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The temple of Arawn was a very large place. Gordon Farstalker ap Luthien walked calmly through its passages, observing with a five year old's wisdom and wonder.
He was unsurprised and unafraid.
In the chapel, before a velvet tapestry depicting a struggle between Arawn and Hagvar, three clerics stood. One of them was Johansen, who often gave Gordon horsey-rides. They did not appear to notice the son of their leader. All held silver chalices and were chanting in Bryttani, a language of which Gordon knew only a few words. He recognized one for "god" spoken several times. Finally, Johansen spoke, in Dalen, "Perfection," and all three drank. They set down the chalices, and a moment later, they collapsed.
Gordon walked among their bodies, neither speaking nor touching anything. It was like the grown-ups were playing a game of ring-around-the-rosy. Ashes, ashes, all fall down.
He was unsurprised and unafraid.
In a large room in the east wing that the priests and other temple employees used as a kitchen and recreation room, two other priests were talking. One was a man who Gordon did not know well. The other was a woman who sometimes helped his mother prepare her sermons. The man's hands were tied behind his back with a length of chain which stretched to a knot around the doorknob. His shirt was torn open to the waist and his face was a strange purple color, with little rivulets of blood coming from several cuts. The woman ran a hand over his chest, and occasionally into his pants, her mouth pressed against his ear, whispering a secret to him. She seemed to be having trouble breathing. In her other hand, she held a serrated dagger. Shortly, she plunged the weapon into the area where Gordon supposed the man's privates were, and she let out a long cry that seemed a little sad.
Gordon was unsurprised and unafraid.
By the main entranceway, which led to the majestic sanctuary, many people were fighting. Metal clashed on metal clashed on wood in a rhythmic clang clang clang. It reminded Gordon of the music he played on the toy drum Uncle Schneider had given him. The way the grown-ups were shouting was almost like singing. A large fire burned here also, set by overturned braziers, their incense mingling with the scent of sweat and smoke and blood and urine. Gordon watched the pretty orange colors as they danced to the music the grown-ups were making.
He was unsurprised and unafraid.
Gordon was walking towards the confessionals, because he had a secret he wanted to tell. A secret only he knew. He knew that he was going to be perfect and be with Arawn and so was everyone else, soon, and this made him happy. A hand with a grip of stone clasped his shoulder and spun him around. It was his mother. She looked different. Gone were her highly fashionable clerical robes, her ceremonial black mace, the silver earrings his father had given her. She was clad in black plate armor, her long hair tied back in a rough knot. She was, however, still wearing her special funny hat. The dark rings around her eyes looked bigger than ever. Wordlessly, she grabbed Gordon by the arm and it was as though he were flying down the halls behind her. He felt not even remotely like a bird.
Gordon shouted out to his mother but she did not answer him. Down hallways and stairs he flew. Finally, they came to a room he did not recognize, and she thrust him into it with such force that he fell flat on his bottom.
"Mommy will be back for you," she said, trying to contain her voice, which was like the snarl of a dog. She quickly said a prayer, then left, slamming the door behind her. Gordon could hear his mother talking her special talk, the kind that meant she was doing magic. He cried out for her but she did not answer. He stood up and tried to open the door but could not.
Gordon Farstalker ap Luthien was afraid, and he would never forget this day for as long as he lived.
No one had weapons drawn-- yet. But Hou-Hsieh knew well how quickly a katana could be unsheathed, and stood a few feet behind Inez Jardin, the words of a spell all but on her tongue, trying to look calm.
For her part, Inez showed no sign of unrest; nor did the six gonthyi who faced them. Each of the creatures outweighed the two women combined.
The gonthyi, so it was believed, were beings originally from the distant tundra to the east. Half-breeds, they supposedly traced their ancestry to the barbarians of Riklandir and an ancient race of monsters that had once ruled that wild land. Some of them had eventually settled into areas in the mountains of Shikintu (occasionally breeding with Shikinti people, according to some frightening stories; Hou-Hsieh found it hard to give credence to such tales, now that she was nineteen.)
What was undisputable truth was that they occasionally raided human communities, and had, at best, a very shaky relationship with the Shikinti. But in the Shanghai territory, things were a little different. Years before her birth, Hou-Hsieh's father, Lord Tavashi Haito had decided to clear up this interracial problem once and for all. He had bested the gonthyi leader in single combat, and they had capitulated to his rule. Some nobles had warned Lord Haito that the gonthyi were without honor, but they had been proven wrong. There had been peace for decades.
