The Angel Murders – Jack Part IV

Miss Fitsimmons smiled at Jack as he walked into the library, “Hello there Jack, I haven’t seen you in a few weeks.  You’re looking well, how are things?”

Jack gave her a wide smile.  “Things are great. I just wanted to get a little time to myself.”

“I’ve seen you surrounded by friends.”  She said, “I’m glad things are finally turning around for you.”

“I never thought they’d be more annoying as friends than when they were hassling me.”  He said, “But turns out even friendly people can get on your nerves when they won’t leave you alone.”

“True, well go ahead and find respite in the stacks.”  She said, “I won’t bother you, dear.”

“You know, somehow I feel lonelier now than I did before.”  Jack shrugged, and walked back into the tall bookshelves.

‘How can you feel alone?’ Lorethla asked, ‘I am with you always.’

“Sure, but I can’t see you or touch you anymore.”  He said bitterly, “I know those people don’t actually like me.  They’re just doing what I say. You’re the only one who really likes me and I can’t even hold your hand.”

“You mortals are so tied to this place.”  She said, “There is so much more beyond the prison of your meat body.  The things I could show you if you were to give it up.”

Jack shivered.  Her voice was full of terrible hunger and desire that made his pulse race.  He couldn’t imagine what could engender such an emotion. He wasn’t sure he wanted to.

The smell of old books was familiar and comforting.  Jack drew in a deep breath through his nose and caught another scent; something like iron filings or rust.  It instilled a primal fear that seemed ingrained in his very bones.

‘Jack!  Run!’ Lorethla all but shouted in his mind.

He responded without thinking about it; sprinting toward the emergency exit at the back of the library.  Something was coming, and it smelled like old blood. The fire alarm started screaming when he slammed the door open and pelted out into the snow-covered parking lot, but Jack didn’t stop running.

The sounds of the city ceased and their absence made his heart sound like rolling thunder.  The gently drifting snowflakes stopped in midair all around him and Jack looked wildly around, nearly tripping over his own feet.  A figure floated behind him on huge white wings

“Jackson Alden Jones.” The angel said, “You have allowed one of the Ones Below to corrupt your soul.  You have brought it into the World Between and used the power it has granted for your own selfish ends.”

He tried to run faster, to escape into a small copse of trees, but when he was crossing the street, pain exploded in his back.  Jack stumbled and his voice joined Loethla’s in a scream of agony. The angel floated in front of him, his beautiful face smiling down.  Blood coated each of his index fingers.

“Now you face judgment.”  The angel spread his arms and more pain wracked Jack’s body as blood was torn from the two wounds on his back.

Jack’s body landed in the middle of the street, the bloody wings falling around him to paint the snow red in the precise shape of wings.  

The Angel Murders – Jack Part II

“Hey Jackass!” Bryce bellowed, kicking his locker shut and nearly smashing his hand in the process.

“Bryce, how about you be my friend and carry my books to class?” Jack handed him a pair of textbooks and a notebook.

“Sure thing Jack,” Bryce smiled and took them from him without saying anything else.

Jack smiled and looked at the stunned faces of his classmates as he walked to his first class.  His new friend trailed obediently behind him, carrying his books.  

“Bryce, what the hell are you doing?” Jeannie said, dismay in her voice.

“Oh, Jeannie.”  Jack laughed, “Stop pretending you don’t want to be around me.”

“Gross,  I totally don’t want to be around you.”  She crossed her arms, “Come on Bryce, you don’t even go to the same class.”

“I’m just carrying his books, what’s the big deal?” Bryce asked, “I’ll meet you later.”

“You’re doing what he says instead of walking me to class?”  She spun on a heel and stalked away.

“Girls right?” Jack said, “Can’t live with ‘em.”

“Can’t shoot ‘em.” Bryce finished and they both laughed.

All day, Jack just had to nudge people with a suggestion and if he got his wording right they would do whatever he said.  At first, he was confused as to why Jeannie hadn’t done what he said, but eventually, he realized the problem was that she hadn’t been pretending that she hated him.  She really didn’t want to be anywhere near him.

 It was challenging; he didn’t want to be seen actually giving commands, but if he wasn’t specific enough they wouldn’t do what he said at all.  By the end of the day, he had the knack of being just specific enough to get what he wanted without anyone thinking he was making it happen.

“You’re really good at this,” Lorethla said, purring in his mind.  “I can’t wait to see what you do next.”

The demon had been stroking his ego all day.  He didn’t mind it, but he wished he could still see her.  Jack did have plans, big plans.

“I am going to be a superhero.”  He said, “I’m going to make everything better.  With this power, I can get rid of crime. I can make politicians actually help people.  I can do whatever I want.”

“Yes.”  She said, “You can do whatever you want.  I see great things in your future.”

There was a knock on the bathroom door, “Hey Jack, some of the rest of us might need to use the toilet sometime!” His sister said.

“Just go away, Amber!” He shouted back.  It wasn’t that he hated her or anything, she was just so annoying.  

“Of course, I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do!”  Lorethla said, “You’re going to change the world!”

“I’m going to change the world.”  He repeated softly to himself.

Jack searched through the matters of record, eyes lighting as he found what he was looking for.  A man just released on bail, charged with possession of fentanyl with the intent to sell. Most drugs were fairly harmless, but fentanyl was a tool of murder in his opinion.

“This is the one, Lorethla.”  He said, “This bastard is going to pay.”

“You’re so hot when you’re decisive.”  She said, and he felt her phantom lips on his neck.

A polite knock on the door made him look up in annoyance.  He sighed and minimized his browser tabs. “What is it?” He asked, voice not revealing his mood.

“Can I come in dear?”  His mother asked, “I wanted to see how you were doing.”

“OK, mom.” He said, not wanting her to think anything was amiss.

The door opened and she walked in.  He was shocked by her appearance; bags under her eyes and hair hanging in lank, unwashed disarray.  She stood uncertainly in his doorway looking at the perfect tidiness of his room before looking at him.

“Jack, are you doing OK?”  She asked.

“Of course mother.”  He said, “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Amber has been missing for two days.”  She said, a catch in her voice, “You’ve barely come out of your room all weekend and I wanted to come and check on you.”

“She’s gone?”  Jack frowned, “I talked to her just the other day.  She was yelling at me to get out of the bathroom.”

His mom came into the room and pulled him into a hug.  “Sweetie, we haven’t seen her since Saturday morning. The police are coming today to get information, we filed a missing person report.”

“I’m sure she’s just at a friend’s house or something.”  He said, waving a hand vaguely.

‘You told her to go away.’ Lorethla whispered in his mind.  ‘She obeyed.’

Jack froze for an instant, a cold feeling of dread shivered down his spine.  He swallowed hard, not daring to reveal any guilt to his mother. Before anyone figured anything out, he could find her and make it right.

‘Necessary sacrifices Jack.’ Lorethla whispered, ‘If you’re going to change the world, you can’t expect it to happen without some growing pains.  Don’t worry about her Jack, you don’t need her.’

He relaxed.  Nobody would ever know, and after all, he really didn’t need her did he?

The Angel Murders – Jack Part I

“What’s the matter Jackass?” Bryce asked, kicking Jack in the stomach.  “I thought you liked dancing.  We’re just asking you to dance for us!”

Jack tried to draw in a breath but only succeeded in making a pathetic noise and throwing up.

“Bryce, that’s disgusting.”  Jeannie made a face, “I thought you were going to have a fight not just pick on some stupid little kid.  God, that puke reeks.”

“Hey, I thought he’d be more of a challenge.”  Bryce said, “Let’s go, babe.”

The two of them turned and walked away, leaving Jack laying in a puddle of his own sick.  Tears of humiliation streamed down his cheeks, this made an entire month of beatings in a row, and they’d only been getting worse.

He’d tried to eat his lunch, but Bryce had found him sitting behind the bus garage. Carson Academy was an elite school and he’d thought things would be different here, but they’d only gotten worse.  Jack finally got his breath back and sat up, wiping his mouth.  He went to the only place he knew they wouldn’t bother him, the library.

