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.”

Shirasiau Sai’Li Has Had Enough

Author’s Note.  It has been over a year since we last heard from Sai’Li and things have changed substantially.  This is a bit of fallout from a failed assassination attempt.

“I am disappointed.”  Sai’Li snapped her fan closed, and fixed Ignis with a glare.  He had never seen her express this much emotion outside of a nearly unhinged frenzy brought on by a battle where his mistress had expended her absolute utmost effort to literally and completely destroy her enemies.  It was mildly terrifying to see that barely restrained fury on her face while he was in a room alone with her.

“Your father did seem to act outside of the normal bounds of good faith.”  He said guardedly.  His great scythe sized claws carefully gripped the cask of whisky so as not to crush it and lifted it to take a drink.  Why did he still feel vulnerable in front of this tiny humanoid?  His true tiger form was ten times her size, but he had seen her let down the barriers of propriety that she wore like armor and what he had seen was what nightmares were made of.

“He insulted me.”  She all but hissed, “Summoning me here only to pretend I have gotten soft?  To threaten my followers?  To DARE to suggest he could use them against me?  As though my loyalty was in question?  As though I couldn’t defend what is MINE?”

Ignis noted that her canines were much more prominent than they had been moments before.  Instead of their usual seafoam green, her eyes seemed to be darkening to gray.  Instead of responding, he gathered his legs beneath him in a position more suited for a leap to one side or another and took another drink.

“If he dares to offer such an insult again we will END him my Tiger.”  She flicked her battle fan open and looked at him over the razor sharp tips that were almost concealed by the delicate looking silk.  A shiver ran through him; she had never given him a look that demanded such obedience.

“I tried to be what he wanted.  I built an empire.”  She continued, and Ignis noticed that the flowers on the table beside her had died.  “I am the trading mistress of an entire city in a kingdom that has never given any credence to an outsider before.  A sovereign nation in the very heart of one of the most exclusive and xenophobic kingdoms on the Prime.  I have left nothing behind but vanquished foes and loyal allies and he acts as though I am expendable.”

The potted plants in the room didn’t just wilt, they crumbled to dust.  Sai’Li noticed him looking at them and took a deep breath in.  She didn’t let it out.  Minutes passed before he set his cask down and nodded slowly.  This seemed to be what she was seeking.

When she let her breath out, he could smell graveyard soil.  “I do not doubt your loyalty my Tiger.  I know you began as my father’s hireling, but by this point you must realize he is not going to give you what he swore, what you need.”

This hadn’t occurred to Ignis, he narrowed his eyes but didn’t speak.  His Mistress knew him.  She saw his expression and she knew his mind.  He shuddered even as she smiled.

“I have seen thousands die.  I have killed dozens of members of my own family.  I have even murdered the innocent without the slightest hesitation.”  She inspected the nails of her right hand, taking out a tiny knife and trimming them until they were even.  “I am not a good person.  I am not, to be brutally honest, even a person at all my Tiger.  But I am an entity and I do wish to continue to live.  Do you wish to stay by my side?”

Ignis considered her for a few moments.  The more he looked, the more his instincts told him she was a true predator.  The awestruck way in which she had been referring to her father before had given him pause but this fierce defiance was what he had been waiting for.

“There will be none who can stand against us and live mistress.”

Sthax of Longtail Sharptooth

Sthrax leaned on his shield and searched the undergrowth with a critical eye.  Despite being separated from the others, this place was good hunting.  Watching one of the Older Brothers walk by.  He stood still, not seeing any reason to antagonize the beast.  There was no need to fight but no need to flee either; the massive shape moved off, leaving a trail of broken trees in its wake.

This jungle was different from his home jungle.  The smells were different.  The insects tasted different.  There were many more of the Older Brothers.  Islands surrounded by the salt water were strange places.  There was treasure here apparently.  The soft ones needed the shiny bits and the sparkle stones for status and power.

He fingered the multiple rings in his ears and the shiny studs in his frill.  They marked him as one of the successful and wealthy.  Or at least he had seen the soft ones do similar things to demark their status.  If nothing else, the red stones and golden rings glittered a fetching contrast to his scales with their mottled green, white and black patterns.

Sthrax wasn’t here for treasure though.  There were things here that needed to be destroyed.  Or there were rumors in the villages of the soft ones that there were ancient ruins that contained some of the things from the ancient evils he sought out.

“For the good of the tribe, This One goes forth to do the needful.”  He rumbled in his native tongue.  As they usually did, repeating these words sent him back to the first time he had heard them in that order.

“You think differently than we.” The Elders said in unison.  They had been sitting and speaking for so long that their voices blended together, their minds were the same.  “We have lived long and soon will depart.  We have decided the time has come to send One out to the lands of the soft ones.  This One must go forth and find The Accursed Thing.  This One may not return until it has found and destroyed The Accursed Thing.”

“Why?”  Sthrax asked, shocked into questioning them.  Nobody left for any extended time.  Hunting trips, trade missions where some of their folk went to exchange the hide and bone weapons and armor they created and the occasional forays against the Orc or Goblin kin that bordered their hunting ranges happened, but nobody left without a definite plan to return.

“Your mind is young and bends like reeds.  Ours is old and stiff as the oak.”  They answered, “A Darkness comes for the Longtail Fang people.  It will come after we end, This One must return to the tribe after we end to report to the Elders who have replaced us.  To let them know the way.”

“It has to be me?”  Sthrax was horrified.  He had never considered leaving the Tribe.

“A soft one who wears the shining skin will come.  You will help her.  She will show you the ways of the soft ones.”  The Elders said.  Sthrax noted that only two of the three were speaking now.  The third was staring off into the distance.

“She comes.”  The third whispered.  “This One is no longer of the Longtail Fang until This One finds The Accursed Thing of the Screaming Face and makes it into dust.”  As one, all three of the Elders turned their backs on Sthrax.

“For the good of the tribe, This One goes forth to do the needful.  This One must fight the greater evil.  This one must show no mercy for the wicked.  This one must prevail by any means necessary.  For This One to fail will mean the downfall of the Longtail Fang.”

He backed up in disbelief, walking backwards until he passed out of the tent, watching the three that he had based his entire life on act as though he no longer existed.  Outside, none of the others seemed to see him either.  The Longtail Fang as one had turned their tails towards him.

Sthrax ran blindly from the village, not even noticing when the branches tore at his tough hide.  When the fear had finally run itself out and he realized he was running from something that couldn’t possibly harm him and couldn’t be fought he stopped.  The pounding of his heart allowed him to hear the bright ringing of the weapons of the soft ones used and the cries of combat.

