Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Storm Mage; Chapter Two

"Tala!  The Maid's were saying that you had a private audience with Father.  Is it true?  Did you talk to him?"
Tala's sister, her only full blood relative besides her father, was sitting in her usual spot next on the balcony with her knitting and a book, 'Illusions for the Royal or Mildly Paranoid'.  Unlike, and in many ways because of, Tala, Niste had become a proper princess.  To the rare human visitor to the court, it was obvious that she was the prize to be won if one was to try and marry into the family.  She was feminine, delicate, looked good in a dress and knew it.  She had wavy blonde hair that came down to her shoulders and shimmered like good silk, and even though she was several years younger than Tala, she was both taller and curvier.  And that was all before she broke into her vast supply of magical illusions and mystic alterations.
Of course the Nielda didn't think of a princess as someone you married off.  A princess was someone you expected to lead armies into battle and come home victorious.  A princess didn't have to be pretty, she had to be smart and able to run a country when her parents passed.  And when a delegate from the Imperial Guard had visited the Summer Palace on Gasca, where both Tala and Niste had lived their whole lives, he had still assumed that Niste was the princess.  Because when you boiled it all down, Tala was the shortest person in the court, and people expected to look up to their leaders.  Especially in her family, lead by the tallest man in the empire.

"It's true, I talked to him.  He wanted to make me an offer."
Niste set her knitting aside and jumped up to face her sister.
"And?  Is he going to protect us?"
"He'll protect you."
"What about you?  What'll you do?"
"I'm goin to command his troops.  I leave for trainin in the morning."
Tala could see her sister catch her crest as it fell and compose herself.  Much as they both disliked it, the guard had been right, Niste would make a much better princess than she would.  Even if it didn't convey strength, strength wasn't all people wanted to see when bad news was delivered, a little bit of weakness said just as much as years of strength.  Tala never would've been able to give them that, but Niste couldn't stop herself.  She'd do well at court, it was where she'd always been meant to be.  Tala wished she could say the same of herself.
"But who will protect you if I'm not around?"
Tala laughed and hugged her sister.  They both knew she needed no help taking care of herself.  Niste was an illusionist and even dabbled in enchanting, but Tala could kill men with her stare and stop light in its tracks if she tried.  The only thing that had given Niste the peace to wear dresses and knit her, whatever you called them, was Tala's ability to fight off anyone, and there were many, who tried to hurt them.  It was that strength that had gotten their father's attention, and it was that strength that would keep her safe.
"I guess we'll both have to trust our father's men to take care of things."
They both retired to their own seperate chambers for the night.  The suite they lived in was three rooms and the balcony.  It was luxurious, but small by palace standards.  And alongside access to the Palace facilities, it had given the two of them enough room to stay out of each other's hair, while still keeping them close.  Tala was pleased to find that her father was a man of his word, as she could detect, though only barely, that there were two guards posted on the balcony, and another at the door.  With that knowledge, she slept more soundly than she had for many years.