The door opened and he smelled the familiar scent of paper, ink, and the peppermint candies the librarian always had.  Jack walked in with his head down, turning toward the fantasy section.

“Oh Jack, are you OK?” Miss Fitzsimmons asked, “Looks like someone got the better of you .”

“Fine,” He muttered, trying to avoid her.

“Here, have a mint.” She offered a tin of Altoids peppermints and he took one gratefully.

“Thanks.  I think my lunch just didn’t agree with me.” He said.

“Your lunch didn’t give you that black eye.” Miss Fitzsimmons said, “But I don’t need to know if you don’t want to tell me, Jack.  What are you looking for today?”

“You don’t have the latest Callindra Chronicles yet do you?”  He asked hopefully.  “I heard it was going to be released this week.”

“Our book shipment is supposed to come in tomorrow.”  She said, “I’ll set it aside for you if we get it.”

“Thanks,” He said and walked back into the stacks.  Only once he was alone did he allow the tears to come.  Slumping against the bookshelves Jack sobbed into his arm until the fear and pain were gone.  He took a deep breath and wished he had something to wipe his nose on.  A crackle of paper under his hand made him glance down.

A corner of yellowed paper stuck out from underneath the bookshelf.  Jack tugged at it and pulled a piece of parchment that looked ancient out from where it had sat for who knew how long.  Although it seemed very old and it was written, not typed, he could read it easily.

‘How to get exactly what you want.’ Was written in elegant cursive across the top of the page.  Below was a set of fairly simple looking instructions for how to summon your own personal demon.

“What is it you desire?” A beautiful young woman in a simple black dress and four-inch stiletto heels casually crossed her legs exposing half her thigh.

Jack had thought about this for days.  He hadn’t really believed it would work, but if it did, he wanted to make sure he got exactly what he wanted.  Now that the ‘demon’ had arrived in the pentagram he’d drawn on his bedroom floor sitting on a three-legged iron stool he just stared.

“Oh dear, have I left you speechless?” She leaned forward, exposing a lot of cleavage. “Is this all you want little boy?  I’m more than happy to oblige.”

“I want,” Jack began, pausing to clear his throat, “I want people to do what I tell them to.”

She sat up straight and smiled, “Oh yes, that’s certainly possible.  All you have to do is agree to take me with you.”

“What?”  Jack blinked, this wasn’t what he’d expected. “I thought I had to sell my soul for a demon contract.”

“Only half of it boy.” She smiled, “I just need you to make room for me to ride along.”

“You’ll be with me?” He asked eagerly.

“Oh yes.  I’ll be with you forever.” Her smile seemed unnaturally wide, but all he could see were her eyes.

“I agree.”  He said, spellbound by the seafoam green of her eyes.  Then the pain began.

The Angel Murders Part VII

“Happy birthday love!” Alison woke Lacy up with a kiss.

“I don’t wanna think about it.” Lacy groaned, trying to push her away.

“Well, I made you coffee with cardamom, crispy bacon, hash browns, and eggs sunny side up with a side of rye toast.” Alison said with a smile, “I brought a bottle of Tabasco and there’s plenty of cream and sugar for your coffee.

“I knew I married you for a reason.” She said, giving her a kiss back and sitting up.

“I’m pretty sure there were at least a couple more reasons.” Alison said with a wicked laugh, “But it’s too early for that kind of thing.”

“Says you.” Lacy grinned, “But I need coffee first.”

She took the first drink of coffee and almost dropped the cup. Over her wife’s shoulder, she could see an indistinct shape standing outside the second-story window. Twelve Twelve. The twelfth day of the twelfth month. The killer’s deadline had come and now it was her turn. The shape pointed at her and somehow she knew she had until noon.

“Baby?” She said, her voice sounding vulnerable even to her own ears. “Can we just say in bed for a few hours?”

“Hey.” Alison took her chin in her hand and raised it so they were eye to eye, “It’s your birthday, you get what you want.”

“Then I’m very much afraid this wonderful breakfast you’ve made is going to get cold.” Lacy spilled her coffee and didn’t even notice.

“Don’t tell me you’re going into the office.” Alison crossed her arms and gave her a stern look.

“No, I’m getting a bottle of wine.” Lacy said, “Also I need a cigarette and I don’t want to smoke close to the house. I know how you hate that.”

“If you’re not going to work then I’ll allow it.” She said, “You need to take a break from your job even if I have to lock you in the house.”

“I’ll be right back.” Lacy gave her a kiss and zipped up her coat. She walked briskly down the block, lighting a cigarette to steady her nerves. This had to work. It just had to.

As she had promised, she bought a bottle of wine for dinner. It was her favorite New Zealand chardonnay, a lactic fermentation that gave the wine a smooth buttery finish and went astonishingly well with grilled salmon. Purdue walked out of the liquor store and trudged through the snow into a small park across the street.

The air was cold enough that the snow squeaked underfoot and her breath came in clouds of steam. Nebecenezer was sullenly silent, but to show her appreciation she lit another cigarette. She arrived at a small stage in the center of the park where sometimes a small theater company would perform in the summer months and leaned against the railing to wait.

“You didn’t run or try to hide.” A pleasant voice said from above, “Just as I had anticipated. You’re the type to take things like this head-on. Quite refreshing actually.”

The creature above her was floating, not really flying since the wings that spread out to keep him aloft didn’t flap like a bird. They also appeared to be made of soft golden light instead of feathers and bones. His face was achingly beautiful; so perfect it seemed alien, which she supposed it was.

“Thank you for giving me the morning.” She said, not flinching, “Just in case it was my last chance to be with her I wanted to make it memorable.”

“You don’t seem surprised to see me,” He said, coming to stand in front of her, although his toes never touched the snow. “Even the others who came as close to you about guessing what was happening at least registered a little bit of shock.”

“It was the only explanation,” Purdue said, exhaling a cloud of smoke. “When I looked into the history of all those others you murdered they all had one thing in common. In the past, on the same day, they were killed they all had some kind of major life event. From that moment on they seemed to live perfect charmed lives, getting everything they wanted and experiencing unparalleled success.

“I wasn’t sure what could have happened to them until you started to come after me. The only thing I had in common with your victims was that I had ample opportunity to get the same things they had. If only I was foolish enough to leverage my own personal demon, I could have wealth, power and whatever else I wanted.

“I don’t know if you were trying to give me a clue or just scare me with your notes, but I have to thank you for that. Without the warning about my anniversary of meeting Nebecenezer I might never have thought of how to survive.” She lit another cigarette, carefully flicking the cherry from the first before tossing it in a trash can.

“All the machinations in the mortal world can’t change your fate, Lacy Purdue.” He said, “The Almighty put us here to do his bidding and the words he speaks are law in the same way that gravity is law. However, as an agent of the divine realm, I am allowed to make you an offer.

“Since you have resisted the temptation regularly offered by the thing that taints your soul, you are allowed to forsake the part of you that caused the trouble in the first place and join us instead. Your dedication to upholding the rule of law is admirable, all that is left is for you to understand the portion of yourself that is keeping you from becoming perfect.”

Purdue laughed and looked at the angel. “Instead of giving up my free will, how about I make you an offer instead?”

“Bargaining won’t work.” He smiled sadly, “You see I am not burdened with the illusion of choices. You can say whatever you wish, but the options I am able to offer you will not change.”

She withdrew her pistol from beneath her jacket and pointed it at him, “Either you go away, stop murdering people in my city and never come back or I’ll kill you.”

It was his turn to laugh, “Even if you had the power to injure me, mortal, as I mentioned before, free will is not a problem I am forced to endure. I cannot change the options available to you.”

“That’s too bad. I have no intention of becoming god’s hitman.” She said and pulled the trigger twice.

The gunshots shattered the quiet of the park. The angel looked down in surprise at the two quickly closing holes in his chest as his feet touched mortal soil for the first time.

