Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Dogs of War II


Albrecht picked his way through the twilight, but realized that it was increasingly hopeless, which ever direction he road in, he could see columns two abreast of footmen bearing torches, and marching at a double time. They were not long columns, and he did not feel that he was in a country occupied, but certainly as if every direction was being over-run. Which meant he had two choices. One was to abandon the ship and pick his way to someplace where he and his horse could rest, the other was to make for the ship itself and warn them. However, they had already been warned that Death would be back. Was he being marooned? Left behind? He, and he alone, had been sent out. He picked through the possibilities, and understood that this was indeed one of them, though more remote than simply being mistaken about how fast death would come knocking on their door. The speed of the movement of the armies was surprising, and he considered that if he, one of the two veteran ground campaigners, had guessed badly wrong about how close to launching the war was, then so might well have all of the others.

He stared up to the zenith, and wondered where all of this had come from.

Fortunately, it is not difficult to shadow forced marching footmen who are determined to march by torchlight, and who are moving in quick columns. He disapprovingly noted that they didn't have pickets, that their hackbuts were slung and unloaded, that their tinder boxes were aside. In every way the disposition of their order showed that they were laying all on a quick strike. He was soon behind them and to the side, behind the parallel rolling dunes to the road, keeping his pace not much more than theirs. He allowed himself to creep up to hear the banging of marching drums, a smashing of timpani from the side of a horse, the clatter of armor and leather, the bang of boots. This surprised him, given how unprepared they seemed, he had expected a rawer force, one less practiced. Instead, these were as drilled as any squad he had ever seen, arms and legs moving in unison in the latest fashion.

The latest fashion. As from Eowilonwey. Strange.

He closed and heard a heavy chorus of gruff voices half singing and half chanting, it was a tune he was familiar with, it was the marching tune of House Ganymede, one of the equatorial trading houses, that specialized in metals and weapons, and who did not hire mercenaries, but, instead, trained their own troops, and fielded their own army.

Your father was a bastard,
your mother was a whore,
Fighting's all you are good for.

Hi ho, to slay we go,
Your father was a bastard,
your mother was a whore,
that's why you are meant for war.

Your armor is a battered
your sword is made of rust,
it won't last a second thrust!

Hi ho, to slay we go,
Your armor is a encrusted,
your sword is made of rust,
Drink the blood and spit the dust.

Lost your last penny,
and your a brawl,
your dick is limp, and far too small.

High ho to slay we go,
You lost your pennies and a brawl
your dick is limp and far too small
Stand up straight to marching call.

That's all you are good for,
That's why you are meant for war.

Verses continued ad infinitum, with the drummers calling out the words, and the marchers repeating them, before coming around to the known verses every four. Most were of poor quality, all degrading and derogatory, some to the speakers, but some to the enemies. Here he guessed that they were moving against a specific force, because the use of the words “He,” “Him,” and “His,” were distinctly pointed, but the foe was never named.

He longed for a way to speak through the ether, or to send a flare or signal. He knew that summoner's could send daemons, and that sorcery could send a call over miles by way of sound, but neither of these arts were in his arsenal. His heart was sweating and shaking, because even with warning, and preparation, it was highly doubtful that the crew could survive, let alone defeat, the intersecting columns. His lungs were strained from the exertion, and the accretion of sweat left him feeling as if he had grown a carapace, and needed to molt, rather than merely bathe.

His horse was getting weary, and he knew that the best was to groom it, care for it, and make camp, hoping that there was not follow up column in range. This he did, with the racket of the column fading into the distance. He mad a zig zagging pattern along what seemed to have been, if not fields exactly, then at least not entirely a stranger to cultivation, and followed them until he found an abandoned grain hive, a bit larger across than his horse was long, and made a could camp there, chewing on bland biscuit, and drinking the stale water, with its overtone of leather, from his skin. He did a quick scout around, found a well which seemed good, and refilled all of the water skins, and after this it was time to return to the hive and settle in. However, no sooner had he settled his back against the wall inside, then he startled, thinking he felt motion or heard a shift of sand that was off. He listened intently, and for some minutes heard nothing. It seemed safe to relax.

Then there was a snap. Since there had been no trees, and no drift or twigs, this was an extremely bad sign, because he could not even visualize how the sound had been made, let alone who or what made it. He inched his rapier out, and then his main-gauche, and rolled to his feet, both weapons near his body, knees slightly bent, rapier up, main-gauche down. He turned and had his back to the inner wall of the grain hive, it's aged bricks grooved with wind and water. Slowly, very slowly, he slid along the inside out to the doorway, and as soon as he peered around it, he saw a swift motion towards his face. Reflexes carried him to the right, in time to see a long thin steel blade strike through where his head had been. He engaged the blade on forte from quinta, and followed down the length of his attacker's rapier, until he was body to body with his opponent, and he could see a cold impassive stare from a pale hooked nose man, with a scar running along his right cheek. The eyes were focused on him, and the livery was black, with white lace trim along the collar. He could not seen an insignia, but perhaps it was on his belt. Albrecht cursed himself for deciding to go main-gauche down, which was a play for ambush, because now it was not in position to deliver a blow to the belly. As soon as this thought crossed his mind, he realized that his opponent may have a second weapon to the ready, so instead of trying to use the blade, he brought his foot up and did a stamp kick to break the locking.

He felt no hard breast plate or other armor, which was, in its own way, a relief: a straight coup de main would be enough. The shove was more effective than he imagined, as the other swordsman stumbled backwards, perhaps over a loose fallen brick or rock, but maintained his footing and his guard, albeit having to swing an arm out and squat down for balance. He used this moment to swap his main-gauche to fighting position and began trying to take the measure of this enemy. They both crouched low to avoid giving away their respective heights, and arms were curled into t leave maximum extension for a lunge or strike. They began to slowly move around each other, each trying to force the other to be back against the slight rise on the sides of the grain hive, or in front of the doorway, where there was no real retreat. But neither would permit that, and so they reached a point where they both stopped, each just outside of measure, each with the tip directed at the other's face, each unwilling to so much as extend.

Finally Albrecht became annoyed, at the silence and called out.

“I know you can speak, and understand me, there's no reek of death about you.”

“Surrender now, and I will run you through clean.”

“Not much of an inducement to parlay.”

“There's much worse waiting.”

“But who is it waiting for, and who is it waiting on?”

“I serve the new lord Death.” He said this as he opened the fighting with a simple advance strike straight at Albrecht's chest.

“To whom? I imagine he's rather tough and stringy.” With a simple parry and a step back.
“You laugh little man?” Another advance.

“I don't believe that you rose to be a guard captain speaking like that.” Parry, engage, circling rapiers until they were cup to cup, and then pushing away.

“What does wit matter now? It has no point. Will your wit save you?” Another ill timed advance. Truly, his moves were leaden, and entirely out of keeping with the first clever attack. The blood was flowing out of him, but there was more to it.

“No, but my point might.” Knocking aside the clumsy thrust and slashing with the point across the man's face. “That's two. Your move.”

They stood apart, both rapiers down, as if by common agreement to rest.

“There are new forces unleashed on the world.”

“They calleth forth the dogs of war?”

“They are the gods of war.”

“Gods? Not godlings?” He was not precisely clear on the distinction, but he knew it was there, and wondered what a more expert mind might pass as judgment on this.

“Gods, little man, you should have been first to worship when you could.”

“Stale bread, idle threats, flat beer, and surly swordsmen. Are there no end to the pleasures that you will grant? No limit to the blessings?” It had been hard to notice, but even his finery, which could not be that old, because the lace was of a new style, was looking thread bare. The belt was cracked, the hat dropped, the boots did not shine in the meager light.

“Bags full of spiritual coin, for each death comes with payment. There is a price on every head. A better afterlife, for depriving others of their life. A fair trade, for a penny or farthing.”
With this he whipped his rapier back as if idly chopping the air, but which drew attention to a horse that was tied near by. It was hard to tell in the light, but some rounded bags could well have been heads tied by their hair.


“Heads. I will display them on spikes, the metal tip crunching through the top of the skull.”

“A pale rider with a pale rose cometh? But why does he need you?” Albrecht took an advance, a beat, and then a more serious thrust, each time being met with easy parries, but pushing his opponent backwards. It allowed him to get closer to the horse, so that he could verify that, indeed, the enemy was taking heads.

“As he needs any mortal, for which to slay and increase his bounty.” It seemed as if he was giving ground intentionally, knowing that Albrecht was giving distracted glances to the left in the direction of his mount.

“So no need to worship death.”

“Why should the ferryman take the tolls?” On one sidelong glance, the attacker took the moment to try a forceful lunge, but his footing seemed shaky. It took a fast block from quarta to hold it off, and Albrecht spun away with the distraction firmly behind him. One often doesn't get a chance to make the same mistake once.

With this the other beat a step and took, purely for nuisance value, a strike at Albrecht's face. It was an easy beat back, but there was no avenue open for a counter strike. So it happened again, and again, and again. Albrecht decided that this was to create noise, and hope to draw aid. He must have friends, but not close.

