thulcandran: (Default)
And thanks to Tray for the prompt: Fish, Muffin, Anchor!

Staring out over the water, Quin took a deep breath, letting the wind wash over her, throwing the loose strands of her hair back across her neck, cooling, soothing, and smelling of salt and brine. She grinned. Her hair had been all but unmanageable since they'd set sail, and she'd finally given up, sliced all but a few inches off, and let the rest go, more or less. It was significantly better. Her father would have been shocked; she looked like one of the dock bums. She hadn't been in uniform in weeks, possibly months, her gun was still concealed under her jacket, and her face was finally starting to feel human again, out from under that armor. The other day, she'd actually smiled!

"Hey, girlie, you plannin' on standin' there all day? Because the anchor's done, and you're blockin' the stow."

She glanced up, and stepped aside. Gora was a rail-thin bloke, a bit darker-skinned than her, his hair tied back in a handful of braids. He'd claimed that in his past, he'd had razors and weights braided into them, turning his own hair into a weapon, but Quin had her doubts about that. Gora could spin a yarn with the best of them - he must've had six or seven different explanations for the scar that cut across his thin lips, let alone the notch in his ear.

The ship was nominally a peaceful one, but there were contested waters on this sea, and sometimes the wars would find you, whether you wanted them to or not. Quin found it difficult to care about this - she'd been fighting with fireballs and walls of energy-blades and swords that could slice through the wall of an orbital station, worn armor that had runes to protect it from the vacuum of space, seen lasers focus the gravitational pull of an entire moon on one ship - pirates scouring the open waters was not something she much cared about, at this point.

"Yer sister was lookin' for ya," Gora said, as he looped the chain around the hooks. "She said somethin' about helpin' her with the fish from yesterday."

Quin sighed. "Yeah, I'm sure she did. Thanks, Gora." She turned reluctantly away from the stiff wind and headed below-decks to find Daria.

"Hey, there you are!" Daria grinned at her over the remaining half of her muffin.

"There you are," Quin retorted. "What's up?"

"Stars and erections," her sister replied, pulling the little pastry apart. "How's the rolling ocean?"

"It's the same as it was." Quin sat down across the table, tapping the plate with one finger. "But I assume you have a reason for pulling me down here?"

"Yeah." Daria glanced back towards the door, took a breath, and looked back at Quin. "I found your notes."

"...you found my notes."

"Yeah."

"You mean the notes that I had encrypted, locked in a secret compartment of a locked chest that was hidden at the bottom of my wardrobe? Those notes?"

"Er, yeah. Those notes."

Quin ran a hand through her hair, wincing as it caught on one of the salt-crusted tangles. "Okay, then. I do have about a thousand questions, comments, and things to ...say to you. But let's hear your questions out first, get this cleared out of the way--"

"That you can better go on to the rage portion?"

"Well, I really thought snooping through my stuff was a phase you would eventually grow out of! So, yes!"

Daria grinned, a bit infuriatingly. "Okay, then! First off, where are we actually going? Does the crew even know?"

"The navigator knows, and two others. That was the necessary number. No one else was supposed to know. But I guess that doesn't matter all that much now!"

"Oh, come on," she replied, nibbling another chunk of the muffin. "Who'm I going to tell?"

"That's really not the point. An answer for an answer, now - why did you go looking through my stuff?"

She shrugged. "I guess force of habit? Originally, I was just looking to see if you had a pair of gloves I could wear to check the rigging, since it was starting to leave blisters, but I got a bit carried away, and then I noticed the lock..."

"Where'd you get the key?"

"I picked it. Oh, don't look so upset! I used the chant - it's not broken, or anything. You forget, I know your work pretty well. And then the encryption is my specialty, so that was an easy one."

Quin sighed, gritting her teeth. "Okay, that's... not the worst answer you could have. Though yes, I am still just a little bit upset! Just a little."

"So who are you working for?"

"At the moment? No one." She sat back. "It's a little complicated. You know the original force was supposed to have this rendezvous, but things got... just a little complicated."

"This sounds like quite a tale," Daria said brightly, leaning back. "Should I set the charms?"

Quin glared at her. "You might as well. If you've found the notes, there's really no reason to wait on this - I was going to tell you when we landed, anyway, this just bumps up the timeframe a little while. I would have preferred to keep it to myself, but obviously sisterly curiosity trumps all!"

"It always does," she replied over her shoulder, drawing a symbol with her finger on the now-closed door.

"Well, you know the mercenaries were having trouble anyway. We'd had a string of bad luck a few miles long, and it was starting to show - the consultant we hired, remember - maybe three years back - went missing about eighteen months ago. The ship he was supposed to be infiltrating crashed in some jungle three sectors away, and nobody knew where he or the info had gotten to. That whole area is lousy with pirates, so it was a tossup on whether or not we'd ever actually recover it, especially if someone figured out he was worth something. Most likely scenario, of course, is the whole damn ship burned up and we'll never know what happened.

"So in the meantime, my COs are getting antsy - they all want something to happen, they want to see somebody fall, or somebody rise, but this back-and-forth isn't doing any of us any good. And obviously, the rank and file is just as sick of it as they are. Harot, that devil's asslick, finally decides to split off - about two and a half of the fleets followed him. They ran like rabbits, figuring the rest of the command was going to come after them - last I heard, the whole lot of them was in system V, starting to splinter.

"Literally the next morning, somebody finds Fowler in a bar with his aorta seared in half and about three pounds of silver in his guts; somehow he wound up in one of the pockets of the Barth Riots, on Devania. So now it's down to Ruiz, Talbot, and Dirkson, and none of them agree on a damned thing. Eight months back, we lost another fleet, about ten or fifteen of the ranking captains got together and split, and the guys Talbot sent after them joined up, rather than coming back or bringing them down.

"Ruiz and Dirkson are looking like they're going to have some kind of a fucking duel over this thing, like that's the best way to solve it, and Talbot's cracking under the pressure, last thing I heard he had somebody shot for breaking armor codes. So me, Rickard, Latven, and Perry put together our lease, turned in most of our shit, and went on leave. I think Perry's gonna disappear, there's a database now for deserters to pick out of, Rickard and Latven plan on lying low until they see who comes out on top, and I headed out for Tratsphoer."

Daria shook her head. "Damn. I knew things were bad, but... Starcurse, Quin, I had no idea they were that far gone. So are you acting on one of the dissidents' orders, or looking for a new command?"

"Neither." She grinned fiercely. "I took a caravan to Tratsphoer. Halfway there, I stumble on a little nowhere town that's executing somebody for murder, theft, and parole-breaking. I check out the bills, and recognize the style - it's fuckin' Jeb Schmidt, whose agents apparently got killed in the crossfire when things went bad. No idea why he wasn't laying low, but at that point, it's too late to do much but stay out of the way. I put in a bid for his personal effects, and found the papers along with - he should've had those burned the second he was compromised, but he probably thought he could shoot his way out of it. Moron.

"So now, I'm not sure. This operative could be anybody - if they caught up with him, odds are he'd be a crater in about ten seconds, and I don't know if he's expecting that or not. If he thinks his contract is still good, he could be willing to wait a long time. If he's been keeping up on rumors, he's probably pretty edgy by now, and he must have some idea that the command is a mess by now. He might not even be there.

"But if he's got good info, if he's got a clue, and if it looks like he's any good - who knows? Maybe I can pick the deserter database, too. We'll find out when we make landfall."
thulcandran: (Default)
This is the story for which the earlier segment was backstory - there's a whole... thing going on here. The relevant bits are thus: Gwen is the owner of a fueling port in a desert on a fairly backwater part of a planet in a semi-busy sector. Enoch is her manager - Adel, Bolt, and Kasia are crew. Kasia fixes mechanics, Bolt fixes magic, and Adel is security/weapons nut. They're all a little on edge, because one of their regular customers, a smuggling crew, sort of took them by surprise, knocked them out, and left with some kind of important artifact that they didn't know was buried under their port. They have, at this point in the story, discovered by looking into the port, that the stolen artifact is responsible for keeping the atmosphere attached to the planet, which has a sizable air-breathing population.

Enoch looked out over the long corridor, leaning against the wall. Things had gone awry more, and faster, than he'd figured on. That was the rule, though, wasn't it? If you planed for things to go wrong, they'd only go wrong farther than you'd planned. It was some kind of a cosmic law, he was pretty sure.

But they'd be alright. Kasia wasn't fatally injured, Gwen was in charge, and Bolt was figuring things out. They'd be fine. He walked down the long hall, feeling every second of the past two days drag their weight along his bones. It was going to be an interesting journey.

Heh. An interesting journey, he though, shaking his head. As if they'd just decided to go on some kind of holiday, rather than fleeing the planet one step ahead of the city guards--

oh, shit.

He turned around, shaking his head, and strode back up the hall to the cabin. Bolt was still at the controls, humming a low, deep note that resonated across the room, his eyes closed - probably still looking over their course. Kasia was stretched out behind him, watching his hands move across the dashboard, probably taking careful notes in her mind. Gwen was sitting against the wall, asleep, he saw, unfortunately.

He grabbed her shoulder and shook, lightly. She was awake in an instant, looking blearily up at him; he jerked his head to the hall, and she stood up and followed him, quietly, so as not to disturb the team.

"What's up?"

"It just occurred to me," he explained, rubbing his own eyes. "What are we going to do if the General comes after us?"

She sighed. "Yeah, I thought of that. I don't think there's anything we can do, at least not over what we're doing already. We warned them - if they look down in the station, they're only going to find what we did. Hopefully, they'll all have better things to do than chase us down."

Enoch grinned wryly. "Should've guessed you'd be ahead of me," he said, nodding. "Alright, then. Is there anything you want me to do, precautionary sort of?"

"If you think of anything, let me know," she told him, shrugging. "I can't imagine there's anything we can do, like I said. I hate the thought of some anonymous military craft creeping up behind us, but if they do - what are we going to do, put on the shields? Bolt's a great runic engineer, but I rather doubt his sigils are going to stop a full-fledged attack from the government - any government, if it comes to that, aside from maybe Sector [O]."

He ran a hand over his head, sighing. "Yeah, I probably should've figured on that. It just occurred to me - not something I'd had time to think about yet."

"Don't worry about it," she replied. "That's why you've got me - if we both miss it, that's when we get to worry about things. I'm going to get some sleep - you should probably do the same."

"Yeah, will do."

Gwen turned back into the cabin, and Enoch shook his head. It might be harder to catch a nap now, picturing that great hulk looming over them from behind, a wave of fire turning their ship into so much slag...

Yeah, pleasant dreams. He wondered how Gwen planned to fall asleep. After about half an hour staring at the ceiling with no luck, he sighed, pulled on his work clothes, and went off to find Adel. She was probably up doing some kind of exercise somewhere.

"Hey, Enoch - can you give me a hand?" Bolt was yawning, looking like he hadn't had more than a wink in about a week, and the crate he was trying to move looked like it weighed about three times what he did.

Enoch nodded and went around to the other side, throwing his weight behind it. The heavy box budged, then slid a few feet - they managed to get some more clearance behind it, and then Bolt straightened.

"Thanks. I'm going to try and set up some kind of alert system before I hit the hay - Kasia's working on getting the display to pull up, but she's got a way to go, and I want to make sure anyone can check up on it, in case something crazy goes wrong. Wronger."

"Hah. Yeah, I'm not sure what we'll do if anything goes wronger," Enoch agreed, leaning against the box. "What are you planning on?"

He was attacking the crate that'd been behind the one they moved with a crowbar, prying the lid off.

"Gonna make a map," he grunted. "Astral sort of map - hard to explain, much easier to demonstrate. Among other things... there you go, you bastard-- it'll give us a little bit of a warning if something starts creeping up behind us."

"You thought of that, too?"

Bolt cast a look over his shoulder, half amused. "Yeah - your coworker bleeding on the cabin floor behind you while you plan a wild escape from your home tends to put one in a paranoid sort of mood."

Enoch laughed. "I guess I've been too carried away with the details to worry about the overwhelming danger," he said, sitting down against the floor.

"Yeah, and too tired," Bolt said, pulling a long, slender box out of the crate. "You obviously aren't feeling yourself, you haven't tried to correct my prying technique yet."

"Maybe I'm being nice?" Enoch suggested. Bolt laughed.

"Now I know you're overtired," he replied. "Nice try, though."

When he woke up, the crate was back against the cargo like it had been - apparently, Bolt had managed it himself. More noticeably, there were several scratches on the floor, in what looked like charcoal - they looked like mathematical notes of some kind or other. He blinked - against the wall, more prominently, were several more arcane symbols, looking like they'd been painted in starfire - and like they'd been there forever. The design was a pretty one, loops on concentric loops, continuously winding around itself, and around several small points that, on closer scrutiny, proved to be some of the more basic runic symbols Bolt used more frequently. The design continued across the span of the wall, ceiling to floor. Shaking his head, Enoch stood, stretched, and left the cargo hold.

Adel was in the pilot room, watching Kasia work the controls - she appeared to be using something between the two methods, something that would probably make Bolt wince visibly. Her hands moved across the dashboard quickly, deftly, flicking at the little knobs of unmarked metal that stuck up from the smooth surface, but her eyes were closed.

"She came up with it halfway through," Adel said, quietly. "I'm thinking Bolt is going to have some kind of a long speech about the dangers of experimenting with this amount of stake, but I kinda like it... reminds me of."

Enoch glanced down at her, but she seemed to have cut herself off. He shrugged, and sat down on the makeshift chair on the other side of the room. "So we've got the ship pinned, then?"

"Yeah. More or less, anyway - it helps that they'd left traces in port. I just... can't help but wonder..."

"Why?"

"Yeah. They had to have known - I'd never have expected it, not from them. I don't know why. I guess - we all knew what they were, what they did, but..."

Enoch shrugged. "Price must've been too hard to pass up. If we'd known it was down there, maybe we would've been more prepared."

"Maybe."

"I'm pretty pissed, too."

She snorted. "We all are, boss. Gwen's been talking about what she's going to do with the bastards when she catches up with them."

"Heh. We'll see."

"That we will."
thulcandran: (Default)
I've been looking for a way to pin this guy down. There's a more complicated backstory that's alluded to, here - the asteroid belt he's looking for is one where he once spent a few afternoons as a child, and found the ruins of an ancient civilization. It's where/how he learned the rune-work that's become his signature magic. But this is a good way to put him in the right place at the right time! Many thanks to Dann for the prompt: Pirate, Impact, Violin. It was just about exactly what I needed.

Bolt grimaced as he stood up, straightening his shoulders. The engine was finally going back up to the last gear, but damned if he wasn't two weeks behind schedule - he should've done this at the last port, he thought, sighing. The whole thing was just getting ridiculous - a courier gig on this hulk was probably a mistake.

His hand trailed along the ridge of the engine as he wound his way back to the ladder up to the ship proper. He put the toolbox down, hauled himself up hand-over-hand, and turned down to the cot he'd tossed together in the pilot room - more room for cargo if he didn't have to sleep in one of the other rooms, right? The ship thrummed on underneath him, back to her usual pitch, away from the backup engines.

The asteroid belt wasn't the one - he knew that by now. He was pretty sure he was in the right sector, and certain he was in the right system - that narrowed it down to a few hundred years searching, over the thousands he might have expected otherwise, he thought, stretching out over the blankets. Ah, well.