Inez Jardin faced this small clan of gonthyi-- all of them at least three feet taller than she-- with growing trepidation. Hou-Hsieh was a talented sorceress, but would the two of them be able to hold of six of these... these monsters, should it come to that? She feared that perhaps they could not. Behind them lay the slaughtered bodies of over two dozen villagers. None of the creatures seemed so much as wounded, though several certainly were stained with blood.
She fingered the amulet of Chonin Ta at her throat and gained courage.
Hou-Hsieh was taken aback by the sight of the dead people. Oh, mercy, how awful...
"...we know your reputation as a warrior, lady Jardin," the gonthyi leader said, "his voice like a distant, rumbling avalanche, "we respect and honor you, and I tell you we are not at fault."
On he went, about how the townspeople had suddenly, without warning, risen up against his people and attacked. How his kinfolk were the wronged innocents in this terrible incident-- what, back in Tobrinel, they would have called "absolute bullshit."
Inez wasn't buying any of it. She had been wrenched from her communion with Chonin Ta for a good reason. Surely the fate of Shanghai, perhaps all of Shikintu, was at stake. Most likely, the clans of Kyoko-Ra had somehow united and were using the gonthyi as a first strike against Shikintu. Hoping the Lords would blame each other and a little internecine battling would soften Shikintu up for Kyokin invasion. Did they not expect her to see right through this?
It might go even further. Perhaps one of the southern powers was in on it too. Cynystra? Diaria? Gila? She had certainly seen plotting more convoluted while in Sway, and any of those nations could manipulate from afar. Trade, of course, would be too sluggish to respond until it was too late. So it was up to her and her adopted land to fend for themselves, against the world if need be. So be it.
"...don't have any idea why, lady Jardin, they just...."
Hou-Hsieh was silently praying to her ancestors. Grant me the wisdom to understand what has happened here, to know what to do, to fend off the strange dread I feel growing stronger with every moment...
Not every problem could be solved with force alone, she knew, and the thought gnawed at her brain like termites into rotting wood. She had to figure out what to do with these gonthyi, and start tracing a trail back to their masters. Oh, where was her husband when she really needed him?
Praxis never lacked for information when he wanted it. He never struggled with uncertainty anywhere-- whether it was in facing down monsters, negotiating with scheming nobles in Shanghai or merchants in Tobrinel, contemplating the mysteries of the universe, in their bed... no confusion for him, ever. Just knowing. Whatever he wished.
Todd had contacted her not long ago. Hou-Hsieh had been struck by the impression (nothing he'd said, precisely, just what he'd seemed to want her to know, without saying it) that he knew. Knew what was behind this wave of dishonor and tragedy. That he was about to attempt something very dangerous. I'm never going to see you again, am I, Todd?
Inez' anger was rising like the tide before a storm. Damn these monsters for their dishonor. For their foolishness in letting themselves be so palpably used. Damn the schemers who hid behind proxies like cowards, the Erics and Lords of Diar and Knightehawkes of the world.
Damn you for not being at my side when I need you, damn you for keeping things from me when I can keep nothing from you-- damn you most of all, my husband.
Her expression had never changed. She and the monsters had merely stood, still but tensed and ready to move, staring each other down. She had seen it often in fights between masters. A moment. One moment. One side would make a mistake-- drop their guard, announce all too loudly with a subtle gesture what their next move was to be-- and the fight was decided.
One of the gonthyi was nervous, he shifted-- just ever so slightly-- hand moving towards his huge club by inches, if that. Her eyes narrowed, by the tiniest of degrees. The monster leader noticed, knew that the course of the face-off was decided. There was one tiny moment of stillness, as he and Inez stared directly into each others' eyes, silently acknowledging what was to come.
Then, her amulet glowed, and she smiled a horrible smile.
The gonthyi, trained warriors all, moved quickly, gigantic crude weapons grasped and drawn, rushing forward. But before them, a transformation was taking place in the female human warrior. Her skin flushed a deep green and scales welled up over her skin. Her face twisted painfully and stretched and deformed; spines and a tail sprung from her back. Her petit body swelled until she was taller than any of the creatures she faced.
There was no fear any longer. No paranoia, no uncertainty, no hatred. In Inez Jardin's heart, there was only The Dragon.
