To Find the King

The walking hat-rack is back. The new one that is. And he is on the hunt. What is more worrying is that he is hunting one that I had thought dead – the old Seelie King and part-time Huntsman, Llwyd.

I was busy getting the supplies brought back from various places and put back where they belonged in the vaults when I saw Wren by the tree. I took a break from the supply logistics to go say hello and ask after her sister. She had left Hadley in Dorina’s care in the hope that she would talk to her more if she wasn’t there, but as far as she knew, Dorina was taking good care of her and Helene had helped to fix her arm.

That reminded me that I needed to talk to Helene and apologise on Davor’s behalf. I mentioned to Wren that Helene had been giving the poor guy a hard time over the supplies being stored in her cottage. She laughed and agreed it wasn’t Davor’s fault. We started to walk to Helene’s cottage to see if she was there, but ran into Hadley on the way. She said that she had seen Helene at her cottage, cleaning. As I looked up, I saw Helene leaving the cottage and heading down out of the village.

I left Wren to look after Hadley and followed Helene, catching up with her in a small clearing where she was gathering mushrooms. I reminded her about wanting to know when people were going outside the village but softened it because she was an approved forager still. She apologised and said she had been meaning to collect the mushrooms earlier but had been distracted by all the business with Davor dumping stuff in her cottage. She needed to get them by the full moon. I apologised in behalf of Davor and pointed out that he was doing so on my orders and asked if she could cut him a little slack. She said that she would and then mentioned that he was being a little slow in the romancing, and was still bringing her flowers. I told her that he was out of practice, reminding her of how oblivious I had been when we first knew each other. Perhaps she should take the initiative and thank him with a kiss when he next brought flowers. I would have said more, but I saw some figures moving in the undergrowth nearby – cŵn!

I gently moved Helene behind me and stood between her and the cŵn, fearing that their master might be somewhere around. Until Helene had mentioned her picking habits, I had forgotten it was full moon. Sure enough, the antlered figure appeared out of the gloom. It was, so far as I could tell, the new one. He appeared to be mildly amused, saying “What have we here.”

I greeted him politely and respectfully. I had no reason not to. Thus far, in my limited experience, he had behaved properly, and so far as I knew, neither Helene, nor I, were on his hit list. I explained that we were merely gathering herbs, nothing more and, remembering our previous encounter, asked if my queen had been able to give him the answers he sought.

He chuckled, remarking on the politeness when there had been fire before. Valene had no answers, he said, because he had no questions, which left me no wiser as to the business he had wished. What he had here, he said, was game, presumably us, before a hunter.

I was not going to be cowed. This was, after all a fae creature, and there were always rules, and games to be played. Behind me, I could tell that Helene was intensely fascinated, so I told her, in French, to be wary and to let me do the speaking. Politeness was always merited, I told him, as was fire, at times. But there was no game here, I said, surely we did not merit his attention when there were doubtless more worthy quarry.

That earned me a loud laugh from him. Indeed there were more worthy quarry; else he would have had the pack take us. He sought the one who was the shadow of what he had once been, the one who had wounded the stray puppy. Behind me, I heard Helene asking how I could be so calm and then saying she wished to go back to her cottage. I let her leave, trusting the Huntsman’s word that she was not his prey. I asked if he meant Horace and explained about the Accords, saying that I was intending to take Horace into custody for discharging a weapon in faerie and that we had means in place to determine his fate.

That was not what he meant. It was Llwyd that he sought. He had been the cause of the events in which Gwrgi had been wounded. It may have been Horace who fired the weapon, but it had been Llwyd who escalated things. That struck a cold chill in me. I had been getting the feeling for some time that something was amiss, but this was the first real evidence that the old kings were on the prowl. While I would rather Llwyd than Gwythyr, I had no idea how much if Llwyd’s sanity remained. The Huntsman continued, saying that Horace meant as little to him as I did. He advised me, very pointedly, to return to my castle before his generosity ran out; for tonight, he intended to hunt.

I had a number of questions, but I felt it wise to retreat while I could. I said that I had thought Llwyd long gone. As for Horace, he would be dealt with in our way. What issue there was between the Huntsman and Llwyd was not my concern, I said, save it threatened the village. I told him I would leave him to his hunt and would advise my people to stay indoors this night. I bade him goodnight and good hunting and left, making my way quickly to the main village entrance. There I told the guard to quickly spread the word that the Huntsman was on the prowl and that everybody should stay within the village, and preferably indoors for tonight and the next couple of nights.

Dorina was there, by the gate, with Hadley in her arms, trying to get her to sleep, singing a song that appeared to be French for whatever will be will be. We spoke a little about Hadley and what we could do for her – perhaps some herbal drinks to help her sleep. We concluded that there was little we could do about the memories, save be there for her as she processed them.

Dorina had another matter to raise with me. She wanted to make a more positive contribution to the village. She could help with healing and treatment, by making her various remedies and such like. She also said she was not unskilled with weapons and wondered if there was a way she could contribute to the defence of the village. I suggested that perhaps she and Helene could be appointed as official healers and maybe we could set up some space as an infirmary of sorts, rather than having them operate out of their cottages. I also told her about the reserve force and said that I would speak to Kustav about getting her involved.

