The Year of the Dog (3155) The Flanne month of Readying, The day of Water (the first day of the Flanne Month. Just as twilight gathers.
Forgileill Gwahtlo, Hedgelord of Nereth, ilin of Ravon Perens, Blackrobe, was busy. Her forces were mustering for an expedition to the Boreal Forests of the north. A place where the meteorite that Laru’s sword was made from fell to earth. Where Saironost sat at the Eastern edge. And where a lost tomb held the Black Blade of Ankha Ratalla. All world changing things. Grave times indeed for the teenage daughter of the Sindalië. And possibly the world. But there was a loose end. One that had been gnawing away at her since Katamaya had visited.
Knowing where he was going, she fetched the drowic boots and gloves from their hiding place. There was no chance that they would be exposed to natural daylight in that part of Saironost at night. And of course they provided handy hiding places for things that she might acquire on her mission.
A suitable dress and a deeply hooded cloak would keep her almost invisible in the shadows. She knelt at the edge of the transporting spiral in her courtroom. She found a piece of straw that she’d left under the edge of the rug that hid the pattern from view. It wasn’t where it was supposed to be. She replaced it and rolled the carpet away. The mark must be left in no doubt, should he evade her in Saironost, that she was on his trail.
Dimly lit, swirling mists, breath misting on the air, it was deathly quiet in Procorol as Mussalk Azking strode through the alleys and overlooked lanes. This was the melting pot of Saironost, the place where the resolutely independent and the newly qualified made their homes. Built largely below the towers of the major orders, it of all places in Saironost had a reputation as a less desirable residence.
Of course this was a fallacy; the orders imposed rigid codes of behaviour on their members. Any transgression of the rules up there would have immediate and dire consequences. And escaped monsters and uncontrolled sandestines could be found in any part of the city. Down in Procorol, as long as you were minding your own business, you tended to be left alone. What scared the orders was the idea that someone down here might be a free thinking soul of independent action.
Many of the more wealthy and successful generalists enjoyed more salubrious accommodation elsewhere in the city; almost every blackrobe (and most of the greys) had another home elsewhere. But it was the opportunities that residence in Procorol gave, in terms of meeting other greys (and maybe a black or two) that kept a lot of journeymen here.
Mussalk was a greyrobe, but a very accomplished one. He didn’t think of himself as a particularly dangerous fellow, but did feel that he fitted in well in Procorol. He knew a lot of people and by not appearing to know much in the way of offensive magic, tended to be accepted where ere he went. He knew that information is power and found that simply by being around, he got to learn a lot. Attitudes and intentions of Assembly members of any rank or condition were a much better gauge than knowing what fields of magic they were strong in.
His every sense alert for some disturbance in the fabric of reality, he failed to see the small figure, cloaked and hooded, waiting under the archway. A few more yards and he would be safe. His lips were already forming the words that would allow him access to his stronghold. His hobnailed sandals scrapped the cobbles as his stride shortened in the final yards before his front door.
The heavy obsidian portal swung open and he stepped over the threshold. He was rudely shoved from behind and stumbled into the room. In an instant the syllables of his ‘just in case’ spell began to form in his mind a small hand fastened over his mouth.
“Mussalk! It is I, Forgileill.”
She allowed him to stand. He turned to face her.
“Release the flows, Mussalk, I am not here to assassinate you.”
She took her hand away from his mouth and stepped back, reaching up to pull the hood down from her head.
“You look angry, hurt and a little out of sorts, I apologise, but I wanted to speak with you and this is the first opportunity I’ve had.”
He pulled himself up and glared at her.
“You could have just knocked.”
She did not answer him. He gestured angrily, but the heavy stone portal apparently would only slam as slowly as it had opened.
“Or interviewed me at Nereth. Or Lauren’s Glade.”
She glanced around. The door opened straight into a small sitting room, a fire roared in the grate. There were several items lying around that looked and felt as if they contravened the natural order of things. There were grimoires open on many surfaces and a lot of the books on the shelves were decorated with the eye and lightning bolt of the Shindrick Society. The collection looked to her like the accumulated spoils from a dozen or more libraries of (now deceased) Assembly members. All of the collections had been cherry picked, the diamonds were gone, but Mussalk had obtained everything else from a lot of collections. By rights, by law indeed, all of this belonged to the Assembly itself and should be handed over to the librarians. What he had here may have lacked the spectacular and awesome, but the sheer volume of material made it valuable.
She unfastened the clasp on her cloak and let it fall to the floor. She slowly stepped over to one of the desks and ran a finger over the accumulated tomes.
“But then I’d never have seen all of this, Mussalk.”
He didn’t want to appear too defiant, she was dangerous, he knew.
“Nothing you might not have guessed at.”
He waited for what seemed like an age before she answered.