“I was just thinking, it seems your clothes are aging fast. Is this another of the gifts of Death? Or perhaps is there another lord I should thank.”

“They are four, and they ride even now to claim this world.”


“The ancient four: War, Plague, Famine, and Death.”

In his mind's eye he visualized briefly four godlings incarnate, mounted on their terrible steeds, charging with a storm rising behind them, and a gale that overturned all before them. Behind that was stretched out a great army, hungry to kill for killing's sake.

“I was just wondering which you should thank specifically for having your riches become rags.”

A pattern began to emerge even his opponents attempts to kiss the button, as swordsmen called harassing attacks to the face or mouth, and that was that there was a slight knee jerk before each one. So he let it go on for three more feinting attacks, and then when the tensing of the body before the jerk happened, he put himself into high guard, engaged the blade, slid down again and the slammed himself with force into the opposing body, using the cross on his hilt to foul with the opponents cup and cross. From there he stabbed over and over again into the side, with punctures feeling a resistance at first, which then broke as the point finally pierced clothes, skin, and ran along bone.

After three jabs, his opponent fell away and to the ground, but Albrecht stepped back, both because it was the more cavalier thing to do, and because in the dark it would be easy to be run through by an unseen blade. He took a solid inline stance, just within measure. Against the black there was a glint of polished steel, leading him to believe he had guessed correctly that the fall had been a ruse to invite a hasty attempt for a coup de grace. With renewed respect for the courage of this one, he studied the stance again, before he could even get a beat off, his adversary was in stance, in line, and point forward. Clearly, he had judged quickly that the attempt to draw Albrecht in was not working.

“You will have to do better than that.”

Albrecht nonchalantly spoke back, “Clearly. But so will you. And only one of us is bleeding.”

Even before the exchange was finished, the man in black launched a barrage of short extension strikes, intent on driving Albrecht back, to gain room, and to press for some opening to equalize the hurts born. However, Albrecht, his guts still floating from previous injuries, was in no mood to allow cheap strikes and desperate advances to yield anything. Every minute was adding to his advantage in the fight. After this press, his opponent drew back and reached across his body, perhaps for a weapon, perhaps for a pistol. Albrecht did a fast fleche bringing his rear foot forward and then extending for lunge onto it. The strike pierced the man's hand, holding the pistol. There was a loud hiss, and then a crack, with a bright trail flowing downwards and to the right. Almost instantly there was a shattering into hot streamers, and a scorching singing feeling. Albrecht shielded his eyes and dived aside.

The bright blue-green spatter of sparks settled down and burned out to embers, but Albrecht had only the vaguest sense of where his opponent was, that is, until the opponents powder bag took to light and burst with an sharp flash. This kicked up black dust and sand, and Albrecht felt some kind of wet spatter across his face. This time, he guessed that there would be no hidden blade waiting, and he lunged forward and down catching the target by the throat. Taking no chances he withdrew the dagger, squatted down, and did a murderous strike through the eye with the main-gauche. He hurriedly ransacked the corpse, saddled the first horse, and was riding again, this time on a line away from his last guess at the column's line of march. He untied the other horse, and sent it running into the distance. He thought of looting it as well, but decided against it, not wishing to be close to whatever was now afoot. Last thing he needed was a strap to snap while he rode. However, thinking again, he decided that there might be some use here, he stripped of his riding clothes and pulled out a spare tunic and gloves. He stripped the fighter, and buried the corpse in a shallow grave some distance from the grain hive, folded the clothes and life them hidden in a corner of it. He also deposited the clothes he had used, and dressed again, at some distance away. He was torn between wanting to bathe, and not wanting to foul the water, but decided to bathe, because it seemed that none were living here any more. He used a bit of chalk to scrawl a skull and crossbones, for poison, on the well and inside of the grain hive.

After this accomplished, it was time to set off, and he did so, with some haste, hoping to put distance between himself and that place. The time he had taken was a risk, but he reasoned that if there had been others nearby, then the flare igniting would have called them, and they would have made themselves known by their sound, even if they had decided to wait at a safe distance.
Over the hours gallop turned to trot, and trot turned to slow plod. Dawn was upon them, this day being at Korana's maximum tilt towards its current sun, and he rapidly surveyed the terrain. Sadly, there was not one landmark he recognized, and even the gyre had shifted enough that he could not tell which way to work back to the ship. He blinked, and realized he should get off the horse, walk with reins in hand, and try and find some inhabitation which was neither camp, nor haunting. After an hour, he thought he could see some kind of blue green of water to his right, so he set his feet in that direction.

Over the next hour he could see the rim of a cliff or escarpment to his right, and a beach that stretched from it to the water. And if he strained his eyes, he thought he could see something on the beach, perhaps a beached ship, or hovel, or dock. He wasn't even sure it was anything, but both he and the horse were beyond caring. He pursued his lips and whistled to press away the gloom that was pushing in on all sides of his soul. He was marooned, caught between Death's own legions, and a mad goddess. He sighed, thought of the princess, and what would be best to do for her, but knew he knew it not.

“To give a fair princess, a penny, a farthing... To search for... What? What is it that I search for now?”

Finally he found something that resembled a cave. He slowly led the increasingly skittish mount by the reins, each step having to half wait for it to finally agree to follow. There was danger within, and danger without. He did not know what lay within, but he knew that without would be more marauding troopers of the invading forces, and they had a deep spiritual devotion to the doctrine of shoot on sight. Ah for the days when mere anarchy was loosed on the world.

He was in the lip of the cave, and there was a stillness. He pondered whether it was a deathly stillness, however. He took another step in. The floor was beige stand. Perhaps the currents of the ocean invaded it? He stooped down and checked it, it was without the cake of salt that sand that has recently touched the sea has. A touch he learned as a boy, playing beneath the windmills, or trudging with some package as an apprentice, or chasing some girl in the reeds. Several times, he felt the crunch of salt encrustation beneath his toes, his shoes, and his boots. This was loose.

He took another step and then another, the horse was completely inside. If it were truly fell, this horse would not have entered it. The other, bearing a rider riddled with death, he did not know. Finally, he pulled out the metal horse stake, pounded it down into the sand and tied the horse to it. He brought out the flint and steel, and chipped until he had a small fire going, and lit one of the torches from the back of the pack. He went back until he found the back of the cave, which was only about five horse lengths in, found no sign of recent inhabitation, and let his mind clear. Perhaps there was no danger here, presently, and the days had just been eating on him. He made all of the usual preparations, unsaddling and grooming the horse thoroughly, feeding it and water it, and then turned to his own. He stripped clean of clothes and used the sea water to destringe the layer of grime and dead skin he had accumulated, and set down the bedding roll, a gift from the unknown gendarme that he now valued above all others, and sprawled himself out. He tried to clear his mind, though it chased sights and sounds of the last few days, from the tower, to the launching of the ship, to the three sided battle. He paused on that, and wondered about Bartine. These troops would have left before Korana went silent.
Before. He breathed in and mused on who knew what when, and then finally he drifted into a nodding state, where he ached to see her, the one and only her, again. But he knew that she would return some short, but polite, statement, which would end any conversation before it started. He recalled when setting off that he had half-accused Niccolo of arranging things this way, to which the Captain and spat back “I know my place in the cosmos, I suggest you learn yours, while you still have one.” There was a pain in his gut, and he finally let it go.

With this he felt his mind drain down from his head, and amidst swirling thoughts of how to survive this situation, and whether he could even trust his companions – or rather whether they trusted him, which came to the same thing in the end – his grasp on consciousness slipped and he tumbled downwards and then felt himself float upwards into a half-sleep.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Dogs of War I

The Dogs of War
A Powderpunk Faerie Tale in Six Parts
Book II of VI
Seven Sons for Seven Sisters
Stirling Newberry


The story so far:

In the Clockwork Cosmos, there are seven suns, and seven spheres. Each sun is ruled by a god, and each sphere by a goddess. The spheres do not orbit as they do in a universe with gravity, but are swept by influences in a weave around the suns. At any time, a sphere is in the influence of a single sun, which determines day and night, but the other suns can be seen. The gods and goddesses can, at appropriate conjunctions, join together in human form, and sometimes this results in the birth of a moon.

The gods and goddess can speak to each other, through the ether, and they spend most of their time flirting and dancing, trying to juggle possibilities, so as to have the chance to spend time with their current favorite.

Then, one day, Korana, the almond eyed goddess of Al-Lat, went silent. On Eowilonwey, another sphere, the great astrologer Jehanjir Al-Akbar, one of the greatest of all time, notices this, and calls for help from one of his closest friends, “The Summoner.” They determine to voyage there, and get word out as to what has happened. They gather a company to go on the adventure: Morwethe d'Arliane, a priestess with healing powers, Albrecht Dure, an artist and swordsman, Higar, a giant with a divine maul, and Princess Chang Si-yeona, of the Kingdom of the Jade throne, and a sorceress of no small ability.