“My wings!” He cried, “What have you done to me?”

“Nobody murders anyone in my city and gets away with it.” She said, holstering her pistol and taking out her handcuffs. “I figured out your weakness by the placement of the wounds on your victims. A little help from Nebby let me momentarily bypass your invulnerability and two precise shots clipped your wings.”

He turned a horrified face to her, understanding dawning at last as she slapped the cuffs on his wrists. “Welcome to the mortal world. You’re under arrest.”

 

The Angel Murders Part V

Purdue stepped out of her squad, lighting the cigarette she already had between her lips, “Here we go again.”  She muttered.

“About time you got here.”  Officer Whitehead gave her cigarette a dark look.  “We gotta block off an entire street just because some psycho likes to finger paint with his victim’s blood.”

“A pleasure to see you as always officer.”  She said cheerfully, “Where’s the victim?”

“Victims.”  He corrected, “There’s three of them down there.”

She followed him under the police tape and looked around at the area as they walked.  A dusting of fresh snow covered everything, there were several sets of footprints on the sidewalk and a single set of vehicle tracks that went in and out.  The vehicle had stopped a hundred feet from the bodies and a single set of footprints walked to and from the bodies. There were no other footprints that came near.

“These are from the person who called it in.”  Whitehead said, “Nobody else has been here. How the hell the perp managed to get them here without leaving any marks is anyone’s guess.  I’m just a beat cop, you detectives get the fun job of figuring out the details.”

Three men’s bodies were laying in a triangle, their feet almost touching, their hands over their eyes and bloody wings almost touching where they unfurled from their backs.  Two of them were wearing clerical collars and the third wore an Armani suit.

“Any ID on these guys?”  She asked, walking carefully around the corpses.

“We got orders not to touch any of them.”  He said acidly, “They all got the wings. That means hands off.”

Purdue pulled on her gloves and removed the tweezers from her breast pocket.  Kneeling, she opened the mouth of the man in the suit carefully. Under his tongue was a familiar piece of parchment.  This one had a portion of a word on it. She bagged it with shaking hands and repeated the extraction from the other two.  

After pocketing the evidence bags, she found the men’s wallets, put them in their own evidence bags and handed them to Whitehead, “Get these to the lab please.”

“I ain’t your delivery boy.”  He grumbled, but took the bags and stalked down the street back to where the forensics van was parked. 

Purdue was about to take her necklace off when one of the men’s hands twitched.  She quickly knelt and put fingers to his throat. There was no pulse.

‘Don’t touch that.’ Nebecenezer said, ‘It’s dangerous.’

“If you don’t tell me what you’re talking about I’m going to ignore you.”  Purdue muttered, “I don’t see anything dangerous here.”

‘What’ll ya give me?’ He asked.

“You’re the one who wants something.”  Purdue said, reaching her hand out again, “What will you give ME?”

‘What?’  Nebecenezer exclaimed, ‘That’s not how this works!’

“Yeah, it is.”  She said, lighting another cigarette, “Just because the tables have turned doesn’t change the nature of the relationship.”

The demon paused, making a high-pitched keening sound. ‘Fine.  I’ll give you one favor if you don’t touch them.’

“Excellent.” Purdue said, “I have just the thing.  I’ll tell you about it later. I won’t even ask why.”

‘Wait, no!  You have to make the deal right now!’ Nebecenezer protested, ‘I can’t have something like that just hanging over my head.’

“Oh, you’ll get used to it.”  She said. “Some of us have had to deal with that for years.”

Purdue took the evidence bags from her pocket and held them so the tears all matched.  She shuddered as the symbol drawn on the whole piece of parchment was revealed. The random-looking lines resolved themselves into an outline of a rosebud on one side and a set of roman numerals on the other.  

The numbers XII-XII were significant.  They represented her birthdate and one other anniversary.  December twelfth was also in three days.

The Angel Murders Part IV

‘You finally figured it out did you?’ Nebecenezer sneered, “You can run all you want, but the truth was going to catch up with you eventually wasn’t it?”

“I haven’t done anything I need to apologize for.”  She snapped, angrily wiping melted cheese from a plate.  “My only crime is finding a few pages of an ancient Sumerian text that detailed how to make an alliance with a supposed dark power.”

‘Here I am and you dare to say you’re innocent?’ Nebecenezer laughed, ‘I have made you all but immortal and given you a window to the knowledge you so desperately crave!’

“I only asked you for help once, and that was out of adolescent ignorance.” Purdue said, “You’re also not nearly as powerful as that text claims.  Nebe, you’re just a shitty little con artist and you know it.  I figured you out decades ago.”

‘Hey, I know a lot more than I pretend.’  Nebecenezer said, ‘I’m telling you all the answers you want are literally at your fingertips.  I just need a little more from you.’

“You’ve taken all you’re getting from me.”  She put the last plate into the drainer and dried off her hands.  “I have this damn habit and I can’t kick it thanks to you.”

‘Oh quit complaining.  You know you wanted to be a smoker anyway and thanks to me it won’t kill you.’ Nebecenezer said, ‘That was your first command.’

“Request.”  Purdue said, “I asked for it, I didn’t issue an ultimatum.”

‘That’s not how it works and you know it.’ He said and laughed bitterly, ‘I have to obey your commands and I get to take things in return.’

“At first you said you wanted to be allowed to stay out of hell.  You failed to tell me that meant  you got to take half my soul.”  Purdue walked to the closet, pulled on her jacket and stepped outside, tapping a cigarette out of a fresh pack.   “I doubt I’d have agreed to it if I’d really understood that you’d be hitchhiking along in my brain.”

Snow swirled in front of her as she cupped her hands to light her cigarette, the wind seeming to outline a vaguely humanoid shape leaning against the porch railing.  She squinted and looked closer at it, “Nebby?  Is that you?”  He’d never manifested a physical form before.

Purdue blew a stream of smoke at the figure and it passed through it without slowing down or distorting.  Whatever it was, the figure wasn’t really there.  She flicked the cherry off her cigarette and tossed the butt into the garbage can, barely taking her eyes off the thing.  Just as she was slipping through the door, she was almost sure the figure pointed at her.

Nebecenezer was uncharacteristically silent.  A shiver ran down her spine.  It was time to get to bed.

Excerpts From the Memoirs of the End Times of Einn Boer

Hello to all my faithful subscribers, sorry to still be on break from The Callindra Chronicles.  I know I’m a right bastard for keeping you waiting for the next chapter, but I needed to dedicate some time to re-igniting my players for the upcoming reboot of my World Lost campaign.  I hope you enjoy!

~

“Things have changed mine Scion.”  Illimen’s voice rang in his ears.  “Thy story hath become perchance a nightmare to the enemies of the mortal realm.  Thy triumph o’er the forces of the Endless Night and those of the Descending Stair hath caused quite a stir.”

“My Goddess.”  Lirin said, not trusting himself to say more.  He was conscious of sitting cross legged but also of his spirit beyond the mortal realm.

“Be thee at peace.”  She said, reaching a hand made of purest incorruptible light to touch his forehead.  “I shall never allow them to harm you.  Allow mine light to shine through thee and naught shall stand in thy path. Be thou the light and the light shalt be thine sword and shield.”

Ecstasy and pain flowed through Lirin’s body, and he welcomed them equally.  When the sensation faded, he drew in a gasping breath.  “What would you have me do my Goddess?”

“Thou hast surpassed mine expectations Scion.  Thy dedication doth humble me.”  He caught a hint of hesitation in her presence, “I prithee gather more to the light of the flame of truth.  We shalt need the strength of the masses to oppose what doth lurk on the horizon.  Thou hast but seen a fraction of what lies outside the sanctuaries.”

When Lirin awoke and began his devotions he noticed something strange in his reflection.  One lock of his hair where Illimen had touched his head was white.

“Dem don’t knows nothing.”  The tiny bat winged shape declared, baring its fangs in a demonic smile.  “You not parts of da Everwar, but dem think dem safe cause of dat.”

