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2nd Edition


REN GARCIA



The Hazards of the Old Ones, SmashwordsEdition

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and events in this novel are either fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons is entirely coincidental.



Copyright 2010, 2018 by Ren Garcia

Cover art copyright 2010, 2017 by Carol Phillips

Published by StG Press



ALSO BY REN GARCIA:



The League of Elder Series:

Sygillis of Metatron

The Hazards of the Old Ones



The Temple of the Exploding Head Trilogy:

The Dead Held Hands

The Machine

The Temple of the Exploding Head



The Belmont Saga:

Sands of the Solar Empire

Against the Druries



Turns of the Shadow tech Goddess:

The Shadow tech Goddess

Stenibelle

Kat



The House of Bloodstein Series:

Perlamum

Mentralysis



Non-Fiction by Ren Garcia:

10 Weeks at Chanute




Table of Contents

Prologue

I—Item 10: Save Planet X!

II—The Capture

III—Death of the Bodice


Part 1—The Sister’s Program

1—The Countess of Blanchefort

2—The Duke of Oyln

3—Visit from the Imp

4—Esteemed Guests

5—Lord Milton

6—Captain Davage

7—The House of Xandarr

8—The Naked Countess

9—The Sister’s Program

10—”Come Home …”

11—Carahil’s Walk

12—A Day with Dav


Part 2—The Eleventh Daughter

1—The Shade Church

2—A Tearful Resignation

3—Lady Poe of Blanchefort

4—The Cavern

5—Carahil

6—Lt. Carbomier

7—The Eleventh Daughter

8—Larsen of Zenon, Verlin of Hobby

9—The Hazards of the Old Ones

10—Heron

11—The Heart

12—Pieces in Play

13—The Goshawks

14—The Eleventh Daughter


Part 3—The Shadow tech Conspiracy

1—Destination: Xandarr

2—”You have murdered your Countess …”

3—Sygillis

4—Fins

5—The Black Hat’s Mercy

6—A Friend in the Dark

7—An Alleged Pirate

8—The Duke’s Cargo

9—The Celestial Arborium

10—Xandarr Keep

11—The Circle

12—Alone in the Great Hall

13—The Shadow tech Conspiracy

14—Verlin’s Hero

15—The Invisible Enemy

16—Under Xandarr Keep

17—The King of Xandarr

18—RED HAWs

19—The Ghost

20—Marilith’s Communicator

21—The Demons

22—Medallion B

23—An Unflyable Ship

24—Behold, the Enemy of the Vith

25—Skies full of Silver

26—Lord Milton’s Secret

27—The GEORGE WIND

28—In Elysium


Epilogue



The League of Elder: The Hazards of the Old Ones


Smashwords Edition



Prologue


I—Item 10: Save Planet X!



May all be saved.

He watched the kittens finish their lunch of warm milk lapped up from a saucer. It was a little chilly out in the Grove today, and he heated a few rocks so that they would radiate steady warmth all afternoon. When the kittens, a spry bunch of mackerel tabbies, finished, he removed the saucer from their box and gently nosed them around, situating them for sleep. A few, full from their lunch, were already out. The rest licked his nose with their tiny tongues.

He had found the kittens in the back half of the Grove the other day; hungry, looking for their mother. As always, he gathered the little buggers up and took care of them. He was always on the lookout for lost creatures needing help; he was friend to all tiny things gone astray. He’d rescued a goose with a hurt wing and an Ibex with a bad hoof. The Elemental Spirits called down from the top of the Universal Tree and laughed at him. They said he had the whole universe to play in, why bother with the Grove and the mundane little creatures he found there? They pestered him to join them in the Celestial Arborium. They said that’s where he belonged.

Time enough for the Universe later. He was content where he was for the time being.

Like the kittens he watched over, he was also a fairly new creation; a baby. In the mundane counting of time he was only a few months old. His mind, however, was packed with information. He knew the old stories and the wisdom that had been won over the centuries. He possessed knowledge spanning the ages for it had been carefully built into him by his Mother.

When the kittens settled, he got his book out. He had a book that he conjured up whenever he wanted. It was a thick diary entitled Carahil’s Magic Book of Things To-Do and Memorable Quotes. He created it himself. In it, nuggets of wisdom, lists and notes automatically scratched themselves on the pages. Sometimes, he scribbled things in himself with a marker held in his teeth, for he didn’t have hands to write with. Mother certainly picked an odd form for him to inhabit, though, he could have hands if he wanted. He could be anything he wanted; however, he mostly confined himself to the small streamline shape Mother had given him.

He loved writing things down in his book. It helped keep the mind clear, and he liked to be organized.

Today’s read:


THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: No hour is too early and no labor is too great for a friend in need.


TO DO:

Item 1)—Feed the kittens. DONE

Item 2)—Heat up a few rocks for the kittens. (Might be chilly today) DONE

Item 3)—Prank Mother. (Hide her favorite hat)

Item 4)—Prank Lord Blanchefort. (Hide his favorite hat too, preferably in a different place where you hid Mother’s hat)

Item 5)—Prank Countess Blanchefort. (Undetermined—possibly steal a gown from her wardrobe and hang it from the Josephina Tower pole, where it may be clearly seen from the village) WARNING!!—Countess might still be angry from pie-in-face fiasco last week, and the missing knickers! Tread with caution.

a)—Prank Countess anyway.

Item 6)—Check kitten’s box for litter.


That should make for a full day.

The other ones, the lesser creations of murky silver Mother tinkered about with, gathered to watch him fuss with the kittens and write in his book. They were drawn to him as always. But he paid them no mind. They were crude silver automatons. He, on the other hand, was a masterpiece, a one-of-a-kind. To use sporting terms, he considered himself the Cinco Pass, the Royal Flush-draw, or the 7-10 pickup, while they were warm-up pitches, a pair of deuces and late gutter balls at best. Mother wasn’t going to be outdoing herself anytime soon. Possibly, without realizing it, his Mother, with rolled-up sleeves and torrents of Silver, had created an Elemental Spirit—in essence, a god. He was a god who loved to protect lost kittens and hang gowns from flag poles.