"Have you got my cloak?"
"The green one or the blue one?"
"I was thinkin the gray one."
"You want to go into battle in Gray?  But its so droll and uninspiring."
"Yeah, but it'll stand up to the weather better than the rest would.  Have to be practical about this sort of thing."
Niste sighed and opened the closet.  Tala never went in herself, Niste had much better choice in clothes than she did.  If it was up to her, she'd have marched into her father's court in jeans and a T-shirt.  All these formalities just seemed like a lot of nonsense as far as she was concerned.  But Niste liked them, so she tolerated it.  She'd have done anything for her sister.
"So if you're wearing the gray cloak, I think we should go with the dark blue blouse, the loose one, and black trousers.  And a swordbelt, even though you haven't got a sword to wear with it.  It'll give you kind of a swashbuckler sort of look, and I think it'll go great with your hair."
Tala tried to picture it, but she'd always had a bit of trouble visualizing and couldn't quite wrap her mind around it.  Niste brought the indicated articles of clothing out and did a little tiddly thing with her hands.  Tala had never really understood why Niste preferred the tiddly movements over a simple brushing gesture, but she did and ultimately they both got her in and out of clothes without her having to figure out how all of the laces and clasps worked so she wasn't going to complain.  Niste conjured up full length mirror and moved to Tala's side to get a proper look at it.
"How'd I do?"
"You're right, it would look better with a sword.  But I do like it."
Niste pulled her hair back as gently as she could, which wasn't as gently as she thought it was, and began to tie it into a pony tail.  It wasn't easy, and it hurt a bit.  Tala did not take nearly as good of care of her hair as Niste did, and it was frizzy and tangled.  People had always said it had the potential to be extraordinarily pretty if she put some effort in, but Tala just had other things she was more concerned about, like keeping Niste and herself alive.  Finally she felt a last few stray hairs being pulled as a fancy jeweled clasp was locked in place at the end of her hair, it barely weighed anything but it still rested against her back and Tala would've never admitted to her sister how uncomfortable she found it.
"There, now you look just like Petra herself, a right swordswoman."  Niste was beaming, and Tala wondered if anyone else would have been able to tell how she really felt.
"I'll miss you Niste.  Who will protect me from my bad fashion sense and poor hygiene when you aren't around?"
"I'm sure you'll meet a nice man with a good sense of style and class up the wazoo."
"What's a wazoo and why would class be coming out of it?"
"Oh its the sort of small pitcher they put the..."
Niste was interrupted by a knock at the door.
"I'm here to escort Miss Tala to the shuttle.  Are you both decent?"
"No, but we're both dressed."
The door opened and a gruff looking gentleman stepped in.  He looked to be in his hundred and fifties, judging by the gray of his mutton chops and the tone of his skin.  He wore an oblong hat that was as wide at the top as at the brim, but much smaller in between, and a uniform that had been kept clean, decorated with the sort of medals only obtained by getting dirty.
"The name's Coleridge, David Coleridge.  But you can call me Chops, or David, or Colonel Coleridge.  I even respond to Colonel Mustard sometimes, if I'm not hearing well or the wife's not around.  I'll be your Executive Officer, and top adviser."
"I thought I was going to trainin?"
"You are, of a sort, strategic command the old fashioned way, by watching us old hats until you feel ready to pitch in yourself an' what-like."
"You mean, By commandin actual troops?"
"Yes, I believe that was what your father meant when he told me to get you out into the field as soon as possible."
Tala could feel Niste's grip on her cloak tighten.  This wasn't what either of them had expected.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Storm Mage; Chapter One

The way of the warrior, it was said, was to know the peace within thyself.  Only through that peace could one hope to weather those without.
Tala was a warrior, no one would question that.  But she'd never really felt at peace.  Perhaps it was the fact that the Empire had not seen peace in her Grandfather, dead before her birth, or father's combined lifetimes.  And mind you that was adding the totals, not counting it based on their reigns as most did.  She often reassured herself that this was coincidence, and had nothing to do with her Great-Grandfather's reputation as a selfish brute who had no qualms about ordering the deaths of any imperial family member who would have managed to keep the empire as stable as it supposedly still was.  Such a notion was, as her ambitious mother had often put it, preposterous.
Or perhaps it was her family life.  After her mother's untimely death, which most of the court would forever insist was an unfortunate hunting accident, she'd been left the responsibility of keeping her younger sister safe.  In most families this would have been relatively safe; a stern warning that fire was very hot and making sure they didn't run with scissors, but in Tala's family, that meant killing assassins and exposing plots by jealous relatives, and overzealous off-worlders.  In short, she'd learned not to trust anyone, and further still she'd learned the most expeditious manners in which to dispose of anyone or thing that she could no longer justify continuing to allow to exist.  Most of the court had learned to stay on her good side, the rest just kept in mind how they'd gotten their job and stayed out of sight.  It had made her teenage years rather lonely, and her adult ones more so.  But if she wasn't happy, she was at least glad to be alive enough to answer the question.  And at the end of the day, that was the important part.

