Posts tagged with "exalted" - Faerye Net 2004-04-01T15:01:05+00:00 Felicity Shoulders April Foolishness: Faerye Net Cage Match 2004-04-01T15:01:05+00:00 2009-12-14T20:47:58+00:00 <p><em>I don&#8217;t like lying very much, and I couldn&#8217;t think of anything plausible I wouldn&#8217;t feel bad for lying about &#8212; so instead I decided to celebrate the day with abject silliness. So, without further ado, I bring you&#8230; a completely contrived fight between a character from a silly world and a character from a serious one. <b><a href="" target="links">Lihan Hawkhome</a> vs. <a href="" target="links">Captain Bessa Seford</a></b>!</em></p> <p>In Creation, there is a road. There are many roads, in fact, stretching across the expanses of that which is known and believed in. This one, however, is special &#8212; it is cut, straight and long, across a dusty, flat expanse, peppered with prairie-hog holes and the occasional patch of wildflowers. Once upon a time, Lihan Hawkhome walked along this road, scanning the horizon with a sense of comfort. He could see for miles. Nothing could approach him unseen, and his magics would allow him to flee long before they should reach him. He felt comfortable, and therefore, from the deep sleeve of his coat, he drew a battered volume and read as he walked.</p> <p>In the distance, there was a humming sound, as of hornets gathering. Lihan read in absorption about the varying widths of chisels used for different inscriptions in the First Age. A pinpoint of light appeared in the distance, fractured the air around it, and poured a churning prism of chaos into the quiet afternoon. Lihan was fascinated to discover that chisels made of the Five Magical Metals were only used in inscriptions on Manses, because of the resonance patterns that could be set up by a less-than-careful hand in a less-than-Essence-reinforced structure. The kaleidoscoping rainbow emitted a sleek, golden car with fins higher than a man, and it careened down the straight road towards Lihan as the shimmering fracture closed in its wake.</p> <p>Lihan looked up in alarm as a building roar approached, and with a look of abject terror threw himself off the road and out of the way of the gleaming juggernaut. The car also swerved at the last moment, and flipped up up into the air, coming down heavily on a prairie dog colony, on its side. A door rose like the wing of a wounded beetle, and a redhead in a scarlet jumpsuit leaped out, nostrils flared like a hunting cat. <em>Spirits and Great Gods,</em> thought Lihan, <em>why are small redheaded females always trying to kill me?</eM> <p>Rapidly gathering up his fallen books and bags, Lihan started to walk briskly away from the wreck.</p></p> <p>&#8220;You!&#8221; cried Captain Bessa, explorer of the unknown, &#8220;Are you a native of this land?&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;Bessa&#8230;&#8221; Araminta sighed, &#8220;you almost ran him over&#8230;&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;Nonsense,&#8221; muttered Bessa, &#8220;he tried to sabotage our vehicle. Now get out and help me in case we have to settle this the old-fashioned way.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;My seat-belt got stuck in the crash, sir. Gerald&#8217;s, too.&#8221;</p> <p>Bessa frowned, &#8220;Do not fear, Crewman Jones. As soon as I&#8217;ve dealt with this cowardly reprobate, I will return to free you.&#8221; With that, she paced towards Lihan. &#8220;Now, knave, why did you attempt to interfere in the affairs of the Paracosmonauts Expeditionary Company?&#8221;</p> <p>Lihan blinked. &#8220;I&#8217;m very sorry, ma&#8217;am &#8212;&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;Sir! Address me as sir, please, my rank is Captain, the <span class="caps">PEC</span> has rules about proper forms of address.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;Er, quite. Quite right, sir. As I was saying, I wasn&#8217;t aware that any&#8230; expedition was taking place on this road today, and was merely attempting to reach&#8230;&#8221;</p> <p>Bessa scoffed. &#8220;I don&#8217;t believe it for a moment! Why are you so shifty, varlet?&#8221;</P> <p>&#8220;Er, shifty, ma&#8212; er, sir?&#8221;</p><p>&#8220;Yes, shifty!&#8221; her eyes narrowed, then widened. &#8220;You&#8217;re a pirate! You belong to the Crossdimensional Elite Pirates! I can tell by your hair!&#8221;</p><p>Lihan stared in consternation at his hair, which was long, red-brown, and contained a few braids. &#8220;I&#8217;m sorry?&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;Defend yourself, foul minion of the <span class="caps">CEP</span>!&#8221; cried Bessa, and began to circle ominously, weaving a pattern of menace in the air with her hands. </p> <p>&#8220;Halp!&#8221; cried Lihan, assuming a clumsy defensive stance.</p> <p>&#8220;Why did you let her drive?&#8221; said Minta, more sorrowful than angry, hanging sideways like a forlorn fruit bat.</p><p>&#8220;Something about me being a pilot, and cars needing a driver, I think,&#8221; Gerald said. &#8220;Sorry, Minta, won&#8217;t happen again.&#8221;</p> <p>Bessa dodged, feinted, and struck! &#8220;Ow!&#8221; cried Lihan, &#8220;I really don&#8217;t know, &#8216;sir&#8217;, why we have to &#8211; OW! &#8211; resort to these &#8211; <span class="caps">ACK</span>! &#8211; barbaric measures over a &#8211; My hair! &#8211; misunderstanding!&#8221;</p> <p>Bessa drew back and narrowed her green eyes to feral slits. &#8220;We understand each other perfectly, <em>fiend</em>!&#8221; she growled, and sprang, hands together, to fall like a hammer of doom upon Hawkhome&#8217;s back!</p> <p>Lihan fell to the ground &#8211; as all men do when struck in the back by the fists of a captain-explorer &#8211; and with a groan, wheezed, &#8220;That&#8217;s enough!&#8221;</p> <p>Bessa, arms raised and rictus securely in place for another blow, looked crestfallen. &#8220;Are you giving up?&#8221; she said wistfully, &#8220;Wastrel?&#8221;</p> <p>But Lihan Hawkhome, the Copper Spider, the Chosen of the Unconquered Sun, Seer of Truths and Knower of Hidden Ways, rose dusty and dishevelled from the prairie dirt, light boiling from his brow and his green-woven anima curdling from the air of Creation behind him. He spoke low words that Bessa did not understand, and she stepped back involuntarily.</p> <p>&#8220;Dear&#8230;God&#8230;&#8221; she managed to say, before the winds gathered around the man and whisked him muttering from her sight.</p> <p>Captain Bessa looked after the retreating cyclone for a moment in consternation, then smiled. &#8220;Another victory for the invincible Paracosmonauts!&#8221;</p> The Branch that Beareth Not, Part VI 2004-03-23T15:38:48+00:00 2010-12-18T15:51:36+00:00 <p><em><a href="">&larr; Part V</a></em></p> <p>&#8220;Marina,&#8221; Anthea sobbed. This whole day had been a phantasmagoria, something she could scarcely follow, let alone believe in &#8212; but here, suddenly, was something, someone, real and familiar. She wept softly, and cupped the ghost&#8217;s cold, watery hands in hers. &#8220;Is this real, then? Are we both here, and lost?