He unlimbered his sling from where it wrapped around his waist on instinct and dropped a stone into the pouch.  Rounding one of the Great Trees, he saw a figure made tiny by the contrast between it and one of the Two Heads that was swinging a club nearly as big as Sthrax himself.

It went against every instinct he had, but the words of the Elders held sway even if they had cast him out.  Sthrax whirled his sling over his head, releasing the stone with a shriek of reptilian challenge.  The stone struck the Two Heads on the arm with a sharp crack of splintering bone and the club swung wide, missing the soft one in the shining skin by a claw width.

A sweep of her large shining stick the soft one cut one of the Two Heads arms off.  Sthrax’s second stone landed squarely in the Two Heads chest, striking hard enough to break the skin.  The soft one used the moment of confusion to slice through its opponent’s belly.  As tough as Two Heads were, this was more than it could handle.  It took two ponderous steps backward before falling to the ground with a thud that he felt as well as heard even from this distance.

The soft one sank to one knee, the shining stick planted on the ground before it.  It began making the strange hooting noises that passed for its speech.  Sthrax knew some of the words but none of them seemed to make sense for the situation.  Was it thanking the Two Heads?  It was thanking someone.  Perhaps it was thanking him.

He strode down the side of the hill to see if it would share the flesh of its kill with him in the thanking ritual but before he reached it the soft one fell sideways and did not move.  The shining skin on its head fell off and a shock of black hair almost like a crest spilled out.  There was blood on the soft one’s face and leaking from its shining skin.

Hoping that it reacted to the same kind of herbs and remedies that his kind did, Sthrax set about finding the bindweed, thistle down and saproot that would help stop the bleeding and save its life.  Provided he could remove the shining skin of course.

In the end, he had been able to save Kinrik’s life and she had spent four years teaching him to fight with sword and shield as repayment.  Discovering that his shield could be used as a weapon changed everything about how he thought of combat.  Kinrik was stronger than he, but his advantage in speed eventually made the difference.

Gradually, he gained a better understanding of her language and during their travels Kinrik showed him how to navigate the outside world.  By far the most important thing she gave him was understanding though.  One evening while sitting around a campfire she had asked him why he had arrived when he did on the day he saved her from the Two Heads.

“This One was cast out.”  He said, still feeling the anguish of the rejection years later as he described the events in detail.

“You were not cast aside Sthrax.”  She said, working a chip out of her sword blade with a whetstone.  “You were given a task.  No other in the Longtail Fang could do what was needed, and although you were sent away you only need complete the quest before you are allowed to return.  Your people need you.  That’s something most cannot say.”

For the first time since he had run from the Elders, Sthrax felt the burden on his shoulders shift.  Instead of the punishing stone given to those who broke the tribe’s laws, it felt more like a kill he was bringing back to feed the hatchlings.  In that moment he felt the claws of the Great Old Ones fill him with Purpose.

Sthrax shook his head to clear it of the cobwebs of memory.  Far below a ribbon of water cut a deep valley into the mountainside.  It was time to find his way back to the others or back to the ocean.  Preferably without attracting the attention of any of the Older Brothers.

Where there was water, often there were people of one type or another.  Fanning his crest in decision, he made his way carefully down the slope.  This river would, he was sure, lead him to his goal.

A Girl Walks Into a Bar Part 3

Sergei turned and saw a man in an impeccable suit, a fedora, dark sunglasses and carrying a cane swaggered through the door.  The locked door.  Around him, shadows gathered and flickered as though there was a campfire burning on every side of him.

“I fear the young lady has misled you.”  His voice was smooth and urbane.  “What she has taken cannot be returned without proper recompense.”

“Excuse me friend, but the bar is closed.”  Sergei asked, feeling somehow less intimidated than he thought he would.

“Yes.  How fortunate for me that there will be nobody to see.  Nobody to stop what must be done.”  Ethad said, his voice still silky smooth and calm.

“You won it in a game correct?”  Sergei asked with a smile.  “Well then I challenge you.”

“What do you wager?”  Ethad asked, pulling out a chair and sitting at one of the tables.  He pulled a long thin cigar from an inner pocket and bit off the tip before lighting it with an old fashioned strike anywhere match.

“My bar.”  Sergei said, “It’s my life’s work.”

“That’s an interesting offer, however I don’t need real estate.”  Ethad said, blowing a smoke ring.  “I’m thinking of something a little more valuable.  After all, what the young lady has stolen is worth more than you can imagine.”

“What did she steal?”  He asked, “I never was clear on that.”

“It does not matter to you.”  Ethad said, “But if you must know, she stole knowledge.”

“What do you want me to bet then?”  Sergei asked, “And what game will we play?”

“To keep it interesting, we will play a game that matches your abilities.  Since you own a bar, we shall play a drinking game.”  Ethad took off his sunglasses and where his eyes should be was nothing but pits of utter darkness.  “You shall bet your immortal soul of course.”

Sergei swallowed hard, but a glance over his shoulder showed Corva’s large frightened eyes and his spine stiffened.  “Is that all?  I’m pretty sure that’s long gone to many a vice or broken promise.”  He moved to the bar and took the half full bottle of Laphroig down along with two glasses.

He sat down across from his opponent and poured them each a shot.  Something settled over him; a power with a force beyond his imagination.  The pact had been made.  The stage was set.  What had he gotten himself into?  Still, his blood boiled with excitement.  He had never felt so alive.

“The game is an old one.   It is called by many different names, but I call it Flip.”  Ethad smiled and withdrew an old belt dagger from a sheath beneath his suit coat.  The weapon was worn, but obviously well cared for.  The edge glittered wickedly.

Sergei raised an eyebrow and waited, amazed that he was feeling so calm and collected.  Perhaps it was the sheer absurdity of the situation.  Maybe it was Corva’s apparent dependence on him.  More likely he’d just lost his mind.

“The game is played by flipping the blade a certain way a certain number of times and having it end by sticking point down into the wood of the table.”  Ethad said.  “If you fail to stick the blade, you must take a drink.  Every five flips you must take a drink.  The game ends when you are incapacitated or bleed to death.”

“Bleed to death?”  Sergei asked, “Why would that be an issue?”

“Some of the flips later in the game require very good aim.”  Ethad said, “Shall we begin?”

The first few flips were simple.  Held in the hand, off the back of the hand, off the thumb, off the wrist.  The blade was very sharp and Sergei did accidentally cut himself more than once, although they were more of an annoyance than anything else.  After five flips, they each drank.

