Montresor 28 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

This collar tries to murder me if I attempt to take it off.  That makes sense.  Simple enough.  If I undo the thing the magic happens.  But it also tries to murder me if I ask someone else how to get it off.  This is where things get weird.  How does it know?  And what is “it” in this context?  I’ve never heard anyone make the claim that magic is an entity of some kind capable of thought and decision making.  I’ve never even really heard anyone claim that there’s a God that’s in charge of it.  So how does it work?  How?  You summon fire and you burn someone alive, I get that, that’s pretty straightforward.  But once magic has conditions what are we talking about anymore?  If you curse someone to have donkey lips and a monkey tail until they make a princess fall in love with them who’s keeping track of that?  Who or what decides when someone is in love?  Or who’s a princess?  Is the magic fully versed in geology?  No one has any clue how these things work.  Why does this not bother anyone else?

“Ela you’ve talked about this many times, give it a rest.”

I will not.  There has to be an explanation for this.  If I sit down for lunch I’m not technically “making progress” towards the North, but the collar doesn’t murder me.  Does it know that I need food to keep going so eating counts as progress?  If I have a long lunch will it strangle me a little to get me going?  Is there a time limit for lunch?  If I head due east or west will it kill me?  If I take one single solitary step to the south does it kill me?  How does “it” even know what south is?  That’s just something we made up.  Magic is supposed to be an elemental force of nature – animals don’t know directions, mountains don’t know directions, gravity doesn’t know directions, but somehow magic does?  How can it “know” anything?!  What is it?!  What?!I can’t let this go because as rare and “wonderful” as magic is it’s more a part of the Kingdom than I ever realized.  A mule farmer up in the Beregon Valley might not think that magic effects his life but it does.  Look at Chenmost, those people probably never thought about magic, didn’t make them any less dead when the place fucking blew up as a result of magic shenanigans.  Magic is an integral part of our lives, even if we don’t know it, and yet somehow no one seems to know anything about it or how it works.  

What are wizards doing out there and why are we as a people allowing them to do it?  I’m the last one to call for government intervention in just about anything, but shouldn’t we be keeping an eye on these people who are meddling with the fundamental building blocks of the universe?  Some of the really remote county oafs would gladly kill all the magic people in the world on account of their backwards and violent ways.  I could almost get on board with that if not for the fact that magic can make life so much more comfortable.  And bring me booze.  

Anyway, enough about magic.  We set out on the road to Three Rivers by way of Gevudan seeing as the area to the north is under enemy control.  Last I heard Gevudan had been captured by the enemy as well but no one seemed to be concerned about that.  The northern road was full of people.  People heading in both directions, which is a good indication that no one knows what’s going on.  The people whose villages had been wrecked along the Compass River were fleeing to Graltontown – the people in Graltowntown were fleeing north to get away from the front lines.  I’ve often wondered if someone was fleeing and they see someone else fleeing the other way if they would continue fleeing in the same direction or reverse course.  Looks like most people are content to trust their own judgement.   There was no one else on the south road.  At all. 

The “we” in this case was myself and four Ducal guards sent along as my shepherds.  Just in case the magic murder collar didn’t make enough of an impression.  The Duke’s personal guard is in theory a highly elite military force fanatical in their loyalty to the Eaglevane family.  The reality is that these days the guard is a largely ceremonial force that varies widely in quality.  The captain of the Ducal Guard for instance I don’t think has ever trained for battle, let alone been in one, he was give his position because one time he loaned one of the King’s friends his horse.  There are couple real hardcases in the Ducal Guard but they’re generally there because they made poor life decisions.

The Ducal Guard was formed in secret by Duke Anton Eaglevane in 812 from forces loyal to him in the neighboring county.  This is what is known as “treason” but given all the other treason that was about to happen people tend to forget about that.  Four regiments of the Ducal Guard were raised and based on this show of force Duke Anton gained the loyalty of several Eaglevane fighting forces as well as negotiating a contract with the infamous mercenary lord Eustace Lobar the Wolf Monk.   Anton declared himself Archduke, launching a civil war against his brother (the current Duke’s grandfather) Morton.  The fighting prowess of the Ducal Guard was so renowned that it became common to drunken louts in the taverns to debate if they would a match for the King’s Own – which is of course a highly elite military force fanatical in their loyalty to the Crown.  Seventy-six years later the Ducal Guards mostly stand around and sometimes fetch things like stools.  I have my doubts about their current efficacy as a military force in the field but they look damn good in a parade.  