&#8221;</p><p>&#8220;Yes, my friend,&#8221; breathed Marina in a whisper. &#8220;When the Mask took Thorns, he built this place, this palace. He needed servants&#8230;&#8221; The pale shadow raised her head, and Anthea saw a trailing noose wrapped around a ragged neck. &#8220;He likes us to wear our scars,&#8221; Marina smiled ruefully.</p> <p>&#8220;Marina! How can you smile? You must&#8230;fight! Or escape!&#8221;</p> <p>Marina laughed like a breeze over wine bottles. &#8220;I cannot, he binds me somehow. And it is not so bad, to fetch and carry, and be a parlormaid in a dead man&#8217;s palace. Others have not been so fortunate. And you, for you there is still time!&#8221;</p><p>&#8220;Is that what he has planned for me? To be your ghostly fellow here?&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;Oh, no!&#8221; said Marina, her milky eyes wide. &#8220;They said you are special, that you are to be like the Dancer,&#8221; she said, looking around uncomfortably at the word, and rising to a normal girl&#8217;s height in the air. &#8220;Come. They will come for you within the hour, but there is still time. Order me to show you the way, and I think my bindings will let me help you for a while. But we must hurry!&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;There must be a way for you to be released,&#8221; said Anthea, but at Marina&#8217;s impatient urging, she sighed and said, &#8220;I order you to show me the way out of the palace.&#8221; The living girl rose and followed the other from the dark room.</p> <p>How lost she would have been without her ghostly guide! The palace corridors, dim and opulent, seemed to spread and blossom in endless, never-changing profusion. Marina opened each door for her, so she did not have to touch the wood, ill-omened ghost ash that it was. At last Marina made her pause, and passed her own head through an ornate door.</p> <p>&#8220;The great hall,&#8221; she explained in a whisper. &#8220;It&#8217;s clear for the moment.&#8221; With an effort, the little ghost materialized and pushed the door open. Outside it, the well-remembered hall stood empty, giving even its silence a hint of echo. With a <em>frisson</em> of renewed fear, Anthea gathered the spreading skirts of her scarlet gown and trotted along the softly glowing marble, the sound of her steps making a flurry of fleeing footfalls cascade around the room. Marina glided alongside, the great doors growing ever closer ahead.</p> <p>Suddenly, Anthea stopped, and the chorus of pattering feet rolled into silence. She stood staring at the one metal door among all the carved wooden doors in the hall. It stood slightly ajar. Marina appeared at her shoulder. &#8220;Anthea!&#8221; she whispered, &#8220;do come!&#8221; But Anthea was walking slowly towards the door. &#8220;Anthea! I cannot take you there! It is forbidden!&#8221; Anthea&#8217;s hand was on the handle, and the door swung silently inwards. &#8220;Anthea! I cannot guide you there!&#8221; Marina whispered desperately.</p> <p>&#8220;I hear singing,&#8221; Anthea murmured, and took a step into the dark.</p> The Branch That Beareth Not, Part V 2004-02-23T18:41:41+00:00 2010-12-18T15:50:01+00:00 <p><em><a href="">&larr;Part IV</a></em></p> <p>At the base of the great stair, one of the dessicated guards held up a hand to halt the Dancer, and they spoke in a tongue strange to Anthea. The Dancer turned and smiled ruefully. &#8220;You shall have to wait to meet the Mask of Winters, Anthea. He is entertaining an embassy from a mortal city, and will be closeted with them for several hours.&#8221; Seeing her charge&#8217;s crestfallen look, she raised a cold finger to gently lift the girl&#8217;s chin. &#8220;Do not be sorrowful. This only means that we shall have time to array you in keeping with your new state, before you see your destined lord.&#8221;</p> <p>Anthea glanced at her blue silk gown, which had seemed very fine indeed when she left&#8230; wherever it was&#8230; and now seemed not only wrinkled, but faded and plain. She nodded and eagerly followed the chiming sylph along the hall. They passed door after door of black ash, and one that broke the symmetry of the hall by echoing the shape of the others in black steel. She passed it without great curiosity, though, and was drawn through one of the ash doors. The halls beyond were vaulted, of pale quartzite, and hung with tapestries of midnight blue in whose darkness shapes could almost be seen. The corridors were very like, one to the other. No furnishings save the tapestries that swayed restlessly without wind, and a series of closed doors at even intervals. They turned from one corridor into another, and passed through a door only to find a hallway exactly like that they had left. At last, they opened a door onto a suite of chambers panelled with black ash and elegantly furnished. The wardrobe and tables appeared to be inset with ivory, and a faint smell of incense sweetened the chilly air.</p> <p>The Dancer picked up a small bell that lay on a console by an ample bowl of fruit, and rang it &#8211; the note had not yet died when the air was full of servants, conjured from the very walls to tend them. They stripped the blue dress from Anthea, and when she shivered in her shift, lit a pale fire with a gesture, and swathed her in a dressing gown. How strange it was to have one&#8217;s servants pass through you like a shiver to grab an ivory brush on a nearby table &#8211; and then to become flesh, or like it, once more to brush the knots from your hair. The fingers of the dead were cold on her scalp, but nimble, and her hair was put up in a grand coiffure in a trice. Other servants touched her arms with oil of myrrh, and others still brought coffers of jewelry, or delicately washed her face. The Dancer stood by, remarked, and smiled, and she and Anthea laughed as girls do.</p> <p>The servants opened the wardrobe, and brought forth robe after robe, each more opulent than the last. Some were masses of black velvet, others layers of white chiffon so thin they looked like cobwebs. Anthea looked at the Dancer imploringly, unable either to make up her mind or to guess what might best please the Mask of Winters.</p> <p>&#8220;In the land of the living,&#8221; the Dancer said, as if remembering, &#8220;did not brides wear red?&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;Oh yes,&#8221; cried Anthea, &#8220;it is our tradition.&#8221; The Dancer nodded to the servants, and they brought out a dress of deepest scarlet silk, high at the throat, with a full, loose skirt. They pulled it up Anthea&#8217;s arms and clasped it down the front, and it fitted perfectly, tailored tight to her shoulders and arms, and spreading at the waist. She fingered it and admired the scrolls of scarlet embroidery disappearing down the skirt. The swooping spirits buttoned soft leather boots to her small feet. The Dancer herself fit earrings of onyx and rings of carved bone onto her friend, and clapped for the servants to bring forward one particular chest, as Anthea reached hungrily for a bunch of grapes in the fruit bowl before her.</p> <p>&#8220;Your dowry,&#8221; she said, and opened the lid with a touch. She lifted out a veil in sheer black, dotted with beads glistening like black eyes. It was marvelously embroidered, and fixed to a beautiful silver comb, which the Dancer worked into Anthea&#8217;s piled black hair. &#8220;Your mother has an artist&#8217;s hands,&#8221; she offered, and stepped back to let Anthea see herself in the great glass.