Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Other Witch; The First Witch

"This is really quite serious, do we have to go through me explaining that Gravagan names don't work that way anymore?"
"Yes, if only for the benefit of the children."  The young woman who'd just arrived smiled at her exchange with General Sharon.  It appeared, Salvia mentally noted with great sarcasm, that the two were previously acquainted   Not unlike the way she strongly suspected she knew the young man accompanying her.
The room quieted noticeably as soon as she uttered the word.  Krell blushed as he looked over at his companion.
"She means as a priest, clearly no family resemblance, right?"
"I dunno, she seemed pretty sure of it."  The girl kept smiling, and jabbed him jocularly in the side.
"Salvia, this is Rea.  Rea, this is Salvia.  No relation."
It was definitely him, still bad with personal matters.  He was...not what she remembered.  He was younger, better dressed, and covered in flesh and presumably full of organs.  He had a heart, and skin, and hair, nice hair at that.
"Hi Salvia, how do you know Krell?"  The freshly identified Rea held out a hand and offered it cordially.
"He pretty much raised me, taught me a lot of magic, and is, ironically enough, the only reason I agreed to go on this stupid universe-scale political adventure ending in an epic battle.  It is," She looked over at the him in question.  "Exactly the sort of adventure he was always warning me against."
"Which is funny, because that's exactly the sort of adventure I've been dragging him into.  Admittedly, we were just coming here because I heard that there was a war on and Hal had been spotted."
"Apparently, I had actually been told they made a really good coffee and I simply had to try it.  Thank you by the way."  Krell raised his cup in the direction of the passing barrista.  "And I owe the Prince here an apology for our killing his grandmother."
"She was evil, malicious, and probably a Lich; so I'll let the act of treason slide."  Curt gave a mock bow from the other end of the map as he continued.  "Besides, what I hear, you and my Great-Grandmother have a fascinating history together, and she has much better taste in friends anyways."
"And surprisingly good taste in makeup, did you know she owns my entire..."
Krell turned towards Salvia as the conversation veered off in a direction that the Alpha's expression clearly indicated as 'not important right now'.
"So how's work?"
"Are you two dating?"
"You first."
"I saved the Alpha's daughter's life possibly, and proved that his son was honorably disintegrated  rather than dishonorably disintegrated.  Now I'm some sort of national hero or am owed a debt of some kind.  Oh, and I followed a trail of corpses to your last known location before being picked up by an immortal madman in a bureau of simplification office of all places.  I still don't know what he was doing there."
"Yes, after she helped me leave a trail of corpses, kill the woman responsible for making me a Lich, and borrow my assistance in breaking one of the oldest curses in existence."  He casually sipped his latte.  "I also helped end the most eerily romantic nemesis/hero relationship of all time.  After that, we went skiing, What do you think you'll do when you finish saving the universe?"
"File a report I imagine, a good long one, with lots of details and itemized business expenses.  Then I'll have a sandwich, maybe I'll be extra daring and use a new flavor of jelly on it."  Krell took another sip of his latte.  "Honestly, what was that man thinking, dragging me along?  What do I have going for me to make it worth dragging along a witch?"
Krell continued to drink as he thumbed at himself.
"What's so special about you then?"
"He,"  Rea broke away from what Salvia was sure was a diverting conversation about nail polish to interject. "Is High Admiral Krell Casat, the reborn Lich, a priest of the Order of Saint John, and is currently dating the most powerful active fighter in the universe.  The only one, and I never mind flattering myself, strong enough to take Hal in single combat.  Assuming, of course, that Petra stays in retirement the way we all told her to, and that Kate doesn't have the time to prepare the battlefield.  My assumption..."
"Our assumption."
"Our assumption, is that he means to use you to draw Krell here into single combat, kill him, thereby causing me to make sloppy, amateurish mistakes that would let him defeat me the way he's wanted to ever since I killed his scum warlock parents."
The vehemence in that last phrase inflicted a sort of painful silence on the cafe.  Other than Krell, it seemed no one else had ever really given Hal's own history any thought, only his time with Thalia had ever been of concern to the universe at large, and even the elite had never looked further in light of the significance of those events that were known.  Salvia's own questions were more simple however.
"How old are you exactly"
"Exactly would be a struggle to remember, but not far off from the length of time the Ga-Vok have had access to spaceflight.  My father's grandfather commanded the first company to board a foreign vessel, and his daughter, my grandmother, went on to help found the Ukown guild.  So to put it simply, about 12,000 years old.  There's only one person older, and she chooses not to get out much."
"That would have made you a contemporary of the first Alicea of the Howling Axes, and the first Alpha."  Said the current Alpha with an almost childlike curiosity.  "What were they like?"
"Nice, and a warlock, respectively.  Alicea was a very strong sort of woman, resilient.  She was the one who put me in contact with Tasand, who slew the first Alpha and succeeded him.  Nice sort of man Tasand, Old warrior type, the kind who'd been heroic for many years, then lost a son too many and was forced to confront his own lifestyle in an honest and direct manner."  She paused for a moment, giving the appearance, though Salvia could tell otherwise, that she was lost in memories.  "Used to call me 'pup', cause I fought with their weapons."
"One more thing, before we get back to storming the castle."  Salvia's witching ways were making her keenly aware of the unessential, pointless nature of the conversation.  "Why does ZG want Katherine to not attempt the re-installation spell?"
Several small items broke and a their was a momentary blur that filled the room.  Krell paled slightly, his eyes flickering as he did, as if trying to track the blur.
"I bloody well warned the lot of them it wouldn't work.  A thousand times I told her, and yet she keeps on trying to make it work!  I told Hal I couldn't pay the price, and now the...the"  Krell put a hand on Rea's shoulder, which seemed to calm her down immensely.  "I'm sorry.  But I've told nearly every member of the family not to try it at least four times.  All of them except Koren, who's got the good sense to pursue a normal life instead of this nonsense the rest of us are stuck with.  Cyssie even tried it herself a few times, but the spell has a long cast time and she doesn't have the kind of control over her focus to cast a day length, single word spell that has to be cast while standing on the ceiling.  She got as far as standing on the ceiling before coming up with a new idea of how to stand on ceilings, and good for her that she did.  Sarah was dead and Hal's got nothing.  But Arcania's clever enough to pull it off, but still foolish enough to try it in the first place.  Its exactly the sort of thing that got Tala and I our most distinctive features, and those brought us both a great deal of misery.  A few good things certainly, but lots of bad things too."
"So, its bad?"  An officer carrying a number of manila folders was the first to speak.
"Its worse than that.  Katherine will probably die, and Gravaga will be ruled by a perversion of an already dangerous woman aided by a fanatical, now quite mad, swordsman who even I'd be hard pressed to take alone."  Rea leaned back into a cushion that appeared at exactly the right height and sunk only slightly as she sat.    "The spell itself is designed as a trap for powerful and grieving magic users.  The Witches and the Oracles have strong protocols concerning not simply punishing those who try to bring back the dead but also for cleaning up the mess it usually makes."  She glanced over at Salvia.  "Not commonly known ones mind you, but the right procedures make themselves apparent when they're needed.  And ever since Petra started teaching at the academy they've instituted a strict policy of restricting non-necromantic forms of reanimation.  Even an army of skeletons is less dangerous than a re-installation gone wrong."
"Then how do you do it right?"  The Alpha turned his attention to a messenger as soon as he'd finished asking the question.  Salvia knew for a fact that he'd lost his son within the past few years, and he seemed to be taking Braga's  murder as a personal affront.  But Ga-Vok had a society more adapted to dealing with death than most, even with advances in medical science it was still a lucky litter that didn't lose at least one pup before maturity.
"You have to do it without compensation, without love, yet still be related to the one you seek to save.  Even then, you must be a fairly powerful magic user, and the less time they've been dead the less risky it is.  I raised my estranged brother for his future wife, who I already served, the night he died.  I was twelve, and I sacrificed my mortality as collateral.  I was taught the spell by a warlock, my aunt, who lacked the power to actually use the spell herself.  She was taught by a demon, who hoped to corrupt me."  Rea looked over at Krell.  "I believe you're familiar with Legion?  Always had a knack with healing spells, even after he fell from grace.  Back on Stormguard I think he mentioned how the first time the two of us met, he was pretending to be my mother.  That's why he was able to bring me back."
"I long suspected that Demons were at work in Hal's corruption.  Now I am sure of it."  Sharon stepped into the holographic map, initiating its automatic shutdown protocol.  "Where is the paladin?  Why has she not come to do her work?"
"My men have found the Black Hand Captain.  Salvia, bring the Priest and the Witch, it is time we set Braga's memory to rest.  General, your Highness, press on towards the front gate in my absence, I will meet you on the footsteps of the palace."  Salvia glanced over at Rea and Krell, and saw that they'd already started for the door.  She looked back at Curt, who smiled and raised his cup.
"We'll be fine, Godspeed Salvia."
"Spirits protect you, and Godspeed Sir."