He was going to head out and set to his pranks. He loved pranking his Mother and the people in the castle. He meant no harm, and Lord Blanchefort actually pranked him back with a pail full of fish guts the other day. That was good clean fun! He’d been avoiding Countess Blanchefort; her reaction to his thrown pie at the spring ball was rather volcanic and unflattering. Ah well. Perhaps when she returns from the village and sees her gown hanging from the flagpole her demeanor will improve.

He checked the kittens one last time, when his book opened and a fresh entry scratched itself in:


Item 7)—Encounter a demonic version of yourself in the Grove.


That’s when He came stumping around the green, leafy corner; an image of himself. A backwards, distorted, maniacal image of a sadistic bearing.

They stood there staring at each other. Though the image was evil and somewhat terrifying to behold, he had to admit the brute was devilishly handsome. If he had any flaws or vices, Pride, it must be said, was his. He was a bit of a narcissist.

He knew, from the ancient wisdom, that meeting one’s self was a dire omen. Nothing good can happen when confronted with one’s twin. And there he was, an exact copy; only his eyes were foreboding and his smiling mouth was prickly with serrated teeth like a shark.

This was an image of himself turned to a demon. Becoming a demon was his greatest fear. Becoming a demon was a punishment for misuse of power and the breaking of Universal rules of balance. Demons were sent to the bottom of the Universal Tree, to the huddled, steam-shot buildings of the Windage of Kind. The sullen windows of the Windage were dark, betraying nothing of the terrors hidden within except for the occasional red eyes peering out.

He’d been to the Windage once, and he didn’t like it much; a dirty, noisy place. Every so often, since the time of his birth, his book flipped a page and scratched out an odd recurring entry that perplexed him:


Someone stares out the windows of the Windage of Kind at you. She’s not a bad girl, just needs a little love. Maybe a bright smile will make her happy. She hasn’t been happy in a long time. You should make it a point to visit her. She’d like that. Demons have feelings too.


Who was this girl the book kept mentioning, and what was she doing in the Windage? Once, he actually decided to take his book’s advice and went to the Windage, staring into the windows. He saw huddled shapes within, and blinking red eyes looking out seeking forgiveness. His book interjected:


She’s not there, you missed her.

* * * * *


His twin stood there and sniffed. “I smell sweet morsels. Give them to me.”

He got in front of the box containing his kittens to protect them.

The image laughed. “I am you, merely unbound …” his twin said. “You like to protect the weak, then look at me …I have a rare treat for you. See what is to come. I offer you a vision …”

His book added another entry:


Item 8)—Witness a horrific vision of the death of billions.


Look at me and see what is to come …” his twin said again.

He didn’t want to look, but his evil twin insisted. “Look, look. See the dying. Listen to the screaming ... Can you hear it?”

Can you hear it?

He looked into his twin’s wide eyes and saw everything. So much death, so much loss under purple skies and upon sandy ground. He listened to dying mouths praying to be saved.

“Save us!”

“Save us! Who will save us?”

“What have we done to deserve this?”

He stood there on his haunches and wept, unable to turn away.

You can save them,” he said. “None of this has to be. Simply go there and perform a miracle, listen to their praise. They will love you. They will lift their cups and call you a god. Be a god for them … and set me free.”

“I can’t—I can’t simply save a bunch of people, I’ll become a demon! I’ll go to the Windage!”

His evil twin faded away. “Then it’s all on your conscience. Save them … and set me free.”

He stood there alone in the Grove, open-mouthed, panting.

Save them?

What was he supposed to do? How could he prevent such a thing?

It’s not fair, not fair! Why should he bother? Why was it his responsibility? There are others, there are many gods floating about, let somebody else take care of it.

This was too much for him. Let somebody else save them.

Another entry in his book:


Item 9)—Pretend you didn’t see what you saw. Take no action. Think happy thoughts.


He was bound by the old rules of Balance, the mystical bond placed upon all insanely powerful creatures. He could soar the heavens, he could frolic on a star if he wanted, but he couldn’t save a life or directly influence fate. There were age-old rules against that.

If he didn’t follow the rules, then he was to go to the Windage and become a demon, a horrific image whose power was turned to chaos.

He closed his bright eyes and twitched his whiskers. He continued to see his vision replayed for him with vivid detail, like a sad vid he didn’t want to watch but couldn’t turn away from; the death and loss, the end of dreams. Unsuspecting eyes, open at present, shall soon be shut … forever. The masses of people going about their lives, oblivious of the deadly wave that is coming for them: waking, dressing, eating their meals, conceiving new life only to soon lay unburied on a vast killing field where any who might weep over their fallen bodies are dead too.

Somebody, anybody, save them! I can’t. I can’t!

He prayed for guidance. He looked up to the top of the Universe and prayed for one of the Arborium to hear his call and take some sort of action; to do something spectacular while he watched, taking notes as an eager student, ready to learn. Perhaps the next time he had a vision of horrific death and destruction, he’d be more ready to do something about it with the practical knowledge he’d witnessed firsthand from this experience.

I know what to do—I saw a master in action, first-hand. Lemme’ at `em!

The bovine, equine, avian, canine and ophidian forms inhabiting the Arborium were quiescent for a change. The silence was telling. He knew that this brutal vision was his alone—if not he, then no one else. No one was coming to save them.

Wind played through the branches of the beech trees. Unseen birds chirped. The kittens rustled in their box. Time moved on toward that coming black moment when it would all end, the Grove unmindful and uncaring.

What would his Mother say? What would she think? She’d probably be quite disappointed, that he saw what was going to happen and did nothing—let it happen, let them all pass into memory, as if they’d never existed at all. He didn’t want to fail his Mother, and, more so, with every passing moment, he didn’t want to fail these people either; like a mangy stray that had crossed his path, caught his eye, and now was stuck in his heart—like his kittens. The well-being of these doomed people was now his responsibility. Another entry in his book, repeated over and over:


Item 10)—Save Planet! Save them all!