Now the challenges were more difficult, but Sergei found the balance of Ethad’s blade to his liking and the game was a fun and interesting one.  Five more flips and they each took another drink.  Sergei began to sweat as the moves became harder, but he managed to stick another five and they each drank again.

“You are showing more skill than I had anticipated.”  Ethad said, “It appears the bottle is almost empty.  It has been years, decades even since I have enjoyed myself this much.”

Sergei missed the next flip, recovered and made the next three and missed the fifth.  The bottle was empty and the alcohol was beginning to cloud his dexterity.  Ethad seemed to be unaffected and flicked the point of his knife into the tabletop with almost contemptuous ease.

“I’d better get another bottle.”  Sergei said, rising unsteadily.  “We both have to drink after that last move.”

He walked to the bar and took another bottle of Laphroig.  His fingers shook as he was unwrapping the foil.  Reaching into his apron pocket he took out a tissue and wiped the sweat off his forehead and tossed it into the trash.  Picking up the bottle and a new pair of glasses he walked back to the table where Ethad sat calmly.

Sergei poured them each a shot and couldn’t help but savor the whisky as he drank it.  Even if it was bringing him ever closer to being killed.  To being worse than killed.

Ethad had tossed back his drink and picked up his knife for the next move.  A strange look crossed his face and he lost his grip on the aged wooden handle.

“What did you do to me?”  He snarled, his voice a dangerous rasp.

Sergei blinked in surprise, noting that a red flush had begun to spread from the other man’s alabaster white neck.  Ethad began to make a choking sound, each breath becoming more of a struggle.  The realization of what must have happened struck him.

The tissue.  The wood sliver.  Corva had said it was hawthorn and it had hurt her.  She was somehow the same as Ethad.

“You left some of your hawthorn in her wound.”  Sergei said, feeling a sardonic grin slide over his face.  “It must have found its way into your drink somehow.  What a shame.”

Ethad stood, his clothes bleeding and changing into a cloak with a deep cowl.  His dagger lengthened and changed, shaping itself into a wickedly sharp scythe with a handle made of the same dark wood as the knife hilt, the butt end sharpened to a needle point.

“You have forced me to shuffle off that which allows me to tread on mortal earth once again Trickster.”  The moniker rang in Sergei’s head like a silver bell.  “Your accomplice can keep the knowledge of Fire she stole.  For now.”

Death faded from view, the gleaming silver of his scythe with its handle of hawthorn being the last thing to vanish.  Sergei spun to look at Corva, and instead of a wounded girl in layers of jackets a large raven perched on the back of the chair.  She cocked her head at him, one eye deliberately winking.

“You remembered your blood in the end.”  She said, her voice sounding no different for coming from a bird’s beak.

“Just lucky.”  Sergei said, “I didn’t remember anything.”

“Blood doesn’t forget, even if you don’t remember Trickster.”  Corva replied and flew up and out the door as it opened to admit Chelsea.

“Sergei?”  She said, surprise in her voice.  “What was that wind just now?”

“Never mind the wind.”  He said, sitting down hard, but feeling the sardonic smile come back.  “Come and have a drink with me.”

~fin

A Girl Walks Into a Bar Part 2

Sergei picked her up and carried her to one of the plush chairs in the small lounge area and set her down.  She weighed even less than it looked like she should.  Although she didn’t protest, she gave him an exasperated look.  He knew he should be asking more questions, that he should be doing something else, but the situation was so bizarre that he wasn’t sure what to do.  Where had she been hiding?

After depositing her to rest comfortably, Sergei returned to the bar to get his glass and his pipe.  It wasn’t responsible to smoke in the same room as a child, but he needed a pipe if he was going to be able to get through this.  When he returned, relit his pipe and took a drink of whisky he finally looked her in the eye.

“Corva.  Who is this man and why does he want you dead?”

“He calls himself Ethad, but I’m certain that’s not his real name.  Who he is and what his motives are do not matter.”  She saw the set of his jaw and sighed, wincing halfway through.  Reaching a hand under her layers of jackets, Corva removed a wadded handful of bloody rags and was about to throw it on the floor before he stopped her and got a waste basket for them instead.

“You’re going to let me look at that wound.”  He said firmly, “While I do you can tell me about why Ethad wants to kill you.”

She rolled her eyes and began taking off layers, dropping each jacket on the floor.  Sergei went to the bar and retrieved a first aid kit he kept there and by the time he got back, she had taken off three cashmere coats of consecutively smaller size, removed a pair of flannel shirts and unzipped a hooded sweatshirt.  When he approached Corva lifted her undershirt to show an angry looking puncture just above her waistline.

Sergei knelt to look, swabbing the wound with a cotton swab and peroxide.  As the wound fizzed and bubbled, he continued to swab it out.  After a few moments, he put the swabs aside, smeared some antibacterial ointment on it and taped a large pad of gauze over the top.  Before she pulled her shirt back down he could already see the blood seeping through.

He wrapped the soiled swabs up in a napkin, frowning at a small sliver of wood the size of a sewing needle sticking out of one of them.  Wondering what it was, he folded it into another napkin and tucked it into his apron pocket just in case it was evidence.  Chels would be proud.

Corva looked up and saw he was still waiting for an answer and twisted one of her dreadlocks around a finger.  “Long ago I stole something from someone.  That I only took some of it doesn’t matter any more than the fact that it made a large difference to my people.  The only way he can get it back is by taking it from me.”

“Why don’t you just give it back?”  He asked, blowing a plume of smoke to one side and taking a drink of whisky.  “Wouldn’t he leave you alone then?”

“Because he can’t get it back unless he TAKES it Sergei.”  She said, sounding frustrated.  He noticed that she had taken the glass from his hand without him noticing and had drained it in one long swallow.  “Can I give the whisky back?”

“No.  But I can’t take it back either.”  He countered.

“Well the one I stole it from originally couldn’t either, and he didn’t really care.  But last year Ethad won it in a bet.”  She shuddered, “Ethad differs from you both in that he does care and he can take it back.”

“Is he like you?”  Sergei asked, “You just walked out of nowhere Corva.  How am I supposed to be able to defend you against something like that?”

“You have something not many people do Sergei.”  She said with a smile that seemed to cut across her like a blade.

“What’s that?”  Sergei looked at his empty glass, thinking about getting another.

“I’ll tell you later.”  She said, smiling a mysterious smile.  “Are you going to help me?”

“I’ve helped you already.”  He said, “But I’m not killing anyone.”

“Then will you protect me?”  Corva pleaded.  He felt the intensity of her gaze and it touched something inside him.

