Currently on hiatus. Will resume in July, or sooner.

Current story updates:

Current story interludes/Side stories:
Every other Saturday

Other pieces:
Every other Saturday (Saturdays I don't run the Interludes/Side Stories)

During certain periods updates may come more often; at other times updates may come less often. This schedule is my hoped-for goal.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Sigilian 22

Hiros stood atop the balcony of the border tower and watched the ground sail by below.
The captain and the assassins had been giving him the creeps; he had needed to get out.
Needed some fresh air, needed to be away from the two calm deathbringers and the man who might as well have been dead.
The pilot was nothing but an empty shell. They had showed him a sheet of paper with squiggles and a seal on it and he had accepted it as a written missive. It was like the man was just a machine now. All you had to do was press the right buttons and he would do whatever you asked.
It was eerie, and completely wrong. Everything about it was wrong. The worst part about it was the thought that it could have, barring a change in circumstances, been him like that. They needed his Sketching ability, and he wasn’t sure how well that would work if he was some puppet like that but still…
It was a terrifying thought. And the assassins were almost as bad. He had tried to talk to them but they had refused to deviate from their orders of transporting him and fulfilling some mysterious mission.
Their devotion to it went beyond normal, or even that from a contract. He could tell from the set of their jaws and the changes in their stance whenever he brought it up.
They were almost zealots about this. And thinking back he realized that they had been the same with any orders from Natasi.
Were they just that passionate about the cause? Or did she have some other hold over them?
He was not sure what Sigils she had, not sure what she could do. Did there exist a Sigil of control, of compulsion of some kind more subtle than Shadow? Was he, even now, being controlled by her in some way?
Could he even trust these thoughts, or might they have been something else she planted?
Hiros was beginning to think that it might have been better to never join these people at all.
But then he would have been their enemy, and that would have been an even more terrifying situation to be in.
He paused in his reverie when the tower sped up as it cleared the last of the mountains.
“Are we going out to sea?”
He turned to go back down the stairs but ran into the taller of the assassins.
“You are correct. We are indeed going out to sea”
“Ah” Hiros took a step back and found himself up against the rail. Trying to look casual he lounged against it “Are we really?”
“Yes. We’re going to Faron Rek”
“F-Faron Rek?”
Despite being cold hearted, ruthless, and as treacherous as the best of them Hiros did not like the idea of Faron Rek.
Never alone, never allowed a chance to Sketch, to make a Link, never allowed the time to scheme, and if he tried to play both sides against the middle he’d end up dead three times over.
It was not a good place for him, for his skillset, or for his interests, namely staying alive and getting rich with little work.
“Why are we going there?”
He tried to regain his composure, but his voice still quavered a bit.
“There is to be a new Blood Red King”
“A new King? Isn’t that usually followed by wars and the like?”
“Not if the challenger defeats the three champions and then the old King in single combat. If he does then he becomes the new King, and the others can say nothing. All must swear fealty to the new Blood Red King. The new King can always be assassinated if the others think the ruling unfair, but it is unlikely to happen, at least not right away. And the new King doesn’t need to be King for all that long for our purposes”
He smiled grimly at Hiros as the tower sped up even more, the wind off the ocean now whipping Hiros’ shaggy mane about his head.
“And of course, the King had best look like a King as well. That is why you will need to get rid of your pipe, shave your head, get a tattoo, and some new attire”
“Ah, yes, but why will I-?”
Hiros fell silent as the words sunk in.
“The new King will need to look the part”
“And I need to look the part?”
The smile grew wider.
“And I’m to be the new King?”
The smile was so wide that his face should have split. A hand shot up faster than should have been possible and grabbed the longest bits of hair into a ponytail at the back. The man’s other hand brought the knife close to Hiros’ scalp as he began to shave the poor bandit.
“You’re just full of insights today Sketcher”