</p> <p>She was beautiful. Her olive skin, in this pale light, was as smooth as ivory, and her eyes glittered with the bewitching velvet of the night sky behind the somber veil. Her lips were as scarlet as the rich dress she wore, and her girlish form seemed for the first time womanly and regal as she stood in the mansion of the dead. She stood and stared at herself, and saw the Bride in Radiant Mourning, eldritch and lovely, a serenade to Death.</p> <p>The grape fell untasted from her fingers, and even as a servant bent to catch at it, she turned away from the mirror and faced the Dancer of the Silent Grotto with terror in her heart.</p> <p>&#8220;Are you all right, my dear?&#8221; said the Deathknight smoothly, and Anthea smiled weakly, searching for words.</p> <p>&#8220;I have travelled long,&#8221; she faltered, &#8220;and I do not remember how long, or whether, I slept on the way. If&#8230; my lord is not at leisure, perhaps I could rest on this couch a while and meet him thus refreshed.&#8221;</p> <p>The golden eyes of the Dancer met Anthea&#8217;s, seeking to pierce the dusky veil. Anthea stared back at her, hoping her horror did not reveal itself as she stared at the inhumanly beautiful face. She saw that a dark trickle of blood had crept from behind the soulsteel diadem, and the Deathknight had not wiped it away. Then the eyes blinked, and the Dancer nodded, &#8220;Of course you may rest, dear Anthea. I will return for you in an hour.&#8221; She swept away with a sighing melody. The host of shades dispersed as eerily as they had come, and the light of the lamps faded behind them.</p> <p>Anthea dropped with a gasping breath to the settee, and ripped the veil from her head with such energy that her hair fell back into loose curls around her. She pulled off the bone rings with revulsion, and showered the jewelry to the cold marble floor. She almost cried, but here, in the palace of the damned, her voice choked within her. She must escape, somehow, or be given to the Deathlord like some sacrificial ewe. A letterknife caught her eye on the writing desk, and she caught it up, trying to push down the stiff satin cuffs of her grand dress. But no! What good could come of taking her life in this place? What freedom could await her soul, if, liberated from her body, it battered against the walls of this citadel? How could she play death false by running to it? Death had never been her path, and she let the knife fall to the floor.</p> <p>The doorknob turned, and Anthea threw herself on the settee, her face to the wall. &#8220;The Dancer of the Silent Grotto bid me bring you this draught,&#8221; a hollow female voice echoed in the room, and Anthea heard a tray settle against a table. There was a breath of sound, almost a whisper, as the spectral ladies&#8217; maids had made when they moved around her. Anthea turned her head a bit, to see if the shade was gone, and saw in the half-light the pale shape of a girl, hesitating by her couch.</p> <p>&#8220;It <em>is</em> you,&#8221; the dead girl whispered, and Anthea did cry this time, as if she had driven the letter-knife into her heart.</p> <p>&#8220;Marina!&#8221;</p> <p><em><a href="">Part VI &rarr;</a></em></p> The Branch that Beareth Not, Part IV 2004-02-15T13:28:01+00:00 2010-12-18T15:46:11+00:00 <p><a href=""><em>&larr; Part<br /> <span class="caps">III</span></em></a></p> <p>The great doors, cast in the shapes of bare, intertwining branches, opened before Anthea and her companion, as behind them, the lesser servants of the Deathlord&#8217;s house glided unbidden to unload the carriage. With the unnatural quiet of their work behind her, Anthea stepped over the threshold of the dark palace.</p> <p>The wide corridor was floored with smooth, cold stone, and the walls rose in striated shades of grey and white. From them, graceful arms extended, holding tapers whose wicks burned a cool blue and did not consume the wax below. As the softly chiming form of the Dancer whispered by with Anthea drifting by her side like a captive blossom, the arms slowly moved to better light their way.</p> <p>&#8220;We have been expecting you,&#8221; the Dancer of the Silent Grotto said to her charge. &#8220;My lord Mask of Winters is most pleased at your coming, and will doubtless wish to speak with you immediately.&#8221;</p> <p>Anthea did not respond at first, as they had passed into a great open chamber, where the light of the tapers was augmented by a soft glow from the marble underfoot, casting dark, angular shadows up to the vaulted ceiling. On either side, the walls were marked with intricately carved doors of dark wood, between which, every now and then, a shade moved with a tray or a chest, in Mask of Winters&#8217; livery. They were marked from the living or even the grosser dead by a certain paleness, as if they were traced with watercolors where the world was painted in oil. At the far end of the hall, a wide, torch-lit stair in vertebral white spiraled upwards, flanked by liveried guards.</p> <p>The Dancer saw Anthea&#8217;s abstraction, and smiled, &#8220;Is it not lovely?&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;It is beautiful!&#8221; Anthea breathed. &#8220;Never have I seen such a place. But I am a poor friend,&#8221; she made a rueful moue, &#8220;for I little attended when you spoke just now.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;No matter,&#8221; the Dancer replied, &#8220;I said that my Lord Mask of Winters has awaited your coming, and will wish to speak with you. You are a most fortunate girl.&#8221;</p><p>&#8220;Forgive my ignorance,&#8221; Anthea faltered, for the beauty and richness of her surroundings had quite cowed her, and her new friend was likewise awesome, &#8220;but who is this lord? I have heard&#8230;&#8221; she frowned for a moment, &#8220;I have heard someone speak of him before, I think, but I cannot recall who he may be, nor guess why he has condescended to honor me so much.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;All this land is his,&#8221; the Dancer waved her pale, beautiful hand, &#8220;by right of conquest. He is a Deathlord, come with fire and war to release this land from its living torment. His citadel, the undead warbeast Juggernaut, you may have seen betimes. Its pale mass rests outside the walls of Thorns. This,&#8221; and again she spread her hand with a graceful gesture, &#8220;is his other home, a place for retreat and meditation, where the emissaries of living lands can, for a moment, forget his might and see instead his majesty.&#8221;</p> <p>Anthea nodded gravely, &#8220;All this I should have seen, dear friend, but it does not explain why such as I should attract his notice.&#8221;</p> <p>The Dancer&#8217;s smile was piquant. &#8220;My dear, were you not told you were bound for a wedding?&#8221; and with that, she swept on to the staircase, and Anthea followed in a dream of excitement, drawn along by their interwoven arms.