Fire erupted from her snout, engulfing five of the six gonthyi. Hou-Hsieh stabbed at this last with a thread of electricity that shook his body where he stood. Still, he advanced and all too quickly was upon her, knocking her to the ground and pinning her tiny form. He raised his club high above his head. Gasping, partly for lack of breath, but mostly in a shameful fear, the girl grasped at a wand hung from her belt. As he was about to lower his weapon upon her, the gonthyi's head disappeared in an explosion and he fell over backwards.
Inez Jardin was still engaged in battle. Her claws shredded the flesh before her. Her jaws snapped shut upon one monster's neck and with a twist, removed its head. All too quickly, there was only their blood left, dripping from her.
The Dragon paused to let out a triumphant roar before shrinking back to human form. Blood was still dripping from Inez' mouth.
I felt the same triumph, Hou-Hsieh thought. Why? Why did my spirit soar with joy when I snuffed out life? Ancestors! What is happening?!?
Timing, she knew, was the key to everything.
Ambiance was important too, but that seemed taken care of-- a beautiful spring evening, velvety, violet sky, three full moons rising. The most wonderful night of the year in Neporris.
"Hiya, big guy," Roxy said in her tartiest voice.
The warrior paused to take a good look at the blonde who'd given him the cheap pick-up line. Skinny, but he liked the sort of brazen look in her smile, the way she kept one leg cocked up against the wall. "Hi yourself," he replied with equal lameness.
The woman brushed away a lock of hair from her face. "Yeah, what do you say we dispense with the preliminaries, okay?" With that, her body was pressed against the steel of his armor, his tongue wrapped about hers, his arms enveloping her small body. He wasn't exactly certain when his hand clasped the front of her blouse.
Suddenly, with incredible quickness, she slipped free of his grasp, her blouse tearing, and she screamed at the top of her lungs for help.
Uncannily, the paladin was there within seconds. "What is going on here!?!"
"Oh," she wailed "help me, please!"
He took one look at her torn clothes, her tearful face, then at the other warrior still wiping saliva from his mouth, and drew his sword. "You cowardly scum," he growled.
"He said he'd cut out my heart!" Roxy cried.
"At least face your just reward with honor, coward!"
"Coward? I'll show you, you self-righteous prig!" He too drew his weapon.
Roxy fled, the sound of clashing steel ringing in her ears. She was several blocks away before her face broke into a broad grin. Then she laughed. How easy that had been! Fun, but she needed more of a challenge...
Why did you do that? said a voice in the very back of her head, that's not who you are. She ignored it. Shut up, you worthless sideshow freak! part of her shouted back.
No, she thought, that's not what I think about Schneid. He's--
Her attention was suddenly distracted by something in the window of a store. A silver bracelet with a small diamond set in the center. A simple thing, she was wearing several pieces of jewelry that were worth far more. But it looked so sweet, so elegant. She pressed her hands against the glass and sighed.
"Are you in need of assistance, ma'am?" It was a squad of the city watch on patrol. About a dozen guards in full uniform. It gave her an idea.
"Um, yeah, maybe you could open up this store? I really wanted to buy that bracelet there-- beautiful, isn't it?"
"Oh, yes. So, I wanted to buy it before anyone else did, and I've just saved up enough to get it--" she rattled her coin purse, "--so, do you think maybe you could let me in?"
"I'm afraid not, ma'am, the store owner would never allow that."
"Oh. Gee. I, I didn't think what he said was true, but..."
"What who said?"
"Oh! Uh, nothing! I shouldn't repeat it..." She bit her thumb, looking extremely nervous.
"Oh, this, see this guy, who I, like know, from the Merchant's Guild? But it's pretty rude. I shouldn't--"
"Just what did he tell you?"
"Well, he was talking with, like, this other merchant, and he was saying that, uh, th-that people on the city guard were...."
"Were what?!?" He was becoming very agitated.
Her voice was quiet and she stared at her shoes. "That you all were a bunch of filthy dogs and they only put up with you because they had you... tightly leashed. That y'all would sit or attack or heel whenever the Merchant's Guild said."
"Really now?" The leader took out his mace and Roxy gasped. Then he hurled it through the glass of the jewelry store. An alarm spell howled. "So, how 'tightly leashed' do I seem to you, ma'am?"
"Oh, oh, not at all, sir!"