His Pride set aside, his Humanity and the heart his Mother gave him, spoke.

You cannot let them die. You cannot ignore what you saw. You have to save them.

But how? How was he supposed to do this? He had the power to help them—he might have to fortify himself a little bit, to add a touch of magic to his already arcane makeup, and then he should be more than up to this task, easily. But he couldn’t simply swoop in and save the day, he wasn’t allowed to do that; there were universal rules against such things, and the only thing the Universe cared about was the rules.

Nobody breaks the rules, they said in the Arborium. We’d have to punish you.

We don’t break the rules.

You don’t break the rules either. We’d have to redden your eyes and send you to the Windage.

You want to fix a bad future, then gut it out!

That’s why they call it the ‘Frustration of the Gods’—because it’s frustrating, get it?

The ramifications for ignoring or breaking the rules to both them (the people he wanted to save) and to himself would be terrible. They would simply die another day, and in probably a worse fashion than the first time, and he’d become a demon, just like his evil twin.

Save them … set me free.

Gut it out!

If they were to be saved, then he had to do it the right way—the hard way, by ruse and deception, by manipulation, by getting the Softlings to take action, to willingly risk their own mortal lives in order to save the lives of others; the lives of strangers—the lives of enemies.

The Softlings—that’s what the Arborium called them in a rather arrogant fashion: the weak, mortal people, the mundane folk of the universe—yet, it was the Softlings that added weight to the cosmic scales. It was the Softlings who ultimately determined what the gods could and could not do, when miracles could and could not happen.

It was the deeds of the Softlings who gave the gods their arms and filled their quiver with arrows. That’s how the Universe wanted it.

Several more entries appeared in his book:


TO DO: Save Planet X


THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: The best way to clean up a mess is to get started.

WARNING!! You cannot directly intervene without upsetting the Universal Balance.

1)—Add weight to scales.

a)—Gather forces you can have faith in.

b)—Move them into place.

c)—Push your forces in the direction you need them to go, regardless of the immediate consequences. (Blackmail and intimidation tactics might be accepted) (See Task 4) Gift giving is applicable. Bribery is also applicable, but not desired.

2)—Players

a)—Who will participate in saving Planet X?


Who will participate? Whose lives was he about to dangle over the abyss? Who was about to get shaken and cast like a pair of dice before the winds of fate? A bit of the demon entered his mind and the diary continued:


b)—Get yourself a whole bunch of expendable low-lifes and zeros, touch pots and pinch-pricks. Drag all you can find to Planet X and force them to participate. Threaten them. Frighten them! Who cares if they want to or not? Who cares if they get killed in the process (nobody will miss them when they’re gone). Throw them in like a handful of chopped scallions in a Dutch oven of boiling water and watch `em float!


He shook his head and cleared his mind. What had come over him? He realized how easy it would be to lapse and become a demon after all; to be the cause of a tragedy instead of the preventer of one. There really was no way to do this other than to invest himself completely and take the route closest to his heart; to directly involve the people he loved most. He scratched out the entry and continued:


THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: For best results, use the best ingredients.

b)—Find the most honorable man you can: Lord Blanchefort

c)—Find a lady whom you adore: Countess Blanchefort

d)—Find the most powerful person around: Mother

e)—Find the person with the biggest heart: Lt. Kilos

--to these four people you entrust the fate of billions.

NOTE!!--Must be suitably imperiled for weight to be added.


He thought a bit.


d)—EXTRA WEIGHT FOR REPROBATES!! In addition, I’ll need a criminal after all. Just one. Find yourself a scalawag or rootless bravo you can trust or blackmail to help save Planet X. A scalawag—a real rot-gut swilling degenerate—will add lots of weight to scales (if he willingly cooperates). Check prisons, bars, alleys, casinos, cricket huts, bowling alleys and docks for scalawag.

3)—Once weight is added, perform Miracle at Planet X.

4)—Apologize to any whose lives you ruined in the process of saving Planet X.

a)—Flowers are always nice.

REQUIRED MATERIALS:

5)—Will need a bit of magic to touch yourself up. Possible candidates:

a)—Trama-Lana (necklace) REJECTED (not powerful enough)

b)—Moonglow (knife) REJECTED (won’t really help)

c)—Oberphilliax (gate) POSSIBLE—if things go bad, can reset.

d)—Brightstone (beryl) Will allow you to be in many places at once. ACCEPTED

6)—Chosen Resource: Brightstone

a)—Brightstones are all registered with Sisterhood of Light. Stealing one will be dangerous.

b)—Brightstones kept in place that is beyond your reach. Will need help fetching one. No Blue may walk there—must have a Brown. A Brown may stand where a Blue cannot.

c)—Enlist help of Lt. Kilos to fetch Brightstone. It MUST be Lt. Kilos.

d)—See, Task 4 regarding Lt. Kilos.


Resigned, he looked around at the vast green of the Grove and put his book away. A whole planet of “kittens” needed saving, and he cannot fail. He must not! And, he must not lose those whom he loved in the process.

He looked at the little kittens in the box, soundly sleeping in the warmth of the nearby rocks he’d heated. A tear rolled down his muzzle and dripped off.

It sizzled on a rock.


II—The Capture


Who are you?” came a demonic voice over the Duke of Oyln’s transponder as he dove his black Goshawk ship toward the sloping ground far below. The sweptback wings of his ship groaned in protest at the top of a steep dive. Holding his long pipe in his teeth, he kicked the lateral bar, lined his targets up and pressed the button.

Flashing lances of Sar Beams shot out and tore the people standing there on the ground to blasted pieces.

