Anathema (Part 5)
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.
Down The Rabid Hole
We had just stepped up to the plaque to get a look at what the Raksha had to say about their little diorama, when the ground opened up under our feet. We barely had time to yelp before we dropped into a long rounded tunnel. I was just wishing that I’d brought my owl-cloak along, when the tunnel sharply turned, bouncing Arrek and me around like dice in a cup. Our gathered goods separated and we all sort of clattered around a bit as more twists and turns kept us rattled. Finally, we were sort of spat out of a mouth into a vague open area. I felt myself falling, and looking down, I saw a light come rising up and a patch of definition around the light. Whipping out my Eagle Claw, I yelled, “Arrek! Grab my legs!”
I threw the grapple down, snagged something and retracted the chain. As we passed the light, I got a glimpse of a balcony with upholstered seats, a dessert and wine cart, and some lit candles. I’d snagged the balcony’s railing. I let the chain stretch the second that I felt us hit its end. As planned (or whatever), the chain spent our dropping motion and we were able to come to a slower stop than the deadfall’s designers intended. “Arrek!” I called, “Are you all right?”
“I don’t know,” he replied with a choked voice. “Ask me again when my breakfast goes back to where it’s supposed to be.” We clambered up the chain to the balcony and sprawled on the floor until we got our breath back. “Where are we?”
“I think that we’re in the Freehold,” I answered.
“The Freehold?” he asked, his voice touched with fear.
“Can you think of anyone except the F… er ‘Good People,’ who’d stitch big yellow daisies onto purple damask upholstery?”
Then Arrek remembered something important. “My Axe!” He leaned over the railing and looked down into the… whatever it was. “I heard metal clanging a few seconds after we stopped. This must be a pit of some sort, and it stops a ways down. We have to go get it!”
I picked up one of the candleholders and looked down into the pit. “Gruesome isn’t it?” asked the candleholder. I looked at it. There was a humanoid face worked into the metal of the holder, which looked at me with supercilious amusement.
The candleholder. Is talking. To me.
Now I KNOW that we’re in the rutting Freehold.
Remembering my task, I looked back down into the pit. And yes, it was slightly nasty. There were dozens of bodies in various stages of decomposition down there. And yet, as I looked down, it seemed oddly… orderly. Most of the bodies were stacked in a neat pile, and there were four bodies arranged in a row, as if being readied for rescue - or burial. Indeed, the only disorderly things about the pit were the scraps of food here and there, and the various shining bits that we had just dropped.
“Shouldn’t you be down THERE?” the candleholder said in a way that suggested a major domo pointedly nudging a page to his proper station.
“You’re absolutely right,” I said respectfully. “Come Arrek, down we go!”
“Shall I send for the Lordships?” the candleholder asked. “Or would you prefer a few hours to languish and try to set broken bones?”
“No need to bother them, just yet,” I said with professional detachment. “You have to get these things set up right, or why bother? Come to think of it, depending on how things are down there, we might have to come back up and get things to get everything right.”
“Very well,” the candleholder sniffed.
Arrek and I took the candleholder with us as we slid down the chain to the bottom of the pit. The balcony was well within the range of the Eagle Claw, so I left it there in case we needed a quick exit. As Arrek gathered the things we’d dropped, I checked the bodies. “Interesting…”
“Yes, those lot over there were MOST ingenious,” Sir Sputterwick said pointing with his flame at the four set off by themselves. “Very cunning. Even with broken arms and legs they still assayed to bravely escape with their loot.”
“What they took off the other bodies. The Lordships were MOST entertained. Especially when the one in blue tried to purchase his freedom with unspeakable acts with one of the dead bodies.”
I checked the bodies, which looked as if they’d been there for a few decades - well, the bodies did. The clothing looked as if they’d landed there that morning. They were lying on thick blankets and they each had one splint or obvious attempt at first aid. The clothing was of good material and cut. Each of them had a jadesteel weapon close at hand and a bundle by their side.
On a hunch, I checked the bundles, and found that they contained three sets of jadesteel lamellar armor in different colors, and a set of blue jadesteel reinforced breastplate with matching greaves and vambraces. “They were Dragonbloods,” I noted aloud.
“Indeed,” agreed the Duke of Drippingwax. “We DO enjoy the show that Dragonbloods give when they drop in to perform. All sound and fury at first, then melancholy, giving way to despair and all leading up to the most delightfully venal pleading. Though this lot was especially diverting by their shows of courage and ingenuity.” It pointed at one wall, where one body was sprawled with a broken neck. His leg was splinted with a shoklave. There was a line of spikes driven into the wall, leading about two-thirds of the way up to the balcony. The topmost spike had a rope threaded through the ‘eye’ at the free end. “HE distinguished himself greatly. He almost got out before he fell. You’ll have to do a lot to top THAT act.”
I examined the body. He was dressed in cotton padding, no doubt not wanting to weigh himself down with his real armor, and he had something clenched fiercely in his teeth. Prizing it from his jaws, it turned out to be a map written in something’s blood on a parchment of something’s skin, all wrapped around a small plaque of blue jade worked in characters of a metal that I heavily suspected to be orichalcum. There were bits and pieces of other materials that I was equally sure were other magical metals. The characters were in the hieroglyphs of Old Realm. It was a prayer card of some sort, but for the life of me, I couldn’t make out what it was for. Still, it had to be near and dear to the climber’s heart (or more likely instinct for self-preservation) for him to want it immediately at hand that way. Nearby was a hammer of cold iron. Despite the fact that he had three satchels packed full near the base of his line of pitons all tied to lines, obviously to be hoisted up to the balcony, he was carrying a very heavy sack on his belt. When I checked the sack, it was full of various pieces of metal. “Arrek, I think I’ve figured out what that business with the deadfall was about. It was designed to trigger whenever anyone carrying cold iron stepped on it.”
“Well, of course! Why would they drop someone who wasn’t carrying it down here?” Lord Luminary asked in a perfect example of fairy logic.