</p> <p><em><a href="">Part V &rarr;</a></em></p> The Branch that Beareth Not, Part III 2004-02-13T14:07:46+00:00 2010-12-18T15:44:37+00:00 <p><a href=""><em>&larr; Part II</em></a></p> <p>Anthea fell back onto the dusty cushions of the carriage, disbelief and fear fighting for primacy within her rigid form. <em>What can I do?</em> she finally managed to think. <em>Even if I were free of this carriage and safely away from the ghouls that attend it, then I would be alone and lost in the midst of a Shadowland, whose size and bounds I do not know! And more, at night, when they say that even if you should find the edge of a Shadowland, it gives not on Creation but on the Underworld.</em> &#8220;What do they want with me?&#8221; she whispered, almost sure a spectral head would appear through the dark woodwork to answer her.</p> <p>It might have been a minute or an hour that she had spent tracing circles of confusion, terror and abhorrence in her mind, when she heard a sound without.</p> <p>&#8220;We are almost there, mi-la-dy,&#8221; sang the human footman mockingly, and she started from her misery. The carriage was poorly supplied for a battle, as, indeed, was she. She hefted the lantern and prepared to break it over the head of whatever beast might come to carry her out &#8212; for now, indeed, she feared to be wrenched from the haven of the carriage which had seemed a prison only a few minutes before.</p> <p>The horses&#8217; hooves sounded once again on cold stone, and echoed back and forth in some great space that must, she judged, be a courtyard. The carriage turned, slowed, and halted, and she heard a scrabbling of fingers at the latch without. She raised her lantern high.</p> <p>The door opened, and she saw a smoothly flagged courtyard lit by flickering lamps somewhere beyond her view. The grinning footman&#8217;s mocking smile ducked away before she could be tempted to bring the lantern down upon it, and beyond him she saw, smiling and impassive, a young woman.</p> <p>Or was she young? Her face could have been cut from marble and set on a monument for a mourning muse, but its very smoothness seemed of a type with stone &#8212; not new, but unchanging. Her white-gold hair was coiled behind her head, and long tendrils of it held back from her face by a diadem of dark metal that sat low on her forehead. Her lips, curved into a welcoming smile, were as white as her shining teeth. She wore a wide-skirted, bare-shouldered dress that came to her knees, and was made of hundreds of thin leaves of black soulsteel that chimed and keened when she moved. She moved now, stepping forward and raising a hand for Anthea&#8217;s. &#8220;Good night, and welcome, Anthea di Nassos,&#8221; she said in a soft, low voice.</p> <p>&#8220;Stay back,&#8221; Anthea barked at the malefic figure, but the pale woman only smiled the wider, and raised her face to better study the girl.</p> <p>&#8220;I am the Dancer of the Silent Grotto,&#8221; she said softly, and stared up at Anthea. She had terrifying eyes, the alien eyes of a tiger or an ebon shadow, and just as golden. They were shining and cold, dilated on pools of utter blackness, and Anthea wanted to cry out, to run, do anything rather than stay within their gaze. &#8220;Let us be friends,&#8221; the soft voice said clearly.</p> <p>Anthea smiled like the sun breaking through clouds, and, putting her olive-skinned hand in the Dancer&#8217;s white one, stepped down from the carriage, eager to see her new home.</p> <p><em><a href="">Part IV &rarr;</em></a></p> The Branch that Beareth Not, Part II 2004-02-11T12:38:33+00:00 2010-12-18T15:40:40+00:00 <p><em><a href="">&larr; Part I</a></em></p> <p>Anthea ran from her room and down the long spiral stairs, praying there was something, anything, she could do to save the vineyards. Her bare feet pattered along the stone floors and came to a sudden halt in the atrium, where her parents stood, smiling at each other over the household shrine.</p> <p>&#8220;Mama! Papa! You are back just in time! Did you not see as you came in, the fields are burning!&#8221; she grabbed a nearby urn, dumped the dried flower arrangement from it, and plunged it into the pool to fill it. Her parents turned to face her, still brimming with smiles as with a secret joy. &#8220;Are you mad?&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;Of course not, my dear. We are merely happy,&#8221; said her father.</p> <p>&#8220;Happy?&#8221; she cried in disbelief, frozen to the tiles in her confusion. &#8220;Our fields are burning!&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;The fields are nothing,&#8221; her mother said dreamily, &#8220;a beacon we have lit to light our lord&#8217;s way and greet his coming.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;You&#8230;lit?&#8221; she stared at their sooty faces, and murmured, &#8220;You <em>are</em> mad, both of you!&#8221; she rushed for the door, clutching the urn of water and shaking away a sob. She clumsily pushed at the wood and emerged into a maelstrom of smoke and wind.</p> <p>On either side of the long road that wound up to the villa, the flames leapt, reaching across it occasionally as if the infernos were courting, exchanging caresses. The night sky was light with flame, and it was with horror that Anthea saw that her little nightmare could not be the whole. She turned in dread towards Thorns, and saw smoke and flame playing among the houses. Beyond Thorns, like a storm cloud billowing up out of nothing over the gulf, there was a great pale mass moving and shifting like a gargantuan maggot. Around it, in the dim flickering light, a host of smaller figures ranged, a tide of ants flowing around the walls of the city.</p> <p>Anthea stared at the wrack of all she had known, the vines already beyond her feeble help, the city where she had laughed and danced foundering in the maw of destruction. There was a resounding crash back in the house, and she came to herself, dropping the useless urn and running for the atrium. She shut the great doors with a shudder, as if they could keep the horror out, and turned to see her parents standing over the rubble of their household shrine. Her mother was uncorking a venerable old bottle of wine, and her father drawing a knife.</p> <p>&#8220;What are you doing? Papa! Mama! Grandpa made that wine, you said we were saving it! <span class="caps">PAPA</span>!&#8221; she cried, as her father made a long cut in his own forearm and poured his blood on the ruined altar. Her mother poured the rich wine to mix with the blood, and they murmured lowly. Anthea&#8217;s confusion and fear roiled and turned, and gave way to a stronger passion; rage. She seized the bottle from her mother&#8217;s hands and shoved her against the wall. &#8220;Tell me! What are you doing?&#8221;</p> <p>Her mother&#8217;s eyes seemed to focus, her lips stopped mouthing words, and smiled instead. &#8220;A new life has come, my dear, the life beyond life. Our lord Mask of Winters has answered our prayers and come to Thorns. The glorious death has come to walk the lands of the living and spread its beauty over Creation.&#8221;</p> <p>Anthea stepped back, staring at her mother. &#8220;You joined a death cult.