Arden Vul

To See or Not to See
That is the question

The hog-headed demons had fallen for the illusion. Instead of a blank stone hallway, they saw a narrow bridge high above the streets of the City of Brass. Instead of following Callista’s trail back through the hallway into the Tower of ???, they were distracted by a pair of Ifrit archers. Or the images of a pair of Ifrit archers.

Most of the party had initially believed the illusion, as well. Only Callista had seen through it, although “through” was the wrong metaphor. It wasn’t as though the Ifrit faded away, or became transparent like glass. It was very strange to both see and not see something at the same time, but many strange things had happened in Callista’s mind since the Jade Cup raised her from the dead back in the tunnels of Arden Vul. It was terrifying to step off the edge of the bridge, even though could see, and feel, the stone of the floor extending beyond it to the wall of the hallway. Not only did she see herself falling past the towers, she could feel the air rushing past her face as she fell, endlessly. Apparently the sudden stop at the bottom was not a part of the illusion, for which she was grateful. She wasn’t sure she could feel her all of her bones shattering at the same time without crying out, and she needed to be quiet now.

She was quiet, moving absolutely silently along the wall, coming up behind the two demons. How much noise could she make, walking on air? Besides, the demons were hooting and baying at the Ifrit, trying to draw them into melee range. Their stubby shoulder-blade wings, while surprisingly effective, were no match for the quickness of beings made of elemental fire – especially beings who cheated by not being real. Fortunately, the illusory Ifrit ignored her, either because she was off the “bridge,” or because her mind was not ensared by the spell that created them. It was something to ask Pyrite about, if she ever got back to Narsileon.

When the moment was right, as the first demon fell to the bridge howling with a flaming Ifrit arrow through its eye, Callista sprang and crushed the back of its skull, just where it joined the spine, with the Spoke of the Wheel. Despite its being damaged, it was still the only magic weapon she carried. Before the other could react to her sudden presence, she sprang again, driving the other back off the bridge, or slamming it into the wall, stunning it so that she eould line up the Spoke for another lethal skull-crushing blow.

That was the plan, anyway.

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Mapping Nasim's
Hellhounds on my trail

The sky over the City of Brass darkened to a scabrous red, but no stars came out, and no lamps were lit in the streets. The curfew, whatever it was called, seemed universally respected. Salamanders patrolled the streets.

Callista crouched fifty feet above on the roof of the compound where Grimly was being held in the Tower of the Gladiators. He had apparently made quite a name for himself in the six months since he fell through the eyepiece of that architectural model they had rescued from Fermion’s Hold. “Grimly the Great,” they were calling him in the marketplace.

The others had registered with the inhuman officials at the entrance to the city, and paid 500 gold for the privilege of being branded on the cheek. Callista, out of sight, had drawn a brand with soot and nettle juice, which caused a convincing swelling, and saved the gold for bribes. Not that it would go far here. This was the richest place she had ever even heard of, much less seen, at least in terms of metals and gems. Food and water were another matter. Nothing grew here.

As she watched the patrols, and the compound’s guards doing their rounds, she made and discarded a dozen plans. The place was too well-guarded to simply break Grimly out, and he’d probably refuse to leave the other prisoners behind, anyway. A slave revolt would require too much time, and would be put down by the other houses, no matter their personal rivalries. Murdering Nasim the slave master was certainly possible, but she didn’t like their chances of getting out of the city without being discovered afterwards. It didn’t seem like a place where one murder, even of an important person, would cause much chaos.

It was a pretty problem. She spent close to twelve hours considering it before an answer came to her.

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Nice Red Robes
Our Weapons Include ...

Gideon Legarion’s offer to join his clan back in Narsileon was definitely paying dividends here in Archontos. Callista had been treated as well as a country cousin, which was much better than a slave or a hireling. Still, pumping these powdered, pampered punks for information about Lord Xeno and the were-rats of Macrinos and their possible connections to the Cult of Set was a tedious business. She had gotten a pretty good contact high before she could ditch them for the tea-and-cookies pretentiousness of their elder, Aunt Patty, who actually had useful knowledge about the location of Fermion’s Hold, where the Settites were supposedly shipping their goblin slaves.