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Other Witch; War Council

"Love the new look."  Prince Curt was standing next to a projection of the battlefield that had been positioned in the Cafe's former eating area.  The counter had been cleared off and was now occupied by a number of monitors, cords, and the projector for the map.  Aides and officers hustled about the room, and one rather confused looking Gravagan barrista, little more than a child by his people's reckoning at roughly the age of forty, carried around a tray of chilled lattes.
Salvia glanced down and remembered that she was wearing the same dress she had transfigured when they'd visited Seclora.  She looked back over at him and realized that Braga, rest his soul, had been right; it was exactly the same color as the Prince's cloak.
"Thank you, It's not my first choice I'll admit, but it grows on you."
"I'll see if we can have someone conjure up something more to your liking if you'd like?  I have an excellent wardrobe wizard on my staff, maybe something in silk..."
"This conversation can wait."  Announced the Alpha, with surprisingly little impatience, "We need to bring her up to speed so that we can return to the matter at hand."
Sharon stepped around to the opposite side of the display, and without waiting for acknowledgement, began to identify the major features of the city.
"The most critical point, of course, is the Palace.  A large number of enemy troops, particularly Gravagans but also a number of tragically ill-informed adventurers, are holed up inside.  Hal, the usurper Jastia, and most of the Black Hand will be in the throne room.  I personally believe that Jastia's seizure of the crown was a part of Hal's greater conspiracy, which means that Kate will have set up inside as well.  No doubt the host body is also present, which will mean that Courtney is also close by."
"Wait what?"
"I'm sorry."  Curt turned to face her.  "General Sharon has recently informed us that Hal and Thalia were, among other things, working together all along.  Apparently some of his more experienced adventurers, some of the immortals like Jasita and Courtney especially, were also aware of this conspiracy."
"Most dangerous of all," Continued the Alpha, "was a plot to return Thalia to life if she were ever defeated.  When Thalia fell in the palace of Arcania, Courtney used her vampiric powers to restore a semblance of life to Thalia's body and ferry it to safety.  That's why she went with her to assault the palace.  All these years Thalia has been preserved in the form of a ghoul, serving in the court at Stormguarde under all of our noses."
"Kate," Sharon added, "is the Dread Frost Mage Arcania, spared by Courtney for this purpose.  She's spent the last thousand years gathering components and preparing to cast the spell that will return Thalia's soul to her body, restoring her to the fullness of life.  Today is the day their plans come to fruition."
Salvia nodded.  "Most of that Braga and I had figured out already.  I was just surprised that the body was intact."
The Alpha laughed.  "Braga was always good at unraveling mysteries.  I should have known he would have gotten to the bottom of things."
"You mentioned ZG earlier Sharon.  He was the one who brought me into the city, and I think I remember talking to him in Stormguarde.  What's his part in all this?"
"ZG is a major power unto himself.  He is the king of elemental frost, and enamored of Kate.  He came to me several years ago and told me what Kate was doing, and where Hal had been since his wife's death.  We agreed on a plan, which is what I've been sharing with you.  His preferred form is that of a large dragon or a small ferret, but is best known for being a galaxy spanning blizzard.  As best as I can tell, his only goal in all of this is to keep Kate safe.  All in all, not a bad sort of guy."
"Last question then, why are there only the three of you here?"
"Because not all of the gates opened, because not everyone is in on the conspiracy, and because Hariel is a pyromaniac with lots of issues."  Sharon spat at the Earl's name.
"Maybe more detail on those?"
"The Seclorans are coming via fleet, they'll arrive by the end of the day.  Odds are really bad they'll be helping us though."  Prince Curt flipped the projection with a wave of his hand, causing it to display the planet and surrounding space.  "My fleet, a few dozen Gravagan warships, and some of the Alpha's battleships are in orbit now, but they're a mere fraction of the armada the Seclorans are bringing.  The bulk of the Alpha's fleet, as well as a Harakai armada and several thousand of their troops will be arriving later, but won't make it in time to intercept."
"The Seclorans remain the only major power to consider Gravaga a Villain State."  Sharon continued as the holographic fleet began to blink in as their data was loaded into the system.  "With the Mad's gone and the fleet in disarray they'll consider this the best chance in four thousand years to end us as a threat to the Universe's stability.  Even though they were requested as help, they're coming as conquerors."
"The Mads?"
"Cyssie mostly, putting a fleet in orbit over any planet where she has an active lab is...unwise."
"The last time the Seclorans brought a fleet into orbit she was ten, it took four hours before she'd managed to destroy every single one, but it was only about five minutes before they were all immobilized."  A Gravagan admiral smiled from a monitor at the far end of the bar.  "We had started mooring the fleet out of system when she was four, and even the Pythen's give Gravaga a wider berth than Anatolia."  He paused, sipping a latte, "I've never seen so many rubber ducks in my life."
Prince Curt gave a snicker, then faced Salvia again.  "Earl Hariel," Sharon spat again, and Salvia noticed that many of the other Gravagans in the cafe had done the same.  "was set to open a gate linking a military base on Ukra into the drydocks.  It seems that when she arrived she changed her mind.  Currently, she and several higher ranking members of the Rune Knights are camped out on the front gate of the Palace."  He flipped the map again, displaying the city once more.  "Everything within a one block radius has been leveled, fires are raging within four blocks.  To the best of our knowledge, the gate remains securely locked."
"Hariel," Sharon spat, interrupting her own sentence.  "Doesn't care what the sides are.  All she wants is to burn the planet to the ground and deface everything Thalia's ever had part of."
"In all fairness, Thalia is the reason she is who she is today.  The great conspiracy ruined her life, and she's too much of a psychopath to move on."
Sharon sighed.  "The Prince is right.  Let me explain, her incendiary honor the Earl of Star Haven lived in one of the villages Thalia targeted over the years for the creation of new, impassioned heroes to join Hal in his adventures.  It was her sixth birthday when a hundred Gravagan soldiers assaulted the village, and on the same day she first manifested her pyromantic powers.  Only a dozen men survived, including the commanding officer of the unit.  Thalia, never one to let a loss slip by, gave him twice the men and ordered him to attack again the following year, to no greater avail.  And so it went until her sixteenth birthday, at which, in command of fifty thousand men, the commander finally secured permission to use orbital strikes as a part of his assault.  It took an hour before he got a shot past her, but the village was wiped from the map.  forty humans died, the entire village.  Hariel was found by a family of tourists, who took her to the local hospital.  When she woke from her magic induced coma, Hariel learned her village's fate and sought out the only man known to oppose Thalia, Old Cloak."
"Who we all now know to be Hal."
"Correct.  Needless to say, Hal never allowed Thalia to ever be killed, only defeated.  As a result, Hariel continued to travel with him for many years, until one day, she fell in love."
"With Hal."
"Yes.  Hal rejected her, but she didn't let go.  One day, she put two and two together and realized that Hal was the Thalia's never present consort, and Thalia was Hal's often mentioned, never seen wife."
"I remember Braga telling me about that.  He was saying that Hariel's disappearance was the result of Katherine's mind games, which she confessed to boldly when confronted.  That was the season before Katherine departed herself."
"Kate always had a soft spot for the heroes.  She's a good girl, even if she is selfish and uninterested most of the time.  I think her guilt over Hariel was what pushed her over the edge.  In any case, when Hariel left, Tala, the Storm Mage, approached her with the offer of a seat on the pantheon.  For all her obsession and madness, she remains quite clever and very powerful.  She regularly tried to convince the pantheon to act against Thalia and Hal, and to disrupt the conspiracy, but recognized that she never had the power to do so alone.  And in time, when the Frostbourne war began, it was Thalia who would direct aid to Star Haven when no one else thought her still alive.  When that dreadful war ended, Thalia was dead, and ironically Hariel found herself in possession of a force of adventurers and soldiers strong enough to oppose Thalia."

Salvia pondered the entire scenario for a moment.  Hariel was legendarily powerful, and her hatred for Thalia's family, as well as her love for Old Cloak, were well documented.  It made a sort of sense that the woman who had demanded single combat with the Lych Queen Sarah, known even then as Thalia's wayward, bloodthirsty daughter would have truly desired combat with the then dead Empress.  And the reaction of every Gravagan at the mention of her name made it clear that she was both a feared and reviled foe.  It meant that, even if Kate's spell worked, the newly re-installed Thalia would be facing her most devoted adversary, and without the advantage of preparation or armies.  Perhaps the situation would resolve itself, even if she and the assembled leaders failed.
More important though, particularly as Salvia was neither pessimistic nor fond of the idea of dying, Kate had required components, and the spell would be using a ghoul.  If either were destroyed then the spell would fail outright, and if Salvia's own experience was any indicator the only cost to the caster would be the time wasted in preparing it.  If they could reach Kate in time, the spell could be stopped.  But that would require breaching the palace first.
"How long will it take to get us into the palace?"
"At the rate we're going, hours.  But it could take longer if we have to fight past Hariel, or if the gates prove sterner than expected."
"How much longer?"
The Prince sighed and scratched his head abashedly.  "Years."
"We don't have that kind of time!"
"Try the windows then.  Much faster, specially designed to be broken through.  I'm amazed Sh'r'n didn't think of it really."  Every weapon in the room was drawn and brought to bear on the steelsil wrapped figure in the doorway, and the young nieldic man beside her.  Then Salvia heard a rather unexpected voice.
"Salvia?  I thought I taught you better than to get involved in a war?"

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Other Witch; The Secretary-General of Gravaga