The Summoner binds himself to create a magic ship, and they set off by leaping into space. Once there they are beset both by a fleet from Eowilonwey, and a small pack of dragons. They manage to yoke one of the dragons to the ship, and have him pull them to Korana. But there is an important casualty: the princess is imprisoned in a dragon scale, and can only interact by animating a mechanical doll, and Morwethe's healing is lost, because Albrecht's soul interferes with local godlings and gods. They puzzle over the operations of life on the ship, which seems to be off kilter. Also while in space Morwethe's godling hides with them, telling them that a purge of the lesser godlings is in progress, and that “the flies” have been called out.

When they reach Korana find that the planet is encircled by bands of darkness, filled with monsters, and that the bands are a place where death does not function. They manage to navigate the reefs, and plunge down to the surface of Korana. They gather back at the ship. They find that the Summoner is freed from his imprisonment in the ship, which he did intentionally to escape from Eowilonwey and to reach Korana without being detected. The Summoner makes Si-yeona whole again.

However, before they can do anything, the spirit of Death comes, with many of his followers, and demands balance for a soul. Si-yeona plays cards with him, and defeats him utterly. The flies descend on the spirit and unravel him, and a new Death is called. This one, however, is not a spirit – that is a soul that is destined to be born into a mortal, but a godling, and capable of having worshipers and giving divine favor.

So they are on Korana, and have some idea of what is being done, but not why, nor how to stop it.

Part I

It is a cliché to say that bullets whizz, and often writ from those who have never actually heard them. The truth is that projectiles are like the beasts of the fields, the birds of the air, and the insects of the everywhere: each species has its distinctive cries, and within this each specific one is possessed of a unique idiolect that it owns, and that owns it. Some have a single tone that falls quickly as the shot passes, others give a thrumming like a finger wiped across a window dew laden, only louder and more threatening, others are like the crickets in the field of late summer, coming so thick that it is the chorus and not the individual voice which is the first impression, and only on approach does a single warbling chirp attain personality.

Specifically, thought Albrecht, a rather nasty and rather unpleasant personality.

The walls of this sand laden ruin were crumbled, made as they were, of old brick mixed with small blocks of stone, without mortar. Whoever had made them had either not expected them to endure, or had expected inhabitants to be present to the end of time to keep in constant repair the turns, joins, and buttresses that held up the structure.

He found himself firing his hackbut, waiting while he patiently reloaded, and popping out several times until one or another of his antagonists was foolish enough to leave themselves exposed and in range. This was seldom, so it was generally at a ratio of 10 ducks to one shot that he found himself. Much of the rest of the time he was under a barrage from a hurly burly battalion of Death's troopers. It could not be said that he had lavished attention on their marksmanship or fire discipline.

There had only been a few bowyers, and they had been much more of a concern, however, they were also isolated, and he had worked his way around until he could make a short flanking charge and run them through singly. At close range, an archer is an unarmed man.

Why he was here however, was not great cause for him to celebrate his tactical acumen. It started that morning, the day after Si-yeona had defeated the previous Lord Death at cartes. Niccolo's plan was to attempt to reach the manifestation of Korana, her glowing palace, and parlay with her, to reach some kind of accommodation. Goddess' were not notably reasonable, but as the cosmos hung at the verge of an overt war of the major divinities, it was imaginable that reason might prevail.


Thus the proposal was to take the Gossamer Rainbow, as the princess had christened the new version of the vessel, into the inside of the sphere, which, like all of the seven spheres, and several of the moons, was hollow. In the middle was the palace, which glowed like a sun to those who lived within. Korana's outside was desert, but her inside was a series of lush jungles and rich river plains. The problem is that the opening in the pole led to a vast cataract, a waterfall that cascaded down for miles, and the water then turned to clouds and vapors. It would rain on the lands below, and some would reach the “ocean rind” and re-circulate.

It was not hard to point out that falling on such a cataract might get them in, but in a very inauspicious situation. This led to a plan, namely to dephlogistinate the vessel, making it light, and then suspend vacuum spheres, an idea from a very clever natural philosopher which he had used to build a gondola on his private estate, that hung from these spheres. The spheres would displace ayres, and therefore float away from attraction, rather than fall towards it.

There were, sadly, a few gaps in this plan. Gaps which Albrecht had been dutiful enough to point out: they did not have the components to dephlogistinate the vessel, they did not have the ability to forge such spheres, or blow them, the did not have an apparatus to pump the out of the ayres within, and they would need supplies, since the fell area they were in had little to nothing that was meat to eat. He also suggested that having access to some steeds, horses or better, would be advantageous to their plans.

This all agreed to. And, equally, that Albrecht should scout out along the polar sea, and find sources for these lacks, sore as they were. He had the distinct impression that he was being swept out of the way, and the painful stab was when the Princess concurred with the others that he was the one to do preform this labor. So here he was, a creature of civilization and gregarious companionship, sent to scout. Even Higar remained behind. It felt like a slap with a glove, almost begging for a duel. But then, he knew he could cross steel with anyone of the company without fear.

It was possible that part of their motivation was related to the desire to have Morwethe call back to her deity, and thus obtain his healing powers. This was a comfort he clung to, that his exile was for the best in its own way. But it wasn't his way.

Thus mid-day on the third day he had seen a trail of dust, one that was black as the shards from the rings of the Shadowlands above slowly fell upon all below them, and covered all with a black crystal powder that chewed into everything. The dust that drifted up and away in that manner that Albrecht in several campaigns had come to associate with a small group on horse, with others on foot. There was a greater cloud kicked up by the trodding horses, and then a lower one that rolled along the ground from the foot. Naturally, he assumed that in this now war torn world, they would be hostile, and so he beat his way to a clutter of buildings that were low to the ground, but up on a bit of a rise.

He had been, he had to admit, careless to some degree in how he did this, and when he was two thirds of the way there, the cloud changed to that quickly varying billow that indicated that they had gone to a more rapid trot or near gallop. He ducked down, loaded hackbut in one hand, and main-gauche drawn in the other.

He had not quite reached the shelter of the first stone wall, when arrows began to whip through the air and land scattered in his general vicinity. He nestled down among the stones, and began peaking out to determine his general plan. His first necessity, was to throttle the cursed archers, since they could reasonably hope to be able to kill him on with a single shaft.

Thus he spent over an hour working his way to the left, around their right, and done the deed. It was hardly going to be listed as some gallant act in song. Sneaking up and knifing a man through the ribs seldom rated as heroism. Once this was accomplished, he worked his way back, avoiding both sight and denying himself the pleasure of counter-fire, and settled in in the most defensible part of the old town.

Much of the afternoon had been spent allowing them to expend their supplies in his general direction. He had managed only two hits since then, and out of a force, he estimated of thirty five or forty, this was not a rate that was likely to produce attrition. With the town open to the right and behind, sooner or later even them most dim witted of commanders would realize that he could be surrounded and flushed out.

Until then he was moving between ramparts as much as possible, in order to create the impression that there were more defenders present. Sunset was in two hours, so it was a not an inconceivable result that they would wait for dark themselves before beginning an assault hand to hand.

However as their fire was coming from a wider and wider arc, it was an increasingly forlorn hope. He also noted that several of his enemies were not human, and at least three or four were heavily armored gendarmes, that is heavily armored lancers, or reiters, that is armored horsemen with hand pistols as their main weapon. These would not respond to either a dose of the light ball of his firearm, nor would they be easily vulnerable to his rapier, dirks, or main-gauche. The archers had had only long knives, which were sufficient for delivering a coup de grace, but not a coup de main. That is, the were meant to slaughter the wounded, and not kill the active.

He took some moments to sketch a few times, fire coming from the low hills, the movement of the horse behind cover, a group of pikemen. This he would review later, presuming, of course, there was, in fact, a later.

With an hour to go of daylight, the fire was coming from a full semi-circle. This was a dangerous moment, because from here, the decision to attempt to encircle and over-run was a short one. After examining the situation, he decided that it was time to abandon his first course of action, and find a different one. Sadly, in his moving around during the day, full buildings with roofs, doors, or full places to hide were in short supply. Also, since the underlying stone was beige, his own movements were easily read on the black powder. There was a well, but that would be a death trap. The one place he had not explored was near the center of town, and that was a half topped circular tower, that had probably once been a clock tower or observatory. It was not far in diameter, but there were the remains of steps around the inside, both up, and, he noted, down. What made it more attractive was that it was close enough to two other ruins, that me might be able to skip, hop, and sally from outcropping to outcropping on one of them, and then leap to the tower, thus disguising his location from being tracked.

There were, perhaps, better alternatives, but his time to apprehend one, was dwindling rapidly. Dwindle, dwindle, dwindle went the time, he could feel the spiritual sand falling beneath his feet as much as he could feel the grit of the black sand under his boots. He set some fires here and there, so as to give the attackers several places to search first. His technique was to gather straw and wood, with the dry straw at varying distances from where he laid down the match cord. In this way, they would take to light in an order very different from where they were set.