She had one last matter for me – she needed to speak to Maric about controlling her other half. I had to tell her that he was not going to be available for a few days, but if she came to see me soon, there might be something I could do. I suggested she take Hadley back to the cottage and try to get her some sleep. In the meanwhile, I would get on with making sure the villagers were alert to the dangers of the Huntsman.

Even after making the rounds, and being absolutely sure that everybody was accounted for and understood the situation; I still felt a sense of disquiet. The Huntsman, for all that he is a danger, at least follows the rules. I wish I could say the same about Llwyd. He might be Seelie, but that does not mean he is good, or sane. That worries me more than anything.

To Find the King

Mother’s Arms

As I feared, Hadley was traumatised by the events in the vaults. How could she not be, seeing the one she had come to regard as Auntie demolished before her very eyes? I am relieved, at least, that she has family to help her through it. She has Wren, and apparently, she has Dorina, who seems to have adopted her, albeit informally. Meanwhile I have begun to make inroads in getting Wren to talk to me about what is going on in her head. It’s a small step, but it’s a good step.

I found Wren by the tavern, so we sat down for a chat. I asked her about Hadley and she told me that she had been crying a lot and not eating. I sighed inwardly, but this was to be expected. I explained what had happened and what bits Hadley had witnessed. I told her about the taint, Maric’s efforts to contain it, and Dyisi’s sacrifice. I explained that because Vedis was also tainted, that was why she had been affected by the ritual. I offered my opinion that it was unlikely we had seen the last of either of them.

She agreed with my hope for Vedis’ return. Apparently, Dyisi had spoken to her beforehand and told her that she did not die. Rather, she returned to where she came from, in another strand, so would likely find her way back. She had also apparently spoken with Galyanna, who had told her that things had not gone well. She was alarmed at what Hadley had seen, saying she was too young to experience things like that. She thought that Hadley needed Dorina, because she had started to call her mom, and that’s what moms did, make you feel better.

I had to agree with her on that, saying that my mother always had done so. I tried to assure her that Hadley had not seen the worst bits, or much of the blood. I would need to speak with Galyanna as soon as I could, to see what best we could do for Vedis. In the meanwhile, we should concentrate on helping Hadley as soon as Dorina got here. I interrupted myself with a massive yawn and explained that I had been up all night helping Valene and Gwrgi. While we waited, I asked if she had recovered from her fairy-licking episode.

She assured me that she had, having slept for almost a day afterwards. She now knew, she said, why people who took drugs were so weird. I told her she should chalk it up as a learning experience and explained what had happened with Gwrgi, before suggesting we go inside for something to eat.

Inside the tavern, we ordered a simple supper of bread and cheese, since I wasn’t really sure I fancied anything meat-like at the moment. I asked Wren if she had any questions, about the Shadow Roads, vampires, magic, the meaning of life etc. I was joking about the last, but, of course, that was the one she latched onto before asking a more pertinent question, was Maric a vampire?

I said I had been joking about the meaning of life. If I knew that, I told her, I would either be extremely rich, or in an insane asylum. She said that she was glad I wasn’t in the latter, as she had heard they were not nice places. I wondered if she had read anything of how such places were in my time, which I assumed were much worse than they were in her time. I could not lie to her about Maric. She had correctly deduced the answer, from other things I had said about blood magic and such like. I said that she was right, but that she should keep that information to herself. Those who needed to know were already aware, and that was the way he wished things to be. She promised that she would keep it to herself.

She told me that she had done some scrying and now knew that Ember was alive. She did not yet know where she was, but at least she was alive. I thought this was a good thing and said that we would have to then work out what, if anything, we should do about this and if Ember wished to join us, then, we would see what we could do about that too.

She told me also of her dream, which was much the same as the one I had experienced, of the white hand and the black hand on Ardan. She was worried by it, but did not know what it meant. I told her that I had also dreamed the same dream. I told her what I had surmised, that the black was something to do with either Alec and Isabella, or something to do with the old kings, possibly the Unseelie king, but I wasn’t sure. She wanted to know why she was having this dream, since she was not fae.

I offered several explanations. It could be simply because she was here, on the borders of faerie, and faerie having influence, even here. It could be because she was fae-affected because of Isabella, or it could just be because of her magic. The latter, I took as a chance to gently remind her of the lessons we still needed to have, jokingly suggesting that maybe we could trade maths lessons for magic lessons.

She pulled a face at that idea, probably finding either choice unappetizing. She said she did not want to be fae; she’d rather be demon, except she didn’t want to be that either.

I sensed some deeper concerns, about her nature, about her magic. I told her that it did not matter to me if she was human, demon, fae or whatever, she was still herself, and it was her I cared about, as much as if she were my own child. I knew it was no fun being her age, I said, because I remembered being her age too, and I hadn’t had to deal with things like magic and all the other weird shit that she had had to deal with. Whatever was going on in her head, whatever was bugging her, whatever weird shit she was dealing with, it didn’t matter, I cared for her, no exceptions, and no conditions. I asked her to trust me and to talk to me.