The battle was in full swing already.  Salvia could have sworn it had only been two days ago that they'd met with the Alpha.  How was it then that all the armies were already in place?  Gravaga made sense; this was their territory, they'd have been fighting for months most likely, but she'd spotted a band of the Seraph, an elite band of Harakai warriors, flying overhead.  They would have needed at least a few days to reach this far into the Empire, and unlike the Ga-Vok and Nieldic troops wouldn't have been able to move in through the gates opened by Star Haven and Stormguarde's forces.
It was, Salvia quickly discovered, no easy matter to cross the warzone and find the headquarters set up by the Commanders of the united armies.  Luckily, it seemed that the gates had been opened within the city and while there was still stiff resistance around the palace, the worst of the fighting was on the outskirts, where those Gravagans aligned with the usurper had been driven back and had now dug in.  Even without military training beyond that common to any Nielda who had grown up playing TacSim, Salvia knew that it was only a matter of time before reinforcements arrived and the defending Gravagans launched a counterattack.  Unlike the armies, who's arrival had been hastened by uncommon feats of magic, fleets still had to take the time needed to travel between worlds.  It was the navy, as it so often was, that would be able to decide the fate of the battle.
"Halt!  For whom do you fight, woman?"
She could have just as easily asked the silver armored Gravagan the same question, word for word.  Even though they fought for both sides, all of the Gravagans wore the same, antiquated armor that they would have worn while united under the Dark Lady.  There was no way of telling which answer would get her out of this without a fight.
"I'm looking for Prince Curt and the Alpha."
They leveled their weapons and delivered a line they'd probably spent years rehearsing for those times when they encountered Hack's many adventuring parties.  "Drop your weapons and come with us."
What was most likely less rehearsed was the way the building behind them exploded as a three-story tall Gravagan mech burst through and leveled its weapons upon them.
"In the name of the Empress, I claim this witch as my prisoner!"
The soldiers didn't freeze, they didn't panic, and they didn't reply.  The entire unit began to scatter in the same breath, spinning around to pop off shots at vulnerable points on the mech.  Each shot was deflected harmlessly by the unit's shields, or else absorbed by its heavy plating, but the pilot was unable to track down all of the soldiers.  Which was not to say it did not deal better than it got, several soldiers were shattered by great, lancing bolts of energy, and one soldier, too slow to react, was caught up in the war-machine's triple claws and wrenched apart as he called out to his fellows to save themselves.  There was no blood, Salvia had never fully realized this about Gravagans before that moment.  All that remained of the slain man was fragments of purple crystal and silver armor; his eyes frozen still as if they had never been able to move in the first place.  But his hair, fine as threads of silk and glimmering violet in the light of the battle's fire, still moved in the light breeze; a last testament to his once living nature.
"Now, Witch, my master has given me orders to..."  He was cut short by a lancing bolt of crimson energy.
"Now that I have your attention, Samuel, release the Witch and stand down."  The voice was amplified in much the same manner as his, betraying it's owner as piloting a mech of her own.  But this new voice was more resolved, determined even.  It was not unlike listening to the Alpha or Price Curt when they spoke to their subordinates.  There was even a part of it that sounded like Katherine; frank, direct, and to the point.
"General Sharon, I should have known the traitor would reveal herself in these days.  Repent, and perhaps our Mistress will forgive you when she returns.  Though," He trained one great cannon on the mech that had now climbed over the rubble, "I rather doubt it.  You know how she can be."
"You think me traitor for seeking to cast out those who would enslave our people?  Gravaga deserves better than to be pawns of Immortal games.  Join me and we can make Gravaga the nation it deserves to be.  A nation that builds, that lives, not one that simply waits for the next round of adventurers to come and kill our sons and daughters in some eternal plot."
An amber blast coursed from the cannon above her.  Sharon, the pilot of the other mech, not only dodged it but returned one of her own crimson bolts.  Unlike Samuel, Sharon seemed to have taken lessons in proper marksmanship, and the blast splashed across his shields with an ear racking explosion.
"I will not betray my creator!  You and your rebels will fall, and I will stand at the master's side triumphant."
He began to charge.  Sharon sidestepped gracefully and spun around, tripping his mech by the leg.  She planted one of her feet on his right arm and held one arm aloft.
"No, but I am at least certain you will stand by your master's side before day's end.  You have died a General of Gravaga, defending it against its threats, and your children shall remember you for what you were."  The mech's claw began to rotate at considerable speed.  "A good man, and a hero to your people.  Good Bye, old friend."
The claw drilled through the back of his mech.  The sound of steel rending steel overpowered his final screams, but did not hide them.  Sharon stood over the ruined mech for a moment and then turned to face Salvia.
"Climb on, the other Commanders will want to know you are safe.  Convincing Prince Curt not to come looking for you himself was no easy task, and I daresay the Alpha will be at far greater ease knowing you are safe as well."  She lowered one claw gently, allowing Salvia to take hold and be hoisted onto the Mech's giant shoulder.
"I don't know if I can face the Alpha right now.  Braga is..."
"Yes, Hal disappeared several days ago.  Braga's body appeared the same day hanging from the palace gate.  We were forced to launch our assault early when the Alpha ordered the Oracles to tear open the gate from their end.  It has set us off plan noticeably, but not affected our success in any manner.  In fact, the Harakai devoted several additional fleets to the battle and dispatched a unit of the Seraph under the command of the High Inquisitor herself.  They've been invaluable in dispatching of enemy necromancers and scouting the battlefield."  Sharon paused for a moment, still running across the battlefield with a surprisingly great deal of gymnastic skill for a mech, then she asked quietly, "I am sorry for his loss.  The Scholar of the Falling Leaves was quite dear to me as well."
"I just woke up today, I haven't really had a chance to take it all in yet."
"Ah yes, you are Nielda after all."  She took a deep breath.  "I will miss our nights together.  Few men, much less wolves, have ever held my interest for so long."
Salvia almost lost her grip on the Mech's shoulder handle.  "You what?"
"He told the most wonderful stories.  I was there for many of the events he studied and saw them first hand, yet when he told them I could scarcely help but be enraptured by them."  She paused.  "Oh, you thought I meant something else entirely.  Sorry, I forget how you organics feel about the reproductive process."
The mech came to a stop in a large plaza, from the looks of things a bazaar of sorts.  Salvia dropped carefully off the mech's shoulder, just as Sharon, a fairly tall Gravagan woman with slightly smoother features than your average Gravagan, dropped out of the mech's back.
"So you and he never actually did anything, you just misspoke then?"
"Now," She winked, only noticeable by the fact that her eyelids were a rather darker shade of purple than her eyes, "I never said that, did I?"
"Ah, so you were his 'sweet secretary on Gravaga'?  I knew as soon as I met you that I'd read a description of you somewhere!"  The Alpha, boisterous even in the midst of battle, practically bounded up to them.  "It is good to see you again Spiderskirt, we feared the worst."
"I'm sorry about Braga."
"Not as sorry as that knave James will be when next we meet.  I knew he smelled suspicious the moment I saw him."
Sharon nodded.  "Head of the Black Hand, Thalia's personal assassins.  He's been hiding out ever since she died.  ZG and I have been hunting them down in our spare time, of which I'm afraid neither of us has had much.  I knew that when this day came they would be a dangerous asset in Hal's hands, so we've been trying to deny him their use."
"You've met, nothing else about him is important for you to know.  Just understand that there are many plans coming to fruition today."
"Sharon, the Prince, and I have been working to disrupt Hal's work.  But time is short, come, you must tell us everything you know."  The Alpha motioned for them to follow him to a nearby, shattered cafe.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Other Witch; Upon Wings of Whitest Snow

Salvia regained consciousness bound and suspended from the ceiling.  There was a note, turned in such a way that it was clearly intended to be read by someone dangling from the ceiling, reading, 'rope will snap if you use magic or struggle too much' and looking down she became aware that there was nothing preventing her from falling directly to the surface of whatever planet they were now parked in low atmospheric orbit over.  It would take mere minutes to impact against the open grassy fields, and Salvia found herself wondering how long it would be before anyone could identify her body if she fell.
Then came the second question, why was she still alive at all?  Hack had simply killed Braga, and any protection she possessed he too possessed.  Except, she supposed, those unique to a witch.  Some kind of witch magic must have the ability to pierce the magical defenses Hack had.  Braga, God rest his soul, had once mentioned that Hack's Cloak was matched only by Thalia's crown for the invulnerability of its defense.  And she had seen in all the old footage that he was never so much as struck by his foes.  Something always happened to stop them, or if there were too many, they simply missed outright.  It had always seemed rather contrived for him to be so invincible, pushing the limits of luck and probability.  Anything that could work in his favor, did; even if it meant that swords were turned just wrong to land a blow or a blaster's charge finally ran down before a final blow could land.  It was as though Luck itself defended him.
That must have been it.  Witches had long ago mastered Luck, learning ways to manipulate the odds of impossible events occuring, or more importantly, to eliminate that final .0001% chance that things could fail.  No one could survive killing a witch; the woe of blades befell all who had helped take their life.  And to ensure justice, the coven maintained a large number of specially enchanted blades for such a purpose.  Knives of silver to slay Lycans, of blessed wood to pierce a vampire's heart, bloodstone blades for demons and immortals, and many sturdy steel blades for those of mortal's pace.  Each one was enchanted to not simply seek their target, but to thrust themself across all of space and strike without error.  There was no way to dodge, no armor strong enough to stop them, and most important of all, no cure for their cursed wounds.  If they failed to kill, they also failed to cease bleeding; if they failed to avenge, they marked their target for eternity.  Even if Hack wanted her dead, he couldn't afford for all his allies to know he had slain a witch.  Particularly when they all knew him to have traveled with him not but days before.

But all her worries and speculations soon proved unneeded.  A blur of white was followed by a soft, serene voice.
"I thought it might come to this.  We must make haste, lest my dear one notice I am absent too long.  Battle is at hand, dark days loom about us on all sides.  The day is come that Frost, not Fire shall set the universe aright."
The air had indeed grown cold, like a dry winter's day.  The rope contracted, the began to splinter as it froze solid.  Salvia could feel her bindings begin to crumble away as though they were a thick frost, and she began to seek the words that would slow her inevitable descent.  It did not come; the bindings were replaced by a set of gripping claws, tight enough that she did not fear be let go but not so tight that she felt imperiled by them.
"You're Katherine's companion, from the cottage.  I know your voice."
"And you are Daughter Salvia, whose father-yet-not-father is Krell the reborn.  Did you read my dear one's report?  It would make you easier to relate to for me."
"No, but can I've been busy.  Can we focus on the problem of our being very high off the ground and that a good man was just killed by a guy the whole universe has believed to be more or less the last word in good guys for thousands of years but is using his daughter, your...girlfriend? to bring back his long deceased wife, by all accounts a pretty messed up lady, and that the chances of succeeding at either stopping him or at least escaping are not promising?"
"I can see why the old child is so fond of witches; you are not an amusing people.  But you are correct, and you are exactly the sort of person I need if the darkened cloak is to be stopped."
Salvia looked down across the plains and saw a grand city growing quickly on the horizon.  But between them and the city were vast armies of purple figures, all drawn up in battle lines.  Artillery and Mechs dotted the field, their metallic gleam distinct from the crystalline glint of the purple and black of the foot soldiers.  And there was fire all about, drawing lines between the city's defenders and it's attackers, and further flames spurted periodically in the midst of formations, cleaving their neat orderly patterns but never disrupting the focus of soldiers she couldn't help but recognize as Gravagan.  The city itself could be recognized easily by any of the hundred trillion Nielda of the universe as the Capitol of the Gravagan Empire, Immerstadt, the unyielding city.  High towers and statues dotted the city, and the palace rose nine stories above even the tallest tower.  On every street there was the mark of the crown and in every square a fountain or statue dedicated to their Empress' greatness.  It was an Ego trip as much as it was a city.  And today, for the first time since the Frostbourne war, when a bold Lych who's name was lost to time had slipped his fleet under the guard of all Gravaga and landed his undead horde on the city's outskirts, the city was under siege, this time by its own people.
"I will set you here, and you will have to fight your way to the streets.  Make your way to the Lost Princess Memorial Library, the Alpha of the Ga-Vok, Prince of the Nielda, and Most Daring General of Free Gravaga will be there.  Tell them what you know and what has passed.  Let the eldest guide you to the heart of shadow, and do not forget my Dear One when the time comes.  I must go to her now, the time of her casting is at hand and she must not be alone."
Salvia fell nearly fifteen feet to the ground, landing in a pile of laundry and pillows that did not seem to be there for any other reason than to cushion her fall.  She looked up just in time to see the one that had carried her, who had felt like a dragon and moved with like speed, fade into little more than a wisp of cloud that darted across the open sky towards the palace.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Other Witch; The Plan Revealed