The people below were startled. They were deep in a Painted Cloak, invisible to all. None should be able to detect them. The Duke, however, had a bank of exotic scanners in his Goshawk ship. Properly adjusted and carefully tweaked over the last few days of searching, he had them properly tuned and dialed in. He could detect their heat and see them just fine. There they were: the gigantic, unwashed men naked as the day they were born standing guard, and the ragged, bone-thin women shuttling back and forth. All, either through fear or mindless ignorance, served their abhorred master, and many who were alive and well in the morning often didn’t live to see the nightfall.

They served a Black Hat of a cruel and deadly note. Sudden, agonized death was something they lived with.

They stood at their posts as the Duke’s Goshawk roared in on them through the purple clouds. They stood there as the pelting Sar Beams ripped into them. The naked men—the Hulgismen—clearly had no idea what to do. They had no necks to ring, no limbs to rend. Like primates, they beat their fists against the ground in agitation but left their feet planted right where the Black Hat had put them. To move would mean death at her hands.

And to stand there meant death too, as the Duke’s weapons mowed them down.

The ragged females, the Adepts who might one day become Black Hats themselves, clambered about. They ran to their emergency posts, manning their Darklights, hoping to catch the Duke’s bat-like ship in their sights and send him down in a shapeless pile of blackmetal slag. Casually, he banked, aimed and pressed the button.

Sar Beams.

Adepts dead at their posts, their Darklights shot to pieces. A few more Darklights came on and went skyward. He aimed. The lights went quiet.

And then the star of the show, the Black Hat herself, came out of her tent; the tent the Duke had been carefully avoiding. In an ironic twist, the Black Hat’s tent, where many Hulgismen and Adepts died at her hands every day, was, at the moment, the one safe area to be found.

The Duke was not going to shoot at the tent; he might hit the Black Hat, and she was his whole reason for being there.

She threw open the flap and stormed out in her scarlet robe and black, featureless mask. She was, no doubt, used to being in complete control. What was this ruckus? Who was about to die for disturbing her much needed rest? He imagined all sorts of things must be going through her evil, Shadow tech clouded head.

In his scanners, he saw her look up at his ship and, for a moment, was just as dumbstruck as her Hulgismen guard had been.

How was her contingent discovered under full Painted Cloak—that’s what she must be thinking.

Who are you?” came her thoughts over his transponder in a demonic growl. He banked to the west and slaughtered the remainder of the Black Hat’s Adepts and the few Hulgismen who still had a spark of life left in them.

He then turned his black ship to face his prize. The Black Hat was now alone and quite defenseless, for he had picked the time of his attack well. He knew she was drained of her Shadow tech. He knew she was out of her head with exhaustion.

The Duke knew the Black Hat was quite helpless.

She turned and began running to the north, her slender arms and long sleeved scarlet robes swishing at her side. Unused to running, she quickly tired and began stumbling.

She Wafted away in a smoky cloud. He saw her reappear a good ten miles away in his scanners. Not a bad Waft. He adjusted his course and was back on top of her in just a minute or two, his vessel quickly covering the distance.

She Wafted again. Again, he followed. And again, and again, over and over; he could play this game all day, however the Black Hat could not. Eventually, she tired and fell to the ground, unable to Waft any further.

He bore down on her.

WHO ARE YOU?” came her thoughts again as she lay there on all fours, unable to stand.

The Duke closed the distance in his ship and that was that.



III—The Death of the Bodice


Three thousand years ago, in 99989EX ...

They had asked for help for years. They went to the Sisterhood, hats in hand, and told them what they were going through.

“Our land is poisoned, gone bad.”

“We see demons in the night—we’re afraid for our children,” they said.

“And, we hear noises, on the wind, like a furtive drumming.”

Lord Porter of Bodice and his folk told the Sisters how their lands were no longer safe. The Sisters listened, thanked them for taking the time to visit, and told him and his contingent that they shall discuss what was told, and decide a suitable course of action.

Relieved, Lord Porter took his people and returned to their farmlands, confident that the Sisterhood will help them.

Unfortunately, the Sisters didn’t think twice about Lord Porter and his lot—these people who had come to them for help—the Bodice, a House of simple-minded farmers from the Hala region. The Sisters, thinking the matter was insignificant, did nothing. Surely, if such a thing was truly happening with frequency then they, the Sisterhood of Light, should already know all about it, have investigated and collected reams of documentation on the matter. The Bodice, kind and goodly people, must be mistaken, paranoid or possibly delusional.

The matter would sort itself out. The Bodice will be fine.

Lord Porter and the Bodice, however, were not fine—they were not delusional. They suffered on their poisoned lands by the River Seven, their births becoming tainted with deformity and death. They were indeed seeing demons in the night—horrible, fleshless creatures—and they heard the maddening drums that never stopped.

The demons became bold and knocked on the Bodice’s door. They laughed at them, and began trying to take their children. The Bodice, ignored by the Sisters, melted in fear. They tried relocating several times, upping stakes and rebuilding miles away, starting fresh in a new manor, but the demons always followed them. What were they to do?

One night, the demons broke into their manor as they slept and took Lord Porter and his large family.

We’re going to burn you,” they said with delight as they carried them out into the night.

A strange creature came from the sky. In a roar, it drove the demons away and released the Bodice. It was huge, elephant-like with tusks that reached up into the sky, and could talk. It loved the Bodice’s many children and told them that it could help. It kept the demons at bay and promised it would protect them. For years the elephant stood watch over the Bodice. The demons stayed away—they were afraid of it.

For the Bodice’s children, whom he loved, the elephant maintained his vigilance.

One day, the elephant told them that their lands were hopelessly tainted and the demons had placed a stain upon their souls. The only thing to do was leave—and not just leave the area, or Hala, or the whole of Kana for that matter, but to get as far away as they could, to leave the League and the Sisters who had forsaken them. It told them that a vast group of Great Houses were preparing to go to the Xaphans and join with them. The Bodice were followers of Elder religion, and didn’t want to go to the Xaphans. The elephant told them there was a green planet, far away, where they could grow their crops beyond the reach of the demons. The green world was a place where their children could play at safety and peace. It took some convincing, but the Bodice agreed. They trusted the elephant, for he had protected them.