He closed his eyes, and his hand dropped over the side of the bed; the toolbox was a comforting weight underneath, and he smiled.

***

The delivery wasn't too far behind, fortunately - if he could make it up between trips this way, his final check in should be relatively punctual. Bolt grumbled to himself as he lugged the three boxes out of the hold, carried them up the ramp, and slid his chip along the edge of the ident-strip to rent a hand-truck. Of course this bloody planet had a customs process that involved four different licenses - of course it did! He should've gotten more sleep before checking into port he thought, pulling the metal frame along, his delivery stacked neatly over the wheels.

"Hey, this one's for Demi Six," he called, as the guard held up a clipboard.

"Yeah, just sign here. Got a slip for it?"

Bolt fished in his pocket for a moment, and pulled out the little receipt for the courier service. The guard stamped it, the planet's seal glowing briefly as the ink set into the paper.

"Thanks," he said, pushing the cart down along the dock. Demi Six was about three blocks off the lift, he thought, if he could remember which lift to grab.

A ship's crew passed him going the other way, the patches on their shoulders identifying them in some code he was unfamiliar with. They were a grim bunch, eyes set mainly ahead, none of the usual merriment crews showed on their way out of ports like this one. He stepped into the lift, pulled the lever, and waited for it to pull him down to the planet's main surface.

The receiving service was a complex of towers, variously faceted, somewhere between utilitarian and graceful in architecture. He pushed the cart through the gate, slid his chip along the ident strip again, and signed the boxes off to the clerk for the fee the man handed him back, in local currency - he wouldn't bother getting it changed here, he thought, sliding the bills into his pocket. The rate was usually better a little farther out along the edges.

He managed to get back into his ship with a minimum of red tape, got himself cleared for exit, and slid out of the port fairly smoothly. The trip was another week and a half to his next stop, but he'd have to refuel there. He closed his eyes, sliding into a trance, humming under his breath.

The ship's display appeared over his vision as he closed his eyes, levels and displays glowing brightly, somehow more clear, easier understood, when he saw them in meditation, than on their screens. He was glad he'd chosen this model, even if it did need a ridiculous amount of upkeep on a regular basis; having a ship console that he could poke tools at on both levels was well worth it.

After establishing a reasonable itinerary, he hummed the sequence to close the display, and the lights dimmed, leaving him in a more normal trance. He let his consciousness slide into the easy silence of a full meditation.

The impact came, more or less, as a complete surprise, jarring his entire body, and the world around him. When he opened his eyes, everything was upside down, and he was braced against the ship's manual console, three or twenty sharp things poking into him at various angles.

Stunned, Bolt pulled himself up, staring around at the ship - everything had been scrambled around the cabin. He grabbed the edge of the console and whirled, staring at the console - nothing was amiss, according to - no! There it was. A breach on the hold's angled side... but that didn't make any sense at all, he thought, pulling that piece of the display up to the full resolution.

With a startling click, the display went dark - and a moment later, so did everything else.

***

When Bolt opened his eyes, there was a bright light on the edges of his vision, and everything else was still dark. He tried to turn his head - his neck was stiff and sore, and his arms were pinned behind him - every muscle in his body was knotted up.

"What the fuck," he said, conversationally.

There was a thump from somewhere in front of him, and footsteps. A hand pulled the blindfold off his face, and he blinked rapidly to clear his vision.

One of the men from the crew he'd seen on his way to Demi Six, he realized, as things swam into foucs. Tall, red hair combed back to his neck, sharp angled features, and blue-grey eyes, cold now, as they regarded him, evaluating.

"You weren't carrying shit," the man said, baritone voice rasping a bit. "Dorian's happy, I guess he's been looking for a violin for a while, but everything else was useless."

Bolt almost laughed. Pirates - of course they were pirates. Just his luck. "I could've told you that," he replied, shrugging - or almost shrugging, since his shoulders didn't really want to move. "Why would you be attacking a courier vessel anyway - some kind of death wish?"

The other man gave him an amused look. "We're not stupid, mate," he said, walking back across the room. "You're a freelancer, there's not much risk on you."

"Damn." Bolt sighed - so much for that tack. He frowned. "How'd you know that when you boarded?"

A shadow passed the pirate's face. "Don't ask stupid questions," he said.

They hadn't. That was... interesting. Either he was mistaken, and this was some kind of a hostile mercenary force who'd escaped his database - not entirely unprecedented, they cropped up all the time - or this was some kind of utterly suicidal pirate captain. Or, somewhat disturbingly, there was some kind of new tech that could give enough of a reading on his ship to tell them anything they wanted to know about him.

"Why'm I still alive?"

The man grinned at him. "See, now that was less of a stupid question. We're not sure if there's any value in you," he explained, crossing his arms behind his head. "And don't bother trying to answer, because we both know what you're going to say."

Bolt almost laughed. Of course there wasn't - and of course he'd say there was. But who knew? Maybe there was someone out there who'd ransom him, and he wouldn't wind up chained to a pick in the middle of nowhere, or out an airlock. He was glad he'd gotten the self-destruct bit on his chip - the thing would be a useless scrap by now.

***

The shouting was getting louder, and more frequent. Bolt looked up towards the corner of the ceiling, where it was coming from. Things had been tense, uneasy, in his captors' ship for the past few days - longer, even. It had been, he thought, about three weeks-universal since they took him. He'd gotten the impression there was a rift in the crew, or at least some unhappiness. If he'd had the knack for it, he would've been trying to exploit this for his freedom. But Bolt found himself at a loss where it came to figuring people. They never seemed to work the way they were supposed to.

His guards were usually the same three people, on a fairly regular schedule - they'd drop in every few hours to make sure he hadn't broken out of the room or anything, leave food, and make sure the door was secure. The room was about four feet by six, and mostly bare, but at least he wasn't tied up anymore - his body had just about healed.

One was the tall red-head who'd been there the first day - his name was Yuri, Bolt figured out, later. The others were Dorian, the violinist, who turned out to be a slim, blond boy with a snub nose and laughing blue eyes, and Tatiana, a well-muscled black woman who wore her dark hair in braids pinned back, and spoke quietly, with some authority. All three of them had been on edge, for the past few days. He wondered if they knew he noticed.

He wasn't entirely surprised when he heard the shots.

He was a bit more surprised when the door swung open and Tatiana stepped in, gun held at the hip. "You," she said, gesturing. "You want to live?"

Bolt stood up. "Yeah, I kinda do."

"Good." She held the door open, and stepped back out. "How good are you with a gun?"

He winced. "Not very. Can do a bit of spellwork, though."

The woman glanced back, looked him over once, and nodded. "Alright. Here's now it is - you might have gotten some of this. Our captain's an idiot, he doesn't know he's an idiot, and we've just decided we're not going to die for it. A few idiots think their chances are better standing with him."

"Makes sense. Where do I come in?"

"That depends," she said over her shoulder, leading the way down the hall. "What kind of spells do you know?"

He wracked his brain furiously. "Shields are what I'm best with," he said, "But I can do some damage if you give me a little juice."

Tatiana grinned. "Juice we've got. Can you fry the - no. Can you fix the light system if you fry it?"

He nodded.

"Good. Can you fry someone with the light system?"

"Should be able to, if you know where they are."

It wasn't the first time he'd killed someone, he reminded himself, as he shoved both hands through the panel and grabbed the exposed wire. Not even the first time he'd done it like this. But it still shook him, as he felt himself spread through the system, and focused the power. It was easy, too easy, to convince the energy running through the wires that this was the shortest path - and then, just like that, there was a strangled scream, and everything was over.

When he'd gotten their ship fixed, they dropped him off on the nearest planet, sans his ship - they'd scrapped it, Yuri told him. Another brilliant decision by their late fearless leader. If you didn't understand how something worked, destroy it. Bolt found himself surprisingly more upset than he expected - apparently, he'd gotten more attached to the ship than he had realized. Yuri handed him a few bills - enough to keep him alive for a while, until he found his legs, he saw, though by no means as much as he'd had when they'd captured him.

He watched the ship click out of port, sighing. Back to square one - or not quite, he realized, as he leaned back against the wall, and felt his ankle bump against the familiar weight of his toolbox. That was alright, then. He could figure the rest out as he went.
thulcandran: (Default)
I am sitting in a cafe in Corvallis (I sorta moved across the country last week. It's still sinking in.), and trying desperately to write something, anything, and all my words are falling out like ashes, and nobody's awake so I can't grasp three random words, and my hamhanded attempts get me "Electronic Construction Fire," which is ridiculous, so I said fuck it, and started writing stream of consciousness, and this is what it got me. I may continue it, or it may just hang around, because I'm thinking it might be one of those things that works best on its own.

The world is round, they say, a sphere of complicated and unwieldy angular shapes thrust together onto a natural world - Picasso meets Dali, perhaps, in a disaster of epic proportions, the like of which may we never see again. The world is round, and spherical, and just one person disagrees, on his tower from which, he claims, he can see the edges of the world, and the water falling off, eternally, into the space. He says we will one day run out of water, that someday, unless the gods undertake an effort to stop it, all the water will have flowed off the edges and into a great dark vacuum that none can comprehend, and we will shrivel and die. He is a madman, of course. The gods themselves have told us the world is round.

It was the gods who made the world, and one would think they knew what sort of world they had made. It is a great ball, hanging suspended in the vacuum, while stars travel around it, weaving complicated patterns against the dark backdrop. There is some debate on whether or not the gods made the stars - they have not spoken in some time, you see, some generations' worth of it. The rationalists say that of course the gods made the stars, and all in the vacuum. Some of them say the stars are the gods. The occultists say that the gods made the world, but the stars are outside their range, and the world travels through them and sees out of the world, out of reality itself. They have not yet come to blows, but it is possible. One wonders if the gods speaking again could solve this.

In the middle of the wilderness, a small group of followers has sprung up among the madman. They follow his every word, and insist that the world is flat, and the waters are pouring off of the edges. Some of them have turned to prayer, imploring the gods to intervene, to turn up the edges of the world and stop the fall of the waters. Some have begun to dig wells, to hold as much water as they can back from the edges before it is too late. The common theory is that the madness is contagious, and so we avoid them. They wear dingy robes and don't hold much with the more complicated forms of hygiene, and so this is easy - some of us wonder what will happen if they ever change their ways, and become more insidious.

Sometimes, one might wonder if the world is round, why we have not seen anyone who has gone all the way around it. The clerics say this, too, is a form of heresy. The world is round, and we know this, because the gods told us that the world was round. Why would we need to prove such a thing? It would be a gesture of remarkable lack of faith, and none of us want that. So none have tried to prove either way for the priests or the madmen. But there is tension in the world, and it is growing - on the horizon, sometimes, there are plumes of smoke rising from the camps of madmen, and every day, the arguing in the street gets louder, and the merchants have begun taking sides. The artisans continue to hold long conversations about higher truths, refusing to dip their toes into the heart of the argument, and the craftsmen's guild have eschewed the conflict altogether - though significant numbers of all, now, have made pilgrimages out to the camps of the mad. Some return. Some do not.

There are a few of us who have begun a plan to leave this city. Not to enter the camps of the mad prophet, nor even to see his tower, but to leave the cities, and their politics, altogether. There was a brawl last night, outside of a temple, that left three with broken teeth and noses, and one unable to move, on the road, moaning piteously. None of us know what will become of him, and this morning, none will admit to having been involved in the brawl. It seems to have been without participants, save the injured, but there were whispers, in the bathhouse, that priests' robes were seen, fleeing the scene.

The plan is discussed only where it cannot be overheard. There are a half-dozen of us who plot, and all of us are trustworthy. We will take only what we need, and leave this city behind, at sunset - we will exit where the camps of madmen are the most sparse, and slip between them in the dark, lest we contract their madness. From there, we will walk to the opposite side of the world. There are tales that are told, in some of the temples, that on the other side of the world, there is a mountain, and on that mountain, the gods dwell. The fact is, if they will not speak to us, then we must speak to them.

On Power(s)

Jan. 9th, 2013 07:04 pm
thulcandran: (Default)
Continuing last piece, here's the one involving the battle-scarred Fae in rune-engraved armor.

The view was longer than wide, the sun beating down on the waving grass. Liron bent to examine the object that lay there, in a hollow of the dried grasses, where the sun glinted off of it, reddish and shining. It was the head of a javelin. She glanced back up at Basir, whose lips were tight, watching. He shook his head - don't touch it - and continued. There were signs of a grave struggle everywhere, subtly. Here, a place where someone had thrashed, in struggle or death throes; here, a splash of blood on a waving thistle stem. There were more weapons, too, all broken pieces - a long sliver of cold iron, which puzzled her for a long moment. No one made weapons out of cold iron, unless they were fighting faeries or gods, but it had clearly come from an edged weapon.

A short, sharp whistle split the ear, and she stood quickly - Basir was standing on the edge of the meadow, where the grass ended, and the trees began. There was a shape there, something that looked human, on the ground. She sprinted towards him, touching the hilt of her dagger briefly, just to confirm it was there. He gestured, shaking his head, as she approached, and she slowed - no danger. The body was smaller than a man's, and if it were not for the many old scars, and the scene behind them, she would've thought him a boy. But this was no child, nor even a youth - the face that looked up at them was young, fair, but the eyes... the eyes were that of an ancient. She frowned. He had not moved.

"There is some weirding on this place," Basir told her, looking around again. "I had a feeling, but - I think this battle was many years ago. He," waving towards the fallen Fae warrior, "is still alive, but can neither move nor speak." The sorcerer looked around. "I think there may be something on the other side - see what you can figure out, examining him." He walked off, leaving Liron with the unnerving warrior.

She knelt, looking down at the fallen form. The helm had been removed, and lay under his arm, and his hair was tousled, fair, and looked as though he'd been working hard. The armor was all of some fine metal, and shone brightly in colors hard to discern when the sun flashed on it - some copper, she guessed, and some silver, and most definitely some kind of magick. She leaned closer, and the sharp lines she'd taken for scratches stood out more clearly - engraved, so fine it was hard to read, was a swirling runic script. Written in a style she'd only seen once before, it filled every inch of the metal. She whistled under her breath, taken aback by the handiwork on display. It must have taken years, decades, for even a smith of the Fair Folk to craft something with such fine detail and skill. The lettering extended to the helm under his arm, she saw, and all over the armor. It was beautiful, and probably quite deadly. She tried to remember if Basir could read such a script, and stood, rubbing her eyes, to call him.

He was standing behind her, a smooth stone in his hand, a curious expression on his face. "Liron, I need a bird's eye view of this," he said, rubbing the stone absently. "Can you tell me what stands out to you?"

Liron nodded, and shifted her shape, reaching for the fine feathers of a hawk, the sleek shape, the control - as a kestrel, she looked back up at Basir from the ground. He smiled, and stooped to pick her up from the ground. She nodded once in thanks, and he gave her a quick thrust into the air.

For only a moment, the scene was quite normal - the weapon pieces flashed, standing out to her sharp eyes - and then she saw it. The wild had crept in on the east and the south sides of the meadow, and what had once been grassland was now underbrush, some trees, old and gnarled, and weeds. The east faded, she saw, going downhill, where rain and wind and time had worn the land away into a steep hillside. In the north, a dry riverbed stopped short at the end of the meadow; where it had gone, she could not tell. Perhaps underground, perhaps around to the hillside. On the west alone was more grassland, but even that side bore a strange, marked difference to the land Basir now stood on. The few trees inside the circle - clear, now that she looked for it - were far, far younger than the forest beyond them. She finished her last circle, and descended, letting her shape return to the girl's as she landed.

