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?"

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Other Witch; Arrival on Star Haven

Hack spent most of the flight in the communications room.  When asked, he replied that he was arranging meetings with the various faction leaders, but after overhearing Katherine's conversation that morning, Salvia suspected there was more to it.  In all probability, many of the meetings would be little more than a formality.  Although she hadn't been present when they'd met with the Countess, Braga had informed her that the meat of the conversation was as simple as, 'You in?'.  The words were, of course, far grander and more political than that, not to mention rather melodramatic, but both Hack and the Countess seemed to have discussed this well in advance and the decision was already made.  Considering the morning's conversation, Salvia suspected that Katherine was the only one that had really needed convincing.

"She was Thalia's daughter, her eldest.  A number of years before the Frostbourne war she had a very public falling out with her mother, and she vanished from even the private eye.  To tell the truth, I believed, as I suspect many did, that she had been among the many immortals who fell in the war.  It is good that she was not, we will need powerful mages in the coming battle."
Braga had previously expressed a certain amount of knowledge of Old Cloak and the Dark Lady's battles, but while it was clear that this was much more than a passing interest or childhood entertainment; it was also clear that he knew little that could not be learned from a database or regular convention attendance.  Salvia wouldn't have been surprised if he'd gone in costume on more than one occasion, and tried to think of what Ga-Vok heroes had traveled with Old Cloak who he might admire.
"What was their argument about?"  Salvia was not a fan; she liked her adventures a bit less contrived.
"It was the same one it always was; Katherine didn't agree with Thalia's methods.  It was always clear she didn't care much for Old Cloak's methods either, but she rarely opposed him as directly.  Katherine was always thwarting the plans of both; opening locked doors, leaving important books in plain sight, and at times even giving contradictory orders to the guards.  To put it simply, she wouldn't play the game.  At a certain point her mother decided that she was a liability and they had it out.  You can't find an unedited copy of the argument, but something was said that crossed a line.  And Kathrine left; whether she fled or stormed out I don't know, only that she rent the teleportation wards in the process."
Salvia barely held onto her glass.  Teleportation wards were the most basic magical defenses, every important base, palace, and the private residences of most mages had one.  And in spite of being so simple a student could cast them, there had been a scant few mages in the course of history who had ever broken them.  The Paladin, Petra, was known to slip past them with ease, but never break them outright.  A few of the highest immortals had managed it at great personal cost, a years sleep or the color of their hair.  But most famous of all was Arcania, who had made a point of shattering wards where even armies couldn't have breached defenses.  The implications couldn't have been lost on Braga.
"You don't think she..?"
"All I know is that the wards on the Imperial palace were broken again just before the death of the Empress. Since she is alive, I have little doubt she was involved.  We should be careful."
Involved yes, but Salvia doubted that a woman who wouldn't so much as cook meat was responsible for assassination.  Arcania might have, but Kathrine didn't have it in her."

"We're arriving at Star Haven, prepare to disembark."  Hack's voice boomed over the loudspeaker.
The four of them walked down the ramp to Star Haven.  It had much in common with Stormguarde; they were both free-space, Frostbourne era city-stations known as harbors for immortals, adventurers, and merchants, but where Stormguarde was elegant, dark, and beautiful, Star Haven was practical and well lit.  The houses were smaller, and the shops less interesting, but the people looked less shifty and the taverns looked like proper taverns.  Further, it seemed clear that the city had only one political faction, which made no pretenses about being humble.  Signs directed you to the palace at every third intersection, and every fourth lamppost bore the banner of the smoldering star, the symbol of Earl Hariel, who had ruled the station since she first built it.
Hariel was widely, and rightly, considered the greatest pyromancer of her age, or any since.  During the early years of the Frostbourne war she had taken refuge under the crust of a planet, following an encounter with a considerable number of Lych.  It was there that she forged the core of the world into a small, bright star, and harnessed its power to sustain a sort of refugee camp for those made homeless by the great blizzard that ran at the forefront of Arcania's armies.  Thus the name of the station, Star Haven.  In the late days of the war, Hariel had faced, and defeated, Sara, the Lych Queen and sister to Arcania.  Since then, she had simply ruled the city while funding an order of immortal adventurers to hunt down the remnants of the Lych.  She was also, Braga informed her, a former companion of Old Cloak.
Katherine had referred to her only as 'the pyromaniac'.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Other Witch; Wallflower

"Well Katherine, I have to admit I'm surprised you're not involved in this already.  I'd have thought this sort of thing was right up your alley.  Many would wonder why you hadn't tried it before?"
Braga didn't know that Katherine, princess of Gravaga, was also Arcania, queen of the Frostbourne.  That was probably a good thing, the Ga-Vok would have considered it a great honor to kill Arcania, or even to face her in combat.  It wasn't as though she didn't deserve it, even to Salvia's knowledge, but such a conflict would have been problematic.  Whats more, it was unlikely that Braga would survive such a confrontation, strong as he was, and she'd come to appreciate his knowledge.
"Political complications rooting in the manner of my departure.  Putting it simply, yelling at ones mother and storming off is not a good way to remain heir to the throne.  The Gravagans may still recognize me for who I am, but that isn't exactly a good thing.  I believe the exact orders are 'hold for questioning'.  But the orders imply that my mother will be doing the questioning, and in her absence that amounts to a life sentence."  She paused and tilted her head downwards to get a more dramatic look.  "And immortals live for very, very long times."

