“Naturally, I shall,” smiled Isabeau. “But I do ask if you have something in mind, and who shall rule in our stead while we are gone?”

Cradling the Arm of Ruin in the crook of one arm, Leoric answered her smile with a thin one of his own. “The Arm of Ruin has sister relics. The Weeping Knife, the Scepter of Rust, and the Maggot Hourglass are still in the Alyach somewhere, and these are only the known creations that the Grandfather made in his breathing days. You know as well as I their potency, if they can be found. And I believe they can. Each of them demands a great price for its use, but we are well-equipped to pay any cost to succeed.
“As to the matter of leadership, that is simple enough. How many palimpsests are active and sane enough to speak? Five. Assign each of them to each of our contingents, and I shall make a statement upon our departure that any disobedience will result in punishment by the palimpsests themselves. If they have no use for the transgressor, I am certain the harpies or Fidelity will.”

“As you say,” said Isabeau.

“When do we depart?” asked Tancred. “I can be ready today.”

“As soon as Isabeau reads the palimpsest and gathers what we need for entry, we shall go.”

“A day, my lord, no less,” put in Isabeau. “Julian must help, however. He will know the Words better than I in some cases.”

Julian nodded affably, but his eyes despaired. Handing the Arm of Ruin back to Merin, who accepted it with great deference, Leoric surveyed his lieutenants for a moment.

“We must be swift,” he said. “There are others working against us, and we do not know what they plan. Go and prepare. We will meet again at Beauty's Rest, the day after tomorrow, and then travel to the deep end of the Wound.”

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An interlude

Tuesday, March 24, 2009 - 11:17 AM

This little bit is part of a larger work I wrote for my DnD party on request, detailing the perspectives of the various animals the party owns/associates with/just enjoys, including the ranger's rather intelligent wolf, the conjuror's pseudodragon familiar and the tiny, incredibly dumb fungus-eating critters that the party is endlessly fascinated with. Here, we see the point of view of Frank, a large piebald rabbit who was originally a hostile hill giant before being transformed by the conjuror. Frank has become a kind of party mascot, and his point of view was a particular favorite for the group. Enjoy.

Nibbling at some grass, Frank was not entirely aware of being a rabbit. That is to say, Frank knew he was supposed to be a rabbit, and he had some vague awareness that he was one, but he wasn't quite capable of understanding what that meant. If he had the opportunity to be around other rabbits, he might have been a little puzzled as to why they avoided him, but he rarely was.

They certainly wouldn't have considered him a sane rabbit.

Frank knew, for example, that he should be afraid of the wolf. In fact, he should be afraid of anything that wasn't a rabbit, really. And he was, too; he would get a moment of alarm when approached by one of the cats or the wolf. But if they got too close, something happened, and Frank would find himself charging.

He wasn't sure why.

In his little rabbit-mind, Frank occasionally had flashes of memory that he couldn't understand. These disturbing flashes made him feel very, very big and very, very hungry. Problems of size and scale also plagued him, and he had a habit of bumping into obstacles that for some reason he thought he'd be able to step over. But mainly, it was the sense of being far more powerful and aggressive than a rabbit should be, and that was the puzzle.

When one of the cats decided to stalk him, he was overwhelmed by the idea that he could grasp the cat in one paw and dash it into the ground... largely because he didn't comprehend how his paws could grasp anything, and in fact, the notion was alien to his rabbit mind.

And yet, he'd always find himself confused, watching the cat he'd solidly kicked run off in surprise, leaving a gnawing feeling in his simple brain that he should have been the one running away.

So, Frank preferred the quiet moments when he could sit and chew on grass and think about nothing, which is something rabbits are supposed to be good at, and this reassured his rabbit-mind that here he could be a good rabbit. Being afraid was supposed to be a rabbit trait also, but he was terrible at that.

The only exception was with the little dragon. Somehow, when this thing came flying down at Frank, he had a sense that this was a problem, some kind of challenge, something to be concerned about. So, he would run, but only so far. The little dragon never seemed to actually hurt him. It just liked to chase him.

He had a similar sense of concern about the humans who took care of him, but it was a far more vague concern, and he really didn't notice anything about them except that there was one who liked to pet him and carry him around, one who was somewhat comfortable to be around, one who Frank was unnerved by (the colorful one with the little dragon!), and the one who Frank thinks he hurt badly somehow. But a rabbit couldn't possibly hurt someone that big so badly, so Frank was convinced he must be mistaken.

Frank chewed his grass, not thinking about it, and continued his efforts to be a good rabbit. Somewhere, some distant part of him wondered if the humans found it so difficult to be human.

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The Other Side, 5

Wednesday, March 18, 2009 - 4:37 PM

Though Fidelity was gigantic, there was something more than his mere size that made Avar feel small. It was true that Fidelity was impressive to witness, but his monolithic presence touched some primal root in a person's soul. Avar had seen strong-hearted men struck dumb by Fidelity's presence before, rendered barely able to speak as if in terrified awe.

For Avar, whose soul was gnawed hollow, Fidelity was not so impressive, and he knew that was why Leoric had sent Avar to Fidelity's grove.

“Revered Disciple,” he pronounced. “My liege, Leoric, bids that you send him answer.”

Branches groaning faintly, Fidelity's trunk twisted slightly, sending ruddy flakes drifting to the thick black earth like petrified leaves. In general appearance, Fidelity was a massive tree, with long tendrils like a willow but with the stocky, gnarled shape of an oak. His branches and roots looked like huge, distorted arthritic limbs, and the heavy, mossy bark looked as if it covered over contorted masses of people. Avar knew that occasionally, another sacrifice would find its way underneath bark. Judging from the empty, smiling eyes of the Obedient around them, he did not think there would a lack of volunteers.

Fidelity lowered one of his many faces closer to Avar. Hanging from a branch, the head seemed to grow directly from the branch, dangling by its rather tangled black hair. It did look quite human, albeit pale and slightly malformed, as if it were imperfect clay. But the maroon eyes peered at him with deep intelligence, matching the deep, bellows-heavy voice that emitted from the trunk itself.

“We do not serve your liege,” replied Fidelity.

“...of course not,” sighed Avar. “Yet, you and he serve the same great patron. Your father and teacher.”

Fidelity's leaves hissed and whispered, and the head hanging before Avar lifted slightly. Several of the other heads turned to peer at him with a severe expression.
“We,” announced all of the heads in various voices, as well as the wind-thunder voice from below, “do not serve your liege. We are beholden only to Harrow. Hope may play her games, but we are above them.”

Avar folded his arms, looking up at the closest of the heads. A light rain had started, adding another whisper to the constant, soft chorus among Fidelity's branches, and Avar pulled his hood up. The Obedient, a scattered mass of rustics wrapped in threadbare cloaks, simply ignored the weather. Generations of being subject to Fidelity's will had ensured they would cheerfully die of exposure if Fidelity wished it. The purplish stains of Fidelity's fruit remained on some of their complacently smiling lips.

“My liege does not follow Hope's ambitions, though he reveres her as he reveres all of your kind,” said Avar carefully, remembering what Leoric told him to say. “You are a creature of omens and portents; my liege follows them as well, and he knows that his actions follow in Harrow's vision. That you understand Harrow's will better than he, my liege understands, but he also sees that the signs are plain. He has the Citadel's wisdom, and the words of a prophet of the Worm, as well as his own ordeal in the Wound to show him. You have already dedicated some of your people to our cause; he merely asks for more, in order to spearhead the eventual attack south.”

As Fidelity's multitude of cold eyes watched him, Avar had a faint sense of irritation at Leoric. Avar was not a diplomat, though he felt well-spoken enough. Sending him to negotiate was not generally what Avar was directed to do. Most people found Avar's presence uncomfortable. He had a deadly serenity around him, long having been resigned to the slow deterioration of his inner being. But even as he made others fearful of him, fear was dead to Avar. Fidelity might have made him over-conscious of being small, but Avar was not afraid of the Disciples.

Of course, even with his experience, Avar knew he could not hope to relate to Fidelity. He wondered if the creature even perceived time the same way as humans did. Fidelity was ancient beyond Avar's understanding, having been changed by Harrow hundreds of years ago. What was a year to Fidelity? A clutter of memories that only recalled what might have happened, but not when? Were all years the same? Avar did not know.

Now, watching Fidelity consider in silence, Avar understood that he couldn't even guess what thoughts the monstrous tree had.

“And what do our children have to gain from this,” asked one of the heads in a low, skeptical voice.

“The Wound will lengthen, revered Disciple, and my liege does not intend to slaughter everyone who opposes him. He promises that one portion of captives will come to you.”

“Leoric intends to take the convent of the Green Veil.”

“Yes,” replied Avar, frowning slightly.

“All clergy and contemplatives,” announced Fidelity. “All of them who do not die will be secured there, at the convent. For this, we give half of the Obedient to serve your liege.”

This is not what Leoric thought Fidelity would say, thought Avar, and he realized that he would have felt cold if his soul were intact. Leoric originally intended to let the healers flee south, carrying word of the world to come. He knew the knight protectors of the Green Veil had made many a foray against Fidelity's cult in the past, and it seemed the Disciple had a taste for vengeance. “... you do not wish them brought to you?”

“Nay,” thundered Fidelity, with every voice in his branches. “For we intend to come to the convent ourselves, and root there when the conquest is done. Yes, we shall bring them faith, and it will begin with the blood offerings of our children.”

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Friday, March 6, 2009 - 1:28 PM

Some people reading here may not have seen the original installments that began the world of 'Customs' in my head. I'll put up a few as samples, starting with the one that started it all. Note that none of these posts are in the Customs book that I'm working on. These events take place -after- the story told in the book itself.

The narrow hall was clogged with bodies and carry-on bags, sprawled haphazardly in front of the open plane door. Colin and Margaret were there already; he was carefully examining the eyes of one of the corpses, and I could see her inside the plane, quietly talking to someone in the hunched posture of shock.

"What the hell," I said.

Colin looked up, dark and ordinary, badges slung over his shoulder like an eccentric tie, and sighed. "No wounds. No marks. They just died on the spot. I don't know why at this point. Did security catch anything?"

To my eye, the bodies looked like they'd just collapsed where they stood, disembarking. Something must have triggered the creature. "No," I answered, after a moment, scratching at my chin. "I spotted it in the crowd, but I touched its arm, and pain blacked me out."

He stood slowly, brushing at his slacks, furrowing his brow. "How did you know? Margaret can't get anything out of the survivors. They just heard screaming, and then people started running... well, except these."

I peered at the bodies, faces locked into immobile terror. For supernatural murder, this was pretty clean, but for some reason that bothered me more than werewolf mauling or zombie gnawing. "I was pushing through the crowd, trying to get here," I replied. "I got stuck a moment, and there was this woman nearby. I happened to notice the reflections in her eyes... I think it was the lights."

Colin's bland face melted into a mask of alarm. "Oh God. They were inverted?"

I just nodded. Colin was a metaphysical pathologist, he knew what that meant, and so did I.

Everybody knows about your typical Carpathian vampire, or the problems of lycanthropic fever. Cosmopolitan magazine has ten ways to tell if your husband is seeing a vampire. Provisions were made for changeling education at public schools forty years ago, the debate over zombie laborers continues, and yet, with all this, there's still a lot creeping around that people don't believe in or don't even know about.

Sometimes, they're better off not knowing.

In 1920, there was a mass exodus from Manila of a very tricky sort of creature that fed on human flesh. They looked human, acted human, and worse, seemed capable of being in two places at once. Fortunately, they had a severe allergy to lime juice, of all things. However, the research that turned up this fact also produced a lot of other information that made most nations close their borders to most of Indonesia, and this was the beginning of a global law. In 1946, the global standards of security to prevent supernatural or preternatural breaches were set up, and delineated certain areas as supernatural danger zones, forbidding anyone but qualified experts access or egress.

I am one of those experts, and ninety percent of Indonesia is one of those areas.

"And it got out?" Colin was looking pale. "Do you really think its an aswang?"

"Yes," I said, frowning at the dead bodies. "And maybe. Information is inconsistent and sometimes outright false on these things... and we think there's what, like seven breeds of Indonesian vampire?"

He nodded slowly, and Margaret finally came out of the plane, all calm business. "Ok, Colin, team's got the other hatches open, they're getting people out now... hi, Reed, figured you'd be here... sorry, but no one seems to know anything useful. When the fear wears off, they might remember something. Oh, I found this, by the way, one of the passengers had it. He's dead. I'll send the passenger information and effects to your office."

