The Defence of Caliban [17/1/00]
"I woke up this morning to find someone in my room."
"An embarrassed young man with a sponge."
"Was this your idea?"
"Um... actually Raphael seemed to think... it was very late and... um, I'll send someone to get him out of there."
"Not now. We have more important things to worry about. Let him sleep."
"I said, we have better things to worry about." She shielded her eyes against the morning's glare and looked out across the square. The militia were proudly arrayed in their new blue uniforms. They were standing to varying degrees of attention, with their weapons ready.
"Quite impressive. I see you managed to get some weapons."
"I found a few here and there. Antiques, things that people kept around for burglars..."
"...kitchen knives, hoes, picks, old hammers, some kind of saw, and what is that man carrying there?"
"Its a... ah... a roofing pole. You use it to trim the ragged edge off thatch."
Kali's expression did not change as she swept her gaze over the uneven ranks. Eventually she spoke. "I hear that Antioch has been recruiting all over the city. You've probably got the best of whatever they left."
"Its not exactly a force to strike fear into the hearts of the enemy though, is it?"
"Looking at them strikes fear into me." She turned and looked at him, her dark eyes suddenly serious. "We must do the best with what we have."
The invaders paused. They had found a something unexpected - a wide and open space. The crowded buildings had given way to an unusually broad street, a place where the attackers might not feel hemmed in. A chance to regroup and reorganise, if it could be taken.
Across the street were a line of defenders. Their blue uniforms and broad shields were an unfamiliar design, but their intent was clear. The blue clad remained stoic and unmoving as the attackers closed in. As they approached, a light fog drifted in, carrying with it the smells and sounds of the distant harbour The two groups met, a single clash of sword on blade rang out, and then the mist thickened into a dense fog. The battle disappeared into a swirling whiteness. With curses, two hands of horsemen were ordered into the fray to cut around the combat and find the source of this witchery. As the last of the horses disappeared into the mist, the sounds of fighting faded away to mute silence. The fog slowly cleared.
Where there had once been a broad avenue there was now a narrow one, running along the stoneclad banks of a small river. In the water lay the twisted bodies of soldiers and horses alike. Some had fallen on the crude stakes driven into the river wall, others had fallen safely only to be crushed by those that fell in after them, men and horses making a struggling mass buried deep in the water. For a few moments the invaders stared at their silent plight, and then, like a wave crashing on a rocky shore, the sounds of the screams of those dying in the river came washing in.
The scant few defenders broke and ran, and the enemy pursued, moving quickly through the streets, not fast enough to lose track of each other, not slow enough to allow the defenders to regroup. They were entering the poorer sections of the city and expected little resistance here. Soon enough the streets were deserted, even the citizens knew enough to keep themselves shut indoors, and the small rapid groups gathered together once more. They advanced, searching for what defenders might be lurking here. The streets grew narrow with side streets twisting off. Not a maze, but confusing enough to those who had never lived here. At each turning some groups went one way and some another. They were close, they could all feel it. Close to what was less clear, but as each squad made their way through the streets, sometimes dividing, sometimes joining, they could feel themselves moving inexorably closer to some mysterious goal.
Soon it dawned that something was wrong. The houses were cold and empty, and not only was there no people to see, there was no sound. No sound of fighting from a city under siege, no sounds of struggle in neighboring streets, only loose rags blowing in the streets and the sound of their own feet and voices. Messengers were sent back to the commander for instructions.
It was only when they were found in the streets ahead, still trying to reach the commander and their own lines, that panic began to set in. After a few hours, a halt was called. The soldiers gathered tightly around fatigue slowly turning into fear. A force was sent to map their nearby streets and find out wich way they had come. The returned a scant half hour later. They could not find any streets that did not lead back to the main force. They could not find any streets that led.... out. As the leaders debated what to do, the city remained quiet. The only movement was the twisted mottled rags that the wind swept and swirled in the empty streets.
Here the defense was at its strongest. A barrier of wood and rubble stretched across one of the allegiance's broader streets. Behind this the defenders crouched, makeshift weapons at the ready. They could see the enemy assembling in ranks down the road. Karvain, a local blacksmith, tried to throw a stool at them, but it clattered harmlessly to the street a good twenty or so feet short of its target. A few short bows would have driven them back, but they had no bows. Instead they got ready with rocks and sharp shards of pottery, in case the attack was slow enough to use them.
Instead the enemy lined up their ranks, and marched smartly away. Heads popped up here and there from the barrier, trying and see what might be causing the withdrawal. And the winds grew, and the sky darkened. A whistling sound was heard, gentle at first and then with mounting ferocity until it was a terrible scream that ripped at their ears. At the end of the street a great mass of hungry heaving air assembled, a cyclone some hundred hands high. Two great dark eyes twinkled from the whirling wind. As it paused there, loose debris was swept from the streets and flung high into the air. The nearest houses on each side bulged obscenely and exploded. The rubble was swept instantly up into the storm. The cyclone started to move, slowly at first, but then faster and faster, directly towards the barrier. A few of the defenders started to run, but it was far, far too late.
The allegiance of Caliban was not best known for its tall buildings. Their position on the roof of the Main Temple was not then, the highest vantage point in the city, but the view was relatively clear. Kali shielded her eyes against the sun and looked out across the city. To the West, the attackers had come across great barricades that blocked their path. The piles of rubble and rubbish reached up to the upper windows of the houses. They were presently engaged in pulling down these piles and stacking it in places that would neither impede their progress nor provide cover for defenders who counter-attacked. She watched two men struggling with a long roofing timber, and then turned away.
The rubble would be cleared by dusk, and would evaporate in any case by nightfall, but it bought them time. To the north, the attackers who had moved to encircle them had disappeared into the tangle of streets and alleyways. So far they had not emerged. Only the slight heat haze that shimmered above the empty streets told her that a powerful enchantment was in place.
"Barnabus? What is Raphael doing out there?"
"Some of them tried to circle around us. Raphael went to go hold them off. Can> you give me a hand with this?"
'This' turned out to be a wheeled contraption made of mirrors, bits of glass, wire and wood. They moved it into a position looking out over the roof.
"Barnabus, I asked Raphael to rest for a reason. If he's busy now, who's going to protect us tonight?"
He looked up critically at the sky, and then knelt to adjust some screws at the base of the device, gradually angling the biggest mirror upwards. When he rose, she was still waiting for an answer. He coughed "Ah.. My lady...." he took a deep breath. "If he does not hold them off now, we won't last until nightfall. Their forces are far bigger, and ah.. more intact than we had hoped."
"Oh." She stood in silence while he made final adjustments to main mirror. "Will it work? I mean, it's been cloudy all day. Don't you need sunlight to make it work?"
"Some sunlight still comes, even through the clouds." he said, fiddling with the lenses. He paused and then shrugged, and continued in his work. "Light is only a raw material. If necessary, I can make it myself."
"Is it going to be enough?"
He stopped and looked at her. "If nothing else it will hold them off for a while."
"So we again we can only hold them off," she said flatly.
He smiled. "Its no small thing. We were never planning to beat them all ourselves. We only need to keep them in check until someone can come to our aid. If nothing else we can rely on Antioch. It not like we've been abandoned to the enemy."
"No, of course not." she said distantly. "Good old Lord Fleischer."
"Kali?" She turned to face him, and for a moment he saw a softness, a vulnerability that he had always suspected but never truly seen. There was a gap in the gulf that separated them, and he stumbled over what say to her.
Then the softness was gone, as a spirit fleeing into unyielding stone. Her gaze was not at him, but at what lay behind him. He turned.
The first of the great spirits had already risen, a column of whirling wind as tall as the tallest towers of Zeahael. As it moved, it left behind it shattered buildings, and mangled dead. A cloud of loose masonry and debris was sprayed behind it as it traveled, while loose tiles were flung about like a swarm of angry bees. Silvery eyes, dark and implacable, peered out from the whirling form. Behind it was a being of rock, rough hewn in a man-like shape. Its eyes glared with the rage of trapped fire, and the city trembled with every step it took. The third titan was slightly shorter than the others. Little could be seen behind the wreaths of darkened fire and black smoke that smothered its body. The were moving swiftly to the heart of Caliban. On the roof of the temple, the winds were rising. Barnabus struggled to make the final adjustments to his device.
"Somewhere there must be sorcerers controlling these beasts." she said, speaking sharply to be heard over the rising wind. "Can you manage up here?"
Barnabus nodded. As she moved to the stairs, he opened his mouth to speak, but a sudden gust caught him unawares. The wind was howling now. He shouted and she caught a few words. He wanted her to get the militia inside. He shouted something else as well, but she couldn't hear over the voice of the storm. He bent over his device once more and she started down the stone steps into the temple proper, out of the wind.