Basir raised his eyebrows in query, and she shook her head.

"It looks... odd. As if time had set a circle around this place, and progressed everywhere but here. A river was turned away, to the north, and landslides took the east away, but stopped short at the edge of it - even the way we came, the land just doesn't look the same."

He nodded. "Almost a perfect circle, with a few flat spots on the perimeter?"

"Exactly. What is it?"

He looked thoughtful, and turned towards the wood. "Let's step out of here - do you still have that javelin?"

She nodded, tapping the stone, where she'd stuck it through her belt.

"Good. I want to be sure we can get back in, if need be - but I don't think talking about this in the circle is a good idea."

They walked past the fallen soldier, through the trees; on alert, Liron sensed it immediately when they stepped through the edge of the circle, a tangible shift in the air around them - lighter, somehow. The sun shone, still, but the light wind that had stirred the grass in the circle was harsh now, whipping at the treetops. Basir led her about a hundred paces through the trees, following a narrow deer path, and stopped at a small open space, about as wide as two men lying head to toe. He sat against one of the great trees, leaning back against the thick roots.

Liron prowled the perimeter of the small clearing, more out of habit than any real sense of danger, before sitting down opposite him, on a root the size of her torso that twisted briefly out of the ground.

"Do you know the ballad of Tomán?" he asked, fishing his pipe out of his vest.

She nodded. "The son of Raegar, who led the charge against... ah, I don't remember now, but it was very gallant, his charger white as the pale snow and just as deadly, and there were several lines detailing the blue of his eyes." She chewed this inside of her lip, trying to remember it. "There was something that went badly wrong, ah, let me see... his own son betrayed him, that was it. He'd been compromised somehow by the enemy, a love affair with their general's squire, I think?"

Nodding, Basir drew breath through his pipe, and pulled a flask out of his vest as well. He took a pull and passed it across to her. After a long drink, she handed it back to him, thoughtful, now.

"So let's see. The battle was lost, but Tomán escaped with his life, grievously wounded. He turned to dark and evil magicks," she paused, sketching half a bow in his direction from her seat, "And swore revenge on, for some reason, the general whose squire had eloped with his son. Can you say willful ignorance?"

Basir laughed aloud, and cut her off with a sweep of his hand. "That's about the gist of it, aye," he said, adjusting his pipe. "Now - do you know who that was?"

She blinked. "I'd assume not Tomán..."

"You'd assume correctly. Tomán still lives, somewhere; legend has him holed up somewhere deep in the bowels of the earth, in fiery darkness."

Liron raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Fiery darkness?"

He flicked ash at her. "You're getting sidetracked by poetic turn of phrase, dear," he pointed out. "The point is, that was not Tomán, but there is clearly a deep magic about the place, and the boy lives - but cannot be moved, nor move himself, and the entire place is set about with spells of ancient protection, even against Time herself."

"His son," she breathed. "He couldn't kill his own son, but he couldn't let him go free - oh, gods, that is so much worse than death."

Basir nodded silently.

"There's nothing we can do."

"I'm glad you've come to that conclusion," he replied, drily. "Once upon a time, you would have demanded we save the lad."

She made a face at him. "What, and die in the ensuing explosion as Time unwound itself? Once upon a time, I was an idiot, Basir. How did you ever put up with me?"

The sorcerer laughed, sliding the pipe back into his vest. "We may never know," he intoned, standing. "The javelin, if you please."

She stood, made as if to toss it to him, and thought better, and handed it across the gap. He flashed a smile as he pocketed it, and she grinned in return.

"One more odd puzzle piece," she mused, running a hand over her hair. "Now. On our way?"

"On our way."
thulcandran: (Default)
I have a conundrum! I like this story, but I dislike the characters' names. Ronin is a cool name, but for a sorcerer old as the hills? I need something far more dramatic. And did I really name his companion after my cat? Groan. I was really reaching, there... Anyway, I have an inspiration to continue it, or draw on it, anyway, and I never claimed to be anything but a work in progress, on this blog - so I think I'll change them for this story, and maybe go back and shift those, if these seem to fit better. Once I find them.

Anyway! firemagic, of the PPC, posted something very like the three-random-word prompt: a three-description prompt. The given three were
A gorgeous sunset over a sparkling waterfall, A battle-scarred Fae warrior in rune-engraved armor, and A sacrificial costume. So, with the little piece involving my characters here in mind, I'm going to post something along those lines - one for each, I think. Enjoy!

Basir looked around, took a deep breath, and hummed a long, low note. He focused on the pitch, the exact tone he was looking for, and kept his eyes closed, forming the picture in his mind - the resonance must be exact. The road shimmered before them, seeming to flutter through multiple world-narratives before settling on the one that he held it to. Behind him, Liron kept watch, her eyes flicking back and forth in the twilit wood where the road had led them. It still took her some effort to keep from watching the spell take hold in wonder - this one fascinated her more than most, as the nature behind it always seemed so very subtle. Basir had explained it to her, somewhat - the idea that this exact spot, due to ley lines, if she remembered it right, had several different potential gates. Different sorcerers used different methods to open them; his was a specific pitch. That was keyed to the same energy that some opened with light, or a spell, or a temperature or elemental powder. His way seemed more elegant to Liron, more essential - how would a wizard with no supplies open a gate if they were used to using sulfur or iron filings? How would one down on their energy reach the right light shade, or temperature, if the fire was too hot? She admired Basir's technique - though it could be admitted, she supposed, that there was a bias at work there.

The gate finally opened, and he nodded with satisfaction. "Ready?"

She turned around, nodding. "The way's clear behind us - no pursuers to speak of," she told him, tapping the hilt of her dagger. "Is that all?"

The sorcerer nodded again. "Aye, the way is now open. After you, then."

Once upon a time, she would have been terrified to step through a gate and leave the sorcerer on the other side, citing examples of the most renowned treacherous mages the world had ever known - it seemed that once someone reached a certain level of power, they decided they no longer needed their humanity. She'd been convinced that Basir meant to trade her life away to some demon or other, and held her breath, and her weapon, tightly when she stepped through the gate. Two hundred or so years later, they still stepped through gates in the same order, and he had never failed once to materialize behind her. Liron had been valuable, she supposed, in his many quests and searches: her abilities were limited to shape-shifting, but as one who registered as a low-level threat, she was often able to go places he could not.

She grinned at him as she passed through the strangely jelly-like fog that clouded the road ahead. He kept concentration, rolling his dark eyes slightly in a sort of acknowledgment. Basir was of average height, wiry in build, and kept his silvered hair and beard cropped close, framing his dark, leathery face, save the pale scar that crossed his hairline to the right, breaking the border. He looked deceptively youthful - one would've guessed perhaps fifty, or sixty. Most people tended to look a bit older, when they'd been around half a milennium, but then, Basir was not most people.

The other side of the portal was sunny, bright, and smelled vaguely of sweet grasses and wildflowers. There was no road, only the suggestion of a deer path or something of the sort, winding through the highland meadow in no particular order. She shook her head and took another few steps; Basir tapped the path once, and the swirling fog behind them disappeared. He smiled down at her and bowed slightly.

"Shall we?"

She bowed back, elaborate and courtly, with a flourish, and turned towards the road.

She wasn't entirely surprised when he tripped her, but didn't bother catching the fall, and landed headfirst in the grass.

"Dammit, that's going to stain," she grumbled, reaching for the hand he held out. He laughed - the tunic she wore might once have been a single color, but their long travels had left it a sort of marbled green, reddish brown, true-brown, and a few other colors, relics from other permanently-staining adventures.

"We're going the other way," he explained, pointing. The road she'd been about to take led down into a set of rollicking meadows, brilliant green, dotted all over with points of bright colors and more subtle pastels; a ways off to the East, a stream crossed it, light sparkling off of every rippling facet.

She turned, looking back towards where the gate had been. The meadow rose steadily up to a sloping hillside, and beyond it were more hills, smokey grays and purples, rising up to more impressive mountains, snow-capped in the distance and quite forbidding. She groaned.

"Of course we're going the other way!" Dusting off the bits of grass and heather from her clothes and hair, she glared at him. "Why would I ever think we were headed down into a beautiful and pleasant meadow when there are impressively ominous mountains in the neighborhood?"

Basir laughed and shrugged, turning towards the road, his staff plunking down along the way. "I have no idea, Liron. I would honestly have thought you knew better by now!"

The afternoon wore away, pleasantly warm, if tiring, and they made good progress up the hill. It wasn't quite as daunting as it had seemed - they were headed up the range, rather than through it, and going over a ridge was much easier than days of descending and climbing. When sunset found them, they were near the source, she presumed, of one of the charming meadow streams - rather more impressive than homey, at this distance. The sunset before them, just barely hidden by the mountains, left the sky reddish, and the few clouds gold. Liron sat on the edge of a fairly steep cliff, watching the waterfall roar down, a ways ahead of them. The mist, too, had a golden tinge, over the entirely different rushing quality of the water beneath - it was so... dynamic. So powerful. Beautiful, dangerous, like a sword, or a song. She breathed deeply, taking in the scent of the mosses that thrived around it, the special quality of water coming down off the heights - much of it snowmelt, at this point, and run-off, and the faint smell of pines and junipers, nearly universal in the mountains, but always welcome.

"Liron? It's about that time," Basir called from the campsite, where he'd begun preparations for setting up camp. She nodded, and tore her gaze away from the waterfall to return to their site; division of labor, for them, meant that he did the safety-through-magic stuff, and she did the comfort-through-labor stuff. It generally worked pretty well.

* * *

Basir looked down from the stars; he'd gleaned all he could from this night. Liron was fast asleep by now. It wasn't always easy to tell, with her, but he'd had a lot of practice. He smiled, as her arm twitched across the bedroll. The shifter had to be the only person he'd ever known who used a rock for a pillow and sincerely enjoyed it. Crazy girl. She was a head and a half shorter than him, springy and sharp-angled. He had suspected, once upon a time, that they were related somehow, but that hadn't panned out. She was from his first homeland, though, one of the few that had made it out; they shared the same dark skin and hair, though her eyes were lighter. It had come in handy, knowing the little-used tongue, usually in mercantile situations. He frowned, now, looking back up towards their road, ahead on the hills.

He wondered if Liron had any idea what was in store for them there - and if she'd still be along with him, if she did. Probably. The shifter was a stubborn kid, and any attempts to dissuade her from a given course usually only resulted in disaster, and occasionally, mutual bruises. He sighed, and stretched back out on the ground. They'd make it through. They always did.

---Fin---

(No, I have no idea why I called it Sorcerer and the Squirrel. Liron reminds me a little bit of a squirrel, I guess? In the first bit, where she was called Tina, anyway. But I'll post the second one tomorrow.)

Treason

Dec. 3rd, 2012 11:35 pm
thulcandran: (Default)
So... someone requested more excerpts of NaNoWriMo. This isn't exactly that - it's the short story that kicked off The Tide Game, which was this year's win. That latter piece is still... well, it's in rough shape. The scenes that I'm happy with don't work posted out of context, mostly, and the scenes that are needed for context are... really, really poor quality. But this story, I think I can work with. So here! Part one, as a hopefully acceptable compromise.

The cave echoed, faintly; she kicked the wall, listened to the clank go back, the wall, come all the way... yeah. Again, with her wrists. It wasn't altogether uncomfortable, though that might be from being too exhausted to really give her nerves all the attention they needed. Too much time, and too much energy spent on keeping her thoughts far away from anything serious. She clanked the wall again, and listened for the echoes.

A light came, this time, with the faint clattering, at the far entrance of the cave. There were boots, now, echoing down from the other direction, and she tried not to giggle at the reversal. Pay attention now, Dain. Pay attention. Focus. Hey... ah, there they were, several booted guards. She looked up, past the heavy scaled tunic and the weapons, to the badges and insignia. One of them swore, and shook his head.

"Who the hell thought this was a good idea?" He glared at Dain, as if it was her fault, and sighed. "He's as good as gone, in here, if we don't figure this out."

One of the other guards made a noise, and glanced back towards the light. "He's as good as gone if we leave him, too, Gareth," she replied. "And I would think he could handle this alright." She looked down at Dain, who wasn't bothering to look disinterested; this was the most interesting thing that had happened in the past twelve hours. "She's pretty well subdued, wouldn't you say?"

The lead guard, apparently - his badge was hard to read, in the torchlight - made a face and shrugged. "It looks like we don't have a choice," he said, pulling out a key. "You three, stay here. Baro and Edan, you come with me." He turned, and two of the troop followed him, leaving Dain alone with the other half.

"You probably aren't this stupid, but just in case, don't try anything destructive," the guard closest, who had spoken before, told her. "This isn't something I'm in favor of, but you've still got to stand trial, so we can't just bash your skull in and leave you here."

One of the other guards grunted. "You probably would anyway, but he wouldn't like it, eh, Tai?"

She glanced over her shoulder. "I believe in the due process of law, like a good officer. Shut up."

Dain shrugged, finally finding her throat semi-clear. "I don't know what any of you are talking about, but I'm not planning on... trying anything." She held up her manacles, smiling slightly. "Even if I was, this is something of a deterrent, wouldn't you say?"

The first guard - Tai - grinned. "Well, yes. That's the general idea of the things, you know. To deter people from trying anything stupid."

They were spared further conversation by the return of the echoing footsteps - more hurried, this time. The rest of the troop returned, and the man apparently in charge glanced down at her again, swearing under his breath. "Tai, Edan, get those things unhooked. Apparently there's a place further down that's got the fortifications they were talking about."

"Sonuvabitch!" Tai dropped quickly, and slipped the other end of the chains off the wall, grabbing them to hook around her scimitar's handle. "Still don't do anything stupid," she said quietly, firmly.

The other guard, Edan, slipped the other wall hook, and shook his head. "This is a terrible idea," he said, reaching across to unhook the catch on the ankles.

Gareth gave him a dirty look. "I know! Look, can we stop talking about how this is a shitty place to be? I wasn't the one who started the fucking revolution, alright?"

Dain winced, and Tai gave her a dry look. "Yeah, don't bother."

Another torch appeared at the opening of the cavern, and Gareth took a deep breath. "Out of time, lovelies. Let's move." He turned back to the light, and cupped a hand around his mouth. "Identify yourselves!"

The voice that came back was painfully familiar; strong, resonant, and rough, it was generally accompanied by some form of trumpeting. "Just one of me, Captain. I sent the courier back - he's needed out there. As are the rest of you, actually." The torch, as it approached, illuminated the face, harried and haggard over a suit of well-worn leather armor, entirely free from the gilt that usually accompanied the Emperor's ceremonial battle-wear. He grinned tiredly as all four guards glanced at it in surprise before saluting. "Crowns tend to get in the way, when one has to do any real fighting." He looked past the guards, to where Dain was trying to decide whether to look defiant or fade into the floor. The silence stretched out for a moment. Damn. Damn, damn, damn.

"This was a terrible idea," she said, faintly.

Gareth growled under his breath and gestured jerkily towards the darker end of the cave. "Sire, you are apparently the only one here who's been briefed about this, so I must ask you to lead the way."