Time was moving in a circle, it seemed. Her reason for being in Arden Vul, where she met this odd group of adventurers, was to infiltrate the Cult of Set for Keko. Now events had returned her to a similar position, although the target in this case was apparently named Helena, not Stephania. That was really all the information she had, at this point. The Settites had apparently never made any use of the Jade Cup, and thus her meditations brought her no old-new memories. She had needed to fall back on more traditional ways of gathering intelligence – bribery, flattery, and gossip. Equally effective for rats with and without tails, in the dense warrens of Archontos. She had stuffed every drain near the Farting Goose with the rankest, most expensive cheese she could find, and left the tailed rats with her thanks for guiding them out of the Macrinos dungeons. She was equally generous with the punks of Legarion, though she had no idea what the effects of smoking her expired troll repellent would be.

Now, here she was again, wearing the red silk robes of a dead Set priest, carrying the copper dagger and the red mace of office, wishing she had some henna for her hair. That hadn’t worked out so well the last time, but still.

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Crap Flows Downhill
no gear, no spells, and no clue where we are

“Whoa, sorry, young mothers! Just crawling through, no harm to your litters … "

Can’t see a damn thing down here without Balthazar’s staff to light the way. It’s a good thing I can talk to these regular rats. Though I assume they’ll be just as willing to tell the big ones which way we went. Against the flow, they said. Up, up, up.

I’ve been relying too much on that Mantle of Fenth. It’s been a long while since I was as banged up as I am now. Not as much as Grimly, of course — it’s a good thing we sent him back to escort the goblin prisoners to the surface. He would not have made it through that meat grinder we just escaped from. It’s ridiculous that we did. It was worse than the Cult of Set’s dungeons under Arden Vul.

“Whoops! Too many eyes,” Wick says. Turning right, down this other tunnel.

They should have just killed us, instead of that whole torture-heal cycle. It seems pointless, unless they’ve got some pain-eating god stashed away here somewhere. They didn’t even ask us any questions. Maybe they had a mind-reader. I was certainly in no condition to block them out. They could have rearranged every thought in my head and I wouldn’t have known. Maybe they did.

“Ho, there, Whiskers! Sorry to disturb you. No, no, we don’t have any food right now. Later? Oh, yeah sure, just hit me up in the gutters above, and you can have some very nice cheese. Of course I’ll recognize you! How could I forget that smell?”

And where is Grimly, anyway? I can’t believe he wouldn’t even attempt to find us. Lost causes and all that …

How long have we been down here? And why didn’t I think to ask that last one to guide us out? I am slipping in more ways than one.

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The Sortian Knot
or, Gentrification for Dummies

From the laboratory journals of Pyrite the Magician:

Wow. Even with the cloak, I’ve never had the balls to impersonate Keko the Lame. But if there’s one thing the Blue Fool has in abundance, it’s balls. Maybe we’ve been spelling his name wrong this whole time? Balls-thazar. I like the sound of that.

Luna (now demanding to be called Aylinn – whatever; I’m the last person in the world to be critical on that front) has brought me a witness to that impersonation, and in telling me the story she has given me the solution. There’s no way to hide the fact that this wizard was tricked. But the best lies contain the seed of truth. Our good mage here was blindfolded after Callista cold-cocked him, but he was not deafened. He will have heard things. But which things? That is the question.

He is currently still unconscious, not because of the punch (which was apparently quite impressive) but because of a mild sedative, which also has the virtue of increasing suggestibility. I would not normally be able to hypnotize even a middling mage. However, with a low dose of the sedative in his system, he will succumb . . .

Yes, he did indeed hear them talking as they worked out the Sortians’ puzzle. And while they were reasonably careful about names, the fact that they left Uttar’s calling-card will lead the Drome to that temple, where they will undoubtedly be identified. Even if the priests will not give them up, the rabble around the temple will. So it’s no longer a question of hiding who they were, but of justifying their actions – without implicating myself, of course.