&#8221;</p> <p>Her mother nodded eagerly, &#8220;We came back not just to light this pyre of celebration, but to share our joy with you. The Deathlords have come, my dear! The squalid struggles of past life can subside into the quiet serenity of death.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;No,&#8221; Anthea whispered.</p> <p>Her father spoke for the first time, his brows drawn together over his once-sparkling eyes. &#8220;Mind your mother,&#8221; he growled.</p> <p>&#8220;No!&#8221; she shouted, &#8220;what were we made for, if death is better than the life we were given? Why do you turn from what you are,&#8221; she thrust a hand at the ruined altar and its spreading libation, &#8220;and offer your life to the grave, where it does not belong?&#8221;</p> <p>Her mother shook her head sadly, but her father glowered. &#8220;That&#8217;s enough out of you, young lady. Haven&#8217;t we always taken care of you? Don&#8217;t you know that we shall only do what is best for you? We are older and wiser, and you shall follow the course we have set. Come down with us to Thorns, and we will celebrate the coming of our lord.&#8221;</p> <p>Anthea spit at the feet of her father and ran up the stairs. As she slumped against the bureau she had pushed before the door, she felt dizzy with disbelief at her own rebellion. But, she told her pounding heart and swirling head, she was right, and they were wrong. Whatever had led them to this dark path, it was wrong, and she would not blindly follow. She slowly drank off the last of her grandfather&#8217;s wine and set the bottle on the window sill, where it caught and bent the light of the burning fields and the sack of Thorns.</p><hr /> <p>It had been a week since her door had last opened. She ate sparingly of the little grape vines, caught foul, sooty water with her bedside cup, and kneeled, still and prayerful, hoarding her strength. Her parents came and went, pleaded and threatened, and got no reply. <em>For all I said I would not follow their path,</em> she thought wryly, <em>I will go to &#8216;glorious&#8217; death soon enough.</em></p> <p>&#8220;Anthea, my sweet,&#8221; crooned her mother at the door. &#8220;I need to talk to you.&#8221; she waited. &#8220;Anthea, perhaps we were wrong to try to force you to follow our lord. Faith must come from the heart, as ours does.&#8221; Anthea opened her eyes and stared curiously at the door. &#8220;I know, though you hid it, that you were not over-happy with our plans to arrange a marriage for you. But now that we are at even greater odds, perhaps you shall reconsider?&#8221; </p><p>Anthea&#8217;s heart leapt. Though she was willing to die rather than follow her parents&#8217; new twisted whims, some life, somewhere, would be better than starving here. She stood carefully and leaned against the wall near the door. She cleared her throat and opened her dry lips. &#8220;Away from here?&#8221; she asked shakily.</p><p>&#8220;Away from here,&#8221; her mother agreed. &#8220;We received a formal offer just today from a lord whose lands lie to the East. Will you come down and look, at least?&#8221;</p> <p>With difficulty, Anthea pushed the bureau out of the way, and was relieved to find her mother standing patiently, almost sheepishly without. Her mother supported her on her way downstairs, and gave her a good meal as they pored over the exquisitely calligraphed marriage contract. Anthea barely recognized the name, but it sounded familiar. Doubtless she had danced with him. He was only five and twenty, and his lands were extensive, and, it seemed, far away. She signed with a rising feeling of hope, and went back to her room to pack her things, her denuded grape vines in their pots, her best clothes. The bridegroom, her mother told her, was aware of all the upset in the lands around Thorns, and wished for haste. A carriage would arrive that very week.</p> <p>Anthea and her parents held to a wary truce. She kept to her room so that she would not see their rites, or the shambling servants that brought messages up the dusty road from Thorns. It seemed like a month had passed when the promised carriage finally pulled into the courtyard and the horses stood stamping under her window. Her father stood back, giving a few gruff words of approval and even of gratitude, while her mother cried and carried on. Her trunks were put up behind the grand, old-fashioned carriage, and her mother, with another shower of proud sobs, laid a locked chest atop them.</p> <p>&#8220;Your dowry,&#8221; she smiled through her handkerchief. Anthea smiled back politely, anxious to be away from these people who wore the faces, the dress, and even the manners of her parents, but who had prayed for the destruction and death of their city.</p> <p>She mounted into the carriage without a backward glance, seating herself on the green velvet cushions and arranging the cornflower silk of her best dress. The dark-clad footman secured the trunks and inquired, &#8220;Shall I close the shutters, milady? There is a great deal of blowin&#8217; ash on the roads.&#8221; She nodded, and he bowed and shut the door and the wooden shutters, so that she felt she was inside a slotted lantern with the wick unlit, the afternoon sunlight filtering in in strange patterns and lines. She lit the small lantern hanging within, and opened a book.</p><p>When she awoke, it was from a dream of cities, the sound of cobblestones still ringing in her ears. Of course they wouldn&#8217;t have gone through any cities, and she bent her ears to reassure herself that the sound had been imagined. Indeed, the sound of the horses&#8217; hooves was an odd, soft thud, and the carriage rocked along softly, rather than shaking over paving stones. It did rock uncommonly much, though. Occasionally it lurched &#8211; perhaps just such a lurch had awakened her &#8211; and there was no light outside. How long had she slept? </p><p>She fumbled with the latch of the shutter in the door, and stared out into incomprehensible darkness. Pulling the lantern from its ring, she leaned out into the night, and saw, stretching away on all sides, a fetid, grey expanse of foothills marked here and there with sharp, dark crags. The road flowed along the lowest ground, a pallid ooze that looked horribly like formless flesh, soft and spongy under the horses&#8217; feet. On either side, black, spiky shrubs grew from half-buried somethings or someones that writhed in pain as the roots struck deep into their flesh. A weak glow rose from the unwholesome ground, and among the cruel plants and thin, grey stems of grass, small shapes flittered like the pale ghosts on her eyes at waking. The sky was black and starless. As she gaped, a horseman flanking the carriage spurred forward. She saw his lipless smile open as if to speak, and threw herself back into the carriage, slamming the shutter to. She was in a Shadowland, riding into the heart of decay and death.