Sunday, 24 November 2013

Vespula Velvet's Problem

The Patchwork Market may not be the most remarkable place in all of Faerie, but it is certainly unique. As has been noted elsewhere the notion of geography is applied somewhat liberally in the Faerie Realms. The most geographically stable location is the area covered by the Hundred Kingdoms, even that has its back ways, turnabouts and confusions.

The problem with Faerie geography is the existence of places that are at the centre of the world. The way that you can tell such a place is that you can traverse such an area and get to any other destination in fairly short order, as long as you know the way. That last part, that's always the bit that misleads people. Knowing the way is not as easy a thing as many suppose.

The most obvious, and also the most difficult, central location in Faerie is the Forest of Grymm. That's the name of the forest but really it may as well be called 'The Forest', because all wooded areas are connected to it, so there is, at some level, only one forest in the whole of Faerie. The problem is that some of the kingdoms separated by other forest areas don't see it like that. Someone could circumvent, for example, Sommerslip Woods near the Faerie Archive and never see any part of the Forest of Grymm. However, once they step among the trees, even on a well maintained path, they could take the wrong fork and end up in Grymm, from there they could emerge anywhere, not necessarily back in the county of Sommerslip.

There are other places of a similar nature, the great city of Luminis, the Black Ocean, the Soft Places on the edge of the Undone (those get _very_ complicated), the Celestial Sphere and the NeverWill. All of these places can be reached from almost anywhere and lead to absolutely everywhere. The Patchwork Market shares this distinction, the Market and Luminis are the only two such places that are built. The difference between the two is simple, Luminis is closed, the Market is always open.

As such the Patchwork Market is the most welcoming of all the inbetween places. If it were as wilful as Grymm or as bizarre as the NeverWill or as outright dangerous as the Black Ocean then it would make it hard to sell things to people, this is the Market's entire reason for existing. If trade were not facilitated in the Market the Market would cease to exist.

Even so, the Market has it's dark secrets and hidden corners. Not everything that goes on among the tiered plazas of this world within the world is clean and legal as anyone might wish. Of course, the Market permits the existence of its Master and the Master's Watch, they do the best they can to maintain peace and order conducive to the spending of a substantial amount of coin.

They can't be everywhere, from time to time evil still works its way into the Market. A fact Eos came to appreciate in an entirely new way when she awoke in chains fastened to the wall of a ruined structure in the darkness of an abandoned plaza.

There was one thing in Eos's mind beyond her own immediate inconvenience, concern and discomfort.

"Rachel?" she asked, unabashed, not whispering, the importance of knowing that her charge was in good health overriding other concerns.

"Eos?" Rachel's voice brought a flood of relief.

"Tasty little snippets," a third voice interrupted the auditory reunion. It was a quiet voice, a voice soft like sucking mud dangerous as a whippingcord serpent. Eos recognised that voice, she was pleased that Rachel had never heard it before.

"Vespula?" Eos asked.

"Enjoying myself I was," the witch replied, not bothering to confirm her identity to Eos. Vespula Velvet knew that the mermaid princess whose kingdom Vespula had usurped would not forget the voice, or be in any doubt as to its owner. "I was in my little undersea cave, rebinding the bristles to my broom when I feel a stabbing pain, as if someone had thrust the blade of a steel knife through my old heart."

The platform on whic Eos found herself was shrouded in darkness. She could see the edge of a ruined wall defined by the glow of a low, orange-flamed fire burning beyond it. She could not see the witch who had taken away her birthright. All she could hear was the wheedle of the ancient sorceress's thin voice.

"Bound to our enchantments we are, magic workers," Vespula said, Eos could hear soft footsteps, the voice sounded louder, nearer. "I knew when you bought that ring, so you could walk upon the land, that didn't trouble me much. I hired me some trolls, to find you, bring you to me. Must have hooked up with some clever sorts though, disappeared from the Hundred Kingdoms, found you in the soft places, then all on a sudden you were here, in the market and I was on the floor in pain. So much pain."

Vespula was very close now, but still not visible, somewhere on the other side of the partial wall to which Eos was bound.

"So I contacted my troll master, and told him where to get him a cloud of sleeping dust. He found you on the Market Floor, near to the Master's Island. Had to get you before you reached the Master of the Market. Too much trouble, not that you were hard to find, just walking around without a fear in the world. Had you forgotten fear, dearie?"

The breath of that question warmed Eos's left ear.

"I'm not afraid of you Vespula," Eos said, although she knew she was lying.

"Don't bother," Vespula said. "I can smell the terror on you, marinating you, making you and your little friend ready for Vespula's pot. You know how much power I can get from the bones of two young maidens such as yourselves?"

"The little girl is nothing to do with this," Eos said. "Let her go!"

"You have forgotten what it is to be a wicked witch, Teleosti Shaleshore," Vespula chortled. "It does not matter what that girl is to whom. She had the bad luck to fall within my power and that means that now she is no more than soup. Can't you smell the stock cooking, bubbling away in my cauldron? Sweet with wolfsbane and nightshade, hemlock and brimstone."

Eos knew that Vespula would happily swill down Eos and Rachel broth. Vespula was one of the vilest witches in the far shadows. She thrived on poison, fear and heartbreak. Even so, one could not simply give up, defeat may be inevitable but ultimate victory should always be withheld.

"Let us go, Vespula, or you will be hunted down and killed," Eos said, she was uncertain, in herself, that this would be the case but Eos had made friends, and Rachel certainly had people behind her, even if the chief among them was a talking mouse. There was a chance that Phoebe September or Frederick Cobb would care enough to avenge their disappearance, if they knew who to look for. It was a slim hope and not one of much use if they had, in the meanwhile been eaten, but it was all Eos had.

