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.