They took everything they had and went to the stars. The elephant, all smiles, told them he will be waiting for them on the promised world.

There, he waited and waited in lush fields, but the Bodice never showed.

Unbeknownst to him, the cosmos was moving against the House of Bodice.

* * * * *


Shortly after leaving Kana, they were beset upon by the House of Charn, also leaving the League for the Xaphans. Unlike the Bodice, the House of Charn was mad and savage—eager to go to the Xaphans. The House of Charn was starving as they made their way through space, and they fell upon the Bodice in their slow-moving, defenseless transport. Boarding their ship, they stole their supplies, their guidance controls and stellar compass, drained their tanks of fuel, and left them nothing.

They killed Lord Porter and threw his body out the lock into space.

Desperate and slowly starving now themselves, the Bodice children cried out for the elephant to come and save them, as he had before.

But the Universal Balance was out-of-scale and swinging randomly, forming a wall of chaos between them and the eyes and ears of their protector. Their guardian elephant, so dutiful through the years, couldn’t see and hear what was happening to them, couldn’t predict the terror that awaited—such was the danger of upsetting Balance. He had upset Balance for years, bending it to his will to protect the Bodice.

Now, the scales of Balance were swinging in the other direction, and there was nothing he could do about it.

The elephant happily awaited their arrival on the green world, slowly becoming worrisome when they failed to show.

The Bodice, out of supplies, out of fuel, leaderless and going hungry, diverted to a dark, smoky world of pits and vapor-filled chasms. There they huddled in their powerless transport and prayed to their guardian elephant for help.

After several days of waiting, there was a knock on the hatch of their transport. The children were happy—they thought the elephant had come at last.

The demons were at the door, clenching their fleshless fists, and this time there was no elephant to come and save them.

First, the children were taken to an unknown fate, and soon the adults were taken as well. They were taken someplace deep, where the beating of drums was loud and terrible. And, one by one, they were burnt alive in basins of fire before a deadly horned god whom the demons worshipped.

Soon, the House of Bodice, cursed and tormented, forsaken by the Sisters, was gone in burnt ash and drifting smoke.

A victim of Balance gone astray.

The elephant, sitting there waiting for them, was punished for his role in this tragedy. His eyes turned red, his power gone to chaos, and he went to the Windage of Kind to stare, red-eyed, out the windows.

The Great Elephant, in trying to save the Bodice from the demons, became a demon himself.


Part 1—The Sister’s Program

1—The Countess of Blanchefort



Sygillis, Countess of Blanchefort (formerly of Metatron), had faced many enemies in her long life, but this surely was the most implacable.

She stood there in the vast, semi-darkened room, standing stock still. Sixty feet away in the pooled light, was her enemy; silently mocking her. She was normally a fearless woman, but in this case she was tentative and unsure of herself. She leaned forward a bit, bent down and raised her weapon to her breast, gripping it tight; never once taking her eyes off the foe that had humiliated her time and again but was determined to master. She side-stepped to her left a couple of boards.

She and the enemy were at a standoff. The vast room around her was silent, save for the slight crinkling of her gown. Oh, this blood-gutted gown she was wearing! How was she supposed to do this attired in such a cumbersome garment?

* * * * *


She was a brand new countess and was still assimilating to the complex life at court in the League. She cut a stately, but somewhat comical, figure as she glided about the castle at her lord’s side wearing her Blanchefort gown. She wasn’t used to such a cumbersome garment, but, for her lord, she was trying her best. At just a shade over five feet high, she was diminutive when compared to the tall, lean Blancheforts. She was more than a foot shorter than Lord Davage, her husband, though she often wore her wavy red hair “up” in the old Blanchefort style, and that certainly made up for her lack of height. Uncomfortable in a gown, she often lapsed in protocol. At a recent ball she was hosting, she was caught scratching her back behind a potted plant when she thought nobody was looking; her face turning as red as her hair. What might have been a humiliating scandal was dashed away when her lord promptly decreed the space behind the plant a designated scratching area and insisted that all in attendance have a turn (some guests even had a second turn behind the plant, scratching away).

It had been nine months since she had been wed to the tall, blue-haired man whom she adored and became the one thousand, four-hundred and sixty-third Countess of Blanchefort. The Blancheforts, as she had come to know, were notorious throughout history for having “different” sorts of countesses heading up the Household; ladies not of the usual, tea-drinking stock generally populating other Great Houses all over the League. Traces of these old Blanchefort countesses could be found all over the castle, hidden in the unseen places the ancient structure teemed with. She discovered the chapel of Lord Davage’s mother, Countess Hermilane. She had been a fierce, pugilistic woman and the icon hanging in her hidden little chapel depicted her carrying a drawn rapier as proof. She discovered another one, of Countess Treiste from centuries ago. From her reading, she had been reputed to breathe water like a fish, and, sure enough, she bore a pair of gill-like slits on her neck. These were Dav’s ancestors and she loved them all; since she had none of her own, she cherished his all the more.

Sygillis fell in love with this old castle. She had never had so much in her whole life. For nearly two hundred years she had been a creature known as Sygillis of Metatron, an evil, terrifying Black Hat of Hammer class and enemy of the League. The number of people she had remorselessly killed as a Black Hat was impossible to accurately count. She could do all the things that Black Hats could do: withstand hot and cold, find her way in the dark without error, determine lie from truth and, occasionally, see the future. Like her Black Hat sisters in their dark Shadow tech temples, she was fearless and of long life. Like her Black Hat sisters, she bore the mark—the Shadowmark. It was a twisting intersection of black lines wrapping around her right eye, ending near her cheekbone. It was the only blemish on her otherwise perfect complexion. Its black form was offset by her fierce apple green eyes; eyes that captivated the people. At first rather shy regarding the mark on her face as an evil stigma, she thought to cover it with a demure hand or a veiled hat, however she was moved to tears when, visiting a class of school children in the village one afternoon, she found they all had painted little marks around their eyes in tribute. To be accepted and loved without question or hesitation was something still new to her.