Vespula Velvet chuckled again, a hoarse, bubbling sound. The twisted shadow of the witch's form cut between the broken wall and Eos's field of vision. Eos still couldn't see the gnarled enchantress but she knew the old woman was there.

"And who will ever know that it was my doing, little one?" she asked. "Who will there be to tell. The kind of folk that would look for you would not even think of asking trolls so full of the darker blood as I would hire. Trolls such as them would rather kill friends of yours anyhow. No, sweet morsel, Vespula shall drink your blood, and no one shall ever know that it was done."

"Excuse me, ma'am," came a voice from far away, beyond the broken wall. "I think the stock is prepared but I have not the tongue to taste it."

Vespula did not appear best pleased at this interruption, she spat back:

"You have the tongue to spoil my delicious moment, though," to her unfortunate henchman.

Actually, Eos considered, welcoming any distraction from the consideration of her present dire circumstances, it did sound a little as if it might be a hench-woman. Distinguishing the gender of a speaker, if that speaker was a troll, which this was, was not an easy task for anyone other than another troll. Those of dwarven stock were pretty similar.

"Apologies, mistress," the troll replied. "Our stomachs are not able to take in any food save rocks, stones and earth, we may only drink water. We cannot taste a stock for meat-people, nor would it do our insides any good at all."

"Well," Vespula grumbled, "I suppose this will be one of the more important meals of my life. Very well, I shall taste the stock. Hopefully it will be fine and fulsome in its flavour, ready for the addition of my tender tasty morsels."

The troll came forth from behind the wall with a ladle in its hand. Vespula took the ladle, lifted the bowl of it to her lips and sipped at the liquor within.

"Hot, spicy," Vespula crowed triumphantly. "A full, sweet, flavour that just needs the addition of flesh and bone from a pair of maidens, to fill Vespula's stomach and warm her old meat through with every vile type of magic. Perfect for hexes and curses and-eep."

For the barest fraction of a moment Eos wondered if an 'eep' was some kind of dark magic that she had not previously encountered. The grey cast to Vespula's usual greenish countenance told Eos that she may have received a reprieve from the cooking bowl.

A hard noise, like stones cracking against one another, came to Eos's ears. She could see that Vespula was starting to petrify, turning to rock from the feet up. Nothing as refined as becoming a statue. No, Vespula's legs were turning into dark rocky pillars of uneven shape.

"Your one and only mistake," said the troll walking round so that Vespula's furious eyes could see it. "Was to think that you could casually decide to eat my daughter."

In a falling sift of sparkling fairy dust the visage of the troll fell away to reveal the face of a woman that Eos had never seen before.

"Its you!" blurted Rachel from her own wall adjacent to Eos. Since Vespula had arrived the little girl had been too terrified to speak but her surprise trumped her fear for a moment. "The Green Lady."

"Her name is Rebecca," said another voice that Eos recognised as belonging to Rachel's mouse, James. "And she is your mother."

The owner of the voice, it transpired was no longer a mouse, but a tall, thin man, who emerged from the shadows beyond the wall to join the slim woman who had disguised herself as one of Vespula's trolls.

"How?" Eos asked.

"Mischief probably," James said, smiling at Eos. "Lester and myself were lost in the Undone, a magician helped us get back here after we helped him out with a wolf problem... there's a lot to explain..." James turned away from Eos to look at Rachel. "Not least of all to you, Rachel."

"James?" Rachel said. "Is that you? You're a man again! Oh, I am so pleased for you."

"There's more than just a transformation here," James said to Rachel. "We have a lot to discuss. First, though, we should probably see about freeing the both of you. Lester, do you mind lending a hand?"

So James and Lester helped liberate Eos and Rachel from their chains and the whole group went on to the Patchwork Market to find a place for tea and a complicated chat. What they did after that is a story for another day.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Whatever Happened To The Terra Draconis?

This is one of the new told stories of the old times. In the years after the Vanishing wiped the Terra Draconis from the worlds of Faerie there were remnants, survivors, a few who had evaded the cataclysm that lead to the eventual disappearance of all the dragons from Faerie.

Unexpectedly the person made most unhappy by the complete disappearance of the continent was the instigator of the plan to wipe it out in the first place. Count Okulas had planned to use the qualic energy of the continent and its vast reserves of elegantly balanced magicks to become the most powerful sorcerer in existence. Once the deed was done and the energies were contained in a vessel other than the Count he was beside himself with fury and determined to recover the vessel of power he now regarded as 'his'.

Unfortunately for the count the Quintessence Crystal, the vessel containing the energy the Count craved, had been well hidden by Prince Avan Weatherstrong's thief companion shortly after the time of the the Vanishing.

It was only a matter of time before Okulas located the crystal. While he may not have been the most powerful sorcerer to ever have existed he was still an incredibly gifted magician with whole armies at his command. His singular martial innovation was a creature known as the glass monkey, a beast strong, stealthy and loyal, although not terribly bright. The glass monkeys were Okulas's eyes and ears in the remaining lands of Faerie.

One day a glass monkey came to Caer Okulas, nestled in a deep valley in the dark shadows far beyond the edge of the Hundred Kingdoms, with the news of the location of the Quintessence Crystal; a city on the border of the Hundred Kingdoms: Deepwight. Okulas reached out to the eyes of his monkeys near to the crystal and in moments he saw...