“I will try.”  He said.

“Good.  Because he’s here.”

Part III

The Callindra Chronicles Book 2: The Rise of Evil – Chapter 44

Callindra took her hand and used the other woman’s strength more than she had anticipated to get to her feet, feeling a shiver run through her body at the name.  “That sounds bad, makes me feel all creepy.”

“As it should.  Your mission to find these artifacts must not be slowed Callindra.   It is of the utmost importance that you find the pieces and assemble the Avatar.”  Ellyn said.  “The Trickster’s Pipe will assist, where are you going next?”

“Oh, we’re well supplied.”  Callindra said, “From the shop I kinda destroyed.”

“We will bring you to your next destination.”  Ellyn said easily.  “The Trickster’s Pipe isn’t what it seems.”

“Well, to be honest we weren’t heading for the next artifact.”  Callindra said, “We were going to go find the smith who forged my blade.  So he could remake Brightfang.”

“Oh.”  Ellyn said, nodding in understanding.  “Well, I suppose you need to be able to fight to the best of your ability if you’re going to be able to stand against the forces of darkness?  Where exactly is this smith then?”

“North if my memory serves.  I was a little distracted when I saw it last.”  Callindra sheathed her sword and shrugged, “It’s in a volcano on a glacier though.  Can’t be that many of them right?”

“He has trouble near the glaciers.  She said with a frown.  “The extreme cold and ice makes travel difficult, but I can get you close.”

“Any help you can give us is more than we had before.”  Callindra said with a grateful smile.  “Maybe you can teach me more about sparring?  I’m always eager to learn a new technique.”

“Tomorrow perhaps youngling; I’m not up to two bouts like that in one day.”  Ellyn laughed, “Come on Callindra, let’s go take a bath and wash the sweat off.”

“Oh absent gods yes!”  Callindra said, feeling her smile widen.  “It is so refreshing to be in the company of someone who doesn’t mock my desire not to be a sweaty mess.”

“Follow me, dear.  You won’t be disappointed in the baths here.”

“Cardorzada!” Belladin called from the doorway of their house, holding back Noranna, their eldest daughter with one hand and gesturing with a basket laden with food in the other. “You’ve forgotten your midday meal!”

Durrak turned from where he was hooking up the wagon to Tuk’s harness with a wide grin, “I’d forget my own head were it not for you my heart.”  Noranna broke free and ran to him squealing for another kiss goodbye.  Dia, their youngest was thankfully down for a nap.  If she’d begged him to stay he would have been hard pressed to resist and she most certainly would have.

Belladin brought the basket and placed it carefully under the cart’s seat while he was covering Noranna’s face with kisses and promising that he’d only be gone for a fortnight.  With this trade completed, he’d be sure to make enough to buy provisions that would last all through the winter.  Durrak gave his wife a deep and lasting kiss, then patted the slight swelling of her belly with a foolish grin.  He hoped their third child would be a boy, but he would love another girl as much.

“Leave now my darling.  The sooner you go, the sooner we can celebrate your return.”

He checked the three chests of intricately carved jewelry to ensure they were secure and swung himself onto the seat.  He hated to go but it really was only for a fortnight.  With the gold this trading journey would yield, he would surely have enough to repair the roof before winter with enough left over to give the children something fun and perhaps some fresh and interesting spices for his sweet Belladin.

With a smile on his face and a song in his heart, Durrak set out on his way.

A candlemark later, they met in the common room again.  Jamison was serving pints of ale and the others were pouring over maps.  They looked up when the two entered.

“We’re packing it in.”  Ellyn said, “These youngsters need a lift and we’re going to give it to them.”

“You aren’t thinking about heading to the glacier are you?”  Driffen asked, raising his eyebrows.  “We’ve had trouble with – ah – certain folk in the past.”

“We ain’t gonna get within a day’s flight of Magera.”  Ellyn snapped, “I’m not crack brained enough to risk that much.”

“Oh.  Well.  Good to know.”  Driffen said sarcastically, “Here I was afraid you were gonna take an unnecessary risk.”

“A risk yes.”  Ellyn said, giving him a significant look.  “But not an unnecessary one.”

“What?”  Driffen asked, and then his eyes widened.  “Oh.  Are you … Ellyn are you sure?”

“If she says she’s sure.  She is sure.”  Horus said, his voice flat.  “That is all.”

“Right.  I’m sure that’s right.”  Driffen said, averting his gaze.  “We’re packing it up.  Time to go.  The Mistress of the Pipe has commanded it.”

Ginny frowned, following the exchange.  “We have another couple of leads to follow up on here.”  She said, and then seemed to figure something out. “But debts need to be paid first of course.”

“Debts?”  Tryst said, smiling at her.  “If anything we are in your debt.”

“Agreed.”  Callindra said, looking between them with a confused look on her face.  “What could you owe us?”

“Not a debt to you exactly.  It’s a long story.”  Ellyn said, “I’ll just say we owe Jorda, and you’re doing something for her.  This should balance the scales a little bit, but if not at least we have tried.  Enough, if you accept our gift of transport I will hear no more of it.”

“How are you going to get us there?”  Cronos asks, raising an eyebrow.  “What do you mean by ‘packing it in’ exactly?”

“My Trickster’s Pipe has well earned his name.”  Ellyn said with a mischievous smile.  “Keep your seat and drink your ale.  We depart now.”

Callindra sat next to her brothers and accepted a tankard from a smiling Jamison.  Ellyn drew an iron rod from her belt and shook it.  The heads of tiny keys erupted from all sides of it in a forest of bristling points.  Walking behind the bar, she opened a tiny door and thrust the rod into it, twisting and turning it a dozen times as she inserted it until it clicked completely home.

A hum of pure arcane power rippled throughout the room and it began to move ever so slightly.  It was so subtle that at first they didn’t notice it, but then the room tilted far enough to one side that it became obvious and Vilhylm moved to look out the window.

“We’re moving.”  He said, “What kind of thing is this?”

“My Trickster’s Pipe is my home, my place and my sanctuary.  It changes to fit my needs.”  Ellyn says, her voice reflecting her concentration.  “And right now I need to travel.”

A World Lost: Current Events in the City of Einn Boer

More setting the scene for a new Dungeons and Dragons game I’m going to be running soon.

Hedveig stood at the ancient rusted doorway and tried to stay awake.  The Great Gate hadn’t been opened in his lifetime or his father’s lifetime.  The rust scale on it was so thick he doubted the iron portal would even swing on its hinges anymore, even if someone did try to open it.  It was an important duty for the síðr vorðr; the Long Guard though; they had stood there for centuries, barring the way to any who would dare try and intrude on Einn Boer.