Laerian stood in the middle of the street. He was calm…He was calm.
He closed his eyes for a moment as he breathed in slowly, then out again.
His arms hung by his sides. He had his usual scarf on but his coat was in the room along with the hood and the gloves.
He didn’t need to carry them with him for the moment.
What he did need was some time to just relax, breathe in the life of the city, and forget that which he had done.
Not forget that he had done it, not forget that there was now another weight on his soul, but forget the particulars, the details, the feeling of the living cloth, the sound of the screams.
He needed to forget all that and just be himself, be the carefree and happy stage-magician, the performer, the lucky man who made his living doing what he wanted and not what anyone else did.
He needed to be the new Laerian, not the Laerian of the wars or the Laerian who had lived with his father.
He needed whimsy, life, happiness for a few breaths before he went back to war.
His partner’s voice drew him back to the street. His eyes snapped open to see Tomas standing a ways away, turned and fighting the flow to stay in place.
“Lets go”
He closed his eyes and breathed in for another moment.
The smell of salt was in the air, mixed with the stench of the city and the smell of fresh baked bread. Someone was going to have an enjoyable morning if they got to eat that.
Gulls cried overhead as they circled the towers and dove down by the docks looking to see if they could steal some of the catch. The smaller birds that were able to navigate through the scaffolding chirruped and argued to each other as they went about their work.The occasional shouts of a roof worker competed with the cries of hawkers and the general babble of the crowd.
He opened his eyes again and stared at Tomas. He didn’t want to move, didn’t want to go to Faron Rek yet. He wanted to have a moment to be at peace.
“Tomas. Can we stay for a day first?”
“Any delay gives them more time to plot, more time to ruin things”
“And a delay of a day will allow us to get more information, learn more about what we are getting ourselves into”
He stepped forwards to catch up with the younger lord and fell into step, his longer legs easily keeping the pace.
“No, we can’t delay”
“Tomas, do you even know who the current Blood Red King is? Do you know how to get to Faron Rek? Do you know what it is like right now? Do you know how many people will be there or what Hiros even looks like?”
“No, no, no, and no. They’re not important. We can take a boat closer and then find out there. Each of these things will be easier to find out when we are closer”
“And also more dangerous to ask about! If we get closer do you have any idea how cagey these people are? They will have people listening for those looking for information about the island, they will have people waiting to see if they can’t figure out who is trying to learn and why, and if we are seen to not know anything and be looking that will not lend credence to our story. No good bandit operates without knowing how things work, what they do, how they need to interact with the others, and especially no bandit just decides to go to Faron Rek to see if they can become all official without knowing anything about the island, especially because bandits can’t even become official by going to Faron Rek! You can’t officially get control of territory to rob, you can’t become an official bandit at all, there is no way you can except practice and the like. Thats all there is to it. So if-”
“How do you know so much about this Laerian? How do you know what bandits can and can’t do, will and won’t do?”
He fell silent at that, long enough that Tomas glanced at him, a question plain on his face.
“Ok, come with me”
He grabbed his partner by the shoulder and dragged him across the traffic until he shoved him down an alley ahead of him.
There was a warning in Tomas’ tone as his hand reached for his dagger.
“I’m trying to get out of public so I can tell you”
So much for being at peace and ignoring the sins of the past.
“I used to be a bandit”
Tomas’ reaction was, as expected, underwhelming.