I don’t know how many guards the Duke has now, but it must be a lot less than four regiments because I know two of the ones sent to escort me.  Cottom Finchley is what people generally think of when they conjure up the image of a dashing cavalryman – long, athletic, rangy, handsome in that foppish way some women like.  I prefer men who spend less time on their hair than I do personally but to each their own.  Finchely has one of them faces that are so striking that people often overlook the eyes – those cold snake eyes tell the real story.  The man is a monster.  At court he loved to play a little game with people where he’d have them arrested on false charges and then come in to “save” them only to have them be captured again when he betrayed them.  The Duke’s court has its fair share of utter shitheads and he’s one of the top ones.  For some reason he always smells like honey.  

The other fellow I know, Bolbec Forthwind, is much less striking but on the other hand he’s not a piece of human waste either so it balances out somewhat.  If he wasn’t short and closing on fifty he’d be a decent looking fellow.  Although you can’t do much about that round peasant face of his.  I told him once he would look better if he stopped painting his hair with that awful dye he uses but it doesn’t look like he listened to me – his head still glistens like an oil slick.   Finchley is younger, bigger, quicker, and meaner but if they ever came to blows I would wager that Bolbec would beat his balls off.  Some people are just fighters you know?  You can tell.

Around the time we reached Narhold we noticed vast plumes of smoke to the north.  I speculated that it was Three Rivers, you may remember that as the city we’re heading for, being burned to the ground but Finchley laughed at this idea.  Although he offered no alternative opinion on what else could be causing enough smoke that there was an early sunset.  I’ve never been to Narhold before, the only thing I know about is it that Martialla killed one of the men who killed her niece here.  His name was Bass or Flounder or some stupid fish name.  What I’ve heard about Narhold is that this is good fertile land but on account of being right next to an enemy nation no one wants to live here.  Rumor has it that it was founded by Vieland criminals who fled across the border to avoid justice in their homeland.  Consequently it’s populated mostly by outcast and criminals of various sorts, willing to make a hard life among the dangers of the region.  It’s also whispered that Nahold regularly bribes officials in Vieland with food, gold, and slaves – which is treason you know.

Once we were firmly installed in one of the rat-infested hostels in this crap border town that Bolbec Forthwind told me that he was going to set me free. 

Montresor 17 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar)

I wasn’t expecting Grigori to come through with much of anything.  I figured that at best he’d come back with some hallucinogenic bullshit for me to drink and then if I took it he’d claim that whatever I experienced was the dream quest against the nightmare witch.  But surprisingly he came through with some actual magic.  It wasn’t a big production of any sort either – wizards usually seem to need a lot of circles drawn on the ground and runes and silver powders and mummified alligator heads and all kind of shit to do their job.  Grigori just came back into camp sometime after the moon was bright in the sky looking even more haggard than usual.  Or at least what I know as usual for him.  He asked me if I was ready, I said sure, and he made with the magic words and hand waving and next thing I knew we were there.

“There” in this case being a complex that appeared to be made out of some kind of shiny purple stone.  I’ve never seen anything like it, but I suppose that should go without saying when you’re in the mind-fortress of a dream haunting nightmare beast from beyond time and space.  The general layout was a central large circle with four smaller circles bolted on in kind of a square pattern.  If you’re ever looked at an architectural drawing of a castle it was that same layout on a smaller scale – you got the middle part and then the four towers crouching alongside.  Anyway I suppose the design doesn’t really matter so much.  

I glanced over at Grigori “Are we really here or is this a dream?”

“Uhhh, both?  We’re in the dream realm.”

I scowled “But we were actually physically here or are we asleep and this is a dream?”

“The realm of dreams is not well studied.  Where we are is a demiplane of nightmares that exists beyond the dreamlands, where dark visions overlap into a strange reality spawned by the dreams of mysterious beings . . .”

“Don’t give me that bullshit!  I’m not in the mood for wizardly vagueness about realms and dimensions and the subjective nature of reality. “

He halfway smiled “Given where we are I think you’re expecting a little too much in requesting a straight answer.  What else can I say when we’re literally inside a dream?”

“What I expect is for one fucking magic user to know what is going on one time.  You people are bending reality and you don’t have any clue what you’re even doing.”

“Back off lady, you act like we’re alone in that.  No one knows anything.  Why does the sun shine?  Why does grass grow?  No one knows.  How does a ship float on the water?  Don’t act like we’re the only ones with no answers.”

“There’s some very basic science about why a boat floats.”

He snorted “Sure, science.”

Circle one was full of cages, crow cages I think they call them, where the cage just a set of bars joined together in a tube shape slightly bigger than a person.  They’re not cages for crows you see, you put people in there and I guess the crows peck their eyes out.  Why do birds love eyes so much?  Are they delicious or are they just easy to eat with their stupid beaks?  Get a mouth already birds so you can eat something good.  It was hard to tell how many cages there were because the front dozen or so were occupied.  The occupants looked for all the world like actors, I guess I say that because their clothing looked more like a costume than actual every day clothes.  You know how actors on stage always look a little off no matter what they’re wearing?  It was like that.  They didn’t reach out or beg to be rescued, they didn’t do anything – they just stared.  Their eyes were the only thing that moved, following me around.