He stretched, feeling his joints crack and listening to the odd echo they made inside his armor.  As the old warrior settled back into his parade rest stance, heard the echo again.  It was coming from behind him, but was not coming from inside his armor.  Hedveig removed his helmet and put his ear to the door and he could hear a tapping sound plain as if someone had been tapping on his helmeted head.

Something was out there.  Something was trying to get in.  Hedveig pulled his long copper and bone horn from his belt and blew three measured blasts followed by two quick ones.  He continued the summons, watching for one of his fellow guardians to approach, the noise deafening him to the sounds coming from the great gate behind him.  He never heard the intruder.

When the runner arrived breathless and wild eyed, he found Hedveig laughing and joking.  Grudgingly, he admitted that his senior Guardsman had pulled one over on him and saw the humor in it.

“It’s not like you to pull something like this Hedveig.”  Reklar grumbled, giving him a wry smile, “What’s the occasion for you developing a sense of humor?”

“It’s the anniversary isn’t it?”  Hedveig said with another chuckle.  “Seven hundred years.  That’s long enough for even the memories of the less mortal races fade.

“Well, yes of course.  The festival is tomorrow.  Are you taking Bellia?”

“Probably.”  Hedveig smoothed his moustache, “You had better get back to your post.”

“Yes sir, right you are sir.”  Reklar said, snapping a smart salute.  The junior Guardsman retreated, his thoughts troubled.  Hedveig had not been acting like himself at all, and had in fact volunteered for guard duty during the festival.  For him to joke, for him to even smile on duty was unheard of.  Perhaps the old bastard had finally loosened up; but Reklar doubted it.

Lady Taryn Vaknair Torben the Third looked out over her city, feeling a glow of satisfaction despite the worry that gnawed at her.  The magic was faltering and nothing she or the Elders had tried seemed to be working.  All the symptoms pointed to the city’s Godheart dying and there didn’t seem to be any way of stopping it.

Below her balcony, the citizens gathered for the sesquicentennial, the seven hundredth anniversary of their retreat into Einn Boer.  The lights of their magic twinkled merrily as they danced, laughed, ate and drank.  They had no idea of what was truly happening, and it was imperative that they remain ignorant of it.  Order was an illusion only barely maintained by the thoughts of the people and she was well aware of that fact.

“My Lady, will you be attending the opening ceremonies?”  Londrak, her personal valet, lover, confidant and spymaster asked from the door.

“Of course I will.  You wouldn’t allow otherwise.”  She said, her voice distant.  “I am troubled Lon.  These developments and our lack of ability to remedy them frighten me.”

“The defenses are strong My Lady.”  He was holding a stylish jacket for her.  The newest fashion of ladies wearing jackets and trousers was a bit disconcerting to her at first, but sometimes it was most liberating.  When she was feeling vulnerable though, she needed the familiarity of her corset and skirts.

“Not tonight Lon.  I will wear my peach and cream gown, this being a formal occasion.”  She waved him off, “Now go away and fetch Droga.  Unless you wish to help me dress?”

Londrak grinned wolfishly, “I would be glad to help, but it seems putting these contraptions on is more difficult than removing them My Lady.  I will send her in.”

Gray crouched on an intricately carved gargoyle three stories above a square crowded with revelers.  He wasn’t so much looking for specific marks as he was watching for trends.  If enough well-off individuals were present and if they were intoxicated sufficiently he would send in the Greylings to do their business.  It was up to him to keep an eye on the ebb and flow of the crowd and choose the right time to strike.

The slightest scrape of boot on roof tile made him shift to the left.   Not enough to betray that he’d heard the noise, but just enough to give him a good throwing angle for his blades if he needed it.  Another sound identified the person attempting to sneak up on him.  He relaxed; it was only Lithia.  He could tell by the slight limp she had from a poorly healed broken ankle.

“I instructed you all to wait for my signal Lithia.”  He said in a low voice that wouldn’t carry beyond a few paces.

“Gray, we have a problem.”  She replied, not moving from the shadow of a nearby gable. “Someone has been poaching, and they’ve botched the job.”

He cursed silently to himself, “Show me.”  The last thing they needed was the Long Guard thinking his Greylings had been responsible for a murder.  They were thieves certainly and while they didn’t shrink from killing when necessary it was considered quite gauche, not to mention getting unwanted attention from Longshanks often led to someone having to be sacrificed.  Someone expendable usually, but that didn’t lessen the blow to his pride.

They slipped silently from the rooftop, shimmying down one of the building’s many carved pillars.  Homeowner’s vanity made these kinds of things easy.  The corpse wasn’t far away and it was strange.  A single circular hole in the back of the head was the only sign that any harm had come to the body.  No blood even leaked from it to stain the crisply ironed Long Guard uniform.

While he was investigating it, the body dissolved into dust.  Gray blinked in surprise, staring at the pile of dust that glowed with a slight greenish sheen.  “Well, at least we need not worry about disposing of the corpse.”  Gray muttered, “I don’t like it Greylings.  We’re leaving.  Someone get a sample of that for the Underman.”

When nobody moved, Gray spat to the side and pulled out a vial.  Scraping up a bit of the dust, he stoppered the vial and carefully placed it into his padded pouch.  “Come on you superstitious slugs, let’s get otta here before the shit starts flying.”

They slipped into the shadows, vanishing into the night, but not out of sight of a pair of glittering green eyes that watched from the windowsill.

Sai’Li Learns of a Storm

One night as Sai’Li is sitting by the fire drinking tea, idly petting Ignis in his tiger form and enjoying the low rumble of his purr, she begins to reflect.  She muses about the past he has shared with her about losing his parents early, the discipline of the monastery, the isolation of his druidic life.  The gruff way he acts is typical of most Dwarves she knows, however the way he closes himself away from almost everyone goes beyond racial attitude and bearing.

She has seen this body language before, although it is usually from folk hardened from birth by the rigors of unkind training in her Lord Father’s rigorous guard training.  His methods of starting with very young children is effective, but certainly weeds out empathy and any semblance of kindness or compassion.  When she recalls the way he bridles and glares when Aurora tries to pet him, the promise of deadly violence clear in his posture reinforces her thoughts.

Taking a sip of tea, Sai’Li wonders if she is the first in his memory to touch him in a gentle manner. She can’t help but smile that the only time he opens himself up to her is when he is also at his most dangerous.  There is no doubt that the six hundred pounds of killing fury sitting contentedly by her side could tear her to shreds in moments.