"...need it for anyway?" asked a small, grubby little boy dressed in rags as he handed a package wrapped in thin canvas to his companion, a tall, slender figure obscured in the shadows of an alley way.

For a moment Count Okulas felt a shiver of excitement. Was the prize he sought within the canvas package? Then he realised that it could not be. The package was long and flat, not thick enough to contain the crystal.

"Never you mind," the shadowy figure said. "The less you know about my business the better, Wish Forbetter."

"Right you are," Wish shrugged, feigning disinterest. "I have several shiny coins in my possession, so I really don't know what I'm doing here talking to you."

Wish casually spun on his heel and disappeared up the street towards Deepwight market.

Forget the boy, follow the other one. Okulas ordered his glass monkey. The monkey obeyed and as the slender figure disappeared deeper into the alleyway the monkey scaled to the roof and took up an aerial view from the edge of the eaves looking down upon the figure. As they emerged in-between buildings Okulas could see that the figure wore a hooded cloak, it was impossible to see their face.

The dark sorcerer urged his servant to find a vantage point from where some clue to the identity of the stranger could be determined but, although glass monkeys are very difficult to spot, they do make noise so every one was nervous of getting within earshot of people. Particularly the kind of people who did strange deals in alleyways with street urchins and wore long, heavy, grey hooded cloaks.

The only identifying feature that the person wore was a large golden brooch that pinned the front of the cloak to the stranger's left shoulder. The brooch was bright and round, it told anyone who knew of the old Dragon Lore that this person was representing to be one of the last of the Dragon Warriors.

That wasn't entirely impossible. There were a few such left scattered across the Shadows, the Hundred Kingdoms and out in far-flung Araby. It was only a matter of time before Okulas found them all. Maybe this one would be one of the first to go.

The monkey continued to follow the slender Dragon Warrior into the warrens of Deepwight's poor quarter. The further they went the more evidence of filth and crime surrounded them. This person was walking without fear into the worst part of the city. Before long they reached their destination, a building that bore the secret markings that denoted it as the real thieves' guild house.

Every city had an official Thieves' Guild. Thieves, of course, could be employed to commit crimes, theft being the least of them. They were also often used as freelance spies, secret couriers, the quietest whispers between the courts of kings spilled, silken, into the ears of thieves for carriage. A thief's skull held a lot of powerful magic, if one had the stomach for such sorcery, Okulas knew.

The problem was that the official Thieves' Guild building was, like so many things with the thieving community, just a facade that concealed the places where the real business got done. The real Thieves' Guild was always in the poor quarter, the building disguised to look like any other hovel in such a place. There were outward signs for those that knew to look for them and Okulas knew what it was he was seeing.

His monkey, on the other hand, knew nothing. It scampered along the roof of the adjacent building ready to leap onto the walls of the guildhouse.

Stop! commanded Count Okulas. We shall have to wait and see if our friend comes back out.

Proper Thieves' Guildhouses were steeped in defensive magic so heavy that not even an invisible monkey could get inside. They also had multiple entrances and exits, not all of which were visible at street level. Okulas reflected angrily that he had, in all likelihood, lost the trail here.

Then the monkey turned its head and saw that it was not the only one to have followed the slender warrior to this location. On the roof opposite the urchin, Wish, had followed the warrior to the Guildhouse. He scampered down a drainpipe from the roof and slid into a sewer opening at the side of the road.

Don't dawdle! Okulas commanded his servant. Follow the grotty little twerp.

This was the best opportunity they would get to pick up the trail again. If the boy knew a way in, fine, but if he didn't then the Thieves would reason it was the boy who set off any alarm that was raised. There would never be any evidence of a glass monkey anywhere near the building. Okulas loved a win-win

As it happened the boy did seem to know a route into the Thieves' Guild without tripping any of their security. Okulas felt a tiny quiver of admiration, the boy was no more than fifteen years of age, at the outside, yet he had found a way to circumnavigate a series of security measures that even a glass monkey had to be cautious of.

Once inside the building one of the Thieves' passive security measures came in to play. A natural thief had to have a good sense of direction, without one a building with many identical rooms and hallways became very difficult to navigate. This observation was deeply embedded into thief lore and all proper thieves' guild building interiors were square, grey and featureless, so only a thief could get their bearings in them.

The boy was good, but he wasn't that good. He spent an hour just bumbling around, hiding from thieves who nearly spotted him and not finding the person he'd given the package to. Eventually, by sheer luck, he heard a conversation saying that she (a she? Okulas should have known but was still surprised) was taking the Grand Canal out of the city.

The boy knew where the underwater dock was and went there fast enough to be able to get onto the barge that was taking this female dragon warrior on towards her destination. The glass monkey followed, and watched carefully. If this street-urchin hadn't come along for the ride then Okulas would never have known where this woman was going; or even that it was a woman.

The barge took the small party away from the poor quarter and out to the main canal ways, toward the market quarter's shipping yard. Once there the Dragon Warrior, the urchin and Okulas's monkey switched to another boat. As this boat left the ship yard on to the canal way that would merge with the Deepwight River the Dragon Warrior's companion, a gruff looking boatman, spoke aloud for the first time since the boat transfer.

"Did you get it?" he asked the woman.

"I did," she said. "Wouldn't be here if I hadn't. Can't get past the padfoot without it."

"You could probably have just tried telling it off," the boatman remarked, the shadow of a smile upon his lips.

"There's nothing that will disperse this padfoot save the Storm's Eye, it's a geis," the woman said. Her face was still not visible within the hood but there was the sound of a grin in her voice.