"I should say not! I wouldn't think that anyone who 'heels' for a bunch of worthless upper-crust rich bastards does anything like this, right men?!?"
They were going at it, all down the street-- smashing store windows, battering down doors, one of them tossed a lit torch into a clothiers. Downtown Neporris echoed with the sounds of shouts and shatters and defensive spells going off. Many people were cheering the guards, and some were joining in.
With the city falling over an edge behind her, Roxanna DeLaMattrie strode down the street, walking tall and walking proud. Except... she could almost hear a voice in her head. What are you doing, Rox? You were never the insecure one. This is just stupid.
The contortionist clutched her head in pain and said aloud: "Get the hell out of my head, Kari! What do you know, anyway?!?" She needed a drink.
"Line em up, Rocco!" Yes, this was better-- a bawdy tavern full of people out to have a good time, a couple of bards playing a merry song in the corner, fine ale. Ah, yes. But something deep inside was still making Roxy ill at ease. Like she needed to hurl, but it was nothing in her stomach that needed to force its way out, just something in her soul.
She headed towards the bar. An elven lass who wasn't looking where she was going walked right into her.
"Hey," Roxy said, but didn't shout, "why don't you get your tree-hugging, pointy-eared head out of your ugly ass, bitchling?"
"What did you say!" the elf exclaimed. Her husband turned angrily just in time to see Roxy deliver a stealthy sucker-punch to the woman's guts. Her husband cursed Roxy in what was doubtlessly elvish and drew his longbow.
Roxy was steadily walking away from him, and as he fired, she made a standing leap to the bar. She landed in a split, toes perched precariously on the edge as the arrow thunked into wood a few inches below her crotch.
"What the hell are you doing in my tavern?!?" the bar keep shouted at the elf, he withdrew a tremendous crossbow from below the bar and fired. The elf proved to be less than Roxy's equal when it came to dodging projectiles.
"My God!" she shouted, as loud as she could this time. "Why did you do that? Just because he was an elf didn't give you the right to shoot him, you bigot!"
"Oh, a human who has problems with the kinfolk?" an elf woman declared loudly. She nailed the bartender with a Magic Missile spell.
A few people were still dazed by the suddenness of it all. With uncanny stealth, Roxy flicked her wrist, and her dagger went flying the length of the room, gracefully arcing over a man's shoulder and into the back of the man in front of him. As he fell bleeding to the ground, a friend of his turned angrily, drawing a weapon on the man beside his fallen compatriot. The dagger had already returned to Roxy's hand.
The entire place had erupted in chaos. Furniture and glasses were being broken over bodies, the blood and curses and ethnic insults were flowing as freely as the drinks had been. Not long ago. Not a soul in the place remained unengaged in violence.
Except Roxanna DeLaMattrie. She merely stared.
Then she ran. Her heart raced faster than her legs. What in the name of Paninaro's hangovers is happening to me? Gotta get help! A horse-- there was a horse, tethered outside a nearby building. Unfortunately, its owner was about to mount it. A couple of good right crosses and she solved that problem.
Oh great, it won't go away. I'm losing my mind and I'm gonna die or something gottastaycalmgottastaycalmgottagottagotta... Gotta get to Lianth! Schneider's there, maybe Kari, too. They can help me! I hope...
She spurred the horse and was off in a cloud of dust.
In the skies over Ataniel, Bane was descending.
Palmer Kahn sat on his porch with his trusty lasso at one hand, a bottle at the other. Good that a man could sit in peace and quiet on his own porch, look over his property in peace and quiet. One of his neighbors had tried to disturb him, and Kahn had to beat the crap out of him. But now he had quiet again. His wife and child had locked themselves in the basement, trembling in fear.
Several corpses, littered the palace of the Meadowlands. Such was the fate of those who had dared to mouth off to King Gehenna. So restless he could stand it no longer, he stormed out of his castle, walking he knew not to where.
The members of Quatro waited anxiously as Bill Endicott worked on completing a process he said would protect them from the coming darkness. At least for a while. Sturoster went over the calculations again in his head-- it would be four days at most. Alaric fidgeted and sharpened his sword, again. Noyarc lit his ninth cigarette of the past hour.
Persephone decided that she was sick and tired of being so good. And wasn't the forest so beautiful aflame?
Javert went over the maps of the city of Trade and directed his men in a tightening dragnet. John Doe eclipsed all his thoughts save one-- that he was doing the right thing. The Law would be upheld.