Emperor Xerxes VI shifted his gaze back towards the mouth of the cave, where for the first time, faint, barely discernable noises were beginning to echo down. "I think not, Captain. The battle out there needs men rather more than I do." As the captain looked uncertain, he added, "That is an order, if you need it to be."

He sighed. "Let's move, troop. Tai - get them down to safety, and then follow us back up, hit the barracs if you need orders. Understood?"

The guard nodded, remembered herself, saluted, and turned to follow the Emperor, who had already turned down into the darkness, his torch casting their shadows wildly back towards the light.

The chamber at the end of the winding tunnel was small, sparse; there was a tap on the far wall, and a low doorway, darkened, next to it. A single cot, several small ventilation grilles, and a fireplace... it was about six paces in length, two or three in width. The emperor unhooked a key from around his neck, beneath the armor, and handed it to Tai.

"This stays with you. Do not give it up, even to Gareth," he told her quietly. "When the fighting has been pushed out of the capital, return for me - the time will come, I will yet be needed."

She nodded, pushed the heavy door shut, and locked it behind her. As her footsteps receded down the cave, Xerxes VI reached up and turned three heavy deadbolts into place.

"Could be important," he muttered. "Shouldn't even arise, though." He sat down heavily on the cot, still musing. "Unless they take the key off her body," he explained finally, looking up at Dain, "The door won't even be visible. Not an easy trick, but it does come in handy."

"...Ah," she replied, hesitantly. It... wasn't a summary execution, there was at least that.

Emperor Xerxes I rubbed a hand over his face and extended the torch to the fireplace; with a word whispered under his breath, it caught instantly. Even in the firelight, his eyes showed up greenish, reptilian, penetrating. His leathery skin, though mostly appearing human, took on a distinctly beaded pattern and a reddish hue around his neck and ears; the effect continued, presumably throughout his body - at least showing on the back of his hands, clawed rather than nailed. Powerfully built, instantly recognizable, this was still only the third time she'd seen him up close. He looked up from the fire, studying her in return, for a long moment.

"Here," he said finally, handing her the torch. "Put this back up."

It didn't occur to her to do otherwise. She crossed the room, her gait only somewhat diminished by the manacles, and hoisted the torch into its sconce easily.

She turned to find him watching her, still. "So. It was a bad idea, you say?"

Dain nearly laughed. Of course he knew what she'd meant. "Not one of my better ones, anyway," she answered.

He grinned at her in return, looking worn. "You can sit," he told her, leaning back against the wall, "If you wish. I suspect we will be stuck here for some time."

She sat down against the wall, beneath the torch, and realized she was more tired than she'd thought; her body had been suppressing it for some time, and she'd ignored one of the hard and fast rules of a courier's life, and taken none of the many chances to sleep in the past few days. She was unsure of why - she'd certainly been in worse places to sleep, though probably not in more dangerous situations... that time with the bear nearly qualified.

The scene in the room changed very little, the few times she did open her eyes. Xerxes used the tiny desk next to the cot and wrote, for some time, or stared into the flames. At one point, she awakened fully to the smell of something cooking.

"Aha." He handed her a hunk of flat bread, and a rough-hewn stone bowl, quite warm. "Someone appears to have stocked it well."

Dain took both, not showing her surprise. "Oh. Um - thank you." The titles and proprieties occurred to her only belatedly - she did not bother appending them. After the past few days, it would be a hollow courtesy, and he knew it as well as she did.

The meal over, she took both bowls to the tap and set about rinsing them. The time passed, imperceptibly. Finally, when she could clean them no further without risking the integrity of the hull, she treturned to the business of Waiting.

Perhaps it was the fatal nature of the situation at large, making her bold; perhaps it was the deadliness of the dull blade of boredom, felt for the first time at length in years. Perhaps it was simply the overwhelming curiosity that had so often nearly killed her.

"Were there really no other options?"

He quirked an eyebrow. "Than?"

"Than the emperor and the traitor, locked in the same cell."

"Ah. That." He shrugged, turning fully towards her. "Would you believe I was curious?" At her responding expression of clear disbelief, he did laugh aloud. "No. Not solely, anyway. This is the most secure place on the palace grounds, and easily so. That key around the guard's neck - it does not unlock the physical door; those deadbolts can only be turned from this side. The key contains the image of the door, and indeed the room - visually, it appears to be a nondescript wall, unless one has the key. Only the bearer can see through the illusion.

"To answer your more subtle question - there is no prison in reach that would not have put you and your guards in grave danger. Your actions," and here, for the first time, his eyes flashed with quickly concealed anger, "Ensured that the entire palace was overrun to the point of saturation almost immediately, giving us little time for preparation. I could not drive them out at this stage, they were far too prepared for that, the blood rites would've done for the entire city - and so we had a separate strategy altogether.

"The guards will be alright, in the majority, as the defenses were so wholly geared towards myself and the royal contingent leading the charge. One of their few slip-ups. So there was nothing for it, but that I go immediately into hiding, and the royal guard flee. And you - much the same. I don't know if they intended you to melt away and rejoin the attacking force, or to just vanish altogether in the chaos, leaving no trace of their inside link.

"Either way, having you alive to be questioned is most likely an option I rather suspect they did not intend, and therefore an advantage I am unlikely to give up, either by allowing your death, or your escape. So the safest room is this place, for both of us. Likely for the empire." He sighed and handed her the empty bowl. "I could use a drink, if you've still the desire to be cooperative."

Entirely rattled, Dain stood, taking the bowl, and returned it to him, mostly full. "You're taking this... very rationally," she said, as he took a drink. "It caught me more by surprise than you, it seems - I didn't expect things to move so fast."

He smiled. "Well, yes. I've been waiting for them to strike for months now. Certain factions of the Council have more or less sworn alliance already."

A heavy rattling noise sounded through the vents - like several thousand boulders down a mountain. Xerxes glanced at her. "Here comes the cavalry," he said quietly. "You planning on calling a rescue?"

She laughed bitterly. "They find me locked in a cell with the emperor, in the safest room here, last place anyone will look, and you think they'll be mounting a rescue?" He frowned, curious, and she continued; it could hardly hurt. "You were more right than you know. I was supposed to vanish altogether - by blade," she told him. "A part of the plan that somehow didn't manage to come to my attention until my supposed comrade-in-arms drew on me in the immediate aftermath. They find us down here, they'll take the opportunity to run us both through."

He nodded, slowly. "I see. You think--" he stopped, the bowl in his hands. There was a noise, somewhere on the other side of the door. He put the bowl down on the cot next to him very slowly. There was a series of metallic clashes, very faint, and shouting, echoing back and forth; the caverns made distance hard to judge. The voices grew louder, and were cut off quite suddenly. A louder crash, and more voices, harsh and loud, grew close. There were no footsteps; these weren't guards. Dain strained to hear them, wondering if she would recognize any. Xerxes shot her a look, unreadable, before returning his attention to the door. The air was taut. Words began to register through the thick.

"If they'd just picked it up!"

"Yes, I know. Look, someone's - no, shit. That's Fal's blood. This has to be a dead end."

"Just like the old lizard, to fill the ground with dead-end tunnel mazes."

The response was faintly amused, tantalizingly familiar, and Dain tensed automatically. "You're an idiot. These are at least as old as the last dynasty. Did we send someone down both ends, up there at the bend?"

"Of course." She could practically see the smirk.

"Good. That'll be done with Jon and Fal. If they manage to make it back, make sure Kali has her orders. We're not going to find the damned dragon," he finished, his voice going clear as they drew closer. "He's gone to ground. But if we can finish the dissenters, the whole thing won't be in vain."

"Yeah. Ah, damn it. I told you - dead end," came the reply.

"I figured. Let's get this over with, they're butchering us up there." One side of the emperor's mouth quirked up in satisfaction.

"Mmmm. Not exactly the retreat I wanted. We've got to be more careful with recon on the next one, this..." the voice trailed away to inaudibility. They waited several moments in tense silence before Xerxes VI stood quietly and walked over to the door. He put a hand against it and pushed, softly; the entire wall swung away like a door, for a moment, framing the dark and empty cavern before them. Satisfied, he withdrew his hand and let the illusion fade before sitting back down.

"Not long now," Dain said, more to herself than him. He glanced down at her, hesitated a fraction of a moment.

"So. The revolutionary heroes?" His tone was deceptively mild - no need to lay it on thick, after that.

She winced. "That was, unless I miss my guess, Tor, with either Baril or Lucas. And... yes. I thought. Tor had... a lot of push. Everyone was on his side."

"Apparently not." His voice was heavy with irony, and she stared at the door uncomfortably.

"I... wouldn't have thought. Thought... he and Jon were always together. They were the ones all of us looked to."

Xerxes smiled slightly. "There's your answer, girl. 'They.' What good is it overthrowing a government if you still have to share power?"

She shook her head, declining to argue the point, but he pushed on.

"So - if you're answering to a damned dragon, still, answer me this." She glanced back up. "Why?" He surveyed her closely, eyes probing. "Why you, I mean. People don't usually betray their entire country on a whim, even for handsome and charismatic speakers, not in my experience."

Dain rubbed her eyes tiredly. "Gods, you're ruthless. For... the alliance of the Roan Isles," she said, thinking back. It seemed like so long ago - she'd been so passionate, it had seemed so black-and-white, they'd made such damned convincing arguments. By the time the cracks had shown, by the time she'd realized how very morally gray the whole conflict was, it was far too late to simply walk away. Not just her, either - Fal had thought a lot of the same, she thought, but his response was to commit more fully, as if he could somehow force their struggle to be more righteous through sheer willpower. "Now, I - but, there's still that. Why were the embargoes never lifted? Why has the Council never investigated the injustices of that embargo?"

He growled quietly, dangerously; it felt like a suppressed roar, and Dain froze. For a long moment, he was silent, staring at her - controlling himself, she realized.

"Because of the -atrocities- in the Roan Isles," he hissed, finally, his voice like ice. "Because while their ambassadors and diplomats claim, on the floor, that the embargo is strangling their men and their trade, their people know firsthand that any supplies reaching the Isles only touch the red-handed tryants - and their people, more than half of them, live only to provide the blood-price for their rulers' lunacy, and their -decadence-." He stopped, and took a long drink out of the bowl before meeting her eyes again. "Didn't your glorious leaders tell you that?" Even after the edict, I made it clear that the embargo would cease as soon as we were assured of a civil peace. Even the Council--" he paused, correcting himself. "The Council, excepting those who stand to benefit from trade with Roan, of -course-, stood behind it."

Dain took a deep, shuddering breath, forced herself to relax; she hadn't even realized she'd pressed into the wall. "We were told the blood sacrifice was voluntary. Not - not lethal. That was why the other--" she stopped. This was- dangerous. If she finished that sentence... taking a deep breath, she crossed the chasm. "That was why the Thrice factions, from Lodestone and the Syro Shore, were with us. They talked of making it a rite again; talked about stuff like, like ending the persecution of the wizards." She didn't bother mentioning how quickly it had become obvious that the government was allied with ending persecution of wizards; didn't tell him about the time she'd discovered plans for the Anti-Runic Riot last year that had turned violent, in Jon's authority. She had a feeling he knew better than she did exactly how double-edged the revolutionaries had been.

Something had dawned on his features, as he stared at her. "From Syro? Gods. That's why Leid went out of the running," he said, blankly. "I thought... ah, damn it all. That puts Lar in their camp too, doesn't it." He glanced at Dain, half-questioning, and she shook her head.

"Blackmailed. I think. He wasn't in any of the circles, not that I remember. It was a common response to extra pieces."

He nodded. "That's something, anyway." If it's true, he didn't say, for which she was incongruously grateful. He reached over the side of the mat, Dain stood. She went to fill his bowl again, but he caught her hands half there. She fought the reflex to lash out, and something clinked against the metal; the cuffs dropped free.

"Seems pointless, if we're stuck down here anyway," he explained, reaching for the other set. She stood back, rubbing her wrists. "Especially as we appear to both be in the same level of dead if the wrong people come out of this."

There was a searing 'boom' that shook the ground beneath (and above) them, and Xerxes nodded grimly to himself. "There it is," he said aloud. "That's them effectively finished."

Dain nodded mutely.

"So." He fixed her with a thoughtful, searching look. "Was that cooperation, or a foolhardedly - though admittedly brave - attempt at sabotage?"

She shook her head. "Cooperation. I doubt my situation at present can get much worse, short of shoving my hand into the fireplace, or something. If I try to escape and rejoin the other side, I'll be killed in short order - if not by you, than by them. To do nothing and remain in stasis leaves me in the same fairly awful situation. My only shot at improving my lot, right now, appears to be to move in the other direction, which means cooperating in full."

He made a noise deep in his throat, but declined to comment on the entirely self-serving logic in her reasoning. "And here I thought it was my charming personality," he said.

"Hah. I'm unlikely to fall for that twice in one war," she replied. "I didn't realize... well, a lot, about the whole side. And by the time I had, I was too far in to get back out - the only way out was through, I kept telling myself. I thought maybe, once we'd won, I could work things out more peacefully. I told myself the Imperial government was just as bad, and clung to that, even when it was... patently obvious how much of a lie it was. It was an easy narrative. Overhearing that - overhearing Tor - probably too much of a beam of light for even my usual amount of self-deceit to cover up."

"Hmmm." Footsteps began to echo, again, and he said no more.

---

Xerxes held up one hand. "Don't move," he told the guard. "It is almost certainly a trap."

She stopped and turned. "I came down alright," she said uncertainly. "There's blood on the ground, though..."

"Fal's," the prisoner muttered, behind him. He glanced back, catching a tiny, sardonic grin.

"There should be two dead bodies - at least - in the other forks, farther up. I would be surprised if they didn't intend for a few more to wind up here."

The guard looked around, and her eye, by chance or intent, fell on the prisoner. "You," she said, thinking, and stopped.

The emperor remained silent; he had a great deal more information now than he had when he had come down this tunnel, and his spies should be more than equal to following the leads. The courier's continued testimony was, strictly speaking, unnecessary. She knew this, he realized, as she stepped past him, casting a worn smile in his direction.

"You should stand back, then," she said, "Both of you. The magic they use tends to be... explosive."

Tau - muttered something under her breath, but nodded. "Sire, if you would..." she gestured behind them, taking a few leading steps.

He looked once moe at the girl who'd let the revolution into his palace, standing half-turned towards them, waiting. She smiled again, and half-shrugged at him. He hesitated a moment before offering a salute in return. She grinned again, and turned. Tai raised her bow, nocked an arrow, just in case.

Dain stepped forward. There were two muffled booms in quick succession; the floor and ceiling erupted, and the prisoner let out a cry and dove forward in an attempted dodge. Tai dropped the bow to her side, the look in her eyes for just a moment half guilty, and strode forward.

"Oi, you!"

Something stirred, under the rocks, and Xerxes let out the breath he'd been holding. That was... good. He followed Tai; nothing further seemed to be falling, though he felt a tang to the air that put him on edge.

"I'm fine, thanks for asking," a faint voice muttered from somewhere under the rubble. Tai began shoving rocks out of the way, and the prone form of an ex-courier appeared, looking rather battered. "Sloppy work, for their usual standards," she remarked, her voice strained under the flippant tone. "Barely lethal at all."

"It wasn't aimed at you," he informed her, as he finally realized what the tang in the air was. "He must've figured out I was down here somewhere - tracked me, somehow. That's a poison you're smelling. It only works on my kind."