“Go on”
“I…I fought as a mercenary on the mainland for a time. I was a soldier of fortune and I did things I am not proud of. The entire company did. Finally I had had enough, fearing that if I stayed there any longer I would become like my father.
“Two of my friends and I left together. We, all of us, hated what it was like there. We decided that we’d be better, that we’d be merry bandits.
“We returned here to our homeland and set out to make a band of thieves like the stories tell of, one that was jolly, stole from the rich to give to the poor, lazed around in taverns until they were needed for another good deed.
“But life was hard. We went through our savings very quickly and were forced to turn to actual banditry to just afford to eat. And there were never enough rich folk to steal from that we could afford to both feed ourselves and give to others. So we chose the first of course.
“From there it just got worse. We needed to be able to hit the bigger groups so that we could actually take the most lucrative targets. So, we brought in new people who didn’t share our values, and slowly but surely we began to share theirs.
“It was at that time that I came up with the Hangman. Thats the, the mask thing. The mask that I wore in the mine. Thats the Hangman. I realized that I could bring the clothes to life. At first my clothes refused, but then I learned that if I fed them blood they would be happy with me.
“So I fed them the blood of others. And they grew to know that whenever they were awoken they would be fed so much blood, gorged on it, that it was in their best interests to protect me, keeo me alive.
“But, thats not the story. I was a bandit. And it was going well until we ran afoul of another band of bandits. They were encroaching on our territory. And after a few skirmishes left both sides with reduced numbers, I had the bright idea to bring our dispute to the Blood Red King.
“So our group set off, leaving its territory behind for the time being. We figured that if we got the Blood Red King’s backing we could reclaim it anyways, and that if we didn’t it wouldn’t matter we’d have to find new land anyways.
“So, we got to the coast and started to ask about Faron Rek as we made our way along.
“Well, by the time we had found someone who was willing to take us there the agents had heard about us, knew who we were and decided to teach us a lesson for being so impudent, so ill-mannered as to think to disturb the King with such petty nonsense. Those enforcers had both an excellent vocabulary, and they knew how to use it to best insult.
“They came up from the hold when we were five minutes out. They had been in league with our ferryman. Everyone died but me, and that was only because I used the Hangman to jump into the water and swim to safety. The clothes kept me alive long enough, trapped enough air, that I could swim some distance away before resurfacing. They thought I’d drowned rather than face them.
“And the truth was, at that point I think I rather would have. What they did to my friends was…brutal. They were bad people, we all were, but they didn’t deserve that Tomas. Nobody did.
“Nobody does”
He pressed on his eyeballs with the palms of his hands trying to block out the images that flickered behind his eyes.
“That’s why Tomas. That’s why we can’t do it your way. I’m not just trying to get some time, although I also need time. I am trying to stop us from running headlong into something that we cannot survive”
Tomas looked at him in silence for a moment then shrugged.
“Well, that is a sad story. I’m glad that you know what to do in this situation or else we would have died”
His voice was devoid of sympathy as stepped around the distraught man and headed back for the street.
“I’ll go get our room back and start asking around. I shall see you there tonight. Take your time, but don’t spend too long in the State”
Laerian sunk down against the wall, his head in his hands.
“Too many sins. Too many sins on my soul. Gotta forget them, gotta forget the details. Gotta remember the good times, not the bad”
He began to sob quietly as the people went by at the alley’s edge.