I sighed and collected the Dragonblood’s weapons and bundles into a larger bundle with one of the blankets. “More swag?” Arrek snidely said as he spun his new Grand Grimcleaver toy around, marveling at how something so big and heavy was so light in his hands (and ONLY his hands).
“Of course!” I replied. “Didn’t you hear what this worthy said? We have a high standard to meet! Simple escape just won’t DO! We have to make off with a priceless treasure! And this lot is as priceless was we’re likely to get!” I looked at the candleholder. “That IS, unless there’s a priceless treasure that you happen to know about?”
“Of COURSE there’s a priceless treasure!” It huffed. “This is the Freehold of the FRABJOUS TULGE! Naturally we have a treasure that is envied and coveted by all discerning Raksha. REALLY!”
“And it would be awful, simply TRAGIC, a tragedy worthy of grand ballads, if that treasure should be stolen, now wouldn’t it?”
“Yes!” Baron Blazewick yelped. “The Lordships would be devastated! Quick! To the balcony before the Lordships arrive!”
Arrek and I hauled our booty, both the stuff that had come with us and the Dragonbloods’ haul, up to the balcony. Then I studied the map for a bit as Arrek gave me that ‘what are you doing, you over-bred idiot?’ look. “Here we are,” I said finding our location on the map. I turned to Prince Paraffin and asked, “So, where pray tell, is the Under-chancellor’s pantry?”
Five minutes later, Arrek and I bolted out of the Under-chancellor’s pantry and slammed the door shut, holding it with our backs. “WHY would the Under-chancellor keep a giant tar-spider in his pantry?”
“Well, what he does on his own time is his own affair,” the candleholder sniffed. “Besides, if he didn’t, his wife would find out about it.”
Consulting the map, we took a shortcut that should have been a ballroom, but which was instead a garden planted with dandelions, tiger lilies, snapdragons and the RUDEST aspidistra in Creation. Getting out of there as quickly as we could, we found ourselves in a vast library. “How can this be here?” Arrek asked. “It’s bigger than the entire tree!”
I was about to point out the folly of expecting rational dimensions within a Freehold, when HE walked up. He was at least as tall as Arrek, and built like a bull. He wore only a wolfskin loincloth, rude leather boots, a horned helmet, and wrist bracers. His arms and chest burst with iron thews, but he moved with a pantherish grace. With a square-cut mane of black hair, sullen-eyed, he was the very picture of a barbarian, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, come to tread the jeweled thrones of Creation under his sandaled feet. He strode up to us, contemptuous and unafraid, raised his finger to his lips and said, “SHH!” Then he returned his attention to a stack of books, which he stamped as having been returned with pantherish grace.
Edging carefully away from him, we looked around the library. It was a book-lover’s wet dream. It rose up at least three levels, with mezzanines and balconies and elaborate ladder systems for getting to hard to reach places. Bookcases rose up like canyon walls, and luridly decorated tomes peeked at us from the shelves with avid eyes. “Read me!” one of the books offered eagerly. “Tales of danger and adventure to thrill the blood!”
“Yes, the danger is in listening to you, the adventure would be shutting you again and the blood that’s thrilled will be the monsters that you unleash. Thank you, no thank you!”
The books all pleaded with us to read them.
“Tales of wit and humor!”
“Romantic stories of love and passion!”
“Gory tales of disgusting murders, complete with nasty bits!”
“Scandalous slanders against pious and revered figures!”
“Lurid details of horrific crimes against decency and propriety!”
“Epic stories of dewy young boys who gain strange and unnatural powers that turn them into lissome young girls, all at a boarding school for just such deviants!”
Arrek curled his lip in disgust at the last offer. That even the FAE should offer such rubbage! The large brute walked over with pantherish grace and shushed us again. We walked around, looking for the door that the map said should be there. Of course, the map didn’t mention anything about a library being here, or that garden…
Then I noticed one very large book set open on a pedestal, complete with the obligatory shining light emitting from its pages. Curiosity will kill me one of these days. That is, if greed doesn’t get me first. I poked a nose at it, and it seemed to be a normal book set out in a surprisingly neat, concise and logical manner. Neat? Concise? Logical? In a FEY book? “Pardon, Don Dripwit, but what exactly IS this book?” I asked the candleholder.
“Why, it’s the Book of Rules, of course!”
“This Freehold has a book of rules?” Arrek asked, aghast at the notion.
“Ah,” I said with a smile, getting the joke, “how can you flout the rules, if there aren’t any rules to flout, eh?”
“Don’t be redickle-dockle,” it sniffed. “Of COURSE we obey the rules! What would be the point of wheedling around fine points of logic, if the rules weren’t arbitrarily fixed and unyielding, requiring such wheedling to get anything done?”
“’Fixed and unyielding’?” Arrek asked, peering at the book. “This clause just came out of nowhere!” He touched the page, and an entire paragraph stuck to his finger and came off the page when he removed his finger. It clung there for a second like a drop of syrup. The letters splattered a bit when they hit the page again, but they reconfigured themselves into a new restriction against touching the Book of Rules without washing one’s hands first.
“Well of COURSE it changed!” Baron Beespit maintained. “It’s only a few weeks before Calibration, and the Summer War Season is winding down. We only have so many days of dragging our feet before the Week (more or less) of Chaos and Confusion is upon us! It must be as firm, rigid, and oppressive as it possibly can!”
“Excellent point,” I said, closing the book and tucking it under my arm.
“What are you DOING?” Senator Singethumb bleated, “That’s the only Book of Rules that we HAVE!”
“Of course it is,” I said in a calming voice as I picked the candleholder up again. “And we’re going to NEED it, if we’re going break the rules intelligently and with as much confusion and conflict as possible.”
“Ah! Good Point!”
“What do you want with the Book of Rules?” another weighty tome asked. “I’m the Book of the Future! All things yet to come are in my pages! If you would know what your future holds, open me and look within!”