She stepped over the bodies like she did that sort of thing every day, and handed me a jar of something oily and dark, with some leaves floating in it. I rolled it in my hand, noting the customs stamp on the lid.

"Singapore," said Margaret. "What protocol do you want to use?"

We'd had problems with Singapore customs officials before; minor, but troublesome enough, and nothing so potentially bad. If the aswang was the sort of creature we thought it was, it could change shape, pose as a normal human perfectly well, and it had a taste for children. Worse, we had no idea how they actually propagated, or what they were really susceptible to. It was the indication that they might be sorcerors too that particularly worried me... particularly because I had no idea how or why it had suddenly killed so many people.

"Ok, Margaret. Lock it down. Keep the passengers isolated, inform families. Is Rachel on today? Get her to purify the gate area... and the bodies, too. Um, Colin, you do your thing, have the report to me end of today?"

He nodded somberly.

Margaret gave me her best smile, which wasn't very good. For a manikin, she was still pretty human, though. At least she tried. Some of them don't bother, and the Doll Movement was still one of the creepiest political groups I'd ever known. "I'll have transcripts for you by the same time."

I tucked the jar into my bag. "Security'll have teams out looking already, but I doubt they'll find much. See you both tonight, I've got to do some research. This just doesn't fit the profile.... oh, and keep the damn press from mentioning demons, ok?"

Colin chuckled, and started breaking out his chalk and candles, Margaret went back aboard the plane, and I strolled back out through Colin's team at the gate, heading for my office.

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Writing Habits

Thursday, March 5, 2009 - 10:49 AM

I've been full of thoughts and ideas moreso than usual these days, which is both wonderful and terribly frustrating. It has gotten to the point where I feel I don't have enough of a lifetime to write everything that's in my head. Frequently, things get clogged, and I get writing cramps while working on one idea from the yelling and screaming another idea makes when it wants attention.

One thing I like to do to inspire myself to write is to read books with obvious flaws. I keep a few around for this purpose, particularly those stories where I see a beautiful skeleton nearly obscured by trash writing. I revise them in my head, and allow myself to be annoyed at the fact that THIS got printed. This makes an excellent goad for writing.

However, occasionally this generates an idea, and I have decided to avidly pursue one such idea.

Some readers may be aware that I am working on a novel called 'Customs', which started with a blog entry describing a dream. This project is primary, but some characters have been giving me a hassle, so in my usual way, I've been looking for a similar back-burner project to work on. Now, I believe I have it.

I started 'With Iron' just a couple days ago. This story is a response to the usual fantasy trope where the book details the development of a hero as he enters into his destiny, gathers his auxiliary characters and goes about saving the world or fulfilling a prophecy or whatever else the hero happens to be up to. 'With Iron' is actually one of three stories which are connected; I have not decided the precise format I will be using to convey them, but they will be primarily joined in an epistolary fashion... the main characters from each will eventually begin writing letters to one another.

So what is 'With Iron' about? It is the story of a young man who eventually becomes the Bad Guy for a number of would-be heroes. The two other stories tell similar stories, and even begin much the same way, detailing the beginnings and transitions of one person becoming an adversary. Their stories are otherwise quite different.

This may not sound particularly unusual, but I am quickly finding that it is not as easy to write as might be expected. For one, I am determined to make these three characters Bad Guys. They might have a definite whiff of anti-hero, perhaps, and at least one does a fantastic job of posing as a Good Guy, but ultimately these three people are just plain Bad (albeit for wildly different reasons). Making such a creature the protagonist while maintaining the fact of their evil nature is fine exercise. I want to give the reader enough sympathy to care about what happens to these people, of course, but these are not heroes in the conventional sense.

I am a big fan of having a theme or message in my work, be it in gaming or literature. 'With Iron' is an exploration. It is meant to be a place where the reader can see things from the other side of every fantasy story where light and dark collide, but more importantly, they get to see the other side not as a cardboard cut-out but an actual person with loves, hates, passions, wishes, goals and dreams. The business of having three points of view is there to provide contrast and show that not all villains are the same. It is there also to show that diverse though they might be, villains (like heroes) also gather for common goals... though these three prefer to maintain a polite distance.

They know their own, after all.

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One for Nate

Tuesday, March 3, 2009 - 9:14 PM

Tirsah returned unseen, startling the nearby sentries when he reappeared, but Jade Bear did not show any surprise. He remained standing with his massive arms folded, peering down towards the dark mass crossing the river far below. Around them, weathered pillars and heaps of reddish stone concealed their encampment.

“There are about six hundred soldiers in the Hunt,” said Tirsah, narrowing his dark eyes at the steadily moving army below.

Jade Bear nodded. “The two of us against six hundred... good odds.”

Tirsah shot an annoyed look at his huge companion, and kept his voice low. “There are FIVE Dragon-bloods down there, and one of them is Searing Brand.”

Turning his head slightly, Jade Bear glanced down at Tirsah, brow furrowing heavily. “Then we must use the soldiers. Without them, the enemy will slow us enough that the Dragon-bloods will bring us down.”

With some effort, Tirsah laughed openly and kept a bright smile on his face while he spoke quietly. “Are you insane? They'll die like dogs out there. Sure, they're good, and getting better every day. But that's a Wyld Hunt. Searing Brand alone can account for fifty of our men. He's carrying Tears of the World with him... we dodged them before, Jade, come on.”

With great dignity, Jade Bear unfolded his arms and slowly moved them to clasp his hands behind his broad back. “We can't keep running.”

“We've still got time.”

“We would have had more time, had you chosen to leave the Delzhan woman alone. Instead, we had to flee Chiaroscuro, and now Searing Brand is here again.”

“...ah,” replied Tirsah, and then just shrugged. “...Well, you only live once.”

Jade Bear laughed, a rich and reassuring sound, and Tirsah could practically feel some of the tension in the camp lift. But the wind and silence rushed back in again.
“That is a lie,” murmured Jade Bear. “And you know it.”

Tirsah sighed. “Yes, it's a lie, but I also know that there are fates worse than death, and one of them is riding towards us. I'm telling you, Jade, we should bide our time. Let's go.”

Jade Bear set his jaw in thought. This was an easily recognizable posture which the men would realize a serious decision was being made. So, Tirsah took the moment to give the nearby sentries a reassuring, cocky grin.

The men had been on edge for a couple of days now. Thrashing desert bandits was one thing; with Jade Bear's training and Tirsah's cunning, every man of the company had been a hero. Even the scandal at Chiaroscuro had been harrowing but exhilarating for them, especially once Tirsah had told the story of the high-born Delzhan woman and her irate suitors. They revered his wit and taste for the unattainable as much as they were awed by Jade Bear's intuition and strength. The Scarlet Empire was a distant, negligent tyrant to be cast aside or scorned.

Now, things were different. Now, it was the frightful warrior Searing Brand, whose arm broke cavalry charges and blasted men in armor to charred husks. Worse, he bore the unquiet flail Tears of the World, and any living thing with any sense of mortality was afraid of that weapon.

Even Tirsah was, but he had doubts about Jade Bear's opinions on mortality.

“No,” said Jade Bear quietly. “If we flee, it will be slow death for many of these. We must cross hard ground, and the Dragon-bloods can ease passage for their troops. Wood-and-Water is with them, remember.”

Tirsah swore, but Jade Bear continued. “You've kept us safe for a long time, my friend, but now it is my time, and we must do this.”

“You realize what you're doing?”

“Of course,” said Jade Bear, as if the answer were obvious, and he turned to face the camp.

“You are going to kill all of them,” hissed Tirsah, putting on his unconcerned face as he also turned.

“No,” murmured Jade Bear. “The Wyld Hunt will kill many of them. But together we will daunt the Hunt, or maybe even defeat it. And then those who are left will follow us north.”

Tirsah was about to respond, but Jade Bear's voice boomed out over the remains of the camp, and gathered the men. Already in motion, it only seemed like a second before the ragged and dusty but determined soldiers filled the area before the two Exalts.

“In an hour,” Jade Bear announced, “We will meet the Wyld Hunt in open battle. We will flank them from two sides, in the canyon approach to this mesa. They will be ready for an ambush.”

There was a surprised murmur, and then someone spoke out. “What of... Searing Brand?”

“I will handle that,” said Jade Bear as if it were not important. He paused for a moment, and then raised his massive hand to quiet the soldiers. “Listen. This will be the greatest moment of your lives. You will be fighting against heroes of an empire that has ruled over Creation for countless generations. You will be confronting weapons forged by spirits, and the children of the Dragons of the Earth. Who among you has ever dreamed of such a thing? Who could imagine that you would be here, right now, fighting alongside men like these? You are thinking that you will die. But you are wrong, my friends.”

He spread his arms wide.

“You will become immortal.”

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Monday, March 2, 2009 - 10:30 AM

It's been a turbulent time since my last post, and my creative process was jolted out of place. I have a couple of unfinished blots and one idea clamoring to be posted here, but before they go up, but in my estimation, none of them are ready yet. So, today, I'm writing about writing.

I've had commentary on the nature of my villains for quite a while. People tend to like them, and I'm certainly glad for that because I've been trying for years to make them Good bad guys. I don't know where that started, but I've always grown quickly tired of the stereotypical evil overlords or over-convoluted plotters or 'just plain bad' antagonists.

I think the real secret is to just treat all of your characters like people.

This may sound a little strange, but I do think this is one of the main issues that authors have when they pen the bad guys. They externalize the character, consciously or unconsciously. As much as people love to clamor about the bad guy, the truth is most people don't want to be the Real bad guy. They want to be the bad guy people admire, the rebel who goes against the grain or the man who does things that nobody else is willing (or has will enough) to do. I think that, unconsciously, people don't want to admit that evil is really rather ordinary. When the villain is written, then, there is a shadow of caricature. Either the author tends to hit the evil button way too much, or they end up writing an anti-hero, not a villain.

When I was writing the group for 'The Other Side', I wanted them to be vile, and unmistakably villains. This means hitting the evil button quite a bit. But there are many, many different flavors of evil, and even with the diversity of Leoric's lieutenants, it is a small sampling. Further, whenever you pen a villain, you want to be sure not to alienate your reader. Evil is far more effective and evocative if you can show something sympathetic behind it all.

Now, that doesn't necessarily mean you should somehow feel sorry for these characters. By sympathetic I mean that somewhere in there, you provide a chord that other people can find and relate to. Evil, real evil, isn't a huge cosmic darkness. It starts as a tiny, very sharp fracture that eventually cuts altruism and morality to ribbons. It always starts somewhere, even if that somewhere was an arbitrary decision that someone simply couldn't escape.

Leoric is easily the most sympathetic. He wanted to be a hero. His father was a hero. But as anyone who pays attention to the news knows, humanity loves to spit on heroes who show any kind of fault. Humanity praises those who want to do things like help the poor, but as a population, humanity rarely exerts any effort themselves. To Leoric, this is the vilest form of hypocrisy, and he intends to prove that point in no uncertain terms to the teeming, selfish masses who make it impossible to do what is right. His evil comes from frustrated virtue, and he is hollowed out by his hatred. In his eyes, he must ruin his own soul to bring truth to the world.

Even in contrast to Leoric's careful atrocities, Isabeau is a monster. But hiding behind the necrophilia and cannibalism is desperation. For her, it started with a desire to be more than she was, and the will to do whatever it took to reinvent herself. Isabeau is unconsciously terrified of what she's become, and though outside observers may never understand that, one might be able to see the tiny compulsive signs. Isabeau does horrible things to prove that she was always this way, because she cannot bear to think that she wasn't. Her atrocities are to numb her.

So here you have two kinds of evil both born of pain. Isabeau just wanted to be a magician and flunked out of arcane school; she didn't have the talent. Leoric just wanted to be a good person, and watched the world eat his father. Are they bad people? Oh yes, certainly. There's no mistaking that. But they are still people, and that makes the evil in them far more vivid.

Interestingly, people seem to find it difficult to write 'overwhelming good' for similar reasons, but that's a post for another time.


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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The Other Side

Friday, January 30, 2009 - 11:33 AM

Faint sobbing whispered inside the wide dome in the Citadel of Tongues. It mingled with the thin threads of bitter incense smoke and the gloom huddling around sparse candles. A forest of cobwebs hid the upper part of the dome, hanging like translucent drapes, and tapestries in green and rust covered the walls. Eyes drawn to the tapestry would flee again instinctively from the furtively vile hints of the art.

The tapestries were familiar, and therefore ignored, by the four .