Nobody spared him a glance.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Sigilian 21

Rens pulled his dagger out of the fire and hurriedly blew on the meat.
He didn’t want to burn it, not right now. They weren’t exactly running low on supplies but he was running low on supplies he trusted.
More and more of the soldiers were beginning to follow Natasi’s orders as easily as his own. Many were expressing their confidence in her almost daily.
And there would be nothing wrong with that normally. She had been assigned as being in charge of this mission, and he would hope that his soldiers could learn to trust unfamiliar commanders.
But everything that Natasi was doing was wrong. She was not a good commander and she was making one bad call after another.
First she had sent them into a dell during a fog. Three horses had broken their legs, meaning they needed to cut into their spares before they should have. The smart decision would have been to examine the dell on foot first, and waited until the fog burned off.
There had been talk after that, but not as much as he had expected.
Then they had somehow ‘run afoul’ of a group of bandits. Bandits never operated in such close proximity to Castle Destria, or were never operating when it was so close. They would hole up and wait for a day when they were less likely to die.
And it was not like they had even walked in on their hiding place either.
The bandits had jumped them in the middle of the road.
Finishing the meat, Rens got up and began an inspection of the camp. He wanted to try and see if he could figure out why his soldiers all loved Natasi. Was she secretly giving them favours while he was not paying attention? Or was she somehow managing to bribe them?
He knew that no soldier was incorruptible, but he had thought his men made of sterner stuff.
He managed a few steps before he began to feel a little lightheaded. He paused and surreptitiously leaned against a tent post while pretending to examine the campsite.
These dizzy spells had also grown far more frequent, but only if he stayed still for too long.
Oddly enough riding didn’t make him dizzy. And it also didn’t happen to him everytime he stayed still.
But it was limited to when he was stationary for some time, and it was worrying him.
Was he getting sick? Or was it a curse of some kind?
Rens himself did not believe in curses, but enough of his men did that their superstition occasionally rubbed off on him. He had lucky charms in his tent and had taken to wearing a few under his shirt. Some were to make him feel better, but some he knew worked.
Or, at least he knew that one worked.
He knew that it worked for the same reason that he didn’t believe in curses or magic.
Magic didn’t exist. Everything had an explanation, and if something couldn’t be explained by the normal rules of the world then that wasn’t magic.
It was Sketching.
Curses were the excuse of those who did not know. They were the reason ascribed to bad and unexplained things, especially chains of bad events without an apparent cause. They could just be bad luck, but in a way curses did exist. They just weren’t curses.
They were the work of Sketchers.
Rens had seen one such ‘curse’ once. He had seen a man unable to die, shadows leaking from his wounds.
The man had sobbed as his tendons were sliced and his arms even lopped off. But he had still kept coming, the shadows still binding him together, holding his form as he charged the soldiers.
That man had killed so many before he had finally been stopped.
And the worst part was that the man had been the commander of the group, a good friend of Rens’. He had felt every blow, even to the parts that had been cut off. He had seen every sweep of his blade that killed his own men. He had known all of his pain and worse, all of the pain of killing them.
And he had been unable to do anything at all.
That was a curse. That was a true curse, and it had not been magic but Sketching.
Once the commander had finally been destroyed, his body set on fire, and the ashes scattered, there had been three left.
Rens had taken charge and had not allowed the others to stop until they found the Sketcher. That man had died. The others had wanted to give him a painful death, but there was no honour in that. They had misunderstood why Rens had wanted to find him.
Rens hadn’t wanted revenge; he had wanted to remove the threat to all the other soldiers out there.
So the Sketcher had had a quick execution.
And once Rens had been done with that tour of duty he had taken all his savings and spent them on one item, or amulet with a Sigil Sketched on to it then made Permanent.
It had taken quite a long time to find a Sketcher able to do what he wanted, and about half the savings had gone into allowing him to travel in search of the Sketcher.
He had finally found one, a hermit living a week’s trek into the Northlands.
The man had not wanted any coin, merely telling Rens to go buy him as much food as it would, after buying the reagents, chemicals and amulet itself.
Two weeks later Rens had left with his amulet. Sketched onto it was The AntiSigil. Not an AntiSigil, but one that could counter, deflect, or delay any Sigil that it came into contact with.
It only worked while he wore it, and only on things that directly affected him.
Since he had put it on that morning he had only gotten two dizzy spells, but they had been much worse than the previous ones.
However, they had only come twice, as opposed to the ten or eleven he had had the other two days of this trip.
So, he was certain that it was something Sketched, but he did not know what. It could have been Sketched onto the food, hence his worries there, or it could be that someone kept Sketching and giving him these spells.
Either way, it needed to stop. He needed to figure out who it was before it was too late, before whoever it was completed their goal and stopped the mission.
He needed to find Robert!