“What is the everwar?”  Tabitha asked, feeding the creature a bit of dried meat.  She couldn’t imagine how she had managed to convince it to talk with her so openly.  It was probably that she was covered with fur with sharp fangs and claws.  Or maybe just that her feline magnetism knew no bounds.  Regardless, she had found it when prowling the parapets and spires of the outer wall and had finally gotten it to come and talk with her.

“It be’s da fight we be’s winning against da deads.”  It said, chomping up the meat.  “You gots to go see da fights by da tower.  Dem deads gettin crushed by da hundred a second.  Da Lords says we just gots to crush dem faster’n dey can come back.”

“The Lords?”  Tabitha prompted, her feline features artfully puzzled.

“You be’s lucky to be having me.”  The demon said, “You be’s so dumb.  How did you stay so dumb and being alive?  Everyone be’s knowing who da Lords be.”

“What are their names?”  She asked, voice carefully innocent.

The tiny demon looked at her aghast.  “We don’t be SAYING da names even if we be KNOWING dem.”

“Why wouldn’t you honor them with their names?”  She pressed, “Isn’t it giving them the respect they deserve?”

“Because we want to be staying LIVING.”  It said adamantly, “Do don’t be liking nobody to be knowing names.”  It seemed to be getting nervous, glancing around with apprehension as though expecting something to drag it off to hell.

“Oh, I’d heard there was something about Demons and names.”  Tabitha said in an offhanded tone.  “I thought it was just a rumor.”

“I doesn’t be like dey say it used to be.”  It said, “But da Lords be’s remembering.”

“Where is this Tower?”  She asked, changing the subject now that she’d gotten the information she wanted.  “I would like to visit it.”

“It be’s over dere.”  It pointed with a clawed finger.  “I be’s showing you if you wants.”

“How far over there?”  Tabitha asked, “How will I recognize it?”

“I fly maybe twenty times between sleeps to get dere.  You can’t missing it.  It be’s da huge ting surrounded by da armies of da Lords.”  It said, picking a piece of meat out of its teeth with a claw.  “You be coming?  Da Lords would be loving to know you.”

“Oh certainly.  Lead on!”  She said with her best smile.  When the small demon turned to leap into the air she grabbed him and popped him in her mouth.  He had a strange, almost spicy flavor and crunched quite nicely in her jaws.

SP was trying to meditate.  It wasn’t working.  The seemingly constant racket of the city wasn’t the problem, SP had managed to tune such things out out long ago; this was something different.  The necromancer straightened a fold of snow white robe and tried to allow the feeling to reveal its source.  Breathing slowly and deeply while thinking of the beautiful, perfectly clean white marble of the morgue where he used to reside and labor over the dead, SP was finally able to focus.

The answer was so simple that it almost went unnoticed.  Ever since they had left the safety and security of Einn Boer, he had felt on edge.  Something had always seemed to be just over his shoulder, watching, touching, pushing him forward but to what he couldn’t say.  It was power.

Not just power, but power that wasn’t just accessible to him but that practically demanded to be used.  Thus far he had not used it.  Not intentionally.  But this, he realized, was an offer and slightly more than an offer.  It was also an intrusion.

With curiosity, he reached out to brush the offered hand.  It was akin to what he imagined putting his hand on the sun would be like.  Pure unfettered energy coursed into his body and he watched in fascination as frost formed on his fingertips, gradually flowing up his hand.  When he exhaled his breath steamed in the early morning air.

Something noticed him.  NOTICED him.  Just for a moment.  That was enough for him.  SP tried to withdraw, but found that the ATTENTION of whatever it was held him fast.

“A. MORTAL.” It wasn’t a voice, it was a glacier in his mind, not speaking but scraping a place in his mind flat in order to insinuate itself. “HOW. CURIOUS.”

SP had stopped breathing.  His heart fluttered in his chest like a frightened bird.  It was all peripheral, the only focus was breaking contact with the PRESENCE.

“YOU. MUST. COME. TO. ME.” The ice was freezing his mind. A flickering vision of an ancient set of standing stones with an entrance in the center was followed by a series of runic symbols and a flash of blackness.  The vision changed to be from above, distorted as through the eye of some alien creature, but the features were obvious and indelibly imprinted on his mind.

“THE. BROKEN. CROWN.” The presence intoned.

“Why are you doing this?”  SP managed to ask.

“A. GIFT. FOR. A. TALENTED. SEEKER.”

“Who are you?” The Elf gasped.

“WE ARE ALL.  ALL ARE WE.  WE ARE LEGION AND WE ARE ONE.”

The grip on his mind was released and SP drew a ragged breath.  His right hand burned with incomparable pain.  To all outward appearances it was untouched, but he could feel the power raging like a river of frozen flame beneath the skin, begging to be used.  Demanding to be used.

Teelos wasn’t feeling well.  Something had disturbed the ebb and flow of arcane energies that he tapped from the Pact and he was getting strange surges in power that made him feel almost as though he had a virus after every time he tried to work even the smallest of arcane workings.

He tried to clear his mind, pushing a hand across his face and leaning back against the smoothly polished black bones of Legionnaire.  The construct had obligingly twisted itself into a chair for his comfort as he attempted to find what the problem was.

Focus is erratic.” The voice of the once living, now never dying construct said into his mind. “Not yours.  Another’s I think.  Things are not the way they were.”

“What does that mean?”  Teelos asked, his frustration giving way to curiosity.  “How do you know that and what do you mean by it?”

“I mean what I said and I know it because I can feel the patterns.” Legionnaire said, “It had not occurred to me that you did not feel it yourself, bound as you are to one of them.”

“I feel it, I just don’t understand it.”  Teelos said, feeling the tension coming back.  “What has changed?”

“Everything has changed.  The gods are moving again.  Belief is spreading again.  The Others that have existed here for so long now feel the presence of them.  And of you all.”  Legionnaire paused, “Was this not your intention?”

“What?  No!  We wished to avoid detection at all costs!”  Teelos protested, bringing his hands up to massage his temples.  “I thought that would have been obvious.”

“You have opened the sealed cities.  You have resurrected ancient warriors.  You have given the fallen gods hope.  You have defeated hundreds of our foes.  The City of Gears has erupted into a mountain of fire.  The blood of mortalkind has been spilled upon the thirsty sands.  I would have thought the result would be obvious.”

“I … I hadn’t thought of it that way.”  Teelos admitted, “So why is my magic resisting me?  Why has this change influenced things so much?”

“Because it is trying to see you.”  Legionnaire said, “Now that it knows you are what you are it wants to see how it can benefit.  I suggest continuing with caution.”

Boris waved his hand over the corpse of the fallen demon and it wavered and changed.  From where it had fallen the spiky growth of a cactus sprouted, growing with speed and vigor.  The plant was healthy and sturdy and would survive quite well in the arid environment.  He smiled in satisfaction, taking a drink from the skin of distillate and smacking his lips.

He knew this was a dream because he was outside the walls; something he never would have attempted while awake.  It was true that some of the best bits of these creatures spoiled quickly and upset him to waste such interesting components, but it wasn’t worth his life.

“Well done, although it is an empty gesture.”  The voice was conversational and sounded as though it came from someone standing next to him.  He started and looked around for the speaker.

“Who’s there?” He blurted, reaching for a weapon.

“It is I, Jorda.”  The voice said calmly, “I have been with you for some time now, although you reject my presence.”

“You are unnatural!”  He said, remembering how the people had been twisted in the city of Fyrl Logi.  “You changed those beings and forced them to be something different than they had been!  You kept them drugged and unaware of what was happening!”

“We all tell lies to children to keep them safe.”  Her voice was calm and sure.  “What lies are you telling this cactus?  The first demon or undead that finds it will destroy it utterly.  Have you told it that it can thrive and grow?  That its offspring will survive and have offspring of their own?  That will not happen.”