With a broad smile, I took the Book of the Future and tucked it under my arm next to the Book of Rules. Arrek started to ask me something, but I gave him a gentle kick on the shin to silence him. I took the books to the front counter, where the sullen-eyed savage was stamping books with pantherish grace. “I’d like to check these out, please.” I set the books on the counter, with the Book of the Future on top.
“Do you have a subscription?” he asked with gigantic mirth mixed with gigantic melancholy.
“It’s in the top book.” He picked the book up with pantherish grace, opened it and looked for the subscription card. The book opened its pages wide, formed them into a huge fanged mouth and swallowed him with a single gulp. It shrank back down to book size immediately and asked, “And how about YOU? Would you like to know what YOUR future is?”
“Well, I’m pretty sure that if I open you, my destined future is to be eaten by a book.”
“Well, losing yourself in a good book IS one of the occupational hazards of the librarian’s trade,” the candleholder admitted.
“I don’t think that that was such a good idea, rich boy,” Arrek said. “I think that the librarian was the only thing keeping the books in order.”
“So a few things get mis-shelved! D’you think anyone will notice?”
“That’s NOT what I meant by ‘in order’.” Arrek pointed at the wall of books, which were crawling off their shelves. “I think that we should leave…”
“Excellent notion,” I agreed. “I think that my reading is about to catch up with me. Let’s see if there’s a doorway or something on the map…”
“This entire LIBRARY isn’t on that map!”
“Yes!” I held up the map and said, “Hold on, you’re in the wrong part of the house!” Yes, I admit, it was a feeble, desperate bluff, but desperate bluffs have worked against the Fey before… As I held up the map, that white jade ‘prayer card’ dropped out, bounced on one corner as it hit the floor and gave out a musical chime. It glowed and rose up into the air. The rebellious tomes came to a shuddering halt and dropped to the floor in a heap. I looked at the Cavalier of Candle-grease, and it was as dumb as a doornail. Or, at least a doornail in simple Creation. Sol alone knows what doornails are like in Freeholds, and I’d just as soon not find out. Arrek spotted a door, and we were out of there and safely in the hall.
Well, at least we weren’t about to be dog-eared with extreme prejudice.
“What IS that thing?”
Closely examining it, I said, “Well, it looks like an Immaculate Prayer slip, only in Old Realm, and worked in the five magical metals - jade being foremost, reinforcing my ‘Immaculate’ guess. My guess is that it’s some sort of manifested Dragonblood charm against the wiles of the Fey. It reinforces the Laws of Creation, and fights the whims of the Gray Lords, preventing impossible things from happening.”
“Isn’t that a bit… convenient?” Arrek asked skeptically. “I mean, having something like that here in a Fa- er, Freehold?”
“Not when you think about it,” I said. “It was tucked away in this map of this freehold, and that other poor fool who fell into that oubliette thought that it was so important that he held it in his teeth while he climbed and didn’t let go, even when he fell. The only reason that those people were down there was because they had cold iron on them. They had cold iron on them because they knew that they were going to face the ‘Good Neighbors’. Why would they come here with only cold iron as protection? They had all sorts of dubious amulet against the Shy Ones; this one just happens to work.”
Arrek graciously allowed me the point, and I tucked the Jade Prayer into the pages of the Book of Rules. Maybe it will keep the halls of this place from changing like a flirt’s favor. That done, I roused Sir Scattershadow, and asked him what was the quickest way to violate the sanctum sanctorum of the Freehold and pilfer the Lords’ greatest treasure. Friar Flickering was only too glad to help and directed us to a grand sweeping wide spiral staircase that wound up.
Oh please. Fairy stairs. Did a turnip truck pass by just now?
I threw my Eagle Chain up as far as it could go, and Arrek grabbed onto me. I lifted us all with greater ease than I should have expected. We passed many more floors than we should have, and there were several fascinating personages and scenes on the stairs, any of which would have made for a wonderful fireside story.
Thank Sol I came up with this instead.
It was obvious where the treasure was. In keeping with fairy logic, it was behind the biggest, most ornate, gaudiest granite gate with glittering adamantine bars, and two large Raksha cataphracts standing rigidly at guard. One was obvious the Summer Lord’s man with a leonine head in blue glass armor, and the other probably the Flowers Ruler’s… whatever… with a unicorn’s head, all tricked out in daisies, both holding shining halberds and looking straight ahead, completely absorbed in their roles. For a moment, I thought that we could just walk past them, and they wouldn’t even notice it.
No such luck. “HO!” called the Bishop of Blisterfingers. “These scoundrels have come to pilfer the Lordship’s Great Treasure!”
“Not while breath remains in my body!” proclaimed the Lion cataphract, assuming a fighting posture, halberd at the ready. “I am sworn to defend the treasure at all costs! Nothing will dissuade me!”
The Unicorn cataphract started to move, but I cut him off, saying, “Brave words, Proud Warrior! But you are but ONE GUARD, and we are two bloody-handed thieves set on plunder!”
“Hold on a minute, I’m here too,” said the Unicorn cataphract.
Ignoring the horned impossibility, I continued. “Indeed, you must be a doughty champion, for your lords to leave you and ONLY you on guard for such a magnificent treasure!” The Lion cataphract pointed at his companion, and started to object, but then he saw the sheer drama implicit in the situation. After all, if it was two against two, well, then they were just doing their jobs! But if it was one lone guard against many (two can count as ‘many’, if you really want it to), well then, THAT was DRAMA!
“Though I be alone-” the Lion cataphract started.
“No you’re not!” The Unicorn complained.
“Yes I am!”
“I’m here too!”
“No, you’re NOT!”
“Who are you talking to?” Arrek asked.
“To ME!” the Unicorn whinnied.
“No one!” The Lion insisted brusquely. “It gets very lonely here at this post. Sometimes I hear things that aren’t there. But that is the price I must pay to keep my lonely vigil-”
“-with only my grim responsibilities to keep me company.”
