Anathema (Part 3)
by Bek D Corbin
This story is set in the Exalted© role-playing universe,
as published by White Wolf™ Publishing, Inc.
Exalted and Age of Sorrows are trademarks of
White Wolf Publishing, Inc.
Do not believe what THEY tell you.
History and Science are nothing but candy-coated lies of fearful old men who would make the world into a stark prison to protect us- or maybe themselves?- from the threat of freedom. THEY would tell you that the universe is a sterile void, and their truth and their law are the only truth and the only law.
Open your mind, and remember.
THEY would teach you that the time before now was a time of brutal chaos and bestial savagery, and that THEY saved us all from that, and taught us civilization.
It was an Era of legend, when heroes walked the face of Creation, and were as unto Gods.
It was an Era before the World was broken to THEIR will.
It was an Era before the magic was lessened, a time before the spirits of men were bent to the yoke.
This is a story of that Era.
This is a story of the Exalted.
In The Brightest Day, In The Darkest Night
I looked down at the owl-mask that Master Adan had made for me. “Are you sure that this is necessary?”
“Equal parts trick of the mind and common sense. Thanks to those wanted posters, all that your face will inspire is a greed for the Prince’s reward. This mask prevents that, and promotes the reaction that you wanted for the owl-cloak. Besides, spirits often manifest masks such as this, thus reinforcing the supernatural effect that you wanted.”
I put the mask on, and pulled on the owl-cloak over it. While it wouldn’t be very impressive in open daylight, it was rather effective in the indirect light of Master Adan’s lair; in the scant light of a nighttime alley, it should be terrifying. “Master Adan, you are a genius.”
“What, you’re only realizing that now?”
“What special properties were you able to weave into this?” I swirled the cloak, which was so light that I was barely aware that it was there, but somehow felt very strong.
“Oh, not many,” Master Adan sighed. “This is my first time working with dreamsilk, and I was forced to keep it simple. As you asked, it will blend into the shadows when you want it to, but will stand out to the eye when you will it to. Remember to use that hearthstone clasp when you wear it, that way it won’t catch on anything when you’re moving quickly through close terrain, and people will have the devil’s own time getting a good grip on it. It will deflect most non-empowered missiles thrown at you. But, best of all for your chosen theme, when you jump in midair, it will catch you and let you glide to the ground. It will take a little getting used to, but you should get used to it- if you survive.”
And this is what Master Adan calls ‘simple’.
“And, on that note, how is this?” I swept my hand down my front, indicating my disguise. I was wearing a fair-haired wig with a queue, had on a false nose that made my profile beakish, a trim false mustache and beard that suggested that I was hiding a receding chin. I’d painted a fashionable ‘tattoo’ on my left cheek. Coupled with the tunic, trousers, boots, cloak and sword that I was wearing, I thought that I was the very picture of a modish but ineffectual Patrician.
“You look like a pimp,” Arrek muttered.
“And how many pimps have you MET?” I shot back. When Arrek allowed that he’d never actually met- or even seen- a real pimp, I took the scroll that he’d been working with, and announced that it was time to go to market.
“Market? This late?”
“Yes, I know, all the best food will be gone but,” I lowered my voice and leaned close, “unless you want to eat more of Master Adan’s cooking…”
I’ve yet to meet a country boy whose weak spot wasn’t his stomach. Arrek scrambled into his cloak and we were off. As we made our way through the passages, Arrek asked, “And why do I have to come along?”
“Well! Lord Ble’Knee Parsifal does NOT carry his own packages from market!” I lisped, “It’s simply NOT DONE!”
“I knew that it was going to be something like that,” Arrek muttered.
“Besides, I thought that it would do you some good, to get out in the fresh air.” I pushed the rotating niche open. “Or, at least as fresh as the air gets in Keldon.”
Arrek sneezed. “Are all cities this bad?”
“Sol Invictus, no! Keldon has sewers! Most towns in this part of the Threshold are much worse!”
We walked in awkward silence for a bit, then Arrek asked, “I suppose that I’m supposed to act like your servant. How do you go about doing that?”
I chewed it over for a bit. I’d never rated a servant of my own, but I’d seen how Isegris and Nog treated their servant Chos, and of course, there were the family servants. “Well, if I’m going to pull off my ‘Lord Ble’Knee Parsifal’ act, then there are only two sorts of manservants who would put up with him: a superior servant who ran his life for him, and an inferior sort who doesn’t have a lot of choice. Do you think that you could pull off the ‘superior servant’ to my ‘feebleminded aristocrat’?”
Arrek pulled himself up, as if growing into the role, put a look of hauteur on his face, took a deep breath and opened his mouth. Then he paused and deflated. “No.”
“Hmmm… then it’s the inferior servant. That means either the simpleton or the deaf-mute. Playing the simpleton is a lot harder than it looks.”
“Oh? You do a wonderful job,” Arrek said cheerfully.
“You illustrate my point. You’d be growing into a bear and clawing someone to death before sundown. No, I’d say that the ‘deaf-mute’ is the way to go. You don’t have to say anything or worry about saying the wrong thing. AND,” I leaned in closely, “you would be AMAZED at what people will say in front of a deaf-mute. It’s a wonderful way of picking up information.”
“You’ve played the deaf-mute?”
“No, but I’ve played the gambit where you pretend not to understand the other person’s language. Same idea, but the deaf-mute’s even better. People not only stop worrying about what they say, they stop thinking about how they say it.”
Arrek and I played ‘Lord Ble’Knee Parsifal and his servant Bosthar’ to the hilt. Arrek actually seemed to enjoy it, which was an improvement over his sullen resentment of being stuck underground. When we had enough food that I could actually do something with Master Adan’s rather primitive cooking facilities, and yes, a couple of ‘decent’ shirts for Arrek, we started back. On our way back from the farmer’s market, I paused to drop a yen in the cup of a particularly disgusting beggar, who was showing off the gangrenous stump of what used to be his leg and a wooden sword that proclaimed him as a crippled soldier. As we rounded the corner, Arrek pushed me to the wall and looked back. “There’s something wrong about that beggar.”
I sighed, “Yes, I know- the stump is bogus. But it’s an excellent fake maimed leg, and I thought that craftsmanship like that-”
“No, not that! The beggar himself.” Arrek peered around the corner and got a good look at the beggar, pulling back just in time. “I’ve seen him before. Only… not as dirty… he was dressed… in brown… and white… and- Got It! That’s the Bear Emperor’s High Priest!”
I peeked around the corner, and murmured, “This is the part where I’m supposed to make a crack about how the mighty have fallen…” As I watched the Beggar-Priest, accepted a minor offering with a smile and a vigorous handshake. Then, he tucked his hand back into his filthy cloak, pulled it out again, and went back to shaking his bowl with its paltry few coins.
I grinned. “He’s selling something. When someone throws a certain kind of coin in his bowl, he shakes their hand, and passes along something from palm to palm. Probably gets a larger coin, as well.”
“Micomicon powder,” Arrek guessed. “They press it into small cakes for transport, which you break up and powder again, and then stir into wine.”
“I think that the Bear Emperor’s hurting for money,” I guessed, “after the Prince found his temple and sent his people running for their lives. So, his priest is here, getting coin and probably keeping his lord’s contacts in the city open.”
“Do you want to drop him into a bag and carry him back to Master Adan?”
I looked up at the afternoon sky. “No, even in Keldon, kidnapping crippled beggars in broad daylight is frowned on. Let’s wait until the sun goes down.”
When we got back after depositing the food with Master Adan, it was well into twilight, and if anything, the Beggar-Priest’s business was picking up.
Then something happened to peak my interest. Most of the Beggar-Priest’s customers came up, dropped the right sort of coin in his bowl, shook his hand with a few insincere words of thanks, and moved on quickly. But this one fellow, who was too bundled up for the weather, actually haggled. The Beggar-Priest looked about furtively, there was a visible exchange of a double-handful of cakes, and the haggler bustled off as the Beggar-Priest tried to get back into his role.
“What the devil does that idiot want with that much Micomicon?” I wondered aloud.
“Big party?” Arrek offered.
I chewed on that for a bit. “It’s getting late. Pretty soon, the priest will either have to move on or light a candle. And a beggar with a candle is too bloody obvious. Arrek, you watch the priest and follow him. Find out where he goes, but don’t let yourself be seen.”
“And what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to follow the big spender. He has something up his sleeve, and I want to know what it is.” I hauled myself up to the rooftops with my Eagle Claw chain, and followed the little man from above. I followed the man to another section of town, to a rather run-down house that once looked respectable, if not grand. He ducked in through a side door, and I saw him go down into the cellar.
I made sure of my mask and owl-cloak, ducked down into the side alley and peered through a broken shutter. The man, a squat balding sort who was well into a graceless middle age, was working by candlelight at a bench. I could just make out from the gloom that the cellar was cluttered with several cages hung from the rafters. The haggler vigorously broke up the cakes, powdered them, sifted them, mixed them with several other powders and herbs, and poured the mixture into parchment packets.
That done, he wrapped himself back up in his cloak and picked up three sacks and a device known in criminal circles as a ‘burglar’s best friend’. It’s designed to look like a crutch, but it’s actually a sort of collapsible ladder; this one looked like it would stretch out to almost 12 cubits long, and it probably worked as an effective crowbar as well. He filled one of his sacks with withered cabbages and left hobbling along on his ‘crutch’.
He hobbled along through the dark streets, keeping well out of the way of other night travelers, and not calling attention to himself. He hobbled his way into a quarter for the working poor. As I followed him from the rooftops, I wondered what use he would put the Micomicon and the ‘burglar’s best friend’ to, in this neighborhood. He made his way to one house on a narrow alley, and ducked into a cranny formed by the brickwork chimney. He carefully dumped his cabbages into a refuse heap. When he thought that he wasn’t being watched, he lowered his leg and unfolded his ‘crutch’ into a ladder. He used the ladder to scale the chimney with a deftness that belied his frame. When he was at the roof, he dropped the packets down each of the flues of the chimney. He waited watching the smoke. After a few minutes, the smoke changed from the normal wood fires, and he used his ‘best friend’ to get him down to the ground. He tied a cloth around his face, and then he produced a key and walked right in the door.
Well, so far, a rather expensive way to burgle a house. Now, I was curious as to what people who lived in this sort of neighborhood had, that was so valuable that this man would go to such expense and effort to get at it.
About five minutes later, he came out with his three sacks full, and he was leaning on his crutch a bit more sincerely. He hobbled his way back to his house with the same lack of hurry.
When I was certain that he was returning to his house, I decided to beat him there. From my perch, I spotted a problem that had escaped me before- to get to the cellar, you had to go through a high gate, past a well-worked truck garden, and a pair of large sleeping dogs. They weren’t in Yarlik’s class, but I still didn’t want to risk waking up the neighborhood taking them out. They were lying facing the gate, so I decided to risk an experiment.
Holding the hem of the owl-cloak out, I stepped off the eave into thin air. There was a moment of sheer panic, and then the cloak caught the air, and I was gliding, gentle as a leaf, downwards. I angled my glide so that it took me well over the sleeping dogs, and deposited me just at the well to the cellar door. I really must remember to do something nice for Master Adan.
The lock barely even slowed me from getting into the cellar. What I first noticed about the place was a lavatory smell. Peering around in the near total darkness, I almost stumbled. Idiot! I focused and let my fingers dance in the mudra that Master Adan had taught me. First I did the ‘Sensory Acuity Prana’, and then the ‘Keen Vision Technique’; the cellar wasn’t as bright as day, but at least I could SEE. As I’d noted before, there were several two-and-a-half cubits by three cubit iron band cages dangling from the rafters. The smell was coming from the wide-mouthed spittoons under each of them. I peered into the cage; inside, curled up in a ragged nightshirt, clutching a rag doll in one hand and mostly eaten crust of bread in the other, was a small, suspiciously clean girl of maybe five years.