Boris considered this for a moment, unable to come up with an answer immediately.  “I haven’t given any promises.”  He said at last, “I merely give it the opportunity to live.”

“That is not enough in this era.”  Jorda said, “You are wasting resources that could be used in other ways unless you propose to destroy all of the enemies of this plane.”

“I’m not proposing anything.”  He protested, “I’m just giving opportunities for life to begin again.”

“You are making false promises.”  She said, her voice sad.  “If you intend to make a change you must conserve your energy for something that makes a much larger impact.”

“I made no promises damn it!  I get the impression you have something in mind.”  He said suspiciously, “I’m not listening to someone who treats mortals like you have, get out of my head!”

“The engine to protect all life is there.”  Jorda’s voice grew fainter, “I cannot maintain contact with you when your mind is closed.  You are on the path.  You must continue or all is lost.”

“What kind of cryptic garbage is that?”  He demanded.  There was no answer.  The cactus had grown and even sprouted flowers during the brief time he had been speaking with the goddess of nature.  He looked at it critically; noting that the production of seeds at this point in its life would likely mean it would expend all the energy it would need to survive.  How peculiar.

Duty.  Honor.  Steadfastness.  That’s what Trey supposed he was supposed to be thinking about.  That’s what they would have said at the orphanage anyway.  Probably.  It seemed like a lifetime ago when he’d been there, in Einn Boer.

The world outside was so much different than he’d ever imagined.  The folk out here didn’t all have magic.  Hellfire, almost none of them seemed to have magic compared to back home.  It must have been nice to grow up without being afraid of hurting people by accident.  Well, not that he’d have wanted to live with those necromancers.  Or those weird druids.  Maybe home wasn’t so bad all things considered.

It was a relief in some ways to have his strength be not just useful but necessary.  He was able, nay needed to fight to the absolute limits of his ability just to survive.  Now he knew why some of the stories of his Orcish ancestors spoke of them taking pride in their scars.  He was proud of his.

In his dream, Trey was sitting on the parapet of a massive fortress looking out over a battlefield strewn with the corpses of a decade’s long war.  “Life out in the wild eh?”  A voice from beside him said, “Must be nice to have that mobility, not that I mind being here defending the home front.”

Trey looked at the man who had sat next to him.  He was powerfully built to a degree that was almost disturbing.  He wore only a close-fitting pair of leather trousers and heavy boots.  A massive double-bladed battle ax was resting across his knees.  His long black hair was gray at the temples and bound with a heavy silver clasp at the nape of his neck.  He had patches of bright golden scales like lizard skin that seemed to be growing on his forearms and across his chest.

The glance at the man made him look back up at the vast citadel that rose above them; tier upon tier of city; each level with its own crenelated wall.  Huge war engines with their arms cocked and ready stood at each flat-topped parapet.  This place was at least as big as Einn Boer.

“Greetings.  My name is Trey D’Orc.  May I inquire as to your name?”

“I am Ravlen Thraine, Third Watch battle warden of the great city of Malm Hrid; the last true bulwark of mortality against the hordes.  Or so we thought.”  His hand touched the worn haft of the ax with a familiar gesture, nodding absently.  “I was getting to that.  Trey D’Orc you are a candidate whose fate might one day lead the Third Watch if you choose it.”

“I doubt that I would choose such if remaining here were a requirement.”  Trey said, “I did not know one was able to choose one’s fate.”

Ravlen laughed, a sound so loud that it actually startled his companion.  “Well spoken Trey!  The truth of the matter is that Cthrek Ra Chen is the one that actually gets to make that choice.  These great weapons are quite adept at ferreting out the warrior most compatible and molding them to the task.  You’re a little older than most candidates, but you also have more experience it would seem.”

“My companions need me.  I wouldn’t abandon them to defend strangers.”  Trey tried to keep his voice from betraying his anger at such an idea, but he was pretty sure he failed.

“Honest and true, I can see why she likes you.”  Ravlen said, slapping Trey on the back hard enough to move him slightly on his seat; no mean feat.  “You ought to give it a thought; life here is amazing for us warriors.  The best food, the most attractive and frolicsome bedmates, the most comfortable chambers and the best calling in the world.  The destruction of the Horde for the salvation of all!”

“You’re winning?”  Trey asked, looking at the vast number of slain demons and shattered skeletons on the killing field below.

“We’re holding our own Trey.  Where do you hail from and how is it that you’re in such fine battle form?  I’ve only met one Wanderer who managed to make our gates.”

“I come from Einn Boer.”  Trey said, “There I was an orphan, but we found a secret and have ventured forth…”  He stopped noting that Ravlen’s face had drained of color.

“It cannot be.  The End Times are here already?  I never thought I would see such in my lifetime.”  His eyes narrowed, “Or is this a plot?  Has the greatest of cities fallen?  Has the Horde stolen her secrets?”

“We killed some undead before we left.  I don’t think there were any more, Iln Rektros sent us forth.”  Trey frowned, “Ravlen, what do you mean by the End Times?”

Ravlen’s hand tightened on the haft of his ax.  “I will say no more until… things are settled.  I must go, the battle begins again.”

Trey looked out at the killing ground before the fortress and saw that to the north it was swarming with demons, some taller than houses.  To the south it teemed with undead, many with the towering forms of giants but with bonfires the size of horses burning in their chests.

Ravlen strode away, leaping from the parapet and landing on the wall three stories below without visible effort.  Trey watched him go, shaking his head.  Was this man’s battle his battle?  Well, they had a common enemy at least.

Shaena slept fitfully, flickering images of the battle with the horrible undead Eye Tyrant still fresh in her mind.  It had been so powerful, so deadly, it had nearly killed them all.  Would have if the city hadn’t opened the gates and sallied a force forth.  The scene replayed, the gates swinging wide and the warriors charging out.

The three in the lead were clearly a cut above the rest.  The man in front wore almost nothing and swung a massive ax.  The figure in full armor to his right carried a large shield shaped like a kite and a bastard sword held in the other.  The last was wearing flowing silk robes; her hair coiled into a battle braid and the beautifully lacquered quarterstaff she wielded was a blur in her hands.

They hit the ranks of the Dead like a fireball, bones flying in all directions and cut a path to their party.  From this perspective, Shaena could see that the three were laughing and trading jokes as they fought.  A great skeleton warrior loomed up before the woman as she watched, swinging a sword with dreadful strength at the slight form in front of it.  As she blocked the strike, her staff broke into two pieces.

Pivoting smoothly, the staff became a pair of Nunchaku spinning in a bewildering set of maneuvers as she literally ran up the monster’s body, each strike breaking pieces of bone off.  Her attack culminated as she stood on its right shoulder, the two weapons once again becoming a single staff that she swung in a two-handed blow that knocked the head from the body

She executed a perfect back flip off the falling pile of bones and landed leaning casually on her staff and staring Shaena directly in the eyes.

“Hiya.  What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”

Several skeletons employed a tactic she’d seen before, three rushing in while three more fired arrows at the other woman.  She grinned madly and moving so fast she seemed to be three places at once, she flicked her hand and redirected the incoming arrows to punch through the skulls of the charging warriors.

“Well.  I can’t disappoint all these boys who want to tango dear.  Come see me maybe when ya wake up.”

When she turned to weave and leap into combat again, Shaena thought she saw the suggestion of a long prehensile tail curling from the woman’s backside.  But this was a dream after all.  That thought brought her out of her uneasy slumber, sitting up in bed suddenly wide awake.

Terevelen finds his heart’s desire

Taking a break from The Callindra Chronicles this week for a spooky story; it is approaching Halloween after all.  I played this character for a very brief time before the Dungeon Master and I had irreconcilable differences revolving around me asking questions, trying to play the character I chose with the skills his class and race gave him, and having the audacity to actually give feedback when he asked for it.  What cheek!  Anyway, the character in question ended up running from a fight and the DM’s refusal to allow me to in any reasonable way rejoin the party or return to safety I instead decided to leave the game and wrote this as my character’s exit.  I hope you enjoy.