As she ran her thoughts were racing with plans. One small detail >bothered her, something that he had said. She dismissed it from her mind as she reached the temple doors, and emerged into the teeth of the gale. The cyclone was towering above her, while shrieking winds tore at her hair and clothing. She stepped aside as metal shield, abandoned in someone's flight, was dragged jerkily along the flagstones by the power of the wind. The sheer size of the thing overwhelmed her, chasing all reason from her mind just as it chased all air from her body. As she caught herself against a stone pillar of the temple, the final piece clicked into place. 'Light is just a raw material....' She realised what he intended to do. She screamed out to him, but the wind caught the words in her throat and stole them away.
A thin beam of light came from the roof and struck at the creature's silvery eyes. The storm spoke, a terrible drawn out howl. Above the sound of the shrieking wind, she could hear the brightness burning into its target, the sounds of a thousand voices in a thousand pitches and timbres, the stench of a thousand odours, the rasp of every feeling sense being stripped bare. The taste of an infinity of sensations boring its way through the senses to oblivion. The storm screamed again, and surged forward. Kali gripped tightly to the temple pillar as the wind increased, but then she felt the air grow calmer. She looked up to see the base of the cyclone just brush the roof of the temple, before raging upwards into the sky. She stepped out into square, straining upwards to see what havoc had been inflicted on the temple roof. To her relief, she made out the figure of Barnabus, outlined against the sky, waving weakly down at her.
As she waved back, the roof of the temple exploded in a cloud of dust and flying stones. The great titan of earth towered above her, raising its fist for another blow, bringing it down to smash more of the temple into ruins. Ducking quickly into a side street gave her time to think. She tried to bring to mind a memory of Barnabus moving before the blow fell, but none came.
Looking up, she could see the great behemoth had tired of smashing at the temple and was now searching the streets, its firepit eyes blazing with the ferocity of its gaze. Closing her own eyes she could feel its perception sweeping the street, feel its sense of its own weight, the care it was taking in each step not to damage too much of the city, to damage too much of the conqueror's prize.
And, like a clear spring bubbling into a muddy pool, she could just tentatively feel the presence of another. The sorcerer that rode the creature's perceptions, bending it to its will. Another command, and it moved to stand in the square proper, leaning over the narrow streets to better see what lay within. Slowly carefully, she traced back the transplaced perceptions, following that willed deception to magus who was substituting the titan's perceptions for his own. She started to feel him out, felt the taste o his anticipation, and footsteps, many many footsteps.
She opened her eyes to look into those of a Qu'rayshi patrol. It seemed they didn't know what to make of a woman crouched in the street. For a few still moments, she didn't either, and then instinct took over. Crossbow bolts thudded into the wall beside them. They instantly crouched and looked about them, only to exclaim their surprise as she took to her feet and ran off down the street. After a moment's confusion they followed her, even the slowest of them realising they had been tricked when the crossbow bolts had faded from sight. The many syllables of their surprise followed her as she turned the corner. She faced a wall of fire. An old barricade had been set ablaze as had the solid rows of houses on either side. The spirit of smoke and flame had passed here, and the street blazed in his wake. She turned back to the advancing footsteps, and tried desperately to think what to do.
As the Captain turned the corner, he saw her dash to one side, wrench open the shattered door of one of the unburnt houses, and dart inside. Had they been slower, she might have hid from them. He raised his hand and the men paused. He'd rather not enter a building that was soon to be burnt down, but the fugitive might wriggle out a back way. Lowering it again, he led the way into the abandoned house, trying to ignore the acrid smell of smoke. The men followed, spreading carefully into the ground floor rooms. A sense of terrible weakness started to overcome him, he saw some fall, confused, to the floor. His legs gave way and he couldn't breathe to shout the warning that something was terribly wrong.
Clinging to the side of a building, Kali let a out a slow breath. Her hair, clothing and skin bore the grain of the wooden beam she clung to. As she climbed she relaxed her hold on the enchantment, letting the house the soldiers had entered regain its normal appearance. It was, like all the others, fiercely ablaze. She relaxed too her hold on the soldier's perceptions, hoping that they had died without ever realising that the flesh was melting from their bones. She had been too quick, and one of them was still alive. As she climbed upwards she tried to block the sound of that choking scream from her mind.
The roof was solid enough, and the flames weren't spreading in her direction. She settled down and concentrated, tracing the lines of perception she had found earlier. The titan was watching the troops move in. The temple was still largely intact, but all around it the Qu'rayshi soldiers swarmed. Troops worked in the temple square, clearing the few bodies of those militia that had stayed to oppose them. Calmly she felt for the flavour of the sorcerer's commands. The titan, paused, and then raised his foot and brought it down squarely on Qu'rayshi forces. She felt panicked orders from the sorcerer, and gently wiped them out. The titan raised its foot again, and again the sorcerer gave orders. His command was absolute, implacable, and could not be disobeyed. It was not heard. More Qu'rayshi died. The temple square was a boiling panic as armed men made to escape from beneath the titan's shadow.
Again the titan moved to strike, and Kali this time heard dimly the voice of a desperate man speak alien words of negation. The light in the titan's eyes faded, and the form stopped moving. First the extremities crumbled, bits and pieces of its rocky form tumbling down. Soon great chunks of rock were falling into the streets below. Piece by piece the monstrous form collapsed.
On the roof, Kali shook her head, trying vainly to stop the world from spinning around and around her head. Eventually she looked out over the city. She had to find the third titan quickly, for the Qu'rayshi sorcerers would now know that she opposed them. They might be capable of finding her.
Frustratingly, there was no sign of the third great spirit. She made to move from her rooftop until she noticed, dumbly, that all the houses around her were on fire. All except for hers. Under her fingers, the roof was warm to the touch. She scrambled to her feet as the roof burst upwards, a great red clawed hand emerging. She had almost made it to the edge of the roof when the hand closed upon her leg, and dragged her through the cracked roof into the smoky darkness below.
Kali in Custody [18/1/00]
She woke. The patterned weave of the carpet was soft against her cheek. In trying to untangle her limbs into some semblance of order, she caught sight of a pair of slippered feet. She stared at them stupidly for a few moments, and then struggled to sit up. The effort made the room swing at a crazed angle. She put one hand to her head as she tried to connect the rich voice to the figure floating past her eyes.
Truly you are a woman of considerable endurance. I had not expected you to wake until the moon was quite full. Instead your eyelids flutter open while it is still light, as the moths of the vale of Sal'Hadra, who venture abroad many turns of the glass before the sun has set." His expansive gesture took in the broad window, weakly lit by the afternoon light. The speaker was a sprightly man of advancing years, loosely dressed in jacket and pantaloons of embroidered silk, patterned with small glittering gems. On his feet were soft slippers, the ends of which so long that they were wound into little spirals that curled tightly above each toe. His high turban sported a single peacock feather that rose high above his head, wagging and bobbing as he talked. The room was similarly richly furnished, with elegant vases, brightly patterned rugs, and piles of tasselled cushions. The man's attendant was tall and more simply dressed. A simple jacket and pantaloons failed to cover a chest of hard rippled muscle. They would have distracted her more had it not been that the man's skin was such a dark shade of red. She rubbed her eyes, but the colour failed to disappear. Not sunburned, not painted, just deep, soft red.
"I take it by favour of your gaze, given as warmly and as freely as the blessings of a bridesmaid when the ceremony is complete, and the wine flows free and clear, that you have espied Al-Sak-Nivar, my most treasured servant." The richly dressed man continued, a touch of reproach creeping into his voice. "It is written in annals of the Sage of Tal-Anim, whose wisdom never rests, that a good servant is a jewel above price, shining far beyond the reach of a ruler's gold or courtier's wit." He stepped closer, a merchant's smile beaming from his face. "But Prince Al'kabad wrote thus, that the power of a servant is his master's to command, lo! even at the last of all days, the end of ends. Look not in awe at a servant's strength, whatever great and mighty works you might behold, for it is his master that you see reflected there, the master whose sinews stretch to make the works and deeds of men, for it is the master's strength the servant holds, and by his will that all is done."
She stood, a little unsteadily. Her brow creased. "Wh-"
"Ah! I see a question building in you mind, a query resting quivering on your soft lips, like a coursing hound trembling at the sight of its prey waiting only for its trainer to let it slip on its first great chase. And like many who are unfamiliar with the prey they seek, you will doubtless be left hunting tufts and hedges of memory in an effort to recall a man of my bearing. Let me bring your fruitless chase to an ending as sweet and simple as a sugared plum. You are Priestess Kali, the ruler of the Allegiance of Caliban, and a lady of such indescribable beauty that you must give your people's poets sweet fevered dreams, that they might wrack and roil at their art until the verse spills out of them, as fresh petals from a fallen bud. I am Akarad Akbar, High Sorcerer of the Northern spire, Adept of the Lightless Path, Summoner of the mightiest spirits in our world, and, or so it would seem, in yours, and now lord and master of what must be the most delectable spoils of the war." He gave a slight smile, waiting for her to reply.