Covering the smile behind her fan, Sai’Li muses on how things have progressed.  Ignis the Dwarf is still the uncouth and irascible man he has always been.  When a creature feels powerful and comfortable in its skin though; that is ironically when they are the most vulnerable.  One of her most effective and honed skills is to make beings feel comfortable and powerful.

In this case, it has not been her doing; or at least not entirely.  Her vampiric heritage does protect itself by making her mere presence sway others to her will, but there seems to be more here.  Part of it must be the lack of clothing animals are required to wear, as Ignis has shown nothing but disdain for clothing, for the rest… she has known men whose only chance of survival was to become a Tiger.  Of course, those men did not literally become an actual tiger; but instead took on the fierce predator’s killing instinct and lack of mercy.  Here, she judged the physical predator had come to appreciate her abilities as an emotional and psychological predator.

‘Anyone can cut a man in half child.’ Her Honored Father used to say, ‘But a true Master will convince the man to first give everything he has to you of his own free will and then die in the manner of the Master’s choosing.’

She shivered and wondered if it was in horror at the memory or in admiration of his great talents and seemingly limitless power.  Her Honored Father had the prowess of every form of predation she knew existed.  Someday, she hoped … but she did not know what it was she hoped for.  Freedom?  Equal power?  To take his empire?

Sai’Li buried her fingers deep into her tiger’s fur and allowed herself a small sigh of satisfaction at the rumbling of contentment from the bottom of his chest.  For now, she was content to plan and grow stronger.

After a few nights in Burnholm, Ignis has become increasingly irritable with each passing day. Late into one evening while pacing in front of the fire in his Dwarven form, he abruptly turns to Sai’Li. Speaking in a measured, quiet tone he says, “I understand you are more comfortable here than on the road, but I think we have been here long enough.  I smell a fierce storm approaching, we should take our leave tomorrow at dawn.  If we make haste and don’t let that damned wagon slow us.” His voice rises slightly, “We can likely dodge the worst of it.  If we stay, I’m not sure how long it will keep us trapped here.”. Folding his arms, he stares at her intently waiting for a response.

“We are not on the water. I do not fear the rain. What is it about this storm that worries you?” Sai’Li looks up from where she had been using an ivory and obsidian abacus to tally an account of her most recent shipment of fine instruments and goods sent through the ring to Ako, her capable assistant in her Coastwood Blossom House. “I know you are not a coward; what is different about this storm in particular?”

Ignis’s brow furrows and he turns to stare into the crackling flames.  After a few breaths, he flexes his hand like a claw and speaks again.  “Something I can’t explain feels off about it.”  He sighs and continues, “Perhaps, it is nothing more than that these are unfamiliar lands with unfamiliar storms.”

He stares at the fire for another moment before turning back to face her. “However, I can tell you that this storm feels angry and it means to linger.  The winds alone will make it too dangerous to travel in it and waiting it out will delay us more than the few days it will take for it to calm.  The roads will be mud and puddles for who knows how long after. That’s to say nothing of how many downed trees we will have to clear from our path.” Ignis gives her a small grin “And besides, if I have to stay here too much longer I’ll never get the stink of these folk out of my nose.”

“Perhaps it will be a storm from the other world; a storm that crosses the veil.”  Sai’Li muses, tapping a perfectly lacquered inch long blue fingernail against lips that sported matching lip color.  “While that might be a thing to witness it is indeed not something I wish to experience on the road.  Are you certain we will be able to avoid it if we begin our journey this morning?”

She looks out the window at the clear blue sky without a hint of cloud or wind showing just after the sun has chased away the night, trusting her Tiger’s innate weather sense in the face of what her own eyes suggest.  “Perhaps after a bit of tea.  Also, we must warn our allies here of the impending storm.  If it is as fierce as you sense then they must prepare themselves for it.”  She snaps her fingers, a sound almost a whip crack and a striking young man in a short kilt and tunic almost seems to appear at the door.  His face is not quite shining with admiration; he hides it well.

“My Lady Shirasiu?”  He inquires, bowing at a right angle and staying there.

“Please wake the others if you would be so kind Brynhild.  Prepare for them to break their fast in a quarter candlemark and inquire as to if Grandmother Mabel or Uncle Lufan would be willing to join us.”

Brynhild backed two steps before straightening and setting off at a run.  He really was such a good boy.

Ignis looks at the ivory and obsidian abacus, then back to Sai-Li.  “This is not a question of numbers, one can never be certain.”

“Certainty is more often created and believed than it truly exists my Tiger.”  She says, hiding a smile behind her fan.  “The numbers only lie if you make them do it; but they can and will without complaint when the time arises.  If you had been raised under the roof of my Honored Father you would understand that certainty is not certain and uncertainty is power.  All things can be turned to one’s advantage.”  She looks out at the brilliant sky again.  “All things.”

The sky above Burnholm is a bright blue and the sun just clearing the treetops from the east shines warm and bright.

I looks like it’s going to be a good day, but the people of Burnholm do not know what is coming. They do not know that anger and hatred and unending hunger come their way. It is drawn towards them like a shark to blood in the water, like a ghoul to a new corpse.

As morning chores get underway in the little town, the first strange thing the townsfolk notice is the number of large birds flying east this morning.  Stranger still, flocks of smaller birds are flying with haste, almost as if in pursuit of the larger more powerful birds.  When swarms of the wee Fay, the pixies the sprites and others, are seen flying with desperate speed above and around the town word is sent to Grandmother Mabel and Uncle Lufan perhaps the Elders can tell what is happening.

By the time they are found and told of the strange sightings, word from the wall comes where the watch reports movement in the trees. They claim to have seen herds of beasts moving quickly in the wood. But strangest of all is that it is both prey and predator moving together.  As they stand discussing one of the young men of town comes with word that the Lady Sai’li sends for the elders.

They both exchange a worried look perhaps the outlander knows something about these unnatural happenings. They quickly head for the Inn.

“I see by your faces that the news has reached you as well?” Sai’Li says from behind her fan, “Are you preparing the town? If you are waiting for this meeting, please do not fear insult of brevity, instead go and rally your folk to their tasks.”

“I would have you heard of the strange news we bring from those that have seen it.”  Grandmother Mabel says.  She gestures to the people who have come with her and they each give report of what they have seen.  When they finish she turns to Sai’li her head tilted a little to one side.

“Now child.” she says, “What do you know of what is happening?”