I looked around suspiciously. “Is there someone else here?”
“YES!” the Unicorn bleated.
“NO!” the Lion insisted. “I, and I alone shall defeat you!”
“No, you WON’T, I’m here too, I’ll defeat BOTH of them, all by myself!”
“No, you won’t, you’re not here! I’m here alone, I’m always here alone, this is my SACRED DUTY, to stand here BY MYSELF-”
“’Sacred Duty’?” The Unicorn gritted its teeth. “Well then, if you’re always here BY YOURSELF, then you DIDN’T beat me at dice here three nights ago, and I DON’T owe you five woobies!”
“Yes you DO!”
“HOW? You were here ALONE, remember?”
“Well, I STILL beat you! I beat you at everything!”
“You beat WHO?” I asked.
“No One!” The Lion hastily dissembled.
“You always beat no one, yet you’re champion enough that the Lordships leave only you…”
Arrek made a ‘hsst!’ noise at the Unicorn. “He says that you’re no one.”
“Please,” I said officiously at the Unicorn, “since you obviously DON’T exist, then you’re NOT a part of this conversation, so will you please stop interrupting?”
“How can I not exist, if you’re talking to me?” the Unicorn insisted.
“He says that you’re no one,” I said pointing at the Lion. “Are you calling him a liar?”
“WHAT?” the Lion roared, “NO ONE calls me Liar!”
“Then I’m No One, ‘cause you’re a lying liar who lies!”
“Then you ADMIT that you’re No One, and then I’m not a liar, because if No One calls me liar, then… oh wait a minute…”
“But if I’m No One, then you are a liar, because no one is always RIGHT!”
“HAH! I’ve caught you in a fallacy!” The Lion pounced. “Because, No One is always WRONG! Therefore, you are wrong, and therefore you must be No One, because you are wrong, and therefore you don’t exist!”
“But if I’m No One, then you are a liar, because no one is always RIGHT!”
“HAH! I’ve caught you in a fallacy!” The Lion pounced. “Because, No One is always WRONG! Therefore, you are wrong, and therefore you must be No One, because you are wrong, and therefore you don’t exist!”
“No, No One is always WRONG, because every so often, somebody does something
Right, otherwise, nothing would ever get done!”
“Yes, that’s because SOMEONE does something right, not because NOBODY does something right, that’s pure common sense! Besides, if No One is always right, then why is it that when there’s a colossal cock-up, that No One is to blame?”
“I’ll PROVE that I exist!” the Unicorn bleated, “I’ll defeat you and prove that lying Lion is a liar, by beating him to it!”
“But that will prove nothing,” I pointed out. “If I’m dead then I can’t believe in you, and HE certainly won’t admit that anyone else killed us, so he’ll just say that he did it all by himself.”
“Which I WILL!”
“BUT, if I STOP him, then THAT will prove that I’m here!”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Of course it will prove it!”
“No, I mean that you’re there.”
“OF COURSE I’m here! Would I be this upset if I wasn’t here? Now just let me validate my entire reason for being here in the first place!”
“Excellent point,” I allowed. “Here’s your chance.”
The Lion roared and swung his halberd with a flourish, and the Unicorn parried it with his polearm and a clash, and they generally went at it with more verbiage and bravura than violence and bloodshed. Still, accidents will happen, and eventually they managed to actually hurt each other, though to be honest, I suspect that the words hurt more than the abrasions. The Lion soundly battered the Unicorn, but the Unicorn got in the last blow by butting the Lion, and drove his horn into the Lion’s heart.
The Lion separated himself from the Unicorn, stepped a few paces away from the Unicorn, and arranged himself in an artistic ‘Dying Hero’ posture, the Unicorn’s horn still jutting from his chest. He coughed experimentally, and launched into a Dying Soliloquy. Arrek and I gave him a few moments, but about the time that he got to saying farewell to ‘the rose-tinged sunsets’, I interrupted him. “Excuse me, but we ARE here on business. Do you have the keys to this gate?”
“Oh, yes - of course. How inconsiderate of me.” He rummaged around in his clothes, produced a ‘key’ in the shape of a musical note and gave it to me. “Here. I’m sorry if it’s a little flat, but I haven’t had time to have it tuned.”
“Do you mind if I take this as a keepsake of this epic battle?” I asked, gripping the unicorn’s horn in his chest.
“Of course! Keep it as a treasured relic, to pass along to your thieving offspring, so that they will pass it along to theirs, and future generations-”
“Yes, the tale of your battle against No One will echo down through the ages until the end of Time- or my next glass of rum, whichever comes first.”
“And THEY will be inspired-”
“Excuse me? I’m on a schedule here?” The Lion stopped talking (thank SOL!) and I pulled the unicorn horn free, taking the Lion’s heart with it. The Lion’s heart immediately crystallized into a ‘heart’-shaped red stone.
“You and your grabbing everything that isn’t nailed down,” Arrek grumbled.
“What? You never know when you’re going to have to break a heart, so it couldn’t hurt to have a spare heart around.”
Picking up Abbot Ablaze, we opened the gate and went to the Treasure Vault. “Be Warned!” the Vizier of Visibility trumpeted. “You must have the heart of a lion to face the Treasure’s Final Guardian!”
“We’re covered,” I said, holding up the Lion’s ruby heart.
The Treasure Vault was the obligatory vast vaulting chamber with heaps of gold and gems and wonders heaped about in piles along the walls. And, of course, as is usual with the Fae, there in the center of the chamber was a glass dome on a pedestal, put in stark relief by the expected ray of pure white light from above. Cautiously, Arrek and I each took an experimental step into the room. Somehow, we leapt forward into room, covering half the distance in a single step. “What’s this?” Arrek asked.
“Oh, this is the Vault’s guardian,’ the Tsar of Tapergrip explained. “Each step will take you halfway there or back.”