"I was more than a little impressed by your efforts to defeat us, in the tradition of proud parents applauding the efforts of a well-schooled child. One of my assistants, a proud young man of some talent but little true blood, was forced to banish his own creation, as a proud Vizier at the seat of his power might be tricked into banishing a valiant lordling. He lurks not far from here, salving his pride by working on more minor creations, ones that should be too simple for either you or anyone else to manipulate. One day we shall see him rise again but for now it is better than he dirty his hands in more menial tasks, that he might remember his lofty station was gained from a competence he has this time failed to display. My other assistant might recover, given time, but his shrieks and jabberings reveal his lack of sanity as the posturings of an overdressed merchant only shout out his lack of breeding for all the world to see. In time I shall have to train another. Quite, quite impressive, but you were eventually brought to heel, as a half-trained horse is allowed to tire itself, prancing and pulling at the lunging line before being reeled slowly but surely in, to be broken."
Kali broke in as he paused for breath. "This is the old bath house?"
He paused to give her a sidelong glance. "I am delighted that you are aware of the edifice's former function. It will save me much time instilling you the proper forms of behaviour. This place was, alas, suffering from disuse in a city sorely in need of its service." He turned to face her, all warmth and welcoming. "Come now. Why should a beautiful flower like you wallow in dirt and filth with these barbarians? You deserve the world, set around to your convenience on a plate of silver and gold, as choice dates to be consumed or spurned as you fickle heart grants you leave. All the delights of the empire could be yours for the asking."
"In return for what?" She said flatly.
He tutted gently. "Only a foolish woman would ask such a question were she possessed of your insurmountable beauty, that which would make courtesans weep and pagan goddesses wish for poisoned briars in your soup. You are not a fool, to be blind of what you possess, nor so naive as to be ignorant of what men most generally desire." He smiled again.
She folded her arms and gave him an appraising look. "Power?" she asked acidly, "Or do you really expect me to believe that invading the city is your way or making house calls?"
"The invasion, as you so sweetly put it, your every syllable winging through the air like the peals of tiny silver bells, is the work of the Grand Vizier himself. When he asked me to assist I could hardly bring myself to refuse. He is a man of many talents, and great and wondrous magical power. There is no-one who could even nearly claim to be his equal, either here, or in Qu'raysh, for he is mightiness personified, grace and glory without peer." His lips twitched slightly. "Well, maybe one."
She sighed deeply pinching the bridge of her nose. "This is a bit much to take. Do you mind if I sit down?" Without waiting for a reply, she took her first step towards an embroidered couch, and then pulled up short, her face pale. On the floor she saw the spiderlike tracery of chalk lines that formed a circle around the rug on which she stood. Scrawled along the lines as they wove and dipped were tiny but perfectly formed little characters and symbols.
"The art of runes seems underdeveloped in this city, although I have seen little enough of it's talents so far. It is simply a branch of symbolism, and it is symbolism, in all its myriad forms, is the heart of any form of magic, just as letters are the heart of any language, or tones the heart of any song. It is not your fault that you were born in a city where such things are poorly understood."
"I wasn't born here." she said, trying to get a grip on the situation, but he continued on, merciless in the face of her discomfiture.
"Indeed? Then there is hope for you yet. But while you are deciding to abandon your barbarous ways, and accept my civilising influence, I can hardly have you using your primitive but effective magics to irritate me. Was it not the historian N'hap L'aresh who said, savagery is not a matter of manner or teaching, its roots lie deep in the bitterness of the soul? In time, I will cleanse you of your baser instincts to show disrespect, or plan harm to befall me. And you will thank me for it. But each cast of fate must wait its proper time, least the sweet wine of life sour unto vinegar, or through rough and hasty handling leave bitter dregs to swallow. In the meantime neither you nor your influence can leave the circle. Doubtless you have already tried?"
She said nothing.
"So as you see, you are utterly at my mercy, as helpless as a slit salt-oyster, open and awaiting the judgement of the gourmet at his table. Many such are consumed and then discarded, but you... oh! In you I see a pearl beyond compare. You have such talent, primitive and untrained that it is." He paused, frowning at her outward impatience. "Well I must confess I don't fully understand your methods, as they are not my own, but seeing as the underlying theory of magic is unknown here, your art can hardly fail to suffer, any more than a poet, however talented, can hope to become accomplished without careful study of the great poets of ages past. I will grant you a concession. You may explain to me your techniques, that I might more properly judge their worth. If they turn out to be worthy of proper civilised regard, which however unlikely could be possible, as ruined temples of beauty and grace are sometimes found beneath the coarsest sands of the endless desert, then I will give them their due regard."
She folded her arms and cocked her head to one side, regarding him. "Are you telling me that I've sat through all this nonsense about great and worthy beauty, because you want to learn about my magic?"
His countenance clouded but he avoided true anger with disparaging ease. "Far be in from me to attend your fair and pleasing court in the aspect of wind and rain, but it is not I who now stand tangled in a web of sorcery too strong to break and too subtle to evade. Even for someone who lays claim to priesthood of such absurd a thing as vanity, your presumption is a little hard to take." He broke off, surprised that she seemed to be agreeing with him.
She shrugged. "There's nothing strange about a religion devoted to vanity any more than one devoted to storms, or death, or wine. A storm is the worst a sailor might ever meet, so he seeks to appease the storm gods that they do not cross his path and wreck his enterprise. Vanity can do much the same to a city state. It comes in many forms, as hubris, as arrogance, as struggles over status and regard. But it is also pleasurable, and even necessary. Without some form of self-regard, everything is worthless, and doomed to defeat. If you can not like yourself, and see good things within you, then how can anyone in the world be expected to see you differently?" Seeing his expression, she sighed. "Think of it as wine, then. Too much makes you a fool, but it would be a sad life without it."
He chuckled, a rich rolling sound. "And how does this all relate to your magic? You are by profession a magician however much you dabble in priestly habits, just as a Sultan is always a Sultan, no matter what activities he chooses to soil his time. You think this deity of yours grants you power, like the shaman of the Fier'Te plains, who must addle their heads with chanting and herbsmoke to perform the most basic enchantment?"
"Let me show you the problem." she said, ignoring the comparison. She gestured, and a plain silvery sheet appeared, hovering in the air beside her. "Consider a mirror. This one is merely illusionary but this works as well for real mirrors. It reflects what is put in front of it." In her hand was suddenly a coin, made of some form of bronze. The image of her hand and the coin were visible in the mirror. "An illusion of a coin, which we can both see clearly. But it is also reflected in the mirror." He nodded. She continued "But it shouldn't. If it isn't real, how can it appear in the mirror?"
"It is an image of light, a phantom of appearance without substance. Its semblance is real enough, and it is that which we see in the mirror."
"The image of an image? But then what of this?" As she spoke the coin vanished. "I can still see the coin, but no-one else. It is an image only in my mind. Now this." The coin reappeared again. She could tell his interest was waning. "Now only you can see the coin, and not I. Do you see the problem?"
"I'm most sorrowful to say this, for I have great a regard for your enthusiasm, but I can see no coin. You forget perhaps that the circle in which you stand is proof against all your magics, of whatever kind. While you can create tricks of the light and other such within the circle, nothing you try to do to directly effect my own perceptions will penetrate the magical wards."
"Then why is the coin reflected in the mirror?"
He frowned at the reflected image, and then looked in vain for the object it was reflecting.
"I can't see the coin, because the image is for your mind alone. You can't see the coin, because you are protected by the wards. So what is the mirror reflecting?"
He said nothing for moment, still frowning. Then, "So what is your explanation?"
"That the mirror is not passive. It seems to see the image, and then pass it on. Some might say that it is because we do not fully understand how such things work. If we study light, and image and perception, then we will understand. Others say that it is images we do not understand. If we can fully understand the insubstantial, the unreal, the imagining, then the solution will present itself. I would say that the mirror itself is not passive, that it can truly reveal to people what they could not see themselves. The mirror has an aspect with knowledge, perception and power greater than our own."
"This piece of glass, of which you think so highly, is a conjured phantom of your own devising. You might as well claim your servant as witness to your good intentions, as demonstrate the nature of reality using your own creation as a sounding board. I find your choice of symbol fascinating, but it is hard to credit that you have found something as significant as you claim."
The mirror and glass vanished. She folded her arms. You don't believe me? Then show me a mirror you feel you can trust, and keep it out of the circle, so I may not influence it. Then we will see."
He chuckled. "I think not, for it is written by the Sages of-"
"Afraid I might be right?"
He was laughing now. "Oh no, but I am not so much a fool that I will heed your rather urgent demands to have a mirror placed outside the circle, where your reflection might by you be clearly seen. I trust my wards to keep you prisoner, but those who take chances unneeded are not those who take them for very long."