</p> <p><em><a href="">Part <span class="caps">III</span> &rarr;</a></em></p> The Branch that Beareth Not, Part I 2004-02-09T16:46:47+00:00 2010-12-18T15:36:00+00:00 <p>Anthea diNassos was born in a villa west of Thorns, overlooking the sea. Her dark-haired mother was the daughter of a thriving vintner, rich in both jade and beauty; her father, small and sparkling-eyed, the fruit of the thinnest branch of a noble family tree. She was born just as the light of morning came running along the wavetops to see her; her eyes drank in the ocean, and opened deepest blue. She was raised in the airy loggias of her family home, and learned to run playing hide-and-seek in the vineyard of her forefathers. Her fingers were the color of wine from stealing grapes, and her ready smile was likewise tinted burgundy. So she grew, between nobility and merchant class, between the parties in the rich houses of Thorns and her playmates in the harvest fields. She had dozens of friends, but her best friend was Marina, the daughter of her family&#8217;s steward. Together they ran and played, and the old men who were the tyrants of the grapes used to say wisely, seeing the brown toes miring in the rich earth, &#8220;They also have roots in this soil.&#8221;</p> <p> <p>All childhood dwindles into memory, golden or no, and there came a time when her parents realized that Anthea was growing tall and slender, and they began to turn their thoughts, and her time, towards the further health and wealth of the diNassos name. They increased the frequency of their daughter&#8217;s school lessons, arranged for her to go to parties every week, and transferred the family steward to representing the family wine business in Thorns, so that Anthea would not have Marina constantly distracting her from her studies and her new life. Anthea was less than pleased at the idea of marrying, being shackled to some unknown lordling, and leaving behind the fields and waves that had always been her home, not to mention her friends both at the farm and in Thorns. Well she knew, however, that this was the course she must follow. Her parents knew what was best, and were providing for her as their parents had for them. She swallowed her sorrow and fears, and contented herself with praying, every day, at the house shrine. Their patron spirit was Bountiful Lady of the Pearl Wine, and Anthea grew in her own room little vines of the family stock, that a bloom or bunch of grapes might be ready each day for her to lay on the Bountiful Lady&#8217;s terra cotta altar, in prayer for good fortune, for good health, and for love.</p></p> <hr /> <p> <p>It was autumn, and Anthea leaned on her window-sill, drowsing in the lingering warmth just as the dormant vines below her did. Her parents had been staying in Thorns proper with friends for almost a month &#8211; strange, but a blessing all the same, for there were no parties to go to, no rich or well-born gentlemen to dance withal under her mother&#8217;s anxious eye. They had not even written her, sent word to heed her studies, or told the servants she must practice her music lessons. She was free. Her hand under her chin, her hair floating in a last warm breeze like a breath of the setting sun, she fell into a light and blissful sleep.</p><br /> <em><br /> <p>&#8220;Summer Child!&#8221; a voice called her through the fields, and she laughed. She pulled Marina with her, effortlessly seven again in the fluid world of dreaming. The voice was her grandmother&#8217;s, gone many years, and she called out to her as she wove through the vines like an old woman&#8217;s shuttle. &#8220;Summer Child!&#8221; the voice came again. Marina fell behind, and Anthea stopped only to make a face and run on towards her Oma.</p></p> <p>There was an empty place in the vines, a circle of mud that had never been there before, but this did not trouble Anthea as she rushed to the woman seated in the midst of the clearing, like her Oma but younger, with eyes like the sea, teeth like pearls, and skin the smooth brown of clay. &#8220;Summer Child,&#8221; she said with a frown, &#8220;you have always been a good girl. I must leave you now, but do not forget me, or yourself.&#8221;</p><p>Anthea started to cry, and suddenly remembered, this was not her Oma. Her Oma had left her long ago. She raised her head, and she was no longer a little girl, but the slender Anthea who unknowingly broke so many hearts in the scintillating parties of Thorns.</p> <p>&#8220;Who are you?&#8221; she said, and stared at the beautiful, young face of her Oma.</p> <p>&#8220;I&#8230;&#8221; the woman reached out her hand, and it began to dry and wrinkle. She shrank on her throne of vines, becoming as old as Oma, now older, more wrinkled than a dried apple, all in the blink of an eye. Anthea screamed and stepped backwards from her, but the brown hand was on her wrist, gripping tightly even as it wizened and wilted. Anthea screamed and screamed, and the woman&#8217;s brown flesh broke like pottery on the kitchen floor, and her blue eyes fell into the shards and were lost.</p><p></em><p>Anthea woke, her heart pounding, and breathed shuddering deep before opening her eyes. The warm breeze tugged insistently on her hair, warmer than before, and Anthea opened her eyes. Into the dusky sky black smoke was rising, as from one side of their lands to the other, the vineyards kindled a scarlet nightmare of flame.</p></p> <p><em><a href="">Part II &rarr;</a></em></p> The Claws of the Bandersnatch 2004-02-03T12:52:03+00:00 2010-12-18T15:57:04+00:00 <p>Howdy, folks. Time for me to spout more rhyming gibberish. In this case, it&#8217;s rhyming gibberish I came up with Elsewhere, on the boards at <a href="" target="links">RPGnet</a>, in response to someone&#8217;s suggesting an artefact for Exalted (for <a href="" target="links">Golden</a>, in fact) called the Claws of the Bandersnatch. The person who suggested this artefact added that these claws should be a weapon that can A) cut anything &#8212; spirit, ghost, what have you, and B) climb anything, even air. I was feeling bored and puckish, so here you have the classic tale of the Claws of the Bandersnatch. For background info on Exalted, see the beginning of <a href="" target="links">this article</a>. </p> <hr /> <p> <p>In times of old there lived in sloth a Fae of timeless age<br /> A lady? Lord? A thing of power, the deadly Chrysophage!<br /> Its merry bands of bloody fun to saner lands it sent,<br /> For outside its own mad domain it very rarely went.<br /> But lo! The lofty Solars heard of borderlands&#8217; sad plight,<br /> And slew the cruel revellers that drained the woods of light!</p><p></p> <p>In wrath the stunning Chrysophage beheld its vanquished churls.<br /> And on the roiling Wyld itself its rageful magicks hurled!<br /> &#8220;What sanity is this which dares to thrash my threshers here?<br /> What obstacle to bliss has thus engendered puling fear?&#8221;<br /> The Chrysophage, its rage and power frothing to a peak,<br /> Out of the gathered Wyld itself begat a mighty Beast!</p><p></p> <p>&#8220;No tree,&#8221; it said, &#8220;shall stand when my Beastling dear is near!<br /> No tower shall rise or house shall stay or mortal conquer fear!<br /> For neither shall the snivelling &#8216;real&#8217; its chaos form abide,<br /> Nor indeed the touch of steel e&#8217;er rip its glistening hide!&#8221;</p><br /> <p><br /> And so the the Beast from Wyld did rise above, upon, and through,<br /> The shapely trees and peaceful fields from which the swallows flew.<br /> &#8220;Go forth!&#8221; the Chrysophage did rave, &#8220;my lovely teeming thing!