Hack had been terrifyingly silent since they had spoken to the Alpha.  And it was a directed, brooding silence at that, the worst sort imaginable.  He'd been willing to speak with James, but only with James.  Salvia couldn't help but fear he'd begun to suspect that she was not one hundred percent behind this quest, and the Alpha's protection and support, in any other place and time a blessing with few equals, seemed to be almost a dire curse.
"If it makes any difference; Old Cloak has never in all his years been much for conversation.  In the past, he lead adventurers onward with mere inklings of a quest.  Oftentimes, he followed more than he lead.  He was a guide, and that he leads us now is only proof of the world's change."
"Except," Replied Salvia, raising her head from its place atop her folded arms, "for the part where he leads.  He isn't leading, or adventuring even.  All he's doing is carting a half a handful of people around and teeling them to 'wait here' and 'don't get into trouble'.  If he'd wanted an adventure, wouldn't he make the people who have no idea what he wants done figure it out?  Or heck, land somewhere besides a palace for once.  Maybe force us to track down a hermit or two, who happen to live in wyvern infested mountains or a cave hidden in a coral reef.  I've done more adventure going to the laundromat than this!"
She had, and it had nothing to do with this adventure.  Most of her best exploits started at laundromats, the random phone call, someone leaving a note in her purse, and that was only the coincidental ones.  Vampires and government agents, both with their difficult to remove bloodstains and casually worn formal attire, were regulars at most out of the way, poorly surveillance laundromats.  More than one politician had decided to conduct a sordid affair using apartments located above laundromats run by loyal cronies, heavens only knew why.  And there was even one time when she'd been forced to enlist the local law enforcement in subduing a rampaging mob of animated washing machines.  By comparison, this was little more than a really quiet road trip.
Braga set down a book on the table.  The title, Salvia forced herself to read despite its being upside down, was Reaper; an account of the Eternal Assassin By Koren Immersfeld.  She recognized the name, some of the witches in the library talked about him as though he were some sort of patron saint of all librarys.  The last name she did recognize though, it was the one shared by both Katherine and Hack; the name of Empress Thalia of Gravaga.
"You said Katherine was arguing with someone when you slept in that morning?"
"I never saw who, but yes.  Why?"
"It's not the who that's bothering me; Katherine was always friendly with passers-by.  What concerns me is the subject matter.  The spell you mentioned, it was only performed successfully once, by someone named Rea?"
"I think so."
"This is her, this is a book about an immortal Koren identifies as 'Rea'.  He says she was cursed, several ages past, with immortality."
"How dreadful, to be able to run about doing whatever you wanted for ten thousand years.  What clever witch came up with that curse?"
"She did, and it was closer to twelve thousand.  Apparently, at the age of fourteen, this 'Rea' traded her own mortality for the life of another.  The spell itself, 're-installation', is known to most experienced mages, including myself.  But I never could have dreamed that one so young could have achieved it so long ago."
"How in the Imperial Brooch did you find this book?"
" I sent ahead, my..the Alpha has many resources at his disposable, and the Oracles have lent him their full support.  Apparently they possess secrets regarding this matter not written in any library, but they have lent us those which they are privy to dispense.  The girl, she bypassed the corruption of the spell by paying the proper toll of death, and both the Oracles and Koren seem to agree that God himself chose to give her a greater responsibility as a reward.  But she had to bear the curse of a mighty demon, or possibly even the wroth of all Hell, as a consequence for thusly spitting in their face; she would live forever, but she would never age."
Stuck at fourteen forever, and from the looks of the title killing her way across the cosmos for twelve thousand years, all because she brought back one life.  The Elder Witches had always warned her and her fellows not to meddle with the realm of death, now Salvia could see why.  It'd be one thing to go through eternity as Kate or Hack or even as a Lich; but to spend eternity trapped in the body of a child, that would be a challenge far beyond her own patience to endure.
"So that's what Hack is having Katherine do?"
"I can only wonder who Old Cloak would want ressurected, or further still, why he would enlist his oldest enemy's daughter to do so."
"They'll try and bring back Thalia."  It made perfect sense now.  Hack was going to bring his wife back.  That was why he seemed so different than in all the stories; he had been going mad with grief, or perhaps was now long mad with nothing but grief to hold on to.  Katherine, repentant for her own past and for her part in her mother's death, couldn't have even attempted to deny her father in the matter.  And she was a mage strong enough to pull off the magic itself, but she could never possibly pay the price.  And no one knew, not without asking Rea herself, what had made the spell work that one time when so many mortal mages had failed before and after her.  It was a doomed venture, and Salvia suspected that Katherine knew it from the start.  That was why she had shared as much as she had, so that Salvia could stop the ritual before it killed her.  It had to be.  But it was too late to tell the Alpha or Prince Curt, so they would have to wait until they arrived at the High Temple of the Harakai.  It would be her last chance to warn their allies what Hack was planning before it was...
"Too late?"  She refocused on the world around her just in time to spot Hack's fist closing on her.  As the world darkened she saw Braga, blood splurting from a fresh wound, collapsing beside her.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Other Witch; A Father to his People

Ga-Vok society was nothing at all like those of Nielda, or even of humans.  Machines had a greater role in the economy, and sharing came fairly naturally, if not exactly perfectly translated, to the canine race.  As such, the economy was self sustaining.  Agriculture, industry, manufacturing, and even maintenance were simply non-existent career fields to them.  Instead, they were simply warriors, traders, skilled craftsmen, and teachers.  What was more, no single Ga-Vok was any one of those things, but instead they were all, all of them.  It was in many ways an ideal society; one propelled by a desire for communal well being, and personal excellence.  The later drive was at the forefront of Ga-Vok politics.  The Alpha was understood by outsiders as the head of the Ga-Vok Confederacy much as an Emperor or a President would rule over any other state.  To the Ga-Vok, he was more of a respected voice; in times of war they looked to him to lead the charge, and in times of peace he set an example to all the people of strength and wisdom.  
Becoming the Alpha, Braga explained, was a life's work, and one that most Ga-Vok knew to be beyond them from an early age.  But for those strongest members of their clans, those warriors with the guile to outwit their enemies as much as overpower them, and for those who's clan's had the ambition to propel them into the highest competition of all their people it was the ultimate aspiration.  
Not for personal glory, Salvia was surprised to hear, but because for the honor of being accepted as worthiest of all the people.  An Alpha gave up his name when he ascended to that rank, and even his accomplishments from before he became Alpha were attributed not to him, but to the Ga-Vok people as a whole.  In order to rule his people, an Alpha had to give up his very identity.  Only the Oracles, guardians of Ga-Vok traditions and an order of magic users as powerful as witches and respected even by immortals for their insight, kept records of an Alpha's true identity, stored along with all the other secret records of their people.  

It came as no surprise to them when they came unto the Hall of the Alpha that it was neither grand nor particularly old.  In fact, it was barely distinguishable from the other more or less dome shaped buildings that made up the city.  Their were no guards at the door, but all the Ga-Vok of the city were armed, and they seemed to communicate with little more than body language.  The Alpha had been forewarned of their coming, Prince Curt had seen to that, but Salvia had expected more of a carpet, or even suspicion than they were now receiving.  
"Wait here, I will speak with him.  The Ga-Vok respect Immortals, and especially accomplished warriors like myself.  Do not cause another commotion, understood?"
They all nodded, James grunted an affirmation.  A small crowd gathered around them as the doors closed behind Hack.  Then a single, fairly tall Ga-Vok stepped out of the crowd and raised his muzzle at them.  
"Hail Braga Pageturner, Hail Salvia Spiderskirt, and though I do not know your name young human, I welcome you also to our beautiful planet."  
It was, though the buildings were a combination of concrete and gray stone, the streets were soft grass and there were trees towering all about the city.  The sun shone uninterrupted by fog or haze, and a cool wind blew from the southeast.  It was high summer, but the air was light and Salvia felt much cooler in her newly blue dress than she would have in black.  
"Hail friend, We have come seeking your aid in a battle to come."
"Yes, Curt Brightsword of the Nielda contacted me a few weeks past.  He told me that Old Cloak is building an army.  I have already begun to prepare our fleets and our men.  Any foe of True Gravaga is a foe of the Ga-Vok."  He looked back over the assembled crowds.  "Let it not be said that the Ga-Vok have forgotten those who lent us shelter in the time of Bitter Frost.  A warrior repays his debts, and aids his friends without thought of his own gain."  The crowd vocally approved, some drawing blades and shaking them at the sky, others howling or chasing their tails in fits of what Salvia could only hope was some form of strange patriotic ecstasy.  The tall Ga-Vok turned back to them and said more quietly, "Although, I anticipate we will gain much by our actions, though how much can only be determined by time."  
Hack burst through the door, a fury on his brow, as he heard the sounds of the assembly.  Then he stopped and saw the tall Ga-Vok and said only, "You are late."
"Nonsense, the Office of the Alpha is wherever his people have need of him.  I should have thought as experienced an adventurer as yourself would be sympathetic towards the wandering called for of a Ga-Vok leader."  
"Of course, I should know better than to expect otherwise from you.  The Alpha is, as always, a servant of his people."  
Salvia noticed that both Braga and the Alpha's tails stopped moving, and began to stiffen.  James clearly didn't notice, but she could tell that he and much of the crowd were becoming uncomfortable as well.  
"I see you have chosen to bring Braga with you, and the Spell-Fan from Gasca, who has spared the Falling-leaves much embarrassment.  These two are of my warding; I am sure you will take good care of them both."  
"It is in your power to do so, if you send your troops at..."
"Oh get off it."  The sheer mundane quality of the phrase through Salvia for a loop.  "You will have your army, and a fleet.  But know this, your crusade shall not meet with the end you claim to seek.  I do not come to aid you, I come to honor the alliances of my ancestors and to honor my own commitments.  You, Old Cloak, are but an afterthought in the mind of the Ga-Vok.  And so also your schemes.  The Oracles have told me of you, and your conspiracy, and I will not see people thrown away to serve a bit part in your games.  When we come, Braga will be our contact, and I will lead the battle with my own axe.  And when we are done I shall spit on the vacant throne and our debt shall be re-payed.  Is that clear, mange-mutt?"