After this brief exchange the conversation devolved into an exchange of pleasantries and tidbits of tedious gossip. Okulas ceased to listen, instead pressing the glass monkey to look about and see where they were headed and who else was on board the barge.

The answers turned out to be, southwards and nobody else. The former did not tell Okulas very much, except that they were heading into the Hundred Kingdoms. The latter pleased him greatly, particularly as Okulas was going to have to keep any activities he undertook within the Kingdoms very quiet indeed.

Eventually the boatman took his rest and the woman piloted the barge down the river alone. In the small hours the boatman took the tiller again and the woman rested. While the boatman was in charge he steered the boat off the Deepwight River and onto a tributary branch. They headed north again, as well as to the east, but not far enough north to leave the Hundred Kingdoms once more.

It didn't take long before they reached a small inland port with space to provide mooring for maybe twenty barges. The barge that carried the four passengers was the only craft at this place. The boatman moored the barge and woke the Dragon Warrior.

As the morning grew to full strength another person approached the port. A thief, riding a horse, a second horse tethered behind. The woman saddled up the second horse and climbed on its back.

They were in the process of bidding farewell to the boatman when the urchin revealed his presence. He tumbled from under a mound of sacking on the aft of the barge, not four feet from the tiller of the craft and stood, looking defiantly sheepish out on the edge of the dock as the three figures regarded him with amazement.

"Wish Forbetter!" the woman said, dismounting from her steed and coming over to the boy. "What do you think you are doing stowing away on Old Jed's boat?"

"I wanted to see where you were going," Wish responded. "It seemed like an adventure."

"It's more than any adventure a lad should be along on," the thief responded, a note of anger in his voice. "I shall have to take you to the nearest town, that will delay us by at least a day."

"There is no time, Garnet," the woman said. "He will have to come with us. We can't afford the time. Okulas will catch wind of what we're doing."

Okulas permitted himself a moment to preen at this clear evidence that his own hidden passenger had not been detected. As pleased as he was by this he was concerned that the boy might be sent away before the party got to its destination. He didn't want to ruin any more of his own plan than absolutely necessary with a thief and a Dragon Warrior knowing his minion was even present. A quick strike at the key moment would be the best plan.

"You can't take a boy into Hammerlode!" Garnet objected.

"We don't have a choice, he will have to ride with me," the woman said. "We had best be quick, in and out. Okulas has eyes everywhere you know."

The thief Garnet did not seem terribly happy at the arrangement, but he deferred to the Dragon Warrior's command. The three of them left the port side and rode their horses up a mountain road that soon turned into a thin trail. The trail ended at the mouth of an old mine, its entrance covered over with boards of weathered wood.

"You stay with Garnet," the woman said to Wish before they approached the mine entrance. "Don't think you can lend a hand to me, because you can't. Understood?"

Wish nodded, solemnly. With that warning in place Garnet and the woman pulled down the boards over the entrance and proceeded on into the mine. Wish trailed on after Garnet, the glass monkey slunk along behind them all.

They hadn't gone very far into the shaft before they were greeted by the sound of a mournful howl coming from the dark tunnels ahead. The woman and Garnet both took a moment to light torches. The flickering yellow-white flames illuminated the mine walls but the light did not push back the shadows a great distance.

"You sure this is going to work?" Garnet asked nervously.

"The Storm's Eye was forged to defeat a spectre-hound," the woman said. "I haven't personally tested it though, no. They're not very common these days."

Garnet was visibly unhappy at this news, the woman shrugged.

"You want to go back?" she asked.

"No, carry on," Garnet's tone said the exact opposite of his actual words. The woman listened to the words and not the tone.

The mine shaft sloped down and was extensive, eventually it levelled out and divided. After following a few twists and turns without even pausing Okulas guessed that the woman's route was pre-planned and memorised. If the Quintessence Crystal was here it was really no wonder that the Count had never found it, Weatherstrong's thief friend had done an excellent job of hiding it.

That made Okulas wonder why it was that this Dragon Warrior had taken it upon herself to move it. Given all the time that the Count had spent on locating the crystal without success so far there were really only two options. One was that the woman was a paranoid idiot, the other was that where they were moving it to wouldn't stop at being an obscure location, it would probably also be resistant to being located at all.

Okulas had long ago become averse to the risks of assumption. That meant he had to be very sure that he did not lose the crystal this time. Otherwise he may never get another chance to drain its power.

The Count had barely had time to make this resolution before the attack happened. Okulas had encountered a padfoot before this one was a large and particularly ferocious example of a breed that was formidable even in its weaker members.

The woman fought the spectral hound with the sword that she had obtained from Wish. Okulas commanded his monkey to stay well out of the way. A spectre-hound had all the senses of its material counterpart enhanced with some magical senses as well. None of the folk in the mine shaft could see the glass monkey but the padfoot might.

And indeed it did. Spectre-hounds have a keen sense of threat and a glass monkey was definitely the most threatening presence in the party. The hound broke from its engagement with the Dragon Warrior to run towards the glass monkey.

Okulas's servant panicked and turned to bolt away. There would be no chance for the creature alone in the dark tunnels. Okulas took control of the creature expending some of his magical energy to dominate the monkey's will. He made the monkey turn and dodge past the padfoot. He wanted to bring the beast back towards the woman.

In normal circumstances this would have been risky, the glass monkey might be revealed if it could be heard or felt. In the heat of battle it was a risk that had to be taken. Okulas imagined the woman was already puzzled at the dog's sudden switch of focus. Okulas intended that the focus switched back.