He then began his criss-crossing ascent of a low building that was within leaping distance of the central tower, there were several easy leaps, but as he reached the third story, the condition of the building had deteriorated significantly. There were no remaining floor boards, and the stone arches that had been used as the main beams for their support were crumbling. He looked below and could see the web of these supports. It occurred to him that this might be a worthwhile trap. He set some powder in some of the more precariously attached key stones, and ran some match cord and then left a small pile where he tied the ends together.

From there, there was one long leap to make, over the relatively narrow roadway that separated this building from the tower. The tower had two more stories upwards, from which he intended to snipe before beating an escape, that is, should it be necessary.
There he waited. This vantage point offered a commanding view of the vicinity, and it was far easier to reconnoiter the opposition. He counted 8 horse, 4 heavy, 4 light. The heavy were in scalloped lobster articulated plate of the grand style, and it was clearly old armor, dented and tarnished. The light had only demi-plates in front, and heavy helmets. 

They were armed with swords and lances. He could count 20 or so pikemen, of varying degrees of equipage, and 15 lightly armored arquebusiers, mostly with short carbine blunderbusses weapons, but a few with longer barreled weapons that had greater range. He had, in fact, noted, that most of the fire had not been effectual, and concluded that the lower booms had come from the short barreled weapons. Now that they were closing, they were considerably more dangerous, and if he were caught in a narrow alley, capable of unleashing a lethal belch of lead which would, if he were lucky, kill him quickly.

He sighed and thought, there was no way that he could fight all of these, converging as they were, on his position.

The last alternative then, was to ambush one of the riders, unhorse him, and make of as quickly as possible. However, this too was a plan best executed no earlier than twilight, and this troop was not being so accommodating as that. They were making rapid progress now, and the spire was their objective. Then the first fire erupted, causing several of the small clusters to halt and adapt their course. If light would not be his ally, then confusion would have to do. He scraped flint and steel together, and lit a match cord that, once sparking soundly, he tossed into the pile of powder he had set.

It instantly flared into action, and he knew that there would be flames everywhere soon enough. It was a pity that he could not wait until they had occupied the building, and then set off the trap around them, but this would have required some more rapid means of escape, say, a horse.

He saw a formation of pikers coming down the entrance from the east, and could even distantly hear the heavy stomp of their boots on the cobbles. The east gate was the one in the best shape. They barely fit three abreast through the winding street, but their marching was clean and efficient. They had black and white velvet berets, with a white rose as a badge, He looked east and saw three horsemen coming in single file from the ruined side. 

The road was also broader, and behind them two footmen of various kinds came. He longed for kegs of powder to light off, but had only had a few horns of it. Most of the rest of the body of foot, and the other 5 horsemen, were gathered on the next hill over, though a few were working their way through as pickets. In the narrow alleys, a cannon would be a great boon, but that was even less of a possibility than more powder. In his searching of the city, he had found little that could be used as supplies. Thus he waited for the powder caches that he had set to go off, and hoped to accomplish a brisk retreat south under the cover of the fires.

He moved his way to the top of the remains of the spiral tower, and found a ledge that was still strong enough to stand upon, and it was beside what had once been a south facing window. On the outside a beam was set in the stones, which, he imagined, had been used for wheeling stones or other sundry objects up, buckets of water or indeed anything else that trudging five stories of stairs would be burdensome. What was important is that it still had an iron ring set in it, like the hitch for a horse on post. He uncoiled his rope tied it to the iron ring. His plan was this: he had set the powder in the building to the other side of this window. Thus, if he climbed down, it was possible that bulks of the forces in the town would be on the other side, to the north. watched the progress of the match cords towards their individual rendezvous with detonation. The first flared, he tensed, but then it fizzed, as either the powder was insufficient, or too much had been covered by the black sand. He worried that all would be this same way.

There was a crack, as the powder he thought had failed to go off, in fact, exploded. It was at the near keystone of an arch which supported the next building over, and that arch promptly crumbled. Moments later, the already shaky walls around it, followed suit. He took out and kissed his arcanum, as the second demolition went off, this time without even a moment's hesitation. The booms and the noise from crumbling attracted attention, he looked one way to see that the pike men were already headed into the building, in time to see the third keystone be blown out of place, and the arch it was holding up shatter and fall to pieces.

He again had to resist the temptation to take a shot, and instead, lowered himself quickly down the rope. His time on the ship had dramatically improved his skill in climbing anything resembling ship's rigging, and he managed a quite credible shimmy down. The air was almost dead, and he swayed but little on the way down, though at one moment he halted, for fear of hitting the side and making noise, but was quickly on his way again. He did not jump off the rope, but went all the way to the bottom, not wanting to either create a sound or stir up the black dust more than needed.

The footmen were on the other side of the spiral tower, and the horse were not yet there. He left the rope in place, forcing those who came after him to decide whether he had climbed up, or down it.

Not long afterwards a heavy gensdarme on a heavy horse clopped up. He surveyed the rope, pulled on it, and motioned for his foot followers to rush into the central tower. He pulled on the rope again and looked up, before surveying around. The moment he looked directly at Albrecht, it was too late, Albrecht had whipped the snaplock into place, and there was a momentary fluttering hiss as the internal flashpan lit. A dull smacking sound of the powder going off, and the gensdarme fell backwards off the horse, with his face smashed in by the force of the ball. Albrecht felt the heavy sting of the kick in his shoulder, but was mounting the horse from the stirrup and pushing the remainder of the knight's body from the saddle. He brushed aside the lance that the fallen warrior had carried in his right hand, and spurred the horse to turn down the south road out of the town.

It was almost too easy when the shooting started from behind him, with the chirping warble of the long barreled muskets shots the first wave to pass over him. He exhaled in relief, those were the ones that had the best chance to catch him. After that random stones and patches of sand jumped at the shot from the carbines and pistols. He looked back to see one heavy horseman chase ing him, but over all there was not much motion. The pale rays of Isir stretching out through the black shadowlands clouds, and the long twilight of the pole was approaching.

He left the ruins of the town in the distance, and rapidly got his bearings from the delicate spindle of the polar gyre, and from what stars he could see.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Silent Sphere XVII


What the observers saw when in the center of crater was a spire of black sand that struck upwards from the ground, rising nearly as high as the walls of the crater, and smoothly curving in a concave arc to a top. On that top was their ship, only not the battered and bedraggled shape that they had last seen, but, instead, shining and pristine.

Gradually the travelers arrived at the base of this spire, and found there a rope ladder of braided hemp, which led upward to the vessel. It waggled in the breeze, swaying from side to side in segments. The climb was not arduous, because the bottom was weighted down with lead plumbs of great mass that had sunk into the sand. Once over the top, they found upper deck spotlessly clean and in order.

All of this was amazing enough, but understandable, after a fashion, given the origin of the craft in the first place. However, as amazing was who was there, dressed in blue silk, embroidered with circular key designs, was the princess, and wearing a scarlet velvet robe, with a black velvet three-cornered soft hat in the muffin style that drooped a quarter of the way over his head, was the Summoner, his face even more pointed than before.

“Greetings!” He was jocular and jovial. He almost seemed as if he were the spirit of the East, ready to bestow gifts from a gnome's bag. His smile was so broad, it barely fit on his face.
Jehanjir looked at him, and then simply embraced him.

“You will have to tell all, old friend, this was almost a treachery.”

“You know Eo and her spies, if I had breathed a word of it, it would have been the collapse of all our hopes.”

“You know that Albrecht guessed.”

“Of course he would, he's very clever, and studied under some who were even more clever still. But cunning alone is not enough. He sleeps below badly wounded. Once everyone has gathered, I will tell all of the story that I know, and some that I guess, and a bit that I fear. Then each must do so in turn, because we are the blind men around an elephant.”

“And you, I think, have what part?”

“That remains to be seen.”

When at last Morwethe and Higar arrived, though her godling was nowhere to be seen, they had all arrived, they were seated in a semi-circle on pillows covered with silk embroidered with fantastic birds out of varied epic poems, mostly of green, though some of red and sea blue backgrounds, with gold and silver threads. The Summoner cleared his throat and pointed to each in turn, who told their tale better or worse depending on talents for oration. He prompted with many questions, and then thought for some time. Then he gathered them again, and spoke in a formal but animated high voice, as if giving a lecture at university.

“It seems auspicious to begin from before the beginning. In our cosmos there are seven sons and seven sisters, seven suns, and seven spheres, plus the moons which are their daughters. For half an eon, they have twined and danced, met and mated, and schemed. No one could upset the order, and even all acting in concert had only specific powers. Since they could not receive worship directly, their power was limited to that which they could draw from their own physical manifestations. Hence little was done, and less was accomplished, though from time to time all seven sisters or all seven suns, could deny their favors on the others, and occasionally some egregious transgression or heinous act on the part of a godling would yield a disproportionate response.”