~

The others rushed into combat, but something plucked at Terevelen’s vision.  No, not at his vision but at his intuition.  It was almost like a siren song, the seductive thread of arcane power calling to his Mage’s Sight.  The shouts and screams of the others faded from his attention as he incanted a spell.  Motes of light barely visible from where they were encapsulated inside bubbles of darkness.  This was energy he had only seen once or twice before, and it was forbidden power.

Walking almost in a trance, he followed the trail, watching as the motes became threads and the threads became tendrils and the tendrils led to something more.  The power was weak, but the allure was irresistible.  Terevelen stood before a hill with toppled stones that were once a grand archway.  The capstone sealing the entrance was long since smashed and time had worn away the runic carvings that had once covered it.

With trembling fingers, the Elf pushed the tall grass and weeds aside.  The air that breathed from the opening smelled of earth and mold, decay and faintly of death.  He was frightened and more than a little disgusted by the thought of entering a tomb, nonetheless Terevelen shivered and crawled beneath the fallen archway.

The crypt was small and anything of value had long since been pilfered by thieves or destroyed by the ravages of time.  Gold and gems had been prized from the walls and from the lid of the sarcophagus.  A stone slab had the remains of a parchment that had likely once been proudly displayed under glass but was now reduced to moldering dust.

The remains of a human corpse were scattered from looters removing what were likely richly embroidered robes, but the dark aura of forbidden power he had been sensing emanated from those bones.  It would be a laborious process, but Terevelen felt a need to re-assemble the skeleton.  Sitting down to concentrate, he began to gently shift one bone at a time, moving them back where they belonged.

He never noticed when the runes along the walls lit up.  He never noticed when the stones shifted back into place, cutting off all light.  Absorbed in his work, Terevelen forgot to eat or drink and after a time found he did not miss it.  All that mattered was this.  Humming to himself, he looked at his new body in satisfaction, briefly admiring the intricate tracework of black threads that crisscrossed his emaciated frame.

“Time.”  He whispered in his dry, broken voice.  “All I have is time now.  Time is all I need.  All the time is mine.”

Gravelox and Gearslayer

I liked the names… so I re-used them for this character intro.  With the end of one Dungeons and Dragons campaign comes the start of another.  This should be an interesting one.

“Here’s the workshop.”  Lexai said smiling his usual smile as he opened a wide pair of doors to a large room with a mixture of modern and ancient equipment, shelving, cabinets and a ten foot tall statue of a suit of armor in the corner.  “Outfitted with standard blacksmithing tools, a forge and the newer alchemy supplies you requested as well as a bit of the modern magitech.”

Gravelox looked around and smiled.  This place would be perfect.  He could barely afford the monthly payments, it didn’t have any Passages in it to disrupt his work and the combination of the captive fire elemental for a forge and the alchemy tools were exactly what he was looking for.  There was even a small office space he could convert into a living space.

“Who owns it now?”  He asked his realtor, mentally going over his finances to make sure he had enough for a downpayment.

“I keep my clients confidential.”  Lexai said in a flat, businesslike tone.  His smile stayed fixed as though plastered on.  “That’s not a problem is it?”

“Of course not.”  Gravelox replied, too distracted by the workshop to think clearly.  “Just idle curiosity.  Now, about the terms you had mentioned?”

“The offer stands.  The owners are willing to sell it to you contract for deed.”  Lexai said, his smile ratcheting up a notch.  It was really almost mechanical.  “And at a low fixed interest rate of ten percent.”

Gravelox tried not to swallow his tongue.  “What?  You said it would be five percent!”

“Well, inflation and all that.”  Lexai waved a hand vaguely, “I have three other clients interested.  None of them need financing.”

Swiftly calculating in his head, Gravelox decided that as long as he met his projected sales potential he could make it work.  Barely.  Provided he didn’t run into any unexpected difficulties.  He shook the Kobold’s hand.  “Done.”

Something wasn’t right.  Gravelox had only been living here for a month and it seemed as though things kept going slightly wrong; just wrong enough that many of his creations failed.  He stared at the tiny bit of powder in frustration, watching as the reaction failed to produce the violent reaction intended and instead slowly smoldered and let off sullen red sparks.

It was time for drastic measures.  Opening the scroll case at his waist he withdrew one of the few remaining scrolls within and incanted the spell on the thick vellum.  His eyes glowed violet and he looked about the room, searching for magical anomalies.

At first glance, nothing was wrong.  Of course his forge had a hazy outline showing that it had runes that contained and compelled the elemental within with conjuration, evocation and enchantment.  There were protections on the walls that kept outsiders safe should any untoward alchemical event occur with abjuration magic.  The chamber even had some transmutation magics built into the walls that deadened sounds and helped control the temperature.

A more careful scan showed that the rusting metal statue that served as one of the support pillars radiated subtle power.  To his surprise, both of the statue’s hands radiated a hint of conjuration, but the rest of it seemed almost to be a dead zone.  It almost appeared to be absorbing ambient weave and redirecting it for some unknown purpose.  He also noted that there was a small bit of the statue in the direct center that seemed to be damaged now that he was inspecting it closely.

Removing an old friend from his equipment case, he leveled a wand of mechanical repair at the imperfection and activated it.  The statue twitched, sagged and fell over with a resounding crash.  Gravelox watched in horror as the wall it had been supporting collapsed.  When the roof truss smashed into him he was too surprised to shout.  All he could think of was that if he couldn’t make the payments he was dead.

Something was very wrong.  Gearslayer’s systems were gradually activating, one after another.  The first were the large muscle groups; the cables and cantilevers flexing and going through their startup tests.  A blockage of its shoulder joints impeded mobility so it first tried to lift, then allowed its knees to bend and slump.  Rust made it impossible for Gearslayer to fully articulate its knee joints, and it lost its balance and fell.

Many other things fell as well, and when Gearslayer’s ocular inputs came back online it found itself to be prone in a pile of rubble.  A shriek of protesting joints and pulleys that were long overdue for oiling accompanied its movements as it sat up, easily moving large wooden beams aside.  A fire seemed to be starting and there were multiple code, health and safety violations in effect.

More urgently, there seemed to be a Citizen bleeding and unconscious beneath a section of roofing.  Protocol suggested rescuing the citizen had priority.  Ignoring the warnings about joint malfunction and improperly lubricated equipment, Gearslayer bent and tried to move the section of roof.  When it refused to budge, it extended a hand and a pure white glittering scythe appeared in its hand.

With a perfectly calculated slices, Gearslayer chopped the sections of rubble that pinned the Citizen to the ground.  Dragging the boards off the Citizen, it lifted him to safety.

“Citizen.”  Gearslayer said, as its vocal systems finally coming back online.  “Your building is the subject of several health and safety violations.  I also believe it to be on fire.  My channels of communication with local authorities seem to be very outdated.  Do you have the ability to contact them?”

The Citizen did not respond.  Gearslayer attempted to recall how to check for vital signs but found that program to be corrupt.  It attempted to recall how to restore consciousness but found that program had been removed at the request of one Officer Durand.

A passerby was goggling at the destruction and Gearslayer approached her.  “Attention Citizen.  I require assistance contacting the local constabulary.  It would appear that this building has been destroyed and is in danger of setting fire to the surrounding neighborhood.  Can you assist?”

The Citizen burst out laughing, “You some freak baby, I ain’t no firefighter.  Ain’t no damn cops out here honey.”  She walked off, still chuckling.  “Crazy ass machine, don’t know where he be.”

Coughing behind it made Gearslayer turn back to the Citizen it had rescued from the building.  “You destroyed my shop.”  The Citizen gasped.

Gearslayer paused to consider this statement.  “I do not recall doing so Citizen.”

“What is your name, designation and what year is your commission?”  The Citizen asked, coughing and spitting blood out of his mouth.

Gearslayer paused again, sorting through its protocols.  “My name is Gearslayer, I am designated a Defending Bailiff and sentence executor. I am unsure as to the year of my commission Citizen.  It appears that some of my records are damaged, or possibly modified.”