“And how does that guard anything? I’ll be there in no time!” Arrek took several steps, and was right at the pedestal in a trice.
I waited a bit, and nothing jumped out, so I took the same steps and was at his side. “Why have you stopped?” I asked.
“I haven’t,” he answered, putting one foot in front of the other but not seeming to move. “I’m walking, but I’m not moving an inch!”
“Of course you’re not moving an inch,” The Bey of Burningoil sniffed. “You’ve already moved an inch.”
“But you said that every step would take me…” He faltered and planted his face in his hand. “Half way. Every step takes me only half the distance that it took before. I can keep moving forever, but since I’ll be moving only half the distance that I did before, I can never actually reach the pedestal!”
“By Zeno, that’s a mighty paradox,” I admitted. “Still, there must be limits to this!” I peered at the glass dome, “Where’s the treasure?”
“In the dome,” the candleholder said, as though that made sense.
“I don’t see anything.”
“Of course, not! LISTEN!” Arrek and I cocked ears in the direction of the dome, and sure enough, there was a glorious song being sung by a voice of wondrous crystal purity, a song that captured the aching primal essence of futility and despair that someone feels when they have lost everything. It was heartbreaking. It was lovely. It was profound. If I had any musical ability whatsoever, I could make my fortune playing this, bringing entire halls to tears. No doubt mangling the poor thing to shreds in the process. “That is the Last Song sung by Oramus the Wings of the Cleansing Wind, the Primordial, just before he was maimed in the Primordial War, and his Fetich Soul killed. Sylkashith, the Falcon of the Moonlit Wing, captured that song as Oramus’ wings bore it aloft, and has kept it as his special treasure. If you steal THIS, then Ailzaro, Lord Summer, will be OUTRAGED! Arhaellen, Lady Fall, will be disconsolate! Daevonern, Lord Winter, will sink into the deepest gloom! Fivinari, Lady Showers, will storm all over the countryside! And Elaror the Flower Androgyne won’t know what s/he is! Not that s/he ever does… Strooth, a good time will be had by ALL!”
Arrek and I listened to the heartrending song all the way through and through two tear-stained repetitions. Then, “Well, Arrek, let’s go before we wear out our welcome.”
“WHAT? But you came to steal the Great Treasure!”
“And we have! I have the song in my heart.”
“And I have it running through my mind, even now,” Arrek said. “Indeed, I won’t be able to get it out of my head for weeks.”
“YOU SCOUNDRELS!” Father Firewand gasped.
As we walked out, we crossed half of the room in a single stride again, then half of that, then half of that, and so on- again. But I had the cure for this particular pox. I said, “I’m very impressed. I was expecting your great treasure to be a tot’s favorite toy, or a mother’s remembrance of her lost baby, or the shield the favored son was brought back from the wars on.”
“Oh, THAT sort of thing,” Brother Brighttop sneered. “Well, we occasionally make do with that sort of thing. We once had a stuffed rabbit that a young boy loved with all his simple heart, and swore was real. He believed it so much that it became a real, live rabbit.”
“Oh? What happened to it?”
“What do you think we did? We skinned it and had it for dinner. Before, it was a beloved toy, a wonder and a treasure. But when it became real, it was just another filthy, disgusting vermin.”
“Oh? Then what’s THAT?” I pointed off at one of the forgotten gauds. When Monsignor Melty looked where I was pointing, I opened the Book of Rules and pulled out the Prayer Card. Simple possibility was restored, and Arrek and I stepped out of the Treasure Vault.
I replaced the card once we were out of the Treasure Vault, and I woke the Khan of Kindling again. “What? How did you get out of the Vault?”
“Simple. We turned to face the pedestal and walked out backwards.” You know, I have absolutely NO idea if that will work or not?
Maestro Menorah grumped, but perked up when I pointed out that we still had a daring escape to perform.
As we slid down the banister, the Chancellor of Chimneysmoke helpfully tried to inform the various beings and entities and events that were happening on the stair of the big news, but we were traveling too quickly. When we hit the main floor, I asked, “Very well, which way to the door? We have a daring escape to achieve.”
“The front door is that way.”
“Leave through the FRONT door? Are you MAD?” I asked intently, putting every ounce of psychosis I had into my gaze as I talked to a candleholder.
“Quite right,” it huffed. “The SERVICE entrance is that way. We don’t HAVE a Burglar’s entrance, so it will have to do.”
“No burglar’s entrance,” Arrek sniffed. “And you call yourself a Freehold…”
We stepped out of the lobby into a cavernous open room. In the center of the room was a towering fire of silvery flame several yards high and many cubits wide. Around the edges of the argent flame, meats grilled on spits, pots bubbled, things fried in pans, and there were all sorts of drudges scampering about doing culinary things. Toward one direction there was a set of five throne-like chairs, with a throne of proper Raksha grandeur draped in blue-with-red, with thrones of progressively lesser majesty arranged on either side. Everywhere you looked was draped with the regalia and tools of war and sport. Bizarre suits of armor stood everywhere with improbable weapons clutched in their empty (I presume - I know, I know, a bad thing with Raksha, but would they really be THAT obvious?) gloves. Arranged around the periphery of the chamber was a broken circle of tables. Most of the tables were empty, but five tables were quite busy. At the head of the train, various scullions and servers set the table with cloths, plates, utensils, glasses, drink, condiments, spices, candles, fingerbowls, and of course, dishes, bowls, tureens, pots, spits, racks, serving trays, and plates and plates and plates of food, food, and, lest I forget, FOOD. At the next table down the train, thronged more different kinds of Fair Folk than I really care to think about, let alone shake a stick at, all gobbling down food like it was going to run away from them.
Of course, in this place, that was all-too-great a possibility.