“Leoric is not coming,” said Avar to the others. His voice was even and smooth, falling flat against the tapestries. A sharp ear would note unusually precise control and diction; the only outward sign of Avar's ferocious internal struggle. He had to keep an iron grip on the horror his soul had become, every waking moment. This required sanity of a sort, and Avar endured, knowing that losing his rationality would break his discipline, and that would be his death.

His companions had the luxury of madness. Avar was stained enough with his own atrocities that he could understand Tancred's fanaticism, or the torture of Julian's visions. But Avar still had a small, howling conscience inside him, the little piece holding him together, and thus Lady Isabeau's madness was something he could not understand.

“Why not,” wheezed Tancred, crouching rather than sitting.

“Because he's gone to the Wound,” replied Avar, glancing at the huddle of mouldering leather and mossy cloth that was Tancred. “He left immediately after Julian told him what happened.”

Lady Isabeau touched her sharp teeth with her tongue, thinking, and then leaned back with a sigh from her repast. The soft weeping came from her long, pale coat; her meal had ceased whimpering a while ago. “Hope's heart recovered, and then destroyed,” she said thoughtfully. “All that we have done, and we could not find it. But these others did.”

“Blasphemers,” hissed Tancred. Tangled red hair hid most of his face, but his agitation was apparent. Avar expected a rant coming. Instead, Tancred bit his lip and glanced furtively at Lady Isabeau.

She did not seem to notice, and turned her small dark eyes to Julian, who sat draped over his chair as if he were a cat. “Who were they?”

“Five,” said Julian, and then jerkily scratched at the base of his neck. Avar imagined the worm was particularly bad for Julian at the moment. When Hope's heart had been destroyed, Avar had held Julian down until the screaming had stopped.

“Five,” continued Julian, turning wide eyes up to Isabeau. “The Lady Knight, the Moonstone druid, the gray paladin, the Durzani astrologer, the priest of Law. They took the Heart from a tomb, and destroyed it in a great hall of hypocrisy. The five provinces celebrate even now, and they were given great regard for their act. Leoric goes to Hope's tree, to discover what we must do.”

“The Moonstone is mine,” rumbled Tancred, rubbing his callused hands together.

“What head we might find, we take,” said Avar blandly. “But we haven't heard anything from Hope yet.”

“Indeed not,” mentioned Isabeau as she dabbed at her lips with a napkin. “Julian, where are the five now?”

Julian wrapped himself in his own arms, his pointed face vacant, and Avar reflexively dabbed away a line of drool starting on Julian's lip. They were frequent companions, bound together by common dedication and the cost of an ordeal. Julian had survived the Augury of Maggots, tying him to the nightmare consciousness of the Wound, and his mind was always full of horror and whispers. He found Avar's presence quieting, and Avar had great sympathy and admiration for Julian's willingness to accept such a burden.

A strange friendship had developed, a balance between a man whose body and mind were wracked with prophetic worms, and a warrior whose body and mind were powerful, but whose soul was rapidly being displaced by an abomination.

“Still in Effernar,” murmured Julian, starting slightly as if waking. “The blood is still on their hands, but it will fade. They will not stay, though. They are restless.”

Tancred looked immediately at Isabeau. “Let me handle this, let me gather my monks and we'll put them down, we'll bring them back to the Wound.”

“You will do nothing of the sort,” announced Isabeau thinly. “Leoric is our leader, and we will wait for his command.”

Subsiding, Tancred clicked his long nails together and breathed deeply, taking on the look of some huge, mangy predator who patiently waits for some unsuspecting animal to get within reach.

“We should send Julian to the harpies,” said Avar. “They'll listen to him.”

“Yes,” agreed Isabeau. “Find out what the harridans wish to do, Julian. Do you understand?”

“Beauty's children will know,” responded Julian, shifting uncomfortably. “Beauty may know. I will go.”

Isabeau favored Julian with a slight smile and then aimed herself at Tancred again. “You should get back to work, Tancred. Gather your people and work faster. We need more of the cauldrons and bellows. Increase work at the mine.”

“I will do it,” said Tancred. “When Leoric returns, all will be ready.”

Isabeau and Avar looked at each other.

“The students and teachers here are already organized, but this news lends me to believe I have a number of matters to look into immediately,” said Isabeau, rising as the massive spider she sat on lifted itself from the floor. “Avar...?”

“The army is growing, and it is ready.”

Isabeau nodded, fastened her scarves, and her spider silently pivoted her away and out of the room. Tancred rotted into the shape of a mangy crow, flapping his way up through the cobwebs to exit from the oculus of the dome.

Avar stood, waited a moment for Julian to begin to leave, and then looked at the silvery skin and broken, pure feathers of the angel on Isabeau's dinner table. It had been a meal by stages; the gorgeous creature's torso was nearly empty, and its crystalline bones stripped of flesh on most of the limbs. Isabeau had left the face intact but for the eyes, which she had consumed early on.

That is what I have become, he thought for a moment, and then turned his back, leaving the Citadel to attend to the end of the world.

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Alchemical Marriage, part 7

Friday, January 9, 2009 - 12:11 PM

The holidays ate my brain. We resume our normal programming now.

Dhunas was hard ground, a wide bowl of rocky earth with some liberally unmapped forest smeared across it. Hillman tribes ranged through the area, bitter and vigilant, and Erich had even heard rumors of a troll nest somewhere in the caves there.

He hoped that the grotto he'd chosen to hide in wasn't occupied.

Orders were orders, and orders had been to march for Dhunas, a move to outflank the enemy. What happened was an ambush in the early morning by a raging patchwork of Kesran soldiers and mercenary hillmen. A hard fight, not unexpected.

But it was the sudden bombardment from hidden guns that tore the heart out of the camp, scattering blood and flesh with whirling shards of metal. During Erich's headlong dash into the woods, he'd spotted the red tree livery of the Cyragrim, and he knew then where the Kesrans had gotten all the artillery.

Echoes crawled through the gnarled trees nearby, flat incoherent noises that let him know the conflict wasn't quite over yet. On occasion he heard an odd wailing cry that made his bones cold, but he had no idea what it was. Breathing deeply, he willed his heart slower and took quick stock of his injuries while keeping half an eye on the forest. There was nothing serious, grazes and cuts, and the burning pain in his shoulder had just been from impact. The sword hadn't gotten through his armor. The bruise would stiffen and slow his left arm, but nothing was broken.

He considered his options. Certainly others will have escaped and run east to warn their allies what happened, and he should regroup as well. He didn't know Dhunas hardly at all, but he knew that if the enemy force had followed through with the ambush, he'd have to sneak through them to get where he needed to be.

Best to hide for now, and wait, he thought.

The wailing sound erupted much closer, this time, and he focused immediately, peering out at the dim gray woods. Some motion caught his eye, and he saw a single figure sprinting, a pack slung over one shoulder.

Dark things cascaded after the fugitive, low to the ground, tumbling over the roots.

Drawing his pistol, he locked his mind on an incantation, merging the patterns in his mind with the sounds his mouth shaped, and leveled his arm. He felt the thrumming of the spell as it burrowed into the bullet.

“Dodge left!”

The figure did so immediately, and Erich fired. The bullet streaked from the pistol in a thin line of blue light, striking one of the low-slung creatures, which made a wet choked sound. The spell discharged immediately, and the shuddering blast from the bullet ripped out of the creature with a dull, powerful thud, hammering the other beasts near it.

They tumbled. One of them rolled awkwardly and charged at him. The others twitched, and were still.

Erich focused, quickly loading his pistol again, but the bark of another pistol preceded him, dropping the creature. He caught a brief glimpse of something like a long-bodied boar, with long sharp tusks and spreading paws instead of hooves.


He glanced over at the fugitive, whose grey smock had been torn, showing simple leather armor beneath. She looked back at him with clear blue eyes, face mostly covered by a scarf though her wide-brimmed hat was long since gone, leaving her fair hair hanging in a braid.

His heart stopped for a moment.

“Well met again, sir,” said Brigantia. “We should away from here; others will have heard the pistol fire.”

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Alchemical Marriage, part 6

Thursday, December 18, 2008 - 7:03 PM

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

Baron Rafer of Kesra did not like the Cyre.

Lady Myrrga of Marnlee was a diminutive woman with child-like proportions. Her wardrobe was all midnight blue silk brocade, with hems far beyond the limits of her small, neat limbs. Lengthy slits along the sleeves allowed her to slip her delicately gloved hands free to gesture as she spoke, and her small, neat features provided a wry counterpoint to large, innocent looking green eyes.

But Baron Rafer noticed that her pleasant demeanor did not reach those eyes, which were hollow, intensely empty, and he recognized the severe set of her tiny mouth; it was the scar of many years of iron discipline, enforced on others He also noticed that she did not walk at all. She was carried either on her small, globe-like palanquin or sometimes cradled by one of her massive bodyguards as if she were a little girl.

The slender, pointed words that flicked out from her tongue were not the words of a little girl, however, and it bothered him that he could not tell her age.

“Thus, my Lord, the shipment will reach your province in but a week rather than the two we previously discussed. Unfortunately, tariffs from the Consortium are high, and whatever influence we have does not extend to bypassing tariffs.”

She offered him the small, sympathetic smile again.

“Kesra honors its business agreements,” said the Baron blandly. “The tariffs are negligible; we will pay them.”

“Then we are at an accord, lord Baron.”

Myrrga made a gesture with her tiny hand and one of the hulking cloaked men laid a long parchment out on the table. Rafer gave it a brisk look, just to confirm it was the same he'd perused earlier, and then smoothly and mechanically placed his seal upon it. Myrrga's seal was already there, showing the odd tree of the Cyre in red wax.

Sitting back, he forced himself to regard Myrrga in a properly bored fashion. The Cyre were
merchant nobility as far as the Kesrans were concerned, and even if Rafer had to admit their staggering wealth, he considered himself of far greater value.

But this wasn't what bothered him about the Cyre.

He'd met three of the Cyre leaders, and all of them were cripples. Avnash walked with two bejeweled canes, and Rafer was almost certain one of Avnash's hands was made of cleverly jointed metal. Tisija, House Zemhorob, had a gloriously elegant metal peg-leg. But all of them had the same pallid look and the same hungry eyes, and though he could not see it on Myrrga, he suspected that like the others her skin would crack like old paint. He'd seen literal flakes fall from Avnash's arm, as if the grim-faced man had been made of plaster. Perhaps this was some consequence of their alchemy, but you'd think underlings would be doing the hazardous experiments.

“Now, about the other matter,” said Lady Myrrga, touching her sleeve-covered hands together. “Due to recent events, the Houses of Cyre have agreed to assist your King.”

“So long as the terms are clear,” replied Rafer after a pause. The King doesn't want one set of merchant lords replaced by another, and you well know it, he thought. “Your assistance will be paid for as we discussed, with a percentage of levies taken by my King from the Consortium territories.”

“Naturally,” stated Myrrga pleasantly. “There is one other stipulation, however, which I have been asked to bring to you.”

The Baron adopted his best skeptical face. This conversation was a formality, a verbal contract. She knew perfectly well that the King would give the Cyre no new territories, just as he knew that the Cyre would accept this backwoods bargain. The Consortium had been squeezing the Cyre lately, and it had even come to open skirmishing in one province. Naturally, the Cyre would want allies.

But he'd also expected that to be all.

“What is it.”

“The Consortium sometimes makes use of the crebath, whom I understand your people prefer to burn to death. We ask that you capture them instead and have them sent to us. You have our word that they will not be spared death, my Lord Baron, but their death will simply come less swiftly.”

The Baron stared at Myrrga for a long moment, and she watched him steadily in return. Her anonymous bodyguards stood silently around them, hemming in the silence, and he considered.

The crebath were considered abominations to his people, and if the Cyre wished to destroy them, why not? But then again, why not let the Kesrans deal with it? He knew the crebath were alchemists also, and perhaps this was an old grudge, or a professional rivalry gone beyond friendly competition.

He considered also that the crebath were few, and mercenary. If presented with capture by the Cyre, they might well leave the battle entirely and flee, which means less support for the Consortium.

Silently, he resolved that captured crebath would be carefully questioned before the Cyre ever got them, but these were terms he could agree with.

“Done,” he said pleasantly. “I shall bring your words to my King, who will be pleased that his new territories will be free of the patchwork monsters.”

The smile he received in return unnerved him for a reason he did not understand.

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Alchemical Marriage, part 5

Wednesday, December 3, 2008 - 10:27 PM

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

Exhausted, Dieder slumped down on the rain-soaked hillside and concentrated on breathing. He wasn't out of breath, but concentrating on breathing let him focus on something other than the flat seething triangle of devastation starting where the acid cannon once stood.