Placing the monkey behind the woman worked beautifully. The padfoot came back towards the woman. The new situation provided an unexpected bonus for everyone except the spectre-hound. The padfoot was trying to kill the monkey but whilst the woman was in the way she was attacking the monster. As a result she didn't have to try terribly hard to stab and slice at the padfoot because it was distracted.

Within a few moments the spectre-hound dissolved, defeated. The woman looked over to Garnet and Wish and caught her breath.

"See," Wish said happily. "No problem at all."

"Seemed too easy," the woman said, looking about her, suspicious.

Okulas took his cue and withdrew the glass monkey to a safe distance.

"Sometimes things are what they are, Princess," Garnet said flatly. "Can we be done?"

The woman, the princess, nodded curtly and continued on her route through the mine. A short distance further on they came to another downward shaft, the top of a ladder visible over the edge of the excavation.

They climbed down the ladder and walked along a short passage into a small cavern. Inside the cavern was a single item: a giant, stone pumpkin. The pumpkin was carved in two interlocking pieces. The princess stuck the shaft of her torch into the floor and shifted the top half of the pumpkin, inside the carved husk was a book, an old volume of simple spells such as might be given to a student witch. That was not something one would go to the trouble of hiding down here.

The princess opened the book, the inside was hollowed out and nestling within the space carved into the pages was the shard of crystal that contained all the power of the Terra Draconis.

Now was the moment. Okulas pushed the glass monkey to lope forward and jump onto Garnet's back. The monkey dug its hands into the man's neck and Okulas pushed the force of his mental domination forward through the man's flesh.

Dominating the mind of a man was not at all as simple a business as dominating a servile glass monkey. Garnet resisted but all resistance melted before the sheer force of Okulas's determination. Within a second Okulas had drawn Garnet's knife and put it to Wish's throat.

"Garnet?" the princess was genuinely shocked by her companion's apparent betrayal. That was an important tactical advantage Okulas decided to play the traitor card for what it was worth.

"Sorry, Princess," Okulas said through Garnet's mouth. He hoped the fact that he did not know the princess's name wouldn't cause him any problems. "You want the boy, my master wants the crystal."

"The Count is not your master," the princess said. "He killed your wife."

"And now all I have is money," Okulas said. He knew that some people put ridiculous sentimental attachments above the acquisition of money and power. He also knew there were fewer of this type of person among the ranks of thieves than elsewhere.

"I can't believe this Garnet," the princess said. "You wouldn't kill a boy. Think of Flint, think of your son."

"But this ain't my son," Okulas responded. "This is just a boy who will never be a man unless you give me what I want."

"I can't let you have this," the princess said.

"Then the boy dies," Okulas responded. Garnet was fighting the control but Okulas did push the blade tighter against Wish's neck. The blade pierced the skin and Wish cried out.

"I'm coming closer," the princess said. She held the glowing crystal aloft, her spare hand was open, empty, reaching out towards Wish. The princess was looking straight into Garnet's eye as she came forward.

"I can kill him before you can pull him close to you," Okulas warned her.

"Then I won't pull," the princess said as the glow from the Quintessence Crystal instensified. The princess's hand brushed Wish's cheek and the white light became a blinding beacon that obscured Okulas's vision. When the light had cleared the princess, Wish and the crystal had vanished, leaving Garnet and the glass monkey alone in the mine.

Okulas howled in frustration but it was too late, the princess had taken the crystal away.

"Does it tell you where they took it to?" asked Phoebe September, listening to this tale in another time at another place.

"It does," the story gatherer reported, looking up from the page of the tale. "But the reference is vague, it says that she hid the crystal, herself and Wish in a place called the Skull Garden, a place she had heard of from her friends when she was young. We never had those stories, till you came."

"Then our destination is written somewhere in here!" Tabarnas said, motioning towards Volume One of Anabyl's adventures.

And indeed it was, it didn't take them long to work out the route and the Story Gatherers sent them to the Garden, but what happened when they got there is a story for another day.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Lester And James Distract A Wolf

"So what are we doing again?" Lester asked, twitching the wrist of his right hand, uncomfortably grasping a short sword, to swish the blade about a bit in the air.

"We're a distraction," James said. His sword remained still, his eyes searching the forest path intently.

"Okay," Lester said. Lester hadn't felt proper misery now for quite some time. Panic, confusion, fear, awkwardness, guilt and even terror, all yes; misery, not so much. He didn't even really know how to express his misery because the reasons for it would either sound stupid or selfish or both.

Since James had found his own form in the Undone; since they had escaped, all three of them, into this charming little shadow kingdom; since they had set out into the woods in the hope of picking up a trade route back to Bridgetown, Lester's misery had grown.

Was Lester miserable about James now not being a mouse? It was true that the lanky, intense individual that had replaced the sarcastic, emotionally complex little rodent was a bit of a system shock. Someone's physical shape should not play such a huge part in how one related to them, Lester felt. Yet here was James, now not a cheeky mouse, instead a charismatic and intelligent man approaching a distinguished middle age.

The transformation appeared to demand that people took James more seriously, not to mention the man's kind and lovely wife. Rebecca had known the man James for longer than the mouse James. From the first moment they had been together Lester knew that Rebecca would never have viewed her husband's rodent form as anything more than a horrible affliction. Lester had never known James as a man and so had always thought of him as a mouse with amnesia.

The amnesia was another thing that had put Lester off kilter. A mouse could have amnesia and it was possible for an observer not to take the whole thing terribly seriously. After all what important memories could a mouse have? When the mouse was a man, the pain of forgetting written in the lines on his face, you were forced to confront your own flippancy.