He looked for some kind of response, but she had crouched down, her head sunk down in her arms, and her long hair obscuring her face. He walked forward. "Once you get used to being here, you will start to enjoy it." he said kindly. "Any creature takes a while to be tamed. Life here will be better, I promise you." He looked down on her unresponsive form. "My sweet?" He leaned up to the barrier. The crouched figure flickered and disappeared. There was a rush of air as the invisible Kali threw herself at him. The wards stopped her, stopped her with bone-jarring suddenness. In particular it stopped her hand clenched around a thin bladed stiletto, several inches from his face. Inches quite easily spanned by the knife blade itself. Akarad jerked back, hand clapped to his cheek. When he removed it a thin and bloody scratch was revealed. Anger darkened his face. He pulled a long coloured handkerchief from a pocket and dabbed it at his face. For a long time he just stared at her, as she lay on the floor, tensed for his retribution. Finally he spoke.
"You will have time to realise how little you have achieved, and how much you have lost. I do not have to be kind. Once the city is conquered, you will have time to repent your folly." Muttering to himself, he strode quickly from the room.
Kali got to her feet and dusted herself off. The servant had not moved.
"Aren't you going with him?" she asked.
"No." The voice was flat, without inflection.
"You're staying here then?"
"That's nice. At least I'll have someone to talk to. Uh, I'm a little thirsty. Is there anything to drink?"
"Could I have some?"
He still hadn't moved.
"Uh, could you fetch some for me? I'd get it myself, only I can't leave the circle." She smiled apologetically.
He turned his head to stare at her blankly. "My master has ordered me to stay here and prevent you from leaving the room."
She bit her lip in frustration. Realising she was pacing, she knelt carefully down on the ground again, and shifted a little until she was comfortable.
"You're some kind of spirit, aren't you?"
He sniffed. "Anything that is alive is a spirit. Or has one."
"Oh." She was tugging at her sleeve in an absent minded way. It had been badly torn at some point during the day. She tore off a small piece and rolled it between her fingers with a distracted air. "So you're a demon?"
He gave her a strange look. Seeing her innocent expression, he replied. "There is a big difference between an efreet and a demon. An efreet is an elemental spirit, born of that element. Not the crude elemental forms you summon here, but a civilised and intelligent being," he sniffed again, "in theory anyway. This war has seen many brutish spirits not worthy of the name." He voice was as flat and toneless as ever, but she could sense the disapproval in her bones as though feeling the rumble of a river running deep underground.
She had wound the piece of cloth around her finger, and was sweeping it in slow distracted circles on the ground. "And a demon?"
Another sniff. "A demon is a creature of the Netherworld. They might appear in some kind of elemental form, but they are attuned to human suffering more than to any element. They are servants of the masters of the Void, and are occasionally leant out to those ambitious and foolish enough to seek the aid of evil in their quest for power. Not very pleasant."
"So are you a very powerful efreet or-"
"That's very clever by the way." he interrupted suddenly.
She looked up in astonishment.
"Weakening the circle. I didn't think it was possible. How do you do it?"
"I.. I can't do anything like that. You heard what Akarad said."
"I heard what he said, but the circle certainly isn't holding you like it used to. There's plenty of things he hasn't thought of. Do you have a hidden amulet of power that you're using to break out. Or a familiar spirit? Or do you have the power to distort time and space in strange and mysterious ways?"
"Where do you get all this from?" she asked, tracing circles in the ground once more. "If I could leave the circle I would. I'm not looking forward to becoming a 'well trained' servant of Akarad."
"I think you'd be good at it." he said, encouragingly. She slumped, head bowed. He could just make out her face between the strands of hair. "Your face. Its leaking?"
She drew a arm across her face, keeping her head bowed, and took a shuddering breath. "No, I just don't know where to go from here."
"I don't think you're supposed to go anywhere." he said helpfully.
She looked up at him, her eyes bright and clear. "Is there anything you want?"
"Do you find me attractive?"
He looked taken aback for a moment. Then he peered at her. The intensity of his gaze was disturbing. "Yes, I do."
She managed a thin smile. "How attractive?"
"Your shape, your hair, your skin. You look very... very..." he floundered.
"Yes?" she said, in a low voice.
"Flammable. I think you'd burn really well. Most people don't, you know." He stopped to digest the sour look he'd just been given. "Did I say something wrong?"
"Just leave me alone. Go talk to Akarad or something." She turned her back on him, and continued tracing circles on the ground.
"I can't. He told me to stop you leaving the room."
"I can't even leave the circle!"
"I don't have any instructions about the circle. He only mentioned the room."
She froze. Then turned her head slowly towards him. "So if I were to leave the circle, you wouldn't do anything?"
He nodded. "Akarad compels his efreet to obey his commands, no more and no less. As long as you don't leave the room, I will do nothing to harm you. You could even get yourself a drink from the sideboard there. I will probably mention it to him when I next see him, because I really want to know how you're doing that. The circle seems even weaker now."
She shrugged, and pushed her finger along the ground again. "The circle blocks magic, and it blocks me. But I thought it might not block Akarad."
The creature shrugged. "He's not here."
"No, but his blood is." She raised her finger. The strip of cloth wound around the it was soaked in red. The very edge was discoloured with whitish smears. She brought it down again to trace little circles on the ground. At the outer limit of each pass, the blood from the cloth leaked out to wash away a little more of the chalk lines on the ground. As he watched she made a final pass, and stopped. The lines nearest her were an impossible smear of blood chalk and dirt. The outermost ring now had a gap in it an inch wide. Carefully, she stood up and stepped gingerly out of the circle.
The red hued man watched her impassively. "His own blood." he said. "Thank you, I will remember that." He straightened up, growing taller and broader. His fingers stretched into long and powerful claws. She got the sudden impression of heat, as though the door to a furnace had swung wide. His face bulged as bones writhed and stretched under the skin.
She hesitated. "I thought you said you could only do what he said."
"Did I?" His widened mouth parted to reveal rows of pointed fangs. Behind them, something burned in the depths of is throat.
She dived to the floor as a gobbet of flame passed where had been standing, and left a burning hole in a silk hanging before melting into the wall. A fan of flames burst up from the hole in the wall, crisping the silk in an instant, while burning matter dribbled down and settled into a blazing puddle on the floor. She got to her feet cautiously. "Your master wanted me alive." she said gathering her feet under her. "Akarad will be angry with you."
He took a step forward, and then another, each raised limb accompanied by the wrenching of wood as his clawed feet tore themselves free from the soft wood of the floor. "Akarad will believe what I tell him, or he will burn. My master is of the Void, and will relish the sweet smell of your charred flesh." He took a deep breath.
She hit the window at dead run, just as the room blossomed into the flame. She fell out into the street with glass scattered all around her. For a single precious second she couldn't think, couldn't move, just lay there on a bed of shattered glass. The burst of fire in the room died down, and she could see movement at the window. She scrambled to her feet, and took off down the road. No time to think, only to run. People stepped aside to let her pass, but did not otherwise seem to see her. Nor did they see the demon who pulled himself through the window frame, and followed swiftly after her.
ALLEN GRANTLIFE'S JOURNAL [10/1/00]
I became engaged in the most odd case today. Was woken early this morning by insistent banging at my door. Upon opening the portal was presented with the sight of a haggard looking Vermiform, seeming quite unnerved. As I attempted to speak to him, he interrupted me, urgency evident in his voice.
'Master Grantlife, you must come quickly, sir. It is very important. A terrible atrocity has occurred!'
I naturally ventured 'You need medical assistance?'
'It is too late for that now, sir, I am afraid,' replied the boy, who could not have been more than twenty. He blanched a little, attempting to hide an evident distaste, as he added 'but I was told to come for you. It is known, sir, of your skill as a coroner.'
I nodded absently. Before he had even made the statement, I had begun to suspect the reason for this early morning wake-up. Let me stress that what I did next I considered a burden, rather than a privilege; I have never had a taste for the art of dissection, for I am of the ancient stock of the Gethsemane, whose desire is to not to deal in death, but to promote life, yet I trained in my youth with the great Daedalan, Autry, and have ever after been known for my skills with the scalpel. Indeed, as this diary has, at times, recorded, my work on the so-called 'Midnight' case, and also that of the strange ritual murders of Vervain noblemen and women, has been ongoing for 15 years now, and is well known to both the Watch and the Imperial Council. Needless to say, the answers to the cases still elude me (as, sadly, does the mystery of the Barraban murders...).
However, I digress; let me return to the singular events of this morning.
Having placed my cloak around my shoulders and gathered up my bag of tools, I followed the young Vermiform out of the house and into the streets of Zehazel. All was chaos; the city is in the midst of war (I shudder to think of the toll on life the conflict will ultimately take), and as we walked, we were jostled by Antiochenes heading outwards to defend the city walls, couriers from Arbiter hurrying off to speak with the heads of Allegiances,even, Almino help us, a scraggy bunch of Dionysian gleemen, who were tuning up instruments in the street, in order, so their leader announced, to entertain the troops!! One benefit of all this was that we went virtually unnoticed in the confusion - and considering the potential horror that this case may portend, the fact that no - one paid us any heed may be just as well.