She looked at me for a moment, clearly struggling. “I don’t know what to say,” she said. She gave a whole litany of how growing up sucked, with the body changing, whether or not she wanted it to; about the strange moods and feelings and not knowing why you were feeling them; about feeling suddenly mad or tired and not knowing why. There were so many stupid thoughts and feelings and most of the time she didn’t really know what they were. She didn’t know why she felt these things, and why she thought weird things. Why couldn’t she be normal? I felt for her, remembering how I had felt at her age, as my body changed, and realising it would be so much worse for a girl, even more for one who so wanted to be a boy. She paused a moment, and started to explain about the magic. It was life magic, she said, or so she had been told. She could talk to animals and trees, she could make things live… and then there was the other side, the opposite side of life. She wound down a bit then, possibly because Dorina and Helene came in. I thanked her for confiding in me and trusting me, giving her a hug. I understood better now, I told her, adding that we would talk later.

Dorina was looking for Hadley, which was good because she was exactly what Hadley needed. I explained briefly what had happened, about how Hadley was unfortunate enough to have witnessed the disincorporation of Vedis and that she had not been sleeping well or eating well. She was not best pleased with this, but went straight to her, taking Helene along to deal with the injured arm.

I gave Wren another hug and reminded her that I was there for her, no matter what. She thanked me quietly and gave me a grateful smile. I sent her off to look after her sister, something I knew she could do and would be good for her. Poor kid, all mixed up and that without all the supernatural crap. I’ll do what I can, but I think she needs a woman’s touch too. But who? Aoibheann’s childhood wasn’t exactly a good example and besides, she thinks she is middle-aged in her early 20s. Helene? Maybe, but she was very innocent when I first knew her, so I don’t know what her life was like at that age? Maybe Gwn – in a way, she’s been through it twice. I will have to see if she can spare her any time.

Mother’s Arms

The Hound

The cŵn is gone, but Gwrgi lives. Whatever fight it was that Horace had with Gwrgi resulted in the latter being shot, with lead and with iron. And in the process of healing him, he has been restored to his original, so far as I know, form.

After the trauma of the cleansing of the corruption, and the efforts involved with cleaning up afterwards, I was half-asleep in my chambers, when I felt a surge of pain and anger and loss from Valene. I jerked me awake and upright, calling out her name in response. As I called to her, I saw images, as if through her eyes, of the large cŵn sprawled out on the ground, in a cave, clearly injured, and I could see Valene’s hands burning as she pulled iron balls from his flesh.

I called out for Royce, but there was no sign of him. In desperation, I reached out with my hand, slashing at the air as I had seen him do with his paws, when he opened the way to the Roads. To my immense surprise, it actually worked, as if I had always known the means to open the way to the Roads, but had never realised it. I stepped through and ran from there to Valene’s throne room, her cave, her sanctuary, but there was no sign of her there. I ran back to the signpost at the centre of the Roads, scanning it for any sign, for any clue. I called out her name again, desperate to get to her as once more her pain and loss echoed through me. The sign-post hummed and rippled, the names on the posts moving too fast for me to comprehend, and it seemed like it was whispering all the names as they rippled past. I could not follow them, nor hear them and almost despaired. I stopped, and decided to stop trying to understand. This was not a time for logical thought; I had to trust to instinct. I focussed my mind on Valene and reached out again, tearing a hole that I had to trust would take me to her.

The tear opened up in a great cave, filled with crystalline light and a well of clear water. I had seen this place before, in my dreams of Faermorn, but before I could get a sense of where I was, I was overwhelmed with the power of the Wyld. It knocked me to my knees as it rushed over me and through me. This was so much more than I had experienced before. It was raw, primal, a bright power that dazzled and burned. For a few moments, I felt myself drowning in it until I stopped resisting, let it flow over me, around me, through me, and felt myself bob to the surface, like a swimmer temporarily swamped by a wave. I felt my fae side bursting out, my ears lengthening, and something else happening to my head.

As I regained the use of my senses, I saw Valene crouched over the body of the cŵn, throwing power at him to help heal his wounds, while around him there were iron balls, and silver, that had perhaps once been bullets. The rage and frustration flooded through her, blinding her, and I knew not if she was even aware of my presence. Nevertheless, I ran to her, holding her from behind, pouring my love and protection into her. Her blood and her tears were falling on the bedraggled skin of Gwrgi, merging with swirls and patterns that were appearing on the skin. His flesh writhed and twisted, pushing out the contamination. I could feel the magic rushing through her as she pushed it at him, healing, changing, restoring. Even as I held her, I could feel her body changing, her shape and appearance shifting, flickering too fast for me to see until, with a final scream, she pushed more magic into Gwrgi and collapsed in my arms. I held her tight, not knowing what else I could do, gazing down at a familiar shape, a familiar pale, spotted skin – the shape I had known and loved so many years ago in London.

The magic surged through Gwrgi’s body, and he writhed on the ground, contorting and shifting, limbs lengthening here, shrinking there, the hair receding into the skin until, there before me, lay a humanoid form, pale-haired, elven in shape. I stared, even as I held Valene tight in my arms. Could this be the original form that Gwrgi had been before he had been taken by the Huntsman? She had once told me that he was an elf beforehand.