<br /> Go forth and be called Jabberwock, of which the blood-bards sing!&#8221;</p><p></p> <p>No border stopped the Jabberwock. No town could near it thrive.<br /> No forest stand, no castle halt, nor Solar Sword divide.<br /> The Solar Warchild, Beaming Boy, his golden blades denied,<br /> threw down his arms and his defeat cried to the open skies.</p> <p></p><p><br /> But hark! Some windsome spirit comes the weeping Exalt near,<br /> And words of hope and eavesdropping drops sweetly in his ear!<br /> &#8220;The Chrysophage, O Dawning One, whose Beast you tussle with?<br /> I heard it caution, &#8216;Suffer not a <span class="caps">BANDERSNATCH</span> to live!&#8217;&#8221;</p><br /> <p><br /> Now hope grew large within the breast of stalwart Beaming Boy!<br /> His golden blades the <span class="caps">BANDERSNATCH</span> had no power to avoid!<br /> He slew the beast and with its claws a cunning Twilight plied.<br /> Behold the <span class="caps">CLAWS</span> OF <span class="caps">BANDERSNATCH</span>! The gleaming, golden-dyed!</p> <p></p><p><br /> Behold the foe of Jabberwock its downfall thus devise!<br /> Behold how back to flattened lands the Solar fairly flies!<br /> There without tree, nor tower, nor ladder, the air itself he climbed.<br /> There fell from great and lofty heights upon the Beastly slime!</p><br /> <p><br /> And writhe as might the Jabberwock, and change as twould its shape<br /> The claws of lowly <span class="caps">BANDERSNATCH</span> it never could escape!<br /> Its slimy spine the claws did split and bare its knotty back<br /> And right against its seamy heart the claws went snicker-snack!</p><br /> <p><br /> That is the tale of <span class="caps">BANDERSNATCH</span> and hero Beaming Boy<br /> The Solar who to ruin brought the Chrysophage&#8217;s toy!<br /> And ever and anon you&#8217;ll hear, no weapon is the match,<br /> Of those same deadly gloves of war, the <span class="caps">CLAWS</span> OF <span class="caps">BANDERSNATCH</span>! </p></p> Lihan Hawkhome, Part V 2004-01-22T19:08:52+00:00 2010-12-18T15:32:55+00:00 <p><em>And <a href="">now</a>, <a href="">the</a> <a href="">stunning</a> <a href="">conclusion</a>!</em></p> <p>Two guards in the courtyard looked at each other in consternation as a pen-knife and an ink-cake rattled to stillness in Lihan&#8217;s dusty wake. &#8220;Was that an Anathema?&#8221; said Cuprek, rather wistfully, and Arn nodded. &#8220;I always thought they&#8217;d be&#8230;bigger.&#8221; &#8220;Scarier,&#8221; Arn agreed, watching the blaze of light dwindle down the road like a will-o-the-wisp. &#8220;<span class="caps">THE</span> <span class="caps">ANATHEMA</span> IS <span class="caps">GETTING</span> <span class="caps">AWAY</span>, <span class="caps">SNAILS</span>!&#8221; shrieked the red-headed brat in her very best regal manner, and the guards, along with those dashing from the manse, rushed to horse.</p> <hr> <p>&#8220;That was my best pen-knife, too,&#8221; Lihan fretted, &#8220;what a terrifying day.&#8221; The horse did not reply, and there was no company but the sound of hoofbeats and the choking dust. However, the hoofbeats were too many, and company he would soon have. The piebald was already tired from its messenger run, and the guards he saw behind him were gaining, for all their heavy armour.</p> <p>&#8220;Er, the Exalted of the Unconquered Sun easily lay low their enemies, right?&#8221; The horse once again disdained to answer, and Lihan studied his long, thin fingers, smudged with ink. &#8220;I think I might be able to lay low a small dog, if he were an enemy. More than that, I fail to see.&#8221; The horse flicked an ear backwards, as if to indicate that perhaps those heavily armed people coming up behind might care a little more than he did. Lihan looked over his shoulder, and found that the guards were close enough that he could see their oiled moustaches glinting in the coruscating light of his anima. &#8220;Fewmets of the Forest Dragon!&#8221; he swore, and, from some instinct born from the coupling of fear and deeply stirring memory, thrust one thin, spidery hand over his shoulder, shutting his eyes in fear and fervent prayer.</p> <p>There was a sound like a plague of locusts scraping their carapaces together as they settled down for a rest in a ruined field. A thousand flinty whispers of sound and menace, and a rushing sensation, an almost feathery breath, caressing his palm. The next sound he heard was screaming, and he opened his eyes wildly to see the guards falling in a tempest of black, glassy shards that had clearly issued from his hand. Their horses slid and fell amid the fallen weapons, and their blood seeped among the bright colours of their enameled breastplates. He blinked. &#8220;Pity about the horses,&#8221; he whispered, &#8220;I think they were nicer than you.&#8221;</p> <hr> Nageru the bookseller dusted his wares and sniffed in self-congratulatory joy at the warm steam of stew-scent spreading from his kitchen. Tonight his house-guest, the illustrious First Age expert, Professor Hawkhome, would give a private lecture to the local chapter of the Seekers of Lore. It was, of course, a Highly Select and Secret organization, no less so because no one had ever seemed interested in ferreting out its existence or finding out what librarians, aging relic hunters, and other such scholars did in their evenings off. The shutters would be closed, the stew spooned out, and a frisson of secrecy would add to the pleasure they all took in their shared knowledge and interest. He hummed slightly, and didn&#8217;t even hear the sound of hoofbeats until Lihan careened into the room, his coats knocking over two piles of manuscripts.<br /> <br /> &#8220;Nageru! I need your assistance at once!&#8221;<br /> <br /> &#8220;Er&#8230;Professor Hawkhome, why are you&#8230;glowing?&#8221; the tubby little man shrunk back among the epic poetry section.<br /> <br /> Lihan frowned, considered quickly, and drew himself up to his full height, pulling his long coats around him like an ermined robe, and calling forth the light of the wise setting sun to play about his head and wreathe his red-brown hair in aureoles of fire. &#8220;Nageru, I have been called to the service of the Unconquered Sun,&#8221; he intoned, &#8220;and to the ranks of the Children of Twilight. But even such as is my newfound power, I will need your aid &#8212;&#8221; he broke off as the man&#8217;s rosy face split in two to allow the eruption of a shout.<br /> <br /> &#8220;Help! Help! Anathema! Unclean! Guards! Earthly Dragons, help me!&#8221;<br /> <br /> Lihan dropped his airs, rolled his eyes, and grabbed the little man, who squeaked miserably. &#8220;Nageru, you nitwit! You know too much of the Golden Age to believe that swill! Weren&#8217;t you singing an ancient song of praise unto the Sun while you were doing the dishes last night?&#8221; he released the man, who stumbled backwards towards the books of epigrams.<br /> <br /> &#8220;Well, yes, it&#8217;s a very old song, and, er, it&#8217;s&#8212;&#8221; he glanced around, &#8220;if someone saw you come here, I&#8217;m dead! Dead! The Dragon-Blooded will tear me to bits and burn me in my own books! You must go!&#8221;<br /> <br /> &#8220;I need one of your carts, Nageru.