Hack turned silently and headed to the ship.  Braga caught Salvia before she began to follow.  "The Alpha wants a quick word with you."  
"I do actually.  I have owed you a personal thanks for some time now.  Although it is..not permitted for me to do so."  
"I mentioned how I was from the same tribe as the warrior who's murder you investigated?  I failed to mention, he was my nephew, the girl you saved, she is my brother's daughter."
"She has begun to dtudy spellcraft with the Oracles today,"  The Alpha stated quietly.  "I just dropped her off in their care.  She hopes that someday she can serve the Oracles much as you serve the Witches."  He took out a pendant and handed it to her.  "She wanted you to have this.  It isn't much in the ways of magic, but it will identify you as favored by the Oracles, and by the Alpha.  On the behalf of Braga's brother, a thankful father, may it bring you fortitude and insight in all your travels."  
The Alpha raised his muzzle in the traditional sign of respect between one Ga-Vok and another, and Braga joined him in it.  Salvia bared her own throat in response, then hurried back to the ship.  

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Other WItch; Situation on Seclora

"Other than there being a lot more aliens here, what makes this Empire any different than the last one?  I mean," James continued, despite the very obvious increasing threat of Salvia doing unthinkable things to everyone in her vicinity who wasn't either Braga or blatantly foreign.  "Your all the same species, right?"
Braga put a hand on Salvia's shoulder and whispered, "Cut the boy some slack, he is only Human after all."  Then he swiveled towards the only human member of their little party and addressed him directly.  "Let us simply say that there are significant ideological differences.  The Nieldic Empire, or 'old Empire', is made up of traditionalists, the old nobility, those who wished to defend what they had some thousands of years ago, and for the most part is happy to stay behind the defenses they've built around themselves over the ages.  This Empire, the Secloran Empire, is the descendants of people who wanted to expand, to be free of the old ways, and to exercise their power over the universe.  But since then things have taken very different routes.  The Seclorans have a strongly religious, fluid nobility, and the nobility is ten times as large; where the Nielda have a very strong, respected, and generally ancient nobility.  That said, the Nielda have less nepotism, since even nobles are expected to fight for the highest ranks, and yet even the lowest Secloran can achieve nobility."
"Also," Salvia broke down and declared in low, bitter tones, "The Seclorans consider witches an affront against God and like to burn us when they can find us.  This, along with their tendency to treat other magic users, anyone else they have religious differences with, and their 'client' races as second class citizens makes them the most bigoted, self-righteous smegheads in the known universe."
Braga sighed.  "Yes, While I can't comment on their views of other religions or magic users, the fact that they assume I lack both is indicative of the third.  Be glad Humans look so similar to Nielda, or they'd probably be passing you a bunch of pamphlets with messages like 'submit yourself to the authorities, and sin no more', without actually finding out what you'd done first."
"I have no idea what either of you just said, but I definitely liked the other Empire's clothes better.  These people seem so stuffy and formal after the cool cloaks and below the shoulder dresses.  No offense Sal."
Salvia never wore dresses that low-cut, mostly because she didn't own any, but also because she had no occasion to wear them.
"None taken, I agree with you actually.  This whole place puts my hair on end."
It did.  Seclora lacked the same levels of magical saturation that the homeworld had, but Salvia hated to imagine what it would have been like here if they were.  The magic was tainted here, like thousands of warlocks working in unison to rip open gates to hell.  She had heard rumors of, while certainly not so many warlocks nor so foul  deed, shadowy deeds and deals with dark powers to gain the power of nobility, or even the emperor's ear.  Part of making power fluid, was that such deals could be struck at all, no member of the Imperial Nobility had done anything worse than necromancy since the Frostbourne wars.  Sure there were rumors about the late Empress, but they were nothing more than rumors.  Not that anyone could have been sure they weren't; everyone alive from her Father's era had been necrotized during the Death Cult attack.  It meant they were all still around, unless they'd fallen in battle, and stood as an eternal reminder of the consequences of a lapse in security.  It also meant that Toln was the first Emperor in over three hundred years who looked alive.  A fact that the Seclorans found not only abhorrent, but reason enough to have waged war across the deep parts of space between the two Empires, and even, at times, to outright invade.  They'd never suceeded, Salvia's sister witches had been influential in that matter several times, but it still left a burning hatred for the self-righteous outsiders in every Imperial citizen.  And nothing confirmed her preconcieved prejudice like the palor of evil magics that sat over the palace.
"I suspect dark magics.  Braga?"
"I second your outlook, supernatural forces are at work here."
James looked back and forth at them.  His limited experience with magic made him uncertain of the significance of their suspicions, but the presence of supernatural forces seemed obvious to him, his companions were a Witch and a short canine with a mind and reflexes like a steel trap.

"Quiet you three, the Seclorans are very formal.  Wait here, and don't get into any trouble."
Hack closed the door to the throne room behind him, leaving the rest of the group in a large room full of men who were all, from the looks of things, trying to get something from the Emperor.  There were guards, indistinguishable from one another in their massive, powered armor.  The amount of firepower in the room was probably equivalent to that of a normal Nieldic company of footsoldiers, and that was just the clearly visible, and absurdly large, rifles strapped to each soldier's back.  As Salvia surveyed the room, she quickly realized that those were the only defenses present.  There were no enchantments, no magic wielding elite, or even a few carefully hidden shock panels; only the garrishly garbed gentlemen, and the massive armored guards.  It was no wonder Emperor Kvald the Fourth had been able to singlehandedly fight his way into the throne room and slay their emperor; any true warrior could have done so with ease.  Clearly, it was only their unchecked aggression that had kept them from falling to every new threat the universe faced; any force that could get a handful of mages within sight of the palace could have rent the mundane defenses asunder before simply walking in, and the wards that prevented teleportation and scrying had the tattered feel of a flag in the aftermath of battle.  Perhaps they had more defenses in the past, a mage of Katherine's reputation alone could have swept the defenses they had now with a brush of her hand and with the next gesture struck entire buildings from the surface of the world.  Salvia actually began probing the defenses mentally, checking their strength against her own, just to see if it was plausible for a mage of her own limited power to penetrate them.
"Well golly folks," said James, "don't suppose I could get a drink or a chair perhaps?"
Everyone in the room gave him scathing, and in certain cases incredulous, glances, but neither spoke nor acted beyond the courses of their own affairs.
Braga snorted derisively, "I can see why the Alpha appoints only his weakest ambassadors to this place; it would test a warrior beyond his measures, but to a fool it is paradise."  That got more of a rise out of them.  A few of the more haughty looking solicitors turned up their noses and looked pointedly away from the strangers.  Salvia snickered, it was actually, to her knowledge, entirely true.  The Ga-Vok considered this a dead-end posting, and most warriors would have sooner been exiled outright.  The Nielda had no post here, for obvious reasons, but had in the past shared the opinions of the Ga-Vok.  Secloran politics was dull beyond measure, full of grandstanding and false patirotism, but they managed to make the system work well enough.  It was still a pain for the rest of the universe to deal with.
Salvia found a crack in the wards.  On any Nieldic world, or home, or base, or even ship, she would have mended it with a few words and been on her way, but this was a fairly considerable crack and in a hostile palace.
"Braga, can you hold their attention for a moment, I'm going to try something."
"Be careful."  He faced the group and said in a less than quiet voice, "Say James, did you know that the Secloran Empire has been shadowruled by no less than five seperate demons?  And they say that the Empress likes..."  Braga got hit in the nose by the nearest of the mob that had begun to form around him.  Even the guards were starting to move from their posts, and their focus was all focused on the irate throng.  It was the opportunity of a lifetime.  She stretched out her will and pictured another place, chanted a short incantation, and opened her eyes again.  The fight had vanished.  In its place was a little basement office she knew all to well.  The cobwebs in the corners had grown more noticeable, and the desk gotten dusty, but the nameplate on the desk was still legible, and there were still books on the shelf.  Salvia stretched out her mind and found the crack in the wards again, and pulled herself back through, with only seconds of absence.
"I thought I told you not to get into trouble."
"My apologies Old Cloak, I was indiscreet.  Next time I will be more quiet."
"Just be glad no one important was here today.  The emperor has agreed to send his fleet, and a number of troops.  But they are a pittance compared to what we will need.  I hope the Alpha will be more generous."