Inside four of the other cages were more children, the youngest being perhaps Three, and the oldest maybe Six. There were three empty cages; the haggler had taken three sacks. Yes, the only things of real value that the people in that house probably had were their children. There were people who would buy children as slaves. But, as a rule of thumb, they never took children until they were Seven or so. These children were too young to do any real work-
-which suggested that the haggler had plans for these children, that would make being sold into slavery seem like a hope-lost dream.
I quickly searched the cellar for any clues as to what the haggler was up to. But aside from that worktable, all there was in the cellar were those cages and some vegetables from the garden.
I need to know what he’s up to.
I heard the gate open and a man’s voice gentle the dogs. I wrapped myself up in my owl-cloak and blended into the shadows of a corner. The haggler came in and set his load down with a thump. He hauled some water out of the well in the back yard, and soaped up a rag. Then one by one, he reached into his sacks, hauled out a sleeping child between the ages of Three and Six, cleaned them up with the rag, and deposited them each in a cage. When they were in the cage, he locked it with a large iron key. Now, all of his cages were full.
When the last of them, a black-haired boy of Five or so, was in his cage, he went outside. I stepped from the shadows, and looked. He was preparing a small cart. I went back into the shadows. When the cart was ready, he came back in and blew a little Micomicon dust over the children that he’d already captured. Then, struggling with each cage, he took it down from its hook and wrestled it up the stair to the cart, quietly muttering under this breath about how hard his lot was.
When the last of them was loaded, he covered the cages with a tarp, festooned his cart with various charms against night-bogies, and then hitched up the two dogs to pull the cart. The dogs seemed to be used to the task, and did what was asked of them. Bitterly muttering about his aching arms, he snapped a whip at the dogs and they trotted out into the early morning night.
The Child-Stealer headed to the Northwest gate, and I followed after them, again from the rooftops. The Night Watch at the gate opened the gate for him, for a ‘small gratuity’. He didn’t say what his business was, and they didn’t ask. From the Northwest gate, he headed northward.
Northward. Children. Cages of cheap, cold-forged iron. I wasn’t sure, but I had an idea as to what the Child-Stealer was up to. And I knew that it had to be stopped.
For a couple of hours, the Child-Stealer’s dogcart trotted northwards, past the outlying farms, and well into woods where no one goes… Unless he has business.
Finally, he came to a large boulder poking out of the mossy forest floor. He took his lantern and a flute and climbed on top of the boulder. He cast little pebble-hard eyes up at the moon, licked his lips and started playing an irregular tune. By now, the children were awake and whimpering. One of them, a ginger-haired, toffee-skinned girl of Six, asked, “Who are you? What’s all this?”
“Shut up Brat,” the Child-Stealer. “And stop whining. You’re going somewhere where you’ll see things like you’ve never even dreamed of before.”
He put his flute to his lips, but before he could play another note, a crystal-clear, inhumanly sweet voice cut him off, saying, “They could not dream of it, dear Tatifar? Well then, what good are they to us?”
They didn’t so much come out of the woods, as the wood parted for them like a curtain. From where I was perched, I could make out four shapes of roughly man-size, and maybe three or four times that in dog-sized shapes that gamboled about them. I’ve seen their ilk before, but there is something so utterly alien, so totally removed from the human about them, that I couldn’t resist a shudder that was equal parts revulsion and lurid attraction. They were Fey.
The first three looked like the fen had gotten up and decided to go for a walk. The biggest one was dressed in gorgeous billowing red silk trousers cinched by an exquisitely worked wide metal girdle, with a matching paldrons and bracers. But the beauty of his equipage did nothing to mitigate the bestial ugliness of his countenance. His shoulders were broad, but they only made his small narrow shallow-pated head, canted forward and low, uglier. His jaw, more of snout made up almost half of his head, and it was filled with long jagged teeth. An overhanging brow shadowed glittering animal eyes. His arms were overlong for his body, and his skin was rough and scaly, like a crocodile’s. In one long, clawed hand he held a klanth with long sharp jagged ‘teeth’ rising up from a single glassy blade.
The next one was taller, but much thinner. If the first one was a swamp lizard with delusions of grandeur, than this one was a sack of sticks with a bad attitude. It was more manikin than man, with long gawky limbs wrapped up in rags, and a sack over its head. Though, the expression on the ‘sack’ was a little too lively and nuanced to be just a mask.
The third one would have been comic under other circumstances. It was a pig up on its hind trotters, holding a rather nasty looking nailed rake. Yes for all that ridiculous basic image, it was all of a piece with its fellows and seemed utterly deadly.
As alien as the first three were, they were all of a piece with the forest and swamp, as many Fae are. The fourth one, who walked like a princess among warriors, was definitely from some place else. My guess is that she’d entered Creation through the Southern borders, through the jewel-encrusted deserts. She- this is, if the Fey truly have genders, and not merely favored forms of expression- was a walking work of art. She was beautiful, beyond the ability of Men or Gods to be beautiful. Her beauty, her terrible perfection made her alien-ness even more terrifying than the bestiality, or ambiguity, or inanity of her companions. Her hair was a flickering blue flame, her skin was flawless ivory, her eyes were dancing sapphires, and her veiled lips lapis lazuli. She was swathed in lengths of fluttering blue silk, bound up with ropes of pearl, belts of silver, and all bespangled in jewels.
Almost in comic counterpoint to her eerie perfection, a squad of hobgoblins gamboled at her feet. They looked as if someone had taken frogs, grown them to the size of terriers, clapped turtle shells around their bodies and stuck long snail eyes on their heads.
The Child-stealer (yes, I know that he has a name, but ‘Child-stealer’ just sums him up so perfectly for me), clambered down from his rock and threw himself at her feet. “Shudra Lananshee! My joy knows no bounds! It is the last New Moon before Calibration. I am here with my offering, to honor your sublime perfection!” Whoever this toad-eater was, he’d definitely dealt with the Fae before; it never hurts to lay on the flattery with a muck-shovel.
Lananshee looked down at him with the mixture of amusement and disdain that so reminded me of my own experience with Lord Azaten. “Your liberality and generosity overwhelms me! To offer up such delicate treasures! Look at them! How can you bear to part with them?” The Fae feed on dreams, but I understand that they are connoisseurs of passions as well. Lananshee was drinking in the Child-stealer’s wretched venality, his crass greed and calculating selfishness, as she might sip from an exquisite vintage of wine.
“How can I offer anything less to you, Magnificent Artisan? You who have rained the blessed product of your craft upon me with such joyous largess?” Oh yes, he’d definitely done business with the Good Neighbors before- never dicker with them, they’ll take it as a challenge to give you dust for gold. But, if you make it a matter of whom can bestow the greater gift on the other, well, you can get rich by letting them ‘win’.
Lananshee pursed her perfect lips in a disdainful smile. She spread her arms and swirled them as if gathering up armfuls of the very stuff of reality. She gathered exactly that up and breathed glittering chaos in the mixture. With a practiced twist of her hands, that scintillating blend formed into a fall of sparkling flawless cut gems. The jewels fell from her hands in a brilliant rain of wealth. The Child-stealer laughed like a child and scrambled to gather up the stones.
He produced a silken bag, and Lananshee made a lustrous spill into it, filling it with no stone smaller than my thumb. The Child-stealer hefted the bag and listened to the chinking sound they made. With a contented sigh, he took the thick iron chain with the thick iron key to the thick iron cages from his neck. Suggestively holding the key along with the bag, he wheedled, “Munificent Shudra Lananshee, if I might crave an unworthy boon of you?”
“Yes, Tatifar?” she asked with frigid graciousness.
“Would you… make them... real?”
With the indulgent smile that a generous aunt might give a small child asking for another sweetmeat, Lananshee took a small elaborately filigreed bottle from one girdle, and sprinkled something in the bag, as she might spread a costly spice on a dish.
Knowing that the moment was finally right, I sent my Eagle Claw flying out, and I grabbed the bag of gems, the bottle and the iron key from their hands. Of course, to be honest, I wasn’t aiming for the bag of gems; it just came along. I pulled the lot back to me, up the bough of tree where I’d been hiding.
“What’s this?” Lananshee snarled. She pointed an imperious finger at me. “Go!” she snapped at her hobgoblins, “Fetch my bottle back, and the key as well! You can do whatever you want with his head!” The hobgoblins boiled toward the tree, surrounded it and began hopping up into its branches. Lananshee’s three companions were waiting under the branch that I was perched on.
I couldn’t have arranged it better. I did a Soaring Crane Leap over to the dogcart. Fortunately, the large dogs’ reaction to the presence of the Fae was to cower under the cart. I tucked the bottle into my belt, and used the key to get the ginger-haired girl and the boy with the plait out of their cages. They immediately scrambled under the cart with the dogs. I didn’t bother to chide them for hiding; it was the cages that I’d wanted.
As the hobgoblins came loping over ahead of the other three, I hefted the heavy iron cage. The heavy, COLD-FORGED iron cage. I dropped it on top of the lead hobgoblin and squashed him flat. The next one I grabbed by an eyestalk and shoved it in the cage. I repeated the process with the other cage. The cold-forged iron of the cage burned their fae flesh, and throats that were never meant to scream learned how to do so.
I dispatched a good seven or so of them this way, before they caught on. Eight of them cowered around the three warriors. The big one with the scales and the klanth came forward making a production of brandishing his weapon and spoke in a voice that was something between the eruption of a volcano and the roar of a hurricane. “Jubilation Overflowing! Crass Commerce concedes to the conquest of Creation’s Champion! I rapturously anticipate the sound of-”
“Your own trousers falling around your ankles, and squealing like a pig as your own weapon sodomizes you?” I interrupted as I heaved one of the iron cages at him.
He vaulted over the cage, but it still managed to reduce two more hobgoblins to primordial goo. He spun and somersaulted in the air, which only gave me time to position the other cage right where he would land.
Or, where he WOULD have landed if he gave a rat’s filthy backside as to the Laws of Creation. He stretched out his legs to straddle the cage. So, I kicked it up between his legs.
His falsetto howl of agony rattled the glade. His fellows started to come forward, but he waved them back. He held up his klanth and gestured over it. He wove an epic drama of his inevitable triumph, overcoming all obstacles, defeating all enemies and surpassing all odds to take my head into his klanth, infusing it with all the proper portents, omens and tropes.
So, I broke it with the iron chain. What, you think that I’m stupid enough to let him START all of that?
As the lizard-warrior gaped at the ruins of his blade, all the fury and turmoil that he’d imbued it with exploded in his face. As he roared his frustration, I jumped behind him, looped the iron chain around his throat and started to throttle him. He staggered around, stamping out several more of the hobgoblins in his frenzy. His flesh began to boil and bubble. He sank down into the ground and sort of collapsed into himself. He congealed and in time I found that I’d wrapped the chain around a jutting projection on a moss-covered rock poking out of the forest floor.
The long, lanky manikin ambled forward and swept a grandiloquent bow. “Alas, poor Ividjur Kyshatrak! Proud Paladin of Potentia! He shall never see Creation crumble back into blessed Chaos! Very well! I shall prepare a joyous funereal celebration and sing glorious laments of his tragic fate!” Yes, the Fae really DO rejoice when one of their own gets killed. “Of course, for the party, I will need the centerpiece for the feast table- YOUR HEAD!” He reached down and pulled a primeval forest out of the ground, which swept me up into its branches.