“A storm seems to be brewing.” Sai’Li folds her fan and her face is completely calm, “The exact nature of this event is unknown to me but I can tell you that it is unprecedented in nature. Perhaps from beyond the veil. I wanted to warn you of its approach that you might prepare yourselves for its arrival.”

Upon hearing her words Grandmother and Uncle exchange looks Uncle turns to Sai’L,i bows slightly turns and walks out of the room.  Grandmother turns to Sai’Li, “He will begin preparing as best he can. I hope we do not lose any more people. We have suffered so much since being taken across the veil.”  She smiles sadly, at the rembrance of those lost.

“If you are not familiar with a storm like this, then it is not likely from your world as I had hoped.  The most likely explanation then is that when our worlds were thrust together we had a storm from each world collide.  They must have fed off one another to become something new and more dangerous.”  Sai’Li says, “Excuse my rudeness would you care for tea?”

At Grandmother’s nod, she moves with elegant grace, sifting some bright green Matcha into a delicate porcelain cup and pouring hot water over it.  With a horse hair brush set in a carved wooden handle, she mixes and froths the tea before sliding it across the table to Grandmother Mabel on a matching saucer.  “Do not fear grandmother.”  She says, voice calm and reassuring.  “Your town is strong and your people stronger.  After all, as someone once said to me these predictions aren’t precise numerical formulae, they are intuition and what I have heard called an ‘educated guess’.  Perhaps we have a certain Dwarven survivalist who would wish to put her skills to the test and give us a report?”  Sai’Li suggests, giving Ignis a sidelong glance.

“After all, I know Nerata has been itching to show off.  Ah, of course I mean display her many skills and talents.”  Sai’Li says, taking a sip of tea.

Ignis lets out a deep chested hum of satisfaction.  “As much as I like that idea, it would mean staying here and waiting out the storm.  Also, it may prove to be.”  He pauses, giving her a considering stare, “Unprofitable for you.  Go or stay, the choice is yours to make.”

“I believe we can discern if this is indeed a weather event or something … other.”  Sai’Li takes the baby Elven Pine Starseeker gifted her with out and sets him on the table.  “What nears this place little one?  Is it storm or is it foe?”

The tiny figure moved and swayed, chattering in incoherent fear waving its branches.  After a few moments, Ignis shook his head.

“It says its mother’s Dryad Starseeker will meet us at the great oak in the town square.”  He said, turning and beginning to walk out of the room.

With a sigh, Sai’Li put down her teacup and rose, bowing slightly to Grandmother Mable before departing.

Kurien Alyemey

Crossbow bolts fell like deadly hail as Kurien ran down the street with a bag of coins clinking merrily at his belt.  The gold had been freely given, albeit under false pretenses, and he had no intention of giving it back.  He had sold the Lord of this Holding a batch of his ‘Famous Rejuvenating Elixir’ for an exorbitant amount of gold.  It was, of course, really worthless rotgut mixed with a few herbs to make it taste like medication, but how would the greedy old bastard ever learn his lesson if he didn’t pay for it?

He ducked under a bolt that would have punctured his skull, slipped sideways into an alley, put his back against the wall and got ready.  Pulling a dagger from his belt, he cut through a rope that held a stack of empty casks and sent them tumbling into the alleyway.

“Halt you thieving mongrel!”  One of the guards chasing him shouted.  “Come back with the Lord’s gold!”

When the guard came around the corner at a dead sprint, he collided with the tumbling barrels, crashing onto his face.  The second guard was running too fast and had to choose between stepping on his friend or hitting the barrels.  The first guard’s face made a funny squishing sound when it was mushed into the mud.

“Watch your step friends, these streets are slippery!”  Kurien said cheerfully, climbing up a nearby rain gutter to the third floor of a warehouse and vaulting into an open window.  A group of dangerous looking folk all turned to stare in his direction.  A case of something was open on a table between them and all of them were armed to the teeth.

“Raken, is this one of yours?”  A woman with a scar running across her left eye asked in an artificially casual drawl as her hand fell to the hilt of a nasty looking dagger at her belt.

“Jana, you know better, this punk isn’t attached to us.”  Raken said, giving Kurien a narrow glare.  “Although he might be your lackey.”

“Hey I’m just passing through, but The Lord’s Guard is hot on my trail.”  Kurien laughed, “Of course it’s all just a silly misunderstanding.  I didn’t mean to interrupt your er whatever this is.”

“Get him!”  Jana shouted, drawing her dagger.

Kurien struck a theatrical pose and a jangling guitar chord struck up from nowhere.  Jana’s dagger dropped from limp fingers and she stared at him with surprise clear on her face.  She made a calming gesture towards her ruffians as Kurien spread his hand wide.  “Come now friends, there’s no reason to hurt ME, I’m on YOUR side!”

The music continued and this time Raken relaxed, watching the half-elf as he almost danced through the room toward the door.  Kurien didn’t give the others the chance to decide to take matters into their own hands.

“Hey Boss… shouldn’t we be stopping him?”  One of the brighter ones asked.

“He’s fine.”  Raken and Jana said almost in unison.

“Hey wait a minute, that’s a spell!”  Another of the toughs yelled, but Kurien was already through the door and the guard was just struggling through the window.

Laughing merrily, he ran through the hallway, down a flight of stairs and out the door.  He pulled off the hat with its attached wig, stuffed it into a small pack and flipped his cloak so that the drab gray showed instead of the bright scarlet he had been wearing.  It hadn’t been much of a disguise in the first place but these idiots were easily fooled.

A young beggar sat a few streets down with a bowl that contained a single copper, looking up at him with hopeful eyes.  The poor girl was just skin and bone!  Kurien patted her on her grimy head and walked down the street casually, whistling a merry tune.  He was around the corner before she saw the handful of gold in her bowl.  It had been a wonderful day of fooling the so-called “Lord” of this city, and now it was time to redistribute his ill-gotten wealth among those who truly needed it.

Sai’Li plots during her recovery

Sai’Li sat in her bed in the Blossom House; having disdained going to any of the common healing areas.  Of course, part of her refusal was related to the disturbing rumors she had heard about this place.  Those rumors, she was sad to find, were substantiated.

The Madam here was lax in her enforcement, many of her people were ill-treated and the customer base didn’t seem to be screened at all.  The conditions were quite simply unacceptable.  A gentle knock at the door made her sit up and lean forward; senses questing.  She caught the faint scent of clove cologne.  Ah, good, it was Kay.  She let her robe slip down her shoulder another three inches, exposing an expanse of snow white skin.

“Please forgive the intrusion mistress, but it is once again time for your medication.”  He slid the door partially to one side, waiting for her permission before entering.  He really was such a good boy.