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Other Witch; Cleavage

The Palace of Seclora, on the planet of the same name, was alike to the palace of the Nielda in only two regards.  The first was that it was incredibly secure, the second was that it was full of powerful Nielda.  But that was all the commonalities shared between the two.  The Seclorans had rennovated, expanded, and outright built new palaces every five or six decades since their empire had been founded.  There were no gardens, no magical lore, and no dashing, handsome princes in sight.  The building was nothing like the imposing, ivy covered mega-bunker they had just visited.  The Seclorans had built a palace with more towers and turrets than could be found on all of Gasca, and it had windows and parapets where any reasonable Nielda would have put armor plating and structural reinforcement.  They displayed their defenses openly, and even as they flew in to the landing pad built in a part of the grounds that would have looked much better with a large pond and some willows, Salvia could see droves of servants and soldiers moving across the walls and through the outer hallways.  It was obvious to her that they relied more on a strong offense and open display of force to win their wars than did her own people, who had adopted a policy of critical strikes and persistent defenses.
"Salvia, you ought to change into something more...well, less witch-like really."  Braga stated quietly as they made their final approach.
"What?  Why would my clothes be a problem?"  Other than being cut a little low in the front and not covering her ankles, she couldn't imagine how even the most prudish sort of person could have a problem with her outfit.
"Seclora doesn't allow witches.  They believe you're a satanic influence forbidden by God, and should be burned at the stake.  Or at the least, that is the tradition I have been led to believe is practiced here."
"No wonder they've never been able to conquer us, all they have is mages.  I don't suppose you have anything else suitable to wear?"
Braga stared at her for a second.  "Are you asking me, the four-foot eight canine male, if I have any clothes that would be suitable for you, the six-foot six nieldic female?"
In retrospect, Salvia had to admit it was kind of a stupid question.  Hack probably had some stowed in a back cabin somewhere, but she didn't feel overly inclined to ask him for anything.  She'd seen what women on those adventures usually wore, and she'd seen what the ones who'd been on those adventures wore now, there might be things in her size, but nothing in her style.
"Just conjure something up, anything you'd wear on a date would be fine, I'm sure."
"I generally wear one of these on a date, or would if I did."
"How about something formfitting then, or anything with a corsets; you humanoids seem to like corsets for some reason."
"It relates to cleavage, and I'll not be demeaned in a foreign court by looking like something out of a fetish catalog."
"I have heard some of the male students and professors refer to this, 'cleavage', perhaps when we have more time you could explain it further.  But if you will not wear one of the more popular clothing styles, perhaps you could simply disguise the trappings of a witch?"
Salvia snapped and her dress fluttered for a moment, changing from black to blue as though soot had been scrubbed from it.  The embroidered spider web mark she placed on all her dresses, to identify her to other witches as a Witch-Errant, shifted about and took on the appearance of a purple flower recognizable to only a scant few Nielda as belonging to the Bane Vine.
"As easy a spell as that was, I can't help but feel this entire conversation was completely unneeded."
"Except for one thing, it can't be changed back.  Witch magic isn't like your magecraft, it lingers far longer and is nearly impossible to undo.  I just ruined a perfectly good dress, and I do all of that embroidery myself, so it'll take time to replace it too."
Braga wrinkled his nose.  "I am sorry for your lost effort, but I fail to see the importance.  Do you not have many more outfits just like it?"
"I hate to interrupt your lovely little conversation," James interrupted, "but we've landed, and I think we should all head down to the ramp."  He ducked back out of the room momentarily, then popped his head back around the corner and said, "That's a really great color Sal, why didn't you wear that when we went to the other palace?  It would have matched that Prince guy's cloak perfectly."  Salvia blushed and brushed out her dress.  She thought she'd recognized that color blue from somewhere, apparently her subconscious was lingering more than the rest of her was.
"James is right, it is a nice color blue.  And a very original flower design too, I'm sure that all the Nielda men will stare at something other than your cleavage."
"Braga,"  Salvia stated as the ramp began to lower.  "Never use that word again."
"At least,"  Hack said as he rode the descending ramp to the ground.  "Not while we're dealing with the Seclorans.  They tend to be more prudish about this sort of thing than Nielda do, and this is a diplomatic mission at heart.  Now everyone keep your minds out of the gutter, and Salvia,"  She up at Hack.  "Don't start any fights."

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Other Witch: The Gardens

The Gardens were, in all actuality, the oldest gardens in all of history.  They had been planted in the late years of the Junlaerd's reign, and had stood for more than twelve thousand years.  Some of the plants had stood since before the Frostbourne war, the family tree of the Spielgan clan, the bane vine, and the pond lilies were most prominent on the list, but hardly the only flora to reside within the gardens for so long.
The family tree, Curt explained, had been planted by Alfred Spielgan, Captain of the Guard during the reign of the usurper Zink, in honor of his father, who had given his life to defend the palace.  The tree always bore a flower for each member of the family born, and the flower persisted until that same family member died.  It had ensured that the clan always knew whether one of their kin was alive, no matter how dead they might seem.  Of course, only members of the family knew which flower was which kinsman, so it was useless to others.
The bane vine, he continued as they edged past it carefully, was originally given as a gift to the Junlaerd by one of his vassals.  To the best of anyone's knowledge, it was the only one in existence.  The poison it produced had two properties, the first being that it affected anyone, no matter their state or nature.  Lycans, vampires, and immortals alike had their normal immunities to death and pain pierced as though they were mere mortals, and it was said but never confirmed that it would work upon demons and the undead as well.  The second was that the poison was never lethal, not directly.  It did not damage flesh or bone, stone or steel, far worse, it stripped a mage of their access to magic until the proper antidote was administered.  However, Curt pointed out, while a file existed on the net for the antidote, and could be seen with a simple keyword search, access was restricted to only the highest admin, an entity known only as the_witch. As such, it was best to stay clear of the plant and have machines handle it, since they couldn't be affected by its effects.
"And here we come to my personal favorite, the pond lilies."  Prince Curt stopped and turned to Salvia.
"And what makes them special?  To they eat people, or predict the future using a careful positioning system?"
"No, they're just ordinary, non-magical lilies that happen to have survived twelve thousand years dwelling in an increasingly magical environment without mutating, adapting, manifesting magical tendencies, or simply dying outright."  A frog jumped off the side of the little pool and disappeared under the beautiful white flowers.  "Marvelous, aren't they?  To survive, prosper even, in circumstance that should have changed them a very long time ago.  There aren't many that can say as much."
"No magic at all?  You sure?"  Salvia had been to a lot of gardens over the years, they were very popular back on Gasca, but she'd never seen one where residual magic hadn't been permeating the fabric of localized reality.  Places where great feats of magic took place, where sprites had been known to live or to have died, anywhere battles had been fought, and a wide radius around the dwelling places of magic users tended to have a level of residual magic that affected the plant and animal life in them.  At several thousand years of Nieldic residence, there wasn't a spot in the Empire that wasn't saturated with magic by now.  The Homeworld, and the palace especially, were nearly as bad as Anatolia when it came to magic levels.  Things like the bane vine and the family tree didn't survive in non magical places, but something like an average pond lily shouldn't have been able to survive in the same garden.
"How does it do it?"
A chill breeze came in from behind them.
"They weren't always normal.  There was a powerful mage, who called herself Kate, that came here when I was young.  She set she was looking to give something back to all the places she'd been when she was younger.  I think she was trying to purge the old wounds of battle from the world, and herself I suspect.  She sat," He glanced around, then indicated a stone bench, green with moss.  "There, for quite some time.  Then she touched the pond and said 'Accept my small token, and my apologies.'  Then she left, right through the wards.  Didn't break them mind you, just stepped right out as easily as if she were moving through a curtain."
Salvia thought for a moment.  It was obvious he knew who she was, but he, like herself, was waiting to see what she knew before saying anything.
"I met Katherine on Stormguarde, in private, alone.  I would say she feels honestly bad about what she did and is genuinely repentant."
"She was there when my Grandmother died, my father and several of the guards confirmed this.  But I know she did not kill her, that was the work of others, ones who I believe had good reasons to do so.  Do you know if she is involved in Old Cloak's plans?"
"You know that she is his daughter, right?  And the lost princess of Gravaga also?"
"The second part yes, but not the first.  Doesn't surprise me though, if either he or Thalia had ever really wanted the other dead they had ample opportunities.  I always did feel like their encounters were far too scripted."
"She is involved in his plans, more so than I think any of the rest of us are.  I overheard her...arguing with someone."
"The Guards and I have been tracking her activities for some time now.  Did she mention some sort of ritual, or rite?"
Salvia thought back to the stairs in the little cottage on Stormguarde.  "I'm not sure, she was going to try and work a very difficult piece of magic, that much I'm certain of.  Something that was only accomplished once before, twelve thousand years ago by someone she called Rea, and it was at great cost."
Curt sat down,  brushing his cloak to the side to keep it out from under him.  "The records get foggy at that point.  There are a few works of fiction, and scattered reports; but the early years of the Empire, before the net, are hard to track.  Perhaps the Witches have some resources that would be helpful?"
"So you'd like me to help you find out what Old Cloak's doing, while offering him troops and your own sword in the same day?"  There was something fun about this whole conspiracy thing, much better than adventuring was.  Or maybe it was just working with him that she liked; unlike Hack and his closed doors and old friends, Curt seemed willing to tell her what he was up to and had this dashing way about him.
"Think of it as, when things go down I want to be there to prevent the worst of it.  I have a correspondence with one of the chief members of the Gravagan Military Command, and she tells me that there are going to be some political upheavals soon.  As a prince, it's in my best interest to be on the winning side; as a Nielda, it's my responsibility to see to it that things work out for the best."
"The spell was called 'Re-installation', Katherine's companion, whoever he was, thinks Hack's lost it, I think he's right."
"I agree with you.  But for now, we should go along with him until we know his plan.  Where will you go next?"
"Seclora, then to the Alpha, and finally the Harakai.  He's building an army."
"Have fun with Seclora; I'll send word ahead to the Alpha.  He's a wise and strong leader, and will probably know much of this already.  But I'll be certain of it.  Try to slip him whatever you can learn of the spell and the plan, and he'll forward it to me."  He stood up and looked back towards the palace.  "They'll be wondering where we are by now."
Salvia had a wild thought, something from one of Krell's stories about espionage and secrecy.  She leaned in and kissed the prince, briefly, he tasted a bit of peaches, probably from dessert, then broke off and whispered, "Then tell them the truth."
He blushed.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Other Witch; The Feast Hall of Emperor Gastron IV