I gestured “What’s this about?”

Grigori peered at them “Souls maybe.”

“I always assumed that soul stealers needed souls for food or used them as currency or something, why keep them here?” Grigori shrugged “Are they real?”

“I feel like if I answer that you’re going to get mad at me again.”

“Let me guess, you were going to ask me what real means.  Should we let them out?”

“How would we do that?  There’s no doors or hinges on those cages.  I don’t see any way to open them.”

I drifted away from the cage circle with the eyes of the soul remnants or whatever they were following my steps with the lifelessness of dolls.  The next circle over was a somewhat organized and somewhat chaotic alcove filled with trinkets and accoutrements, seized from her victims I assume.  The items ranged from cheap copper jewelry with clay beads to shining swords of adamantine and mithril with jeweled hilts that could bankrupt a lesser noble family.  There were common boots and “bracelets” made of twine mixed in with rich silks and platinum serving trays.  Most of it was junk, but there was some pretty good stuff in there too.  I had absolutely no desire to touch any of it.

Moving to the right at the head of the main circle (okay it was more of an oval I guess, kind of turtle shaped maybe) there was a clear pool of water and hanging above it was a large multi-faceted reddish-purple jewel, it strangely looked like a piece of junk costume jewelry for all that it was clearly very magic and important.  When I looked in the pool there was no reflection, or myself or of the jewel.   Every now and then the jewel would rotate slightly and emit a soft pulse of light.  I swear that I could feel it like a very light touch over all the exposed skin on my body.  It was . . . odd.

“So what’s this?”

Grigori was shielding his eyes as if the sun was blazing despite the room being fairly dim “That’s the main event, that’s the source of her powers.”

“How do you know what?”

“Magic.  Do you really want to get into another discussion about that?

“I do not.  So breaking this will kill her?”

“No this will strip her of many of her abilities, without this she won’t be able to travel ethereal.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“She won’t be able to enter your dreams anymore chiefly.  Probably it means her rivals will kill her too because she’s going to lose a lot of other magic stuff but there’s no way to know for sure.”

I looked around “This seems too easy.  Shouldn’t there be traps or guards or something?”

“I guess not.  We’re dealing with a creature that is basically a sentient nightmare, I’m not sure we can evaluate its motivations or speculate on what it might think is a good idea with any degree of accuracy.”

“That’s one of the most coherent things you’ve said to date.”  I retrieved my crossbow and pointed it at the jewel, then dropping it from my shoulder “I feel like I should say something here.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, like the hero says before they vanquish the deadly supernatural threat ‘see you in the Hells!’ or something like that.  Not that, but something better.”

“What would be the point in doing that?”

“I don’t know, that’s what’s bothering me, she’s not even going to know that I’m the one that got her.  Maybe I could write something on the wall.  A taunt or some sort.  Do you have a pen and some ink?”

“Once you break that she’s probably not going to be able to get back her.  How about you just smash it and we get out of here.”

I raised the crossbow back to my shoulder “You have no sense of drama.”

In retrospect I’m not sure why I thought that a crossbow bolt was going to shatter the gem, although in my defense it did look very crappy.  The bolt knocked a shard off of it and then ricochet and almost hit me in the leg.  I was mildly embarrassed by the yelp I let out as I jumped out of the way.  I was startled is all.

Grigori peeped out from behind his hand “I don’t think that worked.”

“Thanks eagle eye.  Can’t you just . . .” I made a vague magic gesture.

“That’s not a good idea.  Besides, I thought you wanted to be the one to get the revenge.”

It was too far away to hit with the baron’s Cane so in the end I threw my trunk at it.  Good thing it floats.  It took three tries to smash the thing and trying to fish the trunk out of the pool each time was a pain in the ass.  It has to rank right up there on the list of the slowest and least graceful smitings of evil in the annuals of evil smiting.  Even after it was pulverized the dust and shards hung in the air above the pool, but the light stopped.

“Is that it?  Is she defeated?”

“No defeated, but her powers have been greatly diminished like I said before.”

“Huh, that wasn’t very satisfying.”

“That’s life for you.” 