“My head what? Head cook, head waiter, head gardener, head cheese, head of the class, head for the border boys!” I skipped from branch to branch as the manikin chased after me with a scythe made of wood. We danced around the trees for a bit, and then I lost him.
Or, at least, I’d thought that I’d lost him. He reached out from the very bole of the tree to take me by the neck. But, for some reason, he couldn’t get a grip on my cloak- which, come to think of it, should have snagged on at least one of these thousands of branches. “Well! It’s about damn time!” I took Lananshee’s bottle and sprinkled its contents on him. He wriggled about some, but his lower half was stuck in the bole of the tree. He reached out with limbs that grew in to the claw-like branches of trees, and pulled me to him.
I felt roots and tendrils trying to burrow their way into me, trying to latch onto my power. “Feeeaaarrr mmmeee…” The Tree-warrior intoned.
My Essence. He’s trying to feed on my Essence. He needs me to fear him. As best I could, I ran my fingers through the ‘Integrity Protecting Prana’ that Master Adan had taught me to protect against things like that Essence draining reliquary of Mykiros’. I felt my will harden, and then there was something else in response, something far more powerful. The glamour-wrought wood shattered into wisps, and the wood-warrior withered down into ground with a wail and resolved into a remarkably ugly stump of a tree.
There was a swirling and all the wisps of free glamour that was wafting around all flowed into a whirling ball between Lananshee’s hands. That couldn’t be good. On the other hand, I wasn’t fool enough to ignore the Pig-Warrior as I dealt with something that is probably just a distraction. Besides, I doubt that she’d unleash that whatever it is, while I’m mixing it up with Piggie.
At least… I think that she won’t…
Pig-boy was keeping it simple; he didn’t do any of that fancy Fae reality-shaping nonsense. He just charged with a grunting squeal, swinging that rake and trusting to his own prowess. I let him swing at me for a while. To be honest, even without the fancy stuff, he made a better showing that the others had. He split open the ground with his nailed rake, and shook things up a bit. Then it hit me- to the best of my knowledge, the Fae don’t tire. I used a Water-Dragon style maneuver to turn the force of his own swing against him, throwing and disarming him at the same time.
“Heeerrree, piggie-piggie…” I taunted him, making sure that he was between Lananshee and me at all times. He planted the rake into the ground, and I used that as an opening to experiment. I got him in a headlock, and tried the ‘Integrity Protecting Prana’ again. Nothing happened.
He managed to throw me. As I recovered, Piggie got his rake back. Well, back to the tried and true. I ducked under his next swing and got back behind him with the iron chain. But as I started to choke him, I noticed something. The pearl hearthstone on my clasp was glowing with a scintillating fire. It was reacting to the free Essence produced by the Pig-Fae’s flesh in reaction to iron burning it. I tried the ‘Integrity Protecting Prana’ technique again. Piggie gave out a scream that diminished into a squeal as he dwindled down into a real pig.
I grabbed the scrambling porker and shoved him into one of the iron cages. He looked around in horror and squealed in disbelief at his new station in life.
Lananshee looked at the Pig-Fae-now-just-Pig’s plight and laughed lovely merciless crystal peals of laughter. “Ah, Zubajie! At last you tell a joke that amuses someone besides yourself!” She turned to me with a more genuine smile than the one that she’d given the Child-stealer, and gave a gracious bow. “Greetings, Prince of the Earth! What is it that you desire?”
“Well, let’s see…” I tapped my chin, “Well, the retreat of the Fae past the Marches back into the Deep Wyld would be nice…”
“You can be more original than that,” she chided.
“You’re right… What about the erasure of all the Shadowlands that stain the fair face of Creation, and the sealing of all the Death Lords back in the Underworld, where they belong?”
Lananshee pouted prettily. “Both trite AND far beyond my abilities. The Abyssals and we Fae are like Water and Fire – our fire burns their water and turns it to steam, but their water douses our fire. Besides, I am but a simple Artisan, not a Panjandrum to start up a Holy Crusade against the Abyss, even on the wish of a great Dagger of Heaven such as yourself.”
I nodded. “Well then, I’ll just have to settle for you going back into your faerie-land, and promising to leave these honest children alone, never bother them or theirs, in any way shape or form, in person or by proxy, directly or indirectly, by action or inaction, by deed or word, by neither sin nor gift, for at least twelve generations.”
Lananshee’s eyes danced and she laughed, her peals of laughter becoming glassine bells that hung on a nearby branch. “Well played, Iron Wolf! It would be a wonderful game, to find the gaps and lapses in that injunction. Even if I didn’t, what are thirteen generations of mortals to me? What a delicious pastime, learning each and every little thing about each of them, and their children and grandchildren and their heirs beyond that, waiting rapturously waiting for that unlucky unprotected thirteenth generation!”
She gave a raptor’s grin and held out her hand to me. “But really, what do your REALLY need?” Her eyes danced and she produced a metal circlet that wove the swirling miasma around her. “I am weary of the petty meandering dreams of country bumpkins and non-entities… what are the dreams of the Chosen of the Sun, one whose greatness is written into his very being? Do you dream of legendary weapons that can destroy entire mountains with a single swipe? Do you dream of suits of armor that will withstand any blow and have cunning weapons designed into them?” As she spoke, the glamour settled into glittering visions of what she bespoke. “Do you dream of great ships that sail through the clouds like a lightning bolt and rain Heaven's Own Wrath down on the unrighteous? Do you dream-”
“You know,” I said in a bored voice, “it’s no wonder that the Fae need the dreams of mortals- for all your boasting about your infinite creativity and originality, you lot have the imaginations of parrots.”
Lananshee stopped, her face fell, her glittering dreams turning to brass in her mouth. ”You DARE to insult my art? There is no forgiving this trespass!” And that, dear friends, is the Fae in a nutshell- I just destroyed her hobgoblins and her three companions, and she took it as all part of the game. But cock a snook at Her, and it’s all-out WAR!
She brought forth a metal egg and a metal ring and gathered the lovely fantasies, wadded them into a ball and passed them through the ring. What came out the other side coalesced into a shambling mound of swamp-muck that quivered like a jelly dome being carried by an apprentice waiter, with long be-thorned tendrils whipping about.
I shook my head sadly. “Really, Lananshee! Where’s the Art, the beauty, the craftsmanship? This? This is just… icky… You ‘Good Neighbors’ DO have a reputation to think about, after all…”
“Craftsmanship? You DARE to speak to ME about Craftsmanship? Well then! Witness THIS!” She passed the egg through the ring, and the shambling mound melted away, and a glorious golden figure burst forth from the filth. The head, wings and forequarters of a golden eagle were set on the hindquarters of a great cat. It spread its great wings and gave an earth-rattling screech.
“A Gryphon,” I drawled, my arms crossed before my chest. “How original. Why,” I sneered sardonically, “I’ve never seen a Gryphon before… Oh, except for in the stables of Lord Azaten- oh, and in the zoo at Great Forks… and… oh, bother, what is it, do you Fae types have a stamp that you churn these things out with?”
Lananshee snarled, fiddled with the egg-and-ring again, and the gryphon curled in on itself and reformed. Now, the gryphon was not only a golden color, it was actually Gold, as it was made of articulated beaten gold with segmented joints, razor edges and a faint whir of clockwork.
“Wonderful,” I drawled, “a clockwork gryphon. You combine triteness with artificiality. How… original… or something. Are you deliberately trying to be cliché, Lananshee? Is that your evil plan? To bore me into submission?”
*phaugh!* “Let’s see you criticize THIS!” she fiddled with her tools again, and the clockwork gryphon merged with the soil and became a walking hillside of gold, an ambulatory mountain on elephantine legs with arms of molten lava and a nubbin head that opened up into an amber stalactite and stalagmite rimmed maw. She wasn’t even going for ornamental anymore.
Of course, that meant that on a level, I’d won.
You see, something that I learned from the sage Ctheron ab-Laïze before facing off against Lord Azaten was, that the Fey don’t really live, or build or fight. No, they weave stories, complete with narrative, details and twists, in which their desires are the inevitable outcome of the saga. Indeed, on a certain level, they are themselves stories being told by the story itself. It was, for one thing, the reason why those idiot warriors attacked me one at a time- they weren’t good enough to really collaborate on their stories, so they had to ‘tell’ them, one by each.
Which means, like any good work in progress, that they and their works are vulnerable to being critiqued to death. There is nothing that the Fey loathe more than the heckler, the nit-picker and the pounce-trifle. Point out the least little paradox or inconsistency and they get all unraveled. And, as an Artisan, Lananshee is even more susceptible to this than other Fae are; an Imperial Fae rules and can change her mind. A Warrior can lose magnificently- but an Artisan? An Artisan’s work is the measure of her very existence. I’ve struck three blows at her very being.
Lananshee leaned forward with rapacious anticipation as the Mountain-Thing opened its cavern-maw and roared alike a storm. I looked straight into its mouth, and sent my Eagle Claw flying. At Lananshee. I snatched the metal egg from her startled hand. As she reacted to that, Bop came winging down and snatched the ring from her other hand. As she was dealing with that, I jumped through the Mountain-Thing’s mouth, into the belly of the beast.
And why not? It was the only safe place. You could tell that Lananshee wasn’t a warrior. The Mountain-Thing wasn’t very well constructed. No heckling there, simple fact. She hadn’t really established a biological functioning for it; it was a vast hollow shell with a glittering core of pure chaos in the very center, which kept the whole thing running. Besides disarming her further, my reason for having Bop disarm her was to distract her. If she knew that I’d gone inside the monster, she’d simply contract it in on me, trapping me inside an adamant shell of some sort, alive but unable to move for all eternity, or some equally Fae punishment. As it was, she had no idea as to where I’d gone, I could have been anywhere as far as she knew and she probably had the Mountain-Thing stumbling about looking for me.
Looking up at the glittering, constantly shifting ball of distilled disorder high up above me, I hefted the metal egg in my hand. I’d come in here intending to pull a repeat of what I’d tried with the Wood-Warrior and the Pig-Warrior. But, if I have a fatal flaw, it’s curiosity. I just HAD to know. I threw the egg into the scintillating seed of madness.
The Mountain-Thing dissolved into an explosion of golden butterflies. Some of them were real beaten gold. Some of them were golden jewels. Some of them were merely golden glass. And some of them were real live butterflies that lived, and still live in that part of the mire, or so I’m told. The wave of lapidary lepidoptera caught Lananshee by surprise and knocked her to the ground.
And I caught the metal egg before it could hit the ground. “You see, Lananshee?” I said cheerily, “Now THAT is how it’s done! Mayhaps you’d like to become my apprentice?”
“Fool,” Lananshe said quietly, “I would have given you a magnificent death, an epic end to a squalid and meaningless life. I would have erected a resplendent cenotaph to mark your heroic struggle and death. Now, the only ending that you shall have is to be squashed like a bug beneath my heel, and the only marker to your passing a greasy stain on the forest floor.” She passed her hand over her face, leaving a white featureless space where her exquisite features had been.
“Behold Nishkriya, the Mask of the Sword, the canvass upon which the Mad God of Vengeance and Obliteration is created!” She swirled what remained of the gibbering insanity around her, and her delicate form was wracked with growth and change.
Change that I tampered with when I filled my hand with mud from the forest floor and threw it unerringly at the flat white mask.
The mud besmirched her mask and her definition. She still grew monstrous, but it was warped and most like lacked the majesty that Lananshee would have preferred. She towered over the trees, spread six huge arms and howled at the hidden moon. While she was trying to be terrifying, I used my Eagle Claw to scale her like a tower. Holding onto a spine on the lowest left arm, I used the Eagle Claw to hoist one of the cages up to me. Then I pressed the open part of the cage into Lananshee’s chest. Lananshee screamed and clawed at me, but the cold-forged iron cut through her flesh like a hot knife through soft butter, and I used it to burrow in past her claws. As Lananshee thrashed about, I finally found her heart, another egg, this one of the finest crystal. I forced the cage around her true heart, and shut the lid around it.