Natasi frowned as Rens got up and moved off.
He kept moving! He never stayed still, and now he seemed to be getting paranoid. He was trying to move around more and more, rarely staying still at all in his drive to escape the dizzy spells that resulted from an incomplete Sketching.
This morning she had decided to just Sketch a dozen smaller compulsions until he was too inept and confused to do anything but rely on her command.
Instead her every attempt had been frustrated. Sometimes she had Sketched only for the Sigil to unravel as fast as she Sketched it. Other times she had managed to finish it only for it to fade and stop. Or, she had simply been unable to Finish the Sketch, something stopping her.
She didn’t know what it was, but he had obviously gotten some kind of protection. She hadn’t even know that such a thing existed, but it must. Either that or another Sketcher was interfering with her work.
Whatever the reason it that meant that she had only managed to place one compulsion on him, an idea that she could not be guilty and was above suspicion. While it seemed to be working it was indeed a finicky one. If he had already been suspicious those suspicions would remain, and if he eliminated other options he’d realize what had been done.
But, it would stop him from developing any new suspicions about her.
It should have sufficed to delay him long enough for her to finish laying the rest of the compulsions, but he had proven too difficult.
And now he was somehow protected.
It was frustrating, destroying her plans.
At least the others had fallen prey quickly enough. There were very few now left in the group who were not under a compulsion to trust her and believe her.
That thought in mind she turned back to her fire and examined the dagger sitting on her lap. Perhaps then it was time to arrange a little ‘accident’ for Captain Rens.