She shuddered against me, coming to, eyes focussing on the form before her. She darted forward, rolling him over and wrapping herself around him. I went with her, knowing only I needed to be with her. She turned and looked at me with eyes I knew so well, seemingly aware of my presence for the first time. She seemed confused, perhaps by my presence, or perhaps by the restoration of her friend or possibly both. Gwrgi rolled over, briefly opening his eyes and recognising Valene before lapsing into unconsciousness.

It was then that we noticed Cait were lining up around us, forming a protective cordon. I looked up and there, at the edge of the lake, was the Huntsman, staring at us, with three of his cŵn behind him. Valene whispered at me to help get Gwrgi upright between us. I had to take most of the weight since she is so small compared to him, and me. We stood and faced the Huntsman. Valene addressed him saying that she had come to recover what was hers. Her kind had offered no harm or hindrance to him. She named Gwrgi Swiftfoot and she named me, saying we were hers and she would not give us to him.

The Huntsman shook his head and said he had no claim on either of us and did not want us. We were not of his pack, had no debts, and were not foresworn. There was, however, an issue that needed to be resolved, something to do with what had happened the previous night. I did not know what that might be about unless it was something to do with the events that had caused Gwrgi to be injured. Whatever it was, he seemed angry about it. I stood beside Valene and said that he knew who I was, so any issues he had, he could speak of with me too.

Valene shook her head. She asked me to take Gwrgi back to her den and take care of him for her. She would speak with the Huntsman. She assured me that she would not be in danger, and the Huntsman’s word was good. Curiously, that much I trusted. I gathered Gwrgi into my arms and asked if she could spare some of the Cait to assist me. With that, I parted the ways and stepped through to her den, leaving her to deal with the Huntsman’s issues.

I made up a bed for Gwrgi as best I could, and asked the Cait to fetch me some cloths and water. While that was being dealt with, I parted the ways again and went briefly to my own chambers, where I found some older clothes of mine that might fit Gwrgi in his elven shape. Once I got back, I cleaned him up as best I could while he was unconscious and made him comfortable. He could come and have a bath back at the castle once he was awake again. That done, I made myself comfortable on the throne and dozed until Valene returned. She did not speak of what passed with her and the Huntsman, instead, she curled up against Gwrgi and insisted I join her, so I curled up against her on the other side until we all drifted off into uneasy sleep.

I had all but forgotten the strange sensation on my head when I first arrived in the cave, but when I saw my reflection in the bowl of water, I realised I had grown a pair of very fine horns, curved like a ram’s. I can only assume that was a result of the additional Wyld energy down there. It took me until part-way through the following day before I could get them to go away again, which led to a certain amount of embarrassment at my morning meeting with the staff. I dare not even speculate what aspect of my nature that represents.

The Hound

 

Cleanup on Aisle 3

Nathaniel yawns and stretches with a sigh. Sleep clearly was unlikely to happen, so he swung his legs out of the bed and got up. He looks at his watch and grimaces. “Five in the morning. Is that getting up early or staying up late? Ah well, I might as well get up and do things.”

He goes to the wardrobe and scans the available clothing. An idea occurs, and he grabs some older, working clothes, stuff that didn’t matter if it got dirty. A few minutes later, he was fully dressed and heading out of the castle door with some bedding tucked under his arm and a mop and bucket in hand.

Down in the vaults, he puts his burdens down and surveys the lab. He shifts a few bits of furniture around and sweeps up one relatively clean area. Once that is ready, he makes up a makeshift bed and, ever so gently, slides the sleeping form of Maric over and makes him as comfortable as can be expected under the circumstances. Going to the shelves, he selects one of the containers that he knows are good for keeping vitae fresh. He puts it down for a moment and removes the stopper before biting at his own wrist and holding it over the open container. He allows the vitae to flow out until the container is full, then seals his own wound and replaces the stopper. He places it on the floor near Maric’s head and writes “thought you might need this” with a grease pencil.

Having settled Maric, he pulls up a stool and sits down, closing his eyes. He takes a few deep breaths and then slowly opens himself to the castle senses. Without being aware of it, that sense merges with his wyld senses. He feels the tiny rustles and rushes of the life that lives within the fabric, birds, rodents, insects, the slower pulse of the vines and roses. He senses the warm pulse of the castle residents, mostly sleeping, save for the livelier sense of the guards on duty and such of the servants who are already up and about their business. Maric was a solid presence, dark, cold, but in a way, burning where he touched the castle floor, a part of it, yet separate. For some reason, Nathaniel was put in mind of his youth, lying in bed with the family cat curled up on his chest, and of times, spent with Alexandra, lying together on lazy mornings, two beings, separate, yet connected. He can sense Maric’s presence, but not his consciousness, which tallies with the lack of presence through the mental link.

Carefully now, he opens his senses to those parts of the castle that had been affected by the taint, breathing a little more easily as he touches the affected areas without feeling the pain and nausea he felt before. There are remnants of that pain that he can only liken to the dull ache of a fading bruise, the strange void of an extracted tooth, the phantom itch of a healing wound. There are scars, yes, but the taint itself is gone. He notes a few places that might need a little structural attention, but nothing immediately threatening.