None of this was a recipe for much more than confusion and a period of necessary adjustment, of course. The problem was the misery and sense of loss that accompanied the confusion. Lester realised that whilst he and James had both been bewildered, both seeking things that appeared impossible to find, that their bond had formed organically, without either one of them noticing. In a world where the finding of a clue to the location of a brother, or a memory that might help upon the road to a mislaid daughter, was a task of gargantuan proportions the funny young man in the pinstripe flannel suit and the amnesiac mouse had each other.

James had gone with Lester on an amazing journey, through some of the strangest places in Faerie, they had seen the ruins of a sorcerer's palace, the edge of the Undone and the colourful stalls of the market at the centre of everything. James's journey had restored to him many (although still not all) of his memories, his daughter, his wife and his physical form. Lester had managed to harvest an elliptical letter and a bottle of potion he had used up to escape the Undone.

Lester knew that his quest was ongoing, and probably a worthwhile endeavour, but when he compared his progress to James's the results were not encouraging. Still, Lester felt incredibly selfish for resenting his companion's progress and feeling the blank, empty helplessness of his current empty-handedness.

Even trying his hardest to put all this aside Lester still felt that he was losing the best friend he had ever had, before he'd even ever really had a chance to tell this friend how he felt. He couldn't help but gain the impression that James believed that they were companions because of circumstance and not because of friendship. As James now had a family to think about, and some handy opposable thumbs, it became more and more apparent that Lester was somewhat of a third wheel in any situation James might find himself in.

That was difficult and caused a sadness that Lester couldn't just squash down out of the way.

"You know," Lester said, filling the empty, silent air with a distracting burble of noise. "Things have happened pretty quickly today. I'm not even sure that I know what we're standing here for."

"I just said," James repeated, absently, "we're a distraction."

"Yes," Lester said. "I got that. I just don't know what we're a distraction from, or indeed what it is we're supposed to be distracting. It has something to do with a wizard. I remember the wizard, and you, you were talking to a mouse."

"Yes," James said. "Gargantuus Redstorm, who lives in the wall just yonder, told us that he was the member of a tribe that gathered intelligence for Silas Strumpkin, a wizard who lives in that house over there." James pointed at the house just visible along the path about fifty feet away. "Wizard Strumpkin is currently engaged in commune with the weave, trying to gain some information paid for by a noble in the next shadow. A rival noble has sent a lupine mercenary to kill Strumpkin whilst he is vulnerable. Gargantuus and his tribe are not able to warn Silas and so we are here to defeat the mercenary before it can get to the wizard."

"Right," Lester said. He took a look down at the lumpen, poorly forged metal rod in his hand. A poorly constructed melange of sword and mace. He had never held a weapon before now, he wasn't sure that this was the weapon to start with. Also, how was he supposed to be of any use fighting a wolf? There were more questions. 'Why?' seemed to be one of the most pertinent, so he asked it.

"Gargantuus knows that Silas has recorded a spell of transportation in his book of spells. If the wizard awakes from his trance alive and in good humour Gargantuus will persude him to send us back to Bridgetown."

"So all we have to do is kill a wolf to save a wizard and we go back to where we started from?" Lester said. "Done much wolf killing, have you?"

James shook his head.

"Almost none that I can remember," he replied. "We're not really supposed to kill it, we're just supposed to keep it busy until Rebecca can kill it with an arrow."

"Oh, okay," Lester nodded. "And what happens if the wolf comes from the other direction?"

"Then she'll be in the ideal position to kill it before it ever sees her or us," James said, his tone was beginning to gain an edge of annoyance. "You weren't listening at all back there, were you?"

"Not really," Lester admitted, allowing a little ire to leak out in his tone. "I'm tired, and afraid. I'm pretty hungry and... if I'm entirely honest... I was busy wondering why a mouse was called Gigantuus."

"It's a mouse thing," James said. "I discovered this when I was one. Mice think of themselves as the biggest creatures in the world. Anything bigger than them is, to them, just as big as them. So they like to call themselves big, tough names, to recognize their awesome stature and whatnot. They're mostly a species of proud warriors."

"I see, they always struck me as a little nervous," Lester said.

"They're very proud of their flight reflex. They have almost no voluntary control over it," James explained. "I had more because I wasn't born a mouse. Regular rats and mice will run automatically in the face of overwhelming odds without even really being aware that they're doing it. They call it 'saviour ghosting', well, they do when they get away intact."

"Wow," Lester said. "There's quite a lot going on with those mice then. I never knew."

Silence fell, which was not a good thing for Lester as his mind was instantly alerted at his failure to actually admit what was really troubling him when he had said 'if I'm entirely honest'. Worse Lester had realised that he had given James a hard time about not being entirely honest when he himself had been too confused to be honest on several recent occasions.

Lester had made a decision to improve his honesty and was now failing miserably to speak up and be direct about things. Lester didn't feel comfortable with the notion that emotions could be difficult, they were going to happen no matter how complex or inconvenient they were going to be, but that didn't make them any simpler. Lester was in danger of becoming wreathed in sadness again. He had to talk or his feelings would overwhelm him.

"So, you're glad... to be a person again?" Lester asked. If he brought up a topic of conversation that put James's transformation on the table maybe he would find a way to say the difficult things.

"It's definitely an advantage," James replied. "If I could just get my memory, my daughter and my home back then I would feel a lot better still."

"Yes," Lester said. "That would be nice. Having everything sorted out would be nice."

James looked over at Lester, the clear, grey-green human eyes in James's human face were far more expressive than the small dark eyes of the mouse he had been. Lester found human James too human to deal with. Adding guilt to the misery Lester realised that his sense of loss came with the realisation that he was no longer the most important person in the duo. He was a drifter looking for an elusive brother. James... well, James was some kind of important.