Then, as the capper, I touched my Pearl to Lananshee’s heart, and invoked the ‘Integrity Protecting Prana’ again.
Lananshee the towering monstrosity erupted and exploded, sending little bits of herself everywhere. She rained upon the glade, and everywhere where a bit of her fell, a lovely roseate flower of a lurid blue shade grew, where they grow to this day. Beware the thorns.
I gave myself a few minutes to rest, and then I found the children, huddling with the two dogs under the cart. “Where’d that rat-bag who brought you here go?” I asked the ginger-haired girl who seemed to be the one with the most gumption.
“Tatifar? He lit out as soon as you grabbed his bag.”
“You know who he was?”
“Tatifar the Tightfist? Sure! He’s our landlord and the meanest skinflint moneylender in town!”
I nodded. “Good. You remember that, and you tell your parents what happened and who did it to you, when you get back.”
One of the other children, a dark-skinned girl of maybe four, got up the courage to ask, “Mister? Who ARE You?”
I stood and bowed as graciously as I could. “I? Why little lady, I am the Strix.”
I managed to get the dogs hooked up to the cart, and we drove back to Keldon. I hid myself in Tatifar’s discarded cloak, and bribed us all past the gate guard to get back into Keldon.
It was the wee hours of the night, and except for a few weary carousers and fewer even wearier streetwalkers, we saw no one as we drove back to the house where Gwinreth (the ginger-haired girl), her little brother and cousin had been stolen. I thumped on the door, and was surprised when it opened almost immediately. An aggrieved woman who might have been a mother or aunt or some such looked out and goggled at me, in my wraithlike cloak and owl-mask. Well, I had designed the outfit with the intention of scaring the besnoogers out of people… But before she could scream, I pushed Swendor (Gwinreth’s little brother) forward. She gave a relieved cry and swept him up in her arms.
I gave Gwinreth, Swendor and each of the children a gemstone, to help them remember what had happened. And, yes, quite likely to pay for some better clothing. Then the pig-that-had-been-a-fairy squealed in its cage. “What’s that?” Swendor’s mother (I guess) asked.
I smiled under my owl-mask. “Dinner.” Then I used my Eagle Claw to lift myself up to the roofs and was away.
It was late, I was tired, and I hadn’t eaten since lunch- and one of Master Adan’s stews at that- but I had something that needed taking care of. Tatifar. The Child-stealer’s name was Tatifar. He was a landlord and a moneylender. He was a man who was in a position to come to the homes of the laboring poor and know how many children there were in the house. And he snuck into the houses that he owned, and stole the only thing that his debtors and renters had that they truly cherished- their children.
Tatifar the Child-taker had run away as soon as things had gotten nasty, but if I have him pegged right, I know exactly where he’s heading. Home.
I ran over the rooftops to Tatifar’s house. Well, I am impressed, Tatifar! He not only managed to get back to the city on foot, but he’d beaten me there. His gate was ajar, and I could make out a lantern in the garden, lighting someone industriously at work. Really! Tatifar must be half out of his wits, digging in his own garden at this time of the late morning. He’s likely to draw the worst of spirits out that way.
There were no dogs to worry about, but I glided silently over Tatifar’s head and stole into his workroom. He had nothing going on in his workroom, but the door up to his kitchen was open. Tatifar was busy indeed! He had a pile of clothing next to the table, traveling bags on the table with a few bits of this and that thrown into them, and five sacks of something, four books and a portfolio on the table.
I’d say that Tatifar was looking to leave rather suddenly.
Curious, always curious, I opened one of the books and read it as best I could in the eye-straining gloom. It was an Accounts book. The uncanny bastard was going to try and somehow squeeze them, even after he’d run away!
I poked one of the sacks, and was rewarded by the familiar sound of jade obols. I hefted the sack. There was at least thirty pounds of jade there. As I suspected, the other sacks were filled with silver dinars, and copper siu. And the last two were filled with gems. Large, lovely, sparkling gems, all cut in the finest ways and not a one of them smaller than a large man’s thumb. The rents and repayments could explain the dinars, and siu by loans that Tatifar legally squeezed out of his victims. But the obols could only be explained by the sale of the large gems. And those could only have come from the clever hands of Shudra Lananshee, Artisan of the Fae, who worked her miracles from the tears of lost children.
Tatifar stomped into his cellar cursing his aching arms, the lack of his dogcart, the expense of buying a new one, and damn fools who don’t know better than to go sticking their noses in other people’s business, and messing things up for everyone. I hid. He clumped his way up the stairwell, both his arms full with a large ceramic pot. He settled the pot down, but it toppled, spilling yen coins and bits across the floor. Tatifar cursed and scrambled to scoop the coins back into the pot.
“Tired, Tatifar?” I said from the shadows. “Here, use this.” I threw his ‘burglar’s helper’ in front of him. Tatifar gaped at me as I appeared from out of shadow, and scrambled back from his precious pile of green copper. “How long?” I asked in my most ominous voice.
“What?”” He gibbered, almost crying.
“How long have you been selling your tenants’ children to the Fae?”
“It was my right! They were behind on their rents!”
“If you had anything like a RIGHT, you wouldn’t have had to sneak in, in the middle of the night!”
“They’re better off without the brats! They’re worthless! All they do is eat and filthy up the place! Now that they don’t have to feed the punks, at least they can afford to pay their rent!”
Gritting my teeth very hard to keep a rein on my temper, I dug a hand into one of the bags and pulled out a handful of fae-spun jewels. “How many? How many did you sell to the Nightmare Brood?”
“Those are MINE!” The Child-taker scrambled up at me, slipping on the loose coins of the floor. “GIVE them to me, they’re MINE!”
Something snapped inside me. It wasn’t rage, it was more like a cold fury, a frightening clarity completely devoted to making this subhuman thing pay completely and in total for all the pain that he’d caused for a handful of pretty rocks. I grabbed him by the throat and bent him backward over the kitchen table. “Oh? These are yours? HERE! YOU! CAN! HAVE! EACH! AND EVERY! ONE! OF THEM!” One by one, I forced each of the gems down this throat. The larger ones took more effort, but I put everything that I had into it, and I got them down. He was thrashing and coughing and trying to scream through the stones, and later the blood cut by the gems’ sharp edges, so it was a real chore.
When my hand was empty, I restocked and kept feeding him the oh-so-yummy stones that he’d done so much for. When I literally could not force a single more stone down his gullet, I let him slide to the floor and curl into a twitching ball around his belly. I briefly wondered about finishing off the sack through the other end.
Then, I heard angry voices in the street. That snapped me out of the rage trance that I’d been in. I peered through his shutters out into the street. There was a wave of torches approaching the house. The word must have gotten out. “Well, Tatifar, I guess that your tenants and debtors want to come and thank you for taking all those burdens from their shoulders.” I dumped the pot of yen over his body, and then the sack of siu, and what was left of the sack of jewels. I attached the other sack of gems and the sacks of silver and jade to my belt, picked up the books and portfolio and made my way up the stairs.
He MUST have buried everything that he made in those sacks in the garden. Sol Invictus knows he didn’t spend it on furniture!
I made it up to the attic and let myself out the ventilating shutter. Down in the street, the crowd was arranging itself to batter down Tatifar’s door. I shifted myself on to the gable of the roof and pulled out the Accounts book. I popped one of the claws on my gauntlet and sliced out the last three months worth of entries. Then I let the pages fall to the street below. I decided to cut them a break, and cut out the last year’s entries as well, and then took my leave.
Master Adan looked at the sacks of silver and stones, and laughed, “Some people are born to money. Some people are born to make money. Some people are born to find money. But you, Rennar, seem to be all three! You have a pirate’s nose for loot! Only YOU could leave to buy groceries, and come back richer than you left!”
“Well, when you’re through looking at those,” I produced Lananshee’s bottle, circlet and two ‘eggs’, “could you tell me what THESE are for?”
Master Adan peered intently at the crystal egg. “Rennar, where did you GET this?”
I ran down where I’d been all night. Master Adan made me go over various parts repeatedly, and had me give him as much detail as I could. As I went further into my story, Adan examined the four artifacts closely. When I finished, he knocked my feet off the table I had them up on, “Well, what are you doing, wasting your time here?”
“I’m eating,” I said, holding up the bowl of stew. “And then, I’m going to bed. Fighting mad gods of chaos is tiring work.”
“No, you’re not. You and Arrek are going back up to the surface, while there’s still time!”
“Time for what?”
“Time to go back to that glade, and sweep up as many of those butterflies as you can find!”
“What are you talking about?”
“You told me that the butterflies which were produced by the disintegration of that monstrosity that Lananshee threw at you turned into beaten gold, jewels and glass, as well as some that turned into real butterflies.”
“And, I want you to sweep them up and bring as many of them here as you can!”
“Sweep them up?”
“Yes, sweep them up! Glamour-works like that can’t survive very long in Creation, so first thing they’ll do is die. After a bit, they’ll crumble and simply evaporate. I want you do sweep up as many as you can find, place them in bags, one for the golden ones, one for the jeweled ones, one for the glass ones, and one for the *ahem!* ‘real’ ones.”
I gave him a quizzing look. “You want the glass ones? AND the dead bugs, as well?”
“Oh, especially the dead ones.”
“They are products of almost pure creation, raw essence given form and substance! Let’s just say that they have… uses…”
I shrugged and gobbled down my stew. After all, he was the one providing room and board.
A good seven hours later I staggered in wearing my ‘Lord Ble’Knee Parsifal’ outfit, wrestling the statue through the gate with Arrek.
“Excuse me, but what is THAT?” Master Adan asked with asperity.
“You have no idea what we had to go through, to get it into the gondola,” I gasped.
“I send you out to bring back golden butterflies, and you come back with a cheap plaster statue?” he gestured at the cluttered room, “What? Doesn’t my décor suit a Dragon Lord of the Realm?”
I looked over at Arrek. “Fine thanks we get! First, we trek through the dew to find the place, then we spend hours picking up his bugs for him- by the way, Adan, the bags are still in the gondola- then we trek MORE miles and buy a cart to haul this back, and THEN we bribe a watchman, to get this thing past the gate! And THEN we manage to get this fool thing through his secret door without anyone seeing it! And now, he yells at us. I tell you, Arrek, the man has no sense of gratitude.”
“True enow,” Arrek gasped. “He’s as bad as a Dynast, that one.”
Master Adan glowered at us dyspeptically. “And tell me WHY did you two go to all that bother, just to lug a plaster replica of-” he paused and looked at it, “admittedly, an absolutely exquisite statue, into my home?”
“Hand me that wine sack, would you Arrek?” I poured a goblet of cheap sour wine and splashed it on the statue’s face. You didn’t think that I was going to drink that slop, now did you? The ‘plaster’ was actually a layer of (not very dry) whitewash; the cheap wine dissolved the lime, revealing the true aspect of the statue. “Master Adan, may I introduce to you Shudra Lananshee, Master Artisan of the Fae, and Apprentice Dustcatcher!”
“We found her under a layer of all those flowers, as we were gathering butterflies. It turns out that the mass that exploded when I took her heart was just that extra mass that she’d gathered around her as she was growing into a boogey-thing; her normal form was transmuted into this. As near as I can tell, her eyes really ARE sapphires and her lips, lapis lazuli. What her hair is made of, I’ll leave to you to find out.”
I slapped a comradely arm on Lananshee’s shoulder. “We found her, and figured that if you were so hot to gather butterflies, you’d have a heart attack over this.”