"...Oh." By now, combined efforts of the guard and prisoner had extracted her most of the way out of the pile. "Should you be breathing it in?"

He smiled. "It's not a full dose, at this distance, and mainly works through the bloodstream - as you can see, an effect they were rather counting on." For as she stood, there were several spots of thick greenish powder left on her skin, where it showed, and lacerations covered her upper body.

She grinned through the red mask. "That would explain every surface contact being sharpened. Smart work, them."

Tai studied both of them with an expression somewhere between curiosity and suspicion. "Let's get you out of here, all the same," she told him, moving towards the surface.

"Aye." He followed the two of them, adjusting his armor. No more fights today, but the time was drawing very near indeed.

The Fleet

Dec. 2nd, 2012 11:08 pm
thulcandran: (Default)
Well, NaNoWriMo has once again come to an end. But this year, I actually did it! 50,000 words by the end of the month, about this dude here, and his life and times. This was written today, so it's not part of the novel, but it was a three-word prompt - and thanks to Shoe, of the PPC, who gave it: Paper, Chickens, Gun. Enjoy!

Xerxes walked up the plank, feeling his legs turn to jelly as the surface moved beneath him. This was entirely a new experience, and so far he wasn't sure he liked it. Sara grinned at him as she rounded the end of the pier and headed up after him. He glanced at Raoul, who was a bit ahead, and grimaced. Thank the gods he wouldn't have to keep doing this...

"Welcome aboard, Sire!" The captain of the ship bowed neatly, and the men behind him saluted.

Raoul stood to one side, and Xerxes was just observant enough to notice his knuckles white on the railing. So it wasn't just him, after all. He gathered his nerves, forced the pitching bile down, and managed a smile back at the man.

"Thank you kindly, Captain - er, Shakir, I believe?"

"Aye, Sire." He bowed again, and spun to gesture the men. "Get a move on, there! Let's get this show on the road!"

Xerxes suspected he was keeping his language about twelve notches below his usual standards of profanity, and a sly grin from Sara as she came up behind them confirmed the idea. She winked at him and strode forward confidently; he hid his amazement as best he could, and followed her, slowly getting his feet accustomed to the deck's pitching and rolling.

Very slowly. By the time they'd reached the stern, he'd bumped into Raoul twice. Sara raised an eyebrow at him, a slow smile dawning on her face.

"Aha, now it makes sense." She smirked at him, leaning up against the ship's wheel. "I should've guessed! Beralt is a landlocked nation - you've never been on a ship before in your life, have you, Sire?"

He shook his head weakly, coming forward quickly, the better to reach something solidly elbow-height before he toppled... and nearly pitched over the rail.

"Heh." She leaned easily against the rail. "It shows. And you, Raoul - you're not much better, though you seem to be picking this up faster than your commander."

His advisor grunted something noncommittal and caught up with them, glancing over the rails.

"I'll also have to take your word that this is the finest ship in the fleet," Xerxes pointed out, "Which is a deficiency that worries me rather more, as I'm sure you understand."

She nodded. "Don't you worry, Sire - we'll send you home with a good ton of books, and you'll be educated as a born sailor by the time you're out here again."

"Here as in Raanc Harbor," he replied. "Not here as in the water, I think. Urgh."

Sara laughed again and raised a hand to block the sun. "Ah, I didn't expect to make a bonafide sailor out of you, Sire. The harbor would be just fine - with Siol as your major threat, you can't exactly ignore the naval half of your forces."

"I'm glad you're on top of it," he replied, nodding. "I have no intention of ignoring a naval component. We'll see what happens with Syr, and go on from there. Now - what's going on here, anyway? This might be a beuatiful ship, but I'm not entirely sure about her... er, cargo? Function?"

Sara smiled and pointed to the hatch. "Not much in the way of cargo - the chickens you saw earlier were more for the voyage than any trading purposes. Down there it's - ah, well, I'll show you."

He followed her down the dark hatch, feeling for the rungs as they moved, until they were down in the hold - the pitching was far, far worse here, he found, and he had to stop and lean on the wall for a good few moments, to calm his roiling stomach. (Raoul had stayed abovedecks.)

When his eyes and balance had adjusted, relatively speaking, he saw Sara moving up ahead, along the wall of the ship. Evenly spaced along it were what looked like irregular holes of light, partially blocked - as he moved closer, he realized they were guns, cannons aimed broadside of the ship. Well-stocked, gleaming, and, from what he could tell, quite well maintained.

"Aye," Sara said, as she saw him sighting along the barrels. "She's a warship, Sire. And she's all yours."

Edited slightly because ye gods and little fishies, 'feeling himself stiffen' is SUCH an unfortunate phrasing.

Bah.

Oct. 31st, 2012 09:05 am
thulcandran: (Default)
So I was literally in the act of clicking the login button to post this when the power went out for good, the night before last. The morning revealed a telephone pole, cracked about four-six feet from its top, leaning at about a fifteen-twenty degree angle, and the afternoon revealed a tree that had split off entirely at the base, and taken down an entire net of power lines, a block farther south. Describing this to friends prompted "Oh God are you okay!" sort of reactions, but honestly at this point I'm under-awed by this kind of weather. This is the third such storm in two years, and at this point, it's just sort of "...really, another hurricane? Fine." I'm glad power's back on, though. Eating in the dark is more tiresome than you might think.

Now, without further ado, and given the quite unnecessary drama, the thing.


It's my job to tend the spiders. That sounds worse than it is, probably. The kids from the village probably would think so, but they don't know their arses from their elbows. I've been here in the keep for years, now, I don't know. Maybe ten? I remember when the land was at war, vaguely, usually when I'm waking up. I remember the village as a dim haze through smoke, and then nothing. I only saw it for the first time last year, other than that. The keep is my home.

I know more than they think, though. I know the keep wasn't always my home, I know I used to be in the village. I never knew my parents, but I think they must have been villagers. But when I was very small, too small to remember really, Hanna took me in, and I've lived here ever since. The village kids have said enough just out of earshot for me to know that this - well, that, and the generals. This village used to be under someone else, and the keep, too. There was a seige, some time, a long time ago I think, and now Lord Darvhill rules it. I don't know if he is a better ruler or not, but I think he must be, because the guards are always patrolling, and there isn't fighting anymore, not like there was so many years ago.

Hanna works for Lord Darvhill, she makes things run smooth and keeps the mold out of the castle and when the weather is bad, she keeps things from going worse. Last year, there was a lot of rain and it flooded and the villagers had to come into the keep. The guards weren't happy about it, but they couldn't do anything. They kept saying things went missing afterwards, that's when I got to see the village, we all went in to see about the headman and people getting settled in. The kids from the village said that Lord Darvhill was a vile hillman and his guards were petty mercenaries, and I got in a fight with some of them. Hanna was upset.

But things are mostly good. I tend the spiders, and collect the silk they spin, and Hanna uses it in her potions when she makes them. Someday I'll know how to do everything she does, she said. Lord Darvhill says he doesn't know what he would do if anything happened to her, but she said someday I have to take on her work so everything keeps going and the village stays okay. I don't know why the village wouldn't be okay.

Jared told me that Hanna kept the village from burning down when Lord Darvhill put the keep to seige, and that's why the villagers don't like her or me, because she was in his camp. I don't know why keeping the village from burning was a bad thing. If the villagers had burned down rather than let Lord Darvhill take the town and the keep, they wouldn't be around now to trade their wool and crops. Jared is the captain of the guard, and sometimes Hanna makes me go into the forest to get berries while she makes something for his neck that he hurt in the seige. I saw the scar once, it's down between his shoulders.

Once I walked into Hanna's room while she was helping his neck, and she was rubbing it between his shoulders, but I left before I saw anything else. She doesn't want me to see her with Jared, I think she thinks I will tell people. I don't know who I would tell, besides the guards, and they already know, I heard Korren telling him that he should have found a prettier witch in the village, and then Korren was cleaning the latrines for a week.

I know I'm supposed to take over for Hanna someday. But I think that when I am old enough, I'm going to go out the wall with Korren's son and we're going to the city to join the Emperor's couriers. They always need more people. It's dangerous, but it's better than staying here forever. We're going to see the rest of Fiel and then the whole world.

-Fin-

I shall note here that this piece, born merely of the first sentence, which just sort of popped into my head, ties both into the story I've been working on for the past few months, and the novel I plan to do starting at midnight tonight. During NaNo, to avoid trying to post anything coherent of the story here, I'll be breaking the short story into pieces and posting those in something resembling chronological order. Perhaps one a week, perhaps more. Iunno. Anyway, good day and good luck to you all.
thulcandran: (Default)
*gasp*

*cough, hack, etc*

...I am all but drowning in work right now. At first, *it was just homework, then it was homework and **assignments for the newspaper, now it's homework, assignments for the newspaper, and ***a work schedule back at my old job.

So life is good, but wicked busy. I'm still writing, here and there - my reading time has dwindled to while-walking-to-school/work and right-before-bed. But directly prior to all of this landing on me, I was working on what started as a daydream, became a little short story, and grew/evolved into something that's now 7800 words long and about 80% done. Unfortunately, I've hit a wall in what's either the last scene or the second-to-last scene, and the dialogue just isn't coming. So I'm going to write some stuff here that's geared to push the headspace towards a better understanding of the character whose dialogue is problematic. He's not actually the main character - but he comes in close second, and I'm thinking if I decide to be suicidally-workaholicish, I might try to follow his backstory for NaNoWriMo.


The captain bowed low, his face ashen as he stood again, waiting for orders. Xerxes thought, the sudden crashing of his reality working around his mind. He really hadn't expected them to move so soon... this would mean they were allied with everyone they needed, and, more importantly, they had found a mole inside the capital city. He did not doubt this would all become clear.

"Thank you, Captain," he told Sol finally. "You may return to your troops - I want Dar, Ronin, and Delia escorted out of the area immediately - you know the procedure. I will go into hiding at once, when it becomes possible. For now, as long as the perimeter is maintained...?"

Sol nodded mutely.

"As long as the perimeter is maintained, I will ready myself for battle, in the occasion such becomes necessary, and take refuge in the heart of the castle. Good luck," he finished, dismissing the soldier. With a heavy sigh, he turned the other way and headed for his own armory, listening to the bootsteps of the captain disappear in the other direction. This was not unexpected, it really wasn't. But he knew it would not be easy. Memories of his youth sparked and flamed in his mind's eye as he trod the backwards passages, up winding disused staircases and through hidden doors towards the chamber beneath his bedroom. His father's sword, swinging again and again; his brother Boris, rushing down the stairs with a wild shout. He wished he could banish the images - but they brought him courage, of a sort, and he reminded himself that it would be easier, this time. It would go smoother - he was prepared, there was no split, and the capital had been quietly awaiting this moment for almost two years now.

Still, he couldn't help thinking, as he girded himself with the old, worn armor, he wished he'd just had them all arrested, assassinated, and in general brought down. Foolish thought, of course - this boil needed to be lanced, merely pushing the leaders off the top wouldn't have worked. But it would've been nice.

He was on his way down to the root cellars for the city's Council district buildings when the next courier found him, breathless and... distraught?

"Sire!" The young man bowed low, hiding his tremor quickly. Xerxes was impressed.

"Speak," he commanded, continuing his walk.

"The traitor has been found - it was, it was one of our own corps, a girl called Dain - she was caught on Tobin's Wall by one of the sentries, and brought in. What orders would you send?"

Wild thoughts raced around his mind, for an instant, and he appraised the possibilities. If he had her executed now, he lost all possibility of gaining intelligence. Dain... ah, of course he had a memory of her, damn his failing mind in this chaos! If he had her sent across the city to the prison on the South end, he risked losing her, and any guards in escort, to the agents no doubt fighting in the perimeter. Where was the safest place in the castle, the place no rebels would... ah. Of course. He nearly laughed aloud.

"Send her captors to the Council district buildings, and tell them to seek out Vizier Raoul, and inform him of the situation. He will guide them further."

The boy bowed again and sped off in the other direction. Emperor Xerxes VI ran a hand over his face and quickened his stride. If they were coming from Tobin's Wall, he'd make it down to the tunnel just as they were reaching the safe room, as long as he hurried.

--Fin (of the hastily-written Prelude, anyway)--

*I'm taking four classes this semester! Lovely and awesome and great, except that it's a full-time load and wow, that is a lot of homework hours.
**I don't regret it! Joining the newspaper is awesome. It's just... a lot of work.
***Did I even mention this on the personal journal? When I decided to go into full-time classes, I gave notice at work and started training replacements. ...basically, things went a bit awry, and now I'm back.

The Ending

Sep. 23rd, 2012 12:54 am
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Caddy of the PPC gave me the prompt, Penguin, Pumice, Shatter, and I... somehow... did this thing with them. I don't know where it came from - I started writing about a raft on the Pacific, the scenes of Kon-Tiki in my head, and then this just... happened. It might be the most bleak thing I've ever written.

Aiden leaned back against the tall mast and grinned into the open sky. The sun had stopped bothering him so much weeks ago; now he just lay and baked, some days.

"See? Aren't you glad I brought you out here?"

He opened his eyes a slit, and looked across the narrow deck, where Mira was standing, watching the horizon. She glanced back at him, and he laughed.

"I remember having to drag you off that dock, though," he said, opening an argument old and familiar as the logs beneath their feet. She shrugged, declining to dance the path with him. "How far south are we, anyway?"

She took a deep breath, thought a moment. "I took the bearings this morning, we'll have gone a bit farther by now. I couldn't tell you offhand."

He frowned in mock horror, his eyes still closed against the sun. "What kind of navigational officer are you, anyway?"

Mira rolled her eyes at him and sat down on the deck, letting one hand trail briefly in the surf beneath them. The current dragged, helped by the sails, and they slid along imperceptibly, between the two horizons. There were worse ways to spend the time.

"I figured we could maybe see penguins, if we managed to get far enough down."

She blinked at him. "...Penguins."

"Penguins! You know, flightless birds that swim really well, black and white, inherently silly, favorite snack of seals, more favorite target of photographers?"

"Penguins. Aiden, do you know how far south we'd have to go to see penguins? We'll never... ah, it's just too much time."

Shrugging, he settled against the mast again. "I suppose so. It'd be nice, though. There's supposed to be some farther north than Antarctica, I wish I remembered where."

Mira laughed, and stretched out on the deck. "Well, yes. But I think we're better off just heading aimlessly. I don't... want anything to happen. There was that guy who warned us, way back, about the volcanoes."

"Volcanoes?" Aiden blinked, held a hand to shadow his eyes. "I don't remember that, for some reason. Undersea?"

"Yeah," she nodded. "I still don't know if he was serious or not - volcanoes on the floor of the ocean, they'd spout lava, and it would float up to the top of the water as just massive stretches of pumice or something. Really weird."

He shrugged again. "Sounds like a tall tale. But then, a lot of the past few weeks have seemed like a tall tale, really."

"Hah." She snorted. "Weirdly enough, especially after we took to the ocean. I wouldn't have thought it. The other night, when that glow started up - I thought we were both losing it."

He laughed, nodding. "Like the sky was about to swallow us up - that was stronger the first few nights, though. It's... the sky is so much deeper, now, since..."