So here is the message that this one will recite:

Good Keko, Master of the Drome, and second smartest man in Narsileon,

I — BALTHAZAR THE BLUE — have cut the Sortian knot and reclaimed this valuable conduit to Archontos, for the glory of my college, my clan, and myself. Upon my return I will be only too happy to receive your congratulations.

In the meantime, how to spread the word of this valuable discovery to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, so that Keko has less incentive to kill them all and keep the conduit a secret? And how much land can I buy in the Wall District?

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Sarcophaguses? Sarcophagi?
Grimly would love this guy

“Gui-hee-hee-hee-vrel!” Sob. Shudder.

Sigh. And that was after Raven Maggie used that salamander god’s Staff of Healing to restore his sanity. Somehow Jasper remembered him as being a lot less whiny and a lot more tragically noble, or nobly tragic, or something. Plus he was only about three hundred years old! I was hoping for thousands. What a disappointment.

I figured Lankios had the keys to all of the mysteries of Arden Vul, or I would never have dragged them back here to find him. Well, he did have a literal key to the Obsidian Gates, hidden behind a brick in his penitent’s cell. That’s something. Jasper remembered that herbal stew he makes more or less correctly. Man, that stuff is vile.

Jasper didn’t know the old guy was a paladin, though, or any of his backstory — about the love triangle, or the double murder, or the triple divine curse that we somehow got stuck adjudicating. That’s a horrible thought, that even death can’t get you out from under. Khitor and Guivrel’s ghosts were stuck in those stone coffins for centuries, waiting for some random losers to come along and drop those brass tokens into their hands and free them for whatever their various gods have planned for them next.

Stone Coffins. That’s a good name for a band.

???? Whatever. I wonder if either of them ever used the Jade Cup? Maybe I’ll ask Lankios. Assuming Lankios is still alive when we get back to the Broken Head. And sane. And Grimly hasn’t convinced him to take a holy vow of silence or something.

Talk about your lost causes …

Oh. That was sooooo Jasper. Am I channeling? Can I do that? Or do I need a dose of the staff, too?

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Or Maybe a Peacock . . .
flight of the harpyries

There were stinking feathers and blood everywhere, most of it Balthazar’s. Two of the harpies were savaging the mage, near enough to lifting him into the air where they could leisurely rip his guts out. She flung herself onto the slight young man and held him down, covering them both with the Mantle of Fenth, which the harpies could tear at all night if they wanted without doing much harm. She might have just given Balthazar the Mantle, but she wasn’t at all sure it would work for him, since she had claimed it with her own blood. Besides, he likely would have tried to keep it.

The wizard kept trying to struggle out from under her, reminding her of a bantam rooster, clucking and squalling to get back into the fight. With the harpy down blood-glued to his beard and eyebrows, the image was even more compelling. She actually laughed, in the middle of a battle.

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The others were in the fray by then. The Elves were taking a heavy toll on the harpies with their bows, and Wick-Trimmer was … riding one of them, stabbing at it like a lunatic with Doffy’s sword, as it tried to turn its claws on him. They flapped and fluttered and crashed to the ground in a flurry of dust and feathers, like dirty snow. Ulv had been visibly dangerous, threatening — a great barking bitch of a woman — but that quiet little goblin, the former slave, had murder in his heart, and he guarded that hatred like a treasure. He was scary.

He would have made a good Black Lotus.

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Back in the White Metal Room
You're not the only one who can do something stupid, wizard!

Smantha padded down the tunnel barefoot. It was the only way she could match Callista’s quiet steps, though the older woman was wearing sandals. She kept her short bow in her hands with an arrow nocked. She was to stay back in the tunnel, hidden, while Callista entered the white metal chamber on some mission. If a tall, pale-haired woman wearing orange entered the chamber, Smantha was to shoot her in the leg on sight.

“Watch her. She’s fast,” Callista had said. “Faster than me, and I can dodge an arrow if I know it’s coming.” Smantha hadn’t believed that, until the woman had done it, twice, back in what her group called the Hall of Judgement. The second time she snatched the arrow out of the air like a snake striking.

Smantha waited in the darkness back beyond the chamber’s light. Callista was well-lit inside the chamber, examining a large glass tube with a person in it. Sort of a person, anyway. It was thin, and withered, the color and texture of a fresh parsnip. Callista tapped on the glass with the mad Druid’s club. In the stone corridor her voice carried clearly.