“Your worthless carcass was holding up one of the walls of my shop.”  The Citizen said, “My name is Gravelox.  Your lawless destruction of my property puts you legally in my debt.”

Gearslayer considered this statement.  Likely he did indeed at least partially owe this Citizen something in return for what had happened; even if it wasn’t intentional.  “What is the amount needed to cover the damage done Citizen Gravelox?  I do not seem to have mention of funds in my name in any of my databanks.”

“Eighty thousand gold.”  Gravelox said, “And that’s just for the building, not counting all the equipment and materials lost.”

“That is a substantial sum Citizen Gravelox.”  Gearslayer said, “I fear it will take some time to assess my capability to assist in the reconstruction.”

“Time is something I don’t have.”  Gravelox said, running his hands through his hair.  “We’d better get the hell out of here.”

“Why would we leave Citizen?”  Gearslayer asked, “Should we not attempt to salvage-“ He was cut off by a small explosion from the ruins of the building.

“There’s dangerous stuff in there.  We need to run – ah – to get the proper authorities.”  Gravelox said.

“That is a valid point Citizen.”  Gearslayer said, “Lead on to the nearest constabulary.  I believe it is six blocks west and fourteen blocks east.”

“Sure.”  Gravelox said, “Come on.”

Lexai frowned, looking about at the destruction.  He’d been counting on the gunsmith to make him some real coin.  Now he was out the lucrative trade of firearms dealing to the less savory elements of this particular quarter as well as being out a building, the mortgage payment and even worse, his Minder wouldn’t be happy about losing the interest on the loan, the regular payments or the property.

“By the Portals what went on here?”  He wondered aloud.  Gesturing to his followers, he looked around the streets.  “Find out what happened.  Bring me witnesses.  Bring them alive, or at least capable of being brought back for questioning.”

The Shadows glided into deeper darkness, the winged folk took to the sky, the other assorted toughs and monsters trudged off into the maze of streets.  When he found Gravelox, there would be a reckoning.

One of the Shadows returned almost immediately, depositing a sealed envelope at Lexai’s feet.  Inside, he found a note from his missing gunsmith.

‘Lexai, please excuse my absence.  I know you will be displeased by the events that have unfolded, however I do plan on paying you back in full.  With proper interest.  It will merely take me more time.  I apologize for the inconvenience.  You have my word that I will compensate you in full once I am able.  Payments will be forwarded regularly.”

“I’ll have his skin for scroll vellum if he so much as misses a single payment.”  Lexai hissed, and the note immolated in his hand.  “If the Minders believe me to be getting soft, they will end my contract.”  He shuddred, ending a contract with his Minders wasn’t fatal.  But he would likely wish it was.

 

Shirasiau Sai’Li: Epilogue

It’s the end of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign… and I had some loose ends to wrap up.  Hope you enjoy!

_______________________________________________

Shirasiau Sai’Li sat on the tall chair that was the seat of power of the Jade Merchant.  It was her chair now, by right of combat.  There were some that had said as it was not by right of single combat it was invalid, but they did not speak very loudly after the first to question her position had vanished without a trace.

Of course, the transition of the title of Jade Merchant was publicly acknowledged in a far different manner.  It was the end of a week of celebrations, feasting, dancing and displays of acrobatics of all kinds, barring combat.  As the new Jade Merchant demanded; the martial arts were not to be shown.  To be completely accurate, she had mentioned that displays of grace and beauty were pleasing to her eye.  As she had never been seen to hold anything more substantial than a silken fan or paper parasol, the planners of the event had reacted accordingly.

She had to admit, the performances were quite pleasing and the dancers lovely.  Three in particular had caught her eye and one of them slept exhausted in her chambers.  The other two were kneeling close by, one holding tea, the other her kiseru and tobacco.

Sai’Li put out her left hand and the attendant placed the elegantly carved jade and silver pipe into it.  When she put it between her delicately tinted lips the same attendant held a coal over the bowl, allowing her to draw the scented smoke into her lungs.  Leaning back, she allowed smoke to trickle out her nostrils as she surveyed the room through lidded eyes.

The seventeen women kneeling before her sat motionless, waiting for her to speak.  She dropped the pipe and her attendant plucked it from the air without hesitation.  After taking a sip of her tea, the most powerful woman in Chen Yun snapped her fan in front of her face and leaned forward slightly.

“My dears.”  Her voice was resonant and pitched perfectly to carry but still sounded like a caress. “We are now at the dawning of a new era for the House of the Jade Merchant and for the Shirasiau family.”  At her words, the curtains parted, and the sun shone into the room, bright and cheerful.

Screams erupted from four of the women and they began to writhe as smoke burst from their skin.  They sprang to their feet, trying to escape from the punishing light, but Sai’Li vanished from her seat, stepping from the shadow of the nearest.  Black metal spiders the size of house cats were streaming from her sleeves as she slashed a fan with razor edges across the throat of her first victim.

“We shall not be tolerating the infiltration of the full breeds.  Only a select few of the males will be retained for the purpose of maintaining our strength of numbers.”  The spiders swarmed over the dying vampires as she spoke, holding them in the sunlight until they were burned to ashes.

Sai’Li sighed as the metal arachnids climbed back up her flawless obi and into her sleeves.  “I really do abhor having to resort to violence my dears.  It is a crude, crass way of dealing with problems and death truly is bad for business.  I have plans lovelies.  Won’t you join me for a nice cup of tea?”

The remaining thirteen women looked up.  They hadn’t moved from their positions as the others had died horribly around them.  Sai’Li flicked the blood off her fan before snapping it open before her face to hide her smile.  These women would be the future of the clan.  They had the discipline, the skill and the drive to perform.  Now if they only had the fortitude to survive bearing the next generation.

She needed daughters raised to respect the old ways.  Cunning but worthy of trust, ambitious but respectful, deadly but wise.  Her policy would be to reward rather than punish.  To encourage and nurture, to take the ideas she had learned during her time trading amongst the mortals and use them to create a family that would truly be legendary.

With a swarm of spiders still swarming behind her like a train, Sai’Li strode into the most important room in her house.  The battleground where she had fought and won most of the battles of her life.  In the tea room, she would court the mothers of her daughters.  She would earn their loyalty.

“Great Mistress.”  Keiko was bowing low, her white hair perfectly coiffed in the latest fashion.  The gray, blue and seafoam green of her kimono had koi swimming over the sleeves and across the back.

“Please Keiko.”  Sai’Li said, rising and taking her longtime partner by the hands.  “I have asked you only to address me formally when we are not alone.”

“Mistress of the Jade Chair, Brightly Blooming One, Flower That Opens in the Moonlight, One Who Stands in Daylight; emissaries from The Necropolis are requesting an audience.”  Keiko was still bowed low, “They are waiting in the antechamber.  I apologize Terrible Star, Princess of Spiders, Hand of Shadow Threads.  I do not yet know how they managed to enter unnoticed.”

“Find out.”  Sai’Li said, straightening her Obi and changing it to a formal affair of beautiful rippling metallic colors with a ripple of magic.  “Send them in.  Bring tea in ten minutes.”  She smiled behind her fan, “The black, flavored with jasmine and saffron.”

Keiko backed out of the circle of obsidian stones that surrounded the dais before straightening and turning to go.  In a few moments three figures dressed in folds of shadow and funerary wrappings entered.  They did not walk, but merely moved along the floor in utter silence.  Sai’Li stood gracefully and returned their slight bows with an inclination of her head.

“I extend greetings honored guests.”  She said, her voice warm as the sunlight that shone in through the high windows on both sides of the room.  “If I had but known of your visit I would have prepared for it.”

“We know.”  The foremost said, very obviously not flinching from the sunlight in a way that said clearly it wished to.  “This is why we have come unannounced.  It has come to our attention that you have been breeding.  We take exception to this.”