“But you acknowledge that there has been past unpleasantness between the society and myself?”
He motioned and a clawed chair skittered across the floor. With immaculate timing, Forgileill sat into it as it arrived behind her. She crossed her legs and sat back, noting that although Mussalk kept an eye on the dagger and wand she wore, he had to drag his gaze back from the glimpse of thigh that she offered.
“The society began to break up before Katamaya and you began killing off its members; the order overstretched itself fatally in creating Maldekore in the first place. He divided it weakening it when he should have united and strengthened it. “
A chair made of bones and upholstered in pale leather clattered to Mussalk as he sat down as well.
“So what is it you really want?”
Forgileill considered for a moment. The important thing now, she knew, was Eli Toamast and the Black Blade of Ankha Rattalla.
“Why did Katamaya visit Nereth?”
“The two of you spent every spare moment together for six months. And some that were not spare moments. And then all of a sudden both behaved as if the other did not exist. There was obviously some lover’s spat and you ask me why she would visit you now, three years later?”
He sat back and gestured casually. A toddler sized golem of brass and leather, created to resemble a portly goblin faced ilin, marched off into another room.
She flexed her fingers in their gloves.
“It was never a secret. Anyone who had been watching us would have known. We were only careful to be discrete. She feared that the Shindrick Society would punish her for her association with me and I was keen to protect her, which meant keeping things away from any eyes without being seen trying to hide something.”
“You were complicit in this?”
“I did not want to see her unhappy.”
“Even after your falling out?”
“Even after. I knew she took other lovers, but it did not interest me, I threw myself into my studies.”
“And did well, the only one to catch up with you has been Katamaya.”
“And how did she manage that, I wonder?”
“Through these other lovers you mention. One was a Shindrick master whose lore she stole, one was someone she submitted to in order to be close to you and then there was the one after you.”
“So few.” She noted.
“So few.” He said. “Like the Shindrick Society itself. It is a spent force, its remaining few blackrobes are in hiding, its greys (he bowed to her) are leaderless and scattering fast. We are undone.”
“So fast?” She asked.
“You slew Kelkess. She slew Maldekore. Or at least caused it to happen.”
“To gain his library? Revenge for some slight? Self defence?”
He waited whilst Forgileill considered the implications.
“Is there no-one else?” Mussalk thought she was asking about the leadership of the order.
“There are a few, but the problem with selfish blackhearted blackrobes is that when they are unmuzzled they tend to attack each other first. There are no more than half a dozen left. And they are all summoners and necromancers without the inclination to collaborate. Tealpack knew this would happen, which is why he created Maldekore, as a leader for the future. But Kelkess also had the wherewithal and the two of them tore the order apart. All that remains are individuals with no collective direction, owners of insignia that signify nothing but their allegiance to a defunct organisation.”
The golem returned, pulling behind it a delicate four wheeled trolley with a decanter and two crystal goblets. Mussalk poured two generous draughts for the pair of them.
“I do not drink wine.”
“I remembered. This is a cordial.”
“So Erlini tells me that you came on to her once.” She was stalling. He knew that changing the subject was simply giving her more thinking time. He may be a grey, but he was familiar with the ways of the ilin classes.
“And I should not? She is attractive.”
“You have a fondness for Aerdy women?”
“Perhaps. Not all of us humans are so constrained by our art that we forget who or what we are. I may live through and for my art, but I still like the taste of fine wine, the sound of good music and the company of lovely women.”
Mussalk drew in a breath.
“As you know, she is very good at charms. It is a rare person indeed who can refuse her anything. She gets what she wants by flirtation, charm and persuasion. When she adds her art to her natural charms she is truly formidable. After you and she ceased relations, she came to me. We were, she noted, the best positioned to assume the leadership of the order.”
“But Maldekore was still alive.”
“For a short while. I put it to you, that had you broke into his tower to assassinate him, only to find him dead.”
“Your sources are good, Mussalk.”
He bowed his head, accepting her toast and draining his goblet. He refilled them both.
“Anyway, I took precautions in my dealings with Katamaya. Just because one desires something is no reason to court disaster. I remained in control of myself and kept her at arm’s length. I’ve no doubt that her immediate aim was to eliminate me as a rival, hence my eventual residence at Lauren’s Glade. I’d thought that I’d be safe there.”
“You think that she came to Nereth to slay you?”
“I am not that conceited. I remain one way or another, unfinished business for her. That I was there when she visited was perhaps a small delight, but her joy was seeing you again.”
It was Forgileill’s turn to snort.
“Now you doubt my testimony?”
“She is fickle and as changeable as a sea breeze. For her limitless charm, I know her ambition and have no doubt as to the blackness to which she can stoop. She may now be able to mask her desires and designs but she truly is as loyal as a cat.”