James seemed dumbfounded by the entire exchange.  Although considering his lack of experience with even the mere existence of magic, that was to be expected.  Even less surprising was Hack's complete disregard for the entire exchange.  He'd never shown any interest in small talk before, and it was unlikely he would at any future point.  The Countess, however, was displaying incredible skill at both maintaining her own conversation with Hack, and paying attention to Braga and Kate's exchange.  Perhaps it was some sort of politician's social prowess, or maybe it was just a vampire thing.  Salvia didn't feel nearly as drawn towards this conversation as she had to the one that she and Katherine had been having prior to the arrival of the others. Not that any of them seemed diminished in any way, save perhaps Katherine, who seemed cowed by Hack's presence, it was just that there seemed to be a lot that they weren't talking about.  The absence of Empress Thalia, and where Hack had been all these years, seemed to cast a palpable shadow over their conversation.  Salvia decided to try her hand at some actual delicious sandwiches to pass the time and managed to wile away the hours without much further incident (Katherine had to rescue her from a dire encyclopedia she accidentally unleashed when she fell off a step stool trying to reach 'the self-updating geneology of the Imperial Family, accurate to t9 mage concealment'.  Apparently, Katherine told her, this happened fairly regularly; Salvia hoped she'd meant the stool.)


The next morning Went by without incident.  The Countess had excused herself shortly before sunset in order to attend to matters of state, and prevent her servants from realizing she'd been out all day.  Braga and James had returned with Hack to prep the ship at the ungodly hour of eight in the morning.  So when Salvia awoke she found herself alone in the little cottage with Katherine, who'd made breakfast and apparently been by later to reheat it.  Eggs and toast made from a variety of bread she'd never seen before, but which looked positively wonderful.  Some meat would have been nice too, but Katherine had made it clear at dinner that she was vegetarian.  Salvia scarfed down her meal and hastened downstairs to thank Katherine and say goodbye.  Before she reached the bottom she heard a voice she didn't recognize and stopped to eavesdrop politely.
"...sure about this?  The cloak may be your father, but he is not the man who..forgive my insolence dear one, I do not mean dishonor, but who completely failed to raise you as a child."
"He might not have been there," Katherine seemed almost resigned.  Like it was an arguement she knew she'd lost years ago, but still couldn't let go of.  "But that doesn't mean he didn't help raise me.  He's a good man, we just have to trust that he knows what's best."
"The spell has never worked.  Even if his intentions truly are pure, and my bones chill with the fear that they aren't, he asks more of you than should be asked of anyone.  Let alone his daughter."
"Rea did it.  She brought her brother back, in the days before Death walked among men.  I can do it, I know ever detail of the spell by heart.  You said yourself that there's no mage more suited for a feat like this than I am."
"And look at the cost.  Twelve thousand years she's hunted the undying, are you prepared to give that much to raise a woman who gave her life readily and willingly?"
There was a sound like a dragon's yawn, then the other continued, "I am, as always, your loyal companion.  I do not agree with this, but I will be at your side when you do it.  I pray that you know what you're doing"
"I do too, Zeeje, I do too."

Salvia decided this would be an appropriate time to finish going down the stairs, and made a point of yawning loudly so they would think she'd just gotten up.
"How much did you hear?"  Katherine was more difficult to deceive than most of her hosts it would seem.
"What spell is it, and who's Rea?"
"It's called 're-installation', and neither what it does, nor who Rea is, are in my best interests to say.  Doubtless, you'll learn the answers to both in time anyways.  How was breakfast?"
The eggs had been a little runny and the toast had been slightly burnt.  "Lovely, thank you."
"Liss made them, very clean and orderly but she never could cook to save her life.  Which is just as well, since cooking wouldn't have saved her life anyhow."
"You knew her before she became a ghoul?"
"No, Liss was always a ghoul.  But I knew the woman who became Liss, and we didn't really get along then either.  But enough of that, you've got a ship to catch and I need to infiltrate a very secure planet I'm not welcome on and set up a very large array of magical circles so that I can execute a hereforto impossible spell on people my closest friend doesn't approve of and who will probably yell at me for not doing it sooner.  Have fun talking to the pyromaniac with my dad and when you see Krell, tell him to introduce you to Rea."
Somewhere during the course of the conversation Katherine had managed to escort her to the door, and while Salvia suspected it was shortly after the part about breakfast, she wasn't sure.
"Will I recognize him?"
"Yes, but not from where you would think.  Have fun storming the castle!"  The door closed, surprisingly courteously for someone who was clearly succeeding at getting rid of her.  More surprising was the fact that a mass of papers titled 'Research notes: True Imperial Line?(by Kathrine Immersfeld, age 9)' had found its way into her purse.  Must be something Katherine wanted her to read, probably important then.  But for now, as she set off to reboard the ship, it would have to wait.