The area of floor in the middle of the lab presents a curious ache, not of the castle, but of a life snuffed out, echoes of the rush of blood and life spilled on the stones, driving the taint before it. That patch of floor seems strangely empty, a little numb perhaps. The blood now dried to a dark stickiness and ochre dust, devoid of power and life, as if it had all been expended in fighting the taint. The walls and stones around carry a faint after-image of the moment of sacrifice, a blinding flash of power, and an ending of life, but the floor itself seems devoid of even the normal slow, stone-life he senses elsewhere.

The mirror itself, still standing in the corner, seems an ominous presence, a void that sucks at the senses and refuses to give up its secrets. He drags his senses away, no more willing to probe it again than he would to poke an injured tiger. This was something best left well alone. Breathing slowly, he allows the castle sense to fade into the background, still there, like the sound of the wind in a forest, but secondary, for now, to his more conventional senses.

He stands up, stretching and yawning, looking around. “Ah well,” he mutters to himself, “The lads will be pleased that they can start bringing everything back again.” He looks at the dark stain on the floor and crouches, rubbing a finger in the stickiness and sniffing at it. There is no life there, no power, nothing that attracts his vampiric senses. He stands up and looks over at the mop and bucket. “Ah well, I can’t ask anybody else to do this,” he says. He grabs the mop, and after a silent apology to Dyisi and Vedis, begins to clean.

Cleanup on Aisle 3

Sacrifice

I do not consider myself a selfish man. I would like to think that those that know me would not consider me selfish either. Tonight, however, I want to be selfish. I want to lock my chamber doors and indulge myself in a bottle of rum or two. I would seek the company of my loves, Gwyn and Val, but that seems not to be an option tonight. Neither, frankly, is the rum, tempting though it might be. Such are the burdens of my position. The immediate danger might be past, but I cannot yet lay down my responsibilities. I know this, I’ve always known this, but sometimes, it would be nice if I could.

The ritual is done. The taint, the corruption cast by the Morning Star is gone, leaving only faint echoes, like the last vestiges of a bruise. There may be some residual damage, but the corruption is gone. That much gladdens my heart, that I have done my duty to the people of Mysthaven, yet, my gladness is overshadowed by sadness. Vedis, whichever version of her it was that walked these lands, is also gone. I should, perhaps, have realised that was a possibility in advance, but I did not think to explore the ramifications of cleansing the taint fully. She was also corrupted, she was also tainted. The corruption that affected the castle came from the same source as the curse that was placed on her. So, when the taint was cleansed… And now, she is gone. To where, I do not know. I want to believe that she has just gone somewhere else, and will yet live, but I do not know for certain. From those years I have known Vedis, nothing is certain until it is. Sadly, what is certain is that Hadley was there to witness this end, and I do not know what I can do to help her overcome that.

Dyisi is also gone. She cast away her life as part of the sacrifice required for the ritual. I know this from what she said, and from the echoes I can read from the castle, echoes that tell of a body immolated, of blood spilled and of life-force cast out to drive away the taint. She told me beforehand that a sacrifice was required and that she did so gladly. I have to believe that in her case, this is not a permanent sacrifice. I have to believe that, or else, I have to face that I have yet again lost a friend. I had not known her as long as Vedis, but I had come to trust her, to enjoy her company, and to value her wisdom and counsel. She often spoke of other threads, other strands, as though there were other stories being told, other realities in which she also lived. Perhaps she still does, and is gone only from this strand, and who knows, maybe she will some day find her way back to this one.

Outside of the town, I do not know what is passing in Faerie. I know that Horace went out there, to speak with Ardan. I know that he got into an argument with Gwrgi, but I do not know what that was about – perhaps it was to do with the music, or perhaps something else. I only know that he went chasing after the cŵn in a rage, and after that, I heard nothing, as I needed all my forces here in the town, and as yet, I have not had the chance to investigate. I do not know when I will have that chance.

The evening started with a visitation, from Galyanna’s apprentice, Kitori, no less. She apparently came from somewhere outside the village and presented herself at the border, whereupon the guards brought her to the castle to see me.

Unlike Galyanna, this one went without a mask, at least for this meeting, but like Galyanna, she was pleasing to the eye, albeit in a somewhat pale fashion. I did not pay this much heed, as my experience of demons has been that they mostly present a pleasing appearance, at least for their human aspect. I greeted her by name and invited her to sit. She looked at me as she took the seat, commenting that while I knew her name, she had not the pleasure of mine. She also remarked that perhaps the lord was busy with Lucifer’s fun gift.

I smiled and told her my name, that I was steward to Lord Maric and in charge while he was busy. It was my job to know things, I said, and recited what little I did know of her – that she was Galyanna’s apprentice, that she had been playing the role of Asmodeus’ Talon and fooling us all. To lighten the mood a touch, I added that I had heard that she had been impertinent to the Morning Star, for which I expressed my admiration, and that she was therefore likely not welcome downstairs.

Before she could answer, I felt Maric through the link. He was clearly struggling with a lot of things, and all he could convey to me was that I should get Dyisi to do the ritual, whatever the cost. I summoned one of the guards and sent him to find Dyisi, and to tell her to go ahead as soon as possible. She would know what I meant.

Kitori agreed that I knew the superficial bits at least, and the reason she was here. She warned me that her second in command might be following her, so I should be on the lookout, for a large person that did not speak much. She wanted to know what my part in all this was.