Mira forbore to finish the thought, and the raft drifted on into silence. Their memories carried them back, perhaps simultaneously, to the nightmare they'd tried to forget: skies red and angry with foreign, searing smells, the explosions, the shattering sounds all around in the city streets, the screaming... the screaming was the worst. The smell of blood, so thick in the air you could almost taste it. And the air had filled with clouds, something worse than any of them had imagined. She and Aiden had been on the very edge of it, and they'd fled quickly, to higher ground; the worst of it had escaped them. But the survivors they found had all breathed, as well; there were varying theories that circulated about what, and who, and why, but the fact of it was, symptoms began to appear, and then there was a countdown, inexorably, unchangeably. It was exactly the same for every one of them. Six months in, they'd both woken up with the same fever, and they'd decided not to spend the rest of their fleeting lives shivering on the shore as they wondered what had happened to their world, and who mwas coming after them.

The raft was waiting on the beach, as if made specifically for them. A few days preparing, and they were off - south, out of what had been the famed Californian west coast. The trip was worth it; beautiful, soothing, like balm to their eyes, lungs, souls. They had about three weeks left, she estimated. They were both trying not to count, but it was almost impossible to avoid.

"Was that a tortoise?"

She started, at Aiden's voice, and followed his gaze out to the water, where a greenish shape about the size of their raft kept pace.

"Hah! It is! That's incredible!"

He stood up, and moved across the desk to sit down next to her, and they watched the beautiful beast swim in companionable silence as the sun set on the Pacific once again.
thulcandran: (Default)
Part one is here. The beginning of this was very fun to write, and the end was... well, fun in its own way. I don't know if I can do Virgil's story justice; I didn't think it was fair to show it all through Tessa's eyes. But this will have to do.

The mountains had stopped looming over them; once you were on the thing, it tended to be less intimidating, in the sheer visual sense. It was easy to forget, in the beginning, that they were climbing; their muscles reminded them, and the shortness of breath, occasionally. It was strange; looking forward, the ground rose but gently; looking back, there were only trees.

"We're getting close, you know."

He didn't look up from the small campfire. "Of course I know," he replied, his voice taut. "I'm hardly in a position to forget."

Tessa shrugged, a bit annoyed. "I mention it because if the idea is to sneak you through, it might be a good plan to come up with some way to, you know, actually accomplish that."

The fire crackled into the silence for a long while; somewhere in the distance, a wolf howled into the empty night; the echoes bounded off, around the cliffs. Virgil ground his teeth and was silent a long while before he spoke again. "Aside from slitting my throat and hauling my carcass down the other end - not recommended for either of our sakes - I highly doubt there is any way you are going to get me through this pass without the guardian's knowledge."

She bit her tongue, stifling her first response. After a moment, she said, very carefully, "This might have been a good thing to mention before we left town."

Virgil looked up from the fire. "I told you there was a guardian on the pass, and that he would not be entirely pleased to see me. I did not ask you to hide me, or sneak me past him. I didn't hire you to save me from Leore. I hired you to get me through the mountains. So far, so good; I'd like to keep it that way. Your best bet is to forget I ever said anything about the guardian of Leore - after all, my purpose in bringing him up was merely to steer you towards any other route in existence." He stared moodily into the fire for a moment before adding, "Of which, apparently, there are none."

"Whatever you say." Tessa stood abruptly, and set about securing the fire. It was funny - most of the time, the man seemed lucid, rational, and pretty average. He'd been something of an asset so far, not by any means the worst client she'd traveled with. It was only when this subject came up - just three times, so far, though it had been in the back of both of their minds, she suspected, since they stepped onto the road - that he turned into some kind of lunatic. Her method of dealing with this, thus far, was to remove herself from the conversation and focus on moving forward.

The next morning, the trap she'd set in the stream had been raided by something - probably a raccoon, she figured, but just as likely something bigger. They had some supplies left from an earlier net, but the less margin of error they left, the better, and if she was reading her signs right, this was the last night they'd be in a position to catch fish at all. Not the end of the world, she reminded herself. Just keep moving forward.

It wasn't until three days later that they hit their first serious snag. Virgil woke up a few hours from dawn, clutching his stomach. Tessa was awake in an instant, watching. He groaned again, and then cried out. She stood, and moved over to his side.

"Feels like my stomach's turning inside out," he told her, through gritted teeth. "Are there poisons up here I've been eating?"

She shook her head, cursing inwardly. "It's the water. From that stream, when we rinsed the tubers; we're farther up than I thought. Stupid of me. I doubt you got much in your system, and I picked up a remedy for the worst of it before we left, just in case, so you should be alright." She turned back to her bedroll, where she'd stowed the powder the old woman had sold her.

"It's not fatal?"

"No." She pulled out the little pouch, and her waterskin; fortunately, they'd been boiling their drinking water from the start. The stuff mingled, and she handed it to Virgil; his teeth were gritted, but he drank the whole thing. "You'll be alright."

"Pity." He curled, violently, and she grabbed his arms and yanked; she'd had this happen the first time she brought someone over a higher pass, and knew from experience that leaving him in his bedroll was a terrible idea. She started to stoke the dying embers from the evening; fortunately, they weren't too far from a snowmelt stream. As long as she only left him for brief intervals, she'd be able to keep him hydrated, avoiding the worst dangers of the scourge. It was going to be a long, long night.

The morning was long, too; fortunately, he fell asleep again, before the sun had climbed high enough to reach over their shoulder. When he woke again, in the afternoon, the worst had passed, and he ate, and drank.

"What's the plan? Wait until tomorrow morning, or hit the road now? I don't think this is done, but I've probably got a few miles in me before I collapse, and it's probably not too great to be staying here for so long."

She glanced over at him. "If you're sure it's not going to bite you, we should probably see if we can eat some more elevation. We were cutting it pretty close with the snows already; this isn't going to help our chances of making it down without hitting any bad drifts."

"Alright, then." He stood up, slowly, and stretched. "As long as we take it slow for now, I think I'm good." Together, they got camp packed up; without debate, he handed the heavier load to her, and they kicked most of the camp remains under the dirt. He looked around. "What's the plan long range, though?" he asked, looking up the trail. "How do you intend to get through this?"

Tessa shrugged. "Keep moving," she told him. "Generally it seems to work."

For the first time since they'd broken the tree line the previous day, he cracked a smile, and fell into stride on the trail ahead of her.

The point they were aiming for wasn't a summit, but a sort of valley - the lowest path between Leore and Rikha. At this point, the trail they were following hit its highest point, and more or less leveled out for a little while. It was unusual, topographically speaking, but this made it a more desirable pass, really - it was much easier to get over than Darsun, especially when things got icy or wet. But at the moment, Tessa only had eyes for the immense cliffs on either side of them. The stone rose up, wind-carved into strange and ethereal shapes; the backdrop was sheer, shades of grey, draped in beautiful, deadly icicles and drifts of powdery white. In the fading sunlight, it was breathtaking, but something in the entire otherworldly scene was striking needles of terror into her chest. She wondered, somewhere in the back of her mind, if that was the apprehension; she suspected otherwise.

But the long and short of it was, her eyes were elsewhere, watching the wind whip a long tendril of glittering snow off of a cliff into one of the last stretches of reddish light, howling all the while, when one of the cliffs up ahead, on their right, moved. By the time her peripheral vision caught it, the immense shape had shifted, and was directly in front of them, blocking off the road, and the light, in one fell swoop.

When her brain did catch up with her eyes, she reacted immediately- grabbed for her mace as she sprang ahead, between Virgil and the-- oh, gods, it was. Wasn't it. Dragon.

And so she found herself there, damn near petrified, holding up a mace that suddenly didn't look so much like a weapon as a hefty twig, looking into a pair of eyes bigger than her head, and deeper, she thought, than anything she'd ever seen. Oh, no. Oh, gods. No.

She couldn't have moved for all the worlds, but she projected the glare behind her as best she could. "You didn't say you had gotten on the bad side of a -dragon-! I did -not- agree to this!"

Half a tone deeper, she thought, and it would've shattered bones. The voice boomed, through the rocks around them. "Silence."

Tessa shook her head, fixing her glare on the-- ah, no, they were too big to even focus on-- eyes in front of her. "Leave him alone!"

The immense red eyes narrowed. "I said, silence. Whatever he has told you, I am not a demon of the abyss, craving innocent blood to bathe in. You are meddling in matters which do not concern you."

Behind her, Virgil cleared his throat and stepped forward, carefully around her. "She's just doing her job," he said quietly, leaning on his walking stick.

The dragon shifted its gaze slightly, and the air thrummed. "And you. I had thought it was understood you were no longer welcome here."

Tessa took one, then several steps backwards, managing to stop before she stepped off the edge of a precipice, and leaned up against one of the edges looming overhead. The light was fading faster and faster; the scene before her seemed to fade into a tableau of shadows - the cliff, as dragon, looming over a single shifting figure with a staff; her mind seemed to blur at the edges, leaving everything echoed, dreamlike, the softness of shadows. She had wandered into a dream; it was the most likely possibility.

Words came clear, through the haze, clear and human, wrought through with sorrow: "I had no choice." The staff wavered and bent and shimmered in the moonlight, the stars slid in and out of her vision. The mountain roared in pain and fury, shaking her to pieces, and the lone standing figure cried out, fell to its knees. You were the last hope! The cliff over her shattered, reformed, joined the sky as a pillar; the pillars merged and shook and dissolved, and the moon wept into the winds, and she watched the mountain crumble to the core, and her world melted into some terrifying, beautiful nightmare.

It was inexplicably afternoon when the nightmare began to fade, and her charge was sitting next to her, his arms folded behind his head. She glanced at him.

"The sky is heavy," she told him. "I'd like to get down out of the open air before the storm hits."

He nodded. "Let's get going, then."

Tessa stood, and stretched, before turning off down the path. The cliffs loomed still overhead, watching them go, and she shivered as they turned onto the switchback that led away, down the Western slope of Leore. They made good time that day, and were in a fairly safe location by the time the skies opened up. Virgil cleared a space in the lee of some of the stunted scrub trees that grew on the higher slopes, and they stretched out the bedrolls. The night passed in the slightly eerie silence unique to falling snow, and the morning found the path covered in a few inches of white. Tessa took her own walking stick, not willing to take any chances on an unfamiliar path in the snow.

It was mid-afternoon before either of them broke the silence.

"I didn't dream that."

He glanced at her, pausing by the old, gnarled juniper. "I don't know what you saw. Leore has a way of twisting the mind and perception. You probably didn't see everything, and you didn't see it the same way I did." The wind twisted the branch around, slightly, and a puff of snow settled onto the stubble over his face. "But... it happened. You weren't hallucinating. Make of it what you will."

She nodded, and continued down the path. Boris might ask. Ali... she thought, remembering when Ali had told them about the ice-worshippers, the vague look that had come over her face, the vague hesitation. Ali wouldn't ask. Tessa shook her head, clearing the snow from where it had settled over her hair, and moved on, down to the next stretch of path.
thulcandran: (Default)
...for a tale of two travelers, thrown together-- er, well, more chosen for the sake of price and convenience than 'thrown,' per se-- on a fateful pass over a maybe-kinda-sorta-deadly mountain!

This is part one - part two is about halfway finished, and shall be posted tomorrow morningish.


"You don't understand," Virgil said. "He really, really, really doesn't like me."

Tessa surveyed him over the table critically. He was tallish, lean - some wiry muscle, nothing claymore-flavored - sharp-angled all around, close-cropped red hair over grey-blue eyes; a crooked nose, travel-worn clothes, and laugh lines equally spaced with scars across his face. In short, exactly the kind of person you'd picture to match with the sentence, "The guardian of the pass really doesn't like me." She shook her head.

"Look," she told him, pointing to the chart spread out between them. "The Darsun Pass is in deep freeze this time of year, and I'm not risking my neck over shifting glaciers, avalanches, the god of Blizzard Peak, and snow bears - I don't care what the price is. I'm not sticking around until the season ends, and I doubt you are, either. Nobody in their right minds is going to go three months out of their way to the South - in both directions! - so you can forget about that option. It's the Leore Pass or nothing." She downed her drink and glanced back over at him. The guy looked positively morose. "Look, Virgil, I'm not being picky, here. Unless you can ship out in a caravan headed for Kharz - and they're not cheap - you're either stuck here, or stuck without a guard. That's just the truth of it. We'll find a way to slip you through the pass - I'd bet it wouldn't be the first time."

The traveler sighed deeply, finished his own drink, and reached across the table; she grasped his hand, shook, and nodded decisively. "We'll leave in three days, then. I'll need some time to pull together the supplies."

"Alright." He stood, rolling the charts all together, and tying them off with a bit of leather. She watched him leave the inn, his head down, deep in thought. This looked... interesting.

She'd never taken the Leore Pass before - something he hadn't asked. She'd never heard of a vengeful guardian there, which said... something, anyway. Another thing he hadn't asked was how long she'd been in the business (three seasons alone, two years apprentice). He was either heart-stoppingly desperate, or mind-bendingly stupid. Or possibly both, she thought, wandering over to the hearth.

"Heya, Tess." Ali nodded from her seat near the flames, and Tessa sat down across, wondering how much she should say. Ali had been in the business a long time, it was quite possible she knew what her new client had been on about. "What's up?"

She kicked absently at the fire. "How much do you know about the Haori Peaks?"

Frowning, Ali looked over her shoulder before answering. "A fair bit. I've been up that way a couple times; twice over the Leore in both directions, and up to the summit of Darsun more times than I care to count. Why?"

"Well... you ever heard of - hell, or seen - a guardian, watching over Leore?" She grimaced; it sounded so stupid, out loud. "Because I'm starting to wonder if I've just taken a contract with a lunatic."

Ali made a deep 'hm' noise, and sipped her wine. "I've never seen anything up there, no. Never stuck around too long either, though - it's not exactly a hospitable place to spend the night. But... don't discount his tale right off. There's some odd stories about that place. All the peaks have their quirks - you know, Haori is practically honeycombed with those crystals, Rikha has that tribe of icicle-worshipping warriors, and most of the lower range is overrun with ogres as soon as the first snow hits. If I hadn't been damn-near impaled by that scout, two years back, I'd never have believed the stories. But now... well, just don't automatically disbelieve it."

Tessa sighed. "Yeah, that's what I was afraid of. He says he ran into trouble with some kind of a guardian last time he took the pass. Seemed like mortal terror, but whatever's chasing him's got to be worse, since he agreed to take it, in the end."

"Damn, Tessa. Don't get yourself killed out there, hey?" She thought a moment, then added, "And talk to Boris. He's been over Leore more times than I've been down to Kharz. If anybody can tell you if there's any weird shit about that pass, it'd be him."

Nodding, she stood, and grabbed Ali's hand for a moment. "Thanks, mate. I'll see you in the Spring, yeah?"

"Yeah."

She found Boris at Jarkhal's the next day, swapping tales while the apprentice shoed his little hill pony. There were other smiths in the small city, but Jarkhal had been a mountaineer once, and anyone who made their living guarding travelers across the harsh surrounding lands made it a point to take their work to his forge. The gnarled old smith grinned at her as she ducked in the door, closing it heavily against the stiff breeze.

"Heard you got yourself a contract, Tess," he called, across the room. Boris turned, raising an eyebrow.

She laughed and nodded at the two of them, crossing the room to the long, low counter. "Yeah, picked up somebody wants to head over Leore before the snows bury us in, here."