It had been an ugly, toad-like machine of green-stained glass and a gold-tinted bronze metal, crouching on a pivot of wheels and spheres. Now it looked like a tree stump split by lightning, all gleaming splinters and shards, pitted and corroded.

Dieder hated it still.

When his men had come out from hiding, the cannon had been slowly pivoting towards their flanking force. Dieder remembered the thin, shrewd man in Cyre livery spotting them, and then the alarm was sounded. Just after the confused, desperate flurry of sword and dagger, Dieder saw the cannon explode outward, sending a huge wave of hissing green death over friend and foe alike. The thin man went down smiling, but his smile was red and very long from the shard of metal that had killed him.

Some had inhaled the corrosive and died almost immediately. A few were at the edges of the lethal cone, and managed to shed their cloak or armor or tabard before the acid got to them. But the rest took a hideous time to die, screaming themselves raw, half-melted and writhing in sad attempts to crawl out of the steaming fluid that skinned them like rabbits.

No one dared to get close, except for the crebath, who managed to cart away a few of those at the near edges. The rest were beyond help, and a few archers didn't mind using the arrows to end the suffering.

Dieder felt scraped out and cold. It could have been his men, but it hadn't been, and he felt guilty that he was thankful for that.

A hand squeezed his shoulder, and he jerked his head around to study the man standing nearby.

“You did well,” Erich said.

Recognizing Erich, Dieder nodded a bit, and found some breath to speak. “Thank you, sir.”

He realized that Erich was offering him something warm to drink, and he accepted it even though he had little stomach for it. Instead, he focused on Erich, who looked withdrawn and weary himself.

“You were in the front?”

Erich nodded, sitting down himself and watching as the soldiers slowly picked over the field, looking for the wounded or trophies or just to be walking and alive. “Good plan, that outflanking. We were pretty damned happy when you pulled the cannon away.”

“That was Wisten's idea,” murmured Dieder. “The lieutenant liked it. Wisten knew the ground here, grew up just over those hills.”

“...did he make it?”

Shrugging, Dieder stared at the ground. “Don't know. When that ... the cannon went up, a piece came off and hit him in the head. The crebath took him away, but he was alive when they did.”

“Then you'll know by tomorrow,” sighed Erich, allowing Dieder's dismay to overwhelm his own anger at the crebath. “They are good surgeons.”

There was a pause, and then Dieder nodded. “That's what the old man kept telling me.” He stopped to look at Erich, noting the weariness, the tight lips that hinted at an old bitterness. “Do you know where we go from here?”

“No word yet,” said Erich slowly. “More of the same day after tomorrow, probably. We head north and east. There were Kesran soldiers fighting us here, which means the monarchy there is getting involved again. Some of the Dal Fana will probably want to see them about it.”

Watching the clouds roll in, Dieder frowned. “Kesrans now. And they are paying the Cyre?”

There was no reply, and Dieder looked over to see Erich watching the gray shapes of the crebath on the field. For a moment, he wanted to ask what was wrong, but the grim loss scarring Erich's expression stopped him.

Instead, he sat in silence, and waited for the healers to arrive.

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Alchemical Marriage, part 4

Thursday, November 20, 2008 - 12:25 PM

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

Sliding a battered and steaming tankard over to his younger comrade, Wisten settled his bulk on the bench.

“That'll warm your guts some,” he offered affably, and patted Dieder on the back.

Dieder gave Wisten a tolerant glance, nodding silently.

“More watch duty tonight,” continued Wisten, and winced at a sip from the concoction in his own tin tankard. Watchman's tea was a perpetual struggle; in autumn, it cooled quickly, so you had to drink it while it was warm without burning your mouth.

Dieder did the silent nod again, keeping his hands wrapped around the heat of his tea. The mess hall was nearly empty at this hour, with just a couple of scouts warming themselves at the fire before heading out again. It was a quiet time, the sort Wisten would describe as the pulling back of the ocean before the wave. Dieder would know this too; he was a different lad than the hot-tempered recruit he'd been. One battle can change a man completely, and Dieder had seen five now.

Braving his beverage, Wisten managed a searing gulp of the stuff, and then coughed a little when Dieder asked a question he didn't expect.

“Who the Hell are the Cyragrim, anyway?” Dieder was looking at Wisten fiercely, tapping a finger on the side of his tankard.

“...not sure what you're asking,” rasped Wisten. From Dieder's mood, he'd expected some of the sentimental things, like 'do you think I'll get home again' or 'I'm worried about my woman' or 'I almost died yesterday'.

“Who are they, Wisten? What kind of monster do you have to be to build something like that?”

No, instead, he's infuriated about the thrice-bedamned acid cannon. Putting up a hand, Wisten laughed a bit. “Easy, easy. One thing at a time.”

Dieder drank some of his tea with no regard at all for the inside of his mouth, and peered at Wisten. “Well, who are they? Funny how nobody ever sees them, nobody goes to their manor. I've heard other things, too...”

“Oh, now,” said Wisten. “That's not true. The Cyre houses are old, very old. Used to be nobility, and some say they still think of themselves that way. So they usually send middlemen to do business for them. They meet with peers, see, not mud-stomping soldiers like us. And people do go out to Karnain and Quevel; when I was a recruit, my first battle was just west of Quevel.”

Setting his jaw, Dieder nodded. “I never heard of a Cyre king or queen or whatever else. I thought they were merchants.”

“Yes, they are. Maybe their kingdom's built on money now, but some say the Cyre weren't always the Cyre. You know how some of the Hillmen carry the hanging masks on their banner? Or the six-fingered hand they get tattooed on their chest? That's all Kerlotyn. You ever see the Cyragrim arms? It's got a six-branched tree on it.”

Dieder mulled this over, frowning. “But the Kerlot got wiped out.”

Wisten nodded. “All of them. Sure, all that's left now are little piles of rock and some crazy Hillmen, but you don't have an empire like that and not leave something else behind. They conquered everybody from here to as far north as Greenstone Tower!”

“But that was ages and ages ago. And ...” Dieder paused, looking at Wisten suspiciously. “Are you changing the subject?”

“No, no. Just listen. The Kerlot were ruthless, right? So are the Cyragrim. I heard some wagoneers talk, the Cyre houses are great to do business with, but you better hold to contracts. You heard what happened to Anvil House that one time, right?”

Dieder looked at Wisten warily. “Sure, they got mangled.”

“Right. That's the thing... last time the Cyragrim took the field, they hired soldiers. But this last time? Nobody heard about any contracts. If they'd hired outside, we would've seen the troops on the road. So... who were the soldiers?”

This prompted another frown. “I don't know.”

“Hillmen,” said Wisten. “There weren't many survivors, and the fight happened at sundown. Not many people to see, but those who did... they say it was Hillmen. And who do they hire to? Nobody.”

“So you're saying the Cyre are Kerlotyn?”

“I'm saying they might be, and if they aren't, they think they are. And that's a lot of blood debt to pay. You've heard how the Hillmen rant. The Kerlot had a thing about grudges, or so they say. A grudge that old? That much hate? No wonder they make the weapons they do. And then they sell and rent their services to us so we kill each other. And remember what they used to say about the Kerlot and their power with curses. How many times have people failed against the Cyre?”

Dieder peered at Wisten for a long moment, and the older soldier looked back. Finally Dieder drained his tea, and shrugged.

“That sounds like a cart of horse shit.”

Wisten laughed. “Fine, so, the Cyragrim are just money-hungry bastards who like to build horrible machines. Is that answer enough?”

“No.” Dieder paused again. “I've seen a lot of killing, and it's just been man to man. We fight to live, this is how we make money. But the acid cannon? There's no cause for that thing. Death is never clean, but if you're a decent man, you make it as clean as you can. Torture is for filth, done by filth. And that thing is torture.”

Wisten gave him a wry smile and tapped tankards.

“Glad you feel that way, Dieder, because next engagement, we're charging the cannon. Come on, our watch is starting soon.”

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Alchemical Marriage, part 3

Sunday, November 16, 2008 - 5:33 PM

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

People staring at a crebath wasn't unusual. Even though there was not much to see, nor were they unexpected, Brigantia knew the three of them would get the attention. Here, in a war camp, the attention was limited to some staring from new recruits and the occasional glance or two from veterans, even though Brigantia went openly armed. Just three gray-wrapped figures, two unloading jars and boxes from a covered wagon and the third keeping watch.

The dark-haired man, however, had glanced briefly at them, paused, and then stopped to peer at them again.

At her, specifically.

She'd touched the rim of her hat in a polite greeting, but this had only elicited a peculiar mix of puzzlement and surprise in the stranger. Assessing him, she saw a fit, sharp-eyed man, and she certainly would have believed him a combat veteran. In this area, surely he'd met crebath before. One might have even saved his life.

To her surprise, he started walking towards them.

Behind her, Lavinia and Aloysius had been chatting quietly in the Old Tongue as they worked, Lavinia's cool rationality balanced by the subtle banter of her partner. Brigantia greeted the fellow before he got too close, to let them know.

“Good day, sir,” she offered. touching the rim of her hat again.

The man stopped at a polite distance, and seemed to be trying to get a better look at the small uncovered space under Brigantia's hat brim.

“...have we met?” the man asked, wary but curious.

“No, sir,” she said pleasantly, which was not how she felt. The man made her uncomfortable, and it irritated her that she did not understand why. As Aloysius offered greetings of his own and the usual polite questions started going back and forth, Brigantia tilted her head enough to hide her eyes with the hat brim.

But she kept watch on the man from the neck down.

“I am Alembic,” said Aloysius by way of introduction, indicating Lavinia and Brigantia in turn. “She is Aludel, and this is Athanor.”

“Erich,” the man said, as if he wasn't used to saying the name, and Brigantia looked up at him involuntarily. There was loss in his voice, only partially hidden, and he was probably unaware of how much it showed.

But when she looked up, his eyes were waiting, and pounced. Then, they seemed to recoil, the questing light in them leaping back as if burned.

“Who are you?”

The question was an arrow, straight for Brigantia. There was a desperate need to know, and she felt sympathy for wherever that need came from, but she was a bit affronted.

“...I am named Athanor, sir,” she replied quietly. “It means the alchemical furnace...”

“Don't play games with me,” he said in a quiet, deadly tone.

Grief and anger in a trained fighting man were a dangerous formula. She tilted her head slightly, hat brim back, and shifted the set of her shoulders in readiness, resting a thumb in her belt. If he did anything brash, she would stop him.

Her slight movements had a profound effect on the fellow, however. He took a half step back, his face gone dead white, and his eyes were full of confusion.

“Sir,” came Lavinia's voice from behind Brigantia. “Are you feeling well?”

Dawning realization mingled with horror in the man's eyes, quickly burned away by rage, and in an instant, his sword was out, moving for Lavinia. But Brigantia was just as fast; her sword rang against his, binding it, and drove the point to the ground while her own point flicked up to guard his throat.

“Stand down, sir,” she said in a cool tone.

His anger burned to nothing, and a pair of hollowed out, sad eyes stared back at her. He hesitated, blinking heavily, and then sheathed his sword to bow with a muttered apology before briskly walking away.

Brigantia sheathed her own blade, and noted the amount of interest around them. They all know this man, she thought. They know him and respect him. Who was he, and what has happened to him?

She became aware that Aloysius was talking to her quietly.

“Brigantia, we were misinformed on a matter that seems to have become rather important.”

She turned, looking at her father, whose shrewd eyes regarded her evenly.

“That man is supposed to be dead.” he continued. “The usual Anvil House contract allows us to salvage those remnants which do not have living kin, or kin who relinquish the remnants for a fee. A remnant we took from the field a year ago was exemplary for a Monitor like you. It figured heavily in your build; female, prime conditioning, very finely tuned nervous system...ah, in any case, that remnant originally belonged to Cybil of Tirburg, who was once that man's wife.”

He paused again before continuing. "You have her eyes, among other things."

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Alchemical Marriage, part 2

Thursday, November 13, 2008 - 2:55 PM

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

“Whew,” announced Athelstan with disgust.

“It's the acid cannon,” replied Godfrey, wrapping the new bandages around the ruin of an arm.
“This man got caught in the fog it kicks up.”

Godfrey was an old man, and he'd been a battlefield surgeon for much of his life. Before that, he was a soldier, and like most old soldiers, he'd seen quite a lot that he didn't mind mentioning if other people could bear it. He was a hard man, brisk and unflappable on the field.

The fact was, the Cyragrim acid cannon terrified him. It wasn't an efficient weapon, but it made a ruin of morale, and it did tend to kill anyone caught in its acrid greenish fog.