Someone had robbed James of his memories and put him into a faraway shadow not far from the edge of the Undone. Someone had turned James into a mouse and dispersed his wife. Someone had wanted James hidden away and imprisoned. Whatever James's full story was it was a story that mattered a great deal to several powerful people.

What about Lester and Chester Topping? Chester was so important that he had been forced to hide himself from everyone, including his twin brother. All Lester was trying to do was find him. Lester was not important. Lester was just Lester.

"If I can do anything to help you find Chester, when I have the power to do so, then I will, of course," James said quietly.

There was no time to respond to that. Lester saw a movement on the path, not far from where they stood. It looked as if the mercenary had arrived.

Lester looked pointedly at the approaching figure, James turned to look in the direction Lester was indicating.

"Just concentrate on staying safe," James said. "Try to knock him back, give Rebecca a clear shot."

Lester nodded. The sudden tension in his stomach made him completely unable to feel sadness, or inadequacy, or guilt. Lester shifted his grip on his wonky sword. He wondered if he could get used to this sort of thing, like a knight.

About sixty seconds later Lester had firmly decided that, no, he was never going to make a knight. The wolf was being kept back but this was mostly due to a lunatic ferocity he was managing to exhibit in his sword waving antics. The adrenaline flooding his system prevented him from looking over to see if James was doing any better but, regardless, a few seconds later the whole thing was over when an arrow in the chest put down the ravening lupine mercenary.

"Remind me to avoid being a decoy again," James said, leaning over and putting his hands on his knees, exhausted.

"Same here," Lester replied.

They got about a minute to gather themselves together before Rebecca joined them on the path and the three of them went back towards the wizard's house. Once James had talked once more with Gargantuus, and the three of them had shown that the mercenary had been thwarted, they went back to the house with their rodent companion.

After a few hours Silas Strumpkin came out of his trance and, upon being told by Gargantuus of the bravery of the three strangers was happy to make them a portal to transport them into the Patchwork Market. So James, Lester and Rebecca stepped through the portal back to their destination, but what happened to them when they got there is a story for another time.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

In Which There Is Trouble On The Okulas Moon

"I must confess," Saeed said, as the light of the rainbow bridge faded from view, "I never expected the moon to look like this."

They stood on a wide, featureless plain, covered with a sparse scrub in patches of hard, black soil. Although the stars could be seen, a bright canopy overhead that suggested night, there was plenty of ambient light surrounding Saeed and Avan.

"The moon wears many faces," Avan replied. "She is the mistress of illusion."

"'She'?" Saeed asked. "The moon is female?"

"That is the one thing all the faces have in common, yes," Avan said, then, pointing towards one horizon: "I think that is where we need to be headed."

In the direction that Avan had pointed Saeed could make out the twisted form of a gigantic tree, the only large form on the visible landscape of the Okulas Moon as far as the eye could see in any direction. Saeed and Avan began the long walk toward their destination.

As they drew closer Saeed began to realise that they were not headed towards a normal-sized tree that was a short distance away but, in fact, an enormous tree that was much further away than it first appeared. Even so, as they first crossed the part of the plain where some roots of the enormous tree were becoming visible Saeed could see birds swooping and wheeling around the branches far above his head.

One bird, not flying, was sat on a larger branch about sixty feet up. An impressive looking owl that, while not on the same exact scale as the tree, was large enough to look a little more comfortable with the enormity of its perch than it might have otherwise.

The size of the external roots grew larger and larger as Avan and Saeed drew closer to the bole of the tree. Before they reached a place where they could think of climbing the trunk a voice called out to them.

"Couldn't resist the challenge could you?"

Saeed and Avan turned to see Miranda Felix standing twenty feet up on the ridge of one of the roots.

"You want to give up," Avan said. "You'd be no match for me if I was alone. Let me assure you that your defeat will be swift and humiliating when you face both myself and Saeed."

"If I was alone," Miranda Felix replied. "I would not have called attention to myself. You know as well as anyone I like to pick my battles, my handsome prince."

Saeed surveyed the area around him. All he saw was the rough bark covering the tree roots, appearing grey in the strange blue of the ambient illumination, and the black and blue scrub of the earth.

"You have hidden lizard men, or trolls nearby?" Avan asked.

"I have glass monkeys," Felix replied. "Nearer than you think."

Saeed felt the brush of Avan's arm as he shifted from foot to foot uncomfortably.

"I must confess," he said. "I've never heard of a glass monkey."

"No, something new on the moon," Felix said. "Dreamed up by a darling little madame I have safe inside a mirror. Mischief sprites can have the cruellest imaginings if you just scare them a little."

"I've never heard of a glass monkey," Saeed muttered to Avan under his breath. "She could be bluffing."

Avan looked about, scanning the ground around them for some sign of Miranda's invisible henchmen.

"So we're supposed to just let you get away because of this assurance?" Avan asked.

"Oh, my sweet boy," Miranda said. "I know you too well to think that you'd take my word for anything." She drew in a breath and called out: "Attack!"

There was a shift in the air and a rhythmic pounding rumble like dozens of feet suddenly moving forward. Something screeched and Saeed felt himself struck in the face so hard it sent him tumbling backwards.

Thankfully Saeed had excellent reflexes. He turned the fall into a backwards hand spring, drawing his sword as he came back up. He swung his blade in an arc around him and drew out the sound of shrieking monkeys as they tried to avoid his random swipes.