By this time, Master Adan had dashed to his worktable, scooped up an armful of things and dived into a pile of stuff. “Sol’s Blazes, Adan, I didn’t mean it literally!”
Adan found what he was looking for, an iron box. He shoved the two eggs, the ring and the bottle into it and shut it. Then, he breathed a sigh of relief. Then he stood and stormed, “Dammit, Kaellis, do you have any idea of what you almost did?”
“From your tone of voice, apparently not.”
“Shudra Lananshee is not dead, as we know it. The Fae do not Die, as we born of Creation do. Indeed, they are not even alive, as we know it. Lananshee is still… viable… in there.”
“Viable? You mean, she heard everything that we said?”
Master Adan shrugged. “Don’t know. The point is, that crystal egg was her heart, the nucleus of raging chaos around which the phenomenon that called itself Shuda Lananshee formed-”
“She could have restored herself, here in the heart of Keldon!”
He started rummaging around in his shelves. “More to the point, in the middle of my home, but that’s pretty much it. The heart and her tools should be safe in that iron box. Still,” he produced some heavy saws, “better safe than sorry.” He handed Arrek and me two of the saws. “You two, take the arms; I’ll take off her head. Once we have her extremities away from her torso, we’ll start prying out those jewels.”
Strange, Lananshee was a statue now, and she hadn’t been anything even close to human before, but sawing her apart was still rather gruesome. As we sawed, Master Adan, probably looking for something to take his mind off the task at hand, asked, “So, Rennar, tell me more about how you handled those Fey warriors.”
“Well, I used the cold iron chain to break the first one’s sword-”
“No, not that one. Nicely done, but still a rather average petrifaction. No, the other two.” I ran through how I’d deal with the wood and pig warriors. “So, you touched them with the pearl hearthstone, used the ‘Integrity Protecting Prana’, and they suddenly withered into…”
“A tree and a pig, respectively. I only used the ‘Integrity Protecting Prana’ to fend off the Wood-warrior’s tendrils. I thought that just using the Prana was what did it, but when I tried it on the Pig-warrior, but it didn’t work until the Pearl picked up the raw Essence in the smoke that I made by choking the Pig with cold iron. Then, the Prana worked.”
Master Adan stopped sawing and paused to think (or just rest his arm; even for Exalts, sawing through stone is hard work). “Interesting… In ancient texts, there descriptions of the Solar Exalts using a technique called ‘Wyld Shaping’ to shape the stuff of raw chaos into stable reality. There are mentions of something called an Order Reaffirming Blow, which can destroy the Fae, turning them into statues, or rocks or such as you describe. But an Order Reaffirming Blow would require a Master’s understanding of the Path of Lore, which neither of us has, and would only come after building his Essence to greater levels than either us have.” He looked at me. “You said that this only worked after the Pearl touched the Pig-warrior’s released Essence?” I nodded. He thought it over a bit more. “The Pearl is the hearthstone of the White Temple, which was built to honor Gaia. Gaia is more than a just a Goddess, or even a Celestial Incarnae; she’s one of two known Primordials not in Malfeas. Moreover, she’s the living spirit of Creation itself, of Order manifesting itself in the face of corrosive Chaos…”
Then he shook his head and made a disgusted noise. “It’s no good, I know that there’s something there, but I’m just a Scavenger Lord, a jumped-up grave robber…” He looked at Arrek, as the boy got tired of sawing the leg, and used the cut that he’d made to snap the limb off. “Maybe the Lunar’s lore master will have some insight to offer.”
“Why not ask that Lantern thing that I got for you?”
“For the past thousand or so years, all that the Lantern of Emerald Flame’s had to keep it occupied was the niggling little problems that the Bear Emperor laid before it. As a result, the Lantern’s gotten a tad… peculiar… It seems that it hasn’t made up its mind about me as just yet. The Unconquered Sun weighed me in the balance, but apparently, the Lantern of Emerald Flame has higher standards!”
Arrek nudged me. “What?”
“Tell him. You told me; now tell him.”
Master Adan looked at me curiously. I sighed deeply, “When I finally caught up with that sack of filth, Tatifar, I asked him how long he’d been selling children to the Fae, he didn’t care! He wasn’t ashamed of what he’d done, he was only afraid that I’d take away his pretty rocks! He said that he had a right to steal children, and he demanded that I give him the jewels back!” I snarled even with the memory, there was a loud cracking noise, and when I looked down, I realized that I’d snapped off the arm that I’d been sawing on. I looked around, put the arm down and started sawing on the other arm. *Ahem!* “Then, something snapped inside me; all that I cared about was hurting him, in a way that hurt him in as many ways as possible. I figured that since he wanted the gems so badly, he could have them! I made him eat them- literally! I rammed them down his throat, until he couldn’t swallow any more. He was coughing and struggling, but it didn’t matter- I just keep forcing them down his throat. Where did that come from?”
Adan looked at the floor. “I don’t know… I think… I think sometimes that the Unconquered Sun made a mistake imparting a bit of his divine might into us mere mortals. We’re simply not built to contain that much raw power. The weight of our duties wears at us. We are to be kings and judges and righters of wrongs. But that power has a price- we have this great power, but we have to cope with the stupidity, venality, crassness and sheer irritation of everyday life, just like everyone else. It wears at us, like that tiny seed that gets stuck between your tooth and gum, until we can’t take it anymore. We snap and lash out, and all that frustration comes pouring out at once. We are filled with rage, or compassion, or lust or whatever we have tried to keep in check. What we do is often… out of proportion to what ever it was that triggered it, like the father who kills his entire family because his wife spilled the morning tea.
“And, like that unhappy murderer, we regret what we did afterwards. At least, those who admit that they did wrong. You have a seed of cruelty in you, Rennar. It will raise its head again. The best you can do, is refuse to allow it to define your behavior. If you respect that you wronged even a wretch like Tatifar the Child-taker, then you may be able to keep your cruelty in check when faced with someone less worthy of it.”
Master Adan spared Arrek a wintry glare. “And you needn’t look so smug, boy! You bear the same burden, as do we all! Your totem animal will fill you with bestial rage, craven cowardice or animalistic lust, until you’re more beast than man!” Master Adan smiled nastily. “But then, you know all about that, don’t you?” Arrek looked down guiltily. “Yes, you do. And that’s why you need the Silver Pact.”
“The Silver Pact?” Arrek and I asked as one.
“When the Uprising threw down the rule of the Solar Exalted and their Lunar consorts, the Dragonbloods concentrated on killing the Solars. The Lunars managed to escape to the edges of Creation and even past that. The Silver Pact is the… society… for want of a better word, that the Lunars exist in. A newly exalted Lunar isn’t meted out a Caste, as we Solars are; there’s some ritual process where they figure out what your proper caste is. There’s some test of some sort- I understand that tattooing and scars are involved somehow.” Master Adan sniffed and looked down at his task. He put down the saw and knocked off Lananshee’s head with a mallet. “I don’t really know that much about it. I’ve been informed by Tangos that knowing too much about the Silver Pact isn’t exactly healthy.”
“He’s one of those three Lunar elders who’ve been looking for you, Arrek. Among other things, they want to help you determine your caste, so that you can be properly trained.”
Arrek raised a skeptical eyebrow, “And WHY haven’t you brought them here, or taken me to them?”
Master Adan nodded. “A fair question. Tangos and his compatriots want to establish a Lunar presence in Kellesval. A key part of their plan was to take the White Temple away from the Bear Emperor, and attune it to one of them.”
“Oh.” Now, it made sense. “And, according to you, I can’t just hand over the Pearl.”
Arrek looked from me to Master Adan and back. “And you’re afraid that this will queer your deal.”
“Succinctly put,” Master Adan said grimly. “Which is why we have to wait for my intermediary, another Solar, one of the Eclipse caste, who I hope will smooth things over. Remember this, Arrek: having Allies is a GOOD thing, especially when you’re operating in enemy territory. Fortunately, I think that those gewgaws that you took from Lananshee might help in convincing them of our good faith.”
“You know what they are?”
“Yes, the Lantern wasn’t completely uncooperative; when I showed it those things, it almost went into a rapture of research and remembrance. It seems that the circlet is a Fae weapon of all things, called a ‘Shaping Lens’; it focuses a Raksha’s will to achieve those reality-warping effects that they call ‘Shaping’. The metallic egg enjoys the rather grandiose name ‘World Egg’; it is literally a solidified packet of raw definition, of words and concepts, that imposes impossible laws upon reality made plastic.”
I gave Adan a worried look. “That sounds incredibly powerful; you’re just going to GIVE that to these Lunars?”
“No, don’t be ridiculous!” Master Adan chuckled, “YOU are going to give them to the Lunar elders.”
“A show of good faith, as I said, that you are willing to show them respect. After all, you’re the one who made the White Temple unavailable to them, however unwittingly, so you’re the one who has to make reparations. The Lunars have a lot of experience in coping with the Wyld and the Fae, so they’ll appreciate the risk that you took getting the Shaping Lens and the World Egg.”
“Adan, you say that these things have the ability to warp the very fabric of reality; isn’t that a LOT of power to just GIVE AWAY?”
“No, no, no… The tools don’t shape the fabric of reality, the FAE themselves do; the tools just make it easier for the Fae to do that. Rather like a club makes it easier to split someone’s head open. But, what’s important is that the Lunars should see that we’re serious about honest and equitable relations with them.”
“And ARE you?” Arrek asked with some asperity.
Master Adan fixed him with a sere gaze. “I’m a Solar Exalt, operating well within the reach of the Scarlet Empire, with only an Omen Dog and a newborn Night Caste for support. Even if I WERE inclined to double-dealing, I don’t have the ROOM to pull anything funny!”
I stepped in to keep things from getting nasty. “Then we’re agreed that we’re going to deal fairly with the Lunars. Master Adan, when do you think that your Eclipse negotiator will get here?”
Master Adan looked like he was sucking on a lemon. “There’s the problem. First, my messenger has to find her; I’m not especially sure where she is at the moment, but my magical messenger should find her, if she’s still among the Quick. Then, she has to disentangle herself from whatever she mixed up in- and she’s always mixed up in something- and then she has to actually GET here, without being bloody obvious about it.” He looked at Arrek apologetically, “Sorry, boy, but I think that you should arrange some comfortable bedding for yourself, you’re going to be here for a while.”
I let out a long disgusted breath. “So much for that. Well, what’s next on the agenda?”
“First, you we finish breaking the immobile lady here up into manageable pieces. Then, you two haul in those bags that I sent you to fetch. Then, I think that you’ve actually earned a good night’s sleep.”
When I finally woke up, I was greeted by the agreeable smell of something cooking. Apparently, Arrek managed to talk Master Adan into letting him take that chore for a while. Master Adan himself was puttering around at one of his worktables, happily melting butterflies. Apparently, he knows a process where products of Fey ‘shaping’ can be rendered down into some sort of ur-material. The fey gold, I could understand. The jewel-bugs, I guess that he could form into a huge gemstone. And you could do interesting things with the glass butterflies. But the ‘live’ butterflies?
I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to know.
I helped myself to a plate of stew (which actually was seasoned for a change!) and sat down by Arrek. Preferring conversation to stilted silence, I opened with, “By the way, you never did tell me what happened with the Bear Priest, after I went off to track the Child-taker. Did you find out anything interesting?”
He grunted, “Yes. I discovered that cities are even fouler than I imagined.”
“Oh? You fell into a sewer?”
“No, I followed the High Priest, as you said. He tried to be sneaky about it, but I managed to follow him. I think that he heard me or something, as he sicced a foul spirit on me.”
“Oh? A rat khan or something like that?”