Boris whistled, low, and shook his head. "Bad move him, waiting so late," he said, leaning against the counter. "Leore can be tricky if you have to make it down late." He tilted his head at her, his blue eyes twinkling in the firelight. "That why you're here? Ducking the fool's trail?"

"Not... quite." She hesitated for a moment. "You know Leore better than anybody - you ever hear of a guardian, up there somewheres?"

He was silent for a long moment. "What did he tell you?"

Jarkhal watched, his eyes dark. Tessa took a deep breath. "Just - he wasn't welcome, up there. He wanted to take Darsun, but my second run was coming back here that way, just spring, and even on the tail end of a pretty mild winter, we barely made it. I won't touch it, this late into the fall. But he sounded like he'd prefer snow bears and glaciers to Leore."

Boris sighed, and rubbed his eyes a moment. "Yeah," he said, sighing. "I heard tales like that, different places. Used to be a hunter around, maybe ten years back, Tobin; he told me same thing, he wasn't welcome up there. I asked him, he wouldn't say more. Said there were things no man could face twice. No more. So I asked around - there's a village up a ways, Varhil; little place, live off the pastures up past the trees ending. There, they have stories - they live in shadow of Leore, they would know. Old men tell tall tales all over the world, though," and the ghost of a grin passed his face, "So I didn't listen too close. They said same thing - a guardian, watches the pass, never seen until it's too late. Shadows to scare the little ones straight.

"But there was a lady there, made soups from these roots far up the mountain - her sons gathered them when I met her, journey maybe two days up and down both." He paused for a moment, smiling. "Damn good soup, too. We traded, a bowl for some of the incense I had carried over from the far side of the pass. She told me when she was younger, stronger, straighter back, she walked up the mountain herself, gathered the roots to harvest - her sons did okay, they were good boys, but they didn't have the eye of it. She said once, she went farther - up through the boulders, found a path, worn smooth and ancient. Walked it, climbed some, all up, where things stop growing, only rocks and the colors of the sky. She said up there, in the rocks, there was something she heard, singing - speaking, maybe, like the voice of the mountain. Too big to be man, or men, or bear - even too big to be ogre. Too... too sharp, maybe, to be avalanche, or rocks. She was waiting, it was too dark to go down, and she was there for the night, listening to the spirit of the mountain. In the morning it was silent.

"From what she told me, she was looking down on the pass; it's high up there. I looked for the path after that, always, but I never saw it. That was... eight years, maybe. I was up Leore last summer, taking three miners back to Kahi Plains, and I thought I saw something - but it was dusk, and my eyes aren't as strong as they were." He shrugged. "I went to look, but nothing was there."

Tessa shook her head. "That's quite a tale, Boris," she told him. "I can't back out now. But I thank you for the warning; it'll take some thought."

Jarkhal h'med, under his breath. "You ever smuggled a customer across a border, Tess?"

"Nah," she answered. "Snuck past bandits last fall, but everybody's done that."

He shrugged. "That's something. I don't know what this legendary... thing Boris has is capable of, but I've done some underhanded borders in my day. Stay low, travel dark whenever you can, and keep off the roads where there's space for it. The high parts of Leore won't be easy, but I don't doubt there's a way through, somewhere. The old woman's path, maybe. Just keep your eyes out for it."

She nodded to both of them. "Thanks, Jarkhal. Boris. I'll see you on the other side." The wind had picked up, she noticed, stepping back outside. It wouldn't be an easy crossing, this late. Virgil was lucky to have found a guide at all - maybe that was why he'd come to her, she realized. Green on the mountains, she didn't have as much margin to be choosy about her fares; most of the older guards and guides wouldn't have taken the pass at all, this late. Well, it wasn't the end of the world, probably; she'd just have to trust to the luck of the young and the foolish - between the two of them, they had both ends pretty well covered.

The day dawned brisk and sunny - good weather to start, and a waxing quarter moon that night, a good sign. She met Virgil on the outskirts of town, and nodded approval at his gear; he'd taken her suggestions. The journey was a good three weeks of travel, two if they pushed it; he was well outfitted to be coming down the end of the pass as it closed. It'd do them no good to brave Leore if they got caught unprepared in an early blizzard coming down.

Tessa was fitted out - a light mail tunic, tucked out of sight, and a sturdy cloak over her travel shirt and breeches. Heavy boots - they'd be a bit uncomfortable for the ends of the foothills, but there was nothing like them for the steep, winding trails up Leore and the roots of Rikha. For now, she kept the cloak swept back, leaving her short, dark hair open to the morning breeze, and the mace exposed at her hip. She hoped to avoid trouble on the road, but this wouldn't be the first time, nor the last, that a handful of ne'er-do-wells watched a single guard escort someone out of the city, and slipped out in the following hours with a good hunting bow and an alibi. Better to keep them from getting the idea in the first place.

She nodded to him. "You ready?"

He took a deep breath, as if he wasn't quite sure of the answer. "Yeah. Let's get moving."

And they hit the road.
thulcandran: (Default)
This is actually piece four - three is still in the works. Thanks to Artell for the prompt "Incredible Shrinking Dinosaur," though the piece obviously did not go where I intended it to.

Kaja grinned down at the little glass prism. "I am impressed. Not very functional though, is it?"

Theo rolled his eyes. "Well, not yet. I'm sure there's some purpose for it, somewhere. But that wasn't really the point, dear Kaja. What have you done? Picked a specialty yet?"

"I've done a few things," she replied, shrugging. "I haven't picked a specialty. It's more fun to just poke at what's already there - there's so much to learn, we don't even know what some of these disciplines were, I'd hate to be premature."

Her old friend laughed and covered the prism with a black cloth again. "Well, yeah. It's too bad you can never, ever change your mind once made, huh?" She stuck her tongue out at him and turned back to his diagram, next to the pedestal. "Yeah, that's most of the plan - not all yet, I think I might keep the energy variable a trade secret."

She frowned, glancing over her shoulder at him. Theo had left the village where they both were born when he was fifteen, taking not much more than his father's bow, an old and sturdy axe, and a bedroll. He'd started sending letters back, three years later - he'd found himself in a monastery, and begun to study with the monks. He'd sort of Found Religion, but his mother suspected he had Found his brain, finally; Theo had always been a pious sort, but never quite had the discipline to keep his temper in check. But he seemed happy, and every so often he sent a pressed flower or a charcoal sketch along with his letters; his mother had the one he'd done of his father on her wall.

With the return of magic - apparently, Theo had had some sort of a hand in it, she supposed she'd have to find a bard to tell her the full story, one of these days - he had, with two others of his order, traveled to the capital to bring what knowledge the monks had safeguarded about the ancient magics. It was quite a lot, apparently - unlike the rest of the world, they never really threw anything away. He was housed in one of the rooms nearby hers, along with his brothers. It had been a shock seeing him again, up to his full height, healthy, and with his hair shaved, and his beard tied carefully in those knots his order specialized in. He was still the same person, though, largely, and his eyes were twinkling as he looked over her shoulder at his notes.

"I don't know," she said finally, "Aren't we trying to share information about this stuff, as much as possible?"

He shrugged, a bit uncomfortably. "To some extent. But I found this - I'd like to see what I can do on my own, before I open it up to everyone else's use."

Kaja bit her lip. There was something off, but she couldn't put her finger on it - better not to get caught up in these debates unprepared, though. Theo could probably wipe the floor with her, schooled as he'd been in rhetoric. "Alright," she told him, picking up her own notes. "I've got three theses on the use of Circles, so far, and a couple pages on the geometry involved; it's really quite intricate."

Raising an eyebrow, he followed her to the doorway. "Circles? Not what I would've predicted for you, Kaja. How are you working on them?"

She grinned again, turning down towards the staircase. "Trade secret, dear Theo. I wouldn't want to give you an unfair edge."

He made a mock noise of outrage, and she laughed outright. "There's a dead room, in the basement of the North Tower - apparently, that used to be the quarters of Demetrius IX, and nobody ever went back to change it, since it was still usable. Now, the queen has had a team go over and it make it safe, based on the old styles outlined. I've been working on the theory there, since there's no danger, but the actual power can be done in the old library room, since there's enough insulation to make sure no power gets out. If you double-check everything, it's perfectly safe."

The taller monk whistled. "That's incredible, Kaj'. No wonder you've been able to get so much farther on this stuff! You're not working on pure theory anymore!"

"Sorta. Though I do have enough pride to take a little offense there, dear Theo - my theory was pretty tight before I started working on the practical application, fortunately."

"Yes, well - my point stands. I'd be interested to see some of your work in action, if you've the time. What are you finding it most useful for?"

She shrugged, hefting the satchel on her back. "Scrying is the simplest matter - with the charms I've seen some of the others using, it's a lot of specificity and extra work. Circles take a lot of the brunt, though some are obviously better than others." They turned out into the garden, running into a cadre of fellow scholars, including one of Theo's brothers, Raoul, who joined them. A huge bear of a man, Raoul stood about a head and a half over Theo, and was probably half again Kaja's height - and he had the bulk to match. He smiled brightly at them over his wild blond beard, and Theo nodded in greeting. Kaja continued, "I've found they're surprisingly helpful with enchanting work, too, though."

Raoul frowned as they reached the trellises. "What's the topic?"

Theo grinned ruefully, and sat down on one of the benches. "Work with circles. Are you familiar with what Kaja has done so far?"

The big monk nodded enthusiastically, grinning at Kaja as he took a seat on the ornamental dinosaur next to the bench. "I am! It's been quite good so far; I've been meaning to ask you about the geometrics you were discussing in that last paper, do you have any backup for the octogonal nature of the Infinite Shrinking Crystal in Smythe's pattern? Your theory seems sound, but I didn't see any proofs there, and Derek and I couldn't finish all the pieces to work one out."

"Fortunately, proofs on paper are no longer required," Theo put in, dryly. Raoul looked questioningly at him, then at Kaja.

She fought the urge to glare back at Theo. "Of course proofs on paper are required," she replied, sitting down across the path. "But I've been working on circles in the North Tower - there's a dead room to practice the mundane aspects, and the library farther up has a place safe to put it into power, so I've been doing some work there."

"Ah," Raoul nodded. "That does make sense. I was working out of the peak of the North Tower for a little while - it's a great place for scrying, perfect for the purpose. But you said something about enchantments?"

"Oh, yes; surprisingly, there's a lot of ways to use Circles for the same things we've been using straight runes on. I started with just simple scrying enchantments, but the theory we get out of Lobshik's early work has some applications, and I found a volume from the last century of magic use that seems revolutionary - not all of it is easy to understand, but there's some things that link the older theories, concerning the degrees relative to power source versus the inner angles and the specific dimensional facets?" Raoul nodded, intent, and she continued, "The book seemed to link those, the building blocks for Fine's work with weather, to Rossette's ideas on runic - what did he call it? Runic Dynamics?"

"Runic Harmonics," Theo corrected absently, twisting a blade of grass in one hand.

"Yeah. The piece he cites is something of a dinosaur, but useful enough, when you wrap your head around the language. So the theory's all there - I've copied most of the book out, if your lot wants a look at it - and I just combined it, and found a lot of really interesting results. I was planning on publishing something for Her Majesty's collection, once I had the theory worked out."

"We'll take you up on that book," Raoul said, leaning back a bit. "That's very interesting - we've mostly been going back to the older forms of magic theory, starting with the basics. I guess Derek is right, and we should be looking at the later stuff, as well. I wonder, if the curse hadn't set in for another few decades, if all of this would be common knowledge?" He shook his head. "It's a damned shame. Do you have anything planned in the near future?"

Kaja hesitated a moment. "Well - the written half for the test is done, but I haven't done the final trial for the practical application yet. Are you - either of you - interested in coming along? I'd planned to finish after lunch."

"Of course!" Theo looked up with a bright smile, and Raoul nodded.

She grinned and stood. "Alright, then. One condition," she added, looking seriously at Raoul. "You have to show me how you got that far with DeLaine's thesis on the cosmos - I haven't been able to make any headway at all on it, so I was just working from Lobshik's critiques. It's not been easy, with half the context missing; their little disputes are so frustrating to read through."

The big monk laughed, and extended a hand. "It's a deal. May our generation never leave six pages of personal guttersniping for every two of honest academic work."

Antares

Aug. 10th, 2012 08:59 pm
thulcandran: (Default)
I might have to do more with this 'verse. I'm somewhat intrigued by the idea. Thanks to Artell of the PPC for the prompt: "Odious, Microphone, Mongoose."

Charlie threw the T-shirt over his head and sat down, grabbing a comb off the dresser. She flipped the top off the gel, and finished the half-mohawk. A loud thump came from the other side of the room, and she grinned over her shoulder. "You know the rules, buddy. Gimme three hours; after the show, we can hang out."

"Hey! You 'bout ready?" She glanced up. Dover's head was poking through the gap in the door. "The Flaming Troubles of Paradise are almost through their set."

"Yeah, let's go." He nodded and headed out, and Charlie followed him, shutting the door carefully behind her. The dressing room was safe if undisturbed, but generally she did have to make sure it remained undisturbed.

The gig wasn't too bad - a little smaller than their usual, but the crowd was enthusiastic, and that made up for a lot. None of their microphones exploded (this time), and no idiots tried to rip her hair off. Dover and Tara were excellent, as ever, and the new song went over well; all in all, an excellent night. They left the circle to cheers, and after packing up, Dover threw an arm over both of them as they headed back down the hall.

"So," he said, his voice a little louder than usual (just as well - they probably wouldn't be able to hear him otherwise for another hour or so), "When're we gonna get that team of barely-dressed backup dancers we been talkin' about?"

Tara hit him on the shoulder, and he laughed. "Still a no? You're killin' me here!"

"C'mon, Dover. You'd just make Dina jealous, and we can't have that," Charlie told him, holding the dressing room door open. They headed through, and Dina chittered and scolded at all three of them from the top of the dresser.

Dover picked the little mongoose up and swung her around, crooning. She yapped back at him, and after a moment, he handed her off to Charlie. As usual, she scooted up onto the singer's head, snuggling into what she clearly considered a makeshift nest. Tara snerked and threw herself down onto the couch.

After a few minutes, Dover yawned. "So wha'd we make?"

"H'm?" Dina picked her head up and glanced at him, and after a moment, Charlie followed suit.

"We make anything? C'mon, we ain't doin' charity gigs, last I checked."

"We're s'posed to pick it up on our way out. And speakin' of, we'd better head out. I don't want to be in this town tomorrow morning."

Tara stood, and grabbed the pack of gear. "Let's make dust, then."

The office had a weird sort of vibe; uncomfortable, she thought. Odious. The whole place smelled a bit like some kind of fruit, too sweet, and a bit like sulfur and ozone. The man behind the desk was asleep, or - possibly and - stoned out of his mind. Tallish, wiry, soft features, with a gnarled mat of dark hair tied out of his face. Charlie rapped lightly on the oorframe.

The man stirred, groaned, and sat up. "You," he said wearily, unslurred. "What do you want?"

Dover, behind her, raised an eyebrow. "Payment," she told the man. "This is the main office, yeah? You're in charge?"

He stood up, stretching. "It is, I am. What do you want?"

There was a bit of movement behind her. Charlie took a deep breath. "I told you. Payment. What d'you have?"

The man narrowed his eyes at her and shook his head. "Not much. Do you take solar?"