The Shadowmark, with its intricate design, looked like a tattoo, but was actually a birthmark. With it came Shadow tech, that ancient, illegal substance that grew within her body and gave the Black Hats their fearsome power. The Shadowmark was the key to Shadow tech’s growth within her, except, in her case, her love for her lord had turned the black Shadow tech to silver: “Silver tech”, he had called it.

A captain of the Fleet vessel Seeker, occasionally her lord Davage was compelled to away to some stuffy Fleet function or League meeting. His absences were never long, but the countess felt every moment. She was devoted to him body and soul.

She passed the time by removing her regal Blanchefort gown, putting on her black Hospitaler bodysuit, and prowl barefoot through the labyrinthine castle. If she was clumsy in her gowns, she was as agile as a panther in her bodysuit. Using her Black Hat skills, she explored the castle with relish, knowing precisely where she’d previously been, and she never failed to discover more. On her many expeditions she’d discovered lost passageways teeming with ancient treasures, huge forgotten halls plunged in walled-up darkness (one of which was gorgeous and was crying out to be refurbished), hidden courtyards overgrown with ivy, and obscure libraries full of the arcane

As she fared the stars at her lord’s side in the Seeker, her time in the castle was limited and she made the most out of every moment.

* * * * *


The standoff with her foe was finally over. Ready at last, the countess attacked. With short, pounding steps she glided down the wooden floor; her knees maddeningly slapping against the heavy fabric of her gown. She cranked back with her weapon and let it fly in a graceful arc. The midnight blue ball leapt from her hand, slid down the lane and hit the tenpins with a satisfying commotion.

She stood up straight and inspected the damage. Hmmm … Five pins down. She had gotten the 1, 2, 3, 6 and 10. She returned to the scoring table and looked at her totals. After ten frames, she had scored a 74.

Creation …

Bowling had quickly become a passion for her. In her crawling adventures through the tunnels and hidden spaces of the castle, she had accidentally discovered the Blanchefort’s secret bowling alley that nobody had told her existed. She found a tiny chute beneath the stately Palantine Courtyard in the northern wing of the castle and squeezed through it, popping up in the pin pit of lane 3. Seeing the pins lined up in order, she thought this must be some forbidden, pagan temple she’d stumbled into. Pulling herself out of the pit, mouth open with wonder, she walked up the immaculate wooden alley, nearly slipping and breaking her body-suited fanny on the heavily oiled surface.

The jig was up and she confronted her Lord. What was this place? She demanded to know. What sorts of things went on there?

“Bowling,” he said, leading her by the hand through the Ten Gardens, “is a common game that we of the Great Houses openly abjure. It’s a vulgar sort of thing and we, accordingly, dismiss it as such. However, we all love to bowl, truth be told. That is a common feature of the League, Syg, to openly dismiss a thing while heavily partaking of it in secret. We bowl on Nether Day by tradition. We bowl whenever we can. It is a hidden passion we have—appearances, though, are everything. Blues are not supposed to like bowling. All Great Houses have a hidden bowling alley on their grounds that they do not speak of. And, if you wish to impress other ladies about the League, Syg, your bowling average is an important, if understated, talking point to challenge the ladies with, though I thank Creation you are not heavily concerned with such banal Blue trivialities.”

He took her through the secret entrance in the Palantine Courtyard and down the hidden stairwell. And there was the fabulous Blanchefort alley, hidden from all eyes except theirs for centuries. It was pristine and ornate in the Vith style. There was a bar and well-stocked service made of carved marble and other decorative stones. Lit from above by pools of hidden light were three long lanes of compact, yellowish maple-wood boards bordered on either side by a metal depression that she was told was called a “gutter”. At the end of the lanes were ten, neatly arranged white clubs called “pins”. The Blanchefort coat-of-arms was stamped on each one in bold red. Lining the walls in multi-tiered galleries were life-sized statues of past Blanchefort lords and countesses, tall and proud, dressed in their best and all holding carved stone balls.

Before each lane was a small console with plush chairs where the game was observed and scored. Near to that, was an elevated “hole” where balls appeared. Several brightly colored balls sat on rails near the hole.

“How is it played, love?” she asked, quite intrigued.

He served her a cool summer drink from the bar and seated her at the console of Lane 1. As she sipped her drink, he took a ball, squared himself up, leaned over and trotted down the lane in a slight crouch, his CARG jangling at his hip. He wound back and threw the ball at the pins; she thought he looked ridiculous as he accomplished the action. Small wonder they performed this activity in secret.

His ball spun down the lane with an ominous rumble and then struck the pins, making a great clash of noise that shocked her. He knocked all of the pins down. Some sort of robot or crafted sorcery then gathered and reset them into position.

“Ah,” Davage said, smiling. “That is a strike, you see, ha ha! Bravo!”

Seemed simple enough. She set her drink down and stood to give it a try. He gave her a ball (it was rather heavy and smooth), helped her stick her fingers into the small holes and showed her how to hold it. She then trotted down the lane in her gown and threw the ball, having trouble with her bare feet (the countess hated shoes) sticking on the wooden floor. The ball travelled a bit and then went into the gutter on the right side.

“What is that?” she asked.

“A gutterball, Syg. It’s not a good thing.”

She surveyed the situation. “May I have another ball, please?”

And that was that. She quickly developed a love/hate relationship with bowling. She loved the sounds of the ball rolling and the pins clashing and the feeling of the hidden place. She loved playing with her lord and his sisters (his sisters were very good). She would sit there at the scoring table in her gown (she was told by Dav’s sisters that ladies always bowled in their gowns, though it seemed pointless to her. After all, they were doing this in a secret place; who was to know what they were wearing as they bowled?) and tingle with excitement at the whole thing. On days when they were going to go to the alley and play, she found herself thinking about it ahead of time, savoring the thought. Dav’s sister Pardock, blue hair drifting about her back and shoulders, played with coiled passion, winding up and clobbering the pins as if they were anathema to her.