He finished another round of medicine-soaked bandages, and silently thanked whatever deity would listen that his patient had long since fainted from the pain. He also thanked them that his new assistant, Athelstan, had stomach enough not to vomit or faint.

“Come on, boy. That's all we can do for him.”

Athelstan's wide and skeptical gray eyes peered at Godfrey. “But...”

“No,” replied Godfrey, half-sighing. “He'll probably die in his sleep, lucky fellow, but we do what
we can. If he's very lucky, he didn't breathe in any of the fog.”

This was the second battle between the Dana Fal merchant houses and the Cyragrim that Godfrey had witnessed. The first had taken place ages ago, before he was shaving, and he'd been like Athelstan but a lot less wise. Old grudges and ample greed were the fuses for these little wars, and it seemed that both would pile up enough to occasion more than mere skirmishing. The House magnates would start buying mercenary contracts, would start calling in debts and militia as well as their House soldiers, and then promises of money would draw other interests from north and east.

Walking through the groaning ranks of the wounded, Godfrey had long since dismissed the appeal of war for money. His old, strong hands went about their work as if they had a memory of their own, allowing his brain to whet itself on other memories and thoughts, occasionally sparing a word or direction to his over-tired assistant.

After a few more rounds of bandaging, stitching, washing and setting, he became aware that Athelstan had stopped asking irritable questions.

“Pay attention, lad,” he said, and then noted that Athelstan was looking at their patient in astonishment.

Godfrey saw a man on the dawn edge of middle age, stronger and faster than the young men would expect, wiser and wittier than the young men generally were. They would see the touches of gray in his hair as a weakness, but these hairs were just scars, and little different than the scars the man had on his lean body. His hair was otherwise dark, brushing against his shoulders and shading a withdrawn, sharp-edged face. There was a threat implicit there, but a quiet and polite one. The man also showed no sign of noticing the stitches that Godfrey was putting into his shoulder.

Godfrey knew who the man was, of course, but so did Athelstan.


“Hush, lad, pay attention. You haven't gotten the knots correct yet. See how I tie this off.”

Naturally, the boy didn't learn a damned thing, and as soon as Godfrey had finished the stitches, Athelstan aimed at the man.

“It's an honor to meet you, sir, I heard so much about you, it's amazing to meet you at last, sir...”

Godfrey, noting the hollow look in the man's eyes, cut Athelstan off. “Stop your rambling, and go check the water. We'll need more boiling before the hour's out. Go!”

The boy hesitated out of sheer adolescent defiance, but the hard push of Godfrey's eyes broke him, and off he went. The older man sighed, and gave the soldier a quick look.

“Anything else?”

“No,” murmured the man. “The rest are just scratches.”

“Mind you keep them clean, then.” Godfrey paused, and then continued quietly. “I didn't think you were still fighting, Erich.”

Erich nodded. “I'm surprised you aren't dead. You keep pitching your hospital too close to the field.”

Godfrey snorted. “War is all about calculated risks. Been all right?”

There was a moment of consideration that surfaced briefly in Erich's eyes, and then he smiled. “Not really.”

“You'll get past it,” assured Godfrey quietly. “Just mind yourself, eh?”

“I do, but it's back to the front tomorrow.”

“Reinforcements came early, there'll be a push. They hired some crebath to help with medicine and whatnot, too. I've never cared for the crebath, but at least they have something to help deal with the damned Cyragrim alchemy.”

Erich just nodded again, but Godfrey could tell from the slight easing of the eyebrows that this was welcome enough news. There was another moment of silence, and then Godfrey gave Erich a squeeze on the unhurt shoulder.

“You're fit to go, lad.”

Returning in a hurried tangle of new bandages and jars of salve, Athelstan came back in to the hospital in time to see Erich's departure. Godfrey gave the boy credit; it was a few minutes before the questions started.

“Did he ask about me? What...”

“All right, all right. Shut your mouth, lad, and put your hands to work. I need more bandages boiled and salved up for tomorrow. And while you're working, I'll tell you a few things.”

Godfrey's wise and conspiratorial tone did what it was supposed to. Athelstan suddenly became the hardest working apprentice in ten provinces, and when he was hard at work, Godfrey began to talk to him quietly.

“Yes, Erich is one of the best fighters in the South, and yes, he really is something of a magician. And yes, it is true that his wife was as good as he was, but she was taken down about a year ago at the battle of Siris Field. That's where he got the one scar on his brow, from the explosion there. It put him out, but he was mostly under cover so he lived. She lost both her legs, died.”

Athelstan was all attention, but continued working. Predicting the questions, Godfrey continued.

“I know, because I was there. Anvil House took the field, drove off the troops they didn't slaughter, and later got crushed when they tried to cheat the Cyragrim warmongers who sold them artillery. Ugly rout, Erich's side was outnumbered three to one. But he got dragged off the field, and he recovered. He's still grieving, though. And you'd best give him space. He's still just a man, you know.”

Again, Athelstan's youth bubbled up a reply, and this time it won out. But before he could speak Godfrey stared him down.

“You don't get it yet? I'd figured you would, working with me. Heroes are men too, Athelstan, and that means they die just the same. Erich's just a man... just a remarkable one. Of course, I've got the right to be so praise-filled for him. More than you do, anyway.”

This prompted some blinking from the confused apprentice. “I don't understand?”

“He's my son, you idiot. Enough of this, back to work with you.”

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Alchemical Marriage, part 1

Tuesday, November 4, 2008 - 2:46 PM

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

To the crebath, everything had variations of meaning. They presented one name to non-crebath, for example, and kept their given name exclusively among their peers. Thus, Aloysius was known as Alembic to the men of the nearby city, and frequently confused with the Alembic-who-was-Honorius, who lived some miles away. As distinct as the crebath were from one another, most humans only ever saw the hat, scarf and coat. Even without, however, Aloysius knew perfectly well most humans couldn't tell them apart.

Reaching the bottom of the catacomb stairway, Aloysius went through the measured ritual of removing the ubiquitous gray work clothing, placing them on the hooks under the First Lantern.

“Aloysius, good evening.”

The slightly raspy but congenial voice came from Justinian, replete with sash, cravat and lace at his sleeves. His thick blond hair was neatly braided and pinned up in the older style of the region. Aloysius peered at him for a moment, amused.

“Dressed for tea so late?” Aloysius plucked at the sleeves of his work smock, and used the boot scraper.

“We were just getting together for a meeting,” replied Justinian. “Our gathering in the past couple of days has been extensive, and the Enclave has determined that some of us may collate offspring.”

“That is significant indeed,” said Aloysius, strolling over to his friend. The two of them moved quietly through the catacomb passages, heading downward. “What is the status so far?”

“It will be drawing lots, this time. Most castes are acceptable, so chances are very good whoever has the privilege will not have to pass it to another.”

Aloysius smiled despite himself. “Even Calcinati?”

“Oh yes. You are still obsessed with one of those?”

“Justinian, the structure I have in mind will be sublime.”

“No, no. Calcinati, not Sublimati.”

Aloysius gave Justinian a sardonic sideways glance. “Wit was clearly not something your parents bequeathed to you.”

“Yes, but charm was, and therefore you like me despite yourself.”

“...wit and logic.”

The two reached a great juncture of passages, fanning out from an austere gallery that might have started as a natural cavern. Justinian waited among the somber colors of hanging scrollwork while Aloysius went to his quarters to dress properly. The two then proceeded down long flights of stairs to the moot hall, where most of the Conclave was present. Rather than a sea of chemical-stained gray, they were resplendent in the brocades and silks they enjoyed in private.

Aloysius made some polite greetings as he moved through the large, dim stone hall, but there was little need for small talk in a Conclave. Eventually, everyone quieted as the eldest of the Sublimati, Grace, stepped forward with her assistant just behind, holding the sealed jar of the lottery.

A subtle touch grazed Aloysius's hand, and he did not have to look to know it was his dearest Lavinia. Around him, the other crebath were also standing with their chosen ones, the complementary half of who they were. Those who had not chosen stood apart; it was not their time for the Great Work.

“Attention,” said Grace again, filling the room with her golden, angelic voice. “We are all attended, now, and it is time. No doubt all here know that some shall be allowed to collate their offspring and complete a Magnum Opus. After consultation with the other caste leaders, it has been determined that two pairings shall have that privilege.”

She signaled the attendant, who stripped the wax from the clay jar, shook it several times, and then began to walk through the assembly, allowing each pair to take one token.

Aloysius consciously stilled his heartbeat, which hope had quickened. Surreptitiously, Lavinia gave his hand a squeeze, but they both kept their eyes forward as decorum demanded. They'd been ready to begin for a couple of years now, refining and designing their offspring, and with his very fortunate findings in the past week, they now had everything they needed. Of course, the fire of inspiration was not only with them; Aloysius had discussed the Magnum Opus with a number of other Conclave members, and he knew their own designs were of equal worth and inspiration.

But if it were now, it would be perfect. He steadied himself.

Then the jar was before them, and he let Lavinia reach for the token. All were still until the jar returned to Grace, who then nodded at them all in sombre ceremony.

The members of the Conclave looked at their tokens in silence. Then two pairs, including a silently elated Aloysius and Lavinia, stepped forward to raise their token as one. Two hands, one female, one male, standing together, joined to the symbol for the rebis; the alchemical marriage.

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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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Greater of Two Evils, part 3

Tuesday, September 30, 2008 - 12:26 PM

With his entourage camped in the murmuring quiet of an oasis a few miles away, Tristan exulted in his solitude. Around him, the desert's empty landscape dissolved into the dark of night, with only a few scattered stones to mark the endless sand. The bright of the moon made everything pale and grey, even the rich red and black of his flowing scarves. There was a power in these wide roaring spaces, especially at night when the horizon was destroyed and distance was a dream. He remembered experiencing such a place in his youth, standing at the cliffs that overlooked Slumberdrake glacier, and he was pleased to find the same wonder in himself now.

Squalid crowds, ancient teetering cities and the decadence of a people who had nowhere to go; these things were the legacy of Tristan's birthplace. For the spirit to survive, one found a way to drown the poverty or one reached inside to find silence and space. Half a world away from his birthplace, and half a world away from the desperate, frightened and determined boy that he'd been, Tristan felt as if he'd finally come home.

Alone, listening to the howling of the arid eastern wind, he felt the first true smile he'd had in weeks come to his face.

Part of it was the success, he knew. His arrival was the conclusion of a long pilgrimage of ruin. Like a subtle fire, he'd swept through a good many demon cults, secret societies and splinter religions on the way south. He'd left them in ashes, sparing only those few with potential or loyalty enough to suit his purpose. Over time, he'd painstakingly collected certain secrets, little tatters of legend and rumor, and it had created a map for him.

Now, walking through pearl-gray sand, his mind matched the broken stones around him to the map he'd drawn. The worn nubs of stone were like the hands of dead men, rising from the earth in a last attempt to be remembered, and Tristan was pleased to know them. Following their guidance, pausing on occasion to discern the correct direction, his walk began to take him towards a great heap of rock and sand.

The fragments were the corpse of a city. Like its name, it had been eroded near to nothing by the passing of time. It had been a wise and cruel place, full of learning and sophistication, a place of monuments, kings and scholars. Tristan did not know why it had come to an end, but he'd known why it was built.

Tristan's first teacher had been a failed scholar, a plodding man with no intuition and no imagination. From him, Tristan had learned about devils and spirits, and the dangers of making pacts with them. He learned instead, with his own fierce determination, how to find them, bind them and steal power from them. His refusal to become a pawn to the infernal drove him further than he'd expected, but he eventually had to recognize the risks. Tristan had been lucky, and he didn't like relying on luck.

So, he'd found a patron worth an alliance with. He would gamble one last time, dare to beg that patron's indulgence, but if he succeeded, he would have the authority and power he wanted. He would be above and beyond the constant infighting and squabbling that was the only constant of demon cults. Here, in the ruins, that patron would select his chosen. Never a pawn, but a peer.

Finally, he stood before the remains of a sphinx, faceless now except for the scars of wind-driven sand. Once there had been an aisle of sphinxes, a great hall of columns with a tremendous oculus peering down on a great dias. Now, it was only a single twisted heap of rock and pools of sand, but Tristan imagined the grandeur it would have been in the past. Standing beneath the featureless oval of the head, he peered up to check the positions of the stars, and found that he had only a few moments yet to wait.