“Kay, my dear boy you know you need not knock at my door.  You are of course welcome in my presence at any time.”  She said, snapping her fan open in front of her face, “Please forgive my lack of decorum; I am in a bad state.”

“Nonsense my Lady.”  He said, blushing to the roots of his hair.  “You could never look anything less than absolutely splendid.”  Oh he really was such a dear.

“Sadly sweet Kay, this is hardly my most flattering pose.”  She said, sitting up straighter and accepting the glass of medicine from him.  At the same time, her robe artfully slid a few more finger widths down her shoulder.  His deepening blush was most gratifying.

“My Lady, please allow me.”  He pulled up the coverlet to her chin, but as he moved in she leaned forward and pressed her lips to his.  The kiss was sweet, made even more so by his surprise and lack of expertise.  This really was too easy.

“Darling Kay, I hear there are some irregularities in this House?”  She said, parting their lips and accepting the glass from him.  When he attempted to withdraw, her other arm snaked around his waist and pulled him to sit on the bed.

“Uh, My Lady…” He began, but she silenced him with another kiss.

“There is no need to be so formal sweeting.”  She purred, pulling him closer.  “You know that those of us who have shared intimate passion need not stand on formality.”  Although she hadn’t thought it possible, he blushed deeper.  He really was too adorable.

“Please, I am not worthy…”  He began.

“Of course you are not worthy little mouse.”  She said, lightly biting his neck.  “Your worthiness was never the question.  The simple matter of you not being worthy shouldn’t be an impediment to you striving to become worthy.”

“I – uh – “ He struggled, trying to form words.

“Hush now.”  She said, “First we can enjoy ourselves and then you can tell me everything I want to know.”

“My Lady!”  He protested, but it was halfhearted.  The eager smile on his face belied the supposed objection.

An all too brief time later, she relaxed in her bed, enjoying a pipe of tac and listening to the gentle breathing of her companion as he slept beside her.  Mortals really were all too easily exhausted.  He had told her some very useful information however; information she intended to use.

Slipping out of bed, she put on her kimono, sliding her arms into the sleeves and touching the magic contained within to summon dark green and black silk to cover her body.  Kay muttered and rolled over in his sleep, but she snuck out of the room before he had fully awakened.

Although the illness still caused her pain, she knew she would be up to the task of dealing with such an irrelevant and unimportant figure as a Madam who had forgotten her obligations.  She walked down a hallway and climbed the stairs behind the standard secret door at the end of the second floor corridor.

“Who dares disturb my rest?”  A petulant voice shouted somewhere ahead.  “If you cannot find the initiative to handle such trivial matters on your own then you deserve the treatment you receive!”

A young woman came running down the corridor, tears streaming from her eyes and a grim angry expression on her face.  Sai’Li caught her sleeve, “Please young mistress, allow me to be of assistance.”  She said, her eyes shining with the glimmer of intrigue.

“You can’t help me.”  She said bitterly, “I have displeased the Madam and her rule is law.”

Sai’Li inclined her head slightly, “I was referring to resolving whatever the little issue you came to her about.  One as lowly and insignificant as myself can hardly be expected to solve a problem of politics here, but I will do anything I can to assist.  After all, I believe you were one of those who assisted in tending me through my recent indisposition.”

“It is nothing.  I have some training in the medical arts that do not revolve around magical healing.”  She ducked her head, bowing with her hands on her thighs, the perfect image of poise and civility.  “I apologize that the Madam would not authorize a more competent caretaker.”

“Please, if you would join me for some tea?”  Sai’Li asked, seeing the steel and simmering anger just below the surface.  “I would take it as a personal favor if you would allow me to serve you a cup of my best smoked Matcha.”

After a moment of studying Sai’Li’s face, she bowed deeper. “I would be honored My Lady.” She said, leading Sai’Li back to her room.  Upon entering, Sai’Li carefully scrutinized the room’s walls, looking for the watchers that dear Kay had told her might be lurking.  They were thankfully absent at this late hour.

Once they knelt at the low lacquered table in a tiny sitting room, Sai’Li withdrew ingredients from her enscrolled silk purse.  Humming in satisfaction, she began carefully mixing the tea powder and warm water with a fine horse hair brush in delicate porcelain cups.  “Now please, tell me your name and your troubles my dear.”

“I am called Rinna.”  She said, accepting the cup. “My lady, there truly is nothing you can do to help me I am afraid.”

“Oh little Rinna, what you say is partially true.”  Sai’Li said, “But only while she is Madam.  If another was to take her place things would be quite different would they not?”

The other woman gasped, looking wildly around at the walls.  Sai’Li waved a calming hand, snapping her fan open in front of her face.  “I believe us to be alone, but of course I was only speaking in the hypothetical little sister.”  She said with a smile hidden by the painted silk of her fan.  “One would never be so irreverent as to propose a coup so openly.”

“I have a repeat customer, a local businessman.  He does not follow the protocols, subjecting me to treatment that is outside the proper guidelines.”  She pulled up her sleeve slightly, revealing a bruised wrist.  “I am not skilled in any arts that would allow me to defend myself, and the guards are under orders to obey only the Madam.”

“Ah.  Well that is something easily remedied.”  Sai’Li said with a smile that was the barest crinkle around the corners of her eyes.  “Please, hand me two of your hair pins and enjoy your tea.”

Rinna gave her a confused look, but did as she asked.  Running first one, and then another of the delicate steel pins through her fingers.  The venom that flowed through her body slid from the pores of her fingertips, coating each of them with deadly poison.

Sai’Li sat back and drank her tea, thinking about how the Blossom Houses kept order.  Mostly this bylaw of their code was a good thing.  It kept individuals from starting uprisings unnecessarily, but in cases like this one it had allowed things to go too far.  Her course of action was clear.

“Now my darling Rinna, all you need do is wait until the subject in question returns and attempts to take advantage of your Madam’s laxities.  One little scratch from one of these pins and he will shortly become too weak to even lift his own flabby limbs.  Then you are free to do with him as you choose.

“Keep in mind they will only work once.”  She said, carefully sliding them across the table.  “I am giving you two on the off chance that he is strong enough to resist a first attempt.  If the first one works, then perhaps you might find another use for the second one.”

Confident that these seeds would bear excellent fruit, Sai’Li enjoyed the rest of her tea, chatting idly about trade, politics, and fashion.  This particular Blossom House would soon be under new management.  Management that would be most certainly be friendly to her and the criminal empire she was planning on constructing.