The countess hated the fact that she was terrible; that she didn’t dominate. Therefore, she would practice until she did dominate, come what may be.

* * * * *


Another throw. Nice pin action, though she left the 7. Gods! Why didn’t the ball bite more? She simmered in frustration.

Her lord was at a Fleet meeting to the south and Lady Poe was away on an outing. The countess was alone for the day. She’d been bowling for hours. Davage had assumed that she didn’t care for League Blue society nonsense like status and gossip. However, the countess was quickly beginning to enjoy such things, regardless of what her husband thought. She wanted a good bowling average to impress the ladies—though hers refused to break 90. And, she had actually spread some gossip around for the first time the other day, pulling some shopkeeper in the village aside and filling his ear with little tidbits that she’d heard. She was turning Bluer by the day and hoped to be a true gossip machine and feared bowler by the end of the year. Oh, what Dav will say about that.

Her hard work in the alley was beginning to pay off. She had perfected her approach, swing and release. She now could determine a good throw from a bad one as soon as the ball left her hand. She had several custom-made balls that she prized very much. She was getting better, bit by bit.

Alone in the private alley, she eventually stripped off her gown and bowled nude—wearing nothing but her bowling shoes. Nude, or in her bodysuit, seemed much better suited for bowling than her blood-gutted gown, which got in the way. Maybe she should suggest it to Davage, that they all bowl nude. Perhaps it might become a tradition. She should insist upon it. She was always amazed at what she could get away with when she insisted on things around the castle.

Standing there naked, her empty gown propped up at the scoring table like some sort of lacy ghost, she kicked at the floor with her right shoe. It didn’t feel right. The countess hated shoes of any kind going back to her Black Hat days when she was forced to wear the fearsome Dora shoes, however she could not bowl barefoot; the floor was too grippy on her feet. Several head-over-hips tumbles down the oiled lane proved that to her. Her sister-in-law, Lady Poe, had suggested she be fitted for a good pair of bowling shoes.

Shoes? She was outraged.

Poe lifted the skirt of her gown and showed her hers: an odd, mostly flat shoe that looked like something the factory workers wore. She swore up and down they were quite comfortable. Master Krenshaw had made them for her and she highly recommended the countess summon him to the castle for a fitting.

Dubious but rather desperate as her body was taking quite a beating, she summoned this Master Krenshaw to the castle and, truth be told, was rather rude to him and uncooperative as he patiently tried to fit her. Quickly though, he put her at ease with a calming wit, fitted her, and made a special pair just for her with extra padding and holes for ample breathing. They were wonderful. She could barely feel them. These shoes, allowing her a proper run up and slide, were like a pair of lanterns leading her to bowling glory. Her average immediately jumped up thirty points.

* * * * *


She kicked the floor. After much use, her right shoe was definitely feeling a little soft and was throwing off her approach. The left shoe was very taught to the floor, while the right slid easily by design. But, today it didn’t feel normal. Something was wrong with her shoe. Her shoes were starting to get worn.

Oh! She remembered Master Krenshaw promised to have her new pair ready today. She was excited. With those shoes she might stand a chance of staying with Davage’s sister, Countess Pardock of Vincent, for a few frames. Pardock was a torrid bowler and she was to arrive for a visit in a few days. Syg had “thrown it down” in a recent letter to her and Pardock was slavering to have at her.

She needed her new shoes in a bad way and was going to the village to fetch them. Her staff did not approve. If she had business with Master Krenshaw, then he should make an appointment, be announced and admitted, and conduct the business here in her study as was proper.

Nonsense, the countess loved going to the village and walking around. She was glad to go to him for her shoes.

She left the alley and changed into one of her beloved Hospitaler bodysuits and hit the tunnels. There were untold tunnels under the west wing—the castle and the lush Telmus Grove behind it were shot-through with them. There were dark spaces and crawlways leading this way and that through the old stone, some huge and spacious, others sickeningly small and tight. Some exited in the lush green and stone of the Telmus Grove, some ended in little shrines tucked in the towering mountains, and many ended up in various parts of the village.

She crawled through an easy tunnel that she knew snaked its way down to the central village. The villagers had become used to seeing the countess ‘pop up’ in the oddest of places from out of nowhere: filthy, smiling, red-headed, green eyed, gownless. Where else in the League or on Kana could such a thing happen? With greetings, they always welcomed her. They’d come to love her just as they did their Lord.

She emerged in a small fox shrine just south of Old Castle Road tucked neatly into the maze of newer and older buildings. She climbed out of the hole at the base of the shrine, popped on a pair of sandals from her pack, and put on her light shawl. She then made her way to the north. Master Krenshaw’s shop was just a few blocks away near the college campus. Passing villagers saw her and bowed with respect. She waved, knowing many of them on a first-name basis by now. She’d rather be informal if she could.

As she made her way north, she began to feel uneasy. Though the afternoon was sunny and the environs pleasant, something troubled her more and more with each passing step.

She stopped. Something was wrong.

Her Black Hat instincts warned her of things; warned her of danger. And there was danger about.

Nothing apparent. Nothing readily seen, but it was there certain enough.

* * * * *


There had been strange folk about and an odd feeling in the village for the last few days ever since she and her lord returned in the Seeker. Yesterday, right after her lord left for his meetings, she had been informed by her staff that a visitor waited to be seen in her study.

“Who awaits?” she asked her staff.

“A Madame Abyssina-Burmilla of Selkirk.”

“Who?”

The countess knew no such House existed in the League. She had access to a small block of Holo-Net that had been shown to her by Lady Poe, and in it she could look up the bowling average of virtually any lady in the League.

There was no Madame Abyssina-Burmilla of Selkirk listed. Her average was therefore 0.

The staff was uneasy—they wanted to either get the magistrate or await the return of Lord Blanchefort. Clearly there was an impostor in the castle.

Ridiculous, Sygillis wasn’t afraid. Rolling her sleeves up, her green eyes flashing, she marched into the study, only to find it empty.