I summoned another guard and told him to put the word out about this second in command. I was not sure what to make of Kitori’s remark about the superficial things, so I said that if I had not given her the credit due, I apologised. Obviously, I could only rely on what information I had from Galyanna, and given that she had not been able to reveal her undercover role, that, of necessity, was not flattering. I explained to her that my main concern was always the well-being of the village. I was currently removing all our supplies from the castle to prevent them being affected by Lucifer’s gift. In Maric’s absence, I was in charge, including defence, though there I had to rely heavily on the experience of the guards. For the moment, I said, Maric was trying to counter, or at least contain, Lucifer’s gift, and that I had sent for Dyisi so that she could carry out the ritual intended to dispel the gift. In the meanwhile, I had been researching spells of my own that might help. I asked if she had anything that could help.

She accepted my comment in good grace, as the compliment that was meant, saying that if I knew more, then things might not be so pleasant. I assured her that this was not so – she was what she was and I would not hold her nature against her, any more than I would hold it against Galyanna. She and I had fought too many times alongside each other and I trusted her with my life. She told me that her power was that of destruction, but she would do what she could. Her inclination would be to destroy the mirror, and then deal with the leftovers. This, at least, I could agree with.

We were interrupted again by the guards. They told me that they had found Dyisi, who was already hurrying back to the castle and to the vaults to carry out the ritual. Vedis was already in the vaults, they told me and Hadley had been seen trying to get to talk to Vedis. They also told me that Horace had been at Ardan, and was now engaging with Gwrgi, possibly violently. I immediately sent him to sound a stage two alert in the village, to get the guards on the borders and to get everybody indoors. As a secondary precaution, I ordered the evacuation of the castle, sending the staff across to the tavern in the case of any side-effects of Dyisi’s ritual on the castle itself.

I told Kitori that I did not know her, but that I would have to take Galyanna’s word and trust her. We would go to the vaults, I said, and if there was anything she could do, or could help Vedis do, so much the better.

I led the way outside, round through the orchards to the vaults entrance and opened it. Inside, I found Vedis sitting on the floor and told her that I had brought a Talon to see if she could help. It was then that I realised that Hadley was there in the room. Vedis, or at least, the most recent version of Vedis, the fleshy vessel that Maric created for her memories, was explaining to her that Connor, whoever that was, wanted Vedis dead. I tried to persuade Hadley to leave, as I did not regard this as a safe place to be at the moment. The memory of Vedis was telling Hadley that Vedis had loved her and that so did she. Hadley tried to tell me that she had only wanted to talk to Vedis and hadn’t touched her or anything. She was trying to tell Vedis that she loved her too when everything went crazy.

Pain ripped through the castle, and I fell to the ground screaming. I felt the pain of Dyisi, slashing at her own innards, spilling her guts, her blood, her life onto the castle stones. I felt the power of her sacrifice streaming through the stones, driving the corruption, the taint away, hitting my senses like a thousand tooth extractions. I felt the pain as the power of the ritual ripped at the memory of Vedis, crushing her bones, her flesh, her blood, dragging her through the stones of the castle floor towards the circle, the vortex that had been created by the ritual, realising only too late what the ritual would do to Vedis and that part of her that was corrupted. I knew that Maric too felt the same pains, even more so than I, for the castle was so much more part of him. I felt him adding his powers to that of the ritual power, tearing the corruption, the taint away, from the castle, almost as though he were tearing away his own flesh. The screams, of Vedis, of Dyisi, of Maric, tore through my ears, through my mind, along with the sound of Hadley screaming NO! And then, it was gone. All sense of Dyisi was snuffed out, that of Vedis dwindled into the far distance, yet at the same time close at hand until there was but a faint echo, and the sense of Maric falling, both bodily and mentally into the black void of unconsciousness. All else was silence, save for my own laboured breathing and the sobbing of Hadley.

I struggled to my knees, my dulled and beleaguered senses reaching out gingerly, and realising the corruption was gone, save for the shadows it cast, like the ache of a bruise. I gathered Hadley to me, holding her, trying to stem her sobs, saying over and over again, I was sorry. She was crying and asking if they had killed her and where she had gone. I had no answer for her and told her that I did not know. I wished I did know, but I did not. I could only tell her that I had known Vedis for a long time, and that it took a lot to kill her permanently. She had always come back before, I said, so I hoped that she would again. I could not tell her for certain, but I hoped that she would. She tried to pull away, still sobbing and saying she wanted to go home. All I could do was to take her back outside and give her into the care of the guards outside. I asked her to go back to the tavern, or to Dorina’s cottage, wherever she felt safe, and preferably where Wren was, and instructed the guard to stay with her until she was with Wren or Dorina. She went then, still crying, but she went just the same.

I wanted so much to curl up myself and block out the echoes of the pain I still felt, but I could not. With Maric out of things, the village was my responsibility. I ordered the guards to stand down the alert, and get the people back to their homes, and the staff back to the castle, at least, the minimal complement needed to keep things running. It was then, with a heavy heart, that I took myself down to the deeper levels of the vaults, to the laboratory, to where the ritual had happened.

It was dark, and without even thinking, I lit some candles, purely by the blood magic Maric had taught me. The stench of blood hit me as I came down the stairs, but all there was to see was Maric’s inert form, collapsed on the floor in his most monstrous form, and the pool of blood in the centre of the floor. The mirror was a dark, brooding presence, almost malignant, in the corner of the lab. Of Dyisi, her body, her belongings, there was no sign.