“However, there is another true God, that is one who can draw power from the fabric of the cosmos itself, he is the gatherer of souls, who taketh them to distant and diverse places on their departure from mortal life. The ferryman is known to all, and is not among the imprisoned. He has a cult, and draws power from its worship. As this is, he is a very god, and mightier than any of the 14. While the others are interested only in their attractions and slights, in their fancies and fantasies, he guides the cosmos forward, because it is the souls who are elevated to choice and sentience who are his cult, and thus his power.”

At this point Higar spoke, “So why does he not rule.” It did not come out sounding like a question.

“It is not his purpose, and while he is stronger than any one, he is not stronger than all in combination.”

“So it was, there were the 14, and the Ferryman to watch over them. Souls passed through the world, and so the shape of it grew. But as the souls grew in stature, so too did the godlings they worshipped, and these godlings, while adrift from the fabric of the cosmos and deaf to the music of the spheres, were more than capable of oft challenging the rule of the 14, at least in places, and at times. This has led to struggles between godlings, and such spirits as they could command, and true gods and goddesses. Each time the rebellions have been put down, though often with some enormous cost to the mortals who were unfortunate enough to be collateral damage. The last of these was not that long ago as such things are reckoned, there was a great pestilence that swept the worlds, and it was part of that war.”

“At first, when Korana went silent it was the belief that this was a rebellion, and the shrouds we see were the architecture of some godlings and spirits in alliance, attempting to seal Korana's physical influence, and cut her off from the other Gods and Goddess' in preparation for attack. So the 13 others decided to isolate the spheres in the orbit of Isir, the sun of winter, regardless of the cost to the mortals on and in the seven spheres”

“This much, I think, was explained before our departure. But there was a problem, and that is that Eo wished to hold both Jehanjir, and most especially myself, in her grasp. It was only partially clear to me why this was when all of this began, but now I think I can tell the tale.”

“As Albrecht surmised, Korana lives, and lives still. There is no rebellion against her in this sphere.
As I was told before leaving, the Ferryman is denied this sphere, but it is not by some aggregate of spirits, but by Korana herself. Jehanjir analyzed the substance of the shadowlands, and found them a great reef of living creatures. Death cannot visit it, as he told you in person. That is how the reef grows: minor spirits incarnate as the crystal diatoms of it, and grow as a reef, trapped there in a life in death. Greater spirits incarnate as the denizens of its dark ecology. But death does not hold there, and so it is a region of torment.”

Albrecht had been in thought, “So if we could stand there, and summon death to it, the whole evil edifice would tumble and topple.”

“And provided you have no concern for the lives of all below it, that would be a simple solution, which we could effect in an instant. Assuming of course, Death turns not on you first. May I go on?”

The swordsman nodded.

“So the shadowlands are of Korana's intent, if not specifically her doing. I do not know all well enough, but I think some devilish process of alchemy is involved, and of such who could effect it, there are few. The shadowlands shroud Korana, and thus she is more and more immune from other influences. But this is only the start of her plan. It is plain she is gathering spirits and godlings to her banner, and uses the growing physical sustenance she has as a cudgel to control them.”

Jehanjir nodded, “Such a fool I was not to see it, of course.”

“So were we all. But she was not alone. Eo too wishes the same trick, if only in more subtle form. Hence her, binding affection may we call it? For you and I.”

“That's one phrase.”

“Eo, seeing the growth of Korana, hurled debris at her, threatening to start a war. She also informed the Ferryman of some of what she knew, though not all of it. And through his auspices, were we all dispatched to this place on this mission. She also has convinced the other 13 to call out the flies, and purge those godlings that will not rally to their banner. Thus Death himself, along with War, Famine, and Pestilence, have been sent hither to wage conflict against Korana and her forces. Their camp, as Morwethe and Higar found, is the white city, whose writing is in the language of the spirits.”

“So that is before the beginning magus, but not the beginning.” The princess was direct and matter of fact in this enunciation of what she saw as obvious truth.

“Yes, it is before the beginning. Of the beginning, it has been told in pieces and lived by all of you.

Now let me supply the ending. Of course the ship was, as two of you guessed, a prison for my essence and body, which would be summoned back to this world by the appropriate means, namely the music of the sphere as it fell from a great height. I was reborn in side of it, and found the dragon scale which imprisoned Princess Si-yeona, and the swordsman, who was near upon death, or more accurately would have been dead if death could have caught us. So I sealed him in a magic circle and prepared for the impact, which was sharp, but no so sharp as to injure me, half in this world as I was.

Once here, the energies released were enough for me to complete the transference from out of the everywhere, and into the here.”

“Once this accomplished, I reconstituted the ship herself, by summoning her true shape.”

“Where was this from?”

“Oh, in the mind of Albrecht, he had as perfect a vision as any. It was not difficult, given how he was raptured in a dream, to call it forth from there.”

“Dreams are a place?” Asked Higar.

“Yes, dreamland is a place, and while it is a constantly shifting archipelago, all dreams are contained within it, and border each other's inlets and estuaries.”

“Oh. So you can summon things from dreams?”

“Some of them. May I go on?”

Higar nodded.

“So it took some searching, but I found the scale. It was no difficult matter to pour the princess out of it, and then provide her with some covering.”

“She was naked?” Higar intervened again.

The princess stiffened only slightly and the Summoner made pretense to ignore the question. Higar grinned broadly.

“After this, we tended a bit to Albrecht's wounds, and the princess cast a soft ward around us. It was then a matter of waiting.”

Niccolo spoke next: “We have a long delayed council of war to hold, and take inventory of our resources, and catalog of our foes. What say you, is our objective now to merely find a way to depart on this vessel, remade as it is, and inform the Ferryman of these affairs? Or is there more that we should spy upon?”

“We have more intelligence to acquire I am afraid.” noted Morwethe, “and I have a task here in any event.”

“Which is?”

“My God is lost here, I cannot sense him, and I know he has not been called to another sphere.”

“Why is that.”

“I am his only human communicant. He has no other worshippers than myself who could call him off a hostile sphere.”

“A pitiful poor godling!” came Higar's cry.

“His enthusiasms have been misplaced,” she volleyed back, “and need to be better directed.”

Niccolo stared around and asked the assembly, gazing each in the eye, “Are there any other personal missions that we need to know of?”

“None here.” Albrecht was direct.

“Not of mine.” Came the princess.

“I have nothing occulted from common view.” Spoke Jehanjir.

“To get out alive.” Spoke Higar.

“We have to decide what is next, then.”

A different voice, a hissing voice, a dark voice, hissed.

“That is easy, so very easy. You must first answer to me.”

They turned and saw him, coalescing from a foul smoke, a tall man in white plates of ornate armor.
They knew his face, and his voice, from before.

“I am Death, and I would have a word with you.”

He pointed at the princess.

“Have your word, Lord Death.” Her voice was neither haughty, nor humble, neither fearful, nor feigning courage. Instead it was if she were passing a condiment at a feast, without care, without worry.

“There is a soul that should be mine, and it is you who put it out of reach.”

“Would you be willing to explain?”

“I am not.”

“And what is it you want?”

“A soul to replace the lost soul.”

Jehanjir looked at Albrecht, and then at the Summoner, he reasoned that there must be some explanation between all of them, but could not quite place all of the pieces together.

“Which soul?”

“The one that was hiding in the mouse.”

“Hiding in the mouse?”

“Yes, which you secreted out to the shadowlands.”

“I can't say I intended to secret anything of yours out.”

“But none-the-less, you did.”

Jehanjir poked the Summoner. The Summoner whispered back. “The ship is a portal, souls can incarnate there, because spontaneous generation is wrapped around it. The vegetive force is stronger there. Like a lens, if you will, or a fulcrum for it.” Jehanjir replied back “Just preter-born, or souls attempting to evade death?” The Summoner though t for a moment, “Both.”

Morwethe remembered seeing the princess toss a mouse overboard into the void. And went over to the two sages, and they explained what they had concluded, she filled in with the story of the mouse. Finally Higar and Albrecht were brought in on the whole secret, but mean while, the Princess continued to talk with Death as if she were discussing bolts of fabric at the marketplace.

“I do not think you have the might to strip my soul from my body.”


“So If I say that I am sorry, and offer that as soon as the shrouds of Korana are broken, that you will have whatever souls you lack, and many more, so that therefore you may join us, would this be acceptable to you?”

“It is not. The breaking of the shrouds is not in any way, nor in any shape, nor in any manner, nor in any form, within my province.”

“I doubt that. So flagrant a violation of your office it is.”

“True, however I have no means to bargain with the powers I serve on that basis. If it is broken, it is by their will, if it remains, it is by their will. I must still perform my office regardless of the resolution of other circumstances.” There was a particular hiss on that last syllable.

The Summoner leaned over to Jehanjir. “I think someone wants us out of the way.” The astrologer whispered back. “Men are more oft killed by the balance than the sword.” The Summoner nodded, it was an old proverb.