&#8221;<br /> <br /> He moaned, &#8220;I cannot help you! I must find guardsmen! I can&#8217;t be put in this position!&#8221; He backed into a pile of erotic poetry. &#8220;Anathema!&#8221; he shouted weakly.<br /> <br /> &#8220;Well, at least I didn&#8217;t tell you where I&#8217;m going,&#8221; Lihan shrugged, and knocked the man out with a collection of Northern folk songs. Stepping over the sighing sleeper, he made for the stable, the ports, and the free Scavenger Lands. Lihan Hawkhome, Part IV 2003-09-10T17:07:09+00:00 2010-12-18T15:28:37+00:00 <p><b><em><a href="">The</a> <a href="">Saga</a> <a href="">Continues</a>&#8230;</em></b></p> <p>Lom turned from the campfire where his men were still shaking off the memory of Woodsend, with the help of a small keg of brandy he&#8217;d hidden for just such an occasion. The boy they&#8217;d found sat on the side of his wagon, swinging his feet rhythmically. He hadn&#8217;t spoken much since they&#8217;d given him water and food, and he still looked skittish. Lom was worried he&#8217;d run off in the night at some imagined sign of Fair Folk.</p> <p>&#8220;Well then,&#8221; Lom said, plunking himself down next to the boy on the wagon gate, &#8220;what&#8217;s your name?&#8221; The boy twisted his hands and looked about him, oblivious. Lom tried another tack, &#8220;You know, I&#8217;ve got two boys your age at home. Twins! How they do eat. You&#8217;ll get to meet them, and taste their mother&#8217;s cooking, if we do take you as far as Lookshy&#8230;&#8221; he trailed off. What <em>were</em> they going to do with the boy? Even if he were bright, cheerful and strong, there was no way he could feed another child or inflict another one on his harried Mari.</p> <p>The boy swung his feet, appearing to study his boots. Lom looked towards the fire, where the men had broken out a deck of painted cards and were gambling for the remainder of the brandy. The boy beside him seemed to follow his gaze, and relaxed a little, gazing at the cards in fascination. <em>Of course,</em> Lom thought, <em>there probably weren&#8217;t any cards in that little town, even if they could afford &#8217;em.</em></p> &#8220;Want to try those out, lad?&#8221; The boy&#8217;s eyes focused on Lom&#8217;s face. &#8220;Here, I even have a second deck.&#8221; He dug out a deck he had meant to trade in the border towns. &#8220;There ya go. Want to learn how to play?&#8221; But Lihan, with a quick, curious glance at the Empress, the brightly painted wands and coins, put most of the deck aside, and began to build a house. His light eyes were intent, his movements sure, and his feral manner utterly forgotten. <p>&#8220;P&#8217;raps we can be introduced now,&#8221; Lom offered, &#8220;I&#8217;m Lom Hardroad, of Lookshy.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;Lihan Hawkhome,&#8221; the boy said clearly.</p> <p>&#8220;Well now, Lihan! That&#8217;s a fine name. Eh&#8230;&#8221; he scratched his bald head, &#8220;was yer whole family roosting in Woodsend then?&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;Yes,&#8221; Lihan said, a little less clearly.</p> <p>&#8220;No grandmothers or aunties?&#8221; Lom hoped.</p> <p>&#8220;Not that I ever heard of,&#8221; Lihan carefully bridged two arches with the Fool.</p> <p>Lom sighed. &#8220;You do that real clever-like,&#8221; he said, eying the card chateau.</p> <p>&#8220;It is kind of you to say so,&#8221; Lihan piped.</p> <p>Lom was struck with an idea, &#8220;Can ya read?&#8221;</p> <p>Lihan nodded gravely.</p> <p>&#8220;Well, then,&#8221; Lom muttered to himself, &#8220;I think we can getcha settled and still feel comfortable in our hearts about it.&#8221;</p> <p>Lihan grew more voluble as the journey went on, although Woodsend and his family were not topics that Lom or the other fur-traders brought up. The traders were full of admiration for his card-houses, and he slept warmly every night among the cured furs that smelled like home.</p> <p>One morning they started early, as they were near their destination and all of them were anxious to see their families after such a long and stressful time. Lihan woke to the sound of knocking &#8212; Lom was banging on the wood of the secure wagon where the furs were kept. &#8220;Wake up, lad! Here are sights worth seeing!&#8221;</p> <p>Lihan scrambled up to sit aside Lom on the driver&#8217;s bench just as they came to a halt on the crest of a hill.</p> <p>&#8220;Lookshy!&#8221; Lom proclaimed, and swept his arm across the valley below. Lihan had never seen something so big in his life &#8212; the city covered more land than a bison herd, and beyond that, shimmering vast and steely, was the sea. The city itself had walls, not a crude log barrier, and on a scale none of the towns they had passed through had neared. He saw glints of metal and shining glass among the crowding stone buildings, and gaped in awe at the stretch of the sea, the size of the city, and the accomplishments of man.</p> <p>&#8220;Like it?&#8221; Lom chuckled.</p> <p>&#8220;I&#8217;m not sure &#8216;like&#8217; is the right word &#8212; it&#8217;s&#8230;staggering!&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;Well, if all goes well, it shall be your home, so you&#8217;d best get over your staggerhood!&#8221;</p> <p>Lom left the other traders to unload the furs at a factor&#8217;s, and led Lihan through the streets of Lookshy. Vaguely, Lihan was ashamed of holding Lom&#8217;s hand like a baby, but he realized that the city was too much for him, alone. He caught sight of Dragon-Blooded guardsmen with oddly-worked metal weapons at their hips, and saw men and women dressed in thin, beautiful clothing that made him think of flower petals, as well as some in sensible, brown clothing like his own. Hob-nailed boots trod after sandals, mailed feet, and brightly-colored slippers. Finally, Lom stopped in a quieter district, in front of a stucco compound with a carved wooden door. &#8220;Learn-ing is the task of all man-kind&#8221; he sounded out, as Lom knocked below the chiselled letters.</p> <p>&#8220;Lom Hardroad for the Headmaster,&#8221; Lom said gruffly, with a little bow.</p> <p>The city noises seeped away as they were led deeper into the rambling compound, and Lihan heard, instead, boys chanting repetitively in some strange language, boys shouting as they ran between the buildings, older boys arguing in a stilted, formalized way, and a piping, nervous boy&#8217;s voice doing sums rather badly. Lom and Lihan were led into a cubbyhole panelled in dark wood, and the door stoppered off the sounds behind them. Lihan eyed the window. It was small, but he was smaller. Relieved, he eyed the room&#8217;s possessor.</p> <p>The man was old, that much was certain, but he seemed hale and cheerful, not bent and wistful like the few old folks he had ever met. His eyes were as beryl-bright as a summergreen&#8217;s leaves, and his smile underlined a magnificent white mustache. As he studied Lihan, scuffed boots to rumpled red hair, Lihan became sure that this man knew absolutely everything about him. More than that, this man knew absolutely everything in the wide and vasty world.</p> <p><b><em><a href="">To be continued&#8230;</a></em></b></p>