Being in the exact right place at the exact right time filled him with a tranquil confidence. From here, there were only two possible futures for Tristan, and he had done all that he could to ensure one of them. There was an inevitability in the situation that pleased him. For years, he'd struggled against doubt and uncertainty. He'd managed to stay alive and unbroken in his cold-hearted homeland. He'd outwitted his enemies, betrayed and destroyed so many of the wicked, and piece by piece built the beginnings of his own merchant house.

Now, the months-long ritual that began with the destruction of the Crimson Boar cult would come to an end, one way or the other. It would not be his choosing. There was no room for doubt.

Extracting a gold pin from his cloak clasp, he pricked one finger and let a droplet of blood fall on what remained of the sphinx's withered paw. The droplet made a small black dot on the stone, and then there was a great rush of hot wind that whipped Tristan's scarves around his shoulders. With it came coils of dark red flame, whirling into a spiral as if it were dust or sand, and it howled and hissed into a tall shape with plumes of blazing shadows. A second later, and it was a slender, lethal, crimson-lit thing with wings that bled, and then it was a woman wearing the sashes, veils and scarves of an age lost. She flowed into a slight and antiquated curtsy.

“Your blood is the blood of kings,” she pronounced with a heady voice. “You are the recognized Heir, to bear again the inheritance of the Iron Crown. To you comes the authority of the Trueblood Scepter, and the right to rule.”

A ring had taken the place of the drop of blood. She swept this up and offered it. “Your signet. Behold, your court awaits you even now, and you have but to claim it.”

Accepting the ring, he slipped it onto his hand, steadily looking at the dark eyes which studied him in turn. “Does my patron offer any other message?”

“Your patron, my liege, knows that you need no messages.”

Tristan, for the first time in his life, bowed with all sincerity.

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Greater of Two Evils, part 2

Friday, September 26, 2008 - 10:47 AM

Tain hated Tristan, but he did so quietly.

From the smoky shadows of the Crimson Boar hall, Tain watched the dark-haired man, lounging next to the priests of the demon cult. Around them, the other cultists were enjoying the spoils of their furtive labor; they'd sacked a caravan earlier that night, and had dragged what remained to their lair.

And of course, there had been whispers about Tristan. It was Tristan who found the route, Tristan who convinced the caravan master to hire certain guards, Tristan who discovered the opportunity. Tain was thankful they'd looted a lot of fine wine; the whispering had since faded, replaced by far more raucous activity as the cult started abusing the surviving caravaners or each other.

This bothered Tain also, but it was a small, gnat-like bother. He'd joined the cult to get away from banditry. The Crimson Boar cult had terrorized the region for well over two years now. No one went into the dripping, mossy forest where they met, and no one dared to come against them now. He'd wanted that power, to belong to something greater. That drive had made him a captain in the cult, but the priests called him too weak to be ordained.

This rankled him considerably, particularly when it was Cena who said so.

She sat next to Tristan, with her lover Naul to the other side, and Tain tried to stave off the brackish envy rising in him by taking a long drink of wine. She was everything Tain wanted. His fingers ached to touch the little scar that hung from one corner of her mouth, or to breathe hot words in her ear. But Naul was a fierce and jealous man, and a sorcerer besides.

And yet, there Tristan lounged, and Naul seemed content with it, glutted though he was on wine. Even a light touch from Tristan to Cena's hand went unnoticed... but Tain saw. Even through the dim haze of the hall, he could see the softening of Cena's eyes, and wondered how Naul could possibly miss it.

You have them deceived, thought Tain, but I am not.

It hadn't take long for Tristan to win the admiration and envy of the others. He was vastly clever, eloquent, handsome and only threatening to the cult's enemies. His many blessings were offset by a sliver of need in him, the the need to be accepted and approved of. It made him vulnerable, just enough to be safe, to make friends with for the bloody-handed cultists.
No, Tain had never trusted him, but he'd wanted to.

Maybe, said his bitter inner voice, Naul doesn't care if Tristan sleeps with Cena. Maybe he lets it happen, because he trusts thrice-bedamned Tristan.

Tain took another long drink of wine, and did not feel it.

Something changed at that point, and he was surprised to realize that he could hear Tristan speaking. There was a confused mumble from the hall as others realized it too.

“Without me,” said Tristan in an even, clear voice. “Without me, you'd all just be thugs paying lip service to some demon. And I don't have any interest in your petty demon, either, considering he's content with drunkards and base violence.”

Naul blinked fully awake, his face reddening, and then his face went white because Cena stabbed him.

Suddenly, Tain was in the middle of frantic murder. Stunned by the cudgel of incomprehension, he scrabbled backwards to put his back to a corner, and tried to remember where he'd left his sword. There was nothing clean or elegant about what was happening; wine-soggy heads were smashed in by firewood, wine-numbed hands slapped ineffectually against the knives that found their mark again and again. Panicked, Tain managed to find his dagger, but he realized that no one was attacking him.

He saw Tristan standing, unhurried and quite unmoved, studying the bloody ruin that the hall had become. The ones who had killed their own were either watching him or making sure of the wounded. Tristan smiled, then, and the smile froze Tain into the corner where he crouched. He could only watch as Tristan turned and offered a hand to Cena, who breathlessly took it and stood, only to have her throat cut from behind.

There was a horrible moment when Tristan looked straight at Tain, but he turned away again and faced the altar near the hearth. Tain did not understand the words that came from Tristan, but they slipped through his ears and rooted in his bones like threads of ice water. He dimly understood that the others were kneeling now, and his instincts told him that to stand was death, and worse than death. Tristan's words became comprehensible, delivered with iron-clad courtesy.

“Hear me, Kingmaker, Iron-Crown, Overlord of the Ruby Scepter. I do not acknowledge greatness other than yours and mine. I invite you now to my court, taken by my hand from a petty Baron who is not worth your regard. Recognize a new peer, a master over humanity and a possessor of hearts. With our alliance, you shall grant me power over your realm, and I shall in turn grant you power over mine.”

The hall timbers groaned. The blood-stained altar stone split with a resounding crack, and with a sudden chill, Tain realized that Tristan had been heard, and not by the Boar.

“Leave us,” said Tristan in a voice so inevitable that he and the others would have run to the door if they'd had the strength to stand. As it was, they crawled.

Later, Tristan found Tain not far from the hall, shivering not entirely from the cold. Tain saw no sign at all of the vulnerability everyone had seen in Tristan before, and Tain knew in his heart it had all been lies.

“I never trusted you,” said Tain, after a moment. He knew Tristan's traitors were watching, waiting. “Why did you not kill me, too?”

Tristan smiled slowly. “Because you are not a fool, and I have a need for wise men. Come with us; you will never be a mere bandit again. Lead my men for me, Tain.”

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Greater of Two Evils, part 1

Wednesday, September 24, 2008 - 11:43 PM

'Salu catamite' was the first thought Deivon had upon seeing the young man before him. To Deivon's eye, the slight girlishness in the lad's features would harden into rather handsome lines in later years, and the dark eyes would not seem so large. But with his long, sleek black hair and light complexion, the boy would probably fetch a fine price on the slave markets to the south.
But the boy did not have a slave's modesty. He stood at ease, eyes downcast and undaunted, and his shoulders were back. The stony calm around him was one that Deivon recognized, however; it was the sort that covered turmoil, not the kind that came from the heart.

So, the lad's done something, at least.

Deivon was the High Magistrate of his province. It was a coveted position, and he'd wheedled, intimidated and bribed his way in. Secure in his station, Deivon presided over all provincial law in interpretation, approval and condemnation, and was never called upon except for the most severe of cases. Generally, unless it was something to benefit one of his powerful friends, he passed on his cases to lesser Magistrates.

This time, the Lord Whitemire made it clear that Deivon should provide, in no uncertain terms, a conviction. He also made it clear without saying so that Deivon would find himself quite a bit richer if all the loose ends were cut.

Buying his son another title appealed to Deivon, so he agreed.

Now, he wasn't sure why the Lord Whitemire was so emphatic about all this. The court was full. The commoners had their blood up. It wouldn't be difficult at all to hammer in the last coffin nail of a conviction. The commoners would even do all the work; he'd seen it time and again. All they needed was a reason to blame someone else for their problems, or a chance to hate someone more than they hated their own lives. It was an easy thing to make them do it.

He was assessing the lad for any similarity to nobles at court, entertaining the notion that the boy was a bastard that needed removing, when the warrants came to him. He glared at the warrants, sat back in surprise, and then looked down at the bailiffs who towered over the boy.
What he had intended to say changed when he saw the bailiffs. They hardly knew Deivon was there. They kept looking down at the boy with the attitude of a very large dog who, having discovered that the cat can inflict great harm, is anxious for permission to hurt back. Rather than address them, he spoke to the boy.

“Is your name Tristan, of the house of Sarna?”

The boy did not look up, and pronounced a firm and rather serene 'Yes.'

Deivon glanced at his peers, and the other Magistrates present looked back at him with cold and wary eyes. He'd heard rumors about devil worship in the province, but there were always rumors, usually targeting little hedge mages. The Tristan rumors were different, though. There was a ring of cold truth behind them, threatening.

He'd expected Tristan to be older.

Filing quickly through the warrants, he noted the silence of the crowd. That was usually preface to the havoc before a hanging, he thought. And what IS Whitemire's interest in all this? He briefly considered finding out Whitemire's interest and using it to push the very rich Lord, but dismissed the thought.

The warrants told him what he'd already heard, but with the dagger pointed at Tristan quite definitively. Evil omens, disappearances, blackmail, a couple of mysterious deaths and a plethora of other complaints he assumed were false accusations. Raising his eyes, he noted Tristan was now watching him directly with dark, hot eyes, and this unnerved him for some reason.

“Tristan ahn'Sarna, you have been accused of commerce with devils,” he snapped, lifting the warrants for emphasis. “You are also accused of causing the curse-death of Magistrate Lira Detweys...”

Here Deivon was forced to pause due to a blast of outrage from the crowd. Lira had been very popular. He let the crowd rant for a moment, and then rang the bell for silence.

“...and of Master Mathlan of Grofae, and of counterfeiting money, of theft, of the disappearance and possible death of five peasants, property of the Lord Whitemire, and of creating evil omens and vile marks in the land. There are a good many other crimes listed here, but they are incidental compared to your first. Do you deny the charges against you?”

Tristan paused for a moment, lifted his chin and spoke in a voice that carried through the courtroom.


The boy is mad, thought Deivon. “Such a crime, confessed, warrants a most painful death. Do you have any contrition? Asking the court for mercy and repenting of your crime may lessen your suffering.”

“I will not ask mercy for my crimes,” said Tristan clearly, and Deivon noticed how everyone listened. “But I will beg the court's indulgence to explain how I came to this, and reveal the name of a fellow conspirator.”

Deivon, at this point, believed the boy a fanatic. Fanatics unnerved Deivon, and he did not want it to show. Looking disdainfully at Tristan, he used his best world-weary but stern voice. “Speak, then, but be brief.”

There was a rumble of assent from the gallery, and Deivon was pleased until Tristan started speaking again. He was beginning to understand why the Lord Whitemire hated Tristan so much. The lad had the sort of poise and voice where people listened, even if they didn't want to.

“Brief as you like,” began Tristan, looking momentarily upward. “You and your fellows leech the wealth from those who create it. You and your fellows use the law to secure your own success at the expense of others. You and your fellows squat atop your hoards of spoiled children, of property and privilege, and you sneer at the common for having nothing. Yet the commons support you, buoy you up, and you keep them ignorant so that they never understand how little they have. And then, you and your fellows put on a kind mask and coerce your sad little followers into dying and starving just to make you richer. You, lords of the land, protectors of the people.”

Here, Tristan paused, and there was silence. Tristan looked at Deivon, carefully, as if he wanted to remember every detail, and Deivon saw a sliver of bright fear in those dark eyes.
Spurred by that fear, he was ready to condemn Tristan but the boy's soft, powerful voice kept him silent.

“Better that I consort with devils, who are sincere about their work, than the hypocritical monsters who judge me now.”

Then, the red flames erupted throughout the court, and when Deivon tried to scream, the fire ripped the air from his lungs and burned the life from him.

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Friday, September 12, 2008 - 9:06 AM

It's been a while; I've been 2500 miles away from where I usually am, relearning the fine art of relaxation. Part of the misery of being a writer is that you never really have a free moment. There is always an overwhelming sense that you should be Doing Something, at all times. Sleep starts to become a hindrance. For that little tittering part of the psyche called sanity, a break is very much needed from time to time.

Also, my East coast people, keep it real. You are all awesome.