Eventually, I was led into Caliban (again, the timing was fortuitous - although much coming and going was in evidence, this was, you will recall, the very early morning. I had finished my preliminary examination within an hour. I hear now, late this evening, that Caliban has since that time been invested by the Qu'rayshi forces - this may mean limitations are placed upon my follow up work. (Mem. Will need to discuss further investigation with whoever is holding Caliban in a few days - if that is the so - called 'enemy', then so be it...I have fears that the murder may suggest we are all facing an enemy of more terrible proportions than these Sand People.) I was taken to a house I did not recognise; ringed with Vermiform guards, it stood tall and imposing, and was painted a violent red and black. I directed a look of surprise towards my companion.
'This is... was... the house of the Caliban Sorceror Li Tsao Tse Tung... or, at least, it was the most well known of his several houses... that is, if the documents we are finding are to be believed...' the Vermiform responded.
I cut him off. 'What are you talking about?'
'I think you'd be better off asking the boss about the details.' he said.
We entered the house and climbed down several rickety flights of stairs, my mind awash with further questions, until at last, we entered a large cellar room, which looked anything but ordinary. There were more Vermiform guards posted about the place, while, standing conspicuously at the centre of the room, was a man I recognised immediately - Sarcade Ferris, the Watch Commander and Ruen's number two. On the floor and walls were the smudged remnant of what looked to be red and white glyphs of some description, while, immediately before Ferris, lay a huddled shape, caked in blood. Ferris cracked a crooked smile as I entered the room.
'Grantlife. Glad that they found you. Now, we need to be quick here. Caliban's gone mad over this war scare, and we don't want to be caught here when those Sand eaters turn up !! But, that doesn't mean I want you to skimp on efficiency. Understand that the loss of this fellow Li Tsao is no blow - between you and me, the Watch had been keeping a discreet eye on his activities for some time, and they were damn suspicious - but the murder is particularly brutal, and it's important that we find the culprit, before he strikes again.'
Familiar words. No doubt Ferris had a secondary motive for wanting the killer caught; anything that worked to enhance his own reputation could only be worthwhile. For myself, the stopping of any murderer was obviously high on my list of priorities - not only would it serve to preserve life, but even a killer can ,in my experience, once caught, be cured of his brutality, if the Vermiform allow Gethsemane the right to treat him before he is hung.However, as I began to peruse the body, I felt any sympathy with the perpetrator draining away. The mortal remains of Li Tsao were violently damaged; he was naked and his torso seemed to have virtually burst asunder, as if some larval beast had broken through the lining of his bodily pupae, his arms and legs dangled uselessly. The face was a bloodied mess, and the eyes seemed to have shrivelled to nothing within their sockets. Only the hair, tied into ridiculous multicoloured clumps, remained untouched, and indicated that he had once been recognizable.
'By Turumak!' I exclaimed. 'This is...barbaric! I've never seen anything like it!'
'Worrying, is it not?' Ferris replied 'This makes our old friend Midnight look positively mundane.'
'I don't know that I'll be able to deduce much from this...mess.' I added. 'Naturally, I'll take some blood samples, some of the internal organs, for closer examination. And, naturally, you'll take the body into custody. I should be able to find out how he died. But, Almino... it's revolting! Who killed him and why is a matter for Watch investigation.'
Ferris nodded. 'We've already been making some inroads. Apparently, a Mordecai was seen wandering near the house an hour or so before we discovered the body. Of course, that fact's a problem in itself, because even if the mad monks are harbouring a real lunatic in their midst, the Hierophant will never admit to it. He'd rather burn the killer quietly, and brush the ashes under the carpet. Mordecai cannot do mortal wrong, you see... the sins of this world are beneath them. I foresee another extradition order being needed...'
'Hold on a minute,' I said. While Ferris had been expounding, I had continued to examine the body, and I had seen something clutched in Li Tsao's hand, which I had missed on initial perusal. Opening up the bunched fist, I disentangled a dull, bloodstained cube. 'What do you make of this?' I showed it to Ferris.
'Oh ?' he asked. 'I've no idea... I suppose... well... you know the Caliban. Magicians keep all sorts of strange things around...'
'Wait a minute !' I shouted 'That's the answer. Or, at least, a part of the answer. Why would Li Tsao be holding onto this cube as he died ? What are these patterns on the walls?'
Ferris looked nonplussed.
'He was calling up magics of some sort when he died !'I cried happily. 'He wasn't stripped naked, he took his own clothing off before he came down here. Maybe a spell went wrong; that was what killed him.'
'Then he wasn't murdered after all?' Ferris asked.
At that moment, a terrible thought hit me. I lost all the levity which had been generated in my moment of deductive triumph. 'Or, perhaps, murdered by something that came from... beyond Elsewhere.' I announced, ashen - faced.
Ferris looked momentarily stricken. He suddenly sparked back into life, adopting an air of attempted unconcern. 'Well, Grantlife, we musn't go jumping to wild conclusions here. As far as I'm concerned, this now seems most likely to have been a grudge killing... the type which might typically erupt should an arrogant Caliban insult the religion of a devoted follower of the One, at some point or other, don't you agree? Or, perhaps, an old associate of Li Tsao's decided to take revenge on him, for reasons best known to himself... we've found documents in the house which indicate he had all sorts of odd contacts with non-Zehazelians, and you can't trust non-city folk, now can you? How easy it would have been for an Upright Beast to have rent him limb from limb. Or, maybe, it was the collected might of his famous servants. They all seem to have upped and left rather hastily over something.'
I shook my head, dismally. 'Rubbish!' I said. 'The magical background to this case is obvious...and don't try and tell me that that... thing,' I nodded at the body, 'is the work of any ordinary killer.'
Ferris looked at me long and hard for a moment. Then, he said ' Thank you for your assistance, Mr. Grantlife. I am sure your further investigations will prove most valuable to us. I hope they will be able to confirm evidentially one of the theories that I have just proposed, and we will be able to bring the culprit to justice. I know I can rely on your discretion, and that you will not go spreading wild rumours about this murder. Now, I suggest we get out of this part of the city - the shouting outside is getting louder.'
Thus ended my morning's adventure. The body has been removed to a Daedalan laboratory under Vermiform orders, pending further examination, but the house, and its mysterious glyphs, are now out of bounds. I have not been able to get away from thought of the murder, even though I have been to rest in the Gardens a number of times. I hear, vaguely, that that Melmothian busybody Mirless has picked up on the story already and begun to idly speculate, but I am not as sure as he or Ferris that the blame rests with the Mordecai or an Upright Beast. No, it is, this evening, as I write, the glyphs which puzzle me, and the small, dark cube, which I was allowed to take from the site. They reminded me of something, those odd lines and whorls and miniature faces, something from long ago, perhaps told to me in my childhood... I have resolved to talk to the Bartholomew... an antiquarian may be needed in order to explain seemingly ancient fears...
Divers Alarums at the De La Quintesse Household [6/1/00]
The De La Quintesse mansion is under siege, and has given sanctuary to an assortment of refugees, including several eminent Vervains and their retinues, Ernest Lonergan of Daedalus, Elizabeth Meridew and a mysterious young gentlewoman who gives her name as Shashamah. For some reason the house seems to be of particular interest to the attacking forces, and as night falls, the attack takes on a more sinister aspect. Suffice to say that there are many monsters breaking in through windows, people running panic-stricken up and downstairs missing each other, maidservants screaming, lights suddenly going out, erratic Daedalan prototypes, tapestries being pulled down over heads during fights, people running half-naked down corridors covered in soap, and grisly deaths of unnamed extras.
6 points counterbid to 'The Last Line of Defense'
Orhan Ismafan makes his play.
Link between Antioch - Caliban bids
As the battle wears on, the cracks inevitably begin to show. Seemingly changing tactics, the Qu'rayshi sorcerers cease summoning Djinn Warbeasts, and the skirmishers press through towards the Qu'raysh commanders, emboldened by their apparent success. This is short lived, as the sorcerers work their greatest summoning yet: titans of air and fire appear, and assault the walls directly. Tearing a hole through the Antioch defence, the elemental giants plough through into the holdings of Caliban, a column of Qu'rayshi on their heels.
Antioch rally their forces, falling back to the walls, in a desperate attempt to close the gap, but it is all they can do to defend their own positions. The line is breached, but not yet overun.
At their field headquarters, the Barons of Antioch gather to discuss strategy.
"We sacrifice Caliban," intoned Lord Fleischer.
Earl Gessner looked up in surprise. Retreat was not Fleischer's way. "My lord?" he asked, as if hearing incorrectly.
"Caliban is lost. We shall win it back later. There are great prizes in Caliban, for those of sorcerous ways. They will seek the Tower of Caliban before moving through the city. The reserve will contain the foreign devils, and the Caliban must defend themselves against the demons of air and fire as best they can."