More Raksha were rushing in to get their bit of the bounty at this table, but at the next table down, the Wee Ones were bolting the stuff down in a more settled way, and were actually engaging in what passes for conversation in this crowd. The Fee at the next table were eating up the last crumbs of the feast, licking the plates, breaking the bones of the meat, and scraping away the very last morsels from the pot. Once the last was gone, they rushed to the head of the ‘train’, where the servers beat them off viciously with ladles and heavy spoons, until the table could be properly set. The table at the very end of the ‘train’ was empty of diners - except for those who decided to nod off into their soup - and servers were clearing away the table by tucking up the tablecloth, gathering up everything - including the sleeping diners - and carrying the whole mess off. I got the impression that this ‘train’ ran around the ‘track’ of the tables. Constantly. never stopping.
As I paused to consider how I might contrive to wait until the ‘train’ had passed the Service Entrance (wherever that was), the Pasha of Pyro-luminescence loudly announced, “GLAD TIDINGS! These rascals have made off with the Great Treasure! Isn’t that WONDERFUL?”
From my side, I heard Arrek mutter, “Rennar, you rutting idiot.”
The noisy dinner party stopped with a thud. We were suddenly the sole focus of more Fair Folk than you could wave a stick at. Not that waving a stick at them would do any good. There was a very awkward moment, with them looking at us looking at them. Well, in these situations, the advantage goes to the one who sets the context. So, throwing my shoulders back, I strode purposefully into the room and declared, “YES, we HAVE stolen your Great Treasure, the Last Song of Ouramus the Primordial! Obviously, you ARE all aware of the momentous ramifications of this - well, maybe not you. You, explain it to him; I don’t have the time or inclination. You may be wondering WHY, having stolen your Great Treasure, we appear here before you, announcing that we have stolen it.”
I paused to whack Mister Moltenbrains against a table.
“The REASON is, that every great theft requires a great ESCAPE! Now, we could simply have snuck out, with no one the wiser… But WHERE is the EPIC nature of THAT? No, a GREAT Theft requires a brilliant, truly AUDACIOUS escape! My plan is…” (bear with me, I’m thinking, I’m thinking!) Then I spotted him among the gawping throng. “…to secure my safe escape with the Great Treasure - but without pursuit - by challenging your GREATEST CHAMPION, the one who has faced the Terror of Keldon and lived - or whatever it is that you insults to Creation do - to tell the tale!”
Assuming a dramatic prosecutor’s pose, I pointed at the Rhymer. “I challenge YOU, Rhymer! Yes, here in the very Heart of the Frabjous Tulge, I Dare to challenge the Poetic Pasha of Puzzles, the Epic Emperor of Enigmas, the Metric Maharaja of Mysteries, the Coupleting Conqueror of Conundrums to a battle of WITS!”
The Rhymer beamed superiorly at his fellows and stepped forward, almost visibly growing in social stature, champing at the bit to claim his place as the Freehold’s greatest champion.
Arrek sidled up to me and whispered, “Not to stop you when you’re on a roll, but is this really a GOOD IDEA? As opposed to just running away?”
“If we run, they chase us,” I muttered back. “They’re GOOD at that. And they can bend the layout of this place to suit their whims. Not to worry, I’ve got him pegged; I’ve remembered riddles that will tie him in knots.”
“Oh, MORE good news!” the candlestick blurted out. “He’s CHEATING! This is the BEST performance ever!” I whacked it against the table again.
“The IMPUDENCE!” a loud pompous voice boomed. “How DARE you, Sir! You come in here in the middle of the only meal of the day and you PRESUME to set the terms of conflict?” A short rotund Fee waddled up. His voice was bigger than his hat, which was bigger than he was. “I am the Side-Chancellor of the Freehold of the Frabjous Tulge, and in their Lordships’ absence, I make these decisions!”
“Are you sure about that?” I asked. “What about the plain old Chancellor? Are you sure you have the authority to make these decisions?”
“Of COURSE I have the authority! I am the High Hat!” he bristled, pointing at the tall silk hat that he was wearing, that allowed him to tower - in a fashion - over everyone else. “No, no, NO! We’ve heard about the Rhymer’s wretched performance before the Owl-Solar, from his own twisted tongue! NO, you shall face ME in this war of wits and words, and it shall be no simple victory, I assure you! It will be a TRIUMPH to SING and RING the carillons!”
“You have carillons in this place?”
“We’ll MAKE them, if we have to break a thousand smiths on the wheel!”
“You make bells out of broken smiths?”
“Well, it IS rather expensive, I admit, which is why we don’t have any carillons at the moment…”
“NOT the point!” Arrek said, pushing me aside. “My goofy sidekick had his heart set on beating the Rhymer. BUT, if you refuse the challenge for the Rhymer, and insist on taking up the gauntlet yourself, SO BE IT! As my lackwit lackey-”
“Excuse me? ‘Goofy Sidekick’?”
“-had his simple heart set on the simple challenge of simply beating the simple Rhymer, I shall step up to accept the challenge. But in doing so, YOU become the challenger!”
“Are you sure about that?” the Side-Chancellor
“It says so, right here in the Book of Rules,” I said, holding up the book.
“Oh well, if it’s in the Book of Rules…”
“And, as the challenged, I have the right to choose the terms of the duel!”
“We were to issue a Riddling Contest, it was agreed,” the Side-Chancellor grumped.
“THAT was for the contest between THAT and THAT,” Arrek said derisively, pointing at me and the Rhymer in turn. “And please! Riddling Contests!” he gave a dismissing snort. “It’s been done…”
“True…” the Side-Chancellor, said musingly. He perked up considerably. “Well then! What’s the contest then? Fisticuffs?” The Side-Chancellor snatched the hat off his head and tossed it onto a brawny troll, who assumed a boxing stance. “Any particular set of rules that you’d prefer?” the troll asked in the Side-Chancellor’s voice, with the Side-Chancellor’s expression now on his face. “Or is that too brutal?” The troll tossed the hat onto the head of a rabbit-goblin. “Maybe a footrace?” The rabbit continued in the Side-Chancellor’s voice again, with the Side-Chancellor’s manner again. “Or if-” the rabbit tossed the hat onto the head of a fetching female fey, who continued the sentence for the rabbit, again in the Side- Chancellor’s manner if not voice, “-crude physical activity is too banal, perhaps a contest of poetry and song?” she let out a scale of tra-la-las that became crystal bells that settled on the chandelier and tinkled and shattered.