“So if I dismiss you, what of it then. You cannot take me before my appointed time.”

“Ah but I could haunt you, and have the odor of death on you, and everything you touch. I could have food rot in your mouth, and all that is near to you come to its most painful demise. Then when your hour does come, I could assure that most vile and agonizing ends are visited upon you in order, until you will beg for my final caress. There are fates worse than death, and they will be waiting for you.”

The princess gave a short, serene, nod, as if she were allowing a musician to play on.

“I propose a game, then. Win, and I go, lose, and you accept that the burden of replacing this soul short is your own burden.”

“I think, nay.”

Jehanjir spoke up. “Would it help to raise the stakes?”

Death turned and glowered at Jehanjir.

“My predecessor warned me that you cheated him.”

“One must always cheat death, but it is also true, that Death cheats all mortals of days, hours, and minutes. I merely was more skilled at that time and place than the soul that held your office at that time. I must ask what became of him?”

“You do not have the words for the torment he endures.”

“I imagine you would be happy to teach me. But still, my offer stands. The throw would be for double the stakes. Win and the old error is erased, and the new one rectified before it could possibly be of great import.”

Death looked back and forth.

“Choose your doom, but it is she,” he pointed at Si-yeona, “who plays.”

She wasted not a moment in saying “I accept.”

It was found in old manuscripts that all princess' of her realm studied, writing from the hand of sages who played with death for some stake or other, not always for life. From a commentary she remembered the advice that one should never play a game of words or wit with death, for he can always find one who is dying to steal the words from. A game of strategy is possible, but dangerous, in that while death is no great strategist, he knows every trick and cunning trap, and is relentless in exploiting any small advantage to his own ends, grinding all opposition to dust. Thus, advised the commentator, unless one is an expert at some particular game, it is best to play a game of chance, even though Death is lucky, and often brings misfortune to the other. Another commentator noted that Death would never be truly fair.

She looked. “Cards. There is a game that gamblers play, called 'Show,' I am sure you know it.”

“In its many forms, we would have to agree to the exact rules first.”

“That would be agreeable to me. I choose the version played on the port of BuYang, in the establishment known as the Monkey Puzzle.”

“And how would you have made such an acquaintance as that?”

“To recruit sailors for our fleet, we are best by wars, and no hovel or hole to humble to do a fair turn for a fair country.” She didn't mention that in playing for terms in the navy, she used her sorcery to confuse and bewilder her opponents.

“I warn you little one, your incantations and vibrations will have no effect on me, and might even rebound to affect you.”

“I need no spell. In fact, I would propose we lay a circle down, and play with in it.”

“I accept. One game, to 7, and nothing more. But not on this vessel.”

“Done, good lord Death.”

One by one the clambered down, and found a place on the black sand. Both Death and the Sorceress drew a circle and placed a bar across it. As they did so, it seemed that men and creatures began to gather from out of the air. Some became solid after swirling of sand, others seem to crawl up out of it. Some had the bodies of men, and the heads of beasts, others were man on top, and serpentine below. They began gurgling a horrible tumult as the cards were produced from Niccolo's robes and the wax seal cut.

Each shuffled, Death with one hand cutting and splicing together, the Princess with two hands, which were nimble but clearly not professional. Niccolo frowned, all good carte players he knew were either very good, or very bad with the shuffle. Albrecht was just behind and to the right, and raised an eyebrow, but decided that it must have first been from alchemy, he did not know that the first decks of cards were printed on TianXin a very long time before. At least, the first packs known among mortals of this cosmos. Higar was intently looking at the faces of the players, but neither betrayed any inner thoughts.

They cut for the deal, the princess scored a 5, but Death a 6, and chose to call first.

The princess tapped the cards together, and three times shuffled them, She then let death cut the deck, which became the trump, a Jack of Swords, on guard with an elaborate battle sword. Death's mob hooted and howled. On huge flightless bird with a large face rolled its tongue out and began the clap.

One. Two. Three.

The princess was a practiced enough player to put her cartes face down and make her call.


Death stared at a Jack, a three, and a four. Good enough to win, but not quite enough to demand to show. The hand scored 3, 6 for the pair against the table, minus 3 for the cards he held. The princess had a clutter of cards, none of any use, though two were of the same suit. This scored 2, 3 for the blaze, minus one.

Death tossed the four, and picked up a 9. This improved his hand to 4. The princess tossed an off card, but picked up another of no more use.

Death had one point waiting.


Again the clamor started.

One. Two. Three.


She took precisely the same amount of time as before.

Both drew. Death picked up a 7 of diamonds, which did nothing for his hand. He stared, and set the cards down.


Whether it was fortune or not, the Princess had drawn the missing third heart, and with a blaze 4,6,7 had a score of 5, which is a relatively strong hand. But Death had stopped, and lead two to null.
She passed the pack to her opponent, who shuffled three times, and let her cut for trump, it was the Queen of Swords, and in the rules of the Monkey Puzzle, “Calamity.” This meant that if a hand could be scored two ways, it was scored for the least, rather than the most points.

The princess stared at three hearts: the queen, the 9 and the 6. This scored 6 as a blaze, but because of calamity, 6 for the queens, minus 3 for the 6 and 9 meant 3. In Death's hand were two 8's of the black suits, and a 6 of clubs. This scored as 2 either way.


“Show.” Death knew he was weak, but also knew that there were not many cards under calamity that could improve his hand. Best to end her calling and take what pain there was. Si-yeona turned her cards up, and the result was as expected. Death lost 2, the Princess gained 2. And now it was 2 to null the other way. But with Death calling. He smiled a cold smile and watched the cut of the cards, it was a 7 of trumps. He drew a breath in, and let the divine forces flow through him. He would have his win.

He looked at the cards, and even onlookers could tell he recoiled at them. He had a pair of sevens, but also an ace of spades and a 6 of hearts. No matter how he scored it, it came out negative. He decided to simply call “Stop.”

“Monkey puzzle rules, stop costs one without play.”


“Debt of one.”

She was relieved, her own hand scored only 2.

Death's cut revealed an 8 of hearts as trump, and he looked at his cards. It was the same unpleasant circumstance: a pair on the table, but a useless ace.

Amidst the row of pounding, the princess called “Win.”

He snarled back “Bow.” He discarded the ace and caught a five of diamonds. Now he scored 2, better.

“Win.” She called at the same moment in the drumming.


She had caught a King of Spades, thus giving her a run worth six, and minus 2 for her two. Four, a relatively strong hand. She had a score of two waiting, this would bring her to 4, closer to victory and five points ahead.

Death decided to go for a blaze, and caught a diamond Ace. This was powerful: 6.


Death simply looked. Was she using some magick, or perhaps other device?

The cut for trump showed a 4 of Swords.

Death looked at his cards, a natural blaze for 7, an ace, a 10, and a 4, all of diamonds. The princesses hand was almost valueless, she waited.


One. Two. Three. Now the gathering men at arms were pounding pikes into the sand, and one minotaur fired off a hackbut into the air, letting a sulfurous air add itself to the mixture of acrid odor and excrement and blood.


Death held, the princess drew, she had a blaze, but of low cards. The new card was a queen, off suit, which only made things worse.


One. Two. Three.

There were trumpet screeches, another shot was fired, and the rattling of armor was heard. Now it seemed that at least a hundred retainers were behind the pale rider.


Death was closing the gap, with a good show on the next hand, he would be even, however, even before she drew her card, he said “Stop.”

Death 2, Si-yeona 3.

Death again called out for divine aid. He knew that 10 of the Gods and Goddess were behind them, and so he visualized having 10s fall like rain.

The new cards that the princess stared at were good, but not too good: with the King of Clubs as trump, she had the queen of clubs and the ten of that suit, for 7, minus two because she held the 6 of spades. 5. Good.


Death's cards held two tens, he knew this had promise, he bowed, and discarded at once again useless ace, believing that his benefactors had to have sent tens.

The card was disaster for the princess: a jack of spades, reducing her hand to 5. But death had no succor, he picked up a small 3, and was still sitting on a weak hand.


A deep silence broke out. Death thought to demand to show, but waited, the ten would pay for all.


The princess was now at five, if she stopped.

The next round of cards made no change for death, but the princess dropped the heavy jack, and found herself back with a hand worth five.


Death bowed almost immediately.

She stood at 6. He would have to make her show on the next pass, because it was for the game.

And so he did. He looked at her cards, and realized the 10 he had been drawing for, was in her hand all along. The final score then, 8 for her, 1 for him. It was a humiliating defeat for the fell spirit.
The princess took up the cards and handed them to Niccolo, never taking her eyes off of Death.

“It is too bad we didn't play for stakes, I would have seven souls of you.”