She shrugged. "Solar's fine, if it's what you got."

"It's what we got." He turned to the cabinet behind her. "Here. Some Solar, and there's a little Antaran - should make up the change." He handed her the fare: two octogonal tubes of black glass about two feet long, just about four inches across, rounded at the end, capped with bronze, and a smaller one, about the size of her wrist.

Charlie nodded, handed them off to Dover, who easily tucked all three under his arm. "Thanks," she told the man. He nodded half-heartedly back, shut the cabinet, and slumped back down in his chair, behind the desk. They trooped out of his office, Dina nibbling gently on her scalp as they left the building.

Back in the van, Tara stowed the capsules away. "We got enough Rigelian to get us down to Sartorville," she called. "But the Antaran's no good with the hydro or moto."

Dover plugged into the console and shrugged. "We got Solar, I don't care 'bout Antaran. Loose it, give Dina some fun."

"Sick," Charlie replied, pulling out the capsule. A half-twist from the overhead sealed it, and the sweet, reddish light spilled out, into the space of the rover. Dina let out a squeak of delight, and all three bandmates let out an almost involuntary sigh. There was nothing like fresh light to end the day on.
thulcandran: (Default)
"At least half of them are imbeciles."

Darius smiled and tapped his pipe. "I'm not denying that, Eowyn. We shall have to put some sort of test; those who pass will be accredited, allowed to teach, to add to the canon, to practice in the palace, and the best of those will be appointed your advisors, your teachers in this matter."

She shook her head. "It's a good idea, Darius, and I thank you for it - but the problem remains, how do we determine the test? How do we judge in a matter in which we know so very little? If we do not have an accurate test, we will risk insulting and excluding some of the better applicants, as well as including and placing our trust in the - the imbeciles."

"This is true. It is something that must be approached with care and delicacy. Who do you trust of the monks and the scholars already established? It would make a start, to involve them in determining a test of understanding and ability."

The queen nodded, in thoughtful silence for a moment. "That is the first step, I think. We shall approach those already trusted and proven, and seek their counsel." She prodded the fireplace with a poker that had been left before continuing, "Not all of them do claim to understand the process of magic, but most are capable of analyzing the discipline, and all should be able to advise on finding scholars who will be able to help."

He smiled and stood. "Then it is decided; tomorrow, we shall consult those scholars and monks who you believe can be taken into your confidence, and whose opinions on the matters of competence can be trusted."

"I will pen a list tonight," Eowyn replied, standing as well. "On the morrow, Darius. Thank you."

The vizier bowed and left the room, with only the scent of pipe smoke left behind. His queen wrinkled her nose, and leaned on the window, shivering slightly at the breeze that slipped in. But the cold was refreshing, and would keep her awake for a while longer; the task required concentration.
thulcandran: (Default)
There is a queen - let us call her Eowyn. Eowyn rules her land well, with wisdom and justice, and all the lands under her prosper. Her people are happy, her castle and grounds are well-kept, and she has ruled in peace for thirty years.

But Eowyn is about to run into a very serious problem. You see, Eowyn knows nothing at all about magic. This has never been a problem for her, or anyone else, before! It is a novel situation for all concerned. For three hundred years, there has been no magic in the world, and so no one understood it; there was nothing to learn or understand. But two years ago, on a brisk autumn evening, a brave, clever, and honorable young page stumbled across a secret cabal who were involved in a dark conspiracy.

He was drawn, not entirely by choice, into an epic and noble quest to stop the evil conspirators from conquering the world with their secret powers. After several seasons of earth-shaking battles, mysterious shadows, break-neck races across steep and terrible cliffs by a sliver of moonlight, and general acts of heroism, the young protagonist and his companions managed to save the kingdom, and the world - and, in the process of doing so, overturned an age-old curse that had befallen the land three hundred years prior.

The young hero and his friends were, of course, rewarded handsomely for their troubles and their triumphs, and ballads regaling their adventures were sung across the lands. The kingdom returned to its normal peaceful state. But in private, Eowyn gathered her advisors in closed chambers. In the lull, things were quite smooth, and people were happy - the advent had changed very little, it seemed. But Eowyn knew this would not last. The laws governing magic had long been forgotten, or very nearly so. In ages past, the ruler of any land would have sorcerors about them, as many and as highly regarded as the other counsellors. But as magic disappeared from the world, those traditions had fallen into disuse, and the tomes and proclamations that reasoned out the relationship of magic with the law and court and people were deeply buried in forgotten shelves of ancient libraries, and their dialects archaic and arcane, difficult for any but the most learned scholars to decipher.

This was clearly an urgent problem, and none had a clear solution. It was decided, at the least, that those scholars who claimed to understand the ancient tomes should be brought to the palace, and that they should be paid by the crown to devise new books, in the modern dialect, to instruct the public and their monarch. The state of affairs could not continue - a queen who ruled a land of magic should not be ignorant in the matter herself.

And so it was that in the late summer of that year, as the harvest began to be taken, the travelers came from all across the land, converging on the palace as one. They came in dusty, road-worn clothes, and in horse-drawn finery; as lone riders, taking dangerous roads in search of speed; in caravans of convenience, working or paying their way along with the merchants; with bags filled to bursting with notes and books, and with ink spattering their skin from head to toe. By the time the first frost had begun to crackle on the towers of Eowyn's gardens, the libraries were bustling.

We shall join her there, on the eve of the first frost, as she confides in her vizier, whose wisdom in her reign thus far has been invaluable.

***

"At least half of them are imbeciles."

Darius smiled and tapped his pipe. "I'm not denying that, Eowyn. We shall have to put some sort of test; those who pass will be

Tableau

May. 29th, 2012 03:16 am
thulcandran: (Default)
Thanks to Shoe, of the PPC, for the prompt: Glue, Stamp, Bunny.

Julian stalked back and forth across the ornate rug, muttering under his breath. The light through the window showed no change - no red blast came from the sky, no smoke filtered the sunlight through the old panes. Still... he wouldn't know, would he?

"For want of a nail," he found himself whispering, his hand on the old, ornate frame. With a shake of the head, he turned back to his desk, cursing his lack of will. Turn from this course, turn - but he could not.

They all waited for a signal, and if he had made the wrong one...

He had not. He could not have. He looked, unconsciously, towards the window once again. Saw nothing, turned back, looked at the door. No knock. No firestorm, no tramping of boots, and the knife he seemed to have picked up had no purpose, save to dance across his knuckles like a coin or a trick of the light, and--

dropped it. Swore under his breath, picked it up, flung it into the desk, wrenched it out a moment later and shoved a stack of papers over the nasty cut it had made in the wood.

With a final grimace, he threw his cloak on, stormed to the door - stopped, turned back, and sheathed the knife in his breast pocket before turning again to the outer hallways.

Two guards in the foyer acknowledged him with a nod, no more, and he passed them to tromp out towards the gardens. He would be as nervous there, he knew, but at least he would have more room to pace, and perhaps something to take his mind off of inevitable destiny, hopefully not storming down on them like so many meteors from the heavens.

Layla met him out there, so calm it had to be a criminal offense, staring into the koi pond. He threw himself down on the bench next to him, not even bothering to pretend anything other than a firestorm of emotions. She nodded without looking up, studying the fish as they swam.

"There are two fewer than yesterday," she murmured quietly. "I fear we have a heron problem on our hands."

Julian looked to the pond, but could not bring himself to focus on the fish. He looked back down at his own hands, and happened to spy hers, gripping the bench lip. Blood seeped down the knuckles of one finger - odd, because both hands were so tight against the metal that they appeared entirely devoid of blood.

Motion on the far side of the pond sent him leaping to his feet, silently panicked - the bush swept aside in a breeze for just a moment, and the jackrabbit on the other side gave him a caustic glance before disappearing once again into the foliage.

"We'll know when we know," she said, not lifting her gaze from the apparently fewer fish. "There's - there's no point worrying about it."

He imagined he could hear a laugh beneath the last of her words, hollowly. He sat again, forcing himself to at least pretend calm. "I know, Layla. We - we'll find out."

"They must be ready," she said, as much to console herself as him. "Why would they have returned if they were not ready? We could not have erred. If we - if we had not sent the message we did, there would have been error, fatal error, and we would have leapt into an unjust war. They are ready. They will bring peace, they will settle the outer moon and we will have peace at last. They will not - we will have no more war."

They remained there, eternities between them in the half-inch of the iron bench, until dawn brought the courier, with his official, stamped, carefully dictated message, and the hopes of an entire world born beneath its seal.
thulcandran: (Default)
It's a minor ramble from the original sole inhabitant of a sketched world. Since his formation, he's been joined by two others, and may be joined by more as things continue to spread out in my head. In the meantime, here's a thing - the first time he sits down to write, on the narrator's advice, about nothing.

About nothing - this is hard to do. I don't even have a name, but I know there is something, and that voids - unvoids. There's a mountain, here, it's an anomaly, it sticks straight up out of the ground, and leads to rolling hills behind it. The overhang from the cliff makes for shelter, when it rains, and I've climbed up it some ways - not all the way.

The world is big, I imagine; I haven't seen much of it. Just the mountain, the hills, the plains on the other side of the mountain, where my pond is. (It's very clean, there's a tree at one end, and some very comfortable rocks about.) Jenna wanted to know if it's ever frozen over, but winter hasn't come yet, so I don't know if it will. Right now it's just a pond, a place to sit and think and swim and let your feet dangle, and Zeke is odd flying over it. I figure the rain is what replenishes it, since it does rain so often.

Zeke hasn't told me what makes the rain, though I've asked him; maybe he can't fly that far. (I bet he can't fly that far.) To his credit, he hasn't made anything up about it, either, which would be very easy to do. Jenna says she's going to make a way to fly without wings, at least without his wings, but she hasn't said this to him. He'd probably call it heresy. (Which is funny, because you'd probably call it smart.)

He hasn't even been to the top of the mountain, I think. He said it gets colder and rockier and fewer plants grow, the higher you get, but he hasn't gone to the top. Someday, I'd like to climb it and beat him there; that'd show him. Something. He's just so smug, you know? Like he somehow has one over on us, but I'm pretty sure he doesn't. For all he can fly, he still seems to be figuring out this world as he goes, same as Jenna and me. I haven't found a magic solution. I don't know where the hills go, or why, and it stands to reason he doesn't either - it seems like someone who knew what they were doing would be less smug about it. They'd just do, not spend all their time talking about what they can do.

But that's just me.

I'm glad for this spot, it's one of my favorites so far. So quiet, and sheltered, and with the bark and the charcoal, it's nice to have a way to write things down. It's so... odd. Knowing words, knowing speech, knowing writing, but having no memory of learning. I wonder if everyone is like this? I wonder if there is an everyone, if it's just Jenna and Zeke and me. I hope not. It would be nice to have more people around, another voice, another face. Not that there's anything wrong with the company now, but... more people, I guess.

I wonder if we could make a road. I think - the hard part would be finding our way back, if we went too far, and somehow I have a feeling that wouldn't be so much of a problem with Zeke around. Who knows? We could build a road, through the hills. A cairn on every hilltop, to show the way, and we'd see if there's an end to them. Maybe we wouldn't need Zeke for that.

In the meantime, it's getting dark, and I think it's a good night for no fire - the stars are out, they're harder to see when there's a fire. Zeke says the dark makes him nervous, it's why he doesn't come down at night, but it doesn't bother me so much. I can mostly see my way around, by the stars and the moon. It's true; walking does have its advantages over flight.

Chalk Dust

May. 23rd, 2012 12:42 am
thulcandran: (Default)
I am just about satisfied with literally everything about this story except the last sentence. Damn it.

They started appearing one June, when we played on the empty parking lots and the deserted driveways; our parents were away at their jobs, and we lived in that golden stretch of time between the responsibilities of our older siblings, and the imprisonment of our youth. The days stretched long and excited before us, like an eternal playground, a paradise of fireflies and spiderwebs and tree-frogs and summer thunderstorms sending us racing for cover while the walls of water poured out puddles in our footsteps.

We were in Julia's driveway - she had no basketball hoop standing guard over her pavement, and that gave us more room, which was lucky because her little sister wanted to play, too. The chalks were scrounged out of every corner after Lynn had the idea, and we all carefully measured our spaces off with mostly-straight sticks and marked them with rocks and we were off, all pressed lips and concentrated stares, as the chalk dragged slowly over the uneven surfaces.

I drew a dragon, of course; I remember that it wasn't very good, and that Jake drew the best, a goldfish staring down a shark, something that made us laugh, and that David drew a silly monocle on the shark afterwards. But most of us remember the little details of days like that, and they seem to make the spectacle more real in our minds, when we reach.

There was a glint in the corner of my vision, but when I looked, nothing - only Julia, scuffing out an errant line. It happened to everyone, we realized afterwards. We saw things that tricked our eyes, and when we looked, nothing was there, only our fellows at play. When we were done, we stood back and looked, and it wasn't until afternoon, when we sat with sandwiches and far too many cookies on the grass, that things changed.

The dust was gone, but we didn't think about that until after, either. Our drawings were all clean-cut, the lines trimmed, the colors carefully un-blended, the scuffmarks and footprints erased entirely. The boxes and tins we'd come with lay scattered by the side, but it wasn't until Lynn got up to brush the dust out of her skirt that we knew at all.

That was when we saw them - tiny people, no bigger than our hands, brought into being by the clouds of multi-colored dust that flew off of her skirt. They darted about like minnows in the air, their wings glittering behind them, and then the dust, and the fairies, disappeared. We sat astounded, unable to believe our eyes, until after a moment of deliberation, Julia ran inside to get a sheet.

We ran back and forth, dragging the softer end of the chalks across it until the sheet was covered in streaks, randomly hued and crazy, and then David and Jake and I stood back, holding it, while Lynn and Julia beat on it with the sticks we'd used, their hands, pushing the clouds out into the sunlight.

It was only a moment before they appeared again, seemingly from nowhere, darting about in the dust clouds, snatching tiny particles, we thought, from air - we dropped the sheet, and went to catch them, but when we picked it up, only one was left, a tiny little thing about four inches tall, and quite angry.

Although his voice was shrill, a miniature oboe with lungs, we could not understand his language, and stood mystified as he lectured us at some length, a finger in the air, hovering at eye-level. Being rather more well-read now than then, I can imagine what he said - curses, most like, wondering what manners our parents had taught us, and why we had so little respect for the Fair Folk. After he had said his piece, he stared at us for a long moment, a homunculus of sky blue, green, neon pink, and then vanished in a flash.

We were somewhat careful, after that. I asked my mother, carefully, circumspectly, about fairies, and thereafter we left honey and bread in the shade of Julia's mother's rhododendrons while we drew, and when we finished, the food was gone, and if we left the drawings alone, the dust was gone there as well.

David became an artist; you have probably seen his work, it pops up somewhat frequently in magazines, and more frequently online. We talk about it still, sometimes, when one of us runs across another - it certainly shaped all of us, in one way or another. The only thing I have not told anyone yet is this, that I wonder when I come downstairs for a drink at night and find my workbench free of the sawdust I had left it covered in, or that I now sit and watch little Paul and his friends on the driveway, and see a small flash as they run inside for lunch. But I suspect Julia knows, from the number of times I've come across her doing the same, or simply the fact that neither of us returns from the grocery store without a bottle of honey, ever.

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