Of course, the skills that had kept her alive had also gotten her noticed by her father.  King Than of Gasca was, and this was no exaggeration, one of the most imposing presences in all Nieldic history.  He was literally a foot taller than the next tallest Nielda in the Empire, every one of his eight and a half feet covered in markedly defined muscle.  He was broad, and wore armor even to fancy parties.  And above all else, he valued strength.
Tala was strong, but the family resemblance vanished there.  She was short, and not simply compared to her Giant of a father.  At five and a half feet, she was the shortest person in the court.  Even her younger sister, now sixteen herself, stood at nearly seven foot.  She was also slight of build, like a willow in a forest of redwood.  Visitors often remarked that she was the most beautiful thing in the palace, but Tala felt that in any less masculine a setting, they'd have felt otherwise.  She held only one trait to be attractive about herself; her long, chestnut colored hair.  It was her favorite part of herself, Aesthetically speaking, and the only thing she ever paid special attention to.  And when her Father had called her into his presence, it was the first thing about her which he noticed.

"Tala, daughter of Gorra, my third wife."
"Yes your majesty."  Tala curtsied politely.  Not as politely as was probably expected of those entering his presence, but enough to seem an honest mistake.
"The rest of you, leave us.  I wish to speak with my daughter."  The room emptied quickly.  It was not merely his appearance which drove fear into the hearts of the assembled, and Tala had not gotten her ruthless efficiency from her mother.
When the had all gone, Than stepped down from his throne and set his hand on her shoulder.  With the other her raised her chin.
"You have your mother's hair, and her skin as well.  But I can see you have the fire of a warrior in your eyes, and if my captain is to be believed, you have the ferocity of Tara under five moons."
"I'm sorry sir, I was only seekin to keep my sister safe."
"I see.  Then my Captain and his men have not protected you?"
"If they have, I haven't seen it.  All due respect."
"I see."  Than began to pace in front of her.  His face was not the sort that represented anything but anger with real clarity, but she could tell that he was considering the situation carefully.  "Tala, I have a proposition for you.  I shall send my own men to watch over your sister."
"Thank you sir!"
"And in exchange, you will take up the rightful place of a warrior like yourself.  You see, we have many enemies who will not be swayed by reason or a steady hand, and for that we maintain an army.  I want you to stand at the head of this army, lead it into battle and show our enemies that we are not to be triffled with.  Do these terms seem agreeable to you?"
Tala thought of her time with TacSim, and her years of fighting assassins and the like.  She could do it, and it would certainly be to her liking.  Than was a man of his word, and she knew he would fulfill his end of the bargain and protect Lysstrelle as well as she had.  There was really no reason to say no, not that it had ever truly been an option to begin with.
"It would be my honor, Father."

Friday, April 13, 2012

Short Story; Frostfall

The Stone Henges were said to have been set by the Sons of Cain in the days before even the Nielda had begun to travel through the stars.  They could be found on every major species' homeworld, save that of the Nielda, and even the homeworlds of most of the less important species.  But they were also found on thousands, if not millions of worlds that had been home only to trees, grass, and rodents, who the Sons of Cain may well have brought with them.  The first one that the Nielda had found had been on Appeni, known even after the Frostbourne war as a garden world.  It had been found by the sage of that world, a woman named Ceanne.  But on the records, the first one discovered was found three years later on Decidua, the homeworld of the Ga-Vok.
The first explorers had discovered the greatest property of the stones that very same day.  In trying to escape the Ga-Vok, the team's mage had tried to set wards on the stone circle, already a safe point as a result of its location and design.  Instead, he managed to trigger the magic already set upon the stones and found that they projected an impenetrable barrier.  Thousands of years later, a Gascan princess and general tried to breach one of these barriers, causing incredible damage to the surrounding hillside and permanently altering her own appearance.  Her name was Tala, and she always referred to it as one of her only two failures in life.
They had other properties too.  While the barrier was active they could generate enough food to satisfy the hunger of their inhabitants.  Waste, excrement and otherwise, seemed to magically non-exist within the barrier.  And there was always your first choice of beverage on the altar stone.  And none of it seemed to be affected by any of the laws that normally governed those sorts of enchantments.  There was no power source, save perhaps the stones themselves, and none of it seemed to come from or go too anywhere.  Official statements from both top enchanters and scientists, and the military, stated that this was clearly a divine or 'natural' magic.  