Naturally, I have a huge docket of creative work to deal with at the moment, and the one at the top of the list is a novel. Some of you were privy to the short experimental series I entitled Customs, under my pen-name blog, which was originally based on a dream I had. The idea continued to grow, and I have the skeleton of a full-length novel involving the protagonist. Unfortunately, for the first time in my life I am having difficulty on starting the story. I know where the middle goes, and I know how it is likely to end, but the start is too muddy.

However, a little spark landed on some creative kindling, and I believe I have a way to get going on this.

Customs, the novel, is a prequel of the pieces I have already written, and for those of you not familiar with those pieces, the Customs world is a place where the supernatural exists and everybody knows about it. Yes, it is a popular genre these days, but my take on it isn't something I've seen in any of the books I've happened across. I do believe I have something new to offer, which is funny to me considering how much of the very, very old is ending up in Customs. A very large part of mythology has been popularized, distorted and reinterpreted to the point where most people don't even recognize the original stories behind it, and I have found that in many cases, the original stories are far more bizarre and unusual than the popular image. Being me, I fully intend to make good use of the bizarre.

Another aspect of Customs that I wanted to particularly explore is the nature of the supernatural and its role in the human psyche. In our world, the supernatural is a level of symbolic existence, a place where we can safely examine pieces of ourselves or others that we are not comfortable with or do not completely understand. We do this by creating an external story that incorporates these facets of ourselves within it, whether we are conscious of that choice or not. The popularity of the vampire myth is a fine example of this, in my opinion; vampires in the popular view, if stripped down, are dead humans who must drink the blood of other livings to sustain their immortality. They control and manipulate other people. Some try to be good but it is never easy for them, and yet, there is a strong romanticism connected with them. Why?

Because people instinctively see their own selfish hunger and their fear of failing to be a good person in the vampire. It is a story to help understand one's self.

So, writing about a world in which the supernatural is quite real provides some wonderful opportunities for storytelling and examination. Symbolically, it is a world where humanity is confronted by uncomfortable truths frequently, and they cannot merely dismiss them as stories or myths. Of course, they can try to redefine them into something safer, something less frightening to recognize in themselves, and that is part of what Customs is about.

The ability of humanity to deceive itself is truly astounding.


Paths, pt 7

Thursday, August 14, 2008 - 10:42 AM

The nexus point between certain groups of similar destiny has dispersed somewhat, so the Paths installments are now to do with any background NPCs during my current campaign cycle. This one has to do with an NPC the players haven't had contact with in a while, but they sure do remember him fondly.

Hanging upside down, several hundred feet above the streets of Yhelm, Iolo carefully slipped a thin knife through the window to nudge the latch free and prying the window open. Arching upward, he wrapped his arms firmly around his leghold, and uncoiled his legs to slip a foot outward, pushing the window fully open.

A moment later, Iolo slipped in, silently, and carefully closed the window behind him. Pausing to listen, his ears told him this tower was as quiet as it was supposed to be, and he strolled down the hallway, keeping close to the wall.

For several years, Iolo had made a living getting into places people thought he couldn't. His ability to get in and get out again so swiftly was regarded as near-supernatural by many in Yhelm's underworld. They wondered how he managed to get so much information, and there were a lot of stories: Iolo has a pact with a tiny demon, Iolo gets strange inspiration from the duskshade liquor he drinks, Iolo has a highborn lover who gives him secrets.

The truth was very mundane. Iolo had simply been to most of these places before.

Raised as a pickpocket by his father, Iolo joined a group of Kishune performers at a young age, and found himself quite a talented acrobat. When they left, he chose to stay, and found performing paid better than pickpocketing. He was a frequent guest at aristocratic households as his reputation grew, and he even went by a different name, hoping to leave his criminal roots behind him.

Idealism fades in the face of the truth, he thought, unrolling the map of his mind and moving swiftly down a flight of stairs to a well-lit hall. Pausing to listen again, he padded to a hardwood door, slipped his lockpicks from his belt and was surprised to find a very good lock waiting for him.

Grinning at the small challenge, he wheedled the lock open with well-oiled arguments, and was through the door in another moment. He locked it behind him.

The offices beyond the door were what he expected. Someone had left an oil lamp burning, which made him particularly wary, but the light was necessary for his search in any case. He had only come here for one item, after all.

As a performer, he'd eventually grown annoyed at the exorbitance and self-satisfaction of the rich. He noticed everything during his times performing on their estates, and after time, his struggle to remain honest and law-abiding failed. He started to steal again, aiming ever higher for greater prizes which he would sell outside of the city, distributing a good deal of money among the needy or poor. However, he certainly kept enough for himself, building alternate identities and fronts, originally to fulfill dream of legitimate power and wealth.

These days, Iolo didn't care. He worked because it was art. He had enough to retire, but he would still take jobs that he saw as a challenge. The riskier the better, and in one case, he even paid other people to try and stop him from succeeding in a job.

Now, that had been a challenge, he thought to himself, and then froze. Footfalls outside.

Moving swiftly, he settled close against the wall where the door would open towards, and waited, slowing his breathing. The door did open, after a key scraped in the lock, and a man wearing magistrate's robes stepped in, shutting the door behind. Iolo listened intently, and hearing no one else outside, sent a poisoned dart into the man's back with a single deft movement.

The older man made a shocked sound, whirling and grasping at his back, but dizziness overcame him, and Iolo drifted forward to catch him before he fell. The magistrate mumbled something before his eyes rolled back into his head, and he passed out.

Lowering his target, Iolo plucked his dart free, and resumed his search. The magistrate wouldn't wake for at least an hour, and his recollection of events would be foggy when he did.

Iolo was a thief, not a murderer.

Finally, half-hidden under a pile of legal notes, he found the wooden case that had been described to him. Quickly wrapping it in dark cloth, slipping it into his tiny custom-made backpack, Iolo took the magistrate's keys, exited, locked the door, and then moved swiftly up the stairs.

Only a few minutes later, he was another shadow, moving across the rooftops. He moved quickly to the designated drop point, a decrepit alley behind the now-disused tanner's factory near the city wall, and slipped down to place the box there, still wrapped. The payment would come later, as would his contact to take the box... so Iolo left, dodging along a few older rooftops to slither into another alleyway and walk back to his theater residence like a fine, upstanding citizen of Yhelm, draped against autumn damp with a travel cloak.

He considered, and decided he would celebrate by taking in a play. He also made a mental note to call on that unruly quartet for their assistance in his next job; certainly he could have used them this time, even for as long as it had taken to get to his target.

Then again, he pondered that it might be time for a change of pace. Maybe they could hire him?

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Art demands Art

Saturday, July 19, 2008 - 1:53 PM

This was originally posted under a pen-name blog of mine, some while ago. Due to my artist recently creating something based on this work, I'm reposting it here.

I can't emphasize how well she captured Sinclair.
Sinclair by Liz Harper

There were only three ways to survive Between, according to Sinclair. You had the strength to take what you needed, you were smart enough to get what you needed, or you always had what others needed. Sinclair took it one step further; s/he made certain others had needs.

In the Between, Sinclair's fingertips were a number of unconnected hovels, husks that emulated the lost souls who always came back to them, again and again; wreckage, broken architecture, a smashed and featureless facade hiding the gaudy velvet synesthesia of whatever mad dreams and fancies lolled senseless within. Sinclair had many customers, some who served, and some of whom never actually left.

Today, Sinclair was predominantly female, with a lean, arrogant face. Heavy auburn hair hung around it like banyan vines, twisted into braids, and writhing out from them were snake-skeleton tattoos, sunning themselves across bare, pale shoulders, tails hidden at the nape. Full lips were touched with dark gloss, pressed into a regal pout, and a pair of silver rings stitched the bottom lip. The body was slender and efficient, Sinclair's preference, with the sort of impossible proportions that drew the eye of man and woman both. No matter what flesh Sinclair was wearing, the eyes were always the same; blue and cold, like arctic sky, poisonous as mercury.

Those who knew Sinclair understood that it was not inattention that kept those eyes unfocused, always seeming to slide away from things in their view. These eyes were fixed on a lanky man of sinew and bone, wrapped in Betweener rags, who was pleading for clemency. It was accounting day, when Sinclair collected what was due. Unlike the Horse Trader, another of the great merchants Between, Sinclair loved debt, and adored drawing business out over months and years.

To one side stood Emily, Sinclair's accountant, dapper and autistic, a prodigy of numbers that Sinclair had bought from the King of Fools a while back. She murmured the man's accounts over and over in her small, reedy voice, which always made Sinclair think of a very small violin. Two others indebted to Sinclair kept the man penned, two very loyal sheepdogs who craved disobedience from their flock. Neither had the wits or will to break Sinclair's hold on them, but they were happy with their job, and that was as Sinclair preferred. A few others looked on, mostly those also in debt. Walter, a slender fair-haired man with uncommonly long fingers and an excellent kinesthetic sense, occupied space next to Sinclair, carefully holding a couple of kittens, who fussed incessantly.

"You don't have anything more to trade," Sinclair announced softly. "You come here and plead to me."

The man was still reaching forward, as if he were drowning and Sinclair might save him. "I can't dream anymore!"

"That's because your dreams are on lease. I keep them in a very lovely silk and silver Faberge egg near my bedside," Sinclair said. "My books aren't even; you'll have to give something... come forward, and let me see your hand."

The two sheepdogs were very disappointed that the man didn't even hesitate. Sinclair made a mental note to punish them on general principle for not being polite; there was too much brutal eagerness showing. When the man reached out a hand, Sinclair took it, running long fingers over it, cool as snakeskin. To Sinclair's flesh, the flesh of another was a book. Reading deeper than veins and muscle and bone, Sinclair deciphered the riddles and metaphors of blood and nerve, rewriting some of what was found there, rearranging the patterns of body chemistry.

Looking at the man, Sinclair smiled, and offered a hand, palm open.

The man knew what this was, and there was a flicker of reluctance, and fear, but he knew there was no choice.

Sinclair hated leaving people choices. They should just do as they were supposed to. And this one did; he licked the palm. Almost immediately, he seized up, made a startled manikin, and fell to the floor, twitching slightly. Sinclair tilted a glance at Walter.

"Walter, sweetheart, go ahead and let the children play."

Walter, smiling softly at being noticed, walked over to the man, and set the kittens down. The little creatures immediately started clawing and biting, tugging and bounding about the immobile body. Walter patted them fondly and then moved back to his place near Sinclair. Sinclair silently hushed Emily, and then looked at the line of debtors. This happened almost every time, and it was never tiring to watch their faces.

"This man can feel everything that is happening to him," Sinclair told their hungry faces. "He will not die, unless I let him, but he'll be spending the rest of the day under the happy needlepoint attention of kittens. Each hour, I shall have dear Walter add two more kittens, until there are twenty. And they won't tire of him; I made certain of that. Now, this man is short but one day in his dues. Some of you, Emily tells me, are short far more than that this month. Consider that I have a sense of proportion. Consider this, and consider something to offer me when I call you here next. Those who have nothing may leave for now. The worthy may stay, and offer what they will."

And just as always, many of the hollow-eyed clients slithered out, fearful, addled in their need for Sinclair, and what Sinclair had for them. And just as always, Sinclair knew that some would now offer up far more than they would have. They had heard the stories of Sinclair's other methods, the penchant for thieving the body of another even while they were still using it, the horrible intrusion of Sinclair's body into their own.

They crept forward, careful.

Emily began the next page of debts, and Sinclair whispered to her to tally up payments, fixing eyes on the kittens, who gnawed and pricked the paralyzed man's hand raw, content and simple in their cruelty.

Little darlings, thought Sinclair, and smiled.

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Paths, pt 6

Thursday, July 10, 2008 - 10:18 PM

Redemption had always been part of Naello's plans, but he frequently felt as if the opportunities for it were stolen from him, and his bitterness had increased, drop by brackish drop, over the years. This in turn whetted the hunger for atonement, but he could find no way to earn that which he wanted most.

When the neshniya came back with the wrong blood on their hands, at first he'd been outraged. They'd never failed him before, but somehow, the damnable four had managed to evade the neshniya. He quickly realized that being angry at the neshniya was pointless, and feeling foolish quelled his temper just as quickly. But in gathering information, they'd overheard something that made their failure worthwhile.

He looked out the tiny stone window to the broken, bleak land that hid him in apathy and fog, and his back shivered involuntarily at being turned to the neshniya.

This was a possibility, at last.

“Tell me again what you heard,” he said.

The low, impassive voice that replied was like a wisp of cold fog given voice. Chalciere was the neshniya leader, and generally spoke for all of them. “In the city of Arn, a man claims that he has the soul of Martel the Gorecrow. This information was taken from a traveling tinker, heading south from Arn.”