Cordelia became enraged. In retrospect, she had no idea why. But she was very very angry. She and her husband argued ferociously until she punched him in the face with all her might.
"Don't... ever hit me," he said. She hit him again, even harder, and bellowed at him to get out of her house and never come back. He stared at her and she was sure he was going to give her the beating of her life. Then, silently, he turned and left.
She collapsed to the floor. What was going on? She hadn't felt so miserable, so much out of control since that time, years past now, and her affair with-- no, don't even think his horrible name!
Cordelia lay on the floor and wept.
Closer now. Bane was almost here. Almost...
"A funny thing happened on the way to the tavern..."
The bartender had smiled warmly when Schneider, after a tequila sunrise, had decided to take to the small stage in the corner. He'd worked this club before, always to an appreciative audience, and an appreciative owner. Comedy always got people in a nice, happy, spending mood. Making people happy-- yeah, that was what it was all about. Schneider could tell it was going to be a performance to remember. After all, he had Luthien, the ultimate straight man, sitting over at the bar, idly nursing a beer.
"...you see, the genie thought he had said 'fifteen inch pianist.' "
"For Arawn's sake, would you just shut up?!?"
"Whoa, heckler alert!" Schneider called out. "Fortunately, there are suppository dispensers in the restrooms, folks."
"Get bent, you idiot. I've had to put up with your feebish chatter for years and it's driving me nuts," Rhynwa replied. "You're not funny, you know. I should've just let you move on to some sorely needed perfection so I could get some peace and quiet."
"Yeah, but still," Syndriannia replied, "you know, sometimes it's good to keep someone around, just cause they're, like, shorter than you. Know what I mean?"
"You mean an incompetent to make everyone else look good," Noyarc asked, taking a drag on his cigarette. "Interesting strategy."
"Let's not get too hot under the collar here, ladies and canines," Schneider answered, "wouldn't want to see what skeletons some of us have in the closet, or bones buried in our backyards." Luthien was pointedly ignoring him.
"Ah reckon the dog is right, ole son. You know how much you wuz slowin' me down, whut with havin' to worry bout protectin' yer wimpy behind?"
"Shit yes!" Tila said, balancing a dagger on its edge on her finger. "There wasn't anything you could do that I couldn't do twice as well in half the time. What were you thinking?"
"I'm starting to think I accidentally walked in on the Duke St. Augustine Memorial Roast!" In the corner, Luthien shook his head in disgust.
"I'll tell you what he was thinking," said Maxwell Silverhammer. "He was thinking he could play at being one of the good guys. Newsflash, Schneid. The good guys don't screw around with the girlfriends of people they claim are their friends and comrades. Crud, you really thought you had what it takes to be a hero? You really thought you could be like me?"
"Or ME?!?" Janther Moria stood up angrily. The light from his goggles pulsed with an accusing heat. "You don't know the meaning of the word! Forget even having a scintilla of a chance of achieving it."
"You've got it all wrong, Big Words." Roxy finished stretching and lowered her legs to the floor, hiding her underwear for the first time all night. "He never even wanted to be a hero or anything like that. All he wanted was for people to-- get this-- love him." She looked him dead in the eyes. "Guess what, Sideshow? It ain't ever gonna happen."
Luthien finally stirred and said: "Well? Don't you have anything to say for yourself?"
"Yeah," Schneider replied. "This is one tough room!"
With the tiniest, smoothest of gestures, he pointed, and a devastating blast of frigidity erupted across the entire room. Glasses shattered, wooden furniture cracked, people slumped over, their hair coated with white powder. Two people actually survived, and fled for the door. Schneider pointed again and suddenly they were motionless. Time enough for them later. Right now he had someone he wanted to talk to.
He walked over to the bar, examined the man's pulse, then pulled a flask out of his jacket and poured it down the man's throat. The man coughed and started to stir.
"Easy there, Luthien," Schneider said soothingly.
His eyes were like a trapped animal's. "Please-- please don't--"
"Oh calm down, it's a healing potion. For crying out loud, Luth-- always keep a grimly straight face in stressful situations. You're the one who taught me that!" Schneider slowly took out his sword and said:
"Now sit still, I'm coming to the really good part of my act, and I need you to lend me a hand."
It had started as an ordinary night in Lianth.
(Copyright 1997 by Jonah Cohen)
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