“Speak, Spoke. Which one should I release?” Tap, tap. “Which one would make a trustworthy source of information?” Tap, tap. “Perhaps even an ally?” Tap, tap. “I know you can do this. You chose me, after all.”

The tapping became a little more insistent as she moved from tube to tube. “I already released the Rudish-va woman. She was evil – I’m sure of that. To restore the balance, I should release a good one, shouldn’t I?”

Behind Callista, the parsnip opened its empty black eyes.

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Memory Craps
who says games are not educational?

I’m sitting in meditation, trying to understand how I can remember things that haven’t happened yet, or that happened before I was born, or that happened to someone else. How memory works at all, really. Are Pyrite’s spells just memories? If that was true, how does he make anything that he’s never seen before? Can he pull images from the memories of other people?

Purposeful recall is difficult, even during meditation. Being reminded of something works better. Fighting those white baboons reminded me of the first time Jasper saw one, in NewMarket, on a leash, when he threw one of Tikkun Thane’s Disciplined into the river. How the man thrashed and sparked and went still. I don’t remember that event from Axe’s point of view, or the Disciplined’s, presumably because they were never raised by Jade Cup. I remember Jasper’s death, but not Axe’s. Of course, if Axe were here, and alive, I could just ask him.

I could probably talk to the leftover baboons, too. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with the Druid. Maybe he has been speaking Baboon too long. Or maybe one of his trinkets drove him mad. Or maybe he was already crazy. Maybe his god likes him that way. I took some of that yellow “neuroderm” stuff that was in those big glass jars, the stuff that Rudish-va, Triv-Lok, was floating in. The stuff that kept her alive in there for hundreds of years. I wonder if it would heal the Druid’s mind?

I realize much of this is nonsensical. This is just a game I’ve started playing, tossing ideas together like dice. Sometimes new memories land on top, and I can read them off. I learn things that way. Just a few hours ago Grimley used one of those magic pearls to seal off his mind from that devil. Later, I remembered how to do the same thing myself, only I don’t need the pearl.

I was the one who opened Triv-Lok’s tube/bed/thing. I’m still not sure how I did that. Did I remember it? I should go back down there. With noone else around to distract me, I might remember something else. Or I might bump into Triv-Lok again . . .

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A Spoke in the Wheel
what wheel?

We will do great things together, you and I.

That’s what it said when I picked it up. And it hasn’t spoken since. No announcements of its powers. No warnings that Balthazar had made a deal with a devil. All we know is what Balthazar’s pearl-spell told us, that it is a powerful weapon against both Good and Evil creatures. And I’m not much confident in Balthazar’s judgements about anything, because HE MADE A DEAL WITH A DEVIL.

They went off exploring and left me here with Ulv to guard the prisoners. We got really lucky, surprising them before the Druid could bring his magic to bear. Having Aylinn play “Fox & Hounds” with a chunk of his baboon army was a good idea, but it wasn’t decisive. Dropping the Druid was, and not just because of his spells. He was wearing magic armor, plus the blood-drinking Mantle of Fenth that is keeping me not at all warm right now, sitting here on the floor. He could have held out against our blades for a long time. And he was carrying this.

Spoke_in_the_Wheel.jpg

I like this thing. It’s extremely well balanced. I can flip it in the air from pretty much any direction, and its handle always lands right into my palm. I haven’t hit anything with it yet. It’s supposed to do a lot of damage, but that must come from its magic, because it’s got no sharp edges, and it feels too light to break bones.

I wish it would talk again. With the others gone, it’s too risky to un-gag the Druid to ask about it, assuming I could even get his attention. He’s just staring at the wall and drooling right now (though to be fair, that could be the gag). His fighter friend, or bodyguard, or whatever he was, claims not to know anything about it beyond the word Beytnorn, which is one name for an Archontean goddess. I gave him some parched grain to suck on for that bit of information. It was pretty salty, so soon he’ll want some water. Maybe that will jog his memory. There are other ways to do it, but I don’t do that kind of thing any more.

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