Arrek stopped and paused. “No, it was subtler than that. He stopped in an alley, cut his hand and lit some incense. Then he hurried along. I managed to follow him to the back door of a great house, but as I was coming back here, I was waylaid by a band of footpads.”
“And what does a foul spirit have to do with a band of cutthroats?”
“As the thugs came at me, I sensed it in a nearby shadow, watching and gloating at the prospect of them gutting me.”
“Really? Could you describe it?”
“Well, it was like a shadow of a woman except that shadows don’t have eyes and mouths, and I could see its red hands dripping in blood. Sha, all that was left of it after I pounded the slumgullions, was a smear of blood in the mud.”
“Do you remember where the place where the Bear Priest burned that incense was?”
Arrek looked at me, not realizing what he’d done. “Yes. A brickwork alley. I remember that there was a human skull had been set into the brickwork, and the priest burned the incense in front of that.”
“Was there anything painted on the wall?”
“Yes, now that you mention it, there was a handprint in red paint on the wall. Odd, it was the only thing painted on that wall. Most of the other walls were-”
“Not the point, Arrek,” I interrupted. “The point is that you’ve discovered the sanctum of a Bloody Hand. A Bloody Hand is a spirit that feeds on the pain and turmoil created by murder.”
“Then why didn’t it try to attack me itself?”
“Oh, Bloody Hands don’t feed on the death- they feed on the ACT of one person murdering another. Not battle, not a fair fight, not even executions, but murder; the willful, wrong killing of another human being, the placing of one’s own greed, anger and pride over the lives of others. They aren’t human, so they can’t feed on that. But they can steer people into committing murder. They whisper in a jealous husband’s ear that his pretty wife is spending too much time with the next-door neighbor. They tell an overworked apprentice that his master will work him to death, if he doesn’t strike first. They tell a rowdy that the merchant doesn’t deserve the pouch of money on his belt. They remind the degenerate of the joy and release that he felt, as he choked a pretty girl to death.
“The Bear Priest probably invoked the Bloody Hand to keep you from following him. The Hand probably had some sort of agreement with that gang; they have charms to conceal murders and murderers. The thieves get away, the Bloody Hand gets to watch.”
Arred raised an eyebrow. “And why are you so interested in this?”
I gave my best cryptic smile. “We’re trying to find the Underground Palace, right? The Black Dragons aren’t just our competition in finding it; they’re also the ones who have records of all their dowsings. Having those records would be a vast help to Master Adan’s efforts. Also, while I can no longer call myself a loyal son of the Dynasty, I still can’t sit still for what they did to Vallare Thyrelle. She may have been a dragonblood, but she was still only an eleven-year old girl!
“Now, I ask you- who would be in a better position to know the exact whereabouts and activities of a gang of vicious killers, than a spirit whose very existence revolves around watching murders?”
Arrek looked at me dubiously. “And what makes you think that it’s going to be so helpful? After all, from what you’ve told me, the murder of an Exalt must have been a rare treat for it.”
My felt my cryptic smile go frosty cold. “And what makes YOU think that I’m going to give it a choice?”
As Arrek pondered the implications of that, I walked over to Master Adan and asked, “So, Adan, do you have anything in this place that might help me capture and control a Bloody Hand spirit?”
“What do you think I’m doing?” He was heating up a mass of those proto-gems from the jewel-flies.
“You already knew that I was going to go after the Bloody Hand?”
“Arrek told me about his little discovery last night. I knew that you’d realize its significance right off the bat.” Without leaving off from liquefying the gem-stuff, he reached for a pair of scrolls and handed them to me. “Here. These are ‘Evaris’ Exegesis of the Lays of True Gold’, and the ‘First House of White Jade’. Read them. You should find the elements for the Second Excellency of the Path of Occultism, in the Exegesis, and the elements for the ‘Spirit-Detecting-Glance’ and the ‘Spirit-Cutting Attack’ in the First House. Study the Second Excellency first; it should help you master the Spirit-Detecting Glance and the Spirit-Cutting Attack.”
“What? But reading these-”
“Won’t take anywhere near as long as you think they should. You’re a Solar Exalt, Rennar! Extraordinary efforts are what being a Champion of the Sun are all about! Now go, sit, study, and let me work.”
“What ARE you doing, anyway?”
“To be honest, I’m trying to synthesize a Yasal crystal. I have a few shards of yasal crystal from a larger crystal that shattered in an unfortunate incident last year. I’m hoping that I can get these ur-crystals to conform to the yasal’s basic structure. The problem will be in achieving-”
“ah, Excuse me, but I have some scrolls to read.”
Several hours later, I was arguing with Arrek about one of the finer points raised in the First House, when Master Adan finally stepped away from his workbench holding a ceramic mold by the vice which was keeping the two halves together. “At last! I think that I’m getting the hang of imposing a new crystalline nature on these proto-crystals. Well,” he sighed, “I’m sorry that you won’t be able to use the Spirit Cutting Attack on it, Rennar, but this synthetic yasal crystal should-”
“Oh, I’ve got the Spirit-Cutting Attack down.”
“What?” Master Adan bleated.
“I said, I’ve got the Spirit-Cutting Attack down. Or, at least, I think that I do. I won’t really be sure, until I’ve actually used it on a spirit.”
Master Adan looked totally croggled. “But… but… I only… you should only…”
“Maybe you can help us out here.” I continued, “There’s an element of the Spirit Cutting Attack that Arrek and I disagree on. Arrek says that it should be performed entering one of the spirit’s ‘mouths’ and proceeding from there. Now, obviously, the best way is to strike the essential core of the spirit, severing its connections-”
“You understood the Exegesis AND the First Door?”
I blinked and looked at him. “Well, yes! Mind you, I was rather familiar with the basic principles already- I did a paper on Mnemon’s Almagest on Conjuring at the Cloister, and Mnemon cited Evaris’ Exegesis in many places; still, it was rather nice to read the finer points that Evaris spelled out, that Mnemon glossed over. By the way, I’m very impressed that you HAVE the Exegesis; Mnemon goes on for three pages, going on about how difficult it was to find a complete copy.” I leaned forward. “Still, it would be nice to find a copy of the Lays of True Gold itself…”
“Tell me about it,” Master Adan muttered. “I’ve only been looking for a copy since I was six years old.” Then he brightened. “Anyway! It’s all for the best.” He touched a wire loop sticking out of the top of the mold. “Should be cool enough…”
He cracked open the mold and a dark yellow crystalline disk the size and shape of an obol popped out. “Still warm,” he muttered to himself. “Well! One yasal crystal, made to order! Touch this to a spirit and force it inside, and you should have no problems convincing it to cooperate.” He strung a cord through the loop and handed me the talisman.
I took it and gave it a good look. It wasn’t just the size and shape of an obol, it had the markings of the Imperial Mint on one side, and the family crest of House Nellens on the other. I gave Master Adan a sharp look. “You know, I’ve heard stories about unscrupulous types who know how to counterfeit obols out of a type of treated glass. You DO know that forging the seal of the Imperial Mint is a Death offense?”
Master Adan gave me a feral grin. “Why do you think I used the crest of House Nellens? Being a Solar Exalt is an automatic death penalty, so why should I worry about a trifle like that? Besides, it was the only mold that I had that fit the bill.”
“Did you make many bogus obols with that thing?”
“No,” he sighed, “never got the formula for the glass right. Made a few that were good enough to short-change a minor crime boss, but I never made any that were good enough to pass in a market in broad daylight. And if you can’t do that, well then, what’s the point?”
“I still don’t see why *I* have to be the bait,” Arrek muttered as we walked through the ill-lit night streets.
“Because,” I said patiently, “the Bloody Hand knows who you are. It knows that you’re legitimate prey.”
“It also knows that I’m a skinwalker.”
“Which will mean that you’ll be all that more tempting a target.”
“Which means that it won’t do squat, unless it knows someone who’s tough enough to kill a Lunar.”
“It’s a hunter; it won’t be able to resist seeing someone like you die. But it won’t rat you out to the Satrap; that wouldn’t be murder. No, it would arrange things so that someone would specifically murder you.”
“That doesn’t change anything!”
“What will be different, will be that *I* will be there, unseen, to keep you safe!” I patted Arrek on the shoulder, “The Bloody Hand will probably just set one of its band of usual suspects on you, and use its spirit charms to give them the upper hand. But, when it shows its bloody hand, I’ll capture it; once that happens, the advantage will be all yours.”
“And how am I supposed to make sure that it does anything?” he snarled.
I admit it, he had me at a loss there. Well, they say that the best way to handle a problem is usually to make it someone else’s problem. “Not to worry,” I breezed, “I have faith in your ingenuity. You’ll figure something out.” I ducked into an alley, and was up in the garrets before he could protest. He scowled up at me, but he kept walking.
I have to give Arrek this- his solution to catching the Bloody Hand’s attention was inspired: he just walked up to the skull set into the mortar-work and pissed on it. Then he scrawled a goose over the red print of a hand, when the rest of the wall didn’t have a mark on it. Yep, I gotta hand it to him; that should work. Spirits have NO sense of humor about that sort of thing.
Having done that, Arrek fastened his front and strolled off with an arrogant strut that would have irked the Bloody Hand, even if the ‘golden shower’ hadn’t. As expected, I followed Arrek through the ill-lit streets of the Dyer’s district of Keldon, as he hit one dive after another. Well into the wee hours, Arrek was beginning to weave a little, and I rather doubt that he was playacting. He must have put away a LOT of booze to get that bad. Exalts aren’t immune to getting drunk, but it takes a powerful punch to stagger our senses. He must have put away enough put a squad of backwoodsmen under the table.
Then there was a shriek in the night, and sure enough, there went Arrek to play the valiant hero.
Strangely enough, it seemed that the scream was real enough. A gang of five toughs had cornered a small ragged family of three- a couple and a daughter who looked to be all of five or six, depending on how well fed she was. The thugs had the man down on the ground, and they were ripping at the woman’s clothing.
Arrek came barreling out of the night, and bull-rushed the largest of the thugs into two of his compatriots. Then he lit into the two remaining ones while he still had the element of surprise. He was sober enough to manage to stay in his fully human form and use his Lunar charms on those hooligans.
Then, the expected finally happened. The light went blurry, and the sound was muffled as all of the actors in this two-bit tableau faded from sight. Still, I could hear a few screams from the hidden drama; I recognized a few of them as Arrek’s. Very well, it needs to be there, it needs to watch…
There! Lurking in a shadow (of course), was a hunched over figure with rapacious eyes and a gloating mouth, rubbing its hands in anticipation. I glided down, and speared it dead center with the Spirit-Cutting Attack. But I did use that to cram the Bloody Hand into the ersatz yasal crystal.
Damned thing wouldn’t go in! Well, at least not all the way, like it should. Still, even as it was flailing away, trying to pull completely free of the crystal, the Bloody Hand lost control of its powers. The scene in the alleyway suddenly snapped into crystal clarity. Or, at least as clear as its going to get, in this part of town at this time of night. Arrek was in his Man-Bear form and he was bleeding, but he had three of the thugs down on the ground. The two others were baiting him, setting him up for their real heavy hitter. Dancing just behind Arrek was the little girl, a silver knife in each hand and a vicious grin on her face.
I lashed out with my Eagle Claw and pulled her out from behind Arrek. Nasty little snip managed to hold onto her knives. I had to rap her head against a brick wall a few times to get her to drop them. "H- Who are you?” the Bloody Hand quavered.
“I am the Strix; I rule the Night. You hunt in my Night on sufferance. You will tell me things, or suffer.”
“W-what could a simple gutter-spirit such as I tell a Prince of the Earth?”
“Some time ago, a girl named Vallare Thyrelle was slaughtered.”