But death sat dejected, his leg slid forward and he slouched. His followers grew almost as still as if they had been turned to stone, and many began crawling off, there was a hanging expectation in the air, like the doldrum before a storm. Gradually a buzzing noise was heard, it was from all directions.
Flies began swirling around them, and those who were still living, or had flesh to bite, began swatting them away. They grew think like the fetid air of a poisoned swamp, the buzzing grew louder, and then grew more incessant and moving. There were still enough spaces to half way see that everything was running for cover, beast, corpse, or human. Many were jumping in the water. Only the princess sat calmly, not a single fly entering her half of the circle. She saw as the insects formed a mass and swarmed over Death, crawling, biting, taking off again. She thought she could see blood dripping from their legs and wings as they left. The figure grew thinner, and then fell over, like a tent without poles. Finally, after many minutes of watching them flow out of the remains of eye sockets and the spirit's mouth, the poured down into the ground and the took off in all directions.

The air was noiseless, even breath was stilled. The camp brigade simply stared dumbly, not even a skeleton was left, only the hollowed out armor sat there with the skull of the old spirit lolling on the ground as the sole remaining scrap of his manifestation. However, the crackle of power was still in the air, and gradually at first, and then with an increasing pace, bones began to fill in, and then flesh, and then skin, and finally a face. Instead of a thin pale white mane, there was a ruddy full cheeked warrior, his beard filled in, and became thick and black.

The astrologer whispered “A new death.” The Summoner merely smirked.

Then the new holder of the grim office bent down, scooped up the skull and held it aloft. The followers stood up and cheered a broad “Huzzah!” There was a vast din again as the beat and shot and shouted. Death stiffly moved his arm in a gesture for silence.

“My name is Death.” And he cackled, one eye blue, the other black. He bent back with gales of laughter, and then grew starkly composed again. He turned one eye towards the slender small figure of the sorceress. His voice was booming and deep, but with a high-pitched edge as he spoke in softer tones.

“I shall slay thee, mine enemy.”

“The game was fair.”

“Indeed, perfectly fair. And so are you, fair beyond compare. And so shall your meat be sold in the fair, to whoever has coins for it. I will make you my riddled whore, cursed to be rotting and rutting for ages.” He stuck out a long tongue like a serpents and it rolled in the air.

The Summoner drew back, no preter-born spirit was this, but a godling incarnated with the office of death.

“You shall not find me so easy a mark as the last of the spirits of passing. I shall not depart at other's whim.” He turned to his company, and again held the skull aloft. His banner bearer, an eagle beaked creature with metal feather on his torso, and goat's haunches, raised the black flag with the white rose. “We fly! Return to the city, and prepare for battle!” The sound of the voice rolled over the sand, raising a wind before it that caused small dust devils to burst into existence and then fade.

Spiraling down from above was a monster, it was on four legs, like a horse, but its feet were claws, and its body feathered. Its head was like a lion and dragon mixed together with a fur main and lion's snout, but four eyes and scales about them like a wyrm. Its tail had round balls with spikes on it, and they lashed back and forth, striking some of his minions, who lapped up each other's blood.

In a single motion he boarded it the moment it landed, and then he rode it up and led his army in the direction from which Higar and Morwethe had come. The hoard raised black dust behind them, and were soon obscured as they ran and clattered away.

In the aftermath of this exodus, the group stared from one to another. Finally Higar broke it, with a half serious, half-jest:

“Perhaps we should have compromised, and given him the princess, the astrologer, and the mouse.”
Albrecht chuckled. “Yes, those are the sort of compromises that many seem to make in the face of death.”

“I still do not understand why he did not show and cut his losses.”

“Because they wanted him to lose,” Albrecht called back over his shoulder, “so they could replace him.” He looked at the princess and bowed low. “You are a great lady, and it is unimaginable that we should be so fortunate as to be graced with your presence, your highness.”

She smiled slightly, and tilted her head. Realizing that, while the attention might or might not be wanted, she had to do something.

“I could not have done it without you. He was cheating, we could all feel it.”

“Yes my lady, he was calling on the Gods and Goddess, and you were calling on me. And I, now as always, will be there, against which so every foes you set me against.”

“Give me a lock of your hair to remember you by.”

Albrecht took out a small dirk and cut a lock of his hair, without hesitation. This was a more brazen and foolish act than usual, because in the hands of an adept of sorcery, such things give great fuel to a spell.

Niccolo looked up at the restored vessel.

“She's a yar ship, will she take the cataract?”

The Summoner looked quizzically at him.

“Didn't you see what just happened, man? Great spheres! The old cards are thrown up in the air, and we have a world to win.” He jerked his thumb at the ship. “When the Gods are at war, the mortals have no sides. So let's have at it. Korana is the closest one to bleed some sense into.”

End of Book I
To Be Continued in The Dogs of War.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Silent Sphere XVI


“To give a fair maiden, a penny, a farthing...” Albrecht whispered this out has he lashed the two of them to eyelets. They were on the oval center design of the ship, which Albrecht knew had one last trick in it, namely, two doors that would slide up over it, and close. It was their last hope, and little hope at that, that the two rockets that he had bound to the side with sharp blows of a hammer wrapping crude metal straps in place, would be able to slow the enough at the very end, to prevent their deaths.

There were many ways to die, and obviously this one of them. Perhaps the Ferryman had not been doing him a favor by giving him a choice, it might have been better just to gasp out a dying breath after the fight with Bartine's ships, and go out like a hero, then to be a corpse. He had already stuffed as much padding and bedding as he could. He looked over at the princess' mechanical doppelganger, with the scale on her back, and concluded that she was probably going to continue to be trapped within it, suffering whatever torment that actually was, for some time to come. Again, perhaps it would have been better to have been destroyed by the dragon.

He shook his head, so far to have they fallen, so far to fall. He tried to imagine what it was like to be a princess at a small court, pressed between great enemies, and why she would leave that life to go out in the wider world.

His own life had been from genteel ordinary bustle in a tradesman family, he was quick with his hands, as was his father before. His father was an alchemist, and part-time clock maker, but had come into some money by running the mint for the town of Woof van der Gelt, stamping coins and printing notes of credit. This was a more active job than one might think, because there were constant counterfeiters, and these often required more material persuasion. His father had died of a dagger to the belly from one of them in a fight in a darkened alley.

They were not comfortable from then on, but it turned out that his father's miserly ways, which had been hated by everyone, most of all by the woman of the household, his father's second wife. But when it was found that he had left behind an income of 100 guilders for life, and two other houses which were fully rented, she was less angry. But gradually she found it necessary to cut all other expenses, save for her own finery, and Albrecht, being a clever lad, sold himself for apprenticeship, before she had a chance to do so.

But it was almost certainly over now. He chuckled at the contrast between his mind reflecting on the ending of his life, and his fingers nimbly tying leather bands, and pulling straps to continue it.

There was a jolt as he pulled the lever that snapped up the doors, which were of a dull steel, with four quartz portholes, at each of the cardinal points, and four smaller ones at the mediant points. When he had tested them, he noticed the fine scalloping work that was beaten in upon them. The Summoner's workers had beaten this out with ten thousand tiny hammers, creating ridges that ran along the length of it. The Summoner had been most insistent on this aspect. The outside front had been painted with some of the last dust of the dragon glow, which was meant to slow them down early so that they would not decelerate wildly in the ayres, and burn up into fiery dust, and the light of this created a shifting luminescent cast to the fore of the oval capsule. There was just room for him to squat in the middle, and he used what leverage he had to push the padding to the back.

The princess roughly patted him on the head, whether to comfort him or merely make some sign recognizing his efforts, was impossible to determine.

He wedged them both in, and what every fragile fantasies he had harbored at any moment before the task of the present was to survive this. He had never been before a creature of duty, nor had a sense of compelling sacrifice as his lot. Responsibility, honor, integrity, all of these words had meaning and gravity in his mind, but being a cog in a vast machine, spun by coils of orders and commands, were foreign to him. Now, however, the cargo of the Summoner's spell, and the charge which was the lady from the Jade Throne, took on a compelling weight in his mind, and massed themselves like a miasma over his thoughts, his mien grew dark, and he could feel the breath of age on his face for the first time, a cast to his determination, which stilled the plasticity of his visage.

There was a rude bump and the capsule shivered, and he knew that the outside of the vessel was beginning to fall apart, ripped asunder, by the lashing of the gyre, and the flogging of the ayres welling up from the sphere below.

Soon they were tumbling free, with debris rocking loose about them, and skittering out of view behind them. Outside they could see the welling of the gyre, the closing of the shadowlands, and the broad expanses of a black polar desert, bound to an even darker polar ocean, beyond which was the white froth of the cataract that tumbled into the sphere herself. its highlights were illuminated by the glow of the Goddess' physical manifestation, her solar avatar within.

“She lives.” He intoned.

The mechanical princess brightened and looked. He pointed again.

“Korana, she lives.”