"Then what is our strategy? "
"We shall hold the line. One leak in our defence is better than being overrun. The Northern Quarter is far less able to defend itself than Caliban. If those sand-devils enter Gethsemane, the slaughter will be unspeakable. Meanwhile, you ten must try to cut out the infection at it's source. Their sorcerers laugh at us from the safety of their tents. You ten will take Kalgravex's swords, and stop their laughter."
The ten barons were silent. This was a suicide mission, and every man knew it. But Fleischer had spoken, and it was every Antiochene's part to die a violent death one day.
One by one, they nodded their assent, and mounted their horses. To ride, to glory, or to death.
4 Point Counterbid: A Traitor in Revenant.
"...As she left the Crooked House, she briefly smiled and washed her eyes with her long forked tongue. Another job well done."
...She rounded the corner, towards the Perpetual Bazaar, where she could
blend into the night's crowds. As she flitted through the night, there came
"Halt! Who goes there?"
Antioch's watch-scum. How had they seen her? Her enchantments and skill should have been proof against even the most vigilant of sentinels. No matter. Her hand reached into her pocket for a packet of black powder. Soon a black fog would cover her flight...
As three swordsmen surrounded her, she cast the packet of dust into the leader's face. Grains of soot stuck comically to his face, but no fog...
The soldier looked at her for a moment, somewhat stunned, and then spoke. "Right." he grunted, raising a mailed fist. Without her equipment, she was forced to fall back on her knife - a knife which should have glowed with an eerie blue radiance, but instead just glinted in the dark.
Even so, she gave good account of herself. During the melee, a stray blow from one of the guards struck the box holding her prize. The eye flew out of the box, as if propelled, and fell through a sewer grating, landing with a plop. As its influence over the melee faded, faint screams of the Antioch patrol were heard, as the thief's otherworldly nature re-asserted itself. The eye floated down the sewer, towards the sea, it's pupil pulsating, as if laughing.
Kali is evasive about how much she knew about the death of her predecessor.
Level 3 (6pts)
Caliban is attacked in strength. The enemy suffer serious casualties, but the lack of any real military force hinders the allegiance's efforts to prevent the advance. Three elemental djinn of vast power and size enter the city along with their summoners. In the resulting struggle, one of the creatures is rendered deaf and blind, and retreats in confusion, and one is destroyed by its own side. Barnabus has been seriously hurt , and is carried from the fight. However the third and greatest of them is not opposed at all, as Raphael seemingly betrays the allegiance, and does not make an appearance. The spare creature wreaks havoc. Kali attempts to stop it with her magic and is dashed to ground. As she is captured, and the enemy troops move in, all hope for the Caliban seems lost.
Kali is interrogated by the remaining summoner, who appears to recognise her. She escapes from her imprisonment, and kills the summoner. The djinn gives chase, and after a long and increasingly esoteric struggle, The wounded and exhausted Kali seeks shelter in the deCompte houshold, where she is taken for a hysterical gentlewoman, and reluctantly given shelter. The djinn secretly follows, and in a second highly esoteric struggle the creature is brought to an untimely end.
Meanwhile, back at Caliban, Raphael plots against the invaders. Barnabus, still crippled, and believing Kali lost and Raphael dead, decides to enact one last great ritual. Using powers previously beyond his command, he seemingly travels by arcane means to the site outside the city where lies the rift through which the invaders came. With the last of his strength he uses the device meant to hide the city, to instead hide the rift. The rift still stands, but can no longer be found, located detected or entered. To all intents and purposes, the rift is sealed. But for how long?
Back in Caliban, Raphael blames Kali for Barnabus's "death". Kali seems regard it as a disaster still in the making, and with obvious regret, authorises Raphael to use "any means necessary" to get the invaders to leave.
The scene is left with the invaders in de facto control of the district of Caliban, and any neighbouring allegiances that didn't bother to send in anything this turn.
Death of Li Tsao Tse Tung
Later, the Mordecai authorities cordon off the premises (with the aid of Vermiform) and a coroner, Allen Grantlife, or someone examines the body, and comments on some of the suspicious markings on the wall. Later still, in Mordecai, the Hierophant asks Cardinal (someone) about the behaviour of the Mordecai monk sent to investigate Li Tsao's death - he has been acting a little strangely...
The plague ended, Tannen was able to turn to his earlier promises. He stood in a large barren area of the Bartholomew gardens. The bare earth around him had been shaped by Tallietta, the engineer daughter of Selmor Farrow, First Librarian of the Bartholomew. It swept around him, all the grace of sculpture produced with tonnes of earth, spaced with pools which reflected the sky's blue back to him.
Raising his hands, Tannen began to paint his canvas. The few interested Bartholomew who were watching gasped as grass edged above the soil. Within moments, arcs of colour began to flourish amongst the tones of green, as Ivory, the flame-haired young druid who was acting as Tannen's assistant walked around the growing plants, adding his own touches of colour and art. As Tannen concentrated, the onlookers saw light flashing from the island in the middle of the central lake. A questing root fought free of the clinging soil, and pushed up towards the sunlight.
Selmor Farrow gestured, and a trio of acolytes rushed forwards with a small bridge, which they placed spanning the gap to the central island. Tannen stepped on the bridge even as it touched the soil, crossing to stand over the crystalline root. He gestured upwards, in a sweeping motion, and the root thickened and darkened, grew glass-like branches leaves. Finally, flowers like diamonds grew out from the branches.
"Here, Master Farrow, I gift to you part of the Crystal beech," said Tannen. "It is linked to that in my garden in Gethsemane, and also to that of my homeland through its branches. That is part of the magic of the beech - A light seen in one can be seen in its partners. At night, I sleep beneath my tree, and it shines faintly with the dawn of my home. Maybe one day all the Orders will see the use in this; perhaps you may be able to think of another use for my crystal beech."
Tannen gestured to the beautiful garden, all in full bloom at once, as if by miracle. "All of this, my art, is my gift to your Order. As you requested, there are many healing plants here; White Tailed Wort, Ivory Lily, Bell Porcelain, Borage Horn, Chameleon Vine and Orange Sage ; as well as those you wish for fodder or study, Flame Corolla, Fool's Silver, Slender Violet, Sundew, Spoon Flower, Lady Tress and many others. It is my fondest hope that this garden will be a haven for peace and tranquility - a respite from the troubles of the world."
At that moment, a pair of armour-clad men rushed in, carrying a stretcher between them. "Master Tannen, Master Tannen," they cried. "Our commander has been wounded by the hordes who attack the city, and the guardsmen told us you were here! Please, can you heal him?"
Shrugging slightly, Tannen offered a rueful smile to the Bartholomew who had only begun to offer their congratulations. "It is man's way to hope and dream. That is why we kill one another. Plants do not dream - their only hopes are for growth. Would that we were more like them. Good day, Master Librarian, Mistress Tallietta." He turned to walk alongside the man lying on the stretcher, raised his hands, and began to concentrate anew.
Val Tannen's Garden
Sitting cross-legged in his garden before the crystal-beech tree, Tannen sensed the flowers around him blossom and bloom in moments. Bees, beyond his control, alighted on his shoulders, and crawled across the flowers, pollinating them. Above the buzzing in his ears, and the rustling of the growing plants, another, eerie sense spoke to him - an ageless story of growth, destruction, and an eternal spring.
Opening his eyes, Tannen saw the field of herbs in the small meadow before him, different shades of green neatly clustering around the tree in rows. Walking around the field, he took care not to tread on the plants, and only harvested what the herbs could freely afford. He rapidly filled a number of large sacks with the leaves, which he would take to the hospital. Once there, the leaves would be steeped in boiling water, and given freely to those people still afflicted with the plague.
Silently, he blessed _SeHT's sacrifice, which had given him the knowledge of which plants to grow. Their potion was saving lives by the thousands, but he would not have been able to save those lives without the help of the heroic stranger. As Tannen was musing, a young Tatterdemalion, face covered in a buttery smear, hurtled out of the bushes, nearly bowling Tannen over in his hurry.
"Hold there, young. Matthias, isn't it?" Tannen said, holding out his hand to slow the child's madcap run. "You'll bruise more of the plants, and they' re having a hard enough time with all those Jugurtha coming to steal their berries as it is."
As he spoke, he became aware of a handful of adults running through the undergrowth, breaking branches, crushing shrubs underfoot, and killing the plants as they shouldered through, unmindful of the beauty they destroyed in their efforts. He knelt before the child, "I see. Well you'd better go and hide," He gestured to the east. "That young tree over there seems to be your type. Headstrong. It won't let you be seen, and it'll be easy for you to climb."
As the boy turned and scrambled up the tree, Tannen turned to where he could now hear rustling. So they'd bullied their way through the outer hedge? He'd have to persuade the thorns to grow sharper from now on. He had been unwilling to do that before, as he strongly believed in giving every living thing a fair chance. But these men had been brutish to his plants. Perhaps he should show the second ring-hedge the secret of soporific pollen. That would make aggressors stop and think. Or just stop, at least. However, for the time being. He waved his hand idly in the direction of the crashing, which immediately stopped, and was replaced by angry shouts of shock. He wandered in their direction.
