Paper and Dice

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

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.”

Labels: , ,

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.

Labels: , ,

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.

Labels: , ,

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.”

Labels: , ,

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."

Labels: , ,

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.”

Labels: , ,

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.

Labels: , ,

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.

Labels: , ,