“What else did you hear,” said Naello.

“The information warranted interest, as the quarry might be following the same trail,” continued Chalciere in an even, expressionless tone. “We interrogated several, and discovered the following: the soul is contained in a red glass hourglass, set with hematite. The man in possession is a very rich man in Arn, but he does not pay alliance to any Guildmaster there except in normal dues. The man in possession hires many bodyguards, and intends to sell the hourglass to the highest bidder. He will not leave Arn, knowing that his trade is illegal elsewhere. We know his name and countenance.”

Naello smiled without humor. It was a triumphant grimace more than anything else. Martel's reputation was so tremendous that even now, after his death, people did not want to say his name or remember what he did. Some hadn't even believed he'd been slain.

And the four had killed him.

What if a terrible mistake occurred? What if Martel came back from Hell and destroyed the four who sent him there? And what if Naello were to come forward and defeat Martel in turn?
The red hourglass was almost certainly one of those crafted in Mancora, designed to hold one's life in place for the duration of their unnaturally slow sand-fall. The hourglasses were not well known, and most measured a century rather than an hour. The glass will have been turned, then, to contain Martel's blood-stained soul, and it will hold him for a hundred years... or unless his soul is given somewhere else to rest.

Revenge and redemption, thought Naello.

“Forget the quarry. Go to Arn. Find this man and take the hourglass, and bring it to me. Be as quiet as you can, but kill anyone who interferes, and kill any witnesses who see you take the hourglass.”

The command made his heart contract; he remembered the first time he'd told the neshniya to kill witnesses.

“...kill them quickly,” he added, turning to look at them. “No side trips. No feeding. No torture. But bring me the head of the man with the hourglass.”

They stood there, wrapped in black cloth and hunger, with no sign of deference. Their empty black eyes looked through him, and for a moment, he had to repress the urge to flee, to hurl himself out of the window rather than let them satiate themselves on his body. But they obeyed, leaving the cold hall swiftly on silent feet, with Chalciere last, light as a spider.

When he turned back to the window, the hall seemed colder.

He ignored it.

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Paths, pt 5

Monday, June 9, 2008 - 10:02 AM

Eoan adored history. He never tired of studying how the threads of event and counter-event were mirrored again and again, nor of watching new threads weave themselves from what had come before. It was easy for him to understand why time was sacred to his people, the Cyroi, and that made him well-suited to be a priest.

To the Cyroi, there were three kinds of priest. Historians were the primary sort, and Eoan was one of these. They recorded, studied, pored over and confirmed the long history of their people, and considered this a prayer to their austere deity, Annum. Of course, Historians were expected to participate actively, whether as witnesses or instigators, in whatever sort of history they focused on, and in that, Eoan was something of a tragic figure.

When the Time for Duty had come to him, he was given to become a Historian of War.

To the Cyroi, to do something is to be resolved utterly to the task. All things were art, and worthy of refinement, if they were going to be done at all. But war was a terrible and repugnant act, and so the Cyroi feared it because they did not like to think about what they became when it was a time for war. Yet, the Unity of Annum demanded that sacrifices be made for the whole, and war, however monstrous, was one of these.

So other Cyroi saw Eoan with respect and sympathy. He was expected to learn war in all forms, to be ready to lead his people if the necessity would ever come, and none ever hoped for it. Like many Cyroi, after the fervor of war had left him, Eoan would weep for those he had slain, but on the field he was a machine of efficiency as cold and inscrutable as the weapons he used.

But studying the wars of the past was not the same. It still tugged at his heart, the death and misery of it all, but he could pore through the scrolls and books and take delight in the patterns there. There was much to learn. Annum taught that strategy is all that is necessary for resolution of conflict. Superior forces and superior numbers can be overcome by intellect.

Every war the Cyroi had been in, they had won because of this teaching. But the cost had been very high indeed, and Eoan's people had long since begun to fade from the world.

Humans, on the other hand, thrived despite all their victories and losses. To the Cyroi view, they were impatient, irrational creatures who kept no vision beyond their children or their children's children, and most were impossibly selfish. But Eoan found them fascinating. He enjoyed charting their progress through history, watching them achieve great things without seeming to think about it, or understand the significance of their actions. Being young, it was only recently that he'd even met a human being, but those had been notable exceptions to the rule.

When his Call had come, the great storm-oracle Maharwen had taken him in, and through her, he'd met the four humans who had rediscovered Camwhyr's tomb, Camwhyr the Seventh King. They'd brought the Fragment from the tomb to the Cyroi people, and that was significant beyond understanding, and he had been impressed with their sense of obligation. The Fragment was, in many ways, part of a greater key to the Cyroi future, and he knew what it meant.

But in his heart, Eoan most adored the four for bringing out the poetry of Camwhyr's age. They'd recovered the Lament of Minmordhan, the death-poem of a guardian soldier whose name was lost to Duty, the paen for Camwhyr, and so many more. For Eoan, their recognition of that beauty was an inspiration to him. As he sat under the stars, lost in thoughts of his race's golden age, he remembered the four who had given his people some of their lost grace, and he prayed that when it came his time, his Duty ended, that he would be as eloquent as Camwhyr himself had been.

“Stone by stone
I built my heart into a temple to my people

Now it is the open sky
And the clouds are my memories to them”

-Death poem of Camwhyr, Virtue of the East Wind, Thunder at Dawn, Master of the Field of Haoon.

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Paths, pt 4

Friday, May 30, 2008 - 3:33 PM

Bound, the magician glared defiantly at Sargon, who looked back at the man impassively.

“You have no power left,” said Sargon, matter-of-factly, and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his powerful knees. “You fought us. But you work magic, and so we are offering you this chance to join us, and become free.”

The magician gave him a mirthless grin. “You are all utterly insane,” the magician said with great certainty.

Sargon dropped his brows a notch and sighed. He was a Lightbringer, and this was something he hated about his duties. Chained to their by-rote incantations and their books, the outlander magicians were always too attached to the tyranny of their arcane science, and never wanted to give it up.

“Be reasonable, as we are,” Sargon offered, but the magician was ignoring him now. Sargon continued anyway, keeping his low voice reasonable and mild. “We respect that you know magic, and can use it. But you must see that these limitations you put on yourself are not only controlling your magic, they are constricting who you are. You are caging yourself.”

“And this is your answer? You send ... that... to attack me in my sleep!”

The magician jerked his head towards Trammel's slender, wiry form. The addict was absently rubbing the magician's formerly enchanted ring against his pale cheek, keeping half a heavy-lidded eye on the prisoner.

“That's just strategy. He could have killed you, but he didn't, did he? He just stole your power so we could more easily talk to you.”

“Very diplomatic of you,” spat the magician in reply. “What did you do to him to make him that way?”

Sargon paused. This was not a question he'd been asked before, but he expected there would be many more, in time. “He was born that way. There are many like him, and they serve the Bethorans just as all Bethorans do.”

“Born? You see, that's what your skybending gets you! You ruin the land around you, and then your own children!”

Sargon frowned a bit. “There's no need to be insulting. There's nothing wrong with Trammel. I've trusted him as a comrade in arms since we were both young men.”

The magicians only reply was a sardonic chuckle, and a shake of the head.

Sargon folded his burly arms and cocked an eyebrow. He did not want to kill the man, but they couldn't very well let him go as he was. Their Skyhammer, Nariste, was working a great divination, and he could not ask her for guidance.

He glanced over at their Heretic, Avara, who was some distance away sorting the piles of loot they'd gathered from the small border fort. Ever attentive, she looked up abruptly, like a wolf scenting prey, and he signaled her closer.

Like Sargon, Avara was a warrior. Both had the swarthy complexions, dark hair and golden eyes typical of the Bethoran pure-blooded, but her long-limbed body was far taller than his, all sinew and muscle. Avara was the same without as she was within, stripped of all but purpose.

“What do we do,” he asked her in Flametongue. “He will not see reason, and I dare not disturb Nariste.”

She turned her thin lips into a frown, and replied in kind. “We have time yet. He may come to understand what we bring to his people. It will be two days yet until we move further north.”
He nodded, and was about to reply when the magician spoke up.

“Trying to decide what to do with me? I warn you, savages, I am a member of the Greenstone Tower! If I am killed, my brethren will seek you out and destroy you, and by the God of Ceria- “

“THERE IS NO GOD BUT MAN!!” howled Avara, and smashed the magician in the face with her gauntleted fist.

Sargon was not fast enough to stop what happened, though he'd tried as soon as the magician invoked a deity. He stood up and gave Avara a bland look.

“...Avara, this is not going to help,” he growled.

“I claim Heretic's right,” said Avara immediately. “He blasphemed against Humanity.”

“But he was a magician, he could have joined us.”

“He WAS a magician. But he swore by a false god. And that makes him a slave.”

A reedy sigh interrupted them, followed by Trammel's soft, mellifluous voice. “And you have made him dead. Problem resolved.”

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Paths, pt 2

Friday, May 9, 2008 - 8:06 PM

Few recognized Tepektu as a seer. He loomed over most men, with a champion's shoulders and the grace of some unnamed, forgotten hero. Bereft of his hood, his face was broad and regally handsome, an emperor's portrait carved from polished teak wood. He'd used this proud bearing to his advantage for years, building a business as a spice merchant, and later, as a broker for goods one had great difficulty finding. He was often assumed to be the half-noble by-blow of some Betrani prince, and in time, he'd become the rich and powerful merchant lord everyone assumed he was.

Few would recognize the true reasons for his success, also. He kept his arcane skill a secret, for he knew how much power the unknown gave him over others. But Tepektu's ability to read the Influences was profound. His talent in sifting through the facets of causality had kept him moving, kept him reaching for more opportunity.

It had also infected him with a degree of fatalism.

Before him, moving under his huge dark hands, discs named for events and people shifted back and forth in a web, and he scowled at one small collection of them. Tepektu rubbed at his chin, considering the patterns.

This is how he ferreted out secrets. He would map the Influences, watch the names shift back and forth through the web, and he would note where they did not go. He would study the areas that went untouched, and then he would divine where those areas matched. In those blank spaces, secrets hid.

For some while now, the problem was in four parts, each bumping into the areas he intended to explore. There they were, again, and again: the Lady of Mirrors, the Wolf-Queen, the Star-binder, and the Gate Warden. Ever since they'd beaten him to the tomb of Camwhyr, he'd been dedicated to staying three steps ahead of them, and so far he'd done so. But lately, in his map of fate, they were leaping through obstacles like lightning to the earth.

Tepektu noted other groups moving along similar paths, but none so close to his as they. They knew of him, but they'd never seen him except once in a vision. He knew they were doomed to meet eventually. No matter what decision he made, if he remained dedicated to his course, they would meet. This did not trouble him; there had been others, before.

Tepektu was still here. The others were not.

Watching the four progress through his map, however, troubled him. Tracing the Influences that pushed at them, tugging their path into swerving here or there, he saw grand and dreadful things. The eruption at Sinid that destroyed a city, the death of one of the Three from poison, the strange dead-star that fell on the plains of Uryashar, the raising of a massive temple near Pesh, the hollow man epidemic at Yhelm, the hags from Dourmoor; whether or not these four were involved or even close to any of these dreadful events didn't matter.

The pattern mattered. The ripples pushed and pulled at the choices the four had, and steered them ever onward, driven by whatever their own ambitions might be. They were carrying a great momentum, and finally, he saw now the empty space that these events surrounded. There were portents, huge and far-flung, and Tepektu was watching at the right place and right time to understand what they enclosed.

At the moment, he did not know if the four understood. But he believed they did.

Tracing his hand along the threads, he examined the silvery collection of icons close to him. Around the Ring-Maker were the Locksmith, the Riddled Prince, the Fire Twin, the Eclipse Daughter, and now, finally, the White Ribbon. Reading the Influences underneath his outspread fingers, he let his hand shift along with the whorls and pools of event and counter-event.
Tepektu's quick, grasping mind studied the icons on the way, and chained them together with symbols. It was inevitable. The four would cross his path again. Both of them were aimed at the Moonstone, an icon prefacing the large hollow in the center of the pattern.

When he came to a conclusion and finished interpreting the Influences, he sat back in his chair, folded his massive arms, and frowned. It was with deliberation and determination that he selected a new icon, one made of burnt black wood, and set it firmly into the center of this space.

His study was utter stillness for some while before a voice addressed him.

“And what is that marker for? The end of the world?”

“No,” replied Tepektu. “It is a time when the world wishes it could end.”

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