In a clearing, two men lay prone on the floor, roots and grass pinning them to the floor. A third was struggling, upside-down, from a tree - vines entangling his ankles. The blood had rushed to his head, and they all bled from a number of small scratches. Tannen patted the trunk, muttering, "there, there - let the man down. He didn't know what he was doing. And mind you do it gently - I know you oaks and grudges."
"Now, I don't know what the boy stole, and I don't particularly care. He owes you. However, you owe me. Twice. Once for not letting you any further into the garden, and once for the healing. I do not stand for violence." Tannen gestured again, and the open cuts knitted together, blood drying rapidly. The roots and grasses crept back, freeing all three men.
"What I suggest is this: I buy the boy's misdeed. That's one. In return, you still owe me a favour. It just so happens I have a few sacks need carrying across town. I'll show you where they are."
Diplomatic pouches - 1 point bid.
SHORT RESPONSE: Weorthan finds a courier case and prepares it.
FULL RESPONSE PART ONE
Of course, the courier case should never have gone astray. That goes without saying. The messengers sent with them were under strict, and carefully worded instruction. This was, after all, something of an important issue.
And yet Weorthan, never an intended recipient, held one in his hand. He stood, in the largest of the rooms in his apartment. The room was empty, but for his travelling trunk, pushed to one wall. He opened the case... discarded the note inside without troubling to read it. The case itself was what seemed to interest him. He turned it in his hand... held it to the light... reached... and found a link. A fine line of possibility that connected the case to its source. A link that could be used to magically return the case.
Weorthan paused. He looked upwards, to the left, his eyes seeing beyond the ceiling of his room. A moment of slight confusion... his brow creased, and then smoothed.
He walked over to his trunk, opened it. Looking inside, he took out a crystal box. The sides, the hinges, even the lock seemed to be made of almost transparent crystal. Weorthan placed the courier case in the box, closed the lid. He reached again for the link. It was still there, but frozen. Where the line of possibility hit the crystal, it became a line only of potential and nothing more. Nothing until the box was opened and the case removed.
FULL RESPONSE PART TWO
The terrible conflagration at the Argentil house was at its height when Weorthan arrived.
He moved steadily, unhurriedly through the avenue that approached the grounds of the Argentil home. Chaos and confusion reigned here. Swarms of men swept from place to place, some defenders, some aggressors, others merely fleeing.
As he gazed upwards at the grey towers of the house, the flames flickered brightly up to the heights of the tallest. The heat was fierce. Terrible. Unquenchable.
Weorthan approached the building. He glanced around, and saw... as he expected... that no-one was watching. He neared the great gate of the house. Already it was near consumed by fire, hanging from its upper hinges at an angle that told of violence, of rams, of irresistible fire.
He reached out his right hand. There, he held a wand of crystal, pale and hungry. The flames leapt to it, were drawn to it, drawn into it... and vanished.
Weorthan strode forward with purpose now, seeking the heart of the inferno. Through the great hall, parlours, the kitchens, all the while, the flames leapt to him, to the crystal in his hand, to be consumed by it as its hue changed from milky white to ugly, vicious red.
FULL RESPONSE PART THREE
Weorthan opened the crystal box carefully. He withdrew the courier case gently, with caution. Once more, he examined it, saw that it was still connected to the Arbiter. He opened it again and placed within it the bright, crimson, angry rod he had filled with the entirety of the inferno from the Argentil house.
Delicately, with near infinite care, he closed the case once more and placed it back in the crystal box that would hold it, frozen against any recall, until such a time as it was released by him. Then, it could return to those who summoned it, carrying with it a terrible, fierce, hungry, hungry heat.
Once the crystal box was closed, he dropped it into his travelling trunk. He did not yet know who would want the case. Someone would. Sometime. When they did... when the time was right... then he would know.
"A Traitor in Revenant" - 3 point bid
SHORT RESPONSE: Weorthan fashions a clue.
The thief crept back towards the door with her prize. With a hiss like a snake the dark wood twisted into the likeness of a face and a demonic figure stepped from the centre of the door. "You will not take the Eye of Thunn from this place !" the demon stated, with evident satisfaction at the prospect of a kill. For a moment, the thief lost her stooped and timid posture. She drew a small pistol crossbow and fired a bolt of fierce green light into the forehead of the demon. She stepped past it as it fell burning to the floor, slipping the crossbow back into her robes and recovering the manner of a young thief. As she left the Crooked House, she briefly smiled and washed her eyes with her long forked tongue. Another job well done.
As the thief left, quietly slipping from shadow to shadow, Weorthan left his place of hiding. He glanced for a moment at the place where the Eye of Thunn had previously rested. It mattered not. His attention was drawn instead to the greater prize... the burning demon.
His movements were as silent and subtle as those of the thief as he approached the corpse, where some remnants of the green fire still glowed. He grinned. Not too late.
His hands flickered across the body, ever upwards towards the head. At the movements of his hands, the last flames were drawn to the skull, where finally they gathered, focused around the forehead.
Weorthan watched and waited, then... his right hand flashed forward, grasping.
In his right hand was a frozen crossbow bolt of green light.
Weorthan smiled happily to himself as he left the room.
3 points: Arbiter indecision.
Arbiter couriers run around asking Allegiance heads for their views on the invasion and frantically trying to coordinate a defence of the City. Allegiance heads largely ignore or laugh at couriers. Much dismay in Arbiter.
(re Antioch) +3 points: Blood in the gutters
While the might of Antioch faces the main invasion force outside the city, the Antiochene reserves within the city walls are mauled by hostile forces. Arbiters try futilely to coordinate the City's defenders. Will Palatine or Vermiform come to Antioch's aid?
3 points turn 4 bid: 'Arbiter indecision' - introduction to battle
It was an oppressive summer night. Casimir had found sleep unattainable, so he donned a dressing-gown and adjourned to his study. He was there, reading by lamplight, when Kemp entered.
"There's a man at the door, sir, who requests your immediate attendance at Parliament House."
Casimir looked up, amazed. Kemp's posture bespoke his usual alertness and efficiency, though his gown was a concession to the lateness of the hour. Casimir glanced at the ornate clock on the mantelpiece.
"It's three in the morning, Kemp! What on earth are you doing up at this hour?"
With a perfectly straight face, the butler replied, "A good servant is up whenever his services are required, sir."
Casimir sighed. Sometimes Kemp's impeccable service could be downright annoying. "Even good servants are allowed to sleep, you know. Only villains, nightwatchmen and insomniacs should be awake at three in the morning." Casimir went to his bedroom to find something to wear. Returning in a blue tunic, he asked, "Did they say why I'm summoned?"
"No sir." Kemp stood, arms outstretched, holding a jacket.
"Oh, it's really not that cold. No, I insist. Look, you just go back to bed, I'll see myself out."
Nonetheless, Kemp shuffled behind him as he went to the door. Casimir grimaced inwardly. Ever since his parents' untimely death, he had been dotingly looked after by Mr & Mrs Kemp, who seemed worried that the slightest draft might give their 'young master' a fatal cold, and that every alleyway held murderous brigands. Casimir disregarded their concerns with youthful insouciance.
Two men with lanterns were waiting at the garden gate, and Casimir observed that they were lictors from the Chief Justice's staff. Something big was brewing. They wouldn't tell him what, but insisted that he was required on urgent Arbiter business, saying nothing else on the brisk ten-minute walk from Casimir's house to the Parliament buildings.
Though the City Square was sunk in pre-dawn darkness, a few lights still burned in Parliament House, and people were hurrying in and out with swift purpose.
In the massive pillared portico, members of the City Guard, the special unit of Vermiform who guarded Parliament, were very much in evidence. The lictors ushered Casimir past the guards, through the grand entrance-hall, and down the right-hand corridor to the Sun Chamber.
A score of senior Arbiters from all divisions were clustered around a long table, waving papers at each other and speaking tersely. Against one wall were lounging a dozen of the Arrow Street Runners, the streetwise and athletic couriers of Arbiter who were often sent on special duties for the Chief Justice. Casimir was sent over to join a small group of juniors who were standing in another corner and looking as confused as he felt. He saw that they were his contemporaries, the freshly appointed Arbiters of this year's intake. Gemma Carstairs seemed the most alert - the others had clearly been dragged from their beds by the summons, and Philip 'Bunny' Bunting, barely awake at the best of times, was snoring gently on a bench. "What's going on?" Casimir asked.
"No-one's told us. I was out in the yard with my telescope" - Gemma was an ardent amateur astrologer - "when the licks came round with an urgent summons. I was worried I'd committed some horrific indiscretion and was about to be thrown out of the Allegiance, but I figure they can't expel all of us!" They were both keeping an eye on the activity at the table. The lictors accompanying Casimir had made their report and hurried elsewhere.
Arrel Arbuckle agreed. "Bunting lacks the energy for misdeeds, and d'Mares, of course, is a paragon of correct behaviour. Otherwise, those present bear a close resemblance to the group involved in the amusing escapade of the horse in the Family Court."