Robert slowed his horse to a canter as he approached the small village. He had avoided the closest village to Branwen’s farm, not wanting to cast suspicion on her.
But the next village over should be fine. And he was running out of food, so even if he had wanted to stay away longer he could not have.
The village below looked calm and peaceful. It was refreshing to see that the land that he had been told hated him and was suffering could look so nice, could appear so without suffering.
Smiling a bit stupidly he kicked his horse back into a canter as he rode down towards it. He was going to need to buy food, buy a bedroll, and then find out where he actually was in relation to the Castle’s landing sight, frequent haunts, and other pre-arranged meeting places. And maybe it’d be faster to head for the nearest border tower or some other military camp.
And then that’d allow him to get an escort and return much faster, without the need for secrecy.
Putting those thoughts behind him he rode into the town. It was quiet, sleepy almost, but there were people about. They gave him some odd looks; a single soldier out here all alone on a horse? It didn’t make much sense, but as he tied his horse to a hitching post they looked away.
He was grateful for that because it meant that they didn’t see him take three tries to do it right. Branwen had taught him a lot, but he had not been able to master knots in so short a time.
He just hoped that nobody tried to steal his horse.
Stepping into what appeared to be some kind of general store he was struck by the abundance of things. So many types of things, from arrows to food, barding to bait and tackle, furs to simple cloth.
After a moment he became aware of the small man trying to get his attention.
“Ah, yes, welcome! How may I help you?”
Robert wove through the stacks of merchandise to stand at the counter.
“I’m looking to get a few things”
“Ah, then you’ve come to the right place! This is Rackam’s, best place in town to get anything at all! I’m Rackam”
“Marlan, but I often go by Soldier”
“Pleasure to meet you Soldier! Now then, now then, what do you need?”
Robert was having trouble getting any kind of read on the man. He seemed like a pleasant enough fellow, but he was also a merchant.
And in Robert’s rather limited experience all merchants were liars, at least a little.
“I’m looking to get some food supplies. I’ve been travelling and I need enough to get me some ways. I’d also like a bedroll if you have one, and a map. I seemed to lose mine and may have lost my way as well. Where am I?”
The man had already begun to pull things off the shelves into a sack as he answered.
“Ah, well, you’re in Relland! Beautiful little place eh? We’re not very big, but we’re happy here. Soil is good enough that we can farm and have a little extra to sell to travelers like you and we’ve got animals in the area, enough that we can trap them for their furs. Nothing dangerous mind, no bears or lynx, just a few larger plant-eaters, moose, deer, things like that. No, nothing that can hurt people”
“It certainly is a pretty place”
Robert was still wary of the man, especially now that the topic of potential danger had come up. Was he going to try and tricky him? Convince him to buy protection, weapons, hire guards and then lure him into an ambush, rob him while he slept?
“Ok, so just the map, bedroll and rations? I packed you twenty days worth. It’ll be fifteen silver crowns, ten for the food, two for the bedroll, three for the map”
“Fifteen silver crowns?”
“Is it too much? I do try and charge fair prices, but if you can’t afford it then maybe we could trade, or you could, if you’ve time, stay and do some work or something?”
“Oh, no, its fine. I just-”
He stopped, realizing that he couldn’t tell Rackam that he had expected to be cheated.
“Did you expect me to overcharge you? You must not have spent much time out here. You on the way from one city to another? They’ll overcharge you there, but out here we’re honest. Its ok, I’m not insulted. But now its twenty silver crowns”
Rackam only managed a moment before bursting out laughing. It looked odd to see the small mousey man laughing so hard that he began to cry.
“Oh, oh, your face! It was so good, priceless! Priceless”
Finally getting control of himself Rackam smiled at the prince.
“No, its still fifteen. I just like to have my jokes. Will twenty days worth of rations be enough?”
“Likely, but I’ll have to see the map to be sure”
“Of course”
Rackam spread the map across the counter and pointed to a small valley.
“That is Relland here. And you’re going…?”
Scanning the map Robert soon found where Castle Destria had been.
But he was much closer to something that might be better. Robert had managed to glide halfway to the Desser River, the river used to ferry much of the trade around the island.
And there was usually a border tower or two that would follow the course of the river.
So, if he got to the nearest port he would be able to either wait for the border tower to arrive or he could take a boat to the other locations where the Castle might be. Either way it would likely save him time, food, and worry, since once he was on the boat he would not need to worry about supplies or being as inconspicuous.
And, if he got to a border tower then he could have the added benefit of sending them with the message but not returning himself. He could continue with this trip as he had always dreamed and really learn something about the people of the Destria.
He made up his mind. It really wasn’t a hard decision at all.
“How many days would it take to reach there?”
He pointed to the nearest village on the river.
“And does it have a port?”
“It has a dock if I remember right, and boats do stop there sometimes. You should be able to get there in five days, and thats if you take it at an easy trot. If you’re trying to make ground you could probably make it in three, but then your horse would be in bad shape”
“Five it is. Anywhere you suggest I stop along the way? I would prefer to be able to sleep in an inn at night, although I’m not too particular about that, hence the bedroll”
Rackam pointed out a few places which Robert marked, as well as giving him some advice on the best trails and paths.
“Thank you Rackam. You’ve been very helpful. How do you know so much about the area? I don’t imagine that running the shop leaves very much time for traveling”
“No, no it doesn’t, but I get word from others. And besides, I know how it is to go adventuring when you’re young, put aside as much money as you can and then take a trip to try and see the world, or at least your corner of it. It was that that led me to settling down here and opening the shop.
“So, I’m always glad to help out those who are doing the same”
He smiled as he rolled the map and slid it into a case.
But then his face grew serious as he looked up again.
“Watch out for bandits though. They’re dangerous, and there are a lot of them around, more than in previous years. They’re also getting more aggressive, so keep to yourself and keep safe!”
Rackam passed the bundle over as Robert counted out the coins. He was glad that it had come to fifteen silver crowns since that meant one-and-a-half gold marks, the smallest coin he was carrying. He really needed to find a way to trade them in, find some less conspicuous way to pay for things.
But for now, it was all he had, so he would deal with it.
“Thank you Rackam. You’ve been helpful, really helpful. Without your help I am confident that things would not have gone as well as they now will!”
Robert waved to the small shopkeeper as he stepped outside and began to try and undo the knot.

After a long while he mounted his horse and rode out the other end of the small village of Relland, leaving Rackam behind.