I looked at the high silk hat and noticed that it had eyes that were watching Arrek with amusement. “The Side-Chancellor doesn’t wear the High Hat? He IS the High Hat?” I asked. “Then the Chancellor proper would be…”
“The Big Wig.” The candleholder finished for me.
The High Hat tossed itself onto the head of a wiry Fey with a bald head, bushy eyebrows, a spearhead of a nose, and a mustache that was wider than his shoulders. “Or maybe plain simple bloodshed?” it gloated as it produced more sharp knives than a cutlery shop.
“Reeeaaallllyyy…” Arrek drawled grandly. “You have NO appreciation for the potentials at hand! Look about you!” he waved a hand at the servers preparing another table in blithe indifference to the drama before them. “What better than… AN EATING CONTEST?”
The High Hat grinned widely as a cat at that, but I felt my stomach drop out. Had Arrek gone MAD in this place of chaos? Had the Fey insanity gotten to him? Surely a country boy like him knew that the first rule of dealing with the Fair Folk was Never Eat Fairy Food! Eat so much as a crumb, and they’ve got you! You can never leave their fairyland. I blanched and whispered in his ear, “Arrek, that’s not a good idea…”
Lord Lardwick shouted, “He’s afraid!” from my hand.
“Excuse me,” I said with an arch smile to the Side-Chancellor, “Could I have a word alone with my friend for a moment, and with him as well?” I indicated the candleholder.
The Side-Chancellor grandly allowed us a moment by the hearth fire. “And what word would you wish?” Deacon Dimwit asked avidly.
“Goodbye.” I tossed it into the flames, ridding myself of it and any further need for alliterative appellations. But as I threw it in, something in the fire caught my eye. Barely visible in the center of the hearth, through the glittering flames, were other glitters. Looking carefully, I made it out… a crystal egg. Then, on a level slightly lower than that egg, I made out four more crystal eggs. Five Eggs. Five Thrones. Five Seasons in a Court of the Seasons. What better place to hide your own personal most precious treasure? “Arrek, I know that it sounds like a good idea, but have you-”
“Not to worry, Rich Boy,” Arrek grinned. “I know exactly what I’m doing.” As I groaned, he said, “Well, it’s not like we can change anything at this point, now is it?”
I grumped, “Very well… But make it a good show. I need everyone, and I do mean everyone watching you. I’ve got an idea that may just be what we need to get you out of here…”
“Teach your granny to suck eggs, Rich Boy.” Arrek strolled magnificently back to the Side-Chancellor and said, “Well? Enough shilly-shally! Let’s be at it! I’m PECKISH!” he slapped his stomach.
“Come!” the High Hat walked over to the set table. “Just so that it’s clear, the one who eats the most wins. If you win, then you and your bootlicker-”
“Watch it, bud,” I said ominously.
“-and all your pilfered booty are free from Raksha justice for Thirteen Days after you cross that door.” He pointed at the Service Entrance. “If *I* win, well then…” the lean knife-fey’s face creased into a cruel cat-grin. “We’ll settle that later. Come!” He indicated a set place. “There, that’s your plate.”
“Plate? You call THAT a PLATE?” Arrek threw the platter at a servitor’s head, breaking the plate, and pulled a large black grilling skillet with a wooden handle from one of his packs. “Now THAT’S a PLATE! Now fill me up and heap it high, m’lovelies!” he said as he pulled a tankard from his pack and offered it to one of the serving wenches.
“Well BEGUN, Good Sirrah!” the High Hat chortled. “Now, let me show you how it SHOULD be done!” It walked over to a cupboard, opened it and pulled out a large, enormously FAT, rather stupid looking goblin with a mouth that was wider than his shoulders. “I keep this around for when I’m famished.” It placed itself on the fat goblin’s head, and the blank look on the goblin’s face disappeared.
“WELL THEN! Let’s be at it!” The Side-Chancellor sat down, Arrek emptied his tankard, and they were at it as though they were under an Imperial Order to cause a famine.
“Faster! Faster!” I cheered their unrestrained gluttony. “Oh, this is going too slowly! I’ll go hurry along the food!” I went over and chivvied the wood-woses until they were nothing but a blur of preparation. When one of them broke down and slid down panting from exertion, I took advantage of their distraction to snag one of the eggs from the lower tier with my Eagle Claw.
Waiting for an uproar, I walked over to where Arrek was demolishing enough larder for a small tribe. I couldn’t even see where he was CHEWING, he was just cramming it into his mouth, making a loud gulp and then demanding more beer.
Back at the fire, one of the servitors got into a fight with another over a favored spoon. I used that to pluck another egg from the fire.
Wandering back to the contest, the Side-Chancellor was tossing fruit up into the air and catching them with a mouth the size of a cave entrance. He was getting fancy, while Arrek just kept putting the food away.
Meandering back to the fire, I was forced to resorting to tripping one of the servants trying to put a live boar on a spit, as to get the opening to bag that third egg. I helped bring an entire roast Jubjub bird to the table, where Arrek and the Side-Chancellor ripped it to bits and quarreled over the wishbone.
Going back to the food-preparation, the domovoi were so busy that they accidentally put one of their own on a spit and started to roast him, while they bickered with the boar about how much spice to use. I threw my chain into the fire, got the fourth egg, and no one so much as looked up from their fevered efforts. Tucking the egg away, I looked at that last fifth egg, the highest one of them all. Now, if Master Fist-of-Insight back at the Cloister had asked me why I did what I did, I would have told him that it was obvious to me that that last egg belonged to the sitting Lord of the Freehold. It would be the one that the Side-Chancellor, and the Big Wig Chancellor too, would be most sensitive about. But, truth be told, it simply rubbed me the wrong way to let Arrek get ALL the glory for this.