“Ah, sweet, sweet Thyrelle…”
I twisted my hand within the spirit’s mass. “Tell me about the men who kidnapped her and cut her throat.”
“Alas, I cannot...” I prepared another ‘Spirit-Cutting Attack’. “I was not there!” It wailed, “I am not welcome in the homes of the wealthy and powerful!”
“But you just admitted that you knew Vallare Thyrelle,” I pointed out.
“It was hidden from me by puissant magics!” It screamed, “But there was another killing that you would want to know of! A wonderfully wretched killing, both a betrayal and a bloodbath!” The foul thing shuddered in delighted remembrance.
Well, it might be something worth knowing. “Tell me more.”
“Would you leave me and my darling be, to play our little games in the dark, oh Prince of the Night?”
“I’ll do the right thing.”
“The Cult of the Black Dragon has been prowling around in your night for weeks, but now they only prowl in the darkness of the Underworld. Down to the last, all save one, they died like sheep in an abattoir. One of their own poisoned them, cut the names of iniquities in their gullets, and then he slit their throats. It took HOURS, hours of lovely, delicious carnage! He killed them all, his sworn brothers and sisters, washing the floors of the courtyard with their blood! Every Bloody Hand in Keldon watched and cheered him on!”
“And WHY would he go to all that effort, just for the entertainment of you slaughterhouse rats?”
“He did it to open a door that should best be kept shut. He opened a door to the Underworld.”
“Rubbish. There’s no way that the Geomancers of Keldon wouldn’t notice the formation of a Shadowland, no matter how small, within the city walls.”
“Not a Shadowland! Just a door, which opened, let the Princes of Death and their minions through, and shut.”
“Princes of Death? In Keldon?” I snarled through my owl-mask, “WHERE?”
The Bloody Hand smirked and gave me the name of an estate in one of the better parts of town. “Well, most honored Prince of the Night? May I and my darling go now?”
I pulled the Bloody Hand completely from the yasal crystal. Then I used the ‘Spirit-Cutting Attack’ to tear it apart, sending its essence to the Four Corners of the world.
As the Bloody Hand screamed its last, the urchin shrieked, “Auntie Mayhem!”
Arrek, who had long since dealt with the two remaining desperados, grabbed her and pulled her up off her feet. He glowered at me, “You said that you’d do the right thing.”
“I did.” I took the guttersnipe from him and held her up to my mask. She had the face of an angel, and the eyes of a sewer rat. “Hear me, little one- I am the Strix. I rule the night.” I pressed the tip of my finger against her forehead and inscribed the glyph for ‘repent’ on her brow. “Your ‘Auntie Mayhem’ is no more. I have placed my mark upon you. You will no longer play bloody games in the night with people without skins. The night is MY domain, and it isn’t yours to play in anymore.” I spent essence, burning my message into her mind. I dropped her roughly to the ground. “GO! Play in the sunlight, and be thankful that the Unconquered Sun will accept you!”
The guttersnipe scrambled, but paused over her silver knives. She looked down at them, and then back at me. I glowered at her. She paled, whimpered and skittered off into the shadows. “You’re just going to let that vicious little shrew go?” Arrek asked.
“She has my mark on her brow. She will feel it, every time that she tries to get away with anything.”
Arrek gave me a worried look. “You can really do that?”
I smiled under my mask. “Not really. But she doesn’t know that.”
“Why did you tear that spirit apart, when you said that you’d spare it?”
“I never said that I’d spare it; I said that I’d do the right thing. In this case, the right thing was to destroy a spirit that corrupted little children.”
“But the girl-”
“Really, Arrek! First you growl at me for destroying a foul spirit, then you want me to kill a little girl, who didn’t realize what she was doing! If you’re going to make noises that you’re my conscience, at least try for some rational consistency!”
The body that had belonged to Asrith Den’Lon led a heavily muffled figure past the cemetery guard. They picked their way through the cenotaphs and momento mori to the largest tomb, which belonged to House Seles, the Prince’s family. As befits the final repose of a Satrap, the crypt was large, ornate, of the finest materials, and placed on an extremely auspicious locale. As befits the pretensions of an upstart house, Satrap or not, the crypt claimed far more land than it needed; the interior was large enough for a good-sized crowd of ‘mourners’. Two bizarre figures that looked like spiders with human bodies and eight arms instead of legs squatted beside the huge wrought-iron double-doors to the crypt. They scuttled to open the immense portal for them without being told to.
The heavily wrapped figure stepped inside, pulled back its hood to reveal a blank ivory mask, and looked about. Ranks of desiccated zombies in combat armor lined the walls of the crypt, three-deep. The more active members were going over papers and instruments on camp tables. The coffin had been removed from the main sepulchre’s dais, and The General in Command of the Monstrous Regiment of Crows lounged on a couch placed in its stead. The figure looked about and said in a silky yet lifeless voice, “A necropolis as a base of operations. How… original…”
The Madcap Juggler of Skulls looked down at the figure from where he was laying on his back atop a high-mounted funereal urn, playing with a cat’s cradle. He held up a golden skull, which drawled in a deep languid voice, “Heavy robes and a face mask as a disguise. How… subtle...”
“It may be trite,” the Physicker with the Cure for All Diseases droned, “but it is necessary. This is the only place within the reaches of Keldon where the Entropic energies of our very presence in the city will be unremarkable. Secrecy requires our removal to this place, and cessation of all Essence-based works. This is most inconvenient and inexpedient.”
“Yes,” the General snarled from his perch on the couch, “it seems that every Geomancer in Keldon is industriously casting about for all that he’s worth. Apparently, a SOLAR EXALT of the Night Caste showed up on Your Watch! And it’s the only hope that they have of finding him.” The General walked down from the dais and gave a courtly bow. “I greet you, Grail of Bitter Gall. Give me your report.”
The Grail of Bitter Gall returned his bow. “I greet you, General in Command of the Monstrous Regiment of Crows. The appearance of the Iron Wolf in our midst is most unfortunate and unexpected. However, not all the news is bad. First, from what I’ve learned from his fellows, the Solar, one Kaellis Rennar, only Exalted a few days ago. He has little experience with his new powers, and less idea of what to do with them. Also, he has a band of Dragonbloods who know him and his ways from long experience; two of them are blood relations, and are bound by family honor to hunt him down. Furthermore, I have it arranged so that the Imperial Legion, who would be more effective in the countryside, are employed in the city, hunting him. Also, the City Watch, who might be more effective hunting him here in the city, are tied up hunting down the remnants of the Bear Cult out in the woods. I was working to convince Prince Avrall that he would have gained greater prestige from hunting down the Anathema with his own forces without the Wyld Hunt, when I received your summons.”
The General grunted, “Nice to hear that you haven’t been laying about, painting your toenails. What of the Hearthstone, and the Voice of the Lantern of Emerald Flame?”
“I lost control of the play in setting the Dragon-Cubs against the Bear Emperor. The Stone and the Voice became pieces in the game, and they were lost to Kaellis Rennar when he exalted.”
“WHAT?” the General squawked, “What good are all those charts and calculations that we had the Black Dragons make, without the most important pieces that we will need to find the Underground Palace?”
“What of it?” The Thorn of the Crypt Rose asked, “It just makes hunting down this Kaellis Rennar more important. We have him, we have the hearthstone, we have the Voice.”
The Juggler dangled the silvery skull down, and it jeered in a high squeaky voice, “Oooo... Yes, YES! KILL him! KILL the Solar Champion, whose soul will go straight back to the Unconquered Sun! After all, he will NATURALLY be carrying the hearthstone on him, and the box with the voice, and a map of the Underground Palace, and a list of all his friends and loved ones, complete with directions to their houses! After all, EVERYONE goes about with their greatest treasures in their hip pocket, don’t they?”
“The Solar Exalt is predictable enough;” the Physicker droned, “use him as a scapegoat and smokescreen, while we perform the necessary rituals to find the Underground Palace.”
“It strikes me,” the Grail of Bitter Gall offered, “that while everyone’s so busy searching for him concentrating within the city walls, that this is the perfect time to operate OUTSIDE the city walls, taking care of certain other factors.”
“OR, we could USE this Kaellis Rennar to do our dirty work!” The Juggler gleefully suggested in his own voice. He did an acrobatic tumble from his perch to just behind the Physicker with the Cure for all Diseases, and emerged as a perfect duplicate of the Daybreak Abyssal. In a perfect mimicry of the Physicker’s icy monotone he continued, “this way, we can perform the bloodiest of atrocities in plain sight, thus urging the Satrap, the Legion, and even the wretched masses of Keldon to hunt him down. Once he is captured, the Grail of Bitter Gall can recover the stone and the Voice.”
“Oh Yes!” The Thorn of the Crypt Rose snapped, “JUST what we need! That will draw the Wyld Hunt like sharks to blood in the water! It will take months to be rid of them!”
“And that’s if the Masters of the Hunt don’t decide to take both the hearthstone and the Voice as their due,” the Grail added morosely.
“Calibration draws near,” the Physicker suggested, “it might be useful to summon a powerful Demon of the Second Circle, and release it to run amok in the city.”
As four of his five lieutenants bickered among themselves as to the best strategy, the General gritted his teeth and strummed his fingers on one armrest of his couch. As their arguments grew louder, a storm crossed his face, until he was about to lose his temper. Then, suddenly, his face went blank with inspiration.
The General threw back his head and cackled like a baying hyena. All the shadows in the crypt suddenly became as a storm cloud of cawing crows, drowning out the squabbling of the four Abyssals. After a bit, the General’s laughter ebbed to a hooting giggle. “Oh yes,” he sighed as he lit his brass pipe and blew a stream of smoke from it, “I have JUST the stratagem.”
At least this time, the place of Evil was in a decent neighborhood. I had to go alone; ‘Auntie Mayhem’ had taken the precaution of making sure that her little darling had been armed with silver knives, so Arrek wasn’t going to just shrug off those cuts he’d gotten. I got him back to Master Arrek, and left him to suffer through having those wounds stitched up.
The Bloody Hand had said that the Black Dragons had been killed, all of them, by one of their own. This put an entirely new spin on the killing of Vallare Thyrelle; after all, the Mock Dragons were stirring things up too much as it was to outrage the elite of Keldon that way. On the other hand, if one of the Deathlords, ‘the Princes of Death’, were involved, well that was precisely their style. Come to think of it, killing the entire troop of Black Dragons was right up their street as well. Still, either the charts and information that they’d collected on the Geomantic layout of Keldon was still in there, or there might be something that I could use to track down their killers- and the information.
The only real problem with getting into the place was getting close to it unseen. If the bourgeois of Keldon protected themselves and their wealth like this, I’ll never be hurting for money. The house was laid out in the Arselen style, with two country-style ‘block houses’ connected by two token galleries, to form the square in which the central courtyard was set. The ‘front house’ was where the family lived, and that was where I found the stack of scrolls.
Stack of scrolls.
Please! How obvious can you GET? Indeed, it’s a little too obvious…
Yeeesss… there was the tripwire to the trap, just where I was supposed to find it… You’d have to be simple, NOT to see that and figure out how to get around it. So, the real trap has to require that you disengage the tripwire and… what?
Well, nothing was obvious- aside from the tripwire, of course- so, I decided if I could try to see if I could figure out how to use Essence to solve this. I danced my fingers through the opening parts of one of the focusing mudras that Master Adan had taught me, and I could see Essence flowing through everything. I took the Pearl in its setting in the clasp of my cloak and waved it about the scrolls. Yes, there it was, like a single strand of spidersilk. A bare wisp of Essence trailing off, rather like the one that I’d found attached to the hilt of my daiklave. Once I’d got back to Master Adan’s lair after ditching my daiklave, I’d kicked myself for not following that trail back to whomever had laid it; of course, I’d just barely escaped with my life and I was rather laden, but still, missed opportunities rankle me something fierce.