Montresor 16 Year 888 (New Imperial Calendar) part 3

Grigori the lying liar said that in order to force a final confrontation with the nightmare hag we had to wait until after midnight – since that’s the most magical time of day as everyone knows.  Or night I guess.  Whatever, you know what I mean.  He also said that he needed to do some “research” and wandered off (probably to get drunk in peace) leaving me with the woman that I rescued.  I thought she said that her name was Blossom but that can’t be right because no one would be named that.  Once the feeling had returned to her limbs she set about clearing away room for a campsite and gathering firewood and other such tasks while I sat against a tree drinking from my Flask and not helping her.  I saved her life, that seems like enough.

“So what’s your deal why did those dwarfs have you trussed up like a goose for the cooking?”

“I got the impression that they were witch hunters of a sort.”

“And?”

She gave me a strange look “I’m a witch.”

I raised an eyebrow “You really are?” I peered at her closely “Normally I’m great at seeing through illusions.  Or is this like a deal where you actually change your flesh like a mimic worm?  Is that why I can’t see what you really look like?    Does Grigori know?  That would be pretty funny if you reverted to your real form when you guys were making sweet, sweet love.” I couldn’t help but chuckle “That would be something to see!”

She stopped and looked at me with hands on hips “What are you talking about?  This is what I really look like.”

“Bullshit.  I’ve run into way too many witches to fall for that.  They’re all twisted and lumbering, the corruption in their souls is reflected by the wickedness of their flesh – a visage to match the growing horror within.  Some awful creatures have forms that are pleasing to the eye, witches ain’t in that group.”

She went back to working “You’re thinking of hags.”

“Witches and hags aren’t the same thing?”

“No.”

“Well?  Don’t keep me in suspense what’s the difference?”

“Hags are fey creatures like nymphs and satyrs, and like all beings of the first world they’re tied to primal forces of the earth.   Hags warped reflections of humanity that characterize nature at its most offensive.”

“Interesting, whereas you on the other hand being a witch are just a lady that sold your soul to the Lord of the Thirteen for magical power.”

She dropped her bundle of kindling in outrage “What?!  NO!  I never did any such thing.”

I gestured with my Flask “Well sure you probably didn’t talk to the Dark Lord Himself but one of his minions, like an imp or a demon or something right?”

She stomped her foot “I never sold my soul!  I’m just someone who can cast spells, souls have nothing to do with it.”

“So you’re a wizard?  Why do you call yourself a witch?”

“No, a wizard is someone who learns magic at a school like learning mathematics or engineering – I can just sort of do magic, I don’t get into magical theory and formulas or wizard stuff like that.”

I nodded “Okay, I see, you’re a sorcerer.  I had a friend who was like that, she was always going on and on about the difference between wizards and sorcerers.  She fell off a cliff and died on impact you know.”

“No, I’m not a sorcerer, they’re born with magic inside of them.”

I waited for her to elaborate, she did not “So then where does your magic come from?”

She didn’t answer for a moment “I made a pact.”

“With?”

“Look, some gain power through study, others through blood, but the people like me gain power from her communion with the unknown.”

“The unknown?  What the fuck is that supposed to mean?  So you’re like a priest who worships some weird God that’s about secrets or something?”

“No, I’m just an arcane spellcaster alright!”

I held my hands up “Hey, don’t get cheesed off at me lady.  I have nothing against soul selling, I don’t know why people get so bent out of shape about it.  Your soul is the one thing that you own yourself and no one can take away from you, you should be able to do whatever you want with it.  Demons should be allowed to set up shops where poor people can sell their souls for whatever they need.  It’s really not a big deal.  I’m not proud of it but I sold my soul once to get myself out of a jam.  I got it back though, which is nice.”

“I did not sell my soul!  I made a pact.”

“With whom?”

“An otherworldly power.”

“Like the Lord of the Thirteen?”

“No!”

“The Archfey?  The Lurker in the Deep?  The Raven Queen?  You’re not one of those people that draws on the power of the Old Ones are you?  Because I tell you right now I have had it up to here with those people.”

“No, I just made a pact okay!”

“How?  Making a pact implies that you agreed to something with someone.  How did it happen?  Were you talking to a cat or something?  I’m starting to feel like you don’t have any idea where your magic comes from, which sounds an awful lot like the kind of scam that the Lord of the Thirteen would pull to me.  Maybe you don’t know that you’re a demon worshipper.  I hear that happens sometimes.”

“I am not a demon worshipper!”

“Hey look, I get your reluctant to come clean, most people are going to react poorly if you say you worship the Dark One Himself but I don’t care.  That’s your business right?  I don’t get involved.  I’m more open minded than most people.  Religious freedom, I’m all about that.  I’ll grant you I have killed demon cultists by the cartload but that’s because they were trying to kill me.  Self-defense you know?  It’s not like I have a thing about killing demoniacs.”

After a long moment she spoke “Actually I am a sorcerer, I was lying before, there’s no such thing as witches.”

“There, was that so hard now?