Of course, this wasn't the first stone circle that Kate Immersfeld had encountered.  She'd basically done her dissertation on the matter, and this one defied any of her prior knowledge.  The stones were cracked, and the altar was riven.  But those were merely physical problems, any team of Imperial Guard relic restoration specialists could have fixed that.  The problem was that the magic felt wrong.
Now magic was not generally a natural thing, so its hard to say that it ever felt right.  But this was a particular, and she found this part especially bothersome, familiar sort of wrong.  She'd felt it on her trip to visit the circle on Anatolia, the whole planet felt like this.  The Library at the Arcane Academy felt somewhat like this, but more muddled.  It was the way a demon's magic felt.  And even on Anatolia the circle had felt, for lack of a better word, shiny.  But here it felt rather the way that a black hole behaved, like a puncture in the fabric of whatever it existed in.  You felt drawn towards it, but it was also dangerous to get too close.
But if Arcania, for so she called herself, was anything, it was curious.

"ZeeGee, you want to have a look?"
The cold around her coalesced into a sort of man shaped white mist.  The Frost King, who's true name she alone knew, would have been more than a match for most any threat that faced them.  But Arcania knew that the same could have been said of her, for she had studied magic her whole life, and had the strength and skill to kill nearly anything that they would face.
Including, as she had proven in the past, a demon.
"My lady, I do not believe that would be wise.  This presence is powerful beyond anything we have encountered in the past.  I do not wish to see you come to harm."
"Oh dear, is it really that powerful?"
"I'm afraid so."
"Then I guess we'll just have to both go."  And she climbed over the fallen stone and into the circle proper.  ZeeGee fell weirdly silent, although she was aware of his yelling to her.  The rest of the world seemed so far away all of a sudden, like it was another plane of existence.
"Good.  Good.  Just as Legion predicted.  I am glad all my years of waiting shall finally pay off."
"Hello Demon.  Shall we start by you telling me your name and end with me banishing you from existence?"
"Overconfident, bold, and powerful are three of my favorite traits in an immortal.  You have them all.  You shall do quite well as the figurehead for my armies." 
"And you'll be a fine story to tell my sisters.  Are we going to stand her all day or will you just stand there talking like my mother?"
Arcania had been too involved in the banter and she realized it as the first blow came.  Not from in front of her, where a shadowy giant stood, but from behind.  A tendril of darkness caught her by the leg and flung her against the stones.  She lashed out with a flurry of sharp, icy blades, severing the tendril and a dozen like it.  She erected a barrier against the rest and incanted a series of wards against demonic assault.  But they all fell away as soon as they'd been incanted.  The circle's enchantments hadn't just been broken, they'd been inverted!  She couldn't get out, she couldn't be protected, and she was starting to feel hungry.
"I like your trap, its very clever."
"Oh do you now?  I rather hoped you'd appreciate it, I've put a lot of thought into how I'd bring you under my domination."
Arcania sundered the earth beneath his feet, forcing him to unfurl his vast leathery wings.  A hail of her favored frozen flechettes cut through them and she joined them with a wave of raw arcane energy.  His wings were left tattered, though still functioning, but he brushed off her magical onslaught with little regard for the effect it would have had on any other manner of being.  But that was as she expected for a demon, its main purpose was to occupy the monster's vision while she prepared a ray of light.  And as the demon's form showed through the blast, she loosed the pure white ray.  It missed the demon's heart, but tore through its abdomen.  She could hear its bones splinter as her blast glanced off of them.  It howled in pain, but it was not beaten.  She found herself barely able to shield herself against the barrage of corrupted bolts that it cast, and as she deflected one beam of devastating power after the next she tripped over another one of the Shadithic tendrils that emanated from the circle itself.  The Demon caught her under a press of shadowy power, and the last thing she remembered seeing was the hatred in its eyes and the black blood flowing from the wound she'd dealt it.