Despite his Father's insistence, Prince Curt had invited the entire party to a feast in the palace.  Something about, a soothing bath and a softer bed than that of any starship, as befit such noble guests.  He hadn't taken his eyes off her the whole time he'd spoken, and it would have taken quite the spell to have convinced Salvia that he'd been thinking of anyone but her when he spoke of the luxuries that would be available to them.  She'd never been much for luxuries, not that she'd ever had the option, but after soaking in the fresh, enchantingly warm waters of the spring that bubbled up out in the gardens, specially piped in to enrich and fortify the travelers with the strength they would surely need for the coming battle, she couldn't help but feel like she could get used to it.  
They called it the Spring of the Maiden, one of a scant few sources of pure water on all the swampy world that had birthed the Nieldic race.  The Witches had said that it was home to the last of the nature spirits of the world, a truly ancient entity indeed.  Being the case, for Witches rarely told such stories idly, Salvia made sure to perform the proper rituals before setting so much as a hair in the water.  
Father Krell had told her another story, one he said had been taught to him by a member of the Imperial Family he'd met once.  He had called it 'the Font of Zink', and said that soaking in its waters enhanced the natural magical power of a mage.  But once, long ago, a young Empress had taken her bath in it and it granted the child she bore power unlike any of her age.  But that child had turned her power towards domination, and in the end claimed to be Death Incarnate.  
"Of course, it's not quite as effective once its come through the pipes, but natural magics like these have a particular tendency to work in exactly the manner they wish to, and rarely in the one we would choose."  
At dinner, a magnificent, lavish affair that used the feast hall of Emperor Gastron the fourth, who was known for his feasting but had actually been a highly competent Emperor and by all means a likable fellow, the prince had chosen, to Salvia's delight, to sit between her and Hack.  Ostensibly, this was so that he and Hack could discuss details further, and from the increasingly frustrated look on Hack's face, at least one of the three of them had failed to notice the word 'ostensibly'.  "But nevertheless, there hasn't been a child born in the palace without at least slight magical prowess since the Frostbourne war.  The Guards still use the spring itself for their rites and rituals, but then they are an order as much steeped in tradition as your own."
"You seem quite familiar with the lore of the palace and its grounds, as well as that of the guards.  Please tell me you make it outside of the Library from time to time?"
"I'm a bit hurt."  the prince jested.  "You really haven't seen the newsreels from Mejji yet?"  
She had seen them, of course, typical sort of propaganda.  Nieldic propaganda tended to be more honest than most, simply on account of the fact that neither the people paying for it nor those watching it were at any point fooled into thinking it was anything but the truth they wanted you to hear.  So at a certain point the media had just started telling the truth, steadfast in the knowledge that no one believed a word they said.  When they started believing it again, the people in the editing room had decided that it didn't really matter what was being said, and kept telling the truth because it was easier than coming up with lies.  That didn't mean the newsreels had gotten any less tacky and absurd, it just meant they were nice and accurate in the process.  
"I don't think they quite got the right angle in some of the stills, but overall, they painted you as quite the hero.  And I daresay, you strike me as the sort to play a mean game of TacSim."
"Never much of a taste for sports actually, I learned most of my strategy following Gran around Realm.  Her mastery of Maneuver and Logistics are really quite good, even for someone as experienced as she is."  Realm was the virtual reality preferred among the major nations; it let anyone become the hero of their own adventures, and was generally considered to be an excellent measure of international politics.  The Emperor's grandmother, Chasia Laerdsfeldair, had retired to the position of regent of virtual affairs following her husband's death.  On account of her unfortunate undeath, she was expected to hold the position for quite some time.  As Curt mentioned her, Salvia glanced over and saw the Laerdsfeldair talking in hushed voices with a rather pretty red-haired girl and a young man who seemed strikingly familiar, but whom Salvia could not remember having ever seen before.  
"My old mentor, Father Krell, used to talk extensively of his time in Realm; before the plague of course."
"Gran mentions a Krell sometimes, a strong, just warrior.  Perhaps they're related?"
"I doubt it, Krell never spoke of his family, except to say that he'd had one and still checked in on his descendants at times.  Unless your Gran spoke of his being a priest, I doubt they are the same."
"Not a priest, but religious at least.  But tell me this; aren't all witches orphans raised by the coven?  How is it that you came to have a Priest for a mentor?"
Nothing in her drink had indicated use of magic, and yet she still felt like she could trust him.  If she had not been sitting at a crowded table, with both Braga and Hack so nearby and the room full of guards, or more truthfully, if they were alone somewhere and she could secure the doors and windows, she would have told him the whole truth and prayed for an understanding reaction.  This was not the case however, and so she told him only what was simple.  
"He found me in the wreckage after a battle.  My parents had shielded me from the rubble with their bodies, and he almost didn't notice me.  But after that he always made sure to provide me with a place to live, things to read, and once a week he would take me out to teach me to fence or to counter-spell, all the while telling me tales of heroes, villains, and perfectly ordinary folk doing perfectly ordinary things.  When I first began to manifest, he moved me into the care of the coven.  He still came, and the matrons seemed to understand that even though they were the ones who raised me, he was the one responsible for me."  She paused and gauged his reaction.  A sort of half-smile, and sympathy; she had the feeling, perhaps from her witch's training, that he regarded his gran in much the same way; not exactly a parent, but certainly the one who'd always seen after him.  
"I'm actually here today because he went missing a month ago.  There was a scuffle at the Monastery on Gasca, and I lost his trail.  Hack,"
"Sorry, Old Cloak, says he knows where I'll find him."  She took a moment to consider the risks, calculated her chances, and took them.  "If you'd like, we could talk about this more later, elsewhere, but I don't feel like this is the time or place for certain subjects."  She glanced across his shoulder, both from the concern that Hack might be listening more closely than she wished him to, and to indicate to the Prince the cause for her concern.  Hack had given no indication of having heard, and seemed to be focusing his attentions on the activities of Chasia and her companions.  Curt seemed to get the cue and replied simply, "I'm sure a Witch such as yourself would like a chance to meet with the sprite of the spring.  If you'd like, I could come by your room around seven or so and give you a tour of the grounds?"
"I'd be delighted."  And Salvia meant it.  

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Other Witch; Heir to the Throne

"My sister say's that you're the legend himself, Old Cloak of..well, of old."  Emperor Toln the first had never been an especially awe-inspiring speaker, not even in public addresses or prepared speeches.  He was a great swordsman and powerful mage, and quite the looker, but he was just never going to be the sort of person who rallied the Empire to turn the tide in a war.  For all her faults, and there were many, his mother had been the sort of war-time orator the Empire needed.  Of course, none of his siblings were any better, and he was unquestionably the most level headed of them, but that didn't mean they wouldn't have liked someone who could deliver a punchline without laughing.
"I am."
"And rumor among my councilors is that you're here to request use of my army."
"This," Hack had this abrasive dominance about him that was clearly not helping the inexperienced Emperor.  "Is also true."
"Alright, then why are you talking to me?  The one's who run that sort of thing are the council, I'm still planning my coronation tour and mourning my mother's passing."
Salvia, and she suspected several of the Guards as well, had to fight every overly-dramatic, warrior, Nieldic instinct she had just to keep from rushing the throne and gutting the lazy cur where he sat.  The Imperial Guard captain, who looked to be fairly recently promoted himself, actually smacked him in the back of the head.
"Because it's your job Father."  Salvia spun to see where the voice had come from.  A lightly armored man of about her own age had come out of one of the side passages while they'd been speaking.  His cloak, a regal shade of blue, fluttered behind him, as much from his own speed than from the ages worth of overly-dramatic spells that lingered in the room.  Clearly, this was one of the Emperor's sons, a fact that could have been determined as easily from his bearing as from his clothing, but was most obvious in his bright blue eyes and the fact that he had just referred to the formentioned lazy cur as 'father'.
He was also, Salvia hoped no one would notice, at least as handsome as his father, and had managed to draw from her a rare blush with a gaze that lingered just long enough to be noticed, but not so long as to seem ungentlemanly 
"My son, Curt."
"We have war at hand already.  The Seclorans seek to end us for breaking the Non-Involvement Pact, and with the Empress dead they see us as weak.  You have to at least pretend you care about running the country.  It is exactly this sort of weakness that lead to their exodus in ages past."
"That won't be a problem."  Hack managed to break both of their concentration with a sharp tap of his sword against the faux-marble floor.  "I intend to convince them to join me as well."
"Work with the Seclorans?!"  Toln, it seemed, had at least one strong feelings regarding working with the enemy he had devoted much of his life to fighting, as had most all citizens above the age of sixteen.  Life proceeded as normal in most of the Empire only because so many were willing to serve and fight for the dead space and scattered star clusters that separated the two great Empires of the Nielda.  As a Witch, Salvia had been exempted from service, but Father Krell had spoken often of the trials the war subjected all Nielda to and he'd told many personal accounts of fighting.  He'd never hated the Seclorans the way many did, but he also seemed quite certain that he had fought on the right side when he had.
"Yes, the enemy we face wields nearly half the armies of Gravaga, it will take all the galaxy's legions to defeat her.  I know of your dispute, but it must be set aside for the greater good."
Toln launched into a blundering tirade about how he would never work with those monsters, no matter what the danger.  But while everyone else's attention was focused on the Emperor's ire, Salvia saw a roguish smile creep up the prince's cheek.  And as his father began to wind down, he stepped up and spoke his piece.
"I will speak with the councils.  My own men and I will join in your assault, and I will persuade those who I can to join me.  I do not relish the thought of fighting beside those cretins, but when my Great-Grandmother tells  her stories about facing down platoons of Gravagan soldiers, she tells them with the same voice as she speaks of facing dragons at the side of her friends.  My father and his generation may think her memory false and her stories nothing more, but I know enough to respect her wisdom.  Any enemy who would wield so much as a fraction of the Crystal Army, is an enemy worth guarding against by every means.  And so," he drew his sword and offered it towards Hack, Braga, James, and Salvia could feel the creeping blush once more, herself.  "You have my sword in the coming battle."
Toln spluttered about insolence and loyalty, but the Guards all nodded silent approval of the young prince.  Salvia couldn't blame them, he was half the age and twice the man, but that could have just been the blush talking.