So, careful not to touch it, I followed the scant trail over the rooftops. With a few detours and stops as I lost the thread and had to find it again, I found the source of thread. It was attached to the leather girdle of a girl. And, she was a girl worth remarking on. She was tall, lithe and athletic, yet with all the right curves in all the right places. Her pale skin set off her long curling red hair, which was pulled back into a club, but framed an exquisite oval face with strong angular features and large almond shaped green eyes. All in all, she was a girl to start fights in bars- and salons- and the corridors of power. She was dressed in the briefest of hunting shifts, which seemed to be more of a costume for a risqué Cynis house skit about the Dragonblooded prince and the naughty huntress, than something to go out into the woods in. The refuting notes to that notion were the large ominous black metal powerbow slung over her shoulder, the large quiver of very serious arrows at her hip, and the pair of even more ominous spiked black metal gauntlets that reached up to and past her shoulders. However playful the rest of her may have seemed, they were in deadly earnest.
She was crouched on the roof of a row house in one of the seedier parts of town, peering down into the street, bow in hand, arrow nocked and ready. She was tense, all her concentration focused on the street below. There was some commotion in the street, and she drew the arrow on her bow and readied her shot. Well, isn’t she the busy little bee? Hunting someone else, while she’s fishing for me.
Well, being a Night Caste is supposed to be about seizing the moment, or so I gather, so I seized the moment to gather all the arrows from her quiver with my Eagle’s Claw, just as she was about to shoot. As planned, this startled her, caused her shot to go wild, and almost knocked her off the roof. As she fell, she reflexively slung her bow over her shoulder, caught the edge of the roof, and kept herself from going completely off the roof. With barely a pause, she flipped herself back up onto the roof, had her bow back off her shoulder and aimed it at me. “In case you hadn’t noticed, you don’t have any arrows, Sweetheart.”
“Why, you’re right!” She said in a lovely sweet voice, “Silly me!” She let fly with a bolt of almost pure darkness that formed right in the bow. I just barely managed to avoid the bolt, and it gouged a large chunk out of the masonry of the wall that I ducked behind. And she had more where that came from. She had me doing a lively jig on that rooftop, always careful to keep me from getting close enough to use my claws, and she seemed to know exactly how to get around my Eagle Claw. Very well, time for a change of venue.
She had me down on the tiles so I deliberately rolled off the edge of the roof. I dropped like a rock, and only opened my owl-cloak a few feet off the cobblestones. I lightly touched down, and was into shadows of an alley in a trice.
I immediately ran into something that stood like a man, but had six arms like a spider. It grappled me, and I got a good look at its face. It wasn’t alive, and it hadn’t been alive in a long time. The skin over its face was wrinkled and leathery, and covered the skull like a layer of wet paper. The hollow eye sockets had the dark glow of undeath. I was so revolted that I practically flowed out of its grasp.
Oh, wonderful! It has friends! I cartwheeled out of the alley, back into the streets, but the Huntress above was using the street as an archery gallery. I managed to use them against each other, so that the Huntress’ bolts took out a couple of the spider-things. But they quickly got their act together, and the spider-things ringed me so that the Huntress could get a clear shot from above. I could sense her setting and aiming for a clear kill shot.
On my command, Bop swooped down and knocked her off the edge of the roof. The darkness bolt that she’d been preparing went wild, and took out the base of the wall that two of the spider-things were standing in front of, burying them. The Huntress managed to land on her feet, holding her powerbow on high. I wrestled the bow from her, and threw it high in the air, where Bop caught it on the fly.
“So, can you form a BOW out of shadows, pretty lady?” I jeered at her.
“Not yet,” she admitted as she spared a second watching Bop fly off with her bow. She reached to her girdle, and pulled out something that unfolded and telescoped out into a trident. “That just means that I’ll have to risk getting this outfit dirty.” She flickered something with her left hand, as the spider-things started leaping like giant fleas. I lashed out with my Eagle Claw, caught one of them on the fly, and whipped it into the path of whatever she was dishing out. A fine net made out of whisper-thin lines of darkness shot forward from the gauntlet and ensnared the spider thing.
She turned it around and used the ensnared thing as a bludgeon. She took out a wall with it as she tried to hit me, and I ducked inside what turned out to be a joiner’s shop. The spider-things crawled in after me, and then it got really weird.
Out of the shadows, a hungry ghost screamed out, its face a demonic mask of rage, its hands vaporous claws. It flew at one of the spider-things, upsetting their cooperation to the point where I was able to use them against each other. The ghost helped, ripping at the seams that kept them together.
Now, I admit that I wasn’t on exactly on my best game. I was expecting the ghost to come after me before it would start ripping up another one of the Dead; if nothing else, it should have come after me, as I was warmer that the eight-arms. I mention this, because as I was pinning one of the man-spiders to the floor with a table-leg, I got caught in the huntress’ net. The hungry ghost paused, and resolved into a well-formed young woman of great beauty, along the lines as you find in the East. Then, she melted back into the wraith-like horror, and attacked the net that bound me. Her talons ripped the ethereal snare to bits, and then, with effort, pulled back.
The Huntress pulled back in surprise, looking at the tatters of her netting. Well, I admit it, I was surprised as well, but I recovered first, and used the unexpected reprieve to bag the carrot-topped bitch with my Eagle Chain.
“Hah! GOT You!” I exulted. “Now, exactly who- and what are YOU-” I looked for the ghost, who had disappeared into the darkness.
The Huntress took advantage of my lapse of attention. She took a deep breath, held it for a second. A large bloody sore opened on her forehead, and she let out a cloud of sparkling purplish vapor. She caught me by surprise, but my mask kept most of it out of my mouth and nose. I paused, ready to apply my Essence to counter whatever poison she’d just spewed out, and to my surprise, there was no affect! No stinging in the eyes, no burning in the nose, no odd taste in my mouth. I laughed triumphantly.
But then I saw the look in her eyes. She was… so cute! So helpless… So desirable… I dropped my chain, letting her loose and sweeping her up in my arms. I lifted my mask up and crushed my lips against hers. She wrapped her arms around my neck and leaned into it. Her exquisite flesh was cool against mine, but I didn’t care. At least, I didn’t until I felt a familiar chill run through my bones. She pulled back, a wanton smile on her lips. “Your lips are so warm…” She purred. “I could just nestle up to them all night. But, the General wants to have a few harsh words with you, and what the little man wants, he usually gets.” She let out dismissive chortle and pulled back. “I am SO going to ram this down the Juggler’s snickering throat.” She playfully flicked at something dangling around my throat. “Well, the little fish got away, but I caught the big fish. So, who cares?”
As she stepped away, I felt my strength leave my limbs and I began to sag. “Drat. You’re too big and heavy for me to take home, and you so inconsiderately took all my minions apart. Men! Live or Dead, you’re all nothing but trouble! I’ll just have to leave you here, and get someone to haul you back.”
She looked around. “Still, I can’t just leave you lying in the gutter. The Unborn alone know what all will come along and find you. So…” she gestured, and a thick column of dark vines shot up out of the street, bearing us up to the roof. The vines wrapped themselves around me, lashing me to the rooftop. As if I could move, with that thing, which felt exactly like the reliquary that Mykiros had used on me, hanging around my neck. The more I tried to draw on my strength, the more it deserted me. “Well, ta ta! Now, don’t you go anywhere, all right?” She gave me a mocking kiss and went skipping across the rooftops.
When she was well away, Bop flew down and tried to pull the damned thing from my neck, but it sapped her strength as well as mine. Then there was another chill in the air, and the hungry ghost swirled up to assume her from in front of me. I steeled myself for her frigid bite, but instead of clawing at me for the warmth in my blood, the shambling horror pulled itself back together into the form of a lovely young woman, who picked at the chain around my neck.
Together, Bop and the ghost-girl managed to wrestle the chain from my neck. It fell to the roof, slid, fell off the edge, and there was a juicy splash. The ghost-girl looked over the edge. *It fell into a rain barrel. I don’t envy whoever drinks of that brew.*
I breathed hard for a while, and focused on how I’d get out of the vines. I barely had enough energy to think straight, let alone break my bonds. Then the ghost girl took my dagger from my belt and whacked at the vines until they gave.
I fell to my knees and looked up at her wispy form. “H- who are you?” I asked.
*I am Asrith Den’Lon, sworn to the service of the River Dragon*
“Why would the Black Dragon want to help me?”
*I do not do this at my divine master’s command. I do it out of necessity and a desire to wreck vengeance upon the foul murderer who slew me and my brothers and sisters in the Faith*
“Yes,” I gasped, “that sounds like a ghost all over. And the young lovely who just left was a part of that?
*Aye, our blood and our pain opened the door that let her and her comrades in arms into Keldon*
“She’s a Death Knight? Talk about playing against the stereotype!” The ghost-girl glowered at me. “And what do you want, in exchange for getting that thing off of me?”
“Oh, of course, what else do ghosts want? Aside from blood, that is-” I was in the middle of a smart remark, when she shuddered, and her exquisite features melted into a skull or a second, and she leered at me with primordial hunger. Then she shuddered again, and she was back to herself. “Aaannnddd… what was THAT all about?”
*I have been dead for more than three days. My soul should have separated into higher and lower components, the higher soul going on, and the lower becoming a hungry ghost*
“Yes, that’s how it normally goes, true. And WHY are your twin souls still stuck together, which is what I’m guessing is going on here?”
*THIS!* she gestured dramatically at her midsection. I barely recognized the glowing ghastly red characters as the Old Realm glyphs for ‘Deceitful Whore’, which was carved into her stomach.
“Owch.” I winced. “Even for a ghost, that’s GOTTA hurt.”
*It keeps my spirit from resolving into the higher and lower souls, and allows me no sort of rest. I am constantly on guard, keeping my lower soul from taking possession.*
This night just keeps getting weirder and weirder. This girl was simultaneously a valuable ally and an invaluable source of information, and a deadly threat from her worse half, which was as foul a spirit as the Bloody Hand which had…
Hold the boat! I fished around in my belt and fished out Master Adan’s mock yasal crystal. “I may have something that can help you. BUT, my help does come with a price tag.”
*You already owe me your life, Nightbringer*
“Yes, I know. Lend an ear. Or whatever. I want your oath that if I help you with your little problem, that you’ll give me whatever information that you have on the woman that just left here, that thing that she hung around my neck, and anything that pertains to this matter. And, you’ll lend whatever aid you might have to the effort. AND, when this is all said and done, that you’ll allow yourself to be exorcised, and go to your final peace.”
*And what do YOU offer for these oaths?*
“My promise to bring the bitch and her pack of jackals low, and a place of refuge.” I held up the yasal crystal. “Enter this crystal, and force your lower self into it. That should help a bit.” She started to enter the crystal, but I stopped her, and screwed the oath out of her. She in return got me to promise to get the Huntress and her morbid band of ghouls. Then she entered the crystal, and I drew on my pearl clasp, which had been hidden from the Huntress because I routinely hide it in a fold of my cloak, to power the binding.
The lower soul screamed like a caged wildcat, but Asrith herself floated over the crystal in a smaller form. *It… it doesn’t hurt!*
“Why would it?”
*Before, being tied to my lower self like that… it was agony! But now… it doesn’t hurt!*
You know that someone’s been hurting, when they wonder at the absence of pain.
Cursing myself for a fool for not realizing that I could draw on the hearthstone for power, I painfully used my Eagle’s Claw to lower myself to the street, and made my way slowly back to Jade Hill.