‘Goofy Sidekick’… Humph! I went over to Arrek, gripped him encouraging by the shoulders, and whispered in his ear, “Wrap this up, I have our ticket out of here.”
“Well, if you INSIST…” Arrek threw the tidbit that he’d been gnawing at onto the floor. “FEH! You call this FOOD? I thought that this was supposed to be an EATING CONTEST!”
“Well?” the High Hat said, forming a mouth to speak with as the goblin it rode still used its mouth to suck the meat off a grympion’s knuckle. “What would you have us do?”
“A true test of mettle,” Arrek said. He got up and carried his skillet over to the fire, tore the entire leg from a braising borogrove, and set it on the skillet. He grabbed spices and sauces and garnishes and worked furiously on the meat for a few moments. Then he brought the sizzling dish over to where the Side-Chancellor sat, his moron-mount’s mouth watering. “Eat this. One Gulp.”
The Side-Chancellor grinned with both the hat’s mouth and the goblin’s. “Bring it.” He opened the goblin’s mouth so wide that it needed three chairs to keep it up.
Arrek tossed the borogrove leg in, skillet and all.
The Side-Chancellor swallowed with a loud gulp, and said, “Well? Was THAT supposed to-” the Side-Chancellor stopped in mid-gloat. He sniffed the air. “Something smells a tad off…” Then the goblin’s eyes popped wide open, as did the eyes on the Side-Chancellor proper, and the eyes on the buttons of the moron’s overalls. The lid atop the Side-Chancellor’s crown popped up, revealing another set of wide eyes. All the eyes turned red and started to water. The moron’s face turned red, and he started to puff up. He expanded like an inflating balloon, becoming entirely globular. As the lesser Raksha all gawped in undisguised amazement and horror at the Side-Chancellor’s plight, Arrek tipped over the table and ducked behind it. Knowing a good move when I see it, I joined him and dragged our packs to safety.
There was a whistling noise, and then an earth-shaking explosion. When the shockwave passed, Arrek and I peeked over the edge of the upturned table. Only the mighty fire in the center of the chamber was unaffected. Everything and everyone else had been blown from its position, knocked cup-over-tea- kettle, and was covered with a disgusting layer of semi-digested food. Of the Side-Chancellor, there wasn’t a trace. All that was left of him was Arrek’s skillet, lying in the center of a scorch mark on the floor.
Then, gently wafting down from the upper reaches of the chamber, the Side-Chancellor came floating down to the floor, tattered, battered, and badly in need of re-blocking. The squat goblin that had born it first stoically walked over and placed the Side-Chancellor on his head. After gathering what passed for its wits, the Side-Chancellor tried to be blasé. “Very well. You win. You and your little friend are safe from Raksha justice for thirteen days starting NOW. So pick up your pelf and start running, because I have no doubt that the second that those Thirteen Days are spent, the Lordships will spare no expense in riding you down like wounded does. The door is over THERE. No hand will be raised to stop you. At least, for thirteen days…” it finished with evil grins across both its faces.
Now this is the Raksha’s idea of fair play. It knows that since Arrek has eaten Fairy Food (and LOTS of it), that he can’t leave the Freehold. Which means that he thinks that I’ll be forced to leave Arrek behind, which probably violates some Raksha code of loyalty or some such, which will trap ME here as well. Which means that they don’t HAVE to stop us, the fact that we’ve broken those laws will keep us here. And they get to watch us squirm and futilely try to find some way of getting out for two weeks. And then, SPLAT! Or whatever twisted notion suits the Lordships’ fancy.
But there’s a sunny side to this twist. They don’t know what I poached. They think that they’ve deviled us, but I’ve scrambled their plan. The yolk’s on them. I’ve coddled them so far, but I’ve got them by the eggs.
Arrek and I gathered our stuff as the Fey watched us with eager eyes, avid to see the horrid realization on our faces, and the choice of damnations that I’d have to face. The Side-Chancellor held the door for us with a grace that was totally at odds with the predatory grin on its face. As we walked to the door, I readied my chain for when Arrek hit whatever sort of invisible wall that was in store for him. Arrek stopped at the door and asked, “Thirteen Days? You can do NOTHING?”
“By the Halidom of Rakshastan,” the High Hat assured him. “Thirteen Days, and then the fun really begins.”
“Just wanted to be sure,” Arrek said and then stepped through the door. He turned and grinned at all of us. “Well?”
All of our jaws hit the floor at this impossibility. I recovered well before any of the Fey, and slung my Eagle Claw, plucking the last crystal egg from the fire at what I think is the absolute limit of the chain’s range. I snapped the egg back into my hand and was out the door before the assembled Fey could absorb what I’d done. With a grin, I held up the egg for them all to see.
“NO!” the Side-Chancellor screamed. “The Summer Lord’s EGG!”
“Thirteen Days,” Arrek reminded them, a grin almost as large as mine on his face. “By the Halidom of Rakshastan, you are bound by your word.”
“And as you are the Lordship’s appointed Lieutenant, THEY are bound by it as well,” I pointed out.
“Indeed,” the Side-Chancellor admitted. “But know this! For this! For this OUTRAGE! For this affront there is NO FORGIVENESS!”
*Pfaugh!* “What of it?” I scoffed. “You Fairies don’t even know what forgiveness means! It’s to you what ‘blue’ is to a blind man: a word that you’ve heard, but is totally beyond your comprehension. I scoff at Fairy vengeance!”
The Side-Chancellor was beet-red with indignation. “The Lordships will… will… they’ll… You… you…” he paused. “Who ARE you, anyway?”
“Tell your Lordships that they can blame all their woes on LORD MORDRESE ISEGRIS, Dragon Lord of the Blessed Isle!”