Mussalk stood up and smoothed his hair, unbuckling the belt of his grey robe and taking it off before putting more wood on the fire. The unburned fuel instantly cut down the amount of light in the room.
In trousers and a ruffled shirt, he sat back down.
“Blackness?” he repeated.
He looked at her.
“She told me that you had been undead.” When Forgileill didn’t react, he continued. “She told me of a very different Forgileill from the one I know, one who preys on the living and has given herself to many more men than Katamaya.”
“And you believe her?”
“I’m not sure. Sometimes the truth is stranger than bard’s tales. And sometimes the truth, even when revealed is not what it at first seemed. And as I have been trying to tell you, despite your falling out, she spoke of you more often than was seemly and I now guess might have been day dreaming or thinking of you when she could have been doing other things. You may have a fey heart, Princess of the Gwathlo, but she is human. And the hearts of humans are unpredictable and sometimes stronger than any magic I know of.”
“I care not for human hearts, a fearies heart beats wild and free.”
He shrugged. “Which is what makes Katamaya’s tale of the secret life of Forgileill so compelling.”
She sipped her drink, motioning for him to continue.
“You are one of the nostir, Eldrich in a way that we can never be and probably bordering on the unseelie. I doubt you can even conceptualise what it is to be human.”
She nodded slightly. She was not human, so what he said was essentially true, if a little skewed in the interpretation.
“All of the human blackrobes are changed by the arts they practice. Many eschew pleasures of the flesh and some live many times their actual span.” She gestured over to the bookshelf. “You may find that some of the Shindrick Society’s lore will teach how to make yourself into a lich.” She beamed at him, as if discovering some joke for herself. “Then one of us will be undead at least.”
He sighed and glanced away.
“ I do not want such an end. As I have only recently begun.”
“Then what do you want Mussalk Azking?”
“I have studied since the age of three to become a blackrobe. Through hardships untold and dangers unnumbered I have made my way, as have all of our kind. I am so close to attaining that which I seek and with it some chance of security. It would be a waste to have come this far and to fail with the end in sight. Let me stay in Lauren’s Glade with the others, let me continue my journey as they do. If you feel you can, sponsor me through the tests.”
“And if I refuse?”
The carved hands on the arms of her chair pulled free of the material of the arm and fastened about her wrists. Claws from the legs grasped her ankles. Mussalk stood up and strode over to stand in front of her.
She smiled benignly. With seemly little effort, and so little magic he could hardly see it, her arms and legs appeared free of their erstwhile entrapment. “That’s not going to hold me.”
He stared at her.
“So, what do you want of me?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“Kneel.” She drank a little more of her cordial
“I have been where this concoction comes from, Mussalk Azking. I am well aware of its effect and could taste it before it even touched my lips.” She drained the last of it and threw the goblet over her shoulder. “It comes from a city of wonders and horrors that stretch credibility. Where I may or may not have been that which Katamaya alleges.” She put one leg up onto his shoulder. “I know that you got this from Katamaya, one way or another. And so either you lied to me about laying with her.” She pulled him forward with her leg until the back of her knee was over his shoulder. “Or” She hooked her other knee over his other shoulder. “You are still in cahoots with her.”
He looked her in the eye. “Either way, I’ve found what I really want.” He said quietly.
“Oh, Mussalk, That is only the joyful tears potion talking, when we greys together you didn’t look at me the way you look at me now. But perhaps this will help.” Forgeileill closed her eyes for a few hearbeats. Mussalk watched as her features blurred and reformed as those of Katamaya. She shook her blonde hair free. Mussalk rose up on his knees, pushing her legs up as he did so until his face was framed by her calves. Katamaya reach behind her head as she slouched down, gripping the back of the chair with both hands. Mussalk hesitated. Somewhere inside, he knew this wasn’t real, despite the effect of the joyful tears potion.
“You did know that it had this effect didn’t you? Most people are unable to even begin to mentally form a cantrip once they’ve imbibed. At least, not until afterwards.” Purred Katamaya in a husky voice.
He pushed the hem of her dress up around her waist and smiled as her legs slowly descended from their elevated position, parting just enough for him to manage to undo his trousers.
And then she was stood behind him again, yanking his head back with a handful of his hair, holding a dagger to his throat. That she’d done by magic. He’d ‘heard’ it even as he felt the displaced air move behind him. And she was right again, his mind was so focussed on passion that it could not grasp the least part of any of his magic.
“Don’t ever try this again, Mussalk. I’m not a toy.” She pushed the blade a little way into his neck. Magic using types were notoriously ignorant of weapons and wounds. It would scare him more than harm him.
“I’m not her. And she isn’t me. If you come back to Lauren’s Glade, make sure you’re clear why you’re there.”
As she walked towards the door, Katamaya shook her head and her hair changed back to black, she lost a few inches in height and was Forgileill again. She left, without looking back.