Waiting on the desktop was a folded note. It read:


YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED BY AN ELEMENTAL SPIRIT. YOU WILL BE PLACED INTO DANGER. DO NOT INTERFERE.

–M


A search of the castle uncovered nothing. She chalked it up to ghosts, as the castle was rank with them, or possibly Carahil, that little silver trickster who loved to torment her and throw pies. Oh, how he was going to pay for that.

But, other things happened as well. In the village, she was certain something was watching her as she made her usual rounds. A Black Hat always knew when unwanted eyes were upon her. She had signed up for a two day self-help course at the college (an unusual step for a countess to take). After one of her classes she found an odd note waiting for her in her satchel. It read:


BEWARE! THEY ARE COMING FOR YOU. –M

* * * * *


Whatever she was sensing, it came from the alley across the street. Something hid within. She squinted, seeing nothing in its depths but shadows. She pumped her fist and readied her Silver tech, should it be needed. She moved across the street to confront whatever it was.

“Who’s there?” she asked.

Something boiled in that alley. She felt a coiled up geyser of ancient emotion pouring out, and having spent a good portion of her life feeling similar things, she was quite familiar with them: anger that was never ending, spitefulness and centuries of bitter rancor. She could also determine that whatever was the source of these emotions didn't start out angry and spiteful as she had; no all those things had been forced upon it by ages of grief and tragedy, leaving no room for anything else. At one time it might very well have been happy and loving, but no more.

For the briefest of moments, the Countess pitied it, however, the creature in the alley was certainly dangerous and she could not allow the villagers to be subjected to it. She had to protect the people.

“I said who is there? Fail to answer me and I shall purge this alley clear with Silver tech.”

A crawling voice replied. “I told you they’d be coming for you.”

“Who are you?”

A low growl, like that from a predatory animal was her response.

Determined to protect the villagers from an unknown danger, she plunged into the cobbled dark hoping to come to grips with the creature.

She found nothing but ash cans and bits of refuse, the cans now overturned and rolling about.

As she blundered in the dim lighting of the alley trying to right the mess she'd made, she heard the voice a final time: “The docks, Countess. Look to the docks. You have been warned ...”

Whatever it was, she felt it depart. It was gone, taking with it its cyclone of emotion.

The docks? The voice said to look to the docks. The Cathedral of St. Vith was nearby with its looming dome and lightstand cupola. From up there she would have a commanding view of the entire village. She finished up in the alley, turned and long Wafted to the top of the copper-covered dome with a burst of wind. The breeze blowing in from the bay was stiff and cold, moving her hair around like a red flag.

She looked around. To the south, parked on its submerged pylons, was the Seeker, her Lord’s Fleet battleship, saddled up to the dock like a great, long-necked beast feeding from a trough. The Seeker’s hatches and plates were thrown open as the ant-like Fleet craftsmen slowly worked on her, doing things the countess could only speculate on. Once the work was done, she and her lord would set off to the stars once again for a month or two. She was in no hurry. She loved her time in the castle.

So, where was this danger? Nothing she could see, just the huddle of buildings, the long curve of the dock and the Seeker. Nothing dangerous about any of that.

Wait!

Coming in from the west over the open water was a single vessel, floating low. It was a small ship, possibly a transport. Using the Seeker as a yardstick (as it was the only star-faring vessel she was familiar with) she surveyed the newcomer. It didn’t look like the Seeker at all. If the Seeker was spread out and swan-like in shape, the new ship was rather compact and nautiloid in appearance, being rather roundish and coiled with a confusion of tentacles reaching forward and testing the air and water in front of it in an organic sort of manner. It appeared to be about a fourth of the size of the Seeker. She squinted to see. The Seeker was white, this newcomer was a stony gray, and, in fact, it looked like stone instead of metal, like a great carving that could fly.

Her Black Hat instincts went off. That ship. The danger was in that ship, she was certain.

She had the feeling it was the Sisters. The Sisterhood of Light.

Being an ex-Black Hat, her relationship with the Sisterhood of Light was always tenuous at best. The Sisterhood was a powerful League sect, and, some said, was its true ruler. As a Xaphan Black Hat, the Sisters had been her mortal enemy. She had openly fought them, met them on various battlefields and killed some of them outright.

But that was a lifetime ago.

That was when her lord, Davage, came into the picture. Dav had nurtured her small, fragile soul and taught her to love. Though cordial, she found the Sisters always unnerving, always probing and watching … waiting for her to screw up somehow and take her from her lord. Waiting to do to her what was always done to Black Hats: kill them.

Let the Sisters just try to take her from Davage. Let them see the fight they’d have on their hands.

Standing in the glowing cupola, she watched the ship land with careful interest. It waded through the water and was secured at dock. Its tentacles retracted into its stony shell.

The hatch opened and out came the Marines in their lovely red uniforms. They quickly secured the dock, ushering away all of the dockhands and the passing curious. Where there were Marines, there were Sisters, and sure enough out they came. There were four of them, white robed, cloaked with their characteristic winged-headdresses shaped like the laminar airfoil of an airship.

As usual, the Marines took up defensive positions around the Sisters. The countess always thought it quaint that the Sisters chose to pretend like they needed Marines to protect them. The Sisters needed no protecting, except from the Black Hat Hulgismen, who were immune to their power. There were no Hulgismen in Blanchefort village, or anywhere else on Kana. The countess guessed they liked to make a show that they needed protecting—that they were simply passing travelers, nothing more. She, however, knew better.

They stepped into two floating litters and disappeared inside. The Marines piled into long, open-float platforms that flanked the litters and off they went. She watched as the procession began its slow, steady way through the village down the Old Castle Road, the people lining up to watch them pass. They did not stop at any of the old Vith chapels and places of worship along the way. They continued on through the maze of streets and alleys moving right past her position atop the cathedral, until they reached the old switchback road that climbed up into the rapidly rising mountains, and made its lonely way to the castle.


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