"I was never there, you can't prove anything, and how was I to know Justice Dawson is hippophobic?" replied Casimir.
Julian d'Mares, tiresomely well-behaved scion of a long-nosed Vervain house, claimed superior knowledge. "You obviously haven't been told that the new intake of each year is at the beck and call of the Allegiance. We have no time of our own," he said piously, "for Justice does not sleep."
Discussion was cut short when a thin, elderly figure strode over to the juniors. Someone prodded Bunting awake.
Edward Croft, the Master of the Rolls, was the second-highest magistrate of Arbiter; a spry old schemer who possessed, even at the age of seventy-two, a notoriously vital energy. At social functions he was known to pursue junior Arbiters of both sexes with a positively Dionysian vigour, but now his eyes were agleam with a more political excitement.
"Ah, eight out of twelve is good enough for this hour! Doubtless some of you are wondering why you've been untimely wrest from rest," he chuckled. "This is the time for you to discover that first-year Arbiters have no time of their own. You are ours to summon and dismiss," he said gleefully, "and you are considered bright enough to help with important tasks but not high enough to sleep in.
"As of an hour ago, we were informed by Gulliver that the City faces an imminent invasion. At dawn - a little less than two hours away. You are required to assist the Runners in courier duties for the Allegiance."
The juniors gaped in astonishment.
"Come, come, you'll learn that war and peace is all in a day's work for a good Arbiter! Now hurry along, we've prepared a document for the perusal of Allegiance heads, which you are to deliver. And let's have no horsing around, shall we?" The Master's eyes twinkled, though he put on a long face. "Justice Dawson is still under sedation in Gethsemane."
They lined up behind the Runners who were receiving scroll-cases from the formidable Lady Salomolas. As they waited, Bunting groaned. "An invasion? At three in the morning?"
Gemma quipped, "I'm sure there's a law against that." But now Casimir was stepping up to the table with some trepidation. He was still not quite sure what Salomolas had made of his nervous declaration of personal goals in their private interview, though he took some comfort from the knowledge that his fellow juniors had all had similarly discomfiting experiences. But all she said was, "Antioch," and gave him a scroll-case.
[Casimir's visit to Antioch goes here]
Dawn was now less than an hour away. Dim light fell from the east, but a vast darkness was filling the western sky as Casimir sprinted back to Arbiter.
The Chief Justice had arrived in the Sun Chamber by the time Casimir returned. Some of the other couriers were sitting on the benches, waiting for further orders. Casimir joined them, and Gemma brought him up to speed on what had been revealed about the invaders: they were apparently the rumoured Million Swords, brought from somewhere called Qu'raysh by some Grand Vizier. Other Arbiters kept coming in as the seniors argued.
Salomolas was trying to construct a framework for negotiation, but several of the judges were reluctant to say anything until more was known about the size of the threat; others saw negotiation as a waste of time. Rawley wasn't saying anything, but was clearly growing impatient.
Harold d'Estaine, the lion of the courts, spoke loudly. "It does seem clear that some of the other Allegiances are quite sanguine about our victory, my lady. A strict cease-fire would require the enemy's immediate disarmament, the dispelling of their hostile spirits, and their internment in holding camps outside the city. And if any attempt were made by the invaders to enter the Imperial Palace, I would urge that the terms of their subsequent surrender be suitably harsh. For we of Arbiter are the Emperor's servants. What more need we discuss?" As usual, d'Estaine was speaking largely for the pleasure of exercising his own beautiful voice, but the renowned advocate had caught the prevailing mood.
Her Worship, Justice Cope was similarly confident. "One expects that the Grand Vizier will be dealt with either by Master Kalgravex or the Emperor's defenders, which raises the questions of what Qu'rayshi authorities we will be dealing with following our victory. Peace in the field would presumably be negotiated with their military leadership, but long-term arrangements may require a visit to their homeland. Information received from Gulliver -" she brandished a very new and very thin file labelled 'Qu'raysh' - "suggests some instability exists to be exploited, but conclusive assessment of the situation must await the return of the real Doctor Meridew."
A quavery voice exploited a momentary gap in the discussion. "I would like to note that the tone of the replies from Allegiance heads indicates the poor regard in which Arbiter is held." Old Justice Lender looked intent on reviving this hoary topic of Arbiter debate, but was cut off by the acerbic Duncan Rattle. "This is hardly the time to talk about reputation, when the survival of our very City is at stake!"
Before the argument could slide further into squabbling, Rawley raised his voice. "Arbiter's contribution may not be valued by other Allegiances, but whether we win or lose, we are the persons most skilled at negotiating political outcomes. We will reserve decision on these matters until the rest of the senior Arbiters have joined us, though I will remain here for informal discussion of the matter. I suggest that those of you who have not already done so call your families to join us here, in what is our most secure building. Besides the City Guard, we are arming the bailiffs and lictors, under the command of my chief of staff, Aedile Rax. The juniors will attend the Aedile in the Moon Chamber."
Garan Rax, First Aedile of Arbiter, stepped forward with parade-ground precision. The stocky administrator, having once held the rank of Captain in the Imperial Army of Calhemnd, was one of the few Arbiters with extensive military experience. Without a word, he walked briskly out of the room, and the couriers hurried to follow.
The Moon Chamber was a smaller hall adjoining the Sun Chamber; while the Solar could hold a full conclave of Arbiters, the Lunar was reserved for more select gatherings. Casimir was surprised to see that several bailiffs were lifting the floorboards to reveal a pool of clear water, maybe ten feet wide and a few inches deep. Rax motioned the juniors to join the other runners already standing around the pool while he talked briefly to the Lady Salomolas. The sorceress stared impassively at the still water -- or rather at the mosaic map of the City that lined the shallow basin.
Rax ceased his muttering, and Salomolas responded with a few short words. The Aedile turned to the couriers. "This Chamber serves as Arbiter's centre of operations. Much of our intelligence information will come through this scrying pool, but her Ladyship informs me that the weight of hostile magic will prevent her from gathering a clear picture of events. We need people out there in the streets to verify and augment information she can gather, and to carry messages as needed.
"I see I now have twelve Runners and eleven junior clerks. Melar, I'm appointing you my deputy. Everyone else, you will take orders from me, Chief Runner Melar, or the Lady Salomolas only. Burrett, fetch the extra amulets. Carron and Perides, find the Guard officers and bring them here. As for you lot -" he cast a steely eye over the juniors. "Bunting, Califax and d'Mares, you're the slowest clerks - you'll stay here for liaison within the House. The rest of you will each pair up with a Runner and wait for your assignments." Bunting looked particularly relieved - apparently he'd barely made it to Bartholomew and back without collapsing. Casimir was surprised that Rax seemed to know the names of humble first-year Arbiters; Chief Runner Melar apparently didn't, because he simply came over and pointed at successive juniors and Runners, saying, "You, you're with him."
As they were paired off, Runner Burrett returned with a small oak chest. Melar unlocked it and started handing out small silver amulets, identical to those the Runners already wore around their necks. "These are our luck charms - they'll give you a bit of extra protection, particularly from hostile magic, but don't rely on them too much. Your best defences are your speed and your wits. For added precaution, Runner Burrett will take you to the armoury; you'll each be issued with a leather jerkin, a helmet, a dagger and a hand weapon of your choice. You are not expected to take the fight to the enemy, but I understand you're all capable of holding a weapon without hurting yourselves." Like any well-bred citizens of Zehazel, most Arbiters have a smattering of weapons training, but some of the juniors looked more nervous than before. Melar continued, "Really, if you're not confident in your weaponry, then as acting Runners you're better off not carrying one at all."
Shortly, they were back in the Moon Chamber, uncomfortably clad in their new military array. Salomolas was now pouring vials of coloured sand into the pool, where, rather than disperse murkily as one might expect, the different colours formed neat little cones at different points on the map. Rax looked up from the pool sternly. "Battle is about to be joined. I needn't tell you this is dangerous work you're up for, but remember, you're couriers, not fighters. Your task is to keep us informed. Stay as close to the action as necessary to see what's going on, but no closer - once in a melee, you lose all perspective. Juniors, if you want to stay alive, follow everything your partnered Runners do and say. In a moment, you'll be leaving by the secret tunnels, but first..." He compared a scribbled parchment list with the dispositions forming on the map. "Green and Carstairs, to Vervain and back..." As the Aedile rattled through the list, Casimir glanced at his new partner. Runner Tembick looked relaxed, almost bored, as if they were about to go for a stroll around the Plaza. Casimir himself could barely stand still, nerves fired with excitement and a little fear. He wondered, what would this day bring?
Dawn was breaking as Casimir and Tembick came out of the tunnel. Rays from the east threw tints of fire onto the massive black wall in the western sky, from which hot winds poured. As they set off at a brisk jogging pace towards the Docks, they could see attendant clouds splitting off the storm to settle upon and around the city.