It was not blind optimism, he knew the unique shades of each of the seven spheres, he had drunk in all of them, immersed himself in the hallowed rays of each. He knew them the way he knew the personal scent of the back of a woman's neck, or the odor on the hands after riding by gripping a horse's main. He knew the whorish scent of Eo, the floral touch of Ali. He knew that Korana had the musk and weight of incense, and he could feel it now in the bridge of his nostrils, and burning in the hollow of his cheeks and the tips of his earlobes. He almost felt he could see a knowing wink from the cascade of droplets of light as they shimmered and refracted from the quadrant edge of the waterfall.

Thus they gazed at the scene which few mortal humans are given to experience: the slow weaving of the gyre that was pulling them in, and the placid starscape with a planet below. Even with the growing masks of black, there was an ineffable peace within the composition of the scene.
“It is at least a picturesque final voyage.”

She nodded her head as the bucking decreased, and pet his find blonde hair again. They returned to staring out the portal, in a decision that if these were their last hours in flesh, they would allow their senses to encompass all that could flow in to them.

Banding clouds from the gyre reached out for them, hurrying fog shrouded the portholes, and all grew obscure. Then in a single instant it felt as if a wire had taken hold of them and they were like a child's ball attached to a tether or dancing pole. Each orbit was tighter and more rapid than the one before, they could feel the heat warming the shell within. The mechanical princess shook her head. It was clear her estimation was pessimistic.

Albrecht looked at her.

“It isn't time for confessions yet. Watch.” He could not bring himself to stroke this mechanical mary ann, this simulacrum, but he could smile at her eyes. But even this turned into a smirk. “Watch.”
The metal struts that ran as radials to the central orb began to glow, but not with heat. It was a cool blaze as they grew to almost blinding force. Even when Albrecht closed his eyes he could feel the pounding of the light on his eyes, they ached.

The angular acceleration pressed him against the far wall. It crushed his breath and chest, it made blood run to his retinas and red-painted the inside of his darkened vision. A deep bass hum overwhelmed all he could hear, and all sensation was overwhelmed by the vibration. There was a deep grotto music as the ayres cut through the grooved outside of the capsule, the shapes cut into it sounding with the breath of Korana upon them. It was a music of a chorus of a thousand voices, ranging from high at the limits of human hearing, and down to where the ears no longer responded, but instead, a visceral perception encompassed. He felt his insides loosening, and the bleeding begin again, he threw up, a mixture of bile and blood, and he hit the deck coughing out his lungs, his head grew light, his sight grew strained.

He lost consciousness.

The princess had no consciousness to lose, her mechanical body felt the pressures, but this did little but set her axles a tilt, and put their spin off kilter. The body was not even a single spiritual body, but a series of machines, cleverly interlinked, however, still separate. Her soul still resided in the scale, however she could project it using the residual sorcery she had into the doll. At first, she did not think of the doll as herself, but as a carriage, a horse to ride. She could see that others had an equivocal relationship with the figure. Their arguments had droned on, and frankly, that it was difficult to hear through the doll was not as much of a burden.

The fall through the dragon's maw had been terrifying – she stared down it facing what was surely a doom worse than even being killed. There were old manuscripts which reported that even if reincarnated or re-embodied after the experience, the victims had been quite insane, babbling only about the weight and the pain before lapsing into incoherence raving and screaming. There had been a commentary on Jun Xiu-Jan's oracular script that had noted that it seemed that the process of being transformed was, itself, the most harrowing aspect of the experience. Thus as she stared down, she had two parts to the plan, the first was to with her left hand toss a dose of a poison that brought madness and dementia, it was made of a combination of peculiar earths that were found in the high mountains in the West on TianXin. With her right hand, she stabbed her wrist with a venom extracted from spiders, which brought a sleep that was close to death. And so it was, that she only felt the first rings of the monster's gullet enfold around her, a hot, slippery, wet sensation that locked around her in rings, before the venom robbed her of wakefulness.

She did not come to consciousness until much later, as was intended. What she felt was as if she had her face pressed against a pain, and her body cramped, but behind her was a viscous liquid, or foam. She felt as if she were drowning, however, there was no need to breath. As a result, there was an incessant panic, a continual horror, but no actual danger. Over the hours she managed to lock this sensation. It was worse, but not infinitely worse, than the hours spent in tremendous humidity wearing layers and layers of rigid clothes. She would have to sit as endless entreaties were made to the monarch, or his duly appointed representative, her face utterly impassive, except at particular moments, when she was required to smile, or frown, or gesture, or stand, or bow, or engage in other short ritual action. Then at the hours she and all the other ladies in attendance would have to stand, do a twirling dance and then return to place. This was almost a relief as cool breeze that whisked through under the layers of skirts.

So she did now, forcing a sense of breathing in and out, until she felt as if she were breathing the liquid, and it became, if not natural, at least reflexive and automatic. The itch that it produced faded with the hours.

Then she recalled the moment where the pane had been placed against something, and if she pressed her face against that pane as hard as she could, she could see, as if underwater, gears and levers. And if she pressed her hands against it as hard as she could, she could trace her finger along the line of the gear, and make it move. For hours she explored the limits of her sensation. She found how to pull, torque and twist. Then a great revelation, if she pressed her head against what felt like the roof of her world, she could move her vision upwards, until she finally found a pair of mirrors that fit across her vision like eyes, and she could see. From there she learned to reach her hands around the pain, and found that, in consequence, the arms of the mechanical doll could move, and she could use her legs to pump the feet.

It was all very much like manipulating part of a festival dragon puppet, with poles at the hands, and stilts on the feet, and eyes that opened and closed from weights of their own. It was uncomfortable only for some time.

In this way she had been able to walk her window on the physical world about, and act on the physical world. Repeatedly despair overtook her, as it took no astute deduction or brilliant induction to grasp that her comrades outside were falling farther and farther into danger, and had neither the time, nor inclination to reverse her state. But that was not going to stop her from contributing to the common effort assiduously.

Now in this shell, see saw that her companion had collapsed from the pain and noise. Poor thing, she hoped that he had not become too attached to her, but it was likely he had. She considered that if this went on she would have to procure an acceptable substitute. Princesses married as their father's or brothers required, once, or more often many times. It was clear that he had some sort of mixture of erotic enchantment and personal affection for her, which, she acknowledged to herself, she had cultivated because it was useful, but which was no going to be problematic, if and when she were returned to a workable mortal body.

The shell continued to descend, but instead of being wholly sucked into the cyclone, as had been her expectation, she watched as the metal glowed, but left off no heat. It was clear that some kind alchemical reaction was occurring, but it was utterly and completely beyond her knowledge as to its source or intent. However, all that came before this moment was prologue to the Summoner's plan, and all else would be in the shadow of this, its denouement.

The brightness grew, and she could feel that the mirrors and lenses of the dolls eyes were melting under the weight of the light, there was one last flash, where she saw a chromatic spectrum of bursting light, and then abruptly, all she could see was her faced pressed to the pane of the scale again. Obviously, the mechanical body was no longer in existence, but what was there she could not see, except torrents of light.

Then, almost as abruptly all was black, and all that was on the other side of her prison window, was darkness. However, this did not last long, as she saw the ground rapidly fall away from her, she guessed that the scale had fallen on it, and it was an obsidian black sand. Then the scene ran together, everything a blur, with white, brightness, and blackness alternating in an irregular pattern. She grew dizzy and sick, and the return to blackness was almost a relief.

After this, it remained black for some time, and no amount of shifting or angling gave her any better a view of the outside, nor was she able to draw neither a sound, nor any other sense, from it.


For days, he had waited. For days the tides of fortune of the voyagers had ebbed and flowed, their moods had waxed and waned, their strength risen and fallen. There hopes undulated as their moods crested at adulation, and crashed into desperation. Through this he waited.

He watched as dire circumstances washed over them.

He waited, moving his will as little as he could, save here and there when the tiniest motion might provide the telling difference of life and death.

He had escaped Eo's notice, and entered Korana's influence without raising a ripple of suspicion.

Now, it was the throw of the dice, with the ethers of space turning rapidly to the ayres of a breathing world, it was time. He, of course, could not utter a spell, but that was not the design, the spell would be sung with the lungs of a Goddess behind them, as the pursed lips of her own gyre blew over the flute that was the heart of the ship itself. The echos of the old knowledge where there encoded. Round and round, since worlds began.

Round and round the capsule turned, the heat bleeding up and out and into the magick itself, the force of the descent, becoming the force of the spell.

And so when impact occurred, it was like an egg thrown on a feather bed, the air and land gave way and peeled away beneath them rolling away like a small wave. But then the force of the binding broke, and the greater wave exploded outwards, consuming all in its path.

It was a touch of the spinning fury of the orbits of the spheres, the turning vortex of the influence of the suns, the spinning of the planets, the whirring of gears, the pumping of storms, that force that remained just out of reach of even the most cunning device, the most subtle alchemy. The shifting of the seasons under all the suns together, the movement of birth to death. All of these, round and round, where as humans could only cut a line, however cleverly, however ornate the path, from a beginning through a middle to an end. Where as the cosmos moved in the circles of a grand dance. Round and round.

Round and round. Round and round, since worlds began.