There was little I could do. I carefully moved Maric’s body away from the pool of blood and improvised a pillow and blanket for him. He was deeply unconscious and I could not reach him through the link. I felt around the locality, gingerly, to confirm that the taint was gone, but did not dare probe too deeply. The pain of the change was all too fresh in my mind. I closed up the lab and returned to the vaults entrance, telling the guards to prevent anybody from going in or out without my express consent. There was still the matter of whatever it was that Horace was up to out in Faerie, and I had no means of telling that. I set the guard on high alert on the borders with instructions to alert me the moment anything happened outside the borders. I sent one of them to go round the village and make sure that everybody was accounted for, especially the kids.

I returned then to my chambers, giving everybody instructions to alert me if anything happened. I allowed myself the luxury of a large glass of rum, but only the one, in case I was needed, and slumped into my armchair. The castle, and the village, was safe for now, but the cost was high. Dyisi was gone from the strand, having cast away her life for us. If she ever returns, I do not know how we could repay her. Vedis is gone, to where I do not know, and I have a traumatised child who should not have seen what she saw. These and many things I would have to deal with. It was going to be a long night.

Sacrifice

Bottle of Fire

I should be afraid. There are many things I should be afraid of. With everything that goes on here, it is a wonder that I do not spend more time curled up in a ball gibbering with fear. But that is not in my nature. Of all the things that are going on, the demonic taint, the threat of retribution from the Morning Star, the presence of the Huntsman, the lurking sense that Gwthyr is not entirely gone, there is plenty to fear. Why then does the prospect of our dear Aoibheann practicing magic worry me so? She has just as much right as any of us. Perhaps it is just her unpredictable nature, the fear that a simple light spell might end up setting fire to an entire building or something.

She came to me in the office, clearly on the verge of breaking down in tears. She cannot have failed to notice all the to-ing and fro-ing of the guards and villagers with supplies or to have heard that things were going on in the vaults. All she could gasp was “Maric, Vaults, Demons” at me. I sat her down on the sofa and asked her to breathe for a few minutes before I explained what was going on. I wasn’t sure how up to date she was, so briefly told her about the failed mission, the intervention of the Morning Star, the curse that had come through the mirror and how it was corrupting the castle. I told her that Maric was working on holding it back and that Dyisi was working on a ritual to cure the taint.

As ever, bless her, she focussed on the bits the thought she understood, suggesting that what we needed was a bucket of water and some vinegar to cleanse the taint. I explained in more detail about the demonic corruption and what I thought might be needed – a combination of Maric’s efforts, Dyisi’s ritual and the spells I was trying to research from the ancient book on demons that Maric had rescued from Alexandria. I added that if a bucket of vinegar would help, I would have her down there with a mop as well. She asked if it was something we could send back through the mirror, which thought had also occurred to me. I had to tell her that the corruption was already through and unlike a piece of mouldy bread, we couldn’t just pick the green bits off and throw them away. If that were an option, I would have no compunction about destroying the mirror and worrying about a new portal later.

We were interrupted by a servant, telling me that Horace and Dyisi wanted to see me. I said I would be out shortly and made my apologies to Aoibheann, assuming she probably wouldn’t want to be party to this conversation.

When I got out to the hall, I found Dyisi and Horace there. The latter was rigged for some serious expedition with an eclectic set of weapons, guns and protective gear, including what looked like a round Viking shield. Dyisi advised me that she had completed her research and modifications to the ritual and was ready when we were, unless we had found some other means. I told her I had been researching spells from my book on Gods and Demons, but had been struggling with the translation. I stopped mid-sentence and slapped myself on the head. Here I had been struggling with what I could remember of my schoolboy ancient Greek, and here was somebody who was almost certainly alive when the language was current. I told her where and approximately when the book had come from and asked if she could help with the translation, which she averred she could.

Horace, meanwhile, was complaining that he had not been allowed in the vaults. He had to see Vedis, he said, presumably concerning his mission to restore Faermorn. I told him that the vaults were sealed off for the moment because of the demonic corruption, and nobody was allowed down there until we found a means of dealing with it. I was prepared, however to get a message to Vedis, so that she could perhaps come and speak with him.

Horace was not so easily put off. Lucifer had some beef with him and he was going to Hell and he was going to put a bullet in Lucifer’s face and fix this shit once and for all. At least, that’s what he said, more or less, although he tried to change shoot to negotiate with after.

I opined that shooting Lucifer in the face might possibly be an unwise, not to say, terminal move, no matter how satisfying it might seem. I suggested that maybe we should try to speak to Vedis before taking such drastic action.

Dyisi was more pragmatic, suggesting that maybe he should have coated bullets before engaging such an opponent. She is clearly a good influence on him, and they seemed to have developed some sort of relationship. He was impressed with her advice and wished he had consulted with her earlier. At least he agreed to hold off on any immediate action. For a start, he wished to speak to me about our mutual friend first. He then decided that he had things he needed to do, talking to Ardan. I thanked him for consulting with me before taking action and off he went, Dyisi following soon after, once I had given her the demons book to translate for me.