“The half dead are but a byproduct.  We do not appreciate your presumptions of superiority.”  The second rasped.

“Your beast has hunted an ancient bloodline nearly to extinction.”  The third whispered, its voice dry as ancient parchment.”

“Nearly to extinction?”  Sai’Li asked, arching a perfect eyebrow.  “I cannot imagine that my dearest Tiger missed any of my father’s spawn?”  She spat the word without honorific.

“You are the last.”  The foremost said.  “Centuries of knowledge and research has been lost and you are merely a half dead.”

“I assure you dear guests, I am not merely an anything.”  Sai’Li said, snapping her fan open to hide her annoyed expression.  “You stand in my chamber.  I require civility lest I become displeased.”

The door opened behind her and the aroma of jasmine blossoms and saffron stamen filled the room.  It was the scent of spring, of life and it cleansed the graveyard scent of her visitors from her nostrils.  Keiko carried a tray with delicate porcelain cups and a centuries old teapot that had belonged to her mother.

Chisara Yi’Tan was the first Empress of Chen’Yun.  Her reign had been a brief one; overthrown by one who had been stricken from the records; every evidence of her burned and all her descendants killed to the last.  Still, Yi’Tan had not been a virgin when she took the throne although her daughter was unknown to all save one.  Sai’Li had devoured the knowledge her father’s extensive diaries had held of her Honored Mother.

The three turned to glare at Keiko and in that moment Sai’Li extended a hand.  Black metal spiders flowed from her sleeves and the hem of her Obi and skittered into the center of the group.  Each one held a tiny sliver of brilliant glimmering light in their mandibles.  Sourcing Sunstones had been rather difficult, but they were most handy tools and her connections with prominent worshipers of Pelor ensured these were legitimate.

“Won’t you join me for some tea?”  She asked sweetly, descending the stairs to her dais with deliberate steps.  “Perhaps we might discuss this in a properly civilized manner.”  Unperturbed by the displays of hostility, rage and fear by the visitors, Keiko unfolded a lacquered table and began pouring the tea.

“Why are there so many cups?  Is your servant joining us?”  One of the emissaries spat, narrowing its eyes against the gleaming beams of bright light.

“No.”  A deeply resonant voice said in Draconic.  “You are not the only undead with an interest here.  I greatly appreciate the gesture dear Keiko.  My sincerest apologies for interrupting you Daughter of the Lost.”

“Coalbraizer, you honor my humble house with your presence.”  Sai’Li said, bowing as a form of swirling smoke stepped into the room, flickers that suggested a skeleton of a dragon that would fill half the room seeming to appear at the edges before vanishing and coalescing into an ethereally featured man dressed in a copper colored Obi.

“You three are not worthy of drinking this tea.”  Another voice, flat as the sound of a coffin nail being driven home.  A woman who would be quite stunning if she had not been so obviously deceased stepped from the shadows thrown by the glimmering Sunstones and they all dimmed to mere moonlight.

“Stileen!”  Sai’Li was barely able to keep the pleasure from tinging her voice, grateful for the fan to cover her smile.  “It is so good to see you again.”  A mental nudge brought her spiders back to their mistress.  She did not want to anger these last two; she knew and respected them.

“You three claim to represent the Necropolis.”  Stileen said, not yet acknowledging Sai’Li.  “Perhaps the three of you could explain which faction?”  Her voice was flat and dangerous.

“We represent the Black Quarter of the city of Argus.”  One of the three said.

“Quiet fool!”  The foremost said, “This is the Lady of Coastwood Mausoleum.”

“Coastwood?  That tiny seaside berg?”  The other replied with disdain in its voice.

“Coastwood is the gateway to the Bay of Souls.”  The foremost hissed, swinging its fist in a vicious arc that sent the other sprawling to the perfectly polished marble floor.  “My apologies Lady Stileen.  That one is less educated than it should be.”

“Please take tea with me and we can discuss any and all issues that Argus may have with me and my Family.”  Sai’Li said, gesturing to Keiko with the tip of the little finger on her left hand.  Keiko retreated to kneel on the floor, awaiting her mistress’s summons.

“It is only proper for us to be introduced formally beforehand.”  She said, giving the bow to visiting dignitaries within a hair’s breadth of the proper level.  “I am Shirasiau Sai’Li, known as The Jade Merchant.”

“I am Revnar, I hold the title of Justicar of Argus Below.”  The foremost, “It is the use of the half dead and their elevation to equal status that is at issue here.”

They sat, ignoring the still twitching form of the third emissary and tactfully not noticing that the second emissary remained standing behind Revnar.  Sai’Li folded herself gracefully to her knees, noting in satisfaction that the others couldn’t match her grace, although Stileen was close.

After they had all taken their first sip of tea, Sai’Li delicately wiped her upper lip and fixed Revnar with a significant look over the edge of her fan.  “Honored Justicar of Argus Below, is the issue at hand that you believe the half dead are undeserving of equal status?”

“Of course.”  He said immediately, not appearing to notice.  “Although technically immortal, they are inferior in every other aspect.”

“Do you believe that I am inferior?”  She asked, her voice not betraying one single iota of anger or discomfort.

“Ah, of course it was not my intention to give insult.”  He said, finally noticing that her cheeks had become slightly more sunken and her eyes had begun to fill with black.

“Nonetheless you have offered insult to me and my daughters beneath my own roof.”  She said quietly.  “You may have your choice of opponents and your choice of champion if you do not wish to fight yourself.  But there will be a duel to satisfy honor.”

She continued sipping her tea in contentment, watching the expression on the faces of the others at the table.  Those too ancient and set in their ways were far too simple to manipulate in such situations.  Now he had to fight and choose the opponent who would be considered to be the strongest or else be deemed weak.  It was almost too easy.

“Of course I will satisfy the needs of honor.”  Revnar said stiffly, “I will face any opponent of your choosing at a time and place of your choosing.”

“You shall face me.”  She said, standing with perfect grace.  “Now.  Here.”

No fool, he attacked without warning but there were suddenly five of her seeming to flicker in and out of existence and his deadly bolt of black energy passed harmlessly through one of them.  It blew him a kiss and vanished.  One of the figures behind him struck with a razor-edged fan and decades old blood splattered to the floor.

“You should not be able to cut me.”  He hissed in anger, striking out with a dagger made of the tooth of some long forgotten animal.  The blow struck another image and it flickered out of existence.

“Perhaps you should have brought your scythe if you came to give insult to ME or MINE!”  Sai’Li said, anger bleeding through her normally calm mask.  “If we were not at least equal to those of you trapped in the shadow we would have long since ceased to exist.  After all it is YOUR kind who create us and it seems as though it is YOUR minds that are susceptible to the madness of the world blending.”

She feinted left and cut horizontally across his face, following up with a downward slash that left a ragged tear that cut his chest to the bone from collar bone to bottom rib.

Revnar had been waiting for her next attack so he could identify which of her shadows was real.   With a snarl of triumph, he put a hand on her arm and threads of black shadows ran from his fingers to flow up and toward her face.

“Die half dead scum!” He shouted in triumph as his attack struck, filling Sai’Li’s eyes, nose and mouth.

Her body convulsed with a spasm of pain at the invading power but she didn’t fight it.  Revnar’s eyes widened as a delicate hand tightened on his wrist and the flow of his power increased.  He realized with shock that his opponent was intentionally draining him.

“What are you doing?”  Revnar screamed as he could feel his limbs weakening.  Sai’Li seemed to be taking one long, deep breath and her diminutive hand held his arm with bone crushing force.

Sai’Li tossed the withered corpse aside with contempt.  Flickers of darkness still hovered about her, looking more like black forks of lightning than shadows.  She licked her lips and turned to fix black eyes on the last remaining being from Argus.

“Are there any other opinions about whether I am your equal?”  She put just enough hunger and anticipation into her voice and saw a quiver of fear travel through its body.  A flick of her wrist closed her fan and cleared the ichor from it.  “Return and tell your Masters that I am not to be trifled with.”