"I am not going to be able to keep this up for long!" he shouted at Avan, who had somehow managed to cloak his entire body in fire in the few seconds since the monkeys had attacked.

"No, neither am I," Avan called back. "Besides, Felix is escaping while we're dealing with this nonsense."

"Nonsense, in my experience, tends to be less fatal than this," Saeed called back.

"This should help," Avan said pulling a gourd from one of the pouches on his belt. "Take a deep breath," he warned and threw the gourd into the air. Being a wise thief Saeed inhaled as large a lungful of air as he could in preparation for whatever was coming next.

There was an explosive popping noise and the gourd bloomed into a cloud of green smoke that settled down over them. The green smoke was made of a fine powder that settled on Avan, Saeed and also on the glass monkeys. Now Saeed could see the outline of the places where the powder fell. The monkeys did not like the powder and were scurrying away, trying not to get it on them.

Even as they did so, however, the monkeys began to swoon and fall, there were the sounds of monkey bodies hitting the floor as the green powder caused them to fall into slumber. There were more monkeys than could be caught within the radius of the gourd, of course. But clearing the space gave Avan and Saeed all the head start that they needed.

Swinging their blades ahead of them they charged towards the trunk of the tree and the remaining glass monkeys scampered out of their way, unsure what to do next. When they were outside of the reach of the cloud of green powder Saeed risked opening his mouth to speak.

"I don't think we're going to be able to climb this tree faster than monkeys, not even glass ones," he said.

"Don't you worry," Avan replied. "I don't think that we'll have to."

Avan dodged to the right into a shadowed crook between the out growth of two huge roots and disappeared. Hoping that this was not the result of some kind of sorcery Saeed followed. He was amazed to find that the shadow was far longer, and deeper than he might have imagined. Also, it felt as if he was running along in some sort of darkened interior.

"Hurry!" Avan said from up ahead. The sound of glass monkeys chattering and squealing was growing louder at Saeed's back.

Saeed felt a strong hand pull him forward so he stumbled and fell to the floor. There was the whistle of air sliced by a blade and then the rumble of unspooling rope and the rattle of metal through guide rails. Finally there was the crash of a heavy gate hitting the floor.

Avan muttered one of his minor magical incantations and a soft yellow glow permeated the space around them. Saeed was amazed to see that they were inside the tree, in a room carved into the root, a room with a heavy gate blocking a passage that lead outside.

"How did you know?" Saeed asked.

"Neither Felix not Okulas are lovers of slumming it," Avan said. "I didn't believe either of them would concede to living in the unfurnished branches of a tree, whatever it's size. Besides, I believed I could detect the suck of air entering the tunnel when we were outside."

"So... you could very easily have just run straight into a wall?" Saeed asked as the two of them started to make their way through the hallways and rooms carved into the roots of the tree.

Avan shrugged.

"What's life without a risk once in a while?" he asked.

The two adventurers made short work of finding the grand hall at the core of the tree structure. A vast cylindrical vault ran up the main trunk of the tree. Saeed guessed that it wasn't wide enough to have hollowed out the whole of the tree interior but it was still over one hundred feet in diameter, a series of circular galleries were connected with broad stair cases sweeping upwards in elegant arcs to the branches of the tree above.

"Looks like nobody's home," Saeed said after walking slightly behind Avan and nervously checking over his shoulder every five paces for about ten minutes.

"Worrying," Avan said. "If this place is empty then the forces Okulas had here must have gone somewhere else. The question is, where?"

"Let's hope the owl knows," Saeed said. "And that he's in a mood to share the knowledge."

When Avan and Saeed emerged onto the branch they found that a smooth path had been carved into the upper side of the surface leading out to the owl's perch. Now that they drew closer Saeed could see that the owl was roughly twenty feet tall, an imposing creature indeed, nestled in the branches of this mighty tree.

"You are one of the First?" Avan called to the owl as they drew close enough that it might hear them.

The owl rotated its enormous head. Huge golden discs, the owl's eyes, oriented to regard them.

"You are Prince Avan Weatherstrong, and you are Saeed ibn Abihi, the wanderer," the owl addressed them. "I have been waiting for you."

"What concern are we to one of the arbiters of fate?" Avan asked, his delivery was clear but Saeed had travelled with the Prince long enough that he could detect the quaver of concern in his companion's voice.

"Dark times are ahead, Prince Weatherstrong, only the deepest knowledge and the strongest soul can prevail," the owl said.

"If you tell us where we may find Okulas," Avan declared. "Then we will save the Terra Draconis."

"You will preserve it," the owl told them. Saeed had travelled too long not to note the ring in the owl's voice that told them this was a correction, not an echo. "This is the weft of the Weave. You will find your quarry in the eye of the storm that rages on the dark side of this moon. Nothing larger than a speck of dirt may penetrate the walls of the storm."

"Then that is how we must approach," Avan said. "Great thanks, wise one, we shall show that your trust in us was well placed."

"I do not trust," the owl replied. "I deliver the will of the weave. All things are as they must be."

With that the owl shifted its weight forward to drop off the perch, spreading its wings and swooping away from the tree on the Okulas Moon.

"I have to say that I did not find that conversation at all reassuring," Saeed said.

"Neither did I," Avan said. "But we have come too far to turn back now."

"I promised that I would undo the evil I was tricked into unleashing," Saeed replied. "So I am with you, however dark the road."

"Then you should brace yourself," Avan said. "Because I think we're about to experience a very bumpy ride."

And indeed they did, and in the eye of the storm raging over the dark side of the Okulas Moon Saeed and Avan confronted Count Okulas, but what happened when they did is a story for another time.