Aoibheann had clearly been busy in my office when I went to fetch the book. With what I wasn’t quite sure at first, since the main evidence I had was that the rest of the bottle of wine I had opened earlier had been emptied into one of the pans of the scales on my desk. When I asked, she said she needed somewhere to keep the fire. I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by that, but then she showed me the bottle. Sure enough, she had somehow captured a flame in it. I have to say I was more than a little impressed, if somewhat worried. The concept of Aoibheann and fire magic was frankly terrifying, but I declined to comment. She put it forward as a possible solution to our problem of taint, thinking that if she could capture fire in a bottle, we could maybe capture the taint. As ideas go, it wasn’t a bad one, even quite a good one, considering normal Aoibheann-logic. However, I did have doubts about the execution. I thanked her for the idea and said that we could review it once we had some better idea from Dyisi as to what the other spells would do.

I left her to it after that. There were other spells to read up on, and those at least were in a language I understood better. I just hope that Aoibheann doesn’t set anything on fire in the meantime.

 

 

Fairy Dust

I really need to find more time to spend with Wren. She has much to learn, aside from the mathematics lessons I keep threatening her with. She has learned a lesson recently, though, and that is that licking fairies is a bad idea.

I had been rushing around like a blue-arsed fly, to borrow a phrase from Father, organising the moving of our supplies out of the vaults, when I saw Dyisi and Wren sitting under the tree. I thought I would allow myself the luxury of a short break to go and talk to them. But, when I sat down, I was worried. Wren wasn’t making a lot of sense, and her eyes were odd, her pupils dilated as though she had taken something. I was reminded a little of people I had met in opium dens in Amsterdam. Dyisi told me that she had ingested some fairy dust, but did not venture an explanation as to how this came to be. She was rooting in her pouch for something to help bring Wren down.

Wren herself definitely seemed to be under the influence of something. As well as the wide eyes, she was staring around, clearly fascinated by the castle. She was muttering about it being alive. It was breathing, she said, and only living things did that. I was curious to see if the faerie dust had opened her senses in much the same way as the wyld had opened mine, even before Maric had taught me the blood connection with the castle. She then saw me and started giggling, telling me she had licked a faerie. Her attention, her fascination, then switched to my hair, telling me it was so, so red, like I had a living fire on my head, and asking if she could touch it.

Dyisi, meanwhile was rummaging in her pouch, talking to it as if she had something living in there. I sat a bit closer to Wren and said she could touch my hair if she wished. She started saying it moved like the hair of the little mermaid under water. I guessed that she was referring to the Hans Christian Andersen tale, even if all the illustrations I had ever seen had showed her with dark hair. I wondered if perhaps in Wren’s time, they had made some moving pictures of the tale. My hair, though, she was saying, was like blood, but it must be good blood because it was so bright. I was definitely getting flashbacks to those few occasions I had experimented with opium. I agreed with her that the castle did indeed live, but it lived slowly, as stone would have to live, but it also probably echoed with all the lives that had lived in the castle. She told me that it was very alive, and that it was talking, except she didn’t speak castle, so she could not tell what it was saying. She seemed pleased that I agreed that it was alive. Then, she said, it could perhaps fix itself. So, I guessed she could pick up on the taint too.

Dorina turned up and greeted us. She looked distracted and said she had a favour to ask of me, but that it would have to wait, as she had things to deal with at the edge of the village. I felt a pang of guilt, because I had just not had the time to sit down with her and talk about controlling her beast, and told her to come and see me as soon as she had a moment. She asked if Wren could look in on Hadley and make sure that she ate something as she might be back late.

Dyisi finished rummaging in her pouch and produced a filled pipe, which she offered to Wren, saying that she should smoke it when she was ready to come down again. Wren had, by now, turned her attention to the tree, saying that it too was crying and was in pain. She did not want to feel any of that anymore. The pain, she said was something she could feel, but she did not speak tree either, so she did not know what it was saying. Clio, she said, had told her that the sickness could spread to the Summerlands and then we would be in trouble. Clio! I had heard rumours that there was a new faerie in town and I wondered if it was the same Clio who had collided with the tavern back in Jasper Cove so long ago, and who had delighted Aoibheann so much. If it was, it would explain the fairy dust. I made a mental note to admonish her about messing with the youngsters.

I hugged Wren and assured her that Maric, Dyisi and I were working on ways of healing and removing the sickness that was affecting the castle and the trees. We would deal with it, I said, but for now, she should concentrate on getting better herself. I did not much like the idea of a child so young smoking a pipe, but if that was the delivery method Dyisi had made, then we didn’t have a lot of choice. Dorina was not impressed either and told us not to let Hadley anywhere near that shit before drifting off to presumably deal with whatever other things she had to do.

Wren took a drag at the pipe and coughed. I chuckled internally and remembered my first attempts at smoking, way back when I was a student and feeling rebellious. I told her the best ways to inhale until she got used to it, much as I had learned, and that seemed to make things easier for her. After a few puffs, I could see that she was starting to come down somewhat. I left her then in Dyisi’s care, for I still had much to do around the village. Dyisi, I trusted, and knew she would take care of Wren as much as was needed. For now, there were other things I had to do.

Fairy Dust