This was post 400! yaay!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Other Witch; The Sergeant-at-Arms

The Palace had been built years before the first Nielda ever discovered that space existed, a fact made possible primarily on account of their homeworld's unusual positioning in a binary star system.  But even now, thousands of years later, the palace was every bit as inaccessible and magnificent as it had been when it was first built.  Admittedly, It had been rebuilt on at least one occasion since, but the blueprints were widely available and it had been rebuilt exactly to specifications.  The general consensus was that being able to be obliterated by demons didn't really count as a design flaw, although for insurance purposes it wasn't really an act of God either.
It stood forty stories high, but only contained about twelve floors, such was the armor alone.  Every ward imagined, defense invented, and potentially millions of each completely forgotten had been showered upon it; mostly at the personal expense of the Imperial Family.  In fact, the legendary Imperial Guards were the only thing in the building provided for by the budget, even maintenance was paid for by the various business ventures of the Emperor's family.  This made the tax-paying public, and penny-pinching council of nobles, very happy about the state of the Empire.  A family that could take care of their gigantic, murderous death trap of a house, could take care of their gigantic, murderous death trap of an empire.
Which left Salvia wondering why Hack insisted on openly wearing his sword as they walked off the train to the front door.
"Do you have an appointment?"  Apparently, they had a receptionist.  Somehow she'd expected guards.  Hack stepped up and pulled out what Salvia recognized as a form from the Bureau of Simplification.  He set it on the desk and the woman looked up at him without even reading it.  "This is a permission to speak with the Empress form.  The Empress has been dead for over a month, this form no longer does what I think you want it to do.  Are you sure you don't want a permission to speak with the Emperor form?  I have them over on the rack."
"Do you know who I am?"
"Old Cloak, the guy who takes people on adventures to thwart blah blah blah, yeah I know who you think you are.  Even if you were him, and you should see a therapist if you really think you are, you'd still have to fill out the form.  Now either fill out the right form or I'll remove you from the building."
Hack reached out and pulled her over the desk, flinging her headlong at the rack of forms.  Surprisingly, she managed to flip in the air and landed feet first, sliding to a stop in front of the rack, drawing a bloodstone scimitar as she did.
"Security!  We have hostiles at the front gate, engaging."  She leaped back at Hack, but Braga caught her on the flat of his axe and flung her to the ground.
"I assure you, this is The Old Cloak.  He is no imposter, and has been recognized by both the Countess of Stormguarde and the Earl of Star Haven.  I, Braga of the Falling Leaves clan, stake my honor upon his claim."
"Falling Leaves clan?"  She stopped herself, just out of reach of Hack's sword, which Salvia couldn't remember him having had in his hand a moment earlier.  "I had an assignment with one of your people a few years back.  Jhok?"
"He is my sister's husband, a good hunter and reputable man."  Braga nodded.
"Your clan is known for its honor, and I do not believe you would stake it if you were not certain of this."  She turned her head skyward and continued.  "Hold security, run a check on these four; cross-reference files with the immortal database and the Witches registry.  I want confirmation of identities."
"Thank you for your patience.  Jhok mentioned a Nielda in our correspondence, but not a guard.  Are you not Cera, daughter of the Empress?"
"It is Cera, sister to the Emperor now.  My brother and his Captain agreed to make me Sergeant at arms over the watch.  It is not what I would have hoped for, but I like it all the same."  She glanced at Hack.  'Most of the time at least."
"What's this about the Empress dying?"  Salvia had been hearing rumors of this for sometime, but no announcement had been made.  Some said she had sought immortality and been struck down by the guard; others claimed she had been assassinated by a lich, but had destroyed it in the process.  There was even one story that involved her being a lich herself, and that she'd been killed by Arcania herself for some minor slight.  Having met Katherine, Salvia found the last one unlikely.  Besides, what guard captain would have permitted an Imperial to hold the throne while Immortal?  It was one of the only rules imposed on the throne really.
"Toln said, 'it was messy, and I don't want to talk about it.'  Grandma says it was Admiral Casat, but he's been dead for hundreds of years.  If you ask me, she blew herself up experimenting with black magic.  She was always doing it, and it was bound to happen.  I loved my mother, but she was a crazy old woman, and more than a little evil."
Admiral Casat, Braga quietly explained to James, was a famous Nieldic hero from a few hundred years back who'd slain a Lych responsible for inflicting undeath upon all the Nielda of the day.  He was also, apparently, a close friend of the Imperial family and had died at a young age.  Something about that last note brought a slim smile to Hack's lips.
"Confirm identities?"  The voice seemed to come from the walls themselves.
"State your full name and occupation, if you lie, you die.  Tell the truth and we'll grant you an audience with the Emperor."
"Braga, of the Falling Leaves clan, resident scholar at the Arcane Academy."  A tone sounded, indicating that he spoke the truth.
"James Ernst, Thief"
"Salvia Hex, Witch-Errant"
"My Full Name?  You wouldn't have it on record."
"Our database is very complete.  Besides, we're using a zone of unfaltering truth and certain justice, even if we don't have it on file, we'll still know."
"My name is secret for a reason.  It would ruin much to reveal it."
Salvia chanted a quick spell to place everyone but herself and Hack into stasis.  It wasn't really a standard issue witch's chant, but she didn't like to let on that she was actually fairly adept as a mage, besides being a properly trained witch.
"Go ahead and say it, Hal.  Your daughter already told me, and none of them will hear it now.  Unless I'm mistaken about the range of my spells, even the guys in the booth can't hear you right now.  But we'll never get in there unless you spit it out."
Hack grumbled something about how Katherine should keep things to herself, then looked up at the ceiling and spoke as the rest had.  "Hal Immersfeld, Lord Executioner, prince-consort, and General of the Armies of Gravaga."  Salvia broke stasis just before the tone sounded, allowing Cera and the guards to make note of it.  Cera looked suspiciously at her, but made no mention of the spell.
"You may enter, but we'll be watching you, Old Cloak."

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Other Witch; In The Earl's Palace

"I will speak with her alone."  Hack was being characteristically taciturn.  "Wait here and stay out of trouble."
He opened the doors dramatically and began to address the Earl as soon as she came into sight.  Salvia walked to the nearest bench and sat down with the report Katherine had given her.  Before she could start she heard a voice from ahead of her.  There was an armored woman with an unstrung bow standing next to one of the pillars in the hall.  She would have been behind it when they'd entered, but now that Salvia was seated, she could see that there were actually armored guards behind all of the pillars.
"I said Hey."
"Good morning to you too.  Is something the matter?"
"The old dude who's talking to Gammy, he your dad or something?"
"Gammy?  You mean the Earl?"
"Yeah, the one with the big, fiery throne and the sun motif.  Is he your Dad?
"No, You're the Earl's Granddaughter?"
"Does it matter?  She's the scary old boss lady; we're her scary knights.  If he's not your Dad, why are you here?  Witches don't do adventure, everyone knows that."
"I'm looking for a priest, a man named Krell."
The guard pursed her lips and, as best as Salvia could tell, looked off into the distance.  "I don't know his name, but there was a priest visiting the city today.  He was that girl, the one who always used to be a teenager but she wasn't a teenager this time.  If I see him, and it is the guy, who should I tell him was asking?"
"Well, Salvia, I'm Lieutenant Gwen.  I hope your old dude and my Gammy have a successful diplomathingie and that you don't die of boredom waiting."  And then she took off.

Braga glanced over at her when he heard the sound of Gwen's boots.  He and James were waiting patiently on the other side of the door, and apparently had not noticed the guards on their side of the room.  Which left Salvia wondering how the cryptic passersby always seemed to find her.
"Wonder why we can't go in this time."  James muttered.  It was a valid question, he'd taken everyone in to see the Countess.  Perhaps the Earl needed more persuading and there were details that mere mortals such as themselves couldn't be allowed to know.
"They are old friends, perhaps they are having tea?"
"Maybe they're having sex!"
Salvia blushed.  Such thoughts had doubtless occurred to all of them, but it took a human to actually suggest it.  In any case, she doubted Hack was the sort of man who'd do such a thing; even when his wife had been dead for hundreds of years.  Other than eating, he'd never displayed any natural desires of any sort; as though he was driven by nothing but the force of his own will.
And so they waited.  Braga explaining, at length, the nature of the immortal sex drive to James, who looked both mortified and fascinated, and Salvia standing quietly, stifiling the occasional giggle at Braga's academic approach to the matter and pondering what must be running through the minds of the guards, who were likely immortal themselves.
It was one of the less known facts about Star Haven, that it was the home of an order established at the height of the Frostbourne war.  The Rune Knights, as they were known, had mastered the use of certain forms of enchantment and alchemy that allowed them to exercise incredible power, despite most of them being only mortal.  Using these powers, they had been tasked to hunt down the Lych who served Arcania, a task they were believed to have continued in even after the war's end.  Gwen, who had still not returned, had on her breastplate a series of runes, and it seemed reasonable to conclude that all of the guards here were knights.  Since Star Haven had been constructed as a defensive station, the only real benefit to recruiting the Earl would be access to the Rune Knight's services.  Salvia couldn't see much point to having anyone like Gwen on their side, but with luck she was twice the fighter she was a guard.

The door swung open, considering that it was Hack opening it, it was rather less dramatic than had been expected.
"For the last time Hariel, no."
The Earl wore an outfit clearly intended to emulate the look of a phoenix, bright, on fire, and with a train of embers that followed her wherever she went.  Hariel herself was a tall, blonde woman with long blonde hair and a figure like a fairy queen.  But where the Countess had been elegant and formal, it was clear that Hariel was a fighter with a good wardrobe department.
"Oh come on, she's been dead for years Hal, no one would ever know."  James, it seemed, had at least been on the right track.  "It's not like you've never done it before.  All those years travelling with beautiful, talented women..."
Hack spun around at this, and Salvia caught a glimpse of something in his eye that gave her a sudden, strong urge to cling to something with a hardness of no less than eleven.  Apparently Hariel saw it too, because she fell silent instantly and the fires in her dress seemed much diminished, revealing rather a lot of lace, and more skin than was strictly proper for a woman of her status.
"I have never, in all my years, done any such thing.  No woman could ever compare to her.  And you had best learn your place, and stop seeking to usurp hers."
There was a silence.  Even though all the guards had revealed themselves by now, none seemed ready to spring to action.  Hariel sighed, the waver in her hands betrayed her fear, even a growing anger, but she managed to speak with as much composure as before.  "Very well.  My men will join in your crusade, blasphemous as it is.  And I will begin shipping supplies through to those who remain loyal to the true Gravaga, as we have discussed.  But the next time you come asking favors, know that my debt is repaid."
Then both of the immortals motioned to their parties to depart.

As they returned to the ship, James broke the silence.  "Why are all the rulers of these places ridiculously hot, immortal women who already know the old man?  Why can't just once we run into a young man who's got no clue who we are?"